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Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges is by Caitlin R Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. Pausing there for a moment, you may wonder why Ms Kiernan should chose to publish the first in a new trilogy using the device of a disclosed pseudonym. The answer is she intends this project to be sufficiently different to the usual run of material that it must be presented to the world “differently”. So unlike the first Barbara Vine book which did not announce Ruth Rendell as the author on the jacket, this book uses both the author’s name and the pseudonym on the jacket. That way, random potential buyers are told it’s a Kiernan book but “different”. So those of you who enjoyed The Drowning Girl and are waiting for the next of Kiernan’s “real” books, can kill time by reading this trilogy by “Kathleen Tierney” which is “different”. My apologies for the repetitiveness of the explanation.

So exactly how is this book “different”? Well, you may think you know what urban fantasy or paranormal romance is, i.e. a largely anaemic, usually chaste, ramble round the supernatural sandbox with a female protagonist in danger but pulling through bravely and, depending on the publisher, sometimes bedding the romantic interest. But this book takes the anodyne formula and tramples all over it. I suppose the classification of the result depends on your own definitions. Some might call it a pastiche, others a parody or even satire. After a few drinks in a bar, its true nature as a general exercise in “taking the piss” would probably get the vote of approval (a British idiom meaning to ridicule or mock). As is required, we’ve got a woman as our protagonist. Except Siobhan Quinn is our unreliable narrator du jour. She’s an addict and all addicts lie about everything, including their addiction. Better still, she’s earned a reputation as a a killer of supernatural nasties except, in the classic tradition of a true klutz, the various nasties meeting their doom variously slipped or fell over with fatal consequences. It’s ever thus that legends are born. So, ironically, if she’s to live up to her own reputation, she’s actually got to learn how to kill something intentionally. Believe me when I tell you she’s not the fastest learner on the planet. As an example, take her approach to tracking down a werewolf. She goes into his kill zone and then shoot up with heroine. I mean, is she a fuck-up or what?

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

So here we go with a first-person narrative and metafictional commentary with the author cracking jokes to the reader: no really, I’m not making it up. I’m not the one being paid to make up shit like this, OK. It’s the author who’s playing with your head and generally pointing out the many absurdities in the subgenre out of which she’s taking the piss. But if that’s all the book was about, the joke would wear thin very rapidly. This forces the author to write a conventional story about a female Buffy-type screw-up who sequentially gets bitten by a werewolf and then bitten by a vampire. This makes her a werepire or vampwolf depending on your colloquial preferences. Now armed with a voracious appetite for human blood and an alarming tendency to turn into a wolf when she gets excited, she carves a dangerous furrow through Providence, doing slightly more than chewing on the furniture until she gets to the end of her adventure. Alarmingly, she fails to mate with anyone or thing during the contemporaneous action thereby holding true to the usual requirement for a chaste romance. This is probably due to her uncontrollable desire to exsanguinate or simply eat anyone or thing she encounters. The only one even vaguely approximating a mentor or sidekick spends most of the book hiding from her lest he too gets sucked into the action in the more fatal sense of the words. He’s very prudent.

Taken overall, I think the book a success in both its aims. As a narrative in the fantasy mould with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, trolls, and so on, it satisfies all the basic requirement for adventure. As unreliable narrators go, Siobhan Quinn also proves credible. Although she starts off incredibly dim, you always feel there’s enough native wit inside that not so pretty head to enable her to join up all the dots to work out who’s pulling the strings. If I have a problem with the book, it’s in the second element of piss-taking which may go on slightly too long. There are some genuinely amusing monologuing debates about how characters are expected to act in books of this type. Indeed, I can understand why it’s taking so long to write the sequel. I think Ms Kiernan may have discovered she rather shot her bolt with Blood Oranges. Without repeating herself, it’s damn difficult to write two more in the same vein. The sequel, after some toing and froing, is called Red Delicious. I’m hopeful it will be worth reading.

For a review of other books by Caitlin R Kiernan, see Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart and The Ape’s Wife.

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

Oblivion (2013)

May 15, 2013 2 comments

Oblivion poster

I suppose Oblivion (2013) makes a change. Instead of dealing with the crash-bang defeat of an alien invasion and stopping the cameras rolling before Earth gets to do the clean-up operation, removing all the damaged and destroyed buildings and the bodies of the aliens we managed to slaughter, this film starts off with the notion that the aliens turned up and attacked the moon. Don’t you just love science fiction. Knowing they could never hope to defeat Earth’s military might, they took on the one target they knew they could beat. Oh, and of course, substantial destruction of the moon changed the gravitational effect of said moon and there were earthquakes and tsunamis down here that pretty much did in Earth’s defences. Pretty sneaky, huh? Except the military had enough nuclear firepower to defeat these pesky creatures when they did land. The price of Earth’s victory? Contamination on an epic scale.

At this point, i.e. about two minutes into the film, we get a major inconsistency in the narrative. If Earth was seriously damaged by all this, how come we could develop the technology to build this superduper space station and go into residence around Titan? This is clearly beyond our abilities, even without the odd high tide washing over cities. More importantly, if Earth didn’t beat all these scavenger beings and they hang around still attacking our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), why not get more systematic to exterminate them before settling into a life in outer space to wait for the planet to heal? Failure on this front means they breed while we’re away and can build defences to stop us coming back. We’re also immediately shown that “they” are messing with our hero’s memories. He keeps getting flashbacks to the pre-invasion Earth and sees this dominant image of a woman. This must be some imperfection from the last security memory wipe which occurred almost five years ago. Except Jack is obviously an unreliable narrator and we can’t trust anything he claims to remember. His minder (and lover), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is apparently there to keep Jack on mission and acting within the “rules” laid down by Sally (Melissa Leo), the liaison officer in command from the space station.

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

So we hypothesise that the aliens won and, having wiped Jack’s memories, are now using him to repair their drones while they steal our water. The images of the beached ships and odd bits of building left exposed are quite impressive and confirm destruction on an epic scale. Assuming this is replicated across the planet, it’s inconceivable humanity survived in any numbers. As you would therefore expect, this homely drone maintenance engineer and his consort believe they are the only folk left on Earth and they have one of these idyllic homes perched on top of a mountain while he completes the establishment of the drone network (except the trailer has already shown us that Beech (Morgan Freeman) is alive and well and living in semidarkness so he can see where the end of his cigar is to light it when he strikes a match). His sidekick is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who looks difficult to kill. OK so what’s the verdict after ten minutes? It seems Earth has also developed antigravity because these drones move around without regard to little constraints like mass and momentum. There’s also this nifty flying thingamagummy for Jack to patrol his allocated quadrant which is also way beyond anything we could have developed.

For the record, not one bit of the “science” in this science fiction film makes any sense. If aliens blew up the moon, we could have a ring like Saturn which would be really cool when the sun shines on it or there could be a big dust cloud which would have substantially the same mass as the moon in solid form, i.e. have the same gravitational effect. If the moon was pushed away, the sun would take over as the dominant gravitational force and we’d get high tide at noon every day. Oh, and people would stop changing into wolves when the moon was full. The assertion Earth would have been pulled to pieces because of this sneak attack is ludicrous. The only point of this scenario is to justify the montage of CGI images that provide a context for the actors to say their lines which, for the most part, are ditchwater dull and make little sense.

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Perhaps we can save the film by dignifying it as an SFnal examination as to the meaning of identity. You know the kind of thing. We are the sum of all we remember so, if there’s an artificial block on our memories, our character changes. Why? Because if we can no longer remember how we reacted in the past, experience stops guiding us in the present. Except all this film does is prove these damn fool aliens don’t have a mind machine to beat the mind of Tom Cruise. He’s back in the past remembering football games and this woman on top of the Empire State Building. You just can’t keep the mind of a good hero down. It bears mentioning that the main plot set-up and twist is the same as in Moon (2009) which was not unlike Eutamnesia (2000). It’s difficult to be genuinely original when there have been so many books and films on this theme. So perhaps we can say the CGI is great and the action exciting? Well, the first fight sequence is chaotic and the behaviour of the drone makes little sense. Then an old piece of technology crashes and, after forcing the drones to pull away, Jack rescues Julia (Olga Kurylenko). She’s been in suspended animation for sixty (or more) years and, yes, she’s the girl he keeps remembering. What? Earth had suspended animation technology? Perhaps they also had stealth technology as well.

At this point, lots of stuff happens and then it ends. Perhaps this would not have been too bad if it had only been a ninety minute film but, at one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, it feels like Purgatory. It’s an excuse to watch Tom Cruise ride his motorbike, fly this cool thingamagummy and shoot at whatever moves (and do environmentally sustainable things in a patch of jungle). Andrea Riseborough is there to look good and prove that the alien mind machine works on women. Olga Kurylenko is there as the “other woman” and to perpetuate the species. Morgan Freeman lights up the screen and his cigar for about ten minutes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is effectively invisible. For me Oblivion is appropriately named because that’s where the film should be consigned.

What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli

What Makes You Die

What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli (Apex Publications Book) is a novella and an impressive riff on an old idea. Being a guy from the last century who’s read an incredible number of words over the decades, I’m reminded of the Galloway Gallegher stories by Henry Kuttner writing as Lewis Padget. This hero (using the word somewhat ironically) was an alcoholic. While insensible, he became a phenomenal inventor except, with his subconscious in command, he would surface from the latest bender with no clear recollection of the last few days. This produces much hilarity in an old-fashioned kind of way as our hungover hero is forced to try and work out exactly what he’d invented while drunk. To say this is challenging is to indicate the level of potential amusement as he faces some entirely incomprehensible solutions to the unknown problems he solved while drunk. Well that was life during the 1940s when, by modern standards, mere alcohol was the boring norm. Coming up to date, our technology has given us a remarkable array of liquids, gases and solids with which we can adjust our moods and blot out conscious thought.

So here comes our protagonist Tommy Pic (not in any way an autobiographical version of our author, of course). He’s one of the Hollywood screenwriters who’s had his moment of lucid success but is now back in the bipolar, alcohol-fueled manic depression which is his more usual state of mind. The fact he’s not self-disciplined means he frequently neglects to take his meds, so he’s not unused to waking up in a psych ward wearing restraints. On this occasion, he awakes to a Gallegher moment. It seems while he was enjoying one of his psychotic moments, he dashed off [part of] a screenplay — appropriately bearing the title What Makes You Die. He has no recollection of sending the opening portion to his agent, Monty Stobbs, but according to this reliable specimen of humanity, it’s one of the best things he’s seen in at least the last thirty minutes. He wants the rest of the script on his desk yesterday and is promising big bucks if the quality continues at the same level. There’s just the one problem. Tommy has absolutely no idea where the rest of the script now resides and no recollection of writing what was sent, so he cannot attempt to complete it. Worse when Monty Stobbs gives him a copy and he tries to read it, he gets an attack of hysterical blindness. After his tortured peepers finally manage to absorb one of Monty’s marginal notes, a fierce migraine descends like a wolf on the fold, and he has to resort to the nearest bar. With alcohol fueling his eyes, he reads one more note which, like the first, is totally bizarre.

Tom Piccirilli — probably the one on the right

Tom Piccirilli — probably the one on the right

Since this is a first-person narrative, we’re firmly inside the head of an unreliable narrator, a fact that’s immediately obvious because he calmly admits to seeing and talking with dead people, starting off with his dead father who’s by his bed when he wakes. So here’s the question of the day. Through films like Being John Malkovich (1999), we’re used to the idea of literally spending a little time inside someone’s head (for these purposes, I’m ignoring the more excessive Inception (2010)). What would it be like to spend a little time looking through the eyes of a crazy screenwriter? Since he’s prone to major episodes of depression and has attempted surgery on his stomach to remove the Komodo dragon called Gideon (not a suicide attempt, you understand), this whole trip could be a real downer. Yet, surprisingly, it turns out sporadically humorous and, in reaffirming family values of love and loyalty, quite affecting. Some of the set-piece descriptions of life in the world of film, television and theatre are genuinely amusing. There’s some fierce irony in Trudy’s relationship with Monty Stobbs, and in any live show, Bango the Clown would most likely be strung up and/or shot by an audience provoked to anger. Gideon the dragon is interesting because he leaves Post-it notes around for our hero to find, and then there’s Eva when she’s not dancing naked around a ritual sacrifice in the back room of the Weird Sisters store.

In this situation, the man’s solution to the problem is to try to get back into the same frame of mind when he wrote the first section of the script. That means some heavy drinking except his subconscious prefers not to co-operate. When it comes to the weekend and he only has a few hours left to produce a complete script, he goes to a party at Eva’s home. She tries psychoanalysis in a witchy style. And then there’s the missing Kathy Lark. And I did notice the character’s full name is Trudy Galloway. That’s just a coincidence, of course. Putting all this together, What Makes You Die is rather pleasing. Although the ending is perhaps a little like many Hollywood scripts which insist of a positive outcome, I enjoyed it.

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

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

First Novel A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape, 2013) is a slightly challenging but ultimately fascinating book. Think binary: to read a printed book or digital characters on a Kindle screen, read only the first novel or read all the novels by one author, turn left or right, stay or move on. Individually, each decision is insignificant, but significance comes in the accumulation of such decisions, particularly if the choices are skewed by external factors or prejudices. Indeed, the more “ordered” the mind, the greater the potential for obsessional behaviour. A possible example would be placing dummies in a bedroom. This could be Sylvia Plath translated into the real world or the representation of a surrogate family. Talking about obsessional, there’s Grace, a young student on the university course our “hero” teaches on first novels. She’s interested in our first-person narrator, maybe even following him to a bookstore he frequents. And just who is this man who teaches creative writing at a place of higher learning in Manchester? And how reliable a narrator is he, he who sometimes claims to be unable to distinguish between being alive and being dead? Or to know whether to be unfaithful to his wife? And if she finds out, whether the marriage will survive — barring suicide, of course.

If we want to get technical, this is a work of metafiction with a very precise interest in the creative processes that go into writing. The question most pertinent is whose responsibility it is to tell the story and whether it should be told in a linear structure. As an example, there’s the elegant short horror story about salt that wraps up the first section in this book. Reading the main body of the text in order, our narrator instructs his class to write a piece about a recent experience. After hearing the readings, he may independently verify the substance of one or two pieces written. This intertextual story, set in a different font, may be about one of these students visiting his house except the protagonist does not mention it or comment on it. This may be evidence of his unreliability as a narrator. He’s protective of his privacy, particularly when it comes to his own first novel. If one of his students read this story out in class, he would not fail to mention it. So it may be the student who wrote it did not hand it to another to read in or no-one read it out in class, or it may prove to be something else entirely like a story written by Helen, one of his MA students, and taken out of context.

Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

Image by Julian Baker showing Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

This signals the novel as a work of intertextuality. As one very obvious example, the text of one of Nicholas Royle’s short stories, “Very Low-Flying Aircraft”, which was first published in Exotic Gothic 3 and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One is scattered through the first sections of this novel. The authorship is later attributed to Grace. In other words, the format of this novel is like a jigsaw and, as the title suggests, it’s for the reader to reassemble pieces like a puzzle and, thereby, to solve the mystery of who this protagonist is. Nicholas Royle is reflecting on the craft of the novelist which is usually to take his or her own experiences and to recast them as fiction. This is not to say the writing of fiction is essentially autobiographical. But we readers expect events to match our own experiences of the world. The test of credibility is whether we’ve seen the same thing ourselves. To fictionalise and get the best results, it may be necessary for the author to change the point of view so the readers get a different understanding of the events described. So if a wife and children leave home in one version, they may be killed in another. Either way the marriage ends. The fact of its ending will feel emotionally credible. We’ve all known marriages that fail, often because of infidelity. The surviving husband will be devastated, particularly if he’s to lose custody of the children. So for the readers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth of what happened. All that maters is whether the fictional version reads as if it is true. It may also benefit to switch from first- to third-person. After all, omniscient authors know what’s happening.

The implicit question posed in the title of this book is, I suppose, why some authors only write one novel or later deny it. That singular excursion into text can be wonderful yet it’s never followed up, or the author does keep writing, but every time a new novel appears and the backlist is mined for titles to rerelease, the first novel never seems to reappear. It’s as if the author or the publisher is somehow embarrassed by it. An example of a brilliant first novel would be The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt which is a study in female identity suggesting that our culture objectifies and denigrates women. Initially the female protagonist is lost and confused as if trying to navigate social relationships while wearing a blindfold. Then she experiments by assuming the role of a young man. In the end, her fragile ego is overwhelmed by the stronger men around her. There’s no happy ending. In this novel, we have multiple views of a male character who’s fundamentally uncertain who he wants to be or where he wants his life to go. Were it not for the odd episodes of sex in cars, you might think him entirely passive, living helplessly if not arbitrarily on the basis of binary decisions: to do or not to do, that is the question.

Taken overall, First Novel: A Mystery is a fascinating piece of writing, exploring the nature of identity and how to capture it on the page. As in the real world, we can often only build up an idea of who a person is by assembling facts and impressions from multiple sources spread over time. Not everyone can afford a private inquiry agent to put together a comprehensive dossier on a person with everything neatly set out in chronological order. So Nicholas Royle here reflects the fractured nature of a personality. We might see different aspects of a character at different times in different circumstances. Only in retrospect can we piece together the most coherent view of the person, lifting the blindfold and looking back with more perfect vision. Sadly, it’s often the case that the most chameleon-like of individuals have something to hide.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see Regicide.

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

Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

Terminal Island greatshell

As is sometimes the way with these reviews, I’m going to begin with a small autobiographical note to explain why I have never consumed anything hallucinogenic. Being born into the world before antibiotics were generally available to the public, I contrived to catch several diseases which produced very high temperatures. Having experienced hallucinations the “natural” way, I’ve never felt the need to induce one by taking anything pharmacological. This is not to say I’m prejudiced against people who disable their senses by chemical means. Whether advertently or inadvertently, people are free to do what they like to their own bodies and minds. But I’ve no sympathy for such people if they injure themselves or others while voluntarily under the influence.

Having got that off my chest, I come to Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell (Night Shade Books, 2013). It reminds me of books like Ritual by David Pinner and The Magus by John Fowles where our “hero” goes to a village or an island and finds his worldview shaken by what he finds. In this case, our hero is Henry Cadmus who returns to Catalina in search of his mother. As a young boy, Henry spent some time on the island but was the proverbial square peg, never seeming to find any degree of acceptance from anyone else on the island, and being relentlessly bullied, particularly by the girls at the school. Those of you who enjoy classical mythology allusions will notice that the original Cadmus was sent off on one of these hopeless quests by his father. Zeus had run off with his sister Europa and he was supposed to persuade the ruler of Olympus to return her. When that proved a little too challenging for a mere mortal, he founded Thebes and became mildly famous. In other words, the original Cadmus was a wanderer who eventually made a home for himself and settled down.

To explain my reaction to this book, I need to offer a definition of “horror” as applied to books and films. No matter what the content, the author’s intention is to induce a fairly specific emotional response. This can range from fear through to disgust. As cultures change and supposedly become more sophisticated, the concept of horror also changes because the innocent reactions of a young society no longer occur in world-weary societies who have seen it all before. This is not to say we cannot find ghosts stories scary and must always have some gore-splattered maniac hacking off limbs or inducing others to hack off their own limbs. This is not a race to ever more extreme descriptive content. But writers need to reflect the contemporary psychology and cultural expectations of their readers when deciding what constitutes horror content.

Walter Greatshell leaning forward toward the light

Walter Greatshell leaning forward toward the light

In many ways, this is a classic horror novel. Structurally, the first part is a twin narrative showing the arrival of our hero, his wife and young child on the island, and recalling the events of his childhood. As is always the case, the childhood sequence plays the unreliable narrator game. By definition, children have limited experience and therefore frequently misinterpret what they see and hear. In high stress situations where the fight or flee instincts strongly favour the latter, it’s easy for the emotions to prevent a clear overview of what’s actually happening. In modern America, we can all discount stories of supernatural events. Even if there are cults practising pagan or other religions, they tend to be rather harmless, hiding their rituals away from sight, ever fearful of discovery. So the first part is full of inconclusive facts and deft hints, setting the scene with considerable skill. Indeed, the construction of the plot is meticulous in the way all the details mesh together in unexpected ways. Of course Henry is reckless. This is expected of heroes in this type of situation. As a result he discovers information of a major criminal conspiracy and infers the death of his mother. In a panic, he tries to get off the island with his wife and child but this proves challenging..

During the course of his increasingly desperate attempts to escape, he becomes an unreliable narrator. This is not really his fault. Some of the food or drink he consumes has been spiked with a hallucinogen. Who can blame him for taking a moment to refuel while trying to plan the escape. Unfortunately, this untethers us from reality. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood but I found a lot of the sequences at the end rather tiresome. Although the way all the plot elements come together is wonderful to behold, some of the revelations are less than credible. To take just two unresolved issues as examples. With the benefit of hindsight, are we to assume the girls would not have maimed or killed Henry as a boy when he was cornered on the pier? In the current situation, why is the cult running the scam and what does it do with the money? When it would be so easy to more positively control Henry, allowing him to discover the secret of the condo is distinctly odd. All the membership needs to do once he’s back on the island is feed him the jungle juice and start working on his mind. Making him run around like this is clearly redundant and could get him injured, i.e. it’s only there to pad out the book. Any excuse that the cult wanted to discover whether there was a mole in their ranks is a red herring. Over time it could have worked out the answer after a particular death had been engineered.

So there you have it. The first two-thirds of the book is a marvellous example of how to create atmospheric horror with little touches and flourishes. Even though I lost some patience towards the end, Terminal Island remains an impressive piece of writing and, so long as you don’t mind the increasingly surreal impressions crowding in on our hero’s mind, you will probably find this an excellent addition to the horror canon.

For a review of another book by Walter Greatshell, see Enormity (written under the pseudonym W G Marshall).

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

The Trouble With Charlie by Merry Jones

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Trouble-With-Charlie-3D

The whole point of a narrator is to supply the point of view through which the story is told. This person will pass on all the relevant facts, give opinions, and offer insights. In other words, this well-informed character moves the story on through the plotted situations until we arrive at the end. Except some authors choose to make the narrator unreliable. He or she now fails to pass on all the relevant facts, gives opinions and insights based on misunderstandings, or just flat out lies when it suits him or her. This makes a good game for the author to play against the reader. It all comes down to deciding just how untrustworthy the narrator is. You will notice this distinguishes the literary device from the unfiltered omniscient author who tells us all we need to know. Through the unreliable narrator, the author can deliberately hide information from the reader, or if the narrator gives factually correct reports but misinterprets them, it’s left to the reader to see the narrator’s errors.

 

So here comes The Trouble With Charlie by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) and a first-person narrator who breaks new ground in unreliability. During the course of the book, she’s diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. This confirmed medical condition gives rise to periods of detachment from surrounding events, i.e. she may be physically present but not paying attention. This means she may not be aware of the fine detail of what people tell her. She’s also likely to suffer amnesia following an emotionally stressing event. In both cases, she’s likely to invent information to hide her inability to accurately remember what happened. This can be very confusing to those who don’t know her. Finally, she’s likely to talk to people who aren’t there.

Merry Jones looking completely reliable

Merry Jones looking completely reliable

 

How does this relate to the plot? Well, the Charlie in question is both the husband who has separated from her and lives elsewhere, and the unfortunately dead body in her home. He has a kitchen knife rather prominently displayed in his back and she has a cut on her hand that was almost certainly caused by that knife. She finds the dead body when she returns from from her first time at a bar after her breakup. Although there are plenty of witnesses to show her at the bar, the ME gives a window of opportunity for her to have killed him before leaving home. Worse, she also inherits a tidy sum on life insurance policies (so long as she did not kill him, of course). That gives her motive and opportunity, and makes her the prime suspect. Normally people can explain events, but she has no memory of what she did before going to the bar. Naturally, the police think she’s faking the amnesia and is therefore guilty. She therefore chats to Charlie on a regular basis which would be useful if he knew who killed him. You’ll remember the blow was struck from behind. So he can’t help her fill in the gaps in her memory. Perhaps hypnotism would help.

 

Then she finds herself in danger and attacked by rather a strong man. She’s able to fight him off and kills him in the process but, of course she can’t clearly remember killing him. She has concussion and obvious wounds. It looks like a clear case of self-defence, but she can’t remember killing him. That could be a major problem if, in fact, someone else killed him while she was unconscious. Why would anyone do that anyway? So now the police are looking at one woman and two dead bodies. They begin to see the beginning of a pattern. Like the narrator, we’re just watching events unfold with not a clue what’s really going on. Fortunately, she has some very loyal friends to give her support and, while she was at that bar, she met an attractive man. Perhaps if she went out on a date with him, they could really hit it off and be happy together (so long as she manages to avoid going to jail for murder, of course).

 

The first part of this book is actually quite spooky. For a while, I was unsure whether this was a straight mystery or there was a supernatural element. In its own way, this makes for a very successful introduction to our narrator because it immediately highlights the problems she has in interpreting what she sees. Once we get past that, the book settles down into a pleasing rhythm as new evidence comes to light which shakes her confidence in her husband. She had always seen him as somewhat dishonest but basically nice. This information might suggest he was involved with a very unsavory crowd. When she asks him, he’s not completely convincing in his denials. Some men! You just can’t rely on them to tell you things, even when they’re dead. From this you will understand there’s quite a lot of pleasing hokum going on. I found the whole book great fun even though there’s quite a high body count and obvious danger to our amnesiac heroine.

 

With the one caveat that I think the end is slightly over the top — I understand why it ends this way but. . . — The Trouble With Charlie is very entertaining and the structured revelations as odd pieces of memory return are elegantly handled. Overall, I conclude the book is well worth picking up as a mystery shading into a thriller when the mood takes it that way.

 

For a review of the next in the series, see Elective Procedures.

 

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

 

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas

January 15, 2013 1 comment

Beautiful Hell

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press, published as a standalone in 2011 with the novella first appearing in 2007). It follows on from the admirable collection Voices From Hades, but it represents quite a radical shift in the narrative approach. We’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s confirm the theme in this book remains consistent, so this is not something Christians might feel comfortable reading. As an atheist, I have no problem in accepting the notion that God might feel he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory when creating the whole Heaven/Hell binary situation. As secularism spreads, it’s hardly fair to blame folk like me for not realising God is real and condemning us to Hell because we “denied” him. So there were churches. Well, try telling that to the Buddhists and all the other folk who honestly worshipped some other deities or held other apparently legitimate belief systems. Just because it turns out there’s only the one true God is no reason to stick us all in Hell for eternity. Once we have the epiphany of arrival at the Pearly Gates only to be turned away, we should be able to redeem ourselves by good works. Yes, I appreciate that may be a little tricky in Hell, but it’s the thought that counts and, as God has been only too keen to tell us, He’s omniscient and therefore knows when we’ve turned over a new leaf and understood the error in our previous ways. I’m sure the same goes for the Buddhists, Scientologists and anyone else prepared to do the whole humility schtick and grovel in apology.

Anyway, having got the question of the theme out of the way, we can come to the story itself and its metafictional form. Here we’re presented with an atheist author who, to his surprise, finds himself in Hell and decides to write a book about his experiences. We therefore get an autobiographical account of how the book we read comes to be written. This meets all the primary criteria to be considered a work of metafiction since the author is drawing our attention to the creative work of capturing “reality” in words. The idea of Hell being treated as real for the purposes of writing a work of fiction is rather elegant with our first-person narrator as the author commentating on the events as they occur and indicating how they will appear in the finished book. For the record, our author names himself Frank Lyre (a homophone of liar making the point that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator). As is required since he’s writing either a sequel or a work in the same universe as the original author, he’s familiar with Voices From Hades. Indeed a copy of the book appears in this story with at least one character reading it with great attention.

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Our author has found himself a not wholly uncomfortable role as a sex slave. Well, perhaps that’s how it started but he’s actually grown quite fond of this demon and they have regular sex sessions together. While he’s on his own, this life passes with few problems but then God, a few Popes and reliable support staff come down to Hell. Included in this team is his ex-wife who was a staunch believer. Our author now finds himself caught between two females: an increasingly jealous demon and an angel who might just be persuaded to spend serious time with her ex in Hell. Putting his personal feelings to one side, there’s also the question of why God should be making this visit and it soon becomes apparent he’s come to make some changes. As all of you will know, no-one likes change. Everyone gets comfortable with the way things are so, not surprisingly, the demons are soon up in arms to make their feelings absolutely clear. Except there’s this omnipotence thing. The fact the demons are not consulted, that this is the Old Testament unilateral God who just decides and then does, makes the demons even more outraged. The least He could have done is to ask what the demons thought, consulted on what changes might actually improve the situation. So this visit is equivalent to a declaration of war.

Well there you have it. Beautiful Hell is an irreverent return to Hell with the threat of change being the order of the day. On balance, it’s a book I admire rather than find exciting. It makes a good sequel and leaves things nicely poised for another visit should the author (whoever it turns out to be) choose to write it. Those who, like me, are Jeffrey Thomas fans, should acquire a copy.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Good Thief;s Guide to Venice-dec-2011

When we reviewers want to show off, we tend to bandy words like “metafiction” around as if we actually know what they mean. I‘m not entirely sure such academic extravagance is justified but, in this case, it does give me the right starting point to talk about The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2012). In many ways I’m always inclined to like books that self-consciously play with the medium of writing. Here we have a first-person narrative exploring the world of a semi-retired thief called Charlie Howard. As someone experienced in dishonest arts, this potentially makes him an unreliable narrator but, only in certain key moments does he actually hide things from the reader. For most of the book, he’s disarmingly honest and not a little confused by the circumstances in which he finds himself. That said, he’s abandoned the life of crime to focus on writing crime fiction. Appropriately, he’s created a burglar as hero who, in fiction, plays out some of the “real” crimes the author has committed. Should he ever be suspected as a very good thief, the police would only need to read his books to identify his methods and some of the crimes he had committed. Such are the minor excitements of an author when he choses to write about what he knows best. More importantly, it also gives Chris Ewan the chance to play with the craft of writing and, for example, discuss how to arrive at those sentences at the end of chapters intended to hook you into turning the page rapidly to find out what happens next.

This would all be wonderful if our author had stopped there. But he has also decided to engage in what’s intended as a slight aping of past prose styles. I would have been happy with a parody of hardboiled pulp. Having grown up surrounded by the detective magazines and adventure/mystery fiction that so dominated the first four decades of the last century, I enjoy an affectionate reprise if it’s done well. Nostalgia for days of innocent fun still runs strong. Unfortunately, instead of aiming high for Chandler or Hammett, we have something rather closer to a poor parody of Leslie Charteris filtered though Wodehouse. Now don’t get me wrong, the tradition of the gentleman as a thief is littered with interesting historical relics. The Saint is paper-thin plots but some morality, while Hornung’s Raffles shows slightly more brio. Perhaps the Maurice Leblanc creation Arsène Lupin is the best both in their originals and all those who followed in his footsteps. He does at least manage to avoid looking foolish. Chris Ewan has similar pretensions with his “good thief” taking on criminals who are at least as bad if not worse than he. That he emerges in one piece speaks loudly of some skill and quite a lot of luck, i.e. he does look foolish some of the time.

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

So where does all this leave us? I like the plot of this novel. There’s a certain elegance on display as we slowly work our way through the revelations to the punchline at the end. There are, however, a number of problems. I prefer to avoid coincidences and the arrival of one figure as we work our way up to the final confrontations is an egregious example of the phenomenon. It’s all a little too convenient in a story that had been moving along comfortably under its own steam. Secondly, there’s a serious problem in the tone of the book. Even at the best of times, it’s very difficult to generate humour out of a thriller scenario. In this instance, the reason for the failure is the metafictional self-consciousness of the first-person voice. When the author is smiling with us, showing us how clever he is in deconstructing the process of writing a page-turner, it’s difficult to make us laugh with or at the narrator when he falls flat on his face or goes through some other experience that might otherwise have raised a smile. This is easier with a third-person show-and-tell. A more omniscient author can expose the mechanism of the prat fall by walking us through the scene, giving us a sense of anticipation, and then laughing as the expected catastrophe befalls the character. In the first-person form, the main feeling is the embarrassment or humiliation of the victim.

Finally we come to the problem of a book wanting to be a caper movie. Although my heart will always belong to Rififi, we’ve all sat through and enjoyed The Italian Job, the Ocean’s series and all the others where the pleasingly criminal show off their skills with a sly but endearing smile. Sadly, this hero could not be played by George Clooney. Worse, the wit and humour, such as it is, comes over as rather more laboured. Earlier in the review, I referred to Wodehouse and the humour of this book has a certain period charm about it, i.e. it is populated by slightly eccentric characters with curious interests and superstitions (our hero feels he can’t write unless he can look up at the first edition of The Maltese Falcon he stole early in his career) with two strong female characters to help and hinder. But the version presented here is too long, the slight jokiness wears thin, and the payoff is not really amusing. It just feels like a reasonably good place to stop. So, on balance, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice would have been better if a strong-willed editor had persuaded the author to cut out the deadwood and leave us with a faster-paced thriller where we might actually feel our hero was in real danger.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin

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

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock

November 27, 2012 2 comments

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock (Subterranean Press, 2012) takes me back to the world of my childhood where I cut my reading teeth on adventure books by Enid Blyton. As a word of explanation to those not lucky enough to have discovered series like the Famous Five when young, the books are about children in danger: the titular five are Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina (George) and their dog Timothy. They were always having adventures and catching criminals, hopefully always being back home in time for tea. To get this current team changed around so they can participate in this homage to Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Fort and others, picture yourself standing on a sprung wooden floor in a thick fog — I know it’s a challenge to imagine adverse weather conditions inside a building, but bear with me. This is the game being played in this book. You can hear the movements of anyone in the room but cannot see them. You now hear ten pairs of footsteps so, naturally, you assume five people are approaching you. Imagine your surprise when it proves to be three children and a dog. It’s this kind of intensely logical and utterly convincing analysis that appeals to both young and old readers who want to experience a kind of affectionate nostalgia. A view of a past full of gentle wonder as filtered through fantasy rose-tinted spectacles.

James P Blaylock aka Perkins

 

So let’s meet the cast of characters. This is a first-person narrative by Katherine Perkins. She’s twelve and already an expert in everything but most especially in cryptozoology. She has two younger cousins, Brendan and Perry. The dog is called Hasbro (which is presumably a reference to his love of games with the kids or the Langdon St Ives’ valet — your choice). With mother missing in acton, Katherine is in the care of John Toliver Hedgepeth. He’s a genius, a member of the Order of St. George, and an inventor in the Heath Robinson style, being able to make a radio out of the junk laying around in his attic. In distant LA, Aunt Ricketts is convinced this is an unsuitable arrangement: a nutty eccentric man in charge of three children. So she gets Child Services on the job to see whether she can bring the children to a safer, more caring environment. To that end, Ms Henrietta Peckworthy appears on the scene to investigate the quality of care the children are receiving. Unfortunately, her arrival coincides with unusual weirdness so the whole issue of custody has to be shelved while the adventures move into high gear as one or more villains kidnap a mermaid (well, that’s not quite right but close enough for these purposes) and make demands. That gets our team on to the SS Clematis and off through the fog to the rendezvous with one or more of the bad guys. Yes, I know this is confusing but half the fun of all this is not knowing who’s on which side and what their motives are. After all, when you’re observing the world through the eyes of a twelve-year-old cryptozoologist in the making, you can’t expect her to know everything (including how fog gets out of glass jars so quickly even though you put the lids on as fast as you can). So think of her as an unreliable narrator or as a reliable narrator in an unreliable world. In such a story, lacking one for a Blyton full house, we’re off to Morecambe Bay and nearby Lake Windermere (which has a big fan installed to keep the fog away).

 

As a novel, Zeuglodon fits into the same story cycle as The Digging Leviathan with a shared villain Hilario Frosticos, and we’re ultimately in ERB land. As a pair, it fits into a broader set of novels which are called the Narbondo series, featuring Ignatio Narbondo and Langdon St Ives in a steampunk version of history rewriting Victorian events for comic effect. The essence of these stories is that much of what Verne, ERB, Fort and others described is actually real and, using new technology, hero and villain fight over Earth’s future, even travelling through time when necessary. Because of its point of view, Zeuglodon is actually a rather ingenious way of adding to the mythology and showing a different view of how the Victorian inspired future is working out. It’s not quite as steampunkish as earlier books but compensates by trespassing into fantasy dreamscapes where the zeuglodon or basilosaurus might put in an appearance should you be able to penetrate through to the hollow Earth. James Blaylock has managed something rather clever, maintaining a childlike point of view which, by implication, deals with some rather adult issues about relationships and responsibilities, about the difference between the real and the places we see in our dreams, and whether it would ever be right to disturb the world’s understanding of itself by collecting evidence of a different reality.

 

For a review of another book by James P Blaylock, see The Aylesford Skull.

 

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

 

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012)

September 17, 2012 2 comments

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012) sees the BBC, through the agency of Gwyneth Hughes, taking on the difficult task of not only adapting a piece of fiction by Charles Dickens, but also finishing it. For, as we all know, the Great Man had the bad grace to die without telling anyone whodunnit. Something that has been deeply annoying to generations of readers every since. By any standards the fragment and this adaptation form a real potboiler. We have the delicate seventeen-year-old flower who’s in line for a good slice of money under her father’s will, a young fiancé who’s not much in love with her — it was one of these childhood engagements and neither is red-hot for carrying through — the jealous uncle who’s role as choirmaster makes him look virtuous, and the orphaned twins from Ceylon who come to this country to complete their education.

John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) showing his dark side

The opening scenes are all done with great visual style as John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), deep in his opium dreams, fantasises about killing his nephew Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox) while the object of his affections, Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant) looks on from the gallery running round the inside of the cathedral. In short order we then have him hurrying back to Cloisterham to conduct the choir, Edwin meets with Rosa, and the Landless twins, Helena (Amber Rose Revah) and the appropriately hot-tempered Neville (Sacha Dhawan), arrive under the protection of the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear). Lurking in the cathedral crypt is the dreary Durdles (Ron Cook). Initially out of sight, the necessary lawyer and Roa’s guardian, Hiram Grewgious (Alun Armstrong) and his clerk Bazzard (David Dawson) stand ready to give advice and support when necessary.

Rosa (Tamzin Merchant) looking suitably virginal

It’s played as a pure drug-fuelled psychodrama as we’re allowed to watch the virtuous choirmaster disintegrate. His life in the cathedral has been one of crushing boredom. For all he loves the music, there’s no prospect of change let alone any advancement. Hence his addiction and his trips to the opium dens of London. His fixation for Rosa is there for all to see and yet, of course, none of the church folk see it. Similarly, his pathological jealousy of Edwin should be obvious, but everyone wants to see only the good in the man. Neville’s arrival is literally Heaven-sent. He’s a natural scapegoat and, if there’s to be suspicion, it will naturally fall on the foreigner.

Neville (Sacha Dhawan) quick to anger

Thus far, it looks as though we’re more or less on track for a routine completion of the hoary old tale, but then something rather remarkable happens. I don’t think I can recall anything quite so radical as a revision or completion of an existing work. This wins a prize for chutzpah not just from the author, but also from the BBC for making it. Let’s start with the reasonable decisions. I approve abandoning the character Dick Datchery and allowing Bazzard to do the on-the-ground sleuthing around Cloisterham. It also seems a better line to make Princess Puffer (Ellie Haddington) into the kind of blackmailer who listens carefully to what her opium addicts say while they dream, prompting them with questions as their words slow. Although, if I wanted to be less forgiving, I would characterise the role as a quack recovered-memory therapist who wants to heal John Jasper by helping him remember what he did. The rest of the plot innovations are, if you’ll forgive the pun, egrewgiously bad. I feel constrained not to engage in spoilers and so will content myself with generalities. Whatever his faults and, by modern standards, they are many, Charles Dickens wrote in a linear narrative style. It has the clear virtue that the reader can follow the action and watch it unroll. He did not seek to emulate the twist endings that made O. Henry (pseudonym of William Sydney Porter) so popular. As rewritten, this version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a nonlinear narrative in which we access the past in non-chronological order through the opium dreams of John Jasper. Needless to say, the fact these dreams are fuelled by opium makes John Jasper a classic example of the unreliable narrator.

Helena Landless (Amber Rose Revah) as the voice of common sense

So Bazzard in Cloisterham begins the process of uncovering previously unsuspected plot elements, while John Jasper is acting like a man afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder and uses the opium to reconnect with past events. Not unnaturally, when John Jasper awakes (thanks to Princess Puffer’s promptings), he has a better view of the past and journeys back to Cloisterham with Rosa for the big climax. The “twist” then comes in two parts. The first has some potential credibility in the culture of the times and it also fits in with the “ghostly shriek” heard in the cathedral a year or so before the main action takes place. The second is one of the worst examples of a deus ex machina I can recall. Sometimes, the unexpected event can at least provide some comic relief as we move into the expected happy ending. But this is simply ludicrous. Whatever value there might have been in this production died when this particular deus stepped out of the machina. That it’s followed by a hopelessly contrived romance compounds the nausea-inducing quality of the ending. So it’s worth watching the first episode of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This is the BBC doing period drama rather well. If you decide to watch the second episode, fortify yourself with a strong drink and keep ready one of those brown paper bags airlines believe will catch projectile vomit.

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