Saturday, 31 December 2011

Dear Everyone | Old Year, New Year

So: 2011.

I think it's been A Good Year, all told.

First, if not foremost, I've read more than I ever have before - more than 100 books, which is a big deal for me - and I've chosen said books better. That is to say, in 2011 I found a tolerable balance between those books I've read solely to review, and those books I've read simply to read, because I love reading.

And there have been some great books.

I still haven't watched as many movies as I usually would, but I've seen a fair few, and a few more since I put together this list of my favourite films of the year, including Conan, Attack the Block, Another Earth, A Lonely Place to Die and Super 8. Reviews will follow shortly.

In video games, meanwhile, 2011 was great. Portal 2 was my game of the year, of course, with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hot on its heels, and I'm still playing that. Well... truth be told I'm taking a short break, because last week I finally got my hands on a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It's the first game I've played on my Wii in at least a year, and realistically it's probably the last game I'll ever play on the thing.

Even so, it's been brilliant. A fitting send off for rather an ill-fitting console, if I'm honest.

In 2011, I also started reading comic books again. I didn't put together a Top of the Scots about them largely because even now, I'm up to my ears in collections and recommendations to catch up on. It'll be an almighty long time before I'm anywhere approaching current, but maybe... just maybe... comic books will get theirs in 2012.

In the interim, I'd very much recommend Daryl Gregory's Planet of the Apes ongoing, anything by Jeff Lemire or Scott Snyder, and Stephen King's N., which I'll be posting about shortly.
What else?

Gosh, only everything!


I can't hope to hit on all my personal or professional highlights here in this li'l baby blog, but I do want to say one last thing, to all the people I've met in 2011, whether thanks to The Speculative Scotsman or thanks to things that have come to pass because of The Speculative Scotsman, like having my reviews published in Strange Horizons and Starburst Magazine, or on Tor.com, SF Signal, The Zone and so on.

So to all the lovely folks I've met through the community - to the bloggers, the authors, the publicists, the editors, the agents - to each and every one of you, a tip of the hat, and a hearty thank you for sticking with me in 2011.

We'll talk again next year, alright?

Which is to say... tomorrow.
 
Because in a bit, we'll be putting this year out to pasture -- and who knows what 2012 will bring?

The end of the world? I'm going to say no.

New books, new movies? New video games and new comic books? I should think so!

Not only, but also: I'll be making some serious changes to The Speculative Scotsman in the weeks and months to come. I have a good few new features on and off the drawing board, a whole new look and feel in the offing, and maybe, just maybe, something... more.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There are still a few hours of 2011 to go, and if you'd care to spend some small portion of them telling me about the highlights - even the lowlights - of your year... why I'd be much obliged! Because that's kind of what this whole thing is about. You know: The Conversation.

And The Conversation will continue in 2012.

Before that, though, brace yourselves... I'm going to say it.

In the words of Neil Gaiman, international treasure:

 
Meanwhile, in the rather less inspiring words of me, to each and every one of you, and all of yours: Happy New Year! :D

Friday, 30 December 2011

Book Review | Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch


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The song. That’s what London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant first notices when he examines the corpse of Cyrus Wilkins, part-time jazz drummer and full-time accountant, who dropped dead of a heart attack while playing a gig at Soho’s 606 Club. The notes of the old jazz standard are rising from the body — a sure sign that something about the man’s death was not at all natural but instead supernatural.

Peter will risk body and soul as he investigates a pattern of similar deaths in and around Soho. With the help of his superior officer, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, and the assistance of beautiful jazz aficionado Simone Fitzwilliam, Peter will uncover a deadly magical menace — one that leads right to his own doorstep and to the squandered promise of a young jazz musician: a talented trumpet player named Richard "Lord" Grant — otherwise known as Peter’s dear old dad.


***

I don't have an iPod, but if I did, there'd be all sorts of funny business on it. Folk, metal, industrial, orchestral, electronica, alt. rock, dubstep... I could go on - some of the music I love most does - but let's just say I'm not particularly particular about what I shake my tush to. I'll give most every genre of music a fair shake, and in my experience, however outwardly unappealing a certain sound might seem, there's usually something about it I can learn to love.

But not jazz.

And I've tried! Hand on heart I have, because I really rather like the idea of liking jazz. That probably says a whole lot about me that I'd sooner not say, but there's something intensely appealing about the prospect of whiling away a Friday night in a bar somewhere in the city, sharing a bottle of red with the other half while the music soars and swings and ripples around us.

Sadly, jazz is a genre I just can't get my head around. I struggle to pick out the rhythms, the melodies all a-muddle. In fact, the free-form, find your own fun of jazz leaves me feeling ignorant, exhausted and utterly uncultured.


Odd, then, that I adored Moon Over Soho so. After all, the second book of The Folly by Ben Aaronovitch is all about jazz: its plot revolves around the serial slaying - perhaps I need not add by magical means, but I shall - of several jazz icons and up-and-comers in an assortment of dingy London pubs and clubs, meanwhile it features a number of lengthy digressions into the history and heritage of jazz, as well as its place in our era. Moon Over Soho is, finally, something of a musical fusion in and of itself; it is equal parts police procedural - in other words, it's all about "maintaining the Queen's Peace," (p.23) - and magical mystery tour, a la Harry Potter.

Most distinctively, it's as funny as it is fantastic. See here:

"Murder investigations start with the victim, because usually in the first instance that's all you've got. The study of the victim is called victimology because everything sounds better with an 'ology' tacked on the end. To make sure you make a proper fist of this, the police have developed the world's most useless mnemonic - 5 x W H & H - otherwise known as Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? Next time you watch a real murder investigation on the TV, and you see a group of serious-looking detectives standing around talking, remember what they're actually doing is trying to work out what sodding order the mnemonic is supposed to go in. Once they've sorted that out, the exhausted officers will retire to the nearest watering hole for a drink and a bit of a breather." (p.108)

Aaronovitch's sly, dry, sharply satiristic sense of humour is in full effect in Moon Over Soho, at least as much as it was in predecessor -- if not more, because this sequel occurs in a world in solid working order already: namely the magical kingdom of London. Mayhap you've heard of it?

Add to that the fact that the author spends precious little time explaining what happened last time in Rivers of London... to Constable Peter Grant and his partner and sometime love interest Lesley May, both rather the worse for wear after the magical calamity with which the previous volume concluded; nor to the gang-gods of the Thames, never mind their many, various and nefarious wains. A quick reference here and there is the extent of it, and while some readers are likely to find this a bit baffling, I was alright with the oversight, because Moon Over Soho wastes so little energy recapping and worldbuilding that Aaaronovitch can hone in on what made our last visit to The Folly such a treat: on the fun, and the funny, which comes thick and fast. Rarely does a page of Aaaronovitch's neat sequel pass without there being something to elicit a grin, or a knowing eyebrow.


The narrative's not to be sniffed at either. It's perhaps a notch less substantial, and certainly a lot less surprising, than the whimsical watery warfare of Rivers of London, but it hops along happily to a toe-tapping time signature, with a sweet solo here and an awesome cacophony of noise there. In the erstwhile, the underground jazz scene makes for a fascinating and fittingly multicultural motif to set this somewhat throwaway story against -- plus it serves to bring Peter's family into the picture again, and it was great to meet the Grants again.

Moon Over Soho's characters are wonderful to a one, come to that. Invariably warm and witty, smart and sensible, there are only a few new additions - most return, disfigured or merely disheartened, from the events of book one of The Folly - but of these, Stephanopolis specifically is terrific. "She was a short, terrifying woman whose legendary capacity for revenge had earned her the title of the lesbian officer least likely to have a flippant remark made about her sexual orientation," (p.76) and I dearly hope to see more of her in Whispers Under Ground.


If one absolutely must append a single category to Moon Over Soho, I suppose it'd be urban fantasy - like jazz, a genre I'm not terribly interested in, I'll be the first to admit - but any number of things put Aaronovitch's fiction ahead of the pack, not least its fearless engagement with the now, and our generation - which is to say both mine and yours, given where and how you're reading this review - above all others.

And Moon Over Soho is both superficially modern - as above, so below - and engaged more meaningfully with the contemporary climate: on the one hand Aaronovitch easily strikes a similar chord as Ernest Cline did in Ready Player One - name-checking Street Fighter II and Logan's Run in a single paragraph, say (see. p.284) - while on the other the author applies a relatable and revealing perspective to the content of his novel, what with our worldly-wise-but-somewhat-bumbling hero's attempts to explain the inexplicable that is the bread and butter of this book. Which is to say magic... with science. You can imagine how that works out.

London is a bit much for a country mouse like me, but Moon Over Soho paints such a frantic, fantastic picture of the place and the people who call it home that I'm suddenly itching to visit. As aforementioned, it's not at all standalone, and the story is somewhat on the slight side, but all that jazz - up to and including all the jazz - be damned: I had vast amounts of fun reading Moon Over Soho, and if you're in the least inclined towards the light side of genre fiction, you surely will too.


***

Moon Over Soho
by Ben Aaronovitch

UK Publication: April 2011, Gollancz
US Publication: March 2011, Del Rey

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Recommended and Related Reading

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Video Game Review | Assassin's Creed: Revelations, dev. Ubisoft Everywhere


You want revelations?

Well, that's too bad: there aren't any in this tepid second sequel to Assassin's Creed 2.

When the first sprung out of a conveniently-placed haystack late last year, it came fully-formed out of almost nowhere. The pre-release publicity had pitched Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood primarily as a multiplayer game, and in part it was that... but in the same breath, to the shock and awe of game critics far and wide, it was so much more than that.

As a single-player game, Brotherhood was an experience which built smartly and expansively upon the already-solid foundation of the last installment in this secret sci-fi franchise. The introduction of a marvelous managerial metagame whereby the player could recruit, train and then call upon an entire battalion of junior assassins proved to its biggest, bestest - but not its only - innovation. This worked both to add depth and texture to the world of Renaissance-era anti-hero Ezio Auditore, fleshing out the eternal conflict between his hidden guild and the wicked Templars to great effect, as well as to spice up the play mechanics of a series already looking a little long in the tooth.


Alas, like a wagon without wheels, the incremental betterment of the Assassin's Creed franchise shudders to a halt here, because there is no such masterstroke in Revelations. Saying that, there are a few new mechanics, most notable amongst them a tower defense mini-game which is every bit as awkward as it sounds, and dull as day-old dishwater to boot. More successful than Den Defense - though similarly derivative - are several heavily-scripted set-piece sequences likely to put players very much in mind of the Uncharted series.

There are a handful of further new features, too, but by and large, those embellishments Revelations makes on the tried-and-tested formula of the essential Assassin's Creed experience are... uninspiring, to put it politely. Insipid, if we aren't minding our manners. 

Revelations is still an incredibly competent game, all things considered - particularly given the sordid story of its development in such a tight time-frame (one year) by no less than six different studios - but fatigue sets in early on, such that the end, when it comes, is a real relief.

Needless to say, that's a great shame, because Revelations is a game all about endings, and Ezio Auditore's story is not the only narrative to clatter to a conclusion in this scattershot annual installment: we also spend some time - rather too much time, in point of fact - with the protagonist of the ill-considered original Assassin's Creed, Altair.


As it happens, the conclusion of Altair's story is markedly more satisfying than the end Ezio meets, which is to say no end at all since - in their infinite wisdom - Ubisoft have deemed to tell that tale in the short animated feature Assassin's Creed: Embers... and unless you invest in the limited edition of Revelations, you'll have to buy Embers separately, or track it down on YouTube, as I did.

Leave it to the purveyors of all things Tom Clancy to spin off the spin-off of a spin-off...

Revelations is assuredly not the last hurrah Ezio has earned. It's not even the send-off Altair deserved, and I didn't like that dude in the least. What it is is a bit of a kick in the teeth... an elaborate insult which does a disservice to so many of the stories this series has told better before. It looks the part and, insofar as it has such a firm foundation in its predecessor, it actually plays pretty well, too, but Revelations is ultimately no more and no less than a stopgap between Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed 3, and with it, Ubisoft run the risk of putting people off the franchise entirely.

A dangerous game, that...

...not at all like this one!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Book Review | The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters


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In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall.

Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, this handsome Georgian house, once grand and elaborate, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine.

But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. 

***

There are only a few things in life I love more than a good ghost story, especially once the chill of winter's set in.

Well it has - and how - so I went to work.

I'd be hard pressed now to think of a greater ghost story than The Little Stranger. Certainly nothing else written this century can hold a candle to it.

Speaking of candles, the surviving Ayreses have precious little else with which to light their way around Hundreds Hall - so hard-up have they become in the years since the war, and the untimely expiration of the former master of this once-great estate - so when night falls, life in this country house simply... stops.

Except there's something, isn't there? It beggars belief, but there must be. Something, or someone, that is in fact quite at home creaking around in the pitch dark and the thick damp of Hundreds' closed-off upper floors, when everyone else has taken to bed. And it's becoming bolder; more daring; more dangerous by the day.

Into this outwardly forbidding and inwardly escalating environment comes, on a seemingly routine call, bachelor-about-town Dr. Faraday.

"It was the purest chance that took me out there, for the Ayreses were registered with my partner, David Graham; but he was busy with an emergency case that day, so when the family sent out for a doctor the request was passed on to me. My heart began to sink almost the moment I let myself into the park. I remembered a long approach to the house through neat rhododendron and laurel, but the park was no so overgrown and untended, my small car had to fight its way down the drive. When I broke free of the bushes at last and found myself on a sweep of lumpy gravel with the Hall directly ahead of me, I put on the brake, and gaped in dismay. [...] What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house's uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat's-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams." (p.5)


A working class fellow come good, if not as good as he might like, Dr. Faraday has thought fondly of Hundreds Hall his entire adult life, ever since attending a prize-giving ceremony at the estate where Faraday's dear departed mother was once a serving girl. Decades later, he returns to give aid to the Ayreses' own maid, but poor young Betty isn't ill, only spooked. You see, something in Hundreds has scared her half to death.

Whether it is real or merely imagined, our man will become intimately familiar with this ghastly phantasm the more time he spends attending the various Ayreses, and to Faraday's surprise, Caroline, Roderick, and their ailing mother are in need of a great deal of help -- help he's happy to give, initially. Ashamed of their fallen stature, not least their dilapidated estate, the Ayreses have lived in near-complete isolation for years, and in Faraday they finally find a line out into the town, and an audience for their stories, as old as time and as fine as antique wine. Helping them through the hard winter, he becomes quite the family friend... and ultimately, maybe more.

But all the while, there's something afoot. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something - invariably - blue. Something, in short, that seems to mean the family harm. As a supporting player suggests:

"Is that so surprising, with thing for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let's call it a -- a germ. And let's say the conditions prove right for that germ to develop -- to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the consicous mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration." (p.380)


The Little Stranger is Sarah Waters' fifth novel, after Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, and it is, I think, by a large margin her finest. That said, I do have rather a fondness for speculative fiction - had you heard? - and though there have been certain dalliances in the past, this is the only of Waters' novels which could feasibly be described in such a way.

Note, though, that The Little Stranger did not begin as a ghost story - not according to the author, and to a certain extent I think this shows - and it does not necessarily end as one, either. Rather, the horrid goings-on at Hundreds Hall emerge from almost nowhere, from out of the woodwormed woodwork of this ruinous mansion as if they'd merely been biding their time, waiting for the right moment to strike.

And when the penny does drop, it does not feel forced, or at all false. The atmosphere of Hundreds Hall is such that if there hadn't been something secreted within its rotten reaches, I would have been sorely disappointed.

I was not.

There will be some who say The Little Stranger takes a long time to get where we know, or where we think we know it's going... but no. I'm sorry... but no. Because in advance of all that, there's cruel and unusual class conflict, excruciating romantic entanglement and occasional comedy. There's tension and suspense; meanwhile moments of unadulterated terror and terrible tragedy. Waters writes dialogue which peels clean off the page, and deposits it into the mouths and minds of such original, outspoken characters that they seem as alive (until they are not) as you or I.

Sarah Waters is an uncannily talented author, and whether or not this is her finest work, as I assert, it is in every sense - in terms of setting, character, narrative, and nuance - the equal of the very best ghost stories of yore.

These are not things I say lightly, but in this case I must say them, for I found The Little Stranger perfectly impossible to put down. It is the very definition of gripping... an absolute masterclass in ghostie goings-on. And marvelously, the author leaves the door open for multiple readings, and contradicting interpretations of what exactly has gone on in Hundreds Hall. 

The Little Stranger is The Turn of the Screw of our generation, and it is every bit as haunting, and as harrowing. With the festive season in full swing, and the hopeless cold to come, there is, I think, no better time to catch up on this creepy contemporary classic than now.


***

The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

UK Publication: May 2009, Virago Press
US Publication: April 2009, Riverhead Books

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Friday, 23 December 2011

Dear Everyone | Christmas Wishes

Is it just me, or have the holidays come upon us awfully quickly this year?

I suppose I must just be getting old, because I hear time does that, the more used to it you get. To keep you on your toes, you know?

But no matter how old I am, I love Christmas. I grant you that I may very well seem the type to humbug all over this, the season of giving, and receiving, and wonderful one-off television specials - I'm holding out for the Top Gear team's misadventures in India myself - but appearances can of course be deceiving. And me? I'm all about deceiving. :)

Anyway, from today on, things will - as you'd expect - be a little slower-going here on The Speculative Scotsman than is usual. I'll write a few reviews over the break, I don't doubt, and I'm certainly hoping to get a huge amount of reading done, but in my experience, time is always on the short side around the new year period, so I wouldn't expect a huge amount of anything other than tofurkey talk on Twitter.

Somewhat to my surprise, I gather I'm also going on holiday in early January - to spend a week in bonnie Bratislava - but your regularly scheduled programming should resume on the 16th of the first month of 2012, and it's hardly going to be a wasteland hereabouts between now and then, I pinky swears it!

In fact, I have a certain something I've been working on for altogether too long already; a certain somewhat surprising something that might be the perfect thing to entertain you all in my absence. No spoilers... except to say: Skyrim.

But we'll talk again before then. For the very moment, it's tofurkey time!

It only remains for me to say, to all the publishers and the publicists, and to all the bloggers and authors and the editors who helped me make The Speculative Scotsman what it was in 2011 - and what it will be again in 2012, but better, all things being equal - thank you! From the bottom of my heart, I really do appreciate your efforts.

Most of all, though, to each and every one of you folks - yes, you folks - merry early Christmas!

And a hippity hoppety happy New Year to all of you, and all of yours too. :)

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Film Review | Sucker Punch, dir. Zack Snyder


Have you ever wondered just how much stuff you could fit into a single film?

Evidently Zack Snyder has. Sucker Punch is like the entirety of The Lord of the Rings trilogy - the Extended Editions, of course - meets The Matrix, by way of Devil May Cry, Onimusha, and Alice: The Madness Returns, with Hermione from Harry Potter running about in a close-fitting miniskirt the whole time, shooting dudes and gyrating to show tunes, presumably because Baz Luhrman is behind the scenes somewhere, and since she's dressed to impress... well, why not?

Sucker Punch is a mouthful of a movie, make no mistake, and a lot of it falls flat on its ass; enough to ruin any other single film. But at the same time, I think the latest from the writer/director who made his most lasting mark with 300 has been quite unfairly maligned. It's certainly not all bad, and not a minute of it is terrible. You might say some moments are even entertaining. And from first to last, it sure does look good.

Sounds alright, too. Boy can Baby Doll sing!

But Baby Doll: there's as good a place as any to start. Before Baby Doll was Baby Doll, see, she was an older sister, and an alluring prospect for the abusive monster of a man she has for a stepfather. This she tolerates, because what other choice is there for an orphan girl like her? But one night Baby Doll-to be watches her stepfather sneak into to her little sister's room. She uses her imagination... and snaps. Or does she finally see sense?


In any event, the result is the same: her stepfather has her locked up in an exclusive asylum for virginal young women, which just so happens to double as a harem for high rollers like Don Draper from Mad Men. He's coming to do what he will with this beautiful new blood in five days, incidentally, but Baby Doll doesn't mean to take this latest cruel twist of fate lying down either. Rather, she resolves to escape this utterly corrupt institute whatever the cost, and so sets out to enlist the assistance of some other pretty young things, namely Rocket, Sweet Pea, Blondie and Amber, in exactly that order.

Which is all perfectly sensible, give or take some early incoherency. Sucker Punch only goes off the deep end when Baby Doll and her attractive associates take to shared hallucinations in order to recover five MacGuffins which will somehow enable their happily-ever-after exit to stage left: fire, a map, a knife, a key, and one other thing; a sacrifice sure to cost these dancing queens dearly.

It's all very video-gamey, needless to say. The search for mostly meaningless objects to move the plot along is rarely so thinly-veiled in film, and it's strange to see it foregrounded in this fashion. Yet I could see past that. I even reached deep and found it in myself to not gawp for altogether too long at all the skimpy fetish gear Zack Snyder's deemed it appropriate to dress up his barely post-pubescent cast in, which I gather has been quite the issue amongst many of Sucker Punch's most vociferous critics.

Leaving aside the fact that there's quite a bit of skin on show here, and there is - apologies if you came expecting some impassioned argument about the propriety of such titillation in cinema; I've seen a lot worse done a great deal less professionally - if you ask me, Sucker Punch's greatest obstacle is its own boundless ambition. Because it's not enough that it wholesales borrows all the most distinctive tropes of steampunk, science fiction and fantasy - never mind gun porn, hellish Nazi horror and the superhero movie - it also feels the need to be a bit of a musical, too; also an extravaganza of apparent girl power, a pseudo-Shakespearian tragedy, a visceral visual feast, and I could go on. That's maybe a third of all that Sucker Punch is, or aspires to be.


The thing of it is, even if fully two thirds of everything in Sucker Punch ultimately comes to nothing - and there is so much to take into account here that it would be beyond tedious were I to endeavour to do so; these broad strokes are I think in everyone's best interests - even then, there is enough left that does work, that does thrill and excite and amuse, to fill five lesser films than this, the biggest, brashest, ballsiest movie I've seen all year.

On the one hand, I couldn't wait for Sucker Punch to be over. It's absolutely exhausting, and it does go on... oh yes. On the other hand, however, I wouldn't take back the experience of seeing it, and hearing it - it's worth mentioning that the soundtrack is one of the most memorable since Underworld - for a single, solitary moment. It looks, then, fantastic; it sounds simply superb; the ensemble cast put on a solid song and dance - certainly everyone seems game for a bit of fun; Sucker Punch feels, finally... just fine. 

For good or for ill, it is truly a movie like no other. Too much of one, if anything. But I wholeheartedly applaud Zack Snyder's grandiose ambition; his inimitable and impeccably rendered vision. Even if you never want to see another hint of it henceforth.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Comic Book Review | Shenzhen and Pyongyang by Guy Delisle


This will be old news to many of you, I expect, but in my other life, I'm a teacher.

Actually, no. That's not exactly true... and thank the lord for that! Strictly speaking I'm an English tutor - I chair courses on reading and writing at a private education centre here in central Scotland - and one of the things I'm often heard to say to the high-school students in my care is that there are stories everywhere. Wherever you look, and you needn't look far, or wide, there are narratives unfolding, complete with characters, conflicts, climaxes -- really the whole kit and caboodle.

They might not be good stories by any meaningful measure, but they are true stories, and often, I find, that's enough. If in a piece of writing one of my students can capture some fleeting fragmentary truth - some glimmer of insight into how we work, or the way the world works around us - then never mind all the elementary spelling mistakes and so on and so forth; no amount of misplaced punctuation marks can take away from an honest, relatable portrayal of some feeling, or facet of our lives.

Now whether I have my teaching hat on or not, that's a sentiment I stand by whole-heartedly, so it's an odd thing - but no less a true thing - that I don't, in my spare time, consume a great deal of non-fiction. Not in any form that I can think of: not in film, not in literature, and - excepting Persepolis - certainly not in comic books. At least, not till now.


I picked up Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea almost on a whim while out looking for a couple of last-minute Christmas gifts. I read the first few pages right there in the store, and immediately found myself hungry - like one of those hippos - for more. Home again, home again, jiggety jig, I polished off Pyongyang and its successor, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, in a wonderful, whimsical week of evenings. I'd urge anyone with an interest in comics books, or culture, to do likewise.

Guy Delisle is - or was, when he put together these "graphic memoirs" (as the blurb would have it) - a jobbing French-Candian animator. His trips to Pyongyang and then Shenzhen were for business rather than pleasure, to oversee the work of various outsourcing studios, and it's just as well, because as he illustrates, there's precious little pleasure to be taken from either of these depressing places.

Saying that, there's not a dull moment in these travelogues, and that's no mean feat, because at around 150 pages each, they're certainly not short, and Delisle spends almost his entire time abroad in complete and utter isolation. He can't speak the required languages, he's restricted to certain areas, and he's made to stay in the most appalling, anonymous hotels. Weeks go by without him talking to anyone at all, or doing anything particularly interesting, so he has to amuse himself somehow -- and us.

To that end, Delisle doesn't spend too long documenting any one thing. Both Pyongyang and Shenzhen are broken up into easily-digestible episodes, about the length of a single issue each, and though he spends the vast majority of them pontificating about what it is to exist in these cities, under their respective regimes, whether as a citizen or a visitor - riffing on this thing he heard or that incident he saw - there are also several sequences wherein he talks about his job, offering insight into and anecdotal evidence of the increasingly bleak business of animation.


These recollections are perfectly fascinating in their own right, but they also work to punctuate the more troubling aspects of life in China and the so-called axis of evil, and there are, shall we say, some very troubling aspects. In any event, Delisle has a real knack for teasing out stories wherever he goes.

Admittedly I've never read anything remotely resembling either Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea or Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, but I adored both of these books. Guy Delisle is a disarmingly frank author, and an astute cartoonist, too; these graphic novels are replete with such wit and insight, such good humour and clear-eyed observational engagement - even from afar - that I can't recommend them highly enough, whether to fans of the comic form or simply people with a passing interest in what life is (or was) like in these little-seen cities, particularly in light of the recent reports of Kim Jong-Il's death.

I've holidayed in some strange and dangerous places in my time, and though I know better than to ever say never, realistically I'm not likely to spend several months in China or North Korea myself. Guy Delisle's marvelous, Hergé-esque graphic memoirs are thus as close as I expect to get, and that's quite close enough, thank you very much.

Now, to lay hands on a copy of The Burma Chronicles as soon as humanly possible...

Monday, 19 December 2011

Book Review | The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell


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When his brother disappears into a bizarre gateway on a London Underground escalator, failed artist Ed Rico and his brother's wife Alice have to put aside their feelings for each other to go and find him. Their quest through the 'arches' will send them hurtling through time, to new and terrifying alien worlds.

Four hundred years in the future, Katherine Abdulov must travel to a remote planet in order to regain the trust of her influential family. The only person standing in her way is her former lover, Victor Luciano, the ruthless employee of a rival trading firm.

Hard choices lie ahead as lives and centuries clash and, in the unforgiving depths of space, an ancient evil stirs...

***

I've often bemoaned a certain lack in contemporary sf: a confusion, as I see it, of the precedence given to each of science fiction's component parts, namely the science, and the fiction. In the genre today, so far removed from the scientific romances with which it began - stories of love and adventure and discovery with just a whiff of tomorrow's world about them - the tech, nine times out of ten, takes top billing; the science overrides, or undermines, the fiction, obscuring character and narrative in favour of worldbuilding, speculation and so on.

The Recollection is the exception that proves the rule. Gareth L. Powell's second novel to see print - not including The Last Reef, his award-winning short story collection - The Recollection is fiction, first and foremost: good, old fashioned, character-driven fiction, with a neat narrative to boot... and yes, some fascinating science.

As it should be, then. As so rarely it is!

On his blog, Powell relates an encounter he had with an agent when this novel was still just a twinkle in his eye; an agent who advised Powell to give up The Recollection's ghost in order to "concentrate instead on writing something that would give him" - and this is the messed-up part - "a 'hard-on.'" This sort of perspective - not at all uncommon today, I'd add - is anecdotally symptomatic of the very problem I've been banging on about: of how the big ideas modern sf orbits have come to repel rather than attract the plight of the little guys that is at the heart of fiction as the masses understand it. The Recollection is in that sense part of the solution... though I doubt it will result in a great many erections.

Which isn't to say it's simple, or dull. In the first of the two timeframes The Recollection concerns itself with, Ed, a struggling artist, is riddled with guilt over the extra-maritals he's been having with his brother Verne's wife. Verne mightn't know the particulars of Alice's affair, but he has his suspicions, and confronts Ed about them in a cafe. The resulting squabble spills out into the street, then the subway... when out of nowhere, a great, glowing gate phases into existence, sucking poor Verne into the beckoning silence beyond.

This gate is only the first to appear of what soon seems a complex network, sprouting up the world over. "China's closed its borders," Ed explains. "Germany's gone for martial law. Everyone's scared. I even saw some troops on the streets of Hackney yesterday." (p.28) But though Ed and Alice are as terrified as anyone else, anywhere else, they're also plagued by an almighty sense of business unfinished, so when a new gate appears in Alice's back yard, practically, the guilt-ridden lovers pack a bag and venture through it... only to find they can never, ever go back. Only forward; in time, and in space.

Speaking of which, several centuries into the future, the gates are the least of anyone's worries. Humanity has long since inherited the galaxy: more people - many more people - now live off Earth than on, and our species has made friends at least one other. The Dho keep themselves to themselves, mostly, except to stress that, from the deepest, darkest reaches of the void, something is coming... something that will change everything. The Recollection is "darkness and hunger. It is a cancer gnawing at the bones of this galaxy," (p.145) which no-one and nothing can stand against.

Among those with pivotal parts to play in the conflict on the cards, Powell proffers Victor Luciano and Katherine Abdulov, star-cross'd former lovers from powerful rival families each with their own reputation to maintain. Embroiled in a bitter race with one another to the planet Djatt, where a valuable plant which only flowers every hundred years is about to bloom, Victor and Katherine are about to discover that they have unfinished business of their own to attend. That, and The Recollection, which seems to take a particular interest in Katherine.

I came to The Recollection primarily on the advice of Eric Brown, The Guardian's genre fiction reviewer and of course a prolific and much-admired author in his own right. And you know what? If I hadn't known any better - though I did and I do - I'd have believed The Recollection was his doing, too. It put me in mind of Engineman in one moment, and The Kings of Eternity - Brown's strongest novel to date - in the next. The best of both worlds, then!

But never mind me. These are - but of course they are - worlds entirely of Powell's devising. And The Recollection really is a terrific romp: fast-paced, laser-focused, and steadfastly accessible when so many of the genre's foremost proponents seem to have plotted a course in exactly the opposite direction. Bravo, Gareth L. Powell, for going against the grain!

That is not to say The Recollection is without a few minor missteps. In particular, the last act is something of an anti-climax, I'm afraid: resolution is arrived at all too conveniently, both in terms of the characters, who simply put aside their differences and pair off, and in terms of the world, which there seems much more to be said about. Come to that, the whole thing is somewhat on the slight side; more novella than novel.

But I can forgive a good book a great deal, and The Recollection is absolutely that, however modest it may be. More a space ballet than a proper opera, Powell's second is fun, energetic and emotionally very relevant... for it is a tale, above all else, of those things we leave behind. And we are always doing that, are we not? In the erstwhile, resolutely unperturbed as it is by the hard line the genre has for all intents and purposes drawn around itself, The Recollection stands as a sort of bastion of classic sf: gone... but not forgotten.

***

The Recollection
by Gareth L. Powell

UK and US Publication: September 2011, Solaris

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Recommended and Related Reading

Friday, 16 December 2011

Show and Tell | To Me, From You

The thing of it is, I get so many books in the mail for potential review either here on TSS or elsewhere that, truth be told, I don't need to buy very many myself... which is a shame; I used to love book browsing.

As is, there's almost always something pressing, some buzz-worthy new thing I really should review, and when on rare occasion there isn't, I look to the tower of books To Be Read. Failing even that, there's the library in the spare room. I could comfortably spend the rest of my life reading all the overlooked delights secreted in my seven no-expense-spared Billy bookcases.

To be perfectly honest, I don't know that I need ever buy a book again. But needs are slippery things at the best of times, and wants belong in a whole different department. Make no mistake: I want to go mad on Amazon, on an almost daily basis. In my experience, keeping up with the blogosphere - as I attempt to - will do that to a dude. And try as I might to stop myself, every now and again... I slip.

And sometimes you folks make it real easy for me fall off the wagon.

Take the other day, for instance. Must have been the end of the financial quarter or something, because I woke up one morning to see emails from both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com alerting me to gift certificates to the value of about £50. Payment for purchases made in the last year through the Amazon Associate links I run under my book reviews - more, in truth, for your convenience than my possible profit.

So these monies came as something of a surprise. And what do you do with surprise money? You spend it! As I did... in all of about a half-hour after realising it existed. :)

I thought the thing to do would be to buy some of the books that I've spent 2011 ogling from afar; books I'd have loved to cover on the blog had review copies of each and every one come, and saved me from the decision to spend pennies on things I really don't need, as established.

From Amazon.com, then, I came home with these pretties:


And from Amazon.co.uk, these beauties were your surprise presents to me:


Plus postage, of course, and part of an awesome Christmas present I couldn't possibly mention here in case the other half sees it.

So I bought some books. That's the long and short of it. But rather than let this little indulgence go unmentioned, I wanted to post something here on the blog, basically to say thanks - sincerely, thank you - to everyone who's ever bought anything from either of the Amazons using the affiliate links I embed here on TSS.

Methinks Aurorarama's first up - it is such a gorgeous book - but hereabouts Guy Gavriel Kay has gotten to be a bit of a festive reading tradition, so the two parts of The Sarantine Mosaic are a sure thing, I should think, come the holidays.


Oh, it is the season to be jolly, isn't it? :)

Thank you all!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Comic Book Review | Planet of the Apes Vol. 1: The Long War


When he's not writing tragicomic novels about the second coming of an undead messiah, or having his short story collection Unpossible described as one the year's best books, Daryl Gregory writes comic books. Damn fine comic books.

Among them, this one: the Planet of the Apes ongoing series from BOOM! Studies, which launched a little in advance of the latest film in the franchise, starring go-to dude in a suit Andy Serkis.

To be perfectly frank, I could give a monkey's uncle about the Planet of the Apes. I've seen a few of the original films, and both of the attempts in the last decade to reboot the feature series, but none of the above - excepting Andy Serkis' bravura performance as Caesar in this year's Rise of the Planet of the Apes - have managed to make me care about the mythos, such as they are. My interest in this future world, where apes either have or will one day overthrow humanity, is nominal at best.

Enter Daryl Gregory. The man's such a talent, and so unspeakably overlooked, that I've resolved to read whatever he writes from here on out, or until such a time as he releases something rubbish. On the basis of Planet of the Apes Vol. 1: The Long War, I don't see that happening anytime soon. Because where so many creators have tried and failed to convince me of the value of this to-my-mind one-note franchise, Daryl Gregory has gone and done it, be damned my disinclination.


The Long War collects the first four issues of the ongoing: a complete single story set, or so I gather, ten years after Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but before the events of the first film, which I see now was based on a book. I didn't realise! In any case, Gregory introduces us to a society somewhere between two more familiar extremes, of man versus animal in the last days or man, finally, as animal. In The Long War, the lunatics are already running the asylum, yet humans still have a place - albeit a small one - in Skintown, which is essentially a ghetto in the great ape city-state of Mak.

But when a masked assassin kills Lawgiver, one of the few remaining supporters of our lately endangered species, man and monkey stand poised on the brink of a conflict that could take away even that last refuge. Some people, like Sully - a pregnant women who the people of Skintown look to for leadership - think that everything that can be done to avoid a war and so safeguard the remains of our race should be done.

Others want the exact opposite: namely an end to the apes, or else an end to all the indignities of life not on top of the food chain, via certain death. Among this latter camp, the most vigilant are those who attend ceremonies at the Church of the Bomb - from the movies, remember? - where the investigation which Sully leads into Lawgiver's guerrilla killer begins.


The Long War is a short trade by all but the most generous of measures, yet it contains such a wealth of wonderful world-building and narrative know-how that you'd be forgiven for thinking it twice the length it stands at, which is to say a scant 112 pages. Gregory pulls no punches, either; the mysterious monkey-murderer is unmasked in the approach to the last act, and the plot moves on substantially thereafter. Dense, descriptive language gives the text a real sense of momentum, and a clarity that is altogether too rare in comics. Last but not least, a second (somewhat shocking) death quite suffices to get one's blood pumping for volume two, due from BOOM! Studios in May of 2012.

And there's can be no understating the part artist Carlos Magno plays in the success of this this initial collection. His pencils are perhaps a touch too grainy for my tastes, all fine lines and minute detail, leaving little for the imagination to play with, but they set the scene sumptuously - building the world as much as any amount of words would work to - and many of Magno's spreads are quite simply magnificent.

Somewhat to my surprise, then, The Long War gets this latest take on the Planet of the Apes off to an excellent start. For the first time in my life, thanks in equal part to Daryl Gregory and former Transformers artist Carlos Magno, I can't wait to see what's next from this franchise.

That is to say, this comic book franchise. The movies... meh.