Sunday 29 January 2017

Book Review: The Unheimlich Manoeuvre by Tracy Fahey

The Unheimlich Manoeuvre. What a glorious title. The sort of title that made me pick it up and a stall at one of the conventions I attended last year (probably Fantasycon-by-the-Sea) and ignore the cover design (which I didn't really like) and the price (£15 for a fairly small book). The description on the back sold me on the book. Then I went along to a reading and, even though I only absorbed about half of it (I'm not very good at taking in stories read out verbally - I need to see the text), I realised I had made a good purchase.

One surprising thing about The Unheimlich Manoeuvre is that this single-author short story collection does not actually feature a story by that name. That said, the stories contained in the collection do live up to the title. They aren't all horror stories or spooky stories. Some are very much based in a non-paranormal real world setting. They do, however, all have a richness about them. Some are deeply melancholy (alongside being uncanny). Others are frantic and frenetic (and uncanny). There are some which are claustrophobic (and uncanny). There are even stories which are not uncanny, but still somehow feel right for this collection.

Tracey Fahey has an enviable talent for creating real-seeming characters with authentic problems and dilemmas. Her stories tend to hook the reader and not let go. Even the final story in the collection, which is really more of a series of vignettes with limited plot, is relentlessly readable. (Incidentally, it was this autobiographical story which she read aloud at the reading).

The introduction describes them as traditional 'twist in the tail' stories, but I don't think that description is entirely accurate. They are traditional in that the endings are satisfying (the narrative doesn't just stop without any sense of resolution or plot movement), and one or two do have a 'twist' ending, but mostly the stories end with a climax, rather than a revelation that turns the entire story around. Most impressively, the quality of the stories ranges between "good", "great" and "exceptional". Even the weakest story (about a couple holidaying in Vienna) is good; but at her best (in a story about a young mother), Tracey Fahey's writing is world class.

My copy of the book says there was a limited print run of only 150 - so if you can get your hands on this book somehow, do. It is superb.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Review: Chasing Embers by James Bennett

Chasing Embers has a lot going for it. A beautiful cover, promising blurbs, comparisons with Ben Aaronovitch (admittedly, that particular comparison comes from the publisher's marketing team, not the blurb), and friggin dragons. (Dragons, for me, are a selling point, not a hinderance to enjoyment).

Reading the novel about Ben, a dragon spending his life hiding in human form as part of a contract between all magical creatures and mankind, the story had even more things that were massive assets. My favourite pharaoh, Hatchepsut, is important to the plot. The story takes place in New York, London, Berlin and Cairo (of which New York is the only city I haven't visited or lived in). There's (genuine) myths and lore appearing. Basically, this novel sits square in the centre of a Venn Diagram of things I love in books. Urban fantasy? Check. Myths? Check. Places I know? Check. Ancient Egypt? Check. Friggin' dragons? Check and double check.

And yet, it took me ages to finish the novel. I slugged through it, fighting an uphill battle all the way. The reason? The prose. Sorry, James Bennett, but your particular style is not pleasing to my ears / eyes / whichever organ I read with. It's not dense and complex in the way of China Mieville. It's just so, so, so full of unnecessary descriptions, metaphors, and writery stuff. Not music-to-my-ears bedtime story prose like Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Not musical rhythmic prose like Pat Rothfuss's. Not take-your-brain-on-a-psychedelic-ride prose like Ian McDonald. It's prose that draws attention to itself without having whatever pizzazz makes prose shine and sparkle and somehow transcend purpleness into greatness. At least, as far as my personal taste is concerned. And I have to honestly admit: there is subjectivity and taste involved. All I can say is that, despite subject matter, plot, and backgrounds, I kept contemplating giving up, all the way until the final battle.

I was also a bit frustrated with our hero, Ben. He gets injured a lot. Think Harry Dresden, then add self-healing capabilities, and amp up the going-through-the-wringer factor to 11. At one point, he has been eviscerated (literally) and crushed like a fly (literally) and still he reassembled himself. He spends a lot of time unconscious (conveniently having flashbacky dreams). And in the final battle, I found myself flabbergasted that Ben didn't seem to make much of a difference. Almost the entire climax plays out while Ben is a mere spectator. By the end of the book, I didn't want to read any more about Ben: I wanted a novel about his ex-girlfriend Rose instead.

I really wanted to like Chasing Embers, but it had the reek of rookie errors / a beginner writer about it. It's a novel that I can imagine being fantastic, if a ruthless editor had massaged (and occasionally bludgeoned) it into shape. In that, it reminds me of Mike Shevdon novels, which are also one ruthless editor away from greatness. In the end, I doubt I'll read any more of the novels in this series - despite the obvious research and love of subject matter that has gone into it. If your taste in prose is different, you will find much to enjoy.

Rating: 2.5/5

PS: Minor criticism: Hatchepsut's mummy has never been verifiably identified. AFAIK it does not lie in the museum in Cairo.

Brexit (again): A Letter to my Labour MP

After today's Supreme Court Ruling, I decided to write to my MP again. Below, you can find the general elements of the letter (I also included specifics about a conversation I've had with her recently, and my case).

If you have a Labour MP, please feel free to use this text to write to yours, if you agree with it....

Dear (name)

I am writing to you today because of the Supreme Court ruling on triggering Article 50. I would like to ask you to urge Jeremy Corbyn to adjust his (and Labour’s) position in light of the ruling. I would also like to ask you to vote against triggering Article 50 unless major changes to the government's Brexit plan are achieved. Here’s why:
1)      The referendum was a vote to leave the EU, but not a vote to give Theresa May a blank cheque to carry out a disastrous Brexit that will ruin British workers.
2)      The current government talks of realigning the UK economy as if this were an easy thing. Decades of poverty in the Welsh valleys prove beyond doubt that restructuring an economy is deeply traumatic and comes at the expense of generations of people’s lives and futures. Labour mustn’t let May do to all of Britain what Thatcher has done to the mining communities.
3)      Several of the Leave campaigners promised that the UK would stay in the Single Market. The Norwegian model was openly advocated before the referendum. It is therefore absolutely right that the opposition should hold the government to that promise – and withhold consent from triggering Article 50 unless the same act of Parliament instructs the government to adopt keeping the UK inside the EEA as main priority in their negotiating positions.
4)      While the (extremely narrow) majority of voters voted 'Leave', a significant majority of Labour voters voted Remain. The Labour party is not just there to represent all people – it is also there to represent the will of its own members and voters. Labour has a strong remit to oppose triggering Article 50 and cannot absolve itself of its role in a parliamentary democracy with talk of the “will of the people”. 52% is not the same as 100%. Those of us who oppose Brexit, and who oppose a ruinous one, deserve representation, too!
5)      Whatever your (or Jeremy Corbyn's) views on EU membership, the Conservatives will not put the interest of workers first when negotiating with the EU or the rest of the world. They will negotiate on behalf of bankers and bosses. A Brexit negotiated by Labour would be very different from a Brexit negotiated by the Conservatives - so why should Labour act as enabler for the Conservatives? If Jeremy Corbyn believes that the referendum gives a clear mandate for Brexit, then he should still oppose a Brexit negotiated by the Conservatives with all his might, and promise to carry out a Labour Brexit once Labour is back in power instead.
All it takes is for non-Conservative parties to band together, and a few Tory rebels, to put the brakes on Theresa May’s incompetent plans for a ruinous Brexit. Theresa May is not the High Priestess of Brexit; she does not speak for all voters, not even all voters who voted ‘Leave’. To preserve the British economy, British jobs, and the British way of life, the UK must stay inside the Single Market. It is the role of the opposition, and our representatives, to do everything possible to ensure that.
I look forward to hearing from you – and thank you, again, for the work you do.
Yours sincerely


Monday 23 January 2017

Review: Cairo by G. Willow Wilson

Cairo, a graphic novel by G Willow Wilson, is in love with Egypt and the Middle East. Written a few years before Alif the Unseen, the story predates the Arab Spring, but has similar flavours to Alif's tale. Cairo, too, is a story of jinn and myth, fluidly intermingling with modern life in an Arab city.

The plot of Cairo revolves around an ensemble of (mostly young) characters. A young Californian woman who wants to work for an NGO in Cairo to escape ennui. A drug runner who shuttles between Cairo and Israel & Palestine. His sister, a belly dancer, and his best friend and her fiancee, a column writing journalist. A young Lebanese American on his way to try and do something he thinks would be meaningful. An Israeli special forces soldier who finds herself on the wrong side of the Egyptian border. All their fates become linked through a jinn and the vessel he has been bound to. The jinn, meanwhile, is on a quest of his own, pursued by an evil warlock...

At times, Cairo feels like 'Avengers Assemble' - it's a story of how these very different characters with different objectives find themselves on a road to a shared heroic adventure. There's some sense of humour, but it's quite wry compared to other comic books. What sets Cairo apart from other comics is the setting and the richness of its character detail. This is a graphic novel for grown-ups. That doesn't imply it has sex in it - it doesn't - but it does not talk down to kids and the heroes are distinctly complex people. In many ways, Cairo reminds me of Neil Gaiman's Sandman: it has a similar richness of myth, complexity and people.

If there is a flaw, it's that Cairo is perhaps a little too much in love with the Middle East and with Islam. It offers up a slightly rose-tinted view of the region. The same applied to Alif the Unseen: as a convert to Islam, G Willow Wilson does occasionally allow herself a devout moment. In Cairo, there is one scene that stands out for feeling forced, when a character is given a Qu'ran and his eyes light up with some sort of understanding... That is not the only moment that made me think a writerly cheat / shortcut had been taken, but it was the one that jarred the most.

As a graphic novel, Cairo has a distinct visual style. It's very cinematic, especially in its transitions between scenes, which mimic movie editing. The artwork is lovely (again, reminding me of some Sandman issues), though not as sumptious as the gorgeous (but sadly misogynist & racist) Habibi - which is the highest visual benchmark I have come across for Middle Eastern themed fantasy graphic novels.

I would highly recommend Cairo to readers who enjoy (urban) fantasy and graphic novels.

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday 20 January 2017

2016: Year of The Deplorables?

I am an inherently political person. This doesn't make me great company - much as I love conversations about a million topics, there is a high chance politics will enter it sooner or later when I'm around. This blog post will be my attempt, in a ruminating, rambling kind of way, to digest the past year (plus or minus a bit).