Paul’s Book Reviews: Fiction, SF/Fantasy, Cheap Thrills

“Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.”
— Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, Sing

sing unburied singSing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

From the Faulkner novels I read in college to Ace Atkins’ paperback Quinn Colson thrillers today, I can’t recall a single Mississippi novel that hasn’t centered around grinding poverty, hopelessness, beaten down ignorance, superstition, racism, lynchings, tangled cross-racial family ties, and (after Faulkner) the infamous slave labor/prison farm called Parchman. This is emphatically the case with Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing.”

You will forgive me if I do not sing Mississippi’s praises, because I have neither seen nor heard of any, and never want to pass through that benighted state again (I did, twice, driving to and from an Air Force staff college in Alabama, where my most vivid memory remains a road maintenance crew taking a lunch break at a freeway rest area, white workers at a shaded picnic table, black workers sitting in the sun in the bed of an orange highway department pickup, and that was in the late 1970s, for fuck’s sake. You can take the Deep South and shove it).

So you’ll understand why I found “Sing, Unburied, Sing” a singularly depressing read, despite the striking lyricism, even genius, of the vision of an afterlife given to Mam on her deathbed, a vision I badly want to believe myself. Jesmyn Ward’s writing is beautiful; her subject matter sad almost beyond bearing, so sad I wanted to abandon the novel at several points in the opening chapters.

I persisted, though: first, because I was in charge of picking my book club’s August selection and this is the one I picked; second because when the story of Riv and Richie at Parchman finally began to unfold, the novel was impossible to put down, as good as anything Faulkner ever wrote.

My 3.5 star rating means it’s very good, but you need to prepare yourself for a downer. Please don’t be tempted to view the white and black characters Jesmyn Ward creates as creatures in an exhibit about race and poverty. By the novel’s midpoint you’ll hate some of them, but you will also realize they’re real, as real as any of us.

bleak harborBleak Harbor
by Bryan Gruley

I was offered an advance copy of “Bleak Harbor” in exchange for a review. I agreed on the strength of the book’s description, though I didn’t know the author, Bryan Gruley.

“Bleak Harbor” is a tightly-plotted mystery set in a small Michigan town, and you know what they say about small towns … there’s more going on beneath their placid surfaces than anyone will ever know (I don’t know Michigan and am not qualified to say whether Gruley captures some of its essence, but his descriptions have the feel of authenticity).

“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” Gruley clearly takes Chekhov to heart, wasting not a single word on irrelevant detail. Every house, street, dock, and bar in Bleak Harbor, no matter how casually inserted into an opening chapter, is sure to come back into play later. More importantly, the ever-expanding cast of characters (just three to start with, but by the end a couple of dozen) are pistols hanging on the wall as well, with secrets, hidden motivations, and surprises in store.

As each new plot development unfolds, the mystery deepens, the list of possible culprits expands, and the suspense increases. I was pulled along by a string of surprising (because unexpected) revelations, but never once felt played. Even though the mystery is complex and multi-layered, it doesn’t feel contrived. The characters’ flaws make them more human. Are some details of the mystery stretches? Sure (Danny remaining undiscovered in the attic of an abandoned house despite searchers combing through it multiple times, for example), but in general the twists and turns Gruley throws at us are believable. At the end, over the course of three or four very short chapters, Gruley ties up loose ends in a very satisfactory manner.

One more thing: my advance copy is labeled an “uncorrected proof.” I didn’t see anything that needed correcting. No typos, no mistakes. I wish my uncorrected proofs were half as good.

I don’t always say this about authors who are new to me, but now that I know Bryan Gruley, I plan to read his earlier work.

night schoolNight School (Jack Reacher #21)
by Lee Child

I’m nearing the end of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. One to go, “The Midnight Line,” and then I’ll have to wait for “Past Tense,” scheduled for publication in November 2018. There may be some short stories and novellas, and addicted as I’ve become, no doubt I’ll soon be searching those out.

“Night School” takes us back to the mid-1990s. Jack Reacher is still in uniform. He’s detailed to a special FBI/CIA/NSA group investigating an emerging terrorist threat, a threat no one yet knows the shape of, although the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 had given US and European security agencies a pretty good hint.

Major Jack Reacher and Sergeant Frances Neagley head to Hamburg, Germany, to try to find out exactly what a mysterious American has promised to sell a group of Saudis, Afghans, and Yemenis for $100 million. And if possible prevent the sale and break up the terrorism ring before it can do any damage. A tall order? Pfft. Jack Reacher fans know better. Especially when he has Neagley at his side.

I really like the novels that take us back to Reacher’s Army days, probably because I have a pretty good grasp of how the military works and can appreciate it when a novelist gets it right, as Child does. That said, this particular novel is more of a police procedural, somewhat lacking in the street brawl department (though Reacher does get in some good licks against resurgent Nazi skinheads). Still: excellent writing, a suspenseful plot, and plenty of action to keep the reader going. Some great supporting characters, especially a high-ranking Hamburg policeman named Griezman, a character who reminds me of Police Inspector Bruno Wolter in the German TV series “Babylon Berlin” (which I’m streaming on Netflix and you should be too).

I began to anticipate the shape of the threat in the last third of the novel, and was not surprised when all was revealed … then again, not disappointed either. I had been hoping, in the early stages of the novel when the looming threat could have been anything, that Lee Child was writing about the beginnings of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot. Child went in another direction, but a realistic and feasible one, based on weaponry left over from the early days of the Cold War in Germany. That is as close as I want to get to the plot.

Major Jack Reacher, U.S. Army, is a slightly different character than Jack Reacher, drifter. He’s working under, and with, groups of highly skilled people, not out there all on his own. But then again, each Jack Reacher novel has its own flavor. I liked this one. A lot. And I think other Jack Reacher fans will too.

zoo cityZoo City
by Lauren Beukes

I previously read and reviewed Lauren Beukes’ “Moxyland” and “Broken Monsters“; now for “Zoo City.” The three novels differ significantly: “Moxyland” a Gibsonesque near-future novel of a South Africa where technology has been applied to repression; “Broken Monsters” a police procedural (with supernatural elements) set in Detroit; “Zoo City” a trip through the underbelly of Johannesburg with a lovely conceit about “animaled” people, an echo of one of my favorite young adult sagas, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

Yes, I liked it. I like everything Lauren Beukes writes. I feel bad for even bringing this up, because maybe it’s more me than Lauren, but despite the vast amounts of research she puts into the physical settings of her stories, I felt the Johannesburg of this novel was more a collection of place names than an actual place … I wasn’t convinced I was ever there, and in fact could have been anywhere. And I really wanted to get a feel for what is, to me, an exotic place I’ll never get to experience.

My problems with place felt insignificant next to the main character and narrator, Zinzi December, who is relatable and convincingly real. I note other reviewers describe her as a junkie. I would describe her as someone who once did a lot of drugs but now only occasionally relapses … she’s motivated, she gets things done, and these are not junkie traits. I wanted to know more about how she was responsible for the death of her brother, and never really learned, but here and there throughout the novel were wonderful little asides that helped me visualize how murderers become “animaled.” And I really loved Sloth.

Although I associate 419 scams with Nigeria, one such scam is an element in this South African narrative, and it fits. Not only that, the villainous types who lure Zinzi into helping with a missing persons case (and you know anyone who has a Marabou stork as a familiar is a baddie) turn out to be scammers too. In fact, nearly everything Zinzi December gets pulled into in “Zoo City” turns out to be a scam, and she is amply punished for her part in the defrauding of an American couple.

The climactic scene at Odi’s lair (and what else could you call it?) are as horrific and unputdownable as anything I’ve recently read (and once again, as I mentioned in my review of “Broken Monsters,” reminded me of author Mo Hayder). I took my time with this novel, with breaks for surgery, recovery, and physical therapy, but once I got three-quarters of the way in I put everything else in my life on hold and read, mesmerized, straight to the end.

I’m guessing all editions have it, so if you do read “Zoo City,” press on past Lauren’s acknowledgements at the end and read the short essay she wrote about researching the highs and lows of Johnnesburg a few years before writing this novel. It explains a lot.

takeoffTakeoff (Seth Walker #1)
by Joseph Reid

Downloaded as a freebie from Amazon Prime on the strength of the blurb, which said it would appeal to Jack Reacher fans. Since my Jack Reacher gauge is getting close to E (I’m up to #21 now), I figured I’d better start branching out.

This was a disappointment, though. Although Jack Reacher is every bit the fantasy figure Seth Walker is, I believe in the one and not the other. “Takeoff” is too thin to be a real thriller. There’s just not much here, and what there is is too far-fetched. Hero Seth Walker is far-fetched too, the James Bond of federal air marshals, vastly overqualified for his job. Max, the damsel in distress, is a stereotype, as are the tattooed gang members after them.

The story should have ended with the first chapter, when six of the aforementioned tattooed gang members ambush Seth and Max with machine guns at LAX, but Seth, alone and armed with only a handgun, kills four of them and escapes the remaining two. With one arm protectively wrapped around Max the whole time. In any scenario approximating real life, Seth and Max would have died in the initial exchange of fire, and it probably wouldn’t have been an exchange since the gangbangers poured out of their SUVs with submachine guns drawn, while Seth had his thumb up his ass.

I nearly put the book down halfway though, when the author subjected me to a dogfight between two helicopters and a single-engined Cessna, with Seth firing on the helos through an open cabin window. He knocks ’em both out of the sky with the same handgun (or maybe a shotgun, which is even more implausible). But I hate to be a snob just because I’ve been in a light plane before when Joseph Reid clearly hasn’t, so I kept reading.

Tell you what, Seth Walker is damned incurious. Reid lays out clues and details for the reader, but unaccountably Seth misses them all. Within a page or two of meeting Max we know she’s a druggie; Seth doesn’t work it out until halfway through the novel. Another thing about Seth: every time he figures out who’s the mastermind behind the plot to kill Max, he turns out to be wrong. Which doesn’t get him or Max killed, though it should. Instead, Seth regroups, goes on to identify and confront the next mastermind, who turns out to be innocent, and on and on, several times in a row, sort of like the pre-commercial cliffhangers in TV action dramas.

In the end, when Seth finally identifies and nails the real mastermind, and little Brittney, sorry, Max, escapes the clutches of her addiction and becomes a happy well-adjusted teenaged girl again, you feel like you’ve just sat through a Hallmark made-for-TV movie; i.e., empty, deflated, unsatisfied, not believing you wasted your time on it. Jack Reacher never leaves me feeling that way.

danger risingDanger Rising
by E. D. Richards

No rating; did not finish.

I downloaded this title from NetGalley in return for a review. I’m sorry to say my review is a negative one: I tried, but was unable to wade through “Danger Rising,” which continually put me off with lazy science fiction and bad writing.

Here’s how we know we’re in the future: the numbers are bigger. Pods whisk people through subterranean tunnels at thousands of miles per hour. Suborbital flights? Don’t even ask. Surface level hypertrains cruise at 800. Freeway traffic moves right along at four or five hundred. If you’re in your 70s you’re middle-aged. Oh brave new world.

Some of the science fiction is so implausible you can’t even call it that. Fantasy or magic, maybe, like the system of pipes injecting lubricating gel between the earth’s tectonic plates to prevent earthquakes. Subterranean tunnels connecting points around the globe, not merely cities but also scientific outposts in Antarctica and the Arctic, remote and isolated stations with single-digit populations. That’s a lot of tunneling. Global warming? No problemo, we’ll freeze an ocean to bring the temperature back down. It felt like an Elon Musk fever dream.

I couldn’t decide whether “Danger Rising” is a romance with a science fiction backdrop or science fiction with a romance backdrop. It wasn’t worth the effort to press on and find out.

And what an effort … an effort to read, that is.

“He was still considered young at sixty-five, but his body sometimes lets him know it is time for an infusion of StemRejuve targeting his arthritic joints and aging organs.”

“Dan really cared about the Chilean team he worked with down here, although Jorge Mendoza, the southern hemisphere lead, was becoming a proverbial thorn in his side.”

“Screaming in agony, the ground beneath him shook all the more.”

“Jane didn’t let the interruption phase her and proceeded without missing a beat.”

“Biting into a fresh beignet, the white powdered sugar on top of the fried doughy pastry fell from her lips onto her chin.”

If I have to explain the various errors in the selected sentences, well, that’s not worth the effort either. Was this manuscript edited at all? Did Mr. Richards ask anyone to proofread it first?

I thought it interesting that the author places the blame for the climate disasters leading to the future world described in “Danger Rising” squarely on the Trump administration, but even the most rabid Trump hater (and I am one) would have to admit the responsibility goes back much farther than that. Still, it was amusing to read Mr. Richard’s interpretation, and it’s one that will displease many readers.

Sorry, but that’s the only positive comment I can offer in this review.

© 2018, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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