Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, A Review

1968 London: the careers of four talented, young musicians are floundering on the rocks. Recognizing their promise, a visionary manager assembles them into a dream band, Utopia Avenue. Will they make it to the top? Or will the fates intervene?

Pros: Crossover from the author’s other novels. Vivid portrayal of the era.

Possible Cons: Mostly soap opera with a secondary speculative fiction element. Disruptive celebrity cameos.

I’ve been a David Mitchell fan for some years and was pleased to run across this novel because the tale overlaps in setting so much with my own novel Harmony Lost. Both describe the travails of a band struggling to make it to the big time, despite demonic possession, personal difficulties, and the music industry’s corruption.

The rickety van, a disastrous first gig at a university, a predatory pass at the female band member — familiar elements cropped up at every turn. Of course, neither David Mitchell nor I are old enough to have experienced 1968 as young adults and were probably mining the same source material. And there are only so many stories one can tell about a rock band coming together.

But I avoided using genuine people in Harmony Lost. First, my interest in historical accuracy is tenuous. And I didn’t want to crowd anybody with my guess of what ‘so and so’ said or did, since some of the relevant people are alive, or if deceased, have surviving relatives and fans. So I set Harmony Lost in an alternate London of 1970, populated by an alternate group of pop stars.

Utopia Avenue, on the other hand, includes cameo appearances by several big-name stars of the late sixties. In each case, the author announced the walk-ons with two repetitions of the star’s full name, and this peculiar repetition bounced me out of the story. And sometimes, I didn’t recognize the famous name and was thrown out of the story while consulting Wikipedia. Also, the star-studded interludes weren’t pertinent to the plot. Most discussed issues of the day or other matters that contributed somewhat to world building. However, I don’t think these episodes were worth disrupting the story’s flow.

I did very much enjoy the weaving-in of elements from several other David Mitchell books. A speculative fiction subplot trickles over from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and as a speculative fiction reader, I found this plot element by far the most intriguing.

A woman who first appeared in Cloud Atlas captures the heart of one band member. And mostly, Utopia Avenue is a soap opera, crowded with tumultuous love affairs and deaths. One character, thick as a brick and impulsive Dean, creates a fair share of the drama. I found myself skimming the details of Dean’s poor life choices. And I have to say, the novel jumped a shark for me at the second death.

I also page flipped through some descriptions of gigs, drug excursions, and irrelevant chats with famous people, particularly following the resolution of the speculative fiction plot element.

So while I wouldn’t mind a rewrite with more Jasper (perhaps also more Elf, Levon and Mecca) but less Dean. But many readers have and will find the entire book enthralling as written.

The Creative Info Dump

The Example of Hyperion, Blackfish City and Children of Time

Result of an info dump crash landing.

In science fiction, the author must describe the special features of the story’s world to the reader. At worst, the information is laid out in a long didactic paragraph, the dreaded “info dump.” And sometimes, an info dump includes details not relevant to the story: the alien societies sewage system or philosophy of early childhood education, for instance. The info dump  often sounds like a mini-history lesson.

“The world of Adelia had always been a place of strife. Over the centuries, a multitude of kings had vied for ultimate control. Now the rivers ran dry and vast deserts spewed dust into the heavens…5 pages later…But today, Crystoline must fetch the water.”

And who’s giving the history lesson? The author, of course. A large block of information not connected to a character or the plot inserts the author between the reader and the story, slowing the story down.

So how does an author successfully convey an imaginary world? Hopefully not in direct dialogue. A character wouldn’t blab on about recent events any more than you’d go on about the origin of COVID19 while standing in the grocery store check out. They live in the fictional world. Everything occurring is their normal, usually not worthy of comment. Attempts to insert information into dialogue at worst might sound like:

“As you know captain, when the revolutionaries jumped the line and destroyed Ilagra, Thagros eliminated our transponders.”

Usually, authors try to weave background information subtly into the character’s dialog, observations or thought.

“Crystoline rolled the water barrel to the spring, desert sand catching in her throat and triggering that irritating dry cough. She wiped a gritty sleeve across her mouth. A drink would do nicely, not that it’d taste right. Not after the contamination. Damn kings and their greed.”

But some science fiction celebrates the info dump, taking large chunks of bone dry information and converting it into a special feature of the story. And sometimes this strategy works incredibly well, usually when the information being conveyed is so interesting that it keeps the reader’s attention.

Take for example Hyperion, the first novel in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos. This book mirrors the Canterbury tales: a collection of aspirants travels to a shrine, and during their travels, each pilgrim tells their tale.

Each tale is basically a massive info dump; however, each story is so interesting that the reader “listens” with rapt attention to each traveller. (Although I’m still annoyed the book ended right at the climax, and the climax was drawn out over a much padded second book.)

Then consider Blackfish City, a novel I reviewed some months back. The action occurs on a post-disaster floating city with an interesting history and culture beautifully presented through episodes of a mysterious broadcast entitled,”City without a Map”. Excerpt from this poetic and subversive text are sprinkled throughout the book; the ultimate source remains mysterious until late in the story. The device wore somewhat thin as the book progressed, but overall it served well to explain Blackfish City’s unique features and describe its inhabitants while adding ambience.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky also uses bulky info dumps with success. Didactic chapters detail the history of a spider civilisation, following the spiders from pre-sentience through to a spider space age. (Really how can you go wrong with spiders in space?)

The spider sequences are highly “told.”

Her attention is fixed on another spider at home in its web.

The subject spider is planning to hunt down the spider in the web, but note the passive construction, the spider’s behaviour reported as if by an observing scientist. A “shown” version, as experienced by a spider might read like:

“The other spider hung succulent and juicy, seemingly oblivious in its web.”

But do we know a spider can detect succulence? How do we know a spider can create a mental image of another insect’s mind? This shown spider reads very much like a human with our more or less shared theory of mind and body language. A nervous human can be shown pacing and chewing their nails without the author needing to state, “she was nervous.” However, nervous spiders might tap on their webs or rub their legs together. How’s a human supposed to recognise a nervous spider without being told, “the spider was nervous?” Unless the spider is anthropomorphised, stating the spider’s emotional state is required.

So I can’t fault the author of Children of Time for choosing a didactic style.  And Children of Time toggles between chapters detailing the spider’s world, and more conventionally written chapters featuring humans trying to survive a desperate space odyssey. I particularly enjoyed the human protagonist, an introverted scholarly old man, an atypical choice for a space adventure. The human chapters relieve the reports from the spider world. Also as the spiders evolve, and as the reader gains familiarity with the arachnid world, the spider chapters become increasingly immediate.

I have a fair bit of tolerance for the creative info dump; although some readers will claim “boring, nothing happens, brutal slog or repetitive.” For those readers, I recommend The Raidships by A.D. Wynterhawk, an old-fashioned adventure story I reviewed some months ago. Raidships takes place in a vibrant imaginary world, but the world unfolds during a fast-paced plot.

“A sense of self and the ability to contemplate the universe are not necessarily survival traits in and of themselves.” From Children of Time by Adrian Tschaikovsky

The Wake Up, Paranormal Dystopia by Angela Panayotopulos

The Wake Up by Angela PanayotopulosGreek Glass Makers Navigate Fascist Dystopia

Pros: Lyrical prose. Poetic and allegorical. Cast features much cultural diversity.
Possible cons: Unusual structure including set up and unlikely wrap up. More character and theme driven than plot driven. Plot requires substantial suspension of disbelief.

In the paranoid dystopia of Angela Panayotopulos’s paranormal novel, The Wake Up, a mad president, threatened by the demon he sees in his own mirror, bans all reflective surfaces.

A Virginian glass-making factory is destroyed in the resulting purge. But worse, the glass-maker’s daughter, Lexi, possesses the power to detect inner demons and angles, a power the president fears. Lexi’s gift could mean prison or death.

Then time passes. Lexi grows up, slowly separates from her shattered family and suffers a romantic disaster. Flash backs explore Lexi’s history and introduce additional characters. By and large, these plot elements come together in a last conflict, but much of this book is operating on a deeper, more abstract level, exploring the good and evil inherent to each human’s nature.

This rolling, allegorical feel meshes well with the author’s beautiful prose. Instead of saying, “time passed,” she says:

The world continued to revolve, somehow. The wind breezed through the neighborhoods and pushed the hands of household clocks. Waves rose and fell with the regularity of a sleeping god’s snores. People cupped snowflakes in the hands, scraps of divinity that melted at the human touch, as ephemeral as time.

I’ve lived in Maryland and the District, I appreciated a poetic visit to the mid-Atlantic’s seasons. This book also touches on the idea of inner demons and angles, a theme I’ve explored in my own novels. And I appreciated the careful editing, proof-reading and production of this novel. So although and because The Wake Up doesn’t follow the plot “rules” of a typical paranormal novel, it is a lovely read that I recommend.

The Great Contagion by Jeff Chapman, A Review

The Great Contagion: A Merliss Tale (The Merliss Tales Book 1) by [Jeff Chapman]Pros: Gripping plot. Professional prose, production and editing.
Possible Cons: Loner, emotionally isolated main character. Many unpleasant supporting characters.

Jeff Chapman’s medieval fantasy, The Great Contagion, lies somewhat outside my usual reading preferences. However, possession is one of my literary interests, and the novel covers a distinct possession, the well-known human into animal transfer. Hate it when that happens.

The novel’s main character is Merliss, the soul of a shaman-in-training possessing the body of a cat. She’s lived in the cat for centuries, assisting healers and training their apprentices, so she wears her possession comfortably, like an old shoe. And she’s seen plenty of drama in her long life, but nothing like The Great Contagion.

A plague descends upon the humans; they die in droves and/or behave rather badly. Concurrently, Merliss’s second home, the magical forest, faces unprecedented challenges. Attempting to help her animal, magical and human friends divides Merliss’s loyalties.

Liking Merliss was difficult at first. She read as a grumpy old lady. The initial chapter, a walk through the woods with an annoying young man almost lost me.

But how you travel is more important than your destination.

But the lovely prose kept me reading, then Merliss’s loyalty and bravery shone through her grousing, and the story grabbed me. In fact, I finished the book in two sittings, one lasting until one in the morning, an easy read given the book’s flawless editing and production, and high-grade prose.

My only quibbles are with the first chapter, as mentioned above, and the humans, who are, as in much Medieval fantasy, an uninspiring bunch. And she felt loosely bonded to her coworkers, the healer and his apprentice. The author lays out Merliss’s loyalties to the humans. But I still wondered why she bothered with them. In addition, most of her forest friends are ambivalent characters, mostly frenemies, but I suppose that’s a cat’s life.

An honest soul takes time to mature. More time than most have. They are difficult to find in the mortal world.

The book’s Wind in the Willows’ vibe should appeal to readers of animal based fantasy, such as the Redwall series and possibly Hollow Kingdom.

Supernatural Meets Breaking Bad

A Name in the Dark by G.S. Fortis, a Review

A Name in the Dark by G.S. Fortis

Pros: Action packed plot. Vivid, cinematic prose. Characters with emotional depth.
Possible Cons: High graphic index (violence). First two chapters with minor issues.

Thanks my character Pam’s experience with an inner demon, I’ve become interested in literary portrayals of possession. Any kind of possession will do, but the most common type seems to be demonic possession. Hate it when that happens, right? So naturally, search engines throw paranormal genre my way, hence I stumbled across G.S. Fortis’s paranormal detective debut entitled “A Name in the Dark.”

Private investigator Darcy Caine is possessed by a demon. A murderous demon she’d just as soon ditch; if only she could discover the demon’s true name. But when her new case rapidly drags her into a world of violence and evil magic; her inner demon just might come in handy.

After a weak opening scene (why would Paige be so stupid as to invite Brock over to the loft?) and a backstory infodump, this novel moves pretty quickly. Its first person present prose feels immediate and appropriate to the genre. Formatting and editing are immaculate.

The characters are multidimensional and believable, particularly sidekick Paige who’s also on a mission to uncover her origins and identity. Paige’s story is one of several echoes and parallels, that add depth to the plot. The Los Angeles setting is detailed and fascinating. This book combines elements of Breaking Bad, Supernatural and the Kinsey Millhone mysteries.

Warning: buckets of blood

The Portable Door by Tom Holt, A Review.

Pros: Very funny, priceless witticisms.

Possible Cons:  Only for those ready to suspend disbelief from a flagpole.

Valuable Lesson: Don’t stress too much over cover art.

Finding comparable works to Harmony Lost was no easy task; the tale is a mixture: a dash of Sci Fi, alternate reality, an atypical romance, a struggle to the top. Perusing Amazon’s fiction categories didn’t reveal a perfect fit.

Amusing exchanges occur in Harmony Lost, but I wasn’t thinking humor when I wrote it. So imagine my surprise when several beta readers suggested a humor category. One reader recommended Tom Holt as an author with a comparable tone. Continue reading The Portable Door by Tom Holt, A Review.