Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers - Book Review

I've been seeing quite a few very enthusiastic book blogger reviews of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet lately, including this one by Books and Pieces, so I decided to give it a try even though I would not have picked it up based on its cover or plot description.

The book starts briskly. Rosemary is waking up just before the end of a journey in a single-person space cubicle, on approach to the Wayfarer, a big tunnelling ship where she is about to start a new life as a clerk. Meanwhile, on the tunnelling ship, the benevolently paternal captain deals with the hassle of inter-crew arguments, and gets a tip-off that a huge opportunity for his business might be just around the corner, now that he has an admin person (which indicates to the bureaucracy at the heart of the intergalactic alliance that he's taking his work seriously)...

The Wayfarer is a ship creating wormholes between star systems - basically, an interstellar road builder. Its crew is minimal: two techies, a pilot, a captain, an algae expert (the ship is fuelled by algae), a doctor who is also a cook, a navigator, and an A.I. (the ship's computer). Rosemary is about to be the ship's admin assistant / clerk / accountant.

It's a well-written book. The prose flows pleasantly, there is a sense of fun and joyfulness about it, and the story plods along from one feel-good scene to the next. Unfortunately, there isn't really much of an overarching plot. The story is episodic, with almost every chapter telling a different episode of their journey. It's a cheerful road (building) movie in space.

It is very obvious is that the story was inspired by Firefly and seemingly created from a wish list of themes and ideas that the people derogatorily called 'Social Justice Warriors' might have come up with. (Social Justice Warriors is a derogatory term for people who want a more equal world, with opportunities for all, and a more diverse, multicultural, multiracial, multisexual representation of life in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy)

Kizzy Shao
The story creates its highly multi-faceted microcosm by making almost every character good-hearted and kind, missing out any real antagonists, and creating colourful backgrounds and interests for each. Kizzy, the mechanic, is a more cartoonish, hyper version of Firefly's Kailee, with two dads, a penchant for gaming, stimulants and junk food and a very extrovert, enthusiastic, child-like demeanour. Her best friend and colleague Jenks is a geek who is involved in a romantic relationship that is quite unconventional. Sissix is an alien reptile woman with a very different attitude towards love, physical affection, and family. Captain Ashby, too, is involved in a non-traditional relationship, and throughout the book I imagined him as a slightly less grouchy Mal from Firefly, which worked quite well. (He's also a pacifist, though, so none of the gun-slinging cowboy stuff applies).  Rosemary is fleeing from a secret in her past. Corbin, the grumpy algae expert, is racist, but not exactly evil, just very judgmental, stubborn, quick to lash out and not bothering with politeness. Doctor Chef is a six-legged alien who loves nothing more than cooking for people and healing them - he's a very mothering sort. Ohan, the navigator, is a devoutly religious alien bear who is worshipping the virus in his brain, which gives him special space seeing powers. And Lovey is the A.I. in the ship's computer, a very personable, tender personality caring for her crew.

It's a crew bursting at the seems with diversity and happy, kind coexistence (except for Corbin, who keeps himself to himself and growls at people a lot, and Ohan, who just keeps himself to himself).

Whenever the crew meet new aliens of indeterminate sex, they dutifully use gender-neutral pronouns and try hard not to be judgmental about cultural differences. Ohan is even always referred to in the plural because of his belief that he is two people due to his virus. Basically, it's the universe that feels most like a natural extrapolation of political correctness, only without any trolls.

At pit stops along the way, we get to meet more kind, goodhearted people who are not standard nuclear families. In fact, trying to think of any traditional relationships and couples, I can't think of any at all in this book. Maybe Rosemary's family background?

Ohan the Navigator
When it comes to the aliens, the book is quite refreshing in imagining aliens that are genuinely different from most modern human societies. Sissix' race has a very different attitude to childcare and families, Doctor Chef has a very different sexual genesis, and the aliens at the galactic core are perhaps the most different of all. Ohan is a bit of an Eeyore character - extremely introvert, constantly gazing outside windows, never really speaking much. The book takes great care not to judge any of the characters and their races, and to show them through the eyes of open-minded, kindhearted characters who constantly remind themselves not to judge, to respect, to live and let live.

The episodic nature of the plot reminds me of The Best of All Possible Worlds - another scifi novel with a heart of kindness. What made The Best of All Possible Worlds more satisfying to read is that there is a central character arc with a growing relationship at its heart. There is less of a sense of a larger plot arc in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Neither book has much in the way of antagonists, but Karen Lord's novel shows us characters getting to know each other and adjusting to each other's foibles over time, whereas this one has the protagonist fit in within days on board, and everyone be a happy family for most of the journey. Long Way to a Small Angry Planet creates tension and excitement within its episodes, and even character growth and progression, but it does not have a strong through-line in its story.

I kept reading this book because I enjoyed it more than the other books I was reading at the time, but I did not find myself making time to read this. I was not so hooked that I would keep reading until the end of a chapter if I was slightly tired, for example. On the whole, it's a pleasant, but not spectacular novel, with a good heart and the best of intentions, but a little too fluffy for my taste.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 19 December 2015

80 Days by inkle

Back in October, I read Strange Charm's review of 80 Days. The review made me buy the game immediately: it sounded like something quite special. And it is.

80 Days is not like most games I have played. It's basically a choose-your-own-adventure story, based primarily on text. The player is Passepartout, valet to Phileas Fogg, travelling around the world for a wager. In every city, you get to choose how and where to travel next, from the connections that are available and which you have been able to discover. (You may not discover every route out of a city)

During every movement from city to city, you choose what to do - look after Fogg (which boosts his health), talk to someone (to find out more about your destination and onwards travelling options), or read the newspaper (to find out about things going on in the world, and sometimes, travel options). In most cities, you can go to a market to buy and sell goods, to a bank to take out loans (which slow you down because you have to wait some day(s) before the funds are cleared), explore to find out onward travel routes and stay overnight. Sometimes, you don't have enough money to continue your journey and you have to find ways to earn it. Other times, Fogg may not have enough health to withstand a particularly arduous route, and you have to let him recuperate. On top of all this, there are a multitude of encounters, on transport and in cities, and adventures and sub plots that you may get embroiled in.
This makes it sound a little dry. It isn't. The characters you meet are a cornucopia of interesting people, of all races, backgrounds, sexes, occupations and opinions. You may meet pirates and royalty, engineers and slave traders, revolutionaries and soldiers. You may get embroiled with a notorious cat burglar or a quest for a robot soul. And the means of transport themselves are fantastically imaginative: this is a steampunk universe realised to its full potential, letting you travel by land, sea, air and, in some places, by even more esoteric means. Not to  mention all the little adventures en route: from murder mysteries to grand adventures in the best tradition of Jules Verne and 19th century explorers, this world is chock full of possibilities.

The first time I played the game, I was focused entirely on getting around the world as quickly as possible, so I picked very long, expensive journey legs. I soon ran out of money and ultimately failed to meet the 80 days deadline. The next few times, I played with more focus on balancing income (through trading profitably) with movement. It got fairly easy to get around the world within 80 Days. Then I started geting more and more interested in exploring the world that the creators have produced, and the sub plots. I'm still playing, after dozens of journeys, because I am trying to resolve different mysteries. In all the many, many times I've gone around the world, I have so far only found one way to find a different ending to the game - but that discovery in itself was highly rewarding. I still haven't figured out the Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery on one leg of one itinerary, and I have stumbled across different story paths related to an object you can acquire at a railway station in Western Europe, but I suspect there is a more exciting possible outcome somewhere, if only I could find it.

The plotlines you might stumble into have very different possible outcomes, both in what happens and what it says about the world. You may come into possession of things that some consider the ultimate abomination, while others venerate them, and depending on what you do with them, you may get lots of money or change the world...

At the same time, I'd lie if I didn't admit that some things are a little bit frustrating. As you travel, most circumnavigations will go without really connecting to most of the characters you meet. You may meet two dozen larger-than-life characters and glimpse their lives for the brief duration of the shared journey from A to B, and then never see them again. Sometimes you glimpse something in passing which hints at an intersection with another plotline, had you only chosen differently. Sometimes you read newspaper headlines that tell you about things you have passed. Then again, that is more or less what travelling is like, no?

It is those frustrations which make the game so addictive: I replay again and again because I want to know what I've missed, what I have passed by. When going around the world again and again, I start getting off at different stops, taking different branches, trying to find different routes. This can be hugely rewarding: having passed through an area and witnessed brutality in one journey, I came through the same town on a different route and got a chance to take part in a daring rescue. Another time, in a different place, I had to choose whether to help robbers or fight them, and the two outcomes were vastly different.

I absolutely adore this game. I can't praise it highly enough. Who'd have thought that a text adventure (accompanied by admittedly very nifty, pretty illustrations and a lovely globe) could be so addictive in the age of smartphones?

Rating: 5/5
Go buy it now!

Monday 14 December 2015

My Own Dear Brother by Holly Müller

Disclaimer: I don't usually specifically mention if I got a book via Netgalley, but in this case I didn't just get a freebie review copy, but I also know the author. Holly Müller is a writer of Austrian descent, but she was born and raised in Wales.  She studied on the same writing course as I, and I occasionally run into her in work. So: I got it via netgalley and the author is an acquaintance, but the review is nonetheless an honest one.

My Own Dear Brother is the story of Ursula Hildesheim, her brother Anton Hildesheim and Schosi Hillier, three youngsters in Nazi-ruled alpine Austria. The Second World War is heading for a conclusion, and in people's minds the oppressiveness of fascism is joined by the fear of the approaching Russian juggernaut. Basically, times are bad, and looking as if they might get worse.

Ursula, however, has more immediate concerns at the start of the novel. Growing up is a struggle, and life in a small, conservative rural community has its challenges. Then there is her brother Toni, whom she worships, but who has an unsettling fierceness about him. All too quick to hate, all too quick to lash out, her love for Toni can be quite isolating, as he viciously persecutes any friends she makes.

My Own Dear Brother is a very authentic story. This makes it a quite harrowing reading experience. Life in a small, very Catholic community is not easy at the best of times - and WW2 is not at all the best of times.

Everyone has their noses in everyone else's business. Pettiness and judgmental, malicious gossip are everywhere. People are oh-so-keen to have someone to ostracise or look down on. Deeply Catholic, rural areas are, on the whole, godawful places to live. Especially for anyone who is a bit of an outsider.

Ursula's family are outsiders. They are poor. The children run around barefoot until temperatures necessitate winter footwear. They wear patched-up hand-me-downs, their home is not spotless and neat but mildewy and worn, and they live in a farm cottage, outside of the main village.

When her mother starts receiving a regular visitor from Vienna, Ursula's family life to slowly derail. Anton hates the newcomer and town busybodies start to gossip, sniffing scandal in the air. The Hildesheims are shunned and publicly shamed, which proud and furious Anton cannot stomach at all.

Life under fascism is hard to imagine for people who never experienced anything like it. In this novel, the atmosphere is captured vividly. The way gossip and petty resentments can turn deadly, the way certain people gain a mantle of fear, the way people hush their voices and dare not talk of certain things, the way the unspoken gains power over everyone, the way everyone quietly ignores the unspeakable. And yet, the everyday continues. People go to work. People find ways to put food on the dinner table. People see even the most loathsome of their neighbours on an everyday basis, whether at church or at the grocer's. Anyone wondering what life in any authoritarian, ultra-conservative parts of the world is like right now could probably read My Own Dear Brother and get a good inkling.

The novel puts you right into that world, and it's a terrifying, dangerous and grim place to be. Take a young teenage girl who isn't quite aware of how dangerous her world really is, add a disturbed older brother to the mix, and put them at odds, and you get a book that is so much more than you might expect from the cover and the description.

At times, the novel is as tense and suspenseful as the most relentless of thrillers. At other times, the book is a microcosmic coming of age story, and the story of a teenager who feels like an outsider and struggles with self-loathing. Nazi rule is sometimes a backdrop, sometimes a very imminent danger.

My Own Dear Brother is a rich novel, handling difficult topics and weaving together different threads with masterful aplomb. There are a few scenes, a few half sentences, which in my opinion did not really fit properly, but it's quite possible these will be gone by the time it hits the bookshops. (The netgalley version I read was an uncorrected proof, so subject to copyedits)

Fascism, messed up relations, and puberty... they are all psychologically scarring in their different ways. This is a book that combines all three. It features psychological damage and horrors, with sections of page-turning tension, sections of trauma and sections of heartbreak. This is not a feel-good novel, and there is little relief from the darkness of its time and subject matter. As such, it is utterly authentic and utterly gruelling to read. I would say it's a great literary achievement, and a perspective on WW2 that I have not seen before. I would not, however, recommend it to readers looking for a feelgood novel.

Rating: 4/5

My Own Dear Brother vs The Book Thief

Inevitably, people will compare My Own Dear Brother with megabestseller The Book Thief. Both books are set in rural villages in WW2 era Nazi-land, both are about young girls on the cusp of growing into young women.

However, My Own Dear Brother is very different from The Book Thief.

If you buy this book expecting a Book Thief-like story, you will not have a very good time with it. It's not a comparison that will do either book any favours: The Book Thief is a feel-good WW2 story, which views rural Bavaria as a quaint, rough but wholesome world, where the children get their watschen and most people are, at heart, decent, even if they are quite generous with the wallopings they dish out to their kids and quite willing to look the other way when reality is unpalatable. It's a picturesque perspective, applying a golden sheen of quaint nostalgia and jolly affection to a people and an era. Very cute, a bit twee, and utterly alien to me. I grew up in Bavaria and barely recognised it. The Book Thief shows Bavarians in the same way as mainstream media often show Africa:

If the Book Thief had an African character...

(It's not an evil thing to look at Bavaria that way, and I'm sure the tourism office appreciates it. It's just not the Bavaria I know.)

My Own Dear Brother delves deeper, at the cost of being a harder novel to enjoy. There is tension and suspense and drama, but there is no comedy, no humour, and a distinct lack of joyfulness. It's an accurate depiction of life as it would have been. Victories for decency and humane-ness are few and far between. The world of this book is one where good deeds are hard work, risky and can have a high cost, while small mistakes and childish misjudgments can have far-reaching, terrible consequences.

The Book Thief had its little bittersweet Standover Man picture book inside. My Own Dear Brother has a different mythical taste - Krampusnacht is a recurring theme, shown not with playful abandon but out-of-control raucousness and overt sadism.

Both are books about people holding on to goodness even in evil times, but one has a romanticised view, while the other is all-too-aware of human flaws and limitations. One book was designed to be inspirational, the other tells of the world as it is. Which book you prefer will depend very much on what you are looking for in a novel.

Sunday 13 December 2015

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

The Masked City is the second book in a series. If you've read my review of The Invisible Library, you might guess how much I've been looking forward to this. In fact, I re-read the first book in November, just to remember all the characters and be ready for the second.

The Masked City starts a few months after the events of The Invisible Library. Irene is solidly installed as Librarian in Residence in the slightly chaotic London we have come to know and love in the first book. Kai is still her apprentice and friend, and Vale, the intrepid detective, is very much a trusted peer. After acquiring a book at an auction, Irene and Kai find themselves the center of unwanted attention from hired werewolves and thugs. Things quickly get worse and when Lord Silver (an enemy) delivers a warning, they begin to wonder whether they've been underestimating the danger they are in.

When Kai is kidnapped, Irene has to rely on Lord Silver for assistance. The rest of the book is essentially a chase story, with Irene trying to get to Kai and save him before disaster strikes, all while delving deeper and deeper into the chaotic realms and machinations of the Fae.

The Invisible Library introduced the reader to a fantastical premise and world, excitingly mysterious and memorable characters, and, while involving them in a plot of intrigue and suspense, molded some of them into friends. The Masked City, on the other hand, plays Irene largely on her own, pitted against insurmountable odds in a quest to save a friend and a world, but with much less bonding and not much relationship forming.

This is not to say that The Masked City is boring - it is a funny novel. Not quite as rich in jokes as a Terry Pratchett novel, but on a par with a Ben Aaronovitch one. The adventures are good fun, Irene gets into trouble a lot and there's still a good dose of vim in the book. But there is less mystery (we more or less know who the villains are from quite early on) and less teambuilding, which renders the story a bit flatter. Irene is a fabulous character, but she really flourishes when we see her interact with (potential) friends and allies.

Being slightly less absorbed allowed my brain to get distracted by questioning the logic of the world in these books. I started wondering whether there was really that much difference between the magic of fae, the magic of librarians and the magic of dragons, and why there should be any conflict between them. Similary, the Library's neutrality (even though they strongly favour the dragons and are prejudiced against the fae) started to feel less convincing. I think it's that more than anything else which tells me that The Masked City is not quite on a par with The Invisible Library: when I start to chink away at the internal logic of a world (and my suspension of disbelief), then the story is not quite as compelling as it should be.

Still, for a light & fun read, I'd recommend it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 6 December 2015

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith

Picture from http://thebookcastle.blogspot.co.uk/
Today I found myself in Waterstones. Near the entrance, there was a table presenting the 'Waterstones book of the year' - a beautifully bound, beautifully presented fairytale picture book. I assume it is meant for grown-ups, but it does not actually have any themes that are any more grown up than picture books for young children. This makes it and strange and unusual read.

As I read it, I felt very much like I was reading a book written for young children. All the hallmarks of children's picture books were there: the repetition, the sleepy rhythm, the playfulness with the way the text appeared on some pages... I have read very similar books with friends' five year olds. The only real difference is that The Fox and the Star is textile-bound, and a bit more grown up in its artistic sensibilities and love of patterns. This makes it a beautiful object, but one so posh that you probably won't want to give into the grubby little hands of young kids...

The book is basically continuing the infantisation of adults, much like the recent fad for coloring books. There are, of course, many picture books and graphic novels that are a bit ambiguous about the age group of the people meant to read them. Shaun Tan's picture books might - perhaps - appeal to some children, but seem to be much richer in some ways, so they resonate with adults in ways that children's books don't, usually. Emily Carroll's Through The Woods is a stunning work of art, utterly engrossing for adults and young adults, and probably far too scary for children. The Fox and the Star, on the other hand, is aesthetically grown up, but textually infantile. This, to me, makes it unsatisfying. There are maybe 300 words in the story, and they are not particularly evocative words. (If I had to choose between The Gruffalo and The Fox and the Star, I fear The Gruffalo would win out, hands down).  

There are more beautiful graphic and picture stories for grownups, with more depth and richer themes.

The Fox and the Star seems to be primarily a gift book. It looks beautiful, it'll be pretty on any shelf, but it's not satisfying to read for grown ups and too precious an object to be meant for children.

Rating: 2.5/5

Saturday 5 December 2015

Deep Water by Lu Hersey

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Penzance, Cornwall, trying to escape the everyday for a (rainy, blustery) weekend. I'd travelled there straight after attending FantasyCon, so I had a suitcase full of books with me. Nonetheless, when I spotted The Edge of the World Bookshop, I found myself irresistibly drawn to it. With a name like that, how could any bibliophile resist?

Inside the busy, crowded little shop, I browsed until I stumbled across Deep Water, a book I have not seen in shops elsewhere. A stunning cover, a blurb by Malorie Blackman, and a description that sounded very enticing made it hard to resist. I'm glad I didn't resist.

Deep Water is a young adult novel, at the more literary and atmospheric end of the genre. Our hero, Danni, lives with her mother in England. One day, her mother does not return from work, and Danni slowly begins to suspect something may be wrong. When her mom still isn't back in the early hours of the morning, she raises the alarm, calls her (divorced) father, and waits for news that can only be terrible.

While the police search for her missing mother, they insist that Danni has to be in the care of an adult, so her scatterbrained hippie father is the only palatable option. Danni temporarily moves in with him. He happens to live in Cornwall now, where he runs a new age shop. Her mom was originally from Cornwall, too, but has not returned there for many years.

There, Danni begins to investigate her own mother's history, while meeting the locals, some of whom are instantly, superstitiously hostile of her. And there's a dark history here, centering around the old chapel and a terrible deed that happened there...

Deep Water is an atmospheric novel, slowly building up tension and a sense of dread, but also a sense of mystery. It's very much a novel where place is a character - Cornwall is in the DNA of the novel just as much as a love of the mythical.

This isn't a cute little fairy tale - it's a thriller with mythical, magical elements, deeply invested in coastlines and landscapes, places and small community life. It's the sort of story that all too rarely makes it into cinema screens - perhaps the superb Ondine is the closest comparison in terms of atmosphere.

If you like Alan Garner's novels, you'll enjoy Deep Water just as much. It's really rather good.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Off-Topic Post: Thoughts about Paris and Syria

A fortnight ago, the world was in shock over the atrocities that had been committed in Paris. I have been mulling these events, and what follows may not always be coherent. I sometimes play devil's advocate when trying to decide what to think about something, and I pontificate from the comfort of being far away from events and not knowing anyone directly involved. Therefore, this blog post may well be insensitive and, when playing devil's advocate, outright offensive to some. If you were affected by events in Paris, or if you feel strongly about them, you may not wish to read on.


Let's start with the obvious. The attacks in Paris were reprehensible atrocities, committed by despicable human beings. Nonetheless, something rang hollow about the news coverage and all the statements issued by politicians in the aftermath.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what rang so hollow was the outrage. The bereaved, the survivors - they have every right to be aggrieved and outraged. But, politicians? European leaders? Hollande, Cameron? Newspapers like the Daily Vile and The Scum?

It's not just disgusting how media (and politicians whose career is built on hatred and bigotry) instantly began to speculate (cough, assert, cough) that the attackers must have come to France among refugees, although that is certainly the most disgusting aspect of the popular outrage being peddled at the time. No, what felt really hollow and wrong is how different the reactions were compared to the reactions when atrocities happen elsewhere.

Worse, there is an outright taboo on saying, writing or thinking something that's very, very obvious, and very very true: the attacks did not come out of nowhere. They were not unprovoked. The murderers are guilty of committing the bloodshed, but Francois Hollande's government shares some responsibility for the attacks on Paris, just as Tony Blair is responsible for the 7/7 attacks on London. Yet to say both these things is taboo among leaders and politicians.

Let's take a step back. If I am saying something taboo, let's work out the logic of that statement. Let's play devil's advocate.

Our governments keep telling we're at war. We're not currently at war with Iraq, but we're at war with Islamic State, at war with Terror, at war with Drugs. But these wars are not like other wars in the distant past: they are certainly not wars where governments face other nation states with similar weaponry and similar might. Instead, stealth aircraft and drones do violence to targets below while being almost untouchable. So modern wars cost us nothing more than money, while whoever we're at war with does all the bleeding. We've become quite comfortable with that. So comfortable, in fact, that there is outrage when the people we are bombing have the audacity to fight back. There's something almost collectively sadistic about this - like a head teacher beating a pupil and expecting to be thanked, not hated, for the violence they dish out.

Now, the attacks in Paris were mass slaughter of civilians. That's not self defence - to us. But, for a crazy moment, let's think ourselves into the enemy's shoes. Drones and stealth aircraft are untouchable. Armies and soldiers are well defended and have overwhelming force. (Not that the reaction over here is any different when a soldier is killed when he's defenceless). So how to fight an invincible enemy? Is it really a surprise they target civilians? Isn't it, in fact, a logical conclusion of our nations being at war with them? Have Islamic State signed up to the Geneva Convention, international treaties on human rights, etc.? No, of course not. They don't believe in human rights for the people they claim to rule, so why would they have any more respect for Westerners' rights? How can our leaders feign surprise and outrage when enemies defend themselves, and don't play by our rules?

I use the words 'defend themselves' intentionally: it does not imply victimhood or blamelessness. When Britain declared war on Germany, they did not expect the Nazis to just take their lumps and not fight back. Any war is a two-way street of violence. To expect anything less is unreasonable.

The attacks on Paris were a logical and likely outcome of France's involvement in the fight against Islamic State / terror.. That doesn't make them less atrocious and vile, it does not absolve the attackers of blame, It simply means that France's politicians are partially responsible for them, and that all their outrage is hypocritical.

Islamic State

Every indication is that Islamic State is, essentially, a death cult. There are only two things they appear competent at: getting publicity and inflicting suffering.

Obsessed with violence and death, fuelled by hatred, vanity and insanity, they are filled with self-destructive urges. Their glossy magazine celebrates the gory photos of their dead fighters as much as it celebrates the violence they inflict on others. Islamic State is to Islam what the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda are to Christianity. As such, they are dangerous, sick, and it's pretty obvious the world would be a better and safer place without them.

I don't know enough about the Lord's Resistance Army (beyond their use of child soldiers and their mass abductions etc.), but it seems to me that the totally batshit crazy psycho cults out there (central American drug cartels, LRA, ISIS) have some things in common. According to some, much of ISIS was moulded into shape by going through a joint experience of suffering - being locked into an American prison camp - and used the resentment at their mistreatment to fuel a rage that would ultimately lead to IS. Similarly, drug cartel violence seems to be on an escalating cycle, which was only fuelled, not extinguished, by the War on Drugs and its more violent interludes and phases.

Basically, violence and abuse seem to create insanity, rage, revenge, more violence and worse abuse. I shudder to think what the populations currently under ISIS' gruesome rule might one day retaliate as.

At the same time, ISIS and drug cartels have other commonalities: ultimately, they are psycho creeps with guns. Do they have an armed vehicle or two, maybe some missiles? Sure. But when it comes down to it, all they need to be sources of terror is guns and swords. The Rwandan genocide was largely carried out by people with machetes - all it takes for genocide to happen is people willing to commit it, and relatively light weaponry against a comparatively unarmed population.

What good are drones, missiles and bombs against widely dispersed psychos with guns?


Syria has become a battleground for every nation with aspirations at exerting power in the Middle East. It's a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Here's a history of events since the Arab Spring:

If you were a person living in Syria, what would you do? If you were a parent in Syria, which faction would you turn to? From outside, it does not look as if any of the armed factions are 'the good guys'. Being a civilian / unarmed person in Syria must be terrifying.

Bombing ISIS

Reading all the above, you might conclude that I am dead against bombing IS in Syria, or bombing Syria. I wish I could be that categorical. I am doubtful that bombing will have any positive effect. In fact, it seems to me it will only feed the cycle of violence, and has no way of replacing a mess with something good.

At the same time, the atrocities committed by IS are such that I can't be entirely opposed to our governments trying to get rid of them. Clearly, anything would be better than that lot. Well, anything except Assad's regime, maybe.

I do believe that voting to bomb IS effectively means voting for IS to retaliate against British civilians. The UK government has already joined the fight against IS in Iraq, so from that point of view, they have already voted to make the civilian population in the UK a target for more attacks by IS sympathisers. Expanding to Syria just makes us a bigger target. That isn't necessarily a reason to vote against intervention - if the UK could make a difference & genuinely improve matters, then some innocent British lives may be a fair price to pay for saving thousands of innocent lives in Syria. But can the UK make such a difference?

If the Western governments have a good, realistic, achievable plan (hah!) for how IS can be defeated, and Assad removed, and peace and stability brought to Syria, then I wouldn't be opposed to war / force being involved. Unfortunately, there is no indication that any plan, let alone a good one, exists.

Things Our Governments Should Do Instead

Here's a TED Talk:

It seems to me that there are much more effective things the UK and Europe (and America) could do than throwing more bombs and death into the Middle East. The first and foremost of these is to help people who have been fleeing from the chaos and violence.

Now, personally, I am not opposed to opening borders and letting them in, but I understand that there is significant popular resistance to that approach in most European nations. So, short of helping everyone fleeing the chaos and death to Europe, there are still things our governments can and should do.

1) Fund Refugee Cities, not Camps

Refugees who have fled the violence live in tent cities, in a permanent limbo. The UN, to some extent, looks after them, but they are critically underfunded and unable to offer people anything but the barest minimum of life support. Having millions of people live in poverty, with nothing to do, is a recipe for disaster. It's a recipe for letting people stew in their trauma, their anger at their misfortunes, and ultimately, it could be a recipe for turning people into our enemies because we did not help out when they desperately needed it. At best, it turns them into enemies of other Syrians, and ensures that grievances can fester and conflicts continue for more generations to come..

In this video, a Swedish economist points out that we spend £50 a day on refugees who make it to Europe, but only £1 a day on refugees who are stuck in Lebanon or Jordan.
Hans Rosling on the refugee crisis
Europe is getting its response to the refugee crisis all wrong. That’s the view of Professor Hans Rosling of Gapminder – watch him explain why.
Posted by Channel 4 News on Tuesday, 24 November 2015

It's perfectly within the powers of our government to spend more. It's overdue. Let's treat the Syrian diaspora the way we'd treat cities flattened by tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes. Let's pump in billions, and fund the building of permanent, viable cities. Let the refugees build their own futures - give them materials, work and opportunities and a sense of a sustainable future, and a chance to live, rather than expecting them to rot in limbo and stay there.

Also, from a purely strategic point of view, wouldn't it make sense to start building a (municipal) government from the ground (& grassroots) up, in those refugee camps? Perhaps a viable Syrian government-in-exile can grow, and learn the art of governing, co-existing, self-policing and, ultimately, once the bloodletting in Syria itself fizzles out, be in a position to help Syria reunite and heal? Where are Syria's future rulers supposed to arise from? Armed militias? How would that be any better than Assad's regime?

2) Strangle the Arms Trade

Where do the various factions get their guns & ammo from? Shockingly, the answer is "pretty much everyone". (This 2013 article precedes much of the rise of IS).

As long as arms are freely flowing into Syria (and Northern Iraq), and as long as every other nation with aspirations to exert control in the region keeps running a proxy war, the bloodletting won't stop, the trauma will continue, and we can only create more enemies.

3) Come up with a f***ing plan

Seriously, is "let's throw bombs on it" the only answer our governments can think of? Is this a matter of "if the only tool you have is a hammer, treat everything as if it were a nail"?


I mean, seriously, WTF?

Syria should be under a complete UN arms embargo. There shouldn't be efforts to get more nations to pile on and add bombs to the fire. All efforts should be towards getting Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the rest (including Western governments) to step back and take their military support with them.

Where are the diplomatic efforts to disengage all the proxy powers?

And where are the efforts for planning for a post-civil-war future? The trauma inflicted by this conflict will last for decades, even generations. What planning is there for overcoming that? Where are our governments' plans for preventing another Taliban, another ISIS, another Al Queda from forming ten, twenty years from now, from the ashes of this conflict (even if IS and Assad are defeated / erased)? If we want to defeat IS and Assad and fix Syria, how come our plan appears to be "let's bomb them and expect them to be grateful for our benevolent bombings"?

4) Anyhow

I'm glad Jeremy Corbyn is giving his MPs a free vote. I'm not in support of bombing IS in Syria, but I'm not opposed enough to join a Stop The War Coalition protest.

I just really wish our governments came up with complex answers to complex problems, rather than opting to try for simple solutions which don't stand much chance of fixing anything.

(For the record: I was in favour of intervention in Kosovo, moderately against intervention in Afghanistan, very strongly against the 2003 Iraq war, undecided about intervention in Libya, and I am moderately against intervention in Syria at this time)

Saturday 14 November 2015

Planetfall by Emma Newman

I'd never heard of Emma Newman until I attended Worldcon in London last year. There, on the first day, an American lady started a conversation with me. Top topic, of course, was "which authors are you most excited about", and her instant answer was Emma Newman. She couldn't wait to sign up for a Kaffeeklatsch (small group chat with the author). She described the books and the podcast, and I was instantly intrigued.

As a result of that conversation, I attended Emma Newman's reading at that convention. She came across a little nervous and like an immensely likable, warm and quite intelligent person. The opening of Between Two Thorns was funny, intriguing and I bought it instantly. As it turned out, much as I loved the start, I did not love the book entirely. It mixed fun and magic and excitement with an undercurrent of psychological abuse, which made it hard for me to enjoy it. To put it differently, of the recent Disney movies, Tangled is the best, but its manipulative, passive aggressive villain is genuinely uncomfortable for me to watch - and Between Two Thorns had rather more of that sort of stuff than I can digest while still having a good time. (That said, if you enjoyed the second book in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, then you're probably thick skinned enough to enjoy The Split Worlds novels)

Since then, I've seen Emma Newman at two other conventions: I attended a useful small group workshop on fear and writing which she ran, and which again showed her as a caring and intelligent woman, dealing with anxieties and trying hard to help others who are in the same boat - basically, she came across a little bit like a British Jenny Lawson, only less manic. And I also watched a live recording of the Tea & Jeopardy podcast.

So I was really hoping to love her new standalone novel Planetfall. A departure into science fiction, a different setting entirely, and perhaps, I hoped, a novel that would be more easy for me to enjoy.

Planetfall is the story of Renata, a woman living in a small colony on a new planet. The colony lives very long, easy lives: they are almost post-scarcity, careful to live entirely sustainably but assisted by biotechnology which makes this easy, and which lets them still be in their early middle age at age 70. She is different from the others - privacy is important to her, she keeps herself to herself, and as an engineer and a maker, she treasures and fixes things that other people don't bother thinking about. The rest of the colony live open lives, with a constant presence on social media and a very gossipy, nosy attitude, and not very much to do.

Renata's entire world begins to shake when a newcomer arrives at their colony: a young man who must have been born after Planetfall, the arrival of these settlers. He must be a descendant of the other people, those who arrived with them, but who had all been killed. Renata is one of only two settlers who know the terrible secrets of that disaster. The other is Mack, the inofficial leader of their colony.

Dark secrets, life on a different planet, a future that includes social media and cloud computing and 3D printing? It's a promising, well thought through, excitingly different setting for a novel. I got entirely absorbed by Planetfall. It's engrossing and tense. It's also intelligent, featuring a complex protagonist and various interesting ideas. Characterisation is excellent when it comes to Renata, Mack and several other key characters, but perhaps a little thinner for the rest of the colony.

As a literary achievement and as a scifi thriller, the book is no disappointment at all. The problem for me is that it turned me into a nervous wreck as I read it. One of its themes is mental illness, and this was handled realistically, convincingly, and, for me, gut-wrenchingly. A lot of it hit very close to home, and much of the final act was utterly devastating for me as a reader. I suspect the same may not be true for most, or even many, readers, but yeah: this book made me feel bad inside. That's not what I was hoping for, and not what I read for. If I believed in 'trigger warnings' (which I don't), then this book would need a fairly substantial one for my personal issues.

That said, as a thoughtful, clever, complex, authentic and well-written thriller, this book is an excellent achievement. It just isn't the book for me at this time.

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday 8 November 2015

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

The Severed Streets is the second book in a new series which began with London Falling. You could describe this series as a darker, grittier sibling to Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant novels: Paul Cornell's London is also full of magic, but bereft of humour and warmth.

Our four police officers who have been blessed / cursed with The Sight, which lets them perceive the supernatural, have just about recovered from the traumatic events of the previous novel. They work from their little portakabin and wait for a new case to arise which requires their expertise. Lo and behold, a LibDem MP gets brutally eviscerated in his locked limousine. There's no weapon in the car, the driver insists he didn't do it, and CCTV shows no one getting in or out...

Paul Cornell makes some interesting choices in the writing of this novel. For one, he instantly dates it by setting it during the Con-Dem-Nation coalition government. He creates thinly veiled replicas of real people and events: a media baron who is a thinly disguised Viscount Rothermere (called Russel Vincent in the novel), protests based on the London Riots but set in post-Olympic-Games-London, masks based on the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks made popular by Anonymous, but consistently and irritatingly described as 'Toff masks'... but then real people also appear in his book. Frankie Boyle makes a cameo. Neil Gaiman makes an appearance that seemingly starts out as cameo and then develops into a full blown story arc. I thought it's more common for age-defining authors to get fictionalised posthumously (Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen etc.), so the appearance of Neil Gaiman was a bit of a surprise, and when he got involved in the plot, well, let's just say Paul Cornell had better be a good friend of Neil Gaiman...

There is something mischievous and a little transgressive about this aspect of the book, but also just a tiny bit frustrating. Paul Cornell's Neil Gaiman talks about similar sorts of things as the real one (stories, Neverwhere, bees), but he does not quite sound like real Neil, or perhaps the opposite - perhaps he sounded a bit too matter-of-fact and authentic, and I sort of expected something a little grander.

OK, Neil Gaiman out of the way, the Severed Streets is a grim dark, horror-filled urban fantasy. The Smiling Man continues to be behind things, and the attacker eviscerates quite a few people using the riots for cover (wearing a protester's mask, rising from crowds & flying off, invisible to those without The Sight), while two of our police officers are obsessed with their own problems - getting a father out of hell, and trying to avoid going to hell, respectively. There are some betrayals, some schemes, a lot of individual actions - basically, if our team finally learnt to work as a team in book one, they are now again working quite independently and with serious obstacles to fully trusting and sharing information with each other. They keep running off without telling any of the others what they're up to.

The book may spill more blood than the first, but is a less gruelling read: this time, no children get boiled alive, and while there's plenty castrations, the horror is less emotional than it was in London Falling. There's a lot of work in creating something uncanny, but it feels a little uncanny-by-the-numbers. If it's ever turned into a movie, I think Terry Gilliam should direct it.

The Severed Streets is an engrossing read, relentlessly grim, with a few emotional gut-punches, but none that equal those surprises that made the first book so harrowing towards its finale. The series is definitely worth a look for people who like urban fantasy, but not perhaps the series of choice if you're in the mood for something cheery and light. While The Severed Streets does explain and sum up some of the key events from the first book, I doubt it works very well as a standalone - start with London Falling if you have not read that yet.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 1 November 2015

London Falling by Paul Cornell

London Falling is an urban fantasy novel set in the most fantastical city in the world - London. There is really no other city as suitable and rich for urban fantasy as London.

London Falling is also a police story, with a small squad of police at its heart. Our protagonists are two undercover agents, their supervisor and a backroom techie. The novel starts as a multi-month operation is about to come to its end, on New Year's Eve. The mob boss they've been trailing is frantically taking his crew around different houses, while the higher ups in the police have scrapped their operation's budget, so they need to make their arrest that night, irrespective of whether they have enough evidence to make prosecution viable or not. The pressure is on.

There are tensions in the team - or rather, they are really not a team at all yet. Instead, they are four people who work on the same project, but rarely together and each laden with resentments towards some or all of the others.

The mob boss, meanwhile, is coming to the end of a ten year reign of unimpeachable crimes, having taken over every other gang in his territory without ever getting into a bloody war. He's used his private room to do so, and there is an air of secrecy around his working methods. No one, not his closest allies, have any idea how he did what he did.

As it's an urban fantasy, you might guess that the supernatural is involved. Things very quickly spiral out of hand, and our crew of coppers spend the rest of the book trying to adjust to a new perspective on the world, trying to become a well-functioning team, but, most of all, trying to catch and eliminate a major baddie.

London Falling differs from Ben Aaronovitch's magical London police procedural in tone (it does not go for 'funny') and in approach (there is no wise magical mentor, just four police officers trying to learn as they go). It's very much a thriller, with heavy doses of peril, gruesome crimes, and gut-wrenching plot developments that damn near made me tear up at one point.

It does take a while to find its feet, and some of the personal histories / demons of the characters felt a smidgen by-the-numbers. The supernatural London also differed from that in other books in being almost entirely sinister - a thing to be feared. While this worked well in terms of creating an atmosphere or peril, it deprived this London of complexity. To draw comparisons: Hellboy 2 is a much superior movie to Hellboy for many reasons, but one of the big ones is that in the sequel, a very richly drawn supernatural coexists with the mundane, and we get glimpses of an otherworld that is not just full of monsters, but filled with the magical everyday, with non-human characters living independent lives, especially in the Faerie Market. It is that sort of perspective which is missing in London Falling (as it was also largely missing in the first Hellboy movie).

London Falling is a good, entertaining, thrilling read. It's a lot darker than other recent offerings of urban fantasy, with heavy elements of horror. I have high hopes for the series as it develops, but this is definitely a satisfying start.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Conning in 2015

In 2014, Worldcom came to London. It was the first big convention I ever attended. (I'd been to some very small events before, in Cardiff and Newport, but they were very different things.)

Before Worldcon, I'd never felt quite so at home before, anywhere, among any group of strangers, ever. I'd been quite nervous, even worrying about stuff like dress code (what if I'm the only one not in cosplay fancy dress?), and then felt enormous relief to see so many others with fashion sense that wasn't miles away from my own. (Comfortable, bit scruffy, slightly unkempt, BECAUSE WHY ON EARTH SHOULD PEOPLE WASTE BRAIN ENERGY THINKING ABOUT CLOTHES, so long as they cover what they need to cover and regulate the body's temperature / exposure to precipitation appropriately...)

So, anyhow, I quickly decided that I wanted to do this again. And again. And again...

After attending every geeky convention I could in 2015, here are my thoughts:


  • The biggest literary annual sf/f convention in the UK. 
  • The closest UK covention in size, scope and atmosphere to Worlcon, but still a lot smaller
  • I will definitely go again.


  • A convention celebrating pop culture, fandom, some literature but also TV, computer games, academia, popular science & technology and all things geek
  • The most internet-led of the conventions I attended: it seems to have been organised by and for bloggers, tweeters, tumblerers etc. 
  • Nineworlds put a lot of emphasis on diversity. There was, however, a lot more white diversity noticeable than ethnic / racial / religious / cultural diversity. (I.e. many people with disabilities, many LGB and especially many T attendees). 
  • I've read claims that some of the organisers have close links with a particularly vicious online troll / bully, so I'm not quite sure what to make of that. Perhaps inevitable for an event that is internet-centric in its origins.
I enjoyed myself, but I don't think I will go again. I'm more interested in books, so large proportions of Nineworlds were of limited or no interest to me at all. Whereas every other con would frequently have two or three things vying for my attention, Nineworlds rarely had more than one event of interest at the same time. 

Somewhat to my surprise, it was the academia track that turned out to be this con's strongest feature. It was joyful and exuberant and excited about knowledge, without any of the trappings of the Hay Festival (egos & a pervasive air of superiority complexes) or academic conferences (academic feuds / politicking). Academia is not always the best at humility and kindness, but at Nineworlds, the events and discussions felt wholesome and warm in ways that are preciously rare.


  • Small but local (well, across the bridge) and affordable. 
  • There are quite a few high profile SF/F writers based around Bristol and the West of England & Wales. 
  • Shame Cardiff doesn't have any similar book conventions. (There are horror & comic conventions in Cardiff, but not SF/F book ones, as far as I know)
  • I'll go again.


  • It's all about books and writers.
  • An instant favourite among UK conventions
  • Smaller in number of attendees than Eastercon & Nineworlds, but equal number of industry professionals
  • A convention with the occasional whiff of a trade fair: better for networking than any of the other events.
  • Top Tip: Publishers are looking for manuscripts about vampire unicorns at the moment, according to the panel where the heads of all the SF/F publishing houses were discussing the future of publishing. 
  • I suck at networking
  • I will definitely go again.

The final convention I attended in 2015, and an instant favourite. Virtually all the professionals who attended any of the other cons were at Fantasycon, too. The professional / panellist to fan ratio was staggering: enough fans and readers to avoid the place feeling empty, but so many professionals that each room contained not just a panel, but also an audience of people in the publishing business. It felt like about 30% of the people here were working in the industry. 

Also, this event had more freebies than any of the others, while having a smaller cohort of attendees. Basically, I shamelessly picked up so many books, it would probably have cost me more than the ticket price to buy them in a shop. 

This was the one convention where I wished that I was a bit more social / outgoing and less awkward. After some gruelling months in work, and feeling totally knackered with a sore throat and a slightly feverish / woozy head, I was even more antisocial than usual. 

For any writer seeking an event that's useful for networking, Fantasycon beats all the others, hands down.

The Dealer's Room was quite different from the other conventions, too. It was surprisingly horror-centric, and it featured one or two publishers I hadn't seen at other UK conventions. That said, I got the impression that the stalls did less trade than at other events. 

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

The Beauty is a short novel / long novella. It's postapocalyptic, it's horror, it's science fiction and it's unlike anything I've read. It feels almost insulting to use those genre monickers. It's simply unique.

The Beauty starts years after all the women have died. Men and boys have survived, seemingly unaffected by the bizarre fungus plague that wiped out womankind. Our narrator Nate is a youngster, living in an isolated commune. Even before the plague, they'd lived apart from mainstream society: a group of hippies / nature-worshippers who set themselves up in a nature reserve. (I read this story in Cornwall: somehow I kept imagining it set in an emptier version thereof)

Nate is the storyteller of the group. His role is to tell stories each night, keeping memories alive through the oral tradition - and helping the men and boys continue to see worth in life.

One day, he notices that there are mushrooms growing in the graveyard, where the women are buried. Soon, those who touch the mushrooms disappear. Nate goes to search for them. Then, he, too, disappears for a while, in an earthen cavern, held prisoner, visited by a strange figure whose arrival will change their society forever...

The story has four parts / acts. Each is atmospheric, rich and almost a novelette of its own. The mood shifts from melancholy to uncanny to outright horror. There is a lot that's interesting about The Beauty, not least of which is the gendered way in which the story is likely to affect people. I suspect that men will find it more unsettling than women. I certainly felt uncomfortable at times.

It's not just a story about uncanny horror, however. It's also a story about group dynamics and power. Nate is one of the younger men in the group. He's not exactly the omega male, but nowhere near the top. The inofficial leaders / alpha males occasionally instruct him which stories to tell, and so we understand who runs things. Over the course of the book, power shifts, several times. Nate's soft power, built on reimagining their past and mythifying their own history, and later on, painting possible futures with his words and getting ever more driven towards giving people a sense of purpose, helps him influence and shape things at times. Rhetoric and dreams make him a shaman-like figure, while the others occasionally grapple for leadership through control of force. He's all hearts and minds, the other candidates for leaders are all shock and awe, and occasionally, there are frictions between factions...

What this review fails to capture is just how rich and atmospheric the book is. It handles the uncanny and horror with such confidence. I'm not sure it could ever be made into a movie, but if so, Guillermo del Toro (who made Pan's Labyrinth) would have to direct.

Quite simply, The Beauty is a stunning achievement.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

I'm a fan of The Collector - a series / trilogy of urban fantasy novels about a soul collector working for hell by Chris Holm. So I'd been looking forward to his newest novel, even though it's a more mundane thriller.

The Killing Kind is a novel about contract killers. Our hero Michael Hendricks is a hitman with a gimmick: he only kills other hitmen. He contacts the intended victim and offers to take out the killer sent after them, for ten times the price on their head. Then he fulfills his side of the bargain.

Unfortunately for Hendricks, the organisations whose hitters he's been eliminating have realised what's going on, even if they are unable to identify and find him. So they hire the world's most expensive assassin to take care of whoever's been taking out their killers.

Also, an FBI agent has built up a collection of cases credited to 'the ghost' - their nickname for the mysterious killer of killers.

Mostly, The Killing Kind is a solidly written thriller. If you've watched any cat and mouse game between assassins on screen, there is little here that's new or different. (If that's a subgenre you enjoy, by the way, the movie Killer Elite is good fun). Unfortunately, fitting so neatly into a subgenre, the book lacks the originality and zest that made the Collector novels so much fun.

In the final act, things fall apart because of a massive, massive plothole. Semi-SPOILER WARNING: our hero gets a distress signal. Does he contact the police / get help to where the trouble is? No, he gets frustrated at his impotence to do anything and gets into his car for a five-hour-drive to the trouble. This makes about as much sense as unleashing a T-Rex while wearing high heels.

Without the plothole, the book would have deserved an extra half-star, but as it is, it's sadly a novel that doesn't rise above average.

Rating: 3/5

Monday 26 October 2015

The Silence by Tim Lebbon

The Silence is a creature feature horror novel by bestselling author and South Wales local Tim Lebbon. Besides the very atmospheric Thief of Broken Toys, I haven't read much of his work. (I tried Coldbrook, but zombie apocalypse is probably simply not my thing)

Ally is a teenager, living a fairly normal life in a town in Wales. She's lost her hearing in a car crash that killed her grandparents, she has an annoying little brother, and she's inseparable from her iPad, which she uses to collect information about the world she reads about on the news.

One day, she skips through TV channels to arrive at a live broadcast on the Discovery Channel that captures her attention. Explorers are abseiling into a cave system that had been isolated from the surface for millions of years. Then, shockingly, things go very very wrong, live on TV...

The monsters in The Silence - named vesps - are blind, bat-like carnivorous reptiles the size of cats. They are monstrous because they swarm, spread and procreate very very quickly. Once unleashed, they flood across the continent like the beasts in Pitch Black, drawn to every sound and killing through sheer numbers. The only way to survive is to be very, very quiet.

The novel is a solid thriller: we follow Ally's first person journal and her father's journey to return home while they hear about the spreading plague of monsters on the news. Then, we follow the family as they try to flee to somewhere quiet and isolated as the plague turns apocalyptic, approaching Britain with frightening speed.

As is often the case in horror novels, the monsters are not the only threat, not by a long short. People in despair and madness can be just as dangerous, perhaps even more so. The critters, in comparison, are a lot more predictable.

I picked The Silence because I wanted to read something scary. Is it scary? I didn't really think so. It's thrilling, yes, and entertaining, well written, interesting... but scary? Not really. I'm still looking for a novel that will terrify me as much as the scariest movie of the millennium, El Orfanato, did. (Any recommendations for genuinely scary books? Please tell me in the comments!)

There's one annoying goof / discontinuity in the book: clearly, the author had decided to kill off a character, and then decided to make the scene a bit more drawn out. Not a bad idea, except describing the horrible injuries as 'The face was a mess. (...) The red maw of X's shattered mouth opened in a silent scream' - and then, a mere few pages later, having dialogue with that character in the story makes no sense. Able to talk normally despite a shattered mouth, a face that's a mess? The copyeditor should have paid closer attention...

Rating: 4/5

Sunday 18 October 2015

Cardiff SFF Book Club: November Read

The small but lovely scifi / fantasy / speculative fiction book club I've been running in Cardiff since last winter has run out of chosen books!

For our next meeting, we'd like to read something scary. Something which will make us hide under the blanket, chill us and make us shiver, but not cause anyone to get anxiety attacks...

The only problem? None of us could think of the right book to suggest, and the three of us at the meeting today didn't come to any conclusions about what to pick. So we decided to pick our November book by vote

Here is a list of book suggestions. I put the list together. One book, I remembered us mentioning during our meeting, others got my attention in Waterstones, some listings stem from a desire to include some Welsh authors on the list, and some I added after realising that my initial list had zero female writers, so I wanted to make it a bit more balanced. 
  • To vote, please sign up for the email newsletter, join us on Facebook or on Goodreads, and I'll send you the link. 
  • Feel free to discuss the suggestions in the comments, or on Facebook, or on Goodreads. 
  • If you want to come along to the next meeting, but want to veto one of the suggestions (e.g. because it might tap into a phobia you have), send me an email, and I'll take it off the list. (Obviously I can't do that to every book!!!)
  • I haven't read these books (except for Through the Woods), so I'm presenting their covers and back-page blurbs.
  • Voting will be open until Wednesday 21st October
  • I suggest the meeting should be on Sunday 15th November, but in the email I'm sending out, I'll also ask whether Sundays are still the best day for meetings...

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

It began shortly after the party at which one of their members, Edward Wanderley, had died - or was killed. The Chowder Society, who for years had met in customary evening dress with the object of telling each other tales of every kind, now found themselves drawn towards the supernatural. It was some sort of solace for Edward's loss. They began to tell ghost stories, extraordinary ghost stories ... ghost stories that did not always stop when the teller finished speaking ... Then came the dreams, shared simultaneously by the Chowder Society members, forecasting horrors the four ageing men can scarcely bring themselves to discuss. And now they are about to learn what happens to those who believe they can bury the past - and get away with murder.

The Rats by James Herbert

It was when the bones of the first devoured victims were discovered that the true nature and power of these swarming black creatures - with their razor sharp teeth and the taste for human blood - began to be realized by a panic-stricken city. For millions of years man and rat had been natural enemies. But now for the first time - suddenly, shockingly, horribly - the balance of power had shifted . . .

'The effectiveness of the gruesome set pieces and brilliant finale are all its own' Sunday Times

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children;, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here - one of whom was his own grandfather - were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason. And somehow - impossible though it seems - they may still be alive. A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

The Silence by Tim Lebbon

In the darkness of a underground cave, blind creatures hunt by sound. Then there is light, voices, and they feed... Swarming from their prison, the creatures thrive; to whisper is to summon death. As the hordes lay waste to Europe, a girl watches to see if they will cross the sea. Deaf for years, she knows how to live in silence; now, it is her family's only chance of survival. To leave their home, to shun others. But what kind of world will be left?

Welsh Author
Tim Lebbon lives near Newport. I don't know what our chances are of inviting him along to a meeting, but I thought I'd mention this if any of the book bloggers among us are interested in interviewing him.

The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen

Machen's weird tales of the creepy and fantastic finally come to Penguin Classics. With an introduction from S.T. Joshi, editor of American Supernatural Tales, The White People and Other Weird Stories is the perfect introduction to the father of weird fiction. The title story "The White People" is an exercise in the bizarre leaving the reader disoriented and on edge. From the first page, Machen turns even fundamental truths upside-down, as his character Ambrose explains, "there have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin, who all their lives have never done an 'ill deed'" setting the stage for a tale entirely without logic.

Welsh Author / Classic
Arthur Machen was a Welsh writer. His books are classics. Some of his works are available for free via Project Gutenberg as they are out of copyright.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The best-known of Shirley Jackson's novels, and the inspiration for writers such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, The Haunting of Hill House is a chilling story of the power of fear.

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely assistant; Luke, the future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers - and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. The Haunting of Hill House is a powerful work of slow-burning psychological horror.

'An amazing writer ... If you haven't read her you have missed out on something marvellous' Neil Gaiman

'As nearly perfect a haunted-house tale as I have ever read' Stephen King

'Shirley Jackson is one of those highly idiosyncratic, inimitable writers...whose work exerts an enduring spell' Joyce Carol Oates

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

'It came from the woods. Most strange things do.'

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there...

Robert's Note
This is not a novel, but a series of illustrated short stories / graphic novellettes. It's very beautiful. but you can read it in about an hour. I've reviewed Through The Woods a few months ago.

Saturday 17 October 2015

The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor (also sold as The Traitor Baru Cormorant) is a unique novel, quite unlike anything I've ever read before. That alone earns it a lot of respect from me. It's also intelligent, thoughtful, strategic, all without ever forgetting about character complexity.

The Traitor starts when Baru Cormorant is a girl, watching sails in the distance. She is aware that her parents are troubled: Empire is at their doorstep, and they fear their civilization and culture is about to be subsumed. Baru has mixed feelings: there is something exciting about these ships, these foreign traders, and their spectacle and overwhelming power. Soon, she is recruited into their special school, destined to become one of the first of her people to absorb the Empire's culture fully. Then, a small skirmish with a neighbouring tribe turns into all-out war as the Empire 'supports' their allies with an army, and one of Baru's fathers dies. Her mother tells her foul play was at work: the Empire murdered him because he was in a family unit that was not monogamous. Some years later, the Empire's treatment of homosexuals becomes an urgent problem for Baru.

Baru Cormorant decides that the Empire is too big, too powerful to defeat by (her mother's dreams of) rebellion. She throws herself ever more deeply into her studies in order to rise to the very top and change the empire itself. The novel tells the story of her rise, her assignment, her betrayals...

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is not an epic fantasy novel in the traditional sense. No orcs, no dragons, no elves, no monsters, no magic. In fact, it is more akin to an alternative Earth, with alternative human cultures. Some names echo names on Earth: there are several cultures whose naming conventions appear to be Latin American, African, Polynesian, etc.

Baru Cormorant is not a traditional hero. She might leave her family behind, but she does not have a benevolent mentor. She has grand designs and dreams and wants to change the hostile world, but she does not do so through being a chosen one heading into battle on the back of a prophecy. You could argue that she is a chosen one, but she is chosen for her mind and her skill, called a savant. She is not chosen by her people or the good guys; she is chosen by the Empire.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Baru does not pursue a path of heroism and binary good/bad, does not fight the empire from outside in futile rebellion. Instead, she uses realpolitik, manoeuvring the politics of power in a way that Tywin Lannister would be proud of. She acts utterly ruthless, even if she suffers internally.

Baru Cormorant is a striking, memorable hero. I don't recall ever coming across a character like this - hard, strong, a stone cold operator, willing to do terrible things in the short term in service to her longer term goals. Not since watching the documentary 'The Fog of War' have I come across a personal conflict like that, and I struggle to think of any instance when such conflict occurred in books I've read. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, may be full of politics and battle and betrayal, full of power struggles, but in comparison with Baru Cormorant, no character or family comes close in complexity. Song of Ice and Fire has good guys and bad guys, well-intended roads to hell (Daenerys, John Snow) and degrees of badness (Jamie Lannister, Stannis Baratheon). Baru Cormorant is so much more complex because she does terrible things, knowing they are terrible, internalising her regret and guilt. She'd not a baddie nor a hero.

There is a whole lot more to the novel, beyond complex characters. An ultra-conservative empire, obsessed with eugenics and family values / 'social hygiene' but technologically advanced and, at least at the level of middle management, meritocratic. It's improving people's living standards, quality of life, life expectancy (unless you fall foul of their moral barometer), spreading through trade and capitalism and banking... while local cultures of diversity, minority faiths, non-nuclear families and sexually liberal attitudes get absorbed and destroyed. The book has geopolitics that do not match or even closely mimic our own, but take different aspects and play around with them. Falcrest acts like modern America  / China, with the social mores of Nazi Germany and Saudi Arabia. You can read it in a dozen different ways, but it's a chilling adversary to encounter in a novel.

Similarly, there is a lot in the book about the workings of power, the difference between the power people see and power as it really works. In fact, even though it must have written well before the #piggate affair, The Traitor's circles of power work exactly as described in 'The PM, the Pig and Musings of Power'. The parallels between novel and real events are so striking that I cannot help feeling a chill at how insightful, intelligent and authentic this novel really is.

I will admit that it lost some momentum in the second half, but it makes up for that with an utterly relentless finale. Highly recommended if you're looking for a very smart, complex and entertaining read.

Rating: 5/5