Friday 31 October 2014

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Update: I've posted a somewhat more coherent review on Amazon. The review below gets a bit ranty and spoilery in the second half.

I thought I’d love The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Unfortunately - and to my own surprise - I didn’t. I feel kinda guilty about that. Not least because I dismissed Pat’s warning that “you might not want to buy this book”.

So, before I start reviewing, a strong word of advice: if you are not an existing fan of the Kingkiller Chronicles, don’t buy this. At least, not yet. Go out and buy The Name of the Wind. Right now. It is amazing. Then, read The Wise Man’s Fear, which is pretty good, too. And after that, if you’re addicted to Pat’s amazing way with words, maybe you’ll be the sort of fan to also enjoy The Slow Regard of Silent Things. I was not that fan.

So, Auri. One of the most bewitching and adorable characters of the Kingkiller Chronicles - and perhaps the second craziest (after Master Elodin), this is a girl who lives in the tunnels, crypts and sewers beneath the magical university, an area which she calls The Underthing. She flits in and out of Kvothe’s story with great charisma and greater endearingness. An entire novella about her sounds like it should be AMAZING.

What is clear from Slow Regard of Silent Things is that Pat, like his readers, is in love with Auri. Who wouldn’t be? She’s the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only more manic, a huge dollop more pixie, and plenty dreamy, too. It’s also clear that Pat hasn’t lost his knack for beautiful, playful, musical prose-wizardry. Seriously, the man can write and enchant like no other. But, as Pat himself points out in the afterword (full of anxiety and worries), he has not written a story. He has written a 30,000 word vignette. And that takes some adjusting to.

If you think you’d enjoy a 30,000 word vignette with minimal plot about Auri, then you know what? Give it a try. You might (other reviews suggest that most fans of Pat’s work do) love this book. If you can buy it in a way that benefits Pat’s fantastic Worldbuilders efforts, you should.

Now, if, after you have read it, you find yourself wondering why anyone would not like this book, then read on. But be warned. This is the point where the review is going to go off all spoilery and grumpy. And if you happen to be Pat, or a friend of Pat’s, stop reading now: I would never be as unkind in real life as I’m going to get once I start ranting on teh interwebs. And I would never wish you to suffer the unkindness of having your feelings hurt.

Plus, I’m about to get all scatological! Beware!

SPOILERY Grumpy Bits:

I didn’t enjoy it, because rather than enhancing Auri, this book somewhat eroded her, for me. There were a number of things which I had mixed feelings about. Top of the list is that it turns out Auri’s manic-pixie-dream-girliness is better deployed as a character cameoing in the Kingkiller Chronicles, and less well served by a full length book. When she appears in Kvothe’s story, you get a strong sense that this is a person, with her own life, and yes, some dose of endearing crazy, but ultimately an independent being. She might be enchanting, but she flits in and out of the books like a hummingbird, shining and magnificent and magical because we know that she lives in her own world.

When the reader is thrown into that world for a longer run, suddenly her adorability starts grating away at the suspension of disbelief, because she seems to see herself in the same adoring tones that the reader sees her in. For me, that is a no-no. It feels inauthentic. All the manic pixie dream girls I've encountered in real life might see the world through spectacles of cutesy, but they don’t see themselves through the same specs - not permanently. They might be able to switch on that perspective, briefly, but they all have a very different perception of themselves most of the time. Others might adore them, but they do not adore themselves. Others might glory in the light of their magical glow, but inside that glow, they tend to not catch their own shining light in the same way.

I’m not saying Auri loves herself in a smug, proud, egocentric way. No, not at all. But when she prances around nekkid and in her altogether for quite a few pages, when the narrative voice constantly highlights her tiny hands and her tiny feet and the way she washes her face, her hands, her feet… well, that isn't a real person's perspective of herself. That is the author playing with a very cute doll living in a very enigmatic dollhouse.

It makes me think that if Auri caught a cold, she'd be making dainty, tingly little sneezes. There would definitely not be any snot anywhere near her tiny little nose. And on the rare occasions when she has to relieve herself, she'd be making the most endearing little pellets of poo, like a rabbit or a deer… good thing she does not catch a cold or have a poo in this novel. (She does eat, two or three time over the course of a week, so she's probably very constipated and only has to leave Auri-droppings somewhere once a week. And yes, I imagine they are an assortment of little round pellets, odourless and dry. She might dive into the sewers, but Auri would never get the sort of tummy bug that results in diarrhoea, oh no….)

A gorjuss girl. Not Auri
The thing I've been trying to express with my scatological diversion is this: Auri does not feel quite real when she's the only thing in a story. She seems more like a gorjuss cartoon character. An endearingly crazy cartoon character, accessing her subconscious consciously, with some obsessiveness but mostly some sort of supernatural wisdom… but not a real woman, or girl. And that bothered me.

The second thing that bothered me is that, rather than setting Auri up as an independent character with a life and purpose of her own, Slow Regard of Silent Things somehow manages to cement the impression that she exists mainly for Kvothe. The entire novella is a countdown of seven days until He will come to see her. It turns out that Kvothe is the epicentre of Auri’s life. Yes, she has various obsessions, and a peculiar way of relating to the world around her (and a quirky way with words), but throughout the text, it’s the anticipated meeting with Kvothe that bubbles to the forefront of her thoughts, again and again. I think He even gets capitalised, as if he were a God. Somehow, I had hoped there would be more to Auri than cutesiness and awaiting Kvothe. Somehow, I had expected her to have a bit more autonomy in her purpose…

And the third thing bothering me was the allusion to rape (or near-rape). Huge spoiler, I know. But you were warned.

If you’ve read other reviews of mine, you’ll know that rape is not a topic I feel comfortable with as a reader. When it’s handled in a matter-of-fact way, it startles me. When it intrudes on a story I expect to be wholesome and joyful, it repels me.

Until fairly recently, I would always expect any rape to be the character-destroying and character-shaping thing, for the victim. And this turns out to be the case for Auri - there is a strong hint that a rape or near-rape was the thing that shattered Auri’s mind and made her flee her previous life as a student and take up residence in the tunnels - but now this bothers me even more than rape handled as a matter-of-fact, unpleasant but not life-determining event. Why? Because I hate the idea that rape turns sane women into adorable manic pixie dream girls. (If it did, should someone go out and rape all the ladies to make them more adorably quirky? If we like pretty broken things so much, do we really condemn the breaking of pretty things, or do we see it as par for the course?)

Okay, those last few sentences were pretentious and very very unfair. Really, it’s the rape-in-a-story-that-was-supposed-to-be-comforting-and-wholesome thing all over again. Writers: do not put the raping in my light entertainment!

So, three things that bothered me, and a text that feels more like Pat wrote a fanfiction to his own novels rather than a story with its own two legs: you would be forgiven for thinking that I hated this book. I did not. I adored the prose. At times, I delighted in spending time with a delightful character. But in the end, the things that did not work, or that left a wrong aftertaste in my story-eating-mouth, outweighed the joys of the prose. So, if you know me in real life and wonder whether this book is likely to be under the Christmas tree for you, the answer is sadly no.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney

Willoby is a middle-aged prison guard, a husband and a father. But at heart, he still pines for his days as a soldier. His job is not his calling, there is distance between him and his wife, and his teenage daughter resents him. When he starts having visions and seizures, his first fear is that losing consciousness would be very dangerous in his job. For the first time ever, he takes time off for sickness. Then, his visions start to affect not just his job, but his family life.

In his visions, he is pulled into another world, first as an observer through the eyes of a prince, but then physical transfers between worlds start to happen. The other world is medieval, filled with a people who have just fled from their former homelands across icy mountains into a new land, keen to start new lives. But intrigue is afoot, and for complex reasons, the bastard prince Tallimon needs an outsider. He needs Willoby.

Riding the Unicorn is not your average fantasy novel, nor even your average person-from-our-world-goes-into-fantasy-world novel. For one thing, our protagonist is a flawed man. He's quite rough. In fact, he is a thug, and not just because his language is tough and he works in a prison.  In fantasy novels, you don't get many working class protagonists who occasionally hit their wives.

The world he enters, meanwhile, may have some fantastical elements - some magic, some monsters - but the magic is understated, the monsters just fauna, really. Today's readers might be tempted to compare this world to Westeros, except this novel was originally published before Game of Thrones, so it definitely isn't derivative.

This is an intelligent, authentic novel. Willoby is not the type to have a mid-life crisis, but his glimpses of that other world trigger one: suddenly, his own life seems pale by comparison. He's afraid that he is losing his mind, but even more worried about the prospects of talk therapy and psychiatrists. His feelings for his family are decidedly mixed - there is fatigue and exhaustion, but also a stubborn determination to make it work. Meanwhile, in the other world, there's intrigue and powerplays and politics, and the sort of scheming we have come to expect from gritty, realist fantasy fiction (all the more impressive for having been written 20 years ago: the book must have been way ahead of its time).

Riding the Unicorn is never boring. It's very readable, consistently entertaining and intelligent. It could just as easily be marketed as "lit-fic" as fantasy - there is enough focus on characters, character development, and thoughtful treatment of all kinds of serious themes in this novel to satisfy even readers who never touch 'escapist' fantasy literature, while there's enough swashbuckling adventure and grit for fantasy fans not to get bored. This book truly has the best of both worlds - but it is a serious novel, steering clear of comedy or light relief.

The title, however, is poorly chosen. No unicorns appear in the book at all. (Apparently, 'Riding the Unicorn' is a colloquialism for 'going mad'). Putting a unicorn in the title of a fantasy novel might set up the wrong expectations in readers: this is not a frivolous novel of sparkly merriment.

Rating: 4.5/5

PS: You can read an excerpt of Riding the Unicorn online.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Pandaimonion: Für Daddy

The total of Pageviews collected since I started the blog (on 4th October 2014) reached 666 today! Probably 500 of those were mine...

Still, in honour of my efforts at horror writing for SCARdiff's Dragon's Pen pitching panel, and because I kept thinking all week "I'm sure I once had a horror story published in a horror anthology..." (without being able to remember its title or subject matter), I thought I'd dig up this old skeleton from my writing closet.

It's in German, having been written towards the end of my studies at university in London, when I was still quite native in my use of the German language, and, though I talked and read and dreamt in English, not quite native in English yet.

The story, really more of a piece of flash fiction, appeared in an anthology in 2003. For anyone who can speak German, here it is:


“...Morgen früh, so Gott will, wirst Du wieder geweckt.” sang die Mutter.
Gott wollte anscheinend nicht.
Nicht, daß es an Versuchen gemangelt hätte. Im Gegenteil. Es wurde gelärmt, es wurde gerufen, schließlich wurde geschüttelt und gerüttelt, sogar geohrfeigt. Als die Ärzte kamen wurde gespritzt, etwas mehr geohrfeigt, gekühlt, geheizt, mehr gespritzt, schließlich aufgeschnitten, operiert, untersucht, zusammengenäht, mehr gespritzt (diesmal durch einen Tropf), gemessen, geröntgt, durchleuchtet, und noch mehr gespritzt.
Aber Gott schien immer noch nicht zu wollen.
Tage verstrichen. Wochen folgten den Tagen, Monate den Wochen, Jahre den Monaten. Das Gesicht wurde bleicher, dürrer, älter. Der Atem wurde langsamer, ebenso der Puls. Die Körpertemperatur fiel hinab. Die Haare fielen aus, die Zähne begannen, zu wackeln. Manchmal zweifelte man, ob überhaupt noch Leben drin war, aber Atem und Herz und Hirn hatten ja nicht angehalten, das konnte man beweisen. Alles funktionierte weiter, nur eben langsamer, träger, schlafend.
Es war 48 Jahre später, nachdem die Mutter längst gestorben war, ebenso wie der Vater und drei der Geschwister, daß die Augen wieder aufgingen. Das Licht schmerzte die sensiblen, verschlafenen Augen, und die dicke Kruste der Nacht kratzte in ihnen. Die Hände waren schwer, die Muskeln in den Armen kaum stark genug, die Hände zu den Augen zu heben, um den Schlaf daraus zu reiben.
“Ich hatte einen wunderbaren Traum”, flüsterte das Kind, das nun keines mehr war. “So wundervoll, ich wollte ihn nicht verlassen. Doch ich habe vergessen, was ich träumte.”
Und die Ärzte schüttelten den Kopf, die Geschwister weinten, der Priester schwieg.
Nur der Irre im Bett daneben lächelte wissend.

(Normal blogging in the form of review shall continue shortly. Currently reading Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney, which is rather excellent so far)

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Smiler's Fair by Rebecca Levene

I got 51% through Smiler's Fair before giving up.

Smiler's Fair has a beautiful cover, and I've walked past this book several times, each time reading the blurbs on the back, each time putting it back down, not quite convinced, before ultimately giving in to the lure of the cover and buying it after all.

The book is not badly written. But sadly, it was, for me, entirely devoid of enjoyment and a slog to progress through. With a cast of dozens, many viewpoint characters, various cultures and a world spanning from icy north to deserts, full of gritty violence and a dollop of sex, it's quickly obvious that this is a Song of Ice and Fire copycat effort. But for reasons I could not immediately identify, it left me cold and disinterested. I slogged through chapter after chapter, wondering why this book fell so flat, when it seemed to emulate the ingredients of Song of Ice and Fire fairly accurately - with short, punchier chapters to boot.

It's full of characters who are not terribly likeable. But so is George R R Martin's world. Its violence is tainted with a slight twinge of sleaze. But so is George RR Martin's world. There's monsters in the dark. But so... you get the idea.

There was one obvious gripe, but on its own, that wasn't enough to make me discard the book. Early on, a character is surprised and disbelieving that Smiler's Fair (a travelling city of vice & trade) is built on superstitions - that there are worm men / monsters below ground, who come out if the ground is cast in shadow for too long. But very very quickly, that turns out to be true: someone enters a cave, some miners mine... and abracadabra, we have slaughter. The point is: how would any character doubt the superstition if there is everyday evidence of its veracity? (After all, metal is in short supply because mining is so dangerous and that's why everyone who can't afford iron uses flint!) And why on earth would a character originating on a floating "shipborn" fortress that's perpetually moving in circles around a lake (pulled by mammoths on the shore) question another city's perpetual movement and laugh at its 'superstition'? This isn't a case of monsters beyond a wall in far distant lands that no one has seen in generations. This is a case of monsters being an everyday threat. Basically, the book's internal logic is broken, and its own worldbuilding undermined.

But that is not the reason it is so hard to get engrossed in it. After some lengthy thinking, I figure it's a combination of factors. Yes, it's derivative - but there are some excellent GRRM derivative novels out there. Yes, its logic is inconsistent, but that is just a blooper, really. Chapters are short - too short to get absorbed as deeply as George R R Martin's chapters achieve - but not so short that they lack stickiness at all.

No, the reason this book falls so flat is that none of the characters are loved / capable of love. Song of Ice and Fire is built on grit and sleaze and medieval authenticity - but its narrative roots in the reader's psyche are created by bonds and love: The Starks are a loving family with strong bonds. (Okay, there's John Snow's position in the family, but I'm not saying the family is without its problems - I'm saying it is largely built on trust and love). Tyrion Lanister is a fascinating hero because he is the only Lanister who feels genuine love for some characters. Daenerys loves - even if her marriage is arranged, she never gets over Kal Drogo. In Smiler's Fair, there is scheming and violence and sleaze and humiliation and politicking and sadism and prophecy (by the way, I wish fantasy writers would give up the prophecy shtick: it was great in Dune, but that was 50 years ago) and religion - but so far, only one relationships which appears to be briefly loving (I was elated for all of three sentences, then it all went kaputt in the next chapter).

And if no one in this world loves or is loved, if there are no strong bonds between characters, then how can the reader really grow fond of any of them? Song of Ice and Fire may be full of dysfunctional, twisted characters and events, but it keeps the reader hooked by throwing decent human beings who have strong, positive emotions and some internal moral compass into the mix. Smiler's Fair mimics the twistedness but falls short on the kernels of goodness.

So, 51% into the book, I gave up. I was just not enjoying it. Derivative, I can deal with. Lacking any soul at all: not so much.

Rating: 2/5 (estimated, based on reading 51% and giving up)

Sunday 19 October 2014

SCARdiff - and the Dragon's Pen

So today I attended SCARdiff, the horror convention. It was the first time I attended a horror convention, and I was very impressed. Friendly, enthusiastic organisers, lots of interesting and exciting stalls, and phenomenal numbers of people who made a lot of effort to appear at their very scariest. (Not quite knowing what to expect, I was one of the few who had not bothered to dress up).

But the real reason I was there was for the Dragon’s Pen pitching event. I’d heard of it – and bought my ticket for SCARdiff - just after LonCon (WorldCon in London). LonCon had been the first big convention I attended, and it was glorious and joyful and I was still on a post-LonCon-high when I decided to try SCARdiff & take part in the Dragon’s Pen. There was, however, a flaw in my cunning plan: I had no ready-made manuscript to pitch, and horror is not actually the genre I am most at home in. (I have read the odd horror novel or two, but a look through my Goodreads shelf will quickly uncover that it’s not the branch of speculative fiction I spend most of my time with).

After LonCon, real life soon took over, and the past few months have been quite stressful. I work in a university, so the start of term is always a bit of a shock to the system. Much sooner than expected, SCARdiff Day made its high-pitched howl of an approach and at some point, it even looked frighteningly as if I would have to quote Douglas Adams (“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”) and bow out.

Inspiration struck last weekend, with the kernel of an idea. Phew! Except, of course, the kernel stubbornly remained a seed rather than turning into the rapidly flourishing Triffid I needed. I kept pondering, and pondering, and mulling, and pondering, and finally found myself with a vague outline for a story (with a still-very-wobbly ending). I wrote the ultra-short pitch (limited to fewer than 50 words: mine used only ten!) and a page of story-outline… and then I saw a fellow pitcher’s blog post casually mentioning that participants would have to read “the first page of your novel” and I could have sworn I saw the words “publishing contract” in that blog somewhere… and then I quoted Arrested Development

I’d misread the brief - I’d somehow been convinced they wanted a really short pitch, and, if the short pitch had enough hook, they’d listen to a full-page synopsis. I’d expected to be one of thirty or fifty hopefuls, mumbling my brave ten words to derisively sneering judges, in the hope that those ten words might earn me a chance to elaborate on the plot. I had not expected to have to read out an actual sample of the manuscript. And I’d just wasted most of the week trying to write a synopsis for a story that did not exist, when I should have been spending months writing and polishing a story and last week summing it up in a 50-word pitch…

Cue something I had not done since my student days: the almost-all-nighter (ending around 1am), during which I wrote segments of scenes. These segments were designed to convey two messages:

  1. I can write half-decent prose
  2. My story will have the potential to be unsettling or creepy

As it turned out, the dragons were all very positive and kind and keen not to crush hopes. They were more akin to fluffy white rabbits than to dragons, but I guess "The Rabbits' Pen Pitching Panel" does not quite have the same ring to it. However, the audience (there was a surprisingly large audience!) was apparently unable to hear anything because none of us were very brave with the microphone (turns out 30cm-50cm from mic was way too much of a distance), so I decided I’d make an exception about my "only book reviews" approach to blogging and share the thing I read out - and the feedback I remember - on this blog.

I did hand printouts to the dragons, which included the synopsis of where the story could be going. However, as it did not feature during the panel, I’ll simply say that things get a bit sinister and grim. (Besides, there are only a handful of things I am 100% sure will happen, much of the synopsis is still quite fluid, especially the Big Bad at the end, so I don't feel like sharing it with the world at this point)

A summary of the feedback I remember (I was quite nervous, so I probably did not absorb everything):

  • The dragons really liked the setting / basic premise
  • They were a bit concerned about too many faceless / quite vague people (“the men”, “the crew”, “the lad”) and wanted more clearly delineated & identified characters, very quickly
  • My syntax was a bit repetitive, with sentence structures that tended to start with a pronoun (“She”) far too often
  • Descriptive passages tended to go into too much logistical detail whenever characters were moving themselves or their limbs - more than needed to let the reader know what was happening, and therefore slowing things down
  • They felt it was a bit retro / like a 1980s horror novel
  • They asked about whether container ships take passengers; I assured them that there are dedicated travel agencies for this sort of thing.
  • But other than that, they seemed to think it showed promise

I have to admit, it’s been a worryingly long time since I last wrote anything creative. I’m trying to write a non-horror novel for an MPhil course, which I’ve been working on for almost 5 years now, but the last time I wrote a scene for it was November 2013. For personal reasons, I was largely unable to write creatively in almost a year: I have to return to it very soon. I had not quite realised how rusty I’d got (the repetitive sentence starts particularly are an embarrassing beginner’s mistake!).

Still, I think I’ll add this premise to the list of ones to tackle after I finish The Accursed MPhil Novel.

To finish, I’d just like to thank the organisers of SCARdiff for having run such a fantastic event, and the dragons for their feedback, and all the people in the audience who attended, patiently, supportive and polite even though many apparently could not hear us! (Oh, and the other writers who bravely read out their work were great, too!)

PS: My favourite vendor (aside from those selling books) was the Morbitorium... but has anyone checked whether there have been any unsolved murders around Barry lately? Those mummified fingers & dried out hands look worryingly authentic...
Mummified fingers Dried dismembered hand Two-headed duckling

Monday 13 October 2014

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

You can look at / read an excerpt of Horrorstör on

Horrorstör is a beautifully designed object. This square-shaped book comes in a glossy cover, with a very IKEA-style appearance. The book has authentic catalogue inlays and introductory copywritten text content, uses catalogue-style fonts, and each chapter is named in a pseudo-Scandinavian way after a minimalist piece of furniture. It evokes the look and feel of an IKEA catalogue beautifully.

I have a weakness for quirky gimmicks, so when I saw it, I had to buy it. Once it was in my hands, it did not disappoint. It really does ooze with IKEA-ambience, and if there are awards for book design and presentation, the publishers (and designers) of Horrorstör deserve accolades.

But what about the story?

Amy, our protagonist, is a demotivated worker bee, young, cynical and sarcastic and not trying very hard. She could just as easily be one of the slackers in a Kevin Smith movie. She's trying to avoid her manager, Basil, who is altogether a bit too earnest and a devout follower of the Orsk way (Orsk being this novel's imaginary IKEA knock-off brand). As annoyed as Amy is with Basil's sincerity and officiousness, he was instantly my favourite character.

Her other colleagues are less memorable - there's the checkout lady who is ultra-nice and liked by everyone because she has no rough edges at all. There's the promiscuous girl, and a young man trying to get in her good book / pants. Everyone else might just about warrant a name, but they're soon forgotten anyway.

Our motley crew of mall staff has a problem: every night, things are getting vandalised in the store. Every morning, things are missing, or stained, or corrupted in some way. And tomorrow, there will be an inspection from the corporate headquarters, so Basil decides that a few people have to stay overnight and patrol the shop, to catch the pranksters and thieves in the act. It's him, the checkout lady, and Amy (because the strong men he originally picked managed to get out of it somehow, and because he can bribe/blackmail Amy by promising not to make her redundant & to instead sign off on a transfer to a different store that she has requested)

Once the shop closes its doors, the story follows the well-trodden path of a haunted house slasher. For a while, there is a gradual build-up of ominous and sinister events, and then there's a pivotal moment, after which we're into horror territory.

With a book as neatly presented as this, there is a risk that style might trump substance. Fortunately, Horrorstör's interior matches its exterior in tone. Starting out with a cheerful description of employees turning up to work (zombies, until they consume megadoses of Starbucks), the writing voice is slightly irreverent, light-hearted, not trying anything too clever but perfectly slick and inoffensive. The flair of the presentation and the tone of the story inside are in tune with each other.  If it were a wine, this'd be a Gallo / Blossom Hill Zinfandel / Grenache. We're firmly in light-entertainment territory.

The book has a sense of humour which fits perfectly with its exterior (or vice versa). There are plenty of wink-wink, nod-nod Easter eggs in the text, ranging from mock-Scandinavian words that sound rude in English, via real foreign words that English speakers tend to find amusing if they transliterate them (e.g. Kummerspeck), all the way to Nazi concentration camp slogans appearing in translation. It's tongue-in-cheek satire, comparable to the tone of movies like Josie and the Pussycats, or the corporate-world-mocking jibes of the TV series 30 Rock.

Once our gang are locked in for the night, the novel most reminded me of the movie House on Haunted Hill. That film is a guilty pleasure for me. It's not really all that scary because the build-up is quite short, and the horror, when it starts, is quite over the top, but it has its moments. Horrorstör does more or less the same. Short build-up and rapid escalation, with a few neat observations (never again will I look at the giant, windowless, artificially lit, retail-optimised labyrinth of IKEA without a sense that it is rather cynical and sinister).

The pace and rapid escalation makes it quite a 'safe' horror story - it never builds up bone-chilling terror, the way, say, The Orphanage, does. My problem is that I rather wanted it to do just that.

I definitely expect more from books than I do from movies. Horrorstör may one day make a perfectly decent teen slasher movie, like aforementioned House on Haunted Hill, or the Final Destination Series, or a zombie movie. But, at book length, I hoped for something a bit more gradual and suspenseful and scary. This isn't a suspense horror story, it's a horror-themed action story. It toys with the reader's sense of humour, not with his/her adrenaline.

All in all, it's a bit shallow, but readable, and beautifully presented: worth getting if you like light entertainment horror, but don't expect to be frightened.

Rating: 3.5/5

Free books! (Books I am giving away / releasing into the wild)

I have a few books that I'm about to release via Bookcrossing. I'll wild release them (place them in a public place where they can be found), unless one of my readers would like to claim one...

If you'd like any of these, get in touch through the Contact Form or by commenting below, or, if you know me personally, by getting in touch on Facebook, and I'll see if it can be arranged / handed over / mailed to you! 

(Re: mailing: I live in the UK)

The book titles are:
[UPDATE] These have now been released :-)

Sunday 12 October 2014

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

As it's October and Halloween is just around the corner, I decided to not backdate this post (of a review I wrote a few years ago).

A Monster Calls is a (gut-wrenching, beautifully written, fantastical) masterpiece. If I were the sort of person to give things to children at Halloween, I'd be part of the All Hallow's Read movement, and copies of this book would find their way to trick-or-treaters around here.

But I don't do Halloween. Sorry, Cardiff kids.

Anyhow. A Monster Calls starts with a boy who is used to having nightmares, and with a monster, which is not the monster he's been expecting. The rest of the book is a beautifully told, tender and horrendous story, of a boy whose mother is going through more and more intrusive treatments for cancer, while almost every night, a monster visits.

I never thought that I could enjoy a book about a real life "issue", like cancer. Yet, A Monster Calls handles the subject with originality and dignity and gravity, while still being engaging and, as stories go, beautiful. Darkly, tragically beautiful, but beautiful nonetheless.

I don't know whether I would have enjoyed the book a child. I almost doubt it: I did not like to read books about serious, hard things. Still don't, for the most part.

At any rate. This book is a masterpiece. I almost cried, and loved it anyway. I don't think I can say much more than that.

PS: In movie terms, this is most comparable to Pan's Labyrinth, so now that they're making a movie, I hope it will turn out to be a really special treasure of a film.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 11 October 2014

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni

Tracy's sister Sarah has been missing & assumed dead for twenty years. In that time, Tracy has left her small home town and become a detective working in Seattle. Then, one day, Sarah's remains are found, and Tracy returns to her former home town, seeking closure.

My Sister's Grave is a thriller told in parallel timelines. We get the aftermath of Sarah's remains being discovered, but we also get the aftermath of her disappearance. Chapters are very short - scenes, really - and the story is engaging and entertaining all the way through.

Pretty soon, we learn that Sarah's disappearance has not been an unsolved mystery as far as everyone else was concerned: someone has been prosecuted and imprisoned for her murder. The aftermath of Sarah's death has been devastating for Tracy's family, and there is a sense that, more than the collapse of the town's main industry and employers, it's Sarah's disappearance that has killed the sense of community.

For all the years since Sarah's disappearance, Tracy had doubts about the trial, and it looks as if the local sheriff had some secrets...

The thriller is competently told and engaging when it comes to the central plot - a teenage girl's disappearance and the mystery of her murder. Where the story felt less than great is the romantic sub plot, which felt out of place to me. It felt like reading Mills & Boon: everything is too easy, too simple, too smooth.

If what you're looking for is a quick, entertaining thriller, briskly told and pleasantly entertaining, then this book is great. If you're hoping for something a bit richer, deeper, and likely to stick in your memory, then this isn't the novel for you at this time.

A perfectly satisfying airport paperback - great for whiling away a plane ride. And thanks to Amazon Prime's "Kindle First" programme, it's free for every member this month (October 2014).

Rating: 3.5/5

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Monday 6 October 2014

The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill

New Cairo is an underground city inside a giant crater, surrounded, like a crown, by waytowers / elevator exits & structural supports for the roof hanging over the city. The roof of the city is covered in solar panels; an artificial sun lights the inside. Inside the city, many people are effectively cyborgs, augmented with artificial limbs and organs. Unrest is stirring: an affliction has been shutting down the augmentations, leaving people disabled, and even dead. A curfew has been put in place. People from the areas where the infection is common are not allowed to leave the city, supposedly to keep the outside world safe. But it does not seem like a coincidence that those are also the poorer areas of the city - augmentations being pivotal to hard physical labour and industrial work. The rich, meanwhile, are not so restricted.

Then, a hooded stranger walks up to the waytower, seeking to return secretly into the city...

The Hive Construct won the 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize (for first novels). Despite the patron of this prize, this is not a comedy novel (nor a prize for humorous works). It's a thriller set in a future of CCTV-ridden, highly networked cities, full of bio-augmentations and contact lenses that work much like Google Glasses. In terms of technology, there is nothing in the book that seems inconceivable - and nothing you haven't encountered before in other science fiction. But the story isn't really interested in technology: it's interested in the politics and mechanisms of resistance and uprising.

The main characters are a computer hacker with a past, a city councillor who is part of a dynasty of super-wealthy businessmen politicians, and a mother who just lost her husband (a revolutionary) and who wishes to escape the city with her children. They all have different problems at the start: one wants to find and solve the virus problem, the second has been kidnapped, and the third finds herself drawn into directing operations due to her experience of running police ops from her computer, while waiting for a people smuggling opportunity to arise.

The Hive Construct has several admirable qualities: it never gets boring, it builds up some degree of credibility in its characters and their actions, and everyone has their own problems to deal with. No one is a square-jawed selfless hero, and no one is an evil villain.

Set against that is a series of flaws. While the setting may be called New Cairo, it does not feel authentically Egyptian. Where Ian MacDonald creates immersive futures set in emerging nations, this novel just picks up a few vaguely Egyptian-sounding character names, but could otherwise be just as easily set in America or Britain. And while the characters seem more or less believable (if not particularly Egyptian), the story still treats the wider population - crowds especially - as a malleable mass, easily manipulated, directed, a liquid flow, rather than anything feeling realistically like people. This gives the book a strangely detached feel, especially in the later chapters. These come across like a strategy game or a Roland Emmerich movie: lots of action, but not much punch.

In the end, it's a novel experimenting around with politics. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, the London Riots, and every other recent instance of unrest and the wider problem of economic disparity, it's really a novel wondering about the rich and the poor, about politicians and corporations, about ends justifying means and how the means might affect the ends. It's a thought experiment, dressed as a scifi thriller. It's not stupid, but, like other novels which toy around with such themes, it feels a bit too calculated, a bit too concerned with its points to really connect. It's like reading China Mieville's more political novels (e.g. Iron Council), but without the linguistic distractions.

As thrillers go, it's not bad, and on a par with Michael Crighton's work. I had hoped for something a bit more ambitious, though.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 4 October 2014

The Just City by Jo Walton

Book Cover
Through good fortune and a large dollop of generosity, an uncorrected advance reading copy of the upcoming novel 'The Just City' has found its way into my hands. I was incredibly excited - and knowing it'll come out next year makes the wait for the next instalment somewhat agonising. (Apparently, this is likely to be the first book in a series of three - but it is a self-contained novel, not ending on a trilogy-cliffhanger).

The Just City is a novel not really designed to be summed up - or rather, if you sum it up, it sounds a bit silly. Greek Gods try to get philosophers to build a utopian city on Atlantis with the help of robots from the future? Umm...

...but the thing is, it's a fabulous novel. It all starts with Apollo, perplexed why a nymph would rather be turned into a tree than suffer rape at his hands. He does not even understand the concept of rape - to him, there is a chase, then there is sex, and it baffles him that this might not be welcome, or that it could even be a thing of horror to the recipient of his affections. Asking his sister Athena for some explanation, he ultimately agrees to become human for the span of a lifetime - in an experiment she is setting up, where philosophers and fans of Plato from all ages are tasked with setting up a model Republic (based on Plato's book & ideals), by acquiring 10-year-old children and turning them into model citizens in a Just City, and thereby creating generations of Philosopher-Kings.

Told through the eyes of Apollo (as God, and later, as youngster), and one of the women Masters of the city (Maia), and one of the girl slaves-turned-apprentices (Simnea: the heart and soul of the novel), we follow the experiment for several years. The children grow, and grow up, while the Masters try, somewhat bumblingly, to create a perfect society. After a few years, Socrates is thrown into the mix, and Socrates is not too happy about the experiment. Above all else, Socrates likes to question things...

I imagine this novel would be, if anything, more amazing if I had had a classical education. Some of the characters are famous (Cicero, Socrates, the Gods), some are slightly more obscure, and I suspect that if I were able to spot references, there would be all sorts of clever things and 'a-ha!' moments that may well have been hidden in the text. As it was, even with my lack of knowledge of the ancients, I enjoyed the book immensely.

This is a story about thinkers and debaters and people striving for excellence. Once Socrates appears, it is lively with thoughtful dialogues and superb investigations of their situation. Before Socrates, it is largely a novel of children and their relationships with each other (and the perplexing and artificial ways the adults are shaping their lives). After Socrates, it is a delightful intellectual dance (as well as a story of relationships and coming of age and developing sexuality and more). Above all else, there is a warmth, sense of humour, and joyfulness at the heart of the book: there are no villains, everyone has the best intentions, and even when people do stupid, callous, or (rarely) when they do terrible things, they are making mistakes rather than consciously chosing to be evil. Most have the capacity to learn. As a reader, I might cringe or be amused by their folly, but it's rare for anyone to act with ill intent, and so I can empathise with most characters (except perhaps Ikaros). This is a novel where spitefulness is in short supply.

There is one aspect of the novel which has taken me aback. Rape is a theme in this novel - and it's handled in a very matter-of-fact way. This is in contrast to the things I have been brought up to believe about rape. I don't really know what to think about this. I was raised with a notion that rape is the worst thing imaginable, an act that crushes and breaks people forever, something worse than murder. This is not the first novel I have read where rape is an unpleasant, but not character-defining thing, and, like other novels that take a different approach, it makes me wonder whether casting rape as a an act that defines the victim (whether through destruction of their soul, or by being THE thing they've had to overcome) is perhaps a notion that adds to real victims' suffering, rather than detracting from it. It makes me wonder whether a slightly less fatalistic view of it (while still acknowledging its seriousness as a dreadful violation against a person) may be more healthy or at least more realistic, in fiction and in reality. Still, it's not a topic I can ever feel comfortable with, and I find it quite challenging to encounter in fiction, no matter how it is treated.

For all the seriousness of some of its themes and ideas, The Just City is an enormously playful and accessible novel. Even without knowing much about philosophers or history, it was a delight to read, and it sparks and fizzes with ideas, discourse, creativity and joy in its thought experiment. The characters - humans and gods alike - leap off the page and dazzle. I'd heartily recommend the novel to anyone, and can't wait for the sequel...

Rating: 5/5