Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Delias ShadowTitle: Delia’s Shadow
Author: 
Jaime Lee Moyer
Series: 
Delia Martin
Published:
 
17 September 2013
Publisher: 
Tor Books
Genre:
 
historical fantasy, romance, mystery
Source: 
review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
2/10

The setting is San Francisco, 1915, and Delia Martin is returning from a a self-imposed exile in New York. For most of her life Delia has seen ghosts but after the great earthquake that rocked San Francisco in 1906, there were so many that she couldn’t handle seeing them all, and fled. For some unknown reason, she didn’t see ghosts in New York, until one started haunting her – a young woman who also came from San Francisco and was murdered there by a serial killer 30 years ago. The ghost – referred to as Shadow – wants Delia to help solve the mystery of her death and stop the killer, who is stalking San Francisco’s streets again.

Delia is rich and could have any house she wanted, but prefers to stay with her best friend Sadie. Coincidentally, Sadie is engaged to Sergeant Jack Fitzgerald, who is investigating the serial killer with his good friend and partner Lieutenant Gabe Ryan. And it just so happens that Gabe’s father worked on the first case thirty years ago, so Gabe immediately spotted the killer’s pattern and realised they are hunting the same man. Sadie tries a bit of matchmaking with Delia and Gabe, and they all go to an international fair together, which is fortunate because it gets Delia and the detectives together right away. When the men learn that Delia sees ghosts, they share their own experience of seeing a ghost, which miraculously happens to be the same ghost haunting Delia! Shadow has been causing Delia to have dreams of her encounter with the killer, which is advantageous, because it means Delia can prove it’s the same ghost right then and there.

Luckily for Delia, everyone believes her about the ghosts, and they go to see a psychic who just so happens to have a tent at the fair. It’s a good thing that the psychic – Isadora – is the real deal and knows everything she needs to know about helping Delia deal with Shadow and figure out what happened to her. But of course Shadow can’t just lead them straight to the killer because then this would be a short story, not a novel. So Delia, the detectives and Isadora try to find the killer through the information they get from his victims’ ghosts. In the meantime, Delia and Gabe start falling in love.

I didn’t mean to write the plot summary like that, but I lapsed into snark mode because Delia’s Shadow is just so contrived and silly. It falls horribly flat in every way – as a mystery, as a romance, and as a ghost story. It’s not unnerving, tense, engaging or charming. Despite the fact that two of the major characters are policeman in charge of the serial killer case, there’s almost no detective work, like following clues, trying to understand the killer’s motives, how that influences his choice of victim, predicting what he might do next, etc. None of the interesting stuff that draws readers to crime novels. At most, they figure out that he’s following an ancient Egyptian ritual, but this is of no importance whatsoever. Gabe and Jack rely almost entirely on Delia and Isadora to make any progress in the case. Their only real job seems to be sending other policeman to provide a 24-hour guard service for Sadie and Delia, Isadora, and even Gabe’s landlady (because the killer might attack people close to the detectives).

Equally absurd, is the fact that they have the resources for 24-hour protection. Isadora gets a police guard right after they meet her at fair, based on the fact that she also saw Shadow and understands the connection to the killer. How the fuck does Gabe justify this to his squad? “Please protect this psychic. She saw the ghost of a woman the killer murdered 30 years ago.”

Mind you, no one ever questions Gabe’s decisions, and he and Jack are portrayed as exemplary detectives. Nevermind that there’s a killer running loose while the best policemen take Delia and Sadie shopping.

And then there’s the romance. I don’t usually enjoy romance, and I didn’t realise it would be a major feature of this plot. Also, it’s SO BORING. Gabe is still in mourning after his pregnant wife’s death in the earthquake, and neither nor Delia are looking for romance. Still, they hit it off immediately and their relationship progresses very quickly and smoothly. That’s part of the problem – it’s just too easy. Another problem is that, because the serial killer poses a danger to all the major characters, the romance – and the story in general – involves an awful lot of fretting about everyone’s safety, how terrible it’d be to lose someone to the killer, how difficult it is for Delia to see ghosts, how brave everyone is being, how very very dreadful this whole situation is. Basically a whole lot of mundane thoughts that people in this situation would naturally think about, but that don’t make for thrilling reading. A better author would have made it succinct but forceful. This is just a stream of blah blah blah.

And it’s all very traditional too. The men go out to investigate (not that they achieve anything), and make it their responsibility to protect the women. The women mostly stay at home wringing their hands, and only go out when escorted by men. Whenever Delia makes a major effort to get useful information from the ghosts, Gabe is there to hold her hand and catch her in case she swoons (which she often does).

No shortage of female stereotypes here. Sadie is a collection of them – she’s charm incarnate, likes matchmaking, and has a reputation as a gossip, but is a loving, caring person at heart. She makes little contribution to the story, except to connect everyone who does (Jack, Gabe, Delia and Isadora, who is also a friend of hers), and to be a perpetual damsel in distress

Delia annoyed the crap out of me with all her trembling, crying and worrying. And let’s not forget Annie, the black housekeeper, who is not just a female but a racial stereotype as well. Annie is happiest when she has people to feed, you can immediately tell she’s black because of her sentence structure, she sings hymns while working in the kitchen, has a forceful but caring personality (no one would dare refuse a plate of her pancakes!), and is full of wisdom.

Not that the male characters are any less cliche. Jack and Gabe are sturdy old-fashioned men, brave and strong and kind, worrying about their women and often sharing a chuckle over how smart and charming the girls are. Our villain is the very simplistic evil psychopath who kills people because of something that happened in his childhood.

The climax to this tedious story is predictable and surprisingly short. The killer only appears on the page for about five seconds. You get the sense that he was almost a sideshow, or an excuse for the drama and romance that characterises the story.

Honestly, this book got progressively worse as I read, and it continued to worsen the more I thought about it. Besides all the issues I’ve discussed, it’s riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies. And it has so much padding. Like descriptions of clothing and decor that are probably meant to build the historical setting, but which are totally irrelevant and will be forgotten the moment after you’ve read them. Or all the affection, concern, random observations and other useless blathering that comes out of the characters’ mouths. The author wastes words, and I felt like I wasted my time reading them.

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The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova

The Age of Ice by JM SidorovaTitle: The Age of Ice
Author: J.M. Sidorova
Published:16 July 2013
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: fantasy, historical, magical realism
Rating: unrated

This is the first time I’m giving up on a review copy. I’m a fairly determined reader. I’ve finished many books that I found to be tedious, badly written, or stupid (sometimes all three). But I can’t finish The Age of Ice, and I’m not going to try again later. Either I ran out of the determination I showed before, or this book is so boring it defeated me.

I was drawn in by the unusual premise – a Russian noble conceived in a palace made of ice finds that he’s immune to cold and has a weirdly long life-span. His story unfolds across Russian civil conflicts in the eighteenth century, a doomed Arctic expedition, and the Napoleonic Wars (which is where I stopped). It traverses Russia, Serbia, Paris and Afghanistan (I didn’t get that far). It’s two centuries long (but I couldn’t endure one).

What I expected was one of my favourite types of novel – the weird and wonderful creature you find at the intersection between literary and genre fiction. The blurb certainly gives that impression, throwing around words like “thrilling”, “stunning”, “original” and “genre-bending”. But as any reader will quickly find out, the blurb is wildly misleading. It places emphasis on the wrong plot points – the ice palace in which a disgraced nobleman and a humpbacked woman conceive Alexander and his twin brother, the boys’ idyllic childhood, and the brothers’ contrasting personalities. The conception and childhood however, are dispensed with in a couple of pages. Alexander and Andrei’s relationship is prominent at first, but Andrei dislikes his brother for rather vague reasons, buggers off out of the plot to live his own life, and then dies early on after a brief reappearance.

My genre-related expectations were also dashed. The fantasy or magical-realist aspects of this story – Alexander’s immunity to cold, his longevity and his inexplicable relationship with ice – just aren’t interesting. The historical aspect – described as “rigorous” in the blurb – is mind-numbingly dreary. The dense detail might be better appreciated by more dedicated fans of historical fiction (the research that went into this must have been rigorous, at least), but I found it suffocating.

Alexander’s fateful romantic relationships were the only things I found intriguing. Besides being immune to cold, his body can freeze others and form enduringly cold, hard ice. His flesh gets colder when he feels worked up or emotional, making sex and any kind of close physical relationship a serious problem for him. But these relationships get far less page time than such riveting content as Alexander slogging through the snow, Alexander taking the temperatures of dead fish, Alexander whining about being Old Man Frost. At one point I was so bogged down that I couldn’t remember the point of the characters’ current journey and didn’t care.

I could spend another month trying to drag my way through the rest of this, but I can’t take it anymore. I’m done.

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.