Archive

Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Shark Fin Soup by Susan Klaus

November 20, 2014 1 comment

Shark-Fin-Soup-A-Novel-925952-de1b144434251bbaefad

Shark Fin Soup by Susan Klaus (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is not a book that hides its light under a bushel. It believes in starting out with its message in the title and then relentlessly pushing it through the rest of the book. So here we go with fiction’s equivalent of fantasy ecoterrorism as applied to the habit of many in China and Asia to enjoy soup made solely from the fin of a shark. It might not be so bad if they would eat all the meat (and use the bones for stock), but the exclusivity of their interest means the fish are hunted for their fins and the rest is thrown away. This is waste on an epic scale as these predators are being hunted to extinction. Of course, the rest of the world is relatively indifferent to the fate of sharks. Just as the majority seem unmoved by the number of land animals that are either dying out naturally or being hunted for their valuable qualities, so humans seem not to care too much so long as they have enough to eat at a reasonable price. Of course, if overfishing were to mean the more common species disappeared or climate change inflated to cost of staples like wheat and corn to unaffordable levels, there would be an outcry. But until there’s a direct threat, only a few care.

This leaves activists to carry the burden alone. Many of these people take the view that all fish and animals have an intrinsic value. In Kantian terms, this would create a moral absolute to protect them because their value would be beyond all price, i.e. it would be morally acceptable to damage and destroy property and, in more extreme cases, to injure and kill the humans responsible for the exploitation or destruction of the given fish or animals, or their habitat. This is morality moving beyond mere beliefs, emotions, opinions or dogma. It’s seeking a justification for terrorism that will rank alongside divine law for those of a religious persuasion, or the philosophical analysis that will appeal to the rational. Obviously, this is not the place to debate the merits of such attempts to intellectualise and justify making all classifications of flora and fauna more important than the needs of the human community. However, you will understand that this book is firmly on the side of those who take direct action, including murder. This particular terrorist, the impressively named Christian Roberts, is to be the hero of this book and the author evidently expects readers to approve the outcome of what he does.

Susan Klaus

Susan Klaus

The first third of the book explains the circumstances in which the hero’s wife died and how this has come to motivate him to save the sharks. It also sets up a psychological study of the man who’s essentially depressed, sometimes drunk or high on drugs, and suicidal as a result of losing his wife (and what happened immediately afterwards). In practical terms, this loosens the man’s inhibitions. He no longer cares what happens to him. In this reckless state, he’s quite happy to commit a range of offences from arson, planting explosives, to murder. In this man’s mind, the end of saving the sharks from being hunted into extinction justifies all the means he adopts. Given that he’s a physically attractive man, he breaks the mould of terrorist stereotypes. Adopting the name Captain Nemo, he constructs ever more elaborate plots to disrupt the supply chain and indiscriminately kills diners to deter people from continues to hunt, kill and distribute the fins.

While not denying there’s a certain level of ingenuity to the way in which he achieves his aim, the practical mechanics of each step do rely on being able to find people who will help him, both in carrying out his attacks, and in escaping the consequences. Because this is a series character with a third book presumably already in the works, he emerges from the courtroom at the end without having to face trial and to the cheers of the now supportive citizens of New York. In the next book he has a choice of targets. He could hunt down those who tap baby seals on the head in Canada, or those who cut off the horns of rhinos in Africa, or those who stun and kill cattle in American slaughter houses. There’s no end of cruelties to avenge once you open the door to action against abuses in the food chain. Personally, I think the message gets in the way of the book without seriously evaluating the protagonist’s mental state and deciding whether he’s genuinely motivated by some degree of altruism to protect the sharks or is merely on a personal crusade because he’s enjoying the destruction and death. So, sadly, I find Shark Fin Soup unpalatable as a piece of writing. Worse, it also fails as a piece of propaganda. I might have forgiven the book if it had made out a good argument for preventing the further destruction of endangered species for human food production. But it emotes emptily and fails to construct even a token argument that might convince people to rise up and force lawmakers to enact and enforce strict controls.

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

The Prince of Risk by Christopher Reich

The Prince of Risk by Christopher Reich

The Prince of Risk by Christopher Reich (Doubleday, 2013) starts us off with an emergency meeting late Sunday between Edward Astor, chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange, and his friends, Charles Hughes, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Treasury Secretary Martin Gelman. They decide they must warn the President but, as they cross the White House compound, the limo’s software is highjacked and the Secret Service shoots the vehicle full of holes, believing it and its occupants have become terrorists (intelligence in White House security staff is not required).

 

Bobby Astor has been alienated from his father for years — he got one of these child divorce decrees from a judge to make it legal. So seconds before he dies, Bobby’s father texts the word PALANTIR to his estranged son. Like that’s a subtle form of revenge. The old man was cast aside, so he now tickles the grown man’s curiosity with a code word that’s liable to smash his financial empire and get him killed. Woo hoo! Is that ever revenge from beyond the grave or what! Better still, our hero doesn’t tell the police or FBI he got this inside information. No! He’s thinks he’s a better investigator than the police or the FBI. So what are a few dead bodies left in his wake. He’s the hero and he gets to do hero stuff even though he’s batshit crazy — like the sort of crazy that jumps off a chimney into a swimming pool for a bet crazy. Needless to say, our hero has a heroine ex-wife, Alex Forza. She’s an FBI special agent and she gets to shout at bosses who should know to let her get on with her job and are just so slow they can’t see the wood in the trees shooting up around them. And when they tell her to go home and rest for two days, this is just the provocation she needs to get no sleep for the next week and save America on her own (well, with perhaps a teensy little bit of help from her ex)! Although, when push comes to shove, she’s in there with the enemy, breaking their arms or shooting at them with extreme prejudice intended. She’s one tough cookie which is not what you want when you’re old and have a dickie set of false teeth (BTW in all the decades of my life, I have never heard a Brit actually say “toodles” meaning goodbye — sorry for such an irrelevant thought about some of the language on display in this book).

 Christopher Reich

Christopher Reich

 

So here’s the problem. On the one hand we’ve got one of these high-powered attacks on the financial heart of Western capitalism. To help us poor readers understand how fiendishly clever this diabolical plot is, the author keeps stopping to explain some of the ideas underpinning currency and stock trading, e.g. like the practice of shorting. The author never misses a chance to explain something he thinks we might not understand. The result is cumulatively pages of explanatory exposition which does nothing but slow down the pace of the book. At the other end of the scale, the special one wearing the FBI hat is in watching mode for a band of terrorists. Now get this. A neighbor sees some men unloading crates from a truck and, guess what, these guys had carefully written in cyrillic characters, “These are AK47s and we are terrorists!” on the outside (only joking). Sadly no judge would issue a search warrant based on the smartphone picture the neighbour took. So it falls to our heroine and her sidekick to ask to be invited in. Whereupon this highly-trained operative detects this is not a man from Texas but a “foreigner”. She tells this from the way he talks — pretty cool skills! When she tricks him by saying something in French, our wily terrorist makes a big mistake by replying in the same language! Realising he’s given himself away, this minor villain pulls out a gun and starts shooting — it’s easier just to admit guilt from the outset. Anyway, this killer manages to kill some FBI types before falling in a hail of righteous bullets. In the cellar are an alarming number of crates full of weapons — enough for a small army. Thank God for alert neighbors, their smartphones, and the FBI’s willingness to believe whatever they are told. But what are these bad men going to do with all these guns and an antitank weapon? Is the Mumbai scenario? Have they been listening to Leonard Cohen to plan, first, to take Manhattan and then to take Berlin?

 

Now I don’t want you to get the idea this is a completely brainless book. The central plot idea is not unintelligent. It’s just brainless most of the time as one plot cliché after another is trotted out for us to examine and admire for what it is. Indeed, what this author actually does is take formulaic ideas and elevate them to new heights of inventiveness. And to complete the process, we then have the ultimate coincidence that Bobby’s financial crisis is just a different side of the terrorist coin his ex-wife is investigating. Wow! Is that not a breath-taking turn of events, or what! This leaves our heroine to do a minor piece of globetrotting and there’s a good joke about Paris (which is based on a current real-world location), but all the main action is set in America where the combined terrorist attack is due to take place. As you would expect, the senior ranks of the law enforcement and security agencies are completely ineffective and everyone has to be saved by this husband/wife duo. In other circumstances, this can-do attitude might be inspiring. In this book it’s just absurd.

 

So there you have it. The Prince of Risk is a disaster from start to finish. You should avoid it.

 

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

 

Deadly Echoes by Philip Donlay

March 16, 2014 3 comments

Deadly Echoes 8-6-13 1-page-001

Deadly Echoes by Philip Donlay (Oceanview Publishing, 2014), the fourth novel to feature Donovan Nash, offers me a chance to use a word I can’t remember ever using in a review before. Yes, this is a. . . wait for it. . . a ripsnorting adventure. Now I’m not entirely sure what gas emerges from the rip but, when you snort it, it gives you extraordinary vigour as a reader. Why use the word here? Well, there are times when you read a book and you wonder how the author can make the situation ever bigger and more over the top. Well this book is one possible answer to that question. To give you but one example. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare fell back on the then tried and trusted stage direction. If events have been slowing down and you can’t think of anything witty to say, have your characters chased off the stage by a bear. That was guaranteed to produce hilarity and vast applause from the pit audience. Well, in this book, if you’re not paying attention, the confrontation and pursuit involving a bear is almost gone before you have a chance to register it. Yes, the classic Shakespearean device has been relegated to a few lines as our hero fights his way from start to finish.

Does it all depend on “him”? I hear you ask. Well, our hero may be good in the flying, and fighting, and shooting, and the hanging from helicopters, and other stunts you would probably want to ask the stunt double to do should this ever be planned for the cinema. But when it comes to saving the Earth (well, perhaps only Alaska, parts of Canada and a few of the northern US states), you have to turn to his wife. Yes, this is a partnership effort. Although their marriage may be going through a rough patch, what with assassins trying to kill her and their child, she’s the one with the brains. When it comes to seeing the big picture and envisaging how the impossible solution might become possible, she’s the one to get the scenario from the planning stage to the go-decision in the shortest possible time. No, this is not science fiction in the literal sense of the words. Think science possible if you close one eye and squint through the other. Then it all becomes perfectly possible and entirely plausible.

Philip Donlay

Philip Donlay

Did I mention all the shooting and fighting? There’s a high body count by the time we’re finished.

So this book follows on from Zero Separation. This gives me a major advantage because I know who everyone is and how the whole backstory fits together, Had I not read that, I suspect I would be feeling fairly lost and not a little frustrated since this is one of those revenge thrillers in which a figure from our hero’s past re-emerges to a fanfare of bullets and dismemberments. Do I like these people any better than I did the last time around? Well, we’re not given a great deal of time to worry about that because once the action starts, it keeps going at a ferocious pace. But the answer is, “Not really.” Everything that happens in this book is deeply complicated by the threat to disclose our hero’s real identity. Everyone “in the know” has to lie to the CIA, the FBI, Mossad, Interpol and local law enforcement agencies in the US and France. As a hook, the continuous threat for our hero to be revealed is not the most attractive. In other books where our protagonists are living off the grid, there’s usually an explanation to engage our sympathies, to encourage us to root for them as the forces of the law swirl around them. But this lot just want to keep the money and avoid going to jail. Hardly the most laudable of motives no matter how much good they may be doing through their organisation.

This all leaves me feeling somewhat ambivalent. As with the last book, this has a gonzo terrorism climax. In fact, it’s the kind of scenario Hollywood would enjoy doing with full CGI effects. I suppose the extravagance of it all wins me over. This is not just a few punches thrown and an explosion or two. This is non-stop action featuring a lot of flying, something our author knows a lot about. So if you do decide to come on this ride, be prepared for not just a hail of bullets — there’s a positive blizzard blowing through the book. A few are wounded and many die. Some of the deaths would have been quick. Others are designed for their shock value. Deadly Echoes certainly exceeds the average wow factor in terms of thriller plot. If only the lead characters were more likeable, I would be strongly recommending this. As it is, I suggest you read Category Five, the first in the series, to see whether you are hooked by the situation to make you want to read through to this point. If you are sufficiently tuned in and are rooting for these people, this will certainly hold your attention as the pages flash by in full page-turner mode.

For a review of another book in this series by Philip Donlay, see Zero Separation.

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

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty

March 3, 2014 2 comments

In the Morning I'll Be Gone, Adrian McKinty

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, 2014) finds Sean Duffy in the final volume of the trilogy set in The Troubles. He’s been through the wringer of being the wrong-shaped peg in a hole not of his own making. A Catholic serving in the police force is never going to win him friends on either side of the sectarian divide, but he shaded the odds in favour of being unacceptable to everyone by breaking all the rules in solving the cases he’s given and never being prepared to apologise for anything he does. At the end of the last book, he was demoted back to uniform. This puts him at the sharp end of policing and, when he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’s scapegoated and forced to resign the force. This leaves him at a loose end. The trigger for his official revival goes back to September 1983 when a few prisoners broke out of the notorious Maze Prison. It doesn’t take MI5 too long to link our hero with one of the escapees, Dermott McCann. They were at school together and have some “history” as the republican activist and theoretical urban terrorist. The Brits are not going to pass up the chance that the local man can do what they have so obviously failed to do. So Duffy is reinstated into Special Branch to talk with the families and relatives to see whether he can pick up any clues as to where Dermott has gone. At first there’s nothing but hostility, so Sean does what every respectable police officer would do. He beats up a heavy, threatens to shoot a drug pusher and pimp, burns down a newsagents, and rescues one of the McCann clan from a fate worse than death. He asks for no reward which may be why the IRA may later be less unsympathetically inclined towards him.

Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty

The first glimmer of light comes from Mary Fitzpatrick. Dermott married her second daughter and then divorced her when he was taken off into the Maze. A Faustian deal is made. Mary has never believed the death of Lizzie, her youngest daughter, was accidental. If Sean is able to prove to her satisfaction what happened that night, she will tell him where to find Dermott. There’s just one problem. Lizzie was found dead inside a pub that was not only locked but barred from the inside. The police who investigated this locked-room mystery, are convinced the death was an accident. After throwing out the last of the customers, Mary barred the doors, switched off the lights and climbed on top of the bar to change a light bulb. Unfortunately she fell, breaking her neck. The only three people who believe this is problematic are the elderly coroner who did the autopsy, her boyfriend and her mother.

This is a neat authorial trick of piling Pelion on Ossa. When Sean is given something impossible to do, the key to doing it must be the solution of an impossible crime. In this case, the problem is the complete absence of a motive. Although there are always ways in which a locked room situation can be set up, the real question is why anyone would have wanted to produce anything so complicated. The accidental death scenario is so much easier to understand and accept. As is required in books like this, there’s a long wait for the first hint of a motive to emerge, but even then it’s still not obvious why Lizzie should have been targeted. Believe me when I tell you the wait is well and truly worth it. The ultimate explanation of the how and the why of the death are outstanding.

This brings us to the weakest part of the book. By now we’re well into 1984 and those of you alert historians will recall this is the year in which the IRA planted a bomb in the Brighton hotel occupied by Margaret Thatcher. Writing this episode into the book is fair game, but the confrontation between Sean and Dermott is hopelessly contrived. Until I reached this part, I was lining this book up as unlikely to be beaten as the thriller of 2014. It’s such a shame. All the set-up in Northern Ireland and the subsequent investigation of the locked-room mystery is outstanding. Then we have to get the hackneyed ending.

When you put the three books together, The Troubles is one of the best thriller trilogies of the last decade. Despite my being less than enthused by the final confrontation, the quality of the prose remains pitch perfect and the unsentimental dark humour of the people and their political situation make In the Morning I’ll Be Gone a remarkable achievement in producing a plausible outcome for our hero. Incidentally, the next book is a standalone historical mystery called The Sun Is God.

For reviews of other books by Adrian McKinty, see:
The Cold Cold Ground
Falling Glass
I Hear the Sirens in the Street
The Sun Is God.

 

Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.

 

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

 

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

February 19, 2014 Leave a comment

The-Adjacent-013

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Titan Books, 2013) qualifies as one of the most interesting books of the last year. In part, the interest lies in what the book is not. Ah. . . so now we immediately come to the heart of it. In some senses, this is a story about the nature of relationships rather than a book sitting comfortably in a genre such as science fiction or fantasy. The word selected as the title gives us the theme. When two or more people, places or things are adjacent, they are next to each other, perhaps even sharing a common boundary or border, but they do not overlap. You could pass from one part to its neighbour, e.g. from a city centre to a suburb or, in American terms, a more distant exurb. This gives us a potential paradox to resolve. Two people may be “close”, but no matter how intimately involved they may be, they do not physically become one person. They retain their individual traits and characteristics. Ironically, the law used to proclaim husband and wife were one person for legal purposes. So, for example, spouses could not give evidence against each other or, in some cases, property originally owned by one before marriage fell into the ownership of the other after marriage. Laws create their own fictions or distortions of reality to fulfill their social policy purposes.

When it comes to literary purposes, Christopher Priest is playing a complicated game with us. None of the first- or third-person narrators who feature in this novel are intentionally unreliable. It’s not their fault that they fail to grasp exactly who they are nor what purpose their presence advances. All they can do is tell their stories, believing them to be true, and leave it to us to decide how much of what they say might be true in the context for their contributions. We start off with Tibor Tarent and his wife Melanie. They are in a version of Anatolia, Turkey. He’s a professional photographer and she’s a nurse. In earlier times, their marriage was strong, but their enforced stay inside this medical camp for refugees puts their relationship under pressure. Normally, Tibor displaces his personal problems into the passivity of observing life through the lenses of his cameras. When the dangerous war-torn conditions outside the camp deny him this release, he grows frustrated and angry. She’s endlessly useful to those in need. He’s in the way. Unfortunately, when she leaves the camp, she’s the victim of a terrorist attack with a different type of weapon and disappears. He’s loaded into different forms of transport which carry him back to the Islamic Republic of Great Britain (IRGB). Up to this point, we might have been in our version of reality, but it now seems we’re in an alternate history version of the world in which Arab states rule Europe with Islam as the dominant, but not the exclusive, religion. Or perhaps the different forms of transport with closed windows have carried us into new somewhat Kafkaesque spaces.

Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest

It’s also at this point we become aware of another feature of the narrative structure. The IRGB Government is interested in Tibor because he met with Thijs Rietveld just before the latter committed suicide. This man was a theoretical physicist who discovered the adjacency equations. It was meant to be a defensive system which could divert an incoming missile into an adjacent quantum dimension. Unfortunately, what can be used defensively can also be modified to displace enemies into different dimensions. Having let the technological cat out of the bag, the world now faces attack by anyone with the technical skills to build the weaponised form. This use of “adjacency” randomly pokes holes in space-time. Consequently, everything gets mixed together unpredictably. When we start the story, Tibor has no memory of meeting Thijs. Later the meeting is described in detail and he has the photographs to prove it. Depending on where you stand, walk or fly, you can see buildings or not (watch shells disappear and appear). What happens in one dimension can also be an echo of events in a different dimension. Even more confusingly, Tibor may be able to meet both living and dead versions of himself. So we come back to the problem of what adjacency actually means.

One part of the story is told by a stage illusionist named Tommy Trent who makes a wasted trip to the battlefront in World War I in the company of H G Wells. He’s been asked to advise on whether it’s possible to camouflage an aircraft in flight. Dismissing the use of blue paint to “hide” the craft against a blue sky, he theorises it might be possible to use two or three planes flying close together, using one or, perhaps, two of them to distract the audience on the ground so that the third might effectively become invisible. This is adjacency used to distract attention so that a magic trick can be performed, e.g. using a beautiful and scantily clad assistant to take the eyes of the audience at just the right moment. What makes the sequence of stories interesting is the way they are placed next to each other, i.e. some elements may be distracting our attention. This process becomes all the more fascinating with the diversion into the fictional landscape of the Dream Archipelago to meet one Tomak Tallant who’s also a magician, this time with a rope trick much loved by fakirs. An avatar of Melanie flies a World War II Spitfire into this dimension which just goes to show how malleable the boundaries can be between the different spaces.

So putting all this together, Tibor could passively look through the lens of his camera and see an image of Melanie in relation to himself. Now think of this as a photograph of the street forming the boundary between the city centre and a suburb. He could actively change the image so the street appeared to be six inches or six-hundred miles wide. But changing the image we might see does not change the reality of the relationship between the city and its suburb. They remain in close proximity, divided only by the designation of a street on a map as a border. So people may resonate with each other in their relationship and, no matter whether we’re persuaded to see them as physically close or widely separated, they remain close even though a magic trick might make it appear one had disappeared. The Adjacent is strongly recommended to everyone who enjoys thoughtful fiction.

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

Dark City by F. Paul Wilson

January 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Dark-City-Repairman-Jack--356160-e87bb8e4ec830c27f840

Dark City by F. Paul Wilson (Tor, 2013) sees the in-filling continue in the Repairman Jack saga. For those of you keeping count, there were the three books dealing with the teen years and then we have the sixteen book series leading up to the revised Nightworld which also concludes the Adversary Cycle. This is the second book in the Early Years Trilogy. This new sequence shows Jack arriving in New York in February 1991, and beginning to establish the basis of the career in which he becomes the Repairman. In Cold City, he consolidates the friendship with Abe, and meets Julio and the Mikulski brothers. There’s excitement as Jack gets involved in an operation to disrupt a child sex abuse ring which leads us into a story with multiple threads.

At this point I need to take one step back and write a few words for those who have not previously encountered Repairman Jack. Here’s a listing of the running order so far: http://www.repairmanjack.com/forum/content.php?157≈ As you can see, this is an epic piece of work and everything is woven together. The characters who appear in this book are fairly constant throughout the series and, for those of you new to the series, the coincidences which save our hero are not coincidences. For example, the “woman” known as Mrs Clevinger plays the guardian angel to save Jack, and on the other side, Drexler is deep in the thick of things to recruit helpers to promote chaos when the “time” comes. In fact, the teen and early years set of books is all part of a major irony which runs throughout the series. From the outset, Jack is a young man in search of himself as an independent person. He wants to live an unremarked life, below the radar. As we find him in this novel, he’s living on cash reserves. He has no social security number, no bank account, and no credit card. He thinks he’s finding his own way yet, unknown to him, he’s being shepherded — “groomed” is not quite the right word because it’s acquired an unfortunate sexual connotation — in a particular direction. If you read this book as a standalone, there will be much you will not understand. Yes, the book has exciting passages but, without a context, I suspect you will struggle to derive any consistent enjoyment. So because the YA books are less than perfect for adult sensibilities, the advice has to be to go back to the true beginning, i.e. Black Wind and The Keep. That way, you get a better understanding what’s happening and why. The only downside to this is that you’re no longer reading a conventional thriller. From the outset, the overarching narrative is a supernatural or horror thriller. If that’s not your thing, it may be a good idea not to start because, as the series gets closer to Year Zero, it grows more obviously supernatural (in the broadest sense of the word because elements of the plot are actually science fiction).

F. Paul Wilson

F. Paul Wilson

For the purposes of this plot, we have the first early planning of terrorist action against the Twin Towers. This is going to use Moslem jihadists to plant a bomb. We get to the 9/11 assault in Ground Zero (secret history stories are great fun). So this episode sees Jack still pursued by the “Dominicans”, Jack changing apartments, buying a new car, and thinking about where his relationship with Cristin might be going, and a second auction set up as a trap. As is required in Repairman novels, there’s quite a high body count. In this case, we’re also into exploring the best response to the sexual abuse of children. Needless to say, this book is not suggesting probation and/or other noncustodial forms of treatment aimed at rehabilitation. It assumes the worst of the men and takes a firm line in punishment. That this also disrupts the plans both of Drexler and the jihadists is an unappreciated side effect.

Since I’ve been reading F. Paul Wilson from the beginning of his writing career, Dark City was a necessary addition to the pile to read. As a fan it does not disappoint. It maintains the usual pace with plenty of incident to entertain on the way to a satisfying climax and a good hook into the final volume in the immediate trilogy.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
Bloodline
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

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

Baptism by Max Kinnings

January 7, 2014 1 comment

Baptism by Max Kinnings

Baptism by Max Kinnings (Quercus, 2013) comes to me in the American edition. In the UK, it has been out in the market for some time and the sequel, Sacrifice, is already published. Such are the vagaries of the international publishing scene where there can be quite long delays between the launch of titles in different copyright jurisdictions. There are also problems in that the subject matter of the books may not transfer and find a resonance within the new culture. In Britain, using the widest term to embrace all the people who live in the constituent states, the London underground has an iconic status. Even those who live in the Outer Hebrides and have never been further south than Oban (not to be confused with the brand of sunglasses) have some awareness of the significance of this transport system. Indeed, because it’s embedded in the culture, it’s been a regular target for terrorist attacks, the first major bombing being in 1885. In due course, both the IRA and Islamists planted bombs. Given more than one-hundred years of attacks, Londoners have therefore become somewhat blasé about the continuing threats. Moving across the Atlantic, the recent attack by Al-Qaeda on American soil has sensitised local culture to the reality of its vulnerability to attack. Given this book offers a graphic description of an attack on an underground train network, the US market now has the opportunity to both explore emotional reactions to a home-grown terrorist attack, cf the Boston Marathon bombing, and to deal with the claustrophobia of an attack trapping several hundred in a deep tunnel.

As to the book itself, it’s a fascinating piece of writing on two counts. First as to the prose style: it’s what I might describe as meticulous. This is not in any way a bad quality, but the volume of detail creates a slightly dense text. This is a book that expects readers to take their time to absorb all the information on offer. Second, the structure of the plot is very dynamic. This author has significant experience in film and television. We therefore have very short chapters, each one dealing with just a few minutes of time with shifting points of view. On most occasions, the transition between points of view is consecutive, often just moving the plot forward on a different part of the underground train or in other locations of parallel significance where law enforcement plans its response. However on one or two occasions, there’s a slight reprise where we get the first run through a scene followed by a second person’s response. The overall effect is a very fast-moving narrative. Even though the prose itself invites a measured approach, the plot actually pulls the reader through to the end. For the record, there are spec trailers for a film version of this story: the shorter being at YouTube. These were shown at Cannes 2013 with a view to raising the finance to make the film.

Max Kinnings

Max Kinnings

So what’s it about? Ed Mallory is an expert negotiator. On what threatens to be the hottest day of the year in London so far, he’s called to the Underground. A train has unexpectedly stopped in a deep tunnel and the driver is not responding. Although it could just be the driver has fallen ill, no-one wants to take any chances. So the hostage negotiation team is moved into place and armed officers approach the rear of the train. As things warm up, we’re given this officer’s backstory which saw him blinded in only his second negotiation. With some thirteen years of experience since this tragic incident, he’s honed his listening skills. Consequently, he’s now rated as one of the best negotiators in the business. In this instance, however, the textbook approach is not going to work. The terrorists are led by Tommy Denning, a young ex-soldier who’s convinced himself he’s on a mission from God. Since he does not have the usual agenda of demands, Ed Mallory is forced into less than conventional tactics. The result is a fascinating set of relationships. The train driver, George Wakeham, has to deal with Tommy directly. The driver’s wife is on the same train to ensure the driver obeys the instructions given. Ed Mallory has to deal with both his own superior and MI5 while trying to engage Tommy in some discussion, any discussion. Then there are the passengers who slowly come to realise they may have to risk their own lives to escape the situation.

The result is a slightly gonzo thriller yet the fact there are elements which strain credibility all proves part of the fun. So assuming you don’t mind quite a high body count, Baptism proves to be excellent entertainment and well worth reading. I now find myself looking around for the second in the series, if only to see how Ed Mallory manages to keep his job.

For a review of the sequel, see Sacrifice. There’s also an interview with Max Kinnings here.

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

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms

December 23, 2013 Leave a comment

A-Price-to-Pay-An-Iona-Khan-Mystery--377918-f079cad1a106edf23bdc

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms (Severn House, 2013) is the second book in the series featuring Detective Constable Iona Khan, and it strikes out as if it’s going in an interestingly cosmopolitan direction. The protagonist has a Scottish mother and a Pakistani father, perhaps appropriately being named Iona Khan, drawing names from both cultures. In the real world, mixed-race couples often face active discrimination from both side of the family and from the community in which they establish their home. For the child of such a marriage to be the hero of a contemporary police procedural is a brave decision. Not only is this a woman as a detective in a police force known to be institutionally sexist, it’s a mixed race individual in a force known to be institutionally racist — a double whammy for our hero to duck and weave her way around. Add in the fact she’s a maths graduate and her capacity for a different way of thinking is also clearly staked out. She’s going to run into all kinds of problems simply because she’s a graduate — with the fast-track career structure, many direct entrants face considerable discrimination regardless of race. But here we come to the essential paradox in mixed-race characters.

For her to be acceptable as the protagonist, she can’t be too “foreign”. In effect, she must be British in almost everything she says and does (since there are no illustrations of her, readers probably don’t discriminate against her on the basis of her appearance, but some of her colleagues and random people she encounters may well react adversely to her skin tone and physical difference. Indeed, in some books of this type, the protagonist’s character almost becomes a walking stereotype of what it means to be British (whatever that does mean). In other words, the contribution of the non-British parent is rather more theoretical in the face of the socialisation the child has received by going through the British education system. The fact our hero has ended up in a counter-terrorism unit adds to the potential for mistrust. Some will inevitably question whose side she is on if those to be investigated are Pakistani.

Chris Sims

Chris Sims

The perennial problem when writing books with a female protagonist in police procedurals is how strong to make her. Since we live in a patriarchal society, there are certain norms to observe if the author is to produce what might be described as a mainstream book. Recently, I’ve been reading about a fourth wave of feminism building on support generated online. It’s stating the obvious that the previous three waves have been less than successful in disturbing the tranquility of the male-induced power structures. Hence, books like this can show a woman doing her limited best in the face of male obstruction. Often this will mean her brains and enthusiasm are ruthlessly exploited so that, if she happens to come up with the right answers, her male bosses can take the credit. Should the investigation take a wrong turn, she will be a convenient scapegoat. If there’s physical danger, there should always be men around to rescue her and so emphasise her essential weakness.

On the other side of the fence, a fourth wave book might have the woman solve the case that has defeated all the less than competent men around her, beat any criminals who attack her with cool judo moves, and be rewarded with a commendation and a promotion by a grateful nation (it’s a terrorism case so the Queen would have to give her a gong for preserving world peace). Depending on the model to be adopted, this woman might be able to drink all her male colleagues under the table, love them and leave them in the sack, or swagger with that indefinable quality that marks her out as an instinctive leader. In short, she would be an inspirational role model for all women readers, showing them that any glass ceiling would shatter the moment she happened to catch sight of it and that she would rise to the top, often with the support of the men who realise submissiveness is required when they are in the presence of a superior being. She will become a focus for individual and group action to call out men who are sexist and misogynistic, and challenge the assumptions underpinning patriarchalism. She will lead a vanguard of women towards a future of greater gender equality in a more global community. Yes, well you know the type of book I mean. Both patriarchalists and feminists can write propaganda.

I’ve diverted myself in this way because the book proves to be unadventurous in its gender politics. Ms Khan actually proves to be intelligent but perhaps necessarily rather paranoid. She’s competitive and suspicious of others which prevents her from being a real team player. Thus, even if the men around her were actually well-intentioned and trying to make her feel one of “them”, she would be unco-operative. This weakness makes her a less than engaging protagonist. Indeed, she proves to be somewhat reckless and has to be rescued. Even at the end when what’s probably an olive branch is extended in her direction, we’re left uncertain whether she’s capable of grasping it. This is a clear signal to women readers. The entire investigation was hurtling in the wrong direction, yet she did not have the self-confidence to open her mouth and insist on being heard. Indeed, when she did talk to a colleague and he passed on her ideas to their boss, she assumed he was her enemy and ceased co-operating. I’m not saying this is unrealistic. Women react differently in such situations of institutionalised racism and sexism. But her performance is less than stellar. In the end, she does “solve” the case but it’s only by accident, and because she didn’t follow protocol and tell people where she was going and why, she had to be rescued. This is embarrassing and not a little sexist.

I wanted to like A Price to Pay. The basic plot idea is sound and the reason why the investigation hares off down the wrong track is nicely worked out. But putting aside the slightly horrendous coincidence that kicks into operation as a plot dynamic about halfway through, I couldn’t warm up to Ms Khan at all. The fact I might understand the reasons for the protagonist’s actions does not make her likeable. Worse, almost all the women who appear in the pages of this book are victims in one way or another. Even the protagonist’s mother who had shown such good judgement in marrying for love, is shown completely misjudging the man who had been in her daughter’s life. And that’s quite fatal to enjoyment. So even though it works as a police procedural with an international dimension giving it contemporary relevance, I was disappointed.

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

The Culling by Robert Johnson

December 18, 2013 2 comments

The-Culling-363688-75005c5e904e5fb07fe5

It’s just one of these improbable coincidences for which I routinely berate authors when they indulge in them, that I should happen to have two epidemic/pandemic novels to read in such short order. For this I make no apology. It’s just the way my pile of books to review happens to have worked out. And with that cavalier dismissal ringing in your ears, here we go with The Culling by Robert Johnson (Permanent Press, 2014). Before any detailed comments, it’s perhaps appropriate to think back in history to the Black Death which, as the name suggests, was very efficient in reducing the world’s population by about one-third. If we come forward to the last century, we had the devastating Spanish Flu which, following on the very successful attempt by humanity to slow population growth in World War I, further reduced the total number of humans by about four percent.

Why should we care about this now? Well, there are already too many of us for the ecosystem to support. Although we in the west are relatively comfortable, there are several billion people living in vey marginal conditions. If climate change is real, agriculture will soon be even more adversely affected and these second- and third-world countries could quickly find themselves facing famine conditions. Radical environmentalists might therefore believe it was time to reduce the world’s population to more sustainable levels. To achieve this end, all they need do is weaponise a flu virus for which the majority has little or no immunity. Just to remind you that this is science fact with Ron Fouchier, from the Erasmus Center in Rotterdam, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, from Wisconsin University, redesigning the H5N1 virus to make it transmissible between mammals in 2011. In 2013, these two responsible scientists proposed to have a go at improving the chances of H7N9 being able to infect humans. They obviously don’t think nature is doing a good enough job on its own. After all, when we had 130 cases of H7N9 in Shanghai, only forty-three of those infected died. With a little help from science, the virus could do a lot better.

Returning to fiction, let’s not forget, Stephen King had a form of superflu released in The Stand. In George R Stewart’s The Earth Abides there was only a tiny handful of survivors. So whether the flu (or other disease) is released deliberately or accidentally, the moral of stories like this is that the hubris of man knows no limits. Either the scientists believe they can contain the outbreak or they are the stereotypical mad scientists on a mission to. . . Well, some are into compulsory eugenics, or think an adjustment in the racial balance of our world is necessary, or that there are just too many of us. In the cinema, remember the Resident Evil series with the release of the T-Virus, or Quarantine which is a rabies virus released by a nutty cult, or Utraviolet where a scientist engineers the “hemophage” virus. In novels, Frank Herbert’s The White Plague kills women (saving aliens the trouble in the “Screwfly Solution” by Raccoona Sheldon), Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood has scientists wipe out most of the population with a genetically engineered disease, BioStrike by Tom Clancy has ecoterrorists create an Ebola variant, and so on. In other words, this trope has been extensively covered (and that’s before we get to all the books which have plagues of zombies arise when the magic virus gets loose, e.g. the Newsflesh trilogy by the pseudonymous Mira Grant).

All of which makes me surprised to see a “straight” publisher jumping into the science fictional fray with such a tired idea. The only conceivable justification for agreeing to publish a polemical novel of this type would be that this variant says something interesting and relatively new. Sadly that’s not the case here. Although there’s an attempt to supply new clothes for the Emperor with a frame story based on the very real problem of overpopulation, the twists and turns of the plot to spread the infection assume these “mad” scientists are grossly incompetent terrorists who have obviously never read How to Start a Pandemic For Dummies. This plot is seriously lacking in credibility with weird goings-on in Laos, and a quite extraordinary “escape” from a secure facility to cap an increasingly desperate attempt to spice up the “adventure” side of the book. The characters of the key people are sketchy and the final resolution of the relationship between Carl and Angela is absurd. If ever there was a book where I could offer the advice sincerely, this would be it. So without further ado, The Culling is a book to avoid like the plague.

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

Starhawk by Jack McDevitt

December 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Starhawk-A-Priscilla-Hutchins-Novel--377176-c8307a43ec60ff1583f8

Starhawk by Jack McDevitt (Ace, 2013) is the seventh novel featuring Priscilla Hutchins whom we last met in Cauldron. In a slightly unusual step, this proves to be a prequel showing us how Hutch first qualified as a pilot and set her foot on the ladder to the success shown in the other novels. Hence, we’re back with the now standard format which is essentially a political thriller set in Earth orbit and outer space now that FTL is up and running. This gives McDevitt the chance to suggest that human nature will essentially remain the same as we progress from now to 2195. For all the trappings of a major space station and the first steps to terraforming a planet in a distant solar system, we will still be parochial and isolationist. Indeed the ordinariness of this future world is continually reflected in aggregated news items as chapter endings. It’s all depressingly familiar.

Thematically, the politics comes down to two issues. The first is the current debate within the GOP between the purists who want small government and the “centrists” who see government as holding the balance between the corporations and the people. In the former camp, there’s no need to increase expenditure on exploring what’s “out there”, when there are so many unsolved problems here on Earth. The priority in the use of a deliberately limited tax revenue should always be the generation of a society in which entrepreneurs can use their muscle to make the world a better place. In the former, there’s an acknowledgement that capitalists tend to be self-interested and will not always take decisions which benefit the people. Government must therefore act as a brake on the pursuit of profit at all costs and force some redistribution of wealth to relieve poverty and provide opportunities for those less well-off. In this case, it might be acceptable to encourage a private corporation to terraform a new world for an overflow of humanity to occupy. This takes pressure off government and provides immense opportunities to people to build new lives for themselves.

Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt

This brings us to the second theme which is the potential of the environmental lobby to engage in terrorism for their cause. If we consider the current actions of groups like PETA which manage to get themselves worked up over the current mistreatment of animals, just how much more angry could groups get if the terraforming of this other world was significantly adjusting the oxygen/nitrogen balance and thereby eliminating many plant and animal species? It might lead to acts against the corporation responsible for the terraforming operations and the starships acting in support.

We start off with Hutchins going through her formal certification flight with Captain Jake Loomis to get her captain’s licence. This requires him to test her with hypothetical problems except, of course, their flight soon gets rather more practical as an emergency message comes in. They are required to divert to save a group of young scientists who have “won” a flight as a prize. Unfortunately one of the terrorists has planted a bomb on the ship and they are now stranded in a decaying orbit around an uninhabited world. The point of this introductory section is to identify the serious deficiencies in the then current system for dealing with emergencies. Today, there are teams of volunteers prepared to run up mountains to rescue those in distress. But if it was first necessary to transport these intrepid individuals a significant number of light years at the public’s expense, questions might be asked on whether this was money well spent. Fortunately, if this is rescuing photogenic school children, politicians might see mileage in voting funds for their rescue. But if this had been a ship owned by a corporation, politicians might think it was the responsibility of the corporations to maintain a fleet of rescue ships on stand-by should problems arise. There are not so any votes in using public funds where capitalists have failed to make their own provision (unless the corporations are too big to fail, that is).

The problem with the book is not so much the introduction of these themes to explore, but the amount of time to devote to that exploration. Since readers expect spaceships to zip around the universe doing exciting things, they prefer less time spent on discussing the practical politics of how these trips are paid for. Yet the less time spent on these discussions, the more superficial the politics. It’s the same when it comes to questions of morality. If a terrorist with an agenda that could have some moral validity plants a bomb not expecting casualties, who’s to blame when the more immediate reason for the casualties is a failure in government to send rescue ships in time? Yes these people would not have been at risk but for the bomb, but they could all have been saved if the rescue had been launched in a timely fashion. Picking the bones out of these knotty questions could keep a passel of philosophers dancing on the head of a pin for many a page, but this would not be considered sufficiently appropriate for a science fiction novel with space opera pretensions. Academic credibility counts for little when there are crises to navigate. So our heroic new captain has a host of dangers to confront as she moves from new star to potential superstar status. In the midst of all this, we’re also invited into the life of Jake Loomis who wrestles with his conscience and tries to find some peace of mind.

The result is a good pace to the first section of the novel. It then gets somewhat prosaic in the middle section, but ends with something of a bang (or perhaps the absence of one). I’m inclined to consider Starhawk a success albeit it’s not quite the best McDevitt can produce.

%d bloggers like this: