Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Oh yes, this is the good stuff. The best science fiction novel I've reviewed so far.

I wasn't overly impressed with his short story collection Galactic North, which was very hit and miss, but I did like it enough to give one of his novels a go. This is the first in the series, but works very well as a stand alone.

It's set in the aftermath of the Melding Plague, which is a big deal in the short stories as well. It affects nanotechnology, and there's no cure. It means many people with implants have either frozen themselves until scientists know how to kill it, or bomb about in containers called palanquins so they don't get infected. And cities, which are meant to grow organically, have withered and died. All very dark and gothic.

One of the three stories which come together concerns the plague - the captain of a spaceship is in stasis because of the infection, but the crew know someone who can help him. This person - Sylveste - is the leader of a planet where an alien race became extinct a million years ago. He's also their head archeologist and he's obsessed with finding out what happened to them. The third strand is an assassin sent by someone known only as the Mademoiselle to kill Sylveste.

It works on every level. The setting is well realised - I wrote in the last review about it being hard sf with relativity causing time dilation, no faster than light travel etc, but there are other great touches, like inches of slime on the floors of the spaceship, and acres of rotting vegetation because the UV lights in the biodomes have broken. The characters are interesting, unusual and believable if not always sympathetic. And the plotting's excellent. It builds quite slowly, coming to a great showdown in the middle, and the last half goes off in an unexpected and mindblowing direction. But nothing feels rushed, shoehorned-in or surplus to requirements. Fantastic.

I'm now embarking on 2666 by Roberto Bolano (Spanish squiggle on the n implied) which is pretty good, even though it's not actually set in the year 2666. As far as I know.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Caligula by Douglas Jackson

Rome's craziest emperor deserves better than this. I quite liked the start - the main character's an animal trainer who tries to steer bloodthirsty Roman audiences away from the slaughter of exotic beasts by making them do tricks and routines. Animal welfare through circus routines - stick that PETA! Nice idea to look at the violence and spectacle of Caligula's reign through the microcosm of the arena. But instead the trainer has to look after the Emperor's elephant, and the story falters.

Most disappointing was Caligula himself. If you're writing a trashy novel about Rome's third emperor, then you really want to make him balls out bonkers. This guy's a byword for topsy-turvy tyranny. Children of the eighties will remember with fondness Judge Caligula's brief time in office in Mega City One. There's certainly a lot of crazy and brutal behaviour, but I wasn't convinced. Maybe after reading about Stalin it doesn't seem so outlandish.

We don't actually know all that much about Gaius Caesar (Caligula's a childhood nickname - his father was a famous general, and Gaius used to wear a tiny uniform around camp. A caliga was the sandal worn by the soldiers, and caligula is the diminutive.) Tacitus's history of the regime has been lost, and historians rely on Suetonius. He's very entertaining, but kind of like getting your history from News of the World. His lost works include Greek Terms of Abuse and Lives of Famous Whores.

So, many modern commentators thinks Caligula's craziness has been exaggerated for effect. What is clear is that he was very young (28 when assasinated) and the first emperor to realise the true extent of his power. This bears a little explanation.

The old Republic had been devastated by decades of political violence and civil war. The complex, balanced but inherently static political system couldn't cope with a growing empire. First off there was a massive influx of slaves from conquered terrorities. Slave labour led to fewer and richer landowners, which caused a military problem - only landowners could be soldiers.

The General Marius needed an army, and decided to ignore the senate and recruit anyone he wanted. He paid them with the promise of booty and land in the future. A commonsense solution, but one which would have massive consequences in the coming centuries. See, the generals were also the politicians. And the Marian reforms meant that armies were loyal to their generals, rather than the Roman state. A recipe for disaster.

The interminable in-fighting came to an end after Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium. He decided to make himself king.

Now, the Romans hated and loathed kings ever since they kicked out Tarquinus Superbus back in the mists of time, so Augustus (as he was renamed) was very careful not to seem like a king. He retained and paid respect to the consuls, the tribunes, the senate - all the traditional power structures of the republic - but they were stripped of any real power. And so Rome enjoyed peace and prosperity for the first time in a long time.

Political genius though he was, Augustus hadn't thought this through. Two big problems - no effective curbs on the emperor's power, and no consistent rules on succession. The rot set in quickly. Augustus's successor Tiberius was a gloomy, paranoid and brutal ruler (he always reminds me of Gordon Brown.) He was (possibly) murdered by Caligula, who finally seemed to understand what being an emperor was really about - doing whatever you wanted!

He was murdered by the praetorian guard after a few short, but presumably fun years (for Gaius at least.) But the standard was set. Most Roman emperors were closer to Caligula than Augustus. And the military became increasingly powerful, ending up with the throne being "auctioned off" by the guard a few centuries down the line. The succesful bidder didn't hang on to it very long. Fear of the armies was also a big reason why Britain had so many military bases, Hadrian's and Antonine's walls etc. It wasn't because of constant battles with the Picts in Scotland - it was to keep them as far away from Rome as possible.

I love all this stuff, but if you want more I can recommend Tom Holland's Rubicon, an excellent history of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Crassus (Olivier in Spartacus - a millionaire who ended up having molten gold poured down his mouth.) And there's a great podcast by Dan Carlin called Hardcore History - he's currently wading through the history of the late Republic.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Koba the Dread by Martin Amis

Look at this cheeky chap! A face only a mother could trust, although Stalin wasn't very nice to his mother either.

The bulk of this book is a rundown of his horrors. The torture, the gulags, the collectivisation, the famine, the fear. Amis notes that one of Stalin's most reliable tool of terror was the cold. It's much easier to control the people when you've got somewhere as deadly as Siberia to dump them en masse. A number of gulags were wiped out completely in blizzards - prisoners, guards, dogs.

There are lots of chilling accounts from first hand witnesses, laid out expertly by Amis. I hadn't even heard of the slave ships, which crossed back and forth across the Northern Seas, filled with prisoners in chicken coops in a Bosch-like vision of hell. One ship - the Dzhurma - was caught in the ice off Wrangel Island in 1933. All the prisoners on board froze to death. There were 12,000 of them.

This book also has an excellent portrayal of Stalin. Paranoid, cruel, brutal and living in a fantasy land. The big mystery has always been why he trusted Hitler. Those (and there were many) who warned that the Nazis were about to invade were executed as wreckers. Amis argues that Stalin had waged war on truth so succesfully in Russia, he just couldn't conceive of a fact that wasn't his own.

When Hitler's treachery finally sank in, Stalin met with his ministers, expecting his own arrest and execution. But his terror tactics had been so succesful, none had even considered challenging him.

This admirable hatchet job is bookended by an inquiry into why Stalin gets an easier ride from the intelligentsia (then and now) than Hitler. As a communist party member Kinglsey Amis defended him for many years, before turning into an arch-Thatcherite Colonel Blimp. There's also a letter to his friend Christopher Hitchens who at least used to be a lefty (God knows what he is now)

This bit of the book I was most looking forward to, but I would have liked more. There's a whole volume to be written about our apologists and fellow travellers, but this is too short, and barely touches on Shaw and HG Wells. And Hitchens was a Trotskyite, so can't really be labelled a Stalin denier. All a little scattershot.

But I did enjoy this a lot (better than Money, and shorter.) Like Noise, Amis warns us to Beware the Utopians, whether fans of Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin or Hitler. People who say the world can be perfected, if only this or that so called "freedom" didn't get in the way. Idealists of every stripe. As PJ O'Rourke wrote, Big Ideas are almost always bad, as anyone who's been asked "Hey, what's the big idea?" can tell you.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Money by Martin Amis

So I started reading Koba the Dread, and now I'm reviewing Money. Not sure how that happened.

It's one of those "prick in the 80s" novels and concerns a drunken boor called John Self who's made his name in advertising and is now making a movie which seems to be loosely based on his relationship with his horrible father, which might be based on Amis' own relationship with his father Kingsley. Self jets between London and New York getting monstrously drunk and getting into scrapes, while trying to handle a bunch of insane stars he's trying to sign up for the film. He also meets an author called Martin Amis, who ends up writing the script for his movie. Oh yes, it's postmodern.

The writing's very strong, managing to be funny and heartbreaking even while narrated by a moron like Self, and some of the scenes are fantastic, especially those with the actors. And the ending's very satisfying, how it all comes together.

But I didn't love it. I have no problem with an unpleasant lead character (like, say, Stalin) but there's no forward momentum with Self. He's not after money -he's got more coming in than he knows what to do with - and he's pretty generous with it. He doesn't even seem to care about the film. Self's a little more interested in the women in his life, but since they're all either saints or whores, I was unconvinced. He's an entertaining character, but a boring one, if that makes sense.

I think I would've liked this a lot more if I'd read this in my teens, but I found it a little dated. An interesting side point - Self's supposed addiction to pornography. Very quaint by today's standards!

Shout out to the narrator of this audiobook Steven Pacey, who does a great job. And I've since found out he's sci-fi royalty - he played Tarrant in Blake's Seven.

I've got some more of Koba the Dread to read, but I've got caught up in another massive science fiction - Revelation Space by Alistair Reynolds (I reviewed his Galactic North a while back) and I'm listening to a trashy novel about Caligula which is suprisingly good.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee

A fascinating biography of The Most Evil Woman in Britain (TM.) Myra Hindley and Ian Brady murdered at least five children and teenagers in the early sixties. Myra supplied the transport and the victims. Ian raped and murdered them before burying them on the moors. Still the most notorious crimes in this country since Jack the Ripper.

The most shocking aspect has always been the fact of a woman taking part in the sexual murders of children. Brady is one of Ressler's classic organised serial killers - a sadist and a psychopath obsessed with power and sex. But what was Hindley getting out of it? Was she a besotted lover? A victim of his sexual violence and domination herself? Something worse? Nobody, let alone Myra, has ever known for sure.

They were both wannabe intellectuals, into Neitzche and de Sade. They both worshipped the Nazis, and despised the mundane world with its conventional moralities. They lurked outside schools taking pictures of the children. After the murders they revisited the moors, sometimes taking neighbours' children for a day out and encouraging them to play on the spots children their own age were buried. Even in court they wrote coded messages to each other about throwing acid in the face of a toddler. When the internal world of a serial killer is split in two, you can see it a lot more clearly.
One of Your Own is chilling and lyrical without trying too hard. It captures the mood of the time and place perfectly. And although it's an easy and engaging read, it's never sensationalist.

The second half covering Myra's time behind bars is very interesting. She tried for years to win parole. How could she be judged decades later for things she did as a brutalised young woman in love?

Now, I'm not going to defend the guards who orchestrated her savage beating, or the Sun, which attacked the brother of one of the victims who visited Myra "to give her a HUG !" (in fact he was trying to convince her to undergo hypnosis to tell where he was buried) but I have no doubt it was right not to release her. She lied and made excuses throughout her incarcation, and at least one of the bodies has never been found.

There were those who campaigned on her behalf. Her "old men" - her useful idiots - like Lord Longford who cried compassion, and said Myra was a different woman, who deserved her freedom after years behind bars. That her crimes were secondary and under duress. They were almost succesful as well - only her death prevented a probably favourable decision by the European Court of Human Rights. All wrong of course. I'm of the old fashioned view that people are responsible for their actions, and that evil should be punished.

At least Brady admits he should never be released. He's currently in a psychiatric hospital in year eleven of his hunger strike, being fed through a tube. I've no complaints with that. I can also recommend his florid and claustraphobic book Gates of Janus. It's about serial killers.
In other murder news, I've got David Peace's novel 1974 featuring the Yorkshire Ripper investigation coming up, and I'm on the hunt for the Devil in the White City about 19th century torture dungeon king H.H. Holmes. I also keep noticing the American Psycho audiobook in my library, but I think that could push me over the edge.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Empties, witches' jelly, death lamps, the jolly ghost, rattling napkins, wriggling magnets, Jack the tramp, the Golden Ball. What the hell is going on here?

Roadside Picnic is a big novel in the history of science fiction. It's about one of several Zones across the world where visitations have taken place (presumably by aliens) but where things have been....changed. Strange artifacts, stranger physics and inexplicable effects on people and things. The title's a metaphor, put forward by a scientist in the novel, about the kind of things we'd accidently leave behind on a picnic and what woodland creatures would make of, say, coins, cigarette lighters, mobile phones.

This is the central idea here - how alien are aliens? A lot of modern sci-fi doesn't even go near aliens, preferring to talk instead about AI and singularities, and I wonder how influential Roadside Picnic's been in that trend. You learn nothing about the aliens in this book, expect that you can never learn anything about them. I suspect a lot of writers since have taken that lesson on board, and concentrated on subjects they can speculate about.

It's got quite an unusual feel. It's supposed to be set in Canada, but there are so many alcoholic melancholics that it can only be Russia. Is it political? Well, I suppose you could make a case for the unpredictability and promised riches in the Zone representing the Soviet people's hopes and fears about capitalism, although I suspect that's a bunch of bollocks.

I really enjoyed the little touches about family life. The protaganist Red's daughter Monkey, a mutant who's hated by the neighbours and loved by her family, becomes less and less human. Then you've got another stalker called Buzzard who's got two great looking kids, and you slowly realise they just don't add up. And there are family members who come back from the dead, return home and sit around like benign zombies. What's going on there? It's almost like the attempts at communication in Solaris (actually, Stanislaw Lem's someone I need to get reading!)

So how it does it compare to Tarkovsky's Stalker? Well there's more cool weirdness in Roadside Picnic, and there's not all that in your face philosophical yapping, but the ending's definitely better in Stalker and I think it's got a better story. IMDB claims (imdb claims a lot of things) that a new version's in production. With the right people, there's the potential for something very interesting indeed.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

As much as I love the Wasp Factory, I'd still rather read a Banks with an M in it.

This is his first sci fi book, and one which I've read before. Couldn't remember it of course but I rarely do. Hence the blog. Like most M Banks, it's set in the Culture universe, as close to a utopia as it's possible to get in science fiction. There many species living together on orbitals, massive spacecraft and other artificial habitats, with very powerful AIs called Minds. It's a post-scarcity libertarian/anarchist society with no money or laws - you can do anything you want and people are virtually immortal. Luckily this is Iain Banks, so there's always some sickness going on.

This book starts with an old man being drowned in shit, for instance. And it's set on a wider background of a war between the Culture and the religious three-legged Idirans in which billions are being killed. Our hero Horza is on the Idiran side.

It's actually quite different to the rest of the Culture books - I was struck by how much of an adventure story this is. I hate to use the term but hacks would call this a romp. Tonnes of action, mostly following the galaxy's unluckiest crew of space pirates. One stand-out scene, set on an orbital scheduled for demolition, concerns a card game where players can deal emotions on the opposition. They also have to bring slaves (or willing fanatics) in case they "lose a life." Then you've got multiple shootouts and fistfights, a massive wooden boat hitting an iceberg, a spaceship chase inside another spaceship and a grotesquely fat cannibal and his followers who eat excrement.

All fantastic, until the last section which drags along far too slowly then ends in a damp squib. So much interesting stuff has been set up by this point. You've got a planet of the dead, a memorial to genocide curated by a shadowy alien civilisation. You've got the Artifical Intelligence somewhere on this planet which everyone's looking for. And you've got Horza's still unexplained reasons for hating the Culture and AIs. All these potentials are pissed away.

Very annoying, considering how much I was enjoying it. I'm going to go on a bit of an M Banks binge to figure out the best one. I seem to remember Use of Weapons being particularly good.

In the meantime I've finished Roadside Picnic so I'll need to review that before I forget it. I was almost finished the Stalin book (and I will go back to it) but I got waylaid by an unnecessarily long biography of Myra Hindley which has completely hooked me.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Newton's Wake by Ken MacLeod

I was asked by the enigmantic zungg about good stand-alone sci fi novels. I'm still in two minds about whether this is good, but it is great fun.

It's kind of hard to know where to start describing Newton's Wake. Best to begin with the idea of singularity, which I've been trying to get my head around. I think it can be described as a moment when technology breaks free from human control. But it also always seems to be about uploading yourself to a central server, and breaking free of biology. In any case, we're always assured when the singularity happens, we'll know about it.

In this book it's called the Hard Rapture. America goes to war, and its war machines are so advanced they become sentient and start uploading people using the internet while irradiating the planet. The machines/uploads then become posthuman, create a network of wormholes across the galaxy, leave a bunch of unfathomable relics a la Roadside Picnic and disappear onto a different plane of existence where, it's suggested, they've made faster than light travel possible in our universe. We're told singularities start coming thick and fast after the first one's reached.

Okay, that's just the background. The actual plot concerns interstellar Glaswegian gangsters, folk singers brought back from the dead and the political rehabilition of Leonid Breshnev. But it doesn't entirely work, and I'm not sure why. I like the focus on unusual characters, and the way he looks at the world of art and fashion as well as politics and science, but I never got the feel that this was a real universe. MacLeod's ambitious for trying to tell a big story in one normal sized book, but perhaps he does need three massive breeze blocks like Peter F Hamilton. And if you're a sucker for space communists, then there's lots to enjoy.

I've accidently started three books at the same time. Koba the Dread by Martin Amis about Stalin, on audiobook Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks and the aforementioned Roadside Picnic on my phone - something which could be very handy if I can get used to reading the little screen.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

A pleasant suprise, this. I picked it pretty much at random from the audiobook section of the library and it had my hooked all the way through.

Again, it's based on real people and events. If you're going to make something up, stick it in space I say. It's the story of two men - George, who's a solicitor of Indian descent who gets accused of some horrific crimes (the mysterious but strangely popular phenomenon of horse ripping, as well as a bizarre campaign of hate) and Sir Arthur Conan Dolyle who...well, hell, you know who HE is .

In the early 20th century Doyle got involved in the George Ediljay case and publicised it as a big miscarriage of justice. The legal parts of this book I found fascinating. In fact the case led the foundation of the Court of Appeal. It also reminds me of Robert Graysmith's Zodiac, in that it examines lots of different angles and red herrings with plenty of loose ends and few hard conclusions. Lots of folk hate this kind of thing. I love it.

But there's lots more going here - it follows both Arthur and George from cradle to grave and both come across as interesting, admirable, flawed and above all human. Doyle's spiritualism is dealt with at length, and includes a massive seance held at Albert Hall after his death with shows the esoteric glamour, the emotional impact and the base quakery of this lost religion.

It's also really good on race. George is certainly victimised, but it's far from clear that the colour of his skin has anything to do with it. This is still the England of Empire - a massively different world to the one we live in, and one which may not have been as racist as we imagine. A very intelligent and subtle examination of these issues going on.

Finally - very well written, easy to read, always entertaining. A lucky find, and a good excuse to dig out some Sherlock Holmes short stories from my bookshelf.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sway by Zachary Lazar

Who can say why this jumped out at me in the library? Although I should point out it's the second book I've reviewed with Charles Manson on the cover.

This is a novel about the death of the sixties, and looks at the Manson family, the rise of the Rolling Stones and the life of Kenneth Anger, who made avant-garde, occult-inspired films like Scorpio Rising.

I really enjoyed Sway. All these subjects are fascinating to me, and the novel shows how they connect - Anger had started making a film with Bobby Beausoliel, who ran off to join the Manson family. Anger then finished a film using some of the footage for a short film he made with Mick Jagger - Invocation of my Demon Brother click to watch!

So it all ties in, but it's told in a really oblique and poetic way. The atmosphere is always dark and menacing, and there's a lot of weird satanic imagery, but it's not a tough read. Partly that's because it's nice and short, but also because it works on a dramatic level. It's not always easy portraying well known people in a new and interesting way, but Lazar does a great job at getting inside their heads. The interplay between Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones is especially good. Great setpieces as well - Altamont, the murder of Gary Hinman, the recording of Sympathy for the Devil.

No easy messages here - it's all very enigmatic - but one I took is how quickly things fall apart when all the old assumptions and ethics are jettisoned for big ideas like Peace and Love. And how peace and love become interchangeable with violence and hate when the very idea of objective morality is seen as old fashioned.

I'm sure others will have different readings - you should definitely give it a go.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

John Dies at the End by David Wong

I've been hunting around for this for a while, and I finally found it on import in a very nice horror, sf, fantasy bookshop in Edinburgh. I don't tend to buy books any more (not first hand anyway) but I didn't mind shelling out.

It's comedy horror by Jason Pargin, editor of the often very good cracked.com. David Wong's actually the narrator who, along with his friend John, fights unspeakable horror after accidently eating some black jizz from hell. Pair of slackers fight evil - not that groundbreaking - but it succeeds on two fronts. The horror elements are really strong and it's very funny. The opening section when they fight a meat monster ("the phrase 'sodomised by a bratwurst poltergeist' flew through my mind") is fantastic.

It's also got people being possessed by parasitical worms, a massive jellyfish in someone's house, a car full of cockroaches and an exploding dog. And there's always the sense that "is this really happening, or have I gone insane?" It works because the horror isn't treated as a joke - that comes from the characters, primarily John. He's a penis obsessed knucklehead with an endless supply of Arnie-type puns as he whacks demons. Wong is the opposite - a gloomy guilt-ridden pessimist who falls in love and learns that he isn't a hero. Luckily, he's also hilarious.

This works on lots of levels, but it is a little disjointed. It was originally posted online chapter by chapter. Great opening, a big climax half way through, treads water a little, then comes to a big satisfying conclusion. It could probably do with a bit of editing, but it's a pretty small grumble.

Thumbs up from me.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

I really liked Schama's History of Britain. I'm a big sucker for the Stuarts and he made the period sparkle. His final part in the TV version was in the form of a parallel analysis of Churchill and Orwell. Now that's genius. This book's a bit disappointing in comparison.
It's set out thematically rather than chronologically, with the emphasis on the different kinds of people who've become American. It's part journalism, with Schama meeting Obama and H Clinton supporters, former generals, and baptist preachers. He even chats to George W about Mexican immigration, which he tells him is the only issue he agrees with him on. He uses these to jump around history - back to the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, the Old West, the Civil Rights Movement etc.

I think one of my problems is that this book assumes an awful lot of knowledge about American history. This certainly isn't - as they would say over there, though I'm not sure why - American History 101. He's always looking at it from different angles - which is great - but if you don't have a pretty good grounding then the new points he's making will tend to be lost.

But here's the stuff I liked - Teddy Roosevelt, whom Mark Twain correctly identified as "clearly insane...and insanest of all upon war and its supreme glories", Andrew Jackson, hammer of the indians who adopted two indian children, the sometimes humane and intelligent dealings with indian tribes, and the very ropey deal for Chinese immigrants in the west.

I also liked the positive view of America coming from a European lefty. He even has a good word to say about their religiosity, pointing out that it's us who're unusual in having abandoned religion for secularism. It's always been the country of hope and opportunity, of starting afresh, but where horrible things can happen to you, especially if you're not the right colour or religion. I still think it's the best country in the world, if only for having in its constitution the right to the "pursuit of happiness" Not a guarantee of happiness of course, but something even better.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

No science fiction universe is as rich or as dark as Frank Herbert's. Here's what you need to know - it's set long enough into the future that no-one's heard of Earth, humans are on tens of thousands of worlds, and society has reverted to feudalism. There was a crusade millennia earlier against AI so technology is strictly regulated. And everything revolves around a substance called spice which increases your lifespan, causes psychic powers, turns your eyes blue and lets you travel through hyperspace. And Dune's the only place in the galaxy where it's found.

This is book three in the series. If you've seen the David Lynch film, you know how the first book ends - the good Paul Maud'Dib defeats the baddies on the back of a sandworm and becomes Emperor of the Universe. Hooray! Book two, Dune Messiah, begins after a religious jihad has swept the universe in Paul's name killing 61 billion people. Um...hooray?

As you might expect in Children of Dune the focus is on Paul's children. Leto and Ghamina are nine years old, but since they both have the memories of all their ancestors, they don't really act like kids. A side effect of way too much spice. It's the same story with Paul's sister Alia, who's acting as their regent. And she's not coping all that well with the whole memory thing.

The plot's all about plotting - they can't help trying to kill each other (and I do like assassination by cat.) Each conversation plays out like a chess game, with moves and countermoves which are entirely different to what the words mean on the surface. These scenes are exhilirating and never turn out the way you expect. You can apply that to the whole book as well.

I love how the Dune universe is one of contradictions. The stuff of which fuels everything only grows on a virtually dead planet. It's set in the far future, but it feels ancient. They travel between the stars but technology is feared and hated. You've got religion and mysticism coming up against realpolitik and ecology. Even things like the medieval/byzantine culture of the galaxy contrasting with the arabic mythology on Dune. So much to get your teeth into.

Most people reckon the Dune books get increasingly ropey, until the myriad prequels co-written by Herbert's son which I've heard are virtually unreadable. For the moment, I'm still riding that sandworm rollercoaster.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Ask the Parrot by Richard Stark

Second rate Parker, but still highly enjoyable. You may know Parker as either Walker or Porter depending on whether you've watched Lee Marvin or Mel Gibson mowing his way through a heirarchy of gangsters, looking for his money after being left for dead during a heist gone wrong. The story's known variously as Pointblank, Payback or The Hunter. Stark is one of the pseudonyms of crime legend Donald E Westlake. The name George Stark's also used by Stephen King for his fictional author Thad Beaumont's alter ego in Dark Half, drawing on his own experiences with his Richard Bachman nom de plume. All clear?

Anyway, this is late period Stark - the penultimate before Westlake's death - and starts with Parker on the run in the woods after another heist gone wrong. And gets mixed up in yet another heist. Which goes wrong. The plot unfolds nicely, the bodies stack up and Parker gets to be a hard nosed bastard, though not as much as you'd like.

Some of the plot points are little far fetched. It's probably not a great idea to join in the search for yourself when there's a photofit of you going around. Despite Parker's assurances that you don't get recognised from photofits, it happens to him. Twice.

All the characters are convincing, even the minor ones. Puts me in mind of Elmore Leonard's attention to detail.

I was in the mood for some more pulpy goodness, so I started "There's Something Down There" by Mickey Spillane. Ex CIA agent v possible sea monster? Too trashy even for my lowbrow tastes. Gone for some Simon Schama instead.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The World Crisis 1911-18: Part One 1911-1914 by Winston Churchill

After Churchill killed Hitler, the ungrateful people of Britain immediately voted him out office. What did he do next? Sulk like a girl? Never! Publish a self-serving memoir? Well, kind of. He wrote a massive six volume history of the Second World War. He praised Clement Attlee to the skies, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Nazi-spanking and was returned to power. Always a class act.

This wasn't out of character for him. Back in the thirties, he wrote a massive four volume history of the First World War. Despite not killing the Kaiser personally, Churchill certainly wasn't lazing about during the conflict. He started off in charge of the Navy, instigated the disastrous Gallipoli campaign which Mel Gibson got so annoyed about, resigned from Government then fought in the trenches. Oh, and he invented tanks. Again, a class act.

But you don't get most of that juicy stuff in volume one. It didn't help that the first cd was scratched to buggery. It mostly covers the build up and early mobilisation, with big emphasis on the naval side of things. When he's talking about his own experiences, he's electrifying. Attending a jolly naval regatta between Britain and Germany as they get the news that the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated; visiting the front line in the first months of the war and watching the man next to him geting killed by shrapnel; his growing friendship with noted YOU-needer Lord Kitchener, despite him having refused to let Churchill fight in his regiment in the Sudan years before because he'd heard what a headbanger he was. All amazing stuff.

But, while Winston understood the great sweeps of history, he was primarily a details main. Which makes big chunks of this as boring as hell, with big lists of ships and regimiments and fifteen point memos about....actually I was never quite sure. I drifted off a lot, and never listened to the last cd. Since it's Churchill, I feel kind of bad.

Quick props to the narrator Christian Rodska who does a good accent without going all over the top and cigary.

Final fantastic Churchill fact. He built walls. For fun.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Temporal Void by Peter F Hamilton

Epic sci-fi you could choke a whale with. Peter "F" Hamilton is a modern colossus in the genre, and this is part two of his latest trilogy.

Here's the central idea: in the centre of the Milky Way a void has been discovered which occassionally expands and eats up space. Well, they say void, but humans know what's going on inside, because they're dreaming about it. And they want to be part of it.

So you've got a religion based around these dreams which wants to enter the void, and other factions, including powerful aliens, who want to stop them because it could destroy the galaxy.

Then you've got the dreams themselves which are told throughout the books (this part of the trilogy in particular) so you only learn slowly why so many people want to be part of it.

There's another Hamilton trilogy set in a different universe which is a mixture of sci fi and horror (the dead return in a strange way) and this is another play with genre - science fiction and fantasy. As always with this writer the sci fi is top drawer. Amazing ideas aplenty, and actually used well. Especially powerful is how communication technology develops, with everyone having telepathy and empathy through nanotechnology.

The fantasy side of things is also great, and concerns a world where everyone has psychic powers, but one individual - "the Waterwalker" - has powers that could be limitless. Arthur C Clarke's assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic is being played with here.

It's really well plotted, the characters are good and the action sequences are clear and exciting. Quality stuff. But I read the first part of the trilogy, what, six months ago? And it still took me a few hundred pages to get to grips with who everyone was and what they were doing. A "previously in the Void trilogy" would have been helpful. But what's even more annoying is that as the books progress, there are more and more elements introduced from two earlier books (Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained) set 1200 years before, but featuring many of the same characters. I wish I'd read them first, but these books are all at least 700 pages long. A big investment, but worth it I reckon.

Now I'm reading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert which blows all of them out of the water. Or sand.

Monday, 11 October 2010

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Okay, I didn't finish this one but I did get two thirds of the way through so I suppose it's worth a write up.

Ned Kelly is the Australian Robin Hood, famous for wearing a home-made suit of armour, so I was really looking forward to some iron-clad bush-tucker craziness. To my dismay this isn't a trashy outback western, but a Booker Prize winner.

Ned himself's a nice guy, always trying to do the right thing, but everyone around him continually shits on him. He's of Irish stock so the colonial police think he's criminal scum. Then his mum sells him to the world's crappest highwayman. Even then it takes a hell of a long time for him to become an outlaw. He should've started taking care of business a long time before.

This is largely about social injustice (well, this is set in the past - there was a lot of it going about) Irish roots and Australian wildlife and geography. It's like one of those Bob Dylan folk songs about outlaws, and it is pretty good, but I found it too dull to finish. Too much whiney-whiney, not enough shooty-shooty.

This was a book on tape, so I've abandoned it for Winston Churchill's history of the First World War. On the paper book front I dumped the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when I realised I'd seen the film, in favour of some massive sci-fi by Peter F Hamilton.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

It's not often I struggle to finish a Stephen King. You always bank on a few duffers in his short story collections, but this is chock full of them.

His latest in what must now be dozens of "the picture mysteriously gets creepier" tales is a low point - the guy gets an exercise bike and paints his basement wall as a country road, but is chased slowly by personifications of his metabolism whom he's put out of work. Or something. They don't even bother to kill him! Rubbish.

The one about 911 sucks, there are two boring ghost stories where railway stations are the afterlife, and one about curing disease in a Green Mile style which is remarkable in being completely unmemorable.

There are a few passable stories - one about a woman who gets captured by a serial killer, one about a middle aged couple and a bad dream, one about a party that gets interrupted in the worst way possible, and a pleasingly gory one about a bad cat

But....there are two tales here I did really enjoy. A Very Tight Place, about an unpleasant encounter in a portaloo, and N., about obessive compulsive disorder, madness, suicide, and unspeakable horror from beyond the stars. NOT inspired by Lovecraft King has been keen to point out - he claims he's ripping off Arthur Machen - but the tale gives me those HP goosepimples I love so much. Two cracking horror stories from different ends of the spectrum.

So, I don't know. Maybe after prematurely blowing his load over the Dark Tower he's kind of at a loss. I think he needs a new project. I'd like to see him do a bit more of the old cosmic horror. N., From a Buick 8, glimpses in Under the Dome, way back to the Mist - I want more. Pick up that Lovecraft mantle! Call it the Machen mantle if you must!

Just no more stories about paintings coming to life.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alistair Campbell Diaries

I had that Alistair Campbell in the back of my cab once. The thing is, it wasn't a cab. I was picking him up for radio sports show and I had to wait for ages for him. And he climbed in the back, which I thought was a bit strange. If I'd seen Curb Your Enthusiasm at that point, I'd have been tempted to pull a Ben Stiller on him. If he'd been slightly less terrifying.

In fact, he was perfectly polite and I'll be meeting him again soon - he's doing something for my new station - but for the big journalists at the time he was the devil incarnate. The real Malcolm Tucker. The real author of the dodgy dossier. The real killer of David Kelly! I've actually got a bit more sympathy for him now

He's intelligent, humane and a born communicator and his diaries are a great read (listen actually - and he reads it himself, but you get used to his drone.) A part time historian tells him at one point that he wishes there were similar accounts from centuries past (Thomas Cromwell's would've been nice.) All the characters are painted wonderfully, from the idealistic and infuriating TB to the ghastly Queen of the Harpies CB; from the accident prone popinjay PM (whom Campbell has a punch up with), to the brooding weirdo timebomb GB. I was only confused by the use of initials once - all the way through I couldn't believe how close to the centre of power John Prescott was, and how much his advice was listened to. It wasn't till the end that I realised JP was Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell.

These were only extracts, but it goes through the death of Diana (after a few bouts of shameless flirting between the two) the resignation of Robin Cook, the Millenium Dome, Gordon Brown being a dick, Peter Mandelson being a dick, Prince Charles being a dick, Cherie Blair being a fanny. All great stuff. But 911 only happens towards the end of the penultimate CD, so Iraq, Gilligan, Kelly, Hutton is all squeezed into the last CD.

So let's get into it. Kelly: at one point Philip Gould (New Labour's man behind the throne) makes the very good point that David Kelly killed himself because David Kelly killed himself. And of course he wasn't murdered - no-one benefitted, for a start. On the dodgy dossier, it's not so clear. Certainly not from these extracts, though he does deny putting pressure on the intelligence services to get the political outcome they wanted. But should've he been involved at all? The stuff about the Gilligan row with the BBC is very good, but murky. There are dangerous waters when the national broadcaster feels forced into becoming the official opposition when something as controversial as the Iraq War happens.

Strange days. This is only one side of the story of course, but an important and entertaining one. My big worry about Campbell's influence is shown early on - he thinks Blair's move on Clause 4 is bold. He thinks his approach to Northern Ireland is bold. His actions on Iraq were certainly bold. I think what he's done there is mixed up bold with wise. Ah well, their hearts were in the right place.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Ah, the joys of books on tape. There's no way I'd have finished this monster of a novel without some fool reading it to me. And I probably couldn't have remembered who all the characters were without said fool (Simon Slater, as he deserves a mention) having different voices for each of them.

Well worth ploughing through 22 hours worth though. It's the story about Henry VIII's fixer Thomas Cromwell, the son of a violent blacksmith who becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom. Apart from the king, obviously. And he was the driving force behind the most important event in English (and Scottish) history since the Norman invasion - the split from Rome. Which was also largely about sex.

T Cromwell (yes, related to O Cromwell, but that's way in the future) has been portrayed many times, and usually as a villain. I've seen Donald Pleasance do him very effectively. In Wolf Hall, he's pretty heroic - very smart, very capable and ruthless but also loyal and kind.

Henry is a believable prince - selfish and petulant but also superstitious and insecure. Cardinal Wolsey also comes across really well, big hearted, wise and vain. The women are all great - Catherine, Princess Mary, Ann Boleyn, her slutty sister Mary (Scarlett Johanssen in that movie.) Thomas More - the hero to Cromwell's villain in A Man in For All Seasons - is portrayed as a weird, stubborn sadist. His execution closes the book, so this is really the rise of TC. There's a second book which'll go through the darker stuff - the abolition of the monasteries, the execution of Ann, five other wives, the execution of Cromwell himself and his head getting stuck on a spike. A low point, obviously.

It's a good book, but not an easy read. It's pretty hard to follow even if you've got a basic idea of the players and plot, and since this is a Booker winner it's very literary, which means there are layers and subtleties behind everything. I suppose that's pretty apt for a subject like Cromwell.

I've got another Booker winner coming up - Peter Carey's book about Ned Kelly. The hoon better have a bloody tin helmet. Before that I'm listening to Alistair Campbell reading his diaries and racing through some Stephen King. Neither are as subtle as Thomas Cromwell but they are a lot of fun.

The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens

Superior swivel-eyed right-wingery from the country's most conservative commentator. Here's a list of some, but not all of the things P. Hitchens blames for the terminal decline of Britain in the 20th century:

World War 1, World War 2, US ascendency, lefties in general, Roy Jenkins, Margaret Thatcher, the European Union, the disappearance of leather shoes in favour of trainers, Dutch elm disease, pornography, the contraceptive pill, abortion, trendy teachers who don't believe in teaching, trendy COE vicars who don't believe in God, paramilitary police, Grange Hill, the abolition of grammar schools, the abolition of the death sentence, the abolition of hell, television, the Teletubbies, computer games, David Frost, Alan Bennett, John Lennon's Imagine, the state's war on the family, the infantilisation of education, sloppy grammar, drugs, the ease of divorce, the funeral of Princess Diana, the trial of Derek Bentley, the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the trial of Deirdre Rachid, year zero radicals of every stripe, political correctness gone mad and Tony Fucking Blair.

On the other hand, he likes Winston Churchill and George Orwell.

This book was published ten years ago, so Hitchens doesn't even get a chance to stick it to the following:

The war on Iraq, the war on terror, Gordon Brown, Gordon Ramsay, Simon Cowell, Stephen Fry, the smoking ban, mobile phones, immigration laws, self service check-outs in the supermarket, people saying UK rather than United Kingdom, 4chan, 2 girls 1 cup, and David Fucking Cameron.

Fantastic stuff - eloquent, angry and elegiac for a lost Britain. No-one can possibly agree with everything he says, but you may find yourself nodding along more than you expected. Depends if you've had a drink.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Scorpion Swamp by Steve Jackson

Well, it's been a while. This isn't a childhood favourite (like Whoever Fights Monsters), but one I picked up recently in a bookshop on Mull for fifty pence. This blog is a great excuse to dig it out, while deciding what to read next. YOU decide what to read next, etc.

I decided to play it by the book - no re-rolls for stats, no stamina resets after fights. I even drew a map as recommended. I'm a grown man, dammit. And otherwise I'd only be cheating myself.

You start by choosing a wizard on the edge of the swamp, who gives you a mission and different spells. Good, evil, and wild card. I plumped for the wild card. Turns out he's not even a wizard. Bad move.

My first attempt ended after two steps on encountering the Master of Spiders. I, predictably, died. I started again at the swamp entrance with the same stats, and carefully avoided him. This time I got a lot further, survived a few fights and ended up in a scrap with three orcs. After killing two, I was finished off by the last one.

I had to rethink my whole strategy. So I started from scratch, created new stats (which were much healthier) and decided to see the good wizard. I chose wisely. Better spells, and a lot more people helping me out.

This time, I did it. I was successful in my quest, as the book says. Oh, it wasn't easy. I had to be careful, make notes, keep my map up to date and use my spells at the right moment. And you can't get anywhere in Fighting Fantasy without some lucky rolls. Yes, I found myself screaming at the dice. Yes, I punched the air when I killed the Sword Trees (trees with swords) for the final time. No, I'm not proud of myself.

That's not true - I am.

Since there are three different missions here, I should really give it another go with the evil wizard. But I've learned something today - it's nice to be nice. You help people out, people help you out. Non zero sum. I choose not to be evil.

There's now a Citadel of Chaos iphone app. You shake the phone to roll the dice! On the basis of Scorpion Swamp, I think I'll be checking it out.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler

This is an old favourite and a guilty pleasure.

FBI agent Robert Ressler coined the term "serial killer" back in the mid 70s. It's one of those phrases you'd imagine has been round forever, but before that they were called "stranger killings." The new terminology recognised that someone was killing in the same way again and again. He also notes in retrospect how they're similar to the old movie serials. Every one excites you, but ends in a cliffhanger. You need to watch the next one to get another kick, but you're never sated.

Ressler was also the first man who went round the prisons trying to find out what made them tick. The book starts with Richard Trenton Chase, who killed familes and drank their blood to stop Nazi UFOs turning his blood to dust. He's one archetype here - the disorganised killer. Your basic nutjob kill crazy maniac, who doesn't even bother to wipe the blood off his t-shirt.

Your second archetype therefore is the organised killer. A psychopath, but not mentally disorded. Often intelligent and charming, they plan out the hunt and hide the evidence. Much of the book's about this type, as Ressler can actually get a conversation going with these guys. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Kemper are your go-to killers here (though Ressler seems to really hate Bundy - Kemper he's pretty cool with.)

The main point here is that all serial killings are sexual, even if there's no obvious sexual element. It's all about the fantasy taking over - fantasies which start in an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional childhood. It did leave me wondering about Harold Shipman.

Ressler pioneered criminal profiling, which is clearly still a touchy subject, but there's a lot of evidence here to show how it can help in an investigation (Peter Sutcliffe for instance, though the haters never listened) without it being a magic bullet, or an alternative to actual police work.

There's a lot of really interesting and horrible stuff here, but the book drags when talking about Ressler's life story or bureaucratic infighting at the FBI. Who wants to hear about a dedicated fighter of crime - a man who's actually made a difference! - when we can hear about someone who chops women's heads and hands off and has sex with their corpses. That's Edmund Kemper again. Here's Kemper's top tip by the way - cut the achilles tendons, and they're easier to position once rigor mortis kicks in.

You learn something new every day.

On the home run with my book on tape - Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, and I might try something a bit special tomorrow. It should only take me a few hours, but I'll need some equipment. No, not a knife.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

It's 1946. Stalin summons a group of fiction writers to create an alien threat which communism will save us from. They imagine that a US spaceship will be blown up; that the aliens will attack the Ukraine. They're then told to forget everything, and never mention it again. Forty years later, everything they invented starts to come true.

Dot dot dot.

This is so up my street, if almost feels like a trap. Spaceships, SF, Stalin, Soviet paranoia, Scientology.

But it wasn't what I was expecting at all. Although it certainly is science fiction, it doesn't read like it. Philip K Dick here would be closest in the genre, but it reminds me more of Murakami and Ishiguro (The Unconsoled especially.) Absurd conversations with desperate strangers in an atmosphere of insecurity. Dark, then, but also very funny. Bits I laughed at "OL" as the internet would say. I particularly enjoyed the police interrogator with a testicle fixation and an inability to work a tape recorder.

Ingenious, too, and it makes a pretty good stab at tying it all together at the end. Not an easy job by that point.

It won't be everyone's cup of tea I'm sure, but I'm giving it a big old thumbs up.

Something a bit different for me next - serial killer porn!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Time for some sci-fi. It won't be the last.

This is a collection of short stories by a bona fide astrophysicist, all set in the same universe. It's about different kinds of humans changing and evolving over the centuries and how those groups interact. Hive minds, cyborgs, genetically altered near-immortals and plenty of weirder things

It's hard SF, rooted in what's theoretically possible, so no warp drives or humanoid aliens. Instead you've got near-light speed travel, which throws up relatavistic paradoxes which I don't pretend to understand. And you've got very few aliens, and what there are are very alien indeed.

Best of all, it's dark. Pirates, insane computers, war criminals, genetic terrorists and robotic plagues all feature strongly. The best two stories here are horror stories. One's about a prick who collects the most dangerous alien creatures and human mutations in the galaxy. With hilarious results. The other's about a raid on on a hospital spaceship to capture a notorious general after a civil war. With even more hilarious results.

There's a real sense of scale here. It's set in different periods and you can feel the history and myth building up behind it all. It culminates in the titular story, which takes place over 40,000 years. It's got some great stuff in it, but it didn't really work. And since this is all the same world, I know how it all ends (not well.)

That's always going to be a problem with a short story collection - it's a mixed bag. But when it's good, it's very good. He's got a stack of big chunky novels set in the same "Revelation Space" universe, so I'll give one of them a read.

Next up - I've started another sci-fi book called Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts which is very strange and could be very brilliant. It's got Stalin in it. And I'm listening to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a historical novel about noted monastery-botherer Thomas Cromwell.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. I found the positives in Twilight. I even seem to remember rattling through The Bridges of Madison County.

The Prestige is worse than all of them. Possibly the worst book I've ever read.

If you've seen the film, then you'll have had a taste of the balderdash herein. Two dull and unpleasant stage magicians from the late 19th century carry on an unconvincing feud for a number of years. Let's call them Penn and Teller.

Penn has a trick where he vanishes at one end of the stage and reappears at the other. Teller is intrigued. He's told Penn must use a double, but he's unconvinced. Instead he's
sent on a wild goose chase by Penn with one word - Tesla!

So Teller is tricked into going to Nebraska, and asking Nikola Tesla to build him a transporter. Piece of piss says Tesla, much easier than transporting energy. Oh, and I need it to transport something living. He's in luck as that's much easier than transporting inanimate objects. The machine is built

Just to make clear - there's been no earlier suggestion that Tesla could do this. Tesla didn't even know he could do this! He certainly doesn't make another, just drops out of view.

Now because Christopher Nolan is generally a maker of quality bollocks, the movie has the interesting twist that Teller (or Batman. Or Woverine, I forget) ends up with two living copies every time he does this, so he has to kill one each time, and that leads to his rival being framed for murder. This doesn't happen in the book. Instead Penn accidentally unplugs the machine mid-act. So there are two imperfect versions of Teller. Neither of whom does anything.

Okay, one does think about killing the rival, but doesn't go through with it. Then they both die. After unneccesarily faking their death. Then they come back to life and do nothing for ninety years.

Oh, and the other magician's secret? He had a double. Probably. That's kind of forgotten about.

The Prestige really is a masterclass in terrible plotting. A series of mishaps and boneheaded coincidences, and the solutions to the central riddles manage to be both bizarre and banal. There so much more stupidity to go into, but I've said more than enough. It's probably bad form to describe so much of the "plot" and I won't make habit of it, but this book has already spoiled itself.

Let's give this a whirl

I read quite a lot of books. Or at least I start a lot, I get an exciting new book and then I jump ship, fully expecting to go back and finish the previous book. This rarely happens. Maybe writing a review of each book I finish will bring a little discipline to my reading habits. We'll see.

The books in the background of the blog aren't mine, and I don't think they're even real. I think they're the kind of props you find in pubs with an unconvincing literary theme. That pile of books on the left isn't mine either. This is all a tissue of lies.

A blogpost by Noise inspired the title, though Logan's Run is also in there.

Right, on with the books.