Racism and violence as institutionalized entertainment, interplanetary suspense, and a life/love story in pixels are the topics of three of the novels reviewed today. Additionally, we have books that explore the worlds of British magicians, Glasgow petty crime, and FBI profilers.
Chain-Gang All Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Set in a dystopian near-future, this incendiary novel is a satire that talks of the American private penal system, and how it’s mired in institutionalized racism, blind capitalism, and monetizing whatever assets it may have on hand. In the center of the novel, is CAPE, the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment - a hugely popular, profit-taking, entertainment program that pits inmates against each other in televised gladiator fashion - in fights to the death. The competitors travel as links in teams, and the ultimate prize offered to the gladiator who can stay on top for three years is their freedom. It’s been described as a mishmash of The Handmaid’s Tale, Squid Game and The Hunger Games.
The two main characters are Loretta Thurwar and Hamara 'Hurricane Staxxx' Stacker. They’re teammates, secret lovers, and the two most popular warriors. What Adeji-Brenyah smartly does is immerse us in this world. From the point of view of the fighter-warriors, the corporate owners and managers, the rabid fans, the prison guards, even the protestors - all the stakeholders in this bloody, but profitable enterprise. Especially interesting are the ones who protest against the deadly spectacle, and how it dehumanizes the system. Violence, systemic injustice, futility and hope, they’re all touched upon in the course of the book’s narrative, and it’s the moral clarity of our author that accompanies us on this disturbing voyage.
Invisible Things by Mat Johnson
Sci-fi by nature is always speculative, but full credit to Johnson for coming up with this slim work that speaks volumes about politics, about mass denial and acceptance from a socio-political context, and couching all this in a premise that’s original and entertaining. Nalini Jackson is a sociologist on the SS Delany, a cryoship with a crewed mission to Jupiter. The whole ship is abducted and relocated to a terrarium bubble that exists on a Jupiter moon. There’s a mini-city called New Roanoke, ruled by an elite - and the inhabitants of NR include people who have disappeared from Earth and were categorized as alien abductions. There’s satirical wit aplenty in this novel, and it makes for an engaging read with much food for thought.
Things get complicated when a "rescue mission" from Earth arrives. And there’s talk of the invisible things that may actually be responsible for this terrarium world existing at all. Monumental Muting, what Jackson coins to describe the mass denying, is just one of the sociological concepts that’s utilized to describe this world. And somehow, we implicitly know that Johnson is commenting on the real world, and how so much of what we read could apply to modern life as we know it. It all adds up to a rather unique take on Scifi, and it’s good to note that the suspense factor doesn’t wane, while we’re thrown a satirical mirror to our own world and how we negotiate on a Daily basis, to have it make more sense.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
If "Ready Player One" was the novel that took video games into the realm of literary fiction, this Zevin novel will be remembered for being the one that took game designers and programmers into that same elevated plane. We first meet Sam Masur and Sadie Green as young children in an LA hospital, then jump forward to a Harvard campus setting when the two rekindle a strong friendship that had been ruptured for the stupidest of reasons, and false pride. There’s Marx, the rich roommate of Sam, and the one who’ll end up being their producer or partner, and there’s Dov, Sadie’s professor, and playing an essential, if at times disturbing, role in her development as a game designer. These are the major elements Zevin has at her disposal, and how masterfully she plays them.
A love poem to gaming, to friendships that transcend love and partnership, and to a culture that’s still dimly understood; this novel has much to offer and will be a nostalgic trip for those who have been into video games for decades. Ichigo, Child Lost At Sea is the revolutionary game that Sadie and Sam create, followed by Both Sides, and Master of the Revels - and we’re there in the conceptualizing, the creating, the finishing up, the marketing and distribution of the games. What Zevin does is provide romance, mystery, ambition, tragedy - all in the course of this one novel. It’s a feat we’ll well remember her for and like last year’s Lessons in Chemistry, this is a novel begging to be turned into a Limited Series on television.
The Warlock Effect by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
Here’s a fantasy novel that’s written by real magicians and stage actors. Set right after the Second World War, and at the start of the Cold War, our main protagonist is Louis Warlock - who fled Nazi Germany as a boy, and arrived in England as Ludvik Weinschenk. All he had with him was a pack of playing cards and three well rehearsed tricks. In the early 1950’s, Louis is established as one of the master magicians and mentalists working in London. His assistant and girlfriend is Dinah; and he consults a loyal pack of friends and fellow-magicians who nickname themselves as the Brains Trust. It’s when he’s surreptitiously asked to transition from magic and deception, to espionage in the name of the British government, that Louis is severely tested.
Tested in the sense that he’s been hoodwinked, and it turns out that his desire to exhibit patriotism has been exploited by Soviet agents masquerading as British intelligence. It isn’t long before the real British secret service are charging Louis with high treason. One thing leads to another, and there’s a quest to go behind Soviet lines, uncover who is Potash, and discredit him and his Funhouse. It’s Louis up against this formidable nemesis. Fast-paced and filled with magical revelations, this is an absorbing fun read, that knows how to also tug at heartstrings and evoke compassion. On a sidebar note, Andy Nyman is an actor/magician, and portrayed the young Winston Churchill in Peaky Blinders.
Squeaky Clean by Callum McSorley
Reminiscent of early Chris Brookmyre, or Irishman Colin Bateman transplanted to Glasgow; McSorley’s first foray into Scottish noir is riddled with dark humor, in a good way. There’s strong local color, even more colorful characters - and dialogue that’s served up in the idiom and slang of Scotland. One main narrative thread features DI Ally McCoist, and we don’t really know if she’s bent and corrupt, or just plain stupid. The other set of characters involves a neighborhood car wash, where we find Davey and Tim working for Sean. When local mob boss Paulo arrives with his massive Range Rover and decides to be the car wash’s regular customer, wheels are set in motion, and we anticipate all he’ll to break loose.
Davey is in the midst of a custody battle with his ex-wife for their daughter. Forgetting the court hearing until his mother reminds him, Davey takes the car of Paulo to get to the court on time. A preposterous kidnapping takes place, and the car wash is now part of Paulo’s underworld crime kingdom. Working for a certifiable psychopath can never be fun, and McSorley creates a form of gallows humor that’s both hilarious and outlandish, in equal measures. Meanwhile, DI McCoist is on her own silly crusade to get her own children loving the time they get with her, away from her own ex. A stubborn and frustrating puppy rules in this narrative strand. There’s an insane logic to how events spiral and head out of control. A crazy snapshot of Glasgow petty crime.
The Shakespeare Killer by Douglas J. Wood
A serial killer is out murdering the best defense attorneys of the world, and quoting Shakespeare’s Henry VI about "killing all the lawyers." It’s a promising premise, that’s coupled with a quote from TV producer David Kelley about one of the basic questions asked by TV audiences of crime shows, is how the defense attorney can continually represent scum, and get them off, only to discover that they’ll kill again. What does that leave them feeling, conscience-wise. It would seem that this serial killer isn’t waiting for an answer. So it’s left to the returning Chris DiMeglio, profiler and head of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) to find the serial killer.
DiMeglio heads a team, finds media is curious about how he solves a case, and the team end up in Florence, Italy to find their serial killer. The book is basically an investigative procedural, and the two things I can say in criticism about the novel are the following: 1) there’s only a tenuous, at best, connection to Shakespeare and I found the title misleading in trying to create such a connection, and 2) the novel could have done with a whole lot more of shading and back story for the main serial killer. Yes, Wood may be trying to keep it a mystery/surprise; but this also means we never truly understand and appreciate the killer’s motive. Could easily see this being turned into a Limited Series, but we’ll need more depth and texture,