The Lost Machine

Author and artist: Richard A. Kirk

Type: Fiction, novella

Published: 2010

I read it: March 2016


I read the free online version of this book at Weird Fiction Review.

Here’s a nifty little tale that is set in a past/future of uncertain orientation. It starts in a crumbling jail with one Lumsden Moss able to walk out after his keepers have died, and he quickly bumps into Irridis, a super cool character with a masked face and little mirror fragments that orbit his head that can be ordered to inflict vicious wounds and then be retracted like reusable bullets.

So there’s your “weird fiction” genre box checked.

The story expands a bit to include artificial intelligence, decaying cities, witchcraft (of a sort), and old feuds. Yet it remains mostly compact, focusing on Moss and Irridis traveling as an unlikely duo to retrace Moss’ past actions and their consequences. Along the way, he muses on cages of a less material type: “Life, he thought, is a series of nested prisons. Escape one, and emerge into another.”

Kirk’s story is supplemented by his own sketches. While appealing, I wish there were more of them. In the interview attached to this story, the author/artist offers an intriguing opinion about how art and text should work together:

Illustrations are an invitation to the reader to visualize, by providing a pause for the reader to reflect on the story. They are a part of the design that makes reading a physical book a visual pleasure. For this reason, the placement and style of illustrations in a book is very important. The art should flow with the story and not be a jarring interruption. … You can read the story without them, but their presence somehow opens up space around the narrative for the reader to occupy.

Kirk’s illustrations would work more effectively in a traditionally bound book, and it sounds like that very thing is on the way. He’s on track to publish a full novel which may feature characters from The Lost Machine, and I look forward to occupying that narrative and its opened spaces.


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Posted by on May 6, 2016 in Novels


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Fox 8

Author: George Saunders

Type: Fiction, short story (Kindle single)

Published: 2013

I read it: March 2016

fox 8

Our book club just finished discussing Tenth of December, and someone commented about how the medium of the short story encourages artistic ambition when it comes to form. Saunders is all about form and the lyricality of language (not to the detriment of emotional impact, thankfully) which is further evidenced by a conversation between him and David Sedaris. He talks about following the story where it leads, and how avenues and detours can hinge on a single sentence, word, or syllable.

“Fox 8” is a letter written by a fox. It’s a completely misspelled, completely charming tract from an animal who discovers a “most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music!” Well, Mr. Saunders is in full command of his skills, because what he creates sounds amazing and prety and grate.

Plotwise, the story is kind of a super tight Watership Down, about a lower mammal coming to terms with encroaching humans. The poor fox has a childlike outlook, full of optimism and wonder (“Yumans! Always intresting.”), which inevitably sets him up for crushing despair. He basically wants to know wtf is up with human contradictions. You can see some of Saunders’ pet philosophies slipping in here, like when the fox wants to make peace with bears (bares) and “give them a speech about being nise.” A similar line popped up in “Tenth of December” when a dying character was regretting that he’d never be able to give his speech on compassion. Saunders did give that speech.

I read this story twice, because after the linguistic ticks lodged into my brain I wanted to keep hearing that music. Not to mention letting the beautiful and devastating realizations sink in, which can make you float on a sunny day or pop and descend so heavily. Sometimes it all hinges on a werd.


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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in Short stories


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The Girl on the Train

Author: Paula Hawkins

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: February 2016


They kept saying it was the new Gone Girl, so what else is there to do? Read it and compare it to Gone Girl.

The story has its similarities, to be sure. Marital dysfunction is the primary driver. Multiple narrators keep the reader guessing. Things go from unsettling to pretty dark. It’s all a big whodunit wrapped in blood and lies.

The main difference would be the protagonist’s alcoholism. This adds a nice layer of reality to the character of Rachel. You’ve got to feel sorry for her—jobless, nearly friendless, and forced to pass her old London neighborhood on her daily train ride. She’s a voyeur who obsesses about her ex and his new wife, as well as a seemingly idyllic pair of neighbors. Because she can’t move on in life, she gets wrapped up in other people’s dark domestic dramas.

It’s a fine premise, but I can’t say the book held my attention very well. Billed as a page-turner, it became the opposite due to the three narrators feeling so same-y. Megan and Anna, though ostensibly unique, feel like they sprout from the same narrator. And that’s my main issue: one of narration, of point of view.

For better or worse, I subscribe to the David Morrell school of thought about first-person perspective. In Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, he lays down strict limitations: “Not many stories are suited to the first person. Form should follow function. Viewpoint should have something to do with the narrative’s theme.” That is, the first person angle can’t be “all surface.” It has to cover deeper layers.

Hawkins is half-justified in her approach. Her function is for Rachel to be a drunk who blacks out. So there’s some mystery to how the character recalls events, hence the form of first-person. But why are the other two characters written that way? One of them goes so far as to admit, on the topic of keeping a diary, “I could never write down the things I actually feel or think or do.” Yet this is exactly what the character is doing! It’s all there in the “I” statements.

One last critique before I let this book off the hook (and it’s a book plenty of people will enjoy, which is fantastic). The damn title. Okay, so we have this tiresome “girl” pattern in publishing, and that’s just something to live with until it fades away. I doubt authors have a whole lot of say when someone suggests this angle for marketing. But if this drudgery is necessary, at the very least is it too much to ask to have “girl” be accurate? A girl should be an actual girl. There are some who get it right (The Girl in the Road) and others who cause the cringe (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Guess which category this book falls into? She’s a woman on the train, people. It’s not that hard.

And… scene. Black me out.


Posted by on April 22, 2016 in Novels


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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Author: Sherman Alexie

Artist: Ellen Forney

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2007

I read it: February 2016


The basic premise is best summed up by the narrator at the beginning of chapter two: “I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation.”

Junior has had enough of this lifestyle and the sad lives of those around him, so he gets it in his head to attend the mostly-white high school in the nicer nearby town. In this way he becomes a “part-time Indian,” who is not fully accepted in either community. During the school days he is known as Arnold, an extreme outcast. Is his diary “absolutely true”? Does he really counterbalance embarrassing moments with keen insights and dramatic gestures, like getting a sort-of girlfriend or winning over the local jocks? It’s a stunning title with a lot of implications for its contents.

Junior/Arnold’s journey is an example of what blurbs proclaim but which is rarely true: a story that will make you laugh and cry. I really do think I choked up and chuckled out loud multiple times. Arnold’s life is sad as hell, and the work is a distillation of all the topics that Sherman Alexie has covered in his adult writings: reservation life, alcoholism, depression, generationality, culture, Indian-ness, and the weight of death. The teenage protagonist navigates these realities with in-the-moment wit:

It was lunchtime and I was standing outside by the weird sculpture that was supposed to be an Indian. I was studying the sky like I was an astronomer, except it was daytime and I didn’t have a telescope, so I was just an idiot.

A half-page later comes an even better joke, but it’s better to discover it for yourself. Big realizations can also take the reader by surprise, like when Arnold reflects on why he draws cartoons (perfectly executed by Ellen Forney):

I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world. I use them to make fun of the world. To make fun of people. And sometimes I draw people because they’re my friends and family. And I want to honor them.

This is a quick read packed full of variations on truth, whether absolute or not. Another one of its magic tricks is surely the goal of most art: to reach universality by traveling roads of specificity. Arnold’s journey may seem one-of-a-kind, but it’s achingly human all the same.

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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Novels


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The God of Small Things

Author: Arundhati Roy

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1997

I read it: March 2016


There are some books that haunt your shelves. You know the type. Not all of your unread books fit this mold. I’m talking specifically about the ones that you know you should read, for a reason other than “it’s on my shelf and I haven’t read it yet.” I was initially aware of The God of Small Things because it was a favorite of a good reader friend of mine. The copy I have, water-stained and wavy, might even have previously belonged to her. I can’t remember at this point.

This book also has notoriety working in its favor. Aside from winning the fancy awards, it remains the only novel by Arundhati Roy. From what I hear, she focused her subsequent efforts on non-fiction and political causes. Also, the story fits the category of the type that begs to be told, one that has its own legs and soul and just needed the right vessel to get put to page. It’s not that Roy wouldn’t have the ability to crank out more quality fiction; it’s just a question of whether she already told her one bright burning story, and anything after wouldn’t have the same aura of feeling essential.

Most of the action takes place in India in 1969, and most of the plot revolves around the tragic death of a young girl. This is revealed within a few pages, and then the reader circles through several character perspectives before discovering how and why everything happened. The mistakes made are not the type that can be easily atoned for:

Some things come with their own punishments. Like bedrooms with built-in cupboards. They would all learn more about punishments soon. That they came in different sizes. That some were so big they were like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. You could spend your whole life in them, wandering through dark shelving.

The novel is dense, a prime candidate for English class discussions. It’s also incredibly tactile, so intense and so there. You know that old writing trick of making sure there is at least one of the five senses triggered on every page? Roy seems to do it in every other sentence.

And the sentences are masterful. A lot of the language is lensed through two young twins, Rahel and Estha: educated but fatherless, gripped in a strange family history which is itself trapped in India’s achingly outdated caste system. The societal background rules guide each character directly and indirectly:

History’s fiends returned to claim them. To re-wrap them in its old, scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived. Where the Love Laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

Phrases like these, as well as “Things can change in a day,” function as this book’s “So it goes.” They reach out and grab the reader’s chin to face them squarely toward the page. A sense of dread follows and the reader becomes another inevitable player in history’s crazy dances, a god of small things who must affect and be affected by the story’s implications.

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Posted by on April 8, 2016 in Novels


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American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2001

I read it: February 2016

american gods

It’s difficult to discuss Neil Gaiman without the spectre of American Gods looming over the conversation. He has a lot of other intriguing titles, but this one gets the designation of quintessential Gaiman, the magnum opus. Is it?

Yes, it pretty much is.

American Gods is a fantasy tale, but a surprisingly grounded one. The protagonist, Shadow, is released from prison only to find that his true love is dead. He gets enlisted as a kind of sidekick in a supernatural plot. But he still has to drive beat-up cars and participate in money-making schemes to get by. (Think Murakami, and the way his characters still take time to make sandwiches while dealing with askew realities.)

The book is a couple of other things. For one, it’s a road trip story, with echoes of The Stand. It’s fully  American, obsessed with geography and roadside attractions. The story attempts to get to the heart of why the various old gods are so dispersed and soon to be forgotten, and why some new gods threaten to overtake the citizens’ psyche. Here’s a slice that explains something that’s been on my mind in recent years:

“San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.” … “They may share certain cultrual signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment—it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.”

It’s impossible for there to just be one America. It’s too diverse in subcultures and histories. Which brings up the next thing this book is, above all else: a tale of immigrants (reiterated by the author in an interview at the back). It uses the concept of “gods” effectively, as colorful, mostly minor deities brought with people from the old countries. Each god reflects something about human trajectories, and exists only so long as he or she is invoked. Despite the overtly fantastical elements, there is a lot of serious exploration of human history going on.

And to cap it off, even the supernatural craziness somehow comes together. Any book of this length can open up wondrous doors and make vague promises, but it’s a tall order to have everything cohere. The gods survive on belief, but “belief without blood only takes us so far.” So the stakes have to stay visceral for the 600-page conjuring trick to work. And I think it does. It’s mythology for the modern era. It’s pure Gaiman.


Posted by on April 1, 2016 in Novels


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A God in Ruins

Author: Kate Atkinson

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: January 2016

a god in ruins

For a long time, during the war, he hadn’t believed in a future—it had seemed like an absurd proposition—and now that he was living in this “afterward,” as he had thought of it during the war, it somehow seemed like an even more absurd proposition.

Teddy is the titular god in ruins (a line from Whitman), a man who can never reclaim innocence because of his past. He was one of the numerous young people sent to serve in World War II, and one of the few who survived it. A lot of the book is about this post-war survival. Not in the standard PTSD sense, but in the simply trying to live a life sense.

Atkinson’s chapters merge and veer with a dreamlike quality, the characters constantly bombarded by memory and snippets of quotations. Teddy reflects on his youth, which he shared with Ursula, the protagonist from Life After Life. Though the books are experiments in the same vein, Atkinson wisely keeps Teddy’s sister at a distance here, restricting the overlap to a few knowing winks for readers of the previous book. (“Ursula’s spirit was freighted with the grief of history.” There’s an understatement.)

The war itself doesn’t really come to the fore until about the halfway mark, and then the author really shines with her displays of urgency, place, and psychology. Just as Life After Life put us on the ground with the post-raid clean-up crews, A God in Ruins lifts us into the shaky, bolts-and-oil flying contraptions of the bomber teams themselves. Here is a novel with a bibliography, and I can’t imagine a more successful example of putting the reader into a specific historical scenario. Teddy is one of the multitudes caught in a nightmare, his brain retrained to focus on the parts at hand so as not to let the whole overwhelm him. Only much later in life can he examine who the soldiers really were:

They were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.

Really makes you rethink that cover art. And that is Atkinson’s gift: a constant thinking and rethinking, tinkering and retinkering. The great war looms over everything in Teddy’s life, and comes to define how he interacts with his difficult daughter, Viola, and his often mysterious wife, Nancy. It all swirls and circles into place beautifully. And so painfully. Why do we read books that just underline how we are all, in various ways, birds thrown against a wall? I don’t know. Sometimes our hearts can barely handle life, then in an insane twisting we are drawn to art that we can also barely handle.

Or maybe it’s that Kate Atkinson is just that good. When a modern master is in control, we can’t turn away from the beautiful carnage.





Posted by on March 25, 2016 in Novels


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