BOOK REVIEW: Disaster Inc. #1 by Joe Harris

Disaster Inc. #1Disaster Inc. #1 by Joe Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: February 24, 2021

 

This story revolves around the practice of dark tourism, visiting edgy sights – disaster zones, crime-ridden areas, war zones, etc. In this story, “Disaster Inc.” is taking half a dozen tourists into the radioactive hot zone of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. The owner / entrepreneur of Disaster Inc. is Paolo, a shady character who is always working side hustles of questionable legality. Paolo’s assistant, Abby, is arguably the protagonist of the story, and is depicted as more sensible but also as someone whose financial difficulties have gotten her roped into Paolo’s nefarious and shoddy enterprise. On the ground in Japan, Paolo has hired a yakuza, Toshiro, as a driver / translator / facilitator, and heavy. These three are to lead the tourists, who consist of a pair of eco-warriors and a psychedelic-loving Scandinavian playboy and his fem-entourage.

From an opening scene, we know that something is not right in the exclusion zone, and when Paolo leads the group off course it becomes apparent that he has an ulterior motive. [It’s kind of a bizarre idea to use an illegal activity as a cover for another illegal activity, but the dark tourism angle does make for a provocative set up.] In real life, an excessive dose of nuclear radiation causes: nausea, weakness, low blood count, and hair loss, but – of course – in comic books the effects of radiation are completely different and hard to anticipate. In this case, the radiation animates the immortal souls of a samurai army, giving them the capacity to do battle in the world once more, which they take to doing in a manner more ninja-like than samurai-esque, but that keeps up the eeriness.

This book has an intriguing premise. Samurai raised to resume defense of lands that have been ecologically defiled. The art is vibrant, clear, and can be creepy where it needs to be. I felt that character development was the book’s biggest weakness. I think we were supposed to find Abby to be a sympathetic character for which we could root. While we get some of her backstory and scenes of her nagging others to be safe and responsible, I didn’t really feel any connection. I did find Paolo to be suitably unappealing to root for him to be chopped up or to fall in a vat of nuclear waste. The other characters generally felt like good enough fodder, which I suppose is great for a horror story – not knowing who’ll get it and who might scrape through.

This was an interesting concept. If you’re interested in fiction built around dark tourism, it’s worth giving it a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and TibetThe Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet by Jamyang Norbu

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I gave this book the lowest rating that I’ve ever given a book I reviewed. However, there’s a selection bias at work. I don’t finish (and rarely start, for that matter) books that are so horrible that they’d get a lesser rating. Ergo, any book that I finish and review has some redeeming qualities. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether these redeeming qualities will outweigh the deficiencies of story in this book.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes takes our beloved detective out of London and onto a trip from Bombay to Shangri La by way of Shimla (India) and Lhasa (Tibet.) It’s one of several pieces of Great Hiatus fan fiction out there. (I recently saw an addition that took Holmes to Japan.) Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be aware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became tired of the character at one point and killed him off (along with Professor Moriarty) at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes was “revived” several years later due to popular demand (and—perhaps—Doyle’s need for funds), leaving fans / authors to speculate what the detective did during his time in hiding (i.e. the so-called Great Hiatus.) This particular work tells us that Holmes spent his time in the Himalayas. It’s as good a setting as any, given that fascination with the esoteric Himalayan world was building in the West during this time. In an interesting feature, Norbu’s book brings in a fictional character from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Hurree Mookherjee, to serve as Holmes’s sidekick. (FYI: Kim was published during the Great Hiatus years.) The story involves shadowy plots against both Holmes and a young 13th Dalai Lama (this was the predecessor of the current Dalai Lama) that are incidental to obtaining a powerful mandala.

I’ll begin with the strengths of the work before I tear into what I found objectionable about the book. The author, Jamyang Norbu, clearly did his research, and there are some fascinating tidbits and insights into that era of South Asia history. As a Tibetan, Norbu, paints an intriguing travelogue of the territory that Holmes and Hurree traverse. Also on a positive note, I’d rate the readability of this work to be high. It doesn’t follow the 19th century so closely that it falls into the purple prose and general verbosity of that century’s literature, and I think that’s a good thing. The author manages to create a bit of the feel of 19th century literature without falling off the abyss.

The book’s negative qualities are disproportionately loaded toward the back of the book. (Part of what keeps one reading and engaged is that it seems like the book could turn out well.) Let me begin with one minor character defect of the book which is that not all of the chapters advance the story; a few are descriptive like travelogues. However, most of said chapters are so short that it’s not that problematic.

I should note that one star that might’ve been obtained for originality must be forfeited because there’s no shortage of books following the same general premise.

But the story’s major flaw is that devolves into supernatural speculative fiction done poorly. Let me say, I’m not against the supernatural genre in theory. However, as with stories about Superman, these tales are exceedingly easy to do poorly and extremely difficult to do well. In the real world, tension is easily created because the reader knows many of the limits that characters face, and a good writer forces his characters up against some of those limits. However, when characters seem to be limited by the laws of physics, but then just start pulling magic rabbits out of their hats, the tension drains. We assume our protagonist will prevail and the antagonist will be thwarted. The odds stacked against our hero(es) don’t matter if one expects they’ll pull out a—proverbial or otherwise–magic wand and claim a cheap victory. If one wants to do the supernatural well, one needs to not only make the antagonist stronger (which Mr. Norbu does), but one has to know what everybody’s limits are. Otherwise, it’s just a cheap spectacle. [I should point out that Hurree does engage in a non-magical action that is critically timed during a key moment of the story, and some readers may feel that this absolves the novel of its ham-handed introduction of the supernatural.]

There’s another problem with the degree to which the book hinges on the supernatural, and that is specific to the domain of Holmes. The supernatural is usually something to be debunked in the Holmesian domain. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is a product of the dawning of the age of rationality, and he is a man of science. [Want to know more? See this Tor article entitled “No Ghost Need Apply.”]Doyle’s Holmes may accept the possibility of the supernatural and apparently supernatural elements may make appearances, but Holmes is always looking for an explanation rooted in logic and favoring the possible. While Norbu goes to great lengths to capture the flavor of Holmes in many aspects, he abandons the character altogether in favor a world that looks neither like our own nor the one Arthur Conan Doyle created.

The disappointment of this book is that it looks like it’s on a trajectory to hit its mark, but then sails wildly off target.

If you like supernatural fiction and you don’t mind that magic suddenly pops up to shape the climax of the book out of the blue, by all means pick this book up. Otherwise, I can’t say that I’d recommend it for Holmes’ fans.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, The Ocean at the End of the Lane takes place in a world in which the supernatural and spectacular lay camouflaged amid the most mundane of settings. The story is about a boy’s interaction with a tri-generational household of women who I’ll—controversially—call “good witches.” The characters explicitly gainsay the title of “witch,” but for lack of any better term with which to describe these ladies other than “a trio of females with supernatural abilities and benevolent purpose,” I’ll call them good witches.

In particular the boy befriends the youngest good witch, a girl who physically appears not much older than he, but whom he comes to realize seems much older. It’s the girl who refers to the pond on her family homestead as the “Ocean.” The girl introduces the unnamed boyish male lead to a supernatural parallel universe, but—in doing so—unwittingly gets the boy tangled up in peril. The boy tracks a portal into his world through which a malevolent creature can slip through. The shape-shifting creature becomes his nanny. However, he is the only one in his family who can recognize the creature’s true nature, and it will do anything to keep the boy from ruining its new gig.

The good witches become the boy’s protectors, and powerful protectors they are. But they aren’t omnipotent, and the forces arrayed against them are formidable as well. Among the morals of the story are that the more powerful enemy of one’s enemy is not only not necessarily one’s friend, but may spell one’s doom. The book also speaks to the rashness of youth running headlong into trouble, and the value of wisdom and experience to find solutions.

This book is short and highly readable. It’s appropriate for young adult readers, but can be enjoyed by adult readers as well. The ending is slightly too deus ex machina for my taste, but overall it’s an intriguing book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston & Child

The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast, #3)The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Cabinet of Curiosities features many of the hallmarks of a Preston and Child novel. First, the lead is FBI Agent Pendergast. Special Agent Pendergast has three things that no FBI Special Agent in the history of the FBI has ever had: 1.) a fortune, 2.) the ability to pick and choose both his assignments and the jurisdiction he works in, and 3.) about 200 vacation days a year to learn things like ikebana and to read random scholarly publications in disparate fields such that he is an expert on the known Universe.

Regardless of the incredulity his character may inspire, Pendergast is a fascinating character. He has a New Orleans accent and an almost albino complexion, which intrigues–and puts him outside the New York / Chicago/ LA nexus in which cop fiction frequently gets stuck. (Don’t worry; the NYPD quota is still met.) Furthermore, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything allows him to constantly get the better of any and all unlikable characters in the book—and, in these books, you are either likable or loathable. It also features other Preston & Child familiars, including Nora Kelly and William Smithback Jr.

Second, it features the supernatural, preternatural, or at least the appearance of the aforementioned. This is all part of a dark and mysterious tone they have down to an art. This goes back to their first book Relic.

Third, one of the likable characters gets killed off.

The title, Cabinet of Curiosities, refers to collections of natural anomalies that were all the rage in the 19th century, and which served as mini museums of natural history. These cabinets (sometimes also called “wonder rooms”) might feature genuine exhibits, fakes, or some combinations thereof.

The novel begins with Agent Pendergast seeking Nora Kelly’s expertise to assist him in investigating a 19th century mass murder. The remains of the deceased were found in a building that’s being torn down to put up a high-rise, but it used to be the basement of a cabinet of curiosities.

We don’t get any clue as to why an active duty FBI agent would take an interest in 19th century murders until late in the book. [Of course, we never find out why Pendergast is allowed to investigate it.] I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the ultimate explanation makes any sense or not. Needless to say, the murder and mayhem come to the present day over the course of the novel.

While I might sound down on both this book and the series, I’ve read seven of the books jointly authored by Preston and Child (and one or two from each as solo authors.) It’s, therefore, unreasonable to say that I dislike their work. However, I will say that I didn’t like this one as much as some others (e.g. Relic and Still Life with Crows.) I’m not entirely certain whether this one was just not as good, or whether I’ve become a bit jaded from over exposure to their formula. (Maybe doing so many book reviews of late has made me over analytical, and commercial fiction—like popular movies—are easy pickin’s for criticism.)

That said, I have three major criticisms of this book:

First, there’s a critical happening that requires someone so brilliant (yet unknown and working solo) that they could invented a technology in the 19th century that modern scientists couldn’t even fathom duplicating. This is sort of a common theme in some steampunk works (e.g. the Will Smith Wild, Wild West movie). However, steampunk creates its own world, distinct from the world as we know it. I can buy some kinds of “lost knowledge” lines, such as the idea that some plant-based medicinal compounds have been lost due to deforestation and loss of the experience of native peoples (this was the premise in Preston’s solo work, The Codex). However, in Cabinet of Curiosities there is a scientific discovery critical to this novel which is of a complex nature. It’s impossible to believe that it could be done by someone without modern equipment or access to the vast scientific literature of the intervening century.

Second, while I don’t want to sound like someone who poo-poos cross-genre novels, there’s a problem with this book not knowing whether it’s a mystery/thriller or supernatural/horror. In general, I love cross-genre work. However, a thriller needs some sort of realism to pull us in and mysteries call for some sort of rules or the game. If anything can happen (or if we don’t know the rules of what can happen) it’s a bit unsatisfying to try to noodle out whodunit.

Third, the reveal of the villain seems a bit forced. It’s not quite Scooby-Doo because they create several despicable characters to choose from—and not just one grumpy old man who you know is going to be the guy. However, it seems a little like they rolled dice to determine which detestable character would be the villain. In retrospect one can find foreshadowing, but no more for the actual villain then for the others one might suspect.

If you’re willing to suspend a truckload of credulity this is a good read for beaches, airports, and trains. The authors know how to pique your interest and build tension. It’s not their smartest book, but it’s a fast and fun read.

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