Wednesday, 30 November 2011

‘Doctor Who: Touched by an Angel’ – Jonathan Morris (BBC Books)

Welcome to the last day of November (that was quick, where did the month go?) and a review for a book that I actually read way back in September, I think. That’s the way my reading seems to gone over the last few months; books were read but then seemed to spend a lot more time on the ‘I really need to review this’ pile than they would do normally. I don’t know why this is, actually... yes I do.
I try to review everything that I finish reading but doing this really depends on the reaction I get from reading a book. A strong reaction (positive or otherwise) will invariably lead to a book being reviewed here shortly after I finish reading; that’s pretty much why you’ve probably seen a number of positive reviews in quick succession here. If it’s a book that doesn’t really leave me feeling anything though... Well, if a book doesn’t fully engage with me then I’ll often find myself not really wanting to engage with it in return (especially just recently). This is all the more disappointing when it’s a ‘Doctor Who’ book that I’m reading but you can’t win em’ all I guess. I promised a review though so...

Eight years after his wife’s death, Mark Whitaker is still grieving and has no idea how he will get his life back on track. That is, until the day he receives a battered envelope containing a set of instructions and one simple message... ‘You can save her’.
Mark now has a second chance at happiness and will do whatever it takes to save his wife Rebecca. The Doctor however knows that far more is at stake than the life of one woman. The Weeping Angels have returned and they will stop at nothing less than using history itself as a weapon in order to achieve their aims...

I’ve mentioned it before but Doctor Who novels are great comfort reads for me and with the best ones it’s like reading an actual episode of the show straight off the page. Because of this I always look forward to the new releases and will always pick them up for a read. After ‘Touched by an Angel’ though, maybe this won’t always be the case. For the first time in a long time I can see myself re-reading a few old favourites instead of picking up the latest book.

‘Touched by an Angel’ is the story of a man wracked by grief who is given the opportunity to bend time itself in order to be reunited with his one true love. As far as this goes, the book works very well with a story told in flashbacks of how Mark and Rebecca came to be together. You get a really strong feeling of how much Rebecca means to Mark and the grief he feels at her passing and, with this more than sold foundation, it’s not too much of a leap at all to see how Mark would do whatever he could to bring her back. The ending is a little bit predictable but the reasoning behind it is made very clear so you can understand why it has to turn out the way it does (even if, like me, you’re secretly hoping for something else entirely).

So what’s the big issue then? A bittersweet tale of time travelling romance is just the kind of thing that the current series of Doctor Who seems to thrive on so what could possibly go wrong here? Unfortunately, Morris’ treatment of the Doctor himself pretty much killed things off for me when it really should have got things going...

What I love about the Doctor (whether he’s on the screen or in a book) is the sense you get that he is doing everything on the fly. He may be the most intelligent being you’re likely to come across but villainous aliens will give him a run for his money and he’ll only save the day at the very last minute. As a result, you may know when to expect the ‘big reveal’ but there’s always a tense time guaranteed before you get there.

Not here though, not in ‘Touched by an Angel’. The Doctor is in control of things just a little too much and things fall into place just a little too neatly for there to be any real tension at all. If there’s no tension then there’s no fun, not for me anyway, not when everything is explained away so neatly and so quickly. It got to the point where every eventuality was covered so well that I found myself thinking that the book only needed maybe ten pages maximum to tell its story, not the two hundred and thirty seven pages that we get. Explaining everything away via ‘Bill and Ted’s Theory of Time Travel’ was funny in ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ but it’s just annoying here.

This approach also had the knock on effect of rendering perhaps the scariest new monsters in Doctor Who ineffective and pretty much pathetic. The Doctor takes care of the Weeping Angels without breaking a sweat and I had to ask myself why I’d bothered reading if things were going to be taken care of that easily. The answer was a very quick ‘it’s Doctor Who’ (have you guessed I’m a bit of a fan?) but that answer rang a bit hollow this time round.

‘Touched by an Angel’ is a tale that delivers on one front but fails to deliver on what it really needed to in order to make it a good ‘Doctor Who’ novel. Like I said, a real shame...

Six out of Ten

'Rise of the Governor' Audio Book- Free Audio Clip to Download

I've already reviewed 'Rise of the Governor' (over Here if you're interested) so won't be reviewing the audio book that I was also sent (there's no point in reviewing the same thing all over again is there?) You can bet I'll be listening to it though (gotta stave off the agony of the commute somehow) and now you can as well. Not the whole book, just a 'teaser' audio clip that MacMillan have posted over Here. Check it out :o)

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

‘Neonomicon’ – Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press)

I’m still working my way through the H.P. Lovecraft collection, slowly but surely, but seem to have come to a bit of a halt right now. Not sure why exactly... At a guess I’d say it’s partly down to a baby who is completely indifferent to the aims of the Elder Gods and whose nappies bring new meaning to the word ‘eldritch’ (possibly ‘squamous’ as well)... I hate to admit it but it’s also down to me reading the book on my own, one night, and being scared rigid when my wife whispered my name from the next room. What? I was reading a reading a really scary story.

I need to get back into the Lovecraft collection (all the more so because it’s quite frankly brilliant in its weirdness) but reading it in the first place has made me all the more aware of the influence that Lovecraft has had on a number of present day writers. It’s definitely there if you look hard enough and it all makes for gripping tales of the darker side of a universe that we only think we know. I want more of this and when Alan Moore’s ‘Neonomicon’ came through the door, the other day, I had a chance to explore the mythos a little bit further; perhaps even use the book as a way of getting back into the original source material that had stumped me first time round.

‘Neonomicon’ has certainly got me interested in picking up the Lovecraft book again; it’s also the most unsettling book I’ve read in a long time...

Just what happened to top FBI agent Aldo Sax while he was investigating a wave of serial killings (and a possible connection to a certain drug)? All anyone knows is that Sax went on to kill a couple of people himself before being locked up in a maximum security facility? He’ll happily talk but it’s in a language that no-one can understand. The killings have begun again and it’s now the job of two younger agents to not only get to the bottom of Sax’ condition but pick up his case from where it went cold. Who is Johnny Carcosa and just what is he peddling? What lurks beneath the waters of Innsmouth and will it ever let Agent Merrill Brears go? What will be left of her if it does...? Cthulhu is stirring from his dreams and R’lyeh is in the last place you would ever expect to look...

After reading ‘Neonomicon’ I can’t believe that there was ever a time when I seriously thought that comics were just about superheroes doing what superheroes do (for the record there was such a time, long ago now). ‘Neonomicon’ is about as far from all that as it’s possible to get. This tale of terror pulls no punches and spares no sensibilities; it’s all the better for this approach and I’d say that ‘Neonomicon’ borders on essential reading for fans of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos...

My edition (a lovely looking hardback collection) collects ‘The Courtyard’ as well as ‘Neonomicon’ and we get to see just how the mystery unfolds without any inconvenient breaks in between. Maybe we find out a little too much too soon, we’re certainly in on the secret a long time before Lamper and Brears get there and maybe that spoils things a bit. One of the dangers of bringing two separate stories (albeit with a connection between them) into one collection I guess; ‘The Courtyard’ would have had a lot more impact to it if I’d read it on it’s own. The ending to ‘Neonomicon’ more than made up for this though; I don’t want to give too much away but you really feel Sax’ horror as things suddenly become very clear.

Both ‘The Courtyard’ and ‘Neonomicon’ are jammed full of references not only to Lovecraft but also other ‘weird’ writers of the time. You get the feeling that Moore is a bit of a fan and is revelling in the chance to namedrop a little with other likeminded readers. This ‘overflow’ of references was starting to verge on the annoying until I realised that this approach had a greater significance to the plot than was at first apparent. What Moore is actually doing is sowing seeds, very early on, for a mystery that incorporates police procedural themes with a case that no human law enforcement agency could ever be prepared for. As the story unfolds you get a real sense of the confusion, and underlying terror, experienced by the agents as they realise that they are way in over their heads.

As I said before, Moore doesn’t pull any punches when the endgame kicks in and Merrill learns to her cost what she has become involved in. ‘Graphic’ doesn’t begin to cover what’s on these pages but I would say fair play to Moore for letting the story take the path it was best suited for, deeply unsettling as it is. I originally thought that Jacen Burrows’ art would be too ‘clean’ and cartoonish for what is a very dark tale. I was surprised though at how well the art dovetailed with Moore’s plot. Burrows’ style is still clean and straightforward but it also shows the darker side of human nature (just cast your eye over the nightclub crowd...) as well as the full weirdness of Cthulhu and his cohorts.

The ending is not only a real punch to the gut but also somehow manages to tell an extra four or five pages of story that you will only see in your minds eye. I can’t stop thinking about that ending and what it means...
It may not be by Lovecraft himself but ‘Neonomicon’ can sit proudly amongst the rest of the mythos that sprang from Lovecraft’s writing. It’s a deeply unnerving read that grips you while it puts the fear of the Elder Gods up you...

Nine out of Ten

Monday, 28 November 2011

‘Zombies: The Ultimate Guide’ (SFX Special Edition)

I’m not one for picking up magazines as a rule. While there are loads of lovely looking genre magazines out there, the ever growing book pile (in the corner of the study) gives me little twinges of guilt every time I think about reading anything else. I really ought to finish what I’ve got before I pick anything else up, surely? You would think that but, every now and then, a magazine appears that has my name written all over it. Well not literally, that would make for a very boring magazine, but you know what I mean... ;o)

I don’t pick up as many copies of SFX magazine as I used to (see the whole book pile thing a few lines up) but I do like to hang around on their forum, best forum on the net as far as I’m concerned, and this is where I heard about their September special and how it was full of everything zombie related. News like that is pretty much like waving a red rag at a bull as far as I’m concerned! It took me a while to bag myself a copy of ‘Zombies: The Ultimate Guide’ but, once I got it, there was plenty of zombie goodness in there waiting to read.

If you call something the ‘Ultimate Guide’ then you’re making a real statement of intent that you’ve got no choice but to back up. To be fair, SFX have a good stab at it with a fairly comprehensive slice of all things zombie related. There’s a little something here for everyone although I personally would have liked to see more about zombies in comics (other than the nod to ‘The Walking Dead’ that you get in the article about the TV show). This is an area that I think there’s a lot of scope for, having read ‘Essential Tales of the Zombie’, ‘Zombie’ and ‘The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics’ amongst others. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little more about just how many zombie novels there are out there, waiting to be read, as well. I know I go on about it but there are loads of great zombie novels and I think SFX missed a trick not highlighting some of these (you do get a couple of author interviews though and David Moody’s short story ‘Muriel’ though so I guess that balances things out).

I guess there’s only so much room in a magazine to fit everything in and some stuff will inevitably be missed out. The articles that you do get are really easy to get stuck into and are backed up with the kind of photos that remind you just why you got into zombie films in the first place (heavy on the gore, just how I like it). I really enjoyed the ‘Top 66 Zombie Films of all time’, there were a few films there that I really need to get my hands on now; I wasn’t surprised to see that ‘Hard Rock Zombies’ didn’t make the final cut though... :o)
An ultimate guide to zombies wouldn’t be ‘ultimate’ at all without at least a mention of George Romero and this ultimate guide duly obliges with some reader questions. If you’ve ever wondered whether George Romero has watched zombie porn then this is the magazine that will answer your question. The answer is.... nope, I’m not going to say :o)
I managed to while away a happy few hours reading this magazine and came away with a few more films that I want to track down as a result (‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ for one). ‘Zombies: The Ultimate Guide’ may not have had everything that I was looking for but I couldn’t really complain about what was on offer.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Two for 2012? Well... Yes and No...

It’s that time of year again where the books coming through the door are more likely than not to be 2012 releases as well as books still to be published in 2011. Some of them I’ll be reading, others will be gently but firmly ignored for whatever reason is applicable. What most of them will all have in common though is that I’ll be featuring them in a series of posts that will give you guys a heads up on what you can expect to see in 2012 (if you weren’t already expecting them that is).
You get two books today, here goes...

‘Crucible of Gold’ – Naomi Novik (Release Date: March 2012, Del Rey)

For Laurence and Temeraire, put out to pasture in Australia, it seems their part in the war has come to an end just when they are needed most. Newly allied with the powerful African empire of the Tswana, the French have occupied Spain and brought revolution and bloodshed to Brazil, threatening Britain’s last desperate hope to defeat Napoleon.

So the British government dispatches Arthur Hammond from China to enlist Laurence and Temeraire to negotiate a peace with the angry Tswana, who have besieged the Portuguese royal family in Rio—and as bait, Hammond bears an offer to reinstate Laurence to his former rank and seniority as a captain in the Aerial Corps. Temeraire is delighted by this sudden reversal of fortune, but Laurence is by no means sanguine, knowing from experience that personal honor and duty to one’s country do not always run on parallel tracks.

A few years ago, a ‘Temeraire’ book would have been essential reading for me. I really enjoyed the first few books but all of a sudden found myself coming to a sudden halt with ‘Tongues of Serpents’ and I’ve pretty much lost all interest in where the series goes next. I couldn’t even finish ‘Tongues of Serpents’ an incredibly dry book that started to confirm my suspicions that the series was turning into an excuse to visit different countries and showcase the ‘native dragon of the day’. That’s not what the series promised me at the beginning and it’s not a plot shift that I’m interested in pursuing. If readers want to let me know what I’m missing then you might tempt me back but ‘Tongues of Serpents’ is a pretty big obstacle to overcome first.

‘Luthor Huss’ – Chris Wraight (Release Date: February 2012, Black Library)

Witch hunter Lukas Eichmann investigates a series of bizarre murders, which ultimately lead him into the haunted depths of the Empire at the head of an army of fanatical warriors. In the Drakwald Forest, Luthor Huss, warrior priest of Sigmar, battles to free the denizens of the forest from a plague of the walking dead. As their fates entwine, the two warriors confront a threat that will decide their future, while Huss must face a secret from his past if he is to survive and embrace his destiny as the Hammer of Sigmar.

This on the other hand, this I will be reading and probably a lot sooner than its February release date. If Aaron Dembski-Bowden is the rising star of Warhammer 40K fiction (and he is) then Chris Wraight fills the equivalent position for the Warhammer Fantasy line. He’s not too shabby with the 40K stuff either. Wraight’s short fiction hasn’t quite done it for me but I’ve read nearly all of his novels (plus one novella) and none of them have let me down. That’s more than enough reason for me to be eagerly anticipating picking this one up.

I’m guessing that more people will be anticipating ‘Crucible of Gold’, than ‘Luthor Huss’, but I’m throwing the question out there anyway... Do either of these two books catch your eye?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Cover Art! 'Axe Cop Volume 3'

Because there can never be too much 'Axe Cop' on this blog! Check it out,

Never has one cover said so much so succinctly :o) I need to get my hands on Volume 2 it would appear, that will be happening very soon if I have anything to do with it!

Here's some blurb from the press release,

Axe Cop returns with a collection of exciting and unpredictable stories written by the endlessly inventive six-year-old Malachai Nicolle and drawn by his Eisner Award–nominated thirty-year-old brother, Ethan Nicolle!

This stellar volume collects eight Axe Cop stories previously published online and features “Stolen Pizza, Stolen Lives,” a crossover special with fellow webcomics superstar Dr. McNinja! It also contains the Halloween story “The Night Monster” and a special Christmas episode, “The Power of Christmas”! Axe Cop joins his comrades Uni-baby, Bat Warthog Man, and Dinosaur Soldier to fight bad guys and restore justice for kids—and grownups—everywhere!

Volume 3 will be on sale on the 28th of March next year; must remember to book a day off for then... :o)

You can read previous 'Axe Cop' reviews Here and Here.

Friday, 25 November 2011

‘Theft of Swords’ – Michael J. Sullivan (Orbit)

If you spend time on various forums online then you will have heard of Michael J. Sullivan long before now, there’s no way that you couldn’t have done. Go on; think of a genre fiction forum. Thought of one? Yep, Michael J. Sullivan has well and truly been discussed there (and on whatever forum you were thinking of suggesting next). There is a very good reason for all this discussion; namely that Sullivan has become more than a little bit of a publishing sensation with his ‘Riyria Revelations’ series, selling absolute bucket loads of electronic copies in particular. I haven’t seen a single bad review, for any of the books, but it’s taken until now for me to pick one of them up (I don’t have an eBook reader and I inexplicably never got round to reading the hard copy of ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ that I was sent, that’s my life at the moment).

It took Orbit’s acquiring of the series (they’re releasing two book omnibus editions over a period of three months, starting last month with ‘Theft of Swords’) to get me on board and my recent trip to Malta pretty much sealed it as I was looking for something fairly chunky to get my teeth into. As it happened, I couldn’t get anywhere near ‘Theft of Swords’ as my wife swiped the book and wouldn’t let me read it until we got back home. I’ve finished it now though and you can expect to see more about Sullivan’s books on this blog. I couldn’t get enough of ‘Theft of Swords’ and there is no way that I won’t be following this series through to its conclusion.

If you need something doing that’s a little ‘shady’ then you could do a lot worse than hire Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater to get it done for you. Royce will steal whatever you want stolen (if it’s nailed down then he’ll steal the nails too) and Hadrian has his back with his almost supernatural skills with a sword. They’re good at what they do, almost too good in fact as their reputation leads them to be set up as the fall guys in a plot to murder the king. Finding the real killer is only the first step in a journey for Royce and Hadrian; journeys that will see them enter into uneasy alliances with the nobility (given the number of nobles that they’ve stolen from, I’m not surprised they’re uneasy...), and uncover hidden history long forgotten, as well as trying to balance fiscal gain with doing the right thing...

When I was little, a lot of the old ‘Flash Gordon’ pulp serials were re-run for Saturday morning television (‘Zorro’ as well come to think of it). We’re talking life and death cliff hangers featuring larger than life heroes and evil moustache twirling villains going at each other with swords. Absolutely brilliant stuff that I couldn’t get enough of when I was six or seven years old.
Fast forward to 2011 and I’m faced with a similar setup in Sullivan’s work; light hearted swashbuckling tales that suffer from a couple of issues but never fail to entertain.

‘Theft of Swords’ contains the first two books in the ‘Riyria Revelations’ series; ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ and ‘Avempartha’. I couldn’t help but find myself wishing that I’d read each book in its individual format. When two books are published in one edition, you’ve got a pretty good idea about who is going to make it through book one. It’s very clearly a publishing decision and not Sullivan’s fault at all, but a little bit of the tension bled out for me here. Balancing this out though is the work that Sullivan clearly does to set things up for the next four books. Both ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ and ‘Avempartha’ are relatively self contained books, and can be read on their own (thanks to clever use of the ‘a couple of years later’ approach), but it’s a measure of Sullivan’s commitment to this series that he’s setting up future events at the same time. Admittedly this is more the case in ‘Avempartha’ than the ‘Crown Conspiracy’ but all credit to Sullivan for essentially writing a book that’s two things all at once. I like that.

Once you really get into it, ‘Theft of Swords’ is chock full of the kind of swashbuckling action that makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. Whether our heroes are stuck in a crumbling tower or facing off against an unseen monster in dark woods, Sullivan makes us fully aware of what’s at stake and gives us a rousing journey through the conclusion. We’re talking about the kind of situations that had me seriously considering missing a few stops on the tube so I wouldn’t have to wait and see what happens. I would say though that Sullivan’s writing, in these instances and a couple of others, left me in two minds about how effective it was. Sullivan opts for plain speaking which does press home just how urgent things can be. At times though, I felt his plain speaking was a little too plain and didn’t really do a great job at fleshing out the background that these scenes took place against.

I guess what you could say here is that the story isn’t really about the background as such, not yet anyway (and like I said, hints are dropped that likely won’t come to fruition until later books in the series). ‘Theft of Swords’ is more about the characters and here, Sullivan gives us a cast that I couldn’t help but root for.
You might feel like you’ve met Hadrian and Royce in many other fantasy novels; I certainly felt that way but the jury is out for a little longer at least. Sullivan is up front about playing to familiar tropes but a couple of the surprises that he includes in the plot suggest that he’s not averse to turning things on their head when he feels that the plot would benefit. My feeling is that we can expect some of that from one of the two leading characters. Things are certainly left vague enough, at the end of ‘Avempartha’, to suggest that interesting possibilities lie ahead.

In the meantime, Sullivan plays ‘Theft of Swords’ as the fantasy equivalent of a ‘buddy movie’ and you get the impression that you are listening in on an old friendship established over some years. Hadrian and Royce know each others little foibles and aren’t afraid to mix these with a little levity here and there; the end result being another reason to get behind these two men as they seek to extricate themselves from the machinations of those in power.

‘Theft of Swords’ is a book of dark mysteries waiting to be solved by a lock pick and a strong sword arm. That’s the promise and Sullivan delivers on that, I can’t wait to read more.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

Thursday, 24 November 2011

‘The Gildar Rift’ – Sarah Cawkwell (Black Library)

I’ve had occasion to mooch around a few Games Workshop stores in my time; both as a teenager looking to kill time on a Saturday afternoon and a guy in his mid thirties (thirty six is still ‘mid thirties’ dammit!) who’s after indulging his fascination with well painted toy soldiers. I love what they do in these stores, just a shame that my wallet isn’t as enthusiastic.

One thing that seems to be the same now as it was back in my teenage years is that I’ve only ever seen guys in Games Workshop stores, no ladies at all. I don’t know why this is but that’s what I always find. If you’re a GW frequenting female please leave a comment and prove me wrong but it’s looking very one sided in the meantime.
Up until now, this phenomenon has been mirrored on the publishing side of things with the Black Library. Barring a few short stories here and there (thanks to Nik Vincent and Juliet E. McKenna), Black Library is typically a male preserve for male writers. Again, not sure why this is; maybe that’s just the way things go sometimes.
It looks like things might just be about to change though. Sarah Cawkwell has already submitted stories for ‘Hammer and Bolter Magazine’ and her short story ‘Primary Instinct’ appeared in ‘Victories of the Space Marines’. While I wasn’t too keen on ‘Primary Instinct’ I was still interested to see what Sarah’s first full length Black Library novel was like. After all, you’ve got to be doing something right if you’re commissioned to write a novel off the back of a few short stories, surely?

The Space Marines of the Silver Skulls Chapter patrol the debris strewn Gildar system with all the superhuman vigour that you would expect from these post human warriors. Waiting in the wings though is the Arch Traitor Huron Blackheart and his Red Corsairs. Their quest for gene-seed (to bolster their own ranks), along with a burning desire to steal anything that isn’t nailed down, has bought them to the Gildar system and a confrontation with its guardians. The Silver Skulls display a ferocious zeal in combat and their own secret experiments, in the Gildar system, mean that they have added cause to fight back against the predations of the Red Corsairs. Blackheart himself has come to the Gildar system though and not only is he undefeated in open combat but he also a strategist the likes of which the Imperium hasn’t seen in hundreds of years...

I kind of have a ‘love/ hate’ thing going on with the ‘Space Marines Battles’ series; if you’ve been reading for a while then you probably know this already. This particular series just so happens to be the very series that Cawkwell’s debut novel finds itself in. While I had a few issues with ‘The Gildar Rift’, they were issues that I have with the series as a whole. ‘The Gildar Rift’ fell on the right side of the fence for me though; I’d certainly stick around to see what Cawkwell comes up with next.

The big problem that I have with the ‘Space Marines Battles’ series is that, well... battles aren’t really cut out to be the main focus of an entire book are they? A battle is something that a plot might hinge upon but no more than that, certainly not an entire book’s worth. This is especially the case when your protagonists are superhuman warriors engineered to make armed combat a very straightforward and bloody affair. They do a ‘no frills’ job but a book needs some frills to make it interesting. Several of the books in this series have fallen down, to one extent or another, because of this. Like I said though, ‘The Gildar Rift’ avoids most of the obvious pitfalls and is worth picking up because of this.

Cawkwell’s master stroke is to make ‘The Gildar Rift’ about far more than just a stand up fight between two sets of fairly evenly matched Marines. The Silver Skull’s ‘Resurgent Project’ takes equal billing with the main event and it’s interesting to see how the character of Volker Straub develops under the pressures of both the project and the ensuing war with the Red Corsairs. Alongside Volker Straub, Cawkwell’s depiction of Jeremiah (the incredibly insecure navigator) also adds a human element that offsets some of the ‘superhuman’ stuff and fleshes the plot out a little bit more.

Even the Marines (on both sides) get similar treatment and the end result are protagonists where you really get a feel for why they are fighting so fiercely. I love the character of Huron Blackheart, absolutely ‘off his face insane’ but still able to scrap it out with the best of them when the need arises.
What I would say here is that although the background history of the Silver Skulls is important, there wasn’t enough there to make going into it in such big detail a good thing (especially when it’s made clear that the Silver Skulls aren’t really aware of their ultimate origin anyway). I found myself skim reading these bits, which occurred far more often than was necessary, and that’s never a good thing.

When action really kicks off, either in the depths of space or on Gildar Secundus, Cawkwell proves to be more than up to the task of displaying Marine on Marine combat in all its bone crunching and visceral glory. While the battles themselves are a little too straightforward and simplistic (X moves his squad to point Y, Z counters...) it’s the more personal moments that are worth the price of entry. Cawkwell really doesn’t pull any punches.

‘The Gildar Rift’ doesn’t quite escape the issues that, for me, have plagued this series. What it does do though is give us a bunch of characters that we want to invest in and then put us through the wringer as we wait to see their fate. You can’t really ask for a lot more than that.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Orbit UK acquires alternate supernatural retelling of World War II.

From the press release...

Little, Brown imprint Orbit has acquired Bitter Seeds, an audacious and critically acclaimed fantasy retelling of the events of World War II, plus two further novels by American author Ian Tregillis. Commissioning Editor Anna Gregson acquired UK and Commonwealth rights in The Milkweed Triptych from John Berlyne at the Zeno Literary Agency.

This alternative version of 20th-century events sees Nazis engineering scientifically-enhanced supermen with powers of telekinesis, invisibility and fire-manipulation, whilst British troops resort to dark magic and even darker tactics to hold back the German invasion. The novel has received widespread praise since its release in the US last year, being described by Cory Doctorow as having “a white-knuckle plot, beautiful descriptions, and complex characters” and leading George R. R. Martin to dub Tregillis "a major talent."

Gregson said: “We’re delighted to have acquired this thrillingly sinister, clever and compelling tale that melds real-life events with occult forces and weird science. Its vivid atmosphere and supernatural twist make this a deeply mesmerising and entertaining novel, with great appeal for any fans of alternate histories, dark fantasy and superhero comics. Think Inglourious Basterds crossed with X-Men!”

Bitter Seeds and its sequels The Coldest War and Necessary Evil will be released in quick succession between December 2012 and April 2013.

I started reading 'Bitter Seeds' last year but never finished it; not the books fault I have to add, there were a number of good books that were never finished last year. From what I read though, 'Bitter Seeds' looked very promising and this news is just the thing to make me dig out my Tor edition and get a little headstart on next year. Tor have made a right meal of releasing this series on schedule (sorry Tor but you have) so it's good to see the books in the hands of a publisher well known for releasing books in a more timely fashion. You can't get a lot more 'timely' than a book a month, can you?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

‘Lord of Souls (An Elder Scrolls Novel)’ – Greg Keyes (Del Rey/Titan Books)

It was way back in November 2009 (almost two years to the day in fact) that I read Greg Keyes’ ‘The Infernal City’ and... was in two minds about it. Having thoroughly enjoyed Keyes’ ‘Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone’ series (although in retrospect, I’m wondering if I was a little too easy on ‘The Born Queen...) I was surprised to find myself feeling as ambivalent towards ‘The Infernal City’ as I did. Here was a book that was a real mix of ‘good and bad’; a book that showcased everything Keyes did so well in his previous works but, at the same time, a book that was aimed so squarely at ‘Elder Scrolls’ gamers that it was very light on the kind of detail that casual readers would need to be able to get into it easily.

A confusing read then where the good and frustrating balanced out in equal measure. According to the last lines of my review, ‘The Infernal City’ reads very much like half a book with characters being introduced only to be set up for events in Book Two... Decent characterisation and a couple of nice cliff hangers mean that I will be back for the second instalment though; hopefully things will pick up then...’ I almost wasn’t back for the second instalment though as I completely forgot about it in the intervening couple of years. What? ‘The Infernal City’ didn’t catch the imagination that much and it wasn’t as if I didn’t have other stuff on in the meantime...
‘Lord of Souls’ distinctive cover art, and Greg Keyes’ name on the cover, jogged my memory and I was keen to give the book a go; for a sense of closure on the story if nothing else. Okay that wasn’t the only reason, I’ve been mulling over a ‘Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone’ re-read just recently and thought this could be the next best thing. I was wrong, ‘Lord of Souls’ is very much more of what was on offer in ‘The Infernal City’ and not in a good way...

The land of Tamriel is still in mortal danger as the floating city of Umbriel drifts ever onwards towards the Imperial City, bringing the dead back to life in its wake. People are working to counter this threat but will their actions prove to be enough. Prince Attrebus is on the other side of the continent, looking for a magic sword that will kill the ruler of Umbriel. Even if he finds what he is looking for, can he make it back to the Imperial City in time? The Imperial spy Colin has uncovered hints of betrayal at the very roots of the empire but if he is to use this information then he must be sure that his own heart doesn’t betray him first. And Annaig, best placed to bring down Umbriel from within, is starting to wonder whether she actually wants to help her friends. Annaig is growing to quite like it where she is...

If I’m reviewing ‘the next book in a series’ then it’s always really difficult to avoid falling into the trap of basically regurgitating what I said about the last book, especially if I find that I’m not enjoying the series as a whole. Nine times out of ten I’ll skip over this little pitfall but this time round was more of a mixed bag. Not only is ‘Lord of Souls’ exactly the book that ‘The Infernal City’ was, it manages to come across as even worse on occasion. A disappointing read all in all.

Having already read ‘The Infernal City’, I found ‘Lord of Souls’ to be a little more accessible in terms of everything that wasn’t particularly well explained in the previous book. ‘Lord of Souls’ flowed a lot more smoothly, in this respect, and some of the action scenes, fighting the undead, were a lot of fun to read. It was also fun to return to Umbriel and visit the Kitchen and the Sump once again, two locales that are strange (and deadly) enough to warrant your interest. All good so far.

What I wasn’t counting on though was that Keyes would take out all of the characterisation that made the first book a fairly decent read. Characters may advance the plot but don’t appear to develop, within it, at all other than to fulfil a trope or two. Keyes doesn’t get inside their heads in the same way that he did last time round either; almost like he felt like he’d already done enough so he didn’t have to bother now. The end result is a bunch of characters that felt half finished, especially given the way that the first book signs off. I was all geared up to find out how they all finished the book and the approach that the book took left me feeling flat to say the least.

With no spark in any of the characters there isn’t really any spark to the plot either and things just meander along with only the occasional moments of zombie fighting or life in Umbriel that serve to remind you that ‘The Infernal City’ may have had its faults but it is still the better book. Stuff happens but it all feels rather soulless and that had me wondering just what the point of carrying on reading was. Sometimes I’m just bloody-minded and will read to the end regardless of anything else.

I’m coming to the conclusion that Greg Keyes doesn’t like writing series, especially by the time he gets to the last book. ‘Lord of Souls’ rounds off the story begun in ‘The Infernal City’ but I couldn’t escape the feeling that Keyes was literally tied to his desk and forced to write. It’s clear that Keyes’ heart isn’t in it and the story suffers for it.

Five out of Ten

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

‘Marvel Zombies’ – Kirkman, Phillips and Chung (Marvel)

Forget picking up issue two (even though it has the Silver Surfer in it), I might just have to go for the collected editions here...

That worked out well didn’t it...? Yet again I fell foul of a ‘Reading Pile’ jammed full of interesting reads and only so many hours in the day to read them all. Having said that though... Like a zombie slowly but surely chasing down a lone human, I don’t give up that easily and will always get there in the end. I got there in the end with ‘Marvel Zombies’! :o) While Sue was chasing Hope across the park on Sunday, I made the most of the unexpected break to sneak a trade copy of ‘Marvel Zombies’ into the pile of library books that we were taking out for Hope. I had a read when I got home and... wow... Robert Kirkman’s work on ‘The Walking Dead’ has marked him out as a man well qualified to convey the human drama of the zombie apocalypse. I’m not quite sure what ‘Marvel Zombies’ marks him out as but the book was still one hell of a lot of fun to read.

Springing (shambling, lurching?) from the ‘Ultimate Fantastic Four’ series is this offshoot series where the Marvel heroes, don’t forget the villains as well, that we all know have suddenly developed an insatiable craving for human flesh and brains. Don’t ask me how or why. There was something about another dimension but my brain tends to shy away from talk of other dimensions or the more technical details of time travel, especially on a Sunday night...

Any reasons for this behaviour are totally beside the point though. What ‘Marvel Zombies’ is all about is taking your favourite Marvel character and watching him/her do all the kinds of things that you would never normally see them get up to. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite Marvel character but I still had a lot of fun watching them all cope with ‘zombification’ by eating whatever flesh they can lay their hands on. They will eat each other (but only the once) and those zombies with holes in their stomachs (poor Hulk...) will even eat the same bit of flesh over and over again to stave off the hunger. There is an attempt made to get the reader to feel some sympathy for these characters. After all, none of them ever asked to become zombies. The emphasis is more on people getting eaten but this approach does flesh things out in a good way. Spiderman’s angst ridden monologues are there strictly for laughs though and I couldn’t help but chuckle along.

When Kirkman sets his zombie crew up against the big hitters of the Marvel universe (Magneto, the Silver Surfer and Galactus) that’s when the fun starts with Kirkman pulling no punches and Phillips capturing all the gory details. Kirkman ups the ante on almost every other page and you’re left in no doubt as to this. If a Marvel zombie isn’t doing something that you would never dream of seeing his heroic counterpart do... Well, said zombie is probably getting dismembered in any number of disturbing yet humorous ways. You can’t help but laugh at Kirkman’s exuberant ‘anything goes’ storytelling, for me it was ‘Colonel’ America’s disastrous encounter with his own shield and the innovative way in which ‘zombie Red Skull’ takes advantage. If you read this collection then I’d be very surprised if you didn’t have your own favourite death by the very end.

Chuck Wendig’s ‘Double Dead’ recently restored my faith in zombie fiction and ‘Marvel Zombies’ also has to be essential reading for those looking for something fresh and entertaining in their zombie or Marvel reading. Check it out.

More Brandon Sanderson Tour Dates...

Brandon Sanderson just can't help himself can he? The man loves to make use of every second in his day so when he takes a breather from his writing for a couple of seconds (you should always take regular breaks away from your computer screen...) then it's obviously time for a signing tour!
If you can make any of the dates below, try to get Brandon to stop writing and... I don't know... stare at a flower or a puppy for a few moments. The man needs to stop and smell the roses once in a while ;o)

Tuesday 22 November, 2011
12.30pm: Signing
Waterstones, 24-26 High Street, Birmingham B4 7SL

7pm: Talk and Signing
Waterstones, 1/5 Bridlesmith Gate, Nottingham NG1 2GR

Wednesday 23 November, 2011
12.30pm: Signing
Waterstones, Liverpool One, 12 College Lane, Liverpool L1 3DL

7pm: Talk and Signing
Waterstones, 91 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2BW

Thursday 24 November, 2011
12.30pm: Signing
Waterstones, 28-29 High Ousegate, York YO1 8RX

6.30pm: Talk and signing
Waterstones, Edinburgh West End, 128 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 4AD

Friday 25 November 2011
6.30pm: Talk and singing
Waterstones, Emerson Chambers, Blackett Street, Newcastle NE1 7JF

Monday, 21 November 2011

‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ (1957)

I’m quite handy in terms of getting books read but there are literally dozens of DVDs on my shelves that I buy, or receive as gifts, and somehow never get round to watching. The reason behind this is incredibly simple... None of my own DVDs feature any musical numbers and the smallest member of the household absolutely insists on musical viewing otherwise she will turn the television off (we pretty much had to give up on an afternoon viewing of ‘Boston Legal’ the other day’). I really need to find a copy of ‘Repo!’ don’t I...?

Every now and then now (usually after about half seven or eight in the evening), Sue and I get the chance to wrest back control of our own TV and watch something that doesn’t involve dancing and stupid songs (I’m really growing to hate ‘Guys and Dolls’...) We could end up watching anything really and last week it was ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’. It really was a random choice (made with comments along the lines of “it’s a film from the fifties, it’s got to be good for a laugh”) but by the time the end came round neither of us could look away from the screen. The film was so good, in fact, that I went out and bought the book not long afterwards. Check it out, seriously...

An unfortunate turn of events (accidentally dosed with radiation and then accidentally sprayed with insecticide, could happen to anyone) leads Scott Carey to suddenly begin to shrink and no-one knows how to return him to his normal size. As Scott grows smaller his problems only grow bigger as he goes from being a national curiosity to being forced out of his doll’s house home when he is attacked by his own cat. It’s in the cellar though where things suddenly become a matter of life and death. A leaking boiler becomes a raging flood and Scott’s only source of food lies directly under the home of a deadly spider. And Scott is still shrinking...

So, not only a film that I watched the hell out of but a film that prompted me to visit ‘Amazon New & Used’ the following day and pick up the book. Thanks to the Richard Matheson connection, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ may have also nudged me in the direction of re-reading ‘I Am Legend’. Was the film really that good? Yes, yes it was.

Suspend your disbelief and you’ll soon find yourself safely past the slightly vague science behind Scott’s shrinking (to be fair, it was the fifties and radiation could safely be blamed for most things) and into the exploration of how one man fares having everything he holds dear stripped away from him. As his condition progresses, Scott must increasingly rely on his wife to take care of everything for him; a role reversal that almost goes unnoticed but is important nevertheless. Scott is under real pressure here anyway but his complete loss of control can only make things worse and we see Scott gradually become more morose and domineering as a result. Grant Williams’ portrayal of Scott Carey is a little wooden to start off with but cracks in his character hints at rage and despair and I ended up wondering if Williams was as wooden as I’d thought. Williams is actually showing us just how an ordinary man (fully in control of his life) can crack under the pressures of a completely inexplicable event.

The beauty though is that Carey doesn’t crack. Events end up moving far too quickly for this to happen as Carey must suddenly fight to survive in a world that is far too big for him. Events in the cellar are genuinely nerve wracking and the scenes with the spider make for compulsive viewing, absolutely superb stuff.

All credit to the film for not taking the easy way out at the end (don’t want to say too much here for fear of spoilers) and even more credit is due for somehow injecting a note of optimism into a situation that is hopeless for Carey. You’re left with a real sense that Carey’s story hasn’t ended, even though the film has, and it’s hard not to feel a little excited about the journey that awaits him off-screen.

All in all then, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ made for a great way to spend an hour and a bit. Now I need to get on and read the book...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A little bit pricy for me but still undoubtedly very cool indeed – ‘Star Wars: The Blueprints’

I am the wrong guy to come to for reviewing any book that strips away the veneer of a film and gets all technical about what lies underneath. While I love a good story, my eyes will invariably glaze over when the book starts talking about things like production history and how it first did in the box office etc. Even with Star Wars; I love the original films but, on the whole, I just want to watch them instead of learning all the intimate little details that can rob a film of its magic. The books don’t really do it for me; apart from ‘The Making of Star Wars’ (well, what I’ve been able to read so far) and ‘Star Wars: Annotated Screenplays’ that is, they’re worth a look if you haven’t read them already.

This isn’t a review then, not at all. I was only sent a few excerpts from ‘Star Wars: The Blueprints’ but I just couldn’t get through them (having a filthy cold, and a daughter with a filthy cold, certainly didn’t help). It was still worth featuring here though, just because the book is jammed full of pictures such as this,

And this,

(These pictures were an absolute nightmare to get onto the blog so you might need to click on them for more detail...) The downside though? Have a look at the press release below and see if you can spot it... ;o)

From a galaxy far, far away, Lucasfilm and Epic Ink announce the release of the original Star Wars™ blueprints

New York, NY:   This fall, Epic Ink - a new publisher of high-end collectible, limited edition books - bursts onto the publishing scene with STAR WARS: THE BLUEPRINTS by J. W. Rinzler, a first-of-its-kind collection featuring more than 200 of the original production design blueprints created for all six films of the STAR WARS Saga.

STAR WARS blueprints have long been sought after, both by fans and within the narrative. Who can forget the fate of the Bothan spies who died while delivering the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance? Luckily for STAR WARS fans, getting hold of those plans now isn’t quite as dangerous.

The blueprints, filed away until now in the Lucasfilm Archives, are being released for the first time, and will be showcased in a single, epic limited edition featuring more than 500 photographs and illustrations.  Though there have been many art-of STAR WARS books, only a few blueprints - almost always too small to be read - have ever been published. 

The Rebel Blockade Runner hallway, the hold of the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, the Emperor’s throne room, Jabba the Hutt’s Palace, X-wings, TIE fighters, and the Tatooine homestead—all of these places and hundreds more had to be designed, built, painted and dressed, with technical drawings showing the way.

Featured blueprints include:
• The Millennium Falcon
• Droids, including R2-D2
• The Y-wing and the X-wing starfighters
• The Rebel Blockade Runner
• The Cantina
• The Death Star
• The Ewok forest, the battle of Hoth and much more!
“The common thread running through all six of the films was technical drawing—and that will hopefully never change.  Everything every fan has loved about the STAR WARS films, from sets to spacecraft to vehicles to props, down to even the tiniest of control buttons, has at some point been carefully and thoughtfully drawn. That’s how important it is,” says Gavin Bocquet, draftsman on Episode VI and the production designer for Episodes I-III.
Each image was selected by New York Times bestselling author J. W. Rinzler in collaboration with an expert panel of Academy Award®-winning visual effects artists: Dennis Muren, visual effects supervisor for the original STAR WARS trilogy; John Knoll, visual effects supervisor for Episodes I-III; and Lorne Peterson, model shop leader for all six films.

Rinzler delved deep into the archives, revealing the incredible story behind each print while linking them to images of concept design, production models, and film stills.

“The unsung heroes of the art departments are the draftsmen, who drew in collaboration with their art department heads, but who also added their own ideas,” said Rinzler. “Their blueprints have an attribute that concept art lacks—a sense of the real.  It’s been an amazing adventure to bring these blueprints to light after all these years.”

Presented in an oversize folio and housed in a cloth-lined clamshell case, each copy is hand-numbered and only a total of 5,000 English language collector’s volumes will be printed.  The first 125 will be signed by the three surviving Academy-Award® winners for Best Art Direction for the original STAR WARS film: Art Director Norman Reynolds, Art Director Les Dilley and Set Dresser Roger Christian.

This incredible collector’s item also includes interviews with Norman Reynolds, the Academy Award®-winning production designer and art director for the original STAR WARS films, and with Gavin Bocquet, the production designer of Episodes I-III, as well as interviews with Roger Christian, Les Dilley, and supervising art director Peter Russell. 

Also featured are new interviews with many of the original draftsmen, providing more original material about the STAR WARS films and detailing how many facets of the galaxy evolved from concept to blueprint to set to screen. 

STAR WARS fans will enjoy the creativity, innovation and superb quality of this tome as they gain new insights into the very blueprints of the STAR WARS galaxy. And now, STAR WARS fans can also watch a short teaser trailer about STAR WARS: THE BLUEPRINTS on, where they may also pre-order their copy.

• Oversize folio, 15” × 18”, 336 pages, 35 pounds
• Clothbound volume housed in cloth-lined clamshell case
• More than 500 photographs and illustrations
• Ten 45” x 18” gatefolds
• Each copy individually numbered
• The English-language edition of this epic collector’s volume will be limited to 5,000 numbered copies
• Certificate of authenticity
• On-sale November, 2011
• Price: $500.00
• Foreign rights have already been sold to the United Kingdom, France, and Japan.

Anyone here have $500.00 to spend on this book…? ;o)

Saturday, 19 November 2011

What I'm reading right now...

I remember the days (oh happy days!) when I would read one book, finish it, pick up the next one, finish that... and so on. If only things were that simple these days... I’m doing well with ‘Theft of Swords’, by Michael J. Sullivan, as my ‘commute read’. It’s a great story and very easy to read, I’m just over halfway through and I reckon you’ll see a review later next week. When I’m not commuting though, I’m liable to pick up whatever catches my eye and read a few pages here and there. Maybe not the best way to read but that’s where I am right now.

Here are a few books that you will probably see mentioned here over the next two or three weeks. As always, I totally reserve the right to change the list based on whatever shiny cover catches my attention over the weekend...

‘The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories’ – H.P. Lovecraft
This should have been a Halloween read but is still well suited to what is turning out to be a very cold and damp November. It’s surprising how many of these tales I’d actually already read but totally forgotten about, especially seeing how disturbing they are. I’m over halfway through this collection and there hasn’t been a dud story yet.

‘Neuromancer’ – William Gibson
I’ve got a real ‘retro read’ thing going on at the moment and ‘Neuromancer’ fits the bill. It's a re-read but a very welcome one. This book will also henceforth be known as ‘The book I was looking for when I lost Hope in a second hand bookshop...’

‘The Shrinking Man’ – Richard Matheson
Because I watched the film a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it so much that I had to give the book a go. Could be a weekend read this weekend.

‘I Am Legend’ – Richard Matheson
Ignore that cover! ‘I Am Legend’ is always worth a re-read but the Tor paperback has a collection of short stories to go with the main feature (and I read the Gollancz edition there). That’s what I’m interested in this time round.

‘Blood of Aenarion’ – William King
After the week I’ve had at work, you can’t blame me for wanting to read about elves smashing the hell out of monsters with the help of magic swords... can you?

‘Faith and Fire’ – James Swallow
Same deal as ‘Blood of Aenarion’ but substitute the elves for women in power armour carrying big guns. It really has been a nasty week what with one thing and another...

‘The Emperor’s Knife’ – Mazarkis Williams
Blimey, one chapter in and I’ve already found out why it’s a bad thing to be one of the Emperor’s youngest sons when your Dad suddenly dies. Promising stuff this...

Like I said, this list isn’t set in stone by any means (seriously, while I was writing this post I managed to 'somehow' add Adam Christopher's 'Empire State' and Sarah Cawkwell's 'The Gildar Rift' to the pile). If my copy of ‘The Book of the New Sun’ turns up this weekend then that might just change everything; same deal with ‘Alloy of Law’. Which of these books would you like me to review first? And what are you reading right now? I’ve told you what I’m reading so it’s only fair... ;o)

Friday, 18 November 2011

‘Double Dead’ – Chuck Wendig (Abaddon Books)

You all know full well by now that I love a good zombie read just as much as the next man. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that I love a good zombie read even more than the next man... I can’t get enough of the stuff and I’m not going to go into all the reasons why; it’s not like you don’t know them already ;o)

One criticism I will level, at zombie fiction, though is that... well, it’s all the same really isn’t it? It can be as well written as you like (and a lot of it is, click on the ‘zombies’ tag at the bottom of this review and see what I mean) but it really just covers the same thing over and over again. The dead rise, they eat people and the survivors try to make some kind of life for themselves amongst the ruins of the apocalypse (occasionally having to shoot a loved one who has ‘turned’). It’s all well and good but even I find myself wanting a zombie story that’s ‘different’ every now and again. And I’m not just talking about having zombies that run either...
Thank the good Lord for Abaddon Books then, a publisher that I’m already indebted to for their excellent ‘Tomes of the Dead’ series (one of several series that they publish). ‘Tomes of the Dead’ hasn’t failed me yet (well, apart from... actually, no, they’re all good) and the latest instalment carries on in that vein, albeit with exactly the kind of spin I was looking for.

Is there anything worse than being one of the few living people left in a world of zombies? Well, you could be a vampire...
Coburn has been asleep for the last five years and the world he greets upon awakening is far different to the one that he left behind. There’s a lot more zombies for one thing, millions of them. Along with all the usual difficulties associated with a zombie apocalypse Coburn’s need for a constant supply of fresh human blood is about to force him to make some radical lifestyle changes. No longer can Coburn plunder his food supply with no fear of it running out; there aren’t many living humans left at all and Coburn must now protect the ones that he finds on his journey through a shattered America. If the zombies don’t get to his food supply, what’s following him surely will and it’s ten times worse than any zombie...

Thanks for the read Chuck, just when my zombie reads were starting to look dangerously ‘samey’ you came along with a neat little spin that casts the same old stuff in a brand new light that I found myself having to finish off in one sitting. That was just what I was after and I had a hell of a time reading ‘Double Dead’ as a result.

‘Double Dead’ is a deceptively simple little read that weighs in at a ‘slight(ish)’ three hundred and eleven pages. It is full of everything that you would expect from an Abaddon read and it’s all delivered in fine style. We’re talking a dangerously bleak yet surreal post apocalyptic landscape where life can be brutally short if you’re not careful. As such, this landscape is populated by just the kind of people you would expect to thrive in such a setting; bad asses, psychotic cannibals, religious fundamentalists and those poor unfortunates whose only role is to either be killed off (by religious fundamentalists) or eaten by unceasing hordes of zombies. Put all these people together and what have you got? I’ll tell you. Wendig knows only too well that such a combination of people can only result in explosive death and he delivers in a variety of ways, punctuating the narrative with an array of pyrotechnics and death by rotten teeth (I’m not just talking about the zombies either). The result is a rhythm to the plot that can get a little too repetitive but I was more than willing to let that go when things really kicked off and bestial characters went at each other amidst the explosions. You really wouldn’t want to live in Wendig’s post apocalyptic world of zombies, and insane clowns, but it’s all too easy to pull up a seat and let the action wash over you. Wendig has created a zombie infested world that you will enjoy spending time in.

It’s not just a world of zombies though and that’s the beautiful thing about ‘Double Dead’. The introduction of a vampire into the mix throws everything up in the air and, once it all lands; it’s a whole different ball game to what you would expect. Coburn’s plight casts a whole new light on the demands of living through a zombie apocalypse and it felt fresh enough to me that I had to hang around and see what the plot threw up. The problem here is that because Coburn’s primary need is very simple, the plot can only really throw up the same problem (Coburn running out of blood, albeit in a variety of ways) over and over again. Wendig gets round this by making Coburn’s efforts more and more explosive and it does pay off in terms of pushing the plot forward at a frantic rate. Coburn’s development as a character is also worth sticking around for. It’s done so subtly that even Coburn doesn’t know what’s going on but he ends the tale a far different character to the one who began it, a far more sympathetic character than you would at first believe (and he deserves it). Before that point though, Coburn carries the plot forward in true vampire style; a viciously charismatic character powerful enough to do whatever he likes and laugh it off afterwards. What’s interesting to follow is how his attitude doesn’t change, even while the reasons for what he is doing change all the time. ‘Double Dead’ has a ‘stand alone’ feel to it but I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Coburn in the future.

I didn’t realise that my faith in zombie novels was starting to wane but ‘Double Dead’ restored it anyway. There’s something here for both zombie and vampire fans (apart from ‘Twilight’ fans, obviously) and it’s all drenched in blood and entrails.

Nine out of Ten

Thursday, 17 November 2011

‘RUR & War with the Newts’ – Karel Capek (Gollancz)

While I think the jury is still out on whether some of the books, in the SF Masterworks series, are really ‘Masterworks’ I have nevertheless been enjoying the books that I have picked up so far. Really, I have. Check out my reviews Here, Here and Here and see what I mean (‘I am Legend’ is a different edition but does appear in the SF Masterworks series as well). It’s nice sometimes to step back from everything that’s new and shiny to look at the some of the books that have arguably had an influence on the more recent book, don’t you think? :o) I can’t wait for the Fantasy Masterworks series to kick off again next year.
‘RUR’ has actually had a massive influence on science fiction writing but I had no idea of this before I picked the book up. It was the rather gorgeous cover art (seriously, look at it and you might just find you can’t stop looking at it... I need to find a picture with better definition, damn you internet!), and the promise of ‘newt war’, which has had me looking out for this book over the last couple of months. Having read it though, ‘RUR & War with the Newts’ is far more than that. It’s a slim book but one that had me engrossed for several days; I’d give it a go if I were you.

‘RUR’ not only stands for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ but is the play that coined the term ‘robot’ in the first place. That’s pretty impressive however you look at it; I’m sure we would have arrived at the term ‘droid’ eventually but what would we have called them in the meantime...? It’s clear that the genre owes Capek a huge debt for that one word alone but he also gives us a play (three acts and an epilogue) that really gets you thinking at the same time.

‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ is a company producing robots (human figures given life by a synthesized chemical version of protoplasm) that want for nothing and will do whatever they are told. Or do they? More and more robots are suffering strange malfunctions, could this be the start of a new phase of domination over our planet?

You’ve all heard this tale before I’m sure (‘Terminator’ anyone?) but you can’t help but shiver a little when you hear it being told here. The human characters are running with Rossum’s original idea but they have no real idea where it could take them. All they can do is talk about it and they have no idea what it might eventually mean, something that becomes clear when Helena talks to the malfunctioning robot Radius,

Helena: Do you hate us? Why?

Radius: You are not as strong as the robots. You are not as skilful as the robots. The robots can do everything. You can only give orders. You do nothing but talk.

Helena: But someone must give orders.

Radius: I don’t want any master. I know everything for myself.

The human characters are far too busy increasing their own personal wealth (or seeking to marry Helena, they all seem to want to marry Helena) to notice what is happening right under their very noses. There’s a real sense of inevitability about this, all the more so as only the reader can see it coming.
What we have here then is a cautionary tale warning against power being arrived at far too quickly. It’s no coincidence that the human race loses its ability to reproduce once the robots are doing everything and there is nothing left to strive for. Things do end on more of an optimistic note than you would expect though, suggesting that we’re all at the mercy of evolution and being around to see it happen is a real privilege. Those last scenes were really touching.

‘War with the Newts’ has a lot more meat to it, forming the larger part of the book, and this actually casts ‘RUR’ in a very positive light as its sharply delivered message stands up very well to the more drawn out message on display in ‘War with the Newts’. I found the commentary here slightly ponderous at times with the inclusion of passages that came across more like ‘filler’ than anything else. An essay on the sex life of the Newts, for example, was very interesting but didn’t really contribute anything to the ongoing narrative. It was fleshing things out for the sake of it when there was really no need.

That’s the only real issue I had with ‘War with the Newts’ though (apart from the ending, maybe, I’m still not sure about that). As I said right at the start, it was an engrossing read that kept me going for days.

Capek’s irascible character Captain J. Van Toch discovers the only surviving colony of intelligent (and almost man sized) Newts and is quick to realise that their eager willingness to help him hunt for pearls could be translated into other larger business ventures. Before long the Newts have multiplied and fill all the seas of the world, working tirelessly for their human masters. The ensuing ‘Newt Problem’ is dealt with in many ways but it culminates with the Newts realising that their own personal demands far outweigh those of their human masters. That’s when all out war ensues...

The title ‘War with the Newts’ is a bit of a misnomer really seeing as the actual war takes place right at the very end of the book. Or is it? What we’re looking at here is a book about two distinct races trying to get along with just one planet between them. It’s clear that that something has to give and that’s where warfare makes an appearance, albeit in a slightly more subtle way than you would expect. It’s very cleverly done and when Capek gets it right, more often than not, the accompanying essays and newspaper cuttings give the reader a really detailed and compelling picture of events and how cause and effect lead to an inescapable conclusion.

Much is made of ‘War with the Newts’ being written at the time of the rise of Nazism but I for one didn’t really see much of that coming through in the novel itself (although parallels could be drawn with the rise of the Chief Salamander). If anything, it felt like Capek was telling his readers that if you really must subjugate another race then make sure that you do it properly. Don’t teach them to read and give them rights and their own government! More than anything else, it’s humanity’s need to do the decent thing that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Or does it? Capek displays a keen sense of humour throughout the book (no one escapes from his wit) and this comes to a head after the end of ‘Newts’ where he agonises over whether his ending was a little too bleak and without hope. I personally liked it like that (which is why I’m not keen on his decision to backtrack) but it works and that’s the main thing. There is some hope after all.

The superior ‘RUR’ is held back by the sometimes unwieldy ‘Newts’ but together, they both combine to form something that is far greater than either work on their own. Two cautionary (and visionary) tales that show us full well that man is at the top of the evolutionary chain through no real merit of his own.

Nine and a Half out of Ten.

Adam Christopher's 'Empire State', Launch at Forbidden Planet!

From the press release...

ADAM CHRISTOPHER will be reading from and signing his stunning debut novel, EMPIRE STATE (Angry Robot) at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore on Thursday 5th January from 6 – 7pm.

The stunning noir-fantasy thriller set in the other New York. It was the last great science hero fight, but the energy blast ripped a hole in reality, and birthed the Empire State – a young, twisted parallel prohibition-era New York. When the rift starts to close, both worlds are threatened, and both must fight for the right to exist.

“Adam Christopher’s debut novel is a noir, Philip K Dick-ish science fiction superhero story… a novel of surreal resonances, things that are like other things, plot turns that hearken to other plot turns. It’s often fascinating, as captivating as a kaleidoscope… just feel it in all its weird glory.” Cory Doctorow, author of Makers and Little Brother

“Stylish, sinister, and wickedly fun, Empire State is not your average sexy retro parallel universe superhero noir.” Lauren Beukes, Arthur C Clarke Award winning author of Zoo City.

I still need to crack open my copy of 'Empire State' (soon, very soon...) but all being well I'm hoping to be around for this one. How about you?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ – Joan D. Vinge (Tor UK)

I’m ever so slightly worse at getting to the cinema than I am at reading those books that I always mean to get round to so... Did anyone see ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ at the cinema? What did you think? If there was a sequel called ‘Cowboys & More Aliens’ would you go back for seconds...?

For a guy like me, who would much rather be at the cinema than spending the last couple of days clearing up toddler vomit, movie novelizations are an absolute godsend. I may not see it on the big screen but I still get to find out what happened (and at a fraction of the price of a cinema ticket in London). The ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ novelisation had an added attraction, for me, in that it’s written by none other than Joan D. Vinge. Now, the name might not mean an awful lot to you (or it might, I don’t know) but Joan D. Vinge’s novelization of the film ‘Ladyhawke’ was a little bit of storytelling gold for me back when I was a lot younger than I am now. Seriously, I couldn’t get enough of that book when I was a kid (read it once a week at one point, way better than the film in my opinion) so the thought of reading another book by Joan D. Vinge was more than appealing. Not only that but we’re talking about a book where cowboys face off against aliens so I couldn’t lose. Could I...?

It’s New Mexico and its 1875; a stranger has woken up in the desert with no idea of who he is and only a mysterious shackle on his wrist offering any clue. Do the answers lie in the desert town of Absolution? Answers can be found there but they are not the answers that our mysterious stranger would choose, especially when the merciless Colonel Dolarhyde gets involved. That’s beside the point though, something else is waiting in the desert outside Absolution and none of the townspeople are safe. It comes from the sky in a mass of noise and blinding lights, picking off the hapless townspeople and delivering them to an unknown fate; Absolution is living on borrowed time... until our stranger starts to remember just who he is. Now the fight is on between a disparate group of outlaws, Apaches and townsfolk... and something not of this world.

Sometimes I wonder just how easy it really is to write a film novelization. On the one hand all the source material is there, right in front of you, waiting to be written down on paper. All of you have to do is write what you see, that can’t be too hard can it?
On the other hand though... all the source material is there, right in front of you, waiting to be written down on paper. All you can write is what you see, there’s no way you can branch off and do your own thing as it’s not really your property to mess around with in the first place (unless you get lucky and are allowed some leeway). That has to be quite restrictive when you think about it, not an easy set of conditions to write under at all. Joan D. Vinge managed to get round this in ‘Ladyhawke’ by really letting us get into the heads of the main characters and the result, for me anyway, was rather lovely. It didn’t work quite like that this time round though, more's the pity.

That’s not to say that ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is a bad read as such. Joan D. Vinge does a good job of telling the story as it is and makes it a story worth following. The transfer from screen to page is very smooth in this respect with intriguing secrets drawing you into the plot (the big reveal is a little obvious when you finally see it but it’s hidden very well up until that point, one of the advantages of having a main character with amnesia...) and an appropriately harsh and isolated setting providing the ideal backdrop for the aliens to make their entrance. Everything ticks along very nicely, punctuated by the occasional alien attack that raises the tension superbly as the townspeople really have no idea what’s happening. Those alien attacks (throughout the novel as well as the finale) feel as explosive on the page as they must be in the film and I really found myself getting caught up in the excitement and panic on the streets of Absolution.

So what was the problem then?

As fun as the book was to read (and it was loads of fun) the underlying tone was very much along the lines of telling the story exactly as it happened on the screen. You’re probably asking what the big deal is here as surely that means the book was doing the job that it was meant to, right? Well, yes and no.
A ‘this happened, then this happened then the cowboys did this next’ approach probably worked really well on the big screen with all the accompanying pyrotechnics to push things forward in an exciting way. In the book though, the pyrotechnics still did their job but I couldn’t escape the feeling that the plot was a little too straightforward (almost monotonous in a rhythmical sense) to take that next step and really capture the reader’s attention.

I guess I was also a little spoiled by my earlier experience of Vinge’s writing. Quite simply, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is no ‘Ladyhawke’. The book does the job it sets out to do but absolutely no more than that. You can’t blame Vinge for that (she has clearly written the book she was commissioned to) but, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think there was a lot more story to be told though, if only Vinge had been allowed to.

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is entertaining enough but feels a little hollow and half finished at the same time. If I had to choose between reading the book and watching the film... I’d probably go with the film.

Seven and a Half out of Ten

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

‘Laddertop’ – Orson Scott Card, Emily Janice Card & Honoel A. Ibardolaza (Tor Seven Seas)

It was way back when that I started the blog and for a whole load of reasons. One of these reasons was to see if I could expand on my usual ‘liked it’/’didn’t like it’ reactions to books and come up with an analysis that was a bit more detailed at least. The results have varied in the last four and a bit years but one thing I can say is that I’ve always managed to write a little bit more than ‘I liked it’ or ‘I hated it’. A large part of this is down to the fact that I love the genre so much that I can always find something to say but, even then, there are still books out there that will leave me struggling to find the words that express how I feel. Most times this is actually a good thing as it means that I’ve just read something absolutely amazing. Other times though... Well, we’re talking about books like ‘Laddertop’.

Here’s the blurb,

Twenty-five years ago, the alien Givers came to Earth. They gave the human race the greatest technology ever seen— four giant towers known as Ladders that rise 36,000 miles into space and culminate in space stations that power the entire planet. Then, for reasons unknown, the Givers disappeared. Due to the unique alien construction of the Laddertop space stations, only a skilled crew of children can perform the maintenance necessary to keep the stations up and running.

Back on Earth, competition is fierce to enter Laddertop Academy. It is an honor few students will achieve. Robbi and Azure, two eleven-year-old girls who are the best of friends, are candidates for the Academy. They will become entangled in a dangerous mystery that may help them solve the riddle of the Givers...if it doesn’t destroy the Earth first!

Usually, I’ll write my own blurb but ‘Laddertop’ left me feeling so apathetic that I couldn’t even do that. You’ll have to settle for some ‘copy and paste’ action today I’m afraid... Seriously, we’re talking about a book that failed to engage me on any level here.

The thing is though; the blurb looks quite interesting doesn’t it? There’s a definite ‘Harry Potter in Space’ vibe going on there; I also like the occasional Manga read so thought I’d give it a go. The thing about ‘Laddertop’ though is that it’s a Manga with all the good stuff stripped right out (and that ‘Harry Potter’ vibe gets a little tired after a while).

What I love in my Manga is artwork that really captures who a character is and a storyline that lets you get right inside their head. ‘Laddertop’s’ artwork is functional, to say the least, and the same goes for the plot. You will get an idea of what the story about but don’t expect to make any great connections with the characters. Everything is presented to you in a very ‘X happened and because X happened, Y followed...’ style with nothing really going on underneath. The friendship between Robbi and Azure (and what they must face) holds no surprises whatsoever and is a lot more superficial than the writers would have you believe. I could see what was going to happen and ended up turning the pages through habit rather than anything else.

The idea of the ‘Givers’ was interesting enough and there is a mystery to be solved but neither of these themes are enough to get me back for the next volume based on what I read. Fans of Orson Scott Card might get something out of this and if you’re after some, incredibly light, Manga then this might do the job for you as well. Me though, I’m bailing out here.

Turns out that I had a lot more to say than I thought :o)

Four and a Half out of Ten

Odds and Ends of News...

I had a little 'post holiday purge' of my email inbox, yesterday, and came up with the bits and pieces below. Check em' out (and apologies if you've seen these already)...

Max Brooks’ blockbuster novel WORLD WAR Z, the definitive chronicle of “The Zombie Wars,” crosses 1 million copy sold threshold.

NEW YORK, November 10, 2011 – Max Brooks’ novel, WORLD WAR Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, has now sold more than 1 million copies in print and digital formats combined. The milestone was announced today by Tina Pohlman, VP, Publisher, Trade Paperbacks, Crown Publishing Group.

Paramount Pictures will be releasing the film WORLD WAR Z starring Brad Pitt on December 21, 2012.

Originally published in hardcover in September 2006, WORLD WAR Z has appeared on the hardcover, paperback and mass market New York Times bestseller lists for a combined total of 62 weeks. Brooks’ previous title, THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE, a pop culture classic originally published in 2003, has now sold almost 1.4 million copies.

Brooks, a former writer for Saturday Night Live, said about his bestselling novel: “With this book, I wanted to answer some of the questions I'd already had about a global zombie pandemic; How would our government react? How would other countries’ governments react? And what would ordinary citizens around the world do to survive? For me, zombies are a great way to explore how we, as an entire planet, respond to the threat of extinction.”

So that's just over a million people who will survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse then :o) I've got my copy (reviewed Here), how about you?


November 10, 2011 (New York, NY)— INHERITANCE, the fourth and final installment in Christopher Paolini’s #1 bestselling Inheritance cycle, has achieved the highest first-day sale in 2011 of any fiction or non-fiction, adult or children’s title published this year in the U.S. and Canada, it was announced today by Chip Gibson, President & Publisher, Random House Children’s Books. The conclusion to Paolini’s epic saga went on sale in North America on Tuesday, November 8th, and sold a staggering 489,500 copies in print, digital, and audio formats. Hardcovers dominated the opening-day sell-through for INHERITANCE, with an 83/17% print to digital split.

“This is both a thrilling and gratifying end to a wonderful journey that began more than a decade ago,” said Paolini. “I could have never imagined that the Inheritance cycle would become what it has, and I’m grateful to the fans for their continued support and enthusiasm. I look forward to seeing them in person on my tour this month, but most of all, I hope they enjoy the book!”

Is this series still going? I thought Darth Vader died ages ago... Sorry, I'm still a little resentful about the hour and a bit of my life, that I spent watching the 'Eragon' movie, that I'll never get back ;o) Whatever you think of the books that's a fair number of copies to shift so a tip of the cap goes to Mr Paolini. I did receive a review copy but, seeing as I haven't read the previous two books, don't expect to see a review here.


November 9, MILWAUKIE, OR—Caitlín R. Kiernan is the author of numerous works of dark fantasy and science fiction, including nine novels, several comic-book series (including Sandman spinoff The Dreaming), and over two hundred published short stories and novellas. Now, she brings her tales to the land of Dark Horse Comics.

Alabaster is based on Caitlín R. Kiernan’s fan-favorite Dancy Flammarion stories, a dark fantasy series centered around a female teenage protagonist of striking appearance and hidden, terrible depths. For nearly as long as she can remember, seventeen-year-old Dancy Flammarion has fought monsters, cutting a bloody swath through the demons and dark things of the world, aimed like a weapon by a merciless seraph, more taskmaster than guardian.

Part continuation, part reimagining, the series begins with Dancy making and breaking an oath in the name of her seraph, who subsequently abandons her. Injured and alone, Dancy has to find her own way for the first time in her life—and the wolves are closing in.

Alabaster will first appear in Dark Horse Presents #9 (on sale February 22, 2012), followed by the five-issue miniseries Alabaster: Wolves, which throws readers into Dancy’s world with a bang, strips away her seraph, and introduces the two characters who will become her long-term supporting cast. Alabaster: Wolves #1 is on sale April 11, 2012.

Alabaster features artwork by Eisner Award–nominated artist Steve Lieber and cover art by Greg Ruth!

So, it looks like Niall was right :o) Nice work there sir! I'm always looking for new comics to read so I'll keep an eye open for this one. Anyone here read the books?