Saturday, February 14, 2015

Holy Cow

David Duchovny
Holy Cow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Cow Elsie lives on a farm among other cows. She “can think, feel, and joke”, gets milked by her owner’s sons. She’s not dumb, she knows Homer and Internet jokes. This memoirs Elsie writes for NYC publishing house editor, keeping in mind possible movie adaptation.

Elsie knows the main principles of life, both human and animal’s. But there are a few moments she doesn’t know. For example, why her mom “disappeared one day, like all cow moms do. We’re taught to accept that. That a mom is not forever and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you if she leaves without saying goodbye once the job of raising you from a calf is done.” Elsie doesn’t know where her mom had gone. Elsie has a “bff”, Mallory, “Mallory is seriously gorgeous, like she could definitely model. She could be the cow on the milk carton.” Elsie and Mallory keep an eye on young bulls, which are kept in a different paddock. Then two cows case a plan: when two owner’s sons will forget to lock the gate, the cows will use this to escape their paddock and at nighttime join young bulls and play with them. Thus adventures will start.

David Duchovny has joined the already significant number of stars who are not satisfied with Hollywood fame – they want literary fame as well. Actor, director, screenplay writer, musician mounted another top – has written a novel. To my surprise, the result is not bad at all. I’d even say good.

Holy Cow can’t be categorized, as it doesn’t stick to one genre. Duchovny plays in literature: his novel is a parody on Madame Bovary (the novel’s protagonist and the heroine of Flaubert’s novel share the name), a postmodern fairy tale, a fantasy screenplay (a number of dialogues in the book are presented in a screenplay form), a very funny coming of age novel. Any mysticism is absent here (and that may seem like something strange), unlike plenty of good laughs (there is no shortage of them).

The novel is written in teenage slang, especially its first, “farmer”, part, with jokes, particular kind of words, dialogies a la cartoons with animals like Ice Age and such, and this recklessness of the style suggests that Duchovny had written his book during three nights while he took a bath. And still. The important thing is that the book is written in one uniform style, the novel’s narrator has her own voice, and I can’t say that this book is a potboiler written solely for the money. Even the level of jokes has interesting variety, from toilet or poop jokes to Torah jokes.

Throughout the novel Duchovny (or his protagonist) jokes that this book sooner or later will be adapted to the screen. There is strong chance it will. Nevertheless, the author tirelessly makes fun of Hollywood (and of publishing industry, too), yet the books is so postmodernistically done, that it’s unlikely it will ever find a suitable and talented director who will make a worthy adaptation. This is so _written_ book, that holds for the paper, not adaptable at all.

Duchovny, though the dialogues between Elsie and the editor, translates one more important aspect of the book. What are the audience it was written for? For adults or for young adults? Yes, the books has enough teenage slang, teenagers jokes, the whole plot is rather coming of age. I wouldn’t stick Holy Cow to the YA department. Duchovny sometimes uses not so young adult language, plays with adult reader, he’s open for both categories of readers.

Americans, having this book finished, will cry “holy cow!”. And they are right: holy cow indeed, smart, funny, engaging novel.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Anthony Quinn

Head of Zeus, 2014

Retired Special Branch agent David Hughes, suffereing from Alzheimer, disappears from his home, where his sister is looking after him. Because the old spy is almost helpless, the police assumes Hughes was kidnapped or even worse. Soon a retired legal clerk is found murdered and tortured under the tree. The victim, Joseph Devin, had a murky past, and his death is somehow connected to the disappearance of Hughes.

The main protagonist of the story, transferred from Belfast to small town in Northern Ireland, Inspector Celcius Daly doesn’t know that. In fact, he even doesn’t realize that both men worked with Special Branch, where Hughes was a detective, and devin was an informer. Daly is assigned to investigate both crimes, he hits many dead ends (no surprise because Special Branch doesn’t want Daly to mess in their business), until he makes a connection, linking Devlin and Hughes to another disappeared man from 1989, Olilver Jordan, who, it’s been said, was an informer for Special Branch while being in IRA.

I expected from Disappeared something more, and after finishing it it became evident to me that behind us is a mediocre thriller, poorly written, poorly structured and not involving at all.
Sentence by sentence, Quinn writes not that bad, for he was a journalist, and he mastered a bit of a craft. Once sentences start to form paragraphs and chapters, the prose become one crumbly bulk barely moving forward. The novel suffers from the need to follow all the rules of modern british crime thriller, and these rules, it seems, are handed out to writers by editors. Here we have a lone sleuth, who returned home, secrets of the past, chapters written from POV of many side characters only making already muddy picture more blurred. Quinn as a slave obediently follows these rules, only as a storyteller he is nothing special, with not enough abilities to pull his novel, relying on clichés and types, through. After promising start with the background of Northern Ireland after the Troubles, the story bogs down, turning into a beaten plot when policeman hunts down the murderer.

Dragging style is complemented with emotional void of the prose. Tragedies of the past and modern political atmosphere in NI as important topics aren’t worked out. Behind us is a mystery, or thriller to be more precise, where not sufferings of soul and analysis of an issue matter but only when the main hero catches the villain.

Disappeared is a poorly structured thriller, it shouldn’t be called a mystery. The final disappoints, first, because instead of fiar solution Daly would present, we get unconvincing confessions from the main villain, and second, the villain itself and his motives materializes from the air, so much for the fair play. All motives are motivless, the final reveals plot holes, and the novel leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Piercing topic of lives in NI after the bombings and killings stopped was trampled to the ground.

I will add the author to my blacklist, where 90% of British thriller writers already are.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Shovel Ready

Adam Sternbergh
Shovel Ready

Crown, 2014

Near future New York. After two terrorists attacks where dirty bombs were employed several smaller attacks followed, which caused panick and climate changes. The Big Apple soon was abandoned by most, few remained, and class differencies divided remaining citizens into seperated ghettos. Poor started camping in not so long ago public spaces, and the rich retreated to the comfort of their homes, for the comfort you only needed a few bodyguards. Without any will to live in a dirty, dangerous city, the rich have chosen another reality, the limnosphere, Internet of the new type, where one can live a life he creates for himself. The more money you spend on virtual reality, the more real it will be. You don’t need to live in reality, your body in coffin-like bed will be taken care of by a hired nurse, and your home will be protected by bodyguards. If you thought of that.

If not, the your are an easy prey for a hired killer, who can crawl into your home and kill you in your sleep. This method is the favorite method of Spademan, the protagonist of this novel. He’s ex-garbage man, after one incident turned to murder-for-hire business. “I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.
I do it for money. Sometimes for other forms of payment. But always for the same reason. Because someone asked me to.”
He doesn’r ask questions and he doesn’t need to hear clients’ stories. New client hires Spademan to track down young girl Grace Harrow, and kill her. The girl leaves a blood trail beside her, and when Spademan finally has caught up with her, he can’t kill her. Because she’s five month pregnant. He’s signed up to protect her from the client who hired him, he’s also girl’s father.

The novel is selling as a hired killer novel, which is misleading, because it isn’t. And that is the first step to disappointment. Spademan is only nominally a hired killer, soon after the start he turnes to the role of private eye in a cyberpunk world, honest knight on a white horse, who is ready to defend every girl. Sternbergh sould be on the same shelf, as such masters of hired killer novels like Thomas Perry, Max Allan Collins, Lawrence Block. “Shovel Ready” has only a few similarities with the works of this sub-genre, among them is powerful beginning where Spademan describes the rules of his work.

All in all, the book is one big cliché, mediocre cyberpunk thriller, with only one correction that it’s written almost in free verse and that Sternbergh doesn’t use quotation marks in dialogues. The main problem with this book, as I see it, is laziness of the wit and anbsense of enough real-life experience to write believably about fanastical world. For his world Sternbergh borrowed too familiar tropes and elements from old SF. His idea of virtual reality Maxtrix-style and retreat of the rich to virtual world while their bodies are taken care of is that old and was used so many times that rarely an author from SF community will use it. Half-abandoned, dirty New York is detailed with love and care, yet tis is more like an ode to the favorite city, writing with a nostalgic tone, than a proper world-building. Sternbergh lets too much nostalgie sink into his novel. Instead of creating new ideas Sternbergh utilizies a few old ones: the protagonist uses “old” Internet, reads newspapers, avoids the limnosphere, uses subway. The world-building of the city is so-so, it’s just dirtier and more corrupted version of NYC.

Employed for his own purposes old SF elements, plot-wise the author employs elements of thrillers and action novels. A hired killer, instead of killing his client, starts to protect a victim – We have seen a hundred times. A team of the protagonist’s helpers almost in it entirety came from a different sources. Pregnant runaway girl, crazy pastor, hired muscles, dead protagonist’s wife – Shovel Ready should be called novel-collage. Through these clichés Sternbergh tries to satirize class-divided world, only fails when his satire drowns in a large pool of blood, guts, and mindless action scenes tiring you out.

The plot is predictable from start to finish, and all what’s you are left with is to pay attention to the style. Sternbergh relies heavily on dialogues, and they are nothing outstanding, and experiments with the prise, writing short, abrupt sentences, similat to free verse. It works in some scenes (particularly in the beginning and when Spademan recalls his first victims), and fails in others. Dull thriller written in verse is still a dull thriller.

Spademan already became series character, yet after this debut you feel no need to pay attention to the series. Where is my shovel? I need to bury this book deep.