Monday, 13 June 2016

Book Review | End of Watch by Stephen King


Retired Detective Bill Hodges now runs a two-person firm called Finders Keepers with his partner Holly Gibney. They met in the wake of the Mercedes Massacre, when a queue of people was run down by the diabolical killer Brady Hartsfield.

Brady is now confined to Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, in an unresponsive state. But all is not what it seems: the evidence suggests that Brady is somehow awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.

When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill's heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.

The clock is ticking in unexpected ways...

***

The Bill Hodges trilogy that began with the Edgar Award-winning Mr Mercedes and continued in last year's fearsome Finders Keepers comes to an uncharacteristically concise close in End of Watch, a finale which finds Stephen King's determined old det-ret racing against the clock to get to the bottom of a string of suicides he thinks could be linked to the malignant mind behind the Mercedes Massacre:
On a foggy morning in 2009, a maniac named Brady Hartsfield drove a stolen Mercedes Benz into a crowd of job-seekers at City Center, downtown. He killed eight and seriously injured fifteen. [...] Martine Stover had been the toughest [survivor] to talk to, and not only because her disfigured mouth made her all but impossible to understand for anyone except her mother. Stover was paralysed from the chest down. (p.16)
The adjustment has been damned difficult, but in the seven years since the incident, Martine has come to terms with her limited mobility. She and her mother, who stepped up to the plate in the wake of that darkest of dates, have grown closer than ever before. They've been, by all accounts, happy—hard as that might for some outsiders to imagine—and happy people don't force overdoses on their dearly beloved daughters then takes cannisters of gas into the bath, do they?

Because of Hodges' history with Hartsfield, he and his recalcitrant partner Holly Gibney are, as a courtesy, invited to see the scene of what the police are keen to call a murder-suicide, and although the evidence in support of that theory is clear, when our PIs find a Zappit—a budget-brand tablet Hodges has seen the object of his obsession play with in the past—they can't help but suspect a connection.

But how could Mr Mercedes be involved in the deaths of Martine Stover and Janice Ellerton when he's basically brain-dead himself?

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Book Review | The Fireman by Joe Hill


No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.

Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the unborn child she is carrying comes to term.


***

Unlike some, I have a soft spot for Heart-Shaped Box, and a lot of love for Horns, but even I'd agree that NOS4A2 is Joe Hill's strongest novel—not least, I believe, because it's also his longest. The larger than life-sized story it told and the complex characters explored over its engrossing course simply couldn't have come to be without the room to breathe its length allowed, so when I found out The Fireman was similarly thick, I was pleased.

And it's an awesome novel, naturally: an apocalyptic parable written from the perspective of an infectiously happy heroine every millimetre as meaty and memorable as Ms. Vic McQueen, and whose hellish ex gives Charles Talent Manx a run for his money. But for all that The Fireman kicks off brilliantly and ends tremendously well, the middle section of the text—an epic in and of itself—tends towards the plodding and the predictable.

It begins with the world burning.

It's been burning for months, as a matter of fact, but only "in filthy places no one wants to go," you know. So sayeth Harper Grayson's asshole of a husband. And it's true that the first recorded cases of Draco Incendia Trychophyto—a spore that marks its hosts with gorgeous golden growths before causing them to suddenly combust—it's true, at least according to the news, that the so-called 'Scale originated elsewhere.

Some say the Russians engineered it. Others insist on the involvement of ISIS, or, failing that, fundamentalists fixated on the book of Revelations. Truth be told, its source isn't so important, because the thing about fire is, it spreads—and with it, this incipient sickness. Before long, "fifteen million people are infected. Maine is like Mordor now," Harper has it: "a belt of ash and poison a hundred miles wide. Southern California is even worse. Last I heard, SoCal was on fire from Escondido to Santa Maria."

With "her silliness and her sense of play and her belief that the kindnesses you showed other added up to something," said school nurse is just about the sweetest human being there's ever been, so whilst her increasingly hysterical other half hides, Harper helps, however she can. Alas, lending a hand at the local hospital leads to her developing symptoms of the 'Scale herself—just hours after she learns she's pregnant.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Book Review | The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North


My name is Hope Arden, and you won't know who I am. But we've met before—a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

***

Life is complicated—not least because it's so frickin' unpredictable. But there are a few things you can be sure of. One day, you and I will die; come what may, there'll be plenty of taxes to pay along the way; and, as Isaac Newton concluded, for every action, an equal and opposite reaction will happen.

In real terms, that means that what we do dictates what is done to us. Hurt someone and you can expect to be hurt in turn. Make someone happy and perhaps they'll pay that happiness back. This behavioural balance relies on our ability to remember, however. Without that... well, what would you do if you knew the world would forget you?

You'd let loose, wouldn't you?

Hope Arden, for her part, does exactly that in Catherine Webb's third novel as Claire North, which, like Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before it, is an engrossing, globe-trotting interrogation of identity that sits comfortably between Bourne and Buffy.
For a while after I'd been forgotten, I toyed with becoming a hitman. I pictured myself in leather jump suits, taking down my targets with a sniper rifle, my dark hair billowing in the wind. No cop could catch me; no one would know my name. I was sixteen years old, and had peculiar ideas about 'cool.'
Peculiar, to be sure, but so is Hope's very particular predicament.

You'd be forgiven for forgetting someone you see on the street; even someone you speak to, briefly. But neglect to remember your best mate and that relationship's in dire straits. Fail to recognise your son or your daughter and you've got a problem with a capital P. North's poor protagonist has had to deal with that every day since she came of age, in her every interaction with everyone she's ever met. Never mind the network of people she'd need to know her if she had a hope in hell of holding down a normal job: she's a complete stranger to her parents, and her closest friends look at her like an interloper.

It's a credit to her character, then, that Hope—"having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me if I'm right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me"—still holds the sanctity of human life in high regard. So scratch that career as an assassin.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Book Review | The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin


In life I was a scientist called Fanning...

...then, in a jungle in Bolivia, I died...

I died, and then I was brought back to life.

Prompted by a voice that lives in her blood, the fearsome warrior known as Alicia of Blades is drawn towards to one of the great cities of The Time Before. The ruined city of New York. Ruined but not empty. For this is the final refuge of Zero, the first and last of The Twelve. The one who must be destroyed if mankind is to have a future.

What she finds is not what she's expecting: a journey into the past, to find out how it all began, and an opponent at once deadlier and more human than she could ever have imagined.

***

The epic journey that began in The Passage finally comes full circle in The City of Mirrors, a proper doorstopper of a novel that satisfies somewhat in spite of its sheer size and a hell of a hammy bad guy.

I have such fond memories of the beginning of this trilogy, which paired an awesome and expansive apocalypse—one up there, in my estimation, with the end of the world in Swan Song and The Stand—with a truly heartbreaking tale of loss on the small scale. By the denouement of that book, I had no idea where the story as a whole was going to go, but I knew that I wanted to know. And then... well.

The Twelve wasn't terrible. It had a couple of a kick-ass action scenes, and some stirring slower moments that allowed Justin Cronin to explore the emotions of his vast cast of characters. But almost every other inch of that many-inched monolith of a novel felt like filler; texture at best and time-wasting at worst. In that respect, The City of Mirrors splits the difference. It doesn't meander as much as its messy predecessor did, but nor, on the back of such bloat, and with more of its own to add to the tally, can it recapture the magic of The Passage.

"Three years had passed since the liberation of the Homeland" (p.18) that ended The Twelve, and almost a hundred thousand souls now call the walled city of Kerrville, Texas home. Considering how catastrophic the survivors' situation seemed until recently, that's reason enough to be optimistic, never mind the fact that there hasn't been a single viral sighting since:
The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking, and Kerrville was the place where this new age would begin. So why did it seem so meager to [Peter], so frail? Why, standing on the dam of an otherwise encouraging summer morning, did he feel this inward shiver of misgiving? (p.15)
Perhaps because Peter—the leader of the resistance that took down the Twelve viral progenitors, and in turn the millions of vampires they had sired—has lost his sense of purpose. Or perhaps because "people had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall," (p.15) and he can't believe that the threat is actually at an end.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Book Review | Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request—and possibly to do more—and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman, posing as a doctor’s wife, but sent by Seressa as a spy.

The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif—to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.

As these lives entwine, their fates—and those of many others—will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world...

***

Children of Earth and Sky sees contemporary fiction's finest fantasist return to the site of the Sarantine Mosaic and the subject of The Lions of Al-Rassan in a magnificently modest affair more interested in the myriad men and women caught in the crossfire of the holy war that flickers around its fringes than it is that momentous event.

The most apparent casualty of the the conflict so far is the city of cities itself, for just as Constantinople was toppled by the Ottomans, Sarantium in all its unimaginable majesty has finally fallen to the followers of an indomitable conqueror. It's known, now, as Asharias, "and the man who ruled there amid gardens where silence was apparently the law on pain of strangulation [...] wanted to rule the world." (pp.64-65)

You might imagine his megalomaniacal designs would inspire the several cities in the vicinity to put aside their trivial differences—after all, if Sarantium can be successfully sieged, then nowhere is safe from the Osmanli Empire's plans to expand. You'd be mistaken, I'm afraid. Sadly for the people of Seressa and Dubrava, the governing bodies of Kay's vibrant versions of Venice and Dubrovnik are entirely too dependent on trade to even consider open conflict:
For the Seressinis, the idea of peace, with open, unthreatened commerce, was the most important thing in the god's created world. It mattered more (though this would never actually be said) than diligent attention to the doctrines of Jad as voiced by the sun god's clerics. Seressa traded, extensively, with the unbelieving Osmanlis in the east—and did so whatever High Patriarchs might say or demand. (p.5)

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Book Review | Central Station by Lavie Tidhar



A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. The city is literally a weed, its growth left unchecked. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper.

When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris’s ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally-ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.

Rising above them is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.

At Central Station, humans and machines continue to adapt, thrive... and even evolve.

***

World Fantasy Award winner Lavie Tidhar rewrites the rules of the short story collection in Central Station, an ambitious assemblage of thirteen tales tall but indubitably true that are all the more remarkable when read together.

"Substantially different versions" (p.251) of eleven of the efforts it collects were previously published, in various venues, between November 2011 and September 2014, and the handful of them that I read then impressed me immensely. 'The Smell of Orange Groves' and 'The Lord of Discarded Things,' for instance, represented intimate glimpses into the lives of a few of the disaffected folks who call the "bordertown" (p.34) at the base of the Central Station spaceport home.

In one, after decades in the Belt, birthing doctor Boris Chong returns to his roots to tend to his ailing parent, only to end up hooking up with his childhood sweetheart Miriam Jones, who's grown older in the intervening years—as has he—and adopted a boy. In the other, Ibrahim, an alte-zachen man, or "junk gypsy," (p.48) finds a genetically modified messiah in a small shoebox, and resolves to raise him himself—free of his fate as far as is possible in a place like Central Station, which is so rife with religion that it boasts a "faith bazaar." (p.23)

They were little things, those stories; lovely, and lively, and large of heart, but little, admittedly. Not so in Central Station, which generously extends the two tales I've touched on at the same time as seamlessly stitching together their characters and narratives with those of the other eleven featured here.