Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Best of 2013

It's been something of an interesting year. I wish I could say it's been interesting for the right reasons, but, quite frankly, the year has been total rubbish on a personal level as I've lunged from crisis to crisis with barely a chance to draw breath.

However, I've kept up with my reading and, at times, my writing. Writing has proven difficult this year as my commute to work changed in April and now takes two hours longer than it did prior to my job change. With time at a premium, I've lacked the energy and drive at times to crack open Pages and get to work on some fiction. I've even struggled to keep up with my blogs.

On the other hand, I have started writing a column for my local newspaper. 300 words a week may not sound like very much, and it isn't, but it has kept me ticking over for the past 4 months as well as familiarising me with a style of writing I haven't needed to use much in the past.

I have, however, managed first drafts of a couple of hefty novellas, each clocking in at more than 20,000 words. In addition to those, I've created a handful of short stories and made in-roads on starting a novel shortly. My word count may not have hit my usual target of 100,000 for the year, but I've not done too badly, all things considered.

But what were the best things I came across this year? I haven't been to the cinema all that often (last going to see Kick Ass 2 a few months back), but I have read more than I have at any point in my life. Over the last 12 months I've read around 200 short stories, half-a-dozen graphic novels, 5 history books, a handful of books about football, and roughly 60 unread novels as well at 20-some re-reads.

So, my personal year's best is as follows:

Best Film

Star Trek Into Darkness was a thrilling film. Granted, I haven't seen too much this year (as explained), but of those I did see this was comfortably the best. It built on the good work of Star Trek XI and, despite something of a cop-out conclusion, provided a nice set-up to future Star Trek adventures following Spock and the gang.

Best Short Story Collection

I may be a couple of years behind, but Paolo Bacigalupi's collection Pump Six and other stories was magnificent. I don't often devour short story collections and prefer to make my way through them slowly, but I went through the eleven offered in this collection in a matter of three or four days. Bacigalupi will, in my view, be one of the defining writers of this generation with his dark and unsettling stories with a bleak outlook on the world. He's also undeniably brilliant.

Best Work of Non-Fiction

Annoyingly, I read the old edition of Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson about a week after the updated edition came out. I only found this out yesterday. 'Annoyed' doesn't quite cut the mustard. I loved Wilson's take on the tactical history of football. His hatred of the Charles Reep school of footballing thought also helped to win me over. It hasn't quite changed my views on how football should be played, but it's difficult to argue with his insightful analysis of how football has changed down the years. Writing about how football is played on the pitch is difficult, but Wilson manages it superbly. Now for the updated edition...

Honourable mention to Rubicon by Tom Holland, which is as good a piece of narrative history I've ever read. Holland charts the rise and fall of the Roman Republic with élan, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Horror Novel

I only read three horror novels this year, but all three were good ones. Both The Shining by Stephen King and The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher impressed me, but without doubt the best horror novel I read this year was Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. It was brilliant. The Indian underworld was grotesque and horrifying and, above all, believable, and I found myself sucked in. Simmons did more than just create a book of scares and thrills, though; he got under my skin and had me haunted for weeks after I finished the book.

Best Fantasy Novel

I've only just finished it, it's true, but The Lies of Locke Lamora knocked my socks off. Not since The Name of the Wind have I been sucked into a fantasy novel and found myself so utterly immersed. That it managed to impress me despite me having very high expectations of it it all the more impressive. I'm already looking forward to getting cracking on the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies.

Best SF Novel

This was a toss-up between three. And in the end, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes wins out simply because I loved the characters more than those in Moxyland (also by Lauren Beukes) and Osama (by Lavie Tidhar). All three were brilliant reads. But The Shining Girls made me sympathise with the protagonist more than the others. That said, Osama's concept alone runs The Shining Girls very close for the title.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Shining Girls

At the start of the year, I promised to make a concerted effort to read more stories and books by lady writers. Over the years, I've neglected them. Yes, I've read Ursula LeGuin, and gone through the annual anthologies from Gardner Dozois and Hartwell and Kramer, but my reading has always been dominated by the products of male imagination. I'd say women contributed 10% of my reading material. This wasn't a situation I liked.

In 2013 to date, I've completed 88 books. Of these 88 books, women have at the very least contributed to 29. And I've made some discoveries in that time. I've returned to the disturbing imagination of Shirley Jackson. I've found the genesis of Connie Willis's time-travel books. I've visited the patriarchal totalitarianism/feminist utopia of Sheri Tepper's mind (from that, you'll be able to work out that I couldn't work out what The Gate to Women's Country was). And I've just started revealing the Aztec world of Aliette De Bodard's creation.

But none have entertained me as richly as Lauren Beukes, the South African author of The Shining Girls.

She's not a new discovery, but is a somewhat new talent. I read Zoo City last year, and Moxyland earlier this. The former - an urban fantasy with a South African twist - wasn't really my thing; I've never particularly enjoyed urban fantasy. But the latter was an acutely observed SF tale of the (very) near future which resonated with me. Then there was something about the South African setting, characters and sensibilities which was so fresh when compared to the clichéd Western European/US settings of far too many works. I loved Moxyland, and plan to re-read it before too long.

The Shining Girls, released earlier this year, is Beukes's third novel, and represents a major change in her setting. Gone are the run-down ghettos of Cape Town and Johannesburg, with the skyscrapers and downtown dumpsters of Chicago taking their place. But the writing remains the same; Beukes's style remains brisk but rich, packed with character.

The plot sounds simple, but its execution renders it complex and multi-faceted. A man - Harper Curtis - from the Great Depression stumbles into a time-travelling House, where he feels he is given his mission: kill the shining girls, girls with the potential to make a massive difference in Chicago. The girls are spread across several decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s. One - Kirby - escapes and tries to track him down in 1992-1993.

Simple enough, but the execution of the time-travelling makes events more complex and the story more compelling. Events are set in stone before they occur. There's a sense of inevitability to each of the murders, and trying to plot events in your own mind - trying to make sense of it all - is a reward all of its own. To follow each twist requires concentration. To make the connections and work out events produces a miraculous clarity from what might seem at first to be something of a mess. Beukes is an expert at producing complex, apparently jumbled plotlines that do, in fact, make perfect sense.

The main viewpoint characters are both intriguing. What drives Kirby is plain - she survived what should have been a brutal murder by Harper - but Harper's motivations always seem slightly clouded. Beukes states in the interview at the back that she wanted to debunk the Hannibal Lecter  myth of all serial killers being sophisticated and having a mystique, when in fact they are normally sad, pathetic men with sexual hangups, and she manages this by and large. But I still have a very faint problem with the way he goes from Depression-era loser to time-travelling serial killer on the say-so of the House. I suppose she'd say that he gets the sense of power from the House and that allows him to go on and become the monster he undoubtedly is. But if one thing could be improved in the characterisation, it is that.

However, that's only a very small quibble with an excellent book. Of all the books I've read this year, it's perhaps the first to leave me wanting more and being disappointed when it came to an end. I loved The Shining Girls. I'd recommend it to all and sundry. And it's probably my book of 2013.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I'm not really sure what to make of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, but then, I've not been sure of what to make of a lot of my reading of late.

I've been going through something of a fantasy period in anticipation of writing that flipping fantasy novel which has been kicking around in the back of my mind for the better part of the last decade. This has proven problematic; fantasy isn't my favourite genre. In fact, I'd say it's been relegated out of the top flight of my preferred reading material, replaced by factual history. Although the occasional novel or series - The Kingkiller Chronicles, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Liveship Traders - transcends my expectations of fantasy, the genre still feels too safe, too conservative, too rooted in looking back at what made it great in the first place and failing, therefore, to push on with fresh ideas and innovations.

In the past week I also completed Kraken by perennial favourite China Miéville. By his usual standards I found it to be below par. His ideas were, as ever, boundary-pushing and packed with life, but they found themselves struggling to stay afloat in the book's uneven flow of pacing. It was doubly disappointing because the opening hundred pages or so set up the book so well.

So it was against a disappointed background and limited expectations that I came to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book in N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy.

I'll confess to knowing nothing of Jemisin's work before picking up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and until I looked the book up I hadn't even been aware it had been shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2011 (a fact I really should have been aware of, given my habitual reading of the shortlists on a year-on-year basis). All I knew of her came from my peripheral awareness of a controversy with the SFWA over the summer. In some ways, going into something without expectations is the best way to approach a new writer and a new series.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sees the first-person narrator, Yeine, summoned to the city of Sky following the mysterious death of her mother. Once there, she finds herself named as a potential heir to the throne. So far, so clichéd, and nothing to shake me from my usual fantasy 'seen it all before' attitude.

But after a while, I started to pick up on a few things. Sky is an interesting place in and of itself - 'a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine', according to the blurb, an assessment which is difficult to disagree with on a purely factual level - but Jemisin's treatment of it renders it an excellent setting. It takes a page or two, but a sense of wonder feel starts to set in in relation to Sky, all down to Jemisin's subtle handling of the place.

More interesting, though, is her treatment of characters. Yeine is no damsel in distress, and nor is she a classic Amazon. She's vulnerable, but strong. She has her failings, gives in to temptations she shouldn't allow to overcome her, makes reckless decisions, makes mistakes. In short, she's beautifully human, as are the surrounding cast of characters. The interactions are fascinating and compelling.

And really, that's what lies at the heart of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: the characters and their interactions. They form the driving force behind everything that goes on. The pseudo-realpolitik which underpins the mortal element of the plot pales in comparison. Far too many other writers get so caught up in events that they forget about the characters. In keeping the scale relatively small - there's no grand cast of characters, no sub-plots to get distracted by - Jemisin succeeds where so many others fail. I'll confess to being in love with how she treated this side of the book.

I'm much less in love with another side of the novel, though: the writing itself.

This is where my confusion comes in, and why I'm not sure how I feel about the book as a whole. Although Jemisin has created a superb, believable world full of incredibly human characters, she doesn't seem to have quite worked out where she's pitching the writing. For much of the book it feels like a young adult novel, albeit one that's well written. In a book so full of complex adult storylines, the writing feels almost at odds with the story. Then there are the occasional moments where the writing does get adult, and these feel out of place whilst being completely fitting. To top it all off, the language of the book is almost virtually clean and then out of nowhere someone says 'c**t'. It's jarring and offputting - I can deal with strong language (goodness knows my own writing's hardly clean) but it has its place and this wasn't it, not in an otherwise clean context.

So there we have it. I'm not sure what to make of a book packed with brilliance because it feels like its writing lets it down. Whether I'll pick up the second in the series - bearing in mind how complete volume one feels - is touch and go. If I do, it'll be for the ideas that subvert so many fantasy clichés and do just what other pieces of work determinedly won't.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Kick Ass 2

Guilty pleasure time: I loved Kick Ass. In this era of underwhelming, special effects laden and character-light superhero movies, it was a breath of fresh air. It was both tremendous (and spectacularly violent) fun and emotionally satisfying. Actions had consequences, and we saw a cast of characters grow over the course of the two hours.

Fine, it wasn't the most mature of films, with a fine line in crass teenage humour and exceptionally bad language to go with the gore-saturated action sequences. But it was tremendous entertainment, and there was a number of scenes which took the film to the next level. As cinema experiences go, it was one of my most enjoyable.

Roll on three years and we come to the sequel. Which is good. Very good. It's still got the mix of violence, bad language, and tasteless humour combined with real consequences for real characters that made the first work almost as an anti-superhero film.

Time has moved on. Hit Girl/Mindy McCready (Chloe Moretz), the potty-mouthed teenage superhero is trying to accustom herself to regular teenage life. Kick Ass/Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) gets involved with a clique of wannabe-superheroes led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). Meanwhile, rich kid Chris D'amico, defeated in the first film, becomes the world's first supervillain, calling himself... erm... The Motherf**ker, after managing to accidentally kill his mother in a sunbed incident and discovering a collection of her whips and chains.

What impressed me was how the characters were handled. Hit Girl in particular was developed into a much more rounded character. It would have been easy to make her a 'normal' teenage girl and reduce her character to a cardboard cut-out, but this wasn't allowed to happen, not least because of the excellent performance of Moretz. Indeed, all the characters were more human than in the first outing, although the film lacked a brooding presence - Jim Carrey was excellent as Colonel Stars and Stripes, but Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) was sorely missed by more than just the grieving Hit Girl.

The action - oh, the action. Gratuitous violence on gratuitous violence. Thinking back to Kick Ass, the action there was more finessed and imaginative than in its sequel (Hit Girl skewering a minion's hand on a grappling line, then using that to make the minion shoot himself is never repeated, with the violence being of a more conventional variety). As ever, the violence is played for laughs rather than seriously. Unfortunately this leads to one scenario where an event isn't treated with the appropriate gravity, sucking much of the fun out of the film for a few moments.

But is it worth seeing? If you're not averse to extreme (comic) violence and tasteless language and humour, I can recommend it. But be warned: Kick Ass 2 is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended.

Monday, 26 August 2013


Iain (M.) Banks. The most talented British writer of the last two generations. Discuss.

It's certainly a discussion point. Others might point out the literary qualities of an Amis or a McEwan. But I personally doubt that they have the range Iain (M.) Banks had in a literary career spanning 30 years and almost 30 novels until his death earlier this year. Throughout that career Banks combined the oft-sneered-at popular with the literary. He even had the snobbish critics falling over to praise his magnificent science fiction work.

And it was this range which truly marked him out from the pack. He was equally comfortable writing a Scottish family drama (The Steep Approach to Garbadale, for example) as a 10-volume space opera about his idea of the ultimate utopia (the Culture novels). In between times there was dimension-hopping 'literary' SF (Transition), the discomfiting horror novel that sparked it all off (The Wasp Factory) and Scottish gangsters.

Stonemouth, his penultimate non-genre/literary novel, falls into the Scottish gangsters category. Stewart Gilmour returns to his hometown of Stonemouth, a Scottish estuary town somewhere north of Aberdeen, for the first time in five years. The last time he was there he was running for his life from the town's drug-lords-in-chief, the Murstons. But Joe Murston, family patriarch, is dead, and Stewart returns to pay his respects with the ostensible permission of the Murston clan - knowing that the girl who haunts his past is still in the town.

Banks always had the knack of combining character, plot and setting to beautiful effect. And so he proved yet again in Stonemouth. Right from the off it's easy to relate to Stewart, the first-person, present-tense point of view protagonist. He's the high-flier returning to the dead-end town of his past in trepidation. His doubts and worries are clear from the first scene, with him stood on the nearby suspension bridge contemplating the suicides who meet their ends leaping over the barriers, and the deaths of his past.

From there the plot unfolds in classic Banks fashion, like an ever-widening lens in a camera slowly revealing the whole vista from the original pinpoint view. The main focus is on events of the long weekend Stewart spends in Stonemouth, but flashbacks reveal Stewart's past in Stonemouth, including the reasons for his flight from the town in fear for his life. Stewart's overall life story is hardly a Greek tragedy, but it has all the hallmarks of Banksonian sadism and cruel humour stamped over it. Bizarre deaths, even more bizarre golf course incidents and a star-crossed relationship all provide cornerstones in understanding the protagonist.

Even without the twist Banks put on all his work the book would have been a satisfying read. But Banks, as ever, raised it above the level of being merely satisfying with his keen observations on the minutiae of modern life which serve to enhance the experience. And then there's Banks' usual undercurrent of violence just beneath the already-tumultuous surface. One or two incidents explode off the page in heart-stopping fashion. Multi-faceted and much more than skin-deep in each of those aspects, Stonemouth is a surprisingly complex piece of work for a relatively simple premise.

I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed Stonemouth more than The Wasp Factory or Use of Weapons. But enjoy it I most certainly did. It was a pleasure to slip back into a Banksonian mindset for a few days and experience the inimitable talent of Banks yet again.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Christ The King 1-10 Trinity Boys

It's thirteen years since I signed up for my first season playing for Trinity Boys, following the resignation of St Andrews from the Mirfield and District Church Football League. After a year of character-building defeats and more than occasional humiliations, the start of the season came as a surprise to me - we drew 3-3 with Hopton URC, and swiftly established ourselves as one of the best sides in the league. By the midway point of the campaign, the whole team was studying the week-by-week league table before the start of games, working out if we could go top that day. The whole thing was a novel experience.

Aside from my debut, one game stands out above all others from the first half of that memorable season. My first return to John Cotton's playing fields to play Christ The King had been in my mind for some time. The previous year, my debut season in the Church League, had seen a St Andrews side with yours truly up front crash to a 26-0 defeat. Losing was difficult; the manner of the defeat and the conduct of our opponents made it even tougher. It's difficult to lose with dignity when your opponents are going out of the way to humiliate you. I still remember one goal they scored where their player rounded the keeper, rolled the ball onto the line, and then got down on hands and knees to head it the final three inches. I'd been both anticipating and dreading the game against Kings since the draw for the first round of the Sonder Heating Cup had sent my Trinity team there in December 2000.

Even now I feel nervous before a game. It doesn't matter if it's a kickabout with mates or a cup final; I still experience the butterflies in the stomach. Back then, it was worse. Immediately before kick-off I'd feel sick with anticipation. And I remember the nerves striking me worse than ever walking out onto the pitch wearing Trinity's all-blue strip and seeing the hated Kings in formation in their black and white stripes. Somehow they always seemed bigger and stronger than they were. Of course, there's always been a sure-fire way to get rid of early nerves: get a tackle in.

I managed to concede the first free-kick of the game after barely three seconds.

It set the tone for our early performance. Kings were good. They were our title rivals. They could brush teams away almost on a whim, when they turned it on. But we were dogged, committed, determined to disrupt their flow and rhythm by getting amongst them and breaking up the play. And, as we started to see more and more of the ball, we started to turn on the style.

I remember playing my part in the first goal. Playing on the left-hand side of a front three meant I was involved in an interchange of passes with our marauding midfielder, who surged into the box and pulled it back for our big centre-forward to fire home. And it wasn't too long before we'd added twice to the scoreline, ripping Kings apart at will in what was becoming a masterful performance. Kings pulled one back, but that was their sole attack after the first few minutes of a game we were dominating.

Playing just behind me, on the left of a midfield four, was Kyle Douglas. As wing-wizards went, he was probably the best in the league. His footwork had left Kings defenders baffled on more than one occasion, and so it was when he picked up the ball on the halfway like just before half-time. He left one on his backside and set off towards the dead ball line. In close attendance was the Kings defender, who proceeded to spend the entire run kicking out at Dougie's ankles. When Dougie got the final cross in and overbalanced, the defender all-too-willingly decided to stamp down hard on Dougie's crotch. A second later, the defender found himself being dumped on the deck by our giant midfielder, David Boothroyd. What followed was the only proper mass bust-up I was ever part of in the Church League.

The mass confrontation ended with a yellow card for Boothy's reaction, and a straight red for the Kings defender. In disgust at the decision to send their player off, eight Kings players walked off, leaving the goalkeeper, a defender, and a lone striker to keep on playing. Those of us in blue looked amongst ourselves in confusion as to what was going on. The half-time whistle went. Gordon and Steven, our joint managers, ran on to take us off and get us away from what was becoming an ugly situation while the referee went to remonstrate with the Kings bench, who were giving him vile abuse.

Somehow the ref managed to persuade the Kings players back out for the second half. Once the whistle had gone for kick-off, we proceeded slaughter them. From 3-1 at half-time, the scoreline increased every few minutes. Kings heads dropped. There was no fight, no pride, no passion in their performance. It was one of those rare days when I could get the ball and race past my man, knowing I would only attract a half-hearted kick at my ankles rather than a proper tackle. The Kings defenders descended into arguing amongst themselves. The midfield didn't do its job. The forwards didn't chase and harry. By contrast, we were ruthless. Mistakes got punished. Forwards brushed defenders off the ball with ease. We were quicker to every loose ball and worked in units to win it back. The performance was utterly professional and probably the best I've ever played a part in.

At full-time Christ The King were out of the Sonder Heating Cup after suffering a 10-1 hammering on their home ground to their biggest rivals. Kings slouched off to their bench without shaking hands. We didn't particularly care; we'd delivered a footballing lesson, and we knew Kings couldn't handle us at our best. From a personal perspective, I'd paid back a debt of humiliation without stooping to their level.

Probably the best part of the day was yet to come, however. Sat in the car with my dad, a group of the players who had stormed off after the red card went to talk to my dad, who was league president. They tried to make out that they had suffered racial abuse, assuming my father hadn't been present for the whole game. They were told in no uncertain terms that they were embarrassing themselves. Knowing just how low they would stoop and how badly they took defeat was ever so satisfying.

Even more satisfying was that we went on to win the Cup, beating Hopton 4-3 in a classic final. Kings tailed off in the league, leaving that as a two-horse race between us and Hopton. After a long, exciting run-in, we walked away from the season as double winners. I still have the trophy and medal I got for playing my part in that team. Some riposte to a team that had humiliated me less than 2 years previously.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Bookman

"Writing a summary of background events to the Bookman, which sound so mental... must have been high to have written that book." Lavie Tidhar on Twitter, discussing The Bookman

One advantage - in its way - of being unable to walk is that I no longer have an excuse not to catch up on my reading and writing. Thursday night's knee injury, complete with my kneecap's attempt to launch a space programme, launching from my knee joint following an attempted shot on goal, means I'm well and truly laid up. Books that have been sitting there waiting for my attention suddenly look quite attractive.

I'd already read The Bookman when I picked up the single-volume omnibus of The Bookman Histories, Lavie Tidhar's maiden trilogy of steampunk novels. It had been a 99p Kindle purchase two years ago, and I'd enjoyed it at a time when I wasn't enjoying much at all; it's not easy to lift yourself out of what feels like the terminal depression of unemployment simply to enjoy a 300-page novel, rollicking adventure though it might be. And thus when the opportunity arose to read the entire trilogy in one handy - if oversized - paperback came about, I leapt at the opportunity.

My appreciation of The Bookman the first time through might have been jaded by my own circumstances, but not this time. Much of yesterday was devoted to surging through the rich melange of Tidhar's AU Victorian London and the other rich and beautifully realised locales. I was reminded strongly of China Miéville's Bas-Lag world, home of Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, and in particular the bustling metropolis of New Crobuzon - hardly surprising, as New Crobuzon itself is a grotesque tribute to London, but unusual because of the richness of the setting. Whales populate the Thames; airships dominate the skyline, with skyscrapers such as the Babbage Tower rearing from the rooftops to occupy the same space; lizards are in government, and have been for hundreds of years; literary characters walk the streets and rub shoulders with their creators. I found it impossible not to get sucked into the melange of Tidhar's world.

Tidhar himself says in his introduction that this is a book about books. They certainly play a central part, not least in the constant references to other works. Familiar characters Victorian literature make appearances - as do their creators. Allusions are constantly made to deeper culture and mythology (Gilgamesh is a central character). And at certain points it's clear that Tidhar is having a tremendous amount of fun with the licence he gave himself. There's a point where Orphan, the protagonist, goes looking for a particular book in the bookshop where he lives. Titles he finds include Eustace Clarence Scrubb's Diary, In My Father's House by Princess Irulan (as a Dune fan this delighted me and I'll admit that its use made me laugh out loud), and The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein. The whole book absolutely revels in its allusions to writers and writings of the past, and it helps to give The Bookman a sense of fun that's almost infectious.

It helps that the main plot itself is a rip-roaring adventure in the finest Victorian tradition. There are overtures of Verne at his best (with the man himself being a character, and numerous references to both The Mysterious Island and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I can't help but think that this was Tidhar's intention). Orphan, the protagonist, finds himself caught up in a series of incidents linked to the Bookman, an anti-lizard-establishment terrorist that see him narrowly escape death once and witness the death of his fiancée Lucy not long after. Forces come into play that push him into action, and he finds himself as a pawn in a game being played between greater forces than he. Espionage, intelligent robots, piracy, aliens, and Sherlock Holmes all play a part in bringing about a climax that's hugely satisfying.

The Bookman is a novel that everyone can enjoy. It's not a difficult read, and it has a sense of fun that it's difficult to find in most works these days. It's not too long, but it's long enough that it's possible to get caught up in events and the world. Everyone will have their own personal favourite part. It's a rich, rewarding read. In many ways, it's a readers read whilst being easily accessible to everyone. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Rendezvous With Rama

Arthur C. Clarke was an SF behemoth. Not only did he pen dozens of bestsellers and collaborate with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey in a 50-year fiction-writing career, he was also at the forefront of scientific thinking. You may have Sky TV; Clarke was the man who first mooted the idea of geosynchronous orbits. The world owes him a debt of gratitude for more than just his literature.

But his literature still draws readers today. I've read about a dozen of his works, some written in conjunction with other leading writers like Stephen Baxter and Frek Pohl, and although they lack with regards to characterisation and fluency of language they still grip me in their thrall for their - often short - duration.

Rendezvous With Rama is probably the best of his works, in my view. At the very least it ranks alongside Childhood's End, 2001, and The City and the Stars. It focusses on a deep-space mission in 2130 to investigate an intruder into our solar system, an artificial cylinder kilometres long and kilometres wide dubbed Rama.

Rendezvous With Rama is a novel of humanity's first contact with an alien race, but there's none of the violence of a Hollywood imagining. There's tension, there's suspense, but there's no alien hostility. And that's probably one of the reasons I like it so much. It's almost easy to write a lazy story about how aliens want the Earth's resources and the ensuing war. It's not easy to create an engaging story almost purely about exploration, and to evoke a sense of wonder at what is found. And it's that very thing that Rendezvous With Rama does so well. Every step into Rama's awesome superstructure is a step into the unknown. We're as uncertain as the crew of the Endeavour, the ship tasked with exploring the alien artefact, about what we'll find next.

The plot outside of exploration is threadbare and I get the feeling that it's there more out of convention than because Clarke particularly wanted to have people firing missiles at Rama. There's some tension amongst the United Planets about what Rama's purpose may be, and an aside about Mercury firing a missile at Rama, but it really is all very much beside the point. The point is to glory in the sense of wonder evoked on a stunning scale.

Some would - and do - criticise Rendezvous With Rama for its substandard character development and superficial external plot details. But to do so is like criticising a brick for not being a football. Instead it's necessary to sit down and fall in love with the vast scale and the sense of awe brought about by the world-building. As pure exploration it is unsurpassed.

And remember: The Ramans do everything in threes.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

What price justice, Mr Grayling?

One day very soon we will see Chris Grayling's dystopia for legal professions come into being.

We've already seen massive Legal Aid cuts. Lost amongst the Daily Mail crowd-pleasing headlines, such as cuts to prisoners' Legal Aid and cuts to Legal Aid available to immigrants, has been the real substance of the cuts: cuts to assistance in housing disputes, to family and divorce aid, to welfare appeal representation, to criminal injuries compensation assistance, to representation at employment tribunals, to help with education problems... Unless your case falls into very limited loopholes, you won't be able to get public funding to help you get a solicitor.

Then there's the cuts to Citizens Advice Bureaux. Many Bureaux across the country have been forced to shut their doors or limit their opening hours as public funding has been slashed. In times of economic hardship, it's been left to communities to fund those centres which help those most desperately in need of free legal assistance.

I hope you've noticed who those cuts really hit. Those in the most need. Those poor and destitute who need financial assistance to help them pursue justice.

If you're disabled and want to appeal against the decision to take away Disability Support Allowance, then tough. It doesn't matter that you might not be able to afford to effectively feed and clothe your family and heat your home; you're going to have to fund your case yourself, or represent yourself in the treacherous labyrinths of welfare law.

Or you've lost your job and want to claim unfair dismissal. You can't have Legal Aid. No matter that you've lost your income and it might not be your fault. Once again, you fund that case yourself or you represent yourself. If the choice is between justice and feeding your family, there's only one choice, and it's not the one that might see you get reinstated.

Even worse: your family is being ripped apart after your partner suddenly ran away with someone else. You want a divorce, but don't have any money after your firm went out of business after you'd worked there for only eighteen months. Again, you fund that divorce yourself. No Legal Aid is available.

Access to justice is something that Legal Aid was meant to facilitate. Its withdrawal leaves potentially millions with no option of going to court or arbitration for redress. It makes legal professionals inaccessible.

You've probably noticed by now that I've yet to talk about criminal Legal Aid. This is in no small part because publicly-funded criminal work is undergoing the most radical transformation of all. Unlike the areas of publicly-funded civil work, I'm an outsider looking in on the criminal 'reforms'. But I watch on with increasing horror as Chris Grayling's proposals look set to destroy the finest criminal justice system in the world.

Firstly, there's the proposals to contract criminal work out to a limited number of firms across the country. Firms will bid to secure Legal Aid contracts. Only 400 out of 1,600 firms will survive this process - possibly fewer. They who can do the work at the lowest cost will inevitably stand the best chance of securing the contracts. However it most certainly isn't the case that those low-cost lawyers will be the best options. It'll lead to corner-cutting as firms try to take on large workloads and keep costs low at the same time in an attempt to generate the biggest profits. The people who will miss out will be the clients.

Then there are the proposals with regards to advocates. You want the barrister of your choice to represent you at court? Tough. You'll be assigned someone who is assessed under the QASA scheme as being appropriate to the level of case you're assessed as having. Your choice of advocate will be taken away. I don't know about you, but if I was in trouble I'd want to be able to choose who represented me. I'd want to be able to talk to my solicitors about who would be instructed. And I'd want to be able to instruct someone else if I felt my barrister wasn't up to the task, or if I wasn't getting the advice I felt I needed.

Which brings me on to another issue: the tapering of barristers' fees. Somehow Grayling has got it into his head that advocates spin out proceedings, so he's suggested tapering fees. Under the proposal, a led junior in a complex fraud case would, at the end of a six-week trial, be earning £2.60 a day. What price justice? Barristers are human beings, at the end of the day. They share the same concerns with regards to finance as most people. If they know they're going to be paid a pittance for several weeks of work, they'll be worrying about how to make ends meet. What's their advice likely to be with regards to your plea, with that in mind? Forget the strength of the evidence. Forget your own protestations of innocence. Even forget the Bar Code of Conduct. Remember that they'll be getting paid £2.60 a day by the end of your trial, which is listed for six weeks. Their advice to you will be to plead guilty.

Is it the barrister's fault that they don't want to work for peanuts? No. And why should they? Their calling - a calling I wish to share - still needs to be founded on solid economic grounds. The Code of Conduct may force them to act fearlessly to promote your best interests, but how much weight does that hold when they're trying to hold a family together on less than £10,000 a year, working long hours every day?

This hasn't been reasoned discourse about the pros and cons of the Grayling proposals which will most likely become reality by 2015 (and which already are reality in relation to the civil matters). It's been my own view. I see injustice and inequality reigning in the legal system for decades if Grayling's reforms come to pass. I see good men and women walking away from the law because they simply cannot afford to continue to promote their clients' best interests, with the running of proceedings left to tinpot advocates from companies like Eddie Stobart. Above all, I see an incompetent arrogant man pushing through his personal crusade at whatever cost necessary, and if that happens to be to the detriment of what could be millions, then so be it.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Staying up, staying up, staying up!

Anyone who bumps into me in the street this week might have to look twice. I may look hangdog. My face may be lined, hair greying and receded. There may be a look of haunted oblivion in my eyes. All because yesterday afternoon I aged 10 years as Huddersfield Town put me and 22,000 others through the wringer.

Surely we couldn't get relegated. We had three points more than our opponents Barnsley, who occupied the final place in the relegation zone. There were three other teams between us and them. All had to better our result - or even win, in two cases, just to get level with us. A year on from a Wembley promotion, all anyone expected was survival. Hence a massive crowd, the second largest League crowd in the stadium's history.

The atmosphere was almost play-off like. Ten thousand clappers had been handed out. The roar as the teams emerged was deafening. Belief flooded the stadium and stayed there for about five minutes, before Barnsley started to dictate play. Town were a Chris O'Grady goal down before too long, having not gotten into the game at all. Then bombshells started to arrive. Peterborough led at Palace, taking them above us. Worse, Sheffield Wednesday also led, and Millwall were drawing. As things stood at half-time, we were in the drop zone with the preposterous total of 57 points.

News filtered through the stands at the interval that Crystal Palace had converted a stoppage-time penalty against Peterborough. Suddenly we were out of the bottom three. And not long after the restart we were doing what we needed to do - Jermaine Beckford latched on to Danny Ward's through ball and lifted it over the Barnsley keeper to equalise. Cue pandemonium. Barnsley's fans were silenced.

Sheffield Wednesday already had their game against horribly out of form Middlesbrough sewn up. Attention shifted from game to game. Peterborough took the lead again, meaning that Barnsley had to score to put us in the bottom three... which they duly did through Jason Scotland. Heads went in hands in sheer despair. It couldn't happen to us again, could it? No side had ever been relegated with more than 52 points, we surely couldn't go down with 57?

The introduction of Lee Novak with nine minutes to go brought instant rewards as he teed James Vaughan up for a second equaliser, dumping Barnsley back in the bottom 3 with 55 points. We had 58; all we needed to do was hang on, something easier said than done with Barnsley throwing the kitchen sink at our defence in their desperation.

Suddenly Crystal Palace were level. There were seven minutes to go at Selhurst Park and veteran striker Kevin Phillips had toe-poked the Eagles ahead. News rippled around the McAlpine. Some measure of relaxation started to go around the ground; even a tentative rendition of, 'We are staying up!' went around the home ends. Still, all it needed to doom us was another Peterborough goal and for Barnsley to snatch a winner.

Two minutes later, news broke of Derby taking the lead against Millwall. Suddenly three goals needed to go in in five minutes to relegate us, one of which had to be against us. But Barnsley still needed a goal - they had to better Peterborough's result, going into the game with the same points but a worse goal difference. They continued to press. Fingernails took a hammering as crosses whipped into the box and Town failed to clear their lines, all too aware that a goal against could be disastrous.

Somehow Town broke out and managed to force a Barnsley dead ball. And that was when the man who sits in the row below turned around and said, "Crystal Palace are winning."

Word passed through the stadium like wildfire. Pockets of celebration broke out in the Barnsley end. As things stood, they were safe and Peterborough were down. We were entering five minutes of injury time. All that needed to happen was for results to stay as they were. For three more fraught, tense minutes Town and Barnsley went at it, hammer and tongs. Both sides pressed for a winner for those few moments, until the news of the score in London finally made its way to the Barnsley bench.

Barnsley had a goal kick. Luke Steele, the goalkeeper, rushed to get it taken, only for the entire bench to erupt and order him to slow it down. They'd done enough, as it was. There was no need to rush. After a moment, the goal kick was taken, and Peter Clarke, the Town skipper, cleared it back to Steele. Under no pressure, he dribbled around his area for just over a minute. 22,000 fans, knowing what was happening, spontaneously burst out into a unified chant of 'Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!' Adam Clayton, the Town midfielder, danced over to the Kilner Bank and started his celebrations a minute early. Jack Hunt, exhausted after a pulsating Yorkshire derby, sat down near the halfway line, waiting for the whistle. The whistle went, and Town had secured the point needed to guarantee Championship football.

A few moments later confirmation of the final score at Selhurst Park came through: Crystal Palace 3-2 Peterborough United. Barnsley were also safe. Results had contrived to send the Posh down.

The scenes post-match were incredible. Town fans had invaded the pitch on the final whistle, and were celebrating. It took a moment for the full Barnsley support to join in, waiting for the moment when Peterborough's defeat was confirmed. The whole stadium was unified in its joy. Every chant was echoed by the supporters of the other side, and time after time it came back to the same chant of  'Yorkshire!'

Both managers addressed the stadium and were greeted by rapturous applause from all four sides of the ground. There was the feeling of a special bond between the two clubs, a mutual respect almost unheard of in football. As Town fans applauded Barnsley's celebrations, so did Barnsley's fans stay to applaud the Town team on its lap of honour.

In almost 20 years of watching football - and almost 600 games - I've never seen anything like it. The atmosphere was something else to start with. By the end it had transcended football and become a statement of solidarity in celebration. It was wonderful to behold and be a part of.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Surface Detail

The news of Iain Banks' cancer stunned me. One second I had been sat in the common room at 39 Park Square on a mini-pupillage, looking forward to a day in court. The next, I was floored by Banks' press release. I love his books. He has a knack of wowing me with his characters, his settings, his use of prose. As a writer, he's what I aspire to be.

It's still five months until his latest Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, goes paperback. My copy is already on order (and has been for some months). But if I can't celebrate Banks' writing with a new book, then I thought I'd go back and read an old one or two. A few weeks back I re-read Use of Weapons for the second time, and found it as tightly-plotted, expansively written and emotionally engrossing as ever.

Next up was Surface Detail, the 2010 Culture novel, and his most recent entry to the series.

For those not in the know, the Culture is a series of connected but independent books set on the fringes of a pan-galactic utopia known as the Culture. Since 1987 and Consider Phlebas, Banks has written ten novels in the series, including The Hydrogen Sonata. Mostly, the stories are set around the goings-on of Contact, the area of the Culture concentrating on making contact with other races, and the sub-division Special Circumstances - or, as it was put in Surface Detail, the dirty tricks section.

Over the years the novels have gotten gradually more complex and ambitious. Consider Phlebas was a fairly straightforward novel in both style and structure. Use of Weapons, the third full novel in the series, was probably the most radical in its narrative structure, but it still had just one central plot. By Look to Windward the series was seeing recurring plotlines and overlaps from book to book. And in Surface Detail we have Banks' most ambitious space opera epic yet.

On one hand, there's the revenge story which drives the bulk of the narrative, that of Lededje Y'breq, murdered on her homeworld and out to exact retribution on her killer. But in reality that isn't the focus of the novel: the true focus is on the virtual war regarding the use of virtual 'hells' to store souls in perpetual agony, and that has multiple plot threads dedicated to it. There's a virtual warrior in the war, an activist who gets trapped in one of the hells, a protester against them... and the Culture apparently standing aside.

If it sounds complex and bloated, that's because it is. There's no denying the ambitious scope of Surface Detail, but it needed a good editor to take his red pen to it. Sub-plots prove themselves to be superfluous, on occasion the story drags, and Banks' usually lyrical prose isn't quite up to his highest standard. At 626 pages, it's no light read, and it proves in some ways that Banks is at his best writing space opera of 300-400 pages, where he can be expansive but restrained. Unrestricted, his mind seems to go wild, and it needs the focus of definitive structure and length to keep his creative juices from corroding the standard of his work.

But. But... But... It has to be said that the Culture, following on from the thoroughly underwhelming Matter, is truly back. Although it's easy to criticise the technical problems of Surface Detail, it's possible to overlook them purely because it's so entertaining. As ever, Banks is overblown with violence and sex and sarcasm. He throws massive set-pieces around like a child throws mud without making half the mess. His characters' motivations may be easily readable, but the same characters are also easy to connect with because they seem so human.

So. Although Surface Detail won't go down as Banks' best work, it will go down as a good entry into the finest space opera series possibly ever written. I've said it before, and I have no doubt I'll say it again: when Banks is average by his standards he's still surpassing the finest efforts of some of the most talented writers also in the field. He still shows the flashes of brilliance that made so many fall in love with his writing in the first place. He's not been at his very best often of late (some of us remember The Algebraist and Inversions), but when he does get to that level he's still the best there is.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

GOU (Demilitarised) More Gravitas Than Expected

Thank you, Iain (M.) Banks, for making my life that little bit richer.

I, like many others, love your books. In fact, I'm thoroughly enjoying Use of Weapons for the third time at the moment. There aren't many writers who can release a book I get genuinely excited, but you're one of the few. I'd even go so far as to say I get a buzz even when I pick up something of yours I'm familiar with. I know I'll get interesting characters, an absorbing plot, and a style and structure I can spend hours analysing before realising I'll probably never get to that level with my own writing.

But you give myself and many other aspiring writers something to aspire towards. I could look at any number of other writers who don't write such excellent, challenging prose and settle for writing to their standard. But because of you I don't want to write to that standard. Even when your work hasn't been at its finest it's been better than 90% of others could dream of producing. Why aim for the ceiling when you can aim for the sky - as inhabited by a certain bearded Scotsman?

I wanted to write this while you're still with us because all too often things remain unsaid until its no longer possible to say things. I owe a genuine debt of gratitude to you, the man who gave us the Culture, The Wasp Factory, The Algebraist, and a dozen others. You entertain and inspire this young SF writer, and you'll be missed.

If you should read this, I apologise for sounding like an appalling suck-up.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Fool's Gambit

Over the last few weeks I've been systematically putting all my writing into folders on my iCloud. After downloading Pages for my iPhone it made sense; I may as well have all of my writing available on the go. I could do some work on a lunchtime, or on the train, or when I'm waiting for someone or something. As I've been going through the process I've been having a brief look at that work, seeing what I could revive at a future date and what I should dispatch to a shallow, unmarked grave right now with the minimum of ceremony. Most of that work isn't great. There's no way the last completed draft of Empire Rising (from circa 2006) would be accepted by any professional publisher, for instance. Even the work I've produced over the last two years isn't up to the standards of the magazine market I want to be published by. I doubt Interzone's editors would think twice before sending me rejection after rejection for work of my current standard.

It's a spur to improve, not least because to impress the professionals improvement is a necessity, not an option. If I want to become a writer who has some form of income from his writings, I have no option but to analyse my work and see where I'm going wrong. Is it my ideas, or is my writing style flawed? Is it just a sub-standard story? The end result of this is that the quality of my writing increases, with my chances of publication rising with each improvement I make. The rigmarole of submitting and rejecting acts as quality control, meaning the readerbase of those magazines will only ever have the very finest work presented to them.

By and large, this is true at the big publishers. Although the ultimate aim is to generate a big profit on any investment made in a writer's work, the quality will be high. A book isn't generally marketable if it lacks in quality. Something riddled with mistakes will more often than not find itself filtered out of the editing process and rejected. It's not to say low-grade material won't find its way to the shelves and sell millions (like a couple of well-known recent examples), but it is safe to say that if someone can't construct a sentence properly they won't sell their book.

Just writing something of novel length is an achievement in itself. I've managed it three times in seven years, most recently clocking in with a 51,000-word Nanowrimo novel in November last year. Anyone who has the patience to manage to reach the end of what could be a two- or three-year process - especially if they have a full-time job or the kids to keep an eye on all the time - deserves respect and no small amount of admiration. Some people write purely for the sense of accomplishment the end of a lengthy project brings. But often at the end of a project the writer will decide to take the next step and look to publishing their work.

Without taking away that initial accomplishment, the big target is publication. Publication brings with it a seal of quality. Someone else thinks the writer's work is worth reading - or marketable, with functional sentences, in the case of paranormal romance - and will get it out there. But there's still a long way to go between completion of a first draft and the shelves of Waterstone's. There's the editing process to complete, hard work in itself, then a potential second draft, and then the next edit. I seriously doubt many writers are so gifted that they could write a 70,000-word novel and have it published without some degree of editing taking place.

Yet the platform exists that means a writer can now do just that. Self-publishing has always been an easy way out, but in years gone by it was frowned upon as a refuge for the desperate and the vain. Thanks to Amazon - and in particular the Kindle - it seems that this is no longer the case. The Kindle marketplace is flooded with self-published books published through Amazon's own service, most of which should never have seen the light of day.

Remember what I said above. The traditional model for publishing has the quality control checks in place. Whilst an editor's second job may be concerned with a book's marketability, their first job remains to edit. A story I heard some time back concerned high fantasy author and teenagers' favourite Terry Brooks and surrounded the time he submitted his second novel's manuscript to noted publisher Lester Del Rey. Del Rey insisted Brooks re-structure and re-write the entire middle third of the novel that went on to become The Elfstones of Shannara. Brooks himself accepts that this made him go back and consider where he'd gone wrong, and credits Del Rey's decision with making him a better writer. Although this is an extreme example (Brooks may have had to re-write 60-70,000 words in total), it demonstrates what editors do. If your work isn't up to scratch, and they consider you to have the talent, they'll throw it back at you and force you to write to the required standard. Even if you personally don't agree with changes they make, they'll make you think about your writing. Where in self-publishing does this quality control exist? The answer is simple: nowhere.

It may be the popular option, but it encourages mediocrity. Having read 20% of one self-published book available on the Kindle, I gave up. This isn't because the fantasy story grated on me (even though it did - an editor wouldn't let so many clichés past him, if nothing else), but because the author had clearly not edited properly, and nor had they thought about what they were writing. Use of 'arctic' and 'Baltic' to describe the weather conditions makes sense in our world, but in a fantasy world where neither the Arctic nor the Baltic regions actually exist using them to describe the weather makes no sense. Give an editor ten minutes with the original manuscript and they could improve it to the point where such stupid errors weren't made.

On a forum I moderate I consistently see people talking about the benefits of self-publishing. Yes, it's easy. Yes, it may mean more money in your pocket in a shorter period of time. But I have to rebut any argument someone makes on those grounds as being rubbish. No one ever celebrated easy achievements. And because of the dirge of self-published works we're seeing at the moment, the argument that it's more money in your pocket is only relevant if you're incredibly lucky and sell thousands - unlike the hundreds of thousands of other novels that end up going for free as people try to encourage reviews that will get people to buy their work.

I don't want to read low quality fiction. It does nothing for me. I want something where I don't notice horrible use of language every ten sentences, and I want to read something with structure and poise and elegance. I want to read fiction of high quality, and for that reason I will only read material that comes through the traditional model. And I will continue to aspire to write something that gets published through that model. At least that way I will have a real sense of accomplishment at the end of one day in the future.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Dark Tower

I can't claim to be a graphic novels expert. I've read Watchmen, the leading light of the field, made a start on The Sandman, devoured Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and dabbled with a handful of others including Mark Millar's Kick-Ass (yes, that one) and V For Vendetta, but compared to most I'm still a complete newcomer. I've never read any standalone Superman or Spiderman, for goodness' sake!

Which is why anything I say in this review of Marvel's adaptation of the backstory of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series should be taken with a handful of sodium chloride. What I found to be odd may be standard practice in the field, and may be the best way of doing it. Because there were a few things to criticise, but first I need to give some background.

For anyone unaware, The Dark Tower is Stephen King's magnum opus. It is the tale of Roland Deschain, last gunslinger of Gilead, and his quest for the eponymous Tower, which stands at the heart of time and space and threatens to topple under the duress of the Crimson King and his minions, thus plunging the multiverse back into the chaos from which it was birthed. Starting with The Gunslinger, it took King 33 years to write the seven volumes, and millions of readers (including myself) have devoted hours to the quest down the years. Its strength lies in no small part in the character of Roland himself, the cold-hearted gunslinger with a turbulent past, whom the reader comes to love through the eyes of others. His backstory is gradually revealed, culminating in a 500-page flashback in Wizard and Glass which reveals the tragic origins of the quest for the Tower.

It's from this that Marvel have reaped the basic source material for their prequel graphic novels. The first volume, The Gunslinger Born, is, in essence, a retelling of Wizard and Glass. It's an impressive work, but it lacks the depth and complexity of the original novel. Perhaps this is a necessity - there's a scarcity of words that's required in graphic storytelling - but I felt slightly disappointed by the storytelling, much as I enjoyed the adaptation as a whole.

Volume two, The Long Road Home, also lacks depth, with it basically being a story of how the Ka-tet got home from Hambry to Gilead. It isn't until Treachery when things begin to break into Dark Tower virgin territory. All of a sudden, we're seeing things that we haven't seen before, that we've only heard about. This is where the depth of Wizard and Glass really feels like it's missing. There are plots and intrigues that never quite feel as they should - everything feels superficial and lacking in substance. Which isn't to say that it's bad. No one will struggle to enjoy the new chapters in Roland's tale. However what could have been essential reading for all Tower junkies is instead relegated to being an interesting sideshow.

The Fall of Gilead and Battle of Jericho Hill are riddled by the same problems. Things seem superficial. Characters don't feel adequately fleshed out, being cardboard cut-outs of the people whom we grew to love in the novels. But one character stands ahead of all others - Roland's development from duty-bound boy to lovestruck teenager to cold-hearted man is most noticeable. With each casualty of the Affiliation's war with John Farson and the agents of the Crimson King he becomes noticeably more withdrawn emotionally until we recognise the gunslinger who followed the Man in Black across the desert.

This is, to a point, as it should be. This is Roland's tale, after all. Everyone else is incidental, no matter how much of a part they play in his tale. But it would have been nice to see the depth given to Roland also given to Alain, Cuthbert or Aileen in the later stages of the series.

One thing I haven't mentioned is the artwork. And if one thing has to be mentioned, it's just that. Of all the graphic novels I've read, I've never read one with such a bold style as these. It's gothic and dark and detailed in the foreground. It draws the eye to what is meant to be seen. Every character's motivations can be read on their face. Every action seems dynamic. Art buffs would go mad for the style. I'm not an art buff, but I couldn't help but fall in love with it.

The question has to be answered: Did I enjoy the series? Yes, I did. I spent a day working my way through almost 1,000 pages of it, and didn't put it down until I was finished with all five. There's something to be said for something that keeps me reading like that. But is it worth a newbie reading without knowledge of The Dark Tower? I'd say not. It's a series for fans of the novels, which will add to their enjoyment of King's series, rather than something for everyone.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Song of Kali

An American writer is dispatched to India to trace a poet thought dead, but who seems to have made a reappearance with a new manuscript. He takes with him his wife - and cultural liaison - and baby daughter, and becomes embroiled in a cult that reanimates the dead, and has more than a couple of links to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Thus goes Song of Kali, Dan Simmons 1985 début novel. Before he brought the world The Hyperion Cantos he was terrifying it with stories of an Indian underworld that brought out the worst in humanity. There is a lot of familiar ground that anyone who has previously read his work will notice - literary references, strongly-drawn characters, overwhelming bleakness, and out-and-out terror.

India is apparently ripe material for writers to plunder for their horror, and Kali seems to have found herself being used more often than others. Rememeber the bloodthirsty scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? You'll find there's that common ground here - with cults obsessed with death and running things behind the scenes. It makes sense to a point - Indian culture and religion is alien to those with Western sensibilities, even with the constant modernising Western influence of these days, and it's easy to find something destabilising in the unfamiliarity of the land and its customs. It worked for George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, and it works for Dan Simmons.

As ever, Simmons prose is tight and eminently readable. And on this occasion there's a real intensity to the prose akin to the Father Dure scenes in Hyperion. The intensity comes in no small part from the constant undercurrent of violence that Simmons manages to infuse every scene with. Calcutta promises violence from the word go, and it never loses that level of threat. Add to it the very real horror in the depictions of slum towns, rats running from place to place, children grown up before their time and the admission must be made that the backdrop is superbly painted.

The book always feels an uneasy read, but it's always compelling. There are a few scenes where Simmons skill at making the skin crawl comes through - one forty-page flashback sequence leaves the reader breathless and troubled. And then there's one scene near the end that will haunt you for days - I can't stop thinking about the horror of it. It's not nice, easy reading. It's horror at its psychological best.

But it's not all darkness. Like the ending of Endymion, there's some brightness to be seen. Simmons has that trick of creating a near-relentlessly dark world, but just giving the reader the chinks of light to see a potential happy outcome. Perhaps Simmons is a proponent of the Dark Knight Rises school of giving people hope to induce despair. Whatever he is, it's masterfully managed.

If you're a horror fan, read Song of Kali. The most haunting scenes will stay with you for an age. You may not want to read it again (I don't), but it's a sign that it's done its job. It's a book to get inside your head, and that you'll feel glad to have experienced. Just expect to want to take a shower straight after.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The year's challenge

Every year I like to set myself a reading and writing challenge. Normally I set myself a number of books to read (this year it's 60, exactly the same as last year), plus something a little different. In 2011 it was to 'read the alphabet' - so for 'A' it would be Asimov, 'M' Mieville and so on. I failed. I didn't read any authors whose last names began with X or Y, among others. But it gave something a bit different to my reading and made me read things I wouldn't normally try.

This year my challenge is to split my reading between male and female writers, as well as to read a short story a day. In the past I've neglected too many talented ladies because I've had the works of male writers who I liked to read through. Already this year I've read five books - four of which have been by men, and the one woman whose novel I've read was well known to me. I never meant to not read the work of women. It just happened. But I intend to remedy it this year, with Connie Willis, Robin Hobb, Alison Littlewood, and K.J. Parker all waiting to be read. No doubt I'll be picking up more as the year goes on - the excellent SF Masterworks imprint from Gollancz seems to be releasing many more works by women at the moment, and I have no doubt I'll be picking up a dozen or so of those this year (with The Female Man top of the hitlist).

As for the short stories, I'm already well ahead of target. In 23 days I've read 35 stories, and kept my resolution to read a short story a day.

Sadly, the writing is a different story. There's no word count target in place this year, but I've yet to really start work on my monthly short story. I seem to be stuck in a rut where I sit down to work, do some work... and then leave the land fallow where an idea should go. It's not been helping that I have a few big ideas clamouring for attention, but that's no excuse. I need to write.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Sand on the wind

Imagine for a moment, if you will, a piece of science fiction written and published today. It focusses on the problems of ecology facing the world. It's up-front with its message: we need to do something about global warming now or we'll lose the lowlands of the world, and all the species they are home to.

Now imagine that same piece of science fiction thirty years in the future, in a future where worries of global warming have been eased - at least in terms of icecaps melting and raising sea levels - because of a series of dykes that have been raised the world over by pioneering Dutch engineers. The story becomes dated and easy to place - the second decade of the twenty-first century. It loses relevance. It may be a classic of its type, but there's every chance that it'll be forgotten and drowned beneath the tidal wave of new fiction concentrating on other contemporary problems, which in turn will be swept away by subsequent fiction of the same sort.

So how do you make sure a story set in its time remains relevant?

I would argue that the answer can only be found in fiction that doesn't tackle issues head-on - but tackles them through its cast of characters. Take Frank Herbert's Dune, for instance. I'm going to come clean and say that it's one of my favourite books, not least because I'm in love with the story (so I may be a little biased). I'm also going to say I'm not going to waste time and talk about the heavy-handed and over-preachy sequels written by either Frank or his son, Brian. If you want to read them, be my guest, but don't expect them to measure up to the magnificence of the original.

Dune was first published in 1965 and isn't about ecology - but it so easily could have been. It could also have been about resource wars, and I have no doubt that were it released today it would be taken as commentary on American foreign policy in the Middle East. And it's not really about resource wars either. What Dune is about is people - in particular, politics and religion, and often how those two combine. This may as well be explained in the first chapter, as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood demonstrates the purpose of her order to Paul Atreides, Ducal heir and protagonist. As time goes on, Paul moves with his House to Arrakis, the only place in the universe where the spice Melange may be found, a desert planet with a savage climate. The family are put there by their ruler, and they find themselves engaged in vendetta with the Harkonnens, holders of the previous fief over the planet, who mined spice and provided the universe with its most precious commodity.

All I mentioned above - ecology in particular - form part of the background themes of the novel, but because of the vendetta and the politics that take place as a result of it and subsequent manoeuvrings the focus is forced onto the people - and more specifically, onto how those people react and behave and react to events around them.

People are the one perpetual truth in society and literature. Everything in life comes back to humanity and what's best for it. Even the biggest themes in literature - such as the old Arthur C. Clarke favourite of the human race's place in the universe - have the human element. But things relating to humanity change, while humanity does not. The world moves on while mankind exists in perpetuity. Mankind's invented interests - politics not least among them - travel with humanity like a second skin, unlike the events we react to such as global warming (see: ecology).

And this is what Dune is best at. It distils everything to a human level. And because it's not tied to its non-human themes, it means it can continue to be relevant.

If I were to go on and talk about how only science fiction can really do this (as other forms of literature are tethered to their time of writing in many ways) I'd be able to make a fair case. But it isn't one for today. My point has to be that the human side of writing is more important than the contextual side - one is a constant and this has to be remembered.