Saturday, 30 January 2016

KJ Parker: The Last Witness

Suddenly, I’m reading pent up stocks of novellas. Partly because the little number badge on my Kindle “unread” collection is worryingly high and novellas are a fast way to get it looking less like a dangerous blood pressure reading. Don’t judge me. So I ripped through the Gameshouse (three more down. Don’t judge me) and swerved into Parker’s The Last Witness. Which I had been putting off for the slightly perverse reason that it was a novella, and so it would be over too quickly and I would be suffering from withdrawal symptoms with no sign of an actual Parker novel this side of the summer.

Instead it turned into a slog of approach avoidance, as Parker’s nameless narrator keeps snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat until I could hardly bear to read another paragraph. Something else would go wrong, and I’d put things down and have a wee think, and then come back to see if things could possibly get worse. Oh yes, of course they can.

The Last Witness turns on the idea that there are people - well one guy, anyhow - who can steal other people’s memories. Since no-one in fiction has ever used a power like that for good, the protagonist has naturally divided his time between using the power to further his own petty crimes, and hiring himself to much bigger criminals to cover up their much bigger crimes. There is no way a plan like this can end well, especially not in KJ Parker world, which exists under a giant arch that says in letters of fire “Your comeuppance begins here”. The tension in Parker’s books is not over whether the protagonists are going to get away with it, but over just how much collateral damage they’re going to do before it all falls around their ears. And Parker is a thorough-going tragedian in the classical mould; every catastrophe proves to have been set in motion by the very person it befalls. His genius [1] lies in how he can get an inexorable doom to come from an unexpected direction which is obvious in hindsight. This normally takes three books, or at least a full length novel, so when he tries to pack it all into a novella, the shocks and misery are compressed into such a tight space that I didn’t feel like there was room left for the poor old reader.

And yet, it’s all pulled off with panache. There’s a gut-wrenching twist right at the end, which is twisted in turn into something still more elegant. There’s also somehow enough room to ponder the problem of who you really are if your head is full of other people’s memories and you’re starting to lose track - or may be never even had track - of which ones you made yourself and which ones you stole. 

Parker can work to any length he feels like, in other words. What he can’t apparently do is figure out how to let anyone outside the US read the rest of his short fiction, which is bundled into a single collection called Academic Exercises that was published in a limited edition of 1000 copies and is now unobtainable, and as a Barnes and Noble e-book which can only be bought with an American credit card. Given the way his mind works, I can only assume that this is a cunning punishment for someone, and that at some point that someone will die and the rest of us can get on with reading the rest of Parker’s work.


[1] it turns out KJ Parker is a guy called Tom Holt. Who has at least two completely different literary identities as Holt together with the whole Parker empire, and presumably never sleeps.

Claire North: The Gameshouse

Your monsters tell us who you think the enemy is. If they’re zombies, the enemy is the faceless other, boiling en masse out of who knows where to destroy our world. If they’re vampires, the enemy is the hidden elite, stealthily sucking the life out of the community from a perch at the top of the food chain. I am coming to the thought that Claire North is a hidden poet of the “vampires are the enemy” school. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has a sneaky elite, and Touch has an even sneakier one. And now along come the three short novellas of The Gameshouse with a cast of gamblers hiding among us, eking out an unnatural life through a casino which lets people gamble their lives, their memories, their senses; everything that makes them what they are.

Quite why the Gameshouse wasn’t a full length book I don’t know, but I suspect it didn’t work for North’s preferred way of getting the job done; both her novels have been told through the eyes of one of the bad guys, and the story she wanted to tell this time needed more than one set of eyes. Still she can’t resist the buttonholing urgent narrator, sidling up to us with an apologetic grin and a carefully elliptical explanation of how, really, he’s the good guy, if you just look it from his point of view. The first two novellas are ostensibly the stories of Thene and Remy, but they’re told to us by someone else, chattily showing us just as much of their story as he chooses, reeling in our sympathies as Thene and Remy try to escape their fates. Thene uses the Gameshouse to try to escape from a a loveless marriage in 17th century Venice, and Remy uses everything he can find to try to escape from a bad gamble being managed by the Gameshouse. The odds are stacked against them, but why? And why are we being told about it?

And then, in the third novella, we get some answers, and meet the narrator of the first two novellas, before we end on a cliff hanger which I don’t imagine North will bother to resolve. The resolution of the plot isn’t the point; the point is that once again shadowy figures move around our ordinary lives, taking a little here and a little there and somehow winding up with more than us, and less than they wanted, and a landscape around them that’s shattered by their passage. Whatever could that remind us of? Could this possibly echo celebrity culture more cuttingly?

And yet, Claire North has a full length novel coming out in a couple of months. At this rate I expect it to end with an explicit statement that she’s only being allowed to write these books because seeing things as fiction stops us from thinking that they’re real enough to spark a revolution. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Revenant; best supporting Actor for Leo

Once a year, or thereabouts, Leonardo di Caprio makes a movie and everyone who still cares starts asking if this will be the time he finally gets an Oscar. So inevitably, we’re getting it for The Revenant where Leo is in with a shout, or maybe a grunt, as best supporting actor to the career-defining performance from the bear. 

The last thing I saw which felt even a little like The Revenant was Lone Survivor, which also featured a bunch of white dudes going where they weren’t wanted, getting righteously banged out of shape by pissed-off locals, mostly killed, and then one guy making it out of the ordeal thanks to the help of unaccountably good-natured other locals. Also, both give away the ending right there in the title. There are, of course, differences. The Revenant looks much better whenever it’s in landscape mode, for example. On the other hand, Lone Survivor was based in part on the autopsy reports of the poor Americans who got killed, so it was at least trying to stay true to the events, whereas The Revenant is so loosely based on the novel that it takes the action off the high plains in early summer and up a mountain in mid winter. And gives Hugh Glass a whole family that no-one, not even him, ever claimed he had.

How much truth there actually is to the Hugh Glass story is anyone’s guess, given that it’s an incident from 1823 involving a young Jim Bridger, who did not get famous for going around telling low key versions of the stuff he’d seen and done. Taking the story at the baseline, Glass almost got killed in a bear attack, got abandoned by his companions when it looked like he wasn’t going to make it, and then crawled a couple of hundred miles back to civilisation despite injuries which should have killed him.

Which is the very definition of adventure, which is to say terrible things happening to people a long way off who you don’t know all that well. But it wasn’t anything like adventurous enough for the director of The Revenant, who threw in a son to get murdered, and a whole tribe of Indians out to butcher anyone they could find, winter, mountains, and a whole bunch of other problems which would have straight up killed Glass before he’d crawled the first three miles.

And you know what? It looks great, but it’s hard to give a damn. From pretty early on in the movie I was thinking about a wide angle zoom I’d been meaning to buy - say this for Inarritu, he can do wide angle composition, but he may not be so hot on characters when I can be mulling over that stuff instead of caring what happens next. I think there’s supposed to be all kinds of layers of allegory in play, what with Glass hunting the killer of his son, and the Indian tribe hunting the guys who they think snatched the Chief’s daughter (and being every bit as absolute about the whole deal as John Wayne in The Searchers, though I’m not sure if that was an intentional parallel). The bad guys turn out to be French, of course. Still your go-to white villains in any American movie, any time. And lots of heavy handed points are made about how the interlopers have destroyed the environment, not that anyone paying to see this movie is really going to be any more galvanised on that point than they already are.

The violence is gruelling and gripping, but somehow uninvolving; partly because it’s hard to buy into the characters and care what’s happening, and partly because there’s a point with that kind of violence where I have to distance myself or throw up. This is a movie which is impeccably well made but which I didn’t want to watch.

But what of Leo’s Oscar chances? Well, it’s hard to know what a bunch of largely white, largely elderly, largely male industry professionals are going to vote for, other than stuff which makes them feel important (hence last year’s Birdman win, where the Academy voted overwhelmingly for a movie about how tough it was to be just like them and how important happy endings are for actors). So Leo might get the nod from all the guys who feel like they’ve put in the hours and never got the breaks. But for all the work and effort and plain misery Leo had to go through, it’s not much of a performance. For at least 90 minutes of the movie, Hugh Glass never does anything more than grunt; it’s like an extended cut of the wordless opening scene in There Will Be Blood, without the two hours of hypnotic monologuing that gave the silence even more impact. Leo is suffering, but at the end of it I didn’t know anything new, and if I wanted to watch people having a horrible time and learning nothing from it, I’ve got a forty hour work week for that. In grunt related news I am starting to wonder if Tom Hardy has a voice over artist for normal conversation, because I’m struggling to remember the last time I saw him in a movie and could understand a damn word he was saying. We’d been thinking that he was acting that weird voice in the Batman movie, but I’m starting to think mumbling is his real voice, and the other stuff is dubbed in.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Ace Atkins: The Redeemers

Hi there, Quinn Colson, how’s it been?

If you buy The Redeemers, Atkins’ fifth Quinn Colson book, hoping to find out what Colson’s up to and how he’s cleaning up his hometown, brace for a disappointment. The last book ended with him on the verge of being fired from his Sheriff job, and in this one, he’s every bit as swept aside from the action as he has from local politics. The action in The Redeemers turns on a grotesquely bungled local robbery, and we spend most of the book eavesdropping on the - I was going to say planning, but it’s really not the right word - lead-up to the robbery, its inept performance, and the feeble-minded cover-up. Which is a two layer cover-up, since the idiots who pulled off the heist are dithering between staying ahead of the law and taking advantage of each other, while the more senior criminal elements of Tibbehah County are trying to figure out how to make sure the law doesn’t trip over various incriminating documents which got stolen along with the money.

And Quinn has just about nothing to do with any of it, since he’s been un-elected sheriff and has decided to take the same interest in supporting Tibbehah County as it took in supporting him. He’s not even sulking, just taking some time for himself. All the investigation is falling on the new Sheriff, who’d be out of his depth as a hall monitor in a decent public school, and Deputy Lillie, who knows better than to think anyone in Mississippi is going to let a woman take charge of things.

Near the end, Atkins remembers that this is Quinn Colson number five and throws some action Quinn’s way. In signature Atkins style, it’s simultaneously weirdly implausible and grubbily realistic. It makes no sense at all that anyone would bother shooting Quinn at this point, but what happens next is grim, muddled and all too believable. People don’t walk off injury in the world of Quinn Colson, and I was sort of surprised he didn’t wind up just like his buddy Boom Kimborough.

Do not ask me who gets redeemed, or who does the redeeming. Most of the Colson family problems are just as bad at the end as they are at the beginning. And while Johnny Stagg has been swept off the board along with most of his sinister backers, this has simply cleared the board for a new generation of criminals who will be both meaner and less fallible than Johnny. I shall miss Johnny, a horrible small town scoundrel with the sense to realise his own limitations. Johnny was ghastly, but he knew enough to leave something for the other guy, and treat the occasional orphan to the occasional lollipop. 

I have to hand it to Atkins. Here’s a book which is mostly about dreadful people screwing up and it stays readable all the way through. He has the knack of throwing together characters who look like stereotypes, but can still surprise you. In any other book, the new Sheriff would be some kind of despicable stooge, but Rusty’s his own guy from the get-go. Kind of an idiot, and out of his depth, but honest, and just smart enough to see where he’s going wrong. The book’s full of people like that, which is what kept me reading. These guys weren’t going to do anything right, but the path they’d find to disaster was a wonderful mix of malice and good intentions, or at least the kind of good intentions that selfish idiots work out when they’re drunk and desperate. 

And the decks are cleared for heaven knows what. I honestly thought that book 5 was going to draw a line under things and wrap up the sequence, but there’s plenty of life left in the Colsons and Tibbehah, and a whole new set of problems dusted off and ready for next year.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Mick Herron: Nobody Walks

Although you wouldn’t think it from my comments on Slow Horses, I became quite the Mick Herron fan afterward, painstakingly hoovering up all of his published work except for the impossible to find collection of short stories which his website still insists is available on Kindle; if you’re reading this, Mick, make your website true. I want to give you more of my money.

Herron-logy breaks into two big lumps and some bridging material. Lump one is the Zoe Boehm books, which share Zoe and some other recurring characters, and drift in and out of contact with the secret state as the books unfold. Lump two is Slough House, which is all about the secret state, and which has another book coming out one of these days. Hovering round the edges are Reconstruction and Nobody Walks, both of which are about the secret state colliding with more ordinary problems, but somehow failing to involve Zoe or Slough House. Salted in and around all the books are stray cross references which make it clear that they’re all happening in the same world, as characters in Reconstruction comment on the outrageous behaviour of villains from the Boehm books, and the screw-ups in Reconstruction echo into Slough House and so on. Herron’s characters are scraping by in a big disappointing world, where everyone knows everyone, and no-one really knows what they’re doing. The winners, more often than not, are the people who know it’s less important to have a plan than it is to have the sense that no-one else’s plans are going to work either, and the steely reflexes to pounce at the first sign of failure.

I bought Nobody Walks more or less as methadone while I waited for some more Slough House (or even some more Zoe Boehm). The title and the jacket copy sounded bleak, and Herron’s last stand-alone didn’t end cheerily for anyone. And so it proves. Happy endings are in short supply all around. But man, it’s good while it lasts. Herron’s got a fine easy style, even if I’ve complained in the past that the sharp dialogue isn’t as distinct as the characterisation behind it. Herron can sketch a character in a few lines, but can’t always give the same character a voice as distinctive as he deserves. Mind, that’s pretty much his only weakness. The plots are clever and grounded in a solid appreciation of human weakness and happenstance; Herron’s working statement seems to be “Things happen for a reason. A dumb, selfish reason."

All in all, it’s a good book which I ripped through in a couple of days. But writing this reminds me that the real credit belongs to Zoe Boehm. I know that Herron prefers to refer to them as the Oxford series, but I can think of no better way to explain what’s really going on than the reaction I had to the fourth book, Smoke and Whispers; it opens with the news of Zoe’s death and the return of the main character from Herron’s first ever book to investigate that report. I read the whole book in a gallop, hoping against hope that the rumours of her death had been greatly exaggerated. That’s good writing right there. What’s perhaps more notable is that it’s good writing about women; in those four books, Herron gives us female characters who don’t just feel like men with girl names. There’s an eye for detail in all of his writing, and somehow that eye has caught something that most male writers gloss over.

Jonathan L Howard: The Brothers Cabal

There are actors who you would watch reading a phone book just for the pleasure of their voices - we lost one of those, just this week gone out. And there are authors who I would read whatever the topic. Jonathan Howard is one of them. It’s been four years since I read in one quick burst the whole Johannes Cabal series - as it then was - and I’ve been waiting ever since for The Brothers Cabal to come out in affordable paperback. When it became plain it was never going to do that, I just said the hell with and paid slightly over the odds for a slightly oversized US printing. It wasn’t just worth the wait; I was annoyed with myself for waiting so long.

For starters, The Brothers Cabal is perhaps the best balanced of all the Cabal books, as grounded as Johannes Cabal the Detective, while getting in the character heavy lifting of the other two books. It probably doesn’t hurt that Johannes himself takes a back seat for much of the action, while his more likeable and engaging brother Horst does most of the work. Horst is so ridiculously charming that he ought to be annoying, but somehow he circles around and becomes charming again. Not a bad trick for a vampire. It’s not that vampire literature isn’t full of supposed charmers; it’s that Horst is a convincing good guy just trying to have fun without upsetting anyone.

Johannes, of course, has long ago decided that upsetting people early just saves time and avoids misunderstanding, which makes it a smart move to make him practically a deus ex machina, resting quietly in bed for most of the action before grudgingly putting his suit back on and giving the forces of evil a well-thought-out wedgie.

Of course, it wouldn’t really matter. Horst and Johannes could have spent the whole book making breakfast and it would still have been a delight, because when he’s in Cabal mode, Howard writes like PG Wodehouse on mescaline. While I was waiting for The Brothers Cabal, I also read his Katya’s World books, which are absolutely fine, but somehow lack the joyous whimsicality of the Cabal books. Quite early on, Horst delivers the quintessentially Cabal-ian put down; “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. It would be rude to say it.” and the book maintains that tone magnificently the whole way through. I will be agreeably surprised if I have more fun this year. Though Howard is starting into a new series involving the last known descendant of HP Lovercraft, so I am poised for such surprises. 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Tim Clare: The Honours

Even though this kind of peters out into a bit of a mess at the end, it’s got such a great heroine I didn’t really care. Delphine is magnificent, in the way that characters in fiction are simultaneously magnificent and no-one you’d want anywhere near you in real life. She’s so well realised that I read the book in short bites, only able to take a little bit of the gathering tension in any one sitting. For most of the book it’s hard to tell if Delphine is just a bonkers tomboy imagining a more interesting world than the miserable loon-fest around her, or the only sane person in a slowly gathering occult disaster. Tim Clare does such a good job of holding that balance that it’s almost inevitable that it’s all going to go pear shaped once he has to get off the fence.

In one sense, I don’t have much more than that to say. It’s a good book, and often, a good book doesn’t leave me with much to say that the author hasn’t said better. The big strengths are Delphine and the sustained creepiness. A lot of that creepiness comes from the setting; there’s something inherently creepy about the thirties in England as certainties caved in and seedy aristos flirted with fascism in the hope of holding the dreaded bolshies at bay. Fascism didn’t really catch on in England, but there’s a sweet spot just there where you can see how it might have, and it’s somehow not comforting to know that it didn’t. 

More of the creepiness comes from the simple banality of thirteen-year-old Delphine’s problems; her father is off his chump and his mother’s taking it out on her as they hover on the edge of a new age-y cult who seem to be living on the grace and favour of a dotty peer in the middle of nowhere. It’s such a believably unpleasant predicament that it’s easy to see how Delphine would run off into the country side and the cellars and start throwing together a world of conspiracy and god knows what to take refuge in.

And yet, from the beginning, we know she’s not imagining it; the book opens with her girded for battle against the creepy unknown, before we flash back to the beginning of it all. Delphine steps onto the page as a heroine, and the rest of the book is really about how she gets there, and how ready she really was for what she has to deal with.

The big bad, almost inevitably, isn’t a patch on her. It has to hide in the shadows for most of the book, and there isn’t enough room at the end for it to unfold into a fully satisfying shape. As it took shape, I found myself reminded of John Whitbourn’s Downs-Lord books from the 1990s, which shared some of the same notions of a parallel fantastical England, eldritch, amoral and far from benign.

As I got to the endgame, I started to ask myself “Is this thing planning to be a trilogy of some kind?” There are threads left hanging, in a way which could just be the cussedness of life, or lines leading into a sequel. So I went looking on t’intarwebz for clues. Which found I none, naturally, but I did discover Tim Clare’s website, from which I learned that he’s a stand-up poet, and rather less annoyingly bonkers than you’d expect from someone who’s adopted that non de guerre. And a gamer, who sounds like the sort of guy I could have a pint with. But mostly, a bloody good writer. I hope Delphine does come back.


Thursday, 7 January 2016

William Gibson: The Peripheral

The Peripheral might be Gibson’s most optimistic book, for all that it’s set either side of the apocalypse. All the main characters are trying to be decent people, no matter how badly, and their collective muddling through leads to a sort of happy ending in which the bad guys get a bit of a comeuppance and a doomed past gets a second chance to be a little less doomed.

I’ve read all of Gibson’s fiction, though not always in the same tearing hurry that I’d read other writers. I’ve noticed that I buy his books when they come out in paperback and then they sit there for a while waiting for the moment when I feel like reading something which will require some effort. China Mieville has much the same effect; I’ve got at least three of his books sitting around waiting for me to read them. I’m like St Augustine; I know I want to be good, but I keep putting it off. There’s always something easier which I can read, and I read that instead.

And The Peripheral didn’t make it easy; Gibson always requires you to start in first gear, dropping you into the world with no explanation and leaving it to you to figure out what’s going on. Somehow, the first couple of chapters of the book didn’t grab me at all, and I must have started it three different times before I finally got past the initial resistance and got going in earnest.

It was worth the initial grind. Gibson is fizzing as usual with throwaway ideas about the way the future is going to mess things up (I was taken with the casual bleakness of his idea for outsourcing haircuts to the third world through telepresence, an unsettling notion which takes up four lines and is never discussed again). Overall, his near future dead-end USA is chillingly plausible. Most of the action in that time zone plays out in a Gibson-esque take on Harlan County from Justified, but rather than giving Raylan Givens a space helmet, Gibson rips out everything but the drug business and strip malls and rubs our noses in what a US county would look like where the only money is in building designer drugs, greeting at Walmart or living off veterans’ benefits after you let the Marines chew you up past usefulness in yet another sideshow war. It’s the Walmart analogue which feels most on the nose; in Flynne’s world, everything you buy comes one way or another through the Hefty Corporation, which has obviously absorbed eBay, Walmart, and pretty much every other brand name you thought was going to last forever. Meanwhile ubiquitous 3D printing has created a black economy of “funny” manufactured items which are all most people can afford.

Up the line, in the post-collapse world, the action unfolds in a re-imagined London where anything seems possible thanks to nanotechnology, but society has been crippled by anomie from the loss of 80% of the world’s population, then hobbled by the quiet tyranny of the suriving plutocrats who have remodelled the world to make sure that nothing can ever threaten their position again. One - never-explained - technical wonder is a mysterious file server which somehow allows hobbyists to communicate with the past. No-one in the book has the slightest idea how it works; it just does. And because every individual set of contacts splits off a new future for the past, as a very literal many-worlds demonstration, there’s no way to exploit the past for profit, which leaves talking to the past as a hobby for bored plutocrats.

The Peripheral is about how that goes subtly, and then wonderfully, wrong. The fundamental decency of the main characters is underlined by the occasional references to what some of the other hobbyists have got up to in their own little sandboxes, which also maintains a sense of creeping dread at just how bad things are going to get for Flynne and her family in the past. 

As always with Gibson, a lot of the fun is the characters around the edges; Gibson loves to hedge his protagonists around with infinitely more capable operators who intervene at just the right moment to make the ghastly problems a little less ghastly. They ought to feel like annoying plot conveniences, but they’re so much fun that it would be churlish not to enjoy them. Perhaps that’s just the pleasure I always feel in watching smart people do smart things and get away with it.

Up until now, Gibson’s books have tended to fall into loose trilogies, where problems and sometimes characters overlap and intertwine, not always in obvious ways. I found myself wondering whether this is going to be the start of another loose trilogy, or whether Gibson has written himself into a corner. It could go either way, I suppose, but such a lot of questions have been left open for the bigger world of the future that I daresay I will be here in a couple of years meandering about how it’s all coming together.