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  1. Lost Empress is a long, sprawling novel that defies any conventional sense of structure. It's a novel of ideas, some of which intersect and some of which overlap, but for the most part it reads like several separate narrative strands and holding the many characters in your head can be a challenge. The most memorable strands are Nina and Nuno. Nina is the daughter of the recently deceased owner of the Dallas Cowboys. She is surprised not to inherit the Cowboys but instead to inherit the Paterson Pork, an Indoor Football League team from New Jersey. Life has dealt her lemons and she sets out to make lemonade. With her comically inept sidekick Dia, she sets out to transform the fortunes of the IFL and thumb her nose at her brother, the new owner of the Cowboys. Nuno is a remand prisoner in Rikers Island, notorious for committing some high profile crime that is not revealed until near the end of this very long work. Nuno gives us a sideways look at the American legal and penal systems while plotting something quite devious. Nuno is - or thinks he is - smarter than the typical prisoner and takes pride in turning every situation to his own advantage. His future looks bleak - LWOP - but he still seems to have some spark of hope. Then there are a heap of side stories and B-list characters - prison guards, desperate alcoholic former football players, friends and neighbours, the great Paterson unwashed. Overall I would say this is a comic novel - a satire on justice and American Football, sport and commerce. There is a heap of philosophy and sermonising. There are found documents - a reproduction of the Rikers Island prison rules, court transcripts, transcripts of 911 calls. Some dialogue is presented in script format. There are graphics (some of which don't translate well to e-readers). The pacing is crazy, with sections of wildly different lengths running from 88 down to zero with a prologue, a logue and an epilogue. It is a whole box of tricks. But by the end, the story does come together and there is an exciting denouement and it feels more like a conventional novel. It is quite a trick - but not completely dissimilar to Sergio de la Pava's previous novel, A Naked Singularity - also highly recommended. Just one thing, though. I sometimes feel that all American novels feature either the President or a prison. This one does both. ****0
  2. A Naked Singularity is a strange novel. It is narrated by Casi, a maverick and very junior defense attorney in New York state. Casi is of Colombian heritage and goes to some effort to conceal his last name. He has a distinctive voice that he uses both to discuss the minutiae of his life (creating a feeling of being “Almost There”) and to depart into lengthy digressions. Overall, the novel is very good, has an unusual feel and creates atmosphere well. Remarkably, considering it has been shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, A Naked Singularity was first released as a self-published novel. And in some ways it does show. Firstly, the novel is way too long. At 860 pages, the reader has long since got the basic idea and by the end, it does feel a bit like being beaten about the head by the same good ideas, over and over again. Speaking of being beaten about the head, there are lengthy sections about middleweight boxing. This might be an indication of Casi’s non-white, non-middle class background or it might be an extended metaphor about people who hang on too long, but the boxing takes up way too many pages on what is basically straight biography. The pacing, too, is wrong with the plotty bit being compressed into a short piece near the middle, arriving way too late and finishing too soon, leaving pages and pages of psychobabble to wind up the novel. These failings are obvious, but can be forgiven to some extent by the overall quality and feel of the novel. It does have a kind of crime/thriller element but it is so much more. The great length and enormous detail allow a study of a man and the seamy, slippery world he inhabits. The stream of consciousness narration is used to really present a full, complex character who manages to avoid pigeon-holing himself as being either good or bad. He is shades of grey. The storyline rests on some wonderful understatement and innuendo. In particular, for example, the enigmatic Ballena - you have to get near the end to meet him - is never really describes, except in terms of the shadow he creates. Yet he is far more impressive for not being described - for allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. There are also plenty of philosophical insights into the justice system and the petty criminal underclass, illustrated by a veritable circus troupe of unfortunates. We see people losing years of their lives for petty misdemeanours under the harsh US penal system. We get to see a compare/contrast example of a death row inmate in Alabama that is heartbreaking in the sensitive, understated way it is presented. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and the voice is strong enough and interesting enough to carry through the uneven pacing. I just wish the novel had been able to benefit from a professional edit. ****0
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