Thursday, 31 March 2011

Book Review: Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland

I've been meaning to read Girlfriend in a Coma for a while; it's always on sale in HMV and Fopp for a few quid, has an interesting cover and of course, a title taken from a Smiths song.

This novel has a 3 part structure - part 1 is narrated in the first person by Richard whose girlfriend Karen ends up in a coma aged 17, part 2 moves into third person when she wakes up 17 years later, while part 3 moves into another first person narrative from a ghost named Jared.  Oh and the Apocalypse has happened. Confused?  Well I was, and still am.  Jared bookends the story.  We'll come back to him later.

I quite enjoyed the start - a bit of late '70s nostalgia and a suitably morbid premise, despite the OTT language in places.  In the first few pages we learn the December night air felt like 'the air of the Moon'; the city dreams of 'only what the embryo knows'; Richard and Karen were 'pumping like lions'; Richard 'thought of jewels being tossed off an ocean liner over the Marianas Trench'.  Err, what?

(PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD)

Karen falls into a coma rather than confront the vision of the future she sees.  Okay! This is my kind of stuff!  But things gradually become more slipshod.  The sudden change to third person was a bit off putting, but the change to Jared's narration was totally jarring.  I kept on thinking he was Richard, our initial narrator.  No surprise as their voice is exactly the same.  Who is this Jared anyway?  Some teenager who was friends with the main characters and died before the story begins.  He hovers over them, after the plague, touching them and giving them gifts, curing their ailments etc like some high school Virgin Mary in American football shoulder pads. Throw in some ridiculous and pretentious mumbo-jumbo and a million pop culture references (yes I can see you like The Smiths).  And then it was all a dream.  Sort of.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

I've just finished Justin Cronin's The Passage - thank the Lord.  You know when you've been reading a book for too long and you just want to move onto another story?  Well it was getting to that stage.  I'm normally a quick reader but this behemoth had me going for about 3 weeks.

You've probably heard of Cronin's epic vampire pop culture meets literary novel which prompted a bidding war before it was even finished and will be given cinematic treatments in the near future.  But is it any good?

1. THE PRACTICALITIES

I've gotta be honest, this is not an easy read.  In the literal sense.  It's just so bloody big.  Now I've tackled big books before - your James Joyces and Tolkeins and Kings, but this was just plain painful.  My hands are still aching even now.  The strange thing is my copy is around 760 pages long - that's shorter than Stephen King's The Stand (at least I think so - the pages are larger) but the actual book is so big it's awkward and resulted in a bruised nose when I fell asleep reading it in bed. You certainly can't put it in your handbag.  I feel that Cronin may be personally responsible for boosting Kindle sales.  But of course, that doesn't really matter, it's what's inside that counts as my teachers always told me, which leads me onto...

2. THE GOOD

I have to agree with the many reviews I've seen which say the first 250 odd pages are gripping.  We meet an interesting cast of characters - Amy, Wolgast, Carter - and Cronin gives us decent character development.  This is the part of the novel which covers the outbreak of the virus and how a kind of Apocalypse came to pass - maybe just in America, but who knows?  The relationship between Amy and Wolgast is developed and works well to hold it together.  Sister Lacey too.

3.  THE BAD

Which brings me onto the next section - 100 years later.  Now quite a few reviewers on Amazon say they don't like this bit as suddenly finding all those characters you've been spending time with for the past 250 pages are dead(ish).  I don't actually have a problem with that.  If the book's going for an epic, sweeping history, dislocating feel, then it works.  However Cronin introduces too many new characters in too short a space of time.  I'm still not sure who some of them are, and I wasn't sure who I was supposed to side with.  It was only about 70 pages before the end that I realised who the "hero" was.  Not that a book can't have lots of heroes, but this one is evidently more important and I'm not really sure why.  Other characters die and I don't really care.  Who are you again?

4. THE UGLY

So there are some plot holes and confusion.  But to be fair, it was only when I read the end and thought "Hmmm, that doesn't really seem like a proper ending," and investigated further that I discovered it's the first in a trilogy (note to self - must buy Kindle).  So some bits left hanging may be resolved later

But there are some stylistic aspects I find a bit UGLY.  For example, Cronin likes to trick the reader.  Oh no! S/he's dead!! How sad.  Cut to different scene.  Cut back.  Oh it's okay, s/he's not, and here's why.  Also as I ploughed through, my poor aching hands forced into vampire-like claws, I noticed a few bits of flamboyant vocabulary peeping through.  Vampires "ascend" and "descend", people "arise" from sleep and so forth.  And I'm still not really 100% sure why (MINOR PLOT SPOILER AHEAD) when the Colony party wake up that party of vamps in the library they don't just run out into the sunshine of the Californian desert.  Instead they go and hide in a shopping mall, with shade and those kind of dark spaces that vamps love.  But then the vamps seem to be able to move around in day a lot, just by keeping in the shade of trees - when it suits Cronin.  But I guess Spike and Angel did the same...maybe I'm just thinking a bit too much about this.

If I was going to grade it I'd give it a "C".  I'm hooked enough to want to read the rest when they come out (but on a Kindle) but I'm not under any illusions that this was the Holy Grail of a popular-literary mash up.  Now I'm going to go and massage my aching knuckles some more.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

[phantom kangaroo]

I've had my first poetry acceptance/publication this week - something I'm pretty excited about.  It's in an online magazine called Phantom Kangaroo which I've been reading for a little while now.  Initially the name grabbed me, but when I looked at the manifesto I knew it was the sort of publication that was right up my street:


Phantom Kangaroo is published on the 13th of each month, and features 13 poems by 13 poets.
We accept poems in any form, of any subject, or of any length, but favor is given to poetry in the shape of ghost sightings, horoscopes, obituaries (preferably yours), fortune cookie fortunes, tales of UFO abductions, and home-made love spells (preferably ones that work). 

It's run by poet Claudia Lamar - you can check out her work here:
http://claudialamar.com/

Anyway, here's a bit of background context about my poem 'A Ghost About Town'.  Last summer John (I work with him, he's an English teacher too at my college) kind of got me into this induced, heightened state of poetry writing.  He'd give me some material (a quote, newspaper article or myth) and I'd produce a poem, and quite often he'd also produce one and we'd compare.  This one came about from a quote from Robert Benchley, the American humorist, about ghosts.  It got me thinking about America and Europe and our differing ideas about/sense of history.  Also at the forefront of my mind were ideas from New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt (Hamlet in Purgatory) - hence my slight manipulation of a Shakespeare quote in there.  So all these ideas slopped around my head for a while and this was the result.
Here's the link, but please do check out the rest of the issue.
http://www.phantomkangaroo.com/issue-no-5/a-ghost-about-town.html