Novel: The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s second Department Q novel is The Absent One (2008), and if anything it’s even darker than The Keeper of Lost Causes, so noir you can barely see the page through all the black-hearted evil. Nestled in the dingy basement of Copenhagen police headquarters is Department Q, the cold cases section run by detective Carl Mørck and his erstwhile Syrian assistant Assad. Buoyed by the success of their first major case, they tackle a new assignment: investigating a twenty-year old double murder. There’s just one problem: someone already confessed, and is serving time for the crime. Mørck, Assad, and new staff member Rose Knudsen are already elbow-deep in the case before strings start getting pulled to shut them down. Why? Because the murder may be the key to unraveling a two-decade crime spree, and the perpetrators are high-society sociopaths whose ruthless business instincts are only matched by their violent impulses. The key to the case seems to be the mysterious Kirsten-Marie Lassen, a former member of the gang, but can Mørck locate her before the gang does?

The Absent One unfolds like the second season of a gritty police procedural, and the detailed police work and darkly funny office dynamics still carry the day. The one-percenter gang of horrible psychopaths makes for a slow-starting, but ultimately compelling counterpoint to the small team of intrepid heroes on their tail. Unfortunately, Mørck’s unlikeable, sexist behavior is somewhat more pronounced here – drawn out by the arrival of Rose, a wonky, rather tough-to-read character who seems introduced to press his buttons. And whereas the Merete Lyngaard track in The Keeper of Lost Causes gave us a victim to root for, The Absent One’s non-Mørck scenes delve into the heads of some truly sick individuals. So much so, in fact, that the entire book is practically a trigger warning: domestic abuse, rape, and animal cruelty figure prominently, especially in the backstory. I did get the vague sense that beneath Mørck’s prickly, traumatized shell he’s not entirely the misogynist curmudgeon he presents to be. His remorse over his former partner’s injury, and his soft-spot for Assad (who is one of the main reasons I came back for book two), suggest as much. But the degree to which this novel revels in such horrid subject matter did put me off a little, even as I compulsively pursued the mystery and rooted for the heroes. A step down from the first book, then, with problematic aspects and an ending that may have gone way too far over the top; but damn it, the scenario still kind of has its hooks in, and the Mørck-Assad partnership is still pretty riveting.

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Film: The Lego Movie

My initial reaction upon hearing about The Lego Movie (2014) was that it sounds like Product Placement: The Movie. And it sort of is, but the video games are a little like that too, and I’ve enjoyed those, so why not? As it happens the movie is a clever, cute contraption that is much weirder than I was expecting it to be, if perhaps not quite as weird as I would have liked.

In the clockwork Lego city of Bricksburg, Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a run-of-the-mill construction worker – a cog in the machine of society, happy with his simple, conformist lot in life. Then he stumbles across Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and accidentally lands himself in the middle of a cosmic struggle for the fate of the Lego universe. It seems that Professor Business (Will Ferrell) is planning to unleash a secret weapon called the KRAGLE on the universe, freezing everyone into their rightful positions and thus “perfecting” everything. Up against him are a ragtag band of “master builders” who thrive on the fluidity of the Lego world as it is, using the very landscape to express their inventive natures. Emmet doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, but a prophecy has deemed him “the Special,” and suddenly he finds himself responsible for the fate of everything.

It’s an inventive, visually arresting comedy-adventure, more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed its unpredictable narrative – and finally catching the subversive undertones of “Everything is Awesome.” The voicework, which also features Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, and others, is well done, and the animation is frenetic and eye-catching. The conformity-vs.-nonconformity vibe gives the film unexpected thematic intrigue, and the ending gets into some weird meta territory. Unfortunately that same ending also kind of brought home the project’s overarching product placement-y nature: look how good Legos are for creative play! I wanted a little less family-friendly sap in those final moments, but I suppose it is a movie for kids – and for kids at heart – so I’ll give it up a thumbs up as a lively and clever diversion.

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TV: The 100 (Season 1)

On paper, this doesn’t look like my kind of science fiction show: a YA, Lord of the Flies dystopia full of beautiful teenagers? But hang in there, because The 100 transcends this flimsy first impression, developing into a stirring survival tale full of sympathetic characters, organic conflict, and compelling moral dilemmas.

A hundred years after the surface of the Earth has been irradiated by nuclear war, humanity’s last survivors now live on the Ark, an orbital space station. But the Ark is slowly failing, forcing its leaders, lead by Chancellor Thelonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington), to make some tough decisions. In the orbital colony, adult crimes are punishable by death, but teenaged criminals are merely imprisoned. With the Ark reaching a crisis point, Jaha sends one hundred of these young criminals to the surface, both to conserve Ark resources and to test the surface for habitability. The dropship lands in a remote, wooded area of the northeastern US, where the survivors rally under the contentious leadership of Clark Griffin (Eliza Taylor) and Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley), who work to organize the camp against unexpected outside threats. Meanwhile, on the Ark, Jaha and his cohorts – including Dr. Abigail Griffin (Paige Turco) and Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick) – struggle to maintain contact with the ground and keep the Ark’s citizens alive.

Yes, The 100 deploys some hand-wavey science and its cast is almost preternaturally gorgeous. This is network TV, and it is The CW. But once you look beyond those trappings, what remains is a surprisingly compelling SF drama. The obvious comparables are Battlestar Galactica and Lost, two similar genre survival shows that capitalize on immediate high-stakes urgency. But unlike either of those shows, The 100 is structurally sure-handed and totally in control of its messaging. The writers do a fantastic job creating believable conflict that grows organically out of each new development. The heroes disagree, but not arbitrarily; they argue from different, often equally sympathetic viewpoints that grow out of the very difficult, “Cold Equations”-like choices the characters face. And perhaps most refreshingly, the show’s gender and racial politics are quietly, smartly even-handed. The cast is diverse, and women figure as prominently in the decision-making as men, if not moreso. Finally, the show looks great, leveraging its limited budget to the best advantage. The special effects are good, and the action sequences are surprisingly epic and gripping.

The 100 is thematically rich SF and confident television story-telling, particularly refreshing for how conscious it is of the signals it’s sending. A much better show than I was anticipating; consider me onboard for season two!

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Novel: Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

When my to-read shelf starts getting too full, Robert Charles Wilson is one of my go-to writers; his clean prose and pure storytelling ability can always be counted on for a fast and satisfying read. Burning Paradise (2013) lives up to that reputation, perhaps less gripping than some of his other recent works, but still an effortless read with an intriguing moral dilemma at its core.

The novel is set in an alternate history wherein World War I, herein referred to simply as “the Great War,” was the last major global conflict on Earth. In its wake, there have been one hundred years of relative peace – the occasional border skirmish or political disagreement smoothed over quickly by international cooperation guided by the League of Nations. It’s something of a utopia…except for a secret network of scientists known as the “Correspondence Society,” who have discerned a chilling truth. A strange alien entity known as the hypercolony has enfolded the Earth, populating its radiosphere and subtly manipulating world communications in a manner that has mitigated wider human conflict. The hypercolony has made the world a better place, but it’s also determined to prevent humanity from learning about it, which leads them to send human simulacra to Earth to massacre the Society’s members. The story follows the innocent daughter of one Society member, Cassie, and her uncle Ethan, one of its scientists. Both are vulnerable targets of the hypercolony, which embroils them reluctantly in a secret war against the aliens: a campaign that might save their lives, but not without drastic consequences on the wider world.

Wilson eases confidently into this narrative and builds the world with the same vigor and sense of wonder that characterizes his best work. Cassie and Ethan make for welcoming, if generic, protagonists, and the novel’s “at what price, peace” message provides an engaging ethical dilemma for them. Unfortunately the narrative loses momentum in the latter stages; once the novel’s world-building groundwork has been laid, the rest plays out fairly unsurprisingly, and the ending sputters. But overall I found it an entertaining read with a thought-provoking core idea.

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My 2014

I was going to name this blog post “The Obligatory 2014 Year-in-Review” blog post. Normally, my process would be to go back to the previous year’s wrap-up to find a starting point, and see how I did on my goals. But I guess these posts aren’t obligatory, because there isn’t a post for 2013. I guess that shows you what I thought of 2013!

LakeErie

Compared to that, and really by any standard, 2014 was a pretty great year for me. First and foremost, I can’t overstate how lucky I feel to have Jenn for a partner. She makes every day better and makes me feel like anything is possible. We have a great little home and three ridiculously wonderful cats. And while the city of Los Angeles got on my nerves this year – the traffic, the heat, the neverending drought – this was definitely my favorite year socially since I moved to this neck of the desert. I made new friends, deepened existing friendships, and generally felt more connected. My local writing group is wickedly talented, incredibly supportive, and generally made of awesome. I even got out of the house occasionally: went to the theater a couple of times, enjoyed book events and writer gatherings, and saw two of my favorite bands – Secret Chiefs 3 and miRthkon – in one concert. On the health front, I even started exercising: which in my case means bouncing on a trampoline in my pajamas, and going on walks in a beautiful park Jenn discovered.

On the writing front there were several ups and downs, but definitely more ups than usual. Selling a short story to Asimov’s, and seeing my name on its cover, realized a decades-held dream, and some folks even seemed to like it. I also sold a novella, and while that sale unfortunately fell through when the project folded, I still feel like I sold a fucking novella. (Who knows, maybe it will find another home some day.) I also joined SFWA, which feels like turning a page in my writerly mindset, something I probably needed. I’m looking forward to participating in the Nebula-voting process for the first time.

But more than the external validation, this was a year of making words and enjoying the actual act of writing. While I lost faith in one finished novel, I also started two new ones. The first attempt, Ubiquity, Ltd., died after 12,000 words, but I still love the idea, which I think I just don’t quite have a handle on yet. It will be rebooted. The second one – a mosaic novel I’m calling The Osidis Accord, which combines classic spy fiction tropes and a space opera setting – is one of those daunting, massive, dream projects that I’m very nervous I’ve deluded myself about…am I cruising for another crushing disappointment? On the other hand, it’s practically writing itself, and I’m really enjoying the process of writing it. At the end of the day, the writing itself is all I can control, so I’ve decided I might as well enjoy this one. I should have a first draft early in 2015, and I do hope it’s good. Either way I think I’ve already learned that there are different ways to write a book, and I’m proud of the discipline and diligence I’ve put into it so far.

So, by the numbers, it looks pretty good as far as I’m concerned: two(ish) sales, a new story in print for the first time in six years, two new stories completed, five “episodes” of the mosaic novel in the can and a sixth in progress. It all adds up to approximately 81,200 words of new fiction this year, and that doesn’t include 143 blog posts, mostly reviews of books, movies, and TV. That’s some serious ass-in-chair writing, by my standards, and not bad for having a full-time job on top of it.

I do have some things to work on in 2015. I’d like to be better about handling work stress, and I’d like to find more satisfaction in my day job. I’d like to improve on documenting my experiences, rather than just my voracious media consumption. I’d like to stay in touch with long-distance friends more, and maybe get some more travel in. And I’d definitely like to find a productive way of coping with the ugly events of the wider world – which are legion – rather than my current approach, which is to bury my head in the sand, recoil in disgust, or sink into despair.

But by and large, 2014 was pretty awesome for me, and I’m feeling very fortunate indeed. Thanks for reading, and see you next year!

Cairo Oslo Finn

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Novel: The Peripheral by William Gibson

I’m pretty sure when William Gibson sits down to start a new novel, he says, out loud, “And now, for my next trick…” The Blue Ant trilogy must have been a tough act to follow, but Gibson follows it, all right, in style. In The Peripheral (2014), he maintains the evocative prose, street-smart characters, and futuristic gloss of his best work, but widens his scope and raises the stakes by integrating classic SFnal tropes like alternate worlds and time travel. He handles them like a master, and injects them with a new kind of life.

In the hardscrabble near future of the rural US, Flynne Fisher is a young woman just trying to get by and take care of her sick mother. The local economy is dominated by drug builders, but Flynne ekes out her living working for a shoestring 3D fabricating outfit, and operating game-world avatars for rich online benefactors. Her troubles begin as she’s operating a dronecopter in a strange virtual future she assumes is a game. There, she witnesses a disturbing murder, but soon comes to learn that not only was what she saw real, but it took place in London, seventy years in the future. In this future era the ability to send information through time has become commonplace, and “continua enthusiasts” build their own pocket universes by tweaking the past, which spawns new timelines. Flynne’s situation has been caused by the lovestruck fumbling of a publicist named Wilf Netherton. Inadvertantly, his actions led to Flynne witnessing the murder, a sighting that embroils her – and everyone she knows – in an intense power struggle between rivals in a ruthless future.

The Peripheral is a dazzling feat of alternating timelines, the story slinging the reader back and forth through time to two distinctly different futures separated by a dark, dystopic cataclysm called “the jackpot.” And the narrative legerdemain gets even more advanced when the protagonists start visiting each other via remote-operated “peripherals” that they control, virtually, across a seventy-year information channel. This is big concept SF sense of wonder, writ large, but Gibson grounds it all with his usual visionary grit and a cast of rough-and-tumble, angling characters, including the remarkable Ainsley Lowbeer – a brilliantly manipulative investigator from the future track who impacts boths protagonists’ lives. And she’s just one of many mysterious figures that lends this remarkable skiffy backdrop the complicated spy-fiction intrigue that characterizes Gibson’s later work.

The early pages of The Peripheral may be a smidge off-putting, as Gibson dunks us immediately into the unfamiliar nomenclature and complex worldbuilding of his dual-tracked story. But as the pages advance, the components slot into place and the machine starts humming. Occasionally the prose meanders to explore its worlds, but the plot-advancing beats come along at just the right times to propel everything toward the book’s exciting climax – and its even more satisfying denouement. The Peripheral pushed all my buttons, and it’s another triumph for Gibson.

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TV: The Comeback (Season 2)

The-Comeback-Season-2The unlikely revival of The Comeback, which just concluded a nine-episode second season, probably slipped under the radar of most viewers. But I suspect it will receive a nice critical bump come Emmy time, when Lisa Kudrow’s inevitable nomination – and probable victory? – is sure to put it back on the map.

Almost a full decade after its first season, this one returns us to the excruciating Hollywood life of Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow). A former sitcom A-lister, Valerie attempted in that season to resurrect her floundering career by submitting her life to the indignities of reality TV, a chronicle of her comeback attempt on a new sitcom called Room and Bored. It’s formative mockumentary TV, “found footage” cringe comedy that serves as an incisive, brutal critique of the entertainment industry. I found it a slow and awkward watch, but well worth it for Kudrow’s immersive performance and a cumulative dramatic effect that culminates in an unexpectedly powerful ending.

Valerie’s desperate striving in season one ended catastrophically, skewering Hollywood at its protagonist’s expense. But what became of Valerie in the aftermath? The long passage of time between the two seasons lends some intrigue to the interim years, and the show uses this mystery to give the story weight. Valerie opens the season an actor on the skids, her post-Room and Bored career a pathetic trickle of student films and infomercials. A second, shoestring season of reality TV seems a desperate throw indeed, and one that fills her supportive businessman husband Mark (Damian Young) with dread. But when Valerie learns that her old nemesis Paulie G (Lance Barber) has written a new series, fictionalizing his experience writing for Room and Bored – and that his script savages its Valerie character – the presence of a film crew has an accidental payoff when she storms the studio to protest the production. Instead, she’s welcomed by the casting director and invited to cold-read for a fictionalized version of herself. She nails the audition, and suddenly she’s back in the game, cast opposite Seth Rogen in a prestige HBO miniseries called Seeing Red. But at what cost?

Like the first season, the second taps ruthlessly into the damaged psychology of an image-mad celebrity, desperate for recognition. It’s also a creeping, cumulative slow-build that patiently executes a long, uncomfortable story arc over the course of the season. And of course, there are once again just levels of meta going on. But where season two differs is in its endgame. The second year is less interested in its milieu than in its characters, and for all the similar furniture, it tells a diferent kind of story.

Valerie’s decision to wallow in her own dark past, and torture herself by working with Paulie G again, is a reckless, self-destructive act, a blinkered quest for glory that threatens to derail her entire life. And it more or less does, as the season bubbles along, very much the slow-motion car wreck I was expecting. But through it all there’s Valerie’s best friend Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), always cheerfully at her side. The relationship between Valerie and Mickey, on some level, is a match made in Hollywood stereotypes: vapid celebrity and effeminate gay hairstylist, inseparable, played for broad laughs. But the season two storyline leverages this quirky friendship brilliantly, and Valerie’s love for Mickey, as well as for her husband, ultimately redeems her – and redeems The Comeback’s reputation for profound bleakness. The end result is an unsual beast: again, a cringe-inducing, occasionally tedious watch that thrusts the viewer into constantly uncomfortable spaces. But it rewards the viewer’s patience with a surprisingly emotional, uplifting ending. And through it all, Kudrow is a marvel, utterly immersed in her upbeat, air-heady persona that periodically cracks under the strain, all the submerged stress erupting volcano-like when she reaches her limit. Her audition in the first episode, and her climactic decisions in the final one, contribute to an amazing sustained performance that is sure to be recognized. The Comeback not only delivers on what it promises, but more that you don’t expect. Impressive, surprisingly thought-provoking stuff.

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TV: Mozart in the Jungle (Season 1)

MozartReleased two days before Christmas, the latest original Amazon series, Mozart in the Jungle, is a great little present for fans of breezy comedy and classical music. Based on a memoir by Blair Tindall, it’s the story of a young woman’s struggle to pursue a music career in New York City. Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke) is a talented but inexperienced oboist, making ends meet by giving private lessons and performing cheesy Broadway gigs. A random encounter with a moonlighting ‘cellist, Cynthia (Saffron Burrows), leads unexpectedly to the chance of a lifetime: an audition with the New York Philharmonic. This casts her into the orbit of the Philharmonic’s fiery new hotshot conductor, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal), forging an odd working relationship that changes her life forever.

Pitched as a tale of “sex, drugs, and classical music,” Mozart in the Jungle is quick-witted, swiftly paced, and loads of fun, especially for fans familiar with the quirks of its specific subject matter. It pokes good-hearted fun at the peculiar sensibilities and group dynamics of musical organizations, but also manages to tap into the artistic temperament and the particular problems and life decisions of the creative lifestyle. Alas, the realism is undercut by poorly choreographed musicianship: by and large, the actors and directors fail to convincingly “air guitar” the musical performances. I suspect this will distract many viewers, but it didn’t particularly bother me, because the series displays a core understanding of the musical mindset, and there’s some powerful sentiment lurking just behind the hijinks. Every now and then, scenes of real beauty creep out of its all-over-the-map storylines, and the cast is very likeable. Leading the way is Bernal; based on an actual composer, Rodrigo is the energetic heart of the series, and Bernal is riveting. Kirke makes for a  sympathetic and engaging lead, and the supporting cast is loaded with talent. I was particularly fond of Hannah Dunne as Hailey’s roommate Lizzie, and Debra Monk as a tough-as-nails, unforgiving rival oboist, Betty.

On the other hand, it’s kind of a structurally slapdash affair, its episodes not particularly satisfying individually. The show doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with headliner talent in Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell. And there are some troubling plot missteps late in the season involving relationship dynamics, especially around Rodrigo’s catalytic marriage to a psycho-girlfriend performance artist named Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder). So it’s not the most sure-handed series I’ve ever watched. But I still quite enjoyed it; the details aren’t always perfect, but Bernal and Kirke propel the action winningly, and it’s got the right spirit. Ultimately I found it a fast, funny, and effortlessly watched mini-marathon, that reminded me a little of Slings & Arrows.

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Spy 100, #6: The Manchurian Candidate

Its inclusion on the list is unassailable, but on this viewing I wonder if The Manchurian Candidate (1962) might be a bit over-ranked. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely memorable fare, but I think it succeeds more as a fierce and pointed political screed than as a straight-up spy film.

In the aftermath of the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns to the United States a decorated war hero, having single-handedly saved nine men in his unit from certain death. Or did he? Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) starts to question his memory of events when disturbing dreams begin disrupting his peacetime life. In the dreams, he recalls his Korean experiences differently: he and his squadmates, Shaw included, are surrounded by cultured ladies – or are the communist military leaders? – undergoing a strange sort of conditioning. And the heroic Raymond Shaw seems to be callously murdering his friends. Something’s not right, and as the dreams start to derail Marco’s career, he goes rogue to confront Shaw and find out what’s going on. His investigation leads to troubling revelations: he thinks the entire squad may have been brainwashed, and Shaw in particular may have been programmed to commit crimes against his own country. Not entirely sure he isn’t cracking up, Marco sets out to crack the mystery of what happened to him and his unit – and stop the enemy from making use of Shaw.

Oh, I love The Manchurian Candidate. This is John Frankenheimer at his incisive, artistic best, and the film’s eery, Twilight Zone-esque dream sequences set a very compelling stage. It’s got Frank Sinatra at its center, sweating and twitching and oozing paranoia. Angela Lansbury shreds the screen as Shaw’s vicious, horrible, politically connected mother. There’s Janet Leigh, underused but glowing with riveting, Old Hollywood star power. For us Mission: Impossible geeks, it’s full of familiar faces, from James Gregory to Khigh Dhiegh to Albert Paulsen. And the film just drips with the nasty political edge and creeping paranoia of Frankenheimer’s best work.

But the genre enthusiast in me found aspects of this one wanting, particularly in terms of plot logic – it lacks that sense of carefully structured inevitability that the best spy films seem to possess. It also telegraphs its moves a bit, and fails to capitalize on opportunities for surprise and intrigue. I think, in the end, it’s more interested in its overarching political metaphor – as eloquently laid out in a blazing monologue from Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) – than in its espionage mechanics.

Which is, of course, fine. It’s still a great movie, which – along with Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May and Seconds – constitutes some of my favorite 1960s cinema. Its final plot twist makes for a quite satisfying exclamation point, and much of the genre furniture is perfectly in place. I think #6 may be a smidge high in terms of its list placement, but overall The Manchurian Candidate is definitely must-watch spy cinema.

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Novel: Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

For a while now I’ve been enjoying the way Lydia Millet mixes clever satire, environmental themes, sociopolitical commentary about American behavior, and SFnal undertones, and Mermaids in Paradise (2014) capably continues all those trends. It’s another quick read full of rapid-fire wit and eloquent observation, a zany comedy that ultimate resonates with a graceful, serious message.

The narrator, Deb, is your garden variety ugly American: a vain, eye-rolling Southern California businesswoman who’s sleepwalking through a comfortable upper-middleclass life. Deb’s upcoming marriage to a friendly and enthusiastic insurance adjuster named Chip – who may indeed be the physical embodiment of her better nature – is about to change her life in unexpected ways. Their honeymoon sends them to the British Virgin Islands, where Chip’s absurd, wide-eyed openness launches the couple into the orbit of a number of fellow tourists, including a vacationing marine biologist named Nancy. This chance encounter ends up propelling them into an adventure, when Nancy miraculously discovers mermaids – and recruits Chip and Deb into the support of her discovery.

Mermaids in Paradise has all the Millet earmarks I’ve come to adore: whip-smart observational humor, scathing sociopolitical critique, heartfelt environmental message, and effortlessly read, lyrical prose. It opens rather curiously, I must say; the first section lacks narrative focus, a funny but aimless-feeling character study of the couple in their native, urban environment. And it’s a bit off-putting, in that it doesn’t paint Deb in the most flattering of lights. But once the honeymoon begins in the second section, the story starts to click, and Millet’s clearly deliberate strategy pays off. Deb and Chip, and by extension the breezy Americans they represent, are supposed to be aimless in their day-to-day lives. The miracle of the mermaid discovery, and the comically awkward power struggle that ensues in the wake of it, gives them direction, and transforms their view of themselves and the world. The story lures you in with zany antics and incisive wit, but as her protagonist transforms, the clicking banter and clever interior monologue finds a new grace and beauty.

The final moments of the book introduce a surprising element that I’m still struggling to process; is this late twist brilliant metaphor, or adding an unneeded hammer to the narrative finesse? I’m not sure, but even if it’s the latter, it’s not a deal-breaker. Mermaids in Paradise is a rousing success, a fast, funny, and intelligent satirical fantasy that disguises its punches, but doesn’t pull them.

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