Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Life’s full of regrets, mistakes, lost opportunities and bad memories. Sometimes you can see them in someone’s eyes or the way they act, but sometimes they’re hidden under nonchalance and a bright smile. But imagine if you couldn’t hide it-if everyone could see your past sins in a physical form?

That’s part of the premise of Lauren Beukes’ excellent novel Zoo City. People who have committed a violent act, almost always a murder, are connected with an apparent representation of that crime in the form of an animal. This can take the form of anything: a Butterfly, a Mongoose, a Turtle, a Cougar. The animals are a species that belongs to the person’s geographic home, and they come with burdens and advantages. People with animals can call on the gifts of their animal in a small way. They get a specific gift as well, such as being able to track down missing objects once they’ve met you (and vice versa) or sucking in your happy memories.

The downsides include the fact that if you get too far from your animal, there’s intense discomfort and anxiety. If your animal dies, you are devoured by a formless shadow called the Undertow. And of course there’s the obvious prejudice and dislike; the “animalled” or “zoos” are killed automatically in China, and in the US are second-class citizens subject to intense genetic scans and check-ins with the government.

In South Africa, where the story takes place, the zoos have a modicum of respect. There’s a housing development called Zoo City where many of them live, and while it’s not a palace it’s a community. That’s where Zinzi December makes her home. A former journalist and wild child/drug addict, Zinzi makes a living tracking down lost objects and sending out scam emails to pay off her debts. She would also make Kristen Bell die of envy, because Zinzi’s animal is a Sloth that is usually found draped around her shoulders. It’s the result of her brother’s death, and part of the reason for her downward slide.

Today however, things are different: she’s been hired to find a missing teen pop star, her last client ended up dead, and she’s low on options. She has a few contacts, the burden of her obvious bad past in cuddly animal form, and plenty of determination and strength to unravel the real crime, using both her smile and her Sloth to make things right.

As is usual with these stories she soon learns that she’s in very deep water. Everyone with an animal (and everyone without) has a secret they’re not telling us, and they fact that they’re seen with suspicion by “normal” people means an extra level of distrust toward each other as well. At the same time, the presence of the animals leads to some funny moments that are sketched in as deftly as the thrills and horror that also abound

I’ve read a good amount of urban fantasy, starting with Jim Butcher’s Dresden FilesZoo City is easily one of the best examples of the genre I’ve yet encountered, and I highly recommend it to anyone. This book sports accolades from Bill Willingham and William Gibson, as well as an Arthur C. Clark Award. All of these are impressive and well deserved. Beukes’ style is quick and sharp, mixing local language and information about zoos with a cynical, bright-eyed examination of the grim world in which she lives, and the difficulty of walking about with your sins out for everyone to see. Tonight I will likely dream of what my own animal would be in her world.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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Dr. Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

A well-known quote by British writer L.P. Hartley goes “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of medicine, where advances in technology and technique arrive at dizzying speed. Doctors make breakthroughs that ripple around the world, wiping out diseases and making the most challenging injuries easy to treat and cure on behalf of their patients. These ideas and procedures, such as sanitary instruments, a good bedside manner,  anesthesia, and even a good bedside manner seem commonplace and unworthy of mention today.

It was not always so, of course. There was a time when surgery was done in an open room in front of an audience of medical students for their education. No electricity, sterile instruments, or even painkillers save a few cups of wire were available, and afterwards you were bundled up in your same dirty clothes and hustled into a carriage for a bumpy ride home. The surgeon in question would then turn to his next patient, using the same tools and wearing the same apron, and giving the terrified patient no idea of what the doctor was about to inflict on their body, no matter how they screamed or struggled. And if you were a pregnant woman, things were even worse.

Enter Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a young man who determined that the main goal of a man of medicine should be to treat people needing surgery as equals before, during, and after the procedure. He would calmly and gently explain to you what was to be done at least a week in advance, show the instruments to be used, and advise you what you could do to assist him. During the operation he would work quickly and efficiently, keeping eye contact with you whenever possible, and giving you a reassuring touch on the shoulder if needed. Afterwards he would direct you to a bed for rest and recovery, stopping in several times over the next few days to check up on your progress.

All of which was totally unknown to the practitioners of surgery at the time. Indeed, you could set out your shingle as a doctor without any medical training whatsoever, and medical science in America, as I have mentioned, was far behind the level we enjoy today. You didn’t even need a medical license in Philadelphia until the end of the 19th century. Infectious disease was disputed, medicines were not standardized, bleeding and leeches were heavily promoted, and treating a fever with a cold bath would have been seen as murder.

Mütter tried to change all of it. After studying in France, he arrived in the city of Brotherly Love determined to use what he had learned to become a surgeon, and most importantly to dedicate those skills to helping those considered monsters: people with deformities such as the Widow Sunday, a French woman who grew a long brown horn from her forehead to her chin, or people suffering from severe burns that rendered them incapable of moving their heads and fearful of the public. Mütter prided himself on doing his best to ensure that these individuals would live happier lives through the groundbreaking use of skin grafts and deft cutting; the more terrible the case the greater he dedicated himself to its resolution.

Not content with simply using his abilities to help others, Mütter became a teacher of surgery, instructing others in his methods of cleanliness, empathy and hard work. Where medical teachers of the time generally dictated their wisdom so that the listeners could write and repeat it verbatim, Mütter encouraged dialogue and the asking of questions by his students and offering cadavers and patients with lesser problems for their use in practice. It is to his credit that many of them went on to have prestigious medical careers, applying his ideas to their own fields and patients with great success.

When he felt death was near, Mütter set about ensuring that his vast collection of bodies, specimens and medical equipment would not be lost, but instead would be placed somewhere they could be used to educate and inform future generations as to both the strangeness of the human body and the need for empathy when faced with individuals burdened with those quirks and afflictions as well as hopefully a desire to treat them with the same kindness Mütter himself tried to instill in his students. (I am ashamed to admit that I assumed they were a collection for his personal amusement or a “conversation piece.”)

Cristin Aptowicz has done a stunning job in shining a light on the life and career of this unappreciated pioneer in surgery. Weaving together his life story, the state of medicine at the time and political and professional rivalries with his colleagues, Ms. Aptowicz has done more than simply writing a biography of a remarkable man or educating her readers about the giant strides Mütter made in his field. The crisp, clear words easily make the individuals described understandable and approachable, and the descriptions of the procedures and practices of the time are both vividly grotesque and enthralling.

The book is likewise peppered with portraits of the individuals mentioned in the story, diagrams of Mütters’ patients, and quotations from the good doctor himself, all of which add to the remarkable work that was done by both the subject and author.

After his death at the age of forty-seven from both inherited and chronic illnesses, Dr. L. Beecher Todd lamented the fact that the story of Mütters’ compassionate personality, remarkable skills, dedication to healing and admirable teaching methods might be lost to history if no “able hand” was there to write “the biography of this great and good man” so that his name might become a “household word of American Surgery.” Dr. Todd can rest easy in that regard; Ms. Aptowicz has done as amazing a job in chronicling the life and work of Mütter as the man himself did for his fortunate patients.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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Ms. Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

This is a TV series based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood featuring the adventures of an unconventional and daring female detective named Phryne Fisher, set in 1920’s Melbourne. I was hooked onto this show by a friend who started watching it while I was pretending to sleep. And I really liked it more than I expected.

I’ve watched some of the Hercule Perot movies, and when I was much younger, Murder She Wrote, but I don’t remember much of those shows at all. Fisher is different, mainly because it faces a lot of the issues of the time while at the same time being very entertaining,

Ms. Fisher is played by Essie Davis, and she fills the role with a charmingly outspoken voice and a mischievous smile. Fisher is a “modern” woman-she drives a car, drinks and carries a gun, as well as flirts and sleeps with whoever she chooses. Today much of this wouldn’t cause TV viewers to bat an eye (well, some conservatives might complain about her sexual appetite, but that’s their issue). In the 1920’s, however, she would have been a troublemaker even if she was a retiring wallflower. Phryne Fisher, however, is anything but shy, and her fearlessly feminist demeanor is amazing to watch.

Conflicts and prejudice beset her and her comrades on all sides: Catholic and Protestants are seen as separate nations, to the point that mixed marriages are approached with great hesitation and dismay, and women are generally treated as second-class citizens, with many characters expressing views common to the time that ladies should not drive or work after marriage, and of course a pregnant woman is instantly unclean or fallen. A healthy dose of contempt for the poor is also present.

Ms. Fisher does her best to overturn these antiquated views by her simple presence and work as a “Lady Detective.” While her list of skills and experiences (nurse, pilot, singer, shooter) sometimes hurts any sense of drama, Davis’ performance and exuberant personality easily smooths over this wrinkle. Her co-stars are likewise fun to watch and play their parts to the hilt, with everyone getting a chance to shine and strut upon the stage.

The only issue I have with the show-which has been renewed for a third season-is an illogical one: I wish there was a bit of variety in the crimes, as opposed to just murder-even if it meant they’d have to change the name of the show.  I’d highly recommend this show to anyone who wants to curl up and enjoy some lovely costumes, cars, people, and murder.

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The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

It’s interesting and useful to talk to not just the people who have inspired you, but their heroes and role models as well. When it comes to writers, of course, the people whose style you enjoy may not have a living person as their influence, but thankfully books can outlive their creators.

I’m a fan of both Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, and a book that both have cited as being an excellent read is Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. So, away to Amazon I flew, and thankfully it was available for a very reasonable price. It’s not a long book, only about 128 pages, but it’s a mark of Machen’s skill that he takes the plunge into creepiness right from the get-go, with two intelligent, educated young men talking cheerfully about the drugging and forced lobotomization of a young lady one of them adopted years before for just such a purpose.

The story jumps forward chronologically from there, as one of the aforementioned medical men begins to take note of strange goings-on, educated by an old school friend who is now living penniless on the street. This section has a similar feel to the middle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where the central horror of the story is revealed. The terror next door is of course present in both, and it’s here onwards that the relationship to Lovecraft can be seen.

Machen couches everything in mystery and vague hints as to what we don’t see, using it to build up a sense of wrongness in the antagonist of the piece, a seemingly beautiful woman named Helen Vaughan , who entertains respectable men at her home and who kill themselves a few days later. Why they die, and indeed how, is central to the story; implications are that what happened in her house was something beyond a scandalous meeting (for Victorian times, anyway) and indeed entirely other.

The film Jaws is of course famous for the killer shark it introduced as a menace (an idea that gave us, many years later, Sharknado, which is more frightening than anything Machen, Lovecraft or King ever wrote), but it’s also well-known for how rarely the titular shark is shown on camera until the end of the movie. The same holds true of Alien, the original trailer of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and hundreds of other films, books and even TV shows where the horror builds the suspense by allowing our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

The Great God Pan follows the same lines and, as I mentioned, clearly influenced Lovecraft, by allowing the reader to play a scene in their mind of Helen’s crimes and the unnameable disgust that fills anyone who sees her, without providing too many details. It’s part and parcel of this approach that it’s almost impossible to spoil this book, as so much in inferred as opposed to being stated outright.

Without sounding too much like an “old codger” the book is slower and more subtle than a lot of the movies and TV that are popular these days, so if you’re expecting visceral, gory terror this may not be your first choice, but for slowly creeping unease Machen’s your man.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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The Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher

It’s well-known that the best ideas are usually ones that make you slap your forehead and wonder why you didn’t think of them yourself. Things like the Post-It Note, or the Slinky, or even Crocs. They make you stand back and wonder how someone made a new idea that was right under your nose, how they made something you might have seen everyday into an amazing new creation.

The same is true in writing: there are a hundred fantasy books about knights, a thousand sci-fi stories about spaceships, and a million about hard-bitten detectives. The average ones all tend to blend together, but the amazing books make the same old ideas jump out and seem new, even if the parts of it are something you’re well familiar with from other places.

The Six-Gun Tarot is one such book. It’s part of a genre called the Weird West I don’t visit too often, but this one must indeed be a classic of the kind. A mix of Old West characters and weird fantasy on the edge of the frontier, Tarot keeps the pages turning and on each one you will find someone or something old and reliable popping out fresh and new, both relying on those stock characters from the Westerns while remaking and deepening them.

Young Jim Negray is traveling west, trying to make a new life after ending up with bloody hands back home in Kansas. He nearly dies in the desert before being rescued by an Indian named Mutt, who is the deputy serving in a nearby town called Golgotha. Mutt takes young Jim into the tough little burg to meet Sherriff Highfather, who like just about everyone else in Golgotha has a secret and a story to tell. However, on Jim’s first day a man attacks the local general story, screaming that something is coming, something is waking up…..

The cast of characters is varied and well-drawn. Mutt is torn between the traditions of his heritage, the pressures and racism he faces in town, and his own place as a son of Coyote The Trickster. Jim has a bounty on his head and is accused of murder because of his father’s glass eye. Highfather has a doom upon him, one that helps him in his job but forces him to see good people taken by the strangeness that lives in Golgotha. The Mayor lives with a secret and a Holy Mission that seem at odds, the shadowy owner of the town gambling hall may not be human, and a banker’s wife is the latest in an ancient order of warriors.

The town itself is also an important part of the story. References are made to other crises that faced the town and were defeated by Highfather, and a history of strangeness is part and parcel of Golgotha. The latest trouble is rooted in an abandoned silver mine nearby, and though we’re told in the beginning what that trouble is and why it’s there, the fear of its presence and influence over the people isn’t diminished in the slightest.

Everyone in the story behaves with uncomfortable period-realistic racism toward Mutt and the sizable Chinese population in the town, and their slang and behavior seem to fit without being to stereotypical or affected. No one calls anyone “pardner”, for example, and there’s no gunfights (well, not at first). It would not surprise me to learn that Mr. Belcher did a lot of research to paint his world as clearly as he did as far as slang and clothing, either.

I’m looking forward to the sequel to this story which is called the The Shotgun Arcana; enough is left unexplained or unresolved in this one to leave us reassured that both the story goes on and that the people we’ve met will have to face a new menace tomorrow. I’d be happy to join them for the ride into the next sunset of Golgotha, when the horrors of the frontier come out to play. Any town where they’re performing The King In Yellow twice a week has to be a wild place to live, even if it’s only for a few hours.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.


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Madwand by Roger Zelazny

I read the prequel to this book, Changeling, for an earlier review, and I really enjoyed it. As I stated then, I sadly haven’t had a lot of experience with Mr. Zelazny’s books. This is a situation I am definitely going to change, though Madwand didn’t put much fuel on that fire.

In Changeling we meet young Pol Detson, who was brought to our world and raised as Daniel Chain to prevent him following in the steps of his father Det, a powerful evil sorcerer. An old wizard named Mor (who may well be Pol’s grandfather, since Det’s last name is Morson, though this is never noted by the characters in either book) brought a baby named Mark from our world in return who grew up to be a dangerous tech-obsessed villain, and Pol was forced to return to defeat Mark. This book starts up after Mark’s defeat, and Pol is just settling in to learn about his place in this world and the legacy his father left behind. However the sins of the father start to catch up to him very quickly.

Pol is attacked in his home by a rival wizard and barely survives. Afterward, he decides to go directly to the source of information, which in this case is a gathering of wizards in a nearby town. Along the way he meets up with others and learns that he is a Madwand, or someone who uses magic without instruction or training. Madwands are usually powerful but clumsy. He also learns  that his father’s name and castle of Rondoval have a very bad reputation, though no one explains why. Dark dreams start appearing every night, dreams of opening an ominous Gate and releasing terrible beings, but again he has no idea what’s going on……..

The chapters of Pol, his friend Mouseglove, and other characters are interspersed with another being that seems to have only come into existence since Pol arrived back in the castle. This other being slowly gains solidity and purpose throughout the book, and eventually interacts with Pol in an important way. It’s these chapters, unfortunately, that drag down the book in a very serious way.

Zelazny spends these chapters explaining the growing awareness and intelligence of this being, and the vague descriptions are somewhat difficult to push through. It’s the opposite problem of filming a book; I get the sense that these sections would be much more coherent and enjoyable in a visual medium as opposed to the written word. They also break up the flow of the plot, since the being sometimes simply recounts his own experiences during an event.

His writing of the main characters is likewise somewhat lackluster-the actors never feel invested in anything they do, simply playing their parts. His love from the previous book, Nora, is gone with only a single line of explanation, and a new possible interest is introduced here with little fanfare, and the new people who are introduced are likewise flat.There’s no passion here, no emotion.Hell, he also makes Pol doing magic seem dull and uninteresting, with more vague descriptions of what’s going on without a great deal of explanation. In Changeling there was real conflict. Mark was an angry and driven man, and Pol reacted to that anger and the destruction Mark was inflicting, as well as his own “outsider” status. It popped, but by the time Madwand rolls around that vitality feels gone, as if Mr. Zelazny didn’t really plan on a sequel. Given that he didn’t create one for Madwand despite a clear sequel hook after the bad guy escapes on a flying armchair, this is possible. All in all, read the first, skip the second. I have no doubt about Mr. Zelazny’s talent, but talent without passion doesn’t equal entertainment.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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