Monday, 26 December 2011

The Year in Books

A blog post of interest only to me quite possibly. Let’s take a look.

*Be Warned: Some spoilers*


January. I know I read Horns by Joe Hill over Christmas last year, but I have no clue what I was in to during January. What I do know is that I picked up Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers from the SFX Weekender and started reading it straight way. A strange book, Heart of Veridon had me questioning what Steampunk is, and if I really knew what the sub genre was about.

February went by in a blur of me copy editing the novel I wrote back in 2009. Not much reading occurring at this time except for my own manuscript. I was also made redundant at this time, meaning less commute (well, no commute) and therefore less reading.

Next up was Among Thieves, which I won through being a nuisance on Twitter. I wrote about that book for Total Sci Fi Online.

I was given an advance copy of Embassytown in April which I read quite slowly because the prose is very rich and I didn’t want it to end.

I was also dipping in and out of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Francine Prose’s Reading Like Writer. Both of these were presents from my friend Anne Perry, who would go on to be my editor for Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse and the Pandemonium Stocking Stuffer. Thanks Anne!

Later on in the year I added to the non-fiction book count by leafing through How to Read Churches. It dovetailed nicely with all the gothic architecture that was cropping up in my novel The Boy With The Porcelain Ears. You can read the first two chapters of that fledgling novel here

In May I finally got around to reading Chris Wooding’s The Black Lung Captain, which built on the solid foundation Wooding laid in Retribution Falls.

In June I was tackling Gormenghast. I’d read the first part of Peake’s famous trilogy some ten years before but never managed to find the time to plunge in to book two. With no job on the horizon I used the time to soak up more of Gormenghast castle’s epic ambience.

After a few weeks work experience at Gollancz I found myself in possession of Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, which I thought was superb. I had to be patient as my reading preferences are quite action orientated, but this was excellent. 

From Mr McDonald to Pierre Pevel’s The Cardinal’s Blades. Short chapters, changing points of view and swashbuckling shenanigans had me gripped to the last page. Good times.

Simon Morden’s Equations of Life kept me company on lots of bus journeys and made me think about London in totally different ways. Mainly with giant construction machines rampaging over the sky line I grant you. I’ve not read the other books in the sequence, but they’re definately on the ‘To Read’ list.

A ton of reviews have been written about Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, but that didn’t stop me adding my own thoughts here. (Note: I actually bought this one from the British Library).

Following on from meeting Kim Newman at Latitude Festival (where I helped out at the literary tent) I got myself a copy of Anno Dracula and could barely leave it alone. I wrote an unashamedly glowing review of this novel here. Another coup for Titan Books.

The lovely Sophie Calder from Titan books met me for coffee and loaded me up with some Hard Case Crime novels. To date I’ve only read Quarry’s Ex by Max Allen Collins, which was a sleazy blast. These are fun, fast and down and dirty novels. I’m looking forward to more Hard Case Crime soon.

And then to the epic splendor of Romanitas by Sophia McDougall. This is a beast of book full of intrigue and complex interpersonal dynamics. And very detailed information about crucifixion, which made me squirm in my seat.

The end of the year brought Chris Wooding’s third Ketty Jay book, The Iron Jackal. Wooding is having a great time with Captain Frey and there’s something cinematic and pleasantly unique about these novels.

Echo City was a strange book full of city-based, internecine conflict over shadowed by a great and terrible doom. This book consistently avoided taking the route I expected.

I found a copy of Penguin’s Three Gothic Novels at Blackwell and decided to pick it up. Partly this was out of a desire to widen my reading habits and also to figure out if The Boy With The Porcelain Ears is as gothic as I think it is. The Castle of Otranto started out with a lot of promise but descended rapidly into a lot of stilted conversations. It is the great granddaddy of gothic novels, so there may well be a bit of a generational gap between that sinister tome and this pop culture spoiled reader.

I’ve also started reading The Hobbit largely because that trailer got me very excited. Fortunately Tom Bombadil hasn’t derailed my reading experience (because he isn’t it, thank Galadriel) and there’s a lot small people getting put into barrels.

And that’s my year in books, as far as I can remember. I did also manage to write a complete manuscript, six burlesque reviews, thirty odd blog posts and three short stories. Not including the two Science Fiction stories I started. Those will have to wait in line patiently to be written (sometime around 2020 I think.)
What did you read this year and how many novels did you read in a year? How many were paper and how many were ebooks?


Monday, 28 November 2011

Thoughts on Bookselling

I’m currently the SFF buyer at Blackwell’s on Charing Cross Road in London. I’ve had two brief instances of being a bookseller before my current incarnation. The first was at Forbidden Planet in Southampton about nine years ago, then as a seasonal worker in Waterstone’s at Piccadilly about six years ago.

As retail jobs go, bookselling is at the nicer end of the spectrum and Blackwell’s is no exception. As you can probably tell from reading this blog, I like books. A lot. And I like to think the last few months at Blackwell’s has given me some insights.
Here they are:

Ever wondered why bookstores don’t have a copy of that book you really wanted? It’s a classic, right? Surely they should have at least one copy on hand?

Well, yes. Here’s how it works (or at least my understanding of it). The buyer orders the book. It can’t be returned to the supplier for a minimum of three months. After that it can be sent back. Books over a year old old count as ‘aged stock’ and end up in the remainder bin at a significant mark down. This means that a book needs to be picked up anytime from the day it hits the shelf to around nine or ten months. After this time the buyer will attempt to return it to the supplier (if he’s on his game).

Ever thought those ‘we recommend’ cards written in barely legible scrawl are just there so the staff can wax lyrical about their favourite books?

Well, they actually work. Yeah, I was surprised too. Admittedly some of my recommends cards are for really obvious classics (Dune, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) just on the off chance someone who has never picked up an SFF book before staggers over from Crime, or ‘General Fiction’.

I wrote a card for Simon Morden’s Equations of Life, and I’m pleased to say this has ticked over nicely. Anno Dracula is my staff pick at the front of the shop. I also have copies in SFF and General Fiction. The result? We’ve shifted about eight copies a month since I started. Not bad for a book that wasn’t even on the shelf before I joined.

Success brings it’s own rewards. Through technology. After a book sells more that three copies in a year it becomes ‘Core Stock’. This means the computer system flags it up every time it sells out and orders in more (typically one or two more copies). Neat, huh?

Bookselling is slow, and not unlike Twitter: most of the activity seems to occur when you’re not looking (or on a day off). I’ve had a few instances where I’ve suggested titles to customers. By far the rarest situation was a fellow serving in the forces, about to go on tour in Afghanistan for three months. He said he was looking for ‘something post-apocalyptic’, to which I suggested The Reapers are Angels by Alden Bell. We talked about what he liked and I tried to make educated guesses to suit.

Best conversation with a customer ever.

I left him to browse and he walked out with the Bas Lag books, End of the World Blues by Jon Courtney Grimwood, the aforementioned Reapers are Angels, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan and plenty more. £60 later and he was on his way to Afghanistan with some serious SFF to fill in the hours off duty. Those customers come along all too rarely, but they make the job worthwhile and give a measure of satisfaction I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere.


Monday, 31 October 2011

Mild Panic & Pandemonium



"Pandemonium contains no dead wood; no filler, obligatory inclusions, or unnecessary stories. Every work in the collection, as well as being individually superb, sings for its supper; serves a particular purpose within the thematic framework of the anthology.... This is a rare thing to say about an anthology, but there were no stories I disliked; nothing which I thought to be weak, or badly written; nothing which I found myself trawling through, wishing only to get to the next story."


You can read the rest of this review here.

Which is what I did whilst systematically chewing all my fingernails off in mild panic. Then I breathed a sigh or relief and had a cup of tea. I wrote my story before Anne and Jared mentioned Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Lauren Beukes had committed to the project.

It’s not unlike saying you’ll take your pub band that plays Foo Fighter covers to play at a festival. Then discovering Tool and Soundgarden are headlining (feel free to insert your own analogy here if this one is too ‘rock’ for you).

I’ve been a fan of Jon’s since I read 9Tail Fox, I routinely suggest Pashazade to anyone who even pretends to read. And you’d have to live on Mars (so to speak) to not realise Lauren is flat out stratospheric right now.

So if one person thought I kept up and didn’t drop the ball, well alrighty then.

I should say that this was my first gig actually putting my work in the hands of another, namely Anne, who edited all of Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse. I can’t speak highly enough of what she did both in terms for me as a writer, but also for the story. Anne is a smart cookie and this is her first commercial anthology but you’d think she’d been doing this for years.

The launch party for this unholy beast of an ebook is this Friday at the Tate Britain. A limited edition print run will follow, available from the Tate Britain later in the month.

I’ve not read all the stories, but look out for my friend Tom Pollock’s tale. Also noteworthy is Archie Black's offering that stayed in my imagination long after I'd finished reading it. The sheer horror of the story is matched only by the beauty of the prose.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Thoughts on The City & the City

 Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad finds himself mired in politics and old conspiracies following the discovery of a murdered woman in the decaying city of Beszel. However, the answers he needs are elsewhere, beyond a border intangible, in a city unlike his own, and yet with so many similarities…


China Miéville is no stranger to bringing metropolises to the page. The author’s novels, including his acclaimed ‘anti-trilogy’ of urban fantasy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council), are set in wonderful cities teeming with citizens and ideas. However, gone are the shockingly imaginative denizens of New Crobuzon, Armada or Un Lun dun – this is strictly a contemporary affair, set in the present day, in a crumbling city on the edge of Europe. Or is it?
This is far and away Mieville’s most subtle work, and while the prose is muscular, the mystery and relationship of Beszel and its close neighbour, Ul Qoma, are revealed in small insinuations and teases. If the pace is a little slow then it is only because this is a storyteller luring in the outsider in small increments, for we are all outsiders in Beszel.
Existing fans expecting monsters and villains will need to approach the text with an open mind – this is a crime novel. And while Mieville pays homage to and observes the tropes of the genre, it would be disingenuous to expect him not to put his own unique spin on things.
The ending is by turns satisfying and unexpected and the setting fascinating. Perhaps the only criticism is that the protagonist feels translucent and shadowy – but then maybe this is the point. The City And The City is a story of shades of grey and paranoia, where citizens must remain covert and guarded at all times.

A satisfying crime procedural novel loaded with parallels to pre-unification Berlin and Orwellian dread. An interesting gambit from the author, challenging his existing readership to try something new.
This interview originally appeared at TotalSciFi.Com

Monday, 17 October 2011

Thoughts on Altered Carbon


Takeshi Kovacs awakes to find that his personality has been broadcast some 180 light years to Earth. He’s in a body with a history all of its own, railroaded into working for a man some two hundred and fifty years old and given a mystery to solve that is nigh on impossible. Fortunately Takeshi is an ex-Envoy…

Fusing together Cyberpunk and hardboiled detective noir, Richard Morgan mines a rich seam of great ideas: the most fundamental being that humans have their personalities stored digitally and can be ‘decanted’ into new bodies.

Based on this premise and the many options and variables surrounding it, Morgan weaves a sordid tale of a fantastically violent future. Much of the book feels more like a film and fans of Blade Runner or Aliens will feel both at home and exhilarated by the dystopia Morgan has created. At times the author cheekily alludes to things beyond the scope of the book that will have you dying to know more.

The pace of this novel is frankly breathtaking up until the last quarter, when you’ll need to pay attention as the twists and consequences come thick and fast. The story starts out small and personal but quickly becomes more global and political, all underpinned with Morgan’s dark humour. The supporting characters are never flimsy; they’re frequently flawed, broken and just trying to make the best of an uncaring future world.

Told from the first person and with an undeniable swagger, Kovacs is a perfect anti-hero who, despite his occasional gold hearted moment, is not someone you want to get on the wrong side of in any star system. 

An adrenaline-soaked, darkly sexy, super-violent, super-intelligent book that will grip (or strangle) you to the very last page. Buy it now.

This interview originally appeared at TotalSciFi.Com

Monday, 10 October 2011

Pandemonium – Stories of the Apocalypse



I’m pleased to announce that one of my stories will be appearing in an anthology due out this month on the Kindle. Pandemonium – Stories of the Apocalypse is timed to coincide with Tate Britain’s exhibition of paintings by John Martin.

In addition to my (burnt) offering, you can expect stories from Lauren Beukes, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Sophia McDougal, Tom Pollock, Scott K Andrews, Magnus Anderson, Chrysanthy Balis, David Bryher, Kim Laikin-Smith, Andy Remic and Jonathan Oliver to name just a few.
The collection will also feature a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke award Director Tom Hunter and is edited by Jared Shurin and Anne Perry. This is huge honour for me and I’m very grateful I was asked to contribute.

You can find out more about Pandemonium HERE

Anne and Jared run the blog Pornokitsch and, as if that weren’t enough work, also run the Kitschies science fiction award, sponsored by Kraken Rum.



Monday, 3 October 2011

The First Draft

I’m pleased to announce the birth of a brand new baby novel. The bundle of joy was born on 2nd October 2011 and weighed eighty-two thousand words. It was an immaculate conception and I’m the daddy, so to speak. It’s currently called Porcelain, but who knows what it will end up being called, possibly Jimmy. Or Baz.

More seriously. I started this back in March with an idea for a title, a desire to have a very big castle central to the plot, and no magic in the novel. Being unemployed for six months was key to the rate of productivity. I’m still in awe of writers like Mark Charan Newton, who have a day job, write after work, and still find time to grow vegetables.

I’m trying to stay realistic. This is only the second novel I’ve completed and it may well be atrocious. It might be unmarketable (a massive concern for publishers in these cash-strapped times) and not fit any of the pre-conceived sub categories that we genre fans love to pigeon hole novels in. I keep tentatively saying the words ‘Gothic Weird’ but then the glass shatters on my Pretension-ometer and I fall off my chair laughing at myself.

So what happens now? I hear you ask. Well, nothing. At this stage a writer is encouraged to put the manuscript to one side for as long as they can bear and come back to it when they’re not so close to the text. Porcelain will likely not be touched until next year. The best thing I can do now is crack on with something else, preferably unrelated.

The main thing is (and this is important for any newbie/wannabe writer) that I had a ton of fun. Inventing characters, describing locales, planning fight scenes, trying to make jokes ‘funny’ all present unique challenges and I look forward to seeing how well I did (or how badly) when I read through.
You can read the first two chapters of Porcelain HERE 


Monday, 26 September 2011

Thoughts on Quarry’s Ex


I don’t often go in for pure Hardboiled novels but decided I was well over due to make an exception. Many of my favourite SFF stories have a Noir tinge, or are unabashed hybrids that fuse Hardboiled ascetics with science (or speculative) fiction. So would I enjoy Noir with out the SFF genre trappings I was used to?

Quarry’s Ex is one in a series of novels from author Max Allen Collins who also wrote Road to Perdition. The protagonist, Quarry (not his real name), is so called because he’s stony and hollowed out, at least according to his boss. Quarry is ‘Nam Vet who is putting his skills to work by fulfilling contracts on people. As such, Quarry’s Ex is a period piece set  in the 80s. There’s a surprising amount of attention paid to which colour slacks and chinos everyone is wearing, and if they’re sporting a new polo shirt. This quickly wears thin and doesn’t seem to add anything to the plot, other than to paint 80s America as a 
sartorial desert.

Quarry is no longer working for the mysterious ‘Broker’ but is a lone wolf with an unusual angle for a hitman – he neutralizes other hitmen. For a price. However things aren’t so straight forward on this assignment. Quarry’s titular ex-wife has remarried, and she’s shacked up with a movie director who’s due to meet with an untimely accident. Not only does Quarry have to deal with not one, but two hitmen, he also has to manage some old feelings and get some closure on an event that has cast a long shadow 
over him.

Being a Hardboiled novel, Quarry’s Ex is told from the first person and there are plenty of quips and asides. Much of the novel takes place in and around a straight-to-video movie set, so there’s an added dash of faded glamour and a lot sex. Everyone is having (or rumoured to be having) sex with everyone else. Even Quarry’s ex-wife who is in a marriage of convenience still manages the horizontal mumba twice a month with her cheating husband we’re told.

Quarry’s Ex is fun, fast and racy read. It won’t take long to read being just 208 pages. I’m pleased to say I couldn’t work out who had taken out the contract on the hapless movie director from the cast of possible culprits. 

Quarry’s Ex is available from Titan Books and is just one of many on their Hard Case Crime imprint.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Thoughts on Zoo City


It almost feels redundant writing anything about a book that has already won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award, not to mention one of the coveted tentacles from the Kitschies. Instead I’ll compare it to two other novels that I’ve enjoyed, ones that sprang to mind as I turned the pages of Beukes compelling second novel.


The thing that struck me most about this story was how it resonated with Tim Powers’s Last Call and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Not obvious bedfellows I grant you. Allow me to (attempt to) explain.

Gibson’s short, clear and confrontational prose owes much to the Noir tradition (of which I’m still woefully unread). So it goes with Zoo City. Zinzi December is straight talking ex-journalist and recovering addict. It only goes to serve the novel that prose is unvarnished and heavy-hitting. This isn’t to say Beukes’s sentences and paragraphs are rough and unfinished, instead that they convey a world where the veneer of social pleasantry has peeled back, or burst altogether, like a weeping blister.

Another point Zoo City shares with Neuromancer is that both deal with people living at the extreme fringes of society, making ends meet where ever they can, but frequently falling foul of the law and a system that no longer cares for them, something of a perennial topic this decade. Zinzi is under no illusion that she’s circling the bottom, but there’s a fighter’s spirit in both her dialogue and the prose of the novel. Note also how Zoo City is written in the first person, another nod to noir (or Hardboiled) detectives of the 30s and 40s.

<Spoiler Warning>
Tim Power’s novel Last Call is a desolate road trip through the heart of an occult America, where a powerful individual challenges poker players to a game called Assumption. I felt there was an element of this character in Beukes’s character Odi Huron, who employs the protagonist, Zinzi, to find a missing person. Huron is a powerful music mogul with a shadowy past and it comes as no surprise to discover he is much more than he seems.

Much of Zoo City is concerned with the animalled population (those with familiars) who have mashavi (supernatural gifts) and how they use these powers in the real world. This too made me think of Last Call, where the normal world is subtly subverted to allow for magical to seep in, but is still firmly attached to technology and the trappings of contemporary living. What Beukes does so masterfully is create a mid noughties world where people with familiars are now a new underclass, not readily accepted socially, but impossible to ignore.

I’d recommend all of these books if your ‘to read’ pile is looking a little low. Gibson and Powers are well worth discovering, and Beukes has already marked herself as one to watch in a genre that is crying out for fresh, female blood (and not in a Stephanie Meyers way I hasten to add).

As an aside, Zoo City scores bonus points for having a female, black lead in a genre that declares itself progressive but clings to white male, protagonists with conservative tenacity. Zinzi never once flounders around after her love interest, navel gazes about her situation or needs rescuing. She’s fully formed, hard as nails, jaded and fallible. That she’s also a smart cookie with a cunning and devious mind only makes her more likable as a protagonist.



Monday, 5 September 2011

Thoughts on Anno Dracula


It’s difficult to sum up quite how good Anno Dracula is. Vampires have steadily become less Transylvanian devils and more brooding Byronic heart throbs in recent times. There’s also the image problem that vampires have largely been consumed by the Paranormal Romance genre. Fortunately Kim Newman wrote Anno Dracula twenty years ago when vampires were still grotesque, and one can assume he’d write them the exact same way if he wrote the novel now. Twenty years is a long time, and Titan Books have very wisely re-issued this great story along with a superb cover.

Newman’s tale is a ‘what if’ of not just story-telling, but literary proportions – the question being ‘What if Van Helsing failed to destroy the titular villain of Bram Stoker’s classic novel?’. A daunting undertaking that Newman not only pulls off, but absolutely hammers down like a wooden stake. With Queen Victoria remarried to the Wallachian Prince, London finds itself in flux. A new upper class of the ab-dead quickly rise through the ranks of the Government, the foreign and ruthless ruler imposes increasingly draconian punishments, and people of every strata of society find themselves adjusting to a new breed of citizen.

The new-born vampires are at least as dangerous to themselves as anyone else, often unaware of what to do in the aftermath of their first death. And then there are religious fundamentalists, claiming the end is nigh and demons are walking the streets. A fact increasingly hard to dispute in the face of Prince Vlad’s excesses and tyrannical strangle hold on fair Britannia.

Into this mix comes Charles Beauregard, of the Diogenes Club (a shadowy sort of proto-MI5) and Geneviéve Dieudonné, a vampire not of Dracula’s own bloodline, and free of the taint that corrupts the former Count Dracula. However, Beauregard and Dieudonné are not seeking to remove the Prince Consort, but rather stem a flood of killings occurring in Whitechapel. Horrific murders are two a penny in the grim streets of London in 1888, but the carnage inflicted on vampire prostitutes carry hallmarks of a particularly cunning killer.

Newman does a fantastic job of taking the surviving cast of Stoker’s novel and pitting them against the consequences of their former actions (and in some case, lives) and the new emerging ruling class. This is a perfect confection of horror, romance and politics, and is by turns genuinely unpleasant and incredibly tender. There are so many great characters in Anno Dracula I’m looking forward to re-reading it, just to meet them all again, and immerse myself in London’s mist shrouded streets.



Monday, 29 August 2011

Thoughts on Women in SFF.

This is one of those perennial arguments that crops up time and time again, frequently being wheeled out at conventions with plenty of piss and vinegar in the mix. Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City is next on my reading list, but the female authors in my collection extend as far as Steph Swainston and K.J. Parker, who may or may not be a female author. Hardly a great example. I also have Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy patiently waiting to be read, but the fact remains that I have a host of male authors on my shelves but very few female writers.

I’ve thought long and hard about why I gravitate toward male writers and I’m still no closer to an answer. It’s not that I shun female authors or think they write exclusively with “sentimentality, a narrow view of the world”.

With this in mind I decided to do something about it. Aside from just reading Zoo City.

I’ve recently landed a full time job with Blackwell’s Books on Charing Cross Road in London. I pitched the idea of having a ‘Women Writers in SFF’ promotion. A whole bay where we promote Science Fiction and Fantasy’s unsung heroes. Sorry, heroines.

There’s only so much shelf space of course, but it’s the thought that counts. With that in mind you can expect to see the likes of Gail Carriger, Fiona McIntosh, Sarah Pinborough, Ursula Le Guin, Karen Miller, Trudi Canavan and the afore mentioned Sophia McDougall and Steph Swainston adorning a dedicated section of shelves in a week or two. And I’m not just doing this for the customers, but challenging myself to read more female writers.A parting shot, and something to think about, women aren’t as under represented in publishing as you may think. Jo Fletcher is widely regarded as one of the finest SFF editors in the land (UK). The Jo doesn’t stand for Joseph incidentally. Then there’s Gillian Redfearn over at Gollancz. And let’s not forget Julie Crisp at Tor, or Anna Gregson at Orbit. I freely admit that none of these ladies are authors, but the fact does pour cold water on the idea that Shadowy Male Publishing Tyrants are preventing female voices being heard.

What female writers in SFF do you rate, and why?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Thoughts on Equations of Life

A few months ago someone said to me (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘I’m not really sure it’s your sort of thing’, with regards to Douglas Huilick’s Among Thieves. As it turns out, that was a fair assumption. However, it got me to thinking ‘Well, what is my ‘thing’?

I’m have what marketers would call brand loyalty; I find an author I like and I stick with them, often fanatically. David Eddings, James Herbert and Terry Brooks were my ‘go-to guys’ when I was young. Whereas more recently, authors like Iain M. Banks, Steph Swainston, Richard Morgan, Neil Gaiman, Chris Wooding, Joe Abercrombie, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and China Miéville all appear frequently on my Amazon Wishlist. However, you’ll notice the second list doesn't have a strong thematic theme. So, what is my thing?

Recently I met James Long from Orbit Books for lunch. Like any good Geeks with a Friday afternoon to kill, we found ourselves in Forbidden Planet. That’s when James suggested Simon Morden’s Equations of Life, which is very much ‘my thing’.

As a massive fan of Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels and as someone who routinely suggests Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Ashraf Bey novels to anyone that will listen; it would seem to follow that I like Neo-Noir tales, or flat out Cyberpunk stories.

Equations of Life is a fun, fast and slick read. Morden carefully sets his protagonist, Petrovitch, on something of a redemption kick early on in the novel. This is just as well, as Petrovitch goes out of his way to be anything from frosty to outright hostile to just about everyone he encounters. It’s this redemption arc that leads Petrovitch not just into doing the right thing in the short term; but leading him to be a very unlikely hero in a sprawling sequence of events.

Petrovitch’s world is the London Metrozone, which exists in the shadow of a post-Nuclear war world. It’s a dark world, bitterly poor, often bleak but not without the signs of re-building and certain amount of status quo being maintained. Petrovitch himself is a physics student, albeit one with a past that is painstakingly concealed.

The inclusion of Russian mobsters and Yakuza feels a little lazy at first. However these are quickly fleshed out and add to the twisting plot that turns the pages of Equations of Life quickly. Morden also drops in more than a few film nods and quotes, this can date a book to my mind, but seeing as the films he references are geek classics he gets away with it. With two more Petrovitch novels already on bookshelves, and likelihood of a fourth; there’s plenty of material here for the Simon Morden convert.
Which I am.


Monday, 15 August 2011

The Week In Geek

Congratulations to Tom Hunter at the Arthur C. Clarke Award and my confederates at Pornokitsch for luring the lovely Lauren Beukes to the British Library for a quick reading and talk before she jetted off to the US of A.

Lauren was on hand to sign copies of her books Moxyland and the award winning Zoo City. Despite jetting in from South Africa that very morning she was on good form and mingled with the fifty-odd attendees in the courtyard outside the British Library after the reading.

Also present were Adam Christopher, (soon to be published by Angry Robot), and Tom Pollock (soon to be published by Jo Fletcher Books) . It was a veritable who’s who of soon-to-be published authors.

There was also some excited whispering and mumbling about a ‘Project Panda’, which I’m deeply pleased to be a part of. More details on this soon...

Find out more about John Martin’s Apocalyptic art here.

A great deal of my week has been taken up with writing. Work is progressing on The Boy With The Porcelain Ears. I’ll spare you the details on word counts, suffice to say there’s been a whole lot of sword fights, intrigue, unrequited lust and unsettling deformity going on in my brain, and at my fingertips. You can read the first two chapters of Porcelain here.

I’d be remiss for not acknowledging the massive social disturbance that rocked London last week. There have been reams and realms of comment on the subject and I’ll spare you mine, especially when Laurie Penny does such a great job of it here. And she’s much more articulate about this sort of thing than I’ll ever be.

Until next time.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Thoughts on The Dervish House

This is a book that requires little introduction. Nominated for both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Award, and winning John W Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel, it’s a benchmark of contemporary science fiction. The British Science Fiction Association also tipped its cap to McDonald, so what’s all the fuss about?

McDonald takes a selection of characters who have a connection the the titular property. At the beginning of the novel many of the characters don’t even know each other particularly well, but McDonald constructs a plot that weaves and intertwines the cast in a fascinating and unpredictable fashion. This really is a tour de force of plotting and planning and gives the novel an particularly satisfying conclusion.

And while I’m on the subject of characters (and there are quite few) it seems only fair to say McDonald really does sketch wonderful people to play the parts he needs. Georgios Ferentinou manages to steal much of the limelight. As an elderly Greek academic living in an increasingly hostile Istanbul, Georgios initially seems an odd choice but his story is both rewarding and unrequited. Similarly Can, a young boy with a heart defect, is another protagonist that is fair from an obvious choice, and yet much of the novel relies on his audacity and prodigious genius.

A good novel quite often makes a character of the setting itself, and The Dervish House is no exception in this regard. Istanbul of the future is every bit exotic, sultry and chaotic as the present day equivalent. More surprisingly perhaps is the fact that that McDonald’s Istanbul is so authentic and largely unchanged by the advent of wide scale Nanotech use and increasingly powerful computers. In this regard the novel is a kindred spirt of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy and his city El Iskandria, which I’m a huge fan of.

And it doesn’t stop there. Just as McDonald weaves the seemingly unconnected lives of strangers together, so he binds together elements of technology, mysticism, radicalism and political and economic intrigue. The Dervish House really is breathtaking in breadth and depth, whilst telling very human stories in slick and unfussy prose. Impatient readers may wonder where they’re being led to during the middle of the book, but stick with it, this is one ending you’ll not want to miss.


Monday, 20 June 2011

Chris Wooding – The Black Lung Captain

Recently I attended an event at the British Library entitled ‘Why Science Fiction Appeals To Everyone’. The panelists included China Mieville, Tricia Sullivan, Adam Roberts and Erik Davis. One of the main points put forward and roundly supported by the panelists was that cinema had changed science fiction from a genre of ideas (or ‘what ifs’) to a genre of
visual spectacle.

This is an important distinction. I’ve often felt uncomfortable when science fiction proudly proclaims itself ‘the genre of ideas’. I don’t read a huge amount of books outside of genre, but the ones I have read certainly had ideas in them. Those ideas didn’t feature spaceships, alien worlds, zap guns or quantum shenanigans, but there were ideas nonetheless.

Visual spectacle is something I can get behind, and it doesn’t have to occur on the silver screen, a readers mind is just as good a place to project. The turning point of modern cinema is that most anticipated (and often disappointing) of beasts – the summer blockbuster.The Black Lung Captain ably emulates the things that make the summer blockbuster successful and brings them to the printed page.

Much like the farm boy who races off in his speeder, only to find himself racing towards the Death Star just hours later, The Black Lung Captain not only captures the visual spectacle element of cinema but also the constant motion. Huge dreadnoughts and frigates held aloft by aerium gas do punishment to each other as smaller Firecrows and Windblades dogfight in gut-churning aerial acrobatics. The Arch Duke’s Century Knights face off against unspeakable horrors and there, always in the thick of it, is Captain Darian Frey.

I had a real problem warming to the crew of the Ketty Jay in the first novel, Retribution Falls. For the first six chapters I was confused why I’d want any of the characters to survive (a feeling that dissipated quickly I’m glad to say). In The Black Lung Captain Wooding makes good on the faith of the reader. The cast of ne’er-do-wells are eminently more appealing – especially the Captain himself.

As much as this novel is about crosses, double-crosses, epic air battles and the fates of thousands, there is a much more human edge to it. The Black Lung Captain is about family, not of the biological sort, but the families we make for ourselves. The crew of the Ketty Jay go through some very awkward growing pains over the course of the story, but they discover trust, camaraderie, and belonging through their adventures. The character’s personal journeys and the paths their relationships take with each other gives a real emotional core to the book that will have
readers hooked.

Ultimately this book has it all: devil-may-care swashbuckling, aerial chases, cigar-chomping sky pirates, implacable daemons, and the sort of kick-arse characters you want to hang out with all the time. I literally could not stop reading this book. Each chapter made me keen to discover what
happened next.

Book three of the Tales of the Ketty Jay, The Iron Jackal is due out
in October.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Thoughts on Gormenghast

This isn’t a natural choice of novel for modern times. The plot ambles around, confusedly, minor characters are seemingly given a great deal of the limelight, and the reader is kept off balance with regards to the protagonist. Should you root for Titus (not easy in Titus Groan, the first book), or Steerpike, who is as brilliant as he is ruthless. Let’s not forget Flay, who lacks initiative but is loyal to the last. Some other readers might yet take a shine to Dr Prunesquallor, who, despite being facetious in the extreme at least has a sense of self awareness the other characters struggle to manage.

Peake’s work is a strange one, deliberately strange. It’s as if Gormenghast (both the book and the castle of the same name) is such a damnably wretched place that the denizens will attach themselves to any fleeting moment of happiness, no matter how unsuitable. The stumbling, awkward courtship of Irma Prunesquallor takes up much of the second book, and is painfully embarrassing. It’s this celebration of the pathetic that lays bare all the neuroses and fragility of the human condition, although magnified through a particularly grotesque lens.

Grotesque is a particularly appropriate word for the Gormenghast books. Barely a single character is described as anything approaching normal. Flay is gaunt and hunchbacked, a gangly and peculiar creature. Swelter, on the other hand is corpulent and immense, as is Lady Groan herself, who has such a close kinship with birds they make nests in her hair. Steerpike is possessed of a bulbous forehead, hunched shoulders and red beady eyes. Even Titus is denied a handsome countenance. All a far cry from today’s airbrushed, waxed and tanned creatures that adorn multiplex posters and magazine covers.

It’s worth noting that Peake was also an illustrator, and it’s an artists eye for the minutia that crops up time and again in his prose. Woodland scenes are lovingly created and lavished with long descriptions. Brooding interiors and lofty halls both come under intense scrutiny, architecturally and by function. Gormenghast itself exists under a cloud of entropy, the effects of which are held at bay by the bitter Barqentine, Master of Ritual. Much of the daily life in the endless wings and annexes of the castle is carried out with a large measure of ennui, the legend and preservation of Gormenghast being the only reason to continue.

These elements combine to create an a gloomy invitation, but there is a lot of comedy, particularly in Gormenghast. The Professors, whilst all quite hateful, go to great lengths to behave as abysmally as any schoolboy prankster or truant, and Dr Prunesquallor’s management of his dim-witted sister (and her hot water bottle) should provide a decent counterpoint to the gloom of this crumbling edifice.

--

The British Library is holding two Mervyn Peake events:

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Monday 11th July 2011, 19:30 – 21:00, with Sebastian Peake and China Miéville

Mervyn Peake: A Celebration Tuesday 26th July 2011, 18:30 – 20:00

Monday, 30 May 2011

An Interview With Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie has established himself as one of the most interesting and unusual voices in fantasy fiction over the last few years. After his terrific trilogy The First Law, he's just released a gripping standalone novel set in the same universe – The Heroes. He tells Den Patrick how he stops becoming jaded…

How do you think The Heroes differs from your previous work?

I’d hope that in the fundamentals it’s not all that different. I think in general as a writer you want to try and build on what you’ve done before – provide readers with something of what they expect and (hopefully) like in your previous work. But at the same time you don’t want to end up doing exactly the same thing over and over lest you bore both your readers and yourself.
So I’d hope The Heroes has that same mixture of vivid and unusual characters, moral complexity, hard-hitting action and a rich seam of humour among the cynicism which I fondly imagine has characterised my previous work.
At the same time I’ve tried something new in terms of structure and focus; The Heroes centres on a single battle, the great majority of it taking place in one small valley over just three days, which means that the paths of the central characters (on both sides of the issue) cross and intersect quite frequently and in a variety of different ways.

In all seriousness, when does Whirrun of Bligh get his own prequel novel, and when is it being released?
No immediate plans, I must confess. My advice is just to continue buying my books, whatever they may be, and you never know who may turn up.

We can't help noticing that you're moving away from the traditional thinking that fantasy books must come in trilogies or long, sprawling series. What is the thinking behind that? Is it conscious choice, and why?Well, despite the fact that I write what are, by most standards, pretty hefty books, my taste does tend generally towards tighter and more focused stories. I think the really huge series can sometimes end up being a bit of a burden for both readers and writers.
So having written a trilogy I wanted to try my hand at some shorter stories, that were set in the same world and featured some of the same settings and characters, so that hopefully they offered something in the way of continuation to established readers without putting off new ones, and also allowed me to try out some different styles and approaches and stopped me from getting jaded. I jade easily.

What's coming in the next instalment? Can we expect to see any 'old friends' and if so, which ones?Oh, you can certainly expect some old friends, but I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises. I can say that if Best Served Cold was a fantasy thriller, and The Heroes a fantasy war story, then the next book is going to be a kind of fantasy western…

Do you ever get tempted to try your hand at science fiction or another genre outside of fantasy?There’s always a difficulty to trying something very different once you’ve got an established reputation doing something else. It’s a big risk.
I’m contracted now to do four more books in the same world as The First Law, but I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at something historical, or perhaps subtly alternative historical, one of these days. I guess, since my books are pretty light on the fantastical elements, that wouldn’t necessarily be a great change of tone anyway.

Are you a first thing in the morning or a late at night type of writer? Or do you just write whenever the kids are asleep or distracted?I’m a bit ill disciplined, honestly and, as you say, the kids can get in the way, so I lack a pattern somewhat. Before the kids, I used to be very much a night person, especially since I’d often be working the day job, so I’d write mostly from 10pm onwards. These days I find the morning a good deal more productive.

Your novels never seem to languish, there's always plenty of pace. Do you think that your time spent as a film editor and working in television has contributed to this approach to pace and storytelling?I’m sure it has. I worked on a lot of documentaries, and got to work on scripts and structure along with some very skilled directors and producers, so I saw how they go about telling stories in the most efficient way, and I try to do that myself (within the context of writing pretty long books, I will admit).
I think the experience of working as an editor in TV – where you have to work in a team, take on other opinions and use them as an opportunity to improve things from your point of view as well as theirs – is also great preparation for working with an editor on a book.

On a similar note, being well versed in TV, film and being a keen gamer has opened you up to a lot of influences. What is your greatest influence outside of books?I guess you’re influenced by everything you read, watch, play or experience and particularly enjoy or don’t, so I think of my influences as a mish-mash of history and fiction, TV – particularly of the more edgy, adult variety that HBO has been producing the last few years, film and computer games, plus some of the roleplaying games I played in my younger years.

You've done a fair few signings now, and are on a signing tour too. Any memorable or funny stories from when Joe Abercrombie met Joe Public?There’s one experience I try to keep always before me, which happened on my first visit to Holland, about four years ago.
The first book had only just been published then so you could say my profile there was not particularly high. I turned up to do a lecture at a medieval fair, and just before I went on there was a prize ceremony taking place with perhaps 200 people in attendance. I sat at the back feeling very nervous to have such a massive audience. When the ceremony ended, people began drifting out, and I was pretty relieved. Then they drifted out more. And more. I ended up with an audience of two…
It serves as a good baseline above which all attendances are good. Unless I get one with one attendee, I suppose. I wouldn’t rule it out…

The Heroes is out now (Gollancz). Click here to read the review.

Visit: http://www.joeabercrombie.com

This interview originally appeared at TotalSciFi.Com

Monday, 2 May 2011

China Miéville – Embassytown


From the oppressive weird of the Bas Lag novels to the playful deconstruction of Un Lun Dun, from the slick crime procedural of The City and the City to the sprawling, strange comedy of Kraken. China Miéville travels a landscape fecund with ideas and vocabulary, unrestrained by borders of genre. His latest sojourn brings him to Science Fiction in Embassytown, due out May 6.

Embassytown is a concept driven story that doesn't get bogged down with its own world building or fetishize the tech that crops up on the world of Arieka. The various spaceships, body augmentation, robots and distant colonies provide set dressing only – this is a science fiction novel where language, not technology holds centre stage.

The characters who inhabit the novel are, at first, as alien to the reader as The Hosts of Arieka. This is a human culture far removed both geographically and structurally. Embassytown itself is wildly peculiar – a corner of a city where humans aren't set apart by just locale, but by language, conceptual thought and the very air itself. Avice Benner Cho is a tough, smart and widely travelled protagonist, with a distant calm that sometimes put her at odds with the escalating danger of the novel. If Embassytown has a flaw it is that Avice is so self-assured that her personal safety seems remote and removed somehow.
The first half of the novel slowly reveals the strangeness of the human diaspora as it has spread through space, and in particular how humans live and operate on Arieka. Miévielle ably sets up both the status quo of the colonists and the personal journey of Avice before the coming cataclysm in series of flashbacks.

Note: Embassytown is not a wham-bam-bang-for-your buck Sci Fi novel waiting to be repurposed for the multiplex. It is a deeply considered and meticulously crafted story on the words we use and how they drive our thinking. This much is evident in the way Miéville eschews rigourous description, instead favouring evocative yet ambiguous language, never directly telling the reader, but letting them conjure their own version of Arieka and the Hosts.

There will, undoubtedly, be a small core of readers who resent the breadth of vocabulary used in this book, thinking Mieville performs wordsmith acrobatics for extra points, but as the man himself says, "I like words."

This review originally appeared at TotalSciFi.Com

Monday, 11 April 2011

Welcome

Hello, you’ve not met me before but I’m a big fan of yours. Yes, really. That thing you did with the Scrabble pieces and electrical current was incredible.
Oh, we have met before. At a party? Who’s party?
Ah, perhaps I was gatecrashing. Forgive me, I was probably drunk. Did I do anything embarrassing?
Anything else apart from that?

Anyway! This is my new blog. Welcome. I used to have a blog with a really silly name that was lots fun, but then I decided to part ways with it. This is me being grown up. Look, it has a sensible name and everything.

I can’t promise you I’ll stick to any given mission statement for longer than a week because I’m like a goldfish with ADHD. What I can promise are odd bits of writing, me being enthusiastic about music, books, cinema, comics & culture, and possibly the occasional rant or whinge, but I’ll keep that to a minimum.

Promise.

So, show me the thing with the Scrabble pieces again. Oh, go on. I’ll buy you a pint.