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She turned. When his hat came off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion all she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expeting to see a bald albino maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he had no skin, he had no eyes and he had no face.

All he had was a skull for a head.

Ok, I’ve got my writing music playing (Pat Boone’s cover of Enter Sandman, if you must know) and am in the mood to celebrate. See I get happy when I find an Irish writer I had not heard of before. 2009 was the year of Eoin Colfer for me, whose Artemis Fowl novels I blitzed through in a fortnight. I was excited to find a contemporary author who could take the mythology I had been raised with and update it for modern times.

It appears Derek Landy is of a similar calibre.

This book opens with a mysterious will and ends with a young girl set upon a very peculiar destiny. In between we have skeleton detectives, cthonic gods, wars of magic and a murder mystery.

The death of Gordon Edgley, known as a popular author of portentous horror fantasy novels, comes as a surprise to many but occasions little grieving. Edgley had an uncommon ability to get under people’s skin and was known to move in very unusual circles. His twelve-year-old niece Stephanie had grown quite close to him, being one of the few interesting individuals in the coastal town of Haggard near Dublin. When the reading of the will reveals that Gordon left her both his home and fortune the assembled Edgley clan is left in shock, most notably her aunt and uncle who strongly resent her incredible inheritance.

Yet her sudden good fortune is not the only thing that Stephanie came into that day. She also made the acquaintance of Skulduggery Pleasant – mystical detective. When her inheritance earns Stephanie a powerful enemy, Skulduggery comes to her rescue and introduces her to a world of magic and wonder that exists side-by-side with our own. His talk of ancient weapons, councils of sorcerors and elemental magic all sounds quite plausible to her. After all, Skulduggery is a talking skeleton who can shoot fire from his hands.  

On the run from museum vampires and the malevolent Hollow Men, Skulduggery and Stephanie can count on few allies – such as the tailor-cum-boxer Ghastly Bespoke and London monster-slayer Tanith Low – as a malevolent force sweeps through Dublin’s magical community, threatening to tip the world into a mystical apocalypse. All Stephanie has to do is find the key to a magical artifact that can summon gods, prevent the villain from obtaining it first and try to make sure no one learns her real name – as in the world of magic, names have power. Oh and hide all of this from the watchful eyes of her parents. 

This book is a delight from start to finish. The plot races along, the banter between Stephanie and her undead companion is hilarious and Landy utilises his experience as a black belt in Kenpo to describe some fantastic fight scenes. When detailed descriptions of blocks and kicks don’t suffice, he’ll then have Tanith perform feats such as run along a ceiling to hack at the heads of attackers from above. 

On a related note, I was pleased to hear that Landy practices Kenpo, as when I was just a little nipper in 80’s Ireland I had the pleasure of meeting Ed Parker (and yes, this is a photo of him training Elvis Presley).

On top of being very funny, thrilling and filled with monstrous creatures such as the unstoppable White Cleaver, Landy also throws in some nods and winks to Lovecraft fans. The ‘Faceless Ones’, are a homage to the New England fantasist’s ‘Old Ones’, and are even credited as such  by the book’s antagonist. There is even a hint that Stephanie’s adventures could all be the result of a form of family dementia. Perhaps all of what she is experiencing is a grief-stricken hallucination inspired by Gordon Edgley’s writings. I was briefly reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again – an association encouraged by the Buffy-esque Tanith, who shrugs off major wounds and even has a catchphrase ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, great fun all round.

A sixty-something desk clerk with a dishevelled stare and dark armpits told me to sign my name in the registration book. I blanked. He repeated I should sign my name. I couldn’t sign my full name, Mary Alice Baker. Nina was the first name that came to me, because it was exotic, foreign sounding. I couldn’t imagine a terrorist Nina. The sum total of my life to date would be my last name. I signed myself in as Nina Zero.

Let me tell you about a weird little incident that happened to me in Amsterdam. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I broke the mould on visitors to that capital of lax morality by visiting comic stores to hunt down hard-to-get titles. In one store I asked the owner if he had any copies of Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. He directed me to accompany him downstairs to the basement. There I found a low-ceilinged room stuffed with long-boxes. The owner began to list the contents of each, naming companies I was familiar with and then he pointed to the fifth box along and said “those are Bad Girl comics”. The pattern repeated itself, with several other boxes being identified in the same way.

Bad girls? I really did not know what he meant. Female protagonists that act like pulp fiction tough guys, often written by men and parodying feminist heroines perhaps.

Mary Alice Baker starts this book as a ‘good girl’, but informs us that she soon learned how to be a ‘bad girl’. Living on a meagre wage from taking pictures of children for doting parents, Mary’s own family life is an abusive, dysfunctional nightmare. Her father rules the home with an iron fist, frequently taking out his frustrations on his children and long-suffering wife. Mary does not have much luck with the men in her life, as her boyfriend Wrex is an emotionally manipulative parasite, whose relationship with her is dependent on her allowing him to sleep in her bed.

Then he asks her one favour too many, deliver a package to a stranger at LAX Airport. Seconds later the man, and indeed the arrivals lounge, are blown to smithereens. Mary suddenly finds herself a suspected terrorist, her name and face decorating the front pages of newspapers across Los Angeles. One safety pin through her nose and a dye-job later and Nina Zero is born. She falls in with fame-hungry Warholian artists, even gets a crash course in becoming a private eye and decides to hunt down the party responsible for the bombing. Maybe put a few holes in Wrex as well if possible.

This novel has some fun with poking fun at the shallow LA art scene. Nina’s new flatmates are a paranoid film-maker who expresses contempt for Hollywood, but is desperate to get her own picture deal. Then there’s Billy b, an intense artist who likes to draw portraits of Elvis and Kim Basinger. Together they talk long into the night about the philosophy of kitsch, which Mary/Nina can only barely follow. When they discover she’s a suspected terrorist she becomes their goose with the golden egg.

The eagerness of the people in Mary’s life to stab her in the back allows for a certain amount of black humour. However, the sheer negativity of this book becomes tiresome. What’s more every man in Mary’s life treats her like crap. For all R.M. Eversz’s claims to the contrary, she seems less like a bad girl and more like a victim. This leads to the uncomfortable notion that the rough sex and the violence featured is itself meant to be entertaining. Personally I found it distressing. Compare Nina Zero to Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson avoided accusations of voyeurism by creating a character with genuine mental issues, as well as a fierce independence.  Eversz does not convince, Nina’s problems are solved by handing her a gun. She even points out to her abusive father at one point that while he has fists, she has the means to kill him now she has a weapon.

What a wonderful moral!

While this book was a quick read, it left a bitter aftertaste. Not for everyone. Sadly I only figured out the meaning of the title after realizing the Warhol connection. And yes, a print of Elvis is actually shot.

Murray was new to the Hill, a stoop-shouldered man with little round glasses and an Amish beard. He was a visiting lecturer on living icons and seemed embarrassed by what he’d gleaned so far from his colleagues in popular culture.

“I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”

“It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”

When I was still in college I dared to express a negative opinion about Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I found it difficult to read, occasionally over wordy and slightly pretentious. Threatened with expulsion from several friendships unless I revised my opinion, I ploughed on and eventually during the second half of the book, something clicked. I finished Underworld suitably impressed with its themes of how discarded objects and hidden histories have just as much importance as official accounts of where we came from. DeLillo is one of the great figures of American letters. By amending my opinion of the book I found myself once again tolerated by my peers.

This is the second book by DeLillo that I have read and I am sorry to say…I didn’t really like it.

Jack Gladney has cornered the academic market in a peculiar field. A lecturer at College-on-the-Hill, he has founded and is the head of the Department of Hitler studies. He pours over biographies of the Nazi dictator, shows his students hours of propaganda film footage, keeps a copy of Mein Kampf close at hand and muses on the cultural significance of The Holocaust. Embarrassingly he cannot speak German. He befriends a new lecturer who has come from New York named Murray Jay Siskind, who is looking to follow Gladney’s example and set up a Department of Elvis studies. The two banter throughout the novel on how television inoculates us to recorded atrocities and how death underpins all media entertainment.

Gladney and his new wife Babette live with a sampling of their respective offspring from several marriages. Their children are precocious for their age, addressing their parents often as peers, a product perhaps of their multifarious parentage. On Fridays the family gather together as a unit to watch television, a ritual designed to deprive the box of its allure for minors.

Throughout the novel television and the mediated image is shown to desensitize the Gladney family and Jack’s academic colleagues from any sense of what is real. The only remaining reality is that of death itself, something that is impossible for people to understand. Midway through the novel the town is forced to evacuate due to a chemical disaster. Jack argues with his family as to the serious of the event. The children insist on the family seeking shelter after they hear the broadcasts warning of an approaching flume of poisonous gas. Jack questions them as to the intonation of the warning, just how serious was it? His authority as a parent is negligible, his relationship with his wife based on constant prevarication in the hope of seeming always rational. What else if left to define him beyond a fear of dying?

While reading White Noise I found myself continually comparing it to other novels. When Jack and Murray discuss violence as entertainment, the latter finally successfully setting up his own course on car crashes, I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Ballard also focuses on the fear of death, celebrity and the human sex drive, but in a far less disjointed manner. When Jack is lost to a neurotic fugue, unable to relate to his wife, caught in nonsensical arguments with his colleagues, I thought of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. That book featured a much-divorced academic trying to bring his professional intellect to bear on his neurosis. However, it was a far more balanced and solid book, at its core ultimately hopeful.

As a satire I found White Noise to be lacking in focus, at times too broad. We spend our lives waiting for death, so during the disaster Jack encounters a group that practices emergency responses to just such an event in live simulations. Unfortunately they’re not prepared for the real thing. Where other readers might see examples of DeLillo’s humour, I see only failed attempts.

I guess he’s just not for me.

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