Thursday, 30 June 2011

Guest Blog! Adam Baker (Author of 'Outpost')

I reviewed the apocalyptic 'Outpost' last week (link Here) and couldn't put it down; the only reason I put it down is because it eventually came to an end. I wanted more though and thought it would be interesting to ask Adam if he wouldn't mind contributing a guest post about... you guessed it... the Apocalypse. I gave Adam free rein to address this one however he wanted and the end result was, well... check it out. There's certainly a great deal of food for thought here. Pardon the formatting, my computer had its own little apocalypse...

Perspectives of the Apocalypse.
Is there a coming apocalypse? Will the sun go out? Will the Earth be swallowed in darkness? Of course. It will happen to each of us in turn. A personal doomsday. We will endure our own individual Armageddon while lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by drip stands and ECGs, while the bustling world beyond our hospital room continues regardless. This, surely, is the root of the horror genre. Beneath the hyperbolic entertainment, the hoards of vampires, aliens and zombies, is a pre-occupation with mortality. Horror stories might be categorised as fantasy, but they demonstrate a clear-eyed appreciation of our precarious position in the world that plenty of supposedly realistic genres ignore.



Doomsday fiction thrives during times of catastrophe. The archetypal pandemic tale, Daniel Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, was written in 1722. It is a fictional account of The Great Plague of London, however the events it describes (mass graves, mass suicides, an exodus to the countryside) were still within living memory. Dafoe’s novel is often treated as oral history.


The big-daddy of science fiction cataclysm, HG Well’s War of the Worlds, was also written during a time of existential threat. War of the Worlds was published in 1898. It was part of a phenomenon that came to be known as ‘invasion literature’, a body of popular fiction created during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrating a preoccupation with invasion from abroad. This was a period that saw a rapid expansion of German naval power, a threat reflected in novels like The 39 Steps, Dracula, and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.


In fact one can track the ebb and flow of western paranoia over the years by examining various productions of War of the Worlds. The original novel was published during the slow slide into the First World War. The second notable production, Orson Welles’ classic radio drama, was broadcast on Halloween 1938, and reflected a US fear of foreign attack borne out by the bombing of Pearl Harbour three years later. The 1953 movie was released in the dying months of the Korean War and was saturated with nuclear paranoia. The film featured the use of atomic weapons to repel the Martian invaders, and the central character was re-cast as a Manhattan Project scientist. The 2005 Steven Spielberg version added post-9/11 imagery. The movie featured dialogue references to terrorism and added a lengthy sequence involving a crashed passenger jet.


Dafoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year and HG Wells’ War of the Worlds both share a similar perspective. They are both stories of ‘little guy’ protagonists struggling to stay alive in a world gone to hell. The protagonist of Dafoe’s novel is a young man attempting to flee plague-ridden London and find refuge in nearby countryside. The hero of War of the Worlds is a London journalist struggling to survive the anarchic chaos of invasion and locate his wife. Both novels pre-figure the rash of found-footage POV movies which have become a standard feature of the apocalyptic genre, for example Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, The Last Broadcast, Cannibal Holocaust, and Rec.


This spate of found-footage movies is, of course, largely driven by technology. Narratives like Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead and Rec are only possible because the protagonists have access to light-weight digital camcorders. And we have been trained to accept this kind of shakey, poorly-focused subjective camerawork by news bulletins. The recent Japanese tsunami was considerably smaller than a massive tidal wave which swept across the Indian Ocean in 2004 and killed a quarter of a million people. Yet the Japanese flash-flood made a much greater impression on the global psyche. The reason is obvious. A combination of CCTV footage and camera-phone clips captured astonishing images of the tidal surge as it washed across Japan. Years ago, this event would be relegated to a paragraph in the foreign news section of a newspaper. But, thanks to cameras and social networks, we find ourselves on the streets, experiencing terror and confusion as the disaster unfolds around us. Similarly, the current civil war in Libya would, in times past, been consigned to the mid-section of a broadsheet newspaper. But thanks to mobile phone footage, we find ourselves sharing the dusty streets with placard-waving rebels, witnessing the bullet-strikes, blood and screaming.


This represents a welcome shift of perspective.


Compare two alien invasion disaster movies. Independence Day (1996) and Cloverfield (2008).


Independence Day was made during the complacently prosperous nineties. We have a God’s-eye view of the action. We follow the major players in an alien attack: scientists, generals, fighter pilots, the president himself. They defeat the alien invaders in a cathartic air-punch series of explosions. This wish-fulfilment is fun, but ultimately bogus. We know, deep down , that the cheap, implausible victory does not reflect the reality of life. The idea that the hero can defeat an entire race of aliens is an essentially a childish daydream of omnipotence and invincibility.


We instinctively understand, when we watch Cloverfield, that the reality of a disaster situation is chaos, panic and indecision. The hero of Cloverfield is an unremarkable guy struggling to survive in a city gone to hell. He is one of the crowd. He, like the narrator of War of the Worlds, is simply trying to cross a ravaged landscape and reach his partner. He has no hope of defeating the alien invader. He just wants to save his girlfriend and get to safety.


This, ultimately, is the great lesson of apocalyptic fiction. End-of-the-world stories are tales of tenacity and Stoicism. Skyscrapers topple, city populations are reduced to ravening undead, heroes face-down on-rushing death. Our lives may seem humdrum in comparison, but we wrestle similar anxieties. We may not battle zombies every day or navigate streets filled with smoking rubble, but we confront our own mortality each time we look in the bathroom mirror and inspect slackening skin and greying hair. Every human life is a story of disaster postponed.


A dark fate awaits us all.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Guest Blog! Jon Steele (author of 'The Watchers')

I've been dipping in and out of my copy of 'The Watchers' these last few days and what I'll say is that I haven't been able to get into the whole 'Angel' sub-genre... until now. I'm only a few chapters in but there is a lot to recommend 'The Watchers' already (I'd give you a blurb but the only one I could find was one line long, pick up the book instead). There was enough, in fact, for me to get in touch with Jon's publicist and see if Jon would like to write a guest post about how life pointed him in the direction that eventually produced this novel. See what Jon had to say below, quite possibly the most honest guest blog I've had the fortune to feature here...

So how does a guy from the high plains of Montana, who got through high school with damn near a straight D-minus average, then grew up to work as a news cameraman for British TV and travelled and worked in more than seventy countries across six continents (spending more time than he should have along the frontlines of some of the world’s more shit-hole places) end up writing a mystical-noir thriller about the last of the good angels hiding out in Lausanne Cathedral?


Step One: whilst in Baghdad on the day the war begins, he puts his camera on the ground and quits.

Step Two: he hides out in a small village in the south of France and takes long walks in quiet places. Drinks lots of wine, smokes enough dope to kill an elephant.

Step Three: drifts to Lausanne, Switzerland and drives by the cathedral as the bells ring the hour one night, and sees the shadow of a man in the belfry with a lantern moving around the tower and calling the hour over the sleeping town. And then, suddenly, he knows there is a story in his head, a story that pulls together all the disparate threads of a life lived around the world, a life that served as witness to violence and death visited upon tens of thousands of innocent human beings; a life now struggling with depression and post traumatic stress disorder… a life desperate for some truth or myth or legend, or just a story to answer the question: why is the world such a fucked-up place?

Then there’s Steps Four through One-Billion.

See, I grew up Catholic, with a capitol ‘C.’ My life was nuns and priests and Catholic schools. I learned to recite the Mass in Latin and served as an altar boy, the one very one who carried the cross at the head of processions and rang the bells during the consecration of the Holy Eucharist. I believed that bread and wine was transubstantiated into actual blood and flesh of Jesus Christ. I spent many lunch hours during grade school in the chapel on my knees begging for a sign from Jesus dying on the cross or the statue of Mary, or one of the saints. I would work myself into hypnotic and babbling states of true faith. Through the nights of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, I kept all-night vigils in the sacristy, where the tabernacle was left open to view the consecrated Eucharist. Jesus had been abandoned by most of his followers, he had been tortured and crucified and buried… I did not want Jesus to be alone in his tomb again. I wanted to be a priest, I wanted to care for the forgotten and heal the world.

But it didn’t work out.

First came rock and roll, then came sex, then drugs. By the ripe old age of twenty-two, I was living in New York, divorced with a four-year-old son and living with a woman who liked to pack my nose with cocaine and say things like, ‘Wouldn’t OD’ing on coke be the most beautiful way to die?’ She was the absence of light in my life and I was crazy about her. Mixed in was working as a postman (think Charles Bukowski on speed), a janitor in a primary school (think the guy with a mop in the Nirvana video), and a liquor store (think the faceless shop clerk you couldn’t remember it your life depended on it).

I liked working in the liquor store best. It was a night job and I could smoke joints and sell Mad Dog 20/20 to the bums who’d collected enough spare change to buy it by the pint. I didn’t really have a place to live so I slept on cases of whiskey and bathed myself as best I could in a sink the size of a lunchbox. Best part was reading books, lots of books, and listening to WNEW-FM every night in the days when FM radio was the real thing and not the mindless juke-box it is today. Jonathan Schwartz (he could segue from Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly with Me’ into Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levy Breaks’ without skipping a beat) and Allison Steele (the Nightbird who opened every program with poetry and an invitation to sail away to a place of wonderful dreams) became my imaginary friends. They ventured deep into albums, read poetry and prose, talked to me and only me, enlightening me with the great cosmic message, ‘We’re all reaching for something, man, and the truth is it’s already here, now. Just open your eyes.’ They had ordained me into the priesthood of the airwaves.

I had my mission. I went West, lied my way into a job at the KBCO-FM in Boulder. I worked six to ten in the evenings. I did my best to spread the word. I got good ratings and had a pretty big following. Then I got fired, and was without a job for two years. I wound up in Washington, DC and lied my way into another job. This one with ITN, London. Started off as a soundman, became a cameraman, then an editor. And then came a life I never could have dreamed. A wrote about it all in a book called, War Junkie - a life I can’t talk about anymore, unless it’s with someone I shared a dangerous road with, or a ditch, or a moment of fear, of horror. And that’s where these words began.

Now here I am, with a novel called The Watchers - the first installment of a trilogy, with the second book to be titled, Angel City, and the third, The Way of Sorrows.

Some people call it ‘fantasy fiction’. I take that as a fine compliment, though it’s not what I intended. If anything I was looking for Raymond Chandler does The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But as these things go, the characters took me down a different path.

But is fantasy is trying to hold on to that shred of light that you have seen extinguished in the eyes of the innocent all over the world, then fine, it’s fantasy. But for me, it’s more the acknowledgement of the one truth that has kept me alive through the darkest turns of my life: there is no heaven, there is no hell. There is only this place, and this place is all the paradise there is; born of a singular point of unknowable and eternal light that lives in each and every one of us.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Author Interview! Gary McMahon

I reviewed 'The Concrete Grove' a couple of weeks ago; you can either click Here for the review or just take my word for it when I say that it's an exceptionally fine slice of horror fiction and you should read it if horror is your thing. Either's good :o)

Once I finished the book I found that I had some questions that I wanted to run past Gary; I also found that Gary is a very obliging fellow who was happy to answer whatever I threw at him. Thanks Gary!
Anyway, without further ado, here's what Gary had to say for himself...

‘The Concrete Grove’ is pretty intense in places, where did that leave you once you had finished writing the book? Did you need to take time to recharge your batteries or had you already thrown yourself into your next book?


I must admit, after finishing the novel I felt emotionally and mentally drained. Writing novels to a deadline really takes it out of me, and generally involves a lot of late nights and prolonged periods of insomnia because I only have the time to write at night. I tend to throw everything into my writing – I can’t just dip in and out of a project. Every writer is different, and that’s just the way I work. I take it all so bloody seriously, too, as if my life depended on it. I’m way too intense, so can never relax when I have a project on the go. Unfortunately, I always feel blocked for a little while whenever I finish writing a novel, and that’s cut into the time I have for the next one. So, yeah, I was knackered. Still am.

How do you know when you’ve just written something that will really unsettle your readers? Do you scare yourself with what you’ve written?

Usually, if I feel disturbed I tend to think that someone else who’s reading the thing might also be disturbed. There are a few scenes in The Concrete Grove, for example, where I felt genuinely ill at ease as I wrote them. But that’s my philosophy when it comes to writing horror fiction: if you write about your own fears, then hopefully other people out there will share those fears and the book will resonate with them. It’ll never get me an international bestseller, but if I’m lucky it might just win me a few loyal fans.

Horror fiction isn’t covered enough online, at least not on the blogs that I read. Which horror writers would you recommend to the readers here?

Ramsey Campbell is the best there is. Read him; read him now. Then read him again. King and Straub are masters. Other than these legends, my favourite horror writers tend to be people like Graham Joyce, Conrad Williams, Simon Bestwick – writers with a personal vision they are trying to communicate through their work. There are lots more I could mention, but I don’t want to use up my word count by listing names and then feel bad that I’ve missed someone off. Contrary to popular belief, there’s a lot of sensational work being done in the horror field. It’s just a matter of diving in and exploring what’s out there, and trying to avoid the bad stuff.

For the person who has never read any of your work, is ‘The Concrete Grove’ a good place to start or would you point them somewhere else first?

I’d say that either The Concrete Grove or Pretty Little Dead Things (my previous novel, published by Angry Robot) are the best place to start. They’re very different novels, but both are representative of where I’m at, and where I’m coming from and heading towards, with my work. I’m also very proud of my first mass market novel, Hungry Hearts (published by Abaddon Books back in 2009) – a nasty little zombie novel with a heart of stone.

You’ve said that the idea behind ‘The Concrete Grove’ has been with you for years but it’s only now that you’ve felt able to put it to paper. Did that idea end up evolving over time or is it essentially the same idea you had all those years ago?

To be honest, the story has changed and evolved so much that it’s now something completely different to how I first envisioned it when I was sixteen. The estate used to be called Wishwell, and was built over an ancient stone well. The location was originally going to be an area of concrete high-rises, and the story involved very 1980s themes, like joyriding and football hooliganism. I was never quite sure what the forces at work within the estate were meant to represent, but finally a couple of years ago I had an imaginative breakthrough and everything became a lot clearer. Oddly, the global recession helped focus my ideas about what it was I wanted to say, and I wrote a short story called “Owed” which became the heart of the first novel in the series.

I was probably having a bad day at the office but I couldn’t tell whether ‘The Concrete Grove’ was primarily fantasy or horror ;o) Do you see it as primarily one or the other? Or do you think that I’m making a meal of this and should just enjoy reading the book?

It’s both, fantasy and horror – also, there are elements of crime fiction thrown into the mix. And, yes, you should just read the book for what it is. In my mind, all these genres can blend and cross-pollinate. I have a very broad definition of the word “horror”, and I try not to let other people’s perceptions (or misconceptions) of the genre define what I write. It’s all horror to me.

‘The Concrete Grove’ offers up horror from both sides of the fence; the darkness that lives in us all versus the darkness that exists at the corner of our eye. As a reader, which source of horror scares you the most? As a writer, did you find yourself having to lend extra emphasis to the less scary source in order to make things more balanced?

I’ve always like the clash of internal and external forces – haunted people colliding with a haunted place. That’s where I’m most comfortable, exploring the emotional cracks and fissures caused by this kind of set-up. I’ve discovered that I’m also very comfortable writing about scumbag people – I love to examine horrible characters, and because of this the crime and social elements of the novel came easily. For me, as both a reader and a writer, I need my fictional horrors to be grounded in reality. It scares me more that way; I think the juxtaposition creates a lot of tension and anxiety in a story.

‘The Concrete Grove’ is the beginning of a trilogy but the blurb for ‘Silent Voices’ suggests something a little more standalone. Are there any connections to the first book, other than the Concrete Grove itself? Or is ‘Silent Voices’ the kind of book that you can jump straight into without having read the first book?

I’m writing these so that anyone can read each of the books as a stand-alone story, but you’ll certainly get more out of them by reading the novels in order. The stories are connected by the Grove estate, and specific characters have a bearing in all three books. I initially envisioned these three books as being structured like Jimmy McGovern’s brilliant television show The Street, where each week there was a different story about a resident on a particular street, and characters would flit in and out of each episode. Hopefully this method adds texture and richness to the project as a whole, but readers can take or leave these elements as they wish.

The cover art for ‘The Concrete Grove’ captures the atmosphere of the book perfectly. As the writer of the book, how much input did you get into the creation of that cover?

I’ve worked with the artist, Vincent Chong, on several projects in the past, so we have a great relationship, a kind of artistic simpatico. I was very involved with the cover – the basic image of the tower block with tree roots snaking around its base came from me and Vinny ran with it. We then batted ideas back and forth, and the image developed into what you see now. Vinny’s done the covers for all three books, and they’re exceptional...really breathtaking stuff. I just hope my prose lives up to his amazing artwork!

And finally, a flat has just become available on a housing estate where ghostly stuff happens on a daily basis and an encounter with the local loan shark could cost you far more than just the contents of your wallet. Would you recommend that flat to someone or would you tell them to go back and live with their parents until things pick up?

Ha! I’d recommend staying with Mum and Dad. A least you’ll get your washing and ironing done. And you won’t get blood on you.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Giveaway! 'The Quantum Thief (Hannu Rajaniemi)

Note: I was going to announce the 'Fall' competition winners today but decided to lump them into the massive competition winner's post that I'll do next Monday, just makes things a little easier for me. That competition is now closed though so don't even try and enter...

And now, back to the post at hand...

'The Quantum Thief' is a book that I've got on the go at the moment and I hope to bring you a review sometime next week. In the meantime, how do you fancy having a crack at winning a copy for yourself? Check out the blurb first...

Jean le Flambeur is a post-human criminal, mind burglar, confidence artist, and trickster. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are known throughout the Heterarchy— from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of Mars. Now he’s confined inside the Dilemma Prison, where every day he has to get up and kill himself before his other self can kill him.



Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turnedsingularity lights the night. What Mieli offers is the chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self—in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed.

As Jean undertakes a series of capers on behalf of Mieli and her mysterious masters, elsewhere in the Oubliette investigator Isidore Beautrelet is called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, and finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man named le Flambeur….
 
Thanks to Tor, I have one copy of 'The Quantum Thief' to give away to one lucky reader (US entrants only, sorry everyone else). How do you enter? Exactly the same way that you would have entered yesterday's competition, scroll down the page a little ;o) The only difference is that the subject header of your email needs to be 'Quantum Thief'.
 
I'll leave this one open until the 3rd of July and will aim to announce the winner as soon as possible afterwards.
 
Good Luck!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Giveaway! 'Chicks Kick Butt' (Rachel Caine & Kerrie L. Hughes)

What a great name for a book! :o) One of those names that leaves you in no doubt at all what the book is all about; I don't think anyone could return this on the strength of a misleading title! And, courtesy of Tor, I have one copy to give away here. Check out the blurb,

Chicks Kick Butt is an anthology that features one of the best things about the urban fantasy genre: strong, independent, and intelligent heroines who are quite capable of solving their own problems and slaying their own dragons (or demons, as the case may be).


Now there's a blurb that's short and to the point. I guess with a title like that the blurb doesn't really have a lot to explain... ;o)
 
This competition is only open to people living in the US. If you're one of that select band of people then you are doubtless already emailing me (address at the top right hand of the screen) with your name and postal address. The subject header will need to be 'Chicks Kick Butt'.
 
I'm leaving this one open until the 3rd of July and will aim to announce the winner as soon as possible afterwards.
 
Good Luck!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Giveaway! 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making' (Catherynne M. Valente)

I'm taking a bit of a break from the blog this week because, well... I'm absolutely shattered (work, baby, the same old...) and something has got to give. The blog drew the short straw so I'm taking a little time out to get stuck into several good books before coming back next week and picking up where I left off.

That's not to say that the blog will just stop in the meantime though. After all, you're reading this ;o) I've scheduled some tasty bits and pieces to keep things ticking over here in the best possible way so keep coming back to see what's up. The first part of the week is all about competitions, the second part will see awesome guest blogs from some great authors; you can't ask for a lot more than that can you? :o)

Anyway, on with the first of our competitions...

Thanks to Zeitghost Media and MacMillan, I have one copy of Catherynne M. Valente's 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making' to give away to one lucky reader of the blog. This competition is only open to US and Canadian residents though... Check out the blurb,

Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn?t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

If you want in then you know what to do next. Drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. The subject header needs to be 'Fairyland'.

This competition has to end a little earlier than normal I'm afraid. I can only leave this one open until the 30th of June so please make sure your emails reach me by then.

Good Luck!

Friday, 24 June 2011

‘Outpost’ – Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)

Another day, another apocalypse on ‘Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review’... Actually, that makes the blog sound a lot more exciting than it has any right to, time for a little clarification I think...
The Apocalypse seems to be a really big deal in fiction at the moment. If you’re not one of those people who were secretly quite pleased that the Rapture didn’t happen (but are already brooding over that Mayan prophecy) then it’s likely that you’re someone who thinks that zombies are cool and can’t get enough of their questionable eating habits. Either way (Post) Apocalyptic fiction has got you covered, offering you the chance to get involved in some of the worst disasters that humanity could go through... and then put the book down for a breather if things get a little too fraught. And that’s where I come in.

Long term readers of the blog will know that I can’t get enough of this little sub-genre as it offers a real insight into just what people are capable of when the chips are down (especially when they don’t realise what they are capable of). I love reading this stuff and will more often than not put whatever I’m reading to one side if I have a chance to read ‘in-genre’. And that’s where ‘Outpost’ comes in.
It was totally by chance that I saw a copy of ‘Outpost’ on the Hodder & Stoughton website and thought I’d check it out. I’m really glad that I did, I think you’ll be very hard pressed to find a post-apocalyptic novel that’s better...

Kasker Rampart is a derelict oil platform moored in the Arctic Ocean, waiting either to be put into service again or decommissioned and scrapped. In the meantime, its skeleton crew keep things ticking over and wait for the next relief ship to take them home. The thing is though; there won’t be another relief boat. Not ever.
Out there in the world, something terrible is happening; a global pandemic that sees people fall on each other in the streets and whole cities laid waste. What is worst, seeing this all take place on television or that moment when the last TV station falls silent (leaving nothing but static behind)...?
The Rampart crew are marooned and must survive the long Arctic Winter before they can even think of making their way home. The potential for starvation and hypothermia are great, the odds of falling out amongst themselves even greater. These dangers are about to fall into insignificance though, the contagion that has devastated the world is now headed their way...

I’ve been reading a lot of books, just recently, that I knew I’d enjoy so the phrase ‘couldn’t put it down’ has probably been bandied about a little more than it perhaps should have been. The bottom line though is that there are very few books, for me anyway, that are truly ‘un-putdownable’. There are loads of books that I can put down very easily, I’ll tell you about them sometime soon.
‘Outpost’ though...? I really couldn’t put it down for a whole number of reasons, to the extent that I didn’t want to talk to people until I’d finished it. I finished it, put the book down and thought, ‘bloody hell...’ In the best possible way that is, any book that can put me through the wringer like that more than deserves praise.

The book isn’t without some very minor flaws but Baker does everything else just right. No gaping issues here, Baker is a man very much in control of his plot (for the most part) and steers it with the deftest of touches to a conclusion that is raw and powerful. You could say it’s predictable even (the remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ springs to mind as an example) but the way in which Baker builds up his characters means this won’t occur to you for a long while afterwards, certainly long enough for you to revel in the sheer power and raw emotion of those last few pages.

Baker shows us how powerful his vision of the apocalypse is by cutting his cast off from it almost entirely (well, for the first part of the book anyway) and isolating them in the depths of the Arctic. They’re dealing with a pretty apocalyptic scenario anyway (enough to drive the main character to attempt suicide within the first few pages) and Baker ramps up the pressure on them by removing their only chance of human contact through events taking place in the wider world. This approach happens slowly but surely and before you know it, the crew of Kasker Rampart are facing up to something that is off the scale in terms of magnitude. Well, that’s what you think...

Baker doesn’t give his cast time to breathe before bringing the true force of the apocalypse down on their heads. All that business of trying to survive on the oil rig is just incidental, this is where it gets really personal. What I really enjoyed here is the fact that Baker never actually tells you why things have gone down the way they have; the crew of the rig don’t know so why should you? What you get instead are the results and its inevitable spread; the complete lack of explanation means that you really feel the crew’s terror at the strangeness of what is facing them. It is strange and it is terrifying, believe me, especially when set against a landscape that is out to kill our cast just as much as the contagion is.

All the while, we get to see how individuals cope with the ongoing situation and the rollercoaster ride that people go through as potential salvation is constantly ripped from their grasp. Baker takes us through the whole range of human response and this results in a book where there is always something different to focus on and keep those pages turning. The journey into insanity is the most interesting of these, especially when set against the backdrop of the whole continent of Europe burning...

Funnily enough though, it was this insanity in a particular character that lead to my one and only real (again, minor) issue with the book. The finale is jam packed full of action and I’ll happily admit that this fast pace may have meant that I missed an important technical detail along the way. What I didn’t get though was how a certain character was able to sidestep the dangers of the contagion in the way that she did. I’m positive that a re-read will clear this up but this question did pull me out of the flow at a time when I really didn’t want to be pulled out...

Like I said though, a very minor issue. ‘Outpost’ is a gloriously bleak read that offers you everything that a good apocalypse should and then proceeds to go one better in every area. You should read it, you really should.

Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten

Thursday, 23 June 2011

‘Atlas Infernal’ – Rob Sanders (Black Library)

Rob Sanders is one of those authors where I’m all geared up to love his work and then he does one little thing that leaves me suddenly unsure whether I actually do or not. This is all the more surprising seeing that he’s only written the one novel that I’m aware of. ‘Redemption Corps’ was a great read for a whole number of reasons (you’ll be pleased that I’m not going to repeat myself, check out my review Here instead) but then Sanders decided to introduce a level of detail that was great at showcasing the complexity of the Imperial Guard but no so great at all in terms of letting the story breathe and do all the things that it was there to do. Some you win and some you lose I guess.
A couple of very good short stories later though and I was more than ready to give Sanders another shot with ‘Atlas Infernal’, his take on some of the machinations of the Imperial Inquisition. Sanders has more than proved that he can ‘do dark’ and it doesn’t get a lot darker in the Imperium, of the 40th Millennium, than the Imperial Inquisition...

Inquisitor Bronislaw Czevak cannot make a single step without being hunted by some of the most powerful men (and aliens) in the Imperium. Not only does Cvezak carry the knowledge of the Eldar Black Library in his head but he has also stolen the Atlas Infernal, a living map of the Eldar Webway that could be very dangerous indeed in the wrong hands. Those wrong hands don’t come a lot more dangerous than those of Ahriman, Arch-Sorceror of the traitorous Thousand Sons Legion; an already superhuman being who sees the Atlas Infernal as a means to aspire to godhood.
When Cvezak isn’t being chased by Inquisitors eager to kill him for perceived heresy, or Eldar Harlequins eager to return him to the Black Library itself, he must avoid the attentions of Ahriman whilst at the same time fighting to foil the Arch-Sorcerer’s schemes. Nothing less than the fate of the Imperium is at stake...

 ‘Redemption Corps’ was a great read that basically was its own obstacle in terms of becoming an excellent read. I enjoyed it but came away wanting to have enjoyed it a whole lot more. This time round I’m pleased to say that ‘Atlas Infernal’ neatly sidesteps the issues that plagued ‘Redemption Corps’ to take Sanders’ game to another level. If you haven’t read any of Sanders’ prior work then this could well be the place that you should start first.

That’s not to say that the level of detail isn’t there at all, just that it’s working with the plot (this time round) instead of absolutely smothering it. Sanders takes his readers on a wild journey into areas of the Warhammer 40K setting that you might not normally get to see (well, I haven’t); we’re talking about worlds on the fringe of the Eye of Terror, and subject to the corrupting influence of Chaos, as well as the Black Library itself. When we’re talking about sights like these, well... bring on the detail I say! I want to know as much as I can about the worlds that our heroes must fight through. Sanders obliges and, in particular, gives us an in-depth at the plight of Imperial citizenry touched by Chaos for no other reason that they happened to be living on the wrong planet at the wrong time. The end result is that you get a real feel for where our heroes are and how important it is that their mission succeed (especially during some of the set piece battles which are absolutely amazing) The beauty of it all though is that the detail complements the plot instead of working against it and you’re left with a fully realised and atmospheric stage for the drama to play out on.

There were certain elements of this drama (related to both structure and the plot itself) that I did have issues with and these did make for a less than smooth reading experience every now and then.
Sanders has already established himself in my mind as a writer who will shy away from the whole ‘start at A and finish at Z’ approach to plotting and will mess around with the structure in order to keep his readers on their toes and reading away. I’m cool with that, I like to be kept on my toes and given a reason to keep reading. It didn’t work for me so well here though... Sanders nips back into the past of Cvezak and scatters a few chapters, across the book, that deal with a meeting between Cvezak and Ahriman. These passages are very powerful but I was left wondering if they really needed to be there, especially as allusions to this particular event are made in the main body of the plot. These passages broke up an otherwise smoothly flowing plot and made the book stutter when there was really no need.
I think that Sanders also encounters a problem in that Cvezak’s time in the Black Library has left him with an extensive knowledge of, well... everything really. Sanders handles this well, to an extent, by setting Cvezak against a enemy who is even stronger but some of the tension does bleed out of the book when you realise that Cvezak has an answer for everything and will get out of most situations (although his solution to the ‘Grey Knight’ problem really has to be seen to be believed, fans are going to love it).

When you set these issues against the rest of the book though I did find myself wondering if I was making a little too much of a fuss. ‘Atlas Infernal’ is a compelling detective novel (laid out in a logical manner) set in a warzone where your own side is just as likely to kill you as the enemy is. This lends some real excitement to the plot as you don’t know where the next threat is coming from (even if you do know that Cvezak will have a solution for it). When those threats do appear, Sanders proves himself to be more than adept at capturing the resulting action and presenting it in the best possible way. Like I said, some of it has to be seen to be believed.

The cast is largely an unlikeable crew with their own motives and agendas and you will be hard pressed to find a redeeming feature in any of them. Again though, Sanders really makes these reprehensible characteristics work for him as he shows that even if you’re fighting for your own ends (survival being the uppermost priority) you can still be fighting for something worthwhile at the same time.

There’s scope here for more books about Inquisitor Cvezak and the standard of storytelling in ‘Atlas Infernal’ is such that you can guarantee that I’ll be back for more. ‘Atlas Infernal’ isn’t without its issues but is worth picking up nevertheless.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Couldn't Finish It...



On the whole, this blog is about books that I finish as (more often than not) I polish off whatever I pick up. Every now and then though a book will be put down unfinished and never picked up again; sometimes it's the book's fault, sometimes it isn't. The bottom line though is that I want the blog to be just as much about the books that I don't finish as it is about the ones that I do. Which brings us nicely round to Bruce Cordell's 'City of Torment'. "Isn't there a picture of 'Key of Stars' there as well?" I hear you ask. Well yeah but I'll get onto that in just a minute.

I read Bruce Cordell's 'Plague of Spells' back in December 2008 (review Here) and while I had my issues with it I was more than happy to pick up the next books in the series. The next thing I knew it was last week and those two books had been sat on the pile for over two years... What can I say? Life does seem to be on a mission to stop me reading at the moment.

It turned out to be too long a gap. Coming to 'City of Torment' I found that I had no idea who the likes of Raidon Kane or Anusha were or what they'd been up to. "But you could have a quick skim through the first book and catch up" is what you're probably saying right now. I could have done if I still had the first book (moved house last year)... What I was left with were characters that I couldn't remember who were on a quest that was moving a little too slowly to keep me interested. To be fair, a second book in a trilogy (that's building things up for the finale) is going to be like that but it wasn't something that I was up for at that point. It's not the book's fault but there was no way that I was going to finish 'City of Torment' and that had the knock on affect of 'Key of Stars' not being finished by way of my not even starting it. If I couldn't finish 'City of Torment'... well, you get the point.

As always, I'm up for being persuaded to give a book another go. Did I put down 'City of Torment' too soon? Is there something online where I can re-visit 'Plague of Spells' before giving 'City' another go? All comments are welcome :o)

Vernor Vinge excerpt and 'If You Lived Here'...

So... As I was writing a review yesterday afternoon, Word decided that it was a little peckish and wanted to eat the document I'd spent all that time working on... To say I was mightily hacked off would be an understatement; I'm sure Word and I will get on fine again (after all, you can't blame it for being hungry) but we're not really talking much right now :o(

Where does that leave the blog then? Things are the same as ever really, it's just that today's review is now tomorrow's review instead. Luckily for today, a couple of emails turned up in my inbox that I reckon you might find interesting...

Tor.com is a great place to visit if you want to read loads of excerpts and get a feel for a book before forking out cash for it. If you're a fan of Vernor Vinge then the latest excerpt could be just the thing for you, it's a piece from Vinge's 'The Children of the Sky', direct sequel to 'A Fire on the Deep'. Here's the link for the excerpt,


Here's the blurb as well,

Ten years have passed on Tines World, where Ravna Bergnsdot and a number of human children ended up after a disaster that nearly obliterated humankind throughout the galaxy. Ravna and the pack animals for which the planet is named have survived a war, and Ravna has saved more than one hundred children who were in cold-sleep aboard the vessel that brought them.


While there is peace among the Tines, there are those among them—and among the humans—who seek power…and no matter the cost, these malcontents are determined to overturn the fledgling civilization that has taken root since the humans landed.

The next email came from Underland Press and is about a project that I think will be very cool indeed when it comes off. Even betterand we all get to make it happen :o) Read on...

The project, authored and edited by Jeff VanderMeer, is called If You Lived Here: The Top 30 All Time Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Worlds. It's a compendium, of sorts, but also a travel guide to places like Dune, Ring World, Middle Earth, Lankhmar . . . and beyond . . . We've all lived in these places--in imagination if not in fact--and we're all united by our common experiences of them. We wanted to collect the worlds together in one place as both a walk down memory lane and a place to start new dreams.


We're reaching out to readers, writers, and booksellers to ask for nominations of worlds to include. We've set up a web form at http://www.ifyoulivedherebook.com/, which takes the nominations and asks respondents to describe what they love about the world. (If things go according to plan, we'll include some of the responses in the book itself.) We're looking for as much community involvement as possible in this project, and we'd love it if you could help.

I'm going to be hitting that link, when I get a spare moment, and I'd encourage you all to give it a click as well.
 
Right, back to it. I've got a little something lined up for this afternoon (not the review, I'm trying to rescue its remains from the jaws of Word...) so I'll see you then ;o)

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

‘Scarlet Traces: The Great Game’ – Ian Edgington & D’Israeli (Dark Horse Books)

I’m a sucker for sequels, aren’t we all? If you’ve enjoyed the opening chapter of a series then it’s only natural that you’re going to want to go back and get more of the same in the follow up. Well, it wasn’t quite like that for me this time round but I couldn’t help but go back anyway for the sequel to Edington and D’Israeli’s ‘Scarlet Traces’...

Right at the very beginning of this month I reviewed ‘Scarlet Traces’ and found myself saying that ‘Scarlet Traces’ is a lovely look at what H.G. Wells’ classic could have led onto but falls short when it tries to tell it’s own story within it. There was enough there though to hold my interest so while I won’t be going out of my way to find future books, I’ll grab them if I see them and you’ll see the results here’. At the time, I thought this was a fairly safe thing to say as it didn’t look like there were any sequels to pick up. One visit to the library later and I was to be proved very wrong. Looking at the cover for ‘The Great Game’ I had my reservations but it was a sequel and, no matter what I think of a book, if there’s a sequel then I find myself really needing to know what happens next. So, what happened next? More reservations and issues, that’s what...

The action has now moved forward to the mid nineteen forties and the British led invasion of Mars had ground to a halt with a war of attrition having been fought for the last forty years and costing thousands of British lives. Plans are brewing though, the Martians are planning a brutal counter attack and there is something else happening on the Red Planet that the British Government don’t want you to know about... What is photo-journalist Charlotte Hemming doing in the middle of the war zone then? Charlotte’s not entirely sure (other than that a face from the past pointed her in that direction) but what she will find there could well redefine the face of our galaxy.

‘The Great Game’ appears to have a lot going for it, at least as far as the blurb goes. I mean look at it; you’ve got the continuation of a pretty momentous finale from the last book as well as the chance to meet a familiar face and see how Britain has moved on from the end of the nineteenth century. It’s all looking pretty good so far so it’s a real shame then that the book fell down sharply for me as far as the plot and it’s depiction went.

Artwork first and I’m really not sure what happened here as ‘Scarlet Traces’ gave us artwork that may have been a little too bright for the eyes (and perhaps too revealing) but was very detailed and gave us a real in depth look at how Britain could have evolved ‘post Martian’ invasion’. To be fair, we do get more of the same this time round and attention has been paid to the fact that Britain has been through even more changes in the intervening forty years. What I wasn’t keen on at all was the way in which the artwork started out looking very sketchy and like it hadn’t much attention paid to it. Maybe I was spoiled by a prior volume that had artwork geared more towards online publication... Whether that was the case or not, it felt like the artwork was being pushed to one side for the sake of the story and that didn’t feel right to me. There were some absolutely gorgeous scenes of warfare on the Red Planet itself but it felt like these came too little too late in terms of the overall effect.

I think the fairest thing I could say about the plot itself is that repeated reading will probably throw up things that you will miss first time round; I think that’s probably what happened with me (although I did read the book more than once). How many times do you read a book before reviewing it though? I had to stop sometime and that’s where you find me, with a story that somehow felt incomplete and a little confusing. I think the confusion can be attributed to the sketchy artwork which the reader relies upon to gain clues but finds there isn’t enough detail to get the answers that they are after. It felt like there were a lot of good ideas (the machinations of the British government and the movement of life across our solar system) but not enough room to really let them grow organically into something cohesive. What you get instead is the ‘villain’ telling Charlotte everything right at the very end (because she’s surely going to die anyway, right?) and I’ve seen that device used far too many times for it to be truly effective here. A little bit more attention paid to developing the story and this wouldn’t have had to happen.

Like I said, I’m a sucker for sequels but I also know when to stop reading and that point is right here. ‘The Great Game’ rounds off the events begun in ‘Scarlet Traces’ but not in a good way at all. How can a story ooze such potential yet leave me so disappointed? Oh well, onto the next book...

Six out of Ten

Monday, 20 June 2011

The 'I haven't got much for you today, I've got this though...' Post.

Reading wasn't really a part of things this weekend just gone, mostly because it was Father's Day yesterday and reading will always take second place to playing with Hope and making her giggle. And there was I thinking that reading would never take second place to anything, shows what I know...

All of that didn't leave me with an awful lot to blog about today though, until I realised that I'd been saving an email for just this very occasion. The news is a couple of days late but anyone who doesn't follow goings on at Tor.com could still find it useful to know.


If you're a fan of the 'Bioshock' games (I sit very firmly in the 'looks cool but have never played it' camp, that's me and computer games...) then you'll probably know that the official prequel novelisation is out in July. If you're after having your appetite whetted in the meantime, Tor.com have posted an excerpt from the novel that you can all go and drool over (or not, drooling is by no means compulsory...) Here's the link...


That's all you need I think... What? You want to know about the author? Ok then...

John Shirley is the Bram Stoker-award winning author of Black Butterflies, as well as an acclaimed songwriter and screenwriter.  He’s perhaps best known for penning the script of Alex Proyas’ noir masterpiece The Crow, and he brings his talent for dark, cinematic storytelling to this new project. Shirley will be signing San Diego Comic-Con the week his novel comes.

Got that? Right, I'll see you tomorrow... What? You want the blurb as well? Can't you just go and look on Amazon? No? Well, I can understand that. Here goes...

It's the end of World War II. FDR's New Deal has redefined American politics. Taxes are at an all-time high. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has brought a fear of total annihilation. The rise of secret government agencies and sanctions on business has many watching their backs. America's sense of freedom is diminishing . . . and many are desperate to take there freedom back.


Among them is a great dreamer, an immigrant who pulled himself from the depths of poverty to become one of the wealthiest and admired men in the world. That man is Andrew Ryan, and he believed that great men and women deserve better. And so he set out to create the impossible, a utopia free from government, censorship, and moral restrictions on science--where what you give is what you get. He created Rapture---the shining city below the sea.


But as we all know, this utopia suffered a great tragedy. This is the story of how it all came to be . . . and how it all ended.

See you all tomorrow ;o)

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Nostalgic Cover Art Sunday...

This really takes me back... :o)

BBC books are re-releasing some of the old Doctor Who novels; you know, the ones that were adaptations of the actual TV show. This was what you would find me reading when I was a lot younger and if I could get to the box under the bed then you'd find me reading these books now! :o) Those were the days, reading these books to tide me over until the next episode on TV. And what a great way to find out about the older incarnations of the Doctor, incarnations that I never saw but felt like I really knew...

Check out these old school covers...







Can you feel the nostalgia or is it just me...? :o)

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Giveaway! 'The Fall' (Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan)

I reviewed 'The Fall' way back in November last year but it's only now coming out in paperback over in the US. It's a great read so... how about a giveaway? Yes...? Lets do it :o)

Thanks to those nice folk at Harper Collins (in the US) I have three copies of 'The Fall' to give away to three readers of the blog. By 'readers' I actually mean 'US readers' though, it's a US residents only competition I'm afraid.

If you're still with me then you know what comes next. Drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. The subject header will be 'The Fall'.

I'll let this one run until the 26th of June and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Orbit snaps up Werewolf Urban Fantasy Trilogy

I know some people like to hear about this stuff so I post it here :o) This particular piece of news isn't filling me with great joy but here goes anyway...

Little, Brown Book Group’s Orbit imprint has acquired the debut urban fantasy novel Full Blooded along with a further 2 books in the series by American author Amanda Carlson. Commissioning editor Anna Gregson bought UK and Commonwealth rights from Tracy Williams at Hachette Book Group USA.


Set in a world where all werewolves are male, the story follows Jessica – a girl who’s just become the only female werewolf in the world. And now she’s on the run, because a prophecy claims that her birth will signal the end of the werewolf race.

Gregson says: “I’m thrilled to be publishing this exceptionally fast-paced and irresistibly sexy urban fantasy trilogy that is just perfect for fans of Kelley Armstrong and Charlaine Harris. This debut stood out to us because it sizzles with energy, has a heart-thumping pace - and readers will want to consume it all in one sitting. So bearing that in mind that fans will be eager for the rest of the series, we’ll be keeping the schedule tight and will be publishing 3 books within a year”

Orbit UK and Orbit US will publish the series on both sides of the Atlantic, with the first book Full Blooded scheduled for release in all territories in September 2012.

So... Orbit are going to publish an Urban Fantasy that sounds pretty much the same as most other Urban Fantasies out there. Great news if you're a fan but this isn't exciting me I have to say, I like my Urban Fantasy to stand out and be a little different from the rest of the pack. Oh well, maybe the books will change my mind...

Friday, 17 June 2011

‘Heldenhammer’ – Graham McNeill (Black Library)

Sometimes you’re just not going to be able to read a series in order, that’s the way it is  (especially if you shop in certain book shops that seem to specialize in selling only the first book and the third book in any given series, naming no names but we know who you are). If you really want to read that series, all you can really do is just dive in at the deep end with what you’ve got and then fill in the gaps later on. This is what happened to me back in March when I found myself with the final instalment of Graham McNeill’s ‘Sigmar’ trilogy and with no idea at all of what had happened in the previous two books. Luckily for me, ‘God King’ stood up very well on it’s own and by the end of my review I found myself saying ‘if the previous two books were anything like this then I’ll have to pick them up very soon’.

Well, the term ‘soon’ means very different things for me these days but I got there in the end (thanks to a very enjoyable book shopping expedition in Plymouth a couple of months ago, must do that again...) It’s taken the two books a little while longer to move their way up the pile but again, we got there in the end. This time round I’ll be doing things in order so ‘Heldenhammer’ is up first. Here we go...

Thousands of years before the current Warhammer setting, the Old World is a very different place indeed. Instead of living in great cities, the tribes of men live in more primitive dwellings and fight to survive against the threats the world throws at them. Divided amongst themselves, the tribes of men are in danger of being overwhelmed by, well... everything really. The orcs of the mountains are the greatest threat but there are plenty of others.
Luckily for the tribes though, one man has a vision of a united nation of humanity that will not only hold back the darkness but extinguish it utterly. Sigmar Heldenhammer, of the Unberogen tribe, will stop at nothing to achieve his dream but he will face not only the machinations of rival kings but the mightiest horde of orcs in recorded history.

‘If the previous two books were anything like this...’ All I can say is that ‘Heldenhammer’ very clearly set the standard that ‘God King’ followed and is a thoroughly entertaining read for adopting this approach. I found it all too easy to breeze through this story and have a great time in the process (apart from some of the more descriptive ‘journey passages’, these dragged a little and interrupted the otherwise very smooth flow of the plot).

Having said all that though... fantasy fiction eh? You’ve got to love it, especially with some of the things that it throws out and appears to expect the reader to blindly accept because, well... its fantasy isn’t it?
I’m talking about the moment where the young (fifteen years old) Sigmar explains his dream of a united empire of man to his father and assorted other kings. Given the fractured nature of humanity at this point, I really was expecting at least one king to be thinking, ‘I don’t like the sound of this, knife in the ribs for that one I reckon’. What I got though were kings saying, ‘that sounds like a very good idea young man’ and that didn’t sit well with me, especially with what we had been given to believe was the lay of the land. This scene felt more than a little shoehorned into a plot that wasn’t quite ready to deal with that kind of thing and came across a little contrived as a result.
In fairness, I can see the reasoning behind this approach. The character of Sigmar is a huge deal in the Warhammer setting and McNeill is essentially working with a character who has been aimed at a certain target and let fly without much room to do anything else. Sigmar will eventually be emperor so you can have him saying stuff like this in the meantime. It’s an approach that works very well over the rest of the book but it didn’t quite hit the mark in this instant. I also had an issue with the way in which the plot had to stop and start over, ‘Sigmar solves one problem, another problem arises, Sigmar solves that problem’ and so on... This was another obstacle to the smooth running of the plot that I wasn’t keen on...

Get past all that though and you’ll find a story full of warfare and high drama, a combination that McNeill handles very well by not letting one element take precedence over the other. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Sigmar himself, a man torn between the demands of what he is trying to build and the effect that this is having on his life and relationships.
McNeill gets the balance spot on and what we get is a fully fleshed out character that may be a little too good to be true (can the man do no wrong?) but is still a character that you want to follow to the bitter end; a man who is both a thinker and a fighter. The same approach is taken with the supporting cast and what you end up with, as a result, is the same kind of thing. Everyone has a story to tell and I wanted to be in on that story.

It wouldn’t be a Warhammer novel without full on warfare (between the stalwart forces of good and the slavering forces of evil) and McNeill delivers this in fine style. Being the first book in a trilogy (and also because of the previously mentioned historical stuff) there’s an air of inevitability that you can’t escape from. Sigmar will win through in this book at least. McNeill makes up for this by basically throwing everything he possibly can into the battle, stirring it up and having Sigmar deal with the results. The results this time round are big, green, extremely vicious and more than up for a fight. Sigmar’s army isn’t green but is still up for the fight, it’s clear how much is at stake here. The resulting Battle of Black Fire Pass is more than worth the price of entry as the irresistible force meets the immovable object, absolutely superb stuff.

‘Heldenhammer’ suffers from its flaws but manages to rise above these to become an entertaining read that more than rewards the persistent reader. Bring on ‘Empire’...

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Thursday, 16 June 2011

‘The Concrete Grove’ – Gary McMahon (Solaris)

So, there’s me going on about how this week is all about ‘comfort reads’ (and that side of things is going well thanks very much) and all of a sudden horror is rearing its head on the blog once more... What’s going on there? If you’re looking for a comfort read then horror should be the absolute last place that you would look. I’d even go so far as to say that if you’re reading horror as a comfort read then it’s very likely that you’re not reading horror at all. Okay, maybe I’ll let you have Stephen King as I will go back and read ‘The Stand’ every once in a while, nothing else though! ;o)

How did ‘The Concrete Grove’ find its way onto the blog, at this particular time, then? There’s a really simple answer, I haven’t read a lot of Gary McMahon’s work (one novel and maybe a couple of short stories, scared the you know what out of me) but he has still managed to swiftly become an author who has my ears pricking up in anticipation whenever I hear that something new of his is on the horizon. I wasn’t going to hang around with ‘The Concrete Grove’ so here it is, a book that maybe didn’t know quite what it was but still managed to push all the right buttons and left me facing at least one night’s disturbed sleep...

Could there be anything worse than living in a run down council estate where your neighbours are all drug pushers and associated other small time criminals? When the estate is home to something older than recorded history, and just now beginning to wake up (and it is hungry), then the answer is a resounding yes. Schoolgirl Hailey is the only person who can contact this strange entity and she will attempt to use it to help her mother’s struggles with vicious loan shark Monty Bright.
Bright has plans of his own though, along these lines, and his pursuit of Hailey could well solve two of his most pressing problems. When Hailey uncovers what lies at the centre of the estate though... all bets are off.

From what I’ve read of Gary McMahon’s work, he displays a happy knack of being able to set his twisted creations to burrowing into your psyche in no time at all. Not only do you have to finish the book but you then find yourself with the prospect of all that fear and disquiet (and many other, sometimes sickening, things) staying firmly rooted in your head for a long time to come. That’s the deal with ‘The Concrete Grove’, a book that wastes no time in getting its claws into the unsuspecting reader. You’ll be caught before you know it but the plot is so intriguing that you won’t really mind at all. And that’s the point where it’s too late to back out. Prepare yourself for an extended period of thinking, ‘did that really happen to him?’ and ‘he was covered in what...?’

It’s a slight shame then that ‘The Concrete Grove’ can come across as not knowing what it really wants to be. There are strong elements of both fantasy and horror running through the plot and McMahon throws himself into each of these elements with equal fervour. The result is a very intense read (more on that in a bit) but it can also feel like these two themes are fighting against each other when they could really do with working together a little more and giving the reader a book that feels more streamlined. Maybe it’s just me but sometimes I do like to know what I’m reading...

Like I said though, McMahon does throw himself into each of these themes with a real passion and the end result has one hell of a lot going for it.
McMahon mixes two worlds together (the real and the fantastic) to come up with something that is truly haunting and compels you to get more and more into it. Rich and well thought out world building lays firm foundations and McMahon lets the two worlds bleed into each other in such a way that you can’t help but pay real close attention to what’s happening on the page. If you don’t then it’s very likely that you’ll miss something very important going on. The stakes are high for all concerned and you’ll find yourself buying into that very easily indeed. There are two more books planned and I can’t wait to see where McMahon takes things next.

It’s the horror element though where McMahon really comes into his own and shines. I guess I would say that as, like I said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed McMahon’s horror in the past. It’s no less the case here though.
Here is a book with horror oozing out of its very pores and McMahon lumps it all altogether to give his readers something that is deeply unsettling. McMahon combines the soul destroying horror of living in near poverty, the capacity for evil that lives in the heart of men and the supernatural horror of the Grove itself and gives his readers an unrelenting dose of horror that attacks you from all sides. Just when you think you’ve got your head round one of these three themes then McMahon hits you with something else entirely. You are constantly left unbalanced and that’s just how McMahon wants it. The only time you might get that balance back is when you finish the book.

It goes without saying that if you are squeamish at all then this is probably a book that you should avoid. McMahon doesn’t include anything without a very good reason but when he does he doesn’t pull his punches at all and this shows us all to well that perhaps the true horror in this piece lies in just what us humans can be capable of if we want something enough. It’s not pretty.

‘The Concrete Grove’ is a book that fights against itself when it really shouldn’t have to. More than balancing that out though is the delicious edge of horror that will leave you thinking ‘what the...?’ It’s a vicious read with a delicate beauty about it; if you like your horror fiction then I don’t see any reason why you won’t get a lot out of this.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

Tor Books announces new Dragon Age™ novel with BioWare Lead Writer David Gaider

From the email...

In-game writer and bestselling author of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne and Dragon Age: The Calling returns to the dark fantasy world of BioWare’s award-winning Dragon Age franchise


New York, NY – Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC—the largest publisher of science fiction in the world—and BioWare™, a division of Electronic Arts, are excited to announce the third novel in the award-winning Dragon Age™ fantasy RPG franchise. David Gaider, lead writer at BioWare and author of two previous Dragon Age novels, will pen DRAGON AGE: ASUNDER for late 2011 publication.

The team at BioWare, responsible for such beloved classics as Baldur's Gate™, Neverwinter Nights™, Star Wars®: Knights of the Old Republic™, and Mass Effect™, set a new Fantasy RPG storytelling standard with the Dragon Age franchise, which has won over 35 awards between the release of Dragon Age: Origins in 2009 and Dragon Age II in March 2011.

David Gaider’s previous two Dragon Age novels, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne (March 2009) and Dragon Age: The Calling (October 2009) were well-received by fans and did much to establish the dark, heroic nature and epic scale of the Dragon Age Universe. DRAGON AGE: ASUNDER builds directly on the story from the second game, expanding and illuminating new corners of the world Thedas.

A mystical killer stalks the halls of the White Spire, the heart of templar power in the mighty Orlesian Empire. To prove his innocence, Adrian reluctantly embarks on a journey into the western wastelands that will not only reveal much more than he bargained for but change the fate of his fellow mages forever.

The team at BioWare has passionately created a fantasy world like no other—gorgeous and immersive, with unprecedented depth and scale. DRAGON AGE: ASUNDER is a sweeping, epic saga that will be sure to please the millions of fans of this revered franchise.

Fans of BioWare are invited to visit the official Dragon Age website at: http://dragonage.bioware.com, where they can preview and find additional information about Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, Dragon Age: The Calling and more.
 
I like to post these things for anyone who might be interested but this time round find myself in the position where I have no idea what I've just been posting about... The last two books totally passed me by and I've never played the computer game either. What (if anything) am I missing out on here? All comments much appreciated... :o)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

‘Battle of the Fang’ – Chris Wraight (Black Library)

It was way back in January this year (and how long ago does that feel now...?) that I read Chris Wraight’s ‘Sword of Vengeance’ and said ‘Aaron Dembski-Bowden is cornering the market in excellent Warhammer 40K fiction and I think that what we’re seeing here is Chris Wraight beginning to do exactly the same thing on the fantasy side... ‘Sword of Vengeance’ is nothing less than a gripping read...’ Click Here for the full review if you like ;o)

Well, no sooner had I said that then Chris Wraight decided to take his game to another level and write something for the Warhammer 40K line as well. The previous two books of his had pretty much ensured that I’d pick up anything with his name on it but I was particularly interested to see how he coped in the 40K universe, a setting where the politicking that Wraight tackled so well takes second place to the grim dark trudge of constant warfare (especially in this particular series which very much sets its stall out as being all about the warfare). It turned out that I was in for another great read from Wraight. I had concerns about how the plot was set up but when it got going, it really got going...

For reasons best gone into in Graham McNeill’s ‘A Thousand Sons’ and Dan Abnett’s ‘Prospero Burns’ the traitorous Thousand Sons Marines and the Loyalist Space Wolves share an enmity spanning millennia and this mutual hatred is about to come to a head. Tricking the Space Wolves into a crusade that will leave their home world of Fenris virtually undefended, the Thousand Sons launch a devastating assault on Fenris that could just as easily break their own Chapter as it could the Space Wolves.
Can the remaining skeleton force of Space Wolves, and regular Fenrisian troopers, hold out until reinforcements arrive? Can they even breach a gargantuan planetary blockade to get out a request for aid? When the Primarch of the Thousand Sons himself gets involved then these questions may well be completely irrelevant...

Think of any war film or book that you’ve read. Take the amount of firepower in that book, or film, and multiply it by a hundred. Multiply it by a hundred again. While we’re here, multiply it by a hundred one more time. Congratulations, the level of ordinance that you’ve arrived at is just beginning to approach what’s on offer in ‘Battle of the Fang’, a book that literally roars with the thunder of cannon and the chatter of bolter fire. It’s a long hard slog from beginning to end but, for once, this is exactly how it’s meant to be. Chris Wraight has totally captured the feel of a battle for a planet where the difference between life and death rests on where you place that next footstep. You have to be careful where you put that footstep and this caution naturally slows things down although this doesn’t stop the ‘up close and personal’ combat from being as vicious as you would expect.

It’s a bit of a shame then that what turns out to be an excellently depicted battle is built upon foundations that felt a little flimsy, at least to me. The book tells us that the Thousand Sons have spent hundreds of years (at least) taunting the Space Wolves over their whereabouts, leaving the equivalent of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s calling card to taunt their enemies over having been led down yet another blind alley. Hundreds of years of the same thing happening to the Space Wolves over and over again... You would have thought that this trend would have led the Space Wolves to be a little more cautious but no... A couple of pyramids built on an out of the way planet is enough to send a very large chunk of the loyalist chapter on a mission of vengeance, forgetting all the other times they’ve been duped in exactly the same manner. I’m sorry but I didn’t buy this, not really. It felt a little contrived and a way to set things up rather than being a part of the actual story, especially when the story goes on to show that the Space Wolves really aren’t that stupid after all.

Once you get past this slightly rocky beginning though it all kicks off and in fine style. I’ve already mentioned how Wraight has near perfectly captured how warfare must play out on a world such as Fenris and he draws the combat out through a series of logical and well thought out events. Everything happens for a reason and that reason is made very clear; just the thing for a person like me who might not necessarily know exactly why ‘Battalion A’ must take and hold ‘Ridge B’. When the opposing armies get up close, Wraight isn’t afraid to have them throw every piece of ordinance (within easy reach) at each other and the end result is invariably the kind of pyrotechnics that any fan of military sci-fi (not just this setting) will get a real kick out of. The ending won’t be in any doubt for long term fans but there’s enough uncertainty for the rest of us to keep those pages turning nicely and enough explosive action to power the plot forwards.

All of this means nothing though if there aren’t well drawn characters to lend an air to humanity to event that essentially dehumanizes everyone taking part. Wraight does very well to provide sympathetic characters, across the board, that leave you with the prospect of not really having to root for anyone and just enjoying the action on display in the meantime.
There’s still plenty to think about though. A touch that I particularly enjoyed was the depiction of the Thousand Sons as a traitorous chapter with good cause to feel bitter about their treatment in the past; this really lent some ambiguity to the proceedings as we’re looking at the prospect of dark deeds being committed because there really is no other choice of actions.
I also enjoyed the depiction of the Space Wolves as the guardians of the Imperium’s future, trying to safeguard information before it is lost forever. I don’t know an awful lot about the setting but I know enough about the Space Wolves of the ‘present’ to really enjoy this spin on their established psyche.

‘Battle of the Fang’ suffered from a bit of a clunky start, in my opinion, but powered past this to deliver a tale of heroism and honour on both sides of the coin. Definitely one of the better contributions to the ‘Space Marine Battles’ series.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

‘Axe Cop Volume 1’ – Malachai Nicolle & Ethan Nicolle (Dark Horse Books)

After spending a lot of time wondering just when my reading mojo would return, I can tell you the exact moment that it did. I was in Forbidden Planet, the other day, and I saw ‘Axe Cop Volume 1’ sat there on the shelf waiting for me to pick it up. I say it was ‘sat there’, it was actually more a case of the book being hidden amongst several really thick ‘Avengers’ volumes, almost like it was trying to make sure that no-one else got to it before I did. I was very grateful for this as I’d spent a long time trying to track this one down (and don’t talk to me about Amazon, that’s just too easy).
I didn’t even hang around reading this one by the shelf, like I normally do with comic books, ‘Axe Cop’ was bought and paid before anyone else knew what was going on. One relatively quick train ride later, I was curled up on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a book that I just knew would have me in fits of laughter.

This is the bit where I’d give you a little taster of what the book is all about, my own little blurb if you will :o) When you’re looking at a book that has been written by a five year old boy though, well... it’s a little harder than normal to come up with something coherent! Look, there’s a cop who dispenses swift justice by chopping bad guy’s heads off with a fireman’s axe and his partner might be a flute toting cop but could just as easily be an avocado or a gun toting dinosaur (it all depends on who has the magic unicorn’s horn). Talking of dinosaurs, check out Axe Cop’s pet... a flying T-Rex with gatling guns strapped to his arms (he can breathe fire as well).
And all of that is before the bad guys get involved, most of them are stupid but some of them can give Axe Cop a run for his money even if the ultimate outcome is never in any doubt at all.

‘Axe Cop Volume 1’ is one of the books that will have you laughing your head off and feeling just a little bit nostalgic for your childhood all at the same time. Absolutely anything can happen (and it’s that uncertainty that keeps the book ticking along nicely) and it all gets resolved using the best kind of logic, the logic that a five year old uses to make sure that the hero in his game will always win through (no matter how evil the villain).
You can imagine how this approach translates onto the page with our hero being set up against regular bad guys, aliens, vampires and, erm... turd soldiers (we are talking about a five year boy here and I’ve got to fess’ up and say that I sniggered a bit as well). We’re talking full on comic book mayhem that is going to stand as a monument to the imagination of one small boy who has clearly been eating too much sugar. It’s one hell of a ride though and I defy you not to enjoy it, you’ll enjoy it...

Malachai’s big brother Ethan has to take some of the credit here for harnessing this madcap tale and getting it onto the written page. I wasn’t to keen on the artwork to begin with (not as polished as it could have been, perhaps Ethan never saw things going the way they did?) but as things tighten up he really defines Axe Cop’s world and just what it means to live in it (basically, be prepared for battle at all times...) I love the seventies style cops and the villains who all look like they wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Double Dragon’.
What I really love though is the way in which Ethan has fleshed out the world of Axe Cop but made it all about Malachai at the same time. I’m talking about ‘Ask Axe Cop’, a feature that Ethan set up but let Malachai run with. Some of the things that arise from reader questions have to be seen to be believed – don’t read the bit with the mermaid if you’re feeling at all sad (you’ll feel worse once you’ve finished it), how Axe Cop celebrates Independence Day though... absolutely superb.

If you’re done with childish things then you might just want to give ‘Axe Cop’ a miss and read something else instead. If you want to reconnect with your inner five year old though, or just fancy a really good laugh, then stop reading this and go grab yourself a copy right now. You can thank me later. Quite possibly the best comic book I’ll read this year.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Orbit Accquires 'Iron Druid Trilogy' by Kevin Hearne

From the email...

Little Brown’s SF and Fantasy imprint Orbit has acquired an imaginative, witty and action-packed new urban fantasy trilogy which is currently getting a huge buzz in the US. Orbit UK Editorial Director Anne Clarke has acquired UK and Commonwealth rights in the first three books in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series from Evan Goldfield at Jill Grinberg Literary Management.


The trilogy set in Tempe, Arizona, introduces us to Atticus O’Sullivan. He’s a rare book salesman, herb peddler, and 2,000 year old druid – the last of his kind – who has been on the run for over two millennia from a very angry ancient Celtic god. The books are set in the modern day world, where gods, myths, and magic are very much alive. The first book HOUNDED primarily features the many Celtic gods; HEXED will focus on Coyote and the Bacchants; HAMMERED will be about a plot against Thor. (Everybody hates Thor.)

Kevin Hearne says: ‘I’m thrilled to be with Orbit UK and hope people will enjoy this blend of history and legend dropped into the modern world. The rich mythology of the Irish is endlessly fascinating to me, and an allusion to British lore in Hounded will eventually become important later in the series as Atticus finds himself in trouble near Windsor Castle.’

Anne Clarke says: ‘I first read the manuscript for HOUNDED in 2009 but it was before I moved to Orbit, and although I loved the story, I couldn’t see a way to make it work on my list back then (I was mainly publishing crime thrillers). When I heard the Iron Druid series was still looking for a UK home I couldn’t believe my luck, and I’m delighted to be bringing Atticus to the UK after all. And since we’re publishing these books this September, October and November, I don’t have long to wait to share them with everyone else here too. You’re in for a treat!’

This is definitely a good move for Orbit, a publisher who pretty much are the Urban Fantasy market in the UK these days ;o) I've only read the one book of Hearne's ('Hexed' if you're interested) but it was a terrifically entertaining read that bodes well for the other two books in the trilogy. I'm looking forward to seeing this series do very well over here :o)

Monday, 13 June 2011

The 'First Birthday Parties Are The Best Parties Of All' Competition Winner's Post!

So you can probably guess what I've been up to this weekend... What an exciting life I lead :o) Seriously though, there is something to be said for hanging out at the first birthday of your child's little friend. They're too small to do any real damage (although Hope totally laid waste to the bowl of Bombay Mix, she has some weird tastes in food that one...) and what damage was done was in someone else's house and not mine! :o) The most strenuous thing I had to do was to make sure that Hope didn't play with all the interesting sharp stuff in the kitchen, the rest of the day was all about beer. How was your weekend? :o)

In other news (because this is a blog about books so I should at least mention them...) my reading mojo is well and truly back thanks to the ol' comfort reading approach. This means that you'll get to hear me gushing about books that I've really enjoyed this week (gushing quite a lot probably) but I'm hoping that things balance themselves out next week. We'll see...

Anyway, on with announcing all the winners from last week's competitions. If you've been a winner over the last few weeks then you'll have noticed that I never emailed you to let you know beforehand. That's the way things will be in the future (too much going on elsewhere for masses of email writing). I always try to announce competition winners on a Monday, stop by and see how you did if you entered ;o)

'The Concrete Grove' (Gary McMahon)

Carmen Wing, Kent, UK

'The Necklace of the Gods' (Alison Goodman)

Margaret Lycett, Walsall, UK
Hannah Prosser, Rotherham, UK

Well done guys, your books should be with you shortly. Better luck next time everyone else...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

What Title Would You Go For...?

Like the ‘What Cover Would You Go For...’ posts but, well... you can see the difference ;o)


I really don’t get why publishers decide to give the same book different titles (like Gollancz and Del Rey did with ‘Rivers of London’/’Midnight Riot’). Are they hoping that gullible customers will buy the same book twice? Here’s a hint guys, we’re not that daft... Are they trying to put their own mark on a book that they’re effectively having to share with another publisher? And doesn’t the author get any say in what his own book is called?


Take Daniel Polansky’s debut for example. If you’re buying it in the US then you’ll have a copy of ‘Low Town’ gracing your shelves. If you’re buying it in the UK though, you’ll buying the much cooler sounding ‘The Straight Razor Cure’ (although, funnily enough, I'd want that title on the American cover...) At least I think it’s the better sounding title anyway, what do you all think? Will any of you be ordering from abroad because a particular title takes your fancy? Comments please!

Here’s the blurb for anyone who’s interested,

Welcome to Low Town.

Here, the criminal is king. The streets are filled with the screeching of fish hags, the cries of swindled merchants, the inviting murmurs of working girls. Here, people can disappear, and the lacklustre efforts of the guard ensure they are never found.

Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer; now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and a way of inviting danger. You'd struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his.

But then a missing child, murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley. And then another.

With a mind as sharp as a blade and an old but powerful friend in the city, he's the only man with a hope of finding the killer. If the killer doesn't find him first.

All being well, I’ll be reading this one very soon, I'll let you know how it goes.