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Archive for June, 2012

Exit Plan by Larry Bond

When I was growing up in the aftermath of World War II, my peers and I were heavily into military thrillers where the more frequent exhortations from our brave boys as sten guns blazed was, “Die, you Kraut bastard!” Having missed out on the real fighting, we all wanted a sense of what it felt like to be on the winning side in the war — not that you would have known we’d won from the wreckage around us. We then moved on to US campaigns in Korea and later Vietnam where the cake recipe was, “Spread raw agent orange thinly and apply heat.” British books looked sideways as our boys shouted, “Die, you Mau Mau terrorist (or colonial upstart if that makes you feel better)!” More recently, I’ve dipped into military SF where we’ve regressed to ray guns blazing and, “Die, you alien bastard!” Today sees me picking up an American contemporary military thriller (actually set in 2013 but this is irrelevant as to genre) where we see, “Die you Islamic motherfucker so I can piss on your body and hold Koran-burning clambake sessions without having to fear retaliation.” Or, to translate this into English, the majority of books about war are jingoistic and show the virtues of an aggressive foreign policy backed up by victorious military force. Since the victorious party in this novel favours the doctrine of American exceptionalism, it seems its mission in the world is to lead it into the ways of democracy. If this does not work by example, the country is allowed to export its own brand of democratic republicanism by the threat or exercise of its military superiority. In this, it’s not bound by any national or international laws. By virtue of its exalted status, it’s allowed to intervene simply because it always upholds “good” against “evil” in the practical and not the abstract senses of these words.

 

This rumination is provoked by Exit Plan by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson (Tor, 2012) which is the third book featuring Jerry Mitchell after Dangerous Ground and Cold Choices. It takes us into the difficult political situation surrounding Iran’s alleged attempts to develop atomic weapons. At this point I have to slightly backtrack on the tone of the opening paragraph. Although we readers all know the Americans will emerge from the different types of combat situation with maximum casualties among the enemy and minimal wounds shared among the SEALs and naval personnel driving the submarine, this is actually a rather more interesting book than I was expecting. OK so I admit I started reading this with zero expectations, so something even vaguely readable was going to make me feel better. But there’s actually something rather more politically acute going on here.

 

Let’s very briefly canvass a scenario. Despite the best efforts of the British and American governments to find evidence of WMD in Iraq after their successful demolition of Saddam Hussein’s armies, they were eventually forced to admit none had been found. In other words, Saddam Hussein was shown to have been lying about his scientists’ ability to build a bomb. Now suppose instead of putting troops on the ground, the Americans had simply bombed the suspected sites. This gives Iraq a casus belli. Under international law, it could legitimately launch retaliatory attacks. Saddam Hussein could also claim Iraq had developed the bomb and there would be no evidence to show he was lying. As the victim of American aggression, Iraq also becomes a lightning rod attracting other allies who want to attack the infidels. Now let’s transfer this to the current Iranian situation. With America overextended, there’s no way it would commit ground troops in a war against the larger and better organised military forces of Iran. But if Iran was to pretend it had developed a nuclear deice, Israel might be provoked into an air assault and that might be the way to unite Arab forces into an assault on Israeli territory.

Larry Bond just back from the shops with a gift-wrapped bomb

 

So this all comes down to the credibility of the evidence Iran can produce and whether Israel will act. The plot to fabricate that evidence actually turns out to be reasonably convincing. There are only two problems. The first is that, for years, the Western and Israeli intelligence services have been saying Iran cannot solve the centrifuge problem and so cannot make a bomb in the foreseeable future. For the experts to suddenly change their minds is going to require a big push. The second is that there’s an Iranian who does not want to see the country plunged into a war. The question is whether the relevant evidence can be transmitted to America. This triggers what should be a reasonably routine extraction by a US submarine and a team of navy SEALs except, as is always the case in these high pressure situations, the minisub malfunctions dumping the survivors on Iranian soil. Now they have to keep the very pregnant lady and her husband safe as the Iranian secret service slowly realise they may be losing control of the plot.

 

We now need to be completely honest. There’s not an incident described here that I have not seen in a film or read in a book. Yet there’s a wealth of information about the different equipment used and tactics employed, and this did make events more interesting. The way the odds keep building against the Americans is done well and there’s tension as the different options for escape are explored and then discarded. While the SEALs are fighting on the ground, the political situation also grows more complicated and there’s quite a surprising development which I will not spoil for you. I’m not sure it would ever come to this but, if it did, it would be a major step forward in international relations, producing a very pragmatic outcome and saying something hopeful about morality in policy-making.

 

This is very professionally put together package. The politics and military elements feel credible and it’s useful to see the situation develop from both US and Iranian perspectives. Even though you know they are going to lose, the Iranians actually do well — just not quite well enough. Indeed, it’s remarkable that Larry Bond, an American author (and his co-writer), should be prepared to show some of the “enemy” in a relatively sympathetic light — they are not mere cannon fodder. So I find myself actually recommending a military thriller. I have not read any other recent military thrillers so cannot say whether this is typical of the standard but, taken on its own, Exit Plan is worth reading.

 

For a review of another book by Larry Bond, see
Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War (with Jim DeFelice)
Red Phoenix.

 

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

 

Cloudland by Joseph Olshan

June 29, 2012 3 comments

Well here we go with another beautifully written book. The prose is just a delight to read as you’d expect from an author who has won “awards”. The protagonist in this new novel Cloudland by Joseph Olshan (Minotaur Books, 2012) mirrors the author’s own career experiences as a journalist and a teacher of writing in higher education. Except she’s given up the high life and now files copy in a folksy vein. Perhaps a little bit of wish-fulfillment there — except for the involvement in a murder investigation, of course.

 

So, we’re off into the depths of the rural countryside where everyone knows everyone else, or at least thinks they do. I suppose this is a quintessentially American phenomenon where small groups of people huddle together as self-reliant individuals in a somewhat hostile environment. This part of Vermont is locked in winter for long periods fore and aft of Christmas. Particularly when the snow comes and shuts down the roads, the predominant feelings of loneliness and alienation grow more acute. For those off the beaten track like the three families living along the dirt road forming the titular Cloudland, winter can mean quite long periods cut off from the world until the snow ploughs finish clearing the blacktopped roads. Here lives Catherine Winslow with her two ageing dogs and guard pig. A little further along, we find Anthony Waite, a psychologist whose marriage is in trouble, and Paul Winter, a reasonably famous artist with an adopted son who lives in the nearby village/township. This is the upper class end of the community which encompasses a complete social scale down to one of the most essential roles in a truly rural community: the knacker who hauls the dead animals away and boils them down.

 

As the snow melts, Catherine finds a body that had been covered by the drifts. She recognises the woman and calls the local police. The investigation links this death to others. More disconcertingly, there may be a connection to a book she owns. As a collector, she has many rare and obscure volumes including a fragment by Wilkie Collins. The facts suggest the killer may have read this Victorian outline, yet that would mean Catherine would probably know the killer. Adding to the complications, a young man with whom she had a passionate affair now contacts her and asks to come back into her life. This faces her with a real emotional problem. She still has feelings the man but, when she was terminating the relationship two years earlier, he attacked her. Having had a cooling-off period of no contact other than a few letters, are there any circumstances in which a woman abused should even want to meet with someone who made a violent attack upon her?

Joseph Olshan barking up the wrong tree

 

I found the emotional core of the book to be reasonably credible. In a long life, I’ve known one or two women in Catherine’s position and recognise the dilemma. The responses of her daughter and local friends also feel right. But I have two problems with the plot as it develops. The first is her reaction when she’s actually invited to be involved in the investigation. Having been a journalist on a national newspaper, you would expect her to be a lot more proactive. Why, you might ask yourself, would an investigative journalist make a good amateur detective? The answer is a journalist has to be scrupulously careful because, any mistake can lead to complete loss of reputation and a big civil action for defamation. Except, instead of bringing her undoubted expertise to bear, she’s quite passive, preferring to leave Anthony Waite to make the running. Even when those with experience of criminal matters point out she may be a target, there’s no real sign of panic. She’s very slow to leave the isolated house to stay with her daughter. It’s convenient for the author but not completely in character unless we want to put it down to the damage to her self-confidence caused by the attack on her. Then we come to my own personal experience as a life-long book collector. I have never ever loaned one of my more rare first editions to anyone. The mere thought someone might not treat it with reverence or, worse, “forget” to return it to me is enough of a deterrent. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Catherine not only freely loaned this book out but cannot remember to whom to gave the book. Remember, we’re talking about one of five copies in North America. No self-respecting collector would let anyone touch this book unsupervised. I understand why the plot has to be this way but, to me, it makes absolutely no sense.

 

If you’re prepared to look past the problems, Cloudland is a fascinating study of an abused woman struggling to deal with a new situation that seems to be forcing her to look with suspicion at the people in her local community. Having had trust issues in the past, the evolving situation becomes increasingly challenging. On balance, I’m prepared to say the combination of a superior prose style and a reasonable murder investigation makes for a very good outcome. Had Joseph Olshan come up with a plot that offered a slightly better tie between the murder(s) and the intended victim(s), we would have been looking at another award winner.

 

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

 

Murder at the Lanterne Rouge by Cara Black

June 28, 2012 2 comments

When you set any book in an environment unfamiliar to readers, authors can panic and insert large descriptive passages and infodumps, hoping to give all-comers a reasonable insight into the context for the action. For these purposes, there’s no difference between genres. A romance can be set in any country, a historical novel in any century, a science fiction novel on any planet, and so on. The question is how to strike a balance between the need to move the story forward and the need for readers to understand the difference between the world they are familiar with and the world in which the book is set. Most readers in the West might find the setting in, say, Kolkata (Calcutta) or Bangkok as alien as one set on a hypothetical Mars. Equally, in these days of globalised markets, a book written by an American for the American market can turn up on the shelves of bookshops in Huddersfield and Kuala Lumpur. The experience for a British or Malaysian reader is to be plunged into an alien world where the culture is radically different and not explained. Not unnaturally, the American author expects the American readers to know and understand how life works in their home country. Yet, American authors also realise a significant portion of their readers are somewhat parochial and have little or no knowledge of life outside America. So, when American authors write about life in Paris, they tend to oversupply details of the physical and cultural environment. British readers have been jaunting across the Channel for centuries and have a more detailed understanding of the French and their capital city. Malaysians would still be lost.

 

From all this, you will deduce that Murder at the Lanterne Rouge by Cara Black (Soho Press, 2012) starts slowly as the author tries valiantly to bring American readers up-to-speed on all things Gallic. I was fascinated to see what an American author believes, (a) it’s important for her readers to know about life in Paris, and (b) by implication, how little she believes they actually know. This is the kind of book people will call atmospheric because it spends a considerable amount of time describing the air the characters breathe. This is not to unfairly criticise any of those involved. Sometimes the best way to educate people is through entertainment. Americans taking the time to absorb the detail contained in this book will emerge more knowledgeable. All praise to President Obama who’s obviously recruiting authors into a revamped Head Start plan to enhance adult education levels — note to publisher: perhaps a world map showing where France is would complete the package.

Cara Black comfortable in the boulevard café milieu

 

So here I make an apology. There have been rather a lot of books featuring Aimée Leduc and her business partner René Friant, but this is my first. As a stand-alone, it works well although, from many of the events, it’s obvious I would have enjoyed it more if I had understood how everyone fits together. As a series character, Aimée Leduc is both a throw-back and a modern woman. In the period just before World War II, there were number of French heroines like Simone Darthel who enjoyed the life of the rich while solving crimes and fighting for justice. Two features are relevant. All the details of their wardrobes were offered up as advice to their female readers. Second, they were aspirational figures showing that modern women could have better lives as independent individuals, holding down exciting jobs and proving they were equal, if not superior to, the men who desired them as they moved casually through the cafés and restaurants in their designer clothes (in search of criminals, of course). In more modern times, we have figures like Nikita as initially developed by Luc Besson and then transformed into a television character where, in a noirish way, our female secret agent/assassin fights terrorism and confronts a brutal world while trying to retain some sense of her own morality.

 

I mention this because although Aimée Leduc works as a private investigator specialising in IT security, she’s very much wrapped up in the word of spies and their handlers. That forces her to deal with both the local Parisienne police (courtesy of her French father) and the acronym-infested world of espionage (thanks to her American mother). Although she doesn’t quite have Nikita-level physical combat skills, she’s more than able to look after herself and, even though she picks up damage, is tough enough to keep going until she’s seen off the threat. As to the story itself, we’re quickly into the scandal-ridden world of the illegal immigrants from China and the sweatshops that provide stock to both legitimate and counterfeit fashion outlets in Europe. For such a subculture to survive, there has to be corruption both in the police and the relevant government departments charged with tax collection and the enforcement of labour laws. Cara Black gives us a whistle-stop tour and then dives into the more rarified world of the Guild system, life in the grandes écoles, life as it was in the 14th Century, life in the world of high technology. In other words, when it comes to research, she’s in part rerunning the Dan Brown trope of great truth buried in history — all it takes is a skilled detective with academic skills to dig it out.

 

So there we have it. I thought the opening third was overburdened with facts about life in Paris but, once the plot really gets started, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge becomes one of the best of the thrillerish PI novels of the year so far. There’s genuine interest and excitement as the focus slowly shifts away from the somewhat clichéd Chinatown subculture thread and becomes a more intense race to unravel the high technology conspiracy. Those of you who are unfamiliar with life in Paris may well find all the facts offer plenty of local colour and enhance your general understanding of life outside your city. This would make the book double-plus good for you. Coming new to Cara Black, there’s sufficient here for me to want to read more. As and when I have the time, I’ll start browsing through one or two of the eleven previous Aimée Leduc titles to see if they are as good.

 

For a review of another book in the series, see Murder in Pigalle.

 

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

 

The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin by Walter Mosley

June 27, 2012 1 comment

Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. It’s a curious coincidence that I should just have seen the film titled Prometheus, and then pick up this latest offering from Walter Mosley. The book is the first in a series of twinned novellas to form a series titled Crosstown to Oblivion. These are The Beginnings of the End making up Fragments of Six Shattered Worlds. The first two stories are titled The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin (Tor, 2012) and are presented in tête-bêche form. This is somewhat unusual from a mainstream publishing house in hardback. For once, it’s good to see Tor-Forge following Subterranean Press in promoting this different format for novellas.

 

Although I’m a major fan of Walter Mosley, having read all but a few of the titles to date, I wish he would stay away from these literary forays into science fiction or fantasy, depending on how you classify these books. He’s unbeatable when he deals with strong men surviving on the mean streets of whichever city he picks. Even the slightly nonstandard efforts like The Man in the Basement manage to overcome their tendency to pretentious preachiness and produce an interesting insight into race relations or whatever the theme he’s chosen for the particular book. But when we come to books like Blue Light, it’s as if he forgets the need to keep his creativity and imagination working along the mainstream tracks. This is a blurring of the borders between metaphor, fable and science fiction. Blue radiance falling as if the tears from God creates sixteen new beings who dispute whether life or death should prevail.

 

The Gift of Fire treads the same path except, this time, Prometheus gets tired of the eagle snacking on his liver and crosses over into modern LA where he uplifts a long-term drunk close to death and then sacrifices his mortal existence for a early teenage boy who’s been paralysed and confined to bed for most of his life. This parallels the fate of Lester Foote in Blue Light. Lester is a black man who played the white man’s game and climbed the PhD ladder. Except when he got to the top, he found he still commanded no respect. This provoked him into a suicide attempt and then his redemption as an acolyte of one of the Blues. In The Gift of Fire, Nosome Blane has fallen to the bottom of the heap, but Prometheus endows him with a blue essence that converts him into a disciple. Chief Reddy becomes the prophet to bring the second fire down to Earth. Unfortunately, before Prometheus has worked out the local conditions, he also empowers Luther Unty who becomes the embodiment of evil. In every equation, there must be balance.

 

Although this novella is more pantheistic than explicitly Christian, Walter Mosley is intent on advocating that we aspire to build a kind of spiritual community in which all differences are swept aside in achieving a oneness. The overall problem with this is the tendency for the author to launch into sermons filled with rather abstract ideas of how we should live our lives. This is not to say the underlying story is without power. It actually demonstrates how a single messianic figure can become a threat to the security of the state and trigger an aggressive response in self-defence. But, to be honest, the conscious parallelism with the story of Jesus, even down to Chief Reddy’s death and resurrection, is not what I feel is appropriate in a story which starts off in the myth of Prometheus, followed by the classical Gods re-emerging and interfering in Earth’s politics. Either you run this in a semi-realistic way to show Prometheus wrestling with the problem of how to transmit the new message to the Earth as he now finds it, all the while fending off the Olympian Gods who want to chain him back to the rock, or you have some unspecified force lift up a disabled young man and make him into a prophet who may later be acknowledged as the Messiah. Conflating the two mythologies produces a singularly unsatisfying outcome.

Is Walter Mosley a great writer? The ayes have it!

 

The second novella is called On the Head of a Pin — a reference to the limit on the number of angels you can balance in a single place. There’s no direct connection between the two stories except this is more explicitly a science fiction story about a scientific development that unexpectedly links into a dimension where the spirits or souls of all life, past and future, can be observed and, in one special case, more directly connected. Yet the theme is the same. This time Joshua, our principal protagonist, is a man who has fallen emotionally. His stable relationship disintegrates and, by chance, he’s recruited to document the development of this device. As is required, he’s an African American and the victim of racial discrimination by Pinkus, a coworker. When the project reaches the testing stage, Joshua is one of two people to be able to interact with the device. In due course, he contacts Thalla, an advanced form of artificial human in the future, and they become soul mates. She tells him what will happen in the future and begins to teach him how to use this unexpected technological breakthrough. The other man able to get a response from the device is, as you would expect, the bigoted Pinkus who conjures up visions of violent sexual abuse. We then get into the familiar debate about whether this device should be turned over to the military for their evaluation and possible exploitation. The resolution of this militarisation theme is not very original and the point at which the novella stops is the usual holding pattern of Joshua waiting for the real action to begin.

 

Again all this is an excuse for Walter Mosley to push some of his pet ideas on the extent we can take responsibility for our actions. We exclude children from liability for their actions because we deem them incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. Yet when we grow in experience and become old enough to be considered adults, we are often not held accountable even though many of the things we say and do can injure others. If you look back at history, it’s also possible to excuse early civilisations for the cruelty they inflicted on others. In terms of moral development, humans were still like children and had not grown enough to take responsibility. Yet, if we apply this across time, at what point would we deem ourselves accountable for what we have become. Through this new device, Joshua can see into the souls of others. No-one can ever lie to him. But knowing whether someone is good or evil is not the same as having the right or power to correct those who fall on the side of evil.

 

Both novellas suffer from the same facile moralism. Walter Mosely is promoting the view that coming together across all divides, the art of compromise no matter how repugnant that may be, is the path to enlightenment. Neither story is successful, whether as no doubt well-intentioned moralising or as science fiction/fantasy. Together they extend the boredom by repetition of the same ideas in a different fictional vehicle. I read Walter Mosley because he has a rare writing talent and I enjoy observing him at work. I just wish he would reserve this talent for what he’s actually very good at which is the thoughtful PI/thriller genre.

 

For other reviews of books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone

 

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

 

Herring on the Nile by L C Tyler

As a reviewer, I try to read without any prejudices so one of the more intriguing aspects of the task comes after I finish a book and pick up the press pack sent with it. I say “pack” in the more general sense of the word because, in most cases, it’s only a single sheet of paper. But the norm is for there to be a brief synopsis and then talking points, focusing the reviewer’s attention on the features the marketers wish me to highlight. These are usually hyperbolic. For example, you may read that, “Jack Sunderland’s latest blockbuster will leave readers gasping for breath as the excitement rolls over them like a juggernaut”, or “Mary Dunstable’s work has a luminous and transcendent quality that makes her a major British voice”. Not that blurbs actually have to mean anything, of course. All they are supposed to do is hit a minimum number of key words that will produce a high google ranking if they appear in a website review.

 

So you can imagine, after finishing Herring on the Nile by L C Tyler (Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012), I was more than a little disconcerted to read the press pack headline, “Killingly funny!” I’ve made no secret of the fact my sense of humour quotient is usually zero. All the more interesting, therefore, to find the magic page listing previous books by this author and their nominations for “funniest book of the year” awards. It seems our author has a reputation for producing books leaving his readers gasping desperately for breath after laughing uncontrollably for several hours. For the record, this book was shortlisted for the GOLDSBORO LAST LAUGH AWARD 2011 so, yet again, I find myself cut off from mainstream reaction to a written source, although I draw minimal comfort from the fact it did not win (I capitalised the award title so you would be more impressed). Perhaps significantly, I was like the dog reading in the night and managed nothing approximating even hollow laughter.

 

I do confess to being nicely appreciative of the attacks on Dan Brown. I’m always fascinated to see what the libel laws currently allow us critics to say about another’s work and avoid civil action for damages. On this occasion, it continues to be acceptable to suggest this New York Times Bestseller Listed author can’t write for toffee. And the running “joke” based on our poor hero’s need to complete interview forms for various local newspapers did provide some interesting insights into his state of mind and immediate predicament. But looking back over the text, I’m stunned to discover this is supposed to be a comic novel.

L C Tyler (Len to his friends) doing his Tommy Cooper impression

 

So if Herring on the Nile is not going to leave you rolling in the aisles demanding more, is it worth reading? The answer is that, as a detective novel, it’s a rather clever puzzle and, although I think it’s fairly obvious whodunnit (although not why), I read through to the end in a single sitting with considerable curiosity to see how it all turned out. Our hero is Ethelred Tressider. He’s a third-rate author who, when the creditors become too importunate to ignore, churns out another crime novel (he has two pseudonyms) or a romance (using a third female pseudonym to blend into the landscape). The literary agent who has the thankless task of selling these books and their translation rights is Elsie Thirkettle. For reasons I will not bore you with, our joined-at-the-financial-hip couple (that’s not a romantic joining, you understand) end up on a mechanically-challenged paddle steamer making unsteady progress on the Nile (no-one seems very sure whether it’s moving up or down the river except, at one point when the engines fail, it definitely drifts out of control downstream). On board are the usual assortment of eccentric types most often associated with Agatha Christie novels. Needless to say none of them are what they appear to be although some of them are who they say they are and others may actually be better detectives than our heroic couple given that at least one other person works out whodunnit it before the penny drops for Ethelred. Frankly, I neither know nor particularly care whether Ethelred then tells Elsie. Not that any of the people astute or lucky enough to identify the killer(s) are at risk. The Egyptian and British authorities are convinced they know exactly what happened and would never reopen the case. The killer(s) has/have no reason to silence the amateur detectives. Indeed, doing so would alert the authorities to the idea their assessment of guilt was wrong.

 

So now your decision: this is a rerunning of the Agatha Christie jaunt on the Nile and it does its best to drag herrings of various hues across the trail to muddy the waters. You may be lucky and find it hilarious, but don’t bank on it. If you are going to read it, expect a clever puzzle to solve, some mild wit and fairly engaging characters who are initially intent on a holiday, but then find themselves in a genuinely dangerous situation. Why, you wonder, did I neglect to mention real danger until this dying gasp? Well, if L C Tyler is trying to write a comic novel, there can’t be anything even vaguely frightening. Even the Empress of Blandings could read this without losing her equanimity (assuming Monica Simmons was on hand to turn the pages, of course).

 

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

 

Immobility by Brian Evenson

June 25, 2012 4 comments

It happens every now again that I feel the urge to slip back into the realms of academic discourse and try vaguely to say something intelligent about the construction of a narrative. This time I’m seduced into walking this rocky road after reading Immobility by Brian Evenson (Tor, 2012). In other circumstances, I might mutter darkly about this being a post-apocalyptic novel, one of these science fiction efforts that places us in a world left in ruins by the unrestricted detonation of nuclear bombs. What is not physically demolished, is substantially extinguished by the radiation. At a stroke, this precipitates an almost complete collapse of civilisation as we know it and, in the best sense of the word, we’re depressed that humanity should have been so cavalier with its own existence. Yet, of course, there are survivors. Such novels would be impossible without a few rats left to crawl out of the rubble. So what makes this book different?

 

Well, here we go with more thoughts about our old friend, the unreliable narrator. Our point of view is a man just being revived from suspended animation. He finds himself unable to remember anything about himself, let alone the circumstances which led to his storage. As his eyes open, it’s therefore for us to view this world as a tabula rasa. We have no way of knowing its history nor who these people are. Literally, we see everything as if for the first time. Although our hero can report his surface interpretation of what he experiences, it’s entirely possible he’s misinterpreting the data. At this point, I need to make a distinction. Because of his lack of knowledge, the guesses he makes could be the best he can make on the basis of the evidence. Hence, some could be correct. Or everything he comes to believe could just be wrong.

Brian Evenson as seen by his wife

 

Let’s take a simple early question. When he recovers some upper-body mobility, our hero’s first instinct is to attack the technician who revived him. He has no idea why he should feel so aggressive. Later, when discussing the situation with Rasmus, the leader of this community, he’s told he was a kind of fixer. A man who would carry out difficult tasks without caring too much about the morality of the means. As someone with a killer’s reflexes, coming out of storage in a confused state, he might mistakenly consider the technician a threat and lash out in self-defence. Rasmus reassures him that he should not feel guilty about the attack. That’s actually his virtue and the reason for his revival. The community needs his fighting reflexes. And the task? Well, they need him to go and recover some stolen property.

 

Unreliability in this instance stems from his complete lack of memory as to who he is or what his moral values are. When asked to judge the truthfulness of those he meets, he has no real basis on which to assess credibility. Perhaps Rasmus is lying but, if so, what would his motives be? Since we as readers know no more than our hero has told us, we’re also rudderless. Although we might have genre expectations about the way narratives of this kind would normally develop, all we can do is observe and reserve judgement until more information is forthcoming. The only comfort we can draw is that our hero is aware of the gaps in his memory and so appreciates his own unreliability. From this, you will understand this is a very clever piece of writing. It deliberately plays with our genre expectations, challenging us to work out what’s actually going on. Except, of course, even that could be a trap. For all we know, our hero has not actually woken up and is simply dreaming all this.

 

For once, I’m not going to say very much more about the way the story develops. All that it’s necessary to do is explain the title. As he wakes, it rapidly becomes apparent that our hero is paralysed from the waist down. His upper body is very strong but, as Rasmus sadly explains, he’s the victim of a disease that will ultimately cause him to lose all his mobility. The only way in which he can move around is literally by being carried. When he sets off on his mission, two large individuals take it in turn to act as beasts of burden. He has a small window of opportunity to recover the stolen property and then get back before the paralysis completely overcomes him. He will then be put back into storage until a cure has been developed.

 

Immobility is very impressive. It’s beautifully written and, most importantly, it nicely reinvents many of the standard tropes, often inverting expectations. I admit to being surprised by the revelations that come at the end. With decades of reading experience in my locker, that’s a neat trick for an author to pull off. I usually keep up with the story and have the situation analysed before the final few pages. Except, I chose to forget the mindset of those who greenlighted the nuclear launches. When you think about the extent of the disaster that has touched every part of this world, the attitudes of the survivors are completely understandable if not very laudable. At every level, this is a must-read, if slightly downbeat, post-apocalyptic novel.

 

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

 

Indignities of the Flesh by Bentley Little

Indignities of the Flesh by Bentley Little (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a collection of contemporary horror stories but, unlike many of the other practitioners of the dark arts, this author believes in creating the effect succinctly. Not for him the sprawling prose of Stephen King. He’s the role model for the school of thought, “Little is best, if done well.” (pun intended).

 

“Rodeo Clown” is a tale about the way in which fear can tip over into the certainty of paranoia. A wife forced to watch her husband ride unbroken horses and bulls in the arena has to live with the probability he will be injured. It may be the next ride. It may be years away. But this is a high risk activity and bad luck will catch up with him sooner or later. The clown is supposed to take the responsibility of protecting the riders in trouble by distracting the animals. But what if the clown fancies the wife and wants the husband dead? Or is this irrational fear? How can she know? “Brushing” continues the idea that people can become obsessional. Any small behavioural trait can slowly become dominant, crowding out rationality. This can lead to stalking. Equally, the person stalked, usually female and living in fear, can take poor decisions and allow herself to become fascinated by the idea of what motivates the stalker. If they should meet and have the chance to discuss matters like adults, I wonder what they would say. “Documented Miracles” changes the mood from obsession to one of dark humour where scepticism rules and a psychic doctor operates on a pain in the neck. “Happy Birthday, Dear Tama” continues in this more light-hearted vein with a wonderfully described birthday in a more cosmic mode. Imagine a loving daddy, much like Old Whateley, setting out to celebrate Lavinia’s birthday, hoping all the while that her brother Wilbur will keep to himself and not join the party. “Gingerbread” reminds us that once you get your teeth into something, you should keep practising, honing the technique until it’s as sharp as you can get it. There’s no sense in scratching at the surface. You really have to dig down to the essentials for perfect results every time.

Bentley Little and his leaning book of Pisa

 

“Loony Tune” is a particularly elegant story about fear and loathing in Las Vegas as an undeclared war breaks out between the animators of the Disney Studio and a renegade but brilliant man whose cartoons put everyone else’s into the shade. What possible defence could one man, his wife and child have against the massive resources available to the major studio? In reality, of course, he would perish, but somehow, even in death, you feel he would continue to be useful to his family. “The Black Ladies” deals with the phenomenon of recurrent nightmares. As children, we sometimes seem to feel fears move from the real world to our dreams and then back again. Hence, someone bullied at school can feel threatening figures appearing in dreams. If we dream about something coming out from under the bed, it can never hurt to actually check there’s nothing there before going off to sleep. In this case, a young boy seems to be having the same dreams his mother had when she was young. Now that must be more than a coincidence, perhaps even a supernatural threat. “The Pinata” is a more routine haunting based on an interesting possibility of what might happen if you give the birthday boy a baseball bat, blindfold him, and wait for him to strike. “Valet Parking” is one of the weaker entries in this collection. It reminds me of several classic stories in which characteristics of vampirism or werewolfism are passed on from one individual to another as in a chain letter. The problem is that it may be frightening for someone slowly to realise they are turning into a mythic monster, but this is less worrying albeit, on a global level, it would be the end of the world. OK, so that’s kinda scary but inherently less believable. We finish with “Even the Dead”, a surprisingly effective tale of a man and his zombie in which pathos wins out the battle for the emotional response.

 

Indignities of the Flesh is a slightly shorter than usual collection at two-hundred or so pages but, taken as a whole, this is a book of real quality. Even though I have minor reservations about three of the stories, all are beautifully written and, in their minimalist approach, deliver a real sense what’s good in contemporary horror.

 

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

 

What To Do When Someone Dies or Without You (2012)

June 24, 2012 6 comments

What To Do When Someone Dies or Without You (2012) is a television adaptation by ITV of the novel by Nicci French. This is the name adopted by the husband and wife writing team, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, with the book appearing under the first title in 2008. Quite why it was renamed for television baffles me. As to the story, Ellie Manning (Anna Friel) is naturally devastated when two police officers come to her door and announce the death of her husband in a car accident. What make this all the more difficult to bear is the second piece of news that Greg Manning (Marc Warren) was not alone in the car when it went off the road, down the slope and caught fire. As an accountant, her husband obviously had many female clients, but was he really having an affair with Milena Livingstone (Heidi Monsen)? Ellie meets the husband of the dead woman at the inquest, but at that time and subsequently, Hugo Livingstone (Tim Woodward) is less than forthcoming.

 

Despite the lack of enthusiasm from her friends, Ellie sets out to investigate her husband. Joe Lipton (Barnaby Kay) the owner of the accounting firm and the best man at Greg’s wedding, gives details of Greg’s diary. She has all his credit card receipts. But there’s nothing to even hint at an affair. Even the one suspicious email to another woman proves no likelihood of unfaithfulness. That means she must start looking into the life of the other victim.

Anna Friel and Marc Warren still together in her mind

 

Grief is a terrible emotion and it drives people in unpredictable ways. I find Ellie’s scepticism of the implication her husband was having an affair to be credible. If he never drove without his seatbelt on and was very safety conscious as a driver, the accident as described does not look that convincing. Yet we are asked to accept she would become obsessional about investigating the accident. I’m less convinced about this. Indeed, we’re given every indication she’s gone completely crackers because, throughout the three episodes, she spends quite long periods of time talking to her dead husband. As an actor, Marc Warren gets the second largest amount of time on screen. This willingness to adjust her view of reality to include her husband as a helpful and supportive “ghost” does not win her the reliable narrator of the year award.

 

However, since this type of story has to follow a predictable path, Dead Greg looks at her accusingly if she thinks he cheated on her and this pushes her into the investigation. We then get into the difficult territory of a lone woman of dubious sanity trying to find evidence of possible foul play. The way she bluffs her way into the confidence of Milena’s business associate, Frances Shaw (Pippa Haywood), is unconvincing. Even though Frances and David Shaw (Clive Wood) are going through a marital crisis and are watching their business go down the tubes, I don’t believe she would have given Ellie free run of the place, particularly after the gaff over Milena’s son, Jake. David only raises an eyebrow when she trawls through confidential files but refuses to produce a National Insurance number. But, this is the only way she can worm confidences out of these people, so all we can do is watch in embarrassment. After a lot of hit and miss, Ellie works out the password to Milena’s email account. Much good does that do her. As to whether she should have slept with the oleaginous cook. . . I suppose she was caught off balance because her “friends” finally produced some evidence that her husband had been unfaithful (I wonder where that document came from). You could see Greg huffing and puffing out of the corner of Ellie’s eye with that butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth look, but she was in a snit and it was her way of paying him back for betraying her — post mortem trust issues surfacing. And just when it all looked as though this shock of sex had pumped out the bilges of the sinking ship, a second body turned up in a bath — preferred because it keeps them clean and ready for the coroner.

Anna Friel and Barnady Kay able to see each other in the real world

 

As to the friends, apart from Gwen (Olivia Poulet) I found it difficult to sort out who was who. Because this is told from Ellie’s point of view and, despite being crackers, she knows who everyone is, there seems to be a lack of establishing background material. Or perhaps I’m just rather poor at putting names to faces I only see for a few seconds every episode. Whatever the reason, I came into the final episode decidedly wooly as to who everyone was.

 

Anyway, we now come to the exciting conclusion. With the body in the bath as his starting point, the detective immediately begins to investigate whether Ellie killed all three victims. Obviously, like all the other figures who have lurched into view, he considers her likely to be insane and therefore capable of anything. The only ray of light comes from Hugo who produces an interesting email. This leads to an old lady and a possible motive for her husband’s death. Except Ellie also remembers that Frances Shaw had a “secret” lover and makes a speculative leap. The ending is then just completely absurd. It’s rare for me to be quite so disgusted at the way a story is wrapped up but this wins a prize. I will not spoil it. I will simply leave it that everyone should come to the full horror of it with an open mind — only joking. You should be standing by with something to throw in the general direction of the screen as a symbolic gesture of contempt. Breaking the screen would be bad karma and means you would miss the next watchable show.

 

I’m glad the cat was OK. It had the good sense to hide until the horror was over.

 

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3. What Is Dead May Never Die

 

Game of Thrones is based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. The content of Season 2 in this television adaptation by HBO is drawn from A Clash of Kings. As before, the production is helmed by David Benioff and D B Weis. Here is the link to my retrospective overview of Game of Thrones Season 1. This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in each episode, so do not read this if you want to watch without prior knowledge.

 

Let’s start this review of What Is Dead May Never Die by thinking about the amount of sex we’re being offered as viewers. A part of HBO’s reputation depends on its willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Content will not be denied a showing simply because it’s explicit. We need to see this in context. Anyone who wants material classified as pornography can find it easily, whether online or in other published media, but HBO is classified as a mainstream television network. For genuinely explicit content to appear on a prime-time show is therefore challenging established cultural norms. Of course, Americans at this point begin waving their copy of the Constitution and chanting about First Amendment rights as if laws somehow justify bad taste. This is the old, no-one forces you to watch an HBO show argument. When you switch to the channel, you know what to expect. Except what’s the actual benefit to the story? If A is notoriously a libertine, do we actually need to see him engaging in sexual intercourse to understand what that means?

Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) enjoy the ride home

 

To understand this point, we need a few examples. There’s been a repetition of a brothel scene from Season 1 where Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) is teaching one of his new whores the art of simulating sexual satisfaction to enhance the enjoyment of paying customers. Actual sex seems gratuitous. Since the training depends on the noises made, physical expressions and the body movements, this can be practised by everyone with their clothes on. It’s actually tiring the staff if they have to keep exerting themselves and tired staff make for unhappy customers. We’ve also had Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) demonstrating both the missionary position and penetration from behind. We’ve seen Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) so overcome with excitement he has sex with Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) standing up and over a table laid out with maps of battlefields. Surprisingly, we see brother Theon Greyjoy feeling up Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), his sister (that’s also in the book and nothing to do with HBO trying to push the envelope — being faithful to the text always offers the television station a better defence against the charge of introducing gratuitous sex to sell the adverts). Although he was not aware of her identity, she was not averse to allowing him to continue at the heavy petting stage. Thematically, we’ve also been flirting with incest between the Lannister brother and sister, and between a father and his daughters. The Lannisters were shown together in Season 1 but, so far, the Crasters have kept all their clothes on. Presumably it’s too cold to expose the vulnerable bits for us to see. And then there’s the gay sex with Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones). Not bad for the first three episodes. When HBO runs out of sexual options to display, it will presumably be time for the gratuitous violence.

Arya (Maisie Williams) really coming into her own as a boy

 

Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is finding it tough to reconcile his private code of morality with the circumstances surrounding him. As Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo) explains, the Watch needs men like Craster (Robert Pugh). For Rangers north of the Wall, it can be the difference between life and death. No matter what the Watch thinks about the religion, they are to look the other way when Craster offers all his baby boys as sacrifices to the old Gods. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) do, however, make a real connection. Bram Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) tells Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) the old retainer about his dreams as a direwolf. The Maester tries to dismiss such stories as old wives’ tales. The dragons have gone, the giants are dead and the children of the forest are forgotten. Bram, however, is sure he can tell the difference between mere dreams and actual experiences.

Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) standing tall

 

Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) arrives at the home of Renly Baratheon in time to see the impressively tall and muscled Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) winning a tourney. Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) makes her first appearance as Renly’s wife even though he actually prefers her brother, Ser Loras Tyrell, the most appropriately titled Knight of the Flowers (who was knocked to the ground by Brienne but didn’t enjoy the experience of being beaten by a woman). The Greyjoys are also planning their campaign knowing that Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has gone south and left the north unprotected. Now Theon must choose whether to make an essentially cowardly attack upon Stark lands or retain some vestiges of loyalty to the family that held him safely as a hostage for so many years. In the end, he chooses his own family. A pragmatic decision since, otherwise, he probably ends up with nothing.

 

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Shae (Sibel Kikilli) are also finding their relationship difficult when she may be taken hostage to persuade the Hand to act in ways he would usually deny, while Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) confronts the reality that, come the end of the campaign against Robb Stark, she will have to marry Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Tyrion’s solution is to hide Shae as Sansa’s handmaiden. Perhaps they can give each other moral support. Tyrion tries to find out which members of the Council are trustworthy by looking as if he wants to forge alliances through by marrying off Myrcella Baratheon. Naturally, Cersei is outraged that her daughter should become a pawn and this reveals Pyclle (Julian Glover) as Cersei’s spy. When Pycelle is imprisoned, Varys (Conleth Hill) philosophises to Tyrion about the nature of power. It’s all illusion, residing temporarily where the majority people believes it to be found. Littlefinger is disappointed his own commission was a deception. Perhaps there are other ways he can help Tyrion.

Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) and Lady Margaery (Natalie Dormer) holding court

 

Arya (Maisie Williams) is still having trouble sleeping, remembering the execution of Ned Stark. Yoren (Francis Magee) offers what comfort he can, sharing that he watched the murder of his brother. Years later, he killed the murderer and took the Black. All this comes minutes before the King’s men come back in numbers to kill Gendry (Joe Dempsie). Yoren falls and the soldiers start sacking the camp. Arya opens the cage to release Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and the other two criminals. She survives as a captive and tries to convince the soldiers they have already killed Gendry. She points to the helmet he fashioned as a blacksmith lying beside a dead body. She’s not only brave but also loyal to those who may become her allies or friends.

 

Well, that’s What Is Dead May Never Die. I fear the structure that works well in the written form, is less successful on the small screen. Short episodes with different points of view, switching chapter-by-chapter in a continuous text, can maintain interest. The fact of reading through to the end of the book maintains the continuity. But television seems to separate out the narrative threads and encourage a certain lack of cohesion. Season 1 managed a better focus. Season 2 is more diffuse without a strong individual character to unite around. Ensemble pieces only work well when the characters actually interact. I wait with interest to see how the writers manage the transfer of the rest of the text to the screen.

 

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 1. The North Remembers,
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2. The Night Lands
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 4. Garden of Bones
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5. The Ghost of Harrenhal
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 6. The Old Gods and the New
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 7. A Man Without Honor
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 8. The Prince of Winterfell
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 9. Blackwater
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 10. Valar Morghulis
Game of Thrones: Season 2 — the HBO series considered

 

Silent Voices by Gary McMahon

June 22, 2012 1 comment

 

I need to start by confessing another of my deeply held prejudices. As one born on the north bank and within sight of the Tyne, I’m a Geordie and therefore deeply protective of the way life in that neck of the woods is portrayed in the media. Which brings me to Silent Voices by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2012) the second book describing events on this housing estate, the first being Concrete Grove. These books are set just north of Newcastle, close to Morpeth, i.e. in spirit they are intended to be Northumbrian and not Geordie so we can approach them with slightly greater latitude. That said, significant parts of this story do take place in Newcastle itself and, depressingly, in Gateshead. This is what you expect of southerners who tend to lump all the north together as if it’s somehow all the same. I see this author is from one of the north London suburbs called West Yorkshire — only joking.

 

This is a fascinating book if you’re into the art of taxonomising. What is it? Perhaps it’s fantasy and, since it takes place in a built-up area, urban fantasy or because bad things happen, dark fantasy. Or maybe it’s horror, whether supernatural or urban. Those of you who are of a more pedantic frame of mind have my permission to retreat into a darkened room. When you’ve reached a decision, feel free to light a fire and put out white smoke to show a consensus and alert the fire brigade of the need for a rescue.

 

Ignoring the label issue, the important thing to note is the name of this estate. Although this is Concrete Grove in the sense that, like many old council estates, most of the housing units are made of the hard stuff and regimented into a circular formation to avoid the creation of inconvenient cul de sacs, this is actually a reference to the trees that have existing on this loculus since the beginning of time (and then some). Unlike Yggdrasil which props up whole worlds, these trees bridge the gulf between reality and dreams. In this, we’re occupying the same literary territory as the wonderful Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock where the line between fact and myth blurs. Except Gary McMahon takes a more ironic view.

Gary McMahon, prisoner 63

 

Under normal circumstances, the process of urbanisation overlays the natural world, replanting the forests with structures for occupation by humans. To those of us with a sentimental streak, this is inherently melancholic as we destroy the old order in the name of modern civilisation. Robert Holdstock uses his trees as a way of remembering the past, as if they can somehow capture and hold racial memories of fantasy and myth. Yet this magic only works so long as the trees are physically preserved. As in many fantasy novels, the destruction of the trees would signal the final triumph of modernity over the old ways, the sacrifice of the reverence we used to have for nature in the name of progress. There’s only one place where everything can stay the same and that’s in our memories. Yet Gary McMahon demonstrates that real power is never defeated by changes to superficial reality. In this book, the trees are always a part of the landscape whether it’s in the physical world or our dreamscapes. If you were to uproot them and build a small tower block on the site, you could still experience the trees in half-waking, day-dreaming moments just by walking through the doors into the cool, dark concrete interior. At other times, the trees will reach out to those who are more sensitive or of potential use to them. Celtic Druids used wells, sacred trees and sacrificial fires to open the gates to otherworlds. Who knows what sacrifices these trees might demand for maintaining this gateway into dreams.

 

Silent Voices is a wonderfully sustained piece of writing. It creates three memorable individuals. As children, they had the brash courage of innocence that fires the belief nothing bad can ever happen. This leads to recklessness and a missing period of time. They disappear over a weekend, emerging from the empty building in the centre of the grove bearing evidence of physical abuse. They cannot remember what happened. No-one can explain it. Twenty years later, they are drawn back together again — the Three Amigos in their long-awaited sequel. Brendan has spent his entire life on the estate. He’s not exactly a loser because he’s married happily and has two children. He’s still one of the community. Marty has moved into Newcastle’s world of fixers who service the needs of the demimonde. He’s a prize fighter, prepared to dish out punishment beatings when required and offer security services to those with the right connections. Simon breaches the barrier of the Tyne and makes it into the south where he’s a pusher of his own abilities and builds a highly profitable business. Like Marty, he’s never able to settle into stable relationships. They have no real friends. All three have been damaged by their experiences.

 

In terms of narrative construction, there’s a good balance between the development of the characters as they are, and a reconstruction of what they were like when young. Gary McMahon also demonstrates a good insight into the culture of Northumbrian estates. He captures the sense of desperation and crushed hopes among the younger people who remain. Only the older ones still stand for the values that made the North East so strong. Fortunately, they are respected. They retain their dignity. South of the Tyne, the older and more vulnerable members of the community often become targets for abuse by the disaffected young. Many are grateful to give up and die to get some peace. The only thing wrong with this book is the language. Although time has eroded the dialects of my youth and left us with pale remnants of accents, there’a almost no attempt to capture the distinctive speech rhythms of either Northumbrian or Geordie. I can forgive the decision to avoid local vocabulary. Even at the best of time, glossaries are inconvenient additions at the end of books. But this could have been anywhere in the United Kingdom — probably a good idea if this book is to sold into the British and foreign markets. Having tendered my completely unfair criticism, I’m left with the sense of having read a delightful book. This is a remarkable piece of dark fantasy with some elements that draw on horror tropes. Although not everything is original and the significance of one factor is not explained (perhaps that’s in the first book in the series which I have not yet read), none of this matters. As put together, Silent Voices is quite clearly one of the best books of its genre or subgenre, no matter what you may decide that is. If you take my advice that this author is definitely worth following, the third novel set in Concrete Grove is titled Beyond Here Lies Nothing.

 

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark.

 

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

 

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