Publisher: Serpent's Tail

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

Posted March 10, 2017 by Michael Kitto in Thriller / 0 Comments

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie DespentesTitle: Apocalypse Baby (Goodreads)
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Siân Reynolds
Published: Serpent's Tail, 2010
Pages: 338
Genres: Thriller
My Copy: Library Book

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Provocative French author Virginie Despentes is best known for her debut novel Baise-moi, which was published in 1993 to much controversy. The book was adapted into a film, which was also written and directed by Despentes. This debut novel is often considered the most controversial French novel of recent times, exploring a punk fantasy of two women on a vengeance rampage à la Thelma and Louise. The novel and film are modern examples of a crime thriller genre known as rape and revenge.

Virginie Despentes has had a salacious life, which ranges from working as a maid/sex worker in ‘massage parlours’ to being a pornographic film critic. As a novelist she has written seven novels of transgressive fiction, although only three have been translated into English. Her latest novel Apocalypse Baby (Apocalypse Bébé) was published in English by Feminist Press in 2015. The book is a faced-paced thriller about a missing adolescent girl. Two mismatched private investigators are paired together to find this lost girl.  The two follow the evidence from Paris to Barcelona and back on this epic road trip.

Lucie Toledo is not a great private investigator, her skills typically include watching over her clients, but when the troublesome fifteen-year-old Valentine disappears she is out of her league. Tasked to watch the girl by her grandmother, Lucie is held responsible. She enlists the help of the legendary detective, known as The Hyena to help with this missing person case. The Hyena is a sexist, misogynist; constantly wolf whistling at female pedestrians and grabbing their crotches. Two very different personalities stuck in a car propels the novel towards the inevitable conflict.

Apocalypse Baby is an unflinching thriller that never shies away from graphic descriptions. Though not without its flaws, the novel offers so much more than a psychological romp. Virginie Despentes uses this transgressive story as a platform for social criticism, exploring French politics and society. Between each chapter, there lies a glimpse at different members of Valentine’s family, exploring their own struggles and fears. Her father, step mother, and two sisters are all fleshed out in these sections; not taking away from the novel but rather giving an extra dimension and providing a deeper understanding on Valentine’s motivation.

What really stuck with me in Apocalypse Baby was the way it played with the idea of gender equality. Take for example the misogynist partner The Hyena, when you think about this character, did you envision a woman? I found myself constantly thinking “You are a woman, you should know better” but then I stop myself, a man should know better as well. I like the way Virginie Despentes used this idea as a tool to explore social issues. While this novel is nothing special, this one aspect really stuck with me and I appreciate just how masterfully Despentes made her point.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Posted November 28, 2014 by Michael Kitto in Contemporary / 0 Comments

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy FowlerTitle: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Goodreads)
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Published: Serpent's Tail, 2013
Pages: 308
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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First and foremost, I must advise this review will contain a slight spoiler about Rosemary’s sister Fern. I did try to write this review spoiler free but it proved impossible to talk about what made this book interesting without mentioning Fern. I am not sure if this is a real spoiler, as some covers and synopsis I have read give away that Fern is in fact a chimpanzee.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves begins in the middle of the story; Rosemary is in college, her brother Lowell is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism and her sister Fern has disappeared. As the novel progresses in a non-linear format, the puzzle starts to make a lot more sense. Karen Joy Fowler’s novel takes the tragic story of a dysfunctional family and makes it a little more complicated.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Karen Joy Fowler, all I knew about this author was the fact she wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, which I got the impression was a chick-lit but it is a book about books so I plan to read it. After a little research I found that Fowler likes to blend genres; historical fiction with fantasy (Sarah Canary) and chick-lit with mystery (Wit’s End). Having now read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I know I need to experience her writing again. She appears to be an author that is willing to try something different and give the reader a different experience every time.

While the novel doesn’t begin at the start, the story really begins in the 1970’s when an ordinary Midwestern family take on a baby chimpanzee and raise it as Rosemary’s sister. The two toddlers grow up together, but this makes life a little complicated for Rosemary. While Fern did develop some human social skills; there were some negative effects for Rosemary. No, Rosemary didn’t start flinging poop at people, but her social skills cause plenty of problems when she went to school. They were close sisters despite some problems, but then Fern was taken away; the term ‘went to the farm’ was mentioned which is messed up.

This novel takes on a very complex subject and the mental and psychological effects on a primate in a human behavioural study but also the family involved. The book moves erratically over forty years of Rosemary’s life and the reader is subjected to the scars and damage this whole situation had on her. We are confronted with the difficult subject of advancing science and where we should draw the ethical line in the sand. However, you have Rosemary’s father who has a doctorate in physiological behaviours on one end of the spectrum and then her brother who is part of the Animal Liberation Front on the other side.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a novel not only full of psychological drama but also about how we treat animals and the environment. There are plenty of complex issues that the reader has to work through but I found that Karen Joy Fowler presented her argument perfectly. Not just jamming her ideals down our throats, she told a story and let us she just how damaging the situation can be. Each part begins with a quote from Franz Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” (“Ein Bericht für eine Akademie”) which is about an ape called Red Peter who learns how to behave as a human and presents his report to an academy of his transformation. This tiny little addition to the book really help seal the deal for me, as this is a satire on the Jews’ assimilation into Western culture as well as a look at evolutionary theory.

I have to admit from the beginning of this novel I wasn’t sure what to expect, beginning the book in the middle was interesting but I was sceptical on how it would work. Karen Joy Fowler handled every delicate issue with such confidence and ease; I was on board with what she was doing really quickly. Yet again I am left with the feeling that I need to learn the literary theories in the psychoanalytical field, I think there is so much worth exploring. Even if you are not interested into a deep dive into psychology, this contemporary novel is fantastic and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in some good fiction.


The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich

Posted February 14, 2014 by Michael Kitto in Humour, Short Stories / 0 Comments

The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon RichTitle: The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories (Goodreads)
Author: Simon Rich
Published: Serpent's Tail, 2013
Pages: 224
Genres: Humour, Short Stories
My Copy: Library Book

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The Last Girlfriend on Earth is a collection of skits (no quite short stories) about love and matters of the heart. Simon Rich was one of the youngest writers to work on Saturday Night Live, which explains the short bizarre stories. For a man only just 30, Rich has had an impressive career already, receiving a two-book contract with Random House prior to graduating from Harvard University. The Last Girlfriend on Earth is his fifth book, but it is the first one I’ve had the opportunity to read.

These skits/stories are a lot of fun, and I was entertained from start to finish. Highlights include, ‘Unprotected’ the story told entirely from the perspective of a condom, ‘Magical Mr. Goat’ tells the story of a girl’s imaginary friend stuck in the ‘friend-zone’, and there is even one about a dog’s missed connections. There are some stories that are just so bizarre that you wonder how he thought them up, like dating Mother Teresa (she is practically a saint of a woman) or finding out that your ex is dating Hitler. There was even one where a guy wins the MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius award for having a one night stand.

Simon Rich clearly likes to play with stereotypes and inject some absurdity into his stories, yet they all seem to have something familiar about them. The ideas portrays in this book are that of love and even heartbreak; while expressed in a humorous way, I really enjoyed how there was an element to truth behind them. For example, what happens when the invisible man gets dumped? Naturally he would use his abilities to spy on his ex-girlfriends’ date.  How about when Cupid becomes a teenager and rebels? What kind of game of Jeopardy! would it be if Alex Trebek’s ex-wife was a contestant. All the scenarios are unusual but relatable.

I always find it hard to write a review about a collection of short stories. With The Last Girlfriend on Earth, you’ll be definitely be entertained, think of it as an episode of Saturday Night Live on the topic of love. The humour of Simon Rich was razor shape and just twisted, but that is the kind of thing I enjoy. I’m not sure what his other books are like, but I’m curious to find out.


He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

Posted November 24, 2012 by Michael Kitto in Pulp / 0 Comments

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek RaymondTitle: He Died with His Eyes Open (Goodreads)
Author: Derek Raymond
Series: Factory Series #1
Published: Serpent's Tail, 1984
Pages: 224
Genres: Pulp
My Copy: Personal Copy

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Armed with a box of tapes as evidence, the detective Sergeant sets out to solve the brutal murder of a middle-aged alcoholic who was found dumped on the city outskirts. Murder is a dime a dozen in London and Scotland Yard has more serious cases to deal with. This rogue detective is haunted by the voices on these cassette diaries which leaves him with no choice by to find out why He Died With His Eyes Open.

Book One of the Factory series follows the unnamed Detective Sergeant in his quest to solve the crime of someone the rest of the city does not care about. Part police procedural, part noir, Derek Raymond has a refreshingly new take on the pulp genre. Not only the fact that it combines procedural crime to the plot or the fact that it’s set in London, but what stood out to me is that Raymond mixed the dark hard hitting hard boiled protagonist and gave him compassion. You don’t actually see the compassion by his actions; this detective feels as hard boiled as they come, yet he seems to care about solving the crime of someone that doesn’t really matter. This is what made He Died With His Eyes Open so great.

I feel like Derek Raymond should be compared to noir legend Jim Thompson, mixing the dark and gritty with a real psychological aspect. While at times Raymond’s writing is a bit sloppy and the plot isn’t as tight as the greats, there is something quite spectacular about this novel. It feels like a normal pulp novel, but there is also something refreshingly different about this novel.

The unnamed protagonist is such a strong character, full of mystery and tough as nails. He Died With His Eyes Open is an absolute must read for pulp fans, and I must admit I’m so glad to read a crime novel like this that is not set in America. The English slang and terminology throughout this book was a joy to read. I like to see new spins in the pulp genre when they are done remarkably well, and this novel does just that. Everything you want in a deliciously dark pulp novel plus so many extras; He Died With His Eyes Open is worth getting your hands on.