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Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts

rooftop-prince

This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.

This review now captures the rest of Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) rather than focusing on individual episodes and captures my frustration with how the story develops. To clear the decks, let’s confirm this has nothing to do with time travel as understood in the West. Rather it’s a morality tale building on the notion of a supernatural power bent on establishing a balance in the karma (or the lotus root, your choice). Imagine a world in which a group of people are tied together through time. They are continuously reincarnated in relationships which are substantially the same from one generation to the next. At a critical point in each cycle, one key character has a decision to make about the fate of another. If that decision is for “evil”, the same group are doomed to rerun the scenario when they are reborn, and so ad infinitum. But in our modern age, the supernatural being grows tired of this key character always making the wrong choice. Our interventionist God therefore decides to change one of the variables.

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

When one of the modern characters is “killed”, Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun), the Joseon version, is brought forward to take his place. Ah ha! So this new player knows how the scenario was unfolding three-hundred years ago. His first problem is to understand the new culture and try to work out who everyone is. Once he’s less gauche, he can more safely begin interacting with people. But when he tries to apply his understanding of past events, it causes a chaotic response from the modern players. It takes him a while to understand he had misunderstood what was happening around him in Joseon. Obviously the court politics of the past don’t fit the culture of private wealth and the phenomenon of the chaebol — a large corporation controlled by one or more family members. This element in the series actually proves interesting as one faction in the family led by Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) tries to manipulate the holders of a key block of shares to gain control. Had this been run as a straight contemporary drama, there was more than enough meat to make a highly effective thriller as one person dies and attempts are made on the lives of others. But this is not allowed for two reasons:

Han Ji-Min in modern style

Han Ji-Min in modern style

  • The initial set-up forces us into a “time travel” mode and prevents the police investigation from building up any tension. Instead, we have the Crown Price constantly trying to work out what has to happen to enable him to go back to his own time. Investigative punches are therefore pulled as our hero slowly pieces together who everyone is and how his return might be triggered. The script also leaves giant holes with no effort made to explain exactly what happens to the bad and not so bad characters in modern times. It’s a whole lot easier when the Crown Price does go back to Joseon because he can torture them, banish some, and execute the rest. Those were the days when a hero really could get things done properly.

  • Jung Yoo-Mi

    Jung Yoo-Mi

  • The series is a romance and the Crown Prince has to meet and fall in love with Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), the modern version of the woman he was supposed to marry in Joseon. This further dilutes any tension because our hero can’t do the hand-holding and gazing into her eyes bit if he’s behind bars or on the run from the police. So subject to the one major plot device, everything has to enable our couple to fall in love.

  • Ah yes, the plot device. Way back in Joseon times, the first episode shows us a view of what happened. Except it’s fundamentally dishonest! I’m not against scriptwriters allowing their characters to make mistakes. We’re all human and not immune from misunderstanding the events as they occur around us. Yet this “error” is so fundamental that it lacks all credibility! There’s no way this could have happened! Someone would have noticed and said something — unless we’re supposed to believe not only that the Crown Price had his eyes closed at the critical times, but that the bad guys had paid everyone around him not to draw his attention to this rather stunning fact. So why do the scriptwriters have to engage in this deception? Well, if they showed us the choice being made in Joseon times, it would rather give the game away as to what the choice would have to be in modern times. If the series were not being run as a romantic drama, this could have led to our watching Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the key character, continue to make the decision for evil. That would have been a high-powered tragedy, leaving the Crown Prince adrift in time and our supernatural being resigned to trying to get it right the next time round. As it is, there’s no tension because although we know this couple of star-crossed lovers are doomed to part, we know they must be together so tears can be shed when the Crown Price is whisked back to Joseon.

    Lee Tae-Sung

    Lee Tae-Sung

    The modern ending is frustratingly mushy. The mawkishness comes from the instant love-at-first-sight between Park Ha and Yong Tae-Yong. Yet more frustration comes from not seeing how that plays out with the families on both sides. The control of the chaebol could be consolidated in them if the appropriate share transfers were confirmed. Worse the time travel is proved real because the Crown Prince sends a love letter to Park Ha by burying it under the pavilion by the lake. Watch out the gift of the gold medallion — that’s a real tear-jerker. Historically speaking, it seems Park Ha and Boo-Yong are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect the man they love. So, as a time travel plot, this is a disaster (why does Park Ha end up in the juice shop and Boo-Yong write an expanatory note to the Crown Price?), but it works quite well as satire and a romantic fairy story.

    For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2.

    Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

    April 22, 2014 1 comment

    Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

    Looking back, I’ve been an obsessive reader for most of my life. In the idle moments before starting this review, I wondered what the source was. I suppose I could blame my mother who endlessly read to me until I was old enough to read for myself. It’s always good to blame the parents when they’re no longer around to defend themselves. Or it could be that the early choices happened to be the crack cocaine of books leaving me hopelessly addicted, doomed endlessly to read in the vain hope of recapturing the early highs. Who knows and, perhaps, who cares! It’s a relatively harmless compulsion — even though I may not be as communicative with my wife as she might sometimes like, I am nearly always in her presence albeit not socially engaged with her. Anyway, over the years, four categories of book have crystalised. There are the unreadable — no matter how great the compulsion to read, and the sense of respect I should hold for the author who’s taken the time and trouble to write all these words, there are always other books waiting to be read. Sometimes, I just have to put down the immediate book and start the next. At the other end of the scale are the very few that hit the sweet spot. These books are the reason I persevere — not that I ever reread them. Once is enough (there’s the lurking fear that if I revisit a loved book, I might not like it so much the second time and that would destroy happy memories).

    In the middle ground, are the almost (very) good and the books I finish out of duty. Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem (Solaris, 2014) falls in the latter class, almost but not quite reaching the unreadable level. When I was growing up, I always regretted Henry Kuttner’s decision not to write more Baldy stories. They take the hillbilly mutant trope and have fun with the ideas. They carefully avoid the gothic horror idea that there are dangers lurking in the woods (apart from the teddy bears on their picnic) and nicely blur the line between fantasy and science fiction as the multigenerational family tries to live a quiet life. On the front cover of this book, there’s a supposedly encouraging quote from the Guardian, “A beautifully crafted novel.” The quote does not refer to this book, of course. No publisher sends prepublication copies to newspapers to get blurb quotes. But having finished this book, I can confirm the prose is professional (as we should expect from Tem whom I’ve previously enjoyed as a short story writer), and the plot does make sense in its own terms. So, at a craft level, this book engages the mind and I can appreciate the effort that went into writing it.

    Steve Rasnic Tem

    Steve Rasnic Tem

    But when it comes to the plot and the lack of dynamic in the narrative, the book is virtually DOA. Here’s this youngish man who left the valley for a while but has now come back to look after granny. She may or may not be close to death — this tribe seems to live a long time — but before she goes, she’s determined to pass on the family lore. One of the traits we’re told about early on is the hyper-empathy, i.e. the ability to sense or feel what others are thinking or feeling. The way this old lady passes on her oral history is by enabling him to feel events as if he had been there. So the structure of the book yo-yos from 1934 with granny old enough to have her first period, and the modern day with granny and her thirtysomething relative living in a shack in the woods. And boy is there a lot of kudzu! Wow that stuff really does grow fast. Anyway, in the past, there’s this really dangerous guy, a relative who’s become a preacher and uses snakes during his services — it’s all terribly symbolic what with the devil having occasionally appeared as a snake. No-one likes him, many fear him, and the rest either avoid him or worship with him. So there you have it. The preacher has his snakes to keep his faith strong, and the kudzu grows like it’s a plant possessed. I’ll pause while you make the connection. And then the past catches up with the present, or those who live the longest triumph, or not as the case may be. I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Shame really. A great deal of thought has gone into the construction of this plot. It just has no tension or suspense as a thriller. It never gets off the ground as a horror novel. I suppose it could be classed as fantasy, or as science fiction if this is one of these evolutionary stories where a genetic mutation is passed down through the generations by careful interbreeding. Whatever the genre, I found it tedious and boring.

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

    Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

    April 21, 2014 4 comments

    Cockroaches-The-Second-Inspector-Harry-Hole-Novel-V-376003-5d4eb82dbd9467d7f1b0

    Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) sees a publisher finally translating and releasing one of the early Harry Hole novels. For the record, this is the second in the series but the last to be translated into English. It follows on from his exploits in Australia. For those of you new to the series, he’s the detective with a brain who has looked into the abyss. Needless to say, neither side of this exchange of view was enamored, so Harry has decided to seek oblivion through alcohol. This does not, of course, lead to his dismissal from the police force. Those that matter in the hierarchy understand the circumstances and, from time to time, there’s a need for a man like this. In this instance, the need arises in Bangkok (a city providing all the temptations likely to attract the addicted and the dangerous). The Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found with a knife in his back in a brothel. This could be deeply embarrassing to the ruling party in Norway so a cover-up is in order. A little research suggests Harry may not emerge from the bottle long enough to do any lasting damage. The local Thai authorities are also keen to minimise the media interest. It might damage their tourism trade if it were to be suggested a knife-wielding killer was lurking in a brothel, massage parlour or one of the many other venues where sexual gratification for money may be obtained.

    To help ensure the investigation is less than successful, the Thai authorities designate a woman and a farang to liaise. She’s the daughter of an American officer and a local woman who has returned to Thailand. It’s not the gender itself that’s likely to be a problem. Local Thais tend not to be impressed by foreigners. So even though she speaks the language like a native, the lines of communication are not going to work so well. The only thing going in her favour from Harry’s point of view is that she’s not as corrupt as the majority of the local police force — it’s an economic problem with the government not paying those employed to enforce the law enough to live on. So most take money not to enforce the law.

    Jo Nesbo

    Jo Nesbo

    As murders go, this looks reasonably straightforward: man found dead in brothel by the prostitute sent to service him. While not an everyday crime, there’s always a dangerous edge to using the services of the sex industry. Prostitutes or their pimps roll clients for their passports, credit cards and cash. Muggers and robbers steal whatever’s left. Mostly the clients live to tell the tale. Sometimes they fight back when they should know better and pay the price. Yet this is an ambassador. More to the point, he’s independently wealthy so need never go this low down in the market. Although perhaps that’s the point. Maybe a part of the excitement comes from entering the demimonde. Except there are some photographs in his briefcase (what man takes his briefcase with him when he goes to a brothel?). They show a paedophile with a boy. The photographer was using a long lens and did not capture the man’s face. So perhaps the ambassador was meeting someone to blackmail. But if the motive was blackmail, why didn’t the killer take the photographs? Even on the initial survey, there are some unusual factors. Once the investigation goes through the standard moves, the unanswered questions multiply. This should lead to the whitewash both government want. With no obvious way to answer all these questions, the case should be closed and Harry should go home.

    But Harry never has been one for following orders and, as he dries out in the heat of Bangkok, he begins to understand the force of the old joke, “When a cockroach dies, one-hundred turn up at the funeral.” In this case, Harry’s crude hacking at the walls of silence around him, encourages a number of creatures to crawl out into the daylight. The only two problems are which might be the killer(s) he’s looking for and can he avoid being killed by those that resent being disturbed? It proves to be a highly detailed plot with a very nicely arranged diversionary tactic in play. Unfortunately, we also get the traditionally seamy view of Thailand as a tourist destination. Although most of the information is necessarily subordinated to the need to keep the plot going, it’s a clichéd overview with few pleasing touches of local colour to bring the setting to life. That the corruption also extends back to Norway should not surprise us. The politics swirling around this murder endangers reputations in both countries. Naturally, once he’s sobered up, Harry is just the man you need to get to the truth of the matter. What then happens is predictable as the news is massaged. Ironically, for all Harry produces a clear-cut ending, the cover-up more or less stays in place. Life goes on and Harry can resume his search for oblivion.

    Since I enjoy reading clever books with a darker edge, Cockroaches appeals to me. There’s a rather satisfying coldblooded quality to the planning and execution of the crimes on display. It doesn’t matter how realistic the events may be. The intellectual rigour of the plot makes the book worth reading. From the little I’ve said, you’ll understand the themes explored are not for the faint-hearted. But, for the most part, the book is not explicit. It should not offend while asking pertinent questions about the weaknesses some humans have.

    For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
    The Bat
    Police
    The Son.
    There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

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

    Flat Spin by David Freed

    April 20, 2014 3 comments

    Flat-Spin-Cordell-Logan-Mystery--55664

    Flat Spin by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2012) is the first in the Cordell Logan series and brings ex-wife Savannah Carlisle back into his life after six years of divorced bliss and just as he had begun more seriously to scrape along the bottom of the financial barrel — earning any kind of a living as a flight instructor when you only have a beat-up Cessna 172 is never going to be easy. As the title says, his life’s in a flat spin. Fortunately, he’s now adopted the Buddhist way (and its vegetarianism except when his Jewish landlady cooks for him or he’s not in the mood) so he’s feeling less bad about himself as he resets the Karmic balance in his life. This means he remains calm when Savannah tells him of the murder of her “new” husband (and Logan’s ex-boss) — the idea of a Karma payback never occurs to him. Particularly when he learns the couple had already separated due to her infidelity. At first, of course, he wants nothing to do with this murder and the idea of him going to the police to tell them what his ex-boss and betrayer used to do for a living is not appealing. But nothing ever stays that way in books like this.

    So then we’re off on one of these pleasingly informal investigations. Our man was in one of these plausible deniability, top-secret units that would go anywhere and do whatever was necessary to protect the interests of America as defined by those who know of the unit’s existence. He left when he discovered his boss’s interest in his wife. It’s therefore somewhat ironic to find him taking his ex-father-in-law’s money to help the police catch the killer. Fortunately, he still has Buzz, a contact from the good old days who can do a little research for him. Other than that, the pace of the investigation is set by the wattage in his charm each time he talks with people who might just know something.

    David Freed

    David Freed

    It starts to get more serious when Buzz produces the somewhat annoying negative. The murder does not look like a professional hit by one of the many people or organisations the “team” might have upset over the years. That forces our hero to look closer to home — a look that necessarily includes his ex-wife since she might have resented being dumped (yes, not the best of motives, but our man believes in being thorough). The most pleasing feature of this book is not just the plot although that does prove to be rather delightful when the motives of those involved become clear. It’s the sense that the author was actually having fun when he wrote it. This needs a word of explanation. If you look at the nature of the plot, this is not a comedy. People die, some more bloodily than others. There are car chases and, given our man is a pilot, a mid-air incident that leads to him being grounded and threatened with prosecution. So this is not exactly a walk-in-the park thriller. We tick all the boxes in the Thriller Writing for Dummies Guide and come up smelling of roses (or whichever flowers you associate with death and mayhem).

    Rather we have moments as we read when there’s a note of humour at work. Let’s ignore the wry view of the world expressed through our hero’s comments and the stereotypical Jewish grandmother as his landlady. This is not simply a matter of wit in the dialogue. It’s just the sense of absurdity in some of the situations. Most authors, particularly those writing their first novel, prefer to play safe. If they are going to introduce anything even faintly surreal, it can come in later books when they have established themselves with a strong brand image for straight thrillers or up-and-at-’em adventure stories. They think that’s where the money is to be made and that absurdism has no place in the “bestseller”. Flat Spin succeeds in the main because it fails to match current marketing expectations. The author rather admirably thought he would allow some of the characters we encounter to act with the level of stupidity we find in the real world. These characters may have reputations as husbands and wives, or spies, or gangsters, or hitmen, or lawyers, or businessmen, but that doesn’t stop them from getting into situations everyone with any common sense would avoid. The end result, therefore, is not only an excellent first novel, but also an excellent springboard from which to launch into the other two in the series. If you have not read David Freed, start with this and work your way through to Voodoo Ridge which is outstanding.

    For reviews of other books by David Freed, see:
    Fangs Out
    Voodoo Ridge.

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

    Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner

    April 19, 2014 2 comments

    Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner

    Having read and enjoyed some of this author’s short stories, I thought it time to have a look at one of his novels. This is convenient because Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner (Angry Robot, 2014) is the first in the new Shadow Watch series. Audra Hawthorne and her ideation Jinx are the headline pair. OK so here we go with the set-up. Out there (somewhere that’s not outer space because this is not SFnal interplanetary material), there’s the Maelstrom (not the Scandinavian whirlpool but a cache of uncontrolled energy). This can bleed through into both our world and the Land of Nod, the world of sleep and dreams. The result can be chaotic as what was ordered and predictable becomes less so. Humans can ideate, i.e. create creatures out of their dreams by drawing on the Maelstrom. If they do this, they don’t need to sleep. In turn, this messes with their heads and leads to them making mistakes unless they do the R&R thing. Anyway, Audra has dreamed up Jinx and, together, they are a team committed to keeping both worlds free from attack by other creatures formed out of Maelstrom stuff. We start off with our duo in Chicago chasing after Quietus, an assassin who’s already killed three humans. They capture him but, when they go through the door into the Land of Nod, they are mugged by a local and a mercenary, and lose their prisoner. This is embarrassing and the boss of this trans-dimensional law enforcement organisation may take this as a symptom of less than the peak efficiency expected of all his teams.

    Tim Waggoner

    Tim Waggoner

    On the face of it, this is a very interesting concept. Ignoring the far past, humans can interact with the energy field and create incubi out of the Maelstrom. These beings now populate the Land of Nod which has separated itself out as a dimensional home for them. However, some can pass between our world and Nod. This gives them separate daytime and nighttime bodies. Their personalities may also change on transition. Their two “halves” are not mirror images, but there’s a tendency to polarise as opposites. So the incubi are created by humans but, for the most part, are not dependent on them for continued existence. This leads to interesting quasi-religious questions about the process of creation among the incubi. However, some humans ideate specific beings and there’s a much higher degree of interdependence. As a child, Audra had a number of “unresolved issues” which led to her having an increasingly specific fear of a clown. Over time, this “clown” took on substance and became the being now called Jinx. Because he was born out of her fear, she’s never completely bonded with him. A small part of her continues to fear him. Consequently, their relationship as a law enforcement team is not as effective as it might be — I should mention that humans are teamed with incubi so they can police both inhabited dimensions.

    Whether by accident or design, most books sit comfortably in an obvious genre class. But this book rather playfully blurs the line between science fiction and urban fantasy. Let’s put the question of creationism to one side and focus on the “as is”. We have two parallel dimensions, one populated predominantly by humans, the other by incubi. But there are portals or doorways which enable beings to pass from one dimension to the other (there’s a feature not unlike the Bajoran wormhole phenomenon in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine connected with these doorways). Mostly due to the humans, a considerable amount of science has been devoted to researching the Maelstrom itself and the systems enabling different features to manifest. This has led to the development of real technology to exploit Maelstrom energy as weapons and otherwise to exploit the way in which incubi can manipulate dimensional space. The older incubi were initially not interested in science and so were, with one exception, marginalised. This book sees the self-proclaimed Lords of Misrule showing off the results of some of their more recent research. That said, the plot itself largely conforms to the urban fantasy model. Young girl with supernatural clown buddy have the job of keeping the city of Chicago safe from incubi (that’s demons if you want it in more obvious fantasy terms). They face a number of threats, are thought less than effective, and are replaced by more senior operatives. This leads to our duo teaming up with a young man and his pet dog to take on all-comers. There’s the whiff of romance in the air, and lots of fighting with none of the “good guys” seriously threatened. Indeed, one of the problems with this plot is the ease with which the incubi repair their bodies and avoid what should be certain death. It leads to a certain lack of suspense as they get into trouble and escape with only a scratch that’s healing rapidly as they walk away. Even though a human, Audra is feisty and also manages not to be too serious injured — it’s a gift most heroines enjoy in a series where romance is in the air.

    Put all this together and you have a very professional package based on an interesting idea. Anyone who wants to see a slightly different version of urban fantasy will find this highly readable. For them as likes this type of book, Night Terrors is a very good buy.

    For a review of another book by Tim Waggoner, see The Last Mile.

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

    The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

    April 18, 2014 4 comments

    The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

    The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (http://us.macmillan.com/tor.aspx, 2013) is both literally and metaphorically a weird book. As to the title, a moment’s thought should tell all those of you burdened by a classical education that the Latin for “across” is trans. This book is set in an Eastern European state. The first reference to this particular piece of the map was ultra silvam, i.e. beyond the forest. Following the success of Bram Stoker’s novel, everyone now knows the home of Dracula. From this you will understand this novel is an unpredictable mixture of supernatural thriller, political allegory in a somewhat Kafkaesque mode, mystery, and espionage/secret police adventure. It all begins with our potentially unreliable narrator, an American who writes travel books, seeking entry to a country that’s proving elusive. When he tries to book a flight, he fails to get a seat or the flight is cancelled. He therefore decides to make a more direct approach and takes the train. It seems he crosses the border while he’s asleep for the first he knows of his arrival is his arbitrary arrest for entering without a visa. Removed from the train under arrest, his passport confiscated, this leaves him stranded in one of this country’s slightly unusual cities. He’s commanded to stay in the house of a local couple. If he leaves, the secret police will execute them.

    So, at a stroke, our seasoned traveller is ripped untimely from the familiar and dumped in a country where he does not speak the language and does not know the local customs. Even at the best of times, it would be difficult to negotiate a route to escape but when he’s not entirely sure who has his passport nor how to open a dialogue about its return, he’s forced to explore his immediate surroundings to see what comes to light. During this early time, it’s possible he meets a vampire and the wolves he commands. He also discovers an empty house which is associated with a long-missing treasure. Then he’s kidnapped and literally shipped off to the capital city. This brings him into William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) territory in which he makes radio broadcasts as an American. The state in which he’s being held prisoner is a dictatorship and, if an American is critical of the leader, this gives the underground opposition party greater credibility. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter what he says. Not many in this country speak English. Nor do they have access to any of the technology we take for granted. Even access to telephones is tightly controlled. Think of this as being a country in a kind of time warp. It’s not unlike East Germany but without any of its more obvious virtues. The secret police has almost complete power and is remarkably unaccountable for whatever its operatives do.

    Gene Wolfe

    Gene Wolfe

    In allegorical terms, we’re supposed to be questioning how a country could regress into such a state. It’s a variation on the Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Put another way, the only thing standing between a working democracy and a dictatorship is the quality of those who step forward to represent the people in the elections. If you get too many of the “wrong” type, they vote themselves into a more permanent position of power. Fortunately, our hero and forced radio personality is first arrested (again) and then released on condition he helps one of the senior operatives investigate some of the events that have been happening around him. In political terms, this means probing the “opposition” except they may actually be literally “evil”, i.e. able to use dark forces (or, if the dictator is on the dark side, the opposition may be on the side of the light). When it comes to naming and shaming the scapegoats, the dictator has control of the media and can say whatever he likes about those who oppose him. Indeed, when individually and collectively the Church may also be investigating whether society has been possessed and should therefore go through a process of exorcism, the battle-lines take on more significance. It’s at this point the book begins more seriously to conflate a police procedural investigation with a formal supernatural thriller as a hand of glory is discovered.

    Although this has moments of obscurity and some of the political subtext is slightly naive, this proves to be one of Wolfe’s more accessible novels as we slowly discover more about this country and its political system. There are some quite pleasing aspects to the investigation itself and the process of deduction is moderately rigorous. I suppose one more cynical responses to this narrative might be to see it as a dream. Our hero falls asleep as the train approaches the border and what happens after that is just the product of his subconscious. This would help explain the sometimes quite arbitrary way in which our narrator skips over events and sometimes refuses to elaborate on the bare bones of description offered. Since no country this backward exists in Europe (North Korea might approximate this level of poverty both in political and material terms) and no-one today seriously believes in vampires or supernatural devices such as a hand of glory, we could safely treat this as an allegory. Yet, there always comes a moment when our narrators wake. This could be when the border guards invade his compartment on the train, or it might be as the last page turns. You should read the book to find out. The Land Across really does hold interest and arrives at an intriguing ending.

    For a review of another book by Gene Wolfe see Home Fires.

    This book was sent to me for review.

    Watching You by Michael Robotham

    April 17, 2014 3 comments

    Watching You by Michael Robotham

    Watching You by Michael Robotham (Mulholland Books, 2014) is the seventh book to feature Professor Joseph O’Loughlin, a psychologist, with retired detective Vincent Ruiz following in his wake. I remind the readers of these reviews that this protagonist is relatively unusual in having Parkinson’s Disease. If you have not already done so, you should read the review for Bleed For Me (link at the bottom of the page) for a discussion of the significance of the author’s decision to give his protagonist a serious disease.

    His client for this book is Marnella (Marnie) Logan who has not had the happiest of lives. After a difficult childhood, her first marriage was not a success apart from a daughter Zoe. Then she met Daniel, an Australian who’d made a (temporary) home for himself in London. When they married, it was one of the first times she did not feel bad about herself. A son, Elijah, appeared but then Daniel disappeared. Unfortunately, he leaves a big debt behind — he claimed he was in Gamblers Anonymous, but that didn’t turn him into a winner when he lapsed. The debt is owned by a man who won’t take no for an answer. This forces her into work as an escort. She rationalises this would not be so bad a fate. She will earn more than she had been drawing when she worked in a restaurant. And it will pay down what’s now considered her debt. The first real problem of interest to us surfaces when her third client proves suicidal. She talks him out of death as the easy way out, but the minder administers a beating for failing to collect payment. When the vicious minder turns up dead, she becomes a person of interest. So there she is, trapped by circumstance. Without her husband’s body, she can’t claim on the insurance. Perhaps she can find a friendly lawyer to deal with that problem. The only positive she has is Joe O’Loughlin as her shrink. He’s curious about her situation, particularly when someone breaks into his office to steal her file. This brings Vincent Ruiz into play and, against his better judgement, he gets more proactive when he sees she may have been attacked by the man imposing the debt on her.

    Michael Robotham

    Michael Robotham

    There are times when an author comes up with a very clever plot and, thinking that’s all he needs do, neglects to ensure the delivery is a proper thriller. This book hits a real sweet spot in both departments. The mechanism driving the plot remains beautifully ambiguous until about two-thirds of the way through. Yet even when the doubt is removed, we’re still left with a nicely judged cliffhanger of an ending. This is a high quality thriller. The need to avoid spoilers makes writing this review difficult. Suffice it to say that, in psychological terms, we’re dealing with quite rare conditions. Indeed, many might dispute the condition (or disorder) actually exists. Yet the evidence swirling around this person does offer some support for its existence. Indeed, even when Vincent Ruiz talks on the telephone with the person who may be behind all these incidents, the questions remain unresolved. There are, of course, indications of which way the coin will fall — it must be heads or tails, right? Binary rules, OK! But it’s only later as Joe begins to get a clearer picture of what’s actually going on that we come to understand the motivation of the key player(s). In retrospect, this was a tragedy long in the making as a simple love and desire to protect grew into something rather more powerful and potentially dangerous. There are one or two reference to Othello in the text and, in one sense, there’s a certain parallel with Iago’s desire for revenge whenever he considers himself provoked. Of course, not all parallels are exact and, this this case, it’s not at all clear who the Iago might be nor how a role that should inspire trust could become something darker.

    Put all this together and Watching You turns out to be a top-class thriller with not only a clever plot, but also a darker twist that comes rather unexpectedly at the end. Only with that revelation does everything finally fall into place and, no matter how misplaced, the motive becomes clear. So we tick all the relevant boxes for crisp prose, fast pacing, beautifully rounded characterisations and a very satisfying conclusion. Michael Robotham plays a long game in this book, reserving the final question to the last page and leaving matters firmly in the hands of our experienced Professor O’Loughlin, the ultimately safe pair of hands.

    For reviews of other books by Michael Robotham, see:
    Bleed For Me
    Bombproof.

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

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