Friday 30 March 2012

Letters From America | Week One: Love and Largeness In Houston, Texas

So, America.

Obviously not all of America. The place is bloody massive! I’m told, for instance, that there are more souls in Houston alone than in all of Scotland, and maybe I’m an idiot for believing as much – the source of said nugget of knowledge has told us several tall tales already (for entertainment’s sake rather than to trick the visiting idiots, you understand) and that may well be among them – but believe it I do. I feel like a speck of person in a land of immensity in every sense.

For instance, the many, many bottles and cans of Coke and root beer and beer beer I’ve orphaned like a wicked Dickens villain: they’re massive next to the tiddly little things we pay through the nose to drink in the UK, and the all-night drugstores from whence they’ve come (and gone) put our paltry convenience stores to stricken shame.

Meanwhile the highways are twice as wide and twice as long and damn near twice as fast as any of the motorways I’ve driven on over the pond. The cars are all huge too – almighty pickups that look like they could comfortably pick up typical British cars in their entirety, with room still to spare. Perhaps for a massive dog, or four. Or $400 worth of shopping from the local Kruger or K-Mart.

Anyway, America.

It’s big. That’s been my overriding impression of the States so far, but so far I’ve really only seen a single state. Texas, incidentally. We spent our first five days in Houston, with a friend and her family, and her family’s friends and family as well, as it happened. The rabble was a touch intimidating to start, but by the day our new bucket buddies corralled us to the Amtrak which brought us in to New Orleans – none other than The Sunset Limited! – I had a lump in my throat the size of Scotland.

I don’t know if we’ll ever meet these folks again, or see more of this state than the happy Heights of Houston. I certainly hope so – a little birdie informs me Austin is awesome also – but being realistic, it seems... sadly unlikely.

Of course they knew this as well as we. And yet they extended every courtesy. Made us feel at home when we were further away from home than we’d ever been before. They toured us around the sights. Showed us the lights, and indeed the lites. They bought near enough every damn beer; took us to the best bars and diners; advised us sagely on the best places to find good veggie food, and oh, what good veggie food it was! 

Long story short – and alas, my time is suddenly shorter than I’d thought – I miss it all already. Good people in a good place equals good times, I do declare. Houston was the leg of our time in America I was least sure of, but New Orleans and Panama and Georgia and Florida have a whole lot to live up to now. Speaking of which...

Actually, no, perhaps not – the night and the day we’ve spent in the famous French Quarter will have to wait till the next time we talk. For the moment I’ll just say it’s been a bit of a shock to the system. Certainly not a nasty shock... more like one of those one you get when you hold the rail on the escalator! But I digress.

Becaue these aren’t just travel diaries, are they? This is a blog about books, by and large. And there have been books... although they’ve been few and far between. I aim to get a great deal more reading done as soon as we leave New Orleans in the rearview; for the very moment, though, I have managed to finish one book of note.

As luck would have it, a surprise review copy of The Wind Through The Keyhole – which is to say the new Dark Tower novel by Sai Stephen King – arrived just in time to make it into my suitcase. As a matter of fact it was my companion while miles high in the big blue sky, and... well. I won’t talk too much about it today – I do hope to have a review of the thing ready to post upon my return to bonnie Scotland – but I’ll let slip this: bits of The Wind Through The Keyhole were brilliant. Specifically the long short story at the core of it, which Roland tells to his travelling companions.

But other bits of this sidequel of sorts, I’m sorry to say, were trying – especially given how long it’s been since I read The Dark Tower proper. Excepting the aforementioned story-within-a-story, I don’t agree that it stands alone at all. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been substantially more satisfying without the bumf of the first act and the last, in fact.

Alas, I’ve gotta git. I’ll get my thoughts on The Wind Through The Keyhole together at a later date, but right now, I understand there’s some world-class jazz to be had over on Frenchmen Street. I want to go to there!

All things being equal, there’ll be another Letter From America for y’all next Friday, but between now and then? SO MUCH AWESOME STUFF I NEED CAPS TO EXPRESS HOW AWESOME IT’S GOING TO BE! 

So do stay tuned. :D

Thursday 29 March 2012

Guest Post | Pablo of The Eloquent Page Reviews Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Until very recently, there wasn't a shadow of a doubt in my mind that the blogger behind The Eloquent Page was called - legally, morally and so on - Pablo Cheesecake. That's his username on Twitter, incidentally.

I am exactly that daft!

Anyway, I don't know that I want to take away any of good sir Cheesecake's mystery, so let's just say that the man's a kind and generous gentleman, with almost certainly excellent hair. Not only that, he's also a noted fish finger connoisseur, and an excellent blogger besides.

If you haven't fed The Eloquent Page to your pet RSS readers already, you should do so immediately. That there link should get you started, but in the unlikely event you still need some convincing, read on for his thoughts on an epic horror novel to rival The Stand.

That's right: it's time to talk Swan Song.


Buy this book from:

"Protect the Child!

"On the edge of a barren Kansas landscape, an ex-wrestler called Black Frankenstein hears the cry...

"In the wasteland of New York City, a bag lady clutches a strange glass ring and feels magic coursing through her.

"Within an Idaho mountain, a survivalist compound lies in ruins, and a young boy learns how to kill.

"In a wasteland born of nuclear rage, in a world of mutant animals and marauding armies, the last people on earth are now the first. Three bands of survivors journey toward destiny... drawn into the final struggle between annihilation and life!

"They have survived the unsurvivable. Now the ultimate terror begins."


When that dashing, devil may care blogger about town known only as The Speculative Scotsman got in touch and offered me the opportunity to write a guest post while he was ‘en vacances' I have to admit that I was a bit stumped. I ummed and ahhed about exactly what topic I should write about. After much head scratching and a little soul searching I decided I'd like to visit my favourite genre and revisit one of my favourite novels. So without any further flim-flam or shilly-shally I give you my love letter to the classic apocalyptic nightmare that is Swan Song by Robert McCammon.

For the longest time I thought that the only real horror epic out there was Stephen King's wrist-snapping magnum opus The Stand. Then one day, purely by chance, I happened upon Swan Song by Robert McCammon. If I remember correctly I stole the copy from my sister (thinking about it I may never have apologised. There isn't a statute of limitations on apologies is there? - Sorry sis). I had previously read some of McCammon's other work: The Wolf's Hour, They Thirst and Stinger but I had no idea about Swan Song. All I knew was that here was an author who was writing the sort of horror that I relish.

The threat of nuclear destruction loomed large in the nineteen eighties, when Swan Song was originally released, and this makes for a fertile backdrop. Within the first few chapters, the President of the United States has gone beyond the point of no return and a global thermonuclear war has re-written all the rules. Cities are destroyed in a spectacular Roland Emmerich style fashion, if you have seen 2012, or Independence Day, you'll get the of the sort of scale we are talking about here, but the reader is treated to all the real horror after the dust has settled. After the bombs have dropped is where this story really excels.

Once you appreciate the vast stage that McCammon has created it comes as little surprise that he then goes on to define some truly memorable characters to inhabit it. I am always hard pressed to decide which are my favourite, there are so many to choose from. If you held a gun to my head, I would probably have to name Josh Hutchins, ex wrestler and protector of the novel’s focus, Sue Wanda 'Swan' Prescott. As the plot develops, the surrogate father/daughter bond that forms between these two is very much the heart and soul of the entire novel.

Be warned this is a big book, actually I may be understating this slightly, Swan Song is a MONSTER of a book. At over nine hundred pages, the plot is huge in scope. That said McCammon knows exactly the right buttons to press to illicit a response from his readers. The different groups of survivors are forced to exist in a land where chaos is king. There are no rules anymore and a stranger is just as likely to kill you as soon as look at you.

Time to lay my cards on the table. I'll let you into one of the deepest darkest secrets, that may be considered sacrilegious by some (certainly Mrs Cheesecake thinks so), I prefer Swan Song over The Stand. There, I've finally said it, feels good to get my secret shame out in the open. Now don't get me wrong, The Stand is a superb novel but after completing the unabridged version once I've never felt the urge to re-read it. Swan Song, by comparison, finds its way back into my hands on a regular basis. There is some indefinable quality to the writing that just clicks with me. The characters are ingrained in my psyche. I'm a child of the seventies and I grew up with nuclear war always being bandied about as the ultimate horror. I still have nightmares after watching the likes of The Day After, Threads and even When the Wind Blows so it is hardly a surprise that a novel that depicts such vivid devastation has stayed with me.

How best to sum up then? If you've read and loved Stephen King or marveled at the vastness of Justin Cronin’s debut, and let's be honest what self-respecting horror fan hasn't, then you won't just want to read Swan Song, you NEED to read Swan Song. This is a truly epic fiction that will stay with you. Decades later, I still find that the text resonates; each time I pick up this novel it captures my imagination on every single page. It won the Bram Stoker Award for best novel in 1988 for goodness sakes! If that isn't recommendation enough, I don't know what is.

Alas, I fear I may have rambled too much? You can blame The Theoretical Northerner for giving me free reign to waffle. It just remains for me to thank the hardiest of you who have managed to get to the end of my review. If you ever feel like stopping by my neck of the interwebs you'll find me over at The Eloquent Page. I’m also known to inhabit the Twitters and Facebook.

You know, I've owned a copy of Swan Song for ages - indeed, on the recommendation of certain TSS readers - and when I bought my copy, I distinctly remember intending to read it immediately. I was in the mood for something massive, as I recall.

I couldn't possibly say what it was, but obviously something stopped me, because I haven't touched the thing since. Did I decide to read The Five instead, because it was the new shiny?

But what better time than now, right? Especially after reading through The Eloquent Page's excellent review. That's why I've brought my copy of Swan Song all the way to America with me, where I do believe it was born.

Thanks again for guest post, Pablo!

Everyone else: you must know where to find the fine fellow by now. And if not, hey, he blogs - with aplomb - over here.

You must be wondering what's coming up on The Speculative Scotsman tomorrow. Well, I hate to disappoint, but the truth will out, so: it's back to boring old me, folks, for the first week of my holidays' worth of Letters From America.

That is presuming I haven't been eaten by alligators already. Honestly, it's entirely possible. Give me half a chance and I'll pet practically anything. :)

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Guest Post | Amanda of Strange Chemistry on Becoming A New Type of Reader

Who am I kidding? Amanda Rutter needs no introduction! But I'm going to introduce her anyway. :)
Hell, it's the least I can do, given the magnificent guest post she's written for The Speculative Scotsman. Most of you, of course, will remember Amanda from Floor to Ceiling Books, and though it was a sad, sad day when she closed the door on her old blog, she began again immediately over at the Strange Chemistry site.

Some of you might be wondering why she blogs for "a global imprint dedicated to the best in modern Young Adult science fiction, fantasy, supernatural and everything in between" these days. Well there's a very good reason: it's her imprint!
I'll have more to say about Strange Chemistry later in 2012, when the imprint makes its debut in bookstores around the world -- and not before time, too. I'm certainly excited about some of the talent she's signed up. You guys should be too.

Anyway, given (I gather) how very much her habits have had to change of late, Amanda thought the thing to do for the guest post below was to talk a bit about the way we read. I'm sure you'll agree it makes for fascinating reading in its own right.
First off the bat, I want to say thank you to Niall for inviting me to contribute to his fancy blog while he’s away in the wilds of America!
*takes a good look around*
“Oooh, what does this button do…?”
*scuttles away as blog disintegrates*

Because I’m now in a very different role than I was six months ago (from blogger and occasional accountant to editor and occasional blogger!) I was asked if I could write a post talking about the transition, or the ins and outs of the publishing world as I see them. But I decided not to do this! (I’m a rebel like that! [We wouldn't have you any other way, Amanda! - Niall]) Instead I’m going to talk about Types of Reader.

1. The One Book a Year Reader

This reader does not generally read. Through choice they will do any other activity. Reading is a bit of a bind. But they usually manage to slog through one book a year (most often while sitting on a beach!) The book they pick is usually the most popular published that year – they’ve heard people rave about it and thought they’d give it a go. Also known as Da Vinci Code Readers. 

2. The ‘I Read One Author’ Reader

A little different from the One Book a Year Reader! This type does actually enjoy reading – it’s just that they tried one particular author and never really moved on to anything else. Why should they, when they get all they need from that author? They will re-read the books this author has written time and time and time again and, despite being told ‘if you like them, you’ll like this’ they can’t bear the idea of moving out of their comfort zone. Usually a fan of Catherine Cookson or John Grisham!

3. The Casual Reader

They have their favourite authors. They buy a book now and again. They are perfectly happy reading, but equally happy watching TV or working on some crafty project. Right slap bang in the middle of the spectrum. Slightly incomprehensible to both ends of the spectrum – I mean, if you’re going to read anyway, why not do it *more*, say the Fervent Readers, while the One Book a Year Reader wonders why they are wasting their time on picking up more than just that one book.

4. The Fervent Reader

This person loves to read! They adore it. There is nothing more fun than sitting curled up on a sofa all afternoon reading. The library is their favourite haunt. They are unable to tell you their favourite author or book – there are just too many to pick from!

5. The Blogging Reader

Okay, so this is a step above the fervent reader. The blogging reader is prepared to read just about anything. They know the publishing schedule better than most publishers do. They read critically and are prepared to argue their points – and in a very passionate manner! They still have favourite authors, but sometimes the most recent book from that author will lie unread for months while they work through the other review copies they need to tackle. [This. This exactly - Niall] They don’t have TBR piles – they have TBR mountains! A blogging reader is forced to log their books on a spreadsheet or Goodreads just to know what they own and what they want to own.

So where do you think you fit in on the spectrum?

I do have a reason for talking about this, even though I’ve approached it in a flippant manner. One of the odd aspects of stepping into publishing that I have faced is becoming a new type of reader. When a manuscript comes in, I have to read it with thoughts as to whether it would be popular to a wide audience; I have to consider the marketing angles; I have to decide about what level of editing the manuscript requires. I no longer simply read a book – I have to work out what exactly is making it stand out for me, so that I can communicate that effectively to the rest of the team around me.
Conversely, my reading outside of work has become entirely casual – reading for pure escapism, without having to swap scenes around mentally, or suggest whether a new character might be appropriate to carry the story forward. I find myself re-reading novels that were favourites years back, because of the comfort in knowing that I will enjoy without any sort of analysis. I read puff fiction and pulp fiction; books that demand little from me in return for the entertainment that they provide. And I am returning to my favourite authors – those authors who slipped a little by the wayside while I was a blogging reader and I can now catch up with all their output without any pressure.

But you know what hasn’t changed? And what doesn’t change, no matter what type of reader you are? That sense of potential as you open a new book or a new manuscript. That sense of stepping somewhere new, that journey of discovery. The best part of being an editor and commissioning books is knowing that I can make those discoveries and then share them with as many people as feasibly possible. Rewarding doesn’t even come close!
Thank you ever so much for that, Amanda. You're an absolute star.

But I'd add a sixth type of reader to your tally: in fact, let's call it The Larry. :P

Remember, you can find Amanda over at Strange Chemistry these days, and if you're looking to cast your mind back into the past - when the grass was greener and the chocolate creamier - why not take a long look through the archives of her fantastic former blog?
Now then. The lovely lady asked you a question! What type of reader are you?

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Guest Post | Mieneke of A Fantastical Librarian Reviews The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I may have wondered a bit beforehand, but once the emails went out to all the folks I hoped would help keep The Speculative Scotsman awesome whilst I sunned myself in the States, and the guest blogs started trickling in, there was never any question whose post was going to lead the pack.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the marvelous Mieneke of A Fantastic Librarian!

To begin with, she was the first to submit a something. And this in spite of the fact that her extenuating circumstances were surely amongst the worst: at the time, she was mere days away from having this beautiful baby girl.

I am of course immensely grateful to everyone who took a little time - or indeed a lot - to help a brother blogger out, but I expect we can agree that Mieneke went above and beyond to inform and entertain and I don't doubt delight you all in my absence.

In the following review, she offers her unique perspective on the vast first volume of The Stormlight Archive, which - as she generously mentions - I also reviewed way back when. Actually, it was one of the first, if not THE first review someone paid me actual money to publish.

But I digress... from America!

Over to you, Mieneke. :)


Buy this book from:

"According to mythology mankind used to live in The Tranquiline Halls. Heaven. But then the Voidbringers assaulted and captured heaven, casting out God and men. Men took root on Roshar, the world of storms. And the Voidbringers followed...

"They came against man ten thousand times. To help them cope, the Almighty gave men powerful suits of armor and mystical weapons, known as Shardblades. Led by ten angelic Heralds and ten orders of knights known as Radiants, mankind finally won.

"Or so the legends say. Today, the only remnants of those supposed battles are the Shardblades, the possession of which makes a man nearly invincible on the battlefield. The entire world is at war with itself - and has been for centuries since the Radiants turned against mankind. Kings strive to win more Shardblades, each secretly wishing to be the one who will finally unite all of mankind under a single throne.

"On a world scoured down to the rock by terrifying hurricanes that blow through every few days young spearman forced into the army of a Shardbearer, led to war against an enemy he doesn't understand and doesn't really want to fight.

"What happened deep in mankind's past?

"Why did the Radiants turn against mankind, and what happened to the magic they used to wield?"


One of the most buzzed about releases of 2010, The Way of Kings is the first in a projected ten book series called The Stormlight Archive. And to be honest, I wasn't planning on starting this series, not until there were at least several installments of the book out and a reasonable chance of the series being finished. Because, let's face it, big name epic fantasy series running over a trilogy are challenged these days – *cough* George R.R. Martin *cough* Peter V. Brett *cough* Scott Lynch *cough* – not the least of which is The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, which Sanderson is finishing after Jordan's far-too-early passing. In fact, the only series of the same door-stopper scope and number finished in recent years is Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. So, no wonder I was hesitant to start another series, no? And then we visited London last year and, completely unexpectedly, had the chance to attend a signing by Sanderson for the paperback edition of The Way of Kings at Forbidden Planet.

And having gotten the paperbacks signed and at home, of course I had to read them, regardless of any reservations. And I read both parts of the paperbacks back to back over the course of five days, so that should be an indication of how much I enjoyed this book. 

The Way of Kings is a fascinating work, mixing several different viewpoints into a whole that reads like the epic fantasy of old. Combine this with some excellent battle scenes, political intrigue and an interesting magic system and Sanderson definitely had my attention. Before I turn my attention to the story, a bit about the physical copies themselves. The original hardback has been split into two paperbacks, due to length. All the chapter headings are illuminated with lovely headers and each has a sort of badge with identifies from whose perspective this chapter is written. Interspersed throughout the book are illustrations of sketches, purportedly taken from Shallan's sketchbook, maps and other relevant documents which enrich the story and were very pretty to boot.

Sanderson is known for his world building chops. It is no wonder then that The Way of Kings is filled to the brim with world building, without being overtly info-dumped. From the little epigraphs at the start of most chapters, to Shallan's research into the origins of the Plains war, to Kaladin's flashback chapters, Sanderson manages to give us a grounding in the history of Roshar. One of the world building aspects that garners Sanderson a lot of praise is his magic system. However, it doesn't take so much of a front seat in The Way of Kings as I'd expected. Yes, there are some magic workers, such as the White assassin, who can defy gravity, and the Princess Jasnah, who works a magic named Soulcasting and of course there's the magic of the ancients that produced the artifacts called Shardblades and Shardplates. But none of these is actually explained.

There are seven viewpoints throughout the five parts that make up the book. Four of these are the main points of view: Kaladin, a slave/soldier who is leader of one of the bridge crews in Dalinar's army, Shallan, a young girl seeking to learn at Princess Jasnah's feet, Dalinar, uncle to the king and one of his main commanders and Adolin, Dalinar's son. The three others only have a few chapters to their names: Navani, the Dowager Queen, Szeth, the White assassin and Wit, the King's jester. In addition there are several characters who have points of view only once in the interludes. While I found all four of the main point of view characters sympathetic, my favourite has to be Kaladin. He's the one we spend the most time with and I'd argue he's was the true heart of at least this first book of The Stormlight Archive. He's clever, resourceful and a consummate soldier, who cares deeply for the welfare of his men, even if they are considered nothing but the lowest rabble in the army and plain cannon fodder during plateau assaults.

I really enjoyed The Way of Kings, admittedly more than I'd expected to. I know this isn't a very in-depth review for the very hefty tome that these two paperbacks make up, but a combination of pregnancy brain and having read this book over six months ago – it's one of the first backlogged books due to my being sick in the early part of my pregnancy – mean that I don't really feel qualified to say more on this book. If you'd like to read some more in-depth reviews, you can find some at The Wertzone, Stomping on Yeti or The Speculative Scotsman's review at Strange Horizons.

[So you were saving the best for last, then? :P - Niall]

All that is left for me to say is that I'll definitely be around to see where Sanderson takes Kaladin, Shallan and the rest in the next book, which is tentatively scheduled for early 2013. Let's hope that after Sanderson finishes A Memory of Light, the final Wheel of Time book, he'll be able to dedicate himself fully to The Stormlight Archive and we won't have to wait as long between books, as we know that he's a very quick and prolific writer.


From the bottom of my heart, Mieneke: thank you for getting this whole thing off to such a great start. Here's hoping life with bookish baby the second is going absolutely fabulously for you, and that one day in the not-too-distant you'll have time to read another book! :)

Remember, you can find Mieneke blogging over at A Fantastical Librarian, and you damn well should, too. She's tremendously talented, and without doubt one of the very loveliest of us. And to my mind that counts for a lot in this day of faceless blog conglomerates along the lines of io9.

That's it from me and Mieneke for the day, anyway, but do drop in on The Speculative Scotsman and Friends again tomorrow for another something special!

Monday 26 March 2012

Letters From America | With A Little Help From My Friends

So, the story so far: last Wednesday, I left for America.

I will be back eventually!
More's the pity, I expect; such are the height of my hopes about this improbably long holiday. But one way or another, I'll be gone a good wee while, and it must say sort of a lot about me that one of the first things I thought, when this Stateside sabbatical suddenly solidified in the middle of February, was: what in the world will I do about the blog?
For a fair while there, I wondered. I seriously considered spending a few serious weeks at the keyboard coming up with a full month's worth of content in advance of my departure, but in the end, with the teaching I do to make ends meet and everything else, it simply wasn't realistic. Then I thought: why not repost a few old articles... make a kind of greatest hits thing of it?

That was a poor plan. I put it with my other poor plans: in a document marked TO NOT DO.
At some point during this period, it occurred to me that I was overlooking what must be far and away the most fun and informative of all my options. Guest bloggers!

Now I've certainly hosted a couple of guest posts here on The Speculative Scotsman in the past, but only very occasionally, and mostly only from authors whose writing I admire. It had simply never crossed my mind that I might be in a position to ask the bloggers I've become friends with in the process of keeping this site for a helping hand.
When it did - just a few weeks ago, really - I didn't hang about. But nor did I reply all to the many and various folks featured in my inbox. I may only have met a few of 'em, but I know more people now, through doing this lovely thing that I love - did I mention that? - than I ever have in my life. And for all that I'm away for an entire month, I couldn't feasibly co-ordinate guest posts from everyone I found myself in a position to ask.
So I made a list of some of my very favourite bloggers. Then I crossed out the folks who predominantly write about other things than speculative fiction... then everyone who had (in my arbitrary estimation) large readerships in their own right... then everyone whose circumstances would have ruled them out from contributing in any case.
I was left with a list of twenty-odd perfect potential guest bloggers. And to my sheer surprise and delight, almost everyone I touched base with - with a few understandable exceptions - seemed happy that I'd asked, and happier still to help out.
Thus, the coming month. From tomorrow, as a matter of fact, you'll be treated to an assortment of voices that may or may not be new to you. I certainly hope they aren't, but if they are, I hereby wholeheartedly recommend you follow them over to their own blogs. I regularly read the work of every one. Their sites are all on my blogroll - or they surely should be - and coming from a Scotsman, that's a stamp of absolute approval.
On the day, I will of course introduce each of the coming contributors in turn, and even burble a bit about why you should be reading their blogs. Because you really, really should be, first and foremost, but also because it's the least I can do, given all the bother they've gone to on my - and your - behalf.
So please, everybody, be nice! :)
In short, I may be AFK for almost the entirety of April, but expect The Speculative Scotsman as a site to be better than ever for the duration.
And one last thing before I finally give the floor over. I'll be keeping as close an eye on the site as I can while I'm away, and the plan - as it stands - is to stop in each and every week to keep you all up to speed on a miscellany of my misadventures in America. Time permitting, I should have the first of those posts ready for Friday.
But between now and then? Some truly terrific stuff, beginning tomorrow with a review of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson from the marvelous Mieneke of A Fantastical Librarian. If you enjoy it and everything else that's in the pipeline a fraction as much as I've loved arranging it all, you'll have a hell of a time in my absence, make no mistake.

With which, as they say in the States - or at least the one I'm in at moment - I'll see y'all! :)

Friday 23 March 2012

Book Review | Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Buy this book from

In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race's next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn't make the cut--young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender's skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers, Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender's two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If the world survives, that is.


Isn't it funny, how classics come to be? How some consensus arises that this story, rather than that one, will live on? Will be as or more meaningful decades or even centuries hence as it seemed upon its release?

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is one such success story: a classic in both the critical and the commercial sense. You might think that last an insignificant point, moot in many ways, but glowing reviews do not necessarily beget stellar sales, and only rarely do questions of quality play a part in the bestseller charts. Ender's Game, however, has remained in print for nearly 30 years, shifted many millions of copies, and spawned untold prequels, sequels and side-stories. There's an ongoing comic, an authorised companion to the Enderverse, and a movie adaptation in the making; next summer's genre blockbuster, by all appearances.

Add to that - on the other end of the equation - the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1985, the Nebula the next year, and a host of other prestigious proclamations of its general excellence. As one of its wiser characters asserts, "In all the world, the name of Ender is one to conjure with. The child-god, the miracle worker, with life and death in his hands." Ender's Game, then, is a known quantity of sorts. Or you would think it thus.

For my part, I came to Ender's Game with almost no knowledge of its plot... with not a notion about its characters, its conceptual concerns, its central narrative elements. All I brought to the table with me were my mixed memories of Card's last - namely The Lost Gate - and a rough recollection of the disturbing debacle over Hamlet's Father: ostensibly a retelling of the Shakespeare which went out of its way to expose, and I quote, "the dark secret of homosexual society." So perhaps not the most positive predisposition, but nevertheless, I expected Ender's Game to be tremendous. It's a classic, after all.

Now I'm in no position to dispute that, but were I... well I would, and I wouldn't. I'm in two minds, truth be told. Even now. I did enjoy Ender's Game. It's an interesting extrapolation of the prototypical super-soldier story, recast with innocent children in place of the usual convicted criminals or military guinea pigs. It asks some important questions about violence, retribution and responsibility. Its morals may be a bitter pill, but not an impossible one to swallow, and this is of course in keeping with the best sf.

Saying that, all the business in the battle room is basically space quidditch. Insipid stuff in other words. And then there's this, which I had to asterisk up just to get it into the system:
Alai cocked an eyebrow. 'Oh?'
'And Shen.'
'That slanty-eyed little butt-wiggler?'
Ender decided that Alai was joking. 'Hey, we can't all be n*ggers.'
Alai grinned. 'My great great grandpa would have sold him first.'
'Let's go get Bernard and Shen and freeze these bugger-lovers.'
The saving grace of Ender's Game is that the bigotry by the numbers above isn't in evidence altogether too often, but when it is, it's enough to make one wonder: is this really the sort of thing we want to expose generation after generation of potential science fiction fans to? Why do we hold up this, and not that, as representative of the best newcomers can expect?

Ender's Game is a product of its era in another sense as well. In terms of its ideas, however visionary they may have been in 1977, when the short story Ender's Game is based on was first published in Analog, they were surely less so in 1985, when the book proper was published, and less again when Card "updated" it in 1991, revising out some (but not all) of its political incorrectness. In the here and now, having had more than thirty years to mix with the stuff of contemporary sf, these ideas seem... tame. Stale, I dare say.

But that's the trouble with tribbles, isn't it? By today's standards, sure, Ender's Game feels for the larger part unremarkable, but to dismiss a classic because of the impact it's had is equally indecent. So I won't dispute the touchstone status of Card's supposed greatest... I'll only assert that the revelatory last act, around which every other element of Ender's Game is oriented, is astonishingly flat. I won't take the piss out of the twist - I didn't see it coming - but the unwieldy infodump which follows paints the pace of the tale to date in pedestrian shades, robbing this pivotal moment of much of its power.

On the one hand, I'm glad to have read Ender's Game at long last, and however dated it may be - and indeed, uneven - I enjoyed the experience enough that I might yet soldier on with one or another of the sequels, but never mind Orson Scott Card's recent fall from grace: I do not know that this dark parable is one for the ages in any case.


Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card

UK Publication: December 2011, Orbit
US Publication: July 1994, Tor

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Thursday 22 March 2012

Film Review | Hugo, dir. Martin Scorsese

I almost saw Hugo at the movies. Almost, but not quite. For one reason or another, I waited for the Blu-ray, and come the appointed day, as beautiful as the thing looked, here at home it felt... flat. And I think there's a reason for that. It's overgenerous in my estimation, but you could call Hugo a love letter to cinema, and maybe if I'd seen it on the big screen the experience would have been more memorable. As is, I almost liked it, but not quite.

In many ways the latest from Martin Scorsese marks an outlandish change of pace for the filmmaker. He's one of the greats, of course, and if we were in any danger of forgetting that fact, he's had rather a renaissance of late, with The Departed, Shutter Island and his involvement in HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

In such storied company, Hugo seems almost an aberration: it's an uplifting, Amelie-esque movie about movies, complete with cartoonish characters, a saccharine-sweet narrative, and that most romantic backdrop, classic Paris. It's about a little orphan boy who lives in the walls of an ornate train station in said city, and longs for one last message from his dearly departed father. This Hugo (Asa Butterfeld) hopes he'll have if he can just fix the broken automaton they were working on in advance of the accident that left him bereft.

However, were it so simple, he'd have done it already, but Hugo's life - hard enough as it is - is made still more miserable by Sacha Baron Cohen's nameless Station Inspector, meanwhile Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the owner of a small magic shop, seems to have it in for him. When the monstrous Monseiur holds Hugo's precious notebook hostage, our little fellow's only hope is his adopted daughter, Hit-Girl. No! I mean Isabelle! In any case, Chloë Grace Moretz - who you might also recall from Let Me In - as a precocious creature desperate to have an adventure the equal of those from the stories. Together then, Hugo and Isabelle uncover a mystery involving the automaton, an early film long thought lost, and a strange, sad man haunted by his past.

Hugo is a no expenses spared adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick: the 2007 Caldecott award-winner described by its author as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things." Whatever it is or is not, I'm afraid I haven't read the thing - poor show sir! - so I can't speak to where exactly the issues I had with Hugo originated, but at a glance, the filmmakers don't appear to have taken any great liberties with the source material.

Perhaps that's the problem, because Hugo is truly two movies, about an hour long each. The first is a meandering farce, featuring Cohen in Borat mode, whilst the second is a deeply human and moderately moving story, starring Ben Kingsley at his best, Helen McRory as his wistful wife, and a star-studded cast of bit-part players. The kids hardly factor into this latter half, and it's as well, because they're only ever so-so. As Isabelle, Moretz does her best Hermione, which is fine, but Butterfeld's moody Hugo is an accumulation of nervous energy and emo eyeliner. In his absence Hugo seems like it might just together; to wit, the older actors bear the lion's share of the movie's most powerful moments, in vignettes that have more heart than Hugo's whole story.

These asides are nice, but the entire enterprise is oriented around Hugo himself, and Butterfeld just isn't up to snuff. Nor is the narrative paced or structured in such a way as to take the onus off this miscast young actor. As I was saying, around the midpoint of the film, everything changes - for the better, from my perspective - but while children might be entertained by the first bit, they'll be bored to tears by the second, meanwhile older viewers are apt to appreciate the touching meta-movie with which Hugo concludes, though most everything before that point will drive them to distraction.

Were Hugo one thing or the other, I could simply say this isn't for me, and let that be that, or praise Scorsese for an affectionate celebration of cinema. As it is - which is to say a bit of this, and a bit of that - I honestly don't know who this film is for, and I doubt the director does either. Though the occasional 3D sequences stick out like sore thumbs, it certainly looks the part, and Howard Shore's score is a modest success as well, but beyond its incredible presentation, Hugo is oddly hollow; a beautiful, but broken automaton.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Scotsman Abroad | Up, Angelmaker, And Away!

Today, for the first time, and perhaps the last time, your Scotsman's abroad in both senses of the phrase: at this very second I'm in an airplane, jetting off to international pastures, if not arrived upon them already, and popping Reese's Pieces.

Not only, but also, have published a review I wrote a little in advance of my departure, and it just so happens to be of one of the best books I've read all year. The only other novel of 2012 to date that even comes close to rivaling my time spent with the new Nick Harkaway was The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which I'm afraid we'll have to wait till the other end of my long holiday to talk about at any length.

But back to Angelmaker. It's baffling. It's bold. It's brilliant:
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why Angelmaker is one of the year’s best books, but then, it’s hard to put your finger on much of anything in Angelmaker, because it’s always in flux. One moment it’s an animated urban fantasy, the next nostalgic sci-fi with geriatric spies, and it’s no slouch in the between times either. Angelmaker takes in biting black comedy, heart-warming romance, some light crime monkeyshines, an incisive commentary on the state of play of people in power and power in people – in government around the world, if particularly in Britain – and so very much more that I’d have to be "mad as a shaved cat" to even attempt an account of it all.

So quantity, yes, and in every sense: in character as well as narrative, in wit and impact and ambition. But also quality. As one right-thinking English critic asserted, The Gone-Away World was "a bubbling cosmic stew of a book, written with such exuberant imagination that you are left breathless by its sheer ingenuity," but for all its wonders, Nick Harkaway’s extraordinary debut was not without its issues in addition – foremost amongst them its madcap, almost abstract construction, which too often left one wondering what in The Gone-Away World was going on, even as it was going, going, gone.

Angelmaker, however, is a book far better put than its predecessor. A markedly more crafted artifact. Though the author’s roving eye remains intact, and those subjects its alights upon feel as delightful and insightful as ever, Harkaway has honed this incomparable trick of his to a filigree so fine that it appears nearly invisible; a filament of woven gold – impossible, yet a fact for all that – which runs through Angelmaker from the fanciful first to the beloved last.

Please do follow the link through to to read the rest of the piece.

And then, if you haven't already, buy this book! Because it's exactly that awesome.

Wish me a happy landing! :/

Monday 19 March 2012

You Tell Me | What to Take to the States

This may come as a surprise to some of you - I know I've mentioned it once or twice on Twitter, and it may have come up here on the blog as well, if only in passing - but on Wednesday, I leave for America. I'll be gone quite a while, as well. Almost a month!

Predictably, this is all I can think of:

Except when this image has lodged in my stupidhead instead:

That's one bad-ass bird, isn't it?

Distractions aside, let me take this opportunity to assure you: I haven't forgotten you folks. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact! You'll be very well taken of in my absence... more on which in a longer post at a slightly later date. But we've a good few things to get through first. Not least a pair of reviews that I need to post within the week, or it'll be ages and ages before you see them, if ever; after all, I can't imagine I'll be short of stuff to blog about upon my return in late April.

Meanwhile, I still have to do all my packing. All of it! Aaaaah! And then there's this dreadful fourteen-hour flight to contend with... not to mention the many days of backseat driving and train riding to follow.

Holidays, huh? Who'd have 'em? :P

Anyway, that eternal question has of course come up. With limited luggage, and an almost unlimited supply of awesome books I've been meaning to read for years, what should I take away with me?

In no particular order:

  • Should I finally give A Game of Thrones a go? Or should I dig into Deadhouse Gates instead?
  • Do I take one book of the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, or all three? Or is there some superior YA series I'd be better off starting?
  • Bearing in mind I've only read Tigana, Under Heaven and Ysabel, and of the three I adored Tigana the most, which of the books from Guy Gavriel Kay's back catalogue should I opt to take? 
  • I want some good solid sf with me as well. Not the hardest of the hard, but not Neal Asher either. So what's fun but also awesome, like Leviathan Wakes was?
  • Finally, I think some quality urban fantasy is in order. So: Sandman Slim, Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht, Storm Front from The Dresden Files, or something completely different?
You tell me!

Pretty please? :)

Incidentally, I'll be taking my tablet Stateside, so I'll have a host of e-books with me in addition to whatever else we decide on in the comments, but of late I've made a solemn vow to cease and desist re-buying superfluous electronic copies of physical books I already own. To wit, these things, all of which I have physical copies of, will be coming in my carry-on or not at all.

And there's one other decision I'd love you lot to help me make. The only potential gaming device I intend to take to America is a mid-range laptop, and I have no idea how to tell the good indie games available on Steam from the garbage. I've already downloaded Dear Esther, and it runs... well, it runs, and I suppose that's something. In short: I'd also welcome any and all gaming recommendations.

Thank you thank you thank you in advance!


You know I'm going to miss you guys, don't you?

Thursday 15 March 2012

You Tell Me | Referential Marketing and The Uglies

I burbled a bit about The Hunger Games on Monday, in Bargain Books, and if you cast your minds back, you might remember that I also made mention of them last Thursday, in my review of Julianna Baggot's disappointing Pure. So obviously the marketing campaign for the new movie has done the trick!

Not that that's the point I mean to make. Bear with me a moment here, and we'll find our way back to the start. First we need to factor in a third thing: another notable dystopia. Indeed, one near and dear to many hearts.

That'd be the Uglies books, by Scott Westerfeld.

Very recently Simon & Schuster revealed "incredible" new covers for all three volumes. Actually, for three of the four... because trilogies are the in thing, I suspect, and anyway Extras occupies an odd spot in the series. But here, in any event, are the new jackets:

Utterly unremarkable, aren't they?

Which is a shame, on several fronts: in the first, because this series had some pretty damn decent covers to begin with - use your google-fu, folks - but largely because with The Hunger Games in ascendance, this might be the moment to win over a fair few new readers, and these new editions aren't going to earn any admirers.

Or are they?

As a matter of fact, I think they might.

Because Simon & Schuster's marketing department hasn't entirely missed its chance to piggyback the Uglies books on this latest wave of love for The Hunger Games. Quite the contrary: you probably can't see the text at the top of each of the images embedded above, so let's recap.

The Uglies!

Which is... well. You tell me.

I don't suppose I'm terribly offended. On behalf of the series, that is. I don't think the new jackets are going to entirely outmode the old covers, and maybe a simple message like this will bring renewed interest in Scott Westerfeld's work. Hard-earned interest, I should stress. Westerfeld's quite the writer, and I can't imagine anyone who reads the Uglies because they want something not dissimilar from The Hunger Games will go home disappointed.

Still, the idea of selling one work on the merits of another troubles me somewhat, and I want to know: what do you guys think about this sort of... referential marketing? Good, bad, or butt-ugly?

And another thing. If we extend the question out a bit, how do reviews which make such comparisons sit with you?

Let's bring things full circle with a for instance. In my review of Pure - which is here - I didn't just namecheck Suzanne Collins' sensational trilogy, I took Baggot's book to task (in part) because I felt it lacked The Hunger Games' heart, and the two texts were similar enough in every other sense that I thought it'd be disingenuous of me to omit the mention. Was that a helpful sort of shorthand, or simply lazy criticism?

Honestly, I can't quite decide myself...

So how do you folks feel about all this?

Let's talk it out in the comments! :)