Category Archives: Humour

Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Pandaemonium by Christopher BrookmyreReview: Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre (Abacus, 2010)

Pandaemonium, n. the capital city of Hell, any very disorderly or noisy place of assembly, tumultuous uproar.

Christopher Brookmyre is probably best known for his caustic Scots detective Jack Parlabane but he’s not all about sticking it to gangsters and corrupt politicians. Oh no, he’s got a wide-reaching range of influences and a pretty impressive store of knowledge, something he proudly parades in the wonderful Pandaemonium. I first read this title years ago back in Scotland, having exhausted his Parlabane series and thirsting for more of the same sarcasm and wit. At the time it made a good impression, I remember thoroughly enjoying it, but on a recent second outing I discovered just how enthralling, enlightening and entertaining a read it really was.

Pandaemonium kicks off in a sweltering, top-secret underground lab somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, peopled by scientists (fair enough), soldiers armed with ridiculously high-tech weapons (hmm?) and a small army of priests led by Cardinal Tullian (wtf?). Scientific second-in-command Merrick journeys through the rocky interior to the heart of the installation where the subject of today’s tests has just arrived through the Dodgson Anomaly, a mysterious artifact created by the particle accelerator residing there. The creature – tall, leathery and, erm, horned – seems to him to be nothing more than some new species, perhaps from another dimension. To Tullian and his team however the truth is all too clear. They are dealing with demons, and the Anomaly is nothing less than a doorway to hell.

Meanwhile, on the nearby country roads, a chartered bus is approaching filled with pupils of St Peter’s Catholic School, Glasgow. Following the fatal stabbing of one of their classmates, the students are en route to a Highland hideout, a former fort now re-purposed to help corporate colleagues feel like they hate each other and their jobs that little bit less. The entourage is the usual mish-mash – Kirk Burns, the resident psycho with his able lieutenants in tow; Adnan, Radar and the rest of the geek brigade; new girl and goth loner Marianne; Yvonne, Julie and the motor-mouthed ned girl crew; and a few other John Hughes stereotypes for good measure. Trying to keep control are the overly stern head, Guthrie; Father Blake, whose faith is somewhat less than rock-solid; Miss Ross, retaining something of a crush on the good Father; and Kane, the atheist physics teacher, odd-man-out and best-friend foil to Blake.

So to recap, we have a secret experiment involving mad scientists, soldiers, the Vatican and demons from the pits of hell. En route to the area are bereaved, angered and scared Catholic school students. The area is isolated and hostile. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure you’ve guess the answer is ‘everything’ and go wrong it does, in the most spectacular, bloody and outright hilarious fashion possible. The pandaemonium of the title is soon unleashed as conflicts between science and religion lead to some fatal decisions being made and soon the hapless students find themselves involved in an entirely different kind of retreat. Brookmyre seems to be really in his element here, writing as if creating a movie screenplay rather than a novel. The pace never lets up for a second with the viewpoint constantly jumping from Cardinal to physicist, from girly clique to bully-boy. Initially the build-up manages to give us just the right amount of background and cements our empathy with the appropriate characters, never overloading on exposition or dawdling too much. When the shit hits the fan though things go truly into overdrive, and the passage which marks the transition from order to chaos is absolutely bloody masterful, feeding lines of the prose into the pumping dance music of the school disco as terror descends and gore begins to spray.

It’s not all blood, guts and Buckfast though, there is actually a tremendous amount of thoughtful debate in Pandaemonium and it blends into the story so well you’ll barely notice it’s there. For starters there’s the obvious science vs religion angle, tackled by Tullian, Merrick and resident crackpot Steinmeyer. Then there’s the hoary old ‘has science gone too far?’ chestnut, admirably handled. The highlight though is the series of dialogues between Blake and Kane covering the problem of evil, the inconsistencies of Catholicism and religion in general and also the very nature of faith. These are some big ideas and Brookmyre never ones shies away from them or disposes of them with overly simplistic answers.

And on top of that there’s the hidden game of ‘spot the pop culture reference’, and believe me this book is riddled with them. The mentions of and allusions to Doom, the classic first-person shooter also featuring a portal to hell (the Phobos Anomaly) are legion, not only because one main character retains his grip on sanity by pretending to be living out that very game. Then there are the easy ones like the former US Marine who now minds the retreat attended by the school, one Max Sendak. And for the eagle-eyed there are a few gems hidden away; I wonder who else out there knows why he called one part of the book ‘Bonnie Brae’?

Anyway, enough raving. Time to let you rush out and buy it. Any fan of sci-fi and horror is going to get a kick out of this book but really its appeal should be far wider ranging. The cast of all-too-human characters gives it enough grounding to ensure that casual readers won’t be turned off by the flying guts. Not only that but the mix of action-packed nonsense and serious debate makes it a book for many moods. Now, can we have a movie version please?

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Filed under Horror, Humour, Science Fiction

Extreme Dentistry by Hugh AD Spencer

Extreme Dentistry by Hugh AD SpencerReview: Extreme Dentistry by Hugh AD Spencer (Brain Lag, 2014)

Note: Thanks to the good folks at Netgalley and Brain Lag for providing the ARC of this title.

Been looking for a book combining the holy trinity of root canal work, the Mormon Church and shapeshifting alien hive entities? Trust me, I know the feeling. But fear not, with Extreme Dentistry your wait is over! This is one of the stranger backs I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent months, but can such disparate elements really be thrown together to create something viable? Yes. Just as long as you’re not looking for anything resembling any kind of sense…

Arthur Percy leads a mostly unenviable life. A lapsed Mormon approaching his middle years, he’s accomplished and skilled at his job yet is constantly passed over for promotion in favour of ‘the Beautifuls’; vastly more presentable and much younger colleagues whose utter lack of knowledge and people skills present no obstacle to their meteoric corporate rise. Resigned to living forever in their shadow, Arthur retreats to the solace of his family and his uneventful home life. Until this life is interrupted by an unexpected and unaneasthetised emergency root canal operation in Singapore.

Arthur’s new dentist, devout Mormon elder Dr. Cal Stewart begins to pay undue and possibly criminal attention to Arthur, his behaviour becoming ever more erratic until he’s forced to divulge the nasty truth. Arthur is surrounded by real-life body-snatchers, parasitic aliens who take over their hosts and feed on their thoughts and emotions as well as their physical bodies. A simple toothache is just the warning sign that you’re in danger. Thanks to the swift actions of Dr Stewart and his colleagues Arthur is saved in time and inducted into the international, multi-faith taskforce (Canadian Reformed Church Of The Latter Day Saints Division) waging war against the hive menace.

So I guess I won’t have to reiterate that Extreme Dentistry is something of a strange read. It is, and gloriously so. Unlike some of the more outlandish works of bizarro fiction which end up choking on their own forced otherness, Hugh Spencer’s tale of gum disease and anal fear-rape (seriously) manages to come across as utterly effortless and natural. Somehow this works through a tactic of disposing with endless exposition and instead denying the reader any explanation of what the hell is going on, just taking it all in its narrative stride. In fact I noted to one colleague while reading that Arthur’s sections in particular (the story focuses on him but switches viewpoints now and again) felt less like reading than having having the story related to me in a pub over a few pints by the man himself.

There are a fair few themes examined in the course of Extreme Dentistry, from love to urban alienation. More than anything though it’s quite a savage attack on modern consumerism and corporate culture. The concept of the Beautifuls was one I could perfectly relate to, having worked in the marketing industry for many years previously. The obvious loathing Spencer has for this particular office-dwelling species played very well with me, although those who have not experienced it first hand may naively assume his depictions to lapse into caricature. They’re like that! Really! And he has plenty to say about the modern penchant for shopping mall life and its obvious links to the decline of individuality and creativity. There’s even a handy fictional work within the story to explain to us the role of the mall in harvesting victims for the aliens, An Occult History Of North American Shopping Malls.

So yes, it’s a very silly read but should not be passed over for that reason. Let the oddities draw you in to this unfeasible but all-too-familiar world. Oh, and if you hate dentists then beware, it gets a bit graphic at times. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite short films to get you in the mood…

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Filed under Bizarro, Humour, Science Fiction

Last God Standing by Michael Boatman

Last God Standing by Michael BoatmanReview: Last God Standing by Michael Boatman (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Angry Robot for providing the ARC of this title

It must be tough being a god. No, seriously! I mean all day long you’ve got those prayers coming in from every corner of the globe, not to mention the fact that everyone’s a critic and they keep cursing your name. Then there are those sickeningly sycophantic angels crawling up your ass at every opportunity (for Jahweh at least). And the real kicker – if you let your guard down and people start following some other deity then you’re out on the spiritual street, resigned to the dustbin of theological history. So it’s no wonder that Jahweh decided to pack it in for a while and take a vacation in human form.

Last God Standing introduces us to Lando Calrissian Darnell Cooper (yeah, seriously), the very human incarnation of the Christian version of the Big Man Upstairs. Son of an unhinged, homophobic car salesman father and a similarly eccentric mother it was little wonder that Lando found himself treading the boards as a stand-up comic, playing the Chicago circuit and holding out for his big break. Between that and courting his girlfriend, a British-American martial arts aficionado, his life is relatively uncomplicated. Well, except for the whole being-God thing.

You see his absence has been noted by the representatives of various vanquished pantheons from Norse to Greek to Native American. They’re a tad upset that the current pretender to the throne is slacking on the job and are looking for some payback for their previous embarrassments at his ends. To that end Lando finds himself tapping into his reserves of divine power to clean up them mess when the likes of Thor decide a holy fistfight in the streets of Chicago is in order. And to make matters worse his extended vacation has left a gulf, one which is just begging to be filled by something or someone altogether more malevolent. Hey, what happened to Lucifer while God was kicking back…?

Last God Standing takes a very original premise and proceeds to have a hell of a lot of fun with it. Boatman has a sharp tongue and has no qualms about causing offence to the thin-skinned, which makes for hilarious reading at times. However he never crosses the line into being offensive for the sake of it (although I ‘m aware that other readers disagree here). Instead it puts me in mind of some of my favourite stand-ups, from George Carlin – who is repeatedly namechecked – to Jim Jeffries. Caustic but always well-meaning.

The divine smackdown scenes are ridiculously overblown and all the better for it. After all if you’re going to run with an idea like inter-deity warfare in city streets then why half-ass it? There’s a very visual element to the way these sequences play out, like I was watching them unfold on an Imax screen in my cranium. In fact the same could be said for much of the book, the natural flow of the story lending to a cinematic quality.

Of course the book isn’t without its flaws, naturally so for a debut full-length work. About half to two-thirds through the story takes a sudden leap away from what passes for its reality. In retrospect it doesn’t seem so bad but at the time of reading it was so jarring that it seriously derailed the plot and caused a temporary but sharp drop in my enjoyment. You ever watch Fringe? You know when they put Pacey in the machine and everything went weird and you kinda stopped watching after that? Yeah, that feeling. But thankfully the effect was short-lived and Boatman pulled things back together for a fitting finale.

One other quibble, and this has nothing to do with the content of the book itself. Angry Robot marketing team, what the hell are you doing? For starters, Last God Standing has been saddled with the worst cover I’ve seen since… well, I can’t even remember. If I still owned dead-tree books it’d be the worst cover in my extensive collection, the kind only found on Facebook groups dedicated to bad self-published fiction. Seriously. And another thing, the blurb the cover and even the title focus on the concept of God as a human stand-up comedian. In the book? Not so much. The whole stand-up thing isn’t even a MacGuffin, it’s entirely irrelevant. Lando could have been a street sweeper and things would have played out exactly the same. No big deal, just I was kinda looking forward to some actual stand-up being involved in the book itself beyond the two token passages we’re given.

But meh, that’s just splitting hairs. Stand-up or no stand-up, Last God Standing is a fun read and one which has inspired me to track down it’s author’s previous short works. Hopefully with a little more work he’s going to develop into a serious talent and I’ll be watching while it happens. Oh, and this book will probably really piss off your obnoxiously religious friends, which is always a good thing.

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This Is The Way The World Ends by James Morrow

This Is The Way The World Ends by James MorrowReview: This Is The Way The World Ends by James Morrow (Gateway, 2013)

“‘There’s a logic to what you’re saying,’ said Theophilus, ‘but, being insane, I cannot grasp it.'”

If you’ve read this blog before you may be aware that post-apocalyptic fiction is my genre of choice. The reason for the catastrophe is largely irrelevant: zombies; aliens; disease, even nanobots gone wild. Something about the notion of mankind reduced to a bare minimum and forced to adapt and survive just gets my gears going. How I’ve managed to miss this book so far is a mystery to me, it deserves to be a classic in the canon of post-apocalyptica. Why so special?

It’s 1995 and the threat of nuclear conflict looms large over the world. George Paxton, everyday man and tombstone engraver, dreams of buying SCOPA suits for his family, supposedly guaranteeing their safety in any such war, but they remain forever out of reach for a man of his means. Until, that is, an eccentric gentleman in the hat trade approaches him with an offer of a golden suit, specially made, better than any SCOPA. He just needs to sign the contract and his precious daughter will be assured protection. No sooner is the paper signed than the inevitable happens and humanity is reduced to ashes.

George, miraculously unharmed in the conflagration, wanders through the remnants of his quiet little town, passing through hordes of shambling casualties, their precious SCOPAs hanging in tatters. Searching for his family through the ashes of former homes, he is about to give up hope when a helicopter descends from nowhere, transporting to the safety of a US submarine bound for Antarctica and the last bastion of mankind. What seems like a rescue soon turns sour however, as George and five fellow survivors soon find themselves trapped in a nightmare. Their rescuers are no less than the manifestations of all the potential future humans whose existence has been denied by his generation’s folly. He and his acquaintances are to be put on trial for nothing less than the murder of the future and the squandering of all of human history.

Such is the set-up for This Is The Way The World Ends, both a powerful work of science fiction and a viciously sharp satire mocking the skewed logic which peppered the Cold War era. The book could easily have been written by Joseph Heller, being reminiscent of his classic Catch-22 both in the style of language and in the explorations of the ludicrous ends to which bureaucracy and government thought inevitably lead. James Morrow is a master at exposing the absurdities at the heart of the nuclear arms race and the justifications provided by the masters of war who push for its continuation.

In a truly novel twist, This Is The Way The World Ends borrows its form and main characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, paying tribute to the paradoxes and logical puzzles found within. You’ll find the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, even Tweedledum and Tweedledee all making appearances and lending to the surreal, dreamlike appearance of the post-apocalyptic section of the novel.

Morrow has a wicked way with words and the entirety of This Is The Way The World Ends is endlessly quotable, as with the Mad Hatter’s line at the beginning of the review. In reference to his protagonist’s liberal religious leanings – Paxton is a Unitarian – he has him exclaim, “‘Find my family, God!'”, only to note immediately that “There are no Unitarians in thermonuclear holocausts”. This knack for turning a phrase goes into overdrive during the trial, with the Defense Secretary noting that in case of a first strike by enemy forces “‘We owe it to all those millions of dead people to make more millions of dead people.'” As amusing as it sounds at first, mirth soon turns to chills as you realise that those words could as easily have come from Reagan or Thatcher at the peak of their respective reigns. It’s the kind of warped worldview which Stanley Kubrick nailed in Dr. Strangelove.

This is The Way The World Ends is a wonderfully original, well-rounded and magical treatment of a horrible and plausible scenario. Unlike much of the genre it eschews the gore and grit of the aftermath to ask the question of how we got there in the first place. Morrow doesn’t shy away from any of the more unpleasant avenues down which his story leads, the discomfort being more intellectual than visceral and as such often even more unsettling. Perhaps it loses its way a little towards the ending, the post-trial segment seeming a little rushed and disjointed, but this is more than made up for by the remainder of the book.

One for fans of Heller, Carroll, Kubrick, post-apocalyptica and interesting political musings.

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The Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans by Matt HaigReview: The Humans by Matt Haig (Canongate Books, 2013)

It’s fun to dip into a novel with absolutely no idea what to expect. Okay, I knew it was something to do with aliens but beyond that all I knew was that Steph had reviewed it favourably on Mountains Of Instead. For some reason the simplistic yet beautiful cover convinced me that it would be an easy read, just right for someone feeling threatened by a reading list which could stretch to the moon and back.  Goes to show the old maxim isn’t necessarily true. I was onto a winner.

The Humans opens with a spot of possession. It transpires that the key to the universe is hidden within the world of mathematics. Functions and formulae can unlock the secrets of interstellar travel, longer life and myriad other mysteries, with prime numbers playing a key role. However these powers are not to be taken lightly, nor entrusted to species incapable of handling them responsibly, species like us. So when Professor Andrew Martin finally solves the riddle of Riemann’s Hypothesis, the idea that there is some order to the apparently random appearance of primes, the watchmen of the universe decide that something must be done. His consciousness is obliterated and control of his body turned over to an anonymous low-ranking agent charged with eliminating anyone with who he may have shared his revelation, family included.

Thus begins what is, essentially, an Ealing-style comedy of errors for the first act as the new visitor struggles to adjust to life among the humans. Is spitting at each other a friendly greeting or just a reaction to his walking naked in the middle of the road after dark? How do they face their mortality without going insane and climbing up the walls? And the rain, how do they handle the constant, awful rain? The social faux pas’s (pases? pie?) mount until pseudo-Martin finds himself in an asylum and finally reunited with his host’s wife and his first target. And here The Humans enters darker territory as the mission begins to take over.

Matt Haig has written a quintessentially English fish-out-of-water comedy and plastered it over with a beautifully dark tale of a hapless guest tasked with the murders of those who ostensibly care for him. At times he wears his influences on his sleeves – the debt to Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently books is apparent – but for the most part The Humans is a truly original read, managing to combine sci-fi tropes, musings on mathematics, thoughts on loneliness and the human condition and some moving insights into the nature of love, all without seeming disjointed or ever losing its flow.

Pseudo-Martin’s journey from lonely operative in a strange world to reluctant assassin to, well, wherever he ends up (no spoilers) is an unsteady one. Haig does a wonderful job of communicating his every doubt and revelation, every internal struggle with which he wrestles. Indeed one of the most startling things about The Humans is just how human this decidedly non-human being appears from the outset. Aside from the obvious problems his emotional reactions soon assimilate into his new surroundings, lending an unexpected depth and feeling to the novel. In fact it soon becomes clear that the real message hidden in this story isn’t that of an outsider trying to understand us, but how hard we must struggle to understand ourselves.

While it occasionally wonders briefly into irritatingly twee territory, The Humans is a consistently enjoyable read, one that challenges you beyond what would be expected for such a simple concept. The gravitas which Haig manages to squeeze out of otherwise slapstick moments is quite incredible. For that reason the book has a hugely wide appeal, encompassing comedy, sci-fi, thriller and deeply emotional and thought-provoking drama. One to recommend without hesitation.

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Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis

Dead Pig Collector by Warren EllisReview: Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis (FSG  Originals, 2013)

Ever wondered how they do it? Those people you hire to execute your spouse, business partner, rival or whoever happens to have stoked the fires of vengeance within you? For starters there’s the dirty deed itself, the taking of a life. Requires something of a detached personality don’t you think? But then there’s the clean-up. I mean just think of the various fibres and fluids composing a human body. We’re wrapped in cloth, bound by skin, motivated by muscle, supported by bone, vitalised by copious amounts of blood, directed by grey matter. And the excreta, don’t forget the excreta. How does one even begin to deal with all of this?

In Dead Pig Collector, Warren Ellis takes us behind the scenes of this most secretive and complex of occupations. Following a day in the life of Mr. Sun we are walked through the aftermath of what happens when sex and business collide. Someone always gets hurt, we know that much. How much pain and what happens next, that’s the question. In this case things take a turn from the unexpected right from the outset but out protagonist, entirely unruffled by his situation, sets about his procedure with an eager spectator in tow.

Weighing in at a mere 40 pages, Dead Pig Collector is more a vignette than anything else, a one-act play drenched in blood, guts and gleeful black humour. Ellis, whose works include the legendary Transmetropolitan comics and, most recently, the wonderfully gritty Gun Machine, has created an immediately believable (and almost likeable) assassin and cleaner in a very brief time. Told entirely in first person narrative, the story puts us right behind his eyes and the ride is alternately chilling and hilarious. Setting and characterisation are kept to the bare bones but the sparse build-up ensures that not a second is wasted on irrelevancies. The result is a lean yet muscular story which squeezes everything it can out of its limited time.

Warren Ellis is already renowned for the gritty, honest feel of his fiction and this outing is no exception. The clinical, process-driven manner in which the titular collector goes about his work both entrances and horrifies, echoing the banality of his namesake Bret Easton Ellis’s creation Patrick Bateman. The ease with which he makes the cleaning and disposal of human remains seem entirely commonplace, while human interaction reeks of unease, is quite staggering. Perhaps most disturbing is the level of authenticity brought to proceedings. The tiniest minutiae of the grisly routine are cast under the spotlight, turning Dead Pig Collector into Corpse Disposal 101 . You have to wonder what exactly Ellis did for money before deciding to pick up a pen…

Anyway, I’ll not spend much longer on this since it’s, well, so short. Buy it, spend a fleeting hour reading it, then replace the victim with your own personal nemesis. Trust me, it’s healthy.

 

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Filed under Humour, Noir, Thriller

The Antipope by Robert Rankin

Review: The Antipope by Robert Rankin (Pan, 1981)

The Antipope by Robert RankinLife is far from dull for the regulars of the Lucky Swan, a stereotypical old English boozer in the heart of London’s Brentford, yet it’s not exactly abnormal. The locals come and go about their business – unlikely gambling schemes, peccadilloes with their neighbours’ wives and such like – punctuating their activities with several lagers and embellishing tales of their latest exploits with the necessary bells and whistles. In fact the scenes playing out at the Swan could be re-enacted without a second glance at any other pub up and down the country without anyone batting an eyelid. Then the tramp comes to town…

Shambling barely perceptibly up the street, the itinerant starts to make casual contact with the locals. An unassuming request for help here, a tall tale there, imparting information and soaking it up at the same time. Yet as soon as he appears he soon vanishes, disappearing in mid-conversation and leaving only the vaguest notion of his presence in the first place. For Jim Pooley and John Omally, two layabouts who are more or less part of the Swan’s furniture, the vagrant’s comings and goings assume a sinister and they find themselves naturally compelled to investigate – for who knows, perhaps their efforts may yield fame or fortune?

Before they know it they find themselves wrapped up in series of adventures and misadventures quite beyond their booze-addled comprehension. Aided by the local professor, a reclusive genius (also skilled in the ancient martial arts of Dimac), they uncover the secret of the magic beans, reveal a growing army of miniature demons and stumble upon a plot to turn Brentford into a new Vatican, hatched by none other than a malevolent reincarnation of Pope Alexander IV, last of the infamous Borgias.

And that, in a nutshell, is The Antipope, first instalment in Robert Rankin’s Brentford trilogy. On the surface it seems like yet another absurdist slice of, erm, horror? Urban fantasy? Gothic? And therein lies the joy of The Antipope – jumping merrily among genres it happily defies categorisation and carves out its own little niche. The settings and characterisation are straight out of Wodehouse while the general humour are cut from the same cloth as Pratchett, Adams and their ilk – thoroughly English without ever becoming twee or lapsing into patronising stereotype. There’s a great warmth with which Rankin portrays his protagonists, painting them as neither heroes nor anti-heroes but simple everymen who, upon finding the odds stacked against them, rely purely on whisky and chance to get them out of a scrape. The Swan and its patrons strikes an immediate chord with anyone who has spent a few hours in a genuine old British pub, the sounds and smells filling your senses as you read – for better or worse…;

Around this shell is wrapped a tale which is irresistible in its lunacy and yet which, thanks to the grounding in its characters and locale, almost manages to pass as a description of normal life in Brentford. Encompassing everything from demons to zombies, from kung-fu adepts to satanic midnight masses, there’s no let-up in the action from start to finish. The build-up to and execution of the cowboy party scene in the Swan is absolutely beautiful, a crescendo of every brand of craziness known to man, encompassing page 3 girls, and army of Lone Rangers and a neon-lit (and poorly grounded) king of the open plains. No description can do this section justice, just go and read it right now.

Finally, no review of The Antipope would be complete without a mention of the alcohol. To my recollection I have never seen, heard or read of such Herculean acts of consumption. Hunter Thompson doesn’t get a look in while Withnail and I look on in goggle-eyed awe. It seems that every single act committed by the denizens of Brentford must be accompanied by a bottle or two of Scotch if it’s to stand any chance of success. In fact, such is the constancy of the liquor’s flow that I can’t even recall mention of a single hangover – the effects are never given a chance to wear off before they are refreshed. Perhaps a re-read and an actual bottle count is in order.

By virtue of Robert Rankin’s aptitude for genre-hopping  would feel at home on a diverse range of bookshelves. Classified by the author himself as ‘far-fetched fiction’, there’s an appeal to those of a fantastical, science-fictional or horrific bent as well as those who simply fancy a taste of pre-Information Age England. The locale and literary style are firmly fixed but the humour is universal, making this one for lovers of a well-spun yarn anywhere.

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In Memoriam – James Herbert

Everyone agrees what the best music in the history in the world is, right? Yeah, it’s whatever tunes reached your eardrums during those precious formative years when every minor mood change is a rollercoaster and the tiniest events assume the greatest significance. We all recognise this as it applies to music but the literary analogue is rarely mentioned. Anyone who spent too much time with their head nestled among the pages and their mind in another dimension while growing up has those authors who will stay with them forever, who moulded their literary tastes, sense of humour/morbidity, morality and more besides. Today I lost one such figure, James Herbert.

I first encountered his work while browsing my dad’s bookshelves, the only sci-fi/science library I ever needed. I’d already dabbled with Stephen King but even as an early teen I could recognise the cloying sickliness of his folksy Americana, marring an otherwise unsurpassable horror canon. As soon as I saw the title ‘The Rats‘ on the spine I knew this was worth an investment of time. It was exactly what I needed – a gore-drenched tale preying on our modern suburban fears as well as our primal disgust of all things scuttling. None of King’s cutesy breaking the fourth wall, this was all razor-sharp and crammed full of flawed characters, stupid mistakes, sarcasm by the bucketload and the natural ability with language which propelled King to his status. James Herbert was my new obsession.

First task was to complete the Rats trilogy. Lair was mildly disappointing but Domain blew me away and was my first experience with the genre which was to become my home from home – post-apocalyptica. I mean, mutant rats devouring the scattered survivors in the wake of nuclear holocaust? What’s not to like? From there I moved on to The Fog – not, as I had expected, the novel on which John Carpenter’s classic was based! This fog managed to be even more sinister, the episode involving the mass drowning at the beginning haunting my thoughts for months afterwards.

The Dark, Sepulchre, Haunted – you name it, I had to read it. Even his less stellar offerings managed to captivate me through his utterly believable characters, endless imagination and ability to turn the most innocent situation into a font of creeping dread. Recently I returned to one of his works which had failed to impress me as a teenager, The Magic Cottage, and found it transformed beyond all probability into one of my new favourite books, reminding me of none other than Neil Gaiman who in earlier years was unknown to me other than as the co-author of Good Omens. That his books can stand the test of time and even sneak their way onto your top ten list without so much as a by your leave is testament to the fact that he was far more than just another horror hack. He was a master of his game, never making ripples as large as some of the other players simply because he didn’t have to.

Today he died at his home. He was 69, not a bad innings but tragically short for someone with as great a talent as he possessed. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that we may have been robbed of some amazing works. Instead I’m going to focus on the legacy he left behind, the fact that he transormed his genre and lent it a level of respect during a time when it was sorely lacking. Over the next few weeks I’m going to revisit those classics of my youth in tribute to the man we lost, perhaps posting some reviews here but more likely just doing it for my own damn pleasure.

Thank you James, and goodbye.

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Pirate Party

Pirate Cinema by Coy DoctorowReview: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2012)

(Note: This was originally written for The Mountains Of Instead but turned out too long. I had to use it, especially in light of the recent death of Aaron Swartz. The themes of this book are very relevant to the case)

The year is, well, not so far from now. Life in the UK is much the same, only the technology has changed. Even in that sense society is entirely recognisable, with the only significant difference being further reliance on the internet: for study; for work; for recreation; even for claiming benefits. It is against this background that nerd icon Cory Doctorow sets his latest YA novel, Pirate Cinema.

Pirate Cinema opens with Trent McCauley, a nondescript 16 year old Bradford schoolkid, indulging in his hobby. Trent is a remixer, downloading any appearances of fictional actor Scot Colford which he can lay his hands on and rearranging them into his own wildly creative and popular montages. Unfortunately for Trent, the entertainment industry takes a dim view of such activities and under the draconian laws of the land his family have their internet service disconnected.

Even today this would be a blow to many people – one year without access to email, Facebook, YouTube and everything else. In Trent’s world it is nigh a death sentence. His younger sister is cut off from vital educational resources in the middle of her schooling. His father, barely scraping by at an online temping gig, has his sole source of income removed. His mother can no longer apply for benefits to aid her crippling leg problems, nor can she find any online help. Trent, shocked by the consequences of his innocent downloading, flees home and heads for the bright lights of London.

By the end of his first night he has lost his laptop (using it as a pillow while sleeping in a park was perhaps a silly idea) and is reduced to begging for change. Fortunately he is adopted by Jem, a genuinely altruistic old hand at this life and Doctorow briefly transforms Pirate Cinema into Oliver Twist. Jem introduces Trent to the smart (and honest) way to live on the streets, with the principle of sharing their gains with those less fortunate at the forefront of their minds. Before long they are squatting in an abandoned pub and renovating it, transforming it into a veritable palace.

Trent soon finds his internet feet again and is continuing his remixing under the alias Cecil B. DeVil. This soon lands him in hot water yet again and matters escalate to the point of a legal battle and a grassroots war with the entertainment industry and the corrupt politicians whose pockets they are filling to ensure their laws pass. The ongoing collaborations with Trent and his new-found activist friends, set against the scheming and machinations of the executives and politicians, form the meat of Pirate Cinema, with Cory Doctorow subjecting his characters to all manner of mishaps and misadventures before reaching an exhilarating conclusion.

Pirate Cinema is a great little read. My only real gripe was his often embarrassing attempts so conduct dialogue using teenage slang. Canadian Doctorow has been resident in the UK for several years but his grasp of kidspeak is tenuous at best and makes for some unintentional giggle along the way. Seriously, I have never seen anyone say “Cor!” outside of the Beano.

On the plus side, it never takes itself too seriously and plays about with pop culture references, pokes gentle fun at its geeky excesses and manages to entertain and ultimately educate at the same time. It’s suited perfectly to an audience of an age with its protagonist and any references to sex, drugs and swearing are subtly glossed over. It’s possible that some may find Doctorow’s style overly preachy, an accusation levelled at his previous YA effort Little Brother (a book which made me wish I had been born 20 years later so I could be reading it as a teenager today). However, as an avowed copyfighter this was not an issue for me personally. Overall it delivers exactly what one would expect from a YA novel with this premise – a funny, rousing techno-fable which should please a wide audience, especially among computer-literate teens.

So that’s the meat of the review. Now for the Public Service Announcement. Pirate Cinema is a fictional novel but the world it depicts is most assuredly not. The legal battles, political maneuvering and lobbying which form the heart of the story are based, with very little exaggeration, on events occurring right now. UK readers may be familiar with the Digital Economy Act which passed in 2010 and handed unbelievable powers to rights holders to prosecute those they believe to be infringing copyright, even without evidence. France recently introduced a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule identical to that used in Pirate Cinema. The copyright battles in the US are probably well known to everyone with an internet connection.

There is a mammoth power struggle going on and unfortunately consumers and artists are getting the short end of the stick due mainly to simple lack of funding. Multi-billion dollar industries whose profits continue to grow year on year – despite deepening recessions – would have us believe that those who would dare to remix existing works and share them without charging a single penny are on a par with organised criminals like the mafia and should be jailed. People like me, who buy an ebook at Amazon for an insanely inflated price and are forced to use third party programs to strip its DRM and read it on the device of our choosing, are lawbreakers – a threat to the entire publishing industry.

This is not hyperbole. This is real. This is how the situation is portrayed to MPs by lobbyists with pockets full of party invitations and brown envelopes. People like Cory Doctorow are trying to help the situation by informing and educating.

And yes, he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Pirate Cinema is available for free download at his website, along with all of his other novels. Contrary to what the industry would have us believe, he conducted his own experiment and, in line with what other similar studies have shown, found that offering free downloads with no DRM at all actually increased sales of paper and electronic copies alike. Sharing is good. Sharing works.

(Okay, the free copy has regular ‘commercial interludes’ reminding you that he has to eat but this is a small price to pay. If so inclined you can choose to donate a copy to a school or library via his website while retaining a free copy yourself. This is very, very good thing.)

So there we have it. Call Pirate Cinema a simple novel, in which case it is a wonderfully enjoyable David and Goliath tale. Call it an educational supplement, opening people’s eyes to the goings-on around them. Call it a call to arms for today’s young generation, warning them of the need to exercise their rights and maintain eternal vigilance. Whichever way you look at it, Pirate Cinema is a gem of a book for any tech-oriented, creative or even vaguely pro-active mind.

Download Pirate Cinema: http://craphound.com/pc/download/
Open Rights Group: http://www.openrightsgroup.org/
Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://www.eff.org/

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Filed under Humour, Tech, Young Adult

Of Spiders And Men

This Book Is Full Of Spiders - David WongReview: This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It) by David Wong (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012)

It’s a normal day in [Undisclosed], which means that for human values of normal it’s beyond strange. For starters, David’s session with his psychiatrist hasn’t gone too well. The court-ordered therapy for shooting that pizza delivery guy in the gut with a crossbow are a drain. He might have  been a monster, what’s a guy supposed to do? But depressing couch trips aren’t strange, they’re just depressing. What’s strange is being attacked in his room by a skittering mutant spider, which goes on to possess the body of the cop his neighbours called to investigate the disturbance he was making while fending off its attacks. That the cop then morphed into a nigh-unstoppable killing machine and wreaked merry havoc in the local hospital only serves to complicate matters.

This, in a nutshell, is the opening gambit of This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It), David Wong’s sequel to the cult 2011 novel, John Dies At The End. If you haven’t read the first book then avert your eyes because herein lie spoilers, the first being this – John most certainly did not die at the end. Not really. During the course of the first book, he and his best friend, David, imbibed ‘Soy Sauce’, a sentient drug which had unfortunate and often explosive effects on 99% of those who ingested it. The lucky ones, such as John and David, found themselves able to see behind the normal veil of reality. In this world lurk untold horrors, having their wicked way with an unsuspecting human race. Evil shadow men stalk their clueless prey and nothing, apart from the endless stream of puerile and hilarious gibberish pouring from our heroes’ mouths, is as it seems.

The months between novels have been less eventful. With the horrors of the sauce world somewhat tamed the inseparable pair, joined by David’s girlfriend Amy and truck-driving dog Molly, are back to being cogs in a machine. David works at a painfully boring video store while Amy studies in a nearby university. John is, well, just John. A conspiracy of silence obscures the more interesting events in [Undisclosed] , relegating the previous events to a scant few local newspaper column inches. No-one mentions the unmentionable as long as it can be avoided. Which it could be, of course, until now. A SWAT team being slaughtered in full public view while a hospital is nearly demolished tends to attract unwanted attention. And that’s just the beginning.

Before long David and John are fighting off what looks to be nothing less than a full-on invasion. [Undisclosed] is cordoned off by the National Guard and the sinister REPER organisation in an attempt to contain the spread of what appears to the outside world to be a genuine zombie apocalypse. Outside the quarantine zone is a full-on panic. News reports are drenched in guts, the ‘Z’ word is everywhere and people nearby are either tooling up or panicking. Amy and John are on the outside, trying to get in. David is on the inside and is slowly realising the full extent of what is happening and the sinister forces at play.

You may have gathered from the review so far that This Book Is Full Of Spiders  isn’t exactly Anna Karenina. David Wong’s literary style is akin to the scribbled notes you might find dotted around your house after an evening of House Of The Dead and tequila with the friends your mum always told you not to hang around with. It’s juvenile, puerile and the plot is held together with scotch tape. And that’s why I loved it so damn much.

Wong’s strength  is his enthusiasm. The relish which he concocts a particularly gruesome abomination and then dispatches it in equally splattersome fashion is infectious. The throwaway stoner dialogue and non-stop childish insults had me laughing out loud in public. In Taiwan. The eventual fate of one of the book’s central characters, the improbably named Lance Falconer, had me erupting in my school’s office. Trying to teach after that was interesting. The humour comes at you right from the outset with his description of [Undisclosed]’s Native American history and just keeps piling it on. Even the core romance between David and Amy is treated lightly to allow it to form a moral backbone to the story without detracting from the mayhem going on around it.

The whole book is also just so damn cinematic. I still haven’t seen the big screen version of John Dies At The End but I seriously can’t wait for an adaptation of the sequel. Hell, even during the course of writing this review I found myself subconsciously typing ‘movie’ instead of ‘novel’. Any lover of comedic sci-fi, the Evil Dead movies or just insane humour and nerd culture in general should get a huge kick out of This Book Is Full Of Spiders. You can pick up a copy damn near anywhere, right now.

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Filed under Bizarro, Horror, Humour, Science Fiction