Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Clockwork Girl (mini-fic reviews part 2)


         This book hit me where I live. I think it'd hit most people where they live. It's a very, very good book. I can't recommend it to anyone, but it's amazing. 

          Allow me to explain: This small novella affected me almost more than anything else I've read. It was disturbing, incredibly disturbing. There are few books that can actually shake and unsettle me as much as this has, and at the same time, in its own way, it's bittersweet. It wormed its way into my brain and tugged at some very deep feelings, the feelings that I don't usually allow to come to the surface or even let out at all. And, considering I'd read this right after "Twittering from the Circus of the Dead", it's no wonder that I stayed up until almost six in the morning and didn't fall asleep until almost seven with all these thoughts whirling around in my brain. 

I'm drifting again. Allow me to get to the point.

           "Clockwork Girl" is a novella by Athena Villaverde. Villaverde is a fairly recent addition to the Bizarro literary scene. Her work appears in The Bizarro Starter Kit: Purple, she's written one novel titled Starfish Girl (canny readers may notice a naming trend), and wrote a collection with "Clockwork Girl" as the titular story. The novella follows a sentient clockwork girl named Pichi from her first memories on Christmas Day all the way through her life. Pichi is given as a present to Marisol, the young girl of a rich family. At first, Marisol is reluctant to receive such a gift, as Pichi was formerly a poor child whose body was replaced with clockwork and turned into a sentient toy, but eventually she comes around and introduces Pichi to her toyroom. The early parts of the story detail Marisol and Pichi as they play hide-and-seek, paint the walls of the playroom, play with Marisol's clockwork dog named Maki, and do other wonderful childhood activities. As the story goes on, Pichi develops a deep and abiding love for Marisol.

But here's the thing. Children grow up. Toys do not. And when children grow up, some of them outgrow their toys. 

               So from Pichi's point of view, we see Marisol grow more distant, and drift away from her and away from the playroom. And if the story ended there, it would be absolutely heartbreaking. But it gets worse. All from Pichi's point of view. As she tries to desperately hold on until Marisol comes home from college. As she has to find someone to wind her so she won't die. As she endures the family, who all treat her not as a little girl, not as a playmate, but as a toy to be played with and thrown away. It's the emotional equivalent of torture porn. 

              What makes it wrenching is that it's easy to understand, but hard to fight. Everyone grows out of their childhood affectations at some point or another, and it's something we accept. It's a part of life. But from this point of view, it's horrifying to think of such a thing. And Villaverde makes it very vivid and packs every parargaph full of enough detail to have made me feel like I've been punched. What makes this book good, what makes it dangerous, is the way it plays with your empathy. The opening passages are lyrical and sweet, sort of like a twisted version of Winnie-the-Pooh. The dark hints creep in slowly, and before you know it, the rug's been pulled out from under you, and all that's left until the last two or three chapters is a long tunnel of despair with only the briefest light. I am incapable of tears*, but trying to empathize with Pichi made me hurt. I wanted to rescue her, but I realized everyone does the same thing,

             We all grow up. We get older. Some of us manage to hold on to the accouterments of childhood, and others of us shed them without a second thought. The toys we discard we give no second thought to, importance of them notwithstanding. Athena Villaverde has basically taken this and weaponized it. With her vivid descriptions and brutally optimistic internal monologue, she made me feel sad for growing up.

              I suppose I should tell you at the end of this all that there's a happy ending. By that point, you've been so violated in your sense of empathy it's like watching a train wreck and then finding a buck on the sidewalk-- it's nice, but it doesn't erase the horror that came before it. 

               So in the end, I can't recommend this. It's like "The Little Match Girl" on steroids. This is the most remarkable and amazing thing I've read this year, but it left me disturbed and upset and practically hollowed out. So I can't recommend it. But if you find it, if you read it, I will tell you this: It's very, very good. I just don't want to ever read it again. 

The Geek Rage/Strange Library Book of the Year is revealed

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Monday, December 30, 2013

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead (mini-fiction reviews part 1)

                   In an effort to communicate my feelings and issues over two of the works I've read, I have decided to do two mini-reviews, as befits the short story and novella I've decided to cover. If this should prove fruitful, I may continue in this manner. In any case, it beats just sitting on them or not talking about them, right?

         I want to know who the hell ruined Joe Hill's day. I don't know who it was, but he's started mining some very dark, depressive, disturbing veins with his craft. It's still brilliant writing. Don't get me wrong, NOS4A2 is a book I hold in high regard and everything I've read from him has been top shelf work. But in taking Hill's body of work as one cohesive whole, even at his most brutal in Heart Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts didn't achieve the twisted depths his more current work calls home. And while I may still prefer the earlier work to the later strains, I still find the story an incredible work. 

         I read "Twittering from the Circus of the Dead" at ten in the evening on a rather dull night. Despite having several other tabs open at the time*, I sat there, eagerly turning the page, reading more and more as the story unfolded. By the end, I wasn't sure if I were able to go to sleep at the end of the night. And as each new line of the story progressed, I felt a lovely sense of dread growing bit by bit.  It's an unsettling story, and that it takes such a short time (I read it in one sitting) only adds to the unnerving nature. It's a more concentrated dose, and Hill's always been a master of delivering quick punches in a narrative. In short, this is a brilliant short story, and well worth the meager price of admission. 

          "Twittering from the Circus of the Dead" is the story of Blake. Blake is a teenage girl from California who has been dragged on a trip to Colorado with her family. As the story unfolds in quick 140-character tweets, we learn about Blake's annoying little brother, her overbearing mother, and her beleaguered father. We get tiny snapshots of Blake's life and what she thinks of everything as her family gets up at six in the morning to take the long drive back to their home. For a while, it's easy to identify with Blake. Her annoyances, some small moments of bonding, and her disbelief at her brother's antics. It's an enjoyable family-bonding kind of thing.

But then.

         But then Blake's family pulls in at a roadside attraction called The Circus of the Dead. But then her dad buys tickets to the show from a man who looks plague-stricken. The ticket taker wears a hazmat suit "so he doesn't get bitten." The show involves a stilt-wearing ringmaster clad in only her underwear who tells the audience that the circus took her prisoner and forced her to perform. And that's only the start of the strange and disturbing things in store for Blake and her family. Because when they thought they would be entertained for an afternoon, they found something with very, very sharp teeth. 

           The compressed length makes the story disturbing, and the idea of Twitter as a platform for telling this kind of story, while perhaps not as new as others, gives it a certain level of immersion. Were this told in the conventional style, there would not be much to define it from a thousand other teen horror stories. But it's the medium that makes it terrifying, mainly due to the economy of language. It's what we don't see that's just as terrifying as what we do. Those little 140-character bursts allow the reader to fill in all kinds of unnerving blanks, as the breathless messages grow more anxious and disturbed. Joe Hill handles that economy quite well, and it shows in that he's just as terrifying in this format as any other. Hill's voice is also strong. I can easily believe that this is a teenage girl. The issues come in when occasionally that voice stretches credibility, but there aren't too many of those places, and in the end, it's a fascinating read. 

        Find this. Read this. You can read it on your computer just as easily as anywhere. It's definitely worth the ninety-nine cents, and it delivers a ride that few can in this format. 

UP NEXT: "Clockwork Girl" by Athena Villaverde

*I read most of my ebooks on my computer. My Kindle has sadly died a queenly death and Amazon steadfastly refuses to replace or repair it with anything but a newer and sadly inferior model. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


       Okay, the rundown is as follows. This is a brilliant, beautiful work. It's also really huge, but Clive Barker manages to fill each page with something while perhaps not compelling, at least interesting to read. The story is of John Furie "Gentle" Zacharias, a con man with mysterious powers; and his friend, guide, and eventual lover Pie'oh'Pah. It is also about the various people in their lives, and how they may be affected by an event known as "the Reconciliation", the time for which is quickly approaching. The good are the brilliant imagery, lavish descriptions, complex characters, and dense, epic plot. The bad is that this is a slow read at first until it eventually gets going. And the pacing is still weird after that.

                But in the end, this is a book well worth your time. And your money. Buy this, read it, and enjoy a hallucinatory fantasy epic with some genuine surreality and darkness to it.

More, as always, below. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom

            Okay, so the rundown is as follows. Chung Kuo is a future history on an epic, operatic scale. The book traces the start of the "War of Two Directions", a conflict between the Confucianist stasis of the ruling Chinese empire and the upper-class Europeans who wish for progress, change, and to take back their birthright. The book features a huge cast of characters and a scope that, for the first book in a seven-book series, shows remarkable restraint and control while still spanning slightly over a decade in time. 

               The good points are that it takes next to no time at all to get off the ground and manages to cover the massive amount of territory despite a small lull in the action after the prologue, that it follows a huge cast of complex characters without ever once feeling like it's repeating itself or reusing characters, and that it keeps up a level of tension without having to resort too much to excessive vulgarity. It also keeps just enough uncertainty in the plot to make it interesting. The good guys are never on the verge of winning, and neither are the bad guys. And both sides are complex enough not to be "good" or "bad", but to be driven by their own motivations. Except one.

             The bad parts are an ending that seems to arbitrarily set up the cliffhanger for the next book just so one side doesn't seem to be in too much of a position of strength, and a single character, Major Howard deVore. de Vore seems to be an unrepentant monster, manipulating both sides of the conflict for little more than his own gratification. He appears to derive pleasure from human suffering and sick power games, and thus stands out against the rest of the cast. Also, there are two or three scenes that get really brutal and nasty, so I feel like I should warn that they're there.

More, as always, below.

Monday, December 9, 2013


           Okay, so the rundown is as follows*: Lexicon is not a great book, far from the best book of the year, but it's a solid read. The characters are fairly interesting, the darkly humorous tone carries the book a lot, and the pace keeps the reader moving even in the parts when the book flags. The bad bits come in with a mystery solved in cop-out, some confusing flashbacks that are not told in any conceivable order, and a surplus of plot elements that, while touched upon, are never fully discussed. 

                 In the end, while it's a dynamite book on its own terms and when put up against most of the literary canon to date, it's a disappointment from the man who wrote Syrup, Company, Man Machine, and Jennifer Government. Get this one from the library, enjoy it in the three or four days it'll take to read it, and then move on to better things. It's enjoyable, but I wouldn't buy it. More, as always, below.