Friday, 28 February 2014

Book Review: The Apprentice Journals

Title: The Apprentice Journals
Author: J Michael Shell
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Science fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Erotica

In the future envisioned by The Apprentice Journals, civilisation as we know it has been destroyed. Why? Because we humans were so caught up in our dead environments that we lost touch with the Elementals – spirit-like embodiments of the classical elements that make up our world. This is turn led to the Elementals forgetting all about our existence, meaning that when they had their giant, world-wide, non-human-friendly, natural-disaster-causing orgies, they sort of decimated mankind. In the new world order that emerges, some humans are born as Apprentices, people who have the power to communicate with Elementals and manipulate the elements. Apprentices to what, you ask? Well, the book never tells us. Those that “finish” their training are just called Finished Apprentices, so I’m guessing they’re Apprentices to Apprentices? Or Elementals? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. And that, incidentally, pretty much summarises my experience of The Apprentice Journals.

That said, my favourite thing about the book was in fact its magic system. Superhuman powers in science fiction tend to be mental in nature and a result of some sort of mutation. Here, however, we have a post-apocalyptic world with elemental environment-based magic. It’s pretty unique and also intense. From the first page you’re plunged right into it, which can be intimidating given how technical it gets, but after the initial weirdness and learning curve you get to appreciate how intricate it is. The magic stuff plays a major part in the book, so if you hate magic then this is not the post-apocalyptic book for you.

So the main character is a white dude named Spaul. He’s an Apprentice journeying north in what remains of the good ol’ US of A, for no obvious reason, but that’s cool, maybe he’s just like drifting or whatever. Along the way he meets a girl named Pearl, who’s black, hot and mute. That’s pretty much it. Well, a lot of things happen, but it’s hard to explain what the plot is, since all the ‘events’ seem like side quests to the main plotline of this northward yet directionless journey. A lot of time is spent travelling between settlements or chilling at the beach, but there are also occasions where stuff gets really odd – so odd it feels like you’re reading a different book entirely. There are abrupt forays into what feels like different genres or different times, and while this didn’t make for a cohesive world or story, it certainly kept things interesting.

Now, there are a number of issues I had with this book.

Let’s start with race.

So apparently, even in the post-apocalyptic world of the future, we have some old world race issues. Two things in particular almost made me choke when I read them. The first is town of Tara. Taking us right back to Civil War race relations, the town is essentially a black slave ranch run by white dudes, the leader of whom has a (hot) black woman on the side. The second is the portrayal of black people. If the “negra” being slaves weren’t enough, you also have Pearl’s father and the butler guy speaking like blatant stereotypes (“Hear that you l’il sheet-eater, Mistah Kurtz Missuh ‘Prentice gonna fix yo’ feets!” p25), though to be fair, the Irish guy is also stereotyped (“Aye, and yer a fishin’ machine, Spaul! Aye’ve never seen any so fast as ye!” p 54). I mean, you can also tell that the author has an interest in language, but what he does with it is not enough. The overall approach lacks rigour and the quirky bits feel half-baked. This makes the written-in accents – only present in black people and that one Irish guy – stand out even more, which is especially egregious given this story was published just last year. There is a huge focus on race in this book and it’s a problem because the topic is handled with very little sensitivity.

Here’s where I get to the sex.

I’ll be honest: from the blurb and the cover, I’d assumed this would be a young adult novel. How wrong I was! In the very first chapter, Spaul talks about “loving” some Fierae Elementals. Throughout the course of the book, he takes part in Elemental orgies, is offered sex/daughters, causes orgies, and last but not least, has lots and lots of sex with Pearl (or to be more precise, Pearl’s body – a whole other can of worms I won’t even get into). Strangely, it’s never super explicit. There are just orgasms: orgasms everywhere. The entire book was like one big masturbatory fantasy. This wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but hey, if you’re after some white dude/black girl magic sex in natural settings, then take note.

What makes this situation worse is the fact that Pearl is so objectified – she’s the kind of character whom everyone thinks is gorgeous and whose items of clothing are meticulously described. I may be totally off base here, but my overall impression, from the sex, the idolisation of Pearl and the handling of race issues, was that the guy has a fetish. The Spaul character brings to mind those (white) guys who think they’re progressive for being able to appreciate the ‘exotic’ beauty of foreign’ (non-white) women. I don’t know if I’m just being crazy here and reading too much into things, but that was my honest impression. I often felt uncomfortable reading the book and not in a good way.

To sum, reading this novel is like stumbling upon the weird part of the Internet: it’s unlike anything else you’ve seen before, it deals with something weirdly specific (and somehow sex-related), and it’s somewhat but definitely frightening for reasons you can’t quite explain. The Apprentice Journals is undoubtedly unique. While I really liked the “atmosphere” and magic system, the (human) world-building felt lacking and I’m not sure what to make of the strange “plot”, which, by the way, ends with sequel bait. I’m also massively leery of how the author handles race issues: it’s suspect at best and racist at worst. That said, this book is certainly an interesting read if only for its strangeness.

Alex’s Rating: 2/5
(Disclaimer: I received this book for free through Goodreads’ First Reads.)

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book Review: Love in the Time of Cholera

Title: Love in the Time of Cholera
Author: Gabriel García Márquez; English translation by Edith Grossman
Year Published: 1985, translation 1988
Genre: Romance, General and literary fiction, Erotica, Drama, Historical fiction

Florentino Ariza falls in love with the beautiful Fermina Daza, but just as the two are about to marry, Fermina breaks it off. Worse, she marries the prestigious Doctor Juvenal Urbino instead. Florentino lives a dissolute lifestyle as he pines for his true love, while the seemingly perfect Urbinos struggle with their marriage. Some fifty years later, the old paramours reunite, giving Florentino a second chance to declare his feelings.

Put this way, the plot sounds very straightforward, and I suppose it is. And yet, the book is absolutely captivating. Márquez brings his characters to life in a way that is simply masterful. The protagonists are only ever almost likeable (for me, at least), but there is no doubting that they are human in all their flaws and virtues. As you read their stories, you become intimately acquainted with who they are, how they feel and how they think, though at the same time, there is something about each person that is left a mystery. An exquisite depth and breadth of human experience is captured within these pages, from the mundane to the alarming. The book covers events as varied as Fermina’s and Urbino’s greatest argument (there was soap!) to Florentino’s defecation in a carriage and the brutal murder of a woman following infidelity.

Cholera is set in an unnamed city, presumably in Colombia, during the turn of the 20th century. It’s a context with various social, political and yes, medical concerns which all go to shaping the identity of the characters. Though the flavour of the setting suffuses the entire book, it never overwhelms; rather, it forms a natural part of the story, the characters and the writing. On that note, there is something sensual, visceral and almost sweaty about the way this book is written. I admire the English translator for having achieved (or preserved) this atmosphere, but at the same time, I can only at speculate as to how much has been lost in translation.

I will mention now that while romantic love is the focus of the book, sex and sex-related topics feature prominently. It is at this point that I turn to our hero Florentino Ariza. While some may see him as the ultimate romantic, to me, he is, more than anything, one seriously creepy dude. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’s the most polarising character of the book. Be ye warned for the spoilery discussion below (though you might want to know about these things if you intend to read the book as a romance) – highlight to read.

<major spoilers>
So, how is Florentino creepy? Well, he “falls in love” with the thirteen year old Fermina at the moment he first he lays eyes on her, transforming into what we nowadays would call a stalker. While we get a great sense of his passion and obsession, there is no real sense of why he “loves” her so fiercely; he just does, or thinks he does. When he is rejected, he swears to stay faithful to her: after all, her husband has to die at some point. Later, after Florentino is sort of raped on a boat, he becomes a sex maniac. He dedicates himself to seeking out women who’ll have sex with him and he documents his encounters in writing. His various affairs (622 apparently) comprise a large portion of his life and of the book. But of course, our hero must stay true to his One True Love, meaning he basically treats these women as (thankfully consensual) sex objects.

As overblown and ridiculous as Florentino’s feelings might seem at times, it’s easy to believe that he believes them. Despite his shifty behaviour, it’s also possible to root for him and wish for his happiness… for most of the book.  For this reader, our hero crosses the moral event horizon when he goes all Humbert Humbert on us near the end, which, as a friend deftly put it, is “totally not cool”. At this point, I found him so morally repugnant that I was all the more amazed at my ability to still kind of sympathise for him. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that he can write a character so vile and so human, whose actions can be seen as both romantic and sociopathic at the same time. I found the ending, with all its romantic airs, to be highly unsettling. The book’s brilliant like that. 

Love in the Time of Cholera is an exploration of love and lust; it demands its reader to think about love and what it is. You may conclude that this is a story of the deepest love, or alternatively, that none of the characters know love at all. It makes you wonder what you know of love. Additionally, the book touches on themes of time and mortality. The foibles of the human body and the vicissitudes of aging are thrown into the limelight, adding another dimension to our thoughts on love – how it lasts and how it changes. There are no easy answers. These notions are integrated organically within the story, and to read and think about them is thus never a chore (…and that is all I will say about the book’s ~themes, for I am neither doing homework nor writing a set of CliffsNotes).

Beautifully written and startlingly human, I highly recommend Love in the Time of Cholera. While it’s an immersive read, you should know that it’s not a necessarily a comfortable one. It’s primarily a meditation on love, but it also deals with sex, perversion and degenerating bodies, which might not be what everyone is after. For what it’s worth, I personally found it tender, sad and disturbing – and much too ominous to be romantic (seriously, look at Florentino, man). It’s not so much a love story as a story about love. The book can be wonderfully romantic, frighteningly sinister, or something else entirely, depending on your interpretation, and that’s what makes Love in the Time of Cholera such a masterpiece.

Alex’s Rating: 4.5/5