Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen

twains endI usually don’t copy and paste book blurbs here, or suggest reading them in general, but the description of Twain’s End is crucial to know why it is intriguing in the first place —

In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?

What becomes immediately clear is that Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens is an asshole. An emotional vampire with a cruel temper who absolutely loves himself (slash hates himself). A man who takes perverse delight in controlling those around him — withholding affection from his family, playing friends off against eachother, lording his literary reputation over people to coerce them into his desires, and when emotional manipulation doesn’t work, he resorts to brute force: locking his daughter in a room for 3 weeks because a man dared to make a call on her.  

The main character of Twain’s End is his secretary Isabel Lyon. She is a smart woman who is totally cognizant of the contents of the paragraph above, yet she still falls in love with him. This is why the the book fails for me, why I gave up on finishing it. The dynamic of ‘servant/X in love with married master’ feels done to death in general, but for it to work, especially when the recipient of the ill-gotten devotion is so obviously a jerk, the writer really needs to sell me on why the hell he is so magnetic. Clemens isn’t charming or witty enough to be the guy who sleeps with the only woman in the room. Lynn Cullen set herself the unenviable task of trying to pull off the mordant voice of Mark Twain and doesn’t really succeed. The ‘salacious slut’ line from Twain’s actual letter makes me go ‘Wow! Such vitriol!’. You could maybe see a man with that kind of command of language getting away with Clemen’s abuses, but the novel as-is mostly just elicits an indifferent shrug.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

white-tigerBackstory: While in India, I was frequently asked —

What are you planning to buy and take back home? We have excellent fabrics!

Some jewelry for my wife.

And for yourself?

I don’t know. A book? What’s the best bookstore in Bangalore?

Oh. The bookstores are shutting down… nowadays everyone is getting them electronically. The shops are shutting down; no business.

Several people told me this! I was not asking the right people. To be fair, I’m sure if you asked my American co-workers who either don’t read or can’t see beyond the plastic enclosure of their Kindle, they would say the same, even within a city full of great bookstores. I eventually asked the right people (the readers; of paper) and discovered that Bangalore has at least one awesome bookstore.

Blossom — 3 storeys of floor to ceiling shelves, bowing under the weight of vertically stacked mountains of books, the scent of bookdust filling the air as you precariously shift a column to reach a tome at the bottom. Which brings me to this quote for The White Tiger:

There was a foul taste of book in my mouth — as if I had inhaled so much particulated old paper from the air. Strange thoughts brew in your heart when you spend too much time with old books.

Anyway, I bought a few books, including The White Tiger. Everyone I talked to had either read it and thought it was a great book or had not read it but absorbed it so completely via cultural osmosis that they thought it was a great book.

And indeed, it was a pretty good book.

* * *

Central to this book are two animals:

The White Tiger: What is the white tiger but the rarest animal in all the jungle? Metaphor for an Indian who actually manages to escape his caste for good.

The Rooster (and his coop): Rows upon rows of chickens stuffed in tiny cages in the Delhi market, crawling and shitting over eachother, unable to leave even if the door lay open before them. All of the people in the servant class, stuck there permanently because the rich will literally murder their entire extended family if they fly the coop.

That’s because we have the coop.

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent — as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way — to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

There’s a second dichotomy explained in the novel: The borders of India, especially places touching water are The Light. The Darkness is everywhere else — where the majority is extremely poor, crushed under the thumb of the rich, equipped with schools that don’t teach, rigged elections, no running water or functional hospitals, and a constant threat of violence.

If it’s not clear from the quote above, let me tell you: Aravind Adiga is angry. This text excoriates the Indian government and its stratified society. The novel follows Balram Halwai*, a poor man born in The Darkness near to the village where Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree. His family is cripplingly poor, as is all his neighbors; there’s almost zero chance to change their fortune and everyone in the village is subservient to a cadre of thuggish landlords. The most comfortable creature in the family is their water buffalo. From his boyhood, Balram dreams of something better. After lucking into the role of driver for one of the landlord families, he becomes a hired driver and launches his meteoric rise into the streets of Delhi, where murder and entrepreneurship follow.

Balram is supposedly an intrepid but ignorant villager, whose education stopped somewhere mid-gradeschool. But the story, with its witty voice and descriptive prose, oscillating between disgusting descriptions of squalor and beautiful descriptions of nature and humanity takes a backseat to Adiga and how pissed off he is. Early on, Balram mentions how a singular phrase in english transcends language and simply cannot be said any other way. That phrase is:

What a fucking a joke.

As in (Balram speaking on police corruption):

Being called a murderer: fine, I have no objection to that. It’s a fact. I am a sinner, a fallen human. But to be called murderer by the police!

What a fucking joke

(As an aside: as an ignorant westerner visiting Bangalore and Mysore, two places well outside The Darkness, the crushing poverty and class divide wasn’t terribly striking beyond what I see in the US; but something that was immediately obvious was the way people discussed police corruption and the constant casual joking about being sick of paying off the cops)

Balram’s country-yokel ignorance is played off as jokes. His thoughts on the curative power of virgins, his wonder over roads in China. But the narrative voice of Adiga shines through. For instance, Balram is nominally religious and prays to Hindu gods (or in a few scenes, uses some Kali magnets in his car as good luck), but the narrative voice is clearly secular and says it outright by the end. It works because the voice of the novel is so absorbing. But it also has its problems. Women are not treated kindly in this novel and there is no narrative overture to allow us to feel the author is critical of this. Actually, there’s a scene that I swear happened almost exactly in a Rushdie novel: a pack of familial women physically attacking a man who comes home from a lengthy period of hard labor to take all his money. Women are yet another obstacle for the revolutionary and entrepreneurial man of India to overcome.

While I enjoyed the novel, I’m not entirely sure what Adiga has to tell us. Murder our boss, abandon home and run off to a city with a booming economy? Certainly I’ve done a version that — albeit not so extreme, with no murder and less drama. But it’s hardly a universal solution, especially for such an angry book. For all Adiga’s righteous anger, he leaves us with nothing much beyond a promise of the rich being incrementally less corrupt. Maybe.

*Halwai means sweetmaker, Balram’s family’s caste prior to the the supposed abolition of castes. Adiga makes a point that after the British dusted castes and left, India went from a multitude of very specific castes to just two: those with small bellies and those with big bellies (the rich).

One thing I find interesting is that I think those of us from the west, or at least me anyway, simplify castes down to a version akin to Medieval Europe — peasant, merchant, priest, noble — but India clarified it down to the most precise element of society. When I was listening to a tour in Mysore castle, I beheld the palanquin of the old Indian royalty and had it explained to me that there was a specific caste of people just to carry the palanquins.

So Many Me


After my first short session with So Many Me, a game I received free for being an Xbox live subscriber, I figured I’d never play it again.


Well, it has a cutesy story that is neither cute nor funny and is trying a bit too hard. The gameplay gimmick, that you control an army of “ME’s” that turn into blocks you can then use as platforms didn’t seem enough to base a platformer around. And worst of all, the movement felt imprecise and floaty, which is sort of the death-knell for a good platformer — control is king. On top of all this, the graphic style reminded me of old newgrounds/flash games and just felt sort of cheap.

But I wasn’t really sure what game to play next (and it’s a mild tic for me to always have a book or game lined up to follow the next one or face mild panic), so I decided to give So Many Me another chance. It then completely absorbed me, was a joy to play, and over the next few days I 100% completed it.


Because, while So Many Me is ostensibly a platformer, what becomes clear after the first few levels is that is primarily a really inventive and well designed puzzle game. The game takes a few simple principles:

  • ME’s can turn into blocks that can be used as platforms, hold down switches, block bullets.
  • ME’s can eat special fruit to turn into trampolines, enemy attracting bait, or automatically rising platforms; these all have secondary puzzle-solving traits.
  • You can only un-transform ME’s back to their normal state (to use again) in the reverse order you used them — so, last one first.
  • ME’s die very easily (100% clocked me just shy of 3000 dead ME’s), but checkpoints are extremely lenient.

That’s it. There’s like 4 or 5 enemy types. But the game combines these features together again and again in novel, interesting, and challenging ways. The levels are not all that long but you will use their entire breadth to pull off a complicated solution to a puzzle — ME’s will be littered across several screens serving as platforms for you to jump across and holding down just the right switches for you to then rapidly dissemble into a new set of platforms before all the enemies you were keeping trapped with blocks and switches swarm you before you can reach the treasure you sought.

I became more forgiving of the controls, and eventually found the visual style charming (though never the story). Even then, when the game gets into full platformer-mode, it is not at its best. All of the bosses require rote memorization to manage the set of tasks and path you must form to defeat them. There’s precise platformer setups you must perform after you’ve carefully organized all your ME’s in a very specific pattern, and if the controls don’t stick the way you expected, it’s maddening to re-create the puzzle solution again.

But, all said: Great game.

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley (Worldbreaker #2)

EmpireAscendant-144dpiThis is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga. I reviewed part one, The Mirror Empire, last year. Reading my own review prior to starting part two turned out to be a boon. The world is complicated, the dramatis personae lengthy. According to my Kindle, the glossary at the end is 5% of the total mass of the book. Even after the refresher, I was a bit overwhelmed by the plethora of similar-sounding names for a good while.

The world is under assault from a relentless army from a mirror-world, an army comprised of phantom versions of the people of this one. They’ve already sacked an entire continent and are on their way to conquer the other two main countries. A hodgepodge group of characters all over the world stand to oppose them (and just as frequently: oppose each other). The pace, the headlong speed of the action, the scale continues to be Hurley’s strong suit. So many world(s)-spanning epic fantasies become lost in their own details and sputter on following millions of new threads introduced each book. The Worldbreaker Saga is speedy, despite the massive scope. Events happen quickly. The plot is spinning at a nice and compelling rate, while still remaining (mostly) comprehensible. When new threads are introduced, old ones are severed. Character bloat isn’t an issue when a writer is balancing the scales by brutally murdering many of the old ones (seriously brutal, not faux-brutal — trust me).

I complained of the world not feeling weird enough in The Mirror Empire, especially given how strange it was supposed to be. Empire Ascendant is more satisfactory in that regard, the strange attributes (killer plants, moon-based magic powers, world hopping) are better realized and many of the old tropes discarded. When we can base a major set piece on an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tea party of disparate characters sitting down for a banquet right in between two different armies protected by magic air bubbles, and the scene works, we’re going places. I’m still a little nonplussed by the main continent/character set where the action is taking place (Dhai) but there was so much going on all over the damn place, that I wasn’t too displeased.

There’s a theme that runs through the novel about ‘monsters’. To fight a monster, you must become one. Gaze long into the abyss… etc. While it is of course credible that being exposed to constant violence would provoke violent tendencies in the person (or people) attempting to survive, it does not mean they would need to become monsters. I always balk when a character in a narrative thinks something along the lines of “If I do this [possibly bad thing], then I’ll be just as bad as them.” I am not sold by Empire Ascendant’s version of this; the villains have launched a sustained genocidal rampage on such an unimaginable scale, that the main characters killing a few people (in self defense) just cannot compare. Nor am I sold on the theme beyond the scope of the novel — that real life evil requires evil in return. It seems to be like Hurley is reaching for some of the moral heft of Oakley Hall’s Warlock but not quite grasping it.

Another reason maybe I’m not sold on it is because I do not find the characters to be truly believable people. I saw this as a detractor in the first book (and still feel like the universe has some strange-but-nostalgic affinity to video games) but I’ve come to terms with the characters being less realistic depictions of people and more like pulpy archetypes who speak modern english. I’ve read Kameron Hurley’s blog and she’s confessed her love of 80s action heroes and I can see the influence in Empire Ascendant. Several scenes in the book could be reinvented as death metal album covers. Picture a grim anti-hero bleeding out, reclining on a mountain of corpses, flipping off the camera. That’s honestly not that far from a description of one character’s demise in this book.

Empire Ascendant does everything the first book did well better, and minimizes on the things the first book did poorly. Not much more you can ask for from a sequel. I’m invested in the plot. It’s refreshing to feel like this is actually going to wrap up in three books. The board is set for book 3 and I look forward to the conclusion.

The Trial by Franz Kafka


before the Law stands a door-keeper. To this door-keeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the door-keeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. ‘It is possible,’ answers the door-keeper, ‘but not at this moment.’

K. is accused of a crime. He is stand trial. He is not informed what his crime is, when or where his trial will take place, or anything but a long list of obscure and contradictory facts on how the process will be run.

The Trial is the haunting companion piece to The Castle. A character locked in incomprehensible bureaucratic hell. Unlike The Castle, with its monotonous city streets and inclement weather, The Trial is cramped, claustrophobic. The law offices of the court, the rooms of K.’s lawyers, anything related to the proceedings at all, take places in dusty old attics with low ceilings that cause people to stoop. The light is dim. The air is so stifling you literally cannot breathe if you have not become acclimated to the atmosphere. There’s secret closets K. stumbles upon in his own workplace that contain torture chambers; K’s office goes from a place of triumph to a prison he yearns to leave.

You can liken The Trial to everything from the seemingly arbitrary state-sanctioned process of contesting a parking ticket to grim foreshadowing of the holocaust. The system itself is monstrous. No single person squares off but a small portion of it. K. stumbles across various characters who give him contradictory tales about the courts, who lord their knowledge over him and then become baffled when he doesn’t act on their nonsense. It drains him completely. He meets men who have divested their fortunes across several lawyers and years later still do not know for what crime they have been accused. It’s completely absurd but also reasonable and chilling and the same critique Kafka was terrified of and writing in the twenties can be applied to modernity.

K. maintains the the Law must be just and reasonable and he simply has to comprehend its workings and all will make sense. But that is impossible. Like today, many people are assured there is some reason, some logic to the madness of state. It’s funny because readers summarize this as “we never know what K. did wrong”, when I think it’s implicit that K. did nothing wrong. 

Who could these men be? What were they talking about? What authority could they represent? K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling?

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

ac china

Sometimes you don’t realize you miss something until it’s gone.

The Assassin’s Creed series has a notoriously goofy sci-fi framing story. It bends history to allow its protagonists to be the guiding hand/blade beyond all major events. From Ezio Auditore thwarting the Borgias and murdering their patriarch to Conner-Ratonhnhaké:ton sparking virtually all of the events in the American Revolution. It’s silly. I make fun of it. But it’s somehow charming and absorbing. Chronicles dispenses with the sci fi portion and barely interacts with the history, instead opting for the most phoned in revenge story of all time. Meet Shao-Jun, our nearly entirely character-less main character, as she mumblemumble  loses a magic box and mumblemumble must avenge her brothers and mumblemumblemumble-walking away from the TV now…

Assassin’s Creed’s most valuable and absorbing element is its ability to take you back to another time period, to gorgeously render the Holy Land of the crusades era, the rooftops of Renaissance Italy, or the cerulean waters of the Caribbean’s golden age of piracy. This is more or less impossible to achieve in 2d. Chronicles is pretty and nicely stylized, but it doesn’t feel much like China in the way the 3d games feel like their respective places. It’s an extra shame that the main series has devolved into Things White People Did, so more interesting and varying locales — Chronicles is set to be three games: China, India, and Russia — are shunted to 2d sidestories.

So all and all, this game does not feel like Assassin’s Creed. It’s a fun little timewaster though.

Shao-Jun moves across a 2d plane, with depth. She can run (or swing, with a blade attached to an elastic rope that would be swell to use in 3 dimensions…) into the background or foreground, occasionally several levels deep. Enemies patrol these areas; they have a field of vision displayed on the screen (seen in my screenshot above). If Shao wanders into these fields, the enemies spot her, call reinforcements and charge. Unlike the whirling dervish protagonists of the main series, this hero is extremely vulnerable and easy to kill. Open combat is always a last resort.

The game grades you on how you manage each segment of a level. It splits it up into Shadow (don’t get seen), Assassin (kill everyone without being seen), and Brawler (kill everyone in open combat and don’t get hit). Then there is Gold-Silver-Bronze for each of those types. Unfortunately, not all play styles are treated equally. Shadow means more points than Assassin which means more points than Brawler. It’s strange because Brawler is actually the most difficult and Assassin is the most fun. So if you’re chasing a high score, which you ought to be in this type of game, you have to ignore a large swathe of Shao-Jun’s abilities and learn how to navigate the entire game without ever being seen. It’s satisfying when you nail it, especially with enemy-dense later levels that require some real thought, but I do wish all styles were equally valued.

The game has the good sense to mix it up a bit — some levels dispense with the stealth and turn into a mad dash where you must outrun snaking tendrils of flames, and explosions, and in the most memorable and history-evoking, a Mongol attack on The Great Wall. They’re reminiscent-but-not-quite-as-good as the runner levels in Rayman Legends/Origins. In addition, Chronicles is short and does not overstay its welcome, with repetition or its somewhat shoddy controls. Just enough to get me to pick up Chronicles: India when it arrives.

Slade House by David Mitchell

slade houseA short review for a short book.

Slade House begins in 1977, in the first-person viewpoint of a thirteen year old autistic boy who stumbles into an unfortunate encounter with soul sucking vampires living in the eponymous house, which exists in a semi-magical bubble frozen at an exact moment some time around the second world war.


The next chapter begins nine years later in 1986 following a different first person character, a crass copper this time, who also comes upon Slade House and… if you’re experiencing deja vu by this point it’s because Slade House follows a very similar tract to that of David Mitchell’s recently published novel: The Bone Clocks. Indeed, it takes place in the same universe. Mentally, I referred to the books as the same title. As in, ‘I need to put down The Bone Clocks and go to sleep’.

And really, if you want to know what I think of Slade House, you can just read my Bone Clocks review. It’s exactly the same thing, with the same successes and shortcomings, on a much smaller scale. The sci-fi-hocus-pocus technobabble is a maybe a little bit too much in Slade House: one entire chapter (of a total of five) is spent on the villain’s backstory and how they created Slade House and we honestly didn’t need to know more about them beyond ‘We eat souls!’. But this is countered by the otherwise swift pacing — with the shorter, twitter-inspired chapters, Mitchell has no choice but to jump right into the story and he does not waste a word.

And, more Bone Clocks? Great! Two David Mitchell novels in one year? Even better.

The Familiar: Volume 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski



how many raindrops?


One rainy day in May, 2014, a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated but absolutely absorbing events happen. A 13 year old girl with epilepsy tries not to lose herself contemplating how to count all the raindrops in the sky; a gangster initiates a strange new recruit; a hard-boiled detective contemplates his love affair with LA; in Singapore, weird shit is happening; in Texas, weird shit is happening; plus several other plotlines. By the end of this book, volume 1 of 27 (!!), very few of the stories connect in anything but general atmosphere, but like the engaging serial TV dramas it evokes, I can’t wait to figure out how to they all come together.


how many raindrops how many raindrops how many


Mark Danielewski of House of Leaves fame, occasionally accused of gimmickry, is known for breaking down the traditional novel format by altering typography and spacing to match the narrative content, inserting images, changing text axises (causing you to flip the book around at various angles), and literary-mathematical puzzles. House of Leaves example: Characters crawling in a tight space means the text itself shrinks and takes up dramatically less space on the page. For several pages. The Familiar example: Xanther, our epileptic and anxiety-ridden protagonist ponders how to plot the number of raindrops falling from the sky and the text itself is twisted into falling rain, puddles. As Xanther’s unease mounts, the image is rearranged to confuse the eyes and trigger her anxiety in the reader. It works!

Likewise, characters spend a lot of time thinking, especially Xanther’s parents, and their thoughts are distributed in nested parentheticals (It’s occasionally hard to read (but it’s more like people actually think (do you reflect in clear sentences all the time?)) that do a great job of revealing character’s desires and concerns (thus ends my example of nested parentheticals)).


how many raindrops


Sometimes you’re reading one sentence or one word per page. This arouses an immense and inexplicable amount of hostility from some readers/reviewers. Like challenging form is some kind of literary offense. Danielewski’s single word pages have delivered superior content to many five hundred word pages I’ve read. One thing I will allow: Danielewski is a skilled writer, but it is the style and composition of the novel that is his unique and lasting skill; the multi-plotted storyline of The Familiar is reminiscent of other authors (David Mitchell comes to mind immediately) and while it’s quite good, it wouldn’t stand up as well as a standalone vanilla text. But the style is not an affectation — it’s deeply rooted in the conception of the novel itself — wondering what The Familiar would be like without all the stylistic, typographic, and narrative quirks is missing the point.


how many


Danielewski is a nerd. All his books pull deeply from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Pulp detective stories. A plot line in the book involves Xanther’s dad, a video game dev, and there’s segments of his code on pages of the book, discussion of which physics engine to license. The Matrix is key. There’s a hilarious aside where the dog-fighting gangster character, Luther, compares his life to that of Michael Vick. Indeed, Danielewski does not shy from current events — the characters engage with modern smartphone tech: skype, instagram, etc. It shortens the gap for the made up social media apps in the novel, which will absolutely become more important in future volumes.

Future volumes I will assuredly read. I love this stuff.