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Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett

February 29, 2012 1 comment

Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett (Felony & Mayhem, 2012) is as magnificently ridonculous as it’s possible to get on a wet Friday afternoon in the Gobi Desert when your umbrella sticks halfway shut and all you get for your troubles is a sweat-soaked sun tan. It’s the second title in what has now amounted to a hill of four beans — actually since we have two series characters in Blotto and Twinks, I suppose that should be eight old beans, what?

As to whether you will like this. It’s a bit hard to say. I loved the hyperrealisation of upper-class antics in defence of the realm — fighting a German bomber with cricket bats is definitely hyperreal if not delightfully absurd. It took me back into the past to the time when I was young and devoured the works of Sapper (aka Herman Cyril McNeile), particularly favouring the Bulldog Drummond books (later continued through the kindly ministrations of Gerard Fairlie), Dornford Yates (aka Cecil William Mercer) with his Berry books, and so on. There was something inherently pleasing about my betters pretending to be stupid, but actually being ace detectives and crime-fighters on the sly. These Edwardian bods were supposed to be our lords and masters, so I appreciated one or two of them taking time out from their busy schedules of country house parties to solve a few murders and disrupt the operation of some fiendish criminal gangs. It made me think they were worth having around. Indeed, without those literary inspirations, I would more rapidly have turned into the cynical republican I am today. Now I’m all for abolishing the House of Lords and sending the current batch of relics out to pasture. There’s not a decent crime-fighter among them to follow in the tradition of Queen Victoria’s exploits as a demon hunter.

Simon Brett wondering whether the pen is mightier than the cake

Continuing in this retrospective mood, the problem with the books I read when young was their appalling jingoism and patriarchalism. Think about it. Apart from Molly Robertson-Kirk from Baroness Orczy, Tuppence Beresford and Miss Marple from Agatha Christie, Maud Silver from Patricia Wentworth, Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley from Gladys Mitchell, and Harriet Vane, later Lady Peter Wimsey, from Dorothy Sayers, there were no major female detectives who could interact with the upper classes. They were all so terrible middle class, my dears, apart from Harriet Vane who became respectable through her marriage. To this sexism was added an inherent racism as part of a casual anti-foreigner bias. This was beautifully lampooned by Flanders and Swann who, in the chorus of “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice” assert, “The English, the English, the English are best, I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest!” So reading about the exploits of Blotto and Twinks is very equal opportunities as Twinks has the brain that powers the duo to their successes. Although, truth be told, Blotto can occasionally interject the odd idea of merit when no-one is looking.

So putting all this together, anyone who delights in seeing Edwardian period charm mercilessly deconstructed and ravaged by a senior pro from Dover with an eye for absurdity, will enjoy Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess. I’m not sure I could read one of these every week. Simon Brett is wonderfully laid back and a consummate professional when it comes to stringing words together, but there’s an inherent shortage of targets. I suspect some aspects of the humour would get monotonous quite quickly. But once in a blue moon, this is the book to lift your spirits and gladden your heart — assuming you enjoy a very English sense of humour, of course.

For reviews of other novels by Simon Brett, see:
The Cinderella Killer
A Decent Interval
The Strangling on the Stage.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder (TOR/Forge, 2012) is the fifth and final volume in the Virga series. It’s been quite a long ride since Sun of Suns first appeared from TOR in 2006 as a packaged version of the story serialised in Analog in 2005/6 — the serialisation actually continued with The Queen of Candesce. The main point of interest in this cycle of five books has been the opportunity to explore the environment. In this, it’s a bit like Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Arthur C Clarke’s Rama. This time, we’re inside a fullerine balloon floating in space. That makes it free of gravity so our resourceful inhabitants create their own living cylinders that rotate — ah, the wonders of centrifugal force. Each of these environments is a city state with its own political structures. The main questions to be resolved are how this rather curious habitat came to be built and why there’s a suppressor field limiting the operation of technology within the balloon. This means everything depends on very primitive machinery, operating at a mediaeval level with wooden ships sailing the air currents and quite a lot of piracy.

Our understanding of how old this place is starts to become clearer in The Queen of Cenadesce as we get our first sight of those representing Artificial Nature. This “enemy” not unnaturally wants the limit on technology removed, but the main focus remains on the political infighting between the city states. The Pirate Sun finally explains something of the relationship between human society inside the balloon and the post-human civilisation outside, but the action is slowing down. The Sunless Countries moves us closer to the wall of the balloon so we’re further away from the artificial suns that provide the light and nearer points where visitors might come in from outside. It’s here the Home Guard patrols in its largely unacknowledged efforts to keep the inhabitants safe. Although this is interesting in explaining how people survive with even less technology, we move into a more political dimension with an emerging group demanding faith rather than science. The idea of determining truth through a democratic vote gives a new spin on current moves toward the cloud-sourcing of news. Because the main character in this book, Leal Maspeth, is an historian we get more information about what may be going on but, by this point, my interest had begun to flag. There’s still a wow factor in the exploration of the balloon, but the action is more muted. Frankly we’re into the fourth volume and it’s taking too long to solve the essential puzzle of the balloon habitat. You can only derive interest from apparently endless disputes between multiple fictional micro-states for so long. For the same reason, arguments about the uses and abuses of technology grow tiresome after a while.

Karl Schroeder getting a grip on his other half

So, four books later, we come straight in where The Sunless Countries cliffhanger left us. Leal and the surviving members of the team are struggling on, still dogged by the revenant of John Tarvey who’s survived drowning to become the walking embodiment of immortality. The humans are rescued from an avalanche by Keir Chen, an enigmatic but inherently interesting character from the appropriately named Revelation (now relocated to a point they call Renaissance) who’s going through a process called de-indexing. As a being dependent on a sophisticated neural computer support, his wife decided to switch off the machine. Or perhaps that’s a myth. Perhaps he did it to himself. Whoever was responsible, he’s no longer able to access his memories through the electronic index. He must make his own memory links or forget his past. He will, of course, continue to experience life and file memories the human way. It will just all be slower. And the reason for this somewhat dramatic loss of identity? Their computer system was hacked? That’s certainly one possible explanation. . . and he does seem to be getting physically younger as well. In other news, Hayden Griffen is rescued, Admiral Chaison Fanning is still in charge of military matters despite Vanera’s best efforts to make him redundant through her network of spies, and Jacoby Sarto and his more vicious sister Inshiri Ferance continue their sibling rivalry.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like post-Singularity fiction and, more importantly, enjoy puzzle-solving. But this pentalogy squeezed the juice out of the ideas about halfway through The Sunless Countries and left us with this husk. There are set pieces of action in the opening sections and, not surprisingly, there’s a big fight at the end. But in the central sections, there’s just far too much discussion of what technology is and, by implication, how dependent we have become on it. The complex political structure also grows more tedious as the different factions dispute among themselves as to who has the “right” answers. It’s obvious there has to be some degree of unity or else a deus ex machina group will emerge and save everyone regardless of their beliefs.

So what does it come down to when the dust has settled? The virtual world was dehumanised because it was not embodied. Karl Schroeder argues people stop caring what happens to them if they are not tied to a particular body, in a particular time and place. So the emotionless virtuals find the existence of a place where their technology does not work a threat to their belief system. They lose the sense of their own perfection in the face of this barrier to their presence. Hence the need for a war to destroy this human habitat. And the converse? In a Shakespearean spirit, this few, this happy few, this band of human brothers and sisters decide they don’t want the immortality of the virtual world. They want their lives to have meaning through their mortality, and who can blame them.

Stephen Martiniere produces a rather beautiful piece of "old" real estate

So, if you enjoyed the four that went before, you need to read Ashes of Candesce to see how it all turns out. If you have no idea who anyone is when you start, you will have even less idea when you finish. This is not something to read as a standalone. If you want to start with the best, read Sun of Suns. It was and remains an excellent adventure novel. For me, this final episode is just going through the motions.

The cover art by Stephan Martiniere is rather beautiful.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes

February 27, 2012 2 comments

It’s impossible to begin this review of Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (DAW Books, 2012) without mentioning the sad death of Martin Greenberg. Over the decades, he’s contrived to stay at the top of the editing pile by consistently producing anthologies of quality. Although he often shared the editorial credits, this is as good a memorial for his talents as you could hope to find. Now a word of reassurance. Yes, this carries the word “weird” on the jacket, but it’s wonderfully eclectic, combining science fiction with fantasy in a complete disregard for genre boundaries as anything and everything spectacularly odd comes to the Wild West and beyond. There literally isn’t a weak story in this anthology and, as befits anything with claims to supernatural overtones, you’re lucky to find thirteen such excellent stories.

“The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen” by Jay Lake is a pleasing relocation of the long spoon trope to the cowboy on the range. This sees the Devil happily engaging in a little cattle rustling for BBQ purposes until he’s tracked down by an upright loner. Although we lack some of the sophistication of the storytellers who want to construct a powerful Faustian offer with a clever way of avoiding the soul-loss trap, this more than makes up for it with a nice sense of humour. “The Last Master of Aeronautical Winters” by Larry D Sweazy is a steampunkish city in the sky, partly built using Wild Bill’s savings. When the enterprise is overrun by demons, it comes down to two brave souls to see what they can pull out of the fire (so to speak). Again, this is delightfully knowing as our heroes prepare to ride the elevator of doom up into the sky. “Lowstone” by Anton Strout also has elegant biomechanical additions in this steampunk mining community threatened by zombies. It’s slightly more serious, but no less effective in bending the gender roles to fight the good fight.

“The Flower of Arizona” by Seanan McGuire brings a pleasing touch of whimsy to a hunt for a man-eating chimaera. This is a nice take on the problems faced by the old travelling circus companies when audiences were poor. “Surveyor of Mars” by Christopher McKitterick has us embark on a sequel to H G Wells War of the Worlds. It assumes Earth would have used the Martian technology to colonise Mars. Except, of course, the carpetbaggers would have followed the settlers. In situations where freedom is under threat, what you need is a man embodying the qualities of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The politics are a bit clunky to European eyes, but the spirit of the story shines through despite the fact that only Americans seem to have had the can-do mechanical skills to get to Mars. It would have been more interesting had the Brits also been able to compete for territorial rights. “Coyote, Spider, Bat” by Steven Saus is a powerful and dark story that sees cultural imperialism come grinding to a halt in the face of even older power. European vampires may think they’re at the top of the food chain but, if they come to America, even in disguise, they might be in for a surprise as they end up on the menu of the local Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

“Maybe Another Time” by Dean Wesley Smith plays with one of my favourite time travel themes perhaps best captured in The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. In every respect, this is an unexpected delight to find in an anthology supposedly about weird stuff in the Wild West — whichever version of it you care to pick. “Renn and the Little Men” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is magnificently whimsical, rerunning the Rumpelstiltskin trope in a High Noon showdown to avoid rule by the trolls. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when you read it. This has just the right amount of nuttiness to qualify it as one of the best fantasy stories of the year. Continuing in the same vein, “Showdown At High Noon” by Jennifer Brozek has an earlier version of Bonnie and Clyde caught up in an interplanetary conflict involving Ancient Egyptian scarabs and a Norse shapeshifter. As you might expect, this is delightfully weird.

“The Clockwork Cowboy” by J Steven York is a very clever story Isaac Asimov would have enjoyed. The literal Biblical injunction against killing can be enshrined in the software. This will reflect the thinking of all sections of the community, no matter what its racial background or source of mechanical power. Except, as is always the way when one of the minority breaks the programming, the majority humans don’t take kindly to a killer. “Black Train” by Jeff Mariotte takes aim at the zombie theme through the potential use of technology for military purposes. As with every good invention, you always need an antidote or countermeasure. If you release gas, you need a mask. If you release a virus, you need a vaccine. This speculates on what you might need for a mould. Finally, “Lone Wolf” by Jody Lynn Nye manages to conflate werewolves, an Indian Shaman’s insights into soul mates, and a backwoodsman Edison who would would make even a sober Gallegher proud.

I confess Westward Weird is an anthology I resisted picking up, fearing the genre mixture would be indigestible. In fact, it’s proved to be tasty Wild West victuals for them as likes a hot spicy sauce with their eatings. I find myself recommending this as great fun from start to finish.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

ad eternum by Elizabeth Bear

February 26, 2012 1 comment

ad eternum by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2012) continues in the New Amsterdam series. This time, we move on from the Russia of The White City to New Amsterdam. The time is now 1962 in this rather pleasing alternate history of vampires living more openly in human society. As the title suggests, we’re into a consideration of how one should approach the question of practical immortality. It gives an additional refinement to the notion of existentialism when the series character knows he’s likely to be around for more years than the humans surrounding him. The problem, of course, is ennui. There’s no need to sleep, so our unfortunate wampyr is denied periodic unconsciousness while some hours pass by. He’s obliged to endure every second. Like any sensible person, he cultivates hobbies. In this novelette, he practises his knitting and reads a lot, but there comes a point when even the most challenging of knitting patterns fails to inspire interest. Boredom looms ever larger and he’s threatened by the notion that existence itself is growing meaningless. In philosophical terms, we might assume that if our lives were full of contentment, the fact of continuing existence would have little value in itself. It would simply be the means for continued contentment. But if there’s nothing but boredom, life would be like moving through a fog. We would only dimly see people, places and things around us. Nothing would motivate us. Like those who wait for Godot, we would begin to worry whether the wait is worth the effort.

Elizabeth Bear protecting her neck from unwanted attention

So it is that our wampyr crosses back across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. It’s his first opportunity to look at the new technology of powered flight. Yet, within minutes, he sees it is no more than a means to an end. Yes, it may be faster than a zeppelin, but it’s less opulent and the functionalism dominates as the plane chases the night across the ocean. Once he lands, he dodges past the paparazzi to make a quiet return to his old home. Yet, within twenty-four hours, he finds himself invited to meet a small group. They have a proposition for him. They plan the establishment of a new university which will teach all things supernatural and magical. They invite him not only to put up the money, but also to pass on his knowledge and experience.

It’s a curious coincidence to offer a role that might regenerate some interest in the lives of humans. Yet one of those in the group is an annoyance. Although a human, he pretends to be immortal. His research is as impeccable as it can be and, for flickering moments, he’s halfway convincing, but nothing beats actually living through the times he talks about. Yet why should our vampire care? Surely he should be amused a human should be such a poor fraud. He must ask himself why the emotion he feels approaches anger. When he himself is tempted to end it all by standing on a rooftop while the sun rises, it’s surely ironic a human should be trying so hard to be like him.

Summing up, ad eternum is a quietly meditative disquisition on existential matters. It’s not in any sense intended as one of these Hollywood style vampire sagas in which gangs of bloodsuckers fight with werewolves or an armed group of humans. We’re simply offered the chance to observe a vampire as he goes through a mid-death crisis. As always, Elizabeth Bear delivers a beautifully written novella but here comes the rub. If you’re a fan, you’re going to think the asking price from Subterranean Press for one of these elegantly produced hardbacks is excellent value for money. Otherwise you might think it better to wait until this novelette is anthologised or collected.

For reviews of books also by Elizabeth Bear, see:
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette),
Range of Ghosts,
Seven for a Secret,
Shattered Pillars,
Shoggoths in Bloom,
Steles of the Sky and
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette).

Dust jacket artwork is again by Patrick Arrasmith.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Rope by Nevada Barr

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

As an author, one of the major problems once you’ve invested in a series character is the dilemma whether to kill him or her off. As Arthur Conan Doyle discovered when he had Sherlock Holmes disappear in the vicinity of the Reichenbach Falls, the complaints of your loyal paying customers make it difficult to keep a good hero in the bottom drawer. In a way, it’s even worse when the author decides to go down the prequel route. Up to this point, we’ve all been on the edge of our seats, worried this is the day when it all might stop. Even Agatha Christie killed off Hercule Poirot, although it was years before she allowed the book to be published. But if the author goes back to the day when it all began, you know the character’s body is protected by authorial kevlar and teflon has been applied to his or her reputation. No matter what happens, this character is untouchable.

This sad reality removes any vestige of tension from the scenes when our hero’s life is threatened. We know from the first words on the page that he or she will escape certain death and identify the wrongdoers. We simply wait to see how the escapes are stage-managed. This explains why the first third of The Rope by Nevada Barr is merely interesting and not gripping. Our heroine has the misfortune to stumble upon a rape when out for a walk in Glen Canyon National Park and is dropped down a hole for her troubles. She can’t climb out so the only option is to survive and hope to physically overpower whoever comes down to gloat over her as she lies defeated. Conveniently this happens in the dead of night so she can’t see who it is. This leaves us the remaining two-thirds of the book for her to work out whodunnit to her and to the others when several bodies are dug up or pulled from the water of Lake Powell.

Nevada Barr justly proud of her green background

Well, for those of you familiar with Nevada Barr, this is the origin story for Anna Pigeon. There are sixteen other books in the series to tell the story of what happened after she became a law enforcement officer with the US National Park Service. Here’s where it all began. There are several interesting features to this novel. The first is as a study of how the victims of crime can deal with the emotional fall-out. In The Rope, we have two such characters. Anna herself is the classic victim caught up in a situation where she has no control but, when she finds herself trapped, she’s able to maintain a positive attitude. After the rescue, she avoids the traditional post-traumatic stress disorder we so often see in both fiction and among real-world soldiers, fire fighters, police officers and others exposed to acute danger. Through an internalised process of cognitive behavioural therapy — she imagines herself talking to her sister who’s a psychologist — she actually grows emotionally stronger. The second character is Jenny Gorman who was gang-raped at college and has been dealing with her reaction to it over the intervening years.

Jenny leads us into the second area of interest in that she has adjusted to life as a lesbian, keeping men at a social distance. We may think of this as a decision reinforced by her experience as a rape victim and, in part, it sees us back in the same territory Nevada Barr first explored in Bittersweet. Although the characters in this latest novel do not engage in actual sexual contact more serious than a somewhat violently stolen kiss, there’s considerable exploration of emotions by and about Jenny as the explicitly gay ranger. This runs alongside the internal monologue as Anna also wonders about her sexuality given her emotions are tinged with guilt over the death of her husband. It’s brave for a mainstream author to deal so openly with issues of sex, gender roles and sexuality. No matter what level of self-deception we might prefer to practise, homophobia remains normative among significant portions of the community. It might even emerge to restrict sales of this book which would be unfortunate. For all the lack of tension in the early part, this book does build as an effective thriller and deserves to be judged on its merits.

The best way to approach The Rope is as a thriller rather than as a mystery. Although there’s some degree of uncertainty as to who’s ultimately responsible for what has been happening in this part of the back of beyond, that’s somewhat secondary to the emotional journey Anna makes from an untested city “girl” to a woman determined to become a law enforcement officer in the great outdoors. This is captured in the thought, “I believe more women should carry guns. I believe armed women will make the world a better place. Women need to come to think of themselves not as victims but as dangerous.” I’m not entirely sure this would go down too well as a manifesto for the NRA, what with most gun-toting men being more of the macho persuasion, but it does capture the spirit of this book. Nevada Barr writes with a pleasing directness about woman, their gender roles and how they might transcend the prejudices of male expectations as to how they should behave. It may be something as simple as whether they should pump iron in the gym. There are stereotypes as to whether muscular women are sexually attractive or physically threatening. Or how they should dress. There’s cultural significance if a woman wears black in different social contexts. Or whether they should have power over men through serving as law enforcement officers — a direct challenge to the patriarchal assumptions that underpin behaviour in some parts of the community. Nevada Barr discusses these and comparable issues with honesty and a clear sense of social understanding.

This book gives us a chance to watch layers of urban socialisation stripped away until we come down to the irreducible core of Anna as a person or, metaphorically, as a force of nature. On balance, I think her practical survival training episodes go on slightly too long, but it’s always fascinating to watch the ugly duckling become a swan. Put all this together and The Rope is definitely of interest to those who are following the series character Anna Pigeon.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R Lansdale

February 25, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s surprising how quickly time seems to fly by when old age starts to affect memory. It seems only yesterday I read The Bottoms, and a few hours ago that I finished the final, immensely satisfying page of A Fine Dark Line. Now I find myself with Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, 2012), a third standalone novel that takes us back in time and into the depths of darkest Texas where subsistence communities eked out a living in backwater counties. For all Lansdale is perhaps better known as the author of the Hap and Leonard series, The Bottoms won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and shows that, if he has a mind to, he can write a beautiful mystery novel with thrillerish overtones. What makes these three novels interesting is the decision to use young people as the point of view. Harry Crane and Stanley Mitchell are both thirteen. Here we have another first-person narrative, this time featuring Sue Ellen who’s managed to arrive at sixteen without a major fatal incident affecting her progress. We’re pitched straight into the story when Daddy, Uncle Gene and a young friend, Terry Thomas, pull the body of May Lynn Baxter out of the river. She’s been visiting with the local fish courtesy of a Singer sewing machine tied to her legs. Despite the protests of the adults, Terry insists on reporting the find to the town’s law enforcement officer. They don’t seriously think this will produce any results but, to the young-uns, it feels the right thing to do when one of their own age has been murdered. Later Jinx, the third member of the teen gang, joins in and they go across the river, intending to talk to dead girl’s father. He’s not there, but what they find is the trigger for the story to pick up pace.

One of the young’s more endearing qualities is their innocence. Most lose it quite early on in life but, when it’s running at full throttle, it can pick them up and move them along without any sense of danger. In this instance, what our heroes hoped would be a quick search and rescue mission becomes complicated when they find more than they bargained for. Moments later, what had been a dream of leaving and finding somewhere better to live becomes an urgent necessity. Yet, of course, running away when you’re in the back of beyond and can’t drive is something of a challenge. So begins the dance between pursuers and pursued. Which way would they go and how fast could they travel? Ah, the niceties of these little judgements. And those running should do well to remember their school lessons and the perils of the lotus eaters.

Joe R Lansdale expecting writing action with pen in hand and to hand

This is a book about the casual violence found in these small communities. Death is not something to make a fuss about. It happens and the law is never really interested unless the wrong people die. Husbands abuse their wives and children. The strong bully the weak. In such circumstances, only the more intelligent and sensitive ever feel guilt over the things they see, hear and do. Most ignore moral considerations. Survival is all that matters. As in other novels, Joe R. Lansdale also deals with the institutionalised racism of the South. A few years before this is set, lynching was the easy way out for a black man accused of crime. If it was considered a bad offence, he might find himself castrated and set on fire — the later hanging would come as a welcome release. In this novel, the treatment the young Jinx receives shows how social attitudes are hard-wired into the communities. On the way, we also meet a young family who’ve been caught up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. They are living as hobos, hopping trains from here to there. It’s a hard life for most in the Great Depression.

In terms of plot, I was reminded of Deliverance by James Dickey, but the real resonance comes from The Executioners by John D. MacDonald as adapted for the screen by J Lee Thompson and, in the remake, by Martin Scorsese. The film versions carrying the title Cape Fear crackle with the same malevolence as Max Cady stalks the family in their houseboat. To keep the censors happy, the directors water down the central message from both Dickey and MacDonald’s originals: that the use of deadly force in defence of yourself and others you care about is always justified in the last resort. Joe R. Lansdale is not subject to the cultural restrictions of the cinema so, when it comes to this group floating down the river on their raft, particularly in dealing with the final confrontation between the hunted and their hunter, he can let his creative juices flow. The set-up is handled beautifully. The first mentions of the man on their trail already begin the process of mythologising him. When we are allowed a view of the results of his work, it confirms the myths may have erred on the side of generosity. This is a real monster as the rising body count testifies.

As always, the use of language is half the interest in the reading. It wouldn’t be a Joe R. Lansdale book unless it made you smile and, occasionally, laugh out loud. He has a rare talent with words and finds humour in even the darkest of moments. Edge of Dark Water is very much a thriller with only a minor mystery element to resolve. The young trio that must contend for their lives are racially and sexually diverse. Jinx is probably the most self-aware and certainly gives as good as she gets. Sue Ellen quickly comes to see the world more clearly and Terry Thomas has real problems to resolve. Merely surviving is the rite of passage for them as the river carries them further away from home but not into a safer place. It’s an exciting edge-of-the-seat ride for us, making this is one of the best thrillers of the last five and more years. It’s destined to become a classic like Deliverance, The Executioners and their film versions. Read it or miss out!

For other reviews of books by Joe R. Lansdale, see:
Devil Red
Hyenas
The Thicket
Vanilla Ride.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

John Donne started the ball rolling with the idea that, “no man is an island. . every man is a piece of the continent. . .”. In our postmodernist times, we routinely accept the idea that we only understand the present by placing our “man” in his social context and then interrogating the past. We aim to learn about him by identifying the “facts” reported about him, determining whether they are salient and then forming them into an evidential pattern. In such archaeological diggings, sometimes we identify significant silences and they are just as eloquent as the apparent facts. Once we have all the available evidence, there’s always going to be an argument about what it tells us. Given all our current theories and and beliefs, it’s unlikely one interpretation is always going to be better than any others. That would be the triumph of prejudice. In the best objective sense, we should always be looking for explanations of the past that give the best fit with the “facts” as we have them. So, when searching for a reasoned way of resolving the debate, it may be necessary to conclude one interpretation is right because all the others are wrong. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, “. . .when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Ah, the “truth” — such a complicated concept in these relativistic times.

Such are the games played by those who put together the plots of the better detective stories. When it comes to the blend between current reality and history, I don’t think anyone has more consistently hit the bullseye than Anthony Price. His early books are masterful in their exploration of the relationship between people and their past. He specialised in the construction of meditative dialogues as the lead characters discussed how they should view and then solve their problems which were always rooted in relevant history. So, in The Labyrinth Makers, a missing Dakota aircraft resurfaces. It had been presumed lost at sea shortly after the end of the WWII, so to find it at the bottom of a recently drained lake is disconcerting. That it then triggers interest from the Russian intelligence service brings our series hero, David Audley, into play. If you have not read this book, you should. It won the Silver Dagger Award in 1971.

Barry Maitland with half a Vulcan mind meld

All of which brings us to Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland (Minotaur Books, 2011). This is the eleventh police procedural featuring DCI David Brock and DI Kathy Kolla so, in novelist terms, this is a mature partnership. They know each other well and, together with their Serious Crime team, enjoy tight mutual loyalty. We start off with what might look a random crime. An elderly American tourist is literally thrown under a bus when walking back from the Chelsea Flower Show to her hotel. There’s no obvious motive of a robbery gone wrong. The first theory is mistaken identity yet no-one can suggest whom she might resemble and so justify death. Our heroes are just getting started with the investigation looking at her hotel in Chelsea when the rich Russian who lives next door is also murdered. In a hastily convened meeting between the police and the Intelligence Services, it’s now suggested that our American might look like the dead Russian’s mother. Quite why this has prompted the death of the Russian son is not explained, but it becomes a kind of official assumption for those at the meeting.

Needless to say, our heroes are sceptical. Well, that should be Kathy Kolla who’s sceptical. Brock has succumbed to a mystery bug and the team is covering for his absence while he tries to sleep it off. The problem, of course, is how an elderly American woman might be related to a Russian multi-millionaire. This is where the history comes into play. At first, Kathy Kolla is on her own but she comes across a youngish Canadian attending a conference in London. He’s staying at the same hotel as the dead American and proves to have forensic document skills. In due course, he’s recruited as an independent expert and begins his own parallel investigation. As Brock slowly gets back on his feet, the investigation goes through various crises and changes in manpower. Slowly, they begin to sense the wider picture and, after a trip to America, they have a much better idea of how the two victims may be linked.

Except, of course, the fact a link has been found between the two victims does not explain why they were killed nor by whom. This drives them back into the history and, when some bones come to light, they finally get the answer. Anthony Price would approve of this plot! It’s beautifully managed. What may initially look contrived ends up perfectly explained. We even get a little more background on David Brock as some of his own history resurfaces in an unexpected way. In Chelsea Mansions, Barry Maitland has produced one of the best detective/police procedurals of the last year. If you see it on a shelf, grab a copy and reserve the time necessary to read it. You will not be disappointed.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Oath of Office by Michael Palmer

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Oath of Office by Michael Palmer is what proves to be a highly enjoyable medical and/or political thriller. Thematically, we’re in the realm of Frankenfood, i.e. food intended for human consumption that combines genes from different sources to enable farmers to grow crops with fewer pests or less damage from weeds. At this point I should disclose my prejudice. Even during the time of food rationing after WWII, food tasted better than it does today. When we finally got back to unrestricted eating, it’s been singularly depressing to experience the slow erosion of taste. Take bacon as an example. In the good old days when it came from a pig slaughtered on one of the local farms, you could taste the meat. Then they started pumping it full of brine which washed most of the taste out of it. Today, with pigs stuffed full of hormones to make them fat and antibiotics to stop them from dying in intensive farms, the meat is nothing like the original stuff we wolfed down sixty and more years ago. Now it’s just bland and, because of the added drugs, not good for us. It’s the same with crops and all the foods made with them. Were it not for chemical enhancers, you often would not know what you were supposed to be eating. Now the multinationals want us to start eating genetically modified foods for their profit. Well, for me, this puts the cherry on the cake celebrating the death of food (or the deaths of humans after eating it, except government regulators don’t exactly look for evidence of the causes of death by holding routine autopsies). Frankly, I’m glad I’m old and will soon be dead. It saves me having to worry about the long-term dangers of exposure to all this manufactured food.

Thus, as a paranoid old guy and, worse, a European, it does my heart good to read a book like this. American author Michael Palmer speculates on what could go wrong without proper testing if contaminated food gets into the human food chain. Needless to say, this takes us beyond the more conventional allergic responses. Rather in the same way the “fish tomato” scientists borrowed a gene from the winter flounder and inserted it into a tomato to help us consumers breathe in cold water, this has us with a rather more creepy transgenic insertion and its disconcerting effects coming soon to a plate near yours.

Michael Palmer showing off his rugged good looks next to a cliff face

Putting this future application of current technology to one side, Oath of Office starts with a small-town doctor inexplicably shooting dead his partner and staff. This is intended to shock. The homicidal nuttiness of respected authority figures is always disconcerting. There’s then a slight slowing as our medical hero demonstrates his abilities with patients. I was faintly worried by the choice of an Asian doctor to stereotype as lacking social skills and failing to follow expected medical protocols for ICU treatment. He’s described as a “. . .copper-skinned man—probably from India.” Given the increasing racial diversity in America, this could easily be an individual from a second- or third-generation immigrant family. I don’t believe it would have occurred to the author to write, “. . .a pale-skinned guy—probably from Iceland.” or “. . .a dark man—probably from Harlem.” Doctors are doctors. It would have avoided the suggestion of racism if a hospital doctor of unspecified race and color had been acting strangely. At least we can be grateful Anthar Prichap is not obviously a Moslem name. As you will gather from the title, the second strand of the narrative involves the First Lady and her relationship with POTUS. She and her security guard have to do a little investigating when she’s approached by a mystery man with allegations the Secretary of Agriculture has been framed on charges of sex with a minor.

Once we get into the plot it slowly builds up pace and, by the time we get near the end, it’s charging along like a thriller on steroids as fists fly and bullets do their thing. Fortunately, our hero as doctor is early shown to be a boxer, working out in a gym with an ex-contender. This gives him excellent fighting skills when the plot requires him to defend himself. Such credibility is essential if you’re going to run with a crowd of folk who will stop at nothing to get their way. By the time we’re finished, the scale of the activity is beyond the usual SWAT team. In local terms, it’s like someone declared war.

So there we have it. Oath of Office starts by establishing its hero as a doctor and then expands to show him literally and metaphorically coming through the fire with the right answers on problems in the human food chain. In a parallel investigation, the First Lady also comes up trumps in her investigation with Secret Service support. It’s very good as a medical thriller with political overtones and, if you want to have your prejudices on Frankenfoods confirmed, this is the book for you to curl up with on a dark night as the hour strikes midnight and the floor boards creak with a threat of unexpected movement in the house (which doesn’t need to be white for these purposes).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Artist (2011)

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

No thanks to Justin Timberlake, there’s a terrible cliché: what goes around, comes around. Although I’ve no reason to believe silent “movies” will make a come-back, The Artist (2011) is a genuine pleasure for modern times (a deliberate reference to Charles Chaplin). Michel Hazanavicius, the director and screenwriter, gives us a carefully calibrated recreation of the experience of seeing an original silent film. He’s exploiting the notion of anachronism in a somewhat subversive way. Hence it’s shot in black and white using Academy aspect ratio 4:3. The semiotics of film-making is all too clearly on display as we begin watching a classic film in the adventure style of the late 1920s. The first few minutes obey the rule of the fourth wall. Then the camera pulls back and we see the audience watching the same film with the orchestra in the pit playing the music we hear. Finally, the camera tracks behind the screen to show the cast waiting to be introduced to the audience at the end of the showing. There’s a big notice on the back wall warning those on stage to keep quiet which, of course, they do. In reverse on screen, we therefore see some of the action as the dog rescues the hero and, then, together with the girl, they fly off into the sunset. It’s beautifully judged to set the “stage” for a drama about film, film-making and the consequences of a technological revolution.

Jean Dujardin and the star of the film

 

Our hero is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Together with Uggie, his faithful Jack Russell terrier, he rules the screen in the tradition of Rudolph Valentino who also literally had women swooning in the streets. Curiously, American men were far less impressed by acting in the style of Valentino, a trend they believed was feminising the male gender roles. American men preferred the Douglas Fairbanks lifestyle and screen persona. To that extent, this Valentin embodies features of both romance and action. To complete the list of talents, this artist can also dance — rather in the spirit of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

 

The prevailing acting style in 1920’s cinema was, of necessity, closer to mime since only the images were available for the viewer to interpret. By modern standards, this makes most silent films appear very melodramatic. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the rising “it” girl, describes the acting style as mugging the camera, i.e. using the face and heightening the expressions to communicate meaning more directly to the audience. This had been the prevailing theatrical style. In Victorian stage productions, there would be a build-up to intense physical and emotional points which would then have a moment frozen on stage. This frequently ignored the convention of the proscenium arch and had the actors directing their words and dramatic poses to the audience rather than interacting with the other members of the cast. It was not until the middle class in the stalls replaced the working class in the pit that the actors retreated behind the proscenium arch and stopped trying to win the applause of the audience through their extravagant posing. It took the arrival of the twentieth century to produce greater realism of character and behaviour on stage. When the film industry got underway, the Victorian style of acting prevailed as the actors externalised their emotions directly into the cameras. Without speech, they had to rely on expression and gestures — total body language. Only when talkies began could actors revert to the greater realism of characterisation then emerging in stage productions. In a sense, it also marked the change from the stage and cinema being an actor’s domain, to the rule of the director and the script.

Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) showing she's full of "it", i.e. pep

 

In a film, there’s a binary divide. The sound is either on or off (except in this film, where sound effects do make a couple of dramatic appearances for effect while music plays throughout). The key year was 1927 when wax recordings were synchronised with the film projector. It was a big risk for the film industry because it meant rewiring all the cinemas. Warner Brothers proved the value of the investment with The Jazz Singer. This shattered conventional wisdom and forced one of the most expensive commercial revolutions of all time. It was also lightning fast as studios changed over to sound production. Those whose voices did not fit were out. One of the most interesting films about this period is Singin’ in the Rain in which the star Lina (Jean Hagen) has a voice representing sudden death to the film as made, so she’s dubbed by Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). In The Artist, George Valentin also has a voice problem. It may not be the “squeaky voice” of some of the silents stars but, if I was going to be unkind, it might have been a problem for the American audiences of the day. Perhaps the success of Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer might suggest his fears were unfounded.

James Cromwell — more than just a driver

 

This is a clever meditation on two difficult human emotions. When we take pride in what we do, we do it well. But if pride gets in the way, it can be our downfall. So when our world is turned upside down by forces we cannot control, how should we react? Here’s a silent star who tries to buck the studio system, loses his money in a futile attempt to run against the tide of technological change, and takes to the bottle. This leaves the second question of whether he can be saved by love, or perhaps that should be whether his pride will prevent him from loving. It’s a strange but all-too-common situation in which some people feel humiliated if they have to be saved by someone else out of love. In this case, George actually has loyal and loving people who could help but, first, he must reconcile with himself.

John Goodman — studio boss watching the money being made

 

The Artist (2011) is a very sophisticated piece of film-making and it tells a very human story. On the way, we get to see John Goodman as the boss of the studio who balances a heart of gold against his pursuit of real gold through box office takings, and James Cromwell as the paragon of a faithful servant. Together we embark on a 100 minute journey from the hero’s quiet confidence in his continued success to the pits of despair, and then to that sense of betrayal when it becomes apparent people have been trying to help him without admitting it. It doesn’t matter whether this film and/or its performances win any of the ten Oscars for which it is nominated (it’s not shortlisted as a foreign language film!). This type of film-making deserves to be celebrated albeit that it does say something very interesting about our current attitudes towards nostalgia. Just think. This could be the first silent film to win an Oscar since 1931 — the slowest come-back on record. For everyone who enjoys film as a medium, this is a must-see!

 

Let the record show that the French film academy gave six Césars to The Artist, including Best Film and Best Director to Michel Hazanavicius. At the Indie Spirit Awards, The Artist pulled in Best Feature, Best Director, Best Male Lead and Best Cinematography. At the 84th Academy Awards, nostalgia triumphed with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor for Jean Dujardin, and others.

 

Enormity by W G Marshall

February 21, 2012 2 comments

For once, I’m going to start off with a headline. Enormity by W G Marshall (a pseudonym of Walter Greatshell) (Night Shade Books, 2012) is wonderful! No matter what your prejudices against science fiction or fantasy, you can’t beat a book that takes a theme and then explores all the implications with a detailed eye. That this happens to start off with a 1950’s film trope is just one of those accidents of nature no-one can predict nor control once they occur. Think of this as a tsunami of weird with a wave height that just seems to get bigger as the book goes on. For this book, I think we probably need a new label. Thanks to China Miéville we got New Weird. Perhaps this should start off überweird. Actually, I’m cheating a bit on the weird front. The problem is the alternatives that immediately spring to mind like wacky and goofy lack the necessary gravitas. If you’re going to spawn a new subgenre label, you want it to sound impressive. Somehow a genre named after a Disney character (ignoring the copyright issues for now) fails to inspire. Screwball seems to have been appropriated by the film industry. Absurdism is too academic. This is definitely not whimsical. All suggestions will be gratefully received.

To prove how old I am, I confirm actually paying to go and see The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and, at the other end of the scale, The Incredible Shrinking Man when they first came out. For those of us used to seeing giantism in insects and animals as a result of exposure to atomic radiation, it came as a welcome relief to have it affect humans as well. The shrinking was the most effective with the spookily metaphysical ending as our hero grew so small, he slipped between the atoms and disappeared into a kind of negative infinity. So with Enormity we’re jazzing up old themes with new variations. Move over Jonathan Swift, this book has Earth suddenly confronted by two giants. Now you should understand, these are not your common or garden 50 foot efforts or even Brobdingnagian. The man stands at 6,600 feet, give or take a few inches. The woman is only slightly shorter. Fortunately, their clothing expanded to match their physical size. None of the Hulk’s green body showing through his artfully torn clothing. This is a quantum supersizing to make even a McDonald’s look small. How come, you ask.

An artfully small photo of W G Marshall

Well, it’s all down to one of those archetypal mad scientists. This genius decides the best way of bringing forward the end of days is to give North Korea a super weapon. So he carefully wraps his quantum dark matter in some packaging held together with some string theory tied into a artistic bow, the whole left to marinate in a jar of kimchi as the fermentation process works its wonders. Unfortunately, the North Koreans smell a rat. They think this is a subtle American plot to make them look stupid. The man is too obviously insane to be credible, so they send him down to the beach for assassination by one of their top agents. Realising what’s about to happen to him, our nutcase triggers one of the weapons which rather neatly proves who is the least sane in all this adventure.

The result is the creation of our two giants: one poor American sap who happens to be on the beach with his wife, and our female assassin. Fortunately for America, Major Harley Queen is on hand to begin the process of trying to deal with this unusual situation. Surprisingly, this was left out of the gaming scenarios when he went through training at West Point so, when it all comes down to one man and his initiative, he just has to catch the ear of someone higher up and, suddenly, he’s standing on the shoulders of a giant, trying to make himself heard. If only he had a woman to hand, he could join the one-mile-high club in a novel way.

All this is a wonderful exercise in proving how disgusting the human body is when viewed from the perspective of an ant. Believe it or not, we are home to an array of different forms of life from bacteria upwards. If the body grows big then so do all the lifeforms we host, a distinctly disconcerting thought for any human who comes within range. Now scale up urination and other bodily functions. This gives a whole new meaning to “gross”. And all the while, these giants can cause massive devastation. Whether it’s wading through the sea close to shore or trampling through a city, there’s only one thing that might be in humanity’s favour. Sooner or later, these giants will run out of food and starve to death.

The full-size image from Cody Tilson is wonderful too!

At one level, this is an entirely serious science fiction novel about what could happen if someone was to develop and detonate a quantum weapon. It’s also “enormous” fun as W G Marshall explores the enormity of the problems caused by the giants and, more importantly, what military response might be possible. As a point of comparison, weapons have little effect on Godzilla and he’s only the size of a small office block. Now scale that up to a being more than a mile in height. However you want to view this book, it should win a prize. Not that a Hugo or Nebula would be on the cards. Enormity is too far off the radar for any conventional award. But the quality of inventiveness should be recognised and given some kind of prize. This is a book you should go out of your way to read. It will reward you in so many unexpected ways, you will be thinking about it for days after finishing.

Have a look at the work of Cody Tilson.

For a review of a book under the name Walter Greatshell, see Terminal Island.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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