Friday 29 November 2013

The Not Yet by Moira Crone, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Not Yet by Moira Crone (UNO Press, pb, 272pp). Malcolm de Lazarus is the Not-Yet of this book’s title, an orphan who spent his childhood performing in gruelling Sims to entertain the Heirs, a transhuman ruling class with fading memories of what it was like to really live. His earnings went into his Trust, and when he reaches the Boundarytime those savings should pay for his own longevity treatments. He’ll become one of them, shrunken and shrivelled within a spectacular skin-suit and headpiece – and he can’t wait. In 2121 we see him struggle to discover why his Trust is in escrow; whether a beloved mentor has betrayed him. Chapters from 2117 and subsequent years see the Sims business in ruins and the orphans in search of alternative work, bringing Malcolm into contact with Dr Susan Greenmore and her efforts to understand the chronic fogginess that afflicts the oldest of the Heirs. From earlier than that we see episodes from his childhood in the orphanage, where the children are taught to endure and shrug off the worst that can happen: it’s all Prologue.

This is I think Moira Crone’s first science fiction – previous literary fiction such as What Gets Into Us having examined the history of the South since the 1950s – but there’s no sense of dabbling: rather, of a writer who has identified science fiction as an effective method of addressing her concerns. Published by the University of New Orleans Press, it imagines a time when that region is mostly beneath the waves, and though some sections saw publication long before Hurricane Katrina, it feels like a reflection upon that disaster, imagining an America where the poor must paddle not just for a week or two, but for the rest of their lives. Its cover, at first glance an underwhelming photograph of a river and trees, gains resonance as the book proceeds, a reminder that this is not one of Vance’s far-off, extravagant worlds: it’s ours with a few nudges in the wrong direction.

Reflecting contemporary concerns about healthcare provision in the United States, the lives of those ordinary humans (Nats) will be short. All research into the diseases that affect them has been abandoned, partly to encourage them to save up and join the Heirs, but also because there’s no profit in it since the economy collapsed. In Malcolm’s horrid fascination with the Heirs, and disgust at such ordinary human processes as eating solid food, we see the way we idolise the ersatz, photoshopped faces on magazine covers and movie posters: he hates himself for his fascination with fleshy, human, real Tamara. It’s a novel that shows, in its ultimate underground anti-Sim, the Verite, where nothing is simulated at all, the degradation that ordinary men and women will endure to survive, to provide for their children – in this case, to fund an enclave’s transfer to new land before it’s too late – and while grieving for that degradation celebrates the pride of those who do not give up despite the most awful pressures.

Although The Not Yet delivers a stern warning about the present, and though it is published by a university press and written by a professor, it is by no means academic, dry or lecturing. From the first we share Malcolm’s febrile desperation to get his money back, even if we hope he won’t use it to turn himself into a monster. Like Taylor among the apes, he has a series of exciting adventures and uncovers the great secret of his world – the circumstances and consequences of the Reveal, when the Heirs made themselves public – much of which sounds horribly plausible; in many ways the novel resembles a story of alien occupation, the aliens our self-proclaimed heirs. The Not Yet should appeal to any reader with an appreciation for the kind of novels Silverberg wrote in the late sixties and early seventies: short, tense, discomfiting and serious-minded. An intelligent and thought-provoking piece of work.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #240, back in 2012.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Ten artists by whom I own more albums than is really justified by how often I listen to them

Ten artists by whom I own more albums than is really justified by how often I listen to them:
  1. The Smashing Pumpkins
  2. Mansun
  3. Ride
  4. Ryan Adams
  5. Spiritualized
  6. Muse
  7. Nine Inch Nails
  8. Moby
  9. The Smiths
  10. Toto
How about you?

Wednesday is sometimes list day on this blog of ours. This is list #12.

Monday 25 November 2013

The Last Revelation of Gla’aki by Ramsey Campbell, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Leonard Fairman is an archivist at Brichester University, whose unwise curiosity regarding a series of occult volumes leads to his involvement in the events described by Ramsey Campbell in The Last Revelation of Gla’aki (PS Publishing, hb, 137pp; pdf ARC supplied by publisher). He is invited by Frank Lunt to Gulshaw, a run-down seaside town, to collect the series, which includes such titles as Of Humanity as Chrysalis, Of the World as Lair, On the Purposes of Night, and Of the Uses of the Dead. But Lunt has just one volume, and directs Fairman to the possessor of the next, and so it goes. Reading each of the books brings on strange thoughts and visions, and Fairman becomes desperate to leave this strange, damp, sticky little town. But everyone seems awfully pleased to have him there, and as they say: “there is so much more to see”. Or is it that there’s so much more to sea?

Fans of Lovecraft will regard it as a treat to have a writer of Campbell’s stature producing a short novel in this vein, and it provides many eerie images and scenes; anyone who has seen a British beach studded with jellyfish can imagine the kind of horrors described here. The idea of a seedy seaside town that drops its human facade in the off-season is creepily believable. (“He could have thought the town was not so much resting from its summer labours as reverting to its ordinary state.”) As Fairman finds himself stuck there for an extra day, and another day, and another, while his wife gets annoyed and his boss gets on his back, it’s hard not to empathise – though he’s given so many good reasons to run for his life that you can’t help wondering why he doesn’t.

And that was the problem for me, that the too-frequent hints about what’s going on were too knowing, too nudge-nudge wink-wink, to be truly frightening: for example hands are “glistening” and “soft and moist”, handshakes are “damp and pliable”, palms are “clammy” and “yielded so much”. The innuendo wears a bit thin, and even begins to feel like fan service. Fairman works so hard to ignore or rationalise everything he sees (“Of course the people were wearing plastic beach shoes, which made their feet look translucent and swollen”) that the reader’s eyes begin to roll. Loving pastiche comes close to tipping into presumably unintentional parody.

More positively, the book is so perfectly suited to cinematic adaptation that one wouldn’t be surprised to learn it began life as a film treatment. The role of Fairman would be ideal for Daniel Radcliffe or Dominic West, and a version of this produced to the same standard as The Woman in Black or The Awakening might give us, at last, a definitive mythos film. If this had been the first Lovecraftian story I’d ever read, I would have adored it – as I did Brian Lumley’s The Burrowers Beneath, back in my schooldays. As it is, I enjoyed it, but I’d hoped to enjoy it much more. Still, I’ve often found that horror stories continue to grow in my estimation long after I’ve read them, as the scariest parts fester, and that might well be the case here. The climactic scene in the Church of the First Word is magnificent, and the book is worth reading for that sequence alone.

Friday 22 November 2013

A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

A Cold Season (Jo Fletcher Books, pb, 342pp), by Alison Littlewood, is the story of Cass and her son Ben, and what happens when they move to Darnshaw, the town where she grew up. She’s a young widow looking to reboot her life, he’s an angry little boy who misses his dad, lost to the war in Afghanistan. But when they arrive at their new home, theirs is the only apartment in Foxdene Mill that’s been finished and let, even though newspapers are piling up at the flat next door. It’s a bad start to a new life that only gets worse for Cass: bit by bit she loses the means of travel, her connection to the outside world, her ability to put food on the table, her relationship with her employer, and, worst of all, her connection to her son. All of these things have perfectly reasonable, non-supernatural explanations – snow has blocked the roads and downed the lines – but as friendly old Bert tells her, “It allus comes in like this, when he wants it.”

However terrifying things get, Cass has a tendency to rush back to bed (this is to some extent explained later in the story), but then it isn’t really the big, supernatural scares that are tearing her up – she could cope with those – it’s the awkwardnesses and embarrassments of quick conversations at the school gates; with overbearing mums she has no choice but to trust, or with Mr Remick, the nice teacher who seems to like her. It’s wondering whether a message has been passed on to her client; her son not wanting to talk to her, or swearing when he does; and knowing she’s been unfair to Bert and his lovable dog Captain. It’s an accumulation of small emotional wounds that leave her oblivious to the sword dangling over her head.

Over the last few years Alison Littlewood has provided a series of interesting stories to magazines like Black Static, Dark Horizons and my own Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction (so do bear in mind my possible bias). Each story I’ve read has been so different from the others that I had little idea what to expect from her first novel in terms of themes or even genre, though I knew to look forward to it. The book didn’t let me down; it’s a strong debut novel with potentially wide appeal, and the publisher has I think been wise in marketing to the mainstream. My mum, for example, would enjoy it at least as much as I did; probably more, since she’s had to deal with her own pair of Bens. Any parent will empathise with Cass’s struggle to understand the moods of her son, and any freelancer will relate to the very modern horror of losing their internet connection, but what I think this book does best is convey the horror that Cass feels at not being in control of her environment, her social encounters and even, ultimately, her actions.

Though the supernatural elements of the plot might not break much new ground, seeing how they affect this particular character in her particular circumstances does much to make them fresh. It’s a fairly quick read, consisting of thirty-eight short chapters, the text generously spaced, with all events seen from Cass’s perspective. The absence of the possessive “s” after Cass’s name throughout seemed a little old-fashioned to me (as did a web developer who uses floppy disks and hasn’t heard of Dropbox), but it’s a novel that is otherwise unfussy and clear. Not simplistic – it sent me to the dictionary a few times – but simply direct. Two images from the book soon turned up in my nightmares. The first would be a spoiler, but you’ll know it when you see it, out at the witch stones. The other is that one finished apartment in that part-renovated mill, its loneliness and isolation a physical symbol of what is happening to Cass.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Black Static #27, back in 2012.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Ten tips for dealing with pdf proofs

Ten tips for dealing with pdf proofs:

  1. PDF proofs are for annotating, NOT editing.
  2. Adobe Reader XI (free) has a good set of annotation tools.
  3. Sticky notes are best saved for general notes about a page or section.
  4. The Text Correction Markup tool is the best way of showing text changes.
  5. The highlight text tool is the best way of commenting on specific text and asking questions (e.g. Is this font too small?) or giving instructions. Also good for simple changes.
  6. The underline tool can be used to ask for italics.
  7. Squiggly underline can be used to ask for bold.
  8. Show don’t tell, so far as possible – e.g. if something needs deleting, a swipe with the Strikethrough tool shows it more clearly than a highlight with instructions that say what needs deleting.
  9. Repeating yourself is really, really helpful – if the same thing needs doing in ten different places, it’s really worth copying and pasting the same instruction into each comment rather than referring back to earlier comments.
  10. Users with iPads should consider getting Goodreader. It’s cheap and fantastic.
Any other tips? In particular, has anyone found anything as good as Goodreader for Android devices?

Wednesday is list day. This is list #11.

Monday 18 November 2013

Journey into Space: The World in Peril by Charles Chilton, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Journey into Space: The World in Peril (BBC Audio, digital audiobook, 10 hours; Audible purchase), written by Charles Chilton, is the third story in the saga of Jet Morgan and his crew, following on from Operation Luna and The Red Planet, both of which I adored. The CD release of this conclusion passed me by, so it was an utter delight to discover it on Audible.

The twenty-episode story begins with Jet (captain), Mitch (the engineer), Lemmy (the radio operator) and Doc (have a guess) arriving back on Earth after their disastrous Martian mission, with news of a possible Martian invasion. Put into seclusion to keep Martian agents from knowing they survived, and to prevent a panic, the boys kick their heels until a new mission comes their way: to go back to Mars. A fine reward!

Earth wants them to gather more information about the invasion, and, ideally, capture a Martian or one of the conditioned humans who serve them. The mission becomes urgent when strange planetoids appear in Earth’s orbit, and so after a brief sojourn on Luna while the ships are prepared it’s back to Mars for our heroes.

This is that rarest of treasures, the third in a trilogy that lives up to parts one and two. One of the true joys of Journey into Space is that it’s about characters who think very carefully. They chew everything over, consider every aspect and consequence of their decisions, argue intelligently with each other and their enemies, and are put into situations where careful thought is absolutely required and there’s plenty of time to do it. I envy the people who got to listen to this series when it first came out, though waiting a week between episodes must have been quite trying: every episode brings an exciting revelation, a brilliant set-piece or a deadly cliffhanger.

One particular tour de force is the episode in which, after an attack on Mars, Lemmy wakes up in absolute darkness, and must step by step work out where he is, why the ceiling is so low, why his feet can’t find any solid ground, if the rest of the crew are there too – and who the hell is that walking around the room with ice cold skin!

It’s hard to imagine I could have enjoyed this series more, but it does have one failing: the lack of female characters. That, the class relationships and the assumption that listeners will pay attention are the only things that date it. The journey into space is a very long one, but it’s highly rewarding, with an unexpected, perfect conclusion. Good work, Jet boy! (As Lemmy might say.)

Friday 15 November 2013

Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The heroine of Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long (Night Shade Books, pb, 312pp) begins her story not on the far-off Barsoomian world of the title, but here on earth, getting groped by an asshole in a Californian car park. She’s a tall, strong biker chick who trained in the Airborne Rangers, and so he’s soon dead, she’s soon on the run, and like John Carter before her she ends up in a cave whose contents transport her to another world. She was “just too fucking big for this world”, and that goes double on Waar, where she stands out like the redhead burning in the sun that she is. Despite the friends she wins with her bravery, kindness and sensitive bedroom advice, her loneliness drives her desire to get home. To do that she’ll have to help gorgeous, delicate Sai-Far, son of Shen-Far, Dhanan of Sensa.

His proud betrothed, the Aldhanshai Wen-Jhai, has been spirited away by Kedac-Zir, Kir-Dhanan of all Ora. Getting her back is not merely a matter of alerting the authorities, or even snatching her in secret: Sai-Far is honour-bound to challenge her abductor to a duel, and Wen-Jhai will be the first to despise him should he fail to do so. An early encounter with the Kir-Dhanan leaves Jane Carver with her own reasons to see him dead. That leaves one question to pursue Jane and Sai-Far through all their subsequent adventures, through airborne pirates, southern slavery and rooftop escapes: will she let Sai-Far have his shot at Kedac-Zir, and thus at honour and happiness, or will she kill the Kir-Dhanan herself for what he did to her? It’s all complicated by the fact that fighting Kedac-Zir will almost certainly mean the death – even if it’s an honourable death – of Sai-Far, and she’s becoming really fond of him, even if he isn’t her usual type.

Jane Carver is an interesting heroine, but readers who don’t find her appealing might not get far with the book since it’s all in the first person, supposedly transcribed – fruity language and all – by Nathan Long from fifteen tapes she recorded upon her return to our planet. As the book went on, I grew to like her very much. Her sense of honour, as revealed through her actions; her sensitivity to knowing she’s not on the romantic horizon of the man she’s protecting; her anger at the unfair social conditions on Waar; and her willingness to challenge the ideas of her friends: all round out the stereotypical biker we think we meet in the early pages. She’s not the only vivid character in the book. I became as fond as Jane was of pathetic Sai-Far, and even more so of his best friend and fellow princeling Lhan, whose shift from despondency to enthusiasm upon Sai-Far’s resolution to throw away his life was a highlight of the novel, as well as the perfect encapsulation of the alien society in which Jane has found herself.

At a glance this novel looks very much like a straightforward blend of Red Sonja and A Princess of Mars – a tall redhead motivated by a sexual assault fights her way across a far-off world where slightly odd-looking humans live alongside four-armed non-humanoids – and it would be daft to argue against that impression. From the title and the framing device onward this is a full-blooded homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs. But that’s not all there is to it, and readers will I think be surprised by the depth of characterisation, the interplay of societal mores, and how much you hope to hear Jane’s voice again once the novel is over. Plenty of scope for further adventures remains, and so one does hope that she found her way back to Waar, and that another box of tapes will find their way to Nathan Long. It would certainly be nice to read a novel where this big, strong, admirable woman didn’t get groped quite so much.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #240, back in 2012.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Fifteen albums I bought without hearing a single song by that artist, and whether I like those albums now

Fifteen albums I bought without hearing a single song by that artist, and whether I like those albums now:

  1. Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, M83 (yes)
  2. Digital Dump, The Jackofficers (no)
  3. Volume 2, Echoboy (no)
  4. Surfing on Sine Waves, Polygon Window (yes)
  5. Compilations 1995-2002, Hood (not really)
  6. This Is the Day, This Is the Hour, This Is This! Pop Will Eat Itself (yes)
  7. Possessed, The Balanescu Quartet (yes)
  8. Alpha Centauri, Tangerine Dream (yes)
  9. Unreleased? Fire! with Jim O’Rourke (yes)
  10. 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Fields (yes)
  11. Decade, Neil Young (yes)
  12. Avant Hard, Add N to (X) (yes)
  13. Endtroducing, DJ Shadow (yes)
  14. You Make Me Real, Brandt Brauer Brick (yes)
  15. The Noise Made By People, Broadcast (yes)

Have you bought any albums like that, just on the basis of good reviews, a nice album cover or an interview in the newspaper?

Wednesday is usually list day. This is list #10.

Monday 11 November 2013

Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In Hatchet Job (Picador, digital audiobook, 7 hrs 53 mins; Audible purchase) Mark Kermode, perhaps the UK’s most prominent film critic and certainly one of its most respected, covers all the big issues involved in writing reviews: being honest and only saying things you actually believe, trying to get the facts right, writing well, being entertaining, and, sometimes, changing your mind. He talks about the review as an art form in itself, and speaks scathingly of the idea that the only critics of any worth are those hoping to become film-makers. Kevin Smith, who espoused that view and, for example, cancelled the screenings of Red State for UK critics at the last minute, comes in for a great deal of criticism, as does Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, for his habit of publishing any old nonsense that his readers might find interesting, whatever its source, and his practice of publishing anonymous reviews of unfinished films.

A big concern for Kermode is what gives a review weight. Not just the words, but the person, publication and reputations standing behind them. He’s hardly the kind of fuddy-duddy who says all online writing is a worthless, mindless babble – as he explains, everyone writes online now, and he has lots of kind things to say about online sites who have what he believes is a credible ethos, such as Film Threat. But he argues persuasively that a paid, named reviewer puts their reputation and livelihood on the line with every review, as does the publication that chooses to publish it, giving it a credibility that cannot be matched by an anonymous piece on Amazon.

A key phrase in the book is: “Opinions are ephemeral, but professional conduct is sacrosanct.” Kermode tells a story about a falling-out with a distributor, thinking it was because he slated their film, only to realise it was because he’d implied that they hadn’t even tried to market it. It would be depressing to hear Kermode talk about Richard Bacon and Johnny Vaughan’s allegedly unethical approach to film reviewing if he didn’t tell the stories in such a funny way. Bacon didn’t watch the films he reviewed. That’s bad enough. But in fact, he wasn’t writing the reviews either, and hadn’t even read them!

Sock-puppeteers in the book world like Stephen Leather and R.J. Ellory also attract his withering gaze, though not all bad behaviour comes in for such criticism: he seems overly forgiving of hero Ken Russell’s bashing Alexander Walker over the head with a copy of his own review (or at least a rolled-up copy of the newspaper containing it). I think he takes an aggressive response to reviews almost as par for the course, having experienced similar things himself. As he explains: “many of the people who you most admire don’t see much point in what you’re doing”. If Ken Russell had attacked Walker’s integrity – as Kermode once did himself, something he now regrets – that would have been a different matter.

Kermode reads the audiobook himself, which of course enhances it immeasurably, making it a first-rate bonus feature to the Kermode and Mayo film show, though at first it takes some getting used to: he’s speaking so slowly and carefully! There are some points at which, endearingly, and I think probably self-consciously (their careers do after all have certain parallels, except that Kermode hasn’t cocked up his opportunities at the BBC), Kermode strays into Alan Partridge territory (don’t we all?). A mention of the “information superhighway”. “You’ve remembered it wrong. You’ve remembered it wrong. You’ve remembered it wrong. But I hadn’t.” Chapter 6’s morning routine: “Monday morning. Alarm. Up. Wash. Let the dog out. Dog doesn’t want to go out. Insist dog goes out. Dog not going out. Dog goes and lies on the sofa.”

Those were some of my favourite moments, and the audiobook reminded me of Alan in another way, in that like I, Partridge, once I began listening to Hatchet Job I didn’t stop, going through the whole thing in a couple of days. It’s funny, moving and angry, all in the right places at the right time. Kermode knows what goes where, and why. It is recommended to every novice reviewer, and even old hands may find it useful. The book gets a bit soppy towards the end, as Kermode relates first the joy of seeing a childhood favourite again (Jeremy) and then his surrender to A.I. Artificial Intelligence (a film I watched with my fist in my mouth to stop myself bawling), followed by his excruciatingly awkward apology to Steven Spielberg for having got it wrong. So it’s a relief at the end to hear him say, partly in response to news of a new Michael Bay Transformers film, “Where the hell did I leave that hatchet?”

Friday 8 November 2013

The Empathy Effect by Bob Lock, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In The Empathy Effect (Screaming Dreams, pb, 144pp), Bob Lock introduces Cooper Jones. Named for his father’s profession, he’s a slightly psychic traffic warden. He can sense feelings, which comes in handy on the mean streets of Swansea: it may not stop him getting punched in the stomach, but on a good day it’ll give him time to clench. In this short comic novel he teams up with Albrecht von Wallenstein the Fourteenth (Alby for short), a testicular retriever who seems to share his special gift, to investigate the case of a missing girl.

Cooper’s not so much hardboiled as sunny side up. Throughout his narrative, cheesy dad jokes are the order of the day – for example, “she’s a redhead. No hair… just a red head” – rather than the usual bitter sardonicism of the private eye, try as he might to echo their style. Like his fictional peers, he does have a drinking problem and his relationship with the police is strained at best, here exacerbated by his lowly status as a traffic warden. He even incurs the requisite series of beatings during the investigation, but he takes all of this in surprisingly good heart. Even in victory, he literally holds out a hand to the worst of villains.

Although Cooper says early on that he regards his abilities as “a bloody curse”, the tortured image on the front cover doesn’t quite fit the content, which tends more to the charming and cosy. It becomes clear that Cooper’s biggest regret is not that he has this power, but that he didn’t start using it for good a bit sooner. The back cover, on the other hand, a photograph by the author of what looks like the steepest street in Britain, points up one of the novel’s strengths: its use of Swansea’s geography, in sequences like that in which Cooper and pursuing police officers struggle to stay upright while hurtling down such a street.

The novel begins excitingly in the present tense, throwing us into the ocean with Cooper, watching him drown while clingwrapped to a support leg of Mumbles Pier, before flashing back three days to the past tense. But it then drifts back to the present tense from time to time, and doesn’t return to the present tense once we catch up with the drowning sequence. In The Revenge of the Rose Moorcock uses bursts of present tense brilliantly to engage readers in the action; here it feels more like occasional inadvertence than a stylistic choice.

Similarly, though most of the book is in the first person, occasional shifts to the omniscient third – to keep an eye on the cartoonish villains – jar, as does the sexual aspect of one kidnapper’s motivation, which seems a little inappropriate for such light treatment. The book isn’t at its best when dealing with sex: it very nearly lost this reader with Cooper’s ungallant observation that a lady’s “collar and cuffs matched”. But those are all small problems with what’s generally a pleasant Sunday night drama of a book.

The Empathy Effect is unlikely to set your world alight, unless you’re an ITV executive looking for something to replace Kingdom – in which case, tiger, you just hit the jackpot. There’s clear potential in the character, but he needs a couple of things: a publisher who specialises in mysteries and thrillers and can pitch it at the right audience, and at least a hundred more pages to stretch his legs. The idea of a psychic traffic warden fighting crime with his canine frenemy is unusual and amusing, but the mysteries here weren’t quite substantial enough to do it justice.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Black Static #20, back in 2011.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Avoiding author meltdowns: twelve tips for reviewers

In my experience, the vast majority of authors are absolutely lovely, but a handful are terrors and everyone has their bad days and tender spots. Bear in mind that these are tips for avoiding author meltdowns, not necessarily rules for reviewing in general:

1. First, put out of your head the idea that you can avoid all author meltdowns. If you write honest reviews of all the books you read, they’re inevitable. All you can do is avoid some of them!

2. You might avoid reviewing a book if you’ll be the only one reviewing it, or if it’s likely to be the only review the author is going to get for a while. The longer they have to stew on it, the more likely they are to kick up a fuss.

3. So far as possible, criticise the book not the author. You’ve no idea what might have happened to the text between author and print. At a convention I once heard an editor say he had rewritten a passage to change the sexuality of a character so that they could seduce a guard and escape from a jail cell. It went to press without the author seeing it. In that case it might well be appropriate to say the book didn’t take its treatment of the character’s sexuality very seriously, but the author might justly feel aggrieved if accused of homophobia. Another book I saw went to press with the final page of one chapter turning up between other chapters much later into the book. A proofreader, noticing this, had added ellipses at the end of the chapter’s penultimate page and at the beginning of the orphan page. Again, fine to criticise the book for what would have seemed very odd to readers, but not the author’s fault (except in so far as they should have checked their proofs more a bit more carefully!). (The corollary of this is that authors must remember that reviewers are considering the entire product, not just the writer’s contribution. There’s nothing unfair about reviews that mention bad cover art, Kindle formatting, proofreading or other elements of the book that are not always within the author’s control.)

4. Try to make your review watertight and avoid woolliness. If there’s something you can’t back up, don’t include it in the review. When reviewing Alison Littlewood’s very good debut A Cold Season, I developed a wonderful theory about horror being about the loss of agency and control over your environment, and that book being the epitome of that, and somehow (I don’t remember how) Peggle was involved! It read well, but on the point of sending it to the reviews editor I suddenly thought of half a dozen counter-examples to my theory and went back to square one. Stick to what you can say with confidence, and if you’re not confident about something say as much.

5. You might want to avoid speculating about the author’s intentions or saying they should have written a different book. It can really bug them: we don’t know what they were thinking or aiming for and if you’ve got it wrong it leaves you wide open to criticism.

6. You might want to watch out for authors who make a habit of nitpicking reviews, and avoid reviewing them. Keep a list. Only review them if you’re feeling robust!

7. Where possible don’t email the review directly to the author or editor of the book. It’s when they try to thank you for it through gritted teeth that the worst things are often said.

8. Another way of avoiding trouble is, when someone thanks you for the review, to just say Thanks, or Hey, thanks, or No worries, rather than getting into a discussion. Everything you said in your review may have been carefully thought out and checked against the book, but if you let slip in an email that you thought Sandy had red hair and Ginger had blonde hair it will fuel their rage!

9. You might refuse to write negative reviews. It’s certainly an option, though not one likely to win you the respect of other reviewers. How much credit can anyone give your praise if you praise absolutely everything? If you’ve made a conscious decision to only say positive things about books, you’re not writing reviews, you’re writing appreciations. It will, however, mostly avoid author meltdowns, though even then there will be people who get angry about being praised for the wrong thing!

10. You might want to avoid writing reviews altogether. It’s inevitable that you’ll have an author lose it with you at some point, and the more reviews you write the more likely it’s going to happen.

11. You might want to keep your reviews on your own territory. Writers are I think more likely to go berserk over reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, partly because of the bigger readership, but perhaps also because there may be the thought at the back of their minds that if enough people complain, they could have the review taken down.

12. You might want to avoid Facebook. It won’t do anything to reduce meltdowns, but it makes it more likely that you’ll be happily oblivious to them!

Wednesday is sometimes list day on our blog. This is list #9.

Monday 4 November 2013

Doctor Who: The Light at the End, by Nicholas Briggs, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Doctor Who: The Light at the End, by Nicholas Briggs (Big Finish, digital audio, 2 hrs; purchased from publisher) gives us the impossible dream: a team-up of Doctors four (Tom Baker), five (Peter Davison), six (Colin Baker), seven (Sylvester McCoy) and eight (Paul McGann) in their prime, accompanied respectively by companions Leela (Louise Jameson), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), Peri (Nicola Bryant), Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Charley (India Fisher). That’s not to mention cameos from Sara Kingdom, the first three Doctors (somehow!), Jamie, Zoe, Tegan, Turlough and I’m sure many others that I missed on a first listen. With all those people involved, does the story matter? You get to hear the fourth Doctor talking to the eighth Doctor! Who cares what they’re talking about?

Well, just in case you do: five of the Doctors (or their companions) notice flashing red lights on their consoles. The problem is not just the flashing, but that the lights have never been there before: they seem to have been created and set off by the Tardis passing through a specific location on November 23rd, 1963. So off the Doctors go to investigate. It’s a bit like a Justice League of America story from the sixties, as four and eight team up, and six and seven, while five has to fend for himself, before they all gather together for the big finale. Since he’s on the cover, it’s no spoiler to say that the Master is involved.

He’s played with a nice subtlety by Geoffrey Beevers, who played the decayed Master in “The Keeper of Traken” (that version having been first portrayed by Peter Pratt in “The Deadly Assassin”). I think it used to be generally assumed that the decayed Master was the Roger Delgado incarnation at the end of his life, but here he seems in slightly better condition – he’s described by an unfortunate human who encounters him as looking like he’s been “injured, burnt” – and on the cover he looks recognisably like Geoffrey Beevers, which would seem to establish him as an entirely separate incarnation from Delgado (if he hadn’t been already).

The story does show the difficulty of a story involving so many of the Doctors and their companions, in that there isn’t much time for anything else. I came away from it with a renewed appreciation of the television story “The Five Doctors”, always one of my favourites. Terrance Dicks did a brilliant job there of giving all four Doctors a moment to shine, and gave each of them memorable, quotable dialogue. In The Light at the End, Nicholas Briggs has five fully active Doctors, plus quite big cameos from three more, and so even two hours doesn’t allow time for many other speaking roles. Like Dicks with his walks to the tower, Briggs keeps things quite simple, focusing on one really sticky problem, allowing his Doctors time to talk around it.

It’s interesting that here, as in many recent television stories, the biggest danger is not that the Doctor might die, but that he might never have existed: as he approaches his regeneration limit, his past becomes more important than his future. As in previous anniversary stories, we once again see the later Doctors defer to the first – odd when the eighth Doctor is about four times older! Perhaps it’s because he’s the only one with direct memories of the Time Lord academy, while all the rest have had their youthful memories jumbled by multiple regenerations.

The absence of the tenth Doctor is a shame, given that David Tennant was working on Big Finish audios long before he took the Tardis keys, but better a contract that lets Big Finish only make stories with the classic Doctors than no contract to make new stories at all. And it’s right that Big Finish’s celebration of the programme’s fiftieth anniversary should celebrate the Doctors and companions with whom they’ve had so many terrific adventures. Caroline Johns, Mary Tamm, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen are of course missed even more, but well done Big Finish for giving us so many new stories with them while it was still possible.

This is everything I thought I wanted from the television anniversary episode, but don’t realistically expect to get. As many Doctors as possible, on one adventure, interacting with each other: I won’t deny that happy tears were emitted! It gave me that crossover rush without ever becoming a panto. Even if it’s with a mere two or three Doctors, I’m certain Steven Moffat will give us something special in his anniversary special, and this story does a marvellous job of clearing the decks in preparation, leaving the listener ready for whatever November 23rd, 2013 has in store, fannish cravings sated. And who knows, maybe at some point there will be a flashing red light on the Doctors’ consoles in “The Day of the Doctor”. An absolute must-buy for any Doctor Who fan.

Friday 1 November 2013

Theme Planet by Andy Remic, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Theme Planet by Andy Remic (Solaris, pb, 384pp). Dexter Colls needs a holiday. Investigating some shady business going down in the rough side of town, he was lucky to avoid being blown up, and it’s starting to get to him. Where else would a family man take his adoring wife and more or less adoring kids but Theme Planet: it’s better than drugs, better than sex, and “if you haven’t been sick, you soon will be!” Rollercoasters stand five kilometres high and plunge an equal distance beneath the waves. A reluctant Dex slowly unwinds, encouraged by his family’s enthusiasm, and it’s shaping to be the holiday of a lifetime – until he wakes to find Katrina, Molly and Toffee missing from the hotel. Thus begins an orgy of mindless violence that won’t stop for wine, cheese and Spunky Spunk Chocolate until he gets them back.

Dexter’s not the only one rampaging on Theme Planet: android Amba Miskalov’s mission is to eliminate six key PR people. Given the ease with which she kills a squad of machine gunners in the opening pages, you wouldn’t expect any mission to give her too much trouble, but she has two problems to contend with: her own growing resentment at the way she’s being employed and treated, and a mysterious female voice inside her head. Between them Amba and Dex will rack up an impressive body count, but it’s a conversation between them, not a fight, that will decide the future of every man, woman, child, alien, android and SIM on the planet.

Though dedicated to Philip K. Dick, this novel’s approach to the questions of identity raised in novels such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? essentially amounts to, “Oh, I’m an android. I must be evil. What to do?” This is Dick through the eyes of Paul Verhoeven, not Ridley Scott, the novel a close relation to Total Recall. I love the Schwarzenegger films of that period, and I wish there were more of them, but what thrills over two hours can tire over ten. The pace in this novel never lets up, and some readers may find themselves slowing to a jog, waving for it to go on without them.

On the whole it’s much better than the last Remic I read. The Fanthorpisms and non sequiturs that marred Vampire Warlords (or provided its principle pleasures, perhaps) are generally absent, though one rhapsodic passage would make Lionel proud: a “mammoth ball of blue, [...] a caring Mother, the Earth, Mother Earth, Home of Mankind and Cradle of Humanity”. The novel begins a new series, the Anarchy, and in comparison to the NaNoWriMo-esque Vampire Warlords feels like a decent amount of effort has gone into it. That’s not to say it will win awards for its prose. The word “vast”, for example, is used so frequently – about sixty times – that it starts to seem like an in-joke. Theme Planet itself is not just “vast”, it’s “VAST”!

Thirty-nine uses of “bitch” seem almost parsimonious in comparison, but point to the book’s main problem, a distaste for women and their bodies, especially if they are fat. It’s a book where a woman sighs over her baby-stretched “undercarriage” and her husband jokes about her vibrator in front of their daughter; where having your face pushed between the thighs of a sweaty fat woman is worse than being shot, and where Dex and his partner burst from a doorway “like unwanted foetal ejections from the glowing vulva of an alien whore”.

By most standards this isn’t a good book, but I don’t think it wants to be. It’s aiming to be big dumb fun, a videogame on paper, and in that it mainly succeeds. The violence is as bloody and frequent as people who like bloody and frequent violence might hope, and despite its flaws and daftness I enjoyed most of its attempts to entertain. But by the end I was ready to move on.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #239, back in 2012.