Underground Reading: The Girl with the Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block
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Review Round-up: Jesus, Bridesicles and New York City

Three recent releases with very little in common.

Love-Minus-EightyWill McIntosh's Love Minus Eighty (2013) is coming this June. I've not read him before, but from what I understand, Mr. McIntosh is sort of an ebook/indie sensation, not in the "sells like Hugh Howey or Amanda Hocking" way, but in the "there's this guy quietly making great books in the corner" kind of way. Love Minus Eighty is his first UK print publication and it is a corker.

A hundred years in the future, death isn't... conquered, but it is beat-up a bit. Cryogenics and medicine have both advanced spectacularly, so if you've got the cash, you can hang on for quite some time. If you don't have the cash, but you do have insurance, you can freeze yourself - give yourself that tiny bit of hope that someone, someday will pay to bring you back. And if you don't have the cash or the insurance? Well, look both ways before crossing the street.

One pervy side-effect of this brave new world is the idea of the "bridesicle". Beautiful women in fatal accidents - and without insurance - are carefully preserved. Rich men drop by, interview them, and, if they like what they see, the 'suitor' pays to thaw/fix the young lady in turn for marriage (and all that entails). It is... horrible. Mr. McIntosh lets us know exactly how horrible it is - prostitution, grinding misery, the soul-crushing loss of all agency. It is one of the most grim and least titillating visions of the future ever committed to print. 

Love Minus Eighty is the story of how this premise impacts a half dozen people: a frozen young woman (thawed and killed and thawed and killed over and over again with each interview), a struggling musician who inadvertently kills someone, the woman he kills, a slightly neurotic writer who runs a dating service and a host of minor characters. Love Minus Eighty is a love story, I suppose, but less about people than an ode to love itself: natural, messy, serendipitous, ungainly love. Everyone in the book is busily trying to programme or direct something that refuses to be tamed. Love can't be purchased, wrangled, controlled or predicted - a lesson that everyone in the book learns, occasionally to their own detriment. It should be romantic, but Mr. McIntosh is wisely even-handed. For every couple that wins, there's also one that gets away.

Love Minus Eighty is also book that could've gone horribly wrong, but never does. Mr. McIntosh finds sweetness in the most unlikely of places, but, more importantly, he consistently reinforces how awful the system truly is - the inequity between the classes and sexes is built into the very heart of the book. This is one of the grimmest dystopias in science fiction, made all the more haunting by its plausibility.

Lafferty_ShamblingGuidetoNYCMur Lafferty's The Shambling Guide to New York City (2013), another upcoming release, features Zoe, a struggling writer and denizen of New York City. She fled to the Big Apple (do people still use that phrase?) from Raleigh after a nasty breakup (with her [married] boss). Now, her savings are running precariously low and she's a little worried that her escape may be coming to an end. Fortunately, she's stumbled on the perfect job as editor for a line of travel books about New York City. 

The catch? As Zoe swiftly learns, the books are for coterie (a nice word for "monsters") - the vampires, zombies, fae and general beasties that secretly populate the world. Zoe's concept of the universe is turned upside-down as it dawns on her that the Creatures of the Night aren't just real, they're working in her local coffee shop. The Shambling Guide follows Zoe's hectic first weeks at the job as she learns about the coterie, meets a nice (and not so nice) boy, saves the world and, at some point, makes a book. 

There's no question that The Shambling Guide is clever, quick and more than a little funny. It is adult and quite, er, hip. (It is un-hip to say "hip", right? Damn.) The Jamie McKelvie cover is a perfect fit - this is a cool-geeky book about cool-geeky people with cool-geeky problems. We sympathise with Zoe in the same way that we sympathise with Buffy, that is, without rationality. She's beautiful, surrounded by gorgeous people, has an awesome job and now lives in a wildly escapist secret universe. Yet, somehow Ms. Lafferty pulls off the trick of making the reader like Zoe and not resent her. 

That's all good stuff... but here's the twist:The Shambling Guide is also an old-school epic fantasy. Bear with me here, as I realise that's a bizarre thing to say. But...

[Many vague spoilers follow!]

Zoe is a naive innocent, forced to leave her sheltered backwater (apologies to Raleigh!) by an evil that disrupts her home and (in some sense) takes her family from her. This is an evil that she initially consideres very personal, but ultimately turns out to be linked to a greater 'big bad'. (There's very little explanation for this. At one point even Zoe complains about the contrivance of everything coming together to be about her.) 

She learns of a secret world and is trained in its ways by a frustratingly cryptic wise old person. Everyone thinks she is special and magically different and tells her so. Despite her inexperience, the others instinctively recognise that she's special and accept her leadership without question. Ultimately, she is the chosen one: there's something unique and predestined about her that means that Zoe-and-only-Zoe can save the day. 

Perhaps most of all, there's vast amounts of world-building: exposition about how the world works, the rules of magic and the ways of means of magical creatures. The framing device of a travel guide makes this more palatable than normal, but it is still there. Lots of it.

[Spoilers over!]

None of this is unique to epic fantasy, but when you stack it all together, the result is a story I've read a few dozen times before. Normally it just has more swords on the cover.

It is also important to note that there's nothing wrong with any of this. If anything,The Shambling Guide should be applauded for cleverly packaging all of it in a new and different setting. But it does explain why the book left me a little bit cold - this style of fantasy hasn't been my thing for a little while now, and despite the veneer of urban chic, this is a book I felt like I already knew.

Anyway, this is very much a "good book but not for me" sort of review. I'm dying to see how The Shambling Guide to New York City  fares with an epic fantasy readership... the story is familiar but will the gender reversal (a female chosen one?! What's next, unisex bathrooms?!) and contemporary setting be too much? To the focus groups!

I know what you did last supperAnd, finally, in pure unbridled crazy: I Know What You Did Last Supper (2013) by Wayne Williams and Darren Allan. Is this the penultimate literary mash-up? Because, let's be honest, Android Karenina's got nothing on the splatterpunk resurrection. 

Judas is feeling a bit rough. And deservedly so - he's just betrayed his best friend and mentor in order to pay off his uncle's gambling debt. Jesus may be the forgiving type but someone is unhappy with young Iscariot. For every piece of silver he took, one of his friends will die... messily. 

The book bravely sets up the following ground rules:

  1. Everything in the Bible is the literal truth. The miracles of Jesus happened exactly as written, this is established early on. For the sake of literary discussion, think of it a bit like high fantasy: the rules are, magic works.
  2. Proper serial killer splatterpunk. So more rules - don't split up, don't have sex, he's always right behind you, etc. etc. You've seen Scream.
  3. This is a historical setting. Whatever happens, we 'know' the ending - who lives, who dies, what happens in the great scheme of things.

This is bonkers for a lot of reasons, but the key thing is, I Know What You Did is played completely straight. Certainly the violence is over the top and there are some scenes that are a bit slapstick, but the authors, having created a world with three different sets of rules, obey all of them. They don't cheat and they never play anything just for laughs.

As a literary exercise, this is kind of genius. As an actual book to read? Too much.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not going to start flaying it. I Know What You Did Last Supper is a genuinely solid chunk of Grand Guignol horror. People die in truly disgusting, stomach-churning ways (which is exactly what's supposed to happen - don't pick this up expecting subtlety). There are no limits to the depravity and (ironically) nothing is sacred. Sadly, the actual horror wears off pretty quickly, forcing the book to get grosser and grosser as a means of holding the reader's attention.

Because the book is being serious about the set-up, the reader is encouraged to do the same. Which is a bit tough - it isn't particularly humorous, it isn't particularly scary and there's no meta commentary. So once the premise (which is awesome) is explained in the first few chapters, why press on? I suppose the main reason is the "whoddunnit" - we know everything about this book except who is doing the killing. I'm not the mystery alone is enough of a hook...

Creative blasphemy is good for a few pages of interest and squirm-inducing violence is fun for a few more, but, despite the clever set-up, I Know What You Did Last Supper doesn't have the actual substance to carry it through 350+ pages. I'm genuinely delighted that this book exists, as I Know What You Did Last Supper is creative, weird and ballsy. And, moreover, I respect the way that the authors went about it - by being po-faced, they took the hardest possible path for this mash-up.

I suppose the overall result is that I Know What You Did Last Supper is one of those books I'm glad to have read, possibly more for the bragging rights than the quality of the experience. Still, that's something.