Book review: Into the Sounds, by Lee Murray

21 09 2018

Lee Murray is a New Zealand speculative fiction writer and editor who has written (and, in some cases, co-written with fellow NZ author Dan Rabarts) several novels and a substantial body of shorter fiction, aimed both at adults and at children. Her haul of Sir Julius Vogel Awards is now into double figures; she’s also a joint winner (again with Dan Rabarts) of an Australian Shadows award for her role in editing the Baby Teeth horror anthology.


Into the Sounds is a follow-up to Murray’s Taine McKenna creature feature Into the Mist, which I reviewed last year. Sounds fairly straightforwardly repeats Mist‘s winning formula of small-group-of-soldiers-and-civilians-must-survive-encounter-with-outsized-monster-plus-criminal-gang-in-depths-of-wilderness-NZ, but when all’s said and done, that’s a pretty good formula. And Murray changes it up here both with the scale of the monster—a truly giant creature, lurking in the depths of Fiordland’s sounds—and the ruthlessness of the criminals, who in Sounds are well-equipped mercenaries (not only do they have their own AK47s, they have their own ex-mil submarine) that just happen to be in Fiordland at the same time as Taine, Dr Jules Asher, and their group of redshirts. McKenna and colleagues are in Fiordland on a deer-hunting expedition, by way of R&R; the mercenaries are there to collect what they believe to be the most unusual biological specimens the region has to offer (spoiler: they don’t know about the monster in the fjord. Yet). Murray’s characterisation is as razor-sharp as ever, her handling of a multiplicity of conflicting viewpoints is immensely impressive, and there are several gruesome ends catalogued as the body count inevitably climbs. And it’s a difficult task to successfully merge gun-toting mil-horror with the sensitively detailed incorporation of Maori lore, but Murray manages that too, as well as a nuanced and well-drawn emotional arc involving McKenna and Asher. If there’s anything that feels slightly unconvincing, it’s the survival of such a large proportion of the original hunting party against a significantly larger group of better-armed mercenaries: while they certainly take some significant casualties, Taine et al. do tend to ride their luck something chronic, and to collect on that luck more than once. That said, though: cryptobiology (check), desperate measures invoked by desperate times (check), bad people meeting bad ends (check)—what’s not to like?


Book review: Lazy Days, by Erlend Loe

20 09 2018

Erlend Loe is Norwegian writer, film critic, and screenwriter. He has written both adults’ and children’s books, several of which have been translated into English.


Lazy Days (Stille dager i Mixing Part, 2009, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) is a humorous novel, largely written in unattributed dialogue, that portrays the month-long summer holiday of a Norwegian family (Telemann, Nina, and their three children) at the Baders’ holiday home in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The holiday does not exactly go smoothly, chiefly because theatre-director Telemann (who persists, to Nina’s displeasure, in referring to the town as ‘Mixing Part Churches’, on the basis that this represents a literal translation of its name) is working his way through an obsession with Nigella Lawson, and feels the need to conceal said obsession from the much more holiday-focussed Nina.

It’s a difficult book to warm to: while the mostly-conversational tone has an immediacy to it, the short, bristly utterances aren’t an efficient method of establishing character, and whatever sense of identity is carved out for Telemann and Nina isn’t conducive to a reader’s investment in the text. He’s a boor: snobbish, theatre-obsessed, Nigella-obsessed, relentlessly anti-German, while her chief attribute seems to be a long-suffering if somewhat brittle tolerance of Telemann’s opinionated cluelessness. There is the stuff of comedy here, and there were indeed moments at which I laughed, because of the success of some improbable juxtaposition; but for the most part it’s a rather cold variety of comedy, somewhere at the intersection of farce and cringe, and not intrinsically amusing. I found myself repeatedly comparing it with the work of Danish writer Dorthe Nors (such as, for example, her novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, whish similarly seeks to construct a comic story, of the human search for identity and meaning, through analogously-minimalist writing): it seems to me that what’s present in Nors’ work, and missing in Loe’s here, is the warmth. While I’m not sure how representative Lazy Days is of Loe’s wider body of work, I can say that this one didn’t really work for me.

Book review: Overkill, by Vanda Symon

18 09 2018

Vanda Symon is a New Zealand radio host and crime novelist whose writing has been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award. The first of her series of novels featuring policewoman Sam Shephard, Overkill (2007), has recently been re-released.


Overkill starts with a murder staged so as to look like a suicide. Gaby Knowles was the mother of a toddler and wife of Lockie, who’s the former boyfriend of Mataura’s sole charge police constable Sam Shephard. That level of interconnectedness causes problems for Sam, from the outset, although she makes every effort to keep the investigation of the supposed suicide on a professional level. When subtle irregularities in the circumstances of Gaby’s death start to point to a death not at her own hands, Shephard calls in the outside reinforcements that a one-cop-town murder investigation clearly requires. But the concealment from her fellow officers of her former relationship with Lockie Knowles, viewed alongside her intuition-assisted good fortune in stumbling across clues that suggest a chief suspect among Mataura’s modest population, sees Shephard herself fall under suspicion; her superior takes her off the case and suspends her from police duties. Sam, though, still feels she has a better prospect of making headway in the case, by virtue of the rapport she’s built up through years of service as the town’s only police officer, than does an assortment of blow-ins from Gore, Invercargill, and Dunedin…

Overkill is a tautly-written book with short chapters, a combination which makes it difficult to put down. Narrated in first person by Shephard herself, it paints an affectionate, wry, and unglamorous portrayal of Sam and the townsfolk, farmers, and colleagues with whom she interacts while trying to get to the bottom of a case she’s been ordered off. There are frequent touches of self-deprecating knockabout humour, most often in the interplay between Sam and her meatworks-technician flatmate Maggie, alongside what feels like an accurate representation of small-town Southland life. (I’ve never visited Mataura, but the culture depicted here is recognisable from my experience of North Canterbury, and the writing captures the rural New Zealand landscape—wet grass, agricultural effluent, sandflies and all—without romanticising it.) And the motive for what seems like a uniquely improbable murder—why kill a young mother, in the privacy of her own rural home, in front of her own infant daughter?—is well-unveiled in a well-paced and memorable crime-fiction debut.

I’ll definitely be searching out the subsequent episodes in this series, and hoping there may be new volumes also (the fifth, and most recent, was first published in 2012).

Book review: The Body Human, by Nancy Kress

17 09 2018

Nancy Kress is an American science fiction writer whose work can often be characterised as hard SF with a detailed biological / medical / societal focus. Kress has won numerous Nebula and Hugo awards for her shorter fiction (she has enjoyed particular success in the novella categories) and has also won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for her novel Probability Space. I’ve reviewed several other works by Kress, including her classic novella Beggars in Spain.


The Body Human (Three Stories of Future Medicine) is a collection of Kress’s novellas and novelettes with a biomedical focus. They’re not connected in any fashion except thematically.

The novelette ‘Evolution’ posits a future where antibiotic-resistant pathogens have become so pervasive that the health system is failing: partly from the rising tide of unkillable diseases and partly from a domestic terror campaign which is directly targeting hospitals and other institutions (eg cattle farms) seen as contributing to the worsening problem of antibiotic resistance. Betty is a rehabilitated ex-con mother-of-two who has witnessed the developing civil war from the sidelines, but finds herself thrust into a high-stakes confrontation when she receives unwelcome news about her sixteen-year-old son Sean…

In ‘Fault Lines’, a novella, retired-NYPD-cop-turned-teacher Gene Shaunessy is contacted by a former friend, Bucky, who works for a large pharmaceutical concern, with the news that an advanced neuroceutical treatment they have been trialling, J-24 (intended for the promotion of strong social connections among the terminally-ill elderly), is associated with suspicious deaths among the entire trial cohort. Gene somewhat unwillingly finds himself investigating Bucky’s reports, which means calling on connections he no longer has among his former police colleagues. Are the deaths murder or suicide? And why have they been occurring?

A second novelette, ‘The Mountain To Mohamed’, has good samaritan junior doctor Jesse Randall making unsanctioned house calls to uninsurables: citizens who are permanently excluded from medical insurance (and, in many cases, from employment) purely on the basis of an evaluated genetic predisposition to problematic medical conditions. Jesse can see that it’s untenable and immoral to leave these people totally beyond reach of medical assistance, but can he provide them the healthcare they desperately require while continuing to operate as a cog in a medical machine that very much wishes to keep them excluded?

The previous examples of Kress’s writing I’ve seen have been well-grounded in interesting and imaginatively-extrapolated scientific concepts, peopled by gritty and plausible characters with ongoing lives and a sense of personal history, and that’s true of these stories also. I found ‘Evolution’ the most rewarding of the three, in part because of its particular revealed extrapolation (an intriguing concept which may or may not be plausible in the real world, but which seems to merit exploration) and partly because the settings of the two subsequent stories (near-future New York with heightened social strife) trend heavily into dystopian territory with, at times, a disturbingly oppressive feel about them. (Which is not to diminish their value or validity as stories, but rather to note that they can be difficult reads.)

Book review: Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indriðason

15 09 2018

Arnaldur Indriðason is an Icelandic crime novelist who has won the Glass Key Award (twice), the CWA Gold Dagger, and the RBA Prize for Crime Writing. He is best known for his longrunning series (now, it seems, concluded, save for possible prequels) of police procedurals featuring the taciturn and moody detective Erlendur and his colleagues Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg, and has also written novels that show an abiding interest in Iceland’s occupation by Allied forces during WWII. I’ve previously reviewed several of Arnaldur’s novels, including two others in the Erlendur series.


With a title like Silence of the Grave (Grafarþögn, 2002, translated by Bernard Scudder), a certain sombreness both of tone and of content is suggested, and yes, those elements are present. Silence opens with the discovery of an apparently long-buried and unidentified body within the groundwork of a new housing development on Reykjavík’s outskirts. It’s reasonably quickly realised that the body is too recent to be a Viking burial, but since it has been in the ground for at least several decades, a team of archaeologists is brought in for the excavation so as to maximise the possibility of obtaining useful clues as to the circumstances of the burial. The involvement of the archaeologists—who appear, to police eyes, to operate with painstaking slowness—is something Erlendur soon regrets, but since progress on other fronts of the investigation is near-nonexistent, he decides to persist with the arrangement. In any case, he has worse things to worry about, with his heavily-pregnant drug-addicted daughter lapsing into a coma following an internal haemorrhage…

Much of Silence is grim; and the frank depiction, scattered throughout the narrative, of the long-past episodes of domestic violence which preceded the body’s interment is sufficiently uncomfortable to read that a trigger warning is probably in order. Nonetheless, the mostly-calm methodicality of Erlendur, Sigurdur Óli, and Elínborg—as they attempt to tease out the mystery of a half-century-old death while awaiting the conclusion of a glacially-paced archaeological excavation—provides a welcome counterpoint to the harrowing backstory and to the slowly-revealed dysfunctionality of Erlendur’s own family. (It’s the latter content that provides the most in terms of character development for Arnaldur’s protagonist: Erlendur is too strait-laced, by Scandicrime detective standards, to conform to the trope of the hard-drinking loner, and too job-focussed to unburden himself to his colleagues, even when his adult daughter lies critically injured in a hospital bed.) And while there’s a sense of inevitability to the investigation’s outcome, there are still some unexpected revelations as the bones are slowly excavated from their encasement, and the human story that emerges alongside those bones is sombrely satisfying.

Icelandic crime fiction has characteristics that set it apart from other flavours of Scandinavian crime: it’s slower, sparser, and tends to give a greater weight to folklore and the supernatural than is found elsewhere. All of those attributes are present in Silence of the Grave, and Arnaldur does an excellent job of pulling them into a significantly disturbing, if ultimately moving, novel of loss, desperation, and resolve.

Book review: I Only Killed Him Once, by Adam Christopher

14 09 2018

Adam Christopher is a NZ-born science fiction writer now living in the UK. His ‘Empire State’ novels have been well received, and he’s received the Sir Julius Vogel Award in recognition of his work as editor of nine issues of Time/Space Visualiser, the official publication of the NZ Doctor Who Fan Club. I’ve previously reviewed the earlier instalments in his series of ‘Ray Electromatic’ 50s/60s LA robot noir novels, Made To Kill, Standard Hollywood Depravity, and Killing Is My Business.


I Only Killed Him Once is the latest, and apparently the last, of the ‘Ray Electromatic’ novels. In this one, hired-killer-with-a-working-memory-of-one-day Ray is contracted to eliminate federal employee Touch Daley, a task he fulfils late at night by the difficult-to-trace method of death by automobile. Which is all well and good, as these things go, except that Ray and his computer-program boss Ada are visited the very next day by someone who seems like he should be in rather more of a state of disrepair than he is…

It turns out there might be slightly more than one Touch Daley.

Ray, of course, doesn’t realise this (the working-memory-of-one-day thing), and stumbles into a situation from which even Ada seems powerless to extract him, because Ada has problems of her own.

As characters go, Ray is—by his nature—fairly limited, but since noir often relies more on mood and plot than on character development, this isn’t a particular problem. And Ray—who falls somewhere midway on a continuum from Maxwell Smart to George Smiley—is an entertaining enough protagonist, with his tendencies both towards thoughtful examination of a problem and a reckless trust in his own abilities to ‘wing it’ when that thoughtful examination fails to deliver a more reliable solution. I’m still inclined to the view that Made To Kill is the high watermark in this series of affectionate Chandler-inspired adventures by ‘the man with two first names’, but I Only Killed Him Once does a good job of fleshing out Ray’s previously-sketchy origin story and thereby providing some valuable closure to the electromatic exploits of the world’s last robot detective.

Book review: The Other Woman, by Therese Bohman

10 09 2018

Therese Bohman is a Swedish magazine editor, critic, and novelist. Her three novels to date have all been translated into English; I’ve previously reviewed the first of them, Drowned, here.


The narrator and titular character in The Other Woman (Den andra kvinnan, 2014, translated by Marlaine Delargy) — I don’t think we are ever told her name — is a twentysomething kitchenhand in a hospital cafeteria in Norrköping, a small city for which she has ambivalent feelings: she despises its parochialism, but it’s home nonetheless. This equivocality extends also to her work — it’s work, it doesn’t make too many demands of her, but she definitely wants something better — and, indeed, to her circle of acquaintances, some of whom seem to have acquired her friendship more through endurance than through any shared connective qualities. By some measures, she’s treading water. At least, this is the pattern of her existence until she notices — and is noticed by — a charismatic doctor twenty years her senior, Carl Malmberg. Married, for a second time, with three daughters.

She begins to look forward to Malmberg’s infrequent visits to the cafeteria. Then he stops to offer her a lift one evening, after work, to spare her a quarter-hour wait at the bus stop, a bus ride, the walk to her door in the rain. That first lift in his car, the conversation between them is awkward, doesn’t go anywhere, but the next ride they strike up more of a rapport, and the third lift seals it. Their affair is passionate, consuming, constrained by circumstance. It’s plainly not heading anywhere good — he will never leave his wife for this cafeteria worker young enough to be his daughter — but, within the unavoidable limits, the depth of feeling, of genuine affection and love between them, is intense. But is it enough?

Bohman’s novels — this one and Drowned are very much of a piece, in terms of tone and perspective — are astonishingly closely observed, wonderfully frank, charmingly vivid, her viewpoint characters deeply reflective, impulsive, and devastatingly capable of expressing their dissatisfaction alongside their indecision. While The Other Woman is certainly a novel, with plot arc, crises, a cast of credible and varied characters, and a satisfyingly-turned denouement, it is as much a detailed and precise character study of a woman never named; a close-focussed hyperrealistic portrait of a human heart. It’s by turns funny, startling, tender; and throughout, it is beautifully compelling.