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)

Wince

January 2, 2009

No, not about the wedding. Wedding was fine, yep, don’t remember much about the actual ceremony but am crystal clear about all the rest of it. It’s good to be married, methinks. Ring still feels a bit weird on my finger (heavy) but no doubt it so did upon Sauron’s until he got used to it.

Haven’t been in much because of the oh for Christ’s sake I keep making excuses about this — I’m here when I’m here I think is the best way to determine how and when I update this bloody thing. Brain’s falling out of my skull through several of my age-related deossifying fossa now I’ve crumbled out of my thirties.

The ‘wince’ of the header was simply me going over in my head recently elements of books that made me — strong-stomached, reared-on-horror-and-lovin’it, can-take-anything-I-can me — wince. For no particular reason except I’d outlined a scene for something a while ago that made me cringe a little… and I wrote it. Came from a dream that shot me awake, sweating and shuddering despite the joys of air-conditioning in an Australian summer (and that definitely is a joy).

Anyway, for no good reason, Things Wot Made Me Wince In Books (The Not Exhaustive List O’Fun) :

  • Hooray for Matthew Stokoe’s Cows and his very fresh approach to ‘animal relations’ involving razored cookie cutters, pinioned cows in a slaughterhouse run and a whole heap of frustrated abattoir workers;
  • Peculiarly enough, while I can read American Psycho any day of the week and enjoy it, there’s a line in the far, far tamer Rules of Attraction that gets me every time: “I almost slit my dick open on her coil.”
  • Honourable mention for the surgeon-rapist nightmare things in Brian Lumley’s House Of Doors II: Maze of Worlds. Their utterly bizarre chanting and rather insalubrious dream-inspired antics got a double-take and a reread out of me.
  • And speaking of Lumley, his very detailed descriptions of an alien talent called evagination in Necroscope: The Touch were a barrel of fun too… and let’s not forget the poor bastard forced to run about with his foot turned around backwards.
  • Can’t forget Edward Lee with just about all of The Dritiphilist, which is so limited edition most will probably never see it, and quite frankly all, be thankful for that. I won’t explain the particular philia: that’s half the fun.
  • And whilst I’m in siction territory, Wrath James White’s Succulent Prey, complete with very detailed recipes for cooking and eating certain choice parts of the human anatomy, dug the knife in a couple of times.
  • There’s a scene in Tim Waggoner’s Skull Cathedral wherein a man with assholes for eyes gets caught short having dinner in an expensive restaurant… Yep, eurgh.
  • A couple of moments in J F Gonzalez’s Survivor are a little hard to take, especially the upshot of the bargain a captured woman makes in order to get out of being the star of a snuff film.
  • The sheer brutality of Jack Ketchum’s unexpurgated Off Season has to be read experienced to be believed, with the slow, hideous death and cannibalisation of one of the girls an astonishingly visceral (no pun intended) jolt: monstrously powerful writing that stays with you for ages.
  • A strange half-laughing / half-what-where-you-thinking? wince for the method with which the Tooth Fairy in Robert Devereaux’s Santa Steps Out actually creates and delivers the gold coins she exchanges for cute kiddie molars…
  • Literal cold shivers on my skin in Derek Raymond’s final ‘Factory’ novel, Dead Man Upright, when the unnamed Detective Sergeant of the series finds and watches the killer’s first video.
  • And perhaps another shudder or two for just about all of David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Four, where the discovery of a mutilated swan leads to another discovery of a dead child — with angel wings.
  • Another honourable mention goes rather despicably to me and something that lurks on my hard drive, never to be seen by another human’s eyes (probably) about a deranged woman who finds herself locked in a maternity ward…

 

I think I could go on and on with this. Surprisingly therapeutic fun. But since everyone’s throwing up in a corner by now, may be a good time to leave it. What about you, Friends Who Are Reading (or probably soon to be ex-reading now that they’ve read this blog entry) — anything in fiction freaked you out?

 

>:)

Ugly Heaven, Beautiful Hell

February 7, 2008

Ugly Heaven, Beautiful Hell 

 

Ugly Heaven, Beautiful Hell, by Carlton Mellick III and Jeffrey Thomas.

 

A dual book comprising two unlinked novellas: ‘Heaven’ by Mellick and ‘Hell’ by Thomas. I enjoy both authors so this was a treat for me.

‘Ugly Heaven’ is bizarro: very typical Carlton Mellick III, and exactly why I like his writing. People die, appear in what they think is Heaven and a strange roadtrip through an utterly alien environment occurs. That’s usually Mellick down to a T — in this instance the roadtrip includes such sidelines as:

  • the bodies of people in Heaven are without orifices, and bodily functions have to be dealt with by slitting them open and sewing them up afterwards
  • what comes out of your body may not be what goes in, eg: insects and strange gloppy foodstuffs
  • behind the backcloth-drawn ‘reality’ of Heaven are vast organic machines and even stranger worlds

Carlton Mellick III is an acquired taste and no denying it. I acquired it long ago and never looked back. If you like your stories seasoned liberally with complete weirdness and your invented worlds beyond ordinary feats of imagination, then look no further.

In contrast, ‘Beautiful Hell’ is more cohesive, and effectively an in-name sequel to Thomas’ superb Letters From Hades. Within these pages the damned try to get through their damned lives in gorgeously depicted and realised Boschean helltropes (today’s Newly Invented Word that you may all worship at the feet of)… but the ordered structure of Hell is crumbling as some of the controlling demons begin to question their roles and form relationships with the damned — and a particular book, which happens to be Letters From Hades, is subversively circling through a damned underground and stirring the pot even further. Add such maleficopolitic (today’s second Newly Invented Word that you may fall over and froth at the mouth about) themes to the imminence of a visit from God ‘imself to Hell — and a plot to assassinate him — along with the unwilling transfiguration of many of the demons into a new kind of demon heavily reliant on tentacles, and you’ve got a lovely, weird little tale that defies most rational conventions and pulls you along like the proverbial rollercoaster until you’re breathless and very satisfied at the end. (and certainly very much looking forward to Thomas’ official sequel to Letters… , Voices From Hades, coming later this year).

The two authors complement each other almost perfectly, though the tales they spin are very different. It’s a breakneck, provocative read that will leave you mulling over the whole long after the book’s been put happily onto the shelf. Find it, buy it, love it and prepared to be weirded out, in a good way.

 

Spider Pie

January 20, 2008

Spider Pie, by Alyssa Sturgill

Spider Pie, by Alyssa Sturgill.

Bizarro or irreal genre — one of Carlton Mellick III’s bastard lovechildren, perhaps. Spider Pie is a collection of short, short stories (none of them more than five pages long) themed about the violent, grotesque absurdities of life as imagineered by the author. Some of them don’t make a lick of sense, deliberately so; those that do are slightly the better for it, even if the genre doesn’t necessarily require sense, but only the ability to shock or make the reader sit back for a second and then reread.

Favourites? ‘Beware of Kitten’ and the autopsy story about the ice-cream man but they’re all good in their own twisted, intestine-spilling ways. Don’t read Sturgill if you’re expecting neat packages or slice-of-life vignettes: she doesn’t work that way. Read her for not knowing how, or why, one entirely disparate sentence can possibly segue into another, and how it can still (mostly) all hang together. This is stream-of-consciousness poetry hooked on hallucinogens and hammered into prose: some of it will make you laugh, dry-heave or yelp out a hearty “WTF?!?”, but none of it should leave you unmoved.

And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?