3 August 2013

Review: The Best British Fantasy 2013 (Salt Publishing)

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a copy of this book.

"The Best British Fantasy 2013" is an engaging collection of 17 stories, with "fantasy" being interpreted generously - I've seen endless nitpicking discussions about the differences between fantasy, SF and other genres. If you wanted to you could argue that some of these stories are equally SF, or horror, or ghost stories, or... but really that misses the point. They all feature the fantastical. The stories are all well chosen and - while inevitably in a collection like this, different stories will appeal to different readers - I'd give most of them, individually, four or five stars: five for the collection as a whole to reflect its breadth and the overall curation which manages to produce a slight air of bleakness, menace and claustrophobia.

While it's perhaps not wise to pick out favourites, I have to say that the stories I enjoyed most were "Dermot" by Simon Bestwick in which the police strike a very nasty bargain with an informant, and "The Island of Peter Pandora" by Kim Lakin-Smith which manages to combine JM Barrie's, HG Wells and steampunk in a single carefully observed story. But there's something in each of these stories.

In "Lips and Teeth", Jon Wallace imagines a prison camp in (I think) North Korea, where a prisoner has a strange ability (and a strange, talking tool).

"The Last Osama" by Lavie Tidhar is a strange, myth laden blend of the Old West and Middle East with a quest not unlike that in "Heart of Darkness" / "Apocalypse Now".

"Armageddon Fish Pie" by Joseph D'Lacey is less about the coming destruction - we never learn for sure what is to happen - but about how one might behave and respond if such a thing threatened.

"The Complex" (EJ Swift) is very SF, telling the story of a time served convict on a distant penal colony.

 "God of the Gaps" by Carol Johnstone is rather weird - a student, mentoring a younger pupil, gets into something very dark ('Try the manacles, Miss Daisy!') while accompanying him on a school trip.

Cheryl Moore's "Corset Wings" again has steampunk overtones, imagining the plight of a young woman exploited in an alt-Victorian London, and how she might dream of escape.

"The Wheel of Fortune" by Steph Swainston also has, as its main protagonist, a woman, an apothecary (I think) in a metropolis (but a fantasy one, this time) who has made a bargain with a bunch of scoundrels, and wants out of it.

"Too Delicate for Human Form" (Cate Gardner) concerns a dead aunt and some fish.

"Imogen" by Sam Stone has a twist - it would give too much away to say any more.

Alison Littlewood's "In the Quiet and in the Dark" induces the kind of shudders one would expect from her: very creepy.

"The Scariest Place in the World" by Mark Morris really brings the fear home, as does Simon Kurt Unsworth's "Qiqirn".

In "The Third Person" by Lisa Tuttle, another Imogen unwillingly helps out a friend who wants to conduct an affair, but things get out of hand.

"Fearful Symmetry" (Tyler Keevil) reads like the opening of a series: at some unspecified point in the near future, the earth is mucked up, with "the cough" spreading and mutant animal species emerging.

Finally, Adam G Nevill's "Pig Thing" reminded me somewhat of The House on the Borderland in the way that it bleeds the fantastical into the lives of the unsuspecting.

All great stories, and a good way to sample authors you might not otherwise pick up.

28 June 2013

I've read an ebook! And I’ve reviewed “The Ocean at the end of the Lane”!

I’ve always been stridently anti e-book. I want to fill my shelves with hardbacks: I don’t recognise the idea of “too many books” and I want to support local bookshops.

But - I’d ordered the new Neil Gaiman book (review below, but in short, it’s super) and moreover I’d ordered a signed, slipcase edition from Goldsboro because I felt like indulging myself.  Once I’d unwrapped it from the yards and yards of bubble wrap, I thought: you can’t take this on the train.  You can stuff it in your pannier and cycle across London with it. I’m not normally that precious about my books – I buy hardbacks and I open them and read them, I don’t usually keep them pristine on my shelves.  But.  This one was different.  (I think it was the slipcase.  The thought of taking the book out of it and putting it on the seat next to me, which some stranger had been sitting on…)

So I had to get a reading copy.  And I thought, why not, this time, try e-reading it?  If I’d bought a second physical copy I’d then have to argue with myself about keeping that or giving it away, so I downloaded it onto my iPad.  And read it. In public.

That was interesting.  It wasn’t a jolt to read on screen, but there were aspects of it that felt different – some good, some bad.  Yes, it was handy that the iPad kept track of my place. On the other hand, it felt very slight in my hands.  Coming home in the evening there were no spare seats so I sat on the floor (that happened 2 or 3 times a week).  Without the familiar bulk of a hardback I found it hard to hold the thing in the right place.  There was also the lack of feedback from turned pages to know how far I’d got – the pagecount told me, of course, but I had to look at that deliberately.

There was one real positive, though.  That day I went to give blood.  I found the iPad much easier to read while lying down, left arm tubed up and having to wiggle my hand – especially as I could turn the pages one handed, and the “book” didn’t keep trying to close itself.

Overall, I think I can see the attraction of these devices.  I don’t think they’re for me – I just like paper more – but they have their uses. 

Now, turning to the book itself, it is a deceptively simple story. The unnamed narrator relates, some 30 or 40 years later, experiences that happened to him as a boy aged seven. Meeting a girl slightly older (or a great deal older - "how long had she been eleven?") he is drawn into a strange reality, somewhere outside this world, and encounters a threatening presence (in a nod, perhaps, to M R James, this appears as a mass of dirty, flapping cloths) which then disrupts his secure family. The threat is eventually dealt with, but there is, of course, a price to be paid and a sense - possibly - that things are never the same.

While things may be told from an adult's recollection, this book is excellent at conveying a child's experience: the arbitrariness of the adult world which makes magical goings-on down the lane and the weird behaviour of one's parent equally expected (or unexpected), the aloofness of an unhappy child who takes refuge in his books. There is, at the same time, a mythic quality - as I've said, the narrator isn't named, but nor are his sister or parents, or the lodger - "the opal miner" - who sets off the chain of events described here. Indeed, the only people who are named here are those with connections to that mysterious, otherly world - in particular, the Hempstock women, grandmother, daughter and granddaughter Lettie who are definitely "otherly", and dangerous, but as friendly and comforting as fresh-baked bread. (Food is important here. The boy goes hungry because he will not eat the food provided by his unsettling governess. The opal miner's appearance is associated with powdery instant coffee. When our hero appears at the Hempstocks' farmhouse, he is, like Mole seeking refuge with Badger in the Wild Wood, restored with hearty, basic food - honeycomb, porridge and cream).

Being told from a child's perspective, a great deal else is hinted at but never detailed - money troubles and parental chilliness, a sense of suspended loss about what came after the story ended. Even the adult life of our grown up narrator is vague - he's come back home for a funeral, but we never learn whose. Women are important - powerful, though not always benevolent - men absent (there were Hempstock men, but they have gone away) or troubled (the miner, the boy's father).

While about a child, it isn't a children's book. It has some scenes, including aspects of horror, that wouldn't suit a child at all. But it does have deep compassion - for the boy, his parents, even for the "monster" which has to go back but isn't, despite its streaks of malice, essentially evil.

An absolutely superb book - Gaiman balances fantasy and reality deftly, playing them off against one another and producing a wonderful synthesis.

8 June 2013

Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

Zoe is out of a job after becoming involved with her married boss, and has returned to her home town. In a nice twist, said home town isn't Nowheresville but is New York City itself. Answering an advert she sees in a café, Zoe finds about a new job editing a city guide - a job for which she is eminently qualified. But this is a guide with a difference - it's aimed at visiting monsters - vampires, zombies, fey, minor deities. (But you mustn't call them "monsters", they are "coterie".)

Mur Lafferty spins this premise into an entertaining take on urban fantasy. The plot, once it begins, is actually paper thin - someone, or something, is coming to New York to do Bad Things and upset the balance between humans and coterie - but this doesn't matter much as the book is so entertaining. Also, it's the first in the series, so Lafferty is doing a great deal of setting up and an undemanding plot is probably fair enough. The setting up, by the way, is done very well. She's taken great pains to make the characters and their situation credible (there is a calculated balance between humans and coterie, not a zombie apocalypse; the interactions between Zoe and her colleagues are credible, up to and including the problems of having an incubus on the team; the "economics" of how coterie find their food without (generally) hunting down humans are done convincingly). The only flaw was that, perhaps, there are rather too many different types of coterie in Zoe's office and for a few chapters I had trouble remembering who was who.

A couple of loose threads are left to be developed in future, notably, what is the source of Zoe's ability to remain cool and collected in the face of coterie?

I'm looking forward to the next book, The Ghost Train to New Orleans.

1 June 2013

Review: You, by Austin Grossman

As a teenager, Russell ran with a pack of geeks - Lisa, Darren and Simon. The were the ones who, given 15 minutes on a shiny new Apple II at school, news what to do - knew that this was going to be the future. Together, they created a game world. But Russell drifted away, looking for an ordinary career, and Simon died. Years later, Russell returns to the company founded by Lisa, Darren and Simon, a company still developing games that have at their core the fruits of those long, after hours sessions in the computer lab.

There's a reassuring shakiness about Russell's narration. A great deal in hinted at but never spelled out. The story of the four friends is told in short highlights, intercut with play from the sequence of games they made over the 80s and 90s - games that feature four heroes, "the same four heroes you found in any video game that featured four heroes, anywhere" - a fighter, a magician, a thief and a princess. As the pressure of game development deadlines increases, Russell also has to embark on a quest through the successive games to track down a bug that could threaten not only the company but even the wider world - a bug built in from the start and propagated through every successive build and update since. Delving to the source of this means coming to terms with what he ran away from all those years ago.

It also means interrogating the whole lifestyle of gaming, in debates which Russell holds increasingly frequently with the four heroes themselves - Brennan, Lorac, Prendar and Leira. As Grossman cuts back and forth between straight narration, ongoing gameplay, dreams(?), debate with the heroes, flashbacks to the 80s and extracts from game manuals and helpfiles, it becomes less and less clear what is "real" and what is a "game". As a games designer, Russell's job is to make games that confine and chivvy the player along the chosen narrative. But he and his friends set out originally to make the ultimate game, in which the player can do whatever he wants - a totally lifelike experience. So when is life a game, and a game life?

It's an intoxicating read, leavened by humorous interludes such as Russell's experiences demoing a game at a trade fair, when everything goes wrong, and for me there was a glow of nostalgia in the D&D language and early 80s computers. It all stops in the early days of the Web, which is right, I think, because then it can celebrate an age before the really big corporations began to throw their weight around again.

I'm so glad I read this book. For me, it was touching, nostalgic and - despite concluding in 1998 - modern. I wrote my first computer program in about 1979 or 1980, in BASIC, on a Nascom 2 computer with 32kb of RAM. It was a Space Invader clone. I thought at the time I was very clever: to make it work I had to add a realtime keyboard reader routine which I got from a photocopied fanzine. I never made a career out of programming, but I can relate to the sense in this book that Grossman describes of coding as a creative act, insane fun, and something newly and wholly unexpectedly within reach.

The nearest book I can think of to this would have to be Cryptonomicon but "You" is less of a thriller, while still more weird than other books which use game conventions and insights such as Christopher Brookmyre's Bedlam or Charles Stross's Halting State - though it recognisably shares something, an outlook, an aesthetic, with them.

Highly recommended.

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

There are so many good things about this book that I've actually found it hard to marshal my thoughts into a sensible review. At one level I just want to say "buy it, call in sick to work, switch your phone off and READ". And I do say that. But just saying that wouldn't be very helpful.

Trying again, I think there are three really good things about this book.

First, and most obviously, the concept. Harper Curtis, a drifter and ex soldier, stumbles into a mysterious house in 1930s Chicago. He emerges from this into various different times over the succeeding decades to carry out murders, like some form of evil Doctor Who in an anti TARDIS. One of Harper's victims, Kirby, survives, and sets out to hunt him down. That alone would be a really sweet SF concept, but Beukes uses it to do so much more. It is clear that, somehow, the house is more than a passive time machine. It is somehow driving Harper to commit the murders, at least in his mind (not that he was an innocent beforehand, as the book makes clear). So at one level the existence, and the properties, of the house provide a kind of explanation for what he'd doing, for the evil he carries out. That might be thought a cop-out, but it's not - the entire idea of a time travelling house existing at all is itself just... bonkers. So one that leads a man to kill is not actually much weirder. But we accept the idea of time travel in this kind of book, don't we... just as we accept books about serial killers. Beukes seems to me to be posing some questions here about what we read, what stories we buy, what we like to here, and not always in a comfortable way - just as she starkly depicts the brutality of Harper's murder (and torture).

Secondly, the characters are all magnificent. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is portrayed so vividly. Kirby is so real, with her scars and her traumas, as is Harper, but Kirby's mother is made so real, as is Dan, a journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, who tries to help Kirby. They are the main characters. But also the succession of "shining girls" that Harper kills are brought alive, even if there are only a few pages for them, their hopes made real, their ambitions made real, their fears made real. They are not just victims. Beukes shows real humanity, even respect, in creating them. And as if that isn't enough she has a way of making even passing minor characters vividly real. Here's Victoria, pictures editor at Dan's paper: "She's wearing her usual uniform of a button-up men's shirt and jeans with heels, a little bit shlumfy, a little bit f***-you"

That leads me to my third thought - in many respects this book is a tribute, almost a hymn, to the idea, to the era, of print journalism. There is a barely hidden thrill among all the journalists talking about the place of their paper in the world. It's the people's paper, unlike the snooty, rival broadsheet. Maybe TV has diminished its reach, but what is printed still matters. Beukes has said in interviews that the book had to end in the 90s because any later, it would be too easy for Kirby to solve the mystery via the Web. That may be true, but I also wonder if it was because of the sad dwindling of those distinctive local US papers in the face of faster online news?

All in all, a tremendous book, deviously plotted, well written, bold in concept and - despite the subject matter - not exploitative. Now go and get a copy and read it.

Review: Path of Needles by Alison Littlewood

Alison Littlewood is clearly very versatile. Her last book, A Cold Season. was out-and-out supernatural horror. "Path of Needles" is more ambiguous.

The book centres on two women, Cate, an ambituous police constable and Alice, a university lecturer specialising in fairy tales. When a serial killer begins to leave victims posed like fairy tale characters, Cate, temporarily attached to the enquiry and desperate for a chance to move on, goes out on a limb to involve Alice in the investigation. Soon, though, she begins to have doubts. Alice, meanwhile, is conscious of danger as the stories she loves, but which have always been safely trapped in books, become real. And what does the mysterious blue bird signify? All Alice's stories exist in multiple, variant texts, and once you start to interpret them - or to interpret real events in light of them - it seems as though there are no rules, as though anything goes.

I enjoyed the way that Littlewood captures both main characters, including the rivalries and undercurrents among the police, Cate's desire to get on in her career and her relationship with her old mentor. There's a strong thread in the book, playing, of course, into the overt fairytale them, of parent-child relationships (good and bad) especially mothers and daughters. The book walks a narrow line between becoming merely a police procedural and tipping over into the outright weird. We always suspect there may be more here than a serial killer, yet at the same time the crimes are explored as crimes and aren't inexplicable.

Littlewood is also good at evoking landscape - a particular patch of Yorkshire - using real places yet managing to give them an unearthly aspect (this reminded me of Graham Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Overall, a gripping read, something a little different, definitely a writer to watch.

Review: Poison by Sarah Pinborough

Disney won't like it, but who cares about that?

Pinborough takes "Snow White" and applies a little twist... make that a few little twists. For one thing, nobody is quite what they seem. Evil the Wicked Stepmother, while being VERY wicked and VERY stepmothery, gets some sympathetic backstory. She's portrayed as a real person, and with some sympathy - as is Snow White herself, not just a cut out Good Girl but more of a real, actual person with real desires and appetites.

So while this book has dwarves, castles, magic, princes and poisoned apples, it also has some acute dissection of the place of women in a kind of fairy-tale land (it's all joined up round the back: we learn the true nature of that unpleasant boy Aladdin, and a couple of rather PTSD characters turn up who have apparently wandered in out of other stories). And sex - which Pinborough is rather good at describing (no danger of this getting a Bad Sex award, I think).

It's quite a quick read, very enjoyable, actually quite thought provoking. Definitely recommended.

Review: Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis

This is the third in a "tripytch" of books, after "Bitter Seeds" and "The Coldest War".  It's appropriately called a "triptych" not a "trilogy" - a triptych is a picture in three parts, while a trilogy is just three successive books.  If you've read to the end of the second book, you might have started to guess why and I will be discussing this in a moment, so if you want to avoid spoilers for the first two books, go away and do something else now (ideally, read those first two books).

If you're still with me, "Necessary Evil" follows Raybould Marsh back from the 1963 of "Coldest war" back to the dark days of 1940.  Marsh is a British secret agent and part of the unconventional "Milkweed" organisation, whose job is to conjure up demons to fight the Queen's enemies.  But Milkweed has been played, and in '63 the demons break loose to eat the world.  Marsh takes a desperate course of action, returning to the Second World War to prevent that.  Marsh has also been played by Gretel, one of a secret cadre of German super-soldiers.  Gretel can see the future - or rather possible futures - and is trying to engineer one in which the demons fail - and in which she can claim Marsh for her own.  As part of this, she murdered his baby daughter (in 1940) by directing a bombing raid at the village to which she was evacuated.  that's part of Marsh's motivation for returning to 1940 - not only to save the world, but to save his daughter (and to avoid the subsequent failure of his marriage).

Confused?  If not, remember that not only is "old" March now in 1940, but so is the "original" Marsh.  And so is the younger Gretel, who can, of course, see forward to the future timeline in which she send Marsh back...

It's a mark of Tregillis's technical skill that he holds these threads and alternate characters together, resolving the story credibly and tying up these loose ends with aplomb.  I was also impressed by his characters:  they are very human, real people who almost walk off the page - Tregillis sketches their motivations and characters convincingly, and makes them all sympathetic, even horrible Gretel. This isn't run-of-the-mill SF, it is a book very much driven by those real characters, who are not simply there to have the plot happen to them.

The setting was also well described and realised, although slightly less convincing in two respects.  First, a few Americanisms slipped through which I think an editor or advance reader could have caught.  Secondly, I found the mechanics, especially in the second half of the book, a little unlikely - could you really put on a Naval uniform and wander into the Admiralty in 1940? Was travel as easy as the plot requires?  Perhaps, though, it's a bit off to complain about details like that in a book where demons are summed and surgically enhanced soldiers can turn invisible, walk through walls or wield fire as a weapon!

This is a fitting, even triumphant, ending to the "triptych". We have another history of the events told earlier, filling in missing details and completing the picture.  So clever is it, it might almost be one of those Steven Moffat "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey" Doctor Who adventures.

Review: The Mongoliad, Book Three by Neal Stephenson et al

This is the third volume of "The Mongoliad" and at nearly 800 pages, it is almost twice as long as the previous two - not that it seems long: the pages rattle by.

In one sense, the book is easy to review. It is just as good as its predecessors, and if you have read those, you will want to see how things get wrapped up. If you haven't read the other books, this isn't the place to start - I'd recommend you go and look at reviews of Book One and decide if it's for you or not.

But at another level, it may be worth saying a little about the trilogy as a whole, and about how much Volume 3 does, or rather doesn't, provide "closure".

These books make up a true epic, ranging across thousands of miles of medieval Europe and Asia, featuring characters from (in modern terms) Italy, Spain, England, Germany, Poland, Russia, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. They capture a tipping point in history when Western Europe - "Christendom" - seemed poised to be swept away by invaders.

For most of the 1500-odd pages of the cycle, we have followed four threads of the story.

- In Mongolia, the Great Khagan, son of Genghis, passes his time in drunkeness. Around him are the normal intrigues of any Imperial court, heightened by the Mongols being a roving, nomadic people, not accustomed to settled palace life. Honest, bluff warrior Gansukh, untutored in the ways of the Court, arrives on a mission to save Ogedei from himself, making friends and enemies as he does so. Outside the imperial palace, Genghis Khan's mysterious "spirit banner" stands brooding.

- In Hunnern, which I think is in modern day Poland, European knights fight to the death with enslaved warriors from across the empire, seeking, as champions, to prevent any further advance by the invading Horde.

- A small group of knights from the ancient Shield Brethren, despairing of this, has set out across thousands of miles to find and kill the Khagan.

- A conclave meets in Rome to elect a new Pope. The process is watched and manipulated both by Orsini, Senator and ruler of Rome, and by the Holy Roman Emperor, encamped with his troops in the hills outside the city.

In this third book, the war party of Shield Brethren are finally closing on Karakorum, site of the Khagan's palace, even as he leaves to renew his faith in himself by hunting a great bear. The remnants of Europe's chivalry, at Hunern, are trying to fight back against the Mongols (though hampered by schisms and feuds) and a Pope is - finally - elected.

Moving between these threads, the pace never flags. Each is resolved, after a fashion, and the story is never less than entertaining. Yet I did wonder if in the end this saga isn't actually rather less than the sum of its parts. For example, the Roman story never intersects with the others: while eminently readable, I do wonder if it couldn't simply have been cut, to leave three books of more moderate length. And the various hints of mystical artifacts scattered thoughout the books - the Grail, the secret in the tombs at Kiev, the Pope's ring, the spirot banner (and the sprig cut from it) - never come to anything. Nor does the stuff about the ancient origins of the Shield Brethren, the Livonian knights, or the mysterious Binders.

It seems to me clear that the authors have built in hooks for further sequels (whether those ever appear we'll have to see) where presumably this will be explored further, and at the end of this book almost all the main characters are in motion (mostly on horseback) heading purposefully towards the next volume. However I feel a bit cheated by the way that so much material that this story (across all three books) dwells on is simply left unresolved: all those crossbows hanging on the wall in Part 1 that remain unfired... which is why I have only given this concluding volume three stars. In large part, that reflects my slight disappointment with the outcome of the trilogy as a whole, rather than criticism of this book in particular.

Review: The Age Atomic by Adam Christopher

I've changed my mind about this book a couple of times reading it, but for me, it came good in the end. It is worth pointing out, though, that it's a bit different from Christopher's Empire State to which it is a sequel.

Like the earlier book, Age Atomic is set in the Empire State, a "pocket universe" that is a twisted copy of 50s New York City, and in New York itself. The hero of Empire State, PI Rad Bradley, returns. He is still living in the back of his shabby office, still walking the mean streets. However, this book doesn't have the noirish bite of the previous volume - it is more straightforward SF, albeit at the softer end of SF: there are robots, there is an airship, there are, er, more robots, there is NUCLEAR FUSION... and did I mention the robots?

It is a rollercoaster of a story, and to begin with I was a little disappointed at the lack of noir, and perhaps at the (slightly) forced plot, as Rad goes into action, saving the heroine, Jennifer (I'm still not quite sure how that came about). But the story soon begins to rattle along as twin threats emerge on both side of the rift that connects the Empire State and New York. There are forces at work engaging in a kind of arms race that mirrors the one the 1950s US is part of. The plotting has many twists and turns, and although simpler than that of Empire State, it keeps the pages turning - and I think the ending is rather better. Don't, though, look for much logic in the mechanics of the interlinked worlds or of the mysterious Director - as I said, this isn't hard SF, not even firm SF. It is what is is, an enjoyable romp.

At the end, Christopher seems to be setting up for another sequel, and I look forward to that.

Review: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

I read this book after it was mentioned in a round up by Damien Walter in The Guardian. It was enjoyable, though I think that Ms Tanzer will write better, and to a British reader there were a number of howlers where very un-British phrases were placed in the mouths of English characters.

The book consists of four short stories and a novella ("A Pretty Mouth"). These are based around the mythology of the aristocratic Calipash family of Devon, different stories being set from the Roman occupation to the 1920s (they go backwards in time) although the dating of some is vague.

The Calipashes are a cursed family, their affliction having distinctly Lovecraftian overtones (though mainly of the Innsmouth, children-with-webbed-feet variety rather than the unspeakable-horrors-from another dimension sort). This allows the author to spin a variety of spooky Gothic stories told in different forms, loosely suited to the different times they're set in.

The first story, "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs" is a PG Wodehouse pastiche, narrated by Jeeves, Bertie Wooster's gentleman's gentleman, who has to investigate some fishy goings on at a seaside resort. I take my hat off to Tanzer's ambition here. Mimicking Wodehouse's style - or even his ambience - would be a tall order for any writer, and while the story is fun, I don't think that she quite hits the mark with this. There's also, perhaps, a slight cultural unfamiliarity which shows up: for example the English seaside town was at its peak in the 20s and 30s and Dolor-on-the-Downs would not have been "seedy" (in any case, Aunt Agatha would not have visited anywhere that could have been so described).

The second, "The Hour of the Tortoise" is much more successful - set in the late 19th century, it's basically a Gothic tale of a young girl returning to her childhood home, Calipash Manor, to find her guardian dying, and something distinctly rum going on. There's a twist in that the young lady is a writer of literary smut, and another in the ending of the story. Again, though, Tanzer misses one or two points of etiquette - the servants wouldn't have addressed Chelene by her first name, she would be "Miss Chelene". The phrase "visit with" is also out of place

The third, "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins", set in the very early 19th century, is perhaps written in the vein of MR James, though like most of the others in the volume it is rather more saucy than he would have liked. It manages to both chill and amuse.

The novella, " A Pretty Mouth", takes place around the time of the Restoration and is set in an Oxford college (Wadham). It has something of a Hell-fire club ambience, recounting the doings of a particularly debauched member of the Calipash family who befriends a young man, Henry Milliner, with unfortunate consequences for the latter.

The final story, "Damnatio Memoriae" is almost an origin story for the Calipashes, based on a Roman expedition to Britannia. Alone in this volume, it has (almost) no supernatural aspect.

The stories are all satisfyingly creepy, the effect being heightened by one's growing knowledge, through the book, of the Calipashes and what they're capable of. Tanzer has clearly given some though to creating an overall story arc. Given the family's history of dealings with the unspeakable over many centuries, it would have been tempting to set them up by the end as potent villains, to the detriment of the story but she avoids that by hinting at and then describing various failings and twists of chance that limit them.

Where I felt the stories fell down slightly was in some of the language. For example, "A Pretty Mouth", set at Oxford in 1660, was full of what read to me as modern US college slang including references to "grades" and terms like "whatever!" and "awkward!" and a discussion in one place of the effect of "social class" (I think this anachronistic and natives of 17th century England would have been more likely to use a term like "station".) I may be being over sensitive here. After all, the story is written in Modern, not Jacobean, English, so why not go the whole way and use up to date terms? And as Tanzer is (I'm pretty sure) an American writer, it's clearly no more wrong to use Modern American English here than Modern English English (as it were). Nevertheless this grated on me in places (though the story is good enough to carry it) and I wondered how far it was deliberate - in some places she has used 17th century terms (such as referring to the "middling sort" when describing Henry's background)

So I'm giving this three rather than four stars. But all the same I hope she writes more soon, because hers is a distinctive voice and I think she's found - or created - a richly unsettling vein of horror to exploit.

Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

This book presented me with a dilemma. I couldn't put it down, but didn't want it to end. In the end I had to sit up reading till I'd finished it - and I think I'll have to read it again soon.

Ursula Todd is born, during a snowstorm, in 1910. That much is given. Almost everything else is... provisional, shifty, alternate. In the manner of a video game, Ursula will die and the book will reset to her birth ("Snow"). So we have many versions of Ursula, living through the mid 20th century. We see her as a young girl, as a wife, a mother, an ARP warden in the London Blitz. And we see alternate timelines for her family, friends and lovers. These branch from one another, but the characters and events remain similar and Atkinson uses the cumulative effect of the different realities to tell one story. It's the most quantum physics way of telling a story I've ever seen - the essence is a kind of sum over all the alternates.

To take one very minor example (with no serious spoilers) in a number of the timelines Ursula takes a secretarial course at a college in High Wycombe. The instructor is a somewhat sleazy type, but the details - or at least, what we're told about them - are slightly different in the different alternates You only get a clear picture of him by taking all the versions together. Crucially, Ursula's response is slightly different each time and we only get a complete picture of her by holding all the versions together, as it were.

While Ursula's birth is (almost) the only fixed point, there are other places the timelines converge - where events echo one another - and as you become familiar with the alternates you begin to anticipate these. Examples include the Armistice Day celebrations of 1918, Ursula's 16th birthday, a wartime encounter in the tearoom of the Charing Cross Hotel in London, the bombing of a block of flats in London. The events are recognisably the same, but also very different: each time Atkinson adds viewpoints, changes characters' roles, turns things round, completes her picture.

There is something of a meta-narrative going on. In some of the timelines Ursula becomes increasingly aware of having lived through the same events before. She experiences flashbacks from her alternate lives (or perhaps "flashsideways" since these are in some sense all going on in parallel, and some are of events we haven't seen yet). She begins to anticipate dangers and traps to be avoided. Her attempts to do so ("practice makes perfect") are comic in some places, tragic in others. This builds (in one timeline) to a determination not simply to sidestep immediate dangers to herself and her family, but to intervene and change history on a grander scale. While the resulting "what if?" may be something of a discussion point - and a commercial handle - it isn't actually as much of a central theme as you'd think - this book is much more than just a clever idea, excellently realised (though of course it is that). Rather, Atkinson uses her unconventional approach to tell an involving and compelling story. In particular she has a real skill in conveying character with a few words and in creating sympathetic, real yet flawed individuals (Ursula's parents, Hugh and Sylvie, are one example - at different time we sympathise with both - Sylvie left behind with the children, as banker Hugh marches off to "adventure" in the Great War, Hugh as she becomes prickly during the Second).

To a degree, I think you could read the different sections of this book in any order you want - the epitome, you'd think, of a book written to be consumed by digital means (e-reader, iPad or whatever). However, I read it in hardback and did a lot of paging back and forward in this book, to check details, compare versions of the "same" events, and to work out how the timelines fitted together. I have a nagging feeling that the paper version was easier for this purpose as you're able to keep two or three pages open together. The book comes with a stitched in ribbon bookmark: I think that possibly two or three would be even more helpful.

The only drawback (for me) - and it is a very minor one - of this book was keeping track of all the children. Ursula has a number of siblings and friends and they seem to be rather fecund. At times it can be difficult to remember who is who.

In a postscript, Atkinson suggests that she may write a companion novel, focussing on one of the characters. I really, really hope that she does, as I'd love to be able to read more about the very real world she creates, and the people in it. (She does leave a few tantalising loose ends which would surely be developed?)

18 April 2013

Review: "Mayhem" by Sarah Pinborough

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book.

"Mayhem" is a book not to be pigeonholed. It has crime, but it's not a police novel. It's set in the later nineteenth century, but is definitely not a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It has the supernatural, and horror, but it's not trying to evoke Bram Stoker. If there were a space between these for a kind of Victorian-urban-fantasy-detective-noir (emphasis on the noir) this might be it. But it's probably better just to enjoy the fact that Sarah Pinborough's new book is... different.

The book is mainly set in 1888 and 1889, at the time of Jack the Ripper. It features real historical characters (doctors and police who were involved in the hunt for the Ripper) and weaves around real events. But it's not "Ripper fiction". Nor is it (thank goodness) True Crime. Instead, Pinborough has created a background, an atmosphere, a taint, which has infected London, the Ripper murders being one consequence. It is this underlying cause which is the true subject of the story and which Dr Thomas Bond, the police surgeon, investigates.

The narrative mainly follows Bond and Aaron Kosminski, a Jewish Russian refugee whose story begins, in flashback, a few years earlier. (There are a couple of other viewpoints too, whose relevance emerges gradually). Of the two, Kosminksi is written with more verve. He is a fantastical creation, a man who loathes both blood and water and has dreams that foretell the future (he glimpses terrible evil coming to his family and people - historical events of course give the story a very dark context indeed).

Compared to Kosminski, Bond seems flatter, reflecting his semi-official status (and also perhaps also the fact that he was a real person). He does though have his vices, and is increasingly to be found in the opium dens of the East End. At the start this is to escape from sleepless nights, but in time he begins to think that the drug will assist him in hunting down the horror that is behind the "Thames Torso Murders". These were as real as the Ripper killings, and as unsolved, and their investigation is the main focus of the book. It leads Bond to a terrible conclusion, that there is a more than human wickedness behind the Torso killings.

Pinborough is good at evoking the atmosphere of panic as the two sets of crimes continue: the scarcely suppressed hysteria, the Press frenzy, the casting about for someone to blame (whether the police for failing to find the murderer, or suspect foreigners). I think it's one of this book's strengths that in describing it all she avoid any temptation to adopt musty Victorianisms. At one stage she refers to "smog" - language underpinning the sense that what is happening is current, not confined to a distant land of pea-soupers, Hansom cabs and policeman with whistles. This in turn highlights Bond's dilemma: he is a rational scientist, a doctor, in many ways a very modern investigator seeking to apply the science of his day (in one scene he scoffs at a constable who believes that a photograph of the dead woman's eyes will reveal an image of her killer). Yet he is forced to confront the possibility of the supernatural - or the alternative, that he's losing his sanity.

It's all made very real. This is a fine book - I'm pleased to see that there is a sequel coming.

10 February 2013

What am I doing here? Why am I Blue Book Balloon?

Not that anyone has asked, but I thought I'd try to explain anyway. 

About ten years ago I started posting reviews on Amazon, and toiling away, I've now passed 250.  Most of them are for books: but a couple of years ago Amazon noticed me and invited me onto their Vine "programme" which offers free stuff for review.  Under the auspices of Vine I have reviewed coffee makers, toothbrush heads and even Sugru - and books: it was through Vine that I discovered the possibility of getting review copies, before the book is published.

I still find Amazon reviewing fun:  you get fairly prompt feedback on whether anyone likes your review, and they have this addictive thing that gives you a rank, which is probably fairly meaningless but can be a wonderful ego boost. 

However, I do worry about Amazon.  If they drive the physical bookshops out of business, it will be harder and harder to get the "real" books I prefer.  And bookshop browsing is so much fun.  So I'm trying to limit what I buy from Amazon and make a point of ordering my books from my local shop.

By the same token I thought I should start putting reviews somewhere apart from (or, if I'm honest, as well as) them.  So far I haven't been posting them all here - I'm still getting used to using Blogger.  (I know that Google's possibly no better than Amazon, but...)

And just to confuse things I also recently found Goodreads.  And my son persuaded me to try Twitter, which turned out to be more bookish than I had expected.  Help - I do actually want to carry on reading books, and all this networking uses up the time so efficiently it's actually rather scary.

Also, since you asked, why "Blue Book Balloon"?  - a name that possibly makes me sound like a travelling Victorian sideshow.

A few years ago I took a photo of a blue balloon, in a blue sky, as it passed over my wife's church on a Sunday afternoon.  It was fairly low and we could hear the gas burners.  I used the picture for my profile on various sites, including Twitter when I started that, and I decided to use it for my Twitter name as well. 
It is distinctive, and I've got used to it.  (Though it caused a little confusion among local balloonists - I was contacted by one who had ridden in the actual balloon).

Review: "Bedlam" by Christopher Brookmyre

I have a feeling this is going to divide Brookmyre's fans (again).

It's a full blooded science fiction story, akin to last book but two Pandaemonium rather than the more recent "straight" crime fiction.  Indeed, there's a case for saying that in narrative terms, this book picks up almost where Pandaemonium left off - with a character flung unexpectedly form this world into another reality, albeit that of a violent video game rather than a violent parallel universe.

So begins a breakneck narrative as Ross, a browbeaten Scottish techie with a Dilbertish outlook, tries to find out what has happened and how he can get back to familiar, damp Stirling and his girlfriend Carol. He soon discovers that there's more going on than a simple brain scanner accident, and that events inside and outside the game are threatening its reality: a Corruption is spreading...

It is an exciting story, interspersing chases, combat, philosophy (are we all in a simulation?) and ethical debate (if the simulated inhabitants of a game are sophisticated enough, does that make them human? If so, what rights should they have?) The plot is intricate and, for the first half of the book, pretty baffling, turning on a few unexpected reveals which it would spoil to say much more about. But everything does become clear in the end (perhaps there is a bit too much exposition in the final 20 pages or so) and - no surprise - it turns out to have been very deftly put together.

I enjoyed this book. Brookmyre shows his knowledge of 80s and 90s video games, moving Ross through a succession of different game milieux from first person shooters to platform games to a warped version of The Sims - yet as a non-gamer I never felt left out of baffled. (If I were "Daily Mail" reader, I might have felt got at by one section...)

Philosophically, it felt as though he was joining in an ongoing discussion among Scottish based SF writers about the "simulation hypothesis" and its consequences, coming after books such as Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game and Charles Stross's The Rapture of the Nerds.

In a postscript, Brookmyre hopes readers will find this venture into SF proper worthwhile - so do I, because it would be a shame if there were no more like this.