Converted to Romance: A Rogue by Any Other Name

February 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Before this year, I had exactly zero interest in reading romance novels. I had this deep-seated perception of romance novels as being tawdry, poorly written and full of vapid, fainting females and emotionally unavailable men – no thanks.

I’m not going to say I was wrong. I’m certain that there are some novels out there that live up to the stereotype I had in mind. But, thanks to the glory of the internet, I have found a whole world of romance novels that leave the outdated standard of the flimsy heroine in the dust.

I am in the habit of visiting Book Riot every day. I love their articles and their ideas for bookish gifts, and I’m always interested in their insightful book recommendations. Their article “Our First Time: The Books that Made Us Romance Readers” convinced me to finally give the genre a go. I decided to start with Sarah MacLean, purely because the cover art made her books seem more accessible and modern than some of the others on the list.

I expected to encounter a formulaic story with cookie-cutter characters that probably took itself too seriously. I expected to close the book and feel vaguely ashamed of having bought it in the first place. I also expected to feel proud of myself for at least attempting to break down my preconceived ideas about the genre, even if I did assume they were correct.

But A Rogue by Any Other Name was so, so good. I was addicted after the first chapter.

1In the opening pages of this novel, the first in a series of four, Sarah introduces us to the Marbury family. It would be impossible not to connect the Marburys to Bennets of Austenian lore; a number of sisters, a mother fearful that her daughters won’t marry well, and a father with an apparent disinterest in the goings-on of his family. I did enjoy the sly caricature that MacLean painted, because it ever-so-subtly harpooned the Bennets. It was almost as if she gave Austen a cursory nod, and then signalled to the reader “ditch your Austen-fixation, we’re moving on from here.”

“Penelope! Marriage proposals from wealthy, eligible young men do not blossom on trees!” Particularly not in January, I wouldn’t think.”

Penelope Marbury, the heroine of Rogue, suffered the scandal of a broken engagement some years ago. The eldest of her siblings, she may have cursed her sisters to spinsterhood, unless she can secure a suitable marriage for herself (cue histrionics from her mother). Penny is mostly unconcerned with marriage, except for the fact that it might hold her sisters back, so she finds herself considering a proposal from a very friend-zoned acquaintance.

At twenty-one, Michael Bourne lost his family’s land, Falconwell, in an ill-fated game of cards. In the years since that night, he has rebuilt his fortune, and is now one of the owners of The Fallen Angel, London’s most notorious gaming hell (casino). When he finds out that Falconwell has been added to Penelope Marbury’s dowry, he sees his opportunity to return the land to its rightful owners. In the most unromantic of negotiations, he marries Penny and thus commences their oddly unhappy marriage.

“Even now, even as she faced a lifetime with him, she thought of her sisters. She was legions too good for him.”

This is not how I thought a romance novel would begin. The love story – such as it was – took a back seat as the rest of the plot unfolded. Bourne is focused on exacting revenge upon the man who took his land from him in his youth, and coldly neglects his wife in the process. Penelope has accepted that her life with Bourne will not be a fulfilling one, but she’s determined to ensure her sisters’ marriages will be.

Summarising the plot of this book in its entirety would take away so much of the enjoyment of reading it. I do want to make mention of the setting, though – far from the parlours and garden walks of typical Regency romance, Rogue draws us into the world of the Fallen Angel, where aristocracy meets vice, and the lines of societal hierarchy are blurred. The characters, too, are another element that makes A Rogue by Any Other Name an outstanding book. All of the characters, from the hero and heroine to the background payers, are brought to life by snappy dialogue, well-balanced personalities and a healthy dose of humour.

I loved this book so much that I jumped straight into its sequel – One Good Earl Deserves A Lover – immediately after I finished it. And I loved One Good Earl even more. So more on that, and peculiar Pippa Marbury, in my next post.

I’m currently reading the third book in this series. I have enjoyed each even more than the last. Although I was surprised to find that Rogue broke away from many of the genre stereotypes I was expecting, there were still some that held true – namely, the hero and the heroine fall in love. A whole lot of other stuff happens too, making for a dynamic and exciting narrative, but it must be said – there is something really comforting about reading a book destined to have a happy ending.

Thanks for reading – feels good to write a review again. Stay tuned for more.

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The Killing Lessons by Saul Black: Advanced Review

March 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Saul BlackThere exists an intangible, but undeniable division between crime and serial killer novels. I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘crime reader’, necessarily. I might pick up recommended crime books, but I’m not that interested in seeking them out otherwise. But real, honest-to-god serial killer novels are something of a fascination for me. I loved Silence of the Lambs, and reread it every year or so. For me, it’s the absolute standard for serial killer novels, and thrillers in general.

The blurb on the ARC of The Killing Lessons promises that with this book, Saul Black will teach readers the meaning of fear. We all know ominous proclamations of this ilk are certainly not uncommon in the world of thrillers, so I wasn’t all that intrigued at first. But then, I found out that Saul Black is the pseudonym of author Glen Duncan, of The Last Werewolf fame – so, as you can imagine, I was excited to read it.

The Killing Lessons is being touted as a ‘literary thriller’. This tells us from the outset that it’s designed to mesh with the genre expectations of thriller novels, while also retaining Glen Duncan’s signature literary prose. (Otherwise, it would just be a thriller, surely?)

Before I even started it, I was told repeatedly to expect big things from this book. I also received a warning not to read it at home alone (which I unwisely ignored). Although I was looking forward to reading it, I was also aware that after all this hype, this book might end up being underwhelming. Realistically, I knew that it would have to be quite exceptional to live up to the reputation it had already garnered.

I am pleased to say that it was exactly as good as I hoped it would be. Maybe better.

In The Killing Lessons, we meet a pair of serial killers and their victims. We are dropped straight into the fatigued homicide investigation and bear witness to the horror that has ruined lead detective Valerie’s life. We start counting down the hours that the latest victim might have left to live, while at the same time struggling through the clues that might lead Valerie to her while she’s still alive. And we wait with the young girl who escaped when her entire family was murdered, hoping that the killers won’t come back for her, and knowing that they will.

Glen Duncan’s incisive characterization is the defining quality of his writing. In The Killing Lessons, the reader comes to know the characters on an intimate level in a very short time. Because of this, the novel becomes a burdensome emotional investment, and you can’t help but see it through.

There are several different point of view characters, whose storylines are converging from the outset of the narrative, and each of them is as complex and fascinating as the next.

Valerie is the alcoholic police officer whose obsession with catching these serial killers has brought her to her knees. Carla, an FBI agent with an inexplicable vendetta against Valerie, is doggedly monitoring her for any signs of incompetence as their hunt for the killer begins to narrow its focus.
Riddled with sciatica and immobilized by grief, novelist Angelo intended to spend some time alone in his woodland cabin coming to terms with his wife’s death. His reverie is disrupted when he opens the door to find a young girl, hypothermic and near-dead, on his front porch. Eleven year-old Nell escaped the scene of her family’s murder and fled to the only other occupied house in the area – Angelo’s. With her broken bones and his crippling pain, they are sitting ducks for the murderers who will inevitably return to the scene of their crime.

This is the third Glen Duncan novel that I’ve read. I’ve noticed that in each one, he holds a particular place in the narrative for love. Big-scale, romantic love; small, platonic familiar love; sudden, pitying, desperate love: each has its place in his stories. It’s particularly surprising in a novel as brutal as The Killing Lessons, but the shock factor makes it all the more evident.

There are a few aspects of The Killing Lessons that struck me (and the other people who read the ARC) as slightly unrealistic. For one, I thought it a little unrealistic that Angelo could have physically cared for Nell for an extended period of time when he was so frail himself. Much ado was made about the severity of his pain before Nell showed up, so I found it hard to believe that he was able to physically move around, even in a limited capacity, in order to attend to Nell. My booksellers also pointed out that there is a somewhat unrealistic scene at the end of the book, featuring a helicopter crash. It can be forgiven, if you think about it for a little while, but it does feel a tad extreme.

There’s a reluctant part of me that also thought that the killer’s motivation was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch also. There’s definitely a series of linked events that led to the killers ‘doing what they had to do’, but I think it would be fair to say that it’s erring on the side of tenuous.

That being said, don’t let this put you off The Killing Lessons. There is much more about it that is worthwhile than questionable, and even the questionable parts are still compelling reading.

Is it appropriate to say that I ‘enjoyed’ a novel like The Killing Lessons? Hard to say. It’s probably not a true reflection of the experience I had while reading it. I was too afraid to read it home alone, but it was too compelling not to. I was jumpy and paranoid, looking over my shoulder whenever I went out alone, and gave windowless vans a wide berth when I saw them on the street. It’s not a ‘nice’ experience, reading a novel like this, but it is a memorable one. It’s kind of like Lolita – you read it not for the enjoyment of the story, but to appreciate the fact that mere words on a page can have such an enormous impact on your state of mind.

The Killing Lessons is out on May 7. Order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers, at Blocksidge and Ferguson Arcade on Adelaide Street!

I received an ARC of The Killing Lessons in exchange for an honest review. 

My Votes for the Goodreads Awards!

November 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

So, I just voted in the Goodreads Best Books of 2014. I’m not the greatest advocate of Goodreads, given its affiliation with Amazon, but I voted in the poll for two main reasons:

  1. Much as we may hate to admit it, Goodreads is an important platform for authors, especially up-and-coming ones. Authors frequently request that if you enjoyed their book, you should leave a positive or starred review on Goodreads. I can’t review every book I read, so I do sometimes like to do this for the books I enjoyed. To be a ‘Goodreads Best Book’ is quite a boon for a book, so why not put my two cents in and help out the authors who have made my year awesome?
  2. I really like filling out surveys.

Oh, and I really only voted in categories where I’d read more than one of the books. Just FYI.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Fiction:

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld was, hands down, the best of the selection. This book is magical and sorrowful, and exceptionally moving. The author knows what she’s talking about, as she has worked closely with death row inmates. Read The Enchanted, and you might find yourself rethinking how you see death row criminals. Especially when you get to the unexpected, agonizing reveal at the end.

 Best Fantasy:

Tough choice, but had to go to Queen of the Tearling. One of my two favourite fantasies of the year, tied with Kim Wilkin’s Daughters of the Storm. If Emma Watson’s endorsement of QoT isn’t enough to tell you that this book is amazing, take my word for it: this is the next Hunger Games.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In by John ScalziScience Fiction:

Best Science Fiction:

For someone who doesn’t think they read SF, this was a surprisingly difficult choice. It came down to a trade off between Annihiliation by Jeff Vandermeer and Lock in by John Scalzi. Lock In won out, due to the sheer obsession that it incited in me for the short time it took to read it. The concepts and the plot will have you thinking long after you finish it!

 Horror Fiction:

I was torn between three contenders for this one. I loved Sarah Lotz’s The Three, was glued to Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, and The Girl with All the Gifts had me in its thrall from its first page to the last. All of these deserved my vote and the exposure that the Goodreads Best Book title might provide. However, at the end of the day, I wasn’t 100% sure that Girl with All the Gifts is true horror. Gotta make a decision somehow, so I scratched it. And The Three was pretty scary, but it didn’t incite the gleeful revulsion that Broken Monsters did. So, my vote went to the latter, with honorable mentions to two other books I really did love this year.

 Graphic Novel and Comics:

Saga. Always Saga. Nothing further.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Debut Goodreads Author:

Red Rising by Pierce Brown, which is one of the few books I have read twice this year. Honorable mention to QoT, which I almost voted for again, I loved it so much. Side note: pretty excited for Son of Ares to come out in Jan!

 YA Fiction:

We Were Liars by E. E. Lockhart. What a wonderful book. It’s impossible to tell you why, because of the twist at the end. The twist that you might see coming, that might sound predictable if I were to explain it to you, but which feels like an ice-cold glass of water poured slowly over your head as you come to realize you’ve been fooled all along… We Were Liars.

 YA Fantasy and Sci Fi:

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Titles I considered nominating were: Red Rising (again); Laini Taylor’s Dreams of Gods and Monsters; and Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi. Dreams of Gods and Monsters was out of the running for one very simple reason – I haven’t read it yet. I loved DOSAB so very much that I keep finding reasons not to read Dreams of Gods and Monsters, because I simply can’t bear for it to be over. This might be a reason to vote for it in and of itself, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Ignite Me. Red Rising obviously got scratched from this section because I’d already voted for it, and I wanted to share the love.

I would never have picked up Shatter Me, if it wasn’t for the recommendation of one of my dearest friends. Earlier this year, I burned through Tahereh’s trilogy obsessively. Ignite Me has everything – beautiful, poetic writing; a wonderful protag; a really exciting magic system; a dystopian society to be scared of, and a very intriguing romantic lead. (shoutout to Chapter 62!) I LOVED it, and it’s one of my favourite books of the year.

Did you vote in the Goodreads Best Books awards? Who got your vote?

James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA: to Soothe post-True Detective Blues.

March 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

As the end of True Detective drew near, I began to panic. I had become addicted to the madness, the obsession and the convoluted relationship between Marty and Rust, and I didn’t know where I’d get my fix when the penultimate eighth episode was done and dusted. True Detective was unlike anything I’d ever seen or read, so I had no idea where to start looking for something similar. Fortunately, Pulp Fiction came to the rescue, and recommended that I start out with James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA.

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I miss you, Rust.

As you may be aware, The Black Dahlia refers to an actual, exceptionally gruesome murder. Elizabeth “Betty” Short, a star-struck would-be actress, was found brutally murdered in Los Angeles in January of 1947. Her murder remains one of the oldest unsolved homicide cases in Los Angeles’ history, and has long been a subject of fascination for scholars and entertainers alike. Ellroy’s version of The Black Dahlia’s tale is fictionalized by necessity, but remains true to the facts as much as possible.

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Betty Short – famous in death, if not in life.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is working his way through the ranks of the LAPD when he is presented with a major PR opportunity. An amateur boxer with a reputation for his cool-headedness in the ring, Bucky is asked to go up against Lee “Mr Fire” Blanchard, a colleague in the Warrants division, to drum up public support for the police department. Despite being lighter than Blanchard, Bucky finds that competing in the fight might open up doors that would otherwise remain closed to him – so he accepts.
When the fight between the now-infamous “Mr Fire and Mr Ice” drums up enough support for the police to be approved for an 8% pay rise, Bucky finds himself faced with more opportunity than he knows what to do with. He takes a promotion and a partnership with his rival, Lee Blanchard, in the Warrants division. As they develop a partnership, Blanchard and Bleichert find that their contradictory natures are, in fact, complementary, and the pair find professional and personal success together. On a routine bust one night, Lee and Bucky find themselves in the middle of a crime scene – the worst murder that LA has seen in decades.
Elizabeth Short is found bisected at the waist with her innards removed and her mouth slashed from ear-to-ear. Despite not technically being on the homicide beat, the prolific partnership of Blanchard and Bleichert are assigned to the case of the murder of the Black Dahlia.
As the investigation deepens, Lee and Bucky become obsessed with finding and apprehending the sadist responsible for Betty Short’s horrific murder. And just as their boxing strategies differ, Lee and Bucky find their obsessive tendencies manifesting in different ways. Bound by the woman they both love, they are forced to work with and against each other in order to stay sane, and to keep one another alive.

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James Ellroy, looking suspiciously like John Malkovich

The case of the Black Dahlia is, as you know, unsolved. And, as we also know, Ellroy’s account is a fictionalized one – but that doesn’t stop him from naming a culprit. I expected the novel to focus on the degradation of Bleichert and Blanchard’s mindsets, and I would have been happy with this – but Ellroy stepped it up a notch, and ID’d a killer in the process. And just in case this alone wasn’t enough for the reader, the killer’s identity comes in the form of a major twist – and THEN, it takes a roaring bend to tie up ends that you didn’t even realize were loose. After all that, the story ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note – what more could you want?

I think I’m a bit late in jumping on the Ellroy bandwagon. He’s already a highly respected crime writer, and considered one of the best contemporary noir authors. But I’d like to rhapsodize anyway. THE BLACK DAHLIA is a compelling examination of the way in which trauma, both direct and indirect, has an interminable knock-on effect. It is an investigation of the life of a homicide detective, and a lament for the way in which his life is irrevocably changed by the atrocities he faces daily. It is a portrait of psychopathy on several levels, and a study of the way in which human beings use each other. It is dry, sparsely written and utterly compulsive. It is haunting, affecting and highly disturbing, and I couldn’t put it down.

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Cover Art for Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia

As with any true crime derivative, I think it’s important to remember the victim. In the case of THE BLACK DAHLIA, Ellroy never forgets that at the heart of this fascinating story is a girl whose life was cut too short by the worst means possible, and that our fascination comes at the cost of her life. However she chose to live her life, Betty Short never got the chance to turn it around, or even to decide whether she wanted to. That is the tragedy that permeates the pages of Ellroy’s addictive noir novel, and never once does he cheapen the experience of the oft-forgotten victim.

If you’re missing Rust and Marty’s dysfunctional partnership, and you’ve a taste for hard-hitting noir, THE BLACK DAHLIA is a must-read.

Are you a Brisbanite? Then surely, you know where to go by now – go and visit Pulp Fiction in Central Station and ask them to order you a copy.

I actually bought my copy of The Black Dahlia from the wonderful second-hand bookstore, Bent Books! Located in Brisbane’s West End, Bent Books is full of unexpected finds and lovely people – go check them out too.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

 Got a recommendation for a book like True Detective? Leave me a comment below!

Hitchers by Will McIntosh – Life After Life After Death

January 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fantastic cover art for Hitchers.

Fantastic cover art for Hitchers.

Finn Darby has suffered more than his fair share of losses. At the age of twelve, his twin sister drowned. In his late twenties, his beloved wife Lorena died in a freak accident on the same day that his grandfather relinquished his hold on life. Despite his grandfather’s spiteful final wishes, Finn decides to continue the comic strip that his grandfather had created fifty years ago. Slowly, with the help of the Toy Shop strip, Finn begins to acclimatise to life without Lorena.
When Atlanta suffers a targeted anthrax attack, the city loses a tenth of its population. Finn manages not to get sick, but soon begins to suffer a disturbingly inconvenient malady: he is blurting out words and phrases that only his dead grandfather would ever have uttered.
Panicked, Finn seeks out others with similar problems. He connects with an aging rockstar named Mick, and together, they establish the uncanny truth of their shared predicament – they are being possessed by the dead.

  The dead are returning all over Atlanta. Possessing any bodies that they can find, they are determined to re-establish their place among the living. Finn is determined to find Lorena. Through a coded message in the daily Toy Shop strip, he finds her: Lorena is possessing Summer, a bohemian waitress that she met only once before.
Finn is determined to get his bitter grandfather out of his body and his life once and for all. But if he banishes his grandfather, then he’s also banishing Lorena. Finn, Mick and Summer have limited time to rid themselves of their hitchers, and they’ll have to live with the consequences of their actions whether they succeed or not. 

Hitchers is not a complicated story – in fact, it’s downright predictable in some places. At its heart, it is a love story, and it retains all the usual clichés. But the thing is, it’s so loveable. Finn is such a lovely male protagonist: he’s so genuine, so kind and so determined to help others that you can’t help rooting for him. I can imagine Hitchers translating well into an indie movie with a cult soundtrack (like Warm Bodies). Would it be wishful thinking to say that I think Joseph Gordon Levitt would make the ideal Finn?

JGL. Yes, I am a fan, but he really WOULD be a good Finn.

JGL. Yes, I am a fan, but he really WOULD be a good Finn.

Thomas Darby, Finn’s selfish, abusive grandfather, was a horrible man, and remains so after death. I appreciated the fact that there was no bittersweet reconciliation between he and Finn (quite the opposite, in fact). When Thomas died, he was not automatically entitled to the virtual sainthood we tend to assign the deceased. Death does not mean automatic forgiveness, and I loved that McIntosh kept this in mind in writing Mr Darby Snr.
On the flipside, I wish that Lorena hadn’t been so hard to like. Even when we see her in a flashback, she’s eye-rollingly awful. Lorena had no qualms about belittling a tired waitress, and she continues to do so even when she is possessing that waitress’s body. The obvious chemistry between Finn and Summer is compounded by Lorena’s constant presence. Finn and Summer are never truly alone, and Lorena may take over Summer’s body at any time.
As Finn develops feelings for Summer, he becomes disillusioned with his late wife. Her selfishness becomes apparent, and he finds himself questioning their compatibility even when she was alive. I feel as though this unusual love triangle would have been so much more interesting and vastly more emotional if Lorena hadn’t been portrayed as a bit of a bitch. It made it an easy choice for Finn to let go of her and to acknowledge his feelings for Summer, which was lovely, but also felt a little bit too easy.

I hadn’t been sure how Fatima would react, but I’d guess it might go like that. The world was terrified. The dead were rising. It was Revelations, The Exorcist, the nightmares of our collective unconscious reaching out of the dark and grabbing our collective ankle. Fatima didn’t want to talk to her dead sister, because to her the emphasis was on dead, not sister.

Author Will McIntosh - doesn't he look like a lovely person?

Author Will McIntosh – click the image for his website.

Hitchers presents an unusual kind of apocalypse as the dead begin possessing the living with more and more permanency. As their control over their bodies diminishes, the living are faced with the loss of their functional lives. But is it really life, if you have to take over someone else’s body in order to be a part of the living world?

I came back to myself, probably for the very last time. I was a little drunk. That was a good thing; it took the edge off the terror I felt, contemplating this as my last day on Earth.

McIntosh’s representation of life after death is very confronting, and I thought about it long after I finished this book. Hitchers is an emotional exploration of death, and ultimately concludes that the dead no longer belong among the living. There is a kind of peace in this, but it’s also quite an eerie concept. While reading this book, I was close to tears on more than one occasion. Be warned – it’s an emotional read, and it might take you over for the time it takes you to finish it.

No prizes for guessing where I found Hitchers – visit Pulp Fiction Booksellers for your copy.

Ramez Naam’s Nexus: Technological Critique in a Spy Novel Damn It.

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Nexus by Ramez Naam (looking somewhat like Parasite by Mira Grant)

Nexus by Ramez Naam (looking somewhat like Parasite by Mira Grant)

Prior to Nexus, Ramez Naam has considered transhumanism, which describes the augmentation of humans by technological means, in a non-fiction context. I think that’s what makes him a technologist. More recently, he has critiqued transhumanism in his fictional book Nexus, which might also be what makes him a technologist.  From this, it’s clear that Naam thinks that it’s very important that people seriously engage with the issues surrounding the increasing interface between technology and humanity. And he will get you to do that even if he has to package it in a spy thriller, damn it.

Nexus’s basis is, unsurprisingly, the eponymous drug Nexus. As its name implies, Nexus is a conduit between drugtakers’ brains; people on the drug are able to connect with fellow users and are essentially forced to experience the others’ minds’ fully. This is an apparently wonderful experience, and allows for an unheralded kind of communication. Further, as an enhancement of Nexus users’ collective cognitive abilities, the drug is a transhuman dream, paving the way for posthumanism. The American government and other world organizations generally prohibit the drug, and do all they can to prevent humanity from taking those transhumanistic steps.

Our hero, Kade Lane, with his name’s frustrating vowel pattern repetition, has reengineered Nexus to act as a permanent brain enhancement, rather than something that can be flushed out of one’s system like a drug. As you can imagine, his ideals, as evidenced through these actions, are quite at odds with the authorities. Conflict ensues.

This conflict is literal and figurative: it is present in both the plot of the novel and in the ideologies it critiques. Much space is given to the exploration of the morality of Nexus’s mind-linking as a question of liberty vis-à-vis safety, with nods to Benjamin Franklin and American political thought. Lane is on Team Freedom, while the antagonist arm of the American government that opposes him believes that unchecked technological advance of this kind does too much harm.

The argument is presented as resolved in favour of liberty, with analogies drawn to the inception of language and the invention of the book. While Naam deals with this debate relatively adequately, the liberty–safety dichotomy is his only real stated concern, with particular emphasis on mind-control as a harm to be avoided. To my mind, less practical philosophical arguments arise when considering technology that can so significantly alter the human condition.

Transhuman Hand of God (artist unknown - if you know, please comment)

Transhuman Hand of God (artist unknown – if you know, please comment)

Most importantly, the choice to interface one’s brain with another’s naturally and completely destroys the concepts of privacy and trust, at least as the technology is presented by the novel. I conjecture that human relationships based on trust thrive, or at least have much more significant social and emotional impact. Without trust humans and their creations are literal and uninteresting; that aspect of the human condition that is the complexity of human relationships is utterly degraded. I don’t wish to harp on about this subject as my view is more a personal emotional reaction than the subject of deep philosophical inquiry, but I do wish that it was addressed in the novel, as nothing was offered to distract me from my viewpoint.

Further, if, as Nexus suggests, there were to be worldwide adoption of this interface, the posthuman hive-mind would no longer resemble a human relationship. Again, I can’t argue with Naam’s view on posthumanism in this respect, because he only touched upon it peripherally.

Of course, concession must be made to Naam for his choice of vehicle for the presentation of his view of transhuman metaphysics. Though he and his characters spend a fair chunk of their time musing on the implications of Nexus, the book is, at heart, a potential action movie. And it is a good action movie. I certainly didn’t lose interest at any point. The resolution was satisfying, and the characters, while not particularly deeply explored, behaved relatively consistently. However, if philosophy is to be packaged in a novel, I would prefer to be left with fewer questions than have been answered. In this case, Naam is excellently poised to comment on any and all aspects of his philosophy, as it goes to the centre of his professional interest, and for me, he comes up short.

Naturally. Or not.

Naturally. Or not.

Otherwise, I only had one other major frustration with the novel. By and large, it felt American. This is not itself a turn-off, but one particular section deferred entirely to the ethics and politics of the American Revolution. This overtly political statement was irritatingly contrary to the tone of the novel otherwise, which was largely an attempt at even-handed critique. That said, I admit that I have a strong emotional reaction to dogmatic patriotism, so perhaps the passage might not stand out as much for others.

As a novel, rather than a philosophy, Nexus has significant narrative power. It is testament to Naam’s pedigree as a lover of technology that his world and concepts are convincingly presented to the extent that it is primarily what he has omitted that is questionable. Hopefully in his other forays into fiction he explores more than just the liberty–safety paradigm when critiquing technological advancement. Regardless, Nexus is a successful thriller where things explode and people die so if you don’t need to consider whether or not trust is integral to emotional engagement with the human condition, check it out.

Want a copy? Head to Pulp Fiction Booksellers, if you’re in Brisbane.

Review written by guest writer for The Novelettes, Alexander Kucharski.

Die A Little – Megan Abbott

October 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

The greatest cover art ever. I now have it as a wallpaper on my iPhone.

The greatest cover art ever. I now have it as a wallpaper on my iPhone.

Prior to this weekend, I had never given crime fiction more than a cursory glance. Having grown up with British parents and a gran with a penchant for murder mysteries, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Midsomer Murders (side note – why does anyone even still live in Midsomer, what with all the murders?!). I always considered crime fiction to be the result of a predictive formula: gritty murder + idyllic country town + aging detective + just the right number of red herrings = six part special on the BBC. I’ve read the obligatory Agatha Christie and even dabbled in some forensic pathology with Patricia Cornwell, but I generally thought crime fiction was all pretty much the same.

This weekend, I read a crime novel and loved it. Everything I thought I knew about my genre preferences is crumbling before my eyes. For someone who loves reading as much as me, this is just about the equivalent of an identity crisis…

Megan Abbott’s DIE A LITTLE was glorious. I devoured it in a matter of hours. I’m now left wondering, what else has passed me by in the guise of crime?

Lora is astonished when her brother Bill, an upstanding policeman, falls for Alice Steele and promptly marries her in what can only be described as a whirlwind romance. Bill, who has always been conservative and reliable, is the very opposite of Alice, whose exuberance Lora cannot get used to. For the sake of her beloved brother, Lora extends the hand of friendship to Alice, and finds herself spending a great deal of time with her. When asked about her past, Alice is flippant or determinedly elusive, and Lora begins to suspect that there’s more to her outgoing sister-in-law than meets the eye.
When Lora begins a casual relationship with a show-biz contact of Alice’s, her suspicions begin to grow. People from Alice’s dark past begin to surface, and Lora starts to put two and two together. Fearing for her brother’s safety, she takes it upon herself to uncover the truth about Alice, and to find out exactly what she wants with Bill.

I loved so much about this book. The setting is mesmerising; everything seems so glamorous, so polished, and I can easily imagine how young women like Alice could be swept up in its veneer and wind up being dumped in its underworld. The author manages to bring the fashions of the 1950s to life with what could only be meticulous research, but with such legitimacy that it never feels manufactured. Every aspect of the book is tied in with the world of the 1950s, from social expectations to material culture. The endless descriptions of Alice’s decadent parties were so detailed that I could practically hear Doris Day in the background:

Three hours of cocktails and crowded dancing in Bill and Alice’s living room, their Labour Day party just kicking up at nearly eleven o’clock, a cutthroat game of canasta in the kitchen, an impromptu dance contest on the living room’s wall-to-wall, a gang watching a boxing match on the Philco, a bawdy conversation spilling from the powder room in the hallway.

For the four hours it took me to read DIE A LITTLE, I, like Lora, was entirely in the thrall of 1950s Los Angeles society.

DIE A LITTLE is written in the first person, from Lora’s perspective. I found that I had an odd reaction to the narrator – I did not exactly like her, but I found myself becoming just as obsessed with uncovering the truth about Alice as she did. I was sympathetic to her plight, but also a little bit repulsed by her spitefulness. I believe Lora’s narration warrants reading the novel for a second time; her burgeoning obsession with Alice is born of jealousy, but whether of her closeness with her brother or of the hedonism of Alice’s past, I can’t quite tell.
Lora is considered a “bad girl” by the standards of the fifties. This makes it difficult to empathise with her, because what Lora considers outrageous would not cause me to bat an eyelid. In fact, some of Lora’s lowest moments I would expect to witness over and over again on a standard night out clubbing in Brisbane:

By the evening’s third trip to the bathroom, a face caught in the mirror, a smear of what you were a few hours ago. You totter, you catch a smudgy glimpse, you see an eyelash hanging a bit, lipstick bleeding over the lip line. Heel catches on back hem, hand slips on towel rack, grabbing tightly for shell pink guest towel.

Because of the vastly different social standards of the time, Lora is shocked and intrigued by I would consider the norm in a modern crime novel. I felt out of my depth when she began visiting the haunts of the so-called “B-girls”, because it was so very scandalous for women to be even promiscuous at the time, let alone selling themselves. On the other hand, if I were to pick up a Martina Cole novel, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit bothered by her graphic descriptions of the lives of working girls in the slums of London, because my expectations of modern society are so very different from Lora’s. Through Lora’s narration, I adopted the mentality of the fifties. I was completely transported to another time. If this is noir fiction, I have surely been depriving myself.

In DIE A LITTLE, there are not one, but two femme fatales. The mystery here is not just whodunit, but the slow unravelling of which of the women is the stronger. DIE A LITTLE reads like a Lana Del Ray song sounds –  sultry, self-destructive and addictive. I am tempted to go out and purchase the author’s entire back-catalogue today, I loved it so much. As ever, thank you to Beau from Pulp Fiction who recommended that I start with Megan Abbott. If you’d like a copy, Pulp Fiction Booksellers, give them a call on (07) 3236-2750 , or add them as a friend on Faceboook.

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