Indie Crime Fiction of the Month for April 2019

Welcome to the latest edition of “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some March books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Our new releases cover the broad spectrum of crime fiction. We have cozy mysteries, small town mysteries, historical mysteries, WWII mysteries, paranormal mysteries, crime thrillers, psychological thrillers, forensic thrillers, legal thrillers, action thrillers, spy thrillers, police procedurals, romantic suspense, private investigators, amateur sleuths, lawyers, serial killers, missing children, missing detectives, missing agents, amnesiac spies, forensic geologists, crime-busting witches, sinister carnivals, murder on university campuses and aboard cruise ships, in Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, Hollywood, rural Ohio, rual Nebraska and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Crime Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Indie Crime Scene, a group blog which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things crime fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

A Cold Spell by Stacey AlabasterA Cold Spell by Stacey Alabaster:

It’s a cold day in… Well, you know the saying

Ruby Swift is learning to use her paranormal powers and how to solve mysteries as a private investigator. Sometimes together. When a freezing spell goes wrong, she’s suddenly got more to worry about than just a murder investigation.

A Cold Spell is part of the Private Eye Witch Cozy Mystery series. If you like fun paranormal mysteries, you will love Ruby Swift and her magical adventures.

Get A Cold Spell and start solving your next supernatural mystery today!

Death by Dissertation by Kelly BrackenhoffDeath by Dissertation by Kelly Brackenhoff:

Ambitious Cassandra Sato traded her life in Hawai’i for a dream position as Student Affairs VP at Morton College in tiny Carson, Nebraska. She expected the Midwestern church casseroles, land-locked cornfields, and face-freezing winters would be her biggest challenges, but it’s her job that’s rapidly becoming a nightmare.

A deaf student is dead and the investigation reveals a complicated trail of connections between campus food service, a local farmer’s beef, and the science lab’s cancer research. Together with her few allies, Cassandra must protect the students caught up in the entanglement.

Dealing with homesickness, vandalism, and a stalker, Cassandra is trapped in a public relations disaster that could cost her job, or more. No one said college was easy.

Fortune Furlough by Jana DeLeonFortune Furlough by Jana DeLeon:

It’s not a vacation until there’s a murder.

Fortune, Ida Belle, and Gertie are finally off to Florida on the vacation they’ve always talked about. Days filled with white sand, turquoise water, and fruity drinks are the only thing on the agenda. But when Gertie’s “hot date” turns up dead and she’s the number one suspect, they’re forced to hang up their bathing suits and shift to investigating mode.

They soon discover that Gertie’s beau was up to all kinds of shady behavior, leaving them with a long list of people who are happy he’s dead. But which one resorted to murder?

River Run by Toni DwigginsRiver Run by Toni Dwiggins:

There are plenty of ways to die in the Grand Canyon.

Forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws investigate one way: trouble on the canyon’s Colorado River. Stranded raft. Life vests unused. Rafters missing.

The only clue to the fate of the rafters is a bag of pebbles caught by the bow line. Following that clue, the geologists uncover a hellish scheme. Not only are the rafters in peril, but the river itself is under attack.

The race to stop it takes Cassie and Walter deep into the canyon, and onto the mighty river, putting their own survival at stake.

In Her Defence by Jan EdwardsIn Her Defence by Jan Edwards:

Bunch Courtney’s hopes for a quiet market-day lunch with her sister are shattered when a Dutch refugee dies a horribly painful death before their eyes. A few days later Bunch receives a letter from her old friend Cecile saying that her father, Professor Benoir, has been murdered in an eerily similar fashion. Two deaths by poisoning in a single week. Co-incidence? Bunch does not believe that any more than Chief Inspector William Wright.

Set against a backdrop of escalating war and the massed internments of 1940, the pair are drawn together in a race to prevent the murderer from striking again.

Blackbird by A.J. GentileBlackbird by A.J. Gentile:

An actress is murdered at a Hollywood house party and a naive young man stands accused.

In this debut novel, greenhorn attorney Ezekiel Blackbird has something to prove as he struggles to establish his own practice in Los Angeles straight out of law school. Eager but insecure, Zeke would prefer to attract easier, high-paying corporate clients, but he can’t refuse the chance to represent an alleged murderer who desperately needs his help. His love life is in tatters and his physical safety is under threat, but Zeke remains loyal to his client despite the difficult lessons he must learn to become a shrewd criminal attorney.

Perilous Seas by Lily Harper HartPerilous Seas by Lily Harper Hart:

Her father may be back in her life but things are hardly smooth sailing for Rowan Gray.

He faked his death to get away from a group of people investigating psychic abilities – a group he is convinced is still out to get him – and he’s positive the group want his daughter for the same nefarious reasons.

Rowan is simply happy to have him in her life. She gets to spend time with him and her uncle and plot for a future they might never have.

All that’s thrown into turmoil when The Bounding Storm, the cruise ship where Rowan works, stumbles across a family that’s been lost at sea for weeks. Only some of them are on the rescue ship her boyfriend Quinn Davenport brings back, though. The rest are missing and lost.

What happened to the other family members? That’s the question on everybody’s lips as the media descends. The family at the center of the rescue is rich, essentially American royalty … and the horror of what they went through makes for a terrible tale.

The problem is … the story doesn’t hold water.

When a hand belonging to one of the deceased washes up on the beach, miles away from where the family went missing, things start to fall apart … and fast.
It’s up to Rowan and Quinn to discover the truth while working on their own investigation into a group of people that may well mean to do Rowan harm.

It makes for a busy – and dangerous – few days. All they have to do is survive to find the answers they seek.
That’s easier said than done.

The Fat Detective DisappearsThe Fat Detective Disappears by Christian Hayes:

Where on earth is Eugene Blake?

Eugene Blake has gone missing and it’s up to amateur detective Christina Walker to do everything she can to find him.

She uses her sleuthing skills to uncover a cache of notebooks that she is certain will hold the answer to Eugene’s fate.

Meanwhile Eugene is at the centre of his own mystery that he is desperately trying to solve.

The Fat Detective Disappears is the ingenious final puzzle in the Eugene Blake Trilogy by London novelist Christian Hayes.

Read now to discover Eugene’s final mystery

Black Market Body Double by Vicki HinzeBlack-Market Body Double by Vicki Hinze:

IF TROUBLE FINDS YOU, YOU WANT HER ON YOUR SIDE

Captain Amanda West is assigned to the elite S.A.S.S. Unit. All its Secret Assignment Security Specialists are highly trained and well experienced covert operatives. While on a mission, Amanda is buried alive in a tomb by S.A.S.S. nemesis and black-market broker Thomas Kunz who elevates ruthless to new heights. Amanda escapes and is astonished to learn she has been missing not for three days but for three months!

And soon she discovers another who has an unexplained three-month absence. An operative in a highly classified and sensitive position, Captain Mark Cross. Working together, Amanda and Mark must discover what happened to them and why. And they must determine if there are others like them. In their line of work, finding the truth is essential not only for their careers but for the lives of those in the nation they have taken oaths to defend and protect. What Kunz could be up to chills them both. But as bad as that is, it pales to what he is actually doing. Can Amanda and Mark stop Kunz before he attains his goal? Kunz wants nothing more than to destroy the entire nation!

Luke on the Loose by Amanda M. LeeLuke on the Loose by Amanda M. Lee:

Luke Bishop is the center of attention and life of the party at Mystic Caravan Circus. He’s a great guy, who just so happens to be in a bit of a funk. That doesn’t change when the circus hits Ohio, one of their least favorite stops.

Since nothing ever happens in Ohio. The group believes that will hold true during another boring trip. They find out better after the first night, when one of their clowns is killed.

They know right away what they’re looking for: an incubus, a creature that lures women with his song and then kills them in an intimate manner. All the men are on full alert because that means the Mystic Caravan females are in danger.

Luke takes it upon himself to infiltrate an area biker bar where the killer may be hanging out. All he has to do to find the culprit is fit in, not tip his hand, and make sure his partners in crime don’t draw too many sets of eyes in their direction.

It’s a difficult job, but Luke is up to the task … that is if he doesn’t fall victim himself. The circus men are joining together to protect the women for a change, and it’s going to be a dangerous ride.

Camp Pain by Wendy MeadowsCamp Pain by Wendy Meadows:

Patricia may be well-traveled – but this is a mystery with a dangerous destination.

Patricia always viewed the world from the end of her pen. Her feet hop from place to place; her exotic experiences are filling the pages faster than stamps on her passport. Someday, she aspires to land a big-time publishing deal.

At a stopover in Atlanta, she is shocked to discover the body of a local businessman, Peter, dumped in a camp in the outskirts of the city. For the first time, her wings are clipped as the lead detective; Brian Johnston launches an investigation into Peter’s death – firmly suspecting that cause of death was murder.

Patricia and Brian band together in his murder investigation, slowly uncovering leads to a shady underbelly behind Peter’s flashy ‘successful’ exterior, and the illicit dealings he was determined to keep from prying eyes. As the details begin to piece together, someone intends to step in and silence them. By any means necessary.

Wired Truth by Toby NealWired Truth by Toby Neal:

Paradise hides a master thief.

What if diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend?

A heist at a high-end auction house sends tech specialist Sophie on a new case hunting down a thief whose skills match her own. Even as she chases a cache of precious gems, events begun in a distant land threaten the fragile happiness Sophie’s building—and an enigmatic new partner brings challenges close to home, luring Sophie into the world of vigilante justice.

All Things Considered by A.B. PlumAll Things Considered by A.B. Plum:

The police say Ryn Davis is guilty of murder.
Ryn claims she was asleep. Sound asleep. Dead-to-the-world asleep.

An insomniac with a long history of sleepwalking, night terrors, and other sleep disorders, Ryn’s dodging a life-changing decision. Should she leave her iconic rock-star lover? Is his fame and money worth his mood swings? After a particularly explosive argument, she goes to bed. He follows. The argument escalates. Exhausted, she goes to the guest bedroom. She pops a sleeping pill. Technically, a hormone. Not a drug. One melatonin, she rationalizes, determined to think more clearly.

She wakens the next morning, groggy and disoriented. Fragments of a dream fade in and out of memory. Not the argument with Stone … but something more disturbing. When she enters their bedroom, she sees him in bed—a red hibiscus blooming on his chest.

Unable to produce the melatonin bottle, Ryn acts more and more defensive and guilty. The police ridicule her testimony. Definitely bitter, can she prove how an insomniac slept through two bullets?

Honorable Death by Linda S. PratherHonorable Death by Linda S. Prather:

Detective Kacy Lang wasn’t surprised when the body of her twin brother washed up from the icy depths of the Chicago River. She’d known since the day she graduated from the academy that one day he’d wind up on her beat, and she’d have to arrest him… or kill him. She could accept the fact he’d been murdered. What she couldn’t accept was the massive torture he’d endured before his death. Someone would pay for that.

A multilayered, fast-paced archaeological dig of a mystery.

 

A Look Back by Erik RackerA Look Back by Erik Racker:

When Sergeant Brad Braun is called to a scene in a familiar location, what looks like an average murder case quickly turns into something that is far from typical. The dead man is someone from Braun’s past, and the body happens to be located in the exact spot where Braun last saw him.

With no witnesses and almost a total lack of evidence, law enforcement is scrambling for clues. Another dropped-off body quickly follows the first, left in the same spot, and Braun is once again familiar with the deceased.

As the killer claims more victims, Braun begins to connect the dots. Unfortunately, the last dot may connect straight to the sergeant himself.

Don't Lie To Me by Willow RoseDon’t Lie to Me by Willow Rose:

When twelve-year-old Sophie Williams went on a Girl Scout summer camp, she never returned home.

Three months later, her body is found inside her sleeping bag in the most frequented area of Cocoa Beach, and the town is outraged.

The girl isn’t just any child. She’s the town’s most beloved surf idol, and it was believed that she could be the next Kelly Slater.

As another child, the son of a well-known senator is kidnapped, and the parents receive a disturbing video, FBI profiler Eva Rae Thomas — who has just returned to her hometown, divorced and out of a job — plunges into the investigation, breaking her promise to her children not to do police work again.

Local law enforcement, with her old flame Matt Miller in charge, are the ones who ask for her help in a case so unsettling that only she can solve it. But the deeper they dig, the deadlier it becomes for Matt and Eva Rae. Soon, everyone she holds dear is in grave danger as this case hits a little too close to home.

DON’T LIE TO ME is the first book in the Eva Rae Thomas Mystery Series and can be read as a standalone.

Presumption of Guilt by Rachel SinclairPresumption of Guilt by Rachel Sinclair:

A wealthy family with DARK secrets.

A SHOCKING reveal that you guaranteed won’t see coming…

Avery Collins is an attorney with the tender heart of a warrior for the wrongfully accused, for one simple reason. She was once wrongfully accused, and spent 7 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit.

Now sworn to protect the indigent accused, she’s persuaded to represent Esme Guitierrez, an El Salvadoran refugee who is accused of killing 21-year-old Aria Whitmore. Aria was the daughter of the prominent billionaire hotelier Jacob Whitmore, and was also an aspiring concert pianist and music composer.

As Avery digs further into the case, she realizes that there were some sick games taking place behind the closed doors of the Whitmore mansion, and Avery ends up with more questions than answers.

What happened to Aria’s birth mother?

How did Julian Rodriguez, a young schizophrenic man, come to befriend Aria?

And who is sending threatening emails that are filled with facts that are not widely known to the public?

When Avery finds out the answers to these questions, she’s shocked. But she also realizes that the big reveal opens up more questions than answers, and the case takes an unexpected turn.

As time runs out to find the true culprit, Avery faces the trial of her life. Amidst an intense media glare, death threats, protestors and stalkers breaking into her home, Avery nonetheless gives this case her all.

Because if she doesn’t, her client will end up on death row.

Winter's Origin by Mary StoneWinter’s Origin by Mary Stone:

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And sets you on a path of revenge.

When The Preacher targets her family for his last kill, Winter Black is the only survivor. After recovering from the brain injury she received that brutal night, Winter single-mindedly pursues a career as an FBI agent. Her unexplainable talents, discovered after her coma, might be the key to taking down the notorious serial killer… unless he finds her first.

Welcome to Winter’s Origin, the prequel to the soon to be released Winter Black crime fiction series. If you enjoy gripping crime solving, hair-raising villains, and riveting suspense, then you’ll love Mary Stone’s debut page-turning series.

Storm Front by Jazzmyn StormStorm Front: Memoirs of a Secret Agent by Jazzmyn Storm:

When a spy loses her memory, she doesn’t know who to trust…or what to believe.

I felt myself flying through the air, and I was strangely calm for a moment as the reality of the situation faded away. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. I’d wake up any moment and realize it was all a bad dream.

Then, I hit the water.

What happens, when the people you thought you could trust betray you? That’s bad enough in any relationship…but when you’re a spy, it can be deadly.

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In Memoriam Martin Böttcher

German film composer Martin Böttcher (1927 – 2019) died April 19th aged 91. Once again, there is no English language obituary, but here are some German ones from Tagesschau, RP Online and Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Deutschlandfunk Kultur also has a nice profile of Martin Böttcher with some musical analysis by Oliver Schwesig.

Together with Peter Thomas and Klaus Doldinger (both of whom are still alive), Martin Böttcher formed the trifecta of the great film composers in post-war (West) Germany. All three started out as jazz musicians and those musical origins also determined the course of (West) German film music for decades.

Martin Böttcher’s early life did not seem to predispose him to a musical career. Due to a childhood injury, he was deaf in one ear and initially showed little interest in music. Instead, young Martin dreamed of becoming a pilot. Those dreams were derailed, like so many, by World War II. Böttcher was drafted towards the end of the war, when the Nazis were drafting every male German aged 16 to 60. He survived and wound up in a prisoner of war camp, where he taught himself to play the guitar. After his return home, he joined the dance orchestra of the newly established North West German radio NWDR (nowadays known as NDR) as a guitarist.

By now, Böttcher had also started composing and eventually left the orchestra to become a film composer. The first movie for which he composed the music was the otherwise forgotten 1955 war movie Der Hauptmann und sein Held (The Captain and His Hero). It’s part of a series of West German WWII movies made in the second half of the 1950s, which are quite critical of the Nazis and militarism and inevitably contrast the Nazi true believers (often officers who senselessly send soldiers to their deaths) with common soldiers who are just victims of the system. I guess the brief popularity of such movies was one way of people coming to terms with World War II. I found a trailer for Der Hauptmann und sein Held on YouTube, where you can hear Böttcher’s music.

Martin Böttcher’s next work as a film composer was a minor classic, the 1956 juvenile delinquent drama Die Halbstarken (the English title is apparently Teenage Wolfpack), starring a young Horst Buchholz, who would go on to be one of The Magnificent Seven, and an even younger Karin Baal as a teen femme fatale. Die Halbstarken is a nice period piece and important to German movie history, but I have to admit that I was kind of disappointed when I first saw it. Karin Baal is great as the bad girl with the angelic face, but Buchholz’ character basically just wants the same bourgeois 1950s life as the parent generation, he only wants to use crime as a short cut to get there. That’s not how I imagine a teen rebel. The plot is very much the filmic version of a 1950s sleaze paperback. Böttcher’s music, however, played by his own jazz group Mr. Martin’s Band*, was great. Listen for yourself:

The success of Die Halbstarken, not least because of the music, made Böttcher a very much in demand film composer. He composed the theme for the 1960s Father Brown movies starring Heinz Rühmann, which are still the most palatable version of the character, probably because they are only very loose adaptations of the stories by G.K. Chesterton. Sorry, but I just cannot abide Chesterton. Still, here is Martin Böttcher’s Father Brown theme, which was reused for the German Father Brown TV series, which ran from 2003 to 2013 and starred Ottfired Fischer.

Böttcher often worked for producer Horst Wendlandt and provided the music for several of Wendlandt’s Edgar Wallace movies such as Der Fälscher von London (The Forger of London, 1961), Das Gasthaus an der Themse (The Inn on the River, 1962) or Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967), which had the disappointing English title The College Girl Murders, though a literal translation would be “The Monk with the Whip” (which the villainous monk uses to strangle college girls). I’m a huge fan of the Wallace films and for more about this unique movie series, Edgar_Wallace. The music was a large part of what made those movies so good, though nowadays Peter Thomas is more associated with the music for the Wallace movies than Martin Böttcher. However, here is Martin Böttcher’s delightfully gothic soundtrack for Der Mönch mit der Peitsche. Naturally, considering the main villain is a monk, the theme starts off with an organ, for why not?

But Böttcher’s most famous film score would be the one he composed for Horst Wendlandt’s other series, the Winnetou movies of the 1960s, based on Karl May’s adventure novels. Ironically, Martin Böttcher himself had never read a single Winnetou novel, which must make him one of the very few Germans of his generation who did not read Karl May. When someone asked him why he didn’t read the novels, Böttcher answered, “I’ve seen every single Winnetou movie dozens of times. I know how the story goes. I don’t need to read it.”

I’ve written about the Winnetou movies and what they meant for several generations of Germans before, so let’s just listen to Martin Böttcher’s iconic Old Shatterhand theme. I suppose every German born in the past sixty years will instantly have a vision of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, portrayed by Pierre Brice and Lex Barker respectively, riding across the prairie, portrayed by a national park in what is now Croatia:

Martin Böttcher also composed the themes and incidental music for several popular TV shows such as the police procedural Sonderdezernat K1 (Special Division K1) and Forsthaus Falkenau (Forester House Falkenau). We will forgive him the last one. Meanwhile, enjoy the seventiestastic title sequence of Sonderdezernat K1 and Martin Böttcher’s theme for the show.

And because I can, here are twenty-five years worth of title sequences for Forsthaus Falkenau (yes, the darned show ran for a quarter century) with Martin Böttcher’s theme in slight variations:

So thanks for the music, Martin Böttcher, and rest in peace.

*A couple of future music stars were members of Mr. Martin’s Band. The most famous is probably trombone player Ernst Mosch, who would eventually become famous as the king of traditional brass band music. Mosch’s mere name is enough to invoke shudders of horror among those who were children in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, because he and his brass band were seemingly always on TV, always plaing the same old music. Hard to imagine that he was once a gifted jazz musician, but then a lot of talented German jazz musicians eventually wound up making terrible folk pop and Schlager music.

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The Obligatory 2019 Birthday Post

April 18 was my birthday, so this year’s birthday post is two days late, because the weekly link round-ups for the Speculative Fiction Showcase and the Indie Crime Scene as well as the review of the Star Trek Discovery season finale got in the way.

I celebrated with my parents and we had sailor’s curry (or spaceman’s curry, as I’ve renamed the dish in Freedom’s Horizon, where you can also find the recipe) for lunch. No curry pics today, because I already posted some in the old post linked above as well as on Twitter.

Afterwards, we had to go to Oldenburg to pick up my Dad’s new car. As for why we had to drive almost fifty kilometre to pick up a car, when there are umpteen car dealers closer than that – the car is a plug-in hybrid (replacing an older plug-in hybrid with a weaker battery) and not all dealers are authorised to sell them. That took quite some time, partly because there was a minor problem getting the car to recognise our phones. Traffic was really bad as well, especially since the local authorities in their infinite wisdom have decided to repave a major road in the area just before the already busy Easter weekend, so you had to take long detours to even get onto Highway A28 to Oldenburg.

When I got home, a neighbour dropped by with a bottle of wine and we chatted for a while. I didn’t do anything birthday like in the evening, largely because I was tired.

Birthday presents, wrapped.

Birthday presents, wrapped.

Of course, there were presents as well. My dad took a few photos of me unwrapping them, but unfortunately, he isn’t the world’s greatest photographer. Still, these two came out all right.

Unwrapping presents

Me unwrapping presents. Okay, so you can only see my hair, but it is me, I promise.

Unwrapping presents.

Me unwrapping presents. And this time, you can even see my face.

Because I love books, people tend to get me books. And because of online wishlists, getting books that I actually want (and don’t yet own) is much easier than it used to be. I remember painstakingly writing up lists of books I wanted and handing them out to relatives, only for half of them to ignore the list completely and others to helpfully ask, if I really wanted that book, since it appeared to be science fiction and looked somewhat scary. The book in question was an Anne McCaffrey novel (I’ve forgotten which one) and I was sixteen and therefore well able to handle whatever scares Anne McCaffrey dished up. Never mind that I actually find some of the squickier bits in those books more problematic today than at sixteen.

Birthday presents

Birthday presents unwrapped. Lots of books, bookended (quite literally) by two bottles.

It’s a somewhat ecclectic mix of books this time: Science fiction, mostly new, but also a Liaden Universe novel that was missing from my collection (the typically lurid Baen cover raised some eyebrows), crime fiction (the Locked trilogy by G.B. Williams is highly recommended BTW) and a vintage historical romance by Madeleine Brent a.k.a. Peter O’Donnell as well as wine and champagne. Regarding the champagne, in Germany it’s customary that a car dealer gives you a bottle of champagne to go with a new car (of course, the champagne is only to be drunk, once you’ve taken the car home). And once the car salesperson realised that it was my birthday, he just handed me the bottle, so I sort of appropriated it.

And that was it for my birthday. And for something else.

I’d planned to do a 2019 Hugo finalist reactions round-up, but ninety percent of the discussion this year seems to be focussed on the Hugo nomination for Archive of Our Own in the Best Related Work category. I’ve already said how I feel about that and seeing how the Archive of Our Own nomination seems to hog all the attention doesn’t make me any more inclined to vote for it.

Meanwhile, Thomas Wagner of SFF180 (which would be a fine choice in the fancast category) has put up the first of two videos reviewing the short stories nominated for the 2018 Nebula and 2019 Hugo Awards. He also briefly goes into the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate controversy at this year’s Nebulas (see my posts here, here and here). Thomas Wagner reviews the two Nebula finalists that were on the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate and is considerably less than impressed.

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Star Trek Discovery Boldly Goes Where None Has Gone Before in the Season 2 Finale

This is the last weekly Star Trek Discovery review for the time being, since the season finale aired last night. For my takes on previous episodes, go here BTW.

Warning! Spoilers behind the cut! Continue reading

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Ian McEwan is Clueless about Science Fiction

I have to admit that I never liked Ian McEwan. He always struck me as the sort of white middle class dude novelist who believes that his white middle class dude stories are somehow of universal human relevance. I disliked Atonement intensely and didn’t feel much more charitable towards Saturday and On Chesil Beach, all of which came out when I was at university or – in the case of On Chesil Beach – shortly after I finished and the writings of important and award winning white dude novelists were something I was supposed to care about. Coincidentally, I just realised that McEwan has published four novels plus a fifth, which will be the subject of this post, since On Chesil Beach, all of which completely passed me by, which shows that once I finished university I stopped paying attention to writers whose work I don’t like. Or maybe McEwan’s cultural relevance is fading and his latter books got less attention than his earlier ones.

Besides, McEwan is the sort of writer who inevitably has to weigh in on every political issue and is usually on the wrong side. He made islamophobic remarks, was in favour of the Iraq War and criticised anti-war protesters (though he has since admitted that he was wrong and the protesters right – well, better late than never). Though amazingly, he is opposed to Brexit, so maybe he really has learned. And then there is the appalling treatment of his first wife, who apparently embarassed him in front of his cool friends, because she was into New Age stuff. His Wikipedia entry has the whole ugly story with links and sources.

So in short, I don’t like Ian McEwan and I don’t care for his work. And when I saw that he had a new book out called Machines Like Me, which was apparently about artificial intelligence, I groaned and thought, “Oh great, another white dude novelist who deigns to descend from literary heights and either believes he invented science fiction or that he doesn’t write it at all. And I bet the novel is totally unoriginal and tells a story that has been done to death.” Then I went about my day, cause I stopped caring about what Ian McEwan wrote when I finished university.

However, other folks still pay attention to what Ian McEwan says or does and so Tim Adams’ recent interview with Ian McEwan in The Guardian caught some attention among genre folks for the complete and utter cluelessness both interviewer and interviewee display about science fiction.

Here is a quote:

McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

I guess even at The Guardian (which actually does a pretty good job of covering genre fiction otherwise) you could hear the groans from science fiction folks, as they wonder how McEwan has managed to miss that science fiction has done all that and asked precisely those questions and has done it for decades. And indeed, D. Franklin asks exactly that question in this excellent Twitter thread, which is also full of suggestions for books and movies (There are responses like, “But surely he has seen 2001 or Blade Runner or Humans or Avengers: Age of Ultron or Ex Machina or Star Trek: The Next Generation?”) to fill Ian McEwan’s and Tim Adams’ knowledge gap. And finally, someone also asks, “But surely he has read at least Frankenstein?”

Well, apparently McEwan has read Frankenstein, he just didn’t get it, at any rate if this quote from the interview is any indication:

In this sense, you might say, he is coming at the AI question from the opposite angle to Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. “There the monster is a metaphor for science out of control, but it is ourselves out of control that I am interested in.”

ETA: It turns out that they really did hear the groans at The Guardian, for on April 18, they published a piece of Sarah Ditum about how the snobbery of Ian McEwan and other literary authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and yes, Margaret Atwood, is somewhat behind the times, especially since Margaret Atwood has embraced the science fiction label by now and Nabokov is too dead to comment. Sarah Ditum also tries to explain where the snobbery against science fiction came from and that it is usually based on outdated ideas about the genre. Finally, she also interviews authors who proudly write science fiction and who straddle the line between literary and science fiction. It’s a much better and more interesting article than the Ian McEwan interview that inspired it.

ETA 2: At Factor Daily, Gautham Shenoy also responds to Ian McEwan and declares that McEwan displays a remarkable amount of ignorance for a Booker Prize winner.

Of course, it’s possible that McEwan was misquoted or his words taken out of context, as some folks in the comments at File 770 wonder. After all, we’ve seen again and again when writers normally known for literary fiction suddenly decide to write science fiction that even if the writer in question isn’t clueless about science fiction, a lot of mainstream critics are and reviews and interviews tend to reflect that. One example is Frank Schätzing‘s 2009 novel Limit, a science fiction novel (though marketed as a thriller) wherein a space elevator plays a role. Now Schätzing himself definitely isn’t clueless about science fiction, but every single mainstream review of the novel focussed so totally on the space elevator and what an awesome innovative idea it was that they completely forgot to mention what the novel actually was about (aside from a space elevator, obviously) or whether it was any good. Interviews were just as bad, because Schätzing found himself having to explain what a space elevator is and how it works over and over again and wasn’t even asked a single question about the rest of the novel.

So in short, it’s quite possible that interviewer Tim Adams quoted McEwan out of context, especially since The Guardian article is not a direct interview transcript, but rather a profile with quotes. However in the comments at File 770, John S. linked to two more articles about McEwan’s newest novel, which seem to confirm that he really is as clueless as he comes across.

The first of this is an article by Matt Reynolds in Wired, a source no one would accuse of being clueless about science fiction, which literally starts out with the sentence “Ian McEwan has no interest in science fiction.”

The second article, an interview conducted by Barry Didcock and published in the Scottish newspaper The Herald, is even more damning. Here is a quote:

“One of the reasons I’ve never been a fan of science fiction is that by setting a novel in the future it always has a vaguely predictive quality. The chances of it being right are minimal,” he says. “The other is the technological stuff. Although I’m fascinated by science in general, my toes curl when people are crossing the universe at a trillion times the speed of light because the empiricist in me is saying ‘Well if they’re exceeding the speed of light, then we have to have a whole new physics’.”

Oh dear, so McEwan is a mundane science fiction adherent, too, not that he has ever heard of the term. Not to mention that even if FTL breaks his suspension of disbelief, there are still plenty of science fiction novels for him to read without a whiff of FTL.

Let’s have another quote from The Herald interview:

He isn’t over-fond of other labels for it either, such as speculative fiction or alternative history. “I think it lies along the path of many of my earlier novels. I think of it as a literary novel.” But he does admit that besides allowing him to have Turing as a character, the alternate 1982 setting makes him “immune from any of the demands of the realistic novel, which I’ve been in flight from for these last few novels. I spent years writing novels which I patiently researched to get everything right and getting everything right is incredibly hard. You always get letters correcting you on this and that. Here, I’m beyond correction because everything is fake. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

And here we have the classic, “I’m not writing science fiction or speculative fiction or alternate history [except that he totally is], I’m writing literary fiction.” Plus, he apparently opted to set his novel in an alternate 1982 with robots and a living Alan Turing, because he was too lazy to do his research, which is certainly something. Though I guess we should be grateful that McEwan didn’t opt to write about an alternate reality where the Nazis won WWII, cause that has totally never been done before.

Now I really wish the endless literary vs. genre fiction debate would die already and I’m not a fan of the blanket dismissals of literary fiction you find in some corners of SFF either. I’ve repeatedly defended Margaret Atwood, who still gets dinged for something dismissive about science fiction (it’s about giant squids) she said in an interview more than ten years ago. Never mind that we still don’t know the full context of the “giant squid” remark and likely never will, unless the BBC releases the full radio interview during which said remark was made. And never mind that Margaret Atwood has repeatedly clarified what she meant and has actually outed herself as a fan of sorts (she read superhero comics and Weird Tales as a kid) since. Large parts of the SFF community still hate her for the “giant squid” remark and wouldn’t even nominate The Handmaid’s Tale TV series for a Hugo two years in a row (while nominating two episodes each of the execrable Good Place in 2018 and 2019), because the TV show which won every award imaginable in 2017/2018 isn’t good enough for the Hugos, cause some people hate the author of the novel the series is based upon.

Not to mention that there is a lot of very good SFF published outside the genre, e.g. Zone One and Underground Railroad (which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Clarke Award) by Colson Whitehead, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (as well as Gentlemen of the Road and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which are at least genre-adjacent) by Michael Chabon, The Power by Naomi Alderman, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Vox by Christina Dalcher, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas and yes, The Handmaid’s Tale as well as The Heart Goes Last and the MaddAdam trilogy by Margaret Atwood.

But whenever it seems that we can finally lay the old genre vs. literary fiction debate to rest for good, some white dude literary writer, usually of the critically acclaimed sort, comes along and writes the world’s most cliched science fiction novel, only that he of course would never lower himself to write SF, oh no. And based on the interviews and articles linked above, Machines Like Me does sound like the world’s most cliched science fiction novel. I mean, the robot models are named Adam and Eve. There is a love triangle involving a sexbot (actually, if those robots have any other purpose than sex, it’s not discernible from the articles). There is the question whether robots can distinguish between justice and mercy, a debate that Elijah Bailey and Daneel R. Olivaw already has in The Caves of Steel sixty-five years ago. And based on this excerpt from the Times Literary Supplement, the novel is just as bad as it sounds. The infodump in the second excerpt is particularly groan-worthy. Though at least we learn that the robots aren’t good only for sex, but also give cooking advice and vet potential dates for you.

ETA: According to this largely positive review by Marcel Theroux from The Guardian (though he does criticise the infodumps), McEwan also explains the technical details of how his robot Adam is able to able to achieve erections, for those who really care about the tech specs of sexbots. This book really seems to be veering off into Alfred and Bertha territory.

ETA 2: Here is another review of Machines Like Me. This one is by Julian Lucas in The New Yorker. Once more, the review is largely positive, though Julian Lucas is less clueless about science fiction than Ian McEwan.

Honestly, when I read about Machines Like Me, I kept thinking: This has to be an elaborate parody. Not even Ian McEwan could be so clueless. After all, he’s friends with Martin Amis, as every article unfailingly notes (well, they’re both the same kind of unpleasant white dude novelists). McEwan must have known Kingsley Amis or at least met him. And Kingsley Amis could have told him how very cliched his “not really SF” novel was.

But alas, it seems that McEwan is one hundred percent serious and truly has no idea how silly and cliched the plot of Machines Like Me sounds. So I’d like to close with this great 2011 article, also from The Guardian, by the late Iain M. Banks, which Gareth L. Powell mentioned on Twitter. Banks couldn’t possibly have known about Ian McEwan’s totally original, never done before “not science fiction” novel, though the hypothetical example of a clueless literary writer pitching the world’s most cliched mystery novel certainly sounds like he was taking aim at McEwan (though there are so many other examples).

So let’s have a quote from Iain M. Banks:

The point is that science fiction is a dialogue, a process. All writing is, in a sense; a writer will read something – perhaps something quite famous, even a classic – and think “But what if it had been done this way instead…?” And, standing on the shoulders of that particular giant, write something initially similar but developmentally different, so that the field evolves and further twists and turns are added to how stories are told as well as to the expectations and the knowledge of pre-existing literary patterns readers bring to those stories. Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what’s been done, what’s been superseded, what’s so much part of the furniture it’s practically part of the fabric now, what’s become no more than a joke… and so on. It’s just plain foolish, as well as comically arrogant, to ignore all this, to fail to do the most basic research. In a literature so concerned with social as well as technical innovation, with the effects of change – incremental as well as abrupt – on individual humans and humanity as whole, this is a grievous, fundamentally hubristic mistake to commit.

And here is the moneyshot:

In the end, writing about what you know – that hoary and potentially limiting, even stultifying piece of advice – might be best seen as applying to the type of story you’re thinking of writing rather than to the details of what happens within it and perhaps, with that in mind, a better precept might be to write about what you love, rather than what you have a degree of contempt for but will deign to lower yourself to, just to show the rest of us how it’s done.

This last bit of advice applies not just to literary writers dabbling in SFF, by the way, but indeed to all writers, including indie writers who write romance, because they think it’s easy money, though they have no real knowledge of and respect for the genre and would rather write something else.

So write what you love. And have some knowledge of the genre you’re planning to write.

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Star Trek Discovery jerks the old tear ducts again in the aptly named “Such Sweet Sorrow”

Welcome back to our regularly scheduled Star Trek Discovery episode by episode review. Yesterday’s episode “Such Sweet Sorrow” was the penultimate episode of the second season and I for one am pretty glad that season 2 will soon be over, probably because I was ill for at least half the season and doing these reviews became unexpectedly exhausting. For my take on previous episodes, go here.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut! Continue reading

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Star Trek Discovery passes “Through the Valley of Shadows”

I’m still not fully recovered from the flu from hell, but here is your regularly scheduled Star Trek Discovery review. For my take on previous episodes, go here.

Warning! Spoilers under the cut! Continue reading

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Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part II: The 2019 Hugo Awards

And here is part II of my overview of the 2019 Hugo Award and 1944 Retro Hugo Award finalists, this time with the 2019 Hugo Award finalists. Part I with my take on the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists is here.

If you want to check out the 2019 Hugo Award finalists and don’t want to wait for the voter packet (or are not a WorldCon 77 member), JJ has compiled a list where to find them for free online at File 770.

Now I was largely happy with the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists. A lot of great works recognised, only one lackluster category and one finalist I flat out hate. My feelings on the 2019 Hugo Award finalists are a lot more mixed. There is a lot here I like and also a lot I don’t particularly care for.

So let’s take a look at the individual categories: Continue reading

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Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part I: The 1944 Retro Hugo Awards

So the finalists for the 2019 Hugo Awards and the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards were announced today. This time, the announcement manages not to coincide with any major holidays of any world religion, though personally I really prefer it, when they announce on a weekend rather than a weekday. It’s also kind of annoying that the announcement for both sets of awards is made in the same post, which means that you have to scroll down past the current year Hugos to get to the Retro Hugos.

So let’s take a look at the nominees. Retro Hugos first, than the current year Hugos in part II, which may be found here:

The most remarkable thing about the 1944 Retro Hugos is that there is no Heinlein. Not a single Heinlein story was nominated for the Retro Hugos this year, not because fandom has suddenly lost its taste for Heinlein, but because Heinlein was too busy in 1943 testing military equipment at the Navy Yard* to write science fiction. Also notable by his absence (except for one fairly obscure story) is Isaac Asimov, who was also too busy testing military equipment at the Navy Yard to write, though unlike Heinlein, Asimov didn’t have a choice, because he was at danger of being drafted and expected (not without justification) that he’d be killed if he were ever taken prisoner, as Alec Nevala-Lee describes in his (excellent) chronicle of the Golden Age and what followed Astounding.

World War II also took other Golden Age stalwarts such as Lester Del Rey (also busily doing something at the Navy Yard) and L. Ron Hubbard (busily shooting at phantom subs off the Mexican coast) out of the game, leaving the field open for other voices and the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists certainly reflect that. This is a good thing, because it means that writers who are not normally recognised by the Retro Hugo Awards (though some of them have been recognised by the regular Hugos) finally get their dues.

So let’s take a look at the individual categories: Continue reading

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First Monday Free Fiction: Egg Hunt

April 1 is a Monday this year, therefore it’s time for the second edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for exactly one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

Egg Hunt by Cora BuhlertAnd since Easter is later this month, what story could be more fitting than Egg Hunt, an Easter mystery from my Helen Shepherd Mysteries series? This one is technically a novelette, since it’s just over the 7500 word mark.

So follow Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and her team as they tackle the mysterious case of a priceless Fabergé egg that has gone missing from the London home of a Russian oligarch.

 

 

This story was available for free on this blog for one month only, but you can still read it in Egg Hunt. And if you click on the First Monday Free Fiction tag, you can read this month’s free story.

 

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