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The people I talked to were mostly barflies, day-time juicers eager to suck up to authority or gab with someone other than the usual boon acquaintances they found in gin mills.Pressing for facts, I got sincere fantasy – virtually every person had Betty Short giving them a long spiel taken from the papers and radio when she was really down in Dago with Red Manley or somewhere getting tortured to death. The longer I listened the more they talked about themselves, interweaving their sad tales with the story of the Black Dahlia, who they actually believed to be a glamorous siren headed for Hollywood stardom. It was as if they would have traded their own lives for a juicy front-page death.

I have never been happier to finish something and walk away. Consider this review an exculpation of self-disgust for not throwing this book out of a train window when I had the chance. Problem is it’s a library book. And librarians frown on such conduct…

Ellroy introduces us to two former boxers, Lee Blanchardt and Bucky Bleichert, both rising through the ranks of LA’s police force after the Second World War. Eager to win the public relations war, a corrupt wannabe DA arranges a boxing match pitting the officers against each other. The fight bonds the two men in a firm friendship and wins them a ticket out of uniform duty to work as plain clothes police in Warrants. Deputy District Attorney Ellis Loew has two star officers the papers love and his ascendancy is assured.

On 15 January 1947, the body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in Leimart Park near 39th Street and Norton Avenue, Los Angeles. This is not fiction. The newsies gave her the nickname, the Black Dahlia, riffing on a popular movie at the time starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (the actress who inspired the character of Lynn Bracken in Ellroy’s LA Confidential). From here on in, the author continues to blur the lines between fact and fiction by having Blanchardt and Bleichert investigate Elizabeth Short’s murder.

Both men become obsessed with the gruesome details of the young woman’s death, trying to fill in the details of her missing week of drunken flings with offshore navy servicemen and bent cops that preceded it. An acquaintance of the victim is found with a can of film that reveals Short involved in a stag picture. Her own father gleefully sells childhood photos of her to the press to make a quick buck. Loew’s efforts to pin the murder on a convenient stooge repeatedly fail and eventually he is unable to prevent the media from turning his carefully managed spin of a young innocent girl murdered in her prime, into a grotty tragedy, the inevitable fate for a down-at-luck call girl in Hollywood, who cruised lesbian bars for free drinks and lied to everyone she met.

As the story progresses Blanchardt and Bleichert seem less and less like partners on a murder case and more like split personalities sharing the same obsession. The papers call them Fire and Ice, in remembrance of their boxing days, and the two see-saw in their respective morbid fascination with the Black Dahlia. Bleichert is our narrator and initially he only wants to get back to his career in Warrants. He is disgusted by the grandstanding of the Assistant DA and hasn’t the stomach for homicide cases. We take his word that his partner Lee is the one obsessed with the case. Then he meets a doppelgänger for Elizabeth Short, an heiress who frequents lesbian bars. Slowly the narration takes on Blanchardt’s obsessiveness, just as he mysteriously drops out of the book.

This is an ugly story, about people committing ugly acts. It purports to realism by featuring actual persons involved in the case – the newsman Bevo Means and the primary suspect for a time ‘Red’ Manley  – but this is a world painted black, with not a glimmer of hope, nor a spark of humour. It is a turgid dirge that apes moralism but offers no narrative conclusion for any of its events. Had I spent today’s train journey just staring out the window at the houses and towns as they passed in a blur, it would have been time better spent than on this sledgehammer subtle tale of corruption, misery and a lost dead girl from 1947.


There are six thousand New Men on Earth, ruling with the help, such as it is, from four thousand Unusuals. Ten thousand in a Civil Service hierarchy that cuts everyone else out…five billion Old Men with no way – He lapsed into silence and then he did a surprising thing: he raised his hand, and a plastic cup of water floated directly to him, depositing itself in the grip of his hand.

 

It is the 22nd century and mankind has been divided into three distinct strains. The New Men are an intellectual race of humans, capable of advanced computation and extremely arrogant towards the others. The Unusuals are gifted with psychic abilities and maintain an uneasy peace with the New Men overseeing the administration of the world. Finally, the Old Men, so named for their lack of notable advantages, trapped in dead-end jobs and prevented from entering the Civil Service, which is designed to exclude all applicants from their caste.

 

Nick Appleton is a law-abiding Old Man whose last hope is that his son Bobby passes the test and is accepted into an administrative role. When his son is rejected, Appleton finally snaps and sets out on a course of action that unwittingly leads to a revolution.

 

Our Friends from Frolix 8 reads like a mash-up of Aldous Huxley and Orson Welles, with Philip K. Dick‘s own recurring themes setting the pace of the novel. Characters pop pills in order to experience emotion, but drinking alcohol is a criminal offense. Television is strictly controlled by the New Man/Unusual government, but viewers are fooled into thinking the media is interactive as when they speak out loud the news anchor replies. There’s even a revolutionary saviour, Thors Provoni, an Old Man who fled into space to find a solution to the tyrannical oppression of his people. After Appleton’s son is rejected by the Civil Service, the long-vanished rebel leader sends a communique to the Under Men revolutionary movement from deep space. He is returning and he is bringing help.

 

Dick’s novels always manage to impress. The science fiction genre is employed as a vehicle for his own musings on religion, identity and morality. There is a poignant moment in this novel when a character states that the ‘aging disease’ was cured in 1985. Dick died in 1982, shortly before the release of Blade Runner based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Often when reading Dick’s novels I feel he was attempting a personal dialogue with his readers, even going so far as to insert his fictionalised self into the narrative. In engaging with his stories on such a personal level, Dick sought to export his personal problems onto the typed pages of manuscript. His own personal therapy released to the world.

 

Dick was married five times and his protagonists are often themselves unhappily married. Shortly after their story begins they encounter a younger, more attractive woman, although disenchantment soon follows the initial attraction. Our Friends from Frolix 8 is no different. Appleton meets a young seller of revolutionary pamphlets named Charlotte, then leaves his wife to live a life of adventure with her. Dick was also known to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs and it’s amusing to read his take on a society that has repealed anti-drug legislation, but has then arbitrarily ruled against alcohol.

 

 

Our Friends from Frolix 8 is a book inspired by professional and romantic frustrations. I describes a world controlled by forces that can see into people’s minds and manipulate their thoughts. The New Men/Unusuals oligarchy is callous in its treatment of the human population under its control, imprisoning and executing anyone who dares to read the contraband of Thors Provoni. Yet when the are faced with a force more powerful than they, Dick elicits a surprising degree of compassion for the bewildered one-time oppressors.

 

I would recommend this, or in fact almost any book by Dick to readers. Just get started! This is why I chose one of his novels at such an early stage of this blog. I knew that I could fly through the clipped prose and terse dialogue in a single day, then sit back and enjoy the exhilarating thoughts of his extraordinary imagination. Give him a go.

 

Seattle used to be an uncomplicated trading town fed and fattened by gold in Alaska, and then it had dissolved into a nightmare city filled with gas and the walking dead. But people had stayed. People had come back. And they’d adapted.

Whelp, (spit!) looks like we gots ourselves a steampunk novel! And what a delightful rip-roaring yarn it is too. With Boneshaker Priest essays an alternate America, with the town of Seattle abandoned in the wake of a catastrophic man-made disaster. Or has it?

The civil war between the Confederacy and the Union continues to be waged. The Klondike gold rush happened over a decade earlier than in real-time, drawing thousands to the environs of the one-time fishing village of Seattle. The Russians never successfully sold off Alaska. Oh, and there are zombies.

Leviticus Blue was a mad inventor who designed the Boneshaker, a device that could burrow through the earth. Instead of delivering it to the Russians as promised, to aid in their attempts to recover gold from the frozen tundra of Alaska, Blue used it to rob the vaults of the city’s banking district. This led to earthquakes, collapsing buildings and an untold number of deaths. Blue’s creation also caused a strange gas to be released into the atmosphere, slowly poisoning Seattle’s city dwellers.

The gas came to be known as the Blight, killing its victims before resurrecting them as the shambling creatures called  Rotters. In an effort to contain the Blight a wall has been erected around the city of Seattle. Life went on, those who survived moved to the Outskirts, where Leviticus Blue’s name was a curse.

Which would be fine, but for his widow Briar who has been left to live with the actions of her mad husband. She has struggled to raise their son Zeke on a menial income, suffering abuse from their neighbours, and not even able to retreat to the safety of her maiden name with her father regarded a traitor for rescuing prisoners left for dead during the Blight outbreak. Zeke, now aged fifteen, has many questions Briar cannot answer and in frustration at being trapped in poverty decides to cross the wall into the Blight equipped only with a breathing mask and torn scraps of old maps.

Boneshaker is the story of a mother braving a multitude of dangers to rescue her son. Briar encounters zeppelin pirates, marauding Rotters, and the machinations of the strange Dr Minnericht who controls the lives of those who remain behind the wall. Briar Wilkes is a heroine giving the likes of Aliens’ Ellen Ripley a run for her money, driven by a fierce desire to protect her son, but also able to blow a zombie’s head off with a single gunshot.

Priest invests great effort in describing the period detail while ruefully confessing the changes she has made to the historical timeline facilitating the advent of zombies in 1880s Seattle. The addition of steampunk  standards such as prosthetic limbs, sophisticated suits of armour with built-in breathing apparatus and yes, sonic disruptors, is all part of the fun. It’s a swashbuckling historical novel that doesn’t pretend to verisimilitude, except when it’s convenient. Chapters switch from Briar’s point of view to that of Zeke and it’s always nice to see well written, colourful and strong female characters, such as Lucy the one-armed cyborg and Princess Angeline who’s a dab hand with a knife.

Boneshaker is a fun work of steampunk and alternate history. It’s a breezy ride with a good eye for period detail, melancholic in tone with a kick-ass heroine. Really, what more could you ask for?


In those days there were oceans of light and cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze. There were herds of crimson cattle that roared and were taller than castles. There were shrill viridian things that haunted bleak rivers. It was a time f gods…

The Bull and the Spear is the first book in the second series of novels telling the story of Corum Jhaelen Irsei, last of the Vadhagh race, stranded in a world of men. The first series, The Books of Corum, finished with our hero happily living with the human woman Rhalina, with the vile gods that conspired against his race defeated, and Corum’s hatred for the mortals once manipulated by the deities, faded. But…

The opening quote hints at where Moorcock might take this series. The very same words open each of the books and Corum’s companion Jhary-a-Conel claims that their adventures are echoes of those lived by past selves, or that which is yet to happen. This is part and parcel when reading Moorcock’s fantasy novels, set in a multiverse where each of the protagonists are in fact different aspects of the same ‘eternal champion‘.

And so Corum eventually begins to tire of peace and after Rhalina dies of old age he becomes eager to return to the fight. While he does not age he is becoming a legend, dimly remembered by the descendants of his land’s inhabitants. The arrival of Jhary provides an opportunity for new adventures, and the Vadhagh prince is transported into the future where he is worshiped as a god, Cremm Croich, and called upon to defend the people of this future world from a new menace.

Moorcock uses humour and horror in equal doses in his fantasy epic, having some fun at Celtic myth’s expense. Corum’s future name is similar to that given to a pagan deity worshiped in pre-Christian Ireland, Crom Cruach, who received offers of human sacrifice. Having gone to such lengths to defeat the evil gods that bedeviled the Vadhagh people, here, Moorcock has maneuvered Corum into the same position. Even as an immortal hero he is wary of being worshiped, knowing all to well how easily that power might be abused.

All of this and Corum is expected to defeat eldritch armies of giant hounds, undead soldiers and the giant Cold Folk themselves, who can freeze whole armies with but a glance. His only hope of success lies with a magical spear, Bryionak, and the Black Bull of Crinanass. Trouble is, Corum has no idea where to find either! And for good measure, there’s also a bad tempered dwarf named Goffanon to contend with.

What Moorcock specialises in is quick and efficient plots underpinned by big ideas. Reading each episode of The Books of Corum, as well as the next three Further Books of Corum feels like sitting down to a decent, yet not too filling, meal. Somehow each thin volume has far more meat on the bone than those wrist-spraining fantasy epics that weigh down the shelves in Borders. Well recommended for  lazy afternoon.

The trouble with the news is simple: People, especially ones on the ends of the power spectrum, like it when you’re afraid. The people who have the power want you scared. They want you walking around paralysed by the notion that you could die at any moment. There’s always something to be afraid of. It used to be terrorists. Now it’s zombies.

Feed by Mira Grant, is the first book in the proposed Newsflesh trilogy. A pet peeve of mine is debut authors releasing a title bearing the impending legacy on the dust jacket, ‘Book One of…’. But fortunately, on this occasion, Grant has created a world that I would happily return to. Feed is a self-contained political thriller that just so happens to feature zombies. It does not end on a cliffhanger, avoids clichés and is written with an unusual degree of passion when compared to most novels featuring the rancid undead, especially those predicting a sequel.

In 2014 a hybrid disease known as Kellis-Amberlee, mutated from a combination of vaccines, one intended for curing cancer, the other the common cold, has spread across the globe. The result is that no one needs die from lung cancer or even suffer a case of the sniffles anymore. However, there is an unfortunate side effect – Kellis-Amberlee has also caused the dead to rise.

Feed begins in a world transformed, but unlike in the movies the zombie apocalypse never arrived. Humanity has survived and society remains intact. It’s just that people just spend a lot more time indoors, blood tests are required to enter public buildings and the internet has replaced traditional news media as the primary information source due to the reliability of live-blogging in reporting zombie outbreaks.

Which brings us to George (Georgette) and Shaun Mason. They are the new breed of blogger, traveling into zombie hot zones and filming what they see for the entertainment of their readers. There is even a shorthand to describe the different kinds of guerrilla journalists that have evolved in this zombified world. Take, for example the Irwins who are prone to risk taking; then there’s the Stewarts who are always ready with a pithy op-ed piece; the Newsies who report the facts, and the Fictionals who produce zombie fanfic, poetry and prose. It’s a very knowing take on contemporary media transplanted to Grant’s fictional world.

George and Shaun are two of the more popular bloggers and are thrilled to discover they have been invited to cover the campaign of Senator Peter Ryman in the lead up to the 2040 Presidential Election. While Feed opens with the Mason siblings fleeing a pack of zombies in the wilds of Santa Cruz, the story soon veers away from the standard run-and-hide horror novel plot. Instead, Grant has Ryman’s campaign taking the Masons on the traditional town hall stump speech trail. The Senator answers questions on policy and George blogs her impressions of the man who would be president, until an assasination plot rudely interrupts the proceedings. This is Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 reimagined by zombie film director George Romero.

Feed is passionate and incisive writing. Grant is clever and thought-provoking, piggybacking on horror fiction tropes to speak to the audience about how we may be manipulated by the ‘news’, how fear motivates our decisions and how democracy is reduced to a special interest land-grab. At its core though, Feed is a story about a brother and sister who love each other very much. I eagerly await ‘Book Two….’ Deadline.

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