Microviews Vol. 47: The 2013 Clearinghouse Sale

on Friday, December 27, 2013
Rivers by Michael Farris Smith
I have read many literary visions of the apocalypse over the years but none has struck me as so wholly realised as the storm drenched purgatory of Michael Farris Smith's superb debut novel Rivers. From the opening lines - "It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn't rained..." - the unrelenting storms remain a constant presence. It is a disturbing, bleak vision; the southern end of the USA cut off by governmental decree, its residents told to choose between going north for safety or being left to fend for themselves against the unforgiving rage of nature. Cohen is one of those who chose to stay. He couldn't bear the thought of leaving the place he has buried his wife. He drives the wastelands in his jeep, living off the land, trading with the black marketeers, hiding from the rain, whatever it takes to survive. A chance violent encounter with a young couple leads him to a strange cult and its unhinged messiah. At first he is sucked in, helping to find supplies, taking refuge in their shelter. But the followers dream of mutiny and see him as their saviour. What follows is a Mad Max like quest to find the line and escape the rain. Success, however, does not necessarily guarantee safety because just over the other side waits the one man who knows Cohen's secret. A literary dystopia of the greatest kind. Bring your snorkel.
4.5 Out Of 5 Broken Levies

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
Ten years on, Andrew Kaufman's debut still has all the charm, humour, warmth and madcap zaniness that I remember having loved when I first stumbled across it. The tale of Tom, an ordinary guy desperately trying to get his superhero wife (The Perfectionist) to see him again after being cursed by one of her ex-boyfriends (Hypno), it is about as sweet a love story as you will ever find. Kaufman plays on everyday idiosyncrasies as the basis for his superheroes - they are all normal people over-endowed with one particular trait. This hilarious skewering of everything we love and loathe in ourselves has always been the book's greatest strength. The logical gymnastics Kaufman displays in conjuring them will blow your mind. For this, the tenth anniversary edition, he has added some appendices filled with a slew of new superheroes. Far from being some crass gimmick, they serve to expand an already wonderful universe. So whether you are happening on Tom's story for the first time or just want to meet the new guys on the block (or to own the book in lovely blue hardcover), you would be a smelly Lex Luthor not to pick this up.
5 Out of 5 Sticks of Kryptonite

The Asylum by John Harwood
There aren't many people writing good ol' fashioned gothic novels these days. I can't even remember the last time I found myself plonked in a decaying old mansion with a cast of menacing folk who may or may not be trying to kill me. And so it was with equal parts foreboding and pleasure that I settled in to John Harwood's latest novel The Asylum. From the outset Harwood heaps on the tension - a young woman wakes up in an asylum with no memory of how she got there and sure of only one thing: she is not who the doctor says she is. The story slowly unravels with all the classic gothic tropes - betrayal, murder, identity theft and, of course, psychotic medical experiments. Depending on how perceptive you are, Harwood will keep you guessing well into the story but after a while even the slowest amongst you will work out what's going on. Once you do, The Asylum becomes a bit of a cliche, not in the least bit helped by its extremely lame ending. Read it for the atmosphere, enjoy it for what it is.
3 Out of 5 Dusty Chandeliers

Red Sky In Morning by Paul Lynch
It was little surprise to learn that, in his other life, Paul Lynch is the Irish Sunday Tribune's chief film critic. His debut novel has the cinematic scope and feel of a great epic despite clocking in at less than two hundred and fifty pages. Told in dense, often difficult prose, Red Sky In Morning is an unforgiving, brutal tale of crime, retribution and the simple unfairness of life. Fans of Cormac McCarthy are sure to revel in its bleakness - John Faller is as good a villain as McCarthy's monster from Blood Meridian, The Judge. His absolute disregard for life in all its forms remains genuinely shocking throughout the novel. As for the hero, Coll Coyle, well you know how it is. A good man, forced to do something terrible, then flee his home in Ireland for the anonymity of America. There he toils, exploited by a callous expatriate to work the land like a dog for next to no pay mistakenly believing that he has left Faller behind. To borrow from a fantastic film, There Will Be Blood. A magnificent piece of storytelling.
4.5 Out Of 5 Headless Horsemen

True Actor by Jacinto Lucas Pires
Some Tarantino-esque posturing (by way of Spike Jonze) from this Portugeuse young gun. Abril, a lowly actor, finds himself cast in the title role of Being Paul Giamatti, an existential adventure that screams either Academy Award or Straight-To-Video. While preparing for this role of a lifetime he is suddenly implicated in the murder of the city's most famous prostitute. Everything begins to collapse around him - his marriage, his career, his country - and Abril must try to work out who exactly he is if he's to clear his name. A cool distraction but perhaps too smart by half.
3 Out Of 5 Reservoir Fictions

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
If ever there was a movie to be made of Strange Bodies it would have to star Marlon Brando. Not Streetcar-era heartthrob Brando. Fat, monstrous Island of Dr. Moreau Jabba the Brando. Of course I realise that would be impossible but that's kind of what this book is about, the quest for immortality. Nicholas Slopen turns up at his former girlfriend's house needing a place to crash for the night. Only problem, Nicholas Slopen has been dead for two years and this guy doesn't in the least bit resemble the one she once dated. He does, however, remember every intimate detail of their time together. By the morning he has disappeared, leaving behind a USB stick. The bulk of the book is, we are told, what was stored on it. Slopen details his engagement by a music industry big wig to authenticate some recently found Samuel Johnson letters. It seems an easy job at first, one that appeals to his vanity. But behind what he figures to be a rather complex fraud lies something far more sinister, an experiment to transfer the internal life of a person into the body of another. The physical vessel may never be immortal but the mind certainly could be. From this intriguing premise, Theroux has crafted a metaphysical thriller with all the bells and whistles. It's even got the Russian mob. I dare say Theroux would have done well to make them kidnap about fifty pages and drop them at the bottom of a river in concrete boots. That would have made for a leaner, more punchy reading experience.
3.5 Out Of 5 Shelled Marys

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Some of you may recall one of my favourite graphic novels of all time, Daytripper by Gabriel Ba. In it, the protagonist gets to live life over and over, seeing how it would have turned out had he died at different points along the way. Here, then, is the long form literary equivalent and, while Kate Atkinson's book is not as dizzyingly brilliant as Daytripper, it is still a moving marvel of narrative construction. Ursula Todd is born in 1910. First time round she is stillborn. Then she lives a few days. Then a while longer. And so on until she manages to reach a ripe old age. Chance (sometimes fortuitous, sometimes malevolent) seems to dictate the outcome. One time she will be hiding in a bomb shelter during the London Blitz, another frolicking around Berlin with her buddy Eva Braun. One time she will marry an awful brute, another a kind gentleman. Her friends and family will die or they will live. Perhaps most impressive is the way Atkinson plays with the decisive life events so the reader gets the feeling that Ursula narrowly escapes the death that claimed her last time round. And yet for all that it has to commend it, Life After Life is merely a gentle pleasure, enjoyable in a country manor kind of way (think a less compelling Atonement) but without a great deal of impact.
3.5 Out Of 5 Piles of Rubble


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