In the Teeth of the Evidence

Interesting novels of growing up in very different circumstances, and a bunch of crime novels.

Issue #23, Sunday 5th June 2022

Bookish News

New Releases

Not a lot caught my eye this time, but I liked the look of this one (and I’m a sucker for good covers). It looks like fun.

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief weaves the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.

Buy it at Readings

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey

I finally got to read this and complete the Expanse series of SF novels. I’ve now read or re-read all nine novels in the series this calendar year and I really ought to write a comprehensive review of the whole series, but that’s going to be a very big undertaking which I don’t have time and energy to do now. And in any case the result will probably be too long to appear in this little newsletter, but is more likely to appear in Perry Middlemiss’s Alien Review fanzine (if so, I’ll link to it from here, so you won’t miss out).

Suffice it to say that I greatly enjoyed Leviathan Falls, which very neatly brings to a satisfactory end this long series, throughout which the cast of characters has developed and aged in a convincing manner, not something you see often in SF, or certainly not at this scale. And I thought that the science fictional element of a lurking inter-dimensional alien presence which is infuriated by the actions of sentient beings without in any way understanding them, is a clever spin on typical SF tropes.

Buy it at Readings.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein.

Also finally, I managed to get back to this book and complete it, and I’m glad that I did. The first in Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet”, it is told in the first person by Elena Greco and details her childhood and adolescence growing up in a poor quarter of Naples, where violence, or the threat of violence, always seems to be hanging in the air. In particular, the book focuses, as the title would suggest, on Elena’s friend Lila Cerullo, the daughter of a shoemaker. Lila is fiercely independent and intelligent and pushes Elena to match her in school subjects including Latin and then Greek. Yet eventually Lila’s family are too poor to allow her to continue at school, while Elena’s parents are pressured by her teacher to let her continue.

The confusions of childhood and the fears and emotional turmoil of adolescence are convincingly depicted here, as is the shifting relationship between the two friends, the complex interactions of the people living in the neighbourhood, and the sudden outbursts of violence among people living at the edge of poverty.

“Elena Ferrante” is known to be a pseudonym, and there have been a number of attempts to guess the real name and background of the author, even one suggestion that the author might be male, which I would be astonished to discover. The book seems (to me, at least) to be founded in real, lived experience.

I really enjoyed this, and I’ll definitely be going on to the other novels in the quartet.

Buy it at Readings.

Milk Teeth by Helene Bukowski

Translated by Jennifer Calleja

This is an interestingly-different post-apocalyptic novel, where the apocalypse is not a sudden disaster, just life steadily getting worse for people over a matter of years. It’s told from the first person point of view of Skalde, a young woman living in “the territory” which seems to be a large island. At some time in the recent past, the inhabitants blew up the bridge across the river which gave access to the rest of the world and are determined to keep others out. The climate is slowly getting hotter, year after year, and crops are beginning to fail.

Skalde lives with an older woman Edith, who seems half-crazy or bogged down by depression, and who doesn’t so much bring up Skalde as live in the same house while Skalde raises herself. It takes a while before it’s clear that Edith is actually Skalde’s mother.

While Skalde’s life is not easy—supplies are becoming hard to get—there’s a settled nature to it, which is completely disrupted when one day, she discovers a young girl wandering in the nearby forest. At first the girl barely speaks, but it’s clear that she’s a stranger: Skalde knows everyone who lives in the territory. And the girl has startlingly red hair. Not knowing what else to do, Skalde takes the girl back to the house. This sets off a series of ugly confrontations with the other people of the territory, who hate and fear outsiders. Skalde is forced to defend the child and her own action in taking her in. Ultimately everything is changed.

The themes of climate change and xenophobia are well explored here, and the prose, beautifully clear in this translation, has a powerful effect.

Buy it at Readings.

Three SF/Fantasy Novellas

The following three novellas have all been nominated for the 2022 Hugo Awards, which will be presented later this year at the World SF Convention in Chicago. I’ve been reading them for an upcoming episode of our podcast. We’ll be covering all of the works nominated for the fiction categories of the Hugo.

I’m running out of time and space to cover these in detail in this issue. Suffice it to say that I was disappointed by the McGuire, which started very well but then petered out into not very much; the Harrow was quite a fun spin on the Sleeping Beauty story; and the Tchaikovsky was a pretty well done piece of SF which at first you think is fantasy, told in alternating chapters from the points of view of two very different characters.

Not Previously Reviewed

These three books were read for a Crime Fiction episode of our podcast. I didn’t cover them fully in the last issue of Through the Biblioscope, so I’m catching up here.

Those Who Perish by Emma Viskic

This is the fourth and apparently final book in Viskic's series of crime novels featuring Caleb Zelic, a deaf (or almost deaf) private investigator.

I've enjoyed this series so far, and I have been impressed by how the author deals with her protagonist's deafness and how he struggles to overcome it in carrying out his investigations. She also deals very knowledgeably with the Deaf community and the use of sign language.

However, Caleb is in several ways an annoying character, getting involved in matters which he really ought to leave alone. I really don't much like books where you're all the time saying in your head to the character, "you idiot, don't do that!".

In the past, this characteristic has put those close to him, particularly his Koori wife Kat, in great danger. This impulsiveness and failure to think through consequences on his behalf has led Kat several times to break off with Caleb. As this novel opens, though, the two are reconciled and Kat is in the late stages of pregnancy. Based on his behaviour in the previous books in the series you feel sure, however, that Caleb will find a way to stuff it up, and of course he does.

So that's a pretty good set up for an interesting story. Unfortunately, I found this particular book disapointing. It was unsatisfying and annoying on several counts. There are quite a number of plot threads that just don't seem to hold up when you look back at them and try to make sense of them. As you're reading the book, you kind of accept things as they go past, but later, you think back and say to yourself "Hang on a minute....".

For example, at the start of the novel, we have Caleb racing back to his home town, Resurrection Bay, from Melbourne. He's racing to get there on the basis of an anonymous text message telling him that his brother Anton will be in danger, in a specific place on the foreshore, at a particular time, early in the morning, three and a bit hours after the message is sent. When Caleb finally gets there, sure enough, there's a sniper taking potshots and Anton is hiding in some bushes. But exactly why this is happening, and who sent this text message, why they sent it, how they could be sure Caleb would notice and read it in the middle of the night (he’s deaf, right?) and how they knew about this danger almost four hours before it occurs, is to my mind never satisfactorily explained. Maybe I missed something but it just doesn’t add up.

After the shooting incident, Anton disappears yet again. Later Caleb discovers that his brother, who is a drug addict who had gone missing for six months prior to this, is now at a rehabilitation centre on a nearby island. Caleb takes the ferry across to track him down and work out what's going on.

There's a complicated plot in which Caleb seems to be floundering around getting himself into more and more danger, investigating things on the island which seem suspicious to him and making enemies along the way. And soon he's putting his wife Kat in danger again, not to mention his unborn child. She's rightly pissed off by this.

However there are indeed, a number of mysteries to do with the rehabilitation centre, the island and its inhabitants. Something dodgy is definitely going on.

I don't want to give away the resolution of the book, but the biggest disappointment to me was the way what is going on on the island is explained. It's yet another one of the those points where a short while after finishing the book you go "Hang on...". The scheme involves a dodgy, highly secret activity, so secret that people are being blackmailed or killed to keep it secret. But later on you say to yourself: "How exactly are these people making any money from this scheme?". It just doesn't make sense to me.

So yes, I found it very disappointing, which is a pity for the way the series to conclude.

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

A complete change of pace, or at least venue, by this Irish writer who is now an Australian resident.

McTiernan's previous three novels were all set in Galway in Ireland and feature her detective Cormac Reilly. This new novel, however, is set in the United States, and the protagonist is a young woman, Hannah Rokeby.

The very opening of the book is a series of emails between Hannah and a Professor Robert Parekh who runs "The Innocence Project", which is a group of lawyers and volunteer law students who seek out cases where they believe innocent people have been convicted of serious crimes and do what they can to overturn those convictions.

Hannah is clearly desperate to join the Innocence Project. Told it's too late to apply to volunteer, she clumsily attempts to blackmail Parekh, who then agrees to see her, not because the blackmail succeeds, but because he's intrigued by her "out of the box" approach. I thought this was very dubious, to be honest. Competition among students is extremely high, entry has closed, but he lets in someone who has proved herself to act unethically? Nevertheless, he lets her join.

However. we quickly learn that Hannah is joining the Project with an ulterior motive, related to the experiences of her mother Laura, who is now a needy alcoholic. We progressively get to read excerpts from Laura's diary, written before Hannah's birth. Hannah has apparently found this diary by accident and is fired up about what occurred to her mother. The Innocence Project is trying to free a man called Michael Dandridge who has been in jail for 11 years after being convicted of the murder and rape of a young mother. Professor Parkeh and the other volunteers seem convinced of Dandridge's innocence because of the very dubious evidence used against him.

However we quickly begin to understand that Hannah is there to sabotage the efforts of The Innocence Project to free Dandridge, because of the allegations Laura makes against Dandridge in her diary.

Hannah is quite ruthless in her approach and secretly carries out a series of unethical actions—including in one case, a very cruel action against one of the other volunteers.

So the interest in the novel is in Laura's story as it is gradually revealed through excerpts from her diary, and in the success or failure of Hannah's sabotage. It's quite an engaging read, but in the end there were a number of things which didn't really work for me.

I'm trying not to give away too much about the plot, so I won't reveal how it turns out. But I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that there's eventually a dramatic courtroom scene, which I found simply unbelievable. I'm certainly not an expert on American legal practice, but so far as I can tell the judge hearing the case allows Hannah an absurd amount of latitude and allows evidence to be tabled which I'm pretty sure would be instantly rejected in a real court of law.

And the other thing I found hard to take was that at the end Hannah's unethical and cruel actions have been rather glossed over by the other characters, and she doesn't really suffer any consequences for them, though they have pretty much destroyed the life of one of their fellow workers, who doesn't seem to get any say in this.

The City & The City by China Miéville

The City & The City opens as though it were a simple procedural crime novel. It’s written from the first-person point of view of police Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in the city of Besźel. He’s at the crime scene in a piece of waste ground where a young woman’s body has been discovered, covered up by an old mattress. She’s been struck on the head by some heavy object and then stabbed. There's nothing on the body to identify her, and it's clear she was killed somewhere else and brought here to hide.

So far, it seems just the start to a solid crime novel. But we’re smoothly, very slowly, introduced to the fact that there’s something very strange about the city. In fact, there are two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, strangely intersecting or intermingling with each other at many points. These are in fact, the capitals of two independent countries, speaking different languages, and having different cultures and cusines. Yet they are not merely next to each other, but intertwined. However the inhabitants of each city have been trained from childhood not to pay any conscious attention to those who live in the other city, or to the buildings and streets which lie in that other place, even if those buildings are right next door to each other. This filtered view is not merely a mechanical following of rules, but has become deeply inherent to the subconscious of the inhabitants of both cities. They know intellectually that the other people and buildings are there, but they do not consciously give them any attention. In fact, to notice or interact with the other city's places or its people, is to be in breach, and we eventually learn that there's a mysterious and very powerful entity called Breach which enforces this strange system.

None of this, by the way, is happening on another planet. We're made aware early on that Besźel and Ul Qoma are set somewhere in our own contemporary world. Their citizens visit other countries like Turkey and England, and the Americans and Canadians are involved in trading with the two cities.

But in a way, that's all background. The main thrust of the book is solution of the crime, the unravelling of what has happened to this young woman and why. If not for the fantastic background, you would simply say that this is a top-notch procedural crime novel, with interesting, well-depicted characters and an engaging plot.

Inspector Borlú eventually discovers that while the body was found in his own city of Besźel, the murder actually occured in Ul Qoma. His superiors send him to Ul Qoma to cooperate with the police there to try to solve the murder. Though the two cities are intermingled with each other, this is like travelling to a foreign country. The local police treat Borlú at first with a degree of hostility and contempt, but he eventually settles into a working relationship with a senior detective in the Ul Qoma police force.

The working out of solution of the crime is done very solidly. We get a good insight into the character and motivations of the victim and why she was killed. What happened to her is by no means incidental to the strange intermingling of Besźel and Ul Quoma, but driven by her obsessive research into the idea that there is a third city secretly existing between the two. When we find out the murderer's identity and their reasons for killing the young woman, they make perfect sense.

But all along we have this strange scenario of the two cities which is absolutely fascinating. There are several things about it which are never fully explained, such who founded the cities and what technology they might have had (on-site archaelogy is revealing some puzzlingly advanced objects beneath the cities), how the cities split up (or were they always split?), who exactly controls the Breach entity and where its advanced technology comes from. But these are pleasant mysteries which I for one was happy for the author to leave unresolved.

This is certainly the best fusion of the crime and science fiction genres that I've ever read. In fact, one of the best books I've read this year.

Footnote: The ebook edition I bought through Kobo, from, is very badly formatted, and there are some odd things about it: the ź character in the name of the city Besźel isn't rendered as an ordinary Unicode character for some reason, but as little individual images, which some ereaders like Kobo's don't show. I was able to figure this out because ebooks from Tor don't have digital rights management applied so it's easy to go in with an ebook editing tool like the one in Calibre and see what's going on. Needless to say I fixed all of these issues.

Waiting on the Shelf

Here, literally, is the shelf. And this doesn’t even include the ebooks I have lined up!

How many of these I’ll get through is an open question!

And that’s going to have to be your lot for this issue. A three week gap since the last issue meant there was more than usual to cover this time. But I should be back in a fortnight.

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