Wednesday 31 August 2011

Short Fiction Corner | Three From Nightjar, or, The Corpse Fowl Cometh

I don't know if social media has a bad rap, or I give it a bad rap, but for all that it's a right bloody timesuck - such that I tend to disappear off the face of the Earth in terms of Twitter and Google+ whenever I've deadlines to attend, for fear I spend my allotted hours burbling about #fridayreads or the pitfalls of UHT milk - for all that it is that, as I was saying, and it is, it is too a way to engage with people you otherwise wouldn't, or couldn't.

Case in point: a little while back I was tweeting about what I was reading. One of those books was Regicide by Nicholas Royle, which I reviewed here, and after a little searching it turned out that the gent had a Twitter presence. So I did the decent thing and cordially @ replied Nicholas in.

Momentarily, he and I got chatting. One thing led to another, and before you know it I was introducing him to my---

Wait, what? No no no! That's not what happened at all!

What in fact happened was: Nicholas asked if I'd like to take a look at a few of the latest chapbooks he'd published through the small press he operates. I'll cop to not having heard of Nightjar Press before we talked, but a quick look at the blog, and the array of authors gathered together under the Nightjar banner - among them Michael Marshall Smith, Tom Fletcher and Conrad Williams, to name but a few - was all the impetus I needed to take Nicholas up on his offer.

And that isn't even to speak of the fact that Nightjar Press is named in honour of the most terrifying bird I've ever heard of.

Do yourself a favour: don't follow that link. :/

So. What I did was... I started with what I knew. Namely Tom Fletcher, whose The Leaping I loved last year - see here - though I found, I'm afraid, rather less to like about Fletcher's second novel, The Thing on the Shore, this spring. 'Field' the tale of a Forestry Commission warden called Tony and his assistant Sarah, who are called out one evening by a local pub landlord to move along a group of youths who are camping illegally at the end of the lake. In fact "not only were they camping illegally, but they were partying very loudly, and had dreadlocks and piercings. And it wasn't even dark." (p.5) The horror!

Anyway, when Tony and Sarah find the campgrounds, the youths are nowhere to be found. The wardens split up to find them, and then... well. These are short short stories, folks, and it wouldn't do to ruin them, so forgive me if my synopses are on the slight side.

'Field' is for its part an exercise in measure and suggestion. There are no monsters in Fletcher's short - at least, none that the reader sees - only these two lost souls, Tony and Sarah, and a field full of atmosphere, and implicit, perhaps even Lovecraftian, otherworldliness. Few authors can evoke such unease so effortlessly, juxtapose the natural and the unnatural so very memorably, and though I was a slice of trifle disappointed by The Thing on the Shore, 'Field' is proof positive that Tom Fletcher is a talent to watch like a hawk.

The night after I finished 'Field' I read 'Lexicon' by Christopher Burns, whose work I fear I am not at all familiar with... though from his minibio I gather Quercus Publishing will be putting out his sixth novel, A Division of the Light, in 2012. I may well look for it then.

That said, of the three chapbooks Nicholas was so kind as to send along, I think I enjoyed 'Lexicon' the least. It's about a first date, and the origins of one particular Greek myth. Harry has brought Heather to his home, you see, ostensibly to serve her a delicious meal of olives and fish -- but there's more going on in 'Lexicon' than just that, from the first paragraph on out:

"What survives of past civilisations is more than architecture and earthworks. Whatever we say, whatever we do, has taproots that feed within deep layers of the past. In faraway lands tongues we would not recognise have already expressed our every thought. Other minds have imagined our dreams and traded them amongst people who saw no distinction between fiction, belief, history and myth." (p.5)

Sadly, though Harry at least seems an interesting character, off-kilter and so controlling as to set alarm bells ringing in any sane individual - but not Heather, for altogether too long a time - 'Lexicon' is creepy rather than chilling, disturbing in its ostentatiously mythical way... but alas, a little obvious. I wasn't surprised by 'Lexicon', and in a narrative so inextricable from its twist resolution as this, that's a real problem.

Last but not least, I read 'The Beautiful Room,' from the pen of another author I knew next to nothing about before now: R. B. Russell. 'The Beautiful Room' is about a young couple looking to buy their first flat together. When during a viewing John and Maria come upon a beautiful room with a beautiful view in a beautiful house, they set to discussing how they could wrap this place into their future plans.

But as they chat, John and Maria become aware of an odd noise. Some living, suffering thing seems to be trapped in the walls. Mice, maybe? Or could there be birds stuck in the firmament of this beautiful room? 

Birds... or mice... or something else entirely?

'The Beautiful Room' is a terrific short story, and easily my favourite of the three Nightjar chapbooks addressed in this post. I read it first to myself, as you do, then again, out loud to my partner in crime, who I dare say was as alarmed by R. B. Russell's dialogue-driven narrative as I; nor did I find 'The Beautiful Room' any less alluring a work of fiction the second time out, wrapped up as it is with a wonderfully unspoken ending -- such that a re-read brings to light all sorts of things the reader mightn't have noticed that first time.

On the basis of these three stories alone, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend anyone with an interest in the subtler, more sinister side of short horror seek out the terrific selection of chapbooks on offer from Nightjar Press with all due haste. They're beautifully presented, simply but attractively designed, and artistically very powerful; intimate, insidious little stories fit to work a hole in the hardest hearts.

Not to seem a total shill, they're also strictly limited in the literal sense of the phrase, so oft-abused: there are only 200 copies of each chapbook available - in fact many of Nightjar's earlier efforts have long since sold out - every one of which comes signed and numbered at a nominal cost of £3 plus postage, if you order direct from the publisher. I gather there are still a few copies of 'Field', 'Lexicon' and 'The Beautiful Room' going, as of the time of this writing... but be quick about it, folks, if you're at all interested.

And you should be!

Monday 29 August 2011

Book Review | Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

Buy this book from

This is a novel for people with breeding.

Only people with the right genes and the wrong impulses will find its marriage of bold ideas and deplorable characters irresistible. It is a novel that engages the mind while satisfying those that crave the thrill of a chase.

There are riots and sex. There is love and murder. There is Darwinism and Fascism, nightclubs, invented languages and the dangerous bravado of youth. And there are lots of beetles.

It is clever. It is distinctive. It is entertaining.

We hope you are too.


Eugenics, fascism, entomology and murder most horrid meet in this bravura debut from journalist Ned Beauman, which has - as I understand it - reduced a gaggle of British critics to fits of intellectual and artistic jealousy.

Boxer, Beetle is disgusting in various ways. In its tripartite narrative about a rare genus of coleoptera whose wings, when unfurled, make a Swastika; in its three primary characters - namely a devotee of Nazi memorabilia (but not Nazis), a closeted fascist, and a disabused brute; and last but not least in its inimitable wit and wisdom, Boxer, Beetle quite sickens, particularly coming as it does from a first-time novelist still somewhere in his twenties.

His twenties!

Boxer, Beetle, then, is an routinely unpleasant affair, but if your heart and your head and your gut go the distance, then you will see it is too a daring and oft-intoxicating concoction of fact and fiction, invention and political incorrectness, wonder and horror, and of course boxer... and beetle.

We come to that lattermost and least likely twosome by way of one Kevin Broom - "Fishy" to his "friends" - whose contemporaneous narrative functions as a loose frame for the others. Kevin is a collector, but as he explains:

Among collectors, I am a worm - and particularly so in comparison to Stuart, my best friend. [...] He could afford almost anything: the only child of a hedge fund maestro, he supplemented his inheritance with a considerable legal settlement after an accident with an office coffee machine left him paralysed from the waist down. I often wonder whether I'd give up the use of my own legs in exchange for, say, the gold fountain pen with which Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess wrote Mein Kampf, and I'm fairly sure that I would. (pp.4-5)

In lieu of such a happy accident, Kevin does odd jobs for another enthusiast of all things Third Reich in the hopes that Grublock might deign to donate a few items his way for his troubles. The plot thickens when during a hunt for a needle in a stack of haystacks Kevin stumbles upon a body, and with it a note from Hitler, circa the mid-1930s, thanking one Philip Erskine for his "kind tribute" (p.9) to the party and to the then-Reichschancellor in particular. What follows is a fictionalised account of his Kevin's subsequent investigations into the specifics of this unholy offering, beginning with how the first clue to this murder mystery came to be in a dead man's chest freezer.

Our boxer is Seth Roach, or Sinner, a bisexual Jew in the midst of establishing for himself a toehold in the fighting community... or not. Sinner is a deeply self-destructive young man, you see, prone to explosions of extreme physical and sexual violence and with a genetic inheritance - a small stature nevertheless in possession of incredible strength and endurance - which seems as much a curse on Sinner as a credit to his dubious DNA.

Speaking of genes, our beetle is arrived at by way of the aforementioned Philip Erskine, a proponent of eugenics based in large part on the German collector Oscar Scheibel who applies his fascist science in theory on Sinner, and in practice on a species of eyeless beetle Erskine discovers in a Polish cave, from which he breeds "a strain in which every undesirable quality is eradicated and yet every desirable quality is amplified. No compromises, no sacrifices. Do you begin to understand now?" (p.116) 

Boxer, Beetle is as morally repugnant in the abstract as it is at times physically and spiritually repellent, so it stands as a steadfast testament indeed to the cunning of Beauman's craft that one comes - to a certain extent - to care about all three of his vivacious first novel's principle protagonists, whatever their horrible foibles. The mystery, meanwhile, though it meanders here and there, and pauses on occasion to indulge in itself - admittedly not my favourite aspect of the thing - proves quite compelling in the end, and neatly circular.

Some books are so clever you feel stupid reading them, and there were moments of Boxer, Beetle when I suffered exactly that syndrome. They were, thankfully, few and far between, and outnumbered in all but the last act by other moments - of beauty and insight, clarity and hilarity even in the face of the unspeakable, the unknowable - which more than made up for them. For instance:

...a city is just whatever happens to accrete around the intersection of a million secrets: a fox in your garden is a stolen kiss is a pirate radio station is a dead detective is a Welsh Ariosophist with a gun is an ounce of skunk with your greasy chips is the collection of Nazi memorabilia that my employer, Horace Grublock, keeps upstairs in his penthouse flat. (p.43)

Such phrases sound out like strains of sweet music, and these, I think, will remain with me rather longer than my memories of the cloying diatribes and meaningless metafictions which slightly mar the entire. Boxer, Beetle is thus an energetic if imperfect text about inheritance - whether genetic or physical or spiritual - and the preservation of ideas, objects, identities, and so on. Beauman's first novel is by turns fascinating, impassioned, irreverent, and utterly, utterly ugly. But the question on everyone's lips should be: has it a heart, besides all that? And beauty too?

And I should say so, yes. Yes it does.


Boxer, Beetle
by Ned Beauman

UK Publication: March 2011, Sceptre
US Publication: September 2011, Bloomsbury USA

Buy this book from

Recommended and Related Reading

Sunday 28 August 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 28/08/11

In the second instalment of this week's duty-free double-ender of books received: The First Days of the last days... the last lark of a certain stormlord... a sequel to a science fiction classic... a trio of short stories come to us by way of Cumbria... and the wisdom of geeks, because - I presume - the crocodiles were out.
Now, to pick up where we left off yesterday...


The Children of the Sky
by Vernor Vinge

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 11/10/11
by Tor

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: After nearly twenty years, Vernor Vinge has produced an enthralling sequel to his memorable bestselling novel A Fire Upon the Deep. 

Ten years have passed on Tines World, where Ravna Bergnsdot and a number of human children ended up after a disaster that nearly obliterated humankind throughout the galaxy. Ravna and the pack animals for which the planet is named have survived a war, and Ravna has saved more than one hundred children who were in cold-sleep aboard the vessel that brought them.

While there is peace among the Tines, there are those among them — and among the humans — who seek power... and no matter the cost, these malcontents are determined to overturn the fledgling civilization that has taken root since the humans landed.

On a world of fascinating wonders and terrifying dangers, Vernor Vinge has created a powerful novel of adventure and discovery that will entrance the many readers of A Fire Upon the Deep. Filled with the inventiveness, excitement, and human drama that have become hallmarks of his work, this new novel is sure to become another great milestone in Vinge’s already stellar career.

My Thoughts: Now there's a book I've heard a bunch about -- and all good things!

Alas, A Fire Upon the Deep remains one of my greatest sf oversights. Thanks to Tor, however, I have copies of both that classic, and this sequel... and though I understand Vernor Vinge put out a sidequel of sorts to A Fire Upon the Deep by way of A Deepness in the Sky, I think the first and the latest book in the series should set me off to a sterling start.

Should be a sweet week's worth of reading right there... but I can't very well stop when we've only just begun, now can I?

Geek Wisdom
edited by Stephen H. Segal

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 05/09/11
by Quirk

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: We live in the era of the geek. Computer nerds are our titans of industry; comic-book heroes are our Hollywood idols; the Internet is our night on the town. Clearly, the geeks know something that other folks don't... something we'd all do well to learn from.

So here it is: Geek Wisdom, painstakingly gathered and interpreted by a diverse team of hardcore nerds who've spent years poring over the most beloved texts of the modern-day imagination. Beginning with close to 200 of the most powerful and oft-cited quotes from movies (Do, or do not - there is no try), television (The truth is out there), comics (With great power comes great responsibility), science, the Internet, and more, Geek Wisdom offers illuminating insights into the eternal truths to be found therein. Yes, this collection of mini-essays is by, for, and about geeks -- but it's just so surprisingly profound, the rest of us would have to be dorks not to read it.

My Thoughts: I am geek! Here me roar!

Now I don't often read the likes of this giftable little hardcover, but with Genevieve Valentine and N. K. Jemesin on the roster of contributors, I simply had to take a look -- and I'm glad I did. Geek Wisdom covers all the obvious stuff, of course, but there's seems to be rather more to it than pithy entries on The X-Files and the ineffable wisdom of little green men (one in particular). However, given that it isn't the sort of book you'd read in a sitting, it might be a bit before I get back to you all with a full-on review.

But it's on the coffee table... and I drink a lot of coffee... so. :)

The First Days
by Rhiannon Frater

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 05/07/11
by Tor

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: The morning that the world ends, Katie is getting ready for court and housewife Jenni is taking care of her family. Less than two hours later, they are fleeing for their lives from a zombie horde. 

Thrown together by circumstance, Jenni and Katie become a powerful zombie-killing partnership, mowing down zombies as they rescue Jenni’s stepson, Jason, from an infected campground.

They find sanctuary in a tiny, roughly fortified Texas town.  There Jenni and Katie find they are both attracted to Travis, leader of the survivors; and the refugees must slaughter people they know, who have returned in zombie form.  

Fast-paced and exciting, filled with characters who grab your heart, The First Days: As the World Dies is the beginning of a frightening trilogy.

My Thoughts: Look, everyone! Look at the zombies! Aren't they horrid?

More horrid than the last self-published zombie sensation I started reading? That would be the Autumn series by David Moody, and no, I can't imagine how it could possibly more dreadful than that trash. And Graeme's certainly a fan [link] of The First Days -- then again, the man does love his zombies, so take of his recommendation what you will. Can't say I'm entirely sure about this new series myself... nor does this priceless lift from the blurb for book two, coming November, bode very well for The First Days: featuring the "further zombie-killing, civilization-saving adventures of a pair of sexy, kick butt heroines and the men who love them."

So, uh. No? :/

Oh, I don't know. I'll probably give it a wee read sooner or later, and pray that part of the pitch is just the work of some marketing so-and-so with designs on paranormal romance's target audience.

The Beautiful Room / Field / Lexicon
by R. B. Russell / Tom Fletcher / Christopher Burns

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
mostly on 07/03/11
by Nightjar Press

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

My Thoughts: These three chapbooks are a bit of a departure for The BoSS, but I couldn't very well let them come and go without remarking on their loveliness at least a little. As if I'd let them off so lightly!

In fact the plan, as it stands, is to round up this Cumbrian triumvirate of genre shorts for a single, triple-threat edition of Short Fiction Corner. I've already read one of the three - "The Beautiful Room" by R. B. Russell - and it proved a creepy/crazy/beautiful thing indeed, which bodes very well for the others. Then there's my pre-existing fondness for all things Tom Fletcher (his Mario Kart asides excepted), the striking design Nightjar Press has conjured up for all their chapbooks - of which there are many more - and the fact that none other than Nicholas Royle is behind these strictly-limited releases... surely you can begin to imagine how well I hope this is going to go.

And go it shall, shortly.

Stormlord's Exile
by Glenda Larke

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 04/08/11
by Orbit

Review Priority
2 (It Could Happen)

The Blurb: A series of extraordinary events mark the beginning of summer: earth tremors ravage the Hyddenworld; Jack and Katherine have a child, Judith; and a mysterious gem is found near Brum. That same night, after decades of sleep, the Emperor of the Hyddenworld awakens...

Jack, born of the Hyddenworld, knows that he has a foot in each world but doesn’t wholly belong to either. Is he human, or hydden? Judith too is a child of two worlds, with her human mother and hydden father. She knows who she is supposed to be – the Shield Maiden, bearer of the gems and helper of humankind – but somehow this destiny seems too much to accept.

The discovered gem puts Brum firmly in the path of the Empire – Jack must travel back to the Hyddenworld. He knows that the four gems need to be reunited soon and that the Shield Maiden must be ready to wield them.

If Judith does not embark on her own great journey soon, or the gems can’t be found, then both the hydden world and the human will be threatened with extinction.

My Thoughts: Now I haven't read or heard very much at all about these books, of which I understand Stormlord's Exile is volume three of three, though I do believe I have review copies of the previous instalments in the series kicking about somewhere in the library...

So I'm going to turn this one over to you folks. If any of y'all have read these books, please, do chime in; I'd really appreciate the advice. Am I going to enjoy Glenda Larke, do you think, if I make the time for this completed series, or would I be best to devote my energies elsewhere?

And that. Is. That.

On top of everything else, two editions of the BoSS in two days have left me profoundly pooped, so I hope you'll forgive me if I'm not so effervescent this afternoon. That said, here's hoping something I've blogged about this weekend has managed to catch your eye. I've certainly got more than enough to be getting on with!

As ever, if there's anything you think I'm missing, feel free to poke me in the right direction in the comments. But please, no poking me in the wrong direction. :P

On which note...


Saturday 27 August 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 27/08/11

It's another two for the price of one on The BoSS this week - one today and one tomorrow - because by gum, there've been a bunch of lovely-looking books in the mail of late! Among them, in just this first instalment: creepy kids... straight snakes... Mexican drug cartels... a world without magic... and YA fantasy that just won't die.

Let the games begin.


Miss Peregrine's Home
For Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 07/06/11
by Quirk Books

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience.

As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here - one of whom was his own grandfather - were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason. And somehow - impossible though it seems - they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

My Thoughts: I think the first I heard of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was by way of the Book Smugglers -- so thanks, Book Smugglers!

I dare say Ana and Thea were right about this one, too. I've only had a wee leaf through, but Ransom Riggs' profusely illustrated spookshow reads well, and looks just wonderful. I should be up and at this one shortly, time permitting. Actually, time be damned; I'm going to make it a point to hit up Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children as soon as I can.

The End Specialist
by Drew Magary

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 29/09/11
by Voyager

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: A gripping, compulsive thriller set in a future where the cure for ageing has been discovered, to devastating consequences.

John Farrell is about to get The Cure. Old age can never kill him now. The only problem is, everything else still can...

Imagine a near future where a cure for ageing is discovered and – after much political and moral debate – made available to people worldwide. Immortality, however, comes with its own unique problems – including evil green people, government euthanasia programs, a disturbing new religious cult, and other horrors.

Witty, eerie, and full of humanity, The End Specialist is an unforgettable thriller that envisions a pre-apocalyptic world so real that it is completely terrifying.

My Thoughts: Oh, pre-apocalyptic now, is it? Well alright then.

But never mind my snarkiness. The premise behind The End Specialist, from what little I know of it, sounds fine. Simplistic, perhaps, but it'll do, I'm sure. All the same. I'll probably wait for a few reviews of this to hit before I decide whether or not to dip into Drew Magary's novel myself. Test the waters without taking my socks off, you know. :P

A Serpent Uncoiled
by Simon Spurrier

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 04/08/11
by Headline

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: A missing mobster. A bizarre spiritualist society. And three deaths, linked by a chilling forensic detail.

Working as an enforcer in London's criminal underworld brought Dan Shaper to the edge of a breakdown. Now he's a private investigator, kept perilously afloat by a growing cocktail of drugs. He needs to straighten-up and rebuild his life, but instead gets the attention of his old gangland masters and a job-offer from Mr George Glass. The elderly eccentric claims to be a New Age Messiah, but now needs a saviour of his own. He's been marked for murder.

Adrift amidst liars and thugs, Shaper must push his capsizing mind to its limits: stalked not only by a unique and terrifying killer, but by the ghosts of his own brutal past.

My Thoughts: So sort of like... a John Connolly novel? Well, I could swallow some of that, sure! And you know, it doesn't hurt that Jared over at Pornokitsch enjoyed A Serpent Uncoiled so much -- see this review for one thing. And that bloke tends to have pretty decent taste...

Triple Crossing
by Sebastian Rotella

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 18/08/11
by Mulholland Books

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Valentine Pescatore is a rookie Border Patrol agent, just trying to survive the Line. Until he pursues a suspect across the border into Mexico, and finds himself in serious trouble. 

Isabel Puente is a beautiful US agent investigating a powerful Mexican crime family. She offers Valentine a chance - if he works with her as an undercover agent she'll make his problems go away. But soon their relationship is no longer strictly professional. 

Over the border in Tijuana, anti-corruption chief Leo Mendez is working to bring criminals to justice. In a city where anyone can be bought, he's made enemies on both sides of the law. 

All three have the same aim: to bring down the cartels. But in a world built on lies, how do you know who to trust? As the violence escalates, the stage is set for a showdown full of bloodshed and betrayal.

My Thoughts: So drugs, is it?

I don't know about this one, to be honest. I've been something of a supporter of Mulholland Books from day one, but this debut caught me quite off-guard when it arrived. I hadn't heard word one about it, and that there synopsis appeals to me... well, not one whit.

On the other hand, going by Mulholland's stellar track record, there's got to be more to Triple Crossing than just that, so maybe I'll put aside my preconceptions and take a look after all. Just maybe.

by Brandon Sanderson
Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 11/08/11
by Gollancz

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: Elantris was built on magic and it thrived. But then the magic began to fade and Elantris began to rot. And now its shattered citizens face domination by a powerful Imperium motivated by dogged religious views. Can a young Princess unite the people of Elantris, rediscover the lost magic and lead a rebellion against the imperial zealots?

Brandon Sanderson's debut fantasy showed his skill as a storyteller and an imaginer of baroque magical systems to be fully developed from the start.

My Thoughts: And as if I don't have enough Brandon Sanderson to get caught up on - what with all the Mistborn I've solemnly sworn to read through before The Alloy of Law hits retail later in the year - along comes his debut!

Finally available in the UK, with smoky cover art to match that adorning all of the fantasy stalwart's other novels - so that's nice - I've heard both good and bad things about Elantris. The pitch certainly does it for me, but already, having read through some of The Final Empire since last we talked Brandon Sanderson, I can see how much better he got between Mistborn and The Way of Kings, and now I'm wondering... how much improved could the prose of Mistborn be over Elantris?

If I had to bet pennies, I'd put them all on the likelihood that there will be a review of Elantris on The Speculative Scotsman at some point. But this is a real sooner or later case, so don't be holding your breath, everyone.


There'll be more tomorrow, so we'll save the usual outro burbling for then.

See you then, folks and folkesses! :)

Friday 26 August 2011

Excerpt Emporium | Empire State by Adam Christopher

It's a rare pleasure to see a fellow blogger hit the sort of home run Adam Christopher has, so let me take this opportunity to wish the gent my heartiest congratulations on Empire State, coming December 27th from your friends and mine at Angry Robot Books.

Saying that, he's one of them now, so no more Mr. Nice Guy! :P

Anyway, if you ask me, it's one thing to be published... another entirely to publish something worthwhile. But you know what? I think Adam's gone and gosh-darn done it. An excerpt from Empire State went live on last Tuesday, and I read it over the weekend there with with mounting excitement in place of the idle curiosity I'll admit I'd approached it with.

What can I say? I'm a total bloody cynic.

But as my miserly mindset can attest, Empire State seems to be the genuine article. Within a few minutes I'd forgotten all about Adam Christopher the blogger - even Adam Christopher the author - because I'd gotten caught up in the noirish shenanigans at hand.

And then the excerpt ended!

To think Christmas will have come and gone before I get a proper look at the fantasy otherworld of Empire State rather bothers me. But if you'd like to be bothered too - and honest to God, folks, I'd really recommend the experience - head on over to yourselves and see, finally, what hijinx Adam Christopher infamously abandoned his chronological Stephen King read-through to focus on. The beast.

(To think that this the sound of me being gracious...)

In all seriousness, Adam: nicely done.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Film Review | Water for Elephants, dir. Francis Lawrence

I'll not be the first reviewer to point this out, I'm sure, but Water for Elephants' framing narrative - which has a dear old soul escape the clutches of his care home long enough to tell a skeptical young man all about this one time he ran away with the circus - is for all intents and purposes a direct lift from James Cameron's Titanic. And that very much sets the scene for Francis Lawrence's latest piece of popcorn-fodder; very much a move towards the good and true and pure after the gaudy grime of Constantine and I Am Legend... yet Water for Elephants too has its darkness.

Least, it does if you squint a bit.

Based on Sara Gruen's pop-lit smash hit - a gritter, greyer thing by far, as I understand it - Water for Elephants is the story of the best days of one Jacob Jankowski's life: a Polish veterinary student who, when his parents pass in a tragic car wreck - leaving Jacob with nothing but his half-completed Ivy League education - jumps the first train heading anywhere but here and never looks back. The train, as it happens, turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers' Circus, upon which discovery Jacob begs a job from the ringleader, August Rozenbluth. August, in a bid to outdo his great rivals the Wringling Brothers, is only too happy to offer Jacob temporary employment tending the animals.

Which is all very well, of course, and fodder for a fair to fine narrative right there, I don't doubt, but only when Jacob lays eyes on the lovely Marlena, August's wife and star attraction - for she too has a way with the animals - does Water for Elephants reveal its true intent: a forbidden love story set against the backdrop, rather than the fact, of a circus on its last legs in the deeply depressed 30s.

This is where Water for Elephants began to go pear-shaped, for me. I just did not - could not, no matter how hard I tried - buy into the romance between Twilight's Robert Pattinson as, ironically, Jacob, and Reese Witherspoon (last little-seen in one of 2010's biggest flops) as Marlena. What chemistry there is between the leads, if there is truly any at all, seems more an accident of mad science than any natural or even smartly manufactured reaction. At least they look the part - as most everything does in this lavishly produced and ornately set-dressed adaptation - but neither Pattinson nor Witherspoon feel as if they're at home in these particular roles... and so much of Water for Elephants hinges on the viewer coming to care for their characters, which come across as little more than barely-contained impulses in bodily form, that if one cannot easily get on side, then one is likely to find oneself utterly unconvinced by much of what follows.

That said, I was not in fact "utterly unconvinced" by Water for Elephants; only the central characters left me feeling cold and old. Far more worthwhile, as both actor and character and character actor, was Inglorious Basterds' Colonel Hans Landa: Christopher Waltz as August, who has loved Marlena ever since he lifted her up from nothing, and who, as an intelligent and essentially decent man, hires Jacob as much for decent dinnertime conversation as for his, uh... elephant-whispering skills. To my surprise my sympathies were with August first and foremost, until of course the broad-strokes script from Richard LaGravenese - that would be he of The Bridges of Madison County and The Fisher King - requires that August morph into the Bad Nasty Man of the piece, the better to rationalise away Jacob and Marlena's illicit affair.

I was not, needless to say, best pleased with this abrupt transformation, nor at all surprised by it. In fact I'd be interested to hear how August is portrayed in the original novel: is he as clear-cut a monster in the end, or essentially a decent human being, maddened by a broken heart? In any event, in Francis Lawrence's lamentably uncomplicated adaptation, August's development takes a predictable nose-dive towards the melodramatic, even the monstrous, in the last act.

No other actor really gets a look-in on Water for Elephants, I'm afraid, though I'd have looked back on this film rather more fondly if it had had time for dearly-beloved supporting characters like Camel and Charlie and Kinko the Clown, as I gather the book does. Instead, Lawrence introduces the lot, only to abandon them somewhere around the outer circle of the big top he builds evidently for no other reason than to set the stage for a tepid love triangle.

Water for Elephants, then, is schmaltzy, saccharine-sweet, sentimental storytelling, laser-focused where a little range would have done it the world of good, widening its scope and cloying tone a great deal... and I dare say it could have made more of the encroaching darkness about it, rather than merely allude in its direction from time to time. One senses sharp edges here and there - carried over from the book if I'm not mistaken - but I fear former MTV-man Francis Lawrence is more interested in smoothing them over to make way for his shiny happy people to hold hands than for a moment exploring these untold depths. Water for Elephants could have been a far greater thing than the attractive but empty sideshow it is, ultimately: a family-friendly period romance with added tassels and the occasional animal.

Speaking of which, there is at least one undeniable attraction to this film. The hell with the dude what was in the Twilight flicks, Reese Witherspoon and even my man Christopher Waltz: if you're going to watch Water for Elephants for any reason - and it's alright, really; all my objections aside, it makes for a perfectly pleasant evening's entertainment - watch it for a star-making performance from Rosie... the elephant!

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Cover Identity | Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

I'm disappointed in you, internet!

It's been a couple of days since the great and terrible Margo Lanagan, having been cruelly preempted by Amazon's army of image-monkeys, posted on her blog Among Amid While about the cover art for her long-awaited second novel, Sea Hearts.

Here it is:

And no-one's said squat about it! That is, no-one whose blogs I follow...

Which gives one to wonder: by some baffling happenstance do none of you know about this incredible talent? Because I've been psyched about Sea Hearts - working title Watered Silk - for years. Pretty much ever since reading the delightfully, deliciously dark Tender Morsels, which as I recall came to me by way of a recommendation from Amanda Palmer's missus. (No, not a personal recommendation.)
Anyway, what gives, internet? This is big news in my book. And there's a blurb too, which I may have missed:
"On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings – and to catch their wives.  
"The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And, for a price, any man might buy himself a sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment.
"Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire, despair and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also unspoken love."
*squee* I say.

Courtesy of David Fickling Books, Sea Hearts will be with us early next year - in February is Amazon's to be believed, which let's be honest... it often isn't - and that, in any event, is more than enough time for you all to get caught up on Tender Morsels and/or Margo's triumvirate of tremendous short story collections: Black Juice, White Time and Yellowcake. Really, the sooner you familiarise yourself with this wonderful and criminally little-known author, the better.
Here endeth today's lesson.