by Toby Ball
I have been a fan of Toby Ball’s City since I picked up the first novel The Vaults on a whim at the library just because I liked the look of the cover. I followed The City to the second novel Scorch City where again the cover served as the inspiration for the review. Now we have the third book of the trilogy, Invisible Streets, and it is easily my favorite of the three.
In the thirty years that have passed over the course of the trilogy The City, the real main character of the series, has gone through many changes. In this novel the changes are more visible than ever as The City is in the process of remaking itself. Whole neighborhoods, the patchwork of cultures and flavors that make the city such a compelling quilt of a landscape, are being literally plowed under to make room for expressways and the behemoth of a building they all will lead to, a monolith at the center of The City that is on one hand the keystone of Progress that The City has always embodied, and on the other hand the Tombstone for what in a way makes The City unique. But this is, of course, The City and in The City there is no getting away from the corruption, the dark undercurrents, the power plays, and the complicated, paranoid, devious, intelligent, and interesting characters that inhabit it. The plot of Invisible Streets is a slow, slow burn. It doesn’t hurry, nor does it lag, it smolders. Furthermore, even at that measured pace the reader doesn’t have the sense of being ahead of the characters even with the advantage of seeing the story unfolding from multiple viewpoints. The characters, still the noir archetypes of the reporter, the detective, the fixer, the politician, are vibrant and well written. The reader is made to feel their confusion, their resolve, and at times their desperation and hope. The story itself comes to a conclusion that in itself is satisfying and makes sense when looking back over the course of the novel, and yet it doesn’t really end because The City keeps on going, different but still The City.
Thank you for The City Mr. Ball.
by Toby Ball
Over the summer (The Summer of the Re-read 2010) I got an e-mail right here in the Red Herrings inbox offering me an advance copy Scorch City, a book I had really been looking forward to reading. However, because I was taking the summer off from blogging to re-read all those books I missed that email!
Dammit, I could have read this book months ago!
Ok, starting with the cover. If you remember, the reason I picked up the first book by Toby Ball, The Vaults, was the cover (if you can’t remember, here is the review so you can refresh yourself). That cover was cool, but this cover is not only cool but seems to embody all of the essential elements of the book as well. The cover shows the four main characters of the book, yes in spite of having only one person in the picture, four. In Novels of The City (you can still use that if you want) The City is a character all on its own, an industrial northern city that dominates the region and the towns around it. In this novel The City is joined by a utopian black shantytown on its outskirts known as the Uhuru Community. The cover, to my mind, shows that Community being crushed, sundered or plowed-under by The City. The third character on the cover could be any of the viewpoint characters of the novel but my bet is Lieutenant Piet Westermann, who is caught in the middle of racial, political and religious forces while he tries to solve the murder of an emaciated young prostitute. Throughout the book he is constantly pulled in various directions by forces and ideologies that he may or may not believe in, yet have the power to affect him deeply. He is a man alone in a crowd just as he is alone among the chaos of the shantytown on the cover yet moving with purpose. The fourth character on the cover may be just my imagination but it seems there is a shadowy hand reaching out from the lower right side of the picture toward the lone figure. There are spooky and shadowy forces at work in the novel but what seals it as symbolic in my mind as a shadowy hand and not an artifact of the terrain is that the light is coming from the figure’s left meaning the shadow is reaching out against the light.
All kinds of symbolism there. Who needs to review a book when all you have to do is talk about the cover!
The novel itself is just as well constructed and thoughtfully laid out as the cover is. The events of Scorch City occur fifteen years after those of The Vaults. It is now 1950. There has been another world war. The threat of Communism has taken a McCarthyesque turn in The City and has become the major issue in a contentious mayoral race while anti-communist vigilantes roam the streets. The setting is still very noir but the heat, the paranoia, the no-win feeling of helplessness, give it a desperate dystopian edge. Everything seems morally ambiguous and you are never quite sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, much less who is a murderer.
I enjoyed Scorch City just as much as The Vaults, but for different reasons. Ball has come a long way as a writer in a very short time. In The Vaults my only complaint was that while the settings were vivid and gripping, the character cast seemed too large and unfocused. In Scorch City the characters are much more clear, each serving a vital role and holding a piece of the story that is their own. The plot was just as compelling and even more tightly written and composed.
Keep them coming Mr. Ball, I want more City.
by Toby Ball
I am well aware that if I let myself I’ll do nothing but keep going back to the books and the authors that I already know and love. I am lucky I have enough favorite authors, books, and topics that I would rarely, if ever, be bored in my familiar worlds. On the other hand, if I don’t switch things up and try something new, I’ll never discover the worlds and ideas that help me grow in knowledge and imagination.
The Vaults came to my bookshelf by having a really cool looking cover and an intriguing title. I randomly pulled it from the shelf at my local public library and decided to take it home without reading the synopsis. I had never heard of Toby Ball (which makes sense because this is his first novel) and I wanted to read the book with as few expectations as possible. I should do that much more often. I had a really good time doing it.
The Vaults is a noir-ish crime thriller that, while set in the 1930’s, has a timeless quality that comes from a well crafted setting and a story built with characters whose motives and actions weave together into a solid plot. The players are drawn from the best of noir tropes. In addition to a corrupt, former prize-fighting, mayor and the old-school gangsters, there is the newspaper reporter whose insights earn him accolades and enemies and who could be even better except for his drug habit. There is a private detective who makes his living mainly working for the poor and occasionally treading on the wrong side of the law to victimize the rich. My personal favorite character is the archivist at the eponymous Vaults. He is a man of singular intelligence and insight who would be a fearsome detective if not for his personal reticence. He is the overseer and guardian of the Vaults, the repository for all of the evidence and documents chronicling all of the crime collected in the history of the City. Oh yes, the most interesting character of all, the City. It is unnamed and unmapped and embodies the Gotham-like foggy, rainy, mystery of any good noir story. It has elements of New York and Chicago, with a strong immigrant heritage and neighborhood enclaves, but it seems grittier and more industrial, like a Pittsburgh or a Detroit The City is big enough to be a broad canvas, isolated into its own little world, but small enough that the personalities of its inhabitants can have big impacts on the events in and around it.
The Vaults was a good read and I really enjoyed it. Toby Ball, as an author, has great potential. My only complaint with The Vaults, and not even much of one as I will explain, is that some of the characters could have been combined, the reporter and the detective, the archivist and the retired transcriber, as well as the mayor’s two thugs. However, it appears that The Vaults will be the first book in a series, or at least the first book set in a world that will include other stories involving the City and its characters. If The Vaults had been a stand-alone novel it would have benefitted from the focus of a smaller cast of viewpoint characters, but as a series, the potential of more diverse viewpoints means the world can go in many more directions.
The next Novel of the City (I don’t know if anyone has created an official title for the series, but that one feels right to me. Feel free to put it on the cover!) by Toby Ball will be called Scorch City, and according to the author’s website will be available at the end of August. He also mentions a third book he has just started with the working title of Invisible Streets. I’m looking forward to both of them!