“Meeks” by Julia Holmes

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Meeks is sleeping in the park again, under the cruel statue that he was named for. Ben barely sleeps at all, with the looming threat of Autumn. (If he doesn’t become a Husband—he can’t even afford a Bachelor’s suit!) One Brother of Mercy wakes with a fistful of dynamite and a plan.

Julia Holmes’ Meeks is a book that will affect your sleep. The strange society she fabricates, dominated by the shadowy monolith of Captain Meeks—who was he? what did he do for us? what did he do to the Enemy?—is frighteningly simple to understand, but it will keep you up thinking.

The War is definitely over, and the government has turned its attacks in on its own population, but no one seems to have noticed. The young men still go off to War, where they patrol endlessly, without ever encountering the Enemy, and when they return they become Bachelors—seeking a fiancée during the Summer, so that they can marry in the Autumn and begin producing bouncing baby citizens in the spring. If they fail to mate, they’re relegated to the factories, where the lucky ones die of exhaustion instead of being crushed in a grinding of gears.

Like the entire situation, Holmes’ humor is absurd. It’s also vaguely Russian. Meeks reads like lighter Dostoevsky. Ben’s been compared by other critics to the Underground Man, but Holmes is taking a look at a character whose isolation is the result social constructs, not some intellectual quagmire. How should Ben communicate when his language is atrophied by dogma? (“The Captain said it, and so it would be!”) If he stammers and stops, perhaps it’s because he’s the only person really trying to say anything.

Meeks builds to a powerful climax on Independence Day—marking the beginning of Autumn and the end of a way of life. If Holmes falters anywhere in the book, it’s on the last two pages: there’s an ambiguous quality to the ending that seems unintentional. Regardless, Meeks finishes strong, with an ending that’s less inevitable than it may seem.

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Goodbye Charlie Bright

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See Charlie streak. See Charlie fight. See Charlie steal a stereo. Say, “Goodbye, Charlie Bright!”

When you hit the highlights, Charlie’s life with Francis, Tommy, and Justin seems exciting on the estate—that’s the council housing estate—what Americans might be more familiar with as Section 8. Really, it’s another lazy summer, with no jobs, no girlfriends, and no cash unless you’re open to some purse-snatching and B&Es.

Actually, though, Francis has a girlfriend. So he’s not around much anymore. And Tommy’s off to Afghanistan, which is one bloody hell of a job. That leaves Charlie to his own devices, with only his Zack Morris sweater collection and a psychotic best friend.

Justin’s got Charlie to take care of him, but other than that his safety net is an ersatz godfather with a cowboy and Indian fetish, and you can tell he spends a lot of time hanging out with the voices in his own head.

Director Nick Love’s become known for his gritty looks at South-London life, but none of them are quite as sweet as this early (2001) effort. It’s a friendlier version of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Charlie’s trapped in a nowhere town, constantly not quite doing that thing he wants to do—usually because of a misguided affection for screw-up Justin. You can just feel how much Charlie cares about this idiot, even as Justin’s increasingly erratic behavior draws Charlie into more and more violent confrontations.

The first third of the film feels like a slow burn, but if you can stick with Charlie and Justin, you might be surprised by how much Love gets you to invest in their relationship by the end. By the time you say Goodbye Charlie Bright, you’ll be wishing he could stick around.

And Now For Something Completely Different

All the Literatease have been wonderfully pleased with your views and responses. After this first week of reviews we’ve come to some conclusions:

1) Rating a read in cups of tea is just too twee for words. So we’re going to stop doing that.

2) Having a week-long theme of reads is strictly unnecessary. We were working on “revenge” the first time around, but there was nothing really connecting those posts. So we’re going to review books and other media as we stumble on them. Movies are up next week, then back to novels and so on, so there will be some semblance of order–just less jack-booted.

So thank you for your patience as we rumble along!

Until next time,

Eleanor

“Red” by Jack Ketchum

Dog is man’s best friend, provider of sloppy kisses and unconditional love. But what can man offer his dog in return? Food? Squeaky toys? …Justice?

Through his thrilling novel Red, Jack Ketchum (a.k.a. Dallas Mayr, if you drop the pseudonym) introduces us to a world in which justice and vengeance intermingle, in which action and passivity replace the moral binary of right and wrong. The story begins with Avery Allan Ludlow, an elderly, simple man who is troubled by a gruesome past. His present is likewise gruesome; within the first chapter of Red, Ludlow’s eponymous pet dog is shot in the head by local troublemaker Danny McCormack, seemingly for no reason. Ludlow refuses to let Danny and his two accomplices get away with what they’ve done. You think retribution would be easy, right?

Wrong. Although the townspeople support Ludlow’s mission, Danny’s father, the affluent Michael McCormack, is willing to defend his son through whatever means possible. Plus, the law is not on Ludlow’s side – a dog is considered property, and there is little that Ludlow can gain from a court hearing. But it’s a man’s right to protect his property, even post-mortem, and of course, Red was much more than property to Ludlow. Motivated by love for his dog and feelings of heartbreak from his past, Ludlow decides to take the law into his own hands, even if it means getting those hands dirty. But the McCormacks are willing to fight back, and as you can expect from a dog-killer’s family… they don’t fight fair.

Even for an animal-lover, it’s hard to stomach the extremity of Ludlow’s actions; he no longer seeks justice, but vengeance. He no longer wants Danny to be punished, but for Danny to be hurt. Without saying too much, Ludlow’s quest for vengeance causes many innocents and mostly-innocents to be caught in the crossfires, proving that revenge isn’t a cycle but a bomb blasting outwards, shattering all in its path along with its detonator.

I give this book four out of five cups of tea. I’m subtracting half a cup for the unnecessary, rushed romance between Ludlow and the much younger Carrie Donnel; I’m tossing the other half due to the unrealistic, widespread commendation of Ludlow’s actions. Beyond the antagonistic McCormack and Daoust families, only one character ever questions Ludlow’s quest for revenge, while the rest support (and even assist) in his mission. It’s one thing to punish a dog-killer; it’s another to do anything in your power to make him apologize. On that note, make sure to pet your dogs tonight, maybe buy them a treat or something else to chew on. After all, dog is man’s best friend, and if Ludlow is willing to turn vigilante for his, the least you can do is throw your own dog a bone.

Marisa

“The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” and “The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag” by Alan Bradley

If Flavia de Luce offers you tea, don’t accept it. At the very least, she’s trying to trick you into an untimely admission—but, really, it’s probably poisoned. Don’t worry, though: she’s just trying to solve a murder.

Though she lives in the idyllic 1950s village of St. Tancreds, England—author Bradley’s a Canadian retiree, so expect nostalgia rather than racial tensions or post-War rationing—there isn’t anything very conventional about Flavia. Well, she is an annoying kid, kind of a know-it-all, and that’s a type we’re all familiar with, but once you get past her spotty-faced brashness, and even leave aside her prankish sense of fun, she has a remarkable mind.

Sherlock Holmes can identify brands of tobacco from their ashes, but, after a trip to the laboratory she inherited from her uncle, Flavia can give you the exact chemical composition of anything. Did I mention she’d then find a way to make it poisonous?

Remarkably, Flavia isn’t at the center of either of these revenge plots—either as poisoner or poisonee. As antiheroic as Flavia is, the mysterious red-haired man who turns up dead at the end of her garden and the cruelly violent puppeteer who’s electrocuted during a church hall show are vastly more despicable, with plenty of enemies willing to put them in the ground.

 Flavia’s debut in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is as delicious as the name suggests. Flavia’s chemical quirks combine with a cast of equally interesting characters—her mother, the dead mountaineer; shell-shocked veteran and friendly gardener, Dogger;  or Mrs. Mullet, the cook whose nose spends more time in other people’s business than her food does in their stomachs—and layer the book with a light-hearted complexity that delivers plenty of twists and turns before the thrilling resolution. I’d rate it four and a sip out of five cups of tea—that’s Harrisons & Crosfield’s Tempting Mango Tea, delicate and fruity for a sweetly elegant book.

The young sleuth’s sophomore outing is an altogether earthier affair. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Noose keeps on many characters from The Sweetness, but Bradley’s less adept at weaving them here, and heavy-handed story-lines clunk against each other. Dogger and Flavia continue to deliver some of the series’ most heartfelt interactions, but many of the other relationships fall flat. Still, Bradley concocts with a charming whimsy, and tea fans might find it worth reading for the story of a samovar called Peter the Great. Personally, I’d give it three out of five cups of tea for faithful Dogger: he’s a simple man, so we’ll make the tea Yorkshire Gold, and we’ll drink it as a real builder’s brew.

I’ll go put the kettle on.

Till next time,

Eleanor