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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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)

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!)

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.

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.