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September 5, 2017

Book Review: A Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carre


Cover A Legacy of Spies sm.jpeg In his newest book, A Legacy Of Spies published by Penguin Random House, John Le Carre returns to the characters and the times that first made him most famous. Yet, while the names, George Smiley, Peter Guillam, Alec Leamas, Jim Prideuaux and others are familiar from titles The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, the settings and the information revealed are quite new.

Guillam has left the Security Service (or The Circus) behind. He's retreated to his mother's family farm in the Breton region of France. However, once you've served in the intelligence community they never really let you go. So he's not overly surprised to one day receive a letter summoning him to London on a matter of some urgency.

It turns out some of the cases he'd been involved in back in the Cold War, with Smiley and the others, have come out of the past to raise questions about the means and methods utilized and answers are being demanded. Since no one can find Smiley, Guillam, his former right hand man, is being called "home" to be served up like so much sacrificial lamb.

The cases the current crop of the security service is interested in are those directly, and indirectly, pertaining to Leamas as recounted by Le Carre in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It turns out Leamas had a son and he, along with another, are attempting to sue for damages because of the way things turned out for his father and other agents in the field.

In an effort to mitigate damage control, and find a scapegoat, Guillam is being called on to account for his actions during those periods. The answering of questions and the perusal of "official" files, naturally triggers his memories of the time in question. Aside from seeing how far the reality of what happened during the events in question differed from what's in the files, we are once again reminded why Le Carre is one of the premier spy novelists around.

Not only are the characters beautifully drawn, we also are given insights into their motivations and how they could have possibly done some of the morally questionable things they did. While he might never have questioned why he was doing something in the moment, we see from Guillam's own recollections how much they effected him. His risk taking and keeping secrets from his own handlers, including his beloved Smiley, were all signs he wasn't as content with his lot as he would have liked to think.

Le Carre has done a masterful job of retelling The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of his first books, through the eyes of those who worked behind the scenes. Even here, when supposedly the truth is being revealed, there are only hints and allusions to events which give us an indication of what the plan was.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, Guillam's memories take us back to the early days of the Berlin Wall while his interrogation by his former employees is in the present. A Legacy Of Spies provides us with some of the deepest insights into both the mind of a field agent and the world of secrets Le Carre invented all those years ago.
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In some ways this book might be seen as the author's attempt to look back at beloved characters and work through how the world would see them today. Are they heroes, villains, something somewhere in between - creatures occupying a kind of morally nebulous ground where results are all that mattered and means aren't to be questioned?

Typical of Le Carre there are no easy answers - he leaves the reader to make their own decisions. Also typical of this author is the cerebral nature of the work. Don't come to this book looking for gun fights and corpses littering the scenery. Rather, be prepared to not only be drawn into a world where everything has at least three meanings and you're expected to think for yourself.

There was a story circulated around the time of its publication that Richard Nixon had to have Henry Kissinger explain to him what was happening in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as he was having trouble keeping up with the plot twists. A Legacy Of Spies doesn't have the same number of hair pin turns as its predecessor, but its as deeply satisfying and just as intriguing.

A Legacy Of Spies is the final proof, if any other was needed, that Le Carre was one of the few writers able to elevate the spy novel, a genre previously considered close to pulp fiction, and turn it into an art form.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: A Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carre)

May 19, 2013

Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer


What is it about the Victorian era that fascinates so many modern writers these days? Not only are people setting novels in the time period, a whole sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy has developed out of it, steampunk. While the stories are set in England of the 19th century, anachronistic elements from our time period are introduced to create a kind of alternate history. What makes the best of these stories work is when the author finds a way of taking the technology of the era and giving it either abilities equivalent to what we have in our world or imbuing it with fantastical gifts equivalent to magic.

This era also saw changes in the way people thought and the things they believed possible. For the beginning of the technological age also saw the beginnings of science fiction writing. Jules Verne and H. G Wells speculated about traveling to distant planets, under the oceans and through time long before the first two were considered possible. In fact, such was the nature of Victorian society, spiritualism and other marginal sciences flourished during the time, they would have been more willing to believe in time travel and other magical events more than either travelling to the moon or delving into the earth's oceans.

In the first book of his latest young adult series, W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide, Eoin Colfer (creator of Artemis Fowl) has opted to collide the 20th century with the Victorian era. Along the way he gives readers the chance to experience the differences between the two societies and a taste of steampunk by transplanting some modern technology and ideas into the past through the book's plot.
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The letters WARP are the acronym for an Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) top secret witness protection program, Witness Anonymous Relocation Program. Even most of the FBI's agents have never heard of the program. The only reason young Chevron Savano finds out about it is because she has been sent to London by the bureau after the trial program she was a part of blew up in their faces. Recruiting high school students to monitor potential terrorist recruits their own age had seemed like a good idea, until Savano actually had to take action to protect her suspects. It was only then the bureau realized the shaky legal and ethical ground they were on utilizing underage agents. So Savano finds herself whisked out of the country guarding a basement full of equipment which looks like its straight out of a cheesy science fiction movie in order to avoid being questioned by the United States Congress.

It turns out to be the WARP program's nerve centre. Unlike other witness protection programs which create new identities, WARP transports people back in time to Victorian England to keep them safe. Savano only finds out its true nature when the machinery comes to life one evening and accidentally transports 14 year old Riley into the future. The apprentice of a Fagin type figure, Albert Garrick, ex-stage illusionist and now the 19th century equivalent of a contract killer, Riley was transported forward to the present because his master's latest target was the inventor of WARP. At the moment of his death he activates the machine and transports both his corpse and Riley into the basement where Sayano is waiting to receive them.

When Garrick highjacks the FBI team, including Sayano's direct superior, sent back into the past to pick up the pieces, he not only follows his young charge into the future, in the process his body absorbs the consciousness and knowledge of the agent in charge of the program. Something about the mechanism changes him on a molecular level resulting in Garrick obtaining superhuman powers. Not only is he still a murderous devil, but he now possesses the ability to change his appearance and assume the identity of the agent whose thoughts he's absorbed. This not only gives him access to all the bureaus' secrets, but allows him to put the blame for the deaths of the team sent into the past on Savano.

At first Savano and Riley's main preoccupation is staying alive and free. Fleeing both the FBI and Garrick they manage to slip through both their fingers and jump back to the Victorian era with Garrick in hot pursuit. It's while in the 19th century they start to uncover the secrets of the WARP program and unravel Riley's strange life story including the secret behind his relationship with Garrick. In the process Colfer takes us on a tour of London featuring stops not on most tourists agendas. From a seedy bar, the hangout of a criminal organization know as the Battering Rams, the well appointed mansions of the mysterious spiritualist Tibor Charismo (advisor to the Queen and the Duke of Westminster and author of such wonders as the symphony "Another Brick In Yonder Wall" featuring the crazed lutist Pinkus Floyd) and finally the horror of the city's slum life in the form of the Rookery, home to the dregs and castoffs of society.
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While the story clips along at a fairly rapid pace with Colfer switching between Garrick's and Savano's perspective of events, he still manages to find the time to fill out his character's history and personalities. As Savano and Riley get to know each other we begin to learn more about each of them until they become fully developed characters.We not only learn the particulars of their lives prior to them meeting, we start to find things in them we can identify with. The same holds true with Garrick, the more we spend time with him the more we begin to understand him. While his life story raises our sympathies, unlike the two young people he chases who have chosen to rise above their troubles, we see how he took the opposite path and chose to lash out at the world.

Colfer has also done an admirable job in bringing both the modern world and the past to life. By showing us 19th century London through Savano's eyes and its modern counterpart through Riley's and Garrick's eyes they both turn into strange and wondrous places. From the way the city smells to the sounds of daily life he reminds us how much we take for granted about our own existence and creates an extremely vivid picture of what life would have been like 120 years ago. Colfer does such a good job with his depictions the past starts to feel as familiar to us as the present and we feel equally at home in either era.

W.A.R,P, Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin is first and foremost a fast paced adventure story with enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes from the opening chapters to its close. Colfer also manages the rather tricky work of making the two worlds his story takes place in, and each setting's respective characters, believable. While the contrasts between the two eras and the character's reactions to the culture shock of shifting time adds an extra dimension to the story, it's the way Colfer manages to integrate all the elements of plot, atmosphere and character development into one cohesive unit that makes it a pleasure to read. What he's created in this first book bodes well for the rest of the series and will have his fans awaiting each new instalment with the eagerness of those who used to anticipate the next edition of The Strand and further adventures of a certain pipe smoking detective.

(Article first published as Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book One: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer on Blogcritics)

March 27, 2013

Book Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer


Ever since Philip Marlow and Sam Spade roamed the back allies and dimly lit bars of American crime fiction readers have revelled in the adventures of anti-hero private detectives. With more in common with the crooks they hunt than those on the supposed right side of the law they not only moved in the shadow world of criminal behaviour but the darker recesses of the human spirit as well. Hardened by crime, corruption and hard living they offered readers a bitter and jaded view of the world. A view which had more to do with reality than what was usually on offer in the popular fiction of the day.

However, as the years have passed since they were first published the world has changed significantly and we're all too aware of the mean streets around us. We don't need hard boiled detectives to expose the rot beneath the pretty veneer of civilization when we can read about it in the headlines of our daily newspaper. So as the 20th century started winding down parodies of the tough private dick started to show up in popular culture. While some of these efforts weren't bad, the most common result of reading or watching something featuring one of these take offs was you'd end up missing the originals. For instead of having fun with the genre, most of those being made were making fun of it.

So I have to admit to having some hesitations when I began reading Robert J Sawyer's new book Red Planet Blues, published by Penguin Canada. Instead of the mean streets of some major city in North America, Sawyer's investigator, Alex Lomax, has set up shop in the rough and tumble city of New Klondike on the planet Mars. Like its namesake on earth it was once a boom town populated by a host of prospectors hoping to strike it big. However instead of gold or diamonds, on Mars they were after fossils. Artefacts of the ancient life on the Red Planet which were valuable collector items back on earth.
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As we learn from Lomax the fossil boom began forty years before the events in our story take place. Two explorers, Simon Weingarten and Denny O'Reilly, discovered the first evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. By the time we come in the boom has long since busted and New Klondike is a city fallen on hard times. There are still a few prospectors chasing the dream of finding "the big one" which will make their fortunes, but mainly its a town filled with those who can't go back to earth for one reason or another. They may not be able to afford the passage, they may have been on Mars too long and their bodies won't be able to readjust to Earth's gravity or they may just like being outside the reach of Earth's jurisdiction. Whatever the reason most of them are just trying to get by, including PI Lomax.

Those wealthy enough can make the stay somewhat more pleasurable by transferring their brains into a new, nearly indestructible, body. Not only do Transfers gain a measure of immortality, they also gain a body which can survive the Martian climate. Everybody else has to stay within the confines of the dome surrounding New Klondike and make monthly payments to keep yourself supplied with life support. If you do have to take a stroll on the planet's surface you need to doll up in a hermetically sealed suit complete with its own life support system and internal plumbing. Those choosing to have the transfer done usually also go for a new improved version of themselves. While most of these upgrades are of the cosmetic variety, the new bodies are also far stronger and faster than their biological equivalents. The invulnerability and the extra strength come in handy for any number of things, including murder, theft and other nefarious activities.

Which, for those still hoping to find the mother lode of fossils, is of course extremely helpful. The investigation Lomax stumbles into via what at first appears to be a simple missing persons case ends up involving an almost mythical rumoured motherlode, transfers and a mystery dating back to the founding of the city. The two who first discovered fossils had died under mysterious circumstances and the knowledge of the location of their biggest fossil field died with them. The problem with fossil prospecting is there are no clues on the surface of the planet telling you what's buried beneath your feet. Unless you know where the fossils are, you could search for decades and not find anything.

With almost no fossils coming on the market demand for them, and the price people are willing to pay, has gone through the roof. So even a rumour somebody has a line on Weingarten's and O'Reilly's famous lost field causes shockwaves of greed to spread through the community. Lomax soon finds his simple missing persons case turning into a murder investigation stretching back four decades. While some of the leads might be cold, it doesn't stop things from heating up or the bodies, both biological and transfers, piling up in the present.
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Sawyer has done a great job in not only lovingly recreating the tough talking detective type made famous by Raymond Chandler, but in putting him in a setting where his talents can shine. There's nothing fancy or exotic about New Klondike, just like there's nothing glamourous about Lomax or any of the people he associates with. Like the plots in those great old movies with Bogart as the tough talking dick, there's some beautiful women along for the ride to provide distraction, including one or two femme fatales just to make things interesting for our stalwart hero.

Yet even more interesting is how Sawyer has made his lead a little more complex then his predecessors and we begin to suspect his hard boiled gum shoe shtick is a persona he puts on for the job. Lomax, who also narrates the adventure, does his best to convince us of his mercenary nature, at one point wondering if he can legitimately bill his client for time spent sleeping with a witness. However, for someone so interested in the almighty dollar he sure spends a lot of time trying to solve this mystery without a client to foot the bill.

The more we find out about Lomax the more we discover he has very set opinions on right and wrong and does his best to see people live up to them. Sure he's got to pay the rent, and for the right to breath oxygen under the dome, but once he gets the bit in his teeth he's not about to let anybody get away with murder. While we may initially like hanging out with him because of his world weary and slightly cynical take on his fellow beings, we actually end up liking him for what lies beneath the surface.

In Red Planet Blues Sawyer has found a highly original and fun way to pay homage to the great hard boiled detectives of the past. Mars, like the sun kissed streets of Los Angeles Philip Marlow once patrolled, may sound like its an exotic location, but underneath the glamour of being on another planet there's just as many dark and dangerous secrets as anywhere else. So its the perfect setting for a private eye willing to skirt around the edges of the law. You'll have a lot of fun wandering the mean streets of New Klondike and over the surface of the Red Planet with PI Lomax, and he might even give you a few things to think about.

(Article first published as Book Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer on Blogcritics.)



July 4, 2012

DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4


When filming any period piece television and film makers take great pains to make everything as authentic as possible. Whether it's ensuring the clothing people wear or the sets they act on are accurate representations of the period or they're speaking in dialects appropriate to the age, the attention to detail is remarkable. Yet for all the care taken film makers will still slip up in one crucial area by allowing characters to react in a matter reflecting modern attitudes and sensibilities. Perhaps I'm the only who finds it jarring to see anachronisms in behaviour, but when a character in a movie set in the 1950s expresses opinions more in line with the twenty-first century it can ruin the whole show for me.

In fact the closer a piece is to being contemporary the harder it is to ensure characters stay consistent with the tenor of their times. Especially difficult are those eras when a society is going through a period of radical change as it's tempting to allow characters to become caught up in events and ignore the reality of their situation. Like everywhere else the north of England in the second half of the 1960s was a society divided between those hell bent on preserving the comfortable world of their youth and those who weren't going to be satisfied with the world of their parents. While this type of atmosphere could provide complications for a police force, the law stays the law and no matter what's going on it has to be enforced. While that might sound somewhat inflexible, in the hands of Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) in George Gently: Series 4, released on DVD July 3 2012 by Acorn Media, it provides a moral compass which helps him steer a smooth course in turbulent times.

Teamed up once again with his young Sergeant, John Bacchus, (Lee Ingleby) the two ninety minute episodes of Series 4 bring the two officers face to face with the shifting moral ground of the times. In the first the death of a female secondary school student takes them into the fantasy world of pop music and romantic poems. In episode two the two officers have to deal with a case of local authorities wanting to not only maintain the status quo but turn the clock back in order to keep the peace. While each case is different, the two are forced to put their personal opinions and feelings aside and rely on the letter of the law in order to reach correct conclusions.
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As viewers of previous series are aware despite his youth and appreciation for some of the material changes occurring, flash cars and sharp suits, Bacchus is the more conservative of the two when it comes to social issues. However, this doesn't make Gently some sort of advocate for change. It's just that he's seen more of life than his junior, but instead of it turning him cynical and bitter it has made him more compassionate and understanding of others and their situations. Yet no matter how sympathetic he might be towards a person and their circumstances, he's firm in the belief that nobody is above the law. It was this belief which ran him afoul of his fellow officers when he served in London, he refused to turn a blind eye to police officers on the take, and continues to make him the bane of anyone who tries to obstruct or take the law into their own hands.

While the opinions and views of both Bacchus and Gently might seem a little dated or old fashioned to today's viewers, and the object of some derision among those they end up dealing with in their cases, they are consistent with people in their line of work and background for the time period. In the first episode their investigation takes them into the strange world of teenage girls on the verge of becoming women. Unlike earlier generations whose rebellion might have taken the form of illicit cigarettes, these girls are demanding independence and dreaming of being more than just dutiful wives and mothers. While this serves to muddy the waters of the circumstances surrounding the case of the girl who was murdered by introducing a number of potential suspects, including the host of a pop music show and one of the girl's teachers, it also shows the strength of the series' writing.

Some might look on this type of setting as an opportunity to make some sort of statement or comment on society. However, in this series they content themselves with depicting as accurately as possible what was happening during the time period and let the police get on with trying to solve the murder. While the plot does hinge on the over heated fantasy of a teenage girl, social conditions at the time have little or no bearing on who the guilty party is. Watching the two officers squirm,, especially Bacchus as they deal with a teenage girl's burgeoning sexuality is both funny and consistent with what we've seen of the characters previously. It also makes perfect sense considering the time period. Sex was not something talked about easily by most people during this time, and discussing it in terms of young girls was just not done.
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In episode two we are given an even clearer picture of Gently's strict adherence to his own moral code of nobody being above the law. An informer Gently had used for many years both in London and in his new location turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. With the death occurring outside his jurisdiction he has to rely on another areas police force for information about the death. When he discovers an old colleague from his days in London is in charge he is initially hopeful, but he soon discovers discrepancies in the reports about the death that make him suspect something is being covered up. In spite of attempts to stonewall him, Gently eventually does end up solving the case.

However, while finding out how the victim died is of course the point of the episode, the circumstances surrounding the incident are such they offer a test to Gently's "nobody's above the law" credo. Not only does he pass the test once but twice in this episode. For aside from the coverup surrounding his informer's death there are other abuses of the system going on in the small community. Some might have seen the extenuating circumstances which are revealed as justification for not pressing charges against those involved with both impeding investigations into the murder and the other activities. Bacchus raises the question with his superior only to be told, in no uncertain terms, nobody is above the law, for any reason.

When working on a series set in recent history it would be difficult not to allow contemporary views and opinions to colour either a character's behaviour or their reactions to situations. One of the great strengths of the entire George Gently series is not only how well they manage to depict the way changes in society's attitudes and beliefs have a way of trickling into all aspects of life, but the various character's reactions to what's happening. Whether it's a teenage daughter refusing to conform to her parents' expectations as to what's proper behaviour or the larger issues of the day everything is presented in as realistic a fashion as possible. George Gently: Series 4, while living up to the standards set by the previous Series as a police procedural television show a notch above others of its kind, is further proof, if any were needed, of how well the show's creators have handled this task.

The two disc DVD set not only contains both episodes from Series 4, it also includes a behind the scenes documentary on the filming of the previous episodes. It has the usual shots of the cast members joking around on set and some amusing chatter from each lead about the other. However, they each make a point of talking about the time period the show is set in and how interesting it is to do an almost contemporary period piece. As interesting as it is for them to act in, George Gently: Series 4 is as fascinating to watch. Not only is the show intelligent and well acted its also an unsentimental look at a time which is too often coloured by somebody's personal opinion. For those wanting a detective show with more than just the usual bad guys and good guys, this will make a perfect fit.

(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4 on Blogcritics)

June 3, 2012

Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair


It's amazing the lengths colonial powers went to in order to justify oppressing civilizations which predated anything the West by a good thousand years. By referring to India and points further east dismissively as the Orient or the Mysterious East, they turned vast sophisticated kingdoms into something dark and dangerous in desperate need of the enlightenment only they could provide. As is often the case with ignorant people, what they couldn't understand confused and scared them. Faced with something beyond their comprehension they did what any normal person would do. Instead of trying to learn more about it, they did their best to either subjugated it or belittle it.

While it was bad enough they would misinterpret and sensationalize another culture's beliefs Victorian era Englishmen came up with all sorts of pseudo sciences to prove the superiority of, what they called, the Caucasian race over those with darker skins. One of the most popular in the mid 1800s was the science of phrenology - the study of the bumps on people's heads and how they related to the brains within and the person's character as a whole. Of course the Caucasian's head was an example of a superior brain and moral standards and as a person's skin colour darkened, well you get the picture.

In his novel The Thing About Thugs, first published by Harper Collins India in 2010 and now being released in North America by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt July 24 2012, Tabish Khair turns this world on its head by showing it through the eyes of those "inferior" races. British literature of the times, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Wilkie Collin's The Moonstone and on through the works of Rudyard Kipling emphasized and reinforced the Victorian world view. Khair not only points out the how ridiculous the philosophy of the day was, but he does so in a manner which takes the works in question to task for perpetuating the fallacy.
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Amir Ali is from a small village in rural India. Orphaned at a young age he goes to live with his uncle, a small land owner, and his family. At one time his family's holdings had been far greater, but another landowner has contrived to steal through various means the majority of their acres. While the methods used are illegal there is nothing Ali's uncle is able to do as the other man's wealth and willingness to employ violence ensure nobody with the authority to do anything about it will gainsay his activities. When Ali's uncle is murdered he hatches a plot that will not only ensure those in the wrong are brought to justice, but will see him taken to England where he hopes to start a new life. He learns that a British gentlemen is looking to interview members of the cult of Kali known as Thugees to help him prove his theory that in spite of a skull shape indicating a predisposition for violence a lessor being can turn over a new leaf by exposure to the redeeming qualities of civilized Christian society.

Ali spins Captain William T. Mathews a tale painting himself as a young initiate into the cult which also incriminates the man responsible for his uncle's death. For as proof of his remorse he not only supplies the Captain with the names of his fellow cultists in the region, but offers as proof of their villainy the location where their most recent victims are buried. When Williams informs the local detachment of The East Indian Tea Company's guard of the presence of Thugees in their territory and proof of their nefarious behaviour, they move quickly to arrest those responsible. Mathews is so enthused by his Thugees' denouncement of his former life, he takes Ali back to London with him. Ali is then paraded through the drawing rooms of polite society by Mathews as an example of a barbaric assassin reformed by civilization.

Unfortunately for Ali he told his story too well. For when London is shocked by a series of murders where the victim's heads have been stolen it's obvious to society and the newly formed Peelers (London police force named for their founder Robert Peel latter change to Bobbies to reflect his first name instead of the more provocative Peeler) that no white man, no matter what his class, could have carried out such grizzly deeds. It had to be one of those foreign devils who made their way back to the bosom of the empire from the colonies. Naturally it doesn't take long for suspicion to fall upon the supposedly reformed Thugee Ali.

With the assistance of other members of London's immigrant community Ali attempts to clear his name. This is one occasion where being beneath notice pays off as it allows them to keep an eye on those they suspect are responsible for the murders without anyone paying them the least bit of attention. There had long been a decent wage to be made supplying those studying medicine with body parts, Things, for those willing to do a little work with shovel and crowbar and no fear of graveyards at night. However for one group of resurrectionists, or body snatchers, looking to supply a prominent phrenologist with interesting shaped heads, the graveyards of London can't meet their needs. Showing the initiative that forged an empire they find likely candidates among those who will be least missed and relieve them of their heads.
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Khair does an excellent job of both recreating and ridiculing the Victorian era novel. In the case of the former he populates the book with recognizable character types from the period. Mathews is the well meaning and intentioned earnest hero type. Honourable, he actually steps forward and provides Ali with an alibi when he's arrested and ensures he's safe, and firm in his conviction that anybody exposed to the benefits of good Christian/English society can be saved from their life of heathenism. While condescending and bigoted at least he doesn't believe they are inherently evil or that being poor or foreign makes you some sort of criminal. One only has to contrast him with a couple of the other characters, even his cook thinks he's far too lax by keeping a dangerous coloured person in the house, to see why Ali feels a little guilty for having deceived him.

The author also takes writers from this, and other eras, to task in a roundabout way for their lack of imaginations. He has created a kind of narrator from what appears to be our era. It's this man who comes across a series of letters in his grandfather's library written in Farsi. (Muslims in India used to be able to read and write in Farsi, the language of Persia, as the Mughal empire in Northern India was originally Persian.) While it is a chore, because he doesn't know very much Farsi, what he discovers are a series of letters from Ali in which he either describes the events in the book or makes allusions to things he'd obviously described to his addressee in person. Khair's narrator is inspired by these letters and begins to imagine the events and filling in the blanks. He will occasionally pose the question as to how could he, somebody living in India, possibly describe London of the 19th century or the interior of a nobleman's house. His answer is to show how by using his imagination, a knowledge of what these things look like gained from reading and extrapolating from his personal experiences, it's not very hard to recreate a reasonably accurate picture of a time and place one's never experienced.

Aside from being a wonderful piece of satire and a witty send up of 19th century novels The Thing About Thugs also gives readers insights into life in London in that era from a far different perspective than has been previously offered. Even more so then today immigrants were looked on with suspicion and they were relegated to live in the poorer parts of the city. Here at least they would turn into just another one of those people beneath the notice of their betters and could enjoy some simple freedoms. However, it they dared to leave those environs for the streets of their betters, they were regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility. Of course that could never happen in today's world - just ask young African Americans what happens if they wander into all white suburbs.

The Thing About Thugs is at times poignant, at times funny and at other times will leave you shaking your head at the things people used to believe and their attitudes towards their fellow humans. Khair has created a story that's not only a pleasure to read but manages to contain social commentary without it turning into a polemic. That's a delicate balancing act few authors have the ability to carry off and it not only increases the pleasure one takes in the book but gives it a depth you don't often find in popular fiction today.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Kahir on Blogcritics)

April 29, 2012

Book Review: Asbury Park By Robb Scott


New Jersey has always seemed to be the butt of people's jokes. Even the state's motto, "The Garden State", seems a deliberate attempt by somebody to set it up for a fall given its reputation as an industrial wasteland and dumping ground. However, the sea side board walks and sandy beaches of its coastal towns once made it a haven in summer time for families of all incomes. While beaches were segregated by class, the wealthiest to the poorest could enjoy cooling off in the heat of the summer in its sheltered coves. Even today the boardwalks remain and people converge on the ocean front in places like Asbury Park to surf and swim.

While the beaches may not have changed all that much moving inland things aren't as nice. With the failures of industry and the loss of jobs the fastest growth business is recreational chemicals. Crystal meth, crack, heroin and ecstasy are where the money is and those looking to make a quick buck have moved in to stake out their territories. In Rob Scot's new release from Orion/Gollancz, Asbury Park, Detective Sam "Sailor" Doyle returns to the family home in New Jersey to recover from injuries received in the line of duty. He knows he'll find things have changed for the worst since he was a teenager, but nothing can prepare him for the nightmare he's about to walk into.

While Sailor was heralded in the news for being the hero who saved the life of the President and prevented a mad man from infecting the east coast of the United State with the plague (for details see Scott's previous release 15 Miles) there's a darker reality hidden beneath the headlines. Plagued by personal demons Sailor hadn't been completely sober in years. By the time of the events described in the previous book he had stooped to the level of stealing prescription drugs from crime scenes to feed his Oxycocete addiction and was cheating on his wife. This summer's trip back home is being made not only in the hopes he can recover physically, but is an effort to salvage his marriage and his life.
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Sailor's experienced cop eye is disconcerted to see the telltale signs of organized gang activity in his old neighbourhood. Aside from the obvious evidence of poverty and drug trafficking, even more ominous are the telltale signs of gang "tags" marking territory on buildings and at scenes of what appear to be random acts of vandalism. However his more immediate concerns are his wife's threat to take the kids and leave him if she gets so much of as a hint that he's fallen off the wagon and the withdrawal symptoms that are wracking his body. It's the latter which forces him out of bed in the early hours of the morning and out onto the boardwalk. Exhausted and in pain he seeks refuge in a sea side hotel where he's taken under the wing of an early rising former minor league baseball player, Mark "Moses" Stillman.

The invitation to join Stillman for breakfast would have been ideal if they weren't interrupted by a body falling from the sixth floor balcony onto their table. When the apparent suicide turns out to have at one time been Sailor's high school history teacher it's enough to send shivers up his spine. However odd it might be that a former teacher of his just happens to pick his breakfast table to jump into it can still all be explained away as a coincidence. With the jumper comes the local police and the kind of attention Sailor was hoping to avoid. Spend the month of July getting clean and patching things up with the wife is harder to do when you're a material witness to what might be a murder inquiry. Suicide becomes possible murder when there's evidence to suggest his former teacher might have been dead before he did the swan dive off the balcony.

All hopes of staying off anyone's radar disappear when Sailor breaks up what he thinks is a potential shooting spree in the making. He tackles a teenage kid about to enter a middle school with a concealed weapon. Unfortunately the kid is possessed with the strength of desperation and Sailor is suffering from the wounds he earned earlier. Things are looking really desperate for him when help arrives in an unexpected form. A local drug dealer jumps into the fray and kills the kid before jumping into his car and taking off. When it turns out the kid's weapons were not only obsolete but empty, his bomb nothing more than flares taped together and he'd wrapped a device designed to set himself on fire the apparent murderer becomes an attempted suicide.

A suicide that could be a murder and a murderer who was really a suicide and both in very public places with both just happening to involve Sailor. Too make matters worse ever since he's returned to the old neighbourhood he's been having what he can only call auditory hallucinations that seem to be turning into his own personal soundtrack. While it's possible a classic rock station is fixating on Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", the fact Sailor hears it coming out of almost every radio and stereo he comes within hearing range of is starting to strain his already taunt nerves. As if that's not enough there's another tune that keeps cropping up. Whether he hears it faintly on the air or somebody is whistling a few bars as they walk by it's starting to drive him crazy. When it starts heralding him seeing events out of the past and other twists in reality it only takes hearing the familiar notes to make him panic.
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However when the ghost of the kid he wrestled to the ground in the schoolyard starts stalking him and "tagging" his house Sailor knows something somewhere is not right. As more and more pieces of the puzzle start to assemble the picture becomes even fuzzier. Somehow present day gang activity ties in to mysterious deaths back when he was teenager and he's somehow the focal point. On the surface it seems like a confusing mess with little or no way for Sailor to find his way clear. Yet author Scott takes what seems like a frustrating morass of unconnected incidents and characters and allows them to find a way to fit together that makes sense in the world he's created.

On the surface it appears to be the New Jersey of today, with all the problems drugs and gangs bring to any urban community. However underneath is something far more sinister and dangerous. Combining elements of psychological horror and fantasy with a stark and gritty crime thriller is no mean trick, yet when it's done with the aplomb that Scott manages it makes for a gripping read. Even more tricky is the fact that he has centred the action around a character who is not necessarily sympathetic. Sailor Doyle displays too many of the symptoms of an addict to make him easy to like. However, in spite of his back sliding, lying and self pity he never once makes excuses for him self or his behaviour. In some ways the mystery he finds himself in parallels his personal nightmare of addiction. It's a maze he has to find his way out of before it collapses and buries him and those he loves alive.

Asbury Park is not your typical cop novel or standard horror story and as a result is better than what you'd normally expect from either genre. Not only does it deliver the chills and thrills of both, but it does so with an intelligence and emotional depth usually lacking in those types of books. From Scott's honest depiction of his main character's struggles with his personal demons to the way he gradually cranks up the tension as the book proceeds, it becomes harder and harder to put the book down. If you thought the streets of your home town were unsafe, it's nothing compared to what's happening in Asbury Park New Jersey. The boardwalk will never be the same again.
(Article first published as Book Review: Asbury Park by Rob Scott on Blogcritics)

April 11, 2012

Book Review: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore


The hardest thing for an author is to live up the expectations created by writing an original and inventive first novel. Readers can't help comparing each subsequent effort to first one. An author faces the choice of trying to either please their audience by repeating what they did or trusting in their abilities as a writer and going off in whatever direction their muse takes them. Sometimes those who follow the former path are able to repeat their success for a while, but eventually their writing becomes formulaic and stale. The author who risks the latter course may not have the same initial repeat success, but their work ends up standing the test of time far better as its constantly evolving.

Christopher Moore has followed both courses of action. On those occasions where he seems to fall back on the tried and true methods that made him popular, his books, while still better than most of what comes on the market, start to sound the same. Like hearing an old joke with the characters and situation changed, it might be funny but you have the strongest feeling you've heard it before and the punchline is never a surprise. However, he's also capable of creating works of near comic genius which tackle subjects others shy away from. Sacré Bleu, published by HarperCollins Canada April 3 2012 is Christopher Moore at his best and will remind you why he is considered one of the funniest and insightful authors of our time.

Set in Paris France in the mid to late1800s and featuring a cast of characters who read like a who's who of the Impressionist art movement, Sacré Bleu is part mystery, part fantasy, part historical fiction and entirely riveting. Underneath the obvious humour and Moore's familiar breezy narrative style is hidden one of the more interesting examinations of the relationship between an artist and his art - or as some would have it - their muse. What wouldn't an artist give to paint that picture he's always dreamed of painting? The painting that he can see in his mind's eye but somehow has never been able to make its way onto the canvas. What would he be willing to sacrifice for his art?
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The late 1800s were a time of enormous upheaval in the artistic community. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec along with many others were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable art in both form and subject matter. Those who doubt the veracity of their work only need to spend some time in Paris in the summer and compare what they see with the paintings from that period. It's still amazing to see how with just light and colour they were able to capture the effects of August's heat on the city.

Although they are now considered establishment, at the time they were outsiders with most of them barely able to eke out an existence. Living in penury their only satisfaction came from their creations. A key element in the success of any painter's work is of course the quality of his paints. The purer the pigment used in making the colour, the more vivid and real the colour. In those days the purest colours were still being made by grinding up various minerals and mixing the resulting powder with oil. The rarest of these was "Sacré Bleu", the blue of the cloak of the Virgin Mary, made of ground up Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli only being available in Afghanistan meant the stone and paint were usually too expensive for painters struggling to get by. So if they offered a blue, "ultramarine" pigment guaranteed to be better than Sacré Bleu, to try, they would do so no questions asked.

Pure pigments to a painter are like heroin to a junkie. Once they get a taste they can't get enough. So it is with everyone of the painters who come in contact with the mysterious Colourman and his "ultramarine" blue. The main difference between their supplier and most pushers is the price that he exacts from his clients. Instead of cash he demands paintings made with his fantastic blue in exchange for his product. However he never exacts his price in person as each artist who uses his blue also manages to acquire a new model of extraordinary beauty who inspires their best work as well as becoming their supplier of their drug of choice.

As the model takes on a different form for each painter nobody even thinks to make the connection between the paint, the Colourman and the model until the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh in rural Arles rouses suspicions among his painter friends back home in Paris. Just prior to his death he wrote Touluse-Lautrec that he dared not use his blue paint except at night and that everyone should beware a small wizened man accompanied by a donkey selling paints.

Led by Toulouse-Lautrec the painters of Paris start to put the pieces of the mystery surrounding The Colourman, his amazing blue paint and the mysterious model together. When the young baker with dreams of painting named Lucien Lessard's mysterious lover Juliette returns after a unexplained two year absence the picture really starts to come into focus. Lessard obsession with his lover and the portrait he is painting of her causes him to neglect his responsibilities at the family bakery and stops eating and sleeping. It's only when his mother knocks out Juliette with a crepe pan that his friends and family are able to drag him away from her. For nine days he lies in what appears to be a coma. When he finally awakes all he can think of are the painting he has created and finding his Juliette again.
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Lautrec had undergone a similar experience with a model a number of years ago and had only survived because his friends, including Lessard, had kidnapped him and sent him away from Paris. It turns out that each of their Impressionist friends has at one point in time had one model in particular whom they have obsessed over and who has featured in their most famous works.In each of these works, no matter what the subject matter, the now infamous ultramarine blue has been used. Even more mysterious is the fact while their friends have distinct memories of them having painted a whole series of canvasses involving the mysterious model, none of the painters can either remember painting them or has any idea of where they can have gone to. However, each of them can remember when the model left them, as her disappearance always coincided with a personal misfortune. One painter's beloved daughter died and another lost his wife. Whatever the case, there was always a price to be paid for producing their great works of art.

Moore's depictions of real historical figures are based on accounts of the people in question written while they were alive. So while some the characteristics he ascribes to them in the story might not be accurate a good deal of their activities described in the book actually happened. (In an afterward to the book Moore supplies the reader with details of his sources) Moore always tends towards affectionate irreverence with his characters, depicting them warts and all, but loving them because of their flaws. So while he may overemphasize things like Lautrec's drinking, his affection for prostitutes and some of his other affectations, it's never with malice and does nothing to diminish or demean the painter. In fact, by removing famous figures from the pedestals history has put them on and humanizing them their accomplishments as artists become even more amazing.

Against this backdrop of artistic genius two mysteries gradually unfold. The more traditional involves the Colourman and the strange hold his ultramarine blue paint has over artists and his relationship with the mysterious model. How can one woman have been so different for each artist who has painted her? How could she have been exactly what each painter needed to inspire his greatest work? These questions lead the reader directly into the second mystery at play - the mystery of inspiration. There is nothing more frustrating than asking an artist where their inspiration for a work came from, because nine times out of ten they aren't able to answer. The best you're likely to receive is, "it just came to me". On top of that, why do artists become so obsessed with their work to the point they will forget about everything else including eating and sleeping?

In classical mythology the answer was the muses, the most famous of whom was the goddess Eros. They supposedly provided artists with the desire and passion to create. Is the mysterious Juliette really the muse of legend as she claims? Has she really been so many different women to so many different painters and inspired them to so much great work? If she has, why does she do it? What's in it for her and why do all the painters she inspires have to suffer? Moore gives us the answer to the mystery of The Colourman and ultramarine, but as to the question of inspiration and muses, well that still remains a mystery. Oh, Juliette supplies something akin to an answer, but it doesn't really answer any of the questions.

Any of us who have ever had any artistic aspirations of any kind have at one time or another probably had romantic dreams of living in Paris. These dreams are based upon a Paris that existed from around 1860 until the start of WW ll. What would it have been like to drink absinth with Lautrec, smoke opium with Cocteau or share a coffee in a cafe with Joyce? In Sacré Bleu Christopher Moore captures both the spirit of artistic creation that captivates us and the price paid by those who actually lived it. Beneath the surface of what is primarily a lighthearted mystery story he gives us very real glimpses of what's exacted from those who dedicate themselves to the capriciousness of art. This is Christopher Moore at his best, underneath the laughter lies the truth the clown usually covers with a greasepaint smile.

(Article first published as Book Review: Sacré Bleu By Christopher Moore on Blogcritics.)

November 24, 2011

DVD Review: Case Histories - With Jason Isaacs

The policeman with the troubled past as a plot line for television shows and movies has been used to the point where its coming close to being a cliche. The worst of these has the cop nurturing some dark secret resulting in him bordering on a brooding sociopath who exacts bloody revenge on the criminal class. If I have to sit though one more flashback of a young hopeful cop coming home to find his wife and infant daughter slaughtered by a junkie looking for the money for a quick fix I might explode. You can pretty much be guaranteed at some point finding the cop either sitting in a bar staring into a drink or exploding in a senseless range.

What truly strains my credulity about these plots is in the world of modern policing most forces frown on officers having personal agendas influencing their behaviour. Not only do they now have police psychologists who would be quick to relieve anyone so inclined of their duties, the last thing they want are accusations of excessive force or police brutality screwing up a conviction. Anyway, why is it a cop's answer to his troubled past always violence? There are other ways people react to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Thankfully it turns out there are script writers who understand and have started to create characters who aren't quite so simplistic. As is often the case the best of these characters are being created for British television shows with the most recent example being the six part series called Case Histories. Now available as a two disc DVD set from Acorn Media, it was adapted from the works of British crime writer Kate Atkinson featuring the character of Private Investigator Jackson Brodie.
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Brodie, portrayed brilliantly by Jason Isaacs (Best known as Lucious Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) has previously been a soldier and then a cop. While he deals in the bread and butter of private investigation work, checking on cheating spouses for insecure partners, he seems to have a particular affinity for missing persons and cases where the trail has long since gone cold. We also learn early on that he is haunted by a memory from his childhood. It turns out his sister was murdered and his older brother was so guilt ridden he attempted suicide and has ended up catatonic in a nursing home.

While it sounds like we're headed into the typical brooding cop type thing mentioned earlier, the series manages to avoid that pitfall. Instead of having Brodie losing himself in a glass at the end of each day, the fact that his sister's killer has never been caught dictates his choice of cases. The other thing we quickly learn about him is he doesn't wallow in self pity. Instead the memories of his sister's death seems to have increased his sense of compassion towards both those who are victims of crimes and their families. He might never find out who killed his sister or have been able to protect her, but he's not going to let another murder go unsolved, allow someone to be victimized or to suffer needlessly.

While this white knight riding to the rescue sounds like it shortened his career as a police officer, we're never really told why he left the force. However,we do know the only cop he's on good terms with, DC Louise Munroe, played by Amanda Abbington. We do find out during one of his visits to Munroe at work that he somehow managed to have two cops suspended for apparently not pursuing the capture of a rapist as thoroughly as Brodie would have liked. Whether that happened while he was a cop or more recently isn't made clear, however it does explain why uniformed officers casually call him "wanker" whenever they see him.

However strained his relations are with the rest of the police, and no matter how much he might piss her off periodically, Munroe not only has a great deal of respect for Jackson's skills as an investigator, she also covers for him on those times he skirts around the edges of the law. As the series progresses the nature of their relationship actually becomes more not less confusing. Both of them become involved with other people, but they always seem to be drawn to each other, and you have the feeling with a little bit of encouragement they could become a couple. There's very little said overtly, but both actors are wonderful at communicating what's between the lines through the manner in which they each behave around the other.

It's like they both realize any relationship between the two of them wouldn't be casual, and they'd better well be damn sure about it. Both have had previous marriages and each has a child. It's not said what happened to Munroe's, but it's pretty obvious that Brodie's wife just couldn't put up with his work hours. It quickly becomes apparent that as far as he's concerned there's no off duty hours when he's on a case. He even takes his five year old daughter with him when he goes off to interview people, which thrills his ex-wife no end when she finds out.
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One of the great things about this series is the arc we're able to watch the character of Brodie travel. When we first meet him the death of his sister dominates his life. When his ex-wife announces she and their daughter will be moving to New Zealand for a year, he freaks. It's not just because he will be separated from his daughter whom he loves, but because he can't shake the belief something horrible will happen to her if he's not there to protect her. Even after he finally resigns himself to their going, he still can't let go. It hasn't helped that the cases he'd been working on prior to them leaving were two involving young girls who had gone missing thirty and about sixteen years ago respectively and two unsolved murders.

However its the last case he takes on in the series, after his daughter has already left for New Zealand, that helps him to finally begin to resolve his own issues. After a teenaged girl saves his life when he's injured in a train wreck, she convinces him to investigate the disappearance of the woman she baby sits for. It turns out this same woman had only just escaped being murdered as a child after watching her mother and daughter be cut down in front of her by a knife wielding crazy. She had managed to escape by hiding in the the tall grass near to where the murder took place. It was there she was found by a young soldier named Jackson Brodie who was part of the search party looking for her.

Now all these years later he's searching for her again and while he finds her and brings her home, he also sees how she was able to protect herself. Not everybody is a victim, and he begins to realize he can't and shouldn't try to be everybody's saviour. Sure he should do what he can for his daughter, but he also has to let go. Isaacs depiction of Brodie's transformation is so gradual you barely notice it happening over the course of the six episodes. However, when you look back at how he was when we first met him and compare that to the man we see on the television screen in the final frames of the series, it's like a twenty ton weight has been taken off his shoulders.

All through the series we've seen him running for both exercise and an attempt to run away from his past. However hard he runs though, his mind can't help but travelling back to the day he saw his sister's corpse being found. In the last frames of the show we see him crest a hill while running and looking around himself with a smile on his face. Case Histories is not your typical crime show and Jackson Brodie is not your typical private investigator. The cases he takes on are intriguing and following along with his investigations is as interesting, if not more, than any other series of this type. However it's the study of Brodie the character and Jason Isaacs's performance which elevates this show into a category all its own.

The two disc set contains all six episodes of the series plus a fifteen minute bonus, making of , short. While there's no real startling revelations in the feature, the interviews with Isaacs, Amanda Abbington and author Atkinson are interesting for the perspectives they offer on the characters in the show and the author's intent with creating the series. However, it's not the extra features that make Case Histories special, it's the show itself. If you weren't able to catch it on your local Public Broadcasting Station recently, than you need to watch it now. It ranks right up there as one of the best mystery/crime shows to come out of Britain in the last few years.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Case Histories Starring Jason Isaacs on Blogcritics.)

July 17, 2011

Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma

Its always there, yet we hardly ever see it. Its always moving, but we hardly ever notice it. Its tasteless, soundless, weightless and without body or form yet time rules almost all of our days. It dictates when we wake up in the morning, when we eat our meals and when we go to bed. We compartmentalize our lives into segments because of time telling us where we have to be, how long we have to be there and when we're supposed to show up. Look at the effect it has on our language. How many words do we use which suggest something to do with time? How much of our daily conversations or thought processes are dedicated to our relationship with time and the way we've chosen to sublimate almost everything else to the arbitrary system we've devised for measuring its passage.

Maybe it's because our time is so tightly controlled the idea of travelling through it holds so much appeal, Who hasn't wanted to travel into the future in the hopes of finding out what is in store for them? Who wouldn't love to go back in time armed with our knowledge and change aspects of our earlier life? It can't be a coincidence that it was during the late nineteenth century the idea began to take hold. For not only was this the period in our history when time began controlling individual lives as more and more people began to work in factories and be paid based on how much of their time they surrendered, it was also an era when science and invention worked together to overcome barriers previously thought insurmountable.

It was this heady atmosphere which inspired writers like Jules Verne to imagine machines capable of travelling great distances underwater and, even more outlandishly, to the moon. However, it was the British writer Herbert George Wells, known as Bertie to his intimates and H. G. Wells to most of us, who first postulated the idea of time travel in his now famous novel The Time Machine. So who better, and what era could be better suited then the one he lived in, for taking a lead role in a contemporary novel about time travel? Judging by the latest book from Spanish author Felix J Palma, The Map Of Time published by Simon & Schuster Canada and translated into English by Nick Caistor, they are the perfect combination as they provide both the motivation and the atmosphere necessary for creating one of the most imaginative and pleasurable reads you'll come across.
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Part mystery, part fantasy and part historical fiction, Palma has woven together a story whose twists and turns will leave you guessing at what is real and what is illusion. Although the novel is populated by historical figures like Wells, and in cameo appearances Henry James and Bram Stoker, the reader who is paying attention will notice quite early on an anomaly in the events described which mark it as different from the history we believe to be true. This small clue dropped early on in the book offers us the first hint there is more happening than what we first assume to be the case. However it is so subtle and presented in such a matter of fact manner, that we are able to convince ourselves it doesn't really matter, yet in the end it becomes the fulcrum the whole story balances on. Like a teeter-totter, when the weight on either end shifts radically, the question of whether time travel is actually possible is first made credible as we join characters on their journeys into the past and the present, then dismissed as we are made privy to the elaborate charades that created the illusion.

One of the fascinating contradictions of the nineteenth century was how concurrent with the rise in science there was also a burgeoning belief in the occult and all things supernatural. People as notable as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were firm in their belief in fairies a la Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, attended seances firmly convinced they would be able to communicate with their beloved who had crossed over and a host of other nonsense which we wouldn't think twice as dismissing as a load of hokum. Therefore when a company in the novel called Murray's Time Travel claims to have discovered a fourth dimension that allows them to travel to a hundred years in the future, it is easy for us to believe people are only too willing to fork out the hundred pound asking price to make the trip.

It's also equally understandable how a young man, Andrew Harrington, can readily believe that Wells possesses a time machine like the one in his book that will allow him to travel back in time to prevent the woman he loves, a Whitechapel prostitute named Marie Kelly, being murdered by Jack The Ripper. Or that a police inspector can be convinced the person responsible for a series of murders could only be somebody from the future as envisioned by Murray's Time Travel - as no nineteenth century weapon could inflict the wounds which killed the victims. Even the young lady who runs into somebody she met in the future in her own time believing he has travelled back in time especially to see her doesn't come off as being especially naive, merely a product of her times.
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Ironically one of the biggest sceptics about time travel is the man who introduced the concept to the world, Wells himself. However even he is mystified by the wounds in the corpses which have caused the London police inspector to have a warrant issued for the arrest of a person living in the year 2000. Where did the weapon which made these wounds come from and who could have scrawled the opening lines from the book he's just finished writing, The Invisible Man on the wall over the first corpse? Nobody else in the world should know those words for nobody else even knows of the manuscript's existence.

With The Map Of Time Palma has created a story which works on multiple levels, like one of those dolls which hides numerous smaller and smaller replicas of itself. He starts with what appears to be a number of unrelated story lines, but as each new version of the story is revealed they converge until the solid core in the centre comes to light. Along the way he presents us with all the usual arguments we've heard for and against time travel, the various dangers involved with tampering with the past, the idea that alternate realities are created each time such tampering occurs and finally how it's possible for the choices we make during the course of our lives to also create multiple versions of the world, even if only in our imaginations. What if I had turned left instead of right that day and never run into so and so who offered me that job through which I met the woman who became my wife? Would everything have ended up differently? Perhaps right now some other version of me is living out that choice in another universe?

However, all the philosophy and speculation aside, Palma has written a book that is not only a delight to read for its intelligent plot and wonderful characterization, but for the sheer joy of observing an author delighting in his art. At times he steps out of his neutral position of narrator and takes an active role in the story by freely admitting he is the one who is actually controlling the actions of his characters. His sly asides about how he already knows what's going to happen to them and his arguments for introducing individuals in the order he does and for writing the book in a style similar to that of something written in the nineteenth century are more than just a writer's conceit. For, while initially they interrupt the narrative and remind us of the separation between us and his characters, we gradually become so accustomed to them they become part of the overall story until we can no longer differentiate between what we thought of as being the present and the past during which the book takes place.

Time travel has been the subject of movies and books for years now, but Palma's approach is by far the most original that I've ever experienced. Brilliantly executed and wonderfully conceived it will at times leave you both puzzled and smiling in equal measure. While some might be disappointed with the book's lack of the normal paraphernalia they've come to expect from modern science fiction, this is as true and wonderful an exercise in imagination as you'll read in a long time.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma on Blogcritics.)

May 28, 2011

Book Review: Pyre Of Queens by David Hair

I've gone on record a number of times expressing my displeasure with those who appropriate stories from other cultures. For far too many years there has existed a type of cultural colonialism which has seen people's stories all over the world retold by others and passed off as being accurate representations of a tradition. Whether it's been British colonialist writing about India or new age European Americans retelling Native American stories it amounts to the same thing. A people's stories are their life blood. They are their history and the means of passing that history from one generation to the next. When someone from outside enters into that stream of knowledge they are as much a pollutant as mercury dumped into a freshwater stream.

Thankfully, as more and more writers are coming forward to reclaim their people's heritage with either modern retellings of their traditional stories or the creation of new stories which accurately reflect both their traditions and their current place in the world, those old types of stories are falling into disfavour. An even more positive sign, in some ways, is there are now a third group of writers striving to find a way to reflect their admiration for another culture's traditions and stories in their work while being sensitive to their status as outsiders. Walking the fine line between appropriation and respect is a delicate tightrope for any writer to negotiate. While historical and cultural accuracy are important elements in these attempts, it's what the writer does with the material that's crucial to maintaining their balance.
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If they merely attempt to retell stories or sensationalize elements of the culture for effect they are no different from any other exploiter. On the other hand if they allow the material to inspire them to create a story which is accurate in its depiction of the culture in question and are only concerned with the story's telling and not setting themselves up as some sort of authority or other they can create something wonderful. This is just what New Zealand author David Hair has made a stab at doing with Pyre Of Queens, published by Penguin Canada, the first book in his four part series The Return Of Ravana.

Inspired by The Ramayana, arguably the most well known and influential Epic Poem in India, if not South East Asia, Hair has combined elements of Indian culture, fantasy and contemporary young adult fiction in the telling of his story. Divided equally between the past and the present he tells how a despotic ruler from ancient India seeks immortality through a ritual that will allow him to host the spirit of the ancient demon king Ravana. By feigning his death and then arranging to have his queens burnt with him on his funeral pyre under very specific conditions he has been assured by Ravana's spirit he will live for ever. Unfortunately all does not go according to plan and one of the wife's is rescued from the flames by the court poet.

Aided by the Captain of the ruler's guard they would have made good their escape save for the fact the partially resurrected spirit of the king and the queens who did "die" in the flames join the pursuit and track down and corner them. Using a flimsy rope bridge across a chasm to escape while the captain attempts to slow down the king, the poet and queen try to find a way out of the underground caverns they have ended up in. The poet, being both jealous of the captain, as the queen obviously loves him and not the poet, and certain the king will be soon pursuing them, weakens the main ropes supporting the bridge. Unfortunately it's the captain of the guard who next stumbles across the bridge and when it gives out underneath him the queen perishes attempting to save him. Wrecked by guilt, the poet eventually makes good his escape but lives out the rest of his days in despair for what he has done.

In the twenty-first century three youngsters at the same school, but from widely divergent backgrounds, begin to have odd dreams. Vikram, a shy intelligent kid with an interest in poetry is the son of a middle class salesman, Amanjit, a boisterous popular athlete lives with his widowed mother knowing his only future is driving taxi for his uncle and Deepika, smart, brash and thoroughly modern, would under normal circumstances probably have had nothing to do with each other. However when chance brings them together and strange things start happening, like spirits appearing or they start seeing things nobody else can see, they begin to realize there is some mysterious tie which unites them. After careful research, and eliminating all other possibilities, the only conclusion they can come to is they're the reincarnations of the poet, the Captain of the guard, and the young queen respectively.
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It's only then they realize the visions and dreams each of them have been experiencing individually and collectively are the spirits of the dead king and his queens coming back to life in an attempt to complete the ritual required to revive both the king and Ravana. In order to do so they need Deepika and the spirit of the escaped queen she carries within her. The adventures the three undertake will test them and the new bonds of friendship that have been forged between them as they are faced with the same choices their previous incarnations dealt with. How they react may well decide their fate and whether or not one of the great evils of the past is able to rise again.

While David Hair is obviously a keen observer of life around him, as can be told by his detailed and accurate descriptions of life in modern India, a solid writer with the ability to bring both scenes and characters to life and the possessor of a deep respect for the culture and traditions of India, there were certain aspects of Pyre Of Queens that left me uncomfortable. While I understand the importance of magic and the forces of good and evil in a fantasy story, and how heroes need a villain to overcome in order to prove their worth, intentionally or not the author has created a somewhat sensationalized view of aspects of Indian culture. Evil spirits, arcane rituals involving burning people alive and reincarnation are going to be what most readers around the world are going to remember most from reading this book, not Hair's descriptions of modern life in India or any of the other less garish parts of the story.

Yes those things make for a good story and are necessary for his plot, but the impression it creates is more of the same old "mysteries of the East" type of story that used to be prevalent in years gone by. The problem is how this type of story reduces complex and sophisticated cultures to sounding like a collection of superstitions and trivializes the people who live within them. Obviously this was not David Hair's intention, and he has done his best to depict the Indians in this story, both those in the past and the present, as sophisticated and intelligent people. However, as he continues the series he needs to step back and think about what stands out the most in each book - the most powerful imagery - and the kind of impression it will make on those who know little or nothing about India.

When somebody from outside a culture attempts to depict it in any shape of form, be it a book, a painting or even a piece of music, they must carefully consider the impression their work will leave on those unfamiliar with the world they are describing. Somebody born and raised inside a culture lives and breathes all of its complexities and any depiction they recreate will usually (not always of course) be far more balanced than anything an outsider can offer. While David Hair in his new book Pyre Of Queens does a far better job of depicting India and her people as multidimensional and real than most of those who have come before, he falls short in his failure to consider how his more flamboyant material will shape people's impression of India. It's a well written book with interesting characters, but as one intended for a young adult audience I could only wish he had taken more care with how he presented his choice of material.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pyre of Queens by David Hair on Blogcritics.)

December 8, 2010

Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie

When it comes to the arts I've always been a firm believer in the treatise that one should learn to walk before they start to run let alone fly. To my mind that means a painter learns figurative drawing and realism before they challenge reality with abstractions; a composer learns the basics of arrangement and orchestration before trying their hands at atonal sound collages; and a writer learns proper sentence structure, grammar and how to create a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end before they take a stab at something like stream of consciousness. If you don't know the rules, how can you possibly know how to break them?

That might sound like a stupid question, but think about it in terms of flaunting conventions or rebelling against something you object to in society. If you don't know what is conventional, or acceptable behaviour, how can you know what to do that will upset people? If a writer doesn't know how to write a proper sentence or a coherent story, how are they going to know what to do in order to stand those conventions on their heads? In order to draw a circle backwards you still have to know how to draw a circle, and no matter how you approach writing a story you still have to put the words down on a page in some sort of order and the person reading it should still be able to understand what it is you're trying to say.
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My own experiments with style and form have not been as successful as I would have liked. So whenever I come across a piece of work, no matter its size, where the author has not only written a good story, but the manner in which he tells it is part of what makes it a compelling read, I'm thrilled. Such was the case with a story just published by To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie. Poet, songwriter, novelist and visual artist, MacKenzie has created in this instance the written equivalent of a cubist painting. For not only is the story told from the points of view of each character we meet, the characters represent different time periods.

The story opens with a description of your standard working poor apartment. Basic furniture and appliances with nothing to distinguish it from others of its kind save for the author drawing our attention to a couple of details - scorch marks on the kitchen table and a few sheets of paper scattered on the floor next to the table. Like an establishing shot in a film, MacKenzie carefully pans across the scene ensuring the reader understands the story is firmly set in a familiar world. What follows after though is anything but familiar as he begins to introduce us to his various characters.

At first there doesn't appear to be any sort of connection between the first people we meet, a mysterious girl with a pet crow and an ability to play with fire who frightens a young boy by running her hand through a candle and a man who appears over an infant's crib, and subsequent characters as they are introduced. In fact we don't even know what it is we're dealing with in terms of a story until we all of a sudden realize the apartment described in the opening of the book is the setting for a police investigation of a missing person. However as the pieces of the story are gradually slotted into their appropriate places in the overall picture we understand that the child in the crib, the boy the girl with the crow frightens, and the man who has disappeared from the apartment described at the onset, are all one and the same person.

While the police are doing their best to try and puzzle out what might have happened to the occupant based on the contents of the letter they find on the floor and what bits and pieces of his life they are able to assemble by questioning neighbours and his landlord, we are learning the truth of the matter. A few pages from his mother's diary expresses her concerns about a story he tells as a child meeting a young girl with a crow who can play with fire. We also learn that quite a few people in his family have died by being struck by lighting - although that's not really unusual for a family that's lived for generations on the open prairie, and that his mother died young under mysterious circumstances.
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To Whom It May Concern doesn't follow a normal narrative pattern as it doesn't travel a straight line from point A to B. While readers might find that disconcerting at first, what ends up happening is MacKenzie has created something that is far more satisfying to read than your standard mystery/fantasy story. Not only do we learn what lies at the heart of the mystery surrounding what happened to the occupant of the apartment, we do so in a manner that makes the mystery all the more intriguing. We not only eventually discover what has happened, we also are able to experience what it would be like to be the police officers investigating the disappearance without the benefit of our inside information. MacKenzie has managed to create two separate realities, each offering their own distinct perception of the events in the story, and both are equally believable.

There aren't many writers who can handle the rigours of not only playing around with the conventional structure of story telling successfully, but telling a good story at the same time. In To Whom It May Concern Bob MacKenzie has not only created an intriguing mystery story, he has found a way to alter the conventions of storytelling in such a manner that the audience is pulled deeper into the material than normal. It may not be what you're used to when it comes to a mystery story, but this is one of those occasions when different is definitely better.

(Article first published as Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie on Blogcritics.)

July 21, 2010

Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott

I'm not a fan of horror books, or movies for that manner, along the lines of those written by Steven King. I've never understood how anyone can enjoy having the shit scared out of them or can find blood and gore being splattered all over the screen anything but repulsive. In fact, of the books along those lines that I've attempted to read I've found them to be dangerously perverse, close to pornographic, in the way the authors seem to revel in delving into the potential for sick and twisted behaviour among human beings. There's far more exploitation, instead of exploration, of human psychological deformities in those I've read to give them any redeeming qualities in my eyes.

There's enough genuine horror in the world we live in that I don't need to read the inventions of anyone who takes pleasure in recreating them. According to the best seller lists I realize this reaction puts me in the minority as there seems to be a huge market for these exploitation thrillers. Thankfully that doesn't there's nothing in the genre that's not worth reading and there aren't some gems waiting to be uncovered amidst the dross if you dig around carefully enough. One of those is Rob Scott's 15 Miles being published by Orion Books on August 19th/10.

With its title taken from the old nursery rhyme of the same name; (From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles/From Wibleton to Wobbleton/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton/From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles) a plot mixing together elements of police procedurals and thrillers with a dash of the supernatural and macabre thrown in for good measure, on the surface it appears no different from any other book in the genre. However, Scott takes the story to another level in the way he's able to take a set of circumstances that is almost a cliché; an isolated farm house in Virginia complete with two corpses in various stages of decomposition, feral domestic cats, mysteriously dead live stock, and a missing person; and turn them into a means of exploring the effects of deep seated guilt on an individual.
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Officer Samuel "Sailor" Doyle of the Virginia State Police had been desperate for a transfer from the Vice squad to Homicide. Like so many other officers before him exposure to the types of crime you deal with in Vice, child pornography for instance, has had its effect on him. Unfortunately in his case that includes a serious addiction to OxyContin and a heavy dependance on alcohol to help him cope with the pressures of the job. With a loving wife and two young kids at home he knows something has to change or he risks ruining the one good thing in his life. However, taking a mistress at the annual CID Christmas party isn't what the doctor ordered, even if she is interning with the MD who serves as the department's crime scene specialist. So when the switch to Homicide comes through he convinces himself it's the first step on his road to recovery.

However just how much further he has to travel down that particular road comes home to him with a resounding thud when the July 4th weekend and a visit from a Presidential hopeful leave the Virginia State Police stretched thin and Doyle has to head up the investigation surrounding two bodies found on an derelict farm. It's his first time flying solo and he's terrified of making the wrong decision, mis-reading the evidence or just fucking up in general. So he's reaching for the OcyContin before he's even on site in the hopes it will give him the confidence he lacks. I'll leave it to your imagination to picture the scene he finds based on what I described in an earlier paragraph, only adding that once he manages to look beyond the rubble he uncovers a secret that might well explain how it came about.

Further complicating matters for Doyle is he begins to suffer from a series of audio hallucinations which take the form of messages from his sister who died years ago. What makes them doubly disconcerting is not only the fact that he's hearing them, but they can happen in the middle of a conversation and they sound like they're coming from the person talking to him. As we move deeper into the novel the story line involving Doyle's sister becomes increasingly important to our understanding of his character and how he's ended up in his current situation. Even more importantly is how Scott utilizes this plot line as the link between the supernatural and the rational. The memory and unconscious mind can play amazing tricks upon individuals, especially when stress, drugs, alcohol and guilt are mixed together in as lethal a cocktail as they are in Doyle. However, as it's only as Doyle starts to remember what happened that this becomes clear, there's plenty of time for his horror and fear over the voices to build to near his breaking point.
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In the midst of all that's happening in his mind, Doyle is also doing his best to solve the mystery surrounding the two dead bodies in the farm house and the absence of their developmentally challenged adult daughter. Scott does an amazing job of not only balancing the plot lines of Doyle's personal life and the case he's investigating, but in establishing how the two become irrevocably linked in his main character's mind. Doyle and his team must look beyond the horror of what they find at the crime scene in order to piece together what's happened in much the same way he has to look beyond the mess he's made of his personal life to see the root cause of his own problems.

While Doyle isn't the most sympathetic of characters to begin with, over the course of the story we find ourselves not only hoping for him to succeed, but winning our grudging respect and actually caring what happens to him. As a result, whether or not he is able to solve the case becomes even more vitally important because of what he has invested in it personally. Somehow, if he's able to find and save the missing daughter he will, in his own mind, be able to redeem himself for the death of his sister. With one blow Scott has not only provided motivation for his main character, he also manages to ramp up the tension over solving the case an extra notch or two. For not only is there a plot twist that makes finding the daughter take on an extra dimension of urgency, the attachment we've formed with Doyle makes us want desperately for him to find a way out of his personal hell.

In his previous works, The Eldarn Sequence, Scott showed his talent for creating believable characters in fantastic circumstances and a flair for multiple plot lines. In 15 Miles he has not only put those talents to excellent use with the creation of Samuel "Sailor" Doyle and his supporting cast and the way events in the book have been interwoven, his sense of pace and his feel for atmosphere make this a thriller of the highest quality. While the tension gradually rises throughout the book, Scott's timing is such that just when you thing it will be too much to bear he eases back ever so slightly, only to take your breath away when he ramps it up to a newer and higher level.

Unlike a roller coaster which has ups and downs, 15 Miles is a constant ascent, with occasional breaks on a plateau to regain your breath before moving on, spotted with occasional doubts about your ability to reach the top. With the macabre elements rooted in reality giving credence to everything that happens no matter how strange or outlandish they maybe, this is as well crafted and intelligent a thriller as you're liable to read this year. If you're like me and have no taste for horror stories, or so-called psychological thrillers, which seem to exploit their circumstances in order for the author to produce some cheap thrills, 15 Miles will go a long way to restoring your faith that there are writers who actually care about what they produce.

(Article first published as Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott on Blogcritics.)

March 24, 2010

Book Reviw: Werewolf Smackdown by Mario Acevedo

In Charleston South Carolina the upper classes try to retain something of the gentility of their plantation ancestors and celebrate the history of their colourful town. Like other major Southern cities, it suffered greatly during the Civil War and no effort was spared over the years to restore some of the pristine beauty that was lost during those troublesome times. So, the proud city fathers would be horrified to learn their city might soon be at the centre of another type of civil war, one that not only has the potential to raze the city to the ground and destroy its inhabitants, but also plunge the entire world into chaos and change life as we know it.

Sound a little over the top? Well consider the situation that Felix Gomez, veteran of the Gulf War, private investigator, and vampire, finds when he responds to a request for his services and travels down from his home in Denver to Charleston. The alpha leader of the area's Werewolf clans has died under mysterious circumstances, her small plane crashed killing all on board, and the two highest ranking males from the local packs are both vying to replace her. Gomez's hopes of the job having nothing to do with the world of the paranormal are quickly dashed when he discovers the person who requested his services, Eric Bourbon attorney-at-law, is not only one of those two leaders, but he wants Gomez to assassinate his opponent, Randolph Calhoun.

Normally vampires and werewolves have nothing to do with each other and either hiring one of the others to take care of internal business is not done. In fact, according to Gomez, official policy as set forth by the Araneum - Latin for spiderweb - the worldwide secret network of vampires, is strictly hands off when it comes to vampires getting involved with werewolves. Therefore it's only natural that Gomez tells Bourbon to handle his own killings. However as he is on his way back to his digs, a local mortuary who rents out coffins to vampires, to prepare to leave town he's ambushed by two vampires carrying not only Bourbon's business card, but one with the name of a renegade vampire scrawled across its back. A vampire who not only came real close to killing Gomez sometime back, but who was intent on revealing the existence of the supernatural to the human world in the hopes of provoking a war between the living and the un-dead.
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So the scene is set for the most recent of Mario Acevedo's hard boiled detective novels, Werewolf Smackdown published by HarperCollins Canada, featuring the latest inheritor of Philip Marlow's mantle of the tough talking gum shoe. While he shares his predecessors predilection for beautiful dames and hard liquor, he differs from Chandler's famous creation in some key ways. Aside from preferring a chaser of A-, and pleasuring his human companions by releasing enzymes into their blood stream through the holes he leaves in their neck (don't worry he's also neat as he heals them up after he's done), you'd have a hard time picturing either Marlow or Sam Spade knowing as much about foundation make-up as Gomez does.

As a vampire Gomez has some supernatural advantages over the rest of us; speed, agility, strength, and some amazing healing abilities. However he also shares many of the traditional aversions that have afflicted his kind throughout history with garlic and sunlight being the ones most likely to ruin his day. While Raybans, a good knowledge of foundation makeup and the liberal application of the highest ratted sun-block have made it possible for vampires to handle all but the brightest sun - a sun rise will cut through anything he can slather on his skin - he still has no defence against garlic or silver. Unloading a full clip from an Uzi into his chest might crack a few ribs, but when you don't have a heart regular bullets don't do any permanent damage. Jab him with a silver fork from your family's fancy flatware on the other hand and you're liable to cause some serious damage.
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It's a good thing that vampires are so durable because in spite of his best intentions, he quickly finds himself up to his neck in werewolves. No sooner has he dealt with the two vampires sent to kill him then he's forcibly taken to meet the man he was brought to town to kill. Needless to say while Bourbon has painted Calhoun the villain of the piece, Calhoun has a different story to tell and does his best to enlist Gomez to his cause. He also fills Gomez in on a few details Bourbon neglected to mention. In four days time Charleston will be swarming with werewolves as hundreds of them will be convening for a gathering of the clans in order to select a new area alpha and there is a very real threat of civil war breaking out between them. If a war of that scale starts it will be next to impossible to keep the existence of the supernatural a secret from the humans, and the possibility of out and out war between the two worlds ensuing as a result is a given.

While others have introduced the idea of the co-existing worlds before, and there's even a couple of vampire/werewolf detectives scattered among the pages of fiction already, the film noir world that Acevedo has created does a great job of bringing the genre to life in a way that is both matter of fact and realistic. Perhaps it's because all of the action takes place in the world of the supernatural where mortals very rarely make an appearance that he is able to make it all seem so matter of fact. Aside from those who hold positions of wealth in the "real" world, there's nothing glamourous about their lifestyle, nor are they particularly romantic figures with tragic pasts or any of that bullshit. Gomez is just a private investigator trying to make ends meet in his world. That he has an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a dryad or can talk to ghosts when they chose to make themselves visible, only seems natural considering who he is and the world he moves in.

Werewolf Shakedown is that wonderful creation that manages to successfully marry genres without sacrificing anything of what makes either of them intriguing. With humour, a good sense of the absurd, and wry intelligence he has in fact improved upon both to create a highly entertaining read. Don't come to this looking for cheap thrills, romance, or high intellect, but be prepared to hold on to your hat as Acevedo takes you on a great ride.

December 24, 2009

Book Review: Top Ten Reads Of 2009

While taste in any art form is highly subjective there are still bench marks one can use when judging a works quality. In the case of books those would include how well the author has developed the plot, whether the characters are more than two dimensional, and the other fundamentals inherent in putting words on a page so they either tell a story or develop an idea. Yet once you've ascertained that an author has proven capable of writing a coherent sentence what is it about a book that makes it stand out from everything else you've read?

In my case its a matter of an author having the ability to transport me with his or her ideas, manner of presentation, characters, or even just the way in which they use words to convey whatever it is they are trying to tell me. The ideal book would of course have characters who are so believable we feel we could have a conversation with them, a story so fascinating that we become so absorbed in reading the book it leaves us wanting it to continue, express ideas mentally and emotionally stimulating, provide insight into the world around us, and offer a unique - or at least novel - perspective on life. The perfect author would be able to accomplish all this without us even being aware of it and it would only be after the fact as we are digesting what we have imbibed that we'd realize just how much an affect the title had had on us.

The following list of titles are the ten from all that I read that were published in the past year (2009) that came closest to fulfilling the above requirements for me. Not all of them are novels, there is one collection of poetry, one collection that mixes poetry and short stories, and one which is more reliant on images than words to make its point. Still each of them have in some way helped broaden my horizons, enriched my life, and just as importantly provided me with great pleasure. For what's the point in reading something, even if it meets all the criteria listed earlier, if it isn't any fun. After all, just because you're expanding your mind doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. The first book in the Aspect Emperor trilogy picks up ten years after the conclusion of the final book of Bakker's Warier Prophet trilogy. The characters we met from the first series return as mankind begins its epic war against its greatest enemy led by Kellus, the Aspect Emperor. Not content to merely continue the story, Bakker has broadened his scope and we now travel both deeper into the history of this world he's created, and parts of it where men haven't set foot in generations. Mixing elements of horror, epic fantasy, and psychological thriller he has created a world where his characters and readers are forced to confront things they might rather have not thought about. Brilliantly told, if slightly unrelenting, it sets the stage for what promises to be another trilogy of epic fantasy unlike any you've read before.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. Imagine writing a love story where it is prohibited for your characters to actually even spend time together alone let alone hold hands. How would they even meet and fall in love if single men and women aren't even allowed to have contact? Even having your characters meet by chance on a busy street risks the book running afoul of the censors in Iran and seeing your book forbidden. Iranian author Mandanipur guides us through the convoluted path authors must follow living under the current theocracy in his homeland if they wish their books to see the light of day. Dotted with moments of surprising humour we are given a peak behind the veil hiding life in Iran from the rest of the world which while confirming a lot of what we suspected about the hardships of life there, also offers plenty of surprises as well. A beautiful story about love, art, creativity, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff. Ever since I first read Tanya Huff, I've been a big fan of her fantasy work. She's one of the few authors I know who are equally at home in the world of military science fiction, horror, epic fantasy, and the newer genre of urban fantasy. The Enchantment Emporium falls into the latter category, taking place in the least likely locale I can thing of, Calgary Alberta, home of oil men and cattle ranches. Not exactly where you'd expect to find a confrontation between twelve dragon lords a leaping, a sorcerer, and one of younger members of the Gale family. Not quite human, Gale boys demonstrate their power by turning into stags, and Gale woman mix spells into pastry dough, are even they up to preventing what looks like the apocalypse? As is usual for Huff, she provides a great mix of humour, action, and characters who, no matter how powerful or outlandish they might be, are easy to identify with. A great fun read leavened with the right amount of tension to keep ti compelling.

The Lees Of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. Best known for his epic series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, Erikson's offshoot series featuring the dark duo of necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, is a delightfully tongue in cheek look at the depths of depravity men will stoop to in order to fight evil. While the urbane and cultured Bauchelain deals primarily in controlling demons, poor Korbal Broach is endlessly searching for the means to create progeny through alternative means as he is lacking the necessary anatomy to propagate the species in the usual way. That he prefers to use the still living internal organs of others to form his "children" has of course upset the families of his "donors", forcing the duo and their servant Emancipor Reece, to be constantly on the move. In this episode they have taken to the seas in an attempt to escape the forces of righteousness nipping at their heals, only to find that an evil even greater than themselves has found its way on board ship with them. Filled with some of the funniest dark and gruesome humour imaginable, you'll find it difficult not to cheer on our evil duo as they are only trying to make their way in a world which doesn't seem to understand them.

Strange Movie Full Of Death by Scot Wannberg. For anybody who still thinks that poetry is boring and can't be read for pleasure, I defy you to read Scott Wannberg's most recent collection and still feel the same way when your done. Funny, sad, emotionally honest, and more in touch with reality than the most realistic novel, his poetry will not only move you, it will make you think, laugh out loud, and cry - sometimes all within one poem. A reminder, if anyone needs it, that poetry in the hands of a master like Wannberg can do in a few verses what it take most novelists two hundred pages.

US Future States Atlas by Dan Mills. Satire comes in many forms, and this collection of Dan Mills' work proves that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. In response to George Bush Junior's lame excuses for the invasion of Iraq, Mills has divided the world up into its component parts if it were all part of the United States Empire. Each new "state" comes complete with descriptions of the benefits derived by the original United States from occupying it, and lists the reasons its annexation was a necessity. Brilliant, scary, and intelligent, it would be sidesplittingly funny if there wasn't such the ring of truth to it. Its as accurate a reflection of America's "me first" attitude towards the rest of the world as I've ever seen depicted in any media. This is a mirror not many people are going to like looking in, but if you have the courage to do so you might begin to understand the resentment so many other countries feel towards the United States.

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This is the fourth instalment of the adventures of the cynical opposite to Dumas' heroic characters, Captain Alatriste, translated into English from Spanish. Once again Perez-Reverte has not only recreated 17th century Spain in all its corrupt decrepitude. After loyally serving his king in battlefields across Europe and through skulduggery in his service, Alatriste is loath to give up his romance with an actress of some repute simply because his majesty's wandering eye has settled upon her. However, things are not always what they seem, and soon he finds himself caught up in a plot which could result in regicide. Full of Perez-Reverte's usual satirical flowery language, not only is the book a great adventure, but a wonderful depiction of the intricate dance of life in a royal court where honour and loyalty are for sale to the highest bidder, and integrity is a dangerous characteristic to possess.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Mixing real historical figures together in a novel with fictional characters is always a risky procedure as its so much harder to give their characters the same depth as your fictional creations as you're constrained by the truth and your knowledge of their actual behaviour. However not only does Kingsolver manage to bring people like Leo Tolstoy, Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera to life with the same ease as her fictional lead, they become key figures in her analysis of the fickle nature of fame and how it can be used against a person. Spanning the depression to post war American and McCarthyism, Kingsolver's latest book looks at how public opinion is manipulated by the government and the press to believe that black is white and there is nothing in between. Scary, heartbreaking, and depressing, its a timely reminder of the dangers of how quickly people forget their own history and their eagerness to condemn those they don't understand.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie is a writer who happens to be a Native American. Sure he writes about what he knows best, what it's like to be a Native American in the twenty-first century, but he also writes about what the twenty-first century is for everybody. In this collection of short fiction and poems he gives us glimpses into the lives of people who are desperate for answers to questions they're not even that sure they understand. Whether its the Native American man who watched his father die of alcoholism, or the son of a Republican senator who gay bashes his old high-school best friend, they are all looking to find their way back to the things they wish they could believe in. Somehow Alexie manages to find humour in some of the situations, and even if it sometimes feels like we're all laughing in the dark together, it's better than crying in a corner alone. Alexie is one of today's pre-eminent social commentators, and this collection is one more proof of that claim.

Gods Of War by Ashok Banker. Best known for his modern retelling of the Indian epic The Ramayana, in this novel Banker shows that he can look into the future as easily as he can the past with this story of the end result of mankind's pride - pride in science, pride in their petty accomplishments, and pride in thinking we are all that matters. Five very different people from four cultures are chosen by the elephant headed god Ganesha as representatives of humankind to bear witness. Witness to the assault upon the city of the gods by unknown forces in what looks to be a war that has been on going for some time. When science and reason take on belief and faith in an all out war there are no winners and perhaps it's time for Shiva to open his third eye and end this "day", so the next world can begin. A combination of fascinating characters and a riveting story keeps the reader glued to each page as Banker pushes the envelope of both form and content. while raising issues that most of us would rather not think about.

November 28, 2009

Book Review: Midnight Fugue By Reginald Hill

The English is a funny old thing isn't it? It's gone through life picking up bits of pieces from other languages and appropriating them for its own use. Some of the meanings that have been attached to these new words might leave those who originally spoke the language it came from shaking their heads, but it has also allowed for an incredible amount of flexibility when it comes to word meaning. Look through the dictionary and you'll be amazed at how many words have two, if not more, either meanings, or ways they can be employed which changes their meaning.

Any writer worth his or her salt is going to learn how to take advantage of this as soon as possible, and not just for the opportunities it allows for one to make rally bad puns. Using a word with multiple meanings allows authors to suggest two thoughts at once to their readers making it harder to predict just what will happen as they continue to read. For somebody writing a mystery or a thriller you can see how attractive that would be. Having your reader's thoughts running in a couple of directions at once will keep them on their toes even more than usual if you know what you're doing.

Anyone who has enjoyed the work of Reginald Hill over the last number of years, and more specifically his novels featuring Chief Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Peter Pascoe, have come to appreciate the joy he receives from playing with the English language. In his newest release, Midnight Fugue published on November 24th/09 by Random House Canada, he delivers the goods yet again with an intriguing mystery built around the meanings of fugue from the title.
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Feeling himself fully recovered from his recent brush with mortality, (he was caught in a bomb explosion) Dalziel has returned to work assuming he can pick up right where he left off. Unfortunately, as anybody who has missed any amount of work could have told him, he discovers that in his absence not only hasn't the world ended because he wasn't there to keep it in one piece, his junior officers have begun to learn how to survive without him. Worse yet he begins to wonder if Pascoe's thought that he might have returned to work a little early might not be correct. For what else would explain him rushing out of the house on a Sunday morning to ensure he's not late for his Monday morning conference?

However this minor state of confusion turns out to be the least of Andy's problems on this Sunday morning. Gina Wolfe, the fiancee of an acquaintance from the London police force, comes to Andy with the story of trying to track down her police officer husband who had vanished seven years ago without a trace. She has just begun taking steps to have him declared legally dead when she receives in the mail a newspaper clipping of a photo showing her missing husband as part of a crowd. Seven years earlier not only had Alex Wolfe come under suspicion of being in the pay of one time East End of London loan shark Goldie Gidman, but his and Gina's young daughter had died of leukaemia. Instead of being a comfort to his bereaved wife, Wolfe had seemed to shut down to the point of unresponsiveness, until she eventually left him. It was shortly after that he vanished so completely that he might as well have ceased to exist.

However it's not just Gina who has come looking for any sign of Alex. Goldie Gidman doesn't like loose ends floating around that can come back to haunt him or his family. Especially now when his son is considered a rising star in the Conservative party. In spite of not being a natural part of the Conservative constituency - Gidman senior is the son a black immigrant - Goldie had felt a definite kinship for the avarice and greed on display in that party under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Part of his effort to hide the past and make the transition to respectable pillar of the community had been the making of large regular contributions to the party coffers for decades. How would it look now if it came to light that he had paid members of London's finest to keep him abreast of the a major investigation into his affairs? Even worse would be information about his days of using a hammer to break fingers as gentle reminders of overdue loans coming to light. They would be sure to cast a pall on his son's chances of political success.
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However Goldie's cleaning crew, the brother and sister team of Fleur and Vince, who are dispatched to look into the potential of Wolfe talking, aren't as up to the task as they once might have been, what with Fleur preoccupied with her pending death from a brain tumour and her need to get her idiot brother out of harms way before she dies. It seems like no one, from the villains to the missing person, are operating at quite a hundred per cent capacity. For the first time in his life Andy Dalziel is actually slowed by self doubts, which are only heightened by the sense of self-recrimination he feels when a junior officer he enlists to assist him unofficially is seriously hurt when she has a run in with Vince and Fleur.

In music a fugue is a composition where a melody is introduced in one part, and then successively taken up by others and developed by the interweaving of all the parts. Which is exactly what Hill has done with characters and plot lines instead of music so adroitly in his Midnight Fugue. Each new character introduced reveals a different facet of the overall theme, and as he gradually interweaves them the picture becomes clearer and carries the story to its conclusion. The author who brings in multiple views of a single story risks leaving his readers scratching their heads in confusion. Hill is able to avoid this by not only making each of the perspectives offered intriguing plot lines in their own right, but equally important, making sure they add to the theme by either revealing more information or posing questions that set us to pondering possible ways in which it could develop.

While some of the characters experience momentary lapses in their awareness of who they are and find themselves far afield from their usual territory - whether Andy Dalziel sitting in a cathedral contemplating his life or Alex Wolfe leading a new life far from London - or in a fugue state, there's never an occasion where the reader feels the same way. It's a pleasure to see how Hill incorporates the multiple meanings of the word fugue into the both the structure of the story and the plot without letting it interfere with the important business of writing an enjoyable mystery story. Fans of Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe, and the rest of Hill's ensemble of characters, will be delighted with how he has continued to develop their interrelationships. At the same time newcomers to Hill's work can take pleasure in reading an intriguing mystery filled with his trademark intelligence and sufficient dollops of gritty reality to keep it firmly in the realm of the believable. Further proof, if any were needed, that Hill is far more than just a mystery writer.

September 7, 2009

Book Review: The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet By Arturo Perez-Reverte

S'Blood, tis perilous times for a man to keep tryst with a lady. If proper care isn't maintained, why you could find four feet of the finest Toledo steel has given you a button hole in both the fore and aft of your doublet. While tis true that Madrid under the most blessed Catholic rule of King Philip IV is known to be home to some of the most hot tempered, proud, and boastful rouges in all of Christendom, a man might reasonably expect to make his way to the warm succour offered by his current paramour's arms without worrying that behind each shadow lurks his untimely demise.

Yet when Diego Alatriste, known far and wide by his honorific, Captain Alatriste, sets forth to meet with Maria de Castro, the most beautiful woman to trod the boards of theatres in any country, his sword and dagger are brought into play in order to chase off two ruffians. Now it's widely known that Senora de Castro not only routinely cuckolds her husband, although whispers say he accepts bags of coin in exchange for her favours, she is wont to have more than one gallant "paying" homage to her beauty at any one time. So the good Captain assumes the ruffians attempting to separate. him, his body, and his soul from this mortal coil were merely those hired by one of La Castro's many other suitors blinded by rage, envy, and spite who believed his own path to her delights would be smoother without another already in position.

Alas, if the matter were only so simple for the Captain that having dispatched those two in the shadows of Madrid's night shrouded streets, he could have continued on enjoying the affections of this truly beautiful woman until she bored of his attentions. However as we continue to peruse the pages of The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet, from the noble pen of Arturo Perez-Reverte being published on this forthcoming eighth day of September in the year 2009 by Penguin Canada, we will see the matter is not as cut and dried as thrusts and parries exchanged in the night either by a man and a woman or two men with forged and tapered lengths of steel.
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For while it is one thing to compete with one's fellow man for the affections of a lady, no matter how base or noble her birth, it is another matter all together to vie with God's anointed majesty Philip IV. Where his noble father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were known for their empire building, a sign of Spain's faded glory is that the current Philip is best known for his love of hunting both in the fields by day and bedrooms by night. Alas for Spain, for although to all outward appearances nothing may seem amiss, this king's willingness to put much of the running of the country into the hands of others while his hands are busy elsewhere has weakened her terribly.

Even sixteen year old Inigo Balboa Aguirre, Alatriste's ward and our sometime narrator, whose loyalty to his king and country is unquestioned, can not help but commenting on how the king's failure to attend to matters of state himself has left many another man's pockets filled with gold, the county's coffers barren, and the course Spain pilots through international waters threatening to cast her upon the shoals along side the wrecks of many a lesser country. In fact it is the job of one of the king's closest companions and advisors to ensure his most Catholic Majesty's path to pleasure and sport is cleared of any obstructions that might interfere with his success.

It is this same gentleman, the Count of Gaudalmedina, who discreetly tries to warn Alatriste of the danger he runs by daring to compete with the king for the same woman. However, this being Spain as recreated by Perez-Reverte, plots hatch quicker then chicks from a hen's eggs. Spain in the seventeenth century is a dangerous place even for those God has set higher than the commonality, and there's always a faction looking to find a way to increase their power at the point of a sword even if it means regicide. What better way to throw the scent off the real criminals then to make Philip's death appear to be the work of a lover whose affections were overthrown by a beautiful woman so that she could dally with the King instead?
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However, not even the Count is able to see through the mists of deception that hang over Madrid this season. For although word has reached his ear of a plot against the King, he is of course not privy to the form or shape it would take. For how could anyone, unless gifted with an ability to peek through the curtain of time, been able to foretell what was in store for all concerned. Plots using beautiful women as bait succeed where others might fail, for the principles, blinded to their surroundings. are lucky to even see the sword that impales them .

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet is the fifth recounting of the adventures of Captain Alatriste to be translated from the tongue of Kings into heretical English, but even this can do nothing to diminish the shining light that is the talent of Aturo Perez-Reverte. While in the hands of some lesser writers the protagonist of a series of books may start to take on mythic qualities, the Captain's metamorphosis takes a far different direction. Honour and pride, virtues in some instances, can also prove ones undoing, especially when combined with a streak of stubbornness which prevents a man from retreating from an untenable position. Unfortunately sometimes a man is placed in circumstance where his choices are take away from him, and in those instances his darker side is revealed. When wine and anger form an unholy alliance in Alatriste's woe be any who happen to catch his eye in the wrong way, or even by chance, as he proves when he casually picks a fight with a lout in a bar and with equal casualness runs steel through his heart.

True the fates had made it seem like his friends had all turned against him, and he was being denied what little joy he could get from life by the very person, the King, for whom he had risked his life time and time again in battle fields across Europe and the allies of Madrid. To be so discarded, and thought so little of must have galled a man of such pride, but to go out and commit murder because of it - well that paints a picture of a man inside whom dark forces are at work. Who knows what awaits our Captain in the future, only God and Arturo Perez-Reverte know for sure, but one thing is definite, neither redemption nor peace will ever come easily for one such as he.

Deftly written, with pinches of humour and snatches or ribald poetry scattered throughout to lighten some of the darkness, Perez-Reverte, continues the adventures of Captain Alatriste and Inigo with his usual aplomb and skill. As is usual half the fun are his descriptions of life in Madrid in the waning days of Spain's imperial might. However, like Alatriste himself, when it's time to get down to the business at hand he once again proves there is no one cooler under fire. His plots, while complicated are never convoluted, and we walk down the same paths as his characters only hoping to find our way out in time to save our necks.

For those who have grown tired of the romantic view of history so common in fiction, these books are the perfect antidote as Perez-Reverte does not shirk from showing the foul with the sweet. Very little separates the heroes and the villains in these books in terms of character and motivation save for the side on which they are fighting. While we may be on the side of Alatriste and Inigo, that's only because they are telling us the story - who knows what we'd feel if we heard the same tale from the other side of the table? There's nothing cut and dried about these books, and that's what makes them invaluable. Once you've read one, you'll want to read them all, and then impatiently wait for more.

One can purchase The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet from either Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

August 31, 2009

Book Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Everybody's waxing nostalgic for Woodstock this year, being how it's the fortieth anniversary and all. At least the record companies sure are, as you can't turn around without seeing yet another commemorative ash tray or roach clip bearing the three days of peace and music logo appearing on the shelves. Yeah there's still lots of money to be made off of all that peace, love and music shit, even forty years later. They might not of cashed in as much as they'd have like to back in the day, but the music industry is making up for lost time now.

Naturally their downplaying the whole drug thing - except for the occasional mention of how tragic it was that so many of those who performed had their lives and careers cut short supposedly because of drugs. Nobody wants to say that drugs were fun, because that's not the message we want to send in this post Just Say No War On Drugs era. Even though we've moved on to bigger and better things like the War On Terror, nobody's forgotten Nancy's message have they. However the reality was that - horror of horrors - people did a shit load of drugs back in the day and no amount of corporate white wash will disguise that fact.

The other bit that they don't seem to want to talk about is how forty years ago, 1969, was when the whole peace and love trip started to wither on the vine.Not only did it mark the ascension to the throne of Richard Nixon in Washington, but the Prince of Darkness himself, Ronald Ray-guns, had been governor of California since 1967. Happy Ronnie, who was only glad to help finger Commies in the fifties for Joe McCarthy and his Un Americans, did his best to fight free love, free speech, and all those other ungodly behaviours those long haired layabouts were engaging in. By the time 1969 washed up on the beach in California, Heads were already looking over their shoulders to see where the long arm of the law was every time they lit up a joint. Of course, with paranoia being such a bosom buddy of most drugs to begin with it didn't take much to fuel the massive rip tides of mistrust that starting pulling folks under in the late sixties.
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While the hucksters and snake oil sales people might not be talking, there are those who are. Timed perfectly to serve as an antidote to the sales pitches, Thomas Pynchon's newest book, Inherent Vice, published by Penguin Canada, offers us ring side seats to the curtain coming down on the dream in California.

Ostensibly a detective story, we follow Pynchon's Private Investigator, Doc Sportello, as he takes on an investigation at the behest of his ex girlfriend, Shasta. She's been seeing a married man, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, and is worried that his wife and her boyfriend are trying to figure out a way to have him declared mentally incompetent so they can grab his loot. Her suspicions are based on the fact they've offered to cut her in if she'll help them out with their scam, but it turns out Shasta really has a thing for Mickey and wants to keep him around. Aside from her natural reluctance to approach the police on principle alone, it seems like there's some sort of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) involvement anyway that's going to prevent anyone from running to the cops for backup on this one.

So we trundle around in Doc's wake as he tries to make head and tail out of this case. Wafting a trail of pot smoke behind him that rivals LA's smog during rush hour, Doc encounters militant black nationalists, neo-nazi bikers with a thing for Ethel Mermon and show tunes, bent cops, Federal agents, surfer musicians gone bad, junkies, and worst of all dentists. Somewhere at the bottom of this pile of people there lurks a mysterious group known as the Golden Fang pulling all the strings. They supply the heroin that's sold on the street and are behind a psychiatric institute where people go to get clean. Of course there's a price to be paid for either the junk or coming clean, and while the former is usually your health and cash, the latter can be even more sinister as Doc discovers.

That creeping paranoia Doc feels isn't just because he smokes too much dope, it's because there's something creeping around behind the scenes exerting control over the peace loving, dope smoking, and fun loving community of beach folk. While the King and the Prince Of Darkness clamping down harder and harder to "Make America Safe" means more people getting busted for doing drugs, the drugs are being controlled more and more by the people who put them on the throne. The Golden Fang people see nothing wrong with making a quick buck from people before they end up jail for ten to twenty for using their product.
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On the surface Inherent Vice is an enjoyable ride filled with memorable characters. Doc might be perpetually stoned and rely on extrasensory perceptions brought on by certain psychedelic substances for insights, but he's also as persistent as they come when following a trail Pretty much unflappable he's able to weather whatever surprises pop up and goes with the flow no matter what. However even he's a little disconcerted to discover the nasty truth lurking underneath the haze of pot smoke, that the end of innocence is at hand. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and there's no amount of drugs that will allow hum to hide from that reality anymore. The days of trust are over, and he's going to have to get used to looking over his shoulder on a more regular basis.

There's a note of sadness that runs through Inherent Vice that will hopefully have people questioning the neat and tidy image of the sixties that's being packaged these days. Pynchon makes no apologies for where his sympathies lie, with those on the other side of today's right wing moral code. Yet at the same time he doesn't let sentiment or nostalgia prevent him from showing the darker side of that lifestyle. Still, you can't help but feel a pang for what was lost and what might have been when you come to the end of this book. Very few people seem to want to tell the truth about the 1960's but Thomas Pynchon isn't one of them. You couldn't ask for a better guide to its demise.

Inherent Vice can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

July 4, 2009

Book Review: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Perhaps it's not the style these days, but when I read a book I want to feel the cracks in the sidewalk underneath a character's feet as he walks down the street, smell the odours that waft out from the bakery she or he passes by on their morning walk, and feel the same cold wind they do bite my cheeks. Sure, it's all very well and good to let us know what things and people look like, but I want to experience the world and be immersed in it when I read. If I wanted to just look at something as a passive observer I'd watch television instead of reading a book.

Well, if you share any of that sentiment than you'll probably take as much pleasure in reading the latest offering from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel's Game, that was just published by Random House Canada. Set in Barcelona, the majority of the action takes place in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. The book opens in 1917 with our narrator, David Martin, recalling how it was that year, when he was seventeen, he was first paid for his writing. However, instead of this being a pleasant memory, he says from the moment a writer first sells a piece he is doomed and his soul has a price. When soul and price are mentioned in the first paragraph of a book, it's a good bet the story is going to have something to do with the forces of darkness and a descent into one type of Hell or another is in the cards.

However before we take that plunge Zafon makes sure we know why it could happen to David. Not only was he abysmally poor as a child, but he was raised by his alcoholic, ex-soldier, father. However, it's the fact that Zafon manages to capture the real horror of what poverty does to a child - takes away his or her expectations of anything good happening to them, that makes this important for the story. In fact it's a copy of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations that makes David realize that the idea of a poor person having expectations of any sort is ridiculous. For he's lucky that his father even allows him to attend school and learn to read and write. However, after beating David for wasting money by using electricity in order to read the Dickens novel, his father begins to have a change of heart and starts to allow David to buy books. But as David begins to have expectations of a relationship with him, his father is gunned down in front of him.
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However, as a result of his father's death he meets the man who is to become his patron and mentor, Don Pedro Vidal. Vidal not only gets him a job at the newspaper he writes for, he's also responsible for that first paid writing assignment. When that job comes to an end it's Pedro who finds a publisher who employs David to write an ongoing series of crime fiction adventures. With an income assured, he's able to consider finding a place to live that's not a slum. Ever since he was a child David had been attracted to an old abandoned mansion whose prominent feature was a tower. As soon as he has the money to be able to afford it, he takes out a lease on the building and moves in.

Although he considers he long ago sold his artistic soul by agreeing to write pulp fiction, the selling of his own soul comes about in a slightly different manner. Almost immediately after his first story is published in the newspaper, David had started to receive mysterious letters congratulating him on his success. These turn out to be from a man who claims to be a book publisher who has a most unusual request; he wants to commission David to write him a religion. At first he dismisses the idea as crazy, but the publisher is persistent, and finally David agrees to the contract. Anyway, 100,000 francs is an awfully large amount of money for a years work.

Needless to say agreeing to the job is the beginning of his descent into his personal hell. It turns out that the previous occupant of where he lives died under very mysterious circumstances. When David begins to investigate he discovers that before he died the man had been working on a book for a mysterious publisher who had promised him 100,000 francs. David is drawn into a conspiracy that reaches into the highest ranks of society. The deeper he digs, the deeper he gets into trouble for as corpses start to pile up around him the police begin to blame him. However, he can't shake the feeling that his mysterious publisher is somehow at the root of all this and he's determined to get to the bottom of it all no matter what happens.
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With The Angel's Game Zafon has created a multilayered treat for readers that incorporates all the best elements of gothic horror and murder mysteries while at the same time creating characters who are incredibly realistic. We watch how disappointment after disappointment pushes David into the arms of his tempter. For it's only when the last of his personal dreams and expectations are squashed that he surrenders. As David descends into darkness so does the book. For while the beginning of the book does contain some sadness, the death of his father, there are moments of genuine humour and an overall lightness of spirit that reflects David's initial optimism. As the story progresses the city itself begins to descend into darkness and gloom until the final climax is played out under a black sky streaked "with veins of red light".

Zafon has gone to great pains with this book to bring every scene to life in such a manner that as a reader you feel the cobblestones beneath your feet as David walks through the older parts of Barcelona. The city, and all the other environments in this book are as much characters, and are as well drawn, as the people who populate them. Aside from there not being a dull moment to be found throughout the length of The Angel's Game, its a marvellous depiction of one man's descent into darkness. It's all too easy to look at the character of David Martin and see parts of yourself reflected back, as you have to wonder how you would react if all of the expectations you had for your life were to slowly erode in front of your eyes. It's not often you'll find a book that's not only a page turner but also as thought provoking as this one. A rare combination that deserves to be savoured and read over and over again.

You can purchase a copy of The Angel's Game either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

March 25, 2009

Book Review: The Dark Volume By Gordon Dahlquist

While it may be true that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing, too much of the same thing, no matter how good it is, can get tired after a while. At least this is the case with The Dark Volume, the conclusion to the adventures started by Gordon Dahlquist in his books The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 and The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.2, being published by Random House Canada on March 24th/09. For what was novel in the first volume, had started to wear thin by the end of the second, and is just tedious here in the third instalment.

Set in a fictional England during the Victorian era, the first two books brought together three adventurers from divers social backgrounds as they each accidentally stumbled upon a mysterious cabal who appeared out to control heads of state and captains of industry. Celeste Temple, a proper, upper middle class young woman of independent means; Dr. Abelard Svenson, a military surgeon serving in the navy of the German principality of Macklenburg; and Cardinal Chang, an assassin for hire who is neither Chinese or catholic but takes his name from the red leather coat he wears and the disfigurement a whip caused his eyes, are as an unlikely trio of allies you're liable to find anywhere. However, when circumstances brought them together they set aside their differences in the hopes that together they could thwart the cabal's plans.

Those behind the cabal have developed a process that allows them to distil emotions and experiences as a type of blue glass. When a person touches just a piece of the glass they immediately become immersed in, and relive the details of, whatever was "recorded" onto that piece of glass, which could be anything from sexual experiences to murder. Naturally for an era that prided itself on repressing emotions as much as the Victorians, exposure to these pieces of blue glass was rather an overwhelming experience. However, as shocking as the emotional voyeurism might have been, it was the recording process that was the real danger.
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Advertised as a means of liberating oneself from the constraints of a hide bound society, the "process", was actually a means of a few exerting control over many. For each person who underwent the process had a keyword or phrase implanted into their sub-consciousness that allowed anyone speaking it to assume absolute control over them. Minor modifications to the process allowed the cabal to siphon memories and emotions from their subjects as well to generate the material for the blue glass, while another modification allowed for a subject to be transformed into a being of blue glass who could use their thoughts and emotions to control others.

Over the course of the first two books we followed our erstwhile heroes as they tracked down the ringleaders of the group, first alone, and then working as a team. Each of them in turn experienced the blue glass first hand with differing results. For Celeste it involved the awakening of thoughts and desires that left her reeling, while the Cardinal experienced the dangers the material posed when one is forced to breath in the substance that forms the blue glass and have it crystallize in your system. The Doctor meanwhile discovered that the glass also contained people's memories and saw how the cabal was using them to find out valuable information that could be used for their nefarious purposes.

Initially, especially as the trio were discovering just what was going on, the story was fascinating in the way it depicted the characters reactions to what they were experiencing. This was especially true in the case of Celeste as we observed how she dealt with coming to grips with the pleasure she experienced via the blue glass. As emotionally repressed as any product of her times, she was both appalled and enthralled by her reactions, and continually struggled against this new awareness of herself as a sexual being. However as the books progressed, and neither her experiences or her reactions to them evolved, it began to feel like the author was writing his own version of Victorian pornography, instead of examining the effects of strong emotion on someone whose own have long been kept in check.
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The fact that the plot began to feel like it was meandering towards a conclusion, rather than building steam for a denouement began to make it feel like the author was merely spinning out the tale so he could exercise his fascination with dark eroticism. It was if it was becoming the reason for writing this final chapter, instead of it merely being a by product of the plot, and reading variations on Celeste having to fight her urges became tedious. While the Doctor and Cardinal Chang faired slightly better at the hands of their creator, they too seemed caught in an endless cycle.

Each of them were either in constant pursuit of some quarry or another, which involved innumerable train rides, treks through the corridors of ancient houses, and fits of random violence. While inevitably their journeying did result in them arriving at a destination, it was definitely not a case of getting there being half the fun as it rapidly became an exercise in tedium. What had started off as an interesting voyage in The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol. 1 and had continued quite successfully in Vol.2, has become something of a trudge in The Dark Volume.

Far from being the "gripping tale of suspense" that its advertised as, The Dark Volume is a rather tedious exercise whose "dark eroticism" is simply Victorian era pornography revisited. You'd be better off picking up a copy of Fanny Hill, for at least its honest about its nature.

The Dark Volume can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

February 2, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two By Gordon Dahlquist

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume ONe Gordon Dahlquist created a fantastical version of 19th century Europe which he populated with an intriguing cast of heroes and villains. On one side a mysterious cabal of individuals made up of captains of industry, government insiders, high ranking military officers, and the aristocracy of various nations and their diabolical plans for obtaining power. Seeking to thwart their plots an unlikely a trio as you'll ever see; Celeste Temple, a single woman of good breeding and some money, Mr. Chang, also known as The Cardinal (a disfiguring scar from the whip of a young noble that gave his eyes an Asiatic cast and his preferred garb of a long red coat are the genesis of his names), a killer for hire, and Dr. Abelard Svenson, an army doctor attached to the diplomatic mission of the Duchy of Macklenburg, a German principality.

While Volume One explained how each of our heroes became embroiled with the intrigue and gave us a good idea as to what their foes were attempting to do and how they were going about it, The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two, being published by Random House Canada on February 3rd/09, reveals the extent of the cabals plans, and goes into even more explicit detail as to how they aim to fulfill them. Although we had previously learned something of the mysterious alchemy that allows a person's experiences to be recorded in blue glass and that an individual looking into that glass becomes immersed in the emotions recorded, it becomes clear that is only the tip of the ice berg.

After a brief period of working together to discover more information about the cabal the three again split up to pursue separate investigations. Although their parting helps each discover more details of the plot they are up against, it was not the result of considered planning. Instead it was an indication of the emotional fragility that marks each of the three characters. One of the things that Dahlquist has recreated accurately about this era is the state of emotional repression that most people existed in. What's more he also manages to capture the effect that an emotional upheaval has upon people who are normally alienated from their feelings perfectly.
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For when Celeste succumbs to her feelings about finding her ex-fiancee among the cabal, and falls to pieces in front of The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson, she is mortified with thoughts that they might think her weak. Blind to anything else, including reason, she decides that in order to prove herself she must carry out a dangerous adventure on her own. So she slips away to confront the leaders of the cabal. Not having any idea where she might have gone, The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson are forced to separate in the hopes of finding her, with the result that they all end up in deadly peril.

While there have plenty of fantasy and science fiction books that deal with mind control or psychological manipulation of one kind or another, Dahlquist's books are some of the first that I've read that deal with the power of emotions in the same way. Politicians today are past masters of manipulating our emotions at the expense of reason by playing on our fears in order to convince us they are the ones who will keep us safe. What Dahlquist does is take that basic premise and magnify to a degree that is horrifying.

His decision to set the series in a fictional 19th century setting and retain the moral codes of the time have given him the ideal societal conditions to explore the effects of unbridled emotions. In a society where propriety is the foremost consideration and sexuality is sublimated, experiencing sensual pleasure would be like taking a drug. Using their method of recording people's experiences, the cabal feeds its targets undiluted doses of the most stimulating and rawest emotions they can accumulate in order to seduce them to their aims. However the process not only encodes emotions, but all of a person's experiences and thoughts as well. So anybody going through the process allows the cabal access to any knowledge they have stored in their memory.
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Imagine if you have lived your life in a state of near frigidity, and all of a sudden someone promises you that they can not only free you to experience waves of pleasure without any guilt or shame, but also help you achieve any ambitions you might have for power, wealth, or status. Simply undergo "the process" and you will ascend to a higher level of being. If you were an ambitious politician or a greedy industrialist in the 19th century would you be able to resist? It may not sound plausible to our ears put so baldly, but Dahlquist makes it all ring true.

For even our three heroes become ensnared by the strength of the emotions that emanate from the pieces of blue glass which contain a specific moment and the deadlier glass books which are the record of person's entire experiences. Even the ways they are able to overcome the effects of the glass are such that it adds to the verisimilitude of the circumstances. For it's not because they have any superhuman powers or are "better" people than those who surrender, it's because they know that the people behind the scenes don't have their best interests at heart. Remembering you're in deadly peril usually helps prevent you being seduced by your enemy.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two like its predecessor is not only an exciting and alluring adventure, its a terrifying look at the potential to control people through emotions. What was impressive about the first book, an intriguing plot and interesting characters, is improved upon here as Dahlquist not only manages to spin new webs of intrigue in this volume he also unravels them with eloquence. Meanwhile he also allows his three lead characters to learn and grow from both their experiences and their acquaintance with each other and show how it is possible to free your emotions without the aid of alchemeny.

It's not often that a book can be escapist fun and thought provoking at the same time, but that is definitely the case in this instance. I'm looking forward eagerly to the release of the final volume in this series for what promises to be more of the same.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two can be purchased directly from Random House Canada as of February 3rd/09 or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 30, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 By Gordon Dahlquist

There's something about the mid to late nineteenth century that makes it the ideal period for setting a mystery novel. Perhaps it's because of the atmosphere created by the lack of electricity and houses lit by either gas or candles. Even in the best lit houses there are places where the light didn't reach creating pools of shadows in which anything could happen. It was also a period of great political and social unrest as various nationalist interests across Europe strove for independence and the aristocracy were being forced to share power with a merchant class demanding their money give them a voice in government.

A writer couldn't find a better era to create intrigues involving people of power lurking in the shadows seeking to take advantage of the era's industrial and scientific advancements in order to carry out their nefarious plots. It doesn't hurt either of course that cities of that time would have been filled with rundown and desperate neighbourhoods and even in the better parts there would have been plenty of ill lit allies where anything could happen to anyone. It's an age that positively cries out for stories of secret cabals, knives in the dark, and other strange carryings on.

Which is exactly what playwright turned novelist Gordon Dahlquist has done in The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume One, published by Random House Canada, that kicks off what promises to be an adventure/fantasy trilogy different from anything you might have read previously. Set in an era much like our nineteenth century Dahlquist has created a tale of gothic splendour to match those written during that time, but laced it with doses of modern awareness. The characters might be governed by the morality of the times, but unlike their counterparts written by authors of the period, these people have thoughts that would never have made it to print in Victoria's time.
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Through coincidence and luck three very disparate characters stumble upon a plot involving people from the highest ranks of the military, government, aristocracy, and industry from countries across Europe. Exactly what the plot is neither Celeste Temple (a single woman of good background and decent money), Mr. Chang, the Cardinal (a killer for hire whose names are derived from his penchant for wearing a long red coat and disfiguring scars he received to his eyes when young), or Dr. Abelard Svenson (a military doctor assigned to the principality of Macklenburg's diplomatic mission as medical baby sitter to the state's heir apparent) are certain, except that it must be dark and nefarious. For even before fate brings them together to pool their resources each of them has escaped a near death situation by the barest of margins.

What they have found out is that this mysterious cabal has discovered some sort of process that allows them to record one person's experiences and memories in such a manner as to allow others to relive them completely. They also discover that the people who undergo the process of having their memories duplicated become malleable to the point of being puppets. The implications of this of course are enormous, especially when Dr. Svenson discovers that his charge, Prince Karl-Horst, has undergone the process and has been taken into the plotter's inner circle.

With The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Gordon Dahlquist has created the perfect opening salvo for what promises to be an intriguing trilogy of books. Not only has he created a tantalizing trail for our three erstwhile heroes to follow, and us to be captivated by, he has created three characters that allow us to have completely different perspectives on the same situation. The experience offered by partaking of the blue glass allows an individual access to another's innermost feelings and passions, and each of the three are effected when they experiment with a shard the doctor finds.
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To a typically repressed person of the era like Celeste a glimpse of raw, unbridled emotion of any kind is both shocking and alluring at the same time. For while her conditioning tells her she should be repulsed by what she is observing, no descent person would give into those types of feelings, a part of her yearns for the freedom of emotion that's she experiences. Each of the three react differently, according to their natures, but they each up end up realizing some sort of regret about their lives as well.

Not only do we begin to understand the allure offered by the process through the experiences of each of our main characters, it also allows Dahlquist the opportunity to give us a deeper insight of our leads. By allowing each of them to explore the feelings that looking into the blue glass awakens in them, he makes them far more interesting to read about. At the same time we also learn why each of them is willing to risk their lives pursuing a matter which they could just as easily have walked away from.

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Dahlquist has done a great job of recreating the world of the nineteenth century through descriptions of the cities that the action takes place in and the behaviour of the characters involved in the story. As you follow his characters into darkened corridors or down dimly lit streets you can almost hear the hissing of the gas lights or the clip-clop of the horse drawn carriages as they proceed along cobbled streets. Even the plot reeks of the time as a key element of the intrigue is offering people the temptation to free themselves to experience emotions and feelings they have long held in check because of the morality of the times.

Not only has Dahlquist created a great period piece, he has managed to imbue it with enough of a modern sensibility to make it exciting and interesting to a contemporary readership. The characters are intriguing, the action exciting, and the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns. If the final two books match up the standard set by Volume One, this trilogy promises to be one of the most unusual and unique fantasy rides of the last little while.

You can purchase The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 21, 2009

Interview: Reginald Hill - Creator Of Pascoe And Dalziel

It's hard to believe that their first appearance was back in 1970, but that's the year that A Clubbable Woman introduced the world to Reginald Hill's fictional Mid-Yorkshire's Odd Couple of police officers Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. Numerous awards for crime fiction, and a television adaptation later, Reginald Hill and his creations are still going strong, much to the delight of anybody who enjoys intelligent, humorous, and challenging writing.

I've been an unabashed fan of their misadventures since reading a copy of that first book (sometime after its initial release date) and have happily devoured each new title as it has made its appearance on the market whenever I've been able. What has kept me, and I assume the millions of others who keep reading Mr. Hill's books, coming back is that you never know what you're going to find between the covers of a Dalziel and Pascoe investigation.

Not only have the plots for each book always been a notch above the usual you'd expect from the police procedural genre, but Mr. Hill has never allowed his characters to descend to the level of predictability. Where other authors have been content to keep presenting the same collection of mannerisms and passing it off as a recurring character, Pascoe, Dalziel, and their colleagues, have continued to fascinate by their refusal to be predictable. Although you can be pretty sure that you'll end up buying if you head off to the pub with "Fat Andy", don't count on being able to anticipate anything else about him.
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So when the opportunity arose to pose some questions to Reginald Hill about his work and his two most famous constables, I leapt at it. As Mr. Hill and I are divided by an ocean of water and a few time zones, it was easiest to e-mail him my questions about his creations and have him e-mail back his answers. So what you are reading are his answers as he's written them, not my stumbling efforts to try and transcribe a phone conversation. For those of you familiar with the series I hope that this interview provides you with answers to some of your own puzzles about the history behind of the characters and the books they feature in. If you have never read anything by Mr. Hill, let alone one of Pascoe and Dalziel's investigations, maybe this will pique your interest sufficiently to give them a go. You really don't know what you've been missing.

With the publication of A Cure For All Diseases (Price Of Butcher's Meat in America) how many Dalziel and Pascoe novels does that make? Obviously when you wrote A Clubbable Woman back in 1970, their first appearance, you could have no idea that they would become as popular as they have, but when did you first have an inkling that you might be spending a good portion of your life writing about them?

21 full length novels, plus a couple of novellas and some short stories. After the first (A Clubbable Woman) I had neither inkling nor intention that there would be any more. The second (An Advancement of Learning) was a campus mystery that needed a couple of cops to investigate the crime and it occurred to me that like the TV chefs I had one that I’d prepared earlier, so out they came again. But when I found myself wondering what was going to happen to the Peter Pascoe/Ellie relationship which I’d left dangling at the end of that story, I did begin to get that inkling – a most appropriate word as I was writing everything longhand back in those days.

Where did the idea for Andrew Dalziel come from - and does anybody not from Great Britain ever believe you when you tell them it's pronounced Dee-ell?

In the first book, Andy D was intended as a foil for Peter P – the antediluvian, steam-age, seat-of-the-well-scratched-pants cop against whom the new age, university educated whiz-kid would shine. It didn’t quite work out like that! As for the name’s pronunciation, it has I think become the shibboleth by which the series’ hard-core fans identify each other!

You've written novels not featuring Dalziel and Pascoe, but you've never strayed too far from what people would call mystery stories or thrillers. What is it about the genre that first appealed to you and that still inspires you?

I should have thought my two historical novels, two war novels and two sf novels were quite a long divagation from the mystery genre, but yes, my main track has been along the crime route. I have always been a great fan of the genre, but I think that creatively the its initial attraction was that it provided something interesting to be happening while I explored my characters and said what I wanted to say! In other words it provided (sometimes literally) a skeleton to support what might otherwise have been a somewhat flaccid narrative. Soon I began to feel, and still do feel, that it is such a varied and variable format that it can contain almost anything. To the essential narrative dynamic of nearly all good novels – what happens next? - it adds the intellectually intriguing question – what really happened in the first place? And because its so elastic a form, it readily expands when I want to focus on matters perhaps peripheral to the main whodunit themes, such as animal rights protest, the First World War, or medieval mystery plays! One of the reasons I’ve been able to keep going with D&P for so long is that knowing them so well means I can hit the ground running, and don’t have to spend too much time rebooting them every time I start a new book. This gives me space to stretch out in any direction I fancy. Of course I have to be sure to provide enough basic information to involve new readers, but I know from my mail as well as from personal encounters that my old readers are a lively adventurous bunch, ready to go anywhere I may take them so long as the company remains good!

Which comes first the crime, the criminal, or how to go about solving it? You write stories where you already know the answers to the questions that most of your characters are trying to figure out - so I was curious as to how you go about putting all those pieces together

It’s not quite true to say that I know all the answers when I’m writing the stories. Like most novelists, I often find the process is a voyage of discovery rather than the simple tracing of a path to a known destination. Often I have set out for the land of spices and found myself making landfall in America instead! Anything can be a starting point, a newspaper paragraph, a conversation overheard in a pub, a dream, a good idea for a title, an urge to write about a certain topic – sometimes the crime is there from the beginning, sometimes I stumble across it during the journey – and frequently the point I start from becomes irrelevant during the writing and the last thing that I write in the book is the first chapter. It’s an organic not an architectural process. No blueprints, and sometimes the looked-for rose turns out to be a cauliflower after all.
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Andy Dalziel came pretty close to snuffing it in Death Comes For The Fat Man (did you ever seriously consider letting him die?), and, even if he's reluctant to admit it, it's fairly obvious that his near death experience has changed him somewhat in A Cure For All Diseases. He's always hidden surprises under his gruff exterior - even though sometimes it's been an even gruffer interior - but to see him have moments of introspection was a bit of a shock, and I wondered what inspired you to push him down this road?

Certainly not. It would have been like killing an old friend! Obviously the experience has left its mark on him, and, being a bright guy, he wants to understand why he feels as he does, what he can learn from it, and where it is going to leave him. Throughout the books I’ve been at pains to portray Fat Andy as a man with much more going on inside than he ever cares to show. All that happens in A Cure For All Diseases is that for the first time his situation permits him to speak directly to the reader. In the next book (Midnight Fugue, out later this year) Dalziel is back at work and discovering what most people discover if absent from their job for a while, or when they retire, that no one is indispensable.

Why did I push him down this road, you ask. Because, like all my character, I hope, he’s not a fixed point. He has to develop, change, and, yes, get older. Bit like me, I suppose. With the first third of my life behind me, I suppose I may be getting a tad more reflective….

A Cure For All Diseases, is much lighter in tone than the two or three that proceeded it, was this a deliberate decision on your part, or was it just the way the story worked out?

Is it? I suppose so, though I always like to have a bit of a giggle as I go along. In the case of "A Cure"…I’d like to think its tone might owe something to its origins in Jane Austen who mingled mirth and high seriousness more deliciously than almost any other writer.

As the series has advanced you've gradually been introducing two new members of the Mid-Yorks; Hat Bowler and Shirley Novello, giving each of them gradually larger roles. When you first introduced them did you have long term plans in mind, or has having them available as cast members, so to speak, suggested ideas for putting them to use - as each of them have now had a "starring" role and are now given more to do in each subsequent book

I hate creating characters simply in terms of their function. No matter how brief their appearance, I like to know them as people. Even dear old PC Hector had to be more than just a clown. While I don’t have usually long terms plans for anyone when they first appear, if they “live”, then obviously they aren’t going to simply vanish after a single appearance.

The character of Fanny Root has been popping up to plague Peter Pascoe for a number of years now, and although the dynamic of their relationship has changed radically since he saved Peter's daughter, there's still the feeling that Fanny is Peter's personal Albatross to bear and perennial blind spot. Where did you get the idea of coming up with a character who plays this type of role in Peter's life, and what did you hope to accomplish with him?

Franny Roote was a very early creation, appearing in the second D&P novel over thirty years ago, God help us! I was fascinated by him and though he was obviously out of commission in jail for several years, I often found myself wondering what he would do when he came out. So I decided to take a look – that’s the great thing about being a writer – we have free access to everyone’s private life! He’s a very laid-back, cool kind of chap, and thinks it would be rather amusing to gently haunt Peter Pascoe, but he is in the end hoist on his own petard and finds that Pascoe has come to mean great deal to him also. He is a spirit of mischief, and in some ways he’s even a match for Dalziel, who like to think he sees through him, yet finds it very hard to lay a finger on him.

I'm curious as to why the American edition of your latest book has such a radically different title from that released in Canada and Great Britain? Considering the story line I thought A Cure For All Diseases was a highly appropriate title

My American publisher assured me that for reasons I still fail to understand, A Cure For All Diseases would not signify anything to an American audience. Across the border in Canada they had no such problem. In fact given the choice of the two titles, they opted for A Cure… nem con! What the American choice does have going for it is that it’s a direct quote from Sanditon. I’d put it on my list of possibles when I was still looking for a title as I wrote the book, but nobody over here liked it and as the book developed, I could see it wasn’t really suitable myself. But in New York they seized upon it with glee, and I hope that sales figures will prove they know their market!

The idea of Andy Dalziel attending a "health spa" was funny enough on it's own, but to find him plunked down in the midst of a town filled that's billing itself as a centre for "New Age" health treatments brings the words Bull and China shop to mind. What inspired that particular combination?

This really all came out of JA’s (Jane Austen) Sanditon, the theme of which was clearly going to be absurdities which always dance attendance on the new, whether it’s in art or fashion or healing or anything. It’s time alone that tells us what works and what is merely daft. There is real healing going on in my Sandytown, and that’s why Dalziel is there. But all the alternative stuff’s there too, a lot of treatments that mainstream medicine would like to dismiss out of hand, but which are proving remarkably resilient. With Dalziel in need of somewhere to convalesce after his explosive experience, this updating of 19th century Sanditon to 21st century Sandytown seemed the perfect place for him. He too, remember, is in a somewhat ambiguous state!

At some point even Andy Dalziel will have to consider retirement, have you given any thought to what the future might hold if that ever came to pass?

As those who have read my novella "One Small Step" will know, next year, if I am spared, I will have reached a time that seemed so far ahead back in 1990 that I was able to imagine Andy Dalziel coming out of gouty retirement to investigate the first murder on the moon. How I will reconcile this with his continued presence in Mid Yorkshire as a very active head of CID I have not yet worked out. One thing I am certain of - my lively, imaginative and hugely intelligent readership, having come thus far along this always winding and often perilous path with me, will not be daunted by whatever outrageous explanation presents itself.

Perhaps it has all been a dream….

I don't think we have to worry too much whether Reginald Hill will be able to figure out some innovative means of reconciling his truth and fiction. As he's proven so many times in the past he never seems at a loss for an inventive plot. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for answering the questions I posed with the same intelligence and humour that he brings to all his writing.

January 4, 2009

Book Review: Poe Edited By Ellen Datlow - Stories Inspired By Edgar Allan Poe

Anthologies of short stories are usually put together to honour the best of a particular genre for the past year. It's not uncommon therefore in January to see collections titled The Best Fantasy, or The Best Science Fiction being released by various publishers. In those instances the editor's job isn't really that difficult as they simply round up those stories that were either prize winners of runners up from the year in question and republish them with a little blurb on each author.

In recent years a new type of anthology has started to appear, especially in the fantasy genre, where authors are asked by an editor, or editors, to write a story according to a theme. These have included retellings of classic fairy tales, new takes on the hero myth, and other variations on that idea. Since this format has become popular, the name of one editor has become synonymous with the best of these collections. I don't know if Ellen Datlow was the first person to put together one of these anthologies, but her name as editor on one of these collections has become a guarantee that you're going to be reading a great collection of short fiction. It doesn't matter whether you've heard of any of the writers or not, because Datlow knows exactly which authors to approach for the type of story she has in mind for a particular collection and the results are always worth reading.

So when I saw that she was responsible for editing Poe, a collection of stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe in honour of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth being published by Simon & Schuster Canada on January 6th/09, I knew that it would be a must read for anyone who liked the late, great master. Yet, even I was surprised at what I found within the pages of this book, as the stories exceeded all of my expectations.
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The guidelines for each author were simple, write a story inspired by any of the works of Edgar Allan Poe in whatever setting you'd like. As one might expect the results range all over the place with some stories being funny, others mysterious, and some downright macabre. Yet what each have in common is that one way or another they have managed to capture the spirit of what made Poe's stories so effective. More than just your common garden horror story, filled with creaking floorboards and knife wielding maniacs (although he had his fair share of them too) Poe was famous for his ability to create atmosphere, and in their own way each tale in this collection rises to that challenge in grand style.

Kim Newman's "Illimitable Domain" provides a light touch as the opening story, and is as much an homage to the many cheesy film adaptations of Poe's work as the author himself. Written from the point of view of your almost stereotypical Hollywood agent, he represents a slightly gone to seed chimpanzee whose place in the sun has been taken by Bonzo and Cheetah, who latches onto a new way to grab his ten percent. When a low rent, low budget production company that specializes in three day shoots is looking for a change of pace, he suggests the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the works are in the public domain, our erstwhile hero gets his cut by claiming to be the representative of a group that has registered Poe's name as a trademark and offering to negotiate rights to its use.

Once the company gets rolling producing Poe movies they can't stop. Initially it's because they are successful, but then mysteriously, no matter what movie they set out to make, Vincent Price ends up in the lead role and the plot turns into a variation on The Fall Of The House Of Usher. By turns funny and high camp, the story is a brilliant love letter to the tacky horror movies of the sixties where a heroine's quality was measured by how well she filled a sweater, and Technicolor was an excuse for buckets of blood.
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Laird Barron's contribution, "Strappado", is far more traditional in its approach and leads the reader deep into familiar Poe territory. Our hero is part of a group of drunk, jaded, thrill seekers who come together while slumming with the "natives" in India. European and American jet setters looking for something off the beaten path, they first start in a bar catering to locals instead of staying in a designated tourist spot, then are lured to an underground "art" event. The big appeal is that the artist behind the event isn't even allowed into Great Britain because his work is so controversial. What the group don't know is that they won't be witnessing one of his "events", but are slated to be the next work of art.

Barron has cleverly recreated the feelings of impending doom that Poe was so adept at rousing in his readers. So while the characters in "Strappado", though their arrogance and delusions of importance, willingly go to meet their fates, we see what they are too blind to realize. If you've ever asked yourself how did people go to their deaths so willingly in the concentration camps or in similar situations, this story gives an indication of just how easy it is to lead sheep to the slaughter.

The writer's have covered all the bases with their stories; from the gothic romance of Delia Sherman's "The Red Piano", which reads like a typical Poe story although set in contemporary New York City; offering an explanation for the manor of Poe's early death (he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, stone cold sober, in somebody's else's clothes) in E. Catherine Tobler's "Beyond Porch And Portal"; to Melanie Tem's surreal take on "The Raven" - "The Pickers". Part of the fun is trying to guess which story, or aspect of Poe's life, inspired individual author's to write what they did. Unless your a Poe scholar, intimate with all his writings including his essays, there are some that will stump you, however each author has written an afterward that explains their choices, so that mystery will at least be cleared up.

Poe has been credited with writing the first ever mystery story, The Murders In The Rue Morgue, and his stories have been the inspiration for many a horror and dark fantasy writer over the years. The nineteen stories commissioned by Ellen Datlow for the collection Poe are works of mystery and imagination that not only do justice to the author they celebrate, but are fine stories in their own right. Datlow has once again shown an uncanny talent for approaching just the right writers for the task at hand, as not one disappoints.

Poe can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 1, 2009

My Favourite Reads Of 2008

Another year has winged its way by and with a day left it's fair to assume that I'm not going to be reviewing any more books slated for publication in 2008. So it seems like as good as time as any to put together a list of the books that I liked the most over the past twelve months. Naturally the ones I liked the most stuck in my memory, but I still had to wade through the site's archives so I could locate their links, and I was shocked to see how many articles I had actually published in this time, and how many had been book reviews that I'd forgotten about.

The trouble was that even before I started to wade backwards in time to last January I had already compiled a list of nine books, and the list didn't change. The criteria I used for selecting the books that would make my top list was simple enough; which ones would I be most inclined to re-read. I also decided to limit myself to books that were published in 2008 for the simple fact it made my life somewhat easier when it came to choosing.

So, in no particular order, here are the nine books, of those I reviewed in 2008, that I preferred over the rest.

Binu And The Great Wall by Su Tong was a retelling of a traditional Chinese folk tale/myth of one woman's quest to find her husband after he was conscripted to work on the construction of The Great Wall of China. Accompanied by only a blind frog, she sets out across the breadth and length of China in what seems a fruitless quest to bring her husband a winter coat so he might stand a better chance of surviving the deprivations of slave labour. A beautifully told, and eloquently written story of devotion that provides readers with a wonderful portrait of life in China during the time of the Emperors.

You wouldn't expect a book that deals with the accumulation of statistical evidence about HIV/AIDS to be entertaining, but The Wisdom Of Whores, by former UNAIDS worker Elizabeth Pisani, not only crunches the numbers of the whys and wherefores of the spread of the disease, it does so in such a manner as to leave the reader fascinated. Part of that is due to Pisani herself, who is equal parts iconoclast and idealist. The breeziness of the writing style only accentuates the passion she feels for her subject, and the compassion that she feels for the people her work on the front-lines of the fight against HIV/AIDS has brought her in contact with. From board rooms to brothels, Pisani, takes us behind the scenes everywhere to paint one of the clearest pictures about the state of our attempts to curtail the wave of death and destruction the disease is causing.

Skovbo by Viggo Mortensen, is the companion book/catalogue to a photography exhibit in Reykjavik Iceland. As befits the title, Danish for forest, Skovbo is a collection of photographs of trees and forests taken by Mortensen. Not merely content to "take pictures" of trees, he manages to depict their interaction with light and shadow to bring them alive in ways that makes even the solitary tree in a town square majestic. Even more impressive is his ability to celebrate the tree without romanticizing nature as something ethereal and beautiful. There are dead animals in the fields, broken branches on trees, and ugly and gnarled limbs proliferate. The true beauty of nature is its wildness, and that's at the soul of each picture in Mortensen's latest collection.

Neuropath by Scott Bakker probably caught a lot of people by surprise. Bakker's first three books had been the opening salvo of a major epic fantasy series, so for him to come out with a psychological thriller that bordered on a horror story was a bit of a shock. Be that as it may, it was a brilliantly written, terrifying descent into the potential (and unfortunately very real) dangers of how the mind can be controlled and manipulated. Pleasure becomes pain, feelings and emotions can be artificially stimulated with the flick of a switch or the removal of a synapse. Nothing you feel is real, it's all just conditioned response, and the government can condition you to feel and believe anything they want. Neuropath might be one character's roller coaster ride into a personal hell, but we're all along for the ride, and while the scenery isn't very attractive if we don't learn to recognize it now, it soon might be too late.

One of the best ongoing epic fantasy series took another step towards its conclusion this year as two new instalments in the Malazan Book Of The Fallen were released. Toll The Hounds by Steven Erikson, was followed by The Return Of The Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont and what a one two punch they packed. For while Erikson was following events that were unfolding in the farthest reaches of the Empire affecting the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses of the world, Esslemont was writing about the Empire's struggle for survival. Both men once again prove that not only can they handle the sweeping events of history, but the demands of creating characters who we care about and believe in. Each new book released in this series only reconfirms its pre-eminence among a world of pretenders in the field of epic fantasy.

The King's Gold by Arturo Perez-Reverte continued the adventures of Captain Alatriste during the waning days of Spain's power on the world stage. Here he has been chosen for the delicate task of stealing gold from Spanish merchants for the King's treasury. Hiring some of the worst cut throats and pirates he can find, Alatriste once more takes on the jobs no "honourable" man could be trusted with. However, since Alatriste has no illusions about fights for glory, king, and God, and only does a job when the money is good, he can be counted on to succeed where others would fail. Set against the backdrop of the Inquisition and the church's grab for power in 17th century Spain, The King's Gold proves once again that cynicism can be every bit as noble as blind faith.

A Man Most Wanted by John Le Carre drips with the author's scorn for the "War On Terror". On the surface it deals with the attempts of a German intelligence officer to convince his superiors to let him use an illegal Islamic immigrant as the means to establish a double agent among the jihad terrorists. However, at the moment where he thinks he's scored his ultimate triumph, it's snatched away and he's left holding nothing, while the Americans and British have another prisoner to interrogate at their leisure. What does it matter that the subject knows absolutely nothing? It looks like you're getting results when you arrest somebody, even though the next bomb attack will surprise you as much as the last one did. This is Le Carre's searing indictment of the way in which intelligence communities the world over have botched their job, and succeeded in motivating terrorists more than stopping them with their ham fisted behaviour and stupidity.

Ravensoul by James Barclay sees an author carry off the impossible; bring back a group of characters from the dead and succeed in making the story believable. Most of the Raven had been killed in their last battle, but when even the dead are no longer safe, who else is there to ride in and save the day again but dead heroes? It's a rollicking good time when the Raven come back from the dead, and once they convince their old companions its really them, it's time to try and save the world if they can. Of course if they can't do that, there's the next best thing - find a new one where we can all start over again. Probably the most fun you can have with sword and sorcery without strapping on a sword yourself.

Well that's it, I know these lists are supposed to be ten, but only these nine were able to pass the test of being ones that I'd want to re-read. Whether they're the best books of the year is another matter, but I read because I like too, and these were the books I liked reading most of all. See you next year.

December 23, 2008

Book Review: A Snowball In Hell By Christopher Brookmyre

It used to be in order to be famous you had to have done something important or have an ability that distinguished you from other people. Artists, scientists, thinkers, explorers, inventors, and military leaders were all likely candidates for fame as they were all in careers that provided opportunities for renown. Any celebrity or fame that came their way was earned because of their talents or skill. Now, things have changed, and celebrity has become a goal on to itself with people willing to do almost anything to get their moment in spotlight.

These are the people so many of us love to hate, especially those who appreciate the work that goes into actually creating something of intrinsic value. It's enough to make you pretty hot under the collar seeing talentless wasters with column space in newspapers and having their faces splashed all over the popular magazine. Wouldn't the world be a better place without these air-heads, or the people who created the opportunities for their creation in the first place?

Well, in Christopher Brookmyre's most recent book, A Snowball In Hell, available through Penguin Canada, former terrorist for hire Simon Darcourt has decided enough is enough and its time to give the public what they really want, reality television with celebrity guests competing against each other for the public's approval just like they do on Big Brother and Survivor. However, getting voted off Simon's show doesn't just mean you won't come back next week, you won't be coming back at all, except for in a box.
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You can't help but be struck by how intelligent his arguments, and compelling his justifications, are for the things he's doing. Sure he's a bit extreme but you do have some sympathy for what he's doing, don't you? However, after abducting a prominent producer, one Nick Foster, boy band producer from the 1980's and 90's, and a reality show creator in the present day, and broadcasting his execution live to those attending an industry tribute to the same Nick Foster, the police don't quite agree with this assessment. They even agree less when it's become apparent that he has created a new reality show for the public to watch by kidnapping the winners of Nick's last venture.

Of course he's not going to kill them off one by one - he's going to have the audience vote on how much oxygen each girl gets in a day based on her performance until one runs out of air time - so to speak. Oh, and to make sure everybody broadcasts his little extravaganza he lets it be known that he will kill all three of the girls immediately if the broadcast is shut down or any attempt is made to trace the server it's being beamed from. So the cops call in the one person who handed Darcourt his ass before, Detective Inspector Angelique de Xavia, who thwarted Simon's plan to blow up a hydroelectric installation in Scotland back in 2001. The biggest problem they face this time though is figuring out what the former mercenary wants.

As if things aren't complicated enough, it turns out the police aren't the only ones not amused by Simon's telecasts, as Angelique finds out when she receives a text message from an interested party wanting Darcourt delivered to them instead of being hauled off to prison. As incentive they send a photo along with the message - her parents handcuffed to chairs.

If she ever wants to see her parents alive again she's going to not only have to track down Darcourt, but make him disappear in plain view of her superiors and the public. It's a good thing she knows a magician, Zal Innez, who five years ago not only made off with a whole lot of money from a Glasgow bank, screwed over two mob families, but had stolen her heart. Although the feelings are mutual, he's as equally besotted with her, they both believe they are doing the other a favour by not being in each other's lives - what kind of future can a thief and a cop have together? Yet without Innez Angelique knows she's not a hope in hell of saving her parents, let along snaring Darcourt.

Christopher Brookmyre's skill resides in not only writing plots which have more switch-backs than a road twisting up the side of a mountain, but in making those same plots believable. With parts of the book being written in Darcourt's voice, we see him assembling all the pieces for what we think is the penultimate game and are chilled by the delight he takes in revelling in other people's weaknesses. He is, unfortunately, as brilliant as he thinks he is, and we can only sit back helplessly as he lets us in on his secrets or as he invites us to laugh along with him at his perverse form of social critique.
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What's even more amazing is that Brookmyre is able to use this highly amoral character to brilliantly satirize our obsession with celebrity and fame. Day after day the press publish tallies on which of the three original contestants are attracting the most attention in the press, and thus earning the right to breath. Night after night the public gather around their computers and televisions to watch the performances as the three girls compete for the approval they so desperately need to stay alive. It's reality television taken to its most nightmarishly logical conclusion with the only real winner being the one behind the scenes pulling all of our strings.

A Snowball In Hell is a brilliant and devastating book that proves once again that Christopher Brookmyre is one of the best social critics going as well as being one of the most original crime fiction writers you'll ever read. There are no cows sacred enough not to be slaughtered by his pen, over inflated egos safe from the prick of his words, or moralistic hypocrites who can escape his wrath. Yet at the same time he ensures that we never forget, in contrast to Simon Darcourt's opinion, that even the "contestants" in the reality show from hell are living and breathing people who are just looking for something to fill the void in their lives.

It's a sad and confused world that we live in if people feel they have to prove their worth by becoming famous. Who are we to begrudge them their moment of glory, no matter how contrived or silly it might appear in our eyes? While aiming a slap at the industry that creates these opportunities, Brookmyre hits those who sit in judgement on the participants with a shot between the eyes: How are you any different from Simon Darcourt except for perhaps how you express your opinion of these people?

A Snowball In Hell can be purchased directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 13, 2008

Book Review: The Graveyard Book By Neil Gaiman Illustrated By Dave McKean

Walking through a graveyard in the middle of the day, nobody is going to be overly disturbed as it's much like wandering through a park. In fact there are some graveyards in the world where thousands of visitors flock each year to wander their confines to search for the celebrities like Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde who are buried there. However, let it be after dark and that very same graveyard is apt to be deserted.

While some might ascribe it to a fear of the supernatural, I think the real reason for people avoiding graveyards at night is because they unite two of mankind's most primal fears: death and the dark. Our fear of the dark is a hangover from the days before we discovered fire and were at the mercy of the many denizens of the night who looked upon us as snack material. While we've devised many belief systems to try and answer the question of what happens to us after we die, there's never been a shred of proof offered that any of them are true. Death, for all the promises of pie in the sky made by so many religions, is the the great unknown, the great darkness that no fire we possess can disperse.

So there aren't that many of us that would think of graveyards as a sanctuary from danger, but in his latest release, The Graveyard Book, from Harper Collins, Neil Gaiman has done just that. Replete with illustrations by his look time collaborator Dave McKean, The Graveyard Book offers a behind the scenes peak at what happens to us after we are laid to rest as it tells the story of the night the inhabitants of one graveyard became involved with the affairs of the living and the events that ensued in the years following.
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The story opens with death, as befits a novel set in a graveyard. Thankfully the deaths are all ready accomplished when we enter the story, for they were the violent deaths a husband, wife, and daughter at the hands of a knife wielding killer. However the killer, a mysterious man named Jack, is still on the prowl for the survivor of the house's inhabitants, a baby boy. Yet when he reaches the top floor nursery where the crib lies waiting, it's only to find it empty and the boy vanished.

Sniffing out his trail, for like all good hunters our man Jack follows his prey more by scent than by sight, he follows it out of the house onto the street which leads up the hill to a graveyard. Although he could swear he smelt the baby's scent leading into the cemetery, once there he loses the trail. In fact, all of a sudden he realizes that he's come in the completely wrong direction and there's no reason for him to be in the graveyard at all. The boy he decides must have gone down the hill, not up, and anyway, who or what would a baby find shelter with in a graveyard. No, somehow or other Jack must have followed the wrong scent, and he heads off into the night.

Of course if Jack had been able to see properly he might have noticed the great amount of consternation that had gripped the graveyard's residents as ghosts from as far back as Roman times debated the practical issues involved with them raising a live child. The real sticking point is how are they to provide for the child - none of them can leave the graveyard in order to gather the food he'll need to survive. It's only Silas, the graveyard's only undead resident, offering his services as guardian to the boy until he's grown, and a timely reminder from the Lady on the Grey, the one all the dead know as it's her and her great horse that wait for us at the end of our days, that the dead should know charity, that finally sway them to offer the little tyke Freedom of the Graveyard.

So it is that Nobody Owens, Bod for short, came to live in the graveyard at the top of the hill. As it was the Mrs. Owens who promised the shades of little Bod's parents that she would protect their son, she and Mr. Owens became his Mother and Father and he took their surname. As for his first name, well as Mrs. Owens put it, "he don't look like nobody but himself", and Silas agreed that's indeed who he looked like and named him appropriately.
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When next we meet young Bod he's five years old and like all young people is full of questions about what he sees around him. Primary among them is why can't he leave the graveyard, and how do I do what he or she just did, and who lives in which plot. The answers he receives from the ghosts are most unsatisfactory, so he turns to the mysterious Silas for answers to his questions in the hopes of receiving a straight answer. So it is that Bod finds out that he is different from the rest of the graveyards inhabitants, and that things like Fading, Dreamwalking and Haunting don't come naturally to him. It's also when he discovers that there is something or someone outside the graveyard who means to do him harm. Any trip he takes outside the graveyard could result in his whereabouts being discovered and his death.

There is something about Neil Gaiman's writing that no matter the subject, and no matter how scary things might be getting, there's the sense that he's not trying to exploit your fears like other writers who deal with the supernatural. There's such a feeling of awe and wonder to his writing that you can't help but feel entranced by all that's going on in the story. That's the case again with The Graveyard Book as we wander around with Bod meeting the various inhabitants of his graveyard home and watching him grow from a young boy to a young adult. In fact it's the human world that's the scariest as the people out there, from teenagers to adults, are decidedly unpredictable and apt to act nastily without any rhyme or reason.

Gaiman's other great gift is his ability to make all of his characters instantly believable no matter who or what they are. From Bod to Silas, and all the inhabitants of the graveyard, each character has such a distinct personality that as readers we are able to see them in our mind's eye almost immediately upon meeting them. While the world they inhabit might be completely alien to us, after all there aren't probably many among his readers who are terribly familiar with life in a graveyard, we quickly accept their reality as normal because they are so real.

While Gaiman doesn't need much assistance in generating atmosphere in his stories, Dave McKean's illustrations add that little extra something that ensures we remember the other worldly quality of the environment the book takes place in. While his drawings aren't necessarily frightening, they do remind us of the differences between Bod and his friends and neighbours by representing their physical differences. For while Bod is always drawn as a relatively solid person, there is something always ethereal about the way the other characters are depicted.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean is a delightful mix of fantasy and mystery that will entertain readers of all ages. Like the best fairy tales there are moments that are scary enough to make us worry about the fate of Nobody Owens, but there are an equal, if not greater number, of magical moments that transport us out of our world and make us forget our mundane reality. What could be better than that.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean can be purchased directly from Harper Collins or your local book seller.