Four college boys — Eli, the scholarly Jew; Timothy, the debauched WASP; Oliver, the ambitious Kansas farmboy; and Ned, the wanton homosexual — travel Arizona over Easter break to visit a mysterious monastery that promises the gift of eternal life. Such a gift can only come at a terrible price.
The first two-thirds of this book are a bit of a slog; the characters are all pretty despicable, with casual misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism sprinkled through their alternating first-person narrative chapters. The trip from their unnamed prestigious East Coast school to Arizona, by way of New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Phoenix, is a dull procession of sexual escapades and hours on the road, with bits of their personal histories told in flashback. Spending so much time inside the heads of these characters, particularly Timothy, is grueling.
Once at the House of Skulls, things pick up a bit. The monastery is indeed mysterious, and their days are spent learning to meditate, working in the fields that provide food to the isolated house, and listening to the history of the order, which may derive from some ancient Atlantean cult, or may simply be a mad undertaking by men whose brains have been addled by too much desert sun. The inevitable conclusion, which has been hinted at since the beginning, comes abruptly and violently, and the mysteries of the Book of Skulls remain mysterious.
There are certainly rich and intriguing ideas scattered throughout “The Book of Skulls,” though maybe not quite enough to sustain a novel with the kinds of characters we’re given. I’m happy to leave Eli, Timothy, Oliver, and Ned to their desert fates, having spent a bit too much time rattling around in their unremarkable heads.
Family members converge on a house in Upstate New York upon the death of Richard Walker, their secrets and disappointments mingling with those of the ghosts of two of the house’s former residents, and of a girl who has gone missing from Boston.
It took me about 100 pages to get into this book because the characters were initially so sad, defeated, and in some way repulsive; there was a great deal of moping and whining, a fair amount of self-destructive behavior, but not in any way that seemed interesting or enlightening. After the initial slog, though, the story and interest started to pick up with the arrival of a mysterious teen-aged girl, and of a third mysterious ghost; surprising convergences in the characters’ histories started to arise, and their various stories began to come to a more dramatic head.
The final coincidences were a bit much for my normally pretty forgiving suspension of disbelief, and a few things were tied up just a bit too neatly, but there were some thought-provoking ideas and a handful of interesting character moments that made this book worth finishing.
When Nancy entered a mysterious door in the basement, she found herself in the Halls of the Dead, where stillness and silence are valued above all else. Now returned to the noise and bustle of our world, she has been sent to Eleanor West’s school for children who were “lost” in various fairy lands, skeleton kingdoms, and realms of magic. All of the students (and their teachers) long to return “home” to those magical worlds, while struggling to learn to live in the mundane. As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, though, there’s also a killer stalking the school.
This is a short but rich novella, with a fascinating underlying theory of portal worlds, described along axes of Nonsense and Logic, Virtue and Wickedness. All of the characters traveled to different worlds, and are shaped by the experience in unique ways; their stories are only briefly sketched, but tantalizingly. And though the book is able to stand alone as the story of Nancy’s role in bringing an end to the murders at the Home for Wayward Children, it also launches a collection of stories exploring the other worlds that are hinted at here.
Tracey Thorn’s “Another Planet” blends teenage diaries, historical sources, and contemporary musings to make sense of her youth in the London suburb of Potters Bar. She describes discovering boys and music, and makes interesting observations about the things that we reveal to others and conceal even from ourselves. The strangeness of suburbia, both isolated from the city yet entirely dependent upon it, is at the heart of this memoir.
As a long-time fan of Everything But the Girl, I found it interesting to see what music she was consuming in the years leading up to those great albums of the ’80s and ’90s. There were equal parts disco and punk noted in her diaries, a fascination with the top pop hits as well as interest in the edgy and underground.
Against a backdrop of corporate and political intrigue, environmental and cultural pillaging, and the unraveling of the very fabric of reality, an assassin, a knowledge broker, and a “conjure man” betray, bedevil, and bewilder each other and the powers behind the far-flung, watery outpost of Greene’s World.
There’s a lot going on in “Undertow,” and sometimes a bit too much. The book is rich with ideas about space travel, the interactions between humans and other species, the implications of ubiquitous cybernetics, and the manipulation of chance. Add in some fast-paced adventure, an intriguing setting on a watery world, and layered political manipulation, and it can be a lot to keep track of. It does pull together in the end, though, and the final chapter is riveting.
I especially liked that the aliens were truly alien, and not just people in funny costumes. Based on the biology of Earth amphibians, their drives, culture, and behavior are understandable, but clearly not human, and the failure of humans to understand them, and their very different sense of community and history, propels much of the action.
In a near future ravaged by environmental disasters, people are able to join their consciousness with others into new, multi-bodied selves, with their previously individual bodies as mortal avatars, or “drives,” through which the theoretically-immortal “join” can act upon the world. The technology that allows this is not well-understood, though, and the implications for humankind are fraught.
“Join” is full of fascinating ideas about personhood, mortality, conscience, and morality, hung on a fast-paced plot framework that at times reminded me of noir fiction in the tradition of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain. The denouement felt a little rushed–having set up a powerful philosophical conundrum in the first 200 pages, the story is brought to a close with two sharp and violent scenes in the last twenty pages–but the density of the ideas presented make up for the abrupt conclusion.
It dawned on me rather late in the book – around page 140 or so, as the crazy train narrative was just about to leap its last rails – that there was a shaggy-dog retelling of a well-known tragedy at the heart of this book, full of groan-inducing puns. I think I was blinded to it by the word play and madcap picaresque; or maybe I was supposed to miss it, just as the eponymous narrator misses it right to the end, and all the pieces start to fall into place, and then fall out of place again, because it was all a three-card monte misdirection after all.
Set in a near-future hellscape version of Boston (“The Beast”) of hyperinflation, packs of street urchins, underground squatter cities, and gated New Jersey suburbs, “Fast Eddie” is a playful, crazy, inventive story in the tradition of “Huck Finn,” “Tom Jones,” and “The Good Soldier Svjek.” The hero-narrator gets into scrape after crazy scrape, each one more inescapable than the last, and somehow climbs this ladder of chaos to the top of the underground Dig City. It’s best read the way you watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with critical faculties turned off and disbelief fully suspended. Energetic and frenetic to the very end, and a tour-de-force of alliteration and silly puns, this is an entertaining and engaging ride of a book.