The Secret Place by Tana French.

The Secret Place
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of psychological mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★

Here’s how I imagine it went down:

French and her besties are at their high school reunion weekend. They’re sitting around drinking wine and reminiscing when someone decides to pull out the old ouija board from the attic storage. Much to their surprise, they channel Agatha Christie’s voice from Cat Among the Pigeons. Flush with success, they try again, and discover Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (review here).

Alright; maybe I just have my own upcoming reunion on my mind. But I was captivated by the way The Secret Place integrated the turbulent days of youth at a girls’ boarding school with a murder investigation by Dublin’s finest, proving again that French has talent in spades. If there is one thing her prior four books in the Murder Squad series have made clear, French is great at character creation. And atmosphere. Oh, and dialogue. Okay, fine; she’s good at all the components that make a book enjoyable. This time she’s also nailed the police procedural aspects of the case.

The story begins with Holly and her three friends hanging at a playground, musing on the end of summer and their upcoming year together at boarding school. Fast forward to Detective Stephen Moran at the Cold Cases Unit. Holly appears at the police station requesting a meeting with him, six years after when they last met in events covered by The Faithful Place. The exclusive boarding school she resides at has a noticeboard where students can put up anonymous confessions. Holly has found a postcard with an old picture of murder victim Chris Harper.  The words “I know who killed him” are pasted across in cut-out letters. Moran seizes the opportunity to wedge his foot in the door of the Murder Squad, and personally takes the note to the case’s lead detective, Antoinette Conway. As she is currently without a partner, he offers her the benefit of his disarming interview skills when she returns to the school to re-interview the students. What follows is an exploration of what led to the death and how the detectives retroactively piece the story together.

The plot timeline is unusual, as it combines the current investigation with viewpoints from the girls and from Chris during the prior year. The investigation takes place within one incredibly busy day, while the events in the girls’ lives cover the entire previous year at school. It’s an interesting kind of time shifting for a murder mystery, but I came to enjoy it. Instead of learning about the prior relationships and circumstances through flashbacks, we live it with four of the girls and the victim, bringing a heightened sense of doom to their daily lives.

Characterization is stellar. The introduction to Murder Squad Detective Conway:

Antoinette Conway came in with a handful of paper, slammed the door with her elbow. Headed for her desk. Still that stride, keep up or fuck off… Just crossing that squad room, she said You want to make something of it? half a dozen ways.

Or the (re-) introduction of Detective Frank Mackey:

I know Holly’s da, a bit. Frank Macket, Undercover. You go at him straight, he’ll dodge and come in sideways; you go at him sideways, he’ll charge head down.

Marvelous, really; contrast that with the books that focus on the appearance of the character first, or contain long soliloquies where the character helpfully identifies their history and preferences. In the prior examples, French distills two very different personalities into brief thoughts, so that when we finally meet them, dialogue can be focused and snappy, but still shaded with the layers of meaning from knowing the character. It is a beautiful technique that mirrors real life; if you follow me through my day, I don’t muse on each person interact with; rather, our interactions are defined partially by our history and word choice describing it would reflect it. French’s writing captures that shading without huge, potentially distracting expository swathes.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the delicate balance between Moran and Conway. As her fierce personality is evident from the start, I was fascinated by Conway’s attempt to develop a working relationship with her. Initially, Moran is ingratiating himself out of expedience, but it becomes clear Conway understands his intentions. French does a nice job of keeping both Moran and the reader off-balance, guessing at what Conway thinks while having a sense of where it is going.

The setting is immersive, bringing back memories of adolescence in all its insecurities:

Two years on, though, Becca still hates the Court. She hates the way you’re watched every second from every angle, eyes swarming over you like bugs, digging and gnawing, always a clutch of girls checking out your top or a huddle of guys checking out your whatever. No one ever stays still, at the Court, everyone’s constantly twisting and head-flicking, watching for the watchers, trying for the coolest pose.

and glories:

Darkness, and a million stars, and silence. The silence is too big for any of them to burst, so they don’t talk. They lie on the grass and feel their own moving breath and blood… Selena was right: this is nothing like the thrill of necking vodka or taking the piss out of Sister Ignatius… This is nothing to do with what anyone else in all the world would approve or forbid. This is all their own.

It is worth noting for those who are new to French that while The Dublin Murder Squad is nominally a series, the connection is through the web of relationships in the police department. Each story tends to focus on a particular member of the squad and their emotional entanglement to the case at hand. Although they may reference events in a prior story, they usually aren’t spoilerish, nor is reading them in order needful. In this case, French seems to draw back from a detective’s emotional dissolution and instead focus on a more positive resolution.

I found The Secret Place to be a complex, satisfying story, delicately balanced between mystery and character story. There was no part that I was even considered skimming, as the flashbacks held as much interest as the police procedural. In fact, reviewing was a challenge, as I kept thumbing through my notes, tempted by my saved passages to re-read. Though I read an advance copy, I suspect this is one I’ll have to add to the paper library.

 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Viking for providing me an advance copy to review. Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the magical writing.

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The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairyland
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of Valente, purplish prose, shadows
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

 

Once you’ve been to a world filled with magic, what happens next?

September first visited Fairyland in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.  Young, carefree and heartless: her adventures there exposed to her wonders and dangers; she formed new friendships with barely a thought for home. Now September is back in Omaha, Nebraska, at the end of a very long, non-Fairyland year. It’s been tough; though she has a secret she carries “with her like a pair of rich gloves, which, when she was cold, she could take out and slip on to remember the warmth of days gone by,” she is more ostracized than ever by her classmates. Even worse: her shadow is still missing, left in Fairyland, and her father remains away at war in France. Like most storybook heroines returned to the real world, she has hopes of returning to a land of magic: “being quite a practical child, she had become very interested in mythology since her exploits on the other side of the world, studying up on the ways of fairies and old gods and hereditary monarchs and other magical folk.” (See what Valente does there? Clever, clever!)

But September is under a very large misconception about magical journeys. She assumes that since the dictatorial Marquess is no longer the ruler in Fairyland, her return will mean only joyful reunions, not questing or testing.  But how wrong she is, because her missing shadow has grown into herself and become quite wild–she’s appointed herself the Leader of Fairyland Below, and taken a new name: “‘Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What you Please, and Night’s Best Girl.” The Wyverary stopped. ‘Why, she’s you, September. The shadow the Glashtyn took down below.“” Even worse, now other shadows are going missing and it may be Halloween who is to blame.

When September finally makes it to Fairyland and is–in a sense–reunited with her friends the Wyvern and the Marid, she’s actually reunited with their shadow-selves–so very different than the friends she knew. Even more significantly, she’s a year older and now a teenager, so her heart has done some growing since she was last in Fairyland. More risk and more conflict: “For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown up hearts never learn it.

And there’s the crux of both the beauty and difficulty of Valente’s story: September’s wondrous journey through Fairyland Below is edged with sadness and loss about our shadow-selves and the dark, wanting pieces of ourselves we don’t always acknowledge. September’s missing companions, the question of her shadow-self’s freedom, even the visual dimness of the setting reinforce the sense that there are many sides to a story. The whimsy is still there, but it is an adult-edged whimsy, where reindeer are worried about being caught by (marriage) hunters, kangaroos mine jewels for/of their memories and the Alleyman sieves the shadows from Fairyland.

“‘No one said this was a bad place,’ she told herself. ‘No one said the bottom of the world was somewhere terrible. It’s only dark, and dark’s not so frightening. Everything’s dark in Fairyland-Below. That doesn’t mean it’s wicked.‘”

Because of the complexity and challenge of the message–a different version of growing up, if you will, more like a type of growing out and understanding–I’m not entirely sure Valente’s whimsical tone and imagery works quite as well for me as the first one did. Or, perhaps it does, and really, I’m just not as comfortable with the message. It’s hard to tell.

Stylistically, it is worth noting (again, as always) that Valente is a superb writer. I recently picked up another young-adult book by a writer who has wonderful adult works, and I was struck by how simple both the structure and language were. The Girl series doesn’t oversimplify for its readers; it will challenge and please at any age. This is the type of book whose color blooms as the reader ages, one that can be read at nine, fifteen and twenty-eight, and find it enjoyable each time. Highly recommended to fans of playful imagery, sophisticated prose and small diamond bits of hard truth hidden by shadows.

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Year of the Griffin Diana Wynne Jones

Year of the Griffin
Re-Read August 2014 (last read August 2011)
Recommended for fans of schools of magic, griffins
★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

 

Every now and then I have the urge for a comforting re-read, a diverting read that will be unlike real life enough to hold back the flood for a couple of hours. Year of the Griffin is one of those books for me, a lovely, reliable story about a group of young adults (both human and otherwise) at a school for wizards. Predating Harry Potter by three years, Diana Wynne Jones made her own foray into the traditional field of English magical schools and succeeds in marvelous, whimsical fashion.

Elda, the youngest griffin daughter of the famous wizard Derk, has enrolled at the nearly broke Wizards’ University without her father’s knowledge. It isn’t long before she meets a like-minded and curious group of friends: Ruskin, a revolutionary dwarf; Olga, a mysteriously wealthy and beautiful woman; Claudia, the outcast half-Marshwoman sister of the ruler of the Emperor of the South; Lukin, the heir of the (impoverished) Kingdom of Luteria, and Felim, incognito from the country of the Emir to prevent assassins from learning his location. During introductions on the first day, Wizard Corkoran realizes his plan to solicit their families for more money won’t work since the students are either poor or in hiding. Unfortunately, he’s rapidly distracted by his project to land on the moon and forgets to pass the word on to the administrative team, thus setting a wild chain of events in motion. Subsequent events include a flying horse, a bushel of oranges, a trip to the library, assassins, pirates, adventures in cooking, more griffins, a statue, twue love and cats.

Characterization is fun; all are reasonably developed and their bonding over shared academic and family frustrations seem entirely natural. In the long tradition of magical schools, it is refreshing to have a griffin and dwarf be part of the student mix, along with a few other representatives of countries/kingdoms in this world. It creates an interesting sense of diversity within the group. When their families come into play, each student gains a little more focus and detail. There is also an innocence and ingeniousness about the students that makes their efforts toward improvement quite sweet and not at all malicious. Eventually, a few members of the group and incoming supporting cast end up pairing off, but any romance is gentle and exists mostly in the area of hand-holding and shared company. The setting feels like a typical medieval fantasy setting, with carts and horses, fires for warmth and the like. It isn’t too fleshed out, but allows Jones to concentrate on characterization and action.

Plotting is fun. Driven initially by the disclosure that the six are currently students at the university, the converging families and chaos propel the action forward. When the six students realize trouble is headed their way, they band together. The spell-traps they create to protect one of their members are priceless fun.  Corkoran’s focus on the moon shoot is especially entertaining from a real-world point of view.

I actually read this long before Dark Lord of Derkholm, so although it says “sequel,” don’t be put off. Most of the main characters from Dark Lord are only peripheral, and the preceding events are only responsible for the ruins of the college, not really what is happening to it now. The prior parallel worlds do help explain away some of the similarities and the stereotypes, quite clever on the part of Jones. However, the tone and conflicts of the two books are different enough that I wouldn’t call them a duology at all. Consider the second an insightful “whatever happened to –” installment.

Though the characters are young adult and the resolutions of issues neat, it is not a simple story by any means in concepts or language. Overall, it is very light in tone, the perfect kind of read when one needs a happy ending.

Highly recommended.

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The Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block. AKA, WTF.

The Burglar on the Prowl
Read August 2014
Recommended for people who don’t mind a date rape
★    

If you are willing to gloss over a significant character relationship, it might theoretically be an entertaining read.

Seriously, Block. What’s the author of the finely tuned Matt Scudder mysteries thinking? Please tell me this was subbed out to a ghost writer, because your introduction of the Barbara Creely character is awful.

Burglar stared off promising, with a unique voice compared to Block’s other works, and with a man who clearly enjoyed his illegal activities, even as he was aware of how problematic they were.

Bernie Rodenbarr is set up to be a somewhat loveable anti-hero, the classic criminal with ethics (he only steals from the rich, etc, etc), and it mostly works, until he’s under the bed at a woman’s house as she is about to get date-raped. And he just hides there and listens, because he’s essentially afraid of harm from the rapist. Although I appreciate that Bernie is sharing an honest reason, it had a significant downgrading on my enjoyment level. After the rapist finishes, he tosses the apartment looking for money and valuables. He threatens to degrade the unconscious woman further, but is luckily stopped by circumstance. Bernie feels sorry for the woman and makes an effort to “clean up” the mess the rapist/robber made by putting things back, replacing money in her wallet, flushing the condom, etc. Kind, I suppose. But how fucking obtuse: I know what will solve the problem! Let me erase it for you and we’ll pretend it never happened!

Later, Bernie goes back to the neighborhood and hangs out at a bar that seems like the woman’s type, hoping to run into her. To see if she’s okay? Nice thought, but no. To try and warn her that her she needs to start playing it safer? Wow, you’re kind of a Pollyanna, aren’t you?

No, he meets her, they have a creepy conversation about how it seems they’ve been “emotionally intimate” before, he goes home with her that night, and spends the night having sex.

Oh, not so he’s a stalker or anything–he’s friendly and doesn’t use roofies, which makes all the difference.
Then, within a week, he’s telling her the truth about his occupation… and how he first met her. And you know what? She’s okay with it.

What
the
fuck?

The self-disclosure is literally taken care of in a couple of paragraphs. This is despite Bernie earlier reflecting on a conversation with his friend Carolyn about how merely feeling burgled felt like a violation. He tells Barbara she’s been roofied and date-raped, along with being robbed. Her reaction? She swears for a minute and then focuses on which window Bernie was going to use to escape.

I will say it again:

What
the
fuck?

Add in a shitload of coincidences, which Bernie self-references twenty times if he does it once, and the ridiculous Hercule Poirot denouement, and I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that this is a spoof. In which rape is how you meet your next date.

Need I say it again?

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Inspector Hobbes and the Blood by Wilkie Martin.

Inspector Hobbes and the Blood
Read August 2014
Recommended for fans of pulp, puns, supernatural detectives
★    ★    ★    1/2  

Don’t you have those days when your brain just needs a break? I’ve been swamped this summer by the seriously un-fun Understanding Pathophysiology. After reading four or five chapters a week, there’s times when my brain craves a bit of shut-off, but my body isn’t ready to sleep.  That’s what television is for, right? And sports? But honestly, I’d rather read about silly people and needless danger than watch it, and that’s where Martin’s Unhuman series with Inspector Hobbes fits in. Well, Inspector Hobbes isn’t senseless so much as Andy Caplet is, the diffident reporter assigned to follow Hobbes. Think Sherlock Holmes with slightly more bestial tendencies and Lou Costello as Watson. Think modern English town with supernatural beings just trying to live their lives without harassment, whether its chomping on old bones or standing in a field thinking trollish thoughts. Think–dare I say it–puns.

Andy Caplet is a struggling reporter unexpectedly assigned to follow Inspector Hobbes, one of the fearsome successes of the local police force. The assignment is surprising as Andy’s most notable story to date was his unsuccessful attempt to do a piece on a show-winning hamster, resulting in nasty bite and an unflattering bit of press. Hobbes is focused an unlikely series of events relating to Mr. Roman, whose house was burgled, a violin stolen, and Mr. Roman subsequently found dead, apparently a suicide. When Andy follows Hobbes to the cemetery where Mr. Roman was found, he discovers a newly-opened grave and is almost victim to a ghoulish cover-up. It is the beginning of Andy’s introduction to the unhumans around him, and he decides to stick with Hobbes in hopes of an award-winning story. Perhaps even a book!

The basic premise of Inspector Hobbes is done well. The unfortunate Andy contrasts nicely to the enigmatic, powerful and intelligent Hobbes. Plotting moves quickly from event to event, establishing interesting characters along the way. Particularly entertaining was Mrs. Goodfellow, Hobbes’ live-in cook, housekeeper and friend, with her dental obsession and her tendency to tread quietly. I appreciated the the way Martin hints to the reader and Andy that something about certain characters may not be quite human, a much more enjoyable type of character development than the long-winded info-dump. Hobbes, of course, is the biggest mystery of all–what is he, exactly? And does it matter?

In truth, and in his own way, he’d looked after me. He was an enigma. He was a monster. He was a policeman. He was someone I out to be writing about.

Andy, being more of the anti-hero type, frequently leaps to the wrong conclusion, misleading himself and the reader. Although bumbling, he isn’t quite incompetent, and is sincere, so I found him more tolerable than in the second book, Inspector Hobbes and the Curse.

One of the few problems I had with the writing was what appears to me as a tendency to run-on sentences and excessive commas. It could just be my personal fondness for semi-colons and colons showing, but I did find it initially distracting. I think as the action picks up, the commas diminish–or else my mental filter blotted them out. An early example:

As I landed and turned around, the magazine fluttering to the carpet like a dying pigeon, the blood pounding through my skull, my shin bruised from a sharp encounter with the table, the old lady, standing by the sofa, gave me a gummy smile. Though I coulgh have sworn she did not have a single tooth left in her head, I thought a positive response was appropriate.

As a side note, although I love paper books, this might be one to read on e-reader. Martin has a tendency to sprinkle a number of English idioms–and by English, I mean country-cultural specific words. And, speaking of abuse of the English language, there’s a story about Hobbes’ stuffed grizzly bear:

The bus knocked him into a music shop, where his muzzle became entangled in an antique stringed instrument that suffocated him. And so my sad tale ends, with a bear-faced lyre.

It was fun and entertaining–and didn’t mention molecular biology once. A perfect beach read, if you should be so lucky as to have time at the beach.

 

Thanks to Julia at The Witcherly Book Company for providing me a copy to review. Which was, of course, provided without a request to actually review it. Thanks!

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Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells

Wheel of the Infinite
Read July 2014
Recommended for fans of Wells, The Blue Sword, fantasy about older women
four stars, three and a half stars, who’s counting?

A woeful number of fantasy readers are unfamiliar with Martha Wells. My proof, you ask? The very fact that rights have reverted back to Wells and she has decided to re-release her books in e-book form. Wide-ranging in world-building and focus, she hasn’t been content to settle down in one fantasy universe and write an endless series (cough, cough, Robert Jordan). I happen to love her fine balance between plotting and world-building, and the way she winds them together with reasonably sophisticated–but non-purplish–language. I’m a little regretful that it took me so long to discover her writing despite my wide-ranging fantasy tastes, and I’d encourage any fantasy reader to check her work out–there’s certainly enough variety that if one book doesn’t suit, there’s likely another that will fit better. And if nothing else, her take on fantasy tends towards the unusual.

Wheel of the Infinite centers on Maskelle, a formerly powerful woman who has left her position as her temple divinity’s living Voice in disgrace. Tet in a society somewhat loosely based on Tibetan Buddhism, there is a pantheon of gods who have spent time on earth and have returned to the Divine Realms. A core ritual of the combined temples is to recreate the mandala pattern of the lands annually or the land will suffer, and this year marks a crucial hundred-year ceremony. Although Maskelle retains many of her powers from her time as the Voice, she’s been traveling incognito, acting as seer for a traveling theater troupe. While looking for herbs, she discovers a river inn overrun with raiders. Feeling rather ornery, she decides to see if there are any honest folk left to rescue, and she instead discovers a foreign traveler captive to the bandits’ amusements. They mutually rescue each other, discovering an immediate connection. He surreptitiously follows as she leads the troupe to the capital city of the Celestial Empire, until a temporary rouse as her bodyguard leads to a permanent association. Once in the city, Maskelle, her new bodyguard Rian, and the troupe quickly become the focus of local politics, both supernatural and corporeal.

As I read, I was strongly reminded of Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold’s 2004 award-winning fantasy novel centered around an older woman, long past her enthusiastic and athletic youth. It was clear that Wells had a similar agenda for Wheel, first published in 2000. In an interview at Tor books, Wells states, “for Maskelle I wanted to write about an older woman protagonist because I’d been thinking a lot about the portrayals of older women in books and movies around that time. I’d seen an older movie that dealt explicitly with the idea that when women reach a certain age, we’re just supposed to retire from life, especially any kind of a sex life. So I wanted to write an older woman who was very much still a force in the lives of people around her. I’d already done that with Ravenna in The Element of Fire, but I wanted to get more into it with a main character.”

Are there some problems here? Yes. It didn’t feel like the same polished writing I encountered in Death of the Necromancer, a fast moving 19th century supernatural murder mystery. While I appreciated the nominally non-Western focus and the general female equality, the world-building wasn’t as sophisticated as in The City of Bones.  The relationship between Maskelle and Rian was rather predictable and not especially well developed, but I did enjoy the easy way they related without a lot of interpersonal strife. I enjoyed Maskelle’s snarky voice, although I wasn’t entirely sure it was culturally congruent until much farther along in the story.  Wheel‘s plotting moves quickly, the characterization is decent, the romance enjoyable without overwhelming the main story and the ending was truly unpredictable. The inclusion and characterization of the theater troupe was a particularly strong aspect, especially the indirect commentary on the role of theater in the community. And the puppets!

Overall, I enjoyed the read, pleased I was exposed to yet another strong entry in Well’s interesting body of work. If you are considering it, check out the first chapter at her site.

 

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Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half
Read July 2014
Recommended for fans of humorous biographies, people with
problem dogs, people who love cake
★    ★    ★    ★   

Allie Brosh astounds me. Despite her strange little drawings, particularly a self-portrait that looks something like a marine tube worm, she reaches some profound truths in the course of her book. Part graphic novel, part autobiography, she manages to both amuse and discomfort the reader in the best of ways. Though she presents herself as a person struggling with severe depression issues in a number of the stories, she touches on human truths most of us experience.

Hyperbole and a Half originates from her wildly popular blog of the same name (link to her site).  Satisfying on a laptop screen, I enjoyed the paper version even more. Made of heavy paper, each section has a different colored page background, making it look a little like a stack of heavy construction paper from the side. It’s a pleasing way to highlight a change in topics. Subjects range from childhood experiences to struggles with her dogs to self-identity and depression. “Dinosaur (the Goose story)” created out-loud laughs with its great pictures. I confess, “The God of Cake” is one of my favorite stories, precisely because I can completely relate. I too have schemed obsessively to get cake, and that tell-tale smear of pink icing at the corner of the mouth–priceless.

The series showing the progressive cake-induced hyperglycemia are hysterical in their accuracy: the dilated eyes, the slightly glazed expression, the dance of sugary joy, the expansive smile…

The God of Cake

Contrast her little pink self with the attention to detail when drawing her ‘special dog.’  The detail in the coat is a great contrast to the solid Colorforms of her characters. And if you have a dog, you must recognize this pose of confused submission:

 

I love her humor, her truths, her candidness in sharing some of the awful times of her life, and for being genuine with it, not merely going for laughs–although there are plenty of those. There is an incident during her depression where she relates how she is lying on the floor and discovers a piece of corn under the fridge. It is a perfect example of relating how she experienced that moment, without going for laughs. It is absurd, poignant, honest, and a little uncomfortable. And she leaves it there. Brave choice.

I confess, this is rather what I was hoping for when I read Jenny Lawson’s semi-autobiography, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. With her strange little drawings and her frankness about isolation and emotions, Brosh won a spot in my heart. Rather entranced by her blog, I decided to order her book as a way of support, despite a space-challenged library. I encourage anyone who follows her to do the same, so you can have a lasting copy of her work.

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Known Devil by Justin Gustainis

Known Devil
Read July 2014
Recommended for
★    ★    

With Hard Dark, I had the impression Gustainis was having fun. Enjoying the hell out of himself, in fact, and the enthusiasm translated to an entertaining read. This time, the writing feels forced, rote instead of fun. World-building, characterization and writing all left me left me wishing I had picked up my academic reading instead.

The third installment in the Occult Crimes Unit series begins in a local diner where Detective Sergeant Stan Markowski and his partner, Karl Renfer, are having a coffee break–or blood break in Karl’s case. Karl’s musings on the latest James Bond flick are interrupted by a pair of elves holding up the patrons.  The elves are behaving like strung-out drug addicts, but everyone knows supernaturals can’t get addicted to drugs, with the exception of those pesky goblins and their meth problem. Unfortunately, Renfer and Mark are about to discover a new drug that works on supes has made its way to Stanton. Before they can follow-up, they’re diverted to a mass shooting where members of a local vampire crime family are permanently dead, murdered by an out of town gang moving in on their territory. A supernatural drug, a local gang war, and the growth of the local Patriot Party all add up to trouble. Could they possibly be connected?

As a bit of background, while there isn’t anything new or surprising about the world Gustainis has created (unless you count the alternate history that includes Steinbeck writing Of Elves and Men), it’s been largely serviceable world-building.  Normally, if world-building isn’t particularly unique, I focus on character or plotting, but alas–the same cut-and-paste from genre tropes is apparent. Stan Sipowitcz as detective. Impaired but recovering relationship with daughter as well as partner. New drug moving into the city causing gang war. Supernatural discrimination. Not-so-shadowy figure who wants to incite a cultural revolution. Stan’s willingness to be jury and judge with lawbreakers.

I wasn’t offended by Detective Stan’s flirtation with the judgmental side of defending his city. I was, however, offended by the facile characterization–and read absolutely no political implications in my complaints–which relied on copy-n-paste anti-immigrant Tea Party description into the anti-supernatural Patriot Party. Ditto the insertion of every Italian mob stereotype you might remember from Godfather-knock-offs into the vampire mob family (“the devil you know…”).

Even more concerning is the general awkwardness of the writing. Take this fragment from a discussion between Markowski and Castle, the head of the supernaturals:

“‘It may surprise you, detective, but I also have read the works of Mister Ian Fleming. Mostly, I regard them as light entertainment, but sometimes, as in your present example…’ The fingers were drumming again, softly as tears falling on a coffin.

Or the awkward justification where Markowski admits he lied to his fellow officers, lied to a gang leader, but is willing to tell the police department he was lying if he needs to turn in the gang leader (dizzy yet?). Then the  transition after Markowski helpfully summarizes his reasoning and plans for the reader his adult daughter:

She swirled the remaining liquid in her mug and studied the little whirlpool that resulted. ‘This cop stuff gets pretty complicated sometimes, doesn’t it?’
‘Yeah, but it’s nothing that a master detective like your old man can’t handle.”

Yes, I suppose “this cop stuff” is complicated when you are an author and need  your character to behave in an uncharacteristic way, but don’t want to re-write everything you’ve done so far.

Then there’s a weird scene thrown in where the department witch does some sympathetic magic, so she kisses our lead.  I’d accuse Gustainis of being a bit of a sexist, since the few women characters are only accessories to our lead–except that virtually all the characters are one-note, so it’s hard to say it’s a female-only issue. It is worth noting that when females do appear, Markowski has a definite preoccupation with their sexuality (including his daughter’s, ew).

Quite honestly, I was bored reading, never a good sign. The only reason I didn’t quit was that then I’d have to read three chapters of Study Guide for Understanding Pathophysiology. It was the worst of both worlds; the guilt of procrastination coupled with annoyance at an unsatisfactory diversion. Perhaps I was trying to outwit myself, by selecting a book that would help me study? I like to think so, but I’m afraid I might just be witless.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Mystery, Urban fantasy | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Girl with all the Gifts
Read July 2014
Recommended for fans of self-discovery
★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

 

One mark of a great book is how it plays with reader expectations. The strategy of taking a conventional genre story and turning it sideways often works. Sometimes it can fail, coming across as little more than a clever gimmick. But sometimes it succeeds beyond imagining, particularly in the hands of an author with talent like Carey’s. The Girl With All the Gifts uses lovely prose to explore the growth of ten year old Melanie, a child of the apocalypse who seems to be shuttled between a cell, a classroom and a shower.

It is a story about discovery. Melanie is particularly fond of Miss Justineau, a teacher who exposes them to wonderful ideas: Greek stories and mythology, playing a flute, the kings and queens of England, and even the population of all the British cities (allowing her to figure probable population density, though she has the feeling her figures need updating). The day they read the Light Brigade (presumably The Charge of the Light Brigade) and start asking Miss Justineau about death, and families, ideas start sparking:

Melanie knows her classmates well enough to be sure that they’re turning Miss Justineau’s words over and over in their minds, the same way she is–shaking them and worrying at them, to see what insights might fall out. Because the one thing they never learn about, really, is themselves.

It is a story about a innocence. We learn about Melanie the same way that she does; in bits and pieces as she assembles the puzzle of her world around her. Her day always begins in her cell, with Melanie sitting in a wheelchair, waiting for the Sergeant to point his gun at her while his two soldiers buckle straps around her wrists, ankles and neck. She’s wheeled into a classroom with other kids who appear to be similarly restrained. As Melanie describes her teacher, the facility, the relationships around her, both she and the reader start to build the world. Perhaps the reader will draw inferences faster than Melanie, being older, more experienced, and more cynical. An interesting tension is created as the reader waits to see if her conclusions are correct.

It is a story of contrasts. In the beginning, the austerity of the cells and the barrenness of the compound are countered in the moments Melanie is exposed to the outdoor world. Early on, when Miss Justineau brings spring flowers into the classroom for the first time: “The children are hypnotised. It’s spring in the classroom. It’s equinox, with the world balanced between winter and summer, life and death, like a spinning ball balanced on the tip of someone’s finger.”

It is also a story of identity. Narrative is largely Melanie’s experience, but there are also chances to experience the world from the perspectives of Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. The characters come to discover and learn to define themselves, leading to moments of profound awareness: “The second is that some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl ‘I’m here for you’, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment. It has nothing to do with guilt for earlier crimes (although she has a pretty fair understanding of what she deserves), or any hope of redemption. It’s just the outermost point on an arc. She’s risen as far as she can, and now she’s falling again, no longer in control (if she ever was to start with) of her own movements.”

Yet despite the engrossing story, I have, perhaps, two issues with the book. First, Melanie’s voice feels mature, even though it lacks sophistication in interpretation. I’m not a giant fan of books starring a young protagonist, so while it is hard to precisely identify the source of discontent, I feel fairly certain it is there. Secondly, the ending was not precisely satisfying. However, I’m willing to give Carey that one; after all; it was appropriate as well as consistent with his genre-challenge. And some times, the best books push just enough that I am led to my own self-discovery.

I’ve never made any secret of being a zombie apocalypse fan. In my old age, I’m finally allowing myself to be unabashedly enthusiastic. The Girl with All the Gifts is one of those rare genre entries that will satisfy most readers regardless of their feelings about zombie books.

And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.
But you have to open it to find that out.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit Books for providing me an advance e-reader copy.  Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition.

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Servant of the Underworld
Read July 2014
Recommended for fans of genre-bender fantasy
★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

Looking for something besides medieval European-based fantasy? Too many werewolves just looking for love in your reading? Tired of airships and clockworks? (Note: I’m not even bringing up the zombie references, but yes, you can have too much of the walking dead). Aliette de Bodard’s trilogy Obsidian and Blood might just be the solution to the fantasy reader looking to genre-bend. The first book, Servant of the Underworld, is a fascinating stand-alone book, so don’t let commitment issues prevent you from reading.

Acatl-tzin, the High Priest of the Dead, is interrupted in the middle of a ceremony easing the passage to the Underworld for a dead noble. Ceyaxochitl, the second in command of the Mexica Empire, requests his presence at the scene of a crime. A priestess has gone missing from her chambers, and all that is left is copious amounts of blood and the odor of jaguar-magic. Although Ceyaxochitl would normally be in charge of the investigation, she has matters of the Empire preoccupying her at the moment, and besides–the chief suspect is Acatl’s estranged brother. Acatl’s relationship with the Underworld means he is particularly well-suited by both magical ability and forensic skills to investigate deaths. Unfortunately, attempting to clear his brother will mean Acatl will need to confront their mutual animosity. As the investigation grows more complicated, he’s forced to take on an aide, the cocky Teomitl, and even interrogate the gods. It seems the missing priestess is at the center of a great power struggle where almost everyone has a stake–except Acatl, who wants to avoid it.

Chichén Itzá

I can’t remember any fantasy that’s transported me more thoroughly to another Earth-time and Earth-culture. What is truly impressive, however, is that Bodard imbued the story with the feel of belief in the magics and the gods. I felt a empathetic connection. On her website Bodard states “See, I’m a writer–not a historian, not a researcher. I did my best with a mountain of sources, but I’m no expert and no Nahuatl, so it’s highly possible (and, indeed, highly probable) that the Obsidian and Blood books include some mistakes.” I don’t believe her–the world she created feels more authentic than most urban fantasies set in the here and now, and the fact that she actually shares further reference reading demonstrates more cultural respect than most. What is even more impressive is that she did it old-school science-fiction style, dropping the reader into a new world without narrative information-dumping. She admits to a few authorial cultural changes here and there, particularly shortening the incredibly multi-syllabic names, easing up on the human sacrifice and modifying the concept of dual gods, but it certainly isn’t anything but an expert would recognize. What I did note was the sense of place, the jungles and floating islands, the native foods, the elaborate dress. With her descriptions, I was reminded of ponderous stone statues at the Met, the steep stairs at Chichén Itzá, the rhythm of a Navajo chant.

Jaguar ‘cuauhxicalli’ sacrificial vessel, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

There are a few shortcomings, none of much consequence. Occasionally a descriptive phrase or two for a character is repeated. Given Bodard’s thoroughness in outlining and detail, I’m guessing the repetition was intended as a person-clue as much as the names, which are occasionally similar. I expected to be uncomfortable with certain cultural aspects given prior knowledge about Aztec human sacrifice, but I was unprepared with the frequency of the ritual animal sacrifice. Eventually, though, Bodard helped me came to understand it, at least culturally. The ending, while satisfactory, is a bit too neat in some ways, as well as falling prey to a common fantasy trope. For some readers, the cultural immersion might feel too alien in a genre accustomed to wrapping 21st century beliefs in the trappings of whatever time period it chooses to play in (I’m talking to you, neo-Victorian steampunkers). Most significantly, Bodard does so well as the recreating a Meso-American culture from 1480 that it is a little challenging to empathize with the characters. Come to think of it, the way many sci-fi and fantasy writers get around the alien culture-empathy challenge is to give the reader a more modern human to identify with. So kudos, Bodard, for not including a time-traveler and challenging the reader to identify with Acatl. 

This isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone. It isn’t a quick, breezy beach read–it requires some mental stretching and attention. This is the thick, homemade dark chocolate version of hot chocolate, not the instant Carnation version with little stale marshmallows. If that sounds appealing, I highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Book trailer and sample chapter available here.

 
Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, genre-bender | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments