Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Rarity from the Hollow, by Robert Eggleton - 3 Stars (With Author's Response)

Do you know the plate spinning game, kids? It’s really fun. What you do is borrow the drill from Daddy’s shed and make a lot of holes in the floor of your front room, then you need to poke all the bean poles you can find from the garden into the holes but always make sure you can reach the top because that’s important. When it’s ready and you have a forest of sticks, carry out a couple of dinner service-loads of china plates from Mummy’s cupboards and place them one by one on top of the poles, swishing and swirling each pole around in a circle to make the plate spin on top of it. Isn’t it beautiful? Call everyone in the house to come downstairs and have a look, then do all of the plates like that, tens, twenties, try to do thirties, swirling and spinning, returning to the earliest ones as they slow down and begin to wobble, speeding them up again, circling the pole, quicker and quicker but not too much until everyone comes in to see what you’ve done and all these beautiful, complicated pieces are spinning in the air at once and you even have time to go and make a cup of tea and come back, not too late to miss the critical moment though, milking the tension, waiting for the final remaining seconds to count away as everyone holds their breath, then smile your finest lopsided smile, let your eyes go blank, far away and allow all of the plates to smash on the ground. Lovely. What a protest.

I should add that the first time I saw this trick, they got the ending completely wrong, saved the plates and no one talked about it at all. Part one of this book is the former, with so many plates in the air that almost all have passed beyond a child’s ability to control and it starts with some of the ugliest: an overwhelming portrayal of monstrous abuse and suffering within a family, child and wife-beating, fight or flight stress, perversion, exploitation and entrapment. The soundest advice would be to let the whole situation smash and then walk away and start again in a foster family. As it is, the social work hangover from the first third of the novel casts a shadow across the rest of the book, so even when the story lightens up it’s still in the context of the opening chapters.

The little girl reacts to each vindictive incident and her mind maladjusts into worrying, defensive trenches. Her behaviour at school is a clue, inappropriate sexual language and little screams for help. The father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (some people shouldn’t return from wars) and is taking it out on his wife and child, so he’s more sick, evil and guilty than anyone he presumably joined up to protect his family from. It took me far outside my comfort zone and into territory I would never have chosen to explore. Until the book changed, I felt conned by being told this was sci-fi and I could see that the author wanted to convey the full impact of awfulness that the child was trapped into but, as a customer, I don’t select books to be sickened. I decided after reading The Omen, no more horror for me thank you Damien, so just push off would you? Go on, shoo! and take your little knives and tongs with you. Sunny side up for me please.

Imaginary friend escapism syndrome, that’s another thing this book picks up. Not only does the small girl talk to trees and thinks that one at least talks back because there’s a ghostly child inside it (more rottenness) but she is revealed to have a unique kind of imaginary friend who isn’t from her own neck of the woods at all, or even her own solar system. Hooray! Sci-fi at last. At first I thought this was a child’s way of describing the internet, as in you ask a question and it replies, like a search engine, but after staring at the page a bit longer I could see her bestie was some kind of automaton or life form, a sort of mechanised E.T.

What’s his name? Dot.com. What’s his game? That would be telling.

About a hundred pages in, I struck a seam of welcome humour which the author had held back until he’d had enough of the mood-pit he’d dug for us. “Lacy Dawn gave up on getting any attention from her father and decided to practice for the next spitting contest at school”, soon followed by “and there’s a door on my bedroom… it’s sure cool… open, shut, open, shut, open open open. Shit, I’ve locked myself out.” It’s lines like that that make me want to keep reading.

In the middle third of the book, the stressed child, Lacy Dawn is shown scenes of human pre-history, as her parents are re-educated. She’s then presented with a contract and a job to do, a big one, presumably to repay the repair work done on her parents. I don’t know how resilient children are but my guess is that she’s permanently damaged already and this would put her out of immediate danger from them but not from her mental damage. The father then says “I have to think of what’s best for my daughter”. That’s shocking too, in a way, because the reformed character has no insight into what he’s already done to her.

In the space of a sentence or two, members of the family nip off to another location in the Universe and the story changes to a sort of flamboyant alien capitalist heaven shopping fantasy, where the characters can spend as much unearned pocket money as they like. The cosmopolitan society they’ve entered is awash with alien species that, with the diversions of a whole galaxy open to them, all have one desire in common; hanging around in a big shopping centre. Saving the World, correction the Universe, also gets added to the adventure because there’s a new high level threat for the hick people to deal with. The irony is that, to me, the most alien characters encountered are this particular set of humans. I’ve got nothing in common with these people, so find them other worldly too. Cucumber sandwich anyone?

Is the book traumatic? Yes, I think that’s one aspect that the author wanted to include. Is it a mess of subjects? It reads like a child psychology professional creating some horrible fiction from the nasty things they’ve been exposed to through their career (to educate rather than entertain the reader) and then thinking they’ve maybe gone a bit too far and lightening the mood with an escapist fantasy that, to me, is a metaphor for the child having retreated so far into their own mind, looking for a safe place, that they’ve dislocated themselves from reality, curled up in a foetal ball, hugged their knees and started rocking. If you have no hope of being saved by anyone real, why not imagine your best chance is to meet an alien who makes your parents nice and really values you, for a change? It’s a variation of the knight on the white charger galloping to the rescue, on one hand a real-life disgusting nest of crime called “home” and on the other a fantasy solution which is never going to happen no matter how long you poke your nose out of the window of the dark tower and wave that silly handkerchief.

The closing third of the book has a different theme again, as the family direct their energies on a fantastic alien cockroach round-up, ye-haw, complete with dressing up in random fancy dress outfits, talking wood, chatty dogs and a squirming insect nation that Bill Bailey may have already sung about (does he know something?).

That’s three themes which I have trouble reconciling. I think criticising structure is valid because that’s a fair target and “what on Earth possessed you to put these three things together?” is a fair question not satisfactorily answered by the text.

Important: The fact that I don’t like the subject shouldn’t affect my assessment and rating of a book’s quality, although being objective isn’t easy when the neighbour’s sexually abused and murdered daughter who’s become a dryad has the same name as me. I know that if I don’t like sporks and I agree to review The History of Sporks, my inclination has to be set aside because the criteria must be strictly about whether it is, in relative terms, a high or low quality work of its type. Spork fans can then rely on the reviewer’s opinion and rest safely in their beds to rise tomorrow and make better informed spork-related purchasing decisions. Hail Spork! This is another metaphor. I only said hail spork because I won’t say hail child abuse. However, I am not going to rate the quality of the book lower because of my personal feelings about the subject (aversion). If the characters were designed with the intention of upsetting the reader, then well done because the writer has demonstrated that he has the level of skill to achieve that aim. Was it to make a point? Yes. Will raising awareness improve lives? Insignificantly, unless the book is issued in prisons. How many readers of this book already work in social intervention? Probably most. It will certainly also depress a few good people in the outside world. Some combinations work, Zen and Motorcycle Repair, some don’t, fish and bicycles. Domestic abuse vs sci-fi vs shopping vs bug hunt is a sub-genre with a population of one book so far and I can’t see that changing. Can I criticise it though when the author is setting out his stall to combat child abuse? Well, yes, but only if the rest is a cat’s cradle anyway.

Objectively then, is it a really cool and entertaining story about a horrible topic? No, not really. It’s a competent story covering a horrible topic but it isn’t literature and I don’t think the themes jam together very well or make pathfinding headway in sci-fi originality. The portrayal of an alien robotic presence and the way it changes to please the child is so/so, nothing special, and its society’s interest in commercialism has already been done thoroughly with the Ferengi of Deep Space Nine. The reason why the alien would be interested in saving the child is not as credible as a similar film called The Last Star Fighter, where the boy is chosen because he has a realistic skill (his reaction speed when playing Space Invaders is relevant to being a pilot). Is Lacy Dawn at the pinnacle of managed evolution and displaying an impressive problem solving intelligence? Well… disbelief suspends only so far when she so frequently talks about her pants.

I rate this as a reasonable read for people who aren’t as sensitive as me, a middling quality story with an unusual combination of themes that will certainly provoke thought and appeal to a defined audience of people who want to hear about social malfunction, some people adore their sporks, and sending all the profits to charity shows the author’s heart is surely golden but it isn’t the best thing I’ve read this year in sci-fi and squashing these subjects together in this way, like speed-dating for the good, the bad and the ugly hasn’t convinced me it’s anything more insightful and impactful than culture shock. Please give this book out in specialist prisons because that’s where the message can be used to best effect. Just don’t tell me this stuff is going on in the world, adding me to depressing mailing lists and send the clippings (head, bucket of sand), just call the professional bug services instead. I’m off shopping with fingers in my ears. La-la-la, la-la-la, I can’t hear you, cheering up already.

---- Footnote ----

Following this review and after discussion with the author, I now see that understanding the topical references made in the book is geographically dependent. If you are in the USA (5% of the global population, one of 198 countries), you will of course have read US domestic papers, seen or heard the broadcast media and know what the author is referring to. A reviewer without that sphere of influence and shared set of political references will find that many of the points the author has connected this story to will fly unnoticed straight over their heads. I acknowledge that this has happened to me as I'm unaware/ignorant of US domestic investment in child safety, locally infamous political comments broadcast in the media dehumanizing refugees and I haven't seen the current US leader's former appearances on television. There is clearly more to this book than I picked up when I read it and the cockroach connection has since been explained to me. Should it even be reviewed by a non-US citizen? I don't know. I would note though that the way I understood the book is representative of, or at least closer to, the way a non-US global audience will read and form views about it, as they are similarly unaware of essential background, which other reviewers have said add depth, historical interest and literary muscle to the book. I do wonder if the topicality will endure though if the story rests on these links too much - would an American reading this twenty years from now remember these things or would they understand the work in a shallow way, as I have?

I expect the author doesn't value my views at the moment but it seems to me that US reviewers only are needed for this. Anyone else will fail to make the intended connections and then think more like me. I can see now that the author wants to highlight problems in US social policy and call for changes, to improve the lives of vulnerable children, so what's important to consider is the view of the US reviewers. Forgive me for seeing the tips of icebergs and describing them as small. All readers are the products of their influences and I didn't get it, but I do understand why that happened.

----------------- A response to this review, by Robert Eggleton --------------------

Thanks for your great book review. It was very well written. I'm commenting about the review at your invitation. Thanks, again.

I'm a little disappointed that you didn't connect with or mention the political allegory in Rarity from the Hollow. As you are aware, my story includes pressing issues that America is fighting about today, including  illegal immigration and the refuge crisis, extreme capitalism /  consumerism. Mr. Prump, one of the characters in the story, was a  projection of Donald Trump based on the TV show, The Apprentice. Part of the negotiations in the story occur in the only high rise on planet Shptiludrp (Shop Until You Drop), a giant shopping mall and the center of economic governance, now more easily identifiable as Trump Tower. Mr. Rump, another character in my story, was modeled after Bernie Sanders. One chapter was titled: "The First Sexual Harassment Complaint on Shptiludrp." This also corresponded to one of the headline controversies about President Trump. Despite much praise that the ARC of my novel received by independent book reviewers (sixty-eight five and four star reviews), some reviewers of the ARC found the imminent threat to the universe in the story to have been silly: cockroach infestation. Please note the recent insult hurled at refugees by calling them cockroaches. http://freedomdaily.com/kick-the-cockroaches-out-sweden-to-deport-80000-muslim-refugees-over-migrant-linked-violence/. The political allegory in Rarity from the Hollow is much more obvious now that Donald Trump has become a household name, worldwide, and I was hopeful that it would be mentioned your findings. At this point, given the administration's announcement of upcoming budget cuts for social programs, its refusal to help with the refugee crisis, the deportation of mothers from their children born in the U.S. and related policies, my personal prayer is that the U.S. budget cuts will not adversely affect children's health and welfare programs in communities, worldwide. While there is no political advocacy in the story, it doesn't pick one side or another, I do hope that it sensitizes readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment.

With respect to your review, the closing lines of the story were supposed to tie everything together. At the risk of spoiling the read for others, if you remember, Dwayne, the abusive father, first achieved insight that he had been abusive to Lacy and Denise, the downtrodden mother, when on planet Shptiudrp. Before then, he believed that harsh discipline of children and dominance over wives was supported by the Bible, an inter-generational predominant traditional value in the Bible Belt of  America where I live. (Of course, ET assistance for Dwayne's treatment was a metaphor to encourage Veterans to seek help for PTSD through the VA.) In the spaceship, on their way home after having saved the universe, Dwayne asked Lacy Dawn, "Will you ever forgive me?" She answered, "No but I will always love you." No amount of hard work by Dwayne on Shptiludrp could cause Lacy to ever forget her maltreatment or to forgive him. IMO, as a retired children's psychotherapist, this is the optimal solution in many real-life child maltreatment cases. As survivors and for reformed maltreators, we are not destined to live in the past or for past trauma to control our lives. Yes, I agree with you that this ending was not a bubbly HEA, but I feel that it was realistically hopeful and the practice of living in the present has empowered many survivors toward wonderful lives and accomplishments. Of course, the impact of having read my story is an individual matter and I certainly respect your opinion about how the book impacted you.

For those in your audience who may consider reading this novel even though it is not pure escapist science fiction, I hope that you, Faith, also permit me to share an alternative reaction the having read my book. This organization awarded the Advance Review Copy of my novel a Gold Medal. Here's an excerpt of the review:

"a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only instead of the earth being destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, Lacy Dawn must…The author has managed to do what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse, and written about them with tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them.…Eggleton sucks you into the Hollow, dunks you in the creek, rolls you in the mud, and splays you in the sun to dry off. Tucked between the folds of humor are some profound observations on human nature and modern society that you have to read to appreciate. It's a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy…" http://www.awesomeindies.net/ai-approved-review-of-rarity-from-the-holly-by-robert-eggleton/

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