Black Widow, by Christopher Brookmyre

25149226A new Chris Brookmyre is always cause for celebration round these parts, doubly so when it’s a Jack Parlabane novel. Black Widow is a fast and gripping read, cleverly put together with a cast of characters that are interesting and / or likeable. The slapstick grand guignol humour of Brookymre’s earlier funnier stuff now seems to be permanently MIA, but this is still quietly witty, and unafraid to offer a mordant chuckle at some very bleak events.

Diana Jager is a surgeon with a controversial past who finds herself the chief suspect in the disappearance of her husband. Journalist Parlabane is at the lowest of ebbs, newly divorced with a career in the toilet. He is engaged by the husband’s sister to find out exactly what happened, and as is his wont, starts tugging on all manner of loose threads until the sweater is completely ruined.

Diana is a hunter twice over, in name at least. She’s cool, calm, ruthless when she needs to be and not afraid to break rules if she benefits. But is she a murderer? You will probably change your mind half a dozen times as you progress through this very well constructed book, until you reach the ending and are forced straight back to the beginning to reread the early chapters in a new light. The clues Brookmyre scatters throughout are clever enough that you’ll pat yourself on the back for catching them, while all the time you’re missing what’s really going on. Not unlike Jack Parlabane himself.

Deaths aside, this is a story all about relationships, marriage, and the myriad ways two people can mess each other up. I’m not sure there’s one happy couple in the book (although there are a few hopeful signs by the end). I found myself genuinely concerned for the author while reading it, as the descriptions of life after a disintegrating marriage had a painful ring of truth to them. I hope he’s just got a good imagination.

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High Society, by Dave Sim

198463I’m rereading Cerebus for the first time in a decade or more. High Society was always lodged in my mind as the first of the really good Cerebus books, but I was concerned about the reliability of memory and the perils of revisiting old favourites. I shouldn’t have worried – this is still great stuff. It’s funny, sharp and switched on, an amazing jump from the first collection. I don’t think we see another quantum leap in skill like this in the rest of the series, or indeed in any other artistic endeavours I can think of off the top of my head.*
That said, the beginning is still raw Cerebus. The issue breaks are very obvious and there are far too many narrative captions (they finally drop out maybe a third of the way through the book, and Dave’s storytelling skill has increased so much that you don’t even notice their absence). The kidnapping and the Fleagle brothers are great fun, but it’s when Astoria enters and starts manipulating Cerebus that it kicks up a whole another level. The economic and political detail is still far ahead of anything else I’ve seen in comics (apart from non-fiction works like Darryl Richardson’s Supercrash), but it’s also very funny. Some of my favourite sequences are the campaign trail encounters, where Dave’s gifts for mimicry and revealing character through dialogue shine. It may be a fantasy world, but these sketches are so recognisably from our shared cultural understanding. John Cleese, misanthropic depressed Jewish comedians, That Farmer Guy From The Wuffa Wuffa issue, all so vivid in just a couple of panels. Election night itself is memorably tense, an excellently orchestrated issue. After that, we’re into Cerebus’ premiership, such as it is. Some people have complained that this section is rushed and flies by too quickly. It might well be that they are right and Dave had written himself into a corner after committing to wrapping up HS in 25 issues (if so, not the last time it will happen. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the size of the work – there was no going back and revising what was already in the public domain), but I always thought it was deliberate, and, along with the page design literally knocking Cerebus’ world sideways, supposed to emphasise how overwhelmed he was by events. Maybe, maybe not.

A few other random observations:

The very last page is, considering it was created by a twentysomething, an astonishingly acute take on the tendency of the idealistic young to believe in pointless doomed causes.

On this reread, I was completely floored by a particular stupid comment of Elrod’s. Innocuous in itself, it takes on a whole new meaning once you’ve read Minds, which wouldn’t be published for another twelve years or so. That’s some pretty hefty foreshadowing.

All those words about how it’s much better than the first book and how this is the best starting point notwithstanding, it’s surprising how many elements of what I’d consider to be “Core Cerebus” are still waiting to be introduced at the end of the book. The Cirinists have been an absolutely minimal presence, if they’ve featured at all, the Tarim / Terim dichotomy has barely been mentioned, and any information about the nature and number of aardvarks is missing – at this point, Cerebus is still basically just a funny looking character. Lots to come… I am itching to crack on with Church & State now.

*(FWIW, I reckon Sim’s talent continues to build, albeit at a more incremental level, all the way through to issue 220 or thereabouts. After that, his technical ability soars – the lettering, page composition and character art in the final few books are all tremendous – but his narrative ability pretty much deserts him, until a late flourish with The Last Day).

Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar

25986774Central Station is a middle Eastern border city, a huge spaceport between Israeli Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa. Space travel is but a tiny element of the book, and Tidhar is more interested in those scrabbling to survive at the foot of the gleaming towers. If there’s a throughline to the novel, it’s the Chong family and their affiliates – the book follows various Chongs, with the most pagetime given to Boris, recently returned to Earth from space. His lovers, father, cousins and various other connections (an artist who makes and kills gods, a rag and bone man who may well be immortal, a young woman infected with a disease akin to vampirism that makes her thirst for data) all take centre stage for a while before fading back into the mass of humanity that makes up Central Station. And that’s really my only gripe with this book. You can throw around phrases like “mosaic novel”, or “collage fiction”, but there is no escaping that this book is a collection of short stories loosely lashed together. There’s no overarching plot (well, there are hints of something in the background), several dangling threads and not a great deal of action. But what you do get is an outstanding depiction of this new society. Tidhar has created something recognisably human, yet quite alien at the same time. It reminds me in some ways of Ian MacDonald’s great SF novels set in the world’s emerging economies where the shock of the new is multiplied by our Western unfamiliarity with existing cultures and mores. The writing is tremendously evocative of this future culture. You will taste the dust of Central Station in the back of your throat by the time you finish. It’s a book that has lingered in my mind, probably one of the best SF novels that will be published in 2016, but not one to be read for quick thrills.

All Involved, by Ryan Gattis

25686263This terrific book should become a modern crime classic. Set on the fringes of the 1992 LA riots, it’s the story of Latino gangs using the city meltdown and the desperate overstretching of enforcement agencies to settle their own scores. It’s told as a series of vignettes over six days, each focusing on a particular character. These characters then appear in each other’s stories, giving rise to a polyphonic evocation of just how utterly messed up gang culture is. Revenge leads to revenge, death leads to death, and it’s only a lucky few who can escape the bloody downward spiral.  This is thrilling, visceral, graphic stuff, a sledgehammer of a book that kept me turning the pages quicker and quicker. All you people who lapped up The Wire need to get on board with this one. Brilliant.

The Drive, by Tyler Keevil

18192023A single call from his Czech girlfriend catapults Trevor into a serious crisis. Desperate to get his mojo back, he blazes down Highway 99 in a rented Dodge Neon.
But soon his journey to California is fraught with peril, and all he has for protection are a semi-automatic pistol, his trusty plastic visor and a flea-ridden cat. As the drugs and the heartbreak kick in, the question is no longer whether Trevor will get over his girlfriend’s infidelity, but whether he’ll get out alive.”

Gripping and hilarious, this tale of a road trip gone horribly awry is one of the best books I’ve read this year. There is plenty of incident, from bad peyote trips to biker showdowns to a diner that may be run by cannibals, but there is also plenty of subtext to chew on, as a journey through America becomes a journey into the narrator’s psyche. Jung’s take on synchronicity is explicitly mentioned a few times, and his idea of the amina is at the heart of the book. And if that sounds heavy, don’t worry, you’re never far away from another tragicomically bad decision by our hero, usually while deep under the influence.
And Mr Keevil appears to know his Richmond Fontaine records, which is another plus as if one were needed.