Category Archives: recommended books

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.

The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

Shakespeare’s The Tempest re-imagined as a steampunk fairy tale – I had high expectations for this novel when I picked it up, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a beautifully written novel, as humorous as it is tragic and as meaningful as it is compelling. While Palmer gets a slow and somewhat tedious start, relating Harold’s first encounters with Miranda and his mundane work as a writer of greeting cards, he uses these pages to establish an imaginative and elaborate world that provides an excellent backbone for the rest of the story. Palmer’s steampunk London, while safely within the genre’s conventional confines, is unique in that it suffers the psychological and philosophical consequences of its futuristic technology. The Dream is a novel that questions the function of language using language, and it does so by creating a world in which technology has replaced talking. With the amazing technologies created by inventors like Prospero Taligent, real conversations are no longer necessary. People still communicate but they don’t really use language to do it anymore.

Who better to narrate such a world than Harold, whose job is to write soothing, meaningless platitudes that are mass-produced and given to people in lieu of actual letters? Well, for a start, Miranda, daughter of the man responsible for the loss of language. My main qualm with The Dream of Perpetual Motion is that it chooses a rather mundane, everyman narrator over a pair of fascinating and much more complicated characters. This is a narrative choice that offers Palmer a few conveniences in terms of story-telling, but forces him to sacrifice a first-hand investigation of a world that has abandoned language. Fortunately, Harold tells the story of the Taligents effectively enough that this is not much of a distraction. The Taligents are enjoyable characters even when viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Prospero – true to source – is a morally complicated and emotionally damaged man whose self-destructive tendencies make him a “bad guy” only in that he does not have the capability to make the right choices; Miranda is a naive and perpetually childlike woman who fails to recognize her father’s faults because she has no context in which to put them. Neither character is much like Harold or the rest of his society – but strange as they are, they exemplify the direction in which Harold’s world is going.

From this point on, the novel becomes not only a discussion of the role of language in relationships, but in defining what it means to be human. Caliban, a demented creation that Prospero considered a failure, records his experiences in a journal with more eloquence and emotion than that displayed by either Miranda or her father. So are they really more human than the mechanical monster? And in a world where technology can replicate human communication, is language a way to measure humanity anymore? As The Dream of Perpetual Motion builds to a complicated (somewhat muddled, in fact) and twist-packed climax, Palmer reveals that Miranda herself is the perpetual motion machine. Prospero’s greatest scientific accomplishment is his emotionally broken, psychologically disturbed daughter, whose isolation from the outside world has made her the perfect machine but the biggest disaster of a human imaginable.

Despite the few kinks in Palmer’s debut – The Tempest shouldn’t, I think, have been name-dropped within the narrative – The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a wonderfully insightful and entertaining read that I would recommend for fans of steampunk, Shakespeare, or good story-telling.

Recommended

Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Letham

At the age of 13, Pella Marsh loses her mother and her home on the scorched husk that is planet Earth. Her sorrowing family emigrates to the Planet of the Archbuilders, whose mysterious inhabitants have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneel—and a civilization that frightens their human visitors.
 On this new world, spikily independent Pella becomes an uneasy envoy between two species. And at the same time is unwillingly drawn to a violent loner who embodies all the paranoid machismo of the frontier ethic. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

Most summaries of this novel will describe it as Lolita in space, but that is both inaccurate and unfair to the harrowing, beautiful masterpiece that is Girl in Landscape. Letham is clever enough to make a well-worn technique work when he uses setting as a metaphor for psyche – Girl is not only an intricate coming-of-age story but an inventive and enjoyable sci-fi novel. As Pella leaves behind the familiar comforts of her home on Earth – including, most notably, her mother – she ventures into a foreign, frightening new realm populated by imposing, alien creatures: outer space. But also adolescence. With her mother gone, Pella is left to navigate her new world and its strange occupants alone, save for the company of her detached father and childish brothers.

Acclimating to the planet of the Archbuilders has unforeseen complications. Namely, the surreal experiences that some describe as “indigenous diseases” and Pella herself describes as her “deer form,” so named for the small, feral animals that run invisibly over the surface of the planet. Pella, who is herself small and prone to feeling invisible, finds herself periodically slipping into a strange trance state in which she describes herself as unable to be detected and therefore privy to the arguments and accusations that are otherwise kept behind her neighbors’ closed doors. Though Pella’s vaguely sexual relationship with enigmatic outsider Efram Nugent forms one of the novel’s most darkly compelling conflicts, Girl in Landscape is primarily the story of a fledgling community on an isolated frontier and not of a couple with an age disparity issue.

That said, Girl is invested enough in its narrator to narrow its focus on her conflicts rather than those of the entire planet, a choice for which I was thankful. Girl in Landscape is one of those rare novels which takes on an organically adolescent voice without actually becoming a YA angst-fest. Pella is a sympathetic, engaging narrator whose characterization is strong, complex, and absorbing. Girl in Landscape is as much an extended work of portraiture (note the title) as it is a story, and by the time Letham brings his work to its thunderous conclusion, he has drawn a figure in whom we can see every dimension of earthly adolescence reflected back at us through the lens of otherworldly experience.

 Recommended

The Inverted Forest by John Dalton

Summer, 1996, at Kindermann Forest Camp in rural Missouri. The elderly camp director finds his counselors swimming naked two days before camp is to open and fires all of them. As a result, new counselors must be hired and brought to camp. One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. All his life, large, gentle, diligent Wyatt has been misjudged because of his physical appearance. Along with the other new counselors he arrives ready to care for children. To their astonishment, they learn that for the first two weeks of the camping season they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state.

In this world away from the world, the new counselors and disabled campers begin to reveal themselves. Most are well-intentioned, others unprepared. Some harbor dangerous inclinations. Soon Wyatt is called upon to prevent a terrible tragedy. In doing so, he commits an act whose repercussions will alter his own life and the lives of the other Kindermann Forest staff members for years to come. (Synopsis source: www.daltonnovel.com)

The Inverted Forest takes place mostly in Kindermann Forest Camp, an enchantingly isolated, almost eerie world unto itself, a microcosm with as much baggage as each of the counselors who become last minute replacements for more carefully selected candidates in the beginning of this novel. As one might expect, some of the counselors have been less than honest about their backgrounds – in fact, The Inverted Forest depends heavily on deceiving appearances and mistakes in perception to tell its story. But for the first two thirds of the novel, Dalton chooses to keep the nature of those deceptions vague without ever becoming “mysterious” in a heavy-handed way, as authors less gifted with subtlety are wont to do. Instead, he drags the reader into the world of the camp not as a spectator, but as a silent participant, giving them the same information that is given to everyone else but building intricate layers of foreshadowing around his hidden truths that feel obvious only in retrospect.

Most prone to the double-edged knife that these hidden truths present is the novel’s main character, Wyatt, whose facial features resemble those of a retarded person due to a genetic disorder – one which, unbeknownst to most strangers, has no effect on his intelligence. On first glance, many people assume Wyatt to be retarded, an impression that has had a profound effect on Wyatt’s perception of himself and his true intelligence. Throughout Forest, Wyatt questions the relationship between his intelligence and his appearance again and again, a question that he suddenly cannot ignore when a troupe of mentally retarded adult campers are under his care. After so many years being treated as if he is mentally retarded, Wyatt has deluded himself into thinking that he is retarded simply because other people have always thought so. When he is suddenly thrust into the role of a person of able intelligence, his identity is fractured. Or, perhaps, one might say, inverted.

If we are to accept the somewhat cliche but eternally valuable “appearances are deceiving” motif as one that is principal to The Inverted Forest, then Wyatt’s personal narrative becomes one that is emblematic of the problems that strike Kindermann Forest Camp when appearances, in lieu of real information, are used to make judgments. Dalton executes this motif as beautifully as anyone reasonably can after it’s been done so many times without drawing the reader away from his plot in the process.

However, there are the last 100 pages. When I reached page 212, which completes Part I of the novel in my copy, I was entranced and very much impressed by what I assumed to be Forest’s conclusion. Then I kept reading. And it dragged on. And on. For approximately 120 more pages, which is 120 more than I needed or wanted from this novel. It appears that Dalton wished to give his main character some sense of redemption and closure, which would have been okay except for that he also dragged readers through choppy, epilogue-ish forays into the lives of the other counselors fifteen years later in a dull, self-indulgent epilogue to what would have otherwise been a very well-written novel.

Recommended 

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiakwan

Of Bees and Mist is an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality.

Meridia grows up in a lonely home until she falls in love with Daniel at age sixteen. Soon, they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her charming husband’s family—unaware that they harbor dark mysteries of their own. As Meridia struggles to embrace her life as a young bride, she discovers long-kept secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink. (Synopsis source: http://www.ericksetiawan.com/)

Though Of Bees and Mist is certainly not a fantasy novel, it might well be described as a fairy tale. After all, the familiar elements are all there: a wicked matriarchal figure (not a stepmother, but close enough), an unhappy childhood, a surreal, atemporal world where fortune-tellers and ghosts serve as plot devices, and a charming prince. But Of Bees‘ Daniel is a lackluster substitute for the proverbial knight in shining armor, a problem which lays at the heart of Of Bees and Mist. At its core, this novel is an interrogation of the fairy tale formula that is so much a part of women’s fiction.

Meridia herself is a perfect character for such an exploration. At the beginning of the novel, she is naive and desperately optimistic. She expects Daniel to save her and when he appears to do so, she takes his actions and their consequences at face value. Throughout Of Bees and Mist, Meridia suffers the consequences of her naivety and so does every other character who tries to live by the rules of their society. If Of Bees is, as its synopsis says, a “fable,” then its moral would certainly be that breaking the genre conventions of your own life is sometimes the only way to survive to the end of the story. As Meridia comes into her own and becomes an increasingly self-assured character, she learns to take actions that are dangerously unconventional. To the surprise of her husband, in-laws, and society, Meridia’s strength and courage is often rewarded.

My only major qualm with Of Bees and Mist is its ending, which is an ambiguous and possibly contradictory way to end Setiawan’s otherwise beautifully expressed fable. In beating Eva at her own game, Setiawan hints that Meridia has possibly “become” Eva. If Eva embodies the same strength that Meridia does, Of Bees is portraying self-reliance and inner strength as problematic character traits that guide the actions of antagonists. The rest of the novel suggests that this is not true. The clear moral lines drawn between characters like Eva and Meridia never blur earlier in the story; Meridia’s actions are portrayed as attempts to survive, while Eva’s are expressions of tyranny. If Setiawan truly does mean to imply that the only way to survive a fairy tale is to become its villian, Of Bees and Mist is a hopelessly bleak novel. For this reader, that creates a weird and unsettling contrast when held up against the rest of the book.

Recommended