Hammers on Bone is a monstery noir story by Cassandra Khaw. The 100 or so pages was exactly the right length for this kind of detective tale. A PI gets a job, to kill this kid’s father, who’s doing monstrous things. The PI is a mythos creature wearing a human skin. The PI investigates. The scenes are all exactly the right length and the straightforwardness of the plot allows the language to evoke a weird world. I especially enjoyed Khaw’s use of Lovecraftian mythos to tell a story that had a different feel from, say a Delta Green technothriller. It’s got a lighter touch, without being silly.
One of my colleagues thought this might be the first in a series (and research indicates the series is called Persons Non Grata) but it looks like this is the only one out so far. I will keep my eyes open for the next.
Lauren Beukes’ sf noir novel Zoo City is set in an alternate 21st century South Africa where magic works and those who kill get marked by an animal companion (kind of like Pullman’s daemons, but they don’t talk and they’re a signifier of antisocial behaviour). I’m not sure it makes much sense as far as worldbuilding goes, but the characters get you right into things so it doesn’t matter much.
Zinzi is our hero who works 419 scams for shady dangerous people and finds lost things, not people. As befits a good noir story she breaks her rule and takes a good-paying missing persons case and everything goes sideways. There’s violence and lying and the sinister machinations of pop music.
The book reminded me of George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran stories, which I also quite like. The main difference is that what makes it not a straight up crime story is less about technology & politics, instead Zoo City is our world infused with a bit of magic.
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 Dog Stars by Peter Heller: Good post-apocalypse stuff. Realistic but not too depressing.
- Time and the Batman by Grant Morrison: Kind of bullshit. Can’t remember why.
- Zoo Station by David Downing: A cold war spy novel set in Berlin. I think I’ve now conflated an article I read by LeCarre into the plot, but I liked it.
- Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire: Good rough early work, but man is his current stuff ever better.
- Poor Yorick by Ryan North: Good, but not as crazy as To Be or Not To Be, which is gonads-out amazing and will get its own review.
- 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa: I loved this 22 volume manga, even if the end is a little abrupt.
- Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin: It took me forever to read this book, but that’s just because it’s oppressive and painful like the history it’s based on.
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Really good. Different from Mechanique, more grown-up, but I can’t hold that against it.
- The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno: Not as Encyclopedia Brown grows up as I wanted deep in my heart, but still more than decent.
- The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: Kidbrarian confession time. Before September I’d only read the first Harry Potter book and only knew the rest of them through Wikipedia. I have rectified that (and think the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite) (and was a little chagrinned that my MBTI says I’m Hermione when I wanted to be Sirius Black).
Harry Potter MBTI – makani.deviantart.com | simbaga.tumblr.com
- The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: The earlier stuff was more interesting before it got to the states.
- The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson: A sort of post apocalyptic noir thing in a similar vein to Gun Machine, but not quite as good. Still decently readable.
- Sorry, Please, Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu: Very good George Saunders-esque short stories. Highly recommended.
- Penguin: Pride and Prejudice by Gregg Hurwitz: A comic depicting Gotham’s Penguin as a tragic villain. Much better than I expected, but not amazing.
- The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I love love love the Tines (pack mind aliens. The story was fine but the politics got me angry. Totally worth it if you’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep.
- By the Balls: Jim Pascoe & Tom Fassbender: Noir stories set in Nevada in the late-90s. Good pulpy stuff.
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.