Book review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CityZoo City by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes the albatross around your neck is alive.

Zinzi December is scraping by finding lost things and writing email scams to pay off her debts. Her life as a Zoo, someone magically saddled with an animal for their misdeeds (a sloth), in South Africa is a struggle to stay afloat. When one of her clients is murdered she is offered a job finding a lost teen pop-idol. The money is too good. The job isn’t.

It’s been a few years since I met Lauren at a writers festival. In that time I’ve read several of her books, including The Shining Girls and her collection of short stories. She always manages to bring something fresh to the page. If I was to tell you that characters in this book have a spirit animal magically tied to them you’d immediately think His Dark Materials. Well, no, nothing like that at all. In The Shining Girls, there was time travel. Nope, not in the way you’re thinking. And that is the skill Lauren brings to the page.

Zoo City is a compelling read. The world feels dirty and nasty inhabited with characters who are hustling or surviving. And the missing person case is a great excuse to traipse through this world. But this strength is also why some people may not enjoy the book. After spending some time in Zoo City you feel in need of a shower and there is a sense of hopelessness or nihilism. Best to know that going in or this could turn you off.

I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s other novels.

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Book review: Tripwire by Lee Child

Tripwire  (Jack Reacher, #3)Tripwire by Lee Child

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m going to refrain from making any applause or hot jokes. We need that like a nail in the head.

Reacher is digging swimming pools in Florida when a private detective comes looking for him. Later that day two thugs come looking for him as well and he finds the detective dead. This motivates Reacher to go to New York to find out what is going on. Who is looking for him? And what has that got to do with MIA Vietnam soldiers?

This was the second time I’ve read Tripwire. The first time I thought it was enjoyable but not one of the best in the series. I think that judgement still holds but is slightly less enjoyable for a second read. I think part of the problem was that this is a much earlier novel in the series so it felt somewhat less polished in its execution compared to the tight prose Lee is known for. But Tripwire is also early enough in the series that some of the superhuman aspects of Reacher have not yet surfaced.*

Something else I noticed was the ending. It would not surprise me if Tripwire marks the end of Lee’s first publishing contract. There is a feeling that he was writing a potentially final instalment. It’s a bit funny when you know how many more Reacher adventures there are and how at odds Tripwire’s ending is with that.

I wonder how I will feel about Bad Luck And Trouble or 61 Hours now?**

Tripwire was enjoyable but certainly not peak Reacher.

* Which is ironic given the ending. Although, that ending is very plausible. There was a well-known bodybuilder who experienced a similar incident with the same results for the same reasons.

** I’ve re-read a few books of late (E.g. Ice Station). Some haven’t been as entertaining, but others have been just as good, if not better upon a second (or third, in several cases fourth and fifth) read(s). I am noticing a pattern to which ones are better and which aren’t. This may be something I will have to assess in greater detail at some stage.

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Book review: Thirteen by Richard K Morgan

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When society stops being violent someone will try to genetically re-engineer violence.

Carl Marsalis is a specialist bounty hunter. Genetically engineered and indoctrinated from birth to be a dangerous weapon, he now hunts others like him. After landing in prison in the wrong part of the former USA – Jesusland – he is seconded to track down someone who is killing his way across the former USA after eating his way through the crew of a Mars-to-Earth flight. But the cannibal seems to be a step ahead of the game and not picking targets at random. It’s as though he has help and is possibly working for someone as their hitman.

After recently finishing the Altered Carbon series, I decided to see what other Morgan novels I could get my hands on. Thirteen promised to be similar to Altered Carbon. The setting was similarly cyber-punk, the mystery/detective narrative is front and centre, and Marsalis likes to get violent and have sex with any and all female characters.

But where Altered Carbon used those elements in a compelling way, Thirteen was too indulgent with them. The novel feels padded out and runs far too long. This leads to pacing problems, with some sections really bogging down. The charisma of Kovacs is not present in Marsalis, despite their similarities, so you don’t feel the same thrill from him dispatching a bad guy or having the love interest* throw herself at him.

I think I could have forgiven those aspects a bit more if it weren’t for the “conversations” between characters about genetics. These were long discussions that bashed the reader with the point. I’d have had less of a problem with them if they weren’t quite so wrong on the science. The “conversations” amounted to telling us that we are essentially only our genetics. That’s not only nonsense (GxExM is how we discuss genetics in science) but is pretty much spouting modern-day scientific racism.**

That point is particularly ironic given the obvious analogies for racism and backward thinking being drawn. “Look at how backward these religious bigots are. Look at how badly they treat black people. Hey, check out my thinly veiled racism disguised as science!” I don’t know if I missed something, but this really did read to me as admonishing racism whilst justifying it as not something we can get over. If that was Morgan’s point, then it would have been great if he could have done it in about 150 pages less.

With all that said, this was still enjoyable and I am looking forward to reading more from Morgan.

* I’m being overly flippant and critical here. Sevgi Ertekin is a fairly well-developed character but her role does appear to be just the love interest and character motivation.

** Yes, scientific racism is back. Modern-day phrenology comes in many forms. Often it is IQ studies and hereditarianism, sometimes it is labelled Human Biodiversity (HBD), other times it will be straight up eugenicists and white nationalists. Reading about its insidious creep into academia and mainstream discourse is sickening.

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Book review: Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters

Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the NationGame of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation by Cameron Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t want to see the final season of Game of Mates, I’ve heard the entire thing falls flat.

Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters set out to expose the inner workings of the Australian economy in Game of Mates. Through a series of case studies, they outline how a few (the Jameses) take from the many (the Bruces) by blurring the line between business and the regulators. Then, knowing that their readers will be suitably gobsmacked and annoyed, call for the masses (Bruces) to make a change.

As with any book about real-life grifting in the halls of power, this book made me annoyed and disillusioned. There is nothing more galling than to have someone show you how the grift is endemic and then realise you kinda knew. We kinda all know. There is no surprise here. And that means there is no “justice”. Cue scene of me staring out the window as rain drips down it.

Murray and Frijters conclude with some ways to stop the grift:

1) Reclaim the value of grey gifts for the public.
Essentially, when the grifters rig the system they gift themselves advantage/money/power. We have to tear that down. One example was Public-Private Partnerships on infrastructure developments, which essentially end up being a gift of public assets to private businesses with a guaranteed profit underwritten by the public.

2) Disrupt (James’) the grifters’ coordination.
This is fairly obvious, stop the revolving door between public and private interests, put in oversight, make sure the oversight isn’t part of the problem, etc.

3) Bust the myths (James) the grifters use.
This isn’t just about addressing the claims cherry-picked “experts” will make, such as promoting projects that aren’t needed (examples are given, there are plenty). This is also about reclaiming the narrative from these grifters. In Australia, this is particularly difficult as many of the media outlets are either owned or have close links to the same people grifting.

4) Fight back.
Disillusion can lead to apathy. That’s what keeps us on the losing end.

Speaking of the losing end, the costs of this game are:

  • New Housing – 70% of the gains from rezoning;
  • Transportation infrastructure – 68% of the investment;
  • Superannuation – 27% gobbled up;
  • Mining – 48% of the profits;
  • Banking – 60% more expensive for the masses;
  • Taxes – 23% extra taxation borne by the masses (I’ve seen a figure suggesting this is a global issue and sees the average person taxed proportionally more);
  • Pharmacies, medicines, and health – 10% more expensive;
  • Higher education – 100% more expensive…

Okay, so clearly this book hit the mark and is enlightening. Why only three stars, I hear someone say? Well, while I appreciate your question, I’m wondering what you’re doing in my house.

I think the problem I had with this book was the polemic style to it. We are told. I listed the figures above, and whilst those numbers are backed up, they are big claims that require fairly solid evidence. I felt the evidence was a bit flimsy. Not wrong, but maybe selective, or misrepresentative.

Another example was around how to stop the revolving door which amounted to banning people from getting a different job in the same industry. That’s probably not as well thought out as it needs to be.

Game of Mates is worth reading but it felt underdone.

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Book review: The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

The Three Secret Cities (Jack West Jr #5)The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world is only days away from destruction. Again. Again.

With only a few hours rest after winning The Great Games, Jack West Jr is thrown back into the fray. The secret ruling elite’s world has been thrown into disarray with only a few days to save the world. They don’t think they need Jack’s help, so they send a secretive order of assassins after him. But without Jack and his team, the chances of saving the world are close to zero.

I finally got around to reading my Xmas present. I have a standing order for Matthew Reilly books that my parents dilligently fulfil. Ever since picking up my first Scarecrow adventure, I’ve been hooked on Reilly’s fast-paced thrill-rides. The Three Secret Cities was once again a fast-paced thrill-ride.

But…

After thoroughly enjoying The Four Legendary Kingdoms I was excited to see what else would happen in this three-part Jack West Jr adventure. One of my earlier criticisms of the Jack West Jr series was that it often felt like stuff just happened, that you were reading a series of explosions without the peril and tension. The Four Legendary Kingdoms didn’t have that feeling. But after finishing The Three Secret Cities that sense of stuff just happening was back.

This left me with a troubling thought: have Reilly’s books always been heavy on the explosions and light on the peril of those explosions, has Reilly lost a step, or am I just not as entertained by Reilly as I once was? I noted in my revisit review of Ice Station that several things suddenly annoyed me and were suddenly distracting. So it is possible that I’m not enjoying Reilly’s novels like I once did.

While this does sound like strong criticism, The Three Secret Cities was still solidly entertaining. I just hope the next instalment has plenty of peril. Suddenly.

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