Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, one section of the world’s population became fixated by the possibility of nuclear armageddon. Wherever you turned, the media was full of news stories about what Russia was supposed to be doing and the countermeasures being taken by the West. In fiction, words and images bombarded us with alien invasions and other apocalyptic shenanigans as metaphors for what mutually assured destruction would achieve if either side pressed the button to signal the commencement of hostilities. So from the earliest age, I was immersed in every conceivable form of plot involving the arrival of aliens. Some were Greeks bearing gifts, others made no bones about their intention to wipe out humanity, while a very small percentage actually proved benign. Having endured sixty years plus reading years of watching this trope played out in all the media, it doesn’t exactly light my fire to see Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, 2014) arriving on my to-read pile. These aliens turn up, claim to have peaceful intentions, and then just sit there for two months not doing anything serious except exchanging a few ideas with the United Nations.
I mean, just how boring are these guys! There’s none of the gung-ho, shoot them from the skies aggression we’ve come to expect from either side. Of course, the politicians talk while the conspiracy theorists go nuts trying to work out why they have really come all this way. Surely it can’t just be to say, “We come in peace. Take us to your leaders.” I mean, what civilisation would spend all that cash to send such a wimpy crew to do nothing but sit there?
So our author has to do something to make all this passivity interesting. She has this family of a mother (the father was a drunk who passed on some years ago) and her three children. She’s a top research scientist in genetics, and her children are a border guard, an environmentalist, and a dropout. Notice the subtle hints. One keeps illegal aliens from coming into America from the south. One deals with invading species which disrupt the local ecology. And the other does a new type of street drug and experiences an acute form of empathy. Wow, are those going to be useful skills, or what?
Needless to say, the story quickly resolves itself into mother and dropout versus the aliens. After the first few chapters, I guessed the plot. Although the detail has some degree of originality, the core is simply a different version of duplicitous aliens. So the end result is rather sad. Perhaps in another writer’s hands, there would have been more tension, or the characters, both human and alien, would have emerged to engage our sympathies or other relevant emotions. But what we have here is purely functional storytelling. This author has had a reasonably good idea and wants to get it down on paper with the minimum fuss and bother. The result is a predictable plot and characters that failed to offer any connection. The workaholic and somewhat socially dysfunctional mother failed to connect with the dropout before the aliens arrived. After their dramatic appearance, the young man gets on rather well with the aliens. Indeed, it turns out he shares something quite important with them. But, like most dropouts, he was not particularly likeable to his fellow humans. He did rather better with the aliens, managing to get one of them pregnant. So this is a quick read to see whether your guess as to the reason for the aliens’ arrival is correct. If you fail to get the right answer, keep reading for another fifty years when all such plots will be transparent to you. Overall this is a pedestrian effort and not really worth your time and attention.
For the review of another book by Nancy Kress, see Steal Across the Sky
Well, this is going to be a novelty. Today’s book is Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) and, for once, I’m going to write two shorter reviews. The first will be for younger readers. The second will be for geriatric curmudgeons like me. Why two reviews? Because this is a hardboiled novel somewhat in the style of Raymond Chandler. Some of you reading this will know the name but never have read any of his shorter stories or novels. The first review is for you.
Think of a man with a past in which something terrible happened. In this case, he was wrongly accused of murder. He manages to avoid prosecution but runs away and finds somewhere to hide. Think of this as entering a pupa state in which he will lie relatively dormant until the metamorphosis is complete and it’s time for him to emerge. As the years pass, the chrysalis hardens and much effort is required to break out. When the process is complete, what entered the papa state as a police officer will emerge as a fully adult PI. This is the key characteristic of a Chandler hero. That he is, first and foremost, a detective. Nothing changes that reality. That’s why he never has any private life. Although he has a place to sleep, it’s not really a place he will convert into a home by marrying. Indeed, apart from casual sex, he’s unlikely even to have a girlfriend. This book starts with a series of relatively minor incidents at the restaurant he manages. He encounters a girl. Later he has sex with her but this is almost immediately complicated. Two heavy hitters ask him about the girl. His refusal to answer results in pain. Then by one of the coincidence needed to get hardboiled stories like this underway, her ex-husband turns up dead in the room she had at a local motel. He may not be a PI (yet) but he has a client and she needs him to work out what’s happening. On the way, there’s some nice laconic wit and plenty of interesting plot developments. Put all this together and you have the beginning of what promises to be an exciting new series as our butterfly hangs out his shingle as a PI and looks for business.
The second review should start with the reminder that Chandler didn’t actually start writing professionally until he was fired from his job as an oil executive in 1932. For the record, The Big Sleep made it on to the shelves just before the outbreak of war in 1939. We’ve had PI Philip Marlowe embedded in our public consciousness ever since. I grew up in the 1950s devouring secondhand pulps like Black Mask, reading back through all the excitement of life in this violent but interesting country called America. For a kid growing up on the north bank of the Tyne with nothing more exciting than drunken brawling between the crews of the fishing fleet when the weather forced all the different nationalities to shelter in port, and occasional gang violence, the magazines offered a view of a radically different place where crime was endemic and the characters were not a little romantic. Chandler, Hammett and James M Cain ruled the roost in those days but there were a vast number of wannabes who crowded out the pages of pulps and novels, all hoping for the market to recognise them as the next big thing. In the end, I got bored by the repetitiveness of the plots. In the early 1960s I moved on from the detective/mystery genre into science fiction, fantasy and horror. Today, the only people I rate as having continued the Chandler style of PI novels are Robert B Parker and Walter Mosely even though both Spencer and Easy Rawlins break the mould and have fairly serious relationships. It’s the implicit attitude that counts.
So this is a book that does absolutely everything right. It has an excellent plot which carefully provides us with a choice of villains, the cops are unknown quantities (most assumed to be prejudiced and hostile), and Melody has that slightly arch, vampish quality that marks the transition of a “type” through time. Insofar as we can have a modern Bacall, this would be her. The only trouble is that this tough guy with an urge to be protective of anything wearing a skirt that muscles in on his life is too much in the classic mould. I didn’t feel he was truly a contemporary figure for all his backstory in the police and his current loyalties to those helping him rebuild after the”disaster”. He feels “old school”. The reason why I like Mosely and miss Parker is their heroes moved on. Even though Mosely set his novels in the past, they are still contemporary novels.
Frankly, I don’t think younger readers will notice or care. I think they will read this first-in-a-new-series and demand more. But for me, the senior who’s seen it all before, it lacks a contemporary spark. It’s an excellent example of a PI novel I would have hoped to read twenty years ago. So if you’ve never read Raymond Chandler or any of the other period hardboiled writers, you’re going to enjoy Yesterday’s Echo. Older guys like me will think it a good shot at a Chandleresque PI novel that just misses the bullseye. Hopefully the next in the series will have a more modern tone.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the land before time forgot (that’s when my health and strength were good, and memory was still working properly), I could actually recall what happened yesterday. On such a day, I went out of my then home to the Andromeda Book Company in Birmingham and bought a copy of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. This proved to be a good buy both in terms of enjoyment when I read it, and in terms of investment when I later sold it along with the rest of my collection. This sad tale of a collector forced to sell his books through force of circumstance (I was relocating to a different country) is a way of introducing a new novelette called Nobody’s Home (Subterranean Press, 2014) set in the same universe.
It features a young woman from the source novel called Jacky, an ambiguous name which suggests to her that moving through London’s less salubrious quarters would be less dangerous if she was a man. So she arms herself with a false moustache, cuts her hair short, and affects a deeper voice. Somewhat surprisingly, this enables her to duck and dive her way through London in pursuit of Dog-Face Joe. Now this is a fascinating creature. It’s one of these body-hopping beings that, after the transfer, begins to sprout body hair. In one sense, this makes it somewhat like a werewolf except that the process of transformation continues regardless as to the phases of the moon. Over time, this increased hairiness becomes somewhat conspicuous, so it takes a slow-acting poison in the current body and transfers to a new body. This makes it very difficult to track. But our young Jacky is determined. Her fiancé was one of those occupied by Dog-Face Joe and, after ingesting the poison and being released by Joe, he went to the home of the young woman he loved. She saw only a monster and, as is the way of young women who feel threatened, she shot him through the heart. When she realises the terrible crime she has committed, she wants revenge. Hence her search for the Dog-Faced beast that deprived her of her life-partner.
During this pursuit, she rescues a young woman called Harriet. She’s haunted by the ghost of her husband. Under normal circumstances, this would not be too serious but, in life, he was an Indian national and now he wants her to follow him into death through sutee. The fact she’s missed out on the funeral pyre to throw herself on is not something the ghost cares about. He comes armed with his own pyrotechnic skills and aims to finish off the job himself. The rest of this elegantly atmospheric tale takes us through this dark and dangerous version of London in search of a way to rid herself of this ghost. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, nobody’s prepared to help.
It’s not actually necessary for you to know the original novel to enjoy this novelette. It reads well as a standalone. But it’s a richer experience if you can remember what happened in the source novel. So my advice, should you not have read The Anubis Gates, is to read it immediately. It was and remains a highly successful time travel novel with Gothic overtones. This will set you up to read this very enjoyable backstory element for Jacky.
For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.
The pun in the title is almost excruciating and beneath contempt, but here we go with Elementary: Season 2, episode 17. Ears to You (2014). I suppose we should be grateful the producers didn’t go with “Ear Today, Gone Tomorrow”. Worse we’re pursuing the overdone metaphor of reformed cocks inhabiting the same house as Gareth Lestrade (Sean Pertwee) is still in the brownstone after nineteen days and incapable of going quietly into the night (or anywhere else for that matter). The only good thing about the presence of the cocks is that, in the end, they (or their feathers) are responsible for the satisfactory resolution of the difficulty between Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Lestrade. While we wait, you can see why Holmes might be working on the construction (and disarming) of bombs. Of course Lestrade is overflowing with job offers, but speaking only a curious version of British English, he’s disinclined to take off for Brazil or any other foreign parts.
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a man called Gordon Cushing (Jeremy Davidson) opens a package and finds two severed ears which does rather recall The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. This man is somewhat notorious because, four years ago, he was suspected of doing away with Sarah Cushing (Cara Buono), his wife, but there was not enough evidence to go to trial. Along with the hearing aids there’s a ransom note offering whatever remains of his wife for a cash sum. This is allegedly the second time he’s been asked for money. One year after his wife disappeared, he left $1 million under a tree, but the good tooth fairy failed to leave any part of his wife under a convenient pillow. When Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and the NYPD organises the transfer of the latest demand ($4 million for the best bits) it all goes wrong when the man jumps off the subway platform and walks down the tunnel. Gordon thinks this is a bad idea and, when the police track them down, Gordon is standing over the body of the man with an iron bar. This presents an interesting problem. DNA confirms the ears do belong to his wife so she was alive “yesterday”. Gordon has no real motive to stage any of this just to prove his wife is still alive — he’s pleading self-defence to killing to ransom collector.
Meanwhile, Lestrade is having an anxiety attack. For years he traded on Sherlock’s good name. Now he’s forced to look for work again, he’s aware he’s not really competent enough to do many of the jobs on offer. He advises Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) to enjoy her life basking in the shadow of the great man because, once her mentor moves on, she’ll be yesterday’s news (again). This leads Watson to begin a course of therapy. Since Lestrade lacks self-confidence, she gets two files on recent muggings in the vicinity of the brownstone and tells him to find the guy responsible. She asks him to remember that Holmes identified him as competent when they worked together in London. She invites him to remember he’s a detective and stop wallowing in self-pity.
The analysis of the dead body with Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) allowed a moment of screen time is interesting as we discover this is a man of little education, possibly a recent immigrant, and not a man who, three years ago, collected a $1 million in ransom. He’s just a messenger boy but with Alcoholics Anonymous tattoos. This leads them to AA meetings in an area matching a keyring in his possession where, surprisingly, they meet Sarah. We then get into the fringes of science fiction. When it comes to tissue engineering, we’re approaching the time when it might be possible to grow human ears or a nose in a laboratory, but scientists are still some years away from being able to run clinical trials. For the pair which appeared in this version of the cardboard box to have been grown in this less than a clinically secure environment is literally impossible today. Although I’m not averse to scriptwriters getting creative when it comes to elements in a murder mystery, this seems to be going rather beyond acceptable limits. Just because it’s an ingenious solution to the initial problem does not make it appropriate.
As to the resolution of the Lestrade case, he shows why he’s a good detective and a terrible judge of character. Although he tracks down the mugger, his complete inability to understand how the feather came to be in the man’s apartment defies belief. But that’s the quality of the man and it’s a quite remarkable act of humility for Holmes to fall in with the delusion. Although it’s self-interested and does get the man out of the brownstone, it shows Holmes able to think quickly on his feet and make good decisions under pressure. Between them, Holmes and Watson have given the man enough self-confidence to leave America in search of a better future. No doubt they devoutly hope never to see him again. Although the plot element featuring Lestrade was quite interesting, the mystery portion was less so, leaving Elementary: Ears to You slightly below average.
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 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (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).
As I move ever faster into advanced adulthood, I await with interest the supposed memory phenomenon which permits me to recall what happened thirty years ago as if it was yesterday. This would be very convenient for the purposes of this review. All those years ago, I was collecting the work of K J Jeter. He was considered very edgy, producing distinctly different novels upon which to feast. One of these published some twenty-five years ago, was Infernal Devices. This, you understand, was long before the label steampunk had been invented. The book was marketed as a “mad” Victorian style of adventure story in which various weird and rather wonderful things happened. As it is, I have no difficulty in remembering what I had for breakfast this morning (to eliminate doubt, I have eaten the same breakfast every morning for sixty years), but cannot remember clearly what the earlier book was actually about. All I know is that I read it. Fortunately the absence of symptoms of Alzheimer’s is not a problem for these purposes. The sequel, Fiendish Schemes (Tor, 2013), stands up well on its own.
First let’s resolve the problems of labels. The marketers would have you believe this is a return to steampunk as conceived by the prophet Jeter. In literal terms, this has some mild credibility given the majority of technology on display is either powered by clockwork or those machines have been converted to steam. Not out of concerns for the environment, you understand. This is not steam produced by the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels. For now, climate change is not rearing its head. Rather the Victorian entrepreneurs have hit upon geothermal power. Following the designs of Arthur Conan Doyle channelling Professor Challenger in “When the Earth Screamed”, they have driven deep shafts into the earth and now draw up magma to superheat water and distribute it by a complex network of pipes from the blasted landscape of northern areas to the sultry, steam-ravaged cities of the south. The result is an apparently inexhaustible supply of steam piped into every home which can afford to pay the going rate. Needless to say, the businesses investing their capital in this source of power have grown excessively rich.
If we had stayed at this level, we would probably have been willing to accept this as mere steampunk, but the actual book is rather more rooted in surreal or absurdist fantasy. Set in Victorian Britain, one fact is inescapable. Britain is an island that has, since recorded time began, depended on trade to survive. Secure logistics for shipping are therefore essential. This was achieved until the seas achieved sentience. Yes, large bodies of water are now intelligently watching what we do on the land. If they disapprove, they can raise or lower the water level in their area. This can rip the bottom out of ships plying routes normally full fathom five or flood low-lying farm land. To deal with the first, Victorian scientists have developed mobile lighthouses which can literally walk from one point to another as required to warn ships of changing conditions in the area. Of course, this movement is expensive, inconvenient and reactive. It would be so much better if we humans could negotiate treaties with the seas or at least predict where the shallows might move next. The answer is to talk with the whales. They can already converse with the seas. All we need do is find the notorious universal language machine built by a brilliant inventor before his death. To help us in our quest, we rely on his son. If anyone can find this machine and make it work it will be him. Unfortunately, he lacks the inventive brilliance of his father and, in many ways, is an innocent. This book therefore follows him as he moves through this alternate history Victorian England, observing his strange escapades with the steam-powered orangutan, his exposure to fex, his introduction to parliamentary debate, and his encounters with divers other strangenesses and oddities.
All this peregrination is described in a wonderfully antique first-person writing style which captures the rather dull and podding qualities of some Victorian prose while actually describing some completely extraordinary events. In general, this is a great success, producing smiles from the juxtaposition of our naive protagonist and completely surreal events, e.g. the coupling of a man and woman who have had their biological systems surgically attached to steam engines. The only problem lies in the sometimes quite extended dialogue between our innocent protagonist and the duplicitous antagonist who lures our hero into ever greater difficulty with promises of great wealth. Although these debates offer an opportunity for some satire and commentary on modern morals, they do go on. . . As to the schemes in which our hero becomes embroiled, they are genuinely fiendish in a surreal replay of future history (if you see what I mean). The resulting climactic dispute between two behemoths lurching over a burning London is an appropriate way of bringing much needed sanity to the proceedings. The only note of sadness is the essential determinism. The fate of the whales seems to be sealed no matter which version of the future comes to pass. So with the caveat that I think some of the debating goes on too long, I find myself impressed. The old master has not lost his flair for the absurdities of the world. Fiendish Schemes is recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli (Apex Publications Book) is a novella and an impressive riff on an old idea. Being a guy from the last century who’s read an incredible number of words over the decades, I’m reminded of the Galloway Gallegher stories by Henry Kuttner writing as Lewis Padget. This hero (using the word somewhat ironically) was an alcoholic. While insensible, he became a phenomenal inventor except, with his subconscious in command, he would surface from the latest bender with no clear recollection of the last few days. This produces much hilarity in an old-fashioned kind of way as our hungover hero is forced to try and work out exactly what he’d invented while drunk. To say this is challenging is to indicate the level of potential amusement as he faces some entirely incomprehensible solutions to the unknown problems he solved while drunk. Well that was life during the 1940s when, by modern standards, mere alcohol was the boring norm. Coming up to date, our technology has given us a remarkable array of liquids, gases and solids with which we can adjust our moods and blot out conscious thought.
So here comes our protagonist Tommy Pic (not in any way an autobiographical version of our author, of course). He’s one of the Hollywood screenwriters who’s had his moment of lucid success but is now back in the bipolar, alcohol-fueled manic depression which is his more usual state of mind. The fact he’s not self-disciplined means he frequently neglects to take his meds, so he’s not unused to waking up in a psych ward wearing restraints. On this occasion, he awakes to a Gallegher moment. It seems while he was enjoying one of his psychotic moments, he dashed off [part of] a screenplay — appropriately bearing the title What Makes You Die. He has no recollection of sending the opening portion to his agent, Monty Stobbs, but according to this reliable specimen of humanity, it’s one of the best things he’s seen in at least the last thirty minutes. He wants the rest of the script on his desk yesterday and is promising big bucks if the quality continues at the same level. There’s just the one problem. Tommy has absolutely no idea where the rest of the script now resides and no recollection of writing what was sent, so he cannot attempt to complete it. Worse when Monty Stobbs gives him a copy and he tries to read it, he gets an attack of hysterical blindness. After his tortured peepers finally manage to absorb one of Monty’s marginal notes, a fierce migraine descends like a wolf on the fold, and he has to resort to the nearest bar. With alcohol fueling his eyes, he reads one more note which, like the first, is totally bizarre.
Since this is a first-person narrative, we’re firmly inside the head of an unreliable narrator, a fact that’s immediately obvious because he calmly admits to seeing and talking with dead people, starting off with his dead father who’s by his bed when he wakes. So here’s the question of the day. Through films like Being John Malkovich (1999), we’re used to the idea of literally spending a little time inside someone’s head (for these purposes, I’m ignoring the more excessive Inception (2010)). What would it be like to spend a little time looking through the eyes of a crazy screenwriter? Since he’s prone to major episodes of depression and has attempted surgery on his stomach to remove the Komodo dragon called Gideon (not a suicide attempt, you understand), this whole trip could be a real downer. Yet, surprisingly, it turns out sporadically humorous and, in reaffirming family values of love and loyalty, quite affecting. Some of the set-piece descriptions of life in the world of film, television and theatre are genuinely amusing. There’s some fierce irony in Trudy’s relationship with Monty Stobbs, and in any live show, Bango the Clown would most likely be strung up and/or shot by an audience provoked to anger. Gideon the dragon is interesting because he leaves Post-it notes around for our hero to find, and then there’s Eva when she’s not dancing naked around a ritual sacrifice in the back room of the Weird Sisters store.
In this situation, the man’s solution to the problem is to try to get back into the same frame of mind when he wrote the first section of the script. That means some heavy drinking except his subconscious prefers not to co-operate. When it comes to the weekend and he only has a few hours left to produce a complete script, he goes to a party at Eva’s home. She tries psychoanalysis in a witchy style. And then there’s the missing Kathy Lark. And I did notice the character’s full name is Trudy Galloway. That’s just a coincidence, of course. Putting all this together, What Makes You Die is rather pleasing. Although the ending is perhaps a little like many Hollywood scripts which insist of a positive outcome, I enjoyed it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the first part of this alphabetical listing, click Alphabetical Listing of Books A to J.
The Stranger You Know
The Goddess of Dance
The Ironclad Prophecy
The Funeral Owl
Persistence of Memory
Water to Burn
Kessler, Alan Steven
A Satan Carol
The Bleiberg Project
Kiernan, Caitlin R
The Ape’s Wife
Blood Oranges (written as Kathleen Tierney)
Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart
Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart
Vulture au Vin
Shark Fin Soup
Klima, John with Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
Glitter & Mayhem
Contra Alliance: Shadows of the Past
A Murder in Tuscany
Lachlan, M D
Lake, Jay & Gevers, Nick
Lucretia and the Kroons
The Prisoner of the Riviera
The Sweet Smell of Decay
Alien: Out of the Shadows
Le Carré, John
A Delicate Truth
Voices of the Dead
Gods and Fathers
The Spectral Link
The Inheritance (authorship shared with Robin Hobb)
Liptak, Andrew and Gates, Jaym (editors)
A Nasty Piece of Work
Indignities of the Flesh
A Cold Season
The Cutting Season
Long Live the Queen
Beyond the Bridge
Going to the Bad
McHugh, Maureen F
After the Apocalypse
McKillip, Patricia A
The Bards of the Bone Plain
Death on the Pont Noir
Malzberg, Barry N
The Executioner’s Heart
Marshall, W G
Martin, George R R
A Dance With Dragons
Martin, George R. R. & Dozois, Gardner
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
Songs of Love and Death
Martinez, Michael J
The Daedalus Incident
Mattison, Booker T
The Marseille Caper
Murder and Moonshine
The Bone Key Joint review with The Guild of Xenolinguists.
The Bone Key Stand-alone review.
A Companion to Wolves (with Elizabeth Bear)
Somewhere Beneath Those Waves
The Tempering of Men (with Elizabeth Bear)
A Final Reckoning
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Philippa Ballantine)
Myers, Beverle Graves
Whispers of Vivaldi
The Thief or Suri
Roachkiller and Other Stories
The Inspector and Silence or Kommissarien och tystnaden
The Séance Society
Fair and Tender Ladies
Murder on the Hoof
House of Fear
The Dracula Papers Book 1: The Scholar’s Tale
The Dream of Perpetual Motion
Oath of Office
Why China Will Never Rule the World
A Dark Song of Blood
The Bride Box
Death on Blackheath
What Makes You Die
The Devil’s Madonna
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
Pugmire, W H
The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep
Quinn, Spencer (pseudonym of Peter Abrahams)
The Sound an the Furry
Rosedale the Vampyre
Divided We Fall
The Prince of Risk
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt
Vanished in the Dunes
A Killing of Angels
To Sail a Darkling Sea
The Dragon’s Nine Sons
The Baker Street Translation
Rosen, Lev AC
All Men of Genius
The Ant King and Other Stories
Heart of a Killer
Jim and the Flims
Ryan, Hank Phillippi
The Wrong Girl
The Red Plague Affair
The Man Who Collected Machen
Schenkel, Andrea Maria
The Murder Farm
No Doors, No Windows
Ashes of Candesce
Stalked: The Boy Who Said No
A Price to Pay
Slan, Joanna Campbell
Death of a Schoolgirl
Smith, Martin Cruz
Snodgrass, Melinda (writing as Phillipa Bornikova)
Box Office Poison
Blade of the Samurai
Justice for Sara
Blood and Iron
The Harry Houdini Mysteries: The Houdini Specter
The Ragnarök Conspiracy
Cold Storage, Alaska
Dancing With Bears
How the World Became Quiet
Tem, Steve Rasnic
An Iron Rose
Now You See It
Thomas, Lynne M. with Klima, John and Michael Damian Thomas
Glitter & Mayhem
Thomas, Michael Damian with Klima, John and Thomas, Lynne M.
Glitter & Mayhem
Death on Demand
The Harlot’s Tale
Toole, F X
Million Dollar Baby
The Chalice of Blood
The Fire Dance
Tyler, L C
Herring on the Nile
This is me, Jack Vance
The Children of the Sky
The Feng Shui Detective Goes West
Death of a Carpet Dealer
The Crowded Grave
Warrick, Douglas F
Plow the Bones
Out of the Dark
The Llama of Death
Ride Away Home
City of Light and Shadow
White, Lori Ann
The Best of Connie Willis
The Silk Map
The Boy in the Woods
The Girl in Berlin
23 Shades of Black
Wolf, Gary K
Wortham, Reavis Z
The Right Side of Wrong
Enigma of China
Yocum, Nathan L.
Aunty Lee’s Delights
At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson (Small Beer Press, 2012) is a wonderful collection of stories. It’s pointless to try categorising them as fantasy, science fiction or horror. The clichés of labels are irrelevant here. All we have are bare bones of stories that speak to us of weightier matters like life and death, love and hate. They are sly and slip through your defences before you know they are even in the same room as you. Before you can think of excuses, they are snapping at the heels of your thoughts, provoking you into internal dialogues with yourself, helping you see where you failed or whether you can make a better shot next time. I was entranced!
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is like the joke that starts, “Have you heard the one about the monkeys who disappear from the bathtub?” It’s simple, elegant and has a punchline to die for. More importantly, it has a warmth about it that carefully avoids sentimentality and feels completely natural. That’s no mean trick in these cynical times. “Fox Magic” is a story of wish fulfillment for a “person” in love. There’s no rationality of choice in love at first sight. If it happens, it happens and you have to deal with the consequences. In this case, it takes a little magic but then, for a while, everything is as she dreamed. When the dream is punctured, does that mean she must give it up? Such is the tragedy of life that not everyone can have what they dream could be theirs. “Names for Water” is reassurance that, on occasion, all we need to get through a challenge is the sense there’s someone who cares at the end of a telephone. “The Bitey Cat” encapsulates the childhood trauma of parents divorcing. When your world lacks emotional security, perhaps a pet will keep you company. “The Horse Raiders” captures a moment of change. Out of expediency, a group of raiders kills all but two of the tribe travelling with their herd of healthy horses. When the dust has settled, this will probably be a futile gesture to save a way of life. A plague is killing all horses. In the end, the humans will have to adapt. But that does not mean there cannot be atonement for the initial wrongness in the taking. What was taken might have been given if the tribe had been asked. Out of such “might”s, hope is born.
“Dia Chjerman’s Tale” is a pleasing oral history of how a distant Empire took exception to one of its vassal planet’s behaviour and sent a ship on a punishment mission. Such memories, passed down through the generations, encourage the development of survival strategies as each new situation emerges. “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” is a nice joke as a long-suffering wife escapes the oppressive indifference of her husband by transforming herself into a perhaps not quite extinct bird. May be she should have someone say prayers over her. “Schrodinger’s Cathouse” continues in the faintly humorous line with a man who somehow manages to end up in the box and then either is or is not, if you see what I mean. In “Chenting in the Land of the Dead”, a man imagines the perfect place to take up residence in the afterlife. Unfortunately not everyone else shares his optimism.
“The Empress Jingu Fishes” plays with time as perceived by a person blessed or cursed with the power of divination. Today she knows what happened yesterday and has seen what will happen tomorrow. She has already lost a husband and seen her son become emperor. Knowing she will lose her husband, she marries and loves him as best she can. Then she obeys the gods’ instructions and conquers a land she has never visited before, and prepares to give birth to the son who will one day leave her to join the dispassionate gods who dictate how the future shall unfold. On reflection, such foresight is only a curse for women. “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” ponders the nature of the relationship between an owner and either an animal or an uncountable number of insects. There are two quite different questions posed. The first is what makes you want to be with an animal. The second is why you might choose to give your animal to another. Rather like the first story with the 26 or so monkeys, we need to clear our heads and think clearly about where we are as human beings. Too often, we grow sentimental and this gets in the way of making the decisions best for us or best for the ones we love. Perhaps this is more sad than the monkeys which finishes with fringe benefits for the humans. This self-sacrifice is all for the good of the animal(s). It’s redemptive through loss. “Story Kit” deconstructs the emotional loss following on the ending of a relationship. A writer can use surrogates in the story, describing their suffering as a way of trying to achieve objectivity on her own pain. Except this distancing is only temporary. A writer is driven to write. So after one story is ended, there’s another to begin. That means reliving the loss all over again.
“Wolf Trapping” is a way of reexamining the themes from the last two stories. A serious researcher may follow a pack of wolves as a disinterested observer. It would not occur to him to interfere with nature if one of the wolves was injured. He will allow it to die. She will run with the pack and become so familiar to them, they will accept her. If one of the animals is hungry, she will trap a rabbit to feed it. If one is injured, she will help it heal. Who’s to say who is the more responsible or gets the better understanding of what it means to be a wolf. If such a man and woman should meet, would he have the right to judge her? Her behaviour would distort his scientific observations. Would that give him the right to have her removed from the wilderness? They both have relationships with the wolves that may be lost. She may die of exposure. Is that not her right if that’s how she would choose to die. Is that not the man’s view of nature? That the weak perish and the strong survive? “Ponies” is a nice allegory asking just how far you would go to fit in. Socialisation is usually an all-or-nothing event. Once you start, there’s a price to pay if you stop. “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is a quiet meditation on what’s it’s like to lose your home. Although you can carry an oral history with you wherever you may go, home is always more than a place to live. It always requires another with whom to share the history. “Spar” is also about a couple unexpectedly forced into making a home for themselves while awaiting rescue. After a while, they might become so interdependent, they might resent the rescue when it comes.
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is a wonderful flight of fancy about a man who finds himself dissatisfied with himself and the place in which he finds himself. He would rather build a bridge so he can go elsewhere and, in so doing, find a new way to a relationship with another person. Yet, sometimes, the physical process proves more achievable than the social equivalent. It’s ironic. Because humans cannot read each other’s thoughts, there’s a kind of mist in the air between them. They can only vaguely see each other. They have to reach out in ways that will give them a better view. In crossing over to that other person, there’s always the chance you may catch sight of monster in the mist. Quite what your reaction may be is uncertain. You may feel exhilaration you have seen something no-one else has ever seen, or you may collapse in fear. “The Evolution of Trickster Stories” is another fine allegory which thinks about the relationship between superior and lesser beings. For example, for millions of years, human bred dogs to be man’s “friend”. Yet this was just another word for slavery. Humans felt they owned their dogs and could do whatever they wanted to them. But suppose the dogs could be emancipated, even learn to speak. How would man react when a former slave could look him in the eye and tell him a few home truths?
This collection is strongly recommended!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This collection has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.
Some believe the world should never change. They are comfortable with the now as it is, doubting that innovation can ever really be an improvement. The alternative possibilities are never directly considered. Indeed, the possibility of change is disconcerting to such people and to be avoided wherever possible. In political terms, conservatism is inherently popular, preserving the traditional, maintaining stability, and promoting continuity. Yet, in some areas of human activity, the pace of change is embraced. So technology marketing convinces us that yesterday’s 3.6 was nothing more than a stepping stone to the terrifying power of 4.0 which can all be ours for only a few pounds/dollars more. We’re encouraged to throw away the old, and queue like androids to acquire the next i-prefixed gismo.
Ignoring the local folklore creatures, the modern notion of the vampire stems from The Vampyre by John Polidori. Since 1819, therefore, we’ve essentially been recycling the same trope of beings that feed on blood drawn from living creatures. In most cases, they return from the dead and exhibit other supernatural abilities including transformation into a bat or a mist form. The best exponents can also psychologically dominate their potential victims. So, whenever you see the magic word “vampires” or suitable images on jacket artwork, you know what you’re getting. The only variables are in the language and the way in which the vampirism is described, changing the market focus from forms suitable for children, addressing the teen market, and then delivering different adult plots depending on whether the vampires are straight or gay, self-reflective parasites or predatory killers.
We now come to Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon. Because he likes to keep his audience on their toes, this is the third book in the Wearing the Cape series, except it’s really 1.5, fitting between events described in Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc. More importantly, it focuses on Jacky Bouchard aka Artemis, a relatively minor character in the first two books, and gives her a leading role in this intermediate book. Obviously, we’re still in The Post-Event World, i.e. individuals can react to life-threatening events by spontaneously developing breakthrough superpowers. This is relatively rare but, when it occurs, the individual’s new abilities or powers reflect something psychologically important to them. For our immediate purposes, it skews the usual vampire “parenting” trope. In most traditional stories, the existing bloodsucker will descend on the flock, gorge until sated, and then throw the dry husk away. This is the rational predator at work. If a biter uplifts a bitee every time it feeds, that’s a lot of competition emerging onto the meat market. Suddenly, the sheep grow alarmed by their losses and take defensive measures. Worse, the original vampire may have to fight newbies to establish and maintain territorial rights over the flock. Only in rare cases does a vampire intentionally create another. Well, courtesy of Marion G Harmon, we have a different route. If you’re a passionate vampirephile, you can breakthrough into superpowers except, instead of being faster than a speeding bullet, you’re sprouting fangs and suddenly terrified of eating a garlic sauce with your fettuccine.
This is no more disconcerting to society than developing the power to manipulate one of the elements or fly. Any power in the wrong hands can be a danger to those in the immediate area. So, in principle, you can have good and bad superpowered individuals, plus the opportunistic swingers. Our heroine is a good vampire who’s sent to New Orleans to help police the local vampires. State laws prevent them from feeding on humans under the age of eighteen, so age verification at the doors of pubs and clubs used by vampires has to be reliable. Fairly quickly, she realises there’s a more serious problem developing as a vampire may have broken through with the power to create other vampires. Alternatively, a new drug is enabling a small percentage of the users who die to be reborn as vampires. No matter which cause proves correct, the idea there may soon be a plague of vampires is something up with which society will not put. So Jacky, a local police officer with only a semi-controllable hairstyle, a member of the Catholic Inquisition, and a granny with a powerful mojo, take the side of righteousness and set out to save New Orleans, if not the world, from being overrun by an army of powerful predators.
The most pleasing aspect of this book is the rigorous way in which the author explores the new world. For example, who would have thought there could be such significant advantages to a vampire like Jacky when she goes breaking and entering. His analysis of the relative strengths of security systems including motion and heat sensors is great fun. Home security would need a whole new upgrade if vampires were real. The only minor problem is a slight straining of credibility in our heroine’s apparent lack of understanding of the relative strength and weakness of vampires. Speaking hypothetically, if I was suddenly to become a vampire, I would immediately begin a series of tests to discover exactly what my limits were. I would also seek expert advice from as many people as possible. After a few weeks, it would be very difficult to take me by surprise. While working with the Capes, Artemis has had many opportunities to talk with the leading experts in the field. Yet this book shows Jacky still relatively unprepared for taking on her own kind in New Orleans (although she does learn fast).
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights shows Marion G Harmon maturing as an author. This is an assured performance, nicely balancing interesting ideas against the need to propel the plot forward. More importantly, he’s also pushing the vampire trope into slightly less familiar territory. The blend of superhero and supernatural conventions is far more successful here than in the mass of urban fantasy novels which mix different types of being together and let them fight it out. You could read this as a standalone but, as is always the case in a series, it would be a richer experience if you’d read Wearing the Cape. So no more conservatism. Forget 1819. Rapidly accelerate past 1.0 and 2.0 and embrace the terrifying power of 1.5!
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review and you can buy it on Amazon by clicking here.
One of the most interesting things it’s possible to do when dealing with the written and visual media is to travel in time. Today, slipping a DVD into the player slot can bring you yesterday’s films and television programs, or you can pick up book classics from days gone by. Except what exactly do we mean by a classic? It’s a word we bandy about knowledgeably as if it has some agreed meaning. So, distinguishing it from antique, what makes a modern classic in the sense of quality? Starting off with the thorny problem of age, the Americans celebrate “old” high-end cars by distinguishing between classics manufactured between 1925 and 1948, and the more modern mass-produced vehicles even though sometimes produced in small numbers. In other words, “classic” refers to the perceived quality of the vehicle manufactured at a time when it was difficult to achieve the kind of beauty more easily achieved when technology advanced. This is slightly different from the notion of classic rock which tends to be a reference to old tracks we know and love from a shortlist of bands that have achieved cult status, i.e. it’s a quality of endurance in a mass market largely made up of disposable junk. This makes the selection of the qualifying music something of a moveable feast with some radio stations and music packagers refusing to go beyond the 1960s, and others quite happy to cover all popular music up to the 1980s.
We have the same problem of classification with the cinema. Some refer to quality as assessed by groups of critics or as having been recognised in Awards. Others rely on popularity measured by audience numbers or the box-office cash generated. Yet relying of the taste of others or on some arbitrary numbers rather misses the point because, today, we might value an old but obscure film for the aesthetic qualities that went unremarked at the time of release. In other words, “classic” sometimes signals an act of historical reclamation or rehabilitation, retrospectively conferring an “award” of quality on a work that was “ahead of its time”.
Since I comfortably span decades of content in all forms of artistic endeavour, I’m less inclined to make arbitrary decisions based on specific dates or events, e.g. on the abandonment of the Hollywood studio system or the shift from 78s to 45s and 33s in terms of rpm. I think this is a generational issue. If a piece of work, no matter what its form, is still read, watched or enjoyed by the children or grandchildren of those who produced it, this is a classic. When so much contemporary work is junk, it takes about twenty-five years for the average and poor to disappear from view, leaving only the good and the ironic bad that achieve cult status simply because they are so bad as to become amusing. In this I admit the marketers abuse the word. We too often see the words “modern classic” which is copyright holders trying to sell some of their back catalogue to a modern audience that doesn’t know any better. There’s also the problem of genre. When we want to label something a classic, is this just a judgement of the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic experts in the particular field, or must the work have achieved some degree of acceptance outside the genre? Take any older book, film or television program as a sample. Should any modern viewer find the work accessible and immediately likeable, or must it first appeal to the cognoscenti?
I’m musing in this way because I decided to watch Ninja Scroll or Jûbê ninpûchô or The Wind Ninja Chronicles again. This is a “classic” piece of anime cinema from Madhouse Studios, released in the distant past of 1993. I’ve also had a run of books written in the style of Jane Austen and others as if draping a coffin with the flag of a dead author somehow makes the modern artifact a better container of interesting and enjoyable content. I’m also minded to mention The Dark Knight Rises (2012) as based on A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. You can’t keep a good plot down, says I. Anyway, the anime comes to us courtesy of Yoshiaki Kawajiri who has an impressive track record in the anime field going back to the early 1970s. The story falls neatly between two subgenres. It’s both about the ninja and the samurai traditions, while conforming to the thriller convention of a government spy and two helpers penetrating the security of a group intent on destabilising the current government. We start with Jubei Kibagami (Kôichi Yamadera) who’s moving from job to job as the whim takes him. Early on, he’s established as an expert with the sword. We then switch to a team of Mochizuki Koga Ninja who’ve been sent to assess reports both that there’s an outbreak of plague in Shimoda village and another group of ninja arriving in the area. All but Kagero (Emi Shinohara) are killed leaving the “classic” scene of horror as Tessai (Ryūzaburō Ōtomo) physically picks her off the ground by one leg and licks her in anticipation of raping her. Thanks to a timely distraction provided by Jubei, she’s able to stab her attacker in the eye and make a temporary escape, but this does represent a marvelous moment that transcends time and hits with the same impact today as it did eighteen years ago. The spy Dakuan (Takeshi Aono) recruits Jubei by blackmail and appeals to the girl to follow. He’s wonderfully cold-hearted, having no real interest in the survival of either individual, but content to use them as stalking horses to lure out the Devils of Kimon who are behind the deaths of the villagers and apparently supporting the plot to undermine the shogunate government.
We then have the usual series of individual combat sequences as the “team” whittles down the opposition. This all plays out against Jubei’s backstory which is slowly revealed to show the coincidence that the current problems are being caused by Gemma Himuro (Daisuke Gōri), a man he killed in a past encounter who has been able to reincarnate himself. Needless to say, all this leads up to a rematch with Jubei realising he must do rather better than just beheading the man if he’s to prevent him from coming back to life again.
The artwork is cleanly drawn and fascinatingly detailed in telling a sophisticated story of political intrigue and violence as the means to seize power. The relationships between Jubei, Kagero and Dakuan are completely unsentimental with the only real concession to gender politics being Jubei’s insistence that Kagero take herself seriously as a ninja — this includes his refusal of her sexual offer even though it might save his life. So, overall, I would take this as a classic piece of anime that’s as fresh today as it was all those years ago when I paid to see it in the cinema. That said, I’m not convinced many modern viewers outside the anime, fantasy and horror fields would find Ninja Scroll or Jûbê ninpûchô or The Wind Ninja Chronicles of general interest, although it might serve as a good example of early work to introduce the history of anime to modern audiences. In saying this, I note that it’s about to be re-released on DVD, presumably bearing the legend “Modern Classic”.