THE GREEN KANGAROOS, by Jessica McHugh


22043543The Green Kangaroos

By Jessica McHugh
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing – August 2014
ISBN 9780986059469  – 184 Pages – Paperback


With a plot tapped into addiction and attempts at recovery, The Green Kangaroos is an intense, inventive look into selfishness at its most extreme, most ugly. Like A Clockwork Orange it is less about the horror of the deviant and more about the horrors perpetrated by those trying to correct the deviancy. The year is 2099 and Perry Samson is unapologetically addicted to atlys, a powerful drug that is most potently euphoric with injection straight into the sexual organs, in Perry’s case the testicles. Even as Perry steps deeper into self-destructive depravity to attain fixes of atlys-induced happiness, his younger sister (with the help of their parents) pursues a radical recovery treatment for Perry in the undying hope that her brother can be reformed.
Works dealing with the powerful gravity of addiction and the dangers that it can bring directly to the addict or indirectly to friends, family, even strangers aren’t uncommon. What sets apart McHugh’s novel is the consideration that the agendas of those trying to cure the addict may be just as defined by destructively addictive tendencies, to a selfishness just as violent. Perry is generally unlikable, crass, and utterly selfish. Yet, he possesses a strong, honest self-perception. Atlys is a drug that makes him feel unbelievably happy, that fuels desires and centers him, regardless of whether it is helping or hurting him. Perry understands his predicament, that using this aptly named drug as a means of navigating through his existence is ultimately poisonous and destructive. He is fully aware that his need is pushing him further into situations he wouldn’t have considered before – including selling his flesh literally (‘potsticking’) and figuratively (prostitution) to fund some more of the drug. While he regularly lies to others to suit his desires, never does Perry lie to himself.
In contrast are the members of Perry’s family, particularly his little sister Nadine. Nadine is shown as firmly committed to the idea of saving her brother, but the matter of her motivations is less clear. She seeks out a new treatment option that to any rational person would be clearly too-good-to-be-true. Despite having a sense of this deep down, Nadine (and the parents) lie to themselves with the righteousness of their hopes and goals, and ignore any sense of dangers. They avoid asking questions or fully recognizing their predicament (or Perry’s) in the care of the doctors who run the recovery program. As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Nadine is not really looking for Perry’s salvation, but rather is pursuing her own selfish desires to have a ‘normal’, non-addict brother. She will lie to herself, risk herself and others to attain this state of happiness. Not wanting to reveal too much of the plot, the main doctor at the treatment facility has gone through the similar extremes of an addiction to the recovery process at the cost of anything, including the bodies of those he seeks to help.
McHugh’s The Green Kangaroos is thus a really perceptive and profound novel despite its short length and the gritty crassness of its subjects. The futuristic setting and speculative aspects of the recovery program are well imagined and integrated into the plot. At first given its setting in 2099 I wanted to see more of what general society was like, how it was different other than the bits of underworld jargon and environment that McHugh shows. But soon I realized the tight limitation of revealing this universe to Perry’s world and the institution of recovery help keep the focus of the novel intense, tight.
The language is certainly not something that will be to everyone’s taste. It is frequently vulgar and visceral in its depictions of sex and drugs in the underbelly of society. Yet, this shouldn’t be surprising for the topic or style of McHugh and this novel’s setting. In terms of the writing, there were a few instances where dialogue in particular seemed forced, the only critique to this that I can reasonably perceive. At first some of the similes feel too absurd, too much like provoking for reaction. However, I quickly realized these occur in Perry’s first person point of view chapters, and he is simply that kind of guy. McHugh’s writing definitely shines though in her descriptive passages. You can tell she has a love for words, and I most love the playfulness of her prose. This is really what drew me to her work originally. For instance, right from the start with the prologue, she plays on the word ‘junk’ in its multiple meanings and then parallels that at the start of chapter one with our introduction to Perry. McHugh’s imagination is strong and energetic, and she constructs a story well here from the words on up to the plot and themes. I’ll look forward to reading more, even when it is a genre or style that isn’t at the top of my usual reading tastes.

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1451679319
496 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Sometimes getting behind on reviews can have its benefits. For example, I’ve gotten to think about this novel for longer after finishing it than I expected. When about halfway through Chris Evans’ Of Bone and Thunder I was still finding it hard to get into, appreciate, or particularly enjoy. Upon finishing it I had a hard time figuring out what of substance I could even say about it.
Upon reflection I realized that my failure to be drawn into the novel stemmed largely from it just not being what I thought it would be, of being the novel I probably unreasonably wanted it to be. Perhaps you’ve read a book with the same mindset and results? Once accepting the novel for what it actually intends to be I find a deeper appreciation for it, and Evans’ “daring” to try something a little different. Though I’ve grown to appreciate several aspects of the novel, some problems still remain in my mind.
Unreasonable reader expectations began with the novel’s marketing description as “Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings”. I’m always wary of such comparisons to authors or works, so this wasn’t a strong expectation for me at least. But it may be for other readers. Of Bone and Thunder is a fantasy novel with allegorical themes recalling the Vietnam War. So those titles only serve as overused proxies for highly recognized associations with ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Fantasy’. Evans’ novel has little to nothing in common with the plots or styles of Coppola’s film (or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or Tolkien’s trilogy.
Of Bone and Thunder keeps sharp focus on a handful of characters who are soldiers waging war in the land of Luitox for a distant kingdom (The Kingdom). Their enigmatic enemy are the Slyts, a reclusive jungle-inhabiting people skilled at guerilla-style tactics. Beyond the conventional warfare of the common soldiers, the conflict hinges on the power of – and intelligence gathered by thaums (as in thaumaturge) on each side. Balancing their handicap of unfamiliar territory and foe, the Kingdom also has the advantage of flight, in the form of lethal, but volatile, dragons.
One thing Evans does very effectively is include a cast of characters who span the class spectrum of the Kingdom’s military: thaum, commander, dragon-tender, common soldier, covert op, etc. For most of the novel these characters are largely skewed to the male gender – as it would be if it were actually the Vietnam War, but gradually some female characters enter the novel, and thankfully in ways that don’t just involve romantic interest for the men – though that over-worn path is still traveled.
With a focus on individuals of the Kingdom, the novel captures a sense of their psychology and trauma, fighting what seems an almost pointless campaign against an enemy barely known for a distant ruling class that is barely familiar itself. These parallels to Vietnam are blatant, and rather familiar.
And here is where I really wanted Of Bone and Thunder to be something else. Glimpses of the Slyts kept making me want to see and know more about them – their reality and point of view on this war – and see less of the American proxies of the Kingdom. At first it seemed unclear if the Slyts really existed as the propaganda and rumors of the Kingdom said, or if they were even remotely threatening. Written truly different from the recognizably human members of the Kingdom, the Slyt society seemed less a direct version of the Vietnamese and therefore has great potential for deeper, unique development in what is a fantasy novel. But a novel from the point of view of the Slyts are not what this is.
Ultimately how much  a reader may enjoy Of Bone and Thunder may come down to whether it is read as a developed fantasy that recalls aspects of the Vietnam war, versus a novel of the Vietnam War where some elements are swapped out with some fantastic entity, like dragons. For me, some parts of the novel recalled the pulp style writing that science fiction magazines have consciously tried to avoid, like a scene from a Western where guns are simply replaced with lasers, cowboy is replaced with spaceman, etc.
I finished Of Bone and Thunder somewhat perplexed over why it was ever written as a fantasy, and not just as a mainstream novel of the Vietnam War. I was left with the thought that perhaps it’s because the themes and elements of the war are already well-tread. The fantasy aspect and exploration of using dragons or mage-combat in warfare is the draw for this. As long as you enter into the novel with a better sense of what to expect in terms of the story’s focus and find that intriguing – or simply enjoy well-written dialogue and characters in a fantasy setting such as this – the novel is one to check out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538081
224 pages, eBook
Published: 16th September 2014
Source: NetGalley

 “[The] unapologetic portrait of a woman cutting a precarious path through early adulthood.” sums up Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back rather well. Marie is a young single mother whose existence is defined by her ever-shifting jobs as a restaurant server and is consumed by relationships with fellow employees. Diving in with a brutal power, the novel never relents in the raw emotions of its narrative.
Already unfairly derided by conservative critics for glamorizing an ‘immoral’ sexuality and drug use, Love Me Back is not so banal or simplistic, despite appearances of its plot or protagonist. One wonders whether some of the more vocal critics have even read it. And as usual, these critics would refuse to permit portrayals of reality that they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist.
To me, Marie recalls the suffering saints featured in some of my favorite works from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to Bernanos’/Bresson’s Mouchette to the Dardenne’s Rosetta. The name itself reflects this trait, though here the character has no connection to any religion, just that aspect of devotion that religion can hold. Marie represents the ideal worker in the serving industry. Throughout the novel she is giving herself completely, most obviously in her body, but also through her mind and position of power. She gives herself to society, to individuals, to drugs, not for pleasure, but for the mere reason that she is just so good at it. Almost like this is what she is naturally inclined and meant to be. Paradoxically by losing herself in self-destructive behavior, she is also fulfilling her self purpose or servitude, of giving into the desires and whims of others. She loves them in that she sacrifices everything of herself in their service, and any wish of being loved back seems remote and unattainable.
Tierce does not pain Marie’s existence as glamorous, nor judge the acts of sex, drugs, abortion, or childcare in any way. They just are presented as aspects of her character, and reflect powerfully the actual reality of people all over the world and the jobs that are held in the food service industry. Marie can be seen as a victim at the hands of those around her who take advantage of who she is, yet there is also the sense that victimhood doesn’t fully define her, for she apathetically accepts and even pursues her predicaments.
Short, but perhaps difficult to get through due to the intensity of subject matter, Love Me Back is a complex and finely written literary work that may not be an ‘enjoyable’ read, but certainly is a significant and worthwhile one that will impress in its unflinchingly frank honesty.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.