Book review: Fugitive Blue, by Claire Thomas

15 11 2018

Claire Thomas is an Australian author and academic with short story publications in journals including Meanjin and Overland. Her first (and, thus far, sole) novel, Fugitive Blue, won the 2009 Dobbie Award for women writers and was longlisted in that year’s Miles Franklin Award.

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Fugitive Blue is the story of a young art conservator’s doomed romantic relationship, told in backdrop against her foregrounded obsession with restoring and researching a fifteenth-century painted poplar panel (a pair of angels in flight, embedded in an expansive sky of then-priceless ultramarine pigmentation) by an unheralded female artist, Caterina, whose name is boldly scribed upon the panel’s back. Intercut with the conservator’s efforts and observations, the narrative also furnishes lengthy interludes from the artwork’s long life, from renaissance Venice through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, as seen through the eyes of various protagonists. It’s a quietly intense story, filled with patience and precision and the conservator’s need to undo the damage of centuries of quiet existence.

I generally feel somewhat cheated when, as here, what initially presents itself as the dominant narrative instead reveals itself to be a framing story for other episodes (and, yes, I’m not unaware of the double meaning of the term ‘framing story’ in a novel on art conservation). I forgive this tendency in Fugitive Blue because the structure works here: in part because it is entirely natural for the conservator, attempting to arrange the best possible outcome for the warping panel’s time-tarnished image, to seek to unravel its past, and in part because this arrangement provides precisely the precarious balance between immediacy and the weight of dead time that is required to tell this particular story well. The historical episodes—in Venice (on two occasions, separated by centuries); in Paris; and in a migrant camp in Albury-Wodonga—are depicted in an unhurried and immersive style, with plenty of time taken to bring their various characters to full life. There are also some impressive details hiding in plain sight as the slow-release tragedy at the novel’s heart plays out. Recommended.

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Book review: The Second Cure, by Margaret Morgan

15 10 2018

Margaret Morgan is an Australian writer and screenwriter with a background in criminal law and training in plant science, genetics, and parasitology. She has furnished scripts for Australian TV shows as Water Rats and GP and her short fiction has appeared in outlets such as Meanjin and Going Down Swinging. The Second Cure is her first novel.

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The Second Cure postulates a world in which cats are dying out, by virtue of a new strain of Toxoplasma gondii (the unicellular parasite with a life cycle that takes it alternately through the metabolisms of the cat and the rat) that’s sufficiently distinct, in its genotype and its parasisology, to be considered a new species. Charlotte (‘Charlie’) Zinn, a microbiologist whose expertise in parasitology and symbiosis has suddenly become sexy—or at least topical—with the new species’ emergence, dubs the new parasite T. pestis. It spreads rapidly, through contact with infected cats and by ‘exchange of bodily fluids’, to become endemic in a large and growing proportion of the human population. The parasite at first appears to be harmless, but it soon becomes apparent that its assumed inertness is merely an indication of a significant incubation period. Symptoms of infection are highly varied—the parasite affects brain chemistry, with results that appear to depend at least in part on the preexisting structure of the infected brain—but often include one of several forms of synaesthesia, the ‘blending of senses’ that allows some people to hear colours, etc. Charlie’s partner, musician-artist Richard, is one such; but since this new characteristic succeeds in interweaving his two consuming interests of music and art, he sees it not as an affliction, but as a gift. This attitude takes off, and a growing population of ‘thetes’ revel in their new capabilities.

Not everyone is so enamoured of this change in a fraction of the infected population. Jack Effenberg, newly-elected populist premier of Queensland, and his charismatic televangelistic power-behind-the-throne wife Marion, are determined to stamp out what they see as a sinful shift in human nature: if not globally, then over at least whatever geographical area they can wield control. Richard’s sister Brigid, a reporter, is equally determined to ensure the Effenbergs’ divisive and opportunistic right-wing policies are exposed to significant critical attention, an attitude hardly shared with the rest of the Queensland press pack. And Charlie, her colleague Juliette, and her scientist-entrepreneur husband Shadrack Zinn are all committed, in their various ways, to combatting the insidious new disease with all of the tools at their disposal. Of course, with so many different active agendas, something has to give…

It’s almost impossible to fault this book. Morgan’s biomedicine-inspired extrapolation is enthralling, her characterisation is muscular and moving; she plays dramatic tension like an instrument. And onto a contemporary Australian setting she throws a varicoloured patchwork of social commentary, political commentary, geopolitical speculation and gradual technological advancement that feels tangible, in some ways almost inevitable. Above all, it’s character-driven hard science fiction that’s perfectly accessible, yet doesn’t compromise, anywhere, on the science. I’m deeply impressed.





Book review: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

12 10 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer who until recently was best known as the author of the ‘Raksura’ and ‘Ile-Rien’ fantasy series; Wells has also written tie-in novels for the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. Within the past year or so, she has received increasing attention and acclaim for a new sequence of thoughtful and propulsive SF novellas, collectively termed ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, which detail the exploits of a somewhat-misanthropic combat cyborg (a ‘SecUnit’) that has slipped the yoke of its human-controlled programming and is now trying to find its own place in the hostile and confusing realm of human society. I’ve previously reviewed the three earlier novellas in the ‘Murderbot’ sequence.

ExitStrategy

Exit Strategy is the fourth title in the series, and follows a form that will be familiar to readers of the three earlier novellas: (1) Murderbot breathes sigh of simulated relief at conclusion of preceding events, looks to plan escape so as to minimise detection. (2) Murderbot is distracted in its preferred task of ingesting media shows by self-perceived need to safeguard stupid humans from their own intended reckless actions. (3) Murderbot carefully plans best-practice approach for averting harmful consequences to identified group of stupid humans. (4) Murderbot puts plan into effect. (5) Shit gets real: best laid plans, etc., etc. (6) Bad things happen.

This time around, the ‘stupid human’ most directly in need of safeguarding is Dr Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s ‘owner’, and for whom the technically-rogue Murderbot therefore feels conflicting emotions… which is to say, emotion of any sort. Mensah has been kidnapped by evil corporate empire GrayCris, an entity with which Murderbot has had several previous dealings, none of them good. With the human it most cares about at the mercy of a ruthless, almost-lawless corporation, how will Murderbot rectify the situation?

Wells’ Murderbot novellas always build patiently to an explosive finale, and Exit Strategy is no exception. This perhaps makes it sound formulaic; not an inaccurate assessment, perhaps, but an incomplete one. There’s a slowly-developing awareness accreted across all four novellas that the SecUnit, repeatedly forced by circumstances to mimic a human being (so as not to appear in public as a dangerous, and therefore eminently targetable, item of killing machinery), is gradually becoming more adept in this role, a process which Wells uses to subtly tease out useful insights into the nature and limitations of humanity itself, as seen by an entity that’s still technically outside that walled city. Somewhat surprisingly for such an ostensibly-unemotive protagonist, the principal sparseness of the writing shows up not in the characterisation, which is fairly vivid (as expressed through body language, observable reactions, and SecUnit speculation), but in the scene-setting which, because it’s portrayed almost entirely without metaphor, can come across as pallid, functional, and sketchy, like a wireframe rather than a fully-rendered scene. Action sequences, however, are expertly-defined and propulsive. Murderbot is at its best seeking to survive against seemingly-overpowering opponents.

And, like some cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Terminator, Murderbot as a character is deliciously self-deprecating, curmudgeonly, and flippant at times. It’s a memorable nonhuman creation, by turns refreshingly philosophical and highly entertaining. By seeking to reunite the rogue SecUnit with Dr Mensah, Exit Strategy brings the multi-novella story arc to a memorable and effective conclusion. (There are, nonetheless, some indications that Murderbot is to return in a subsequent novel, which will be interesting.)





Book review: The Thin Blue Line, by Christoffer Carlsson

9 10 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer. He has won several awards since his crime-novel debut, The Invisible Man from Salem, in 2013. He’s best known for his four-volume ‘Leo Junker’ series, of which Invisible Man marks the start, and which concerns a highly-conflicted Stockholm detective who seems persistently unable to escape his and others’ mistakes. I’ve previously reviewed several of Carlsson’s novels.

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The Thin Blue Line (Den Tunna Blå Linjen, 2017, translated by Michael Gallagher) sees Junker once again inveigled into one of his escaped-criminal friend John Grimberg’s intrigues. This time it’s a plea for Leo to unofficially reopen the investigation into the unsolved murder of Stockholm prostitute Angelica Reyes, a low-priority five-year-old cold case that’s a couple of months away from being passed on to a team specialising in such cases. There’s no ostensible reason why Grim should want the case investigated by Leo in particular, but Leo feels compelled… and as he and colleague Gabriel Birck dig deeper into the records of the original investigation, which are meticulous but with unexplained gaps, it becomes clear that something important, something deadly, has been concealed. But the time available for Leo’s and Gabriel’s investigation is short, and much of it hinges on the need to talk to people who do not wish to come forward…

Carlsson’s Leo Junker novels combine immediacy, neo-noirish intrigue, and a measured pace that seems consistently unhurried while never flagging. In Junker, Birck, Grimberg, and Leo’s partner Sam he has crafted a memorable central quartet of characters who, across four books—and there is reason to believe this to be the last in the series—play off each other to extraordinary effect. The background, too, is particularly well crafted, with considerable credible detail.

In my review of the first in the Leo Junker series (The Invisible Man from Salem), I suggested that Carlsson may have affectionately Tuckerised fellow Swedish crime novelist (and fellow criminology specialist) Leif G W Persson as a background character in the novel. I suspect Carlsson has done something analogous in this book also—his pair of ‘lazy beat cops’ Larsson and Leifby, who just happen to be patrolling out-of-area at a crucial point in the story, appear intentionally reminiscent of the similarly-alliterative and similarly unprepossessing team of out-of-area beat cops, Kristiansson and Kvant, who appear in certain of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ novels, such as The Laughing Policeman. If this is indeed intentional, it leads me to wonder what other examples of homage might occur in books two and three of Carlsson’s series… but it would be remiss of me to imply that the books require a deep familiarity with Swedish crime fiction for full enjoyment, because I don’t believe that to be the case. They are their own thing, and Junker is a surprisingly sympathetic if deeply-conflicted protagonist.





Book review: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

6 10 2018

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Indigenous Australian (Palyku) legal academic, novelist, and illustrator. She has written several children’s picture books and YA novels, of which the latter (notably ‘The Tribe’ trilogy) merge themes of dystopia, sustainability, and Indigenous lore. Her YA novel debut The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award in 2013.

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The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf isn’t one of those novels with an evasive or even misleading title: it is what it says on the tin. Its protagonist, de facto leader of a group of teens with unusual abilities—Ashala’s own ability, in essence, is flight-capable sleepwalking, managed through lucid dreaming—has been captured by administrators who are determined to see such traits stamped out, even if this means stamping out the individuals carrying such abilities. But Ashala is as determined to keep concealed her knowledge of her mutually-adoptive Tribe’s location, numbers, and range of represented abilities as those arrayed against her—administrator Neville Rose, neuroscientist Miriam Grey, strangely-familiar guard Connor—are determined to learn her secrets, through whatever means are required. As her incarceration stretches on and as the danger to her (and her friends) grows, Ashala begins to suspect she’s missing something…

Interrogation has something of the form expected of a dystopian YA novel, valiant teens arrayed against an untrustworthy adult power structure, with a mostly-clear demarcation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but the inclusion—arguably, the centrality—of Indigenous storytelling and environmentalism adds a few different levels to this form. The result is a broadly enjoyable self-contained trilogy-opener with a sure sense of itself and a focus on truth, loyalty, and friendship.





Book review: Eventide, by Therese Bohman

3 10 2018

Therese Bohman is a Swedish editor, art critic, and novelist. Her three novels to date have all been translated into English; I’ve previously reviewed the first two, Drowned and The Other Woman.

Eventide

Eventide (Aftonland, 2016, translated by Marlaine Delargy) focusses on Karolina Andersson, a forty-year-old professor of art history who has recently ended a long-term relationship and is finding the single lifestyle difficult to readjust to. Anton, a headstrong and difficult-to-contact PhD student who is nominally under Karolina’s supervision, contacts her with an intriguing discovery he’s made: correspondence which strongly suggests that the obscure nineteenth-century Swedish artist Ebba Ellis had a significant, and hitherto unsuspected, influence on the work of her better-known German contemporaries. As art-history developments go, this is big-league stuff, and as Anton’s continuing research uncovers further links, Karolina begins to become convinced that they are on the threshold of something major, something career-defining. But Anton’s activity as a PhD student is seemingly very much on his own terms, and elsewhere in her day-to-day existence, Karolina runs off certain rails, faced with a progressively-louder biological clock and a sense that her inability to sustain a meaningful and mutually nurturing relationship with any of the men to whom she’s attracted marks her as a failure and an impostor.

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Bohman’s novels to date are cut from consistent cloth: indeed, even the cover on this one is reminiscent of its predecessor The Other Woman, with little more than the replacement of one obscuring filter by another. But though the protagonists are broadly similar—educated, thoughtful, assertive women who start the book without ongoing romantic attachments—the important details are quite distinct.

Bohman’s writing is subtle; clear; direct; slow-unfolding. In a structural sense, Eventide appears looser than either Drowned or The Other Woman, both of which were anchored by their doomed romantic arcs, in a way that Eventide isn’t. And the organisation of the text, not into chapters but into sequential scenes without any further imposition of hierarchy, can play into a meandering sense that’s not helped by the didactic nature of Bohman’s focus here: particularly within the latter half of the book, some of the activity and observation appears so tangential to the book’s core that it feels as though, in places, the story has lost its way. I believe this to be a consequence of Bohman’s attempt to show, as completely as possible, Karolina’s mounting uncertainty and personal desperation, but it nearly founders the text. In other respects, though, the words are razor-sharp, and the resolution to which Karolina’s story is brought is rewarding and delivered with impressive understatement. If the above makes it sound as though Eventide is too slow for your own sensibilities, that’s quite possibly the case; but if you are drawn towards books that offer the patient construction of real fictional lives with tellingly-detailed inner voices, then you can be reassured that Bohman is exceptionally good at this stuff.





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.

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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?