Friday, February 17, 2012

Reviews of "Generation Loss" [16] and "Available Dark" [17]

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Mariner Books, ISBN 978-0156031349
April 14, 2008, 300 pages

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand
Minotaur, ISBN 978-0312585945
February 14, 2012, 256 pages

Awhile ago, I was wandering around the internet and came upon, on a favorite site, Criminal Elements, an excerpt of a soon to be released book by Elizabeth Hand . The book was called Available Dark and the first chapter or two were there for the reading. I read them and I was hooked. Since it was the second of Ms. Hand's books featuring this main character, Cass Neary, and this book was not yet available to purchase, I went and grabbed a copy of the first and then downloaded an e-copy of the second minutes after it became available.
Wow, I love these books.

I will warn you. They may not be to everyone's taste. They are violent, there is a lot of fascination with death and our heroine..well, she has some issues. I read a description of her that says that she is what Lizbeth Salander would be like in 30 years if she started using a lot of drugs.
But let's go to the author, for her own take on Cassandra "Scary" Neary..."Well, she's your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily-tattooed American female photographer." 6 foot tall, skeleton thin, dressed head to toe in black, rarely without some sort of 'substance' in her blood stream, she is not your typical heroine. No, she is very convincing scary.
And yet.... she has a certain charm that is difficult to pin down and things are never dull when she gets involved.

We first meet her in Generation Loss. She is a has-been, long past her 15 minutes of fame in the late 70's when she published a book of her photographs, centered around the drugs and darkness and death of the punk era. Yes, Cass has quite the interest in photographing death, the dead and the underside of society. But then punk moved on and Cass did not. In part, due to a vicious attack that she was the victim of years ago, in part, due to some suggested mental issues, and in no small part, due to her use of just about any drug she can scrape the money together to buy, her productive days are over. Or so she fears.

Eking out a living working in the Strand bookstore, stealing as many expensive photography books as she can, living in a beyond grungy, rent controlled apartment, things are looking bleak. But then, they have been bleak for a long, long time.

Then she gets a call from her friend/drug dealer. He has a job offer for her. To go to a small island off the coast of Maine and interview a reclusive, retired photographer named Aphrodite Kamestos, a woman whose own morbid vision was instrumental in Cass become a photographer. She has never given an interview before and he says she especially requested Cass. So off she heads to Maine, only to find things are quite different from what she expected. This is not the Maine of the tourist brochures, but a dark, cold, quite sinister place with disappearing pets and teenagers who may have run off..or not. On the island she finds the creepy remnants of a commune Aphrodite was a founding member of, and a number of ex-members still floating around.The old buildings, deep in the woods may have fallen apart and be covered in moss, but the ideals, taken to a whole new level are still alive in the hearts..the cold, dark, evil hearts of some. It seems the line between genius and madness may be very slim.

In Available Dark, Cass is home in NYC, just back from her 'adventure' in Maine, with a nice new scar to add to her collection. But the state police have some more questions about what happened and would like talk to her again, leaving messages on her machine, a prospect she would rather avoid. So, when she gets another job offer, in no small apart due to her name being in the newspaper from what happen up north..and that 'dead mask' photograph that she sold to a magazine and which is rather at odds with her story of what happened...the job sounds rather attractive.

A collector will pay her a large sum of money to fly to Helsinki to authenticate some photographs he plans to buy. They were taken by a once famous fashion photographer and are photographs that are right up Cass's alley. Her dark, death filled alley, since they turn out to be a series of photos of dead people, posed to replicate the 'Yuleboys' of Icelandic folklore, demonic figures with names like Door Slammer, Spoon Licker and Meat Hook. Wow, those Icelandic folk figures are not for the faint of heart. Actually they are meant for scare them into being good. It would have worked with me!

But soon the bodies are piling up..she almost being one of them...and Cass flees to Iceland, which she thinks will be safer, and to see if she can find an old boyfriend who she recently got a cryptic message from. But of course, things are not going to go that easy and Cass finds herself out of the frying fan, into the fire, a cold, deadly fire. She finds herself in the middle of ancient, deadly pagan myths and rituals, black metal music, and a bleak, dark, potentially deadly Icelandic winter. Again, this is not the Iceland you often read about, but a bleak, sad country, full of vacant buildings, in the midst of a financial collapse that has created a lot of very desperate people. And desperate people do desperate things.

As I said, these are books that might not be to everyone's taste. There is a lot of talk of death and drugs, presented in a rather offhanded manor, which some readers may find off putting. Which is a shame, because these are excellent books. Hand is a beautiful writer, her descriptions of the Maine and Icelandic landscape are sinister and scary and as fascinating as her heroine is. And Cass is fascinating and, in the author's hand, somehow likable. She is a screw-up, and she knows it, maybe having thrown away the talent she once had. But she has not lost her 'eye', especially for the damaged, and her take on the happenings in both books is unique, to say the least. I do not share, or even understand, the beauty Neary see in these photographs, full of death, but her explanations are raw and eloquent and almost convincing.  And she is witty, funny in her own dark way, and I love witty.

I have seen these two books called literary noir thrillers and I think that sums them up fairly well, even if it does not go far enough. They are dark and thrilling, full of very interesting observations about everything from photography to black metal music and written in a style that takes them up several notches from most mysteries.
I understand that Cass Neary will be back in a third book, hopefully soon, taking up where this one left off, with our troubled, damaged heroine fleeing to England.
I can not wait!


  1. Thanks .. just downloaded both ..

  2. I could have sworn I read and commented on this post already. Boy, am I losing it! It's so odd that I can read and enjoy books like this but could never watch a movie full of death and drugs.

  3. I totally agree. I think it is because in a book, you control the access, the speed at which you digest things..

  4. Death, drugs and bad behavior is just my thing! Haha. I have a twitchy finger and I'm feeling like I need to download these. If my library doesn't have them on audio, I believe I will, after a glass of wine.

  5. drinking while reading it would be very fitting! Cass would approve!

  6. These sound a bit different than your usual read but in a good way. I'm curious now. Sounds very edgy and intense.

  7. I love this first book so much but not living in the US they wont let me buy the second one as an ebook and I am left waiting for the snail mail copy of the hardcover. I hope it is as good !


please speak up, I LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU!!