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The Ape’s Wife by Caitlin R Kiernan

September 21, 2013 1 comment

The_Apes_Wife_by_Caitlin_R_Kiernan_wraparound_cover

The Ape’s Wife by Caitlin R Kiernan (Subterranean Press, 2013) is the tenth collection of her shorter work and represents a snapshot of her fiction over the last six years or so — as she explains in the introduction, she’s quite prolific, these fourteen stories being drawn from one-hundred-and-seven published during this period. It’s a pleasingly varied selection with everything from steampunk to science fiction to fantasy and a little dabble in the horror end of the pool. If the essence of a good collection is variety, this very much shows off her range of storytelling to the best advantage. For those not familiar with her work, it’s perhaps appropriate to warn potential readers that some of the content is mildly unconventional when it comes to sexuality and relationships.

 

“The Steam Dancer (1896)” is a sad commentary on the position of women in society. Here’s someone who’s rescued from death and allocated a role where she’s entirely dependent on a man for her maintenance and, worse, can only earn a living by dancing for men without her clothes on. The only thing left to her to do is escape inside her head. At least she’s not been deprived of her dreams. “The Maltese Unicorn” is a delightful pastiche of early hardboiled classics. Originally written for Supernatural Noir, it subversively captures the spirit of the original falcon with an interesting unicorn relic in a PI/hitperson modern melange. Perhaps the gender balance is, for once, skewed in exactly the right direction. Given the function of the relic, an all-female cast is necessary to debate the nature of original sin and how, if at all, other women might follow the example of the Virgin Mary and be freed from the stain of sin, even if only temporarily. “One Tree Hill” is a nice change of pace to a carefully understated cosmic horror story in which much is hinted and everything, apart from the nature of lightning, is left unexplained. “The Colliers’ Venus” continues with the exploration of the inexplicable as coal miners unearth something that should not be there and, in their fear, give shape where there was none. Curiously, the men give their fear the shape of a woman.

Caitlin R Kiernan

Caitlin R Kiernan

 

“Galapagos” was in Eclipse Three and is one of these extended tease stories of first contact. From the outset, we know the protagonist met something really scary. The only question is what. The answer is delayed while we go through the mad-woman-locked-up-in-a-mental-hospital trope. It’s somewhat pandering to stereotypes to have a hysterical female screaming her head off and being doped up to the eyeballs to maintain any degree of calm while the government tries to persuade her to tell what she saw. The psychological destruction of a stereotypical macho male might have made cultural sense. Men prefer to characterise themselves as heroic. The top female astronaut should therefore have called her bimbo husband up into space to receive the message. The experience denting the sangfroid of a man and leading to his sedation would have had more impact. “Tall Bodies” is a classic example of the craft of writing. It beautifully captures the lack of answers for both the woman and what she sees. Individually, they are inscrutable to outsiders although the human community has its own opinions. “As Red As Red” is another wonderful piece of writing which understates the potential threat of contemporary vampirism in Rhode Island, carefully alluding to the facts we know to be salient and then passing on before anything comes clearly into focus.

 

“Hydraguros” is an elegant atmosphere fantasy meets science fiction story with hints that what this mid-level gang member is seeing when not totally high on the latest chemistry is perhaps an alien parasite or something bigger. As Shakespeare said, “If you prick me, do I not bleed silver?” “Slouching Towards the House of Glass Coffins” reminds us we do many things out of love. Whether it’s requited, journeys are made, sacrifices are given unselfishly. It’s the way we feel closest to ourselves and others. “Tidal Forces” first appeared in Eclipse Four and continues the search for answers when one in a long-term relationship gets into trouble. She may even be dying. Even that’s not certain. All that’s clear is the need to do something before she fades away. “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” subverts the usual high fantasy expectations as the “barbarian” hero kills the Troll and then, Grendel-fashion, must confront the female of the species (assuming she’s sober enough, of course). “Random Thoughts Before a Fatal Crash” is the final days of the series character Albert Perraud in Paris as he paints a work which will be long remembered after his death. And finally, the titular “The Ape’s Wife” also deals with a kind of timeless immortality, retelling the myth of King Kong to explore the desolation following in the wake of humanity’s quest to understand the world. Sadly, this has meant the collection of artifacts and animals (usually dead), the destruction of local cultures, and the death of indigenous populations through the spread of disease. Even the primaeval forests are now slashed and burned to make way for plantations. It’s the end of the world as it was and a remaking of the world into something less interesting because it’s increasingly homogenised. What a relief it would be if the removal of one miraculous thing could trigger its replacement with something equally miraculous.

 

Taken as a whole, The Ape’s Wife is one of the best collections so far this year.

 

Dust jacket by Vincent Chong.

 

For other posts dealing with Caitlin R Kiernan and her work, see:
Blood Oranges (written as Kathleen Tierney)
Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart
Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart

 

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

 

Montana by Gwen Florio

September 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Montana by Gwen Florio

Montana by Gwen Florio (Permanent Press, 2013) starts by reminding us of the problems faced by those in the military who have been repeatedly deployed into theatres of war. During their time “under fire”, many develop stress-related disorders. When they return to a supposedly safer civilian environment, not everyone makes a swift readjustment. It’s convenient to slap a generic label like PTSD on these problems and to reassure timorous citizens that proper and adequate care is available to all who need it. The difficulty, of course, is that not all those returning admit to these problems or respond constructively to the care offered. But active combatants do not operate in a vacuum. Once you stray away from those formally enrolled in the military, there are multiple roles for civilian support staff and journalists who are embedded in the forces overseas. Then there are the lone wolves who operate as freelance war correspondents. For these individuals, little or no formal monitoring or care is available. The majority are left to sink or swim. So when Lola Wicks is untimely ripped from her rather dangerous assignment with militants in the Afghan field, she exhibits many of the symptoms of PTSD from simple anxiety to hypervigilance. In the subtext to this novel, we’re therefore engaged in answering a simple but powerful question. When civilians return from a landscape torn by war, how do they come home? Where is that quiet place where they can relax, unwind and finally rediscover the innocent peace of mind they had when young?

 

From this you’ll understand this is not a straightforward murder mystery novel. Equally, it’s not pretentiously setting out to be a literary mystery although it is very well written. Rather it’s what I’ll choose to call a character-driven novel. In this case, we’re looking at the life of Lola Wicks, a foreign correspondent who has lost her way, and the titular US state. I’m not in any sense knowledgeable about America, but I get as far as knowing this state is a paradoxical place. The TARDIS is always described as bigger on the inside. Well Montana is a vast area of mostly empty space with mountains on the inside. I suspect the pressure of geography does something to the psychology of those who choose to live and work there. They are more likely to be loners, stuck out on ranches, cutting down trees or extracting oil or coal from the ground. It’s an unforgiving place to live, but one which can develop a very strong sense of community. So you could see the book as a recruitment interview in which the state tries to decide whether Lola could fit in and Lola devises a contingency plan in case the state does offer her a place to stay.

Gwen Florio

Gwen Florio

 

In the midst of all this there’s a murder to solve. Someone shot her friend at the cabin where she lived near the Blackfeet reservation. To our stressed hero, the local sheriff doesn’t seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box. So the live journalist decides to honour her dead friend’s memory by applying her investigative skills to determining who the killer is. It’s at this point that I mutter darkly about the need to look beyond the superficial and see the real person beneath. As Lola herself recognises, a good journalist never relies on assumptions when it comes to writing a good story. So when you read this book, and you definitely should read it, the key to understanding motives and corresponding actions is to identify what’s really important. To one of the Blackfeet, for example, it may be maintaining cultural and linguistic traditions in a world that’s hostile and judgmental. To a sheriff, it may be a desire to keep people safe in difficult circumstances. With the elections raising the race issue, this includes balancing the interests of both the native Americans and the more recently arrived white folk. This might prompt him to move more slowly than an outsider might expect. And so on. Once you start thinking about the people, their status and roles in the community, it should get easier to see the “big picture”. I was fascinated by the detailed way in which it all fits together with even an interest in art being relevant.

 

This is one of the times when I can unashamedly admit to not seeing the reveal. I can’t remember ever seeing this particular idea applied to this situation before. It’s most ingenious. So when you put the two halves of the book together, Montana proves to be one of the best murder mysteries I’ve read so far this year. It’s a remarkably assured first novel. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for a second.

 

For a review of the second, see Dakota.

 

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

 

Silevethiel by Andi O’Connor

September 19, 2013 2 comments

Silevethiel by Andi O'Connor

Silevethiel by Andi O’Connor (Purple Sun Press, 2013) looks and feels like a self-published book. There’s nothing about the publisher’s website to suggest it’s anything other than a vanity label created by the author for this book. Sadly reading it confirms it as poorly written with one or two typos in the digital version I read. In a way, the opening chapter should mark it out as dark fantasy. The King is found murdered in his bed, his heart ripped from his body and left draped over his head. His daughter and only living heir is spirited out of the kingdom only to fall foul of assassins who leave her for dead. But the prose style and vocabulary choice mark it as essentially intended for young adults. Hence, the darkness is quickly waved away and the language trivialises the events. Indeed, some of the prose is embarrassing in what is presented on the page as a professionally produced publication. Here’s Irewen running past the guards into her father’s bedchamber where the blood is almost dry. So why has it taken so long for the alarm to be raised? In a well-run castle, someone notices if the king is slaughtered and raises the alarm. Then she’s led off through the “expansive” castle to the sitting room (obviously a castle designed by Walt Disney) where she perches on a settee, takes a slug of wine to calm her nerves, tucks a stray raven curl of hair behind her ear, and decides to get out of Dodge. I confess to almost giving up at the end of the first chapter but, after following the heir apparent’s example and taking a fortifying drink, I soldiered on.

This prince guy with the elf magic (and hormones) coursing through his veins comes upon the scene and rescues the fair damsel before she can get properly deceased. Laegon is definitely a useful person to have around. He can pull out two arrows without making the wounds worse, neuralise the poison that’s been slowly spreading through her body for an hour (the icy cold has not been enough to kill this tough young woman), and he can close the wounds from the inside out. No Irewen, don’t go towards the light! Anyway, after deciding which way to go, she regains consciousness and greets the lonely elf prince again after a ten-year gap. He’s one of these shy twits who would be red-hot if he let himself go but. . . So he’s never known true love (it’s apparently a pretty rare commodity in these magical times until an author gets just the right pair together in the cold) and can satisfy the virgin requirement for relationships with sex-starved princesses. Before the love birds get too deeply involved, a word of explanation. Silevethiel is a lioness and the Dame of the Guardians who, like, protects people. The Dame was able to save Irewen because she’s, gasp, a quarter Green and Wood elf. Now calm yourselves. The Elf Discrimination Act is in force: equal treatment for all on the basis of their race. But that means the princess has the mind-talking ability. Human Daddy king married a commoner with elf blood. They could do nothing to hush up the lowly birth, but they did hide the witchy bit. Fortunately, there’s an elven prophesy that someone just like Irewen (what a coincidence) will reunite the four elven races and save the world. Isn’t this exciting? Particularly when you discover she can talk to the dead? Is that not cool or what?

So then we plough through some mind-numbingly banal romance, endure bathos without any sublime bits in-between, and have some fighting with Drulaack — zombie warriors, no less — sent by her evil cousin who has a lock of her hair and can track her every movement (well, perhaps not every movement). This inspires our princess to learn to become an Amazon — no, not an online bookstore — fighting with bladed weapons without faltering in her strikes. Go, Irewen, go! And she’s recruited as protectee by Silevethiel. Things just naturally go her way until the evil cousin attacks from within and then the virgin prince is told he must stay home while the princess goes on a quest. Ah the stresses young love must bear even if the virgin prince is over two-hundred years old (he’s been saving himself for a long time). Fortunately this is written for twelve-year-old girls so it all comes out right at the end with a little predictive ability showing her children in the future with the prince (after he loses his status as a virgin, of course).

As a final note of sadness, this is not even the worst book I’ve read so far this year. Yes, I have been less than merciful here but I did at least get to the end. In moments of naive abstraction, it amazes me that books like this can ever find a market. Then common sense reasserts itself and I remember the vast number of children and teens whose ability to judge quality has not yet formed and who will therefore enjoy this vapid fantasy romance. Since no youngsters read these reviews there’s no damage done to sales projections. Indeed, out of perversity, teens reading my contempt may well be inspired to buy Silevethiel — the perfect ironic riposte to an old man’s opinion.

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

Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin

September 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin

On good days, I suppose we all like to see the world as a safe and caring place in which we can go about our business with minimal fear of violent retaliation for perceived offences. As I write this today, I see Julie Bindel has cancelled an appearance at the University of Manchester. She’s been the subject of death threats for being brave enough to voice opinions unpopular with the misogynists. The latest winner of Miss America has been the victim of racist abuse on the social media. The notion of gender equality remains contentious. So how should we react when authors write first-person lead characters in the “wrong” gender? Is it appropriate for a woman to “pretend” to be a man for protagonist purposes, and vice versa? Perhaps more importantly, do the results of this gender impersonation read credibly and, if not, does this lack of credibility matter?

I’m prompted into this rumination by Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin (Seventh Street Books, 2013) which is, as you may infer, a man writing a first-person narrative as Ellie Stone, a youngish woman. Perhaps this author is unlucky because I’ve recently read two novels by women explicitly written for women. This has reminded me of the difference between the sensibilities that inform the genders. It’s too easy for one gender to sit comfortably in his or her ghetto and choose not to consider what interests the other when it comes to fiction. This book comes over as a man writing in what he hopes is a gender-neutral style but, to my mind, it ends up being essentially an outsider’s view of what it means to be a woman. This is not necessarily a defect. Indeed, the text is illuminating as a man’s view of how a woman reacts to physical attraction, lustful coupling, and being double-timed. The context for this somewhat unromantic view of relationships is the daughter of a stern academic who has, for reasons which are explained as we read, been estranged from her father. When he’s attacked in his apartment and left in a coma, hooked up to life-saving machines in the hospital, she finds herself sucked into an investigation to determine who could have been responsible. When another member of the same university department is found dead in his bath, our hero is convinced this is not a coincidence. Now all she has to do is convince the police they have an attempted murder instead of a burglary gone wrong, and a murder instead of an accidental death.

James W Ziskin

James W Ziskin

Fortunately, even though this is set in 1960 when men were in charge and women were largely decorative, she has the “chops” to face down the detective and prod him into an increasingly active investigation. Between them they gather information which she interprets and then poses more questions. In the end, she arrives at a solution. So how well does the plot stand up? This is one of these rather pleasing puzzles where the identity of the killer(s) is/are fairly obvious from the outset, but there’s significant misdirection because of the problem of motive. Even when the relevance of the title is revealed about two-thirds of the way through, it’s still not at all clear how it all ties together. The final set of explanations is intellectually satisfying. It’s not at all what I had expected and the significance of the names is a delight. All of which brings me back to the original question.

Because we’re dealing with historical fiction, it’s easy to lose sight of the credibility problem. I’m one of the dying breed that lived through this time (albeit in a different country) so I come with my antennae twitching to see whether the author has captured the essence of the culture. There are clearly some good observations on the racism that defined the 1950s and, insofar as it’s relevant, this is a society still carrying some baggage from World War II. But I’m less than convinced that the sexual politics has been captured accurately. This strikes me as a man sugar-coating the history of gender inequality for modern consumption. We need to be very clear about the extent of the discrimination faced by women in this pre-feminism period. It affected every aspect of their roles in society and the way this woman makes her way through life doesn’t quite ring true. Even the skirt on the jacket artwork is too short for the days before tights were released on to the mass market. This leads me to what’s hopefully a fair conclusion. So long as you don’t care about historical accuracy as applied to culture, this is an excellent puzzle to solve very much located in the 1950s and 60s. This particular situation would not arise in this form in modern times. Styx & Stone has to be set sixty years ago for the plot to work. Everything else is window-dressing approximating the culture and giving enough for modern readers to get a flavour of what it was like. On that basis, this is a great challenge to the armchair detectives among you. Better still, it plays fair giving you a very transparent view into the thinking processes involved. I was impressed. There’s to be another in 2014. It’s to be titled No Stone Unturned.

For a review of the sequel, see No Stone Unturned.

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

Found by H Terrell Griffin

September 17, 2013 Leave a comment

Found-3D

Back in the 1960s, I recall scribbling a short story as a satirical response to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Irwin Allen’s spin-off television series from his film of the same name. Long before Groundhog Day, it had Kowalski and Sharkey scratching their heads and wondering whether they’d ever experienced anything like a man in a rubber suit pretending to be a monster before. In other words, no matter how unsophisticated the viewers or readers, there comes a point when you have to ask what degree of continuity there should be between one episode and the next. Obviously, the basic cast of characters persists in the same setting. Whether it’s the Seaview or Florida Keys, the question is whether there should be “growth”. The alternative is to write each slice of fiction as a self-contained unit. That way, our heroic protagonist meets completely new situations in each new release and there’s never a need to relate what has gone before. So, as an apparently unique event, Perry Mason could roll into town with Della Street and Paul Drake in tow and pick up a new client charged with murder. But in Found by H Terrell Griffin (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) A Matt Royal Mystery 8, we have not merely a setting but also an entire community of people who interact in various eating and drinking establishments throughout the islands. We meet not just Matt Royal, Detective Jennifer Diane Duncan, Josh Algren and Logan Hamilton, but also all the other members of the immediate and adjacent police departments, local bartenders and general hangers-on.

So if this was pretending realism, the entire social infrastructure would vibrate with gossip and speculation about the activities of the core group. If someone ambushes any permutation or combination, the rumour-mill would swing into action remembering the last time anyone was daft enough to try maiming or shooting our heroes, exchanging the latest details, and running a book on how many bones were broken or bullets it took to kill the latest hitmen. But there’s absolutely no continuity between one episode and the next, except that Matt and JD are now an item. Ah, that’s the exception that proves the rule. The romantic entanglement is growing, but nothing in the rest of the setting or characters is allowed to change. I understand the authorial choice. The perception is that it’s better to allow people to read the books in any order. If the books are a serial with major narrative arcs continuing over several volumes, it may be more difficult for new readers to tune into who the people are and how they have reached this point in their lives. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that readers ultimately get bored with stereotypes and stop reading variations on the basic theme. Although more effort is required from the reader to get to know evolving characters, once interest has been captured, they are more likely to go back to the beginning to catch up and then want to see where the characters go next. In this case, more or less everyone just does what they did in the last volume except Matt and JD now sleep together. Ultimately, this is a recipe for boredom.

Terry Griffin

Terry Griffin

The only thing that can keep interest alive is the quality of the plots. In the last volume, I thought it started well but lost its way by incorporating one layer of complexity too many. This episode has a slightly more limited scope and is better for the restraint. We’re playing the game of history catching up with the present. This intrusion from the past comes in two layers. There are relatively ancient World War II ripples affecting a group of old men, two of whom still live on the Keys, and a friend from JD’s past who was thought dead, unexpectedly gets in touch. As is the way in these thriller cum mystery stories, there’s a link but not one that’s genuinely predictable. As you would expect, all the elements are nicely meshed together. That’s the mark of a professional author at work. Whereas in the last volume I was unhappy with the number of ramifications, I’m more ambivalent this time.

The plot edifice is powered by a major coincidence. In the real world, this would be unlikely. I’m not saying low probability should rule coincidence out in fiction. Indeed, the whole point of fiction is that it takes reality and pushes it in unexpected directions to give readers the chance to explore their own emotional reactions to unanticipated situations. But this seems on the borderline of acceptability. I’m not convinced this level of credibility bending is advancing the broader exploration of morality and its relevance to our contemporary society. Slightly changing the subject, my final caveat is that, as with the last volume, the only reason there will still be a Matt and JD to return for the next volume is that all the bad guys are dead. There’s no-one left to seek revenge. This need to exterminate all who might represent a threat is alarming and again strains credibility. It necessitates a remarkably sanguine view of the law from the police and prosecuting authorities. Our heroes give yet another set of statements describing how they were attacked but managed to hospitalise or kill the criminals. Even when the local law know one or more of our heroes has actively broken the law by illegally acquiring evidence, intimidating witnesses, or simply killing people, they look the other way. Although this vigilante spirit is no doubt very convenient when it comes to constructing plots — if in doubt, shoot first and make up excuses later — the continuing pattern of law bending actually makes a mockery of the system. Even though the core group has tacit federal government support, they should not have this degree of latitude to take down entire criminal gangs that get in their way. There should be some checks and balances somewhere in the midst of this mayhem.

Summing up, Found is more successful than Fatal Decree but I suspect the formula should begin evolving to maintain longer term interest.

For a review of the last book in the series, see Fatal Decree.

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

Categories: Books

Fatal Decree by H Terrell Griffin

September 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Fatal-Decree-3D

Fatal Decree by H Terrell Griffin (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) A Matt Royal Mystery 7 is one of these books where the prose proves to be elegantly beautiful. This is not, you understand, praise for something poetic or intensely literary. Rather it’s praise for a writing style that’s almost totally transparent. This is writing at its best with as little as possible between writer and reader to prevent the smooth decanting of the story from one brain into the other. This is not to say the prose is stripped of descriptions. Indeed, there’s a very strong sense of place as we find ourselves in the Florida Keys and, with just a few clever brushstrokes, we’re immediately off and running with recognisable characters. You can’t ask for a more exciting pacing. The first contemporary body is floating in the sea on the first page and this launches us into the world of Matt Royal and Detective Jennifer Diane Duncan (with friend Jock Algren unwinding between missions riding shotgun).

So far, this is all good news but. . . yes, there’s nearly always a but. We’re dealing in slightly stereotypical characters so it’s easier to do the set-up and get the plot ball rolling. The series lead is a hot-shot attorney who decided to retire early. Conveniently for thriller purposes, he was in Special Forces and keeps fit. The potential love interest is one of these tough, no-nonsense women who have made it in the male-dominated world of the police, rising to the homicide division and establishing a good track record. With similar brevity, we can pigeonhole Jock as a hush-hush spook who does stuff for an Agency that’s accountable to the White House — ‘nuff said. When you have two very proficient men plus all their contacts at state and federal level, you know they can pull strings and are never going to be outmatched. If they should “accidentally” kill people in self-defence or otherwise, it’s likely to be swept under the carpet. It’s not that they have carte blanche. There’s simply a rebuttable presumption all their activities are righteous. Oh, and there’s also Logan Hamilton, but he doesn’t count because he was only a combat infantryman when he was younger. Except he does get to shoot people when the need arises. That’s what folks like him do.

Terry Griffin

Terry Griffin

When you start off in cliché territory, this puts a burden on you as an author to come up with a plot that’s better than average. If you fail this test, the book quickly grows generic and loses interest no matter how well written it is. Fortunately this plot asks some very interesting questions in the first act with a conventional murder investigation with a twelve-year hiatus as the problem to overcome (serial killer don’t usually stop for that length of time). In the second act, it then switches to a twin narrative track as we begin to see the other side of the plot. This is just the mechanics, showing the essence of who’s doing the planning and who’s on the ground to put the plan into action. This process lifts up the standard. Although it’s all through a glass darkly as the body count starts to rise, the complexity emerges to take a bow and, as we get into the third act, it opens out into a major investigation.

It would be fair to say there isn’t a wasted character in the telling. Everyone knows someone and these links mean there’s much greater co-ordination in the response to the crimes than might otherwise have been the case. When the President can be called on to pick up the phone and ask people politely to do something, there are no jurisdictional issues or institutional turf wars to slow things down. Things just get done. The outcomes are not always quite what those involved hoped for, but in the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back walking style, we advance steadily to the sequence of revelations at the end. And this is where the “but” gets a little more prominent. I’ve got nothing against complexity. In my own way, I often look for the layers within the onion and peel as far down as I can go. This time, however, I think there’s one revelation too many. I understand why it’s there and it does allow the relevant players to do some soul searching and consider the morality of what they do. But I think this is one layer too complicated. When we start off, it’s apparently one crazed serial killer out for some payback except that’s always hard to understand because of the time gap. The author did not have to add more. Just dealing with that would have produced a taut and economical plot. This ends up way too big to be tucked away at the end. If it was going to be dealt with at all, it should have been in the next book of the series where we readers could eliminate the impossible until all that was left was the right answer. This is a shame. I don’t think it completely spoils Fatal Decree, but it certainly reduces it in my estimation. The ending on the relationship front is also too clichéd. So the conclusion is a slightly better than average thriller using stock characters.

For a review of the next in the series, see Found.

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

The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham

The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2013) Krewe of Hunters 11, is set at the Horse Farm, a therapy centre west of Nashville. It was founded by Marcus Danby and Olivia Gordon works there as a therapist. Marcus was the rich son who fell from grace and then recovered through his love of horses. He set up the centre to help others. Now he’s dead. Apparently it was caused by drugs. He fell into a ravine while high. Except the staff members of the centre don’t believe it. So Olivia calls her cousin in the FBI and, without alerting the local police, a special FBI Krewe unit recruits Dustin Blake to go undercover and find out what really happened. Dustin and the others in the Krewe have supernatural abilities. This is potentially useful when you want to find out how someone died. All you need do is ask the ghost. Except, of course, it isn’t that simple. Olivia may be a ghost magnet, able to attract and talk with ghosts, an ability she shares with Dustin. Yet it’s not wholly controllable. And it’s only useful if the ghost actually knows whodunnit. In this case, the killer came from behind so the ghost is not a reliable witness. It’s tough when you find you have unresolved issues on Earth. It stops you from going toward the light.

It has been something of a revelation to read this. Yes, my apologies: another of my somewhat naive statements. So here come the required words of explanation. This is my first look at the writing phenomenon that is Heather Graham. She’s a prolific author, primarily focusing on romantic fiction. As a mere male and having no shame, I admit to never having heard of her. To make this worse, I confess to being inexperienced when it comes to labelling a book like this so I’ll approximate with “paranormal romance mystery with thriller elements”. It takes Ghost Whisperer to a different place with the FBI solving crimes which helps the ghosts cross over (or not, as the case may be). I’m more usually involved with supernatural books which set out to thrill or chill. This somewhat demystifies the reader’s experience by allowing the FBI agents with the right abilities to interview ghosts in exactly the same way they would live witnesses. Indeed, it’s fairly disconcerting to be confronted with this supernatural phenomenon as routine normality. It require a recalibration of reaction.

Heather Graham

Heather Graham

Under the circumstances, I’m going to ignore the supernatural and romantic elements. It seems to me that “books like this” stand or fall on the strength of the mystery plot. No matter where the evidence comes from, there has to be a murder with no immediately clear suspect(s) in sight. The investigator reacts to the unfolding drama by interviewing all the relevant people, reviewing the evidence and then catching the killer(s). Obviously I can’t call this a police procedural although the FBI does eventually set up a formal liaison with the local law. Equally, it’s not an amateur sleuth or PI novel. It’s not even a classic “undercover” operation because several local people immediately understand what’s going on and react both positively and negatively to our hero’s arrival. This creates thriller opportunities with threats to Olivia and, later, a second death. On this front, I’m pleased to report this is a meticulously plotted mystery. In every respect, the author has gone out of her way to detail where everyone appears to be at each point in time, and to what extent third party sightings confirm appearances. It’s a very pleasing book because, insofar as any mysteries do, this plays fair with the reader. Even the ghosts get in on the act and either cannot see their killer or can only see someone wearing camouflage. The whodunnit is there to be worked out if you invest the effort.

I’m therefore able to confirm The Night Is Forever as unusual by my standards — I should read more fiction aimed at the female market — but very good. Even the romance element is kept within reasonable limits and avoids the more excessive sappiness that alienates elderly male readers like myself. So, if female readers of these reviews are prepared to act on the recommendation of a mere man, this is well worth reading. Even men are likely to find the mystery worth solving, assuming they can, of course.

For review of others in the series, see:
The Cursed
The Hexed

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

The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson

September 14, 2013 Leave a comment

the-girl-in-berlin-elizabeth-wilson

In reading The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson (Serpent’s Tail, 2013), I find myself in a slightly unusual situation. When I read historical fiction about the time I lived through, I’m usually able to relate what I read to my own experience. Yet this book describes what might just as well be a foreign land. It’s set in May, 1951 in London. Along with large numbers of other provincials, I came down to the Festival of Britain during the summer of 1951 so, like many other gawking tourists, I viewed the superficialities of the rebuilt and restored buildings in the central area. It was a time of great excitement for us, belying the usual hardship of austerity times. Yet this book adopts a setting closed off to rubes like me. This is the world of London privilege in which people know people of the right class and type, patriarchy rules, and it’s far too infra dig to mention the Festival (although going to Wimbledon is so U, darling). So, for example, we have Dinah Wentworth, the wife of a BBC producer, breaking with tradition and “getting a job”. Except it isn’t a paying job. She’s volunteering at The Courthauld. In narrative terms, it’s an excuse for her to meet real-world Anthony Blunt before he was outed, but how realistic is this?

My mother worked as a teacher, paused to produce me, and then went back to work. She earned a good rate of pay for her services and contributed to the joint bank account. The relationship described in this book seems faintly unreal. Her pathetically unfaithful husband, Alan Wentworth, is apparently unaware no money is coming in. Rather he spends money on himself and mistress as if there’s no need to consider his wife at all. In the North, the wives of the wealthy were either working at good jobs or heavily into socialising with occasional outbursts of charity work. By my standards, this man isn’t really the right class or wealth level to be having this argument with his wife. The only individual who even vaguely resonates with me is the ostensible hero, Jack McGovern, a Scot of modest abilities who’s trying to live down his working class roots and make his way on merit as a policeman and occasional spy. I used to meet men like him as they stopped off in my neck of the woods on their way down south. There was always an air of desperation about them. They knew life would not be a real improvement, but they felt they had to give it a try.

Perhaps I was being a bit dim (nothing unusual there, you might say) but, for almost half the book, I was not sure what the author was trying to achieve. At one level, it’s an historical recreation of the time when Burgess and Maclean slipped their leashes and decamped to Russia (ironic pun intended because they would have to be less obviously camp in Russia). We have a snapshot of life in both London and Berlin. I suppose we could see a parallel with The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming whose novel is based on the premise there was an addition to the original five Russian spies operating in Britain. That’s more explicitly exploring the reality of the spying activities through the lens of fiction. This is rather more prosaic, perhaps less ambitious. Thanks to Miles Kingdom, one of these British MI5 spooks, the focus of attention is Colin Harris who fled England after his conviction for murder was quashed, only now to return from Berlin at this time of paranoia in the security services. That he’s seen with Konrad Eberhardt who’s body is later found in a canal is indicative not all is well. Perhaps this has something to do with Eberhardt’s autobiography which might name names at this inconvenient time. So Jack McGovern is encouraged to see his investigation as a sideshow to the main event. Everyone who matters is running around like headless chickens because Burgess and Maclean have disappeared. While that’s all going on, our Scottish “hero” is tasked with investigating Harris and this woman he’s proposing to marry in Berlin.

But here’s the problem. Having lived through this time, I’m aware of all the political embarrassments of the day when the spies were unmasked. It had seemed unlikely that men of that class and intelligence would spy for an enemy of Britain. There was this assumption of loyalty from them, bred in the bone, as it were. But readers today, particularly foreign readers, will come without any background or understanding of the impact these revelations had. So the fact this book underplays the context for the action is odd. Strip away the context and the plot is a bit thin. Harris may be a spy. He might have murdered Eberhardt. Then there are the Wentworths and the other people he knows in London who used to be Communist “sympathisers”. Special Branch seems strangely uninvolved. MI5 and 6 are in defensive mode. There doesn’t seem to be urgency in the investigation either in its own right or as a possible tie-in to the Burgess/Maclean defection. For much of the time, matters seem to drift somewhat inconclusively. Making this worse is the extended time allocated to the Wentworths. This couple with their vague association with Communists and Socialists before the war never meet the ostensible hero. They are within the purview of Miles Kingdom.

Having arrived at the end, I see what the author is trying to do, but I think the balance of the book is wrong. If this is an historical espionage story, we should focus on that and explain the political context for modern readers. If it’s a story about the people who lived through the period, then focusing on their lives and all the gossip about Anthony Blunt, the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, and so on, makes perfect sense. Sadly, the juxtaposition of the two narrative threads never generates any synergy. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the author falls between the two stools. Let’s be clear. There is, of course, a villain. His or her activities are vicious and dark so “justice” must prevail. It would have been perfectly possible to write an espionage thriller in which the villain was unmasked. Equally, it would have been possible to write a Cold War London thriller in which the villain is caught. Because this book can’t make up its mind, it produces an ending where neither part of the narrative is properly contextualised and resolved. It’s a shame. Elizabeth Wilson writes well but her plotting seriously lets her down.

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

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas

September 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) is the fourth novel featuring a Maori cop, Tito Ihaka, the other three being Old School Tie, Inside Dope and Guerilla Season. Curiously, there’s been a fifteen year hiatus during which our intemperate maverick has been living in exile in the Wairarapa. He enjoyed a protected status in Auckland until he insisted a local wealthy businessman had arranged for his wife to be killed. When he rose to the bait and beat a fellow detective for racially abusing him, the price of him remaining in the force was relocation. Now the man he suspected of murder is dying and calls his would-be nemesis back to hear his confession. His return triggers a number of deaths. With this sudden increase in police workload, Ihaka is persuaded to stay on to help out. But not in the original case. Having heard the confession, he’s now a witness. His ex-colleagues insist in taking that on. This leaves him with the death of a young man. It looks like a gang hit. Later the body of a woman turns up with almost identical injuries. Then a somewhat notorious fixer is shot. Auckland is a happening city when it comes to violent crime.

There are two allied issues surrounding this book. The first is the apparent fascination with death in general and murder in particular. There’s quite a long prologue in which we review a parade of deaths. Each one is detailed separately. The fact we are shown these people dying is evidence their deaths are related but it’s not until quite a significant way into the book that we understand the significance. There’s nothing wrong with this narrative structure. The hook is set early and we rise to the bait. But it does set the tone of the book which belies New Zealand’s image as a land where there are more sheep than people and some of those people get to dress up as hobbits and orcs when the film crews come into town. This is a hyper-real version of this twin spit of southern land in which most of the people we meet have a darker side. Even the hero speculates the most likely reason he became a police officer was to inoculate him against the crime bug. Except he’s hardly the most law-abiding of police officers.

Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas

All of which brings us to the second issue. I have on a number of occasions this last year been moved to comment on the increasing amorality of lead characters in books and films. It seems the level of “anti” ness in anti-hero has been increasing in power. Whereas the early examples in the last century tended to be part-time criminals with redeeming features, the more recent characters have become more completely criminal, not to say thoroughly evil. We’re not just expected to accept thieves, but also contract killers and other serious gangland felons, as heroes. I’m not so uncomfortable with plots requiring protagonists to kill in self-defence. The fact they may provoke the bad guys into attacking and so justify the killings is broadly acceptable — it would be even more so if the books and films would also show the trials in which the self-defence pleas were successful. But I grow increasingly unhappy when the protagonists literally fight fire with fire. There have been a number of recent examples of “heroes” finding the need to get their self-defensive strikes in first. Vigilanteism is an increasingly common motif with stone-cold killers keeping their neighbours safe by taking out the predatory criminals around them. This book has a police officer prepared to do deals with some of the criminals he meets in order to get justice done. Indeed, it would be fair to call him relentless in his pursuit of what he considers justice. He may not always like himself very much — not many people do like him — but he’s remarkably effective. All his superiors have to do is look at the big picture and overlook the transgressions on the way to the solution of the high-profile cases and the unmasking of criminals whether they be the common or garden thugs or members of the wealthy elite. After all, it’s the arrests and public trials that earn the public’s gratitude and support. Solving crimes is a vote-winner for politicians and when they are happy, the senior police officers can relax. No system is free from corruption.

So whether you will enjoy this book depends on your approach to ethically-challenged heroes. Death on Demand is a great piece of writing. There’s a vividness and power about the prose and plot (once it gets going) that drives through to the end. But you’re invited to support a police officer who bends all the rules in the book and, if the need arises, throws the book away, to get the right result. He’s a vigilante with a badge. Perhaps societies always need some officers like him who can get things done, but should they be heroes? Your choice.

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

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

September 12, 2013 Leave a comment

bestsf30

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois (St Martin’s Griffin, 2013) is one of the annual events in the science fiction calendar when the magisterial editor pronounces on which stories he thinks the best of the year. With only a couple of exceptions, this year’s choices are very readable but I find the overall standard slightly uneven. “Weep For Day” by Indrapramit Das is an age-old story updated to a different world in which one species develops the technology to invade the land occupied by another species. Conflict and genocide follows thus fulfilling the predictable route of aboriginal extermination motivated, this time, by simple fear. It would be good if this group had learned the lesson of first contact and could avoid further deaths as they expand ever further across this continent but I don’t hold out much hope. These people are all too human to avoid asserting their superiority. “The Man” by Paul McAuley also plays with the ability of people to get along (or not). This time, a dead man may have been through a repair process on an alien planet. How will the living relate to him? “The Stars Do Not Lie” by Jay Lake reinvents the Catholic Church’s discussion with Galileo on whether the Earth goes round the sun. This story is set on a world that was seeded by humanity but has largely forgotten its ancestry. It asks how the local church might react if an astronomer announced a ship was coming to visit the planet.

“The Memcordist” by Lavie Tidhar is a collage of asynchronous paragraph snapshots of a man as he lives his life under the scrutiny of millions. I bet the watchers wish he would do something more exciting more often. And pursuing the idea of watchers, “The Girl Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” by Pat Cadigan has bioengineered humans working in the space around Jupiter whose normal routines are disrupted by the arrival of a beauty queen from Earth. Her fans are less than pleased she’s mixing with abominations. Perhaps some changes would be in order. “Holmes Sherlock” by Eleanor Arnason is a delightful transplant of the trope to an alien culture and a good mystery for the sleuth to solve. “Nightfall in the Peak of Eternal Light” by Richard A Lovett and William Gleason gives us the perfect thrill of the chase as a man on the run from the “mob” uses witness protection to get to the moon. Except a hit-man can track down his prey anywhere. “Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan narrowly avoids sentimentality in a very nicely judged story about nostalgia. When the years have passed by, it’s good to remember the good old days on Venus. Today’s youngsters are too serious in their pursuit of scientific understanding when all they have to do is believe. . .

“The Finite Canvas” by Brit Mandelo is a forlorn biter-bit story in a dystopian future where the world has been seriously damaged and all the people of influence have evacuated to orbit and beyond. Here organised crime may be equal to government, and questions of life and death are answered by those with the greater need. Now we come to one of the two standout stories. “Steamgothic” by Sean McMullen does something very special by conflating a modern obsession with steampunk and an alternate history. Suppose a preserved but damaged aeroplane was discovered that could have flown in early Victorian times. How differently might the world have turned out if its power had been recognised? How might history be affected by investing the love to restore the old machine? And talking of love, how affairs of the heart can be lift twisting in the wind with achingly uncertainty. The complete package is a delight. A review of “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear appears in Shoggoths in Bloom. “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” by Paul McAuley is a triumph of imagination as we follow a daughter to spread the ashes of her dead father. The landscape travelled is magnificently realised and the spirit of the story a celebration of adaptability, of the lengths to which people go to fit into existing communities or fashion new ones. “Twenty Lights to ‘The Land of Snow’” by Michael Bishop comes up with a gentle story of growth aboard a generation star ship. Sometimes, what you need to sustain you during a long journey is faith. The problem is how to transmit that faith from one generation tot he next. Perhaps this group comes predisposed to make the continuity of faith more seamless. “Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn is the same theme as the last story but set in a post-apocalypse world where people need a mixture of hope and faith they can rebuild and replace all that has been lost. “What Did Tessimond Tell You” by Adam Roberts is an interesting scientific idea — I have no idea whether it’s actually a justifiable idea — but I find the telling slightly too long.

“Old Paint” by Megan Lindholm is a timely story about the potential arrival of autonomous vehicles and, avoiding excessive sentimentality, thinks about the relationship between a woman, a machine and the family. Apropos of nothing, I remember a similar idea about wild bicycles. “Chitai Heki Koronbin” by David Moles is also about the relationship between man and machines, this time, in a Gundam context as humans and aliens battle each other in giant robots, always identifying with their robots like they were a skin, never forgetting they are fighting a different form of intelligent being. “Katabasis” by Robert Reed is an excellent adventure story about two groups on rather different hiking expeditions in equally testing locations. There are shared elements of self-sacrifice and the result is a meditation on the effects of a shared experience of loss. “The Water Thief” by Alastair Reynolds is a slightly heavy-handed morality tale where a teleworker gets a small say in what should happen to two thieves, one in his own camp and the other on the moon. “Nightside on Callisto” by Linda Nagata is a fairly routine humans versus not very bright little robots story. “Under the Eaves” by Lavie Tidhar reminds us that no matter what the form of the bodies, the minds can still love each other. All it takes is a little trust. Coming to the second standout story, “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” by Steven Popkes is also about trust when a musician who has retreated from the world is tempted to collaborate with an AI performance engine. This is a terrific piece of writing as the human teaches the expert system and, in turn, learns something about his own psychology. Perhaps the AI ends up manipulating him. However it happens, the end result is a better team “live” performance.

“Fireborn” by Robert Charles Wilson continues the exploration of exploiter and exploited. Those of high status always believe they have a right to deal with the peasants as they choose. Except, of course, this assumes the peasants have no wit to turn the tables. “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh proposes a machine that can change probabilities, allowing a person to leave the current reality and emerge somewhere “different”. Just how different? Well some things would be constant. Only the more minor details would change, if you were lucky, that is. “Tyche and the Ants” by Hannu Rajaniemi is a somewhat surreal SF story of a “young girl” whose hiding place is discovered and she has to grow up a little to understand what needs to be done to save herself. “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear is another of the fun stories transplanting H P Lovecraft to outer space. “Invisible Men” by Christopher Barzak is the truth behind the fiction produced by H G Wells as seen through the eyes of a woman who was socially invisible. It’s pleasingly elegant. “Ship’s Brother” by Aliette de Bodard is a sad story of a son, present when his mother gives birth to a sister, who never forgives her because his mother’s health never recovered. Uncritical familial love is apparently not in the male psyche. “Eater-of-Bone” by Robert Reed is another novelette set in the universe of the “Great Ship” and deals with the strained relationship between a group of human colonists and local indigenes. Needless to say, the humans don’t get along too well with each other. I find this somewhat gratuitously violent.

For other anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection

Dozois, Gardner & Martin, George R. R.

Old Mars
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance

Songs of Love and Death
Warriors

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