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. 🙂

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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)

Briefly, damnit…

August 5, 2008

Popping in to reassure myself I’m not dead, and am in fact drowned in other things. Promised myself I’d update this today and didn’t get to it until the deathknock. So, very briefly what has passed recently through the Reading Stomach™ and made it to the other side:

Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross: enjoyed very much, but not quite up to his previous three sci-fi extravaganzas. The convolutions were marvellous but became a little too much towards the end. Still, slightly sub-par Stross is still an order of magnitude over most of what passes for sci-fi out there, so it’ll certainly do me ’til the next one. Oh, and loved the cover, even though it seems to have polarised half the known world: very tongue-in-cheek (or, I guess in the case of protagonist Freya Nakamichi-47 sexbot, tongue-in… er, somewhere else).

Flesh House, by Stuart MacBride: gruesome and surprisingly funny police procedural re a serial killer who likes serving up his victims as cuts of meat. First book I’ve read of his; apparently fourth in a series so it looks like I’ll need to start searching him out backwards.

Heart Sick, by Chelsea Cain: enjoyable, slightly derivative detective novel wherein the chief character is basically a female Hannibal Lecter, even down to her psychologist / psychiatry background. And incarcerated, to boot, with the occasional prison conversation. Still liked it; occasionally squirm-inducing violence (using a hammer and nails to break someone’s ribs, for example) but ultimately a bit chaotic and the string of coincidences were too long. Hard to believe that someone could’ve killed over 200 people and not even been sniffed at by the law either. Nonetheless, worth a quick read… and now that I think about it, I must’ve liked it more than this paltry review probably comes across, because I’m rather looking forward to the sequel, Sweetheart.

‘Nuff now. Will do better as soon as I have time, I promise myself. Yep. Sigh. 😦