Category Archives: detectives

the-returned

Resurrection, and the Returned: “I’m not sure it would be a good thing.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched network television, I realized halfway through the premiere episode of Resurrection, which is the newest revived-from-the-dead offering on tv. (Though I’m not bothering to google this, there are several such shows in production at the moment, I am given to understand.) Though I kind of can’t imagine network tv taking on the latent and blatant nihilism and grimdark nature of the zombie show – despite Walking Dead‘s cable ascendancy – I could see the more domestic concern of people in a small town returned years after their deaths working as a sort of Lost-ish mystery show. Who returned Laura Palmer?

Network television can pull off the Gothic melodrama, with even creature-of-the-week procedurals like early seasons of the X-Files bending towards the childhood traumas and interpersonal machinations of the principles. Alas, what I got from Resurrection was a whole mess of anxiety about whether the viewer was even going to buy the premise. The cold open works as an image – this boy in the rice paddies and his collapse in a Chinese town – but once the cut-rate X-Files agents get involved, it all goes downhill. A seriously put upon agent of ICE, which might be the least sexy of all federal agencies, picks up a boy who has been repatriated to the US because obvs he’s an American? Why are we being showed this travel time? Start in China, switch to the small town. Also no, the agent doesn’t just haul off to magical New England town just on the say-so of some rando kid.

The thing that killed me about Resurrection was how arm-wheeling the emotional and social problems are, all of these painful conversations with ICE ICE agent, man of exposition and explication, reiterating over and over how obvious the stakes are. The childhood friend of the resurrected boy now a priest, stuttering through his homily as the boy’s mother ushers him into the pew. The fact that every single person in Stars Hollow appears to be related to the resurrected boy, down to his doc. Also, you are seriously not allowed to put a lynching joke in the mouth of Omar Epps in a show this white, no. After the joke, my husband yelled, “Omar Epps, everybody!” Sorry, that’s a fail.

There was altogether too much hugging, speechifying, and shaming going on in Resurrection for my taste. I do not even get why everyone ragged on resurrected boy’s dad for not believing this miraculous kid was his, even though the boy was unchanged after 20 years and reappeared on the other side of the planet. I get that Americans don’t like skepticism or science, but this is beyond the emotional pale for me. I’m going to need some time, DNA tests notwithstanding, to accept this manifest creature of a family’s grief as something other than its shocking reiteration. Quit mansplaining what I should think, ABC, sheesh. (Also, total waste of a few of my favorite character actors, especially the boy’s parents.)

Which was why the first episode of The Returned, “Camille”, was so damn good. The events occur in a small town in the French Alps, with four or five – its not entirely clear – people returning to their lives after years of the absence of death. Camille dies in a bus accident with 38 other people. Years later, we watch a group therapy group consider the monument to the loss that is to be installed in order to enact their dubious healing. Camille comes home and her mother follows her through the house, shaking, getting her a robe, pulling down the half-considered shrine on her dresser. “Why did you rearrange all my clothes?” the girl asks, and the mother doesn’t answer. A creepy boy keeps being framed through glass. A morpho eugenia butterfly, pinned to a display case, flutters, and then breaks free.

a blue butterfly

There is little dialogue in The Returned, more a series of reaction shots and tight Gothic interiors interspersed with tight Gothic landscapes: a reservoir, a row of suburban alpine houses, an underground walkway with flickering lights. None of the relationships are telegraphed in megaphone dialogue, but in subtle nods of the head. Camille’s parents are divorced now, but were not 4 years ago when she died. “Tu fumes?” she asks her dad, as he pinches a shuddering cigarette with his ex-wife beyond the glass of the sliding door, hissing at each other, what are we going to do? What do you even say, years past someone’s death? How awful would their return be, a tearing of all the scar tissue, both personal and societal?

I don’t mean to keep hat-tipping Twin Peaks, even though I do, but there’s something here that reminds me of that. Not in the pin-wheeling grotesquery of Lynch’s middle America,  but in the Gothic dread of the small town, the flickering iteration of civic grief, and the half-careful invocation of the supernatural, like a shrine swept suddenly into a drawer. (Also because the cinematography is gorgeous.) When the priest avows the durability of the human soul and then demurs about the resurrection of the body – “I’m not sure it would be a good thing” – I was all in. I suspect there will be fewer answers in The Returned than there will be in Resurrection, which I count as a good thing. There is no answer to grief.

 

The_Destruction_of_Leviathan

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Original review January 2012

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz.

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! It’s cheering when books like Leviathan Wakes avoid this trap. The characters here are more types than actual people, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places.

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read.

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test - and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read.

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz!

 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.

Revival, Volume 2: Winter isn’t Coming; It’s already Here

The second volume of Revival is not quiiite as awesome as Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends, but some of that is just the inevitable settling that occurs when reading a series which starts with such a bang. Revival, Volume Two: Live Like You Mean It collects issues 6-11 of the ongoing Revival series, which details the travails of the town of Wausau, Wisconsin in the days and weeks after a discrete number of their dead get back up. 

a figure digs through snow to get at the frozen earth of a grave. it is snowing in the foreground

These reanimated people aren’t cannibal shamblers, and the reanimation does not appear to be contagious. Although the setting, art style and dialogue is naturalistic, there’s an edge of the supernatural: rural noir, Midwestern Gothic. While the revived seem mostly unchanged, some are still…twitchy, and everyone is on edge. The town is quarantined; various jurisdictions jockey; locals sandbag the Feds; religious leaders attempt to score points; scumbags attempt to profit. You know, the usual with a civic trauma. 


This second volume sinks into the boredom and profiteering of the quarantine, with minor revelations punctuated by lots of wheel spinning, both literal and metaphoric. Winter is deepening. I wasn’t real enamored of the meth brothers and their theatrics – it felt like too much of a red line under a point – but the several conversations between two central sisters, the weird, dumpy religious lady lit up with her faith, the Hmong woman’s monologue – all of this worked in the strange, understated, deflected language of my Midwestern people. 

cops talking at a roadblock

Fuck it, Tim Seeley is my new boyfriend.

Reluctant Boy Readers: Peregrine Harker and the Black Death

I requested Peregrine Harker the Black Death from NetGalley because I have a shine for the Black Plague, and young adult novels about ridiculously awful social and bacteriological devastation appeal to me in the abstract. Unfortunately for this reader, it wasn’t really about bubonic plague. This book also skews younger than the young adult label implies, really more for the 10-14 demographic than late high school or slumming adults. There’s been a lot of fracture in the age distinctions for novels in the past however long – apparently there is a category called New Adult these days? – but I think that sometimes those distinctions can be fruitful. Or if not fruitful, than useful for readers to determine interest level. 

Peregrine Harker the Black Death by Luke Hollands absolutely screams to me reluctant boy reader, with its parentless boy detective type first-person narrator who is a cross between the pre-radioactive-spider-bitten Peter Parker and Tin Tin. He is hauled in by a superior at the newspaper and ordered to stop going off on wild tangents, and then immediately goes off on a wild tangent that gets him knocked on the head and embroiled in a Scooby Doo style mystery. There’s some mild family angst, but everybody is too busy running around and avoiding being buried alive and the like to really delve into melodrama. 

Everything is extremely action-driven, and moves fairly breathlessly around an almost overdone Victorian England. The prose is very pip pip cheerio old bean bloke lorry loo, and it took me a while to determine that this wasn’t meant to be funning on British prose style, but straight up. Or maybe it is funning after all, but it is very over the top in its Britishiosity. I didn’t exactly like this, but I think for the demographic who should be reading this, it would be fun and novel. 

I’m going to admit here I didn’t finish Peregrine Harker the Black Death. A book aimed at boys who don’t like to read and therefore gives them scads and scads of action to the detriment of anything else a novel might provide isn’t really my bag. I think I’m sounding a little bitter here, but I don’t mean to go that way. Stylized action vehicles are completely valid, especially if you’re trying to sucker some snot-nosed brat into reading instead of Minecraft. I think my 9 year old, who is an unreluctant boy reader, would probably enjoy this as action fluff. Young people who are afraid that books might have girl cooties all over them will likely enjoy this too. This is mostly cootie-free. 

But I don’t think somewhat mindless action vehicles are ultimately going to turn the reluctant reader into an avid one, because there’s not a lot of here here. I don’t believe that reading is ennobling, and I don’t think it has to be didactic or educational to be worthwhile. The things that make reading rewarding, or differently rewarding than building Legos or Mariocart – finely drawn (or even exaggerated) emotional states, engaging or challenging prose, thoughtful plotting, any kind of character study – are not in evidence here. And not that this one novel has to adhere to my cranky old standards or solve all the issues I have with how reading fits into other media, gendered divisions in marketing, and whatnot. A perfectly slap-happy read for someone other than me.

Red by Kate SeRine: Sunday reads

RED by Kate SeRine has a premise which could have borne some potent observations about storytelling and craft, but opts instead for sight gags and quipping. Which isn’t really a problem, per se, and as the book in my hands on a Sunday afternoon, REDacquitted itself with the right kind of large gestures and hijinks so that I could carry on distracted half-projects without losing the threads. Certainly, in the wrong mood, this squandered opportunity for insight could have rankled. But really, Sundays I’m looking for a Law & Order marathon kind of read, which is precisely what I got. Dun dun.

At some point in the last couple hundred years or so, the denizens of Make Believe were accidentally stranded in the here and now. Tales, as they are called, are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, and can have magical powers as depends on their origin stories. Characters from folk tales, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare plays, mythology – even the Bennet-Darcys make an appearance – all inhabit this secret Chicago. Tess Little was once Little Red Riding Hood, but is now some kind of enforcer for the Ministry of Magic or whatever its called in this here reality. She is paired with Nate Grimm, once and still a Grim Reaper, on a case involving the brutal murder of some Tales. 

Which all sounds very dark and mysterious and stuff, but is actually treated quite lightly. Red’s a quipper and a wise ass, quite impressed with how she wears combat boots and keeps getting hauled in by her superiors for being a loose cannon and all, and a bit annoying as a first person voice. There’s a lot of perp interviews played for comedy, like with a now-prostitute Snow White or a tyrant-chef Caliban, which work as sight-gag and not much else. Caliban is where I felt the lack the most, given how tied up that character has become in post-colonial theory. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse”, et cetera. But really, is expecting urban fantasy fluff to take on hardcore racial politics realistic?* 

Anyway, per usual with girl-fluff, it is the stuff about gender politics that resonates the most in this here thing. Red has to go through a usual suspects list of ex-boyfriends in her search for the killer, starting with the Wolf and running down the bed-post notches of bad boys she has been with since he huffed and puffed and blew her down. The sequence with Vlad Dracula is probably the most amusing/insightful, what with the ways vampires have become such hot boyfriends despite/because of their predatory natures. Vlad pretty much comes off as a hot douche, and my apologies for the metaphor there.

And that is interesting cut against her obvious and mostly downplayed love interest with the living embodiment of death. I don’t have the energy to bother with this seriously, but Death tends to be a really mannered dude in fiction: playing chess, being played by Brad Pitt, etc. And that’s the way he is here: the good cop to her bad cop, the bad boy with the heart of gold, the black-eyed smolder, the initially unwanted but finally embraced partner in the detective plot. Again, this book is mostly interested in quipping, so any analysis I’m running is petty half-justified stuff, but I thought the bad boys who are douches run against bad boys who have table manners thing was credible. 

The quipping can get boring though – much of this novel is clumsy, down to the prose – and Red’s motivations sometimes run to the usual romantic crazy. Death boyfriend explains some backstory to her and she goes bananas in a way that makes no sense. I mean, I would go bananas too, but not for the reasons she did, but then I’m slightly irrational when the mate-for-life trope is invoked. I don’t really want to get into this in a big way either, which makes this review a huge reticence on my part to say anything at all. 

A favorite troll comment on a review is “You are reading this too critically” which absolutely burns my ass. Criticism reads critically, motherfucker. But it’s a fair comment here in some ways, because this is sloppy, quipping, half-assed stuff, good for a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I don’t think REDis a disaster – it doesn’t make me angry – but it also doesn’t say much beyond the half-things said in any paranormal: your past is not your future, love is a soul-twinning bondedness, etc. The first I think is fine; the second makes my ass twitch. So, same same as far as these thing tends to go for me. But at what cost? The Law & Order dude would say. 

*That question might not be as rhetorical as I’m making it out to be, now that I’ve typed it, but whatever. Slamming this one book for the larger failures of UF/PNR to address race anything but superficially, if it all, is largely unfair. I think I’m just annoyed because there’s a really obvious entrance here to talk about race, and it’s hugely squandered. Squandered like so many things in a narrative about fairy tale persons made flesh, so it’s just one among many, but a big one. Dun dun.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

When I read Yellow Blue Tibia, I was struck by the lack: why isn’t there more more Soviet Noir? It seemed obvious when I saw it there: the world-weary gumshoe, the crushing, predatory bureaucracy, the hidden history that is the very history of authoritarian regime. The official story is such glossy fiction, wrapped like a carapace over the bleeding sinew of the body politic. Yellow Blue Tibiais less alternate history and more historiography, the speculative fiction of national narrative and the secret speech that underpins it. Though, of course, Americans were the most well voiced creators of the Noir genre, Noir seems attuned to the Soviet history in a weird way. The commissioner won’t just bust you down to the beat, but disappear your ass to the gulag. Soviets had some of the most fabulously Noir bureaucracies ever built, only sputteringly efficient, capricious, and absolutely deadly. 


 Wolfhound Centuryis a strange animal, existing in the tidal edges of genre, the marshlands that are moving silt. Backwater police Inspector Vissarion Lom is called in by high ranking police official in the capitol city Mirgorod to investigate a Moriarty-ish terrorist, and gets caught up in the wheels within wheels of the Noir plot. I wouldn’t call this densely plotted, as at least part of the time has to be spent introducing us to the world. In this, Wolfhound Centuryprobably has some similarities with Mieville’s The City & The City. And I say “probably” just because I’ve never read The City & The City, but gossip has it that the detective plot of C&C is maybe perfunctory, while the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are not. I felt there was a good balance of world building and happening here, anyway, and the action is relatively breathless, if you’re into that sort of thing. Short chapters, shifting points of view, a fair amount of bloodshed once the stakes start escalating like floodwaters. 

Much of the ornament and language is Soviet Russian, something I once knew enough about to be smart, but that has gone hazy for me. Still though, Mirgorod (which translates to “world city” or “peace city”) and its origin myths smack hard of Peter the Great, standing out over the swamp that would become St Petersberg with his near seven feet. Or the Akhmatova hat-tip, or the fact that the secret police are call the NKVD (this the precursor to the KGB), or any of a hundred things. But this is not our world, not an alternate history in the strictest sense. The Vlast with its great unconquerable forests stretching off to the west, the steampunk-ish mudjhiks, the fairy tale palubas like some thing Baba Yaga would create, the fallen angels hard and stony: all of these strange, fantastical things shift the Soviet history, twist it. All in all, I get the impression that Higgins’s grasp of history is very, very good, and his choice to set this in an alternate reality is pointed, not lazy. 

I probably don’t even need to say this isn’t going to work for everyone – no novel does, even your darlings – but it sure worked for me. I usually get really cranky when writers eschew the alternate history in favor of Bullshit Fantasy Planet, where the writer constructs a near-simulacrum of a time period, but then fudges the details for the needs of the protagonists. (Later day steampunk is guilty of this a good deal, and high fantasy, don’t even get me started.) But that is not what happens here. This isn’t so much alt-history as coded history: the extremity of the details, the weirdness, the bent genres, all calling into relief the ugly extremity of history, its non-inevitability despite the fact that it happened, and so on. There’s a time leakage at the center of the plots, a breakage of possible futures and presents, and given the harsh relief between lived lives and the propagandistic gloss under Stalin, this sort of fantastic time slippery is just a beautiful metaphor. 

There’s a character called Vishnik here, a member of old aristocracy who, for a time, managed to hide his manored upbringing. But discovery was inevitable, and he was deposed from the university where he taught. He became an archivist of Mirgorod, a sinecure which he more or less takes seriously. He has been recording the moments when the possible present splits from the actual one, and those moments are stoppingly beautiful, half out of time and within it like a gestating creature. There are dog’s brains within armored suits which smash the way they must. There are fallen angels – harshly alien – who are at war with the forest. God, this kind of encoding and inflection makes me all giddy, especially hitched to a Noir plot that has breathless short chapters that run and scream from one encounter to the next. 

Here’s the thing: I’m not pumped about this ending. I don’t hate it. I get why we end in the marshlands outside Mirgorod, in the interstitial place of sinking land and silted water. That part works for me. 

The world and everything in it, everything that is and was and will be, was the unfolding story of itself, and every separate thing in the world – every particle of rock and air and light, every life, every thought and every event – was also a story, its own story, the story of everything becoming more like itself and less like everything else. The might-be becoming the is. The winter moths, on their pheromone trails, intent on love and flight, were heroes.

But the confrontation between antagonists drags, feeling like this itchy diversion before the real confrontations, which, whoops, apparently won’t be happening in this book. I suppose I could work a justification here for why the book never comes to the final crisis – blah blah, something about the insignificance of individual will versus the state kind, etc – and certain personal trajectories are completed satisfactorily, but if there isn’t a second book, I will be a cranky cat indeed. So, Mr Peter Higgins, get on that shit.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

I once got in a huge argument with some friends when they uttered the following statement in my presence: “The post-Soviet economic system is a much purer form of capitalism than our own.” In addition to being vague to the point of meaninglessness, this idea, which I’ve heard several times in different contexts, is such a ridiculously American piece of twaddle, uttered in comfy American living rooms while outside government continues to function and basic services are rendered. Adam Smith’s sherry-snorting little capitalist would piss himself yellow when confronted by a New Russian when he came to shake down the widget factory for protection money. Before you jump down my throat, yes, I am aware that the US is a total kleptocracy, and that for many Americans, basic services don’t even exist. But what bridles me about this statement is the almost wistful idealism – in the classic sense of the term – that goes along with this statement: look at those lucky Russians living out the American dream of a total lack of government! Think of everything we could get done if we dismantled public education, a state-maintained infrastructure, and even the pretense of a impartial court system!

In 1991, I went on exchange to the Soviet Union, to Minsk in Belarus specifically. (Although, it was called Byelorussia in those days. I can see why the name change - Byelorus means White Russia, but spoken aloud by English speakers, this sounds like Yellow Russia.) I was 16 years old, and typically naïve, although not in a particularly precious or nasty way. We were exhorted by the exchange leaders and chaperones to be mindful of not becoming the dreaded ugly American. We all very earnestly took this to heart, but in some very real way, there was nothing to be done about what a complete mindfuck was coming our way. Turns out, the Soviets viewed history entirely differently than Americans. I mean, duh, of course they do, but it’s one thing to say this, and another thing to walk around in place entirely steeped in an alternate history. It’s like someone took all the regular labels, and, I don’t know, rendered them into Cyrillic or something. 

I’m being flip, but here’s an example: I know it may be hard to remember, but the Soviet Union and the US were both Allies in the War. When I say the War, I mean WWII, which the Russians would call the Great Patriotic War. The War sucked for the States, absolutely: rationing, tons of people dead, Japanese internment  etc, but this is a completely different kind of sucking than the Russians experienced: cities laid siege, the countrysides burned to ash, the lack of basic munitions for the soldiery. (And this is assuming the soldiery were even, in the strictest sense, soldiers. There were tons and tons of statues in Minsk – rightly so – to the partisans who fought the Nazis with absolutely no military training or back-up of any kind.) So when Russians speak with pride about their part in War, it’s a fundamentally different kind of pride than an American would understand. It’s personal in a way an American transported on government ships, outfitted with government weapons and generaled by American military leaders cannot begin to understand. Again, caveats all around about your Grandpa and how he got screwed this one time, or LeMay and what an idiot he was or whatever. My point stands: your Grandfather didn’t have a gun to both his front and back when he went to war. I’m not saying his service is less valorous or whatever; I’m saying it’s entirely different. If it weren’t for this experience, I might have been able to go along with the statement above, because I would have understood the word “capitalism”, with it’s embedded widgets and labor and markets and all that crap in a very specific way, and then thought I could export those ideas with their nomenclature intact. Wrong. No way. 

I have roughly seven thousand different anecdotes about how my mind was blown by this country that was filled with humans, flesh-and-blood recognizable humans, and how their sense of history, community, and individuality was entirely different from mine. Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in this Soviet Union, and I’m afraid a good deal of my pleasure with this novel is intensely personal. Which is not to say it isn’t good, because it really, really is. Frankly, I’m a little pissed off I had never heard of Adam Roberts before Mike’s review turned me on to this. Yellow Blue Tibiais a thoughtful exploration of the idea of alternate history, both in the literary and the cultural senses, in this po-mo meta way, but don’t let that dissuade you. It’s also maybe the first example of the Soviet Noir, in this incredibly funny way that zips the California flat-foot backwards, but don’t let that dissuade you either. 

I’ve started this review a couple of times, but each time I get into the swing of things, the freaking battery on my lappy fails, and I lose it all. I wised up at some point, and started saving regularly, but the whole thing has been so frustrating with lost passages and I feel so sick and irritated with trying to recreate them that I’ve decided to chuck it all and start over. It’s kind of perfect, in way – although this may be the sour grapes talking – because this book is partially about history and the ways it is perceived, the way those perceptions are enacted and enforced. For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction recently in the mode of alternate history, and then also stuff about the paranoid conspiracy. I’m beginning to think maybe history is a paranoid conspiracy. Seriously, don thine tin foil works of millinery and gather round for this one.

As I’m writing, I’m sitting on the back porch while firecrackers bang around me in the dark. It’s Forth of July weekend, and we Americans are reenacting our big F.U. to taxes and England and whatnot. Our country was founded on an oppositional basis: we are not a monarchy, we are not British, we are something other, and that other is not-you. The Brits kind of fell off as our bad-guy of choice, but we’ve always found another other, which probably reached it’s societal pinnacle of othering with the Cold War. And the reason our conflict with the Soviets was so freaking perfect was that at the very same time, they were writing themselves as not-us. (I guess when I say perfect, I mean horrible and infectiously engulfing, but you know what I mean.) 

Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in the Soviet Union in 1986, mostly, when the Soviet narrative was beginning to crack and fail, on a collective level. (Har har?) The same could be said about that time in the States: the Berlin Wall had fallen, Germany was nervously approaching reunification, and we were all kind of losing interest in the whole thing. Meh, it’s done. Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech was in ’83, but this was pretty much a punchline on the era – for cripe’s sakes man, clearly you have been reading too much science fiction! (Although, that little chestnut was dusted off after 9/11, as you may recall, just another piece of evidence of how un-charmingly Cold War Era our “security systems” still are/were.) Anyway, the protagonist, along with a number of other science fiction writers, was called by Stalin after the Great War to script the war-after-the-next-war. After the Soviets put down the Yanks, they would need a new enemy to fight, and that enemy, my friends, would be aliens.

They beaver away at it, script the entire invasion, until they are told to stop and never to speak of it again. Unlike an American in the same instance, this actually means something, so they don’t. I’ve always laughed my ass off at American conspiracies, because the idea of governmental competence on that level is a real knee-slapper. If there’s one thing a group of Americans can’t do, it’s shut the fuck up on an institutional level. A Stalin Era Soviet, however, knew the true murderous power of an effective government, at least when it came to shutting you the fuck up. So he shuts up, drinks roughly 8 million cubic shit-tons of vodka, dries out, and manages to make it to ’86 more or less intact. Then the real fit hits the shan. He’s contacted by another of the writers from the group, who pitches the idea that all their fictions are beginning to come true. 

There’s a lot of snicker-snack and some zippy plot-driven origami at this point, and I won’t go too far into it for fear of spoilers. But woo-ey, it’s fun, and more mindful of character than your usual high-concept exercise. There are parts that got a little to expository for me, especially near the end, but wow is that first several hundred pages worth reading when compared to the only partially lumpy infodump near the end. And even though I’m complaining a little bit, I still thought the ideasworked and they worked well, reconciling all kind of craziness into a neat pile of half-smoked Russian cigarettes. Roberts is the most fun sci-fi writer you’ve never heard of. Sci-fi nerds, get out and read this as soon as you are able.

Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

About a third of the way into Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie, I had to fold back and check the publication date. I was pretty sure this had to have been penned in the 80s, given the attitudes and assumptions of most of the cast. Nope! 2004. I’m not saying this is retrograde or backward or anything, just that it feels like a period piece of women of a certain class from my mother’s generation, and, in fact, it might make more sense if it had been set earlier than the late-90s. But, then, I’m not really a member of the socioeconomic milieu presented her, so maybe it’s entirely on the nose. I do totally know these women though, or I knew them 20 years ago. 

Nell is a year past her divorce when she gets a job at a detective agency. She’s mid-40s with a grown son, and pretty mopey and gutted from the divorce. There are a lot of very broad hat tips to Noir plotting and tropes, in a way that was very goofy and fun, played for comedy instead of machismo. And probably explains some of the period piece feel of the novel; Crusie seems to be working out some things about the genre. Even the title is a misnomer, because these women are anything but fast, more a collection of stay at home moms, trophy wives and the tragic widows. I mean, who even uses the term secretary anymore? Even the broadest caricatures, like the girl who’s putting the blackmail to some assholes, is treated sympathetically – spoiler coming - even if she is ultimately fridged. But I get where Crusie is coming from, because I think the scene in Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade’s secretary rolls him a cigarette and then holds it out for him to lick the paper is damn near the sexiest thing I have ever seen, even though my late model feminist ass doesn’t…well, it just doesn’t. 


Rwwrrr. 

If you think about it, a lot of the comedy from the Noir stuff in Fast Womenis turned in a domestic direction, more about dogs and affairs than about money and international political whatever, which is an interesting shift, the kind of thing I think women’s fiction can be attuned to. And, in fact, the murder plot was the least satisfying, feeling almost incongruous with the tone of the thing. But given all the sublimated feminine rage and violence – there is a fair amount of kitchen and office smashing & burning – I don’t think it’s ultimately out of place here, even if it’s kinda badly plotted. I am not a slick mystery reader, and I saw many things coming miles away. 

And, speaking of money, money what may be the weirdest part of this book, for this reader anyway. I’m going to refrain from telling divorce horror stories – you’re welcome – but I will just note that many women, especially of my mother’s generation, were deeply, personally, and financially fucked by their divorces. I’m not saying that divorce doesn’t suck for men too or anything – it is a drag when love dies, and the basic economic unit in America gets busted up – just that, if you look at the statistics, women fare much worse after a divorce, and especially if they have children. So this coterie of ladies who are swanning around post-divorce with no nevermind of money issues felt weird. 

Or, that’s not really accurate – there is some nevermind – just that the exact nevermind felt very specific to a certain demographic, one that assumes dudes provide, and then dudes do. (And not the demographic that assumes that because of the bible and Jesus, but just because that’s the way men and molls have always done it, if you catch my distinction.) Again, some of this is the working out of Noir tropes, but then how those tropes intersect with suburban upper middle class values. My eyes still goggled a bit when Jack gets all bitter and pissy when Suze gets a checking account. (???) Or, Budge was seriously paying the bills for Margie for the last seven years, even though they are not married. (???) Who are these people??? In 2004???

Still, though, even though they are aliens, they are in some ways familiar aliens to me. I enjoyed? is this the right word? the parts where the ladies talked about all their china in vivid, personal detail. I am not, nor have I ever been, a dish person, but I know these women. I have been served tea by these women in their stately St Paul manses, after coming in the back door, because that is how the working class is to enter such a home. I remember talking with Sarah and Atherton – these are not their real names – Sarah relating to me that she had married Atherton assuming he had old money, and he had assumed the same of her, and then, knot tied, it turned out that, whoops! they were both socially climbing on each other. But they sucked it up and, 60 years later, had clawed their way into St Paul society. Their bridge partners kinda hated Sarah and her feisty red hair and real estate. (God, Sarah was feisty. I really dug her.) 

But most of these women are gone now, these wives of Mad Man with steel in their spines and hard appraising looks. Maybe these women are their daughters, insulated from ways the world changed by money and society. Maybe the hardcore society ladies are different from the more middle class version here, but there’s still that sense of the whole wealth displayed through domesticity thing, or maybe it’s power, or who even knows what it is. Which is part of the exploration going on in this novel, even if is occasionally silly and weird and not something that makes any sense for me personally. 

I mean, I don’t require novels to be about people who look just like me, and it can be cool and fun to slip into narratives that are earnest in their examinations, even if that examination is a breezy, screwball comedy about sexual slash financial power dynamics and screwing your secretary. Sure, there’s probably lots of more literary examinations of these things, something with, like, elaborate plotting and tense deconstruction of Noir tropes, instead of comic inflection. And those would be fun, but they wouldn’t be fun in the way this book is, which is chatty girl-talk and goofing about sometimes serious matters. Nice.

Sacrificial Magic: Right Book, Wrong Time

I forced this read, and I’m sorry, because I think I crimped my enjoyment. Sorry, Sacrificial Magic. You were the right book at the wrong time. Blame it on the library, which only lets me renew thrice before I have to return the book, and with 10 days left to go, I figured, screw it, I can read this in a Sunday. 

I read the first three books of the Downside Ghosts series in one of those cabin porch hazes, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster (though this term is never used) in an alternate present: in the late 90s, murderous ghosts broke free into the world, killing maybe half the population of the earth. The only bulwark against this threat was The Church, a non-theistic organization which replaced all the other religious and governmental powers that be. But that’s all backstory; this series is about Chess and her city. Chess is a powerful fuckup with a seriously damaged past, someone who managed to claw up just barely to near-polite society through some native talent hitched to the driving need to get out of her squalid upbringing. But just barely. She’s a junkie and an emotional isolationist, and I just adore her. 

The first three books felt to me like they ran an emotional arc, with the third, City of Ghosts, rising to a crescendo of things I’d barely noticed hanging around on the edges twisting together into a big explosive clusterfuck. God, that was just grand. So, here, in Sacrificial Magic, I feel like we’re restarting a trajectory which will run for the next couple of books, and I’m just a little let down. It’s not that this book is place-holding, it is that it’s piece-moving. I liked a lot of the piece-moving, but, as I said, I forced it. 

I think for me the weakest parts of this series tend to be the ghostbusting Church plots. Chess is given an assignment, and in a sort of Noir-lite manner, that assignment intersects with her Street life, her dealers, her drug use, etc. Here the Church assignment felt especially weak, with too many people I didn’t give boo about and couldn’t differentiate doing things way too sins-of-the-past for me to respond. The assignment had to do with a high school, which gives framework for Chess to ruminate about her shitty education and upbringing, and that part I really enjoyed, as I did her tense and fractious relationships with Terrible, Lex, and Beulah. And hoorah, I’m loving that Chess finally has a female friend – and that she realizes she has friends at all. 

Pretty much with this book I was just shipping for Chess and Terrible, which is super fun, don’t get me wrong, but it made me feel a little antsy when the high school ghost plot was unfolding. Get out of the way, plot! Let us freak out about their last conversation! And the fact that Chess is still a huge junkie, the way she manages and feeds her addictions, continues to be one of the selling points of this series. There’s a scene where she notices others noticing her usage, and she gets really jealous and freaks: this is mine. This is my addiction. Quit looking. That we’re on book four, and Chess hasn’t had a big After School Special moment where she realizes Drugs Are Bad – addicts know drugs are bad, kids – is a very brave choice on the part of Kane. There are no easy answers, and the knowledge that you are fucked up beyond belief doesn’t magically cure you of the fuck up. Even addiction is one day at a time. Or one book at the wrong time; sorry again.

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Unholy Magic: Where I Store my Complaining

Before I set into bitching – this is going to be the review for the Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane series where I lay out my gripes with this world – I want to make sure I underline how much fun I’ve had reading these books. There are more than three at this point, but the first three seem to constitute an emotional arc. While I’ll probably check the others at some point, my lost weekend of slamming through the Downside Ghosts series is done since I just closed City of Ghosts a couple minutes ago. 

So, as a middle in a trilogy, or even as a second in a series of books, Unholy Magicis going to lag a little on the enjoyment level. Kane is very consistent in her writing style and plotting, which I count as a good thing – but consistency is the hobgoblin of readers getting a little wearied of certain things. As a second book, you’re not in that sparkle of new environments and the rush of new characters. You’re at that point in the relationship where you start noticing how your new beau has a tendency to snore or to clear his throat all the freaking time seriously what is that? The opening half is characterized by a lot of wheel spinning and the solving of mysteries I don’t care about, which brings me to the next thing.

Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster is a profoundly alternate history. In 1997 there was a ghostacalypse which tore down every religious and governmental institution we know. All institutions were replaced by The Church, a mystical but ultimately non-theistic order which is the only thing that can keep the ghosts at bay. One the one hand, it’s just fine to gesture to this profound upheaval, running your characters from their limited perspectives from street level, a street level I found richly detailed and, well, just cool. On the other, oh, come on. While I appreciate the lack of infodumps – well, Bob, you recall how the Elders of the Church formed a council which blahblahblah – sometimes the haziness was a little too hazy. Even when paying pretty close attention, I don’t really get how this whole ghost thing works, exactly, and there was more than one occasion where Chess would be in a dire magical situation and be like, oh, yeah, if I do this thing it’ll neutralize this other thing, and wheee! Now I’m out of that scrape. It’s not so much that the magic was inconsistent, it’s that I didn’t know enough about how it worked to do anything but roll my eyes and think, well, that’s convenient. Which is not to say that Chess doesn’t continue to be one of my favorite fuckups in urban fantasy. 

The opening mystery is one of those locked houses with a bunch of perverse rich sickos. Which is fine or whatever, but it took maybe longer than necessary for this to snick up with the other plot line, because you totes know it will. As I’ve said before, this is pretty straightforward detective Noir plotting, where everything is going to brew up into one giant clusterfuck. And whoo boy, when it does, the cluster fucks so godamn hard. Even while loving Chess as a character, she’s not a good person, and her failings come home to get her in a powerfully awful way. She’s a junkie, and while I didn’t think this ran entirely convincingly in the first book, there’s a withdrawal sequence here which had ants running all over my joints. Gah. But that sequence is just a warm up to her serious comeuppance for betrayals that you can dig why she did them, but oh, Lordy, being the betrayer is no fun park. Specially when you get caught out. 

Oh, and, quick edit, I’m on record as having a boner for city stories, ones that write a city as character. Triumph City, and its underside, the Downside, is really compelling to me. I like its markets and orphans and physicality. I like how Chess talks about neighborhood, the Street, the interactions of the poor and destitute, the ways the rich are insulated and clueless. Much as I love Downside, the fact that this must be a recognizable American city rankled me a bit. Is this DC? Where the fuck are we? I noticed this more in this book, with its casual chatter about LA and Hollywood. And, can we talk about the City of Ghosts? Is this place accessible from any city in the world? Or just in Triumph City? What happened in Russia during Haunted Week? Again, I’m not really complaining – this book is about the concerns of a person, and her concerns aren’t about the global experience of the ghostacalypse. But it would be sweet if this were addressed even sorta passingly. 

And, I would have really liked there to be at least one lady in this whole world other than Chess. There’s some bitchy librarian types and some dead whores, a psycho wife and a teenage daughter, but none of these women matter. Or they don’t really matter to Chess. This is pretty common in urban fantasy, or in romance more generally – the lone chick in a world of dudes – but it’s bunk to fail the Bechdel test no matter what the gender of the writer, no matter what the gender of the protagonist. (Aside on the Bechdel test – yes, this was developed for movies; yes, it’s not a measure of quality; yes, it’s not exactly fair to bring this up in a very specific instance. It’s a statistical test, a way of polling the relevance of women’s relationships within a genre. Which is why I get so disappointed when I see fucking sweet ass characters, girl characters who have real personalities and failings, written by sweet ass women writers whom I respect a good deal and still have those sweet ass characters only exist in a world where women don’t talk, don’t have real relationships.) Which is not to say this book doesn’t deal sensitively and convincingly with certain touchy subjects that are alarmingly common in women’s experience, things like the legacy and recovery from rape, prostitution and trafficking, and some other dire ass shit. The experience of women does matter in this world, which is why it seems notable that Chess doesn’t have even one ladyfriend at all. 

Anyway, blahblah, feminist hobbyhorse aside, this is an incredibly fun series, and the slackness of the early sections of this book give way to some really knuckle biting conflict, conflict that won’t rightly be resolved until the next book. Not that is is uncompleted – the locked house mystery comes to its little end – but the trajectory of Chess’s betrayals is still mid-arc. I kinda like downbeat, uncompleted endings, hanging in a welter of shame and survival, but mileage varies. I can say the next book deals with that stuff in a satisfying way to me, but that’s a retroactive assessment, fwiw. Booyah.

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