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
Simon Morden’s Equations of Life is a pretty good Gibson-esque near future SF-noir book. Samuil Petrovich is a PhD student in London after Armageddon (which was not religious in nature, just a global catastrophe that sunk Japan, rained poison and generally made the world suck). When the story starts he interferes with a kidnapping and then things spiral into quantum computing, riots and eloquent gangsters threatening clueless American programmers. It’s a quick moving book and Petrovich is a very competent protagonist, who rides luck and resources he doesn’t explain till late in the book.
The thing I liked least was Petrovich’s cursing in Russian. It seemed manufactured and didn’t fit the rhythms of the rest of his dialogue. I kept on picturing the author asking his Russian friends for really vulgar curses and then consulting the list whenever he needed to make Petrovich look tough. Which is fair enough I guess. It just brought me out of it.
But generally it was a good little book. I enjoyed how Petrovich had a very weak heart, so all of his Russian cursing and bad-assness was not paired with any real physical impressiveness.
Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century is kind of a spy/detective novel mashed up with a fantastical element in a world whose moon has shattered and angels fell to earth. I liked it, but it didn’t grab my innards the way I’d hoped it would.
There are two parts to the book. The first is about an investigation in this fantasy-tinged Russian city filled with agents-provocateur, anarchists and artists. This stuff I loved. The powerful people are assholes and Lom the detective is a prototypical noir detective in this pseudo-Soviet state. It’s great.
Then it spins into something overtly mythical magical and blatant rather than tinged with magic. This big magical plot doesn’t resolve itself and I assume it’s planned as a trilogy at least. That bugs me. The change in Lom 3/4 of the way through the story also bugs me a bit. He starts off as a hard-boiled provincial detective out of his element but pursuing leads in the case he was given. By the end he’s definitely not that any more. There’s a lot of stuff that happens that undermines the “lone man against an impenetrable totalitarian fantasy state” vibe I wanted out of the book (and got from the beginning).
But it’s a decent beginning to a story that I’ll probably like when it’s all put together eventually. As it is, it’s too much of a first act for my liking.
I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.
The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.
So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.
Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.
I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).
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.
Athos in America is a book of short stories by Jason (featuring his trademark anthropomorphic animals, naturally). There’s “The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf” a science fictional story of a man and the head of his wife he’s keeping alive and trying to find a body for, “So Long, Mary Ann” a story of a prison escapee, “A Cat From Heaven” a reflexive story about Jason himself being a huge asshole to everyone, “The Smiling Horse” a noirish story of kidnapping and revenge and the titular story of Athos the musketeer hanging out in a bar talking up his exploits in the U.S.
My favourite story though was “Tom Waits on the Moon.” Each page has a character talking to him or herself for four panels, asking a lot of questions, doing a lot of self-doubting, and all coming together in the last page. It just worked really well (despite its lack of Tom Waits as a character).
Blacksad is a collection of three noir comics in a world of anthropomorphic animals. John Blacksad is a private investigator who is also a black cat. He does the standard noir detective shtick of solving crimes, working with people he doesn’t like and never coming out ahead.
The world has characters who fit into their animal roles, it’s not like there’s a bear society and a cat society; everything is a lot more individual than that. In the second story in the book there’s a Nazi in all but name group of white supremacists with polar bears, arctic foxes, snowy owls and weasels all dressed up in uniform with red armbands with a snowflake.
The art is very painterly with lots of detail and a colour scheme that makes me think calling this noir might be off. It isn’t filled with shadows at all, just muted colours. The edition I was reading was really big so you had a lot of room to really look at the art.
Very well executed detective stories which I liked a lot. They’d work even with lesser art, but with the great art it makes the book something special.
Batman and the Monster Men is Matt Wagner’s story of a young Batman and his first case with Doctor Strange. It’s kind of a follow-up to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, and Batman is still kind of figuring out his role. It’s a similar kind of story arc to the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. He has a girlfriend and has been fighting Sal Maroni’s gangsters, not full on supervillains, but Dr. Strange is doing genetic experimentation and creating huge troll-like creatures to deal with the loan sharks he’s been borrowing from.
It’s a decent book, and you can tell it’s by the same guy writing Sandman Mystery Theatre. Very noirish, but the art in this is much better. It’s probably a bit more pulp than noir (especially with that title) but a good Batman story that doesn’t shake anything up too terribly.