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The Son by Jo Nesbø

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

The Son by Jo Nesbo

There are times when it’s right to begin a review with a headline that will signal whether people want to take the time to read the rest. This is such a time. Making no apologies for the alliteration, The Son by Jo Nesbø (Alfred Knopf, 2014) is magnificently malevolent. From this you will understand that there’s a significant amount of violence, mayhem, and not a little murder delivered with considerable flair and in often quite stunning detail. So if you’re of a nervous disposition and easily shocked, this is not a book you should pick up.

Continuing now with those of you who enjoy a book which explores the darker side of human nature with unbridled enthusiasm, this is a story of revenge and, despite the level of criminality and corruption that’s revealed as the plot unwinds, it speculates on whether taking revenge in cold blood can ever be redemptive. In this, you should understand, there’s a considerable lack of plausibility. But if the plot is going to get everyone relevant to the right places at the right time as the end approaches, physical and emotional laws need to be flexible. Escapes must be possible, bullets will miss their targets, and human hearts prove weak and strong as the situation dictates. In spirit, this reminded me of Headhunters which is the other non-Harry Hole novel and which became a wonderful film. Such a resonance has also occurred in the boardrooms of Hollywood because Warner Bros bought this book in 2012 and is developing it for a big screen debut sometime in the future.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

So what’s it about? We begin by examining the existence of one Sonny Lofthus who’s one of these remarkably laid-back prisoners in what’s supposed to be one of Scandinavia’s superprisons. Somehow he’s managing to score a continuous amount of almost pure heroin which keeps him docile and tractable over the twelve years of his imprisonment. He surfaces just enough to have become a father confessor figure to all the other prisoners and to admit to murders when it’s convenient to those that control him. At this point in his career, he was allowed out on a day visit and, as if by magic, a woman was murdered. Despite there being another more credible suspect, Sonny is soon admitting to the killing. Except, during one of his informal confession sessions, one of the other inmates tells him a story about the circumstances in which his father died. This inspires him to go cold turkey and, in due course, to escape from this magic prison. This sends him on a rampage of revenge. He’s been a listening ear to so many stories told over the years and, of course, he had to learn all the details of the murders he was to admit. This means he knows exactly who’s guilty and should be punished for their sins.

This leads us to Chief Inspector Simon Kefas, an older but very experienced detective now working homicide. When he was younger, he was one of three cadets entering the force. One has now achieved high rank as the police commissioner. The other was Sonny’s father. Now he’s caught up in investigating the emerging series of homicides as Sonny works up to full rampage mode. In the midst of all this, there’s time for some sentimentality and various interacting themes of love. It all works up to a superior climax in which the “heroes” prevail and, albeit in slightly bloodthirsty terms, justice prevails. There’s terrific narrative drive as we turn the pages to find the next major incident. This is not a book you read for realism but, in its own kind of way, it rises above the corruption and general nastiness of human nature and ends on a positive note as peace and calm once again descends on Norway. The Son is recommended as police procedural meets violent crime with a little horror thrown in to spice up the plot.

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
The Bat
Cockroaches
Police.
There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

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

The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

March 25, 2014 6 comments

TheCormorant-144dpi

In the beginning, so the story goes, we were all free to choose: to apple or not to apple. And, of course, being of a perverse disposition, we chose the latest model from the tree and got kicked out of the Garden. Since then, our track record as a species has been on a steady downward trend as more and more of us make bad decisions and have to live and die with the consequences. Except (there’s always an exception in these stories) some like to rewrite history. The way it goes it that this omniscience thing God has going for Him enabled Him to foresee we would eat the apple otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect and we can’t have that blot on the escutcheon of our deity. So, when He put us in there, he already knew we were going to fail the test. He just wanted to rub our noses in knowledge of how sinful we were. So predestination trumps free will. Well perhaps only on the big issues like good person/bad person. Yet even that’s controversial. Omniscience means He already knows whether we’re good or bad, and how we’re always more likely to make the wrong decisions when given the choice. That means some are doomed to perdition from the moment of their birth.

So perhaps the big picture is that we are bound by fate as to how we will end our days, but while living our lives, we have free will on little things like whether to wear a crash helmet while riding a bicycle. Of course, all but one or two individual humans have absolutely no insight into this philosophical conundrum that would have such profound consequences if it turns out God exists. They live their lives according to whatever beliefs and principles seem appropriate. The cautious choose to believe in a deity. The reckless deny it. But what about someone like Miriam Black? The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2014) sees Miriam caught in a very difficult position. It seems not only that someone knows exactly how her power of foresight works, but also how to use it against her.

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig

For those of you not familiar with this powerful series, Miriam had a serious moment when she was a young woman. There was a tragedy. She might have died. But when she recovered, she discovered she had the power to see when and how people would die. All it takes is a touch, skin to skin, and she knows. In the first two books, she tries to work “within the system”. She may not understand all the rules, but she can at least experiment to see just how strong the shackles of fate can be. However, at the start of this book, she may have crossed a line drawn in the supernatural sand. Having foreseen a man is going to be shot, she follows him in the hours before the due time. She tries to talk him out of going to that particular place to use the cash machine. He, of course, won’t listen. It’s his fate to be shot by a mugger. So Miriam waits close by the machine, and when the mugger appears, she shoots the mugger dead. This is a radical departure. This is not just a minor intervention in the mechanism we call predestination. This is a full-scale monkey wrench thrown into the works. The powers-that-be cannot simply sit back spinning their threads and cutting them off when they think it right. They could be endlessly frustrated by this Miriam. She has to be disciplined in a way ensuring she will no longer interfere. Another figure is brought back from the edge of death. He knew Miriam. He can be persuaded to deal with her. He can be given a power of foresight that will enable him to beat her into submission — assuming that’s what fate has in store for her, of course. You see, that’s the big imponderable in all this. If the notion of free will is correct, then someone like Miriam can work outside the system fate dictates. In the final analysis, she would not be accountable. The only problem is that others around her, perhaps those she may have some feelings for, may not be so lucky. When fate fights back, there’s almost bound to be collateral damage.

Now you would be wrong to read this review as suggesting a philosophical tone for this book. In fact, it’s completely the reverse with a robust use of language and imagery throughout. Wendig is not an author who pulls punches. He’s developing a fine voice for delivering interesting ideas wrapped up in the mantle of violent supernatural horror. This makes him one of the most challenging of all the younger writers. Rather than drawing inspiration from some of the more established tropes and frames, he’s charged off into relatively uncharted territory. Obviously, there have been many who play with the idea that no-one can fight fate, or only The One (chosen or otherwise) can win the battle. Perhaps one of the more subversive books on this theme is Un Lun Dun by China Miéville in which the ostensible Chosen One is killed off early and the side kick has to take over when everyone else gets disheartened. This book breaks with convention through the character of Miriam whose defensive mechanisms make her extremely unsociable. Indeed, she’s arguably an anti-hero. This makes The Cormorant a very successful way of continuing the series and it’s recommended for all who enjoy supernatural books that push the boundaries of taste.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
Mockingbird
Unclean Spirits.

Dredd (2012)

September 21, 2012 2 comments

It’s an interesting challenge to try recreating the mindset of earlier times when it was thought entertaining to take a character like Judge Dredd and show him knitting. It seems a lifetime ago, but this happened in 1995 with the hapless Sylvester Stalone cast as the brainwashed hero whose killer instincts had been diverted into domestic skills. I suppose we can dignify this aberration as satirical, yet that rather misses the point of the original. Born in the second issue of the comic, 200AD, Dredd was a direct and powerful indictment of police states and the general trend to authoritarianism. In part, this was why we were never allowed to see his face. When the state turns its attention to questions of justice, it should do so dispassionately. The results of each case should always be the same no matter which judge hears a case nor which defendant is charged. The identities of the individuals potentially gets in the way so, in the comic strip, the enforcer, judge, jury and executioner was faceless.

Karl Urban as the faceless Dredd

 

Mega-City One is a marvelously dystopian creation. With the Earth’s surface largely reduced to radioactive slag, the survivors have huddled together in major conurbations. With land at a premium, the only way to accommodate the millions was to build up. Thanks to the high levels of radiation and pollution, particularly near the outskirts, there are mutants. Some are physical changes, but there are also psychic abilities. In the comic, there are sometimes quite savage commentaries on current trends, e.g. in showing elements of the populations as excessively obese. This is deliberate overeating. Since 90% of the population is unemployed, different groups pass the time rioting, killing people for fun or participating in an Olympics reserved entirely for fatties.

 

Dredd (2012), the film, keeps the look of the city, complete with its own predator drones but not the fatties, and deals with the first day of Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on the job. For these purposes, Dredd (Karl Urban) is assigned the task of evaluating her performance to determine whether she’s suitable to become a judge. In every scene, you can always see her because wearing a helmet interferes with her PSI powers. Fortunately, none of the perps is good enough to make the head shot. This allows the fan boys the chance to ogle the blond while, less importantly, us older viewers can watch the more complex humanity of her expressions as she confronts the reality of the job. Thematically, instead of adopting Stookie as the drug at the heart of this story, the creators have gone for a new product called Slo-Mo. If for no other reason, it gives the cinematographer the chance to create some rather beautiful images as, variously, we’re allowed to savour water in motion, breaking glass and travel in a vertical direction as new art forms.

Rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) and mentor Dredd (Karl Urban)

 

The drug is manufactured by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) on the top floor of a mega-block. As an encouragement to loyalty, she has three minions skinned and dropped from the top floor to the main entrance atrium. This brings in Dredd and Anderson. At an early point, they arrest Kay (Wood Harris). This provokes Ma-Ma into a lock-down and a determined attempt to kill both judges. This could have been an endlessly violent shoot-em-up version of a video game with the two judges walking down featureless corridors, blowing away the waves of gun-toting gang members with their various weapons. Fortunately, recognising such a script is inherently boring, we get a character-driven thriller based on Anderson’s slow metamorphosis from something of a shrinking violet into a lets-just-get-this done enforcer of the law (as she sees it).

 

At this point, I’m going to make what might seem an incongruous remark. This is actually an intelligent film exploring some interestingly grey areas of morality. Early on, we see the two sides to Dredd. He ruthlessly dispatches a perp holding a woman hostage — incidentally, the use of the incendiary bullet produces a quite fascinating set of images as the man dies. But he also ignores petty crime in the form of a beggar sitting in the doorway of the mega-block where the murders occurred. This is pleasingly pragmatic. If every citizen turned against the judges, they would not stand a chance. Each judge must therefore find a personal balance between the law as written and the law he or she applies. Imprisoning or executing everyone would inflame resistance. Utilitarianism requires the maximum benefit to the greatest number of people from the way the law is enforced. Anderson must therefore learn to temper her own sword of justice, only pulling it from its scabbard when its use is unavoidable and knowing when to look the other way. In this, her psychic powers are of fundamental importance. Since she can see inside people’s minds, she genuinely can judge their innocence or guilt. Ironically, she’s capable of becoming the fairest executioner of them all.

Lena Headey getting into battle mode

 

Yes, Dredd is violent, genuinely earning its R rating, but it’s also visually interesting and carefully paced for the maximum tension and excitement. In this, Lena Headey does a particularly good job as Ma-Ma. You really do need a ruthless antagonist and she delivers the right qualities of viciousness. She enjoys every minute of her battle with the judges and lets nothing stand in the way of facing down the judges. The fact she has a mega-building full of hostages and has no compunction in killing them, makes her an appropriate challenge. Karl Urban does all the right things with his voice. Let’s be honest. He doesn’t need to move the stubble on his chin that much. The helmet does the acting for him. Olivia Thirlby is outstanding as you watch her body language shift from uncertain to ever greater certainty. This is a truly great version of the comic original, respecting its intentions and carefully avoiding everything associated with the earlier Hollywood version. You should definitely see it if you enjoy dystopian science fiction with a violent approach to exploring interesting ideas.

 

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Earlier this year, I waxed lyrical about a violent supernatural horror novel. It was called Blackbirds and penned by Chuck Wendig. Well, he’s emerged in sequel land with Mockingbird (Angry Robot, 2012). We’re now one year further on and Miriam Black is not quite playing the part of the trailer park trophy wife. She’s not actually married, only living with Louis but, thanks to his entrepreneurial skills, he’s driving the roads with his truck, salting away saving for that rainy day, while she’s scanning goods at a local convenience store. It’s the kind of life the brain dead enjoy but, as you can imagine, it leaves our heroine with a seething pile of resentment.

So where are we with the story? Well, not that I always want to show off my classical education, but we have to dive into the mythology of Ancient Rome to understand the big plot point at work here. You see those Romans believed you could tell what the Gods (sorry, there were a lot of them to keep track of) wanted you to do to stay on their right side — remember, if you pissed off any one of the Gods, he or she could turn you into an animal or chain you to a rock and have a big bird eat out your liver. I mean, what’s the point of having god-like powers if you never use them? So it was important to know what you were expected to do. The priests of the day identified these messages in a variety of ways, but one of the most popular was watching the flight patterns and general behaviour of birds. This was the study of the auspices, part of the general trade of augury. In these books, we’re concerned with the oblativa, i.e. the Gods send the signs and signals, usually in the hope of achieving a better balance in society. In more recent times, societies defined different types of omen, a natural phenomenon that suggests what will happen in the future. In theory, such events can be foretelling good or bad outcomes but, such has been the pessimism of the ages that we largely think of omens as ominous, i.e. favouring the bad. If you check out superstitions, you’ll find blackbirds are associated with death, often signifying the presence of souls who are trapped on Earth. It’s also appropriate to remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird (courtesy of Harper Lee) albeit, in the novel, the birds are valued for their song and are inherently good — not quite how they are portrayed in this book.

Chuck Wendig daring you not to like the book

The issue is one of Fate or, following the Enlightenment, determinism. Miriam Black has the power to see how someone will die. For years, her attempts to prevent the deaths she foresees end in disaster. Then she makes a breakthrough. The survival of Louis is a testament to her new understanding. Except she’s not entirely sure what she understands, particularly as she’s now afflicted by visions. These voices are just so annoyingly cryptic. Just what is she supposed to do? More importantly, why is she supposed to do it? Surely, these predictive birds don’t really care how many people are killed? I mean, looking at matters objectively, many of the people who die are leading worthless lives, mired in poverty, engaging in petty crime and often abusing drugs. What value could there be to society to give such people an extra few years? They blight the lives of those they rob and burglarise, they burden the state if they fall ill and need hospital treatment. How much easier life would be for everyone if responsible citizens culled the worthless spongers. And just think how much more efficient this culling would be if those citizens were led by an auger who could see their future lives, who could be certain just how worthless these lives would be. Perhaps Miriam Black should join forces with these citizens, contribute her supernatural gift to ensuring a better future for the majority. This is determinism in service to utilitarianism.

I like the way the story is developing. It’s carefully advancing the moral debate about the way we react to death. We’re a selfish species, fighting to prolong our own lives, using every reasonable opportunity to get medical treatment to keep ourselves healthy. This reflects the broader biological imperative of competition. The fittest survive and tend to do well. We’re quite often comfortable with the notion the less fit die younger because they receive only second-class care. Redistribution of resources to give everyone access to the same quality of care has never worked. The wealthy, i.e. the powerful, have always used their money and authority to jump the queues, to get the best doctors and the most effective treatments. There’s always been a self-perpetuating elite from Roman times when the lifestyles of the rich depended on the exploitation of the slaves, to modern societies where the less advantaged are wage-slaves, offering both direct and indirect support to the lifestyles of the rich. So why should there be Gods sending birds to warn Miriam Black of death on a semi-industrial scale? Anyone with eyes can see death all around them.

I think Chuck Wendig has slightly toned down the intensity of the prose in Mockingbird. There’s a more melancholic feel to this narrative as our heroine struggles to define herself as a person. She’s agonising over her relationship with her family and Louis while trying to act rationally as the “Trespasser” keeps interrupting her dreams, both sleeping and waking. It’s enough to make even a saint weep and, sure as eggs is eggs, Miriam is no saint. So this is highly enjoyable and cleverly advancing the plot. It’s going to be interesting to see how the series develops.

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

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
The Cormorant
Unclean Spirits.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

March 13, 2012 1 comment

This is a wonderful piece of work (in all senses of the idiom). It’s a straight up-n-at-em style that hits where it hurts and takes no prisoners. From this you will gather two fundamental truths. I found Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012) vastly enjoyable and I’m attempting to break the page speed record for the most clichés in a column inch. Welcome to the world of Miriam Black. She’s developed an unfortunate ability: precognition. With her first touch, skin to skin, she can tell exactly when and how a person will die. This is not a little distressing so, for a while, she harbours the hope she can be an angel of mercy and avert these foreseen personal disasters. Unfortunately, she runs into three problems. The first is that Fate is inflexible. Second, that she has no idea where the deaths will occur. Third, if she tries to intervene or is merely present, she can often be the cause of the effect. Take death as a result of epilepsy as an example. She foresees a man will die in a motel room. Later, she finds herself in that room with the man and they have an intense argument. This precipitates the fit and he dies — not that he doesn’t deserve to die, of course, but the fact she stayed in the room, knowing what was going to happen. . . Morally, she also crosses the line because she takes money and credit cards from those who’ve died. It helps pay her bills as she runs from herself across a grim and unromantic America as seen from highways, truck stops and motel rooms.

She endures, fighting off unwanted attention when it arises, but her lonely journey suddenly becomes hazardous. There’s an evolving situation in which some distinctly unhappy drug dealers are trying to recover their stolen product. They don’t care how many they have to torture or kill to get their drugs back. It’s the principle of the thing. No-one steals from them and lives! And Miriam? Well, Fate throws her together with the man who stole it. Ah, now the widening pool of victims could include her and a “white knight” who’s briefly by her side. Ironically, her ability tells her the thief will die of old age. . .

Chuck Wendig being a Klingon with the aid of a mask

In some author’s hands, determinism can be a bit plodding. Characters have given up. Their precognitive ability tells them what will happen and all they can do is watch as it happens. Consider the four Final Destination films in which a small group of people are saved only to realise you can’t cheat death. Except, of course, the scriptwriter usually allows one or two to survive. Well, Miriam is stuck in a comparable situation. From her point of view, it’s hopeless and all she can do to stay sane is avoid touching other people. Yet we readers have one thing going for us. Chuck Wendig has a sense of humour about all this. Here’s a really neat way of summing up the complexities of determinism as applied to a nine-year old boy called Austin. “You realize, all of life is written in a book, and we all get one book, and when that book is over, so are we. Worse, some of us get shorter books than others. Austen’s book was a pamphlet.” This captures a flavour of the prose which is electric. It’s stripped down to the wire. One touch and it carries the current directly to the brain. Although it’s good to read dense prose every now and again. Indeed, sometimes, the complexity can have its own beauty. There’s nothing better than the bare minimum where every letter is pulling its weight. Many people try to write this way and most fail miserably. Chuck Wendig has it down to a fine art. It’s tough, mean and, at times, firing enough four-letter words for the film rating agencies to insist on an R rating. He’s also got the knack of thought-transference as the images he had in his mind when writing come whiplashing into yours. Indeed, however I look back at this reading experience, it was so good, I want it again.

The best way to sum this book up is simple. Objectively, with one exception, people do terrible things to each other, but the way it’s all described is so exuberant, you get carried along and, at times, actually smile. This makes me think of those ads for chocolates, “So good, it’s sinful!” Except, from what I’ve written, you should realise this book is not for everyone. You have to be able to accept very graphic violence both in descriptions of death and in torture scenes. If this is going to be a problem, walk away. For everyone else who enjoys violent horror, this is the best so far this year. Better still Blackbirds is actually set up so there could be a sequel. Now, if that’s what Fate decrees, I say, “Bring it on!”

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

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
The Cormorant
Mockingbird
Unclean Spirits.

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