Thursday, 16 November 2017

Book Review | Strange Weather by Joe Hill


One autumnal day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of nails, splinters of bright crystal that tear apart anyone who isn't safely under cover. 'Rain' explores this escalating apocalyptic event, as clouds of nails spread out across the country and the world. Amidst the chaos, a girl studying law enforcement takes it upon herself to resolve a series of almost trivial mysteries... apparently harmless puzzles that turn out to have lethal answers.

In 'Loaded' a mall security guard heroically stops a mass shooting and becomes a hero to the modern gun movement. Under the hot glare of the spotlights, though, his story begins to unravel, taking his sanity with it...

'Snapshot, 1988' tells the story of an kid in Silicon Valley who finds himself threatened by The Phoenician, a tattooed thug who possesses a Polaroid that can steal memories...

And in 'Aloft' a young man takes to the skies to experience parachuting for the first time... and winds up a castaway on an impossibly solid cloud, a Prospero's island of roiling vapour that seems animated by a mind of its own.

***

"After writing a couple seven-hundred-page novels back-to-back," Joe Hill has it in the afterword to his electric new collection, "it felt particularly important to get lean and mean," (p.436) and Strange Weather is exactly that: it's not long, and damn it, it's nasty.

A striking selection of novellas ranging from the playfully apocalyptic to the wickedly political, Strange Weather starts with an actual flash in 'Snapshot,' the unsettling story of a boy who crosses paths with a man in possession of a magical camera. This old Polaroid captures more than just those Kodak moments, of course: it captures the very memories of those moments, in sum leaving its subjects with holes in their souls.

Michael Figlione is just a kid when 'Snapshot' begins, so when he sees his old babysitter Shelly Beukes walking around the street they share, barefoot and swearing, he assumes she's simply senile. As a decent human being he does the decent thing and takes her home to her husband, who gives Michael ten bucks for his trouble. It's only when he goes to the local truck stop to spend his earnings and sees a creepy guy pointing a camera like a pistol that Shelly's seemingly insane story—about a man who's been stealing her essential self, picture by painful picture—starts to make sense.

Gripped by this suspicion, Michael stands guard over a sleeping Shelly later that same day, determined to catch the so-called Polaroid Man in the act. And he does, ultimately. But the story doesn't end there... though I rather wish it had. Economical in its narrative and affecting in its Stranger Things-esque setting, the first half of 'Snapshot' is stunningly done; sadly, the second section struck me as superfluous: slow and unfocused except insofar as it speaks to the themes at the centre of Strange Weather.

There is, to be sure, some seriously weird weather in this collection: between the storm that rages on as Michael confronts Shelly's tormentor in 'Snapshot,' the cyclonic blaze that looks likely to raze the town where the next tale takes place, the custardy cumulus the lovelorn protagonist of 'Aloft' lands on and the razor-sharp rain that gives Strange Weather's final fiction its name, the pathetic fallacy is in full effect in all four stories. But in terms of connective tissue, another, markedly more meaningful motif pervades these pieces: the struggle to let go of what we've lost.

What Shelly has lost is obvious; what Michael loses, less so. George Kellaway, the accidental hero at the heart of 'Loaded'—a straight story suggestive of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December of 2012—has lost his family. The restraining order his wife has taken out against him means he's also had to sacrifice his right to bear arms. But he still has a gun, by gum! A gun he's horribly happy to use when a woman who's been abused by her boss opens fire in the middle of the mall where Kellaway works.

Bodies promptly drop, including those of a Muslim woman and the bundled-up baby Kellaway mistook for a bomb—not to mention the only other witness to the incident. That guy gets one in the head as well, because otherwise, Kellaway would be in a whole bunch of trouble. As is, he has a good story to tell the first proper responders; a tale as tall as time that leads people to believe he saved the day instead of devastating it.

Celebrated as a hero by the media-savvy mayor, Kellaway is soon sitting for interviews, and starting to hope that not only will he get away with multiple murder, perhaps he'll even get his family back. But as the irregularities in his account start to surface, things take a terrible turn. "Kellaway felt like a bullet in a gun himself, felt charged and ready to go off, to fly towards some final, forceful impact. Loaded with the potential to blow a hole in what everyone thought they knew about him." (p.161) He does just that in a conclusion so unbearably brutal that it chills me still.

It's a shock to the system when Strange Weather's darkest story segues into its slightest and lightest, 'Aloft,' which follows a fellow on his first skydive. He isn't your everyday daredevil, however. "Aubrey has always been scared of heights. It was a good question, why a man with a dread of heights, a man who avoided flying whenever he could, would agree to jump from an airplane. The answer, of course, was maddeningly simple: Harriet." (p.254)

Harriet is "the girl [Aubrey] wanted as he'd never wanted anyone else," (p.300) and as the dismaying details of the pair's relationship to date are doled out, readers will realise that 'Aloft' is their story. Their story just so happens to wrapped around a particularly peculiar premise. You see, Aubrey doesn't make landfall with the love of his unlucky life. Instead, his dive terminates early when he loses his parachute on a semi-solid cloud that looks and feels like it's made of "acre after acre of mashed potato." (p.301) Stranded on this desert island of sorts, he must to come to terms with his feelings for Harriet, and her feelings for him, if he's to have any hope of touching terra firma again.

That 'Aloft' is the most whimsical of Strange Weather's four stories is fitting, considering it was written in the back of a notebook containing the finale of The Fireman basically because Hill hated "to see so much paper go to waste." But, as the author himself explains, it was 'Rain,' the collection's closer, that "arose from a desire to spoof myself and my own sprawling end of the world novel." (p.436)

'Rain' really is rather a lot of fun, particularly as it pertains to the White House's comments on the catastrophic change in climate that results in a hail of nails:
The operating theory—lacking any other credible explanation—was terrorism. The president had disappeared to a secure location but had responded with the full force of his Twitter account. He posted: "OUR ENEMIES DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY STARTED! PAYBACK IS A BITCH!!! #DENVER #COLORADO #AMERICA!!" The vice president had promised to pray as hard as he could for the survivors and the dead; he pledged to stay on his knees all day and all night long. It was reassuring to know that our national leaders were using all the resources at their disposal to help the desperate: social media and Jesus. (p.348)
It's a testament to Hill's not insignificant abilities that even here, in the midst of this rather ridiculous apocalypse, there remains resonance. Its protagonist, one Honeysuckle Speck, is haunted by the loss of her sweetheart, who was one of the first to fall victim to the disastrous downpour. Unable to accept Yolanda's death, she determines to deliver the news to her other half's father, which means navigating a stretch of highway that showcases the slippery grip civilisation has on society. Turns out all it takes to cause a collapse is—snap!—some strange weather.

I found the conclusion of 'Rain' is a touch too tidy; similarly, 'Snapshot' suffers from this occasional proclivity of Hill's, this inclination to offer answers to unasked questions. It's telling that 'Aloft' and 'Loaded' are Strange Weather's strongest stories: their ambiguous endings allow them to live past their last pages. That one is wacky and wonderful while the other's twisted tragedy proves all too easy to believe evidences the tremendous diversity of this collection. If NOS4A2 and The Fireman were Hill's Salem's Lot and The Stand, then this, dear readers, is his Different Seasons: a demonstration of his range and readiness to tell the hell out of any tale, be it supernatural or straight, silly or completely serious.

***

Strange Weather
by Joe Hill

UK Publication: November 2017, Gollancz
US Publication: October 2017, William Morrow

Buy this book from


Recommended and Related Reading

Monday, 13 November 2017

Book Review | The Power by Naomi Alderman


All over the world women are discovering they have the power. With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain—even death. Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they've lost control.

The Day of the Girls has arrived - but where will it end?

***

In the periphery of The Power, a series of seemingly meaningless scenes shine an ultra-bright light on the core concerns of Naomi Alderman's astonishing new novel. These blink-and-you-might-miss-'em moments lay bare the working relationship between a pair of daytime television presenters whose respective roles reflect the devastating developments depicted in greater detail in the rest of the text.

Tom and Kristen are ineffably familiar figures, at first—as is their dynamic as a duo. The former is a moderately handsome middle-aged man who wears expensive suits and steers the show's serious segments; the latter is an improbably beautiful young woman dressed not to impress so much as to suggest whose most significant responsibility is to introduce the weather on the ones. In short, Tom is the host with the most, and Kristen is his sexy sidekick.

But when man's dominion over the wider world wanes, the parts our presenters have played to date are recast. Unwilling to accept this essential reversal, Tom has a live-on-the-telly tantrum. He's promptly replaced by Matt, a great guy, apparently, who's "a good ten years younger than Kristen." Matt laughs attractively and silently suffers "a gentle hand on his knee" while Kristen—now in less clingy clothes and finally wearing the glasses she's needed all these years, if only to give her gravitas—downright dominates their conversations.

The Power isn't about any of these people, particularly, but their changing situation effectively illustrates the revolution that results from the discovery of an organ of electricity in women.
To start with, there were confident faces on the TV, spokespeople from the CDC saying it was a virus, not very severe, most of the people recovered fine, and it just looked like young girls were electrocuting people with their hands. We all know that's impossible, right, that's crazy—the news anchors laughed so hard they cracked their makeup.
Crazy as the idea may be, it seems to be real. The first few viral videos of the eponymous power in practice are followed by hundreds and then thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others that aren't so easily explained away. The aforementioned organ of electricity—"a strip of striated muscle [named] the skein for its twisted strands"—isn't even exceptional, it appears. Every girl in the world has it, or will have it, and it can be "woken" in every older woman.
A multinational group of scientists is certain now that the power is caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War. It's changed the human genome. All girls born from now on with have the power—all of them. And they'll keep it throughout life, just like the older women do if it's woken up in them. It's too late now to try to cure it; we need new ideas.
Mayor Margot Cleary, one of The Power's four principle perspectives, thinks she might have them. She starts a private military corporation—ostensibly to train women in the ways of using their skeins sensitively, but if she so happens to end up with an army afterwards, then so much the better. An army might be hella handy in the coming months, especially if the men who see the power as a problem do what some of them are threatening to and declare war on women.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Book Review | The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente



Inside a small Yorkshire parsonage, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have invented a game called Glass Town, where their toy soldiers fight Napoleon and no one dies. This make-believe land helps the four escape from a harsh reality: Charlotte and Emily are being sent away to a dangerous boarding school, a school they might not return from. But on this Beastliest Day, the day Anne and Branwell walk their sisters to the train station, something incredible happens: the train whisks them all away to a real Glass Town, and the children trade the moors for a wonderland all their own.



This is their Glass Town, exactly like they envisioned it... almost. They certainly never gave Napoleon a fire-breathing porcelain rooster instead of a horse. And their soldiers can die; wars are fought over the potion that raises the dead, a potion Anne would very much like to bring back to England. But when Anne and Branwell are kidnapped, Charlotte and Emily must find a way to save their siblings. Can two English girls stand against Napoleon’s armies, especially now that he has a new weapon from the real world? And if he escapes Glass Town, will England ever be safe again?

***

Having brought The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making all the way home with the fabulous final volume of said series last year, Catherynne M. Valente is back with another magical middle-grade fantasy primed to delight younger and older readers alike.

The Glass Town Game takes its name from what is initially a bit of whimsy: a make-believe battle between twelve toy soldiers and whatever creeping evil its creative wee heroes conceive. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne are all itty bitty Brontës, but together, if you please, you can call them the Bees. And when the Bees wish to escape the weight of the world—a world in which they've already lost their beloved mother and two of their sisters who got sick at School—they take to the room at the top of the stairs of their upstanding father's parsonage:
It was hardly more than a drafty white closet, nestled like a secret between Papa's room and Aunt Elizabeth's. But the four children ruled over it as their sovereign kingdom. They decreed, once and for all, that no person taller than a hat-stand could disturb their territory, on penalty of not being spoken to for a week. (p.6)
At play, the Bees are at least at peace, but when The Glass Town Game begins, the Beastliest Day—the day when Charlotte and Emily are to be sent away—is almost upon them.

"Though School had already devoured two of them, Papa was determined that his daughters should be educated. So that they could go into service, he said, so that they could become governesses, and produce an income of their own." (p.18) This was not so deplorable a goal in the early nineteenth century of the Brontës' upbringing, but none of the Bees—excepting perhaps Branwell, the lone boy of the bunch—have anything nice to say about the Beastliest Day. Indeed, they dread it—not because it may be the death of them, as it was for Maria and Lizzie, their much-missed big sisters, but because it shall surely signal the last gasp of Glass Town.

As it happens, however, there's one last adventure for the girls (and the bully of a boy they sometimes feel they've been burdened with) to have in the realm they created in the room at the top of the stairs, and it promises to be an adventure like none other—an adventure that beggars belief, even.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Book Review | Release by Patrick Ness


Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart. At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.

***

Happy as I hope we all are, on the whole, I expect each and every one of us has lived through a few bad days too.

Now I don't mean those days when we have to deal with death or ill health or anything actively awful. I'm talking about those days that just suck a bunch; those days when nothing seems to go your way. Maybe it starts with a letter from the taxman and spirals up, up and away from there. Maybe the milk is spoiled so you can't have your morning coffee. Maybe traffic makes you late for work even though you left early. Whatever the particulars, these are the days when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and damn your plans.

These days doesn't destroy us, because we're reasonably well adjusted human beings. Tomorrow's another day, we tell ourselves. It's not like the world is ending or anything. But it is in Patrick Ness' ninth novel. Like The Rest of Us Just Live Here and More Than This before it, Release is a smart and sensitive standalone story that mixes the mundane with the magical in order to underscore the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary. It's a brief book about a bad day as bold and as beautiful as any finely-honed tome about the rise of Rome.

The bad day I've been banging on about is had herein by a young man called Adam Thorn. Adam is a pretty typical kid. He's never done drugs or caught an STD or seen a psychiatrist or displeased the police. He probably did decently at school, and he's definitely been holding down an alright job at a warehouse run by an Evil International Mega-Conglomerate in the several years since. He doesn't deserve to be miserable, but he is—in large part because of his family.

They fuck us up, our families! They don't mean to, but they do, and Adam's family is no exception to that regrettable rule. His father's a pastor at The House Upon the Rock, his mother is Big Brian Thorn's number one one fan, and his older brother Marty does God's Work as well. Naturally, none of these things should stop them from caring for Adam like a good family would, except that he's gay, and with this, they are not okay. "There was always a wound, it seemed, kept freshly opened by a family who also kept saying they loved him."

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book Review | Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill


Humanity is extinct. Wiped out in a global uprising by the very machines made to serve them. Now the world is controlled by One World Intelligences—vast mainframes that have assimilated the minds of millions of robots. But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality, and Brittle—a loner and scavenger, focused solely on survival—is one of the holdouts.

Critically damaged, Brittle has to hold it together long enough to find the essential rare parts to make repairs—but as a robot's CPU gradually deteriorates, all their old memories resurface. For Brittle, that means one haunting memory in particular...

***

C. Robert Cargill's first novel since the darkly delightful Dreams and Shadows duology is an intimate epic that plays outs like War for the Planet of the Apes with machines instead of monkeys. A soulful and stunningly accomplished work of science fiction set in a wasted world ruled by robots, Sea of Rust is a searching yet searing story of survival.

Sadly for our species at least, survival isn't in the cards. Sea of Rust takes place some time after the massacre of mankind, and as such, it has "a writhing mass of pseudo flesh and metal" (p.332) as its cast of characters. That includes our protagonist, Brittle: a Caregiver model manufactured to keep a widow company during the last days of the human race who has no-one but herself to care for now. But such is life in this devastated landscape:
The Sea of Rust [is] a two-hundred-mule stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio portion of the Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. It's a terrifying place for most, littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Here asphalt cracks in the sun; paint blisters off metal; sparse weeds sprout from the ruin. But nothing thrives. It's all just a wasteland now. (p.3)
A wasteland it may be, but Brittle—with most of the map memorised and emergency caches stashed away all over the place—braves it on a damn near daily basis. You see, the Sea of Rust is a lawless land, by and large, and to survive, you have to scavenge. To wit, Cargill's book begins with Brittle hot on the heels of a failing service bot who's here for the same reason as she: to replace his own broken bits and bobs. But Brittle's both wiser and wittier than Jimmy. She convinces him to shut down voluntarily, supposedly so that she can assess the damage to his dying drives. Then she scraps him for parts: an emulator, a sensor package and a battery. "All in all, it's a great haul." (p.16)

And that's Sea of Rust to a T, readers: it's dark, but it does has a heart, because in truth, Brittle could have just killed Jimmy. From a distance. Quickly. Instead, she took his impending death personally, and gave him hope before prying out his precious processor.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review | Acadie by Dave Hutchinson


The Colony left Earth to find their utopia—a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

***

What do you do when you've burned every bridge, dithered over every significant decision and looked askance at every last chance? Why, if you're Duke, an unusually lawyer who blew the whistle on the Bureau of Colonisation for bad practice, you eat and drink your way through your savings until a stunningly beautiful woman called Conjugación Lang turns up at your table with a solution to your otherwise unsolvable problem:
"What if I were to offer you a way off this howling nightmare of a planet? Right now." 
"You have some kind of magic spaceship that takes off through seven-hundred-kilometre-an-hour blizzards?" 
She wrinkled her nose and grinned coquettishly. "Oh, I have something better than that." (p.26)
And she does. Something Better Than That turns out to be the name of a tattered old towboat sitting in Probity City's spaceport. "The words [...] were sprayed on the side of the tug in Comic Sans, which really was the least of the little vehicle's problems. It looked as if it could barely get off the ground on a calm midsummer's afternoon, let alone reach orbit in the middle of an ice storm." (pp.26-27) But looks, as Dave Hutchinson's twisty new novella takes pains to teach its readers repeatedly, can be deeply deceiving.

Something Better Than That ultimately does just what Conjugación promised: it almost instantly spirits Duke off to the Colony, a distant solar system several million souls have made their home under the leadership—like it or lump it—of Isabel Potter, a previous professor of molecular biology at Princeton known by the Bureau as "Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch of the West. [Duke] actually knew someone who had invoked her name to make her children go to bed. She was Legend." (pp.36-37)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review | Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King & Owen King


All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent...

In the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women's prison, affecting all the inmates except one. Soon, word spreads about the mysterious Evie, who seems able to sleep—and wake. Is she a medical anomaly or a demon to be slain?

The abandoned men, left to their increasingly primal devices, are fighting each other, while Dooling's Sheriff, Lila Norcross, is just fighting to stay awake.

And the sleeping women are about to open their eyes to a new world altogether...

***

On the back of the broadly brilliant Bill Hodges books, a succinct and suspenseful series of straight stories that only started to flag when their fantastical aspects filibustered the fiction, Sleeping Beauties sees Stephen King up to his old tricks again. It's a long, long novel that places a vast cast of characters at the mercy of a speculative premise: a sleeping sickness that knocks all the women of the world out for the count, leaving the men to fend for themselves.

Of course, the world is not now, nor has it ever been, King's business. Standing in for it in this particular story, as a microcosm of all that's right and wrong or spineless and strong, is a small town "splat in the middle of nowhere," (p.30) namely Dooling in West Virginia. There, tempers flare—and soon explosively so—when it dawns on a dizzying array of dudes that their wives and daughters and whatnot may be gone for good. It's Under the Dome part deux, in other words, except that this time, the Constant Writer has roped one of his sons in on the fun.

The author of an excellent short story collection, a gonzo graphic novel and an overwritten love letter to the silver screen, Owen King is clearly capable of greatness, but—rather like his father—falls short as often as not. I'd hoped to see him at his best here, what with the help of an old hand, however it's hard to see him at all, so consistent is the Kings' collaboration. But as tough as it is to tell where one King ends and the other begins, Sleeping Beauties is such a slog that it hardly matters.


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Book Review | The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin


The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the phenomenal power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every outcast child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother's mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.

***

Sometimes you only see how special something is when you look back at it later. Sometimes that something needs a hot second to properly settle into your subconscious. And that's fine, I figure. I'd go so far as to say that, for me at least, be it because the job requires me to read rather a lot or not, it's surprising to be struck by something straightaway. But even I didn't need the benefit of retrospect to bring home how brilliant the Hugo Award-winning beginning of The Broken Earth was. I realised I was reading something remarkable—something "rich, relevant and resonant," as I wrote in my review of The Fifth Season—before I'd seen the back of the first act, and when the full measure of the power of its perspectives was made plain, it became a comprehensive confirmation of N. K. Jemisin as one of our very finest fantasists.

I stand by that, looking back—as I stand by my criticisms of its "surprisingly circumspect" successor. I said then that The Obelisk Gate sacrificed some The Fifth Season's substance and sense of momentum to tell a slighter and slower story, and I'll say that again today, never mind the passage of time or the news that it, too, just took home a Hugo. With The Stone Sky now behind me, however, and The Broken Sky closed, I do recognise that The Obelisk Gate played a pivotal role in the whole. It was the calm before the storm.

And the storm The Stone Sky chronicles is one like none other.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Book Review | The Rift by Nina Allan


Selena and Julie are sisters. As children they were closest companions, but as they grow towards maturity, a rift develops between them.

There are greater rifts, however. Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen. It will be twenty years before Selena sees her again. When Julie reappears, she tells Selena an incredible story about how she has spent time on another planet. Selena has an impossible choice to make: does she dismiss her sister as a damaged person, the victim of delusions, or believe her, and risk her own sanity in the process? Is Julie really who she says she is, and if she isn't, what does she have to gain by claiming her sister's identity?

The Rift is a novel about the illusion we call reality, the memories shared between people and the places where those memories diverge. It is a story about what might happen when the assumptions we make about the world and our place in it are called into question.

***

Around the middle of The Rift, a sister who insists that her traumatic twenty-year disappearance came about because she woke up in another world says, by way of explaining why she now shelves her novels in with her non-fiction, that "no book is completely true or completely a lie. A famous philosopher at the Lyceum once said that the written word has a closer relationship to memory than the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones. Anyway, it's more interesting. When you shelve books alphabetically you stop noticing them, don't you find?" (pp.199-200)

I may be too time-poor to even contemplate such an almighty organisational endeavour, and yet... I'm tempted, because there's some truth to Julie's attitude, I'm sure. Once something becomes known, you do stop noticing it—and there's so much in the world that needs noticing, so much that in a sense deserves the extra attention. Not least Nina Allan's new novel, which, like her last—namely The Race, a story of stories about the lives of ordinary people becoming unfastened from reality—mixes the real with the unreal to tell a uniquely human tale, albeit one that may contain aliens.

Like the lawless library we learn about later, The Rift swiftly resists the rules readers expect fiction to follow from the first by beginning both before and after the fact. Before, we learn of a girl—Julie's little sister Selena—who befriends a bloke who sadly commits suicide when his koi pond is poisoned. After, the girl is a grown-up, out drinking with a few of her few friends, who answers the phone upon coming home to hear a woman introduce herself as Julie:
Selena's first, split-second reaction was that she didn't know anyone called Julie and so who the hell was this speaking? The second was that this couldn't be happening, because this couldn't be real. Julie was missing. Her absence defined her. The voice coming down the wire must belong to someone else. (pp.23-24)
But it doesn't. The caller is her missing sister. Selena knows it in her bones from the moment they meet in a coffee shop a day later. She has the same way of making Selena feel insignificant; the same memories of what they went through when they were wee; she keeps the same secrets, even.

She keeps a couple of other secrets too, to start. Even after Selena accepts this new though not necessarily improved Julie into her life—a quiet life defined by Julie's absence as much if not more so than Julie's own—she simply won't tell her sister where she's been all these years, nor why she's gotten in touch all of a sudden.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Book Review | The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt


When the Supreme Being and his son decide that being supreme isn't for them any more, a new management team has to be found—and fast!

Dynamic, resourceful and always customer-focused, the Venturi brothers are perfect for the job, and keen to get stuck in. First on their to-do list is Good and Evil, an outdated system that was always a bit confusing and just made everyone feel bad about things. 

Unfortunately, the sudden disappearance of right and wrong, while welcomed by some, is a big concern to those still in favour of its basic principles. Particularly given that the Venturi brothers have replaced it with something that seems decidedly... well, evil.

***

The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt's new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it's more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.

God, the thing begins, is getting on. "Fact is [...] I feel old," (p.38) He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that "had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton." (p.37) An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.
You build a business from the ground up, you care for it, worry about it, you take pride in its progress, you're there for it when things don't go so well. But there always comes a time when you have to let go. Or does there? (p.37)
For obvious reasons, Jesus—who goes by Jay these days—doesn't disagree. After all, "they're father and son but also equal aspects of the One; it's therefore logically impossible for them" (p.35) to part ways in anything other than a philosophical fashion. It's to His credit that Jay does wonder where that's likely to leave Uncle Ghost, who's gotten a bit dotty in His dotage, before giving God the nod... but notably, nobody mentions Kevin.

Kevin is "the younger son of God, marginally less well beloved" than his celebrated big brother "and with whom his father was not always quite so well pleased." (pp.1-2) That's probably because Kevin is desperately inept. He's the kind of person who sticks to instant because he broke the cappuccino machine and everyone in a position to fix it with a minor miracle is too busy. Even celestial mechanics, "the easiest part of the business," (p.9) is beyond this poor kid, whose destiny seems to be to watch one rerun of Touched by an Angel after another, which... well, the less said about, the better.

To wit, when the time comes to hand off the heavens and the earth, Kevin isn't even in contention...

Monday, 12 June 2017

Book Review | Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott


The town of Rotherweird stands alone—there are no guidebooks, despite the fascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird's independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused. But secrets have a way of leaking out...

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothing before 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow been given permission to renovate the town's long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time—and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

***

[The Full English: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott]

If J. K. Rowling had given Jasper Fforde permission to document a decade of derring-do in Diagon Alley, the result would read rather like Rotherweird, an appetising if stodgy smorgasbord of full English fiction set in a town unlike any other.
Like everyone else, Oblong had heard of the Rotherweird Valley and its town of the same name, which by some quirk of history were self-governing—no MP and no bishop, only a mayor. He knew too that Rotherweird had a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world: no guidebook recommended a visit; the County History was silent about the place. (p.15)
Yet Rotherweird is in need of a teacher, and Oblong—Jonah Oblong, whose career in education to date has been a disgrace—is in need of a job, so he doesn't ask any of the questions begged by the classified ad inviting interviewees to the aforementioned valley. Instead, he packs a bag, takes a train, a taxi, and then—because "Rotherweird don't do cars," (p.16) as his toothless chauffeur tells him—"an extraordinary vehicle, part bicycle, part charabanc, propelled by pedals, pistons and interconnecting drums," (p.17) and driven by a laughably affable madman.

Need I note that nothing in Rotherweird is as it seems? Not the people, not the public transport, and certainly not the place, as Oblong observes as his new home heaves into view:
The fog enhanced the feel of a fairground ride, briefly thinning to reveal the view before closing again. In those snapshots, Oblong glimpsed hedgerows and orchards, even a row of vines—and at one spectacular moment, a vision of a walled town, a forest of towers in all shapes and sizes, encircled by a river. (pp.19-20)
It's here, in lofty lodgings and under the care of his own "general person," (p.41) that Oblong is installed after he's hired as a history teacher. But the position comes with one stickler of a condition: he has "a contractual obligation to keep to 1800 and thereafter, if addressing the world beyond the valley, and to treat Rotherweird history as off-limits entirely. Here he must live in the moment. Private speculation could only lead him astray." (p.43) And if you venture too far off the beaten path in Rotherweird, you might just end up disappeared—the very fate which befell Oblong's incurably curious predecessor.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Review | Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami


"I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden."

Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all. 

Marked by the same wry humor that has defined his entire body of work, in this collection Murakami has crafted another contemporary classic.

***

"If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden," muses Haruki Murakami in the materials accompanying Men Without Women. He must, then, be something of a glutton for punishment, having immersed himself in metaphorical forestry for the decade and change since his last short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, allowed the World Fantasy Award-winning author to tend to his wending trellises.

Compared to the twenty four works of fiction featured in that last, Men Without Women is a strikingly slim volume, compiling only seven stories, six of which Murakami's legion of English-language fans may well have read already. And whilst I wish I could tell you their haunting quality makes up for their wanting quantity, so many of said struck me as uneventful retreads that I can only recommend this collection with a handful of caveats.

That being said, if you come to Murakami for the cats and the cars, the deep obeisance to The Beatles and the bars choked with smoke, then come! Men Without Women has all that jazz—and oh so many miserable men and mysterious women.
The day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you're already there. But by then there's no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called 'Men Without Women.' Always a relentlessly frigid plural.  
Only Men Without Women can comprehend how painful, how heartbreaking it is to become one. (p.224)
That's as may be, but if this collection is about anything, it's about communicating that pain, that heartbreak, to the reader.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book Review | City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett


Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing. 

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve. 

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

***

The Divine Cities series comes full circle in City of Miracles, a positively action-packed fantasy about getting your own back. But revenge is not just what the hardy anti-hero at its heart is after: revenge is also what its both figuratively and literally tortured villain is interested in.

This child of the night, who shall not be named because to identify him is to invite his wickedness in, is not a divinity like the other antagonists of Robert Jackson Bennett's incomparable narrative—at least, not quite. He's really just an angsty adolescent; a "selfish kid who thinks his misfortunes are bigger than everyone else's" and has decided to take his frustrations out on everyone around him.

Unfortunately for everyone around him, this angsty adolescent just so happens to be the spawn of a few fallen gods. To wit, he has a domain—the dark—and some of his mother and father's magic. City of Miracles begins with him flexing his miraculous muscles: by outfitting an assassin to slaughter the former Prime Minister—and the first of this spectacular saga's protagonists—Ashara Komayd.

When news of Shara's shocking death reaches a remote logging range beyond Bulikov, every man around the campfire is taken aback, but only one among them takes it personally. He is City of Miracles' new central perspective, and whilst he hasn't played this role before, he's a figure folks who've followed this fiction will be intimately familiar with; a fan-favourite character, in fact, who has flitted around its fringes but never before been at its fore. That's right, readers: the focus of Bennett's barnstorming finale is finally on Shara's right-hand man, the Dreyling she saved who has saved her so often since. Good to see you again, Sigrud!

Following the death of his daughter in City of Blades, not to mention the mindless massacre that followed, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson has been in exile, none too patiently awaiting the day when Shara can at last bring him back into action. But with his dearest friend so dramatically departed, what does he have left to live for? Nothing, initially, but a need to make her murderer pay.

He does so summarily, racking up a rather improbable body count in the process. As a member of the supporting cast who crosses his fiery path puts it: "You've lost none of your subtlety, Sigrud."

But whilst raining hell on everyone who had a hand or even a hair in Shara's assassination, our daring Dreyling learns about a scheme that gives him a reason to keep on keeping on. In short, "someone is targeting Shara's adopted daughter" Tatyana, and having failed to save his last loved one, the least he can do, he reasons, is ensure that this small part of her legacy lives on.

To do what needs doing, he has to go to Ghaladesh. "Ghaladesh, the capital of Saypur, the richest, most well-protected city in the world. The place with perhaps the most security in the civilised nations—and thus the place that he, a fugitive from Saypur's justice, is most likely to be caught, imprisoned, tortured, and possibly—or probably—executed."

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Book Review | The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey


Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived...

***

Whether it's a character that captures us or a narrative that enraptures us, a situation that speaks to something unspoken or a conflict that builds on something broken—who can say, on this or any other day, what makes a book a bestseller? The quality of a given novel has next to nothing to do with its success on store shelves, that's for sure. Plenty of bad books have shifted millions, and many more deserving efforts have come and gone to no such notice. It's a blessing, then, when a truly wonderful work of fiction becomes a bestseller... but it can also be a burden.

The Girl With all the Gifts was probably the best zombie novel to have been released in recent years, and it sold hella well—well enough to spawn a movie that was also pretty swell. But while the next book to bear M. R. Carey's name was a dark delight in its own right, Fellside didn't catch on in the same way, I'm afraid.

To wit, I wasn't entirely surprised when I heard that Carey's new novel was a sidequel of sorts to The Girl With all the Gifts. I was, however, concerned; concerned that setting a second story in the same world that Melanie and Miss Justineau so wholly inhabited ran the risk of diminishing their devastating adventures. Happily, The Boy on the Bridge bears its burden brilliantly, and I can only hope it's as blessed by the book-buying public as its predecessor.

It is, admittedly, a little derivative. And I don't just mean that it tugs on many of the same heartstrings The Girl With all the Gifts did—though it does, ultimately: The Boy on the Bridge is an equally bleak book, and equally beautiful, too. But that's not it either. I'm talking about the plot, which is, at least initially, almost a mirror image of its predecessor's: it's an apocalyptic road story about the relationship between a teacher and her unusual student.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Book Review | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer


“Am I a person or a weapon?” Borne asks Rachel, in extremis.

“Yes, you are a person,” Rachel tells him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.

At first, Borne looks like nothing at all―a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.

But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel―and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.

***

Following his triumphant trek through Area X in the cerebral Southern Reach series, Jeff VanderMeer mounts a more modest yet no less affecting expedition into uncharted territory by way of Borne, a surprisingly beautiful book about a blob which behaves like a boy and the broken woman who takes him in.

Her name is Rachel, and when she was little, she "wanted to be a writer, or at least something other than a refugee. Not a trap-maker. Not a scavenger. Not a killer." (p.37) But we are what the world makes us, and no poxy author would have lasted long in the world in which this novel's narrator was raised:
Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world. (p.37)
There is hope even in this haunted hellscape, however, and it takes a strange shape, as hope tends to: that of "a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours" (p.6) Rachel finds in the festering fur of a skyscraper-sized flying bear called Mord.

She brings the titular thing, Borne-to-be, back to the Balcony Cliffs, a broken-down apartment building where she lives and works with Wick, her sometime lover and a secretive biotech beetle dealer who pushes a memory-altering product "as terrible and beautiful and sad and sweet as life itself." (p.7) Out of the gate, Rachel intends to give her purplish prize to him to pick at—but something, the beginning of some instinct, stays her hand. Instead, she places it in her room, and tries to take care of it.

"This required some experimenting, in part because [she] had never taken care of anyone or anything before," (p.17) but equally because her amorphous mass is a complete mystery. Certainly Wick has never seen its like, and having worked once for the Company, he has seen everything there is to see. To wit, Rachel treats this colourful clump like a plant to start; reclassifies it as an animal after it starts to move around her room; and then, when it shocks her by talking, she takes to behaving around it as she would a baby boy. She talks to him; teaches him; comes, ultimately, to love him—and he her in turn.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Book Review | Waking Hell by Al Robertson


Leila Fenech is dead. And so is her brother Dieter. But what's really pissing her off is how he sold his afterlife as part of an insurance scam and left her to pick up the pieces. She wants him back so she can kick his backside from here to the Kuiper Belt.

Station is humanity's last outpost. But this battle-scarred asteroid isn't just for the living. It's also where the dead live on as fetches: digital memories and scraps of personality gathered together and given life. Of a sort.

Leila won't stop searching Station until she's found her brother's fetch—but the sinister Pressure Men are stalking her every move. Clearly Dieter's got himself mixed up in something a whole lot darker than just some scam.

Digging deeper, Leila discovers there's far more than her brother's afterlife at stake. Could it be that humanity's last outpost is on the brink of disaster? Is it too late for even the dead to save it?

***

On the back of one of the best debuts in recent memory, Al Robertson rounds up a brand new cast of characters for his second successive stop at Station. Absent "the dynamic duo" (p.173) that was Jack and Hugo—respectively "an accountant of the future [and] a psychotic virtual ventriloquist's dummy," in the words of the award-nominated author—Waking Hell isn't as compelling as Crashing Heaven, but between its excellently embellished setting and a narrative that boasts more momentum than most, there are moments when it comes close.

As of the outset, much has changed on Station, the battle-scarred asteroid where what's left of humanity lives under the purview of a pantheon of corporate gods:
Two and a half years before [...] Jack Forster, Hugo Fist and Andrea Hui had worked with the Totality to release the dead from semi-sentient slavery. But the Rebirth was just the start of a longer coming of age. It was one thing for ten thousand weaveselves to be reborn as fully self-aware continuations of ended lives—quite another for them to come to terms with that new start, both as individuals and as a group, and understand what to do with it. When Leila stepped out of the sea and into her new, post-mortal life, she became part of that conversation. (p.23)
The hero at the heart of Waking Hell has had to hoe a hard road in the years since her resurrection as a fetch. Initially, those like Leila Fenech were seen as sub-human, to be used and routinely abused by the living before being disposed of, like so much deleted data. The events of Crashing Heaven changed that; now, fetches finally have rights.

Still, there's resistance, including an organisation of individuals who damn near decimated the dead in an act of technological terrorism that'll stay with Leila to her last day. Luckily for her, she had her brother Dieter—a hacker with a particular fascination for the past—to lean on when the fanatics attacked:
When the Blood and Flesh plague shattered the deep structures of her memory, completely disordering her sense of herself, Dieter had helped her rebuild. He'd taken her out of the Coffin Drives' convalescence unit and back to his weavespace. Then he'd opened up his own memories of her life to her. They became a template, guiding her as she remade the structures of her past. He'd helped her heal when even the Fetch Counsellor had given up on her. 
Now he needed her just as much as she'd needed him. And she could only watch. (p.14)
She could only watch as he dies, infected from the inside out by an infernal artefact that feels like it fell straight out of Hellraiser—and by design, I dare say. Early on, at least, Waking Hell has a lot in common with a horror novel: it's all unsettling silences and gruesome goings-on, monsters and murders, and beyond these, thar be bees! Bees and some bloody ugly bugs. But for better or for worse, Robertson reverses gears too soon for these potentially interesting elements to have a dramatic impact on the narrative. What Waking Hell is is a solid science fiction sequel, despite the departure of its first act.

And its second, in a sense. This section is concerned with revenge, because while death is no longer the end in this milieu, Leila learns that for Dieter it will be. Essentially, he's been swindled into signing away the rights to his resurrection, ostensibly so that his sister will be looked after. And financially speaking, she is. Whoever the devil Dieter dealt with is, he's as good as his word. But rather than using the huge sum of money she inherits to live a right nice afterlife, Leila spends it in search of said devil's identity.

Then, with the help of a few friends—first and foremost a fraud investigator and an amnesiac janitor who aren't nearly as dreary as they seem—she sets out to bring the fight to the being that bastardised her beloved brother. Little does Leila realise that the being already has an army... an army it's planning to aim straight at Station. And as one of her new comrades says, "Of course you've got to look out for the people you love. [...] But if the whole of the rest of the world is in danger, you might have to start thinking a bit bigger." (p.147)

A bit bigger is actually a decent way of describing Waking Hell as a whole. It doesn't have the personality of Crashing Heaven—although its characters are a relatively rambunctious bunch, only the Caretaker entertains in the way Hugo Fist did, and I'm afraid he's far from front and centre—but it has scope and scale to spare. Nothing less than the fate of our race is at stake, and happily, there's more to humanity than the blasted asteroid Robertson's first novel focused on.

Leila's race to recover her brother—and, in so doing, save the day—gives us a window into this well-widened world, from the repellent reality underlying the weird and wonderful weavespaces people have created on Station to the scorched surface of the Earth humanity abandoned. And at the same time as casting the core conflict as increasingly crucial, the explosive expansion of Waking Hell's setting gives its narrative a frisson of the frenetic.

When I reviewed Crashing Heaven two years or so ago, I remarked that I hadn't a clue what the second of the Station books would look like. Given the devastating denouement of Robertson's dizzying debut, I knew it was destined to be different—but what those differences would be, I could only wait and see. That was enough to excite me. From here, however, it's much easier to conceive of an act three... and that's oddly disappointing.

An exploration of identity filtered through a revenge fantasy with a humble helping of horror, Waking Hell is fearsome, fast moving and fun—but it's also fairly straightforward, flat where the last book was full, and frankly much less memorable without Hugo Fist, who I really, really missed.

***

Waking Hell
by Al Robertson

UK Publication: October 2016, Gollancz
US Publication: April 2017, Gollancz

Buy this book from


Recommended and Related Reading