Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

Hooray! Getting back into the reading groove with these lovelies!

Jane Harper, Force of Nature, Abacus 2017

First line: Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things.

Jane Harper has been the breakout star of Australian crime fiction in the last couple of years. Her debut, The Dry, completely blew me away (review here), and this follow up, the second in the ‘Aaron Falk’ series, was an immensely satisfying read.

Five women from the Melbourne company BaileyTennants set off on a corporate team-building exercise – a three-day hike in the remote Giralang Ranges. Only four return. The fifth, Alice Russell, is missing – a particular concern to Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, as she’s a whistleblower in his current case. Together with colleague Carmen Cooper, he heads to Giralang to figure out how much the other women – from the company chairwoman to a lowly data-inputting assistant – know about Alice and her disappearance.

The scenario outlined above wouldn’t normally pull me in as a reader, but I was so impressed by The Dry that I wanted to read more of Harper’s work. And I’m glad I did. In Force of Nature she builds a gripping narrative using alternating timelines – the investigation in the present, and the experiences of the women on the hike in the past. The two strands are skilfully interwoven, and the characters and power dynamics within the group are extremely well drawn. If you haven’t yet found your way to Harper’s work, then you have a treat in store – she really is an extremely good, intelligent writer, and I love the sense of place her novels evoke.

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon, Orion 2008 (2002)

First line: Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.

If Force of Nature is immensely satisfying, then Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is utterly mind-bending. It can perhaps most accurately be described as a neo-noir sci-fi detective novel – or as a gritty PI tale set in a dystopian but impressively believable future.

Four hundred years from now, mankind lives in colonies scattered on a number of far-flung planets. Technology has all but eliminated death: human consciousness is now stored in ‘stacks’ (implants at the base of the skull), which can be transferred into new bodies or ‘sleeves’ when necessary. So if you’re fatally shot, as former elite soldier and convict Takeshi Kovacs is at the start of this novel, it’s the beginning rather than the end. Kovacs wakes up on Earth, a long way from his home planet, in a new body – originally belonging to a nicotine-addicted ex-policeman – and discovers he’s been brought there by a billionaire to investigate a murder, a job he can’t afford to refuse.

And that’s just the starting point. The entire novel is brimming with great ideas and SF scenarios: convicts placed into storage during prison sentences who are met by their grandchildren on their release; husbands who open the front door to find that the stranger before them is actually their wife in a new ‘sleeve’; the mega-rich who live for hundreds of years and keep multiple new-and-improved bodies in storage…

The crime element is often a bit overshadowed in SF crime novels, but Altered Carbon can rightly claim to be a PI novel – its investigation is strongly foregrounded throughout. Kovacs is a flawed but likeable figure, whose wise-cracking, tough-guy persona will appeal to fans of traditional noir. But be warned, this is a hard-hitting work that contains truly eye-watering levels of violence. Think Tarantino in space on speed.

All in all, then, an amazing debut novel – one which has been followed by two further novels, a graphic novel and a Netflix adaptation (though the latter apparently plays fairly freely with its source).

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Vintage 2018)

First line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays.

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes after. Its central character, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we are shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to pay her way and to provide for her son Jackson.

This is a novel about the circumstances that shape an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as a substandard justice system) shape her destiny. It’s also the story of a prison community – including Romy’s fellow inmates Laura Lipp, Conan, Betty, Sammy and Teardrop – and is extremely moving, although moments of lightness and humour are allowed to peep through. A searing novel, beautifully written, and one you won’t easily forget.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

19 thoughts on “Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

  1. Just noticed that, at this moment (19.56BST 18 Aug), _Altered Carbon_ is available in Kindle format at UK Amazon for 99p. Grabbed my copy!

  2. Great choices here, Mrs. P.! Harper really does know how to evoke a sense of place with her writing, doesn’t she? And I like the depth of character she conveys. I keep hearing about Altered Carbon (which I confess I’ve not read), and your review has piqued my interest even more!

    • Thanks, Margot! Quite different novels, and I’ve really enjoyed the contrasts between them.

      Yes, Harper is really great at evoking a sense of place, especially the outback and small outback towns. You most definitely need to respect nature there!

      I came across Altered Carbon completely by chance in the SF section of my local bookshop. I do like a good sci-fi / crime mash up, and Morgan pulls it off beautifully – it’s hard to believe that this was his first novel. Such an incredible imagination as well!!!

  3. Of these authors, Jane Harper is the only one I am familiar with but have not read any of her books yet. I will read The Dry first. But… the other two sound very good also, and I will be looking into them. I do like science fiction and crime fiction mixed together. Don’t know how I missed the Richard K. Morgan series… maybe my son is familiar with them.

    • It’s funny how that sometimes happens – I’d never heard of Morgan’s work before, even though it had been turned into a Netflix series. He’s been pretty prolific (though I’m not sure how many of his novels can be classified as crime). I’ll definitely take a look at a few more of his books – but though will space them out as they’re noir with a capital N!

  4. Jane Harper is indeed a powerful writer of place – I cannot recommend her LOST MAN enough.
    And thanks for the post Mrs P, Lots to chew on here!
    (p.s. I don’t recall if you’ve ever written about Andrea Camilleri – must have – he died last month after a very rich writing career – that commenced when he retired from his day job 🙂

    • Thanks, Via Collins! I’m hearing lots of good buzz about The Lost Man from friends, and happily found it in a charity shop recently. It’s on my holiday reading pile 🙂

      Ah, Camillieri – a great loss to crime fiction. And as you note, it’s never too late to start!

      I wrote a review of The Terracotta Dog waaaaay back in 2011 (https://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/6-andrea-camilleri-the-terracotta-dog/), but could do with reading a few others – it’s been a while since I dipped in.

      • Of course you did, and we discussed the TV series that was airing back then too. I am still the Australia/NZ distributor of the series, and can very happily report that the quality level has never dropped off. Yes I would say that, but the sales are the best indicator of fan’s happiness. Each year, you can feel Montalbano’s autumnal reflections on life entering the narrative very subtly – and perhaps less subtly, Camilleri’s humanitarian themes. He’s played a very long, and very smart game – to the point where he’s been so well prepared, that a final novel was delivered to his publishers some time ago, but is rumoured to be locked away, only to be opened upon the maestro’s death. Salut!

      • I’ll join you in saying ‘salut!’ And I’m looking forward to reading the final Montalbano. It’ll be bitter-sweet, but a very welcome chance to hear Camilleri’s voice again.

  5. Morning Mrs P. I read The Dry and Force of Nature almost as soon as they downloaded onto my Kindle, both of which were excellent, and I have the Lost Man ready to read. Jane Harper is definitely an exceptional author and one whose books will always be at the top of my TBR list.
    The other two I’m not so sure about. SF has never appealed even though it’s a detective novel of sorts, and the Mars Room would probably have me reaching for the Valium (slight exaggeration but you get my drift 😬). My preference will always be a good ‘whodunnit’.

    • Afternoon, Kathy! Jane Harper is now one of my go-to crime writers as well – in fact I reckon The Dry is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read.

      As for SF – I totally get why it’s not everyone’s bag, but I do like to see what authors can do when they mix genres up. It takes a lot of skill to really pull it off (I’m currently reading another SF crime novel that has loads of good ideas and some interesting social commentary, but somehow doesn’t quite gel…)

      And as for the Valium thing, I totally get that as well! I approached The Mars Room with a bit of trepidation, and it certainly wasn’t the easiest of reads. But I’m really glad I read it, and interestingly, when the moment came to decide whether to keep it or send it on its way, it was a definite keeper (and I do tend to let most books I’ve read go).

      Any whodunnit recommendations for me at the moment? 😀

      • Well now let me think. I have the 12th in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series called Knife downloaded, as well as a new series for me written by Marnie Riches called The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, based in Amsterdam. Also Penshaw by L.J. Ross which I think is the 13th in the DCI Ryan mysteries and another new series for me written by Peter May called The Blackhouse …murder comes to the Outer Hebrides. Plus many more, far too many to mention. I think I’m getting ready for the long winter nights already 😊.

  6. I love Jane Harper’s writing, too. The Lost Man is excellent. So well-set, a man found dead out in the murderous Australian sun, far from his car and war and supplies. This book builds in suspense, as the deceased’s brother unravels what happened to his brother.
    Maybe Jane Harper write many more books.

  7. I wrote my message late at night with some typos. I meant I hope that Jane Harper writes many more books. Her sense of place is terrific as is her writing of characters.

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