Dancing Jax | Chapter 9

Scan_20180613Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Peasant coins are all we seek!’ he said with a crooked grin. ‘Just thirty of your shiny new pennies.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: In come the hounds of the press, and the commentary aspect of this series really gets going. I hate to think how many distressing news channels, radio shows, and tabloids Mr Jarvis had to tune in to in researching this – from the glib reporters delivering ‘pieces to camera’ to the journalist photographers ambushing crying Felixstowe pupils for close-ups of ‘raw emotion’, it’s all very, very on-the-nose.

As for the teen characters, well, they are salaciously unpleasant reality TV caricatures, and that (unfortunately) also means moments of ‘camera confessional’ into their personal thoughts and feelings following the disaster.

The thing is, however, that even though we’re seeing into Conor and Emma’s heads, we’re not really empathising or engaging properly. At least to my mind, there is a rehearsed remoteness to Conor’s guilt over the car crash, and nothing about Emma’s obvious repressed trauma really redeems her for us as readers. It’s uncomfortable and voyeuristic, but not truly moving, to see the teen’s reactions; a ‘camera confessional’ filmed long after a staged event, again, more ‘real’ than real.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: It’s a really interesting chapter this one, again, because Mr Jarvis is engaging with the real world in a way that is totally unprecedented in anything of his we’ve read before.

You’ll notice that the social commentary has now moved from being just monologues by Jezza to being part of the fabric of the novel itself. My favourite line – and it’s almost a throwaway – is the cut back to the news anchor, displaying the legs that had served her so well in Strictly Come Dancing.

It’s brutal, but it gets the point across – these characters live in a world (and I’m not sure it’s much better today) where celebrity is everything. And I suspect the reason for the coldness of Emma and the spinelessness of Conor is simply because there is nothing going on in their life. There is a yawning emptiness and emotional disengagement from life that no amount of TV, music or even trauma is going to wake up.

In short, it’s the void into which the accursed book is going to pour itself.

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Dancing Jax | Chapter 8

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘You should be grovelling on your faces to be here, to witness the contract.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: When I first researched the word ‘ismus’, I was amused and confused by the fact that the closest approximation was ‘isthmus’, a slender strip of land connecting two larger land-masses over the sea. Once I’d finished the whole series, however, I understood perfectly.

This chapter, like the entire trilogy, is a classic Robin Jarvis set-piece given a new and modern twist. Just as his class and religious commentary has been modernised and sharpened for an older, 2011 audience, the ‘sea of cranes’ setting is a clever contrast to, say, the ruins of Whitby Abbey or the slopes of Glastonbury Tor. The future of grandiose Robiny occult doings is here, in a shabby industrial estate, and it is literally electrifying.

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, thanks for that, Aufwader! I too had done a fair share of searching for Ismus and where it might have come from and was always somewhat puzzled. But your explanation makes sense. (And will hopefully make sense to all the rest of the readers when they reach the end of the trilogy!)

I don’ have much more to add to the description of this chapter. It is a classic Jarvis occult set-piece with spectacular lighting and sound effects. However, I think what makes this one worse is that the last few chapters have set up a particularly realistic ecosystem of grotty teenagers, down-and-outs, pop culture and general British realism. So in other words, unlike others of his books, where I have very much felt like I’m in an escapist fantasy reality, the setting of this story feels so authentic that it feels as if the occult magic has broken through into the real world. There’s just an increased sense of plausibility here that makes the whole thing darker.

To be honest, after reading this, I would be fascinated to see what would happen if Robin wrote a book for adults, with no constraints at all. One can only imagine what that might be like!

Dancing Jax | Chapter 5

 

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘The Dancing Jacks are with you.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Underneath the commentary on books as collector’s items (all that ‘second-hand kid’s book’ stuff is hilarious from an author who at the time was most recognised for out-of-print middle grade – we see you, Robin) this chapter is setting up for a big, bombastic set-piece of old. Now that Jezza’s cronies have eyeballed Dancing Jacks for real, there is no turning back from the doom (or, well, doooooom) already writ and recited. The stinger is that, this time around, we the readers are not looking forward to it.

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter might be Jezza’s best rant yet, this time on that old marketing chestnut, Big Data, and all the paranoia that goes along with that. I would love to know the inspiration for these rants, because while there are many YA books that try to obliquely hint at big themes that young people should think about, I’ve never seen a book chuck in so many explicitly complex ideas as if it’s a Reddit thread, and then just leave readers to think about whether they agree with them.

Part of me suspects that Mr Jarvis starts each rant with a topic he might have some genuine concern over, writes it out, then ratchets it up to conspiracy-website levels, with a hint of YouTube comment section troll thrown in. Then he gets Jezza to say it in his voice and sees how it comes out.

What is somewhat fascinating is that somewhere later in the trilogy, someone refers to Jezza as a ‘Russell Brand clone’. This, while being an amusing insult, also raises a fascinating idea and a paradox. I’m not sure if Robin always had Russell Brand in mind when he created the character, but actually if you wanted someone who could walk right in and bring a character like Jezza to life, Mr Brand would pretty much just have to play himself and it would all work. The man even had a ranty YouTube series for several years!

However – and this is the paradox – given that Dancing Jax was written in 2010, when Brand was really only known for his comedy side, it’s far less likely that Jezza is a take-off of him. It seems instead to be more the case of real life imitating art!

That said, I do have fantasies that someone slips this book to Brand after a show, he reads it, gets enthusiastic about playing Jezza, pulls some strings, it becomes a Netflix series, and then it gets touted as the British answer to Stranger Things

Dancing Jax | Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Some books are harmful, even dangerous.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The Mooncaster Trilogy, as I long ago began to call the Dancing Jax books in the absence of an official series title, is many things at once. As Matt said in the Up Next post, it is confrontational. It was at the time of publication, and still is, widely misunderstood by readers and critics alike. It goes where no Robin Jarvis series has gone before, or indeed, many young adult series’ on the bookshop shelves of today. Whatever you’ve heard about these books, whatever conclusions you’ve come to if you’ve read them, there’s one thing I think everybody will agree on: this trilogy has a strong personality.

This was the first series in Robin Jarvis canon that I had the opportunity of reading more or less as it came out. Dancing Jax was published in early 2011 – I didn’t catch wind of it until it appeared in my local library about a year later, but I ended up following the release of the next two books closely, which, if you know about Robin’s publication history, you will guess was an adventure in itself. To this day I find it darkly comedic that the one Robin Jarvis book to turn up when I wasn’t looking for Jarvis offerings at all was the one which would signal the greatest departure from ‘Robin Jarvis canon’ as a whole. Dancing Jax was, and still is, a revelation.

Let’s dive right in, then. Oh boy.

I think anybody who reads Martin Baxter’s entry will immediately know that something is up with author intent here. Martin’s statement about harmful books is a very bold move to make in the opening pages of what was marketed as a piece of young adult fiction, and has probably contributed to the book being misinterpreted quite regularly.

In an example from my own experience, I can remember handing it to a friend. He read the first page, and was instantly repelled. ‘What point is the author trying to make?’ I can remember him saying, indignantly. ‘You don’t just advocate censorship and not elaborate, it’s completely ham-fisted.’ Right away, Dancing Jax had elicited a strong response, and in that way, it had worked perfectly.

I admit that the intent of this series was lost on me up until the second book came out, so, with the memory of my own sad confusion and my friend’s offended horror uppermost, I feel I owe it to this project to, er, lay all the cards on the table.

The Dancing Jax books are a parody. They are a deconstruction of the trends popular in young adult fiction at the time of writing, of the publishing industry, the British press, the way British history is commodified, celebrity and mass media culture, the New Age movement, and quite a few other things besides.

This series is one giant ‘haw haw haw’ from start to finish, so please, be offended. Be confronted, be aghast, be shocked and awed. Hate the protagonists, loathe the antagonists, groan as the characters make pretentious speeches about the state of society and exchange tired pop culture references. Wince at the tabloid-like portrayal of Felixstowe and its inhabitants, shiver at Austerly Fellows’ way-too-realistic cult leader act. Call it ‘horror’, call it ‘genre-busting’, call it a seething, riotous mess or a new era in writing for young people. The point is that you’re thinking, and engaging, and reacting. The point is that you’ve joined the dance.

 

Matt’s Thoughts:  Where to start with this one? While the details are coming back to me, I still remember clearly the first time I read this, the sense that Robin Jarvis was trying something radically new. First up, there’s that outlandish cover. It’s garish, it’s monstrous, it’s terrifying. What is that creature with the blazing red eyes on the front?

Then the use of language, even before we arrive at the start of Chapter 1, signals that this is going to be a book for an older audience. And once we arrive at chapter 1, there are even more tip-offs that we’ve arrived in an older Jarvis world – the off-colour dialogue (e.g. Tommy’s comment about ‘girly mags’) and the adult concepts (e.g. the insinuation that Shiela, barely 20, is the lover of Jezza, seemingly a lot older).

Which, of course, all sets up an expectation: if Mr Jarvis is pitching the overall story at an older audience, does that mean that the scares and darkness are going to be much worse as well? In other words, if mouse-peeling rats, werewolves, and ginormous serpents were all fair game for 8-12 year-olds, what on earth is he going to do to torment older teenagers?

The answer is – quite a lot. But we shall take that ride together for mutual moral support!

I love the way this book opens with two completely opposite welcomes to the same story. One is a few paragraphs from Martin Baxter, a character we have not yet met, warning us that some books are harmful, even dangerous. They should be banned or destroyed. Then over the next page, we have an old-school introduction from Austerly Fellows written in the 1930s. It invites us to read these ‘rousing pages’ so that we can ‘escape the travails of those earthly measures that daily erode your humble spirit’ and offers a promise that ‘we shall coddle you, safe and close’.

This, of course, sets up a fascinating theme right out of the gate: could something that seems to offer comfort and escape from the cares of life be such a bad thing? Surely that would be good, right?

This paradox of good and bad being mixed together next comes in the form of Jezza’s speech to Shiela about the shallowness of spending your time on the internet, inventing stuff (which is a rather amusing sentiment to be found in a fictional story) and ignoring the evils of real life. But this is paradoxical because Jezza himself is a low-life substance abuser breaking into a house to steal stuff.

The character of Jezza (certainly, as he appears at the beginning of this book) is a fascinating one that has taken on a new resonance for me in the last few months. I was recently watching a film about the Snowtown Murders, one of the word cases of serial killing that Australia has ever seen. The murders themselves, which took place in South Australia over a period of nearly 10 years were horrific both because of the methods of murder employed (which I won’t go into on this blog) but also because there was not just one killer. Instead, the crimes were committed by a gang of three or four men, led by one John Bunting.

Bunting himself was well noted for having a charismatic personality and could be quite charming at times. But the logic that he used to justify the murders, which all took place amongst lower-class Australians in fringe suburbs, was to convince his followers that the people they were targeting were themselves low-lifes that didn’t deserve to live. In short, he put forward a moral justification for one of the most horrific things to happen on Australian soil.

You get a similar feel from Jezza – he gets his followers and lackeys onside because he has a certain amount of wisdom as he analyses society. But the paths he leads them down aren’t ones that make that society any better …

Finally, the other big thing is that Robin firmly dates the book in 2010 by throwing in numerous pop culture references, more than any had that previously been seen in the Jarvis Universe. In this case, it’s the graffiti on the walls being a nod to British pop of the 70s. So what better way to end this post than with the Wombles singing Minuetto Allegretto?

 

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 20

FS

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Tap-tap-tap.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’ve muttered about ominous chapter titles before on here, but this one really, genuinely takes the jam and pancakes for this trilogy. You can ‘Crimson Weft’ all you want, but there’s something about the combination of last chapter’s cliffhanger, that ghastly illustration of skull-headed Galatea, and the fact that there’s only ‘this much left to go’ that puts ‘The First Wave’ at the top of the list.

In The Woven Path we all guessed that the Separate Collection and its inhabitants might return in the trilogy finale, and here we finally get to see that happen, in as grand and theatrical a manner as could be hoped. Best moment for me has got to be Galatea stepping into the light as Ursula charges her to lead the defence against Woden. Really, could the Nornir have a better general than the beautiful, hollow-eyed scourge of Paphos? I have to side with Edie this time – I’d run up to the statue too!

Matt’s Thoughts: This finale is reminding me more and more of the end of Fighting Pax, in that the last third of the book is really just one unrelenting sweep of action, without pause for breath, without letup of the tension.

Also, another whole sweep of old mythology is thrown in here. I do wish I had learned more of these ancient myths and legends when I was younger so they would come more readily to mind. (Alas, my somewhat conservative Christian curriculum as a youngster tended to de-emphasise the great myths for fear of us all becoming Satanists or something like that.) But, I managed to work out that the skull-topped beauty of a statue is a reference to the famous story of Pygmalion (or Pumiyathon, which is how he is referred to here) who fell in love with a statue that he had created.

The twist here, of course, is that in the same way that the Valkyries in the previous book are monstrous versions of their mythological counterparts, so here the statue – instead of being classically beautiful – is rather terrifying and warlike. It’s never stated explicitly in this series, but there’s an undercurrent here that all legends are based on some sort of truth, but that over time, storytellers have taken the edges off the stories to make them more palatable.

Having just watched Darkest Hour, in which the story of Churchill in WWII is portrayed in the most perfectly-lit, perfectly-costumed, beautifully-shot visual version of events, there is a definitely a truth to the idea of us liking to smooth out the past into a more palatable re-telling.

And as for that last set-piece where Ursula has to choose between a roomful of school children getting killed and defeating Jack Timms …  yikes!

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 19

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

From some remote region, deep within the museum, there came the distant sound of a rhythmic knocking.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I definitely get shades of The Final Reckoning from this chapter.

Onceagain, our heroes are forced together by an unnatural cold and crouch, breath bated, around their meagre fire as the forces of darkness assail them from all sides. Once again, they summon the powers which safeguarded them in ages past, while their ancient matriarch, grim and grieving, despairs beneath the weight of her years.

We’re really at the finale now. Will the Nornir triumph, or will all who huddle around that fire be ‘besieged by death’?

Matt’s Thoughts: All I’ll say on this chapter, which nicely ramps things up, is that there is definitely a profound creepiness to the old song ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ Such a nice extra touch having the lyrics of that song being sung by the kids as Tick-Tock makes his way through the Museum.

Which is actually the second time in a month that I’ve encountered this particular little ditty being used to create a sinister atmosphere. Down here in Australia, we have two films and now two seasons of a TV show called Wolf Creek (definitely not suitable for children!) which I think exists solely to scare Australians from ever leaving the cities and visiting remote outback areas of Australia and to scare anyone from overseas to even contemplate visiting Australia full stop.

It’s probably the closest thing we’ve got to those horror stories that make you terrified of visiting old moors.

But, interestingly enough, for the title sequence of the TV series, they used the Cock Robin song quite effectively. What can I say? It’s just a creepy song.

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 13

FS

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘I wanted you to see that my home is not wholly filled with ugly memories.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Who else reckons that something will prevent the Chapmans from leaving the museum? Brian can fume all he likes, but the Nornir’s domain is now essentially a fortress, and Ursula still has a use for Neil. To paraphrase Quoth, depart that grooly abode they shall not. At least, not any time soon.

The rest of this chapter is the narrative equivalent of passing a difficult school test as a kid and then being given sweets as a reward. Well done, readers all, we’ve made it through the grisly description of Mary-Anne’s incarceration and demise, time for some Tudor revels to lift the mood.

And what delightful revels they are. Exquisitely detailed, with even amusing Tudor colour names making an appearance, Celandine’s last ball almost makes up for the ghastly shocks of Mr Pickering’s previous findings. It’s also interesting to see a bit of development regarding what Ursula was like before her sisters deteriorated with Nirinel. We really get a sense of all that the Websters have lost over the ages, and the blazing splendour of the past makes their present seem all the more shabby and ignoble.

This chapter is perfectly balanced. If I had to choose a chapter to represent this trilogy, it would be this. Ghost-hunting, family feuds, time travel, heartwarming and horrifying moments – it has everything. At the end of it I feel almost as overwhelmed as Mr Pickering. What will the Wyrd Museum throw at us next?

Matt’s Thoughts: Another Jarvis black/white chapter, where horror and beauty dwell side by side. The horror: discovering the fate of Mary-Anne Brindle, one which we almost would rather not have known. But then the beauty: the final ball of the sisters Webster before they became reclusive.

I’m glad, amidst all the darkness, that there was a pause for a scene like this. It gives us a rare moment of kindness by Ursula, where she allows Celandine a chance to relive her happier days. It’s finally convinced me that she is driven, not by a desire for power, but just a dedication to duty regardless of the great personal cost to her. That, I can understand.