Tag: murder mystery

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is a Thomas Pynchon novel. That…pretty much sums up what I have to say about it.

In what the publisher is billing as a sort of hard left on Pynchon’s part, it’s a murder mystery. It’s also set in 1970s California, among permanently stoned hippies. So, you know, we’re right back in Pynchon territory again.

Our Hero is Doc, a private investigator who also happens to be one of those permanently stoned hippies. (Think Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, only with prettier sentences.) He’s asked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta to find her new lover, Mickey, a real-estate mogul who’s gone missing. Then someone frames Doc for the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and, oh, the plot from there on out is best described as “labyrinthine”. Or, indeed, “Pynchonian”, which is much the same thing.

I liked it. There are things that threw me out momentarily – the male gaze is strong with this one – but, overall, I liked it. That’s, I think, because I’m a sucker for gnarly books, books with long winding sentences like this one:

Uphill and invisible, traffic out on the boulevard to and from the freeway uttered tuneful exhaust phrases which went echoing out to sea, where the crews of oil tankers sliding along, hearing them, could have figured it for wildlife taking care of nighttime business on some exotic coast.

Dreamy, elegiac, cluttered, full of stuff that never quite comes into focus, Pynchon’s prose is a microcosm of the world his novels evoke – a world teetering on the edge of comprehensibility. Murder mysteries are supposed to bring order out of chaos; what Inherent Vice does is bring something that could be order, in a certain light, just to the point where it’s not quiiite in focus yet. It’s like listening to someone with a heavy accent: true clarity remains tantalisingly unachievable.

Anyway. That’s what I liked about Inherent Vice. It’s not Pynchon’s best novel. It’s not particularly memorable as Pynchon goes. But…it was pretty cool to live in for a little while.


Review: Provenance

While Ann Leckie’s Provenance is technically a standalone novel, it’s set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary series, which obviously invites comparisons – and not necessarily favourable ones.

More about that in a minute. The planet on which Provenance is set, Hwae, lies far away from Radch space, where the Ancillary trilogy is set; it’s a human culture that recognises three genders, and which lies very close to the planet of the Geck, one of the three sentient alien races in Leckie’s universe, incomprehensible and thus terrifying. Our Heroine is Ingray Aughskold, a young woman adopted into a high-ranking family, who frees a high-security prisoner convicted of forging valuable historical artefacts as part of a plan to outmanoeuvre her brother in a bid to be named her mother’s heir.

(Yes. It’s one of those novels.)

Of course, things go horribly wrong, and instead of playing an admittedly fairly high-stakes game of family power politics, Ingray finds herself at the centre of a murder case: an ambassador from a nearby planet with an interest in controlling trade access to Hwae is found stabbed in a public park, killed while Ingray was feet away.

And, for a good half of the novel, it feels like that’s what Leckie’s serving us: a murder mystery wreathed in complex alien politics. But Provenance has an odd double structure: the murder mystery winds itself up sooner than we think it will, and we find once more that there’s something a lot more serious going on, something that threatens the delicate treaty that prevents the Geck and, more importantly, the infinitely violent and infinitely alien race the Presger, from waging war on humanity, and vice versa.

That double structure is key to what the novel’s doing, I think. Provenance pares away almost all of the action and adventure of the Ancillary trilogy, to leave only Leckie’s interest in politics and etiquette and how people navigate the power structures they find themselves enmeshed in. In other words, to me Provenance is essentially concerned with identity politics: how people construct and perform themselves. There is a focus on things that SFF readers might be used to thinking of as trivial: on clothes, on interior space (parts of the novel take place on a spaceship, and Leckie is meticulous in describing how the characters move around each other in the narrow corridors), on food. Hwae society places great stock in “vestiges”, historical artefacts related to family history – the authenticity or otherwise of these drives the plot at several key moments. There’s a moment when a character calls out the press for refusing to use the name ey’ve chosen for emself:

you all flew here from the capital this morning so you could shout questions at me in person, but you can’t bring yourself to use the name I want to go by

There’s a whole storyline about a character identifying himself as Geck (though he looks human, the Geck do have hangers-on who are genetically altered humans) and what that means legally. And so on. Identity politics: not just how we create identities for ourselves, but specifically how we perform and negotiate them with others, and how the choices we make when we’re with other people are always loaded, always political. Provenance dramatises that slogan of second-wave feminism, “the personal is political”.

And so, that double structure is asking us to look twice at everything we see. A murder that looks personal is deeply political. Choices that look personal – how we dress, how we name ourselves, what we eat – are deeply political.

It’s always worth asking: why this genre? In this instance, why does Provenance need to be SF? What would it lose by not being SF?

It’s important, I think, that the culture(s?) we encounter in Provenance is (are?) an alien one; not alien in the SFnal sense but in the sense that it runs on different rules, and that, crucially, those are rules we have to figure out as we go along. That work of, essentially, reverse engineering the rules of a culture from how people act within it is work that estranges our own culture from us; like the novel’s double structure, Provenance teaches us to re-read the world, to pay attention to the myriad lines of power and influence that underlie even our most mundane interactions.

This is all brilliant and fascinating and (that overused word) timely, of course, and I really enjoyed Provenance (although I can’t honestly say I grasped all the intricacies of the interplanetary politics). But: it does just feel a little less urgent than the Ancillary trilogy, which dealt with issues like slavery and bodily autonomy and imperialism – grappling with the idea of power in a much more direct way. Provenance feels like a step back into provincialism. It’s very far from bad. But neither is it mind-blowing.

Review: They Do It With Mirrors

They Do it With Mirrors is an Agatha Christie novel. You know what to expect.

Miss Jane Marple, little old lady and amateur sleuth extraordinaire, is sent by an old school friend, Ruth, to Stonygates, a dilapidated mansion belonging to Ruth’s sister Carrie Louise. Ruth is worried about her sister, but can’t put her finger on why. Is it because Stonygates now plays host to a home for delinquent boys? Because of Carrie Louise’s adopted granddaughter Gina’s sulky American husband, newly come to a country he doesn’t like? Because of Carrie Louise’s husband’s unstable secretary Edgar Lawson?

Before Miss Marple can work it all out – but still probably quite a bit later than we were all expecting – the inevitable corpse turns up: that of Christian Gulbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s stepson and a trustee of the home for delinquent boys. What’s more, someone’s been slowly poisoning Carrie Louise. Who is the murderer?

I do like the occasional Agatha Christie: there’s something inexpressibly cosy about her novels, a combined function of their being set in a time more polite, more formal than the present day and their core pretence that something as inexplicable and excessive as murder is rational and solvable. They posit a world that is essentially logical, one where everything makes sense and everything can be worked out and where there are only ever a limited number of variables. They posit a world that runs on rules: there is a deviation from the rule of law, but by the end of the novel justice has been served, the offender has been punished, and order is restored.

This is a lie, of course, and not a particularly elegant one. They Do it With Mirrors is not a particularly renowned Christie, probably because it is both underbaked and overworked: I couldn’t help thinking, when the solution of the murder was revealed, that it all seemed like a lot of effort to go to, when there were probably a host of better and less obvious ways of going about it.

Of course, those ways wouldn’t make half so good a story. Or, at least, they’d make a different kind of story. As the title suggests, They Do it With Mirrors is slightly aware of its own artifice: its plot hinges on stagecraft and on misdirection, after all. It knows itself to be a magic trick, a way of telling us that the world looks one way when actually it’s something quite different.

Only, you know, this is an Agatha Christie novel. If you’re looking for profound meditations on the nature of murder and the ineffability of the world, you’re in the wrong place. It’s a tiny pocket universe where everything runs like clockwork, like a magic trick, and everyone has reasons for doing what they do, and poetic justice and rational thinking come neatly to package up the messiness of the real hermetically and hygienically. It’s cosy. It’s an escape. Some days, that’s enough.

(Really, though: not my favourite Christie. Try The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side instead.)

Review: Touch

I’ve been vaguely wanting to read Touch for a couple of years now, firstly because I read (and, apparently, commented on) a favourable review of it at the Book Smugglers in 2015, and secondly because author Claire North is also Kate Griffin, she who wrote the love letter to London which is A Madness of Angels, and also Catherine Webb, author of the Horatio Lyle series for younger readers.

Touch is technically fantasy, but it seems to have been positioned more as a thriller, which perhaps explains the variously hyperbolic cover quotes from reviewers calling it the most original thing since sliced bread. This, alas, seems to be the general fate of anything vaguely SFF gaining any kind of success in a non-fantastical market: critics and readers gushing as if they’ve discovered something entirely new, while seasoned SFF readers shake their heads over a novel that’s actually quite ordinary.

And so it is with Touch.

Touch‘s main character is Kepler. Kepler is a ghost, which in this context means an entity who can pass from body to body with a single touch (geddit? I didn’t, not for a frankly ridiculous length of time anyway), stealing lives along with bodies. When Kepler’s host Josephine is murdered, Kepler swears to find out why – and discovers that a shady organisation named Aquarius is hunting down and killing ghosts.

How many times did I use the word “Kepler” in that last sentence? One of the things that becomes very obvious about Touch when you try and write about it is that Kepler as Kepler doesn’t have a gender identity; or, rather, Kepler’s gender identity is tied to the sex of the body Kepler’s inhabiting. I think I would find this, and its implication that gender and sex are straightforwardly the same thing, less problematic if it were tackled head-on: how does Kepler identify in the body of an intersex person? Or a transitioning person? It’s implied that other ghosts identify differently – certainly one of them calls Kepler out on Kepler’s total appropriation of a host’s identity and history, including their gender (and their name; it’s Aquarius that comes up with the name “Kepler”, not the ghost) – but this isn’t explored, which feels like an unbelievably huge missed opportunity.

In fact, that’s really how the whole novel feels. It’s a shame that this intriguing premise has been shoved into a box marked “thriller”: the taut pacing that genre demands doesn’t give the questions Touch raises about identity any space to breathe. There’s also a line of thinking buried somewhere in the novel about the morality of survival: the ghosts’ only choice is between oblivion and stealing someone’s life (there’s a character in Touch whose body is sixty but who, thanks to hosting a ghost, has only actually experienced twenty years of his life, which is too horrible to think about for very long). But this never goes anywhere in particular either; in fact, our pity for the human hosts robbed of decades of life feels like an afterthought, secondary to Kepler’s quest for revenge against Josephine’s killers.

I mean: I didn’t hate Touch. It passed the time. It’s competently written, competently paced, competently characterised – Kepler feels like a real person, a person we sympathise with, and Kepler’s love for Kepler’s willing human hosts is genuine and in some cases achingly sad. It’s just that there’s better stuff out there doing the same thing: David Mitchell’s Horologists (The Bone Clocks) are more convincing as body-hopping immortals, and his novel is more nuanced and complex too. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is better at exploring characters unmoored from their bodies and their gender identities – as is, for that matter, Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit (whose predecessor, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, was another SFF novel that received mainstream recognition). I’d recommend any of those novels over Touch.

2017 Roundup

Happy New Year, dear reader!

Let’s hope 2018’s a bit kinder to us all than 2017 was, shall we?

My Favourite Things of 2017

Book: Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Re-reading my review reminds me how clever I found this novel on my first reading of it, but really it’s here because it’s such a comforting read. I love its gentle narrative arc, the way it takes its heroine on her first tentative, hopeful steps towards a future that’s, once again and exactly, full of potential.

TV: Class: Detained. I am sad that Class has been cancelled: it’s pretty much the only TV show aside from Doctor Who I’ve been watching this year, and pretty much all of its storytelling has been pitch-perfect. Detained probably stands out for me because it really makes its SFnal concept work to support its character development, and its young actors do a fantastic job in making it feel believable and claustrophobic.

Film: MoanaI was apparently terrible at seeing films in 2017, so I don’t have very much to choose from. Moana‘s the best of a bunch I have mixed feelings about: it does have a female POC protagonist with no discernible love interest, and I’m still listening to the songs ten months on.

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2017Next year I’m going to drop the Misc. category, on the basis that the answer will henceforth always be “Nine Worlds”. Because obviously.

2017 Reading Stats

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 85 books in 2017, absolutely smashing my target of 73.
  • The longest book I read was One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, which, at 839 pages, was, honestly, kind of tedious. (If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first volume of 27. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.) The shortest was Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, at just 80 pages. Overall I read 30,893 pages – considerably up from last year’s 26,492.
  • The oldest book I read in 2017 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a re-read, first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2017 was 44 – up from last year’s 16, probably at least partly because of all the old-school SF I’ve been reading.
  • Genre: As usual the biggest single genre I read in was fantasy – I read 39 fantasy novels (45%), 18 SF novels (21%) and eight lit-fic novels (9%), as well as five each from non-fiction and historical novels, three “classic” novels (which I’ve categorised as such to distinguish them from commercial lit-fic), two “humour” novels and a detective story (The Waste Land, which I suspect actually belongs in “humour”). My reading, in other words, has seen pretty much the same genre split it did last year.
  • I read 10 YA novels (12%) – that’s lower than last year, when YA made up about a quarter of my reading.
  • Just 11% of the books I read this year were re-reads! That’s almost half last year’s 21% – I’m pleased with this.
  • 46% of the books I read in 2017 were by women. That’s disappointing; I thought I’d done better than that.
  • And 18% of the books I read in 2017 were by POCs. I don’t have a target for this one – it’s difficult to know what the baseline should be, and I didn’t count last year – but I’m reasonably pleased with this.

Review: Soulless

This review contains spoilers.

Mrs Loontwill…burst into the room. Only to find her daughter entwined on the couch with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, behind a table decorated with the carcasses of three dead chickens.

Which is Soulless in a sentence. And it is glorious.

Some context: Soulless is the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, an immensely satisfying confection of steampunk, paranormal romance and British wit. (Which is particularly remarkable given the fact that Carriger’s actually American.) When a lone vampire is found murdered in a library (totally not stabbed with a sharp parasol, no not at all), Alexia Tarabotti, confirmed spinster with an unfashionably Italian complexion and decidedly unbiddable demeanour, becomes drawn into the investigation, alongside the ruggedly handsome werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

High jinks ensue, as they inevitably do in these situations, helped along by the fact that Alexia has no soul, and can thus turn vampires and werewolves temporarily human while she’s touching them.

The best thing about Soulless is that it is completely aware of how utterly ridiculous its premise and its plot are. It knows that no actual Victorian gentlewoman would ever be allowed to get herself into half the compromising situations Alexia finds herself in (let’s just say that there’s a lot of entwining). It also knows that letting Victorian women do what they would never have done is part of what steampunk’s for: it is wish fulfilment, and also an exploitation of a historical moment (Soulless is set in an alternative 1873) when femininity was on the cusp of becoming something new. It’s partly that tension, between tradition, etiquette, the trappings of wealth (Soulless is obsessed, again in a gloriously knowing, over-the-top way, with stuff: colourful Victorian costumes – many of them worn by the gay vampire Lord Akeldama – mouthwatering cakes, carriages and carpets and those devoured chickens), and social progress, the boldness of youth, that draws us back to steampunk, I think. It’s a space in which the future is both full of potential and bounded in very specific ways, and that’s an interesting site to explore.

Of course, because it is steampunk, and a romance, its progressiveness is limited. It centres privilege: Alexia may have been passed over for a husband, and her mother and stepfather may not be loving parents exactly, but they hardly deprive their daughter. Delightful as the novel’s interest in manners is – Alexia is more likely to spike a piece of cake with her fork than drive a stake into a vampire’s heart – it’s also symptomatic of steampunk’s central flaw: its conviction that, to put it flippantly, etiquette and breeding make the world more shiny. Adam Roberts explains it better than I do (in his review of Aurorarama, printed in Sibilant Fricative):

…the ground of [steampunk’s] appeal is a sense that the modern world is lacking in refinement. What steampunk tells us is that there’s nothing to prevent the marriage of contemporary technological convenience with the elegance and good manners of the 19th century. shorthand for this, of course, is breeding, and to think of it like that is to understand the extent to which steampunk is embroiled in reactionary ideologies of class superiority.

And: Alexia is headstrong, intelligent, pragmatic and active – in other words, a female character who’s allowed to be as complex as her male counterparts – but she does also end up married. Her revolutionary potential, her infinitely-horizoned future, is tamed, redirected into heterosexual romance. It is, undoubtedly, a particularly satisfying romance, and a better match than a lot of female characters get – I don’t want to downplay that at all – but it does still represent a closing-down, a narrowing of horizons. This is not a novel that has solutions for other women like Alexia, or indeed for lower-class women.

But that’s not what Soulless is aiming for, after all: it’s aiming for affectionate parody, for lovely romance, for a bold female character who knows what she wants, for a swift plot with vampires and werewolves and insults and cake.

So: take it as it is, and it is glorious.

I’ve asked for the sequel for Christmas.

Top Ten Character-Driven Novels

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is more or less a plotless novel; it relies entirely on what you think of its protagonist Meg. I think she’s great: Thomas has a real talent for writing characters you care about despite their mistakes.
  2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. The ensemble cast who lead this novel – another one that’s pretty much structureless – range from a vilely racist human to a polyamorous sentient lizard. They all have their own backstories, their own struggles; Chambers gets under the skin of all of them, to try and help us understand why they are who they are. If this book is about anything, it’s about very different people working together to support each other. It’s lovely.
  3. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. OK, this one technically does have a plot, but it’s only perfunctory. Really, we’re reading for four broken strangers, their wretched humanity rendered beautiful by Valente’s infinitely sympathetic gaze and her prose precious as hoarded gold.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is Gothically strange and dense: its characters are at one and the same time Dickensian grotesques and deeply, richly psychologically imagined. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve read.
  5. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. There’s some postmodern trickery going on here, but unlike many novels that play with textual authority it has character at its heart: specifically the character of Blue van Meer, a lost, precocious teenager scrabbling for a deeper meaning to her life.
  6. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. I’ve only read this once, a few years ago, but it’s stuck with me. Like Pessl’s novel, its postmodern trickery is all in the service of building up a character, as Charles Kinbote’s commentary on his neighbour’s unfinished poem spirals further and further away from its initial performance of cool criticism.
  7. Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter. At the heart of Carter’s novel is Fevvers, a larger-than-life circus woman who resists all attempts to define her or pin her down. She’s awesome.
  8. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. It’s not individual characters that Novik’s interested in so much as their relationships. Temeraire is a Regency comedy of manners, really, and Novik’s excellent at delineating the rigid social structures and codes that define her characters’, behaviour.
  9. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Like Naomi Novik, Leckie’s fundamentally interested in social structures and how they define and proscribe relationships. Unlike Temeraire, though, Ancillary Justice has a protagonist with a degree of complexity: an AI who has lost her hive mind and who’s bent on revenge.
  10. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood. At the heart of Atwood’s novel is convicted Canadian murderess Grace Marks, a woman born into poverty who spends her life fighting the male gaze.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)