Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

August 20, 2016

Back to the Island 3.9 – Stranger in a Strange Land

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — lexifab @ 11:50 pm

Quote: “You see who people are? Who am I?” – Jack Shepherd
“You are a leader. A great man. And this makes you lonely, and frightened, and angry.” – Achara

Summary: While Sawyer and Kate escape back to the Island, Jack is bull-headed for forty minutes and then decides to save Ben from surgical complications and Juliette from execution.

The Best Bit: Uhhh, give me a minute. Oh, no okay, I got it: when Jack snarks that he’d be a lot more impressed with “you people” (meaning the Others) if they had a decent surgeon, Ben snarks back “We had an excellent surgeon, Jack. His name was Ethan.” Ooooh, snap! Ben’s deadpan snark is literally the only worthwhile thing in this episode.

The Worst Bit: The entire flashback story, in which Jack travelled to Thailand to find himself and gets mixed up with a psychic tattoo artist, exists solely to explain how Jack got Matthew Fox’s tattoos. The plot openly implies their mysterious significance and power. They are never mentioned again. GDI Lost, do you want plummeting ratings? Because this is how you get plummeting ratings!

The Mythology: “What do you do with the kids you took?” asks Kate, to which Karl replies “We give them a better life. Better than yours.” We get a few more glimpses into the lives of the Others, including the introduction of Isabel (their “Sheriff”). She might well have added an interesting new dynamic to the Others, if she had ever appeared again. She won’t though.

More interestingly, we see the return of Cindy, the stewardess – please, Lost, it’s 2004; they’re called flight attendants now, okay? – who slipped Jack some extra booze before the crash. It’s great seeing Kimberley Joseph again, but more to the point it’s clear from the clean clothes and healthy complexions that the Others have not been mistreating all the people, including kids, they kidnapped from the tail section.

Which raises the question – if they could have kept everyone in relative comfort, why did they only kidnap *some* of the crash victims and consign the rest to months of shouty jungle drama? (There is an answer, of course, but don’t hold your breath for it).

The Literature: The episode is named after either a quote from Exodus or, more likely, Robert Heinlein’s famous science fiction novel about a Martian-born man adapting to human culture and eventually transforming it. Which could be a significant bit of foreshadowing, except that so little of what happens in this episode matters that I wouldn’t bet on anything being intentional.

The Episode: Up to date followers of this review series might assume the reason for the more than six week gap between episodes is my usual procrastination, but for once it’s not that: it’s this. This episode. It’s fair to say I’ve not been looking forward to it. The rewatch hasn’t given me cause for reconsideration.

The political machinations of the Others, with Jack’s obstinacy pouring fuel on the fire, are at least marginally interesting, but it’s hard to get invested in it. Juliette is going to be executed for shooting Danny after a fair trial, but Jack decides to help and gets Ben to stop it. That’s it.

The Thailand flashback slathers on yet another mysterious person with purported ill-defined precognitive abilities, but takes that plot nowhere. Sawyer and Kate bicker as a screen for unresolved tensions after they slept together. Alex and Karl pine for each other at length. And Jack yells at a nice stewardess and scares some kids because he’s just that much of an egomaniacal rageaholic.

None of it hangs together. Apart from Juliette not being executed the status remains unchanged. New plot threads and characters are introduced only to be completely abandoned. The whole thing is a transparent exercise in treading water. There are worse episodes in the series, but none of them are more skippable than “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

I’d be tempted to give it five, for Jack’s “5” tattoo, but it’s really not worth more than a four.

June 1, 2016

Back to the Island 3.8 – Flashes before Your Eyes

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: — lexifab @ 10:37 pm

“How did you know she was drowning?” – Charlie Pace
“I’ll tell you how he knew. That guy sees the future, dude.” – Hurley Reyes

Summary: Desmond declines to tell anyone what happened to him after the Dharma Swan Station blew up, probably because it involves weird consciousness-shifting time travel. He does, however, predict Charlie’s impending death.

The Best Bit: Charlie’s middle name is Hieronymous. Charlie Hieronymous Fucking Pace. No wonder he was so screwed up.

The Real Best Bit: Well, well. So Lost is a time travel show, is it? That was a bit unexpected. Desmond’s adventure in his own past is a disorienting flashback-within-a-flashback, but inceptionized time travel aside, the *really real* best bit is Fionnula Flanagan’s terrific guest appearance as Eloise Hawking. Eloise is a pawn broker who not only knows an unsettling amount about Desmond’s past, present and future, but is also perfectly aware that he is currently time travelling and is only there to make sure he does everything he’s supposed to. “And if you don’t do those things, Desmond David Hume, then every single one of us is dead. So give me that sodding ring!”

Eloise is great, is what I’m saying.

In a series that does its best to throw absolutely mystifying curveballs at its characters every so often, this is the mid-series pivot on a par with replacing the entire cast with animated cats.

The Worst Bit: I felt bad for Desmond Hume. Alan Dale’s guest appearance as Des’ prospective father-in-law Charles Whidmore is an almost comically villainous turn, as he conspicuously declines to pour Des a glass of stupidly expensive Scotch, and instead serves him some brutal classist shade. Whidmore is a huge jerk.

The Real Worst Bit: Look, the framing scene with Charlie and Hurley deciding to get Desmond drunk so he’ll reveal his ESP secrets is necessary, but that doesn’t make it good. Though I’ll grant that Des’ final declaration is a pretty (and upsetting) great character moment: “I wasn’t saving Claire, Charlie. I was saving you. You dove in after her. You tried to save her. You drowned. When I saw the lightning hit the roof, you were electrocuted. I tried twice to save you but the universe has a way of course correcting and I can’t stop it forever. No matter what I try to do, you’re gonna die, Charlie.”

The Mythology: “Flashes before Your Eyes” is an unsettling glimpse at the middle of some other story (one that won’t be cleared up for a while yet) and throws the whole Island mystery firmly back into the foreground. What *is* this place? Who are these people who seem to be able to go anywhere and do whatever they like with a clear picture of what should and/or will happen. Why is *everything* connected? Example: Whidmore’s office has a painting with a polar bear and the word “Namaste” written on it that I guarantee you won’t spot without freezing the image.

And when Desmond arrives back in the past, the Numbers show up again. Here they seem like spontaneous harbingers of Island weirdness – a side-effect rather than significant in themselves. The difference here is that Desmond, who spent three years typing the Numbers into a computer, recognises their presence and is suitably wigged out by them.

The Episode: I remember being riveted by “Flashes before Your Eyes” when I first saw it. It changes the tenor of the show in ways that both heighten the wonder and – I don’t doubt – deepen the frustration for any viewer who just wants everything to make sense. It doesn’t yet, and instead “Flashes” doubles down on the bewildering mystery. As a first time viewer, I was absolutely on board for Lost expanding its weirdness borders into time travel territory.

In retrospect though, this episode is all setup for stuff that won’t pay off for ages. It advances the plot a half-step at most, from “he sees the future” to “he sees Charlie die in the future”. Bad news for Charlie, but the episode is 100% leaning on Henry Ian Cusick’s befuddled charm to carry the audience through what is, when seen in isolation, a nonsense plot. He’s up for it – as of this episode he became one of my favourite actors on the show – but it’s a risky balancing act.

It’s an interesting artefact of the show in retrospect – an absolute lynchpin in terms of orienting the series towards its ending – but it doesn’t move the story forward in any meaningful sense. It’s almost pure infrastructure, wrapped in a charming Scots accent.

Call it six Mancunian buskers belting out Oasis covers out of ten.

May 2, 2016

Review – Misfortune by A C Fellows

Filed under: books of 2016,reviewage — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 11:42 am

Doctor Clam, I believe I owed you a review!

Misfortune (The Rainier Fields Series Book 1) follows the adventures of the itinerant fantasist Rainier Fields, who first appears as a homeless tinkerer making small robots from scrap to get by. An unfortunate run-in with the local authorities leads to Fields making the acquaintance of an emphatically young woman named Mercery Pockles. Fields discovers, by way of never-fully-explained precognitive abilities, that Mercery has a mysterious and potent destiny, and determines to ensure that it will come out in her favour.

Told in episodic flashbacks, sometimes in interviews with other characters in the narrative and some from the perspective of many years after the events of the story, Misfortune is an unusual story. Fields is a self-admitted cypher, a fantasist running away from both a miserable childhood and a self-sabotaging personality, both in the literal sense of being a wanderer and by creating a personal backstory of heroic adventures and noble deeds off in space.

The reality he is escaping is rather more grubby and sad, and yet Fields is for the most part an optimist whose determination to live up to his own fantasy is somewhat admirable. He decides that his alter ego would do everything in his power to rescue Mercery from her plight, and so he goes to extraordinary lengths to do so. And yet he’s a rather uncomfortable character to live with; a middle aged man, his relationship with Mercery is barely platonic and borderline obsessive. When Mercery’s wellbeing is not at stake, he is often passive and uninquisitive, and there are parts of the story that plumb the depths of his psychology at the cost of forward momentum.

The story itself is a series of increasingly unfortunate events that bounce Fields, Mercery and a cast of supporting characters up against weird aliens, sinister conspiracies and cruel experiments. The main characters suffer through a cycle of escapes, separations, captures, torture of one sort or another and fresh escapes, all revealing more about their dark pasts, their strange sort-of-magic-sort-of-psychic powers and their odd relationships as they draw closer to Mercery’s great and terrible destiny.

Misfortune has the feel of a small, human struggle told against the backdrop of an epic adventure that could emerge at any moment. The stakes never move far beyond the personal fortunes of Fields and Mercery – Fields frequently displays a lack of interest in the wider universe in his narrative – and yet the sense that great events are in motion is constant. I certainly look forward to the further adventures of Rainier Fields, in the hopes that future stories might pull the camera back and show us more of the strange setting.

April 18, 2016

Back to the Island 3.7 – Not in Portland

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: , — lexifab @ 10:58 pm

Quote: “You haven’t thought this through, Jack. Your plan’s not going to work.” – Juliet Burke

Summary: Everyone argues about the dangling plot threads from the previous episode: Will Jack let Ben die in surgery (and will it be deliberate or another screw-up)? Will Kate and Sawyer escape and or will Danny finally get to kill someone in revenge for Sun shooting Colleen? Drama!

The Best Bit: The reckless desperation of Kate and Sawyer’s escape is exciting and features a very unexpected diversion down one of the series’ weirder rabbit holes. But nothing quite tops the fact that Ben wakes up during his own surgery and successfully negotiates for his own life despite the fact that virtually everyone involved would be happier with him dead.

The Worst Bit: Jack does a lot of treading water in this episode, loudly and angrily restating his previous positions while other things happen. He manages to outdo himself in the final scene by arrogantly browbeating Juliet into telling him what Ben said to convince her to save him. It’s aggressive and arguably bullying, though Juliet’s weary but calculated response – “I’ve been on this Island for three years, Jack. Three years, two months and twenty-eight days. He said that if I let him live and helped you that he would finally let me go home” – is delivered with real emotional punch.

The Literature: There’s no time for anyone to pick up a book in this classic run-through-the-jungle shoutfest. The closest thing to a literary allusion is the A Clockwork Orange scene, about which more in a moment.

The Mythology: Well. Doesn’t “Not in Portland” open up a can of worms? First of all, in the Juliet flashback we get our first introduction to Richard Alpert, played with slightly-goofy-terribly-sinister charm by the wonderful Nestor Carbonell. He’s pretending to be a recruiter for a Portland biotech startup, but he’s really one of the Others and also a bus murderer. It’s not everyone who gets to write that on their resume. Oh, and Ethan’s there too, but more or less only so that we know straight away that Alpert’s up to no good.

The other key new element is Room 23, where Alex’s boyfriend whatsisnamewhocares (aka Karl) is being torture-programmed by weird visual images and a genuinely unendurable industrial metal soundtrack. This is apparently where recruits go to get indoctrinated into the gun-toting jungle fetishist cult of the Others. The blipverts on Carl’s giant TV screen announce “God loves you as he loved Jacob”. They also make pronouncements like “Everything changes!” and “We are the causes of our own suffering”, which sounds like the take-home messages from a particularly vacuous TED talk.

The Episode: So. This is the first episode of Lost after a long hiatus caused by the infamous 2007 Hollywood writers’ strike. During their down-tools, the senior writer-producers of the show are alleged to have got together to map out the rest of the series. Everything after this point, we are told, is driving the series towards its climactic episode. I’ll have stuff to say about that when we get to Season Six, but for the moment it’s fair enough to take it at face value.

In terms of moving forward, they come off the blocks pretty hard with “Not in Portland”, laying plenty of pipe for the rest of the series in between the gun fights, tense negotiations and sudden betrayals. Juliette’s back story is sad – Elizabeth Mitchell performs crushing, unbearable sadness as well as anyone in the business – but feels artificially manipulative to me. It’s mainly constructed to make the Others looks ruthless (we knew that) and to establish that she has good reason to hate Ben.

It’s good, but except for the bit where Juliet’s ex is bus-murdered, it’s not that memorable. Call it seven botched spinal surgeries out of ten.

March 17, 2016

Back to the Island 3.6 – I Do

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: — lexifab @ 10:06 pm

Quote: “Tell you what. If you can really stay put, really settle down, then I’ll stop chasing you. But you and I both know that’s not going to happen.” – Agent Edward Mars

Summary: After initially telling Ben he’s going to let his spinal tumour kill him, Jack finally agrees to perform the surgery when he discovers that Kate and Sawyer have slept together (and if there was ever any doubt that, at its heart, Lost is a soap opera, then I trust that sentence killed it off).

The Best Bit: The final scene cuts between the surgical ward where Jack and Juliette are operating to remove Ben’s tumour and the polar bear cages where Sawyer and Kate profess their kind-of-mutual love before Danny arrives to kill Sawyer. It’s one of the most effective dramatic scenes in the entire series to date. Everything works – the direction, the editing, the score and the performances all crank the tension up until it’s basically impossible to watch the scene without being 100% convinced that Sawyer is going to get shot in the head and dumped in the mud at Kate’s feet. And *then* Jack pulls his own murderous power-move and turns the whole scene around. Everything feels completely earned and completely convincing. It’s a great piece of television drama.

The Worst Bit: It’s just a shame that the rest of the episode is pretty dull. The flashback scene shows us a snippet of Kate’s life from when she was briefly married to the nicest cop ever portrayed on television (played by effortlessly charming goofball Nathan Fillion, he’s conscientious, doting, and he even does all his paperwork!) Naturally Kate sabotages everything by drugging him and fleeing as soon as he suggests she gets a passport, which to be fair would be quite tricky for a federal fugitive. There’s nothing really wrong with the plot – and it does afford another chance to see the ill-fated Agents Mars, who’s great – but it doesn’t add anything new to what we already knew about Kate, which is that she runs instead of solving problems. The back story exists for no other reason but to lend ironic weight to Jack’s bellowed command in the final scene: “Kate, damn it, run!”

The Literature: The Bible gets a brief look-in, during Eko’s funeral scene. Locke, using a rock to hammer Eko’s walking stick into the grave, pauses significantly at the words carved into it: “Let up your eyes and look north.” It’s a paraphrase of Genesis 13:14 “And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward” (I just picked the King James version by the way. None of the various texts agree on the wording, so I can forgive the fake-preacher Eko for getting the quote a bit wrong). There’s also a reference to John 3.5 “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (King James again. I have no idea what denomination Eko was supposed to be). Anyway, all very significant, I’m sure.

The Mythology: Angsty teenager Alex reappears, searching for her missing boyfriend, and we learn that she is not only one of the Others but also has some connection to Ben that makes her influential (albeit rather patronised by the older Others like Juliette and Danny). To be fair, Alex appears naive and has poor planning skills, so it’s not really surprising the ultra-serious grownup Others look down on her.

Rather more mysteriously, when Danny’s murderous blood-vengeance is finally let off its leash and he storms off to execute Sawyer, he cryptically remarks that “Shepherd wasn’t even on Jacob’s list.”  This may not quite be the first direct reference to someone called Jacob; it’s certainly the first mention of his list. (Spoiler: it’s going to come up again).

The Episode: Despite my very great fondness for performances by Nathan Fillion, “I Do” is an episode that I rewatched expecting to be mostly bored. For about the first thirty-eight minutes, that’s not an unfair expectation- the scenes between Ben, Jack and Juliette are more of the same tense posturing from previous episodes, the culmination of Kate and Sawyer’s caged-heat tension is perfectly watchable but not all that thrilling, and the flashback is a collection of nice moments with no surprises.

But that last scene elevates the episode in every way, and finishes on as solid a dramatic moment as any cliffhanger in the series to date. Not enough to win me over completely, but enough to rate seven charming goofball guest stars.

March 8, 2016

Back to the Island 3.5 – The Cost of Living

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: — lexifab @ 10:45 pm

Quote – “What about Eko?” – Charlie Pace
“We’ll catch up. We’re all going to the same place.” – John Locke

Summary: A feverish Eko wanders into the jungle to confess his sins to the ghost of his brother, pursued by Locke and company. Ben and Juliet appeal to Jack to help them but to very different ends.

The Best Bit: The flashbacks to Eko’s Nigerian childhood and his brief, blood-soaked term as Brother Yemi’s successor is riddled with African clichés of murderous gangsters, pious villagers and poorly-managed Red Cross medical shipments, but it is beautifully crafted, acted and shot.

The Worst Bit: It seems mean to pick on Nikki and Paulo again, but for the most part there are no weak scenes here, so I’m going with the inexplicably weak gag of Paulo using a toilet when everyone else is being deadly serious.

Books: Nobody is reading, but Juliet name checks To Kill a Mockingbird in a scene where she pitches to jack that he murder Ben with surgery while ostensibly singing his praises. It’s a pretty tight scene, but it doesn’t have too much in common with Mockingbird. Neither does the rest of the plot – unlike Boo Radley, Mr Eko is neither innocent of his many crimes nor does he regret committing them.

The mythology: The Smoke Monster straight-up murders Eko here, immediately after his declaration that he does not repent his many sins. This is the first time we get a clear sense that there’s a link between the Island’s ghosts and the Smoke Monster, though the nature of their connection is not yet apparent. The killing also hints that the Smoke Monster is operating according to a moral framework – despite several opportunities, it does not kill Eko until he after asserts that he is proud of his decisions. Even the machete murder decisions. Or rather, especially those ones.

The episode: Another one bites the dust. Literally, this time, with Eko face-planted to death by the Smoke Monster. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje decided he didn’t like living in Hawaii, which is a way better reason to get killed off from a TV show than being busted for DUI like some actors we could mention.

The A plot of “The Cost of Living” is thin, with Eko wandering about until he meets his brother, and the flashbacks to his violent past are arresting. But it’s Ben and Juliet’s silent war to control the Others through Jack that is the episode’s best material in retrospect, showing both Others to their best effect. Ben manipulates by telling the truth, while Juliet plots bloody treachery with fierce declarations of loyalty. It’s kind of beautiful, in a pre-Game of Thrones kind of way.

I give it eight daggers in Caesar’s back.

February 6, 2016

Back to the Island 3.4 – Every Man for Himself

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: , , — lexifab @ 7:00 am

Bless me Internet, for I have committed the sin of allowing a blogging project to stall. It has been (nearly) a year since my last episode of Lost, and it was the better part of a half a year before that one.

By now you’ve all finished watching it, right?

Well, whatever, I think we’re beyond all understanding of why I’m doing these recaps, but it is still fun to go back once in a while and see what’s going on. I plan to persevere with the Back to the Island project, however intermittently I update it, if for no other reason than I have only ever watched the final season once. I really want to address my mixed feelings about it, but by now I think I can only really engage with it in terms of the rest of the series. Hence this painfully slow rewatch process.

But hooray, today we have one of my favourite episodes of Season Three, which is delightful even if nothing much actually happens.

* * *

Back to the Island 3.4 – Every Man for Himself

Quote: “Congratulations Ford. You just lied and cheated your way out of prison. You’re a free man.” – Warden Harris

Summary: Desmond begins to discover he has the ability to see impending disasters before they happen. The Others coerce Jack into committing acts of emergency surgery, and trick Sawyer into not escaping by telling him he’s got a bomb where his heart was. They say it more convincingly than that.

Best Part: Ben and the Others convince Sawyer that they have put a booby-trapped pacemaker in his chest so that if he gets too excitable his heart will explode. It’s plausibly implausible in exactly the same way that the best episodes of Leverage – another show about conman hijinks – always are.

Worst Part: Oh, and there it is – the first appearance of fucking Paulo. I mean, at this point he’s just another scruffy hunk playing golf on the beach, but soon he’ll be a hateful waste of half a season’s plot lines. Welcome to the party, Paulo! Here his scene is rescued by being mercifully brief and containing generous portions of dishy, mysteriously Scottish Desmond.

Books: Sawyer, imprisoned in the flashback, is reading Of Mice and Men. The bookage is not subtle in this one. In the terrific final scene, Sawyer thinks he’s being marched to his execution and quotes the rabbit-obsessed OM&M character Lennie. Ben reveals they conned him into cooperating: “Your heart’s not going to blow up James. The only thing we put inside you was doubt.” He twists the knife in, psychoanalysing Sawyer’s relationship with Kate with a two-fisted counter-quote from Of Mice and Men. Sawyer cops it right on his secret hidden sensitive side.

The mythology: Ben’s white rabbit has a number 8 stencilled on its back, which as a callback to prior Island mythology is only slightly more ostentatious than the fact that it is a white rabbit.

Summary: Plot-wise, this episode takes the tiniest step forward imaginable. In essence, Colleen dies of the gunshot wound that Sun gave her back on the boat (Jack, incidentally, loses another patient on the table, and if that’s not a prompt for a drinking game I don’t know what is) and her husband Danny is angry about it. Meanwhile, Desmond tries to be nonchalant about discovering hitherto-unmentioned psychic – or should I say “clairvoyant”? – powers. He saves Claire despite her crushing inability to take a hint.

Despite the miniscule forward momentum, this is one of my favourite episodes of the season. Nearly everyone gets at least one great scene, though Jack and Juliet downplay theirs so hard they might as well be acting in a trench. But Sawyer, Kate and Ben are all in fine form, scheming and emoting at each other. It’s a fine character piece that begins to shows us some of the more enduring chinks in hard-bitten-softie Sawyer’s considerable emotional armour. Some of Lost‘s main characters suffer badly from the show’s gimmick of regularly going back and expanding their back-story, but I don’t count Sawyer among them.

Also, Bill Duke as a menacing, emotionless prison Warden is just superb casting and a credit to everyone involved in the decision. I give this nine out of ten rabbits with an infinity symbol ominously painted on their backs.

October 17, 2015

Half-baked Review – Musketeer Space by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Filed under: books of 2015,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2015 — lexifab @ 10:58 pm

Oh this book. THIS BOOK!

Musketeer
Tansy Rayner Roberts’ genderflipped retelling of The Three Musketeers, as space opera.

This book has flat-out my favourite D’Artagnan of all time (the character who hitherto has made every version of T3M drag for me, including the original book): Dana D’Artagnan is the sexy-smart wannabe Musketeer with high expectations, dubious impulse control issues and a habit of crashing through the plot like a meteor strike. I love her to bits. The actual Musketeers are fun as well.

This book is just fucking great, y’all. It’s funny, it’s smart, the action is fun, the sex is sexy, the characters are one delight after another, and the cake jokes are ridiculous and excessive i.e. perfect. And the plot makes sense all the way through (which I’ve never quite been sure is true of the source material).

I got to read it as an ebook because I was a Patreon backer, but you can check it out over at Tansy Rayner Roberts’ site. I gather she’s shopping it around to publishers. She should – a book this much fun deserves to be in print.

(It may seem to certain readers that this is less a review than a gushing outpouring of glee. Yes.)

September 25, 2015

Review – Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew McKiernan

Andrew McKiernan’s collection Last Year, When We Were Young (2014 from Satalyte Publishing) is a fine example of a strong writer testing his limits by stretching in different directions. As you might expect from an Australian writer with a well-deserved reputation for compelling dark fantasy and horror, outback ghosts and urban nightmares are represented.

One of my favourite stories appears early in this volume: “White Lines, White Crosses” is a grimly familiar tragedy of teenage isolation, testosterone-fuelled recklessness and car culture, with a smear of the supernatural to amp up the stakes. “The Memory of Water” is haunted by childhood memories of beach holidays tinged with tragedy. And “The Haunting that Jack Built” is a classic yarn of strange and sinister goings-on in a country town.

But McKiernan shows his range with some unexpected variations on theme and setting: the Middle East appears in modern and mythological states, in “The Dumbshow”, “The Desert Song”, “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know” and the excellent clash of espionage, battles handed down across generations, old gods and chess in “Daivadana”. He does a creditable Stephen King-like grotesque in “The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim”. He does old-fashioned SF horror in “The Wanderer in the Darkness”. He even does a noir tragedy soaked in betrayal and cheap whiskey in “Torch Song”.

But where this collection stands out is in the weird and absurd corners. The title story is a brief piece of deranged survival horror set in the aftermath of a more than usually disturbing apocalypse. But the jewel in the crown is probably “All the Clowns in Clowntown”, which is perhaps a parable about surviving an epidemic or could be a metaphor for involuntary unionism or hostile corporatism, but in any case is probably the only story you will ever read about the last surviving resistance members of the clown counter-revolution.

Last Year, When We Were Young had a remarkably high hit rate for me. McKiernan’s quality as a short story writer is consistently strong across the collection. Highly recommended.

May 2, 2015

Review – Seeing Red (Ambassador #1) by Patty Jansen

I haven’t actually formally signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015, but I am still trying to include as many Australian writers in my reading diet as possible. To that end I’m going to try to review at least one Australian writer (or editor/anthologist) a month in 2015 (yes, yes, I’m behind on that), keeping an eye on the gender balance as I go. To start with, here’s what I thought about the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series of SF diplomacy.

***

Seeing Red is the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series, featuring Cory Wilson, Earth’s brash neophyte representative to an alien coalition called the gamra. About equal parts science fiction mystery and conspiracy thriller, with romance and social commentary subplots thrown in for good measure, Seeing Red is a delicious meal.

On the eve of his appointment as the ambassador of Nations of Earth to the alien gamra, an explosive assassination attempt propels Cory Wilson from Earth to the alien city of Barresh where he must prevent an interstellar war, solve a murder and figure out which of several alien factions is behind it all. Wilson is behind the eight-ball almost the whole time: separated from his alien partner and his fiance, his resources cut off by a suspicious Earth, and caught between the interests of bickering alien governments.

Wilson’s a fun character – overconfident and arrogant, but resourceful and more dedicated to his job than anyone around seems to give him credit for. But the real entertainment value of Seeing Red comes from his navigation of the complicated politics of gamra, the alien organisation that runs the star-travel network known as the Exchange. Gamra is like a cross between Dune’s monopolistic Spacing Guild and a United Nations Security Council where everyone is expecting war to break out. By comparison, Nation of Earth is also like the UN, except that it occasionally behaves with the sophistication of an unruly local council Chamber of Commerce.

There are a few nice action set-pieces keeping the debates and conspiracy-hunting from slowing things down, and the linked central mysteries are well-constructed and satisfying. I found the ultimate villain of the piece was not too difficult to identify, but saying that there are plenty of surprises to be had. In terms of Wilson’s very complicated romantic life, I felt he was sometimes a bit improbably dense or in borderline-cruel denial, but it resolved well and I certainly never felt it got in the way of the intrigue or the shooting.

Seeing Red is an excellent thriller, with what seemed to me to be solid science underpinning the intrigue and action. I’m planning to read the sequels.

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