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Henry told Carson about Marleen.

Carson wanted to know if he got into her pants.

Henry told him no, but that he probably would before long.

“What? You probably will?”

“I don’t know. I’ve changed my ideas about a lot of things.”

“What happened?”

“I started reading the Bible.”

Have you ever read the Book of Revelation? It’s top. Like many bookish teenagers I suspect I first sought it out because it is quoted so liberally in poorly written sf dystopias. See also for Yeat’s The Second Coming. This is what the apocalypse was for me – an entertaining mythological fantasy. It’s got monsters and vast armies and cataclyms. Great stuff.

Of course the Bible on the whole, as observed by both Douglas Rushkoff and Alex Droog, is filled with fantastical creatures and horrific violence. Not quite the stern moral text familiar to us from childhood religion classes.

This novel touches on the ambiguity of the Bible itself as an analogy for the seeming innocence of its principle character, Henry Dampier, a young Bible-salesman. Henry is picked up by Preston Clearwater, a professional car-thief and con-man on the look out for a gullible mark to help him rip off a number of cars. With his polite Baptist manners and folksy stories about his family, the criminal believes he has hit the jackpot.

He tells Henry that he is an undercover FBI operative, on the trail of a car-theft ring, operating between North Carolina and Georgia. The young man swallows the lie whole and excitedly promises not to reveal to anyone Preston’s secret. Together they scope out likely targets, steal cars and divide the proceeds – all, Preston assures his young ward, in the aid of preserving their cover.

What he does not realize is that Henry is actually quite a deep thinker. For one thing, he’s been reading his Bible and begun to notice a number of inconsistencies. His whole moral compass has become thrown out of skew. When he meets the charming Marleen Green, a girl working at a fruit-stall by the side of the road, he figures if sex outside of marriage is good enough for Abraham, it’s good enough for him.

I really enjoy how this book plays with stereotypes of the naieve young man with devout beliefs and then turns them on their head. Henry is introduced to us as this simple-minded Bible salesman, but slowly as he comes to question the word of God, we learn more about his past and his complicated family history. His Baptist background, once again, is assumed to be dominated by religion, but he is encouraged by his Uncle Jack, for one, to notice how people who identify religious curiousity as blasphemy generally don’t know the answer to the question.

Cleverly the judgement call made by Preston Clearwater is linked to the reader’s initial perception of poor Henry. By challenging this, Clyde Edgerton transforms a seemingly simple yarn about a con-artist and his dupe into something more thoughtful.

Personally it called to mind my own adolescent hero-worship of Bill Hicks, born in Georgia, fiercely intelligent and fond of claiming that he was not just a comedian, but a modern-day preacher. When he died at age 32 he had single-handedly created a critical ethos that transformed contemporary political satire.

The book is written with a dry sense of humour, with several comical moments notably involving cats. The character of Mrs Albright enjoys ventriloquism and throws her voice so that her many cats, named after the apostles, seem capable of speech. There is also a hysterical burial scene, which gives an early hint at Henry’s powers of improvisation.

However, at times the narrative is too dry, the plot progression too sedate. I never really felt Henry was in any danger. Everything just resolves itself quite nicely, as if in a easy-going Biblical parable set in the American South. What starts as ostensibly a two-man story about Henry and Preston quickly comes to concern the former almost entirely, with the con-man shoved to the narrative margins.

To my mind this creates an imbalance in the story and I found myself wondering what Patricia Highsmith would have made of similar material. Something more poisonous no doubt, but wickedly funny.

All in all this is a pleasant and diverting satire, with a wise young hero whose inquisitiveness introduces much of the humour. Good fun.

When Superman first appeared, he didn’t have X-ray vision or all the neat superpowers. In fact, he couldn’t even fly. But y’know what power he did have? He was bulletproof. Unable to be shot. And that’s why Superman was created: He’s not some American Messiah or some modern version of Moses or Jesus or whoever else historians like to trot out – Superman is the result of a meek little Clark Kent named Jerry Siegel wishing and praying and aching for his murdered father to be bulletproof so he doesn’t have to be alone.

Trailers designed to promote books are an interesting phenomenon. When I first saw one for Brad Meltzer’s The Book of Lies, which features among other Joss Whedon and Christopher Hitchens, I was impressed with the audaciousness of the marketing. It summarises the plot of the book – what if the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and that of the father of Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman, were somehow linked across a divide of millennia – but also plays off the faddishness of conspiracy fiction in the wake of Dan Brown’s success. What’s more the trailer itself trades in nods and winks at comic book fans. As if to suggest that this book is a self-aware parody of The Da Vinci Code, but ironically replacing high art with comic books..

Cal works with a homeless charity, cruising the streets of Miami in a van, looking for folks living on the streets. His partner Roosevelt is a defrocked preacher who insists that he needs to get himself some kind of a life outside of his work. Cal’s a man with a painful past though, one he tries to bury by doing good deeds and living humbly. As a former customs officer drummed out for misconduct he already has plenty to atone for. One night on their rounds the pair find a mugging victim with a gunshot wound in a park. Cal instantly recognizes the man as his father, who vanished from his life after he was sent to jail for the accidental killing of his wife. His past has caught up with him with a vengeance.

While his father Lloyd is relieved to see Cal, he also appears to be running scared. His story of a vicious mugging does not seem too plausible. Pulling in some favours from a friend in the force, Cal discovers not only is his father involved in a plot to smuggle a secret item into the country, the bullet he was shot with came from the same gun that was used to murder Mitchell Siegel in 1932.

Meanwhile an assassin with complicated father issues of his own named Ellis is on Lloyd’s trail. He believes Cal’s father is in possession, or knows the whereabouts of, an artefact known as the Book of Lies. Believed to reveal the weapon used by the Biblical Cain in murdering his brother, Ellis’ organisation has been searching for it for centuries. They are willing to kill anyone in their path, after all God is on their side. The last person rumoured to have owned the artefact was Mitchell Siegel. Could Jerry Siegel have witnessed his own father’s death and hidden the location of the Book of Lies in a Superman comic?

As this is a novel about a McGuffin its pages are filled with ominous definite articles. The Book of Lies, The Map, The Prophet. I found myself cursing under my breath towards the end What Is The Point? Is this a parody of Brown, or an excoriation of the poor treatment of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by their publishers? It is interesting to note that Meltzer himself has written for DC Comics, including the best-selling miniseries Identity Crisis, which featured the murder and retroactive rape of the much loved Sue Dibny character. It was not very good.

Neither is this novel. Most chapters are no more than two or three pages. The plot feels like Bible and comic book history trivia strung together haphazardly. Characters dump exposition on the page to move the action along. Everyone has parental issues of one kind or another. Someone once said all American fiction is about fathers and sons. This book takes that adage a little too literally.

While I like the idea of the holiest relic in Western culture being a comic book, it doesn’t justify this dull, plodding narrative. I closed this book with a sigh of relief.

That there were two sides to Hamzah Effendi was common knowledge. The family man and the crime boss, Jekyll Effendi to Felaheen Hyde. Offend the first and he’d buy out your company and close it down. Offend the second and he’d slaughter your children, bulldoze your house into the ground and sow that ground with rock salt. There was something very biblical about some of those reports on file.

I picked this book up in the library as both the title and premise intrigued me. This is a novel set in an alternate reality where the Ottoman Empire never failed, yet similarities with our world remain. What I did not realize was that this book is the second entry in Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy. Consequently I was a little at a loss when characters appeared without introduction. I imagine the first book in the sequence, Pashazade, probably explains exactly what the points of difference within this alternate timeline are.

Nevertheless I was able to get to grips with the plot of the book, which begins as a murder mystery set in the city of El Iskandriyah, with the investigation conducted by Ashraf al-Mansur (referred to as Raf) uncovering a history of war atrocities and child soldiers. At various points the book introduces flashbacks to a war in the Sudan, which slowly reveals the truth behind the present-day events.

Our hero Raf is an enigmatic figure, whose identity is shrouded in mystery, having arrived in Iskandriyah under false pretences and wrangled himself a position within the police force. The story begins on the 27th October, with Raf acting as Magister to a trio of international judges called to oversee the trial of industrialist and rumoured crime boss Hamzah Effendi. We then cut to July of that year and witness the events that led to the trial. Hamzah is framed for a series of ritualistic murders involving American female tourists in the city. The victims are found to have been partying at clubs owned by the businessman and his own daughter Zara is rumoured to be a target of a kidnapping plot. Realizing that he no longer has the protection of the Governor General Koenig Pasha, Hamzah tries to convince his daughter to leave the country. She refuses believing that he is only looking to marry his daughter off following her embarrassing and very public rejection at the hands of Raf in the previous book.

As more murders occur, each with Hamzah’s initials carved into the wrists of the victims, Raf discovers that there is more than one killer involved. Former European intelligence agents and Soviet Spetsnatz soldiers are carrying out copy cat killings and arson attacks on the city. Furthermore the Governor General seems to know more than he’s letting on, dropping cryptic hints that lead Raf to investigate Hamzah’s past as a child soldier in the Sudan and the mysterious Colonel Abad, presumed dead. On top of all that he has to keep his precocious niece Hani under control and figure out how he really feels about Zara, who may be married off to the young Khedive for her own protection.

I enjoy alternate history novels, imagining how history might have gone if significant events had turned out different. Not only do they allow for interesting science fiction yarns, but they throw new light on how we perceive historical progress. World War I is generally seen as a response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Official accounts do not describe it as a resource war over oil in the Middle East. In Effendi we have a strong, independent Muslim North Africa that controls its natural resources, while mention is made of a more insular United States and there is an offhand remark regarding Scotland’s oil reserves having been depleted. The lingua franca of the region is Arabic first, Hebrew Spanish and French next, with English a distant fourth or fifth. It’s an interesting premise for what is a fairly standard murder mystery/political thriller plot.

The hero Rah himself enjoys certain mysterious physical advantages that are ascribed to extensive childhood surgical implants. He has visions of a fox that advises him on what to do, courtesy of a device in his brain that acts like an augmented reality filter.

What this all adds up to is a quite entertaining and inventive yarn, though strangely for a novel set in an Arabic country, references to Christian Hell and Dante feature throughout. A fun romp.

 

Above all she seemed to fear his sudden death (heart attack, car accident), his “disappearing” – “vanishing.”

Like the first husband Dirk supposed.

Except, strangely, Ariah no longer seemed to recall that she’d had a first husband, before Dirk Burnaby.

Joyce Carol OatesThe Falls begins with a tragedy that leads to an unexpected romance and union between two lonely people. For most stories, that might be scope enough for a novel. Oates goes further though, spinning her tale to take in desire, betrayal, corruption, murder and finally, decades after the events that set this story in motion, a kind of redemption.

When Gilbert Erskine jumps from the railings of the Niagara Falls in June 1950, he leaves behind his bride married only hours before. A tortured young man who expected to find in his older wife a replacement mother figure, he instead found himself repulsed by the act of sex itself, compounding all the contradictions in his character, such as being a Presbyterian minister who rigidly believes in the Biblical age of the Earth, yet also feels fascinated by fossils. His bride Ariah Erskine, nee Littrell, is left feeling abandoned, damned, blaming herself for her husband of less than 24 hours’ death. While emergency services search for the body, she takes up a silent vigil of the Falls, which is reported widely in the media, her story fodder for local headlines and gossip. For seven days she waits, refusing to speak to her parents, or Gilbert’s, lying to the investigators who ask if there was a suicide note so that the reputation of a man of god can be protected. When the bloated corpse is finally retrieved, she collapses after recognizing the ring on his finger.

For years the story of the ‘Widow-Bride of the Falls’, is retold, becoming a timeless urban legend, a ghostly figure who is said to still be seen at her vigil. But Ariah’s life continues. During the seven days a young lawyer named Dirk Burnaby offered his services, interceding on her behalf with the emergency crews, the Erskines and Littrells, trying to keep her picture out of the paper. Dirk is a handsome, charismatic local celebrity, blessed with good luck and a powerful family that protects him from his gambling losses and romantic indiscretions. This golden boy and competitive legal eagle is surprised to find himself falling for the brittle and thin-lipped Ariah and proposes to her. They marry in a civil wedding, ignoring the cries of shame from their respective families.

Ariah takes the name of Burnaby, her third surname, and settles into a contented life of affection and mutual devotion. Still she can never feel truly secure, fearing this second husband will also leave, as the man she refers to only as the other did. When she discovers she is pregnant she is terrified by the thought that this is the product of her abrupt one night of married life with Erskine. In all the husband and wife Burnaby have three children, Chandler, Royall and daughter Juliet. Ariah’s fears of being damned, cursed by causing her first husband’s suicide, never dissipate and soon the family is touched once again by tragedy, with the Falls claiming another life.

Oates’ fluid and lyrical style of writing is matched to a plot that surges like the waters of the Falls themselves. Ariah at first believes in a strict moral universe ruled over by a judgemental God, but slowly sees nothing but random chance at work in her world. Dirk never questions the advantages he enjoys as a member of the jetset upper class. When finally he is confronted with a conspiracy that betrays everything he has taken for granted in his privileged life, he is unable to perceive the nature of evil even as it stares him in the face. In the town around the Falls the tourist industry is booming, but secrets have been buried in the ground, secrets attached to the name of Burnaby. Oates takes this story of two people who have found one another, found love in the midst of tragedy and challenges that love, dashing their happiness against the rocks. It’s a story that is passed along three generations, finally ending in the autumn of 1978. A story of voices luring suicides to their end in the Falls, oedipal mothers availing of face-lifts, the mysterious woman in black and a strange shaven-headed boy who holds the answers to the tragedy that haunts the Burnabys.

A truly amazing book.

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