What I’ve Been Reading #1

I post a lot on twitter but the only books I’ve ended up blogging about recently are ones I’ve finished writing reviews for.  By only posting reviews I  miss out talking about the ones I’ve been dipping into or not got around to reviewing formally. So, I’m going to have a go at  writing about the other books; books that are coming up or books which take my fancy, and see how that works out.

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First up is The Innocence of Father Brown. I’ve only managed to read the first story so far and, to be fair, I was a little bit unconvinced by the farcical nature of it. That was until we got properly introduced to Father Brown at the end. I’m looking forward to reading more.

Speaking of classic crime I’m about a third into The Crime at Black Dudley, it’s my first Margaret Allingham and my introduction to her detective Albert Campion. As so often with her contemporaries she’s using another guest to be the eyes of the investigation and giving an outsiders view of Campion. It’s not the most flattering view though that’s more telling of the narrator than the character of Campion.

I’ve just finished Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan, it’s another first, and it joins Jingo by Terry Pratchett and The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs on the to-be-reviewed pile. I will say of Thief’s Magic that I did and didn’t enjoy it. It’s trying to be different, with a different take on heroes and fantasy worlds and magic but it used two contrasting threads that make it hard to get the weave right and I struggled a bit with the comparison. The ending though is a proper cliffhanger for both characters involved.

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A background fascination in my reading is going back into science fiction’s past. Luckily the SF Gateway makes that such an easy task. For example, I was reading the introduction to In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight, which collects his critical writing from 1950-60-ish, and it mentions the Science-Fiction Handbook by  L. Sprague De Camp & Catherine Crook De Camp. Now in the past, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t have bother tracking down a second-hand copy but a couple of clicks later and there it was, ready to be read. The thing about the De Camp book is it contains an essay giving lots of thought into the embryology of science fiction pre-1900 and it’s something I’d never had read without the SF Gateway, so hats off to them. I’m still working my way through both books but greatly enjoying them.

The last book to mention is my unintentional rereading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It might have been seeing the new covers from last year in the shops a couple of weeks ago, which put the idea in the back of my mind, or maybe it’s just one of those things. Anyway, I bought the ebook when Pottermore was first available to test out the online shop and see how it integrated with Amazon (it worked flawlessly btw) but not got round to reading it. I was looking over the books on my kindle trying to figure out my next ebook (I try and keep one paper novel and one electronic novel on the go) and I wondered if it would still be any good so many years later. The answer to that question is YES. Especially as I’m easily over half-way and really want to stay with Harry until the end of this book, though I might have read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soon after.

That’s my reading, what about you?

All Change? Official Hello

I come from  the generation of teenagers that emerged just as the internet was becoming accessible. My first online connection at 16 was via telephone modem dial-up, meaning a file the size of an MP3 song would take the 30 minutes to download. It also cost you money for every minute you were connected. It’s now something we take for granted.

I also grew up in a place where my only source of books were the shelves in  a small town Smiths or the library, both of which provided a good starting point but it took the reviews in SFX magazine to help me find what I liked as a 16 year old SF reader.  Being able to order books to be delivered, thought Smiths charged me a £1 every time, meant I was a little wider read. Again, now knowing about the ‘right’ books, and having (relatively) cheap and ready access is something easily taken for granted.

I was one of the first wave of book bloggers to get publishers to take the idea of using passionate readers to promote books seriously. Up until then you had to be review  for ‘traditional  media’ and for me that started with poetry magazines before leaping ahead a few years to the student union newspaper (I went to uni later than my peers, which is a story for another time). In the middle (2000-2004)  I had reviewed Tarot cards (another story for another time) for websites and had received review copies of  products so it wasn’t impossible but it wasn’t something publishers did.

Now, of course, book bloggers are seen as an engaged community who are embraced by publishers to spread new, and recently republished, books into the hands of readers, so again it’s now taken for granted that there are such things as book bloggers.

I couldn’t now imagine a world without the internet, nor can I imagine a world without being able to download a book instantly (though I really should restrain myself as it’s way too convenient ) and I couldn’t imagine a world without a book blog. I have tried but I always find my way back.

I’ve run a few of them: NextRead.co.uk was the first; followed by GavReads.co.uk; with a sidetrack to NoClocksAllowed.com; and now I’m focused on CwtchBooks.com. It’s a kind of evolution of my thinking about book blogging. The first was to look ‘professional’ (remember it was the days of not being taken ‘seriously’), the second was more personal, the sideline was an attempt to widen the view of fantasy and science fiction, and Cwtch Books is going to be me occasionally inviting other readers to talk about books, as well as the usual reviews and comment pieces (something I’ve not done for ages). But mostly I’m aiming to be more relaxed and chatty about the books I’m surrounded by.

That’s a very long way of saying, officially, welcome to Cwtch Books. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Audiobook Review: The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan (2014)

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The Dark Defiles is final book of the A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It’s also the longest. The audiobook comes in at an impressive twenty-four hours. That’s a lot of story-time though in pages it comes in at 560, so not a doorstopper of a book, but it does allow Morgan space to explore the consequences of the first two books (The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands). The problem for this reviewer is that I can’t talk about most of it without ruining the efforts that Morgan has gone through to create a series of ‘oo’, ‘ah’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hell yes’ moments.

What I can say is that as an ending to an unconventional tale of heroism Morgan manages to keep control and place the reader in the right place but not until right at the end. Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and kir-Archeth Indamaninarma are definitely back to finish their respective fates.

The narrative is that Archeth has to recover a fallen Helmesman who delivers a warning which sets the trio on a state-sponsored, though mostly privately-financed, mission on the seas far away from home and from there nothing goes quite to plan.

If you’ve read the earlier two books then you’ll know that Ringil and Archeth make unconventional heroes. One is a deviant and outcast and the other is an immortal half-blood abandoned to life amongst the humans. Egar  is the nearest you’ll get to a traditional hero but he more the glue that binds Ringil and Archeth than a hero in his own right. Unlike in The Cold Commands he doesn’t gets his own thread here.

Fate is important as Morgan plays with the idea of perspective. The Grey Places,  where Ringil the Dark-Mage-in-the-making often visits, are timeless and adds a long view perspective which would be missing otherwise, another is (and this is a slight spoiler) that in their absence war is declared, like I said nothing goes to plan. So while we are following a quest of three people they are a nexus to which bigger events are rippling outwards from and reaching towards and spectacularly  colliding.

Morgan is intentionally setting out to take the model of Standard Epic Fantasy© and dismantling it before putting it back together again in his own way. By doing that it feels fresh but won’t alienate people who expect certain things from  Standard Epic Fantasy© like heroes and quests and swords.

Oh the swords, and another mild spoiler, there is another sword which isn’t the Ravensfriend. I like magical swords ever since I read about Elric and his soul-stealing sword the Stormbringer. Morgan definitely gives a nod to that concept on more than one occasion here

But it’s not completely without an injection of technology, as the Kiriath, Archeth’s people who abandoned her, it and the Helmsman to a fate without them. What the technology is ultimately useful for remains unclear but it does have its uses. For example, it resurrects one of the minor characters, making them creeping and disturbing from then on.

Thinking about it The Dark Defiles is an unsettling read. It has lots of disturbing moments, which aren’t in themselves shocking considering the grim nature of the world and the characters, but they culminate, and gain resonance – as mentioned the ripples go out as well as in and they colide at interesting times in interesting ways.

I’m going to restrain from a spoiler to illustrate the point but I was reading another story where one of the characters had said they’d never pick up a gun but at the end circumstances force them to hold and to fire such a weapon. But lets just say that circumstances (or fate) can lead you places you’d never willingly travel.

And that is the heart of A Land Fit For Heroes. You don’t know what you’ll do or where you’ll go until you’re forced into a corner and you have to make a choice. It is also about doing the unexpected when those choices are presented, about defying expectations and about being ‘human’.

I do have a few niggles, mostly with the use of time and how realistic that it is as a timeline for some events mentioned in recent history and the likelyhood for them to be actually  be ‘real’ given the timescales of other things but I can forgive that element of doubt as it’s a story about stories and the myths we create for ourselves. And I guess I’m using that as an excuse to brush those observations out of mind and out of sight.

The other things to mention are the pace and scale. In terms of pace as it is longer Morgan has given us an epic world-crossing tale and we follow characters across a map and even though it’s not a criticism it might help manage your expectations. The other is that it doesn’t build in scale. There are armies but there aren’t two armies on battefields screaming at each other. It’s much quieter than that, which is what I meant about leaving the reveal of the outcome until the very end. It’s frustratingly teasing, surprising and right.

Finally,  as I listened to the audiobook, I’d be remiss not to mention the acting skills of Simon Vance who again did a marvellous job of keeping all the characters sounding different, creepy, and alive.

The Dark Defiles is a masterful end to a rebuilding of the  Standard Epic Fantasy© Model during A Land Fit For Heroes though I’d give anything for an epilogue, even a little one.

Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2015)

Signal to Noise

There are books that when you first hear about them excite and tease you, though if, like me, you’ve heard about them months before they come out that excitement can fade, mostly because other books get in the way, but some things do stay around with Signal to Noise it was the trio of music, and magic and Mexico which stuck, and that is a pretty good summary of its hook.

Meche is a fifteen year old girl who uses music to mask out the world around her. The love of music is inherited from her father but it’s with her two friends, Sabastian and Daniela, where her passion takes a more practical and disturbing turn when she discovers how to make music weave magic, and we’re witness to how magic doesn’t really make things better.

Moreno-Garcia goes back and forth between Mexico in a 2009 present and 1998 past as she shows us the lasting effect of the earlier events. She doesn’t linger too long in either and makes both interesting enough that you’re happy to get back to either time frame. She also uses the past to confuse and foreshadow present.

You see Meche’s journey as she burns through her friends and witness the breakdown of her relationship with her family at the same time as seeing that it’s unfinished business she may have tried to leave behind but can’t now avoid dealing with.

You know that’s where the first half of the tale ends up pretty quickly because that is how the present section starts but it’s what happens next and why that makes it more interesting.

As an adult you can’t help thinking back to your earlier self and seeing how you laid tracks to the present and wondering if you could change things what would you change? But Meche has no such regrets. Though there is a scene with her grandmother, that we see as an audience, which if Meche had witnessed would, I think, fill her with a lot of remorse.

Even though this story is full of teenage anxieties and issues I’m reluctant to label it as YA because of the effect it had on this adult reader. The power of using those formative events is that emotion is simpler and more intense, which works in its favour, though this could be seen as simplistic if you’re expecting a more nauanced exploration.

Brought together because they’re unhip gives an awkwardness and a camaraderie to Meche, Sebastian and Daniela but it’s more than that because Meche is a leader and Sebastian has a unacknowledged crush on Meche and with Meche confused by her own feelings then Daniela playing go between the two. It’s teenageness in a microcosm.

As for the music, I’d be surpised if Moreno-Gracia hasn’t got her own passion there. The various melodies resonate as you read and the author makes the point that what is obvious isn’t always the most effective.

Back to the magic. Does it make things better? Not really.

At the heart this novel are dysfunctional relationships; with Meche at 15 and 36 dealing with the effect of her father and how she is and was with her friends plus it illustrates effectively how we do, but mostly don’t, change.

Signal to Noise is a great debut that uses music and magic to bring something a little different to the exploration and struggles of teenage years.

Review: The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is the second published case of the Indian detective Vish Puri.

Early one Delhi morning a 20-foot vision of the Goddess Kali appears to a morning session of the therapeutic Laughing Club who then proceeds to strike one of their members dead before vanishing into thin air.

There is much to love about Hall’s quirky detective. The most immediate is the pet names he gives to his employees. He names them with wry mix of the jobs they do for him and their personality traits. For example, we have Hanbrake (his driver), Facecream (who works undercover), and Tubelight (as he spends most of his time in the dark).

But the cast doesn’t end there. It is truly a family affair with Puri’s mother getting herself involved in her own mystery and this time drags along Puri’s wife. There is a warmer feeling to this series because of the lively secondary characters which you don’t find in most detective novels.

Hall gives insight into Indian culture and beliefs as Puri sets out to disprove that a Goddess can actually manifested but this brings him into conflict with a Guru who has the ear of the Prime Minister. And Puri has then has another disturbing mystery to solve.

It’s fast-paced and it’s pleasurable watching Puri’s clue-hunting, bartering and sleuthing as he talks to all aspects of Indian society to get to the bottom of what actually happen.

Hall seems to be having fun not only with Puri’s quirky, but extremely effective, ways but also complicating his life with his Mother and Wife sticking their noses around the place in the hunt of clues of their own.

The cover quotes a reviewer calling, ‘Puri the Indian Poirot’ and but it’s not Poirot dropped into India it’s more a what if Porit was Indian, though Puri himself is always reference Holmes, though not always in a endearing way.

It has everything I love in a modern ‘cosy crime’ novel. A quirky cast of characters, mysteries which are actually mysterious and an investigation with entertaining twists and turns.

It’s really hard not to enjoy this book and I can’t wait to read The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken.

Review: The Three by Sarah Lotz

thethreesarahlotz.jpgI finished reading The Three the same day as the horrendous air-crash in Germany, and seeing the events unfold on TV. Because of the intensity of Sarah Lotz’s horror thriller I had emotional connection to the unfolding news I would never have expected. The Three is as much an exploration of effects of a life changing event as it is a creepy, twisting mystery.

The first thing you notice is the structure. Lotz has put a fictionalised real-life non-fiction book, Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy, inside her novel with only two framing chapters to let you know it’s a fiction.

It starts with four plane crashes with three of those flights having a sole surviving child collectively called The Three by the media. The opening ‘framing’ chapter provides us with a warning that fuels the events rest of novel. Then we are introduced to the ‘author’ before starting on the mix of interviews, transcripts and extracts which make up the rest of the book.

What’s immediately clear is that Lotz has a talent for not only characterisation but voice. Each segment has its own feel and style. There is a tangible change in tone as we swap back and fore between the different ‘evidence’ which make up The Three.

Lotz weaves four main narratives. Three following the journey of those closet to the surviving children as their families find out that they are not quite the same about the children they were before. They act out of character. The fourth deals with a message recorded by Pamela May Donald and the person who hears it.

That’s a thread that’s better left to be experienced though it does involve the theme of religion and how power and religion aren’t always too far away from each other. I’m mentioning it as this thread has an implication which in the end Lotz underplays.

Maybe knowing there was a sequel, especially being aware of where it is to be set, subtly changed the way I read The Three. Not in a big way. I think I spotted the occasional reference to events in the sequel and I paused to ponder where the next book might go.

But I wonder if this had been a one-off book if Lotz would have risked making some elements bigger and bolder rather than leaving the lingering feeling she was holding something back?

This one ends cleverly so I really need to know how Sarah Lotz is going to tackle the next one, especially if it’s have the same format, and why is it called Day Four?

Thank You Terry Pratchett, RIP

Last Thursday I saw a tweet which confused and worried me:

And then I saw three tweets which broke me:  1/3

2/3

3/3

And the most I can manage at the moment is to share my own tweet:

Thank you Terry Pratchett.

Awards: The Kitschies 2014

The Kitschies reward the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic. Now in our sixth year, we are proud to be sponsored by Fallen London, the award-winning browser game of a dark and mysterious London, designed by Failbetter Games.

The Kitschies’ 2014 finalists were selected from 198 submissions, from over 40 publishers and imprints. Congratulations to all who made the shortlists, and thanks to everyone who submitted a title for consideration.

2014 FINALISTS

The Red Tentacle (Novel)

  • Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Egmont)
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (Viking)
  • The Way Inn, by Will Wiles (4th Estate)
  • The Race, by Nina Allen (NewCon Press)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut)

  • Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
  • Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (Self-Published)
  • The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art)

  • The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, design by Steve Marking, lettering by Kimberly Glyder (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming, cover by Ben Summers (Hodder and Stoughton)
  • Through the Woods, cover by Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
  • The Book of Strange New Things, cover by Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
  • Tigerman, cover by Glenn O’Neill (William Heinamann)

The Invisible Tentacle (Natively Digital Fiction)

  • echovirus12, created/curated by Jeff Noon @jeffnoon, Ed @3dgriffiths, James Knight @badbadpoet, violet sprite @gadgetgreen, Richard Biddle @littledeaths68, Mina Polen @polen, Uel Aramchek @ThePatanoiac, Graham Walsh @t_i_s_u, Vapour Vox @Wrong_Triangle
  • Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, by Cardboard Computer
  • 80 Days, by Inkle Studios
  • Sailor’s Dream, by Simogo

Learn more about this year’s judging panels.

Now here is a shortlist to get excited about I especially want to read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as it is self-published also the The Invisible Tentacle makes a lovely edition to the categories.

Updated with the winners:

The winner of the Kitschies Red Tentacle for 2014 was Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Electric Monkey). Judge Kim Curran said, “We loved all the shortlist, and Grasshopper Junglewas, in the end, the novel with the biggest chance to actually blow a young person’s mind.”

The Golden Tentacle for debut went to Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape). The judges noted the audacity and craft of the novel.

The Inky Tentacle for cover art went to Tigerman, cover by Glenn O’Neill (William Heinemann)

Our first-ever Invisible Tentacle for natively digital fiction went to Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, by Cardboard Computer.

2014 Locus Recommended Reading List

This Recommended Reading List, published in Locus Magazine’s February 2015 issue, is a consensus by Locus editors and reviewers:

— Liza Groen Trombi, Gary K. Wolfe, Jonathan Strahan, Faren Miller, Russell Letson, Graham Sleight, Adrienne Martini, Carolyn Cushman, Tim Pratt, Karen Burnham, Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, Paul Kincaid, and others — with inputs from outside reviewers, other professional critics, other lists, etc. Short fiction selections are based on material from Jonathan Strahan, Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, Lois Tilton, Ellen Datlow, Alisa Krasnostein, and Paula Guran with some assistance from Karen Burnham, Nisi Shawl, and Mark Kelly.

Essays by many of these contributors, highlighting their particular favorite books and stories, are published in the February issue. –

http://www.locusmag.com/Magazine/2015/02/2014-locus-recommended-reading-list/

2014 had a lot of good speculative fiction published in all categories. Click on the above list and discover something you’ve missed.