Friday, 21 December 2012

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

I probably haven't had as much fun reading since childhood as I had reading Stephenson's Baroque cycle - Quicksilver, the Confusion and System of the World - a few years back.  It's a huge and ambitious epic set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, taking in science, alchemy, cryptography, politics, exploration and piracy and laced throughout with wit, adventure and nerdy erudition.  His sci-fi monastic tome Anathem is very different but fantastic as well.  And his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, although highly regarded in the genre, is one of the worst books I've ever read.  Really terrible.  REAMDE is certainly no-where near as bad as that, but I wouldn't call it a success.

It starts off really well - the main character is Richard Forthrast, a former cannabis smuggler who's now in charge of the next generation of online games called T'Rain, which appears to be played by a good third of the population of the world.  You get to meet some of his strange family and colleagues and various mysteries and secrets are alluded to. It sort of feels like the begining of one of Ian Banks' family sagas, but with the potential to be even richer, because the virtual world of T'Rain is also so well imagined and thought out.

However it takes a very strange turn.  A couple of strange turns actually. The title refers to a virus which is being used to extort money from players.  This isn't what the story is about, but it does trigger an unpleasant encounter with some Russian gangsters, and then an even more random encounter with some even more unpleasant customers.  There's globetrotting, shootouts, explosions, crash landings, murders - even boondocking in the car parks of Wall Marts like my folks do.  And I hate to be the one to complain like this - but this isn't the book I was looking for.

I think I was mainly disappointed to have Forthrast basically dumped as the main character for much of the book.  What I especially liked was the it looked at his day to day working life.  It showed some of the problems he faced, and who he talked to to sort them out.  You rarely get a novel about a businessman and entrepreneur like this without a deep veneer of sneer.  I wanted more of this, but instead I got very detailed - and very well done - action scenes on the other side of the world.  Except I didn't need all that to be interested in the characters - in fact it felt like a distraction.

I don't know - it's definitely a pretty good thriller, and I know how unfair it is to criticise a book for what it's not rather than what it is.  And it's a hell of a lot better than Snow Crash.  It's just I know Stephenson can write books which are among my favourites of all time, and this is just adequate.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Alan Moore does Cthulhu?  Well I'm hardly going to say no to this...

It's set in the modern day.  Kind of.  An FBI investigator is working undercover to find a link between very similar murders carried out by totally different people.  And he unearths some stuff which man was not meant to know.  Then it follows two other investigators, who find out some more stuff man was not meant to know.  Or, more specifically, stuff which woman really wasn't meant to know.

Fans of Lovecraft will enjoy all the references - a punk band called the Ulthar Cats for instance, with a female lead singer called Randolph Carter.  But it's not just a retread of the old mythos: Moore puts his own distinctive stamp on it.  Which, of course, means lots of kinky sex.  Not HP's style, but the kinkyness did always peek out from behind the prudishness.   There's also a lot of racism addressed here - another allusion to Lovecraft's strange outlook on the world.

It's fairly short this, but certainly worth reading.  The section with the Dagon cultists is especially powerful I thought, but not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.  I'd like to see Moore do a bit more with this  - he knows why Lovecraft is still important to people today, and he also knows how to take it forward and make it something new.  Burrows also does a great job with the illustrations: some nice big crazy tableaux, and some nasty pornography.  Good job all round!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum

Still got a bit of a logjam, so I'd better keep churning these out.  This is a pretty short horror novel, and I've been looking out for this guy Ketchum ever since I saw The Woman at Frightfest 2011.  This book isn't as good as that (few things are) but it's still got plenty going for it.

It's set in Maine - familiar enough territory for horror fans - sometime in the 70s or 80s.  It's narrated by Dan, a young man working a blue collar job who falls in with some rich students his own age.  He falls hard for one of them - Casey - who's messed up and likes taking risks.  They shoplift caviar and go skinny dipping, before Casey convinces them all to play a game of hide and seek in an old house where something creepy happened a few years before.  Great idea.

What works really well is the relationship between the characters, and Dan's narration.  He's very much like a film noir character who knows full well the dame is trouble but just can't help himself.  The whole group has a very unusual but convincing dynamic, which of course is just how a novel like this should be - make you care about the people before turning the screws.  Right out the Stephen King handbook.

Fans of The Woman will find some of the same motifs here, but those would constitute spoilers.  My only criticism is the great set up and the horror towards the end don't really seem to gel.  When you've painted the characters so well, I was expecting a bit more from the shocking denoument.

This is my second download on Audible, after the King one with the stupid date.  Enjoying it so far, pretty easy to use and a good selection.  The reading's been good as well.  I find it tough to listen to music as I get older, so this kind of thing is perfect for long car journeys.  Unfortunately it means I'm now generally on three books at a time - paper, kindle and audio.  Which is why I need to keep rattling these reviews out.

Monday, 3 December 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Possibly the most annoying book title I've ever seen.  Even the correct date would be bad enough - but the 11th of Twentytember 1963?  You try stopping the assassination of John F Kennedy on a ludicrous date like that - see how far you get!

Luckily the rest of the book is great.  It's a simple enough premise - man goes back in time to try and save JFK - but the attention to detail makes it work.  It all starts with a cracking idea - how can a local diner in Maine make such cheap burgers?  Obviously, it's because the owner has a portal to an exact time and place in 1958 out back, so every week he goes and buys the same bunch of mince for a few dollars, takes it back to the present and cooks it up.  For years the customers have been eating the same meat over and over again!  I love it - banal and mindblowing.

Here are the rules - the changes you make in the past affect the present; you can stay as long as you want but when you come back through the portal you've only been gone two minutes; and every time you go back through the portal it resets everything.  You're very aware that every time the hero's doing something in the past, he can always go back and change it.  And if, for instance, he's saved someone's life on a previous visit, he has to go and do it again the next time.  Or he can take a short cut.  This all works really well, especially because of another rule the hero discovers - history doesn't want to be changed.

Clearly King's done a lot of research about Lee Harvey Oswald in this book, and it reminded me a lot of Normal Mailer's Oswald's Tale, which turns out to be one of the main sources.  But before we get to all that, there's a little something fun for the die-hard Steven King fan - a return to Derry, home of Pennywise the Spiderclown.  If anything the feeling of dread in that city is even more pronounced in this book than in It.  This section could easily feel forced, but it's really well handled and possibly my favourite bit.

And with all this going on, it's something of a surprise to discover that at its core, this book is a romance.  The relationship between the time traveller and a teacher he meets in the 60s is well portrayed, so you start caring about these people's lives and futures.  Which I suppose is the real secret to Steven King's success, but it works particularly well here.

And I'm not going to give away any spoilers, but the ending is also good - plausible and yet original.  Good to see King can still knock it out of the park when he wants to.