Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: DARK MATTER

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 352

I don’t generally read science fiction, but the blurb on the back of Dark Matter enticed me to make an exception. At its heart, this is a love story, wrapped up in a solid plot that forces you to ponder on the milestones in your own life.

Dark Matter talks about the theory that every thought we have, every choice we make, creates a new world. However, like fish in a pond, we remain oblivious to the complex reality that surrounds us.

Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie are a happy family. Jason teaches undergrad physics at a small college in Chicago while Daniela teaches art to students. Both have made their family their priority, giving up brilliant potential careers as an atomic physicist and artist to be together.

Ryan Holder, Jason’s friend, has the professional and monetary success that Jason chose not to have. Jason goes across to congratulate Ryan at the local bar. While there, Ryan questions Jason’s choice. Upset, Jason heads home, only to find himself held at gunpoint by an abductor and made to drive to a location unknown to him. 

There he is injected and he loses consciousness. When he comes to, he is greeted by a group of unknown people, who give him the impression that he is a very renowned scientist. He realizes that he is the first one to return after 14 months away. He has no idea where he is supposed to have returned from. That premise has us hooked.

Panicking, Jason escapes from the building of Velocity Laboratories only to find out that his home is not his home, that Daniela is not his wife, and that Charlie does not exist. Daniela is a famous artist currently dating Ryan. She used to date Jason 15 years ago, but the relationship ended when she became pregnant. On the other hand, he has won the Pavia prize for devising something revolutionary.

Attempting to escape, he is caught and brought back. He pretends to be who they think he is, anxious to go back to the world where he was a happily married man, even if that world appears unreal.

Soon he learns that the Jason in this world has created a box that leads you to the alternate realities spun off the choices that we make in life. A box that is both horrifying and fascinating at the same time.

Jason and Amanda, the psychologist working for Velocity, escape into the box. He is intent on returning to his own world, she on escaping this one. They leave with 50 ampoules of a drug that allows the mind to even conceive these alternate realities.

But which reality is more real? How can he prevent this reality from engulfing him? How can he get back home?

The beauty of this book goes beyond the adventure it brings to us, the story that holds us transfixed. The highlight is the possibilities it conjures up before our eyes, of endless worlds, with versions of ourselves, all in the same space and time.

The book kept me up late, way past my bedtime. And it wasn’t only reading. Even in the dark, I stared at the ceiling, imagining myself with Jason and Amanda, walking down that endless corridor, entering strange worlds with versions of myself that were either slightly similar or totally different.

Each time I found my reading interrupted, I couldn’t wait to resume where I had left off. The premise of the book reminded me of Frost’s “Two Roads diverged in a wood, and I…”

The story comes to us in the first person point of view of Jason. The use of the present tense gives us a sense of urgency and immediacy. On the few occasions, the author shifts to third person, it serves as an eye-opener for us.

The author succeeds in thrusting us in the midst of the action, within no time at all. While the science fiction bits were interesting, what I found most intriguing were the philosophical bits that tempered this book. The worlds that Jason and Amanda conjure up exist, among an infinite number of worlds, but they become accessible on account of their thoughts. Truly, thoughts become things.

Throughout the book, Jason is desperately anxious to return home to the world he knows, a world that is a grain of sand on a never ending beach. He describes Daniela as being an amazing wife and mother, but I never got the feeling that she was awesome at her relationships. She failed to impress me, either as an individual or on account of the intensity of her filial relationships. Instead, it was Jason who came across as the most amazing husband and father. I couldn’t understand why she evoked the kind of passion she did.

The book raises questions, what if we are not as unique as we are led to believe. If you strip away all the trappings of personality and lifestyle, what are the core components that make me me? It also reminds us, Until everything topples, we have no idea what we actually have, how precariously and perfectly it all hangs together.

I dutifully read the book, even the part about Schrodinger’s Cat, which I couldn’t quite understand. At one point, the story got even more freaky, but I’m not about to give out any more spoilers. At that point, I, for one, was glad the story was in first person.

The style of writing was good. Some of the lines were really short, staccato bursts that keep our pulse racing. One sentence I liked: Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated…a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee and essential oils.

I also loved his description of youth: There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential.

Towards the end, the pace got tighter, and I found myself wondering just how the author would resolve the problem. The end, when it came, was a little hard to grapple with.

I just hope there’s a Book II.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: THE MAGPIES

Title: The Magpies
Author: Mark Edwards
Publisher: Createspace
Pages: 400
GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The Magpies is a psychological thriller that offers the reader no respite, as it forces us to live the horror of living next door to the Neighbours from Hell.

Jamie and Kirsty are a young, unmarried couple who move into what appears to be their dream flat. They are both optimistic about their lives and their future together. For a while, all is well.

Neighbours Brian and Linda, Chris and Lucy, and Mary are all friendly, at the beginning. And then things begin to unravel. Packages they haven’t ordered begin to get delivered. Somebody leaves dead rats at their doorstep. They receive mail criticizing the “noisy sex” they keep having.

The couple, with their respective best friends Paul and Heather who are now dating, are invited by Chris and Lucy to a go-karting event. There Paul has a major accident, loses consciousness and slips into a coma soon after.

After this, things get even worse for Jamie and Kirsty. Chris and Lucy begin to behave more and more strangely. For the most part, the Newtons’ efforts at troubling Jamie and Kirsty are more annoying than dangerous. But then the intensity deepens and even I began to feel uncomfortable. I became more interested in learning what happened next. It was all very bizarre and yet completely within the realm of possibility.

The fear psychosis deepens as the Newtons manage to taint the food that Jamie and Kirsty have ordered at a local restaurant, causing both to suffer a severe bout of food poisoning. They also break into their flat to use their computer to send out a deadly virus, nearly causing Jamie to lose his job.

As the attacks intensity, Jamie and Kirsty begin to disagree on the best thing to do under the circumstances. Kirsty prefers to sell, even at a loss, and move, while Jamie’s instinct leads him to fight to save his territory. The disagreement drives a wedge between the couple, while Jamie’s increasing obsession with getting back at the Newtons causes his steady mental decline.

Initially, I couldn’t really identify or sympathise with the lead characters. The descriptions of the “athletic sex” that they kept having were long, detailed and disgustingly offputting, and served to render them even more unappealing in my eyes. I wish no one had told this author about the “Show, don’t tell,” principle in writing. There’s only so much detail you can read about sex before you lose interest and want to skip paragraphs.

If anything, at the beginning, I found Paul vastly more interesting as a character. Jamie and Kirsty just weren’t that interesting. It was only after Paul’s accident that Jamie’s character became more real. His sadness at his friend’s condition and his distress at the mental torture being inflicted upon him becomes more evident.

I liked the Prologue. It suggested tension, a difficulty that was impossible to solve. It served to reel me into the story. I also enjoyed the dialogue in the book. It was real and believable.

The author deserves credit for the manner in which he has established the London setting, from the very British English that was used to the references to the Indian foods, the poppadoms, samosas etc. (By the way, the poppadoms were born papads.).

For a self published work, the writing is very good. When speaking of Paul in a coma, the author writes, Paul’s body was still functioning – growing, aging, shedding, replenishing; all the things that bodies do. These things were a tangible reminder that Paul was still with them.

Of course, there are some errors that a good editor would have been able to catch. Paul is described as disorientated. At one point, Mike, Jamie’s colleague, was referred to as Chris – mixing up your characters like that is a big no-no. But overall, the prose is bereft of the grammatical errors and spelling mistakes that one associates with vanity publishing.

Also, the author should have avoided the use of the past participle. I feel that the past participle, unless it is used in the right manner, or when overused, distances the reader from the action and from the characters.

If you’re wondering what a title like The Magpies has to do with horrible neighbours, know that I wondered about that too. Until I reached the end of the book, and came upon the author’s note which informed me that magpies are unpleasant birds who destroy the nests of other birds. If only this symbolism had been introduced into the story, it would have heightened the effect of the book greatly.

The pace of the book is rather slow, at least at the beginning. Tighter editing would have reduced the book size and improved the pace. It is only around Chapter 12 that the pace begins to slowly pick up. In time, it gets more and more intense until you find yourself one with Jamie, sharing his frustration and living his decline.

The ending took me by surprise. I would have liked to see the culprits punished. Of course, it was a happy ending, just not as happy as I would have liked it to be.

Mostly I experienced feelings of relief that the nightmare was over for Jamie, and for me too. I sure hope none of us ever meet the likes of Chris and Lucy.

I must give credit to the author for creating such crazily malevolent negative characters. 

So calm and friendly on the outside, and yet so devious and evil.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: SIRACUSA

Title: Siracusa
Author: Delia Ephron
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
Pages: 304

Siracusa, Syracuse in Italian, is about the momentous, life- and marriage-threatening events that take place in the lives of two couples, Lizzie and Michael Shapner, and Finn and Taylor Dolan, while they are on a holiday there. The Dolans are accompanied by their 10-year-old daughter Snow.

From the beginning, Taylor believes that the trip is a conspiracy between Lizzie and Finn to be together. She also believes that travel changes one’s perspective. In this novel, we see how it changes relationships and marriages.

It soon becomes clear that Michael is drifting apart from Lizzie, though it was Lizzie who once had an affair with Finn, long before either of them got married. Michael has an affair with Kathy, a waitress at a restaurant he and Lizzie often frequent. He does not have the guts to take a decision and end the ambivalence in this mind. Instead he hopes that Lizzie will tumble into bed with Finn, giving him the excuse he needs to walk out of the marriage.

Meanwhile, Michael cultivates a patronizing friendship with Snow, as a means of showing Finn up. Finn has never been allowed into the closeness of Taylor and her daughter. None of the adults, other than Taylor, think much of Snow other than thinking of her as a child, and even Taylor sees her as dependent, incapable of making her own decisions, needing to be watched over all the time. 

But Snow is not a child. And she’s watching the ways of the adults and learning. When Michael makes Snow feel important, she comes into her own, asserting herself like never before.

Siracusa, a town on the coast of Sicily, is where everything unravels. Kath shows up, throwing Michael’s life off-kilter, insisting that he break up with Lizzie, getting him to buy her a ring worth 35000 euros. Michael can’t bring himself to break up in a foreign land, but he does cavort around with Kath, while Lizzie, blissfully unaware, is out sightseeing. Only Finn, having seen Michael with Kath, realizes what is going on.

And then Kath turns into a nightmare, going rogue. She stalks him, having used his flyer miles to get air tickets and his credit card details to get a room in the same hotel. Michael decides to get rid of Kath, but not lose Lizzie.

The story is told to us through the first person points of view of Lizzie, Taylor, Michael and Finn. Each chapter has a different PoV. The narration starts a few weeks before the vacation, and then continues through each day of the holiday in the two cities, ending with what happened months later after they all return home to Portland, a kind of epilogue in four voices. The multiple viewpoints make it hard for us to be sympathetic to any one character, and enforce neutrality upon us.

The trip is crucial. It is when they are thrown together in such proximity that the characters behave as they do. The women have absolutely nothing in common with each other, nor do the men.

With no clear plot, it is the characterizations that draw the story forward. Subtly, we see how men and women differ in the ways in which they lie and conceal important facts and circumstances in their lives. We see the tangled webs they weave in their attempts to deceive one another.

Each character believes the best of themselves and good or ill of others, depending upon the state of their affections. The characters all have their games plotted out against their partners. Michael considers himself unfaithful on the two occasions when he has sex with his wife.

Most of the characters make good observations about the others. Taylor says of Finn: Finn takes a backseat to his own life. Perhaps it is true when they say that marriage makes philosophers of us.

Finn describes Taylor as a lot of sharp angles, like Edward Scissorhands, a vulnerable type who might slice you up.

Taylor is a mother who is devoted to her child. She says, “I’m very accommodating, although I’m not sure anyone realizes it. Because of her love for her child, I began by liking Taylor the most. Later, my sympathies shifted to Lizzie.

The best description about Taylor comes from what her mother once said of her: You are a long trail through the woods…and in the woods people prefer a shortcut.

I enjoyed Lizzie’s descriptions of the thing that writers do, taking a friend, swallowing him (or her) whole, and turning him into a character to suit their own fictional purposes.

Throughout the novel, Michael turns his life into fiction, living his life like research, using it to write the life of his lead character, Julien, who is also having a romp outside marriage.

April, Taylor’s friend, makes observations in absentia that Taylor brings to us, about how women who aren’t mothers are emotionally stunted but more importantly about how mothers feel guilty about everything even when it’s not their fault. Now, don’t I know that?

Strangely, Taylor says her best friend is Rachel, but it is April she keeps quoting.

The writing is interesting, clever, the quick turns of phrases amusing and thought provoking. Telling you truths about how marriages can get, once the euphoria fizzles out.

And by the way, I thought the cover with its broken glass, was nice. A tad overdone and simplistic maybe.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

Monday, July 04, 2016


Title: The Wolf Road: A Novel
Author: Beth Lewis
Publisher: Crown 

The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis takes us down a harsh road of survival, of tough truths that could break a person.

It is the first person story of young Elka, a child of the forest, and the rules she has lived by.

Just a girl, her wits and her knife.
And a killer on the loose.

Elka’s parents went digging for gold, leaving the two-year-old with her Nana, her grandmother, who was at best, indifferent, and at worst, abusive. The young child longs for love, for her family, and bides time, waiting for her parents to come for her.

At the age of 7, her world is literally turned topsy turvy when a hurricane (Thunderhead) rips through their town, carrying her out of her grandmother’s home and dropping her into the deep forest. Hungry and desperate, she steals meat that is curing outside a hut. It sets off an alarm and she is caught by the Trapper, Kreagar Hallett. She settles down to living with him, when he returns from a trip to town telling her that her Nana is dead. The years go on.

They get into a rhythm, and he names her Elka because her hair is as coarse as that of an elk. She begins to imagine the two of them as being a family. He never hurts her and is kind to her, in a gruff, standoffish way.

She lives with him until she turns 17, when he allows her to go into town for the first time without him. There she meets Magistrate Lyon, who is looking to arrest and hang Kreagar for having brutally murdered 8 women and 1 child, the last, Lyon’s little son. That is when Elka comes to know of the truth behind the kindness that was lies and masks.

She learns that the man she thinks of as her Daddy, though she never calls him that to his face, is actually a cold, psychopathic killer.

Shocked by this revelation, and struggling with denial, Elka begins to question how she could have missed the sight of Kreagar’s murderous instincts, his bloodthirstiness. At length she realizes that it is because Any lie can turn to truth if you believe it long enough.

Elka makes a dash for the forest, with the intention of going to Halveston, where she imagines her parents have made it big. Along the way, she encounters danger from numerous beasts, both human and animal. The wild too is an adversary to be contended with, besides hunger and thirst, and hallucinations and death. 

Chased by a bear, the adrenaline keeps pumping as Elka, half wild and feral herself, tries to escape danger in the wilderness that is the world after the nuclear fallout. She lives by her wits, making friends with a wolf, trying hard to put distance between herself and Kreagar, who is stalking her.

Now it’s a battle of wits and knives between them. She must kill if she is to stay alive, use the skills he once taught her.  

The story is set in a post-Apocalyptic world. A nuclear war, known as The Fall or the Reformation (Elka’s grandmother called it the Big Damn Stupid), has destroyed the Old World, setting the world back in time, leaving chaos and disorder behind. 

It is a time when everyone is scrounging for gold, for survival, depending on nature, and rebuilding the broken world as best as they could.  But there are also strains of a Wild West, filled with adventure, where everything is up for grabs, not unlike the Gold Rush of more than a century ago. It seems like a lawless world and yet, there is the faintest resemblance to a law, re-asserting itself.

The country is known by its initials, BC, giving it a post-disaster kind of feel. One assumes, by the descriptions of the locale and the weather, that this is British Columbia.

We never know her real name. She has forgotten it too, and yet her story resonates with us. She likes to dwell in the here-now rather than the back-then. Her life and the tumultuous things that happen to her, from the Thunderbird to the havoc raised by the other characters, leave her striving to survive at all costs.

Despite being unschooled, Elka has learned her lessons. Living in the wild, she learns that there are many kinds of wild and dangerous, and that some of them appear human but kill for sport.

Her homespun wisdom is sharp. Men got a lot more rules for living than the forest.

One of her rules is Don’t go trusting another man’s path. No matter if that’s a real one trodden into dirt or all of them twists and turns his life has taken.

Another thing she learns thought it doesn’t sound very pretty is Men got one hell of a weakness, and when it ain’t their arrogance, it’s their dangling bits.

Elsewhere No wolf nor bear just gives up when they get beat or hungry. You ever seen a bear jump off a cliff ‘cause life handed him a few rough draws.

And Alive and ugly is better than pretty and dead.

Because we have started at the beginning of the climactic conclusion, we know we are headed towards it. There’s an undercurrent of something dark that throbs beneath the story, ever louder, as it draws to an inexorable conclusion.

This book works wonders with just three characters, Elka, Kreagar and Magistrate Lyon. There are others, but these three hold your attention, Elka most of all.

Elka is willing to make tough choices to survive, but the humane in her trumps the wild, even when there is a price to pay. In her haste, she often does things, that her hindsight tells her, are stupid. Each time a wish is granted to her, it comes with a large accompaniment of trouble.

Elka didn’t let me feel sorry for her. I liked that. Even when her Nana wasn’t very nice to her, she was like a female Tom Sawyer, hating the schooling and the culturing. All the same, my heart ached for her, for the strength she derived from some simple words in her mother’s letter written to her Nana years ago: Tell my little girl, I love you.

Kreagar Hallet, a man with a voice that was like rubbing bone on bark. Sharp, cruel, meant to cut, to hurt.

Magistrate Lyon is almost sexless in her single-minded desire to string Kreagar for his crimes.

Each of the minor characters edge this story along. Mathews, James Everett Colby, Stanley Bilker, scum and scoundrel, and father and son, Mark and Josh Thompson.

The doctor is a minor character who makes an impression for the events that meeting with him precipitate. As does Wolf, whose friendship with Elka saves her from destruction.

I was also grateful for Penelope, for the bruised yet healing friendship that grew between her and Elka.

The writing is real, urgent, thrusting us in the face of danger. It builds word pictures and we learn about people without being told. That Kreagar’s teeth are like gravestones.

Elka’s story follows its own grammar but you get used to it. It feels fragmented but harks back to the harsh setting and the period. The language is raw and intense, the incorrect tense adding to the tautness.

She gives us her story in bits and spurts, the details spilling out, proving their worth later pages later, rewarding our memories.

Beyond the adventure, it raises questions of morality, of doing as we were done by, of how we all need kindness and of how we’re all predators and prey in different situations.

The ending, I will warn you, was shocking, hard hitting. I wished it was different. It filled me with an ineffable sadness. I wished there could have been redemption for Elka, that she didn’t have to strive for salvation every day.

I strongly recommend The Wolf Road. Reader, if I could reach out and shake you and force you to read this book, I would. Few heroines have touched me the way Elka did.

I’m sure you’ll say the same.

(I received a free digital copy of this book from First To Read.)


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