Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reading Elizabeth Little's Vibrant "Dear Daughter"

Elizabeth Little's debut novel, Dear Daughter, is a wild ride from start to finish.  The author creates an engaging first-person narrator, who is both sympathetic and narcissistic.  The gutsy survivor, Jane Jenkins, is determined to discover the truth about her mother's brutal murder, a crime for which Jane was convicted and incarcerated for 10 years.  As the tale opens, the protagonist has been released on a technicality and sets out on a journey of (self-) discovery.  Her assertive voice is immediately established when she declares, " I mean, come on, you didn't think I was just going to disappear, did you? That I would skulk off and live in the shadows?" Janie resolutely refuses to remain in the shadows even though public opinion weighs strongly against her: most view her as just another privileged Beverly Hills celebutante who got away with, yes, murder. Janie's recollections of that night are hazy at best. Inebriated, she stumbled upon her mother's bullet-riddled corpse, unable to explain to the authorities what occurred, and why she is covered in blood. Little spices up the narrative by interspersing lively chapters with court testimony, celebrity gossip columns, prison interviews, and excerpts from fictive books treating the scandalous murder saga. It seems that the entire country has a stake in this ongoing drama. Is Janie innocent or guilty? And what will she do next?

Apart from the unforgettable protagonist, Little creates a secondary cast of characters residing in Ardelle and Adeline, South Dakota, dreary mining towns that may hold secrets to the murdered woman's past. Who is the real Marion Elsinger, the much-married Swiss American philanthropist?  Janie progressively peels away the layers of deception that help explain her troubled relationship to a mother adept at role playing. Janie was drawn to Marion's mystique, while repelled by her social pretensions and harsh criticisms  This ambivalence likewise marks Jane's relationships with men, including her long-suffering attorney, Noah; a perversely charming cop named Leo who may or may not be corrupt; and a father, whose identity, like much else in the novel, remains up in the air.   Duplicity drives this narrative: no one is what he or she appears, there is always more than meets the eye. 

Dear Daughter is a must read for fans of Gillian Flynn, who excels at creating dark, self­ destructive protagonists and unexpected plot twists.  Elizabeth Little is also willing to take her admittedly flawed "heroine" further into realms that many genre writers resist, preferring safer, likeable main characters. Janie Jenkins offers a "breaking bad(der)" version of such established figures as Stephanie Plum and V.I. Warshawski.  Certainly, the spectacular ending twist leaves the door wide open for future sagas.  Many readers will clamor to discover what Janie will do next.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A 21st Century Thriller--"Syndrome E" by Franck Thilliez

Syndrome E (Penguin Books 2014) by Franck Thilliez  and translated by Mark Polizzottti is labelled "a thriller" on its cover. And I think that description is more precise than calling it a mystery or a "noir." In France the book is labelled a polar. A polar or a roman policier traditionally involves either a police investigation or one by a private investigator. Within the French context the roman policier encompasses novels similar to the American "noir" or the thriller. Noir, of course, is closely related to the genre of hard-boiled fiction, where the protagonist is usually not a detective; but, instead is either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Syndrome E is not a noir nor a procedural, although there is a great deal of discussion of technology--scientific, medical, and electronic--employed in the police's investigation. Technology, however, one of the more thematic threads in the novel, is the real perpetrator and ultimately the real villain ("V") of the work. The actual villain is a victim of technology or science or government as well as the actual victims, who die at the villain's hand.

In some ways, the novel could be compared to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and it certainly has a meta-fictional feel that upon intense examination becomes a novel about a text and the effect of the text upon the reader. It is also a commentary of the way that clandestine organizations--CIA, US Government, French Government, Military, French Foreign Legion, NGOs--cross international borders and exploit human suffering in the name of security. In other words, it is a text emerging from the sea-change fostered by 9/11 and the United States' and its Allies' bid for power at the End of History; and, as a consequence, it seems to be somewhat post-modern in its approach.

Further, I would argue that the traditional detective of the mystery genre is absence in this work, although there are two detectives, both characters from Thilliez's prior work, who come together in this novel for the first time. Instead of a traditional detective like Maigret, we have two wounded and scarred police officers who pursue an investigation in order to find first each other and then themselves. They use technology, of course, to solve the crimes but they are also betrayed and wounded by it. These protagonists are modern characters tied to their machines and Thilliez plays with this throughout the novel. His hyper-focus on technology lays the foundation for the philosophical underpinnings of the novel and its ultimate theme, illustrated most vividly by the detectives ultimately turning away from technology. This investment in a social theme or the novelist's comment upon a social problem marks the novel as an illustration of how writers use one of the most post-modern of genres to make a point greater than an amusement, or just a thriller.

In Syndrome E, even though technology seems to be the problem, it is really the images conveyed by the technology that are the culprit. However, images are integral to being and cannot be denied. As James Hillman says: "Image is psyche." Consequently, it is not images but the way in which the images are packaged and interpreted by the brain that becomes the underlying message of the novel. An equation can be expressed to illustrate the message or the theme: bad images conveyed to bad brains cause trouble; damaged brains have the ability to start an outbreak of bad behavior; bad men, who manipulate damaged brains for political reasons are dangerous and must be stopped. As an addendum, traumatic events can cause bad brains and traumatic events can be physical or subliminal. Another view is that bad brains arise from either genetics--schizophrenia or an atrophied amygdala--or through medical and technological manipulation by third parties. As an example, Franck Sharko, one of the two protagonists, suffers from a mild form of schizophrenia brought on by trauma; some of the victims suffer from atrophied amygdala which result in violent behavior.

The exciting force of the novel is Ludovic Sénéchal's experiencing hysterical blindness after viewing a strange fifteen minute film he purchased from the estate of a film historian and conspiracy buff. Sénéchal calls on his ex-lover, Lieutenant Lucie Henebelle of Lille police, to help him. As Lucie investigates what happened to her friend, Chief Inspector Franck Thilliez in Paris is called upon to investigate a brutal crime in Notre-Dame-de-Gravenchon. Very quickly, it becomes obvious that the film and the crimes are tied together.

Nabokov wrote that the "V" is the perfect diagram for a mystery novel. The base of the "V" marks the beginning point and from it two movements proceed: one, backward in time to reveal the murder and the past of the victim and the other forward as the detective investigates the crime. In this novel, the "V" structure is present and especially important to reach the denouement. The past is where the real action is and its secrets lie in Egypt and Canada.

The fast-paced narrative and the international search earn the novel its thriller label. And although the protagonists' have all the usual tropes attached to them, they seem thinly drawn compared to the minute details of the text. This surfeit of scientific, technological and medical details adds to the post-modern feel of the novel, as well as the rich themes underlying its action. All-in all the novel is well-researched, skillfully translated and quite readable. Theme expressed by style seems to be more important than character, which distracts from the book's ultimate seriousness as a major contender in the genre's canon. But it is certainly a fun read.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Riff on Grim Fantasy while Reading Nathan Hawke's "The Crimson Shield"

Growing up in in a small town in Texas, nearly every Saturday night I would accompany my mother and father to a drive-end theater near our home and watch a double feature. My father, being who he was, the movies were always Westerns and usually starred John Wayne. Around 1957, we saw a film that basically changed me, turning me into a cinephile; it was "The Searchers" by John Ford. While watching this movie, I discovered or realized for the first time that there was someone directing the action. When I mentioned this to my father, an inveterate movie-goer, he said, "The director is John Ford, the greatest director that has ever lived." Suddenly, this exciting, violent, and psychologically realistic movie started growing in my mind and since that summer night I have watched it over and over again until I have almost memorized it. "The Searchers" showed me a Western (or fantasy) could overcome its tropes and express a higher degree of artistic depth and integrity.

"The Searchers" is an exciting Western but it is also a psychological tale of vengeance, race, miscegenation, reconciliation, and forgiveness. At the time I thought "The Searchers" was one of a kind. And in some respects it was; but, more broadly, something else was going on: the Western was changing, growing up. Directors like Henry Hathaway, Anthony Mann, Fred Zinneman, Arthur Penn, and John Ford were changing it. Maybe it was because they were just back from the war or maybe the genre was maturing naturally like any living being. These new Westerns were satisfying a part of me that demanded depth and complexity but they did not supersede my appetite for the Western. There were other films that were simply fun to watch. So as one type of Western matured and sought the high road, other Westerns proliferated and simply entertained. They existed side by side. I think the same thing is occurring in epic fantasy.

Unlike my father, who was a Western purist, I liked all action films. My favorites starred Errol Flynn. I also liked fantasy. In the late 50s and 60s, most of my reading was either historical fiction or fantasy fiction. In 1967, I picked up a copy of "The Hobbit" at the grocery store, along with my usual purchases of Marvel comics. We only had one bookstore in my town and it was a bookstore/card shop combination, with more cards than books. Most of my books were checked out of the Carnegie Library downtown. "The Hobbit" was another revelation, a seismic quake. Rather than continuing reading anything and everything, I searched for more books like "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." I sought a combination of romance, myth, action, and world building. And I was in luck, in the sixties and seventies there were a lot of writers trying to continue the "Middle Earth" experience. However, they were pale imitations of an original. These were simply amusements that seemed to be like Tolkien but really weren't.

In 1970, I entered college and majored in English and History. Fantasy dropped by the wayside, to be read at Christmas and summer break. By the mid-80s I was reading fiction sporadically. I had moved on to non-fiction, psychology and history primarily. One afternoon, my brother, also a fantasy fan, gave me "Legend" by Dave Gemmell and told me to read it. Hold on, I thought, as I tore through the book. This was fantasy as exciting and as violent as some of the Westerns I loved. What kind of fantasy is this? I later discovered that "Legend" was based on the battle of the Alamo and that Gemmell was a rabid fan of John Wayne. "Legend" in some ways is an imagining of a Western as fantasy. And in its incarnation this fantasy was as cruel and as violent as an American Western. However, there is also something else going on in "Legend," just as there was another message working underneath the Western tropes of "The Searchers." There was an idea or a philosophy lurking within its pages. "Legend" was Gemmell's response to his experience with cancer. It was an existential exercise for him. He was not trying to recapture the joy he experienced when he read Tolkien, he was working out psychological issues through art. The fantasy battle of Druss illustrates his feeling about death, mortality and courage. Below the fantasy tropes Gemmell employed was a "big idea" about mankind's response to its very existence; consequently, "Legend" possessed a seriousness that transcended a lot of the fantasy of the seventies.

In a fundamental way Gemmell was writing against Tolkien. He admired Michael Moorcock and Moorcock's fantasy was one of the major responses to Tolkien's brand of fantasy. The literary children of Tolkien were growing up and rebelling. Their fantasy emerged from the chaos of the 60s and the fantasy of Tolkien wannabes.  Fantasy fiction was following a pattern somewhat like that of Western fiction. It was maturing and changing.

In 1996, my brother (again) sent me a copy of "A Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin. Martin was different from Gemmell in that he writes fantasy as history and horror. Mature, gritty, and sexy. Another seismic shift. Tougher than Gemmell, Martin writes Medieval Romance as American hard-boiled fiction, with a soupcon of Bismarck's realpolitik. Although he says he loves Tolkien, his novels are history without history, sentiment without sentimentality, situated in a world without remorse, a world without the softening effect of  Christianity. Where Tolkien's fantasy is rife with Christianity and its ideals, Martin's is godless and his characters are Hobbesian beasts. I would argue that Martin has created a sub-genre to epic fantasy and that his fiction does not lie on the same genealogical line as Gemmell. His influences are Vance and historical novelists like Thomas Costain and Maurice Druon. Gemmell and Martin both inhabit the bronze age of epic fantasy but they are different in tone, style, and message. Gemmell is still read and loved but Martin currently dominates the epic fantasy landscape like a bitter Smaug. He is the Tolkien of his age; the author that young writers write against as they struggle with the maturing and ever-changing fantasy genre.

After Martin, Joe Abercrombie is probably the strongest proponent of grim fantasy but he is not alone. A slew of  talented writers are crowding the field. Among them is Nathan Hawke. Hawke's "The Crimson Shield" (Gollancz 2013) falls somewhere between Gemmell and Martin. In 'The Crimson Shield," Tolkien-like tropes are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, we have a set-up that could have come from Gemmell's pen. Four nations collide in warfare. The Vathen, a horse culture, attack the Marroc Coast. The Marroc join with their enemies, the Viking-like Lhosir, known to the Marroc as Forkbeards to defend their land. Unseen but mentioned over and over are the Aulians, a ancient and more sophisticated race. The action begins en medias res, tying us to the epic Greek tale, The Iliad, and grounding us in the heroic fantasy genre. The question is, however, where are the fantasy elements? The novel reads like historical fiction: there are no wizards, elves, goblins, or dragons. Instead, human armies vie for power and land. An easy correlation between Romans, Vikings, Huns, and Saxons is made. And the cultural period as determined by the technology lies somewhere before the 1st Century. Fantasy, to the limited extent it exists, is supported by the savage warriors' superstition--a sword is powerful and evil, a shield is powerful and good. These items are probably imbued with some magic but there is also a rational explanation to their power. In this regard, Hawke is more like Martin than Gemmell.

The most essential fantasy trope in the novel and the one that is the sine non qua to emerging grim fantasy is the fantasy land, the map on which the action occurs. Tolkien's created world is all important, just as is his created languages. In grim fantasy fiction, it is the world that supports the fantasy and ties the grim fantasy to its most important ally--the fantasy game. Gaming, whether board, table, card, or RPG is essential to the new grim fantasy. And as such, grim fantasy fiction enhances, informs and enlightens the game and the game transmogrifies the novel, stripping it of its complexities and paring it down to its essential parts so that it becomes cinematic and episodic.
'The Crimson Shield," however, does not seem game-like because it possesses a strong narrative and a fairly consistent point-of-view. The reader spends most of his/her time with Gallow, the protagonist, and only occasionally drifts off with other POV characters. This gives the book a stronger unity and tighter plot. However, there is a historical verisimilitude and an implied unrolling of fate's plan on the protagonist. Magic seeps in around the edges but does not overwhelm the narrative. Consequently, the original impulse of fantasy--to escape into a daydream of power--is absent but so, too, is the depth of the world. Gallow's world is drawn just enough that we believe in it, just as Druss' was. The corollary with history grounds us and we imagine either England or the Northern shore of France besieged. Like a game though, we anticipate more world building, new cultures and the hidden Aulians to emerge in later books.

So, Nathan Hawke's "The Crimson Shield" is an entertaining fantasy novel, written in the vein of Gemmell.  His fiction demonstrates all of the tropes of Martin's emerging sub-genre of grim fantasy but it shies away from its nihilism. Martin says that the great theme in his fantasy work "is the existential loneliness that we all suffer." That big idea is not evident in 'The Crimson Shield." What does come through is a rollicking good tale. It is a hybrid work, closer to Gemmell than Martin. Its strength lies in its battle scenes and well-wrought characters.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reading "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution" by Mary Gabriel

Mary Gabriel's Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (Hatchette Book Group 2011) is a painless and very enjoyable entree into the world of 19th century revolutionary politics. In fact, the narrative, which is quite novelistic, is chatty and, at times, almost reads like a soap opera. And like a good novel or a PBS miniseries, the tale elicits emotions: Gabriel possesses both sympathy and empathy for Jenny Marx and her children. I found myself caring for the children during their youth spent in squalor and poverty in Victorian England and I became angry at the callous way in which the three husbands of the surviving daughters treated their intelligent wives. Even, when discussing some of Marx's less than admirable qualities, she is forgiving and gentle.

The strength of the work lies in its minute re-construction of 19th century London, home to Marx from 1849 until his death in 1883. Gabriel goes to great length to describe the city and the Marx family's somewhat Dickensian existence there. In the 19th century, London was crowded, squalid and dirty, and Gabriel describes the poverty and the filth with precision and clarity. Marx knew economics but he seemed unable to put his knowledge into practice; instead, he borrowed from friends, especially Friedrich Engels, who he collaborated with from 1843 on, to simply survive in the city. Engels was a man of action and also a man of means. Marx, on the other hand, was contemplative and scholarly. Gabriel brings this dichotomy out clearly and fully develops the relation between each member of the Marx family and Engels. It is clear that Gabriel is mostly interested in the domestic side of Marx and she spends a great deal of time talking about the financial straits that Marx found himself and the effect his poverty and devotion to his ideas have on his family.  

Gabriel also highlights the political conflicts going on throughout Europe during the 19th century. She is especially good on the discussion of the Commune in France in 1871 and the role that Marx either played or did not play in its outcome. She does not, however, discuss Marx's ideas as thoroughly as one may like. This is not an intellectual biography; it is not about a man and its ideas; it is more domestic in its approach and this is where it succeeds.

In most biographies of Marx, the family is in the background. Jenny, of course, always appears, because she was a partner in Marx's career, transcribing his papers and talking over his ideas. She is as much a revolutionary as he. Gabriel, however, brings Jenny to the foreground. We understand her motives and we come to trust her affection for Marx. So, too, do the children come alive in the narrative. The three grown daughters and their troubled marriages dominate the last third of the book and Eleanor Marx, in particular, stands out as a tragic figure. A brilliant writer and revolutionary, she falls in love with two men, unworthy of her.

Love and Capital is an entertaining read. It fully explores the domestic relations in Marx's life and it brilliantly situates him in 19th century Europe. It does not, however, explore his thoughts to any real extent. If you are looking for an intellectual biography, this is not it. However, if you want a readable, somewhat heart-felt rendition of the Marx family, firmly situated in their milieu, then this is the one for you. For me, this work is an essential part of my collection of works on Marx.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading C. J. Cherryh's "Foreigner"

Most of the science fiction I have been reading lately is disguised fantasy. The science, when there is science, is make-believe or wishful thinking. Space ships travel millions of miles in short-time increments. Human beings do not suffer the exigencies of space: radiation, bone loss, muscle deterioration. Instead, ships slip into voids, find worm holes, penetrate folds, and pop out somewhere on the other side of the universe. On their voyage, they discover ring worlds or a helix fit for human habitation, where they encounter ancient astronauts similar to ourselves but usually angry, psychotic, and definitely hostile.

This science fiction sans science is couched in modern adventure tropes: mystery in space, western in space, thriller in space, morality tale in space, religious allegory in space, political thriller in space. The true hard science novel is rare and can be boring to some. However, there are some novelists that take the science-based tale and surprise us with an interesting and an arresting story. C. J. Cherryh is one such writer.

I started reading Cherryh in the seventies. Her first novel appeared when I was teaching a course on science fiction at a mid-western university. My syllabus consisted of novels from the giants at the time: Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke, Herbert, Miller, Sturgeon, and Vonnegut. The first novel of hers  I read was The Faded Sun: Kesrith (DAW1977) and I immediately thought she was equal to the giants.  

The Faded Sun trilogy made such an impression on me that I often direct readers to it today. Her precise world building and the psychology of the characters impress me and fool me into thinking I am learning something even if it is only made-up anthropology. Like Le Guin her aliens live and breathe: think, plot and plan within the logical confines of their alien psychology and the basic rules of physics. She truly leads the reader to a suspension of his or her disbelief.

So lately, after reading a rasher of fantasy and a box  of modern science fiction, I decided to return to Cherryh to see if she was as good as I remembered. I had not read her since the Chanur novels of the 80s and I chose Foreigner (DAW 1994) simply because I had a copy of it mouldering on my bookshelf. But I was immediately charmed by what appears on the surface to be a dense story of first encounter between humans and an alien race known as the atevi. I say "dense" because Cherryh employs an opaque prose style. She uses a very limited third-person point of view that methodically and slowly reveals through repetition the internal ruminations of her protagonist, Bren Cameron.

Cameron is a paidhi, the only human interpreter and diplomat sent to live with atevi, the sentient humanoids that inhabit the world the humans call, Down. Because dropping down is what they did. They fell to Down in drop-ships without any way to return to the space station they constructed over the planet before their ship, the Phoenix, left them to explore the new universe they had discovered.

The novel begins with a crisis two hundred years after the first humans fell to Down: Cameron is marked for legal assassination by one of the planet's many atevi factions. And when he uses an illegal weapon given to him by his patron, the aiji, of the central association, Bren is swept up into a convoluted and murky political plot. Protected by his bodyguards, Banichi and Jago, he travels into the heart of the country and experiences the true mystery and history of the world.

The narrative structure of the novel is slight with only three or four dominant set scenes. On one level it is game-like but the games it resembles are chess and Civilization not Doom or Starcraft. However, the real thrust of the novel is in the interplay between Bren and the millions of aliens that surround him. Through his ruminations the reader is slowly drawn into the atevi world, where mathematics rule all aspects of life and legal assassins operate in the bright sunlight of the planet.

I highly recommend this book, which as it turns out is the first book in a long running series. (She is currently working on the fifteen volume).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading Eric Brown's "Weird Space: The Devil's Nebula"

Abaddon Books has begun a new series, created by Eric Brown, entitled Weird Space, with the first novel--The Devil's Nebula (Abaddon Books 2012)--written by Brown himself. It's a space opera with horror elements and I predict it will be one of Abaddon's most successful franchises for two reasons: (1) Eric Brown is at the wheel; his fertile imagination has already produced some interesting and unusual takes on a well-worn genre: Kéthani (Solaris 2008) and Kings of Eternity (Solaris 2011), as well as more straight forward space opera; and (2) because within this novel Brown has either employed or alluded to all of the major themes and tropes of both classic science fiction (space opera) and space horror through his mixture of Buck Rogers-like adventure and Lovecraftian terror.  

Nebula, unlike Kéthani and Kings of Eternity, falls into the Niven/Vance camp of science fiction and shares similarities and themes with Brown's Bengal Station Trilogy. Although the similarities with other science fiction franchises also seem apparent--Warhammer 40 K, Star Wars, and Star Trek--Abaddon's proclivity toward genre mash-ups, their brilliant editing, and Brown's deft touch make the Weird series feel unique.

The novel at first blush employs well-known tropes and situations: older man with a past commands a spaceship involved in various forms of illegal activity;  young  woman, athletic and lonely, has secret crush on older man; somewhat erratic and cowardly engineer makes up a third in the Trio; crashed space ships (several) with no sign of the inhabitants (mystery and horror); fascistic government; spies and hidden agendas; deserted worlds with evidence of lost civilizations; and, of course, monsters in space. Even the back story feels familiar: The Expansion, a megalithic authoritarian empire consisting of human colonists, continues to grow and colonize planets until it runs afoul of the Vetch; also a growing empire of warlike humanoids.Other worlds and other aliens are either colonized or destroyed by the emerging forces. While humans and Vetch vie for dominance in the same dimension, other dimensions populated by the horrific creatures, the Weird, monstrous creatures hungry for experience and knowledge, collide with human space and open portals.

Even though the tropes and the back story are familiar, the novel feels fresh. I think one reason for this is the deft way in which Brown handles his materials: his novels tend to unwind rather than follow some movie-like script and the characters act naturally in unnatural settings. Another reason is the fact that fusion (genre mash-up) invigorates well-worn tropes: space men sucked through a tentacle to a Tarzan-like habitat at the top of giant trees is fun and unique.

To provide maximum fusion (mash-up), I imagine Brown and Abaddon intended to provide a wide platform in which to both utilize and develop familiar tropes. In that respect, knowing this was the beginning of a series, I jotted down just a few possible ideas: Vetch verses Human in military-science fiction; Vetch verses Weird in a Predator-verses-Alien story; individuals battling Weird in Lovecraftian horror tales; humans infected with the Weird rebel against the Expansion; Vetch join Human against Weird; Humans use Weird against Vetch; Human crashes on Vetch world and must survive; spies and rebels carry on clandestine operations on worlds infected by the Weird. Permutations seem infinite. I even imagined a domestic horror like The Shining: one mate infected, the other not, both trapped in a secluded location.

Approaching the novel in this way--as a generative rhetoric--illustrates its game-like quality; however, for the series to succeed and grow, novels with well-developed characters and interesting stories must enflesh it. The Devil's Nebula begins that process and I believe succeeds as both an entertaining space opera/horror (romance) and as a precursor to a larger series.