There must be healthier ways to vent: A critical review of “The Bone Keeper” (2018)

This blog seems to have been talking about genre a lot lately, last time suggesting that perhaps some sci fi really should be called speculative fiction. Well, “The Bone Keeper,” a novel by police procedural writer Luca Veste, perhaps really should be called a
“psychological thriller.” Long has that term been applied to works of horror that are considered “smarter” than average horror. Unjust, perhaps, but that’s the world we live in.

With “The Bone Keeper”–which takes its title from a Pokemon type, specifically Cubone, and if that doesn’t reveal what a tremendous nerd I am then nothing will–Veste set out fuse the horror and detective genres ala Thomas Harris. The resulting novel isn’t quite either genre, although it is a murder tale that makes an exploration of urban anthropology, abnormal psychology and childhood trauma. So if that can’t be called “psychological thriller,” I don’t know what can, but is it any good?

Liverpudlian cop Louise Henderson is assigned to interview a woman found attacked and wounded at the edge of the woods. The victim claims her assailant was the Bone Keeper, an urban legend whose nursery rhyme has haunted the alleys of Liverpool for at least a generation. Henderson’s partner thinks that the assault is the result of a disturbed individual inspired by the legend. But as the bodies pile up, and Henderson’s own haunted past starts to return to her, she’s not so sure the killings are as simple as that.

Louise Henderson might be a dedicated investigator, I didn’t feel that invested in the investigators or victims of “The Bone Keeper.” No one is particularly well sketched out. Veste was probably concerned that if he sketched too much, some of his twists and turns later in the book would be spoiled.

Without much time spent on characters, one could imagine that the book would get bogged down in a lot of plot and police procedure, but that’s not the case either. The prose is always readable, and the novel flies by without much effort from the reader. In fact, thriller fans will probably piece together a lot of those twists about halfway through the narrative, although there are some interesting ideas at its core.

The novel tries to make some statements about humanity’s capacity for evil, and while it’s always nice to see a nature vs. nurture exploration, its most intriguing idea concerns the identity of the killer. It’s an interesting take on a familiar subject, and while it strains credulity under examination, the book has the decency to end very rapidly after its reveal.

Likewise, despite using the phrase “the smell of rotting meat” as a description every few pages, the book is surprisingly short on gore. Taken with the brief chapters and brisk pace, it should be a quick and entertaining read for thriller vets, even if it’s not too memorable.

It’s probably telling that the book supplies its own reading club questions at the end, although I haven’t quite figured out what it’s telling us. Something about the state of contemporary literature or society as a whole? Either way, sorry, but I’m not reading something with the tagline “don’t go down to the woods today” written on the cover in serial killer font to discuss it thoughtfully with my friends and neighbors. However, I am reading it for dark distraction, and on that front, “The Bone Keeper” does OK.

An 81% match of sci fi and drama: A critical review of “Kismet” (2018)

It is a well-known fact–well, well-known by me at least–that I am not a big fan of the phrase “speculative fiction.” What fiction, after all, does not speculate? Hell, what writing does not speculate? I have always viewed the phrase with distrust, at best a means to group somewhat disparate groups like sci fi, fantasy and horror together–which the literary universe has long set out to do–and at worst an effort at rescuing “worthy” pieces of fiction from the “classless” genres of sci fi, fantasy and horror.

However, there are times when even I must admit defeat. The novel “Kismet” seems to take place in a not-too-distant future or a universe only slightly removed from our own, and one of its central plot drivers is a piece of technology that impacts individual human life, but one might have a hard time describing it as sci fi.

“Kismet” tells the tale of Anna, a twenty-something about to be a thirty-something with a pleasant job in journalism and a perfectly supportive live-in boyfriend, but she worries she’s missing out. She tries an app called Kismet, which offers to match users with an ideal partner after digesting one’s entire digital existence. There she finds potential partners, including Geoff, a dashing older man who might open her up to more–or at least help her work out some daddy issues.

“Kismet’s” writer Luke Tredget is described as a “writer and aid worker” on his Twitter page, so perhaps that’s why the characters his novel seem to often be writers and aid workers. We’ve all got to find meaning somehow, I suppose. Accordingly, it might be a little too convenient that I find Anna relatable. She’s within my age group and she works in the industry I do, so a lot of her fears and observations sound familiar.

That said, Tredget’s characters as a whole are distinct and well-rounded. As the book goes on, no character–no matter how minor–is really too sinful or too saintly. This is quite true of Anna, whose dips into doubt and selfishness make her a delightfully, perhaps even refreshingly, human protagonist.

The prose is clever and easy to read, although it does remain in the present tense the entire time. This increasingly popular practice can be acceptable in some short forms, but it can be distracting in a novel–why are we doing it? Who is relating this story and who is their audience? Is it all happening RIGHT NOW? Although those nagging distractions remain throughout the book, they are usually in the background, and the novel never feels its 400 pages.

A bigger discomfort–one that stands outside of the narrative and enjoyability of the book–is whether it can be described as sci fi. Perhaps not–not because its future only takes place in the not-too-distant future or because its tech is not-so-different–but because the novel does not spend a lot of time philosophizing.

Sci fi, especially soft sci fi, often delves into lengthy speeches dissecting its themes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing that “Kismet” stays largely silent. Philosophizing can be handled very well, but it can also bog down a book. One way or the other, “Kismet” never feels weighty, and it retains its intelligence throughout.

The book certainly offers readers a lot to think about, including the immediacy and intangibility of personal relationships in the modern era, the ubiquity of social media, and finding purpose while aging in an increasingly fast-paced society. There’s even a twist–of course there’s a twist–which comes about for the novel’s climax that is well handled, tying into the themes of the novel and allowing the narrative to state one of the book’s big ideas in a wholly organic way.

However, don’t expect a startling thrill ride. “Kismet” is slightly sci fi and occasionally comedic, but it’s a character study. Despite its themes, we’re here to people watch rather than muse. Perhaps this is really literary fiction, a genre that is, in its own way, as descriptive and shapeless as the moniker “speculative fiction.”