by Carole McDonnell
This month’s reviews are all about bringing back one’s family from times, worlds, and places unknown. Sometimes these relatives got lost because some devastating change occurred. Sometimes they were sent away by death, parents, supernatural or some even mightier unspecified power that be. And sometimes the cause of the devastation isn’t all that clear. The disaster gets repaired or not, with the help of the protag or not. People band together to battle evil or not. Humans lose their humanity or not. Man-made governments are effective or not. It’s been an interesting month. Family-finding is still a major motivation in speculative fiction.
The Scavengers, by Michael Perry, 336 pages, HarperCollins, ISBN-13: 978-0062026163.
In a not too distant future, climate change, food shortage, and evil corporations have caused the have-nots to live outside of domed Bubble communities. Folks who live OutBubble don’t have running water, electricity, food, or even protection from the unpredictable weather. Meet Maggie who lives OutBubble; Maggie, who prefers to be called Ford Falcon after the car she found in a junk ditch; Maggie, who remembers when she lived UnderBubble in a beautiful house far from Grey Devils (think Meth addicts and zombies combined) and Solar Bears (Polar Bears spliced together with coyotes by scientists.) Ah those scientists! Always making life worse by attempting to make it better!
But before we even meet those scientists, we have Maggie scavenging in the woods. For a good 100 pages or so, we just see the normal life of a scavenger. It’s worldbuilding at its best — mundane but important stuff we need to know, with a few flashbacks here and there. But nothing much really happens. Well, okay, something happens: Maggie finds a Porky Pig piggy bank.
And yet, there is something very exciting about all this mundanity. It takes great literary skillz to write daily life well. We see how Maggie survives. We see how Banker Bernice has maintained financial order and “bank” for the poor cashless scavengers who live outside the Bubble communities. We see that humans are survivors, and even if they are a scrappy lot, they are lovers and believers in order. Everyone gets along for the most part — except for the roaming bands of GreyDevils who will steal anything in order to trade for PartsWash from the JuiceCruisers. They’re addicted to PartsWash, you see. Ah, PartsWash! And when the reader hears about these GreyDevils, there is nothing to make one have compassion on them. The immediate cultural reference is “icky down-and-out homeless druggie wino.” But after one learns the truth, compassion for them and anger against the Big Bads creep in.
Now, this leads us to those scientists, because they are ultimately the villains. Not that they created climate warming: the whole world is to be blamed for that. But because they profited from global disaster under the pretense of being noble benefactors. Yes, they’re those kinds of hypocritical all-powerful Big Brother Big Bads. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you too much about them or I’ll be spoiling the story for you. (I actually looked at the jacket flap just now to see if the cover blurb gave anything away. It didn’t. So I won’t either. I will say though that Maggie’s dad was once a scientist and that Maggie is a girl who may or may not have to battle some Big Bads. (I won’t tell you why.) Even so, heroine or not, Maggie mercifully lacks that special snowflake mantle I have come to hate.
I was already psyched to love Scavengers because I love stories about people who live in daily grinding poverty. Add the whole GMO angle and the autistic child and I am sold. Because, heck, these are real problems and not just symbolic navel-gazing ones. Anyone reading this book will grow up to be an advocate for the homeless and disabled or an activist against Big Food and Big Science. Or both. And the depiction of autism is done so well. I always find myself arguing with the way autistic persons are depicted in books and movies — savants, emotionless, eerie, possibly demonic, and always physically healthy. This author does autism right. But he also does addiction and poverty right. He does the struggles of life incredibly right. My only nit — and it’s a very small nit, as nits tend to be — is that the story went into thriller mode. I would’ve preferred seeing a more organic depiction of how life continued in OutBubble rather than to have our heroine being chased by evil minions. But that’s me. I was never a lover of Blockbuster movies. But maybe kids nowadays expect that kind of thing in their YA. Yes, I did say it was a small nit. So, all that said, I found this book really enjoyable.
Black Moon, Kenneth Calhoun, 277 pages, Hogarth, ISBN-13: 978-0804137164.
In Black Moon, we have a road trip book of sorts. Jordan and Chase are young guys who’ve stolen sleeping pills and are traveling. Lila is a teenager whose folks have sent her on the road to protect her from their insomniac rage. Biggs is searching for his insomniac wife. So basically, all these folks have found themselves in a symbolic dark wood and angry raging sleepless folks are blocking them from the path direct.
The thing that always amazed me with insomnia is what a dull torture it is. It’s like someone stealing everything away little bit by little bit, until thoughts are chaos and everything blurs together and it’s an effort to even exist. It’s not the same as being grouchy or tired, which is where most of these sci fi stories take it. So I had to accept a Star Trekian interpretation of “no sleep.” Add the whole “literary vibe” and — well — I had to force myself to be open-minded. I was rewarded with one of the best explorations of frustrated, malicious, existential resentment I’ve seen in a while. The “have-nots” in this book — those who cannot sleep — are pretty vicious towards the “haves.” I still am not quite convinced, though, that sleepless people have the energy to gang up and kill folks.
As is to be expected when everyone in the nation goes sleepless, the entire infrastructure falls apart. Universal insomnia being the cause of anarchy and the apocalypse — who knew? But what exactly is the cause of this sleeplessness? Is it a virus? Is it a culmination of national angst? Is it a symbol of spiritual world-weariness? Is it a magic spell? In several paragraphs which begin with the word “maybe” the author riffs on the probable spiritual, emotional, or societal cause of this ongoing catastrophe. To some of these people, death is a welcomed relief. So, yeah, a few folks commit suicide. But for others who are concerned that love and family blood — let alone grammatical sentence structure — won’t survive this disaster, it’s best to send relatives away. Just in case anger at the comfy sleeper causes the non-sleeper to go ballistic. So then, is this sleeplessness permanent? Is “sleeplessness” a metaphor? Are the ones who are able to sleep the true victims? Or are they the strong ones because they can shut off life and fall into peacefulness when they want to?
Another thing that I wondered about was why the author focused more on the victimized sleepers rather than on the truly suffering insomniacs. I like seeing writers identify with suffering, not embattled health.
I’ll just say that I think I’m missing the larger message of this book. If there is a larger message. Maybe it’s all pretty upfront, after all the author keeps making philosophical comments throughout. Maybe the book is all about propositions and questionings and not about answers. Maybe all those sleepers are us. This is one of those books which I want my deep-thinking friends to read so that they can guide me with a “Carole, how could you have missed this? Don’t you see that it means thus-and-so?”
So I have yet to figure out if Kenneth Calhoun was saying something about American culture. For instance, the author often describes people who are obese, often obese and naked. For some reason, sleepless makes folks go about naked a lot. They kind of fade out nakedly. So maybe I was overthinking when I assumed he wanted to say something about Americans and our way of living. Maybe he was simply being realistic. The odds of seeing obese Americans is pretty high after all, and some people do sleep in the nude. But what of characters like the ruthless East Indian entrepreneurs who use the frail innocent Asian girl to sell sleep? Were they all contributing to some larger theme I was just plain missing?
The thematic element I did pick up on — cause it was pretty obvious — was the whole male sensitivity thing. The guys in this story are all protective, paternal, and caring about their sexual partners. This is definitely not your machismo grandpa’s speculative fiction. Biggs cannot impregnate his wife. (Of course, it may be her fault and not his.) Chase — a college kid — cannot even get it up and because of that — ostensibly — his girlfriend has been very unhappy. So the story feels like a series of poetic meditations thematically held together by the male characters’ goals.
So if you intend to read this book, put away all thoughts about that pesky “beginning, middle, and end thing.” There is no real “ending” here. We are in literary territory and riding the modern male’s stream of consciousness. This is a book which feels like a literary summer read and folks will either love or hate.
How I Live Now; 2013, UK, 101 minutes. Writers: Meg Rosoff based on her novel; Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner, and Tony Grisoni for the screenplay. Directed by Kevin MacDonald.
When I was a kid — lo those forty years ago! — I saw a movie adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s Bless the Beasts and Children. Swarthout also wrote The Shootist and The Homesman. But I never felt like reading books based on those movies. Bless the Beasts and Children was the only book I wanted to buy immediately. Such is the power of a good movie!
Those were the seventies; distrust of authority and a belief that anarchy could possibly be a good thing was rampant. Moreover, youth was considered untainted and always in danger of being destroyed by oldies over thirty-years-old. I’m over thirty now and that sixties mentality still influences me. I still believe that apocalyptical movies can be romantic and idealistic. And I’m a sucker for any dystopian book or movie that shows a human heart.
So, yes, you guys know my bias. I was geared to like How I Live Now. It is difficult to dislike one’s bias. The film does fall short of its mark a teensy-weensy bit. But it has succeeded for me in that it’s been awhile since I’ve found myself wanting to read the book from which a movie has been adapted.
The story begins with Elizabeth, an angry American teenager arriving at an airport in the UK. At first, we assume she is angry because she is a typical teenager being sent away to relatives for vacation. But we soon discover she and her father are estranged. This discovery makes us less impatient with her although we do wish she would quit rebuffing her cousins who are all easygoing and fun. They all live on a remote hilltop farm with their hands-off working single mother, our heroine’s Aunt. Seriously, even the most angsty teen would chill in such an environment. But Elizabeth (also known as Daisy) is adamant about keeping her anger.
But then she meets her sensitive hottie cousin Edmond. Now, fellow readers, I have a seventh sense about these things. When I saw how gorgeous and sensitive this young thing was I could only think that the film version of Edmond was probably nothing like his novel counterpart and there was some serious Twilightification of heroine’s love interest going on.
So, curious, I went to look and yes! Edmond’s personality and age were switched around for the film. Obviously movies must do what movies must do. I was not surprised that certain characters’ personalities were switched around, or that certain folks were killed to make the movie more weepy-teen-angst-palatable. These changes from the book can be forgiven or ignored, but they did make me remember why I like books so much. Some novel characters don’t have to look like Glittery Vampire Edward to be loved.
So, then, hormonal flutterings in her angsty heart, Elizabeth decides to go with her cousins to ye olde Edenic water hole. And while there — the instant she decides to relax (and I do mean the “instant”) — WWIII pops up and in an mmmbop all peace is gone. The family is split up because Aunt was away. Elizabeth and her young female cousin are sent in one direction, the boys are sent to another.
Elizabeth, who had been taking meds to fight “strange voices” in her head, now uses those intuitive vibes and voices to escape her military “protectors” and to orienteer herself and her young female cousin back to the farm. They make the usual war encounters, deal with possible rapists, abusers, and authoritarian figures who behave more like enemies than allies. (They are forced to work in the food production areas and live with a cold military officer.)
They manage to make it home to their Edenic farm, although they have lost some family members. (In the film version, anyway.) In the end, there is an Ethan Frome vibe as Elizabeth finds new meaning in caring for others. Her will is now set on healing her newfound family. She no longer needs the meds because the voices were connected to her battling the rules and restrictions laid-down by her estranged father.
There was a general lack of “information” in this film. I accept the speculative fiction premise of a third world war. I can even accept that we don’t know — in the movie version at least — who the actual combatants are and how long the war actually goes on. It’s quite possible that the book doesn’t tell us that information either, because such information isn’t particularly important. But I wanted some intel on the spiritual, emotional, and personal issues involved. When the movie is ending and we hear the heroine speak a self-aware commentary about her past life, the revelation comes out of left field.
We have seen a gentle understanding (incredibly handsome) male character suddenly weakened by war. We see an angry female character become selfless, softer, and maternal toward the weak. We see the honoring of intuition, psychosis, and dreams. But we really didn’t know the movie was talking about selflessness, endurance, hardship, or rules until the heroine made her comment. I’m pretty sure the book handled these issues better. After all, the novel by Meg Rosoff won the British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award.
So I find myself liking this film because it will lead me to the book. And whether or not the book exists, the film did touch me and will become a favorite of mine. It had a 2013 version of the Bless the Beasts and Children vibe. It never hurts to be reminded now and then that the young and helpless creatures of the world are often at the mercy of adults. So, yeah, I’ve got to read the book now. This film is streaming on Netflix.
The Returned/Les Revenants; Episodic series based on the film They Came Back, created by Fabrice Gobret. French Supernatural Horror Mystery; 8 episodes, 58 minutes each.
So as I tried to find films about lost family members, I came upon two series on Netflix. The first has just begun and is called Parallels, which has the cheesy American charm and feel of an old time fave of mine, Sliders. I’m a sucker for portal-hopping time-travel shows. I’m so hoping Netflix does complete it. The other series I found was a French horror mystery called The Returned (Les Revenants) in which returned — well, “resurrected” — folks arrive in a small town.
If there is anything we know about the French it’s that they are classy, logical, and subdued no matter what. Ambiance is their forte. They are not going to go over-the-top even in depicting supernatural events. So, when watching this series, prepare for the slow Gallic burn and composure that screams “Frenchness” because that’s the only thing that will be screaming on your computer screams. There are no mood music, jump scare, fits of untoward hysteria in this drama.
First thing you ought to know is that the resurrections take place in a tiny village. If we know anything about small-towns, it’s that everyone knows everyone else and there is often one big communal disaster, secret, or oppression that the villagers had to endure. In this case, there are two disasters. The first occurred some forty or so years ago and involves the building of a dam. The second happened four years prior to the resurrections and that was a school bus accident. Think The Ice Storm, without ice or storm but with a lot of grieving parents.
The story begins when one — only one — of the dead children returns. Her name is Camille and her parents have become estranged because of her death and because of one other “matter” which I will not give away. Like all the others returnees, she doesn’t at first realize she is dead. All she knows is that she is incredibly hungry. Because the resurrected dead and the undead are always prone to hunger or other appetites such as a thirst for vengeance, sex, or love.
At first there is, of course, a level of secrecy and trepidation. How does one react to seeing one’s dead teenaged daughter after four years? Or one’s murderous serial killer brother? Or one’s lover who allegedly killed himself on his wedding day? Or one’s dead wife? So, there is secrecy at first, then telling the “good” news to other mourners who resent the fact that your daughter — and not theirs — returned. Then there is the law. And jealousy. And freaked-out townspeople and ex-lovers who are confused about what all is happening to their formerly normal town.
These returnees are not quite ghosts, and they’re not quite zombies. They’re as substantial as everyone else. A couple of them have extraordinary and somewhat dangerous talents. I will say that the ghosts are not scary, just kind of unsettling . . . although the most unsettling character is not a ghost but the goody-goody head of a spiritual group called Helping Hands.
Each episode is entitled with a character’s name and begins with the depiction of their death or an important scene from their prior life. We get to know most of these characters and their families in the first episode but with each episode we get new layers, backstories, twists, and storytelling yumminess. This story is surprising without being forced into “twists” and the plot is organic even when adding new supernatural elements.
Having just finished the eighth episode of Season One, I still don’t know for sure why the returnees came back. There is a clue that they might have returned because of the undying obstinate love of a grieving family member or lover. There is a heck of a lot of lack of “closure,” anger, determined prayer, and “comeuppance” floating through the story. And yet, “lack of closure” doesn’t seem to be enough of a reason.
The eighth episode ended with a lot of loose ends. But mercifully, Nouvelle Vague has inured me to confusion. Also, mercifully, The Returned returned for a second season. So I’m looking forward to more disclosures about that cursed dam and the floating dead animals.
American television does a lot of remakes of foreign programs. (For instance, this year they will be adapting God’s Gift, a Korean drama about a mother whose daughter is murdered but then returned to 14 days before the date of the murder. Mom is hoping to stop her child from being murdered again.) And the US adaptation of The Returned began on March 16th. And now that I’ve finished this set of reviews, I shall return to Netflix and try to find another good series. Apparently now that I have wallowed in moody French horror-loveliness, I can’t have enough. That’s apparently how I roll.
Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.