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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (longissimum semper articulum)

wotta lotta books

Mike Resnick died a few days ago as I write this. I never met him, and I know nothing about him as a person, apart from a few autobiographical squibs that he published in this book and that. But I’ve always loved his stories – some of them are funny, some of them are exciting adventures, some of them are thoughtful, and perhaps even philosophical. But no matter what approach he takes in the writing of any individual book, they all have one thing in common – without exception, they keep me turning the pages. I never found a Mike Resnick novel that I didn’t like.

Back in the days when I bought real books, I had 58 Mike Resnick volumes on my shelves. Then I started reading ebooks rather than paper books and I made the interesting discovery that Mike was selling much of his back list as ebooks directly from his web site (DRM free, of course). So naturally I went and bought (or in some cases re-bought) everything he had for sale. I now have 94 of his ebooks. The overlap with my original collection is not complete – some of his "real" books were not available from his website, probably for copyright reasons, but however you look at it, I have almost doubled my Mike Resnick collection. I hope he made good use of the several hundred dollars that I paid him.

When a favourite writer dies, I like to read something to remember him or her by. This time I chose two of Mike’s books. One had been sitting on my to-be-read pile for far too long. It’s a collaboration between Mike and Jack McDevitt (another favourite author). The novel is called The Cassandra Project. I quickly moved it to the top of the list and began reading. The second book I chose was Starship: Mutiny a minor work, but nevertheless I have rather fond memories of it.

The Cassandra Project is set in 2019 in a slightly alternative time stream. The major events take place in America during the presidency of the person who has succeeded Barack Obama. His name is not Donald Trump and he seems to be a very competent and well-liked holder of the office. Isn’t that an imaginative and clever scenario? I wonder how the writers managed to come up with such an original and thought-provoking idea...

A NASA employee who is organising an event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon, comes across disturbing hints that there might have been two other moon landings early in 1969, a few months before the landing of Apollo 11. At first sight, this makes no sense. In the 1960s, the American government was in a political "space-race" with the Soviet Union. It was in the government’s interest to shout out in triumph when their astronauts reached the moon. America needed to win the propaganda war, and it needed to win that war quickly before the Soviets had successes of their own. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened when Neil Armstrong took his first tentative steps on the lunar surface. So if there were successful landings before that, what possible reason could there be for keeping those landings secret? As soon as the question of these possible landings is raised, both NASA and the US Government vehemently deny that any such thing ever took place. But not everybody is convinced by their denials.

An eccentric billionaire entrepreneur (who is clearly an avatar of Elon Musk in a skin, with false whiskers and a different name) is developing his own space vehicles. He intends to return to the moon within a few months. He is eager to explore the vague hints about these possible moon landings for his own commercial advantage (surely there must be a commercial advantage somewhere in there?) and also because he is fascinated with all things space related and he simply wants to know the truth.

Of course, fifty years have passed since 1969. Almost all the people who were involved with NASA in its glory years have died, as have almost all the government officials of the time. The people investigating the moon landing rumours have to rely almost exclusively on official archives and who knows what may have been altered or omitted from those? However some people from that era are still alive, though they are all very old. One by one they are tracked down and interviewed. Generally speaking, they are not helpful. Almost without exception, they deny that any moon landings took place prior to the landing of Apollo 11. Nevertheless, a consistent picture of what might have happened starts to emerge, though the reasons for keeping things secret continue to remain puzzling…

I really loved this book. It was utterly fascinating to see the protagonists chasing down the vague hints and clues and I absolutely loved the clever way that the authors integrated the story into the political and social environment of 1960s America. The hunt for the reasons that might explain the secret moon landings quickly centres itself in the details of Richard Nixon’s presidency and the scandal of the Watergate affair that forced him from office. We finally learn the real reason for the burglary at the Watergate, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the reasons that were reported by the newspapers of the day! As a result, we start to see Nixon in a brand new light. Perhaps he really wasn’t a crook after all? There are a lot of lovely little touches here and there in this section of the novel which add a lot of depth and verisimilitude to the story – Henry Kissinger has a cameo role, and he commits a few indiscretions (so what’s new?). Great fun!

I loved everything about the book except the ending which, of course, reveals just what happened and why the whole affair was shrouded in such deep secrecy. I won’t tell you the ending here – that would be a massive, and very unfair, spoiler. But suffice it to say that I am completely the wrong audience for the dramatic effect it was aiming to achieve, and so I failed to find it convincing, controversial or shocking in any way, shape or form. Nevertheless I can easily imagine that there would be a lot of people who might find the ending upsetting and possibly even offensive. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

But if you just go along for the ride and accept the ending for what it is, without making any judgements about it, I promise that you’ll have a joyful roller-coaster of a trip with this book. Make no mistake, this is a very clever novel, full of sly observations, genuine wit and quite pointed satire. It might even change your ideas about Richard Nixon’s morality…

Starship: Mutiny is the first of a series of five novels about a starship and its crew. Wilson Cole is the most decorated Space Navy officer in the history of the Republic, but he got that way by ignoring orders and following his own inclinations, characteristics that do not endear him to his superiors. They have to put up with him because he is enormously popular with the civilians – his exploits (invariably successful!) are well reported. Everybody loves him except the military officers whose orders he ignored and who have been made to look foolish as a result, Clearly something is going to have to give.

As the story opens, we find Cole reporting for duty as Second Officer on the Theodore Roosevelt, an ancient, undermanned and underarmed starship cruising many light years away from the action in the boondocks of the galaxy and crewed by the dregs of the navy. Out of sight is out of mind. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, actually...

Starship: Mutiny is a rip-roaring two-fisted pulp adventure novel with no originality in it whatsoever. It has a completely predictable plot, the outline of which you will have worked out before you are halfway down the first page. All that will remain after that is to read on so as to fill in the details. And as we all know, the the Devil lies in the details.

I loved every preposterous word of this very silly story and I’m sorely tempted to go and re-read the next four novels as well, just because I can. The story works so well because of Mike Resnick’s genius for making his characters, both human and alien, spring fully armed from the page to leer at you and shake their screechers and their blasters in your face. Somehow he really makes you believe in the whole nonsensical farrago. This novel will make you laugh and it will give you thrills. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing at all…

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett was first published in 1955. I recently came across it as an audiobook and I decided I’d listen to it for a few days while walking my dog. I haven’t read the book for more than fifty years, but I was amazed at how much of it I remembered. It obviously made a deep impression on me the first time round. It’s one of the great "after the catastrophe" novels, though in my opinion it is the least of them. Nevertheless, that still puts it head and shoulders above the competition. If you are interested, my list of the ten best novels in this genre, in order of merit, are:

  1.  Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  2.  The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  3.  A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
  4.  The Stand by Stephen King
  5.  Davy by Edgar Pangborn
  6.  Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
  7.  Greybeard by Brian W. Aldiss
  8.  The Postman by David Brin
  9.  Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
  10. The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

Anyway, what about The Long Tomorrow? It is set a couple of generations after a devastating nuclear war. The survivors and their descendants blame technology for the disaster, and so they have turned their back on it, actively opposing any attempt at a technological recovery. The USA is now an agrarian community made up of small, scattered villages. The 30th amendment to the Constitution disallows the presence of more than a thousand people, or the existence of more than two hundred buildings, per square mile anywhere in the country. This is a deliberate attempt to prevent cities from appearing again (cities make good targets and nobody wants another war).

The population is deeply religious, deeply conservative, and deeply intolerant of dissenting opinions. Len Colter and his cousin Esau are adolescent members of the New Mennonite community of Piper's Run. Like many teenagers, they are rebels at heart and they feel strongly that they are rebels with a definite cause. Rumours have long circulated about a hidden community called Bartorstown where technology is being actively redeveloped. Len and Esau desperately want to find Bartorstown and they are willing to put up with any obstacle in pursuit of their goals. No matter how often their fathers might beat them to try and quell their ambitions, they will not give up on the idea.

They attend a service given by an itinerant preacher. The service goes horribly wrong. A spy from Bartorstown is uncovered and the mob stone him to death. Though sickened by what they have witnessed, Len and Esau keep their heads and they "liberate" a radio from the wagon that the Bartorstown man was travelling in. They spend many frustrating hours trying to get it to talk to them. Eventually, completely by accident, they pick up a fragment of conversation. Bartorstown is real! Perhaps they can realise their dream after all.

You can’t keep a secret in a small, closed community. The radio is discovered, and Len and Esau are beaten to within an inch of their lives. They run away, embarking on a long trek in search of Bartorstown. The bulk of the novel is the story of that journey and what they find at the end of it.

Jo Walton has written an extremely complimentary review of The Long Tomorrow. In it she coined a very telling phrase to describe the genre to which it belongs. She said it was an example of the American pastoral apocalypse, the distinguishing feature of which is that a few generations after a catastrophe the USA has reverted to a Mark Twain-like nineteenth century society where Hucklberry Finn and Tom Sawyer would feel right at home. I wonder if perhaps twentieth century novelists have come to regard that time as America’s Golden Age? The protagonist travels through this landscape, exploring and commenting on what he finds there. Davy by Edgar Pangborn is another excellent example of the type.

Len and Esau eventually make their way across the country to Bartorstown, though the way is not easy. There are reasons for all the difficulties they experience in this part of their journey, though they will not discover those reasons until long after they reach Bartorstown. When they do finally arrive there, they find it to be at best an ambiguous utopia. Could it be that the Mennonites of Piper's Run knew what they were talking about after all?

This is a thoughtful novel. Some aspects of it have not aged well. The technology that it describes is long outdated and laughably primitive by today’s standards. There’s a pre-catastrophe computer in Bartorstown that takes (literally) years to make its calculations and it fills an entire room. The palm sized cellphone that I used to listen to the audiobook while I walked my dog could have performed those same calculations in a fraction of a second without interrupting the flow of the narrative. But this isn’t a novel about technology, despite the surface trappings and the motivations that drive both Len and Esau. It’s a novel of ideas, and perhaps it’s also a novel of ideals. There’s nothing dated about either of those concepts. Brackett’s speculations about the nature of society are as valid today as they were in 1955. Indeed, perhaps they are more valid now than they were in 1955, given how much more conservative and insular American social and political thinking has become in the intervening years.

The Long Tomorrow should be on everybody’s bookshelves. It’s a novel for the ages, and it’s one of the great ones.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone has had a lot of favourable reviews and so I came to it with great expectations. Unfortunately those expectations were quickly dashed. I thought it was a terrible, and really rather nasty, book.

It’s an epistolary novel with occasional interpolated narrative sections. Red and Blue are agents on opposite sides of a great war that spans the ages. They take to leaving letters to each other at the scenes of their conflict, and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other, though because they are on opposite sides their love is a forbidden one. And so the novel presents us with the story of Romeo and Juliet loving each other all over again, across both space and time, with ever increasing passion and poetry.

The novel has been praised for highlighting the (in my opinion) rather trite realisation that soldiers fighting a war have much more in common with their enemy than they do with the people on whose behalf they are fighting. Also, much has been made of the novel’s approach to gender identity. Blue and Red each use both he/she pronouns quite indiscriminately and so it is never very clear just how they think of themselves. The more the story dwells on such confusions, the less important their gender role becomes both to themselves and to the reader. After all, love is blind.

I found the story left a rather horrible taste in my mouth. Yes, Red and Blue have a romantic relationship with each other and to that extent there is much to like about the story. The relationship is well defined and it is often quite touching. But both Red and Blue are vicious, sadistic psychopaths whose job is to fight a time war with the goal of causing as many deaths as possible to the other side. Indeed, the novel opens on the carnage of a battlefield littered with so many corpses that the first word that springs to mind to describe it is genocide. And there is Red, the cause of all those deaths, walking among the corpses and musing about how much fun it had been...

The story glorifies such genocidal triumphs – they are always there as a backdrop to the examination of gender identity which is exemplified by the ambiguous love story that unites Red and Blue. Unfortunately I really can’t help thinking that a novel which makes genocide play second fiddle to the pressing concern of defining gender roles, is a novel that has got its priorities very, very wrong indeed.

In search of light relief, I turned to My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland. Angel is the very definition of white trash – she lives with her deadbeat, alcoholic father deep in the Louisiana swamps. She's a high school dropout with an out of control drug habit and a criminal record. She’s been fired from more dead end, less than minimum wage jobs than she can count. One day she wakes up in hospital with vague memories of being in a horrible car crash. But she has no injuries. There is not a mark on her. An anonymous letter informs her that a job has been arranged for her at the local morgue, and strongly suggests that she takes it. Her job is to pick up corpses and bring them back to the morgue where she assists the coroner with his autopsies. It turns out to be an ideal job which she thoroughly enjoys. And of course the job gives her easy access to the brains for which she has suddenly developed an almost uncontrollable craving. If she doesn’t eat brains regularly she starts to smell bad and bits begin to drop off her. She finds this disconcerting as well as very unpleasant. Clearly she’s become a zombie, though she has no idea how it might have happened.

The story explores Angel’s new zombie way of life. She decides that she has certain priorities that she needs to come to grips with. She has to find out how she became a zombie in the first place. She has to find the writer of the anonymous letter and ask him or her how and why they managed to set her up with her new job. She also needs to find out why so many headless corpses are now turning up at the morgue. Annoyingly, because the bodies have no heads, Angel is finding it increasingly hard to obtain the brains that she needs to stay alive. There’s a deep mystery here. And while she works hard to investigate the mystery, Angel also has to continue to cope with the ordinary day to day struggles with drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, sexual assault and the ramifications of unfulfilled relationships that have always been a significant part of her life. She may be a zombie now, but Angel is still a psychologically damaged girl from a dysfunctional family. Life is not an easy thing to come to grips with especially when you are undead and haven’t really got a life any more.

This is an excellent novel. By turns it is funny, sad, tense and thrilling with lots of entertaining zombie lore to come to grips with. It’s the best zombie novel I’ve ever read. Apparently this is the first novel of an ongoing series. I think I need to start tracking the rest of them down.

Ursula Vernon is a Hugo award winning writer of children’s fantasies. She uses the rather absurd pseudonym T. Kingfisher for her adult novels. The Twisted Ones is an utterly brilliant supernatural horror story that I just couldn’t put down.

Melissa, who is known to one and all by the nickname Mouse, is asked by her father to clear out her late grandmother’s house so that it can be sold. Mouse agrees and, accompanied by her dog Bongo, she sets off for the backwoods of North Carolina. Mouse has few memories of her grandmother and those few are tinged with pain. Her grandmother was a vicious and thoroughly unpleasant person, cordially hated by one and all. She was also, as Mouse discovers when when arrives at the house, a hoarder. Cleaning this place up is going to be harder than she thought.

The usual clutter that you’d expect from a hoarder is everywhere – mouldering piles of newspapers, boxes of soap, general trash. But grandma also had her own idiosyncrasies. For example, Mouse discovers a whole room full of rather creepy baby dolls that the old woman had collected over the years. The room makes her shiver – she thinks that it looks like a "monument to infanticide".

Eventually she finds a room that is much less cluttered than the others and she decides to make this the base of her operations. It’s the bedroom that used to belong to her grandfather, a man called Cotgrave. He died twenty years ago.

And that’s when faint bells began to ring in my mind. I knew the name Cotgrave, though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you how I knew it. Time to ask my friend Mr Google. He told me that Cotgrave was a character in a novelette called The White People. It’s by Arthur Machen and it was published in 1904. I must have read it when I was about thirteen years old – I went through a big Arthur Machen phase in my early teens. As soon as I discovered the title of the Machen story, it all came back to me in a rush.

Kingfisher’s novel is by way of being a sequel to Machen’s original story (though you certainly don’t have to read Machen’s tale before reading The Twisted Ones – Kingfisher’s book works quite happily as a stand alone novel).

From here on, the story proceeds much as you’d expect it to. Mouse finds her grandfather’s journal which is full of mysterious comments about a man called Ambrose and something known as the Green Book (both of which are also direct Machen references). The journal also contains an interesting kind of spell that Cotgrave uses to calm himself down after periods of great stress:

I made faces like the faces on the rocks,
and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones,
and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

Mouse can’t get it out of her head. It’s the equivalent of an ear worm and she finds herself chanting it when things seem to be getting out of control. Oddly it appears to work, especially after she and Bongo find the faces in the rocks and the twisted ones on the top of a hill behind grandma’s house, a hill that nobody else knows about because, of course, it isn’t really there...

In many ways this is a routine and rather predictable horror novel. What makes it memorable is the dry humour and wry observations that Mouse brings to bear on her predicament. She made me smile a lot, and chuckle out loud on occasion. And let’s not forget Bongo, that most faithful of hounds, with the very best nose in the world:

Bongo’s nose is far more intelligent than the rest of him, and I believe it uses his brain primarily as a counterweight.

Bongo and his nose eventually save the day. Three cheers for Bongo!

I don’t think I like Penn Jillette very much. He’s one half of the magic act known as Penn and Teller. He’s the one who talks a lot. I’ve read two non-fiction books by him this month. I came away from them convinced that Penn Jillette is loud, obnoxious, rude, opinionated, preachy, full of very odd ideas and possessed of a rather creepy and sadistic sense of humour. Not that there isn’t much to admire about him as well – he is very down to earth, he doesn’t suffer fools at all, let alone suffer them gladly, and he’s an avowed atheist in a country that, by and large, despises and condemns atheism in its public figures. The attitudes he displays and the opinions he expresses must take a lot of courage. Penn Jillette is many things, but he is not a coward.

Presto is subtitled How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales. It opens with a confession that after many years of attempting to treat his high blood pressure medically, he finally lost control of it and it started to spiral into the stratosphere. The reasons were not hard to find. He was well over six and a half feet tall and he weighed 330 pounds (that’s about 2 metres tall and 150 kilos for the more metrically minded among us). In Jillette’s own words, he was a "fat fuck" and if he wanted to live to see his children grow up he needed to do something about it, and he needed to do it fast.

And so he embarked on an alarmingly eccentric diet that, for a time, saw him eating nothing but potatoes. The diet was based on the ideas of Ray Cronise, a NASA scientist who has made a study of how the body metabolises food and who has come to some rather odd conclusions as a result of his studies. Jillette refers to him throughout the book as "CrayRay" (probably that’s an abbreviation of "Crazy Ray). To be fair, Jillette positively discourages his readers from following CrayRay’s advice. He freely admits that he himself knows nothing about the science (or lack of it) that lies behind CrayRay’s potato diet. All he can say is that it worked for him. Maybe it will work for you. Probably it won’t. And anyway, why would you be stupid enough to take dieting advice from a juggler? (Penn Jillette considers himself to be a juggler first and a magician second).

So for 300 pages or so Penn Jillette talks about his diet, his ideas, his friends and his enemies in a rambling, name-dropping, repetitive, stream of consciousness kind of way that often looks as though it’s about to make a significant point but then somehow fails to do so and veers off on to yet another tangent.

It’s probably quite obvious what Every Day is an Atheist Holiday is all about. You only have to look at the title to realise that it is yet another diatribe about atheism from Penn Jillette. Except it isn’t of course. Atheism is the central theme of the book in the same way that diet and weight loss were the central themes of Presto, But Jillette sees no need to stick to the theme and once again he wanders hither and yon, wherever the fancy takes him, as ideas pop into his head.

The saving grace of both these books is that they are very funny. If you can bring yourself to ignore Jillette’s obnoxiously abrasive personality you’ll get a lot of fun out of them. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of taking anything he says seriously.

Naked Came the Florida Man is Tim Dorsey’s 23rd novel about the adventures of Serge Storms and his best friend, the drug-addled Coleman, a man with a super power. Coleman can make a bong out of absolutely anything. The more unlikely the material, the better the bong.

Apart from the first few novels, each book in the series can be read as a stand alone story and this one is no exception to that rule. So don’t worry about missing out on the back story if you happen to pick this novel up.

By now the formula for the series is quite well established. Serge and Coleman drive around Florida so that Serge can admire famous (sort of) Floridian historical sites and Coleman can absorb large amounts of drink, drugs and junk food. Serge tells Coleman fascinating details about the places they visit, but Coleman mostly tunes him out. Along the way, Serge and Coleman meet some nasty people who annoy them and so Serge kills them with ingeniously complex mechanisms of his own devising. Meanwhile the plot, such as it is, unravels as other characters interact in ways that eventually force Serge into taking some sort of action to resolve the difficulties. Coleman looks on, bemused.

This time Serge is in search of the graves of Florida’s finest so that he can make wax rubbings of their headstones. Many of the graves date back to the hurricane of 1928 which caused enormous damage and huge loss of life. Several episodes in the novel are flashbacks to that hurricane. The book also keeps flashing back eight years, and then four years to the childhood and adolescence of a young girl called Chris who wants to play (American) football. She is a small, slight child. Her nickname is Milk Crate because she spends a lot of time sitting on one, contemplating the ways of the world. She has found a hidden treasure trove of gold coins, she can catch jackrabbits. She is bullied by all her contemporaries who have a tendancy to steal most of her jackrabbits. Eventually her story catches up with Serge’s Florida Odyssey. And that’s when the fireworks happen.

The saving grace of these novels, the thing that keeps me coming back to them again and again, is the utterly eccentric, and often quite surreal, humour that permeates every sentence. Serge is prone to throwing off curiously idiosyncratic observations about the way of the world that often make me laugh out loud. This time round, for example, he tells Coleman that:

...cakes are the pole dancers of the bakery world but pie is the girl you take home to Mom

I’m already looking forward to next year’s adventure in the 24th novel…

Christopher Fowler is probably best known for writing a series of detective novels starring two rather eccentric sleuths called Arthur Bryant and John May. They work for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an offshoot of the London police force that investigates oddball crimes, some of which are very peculiar indeed! Ten Second Staircase is the fourth book in the series and I really enjoyed it, though it took quite a while for it to get going. The opening chapters were very, very slow, rather rambling and they seemed to have nothing at all to do with the story that finally developed. This was just me being naive, of course. Fowler was impeccably in control of what he was doing and all the irrelevancies, digressions and tedious bits of dialogue at the beginning turned out to be vitally important to solving the very puzzling crime that lies at the heart of the book. I really should have known better…

A controversial artist is murdered and her body is put on display as an element in one of her own artworks. The only eye witness to the crime is 12 year old Luke Tripp who was sketching the display when the crime took place. He got a perfect view of the perpetrator and he offers to draw a picture of the criminal for the police to work from. Naturally the police accept his offer. Luke draws a picture of a highwayman wearing a tricorn hat and a swirling black cape, and riding a black stallion. It’s an unlikely apparition to see in an art gallery, but Luke insists that is what he saw and it isn’t long before further evidence seems to back up his claim. More people are murdered in increasingly eccentric ways and there are further sightings of the highwayman. There also seem to be a vague connection to the murders perpetrated long ago by the Leicester Square Vampire, an unsolved case from many years previously that has haunted the Unit for a long time, especially John May whose wife was killed by the vampire. Solving both these cases will clearly bring some degree of closure to everyone.

Once all the threads come together, the solution is extremely satisfying. All the loose ends are tied up, all the eccentricities are explained, all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed. My only complaint is that it takes far too long to get to the end of the story. Bryant and May chat interminably to each other about nothing in particular and the pace of the plot is glacial. Also, I have absolutely no idea at all as to the significance of the eponymous ten second staircase. As far as I can tell, it never once appears anywhere in the novel. Did Homer nod?

Genre novels are often dismissed by the more shallow among the literati because after all, they are genre novels and clearly therefore they can have no relevance to the concerns of real literature. A lot of literary writers have no patience with this attitude – Michael Chabon, for example, is proud to be considered an SF writer (he’s a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America) and Kingsley Amis, the enfant terrible of British literature had enormous fun writing ghost stories, detective stories, spy stories and science fiction stories. The reverse is also true – many writers who are known primarily as genre practitioners often have no qualms about using their genre skills to write novels that transcend the perceived limitations of their chosen field. One such writer is Harlan Coben and his novel Don’t Let Go is an absolute tour de force however you chose to approach it.

Once, long ago, Napoleon "Nap" Dumas had a twin brother called Leo. But when they were teenagers, Leo and his girlfriend Diana were found dead on the railroad tracks. Maura, the girl that Nap considered to be the love of his life, broke up with him that night and disappeared without any explanation. Eventually Nap became a policeman and over the years he has developed the odd habit of discussing the cases he is working on with his dead brother. Sometimes it helps.

Fifteen years after Leo’s death, Maura’s fingerprints turn up in the rental car of a murder suspect. By a strange coincidence (or is it a coincidence?) the person who has been murdered was also at school with Leo and Diane. Naturally Nap goes looking for answers and when another old school friend is killed it becomes clear that someone (or some group) is deliberately hunting down a small set of close friends from those long ago days. That raises the possibility that perhaps Leo and Diane were murdered rather dying as the result of an accident or a suicide pact as most people had assumed. But why is this happening now? Why wait for fifteen years to go on a killing spree? What possible motive could there be? And why did Maura disappear so soon after the death of Leo and Diana? Where has she been all these years? The only thing that Nap can see that connects the group has something to do with an old, long abandoned military base that they all used to visit together…

There is a subtle and very cleverly plotted story connecting all these disparate features and, if you read the story purely as a genre novel, there’s a huge satisfaction to be gained from watching Nap unravel the complexities that lie beneath the surface details. But there’s a lot more to the novel than just its genre trappings – the events all take place in the paranoia of post 9/11 America and the book has a lot to say about the loss of individual liberty for the sake of security that Coben claims epitomises American society today. The novel tells us that there are those in power who are not answerable to any authority. These are people who seemingly have carte blanche to ride roughshod over what few civil liberties remain in the country, justifying themselves in the name of expediency, in the name of security. They fight fear with more fear, terrorism with more terrorism. It’s a truism to say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In this novel Harlan Coben shows us, in very believable terms, the absolute corruption that he sees lying at the heart of daily life in America. Nobody is safe any more, he says. Not from friends, not from neighbours and not from those in authority. Security is a magic word that dissolves every barrier.

Make no mistake about it, this is a superb and tightly plotted thriller, but it is also a very political novel. I regard that as its great strength.


Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick The Cassandra Project Ace
Mike Resnick Starship: Mutiny Pyr
Leigh Brackett The Long Tomorrow Doubleday
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone This is How You Lose the Time War Saga Press
Diana Rowland My Life as a White Trash Zombie DAW
T. Kingfisher The Twisted Ones Saga Press
Penn Jillette Presto Simon and Schuster
Penn Jillette Every Day is an Atheist Holiday Blue Rider Press
Tim Dorsey Naked Came the Florida Man William Morrow
Christopher Fowler Ten Second Staircase Doubleday
Harlan Coben Don’t Let Go Dutton
     
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