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Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne

September 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne

Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne (Harlequin Mira, 2013) is the second instalment in the story of Rachel de Luca, author of a very successful series self-help books, and Detective Mason Brown. They think each other hot. In the first in this series, Sleep With the Lights On, they slept together once. As this starts, they have decided to cool off. That hasn’t stopped the detective from asking her help in solving another case. So how does this work? She may be writing books promoting the idea that positive thinking solves all problems, but that’s just a way to make money. At heart, she’s a cynic and less than convinced anyone actually benefits from reading and following the advice of authors such as herself. But, after she receives a corneal transplant to cure her physical blindness — she was blind from the age of twelve — she starts to experience “visions”. Yes, she sees vicious crimes as they are committed. This makes her “useful” to the detective and not just in bed.

 

Well this is another jump into the deep end of paranormal romance. As a man, exploring this subgenre is fascinating because it shows me how women see the world and evaluate threats in their environment. Having now read the work of three leading proponents in quick succession, I’m now able to offer some working definitions. For this I make no apology. I’m essentially selfish, writing these reviews as much to get my own thoughts straight as to inform my readers. At a simple level, I think authors in this subgenre are writing supernatural horror novels with only a dilute horror element. Whatever fantasy element is included is subordinated to the romance. So, as in this story, the couple meet each other again after a short separation. They continue to be powerfully attracted to each other but, for reasons which no doubt sounded good to each of them when they separated, their relationship is on hold. This forces readers to wait until circumstances change enough for them to get back to the hot sex they so enjoyed the last time around. Whether they will be able to live happily ever after depends on how many books there are in the series and how the romantic element will play out if they become a stable couple.

Maggie Shayne

Maggie Shayne

 

I suppose the distinction from urban fantasy is the emphasis in the plotting. From the label, the fantasy in urban fantasy is dominant whereas the romance in paranormal romance gets the dominant role. This is not to say the setting for a paranormal romance cannot be in a city and feature supernatural abilities corresponding exactly to fantasy stereotypes. But the point of the stories is to achieve an optimistic outcome from the couple’s courtship rituals. They are good people who stand against the evil of this world and, in emotional terms, they earn rewards by defeating evil, no matter what form it takes. Hence, these books are not “love” stories with dark or horrific opponents who “get in the way”. The traditional horror story doesn’t always end well for the primary characters. They often get get maimed or killed. The paranormal romance has unfair or, sometimes even malevolent, circumstances to navigate but, when the immediate adventure ends, our couple will have survived more or less intact, but not necessarily in a permanent relationship. This contrasts traditional “love” stories in which the couple usually marry and sail off into the sunset expecting a secure and happy future.

 

So back to Wake to Darkness in which one of the other people who was in the transplant program which produced her “magic” eyes, has disappeared. We all know there’s no such thing as a coincidence. The question is whether she can use her sight to “see” someone who’s a victim of crime. Fortunately for the plot to work, she begins to have dreams where she’s in the head of women and men who are being killed for the organs sourced from the same body. These dreamed experiences in real time describe a sadistic murder from the victim’s point of view and then carefully stop before they get too graphic. In a sense this is justified because our heroine has learned her role is not passive. No matter what the circumstances, she’s to use the time to collect information about where she is and precisely what’s happening. In the first scenario she’s drugged and her pancreas is removed. In the second, the killer comes at her from behind and takes her left kidney. This gives both the detective and readers tantalising details, but nothing substantial in the preliminary stages of the investigation. Having gone through the set-up, the couple then does the “thriller” slasher movie thing. He thinks she will be safer if she hides. Playing the part of the male protective figure, he arranges for her and her niece Misty to go to an isolated skiing resort in the Adirondacks. Then more family join them. Hey, like that’s going to work out well when the snow comes and they get trapped with a sadistic killer who’s come to collect the eyes that restored her sight. And then, before they set off and just to ratchet up the tension, there’s an attack. . . This is going to be a great Christmas.

 

Although it may look as if I’m poking fun at this, there’s tremendous craft in the writing which nicely balances the romance against the thriller elements. The supernatural is, for most of the book, largely understated which helps to retain some degree of fictional credibility — it would be far too intrusive if our heroine was always receiving dream messages as if she could tune in her eyes like television channels. All of which leaves us with the mystery element. This is quite strong. The degree of analysis to include or exclude suspects is satisfying. The whodunnit is pleasing with a not unreasonable motive for the murders. Put together, this makes a good package, perhaps if only because it’s a mystery thriller romance with only nominal supernatural stuff going on. If I had a criticism, it would be that there’s a slight disconnect in tone between the first third of the book with the “horrific” dreams coming in, and the remainder which is almost entirely supernatural free with merely routine murders. Indeed, the book would work without any supernatural elements because what she “sees” is not relevant to catching the killer. Were it not for the first book, this could have been written as a straight thriller. But I’m prepared to forgive that and accept this as an enjoyable, even though romantic, read.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Sleep With the Lights On.

 

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

 

Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent

September 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Persistence of Memory_CVR_LRG

Long ago, when I ran a slush pile, there were unfortunate moments when I knew after the first page the book wasn’t going to be good enough to even think about saving. It’s sad to make such snap judgements but, when the command of English is tenuous, the plot is only possible savior and the lack of coherence in the language usually means the plot is not going to stand up. It’s therefore disconcerting to report that I almost didn’t bother to read beyond the first page of this book but eventually read it to the end. In this case, it’s not to much that the words are actually wrongly selected. It’s just that, in context, they don’t make quite the sense the author obviously intended. However, having decided the judgement of the small press should be trusted, I persisted. There are some distinct linguistic oddities in the pages that follow, but the meaning communicated becomes more clear as we progress.

 

Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent (Fable Press, 2013) offers us a time travel story which, in a sense, parallels Lost in Austen. By one of these magical manipulations of physics, we have an exchange of two women across time. Both are widows and, to the casual observer, physically identical. One explanation of the phenomenon might therefore be that the minds of the two women are exchanged. This would bring the book more in line with classics like Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which deal with time travel as more a mental than a physical process. Naturally, the woman who comes forward is rather confused by the modern world but adapts remarkably quickly, while our doughty modern woman, armed with a little knowledge of what has gone before, finds it relatively easy to fit into the past (once she’s found the privy, of course). Even her mobile phone fits in, readjusting its local time to 1825 — that’s some smart phone, lady! And it also gets a signal from the local landmark tree which persists into the future. This gives her a mechanism for co-ordinating the effort to keep history on its designated path. Or, if you want to get technical about it, the knowledgeable woman from the future must avoid changing history and thus, courtesy of the grandfather paradox, prevent herself from returning. The only problem is to decide what history is to be preserved. As you can imagine, not that much day-to-day detailed has travelled the almost two-hundred years into the future. There’s just the broadest outline and even that’s a little fuzzy around the edges.

 

We’re therefore invited to see the book as a form of mystery novel in which our sleuth from the future has to understand precisely what’s required in the past and then nudge events in the right direction to get the desired results. Unfortunately, a sequence of crimes is committed including murder, arson (both punishable by the death penalty), robbery, fraud and failing to invent a workable water closet. This range forces the plot to vary quite widely from the need to establish who’s who in the family tree to the alarming prospect that the future has been changed by the murder. At this point, I need to dispel any assumption you might have that the plot works in a strictly logical way. For it all to come out right, there has to be some major cheating (or if you want to be scientific about it, some major anomalies have to be introduced into the tachyon stream). Yes, there’s some cod science floating around which doesn’t particularly impress. The tree as a network broadcast tower is also a really bad idea. As an outsider, I can confidently say the book would have been immeasurably better if events were left as a near-death experience including a major hallucination about time travel. When the poisoned tree fell down, the key document could have turned up to resolve matters and leave everything ambiguous. Having actual time travel with real-time cellphone conversations across two-hundred years denies everything science fiction is supposed to be. It turns the book into a romance-tinged fantasy and denies it any chance of real success.

 

Putting everything together, Persistence of Memory is a short novel, i.e. slightly more than 76,000 words* and although it’s obviously intended as an SFnal time travel piece, it’s really a fantasy with a romance element and written in rather wooden prose. In my opinion, there’s a good story waiting to be told but the editorial service from the small press let the author down. Anyone with any knowledge of science fiction would have understood the major problems with the plot. The prose should also have been rescued by proper editing.

 

* I’m indebted to the author for giving me the actual word count. I had estimated this as novella length and have amended the text.

 

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

 

Crimson Rose by M J Trow

September 22, 2013 1 comment

Crimson Rose by M J Trow

Crimson Rose by M J Trow (Severn House, 2013) is the fifth in the current series featuring Kit Marlowe as a detective. This is paralleling Mark Chadbourne’s slightly different take on the playwright as a spy in a supernatural version of Britain (see The Scar-Crow Men), and following in the footsteps of Ged Parsons who wrote four Christopher Marlowe Mysteries which were broadcast on BBC Radio in December, 1993. Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s something rather attractive about purloining an historical character who both had a reputation as a rather clever individual and probably also spied for the then English government. If an author is determined to appropriate someone from the real world, it’s a big step forward to pick someone a little exceptional.M J Trow

 

In this book, we have a double appropriation. Kit is about to launch Tamburlaine, part 2 (they didn’t do trilogies in those days) and, to show magnanimity to potential rivals, one Williams Shakespeare is recruited as an actor. It’s his responsibility in a pivotal scene to take up an arquebus and excite the audience with the uncertainty of whether he can actually get it to fire. Exactly as rehearsed, he hits his mark on the stage, the gun is fired, and a woman falls dead in the audience, a bullet hole in her neck. This is something of a surprise to all in the audience and completely devastating to Shakespeare who finds himself thrown in jail along with the arquebus — in those days, any object causing the death of a human was forfeited as a gift to God. Actually the history of the deodand is fascinating, particularly when the railways arrive with the possibility of mass casualties. For reasons that escape me, the arquebus given to Shakespeare to use on stage actually contained a bullet. Even in those uncivilised times, I suspect that was too dangerous a level of realism to bring to the stage. What if the playwright-in-making had inadvertently shot one of the cast?

 

As we read through this book there are some terrific anecdotes and just enough detail to a establish the context for the action but, at best, the characterisation is sketchy. We meet quite a lot of people but there’s little or no background supplied. It’s all in the moment as we’re expected to fill in the stereotypes as moneylender, corrupt official and so on. I’m not against this in principle. Some authors make the plot the dominant feature in their work and leave the rest of the work to the readers. Indeed, even a luminary such as Agatha Christie was occasionally guilty of this, churning out some mechanical plots and moving named characters around until the right result came out. But Crimson Rose is thin as historical fiction and saved only by quite a pleasing sense of humour, a jealous spat between playwrights as a subplot, and an ingenious murder plot given the level of technology available to the Elizabethans. Like many methods for murder, this depends on circumstances singularly unlikely in the real world, but it’s a clever idea and the result makes for an interesting puzzle to solve. Indeed, it all fits together like a snaphaunce, plus the chance to work “fifty shades of grey” into the plot to show current awareness. Given there are several jokes about codpieces and Shakespeare sleeps safely with his landlady’s sister, there might be a case made to describe this as a rollicking good late-mediaeval read. Except that might not quite be the right designation of era and there’s absolutely nothing explicit about the book. It just chugs happily along, crossing off the suspects as we go until there’s really only one person left (or possibly two). The motive for all the fatal excitement is pleasingly a necessary feature the time and would happily make the basis of a play (or two). We even get a veiled reference to a bear in hot pursuit stage left. Put all this together and Crimson Rose is great fun with a nicely constructed plot to paper over the slightly thin historical detail.

 

For a review of another book by M J Trow, see Traitor’s Storm.

 

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

 

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.

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