Sunday, 28 March 2021

Shell Game - Sara Paretsky


I seem to be revisiting a lot of authors I first discovered thirty years ago.  Sara Paretsky was touted as the big thing back then and it's no fault of hers that  V I Warshawski didn't become the big screen icon that seemed likely when Kathleen Turner took on the role for the titular movie in 1992.  I haven't investigated in any depth but I don't think there were more movies, which is a shame.

Anyway, the books have continued and continued to sell big around the world.  Shell Game is one of the more recent, just out in paperback in the UK.  Chicago private detective Warshawski has aged with dignity; she can't take the knocks as easily as she did in her youth, but she still takes them and keeps coming back for more.  In this novel she gets caught up in two family cases.  Her mentor Dr Lotty's Canadian geek nephew gets snagged as main suspect in the murder of a failed archaeologist and does absolutely nothing to help himself; and Vic's own nieces (via her calamitous early marriage to corporate lawyer and major shit-hell Dick Yarborough) pitch up after the thick end of twenty years.  Well, one of them does; the other has gone missing after a work trip to an exotic Caribbean island.

Warshawski has built up a lot of personal baggage during the years I've been away and it's all here.  But it's all delivered simply, as and when needed, and never gets in the way of the story.  The plot is complicated, even contrived, but Paretsky buoys proceedings with lots of commentary on the state of Trump's America.  In the end, like Trump, it's all about fake money.

I enjoyed Shell Game a lot and will certainly be looking for more Warshawski.  Maybe I should try one from the middle period next.  And will someone please make a decent movie!

Monday, 22 March 2021

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

Consider Phlebas is the first of Banks's 'Culture' sci fi novels.  The Culture is at war with the tripedal Iridans and our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul is a humanoid Changer working with the Iridans.  Indeed, the novel begins with the Iridans rescuing Horza from a fate worse than death - only to plunge him into another when their ship comes under attack and Horza is picked up by a bunch of space pirates and taken aboard their spaceship Clear Air Turbulence (CAT).  Their leader Kraiklyn is heading for the artificial world of Vavach and the ultimate high stakes game of 'Damage'.  The stakes couldn't be higher, because the Culture has announced it is going to destroy Vavach at midnight.

Horza escapes by assuming Ktaiklyn's identity and taking over command of the CAT.  His real identity is revealed by another escapee from Vavach, the Special Circumstances Agent Perosteck Balveda.  Horza leads the group to Schar's World, where he used to live with a group of other Changers and where a Culture Mind is said to be hidden.

Consider Phlebas is pure space opera.  Like all space opera, it is drawn with a relatively broad brush.  Entire civilisations are either wholly bad or wholly good.  Banks tinkers slightly with the form, blurring friendships and loyalties.  The imaginative stakes are very high.  Banks clearly loves describing the science behind his ultra-high tech conceptions.  To balance this, the prose and dialogue is deliberately prosaic.  Things move along nicely and there is refreshing humour when required.  In the end, things more or less work out.  But I still have no idea what the title refers to.

I'm new to the space opera form, though I have several other examples stacked on my Kindle, ready to try.  I enjoyed Phlebas and will certainly explore further.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

The Never Game - Jeffery Deaver


Jeffery Deaver broke through in the UK around the time I took a twenty-year break from contemporary American crime fiction, albeit I did catch his breakthrough book The Bone Collector.  Now I picked up this, from 2019, the first in a trilogy about reward hunter Colter Shaw.  Shaw was brought up a survivalist.  His father Ash was a brilliant academic who suddenly headed for the California wilderness and sealed himself and his family inside a compound.  The adult Colter now uses his wilderness skills to track down missing people, sometimes killers.  He does it for the reward money although sometimes he doesn't bother to collect.  He travels all over the US.  His actual home is in Florida but he has a luxury RV and will go anywhere the trail leads him.

In this case a young woman has gone missing - but not the young woman Shaw is trying to rescue in the teaser (which shows straight off how clever a storyteller Deaver is).  The case leads him into the dark heart of the Silicon Valley and its hardcore gaming community.  Shaw has never used his computer for anything other than work so we learn about gaming with him.  Meanwhile Shaw plays his own complex mental game, the titular Never Game, which was Ash Shaw's method of instilling survival skills into his three children.  Never do this, never do that ... etc.

Also slowly unravelling in the background is the mystery of Ash Shaw's death fifteen years ago and the disappearance soon after of his eldest son Russell - arcs which are clearly going to complete over the trilogy.

I was impressed.  Deaver has an easy style, informal yet always controlled.  His story skills are superb and he has clearly done his research.  This we can tell because he names his sources at the end - citing one of my favourite books, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (reviewed on this blog something like five years ago).  His supporting characters are multi-faceted and therefore able to drive the narrative when necessary and hold our interest at other times.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Shadowplay - Joseph O'Connor


Modern fiction at its very best, Shadowplay is the story of the triumvirate that brought London's Lyceum Theatre its greatest days at the very end of the 19th century - Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, their general manager, who knocked off his best-known novel in his spare time.  One theory maintains that Count Dracula was based on Irving, so the vampire theme lies across O'Connor's story.  There are also fun jokes - for example, Jonathan Harker, the young scenic whizz hired by Stoker, turns out to be a cross-dressing young woman, thereafter known as 'Harks'.  Mina is the name given to the theatre ghost and some of the best writing here is about the ephemeral jaunts of the long-dead spirit.  Mina's room is the abandoned space inside the theatre where Stoker does his writing.  This being the 1880s, for the most part, Jack the Ripper is here too.  But at heart it's a three-handed love story; for all their wildly inappropriate behaviour the three principals are all emotionally tied to one another for life.  O'Connor brings their world beautifully alive.  He is a major contemporary writer.  As a token of how good he is, I draw your attention to the end Coda - totally unnecessary, far too long, and yet so achingly written I wouldn't want to lose a single word.