book review: sandman slim

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)

I’m worried that I’m about to sound like a broken record, but I’m not going to let that stop me.  Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first novel in an urban fantasy series.  Yes, another first novel in a series.  If you haven’t caught on yet, I like serial fiction.  When I finished this book I looked up when it was published.  When I learned that it was published in 2009, I wondered how it was that I hadn’t heard of this series before.  I’m glad I found it.

Sandman Slim follows the story of James Stark.  For the last eleven years, he has been in Hell, sent there by friend turned enemy Mason Faim.  Stark and Mason are magicians, and it is through a magic ritual that Mason sent Stark to Hell eleven years ago.  Learning of the recent murder of his girlfriend, Alice, Stark resolves to escape from Hell and return to take vengeance against Mason and the rest of the Circle that helped send Stark away years ago.  Thus, the novel follows your basic revenge plot pattern; although the plot is familiar, it’s not stale or predictable or like every other revenge plot that some series begin with.  Kadrey gives readers something familiar, but he doesn’t stop there.

One of the things that made me pick this book up and give it a try was that the back cover said it was in the noir tradition, and that’s a description I would agree with.  The story is told in first-person, and so we follow Stark through the whole novel and only know what he knows, and only when he knows it.  Stark narrates in present tense, which is something of a shock when you start reading, but it never turns into a distraction and after a while you’re simply used to it.  This device makes the story feel like it is happening now, right there and then.  The first-person narrative style is a great choice for this novel because it allows readers to see all the different sides of Stark, from his reflections on his experiences in Hell and how they changed him to his feelings for Alice, which show why he is so motivated to avenge her death and won’t stop until he has succeeded.  Stark is an engaging and compelling narrator and character, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the story stays with him the entire time.  He is always on stage, and his narration makes it hard to look away.

Like a lot of first novels in a series, the supporting characters must be introduced and their relationships with the protagonist have to be fleshed out.  Kadrey has surrounded Stark with a (mostly) strong supporting cast.  Each of the supporting characters is different, and perhaps with the exception of Medea Bava, none seems cliché or just another example of a specific character type.  The strongest of the cast are Vidocq, a Frenchman who achieved immortality seemingly by accident, Carlos, owner of a bar called Bamboo House of Dolls, Doc Kinski, who heals Stark’s injuries and whose true identity and nature puzzles Stark (this is revealed at the end of the novel), Candy, a “Jade” who is in a kind of twelve-step program with Kinski to keep her from preying upon humans, and Muninn, a kind of collector or procurer of things for his clients.  These are the strongest supporting characters because they are interesting in themselves and they also highlight and emphasize different parts of Stark’s character.  As a reader, I found myself wanting to know more about each of them and hoping that they would make it out alive and become recurring characters.  I imagine that other characters introduced here will also make appearances from time to time as the series progresses—such as Aelita, an angel and Wells, an agent with Homeland Security—and it’s not revealing too much to say that Lucifer makes an appearance as well.  So I have to say that the major and minor characters in the novel add depth and interest to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, the first book in a series should make readers want to pick up the second book, and Sandman Slim definitely succeeds in achieving that purpose.  Halfway through the book I was purchasing the next book in the series.  I was completely drawn into the world that Kadrey builds and the way he characterizes Los Angeles in the style of noir detective fiction, portraying the underbelly of the city that is rife with corruption and crime, betrayal is a given because most of the individuals within this world have no sense of loyalty or community, and beautiful surfaces hide ugliness and decay.  One of the things Kadrey does well is place his protagonist in the in-between space, making him morally ambiguous as well as ostracizing Stark from any place where he might feel he belongs.  This reinforces Stark’s isolated position and loner status, but it is from this position that he draws strength and the wherewithal to get the job done.  Like so many hardboiled detectives, Stark has his own code of ethics.  They aren’t traditional or what most would consider moral or even “right”, but he has his code and he stands by it.  All of these things—the first-person narration, the supporting cast of characters, and the convincing fictional world—make this novel succeed and give me hope that the next novels will build on the strengths of Sandman Slim.

I have had a difficult time finishing novels lately because so much of what I start is all the same and I quickly lose interest.  That was definitely not the case with Sandman Slim.  I was drawn in from the beginning and kept turning the pages.  I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and noir detective fiction and to anyone who is looking for a new series to sample.

book review: death of a cozy writer

Death of a Cozy Writer by G. M. Malliet (2008)

I am a fan of cozy mysteries and golden age detective fiction.  So when I saw Death of a Cozy Writer as the Kindle Daily Deal a while back, I bought it without hesitation.  Maybe there should have been some hesitation.

I don’t want to give away the entire plot, so my summary will be brief.  This is the story of the Beauclerk-Fisk family, whose patriarch, Sir Adrian, is a cozy mystery writer.  He manipulates his four children—Ruthven (the heir apparent), George, Albert, and Sarah—with frequent changes to his will, threatening to disinherit one or all of them as suits his fancy.  When the story begins, Sir Adrian has sent all of his children an invitation to his wedding to Violet Mildenhall, and this puts his children in an uproar because they realize this will further jeopardize their inheritance and make their cuts of the inheritance smaller.  The children mobilize and descend upon Sir Adrian’s home, Waverley Court, with the intention of preventing the marriage.  Only, they discover that Sir Adrian has already married Violet.  Throughout the novel, Sir Adrian’s children are shown to be motivated by greed and self-interest, and so there really isn’t one person for readers to like. Enter the figure of the Great Detective—St. Just.

Now, I said earlier that I like golden age detective fiction, and Death of a Cozy Writer certainly intends, at least superficially, to take its position within this style of detective fiction.  Which means that the central character of the novel must be the Great Detective (think Hercule Poirot) and Malliet follows this convention by giving us Detective Chief Inspector St. Just of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary.  The first problem I had with this book grows out of Malliet’s use of this convention in that it’s more than a third of the way through the novel before the central character appears (I read this on my Kindle and it was at about 38% that St. Just made his entrance).  This was a problem for me because when I find all of the suspects to be petty, selfish, manipulative, self-absorbed, and generally unlikable, I want a character I can like and who will provide balance and contrast to the other characters.  I know that that character is intended to be St. Just, but he doesn’t come into the story soon enough.  When he did appear, well, he was kind of boring and bland.  The conventional Great Detective possesses some quality that makes him eccentric but brilliant. He is often isolated and somehow outside of the social order and it’s through this position that he is able to restore order to society.  I didn’t get this with St. Just at all.  There was nothing to attract me to him.  Yes, he was definitely a more likable character, but in this novel of generally unlikable characters, that wasn’t going to be too difficult.

Malliet also draws upon the familiar convention of providing a cast of characters before the first chapter begins.  I don’t usually find myself having a reaction to these lists one way or another, but as I was reading through this one, I kept thinking that there were a lot of characters. I can see why Malliet gave the character list—it was a way of describing the characters for the reader before actually meeting them and a way to help the reader keep all the characters straight.  Still, the character list was a preview of how flat the characters would be.  They are character types, and yes, that is often a complaint leveled against golden age detective fiction, but the character list seemed to make that deficiency even more apparent.  I will say that I think Malliet tried to fill the characters out and make them more round, and I think it is for this reason that the murder doesn’t actually take place until a third of the way through the story.  Again, the problem for me is that the first third of the book was used for character development, which would have been fine, if there had been any likable characters, or if through the character development the characters became more likable or even appealing and interesting as characters. For the record, no, I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that all characters must be likable, but all characters must be interesting, and this is doubly true when it comes to unlikable characters.  The author needs to give me a reason to keep reading about these characters I dislike so much.

Malliet employs the isolated setting convention and gathers all of the suspects in the same room at the end of the novel so that St. Just can reveal the killer and unravel the mystery.  In this respect, I do think Death of a Cozy Writer fits into the style of golden age detective fiction and readers of this subgenre will enjoy the familiarity.  However, I think the novel breaks the rule of “fair play” in providing all of the clues so that the reader can solve the puzzle if she has been paying attention.  I don’t think the novel gave all of the clues, and so the revelation of the murderer was a complete and unexpected surprise, to the point that I couldn’t even say “oh yes, that was a clue and I just didn’t catch it.”

Overall, I felt like it took too long for the murder to occur and too long for the central character, St. Just, to make his appearance.  I have written this elsewhere and I’m sure I’ll write it again, but the purpose of the first book in a series is to make me want to keep reading the series, and for me, Death of a Cozy Writer failed in its purpose.  This novel won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel in 2008, so apparently a lot of people liked it.  I’m just not counting myself among their number.

book review: timequake

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

This is the first novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I have read.  To be honest, I have no idea what made me pick up Timequake, but I’m sure it has something to do with my perception that Vonnegut is one of those authors I should read.  This book has been on my bookshelf for several years now (how many, I have no idea, but it’s been awhile).  I decided to try to read the book again, this time from start to finish.  I was successful and did get to the end, but not because I was at all interested in the ending.

I’m getting ahead of myself, and that is likely because it’s time to summarize the plot, and I’m not exactly sure how to do that.  Mostly because there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of, at least not what most readers recognize as a plot.  On February 17, 2001, the entire world experienced a timequake, sending everyone to 1991 and forcing humans to relive the previous ten years of their lives.  Vonnegut (who is both author and narrator) explains that the timequake occurred because the Universe was indecisive about whether or not it should keep expanding.  The thing about the timequake is that free will has been completely erased—during the “rerun” everyone has to do the exact same thing they had done previously.  Nothing can be altered or changed, and consequently apathy has set in.   Kilgore Trout—the old science fiction writer who is one of Vonnegut’s characters—refers to that time as being on “autopilot”.  When the timequake ends ten years later on the second February 13, 2001, everyone in the world experiences “Post-Timequake Apathy” or PTA.  Humans have become so used to not having free will and living on autopilot, that they don’t care about anything and have no will to do anything.  It takes the efforts of Kilgore Trout, through the mantra, “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do,” to wake everyone up, and the mantra comes to be known as the Kilgore Creed.  Interestingly, this helps Vonnegut turn his isolated, man alone character into, if not a hero, then certainly an anti-hero.

The novel is clearly satire, and it takes aim at several topics.  One such topic is the value of books and reading, particularly as opposed to the value of television.  Vonnegut builds a thoughtful commentary upon what is at stake when books and the printed word give way to the medium of television as well as the digital age.  Another topic that he targets is the value of extended families, and not just blood relations, but families in the sense of communities, and what is lost when an individual is not part of this kind of extended family.  Indeed, part of the story as it concerns Kilgore Trout seems to be showing how he goes from being isolated to being part of a family.  Still another focus of his satire is the division of wealth and those amendments he would make to the Constitution guaranteeing what he argues are basic human rights.  There is also a compelling commentary upon religion and its value to the individual that I would not have expected to find in a Vonnegut novel.  The “Post-Timequake Apathy” adds another layer to the satire and of course is intended to prompt the reader to think about his or her own apathy and attempt to shake his readers out of that apathy.  He wants his readers to care.  He wants his readers to believe that life is worth living, but that it takes participation from everyone in society to build a better society.  Vonnegut’s novel succeeds in challenging the status quo and advocating for change.  Indeed, if I were teaching this novel in one of my literature classes, I would highlight the ways in which Timequake uses the power that the form of the novel possesses to critique social and political structures of power.

Although I can appreciate the novel on the level of satire, and at the risk of alienating Vonnegut fans, I have to admit that the novel was a disappointing read for me.  The first question I asked myself upon completing the novel was if all Vonnegut novels are like this?  Slaughterhouse-Five is on my to-read list, but now I’m in no hurry to check it off.  I don’t mind literature that uses satire to make social and political commentary; at the same time, I want my satire to have more of a story.  Or perhaps what I should really say is that my expectations didn’t match up with what I got from the novel.  I wasn’t expecting it to be semi-autobiographical, and I wasn’t expecting the first-person, almost diary-like narrative style that Vonnegut employs in the novel.  As a narrator and character in his own story, Vonnegut has an engaging voice, but at no point in the novel was I really invested in the narrative.  I finished reading the novel because my goal was to finish the book, not really because I cared all that much how it ended.  Oddly, I don’t even think I had the hope that maybe I would start to like it.

As I said above, this is my first introduction to the Vonnegut canon of work.  I will, someday, give Slaughterhouse-Five a try, and hope for a more favorable response, but someday won’t be coming anytime soon.  On a five-star scale, Timequake receives only one-star from this reader, and that’s only because zero-stars isn’t an option.