Three rapid reviews of new releases - David Towsey's Your Brother's Blood, Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women and Kass Morgan's The 100. All of which are either out now or about to be.
Hard Case Crime continue their recent run of brilliance with Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women (2013). Ms. Wald is, rather shockingly, only the second female writer for the imprint (following in the footsteps of Christa Faust). The Secret Lives is essentially two interlinked novellas that follow a pair of twin sisters.
The first, Leda, is essentially a suburban housewife. After a brief career in film and a short stint in sales, Leda is now married, pregnant and a bit bored. As she sets up her new home with her husband, Stas, she meets a friendly builder. He soon crosses the line and becomes a bit of a pest - more so when it turns out that he knows something about Leda's past that even her husband doesn't. The story takes a startling twist, but, as is the book's theme, it isn't really about the 'mystery' (or the 'plot') as much as the character's response to what happens. The events around her trigger a curious response: leading her to question what she really wants out of life...
The second story has a bit more narrative trickery. Leda's sister Lillian is on the path for a different sort of success: she's a high-powered lawyer with a handsome husband, good money and tough reputation. One of her clients is accused of corruption, and, as she interviews a key witness (who turns out to be a former sex worker and professional submissive), Lillian is forced to confront her own hidden (or suppressed) desires.
Understandably, this sounds a bit...er... porny. And The Secret Lives doesn't shy away from its sexually-charged atmosphere. But it uses sex - specifically, submission - as a way of challenging assumptions and societal dictates regarding of 'success' and 'happiness'. Like the best noir, this is about the subtle difference between the two. Just because you get what you want doesn't mean it makes you happy...
The Secret Lives of Married Women is more a collection of character studies than a novel, but, individually, the stories are all fascinating. It took me a while to realise that there wasn't a big picture - nor was there going to be. This is an intense and intimate book; a compelling, unsettling read that doesn't hesitate to subvert the reader's assumptions, over and over again.
It would be easy to dismiss David Towsey's Your Brother's Blood (2013) as mash-up bingo: a Weird Western zombie novel. It is, however, much more - it is an exceptionally good Weird Western zombie novel. Given how rare excellence is in any one of those areas, finding it at the conjunction of all three is a truly spectacular occurrence.
Across the gritty, depopulated American landscape, there's an uneasy peace between humans and the "Walkin'", those people that have come back from the dead. There's a bit of loose explanation for this - it seems to be a combination of genetic predisposition and some sort of ancient apocalyptic virus. Still, whatever the reason, the Walkin' are a fact of un-life.
Most of the action takes place around the small town of Barkley, which takes a fanatical approach to the undead: burn them, burn their seed, burn everything they've touched. For the most part, this point of view has gone unchallenged - if for no other reason than Barkley is so remote that few have ever even seen a Walkin'. But with the advent of a major war, the people of Barkley soon find that their young men might not be as pure as they thought. The soldiers of Barkley are staggering back to down - after they've been killed.
Although Mr. Towsey's built an interesting world with room for a massive saga, he instead chooses to keep the story tightly focused. A Walkin' man tries to reunite with his family - that's it. It is personal, not epic, and, as a result, he accomplishes the near-impossible, making an empathetic zombie POV character. He also matches the Western setting perfectly with its themes; Your Brother's Blood tackles the emptiness and the loneliness of the West, as well as the isolation, tension and desperation of small towns. The concept of the zombie Western may sound commercial and exhausted, but Your Brother's Blood is something special.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kass Morgan's The 100 (2013) is less "high concept" than "blatantly commercial" - a sprawling, haphazard mess of teenybop angst and Andre Norton-esque space opera. Never has a book so nakedly attempted to be a television series... fortunately, the series in question seems to be Gossip Girl, so, hey, I'm happy.
In space, teenagers are all hawt and silly. The upper class hawt silly teenagers are preparing for balls by putting together dresses out of old Earth artifacts. They also flirt and play politics and grumble about overbearing parents and have steamy liaisons. Meanwhile, the peasant-type hawt silly teenagers grow muscles, save their money for tiny trinkets for their secret rich girlfriends and get involved in sekrit plots. The whole thing is utterly ridiculous. There's some plot about political schemes and needing to eventually return to Earth before resources run out and blah blah blah WHO WILL TAKE ME TO SPACE-PROM? Hawt teenagers have our future in their hands. Also? Angst.
[AND OH HEY, while Googling names above, I discovered this: The 100 is going to be a television series. Either I am a media genius, or, the more likely scenario: I've sponged up the advertising without even knowing it. Either way, this sounds utterly trashy, completely awful and I can't wait to pick it DVD and watch it while Anne is out of town. I have now totally derailed my own review.]
Ok - The 100 is extremely silly. The characters are archetypes and the plot is open-ended mayhem. The whole thing is patently ridiculous - a ramshackle collection of melodramatic vignettes and breathless revelations, held together solely by bubbling enthusiasm. It is hard to recommend this book as "good" by any measurable metric of goodness that doesn't involve "number of roles that could be played by Blake Lively". That said,... it took about 45 minutes of my life, and I don't regret any one of them. On with the show.