Thoughts on “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO HAVE ANY FOREKNOWLEDGE OF THE CONTENTS OF THIS NOVEL, READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED. 

Summary: January 1937. 28-year-old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. After they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year, Gruhuken, Jack feels a creeping unease.

I love books about the arctic.

It’s a bastion of cruelty set against a backdrop of incomprehensible beauty. It’s so hostile and isolated yet life miraculously persists in spite of it all.

I think that is what makes it the perfect landscape for a horror novel.

Not only are characters forced to contend with whatever supernatural entity is on their tail, the very land itself threatens their survival on a daily basis.

So how was it?

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I can’t pin-point precisely where the story lost me.

It started off strong, setting the scene and describing the hopelessness that would motivate someone like Jack to forgo all he knows to venture to no-mans-land.

Then it got dull real frigging quick.

I’m all for a slow-burning horror, but this book was a drudge to get through, which is quite an achievement when you consider it’s a meager 252 pages.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this novel’s greatest failing is its characters. Our supposed hero Jack in particular makes for a tedious protagonist.

Jack is supposed to be the underdog, the only lower-class citizen in a team of upper and middle-class scholars who do this sort of thing on a lark, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for him.

Jack is moody, whiny, and, frankly, he acts like a petulant child even though he’s nearly in his 30s.

“I’ve moved to my bunk because Algie is using his collapsible safari bath, and I’d rather not watch. All that wobbly, freckled flesh. His feet are the worst. They’re flat pink slabs, and the second, and third toes protrude way beyond the big toe, which I find repulsive. Gus saw me staring at them, and flushed. No doubt he’s embarrassed for his ‘best pal.’- 78 pg

70% of his narration in the first act is either devoted to giving tongue baths to Gus or berating Algie for even the slight infraction. Granted Algie is kind of a dick, but the way Jack carries on about him reminds me  too much of my high school days when girls started petty feuds with one another for no reason.

In fact, Jack’s whole demeanor is effeminate to the point of irritation. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s gay, or if the female writer struggles writing from a male perspectives.

Speaking of being gay, I thought things were going to get interesting after it became obvious that Jack was developing feelings for Gus. After all, this novel takes place prior to World War II when feelings like this were not only socially unacceptable but illegal as well. Would Gus reciprocate? Would he be disgusted? Considering they would have to live with one another for a year in confinement, this had the potential to brew some real drama. With no societal conventions to keep them apart in this world so detached from the rest of civilization, how would two Englishmen who truly love each other interact? Would their affections survive the harsh climate and high tensions of living in such an inhospitable part of the world?

Don’t worry.

These question are never answered.

Instead of developing the milk-toast character of Gus, the author gives him appendicitis so he and Algie are forced to leave the island.

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Yeah.

Really.

Bet you thought this would be one of those character-driven novels where people start off as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts but develop as the story progresses, didn’t you?

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No, instead we are held hostage by Jack for the remainder of the tale.

I admit he does become more sympathetic as the story progresses. At first he hated the canine companions they purchased for the trip, but he eventually grew to love them and appreciate them for the good-boys that they were. It’s hard to dislike someone who appreciates dogs for the amazing beings they are.

Nevertheless, I would hesitate to say Jack ever truly becomes “interesting.”  The writer had a chance with leaving him alone to delve deeper into his subconscious to see what makes him tick. Instead it’s mostly surface-level information and him making O-face over Gus.

I never felt a sense of urgency on Jack’s behalf either. In The Terror, the crew were constantly in peril, not only from the monster, but also food shortages and rampant illness. Other than been spooked, Jack is fine. Even though he is isolated, he has ample food and supplies to last him over a year. Hell, now that the rest of his expedition team is gone he actually has more. Why am I supposed to be scared again?

….Oh, yeah, there’s a ghost, I guess.

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Personally, I think the spirit’s story was over-explained. Nobody knew his name or his true origins but the fact that we have his motives explained to us kind of takes away from the dread. If they just left him as some vague, malevolent force that communicated through dreams and visions, he would have been more terrifying.

It could have been like a ghost story/mystery where Jack had to piece together what the ghost wanted and why it was there. Or better yet, it could be called into question whether or not what Jack was seeing was actually real or not. They addressed men go crazy in these parts of the world, so why not play with that?

Instead we’re spoon-fed the whole story by ye old trapper guy. It’s not even that unique of a story.

In the end, the ghost really didn’t do much anyway.

By the time he actually started raising cain, I lost interested and was reading purely for completion’s sake.

In the end, Gus dies like we knew he would due to an accident the ghost caused….somehow. I don’t know, it wasn’t explained very well.

Jack and Algie become friends after this tragic event because the story said they did, and the protagonist and his good-boy husky live some semblance of happily ever after.

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Part of me feels guilty for giving this book a poor review. After all this is Paver’s first novel for an adult audience, which might account for its lack of depth. Nevertheless, this book didn’t do anything for me. The plot had a lot of potential, it just didn’t reach it.

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Research, Write, Repeat: Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction.

Especially novels that take place around the Victorian or Regency era.

I realize I’m romanticizing a period of inequality, poor hygiene, and convoluted social rules, but dammit if they didn’t look good in those waistcoats.

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What I don’t love (well, besides everything I listed above) is all of the research that goes into writing historical fiction.

Right now, in between projects, I am writing a story that involves an alien in Victorian England. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to familiarize myself with the time period. However, it turns out this is far more intricate than I anticipated. You see, the Victorian era had quite a few social rules.

By quite a few I mean there are enough to make War and Peace look like a bit of light reading.

Not to mention I have to know the titles of The Help as well as what they did, how much they were payed, where and what they ate, when their day started, how it ended, etc.

Doesn’t sound too difficult, only there isn’t too much literature when it comes to servitude in the Victorian age Most of the information regarding servants doesn’t start until around the early 1900s, a.k.a Downton Abbey era. Most likely because that’s when a lot of societal shifts took place.

I’ve read quite a few Victorian novels but not a lot of them are told from the staff’s perspective. Most likely because no one gave a $h*t about them. With my story, I was hoping to break that mold. In fact, one of the more pivotal characters is a lady’s maid.

Then come the gentry….oh….oh God. The titles.

The titles.

Of course, there’s also the business of what they ate, what they read, what they did recreationally, what happened at their parties, the dances they danced, their courting rituals, spousal relationships, clothes they wore, their morning rituals, their evening activities–

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That’s not to say it’s all bad. Actually, most of it is really interesting. There’s just sooo much to remember. I could write notes for days and not even scratch the surface. It was a very complicated society with each person working as a cog in the machine.

It was also a revolutionary time that paved the way for modern transportation and business practices, one of the many reasons I wanted my story to take place in this period. I will do my best to portray the societal customs accurately.

Nonetheless, I hope my readers won’t mind too much if one of my characters accidentally introduces themselves first to a higher member of society, or refers to the second child as Miss Soandso instead of Miss Jane or Miss Jane Soandso.

We can’t all be Jane Austen.

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Bookish Culture On the London Underground

We spent a day in London, which basically means we spent a day in the London Underground.

Our professors told us to dress in layers since it was predicted to rain quite a bit that day….

So there we were, wearing long-sleeve shirts and rain coats in 75 degree weather  (23 degrees celsius) and thick humidity, cramped into glorified tissue boxes that threw us around like loose change in a tin can.

Much to our dismay, the Tube is not equipped with air conditioning. In fact, most places in London aren’t (at least from what I experienced). Consequently, we were made to sweat buckets in the company of strangers who all looked as if they were a Sarah McLachlan song away from shooting themselves in the face.

But it wasn’t all bad. At least from my book-nerd point of view. Because while trapped in the Devil’s Lipstick, I saw something I haven’t seen in quite a while in my neck of the woods: people reading paperback books in public.

I’d seen people with novels on the airplane ride over, but I’m not used to seeing people with anything other than their phones in their hand while frequenting public places.

The reason for this change is likely because there is no cell service underground. Or at least I couldn’t find any with my international plan.

Another thing I noticed as we scuttled about frantically, trying not to lose each other, is that they had advertisements for books everywhere.

They weren’t just self-help books about how to get thin that were written by celebrities either. Many of them were fiction and the effort that went in to each of them was inspiring. They looked like movie trailers, some featuring the image of their respective authors.

I wish I could have taken a few photos, but unfortunately I was trying to save memory on my phone and there wasn’t enough time to get out my other camera to take them.

It was just so uplifting to see books being given the recognition they deserve outside of a bookstore. There seems to be more emphasis on reading over there.

I could get used to that.

London, I don’t miss your Tube all that much. But I do miss seeing an appreciation for the written word in such a public way.

 

The Big Ben Conspiracy

WARNING: POST CONTAINS TRACE AMOUNTS OF TONGUE-AND-CHEEK HUMOR. 

Author’s Note: Big Ben actually refers to the bell inside of the tower and not the tower itself. However, since everyone calls it Big Ben regardless, I will refer to Big Ben as the tower, clock, and bell for coherency’s sake.

As part of the British Isle study tour class I am taking this summer, I’m doing a presentation on the most obvious site I could possibly think of: Big Ben.

I chose this mostly out of laziness because all of my other ideas for a project such as Baker Street and Buckingham Palace were shut down. I thought this lovely clock would be the easiest touristy area to squeeze information out of.

However, I discovered some disappointing information in my digging.

Apparently only UK citizens are allowed to tour the clock tower. 

Not only is this tour excluded from people outside of the UK, but these tours must be sponsored by a Member of Parliament or a Member of the House of Lords. 

Um…what?

I looked through several sources just to make sure this wasn’t a lie, but, yes, people outside of the UK are not allowed to go inside Big Ben.

Well, there go my dreams of reenacting the fight scene from The Great Mouse Detective.

Come on, British People.

I know we don’t always see eye to eye and we’re not always as witty or fit as you lot, but how could you deny us our cliché tourist attractions?

Is it because we pronounce “Thames” incorrectly?

Or we have extreme difficulty remembering which countries are actually British?

Or because we call your favorite sport “soccer” even though literally everyone else in the entire world calls it “football”?

Is it because we sew Canadian flags onto our possessions to trick you into thinking we’re Canadian for some stupid reason?

If so, I suppose I understand.

I am a bit disappointed though as I’ve seen a few tours of it online and the view is beautiful.

At least, if I’m able to journey to London while I’m abroad, I’ll be able to see Big Ben from afar and hear the chimes before they silence them for the next three years for repairs.

As for the rest of the non-British world, we’ll just have to build our own touristy attraction and not invite the British.

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