Top 5 Reads of 2013

I’m feeling lazy and took all morning to write about two paragraphs of the review I’m working on, so instead of that I’m offering you my Top 5 Novels of 2013. It wasn’t a great reading year for me, as opposed to 2012 where my top 5 reads stood out bold and brilliant. On 2013’s list, only one or two books were that amazing. The others were fantastic, but didn’t have as much of an impact on me, or had little flaws that were just a bit too noticeable. That said, after finishing off the reading year with three very disappointing books, I can’t say how happy I am that I had the chance to read these beauties. Here they are in the order that I read them:

The Shining Girls collectors edition

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

A brutal time-travelling serial killer, the talented ‘shining’ girls he murders, the punk who shouldn’t have survived his attack, and an otherworldly house where it all comes together. SA’s literary it-girl Lauren Beukes brings together all sorts of things I love about sci fi, crime thrillers and serial killers in her trademark edgy style. It’s a slick, creepy book, and the scene where Harper tries (and fails) to murder Kirby was one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve read, and not only because of the violence.
My review

SIlently and Very Fast

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente

I’m a big Valente fan, but I think part of the reason I enjoyed this so much is that Clarkesworld’s podcast director Kate Baker read it to me in her lovely voice. Over the past year I’ve been listening to short story podcasts regularly, and I think I played Silently and Very Fast about three times. I was disappointed to find that I could no longer buy the limited edition print copy of this novella, but it is included in the collection The Bread We Eat in DreamsIt’s the most beautiful story about artificial intelligence I’ve come across, incorporating myth and folklore, told in Valente’s spellbinding prose. Highly, highly recommended. You can read or listen to it for free at Clarkesworld magazine, where it has been split into three parts.

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellHelen of Troy by Ruby Blondell

I don’t often read or review non-fiction, but I would if I found more books like this. Ruby Blondell’s study of Helen of Troy is an in-depth literary analysis of the world’s most beautiful woman as she appears in various texts. It’s also a study of the nature and meaning of female beauty. I learned so much more about the mythical Helen and the society that created her than I thought there was to know. In addition, the discussions on female beauty offer fascinating and fundamental insights that are relevant to so many things that I read and watch all the time. Just this morning I read a blog post by Foz Meadows on contemporary issues of female beauty that related very strongly to what I’d read in Blondell’s book. This might sound overwhelming academic, but it’s not – Blondell is an excellent scholarly writer and her book is smoothly articulated. An elegant, captivating read.
My review

Red Seas Under Red SkiesRed Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

When review copies of The Republic of Thieves became available and the hype started to intensify, I figured it was time I checked out this Gentleman Bastard series that everyone was raving about. I liked the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, but after all the hype I found it good but slightly disappointing. I didn’t know much about Red Seas though, and that might be why I enjoyed it more. The fact that it’s got Zamira Drakasha, a fucking awesome pirate captain who also happens to be a black 39-year old mom, is another reason. And I liked that Jean starts to be more of his own character rather than just a sidekick. Also, it has a casino heist AND a thrilling pirate adventure. And it’s funny. Actually, there are a of reasons I loved this book. Even after doing a read-along for The Republic of Thieves, it remained my favourite.
My review

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsThe Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

This one stirred up a lot of interest and quite a few award nominations when it came out and Jemisin’s name has come up frequently in the online world I inhabit. But I didn’t look too closely since I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy. I figured LOTR and A Song of Ice Fire was about as much as I could handle. Thank god some of the bloggers I’d met through the Scott Lynch read-along invited me to be a host for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms read-along. Jemisin doesn’t waste time with the long-winded easily-forgotten world-building that I dislike about the genre and her characters defy the straight/white/male standards that plague epic fantasy. It’s full of fresh ideas, and complex characters who are never just good or evil or easily described. Plus, the book is about enslaved gods who have been forced to serve a powerful family as weapons, tools and whores for the past two thousand years. It’s awesome. It’s something you should be reading.
Read-along:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

There are a few other books I wanted to mention. Carrie by Stephen King and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Both could have made this list, but they were re-reads and I wanted to stick to new reads.

There are also short story collections that deserve a mention:
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor
Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran
and The Color Master by Aimee Bender

I enjoyed these all very much, but short story collections tend to be at a disadvantage because I never enjoy all of them, I usually find at least one or two quite boring, and their fragmented nature means that they’ll never make as of an impact on me as a novel can. One of the stories may well be that powerful, but it’ll always be watered down when viewed as part of a collection. Nevertheless, these four had plenty of good and great stories and I’m glad I read them.

Now, on with 2014!

Review of Poppet by Mo Hayder

Poppet by Mo HayderTitle: Poppet
Series: Jack Caffery #6
Author: 
Mo Hayder
Publisher: 
review edition published by Atlantic Monthly Press; first published by Bantam
Published:
 Atlantic Monthly Press: 14 May 2013; Bantam Press: 28 March 2013
Genre: 
crime thriller
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 7/10

Something strange is going on at Beechway High Secure Unit. Or rather, something even more bizarre than what usually goes on at a psychiatric hospital “housing patients who are an extreme danger to themselves and others. Killers and rapists and the determinedly suicidal”. The legend of the Maude – the ghost of a dwarf who abused the children in a 1860s workhouse – is setting the wards ablaze with rumours, while a series of mysterious power cuts heightens the tension. The worst part is that a patient has died of a heart attack, shortly after being found with Bible verses cut into her arms, reminiscent of the Maude’s practice of forcing children to write out biblical texts until their fingers bled.

AJ LeGrande, the senior nursing coordinator, finds himself subject to the terror of the Maude as well, but knowing how the insanity in a psychiatric hospital can ‘infect’ the staff, he focuses on finding rational explanations what’s happening. He soon finds sinister connections between the Maude phenomenon and a patient named Isaac Handel, who was recently released. Isaac had a habit of making ‘poppets’ – freaky voodoo dolls representing the people around him. AJ’s investigations suggest that Isaac may have been terrorising the other patients, and the dolls could be connected to the legend of the Maude and nightmares of a small figure sitting on patients’ chests.

AJ discusses his suspicions with Melanie Arrow, the unit’s director, and in doing so he forms a relationship with her that quickly grows from concern for a co-worker to passionate romance. But their new-found happiness is marred by the threat of Isaac and the Maude. When AJ’s conclusions become too disturbing to dismiss, he contacts the talented and dedicated Detective Inspector Jack Caffery.

 

This is my first Mo Hayder novel. I was only vaguely familiar with her name, but I when I saw Poppet on NetGalley I was immediately drawn to its creepy cover and intrigued by Hayder’s reputation for bringing elements of horror into her crime fiction. The very first chapter demonstrates exactly what I was looking for. It describes a patient’s intense fear of an approaching monster. She believes that she can make herself invisible by unzipping her skin and peeling it off like a wetsuit, a truly gruesome act that is described from her perspective. This is realist fiction not fantasy, but Hayder incorporates the supernatural through the psychoses of mental patients. Combined with bursts of shocking violence, the novel can be quite creepy.

It takes a while to get going though, for several reasons. AJ and Melanie’s relationship plays an important role, and some time is taken to set this up. Then, the relationship impede’s progress when Melanie begs AJ not to contact the police. He repeatedly complies because she’s so beautiful and he’s been single for a long time. AJ’s attitude towards his patients also slows things down a little. He lives “by the maxim that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him” so “he’s never wanted to know what his patients have been in the unit for” because some of the things he’s heard are unbelievably horrific and can interfere with his ability to treat a patient fairly. For the reader, this means that you won’t learn anything useful about Isaac from AJ, who doesn’t even understand the significance of the poppets. You have to wait for Jack to give you the dirty details.

The final and most problematic issue for pacing is Jack Caffery himself. You see, this is the sixth book in the Jack Caffery series. No, you don’t have to read the others, although it might help to know more about Jack, who is stiff and bland. But the real problem is that because this is Jack’s series, he has to have a major role and an ongoing presence. AJ is really the main character, but he can’t be allowed to overshadow Jack. Unfortunately, the main plot doesn’t involve Jack until almost halfway through when AJ contacts Caffery to discuss his suspicions.

I assume it goes against protocol for the main character of your series to play second fiddle in one of the books, so Hayder has a side plot that puts Jack in play from the very start. This plot involves a missing celebrity named Misty Kitson, a case that’s apparently leftover from the previous book (but, again, you don’t need to read that). Jack knows Misty is dead. He wants the police to find the body so that Misty’s mother can have something to bury, but he can’t just reveal what he knows because he’s protecting a pretty young cop named Flea Marley who has covered up the crime. Jack needs her cooperation to retrieve the body and achieve the most favourable outcome – allowing the police to find the body so Misty’s mother can move on, but in a way that won’t implicate Flea or get Jack in trouble for protecting her.

I found the Misty case to be pretty boring. There’s no action, and very little suspense. There’s nothing for us to discover except the details of her death and the cover-up (nothing special). The narrative is driven by Jack’s attempts to persuade Flea to cooperate. But who cares when there’s a violent psychopath on the loose?

The Misty saga has absolutely nothing to do with the Beechway/Isaac story. The only links are two or three minor similarities between the plots. For example Jack’s relationship with Flea mirrors AJ’s relationship with Melanie: both men protect the women out of some overblown sense of chivalry inspired by the women’s beauty. In AJ’s case, it’s stupid but understandable – he’s sleeping with Melanie and falling in love. He doesn’t want to hurt her by jeopardising her career or hurt his chances of a long-term relationship.

Jack, however, is taking a greater personal risk for something more abstract:

Whenever he looks at Flea the animal part of his brain lights up. His limbic system goes into overdrive. Sometimes it screams sex. Sometimes, like now, it screams protect. Kill anything that threatens her.

Ah, there’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned sexism to make a character really, really boring. The book at least exposes this kind of patronising male behaviour as a mistake – denying women their agency and relieving them of responsibility for their actions turns out to be pointless, humiliating or dangerous.

An excellent point, but the book is still full of traditional femininity, with women typically defined by their relationships with men &/or wholesome domesticity. Flea is a morally questionable victim who needs a man like Jack to protect her, chastise her for taking the wrong moral path, and set her straight. Melanie, a woman in a position of power, is seen as an ice queen, while the men – AJ included – perv over her beauty. She describes having lost lovers because she preferred having a career to being domesticated. AJ’s Aunt Patience almost never leaves the house, spending most of the novel cooking for and feeding AJ. She’s a grumpy old matron who grows all her own fruit and vegetables, makes preserves, and disapproves of any woman AJ brings home. Monster Mother, an insightful patient on one of the wards, cut off her own arm in response to her husband’s constant infidelity and now imagines that she gave birth to all the patients and staff. Penny, a character whose presence in the book feels seriously neglected, has been living alone and isolated with her dog for years after several failed relationships. She is very beautiful and makes preserves for a living.

The resolutions at the end of the novel don’t make any improvements on the portrayal of women; if anything, it gets worse, but I can’t have that discussion without major spoilers.

At least the novel doesn’t disappoint as thriller, especially once Caffery gets involved and a serious investigation begins. The Misty stuff is backgrounded, and we finally get into the dark and twisted details of Isaac’s insanity. Isaac is incredibly creepy, partly because he remains hidden for a long time, while we learn more about what he’s done and what’s going on at Beechway. He’s set up as a monster, unhindered by reality so that you’re left holding your breath for what he’s going to do when he finally does appear. As far as I’m concerned, the more messed up a villain is the better, and Poppet has no shortage of craziness.

I’d like to read some of the earlier thrillers that established Hayder’s reputations and where, hopefully, the plot isn’t complicated by the importance of Jack’s role. Without the Misty case holding Poppet up, the novel could have been so much more taught and impressive. I wasn’t too happy with the way the female characters are written, but I can’t deny that Hayder delivers an entertaining story.

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

 

The Shining Girls MulhollandTitle: The Shining Girls
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
review copy published by Mulholland Books; originally published by Umuzi
Published:
 15 April 2013 by Umuzi; review edition published 4 June 2013 by Mulholland
Genre: 
fantasy, science fantasy, crime thriller, historical
Source: 
review copy via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Kirby is a bright girl bursting with life, despite her troubled childhood with a single mother whose “default state of being is absent” and the constant upheavals as they move from one home to another.  It Kirby’s sense of promise, the fact that she’s a “shining girl”, that draws Harper Curtis to her. He visits her for the first time when she’s six years old. He gives her a My Little Pony that hasn’t been invented yet. Fifteen years later he returns to kill her in a brutal attack, as he does with all the shining girls.

Harper is a serial killer travelling through time in the city of Chicago, drawn to girls who ‘shine’ with potential and determination. It’s his destiny to snuff their lives out. It’s the House that drives him. He was living in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Depression-era Chicago when fate delivers him a key that unlocks a seemingly abandoned house. Inside is a room full of objects and women’s names written on the wall in Harper’s own handwriting. The names of the shining girls. The objects are what will lead him to them, and Harper knows that he has to find them and kill them.

But he didn’t kill Kirby. Four years after his attack, she starts tracking him down. She joins the Chicago Sun Times as an intern for Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her case. He’s writes for the sports desk now, but Kirby will do whatever she can to find the man who nearly killed her, even if she has to waste time compiling baseball scores.

Kirby gets everything she needs, but Harper still presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. He started killing in 1931, and with the House he can leap across the decades before returning to his own time, untraceable. Any evidence he leaves behind offers only impossible conclusions, allowing him to murder the girls unhindered.

The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.

Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.

Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.

It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.

How they came together in the House, however, remains a mystery. The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates. There are hints and ideas that seem to lead to understanding but never quite get there, leaving the reader pondering the possibilities. There is no how and why for the House. We don’t know how it enables time travel, how it came into being, or why it is focused on killing the shining girls. It’s not clear what exactly motivates Harper either, even though we spend so much time in his head. He avoids taking responsibility for his acts, blaming his victims for shining:

“It’s not my fault, sweetheart,” he says, “It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

There’s also a sense in which he’s driven to do what he does by the objects, the House itself and the time paradox it’s entwined him in. The objects call to him and shine in ways that show him what to use and when.

He tells himself he is only looking around, but he knows one of his girls is here. He always does. It’s the same tug in his stomach that brought him to the House. That jolt of recognition when he walks into someplace he’s meant to be. He knows it when he sees the tokens that match the ones in the room. It is a game. To find them through different times and places. It’s a destiny he’s writing for them. Inevitably, they’re waiting for him.

The force exerted on him by the House and the object sometimes makes him uncomfortable, hurts him even, suggesting that he’s being coerced. He certainly doesn’t choose any of the victims himself; they’ve already been chosen and he’s just drawn to them. On a personal level though, Harper is a sadistic psychopath. It’s obvious that he wants to kill and takes a perverse pleasure in contacting his victims as children and then murdering them as adults, destroying the potential that makes them shine.

I will definitely be in the minority here, but Harper is my favourite character. Which isn’t to say I like him – he’s utterly despicable and I like all the other characters a lot more, with the possible exception of a hipster who wants to film Kirby having sex with him so that she can “reclaim what happened to [her]”. Harper disgusts me, but I love a good villain. He’s not especially smart, but he has an intuitive understanding of the House and eschews all gasping disbelief that characters typically go through when fantasy invades reality. When he steps into the House he claims his destiny as if slipping into a perfectly tailored suit. The way Harper hunts and kills the shining girls is so sick and brutal that I find him fascinating and repulsive in equal parts.

The shining girls are wonderful characters too, by virtue of the qualities that make them ‘shine’. Their roles are small, but they would be strong enough to drive an entire novel themselves. Each of them shows a rare sense of determination, typically in defiance of the racial and sexual discrimination prevalent in Chicago across the decades. Zora is a young black woman doing hard manual labour in a shipping yard to support her four children after losing her husband to war. Alice is a transsexual; Willie a lesbian. Some of them shine because of the difference they make in society. Margot arranges safe abortions for girls and women who can’t afford them. Jin-Sook is a social worker changing lives in black communities. Others shine because of their talents. Willie is a promising architect who fought her way into the field at a time when women weren’t normally given such jobs. Mysha is a brilliant botanist.

What makes Kirby shine seems to be something a bit different – her ability to defy Harper, and her potential to find him and stop him. She is the very reason there is a story. Surprisingly though her part of the narrative moves quite slowly, focusing on character development, her internship with Dan on the baseball desk, and his growing affection for her. The investigation takes a back seat. It seems a little odd, given Kirby’s fervour, although we later learn that she’s spent most of her free time trawling through old newspapers and police reports looking for clues and patterns. Nevertheless, it’s not until we near the end of the book that Kirby starts to make real progress, much of which is dismissed because it seems impossible. The book is by no means boring, but I think it relies heavily on Harper and the other shining girls to drive the narrative until Kirby’s story is ready to get into gear for the climactic ending.

The advantage is that you’re kept in prolonged suspense wondering how the hell Kirby is going to find Harper, the seemingly unstoppable serial killer. I didn’t particularly like the way this happened – through chance, rather than Kirby’s deductions – but I can’t deny that the ending was pretty tense and exciting anyway.

There is much to appreciate in the interim – Beukes’s awesome writing, the horror that is Harper, the stories of the shining girls, Kirby’s relationship with her mother, Kirby’s relationship with Dan. I also waited very patiently but with growing anticipation for the chapter where Harper tries to kill Kirby. As much as I’d hyped it up by the time I got to it, it still managed to be shockingly brutal and evocative, leaving me stunned with one of the saddest and most painful images in the book.

The Shining Girls collectors edition

Umuzi Collector’s Edition

One final thing I want to mention is how impressive the depiction of Chicago is. Beukes has obviously done extensive research (don’t ignore the acknowledgements; it’s worth seeing how much work went into this). The plot traverses six decades, and in the relatively short space of 298 pages we see several of Chicago’s historical and cultural faces as the city shifts and grows.

I’m glad that I bought the Umuzi signed and numbered collector’s edition hardcover of this. It’s a great story and one of the best South African novels I’ve read. I love its mysterious take on time travel and the way Beukes uses it as a plot device that brings a fresh perspective to both historical and crime fiction. The Shining Girls deserves its status as one of the most talked-about books at the moment, and strongly encourage you to read it and join the conversation.

Review of Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellTitle: Murder as a Fine Art
Author: 
David Morrell
Publisher: 
Mulholland Books
Published: 
7 May 2013
Genre: 
historical, crime, mystery, metafiction
Source: 
NetGalley
Rating:
 6/10

London, 1854. A killer steps out onto to the streets to create a masterpiece of murder, a perfectly planned tableau of horror designed to evoke great pity and utter terror. His work is a realisation of the gruesome essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas De Quincey, which details the brutal Ratcliffe Highway murders “that terrorised both London and all of England in 1811” but portrays them as a work of art.

Thomas De Quincey himself is in London with his daughter Emily, promoting his books because he desperately needs money. De Quincey became famous – or infamous – with his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, detailing his addiction to laudanum – a combination of 90% alcohol and 10% opium that in Victorian times was commonly administered as a painkiller, even to children and babies. De Quincey’s addiction is partly responsible for his literary success – he claims that laudanum opens up other realities, showing him new perspectives that he puts into his writing.

But it’s also affected his health and he currently drinks enough to kill several people. Considered by many to be a degenerate, he’s the first person that Detective Ryan and Constable Becker of Scotland Yard suspect. But as Emily – a strong, outspoken woman – points out, her father is too old and frail to go around murdering entire families. In fact, De Quincey might be part of the murderer’s plans – he and Emily are staying in London at the expense of a mysterious benefactor who lured De Quincey with the promise of resolving a very personal mystery for him. And of course, the murderer has been inspired by De Quincey’s writing.

Although Ryan and Becker are shocked by De Quincey’s laudanum addiction and more than a little horrified at his fascination with the murders, they are sensible enough to see past De Quincey’s reputation and Victorian sensibilities. With De Quincey and Emily’s help they hunt down the master serial killer whose unbelievable acts of violence are reducing London to a state of terrified chaos.

Murder as a Fine Art is a metafictional intersection between historical fiction and commercial crime thriller. Morrell’s inspiration comes from the “novel of sensation”, a literary trend that was surprisingly popular in the conservative Victorian era, bringing the darkness of Gothic fiction into the homes and neighbourhoods of ordinary citizens, as he explains in his introduction. And that’s what this novel does, placing a particularly violent killer in the midst of London’s society. It’s full of historical trivia and passages describing the scene – the “notoriously thick fogs” composed of mist and smoke, the noise of farm animals amidst the sound of carriages – and although Morrell tends to reply heavily on info dumps, I found them quite interesting. The novel also offers the satisfaction of unfailingly good protagonists (even De Quincey’s laudanum addiction is useful) chasing after an irredeemably evil villain.

It’s all very black and white, but I didn’t mind as far as the good guys were concerned. While I prefer twisted heroes, sometimes it’s comforting to have the fantasy of smart, dedicated people always doing the right thing and sacrificing themselves for the greater good, barely undermined by their weaknesses. De Quincey’s the troubled genius, the one whose best equipped to track down the murderer but also so incapacitated by addiction that he could be an easy target. He wasn’t quite as memorable as I expected him to be – he’s the major historical figure driving the narrative after all – but he’s likable and amusingly snarky at times. Detective Ryan is a committed policeman, but he’s Irish and he has to struggle against the prejudice that tends to arise when the Londoners spot his red hair (his deliberately coarse appearance doesn’t help either). At one point he is attacked by an angry mob that assumes that the murderer must be a foreigner and goes after Ryan when they see the colour of his hair.

Becker, who plays the good cop to Ryan’s bad cop, actually looks much more respectable than his superior. He’s so determined to earn the rank of Detective that he risks his life just to protect a set of footprints that Ryan asks him to guard.  Emily is particularly charming as a forthright, practical woman despite Victorian constraints imposed upon women. One of the most memorable things about her character is her very practical decision to wear “bloomers” under her dress instead of the complicated and very heavy whalebone structure that respectable women don. The bloomers allow Emily to move easily but are considered scandalous because it means the movement of her legs is visible under her dress. Emily doesn’t care; she chooses function and comfort over silly sensibilities. The downside to her character is that she’s the ‘exceptional woman’ and the only interesting female character. Nevertheless, she was my favourite.

I was less pleased with the irredeemably evil villain. The fact that he’s thoroughly evil doesn’t bother me; it’s the way he’s progressively degraded as the story progresses. At the beginning, the artist is ruthlessly organised and controlled, but also able to think on his feet and adapt to unforeseen circumstances. His justifications for the murders are ‘pure’ – it’s not about revenge or monetary gain, but something more philosophical. He’s enacting and enhancing De Quincey’s rendering of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, in a ways that evoke the greatest level of pity and sorrow, thereby throwing society into tumult.

In his first set of murders, he chooses a shopkeeper and his family because of how sad and unfair it is that innocents and honest, hardworking people should be killed so horribly. He closes all the doors in the house so that whoever comes in will uncover a series of horrific sights one by one. He knows that the community will be driven to panic by the apparent senselessness of the crime; anyone could be the next victim when its got nothing to do with money or revenge. Considering all this, the murders do seem like artworks in a way, and the murderer like an artist.

Once the artist’s identity is revealed however (or once you guess; it becomes increasingly obvious), his image starts to deteriorate. His motives are muddied by personal obsessions. His intellect and slick control are too easily undermined by our unfailingly smart and noble protagonists. He becomes boring. I often see this trend in mainstream film, probably to cater to a longing to see evil fail under the forces of good – a previously powerful villain is reduced to a pathetic, desperate mad man. That’s understandable, but I don’t find it particularly satisfying because I love a good villain. I love it when they’re highly intelligent and focused. Even when I expect or want them to be defeated I don’t want them reduced to fumbling dopes just so the heroes can kick just them in the teeth.

But, as I said, this is still a commercial crime thriller; it’s not going to be unconventional. And as commercial crime thrillers go, it’s not bad at all, with its well-researched historical setting, social critiques, and metafictional intersections. It’s a quick fun read, but with substance. Recommended, if you’re looking for a strong crime thriller.

Up for Review: Murder as a Fine Art

David Morrell, the creator of Rambo, has published 29 novels, 6 works of non-fiction, and numerous short-stories and essays. His latest novel is a historical murder mystery featuring  real-life author Thomas de Quincey. I’ve never paid any attention to Rambo, but this sounds quite good.

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellMurder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Mulholland Books)

NetGalley blurb:

GASLIT LONDON IS BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES IN DAVID MORRELL’S BRILLIANT HISTORICAL THRILLER.

Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.

The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.

 

Murder as a Fine Art was published on 7 May 2013 by Mulholland Books.

Links
Goodreads
Mulholland Books
Conversation with Morrell and De Quincey scholar Robert Morrisson
Pretty much everything else is covered by the novel’s page on Morrell’s website. Click through for links to the book trailer, interviews with Morrell about the novel, and buying options.

About the Author
David Morrell is the critically acclaimed author of First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph. D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy The Brotherhood of the Rose (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), The Fraternity of the Stone, and The League of Night and Fog. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association as well as the prestigious lifetime Thriller Master Award from the International Thriller Writers’ organization. His writing book, The Successful Novelist, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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Review of Stolen Lives by Jassy Mackenzie

Stolen Lives by Jassy MackenzieTitle: Stolen Lives
Series: Jade de Jong #2
Author: 
Jassy Mackenzie
Published:
2010
Publisher:
 
Umuzi
Genre:
crime thriller
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 6/10

I hadn’t planned to review this novel, and had’t heard of it until I stumbled across a second-hand copy during my recent holiday in Cape Town. I’d been taking the opportunity to build my collection of SA genre fiction, so I was quick to grab this crime thriller. Jassy Mackenzie is one of the better-known names in SA fiction and is currently in the spotlight with her latest release, Folly, about a woman who falls on hard times and sets up a domination dungeon in her garden, offering her services as a dominatrix to make some much-needed cash. Stolen Lives, published in 2010, also has a sexual theme, but it tackles sex crime and is (presumably) much darker and more violent. It’s the second in a series featuring PI Jade de Jong. I haven’t read the first book, Random Violence, but I thought this one stood perfectly well on its own.

If you spot it online or in store, I suggest you avoid reading the blurb unless you don’t mind learning about two thirds of the major plot developments. I’ve written a plot summary that’s less exciting, but less revealing. The story opens in the London, where Detective Constable Edmonds, newly promoted to the Human Trafficking Division of Scotland Yard, goes on her first raid at a brothel that’s been using trafficked women. They fail to capture the owner or the mysterious woman who injures two cops and escapes with an accomplice, but they at least manage to rescue the girls, most of whom have been trafficked from South Africa.

In Jo’burg, the very wealthy and impeccably groomed Pamela Jordaan hires Jade de Jong to be her personal bodyguard. Pamela’s husband Terence recently went missing, and because he owns a stripclub – the kind of business that attracts dangerous people – Pamela fears for her own safety. Jade thinks she’ll just be babysitting some paranoid housewife, until she and Pamela are nearly shot in broad daylight, and Pamela’s daughter Tamsin goes missing as well. Further investigation draws Jade into the sordid world of sex work and human trafficking, and instead of simply watching Pamela shop, she finds herself dealing with cases of torture, murder and rape that are all linked to the trafficking case in London.

At least Jade has the help of police Superintendent David Patel, her ex-lover who recently ended their brief relationship on a cold and awkward note after a moral disagreement. David is dedicated and ambitious, but horribly overworked. He still cares about Jade though, so he does his best to help her, especially when her case begins to involve serious criminal activity and intersects with his own investigations. Although neither of them harbour any illusions about the dangers of the situation they’re involved in, they still find themselves unprepared for the extent of the violence and brutality that follows.

Not surprisingly, Stolen Lives offers bleak picture of crime in South Africa, and Jo’burg in particular. I learned quite a bit about the human trafficking in my home country, assuming Mackenzie’s novel is as accurate as it seems. Apparently it’s the third most lucrative crime in the world, after drug trafficking and arms dealing. South Africa is, depressingly, both the source and destination of trafficked women, and the laws related to these crimes are so inadequate that they tend to work against the victims rather helping them. Any such case is a “right bloody pain in the arse” for the cops, and the USA has actually put SA on a watch list for “an inability to exhibit efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” (36)

I don’t know SA was a human trafficking hub, but the inefficiency of governmental and legal systems wouldn’t be a surprise to any citizen, and the novel makes this an integral part of the plot. Home Affairs is portrayed as an inefficient institution, rotten and reeking with corruption. Officials take a year or more to process passports and ID books, or expect bribes before they will do anything. On the other hand, passports can easily be bought as long as you have the money and the right contacts. One of the villains goes to violent lengths to procure a set of forged passports, and other countries are said to complain about the number of fake passports from South Africa (leading, for example, to South Africans requiring a visa to enter the UK). One character describes the country as “beautiful but lawless”, which is a tad melodramatic, but I understand where that feeling comes from.

Still, Stolen Lives is hardly the bleakest novel I’ve read about SA. It’s subject matter is disturbing, but it’s not written from the perspective of those who suffer the most – the trafficked women or the women who move to Jo’burg from small towns, desperate for jobs promised by the allure of the big city but finding themselves resorting to sex work. We see things either from the POV of law enforcement agents (Jade, David and Edmonds), or the criminals they’re trying to stop. This is still a crime novel intended to entertain, so the victims are seen only through the eyes of cops or criminals, their voices heard in interviews or pleas. Pamela could be considered a victim of sorts, but she is so snotty and spoilt that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her, especially since her family’s troubles are a consequence of their sordid business dealings.

That said, this isn’t what I’d call an easy read. It may take a more privileged perspective on sex trafficking, but this is not a book for sensitive readers. It includes torture, rape, and a great deal of other violence. Not all of it happens on the page, but a young woman describing how she was kidnapped, locked up and repeatedly raped is horrifying enough.

On a gentler note, are the personal lives of Jade and David. They broke up because of Jade’s attitude to killing – she shot the man who murdered her father, and feels no remorse. In fact, she believes certain people deserve to be killed – a moral issue the novel raises a few times. David, however, disagrees so strongly with this that he left. They still care about each other, but David has another complication – his wife Naisha and young son Kevin. The couple separated after Naisha had an affair, but again, David still loves her and is doing his utmost to maintain a strong relationship with Kevin despite his demanding job. Over in the UK, Edmonds’s story is more focused on the case itself, but we still get an understanding of her as an awkward woman, trying hard to overcome her insecurities in order to do good work. The novel also gives a glimpse into the culture of Jo’burg, which is much more… intense than the laid-back attitude of Capetonians. There was a bit of comic relief in Jade’s description of the way Pamela “screamed Sandton, from her big, gold-framed sunglasses and the silver Patek Philippe watch on her left wrist to the oversized diamond rings that sparkled on her red-manicured fingers”. Sandton is an affluent suburb in Jo’burg, and although I’ve never spent much time there, I know exactly the kind of person Jade is talking about.

There is, you may have noticed, quite a lot going on here. Too much perhaps. There are four main crimes – Terence’s disappearance, Tamsin’s disappearance, the human trafficking in the UK, and a kidnapping that I omitted from my plot summary – as well as several minor ones. As a reader, you can assume from the start that they’re linked, and certain sections show exactly how they’re linked, although they don’t reveal all. Jade and David, however, aren’t able to figure this out until the last quarter of the novel, when it comes as absolutely no surprise to you. By then, you’re just waiting for them to fill in the blanks. There are also many different viewpoints – the narrative switches frequently between the main characters (Jade, David, Edmonds) as well as minor characters whose brief appearances show us parts of the plot that the protagonists aren’t privy to. Towards the end, there are even sections from the villains’ POVs.  And with the multiple viewpoints come multiple story arcs. It’s not hard to keep track of everyone, but it does make the novel feel very untidy, with stories and characters scattered all over the place. Mackenzie brings everything together, of course, but it’s not all that satisfying. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it’s not the kind of crime thriller that engages you in the mystery by giving you the means to figure things out on your own. Either you know more than the protagonists, or you have to wait for someone to you exactly what happened.

It’s still a good read – it has the action, violence and shock value that you expect from a crime thriller – it’s just not as tightly plotted as I would have liked, and there were some details that didn’t make sense or were left dangling. I also thought it very stupid that Jade goes alone to face the villain in the final confrontation, with David not even considering the possibility that this might be extremely fucking dangerous and suggesting she wait for help. Instead, he just gives a lift home so she can get her car and drive off to her possible death.

One other concern I want to mention is the way that non-white characters are usually described according to their race. If, for example, a woman is described only as being tall with brown hair, you can assume she’s white. Because if she’s black, coloured or Indian, that will be part of her description. Mackenzie is hardly the only author to do this and she doesn’t always do it, but it’s so noticeable because this is a crime thriller about detectives, and providing physical descriptions of characters is a standard means of evoking an investigative tone. One character who is frequently described as the “black accomplice” when other, more important descriptions could be easily be used. It wouldn’t be a problem if the white characters were similarly described. It’s also not necessary, and not all authors do it, opting for more subtle means of describing their characters unless the issue of race is pertinent. Is the word “black” meant to evoke a sense of menace in accordance with stereotypes? Or does this trend, here and elsewhere simply acknowledge the way many readers see white as the norm and wouldn’t imagine a character to have a different skin colour unless it was specified? But that’s another debate.

All in all, Stolen Lives is a decent crime thriller, given weight by the very serious issue at its core. Crime has become a major theme in South African fiction, a dire but welcome change from the (post) Apartheid politics that dominated our novels for so long. Stolen Lives highlights a major issue in the SA crime scene and asks difficult questions. Although I had some issues with the book, I liked the moral ambiguities – the way villains can become victims and vice versa, the way characters sometimes do unpleasant or cruel things to achieve more admirable ends. I’d grit my teeth before venturing into another of Mackenzie’s novels, but don’t take that as a reason to shy away from her. Her works are available locally and abroad, so check them out 🙂