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  • Osama
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on 12 June 2017
Set in a world where Osama Bin Laden is a character in a cheap, pulpy paperback series. Private detective Joe is asked to track down the reclusive author of the series. Joe travels to cities around the world on the trail. I've enjoyed Lavie Tidhar's short stories and his distinctive style is clear in this novel too. Joe's investigation is interspersed with descriptions of terrorist attacks, fiction in the novel, yet all too real to the reader. Joe travels through a world that is familiar and yet different to our own, encountering people who seem to be somewhere else entirely where fiction is real. The locations are described in an immersive way that really gives the reader a sense of place. This feeling may have been enhanced because I read the book while I was on my first trip outside of the UK in about 4 years, so it was fitting to read a book with so much travel.
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'Osama' is a novel that ought not to work. The idea of Osama bin Laden as the protagonist of a pulp-fiction series called 'Osama bin Laden - Vigilante' is as audacious as it is controversial. Yet this is what Lavie Tidhar has done.

OK, it's a little more complicated that than that. Joe, a private detective and narrator of the tale, is hired (by the inevitable attractive woman) to find the author of the 'Vigilante' novels. He sets off on a quest to find the implausibly named Mike Longshott, and the closer he gets, the more he realises that something strange is going on.

All the genre tropes are here. Whisky, hat, cigarettes and wisecracks, all feature. There are mysterious forces at work trying to prevent Joe from reaching his goal, but he tenaciously sniffs out every lead. He's the type of PI who takes fists to a gunfight, yet somehow stays alive. So on one level, there's not a lot new here, but this book has a lot of levels.

Firstly, there are the excerpts from Mike Longshott's novels that Joe reads as he searches for him. These are semi-fictional accounts of real-life Al Qaeda plots and bombings; they are well rendered and compelling. Then there is the fact that the world Joe lives in is subtly different from our own. I won't spoil how, but Tidhar feathers in teasing observations, that hint at where we might be, and what is really going on.

The work as a whole reminded me of Auster's The New York Trilogy and Mieville's The City & The City, but I enjoyed 'Osama' much more. It's more readable than either of them. Tidhar never forgets to be entertaining, even whilst deep in his metaphysical constructs. He examines our responses to terrorism, as individuals, and by the institutions that represent us. The whole novel can be viewed as an investigation into the fallout of being involved in a terrorist attack, yet it is full of wit and humour. This type of layered reality novel normally leaves me cold, but whilst I wouldn't pretend to have understood all of Osama's nuances, there wasn't a single point at which I thought this was a novel I didn't want to read.

The hardback is beautifully packaged with a gloriously tactile cover, featuring terrific and evocative art. The production values between the covers match that on the outside. 'Osama' is a novel that defies expectations. A peculiar between-worlds narrative, detailing notorious acts of terrorism investigated by a classic noir gumshoe, it's a mix that could have been an unholy mess. Instead, it's a compelling mystery with a handle on the state of the world. Highly recommended.
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on 15 June 2013
his book pulls you in. Joe, a hard-boiled detective who lives on whisky, black coffee and nicotine, gets a visit from a mysterious young woman who asks him to find one Mike Longshot, an author of pulp fiction novels involving a character called Osama Bin Laden. She gives him a special black credit card as an upfront fee. The only known address for this author is a post-office box in Paris. On his way out of the office later Joe is shot at.

Joe's search for this mysterious author drives things as the action moves from Paris to London, and Joe is pursued and shot at again. Joe uses every trick in the detective's canon to evade those blocking his way, for example penetrating an opium den and later a private members club in Soho, where Longshot might be a member. Having worked in this part of London around the time the novel is set I found the reconstruction excellent.

Joe seems to be in an alternate Osama-free reality, and after one particularly violent incident, he sees a vision of the real London, where digital surveillance technologies bemuse him. One flaw in the novel are the short chapters from our reality which starkly report acts of real terrorism and do not read like excerpts from pulp fiction. An attempted scene set at a Mike Longshot 'fan convention' later in the novel grates because of this.

More seriously, there is an ending problem. This is chiefly due to the power that detective fiction generates towards closure. This novel has various 'closures' none of which really convince although one did strike me as having a superior rationale. As it stands, the novel halts instead of closing, which is a shame
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on 26 January 2013
Lavie uses language like no other writer I've encountered. It's pulp and the highest-brow intellectualism at the same time. In amongst mundane descriptions of table tops and furniture, he drops amazing limes of poetry as if they were no more important than the ring left by a coffee cup.

And the plotting is masterly. Exposition and travel handled deftly, like an expert card shark. A strong thread of questions pulled me from page to page.

I'm not sure what to think of the woman who hires Joe, the main character. Certainly I did feel a lack of defined female characters, but haven't yet decided if I think there's a lack of defined characters in general. Not due to poor writing, but due to the protagonist's world view, and the world he's in.

Never-the-less, a beautiful book.
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on 6 February 2013
This is not your standard crime noir novel. It is not a standard anything. Lavie Tidhar manages to deliver a book that doesn't just keep you thinking about it whilst you are reading but occupies your thoughts for a while afterwards. There are so many things happening on several levels that it takes a while to digest them all. I'm still not sure I fully understand it now. As cerebral as this story is it is thoroughly enjoyable and easy to read at the same time.

There is probably a rule somewhere that says you should avoid repetition of words. The word cigarette appears more times than I care to count. Rather than being a sign of poor writing it is a clue. Not one that is ever explicitly explained but the inference is there right at the end. This is the kind of thing that you will find throughout this book. It is certainly not the kind of book that explains itself every chapter.

On a simplistic level this is just a detective story. Joe has been tasked with finding Mike Longshott the author of a series of pulp fiction stories. These pulps portray Osama Bin Laden as a vigilante and leave the reader to decide whether he was a terrorist or a freedom fighter in an on-going war.

Joe finds himself crossing the world in search of Mike Longshott at the expense of his mysterious and beautiful client. The ease in which the author transports the reader to the various locations really brings the world to life. The use of opium to tie things together is very clever. Not just in the obvious sense of bringing things back to Afghanistan but you also have to think of the other reasons that opiates are important.

Overall this is a great read but one that you need to think about to really get the most out of it. It takes some chances and does some things that might not work in many books and works them in to a story of real substance (pun intended).
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on 4 February 2017
Joe is a private investigator tasked with finding Mike Longshott, author of the novel ‘Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante’ in this eerie book that perfectly nails the sense of dazed disconnect following the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001. As in ‘The Man in the High Castle’ ‘Osama’ (the book I’m reviewing, not the book within the book) features an elusive author who appears to have narrated an alternative reality that bears uncanny similarities to our own.
Unlike the Philip K Dick novel, in which the Axis powers won the Second World War, this book features more recent atrocities. Odd to think that there are 16-year olds around now who didn’t experience the existential shock of the destruction of the World Trade Centre; for those of us who did, this novel seems incredibly bold, perhaps even bolder than the same author’s ‘A Man Lies Dreaming’, which reimagines Adolf Hitler as another gumshoe PI.
All the more reason for it to happen in my view, although there is always the risk that events in the ‘Osama’ novel are overshadowed by the astonishing reality, particularly when elements of ‘Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante’ narrate parts of the actual terrorist attacks, including Al-Qaeda’s bombing of an African embassy.
‘Osama’ bravely resists building on the thriller elements of these passages, instead following Joe on a strange journey across the world as if he is riding some kind of emotional shockwave from the events themselves. Correspondingly, there are elements don’t appear to make much sense, especially when one sequence moves to another with little transitional movement across space and time.
It’s a good device for showing how fiction and reality seem to trip over each other, much as in they did in September 2001; from the sense that the exploding skyscrapers were something out of a Hollywood special effects extravaganza to Bin Laden’s mythical status to both his followers and pursuers. In another twist, ’Osama’ was published the same year US Navy SEALS killed the Emir, revealing his hermetic existence in Pakistan spent watching old videos of his speeches and dyeing his beard. It was as if the man himself had become subservient to his own legend and ‘Osama’ feels like it inhabits that dissonant hinterland that is the preserve of those who influence purely with ideals.
Both the PI and the vigilante are outsider characters; archetypes the author uses here to refract experience of the events that defined our new millennium in ways none of us could have imagined. We know these images so well because their horror was recorded with such dreadful accuracy. I actually can’t watch the footage any more, even sixteen years later; kudos then to Lavie Tidhar for enabling me to reconsider this scar on our collective memory in such an imaginative, haunting way.
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on 20 November 2012
After being intrigued by the concept of this novel, I decided to dive into the vivid and strange world it creates. I was very glad that I did, as this is one of the most powerful and memorable books I have read in a long time.

The book is a mystery story, in the vein of a noir detective novel. But, very cleverly, there are no absolute answers. What might have been a huge twist is hinted at throughout, letting the reader come to their own conclusions rather than waiting until the end of the novel and then revealing everything.

By creating a world where acts of terrorism are unimaginable, and even in the form of the subject matter for pulp novels are seen as shocking and unacceptable, the book holds up a mirror to the reader. We live in a world where terrorism is a real and, ultimately, accepted part of life. The book forces you to think more deeply about terrorism and the effect it has on its victims and our modern society. Some passages from the 'Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante' books that feature in the story remind you just how horrific real acts of terrorism are. Passages on the experiences of those involved in the attacks moments before their death are so hauntingly powerful that, after reading them, I had to just sit, staring at nothing. In those moments, I reconsidered the way that - having come so used to news reports of bombings and attacks - I have quietly accepted terrorism as part of modern life without truly coming to terms with the sorrow and pain it causes. For a book to make you re-think how you view the world is truly an achievement, and by constructing a fictional world without terrorism Tidman has found an original and intriguing way of doing so.

I have to emphasise, however, that Tidman does not simply provide an attack against terrorists and the extremist Muslims most closely associated with it. Instead, the characters are trying to come to terms with why these acts of violence are happening. As they say numerous times, it is a war they - no one - understands. I think this is the ultimate truth of the book, the to most of us we accept both terrorism and anti-terrorism operations and wars without truly understanding what they are about. The victims of terrorism, therefore, are portrayed as refugees cut out from the world in the most violence fashion without understanding why, or even realising what is happening until their very final moments. In painting this portrait, 'Osama' defines modern warfare - and the military strategies of our own Western governments - and the role of unwitting civilians in it.
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on 5 January 2015
A very interesting book that nicely subverted my expectations. A man called Joe living in Laos is mysteriously tasked with finding the real identity of the author of a series of books featuring fictional vigilante Osama Bin Laden, books that contain what the reader will recognise as factual accounts of 9/11 and other recent terrorist incidents.

Joe is given an unlimited expense account and follows the trail through Paris, London and New York whilst smoking a ridiculous number of cigarettes (probably not a book to read if you're in the process of giving up)

Tidhar's prose is concise and a joy to read as the mystery unfolds at a very deliberate pace, making it's points with extreme subtlety. Although published by SF imprint Solaris and nominally marketed as a "Fantasy" book, a case could certainly be made for this not being genre fiction at all, it's primarily a detective novel with a strong existentialist bent, I was reminded at various points of Camus, Murakami, Mieville and Christopher Priest.
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on 10 January 2013
A very strange and wonderful book that lingers in the mind long after you finish reading it. While the style is fairly plain, it has an almost dream-like quality. What really hits you, however, is the sharp contrast between the matter-of-fact descriptions of real life terrorist attrocities (and the equally shocking consequences that we now all accept as normal) - which are presented as fiction - and the strangely old fashioned and apparently peaceful world the story is set in. Best appreciated by anyone who realises that nothing in this world is ever black or white.
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on 12 March 2013
Beautiful writing and a concept which intrigues. In a world where terrorism only exists in doubtful fiction private detective Joe sets out to find the author of the Osama novels. The quest takes him from his safe and comfortable world into worlds of pain and near madness. The book mixes philosophy with crime action in the science fiction possibilities of alternate worlds. My only concern was that the ending was a bit trite after all the potentials suggested in the story. Well worth a read.
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