Current

December 23, 2009

Reading:

Omnibus edition of Stephen Baxter‘s ‘Mammoth’ trilogy. The world as told from mammoths’ purview in the past, the present(!) and the future, when mammoths have been reengineered and are populating Mars. Enjoying very much, albeit I think I have learned as much as I need to about the many uses of mammoth dung now.

Recently read:

   

  

Baxter writes hard science fiction, has a degree background in it and it shows. There really is a new, mad idea on every page, though: sometimes the sheer weight of information makes you want to take a step back and shake your head for a mo’.

The ‘Destiny’s Children’ quartet is relatively uplifting, with Exultant and Resplendent being some of the best sci-fi I’ve ever read. Exultant in particular unequivocally sets out the joys of actually trying to fight a possible future space war, where relativity and distance often mean that battles and consequences thereof can actually happen… er, before they’ve happened. And effective commanders can actually use this to make sure that terrible defeats that have already occurred — don’t occur. It’s heady stuff.

Space is a new world appearing on damn near every page and exhausting / exhilerating to keep up with.

Moonseed is an initial nod to the John Wyndham-esque ‘end of the world’ scenario, although a cosy catastrophe (which Wyndham was often, erroneously I believe, accused of writing) it is most certainly not.

And Titan is the most monstrously nihilistic and depressing epitaph to our current concepts of intrasolar travel I’ve ever read. Which did not make it a bad thing, by the by, but some of the scenes actually set on Titan made me… well, after the carrot poisoning bit I did check my feet. Don’t let the words here put you off, though: you need to read this book, if only to see how space travel really shouldn’t be done.

Also:

Birthday present to myself. Huge coffee-table tome with over 500 cover artworks (and many other standalones) of Stephen King‘s publishing history. Including a great deal of Dark Tower material and some new and exclusive pieces. Relatively in-depth interviews with artists and input into King’s writing history, a little of which I hadn’t come across before. Marred only by a few spelling / text-setting errors, which I can forgive more because it’s a small press. Recommended if you can afford it (and you’re a foaming-at-the-mouth-like-Cujo fan of King, like me).

Else? Probably seventy or eighty books since I last updated this. If I get a chance, I’ll try to pick out some of the worthies soon.

Writing:

Picked up PM2 again after a lag of some months. Found my voice immediately, which was pleasing. The past three days, little bits here and there in between other things (like work) have added another 3201 words and 17 pages to the total… which currently stands at 222 pages, 43,865 words.

With no end in sight.

 

The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod.

Intriguing police procedural, set a few dozen years in the future and predominantly in Scotland. The Earth’s groaning in the wake of some fairly nasty climate change problems, resulting in a pair of massive space elevators being constructed to facilitate vast, floating solar barriers in an effort to mitigate UV radiation. Robots are becoming relatively commonplace and some of them are developing artificial intelligence, which is something of a problem for the general community as they don’t quite know how to deal with it — or integrate them properly into society. Add to this the fallout from the Faith / Oil War, which has effectively banned religions of all kinds, and we have a very interesting world postulated.

Into this mix we have the bombing murder of a man who turns out to be a Catholic priest, a title which has no official standing in this new world and has cause for potential future political ramifications, especially since religious terrorism has effectively been wiped out by the ‘winning’ of the Faith War. Casualties with ‘underground’ religious affiliations begin to mount as the protagonists, a Scottish police inspector and his robot aide-de-camp (once-combat mech) Skulk, desperately try to work out what is going on — and whether extremist religion is making a monstrous comeback as a very significant anniversary approaches…

Enjoyed very much. Particularly liked the fairly harsh, albeit balanced, treatment of religion — it effortlessly segued into an e-mail meme that’s circulating at the moment that’s very resonant and powerful: a picture of the World Trade Centre twin towers with John Lennon’s words: Imagine no religion beneath it. The story isn’t horribly politically correct (it can’t be with that type of subject matter) and doesn’t mince words as it beats down on the religious, the authorities and the fundamentalists alike.

The interaction of robots and people was also compellingly drawn, especially the sensitive and awkward issue of incipient artificial intelligence spreading like a slow virus through otherwise non-sentient machine workers… and the hideous potential for fundamentalist religious extremism to infect even the inhuman.

It becomes a bit chaotic towards the end (and not a little nihilistic either), but in the main MacLeod keeps all of the many balls he’s juggling in the air and the effect is, for the most part, mesmerizing. Definitely recommended.

 

 

 

…unfortunately, unlike the following three:

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling.

 

Well, I liked the cover…

This is a mad, sprawling, incoherent future-tech-dying-planet-eco-disaster, er, splat of a novel. One of those books where the ideas outpaced the story — in fact, the story seemed almost nonexistent, or at most very flimsy indeed. Four clone women in different situations, bred to be avatars of now obsolete technology, trying very hard to… nope. Didn’t get it. Doesn’t mean others won’t, but for me The Caryatids fell very, very flat: it was like a future-tech wiki and a Greenpeace screed met in a bar, fell in lust over a few cigarettes and then went home and tried to shag out a story before realising they were sexually incompatible. I applaud the intent, loved some of the ideas, but the whole didn’t work at all…

 

 

…rather like Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente — and I’ll be brief with this one. Style over content, and of the latter there was none. People dream their way into a fantastical world, the trigger to enter (no pun intended) is sex with someone who bears a tattooed map of this oneiric wonderland. And then… nothing happens except a few weird sights, incomprehensible rituals and/or conversations, and a desperate neeed/want, like drug withdrawal, to stay there forever.

Not I. Unfortunately I wanted to leave from the moment I first got there, and am still somewhat surprised I persevered through to the end. If dreamy, poetic but ultimately meaningless prose and ridiculous, improbable characters desperately seeking escape into a world that makes no sense and is drawn about as clearly as a charcoal sketch on a blackboard is your thing, then go for Palimpsest and good luck. I like a little story with my opium musings, thanks….

 

 

 

…and that brings us to the titular ‘urgh’, which I will keep short and sweet:

Brian Keene’s Castaways.

  • Apparently a homage: Jack Ketchum’s Off Season and elements of Richard Laymon’s original ‘Beast House’ trilogy;
  • Apparently a homage: the television game-show Survivor;
  • Has cannibal Neanderthal monkey monster rapists in it;
  • And the most cardboard-cutout characterisation and phoned-in plot, complete with astonishingly out-of-place and romance-novel happy ending I’ve ever had the misfortune to read…

Sorry. Awful. I used to like Brian’s work a lot, but some of his recent work… well, I love horror, but for some reason I don’t seem to be his audience anymore, because his last couple have been indifferent to me, and this one was dire. From someone who absolutely loathes reality shows like Survivor, being unable to give a positive report on something that was essentially panning the TV genre is sad indeed.

 

 

‘Kay then. Next time it will be all good, rather than some good and some urgh, promise. 🙂

The City of Dreaming Books, by Walter Moers

The City of Dreaming Books, by Walter Moers

 

An impulse buy that took me completely by surprise, Walter Moers’ The City of Dreaming Books has kind of crashed into the top levels of my favourite books ever and left me blinking, dazed and astonished, in its wake.

Moers is a German author predominantly of childrens’ books whose works are only relatively recently being translated. His main trope is a fantasy world called Zamonia which is populated by a near-infinite variety of weird and wonderful lifeforms and is a world of endless, well, weirdness.

Quoting from Amazon.com via Publisher’s Weekly here, the plot in a very strained nutshell:

German author and cartoonist Moers returns to the mythical lost continent of Zamonia in his uproarious third fantasy adventure to be translated into English (after 2006’s Rumo), a delightfully imaginative mélange of Shel Silverstein zaniness and oddball anthropomorphism à la Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Optimus Yarnspinner, a young saurian novelist, embarks on a quest to track down the anonymous author of the most magnificent piece of writing in the whole of Zamonian literature. Traveling to Bookholm, the legendary City of Dreaming Books, the naïve Yarnspinner falls victim to Pfistomel Smyke, a maggotlike literary scholar who poisons Yarnspinner and abandons him in the treacherous catacombs miles below the city’s surface. Stranded in an underworld steeped in terror-inducing myth and home to more than a few bizarre inhabitants, Yarnspinner undertakes a long and perilous journey back to the world above. Enchanting illustrations by the author compliment a wonderfully whimsical story that will appeal to readers of all ages. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

This is really only scratching the surface. What this book is, is a love letter to literature and books in general, and anyone who loves books, reading, dusty old tomes, libraries and bookshops (hmmm: me) will be transported upon delving in. Amidst these pages you will find cities and buildings composed entirely of books, Booklings that spend their lives memorising the works of authors and speaking only via their words, living books, poisonous and killer books, monstrously armoured BookHunters, Rube Goldbergian steampunk book machines… it goes on and on and on, with every page a mad new idea. Profusely illustrated, too, which is very useful given some of the wildly bizarre denizens Moers has thought up to people his incredible world.

Although it’s technically childrens’ literature, anyone can read it. There are some elements that are quite violent, à la the Brothers Grimm, and it’s a doorstopper of a book (which was marvellous, because I didn’t want to leave the world). Conceptually and linguistically (aside: the translation seems brilliant), there are some elements that small children wouldn’t follow either — which just means more for the rest of us. Do not ignore Bookholm because you might think it’s just for kids: it is so, so not.

Loved it so much I gave away my first paperback copy to another booklover and tracked down a hardback for myself. This is the sort of book that deserves to be a dusty, much-loved old book on an ancient wooden shelf — in the nicest possible way.

Can’t recommend this one enough, and the moment I laid my ink-smudged fingers on it and cracked the first chapter, I immediately began BookHunting the rest of Moers’ translated ouevre — which arrived yesterday. 😀  (Can’t wait… and you shouldn’t either)

 

Another gem from the steampunk canon (cannon? heh heh oh forget it), George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge is a rather full-throttle Victorian potboiler of a murder mystery, set in a world of airships and brass automatons, clockwork technology and steam-powered road ‘trains’, all tied together rather neatly and gruesomely… and with a very effective twist at the end that I probably should have seen coming, and didn’t.

It follows a case — rather, two cases initially seeming quite separate — being investigated by Sir Maurice Newbury, former soldier in the British Army (and, incidentally, the only man known to have survived a bite from a particularly virulent Indian plague which turns people into flesh-craving revenants) and current antiquities expert-cum-investigator-cum-occultist, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, a surprisingly forthright and capable woman whose actions and abilities scene-set the coming of the suffragettes. Allied with Newbury’s oldest friend, Chief Inspector Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard, they become involved in the issues of a string of murders perpetrated in Whitechapel by a glowing spectral policeman and an airship crash in the middle of London from which the pilot has mysteriously vanished. The latter case has an added complication: Queen Victoria herself (who continues to live and breathe somewhat past her prime via huge, hulking, steam-bellowing machines infibulated into her body) has asked that Newbury investigate it, with potentially serious political ramifications.

What follows is pure adventure, mixed with a very healthy dollop of violence and a fascinatingly realised world where the expected and the unexpected alike blur like the septic fog that perpetually clouds the Londons streets. A spreading plague of bloodthirsty dead Victorian workers, clockwork automata rewired as killing machines, lightning weapons and gruesome vivisection are only some of the treats you’re in store for in this tale: there’s much more packed in this compact little hardcover, and once you crack the cover you’ll be reading it ’til the wee hours, unable to pull away.

Mann’s writing style has been criticised a little for being plain and unadventurous; I didn’t mind it in the least and found it suited the breakneck pace of the story — I certainly couldn’t fault his sense of description which, whilst minimalist on occasion, eerily evoked the world and characters he was building and put across faultlessly some gruesome, evocative and fantastical scenes. This isn’t childrens’ literature though, unlike the previous post: although there’s no sex the violence is, on occasion, quite brutal and detailed.

If you’re fascinated with this particular genre or just want a phantasmagorical adventure story, you can’t go wrong with this one. Very recommended, and I’m now impatiently waiting for the next one

 

I’m in childrens’ books territory at the moment, and loving it.

Philip Reeve’s Larklight — and its sequels Starcross and Mothstorm — are a chaotic and wonderful mishmash of genre that collectively add up to wonderful entertainment. Part steampunk, part boys-own-adventure, part science-fiction/fantasy and part-WTF, this is the story of 12-year-old Art Mumby and his very strange family, who live in the floating Victoriana-goth household of Larklight which, thanks to its aether engines and some unusual, ancient enhancements, floats serenely through the asteroid belt (where Art’s father, a distinguished Victorian gentleman, is endlessly cataloguing asteroid ‘fish’ for his mindnumbingly dull treatises for the Royal Xenological Institute).

It’s all set in a retro-future solar system wherein, as per the best tenets of steampunk, the British Empire never decayed but flourished and conquered the stars by means of brass engines, clockwork, steam power and Good Old British Pluck (Huzzah!). In this brilliantly realised world, aliens and humans alike wear top hats and conform to strict British etiquette, Queen Victoria never died, monstrous bowler-hatted carnivorous intelligent spiders inhabit the rings of Saturn, you can talk to the sentient storm of Jupiter, wooden sailing ships sail the (thinly breathable) heavens on winged engines whilst the asteroids are linked by railway lines and dastardly plots hatch and abound everywhere.

Almost every page is richly illustrated by Reeve’s collaborator David Wyatt in a rich, luscious Victorian style, rendering such gems as the Pudding Worm, battleship-sized interstellar moths (obvious enemies of the gnome-like Threls, whose civilization is currently engaged in the Brobdingnagian task of knitting a tea cosy to cover their entire world), translucent and highly carnivorous sun dogs and rampaging glass buildings to perfection, greatly enhancing the astonishing mental feats that the author constantly bombards us with. There’s a new and splendid idea on every page (yep, the Britishisms are catching [huzzah!]) and the adventure is both endless and often hilarious.

I love these to death, and am both saddened by the fact that it is obviously a trilogy (with a little scope for continuation) and heartened by its perfection as such. Buy the hardcovers if you can: they’re beautiful little books with glorious endpapers in the Victorian style, full of advertisements for patent zero gravity moustache waxes, brass exoskeleta (for those intrepid explorers) and suchlike.  But whichever version you get, I guarantee you’ll fall in love… or you’ve got brass cogs for a heart and a Moob for a brain. 🙂

 

Hotchpotch

January 12, 2009

i.e read lately, as in the last month or so. Not exhaustive — I seem to be reading a lot lately, mainly due to the hideous 38ºC weather:

  • Terminal (Brian Keene): noir crossed with horror, about a compassionate bank robbery (main character discovers he has cancer and only a couple of months to live, decides to rob a bank to provide for his family) gone badly wrong. Enjoyable story, bleak ending but there’s a fine line between homage and plagiarism and for some of it… it bothers me how much of Garth Ennis‘ early Hellblazer run (and elements of Preacher) show through, in some cases almost word for word. Obviously Keene admires Ennis’ work: I’m just not sure it doesn’t fall a little close to the line in this case.

  • Kill Whitey (Brian Keene): again, noir crossed with horror, and much better this time. Working man infatuated from afar with a Russian strip-club dancer abruptly becomes murderously entangled in her world when she attempts to flee the club and its oppressive owner, Whitey. Who comes after them, and apparently can’t be killed. Fun, this, in a Terminatoresque way: particularly liked the reason why he’s so unkillable (and no, it’s not because there are any robot bits under his skin). Recommended.

  • Brides of the Impaler (Edward Lee): when Lee’s writing for the small press, unfettered, unrestrained and uncensored, he’s untouchable — one of the most imaginative and brutal writers around. When he writes mass-market (and nope, not blaming him for that, man’s got to make a living and hopefully it’ll give him enough financial stability to write more of his dark, dark work), he’s diluted down drastically, probably by editorial decree and blue pencil. Trouble is, it makes a lukewarm read compared to what he’s capable of. Impaler’s a case in point: it’s violent and twisted and sexual, sure, but sanitised: the ‘camera’ cuts away when the worst begins, and what remains is a disjointed and somewhat gutted story that doesn’t entirely hold together and isn’t gross or gruesome enough for the reader not to mind. The Bighead, unfortunately, it ain’t.

  • Queen of Blood (Bryan Smith): sequel to House of Blood, under the same imprint (Leisure Books) as Impaler above, but far more brutal and harsh, surprisingly. Perhaps poor old Edward Lee’s reputation for sick and depraved fare means he’s more heavily censored/edited, but Smith comes out far higher on the in-your-face scale, which pleases and perplexes me at the same time. Difficult to explain what this one’s about without giving the plot away, except it allegorises concentration camps and fetish domination whilst mixing in demons, magic and the potential to rewrite the world to one’s worst fantasies. Enjoyed greatly, yes… but wouldn’t have been my first choice for a sequel: that would’ve been Freakshow, which was utter genius.

  • LA Confidential (James Ellroy): 1950s police drama/thriller/blacker-than-black noir. Everyone’s bent, everyone beats up everyone else, the police are as bad as the villains and the world is hell. Convoluted, insanely detailed plot — a reread is probably in order to make sure all the dots joined up. The violence levels are extraordinary, not only the killings and beatings the police are investigating (and, in the latter’s case, often instigating), but in their own methodologies (interrogation via the garbage disposal was a new one on me). Loved it, but don’t start your Ellroy collection with this one: it’s the third in a self-styled ‘LA Quartet’ that starts with The Black Dahlia (based on the real-life murder), steamrollers through The Big Nowhere and ends with White Jazz. I recall the film version (Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger… Guy Pearce??) was also rather good, if not particularly close to the decayed morals and brutality of the book.

  • Vampire Zero (David Wellington): third in what I thought was a trilogy of vampire novels after 13 Bullets and 99 Coffins; not so sure after reading the last page.  [in fact not a trilogy: fourth novel in progress according to the author’s website] Wellington’s vampires are monstrous, nigh-on-invincible predators distinguished in particular by their jutting shark-like teeth, which they use very frequently and not at all in decorous twin-neck-punctuating fashion. The fact that he treats them as monsters rather than sad, castrated Goth wannabes makes me both smile and want to read more; the fact that he’s built an excellent police procedural around the hunts for these horrifyingly powerful beasts only adds to that. Find the series and get it immediately: he’s breaking mainstream after originally serialising all of his work on the web (some of which is still there and thus free to read), and deservedly so.

 

  • Bad Things (Michael Marshall): thriller, with one of the most effective first chapters I’ve ever read — gave me chills, but then Michael Marshall (Smith) is good at that. A father whose life was destroyed three years ago by a horrible but inexplicable event receives a cryptic e-mail basically saying ‘I know what happened’. Returning to his home town to investigate, he becomes involved in something monstrous… and perhaps otherworldly. It’s an intriguing twist on the noir/thriller trope, and it works very well indeed… and Marshall is head and shoulders above most of the mystery/thriller writers out there both in this regard and in general. I just wish that he’d write science fiction again: Only Forward, Spares, One of Us and some of the short stories from What You Make It are some of the best examples of that genre, and generally fiction writing, period.

 

  • The Tale of Beedle The Bard (J K Rowling): yes, I, along with much of the world, loved the Harry Potter series and when this came along I snapped it up. With a price-related wince I went for this fancy commemorative edition (ouch! £50!! What the hell were you thinking?!?) because it, er, had an embossed metal skull on the cover (yep, shallow = me). Curiously enough, they printed 100,000 copies of this limited edition, which didn’t seem very limited to me, and apparently within a month they were sold out, and my £50 book now sells in excess of US$185 used and US$240 new. Which I’m not entirely sure what to think about, but am happy I got a copy anyway because it’s beautiful: oversized wooden book-shaped box, velvet inlay, velvet bag, leather book with metal clasps studded with gems (probably coloured glass) and the aforementioned grinning embossed skull… oh yes, the stories inside are fun too, but by far the most fun element is Professor Dumbledore’s ‘comments’ after each one. I think they’re in the unlimited edition, so if you’re a fan you won’t miss out, but they’re completely hilarious: very rare I laugh out loud at a book. If you can find one of these limiteds, pay the price: it’s worth it.

(gasp) Enough for now. More later-ish. (Yes, there were indeed more)

Eragon etc

January 5, 2009

I listen to other people too much.

Confession: many people said Christopher Paolini’s Eragon was crap. Written at 15, published supposedly because his family was friends with / was part of / influenced a publishing house (not entirely accurate: wikipedia has more of the story), hugely derivative (Anne McCaffrey, Star Wars with dragons etc etc, Tolkein)… all of this added up to me ignoring it for years. In fact, to the point that there was a trilogy of books out.

Then, come Christmastime, Paolini’s publisher put out the entire series thus far in boxed hardcover for far less than the individual volumes and I thought bugger it, ’tis cheap, let’s ‘ave a go.

And I guess I shouldn’t listen to other peoples’ opinions — because, y’know, it’s actually rather good.

Don’t get me wrong. It is monstrously derivative. The Dragon / Rider relationship is, initially at least, straight out of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series — but I’m a fan of those and she’s blurbed the books saying she doesn’t mind, and I didn’t either. (In any event, Eragon’s dragon Saphira is far more sarcastic and characterised than McCaffrey’s dragons, in the main… and a lot of her dialogue is just plain funny).

Tolkein… yep, Lord of the Rings-influenced all the way. But so is 90% of fantasy-based fiction: I don’t think you can escape the comparison. In some places it’s awkwardly over-influenced, but Paolini’s built his world as the books grow and the differences, as well as the similarities, are strong and well-realised. I like his rather twisted elves, his bad guys are refreshing (bird-headed, eye- and human-eating demons as the Nazgûl with the rather fetching habit of evolving into their grotesque fell beast-esque mounts) — although we haven’t meant the Sauron archetype yet (which is a shame as thus far he seems very all-powerful) — and the dwarves… well, dwarves are shite anyway; he couldn’t do much with those. His supposed love-interest (she’s not biting yet, halfway through the third book, but there are signs she’s softening) is an elf a hundred years his senior and unlike Arwen from LOTR, she fights and wields magic and kills things and generally doesn’t sit in a corner and pout.

Star Wars with dragons? Well, yes, but the Star Wars plot wasn’t exactly original either. I can live with it — because of the worldbuilding, and the vast amount of interesting information that’s slowly coming together as an immense and not unpleasing jigsaw.

The battles are huge. Magic is an actual force in this series, with consequences, issues and all sorts of weirdly random permutations. Eragon himself is gradually building in power until, at halfway through the third book, he’s actually quite fearsome, and yet the cream of his enemies thus far have been far stronger. Doesn’t bode well for the final battles of the last book, whenever that comes out.

In short, it’s surprisingly good, and showing a constant maturing as the new volumes arrive. Glad I bought it, and will grab the last in hardcover whenever it shows. Vastly better than Fellowship of the Ring (but then, so is reading toilet wall graffiti so that’s not really much of a compliment: that volume was dire*), and indeed, as a whole, stands up well in the fantasy pantheon. Yes, there are derivative areas and yes, some of it (in the early volumes) comes across as what American readers would call ‘sophomoric’, but I found myself able to ignore these in the main, swept up in a rattling good yarn that has kept me reading.

ERagon

I understand there’s a movie, and I understand that 99% of people who saw it also say it’s crap. Probably is: the review base is much wider. But I may have to suffer through it to see for myself. Because, as I said, occasionally… I listen to other people too much.

🙂

 

 

 

* I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions in various places my profound loathing for the first volume of The Lord Of The Rings in book form. If I hadn’t seen the films, which I do love, I’d never have got through the bloody thing. Having said that, in the interests of fairness, the books get better about halfway through The Two Towers — roughly when things get grimmer and bloodier and people stop sodding breaking into song every five pages. “Oh we are hobbits / hobbits are we / look, it’s a ringwraith / life is shit-teeeee” blah blah shut UP**

 

 

** It should be noted that a big plus in Eragon is that there are no hobbits. Nope, not one.