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Another beautiful Miami day. Mutilated corpses with a chance of afternoon showers. I got dressed and went to work.

My friend Linda over at Tapetum Lucidum recently challenged me to review today’s book. I guess I have been putting it off for a few weeks. Can’t think why, although I avoided the television show as well for a couple of years too. That too was only because my then-girlfriend-now-wife Stephanie insisted on my watching it with her. It has one of the most impressive title sequences of any show I have seen, and the heat and sweat of the Miami setting conspires to create an unusually manic tone to the episodes themselves.

Slowly but surely I have grudgingly come to like it. Still there is this reluctance to get to grips with Dexter on my part, which is difficult to explain to friends who are fans. Is it that I am squeamish, me, who would happily sit through a marathon session of brain-chomping zombie movies? I guess I have issues with the notion of a human monster. Monsters for me are creatures of fantasy. Psychopaths on television make a pretence at realism, all the while seeming utterly inhuman. That’s hard for me to get my head around.

Dexter has no such confusion in his life. He is a monster. He even enjoys it. Throughout his adult life his bloodlust has been spurred on and contained by two competing presences in his mind: the entity he refers to as his ‘Dark Passenger’, and Harry, the worldly wise cop who took him in as a child and taught him the rules of how to hide his murderous nature. Harry gave him a code, one that would allow him to sate the urge to kill, while at the same time only directing him to target other murderers. He is a human-monster slayer, if you like, on the hunt for paedophiles, abusers and killers much like himself. Think an apex predator who is fiercely territorial of his ‘patch’.

He has even found a profession that gives him an additional outlet for his compulsion, working in a Miami police department crime lab. His expertise is blood analysis. Except for the lab’s latest case, there seems to be nothing for him to work with. A new serial killer has hit town and is carving up prostitutes. The bodies are left in public spaces, dismembered, with no traces of blood. Dexter finds himself fascinated with the methods employed by this new challenger to his title, even curiously excited at the prospect of meeting someone as good as himself.

Meanwhile his foster-sister Deborah is desperate to solve the case and make sergeant. Unfortunately she has no head for local politics, despite Dexter’s attempts to guide her through the choppy waters of backstabbing superior officers and the station pecking order. She recognizes that her brother’s strange hunches often tend to land the case, pushing down any concerns as to how it is so easy for him to think like a murderer. Before the case is closed, Dexter will find his loyalties to the memory of Harry and Deb, his only remaining family, tested as never before, as the killer’s behaviour seems so close to his own. Perhaps he is the killer, the Dark Passenger having finally won?

What I enjoy about this book is how well Jeff Lindsay employs what I call the ‘Humbert Humbert effect’ (as with Love in the Time of Cholera). We are invited to share the same headspace as a monster, who charms us and attempts to win us over with deadpan humour. He seems honest, revelling in his torture and murdering of other ‘monsters’, but in fact how he presents his actions to us is subtly leavened – he becomes the hero. At one point he even self-applies the word ‘avenger’.

Then there’s his delicate relationship with Rita, a battered woman who is looking for an emotional relationship, but too afraid to take the next step. As Dexter has no real sex-drive, this suits him perfectly. To again emphasise this inverted notion of a murderer-as-innocent, he finds himself pulled between three demanding women. His eagerness to meet this new slasher is described as being comparable to a teenage girl waiting for a boy to ask her out.

As all of this is framed by Dexter himself, the reader cannot trust any of it. With lashings of gallows humour and perversity, this is a quirkily entertaining read.

People loved having time machines – but hated the government-imposed restrictions on what they could do at certain key events in history, and the Crucifixion was perhaps the most controversial. Yes, you could go there, but only in ghost mode.

‘Yeah the number of people who complain to me because they can’t save the Lord, or take His place, or who want to give Mary a hug or a biscuit. How do you stand it?’ Malaria has only recently started working at the shop.

‘Maintain a sense of humour, Malaria. It’s your best defence.’

Have you ever seen the 1960’s film version of The Time Machine? Here have a look at the trailer. I principally remember this film for its terrible attempt at showing the passage of time. The Time Machine is parked opposite a shop front window and as the Traveller goes forward in time, he notes how the fashions worn by the mannequins change with each year. It is such a cheesy way to show the abilities of a machine that can skip through history, but it perfectly illustrates the problem with time travel as a story device. As The Doctor has observed, time travel stories tend to result in ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff’, the very non-linearity of the protagonist’s adventures leading to extreme headaches for the reader in plot progression.

K.A. Bedford’s principal character, Aloysius ‘Spider’ Webb shares these frustrations. He hates time machines. Unfortunately for him, time machine repair man is the only job available to him. Drummed out of the police force despite a promising career, due to making enemies of the wrong people, Spider was broke before meeting the very charismatic ‘Dickhead’ McMahon, who offered him a job as an engineer at his business. He makes enough money to get by, has some good staff working with him and receptionist Malaria makes a mean cup of coffee.

One afternoon during what seems to be a routine repair job, Spider and his assistant Charlie discover that the second-hand time machine they’ve been called out to have a look at is exhibiting very unusual power fluctuations. Almost as if it is present in current space-time and yet also elsewhere. When they return it to shop, they manage to contain it inside a miniature pocket universe before accidentally detonating it. Amid the destroyed shell of the original unit, they see another time machine, sitting in the very same hermetically sealed space. Inside Spider finds a dead body of a woman.

As a former cop, he finds himself compelled to investigate the mystery, but knows that anything involving time travel means trouble. After all that was how he lost his job with the police force in the first place. He has a decent job that pays enough that he can tolerate Dickhead’s weird rants about angels. His personal life is a mess. His wife Molly has insisted on a trial seperation and the officer in charge of the investigation into the mysterious dead body, Iris Stone, was a former lover of his. He just wants to keep his customers happy, enjoy a nice cup of coffee and leave time well enough alone.

Then his future self shows up one evening and starts babbling about him being framed for murder, conspiracies involving a group named Zeropoint and a civil war at the end of time itself. Seems no matter what Spider does, he can’t live the life he chooses.

According to this novel’s cover jacket, it was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2009. I actually found a number of similarities to the master of bluecollar sf. Not only is the very fantastical notion of time travel itself reduced to a 9 – 5 job, Spider’s relationships also bear a strong resemblance to the complicated lovelives of protagonists in Dick’s fiction.

Sadly the book is just too long. Philip K. Dick would often introduce a scenario within a seemingly ordinary world, only to throw all sense and reason out the window within a hundred pages. Bedford has Spider meet different versions of himself from wildly divering timelines and get swept up into a chronal war spanning millenia. There’s simply too much going on.

I did like the offhand humour of the story though, the frequent references to cult shows like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner, as well as the hints that Africa is the industrial capital of the world in the future.

A mixed bag for me then, but it kept me entertained throughout, despite the frequent head-scratching.

He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

Walking up the driveway to the house, she spots her mother’s face disappear behind the curtain.

‘Spying on me now?’ she says slamming the door.

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room.’

‘How was your day?’

‘You mean, did I do anything weird?’

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room. I’ve got stacks of work.’

My dad used to embarrass my mam by talking about how her mother had psychic abilities. He never phrased it like that of course. He would say she had a gift. I was always curious about that as my family is devoutly Catholic. How was the paranormal accomodated?

Then again I have been to where my family is from in Co. Roscommon. It is a quite isolated part of the countryside, not much to do. Whatever would serve to alleviate the boredom of dark evenings with nothing to do I imagine.

Evie does not have the luxury of my blithe scepticism unfortunately. She is a psychic and feels it is a curse. Growing up in Sydney’s inner suburbs she would occasionally see strange things, or hear people’s thoughts, only realizing when she was older how uncomfortable she made people when she spoke of her extrasensory perception. Her own mother treats her with fear and suspicion. Evie is made to feel even more freakish when an incident at school reveals to the other students just how different she is. Bullied and mocked as a witch, Evie retreats into herself, refusing to go out at the weekends, desperately clinging to the few sympathetic friends she has.

What is worse, with Year 12 exams coming up, Evie needs to produce an art project in time for assessment. Instead she finds her drawings becoming warped and transformed, with a face of a girl she does not know emerging on the canvas. She cannot trust her own body to obey her and begins to notice unusual changes. Her left eye becomes infected, even her hair starts to feel different. It is as if a stranger’s body is replacing her own. Then there are the dreams that leave Evie haunted, her unconscious mind invaded by warnings and premonitions she cannot understand.

Estranged from her own family, her friends and feeling isolated at school, Evie despairs of ever being normal. Until she receives a phonecall from a family friend she never met, who has a secret to tell her that changes everything.

J.C. Burke captures a teenager’s feelings of alienation perfectly in the first half of this book. The  testosterone fueled punch-ups between schoolboys, post-weekend gossip about friends’ lovelives and obsessing about what clothes look good nail the adolescent experience as well. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Glebe Markets that are introduced, with Evie and her two friends Poppy and Alex play-acting around in the vintage clothes stores on a Saturday afternoon. First time I came to Australia I stayed at a friend’s house in Glebe and really came to love the area. Local details like that make this book come alive, with Evie a recognizable and true-to-life teenage protagonist.

Where I began to have problems was with the direction the supernatural plot takes the story. At first I assumed, what with the school bullying of Evie, that this was a Young Adult rehash of Stephen King‘s Carrie. When her dreams hint at a spectral force directly haunting her, even threatening to take over her body, I began to suspect a climax similar to Koji Suzuki‘s brand of disturbing body-horror.

Instead Burke presents a teenage take on the successful television series Medium. I’m sorry to say, and I am sure this seems like an irrational personal bias, but I strongly resented introduction of a police investigation into the plot. This may sound hypocritical, after all I have raved about supernatural detective novels on this blog such as those featuring Felix Castor and Joe Pitt, but the essential difference is that they were entirely fantastical books. Police have been known to use psychics in investigations (although that perception of mine could be due to false press) and to my mind the ‘professional psychic’, is no different than John Edward cold reading a gullible audience. In The Red Cardigan scepticism itself is claimed to be capable of sucking away a psychic’s powers.

However, that being said, the first half of this book makes for an excellent assessment of teenage life. I am sad to say I was left conflicted afterwards, but would recommend this chiller for an adolescent readership.

He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”

Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).

It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.

Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.

So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.

Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.

Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.

If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.

The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.

If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.

When an author chooses to tell a story from the point of view of an animal, with the perfect mixture of pathos and sentimentality, it outstrips childish fables about talking household pets. One of my favourites poems from school was An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. It is sad, yet also humourous, the death of a small bird from thirst being used by the poet to justify his alcoholism. In one perfectly composed poem he marries the vulnerabilities of a small, weak creature to his own frailties.

A far greater accomplishment than any wise-talking animated rodent.

Beasts of Burden has previously appeared as short stories in comic book anthologies, as well as the miniseries collected here and even a notable crossover with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson have fashioned together a strange world of talking dogs and cats, where human pets defend their owners and the rest of the world as well, from supernatural threats such as plagues of frogs, ghosts, witches and zombie dogs.

Our heroes are a small band of dogs, and an orphaned cat, who live on Burden Hill, a seemingly ordinary suburban neighbourhood. When leader Ace calls on a ‘wise dog’, to advise on a dog kennel haunting, the group find themselves drawn into a series of adventures, eventually leading to their own initiation into the ‘Wise Dog Society’ as apprentice Watchdogs.

The first page sets up the story immediately. Ace has Doberman Rex, Jack Russel Whitey and Pugsley (who is of course a small and very argumentative Pug) summon a wise dog by howling at midnight. We see the three dogs argue about whether or not the summoning is working, with the cat known as Orphan mocking them all the while, only for a large shaggy white dog to appear before them. Ace explains to the wise dog that his friend Jack claims his hutch is haunted. They group discover a carcass buried underground, with a collar attached. The wise dog identifies the bones as belonging to a dog named Trixie. The stage is sent for a most curious and heart-breaking exorcism.

When you come to Jill Thompson’s panel of the gathered group of dogs with tears in their eyes, it’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat. In fact the art of this book is one of its great strengths, the water colours brilliantly emphasising Thompson’s style, which in the past I have found a bit harsh for my liking. The loose lines around the characters gives them the appearance of constantly being in motion, which fits the material quite well. I also love how the ordinariness and lack of anthropomorphism contrasts so sharply with the occult horrors of Burden Hill.

Dorkin’s script manages these contradictions quite well, with the animals fitting in their adventures between making appearances at home so their owners remain none the wiser. There is this fantastic, incongruously epic tone to the proceedings, such as an army of cat familiars invading the neighbourhood, or a missing pups case becoming a story about vengeance from beyond the grave.

There is also a light melancholic tone to the stories collected here. The lives of these pets are cheap. After all, their owners can always just go back to the pet store. The story A Dog And His Boy is particularly heart-breaking. Dorkin also uses that issue to drop hints that some in the human world are aware of the goings-on at Burden Hill, but choose to leave the general public in ignorance.

This book is both warm and compassionate, as well as surprisingly humane. Dorkin and Thompson’s title joins the likes of David Petersen’s Mouse Guard in introducing contemporary readers to stories about animal protagonists that read more like classic adventure tales written with wit and pathos, than Disneyfied trite fare.

Drop whatever you are doing and get this book. It’s just that damn good (and many thanks to my lovely wife Stephanie who bought it for my birthday).

 

‘The making of artificial intelligence is one of the proudest boasts of the secularists’, said Campbell. ‘Next to artificial life, it’s the greatest triumph for their materialism. Perhaps greater. They claim to have done what Christians once claimed could be done only by God – creating a rational soul. Would this triumph not turn to ashes in their mouths if their own creations were to acknowledge the true Creator?’

I have a confession. Back in the summer of ’03 I was living and working in Edinburgh. I lived out of the Central Library, just opposite the Royal Scottish Museum where I worked in a restaurant. I would take out fourteen books at a time and read them over a month or so, then return them for the next load. Those were pleasant days. I recall taking out Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division. I remember reading it. To be honest though, I have no memory what it was about at all. I am not even sure I finished the book.

Not an auspicious start for a review, is it?

In The Night Sessions MacLeod maps the conflicts of our time, a diabolical festoon of resource wars and radical religious fudamentalism, on to a near-future society where the Western world underwent an event known as The Rejection. All forms of religious belief have been driven underground. A brutal, second Enlightenment took hold, America was swallowed in a destructive civil war and artificial intelligence escalated the spread of the conflict.

John Richard Campbell is a young man fascinated with robotics. His work in a New Zealand preserve for animatronic models has given him an interesting outlet for his religious beliefs. He has begun to proselytize to his charges and what’s more, they are listening to what he has to say. When a secret sect in Edinburgh hears of him, Campbell is initiated into The Free Congregation of West Lothian. During the same visit, he meets a virtual reality dj Dave Warsaw and his partner Jessica at a club night in a former church. Campbell is repulsed and secretly intrigued by the orgiastic scenes created by Warsaw’s mastery of music and image. His faith has hidden him from such activities, a faith that makes him especially vulnerable to manipulation.

A year passes and a series of murders in Edinburgh begin to rise tensions throughout the secular world. The targets are clergymen, former soldiers in the Faith Wars, with hints of inter-fundamentalist cell reprisals. Adam Ferguson leads the investigation, using bleeding edge technology to identify patterns in the murders, compile every scrap of data on file regarding the victims and their surroundings. However, he finds himself confounded by the complexity of the case. There are also fears of a much great attack at the secularist nations, so thoroughly denuded of religious faith that Ferguson has to remind his officers out of courtesy to refer to the murder victims by the title of ‘Father’, or ‘Bishop’, and not the prefix ‘Citizen’.

MacLeod’s novel is a vast spider-web of ideas and supposition as to the future course of our society. The ‘Rejection’, I am sure sounds like Richard Dawkins’ fondest fantasy, but the story does not shy away from depicting the overzealousness of the anti-religious factions in this new world. His vision of future developments in surveillance technology and A.I. is also exciting and playful. Ferguson’s robot Skulk is more a partner than an investigative tool, complete with a winning sense of humour.

I also enjoyed the familiar sights of Edinburgh being mildly tweaked to fit this depiction, despite surviving catastrophic sectarian conflict. MacLeod’s characters are for the most part Scots. There is in fact quite a large cast. The prologue that introduces Campbell serves to fix him in the reader’s minds before his eventual return in the latter-half of the book.

If some of this sounds familiar, perhaps you are a fan of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which also had the premise of a futuristic society running headlong into a conflict with fundamentalist religion. The difference is MacLeod’s book has balls. The ending is much more satisfying. Yes, I am still bitter.

This is a book that I will have no trouble remembering. A thrilling and inspiring read.

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