The Dog

It was a bright Saturday morning when Sean saw him for the first time.

His curls was as golden as a beam of sunlight, looking as though it were combed custard. His sparkling eyes were as brown the mud from a pig’s daydream. His sharp teeth were so radiant they were almost blinding. Charisma emanated from his spine like a fine mist. To say this creature was good-looking would be like calling Rod Stewart unsettling. The dog’s name was William, and he was here to stay.

‘What do you think?’ His mother enthusiastically asked her son as she walked William around the living room. ‘Isn’t he the best?’

Sean shrugged his shoulders. ‘Is it going to live in the house or what?’

His father shot him a dirty look. ‘It’s a he. William is part of our family now, and you must respect that, young man.’

‘Aww…’

His mother cleared her throat. ‘I think we should we go down to the park to celebrate the newest addition to our family.’

‘I agree!’ nodded Sean’s father, with a merry gleam in his eye.

The parents dragged their son down to the local park, and threw Frisbees at him and William. William caught his Frisbees in the mouth and bowed his head humbly when Sean’s parents praised him. Sean’s Frisbees bounced off the side of his head. His parents scowled, and William smugly winked at Sean every time he missed a Frisbee.

The fifteen-minute car ride home was defined by stony silence. Naturally, William was allowed to dominate the back seats.

‘Stop elbow-fighting!’ chided Sean’s father. ‘Sean, at least try to set a good example for your brother. At least try.’

After the park excursion, Sean needed to listen to a lot of Radiohead to come to terms with his parent’s new attitude. He wondered how Thom Yorke would handle this situation.

Dinner was mincemeat and peas. William was there, dressed in one of Sean’s old school uniforms and sunglasses. Sean wondered how the legionnaire’s cap managed to stay on the mutt’s head. The dog was squatting on a high-chair and gnawing at an old bone.

‘Why don’t you eat your peas?’ beamed Sean’s mother.

‘I’m not in the mood,’ muttered Sean.

Sean’s father pointed at William’s approach to the bone. ‘William doesn’t have any trouble having an appetite. Maybe you should try and be more like William.’

Sean’s mother nodded. ‘He’s clever as well. After we dropped you off we went to church. William knew exactly when to sit, stand and shake hands. Now why can’t you be more like that?’

Sean spooned some mince into his mouth. It didn’t taste great.

‘It sounds like you should get a new son!’ Sean jabbed the air with a fork for emphasis.

His parents laughed as one being. ‘We did!’

Sean realised that this was the first time he had ever seen his parents happy.

After the hilarity died out his mother continued the conversation. ‘Sean, we can’t let you stay in William’s room anymore.’ She handed him a cardboard box. ‘You have until nine to pack your crap. We’ll let you sleep on the couch tonight, but you’ll need to find a new place in the morning.’

William barked happily, muddying the tablecloth with his paw prints. Sean’s eyes narrowed.

‘I don’t see why we even waste food on you!’ exclaimed his mother, snatching Sean’s plate away from him and giving it to the dog.

‘Yeah, give it to someone who appreciates it!’ said his father, his face turning red. He held the plate up to the dog’s face. William grinned deliriously as his thick tongue wiped that piece of crockery clean.

‘Get out of my face, punk.’ hissed the mother. ‘Kindly take your junk out of our real son’s room.’

Wordlessly, Sean screeched his chair back and left the kitchen.

It was disturbing how easy it was to fit fourteen years’ worth of stuff within one box. His treasured Godzilla poster was easy to fold, all his music could fit on one iPod and all his books were replaceable. His skateboard took up the most space.

Sean lugged his box out to the living room, next to the couch. He saw his mother holding a sheet.

‘Thanks?’ he said, reaching out to grab it.

Quick as a ninja, she spread the sheet out on the couch. ‘This way you won’t get my couch dirty.’

Sean heard barking from his room, and what sounded like a colossal jug of water being emptied. The sound stopped and started at uneven intervals. From the direction of his parent’s bedrooms he could hear enthusiastic giggles and loud moans. It was going to be a long night.

The Weird Tales of Conan The Barbarian – Robert E. Howard

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Conan the Cimmerian is a tough dude who wanders around pre-Ice Age Eurasia beating up baddies and rescuing beautiful women. The Weird Tales of Conan collects some of his strangest and most iconic adventures.

The interesting thing about Conan’s pre-Ice Age Eurasia is that it contains numerous civilizations reminiscent of cultures you may know about from your history books. The story Hour of the Dragon includes fantasy Zoroastrians, identifiable by their references to Asura and Ahriman, and you can tell that the trapped inhabitants in the Red Nails are descended from South Americans because of how their names are spelled. According to this essay Howard wrote, which Dover Publications should’ve included in this collection, all the nations Conan encountered are the ancestors of actual, real, cultures you’d see today. I like this, because it always bothers me when a country in fantasy world is a blatant knockoff of Italy, or when dwarves have Scottish accents for no good reason. There’s also an element of black magic that, at its very worst, shades into Lovecraftian horror. Conan even meets a dinosaur at one point. However, the unfamiliar names can make it difficult to guess where Conan is meant to be adventuring, which shows that fantasy world maps aren’t always a waste of time.

Characterisation is where these stories really falter. I really don’t like Conan; his main character trait is being hyper-competent and having a slight sense of humour about it. He’s similar to Sherlock Holmes in that he’s so good at what he does that he’s impossible to relate to, or even sympathise with. There’s also an element of James Bond to him as well, in that he’s one of those men other men are supposed to want to be like because he sleeps with a lot of beautiful women, although unlike Bond Conan actually has a conscience. Most of the other characters either admire Conan or are trying to kill him.

What Conan really needs is an element of continuity, since his presence is the only thing that binds these stories together. I’d give him a sidekick, to be the Watson to his Holmes, the Jimmy Olsen to his Superman and so on. The young man who was the focal point of Beyond the Black River could’ve been great in this role. A relationship with such a constant character would allow Conan to demonstrate his character development throughout the stories.

I see the appeal of Conan and his world, well maybe just his world, but these stories weren’t right for me. They could provide a useful model for fantasy writers tired of imitating Tolkien, and I think that the people who write the scenarios for video games would find a lot of inspirational material here. And I’m totally interested in seeing the Conan movies with Arnie in them. But I’d only recommend this collection for people who are already Conan fans or those interested in knowing what all the fuss is about.

 

I received a free copy of the book in exchange for a review, you can get yours here.

Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka – translated by Peter Wortsman

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Konundrum is a new translation of stories by the late Czech lawyer Franz Kafka, arguably the best literary author of the last century. Wortsman’s collection assembles some of Kafka’s greatest hits, including The Hunger Artist, A Report To The Academy, and his iconic novella Metamorphosis, retitled here Transformed.

Short pieces are mixed in with extracts from Kafka’s diaries and journals in the first half of the book. These short pieces, ranging from the drabble-like Concerning Parables to Unhappiness, a ghost story that spans a few pages, are as mystifying as they are memorable. Wortsman included my favourite short Kafka tale, A Messenger From The Emperor, but it’s strange that the parable Before The Law doesn’t appear. The story Eleven Sons was an unexpected highlight, demonstrating exactly how far you can get with only a character study and no plot. Kafka displays an original take on classical mythology, penning tales where sirens are silent, Prometheus fuses with his rock, and Poseidon is too busy managing his oceans to enjoy them. If you want to know how to write extremely short fiction that is extremely engaging, read Kafka.

I was less comfortable with the autobiographical scraps, although I enjoyed I Can Also Laugh, which described the time Kafka had a laughing fit in front of an office superior. If Kafka was an author who hungered for publicity, like Oscar Wilde, I’d be fine with trawling through his private material, but based on his dying wish to have his writings incinerated I’m willing to get that he was an anxiously private man. I’d hate for some future publisher to mine my inbox for literary gems, but that didn’t bother me so much that I skipped Kafka’s private moments.

The key themes of Kafka’s substantial stories are animal protagonists and alienation, with a side of bureaucratic sadism. The indecisively-titled Josephine, Our Meistersinger or the Music of the Mice is a meditation on the role of a whistling mouse in the culture of her species. Similarly, Investigations of A Dog is a meditation on canine philosophy and what the world would look like from atop four furry feet. I’m particularly fond of A Report To The Academy, about a chimp who integrates into human society, because a part of me thinks of it as a Planet of The Apes prequel. Transformed, begins with the salesman Gregor Samsa waking up a giant insect. The story gets its humour from Samsa’s apologetic attitude and how horribly his family treats him.

The two most gruelling stories in the collection are The Hunger Artist and In The Penal Colony. The first is about a man who publicly fasts in fairgrounds, and while I’m certain it’s intended to be a pun on the ‘starving artist’ cliché it verges on glorifying eating disorders. If any Kafka story had to be burned I’d have chosen In The Penal Colony, because I’m worried that someone will try out the inventive torture method it describes. Let’s just say it brings a whole new meaning to ‘Word Made Flesh’. I wouldn’t look down on you for skipping those two stories.

I can only speak English, so I’m not sure how seriously I should be taken when I say Wortsman is a good translator. Sometimes his text got distractingly American, with the phrase ‘oh boy’ appearing and Gregor Samsa remembering a ‘cute’ chambermaid, but I’m not sure if that’s any less authentic than the neutral British dialect I expect in translations. Based on this collection, I’d like to see more of Wortsman’s work. His afterword was good as well, particularly when he compared retranslating a beloved old text to covering a classic tune, although I’d split it in two and use his Kafka biography as a foreword and his thoughts on translation as an afterword.

Kafka is the vegemite of high-brow literature. You either hate it, love it, or hate it and then realise you love it. Konundrum is an excellent starting place to try his stuff out.

 

This review was based on an advance copy of the book. Grab yours here.

Insane-O-Tron – Nick Alverson

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Insane-O-Tron is a collection of six compulsively imaginative stories by Nick Alverson. We encounter sentient hair, a candy wizard and even visit Ponyland. But Alverson writes best when he limits himself to one absurdity per piece.

The first story, The Family Family, was my least favourite. A surrealist screenwriter is hired to rejuvenate a flagging family drama, with distressingly successful results. I found the protagonist too amoral to be sympathetic and not funny enough to be likeable. The whole scenario had a whiff of wish fulfillment about it.

Alverson hits his stride in the story Insane-O-Tron, about a haircut so good that it comes to life and takes its owner on a treasure hunt under a restaurant run by pirate scientists, and into prehistory itself. Maybe this story would’ve made more sense as a cartoon or video game, but Alverson does a great job of making it work in prose. Again I didn’t really care about the characters, but the situation was so entertaining that it didn’t bother me.

Mallard Quackenbush is where things really get good. An engineer is uncomfortable about his sixteen-year-old daughter dating the titular character, who is a duck. We get a peek into his childhood to explain why that it is, and by the standards of this book the explanation is downright plausible. This is story that makes me think that Alverson writes better when there’s only one ridiculous thing going on – I guess that makes it easier to suspend disbelief.

Terry, the tale of the bond between a young boy and his sentient Halloween pumpkin, is the best in the collection. We’ve got pathos, magical realism and a candy wizard! Best of all, I really connected to the characters. Terry’s despair at being ignored by his owner in favour of a suitcase is palpable, and anyone with a heart will sympathise with a bullied kid.

I enjoyed The Perfect Day, was set in a world like the one depicted in A Bug’s Life. Alverson should revisit this setting, I want to read a book about a civilization of anthropomorphic insects. The story’s too short to describe without spoiling things, but I will say that it is a snorter.

Brave Pony confused me. Set in Pony Land, it’s about a clumsy pony who has to fight a dragon. It was funny, it was well written, but I didn’t see the point of it. My best guess is that it was parodying My Little Pony.

Alverson is a talented writer with an eye for unusual metaphors and situations. If this is the stuff he comes up with in his first book, than he may be an author to watch.

 

I got this ARC from NetGalley. You can get a copy of the book from Amazon.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old – Hendrik Groen

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This isn’t the sort of thing I normally read. Recently I signed onto NetGalley to get my hand on The Summer That Melted Everything, and I got a bit carried away requesting ARCs.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is enormously popular in its native Holland, so an English translation seems more or inevitable. Penguin credits the novel to Hendrik Groen, the protagonist, but the true identity of the author seems to be a mystery. My guess is that it’s Lady Gaga – if there was ever a celebrity with hidden depths it’s her.

Hendrik Groen is a nursing home occupant who records one year of his life in his diary. The main narrative arc concerns the Not Dead Yet Club, which Groen forms with his elderly peers to organise excursions outside their home. The club becomes a prism through which Groen focuses on his dislike of most of the other people in his nursing home, and his antagonism towards the management. He also forms meaningful relationships with other members of the club, one of which might force a tear from your eye. But you’d have to look pretty hard for this plot thread, unsurprisingly this diary narrative is episodic.

All the characterisation and dialogue worked fine. The best character was Groen’s mate Evert, who is like the Kramer to Groen’s Seinfield. I’m surprised his cake-in-the-fishtank prank didn’t make the front cover. I’m also a bit annoyed that the man actually on the cover has a full head of hair, as Groen often jokes about his shiny pate.

This Secret Diary has its origins in some Dutch magazine website, and perhaps it should have stayed in that format. I’m not saying that it’s a bad story, just that its lack of direction makes it hard to stay invested in a long novel. Perhaps Penguin should convert parts of this novel into an email newsletter, or one of those thick calendars with a page to each day, and each page would have something about Hendrik Groen written on it. They’re apparently making an Office-style adaption of this franchise in Holland, that could work brilliantly.

This book has many strengths, but I won’t be looking out for the sequel.

The Summer That Melted Everything – Tiffany McDaniel

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In the summer of 1984, Fielding Bliss’s father invited the Devil to their town of Breathed. And he came, at least according to Sal, the enigmatic black kid who shows out of nowhere claiming to be the Prince of Darkness himself. Soon enough Sal is adopted into Fielding’s household to live alongside Fielding’s agoraphobic mother and athletic brother. But his presence unleashes an avalanche of unwelcome revelations upon Breathed.

The major draw of The Summer That Melted Everything is McDaniel’s prose style. Narrated from Fielding’s perspective, the writing in this book reminds me a lot of Bruno Schulz. It shares with Schulz a certain hallucinatory quality that McDaniel gets by describing something as a noun of quality, with the noun being something you wouldn’t normally associate with the quality. This works fantastically well for metaphors, and the juxtaposition of two random things imbues the text with a slightly dreamlike quality. Another Schulz similarity is that Fielding’s descriptions of certain events makes them sound more important and magical then they probably were. Add that to the Fielding’s fascination with his father’s eccentricities and all the religious references, and I’m absolutely confident in saying that this is a book that will be enjoyed by Schulz fans.

This book has excellent characterization. The narration establishes Fielding as a naïve yet thoughtful boy, while his mother is surprisingly competent despite her agoraphobia. His brother Grand stands at the intersection of condescension and fragility. He also peppers his speech with Russian phrases rendered in Cyrillic letters, a very nice touch. My favourite character was the well-named dwarf widower Elohim, Fielding’s neighbour who eventually leads a cult wanting to expel Sal from their town. He’s the most sympathetic racist I’ve seen in literature for a while. The man is obviously sublimating his grief over his wife into his weird little crusade, and it is understandable that a Christian would be unnerved by a kid claiming to be the devil. I couldn’t bring myself to hate the guy, even though he deserved it.

My biggest concern about The Summer That Melted Everything was the frame narrative, where a much older Fielding tells us what happened in 1984, seventy one years after the events occurred. Despite this, the frame narrative is set in a fairly ordinary trailer park, nothing futuristic about it. Casually mentioning robots would have been distracting, but the lack of anything different in the future portions bothers me. My solution would be to have Fielding briefly refer to the death of Obama. Still, this frame narrative grants us an insight into Fielding’s adult life and strongly implies that the stories he tells are exaggerated, so I think it’s worth it.

The Summer That Melted Everything is a very impressive first book, the exact sort of thing I can see being studied in schools. Admirers of hallucinogenic Americana, in the slightly Gothic tradition of Carnivale or Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, will love it.

 

I was given a free copy of this book to review, preorder yours here.

Kingdom of Paradise

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Kingdom of Paradise was an action RPG for the Playstation Portable that came out in 2005. Inspired by martial arts cinema, it chronicles the misadventures of the young mercenary Shinbu after he rescues the last disciple of his former clan and becomes embroiled in political intrigue that threatens to tear his fantasy continent apart. With vivid 3D graphics and intuitive swordplay-based gameplay, Sword of Heaven is a pretty nifty game.

The fantasy-thriller storyline I alluded to above sounds great in theory but failed to grab me in practice. One factor could be the slightly unfamiliar names, drawing from Japanese and Chinese cultures. So we have names like Shinbu, Li Yun and Gikyo. This requires me to connect an unfamiliar name with a character I may have only encountered once five hours earlier in the game, which can be a bit much for me. And Chinese names often confuse because I can’t get my head around which one is the surname.

That said, the characters are likeable. For example, Shinbu is a sympathetically gormless exile who finally grows a heroic spine. But my favourite was the villain Genra, whose commitment to being extremely unpleasant gives him a Draco Malfoy-style sort of charisma. The expressive character models helped the characterisation in the game immensely.

The plot did have a few magical moments. Like when Shinbu managed to summon the floating temples of the moon above a silent lake, or reunited with a father he thought dead. And both of them can play their swords like musical instruments. I don’t think that there was anything intrinsically wrong with the game’s storyline, just that maybe that translators should’ve injected more personality into the script.

As an action RPG, Kingdom of Paradise’s combat can simply be described as Shinbu running up to a bandits and whacking him with his big sword. No fancy transitions to antiquated menu-based violence here, Shinbu attacks people on the same screen where he walks about and talks to people. Really it’s much more simple than I’m badly describing it. Think about it as like Diablo, except that Shinbu can only attack when there’s a direct threat present.

But there’s more to combat than just pressing the right button to attack. Shinbu learns all his attacks from Bugei Scrolls, and he can attach more moves to his Bugei Scrolls by collecting Kenpu… things… from his slain enemies. Each Kenpu move is different, one makes you spin, another makes you jump and slash down, and so on. Shinbu even gets his hands on freestyle Kenbu scrolls, allowing the player to string together whatever sequence of Kenpu they like. The closes thing I’ve seen to this Bugei Scroll system is the card-based combat in Kingdom Heart Chain of Memories.

Kingdom of Paradise’s local magic equivalent is Chi Arts, similar to those energy attacks they were always using in Dragonball Z. You hold down the button to charge your bar, and tap it again to release your attack. There’s an elemental system based on Chinese elements, and as you’d expect one sort of element is weak to an element and strong to another, and that Wood and Steel both somehow count as elements. This whole system was very badly explained in the game, and since I had no manual I resorted to learning about the it from Gamefaqs. Still, once I got my head around Chi Arts I decided they were a good way to include magic in an action RPG.

The rest of the gameplay is standard RPG stuff. Wander the countryside killing things, loiter about in town and accost random strangers for gossip, occasionally trigger a plot-relevant cutscene here and there… Although I should complain that most of the NPCs’ dialogue didn’t update to refer to most recent events.

It’s kind of pointless describing how this game looks when I can just embed a youtube video, but the graphics in Kingdom of Heaven impressed me. Maybe it’s because the previous game I played was the PSX port Soul Reaver, because the difference between the two is like my blurry naked vision and  the visual clarity I get after I’ve put my contact lenses in. That’s just a vague way to say we’ve got crisp and colourful graphics.

The music in Kingdom of Heaven didn’t make much of an impression on me, beyond me noticing that it had a slightly stereotypically Asian flavour. That means flute and strings.

There was also voice acting during the cutscenes. To be honest I didn’t think was strictly necessary, although thankfully there were subtitles for those playing with the volume turned down. But the fantastic sounds made by the enemies attacking Shinby, hammy Martial Arts sounds like ‘hwaaaah!’, more than justified the time spent by the creators recording voices in some studio.

Kingdom of Paradise is no RPG classic, but its graphics and gameplay are both very impressive for an original PSP title. Fans of games like Diablo or The Legacy of Goku would get a real kick out of it, but those looking for an immersive story shouldn’t bother.