Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Antarktos Cycle

The Antarktos CycleThe Antarktos Cycle by Robert M. Price
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Embellishments are, at times, welcome, as in the addition of Chipotle chili to dark chocolate (try a dash of Chipotle in your next hot chocolate). At other times, additions to existing works can be kitsch, even gauche. Such is the case here.

I love my Lovecraft, and At The Mountains of Madness is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. So when I saw that Chaosium was re-releasing The Antarktos Cycle (which was way out of my budget as a used paperback), I, for the first time ever, paid more than $10 for an E-book. I gladly paid, hoping to recapture and even elaborate on the magic I felt reading ATMOM the first several times through.

The book starts of promising, with Robert M. Price's excellent introduction: "Lovecraft's Cosmic History," which lays out in great detail the timelines of the cosmos, as envisioned by Lovecraft and influenced by the shared world-building he participated in with others, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, et al. If you have any question as to where Lovecraft's stories, creatures, or the events he outlined fall, this is the essay to consult. Granted, it is rife with contradiction, as Lovecraft only had a tenuous grasp on the vastness of the Mythos he spawned, but Price does a good job of explaining the different possibility spaces that Lovecraft explored, without making excuses for the contradictions. This is an excellent essay for the Lovecraft scholar.

"Antarktos," an early poem by Lovecraft, starts the fiction ball rolling. It is a short piece, almost trite, but does set up an atmosphere that can't be called anything else but "Lovecraftian".

Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is the first piece of prose fiction in the volume. To be honest, this is Poe at his most tedious. This novel is sometimes cited as an inspiration for Melville's utterly amazing Moby Dick, and it is apparent that this is true. Pym is to cargo shipping what Moby Dick is to whaling - everything you didn't want to know about how to pack a cargo hold and then some. Still, Poe presents a fairly solid piece of fiction here, with every deprivation and horror one would expect from a long journey at sea. And, as is always the case, Poe proves himself the master of making the reader feel claustrophobic. I may never stay under the waterline of a ship again.

John Taine's "The Greatest Adventure" is anything but. It is trite and hackneyed in all the worst ways. Take the low-points of pulp, all the warts and scars, compile them into one body, including failed attempts at forced humor and the worst mansplaining I've seen outside of Triplanetary and you've got this story. It was about a quarter of the way through this story that I began to question the wisdom of reading the rest of the volume, but this story is an obvious influence on ATMOM, so I suffered (and I mean SUFFERED) through it.

At the Mountains of Madness was next. You already know my feelings about this novella. Yes, it has its many weaknesses, but I love it.

"The Tomb of the Old Ones" was the absolute nadir of this volume. I have nothing good to say about it, so, for once, I'm going to take my mother's advice and say nothing more about it.

. . . No, I just can't help myself. This story sucked so badly it makes a black hole's pull seem weak in comparison. I kept waiting for the part when it was revealed that the narrator was insane or that the superhero-psychic crap was all a lark. Unfortunately, that moment never came. Thankfully, the ending of the story, after a looooong, painful slog, did.

At least Arthur C. Clarke's "At the Mountains of Murkiness" was supposed to be a joke. It made me chuckle a bit, but it wasn't laugh out loud funny. If you want Lovecraft pastiche, try Selections from H.P. Lovecraft's Brief Tenure as a Whitman's Sampler Copywriter. Now *that* is funny!

"The Thing From Another World" might have worked as a great Twilight Zone episode *if* the Thing had actually been a macguffin. But, no, it was a real . . . thing. Further hurting the story was the fact that John W. Campbell, Jr. is enamored of adverbs and poor sentence structure. Reading this sometimes felt like listening to a toothless Welshman with a speech impediment (apologies to my toothless Welshmen with speech impediment friends out there. I know there's at least one of you. Well, at least the Welshman part).

John Glasby's "The Brooding City" was pretty much a photocopy job of every trope and adjective that Lovecraft ever used. It was uninspiring and unoriginal. Glasby tried to evoke Lovecraft, but failed to summon him.

"The Dreaming City," by Roger Johnson was really what I was hoping for from this anthology - a "Lovecraftian" story that was not lifted directly from the pages of Lovecraft and his kin, something with some originality of subject matter, but with the same feel of dread and foreboding that Lovecraft was so good at bringing out from the shadows.

Alas, it was too little, too late. I might purchase another of the Chaosium books, I might not. We'll see what happens when the mood strikes me. Then again, if the mood really strikes me, I'm most likely to just crack open a Lovecraft story and read it. Or, possibly, something by Mark Samuels or Thomas Ligotti, who also seem to "scratch that itch" when I need it.

Then again, there's nothing quite like the original, is there?

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Call me an uncultured Cretin (it's true), but I've never seen the movie, so I have nothing to compare it to but the only other classic noir book I've ever read (told you I was a Cretin), Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Where Chandler's prose sets a baseline from which he can occasionally spring a trick in the form of a clever turn of phrase, Hammett's prose is as straightforward as it gets, which I saw as a minus. That said, the blandness of the language lets the reader concentrate on plot and characterization, where Hammett shines a touch more than Chandler. Unlike the overly-convoluted un-plot of The Big Sleep, which Chandler admits he just sort of made up as he went along and never fully understood himself, Hammett unravels a mystery, the details of which are made very clear by the end of the book. That's not to say that it's transparent, by any means. Sam Spade, the protagonist, is perpetually surrounded by liars and he's a pretty good fabricator of truths, or at least a master at twisting the truth, himself. There are plenty of surprises in store for the reader unfamiliar with the story (i.e., one who hasn't seen the movie yet - shame on you for peeking ahead!), and the reveals at the end are rewarding enough. Part of the reason for this is that Spade, while staying true to his inner self, is a great wearer of masks. His unexpected actions, which several other characters remark upon, might actually be coldly-calculated, rather than merely whimsical. And though one must question whether Spade is a good guy or a bad guy, throughout, in the end we see that he simultaneously remains true to himself while revealing his true underlying morality. Hammett shows a deft hand in presenting all of the villainous, bungling supporting cast, but shows the master-stroke in hiding the real Sam Spade until the end of the novel, where Spade's strong sense of ethics is unveiled to the reader. Perhaps this is why I found him a more fascinating, deeper character than Chandler's Philip Marlowe (whom I admired, actually).

All told, though, I'm glad I read both.

And there will be more noir in my future. That's no mystery.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Silently and Very Fast

Silently and Very FastSilently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fifty years from now, this will be held up as one of the all-time classics of Science Fiction Literature. Even if The Singularity occurs (and it is knownable that it occurred, which is debatable), this exploration of what it means for an artificial intelligence to achieve that mysterious spark we call "life," will be ever bit as compelling. Not because of the notion that a machine can live and have self-realization, but because of the poetic way it explores the interface between man and computer. This is not a story of hard data bits and electrons rushing through space. It is a story about desires, about the need to feel accepted, a story about the many ways that family come together and compose that feeling called Love. Silently and Very Fast reveals the complexities of relationships, made even more complicated by the fact that one culture, the human culture, is fragmented in its feelings about the unveiling of what was, heretofore, acultural (the A.I.). It also shows the difficulties in making the transition from simple mimesis to meaningful symbolic communication and in shifting to the understanding that emotion is something deeper than the mere physical indicators of emotion. Another thematic element, and, perhaps, the most difficult to parse out from the story, is the actual space in which the story takes place. It is an artificial reality where characters can change their appearance at will to attempt symbolic communication through metaphor, but it is also a place where real flesh and blood humans can interact with these budding intelligences, engaging in procreation, direct communication, and the sheer act of living together. This, then, is the core of the story - not that man and machine interact, but that some humans and some artificial intelligences interact in the most intimate of ways, which is anathema to those humans who feel and machines who feel that such interactions are taboo. It is about true cybernetic integration or the rejection thereof and how this melding together of individuals, along with the outside pressures to *not* do so, can form deep familial ties.

I think we've only just begun to unravel this tale . . .

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Yoon-Suin

Yoon-SuinYoon-Suin by noisms
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The most fully-realized tabletop role-playing game supplement I have ever had the pleasure of owning. And I've owned a few in my 35 years of tabletop gaming. Where to even begin?

For those unfamiliar with RPGs, there is no "plot" to this book. The plot is constructed by the players and the Game Master through the course of role-playing. Yoon-Suin provides a framework in which the players' characters seek out adventure, face danger, do their "thing". The wonder of this is that the author has abandoned all semblance of medieval Europe or a fantasy derivative thereof, where the vast majority of RPG campaigns take place.

The setting here is a strange, sometimes surreal, version of an undifferentiated Asia, mixing aspects of Southeast Asia, China, and India. If I had to point out the closest corollary, I would say that Leng of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is the best candidate. This is a land of opium dreams and mummified undead monks, of gaudy, pungent markets and assassins slinking past the light of paper lanterns to surreptitiously fulfill their dark contracts, of cut-throat trade for tea and the dread ruminations of Old Gods once thought dead or long forgotten in the interstices of eons-past.

It is as thorough as one could make an imaginary world. Cultural customs, social structure, even the fine points of language and alphabets are contained therein. For the lazy game master (read: me), there are a plethora of adventure "hooks" that are intriguing and bizarre. There are many reasons, hundreds, really, for a character to want to adventure here. And those reasons will never be the same from one gaming group/campaign to another.

The reason is, so much of the setting is determined randomly.

Yes, randomly.

Each of the major areas: The Yellow City and The Topaz Isles, The Hundred Kingdoms (yes, there are actually 100, each of them different) and Lahag, Lamarakh and Lower Druk Yul, The Mountains of the Moon and Sughd, is outlined in a brief introduction giving a general overview of the city or kingdom in question. This is followed by tables - many, many tables, rich, glorious, fun-filled tables - which are used to "build" the setting on the fly.

For example, the section on The Yellow City and The Topaz Isles, contains tables that determine the main characters (Non-player characters) and others of a given group or site. Some in this section include "Cockroach Clan" (who are extended families who her giant cockroaches using pheromones and gestures), shrines, archives, "Club Fighting Troupe" (just what it sounds like, a group of "tough, strong, and often badly brain-damaged" fighters whose lives are "brutal and short, but often a luxurious stream of sex, opium, and conspicuous wealth"), noble houses, tea shops, opium dens, seekers of secret knowledge, etc. Within each group or site is a table used to determine who the main NPCs are and to determine rumors/hooks about the given group or site. Beyond these site-specific tables are general tables used to determine NPCs not tied to any one sub-location (along with their names and motives, again, randomly-determined), "General Rumours and Hooks" (yes, randomly determined, with such possible results as "Astronomer - Steal the Spouse of - Cockroach clan chief" or "Opium den owner - Extort from - Philosopher", etc), "Yellow City Rumors" (such as: "A callow magician has summoned something awful from beyond space and time [note the nod to Lovecraft]; it roams the streets of an area of the City at night"), "Random Locations and Encounters Round the Yellow City" and "Yellow City Surrounds". After this is a section called "Sample Hex contents" with 18 specific, fully fleshed-out encounters such as "The Dreaming Crabs," "The Observatory at Pometa," etc. The Old Town of the Yellow City is given it's own special sub-section with tables for determining several encounters that will only take place in this ghost-town within a metropolis: potential encounters with revolutionaries, squatters, exiles, a magician who has taken up residence in the Old Town, and so forth.

Beyond the remaining sections that allow for the generation of other areas is a series of appendices which are alone worth the price of the book (incidentally, you'll need to go to Lulu to get a physical copy of the book, or you can go to RPGNOW to get the PDF version). There are tables for randomly determining poisons (with everything you need to know regarding the game mechanics of how each poison works, as well as an origin that tells what the poison is derived from), an opium effects table (for eight different types of opium and their effects, as well as the in-game effects of opium addiction and under what circumstances one becomes addicted to opium), and many varieties of "Specialist Tea". There are sections on trade, a stripped-down psionics system, methods and results of fortune-telling, a short primer on trade language characters and pronunciation, a table showing the uses of giant worms, arachnids, and insects (because you want to know how much it's going to cost to get that Rhino Beetle as a steed, duh!), magical tattoos, hirelings, deities (yes, generated randomly - God *does* play dice, Mr. Einstein!), and even a listing of books, music, and other games to be used as inspiration.

Cap this off with a series of maps, both the traditional hex-gaming type and the non-traditional traditional Japanese print type, and you have what I consider to be the single best campaign setting supplement I have ever had the pleasure of owning. I plan on spending some time killing off would-be adventurers in horrible ways and disfiguring them and their relatives for generations to come introducing players to the wonders of Yoon-Suin, as well as drawing inspiration from it for my own nefarious ends writing.

I cannot recommend this strongly enough to gamers and non-gamers alike.

And for those who are reading this on Goodreads and wondering why the heck I'm reviewing a tabletop role-playing supplement, I recommend reading the very first section of the book: "The Journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl: Being an account of a traveller in distant places" published by The Geographical Society of the Yellow City. It's as fine a piece of short fiction as you will find in any written role-playing supplement, and a darned site better than many novels that have arisen from the fantasy RPG community (damned by faint praise, I know - but seriously, it is very well-written and evocative). By the time you finish its 17 pages, you will find yourself trapped in Yoon-Suin, addicted like a heavy-lidded opium-fiend, rooted to your spot, like a mummified monk being worshiped as a god by a congregation of vicious, poverty-stricken devotees.

There is no escape.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Kronos Quartet, 3.14.15, Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater

I first encountered Kronos Quartet back in 1993. They had released their CD "Pieces of Africa," a collection of compositions by African composers, the previous year. I believe I was listening to a radio program on Utah Public Radio while doing a stint as "security" (cough, cough) for BYU when I heard one of these pieces. I don't remember the exact place or moment, but I do remember being blown away that a string quartet would tackle such an odd, beautiful (and, I admit, the word "exotic" came to mind) set of compositions. This was in the days when the internet (TM) was barely a fertilized fetus, so information on the group was hard to come by. Thankfully, I found the album at the BYU bookstore. I bought the cassette (yes, there were still cassette players then) and listened to the whole thing. It was, musically speaking, a life changer.

As a teenager, I had widely-varying tastes. Punk, new wave, classical, heavy metal, celtic, funk, just about anything but rap and country. But my classical exposure was limited to the standards: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. Dvorak was about as wild and exotic that I had gotten. Or maybe Holst. I loved "The Planets" suite (and still do). So I had been exposed to a fair breadth of music as I was growing up.

But I had never heard anything quite like this.

It was classical music, a quartet, no less, two violins, a viola, and a cello. But it was so metal, so punk. But . . . not. It was unique, and I had a visceral reaction to it. Unfortunately, their music was hard to come by back then, or I just didn't really know where to look for it. Fast forward to 1997, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I remember one day spending several hours in the graduate school library - actually, I remember many days like that - and finding myself in the music listening library (I probably should have been studying something else). There, lo and behold, was a new album that I didn't know was coming out, with the deceptively benign title "Early Music". I listened to it, and, at that point, I can say I was legitimately hooked to Kronos Quartet. I had developed a taste for medieval and baroque music in the meantime, and this album hit that sweet spot, as well as expanding my tastes a bit to such composers as John Cage, Henry Purcell, and Arvo Part. I had listened to a piece or two by Cage and Purcell as an undergraduate Humanities major, but had never heard Part before. So I sought out more of his music and encountered some other names, along the way: Schnittke, Ligetti, Gorecki, and others. I had listened to and loved Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" as an undergrad, but it was through Kronos that the world of modern minimalism and atonal music really opened up for me. I started digging into their backlist, and tracking their new releases, occasionally buying a CD: "Salome Dances for Peace," "Black Angels," "Requiem for Adam"; and listening to others from the library. I saw that Kronos toured fairly frequently, but being a poor graduate student, then a poor post-MA worker (in the "real" world, outside of academia), my finances never seemed to match the calendar.

Now that I'm a little more well-established, I've been looking for an opportunity to see them in concert, and this past Saturday was the first time when schedules and finances converged so I could do so. And I don't want to sound like an ungrateful slob - Hank Dutt, the viola player for Kronos, came to Madison a few years back and performed a free concert that my daughter (then a viola student) and I attended. It was spectacular. If anyone has access to the recordings of that performance . . . I'm willing to pay . . .

So imagine the anticipation this past week as my wife and I had decided to go to the concert. I had seen some (most of them illegally recorded) live performances on youtube, but watching a performance on youtube and seeing a live performance in the flesh is just not the same thing. I went with high expectations.

And they were met!

The set was spartan: four chairs and easels on a bare stage. A black curtain hung behind them, lit from underneath by colored lights, with the occasional design sprayed up onto the curtain - abstract, nothing too representational, nothing symbolic. The focus was on the music, not the visuals.

The first piece was "Good Medicine" from Salome Dances for Peace, composed by Terry Riley. This is the trademark sort of Kronos piece, full of odd measures, frequently changing time signatures, atonality, and virtuoso playing on all four instruments. The title belies the dark tenor of the music, something that I truly like about their work. This is an angular piece, but philosophical in an existential way.

Next was Laurie Anderson's "Flow". This was my wife's favorite piece of the night, and one of the most enjoyable for me, as well. An ethereal, beautiful piece that, well, flowed from the various instruments like some kind of musical nectar. It was soothing, but not narcotic, a piece that simultaneously comforted the soul and grabbed your mind's attention by the shirt collar.

Komitas' "Groung" and Vladimir Martynov's "The Beatitudes" followed. Both wonderful pieces that led to one of the most exceptional pieces of the night, Mary Kouyoumdjian's "Bombs of Beirut".

"Bombs" began with narratives by people who had lived through Lebanon's civil war, some of them waxing nostalgic about what Beirut was before the war, others recounting events during the war, and yet others bemoaning the loss of the city's soul after the war. These narratives continued throughout the piece, with the composition ranging from bizarre atonality to a beautiful Lebanese dance piece, and then descending into stark screeches and howls that portrayed the hell-on-earth that was Lebanon during the civil war. The piece ended with a recording of actual bombings within the city that crescendoed so loudly that I had to wonder if people outside of the theater didn't think that an act of terror was occurring between the walls. The theater went dark, and silence took over. It took a while for the audience to realize that the piece was actually over - shell shock had taken hold of us, if only temporarily.

After an intermission, things lightened up significantly. "Elvis Everywhere," a whimsical piece played over the voices of several Elvis impersonators, opened the second half. "Last Kind Words," composed by Geeshie Wiley, was next. This was originally written as a piece that was used to sell cabinet record players built in Wisconsin (!) back in the 1930s. Of course, Kronos wouldn't be Kronos if they didn't do something that shattered genre conventions, so they played their arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton's "Dead Man Blues". Charles Mingus beautiful and profound "Children's Hour of Dream" was next, with Dan Becker's "Carrying the Past," a piece inspired by the composer's finding a 78 rpm recording of his grandfather's band that had been discovered by the family.

That was supposed to be the end of the concert, but after the house-shaking applause, they played not one, not two, not three, but four encores. I honestly don't recall what they all were, though one was "A Thousand Thoughts" and one was, I believe, from "Pieces of Africa," that recording that first drew me in to the Kronos Quartet's music.

I've not done the evening justice. If I were to try to really explain the emotional and intellectual depth of the music, I would never finish my next novel. Words really cannot relate the beauty of the music. You need to go listen to it yourself, so do what you must to hear the Kronos Quartet live. In lieu of that, give a listen to their recordings, but prepare for a long journey!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Art of American Book Covers: 1875-1930

The Art of American Book Covers: 1875-1930The Art of American Book Covers: 1875-1930 by Richard Minsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Immediately following on my reading of the fantastic tome The Library: A World History, I set about reading Minsky's The Art of American Book Covers: 1875 - 1930. Artistically, this era is one of my sweet spots, since I am a big fan of Pre-Raphaelite art and Art Nouveau. The book is full of carefully-curated photographs of book covers from that age. It reminds me of the few Sotheby's catalogs I have had the privilege of fingerprinting (it feels so naughty, yet so good to smudge a Sotheby's. You should try it sometime!). But the most fascinating thing about the book was the careful way in which Minsky draws out the salient features of each cover, explaining why the art is so fantastic and exactly how the cover designers went about creating such fine illusions. For me, it was a real education in design and composition.

Now, I'll say that my publisher was good enough to find a really great cover designer who created a really great cover. But I am incredibly jealous of the pieces featured in this book. There are dozens of absolutely gorgeous covers, but my favorites have to be the 1881 Houghton, Mifflin and Company's edition of Mr. Bodley Abroad and the 1880 Dodd, Mead and Co. edition of Aboard the Mavis (neither of which are on Goodreads, though they are on Booklikes, sans covers. You can see the covers as part of a montage here, near the middle.).

I'd like to say I waxed nostalgic, but seeing that the very last of these came out over 85 years ago, and I'm not yet quite that old, I'd be lying if I did.

Then again, aren't book covers, to some extent, about illusion, sleight-of-hand, and, dare I say it, deceit?

It's true - you can't judge a book by its cover. But we still try. Seems like we've been trying for a long time now.

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

The History of Luminous Motion

The History of Luminous MotionThe History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Simultaneously, some of the most beautiful, frustrating prose I've ever read. There's no doubt that Bradfield is a master craftsmen when it comes to narration. This work is ethereal, smart, and evocative of some of my favorite writers (Brian Evenson, Rikki Ducornet, etc). But when Mary Gaitskill blurbs that the work is "Painfully beautiful writing," she is speaking more truth than she knows.

The narrator, Phillip, travels through a sort of dreamscape seeking the "History of Luminous Motion". We're not quite told what that means per se, but if pressed up against the wall, I'd say it's the need to keep moving, the need to feel empowered, that seeking for the feeling that one has control over his own life, his own agency. Phillip, along with his friends Rodney and Beatrice, seek power from the world of the spirits to . . . well, this is where things break down. You see, Phillip is psychotic. Not figuratively speaking, he really is psychotic. So his goals are . . . elusive, even to himself. He doesn't quite know what he wants until he's almost "on top" of it. Maybe this is part of the idea of motion, the stumbling on from event to event, from thought to thought, with no real notion of where things are going to end up until you're "there" wherever "there" is.

And they end up in a bad place. A very bad place for everyone involved.

But, see, Phillip, again, is psychotic. He can't be trusted. So how much of this is real? Having finished the novel, I can't even tell you if his friends are real or not. The only two people that seem real at all are Phillip and his dad.

Then there's his mom. Phillip has an obsession with connecting and disconnecting with his mother throughout the novel. I often wondered if his mother was just a figment of his imagination, if she had died when he was younger, if she was a dead body in the house, if . . . if she was even real. And the connection to his mother (and subsequent disconnections and reconnections) are what drive much of the philosophy forward in this book.

I must note that this book is full of philosophy. It will make you think. You might not agree with Phillip's (or Rodney's or Beatrice's) philosophies, but they will make you think.

The writing is dark, not for those who are seeking comforting prose and happy scenes. Rather, Phillip plunges deep inside himself to the dark places in his skull and between his ribs, where he ruminates on life's meaning or tries to escape from it:

For the first time in my life I was utterly alone. I examined the desultory, overinflated images of naked women in men's magazines. I bought a harmonica which I liked to hold in my hand and imagine myself playing. Sometimes I danced alone in my room, listening to Bruce Springsteen or Joe Cocker on my Sony Walkman. I preferred Jim Beam, but I cultivated a taste for gin as well. I drank and danced until I grew dizzy and surfeited with a thick, swollen stomach, and collapsed on my unsheeted mattress, beating my feet in the air, watching the room swirl around. When it started swirling I knew I might throw up at any moment. That's what the plastic-lined trash bin was for. I lay very still and tried to make the room stop moving. It required an act of intense concentration. It was as if this swirling room was itself a mockery of movement, pulling up through my stomach while the alcohol moved through my blood, lifted into my brain and skull and sinuses. I wanted more to drink and tried to sit up. I knocked over bottles and ashtrays. The gray ashes spilled across my clothes and sheets. There were beer cans everywhere. Everything reeked of gin and cigarettes. The floor of my room looked like the high school parking lot. The world seemed to be growing darker and more desperate. "I don't know where I'm trying to go, Mom," I whispered, as if she could hear me. "Maybe I'm already there and I don't even know it."

Pretty dark stuff, but probably what you'd expect from a person struggling with psychosis.

Only Phillip is eight years old . . .

Yeah, eight years old.

Okay.

Whatever.

This is what held this novel back from brilliance. NO eight year old uses words like "surfeit" or "desultory," and, I'm sorry, but a little boy who drinks that much (and later is smoking weed and sniffing glue with abandon, along with his 12-year-old friend, Rodney) is going to survive long. "Well," you say, "an eight-year-old could handle alcohol in small quantities." Fine. How many eight-year-olds enjoy drinking enough that they'll drink until they vomit? Really?

And that vocabulary, that beautiful, erudite vocabulary - eight? There's no way. I was an advanced reader and writer at that age, and I couldn't have told you what "desultory" meant. I might have figure out "surfeit" from the context of the sentence, but to construct a sentence using that word? No way! And the book is full of examples like this. Chock full.

I just couldn't swallow it. Had the book ended on a big "reveal" that this was written by someone in their twenties, looking back on a childhood riddled with mental illness, I could forgive the indulgence. But no . . . just no! The book ends . . . okay, I won't spoil it for you. But it's not as I would have wished, not by a long shot, not in a way that makes a modicum of sense vis-a-vis all the previous narration.

My suspension of disbelief was further shot down by Phillip's Mom's words and actions. She excuses her son for an attempted murder, and possibly (though it's never quite clear) a genuine, honest to goodness homicide, just chalking it up to her inability to understand her son. What??? She stands and watches as he tortures the boy's own incoherent father, her husband, who is strapped to a chair with cables and extension cords, in an attempt to kill the man, and does nothing to intercede? WHAT?!?!? Then it turns out, if I read correctly, that Phillip's Mom is, contrary to the theories I held all along while reading the book, a real person.

This could have been a gem. Should have been a gem. There are still shining moments, but it's like a pearl necklace that's been dropped into an outhouse hole. Yes, there are rewards, and yes, it's beautiful and valuable, but do you really want to have to put up with the stink to get it? Your call . . .

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