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. 🙂

 

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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)

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.

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?

 

>:)

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…

Nervous!

November 14, 2008

And here is a brand new and very nervous Poor Friend.

Nervous

[It’s been quite a long time since we’ve seen a Poor Friend. And yes, it does have something to be nervous about…]

[I think Poor Friend is begging to be in a story, meself]

Shaking off the rust

November 14, 2008

Last time I was here was August. Bloody August. Time flies, no?

Well, things happen. For me, it’s interesting to note the general decrease of good blog content as everyone seems to wend their way over into Facebook or MySpace or twitters meaingless bullshit at each other. Everything is short and fragmentary and nobody seems to have very much to say. Me included.

I may not have been writing a lot about it but I’ve certainly been reading a lot; have to prise them books out of my cold, dead hands to stop me, to paraphrase a well-known lunatic firearms fringe. Also trying to write myself, as nearly 40,000 words of PM2 can attest. I had a real run on that too, especially when I took some time off, but now that I’m working again it’s more difficult to find the time. Which is probably an excuse, but time does seem to slither away like a headless snake bloodily slopping its way over an embankment and that was possibly the worse metaphor ever. Anyway. Should resolve to crack that 40,000 word barrier this weekend.

Reading-wise (oh god where to start):

Bought an enormous amount of Brian Lumley lately. Predominantly the ‘Necroscope’ series, some of which is criminally out of print, but, frankly, almost anything with his name on it. I never thought I was a particular fan of the Lovecraftian/Derleth Cthulhu Mythos until I started reading Lumley. Appears that I am, since a great big leatherbound hardcover of all of Lovecraft’s work in this vein, The Necronomicon, is winging its way towards me from Amazon UK as we speak.

Speaking of the Necroscope series, it’s excellent, although why the book covers persistently have blurbs shrieking, “If you like Anne Rice you’ll love this!!!” I have no idea. Anyone who thinks they’re going to get Lestat in a Lumley book might be in for something of an unpleasant surprise. Lumley’s vampires intermingled with psionic espionage and cold war machinations, and are less of the hand-wringing ‘Sweet-Lord-it-is-a-sad-sad-lot-to-be-a-vampire-oh-woe-is-me-never-to-see-the-sun-again-I-shall-existentially-pontificate-for-three-hundred-years-blah-de-sodding-blah’ and more of the shapeshifting horrendous monster that bites peoples’ heads off in one gulp type. His posit that vampires (Wamphyri) are infested by leechlike parasites which metamorphically change human flesh into fleshwreaking and bloodslurping monstrosities is highly entertaining, but more: his adversaries, psychics and spies, are quite unique in literature — a kind of James Bond crew with a unique array of very diverse psychic talents including the ability to speak to and raise the dead. (As a side note, the books all have lovely skull-themed covers, both English and American editions, which make me smile and chuckle evilly to myself)

The Necroscope series is Necroscope, Wamphyri!, The Source, Deadspeak, Deadspawn, Blood Brothers, The Last Aerie and Bloodwars. Thus far. There’s a few more I haven’t got through yet (The Lost Years, Resurgence, Invaders [come back into print, you swine: you’re holding up the bloody series!!], Defilers, Avengers, The Touch). Muchly recommended. Not a doubt when I finish ’em I’ll probably go into the whole thing in more detail, if I can staple my fingers and my attention to this blog again…

  

Currently reading Stephen King’s new short story collection, Just After Sunset. Just about every other book gets put aside when a new King appears. Not terribly far into it yet but ‘The Gingerbread Girl’ already deserves a special mention for creepy psycho of the week, whilst ‘Willa’ is an almost surreal ghost story. Lovely.

Should give a shout-out for Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a door-busting brick of a book that’s a weird twist of monks, mathematics, science fiction and the end of the world. Difficult to quantify and it started a little slowly, but then abruptly grabbed me by the eyeballs and hauled me in. Very much enjoyed.

And can’t leave without mentioning Neal Asher, because two of his books showed up at the same time. Shadow of the Scorpion deals with the backstory of one of his perennial characters, the Polity Agent Ian Cormac; The Gabble and Other Stories is short (although some were novella-length) pieces expanding on elements of his sci-fi universe with a lot of emphasis on his completely weird and wonderful creations, the gibberish-talking, utterly unpredictable and occasionally human-eating gabbleducks. Superb, both of them.

 

 

An odd little one: Skull Cathedral, by Tim Waggoner — short story that’s barely a book, dream-like (nightmare-like, more accurately) and horrific descent into someone’s head via way of machinery, hideous fantasies/hallucinations and altered perceptions. Recommended for that shelf we all have (or is it just me? 😀 ) which overflows with bloody bodily fluids on a regular basis. Particularly liked the moment where the protagonist discovered he had rectal sphincters for eyes, all appropriately plumbed in as well, in a crowded restaurant… I mean, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? >:)

 

 

Will stop there for a moment: rambling. This blogging thing is hard lately… I read too many books. Run out of bloody shelf-space again… :O