Book review: The Hotel Under the Sand, by Kage Baker

28 05 2017

Kage Baker was an American SF / fantasy author whose work, principally her ‘Company’ series of time-travel novels, was shortlisted for Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Award and (posthumously) the Nebula.


The Hotel Under the Sand is a short novel, primarily for children, that describes the adventures of castaway orphan Emma following her discovery of the fabled time-distorting Grand Wenlocke Hotel, newly re-emerged from the sand dunes beneath which it had been buried in an equinox storm. At first, her only companion is the (friendly) ghost of the hotel’s late Bell Captain, but as the days go on others make their way to the Grand Wenlocke: a cook, a sailor who insists he’s not a pirate, an heir, miscellaneous guests. The adventures that follow are ingenious and not too intense, and the book reaches a measured and satisfying conclusion.

The story seems much more strongly reminiscent of British children’s fiction than of any US tradition with which I’m familiar; the setting and the sense of boisterous whimsy show echoes, I think, of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark as well as, say, Mervyn Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard. Baker’s worldbuilding is intriguing and sprinkled with random bits of fascinating invention, while her gentle characterisation still admits of human foibles: the central character set feels somewhat restrained, but they’re well fleshed-out.

The book is fairly obviously aimed at a young audience, but it’s sufficiently fast-paced, quirky, and subtle that it also works reasonably well as reading matter for adults. It would have been interesting to see where Baker next took the series, but the book, like its protagonist, is an orphan, alone in its world: Baker died several months after its publication.

Now available for e-delivery throughout the inner solar system …

27 05 2017

Without wishing to be too annoyingly persistent on the subject of The Author’s Latest Work, a quick PSA seems appropriate. The e-book versions (epub, mobi, pdf) of my Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body and Edwina Harvey’s An Eclectic Collection of Stuff and Things are, for a limited time (i.e., up until the launch) available from the Peggy Bright Books website at the discounted price of $1.99AUD each.

Quick PSA ends. You may go about your business. Move along.

Book review: Burned, by Thomas Enger

27 05 2017

Thomas Enger is a Norwegian crime writer, composer, and former journalist. His crime fiction, featuring journalist Henning Juul, has been nominated for the Petrona and eDunnit awards.


Burned (Skinndød, 2010, translated by Charlotte Barslund) opens with the discovery of a particularly grisly and ritualistic murder on Ekeberg Common: a young woman, Henriette Hagerup, a film student, is found half-buried in an otherwise-empty white tent. All indications are that she has been stoned to death. When her boyfriend, immigrant Mahmoud Marhoni, flees from the police, he automatically becomes prime suspect for the murder, with suspicion substantially strengthened by evidence of Henriette’s infidelity that subsequently comes to light. But journalist Henning Juul, newly returned to work after two years recuperating from the house fire that killed his young son Jonas, and partnered on the story with another journo he’s going to find it exceptionally difficult to get along with) believes there’s more to the crime than the simple honour killing the police are painting it as. So he digs deeper …

Enger’s writing is smart and insightful, with a good line in immediacy and the naturally unhurried development of tension. The characterisation is good and the backstory is searing. The author gets under his psychically- and physically-scarred protagonist’s skin: it becomes natural to see things as Juul does. We accept from the outset, even if we don’t immediately understand, his need to replace the batteries every single night on the eight smoke alarms in his apartment, his incapacity to light a match. And the setting—Juul works for the (fictional) online news startup 123news—feels up-to-the-minute, with its click-driven editorial direction, its hothouse management and open-plan workspaces, and its continual push to produce more content even as staff are being retrenched. The characteristic social commentary of Scandinavian crime fiction fits naturally alongside this setting. Against the many attractive features of the text, it feels almost petty to cavil, though I did find myself incompletely convinced by the ultimate accounting for the principal murder (I didn’t feel the case was properly made for demonstrating that the murderer was motivated for such a hands-on, brutal, and protracted method of execution), and I did also wish, on occasion, that the author would use a few more speech attributions: there were patches of dialogue, some as long as a complete page, where it was incredibly difficult to determine which character was speaking which lines. Those things said, it remains a highly impressive debut.

Book review: Where Roses Never Die, by Gunnar Staalesen

22 05 2017

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian writer best known for his longrunning ‘Varg Veum’ crime fiction series, documenting the cases of a lugubrious, deadpan, good-hearted, aquavit-sculling PI based in Staalesen’s hometown of Bergen. There are almost twenty books in the Veum series, of which less than half have yet appeared in English translation.


Where Roses Never Die (Der hvor roser aldri dør, 2012, translated by Don Bartlett) is set in March 2012, but revolves around the events of almost twenty-five years earlier. Veum is contracted by a desperate parent, Maja Misvær, whose three-year-old daughter Mette disappeared from her home’s sandpit one morning in September 1977, with no signs of a struggle and no subsequent trace of her fate. A substantial police investigation at the time found no indication of foul play; now the mother wants her daughter’s haunting disappearance reviewed once more before the 25-year statute of limitations falls on the case. The Misværs occupied—indeed, the divorced Maja still occupies—one of five homes in ‘Solstølvegen’, an architect-designed U-shaped terrace. Once he’s sobered up sufficiently, Veum commences his investigation by interviewing those of the five homes’ original occupants who are still at the address, which, as it turns out, is about half of them, due to a combination of relocation and divorce. He tracks further afield to speak to the others, though one is irrevocably beyond reach (gunned down a few months earlier as an innocent bystander in a mishandled jewellery getaway). Is it really going to be possible for a lone alcohol-damaged PI to solve a case that remained beyond the full reach of the police’s resources twenty-five years earlier?

Staalesen’s writing doesn’t follow the usual style of Scandinavian crime fiction: the language here is playful, mordant, sometimes whimsical. Nesbø has compared Staalesen’s style to Chandler, and there’s a definite Philip Marlowe flavour to Veum, with the hard drinking, the persistence, the insistence on asking inappropriate questions, and the sharp backchat. There are some absolutely wonderful lines in the dialogue and in the descriptions. The plotting, too, is extraordinary. Overall, the book is astonishingly vivid and enticing, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I learned once I finished reading the book that Where Roses Never Die has just (ie within the last 48 hours) won the 2017 Petrona Award for Scandinavian crime fiction in translation. I can’t speak for all six books on the shortlist, but the two others I’ve read and reviewed—Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Exiled and Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal—would have to be considered formidable adversaries, every bit as good in their way as Staalesen’s work.

(A side note on Roses: I found myself rather bemused by the prevalence of alliterative characters in the book, which approaches Marvel-comic-series tendencies: Varg Veum of course, Maja & Mette Misvær, Terje Torbeinsvik, Synnøve & Svein Stangeland, Jesper Janevik … I’m not sure if this is indicative of a genuine Norwegian nominative proclivity, but it was noticeable enough to seem a little odd.)

Matters Arising from the identification of a book launch

22 05 2017

A few weeks back, I foreshadowed the upcoming book launch for Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body. I now have substantive details of said book launch, so without further ado:


The launch is scheduled for 7 pm (AEST) on Friday 9th June, at Continuum 13, which is being held at the Jasper Hotel, 489 Elizabeth St, Melbourne VIC 3000. Entry to the convention for the Friday night only is at a special reduced rate of (a) a gold-coin donation or (b) $5, whichever one of these options turns out to be correct (and I’ve seen both listed in various places on the convention website, which I suspect means option (b) is the correct one and parts of last year’s site haven’t been adjusted). The launch is to be held, I’m given to understand, in the ‘Haunted House’ room. There will be nibbles, and beverages, but hopefully no poltergeists.


It’s a dual launch: the other book on offer is Edwina Harvey’s An Eclectic Collection of Stuff and Things (also newly published by Peggy Bright Books) a wonderful mixture of short speculative fiction ranging all the way from children’s stories to some decidedly adult content, with lots of stuff (and, indeed, the occasional ‘thing’) in between.

I’m thrilled to say that Master-of-Ceremonies for the launch will be Ion Newcombe, the long-serving editor of the Antipodean SF flash fiction webzine. The launch will be, in some respects, a reunion. ‘Newk’ has published a good many stories by both Edwina and myself over the years: my first speculative fiction publication, almost exactly ten years ago, was in Antipodean SF‘s 108th issue, while Edwina’s involvement with the zine goes all the way back to its very first issue in 1998 (and several of her Antipodean stories have made it into the collection—I’m hoping she’ll read ‘Where The Last Humans Went’, the latest such offering, at the launch).

So, a book launch. Now all we need, I suppose, are the books …

Book review: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

20 05 2017

Nnedi Okorafor is an American academic and SF / fantasy writer of Nigerian heritage. She teaches creative writing and literature at SUNY Buffalo. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award.


The titular character in the Hugo- and Nebula- winning novella, Binti, is a young woman of gifted mathematical ability who wins a scholarship to Oomza University, the most prestigious institution of learning in the Galaxy. Her parents and siblings don’t believe she should accept the offer: it would mean leaving home (and leaving Earth, besides) and that’s just not something that the Himba do. Binti’s heritage is deeply important to her, but so is the opportunity to advance in her beloved field of mathematics, so she absconds and catches a shuttle. The subsequent flight from Earth to Oomza (in a living starship which is more-or-less an oversized, flight-capable prawn with bioengineered onboard living chambers) takes around twenty weeks, but is attacked enroute by the Meduse, a race at war with humanity. Almost everyone on board the ship is slain by the Meduse, but Binti survives and must then find a way to prevent carnage when the ship reaches its destination.

The strength of Binti is in the portrayal of the title character, who is smart, rebellious, respectful, fearful, and determined, and whose identity and culture are intimately tied to her braided, beaded hair and her precious clay-and-oil bodypaint, otjize. Her bridge-burning departure from her hometown places her in a position of substantial vulnerability, as a metaphorical ‘fish out of water’ within a literal one (the ‘Third Fish’ living spacecraft, plying the vacuum of space). I wasn’t completely convinced by the Meduse villains, and I’m not entirely satisfied that the pretext given for the longstanding conflict (which may have been between the Meduse and humanity, or between the Meduse and all of the Galaxy’s other sentient, spacefaring races–of which humanity is only one of quite a few) really held up. But the ‘otherness’ of the Meduse is well captured (in this respect, Okorafor’s writing shows some common ground with that of Octavia Butler, Amy Thompson, and Phillip Mann, though Binti is categorisable as ‘science fantasy’, which is not the description I’d apply to those other authors) and the story’s fairly sharp divergence from the customary furniture of space-based SF is, for the most part, refreshing. The story arc is well handled and sets things up beautifully for further work in this fictional universe. The novella might not convince devotees of space opera, but it should satisfy readers whose SF interest is primarily in character-driven fiction.

Book review: The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indriðason

20 05 2017

Arnaldur Indriðason is an Icelandic crime fiction writer best known for his novels featuring the detective Erlendur. I’ve previously reviewed one of those, Strange Shores, here.


The Shadow District (Skuggasund, 2013, translated by Victoria Cribb) is subtitled ‘A Reykjavík Wartime Mystery’. It’s not an Erlendur novel: here, Arnaldur has introduced a new detective, Konrád, who has retired from active police work but apparently still feels compelled to pitch in from time to time. The novel staggers between two timelines: in the present day, Konrád is helping to investigate the suspicious death of Stephán, a reclusive nonagenarian, in his Reykjavík apartment, while seventy years earlier, during the wartime occupation of Iceland by the Allies, the crime under investigation is that of a young woman whose body is spotted by an Icelandic woman Ingiborg and her American GI boyfriend Frank. Hoping to solve the young woman’s murder in 1944 are Flóvent, a detective in Reykjavík’s then-fledgling CID, and Thorson, a Canadian of Icelandic ancestry on secondment to the US military police. There are, of course, connections between the cases …

I found myself wishing, in places, that the text was somewhat more visually descriptive: the author does not always take enough time, in my opinion, to place the reader in the setting. But against this, the depiction of human action and response is very clear, and the inner voices of the several principal characters are all eloquently recorded. For the most part, the book does a good job, too, of the crucial task of clarifying ‘who knew what when’, which is unavoidably fiddly given the long lapse between the two timelines and the loss of several protagonists, and much evidence, in the interim.

I’m loath to leap to unwarranted conclusions (well, okay, not that loath), but I cannot help but think that the only other novel by Arnaldur that I’ve read, Strange Shores, was in some senses a ‘dry run’ at this one: though the investigators are different, there’s the same concern of a modern-day detective for information regarding a long-buried wartime crime to which the only witnesses remaining alive are in nursing homes or otherwise ‘on borrowed time’. On eyeballing the synopses for his earlier Erlendur novels, it appears that this predilection for wartime cold cases is not completely all-consuming, but its recurrence (and, it would seem, its continuance in the next Konrád instalment, not yet available in English) indicates that the wartime years are something of a passion for the author. The far-distant setting of the young woman’s murder does give the story an eerie, elegiac sense; but Arnaldur’s prose, clean, gentle, and cold, would confer this quality regardless.