Book reviews on “Bang Bang Bodhisattva,” “Perilous Times,” “Titanium Noir,” “The Housekeepers,” “Windmill Hill,” and “Thirty Days of Darkness.”
This month, we have three novels that wonderfully expand the possibilities of sci-fi and fantasy novels. We also have three crime novels that offer poignant social commentary.
Bang Bang Bodhisattva by Aubrey Wood
The first 20 pages of this novel is a fast-paced, dizzying blend of the sci-fi cyberpunk of “Blade Runner,” mixed with the action genius of a queer/trans “Indiana Jones.” That’s how crazy and enjoyable the start of the novel is. Keira is the trans-sometime sleuth, who offers her services to luddite PI Angel Herrera. It’s an odd couple team up that’s truly wonderful to watch unfold. And the setting is 2032, in a futuristic New Carson City that blends the best of Runner, with the sleazy LA-noir of Raymond Chandler. In fact, it’s in the hard-boiled parlance of Chandler and noir detective series that the rest of the novel proceeds. When retired cop Angel is brought into the station for some questioning by Detective Flynn, we know a frame-up is going down.
Looking for Mal Hobbes, former best friend of Herrera and K’s lawyer for her gender or name change, was never a good idea for our private-detecting duo. They’re lured into a conspiracy that reaches to the very top, and is more than ready to relegate our oddest of couples as collateral damage. The smell of sandalwood incense detected in two crime scenes, is the sole clue they have to work on. There’s a very mutable world depicted, and it crosses into the RPG world, social influencers and bloggers, and a lot of territory in between. Its sci-fi mixed with gender fluidity and politics, it’s a mystery thriller that’s very deadpan and tongue in cheek – and a load of fun to read.
Perilous Times by Thomas D. Lee
It’s not often that you get this outlandish premise – Knights of the Round Table were given resurrection stones by Merlin so that whenever Britain is in peril, the knights rise from their deaths to fulfill patriotic missions. And the setting for this fantasy novel is the near future, when the planet edges to extinction thanks to the callous disregard to the environment. Sir Kay and Sir Lancelot arise, but with quite different agendas on their minds. So let’s call this futuristic sci-fi or fantasy comedy, but with a strong environmental message. There’s even a dragon or two who are awakened at a fracking site, and the misadventures that Kay gets up to, after his decades of mythical slumber, will leave you in stitches.
With deadpan satirical hilarity, the novel attempts to answer how knights of medieval times would fare with all that’s happening today. – independent women, racism, gangs, the desecrating of Nature – and whether reviving King Arthur is any kind of solution. It’s been described as a mix of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, a book that makes us both laugh and think. A recurring theme is how a hero absolves us of taking responsibility or committing to action, and there’s the reminder that there is no magic wand, spell, or quick fire solution that can make climate change and environmental disasters just disappear. Empowering women is also taken on as Miriam, an “eco-terrorist,” takes her own place on the center stage. And there’s a talking squirrel as well.
Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway
T7 is an expensive genetic modification that certain individuals of the near future can avail of. In that world, only thousands have availed of the therapy, and they’re dubbed Titans. Cal Sounder is a private detective who law enforcement agencies outsource when a homicide case involves a Titan. Given the socio-economic backgrounds of Titans, the police figure it’s better to have someone run interference on their behalf, and get the brunt of the blame should any fallout occur. Roddy Tebbit could have been your typical homicide victim, but he’s over seven feet tall, and while his ID says he’s 91 years old, he looks like he’s in his 30’s – a Titan. Welcome to Sounder’s world, a noir treatment of a SciFi premise.
As one reviewer put it, it’s like mixing Raymond Chandler with William Gibson. To complicate matters, T7 was developed by Dr. Stefan Tonfamecasca; and his daughter Athena, is Cal’s ex. And yes, she is a Titan. What follows is a detective procedural with strong noir leanings; as in it would seem Cal is the sort of person who offends everyone. And when you have the Titan forces ranged against you and trying to obfuscate what really happened to Tebbit, and why; it takes more than an abrasive personality to get to the bottom of the mystery. Harkaway has always been excellent in World-building, mixing elements of fantasy, SciFi and biology, with the everyday and mundane so that his synthesized World is both fascinating and convincing. This novel is both a detective novel and Harkaway’s take on superheroes.
The Housekeepers by Alex Hay
In what can be described as a cross between “Oceans Eleven” and “Upstairs, Downstairs”; we have this debut novel from Hay. Mrs. King, Dinah, is the housekeeper at the DeVries mansion on Park Lane, Mayfair, London. It’s 1905, the Edwardian era, and when she’s suddenly dismissed, it turns out that her notion of revenge and justice are intertwined. Putting together a heist crew of the former housekeeper, a seamstress, a wannabe actress, and a black market queen; Mrs. King and her eclectic gang are out to commit the biggest heist during the biggest party of the season that’s being held at the DeVries residence. The back stories and interconnections between the principal players propel this adventure to another level.
First off, there’s Mrs. King’s murky background and why she seemed to get preferential treatment when she first joined the household. And there’s the DeVries daughter, who even if her father just passed away, goes on ahead planning the party. To add “complications,” the black market queen, Mrs. Bone, has a connection to the aforementioned recently deceased, and it’s one that just adds another dimension of motive. The butler, the DeVries lawyer, they too have hidden agendas, with dark secrets that they would prefer stay under wraps and never see the light of day. It’s easy to see this book being optioned by a film company and finding its way to the screen, with major names attached to the project, as even the “small” roles are scene stealers.
Windmill Hill by Lucy Atkins
This is written by the same author who wrote the excellent Magpie Lane. Here, she takes on bigger themes, with selective memory, retribution, and eccentric friendships, among the major themes tackled by the novel. Back in the 1970’s, Astrid and Magnus Fellowes were like the First Couple of stage and theater – think of the young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. But Magnus’ big dream was Hollywood, and to protect his career, he sides with a Hollywood Director and throws Astrid “under the bus” when a sex scandal, and the death of a co-star, hits the London headlines. Some fifty years later, we meet Astrid, now 82, and her companion Mrs. Baker, who live in an abandoned Sussex windmill.
Astrid’s career came to a sudden halt back then, while Magnus fulfilled his big Hollywood star aspirations. But Magnus is now on his deathbed, in his Scotland estate, and finishing a tell-all memoir. It’s a memoir that Astrid wants to make sure tells the truth of the fatal accident back then, or better yet, does not include her at all. Astrid’s trip from Sussex to Edinburgh is one eventful narrative that straddles the whole book, while providing opportunities for flashbacks and reveries to occur. The complicated friendship between Astrid and Mrs. Baker, the life that Astrid had led since running away from her stage career, the price Magnus has paid for being such a mute witness to sexual harassment, and life in a windmill – these all become enjoyable aspects of picking up this beautifully written book.
Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen
Here’s Scandi noir with a delicious twist. Hannah is one of those critically acclaimed authors that no one reads. Her novels could be characterized as “main character takes a sip of coffee, ruminates on life for forty pages, then takes a second sip.” At a Copenhagen book fair, where she’s coerced to appear by her agent, Bastian; she confronts Jørn, an extremely popular crime fiction writer. She dismisses his work as formulaic, predictable, and facile to produce; and the challenge is thrown down for her to produce her own intelligently written crime novel in thirty days. Bastian arranges for her to head to Húsafjöróur, a small village in Iceland to be inspired and find plot material.
This search for material turns into a real investigation, when the corpse of the young son of a rich local fisherman is pulled from the water. What ensues is a dark comedy that chronicles Hannah’s attempt to play private investigator and assist the local police officer, and it’s been described as “Fargo” meets “Twin Peaks” – with tons of meta elements as the act of writing the novel is itself one of the main themes of the book. There’s an unexpected but welcome LGBTQ angle throw in, as it drives the narrative into territory we don’t traditionally associate with Crime Fiction of a literary slant. And what happens in small communities, past crimes dredged up and impacting the present, are among the themes addressed in this book that has it’s fair share of twists and turns. An engaging read!