"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

{book} castle juliet

Castle Juliet: A Fantasy

By Brandon Berntson*

Self-published, 2013.

There are a few editions.

Alice and Jacky-boy are ten years old and the best of friends. For a year they embark on fantastic adventures, most born from Jack’s relentless imagination. As each season draws to a close, another one opens, revealing its own timeless magic and mystery – things Jack and Alice could have never imagined.

Castle Juliet is a timeless tale for all ages. It will leave you mystified and enchanted. But most importantly…it will leave you wanting more.—jacket copy

Castle Juliet reads as if Peter Pan and Wendy of Neverland were subjects in Mayberry RFD or on Walton’s mountain, Goodnight Alice dear. Goodnight Jacky-boy. I was expecting the charm in that first chapter to curdle into something either satirical or cloying. It doesn’t.

This is not to say that there are occasions in which one character or another is not over-the-top. Alice and her mother Jane can be a bit too angelic ala Dickensian standards. All the women exude a tantalizing domesticity, even the late appearance of Emily Lila Patrick. The men, too, are prone to being overtaken by sentiment. Threats of swooning and tearful expressions abound. A healthy dose of sincerity and a few hints of the occasional flaw rescue the novel.

Castle Juliet is an unusual experience in how the novel relies heavily (if not solely) on the cycle of four seasons as the means to open and close the story. The story arc: building a castle for Juliet is subtly suggested now and again–and not to our irritation, but pleasant surprise. The structure of time is what moves the characters through digressions and repetitions and elongated contemplations on one thing or another. The structure reminds us of the driving force of time, and how time carves space for life to linger a while over a mouth-watering feast or a contemplation of the magic in uncomplicated emotion and unfettered imagination.

The novel is character-oriented. The heavy use of dialog in this otherwise 3rd person narrative emphasizes the individual voice of the characters. Each child is unmistakably their own. The adults’ sheer goodness is always surprising (call me jaded), but they are the only ones to slip into representational models of one value/ideal or another. Grown-ups are also surprisingly non-threatening considering they are the adulthood of the novel. But neither are the adults the focus. The threats to Jack and Alice’s desire to stay young are in and amongst themselves.

The son of a repairer of shoes and clocks, small-in-stature Jack riles against the restrictions of time. He doesn’t want the Summer of unbridled adventures to end. Academic work fails to compete with the spinning of his imagination. Indeed, most of the numbers Miss (whom Jack calls Mrs.) Appleblom writes on the board prove confrontational.

“How come the five and three look so mean and scary? […] I think they look scary. The eight does too, especially the way you write it, Mrs. Appleblom. You put that little horn on its head. Makes it look like a monster, like a sidekick of the devil’s or something to terrify the minions. Or a fat, nasty snowman. The seven looks kind of mean, too; at least, he could, if he wanted, I guess. I haven’t decided. And look at the two. He looks harmless enough. An easy guy to get along with. But I don’t like thw way the five and the three are just sitting up there on the board. They look like they’re waiting for everyone to turn their heads, so they can take over the classroom” (7).

It goes on before the teacher finally interrupts. I love that Berntson is unafraid of lengthy dialog here.

Luckily, Jack has his Wendy in Alice who begins to tutor him. His only friend, she joins him on his adventures, challenges his decision to disallow pink lasers, and pummels him in a snowball fight. She invites him over for dinner, can’t run fast in her cowgirl boots, and refuses his blushing requests for a kiss.

Alice is the princess, and not by Jack’s design. She is the doted upon only child and only girl and for most of the time the world of the book will revolve around her. But then, the story is constructing a castle for Juliet. Can Jack convince her that lingering this side of childhood is worth the while?

“Her mind reached out. She might be small, but she was far from insignificant. At the moment, she was the eye of the universe, watching it unfold, a girl on a spotted horse loving everything she saw. […] She wanted to savor this perfect day and take it at her leisure. She would still it, freeze it in time. Her goal was to make everything—including now, her memories, and Jack’s fantasies–immortal” (158-9).

Alice’s family anchors them all, but it is Jack who is driven to build, to imagine and create. He inspires the changes that build the stories in Castle Juliet.

“If Alice didn’t know any better, she’d say everyone she knew had had a hand in its construction in some way or another. […] But in every aspect, it could only be Jack who’d come up with the idea, who’d put the entire thing into execution, laid the groundwork, the planning, supervised” (221).

A believable quantity of goodness can be found in community and imagination, such as is expressed with childlike fervor in Castle Juliet; less of any sense of a return to innocence and more of a childhood reign. It is in adulthood that we find the careworn need for domesticity and its middle class stability. Both Jack and Alice (and even Tork) manage to resist slipping into adult-like proportion; Alice being the most vulnerable. Peter Pan couldn’t (and wouldn’t) rescue Wendy from growing-up, but Berntson does in his freckled and red-haired Alice. Perhaps it is because Jack isn’t all that like Peter, even if blood-thirsty tyrant does come to mind… Jack is able to change and grow without compromising that which the novel values of childlikeness: to love without complicating sexual politics, to find time for creative play and invention, to be like themselves and remain somewhat unexpected.

Berntson explores the wholesome visage of childhood, and he builds a castle of found things, pieces oft discarded and half-buried. He revitalizes the notion of what can be enchanting about the fantasy novel. The affect isn’t flawless**. But I’ll go for heart in a novel over cold precision. I’ll take imagination over stricture. And I’ll pick the castle over the picket fence every time.

——————-

Of note: It was odd having a beloved character called Jezebel, but there you go, Berntson was difficult to anticipate.

*Two: Brandon is a friend and co-worker. He told me that he wrote Castle Juliet as a bid for something more wholesome after a stint of writing Horror fiction; he succeeded. It reads like a palette cleanser for the world-weary.

**Thirdly, and to be fair: some of the flaw comes from my desire for extravagance in design, more paragraphing, corrected grammatical errors, and a reigning in of setting. These feel like nits picked compared to such an unusual and refreshing experience.

 

"review" · arc · fiction · series

{book} a new(er) Flavia de Luce

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

A Flavia de Luce Novel, book 7

By Alan Bradley

ARC via NetGalley w/ gratitude to Delacorte Press*

Release Date January 6, 2015.

“Hard on the heels of the return of her mother’s body from the frozen reaches of the Himalayas, Flavia, for her indiscretions, is banished from her home at Buckshaw and shipped across the ocean to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, her mother’s alma mater, there to be inducted into a mysterious organization known as the Nide.

“No sooner does she arrive, however, than a body comes crashing down out of the chimney and into her room, setting off a series of investigations into mysterious disappearances of girls from the school.”–Publisher’s Comments

I hadn’t expected another Flavia de Luce novel so soon, if at all. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches (Delacorte 2014) closed the overarching mystery of Flavia’s mother and suggested closure for Flavia’s antics in Bishop Lacey, thus relieving the small English village of more dead bodies. I’m not complaining. In fact, I was quite giddy to see As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust show up on NetGalley. While there was no expectation we would get a glimpse of Flavia’s new situation (as suggested in The Dead), there was a curiosity of how life at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy would go. It goes well…that is, the story goes well.

One of the things I appreciate most about Alan Bradley and this series of his is his consistency of character. Sure, Flavia has grown over the course of several books, she is essentially a self that never fails to saturate the narrative in that lovely singularly dark way of hers. As it is, Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust opens with one of the most delicious Prologues ever. Bradley excels at opening a novel. The atmospheric arrives in the first sentence and settles in for the long haul. Where first person narratives splinter into multiple voices for set descriptions and the like, the de Luce novel never shifts from Flavia’s macabre and chemistry-obsessed point of view—which can be frustrating at times. She gets distracted by life-things instead of focusing solely on the case at hand. Neither is her distraction a complaint. The novels are character driven and if you’ve haven’t a fondness for Flavia near the beginning of the series, you are not going to be reading Chimney Sweepers.

We may think we have an inkling of the how the mystery will be solved, tracing the evidence as Flavia observes (straightforwardly or obliquely), Flavia will eventually withhold a conclusion. You’d think I’d tire of this formula, but I’m much too pleased that Bradley only withholds in a believable way and doesn’t cut corners by resolving the mystery in a leap even too imaginative for the clever heroine he’s constructed. No, much of the mystery of how the case will be solved is in the unpredictable nature of those life-things I mentioned. Flavia has a want to like people and belong. She requires sleep and emotions and the personalities of other characters. Bradley creates some interesting characters in Chimney Sweepers, many of whom are of Flavia’s ilk, defining Flavia’s difference in a newer way. We get a novel launching a query into whom Flavia really is and is to become. How much is she like her elder female relatives? What boundaries will she risk?

How much can one year change?

Bradley leaves some loose ends; relationships are still troubled; uncertainties still linger—some, anyway. What Bradley certainly does do is demonstrate an exhilarating ability maintain a good mystery in his heroine and her adventures. You can leave off at The Dead in their Vaulted Arches if you like and imagine the what-comes-next, or you can extend the anticipation another book, because I wasn’t expecting the way the what-comes-next is framed by this new conclusion in the Flavia de Luce series.

I really am curious: How much will one year change?

—————

*I received the Advanced Reader’s Copy in exchange for a fair review and nothing more.

 

"review" · Children's · comics/graphic novels · fiction · mystery · Picture book · recommend · Tales

{picture/book} rules of summer

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic) 2013.

 “Never break the rules. Especially, if you don’t understand them.”–back cover copy.

Rules of Summer, in its most simplified description, is about two brothers’ summer adventures. The story is told by Shaun Tan so there is the surreal and the incredible wordless impact of his imagery. Fans of Tan’s work should already have the book read or on their radar. If you don’t know Tan (for whatever reason), you may begin here.

“This is what I learned last summer” is how the story begins. And it is fair to assume the voice is that of the younger brother, but as the story progresses there are moments where the elder might have inspired a new rule as well. As it is, each of the double-page spreads “tells of an event and the lesson learned*.” And as the publisher also observes, “By turns, these events become darker and more sinister.”

Like the past tense framing of the story alludes, some rules aren’t realized until after they are broken. We understand how much is left unknown and unspoken and the genius of the book is how much it reflects these notions. There is a very very clever brain behind all the beauty on the page.

I mentioned surreal, and indeed there is a strangeness to the realist settings, but there is also a surreality to the story itself. The dark and the whimsical coincide, the summery tones in the color also have texture, and it opens with a more ominous tone than it closes.

Rules of Summer also opens on the title page with the younger running; you can practically hear him calling out to his elder brother not to leave him behind. His older brother doesn’t leave him behind—which is terribly important to the narrative. The summer ends and the sun is setting outside the darkening room where the boys watch television together and the walls hold drawings that commemorate their adventures.

The books dedication reads “for the little and the big,” which is precisely who it is for. Also, a good book for brothers and for people who have a folkloric imagination.

—–

*Would be amusing to take a double-page spread and try to write a story that would inspire that image.

{images belong to Shaun Tan; read more about the book via Tan’s site, here}

—–

read in participation w/ #Diversiverseamdu150

concenter · fiction · Lit · music · recommend · wondermous

{book} the colorless

When Tsukuru first hears Haida’s recording of Franz Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays,’ from the Years of Pilgrimage suite ‘Year 1: Switzerland,” it is described as “a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations” (68). Tsukuru asks Haida about it. Haida says, ‘Le mal du pays’ is French and is “usually translated ‘homesickness,’ or ‘melancholy’, or as precise a translation as can be managed ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape’” (69). Tsukuru adds that the piece evokes “a calm sadness without being sentimental.” This section describes Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. Murakami transcribes a quiet sorrowful piece replete with tranquil variations.*

a delightfully well-designed cover.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: a novel

By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Knopf 2014.

In High School Tsukuru Tazaki used to be part of a group comprised of five. He was one of three boys and the only of the five whose name did not include a color. The latter wasn’t the only thing to make him different, but the balance had already been struck. Like the trait that decides 5 fingers make the most harmonious human hand, the five young people found a miraculous society within and between themselves. But perhaps what they had was not as true a harmony as first believed (322).

“I’ve always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity. Maybe that was my role in the group. To be empty.” […] “An empty vessel. A colorless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding. Maybe that sort of person was necessary to the group.” (179).

Moving away  for college shouldn’t have changed things as dramatically as it had, yet suddenly Tsukuru was shut out. It is a long sixteen years later that Tsukuru is tasked with finding out why.  Murakami writes a deeply compelling mystery—in Tsukuru Tazaki.

The mystery as to what Tsukuru could have done and how all might finally find resolution is the spine and is much like rails drawing the reader along, yet Murakami is building a station with Tsukuru Tazaki that is rife with such beautiful complexity the “colorless” becomes riveting. Murakami must take pleasure in his ability to move readers through the most ordinary sequences of life in pursuit of the most poetic; and he uses the most ordinary of characters to do it.

The novel is one of those places where the figurative can be rendered quite literally, and unreality resides in simultaneity with reality. It is the perfect space, other than the dreaming and memory, for Murakami to explore his preoccupations with the waking, conscious existence of liminal spaces. Can a desire become strong enough to knock on a door an impossible number of miles away? Are evil spirits merely psychic projections? Can a mild-mannered handsome boy harbor a violent, ugly aspect and not recall it? Can he harbor a intimate desire so deep, he could mistake the real for a fantasy (and vice versa)?

Tsukuru Tazaki learns that all number of paradoxes exist, some of which are comforting, others disturbing. We can die and be regenerated inside these vessels that refuse to pass away. A musical score can transport the most vivid recollections into the present, even the presence of persons long lost (258). And we wonder at whether differences between our existence and absences are substantial enough to matter.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki also understands that some explanations are never found, sorrows never redeemed, conflicts never resolved, and there are apologies made that shouldn’t satisfy forgiveness but will—because we cling to life, stupidly, dangerously, and with a profound love for it. A few readers who are going to hate this book.

Murakami can be infuriating in the way he allows characters and storylines to drift off into inexplicable disappearance. But none of it is wasted in its contribution to the whole. His novels are annoyingly coherent. The rewards just come in unexpected ways—which is a reward in and of itself.

Murakami’s genius is in that ending. He draws us out of another one of Tsukuru’s fugue-like states, this one listing among his lovely self-reflections, when he perches us once more on that brink between life and death. Murakami presents us with a character no one should have ever doubted, not even Tsukuru himself. It is quite brutal. It is perfect.

———-

*Here is one variation, when Tsukuru is contemplating his self-characterization of an empty vessel.

“Maybe I am just an empty, futile person, he thought. But it was precisely because there was nothing inside of me that these people could find, if even for a short time, a place where they belonged. Like a nocturnal bird seeks a safe place to rest during the day in a vacant attic. The birds like that empty, dim, silent place. If that were true, then maybe he should be happy he was hollow.” (258)

When Natalya was reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, she found ‘Le mal du pays’ and played it for us. You’ll want to do the same.

RIP IX's Lavinia by Abigail Larson———–

of note: a Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP) read, there is mystery, melancholy, and allusions to devilry.

fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

{comic} brand spanking new, except not.

battlingboycoverBattling Boy by Paul Pope

First Second 2013.

One of the things I like about superhero comics is their ability to both maintain continuity and prove regenerative. Need to reboot a character or story? Will do. Has the essence of the hero and their story really changed? No. Even so, it is still hard to break into the superhero realm of comics. Someone is always there to remind you that you didn’t start reading that particular comic early enough, never mind that you have to be born in order to have done so. Comparing storylines and/or creators is a competitive sport and that in itself can be entertaining. I get it. It is also exhausting. It is exciting to have the opportunity to start at the actual beginning with the character for once.

Battling Boy is familiar to the tradition of old school superhero comics with the paneling, line work, and a pleasing color palette just this side of garish.

battling-boy-paul-pope

We begin with Battling Boy’s origin story. Yet to be referred to as any name other than Boy, our reluctant hero hails from the Hidden Gilded Realm. He is set up to perform heroic deeds for the Acropolis as his rite of passage (a rambling).

battling boy westsAnother hero is introduced in the figure of Aurora West, the daughter of the recently departed Acropolis hero Haggard West. Her apprenticeship under her father was cut tragically short, but she has nerve and weaponry. Her “Alfred” is the impressive womanly amputee Ms. Grately—the only family Aurora has left.

battling boy T RexThe villains are creepy, and the scale of some of the monsters ups the ante for our action heroes. Battling Boy’s arsenal is clever. I love the t-shirt idea (and not just for its merchandising potential). Pope evidences a well-thought out narrative. He amusingly considers the angles, like where Battling Boy is going to reside and cover expenses. The relationship between parents and child is pretty sweet, too. I am trying desperately not to anticipate some looming tragic circumstance, Aurora’s loss is sobering enough.battling-boy-paul-pope-first-second-2013

battling boy

I feel a bit late to the Battling Boy party, but only a little. And now I won’t have to wait so long for The Rise of Aurora West. Battling Boy’s second(ish) installment hits store shelves late September. Yes, already with a prequel and Miss West’s backstory told from her point of view (which we do get portions of in Battling Boy). As for the first prequel published (October 2013), not sure how dedicated I am to getting a hold of the one-shot copy of Haggard West’s story—I wouldn’t say no if you could get my hands on a copy of the limited release…

Paul Pope has hit the ground running with an Eisner for Battling Boy. Battling Boy and Aurora West promise and fantastic series of adventures to grow up with. Too, the series returns us to the warm fuzzy of old school superhero aesthetics, while being all shiny and new and clever with it.

———————

from Michael Cavna’s piece “Paul Pope: With Escapo and Battling Boy, 2014 Eisner Winner Deftly Blends the Old with the New” in the Washington Post

“There are all these classic superheroes we know, but [Battling Boy] is not another Spider-Man or Batman,” Pope says. It’s a new character — we don’t even know his name — and I think [that’s] appealing to kids.”

“With ‘Battling Boy,’ I’m trying to use the rhetoric of the classic Silver Age hero’s story, and tell a genuine story about this kind of coming-of-age — through the metaphor of a superhero being a young person moving into their own,[…] “But I’m doing it through the [comics] language of Jack Kirby, John Romita and Steve Ditko.”

“But kids are getting it for the first time,” he continues. “They’re not aware of Kirby or Romita or Ditko. They might know the Red Skull from the movie, but they’re not going to know him from the comic.

“I’m trying to make a new story using these old tools, I guess.”

———————

{images belong to Paul Pope, & remember to check out his site for more enticing fare}

"review" · concenter · fiction · Lit · mystery · philosophy/criticism · recommend · wondermous

{book} once begun

silence-once-begunSilence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

Pantheon Books, 2014. 232 pages

“The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.”

Over the course of several months, eight people vanish from their homes in the same Japanese town, a single playing card found on each door. Known as the “Narito Disappearances,” the crime has authorities baffled—until a confession appears on the police’s doorstep, signed by Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman. Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated—but he refuses to speak. Even as his parents, brother, and sister come to visit him, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. Our narrator, a journalist named Jesse Ball, is grappling with mysteries of his own when he becomes fascinated by the case. Why did Sotatsu confess? Why won’t he speak? Who is Jito Joo? As Ball interviews Sotatsu’s family, friends, and jailers, he uncovers a complex story of heartbreak, deceit, honor, and chance.–publisher’s comments

Errol Morris brought more than justice to the wrongly accused when he brought The Thin Blue Line (1988) to the screen. He demonstrated how fiction lies within the justice system and how reality reveals itself in the imaginations of human perception. Both institutions and human beings can be corrupted; the question is whether doubt can lead to a liberating or confining truth. I thought of Errol Morris as I sank into Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball’s latest novel.

“One has the impression one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so” (4).

Jesse Ball, self-proclaimed professor of “lucid dreaming and lying,” exercises his particular gifts with the latter. We have a want to forget that as a gifted storyteller, he is a practiced liar. The heartbreak of increasing solitude and silence experienced in the narrator’s own life is raw enough to cite the provenance of a genuine artifact. “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact,” but what in the work is partial, or impartial? Silence Once Begun invites suspicion. What becomes awkward for the reader is when the suspicion is found directed not toward Ball or a character, but inwardly. Readers who favor romance and/or political activism will find themselves the easiest targets, among other professional prevaricators.

That smooth teller of tales that drew his reader in a single sitting through door after door and haunted them long after the curfew ended, confines the whimsy of his silvery tongue to his own “prefatory material” and Jito Joo. Joo takes on the silkiness of Milton’s Satan and I remain unconvinced that Kakuzo is able to vindicate her. Questions of love’s selfishness and sacrifice deepen the mystery Ball would document. As it is, the fans of Ball’s novels since Samedi the Deafness will be jolted awake by the halting language of concrete explication. Even the stories spun by relatives as a means to explain one another, find sentences short and constantly revisited. The language Ball adopts is not only one familiar to reportage, but translation—and the earnestness of finding the correct expression.

Oda Sotatsu’s mother is fond of telling stories by means of clarification: When talking with the mother, the interviewer notes how “the impression of exactitude remains” (18). He experiences a feeling that what she is saying is true; he sees what she sees before the evidence presents itself, before what she has seen appears (e.g. butterflies). Whether the mother is telling the truth about butterflies is negligent without a strong enough moral imperative. In Silence Once Begun, lives are hanging in the balance.

The interview is seeking someone to speak where Oda Sotatsu would not and now cannot. Once a silence had begun, can the silence ever be broken? The novel ponders how reputations are powerful constructs (29): how we are represented, expressed, speaks for us; it can certainly lie for us. Jito says of role-playing: “Each person chooses his life from all the roles in all the theaters. We are a prisoner and his love. For I am sometimes one and sometimes the other. You are one and then the other” (187). The liberated speak from a place of privilege and the imprisoned the limitation of choice. In a mystery based on mistaken identification, conversations on love and identity are the discourse that bind, and often blind the character and reader both.

“You don’t know me at all, I said, but I have a feeling that you know about something that I know” (Interviewer 163).

How can we truly know the other? We understand that different kinds of knowing exist. As one character after another jockeys for supremacy of knowledge, we test their validity. Jiro claims, “He hadn’t done it, because I believe he hadn’t done it” (45). The sister is an educated one yet distanced; Kakuzo is the architect of the crime and vain; Jito Joo, the most intimate of actresses.

Jesse Ball, the interviewer, is consciously aware of influence. How his ability to capture an image through a lens is affected, is made literal and then figurative when he takes photographs of the prison and other locations. He questions his ability to be objective, and the state of his relationship with an interviewee can be temperamental at best. He finds amusement and delight without anticipation by the reader. Even as it could be argued that “everything is contextual” (41), there is still the phenomena of surprise. Few could demonstrate the art of startling the reader into remembering that not everything can be anticipated nor traced back to an origin like Ball; which is key in a story where explanations are not just obscured, but elusive.

The attempt of the novel reads like Joo’s own: “I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it. Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is” (180). A sacrifice exists at the heart of this novel, more than one; and a person, more than one. Interpreting it and their meaning, to see what it is is a marvelous experiment, and a convicting one. At what point in the time-line is the act of invention initiated, because it would be dangerous to mistake Joo for not inventing a love into existence, wouldn’t it? Maybe your reading will disagree. Silence Once Begun interrogates human impulses: what we would remember, and what we would choose to conveniently forget.

If your cups of tea always require coherence in the mystery to be opaque in the end, to invite an explanatory flashback with solid connecting lines rather than perforated, any of Ball’s work will be uncomfortable, but none more than Silence Once Begun. This is not to suggest Ball leaves lazy gaping holes. His work is impressively spare. No, coherence needn’t have a clear answer everything, and Ball’s coherence artfully alludes to the corrupted nature to the human, the memory, the fictions we tell to make sense of things. The mystery is how we can ever pretend to be so very certain—so certain that we can carry through the life-threatening convictions that we do.

Jesse Ball’s provocation can be both frustrating and an absolute delight; which is how I could describe the conclusion. Ball makes the narrative personal and familiar, investing the reader in a summation that is as tidy as the novel will allow while yet demanding its lingering effect. He does not employ Errol Morris’ chilling play button on a tape recording at the end, but he does compel the reader to ask what it is we wanted to believe happened when the world turned upside down, when the expanding silence entered the room and asked us to wonder why.

"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · recommend

{book} guests of city/city

a guest post: [w/ a bit of editing]: thank you, Natalya…

~~~~~~~~~

Imagine a world where instead of visiting a city within a city, you visit another peculiar place: a city that is its own country. It’s a 2-week process to get your visa—2 weeks of testing and intense learning where they tell you that though there’re are 2 cities (countries) in 1 location, you may only see and walk in 1. If you fail to do so, an unknown force of whom even the police and military are frightened of will come after you. Do not Breach- they tell you.

When you enter the streets you are surrounded by people who have grown up this way- unseeing each other, unseeing the other city. Citizens live in fear of breach, striving to ignore the other. Imagine the difficulties, the implications. Imagine the things you are asked to unsee, and not only when driving on shared streets.

You go into a dead-ended corridor and when you exit it, you are in another country. International calls could be from one building to the adjacent, but the connection is bad as if the distance were the width of an ocean. To get to your neighbor you may have to walk through that dead-end tunnel, turn around and enter the other city again. Some vacation, huh? Welcome to Beszel and Ul Qoma, the City and the City.

city and the cityA delightfully complex mystery I wouldn’t suggest as anyone’s light, easy read, or to read aloud, China Mieville’s The City and the City (Del Rey 2009) is a novel split into 3 parts: Beszel, Ul Qoma and Breach, is set in 2 cities, and begins with one fairly inconspicuous murder. In explaining this book there are multiple paths to explore, but perhaps I should just summarize: it is a difficult read, but a fantastic one.

L and I both wanted to read The City and the City, and we both wanted to read something aloud. It is most definitely a book to read- and I’d hazard all of Mieville’s books should be read- just not read aloud. I speak from experience. With names like Beszel and Ul Qoma, Borlu, Corwi, and Bol Ye’an, Mieville immediately aims to create the unfamiliar among the familiar amongst the unfamiliar; a move that is, in essence, fantasy. Yet Mieville makes it clear even in a Q & A at the back of the book, that City and the City is anti-fantasy. For every hint of hidden magic he counters with a classic noir tone, which throws the reality of corruption into sharp relief. So instead of the supernatural, which is easier for the reader to grasp- City and the City’s mystery is not only that of a murder, but of a whole society that has no clear exposition to explain it.

Inspector Tyador Borlu is already well-versed in the concrete reality and sometimes absurd intricacies of Besz and of Ul Qoma, but is asked to navigate, too, the conspiracy and paranoia of a childhood folktale: Orciny. With the ever-present threat of Breach, he must tread lightly.

Between the militsya of Ul Qoma and Beszel’s policzai, lies an entirely different form of law, one that is, as they explain to foreigners, “the sanctions available to Breach are pretty limitless.” The reader gets the sense of a swarm of silent ghosts, because Breach does not appear, it does not arrive, it “manifests”. The limitless amount of intrigue that pairs with the political effects, secret societies and bureaucracy of a good noir is complicated by Mieville’s third city, Orciny. Orciny is a speculation: possibilities abound as to what it could be: Breach’s enemy, the place where Breach resides, the ravings of a cult, the silent manipulators—who knows?

A murder mystery centers the novel. In investigating the peculiar murder case, Tyador guides the reader about the simultaneous cities. In an interview Mieville mentions he, “could have had fourth, fifth, sixth rumored cities, etc., at ever-decreasing scales.” I’ve always been a sucker for setting, but the cities in particular were a delightful challenge. Mieville does not shy away from a complex approach to describe the way the cities interact, and the fact the setting is inextricably linked with the plot makes understanding it important.

But for a book about cities, Mieville effortlessly brings brilliant characters into a spotlight. Of a fairly intricate cast of characters, 4 stand out in particular: Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad. Beat Cop and Grade-one Constable Corwi. Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt.  The last person- well I’m afraid you’ll just have to find out for yourself. As cops, all: Corwi, Dhatt and Borlu share a similarity in roughness- they’re all wary, all sweary (one reason this is an adult novel) and – in accordance with noir- willing to go beyond the law to accomplish something. Of course, Corwi is (understandably) hesitant, Dhatt is a bit eager when it comes to violence- but Borlu, the protagonist is the epitome of sticking his nose where it shouldn’t.

City and the City rewards the reader their persistence. It is a perfect site for negotiating what might endanger us if we were notice, and the fear of what goes seen and unseen. City and the City is an unusual and entertaining mystery, you should read it, just maybe not aloud.

~Natalya

aka The Daughter; middle-schooler; writer & poet; a SFF fan; and avid reader: she just finished The Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami and is currently reading Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun.