Category Archives: Book Reviews

Viewpoints Critical by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

My review of Viepoints Critical by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. is up on The Fix.

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Return of the Book Pile

I’ve been lazily avoiding updating my book pile posts lately. I’d like to claim that was because I was too busy reading the books to writet about them, but in truth its more because of my obsessive interest in Macbook’s and the soon to be ubiquitous iPhone from Apple. I want one!

In between bouts of fetishistic nerdism I have been squeezing in the occasional book. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet came as something of surprise, not least the buying of it. One of the better writing books I’ve read referenced a lot of Follet’s writing, so although he isn’t a writer within my circle of awareness I splashed out on the paperback of this, which to me was his most appealing book. Its about the feuds of three families in 11th Century England and the building of a cathedral, and it has the same architectural majesty as those huge buildings. Its a masterclass in how to write a ‘big’ book, multiple characters, plot threads, grand theme, the works. Its physically a big book as well (1500 pages), and I ground to a halt about 1/3 the way through. Like a huge meal, no matter how well cooked you eventually have had enough.

A similar story surrounds Edward Rutherford’s Sarum . It takes a different approach to big. Its a very male book, in that at times it reads like a non-fiction account of the history of Britain, rather like a literary docudrama. The realisation of ancient Britain is staggeringly effective, and as it progresses it does develop some strong emotional engagement with the characters. But the distanced narrative didn’t grip me as strongly as it might had it brought the drama down to a more human level. Rutherford is sometomes called the British James Michener. I might have to reveisit him soon to see how he compares, having not read anything by him since Space, well over a decade ago now. Just chuck in some James Clavel and I’ll have the set!

Continuing my research of epic narrative I re-read Dune by Frank Herbert recently as well.  In abstract Dune seems impossibly absurd. Far, far, far future, family feuds, giant worms, nuns, desert planets, psychic powers, superuman ascendency to Godhood.  Which is all the more testament to what a genius Herbert must have been to make all this stuff hang together. It only BARELY hangs together though, and in the later books it comes flying apart. But the first book is really vertigo inducing – the messianic narrative, dark romance, focus on internal psychology and frequent jarring violence make it a very intense read. If you haven’t ever read a real science fiction novel Dune is a good place to start.

Interference

I think I’m going to have to develop some policy on what I read when I’m writing.

I find reading essential for writing. I usually sit and read for half an hour or so before starting to write to kick-start my linguistic imagination.

But sometimes reading the wrong thing can cause a kind of literary interference. I started reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration this week. Its a powerful piece of writing, both in style and content. Powerful enough that I really want to try out some of the techniques it employs. Consequentially when I found an hour to continue to attack this weeks word count I found myself feeling incredibly negative about the entire project, because the story I’m working on ISN’T the kind of tightly composed literary construct that I’d been reading. That’s not to say its better or worse, its just different. It took up most of the weeks writing time to work through the confusion and rediscover the things I was passionate about in the story I’m telling.

Which left me playing cath up this weekend. 1400 words today and I’m aiming to match that tommorow.

Who needs a social life anyway?

Feast of Fantasy

I’ve been on an epic fantasy read over the last month. Not just epic in content, but epic in size!

First up a collection of short fiction by Kelly Link. Miss Link is at the head of a number of new (at least to me) fantasy writers who are melding fantasy / horror writing with a pop culture sensibility. Think Carrie meets Generation-X and you are half way there. Links writing is towards the gentler end of the spectrum but all the more arresting for this. Its deeply emotional storytelling that I was very effected by although I couldn’t say exactly why. Its just excellent and its difficult to say more than that. I’ll work my way through the whole collection over the next few weeks (I don’t like reading collections in one go. Its like eating everything on the dessert trolley in one sitting).

The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror happens to feature Kelly link as one of its editors, although I was stumbling towards purchasing it as part of my reading reserach anyhow. I’m slowly picking my way through the contents but as yet although i’ve enjoyed the stories, none have really grabbed me by the throat and screamed for space in my crowded consciousness. It’s doing much better than the The Mammoth Book of best New Science Fiction however. Gardner Dozois’ annual collection is supposed to mark the Gold Standard for contemporary SF, which might be part of the reson why I’m quickly losing interest in SF relative to Fantasy. I’m sure there are things in there worth digging out, but its a challenge to persist in the face of almost universaly opaque prose that permeates SF writing at the moment. Its very difficult to care about stories that fail to come off the page and enter the imagination, however good the ideas at their hear may or may not be. More fiction AND more science please SF people.

The Etched City by K.J.Bishop is a first novel that comes covered in quotes saying basicaly ‘Not Bad for First Novel’. A few people seem to be holding it up as the latest incarnation of the New Weird. I’m curious to find out why but as yet it is illuding me. I’ll persist however as its certainly intriguing.

Its going to have to wait until I’ve tackled Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan. Canavan has probably sold more copies of her snappily written sword and sorcery adventures than the whole of the New Weird put together. And to be frank the fact that they are fun, enjoyable and very focused on telling the human stories of their lead characters is reason enough for that. A few chapters in and enjoying it lots.

Oh and don’t get me started on what I pulled out of the works bargain bucket over the weekend. So many books, so little time…  

Children of Men

I’m not going to make a habit of posting film reviews on the Don’t Look Down blog. This is afterall for notes from the fiction front. And yes, film is fiction. And yes, I do like films but they just are not the thing this blog is about.

But I really want to shout about Children of Men. Its fucking fantastic…which is a notch above fucking amazing…in turn itself a notch above fucking great. This meaning I think its about as good as films get.

Clive Owen plays a fantastic loser-who-was-once-a-hero character. Of course, he ends up a hero again, a kid gets born, people we care about a lot end up dead. Its a great story, exceptionaly well told but thats not what impressed me the most.

The first uniquely important thing about the film is how well it integrates such visceral special effects into that story. It will  probably be marked down as the first film to take inspiration from video games, and anyone who has played Half-Life 2 will see exactly where and when. So not entirely orginal then but it uses it stolen material to good purpose.

The second and more imporatnt thing it will be remebered as is the first filmic depiction of the civil war in Iraq. The final half hour of the movie documents an armed conflict between a highly armed Western miltary force, Islamic militants and numerous other rebel groups each pursuing their own agenda. If you were wondering what it is you aren’t seeing in the evening news each night, then the climax of Children of Men is as close as you will get to seeing it without going there yourself.

And like all the best science fiction, Children of Men isn’t about the future, its about today. The film collapses the current global political situation into one country, our country, with London as the Western world and Bexhill as the Middle East. All the grusome fictional deaths depicted in the film are happening for real soemwhere else in the world right now. Its a sad story, and we are all living it.

Anita Blake – Vampire Hunter

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Guilty Pleasures & The Laughing Corpse 

by

Laurell K Hamilton

 I’m a virulent defender of genre fiction and the trash aesthetic. I’ve literally risked life and limb to advocate the cause of all things pulp against the literary establishment. Only last week I stood in a classroom full of A-Level English teachers and proclaimed Alan More the greatest living British writer. Alan Who? They said, sharpening their knives.

lcuk.gifBut even I baulked when I originally encountered the Anita Blake series. As a hardened Buffy fan my first and only assumption was ‘Whedon Clone’. Vampire Slayer / Vampire Hunter. Bare faced theft as far as I was concerned and for many years that’s where the story ended.

Until I noticed the dates. Joss Whedon’s Buffy series hit television screens in 1997. The first Anita Blake tome was published in 1994. Hmmm. Interesting. Theft perhaps, but in which direction? There was still the ill conceived and ill fated Buffy movie (1992) to consider but the chances of anyone being inspired by that seemed so remote as to be non-existant.

Dates aside, it doesn’t take more than the first three chapters of Guilty Pleasures, the first in the Anita Blake series, to realise that Buffy the Vampire Slayer this is not. Other than the occaisional gruesome staking, Buffy is a teen soap opera where the relationships of the ‘scooby gang’ take centre stage before any supernatural concern. Anita Blake by contrast is a female version of the Marlowesque gumshoe – a tough loner and happy that way. All the scary bits in Buffy are handled with a tongue in cheek knowingness. When you stake a vamp in Buffy, they turn into a nice neat cloud of dust. In the world of Anita Blake they spurt blood all over the living room curtains and explode into flames taking the soft furnishings with them. And then of course there’s the sex. In Buffy world when the characters very occasionally stray over into having a bit of hanky panky they are invariably rewarded with a spell in hell or being turned evil. In contrast the Anita Blake series is famed for its full on depiction of a number of quite kinky sexual exploits, particularly in the later volumes.

At their core both Guilty Pleasures and The Laughing Corpse are hard boiled detective thrillers with a supernatural twist written for a 21st Century, predominantly female readership who want their heroines every bit as kick ass as their heroes. When Anita Blake puts on a dress her first thought isn’t whether her bum looks big in it, but whether the two hand guns and combat knife she has holstered under each arm are properly concelaed. When Anita gets into a fight with a vamp she REALLY gets into a fight. Bones are broken. Eyes get gouged. Soft fleshy things get stamped upon. Both Guilty Pleasures and The Laughing Corpse tell tight, tense stories that unfold over just two days and two nights and Anita collects assorted wounds throughout each book.

The stories are a tough, exciting and compulsive read but they aren’t without their weaknesses. They are clearly written quickly and that means the occasional shortcut here and there. A particularly grating device in the first book is the way Hamilton introduces EVERY SINGLE CHARCATER by describing the way they laugh. If laughter was that accurate a judge of character in the real world it would be admissible as evidence in court. A few of the chapters fall dead as they are used to get the story back on its tracks but these are kept mercifully short. Strangely for such compelling reads, the antagonists in both books fall a little flat and don’t manage to develop much into the second dimension let alone the third. But these weaknesses somehow compliment the unapologetically popcorn manifesto that the series champions.

Planet Literary seems to have determined a set of strictly enforced guidelines for contemporary writing. Ideally, all books should be a loosely disguised autobiographical account of a formative experience in their authors life. Actual fiction is frowned upon, unless set in an ’exotic’ locale, preferably a social or cultural ghetto. Under no circumstances should literature have any elements of the fantastic unless intended for children or written with an ironic wink. Above all it must be turgid enough to stop the reader getting beyond Chapter 3 but leave them convinced they have failed to comprehend the work of a genius.

Anita Blake sticks two fingers up at Planet Literary, gives them a severe beating and then blows them away with her .357 hand cannon. Everything that ‘literature’ should be, Anita Blake is not. Which is probably why I enjoyed Guilty Pleasures and The Laughing Corpse so much. If you’ve accidently swallowed one to many Booker prize winners you may find that Anita Blake is exactly the antidote you need.

Ender’s Game

enders-game.jpgOrson Scott Card is a writer that for many years existed in my mind as part of an amorphous mass of ‘Hard SF’ writers, most of them American, that I had not read and did not have any great interest in reading. Not due to any particular dislike for Hard SF, or for Americans, but because they were on the wrong side of my mental map of the SF/F geography. Which is a round about way of saying – I didn’t know anything about him or them.

This goes someway to explaining why Ender’s Game didn’t get any more than a first page test before hitting my ‘might read someday’ pile. The rest of the explanation can be found in knowing that before the ‘might read’ pile is the ‘will read’, then the ‘want to read’, then the ‘must read’ piles. And lets not forget the ‘MUST READ URGENTLY’ pile. There was nothing wrong with the book, but on page one nothing leapt out and my preconceptions did the rest. It took one of those fortuitous weeks of hearing OSC’s name three times in three different places to peak my curiosity again and get me on to page 2. Then page 3. Then pages 4,5,6 and on and on…

 I tore through Ender’s Game in three sittings over a weekend. The reasons for my excitement were manifold, a great story, intricate characters, brilliant pacing and an imaginative world both claustrophobic and escapist. By the evidence of this, his first novel, Card is every bit the writer his reputation says he is…and more.

But the most fascinating aspect of Ender’s Game was the presience of the novels predictions for our future, which originaly made in the late 70’s largely seem to have come true by the early noughties.

Ender is a young man caught into a game organised by the future military to train a new generation of star generals who will defeat Earth’s ever present alien menace, the buggers. Whilst this forms the spine of a complex tale of space warfare, the subtext of this story is the pressure that society places on the young in the process of forming them into adults. Enders experiences during military training parellel those that any young person being trained into an elite or simply towards high achievement would face. Where this subtext becomes spookily accurate is in the game metaphor that emerges repeatedly throughout the novel. In an era where many young men spend ever greater portions of their lives plugged into virtual game environments OSC’s novel has an ever more important emotional and intellectual message to deliver.

***SPOILER ALERT*** 

If I have a criticism of the novel it is a subjective one based on my reaction to the content of that message. The climax of Ender’s Game arrives when the young hero, having been put through what amounts to a programme of mental and physical abuse and brainwashing, defeats Earths alien enemies. All of the complex moral arguments that OSC weaves into his story are ultimately trumped by the rather straight forward ‘get them before they get you’ message. Somehow this struck me as incongruous, like a Hollywood happy ending tacked onto a Eurpean arthouse movie. It is as though OSC constructed the story in a logical fashion, found he disagreed with its morality and therefore abandoned the ending he didn’t like and replaced it with one that suited his own ethical framework. For this reason the end seems a little contrived, although there is no doubt it achieves a surprising twist and read purely as the climax of the adventure it works wonderfully.

My run in with Orson Scott Card may well direct me twords picking up a few more of the contemporary US Hard SF writers that I know so little of, although whther they will make it onto the ‘might read’ or the ‘must read’ pile I’m not sure. What I do know is that the next part of the Ender Saga is now on the ‘MUST READ URGENTLY’ pile, as will be most of Mr Cards other books when I can lay my hands on them. 

Gardens of the Moon

gardens.jpgI had to have a long hard think before deciding whether to post a  review this book. Not so much because of the book, more because I really can’t decide whether I like it or not. I have multi-farious faults but lack of an opinion isn’t generaly one of them, so finding myself so indecisive is noteworthy in and of itself.

 ‘Gardens of the Moon’ is the first novel in Steven Erikson’s ‘Malazan’ sequence. A process of inevitable attraction seemed to draw me into picking up the first book, having run into Erikson’s name referenced repeatedly as the current cutting edge of high fantasy. With the first novel digested I can see how that reputation arose, but I’m stil not certain whether it’s deserved.

One of many excellent reviews embalzoned on ‘Gardens of the Moon’ refers to it as ‘fearsomly readable’, and this is entirely true. Erikson constructs his novel with the pacing of a boulder tumbled from a cliff. He uses a clearly delineated act structure that traces the story over a long period, but each act itself covers only a few days, a single night or even just one or two hours. This is a strong narrative tool that keeps the story engaging and avoids the ‘and then they walked a bit more accross the endless wilderness for a few days until something interesting happened’ syndrome common to epic fantasy. Bolted onto this strong narrative are an intoxicating mixture of high fantasy elements that have clearly been through Erikson’s patented ‘reimagining’ machine. Yes there is magic, but its a dirty elemental type of magic. Yes there is war, but its more like intense urban conflict than the last stand of Gondor. Yes there are heroes, but they are conflicted, greyer than grey heroes. Great stuff I thought as I plowed my way through the first few hundred pages.

So it took be by surprise when I realised that the excellent writing and brilliant imagination had distracted me from the almost total lack of character in the story. Not characters mind you, those crowd the ages of the book in abundance. As does characterisation. There are fat female wizards, gritty cynical sergeants and  dangerously dark eyed female assassins. But character – the aspects of actual human behaviour that are both the back bone and meat&potatoes of a good story – was mysteriously absent. Take the dangerously dark eyed female assassin. She spends a lot of time looming dangerously. Other characters spend a lot of time scared of her scarily dark eyes. She even stabs people occaisionaly. But none of the events of the story establish her character. In fact the story and the characters often seem to be living in two completely different dimensions, as though Erikson designed the two elements in isolation and then spent 700 pages trying to jam them into the same book.

When a story has both huge strengths and huge weaknesses you might expect them to cancel each other out and produce a mediocre product, but ‘Gardens of the Moon’ is a novel that can be great on one page and appalling on the next. I will definitely venture further into Erikson land, but will be alert for the appearance of better realised characters before buying the round the world ticket.

Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

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Under the benevolent leadership of the Emperor the Imperium has stretched across the galaxy in a golden age…

Whoa there – Golden age? Benevolent leadership? Isn’t this Warhammer 40K, the most brutal SF franchise known to man and home of the universes toughest homosexual icons, the Space Marines?

The new series from the Black Library has rolled back the clock on the Games Workshop universe ten millennium to the most famed event in the 40K mythos – the Horus Heresy. Penned by Dan Abnett, the godfather of Games Workshop novelisations, Horus Rising promises to bring a new level of sophistication to a franchise occasionally accused of being as flat as the table top games it is based on.

Warmaster Horus, favoured son of the Emperor, is left in charge of conquering the universe when the old man decides he has had enough of the whole war thing. Horus slowly develops a bitter hatred for daddy which, exacerbated by some ill advised Chaos abuse, drives him to rebellion. This is the first part of the story arc, told through the eyes of Captain Loken, but leaves the reader in no doubt that this rebellion is for more than a hike in Horus pocket money.

Abnett understands his audience, killing daddy is a common fantasy amongst Games Workshops adolescent male fanbase. Horus Rising hits all the expected marks, with some of Abnett’s grimmest and most visceral battle scenes ever that should satisfy fan’s appetite for carnage. But despite Abnett’s efforts at characterisation he struggles to inject depth into a cast of resolutely two dimensional characters. Horus Rising is an exciting romp, perhaps the next volume will fulfil the trilogy’s early promise.

Light – M John Harrison

Light – M John Harrison

 

 

Spaceships, magicians, anorexics, London, deep space, virtual worlds, gritty realities. If Harrison were a chef he’d have just invented the first dish known to man to contain every majour ingredient. And within this riotous cocktail are the strange shapes of the quantumn world as it intersects with the mysteries of the human soul. And foam, lots and lots of fuzzy white foam….

Buy Light by M John Harrison on Amazon