Young God

I don’t think I’ve read a book as troubling yet gripping as this one before.

“Young God” by Katherine Faw Morris is a very short book that is anything but ‘light reading.’ It was recommended to me by a friend on the basis it included “Poverty, terror, hard drugs, young teen prostitutes, the general scum of humanity,” and it certainly lived up to those qualities.

It’s a book that isn’t scared to just be extremely blunt in dealing with generally taboo topics.  It’s designed to  make you feel uncomfortable yet compelled to read further and see how many more boundaries can be broken in the short ride of this story.

It’s a book with such beautiful prose that the shocking subject matter is most definitely earned.  To give an idea of the shocking matter, the protagonist, a 13 yr old girl named Nikki, within the first ten pages, sees her mother die then has sex with her now-dead mother’s boyfriend.  Then steals his drugs and his car and drives to her father’s place.

The whole ride is only about 22000 words.  It’s a single-sitting read, but it’s so gripping and gritty that when I closed the back cover I felt like I had come out of something with far more time investment anyway.  And that’s because this novella carried no less emotional devastation than most ten book series.

Despite the short word length, there was no scarcity of things happening.  Katherine managed to evoke characters and events in as few words as possible, sometimes having only a single sentence on a page to cover an important emotional change.

There is no word out of place, nothing extraneous and nothing missing.  It is exactly right and exactly what it needs to be.  The writing is simple but gorgeous, minimal but evocative.  The characters are fleshed out in such interesting ways, with no dull 2-page character description slogs to read through.  Instead, she shows the characters through their most important actions and traits.

Dialogue is phenomenal.  There’s so much personality in everything characters say.

This book is a hurricane of depravity and fears nothing.  And it’s such a short read, if you’re on the fence about it, you may as well go ahead.

Be forewarned though: “Young God” is full of scum scraped from the bottom of the cesspit.  People easily discomfitted by topics such as “teenage prostitution” should not read it.

5/5 for it’s brevity and expert craft with words, and the lack thereof.

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

Not long ago, in earlier 2015, I attended a writing festival where I ran into and met the author of this novel (Steven Galloway).  Now, I kind of knew him from before.  I go to a university which he teaches at, where I’ve taken many creative writing courses, so I’ve had my fair share of close encounters with him.  But I had never actually spoken to him.  In fact, the closest encounter we had as two people dialoguing was when Steven sent me an email praising my work for being so beautiful and wanting to pay me to let him mentor me rejecting my sorry ass from the Creative Writing major at the university I go to/he teaches at.

But I digress.

At this writing festival in earlier 2015 there were writing workshops in the day followed by a gala in the evening.  Steven was one of the guest readers at the gala (he did a fantastic reading).  After the workshops, a friend and I headed to the theatre the gala was to take place in, and spotted Steven standing in the lobby looking confused.  We said hi and after a short conversation learned that he was trying to get into the theatre for soundcheck.  He sped off quickly after that short exchange to figure things out, leaving my friend and me to wait for the theatre doors to open for the audience.  We had a while to wait.

And there was a liquor store nearby.

So needless to say we got hammered for the gala (cue a montage of shotgunning beers in bathroom stalls and mixing vodka into green tea from a vending machine).  Moving onwards, though.

The gala began, and Steven’s reading was near the beginning.  We sat in the back and listened intently.  He was reading the prologue of his book: “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” and part way through reading the curtains pulled back to reveal a cellist playing Albinoni’s Adagio (I’ll talk about later), which complimented Steven’s reading beautifully.  The whole affair was quite moving.  I remember sitting there, not even listening to the actual words themselves, but just the sounds of them, as dictated by Steven, being carried by the swelling of the cello.  If I were to make a metaphor, I would talk about a dock on an ocean, with the rhythmic, punctuating creaking of the wood rising and falling with the waves being the words and the general sounds of water rolling in and softly falling against the sand as the cello.  Very complimentary to each other.  Very beautiful.  And I sat there silent and still until the words stopped, and the ocean threw one last wave against the shore then faded to nothing.

Then I took a sip of my vodka-infused green tea and everything went back to normal.

At the intermission we spotted Steven sitting a few rows up and, as two belligerently drunk youths are prone to do, approached him and probably, overbearingly so, talked at him far too aggressively.  I think we may have spooked him a little, to be honest.  We were excited to chat with him though, and we were both spouting slightly incoherent things that, when said together, became extremely incoherent to him.  I remember him being very taken aback, probably completely unprepared for the situation we put him in.  But he tried his best to answer our questions, and even signed two books my friend had brought.

And for that, I respect Steven.  I don’t know if he respects us or even likes us in the slightest, or if we just creeped him out.  Probably the latter.  But he seemed like a very nice and genuine dude, and judging by that prologue, an amazing writer too.  So I finally decided that I needed to actually read something from him.

Skip ahead half a year and I finally get around to reading it.

“The Cellist of Sarajevo” follows the lives of three characters living in war-torn Sarajevo during a specific, small time period.  Sarajevo is under siege, nobody can leave and nobody can enter (for the most part).  Electricity isn’t dependable, clean water can only be accessed from a few locations, food is scarce and expensive and, worst of all, the hills around Sarajevo are infested with snipers and at any moment a civilian of the city could be crossing a street then just fall down dead with a bullet through the head.  Mortars rain from the sky almost endlessly.

There is one man, a cellist, who spends his days playing music to try and hold onto hope.  One day, as starving citizens line up to buy bread from a market just outside his apartment, a mortar falls, killing 22 people and wounding over 70 others.  Every day for the next 22 days the Cellist walks out to the crater in the street where the mortar fell, at 4 PM, and plays Albinoni’s Adagio, one day for each civilian who died in that line.

The cellist is not one of the three protagonists, however he is a symbol and an idea and provokes thought to all three of them, and his days of playing in the street set the time period for the narrative.

The three protagonists are: Kenan, a father and husband who needs to get water for his family; Dragan, an old man who works at a bakery to supply food; Arrow, a sniper in Sarajevo trying to repel the snipers on the hill.  And that’s where I stop talking about the plot.

Each of these characters has their own struggles.  Their external struggles to survive, but also their internal struggles to define who they are to themselves and what Sarajevo is to them.  The cellist is the factor that spurs them to rethink a lot of things and by the end of the novel each character has changed their outlook, each character is filled with a little more hope and a little more definition in who they are and what Sarajevo means to them.  To this end, the narrative becomes a dissection and analysis of these characters’ thoughts, emotions, and actions, as well as those of the civilians in Sarajevo around them.  At it’s core, this novel is that.  This novel is an examination of the human spirit in bleak times, such as a siege where you could literally die at any moment.  It shows how people can falter, but it also shows how people can defy expectations and rise above their innate fears to do what is important to them.

And risk the consequences for doing so.

Now, I specifically used the words “dissect” and “analysis” and “examination” because those clinical terms are in themselves descriptive of the writing style used in this novel.

Which carries some pros and cons.

The writing style is perfect for the prologue.  It works well to quickly paint a scene in my mind of war-torn Sarajevo, and sets up the cellist character.  However, I was not expecting that style to continue through the entire novel.  But it did.  While not entirely bad, I find the style failed to connect me with the characters.  If any of the three protagonists suddenly died, I wouldn’t miss them in the least.  The prose always kept me cleanly distanced from them.  The cellist i didn’t want to die simply because of what he represented to the people, and Arrow I wanted to live based solely on the fact that she possessed skills that could greatly assist the defenders.  But other than that, I did not feel very much specific empathy for the characters.

And yet I wouldn’t want the prose changed.  It achieves what I believe it set out to do, to dissect and examine and assess and rationalize the human spirit, to understand it.  Plus, despite not being attached to the protagonists, the prose was beautifully executed and the rhythm and sound of it carried me through.  I couldn’t put it down.  I wasn’t attached to the characters, but I was interested in their next move, their next thought, and what they had to say.

One of my favourite set of lines comes on page 183, a set which succinctly and effectively represents the beauty of Steven’s writing style in this novel:

“In the hills behind him a shell falls.  He hears the rattle of automatic gunfire, and then another shell falls.  It’s a language, a conversation of violence.”

Take from it what you will.

As beautiful as the prose is, there are a few places where it steps into ugly territory.  Specifically, instances where a character did something, thought something, or said something, and a line immediately followed saying “Arrow was surprised by what she did/thought/said.”  I don’t like it when characters get surprised by their own thoughts even once, but these people are getting surprised left, right, and centre.  It’s as if the characters are each really two entities, the body being it’s own and acting on its own, and their consciousness just kind of there, watching their bodies like a movie.

And I hate lines like that.  They’re just unnecessary, mostly untrue, and it makes me think of really badly written genre fiction.  Yes, you can do something that surprises yourself, especially an action, such as a reflex you didn’t think you’d have, and perhaps you can say things you didn’t intend to, and you can daydream then suddenly realize how far your mind has wandered, but how often does it happen where you’re literally surprised by all those things as if all those things are not you and you are a consciousness separate from your body and your thoughts.  People don’t stop every 5 steps while walking down a sidewalk, totally aghast at what they started thinking.

Perhaps this is just a pet peeve, but I hate that in writing.  I hate a character “being surprised by something they themselves just did.”  If anything, be more specific.  Maybe say they are proud they said something so intelligent, or they regret having let their mind wander to that thought.

Not surprised.

STFU with surprised.

I don’t know if this specific thing in writing as been named, but I’m going to call it the Avatar Complex from now on.  People are really only characters in a video game and their consciousness is the player sitting behind the screen.  They only have so much agency in the avatar’s actions and no matter what they do in-game, the avatar may do something in a cutscene they did not know or think he/she could do and their consciousness, the players, are surprised.

Therefore: Avatar Complex.

And FUCK the Avatar Complex.

Aside from that the prose strayed into some pretty cliche descriptions.  One in particular I see all the time in bad fantasy:

“A teenage boy who isn’t old enough to shave.”

That’s an extremely ambiguous description and I think a very arbitrary point of reference.  This guy could be anywhere from 10 to well over 20 years old.  It’s not like every boy in existence just wakes up on their 16th birthday with a full beard and moustache and that marks them as “old enough to shave.”  Some people (like me) had to start shaving in grade 8.  Others didn’t need to shave until years after high school.  It’s a very cliche description and just not apt at all.

While we’re on the note of bad fantasy, if you read this book, pay attention to the first chapter with Arrow.  It describes her and sets her up as an OP character in much the same way a bad fantasy novel sets up the “toughest mercenary in the land” type shit.  Not terrible, but I had a laugh while reading it.

Aside from the occasional poorly chosen descriptions, and the excessive surprise characters feel of themselves, though, this novel is amazing.  I read it all in two sittings.  The writing is beautiful and for the most part intelligent.  There are some very tense moments where Steven portrays danger to the characters in very real, very visceral ways.  It’s in those few moments that he really pulls the reader into the character and for those short times I felt complete empathy for the characters.  And the whole thing just flows so organically.

If you’re a fan of the kind of literary fiction that isn’t excessively introspective and ends up just dragging it’s feet to every little plot point or realization, but a fan of intelligent, well-written fiction nonetheless, then I would recommend this book.

overall score would have to be 8/10.  the few hiccups in the writing I mentioned above are where it lost marks, everything else was great.

As always, thanks for reading 🙂

Good Omens

Here we go, another book I really liked.  I feel like I’m betraying the “cynicism” aspect I tried to sell myself as, but lately I’ve just been consuming things I like.  And that’s mostly because lately I haven’t been reading the current (mostly) YA novels that the masses gush about (like John Green books or all those dystopian hunger games/divergent/matched series), and neither have I been reading shitty boring fantasy that the entire internet defines as the finest fantasy ever written (Brandon Sanderson books, Patrick Rothfuss – side note, Patrick Rothfuss is one of my nemeses* and it is one of my dreams to publicly roast him).  Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy and YA books (I DID enjoy Abundance of Katherines by John Green for example).  In fact, the only genre I’m biased against is the Mystery genre simply because I find the narrative is told in such a contrived fashion to withhold information and try to force the reader to keep reading to reveal secrets, rather than just being a compelling narrative – especially if there is a reveal at the end that ensues with a 50 page long explanation by the villain of how every detail in his plan came to fruition except where these specific things got in his way to the main character.  However, a lot of the genre books that become supremely popular, not all but a lot, I find are terribly written excuses of literature and so my cynicism grows from a distrust of the general population’s consensus on “good books”.  So, now that I’ve defended my cynicism, let’s move on to me talking about how much I love Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman these days.

*All my nemeses are as follows:

– Patrick Rothfuss

– Harry Potter fangirls**

– 3/4 length sleeves

**I actually like the Harry Potter books, but the fanbase sickens me.

Terry Pratchett was an amazing writer.  He died fairly recently, but before that he managed to thrust out a legion of books, most based in his fantasy land called “Discworld” (about 40 novels in that setting).  his books are well known for their dry humour, constant wit, and, formwise, using footnotes in his work as an extra source of humour, but used well in a way that spoke to the reader and added to the narrative.  If you have not read him, most any book in his Discworld series is a good place to start.  My first was “Going Postal,” and I loved it, so potentially pick up that one as your first.

Neil Gaiman is another amazing writer, well-known for his graphic novel series “Sandman,” and for his novels such as “American Gods.”  His works tend to incorporate a lot of biblical and mythological aspects.  He spins gods and angels and demons into interesting, human characters.  My first read of his was “American Gods” and I would say it’s a good place to start if you have not read him before.  Another good place to start would be going straight for “Sandman.”

Good Omens was released 25 years ago.  Yikes, I’m a little late to this party, but hey, a party is a party and being late still means going.

The eponymous book of this review grew out of a 6-page or so short story that Neil wrote and sent to Terry claiming he “could not figure out how to end it.  A year later, Terry brought that story back up saying he didn’t know how to end it, but knew what would happen next.  From there they worked together, adding more and more, sharing, discussing, writing.  And so a brilliant novel was born.

The plot centers around a slew of characters facing the possible End Times of the world, the Armageddon.  An angel and a demon discuss the nature of good and evil and whether it is intrinsic or not, and both come to the conclusion they prefer the mix of both (human) over the absolute of either.  They don’t want the human world to end.  The AntiChrist is born and on his 11th birthday destined to bring about Armageddon and initiate the war between Heaven and Hell.  Anathema, a descendant of a seer from hundreds of years ago is trying to decode the prophecies left to her family and prevent the end of the world.

There are a slew of other characters, some with practically no impact on the plot, some carrying a more central role.  But the gist of the plot is that Armageddon is coming, and both Terry and Neil have twisted this biblical event into something very modern, and very new.

The plot is not very heavy in the book, actually.  When you think of tightly-woven stories where everything happening makes sense or was foreshadowed or lead into, this book does not capture the definition.  There were a few plot moments that didn’t make any sense to me.  The story is more centered on the characters, though, and how they grow and change and act.  Most fantasies will find a way to have every element, every character, be essential to the climax.  This book does not care for that.  It care’s for the characters and the humour, and not so much an epic plot.  For example, one character, a witchfinder whose purpose in life is to find and exterminate witches and demons, and one point encounters the main Angel character.  Thinking he is a demon, the witchfinder approaches the angel.  At one pivotal moment, while the witchfinder is pointing his fingers at the angel, the angel accidentally steps into a heavenly light that pulls him back to heaven.  For the rest of the novel, the witchfinder thinks his hand is the ultimate weapon against demons and that by pointing at them he can defeat them.

In an epic fantasy novel, that would probably turn out true and in the climax he’d face the Devil himself and use his hand to defeat the Devil.

In Good Omens, although he thinks he is going to fight and defeat the Devil with his hands, that encounter never happens and he doesn’t get a chance to use his “power” ever again.

He’s still prevalent in the plot, he’s still present, but that one pivotal moment, which changes how he sees the world and changes a little how he acts, does not transcend into a larger resolution in the climax.

And that in itself is spinning genre tropes on their heads.

The characters are all strongly written and, if not essential to the plot, are essential to the narrative.  Essential to the humour and the commentary on the book’s subject.

See, this book is a good example that writing far outweighs plot.  Plots are a dime a dozen.  You can be Brandon Sanderson and think up the most convoluted plot and world with the most mind-melting climaxes that twists everything together in unexpected, unprecedented ways, but nobody is going to enjoy it if the writing is shit.

Or, you can be Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and have a basic premise, a plot that kinda falls flat on its own, but is filled with such creative ideas, humour, and good writing that the plot doesn’t even matter.  The characters and the story come to the forefront.

Overall, I’d say this is a definite read before the world actually ends, so get on it ASAP if you haven’t read it before.  Of course, if you haven’t read both the authors before, it’s still a great novel, but I would suggest reading at least one book from each author first, to give you a sense of their styles, before you see them combined.

Thanks, as always, for reading 🙂