Ed. by Otto Penzler

As a veteran editor of crime fiction as well as the owner of the famous Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, Otto Penzler was uniquely situated to bring this anthology about. Over the last decade he has commissioned a who’s who of mystery writers, including names like Anne Perry, Jeffery Deaver, and Nelson DeMille, to pen a series of one-off tales that he then presented as Christmas gifts to loyal bookstore customers. The only guideline given the authors was that the stories involve books in some way. Thus was born the genre of bibliomystery, and this delightful collection.

The ground rules allow for a lot of variety. The settings are bookstores, public libraries, and personal collections — the best of them filled with “that peculiar musty smell distinctive to rooms in which books are aging like fine wines.”

The cast includes police detectives, private investigators, and of course lots of book lovers. Though in some cases “love” may be too tame a word for obsessions that lead to murder.

And then there are the books. Books for children and adults. New and used. Some can be used as weapons – to hide a bomb in, for example, or beat someone to death to with. And some even possess magical powers.

An anthology like this could have been just a curiosity, a bit of fun for bibliophiles, but the authors rise above the occasion with a selection of excellent stories that are great reads in their own right. It’s obvious everyone was enjoying themselves, and the results are just as much a treat for the rest of us.

There’s even something bittersweet to it as well. Behind the mystery and suspense there is the fading romance of books. Books are more and more associated with a world that is disappearing, and the book people we meet are almost all eccentrics and loners, aware of the fact that they are living in the past and that bookstores and libraries have something archaeological about them today.

But is the twilight of the book something to feel sad about? Not really. For connoisseurs they’re only aging like fine wines.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 18, 2017.


The Blinds

By Adam Sternbergh

Genre fiction is made healthier through cross-breeding. In The Blinds Adam Sternbergh has created a multi-layered hybrid of a novel strengthened by several different bloodlines.

In the first place we might think of it as a Western. Calvin Cooper is the sheriff of the town of Caesura, a place known locally (and less pretentiously) as The Blinds. It’s a dusty desert town, or “glorified trailer park,” set down in the middle of a West Texas nowhere, with the only link to the outside world being a weekly mail-and-supplies run and a clunky fax machine.

Sheriff Cooper doesn’t have much to do in The Blinds seeing as there are only about fifty residents and he’s the only one with a gun. Or at least he’s supposed to be the only one with a gun. The Western turns into a mystery when residents of The Blinds start turning up dead.

What makes solving the mystery tricky is a science-fiction spin. You see, the residents of The Blinds have had their memories selectively wiped as part of an advanced “fresh start” program for criminals. The town is actually a kind of penal colony. So the question of “whodunit?” is complicated by the fact that nobody even knows who he or she really is.

This is just the set-up, but things get even weirder. In some ways The Blinds resembles M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, with layers of mystery enfolding the town and its history that are only gradually revealed. Also like Shyamalan’s movie are the many rapid-fire and bizarre plot twists that come at the end.

On a deeper level, The Blinds is a novel that asks interesting questions about how our memories make us who we are. The nature vs. nurture argument over criminal responsibility is lying in the background here. Is someone who can no longer remember their past crimes still responsible for them, or even the same person who committed them? And to what extent do the subjects in this progressive experiment still have free will?

These philosophical questions are secondary, however, to the busy, action-filled plot. The Blinds is first and foremost a fun read, or really about half-a-dozen reads rolled together in one.

Review first published in the Toronto Star July 28, 2017.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives

By Stephen Henighan

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives is a short novel written in the form of a parable. The reason it takes such a form is because its subject is the Canadian literary establishment, and specifically the role within that charmed circle played by identity politics. And, as many Canadian authors have shown – think of Russell Smith’s Muriella Pent or Andre Alexis’s A – the best (and safest) way to approach such touchy matters is through the lens of fiction.

Author Stephen Henighan is one of Canada’s most outspoken critics of our literary culture and he even makes a brief cameo here as a certain “notorious literary troublemaker” and “thug” who is slapped down by the capos of the CanLit mafia. This is not, however, a book about him.

Instead, it is the tale of Mr. R. U. Singh (the initials are meant to cast his name in the form of a question): an Indian immigrant who has come to Canada to make a fresh start in life. Almost immediately on arrival he reinvents himself, on a whim, as a Sikh. The turban gives him an aura of exotic mystery and valuable multi-cultural cred, so it’s not long before doors are opening to exciting new romantic and professional opportunities.
But even though he goes to law school and becomes a quietly successful small-town lawyer, Mr. Singh is drawn to the literary life. Specifically, he has dreams of being a genteel man of letters, a squire of “loiterature” in the best clubby, nineteenth-century style.

The bite in Henighan’s satire comes from his observation that, in pursuing such a dream, Mr. Singh has come to exactly the right place.

This is because the CanLit establishment, and indeed Canada in general, is still very much stuck in the nineteenth century. The mandarins of culture rule over what is symbolized as a cozy garden party that Mr. Singh crashes by stepping through a hedge. Immediately he feels at home among a group of aging bohemians with very fine taste, realizing that “Canadianness – the Canadianness I loved and embraced – was rooted in sedate aristocracy.”

Mr. Singh can have a place within that aristocracy not because it is colour-blind but because it isn’t. He manages to escape racism by way of tokenism: “by ascending into a milieu where prejudice was displaced by the genteel desire to socialize with diversity.”

What makes Henighan’s satire work is its measured tone and ambiguity. His representation of the cultural elite as lazy and complacent, corrupt and entitled, greedy, hypocritical, privileged, and vindictive, is unmistakeably fierce, but it’s presented in a reserved manner that allows for subtle moral shadings. Mr. Singh, for example, though he becomes a fierce critic of the establishment, clearly shares many of their values. His is the outrage of the scorned lover, not the revolutionary.

The other layer to the satire that Henighan gives the story comes through his revealing a transfer of cultural power from the creators of culture to its managers. This is a point that has been recently receiving a lot of attention in the news media, most often in the form of criticism of bloated academic administration, so Henighan’s addressing the subject is timely.

Though members of the literary establishment, neither Mr. Singh nor his chief benefactor-turned-adversary Millicent Crowe are writers, or even have any inclinations in that direction. What they aspire to become is board members, directors, teachers, and media spokespeople. It is with no small amount of envy that a once-famous writer remarks of his wife’s rising star that she now “goes to conferences on academic administration” that are far better gigs than the readings he has to perform at.

The ultimate goal is not to become a best-selling, critically-acclaimed author or public intellectual but rather a university president. This is to inhabit an elite sinecure “impervious to the opinions of others . . . above the fray . . . ensconced in the high-salaried establishment.” Welcome to the machine.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives begins and ends with fantasies of wish fulfillment, albeit the wishes have changed in ways that mark Mr. Singh’s own transformation. A conservative seeking stability and security, he is both undone and redeemed by the fluid shiftings of his own identity politics. And though missing out on the Order of Canada, he is adopted into a greater, in every sense of the word, Canadian order.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 15, 2017.

American War

By Omar El Akkad

American War is a thought experiment in the form of a dystopian novel. What if the world’s sole superpower and global hegemon were a failed state and international charity case? Instead of being problems on the other side of the world, what if the states of the Deep South were the equivalent of today’s Syria and Palestine?

The story is set during the years of the Second American Civil War, which takes place between the years 2074 and 2095. The background is only sketched in, but catastrophic climate change leads the U.S. government to ban fossil fuels, which results in a group of southern “red” states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina – attempting to secede from the union. “The planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.”

If you’re wondering why Florida isn’t one of the rebel states, it’s because it’s under water.

Meanwhile, today’s conflict zones and developing economies have risen to the top of a truly new world order. The Muslim world has united into the powerful Bouazizi Empire, which now supplies the rebel American states with aid shipments, while the Red Crescent provides humanitarian relief. Closer to home, a Mexican “protectorate” has expanded deep into the American Southwest, presumably erasing any wall that might have been built. The world has turned upside-down.

Against this political backdrop Omar El Akkad, a former reporter for the Globe and Mail who was born in Cairo and grew up in Qatar, tells the story of the embittered rebel Sarat (a contraction of Sara T.) Chestnut. The dramatic narrative takes us through the key events in Sarat’s life, while intercutting excerpts from various documentary sources that give us background and insight into the bigger political picture. A detailed world is constructed, and even if it’s not that convincing as prophecy it provides a solid structure for the point El Akkad wants to make.

The Chestnut family hails from Louisiana, one of the “purple” border states. They are soon caught up in the violence of the civil war, however, and become victims of the tit-for-tat struggle between the forces of union oppression and “free state” terrorism. Sarat, however, leaves victimhood behind, going from being an innocent child playing on the banks of the “Mississippi Sea” to becoming the avenging fury of the South.

There’s no mistaking all the correspondences El Akkad draws between the events he describes and America’s current war on terror and the situation in the Middle East more generally. After being uprooted from their homes the Chestnuts flee to a refugee camp where a young and impressionable Sarat meets a sinister teacher who indoctrinates her into the movement. He also trains suicide bombers. Later, the refugee camp is raided in a manner meant to recall the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Drones fly overhead, now largely out of control but still capable of dropping out of the sky and randomly blowing up civilians. Resistance on the part of the occupied population is met with a “surge” from the North. There is a Guantanamo-like detention camp where rebel prisoners are waterboarded. There is a network of tunnels that the rebels used for getting into the union states. The world’s media looks on in horror.

All of this is familiar stuff, only now it is happening in America, to Americans.

The title is ambiguous, referring both to America’s Second Civil War and the American way of war. There is also a wicked irony in the claim made by an agent of the Bouazizi Empire that “everyone fights an American war.” Foreign agents are seen involving themselves in America’s domestic conflict because fighting Americans over here is better than fighting them over there.

The message to all of this, or “universal slogan of war,” is understood by Sarat to be that everyone caught in a cycle of conflict reacts in much the same way the world over. Put yourself in the shoes of the enemy or Other and you’ll realize that “If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
This is not a comforting political message for Americans, whose homeland has largely remained free of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by other nations in the modern age. But comfort is exactly what El Akkad is writing against. Sarat sees safety as “just another kind of violence – a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”

What if it happened here? American War asks us to imagine the uncomfortable.

Review first published online October 24, 2017.

Life on Mars

By Lori McNulty

None of the stories in this debut collection from Lori McNulty are set on the planet Mars, but nevertheless that destination is invoked in nearly all of them, most often as a way of alluding to feelings of distance and strangeness.

McNulty’s subject matter is grounded in a gritty lower- and working-class reality, but the Martian influence is never far away, sometimes being felt as a gentle tug and other times warping reality in surreal ways. The weirdness is most obvious in stories like “Prey,” where a fellow is directed by a squid to take a cross-continent trip from California to Newfoundland, or “Polymarpussle Takes a Chance,” where the narrator is transformed into an Indian deity. It is also, however, noticeable in McNulty’s style, which often goes for jarring metaphors rather than gentle similes. Sentences like this keep the reader on their toes: “Midnight is a flame tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole.” “Markus was a broken bridge over a spent creek.” “Tu’s thin and crooked, a dark, jagged line against the chalky white kitchen.”

“Metaphor” etymologically refers to a carrying over or across, and in its direct equation of one thing with another it performs an act of metamorphosis. McNulty’s style suits her theme here as metamorphosis is very much in the air. In “Ticker” a heart transplant recipient also becomes the host of the spirit of his deceased donor. In the aforementioned “Polymarpussle” story a man becomes a three-eyed god. In “Gindelle of the Abbey” a married member of the bourgeoisie transforms himself into a homeless man through the power of wardrobe and makeup. And in the best story, “Monsoon Season,” the main character is a new woman recovering from gender reassignment surgery she’s had done in Thailand.

People start off as one thing and end up something else, adding to a pervading sense of alienation and strangeness. You never know where you’re going with these stories, nor, after they’re over, can you be sure of where you’ve been.

The collection’s other focus is on relationships, and the way personal bonds are tested and transformed along with all the other changes going on. There is no “normal” state in play but only dysfunctional families and mid-life crises. And again we feel the call of the strange. The story “WOOF” draws its title from an acronym, “Wild Ones Over Forty,” and it deals with a woman of a certain age having a breakdown that seems to end in her going feral in an almost supernatural way, as though she’s become a lycanthrope.

Alienated from their significant others, and even to some degree from life on this planet, many of the characters are themselves off-putting. However, we feel, if not sympathy, then at least a kind of respect for their powers to adapt and endure in such unstable environments.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2017.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Successful collaborations between novelists are rare, as they require a meeting not just of minds but of voices to avoid becoming awkward.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland is one such successful hybrid. It’s also more than the sort of time-travel story you’d expect from the collaboration between an SF author and a writer of historical novels.

Instead of a hybrid, it’s like a variety show: a comic-romance serial with SF, historical, and fantasy elements. Even the time machine – or Chronoton, as it’s styled here – is an incongruous mix of ideas: inspired by the quantum box that Schrödinger’s cat was stuck in, but powered by witchcraft.

Yes, witchcraft. Magic and science are working, if not hand-in-glove, then at least on parallel tracks in a kind of time-travel arms race. How it all works is left deliberately woolly, but the analogy that’s invoked the most is that of time as a bundle of threads representing different streams that can be accessed at certain points, and even disastrously “sheared” if there is a significant disruption. When this happens it’s as though reality turns to Jell-O and a knife is cutting through it.

The main thread of the novel is set in a timeline just slightly off-kilter from our own and tells the story of D.O.D.O., which stands for the Department of Diachronic Operations (it’s a military operation, and their love of acronyms is a running gag). Tristan Lyons is the hunky intelligence officer who gets D.O.D.O. up and running and Melisande Stokes is the brainy student of ancient linguistics who is his first hire. It turns out linguistics is a handy field of study when journeying into the past. As is skill at sword fighting.

The plot is whimsical and chaotic. D.O.D.O. operatives are sent to various points in the past – 17th century New England, Elizabethan London, Constantinople back when it was still called Constantinople – on bizarre missions that have them running afoul of a powerful banking consortium and a coven of witches who might not be the helpful kind.

It’s all mindless fun, but ‘tis the season for beach reads and books for the cottage. Crack the covers and the time will seem to slip away.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 23, 2017.

The Accusation

By Bandi

Fiction in the English-speaking world is mostly post-political, perhaps recognizing that it can’t compete with the spectacle of a reality-TV star as president of the United States, and perhaps just because there are so few meaningful differences between the major parties in our democracies. We have novels that address individual political issues, but few that are interested in exploring the nature and operation of government and the role of the state in our lives.

The fact that The Accusation is the first work of fiction to be smuggled out of North Korea, and had to be published under a pseudonym (“Bandi” means “firefly”), gives some indication of just how different a world North Korea is.

The Accusation takes us across a deep cultural as well as political border. Even the texture of the writing, which has been translated by Deborah Smith – a British translator of Korean fiction who was a co-winner of the Man Booker International Prize last year – gives us a chilly sense of the Cold War era. Bandi is a realistic writer, but from a twenty-first century Western perspective it may seem like he’s describing some dark fantasy set in Mordor, or a futuristic dystopia.

The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, constitute a passionate J’accuse: a political polemic written against North Korea’s communist dictatorship, headed at the time by the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung (grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un).

The picture Bandi draws is unrelievedly grim. His stories have been compared to Solzhenitsyn’s revelation of life in the Gulag system, with the main difference being that in The Accusation all of North Korea has been turned into a giant prison labour camp. Fear has to be instilled at birth if one is going to survive (a process we see happening in the most disturbing story, “City of Specters”). It is a state choked by tyranny, “a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter,” “a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies!”

As you can tell from this, the political message is not subtle. The stories make it painfully clear how awful life in North Korea is, with grinding poverty and an economy that at times seems little advanced from the Stone Age. Key themes are the family divided against itself, a world turned upside-down, and false appearance (or propaganda) vs. reality.

The word “totalitarian” gets thrown around a lot these days, which makes it worth seeing what living under such a regime looks like from the inside. The essential point is that the party is everywhere, controlling every aspect of the lives of the people that we meet, mainly through the operation of an army of minor officials that make up a petty and at times sadistic bureaucracy. These functionaries are sinister, alien figures, almost impossible for a Western audience to understand. We certainly have our own time-serving bureaucrats and corporate drones, but the party officials in these stories are totally dehumanized creatures of the state. These are people who have lost their souls.

Big Brother is firmly in charge, and black is white, light is dark. This disjunction between truth and lie is hammered home again and again, beginning with a prefatory poem where Bandi talks of communism’s promised “world of light” and how it has resulted in North Korea’s “truly fathomless darkness, black as a moonless night at the year’s end.” In case you miss the point, which won’t be easy, each story usually winds up with a trumpet blast of climactic rhetoric aimed at the cruelty of the regime and the monstrous hypocrisy of its ideology.

There’s a famous satellite photograph of the Korean peninsula at night that shows North Korea as an empty gap sandwiched between a brightly lit South Korea below and China above. It’s as though the country is a black hole from which even information cannot escape. The Accusation is an angry book, composed in “pure indignation,” but it shines a necessary light on what remains one of the darkest places on Earth.

Review first published in the Toronto Star March 12, 2017.