4 Stars - Strongly Recommended to readers who don't get their panties in a bunch over a few bawdy puppets
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Holy brothels and puppets, Batman! Under the Poppy is quite unlike any other literary fiction I have ever read and while that's a really good thing for me, if you are terrified of puppets... then that could be a very, very bad thing for you. Now, don't get me wrong. These aren't scary come-to-life-and-get-all-Puppet Master-on-your-ass puppets. But they're, ya' know... puppets!
Let me break this down for you. Set in the late 1800's, in the midst of a war that is just beginning to boil, there sits a wonderfully campy brothel. This brothel, cleverly called Under the Poppy, is owned and operated by childhood companions Decca and Rupert. Decca runs the Poppy in much the same way Miss Hannigan ran the orphanage in Annie - she can't stand her girls, but loves her job. She keeps the brothel running in tip-top shape, pulling the customers in and working the girls morning, noon, and night. She takes shit from no one and dishes out more than her fair share of it. Rupert, on the other hand, is looked upon as a sort of Daddy Warbucks (if you'll allow me to continue the Annie references since I think it fits this book in a strangely appropriate way). He's the brains behind the business, always slipping out for a meeting here or there, dressed to the nines, a true schmoozer. He softens Decca's blows behind her back, allowing the girls of the brothel some down-time now and again.
Decca, for all her tough exterior, has pie-eyes for Rupert, but Rupert much prefers the company of her brother Istvan, who suddenly reappears at the Poppy after years of silence. With him, he carries a troupe of puppets who bring a much needed change to the brothel. Mixing his rather bawdy puppets into the evening performances with the girls, the crowds go wild, and catch the attention of some rather rough and rowdy military men. In the midst of the strange love-triangle that begins to brew inside, situations outside the Poppy are straining as well, with the impending war putting the pressure on them from all sides. Favors are called in, decisions must be made, puppets and people alike struggle to keep their heads on straight, and as the tempers flair and people begin to die, Decca and Rupert find themselves at odds when it comes to what is best for themselves and the Poppy.
Under the Poppy has this incredible old world feel to it - lush, rich writing that wraps you up inside of it and makes you woozy with its words. And author Kathe Koja doesn't skimp on anything. The book is bursting with sex and violence, love and lust, blackmail and revenge, naughty puppets and naive prostitutes. Everyone's got deep dark secrets they wish to protect and skeletons bound and gagged in the back of their closets. And as they each work furiously to keep these things hidden from sight, everyone unwittingly becomes someone else's puppet....
Small Beer Press is a new publisher for me. I discovered them, and this novel, through a link that Consortium Books shared during one of their #indieview twitter chats. The link listed countless book trailers to independently published novels. That's where I saw this, and decided I needed to get a copy post haste:
Funnily enough, this book contains two things I am not a huge fan of: war as a setting, circumstance of, or character within fiction, and puppets. The war thing is just a personal preference. It's a bit like football playoffs for me - I can't keep the teams and their players straight, I don't remember who fought who when, and I can never remember the score. Puppets, on the other hand, are things that instill an irrational fear in me. They are extremely creepy looking - and too life like for me - and I always wonder "what if they become self aware?". I have good old fashioned American horror flicks and tv shows to thank for all of that!
However, in Under the Poppy, they both work and work well together. Just be prepared for the puppets to exhibit some... uhm... un-puppet like behavior. By the way, did you know that Under the Poppy has been adapted to the stage? Check out some of the stuff that has been taking place out in Detroit.
Let me close with this - Under the Poppy is a book that begs for a great soundtrack as you read. I found that my darker alternative tastes fit the bill extremely well. Almost too perfectly, in fact. The music of She Wants Revenge, Peter Murphy, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Portishead and The Cult blended right into the pages of the book like so much spilled wine. There something a little sexy, a little S&M, a little sad in each one of these...