Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman
The extinction rebellion movement and environmental science get the spotlight in this latest dark comedy from Beauman. Beauman has, over several novels, turned into a very singular write, mixing dark and existential comedy, with major issues and cutting social commentary. In this latest, he posits two main protagonists, who in a normal situation would have been mortal adversaries and have nothing in common. There’s Karen Resaint, a marine biologist, and there’s Mark Halyard, a deep sea mining executive. Set in the near future, when so many species have gone extinct, and it’s only thin frozen slices of their brain that remain—in some hope that in the future, they may be recreated—the two have to collaborate to find the last surviving lumpsuckers.
Why they have to team up has to do with some financial wrongdoing that Halyard was up to, and now needs surviving lumpsuckers to keep him out of prison for crimes against Nature. Resaint has her own complicated reasons for seeking this intelligent fish herself. What follows is a picaresque, the series of adventures and mishaps as they traverse the landscape of what is left in this Europe of the 2050’s and beyond. Poltical lines are still existing but they seem threadbare in the face of an Earth on the edge of an environmental disaster precipice. The dynamic between Resaint and Halyard still lie at the core of the novel as we follow the two, but just as interesting is the supporting cast of characters who they encounter, as they give testimony to where our refusal to save the planet exacts a heavy price.
Murder Before Evensong by The Reverend Richard Coles
Before we even begin talking about this crime mystery novel that revives the notion of a person from a religious order as our detective, let’s indulge in the sidebar. Coles is an ordained rector, but he’s also a founding member and the keyboard player of that short-lived ’80s pop band, The Communards. They had one of the biggest hits of 1986 with Don’t Leave Me This Way, and they gifted us with the disco version of Never Can Say Goodbye. Coles has written non-fiction, inspirational books, and this is his first work of fiction. Canon Dan Clement is the spiritual leader at Champton parish, in rural England. He lives with his widowed mother Audrey, and his two dachshunds, Hilda and Cosmo. It’s a great set-up for an old school-type of mystery.
It’s all cozy and warm, until murder rears it’s ugly head. Clement proposes to install a lavatory at the church and it’s immediately met with resistance by several of the locals, who feel it’s either a desecration of the old structure or just resist change on principle. And when a relative of the lord of the local manor is found murdered in the church, it’s enough to transform the charming village to a hothouse of innuendos, suspicions, and slander. Dan has a younger brother named Theo, who works as a bit actor in television in London, and has come down to Champton for the weekend. A subsequent murder brings the British press to the village, disrupting the lives of all the local folk. It’s a motley cast of characters, all memorable, and part of vivid local color that Coles injects into his murder mystery, that upholds the tradition of the likes of Father Brown.
Splendid City by Karen Heuler
This is one of those mixed-bag high-concept fun novels where Heuler throws social and political commentary into a fantasy tale of witches, talking cats, water shortage, and states seceding from the USA. It may sound like she’s putting a lot of ingredients into her proverbial melting pot, but, smartly enough, she knows that primary to all the above is that she ensures the story entertains, and chugs along in a manner that has us investing in the main characters. At times, it may read like a more grown-up tale from Oz, with witches and magic playing bigger roles. Our main character is Eleanor, a witch who’s been exiled to Liberty (which is like the Texas we know), along co-office worker Stan who she cast a spell over and turned into a bipedaled, talking cat.
Stan is one of the entertaining elements of the narrative, as when he was human, he was an obnoxious, egotistical cree, who used and abused social media for his callous financial gain. He was one of those guys that the #MeToo campaign was meant for, so while we know it was wrong for Eleanor to use witchcraft for such a selfish purpose, we’re half-happy it would happen to someone like Stan. There’s a president in liberty who utilizes animatronic heads to maintain contact with his citizens, and he does this while sending messengers out to kidnap people who are never heard from again. There’s a coven led by Gloria, and they’re seeking Darla, a water witch who seems to have disappeared. It’s sending Eleanor to find Darla that spurs the plot of this fun novel.
The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk
If Charles Dickens had moved back a century, injected fantasy and his own version of magical realism into his novels, then we’d have something similar to what Sean Lusk has created in this Zachary Cloudesley novel. Alice and Abel are awaiting the birth of their first child after a number of miscarriages. Abel has taken over the clock-making business of his late father and thanks to the ingenuity of some of those in his employ has expanded to automata and moving, mechanical dolls that have found favor as gifts given by English royalty. Abel as a child, lived in Constantinople, center of the Ottoman Empire. Alice dies in childbirth, and the first section has to do with the wet nurse, Mrs. Mosley, and Lady Frances, the woman who raised Alice.
Pretty soon, we find that Zachary is a gifted child, making prognostications and seeing visions when making physical contact with a person—something he inherited from his deceased mother. What follows is a page-turner, a chronicling of the lives of Abel, Zachary, Lady Frances, and Mrs. Mosley and her daughter, Leonora. All are vivid characters, each singular in their attributes and how they come to life in the course of the storytelling. From London to Constantinople and back, their misadventures make for a picaresque that knows how to tease, delight, resonate, and even move us to tears. Lusk is masterful in creating scenarios and anecdotes that linger long after their reading, and make us wish we actually met these characters, even if they belong to a different place and time.
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