Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Very Good, Jeeves! by P. G. Wodehouse

Currently reading...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

A Child Across The Sky by Jonathan Carroll



Awaiting review...

Sunday, 23 July 2017

One Of Us by Michael Marshall Smith

I guess, like some guy once said,
if triangles invented a god, the chances
are high it would have three sides.
It's been a lot of fun working through Marshall Smith's back catalogue once again, short stories notwithstanding, building up to the very exciting recent release of Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence which I hope very soon to devour and regurgitate for your pleasure, post-Wodehouse

Well, for my pleasure at the very least.

It also goes to show just how fallible and self-deceptive the old shallow human mind truly is. I'd almost no recollection of this one whatsoever, except for all the talking white goods (it's not all that juvenile, I promise*) which I'd assumed were actually in one of his other books.

Ah, the perils of chain-reading an author with a very pronounced style!

His three novels as MMS, first person narratives with a charmingly churlish and wise-crackingly unreliable central protagonist, could be read as three stories of the same character but taken from three discrete near-neighbour parallel universes. 

The voice is strong with this one.

Here, Hap Thompson, a fringe career criminal, takes on a dubiously legal job at REMTemps at which, as the name suggests, he dreams the anxiety dreams of people who can afford to pay people to toss and turn at night on their behalf. The explanation of just how this works is hazy at best, but happily for verisimilitude, Hap isn't the stickiest toffee-apple in the barrel so it's believable (quite like many of the other leaps of faith the authors asks of the reader). Unluckily, a lucrative sideline in temporarily stored memory fragments lumbers him with the memory of a murder, and worse, it's a Los Angeles cop. Hap is in serious trouble, but not even he can suspect the true scope of his peril.

There are a few surprising twists (even for me who had already read this once) and that the completely unlikely explanation for it all slips through the censors is down to one thing only - MMS doesn't hang around to take questions. His prose is fluid, whip-crack-sharp and rages like a swollen river over rapids. Everything pushes the reader forward towards the resolution (or as close to as you can get when dealing with... I've said too much), and there just isn't time to be anything other than grateful for an insight into his imagination.

I am genuinely shivering with anticipation to read his next book. I was happy with, but not delighted by, his straight-out horror writing as Michael Marshall, and my interest waned. But with the release of Hannah.... I find myself having to temper my rampant enthusiasm once more. That, if nothing else, is the best praise I can offer.


*Who am I kidding?



Sunday, 16 July 2017

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks

There's an old Sysan saying that the soup of life
is salty enough without adding tears to it.
I get the odd urge to revisit Iain M. Banks now and then, and after it's all over I wonder whether it'll happen again, having sated my appetite for feeling a bit dim. For nothing makes me feel stupid like a world that is intricately crafted, exhaustively described, but of which I have only an abstract perception, a vague silvery blur against the midnight black of empty space. Look To Windward is set on an orbital, a looped strip of world surrounding a hub in which dwells the Culture AI which created and curates the terrain, rivers, cities and lives of the population of millions (or billions) which live thereon. And it's under threat from a revengeful species with catastrophic justice in mind.

As a concept goes, the Masaq' Orbital has a touch of genius about it, a whimsical playground for a bored civilization, where the terra is formed for the maximum visceral excitement (or homely comforts) of the inhabitants, a place acknowledged to be at threat from the proximity of an unstable star but kept in situ for the sheer hell of it anyway, a structure managed by one AI mind able to hold millions of conversations at the same time whilst still performing countless tasks and making important decisions flawlessly. It's also so big I can't wrap my brain around it. Each description of distance and scope puts me right off, and there are many, many of them. Likewise the strange ancient gas spheres inhabited by eons-old creatures, half plant and half animal, riding convection currents and easily irritated by communication devices - these are unimaginable places, literally, and I wish I had the time and expertise to go back and take each mention of size and compare it to the next to see if Banks is just making this shit up as he goes along (or not - I suspect not, but still, to make the reader think he can hold these dimensions and descriptions in his brain is to invite disbelief).

Having said all that, this book, famously the one where the Culture 'does a Vietnam' and makes a gargantuan mistake in messing with the politics of another species resulting in a huge and rather messy civil war along lines of caste, is still brilliant. Despite the suspiciously heavy-handed and doomed-to-failure attempt to alter what could have been many millennia of social discrimination on an alien world, we come across an entertaining if slightly depressing consideration of the pros and cons of the ultra liberalism of the Culture, with the suspicion that they might deliberately manufacture a bit of conflict for the sake of entertainment. Other concepts of identity, the permanence (or otherwise) of the soul, survivor's guilt, what happens after death, how to cope with loss (and the conclusion that, no, becoming the vessel of karmic justice is not a good idea), and interestingly, some conversations about music which I've not noticed before in a Banks novel (although I may not have been looking all that hard as I was likely in a sulk because of envy), all combine to create a slow-burner of inter-species intrigue with a fun if vaguely predictable and unsatisfying ending. It's intricately plotted, carries all the hubristic auguries of far future science fiction (the best kind of auguries), and the characters are his usual panoply of archetypes, with interestingly furred or feathered bodies and additional and surprising limbs etc. The Culture ships names are as amusing as ever and under the hubris and horror gurgles a gentle stream of comedy. Dull, disconcerting travelogue-like descriptions of the willful grandeur of Banks' creations aside, it is, genuinely, an awesome novel which makes me feel tiny, in many senses of the word.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

Memory was coming to an end...
I'm not an effusive type. Not unless it comes to beer of course, but even then I'm not exactly the sort of chap to  rant ceaselessly on the subject. 

Wait a minute, I know you're thinking, if he's starting with a denial then he's leading up to some sort of artificial epiphanic moment where he realises he IS effusive about something! Am I right?

Nope. 

Back in the early Xennial period I read all of this guy's work, including his short double-header with Kim Newman (see the Amazon link below–for those interested in how stupid I've been in giving away most of my books a few years back, the paperback at time of writing is selling second hand for OVER £100...), including *shudder* his collection of short stories*. I even read his first couple of 'horror' novels, none of which later. They were sharp, they were slick, they were funny, and you felt they had a brain behind them. I haven't changed my mind. Re-reading them has been a pleasure, but more for the sake of nostalgia. 

Only Forward, winner of this award and that, is narrated by Stark, wise-cracker, information sifter, problem solver, a PI with a specialty in a particular kind of problem–no spoliers here, not today. He's honestly unreliable, but adaptable, friends with movers 'n' shakers and psychopaths, and has a talent no-one else has. He is a character with verisimillitude, and his thoughts on life and love and the meaning of it all are piquant and prickly. One suspects he is the man Smith would both love to and loathe to be mistaken for. 

In Stark's world, revealed later on in the novel to be the near future London (damn, sorry), a massive sprawling megalopolis, there are neighbourhoods where the quiet live, where the colour-appreciative live, where the crazy mad bastards live, and where all the cats live. As a device goes, it stretches incredulity to breaking: worth ignoring of course in the grand scheme but on second reading mostly irksome. Someone from Action neighbourhood goes missing (a real go-getter who Gets Things Done and thus is sorely missed) and everyone suspects kidnapping. Stark's 'friend' (not a spoiler technically as it only hints at their failed relationsh–damn, sorry) suggests him for the job, and off he jolly well trots to find our missing executive. Of course, there is more to this than meets the eye.

On the face of it, Only Forward is a warped but enjoyable gumshoe romp, following Marlowe-light Stark around the city–and other places–in pursuit of what is lost. While he goes, we get slowly drip-fed hints and intimations that there is much more going on. And then, of course, just like in Spares, and if memory serves, also One Of Us, there's a character who plops into the story and the reader is like, man, wtf?, like, really, who is this guy, for sure? only for the reader later in the book to go, like, damn! so that's why he's here, sonnufabeech. It's Chekov's gun of course, and if you're looking for it you'll spot it a mile off. Nicely, depsite the story taking a very major and unlikely detour into Jeamland (make of that what you will), the gun has already gone off, even before the story's begun. As twists go I like it very much.

So on reflection, it is a thoroughly enjoyable, if implausible, detective story, managing to break conventions on perception and memory, dreams, fantasy and reality, and still capable of some shockingly visceral violence and horror, right from the off. Give it a read, unless you already have, in which case go back and start again. Just don't make a fuss.

*Not *shudder* because they're his, but rather just because they're short stories. You have to be a FUCKING great short story to make me happy.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter by Rod Duncan

There was once a line marked out by God, 
through which were divided Heaven and Hell...
It's been a while since I took a crack at any so-called steam punk; longer still because I forgot I had this on my e-reader. A downside of e-books is that their very incorporeality means they cannot remind you that they are yet to be read by their presence on the night table.

It was picked up at the same time as that other rather magnificent novel from Angry Robot for a similarly magnificent price [editor's note–it still seems to be discounted rather heavily as of 23rd June 2017; see the link below!], and appears to be the first in a series featuring Elizabeth Barnabus, daughter of destitute (and dead) erstwhile travelling circus owner. Miss Barnabus is an intelligence gatherer, or rather when disguised as her own brother she is, as the Leicester in which the novel takes place exhibits a particularly Victorian attitude to the work that a young woman might enter into.

Not all like the modern, equitable, meritocratic Britain of today, no.

Ahem.

The country, divided as if into Fattypuffs (the monarchy) and Thinifers (the Republic) is a Luddite paradise, literally, with new technology strictly controlled by The Patent Office, a transnational security organisation bigger and more powerful than any given government. Progress was stalled around the time of the invention of the steam engine.

Without giving away too many details, what emerges is an entertaining and convincing whodunnit involving a magic show, alchemy, the discovery of an impossible machine, and lots of lovely Victorian machines and machinations. Barnabus is believable, her flight from an old and contrived family debt adds to the dramatic crisis and eventual resolution, and Duncan manages to show off his science background without unduly boring the reader* (this reader anyway). Well worth 50p if you ask me, and I may go on and look into books two and three, once I've got all my Michael Marshal Smith out of the way.

*Reading the first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry is quite entertaining in no small measure.