Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

July 28, 2014 1 comment

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

It’s always fun to see how coincidence can play a part in this reviewing game. It can throw up very interesting comparisons when you’re least expecting it. A few books ago, I was transported back in time to Japan. This is, as you might expect, an opportunity for culture shock since, even at the best of times, Japanese culture can be very difficult to understand. Although we’re in contemporary America with Invisible City by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books, 2014), we’re dealing with the equally opaque world of the Hasidic Jews. As is always required when I approach a subject that may have controversial overtones, I always disclose any personal factors that might skew my opinion. Through this disclosure I give readers the chance to judge the extent to which I may be biased in the opinions I offer here. So, as I have mentioned on several occasions, I’m a confirmed atheist. But what I have not mentioned earlier is that through the paternal line, I have Jewish blood. Since Judaism is matrilineal, I’m therefore not officially Jewish, but you may feel this influences my views of this book. I should also say that, some twenty-five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet some members of the Hasidic community. This means I started this book with some insight into the lives of the people who live according to this strict code.


In a way, this book is a coming-of-age story on several different levels. This is a young woman who’s looking to convert her theoretical knowledge of journalism into the practical working skills a reporter needs to get the story that will sell newspapers and bring traffic to the website. Not everyone can make this transition and so a portion of this book is devoted to discussing how a new graduate survives in her first freelance job. The problem with this and the other elements is that there’s a fair amount of exposition. Instead of there being content embedded in conversations or internal monologue that can pass by seamlessly, there’s quite a lot of young person angst and some infodumping to get through. Our protagonist, Rebekah Roberts, is slightly more naive than I was expecting and she’s lucky to survive on the journalism front since she seems to have little or no enthusiasm for the activity of writing. All we do see is a slowly emerging curiosity to put pieces together to make up a possible story, but she remains extraordinarily diffident until quite near the end. I have the published articles, books and more than one-million words on this site to prove I’m a writer. This protagonist has no interest in writing for fun. In my “book” that makes her an unrealistic hero.

Julia Dahl

Julia Dahl


At a personal level, she’s also unexpectedly pitched back into a personal identity crisis. By coincidence, the first major crime she’s sent out to cover involves the death of a woman who turns out to be a member of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. This is not what she would have wished because her mother was a Hasidic Jew who had left the Brooklyn community with a Christian man. Immediately after her birth, her mother disappeared and there’s been no contact with her mother since. When she goes to the house of the woman who was killed, there’s a second major coincidence because she meets a man who knew both her mother and father. He proves to be the major catalyst to get her started in the more serious business of being a reporter.


And then there’s the Hasidic community itself. Although it does its best to insulate itself from the outside world, it’s inevitable that some members are contaminated by external ideas. Some of those who grow weak in the faith, like Rebekah’s mother, look for ways to either distance themselves from the community or to leave entirely. For this purpose, there’s a kind of halfway house and an underground railroad for those who want to leave altogether. We therefore see the community as a whole held together by the ties of shared history. To that extent, an outsider might say the community is refusing to come of age, i.e. it remains a historical anomaly because it refuses to adapt itself to contemporary culture. For the few who find it impossible to remain, there are emotional and practical problems in adjusting themselves to a different pace of life outside.


This leaves me with two questions to answer. The first is the obvious, “Is this a good mystery for our rookie journalist to solve?” To this, I give an unqualified yes. This is a tragedy because the culture refuses to adopt what the rest of the world would consider a proper investigative approach to deaths within the community. The protocols to be applied for dealing with the bodies and the speed with which they are to be buried, raises barriers to a thorough investigation. The second question is, “Is the delivery of the plot handled well?” The answer to this is negative. Ignoring the horrendous coincidences (there are others which I have not mentioned), there’s altogether too much exposition and not all the behaviour on display is convincing. Now some of you may say it’s hardly surprising the behaviour is not very credible because the focus of our attention is the Hasidic community and, by modern standards, they do not act in a very reasonable way. In some respects you would be right. But that’s where my original point of comparison with Japanese culture comes into play. At the time the shogunate was at its full power, Japanese society was distinctly dangerous and unpleasant. Yet the way in which the author approaches the analysis of this very different culture is nonjudgemental. We see people treated in an appalling way, but the events are explained and the author passes on. Sadly, this author comes with an agenda to find fault. She’s into conspiracy theories about implicit corruption with the Hasidic community buying themselves power and influence with their money. Not only does this lead to a distortion of the usual process of divorce and issues of child custody, but it also potentially enables people within the community to get away with murder or other serious crimes. It’s entirely possible this is true, but the author’s approach smacks of tabloid journalism with all the facts lined up to reach her damning conclusions. I concede that, in the final pages, there’s a brief balancing explanation both for this community’s insularity and for the general desire of Jewish communities to be low-profile. But if you were not looking for it, you might easily miss it. This is a shame. Invisible City could have been a very interesting book. Instead it’s something of a disaster.


This book was sent to me for review. If you are interested, the book is also available as an audiobook from Macmillan Audio. Here’s a sample clip from the audiobook.


Parker Field by Howard Owen

July 3, 2014 2 comments


Dropping for a moment into the American vernacular, realtors claim the key to a sale is location to the power of three. In a sense, the same formula applies to authors when it comes to the setting of their novels. There must be a credible physical place in which the action is to occur. The culture of the place at that specific moment in time must resonate with the readers. We must feel we’ve known places like this and, more importantly, the setting must help to set the mood for the action. And the people who live and work there, both individually and collectively, must step off the pages as living and breathing members of the community. In Parker Field by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2014) we find all three realtor qualifications met as our series character, Willie Black, continues to scrape a living as a journalist in Oregon Hill, one of the neighbourhoods in Richmond, Virginia. For those of you who like a little history, the stadium named Parker Field was built in 1934 as a general place for community and sporting activities, and converted to minor league baseball in 1954. It has now been demolished.

Those of you who know me might crack a smile that I should suddenly have developed some knowledge, albeit paltry, of the American obsession with baseball. I confess sport, no matter which country and its local preferences, has always left me cold. After a long lifetime, I can put my hand on my heart and say I have only twice paid to see a professional game played. That has not stopped me from being a moderately competent player of two sports. I’ve just never been interested in following how well or badly other people perform. As the title of this book might suggest, the theme for this investigation is that there seems to be an unusually high death rate among the 1964 team which called itself the Richmond Vees. This is an entirely fictitious team that plays in Parker Field during the fallow year between the departure of the Virginians and the arrival of the Braves. The reason for establishing this somewhat arcane fact is that someone takes a shot at Les Hacker who was a member of the team. Willie is directly involved because Les is living with his mother and has become a kind of surrogate father.

Howard Owen

Howard Owen

Although the probable motive for the killing emerges quite early on, it’s impossible to see who would have the inclination to act after so long a period of time. There’s also a serious logistical problem for the possible killer to have found all these people and then patiently waited between the deaths so a pattern to the deaths would not be obvious. We therefore settle in for the long haul as our doughty journalist cum detective tracks down everyone who was on the team or their surviving relatives. Once he begins talking to them, a strong indication emerges he’s on the track of a serial killer but, of course, the local police are unimpressed. They have arrested the local homeless vet who made the mistake of wearing the jacket so conveniently dumped on him while he was “resting” in the park. Such is the bullheaded stupidity required of local law enforcement who prefer the obvious solution to the right answer. In the end, Willie solves the problem and ends up no better than he was at the beginning of the book except he’s now without Les.

Taken overall, Parker Field is a particularly fine example of how to make the setting a character in the book. Everything that happens grows organically out of the place and the people who live there. There’s just one thing preventing this from being an outstanding book. Up to this point in the serial killing, the killer has been meticulous and patient. But the later scenes reveal him/her as almost completely unbalanced and not a little reckless. This means the ending is unnecessarily melodramatic. So if you’re prepared to go with the flow and see Willie Black call down destruction on his own head, you will feel satisfied with the outcome. Otherwise, you will think there could have been many better ways for the realism of the set-up to have been continued to the last page.

For a review of the second in the series, see The Philadelphia Quarry.

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

No Stone Unturned by James W Ziskin

June 29, 2014 2 comments

No Stone Unturned James W Ziskin

No Stone Unturned by James W Ziskin (Seventh Street, 2014) sees the second appearance of Ellie Stone, a young woman driven by the need to prove herself in a 1960‘s society that has still to embrace the notion of gender equality. She’s currently working in the small town of New Holland in upstate New York at The New Holland Republic, but finding it very difficult to be taken seriously as a reporter. Not surprisingly, given the era, Artie Short, the owner, tends to give preference to unimaginative, by-the-numbers George Walsh. This has been grinding down our heroine, so hearing the discovery of a body on her scanner gives her the chance to be first in the queue when it comes to getting the inside story. The body proves to be Jordan Shaw, daughter of the local judge and respected attorney. It was was discovered half-buried in the woods, having previously occupied a room at the somewhat notorious Mohawk Motel. To her surprise, the Judge formally asks her to investigate. It’s not exactly that he has no faith in the local sheriff to discover who killed his daughter, but he reasons it can only help to have a second string to his bow. In making this choice, he’s relying on his inside knowledge of her success in tracking down her father’s killer in the first book.

This doubly motivates her. Obviously she sees the story of her investigation as being her foot in the journalistic door and, if she can also get the judge’s backing, there may be other opportunities flowing from the social and political connections. With her trusty camera always to hand, she takes photographs of everything that may prove significant. Once in full flow, she’s an unstoppable force, identifying the present whereabouts of the Shaw’s family car and then beginning to piece together what happened at the Mohawk Motel. However, it’s when she travels into Boston that we get to see her determination as, confronted by a locked door, she calmly picks up an axe and discovers the next body. Needless to say, she’s in full photographer mode as she waits for the police to respond to her call. Then it’s off to Tufts where Jordan Shaw was a student. At this point, the plot takes off into pleasingly complicated territory as our journalist/reporter has to work out what the relationship is between the lives the two girls might have had in Boston and in New Holland. There’s also a diary to puzzle over with lots of interesting notations and significant initials.

James W Ziskin

James W Ziskin

Sadly, she becomes the trigger for a slightly heavy-handed portrayal of the Indian/Pakistan hostility through the palpable tension between Prakash Singh and Hakim Mohammed at Tufts and, later, in New Holland. This plot element and the emerging debate about birth control form the time-specific links to 1960. Although our heroine is attacked and, in a separate incident, almost dies, there’s a distinct pulling of punches when it comes to dealing with the sexism of the time. The racism against the Hispanic community also feels sanitised. More importantly, even more than in the first book, the first-person narrative featuring Ellie lacks credibility. Although she functions very well as an investigator and solves the various crimes including the two murders, it could just as easily have been a young man. Yes she does flirt a little and is physically vulnerable, but this is very much a man’s view of a woman’s internal monologue.

This leaves me with slightly mixed feelings about the book. As a murder mystery, it’s a nicely constructed plot with suspects serially eliminated as the pages turn. The thriller element of the young woman who survives assault and attempted murder is also reasonably persuasive. But the sense of location in 1960 is not quite as successful as in the first book and the characterisation of Ellie is more perfunctory. So if you’re prepared to view this as predominantly a murder mystery with only a faint historical veneer, you’re likely to find this at least as enjoyable as the first in the series. But if you were expecting there to be a step forward in developing the historical themes and watching a young woman try to be ahead of the curve as feminism begins to develop a more positive edge, you’re likely to be disappointed. That makes No Stone Unturned good but not as good as it might have been.

For a review of the first in the series, see Styx & Stone.

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

Dakota by Gwen Florio


This is a book about the interstitial spaces between cultural subgroups. . . Sorry: a burst of excessive exuberance there. Every now and then I’m tempted to write an academic review, not so much to show off, but rather to use some of the more precise language to express the ideas. Yet to do so in this context would be wrong. This is a site where I allow a continuous stream of consciousness to flow through my fingers to the screen, followed by editing to ensure it’s vaguely comprehensible and not too intimidating for those I know read these reviews. The interface with the readers must be properly managed.


Dakota by Gwen Florio (The Permanent Press, 2014) is a fascinating book because, at every turn of the page, you confront an interface or overlaps both between different individuals, and between groups. At a personal level, our protagonist, Lola Wicks, she who was ousted from the journalistic front line in Afghanistan, has now settled down in rural America. Yes, it’s Magpie, Montana and the snow drifts are as high as an elephant’s eye. At the first blush of her encounter with the editor of the local paper, she was forced to admit she’d begun to date the local sheriff. Well, perhaps ”date” is something of an understatement given he’s quite a useful foot-warmer in bed when there’s snow on the ground (not in the bedroom itself, you understand). So that induces a conflict of interest and debars her from reporting on anything connected with the crimes the sheriff investigates — these ethical lines are punctiliously maintained in small-town Montana.


I should mention Charlie Laurendeau, the sheriff, is a part-blood member of the Blackfeet Nation with jurisdiction over the area outside the reservation. That means he’s on a hiding to nothing. If he fails to keep order when members of the tribe make trouble in town, he gets instant criticism from the angry white folk. If he goes into the reservation, he’s viewed as the equivalent of an Uncle Tom, and faces suspicion and resentment.


At a group level, there are the general tensions between the local communities, which is not helped by the difference between the townies and the cattlemen (I hesitate to call them cowboys). There’s little work for many of the men — creating haves and have-nots — so the North Dakota oil fields at Bakken draw roughnecks both from the local communities and further afield. That’s where the fracking occurs — that’s a fracturing of the rock to create a new interface between the ground and the oil. When a young American Indian girl is found dead just outside the reservation, there’s a possibility it was an accident. The snow was deep, the windchill factor severe, and she was inappropriately dressed. Slightly further on, a truck had gone off the road. The driver’s neck was broken, but that looked less like an accident. Naturally, the sheriff begins the investigation and Lola does not ask. However, she’s making new friends on the reservation and keeps her ears open. She discovers this was not the first Blackfeet girl to disappear but, self-evidently, she’s the first one to turn up dead.

Gwen Florio

Gwen Florio


The trigger for more serious action comes when the photograph of the dead girl is published in the local paper. One of the men passing through town claims she was working as a prostitute at the shantytown used by the roughnecks. This is not a complete surprise. Both men and women need work. The men work on the rigs, while the women collect a proportion of their pay in the “special” trailers. The one interesting feature is the brand on the dead girl. Perhaps this signals a more predatory tone to the girl’s working conditions. When the funeral comes, many of the Blackfeet who work on the rigs come home, but don’t talk, even a little, about the conditions there.


Following on from the first in the series, Lola then fails to get the balance right between prudence and recklessness, and decides to visit the oil field. It’s at this point we get to perhaps the most fundamental cultural divide. The Bakken rigs draw desperate men from all over America. Cut off from their families and crammed together in poor accommodation, they need relief. Whether the tiny number of women should be expected to tolerate the men’s behaviour is not the issue. Gender roles count for less when the sex ratio is so skewed at somewhere between 50:1 and 100:1. Of course when the Blackfeet workers come back to the reservation and their families, they have more money than everyone else and hold their heads up, protesting they never touch any of the women. This is not a pretty picture, particularly when they lose those jobs and have nothing but debts they cannot now pay off.


Confronted by a reality far worse than she could have imagined, Lola nevertheless survives the investigation and gets her big story. This only leaves the final two interfaces to negotiate. The first is the tricky relationship between a journalist and the people she would write about. Have they not already been through enough without headlines splashing the details all over the front page? On the one side is the public good of better information for all about the condition in these camps. On the other is the pain and humiliation some individuals have endured. How should the decision-to-publish circle be squared? And then there’s the equally challenging space between two people who may just love each other, but have not yet made the commitment. Perhaps that’s the most difficult to bridge. The laconically named Dakota is written in a pleasing prose, crammed with incident and excitement that, at times, is slightly over the top, but I forgive the excess of the thriller because there’s much social observation to chew on and the description of Blackfeet culture is fascinating.


For a review of the first in the series, see Montana.


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


Noose by Bill James


Noose by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2013) is playing the identity game but with a twist. Under the usual rules, the character under review is based in contemporary times. Because we know the culture, we can understand the process to achieve the particular outcome. But this has changed the timeframe. We’re now back to a twenty year or so period from the 1930s to 1950s in Britain. To the majority of modern readers, this might just as well be science fiction. Readers are transported to a different world and have to begin learning the new behavioral constraints. As I was growing up, we were rebuilding after World War II. I listened to my grandmother telling me what it was like when Queen Victoria was on the throne. As we’ve aged, my generation has been passing on our personal experiences of the bomb damage, food rationing and austerity as it used to be. We’re a link to the past. But when it comes to the 1930s, personal knowledge is not available. It’s all secondhand. That Britain was in a transition phase. The class barriers had been breached and the frustrations of life could more clearly be seen. That was my mother and father’s time. They never seemed to have much to say about the 1930s. Coming back to this novel, the result is a slightly metafictional exploration of the life of one Ian Charteris. We watch forces shape him. We see what might have led the Government to try recruiting him as a spy. It’s a fascinating story, or portrait or life narrative.


We start off in the 1950s. The young woman who may be his sister from the wrong side of the sheets has just ended up in hospital. She’s an actress and he’s a journalist reluctantly invited to extract her story for publication. Perhaps there was a time when ethics formed a part of the journalist’s equipment but, in the early fifties, we’d moved to a time when morality was more flexible and permitted behaviour that focused on generating profits without worrying so much about the means. Hence, the editorial powers see Charteris as their inside track to discover why the “young thing” should have attempted suicide. And even if she didn’t make the attempt, the story can always be written up to imply she’d been unlucky in love and had tried to end it all. Charteris was good at telling stories.

Bill James

Bill James


When he was younger, he’d given evidence in a murder trial. The accused had hung for killing a man in a public air-raid shelter during a bombing run. Journalists often come with emotional baggage. It gives them insights into the troubles of others. It helps build bridges so that trust can be established and confidences exchanged. The storytelling had been learned at his farther’s knee. His father had been a sailor in the 1930s and switched from pleasure craft to the inshore merchant marine when hostilities began. He was a great raconteur even if prone to repeat the same stories. The story of his heroic rescue of Emily Bass had entered the mythology of the family and the area. There was even a special memorial service to mourn the loss of the brave captain who (idiotically) also dived in to try saving the young woman. That was certainly something to remember. A working class hero and a gentleman who couldn’t survive in difficult waters let alone rescue the girl.


I knew men like the captains of the passenger vessels who were racing each other into the harbor. They ran their ships and businesses like unaccountable barons. If anything went wrong, which it often did, they walked away from blame by virtue of their class status. That made men like Charteris Snr. very bitter. They did all the work and carried the can when things did go wrong. That’s why the father was always upset his son had involved himself in the events surrounding the murder. It brought unwanted attention to the family. The fact the boy was only eleven and had yet to perfect his understanding of how the word worked was no excuse. It soured the relationship a little. Later, of course, the son meets the rescued girl again. She’s about forty and tells her side of the story. It explains aspects of his family’s behaviour he’d not fully understood.


Later, as a journalist, he hears many other stories. That’s the nature of his “profession”. How far he’s prepared to go to act on these stories is another matter. It all comes down to trust. People exchange stories for different reasons. Some are laudable, others less so. That’s why I mentioned the problem of ethics earlier in the review. Just what does a journalist do with the information he gleans from all those he talks with? This book provides a fascinating answer. It may reach the end in 1956 but, as a parable, the issues still resonate with us today as Wikileaks and the activities of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden provoke debate about the covert activities of governments. Journalism always has been a difficult and sometimes dangerous role to play. Noose shows us why some people are attracted to the life and the price they sometimes have to pay. It also fairly successfully passes the history fiction test. There’s enough here to enable modern readers to get a real feel for all the main characters and their motives. It’s a clever and engaging read.


For the reviews of other books by Bill James, see:
Snatched: A British black comedy.


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


The Funeral Owl by Jim Kelly

The Funeral Owl by Jim Kelly

The Funeral Owl by Jim Kelly (Severn House, 2013) the seventh in the Philip Dryden series, brings us to a part of England so remote from “ordinary” experience, it might just as well be in another country (although not France, of course). In a way, the author is playing the same game as Kate Wilhelm who, in her early novels such as Fault Lines (1977), used the landscape as a commentary on the emotional state of her protagonists. Although perhaps a closer match is Dorothy L Sayers given The Nine Tailors (1934) is also set in a Fenland village. Here we begin with a tortuous drive along series of often arrow-straight, raised but narrow roads which are designed like traps for the unwary with deep, canal-like drains on one side and fields on the other. Make a single mistake and you’re plunging down the steep banks into death by drowning or mangling by fence posts and root crops. If the roads don’t get you, there are always the mini-tornados which whip across the flat fens, ripping up the top soil and using it as grapeshot to pepper the few isolated buildings and anyone unable to find adequate shelter. Here are farmers and other hardy souls whose lives revolve around survival. They are the alienated and isolated who never had the gumption to emigrate to more prosperous areas and live out lives of frustrated dreams, often in real poverty.


Earlier in the series, Dryden has been through personal tragedy but is now rebuilding with the arrival of a son, somewhat ironically named Eden in celebration of their location. He’s a journalist, responsible for running three local newspapers. Because he ended up in one of the roadside drains, Humph acts as his driver except, when the latter’s teenage daughter goes missing, Dryden has to get behind the wheel to take them both out into the boondocks to find Humph’s mother. She lives in a desolate bungalow near Brimstone Hill. Perhaps the girl might have gone there. When the reunion occurs (yes, it’s that friendly), Dryden seizes the chance to visit the nearby Christ Church at Brimstone Hill where the Rev Jennifer Temple-Wright holds the office. Thieves have removed some lead from the roof but failed to take the painting for which the church is famous. Oh, and there’s the body of an ethnic Chinese man hanging from a grave, crucifixion style with a wound (partly caused by a bullet) in his left side.

Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly


The next day, in a dead, i.e. closed and boarded-up, pub, the local coroner holds an inquest into the death of two young unemployed men found in a flooded ditch. Although they drowned in circumstances no-one can explain, they were close to death anyway because they had been drinking moonshine laced with poison. Later that day, when going through the post to his office, Dryden finds photographs of a pair of Aegolius funereus (boreal or funeral owls — there’s a superstition they are harbingers of death). The anonymous sender thinks they may be breeding in the village. Then there’s the blind Sexton who may be booted out the cottage he’s occupied for decades, and the still-shell-shocked veteran who can’t sleep because of the rather high-pitched noise made by the bird-scarers. And finally the local PC mentions a cold case of art robberies in the area. One of the men responsible has been seen in the area. They may have returned for another series of raids. Not a bad raft of local stories for our journalist to get his teeth into.


Although this novel is not a perfect example of unity of time, the chapters do follow the days sequentially. This fact tends to raise a slight question of credibility. I’ve visited the Fens a few times and have a vague peripheral awareness of the pace of life through observing how often news emanates from that part of the country. It’s never seemed to me to be like a city with murders, explosions, thefts, and extreme weather events every day. Such violent events do occur — no part of the country is immune — but this book manages to sandwich an enormous number of events between the endpapers. This is not to deny such a catalogue of crime could not occur, but it just feels slightly too much. That said, the result on the pages reads like a house on fire, the flames leaping from one item of furniture to the next. It’s a real mystery puzzle with a thriller wrapping. Yet that needs minor clarification. A lot happens that would be grist to a thriller mill. There are an explosion, shootings, murders, rioting with some torture elements, a train derailment, and divers other interesting events. Yet their purpose is as elements in the puzzle. Our hero is not some grizzled ex-MI6 operative who has to fight and shoot his way out of trouble as supervillains beset him from all sides. He’s a local journalist, now editor and bottlewasher -in-chief, doing a good job under difficult circumstances. By virtue of his status, he’s a disinterested observer yet necessarily involved, if only because he interviews those relevant to the stories he writes. In the end, everything is solved (except what happens to the dog and whether the owls are actually breeding) in a neat package. Even the weather gets in on the act again at the end to match the opening and closing scenes to the human drama in-between. It’s fascinating! Even though it does lack a certain credibility by being constrained in time, The Funeral Owl is a superior example of a puzzle plot with just enough human interaction to ensure the story is not a mechanical exercise with ciphers being moved around like pieces on a chessboard. It’s a story about real people caught in a surprisingly hostile environment and being forced to make the best of it.


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


Southside by Michael Krikorian


Too often authors fail to realise there’s something more to writing than putting one word after another. They tend to think they have the craft all nailed down when they manage whole sentences and then learn about paragraphs. The natural storytelling kicks in and off they go with this all-singing-all-dancing plot that all fits together (usually with not a little help from coincidence) and gets them to the end they foresaw when they set off (or at least that’s what they will claim if asked). So picking up a book like this is a pleasure because you get to read someone who understands the range of options available to a skillful writer. Let’s take a not-uncommon possibility: that you have a first person narrator but fit this inside a framework made up with both third-person point of view and omniscient author sections. This means the reader is passed from pillar to post as the story unwinds, each section having the best view of the action available. From a technical perspective, this is also challenging because the author has to balance tone and avoid knowledge bleeding from one section to another unless characters overlap or are seen talking with each other.

However, I’m delighted to say that the tool box has been thoroughly exploited by the addition of two further devices into the text. The first is a transcript of a conversation that was taped in rather ironic circumstances. Usually, journalists carry concealed recorders in the hope of catching the interviewee in a revealing admission. In this case, it’s the interviewee who’s recording the conversation with the journalist. I’ve only seen the ARC so I hope the typesetting is adjusted for the final print run. I prefer to see either a different font or italicised text with different tab settings.

Michael Kirkorian

Michael Krikorian

The second device is a series of narrative digressions where the author dives off into explanations or descriptions of relevant background. It has been illuminating to read this and pick up insights both into the practice of journalism and the gang cultures of Los Angeles. To understand the function of digression, consider the nature of this blog. There are currently 1051 digressions, i.e. with this post, 1052 pages which have different content but are thematically related in that they are all reviews or talking about books, films or television shows. So a narrative is a primary discourse, but the author deviates from the strict process of telling the story to talk about other things only tangentially relevant to the development of the plot. When done crudely, we’re offended and term the interruption to the flow an infodump. A digression is rather more subtle and reads more as an embellishment to the flow of the plot. It’s not intended as teleological, i.e. to help us arrive at the culmination of the actions described in the plot. It’s the author suddenly deciding to break off and tell us something interesting, just for the fun of it.

Anyway, enough of the technical stuff, Southside by Michael Krikorian (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) is a rather pleasing first novel from a journalist who’s adding fiction to his writing bow. It’s not in any sense autobiographical. It just happens to be about Mike Lyons who’s a crime reporter on the LA Times — always write about what you know advised some old hack with a typewriter. Here we have a protagonist with a spotty early life, in and out of trouble, but eventually finding a niche for himself writing about life on the mean streets of LA. Given his background, he’s able to talk with active gang members and pick up good stories. The editorial staff are less than enthusiastic about his habit of drinking on duty, but they like the steady stream of stories he’s able to deliver. Insofar as anything can be with a man who lives life on the fringes of a culture that never hesitates to shoot first (asking question before, during or after never arises), his life is at a good point, including love with a beautiful woman. That’s why it’s such a shock when someone shoots him on the street. Now begins a trial of strength. Who from among all the gang members he’s upset would be most likely to attempt killing him? Worried the attacker may return for a second bite of the cherry, our hero is chasing around for leads when a tape recording surfaces. It’s nicely ambiguous, but read the way the mayor and senior police officers direct, it shreds his reputation. Now there’s everything to play for as we canvass all points of view, including that of the “killer”, so we can understand the motives of those involved and all the shades from pale grey to absolute black on the moral scale.

In all this, no-one has superhuman investigative or deductive powers. Everyone bumbles along, doing their best as a team effort of journalist, police officers and, eventually, gang members. It’s good to see everyone finally ending up on the same side for once. With all the information pooled, the killer can be identified and his motive confirmed. It feels credible and, in a thriller with observed police procedural, you can’t ask for more than that. As a package, Southside is very readable and, with the compass points in mind, three more volumes are planned. I shall be watching to see if Michael Krikorian can maintain this high standard.

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

The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen

The Philadelphia Quarry

The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2013) is the second to feature Willie Black, one of these journalists who just won’t take no for an answer. If his editor or the publisher tells him to “back off”, he stubbornly runs towards it, no matter what the danger. This is not, you understand, the result of natural perversity. This is the mentality of the stereotypical “news hound”, the reporter who never lets go once he gets his teeth into a story. In an earlier life, he was probably Tintin. In this reincarnation, he’s a three-times married alcoholic who leads a charmed life working for a newspaper that’s more interested in pleasing their wealthy socialite owners than the pursuit of truth and justice. For what it’s worth, I also note the coincidence of this being the second book in as many months in which a man is passing. For those of you not up on the intricacies of racism in America, the “passing” refers to an African American who’s sufficiently pale in skin colour to be able to pass as white. In defence of the somewhat ironically named Mr Black, he does not find out about his ancestry until after this book has started and, having digested the information, is not embarrassed to disclose his relationship to a very clearly African American with an interesting past, a man called Richard Slade.

Howard Owen

Howard Owen

When Willie Black was just starting out as a reporter some twenty-eight years earlier, the big local case was the rape of Alicia Parker Simpson who was an innocent young thing of sixteen summers. The man accused and convicted was Richard Slade. He serves twenty-seven years before DNA testing shows him not to be the guilty man who left his seed at the scene. Some five days after his release, Alicia is shot dead in her car. Naturally everyone in officialdom lines up to accuse Slade of taking revenge for spending all those years in jail. Except none of this may be as straightforward as the police and prosecutors would like to think. Included in the undecided camp is our hero and one of his ex-wives who’s assisting in running the defence. Normally his involvement in the investigation would not be a problem, but the newspaper has been writing inflammatory editorials and has the family and many in the local community hostile to the press. Mr Black therefore finds it difficult to get anyone to talk with him until his mother mentions his link to the family. That breaks the ice and gives our hero an opportunity to talk with both the accused and his mother. Things take off from there.

There are several good things about this book. The first is the quality of the prose. Howard Owen has a natural flow to his writing which makes it a pleasure to read. There’s also considerable credibility in the characters we meet en route to the solution of both the original rape and the new murder. While making allowances for some stock characters out of central casting, some individuals are pleasingly different from the norm and add an extra layer of interest to the book. Unfortunately, this interest does not stick so tenaciously to the primary character. Alcoholic reporters from the old school of investigative journalism are difficult to do well. His hippy mother who still spaces out on cannabis feels reasonable but his ex-wife and daughter don’t quite fit. Sadly, the character that is WIllie Black feels a little “convenient”, fitting into the needs of the plot rather than engaging in events to shape outcomes. Although he does scare up some information by his own efforts, the key to really understanding what’s going on comes when one of the Simpson family breaks ranks and starts to feed him information. Without that lucky break, he would never get anywhere near the solution and would end up fired from his job and probably in jail for dangerous driving while drunk.

Although there are some nice moments in the plot and the writing itself is a joy to read, The Philadelphia Quarry ends up less than exciting. It’s a brave effort but, given the first in the series was nominated for the Hammett Prize, somewhat of a disappointment.

For a review of the sequel, see Parker Field.

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

Feed by Mira Grant

April 20, 2011 4 comments

In the spirit of this book, appropriately and punningly titled Feed — it’s about flesh-eating zombies — I need to offer the inside information that the author Mira Grant is actually Seanan McGuire in the real world. Having upheld the principle of journalistic integrity, reporting even the facts you didn’t know you wanted to know, let’s get past the pseudonym to the content. It’s fascinating to watch the shift in the mood of this book. It begins in much the style you would expect of a YA novel with youthfully irresponsible protagonists jauntily dicing with death as the zombies attempt a slow-moving ambush. There’s all the usual tension with the adoptive parents and a general sense of the generation gap. Then as we get out on to the campaign trail, we slowly get more serious so that, when the zombies break into the compound where the presidential hopeful is giving a campaign speech, the mood has become darker. It’s a clever manipulation of tone and, up to one-third of the book, the actual politics of an America overrun by zombies is underplayed. The morphing from a moderately conventional future history political drama with zombies into a mystery/whodunnit is also well handled as the evidence of a murder campaign builds (bearing in mind that, under the legal system outlined in the book, the militarisation of the dead is a terrorist offence, punishable by death). By then, we have clearly passed beyond what might have been considered YA territory. We’re very definitely in the realm of adult sensibilities as we view the inside of the Senator’s stables and get up close with the dead horses (and the cats, of course).

There’s a fair amount of infodumping about how the viruses are thought to have escaped into the wild. The structuring of the blogging news and opinion service is also much explained. This is inevitable at the outset so that we understand the social forces that have shaped the culture. Given that there has been a major disruption to the fabric of society, I’m faintly sceptical as to the scientific progress that’s been possible. I can see the need for all the portable blood-testing kits and would understand the high priority for their production. But there do seem to have been major technological advances in home and public building construction to provide security for entry and then during the essential showering and clothes washing processes. The computer advances are also quite spectacular and there’s a lot of miniaturisation. Obviously, there are fairly active R&D facilities supplying secure manufacturing complexes. The problems of food production and water purification for drinking have also been resolved given the need to avoid consuming the active virus. This creates a society at bay. It’s already had to give up the defence of Alaska and now focuses its survival in defended urban areas and self-help communities.

Mira Grant looking nice enough to be Seanan McGuire

I suppose when you are writing a book about integrity in news reporting that you should tell a story in cold blood. By that I mean you should never flinch from uncomfortable truths. So, if people have to die, then it should be reported objectively. There are too many books written today where you end up with the same basic cast of heroes as you started with. It seems everyone with a headline name gets to survive while the rest are cannon fodder. In this case, we have what proves to be a major conspiracy and it reaches into all the spaces where the resistance is lowest. That’s the way of darkness. Somehow, it always seems to have the power to sneak into corners and take up residence where you least expect it. The impressive thing about Feed is that Mira Grant does not shy away from death or from dealing with its consequences, reanimated or otherwise. After the key death, we then change back to a more conventional thriller format in which the survivors attempt to survive. It’s rather like watching these news reporters from the front line of the battlefield. There they stand with impressive explosions in the background, reciting facts about the number of casualties. These are the people who are seen to take risks to bring us the news. It may not be very sane or, indeed, entertainment in any sense of the word because, truth be told, we’re all probably watching in the hope the next explosion will take off the reporter’s head on camera — there’s a ghoulish streak in all of us. But the point of this book and, I suppose, of all these broadcasts from live fire environments, is that someone has to be brave enough to do it, otherwise we would never understand the truth of how awful it really is.

As will by now be fairly obvious, I like this book. Despite the fact that it runs a little too long, it’s smart and, for once, intelligent. I know, it’s almost a perfect oxymoron: an intelligent zombie novel. Go figure. Anyway, Feed has a sincerity about it that avoids the sin of preachiness. It stays true to itself right up to the end, and beyond where there’s also an interesting interview with the author. She reminds us that this is the first in a trilogy, now titled Newsflesh (kinda catchy in a zombie fodder way). The next in the set are called Deadline and Blackout, with the teaser excerpt of Deadline closing off the book. I’ve already ordered my copy. So should you.

Adding one more piece of good news, Feed was shortlisted for the 2011 Hugo Award of Best Novel.

For reviews of the sequels, see
plus the first book in a new series Parasite
and writing as Seanan McGuire:
Chimes at Midnight
Discount Armageddon
Half-off Ragnarok.

Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard

May 23, 2010 1 comment

This is yet another of those days on which we can celebrate the prophetic powers of science fiction with the announcement of a synthetic lifeform (or, perhaps, it would be more honest to call it a variation on the human lifeform given the new cells are based on human DNA). But, hey, what’s with the details when this is the bestest scientific advance since the invention of sliced bread? Except even that’s an ironic idiom since we’ve had bread and knives to cut it with for centuries. The idiomatic sliced bread is that soggy stuff designed to fit into our toasters and the whole thing is marketing speak to make us feel better about eating cardboard rather than “real” bread.

Anyway, it seems the laboratories of humankind have now acquired godlike powers to bestow life on the clay of the inanimate. So far, there’s been little commentary from the Creationists and others of a religious bent. Perhaps they don’t feel threatened by this one giant leap forward for mankind since, as it stands, it’s hard to see what value this leap has for us (other than the potential to make a monster of some kind — mad scientists in books and films are notorious fabricators of life so there’s no need for them to be shy in replicating this in the real world). Except, it will be decades before anyone makes money out of it (the true criterion of utility in these commercialised times), unless the real plan is for weaponisation as super soldiers or a bacteria that will wipe out everyone on the planet except those with a science gene. A hypothetical Darwin would warn we have created the species that will displace us in evolutionary terms. Being old, I fear I will miss out on seeing how these interesting times turn out.

All of which brings me to the second book in my brief Lucius Shepard retrospective. This is Two Trains Running (still available for you to buy direct from the excellent Golden Gryphon if you are so inclined). This is a synthetic bookform made up of the DNA of non-fiction, journalism, non-genre fiction and a genre-bending science fiction and fantasy. Confused? Well so you should be when confronted by a new lifeform. In his introduction, Shepard explains how he was commissioned to write a magazine article about an alleged “hobo” organisation called the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). We then have an expanded form of that article, followed by two short stories capitalising on the research — only one is genre fiction. The result is a potential textbook to teach the techniques of writing for different markets. But, for me, it offers little value.

As an inveterate surfer of the net, serendipity offers hundreds of chances a day to read about events and ideas. My eye would have passed unhesitating over an article about FTRA. This is not to deny articles of this ilk any legitimacy but, time being limited for browsing, interest is unlikely to be piqued by information about biker gangs in Tokyo, murderous vagrants in US box cars, and sewing circles in Maidstone. Frankly, actually reading the article on the printed page does not make the information any more interesting. More importantly, it adds nothing to the two stories to understand the actual source material. Culturally, we have all the right stereotypes of those who use freight trains as their private passenger service. Television and film routinely exploits train hopping and the lifestyles of the homeless as plot devices. Indeed, arguably, the one genre story, “Over Yonder”, did not have to rely on “hobos”. The plot is that anyone can be tested and, if found of suitable mettle, offered new opportunities. So, for Shepard, it was serendipitous he happened to be thinking about FTRA when he sat down to write a redemption story.

All this is my fault. Before spending my money, I should have read the blurb posted on Golden Gryphon’s site. As it is, the book came as a rude awakening and will sit in a box untouched by human or Craig Ventor’s new lifeform until I sell on the rump of my current collection. Definitely not worth the money for me but, if you are into an infodump on FTRA, this book is for you.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Vacancy and Ariel
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

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