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IYCRMM: Four women and two men

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Forget the notion about women authors and chick-lit; here, we have four ladies exploring dark humor, end-of-days SciFi, historical fiction, and outrageous comedy. And our male writers aren’t slouches either; we present a music-related mystery and an environmental social comedy. Happy New Year!

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She’s A Killer by Kirsten McDougall

Set in a near-future New Zealand, this novel imagines a world teetering on environmental collapse, and with New Zealand seen as a haven for wealthy people fleeing their respective countries. They’re called wealthugees and they’ve become a controversial political issue. We’re then introduced to Alice, a 30-something near-genius with an IQ of 159; but with no social filter and a resolute slacker, still living with her mother – but they only communicate via Morse code. She meets wealthugee Pablo, who comes from London and China, is a banker, and into Russian literature. Against all odds, they hit it off and a weird, unconventional erotic relationship commences. Pablo is working on his divorce; and we then meet Erika, his true genius of a daughter.

The novel then evolves into a dystopian climate action thriller. Alice talks to herself, seeing an imaginary friend, and plots to destroy the marriage of her best friend Amy, and Amy’s architect husband Pete. The bonding that happens between Alice and 15-year old, but highly precocious, Erika, is a storyline on its own – and is an integral part of what makes this story genuinely interesting. You won’t meet the likes of Alice or Erika on most days, so it is a vicarious joy to read about this odd, highly gifted couple; and how they bounce off each other. Is Erika even Pablo’s real daughter, and when Alice follows her one day, did Erika really kill a woman with ruthless efficiency? And is Erika just one cog in the wheel of a machine/secret organization bent on “saving” New Zealand? And would a slacker like Alice even care?

The Future by Naomi Alderman

SciFi in the hands of Alderman will always be a trip and a half. She’s the author of “The Power,” a story about women empowerment via supernatural powers, which was turned into a Limited Series on TV. In this latest novel, she takes as a premise how power begets power, and corrupts. Three tech billionaires have banded together in a clandestine manner, and built a safe bunker where they wait out the cataclysmic event that their technology predicts… and can manipulate. With domination and amassing even more power on their minds, it doesn’t take much to glean who Alderman has designated as the villains in this novel. Martha Einkorn is secretary to one of the three billionaires, Lenk Skeltish. Then there Lai Zhen, a survivalist, who we first meet in Singapore.

Martha and Zhen are our star-crossed protagonists, and lovers. Martha is part of a secret group composed of Selah (wife of Zimri, who like Lenk is one of the tech billionaires), of Badger (son of Ellen, who is the third in the billionaire troika), and Zabowski – the man who Ellen toppled to take over the company. It’s while fleeing an assassin in Singapore that Zhen discovers AUGR, an app that ends up saving her, but was implanted by Martha in a gross violation of privacy. See the companies of these billionaires as archetypes for Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft; and you’ll understand the concern Alderman has for how these companies permeate life around the globe and can, at times, act with more impunity than individual nations. There’s a note of optimism that closes the novel; that with drastic moves, the solution can be found.

The Glutton by A. K. Blakemore

Set in 1798 France, this is a vivid retelling of the life of a minor character/sideshow performer of the era. The Great Tarare, known as the Glutton of Lyon, would best be described as a Paul Bunyan-type legend, larger than life, and who knows if the story that comes down in history even contains more than a kernel of truth. But what Blakemore does is bring to life this historical oddity in lyrical prose – beautiful, even when describing the grotesque. He was reputed to eat anything; cats, rats, belts, a fork, 75 eggs in one sitting, and even a child. From a Wikipedia mention one could easily ignore, Blakemore has crafted a sensuous, stark, and eye-popping narrative. Her origins as a poet are always in evidence, with language so lush.

It’s a time of upheaval in France, when the aristocracy was an endangered species; and what Blakemore brilliantly executes is that against a backdrop as volatile as the 18th century French history, she offers this very up-close, intimate voyage of person-discovery. The Tarare she gives birth to is a delicate, fragile figure, homosexual before there was meaning to the term, and sensitive to a fault. His upbringing as the illegitimate son of the village whore is just one of the building blocks utilized to explain his behavior and this unnatural hunger. Yes, it’s obviously for food and sustenance, but there’s also the hunger for belonging, for beauty, and for comfort. Episodes as a circus performer, in the military, and as a spy all add to the picaresque. Blakemore is careful to always humanize Tarare and not turn him into a misshapen caricature. It’s a beautiful balancing act.

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The Chancer by Fiona Graham

Here’s comedy writing that knows how to turn situational comedy into a leprechaun’s pot of gold. Donnie McNamara lives in the west coast of Ireland, and is considered an abject failure in his father’s eyes, who thinks his daughter and the simpleton farm-hand are better equipped to run the farm than his head-in-the-clouds son. In the clouds of Los Angeles, as Donnie dreams of being a Hollywood star, convinced that acting is his calling. It doesn’t matter that the only lead role he’s taken is for a production of Grease that was meant to be held in an old folks home. But unfortunately, was going to happen the same night as Donnie’s sister wedding and so he had to scratch. Abe Nelson is a fallen Hollywood legend, now condemned to LA dive bars and bitterly reminiscing about the past.

It’s when Donnie finally makes the break for Hollywood, and encounters Abe that the comedy potential of this novel rises a notch, and hits its stride. Abe mentoring Donnie becomes a hilarious storyline, as is the arrival in LA of Francis and Kathy – Kathy being Donnie’s newly married sister, and Francis the perpetual thorn in the side of Donnie’s life. It’s bad enough that Francis is now “family”; what makes it worse is that Francis wants to stay in LA with Donnie for highly dubious reasons, and even acts as if he’s Donnie’s manager. A guesting on the most popular late night talk show, being filmed at the fabled Troubadour works as the set piece when everything comes to a climax. There’s a lot of Irish charm in this novel, and it never strays to become too ludicrous or outlandish. The pitfalls of wanting to make it in Hollywood is at the narrative’s core, but it’s how Graham utilizes it via her winning characters that keeps us turning the pages.

Symphony of Secrets by Brendan Slocumb

Here’s a novel that will take you by surprise. At its core, it’s about American musical composers, their legacy, and how their names and music are enshrined. But in the same breath, Slocumb succeeds in turning this into a mystery page-turner; one that speaks of modern research, history as a search engine, and how racism and exclusivity persists through Time. At the center of the narrative is Frederic Delaney, a composer from the 1920’s to 30’s, heralded as a genius. But whose career mysteriously took a nosedive right before his early death in the mid-30’s. And there’s Josephine Reed, an African- American woman from North Carolina who traveled to New York and had some kind of relationship with Delaney – but of what exact nature, is an elusive answer.

Then in the present day, we have Bern Hendricks a music professor who idolizes Delaney, and his tech savvy friend Eboni Washington. When Bern is asked to authenticate what could be the long lost first draft of Delaney’s Red concerto, he enlists Eboni to help him, and they uncover secrets that the Delaney Foundation may best want to keep covered forever. It’s two young African-Americans striving to correct an historical oversight and strong case of cultural appropriation – if not outright theft. As they’re up against a long established and super connected Foundation, it’s easy to guess where this novel is headed. An exciting thriller mystery that deals with musical composition and historical larceny is what we get and it’s a page-turner that constantly surprises. Josie Reed is a wonderfully realized character, someone who today doctors would have a field day diagnosing; but in the 1920’s would just have to survive.

Blue Skies by T. C. Boyle

Be forewarned that T. C. Boyle is back in form with this satirical eco-drama/social lesson. Here, Boyle imagines a near future where global warming has severely compromised the coastal cities on both sides of the United States. In California, we meet Cooper, an entomologist, his fiancee Mari, and Cooper’s parents, Otillie and Frank. Cooper is out to save endangered insect populations, but gets bitten by a tick and catches something rather severe. In Florida, we encounter Cooper’s sister, social media influencer Cat, who sees snakes as living jewelry that she has to possess. Todd is Cat’s boyfriend and they’re about to get married as well. Flitting between both coast we get a glimpse of life in an environmentally challenged USA.

Todd is a Bacardi ambassador, traveling all over the world to help market the rum brand. Naturally, this puts a strain on the relationship and marriage. What doesn’t help is the alcohol consumption that’s prevalent on both coasts and covers most of the main characters in the novel. The snake, a Burmese python, that Cat does buy and names Willie plays a major role in what transpires tragically on the Florida side of things. Cooper eventually gets his own brush with Fate and it really looks like this family has got the short end of the stick when it comes to luck. What Boyle effectively caricatures is a materialist society caught up in a waterlogged, or drought-ridden America of the near-future. There’s bleak comedy and serious commentary – absurd, sad, and oh so real.

*****
Credit belongs to : www.mb.com.ph

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