Bone Wires – Michael Shean

 

Michael Shean returns with his second novel, Bone Wires as he seeks to explore and investigate the world which he so beautifully crafted in his first novel, Shadow of a Dead Star. In this second novel, Shean demonstrates an aptitude and fluidity in being able to explore and dismantle themes and genres in the novel. Bone Wires shifts from an opening as a dark and horrific murder mystery that keeps readers on edge and becoming embroiled, even fascinated, with the sadistic murders in this neo-libertarian world to a novel rooted in the exploration of relationships and the inter-connectedness of different plots. There can be no doubt that this novel shows Shean to be a writer who is prepared to tap into the darkest recesses of the mind to shock audiences with his graphic detail of a world sustained by corporatism and built upon foundations of savagery and ambition.

Bone Wires follows Daniel Gray, a Tier Three Detective with Homicide Solutions, a branch of a public-listed organisation known as Civil Protection, Washington’s police force, as he looks to explore a series of gruesome murders in which the culprit removes the spines of their victim as a “trophy”. Gray is portrayed as vicious and ambitious in his want to reach the next level of corporate success in Homicide Solutions and these murders offer him ample opportunity to become the shining star of Civil Protection. Shean’s depiction of Gray in Bone Wires is harrowing for the recognition that it paints a portrait of society governed by corporate ambition and by individual desire superseding the wider moral questions. Bone Wires follows a trend and pattern set in Shadow of a Dead Star in being character-driven, allowing the reader to connect and explore the inner workings of its principal character as we are thrust into a multi-faceted plot that promises to delight, surprise and shock audiences.

What this novel does so well is to build and craft the world in which the characters are set. There is a loving attention paid to the detail from the corporate structure of Civil Protection to the chemical composition of drugs. That same love and attention is paid to the characters as it is to the world, meaning that readers are engrossed in the novel because of the characters, because of their human nature. Bone Wires excels in its depiction of characters, people who audiences will all recognise as having been part of their lives – the ambitious, the meek, the betrayed, the bully. These are all characters or facets of people that come out in the novel and create a woven tapestry of human emotion that becomes society in and of itself.

Bone Wires is, to me, a novel of two parts. The first part deals with Gray as a Tier Three Detective and his investigation into the murders of seemingly unrelated people but with one connection – their spines having been removed. In this first part, we see Gray as an ambitious and altogether inconsiderate character, someone is bound and tied to the corporate culture as much as he is a product of that culture – the suits, the lifestyle, the personality. His treatment of women is the single redeeming feature as he becomes a real person – someone is driven by the same needs, hungers and desires as most people are. The second part sees Gray as a Tier Four as he discovers that the culture with which he was so besotted with is little more than a web of deception. It explores in more depth the characters which were introduced in what I have described as the first part, characters who come out and shine as people, and not as plot devices to advance Gray as a character. The first part is a murder mystery. The second becomes a fully-fleshed out detective novel.

Even if this is a novel of two parts, Shean excels in demonstrating his prowess with the written word in Bone Wires. We are treated to a luxurious exploration of this world, its characters and the underworld which thrives on the ambiguities of people’s lives and personalities. What Shean does in his novels is to defy the expectations of traditional science-fiction and demonstrates a preparedness to explore different forms of genre from noir to detective fiction. Bone Wires works because it forces the reader to think and challenges the understanding of what is going on in the world. Characters become more real as the novel develops and the ending secures Daniel Gray as a memorable character who goes through a transformation from the ambitious to the noble.

Bone Wires is a free-flowing novel that explores ideas and engages the reader, trapping them in a vice of decadence, violence and plot. It captures the imagination of the reader and asks them questions. Much like the great Sherlock Holmes novels, the ending is as much a resolution of affairs and matters as it is a statement. Bone Wires is both a logical and heart-felt novel that feeds into people’s ideas about what the future might be like, about their own lives and how much we are trapped by own expectations and conventions. Michael Shean, once again, demonstrates a talent for capturing the imagination of his readers and having the courage to build on his inventive and creative world. As a science-fiction novel, it is excellent but where it is exceptional is in its capturing the heart of a world ensnared by corporatism and creating characters motivated by it.

Darker Than Any Shadow – Tina Whittle

Darker Than Any Shadow is the second novel in the “Tai Randolph Mysteries” written by Tina Whittle and published by Poisoned Pen Press. It presents an immediate problem for me, as a reviewer, because I haven’t read the first novel. Do I treat this novel as independent but part of a series or accept that I have to be conscious of this being a “follow-up” to the earlier novel? With sequels, the characters are established as are the relationships, the setting, the precursors to the novel. The immediate and foreboding problem is that the opening pages introduce two characters who earlier readers will be conscious of – to know their tendencies, to understand the reasoning behind certain actions (thinking here of when Tai flinched from Trey’s hand). I have decided to treat this novel as being independent of the earlier novel. This is a mystery thriller and, like most mysteries, while the characters might be established, the plot isn’t. Unlike trilogies like Lord of the Rings, one can understand and learn about the characters, even without knowing what’s happened in the earlier novels and this is where Tina Whittle excels – because people can approach the novel having never read her before and not meet difficulties. Readers will not discover an author’s first novel. It will be random.

Tina Whittle’s subtitle A Tai Randolph Mystery may very well simply be a marketing tactic. People who have read and enjoyed the first novel, The Dangerous Edge of Things, will have no problems in picking up this novel again but, like Iain Banks’ Culture series, Whittle’s novels are just loosely linked by characters, ideas and plots. What’s most interesting is about this novel is the plot itself –  a murder mystery revolving around a poetry slam competition where one of the participants is murdered. It’s the idea that Tina Whittle is engaging in her novel with the literary industry – is it a social commentary on the brutality and the viciousness of publishers or is it simply an amusing plot that keeps readers entertained? I’m inclined to believe that it’s more a coincidence than a conscious decision by Whittle to comment on the world of literature and poetry.

Within the first quarter of the book, I found myself connecting more with Trey Seaver as a character than I did with Tai. The two are polar opposites and that’s where readers will get the most pleasure out of this book. Trey, as a character, is organised, single-minded and focused. None of these things are necessarily bad things but it’s Whittle’s presentation of him as a character that makes him seem disconnected from the world. Unlike other readers, I found Trey a thoroughly engaging and interesting character because he approaches the plot of the novel like one should – with method and purpose. His life is centered around those two concepts and it’s fascinating to see it depicted in such a strict and literal fashion. Most people are organised but this is an ultra-version of organised.

This isn’t a criticism of the book itself or the characters but it highlights an interesting point – that male characters will find themselves leaning more towards the appeal of male protagonists and women will associate themselves with female protagonists, unless the character is particularly strong. As mysteries goes, this is one of the most interesting and enjoyable books I have read in the genre. The characters are well-defined and each one is explored and examined in the critical way that is expected of the amateur detective. The plot itself is the standard “murder mystery” and yet the circumstances surrounding it –  the poetry international competition – provide a rare treat for the reader.

People who enjoy thrillers, murder mysteries and detective novels will no doubt find themselves in good company with Tina Whittle’s novel but those outside of that genre may very well surprise themselves in how easily they get into it. It’s a novel that is extremely easy to get into and you finish it before you know it. That’s what makes a novel so great – you get lost in the world, the characters, the plot. Tina Whittle has achieved that with perfection.

The Zona – Nathan L. Yocum

 

The Zona is a novel that brims with ideas – morality, religion, the environment, humanity, apocalypse. It’s so full of these ideas, in fact, that it’s difficult to understand what the novel is trying to tell us. In The Zona, we witness an apocalyptic world destroyed by the environment and society restores itself not through government but religion, a theocratic government that believes the destruction of the storms was God’s means of saving the worthy and leaving the unworthy. It follows Lead as he makes his way through a world destroyed by the environment, nuclear warheads and savaged by religion. His understanding of the world, his morality, his very reason for leaving, all changes through the course of the novel as the theocratic religion is replaced with a belief more in fortune’s wheel.

When novels pack a punch like The Zona does, we have to think about what the author, Nathan L. Yocum, is telling us about the world. His message seems to be that the environmental impact we have on the world is so great that, when the destruction of our world comes, we will ignore it, unconcerned by the chaos it brings. The future that Yocum presents in The Zona applies to our current state of affairs when politics is heavily dominated by the theater of religion, the Conservative Christian-right having an influence on candidature, Middle-Eastern nations being more akin to theocracies under the guise of democracies. Even with all the ideas and problems that Nathan Yocum gives us, we can’t escape thoroughly enjoying the stories and the characters that come out of it.

The world that he has created seems to be reminiscent of the game series, Fallout, in which zombified humans, mutants and survivors all co-exist in a post-nuclear world. The association is no bad thing. Lead is a powerful character, someone with whom we can all associate – faced with the mortality of life, the morality of actions. The world is impressively rendered by Yocum and its disturbing in its portrayal of a theocratic government, a religious force so powerful that it refuses to treat those who suffer from the aftermath of nuclear destruction.

We can take what we want from this novel. Do we think of this as a cautionary tale about the environment? Do we take this as a message to curb the rise of religious theocracy? Or do we simply enjoy what is a great story, something that people can read in the space of a few hours without thinking about all these issues. That’s what The Zona truly does exceptionally well – the freedom of choice it gives to the reader in deciding what they want to take from this novel.

Shadow of a Dead Star – Michael Shean

Shadow of a Dead Star is the début novel from Michael Shean who has signed with  Curiosity Quills Press for a three book deal. Born in 1978 in Virginia, North America, he is heavily influenced by classic science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and H.P. Lovecraft. If Shadow of a Dead Star is the first in a long line of successive science-fiction novels from Shean, his audiences and fans of science-fiction will surely not be disappointed. Read the first four chapters for free here

Science-fiction has often been disregarded as a sub-genre of fiction, a sideline to the mainstream literature that most readers will know and love. It comes as no surprise, given that most of the world’s literary prizes such as the Man Booker Prize, the Costa Award and the Nobel Prize in Literature often go to “mainstream” fiction and not to the lesser known sub-genres of literature. Science-fiction, however, has always had a cult following who find pleasure in the works of Iain M. Banks, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. It is a genre that produces the most memorable and, perhaps, absurd plots and stories in literature and it does so with pleasure. Science-fiction provides writers with an opportunity to explore the deepest recesses of their minds, to tap into the wealth of dark and sinister ideas that are hidden and locked in a mental vault.

Shadow of a Dead Star fits this bill to the core. In this thrilling and captivating novel, Michael Shean creates a dystopic and post-apocalyptic vision of the world where libertarianism has been taken to the extreme, where biological implants are the norm and society is dominated by the idea of consumerism and commercialisation. It’s a world we all know and have seen before but the messages that Shean brings across in this novel haunt us.

The opening chapters of the novel introduces us to Thomas Walken, a federal agent in the Investigative Security Bureau, a division of the police force that explores and protects people from contraband and illicit technology. Like many science-fiction novels, the protagonist is “different” from his fellow men. He sees the world differently. He refuses to accept the changes to society, remaining distinctly natural in a world where the unnatural is the accepted – sexual fetishes involving mascot heads, nerve implants that blur the line between pain and pleasure, recreational drugs in excess. It’s a world that, for some, is perfection but this isn’t what makes this novel distinct from other science-fiction or dystopic works. H.G. Wells did it in A Sleeper Awakes, Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, George Orwell in 1984.

What makes this novel distinct is how vivid and graphic this world is. Shean portrays a world that is shockingly brutal and Walken is in the centre of this brutality. In Shadow of a Dead Star, Walken faces another attempt to bring contraband technology known as “Princess Dolls” into Seattle which are bio-implanted robots that were once small girls. For the ultra-rich, they are presents for their children. For sexual deviants, they are paedophilic toys to be abused and enjoyed. When Walken gets involved in this case, he soon discovers that these Princess Dolls are different and, as he becomes more involved in the case, it becomes a twisted and decadent example of how people will do anything to meet their interests.

Shean, like most other science-fiction writers, has created a world that is bordering on the apocalyptic and, in doing so, is drawing parallels to the current. Shean is engaging in a social commentary about technology and its advances, whether consciously or not. What’s more, the novel reeks of an author’s political views engaging in the novel – socialism versus consumerism and libertarianism. That’s not something unusual in science-fiction but it soon becomes frustrating. At every turn, Walken seems to be the voice of socialism in a world where local government has been replaced with corporate business, where policing has been sub-contracted to private security firms.

Fans of Iain M. Banks and his Culture novels will find the voices similar. The truth of the matter is that, even despite the political under-tones, it’s a powerful and brilliant novel. It revels in the glorification of sexual fetish, the dystopian being utopian to some. Michael Shean is a promising writer who could very well be a future star in the science-fiction genre if he continues in this line of writing. An excellent début novel with technological fetishism and sexualisation as its forefront – too graphic for some, delightful for others, a thrilling read for all.

World’s Burn Through – Vicki Keire

Curiosity Quills Press is beginning to develop a reputation for publishing exceptional science fiction and paranormal fiction. From The Zona by Nathan Yocum to The God Particle by Ron Kierkegaard, Jr.their portfolio of literature is ever expanding and Worlds Burn Through by Vicki Keire is no exception. Worlds Burn Through is an exceptional novel that blends the ever-growing genre of “paranormal (or supernatural) young adult” and “high fantasy”. Vicki Keire creates a novel that is superb in the world she has created with characters that are accessible to readers and a world that people can step into, believe in and imagine in their minds. That’s the core of an exceptional novel. What makes Worlds Burn Through is how fast-paced and readable it is. From beginning to end, it’s a raw, non-stop journey of discovery for Chloe Burke as she battles to save one world without knowing one is already on the brink of being list.

What comes as a surprise to readers is how short it is, given that it packs a punch. Two of the principal characters, Cass and Eliot, wield swords, guns and vehicles page after page, fighting creatures of fire and saving their Wards from something they don’t yet fully understand. It’s through the eyes of many characters from Chloe to Eliot, Miranda to Alexander that we begin to see where this series is heading. It has the beginnings of a great novel with enough cliff-hangers and open endings that readers will almost certainly want to read more. It’s a shame, really, that Vicki Keire decided to divide the novel into several parts, and not create one major high fantasy novel that leaves readers feeling satisfied with their purchase.

It seems part of Curiosity Quills Press‘s strategy to have writers divide their novels into several shorter novels. There’s a sense in Worlds Burn Through that this novel could have been made all the more special if it was one full length novel that explores the background, the worlds, the characters in one grand and great tapestry. That’s what these novels need – the flow and freedom to explore the worlds that the authors create.Worlds Burn Through is defined as a “paranormal sci-fi” but it seems more fitting to call this a “paranormal fantasy” since science-fiction is more associated with futuristic or dystopic novels, rather than novels that are set in the present day.

Worlds Burn Through is an exceptional starting point for another promising writer from this publishing house, a novel that brings in everything we’ve come to expect from these types of writers – a thoroughly enjoyable, subtly dark and dangerously twisted in its creation. Part of what makes this novel create is that we are immediately thrown into the past, into the background and backdrop of a world destroyed by destruction, chaos and warring factions.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

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Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, on first watch, a mad-hatter’s interpretation of the modern world and a twist on the battle between good and evil. In Heath Ledger’s final film before his tragic death, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is one of the most fascinating explorations into the creative mind of a renowned director.

Source: Wikimedia

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

With a star-led cast that includes the late Heath Ledger, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole, this is a film that explores the moral dilemma of good and evil through the modern interpretation of imagination.

Terry Gilliam, in his touching introduction to the film, describes how he wanted to create a film that was about “relaxing”, not a film bound t a pre-written script but something new and exciting. In that goal alone, he has succeeded and gone beyond his own expectations. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus creates a world in which Doctor Parnassus plays host to the role of “good”, inviting souls to partake in his imagination and make a choice between good and evil. Christopher Plummer, playing the role of Doctor Parnassus himself, is stellar in portraying a man who seems to be growing out of love with immortality, making bets with the devil to save not only his own soul but that of his daughter, Valentina, played by the excellent Lily Cole.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not only a film that portrays the dilemma of good and evil and the choices face on a daily basis but a film that hones in on the traditions of family, how one man will go to great lengths to save his family. Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield, accompanied by the comedic skills and wit of Verne Troyer act out a gypsy life in near perfect manner but the performance lends itself to the transforming faces of Tony, the deceptive character played by Ledger and then portrayed by different people as Tony travels through the dream world, played by Depp, Farrell and Law.

“Mr. Nick”, the devil himself, is suitably played by Tom Waits and gives an interesting adaptation of the role of the devil. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus takes on challenging themes, taking its inspiration from the classical religious stories to modern reinventions of the battle of good and evil, and managing to portray them in a new light, imaginative and bold in doing so. Credit has to go not only to Terry Gilliam but Charles McKeown, his partner in writing the script, for managing to make the tragedy of Heath Ledger’s death into such a fantastic film. This film is an homage to the skill and artistry still prevalent in the film industry and Ledger’s death makes this film a tribute to the hard work and dedication that goes into the craft of film-making.

Distant Water – Bruce Gray

Thrillers are one of the major genres that has come to prominence as a result of the digital publishing market and often those thrillers pale in comparison to notable writers such as John Grisham and Michael Connelly. The thriller, as a genre, tends to follow a basic conventional plot: the event; the characters; the false turn; the revelation; and the conclusion. For a thriller to sell in the market, it has to be unique in how to approaches the subject and it has to make sure that it can grasp the reader from the beginning. Distant Water, disappointingly, is not one of those novels. Its subject is certainly unique and for that, Bruce Gray cannot be faulted, but it was extremely difficult to engage with the novel from the beginning and a number of reasons why that is.

The first would be the long list of characters that dip in and out of the novel. It’s not uncommon for this to be happen but Bruce Gray has given significance and importance to every single character to such an extent that a list of characters is provided at the beginning of the novel. It highlights the complexity of the novel and the network of affiliations that exist within the novel. While some characters are especially important and deserve their place, others could be seen as second-rate characters who exist only to serve a function. This list of characters, however, is not without its positives. Each character has a developed personality and their alignment during the political uprising following Chairman Mao’s death either on the side of the moderates or the radicals provides an interesting and exciting facet to their characters. It provides readers with another element to explore: who is aligned with who in a nation so often associated with secrecy, political assassination and the silence of the enemies?

Another problem with this novel is the shift from third person narrative to first person narrative. For some people, this might not be distracting but it was one of the most distracting things in the novel. It serves a purpose, yes, but it makes it difficult to follow who is narrating the novel. For the first person perspective, it is narrated by Bryan Paton and the third person narrator is an omniscient, omnipresent narrator. Would it have been more appropriate to have the novel have a single narrative perspective? The reason that the two narratives exist is one representing the legal thriller dynamic and the other represents the political thriller dynamic and this is where the novel really thrives.

I may have found it difficult to get into the novel but by the end of the novel, I was certainly pleased that I’d pursued and continued with the novel. Bruce Gray’s experience as a foreign diplomat in the Far East and being well-versed in Chinese politics serves him well in creating a dual-layered narrative where one layer focuses on the disappearance of Fiona Li and the other focuses on the warring factions (the moderates and the radicals) after the death of Chairman Mao. By the middle of the novel, the two narratives have been suitably merged into one single narrative, or at the very least, intertwined.

What Bruce Gray does then is to use the conventions of the legal thriller but use his own experiences as a foreign diplomat and add his own dimension to the novel. Distant Water may not have been a novel that I was absorbed in but it was a novel that, by the end, I thoroughly enjoyed. You don’t have to be an expert in Chinese politics from the twentieth century onwards to appreciate the severity of the issues that Gray addresses and people who enjoy mysteries and thrillers will no doubt find themselves in good company with Bruce Gray’s Distant Water. 

Side Effects (2013)

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Side Effects is a 2013 psychological drama starring Rooney Mara, best known for her role in The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo, Jude Law and Channing Tatum. In Side Effects, Mara plays out the role of Emily, a young woman who suffers from depression following the incarceration of her husband for financial crimes. Upon his release, we follow Emily’s struggle through the battle with depression as Jude Law, her therapist, explores various drugs in an attempt to help get her back on track with her life.

Side Effects (2013) – Source: Wikipedia

The film explores a host of themes ranging from the perception of mental health to the role of the pharmaceuticals industry in crime. During the course of the film, Emily murders her husband, played by Channing Tatum, whilst she is sleep-walking and this is where the film begins to explore those themes. It poses serious questions about whether a person can be responsible for a crime if they are not consciously aware that they are doing it or whether they have “intent”. One of the more memorable lines of the film comes as Jude Law explains “Without consciousness, there can be no intent”.

The dynamic of the film plays on Jude Law’s position as a therapist and many of the themes will be prevalent in the American healthcare industry, however, those based outside of the United States might struggle with some of the ideas that are portrayed in the film. The constant meandering twists and turns in the film and the various plot devices make it a challenging film to watch but it uses certain stereotypes, not only of mental health, but the exploration of sexual politics and creates a less enthralling film.

Rooney Mara is excellent in her role as Emily but those who suffer from mental health may very easily detect the plot of the film early on, recognising many of the symptoms and signs of depression that she portrays as stereotypical. Jude Law’s performance, however, is stand-out as a therapist struggling with his own responsibilities and ensnared in a plot which is largely innocent of. The cameo performance of Channing Tatum does little to add to the plot and acts more as a bridge to the main section of the film and only appears in the first thirty minutes so for those fans of Tatum, they will likely be disappointed by this particular outing.

If there is one reason to watch Side Effects, it is the fact that the film is unique in tackling mental health and playing on the psychological effects it has on a person. The dynamic relationships between husband and wife frayed by tension, the stalling sex life strained by depression and the outside participants – therapist, family, friends. Side Effects is, in effect, a tinted window into the dramatic schisms and fractures caused by mental health and, although not wholly accurate in its representation, certainly leaves the audience asking more questions than it has answers.

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