Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Delias ShadowTitle: Delia’s Shadow
Jaime Lee Moyer
Delia Martin
17 September 2013
Tor Books
historical fantasy, romance, mystery
review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

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.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconTitle: Lexicon
 Max Barry
18 July 2013
The Penguin Press HC
science fiction, thriller, mystery
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Two plot lines converge in Lexicon. In one, a man named Wil Parke is kidnapped to keep him safe from people who are trying to kill him. Wil doesn’t know how he could possibly have ended up in this situation, but that’s because his memory has been wiped. He used to live in a tiny Australian town called Broken Hill. Broken Hill had a population of over 3000 people. Now all of them are dead because of a single word. Except for Wil, who survived because he was immune.

In the parallel plot, Emily Ruff, a sixteen-year-old with a natural talent  for persuasion, is recruited by a mysterious and extremely wealthy but nameless organisation. They send her to their academy to train her to use words. This is not about rhetoric but about analysing people and using sets of keywords to hack their minds so that you can instruct them to do whatever you want. The people who do this are known as Poets. Emily isn’t particularly talented, but what makes her notable is her strong attack power and her disregard for the rules.

All of this can be quite confusing at first, particularly in Wil’s storyline where he struggles to get any kind of useful information out of Tom Eliot, the Poet who saved/kidnapped him (all the Poets use famous poets as aliases). But everything becomes clearer as the story progresses through Emily’s training and Eliot and Wil’s flight from the USA back to Broken Hills, Australia where the word is still killing everyone they send in to retrieve it.

I love stories about language, and Max Barry has made a particularly enjoyable sci fi thriller out of this one. Admittedly, it felt very familiar – Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson also used mind hacking and language mythology, and magic often serves similar functions in fantasy stories. But it was a great read nonetheless.

Also, unlike the stories this reminded me of, language and persuasion is the focus of the plot in Lexicon. Emily compares it to magic, suggesting that persuasion once took the form of magic, until it was studied, developed and organised:

“Once upon a time, there were sorcerers,” she said. “Who were really just guys who knew a little about persuasion. And some of them did all right, ruled kingdoms and founded religions, et cetera, but they also occasionally got burned to death by angry mobs, or beheaded, or drowned while being tested for witchness. So sometime in the last few centuries, maybe even just the last fifty or so, actually, they got organized. To solve the whole being-burned problem. And . . .” She gestured. “Here we are. No more beheadings.”

Emily’s education gives us an understanding of how it works. The students are all taught “attention words” which are words that basically cause people to stop, open their minds, and take in whatever instruction the speaker giver. Emily comes up with this rather useful explanation:

A word is a recipe. A recipe for a particular neurochemical reaction. When I say ball, your brain converts the word into meaning, and that’s a physical action. You can see it happening on an EEG. What we’re doing […] is dropping recipes into people’s brains to cause a neurochemical reaction to knock out the filters. Tie them up just long enough to slip an instruction past. And you do that by speaking a string of words crafted for the person’s psychographic segment. Probably words that were crafted decades ago and have been strengthened ever since. And it’s a string of words because the brain has layers of defenses, and for the instruction to get through, they all have to be disabled at once.

Yes, she’s info dumping, but I find this really interesting so I don’t mind. I also like the way the novel incorporates mythology like the Babel story into its plot. I actually wish there was more info dumping, because Emily mentions some myths I’m not familiar with.

Admittedly, it did get confusing on occasion, particularly since I’m not a linguist and I haven’t studied any kind of language-related science. I also got the feeling that, because I didn’t understand the science, I was buying into something that didn’t make any sense. The attention words used to compromise people felt particularly odd, since it’s just gibberish, like “Vartix velkor mannik wissick”. The idea that that could be used to hack someone’s mind seemed a bit unlikely. And does it still work if, for example, they wouldn’t pronounce those words the same way the speaker does? Because, as I understand it, there are different words for different languages, but languages themselves can be spoken with widely varied accents.

To keep things simple though, the book only deals with English speakers who have fairly similar accents. Persuasion is mostly limited to one-on-one confrontations. This doesn’t explain why the organisation exists though, so for that there are many breaks between sections where excerpts from news reports, blogs, and other media are used to give us a fuller understanding of the organisation’s purpose. This mostly involves data collection and information control. There are several news reports on events in the novel which show that the Poets have been at work, feeding people a fake story to cover up the truth. Some people manage to guess at the organisation’s workings, like in this comment on a $1.6 billion scheme to replace train tickets with smart cards that allow people’s movements to be tracked:

I’m not a privacy nut, and I don’t care that much if these organisations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they’re all working for that data, how much money they’re spending, and how they never admit that’s what they want. It means that information must be really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why.

The answer – at least in part – is that the Poets use this kind of information to analyse people. It’s how they built up the system of attention words, and in the age of information they can take their research so much further:

Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are. Which is . . . good . . . for us . . . obviously . . .

Not all of this is directly related to the plot, but I find it intriguing, and quite scary. It’s makes me nervous about how much information is on my Facebook page or how much I reveal about myself in my blog. It hints at how the Poets have been using their skills across the world, and the organisation hovers in the background of the story as this monstrously manipulative global power.

However, some readers may feel that there’s a major flaw here. The story focuses on a very dramatic and action-intense plot, which is great, but may leave you wondering about the more complex issues behind the story. How was the organisation formed? What exactly does it do with the Poets it trains? We get a few ideas, but these are asides. What could this story be about, if it was less like a Hollywood action movie, and more of a philosophical sci fi novel that delved deeper into the ideas at its core?

At times this kind of thing bothers me, when I feel like the author chose the lighter, more entertaining story over a more complex, thought-provoking one. In this case though, I think Lexicon strikes a good balance between action and ideas. The mysterious nature of the organisation gives you a curiosity that the novel never really satisfies, but at the same time the fact that you can’t know the whole truth is suitably disturbing. I’d love to read a more philosophical version that delves deeper into the organisation, but I like the thriller version a lot.

And I like the characters. Emily is tough and smart. I didn’t always like her or approve of her choices, but I wanted to follow her to the end of the story. Wil and Eliot made an unexpectedly amusing pair, because Wil keeps talking and asking questions and Eliot can’t stand him, but can’t bring himself to abandon Wil either. Initially I was annoyed that Eliot’s character seemed completely flat, but there’s a good reason for this. Poets operate by categorising people according to a system of 228 personality types or segments. Each segment has its own set of words for hacking (or “compromising” as they call it) those types of minds. To protect themselves from being compromised the Poets cultivate fake personalities or avoid showing any personality traits at all, hence Eliot’s bland personality. They need to avoid being characterised, so they can’t be religious or show vanity by being fussy about clothing. And personal relationships are out of the question.

It’s an extremely cold way of living that does not fail to have profound affects on the characters. And ultimately, their personalities and idiosyncrasies play an important role in the story. It’s not just about the ideas at work, but the people caught up in them, their emotions, and the decisions they make. All in all, it’s a fantastic sf thriller. And great holiday reading if you want something cerebral and action-packed.

DARK WINDOWS by LOUIS GREENBERG: Cover reveal and Joey Hi-Fi Interview

I have a particularly good post for you today: South African author Louis Greenberg asked me to do the cover reveal for his upcoming literary thriller Dark Windows, as well as an interview with artist Joey Hi-Fi. I will politely keep all squee-type noises to myself, but seriously, how awesome is this?!

Dark Windows – forthcoming from Umuzi in April 2014 – is Louis’s first solo project since The Beggars’ Signwriters was published in 2006. Since then he’s teamed up with Sarah Lotz to for the horror-writing duo S.L. Grey. Now he’s dabbling in the literary side of speculative fiction, which is my drug of choice. Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

Dark Windows is set in an alternative-present Johannesburg. A wave of New-Age belief has radically altered the country’s political landscape, but not everyone buys into the miracle. Gaia Peace, the party which swept to power ten years ago on the back of a miracle cure for crime and a revolutionary social welfare programme, is still firmly ensconced, but the cracks are showing.

Jay Rowan does his job and doesn’t ask questions. He’s already in probationary therapy for a drunk driving accident, and he’s not looking for trouble. Now Kenneth Lang, a veteran political aide, has hired Jay to paint in the windows of apparently random vacant rooms.

Lang has survived a long career of political change, and is not about to start questioning orders, even when they are as misguided as senior minister Meg Hewitt’s latest obsession, project Dark Windows. A mystical charlatan has convinced her that she can attract a world-changing supernatural visitation, the Arrival.

Beth Talbot, the married woman Jay is seeing, is compelled by the supposed suicides of two students in a residence building. Her growing interest in the case leads her to a seditious student group and back into the past she’s been trying to avoid.

A unique and genre-defying plot like that is perfectly suited to Joey Hi-Fi’s bizarrely beautiful illustrated covers. Joey’s work became well-known on the sff scene after designing covers for Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes and the Miriam Black series, Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human, and all of Lauren Beukes’s novels (most notably The Shining Girls and Zoo City). But enough phaffing about; here’s the cover you came to see:


Once again, Joey has created the kind of cover that makes me want the book regardless of what’s inside it. And here’s the man himself, to tell us all about it 🙂

Welcome to Violin in a Void Joey! It’s a great honour to have you. You’re one of the few people who’s had the privilege of reading Dark Windows; the rest of us will have to wait until next year. What did you think of it?

It grips you from the first page. It’s unusual, straddles a few genres and takes you to very, very unexpected places.
It’s an alternate history of South Africa you’ve never read before.
Unlike most cover designers, you’re known for immersing yourself in the novel before creating its ‘face’ – you read the book when possible and collaborate with both the author and the publisher. Can you describe this process for Dark Windows? What was it like working with Louis?

“She was screaming, but the door was locked. When they got inside, there was nobody. Just the window open. The way Trini likes to go. Sonia was on the bed, blood coming out everywhere.”

I loved The Mall, which Louis co-wrote with Sarah Lotz under the guise of S.L. Grey. It still has me looking nervously over my shoulder while shopping at malls! So I was very excited when the cover design brief for Dark Windows landed in my inbox.

That being said, It was fantastic working with Louis. He supplied me with additional info whenever I needed it – and his insights were invaluable during the design process. It’s always a plus when you have access to the author.
Although I try to apply the same steps in the design process to each book-cover-design project, every novel is obviously different and publishers and authors work in a variety of ways. Along with the brief, I usually ask for a manuscript and any other additional info (either from the author or publisher).
Along with the manuscript, I received a rough cover concept from Louis as well. His rough idea immediately intrigued me – but having not read the novel I wasn’t sure of it’s significance as yet. About 2 or 3 pages into the manuscript I was pretty sure that It was a solid direction for the cover. By the last page of the novel I was convinced of it.
The title of the novel is very evocative and conjures up a particular set of images in one’s mind. The plot in part deals with windows that are being painted black by the protagonist in the novel. So I thought that image would be unique and mysterious enough to draw the viewer in.
I also decided that the cover concept would be best communicated by using either a photo or a photorealistic illustration. I’m not a big fan of using stock photography on book covers, so In the end I decided to engage the warp drive on my Wacom pen and go the photorealistic illustration route.
Thus the cover is not one photo at all – but mostly an illustration with a little photography thrown in.
Illustrating the cover gave me more control over what kind of window frame I wanted, how I wanted the paint to look and what the atmosphere of the room should be.
Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Using Louis’s initial rough idea as a starting point I worked from there to produce a first draft. To get both Umuzi (the publisher) and Louis on board I initially presented a more pared-down version of the cover. I wanted them to be happy with the direction before taking the illustration and design further.

Once both Louis and the publisher were on board with the direction the cover was headed, we discussed ways to take it further. I’ve always loved working with positive and negative space. So The positive and negative spaces provided by the black paint seemed like the perfect opportunity to add additional detail to the cover. I liked the the idea of the cover having details which wouldn’t be immediately visible – but would be revealed upon closer inspection.
I then asked Louis for a list of elements he thought were key in the novel. Working from this list I picked a few which I thought would work on the cover.
I then weaved those into the illustration of the black paint.
Once I’d crafted the cover somewhat I presented the final draft of the cover – which was approved by Umuzi and Louis.
Thus the cover for the mysterious creature that is Dark Windows was born.

“the hospital’s obscene smokestack pumping burned waste-flesh into the air between spitting pines and concrete”

The title suggests windows made of tinted glass, but the blurb and your cover describe a window obscured with painted images. One reality blocks out another. What is is being covered up and why? Is this how Jay paints the windows?

As the cover and title suggests, part of the mystery in the novel involves windows which are being painted black by Jay (the protagonist in the novel). 
So the cover is inspired by a scene in the book. The images weaved into the black paint are more representative of events in the novel and are not mean’t to be taken literally. To find out  the significance of the black painted windows and various images you would have to read the book!
The cover could have focused only on the window pane, or the window and the frame, but it takes a step back to include the wall, putting the viewer inside a cold, hard space. Why the interior perspective?
The vacant rooms mentioned in the novel have their own dark story to tell. So I wanted to communicate that in a subtle way using lighting and colour.
I felt that just a close crop of a window would lack that uneasy, almost eerie atmosphere that I thought the cover needed.
Let’s look at the images on the window; what made you choose these?
All the images are inspired by events or characters from the novel. I wanted to choose a set of images that I thought would represent the world of Dark WindowsAnd since the novel deals with themes that are quite varied in nature, this meant everything from New Age symbols to ritual sacrifice to protesting students to political intrigue … and haunted rooms.

“A dreadlocked kid lolls against the jamb, holding a fat joint. The opaque smoke seems to defy the breeze as it wends upward from his hand against his dark T-shirt, but is finally whisked over his shoulder in the current.”

Louis described the novel as a “literary thriller”, and for me the cover evokes both mystery and horror. Many of the images are explicitly threatening (the screaming woman, the heavily armed police) while more innocuous images take on a sinister tone. The man having a hot stone massage looks to me like some kind of cultist or human sacrifice; the smoker with the dreadlocks looks more like a Predator than a human. Was this intentional or is it just my weird interpretation?

That was intentional. Although Dark WIndows is a ‘literary thriller’ it also has mystery and horror elements to it. All the images included on the cover depict scenes or characters from the book in some way. Since the novel has this undercurrent of unease and menace throughout, the images tend to lean towards the darker side. As you read the book the meaning behind each image will become clearer.
This is a relatively sparse piece compared to your other covers, which typically feature a riot of detailed illustrations. Does the tone of Dark Windows require a more subtle approach?
In a way yes. I obviously take my visual cues for the cover from the novel, and I let the novel dictate what the cover should be.
For Dark Windows, I thought the image of a window painted black captured the tone of the book well. I also felt it was an interesting and strong enough image to carry the cover.
Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

There’s a lot of texture in the paint of the window and the wall – will the cover have any finishes to match the visual with the physical?

I hope so! *Looks longingly at the publisher*. We have discussed adding a UV spot varnish for just the black paint on the window.
Well I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thank you so much for your time and insights Joey!
I also have to thank Louis for inviting me to do his cover reveal; it’s an honour and a pleasure to host it. I really enjoyed doing this interview, not only because I love Joey’s work but because it made me take a close look at every element in the Dark Windows cover.
I hope everyone finds this close-up equally illuminating. Now we just have to wait oh so patiently for Dark Windows to be published so we can discover the true significance of all those images and find out exactly what happened in those vacant rooms. I have already demanded my review copy…

The Never List by Koethi Zan

The Never List by Koethi ZanTitle: The Never List
Koethi Zan
16 July 2013
Pamela Dorman Books
crime, thriller, mystery
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

When Sarah and Jennifer were 12-years old, they were in a car accident that killed Jennifer’s mother and put both girls in hospital for four months. In a kind of post-traumatic pathology, they start making lists of things that can harm or kill them. They find a fragile comfort in their knowledge, believing it can protect them from danger. When they go to college, they start The Never List – a list of things they should never do: “never go to the campus library alone at night, never park more than six spaces from your destination, never trust a stranger with a flat tire. never, never, never”.

Their pathological caution makes it even more horrifying when they are kidnapped and held captive in a cellar with two other women. A psychology professor named Jack Derber keeps them chained up for days, only taking them out of the cellar to torture them. Three years later Sarah, Tracy and Christine escape, but by then Jennifer was already gone.

Ten years later, Sarah has changed her name and has a successful career, but never leaves her apartment and continues to participate in stunted therapy sessions. It’s only when she learns that Jack might be paroled for good behaviour that she’s motivated to step outside and do what she can to keep him locked up. Jennifer’s body was never found, so Jack was only convicted on kidnapping charges. Sarah believes that the letters Jack still sends to his captives hold the clues to finding out what happened to Jennifer. Once she finds the body he can be convicted of murder and she believes she can finally come to terms with her friend’s death and the horror of what happened to them in that cellar.

Despite being grossly impaired by her pathologies Sarah embarks on an informal investigation that takes her down far more perverse paths than she expected. Between a present-day narrative and flashbacks to Sarah’s captivity in Jack’s cellar, The Never List  tells a story of BDSM culture, torture and human cruelty.


Now, partly because I’ve read and watched a lot of mysteries crime thrillers, and partly because I often read them as a reviewer, I immediately start looking for potential twists and shocking conclusions. I find that many mysteries deal in devastation – it’s not so much about the complexity of a crime (as in a Sherlock Holmes mystery) but about how shocking and horrifying the crime can be. It’s hard to figure out the complex, Sherlock-Holmes-style crimes; It’s much easier to think of shocking twists and endings the author might have written. All you have to do is ask “what if?” and look for sadistic answers. I start asking “what if?” almost immediately and guessed two major reveals very early on. And as a result, I didn’t find this book as shocking as it probably intended to be. Certainly not Gillian-Flynn shocking, which is what the blurb promises. Not nearly as good as Gillian Flynn either.

But yes, I can be pedantic and over-analytical which is not a good thing if you’re going to read crime thrillers and want to be thrilled. Also, this book has other mysteries that I didn’t figure out, and it’s more than just a crime investigation. It’s also a story about a woman fighting against her psychological problems to punish the man who hurt her and achieve some kind of justice for his victims.

Sarah’s mental problems make it difficult for her to gather information. She has to leave her apartment which she hadn’t done in years. Once out in the world, she struggles to talk normally to people, simply because she’s out of practice. She avoids touching people, going out at night, going down narrow corridors to back rooms, getting into other people’s cars – myriad things that frequently force her to turn back instead of learning more.

It’s a good angle in theory, but for me Sarah wasn’t a strong enough character to keep me fully invested in the story. Of the three victims who escaped, Sarah has the most mental obstacles to overcome, yet she’s the least interesting of the narrators the author could have used. Christine and Tracy’s experiences were both more turbulent, yet both recovered more than Sarah did. Tracy in particular had a difficult childhood, mixed with a lot of subcultures, and became is an academic who could probably give us a better understanding of what Jack did to them and of the issues of torture and BDSM that come up.

Jack’s character is also neglected. We know he kidnapped the girls to torture them because torture fascinates him intellectually. We know he used their weaknesses against them, like telling Sarah that she could help Jennifer by enduring more pain. But we don’t know much more than this, and I think it’s a problem – you’re not given the chance to understand one of the novel’s most intriguing characters.

Sarah tells us that “On a good day, he simply did what he wanted with your body. […] On a bad day, he talked.” There are a few brief descriptions of the physical torture, but virtually nothing about what Jack said to them. It’s very likely that he chose Sarah and Jennifer because he knew about their pathological fear and caution, but this is never explored. In fact, the whole concept of ‘The Never List’ has no significance beyond the very beginning of the story. Also, Jack is a professor, and it’s obvious that all this torture has some kind of academic purpose, but we never find out exactly what that is. Why wasn’t that part of the initial investigation? Did everyone just assume Jack was nuts and chuck him in jail?

He remains a silent presence. While in jail he communicates only in vague, forgettable letters. Sarah thinks Jack has left clues about Jennifer’s body in those letters, but this barely amounts to anything. And we don’t learn anything about him during the flashbacks.

So, if you’re looking for a psychological thriller about a criminal psychopath, you’re not going to find it here. It focuses more on the psychology of the victims – Sarah’s PTSD, and her state of mind as a captive:

Captivity does things to you. it shows you how base an animal you can be. How you’d do anything to stay alive and suffer a little bit less than the day before.


I started hating myself for my weakness. I hated my body for what it couldn’t handle. I hated myself for begging and bringing myself low before this man. I dreamed at night of smashing his face, of rising up like a banshee, screaming, hysterical, full of strength. But then, inevitably, when, after days of starving me, he would come and feed me little bits of food from his own hands, I would suck it off his fingers like an animal, greedy, thankful and pathetic—a supplicant again.


The only variables I could register at that point were whether something caused me physical pain, or whether it alleviated the soulcrushing boredom of my day-to-day existence. By then I didn’t have much of an emotional range beyond that.

In addition to these details, the flashback narratives give us Tracy and Christine’s backstories in rather bland, extended info dumps. It’s hardly as “relentless” or “deeply disturbing” as the marketing blather claims Zan’s writing to be. The main mystery in the present-day narrative is similarly disappointing. It starts out well, then expands into unexpected territory, quickly sidelining the plot about finding Jennifer in favour of cults and criminal organisations, only to wander back to the Jennifer issue towards the disappointing ending.

Throw in a few deus ex machinas, implausible character behaviour (like Sarah meeting a relative stranger at a BDSM club at midnight), “shocking” revelations that don’t shock all that much, and it’s a pretty average thriller. It certainly doesn’t deserve the kind of hype it’s been getting lately. My advice – save it for a dull flight. It might seem more exciting that way.

The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla

The World of the EndTitle: The World of the End
Author: Ofir Touché Gafla
Translation: from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
Published:  First published 2004, Tor edition published 25 June 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: mystery, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

Ben Mendelsshon is a righter. In intellectual circles he’s known as an epilogist. What he does is ‘right’ other writers’ work by write endings for them. But the one ending Ben cannot handle is the death of his wife Marian in a freak accident. The couple were deeply in love and had what seemed like the perfect marriage. Unwilling to give up on it, Ben commits suicide in the hope of being reunited with Marian.

The afterlife he finds himself in is neither heaven nor hell. It’s just another world – the Other World – where all the dead keep on living in something similar to a standard, westernised city life, with a few decidedly odd differences, like the fact that there are no clothes so everyone walks around naked. Each individual is given an apartment based on the date and time they died, but when Ben goes to Marian’s apartment, he learns that if was left abandoned.

Desperate to find his wife but clueless as to how to do it, Ben enlists the help of Mad Hop, a passionate detective (whose nickname is based on his favourite fictional detectives – Marple, Dalgliesh, Holmes and Poirot). While they track down Marian, interlinking narratives play out in the world of the living. A famous artist who was once asked to paint Marian’s portrait has a stroke and ends up in a coma. His wife Bessie remains hopeful that he will wake up, while a socially dysfunctional nurse tries to convince Bessie to switch off the life support, as she does with all patients in that condition. The nurse, Anne, has fallen deeply in love with Ben, after seeing him in the gym on her daily walk home from work, and his unexplained absence upsets her.

In a more romantic love story, a man and woman begin an online romance based on their shared love of Salman Rushdie’s writing. Inexplicably, the woman is named Marian and recently divorced her bastard of a husband. Her presence is just as perplexing for the reader as her absence is for Ben. Is Marian dead or alive? Nothing quite makes sense.

It’s a convoluted mystery with loads of characters (I’ve mentioned fewer than half of them), but the story is actually fairly easy to follow. Gafla starts out with a bunch of seemingly disparate narrative threads and slowly begins to weave them together into a story that’s much bigger than it seemed at first. Ben’s search for Marian is still at the heart of it, but other characters’ lives and actions play into it in myriad ways that only the reader – who sees all the POVs – has the scope to appreciate.

It avoids being confusing at least partly because Gafla writes vivid, memorable characters. It’s clearly one of the things he loves most about writing fiction, and one of his greatest skills in the craft. His characters all have their own stories and quirks that are interesting in themselves, full of love, loathing, humour, horror, weirdness and wonder. So, when a character suddenly pops up several chapters after they were first introduced, they tend to be easily recognisable even if you’ve forgotten their names.

Gafla’s not quite so good when it comes to world-building though. Compared to our world, The Other World is a utopia of peace, technological advancement and immortality but it wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The enforced nudity supposedly makes people “infinitely more trusting, developing a reputable, honest society where costumes, masks, and other props are unnecessary”, but it seems impractical. I’d want shoes and sports bras at the very least. And since people still put on plays and other forms of entertainment, what’s wrong with costumes? Also, it’s very fucking odd, but it seems like everyone adjusts to it far too easily after living in a world that requires clothing.

Another world-building issue is the godget – a remote control that each person carries on a strap around their neck. The godget has six buttons, each of which is used to control some aspect of your existence – making it your favourite time of day, effecting your preferred mode of sleep (dreams, no dreams, number of hours), providing updates on the previous world. The way it works is really stupid. For example, button two controls your personal climate, so you click the button once for snowy, twice for cold but not rainy, three times for cold and rainy, and so on with the final option at twelve clicks. How does anyone remember how all these options? A technologically advanced world like this one would have come up with a much more user-friendly device. And if they can give you recordings of your ENTIRE life to watch, how can they still be using video tapes? It’s clearly stated that the Other World advances with the world of the living, so there’s absolutely no excuse for tapes.

However, I would say that you shouldn’t worry too much about the world-building. The World of the End is the kind of novel where that particular lapse in logic can be frowned at and then shrugged off because it’s not the focus of the book. The Other World is there to allow a certain story to play out, rather than as a serious speculation of how the afterlife might function (although it’s an infinitely better idea than heaven or hell).

What you do get then, are ideas on what kind of life you might lead in the Other World, because it’s really just another kind of life. Without currency or any need to work, people tend to do things because they’re passionate about them, like Mad Hop who has “always investigated for the right reasons, unadulterated curiosity. Nothing satisfies me more than the clean annihilation of question marks.” Famous artists, writers and musicians continue to produce new work, often using the technology of later centuries. People can carry their obsessions from one world to the next, they can change with the times (the technology of the present is available to all the dead of the past, for example), they can opt for eternal sleep if they can’t handle eternity. And face with eternity, people’s relationships have changed. Ben has to face up to the possibility that Marian might not want to be with him anymore, since death nullified their marriage vows. And if he finds her, they will eventually part ways anyway.

Admittedly, these ideas aren’t explored in great depth because it would detract from the main story and there just isn’t enough room. As you might have noticed, there’s a lot going on here, and later in the novel there’s also a lot of musing on Ben’s predicament. There’s a metafictional touch when Mad Hop suggests that Ben’s anguish comes not from the fact that he hasn’t found Marian but from the possibility that he might not find her – he’s a man who crafted endings for a living, and he assumed his suicide would either lead him to Marian (a happy ending) or oblivion (the end to all his stories). He did not imagine that Marian could go missing while life went on in new ways. I quite liked this and some of the other little musings by various characters, but this is also where the books takes a turn for the worse.

At the start, it’s a tightly-written, clever story. After the halfway mark, it starts to unravel. It gets a bit long-winded, the living-world narratives keep expanding, and the search for Marian is too unstructured. Mad Hop doesn’t seem like a particularly good detective. He doesn’t do much investigating himself; most of the time he shows Ben investigative paths, like sending him to speak to dead relatives that Marian may have contacted. Then, there are times when Ben happens to mention key information that he didn’t know would be useful. Each time, Mad Hop gets angry at Ben for holding back, but Ben doesn’t hold back; he just doesn’t know what’s important because he doesn’t know how the Other World works. It should be Mad Hop’s responsibility to ask the right questions.

I was starting to worry that this initially wonderful book would leave me disappointed, but I was happy with the way it ended. It’s not exactly a nice, neat ending, but by this point in the book you should know not to expect one. What Gafla does throughout the novel is give us a sense of human life with all its complications, absurdities, joys and disappointments, and the ending is no different. He never descends into dreary realism – on the contrary, so much of this novel is totally bizarre – but he tends to balance happy resolutions with bad ones and non-existent ones. I quite like it and I’m glad I read this one. It’s something very different for both mystery and spec fic readers.

Review of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P SingletonTitle: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
Elizabeth L. Silver
Crown Publishing
 11 June 2013
crime, mystery, drama
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

I know I did it. The state knows I did it, though they never really cared why. Even my lawyers knew I did it from the moment I liquidated my metallic savings bank hoarded in the bloated gut of a pink pig to pay their bills. I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.

When Noa P. Singleton was put on trial for killing Sarah Dixon, she never took the stand in her own defence, and the state’s weak, melodramatic case was enough to give her the death penalty. Now, after a decade in jail and her execution date six months away, Noa is suddenly approached by Sarah’s mother Marlene. At the trial, Marlene stated that Noa was exactly the kind of person the death penalty was designed for. Now, she offers to use her considerable influence as a high-powered attorney to get Noa granted clemency – life in prison instead of death.

In exchange, Marlene wants Noa to prove that she’s reformed, specifically by revealing the all the details that she never confessed during the trial – her motives and the specifics of what happened that day. Whether or not Noa deserves to be on death row, they both know that she was put there for the wrong reasons. Marlene sends her lawyer Oliver to speak to Noa, who begins telling her story, from the very beginning when her mother dropped her as a baby.

Which is kind of funny in the black way that Noa sometimes laughs at things if only to avoid crying about the way her life has turned out. This is a mystery novel, but it’d be more accurate to think of it as a tragic life story that led to a murder and a death sentence. At ten-months old (I’m rather sceptical about the idea that Noa has memories from such an early age, but whatever) Noa’s mother accidentally dropped her from the top of a second-floor stairway. Too embarrassed to admit what happened, she made up a ridiculous story about an intruder and proceeded to wreck Noa’s crib and the house as evidence for her lie.

In true Freudian style, Noa repeatedly looks to her past to explain or contextualise the later events of her life. This incident is mentioned several times, particularly because of her mother’s bizarre attempt to cover up the truth, as Noa has done. Being dropped as a baby is also the first in a long line of mishaps and tragedies that characterise Noa’s life. She was raised by a single mother who frequently changed boyfriends. She suffered a disastrous miscarriage, requiring an emergency abortion that left her unable to have children. She dropped out of college soon after and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with her life. Later, Noa’s estranged father gets in touch with her and tries to build a relationship with her. He’s an ex-con and a recovering alcoholic who is very obviously a relapse waiting to happen.

Although this sounds more like a drama than a crime novel, most of Noa’s story, down to the sad little details, eventually ties in to the murder, the trial and her sentence. A lot of it ends up being misused in the trial, which seems more like a soap opera than a serious legal procedure.

It turns out that Noa is actually the one writing the story we’re reading, doing her best to explain how she ended up on death row, why she never defended herself, why she committed murder in the first place. She sometimes suggests that she’s an unreliable narrator – revealing that a story she just told is a lie, or leaving out important events and details – but you get the impression that if she has misled you, she will eventually tell the whole truth. In between her biographical chapters, she also describes her conversations with Marlene’s lawyer Oliver (a sweet twenty-something who, unlike Marlene, is very serious about helping Noa), details about the death penalty in America, comments on how the trial was conducted (like the way the jury was frequently asked to ignore statements from witnesses, or how she was demonised as a bitter, barren psychopath), life on death row and so on.

Partly because Noa is the author here, your sympathy falls with her, the confessed, convicted murderer. She manages to be the heroine rather than the villain, even if you don’t quite like her (she’s certainly not cute and fluffy). If there is a villain of any kind, it’s Marlene, the mother of the murder victim. Noa says she “had never known Marlene to possess even a quarter of a heart, let alone a full one”, and even when accounting for the fact that Marlene is shown from Noa’s perspective, she really does seem to be a stone cold bitch. Her motives for wanting to get Noa granted clemency are purely selfish – she wants a means of getting the truth, and she wants Noa to spend the rest of her life wasting away in jail rather than being given an early escape. Which is a perfectly understandable attitude toward the woman who shot your daughter, until you realise that this is simply an example of Marlene’s cruel selfishness. The narrative actually includes some letters she writes to her dead daughter, but these don’t elicit sympathy so much as reveal Marlene to be the unstable, controlling woman that Noa warned us about.

I want to make a few comments on the writing and narrative style. The novel is easy to read, but Silver often makes attempts at being poetic that tend to be confused or just fall flat. Oliver actually criticises Noa’s metaphors at one point: “Lovely, Noa,” he said, spitting a bit of scoff my way. “Taking a poetry class via the post?” Based on that you could say that this style is a voice Silver crafted for Noa, but sometimes Marlene does it too.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that a couple of chapters are little more than lists. Between telling her life story, Noa gives us trivia related to her experience at the trial an in prison – excuses people make to avoid jury duty, final words of people who’d been executed, final meals. Some of this is interesting for a short while, but it quickly gets tedious without adding anything to the story. It’s also unclear where Noa gets this information, since she’s stuck in prison with few connections to the outside world.

But flaws aside, this is a pretty good read and an impressive debut novel. I loved the way the main characters’ psychology unfolded as the novel progressed, with all their twisted issues about family, guilt and atonement. It moves relatively slowly for quite a while, but by the last quarter or so I was anxious about how it would turn out. If I’d read it in print instead of on a Kindle I’d have had to stop myself from ‘accidentally’ glancing at the final pages. And any mystery that has that effect on me has done its job.


Review of Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellTitle: Murder as a Fine Art
David Morrell
Mulholland Books
7 May 2013
historical, crime, mystery, metafiction

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.