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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.

Nightmare in Burgundy by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

April 16, 2014 3 comments

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Nightmare in Burgundy by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (Le French Book, 2014) is the third in the The Winemaker Detective Series, originally titled Cauchemar dans les Côtes-de-Nuit and translated by Sally Pane. Well, here we go again with Benjamin Cooker receiving one of the more prestigious awards in French Gastronomy. He’s to be enrolled in the ranks of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. This brotherhood may be focused on the wines and cuisine of Burgundy, but its reputation for applying the highest possible standards has given membership a high value. This despite the somewhat eccentric initiation ceremony all new members must endure for the privilege of belonging. So in between eating and drinking socially, and drinking professionally at the formal tasting sessions at Château du Clos de Vougeot, we encounter our heroic Wine Guide writer finding the local landscape besmirched by uncharacteristically literate graffiti. Instead of the more usual crudités, this artist is spray-painting Latin. When our hero puts on his detective hat out of curiosity, his translation is given good marks and the source is identified as Psalm 102.

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

Noël Balen (left) and Jean-Pierre Alaux (right)

Perhaps this would all have remained idle curiosity but, the following night, one of the local hunters who only ever permits Banksy to redecorate the local walls, takes his shotgun to bed with him. When he hears noises early in the morning, he leans out of his bedroom window and sees two dark figure apparently about to add new sentences to a nearby wall. Despite being drunk, he fires both barrels in sequence and brings both figures down. This is not completely approved vigilanteism in Burgundy and the man is arrested. The boys do not survive. As if this was not enough to stimulate our detective into life, there’s then a distinctly weird, if not supernatural, occurrence in which an old lady awakes to find her bed covered in snow. Allowing for this being winter with some snow on the ground outside, there’s no obvious explanation for how the white stuff came to be inside. Later on, there’s another death.

The problem when writing novella length mysteries is how to strike the right balance between complexity of plot and the number of words available to deliver it. Get the balance wrong and the mystery element is either over before you know it or, like the corpse too tall to fit in the coffin, cut down to fit. Fortunately, Nightmare in Burgundy satisfies the Goldilocks test and comes out “just right”. More interestingly, it also flirts with genre boundaries while managing to develop the character arcs for both Cooker and his assistant Virgile. The whole comes together because the mystery grows naturally out of the surrounding circumstances. It tickles the curiosity bump, plays with expectations and then delivers a pleasingly constructed solution. It’s well worth picking up!

For a review of others in the series, see:
Deadly Tasting
Grand Cru Heist
Treachery in Bordeaux.

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

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The Cursed by Heather Graham

April 15, 2014 2 comments

The Cursed by Heather Graham

Well having found the last book in this series interesting, I decided to have a look at the next. And now a brief defensive note lest any of my regular readers begin to worry I may be diluting my male prejudices. I’m just exploring whether the last book was the exception that proves the rule, or maybe whether I have to make a more permanent exception for this author. The Cursed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the twelfth in the Krewe of Hunters series. So let’s start with a word about the prose. This falls into my classification of easy readability. In other words, without being showy, it offers a direct and transparent means of delivering the narrative. As a feature, this is both good and less so. Because there’s no extraneous content, the success of the book depends on the quality of the plot. Other authors set out to distract their readers with more interesting vocabulary choices and flowery detail in the descriptions. With one component I’ll come back to later, this is a blend of supernatural, police procedural, thriller and romance — note I’m not classifying it as an urban fantasy for all it has ghosts, nor is it really a paranormal romance. As with the last in the series, it breaks the mould of police procedurals by having the FBI quietly set up a special unit comprising those who are able to interact with ghosts. With access to first-hand evidence derived from the victims and other ghosts who have witnessed events, the members of this unit have one of the best clearance rates in the FBI.

You may protest this is a form of cheating, but the plots are deliberately shaped so that the ghosts can be helpful but not give whodunnit information the moment they are asked. All a victim can say is the murderer came up from behind, or was wearing a mask, or was using a rifle from long range, etc. So, for example, this book sees a woman diver killed in a wreck. After death, all she can say is that her attacker was a large male and had blue eyes (obviously that’s all she can see through the face mask, the breathing apparatus hiding the lower face and the wetsuit hiding the shape and colour of the hair). This leaves a lot of work to be done by FBI officers in the real world — statistically there are a lot of large men with blue eyes.

Heather Graham

Heather Graham

So this time around, we’re with Hannah O’Brien, who grew up in a house in Key West and now runs it as a B&B. Like her cousin Kelsey O’Brien who’s a member of the FBI’s Krewe of Hunters, Hannah can also see and talk with ghosts. Indeed, she may actually be better at it than Kelsey. To distinguish her B&B from the mass of competitors, she advertises the presence of ghosts living in her house and offers tours around the area where she takes in all the local haunted places, plying all with details of the sometimes gruesome events that led to creation of the ghosts. This brings me to the one feature of this book that I find less than satisfying. Even though it’s relevant to the way she makes her living and, more importantly, does add background to the reason why the villain is stalking her, there’s a considerable amount of historical material. So we get to hear quite long excerpts from her spiel to paying customers on her tour, and there’s considerable information about her family and a possible connection with a long-lost box thought to contain a great treasure.

Anyway, the threat to all and sundry comes from Los Lobos, an evocatively named group of criminals who are into a range of activities including smuggling, drug distribution and murder. The key distinguishing feature to this gang is the cell structure. No-one knows more than one or two others, and people routinely use nicknames, making it difficult for anyone to reveal anything too damaging should they be caught by the police. There’s also significant paranoia among the group members because the leader, Wolf, is notorious for ordering the death of anyone even vaguely suspected of disloyalty or showing less than full competence in discharging the duties allocated. The FBI was congratulating itself on finally getting an undercover officer into the gang, but he turns up dead in Hannah’s back yard. This brings FBI agent Dallas Samson into view and, before long, he and Hannah convert mutual interest into sexual activity. In other words, there’s nothing really coy about the romance in this book. There are the usual misunderstandings. Once we get past those, there’s no real courtship. They are adults thrown together by circumstance. They enjoy each other’s company and quickly expect to remain a couple.

There’s plenty of action which fulfills the thriller requirement admirably. The FBI and local police pick up suspects with satisfying regularity which keeps the information flowing. This just leaves the mystery element as the usual trail of breadcrumbs albeit, once you get the analysis of the disposable phone records, it’s obvious what the answer must be. Fortunately, this comes quite near the end which just gives us the chance for more shots to be fired — no explosions in this book — and everything gets wrapped up ready for the next in the series. On balance, the quality of the plot is not as good as in the last book but there are many redeeming features. Indeed, had there been less history, I would have been really enthusiastic. As it is, I’m not dismissing Heather Graham. There’s just enough about The Cursed to justify having a look at the next in the series.

For reviews of others in the series, see:
The Hexed
The Night Is Forever.

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

Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan

April 14, 2014 4 comments

Hollow-World by Michael J Sullivan

Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan (Tachyon Press, 2014) is an interesting blend of the ideas in two classics: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Perelandra by C S Lewis. Both are books about threats to utopia: one as a form of political allegory, the other as a different version of events in the Garden of Eden. Huxley postulates a world in which material needs are provided to a genetically engineered population of controlled size. When John, the Savage, is introduced to this class-structured society, the superficialities become apparent and the book begins an argument with itself as to what might constitute an optimal form of society. Perelandra is the second book of a trilogy which, as an extended metaphor, examines the nature of Christian faith, and debates how society might develop if we lived according to spiritual rather than material values. Although this book in the trilogy is more didactic than the first, all three manage to transcend the limitations of the more cerebral approach to debate and hold interest because none of the books present answers with certainty. They are exploring the issues to see which answers might have the best fit to the questions posed.

On the face of it, Hollow World is a time travel book, yet that’s to completely misunderstand it. In Perelandra, our protagonist, Ransom, is flown to Venus in a block of ice. That has to rank as being one of the more absurd methods of space flight ever put on paper. But the ice casket does what it’s supposed to do, i.e. transport us to the metaphorical planetary context for the action. So, here, Ellis Rogers, our extraordinary mathematician, failed husband and poor father, builds a time machine in his garage which is just an excuse to move us to the “future” where a form of utopia exists. It doesn’t matter whether the machine makes any sense in terms of mathematics or physics. It’s just a literary device.

The world our protagonist finds has had to adjust to a cataclysm on the surface by moving the surviving population underground. At first, this sanctuary was ruled by capitalists who then, quite literally, had a captive market to gouge. This went well for the rich until one enterprising inventor distributed the plans for a Maker (the ultimate 3D printer). At a stroke, this liberation if not socialisation of knowledge produced what’s apparently an altruistic society in which everyone has what they need for material survival. Money has been rendered unnecessary. There’s also been a radical change in reproductive technology with gender abolished and everyone cloned to be physically the same. Medical advances have given such an extended lifespan, it might just as well be termed immortality.

Michael J Sullivan

Michael J Sullivan

In cultural terms, this has interesting repercussions, particularly when there’s a possibility of producing a hive mentality where everyone would be linked telepathically. Theoretically, this would remove the possibility of misunderstandings between individuals, make the transmission of knowledge and experience from one “generation” to the next automatic, and so on. Of course, many fear change and prefer the limited practice of individualism. Even though all the bodies may physically be the same, people are free to decorate themselves with different forms of clothing, and to apply tattoos or other forms of signifier to accentuate their differences.

Ellis Rogers is considered unique not because he’s travelled through time, but because he’s inhabiting a male body which has aged naturally and he considers himself perfectly normal. No-one else in this society could consider true physical difference a normal part of the everyday process of social interaction. Just think. A world in which there are no physical differentiations based on race, colour, gender, and so on. This is not to say there are no status discriminations based on intellectual abilities or psychological characteristics. But, as described, this society has outgrown many of the social problems that have afflicted humanity throughout the ages.

It’s always going to be difficult for an outsider to make reliable assessments of those around him but, in this case, the normal indicators are missing. For better or worse, the first person he meets is the appropriately named Pax. This person is an arbitrator who has accepted the role of social troubleshooter, helping others to adjust to long lifespans, keeping depression at bay, and resolving the inevitable disputes. Sadly Pax comes too late to offer his services to the first murder victim this society has seen for a long time. Yes, our hero finds the body. Such are the burdens protagonists have to bear when landing in future societies. Pax proves to be a catalyst for a different view of this world to emerge. Once the antagonist steps into the light, we can get into the slightly more conventional plot, but it’s nicely rooted in the probabilities of what might have survived from earlier times.

Summing up, it’s interesting to see how Michael J Sullivan has developed in the craft of writing. If you look back to the first fantasy, Theft of Swords, the style is rather elliptical and spiky, focused on delivering the narrative without worrying too much about the niceties of settings and characterisation. This book sees a much more assured craftsman at work with a nicely balanced piece of prose. The plot also moves us along and, allowing for the fact there’s an ongoing discussion about social issues and the role for God, if any, Hollow World delivers an interesting debate about social issues of contemporary relevance. It’s well worth picking up.

For review of the first books in the fantasy series, see:
The Emerald Storm
Nyphron Rising
Theft of Swords.

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

Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James

April 13, 2014 2 comments

snatched by bill James

Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) finds us in the Hulliborn Regional Museum and Gallery with its director, George Lepage who’s now in dead man’s shoes, the previous director having passed on to a place only a platypus would know. It seems there’s a riot in the hallowed halls. Crowds baying for blood run through the museum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and our director knows this is his time for heroic action. I should explain that, like all public enterprises, museums have had to adjust to economic realities. There have been economies. Older staff have been persuaded to take early retirement, while the middle-ranking remnants have been promoted beyond their pay grade to do the work of the departed for only slightly more cash. It’s a tough life when you’re trapped in a senior management role. So now underpaid fortysomethings must outperform those they have replaced in a museum running on a reduced budget. At first, this is going well, but then comes the riot. It seems someone dressed up and inserted himself in a tableau of life in earlier times. When the party from the girls school entered, he stood, exposed himself and departed before anyone had a chance to catch him. Now Lepage must take control of the situation before the reputation of the museum is damaged — they are negotiating to take a display of early Japanese medical instruments and want nothing to prevent this coup.

 

One of the board decides to take direct action to protect the museum. Simberdy and his wife dressed in black, with a burglar his wife has recruited as backup (she’s his solicitor), wait in the darkness outside the museum to catch the man. Except the burglar, living up to the high standards of his trade, breaks into the museum, steals four painting which may, or may not, be valuable, and drives off in the Simberdy’s car with the loot. This comes as a surprise to Lepage who’s inside the museum waiting for a telephone call from the female teacher who was so outraged by the indecent exposure during the day. He’s not sure, but he may have found someone simpatico whom he can dissuade from taking action against the museum. The burglar, respecting the status of his solicitor, returns their car and three of the paintings. This is a poisoned chalice. If the paintings are never recovered, they can be worth millions on the museum’s insurance policy. But should they be returned, an expert evaluation might find them fake and expose the museum’s incompetence in parting with millions to buy them.

Bill James

Bill James

 

I should remind you Snatched is billed as a “British black comedy” with satirical overtones. All life involves some degree of suffering and, for the most part, we view those who do the suffering as deserving of our sympathy, if not pity. So it can make a refreshing change when an author decides to recalibrate the response to those who are victimised by circumstances. This goes beyond the prat fall on the banana skin. Every one of us has slipped and fallen at some point in our career as walkers. A laugh generated by depicting such a scene is a there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I moment of relief. It’s human and understandable. But suppose we take a more alienated point of view and show existence as pointless and so somehow comic. This would enable the author to use all the standard tropes of physical and emotional violence, and death, in a different light. They may still be seen in some sense as tragic events but, with a satirical twist, they elicit a humorous response because the point of view is unexpected, perhaps even shocking, to the reader.

 

So here’s a museum: an institution which should be considered an ultimately safe and rather boring place (unless Hollywood decides to bring exhibits to life in a moment of fantasy mayhem). If we use stereotypes, the people who administer these cultural and educational organisations are staid and unimaginative. They are married or partnered with fellow professionals who never take risks because they have reputations at stake. Well, all such expectations are turned on their heads by the situations which emerge in this book. The problem, for me, is that the situations are slightly too realistic. The true art of the black comedian is to be able to dabble in the grotesque. This is sharply observed, not a little satirical, occasionally surreal, and somewhat farcical, but I don’t think it’s a black comedy. Does this matter? Well, probably not. It’s highly readable as the plot takes our small group of characters careening down an ever-more vertiginous slope, but I don’t find any of it even remotely humorous (although I do confess to a slight movement of the lips when the security guard gets the name of one of the missing paintings wrong). Perhaps it’s an age thing causing me to be slightly out of the mainstream when it comes to modern comedy. So if you want to see an author at the top of his game in constructing a plot of increasing complexity as even nicknames sprayed as “graffiti” are absurdly misunderstood as suggesting individuals may not be as dead as previously thought, this is the book for you. Snatched is great fun albeit not in the smile or laugh-out-loud league.

 

For the review of another book by Bill James, see:
Disclosures
Noose.

 

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

 

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)

April 12, 2014 2 comments

Elementary poster

This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014) demonstrates the value of building a strong narrative arc for each of its characters. In a way, this highlights the slightly deceptive nature of the show’s structure. Ostensibly, we’re supposed to push each episode into the mental pigeonhole of a mystery show. In reality, this is a show about a recovering addict who shares his house with a professional sober companion. To pay the bills, they solve crimes as consultants to the NYPD. This means the real test for Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is to be able to rise every morning and not do drugs. There are times when it’s hard for him not to relapse. This is one of those times.

We start with Sherlock looking to add another accent to his repertoire — this time the Derry accent from Northern Ireland (just in case he ever has to blend in with IRA or Provo terrorists) — while Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) goes to drop off files with the NYPD. It later appears that the actor and informal accent coach, Alistair Moore (Roger Rees), has died of a heart attack. While at NYPD, Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) asks Watson to look at a prisoner called Apollo Mercer, a known pickpocket. Surprisingly, he’s lying dead on the floor. This is more serious than expected. Surely one of the officers should have noticed he was dying? Anyway, Joan looks at the “stuff” coming out of his mouth and suggests this is a case of anthrax poisoning. Really? No-one in the custody suite even thought of turning over the body of the man to see if he needed medical assistance? Perhaps they held a sweep to decide who should call Gregson and ask him what to do.

Our four principles negotiate to buy the farm

Our four principles negotiate to buy the farm

Anyway, all this excitement brings Holmes to the hospital where the police are being tested for possible infection. So far, no-one else seems to have been exposed — thank God no-one turned over the body and touched the “stuff” coming out of his mouth. Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) gives Holmes Mercer’s file. It seems he ingested the anthrax. Ergo, he lifted a packet from a mark in Union Square, thought it was cocaine, and decided to get high (which rhymes with die). Our duo reviews all the footage from Union Square (impressive it can all be collected together so quickly), and identifies a man who used his mobile to pay for a cup of coffee. This gives us our first suspect. When the police arrive at his address, the landlord confirms he used to go out for regular walks. Holmes is busy calculating how many footsteps in a ten minute walk, while Watson opens his mail and finds he was renting a storage locker ten minutes away. It’s always good when things come together. Wearing suitable protective clothing, NYPD enter the storage locker and find a body plus many empty trays where the anthrax would have been cultured (40 pounds is the estimate of quantity). Could be we have a bioterrorism episode on our hands. A fingerprint shows a known member of the Sovereign Army was present at some time! They are dangerous homegrown terrorists!

So Bell and Watson go upstate to talk to the new suspect’s brother, while Holmes goes to talk with Alistair’s partner. This all leads to Sherlock arriving at an address in Queens before the police units where he sees a van being loaded. Such are the decisions out of which drama is constructed. Except it’s not the anthrax. That’s a relief. I thought the series was going to end with Sherlock’s funeral (not). Meanwhile Alistair’s son comes round to the brownstone. It now appears his father overdosed. He’d been clean for some thirty years. Holmes has only been clean for two. The death disturbs Holmes on multiple levels. This is a close friend but, as one addict to another, it distresses Holmes that a man can relapse after being clean for so long. It’s a betrayal of all that effort. Holmes knows he’s overreacting a little (well, a lot if truth be told) — it’s upsetting him he’s so upset over his friend’s death. Then the dead body of the suspect turns up. He visited his brother’s farm. They fought. Exit one brother.

As mysteries go, this is serviceable. It’s one of these “but for” crimes where fate intervenes to disrupt an elegant plan and forces those involved to take evasive action. The problem comes with the dilution of any tension. If this was considered a real terrorist threat to New York, there would be a major incident approach with multiple federal agencies involved and political oversight. Yet all we see is a few precinct officers coming in for a briefing by Gregson. It’s not a sufficiently serious response to engage our interest even though there’s a news report of people disposing of their milk and dairy products. I suppose this is intentional to allow a proper focus on Holmes and the resolution of his pain caused by the loss of his friend — he has so few, the loss of one is significant. I’m always somewhat disconcerted when scripts call for the “ghost” of a recently deceased to interact with one of the living. Such a cliché smacks of a little desperation. In this case, however, it does introduce a certain poignancy and is a convenient visual mechanism for allowing Holmes to say goodbye. This makes Elementary: No Lack of Void (2014) a slightly better than average episode.

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire

April 11, 2014 11 comments

Seanan McGuire Chimes at Midnight

Well, here we continue on this minor diversion from the norm. For all it’s faults, I enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy Mira Grant and thought it would be interesting to look at the author writing under her own name. Now I appreciate this is taking a risk on two counts. The first is the reason why authors choose to write under a pseudonym. They already have a good brand name for a particular type of fiction. The new work will not fit into their existing fan base’s expectations. So it must be hidden (until someone leaks the secret identity). The second is that I’m coming into an existing series which is never a good thing.

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire (DAW, 2013) is the seventh in the October Daye urban fantasy series. This time round, we’re into the forbidden fruit of the Goblin variety, a drug that’s addictive and ultimately deadly to changelings, but merely a pleasant high for full-blooded fae. The Queen of the Mists is the pusher. Yes, it comes over as a bit of a shocker to discover a leader can stoop so low but, as the gang boss says, she needs the money and the fact a few of the changelings die is nothing to worry about. Obviously, this lack of emotion is not terribly startling. The fae are notorious for their amorality. Only their half-breed children and a few on the margins have anything approaching a conscience. It seems October, Toby to her friends, is one of these changelings, a child of a fae and a human. When she innocently complains to the Queen that someone is pushing this deadly drug, she’s given three days to get out of Dodge (well, San Francisco actually). This provokes the natural plot response. When the Luidaeg tips her off that the Queen’s right to the throne was less than solid, the hunt is on to find the rightful heir. What’s a little treason between old enemies.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Pausing for a moment, this is a hack plot idea. The Queen is an all-round evil person in charge of this small kingdom and, just when she really begins to go beyond the pale, our hero experiences the ultimate coincidence effect. The first person she talks to after being banished just happens to know the Queen is an unlawful usurper of the throne. Wow, is that a convenient piece of information, or what? And within a few more pages, our hero has tracked down the real heiress who’s been hidden away for years without anyone being able to find her. Wow, it that ever evidence the girl guide’s badge for tracking really does prove ability to find stuff and people? To say this is contrived and contorted would be an understatement.

So with Quentin, a teenage Daoine Sidhe courtier from Shadowed Hills, proving to have more maturity than previously suspected, and other minions in tow, it’s moderately action-packed as we build on the coincidences to get to the solution at the end. Because this is urban fantasy, there’s considerable focus on our hero’s relationship with Tybalt, King of Cats. Naturally, they go through the emotional wringer and emerge all the stronger for it. Does this mean the book is a waste of time? In part, yes. But despite the morass of detail about fairy lore and genealogy, there’s interest in this as an exploration of the nature of identity. As a changeling, Toby is powerless as a human and potentially powerful as a fae. The problem, as always in these situations, is to get the balance right between the two parts to give herself enough access to the magic without sacrificing her humanity.

The trigger for a more serious thread in the book is the decision of the Queen to expose our hero to the goblin fruit. As the crack cocaine of drugs, the effect on a changeling is to induce a shift to human where the effect is more pleasurable. Unfortunately, this loses the immortality feature that comes with the fairy genes: hence the high death rate. So our hero loses most of her powers and almost reverts to human. Not surprisingly, this undermines her confidence in herself as a partner to Tybalt. She’s not sure he’ll still love her. It also creates problems on how to stay alive and how to fight the evil Queen and her minions as a powerless human. I thought the introduction of a highly addictive drug was a brave ploy. It could have provided a real dynamic to the narrative as she goes cold turkey. Unfortunately, the whole situation is managed and then resolved just a little too easily. Yes, there has to be a big fight, but the physical and psychological stress of having to deal with the addiction is somewhat glossed over. The gritty reality of dealing with addiction would not really fit into an urban fantasy format. That said, this is not a completely awful book about fairies and the other species that interact to form the fae as a group of kingdoms or fiefdoms. The romance does deal with the uncertainties of love in a difficult situation. So, in my usual dismissive and patronising male voice, I can say Chimes at Midnight is quite good for an urban fantasy.

For reviews of the books written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
Parasite
and as written by Seanan McGuire:
Discount Armageddon
Half-off Ragnarok.

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