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. 🙂

 

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.

The Necronomicon

December 1, 2008

 

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

 

Weird, yes. Weird that I’ve never read him before, and I consider myself fairly well read in the horror genre. And yet for some reason I kept bypassing the acknowledged master and trailblazer of the field, and I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought he’d be tedious reading: after all, his canon comes from the late 1800s to the 1920s, and under the thin, hideous guise of ‘literature’ I’ve read some horrendous ‘great works’ (including Henry James: sorry, not a fan) that have had all the appeal of urethral surgery sans anaesthetic. (I’m staring grimly at some of you, Dickens, and just about all of you, Brontë)

But then along came Gollancz’s reissue of, effectively, the best of H P Lovecraft’s stories in a leatherbound, gilt-embossed edition (for astonishingly less than £20.00 for nearly 900 pages as well), and, after reading all that Lumley, I thought I’d give ye olde hoary master a shot.

And all was Good.

This is a man with an imagination way before his time. His horrific worlds are fantastically detailed, and the (only slightly) old-fashioned language is quickly swept away from perception in a fountain of perfect — and often harrowing — descriptiveness. His crumbling, decaying rooftop worlds of New England resonate perfectly with a horror that is often completely alien to anything before it… or often since. Lovecraft eschewed the vampire and the werewolf, common staples of the time, in creating fantastical new mythologies of dispassionate Elder Gods and monstrosities from outside time and space, profusely detailed and profliglately chaotic. From blood and guts horror (‘Herbert West — Reanimator’ [incidentally a very, very good film]) through alien civilizations that may not yet be dead (‘At The Mountains Of Madness’) to the terrors of what lies parallel with us, crammed into the very air surrounding (‘From Beyond’ — and that film wasn’t bad either), his is a skewed and violently twisted, utterly original worldview that is very much worth the immersion.

Lovecraft gets a bit of stick these days for racism, elitism and a little misogyny and, yes, I can see that in his writing. And that’s fine. His writing is a product of the times he lived in, and I’m happily aware of, and content with, that. It’s not excessive and, were he writing today, it probably wouldn’t be there. However, to those people saying he should be written to get rid of the above elements (Lovecraft was apparently personally terrified of Negroes, for one thing), I’d say: get a life. We need that sort of literary alteration the way we need Big Ears to no longer be sleeping in the same bed as Noddy or the Fat Controller being renamed the Horizontally-Challenged-But-More-Than-Capable-Civil-Servant. Sigh.

The book itself is a beautiful thing, worthy of the many evil old tomes Lovecraft himself references throughout his exhaustively complete worldbuilding: black leather, ridged spine, inlaid with gilt and filled with pen and ink drawings of squid-like Cthulhu, faceless night-gaunts, crumbling manuscripts and lurking evils (in one of those interesting cyclic connection things that is no doubt me reaching for connections that aren’t there, it’s illustrated by Les Edwards who, under the name Edward Miller, produced the covers for China Miéville’s early novels… which owe a great deal in terms of descriptive style and visions of urban decay to Lovecraft!). Well worth picking up for the presentation alone… but then you’ll be sucked in to a new kind of strange hell by the contents, and you won’t want to leave.

Superb. Totally recommended. Delve back to the uneasy beginnings of the twentieth century, and find a tarnished, blood-spattered, horrifying treasure transcending time, space and your perceptions of horror…

Feebly waving hello…

June 23, 2008

Tired. Apologies to my zero readers, and mainly to myself: been away, stuck in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks for work purposes, and my enthusiasm is low. It’s an effort to write anything at all at the moment.

Having said that, yes, I’ve been reading, and these are a few of the choice — and not so choice — cuts of late:

Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary, by Lydia Lunch — recommendation: avoid. Non-stop dismal sex, drugs and the fringes of rock’n’roll. Autobiographical, I believe: I’m surprised she didn’t kill herself. Reminds me of Ken Russell’s Whore.

Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72, by Hunter S. Thompson — I wanted to see the inspiration behind Transmetropolitan and its Thompsonesque protagonist, Spider Jerusalem. After I’d finished this I felt a bit sad, to be honest. I like Transmet, but there’s so much of Fear And Loathing… in it that it goes well beyond what I’d consider homage towards a rewriting. This book is good — it made me interested in American politics, which is well-nigh bloody unbelievable — and exceptionally written (except for the last 50 pages or so, when Thompson was so drugged out he had to dictate everything and the climax came across as a series of less interesting interviews rather than his lyrically malevolent prose) but it threw Transmet up in a bad light. An overly derivative light, I’m afraid. In that regard, I wish I hadn’t read it; I could’ve kept the magic of the comic series alive a little longer.

 

 

The Ushers, by Edward Lee — short, brutal horror stories. Nihilistic, unrelenting and about as far from the mainstream as you can get. Breath of fresh air, frankly, even thought said fresh air in Lee’s world is sprinkled with bodily fluids, unnatural sex acts galore, horrific torture and endless monstrosities. Cost a packet: it’s a specialty thing, well well well out of print, but worth it. I’m constantly re-impressed with Lee: yes, he’s probably one of the hardest of the hardcore horror writers and the majority of his work would never get published in the mainstream, but his stories are genuinely clever and information-filled as well. From detailed Civil War history through the detailed workings of police forensic and detective departments to (accurate) musings on philosophy a la Kierkegaard and Nietzsche… it’s all there amongst the blood, guts, strange new orifices and psychopathic rednecks.

What else?

Gardens Of The Moon, by Steven Erikson — first book of a projected 10-part epic fantasy series. I wanted a new long-form series to devour, and some completely dead time working in Goomalling (population 600, four streets and seeing a tumbleweed was one day’s highlight) allowed me to finally give this a shot. Was slightly discomfited when the first thing I read in my edition was an introduction from the author saying that roughly half the people who read this book gave up halfway through; the others perservered and are now lifelong series devotees. Unfortunately, although I finished it, I fell into the first bracket and have no particular urge to continue. It wasn’t because it was too dense, or there were too many characters, or the world didn’t open up quickly enough, which seem to be the major bones of contention for most reviewers. For me, characterisation was flat and I was bored by the thus-far less-than-epic story. If I’m ever in Goomalling again (and haven’t offed myself from boredom) then maybe I’d look at the next book, Deadhouse Gates, but otherwise — life’s too short.

Sex, Drugs And Power Tools, by Edward Lee again — paid a stupid amount of money for this simply because it has the rarer-than-hen’s-teeth short story ‘Header’ in it. The titular concept is a particularly tasty aberration practised by those good ole boys from the deep hills that Lee is so fond of; I won’t spoil exactly what it is. And the money was well spent on this one. >:)  (Apparently they’ve made a movie about it, but can’t find distribution because of the, er, subject material. Not surprised, personally!)

Dogwitch Volume III: Mood Swings, by Dan Schaffer — FINALLY I get to find out whether Violet Grimm ever gets out of the Banewoods, who or what the serial killer Elastic Head is, see the clockwork sex-doll cheerleaders in action and… you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? Go buy all three volumes of Dogwitch and find out. Dark and unquestionably brilliant graphic novel storytelling.

 

‘Nuff now. Let’s see if I can get back into it on a more regular basis, hmm?

 

[Oh yeah, and sorry for the quality/layout of some of the images. WordPress appears to have made an unneeded ‘improvement’ to the image posting system which renders them in a shiteous fashion, sigh]