Every so often I get far enough behind in my book blogging I just declare bankruptcy and start fresh. This is one of those times. Here’s what I’ve read since my last book review:
The last book I read is one I really liked and will get a full review later this week.
Last week I found three volumes (Dead Mothers, The Gravel in your Guts, & High Lonesome) of Jason Aaron’s Scalped on the library shelf and delved into them for a few hours. They’re the middle of the story so you’d want to start with Indian Country to make any sense of what’s going on.
The rest of this is less about these books and about how conflicted I am in liking them. So Scalped is a contemporary crime story set on a South Dakota First Nations Reserve. It’s brutal and violent and I’m a little wary of really loving it because there’s a lot of potential for it being totally racist. Or if not racist, at least unhelpful.
A few months ago at a local writers festival we had a first nations poet talk about her work and one of the things she talked about was that first nations people should tell first nations stories. That’s not something for white people to do. In the larger cultural milieu, Spike Lee took Quentin Tarantino to task for Django Unchained, because slavery wasn’t Tarantino’s history to talk about (Jesse Williams has a great essay about the problems with Django, which you should totally read).
At our writers festival people in the audience were disgruntled that this woman would be telling us that there are some stories we cannot tell. I completely get that disgruntlement. I have long held the idea that freedom of expression means that I can write about whatever the hell I want and deal with the consequences, and fuck anyone who tells me what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do. But I’ve been coming around to see how privileged a point of view that is, and how voices from the dominant culture telling those stories crowds out the voices telling it from the inside. You really don’t want people to be learning their American history from Django Unchained.
The thing is that I really like Scalped. I love the small-scale politics and the way people with scraps of power interact with the immovable force of the US government, and how Dashiell Bad Horse is tearing himself apart to do this job between two worlds. It’s a great story. Just one that makes me feel guilty for liking it, because I haven’t sought out neo-noir stories written by first nations people themselves. Scalped is easy because it’s published by DC Comics, and I haven’t gone beyond that easy corporate mass-media approach.
Anyway, if you like crime stories, and all of my hand-wringing hasn’t put you off, Scalped is definitely worth your time.
Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music is a scifi noir story very heavy on the noir. In a world with uplifted kangaroos and apes and accelerated-development babies, Conrad Metcalf is trying to solve a murder. And then another and another. He’s an ex-cop and has his custom drugs to keep him feeling the exact right level of ennui and tenacity, while the victims and witnesses take drugs to forget. It’s pretty great.
One of the things I really like about the book is the dual economic systems going on. There’s money and there’s karma. Karma is what the cops take away when you do bad things, and what you get given when you’re a model citizen. It’s a bit more centralized than Cory Doctorow’s Whuffle but you can see the connective strands. The thing is that when your karma hits zero you go into a freezer, and are removed from society for a while, which makes my favourite part of the book possible.
[SPOILERS] About 3/4 of the way through the book Conrad pisses off enough people he gets tossed in the freezer for six years. This is awesome for the story because when he gets out it’s like that time passed overnight. He’s even more dogged about solving his case now that everyone else has had years to deal with the aftermath. [/SPOILERS]
So yes, definitely recommended especially if you liked George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Falls
The Ghosts of Belfast is the kind of book that would be a fine movie. It’s about an old former terrorist killing the people who made him kill people when he was an active terrorist. It’s told pretty straightforwardly and is a quick read. It’s more of a gangster story than a mystery as we follow Fegan trying to put his ghosts to rest. There’s a love interest and an undercover cop trying to keep a lid on the politics of these killings. In general that’s the main thrust of the story, doing things right when politics make it much easier to do something else.
It’s short and has a good hook and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a movie version of it someday. It didn’t blow me away with any cool twists or anything. I’m trying to find something really good in that vein that I can recommend to people who love the supermarket authors. This is kind of close.
I’ve heard about Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books but never paid much attention to them. I think I expected something more like When Gravity Fails: a gritty cyberpunk type thing. So I was surprised that it was all magic and ass-kicking, not clever understated detective work.
Stark is a man who just came back to Los Angeles from 11 years in hell and he’s looking for his old magical friends who turned on him and sent him there. I loved how the book throws you right in, like you’ve missed something that would explain how Stark wasn’t dead when he went to hell. Instead of worrying about that Stark just steals money, uses a hell-coin to make decisions and basically cuts a swathe through the magickal underworld.
It was fun, but had less oomph to it than I’d hoped. Good popcorn reading.
King City is about a slacker criminal who’s returned to his stomping grounds with a cat that is like a magical superintelligent multitool. He steals a key and then people end up dead while he reacquaints himself with his old home and his friends.
It’s not bad. There’s lots of good weirdness to the city that keeps it feeling good and cartoony. It’s kind of similar to Street Angel in its sort of gonzo approach to a weird world, but is told in a much less dense fashion.
Scalped is a crime story set on the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There are corrupt politicians who own the new casinos, people who just want to get the hell away from poverty, and Dashiell Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent who grew up on the reservation and is now back to expose some seedy underbelly to justice. In Indian Country Dashiell Bad Horse gets set up as a cop on the reservation in employ of bad people, and there are double-crosses and a casino opens and people end up dead.
It’s really good crime fictiony stuff. Each issue within the trade paperback ends on a story-changing reveal but it doesn’t feel forced. If you like 100 Bullets, this’ll probably appeal.
The thing that makes me a little twitchy about the book is that neither Jason Aaron nor R.M. Guéra are Sioux or any other First Nation. Does it matter? Well, at one point a big nasty character feeds right into a corrupt savages kind of viewpoint and actually scalps another one. Does that happen if this is a book about the underside of the writer’s culture, rather than some other-ized culture? I don’t think it does. (And to be clear, every white person in the book so far is a terrible murdering double-crossing selfish asshole too. But they shoot people, not scalp them.) At this point, one volume in, I don’t know if that’ll keep on being an issue. I’ll keep reading to find out.
MPD Psycho is a comic about a person with multiple personality disorder that solves horrific crimes. It’s not bad, but the writing is nothing special. And there are loads of graphic pictures of dismembered women. Nothing I’m going to continue with.
Angelmaker was my first Nick Harkaway book. It’s about superspies, the clockworking son of London’s criminal king (but the good kind of crimes that are all about sticking it to society’s betters), a corrupted cult of technologists against mass-production and a globe-spanning swarm of mechanical bees. It’s pretty amazing.
In a lot of ways it reminded me of a more pulpy-fun Thomas Pynchon novel, though Neal Stephenson might be a bit more apt a comparison. Joe Spork doesn’t fall into the Stephenson-ultracompetence trap though. He’s just a guy caught up in things too big for him to deal with on his own. There’s a murder and torture and with the support of his lawyer and some revelations about himself and his ancestry there’s a plot to save the goddamn world. Very good book. Lots of fun.
Jew Gangster is about a kid in depression-era New York who becomes a gangster as a way of climbing out of poverty. It’s a pretty classic story with all the proud disapproving father, friends who hang on for a taste of money, and moving away from the family the gangster was trying to help elements that feel like they’re in every gangster story.
It does all the elements well, but there isn’t anything groundbreaking in here. Religion only really came into play when the protagonist couldn’t sit shiva for his father, which seemed like a missed opportunity, given the title. The black and white art is good and it feels more of its time than something like Sandman Mystery Theatre. But if you like gangster fiction there’s not much here you haven’t seen before.