Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Shining Girls

   Harper Curtis, a violent and mentally disturbed drifter, stumbles into a rundown property in Chicago. The year is 1931. Inside he comes across a case full of money - US dollars in a wide variety of designs and denominations. He finds himself a change of clothes, pockets a handful of the strange notes, opens the front door, and 'steps into sometime else'.
Harper Collins
   Lauren Beukes new novel 'The Shining Girls' is already being touted as the big it-read for this summer. It's a move into new literary territory for Beukes, whose two previous novels - Moxyland and Zoo City - were both resolutely on the urban fantasy shelf. 'The Shining Girls' is a gripping and terrifying crime thriller, featuring one of the creepiest antagonists I've ever read - the above-mentioned Harper Curtis. 
   Harper uses the miraculous, and never-explained, time-travelling powers of 'the House' to help him follow and eventually kill his 'shining girls': girls in whom he sees particular potential, creativity, or genius. He gives each girl a trinket when they are young, and leaves another beside the body when he returns to finish his job many years later. The difficulty for any law enforcement agency investigating any of his crimes between 1929 and 1993 is how to trace a timeline of events when, chronologically speaking, there simply isn't one. Hypothetically (this doesn't feature in the novel), how could a team of profilers trace the evolution of a murderer's modus operandi when he has committed his first murder in 1981 and escalated towards a final and most elaborate murder in 1974. Throughout the novel, I puzzled over how this killer could ever possibly be caught. 
   Harper Curtis' adversary comes in the form of one of his victims. Kirby Mazrachi was the victim of a horrific assault in her late teens, which she only narrowly survived. Fast forward a few years and she talks her way into an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times, assisting Dan Velasquez - the journalist who originally covered her story, now working in the Sports department. They make an offbeat and attractive investigative team as Kirby starts trying to track assaults similar to hers in the greater Chicago area. 
   The novel does have its faults - we never learn anything about Harper's background or motivations, and leaving the reader with nothing to pin it on does a disservice to the full characterisation of Kirby. I really enjoyed reading it, but it's certainly not the best novel I've read this month, let alone this year. But it is a story well worth reading - especially for the many well-researched titbits. In 1931 Chicago, Harper ends up in a hospital bed in the same room as a woman who is slowly dying because of her occupation - she is a dancer, and her show is special because she performs covered in irradiated paint. Harper visits the construction site of the Sears tower in 1972, then returns a day later to 1973 to take the elevator to the top. 
   I look forward to the word of mouth increasing for this one. So far, I've heard about it mostly from the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community and Beukes' previous readership, but it would be a real shame if the words 'time travel' on the cover put the general crime fiction fans off reading 'The Shining Girls'. 


Monday, May 20, 2013


   Back in March I arrived into work in the bookshop one day to discover that a rep had dropped in a great batch of Advance Reading Copies for the staff. I grabbed this one, which as you can
Pan Macmillan, £12.99
see has a really eye-catching cover. 'Reviver' will be released on June 20th by Pan Macmillan, and it's the debut novel from Seth Patrick, who is originally from Northern Ireland. 
   Jonah Miller is a reviver. He has the ability to wake the recently-dead and communicate with them. The discovery of this skill is relatively new, and already it's become an essential part of modern life. People take out revival insurance so that they can have one last chance to pass a message on to their loved ones after they die. The most exciting aspect of the phenomenon, however, is the potential for the identification of a murderer by his/her victim. Forensic revival has become a routine part of police investigation, and it's what Jonah does for a living. 
   Jonah is a particularly skilled reviver, and lately he's had some strange experiences during what should have been routine revivals. He's hearing strange whispers, and feeling terror in his revival subjects. When the pioneering journalist who first brought revival to public attention is murdered, Jonah finds himself getting dragged into the search for answers. 
   'Reviver' is a gripping thriller, but what really makes it fun is the addition of elements of horror and crime fiction into the mix. I found myself puzzling over which aspect would come to the fore in the eventual solution to the mystery. Patrick has prioritised plot over style or characterisation in this first outing, but it's exciting enough to absolutely pull this off. It's a great night-off kind of read, not too taxing on the grey cells, but lots of fun.

Bloomsbury Kids, £7.99
   The other book I read this week was 'The Last Elf' by Silvana De Mari, translated from the original Italian by Shaun Whiteside. I'd bought this one second-hand a while ago. The cover design is just gorgeous - thank the gods for people who don't hoard books but sell them on after reading for penniless folks to discover! 
   Yorshkrunsquarkljolnerstrink (or Yorsh for short) is a young elf who finds himself all alone in the world. He's starving, wet through, and very cold. This world is a harsh one for an elf. Humans generally hate elves, blaming them for the horrible state of things, and Yorsh is too young to know how to use his power to get along. He struggles to get along with people he meets because he can't remember whether the polite form of address is 'Excellency' or 'Fool'. 
   Yorsh is a very endearing character - so innocent and yet wise, vulnerable and yet powerful beyond knowing. His human companions provide the comic relief in their desperation at his quirky ways, and their journey takes them to lots of dangerous, beautiful, and strange places.    
   This is a beautiful classic fairytale, improved with a little tragedy and a lot of humour - perfect for fans of 'The Princess Bride' or 'Shrek'. And yes, I do realise how high that praise is - 'The Last Elf' is absolutely worth it. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Zenn Scarlett and Schools in Fantasy Novels

   Both of the books I'm reading this week have as a major theme one which I've been planning to write about for a while now - that of learning. I really love it when a science fiction or fantasy novel that I am reading features some of the main characters being students to some extent. I think you'd be surprised at the number of amazing titles which fit into this category! I'll briefly mention some of those titles at the end of this post. In the meantime, this week's books were 'Zenn Scarlett' by Christian Schoon and 'Etiquette & Espionage' by Gail Carriger, both Young Adult titles.
Strange Chemistry, £7.99
   'Zenn Scarlett' is released today (May 2nd), the debut novel from Minnesota author Christian Schoon, and Strange Chemistry have picked up the UK rights to a two-book series. It's aimed at roughly a 12-plus age-group.
   This first novel introduces us to Zenn, a 17 year-old studying to be an exoveterinarian in a Ciscan cloister on Mars. She's learning how to treat all sorts of exotic alien species, from the rikkaset - a small marsupial which can alter the colour of its fur to camouflage itself - to the Kiran sunkiller - a huge flying creature so called because its presence blocks out the light of the sun. But all is not well on Mars. The initial colonisation by humans created an artificial environment in some valleys, and alien Sandhogs have made the land fertile, but civilisation on Mars is now at risk after the Rift with Earth. Replacement parts for machinery and essential products are no longer available, and it remains to be seen how long the colonists can last on their own. In addition, the lease on the cloister where Zenn is training is in danger, and she wants to help her uncle to save the school. 
   There were lots of elements to this story that I really enjoyed. Schoon's creativity with his menagerie of alien species is astounding - I particularly loved the description of the Bloodcarn, a gigantic arthropod which has 'a huge, fluorescent-orange centipede back section with what looked like a tarantula growing out of its front end.' These 'alpha predators' reminded me somewhat of the Slake-Moths from China MiĆ©ville's 'Perdido Street Station' in the primal terror they cause. I also loved the detail involved in the description of the various veterinary procedures Zenn is learning to perform. In one particularly memorable sequence, she uses a high-tech bone and tissue generator to heal a friend's pet cat which has been hit by a car. The amazing thing about this procedure is that the software which should direct the machine in what to create is broken, so Zenn must perform this task herself - a dizzying accomplishment in anatomy, visualising perfect capillaries, splicing arteries, calibrating synapses, and recreating organs and bone. Zenn as a main character was far from perfect (and quite annoying at times), but there was enough going on with the plot that this was a forgivable fault. The main theme of tolerance, as Zenn and her colleagues struggle to get the human colonists on Mars to accept their alien friends and charges, is an important one, especially for the young age group this novel is aimed at. I thought that the device of dropping the reader right into the deep end of life among aliens on Mars was perfect for this exciting and enlightening story. 
   'Etiquette & Espionage' by Gail Carriger was released earlier this year by Atom Books. Once
Atom, £6.99
again, it's aimed at an approximately 12-plus age-group. It's the first novel in a proposed four-book series - The Finishing School. It's set in the same world as her popular Parasol Protectorate series, which I have heard good things about but have unfortunately not read. 

   'Etiquette & Espionage' tells the story of fourteen year-old Sophronia, sent away by her despairing mother to finishing school. Unfortunately, her mother is unaware that Sophronia has been recommended to this school due to her adventurous and inquisitive nature, and as well as the curtseying, handkerchief-waving, and dancing her mother desires her to learn, she is also taught hand-to-hand combat, the art of dispensing poisons, bribery, and blackmail. Just for good luck, the school also boasts both a werewolf and a vampire teacher. It's a tremendously fun adventure, and an inventive introduction to a bit of steampunk for young people. 
   I've been noticing that a common thread in a lot of my favourite science fiction and fantasy is the concept of a main character attending a place of learning. 'Ender's Game' features a battle training school, where Ender learns the art of war through a succession of difficult games played in a zero-gravity Battle Room. In 'The Name of the Wind', Kvothe wins a scholarship to attend University of Imre, studying Naming among other things. Brandon Sanderson's sensational new Stormlight Archive series begins with 'The Way of Kings' in which one of the storylines features Shallan Davar becoming the apprentice and student of the scholar Jasnah Kholin. Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series features the White Tower in the city of Tar Valon, where girls may train to become Aes Sedai if they possess the talent. Of course, one of the most famous modern fantasy series - Harry Potter - is all about a school of magic. The classic Earthsea trilogy features the school of wizardry on Roke Island, where Ged, a poor farmboy from the island of Gont, eventually rises to the position of Archmage. In Trudi Canavan's Black Magician trilogy, a slum-born girl named Sonea discovers her talent for magic, and attends the Magician's Guild to learn to control that talent. 
   These have barely scratched the surface of science fiction and fantasy titles featuring schools, universities, or broader interpretations of learning the craft of magic. Please comment below with any of your own favourites. I'll have to keep adding to my list!