Category: Books

Kill the Dead

What if they threw a zombie outbreak and nobody cared? Sure, there are people dying in the streets, but they’re just humans. They don’t even know how to do magic? Who gives a damn about them?

That seems to be the concept of Kill the Dead, a book almost wholly lacking in the human element. Every character is above the mass slaughter of the citizens of their surrounds, because they’ve got bigger problems elsewhere: Heaven and Hell are far more important than the concerns of 4 million people in danger of being eaten.

Unseen Academicals

When you read a Discworld book, you read it on two levels: its worth in the overall Discworld canon and its worth as a single cohesive novel. When I started my undertaking of rereading the entire Discworld set a few years ago (I got caught up on The Last Hero for a while despite the fact that it is literally a less than two hour read), the only Discworld novel I hadn’t read was Wintersmith. Since then, Unseen Academicals and I Shall Wear Midnight have joined that shameful list. When I read Wintersmith, I felt great shame. That I had yet to read Unseen Academicals until today is not so much a cause for shame as one for sadness.

Michael Tolliver Lives

I know that an exclamation mark would be hyperbolic, but I think that, after an 18 year absence, “Michael Tolliver Lives!” is an appropriate title. Abandoned by his author in 1989, Michael Tolliver has been up to a lot in his absence. This wasn’t originally going to be a Tales of the city book, but Maupin realised that Michael Tolliver was the perfect vehicle for an ageing gay man.

This explains why it’s written in the first person, and how everything seems to grow organically from that original concept. It can be dangerous resurrecting beloved characters after a long time away, but Maupin has let them all live and die natural lives in the interim.

The shift from third person to the first is not without its problems: unlike The Night Listener, where the narrator was addressing his hypothetical radio audience, there is no indication of whom Michael is speaking to. This is not normally a problem with other first person books, but it’s clear that Michael is addressing someone, and I refuse to believe it’s me. He reminds you of things a couple of times and he explains things that don’t strictly need explanation.

Because we’re presented the exclusive viewpoint of Michael, other characters – Brian in particular – get short shrift from Maupin. This isn’t a failing as much as it is a necessary evil. Just because one wants an author to overstuff a book doesn’t mean that they should. Maupin shows more restraint here than he has previously.

Of course, the other side of the double edged sword is that the exercise is rather more personal than any previous entry in the Tales canon. Rather like Maupin’s prior effort, The Night Listener, I found myself tearing up or even outright crying at times in the last fifty pages.

I welcomed this book because I considered Sure of You a huge downer to end the series on. Maupin doesn’t idolise his characters, and so they sometimes make horrible decisions and become people that you can easily fall out of love with – as I did with several. The character arcs from book to book actually made me worry about reading on for fear that the characters – not Maupin – would compromise themselves.

Michael Tolliver Lives is an invigorating experience. It sounds stupid, but it is “life-affirming”. Maupin writes death and loss very well, having experienced it too often first hand (this series, after all, spans pre-AIDS society to “post”), but he also writes survival. His honesty is brutal, and I don’t agree with every stance that Michael takes, but I don’t have to. I’m touched in such a way that I don’t have to internalise the whole experience. Ultimately, Michael Tolliver Lives, despite the way that it treats some characters (Mona!), feels like more of a gift from Maupin than anything else.

Mary Ann in Autumn, only recently published, promises to be a return to the original format of sprawling and unlikely storylines that intertwine in vague and strange ways. Mary Ann’s return as a focal character might set everything that was wrong in Sure of You right once and for all.

Christian Book Review: Sarah and Paul Have a Visitor

This post bears the Curtis Dickson Spiritual Seal of Approval!

In my youth, when I went to the optometrist I was always happy to wait because his reception had several Peanuts books on offer. I still go to the same optometrist, but now his selection of reading material is markedly different. Apart from a few Goosebumps books, which brought back fond memories of Christmases where I had to pretend to be pleased with the RL Stine paraphernalia my grandmother thrust upon me, I was surprised to find that they had turned away from the secular world.
My optometrist had started to stock Christian books for children.

An unforeseen wait ahead of me, I chose the forgotten 1989 classic Sarah and Paul Have a Visitor which promised I would “learn about Jesus!”

And learn I did. Of course, I’m entirely familiar with the sanitised version of Jesus offered by this book, as I did have religious education in my earlier days (apparently I asked for it, and my parents were never one to complain about packing me off to church on Sundays and to my youth group on Fridays while they did whatever it is parents do while their younger son is indulging in the works of Christ).  I’m even fairly, but not intimately, familiar with developments in Jesus study suitable for people over the age of twelve – which is useful when so much of Western fiction draws its inspiration from Judeo-Christian tradition, and when so much of Japanese anime and video game culture attempts to do likewise.

What’s next for literature’s enfant terrible, Jane Austen?

Are you familiar with Jane Austen? She’s a promising young female writer with a strong following, perhaps best known for her seminal work Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Turns out that she’s taking the idea of olde timey romance and turning it on its head! Her first gambit is the zeitgeist shattering book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which effortlessly shoehorns a zombie infestation and battle into a perfectly serviceable story about a group of women who must be married off at all costs to rich landowners in order to save their silly mother’s face. It must be successful, because I’ve seen at least three women reading it in public.

That’s what they’re all over these days: Edward Cullen and Mister Darcy. The latter, of course, is a master in the art of zombie killing and all around uptight jerkface with a heart of gold. So popular was this young upstart Austen’s genre bending that she managed to claw her way to number three on the New York Times’ best seller list before they realised that, as a woman, she didn’t have the agency to warrant such a spot.[1]

Austen has decided to follow her surprise success with the release of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, which will apparently be about two recently impoverished sisters who seek love and heartbreak … and something else that I think the title hints at but I’ve yet to get an actual idea of. Austen is moving up in the world, though: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is an infinitely catchier title that doesn’t even rely on the crutch of memes as a cynical grab for readers.

Okay, I just considered Jane Austen as an actual meme hound, even – gasp! – a channer, and my brain exploded. I was surprised to see so many copies of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in real life. In my estimation it’s the sort of book that you hear tell of online and then never again. Serious, unironic reading of a romantic classic spliced with zombie combat. I was surprised when I found out that this book is more than just a cash-in, because further reviews have revealed “(w)hat begins as a gimmick ends with renewed appreciation of the indomitable appeal of Austen’s language, characters, and situations…”[2]

It’s a relief, really. I’ve got nothing against messing about in the public domain: my mother and I enjoy a good bonnet drama, and this year the ABC televised Lost in Austen, a BBC miniseries about a woman who accidentally trades places with Elizabeth Bennet, “ruins” the story of Pride and Prejudice as it was supposed to happen, and falls in love with Mister Darcy herself after they both over what an arrogant prig he is.

It’s a knee jerk reaction to automatically think that zombies are a bad idea in this day and age, but one can’t really blame me. All of the cool things – pirates, monkeys, zombies, vampires, and ninja – have been spoiled by an internet hungry for something that I’m not entirely sure of. That this seems to be done with a sort of love and respect warms the cockles of my heart, and other such disposition changing cliché.

I didn’t have that instant reaction to Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. It may be that I’m getting less uptight in my old age, or it may be the fact that the open and gleeful stupidity of the title caught me entirely off guard. I’m not an Austen fanatic; in fact, I’ve never read one of her books, but I’m now comfortable in the knowledge that she’s in safe hands. Sometimes the appearance of stupidity can mask a deep and abiding love, and  one that the world is just a tiny bit better for.

[1] Blatant sexism meant in jest; this “article” is a bizarre mishmash of satire and whatnot. I thought this would be obvious but I don’t want people missing it and tearing me to pieces. Women continue to remain talented and valuable members of society.

[2]Donna Bowman, AV Club, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, April 15 2009

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves: An Exercise in Everything Good

The craynarbians drank freely of their caffeel, spliced with slipsharp oil, for Circle’s sake …

I’m not normally much of a one to read fantasy or science fiction, with my toes only dipping as deep as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – special men, and special exceptions. It’s not a failing of the genre so much as it’s a failing of the self: I find so much of the material I’ve tried so dry that I haven’t been able to immerse myself much further than a few pages. Combine that with the authors’ tendencies to prolificacy, which makes it dang near impossible to find a place to start, and then in sequence, and it’s something that I generally stay clear of.

Let’s ignore entirely SF and fantasy writers’ other tendency, after their works get a bit long in the tooth: that of transforming their series into a collection of rape, incest and paedophilic fantasies – which is a wild generalisation, but common enough to note – and let me focus on something good.

The other week, browsing in my favourite “surprise” bookstore (there’s no point going there for anything specific, it’s a pot luck affair), I saw Stephen Hunt’s The Kingdom Beyond The Waves on the shelves. Intrigued by its cover, featuring a steampunk u-boat trailing an ancient diving suit, I meditated on the book and its promise of an archaeology professor seeking the lost civilisation of “Camlantis”. I didn’t buy it immediately, but rather came back a few days later and purchased it after the allure of a Victorian submarine could no longer be resisted.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves turned out to be well worth it, but I had some initial misgivings. It soon became clear to me that this was not the first book that Hunt had written in this world. It turned out later that it’s a case of world and history sharing, rather than character sharing, but this still poses a problem because if you’re unprepared you can drown in terms for races and places and drinks that you’ve never heard of. Hunt is a good enough writer that soon enough you’ll realise that there are apparently a race of four armed crab people operating alongside humanity and – more importantly – “steammen” who subscribe to a voodoo like religion.

Once I’d figured all of this out, the book became one giant ball of “yes” for me. Hunt hits so many of my buttons that it’s almost as if he cut into my head and realised so much of the stuff I’ve always wanted and then overlaid it with things I never knew I was even allowed to want. Look at it like this: it’s kind of like Indiana Jones in a fantasy setting with crabs and robots. Mix this in with a traditional Atlantis/Laputa quest, add disgraced royalty reduced to swashbuckling beneath the sea and then season with an eccentric man of high standing who has a thousand false faces and one “true” one, and you have a great book. There are eventually three plot threads running at a time, and every time I reached a new one I’d be cursing because I wanted to know what was going to happen next in the last one. It’s a particularly vicious cycle, and one that can only be solved by continuing to read.

What does fantasy have to offer us? Lost technology is one of the greatest lynchpins: people operating machinery and other devices that they simply do not have the wherewithal to produce in their own context: relics of ages long gone. Hunt offers that here with the oil powered car of “Diesela-Khan”, not to mention the pure excellence that abides in the steammen and their feral siltempter enemies.

You also have people who “aren’t what they seem to be” and who, under Hunt’s tutelage, manage to be both exciting and surprising despite their obvious mystery: early in the book a blind man with awesome power manifests his awesome powers. Soon thereafter a blind man with uncanny sonar ability joins the u-boat’s crew. Coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not!

I should also mention that not only are we treated to steam powered robots, but steam powered robots who have made mortal enemies of thunder lizards. Yes, dinosaurs versus robots. I realise I sound like I’m being flippant here but all of this material works very well together and achieves precisely what it should do: it captured my imagination in a way that forced me to run to the final destination and find out precisely what was going on.

Hunt takes many old ideas, blends them together and creates something that is at once both compelling and familiar. I think that the reason a lot of people stick with genre writing of any sort is because they’re given something that is reassuring but hopefully also invigorating, something that reminds them why they follow whatever it is they follow in the first place (for crime, for instance see Ian Rankin’s Rebus books). Even now, reading through Terry Pratchett’s books again, I’m frequently floored by paragraphs of insight or turns of phrase that resonate deep in my core, and have for the twelve years that I’ve been reading his work.
The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is the second of what presently stands at three books. I’ve only just barely touched on what makes the book so good, but I think it’s clear that I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The world never ceases to depress

In lieu of me complaining about lacklustre video games, as I had planned to use this space, I’d like to take an opportunity to be depressed. It’s an article, right … but it’s an article with the following title:

Terry Pratchett: I’m slipping away a bit at a time… and all I can do is watch it happen

How is this not among the worst things in the world? True, thus has it ever been, but until it struck Pratchett it was little more than an abstraction. A person leading by example is a terrible thing in this sort of situation. Almost secretly, Pratchett’s first non-Discworld book since 1995’s Johnny and the Bomb, Nation, was published in the last month. I’ve read three Discworld books over the last two weeks (eighteen so far this year, that makes it – in order, for the first time since 2004), in between Adrian Mole tomes, but I feel I should put them on hold for a little bit so I can see what this book that “had to be written” is like. Saying this, I haven’t even read Wintersmith yet. I feel ashamed that I haven’t much liked the last few books in the series, either, but …
… now I just want to curl up in a corner and hide from the world. If you’ll excuse me.

Forgetting Quicksilver Marshall

I’d just like you to know that I really tried. I got five hundred something pages into Quicksilver and the first three hundred went off like a shot! Good, fun stuff, cutting up dogs for horrid experiments and whatnot, then the King of the Vagabonds came in and my reading ground to a halt. I’ll have to tackle you on my own dime rather than the company dollar, Neal Stephenson, because I feel like I’m getting nowhere fast.

In other approved activities, be sure and see Forgetting Sarah Marshall this weekend. It’s pretty funny, even if you don’t want to see Jason Segel’s penis. (which you do get to see … several times.)

Yeah, a simultaneous release for a movie? I didn’t see it coming either!