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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.

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.

He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

But he looked really like a girl.

She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

When Blur released their single Girls & Boys (apologies for the obnoxious advert preceding the youtube video) I remember thinking something had changed. Here you had a mainstream pop song  with lyrics hinting at shifts in gender roles – with the caveat that Blur is describing Britain’s boozy yoof culture, not some progressive pansexual vision of the future.

Still, I thought to myself, it’s a start!

Ali Smith’s short novel concerns itself with love regardless of its form. Anthea Gunn has been wrangled a job by her sister with an omnivorous corporation that is looking to establish itself as a global water monopoly. When gazing out of a window during an insufferable ‘creative’, brainstorming session, with the attendants encouraged to free associate a new brand name for bottled water targeted at a Scottish market, Anthea witnesses a figure in a kilt deface a advertising poster for the company with political slogans. The sloganeer is actually a woman named Robin Goodman. Anthea falls head over heels in love with her.

Imogen Gunn feels distraught not only at her sister having walked out of her well-paid position with Pure, but by the sudden revelation that her sister is gay. She is not even able to think the word lesbian. Imogen tries to think what could have caused Anthea to become attracted to women. She never showed any evidence of it before. In fact her sister had had more boyfriends than her growing up. Both sisters went to school with Robin years before and Imogen remembers how she was bullied for being different, although she never really stopped to consider why. Now Anthea is in a relationship with her. She feels threatened by her sister’s choice in a partner, her emerging political consciousness and contempt for the boozing male workers at Pure, who chuckle at the pub while making fun of women just like Anthea. Why can’t she be normal, like her?

Of course Imogen is not quite normal at all. Frighteningly thin, blinded to the bigotry and sexism that surrounds her she grows increasingly resentful for her sister’s choices until forced to take a moral stand herself. Water is an essential requirement for life and yet her employers are trying to control and own it as a private resource. Robin’s political subversiveness is infectious and soon both of the Gunns find themselves questioning the lives they lead, whether any progress to a fairer world is at all possible in today’s society?

Smith draws extensively on both classical mythology, particularly the story of Iphis and Ianthe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as Scottish folklore. She positions modern-day Inverness as being on the cusp of returning to its Enlightenment-era progressiveness, where ordinary people are in a position to object to the callous practices of immoral conglomerates.

The book’s theme is that water and love are both things which cannot be sold, bought or controlled, nor should they be. Love is reduced to anonymous sex – there is a particularly oppressive scene in a pub with Imogen becoming increasingly alarmed at the aggressive manner of two male colleagues. Water is taken from farmers in India to benefit globe-straddling Western companies and headed by unfeeling creeps such as the buzz-word spouting spokesman for Pure, Keith.  In her acknowledgements, Smith recommends books such as Blue Gold by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke and H20: A Biography of Water by Philip Ball.  This fusion of political consciousness and mythology makes for a passionate and gripping read.

This is also a very romantic novel and Imogen’s dismay at her sister’s new lover is actually very funny, a stream of consciousness rant prickly in its paranoid suspicion of how the ‘conversion’, was achieved (there’s a very funny moment when she wonders whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer was at fault), while at the same time remaining very amusing. Despite her horror she cannot help noting how loving and gentle Robin and Anthea are together.

A fantastic book, which made me feel alive. Ali Smith is someone to watch in the future.

And there we have it – my two hundredth review. Phew. Two hundred days and me turning 31 on Sunday. Hopefully I won’t hit my 32nd birthday doing this. Cheers for reading folks, tomorrow is day two hundred and one!

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