Monday, 29 August 2011

Stonewielder, Volume I, by Ian Cameron Esslemont - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

I read quite a lot of heroic fantasy as a youngster: Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, Conan (mostly spin-offs rather than the Howard originals, I’m afraid), Donaldson, Leiber and lots and lots of Moorcock. I kind of fell away from it as the books got longer and longer, and I went through a long period of reading barely anything but comics and Doctor Who novels. But in recent years I’ve started to enjoy my fantasy a lot more, reading and getting quite excited about books by Joe Abercrombie, William King and Steven Erikson - and Game of Thrones is my favourite new television programme of the year.

This novel, of which I’m currently reviewing only volume one (the PS Publishing edition is divided into two luxurious hardbacks) seems to share the setting of the Erikson novellas I’ve read, such as Crack’d Pot Trail, and shares those novellas’ knack of seeming self-contained enough to be enjoyable in isolation, even if those who have read Esslemont’s two previous novels in the series will get more from it. The story concerns the subcontinent of Fist, isolated for twenty years from the Malazan Empire, yet still being ruled in its name. The Empire has decided to set matters straight and despatches a fleet of reconquest. Meanwhile, the Chosen of the Stormwall (and their prisoners) prepare for another assault by the frost-wielding Stormriders, who have been coming from the ocean to throw themselves against the wall for centuries.

We meet a huge cast of characters on both sides of the conflict, and those likely to get stuck in the middle. Each character is clearly and effectively defined, each has their own voice, and is surrounded by figures who help to define them in relief. Ivanr, the farmer with a bloody gladiatorial past who joins an army of peasants. Hiam, Lord Protector of the slowly crumbling Stormwall. Greymane, the Stonewielder of the title, recruited from obscurity to lead the expeditionary force. Bakune, Chief Assessor of Banith, doggedly investigating a series of murders. This rich selection of characters contrasts with, say, Dragon’s Time by Todd and Anne McCaffrey, in which, presented with a paragraph of names two hundred pages in, I had no idea who most of them were.

Stonewielder isn’t as artsy and literary as the Erikson novellas, and it’s a world away from most PS Publishing books, but it is a well-polished, confident and commercial novel that repeatedly made me stay up just a little too late to get to the end of a chapter. And among all the fighting there’s a good deal of wisdom and humanity. “It takes an unusually philosophic mind to accept that all one’s suffering might be to no end, really, in the larger scheme of things,” Ivanr thinks at one point. This volume builds up to a clever and tactical sea battle, as the Malazan fleet tries to break through the Mare war galleys to land its armies on Fist, but the reader is left in no doubt that there is an awful lot more to come. I’m glad of the break between volumes - reading the whole thing at once might have been too much of a good thing - but I won’t leave it too long before returning to see how this campaign concludes.

In the eARC under review there were a handful of typographical issues - mostly missing spaces and quote marks. All were probably fixed before the book went to press, but since we’re talking about a collector's edition that costs £99, I mention them just in case!

Stonewielder, Volume I, by Ian Cameron Esslemont. PS Publishing, hb, 264pp (part of a two-volume slipcase set). Buy direct from PS here.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Journey into Space: The Red Planet, by Charles Chilton – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Red Planet was the second series of Charles Chilton’s Journey into Space; twenty episodes, here spread over ten CDs with notes researched and written by Andrew Pixley, that were originally broadcast weekly from August 1954 to January 1955 on the BBC Light Programme. Though for this listener the adventure took a single week rather than twenty, its epic qualities seemed undiminished.

The first eight episodes detail the journey from Earth to Mars, a trip punctuated by much eerier incidents than expected; this is science fiction in the vein of The Quatermass Experiment rather than Flash Gordon. "Orders must be obeyed without question at all times" is the refrain of James Whitaker, who gives everyone the willies, but from where do his orders come? By the time Jet Morgan (played by Andrew Faulds) and the surviving members of the expedition reach their destination they've been well and truly frightened, even if it barely shows behind their stiff upper lips. On Mars it gets stranger yet, with hallucinations and... humans? Yes, the people we meet on this ancient, worn-out Mars in the latter half of the serial are humans, snatched from Earth whenever the two planets were at their closest. Most are in trances, believing themselves still on Earth at the time they were snatched. The mysterious flying doctor, however, seems to know just where he is. But who is behind it all? And will the surviving astronauts really have to settle down to life on Mars?

Though the mission is led by Jet Morgan, the most notable character is perhaps Lemmy (David Kossoff), the resourceful radio operator and engineer which the liner notes say was based on writer Charles Chilton (in a short interview with Chilton on the tenth CD you hear strong echoes of Lemmy’s voice). The same notes reproduce a letter to the Radio Times where K. Camm of Stevenage describes Lemmy as "an improbable space traveller, not to mention electronic engineer", but so far as I could tell the only reason for thinking that is his London accent. Lemmy shows himself time and again to be capable, intelligent and an exceptionally useful member of the expedition. It's easy to see why he was popular with listeners. It’s a shame the other characters sometimes sound a bit patronising when they talk to him - and sometimes completely ignore him! - but well done to Charles Chilton for getting a working class man on board. (Even in the mid-sixties there was resistance in the BBC to having characters with regional accents in Doctor Who.)

Listening to The Red Planet was a total delight. Tense, dramatic and detailed, it's grown no less riveting with the passage of time (at least I’m guessing it hasn’t - if I’d heard it in the fifties I suppose I might have enjoyed it even more!). Like the humans Jet Morgan finds on Mars, it doesn’t seem to have aged, though the credit should go to Ted Kendall, who has restored and remastered the episodes for CD, rather than ancient Martian science! Thanks to an accidental membership of Audible, I also have Journey into Space: Operation Luna tucked away somewhere, so I'll be on my way to the Moon just as soon as I find a spare week. Readers are recommended to join Jet and Lemmy on their trip to Mars at the earliest opportunity.

Journey into Space: The Red Planet, by Charles Chilton. AudioGo, 10xCD, 10 hrs 10 mins.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Cowboys & Aliens – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

When I first saw a poster advertising Cowboys & Aliens, I anticipated a film that, in the vein of Grease 2 (1982) or Ghost Rider (2007), points fun at its own ridiculousness. I looked forward to dialogue and characterization as preposterous as the film’s concept. However, the western/sci-fi crossover, inspired by a 2006 graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, did not give me what I anticipated. What I did get was something much better: an engaging film that convincingly mixes the atmosphere of the spaghetti western with the intensity of Independence Day.

A mangy-looking man (Daniel Craig) awakens in a setting typical of the early American Southwest. A strange metallic device is stuck on his wrist, and he remembers nothing. He makes his way to the dusty streets of Absolution, where locals recognize him as the outlaw Jake Lonergan, wanted for theft and murder. But there is something more threatening to the town (and to all of mankind) than Jake Lonergan.

The huge piece of bling-bling clamped onto Lonergan turns out to be a weapon capable of taking down human-snatching aliens. Lonergan’s memories begin to return, and the links between the aliens and a mysterious woman grow clearer.

More than once, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) gives the aliens a delightfully flamboyant entrance: Just when the action of the conventional western peaks, the aliens invade the scene in their insect-like jets!

Despite this being a big-budget action film targeted toward the inattentive modern day viewer, Favreau lovingly portrays some of the finer details: the gulping of whiskey, a thumb testing the sharpness of a blade, the crunching on an apple, the wood of an imperfect fence. These details, coupled with some beautiful vistas of New Mexico, help establish authenticity and plunge the viewer deeper into the fictional dream.

Daniel Craig sheds his Bondian sophistication (and his British accent) to portray Lonergan, the gritty outsider reminiscent of Stephen King’s gunslinger Roland Deschain or the typical Clint Eastwood western protagonist. Craig’s chiseled good looks, ectomorphic frame, and stripped down dialogue complement his stoic character, and his saunter would give John Wayne a run for his money.

As Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde – don’t you just love the names? – Harrison Ford plays a money-hungry rancher whose power the people of Absolution fear, yet whose true character isn’t nearly as rough as his exterior. Dolarhyde’s attempts to mask his compassion in sarcasm and overt masculinity add humor. Be sure to look for one of Ford’s trademark half-grins.

Those who appreciate strong acting get a healthy dose of it in the beginning of the film. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) offers a nuanced and humorous sideshow as Percy, the ne’er-do-well son of Dolarhyde. However, Favreau chose just the right amount of screen time for Percy, who would have grown annoying. Percy’s absence for the majority of the film proves an eccentric character does not a sci-fi/western make. No insult to Dano intended.

Some reviews chastised this film as uninspired or stale. Perhaps they missed the film’s title, and the overall concept. Hey, this is Cowboys… and Aliens! The challenge was not to come up with an original western, nor was it to come up with unique aliens. The challenge was to effectively bridge two very familiar genres, and in this Cowboys & Aliens succeeds masterfully.

Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau. Universal, 118 mins.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Shakespeare’s Caesar shakes spear – tossed by Hollywood, eloquent as a lovelorn salad.

A film that is produced by its writers is a bit like a self-published novel. It dispenses with those pesky editors and allows the authors an unusual, at times unhealthy amount of creative control. Theoretically, this could be wonderful (god complex knows how many movies have been scuppered by interfering bigwigs) but equally it can facilitate a merry, unrestrained hurling of plot confetti – a self-congratulatory, naive celebration in which the storyline is well and truly shredded.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes sees Will Rodman (James Franco) testing an experimental Alzheimer’s drug on chimpanzees. His commitment to the research stems from the deteriorating condition of his father (John Lithgow) and leads Rodman to carry on even after the project loses backing. He secretly adopts Caesar (Gollum’s Andy Serkis), an orphaned chimp genius whose mother was part of the programme, and discovers that the Alzheimer’s drug, which Rodman is driven to test on his father, not only repairs but also enhances brain function. Rodmans Senior and Junior, along with Caesar, live happily... but not ever after.

At time of writing (one day after the film’s release), Rise of the Planet of the Apes has notched 1,000+ votes at 7.6 on IMDB. Splitting the amalgamative, we might assign seven to the first half of the film, and point-six to the second, but in both cases that might be over-charitable. As Caesar grows and love interest Freida Pinto (Rodman’s, not Caesar’s – this isn’t King Kong) is thrown into the mix, Rodman Senior develops antibodies to the virus that facilitates delivery of the Alzheimer’s drug, thus allowing the disease itself to return. Rodman senior regresses, and while the audience takes a moment to ponder the medical feasibility of a genetically inheritable virus, Caesar is bundled off to a sanctuary-cum-concentration camp for errant primates, and so the CGI high jinks begin.

Franco and Lithgow portray a very genuine, very tender father/son relationship, and there are some heartbreaking familial scenes also between chimps (plus orang-utan and gorilla) at the primate facility. This element, however, falls very much by the wayside as Silver and Jaffa belatedly remember the title of the film, and scramble to pull it into line as some sort of "origin" movie to the 60s and 70s Planet of the Apes franchise. This ad hoc change of direction, which is evident in several write-as-you-go script revisions (this is where I work; here is a zoo where other chimps live) and at least one ham-fisted contrivance (look, an Alzheimer’s drug canister that nobody’s noticed lying around; oh, and there’s a spaceship lost out near Mars somewhere) is not only galling in its own right; it is part of a deliberately ambiguous ‘setting up of sequels’ wherein whetting the audience’s appetite is clearly seen as more important than presenting a satisfying or in any way self-contained film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends on a ludicrous note; or, as director Rupert Wyatt would put it, ‘with certain questions’,1  not least of which are How are Caesar and Co. going to avoid retaliation (or indeed eat; just survive) long enough for the slow-acting events of the (rather smug) closing credits to play out? and, perhaps more pressingly, If the sole purpose of this film was to set up its sequel, will my cinema ticket be valid for that one as well?

Not that you’d go, even if it were. "Evolution", as the promotional poster so deftly puts it, "becomes revolution". (And many are the people who wish they’d seen that before delving into their wallets for the price of admission.)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes suffers from, and so inflicts upon the viewer, two hallmarks of modern day Hollywood. Firstly, an irredeemable caricaturing that would have even the ancient Greek playwrights cringing at its lack of subtlety. There’s the dollar-obsessed businessman; the too-angry next door neighbour; even Tom Felton as a transplanted Draco Malfoy reprise. This reliance on stock, one dimensional characters, undermines anything that the movie might hope to achieve dramatically. Secondly – and this is more of an explosive, building-dropping demolition than a mere undermining – there is the now rampant "We’ve got CGI, look what we can do with it" mentality that spurns the bona fide approach of, say, Project X (dir. Jonathan Kaplan, 1987) and instead sees Caesar and his fellow chimpanzees emerge from the phone booth not only as super intelligent but also as super fast, super strong and, frankly, super ludicrous. Why the preponderance for crashing (unscathed) through glass panels? What ape worth half its newfound IQ in bananas would make a three-storey jump (again, unscathed) rather than taking the stairs? And while we’re about it, why do chimps liberated from the zoo become just like their smartened fellows? Could it be that the brain sharpening drug is transmitted also through osmosis?

Perhaps the biggest question – spoiler, if such a movie can be spoiled by external factors – is why the Alzheimer’s drug, in more highly concentrated form, suddenly becomes a human killer. Notwithstanding the writers’ implicit need to spell things out for those who are hard of understanding, wouldn’t it be more in keeping with the original Planet of the Apes premise for the drug merely to lessen human intelligence? (Yes, a bit of a stretch, but the bar hasn’t exactly been raised all that high. One could artificially stimulate production of neurotransmitters, perhaps, but make the resulting synaptic connections recursive, lessening the memory loss of Alzheimer’s but stultifying the development of new thoughts. No? Well, that’s just two minutes’ worth of opposable thumb-twiddling.) The sad truth is that such a drug already exists, widely distributed and taking approximately 1¾ hours to deliver.

As the box office will attest, people are queuing up for it.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt. 20th Century Fox, 105 mins

1. Giroux, Jack, “Interview: Director Rupert Wyatt on ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and The End of Cinema”, Film School Rejects, 15 April 2011 []

Monday, 15 August 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Ten years ago, an orphan with circle framed glasses and a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead found his way into the hearts of film-goers the world over. The young man discovered a school for wizards, where he made two new friends: an awkward red-headed boy, and a rather determined little girl.

This summer, Harry, Ron, and Hermione finish the saga that has ushered millions of children into adulthood, and bonded generations. This film, the eighth in the series, broke international box office records, raking in $476 million worldwide during its opening weekend.

In HP7 Part 1, the friends had to overcome some conflicts amongst themselves. This time, the reconciled trio and their Hogwarts schoolmates set out to vanquish Harry’s nemesis Voldemort, who, armed with the all-powerful Elder wand, has his sights set on the destruction of Potter. For those who prefer non-physical conflict and the subtleties of individual relationships, Part 2 falls short of its immediate predecessor. For those who prefer a good old-fashioned good guys versus bad guys rivalry, Part 2 is the film to watch.

The once-vibrant halls of Hogwarts, now controlled by Voldemort and his clan, have deteriorated into dreariness and despondency. Severus Snape, the Voldemort ally responsible for the death of the beloved [spoiler removed!], has taken over as headmaster.

Harry and friends must penetrate the dementor-guarded walls of Hogwarts, then find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, which house parts of Voldemort’s soul and safeguard his immortality. The challenge is clear-cut: if Harry and friends succeed, Voldemort dies and evil is vanquished. If they fail, Voldemort attains ultimate power and the world rots.

Most of the film takes place at Hogwarts, where the oppressed student body and faculty reclaim the campus and strive to resist an impending onslaught by Voldemort’s Death Eaters. Potter must also find a Horcrux. There are two things known about this Horcrux: it is small, and it is somewhere within the mammoth school. Not very promising.

Though the action and special effects were in line with what one would expect of a big budget film, one of the most enjoyable aspects of HP7 Part 2 was Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Voldemort. Fiennes gets more screen time to show his skills than in other Potter films. With his gyrating movements, exaggerated facial expressions, and emotional instability – he whispers, he screams, he laughs – Voldemort earns a spot among cinema’s most memorable super-villains.

The film is far from perfect: It begins with two lengthy expository conversations with minor characters. The most disappointing shortcoming involves the key battle scene. One would expect the inhabitants of a wizardly world to fight in a wizardly way. Such was the case with previous Potter films. However, the climactic battle of HP7 Part 2 resorts to Lord of the Rings-style hand-to-hand combat, replete with ogres hacking away at knight-like figures. But because of their high emotional investment in the series, viewers will likely forgive these flaws.

As a stand-alone film, HP7 Part 2 does not merit the record-breaking figures it has achieved. However, when viewed through the lens of the Potter franchise, the records begin to make sense. Video games. LEGO figurines. Even a theme park in Orlando, Florida. Harry Potter is nothing less than a worldwide culture juggernaut. What a thrill it must have been for those who grew into adulthood with Potter over the last decade. Undoubtedly, many of them will step onto Platform 9¾ and board the Hogwarts Express with their own children to relive the journey.

Despite its magical foundation, the Potter series reveals many real-life lessons. It shows that there will be cowards, and there will be heroes. There will be those who give up, and there will be those who, despite many naysayers and seemingly insurmountable odds, will continue to pursue their goals. It teaches us about the power of friendship.

The Harry Potter story and the phenomenon our world has made it suggest a hopeful thought: that there is a human longing to connect, and to do good. All aboard! – Douglas J. Ogurek

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, directed by David Yates. Warner Bros, 130 mins.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Are novels about to get shorter?

Changes in the book market have always had a big effect on the length of novels: compare the novels in your collection from the 1850s, the 1950s and the 2010s to see what I mean. We're now well on the way to ebooks becoming the lead format for commercial fiction, and I think that's going to lead to another big change: shorter commercial novels. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. People shopping for Kindle books don't seem to compare books by length the way bookshop buyers do.
  2. Economies of scale in printing stop being an issue.
  3. Low pricing of ebooks - if a 200,000 word novel sells at the same price as a 30,000 word novella (e.g. I paid more or less the same price for UR and The Colorado Kid that I paid for Under the Dome), it makes sense for the author to produce shorter, more frequent books.
  4. Ebooks don't disappear from the shelves as quickly; you don't need to snap them up just in case it goes out of print. So it's in the interest of writers to write books that readers finish, rather than just collect, so that when your next book comes out they're ready to read it.
  5. Shorter books are less work for everyone involved, so if people can make the same money selling short books that they make selling long ones, they will.

That doesn't mean every book will be shorter, any more than every book is now long - the small press will carry on doing its own thing, as will authors who can set their own terms - but I think these factors will exert a powerful downward pressure on the length of commercial novels over the years to come.

But I could be wrong - we'll see!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Received for review in early August 2011

Books received for review in recent days…

666 Charing Cross Road, by Paul Magrs (Headline Review, pb, 390pp). "From the creator of Brenda and Effie, Dr Who and Strange Boy comes an astonishing stand alone novel..." I don't think Paul Magrs actually created Doctor Who, but he's certainly given it a shot in the arm from time to time!

Creepy Presents: Berni Wrightson

Creepy Presents: Bernie Wrightson, by Bernie Wrightson and others (Dark Horse, hb, 144pp). A collection of Swamp Thing artist Bernie Wrightson's artwork for Creepy and Eerie. Looks, erm, creepy!

Darkness Falling: The Forever Twilight Series

Darkness Falling (Forever Twilight, Book 1), by Pete Crowther (Angry Robot, ebook, 9097ll). I'm a bit confused by this one, having previously reviewed another Forever Twilight Book One, Darkness, Darkness, which had some fantastic moments, but a bit too much slapping of hysterical women for my taste (i.e. any). A Kindle search of this one suggests it's an expansion of the novella (with slapping intact).

Dead Bad Things: A Thomas Usher Novel (Angry Robot)

Dead Bad Things, by Gary McMahon (Angry Robot, ebook, 5313ll). A Thomas Usher novel. I've enjoyed everything I've read so far by Gary McMahon: Rain Dogs, Different Skins and What They Hear in the Dark. The previous book in the series, BFA nominee Pretty Little Dead Things, is currently available on Kindle for just 99p.

Debris (Angry Robot)

Debris, by Jo Anderton (Angry Robot, pb, 6999ll). Book One of the Veiled World Trilogy.

Kings War: The Knights of Breton Court 3

King's War, by Maurice Broaddus (Angry Robot, ebook, 5988ll). Volume III of the Knights of Breton Court.

Master of the House of Darts: Obsidian and Blood Book 3

Master of the House of Darts, by Aliette de Bodard (Angry Robot, ebook, 8083ll). Book 3 of the Obsidian and Blood series. Jenny Barber interviewed Aliette for Dark Horizons #57, and I liked the sound of her books. (The first half of the interview can be read on the BFS's website.)

Nowhere Hall, by Cate Gardner (Spectral Press, chapbook, 26pp). The third chapbook in the Spectral Press series. The super cover painting is by Daniele Serra.

Reign of the Nightmare Prince

Reign of the Nightmare Prince, by Mike Phillips (Journalstone, pb, ebook, 262pp). I've published some smashing stories by Mike in the past, including "The Free Dynamos and the Lone Island in the Sky" in TQF34.

Roil (Nightbound Land)

Roil, by Trent Jamieson (Angry Robot, ebook, 5791ll). Book 1 of the Nightbound Land.

The Best American Comics 2011

The Best American Comics 2011, by Alison Bechdel (ed.) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pb, 342pp). Includes comics by Gabrielle Bell, Joe Sacco, Jaime Hernandez, Kate Beaton, Jeff Smith, Angie Wang and many more.

The Complete Major Bummer Super Slacktacular!

The Complete Major Bummer Super Slacktacular! by John Arcudi, Doug Mahnke and others (Dark Horse, tpb, 384pp). I missed this series when it first came out from DC, although I was reading a lot of comics in those days (at one point I read pretty much nothing but comics and Doctor Who novels for two years). I don't know whether this is supposed to be any good, but I've always fancied reading it.

If you have anything to send us for review, the info you need is here. Thanks in advance!

If you fancy reviewing books for us, do get in touch. Most of the titles we receive are in electronic formats (all but one of the books listed above, for example), and so we're unable to pass them on, but we usually have a dozen or so print books in hand from which you could choose.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Kindle in the UK, almost a year in

Amazing to think that it is still less than a year since Kindle launched in the UK, given the impact it's had…

The bigger Waterstone's in Birmingham already looks like a gift shop downstairs, although I suppose that's not just down to Kindle – it's Kindle on top of all the bookselling Amazon was already doing. It's always been hard for Waterstone's to compete with Amazon's wide range of books, its low prices, and (not a minor issue for me) the good condition of the books on sale. But I think Kindle's the straw that's prodding them over the edge.

It was very nice on holiday this past week to have The Guardian delivered to the Kindle first thing each morning, and that finished I had dozens of books and audiobooks on there to choose from. The free internet access came in very handy as well. On the iPad, I had a bunch of graphic novels, the British Library's brilliant 19th Century Books app, articles, stories and interviews in the McSweeney's app, and access if I needed it to hundreds more books stored in Dropbox (use this referral link to earn me bonus space!).

It was also very nice to know, given where I live and what was happening here while I was away, that a big chunk of my book collection would survive any fire.

A Thread of Truth, by Nina Allan - reviewed by John Greenwood

A Thread of Truth has been available since 2007, but I was keen to take a look at it after reading Nina Allan's story "Bellony", which was for me the highlight of Eibonvale's themed short story anthology, Blind Swimmer (see review).

Small towns, and attempts to escape them, do seem to preoccupy Allan, and she admits in her Afterword that she is often drawn to the "somewhat baleful Victorian spa town". In the first story of the collection, "Amethyst" I felt as though we were in similar territory to that of "Bellony": a gently decaying tourist attraction where unhappy family secrets fester. "Amethyst" are a fictional folk-rock band whose sole hit single names the main street of the town, for reasons that remain obscure to two bored teenage girls trying to unravel the mystery. Allan captures very nicely a desperate adolescent quest to find some mystery in one’s provincial existence. It's also a story of life before the internet, when information about the world had limits: the girls have to get their alien conspiracy theories from the local newsagent. One of the girls is bewitched by the possibility that their drab town might hold a mystical secret, the other is repelled by it. The deadpan humour makes much of their contrasting outlooks:
"Lorna Samway's song wasn't really about aliens, at least not that I could see. A lot of the words weren't in proper sentences and it was hard to work out what they meant. If it was about anything at all it was probably about breaking up with a boyfriend." (p.19)
The narrative flits about from folk songs to painting birds, to derelict garages, reluctant to move on with the unpleasant business of the story. The style is disjointed but unshowy, unsentimental and not a little emotionally strangulated. That Allan can reveal her protagonist's character through the style of narration is a rare achievement.

Allan writes from the perspective of a young male teacher with equal conviction. There are deliberate shifts in tone and style between each story, and in "Queen South", the most successful story in the collection, she opts for the close observation of minutiae. Her protagonist learns to see the world anew through his affair with an eccentric teenage school dropout. It has echoes of Billy Liar, updated for the 21st Century: instead of London, Japan is now the mythical land of freedom which tempts both the girl and the young teacher away from his domineering fiancée. Again it's a story about feeling trapped in provincial upbringings and unhappy family secret and characters who have Allan through the cracks in respectable society.

The story very cleverly sketches out the bones of this relationship in just a few telling and well-observed lines of dialogue. Were it not for a slightly heavy-handed metaphor about sex and precipitation, and a few awkward jumps backwards and forwards in time, I would find it difficult to fault at all.

Small town paranoia also infuse "Heroes" and "Ryman's Suitcase". Both paint very convincing portraits of communities where difficult things have been left unspoken for a long time. Again and again I was impressed by the restraint and brevity of Allan's writing, her unfussy but insightful dialogue, her protagonists who do not always think in straight lines. "Heroes", a tale concerning, among other things, pigeon racing, is rather too long and unfocused, and one gets the feeling that one is peeking into an artist's sketchbook. There are intriguing tableaux and detailed sketches there, but they don't necessarily add up to a coherent idea. "Ryman's Suitcase" on the other hand seems to finish too early. In both stories the central mysteries are never resolved. One senses that Allan is attracted to the trappings and effects of suspense writing, without wanting to deal with the mechanics of providing explanations and motives and tying up loose ends.

"The Vicar With Seven Rigs" and "Terminus" both feel like dream narratives, particularly the former, a coming of age story about teenagers breaking into a hotel. The universe painted here is recognisable but slightly off-kilter in subtle ways that are never made explicit. The characters don't seem to know much of anything that happens beyond their village, and the hotel seems to warp around them as the story progresses. In "Terminus", two parting Russian lovers become trapped on the Moscow underground at a station that shouldn't exist. Again, it's an almost plausible version of the world, but disturbing details hover at the corner of the eye.

"Bird Song at Eventide" is the only explicitly science-fictional story in the collection. Allan deals with a hackneyed subject (dragons) in her typical downbeat way, concentrating her attention on the semi-opaque relationships of the scientists whose job it is to monitor the creatures' habits.

Generally in these stories, characters refuse to put their cards on the table, unanswered questions remain so, conclusions are elided, sometimes very gracefully. The title story "A Thread of Truth" feels out of sympathy with this overall aesthetic - it's a more straight-forward "weird" tale about a young intellectual who tries to cure his arachnophobia with his own kind of aversion therapy, but finds himself in much deeper than he ever intended. Allan deals with the phobia very convincingly; there's real terror in the way she writes about an encounter with a very normal spider. But by the time one guesses the central conceit, we have descended into a familiar and more formulaic world of "shapeshifters". At least Allan has the restraint not to show any transformation of human to spider, or vice versa.

The style she adopts here is rather wordy, unlike anything else in the collection. Whether she does this deliberately to show the slight pomposity of the protagonist, or as an echo of the gothic fiction of an earlier age, I'm not sure. I did feel that here, unlike elsewhere, Allan is occasionally carried away by her own mellifluous prose:
"Sally Beamish passed me a mug, a white porcelain cylinder with a narrow golden band around the rim. The mug was warm to the touch, and brimming with milky tea." (p.184)
There's nothing in the story to suggest that the protagonist has not encountered mugs of warm tea before.

These criticisms aside, A Thread of Truth is an impressive debut collection, and I will be looking out for her name elsewhere (I have already noticed that she’s recently appeared in the anthology Crimewave 11: Ghosts). My hope is that she moves away from spider-women and dragons, and towards the more genuinely terrifying world in which she has already proved herself capable of remarkable things. It’s a world of characters struggling in the webs of small-town communities and the strange metamorphoses of loved ones into strangers and vice versa. While I didn't find every story entirely successful, there was something to admire in them all. These are all stories with a richly imagined sense of place, as well as acutely observed characters, and often the places seems to win out over the people who occupy them.

A Thread of Truth by Nina Allan. Eibonvale Press, 1996. Available at and 244pp. ISBN 0955526876 (pb), 0955526809 (hb).

Monday, 8 August 2011

Doctor Who: Cobwebs, by Jonathan Morris – reviewed

Funny how nostalgia works. As a boy, I didn’t really enjoy Tegan and Turlough bickering with the fifth Doctor in the Tardis, but now they’re back and doing it again the cockles of my heart are well and truly warmed. Throw in my favourite companion from that time, Nyssa (bumping into them fifty years after they left her skirtless on Terminus) and it’s as if someone built an extension to my childhood. Even if the story proved to be a complete dud, I would still be hugely grateful to Big Finish for bringing these actors together again. (Especially since I originally missed half their episodes, thanks to the BBC scheduling them against cubs night!)

But it’s far from a dud. Jonathan Morris’s story follows straight on from Enlightenment (1983), with Tegan still furious over Turlough’s dealings with the Black Guardian. Nyssa, accompanied by robotic personal assistant Loki, has travelled to Hellheim in search of a cure for an interstellar plague. The Doctor has been summoned there – by whom is a mystery; the first but not the worst. Investigating the station brings to light a quartet of cobwebbed skeletons, one of them wearing a school uniform that looks very much like Turlough’s, another wearing a cricket sweater like the Doctor’s, and so on. It’s a pretty bleak way to begin a new series of adventures!

Add to that a series of deadly hallucinations and a crazed computer, and quicker than you can say Hal 9000 they’re thrown back in time to face a fate the Doctor thinks they can’t avoid. Tegan and Turlough, as ever, but for once with good reason, are disinclined to take his word for it, but find few friends among the station crew, company workers and scientists whose memories have been wiped, supposedly to make more room for thinking about their work. This makes for many interesting developments and double crosses as they learn about their own true motives, goals and characters.

The tense situation gives the Tardis team some meaty stuff to row about; it feels properly dramatic, rather than the empty noise and fluster we sometimes saw on screen – it’s ironic that the mildest of Doctors had the most tumultuous Tardis! For fans of the era this really hits the spot. It feels authentically of the period, delivering the kind of ethical and moral drama that period aimed for, but hitting the mark rather better. It also benefits from the absence of that period’s less-loved features: tabloid-friendly guest stars, over-bright lighting, implausible motivations and shopping list plots.

I was especially pleased by the resolution of the story’s big mystery: the cobwebbed skeletons. Expecting a cop-out, I got something much more interesting, and even rather touching. The story of this reunited team continues in The Whispering Forest by Stephen Cole, and The Cradle of the Snake by Marc Platt.

Doctor Who: Cobwebs, by Jonathan Morris, Big Finish, 2xCD. Amazon UK. Amazon US. This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #3.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Dragon’s Time, by Anne and Todd McCaffrey - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Dragon’s Time is essentially a novel of logistics, rather than adventure or discovery. Pern will soon be menaced by Threadfall, but there aren’t enough dragons and dragonriders available to incinerate the thread, so what can be done? The answer is simple: send all the young and injured dragons back in time a few years so that they’ll be ready to fight. (Which, from mentions of previous events, seems to have been the plot of at least one previous novel too.)

That may seem a rather simplistic approach to time travel, but this isn’t the kind of book where people worry about stepping on butterflies. When Lorana’s dragon needs a bite to eat, she pops back "to a time when the game she wanted would be plentiful" (p. 150). Everyone’s concerned about "breaking time", but events always seem to play out the way they always did so there’s never really any need to worry about the consequences of their actions in the past.

According to the back cover, SFX described a previous book as "a pleasant, feelgood read … the sort of thing that it’s good to sit down with on a rainy day", and that sounds about right for this one too. Unlike, say, the later Elric books, this novel isn’t challenging or innovative; it’s cosy product to feed the fans and service a market. But the cosiness goes a little too far, easing into blandness, both in prose - “The brown rider gave the wiry bronze rider a startled look and shook his head swiftly” (p. 51) - and characterisation.

The characters, especially in the first couple of hundred pages, all seem to talk in the same way, have similar outlooks, similar reactions, and are differentiated only by age and social group, making them quite difficult to tell apart. They almost seem like NPCs in a computer game, so limited is their range of reaction and facial behaviour. Eyes go wide again and again and again – twice on page 171 alone!

Everyone here is so nice and reasonable that it’s tempting to imagine them as members of a cult. Those who don’t fall in line are swiftly punished: when a trader speaks with the slightest hint of malice, he’s told (p. 156), "Speak not for another month, and trade not for thrice that." Poor Abab – he was just trying to add a refreshing new dynamic to the conversation!

And as with many cults, there’s some odd sexual stuff going on. Fiona, leader of the Weyr, takes in a ten-year-old boy, sits him on her lap, shares her bed with him, takes baths with him - and is disappointed when thirteen-year-old Terin doesn’t join them. That same Terin shares her bed each night with F’jian, but feels she’s too young as yet for sex; when he appears to be sneaking out to get laid each night she’s told by everyone to forgive him.

"So if I forgive him, then I can love him?" says Terin (p. 102). "Pain’s part of love, sweetie," says Fiona. Terin then offers to share her bed with ten-year-old Jeriz, whose "eyes went wide" and "lit with pleasure" – I bet they did! A hundred pages in I still wasn’t sure why Fiona was sleeping with Kindan every night when she was married to T’Mar, who is also married to Shaneese.

In another book, the tone might seem less odd, but these people are engaged in an awful struggle for survival, where even basic human functions are under constant attack. Women – and dragon queens – lose their babies, yet everyone talks and emotes like characters in a Disney Channel original movie. They get a bit testier when people start dying, but there’s still plenty of time for high school romance.

Little seems to happen here that hasn’t happened before: the overwhelming purpose of the book seems to be to fill in the gaps of previous entries in the series. The biggest mystery of the book – why all the dragonriders are so exhausted – is given away by the dustjacket description, and knowing that also makes the lucky recipient of K’jian’s midnight booty calls pretty obvious.

In short, Dragon’s Time reads like well-polished fan-fiction. It’s competent; a competent tie-in, you might say – the introduction makes it plain that this is principally a novel written by Todd rather than Anne – but not a particularly exciting one. It is all preparation, and very little action. Fans may simply be happy to spend more time with these characters, but although it works hard to bring new readers up to speed, it ultimately has little to offer them.

Dragon’s Time, by Anne and Todd McCaffrey. Bantam Press, hb, 326pp.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

New review of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #37!

D.F. Lewis has reviewed Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #37 story by story over the course of a couple of days: see the Real-Time Review of TQF #37.

His approach to reviewing is an unusual one, part of his goal being to turn "leitmotifs into a gestalt" – i.e. noticing bits of stories (and other things he has read and experienced), making connections between them, and describing the total effect, the sometimes interesting results lying somewhere between reader-response analysis, free association and tweeting while reading.

Okay, so it's a little odd for someone to review a magazine about which they have complained at such length and in so many places – the issue contains a review of Lewis's book Weirdtongue, and an editorial discussing his ideas about giving books bad reviews, both of which led to much complaint from Lewis – but his conclusion that TQF37 is an "incredible set of stories" cannot be faulted…

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Book Addiction Test

Every so often I find myself faffing around online more than I'd like, and wonder whether it's a serious enough problem that I should do something about it.

So I took this Internet Addiction Test, on which I scored a disappointing 55. Looks like I don't have a debilitating psychological problem. I'm just a bit lonely after working at home for so long, and hence pitifully desperate for human contact.

Then I wondered, what would be my results if I took the same test, but replaced "internet" and "online" with "reading", "email" with "bookshelf", and so on?

I scored 76.

My book addiction is 21 points worse than my internet addiction!

Four points more and the test would have concluded that "[reading] is causing significant problems in your life"!

Try taking the Book Addiction Test.

How did you do?

Monday, 1 August 2011

Falling Skies, by Paul Tobin and Juan Ferreyra – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Reading a tie-in comic before seeing the programme it was based on really took me back. Everyone remembers the moment when Darth Vader told Luke that (spoiler) he was his father. Not me: I found out about it for the first time in the pages of Marvel UK's weekly Revenge of the Jedi comic. Spock's death scene, also: I read those immortal lines in the comic first. I'm not sure if this book acts as a prelude or an adaptation (the introduction was illegible in my review copy), but for me it failed in one key respect: it put me off watching the programme.

It's not a bad comic. It's well written, putting diary entries to good and effective use as captions, and illustrated well: the likenesses are good enough that I was able to guess Noah Wyle as the lead from the second page. Across the five chapters lots of exciting stuff happens, the characters are all introduced and distinguished, and the book begins to make the reader care about Tom Mason and his sons' attempts to survive an alien occupation.

But it does nothing to sell the premise. No story possibilities unfold before us. Nothing to make the reader think it would be worth committing to this story for the next five to ten years. At best it promises The Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies, at worst Jericho on the cheap. I didn’t tell TiVo to record the programme. I meant to – it looks alright, and may well be brilliant – but the comic did nothing to stir any enthusiasm. It's a decent comic, but a poor advertisement.

Falling Skies, by Paul Tobin and Juan Ferreyra. Dark Horse, tpb, 102pp. Reviewed from a pdf.