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Wolf In White Van

Wolf In White Van by John DarnielleReview: Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014)

John Darnielle is, according to the blurb accompanying Wolf In White Van, a member of some musical combo called The Mountain Goats and one of the most accomplished lyricists of his generation. News to me. I get the impression that his band are probably the kind of group whose entire fanbase knew them before they were famous, if you get my drift.  Random hipster-sniping aside, Mr Darnielle has been awarded the honour of joining the unexpectedly sizable ranks of musicians-cum-authors lurking at the top of my reading list. Bad Wisdom by Bill Drummond (KLF) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp) has long been my favourite novel/travelogue of all time and it has always had Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel sniffing at its heels. Add to that list Drummond’s solo works plus the likes of Woody Guthrie and Henry Rollins – music and literature can make a pretty good team. Unlike the others mentioned I was totally unaware of John Darnielle’s musical musings prior to reading Wolf In White Van so my opinion couldn’t be tainted by prior fanboy droolings. So, what does he bring to the table with his debut novel?

The action is told from the standpoint of the protagonist Sean. Horribly disfigured by an initially undisclosed accident, Sean’s life is one of isolation both self-inflicted and enforced by the disgusted reactions of those around him. While recovering in the hospital from the incident which left him barely alive, Sean crafts the idea for Trace Italian, an old-school play-by-mail adventure game in which players find themselves stranded in a post-apocalyptic America. Their only hope is to make their way towards the Trace Italian, a quasi-mythical fortress of safety in whose arms they will be protected from the marauding gangs of mutants and roving clouds of poison gas. A far cry from modern video gaming, the action is intensely personal and happens at a glacial pace, one handwritten letter at a time between Sean and those who found his advert lurking in the back of a dusty old comic.

As Sean’s tragic story unfolds in a series of fits and starts through flashbacks to his hospital days we become aware of a further tragedy in his universe, this time one emerging from Trace Italian itself. It’s long been a clarion call of the concern-troll arbiters of the PC brigade that video games are bad for you, turning innocent children into soulless killing machines. We’re a far cry from that but Darnielle plays out a case of taking a game too seriously, even when played at a rate of a move per week. The more details we glean about the exact nature of the event, the more we appreciate the parallels between it and Sean’s own life, both paths converging in the game he goes on to create.

Wolf In White Van is a book all about choices, about freedom. Why did Sean choose the option which led to his disfigurement and isolation? What led the participants in Trace Italian to their eventual predicament? To ask those questions is to miss the point. There were choices. They were free. They chose. In the game itself, lavishly described scenarios are boiled down to a shortlist of simple options: Go North. Examine weeds. Hide in dumpster. Yet however constraining these choices may seem they are all open and Sean takes great pains not to influence his anonymous participants, no matter how much he may come to like them. He’s a Sartre-esque dungeon master, dispassionately observing the players writing their own destinies.

But what really holds the entire book together is Darnielle’s almost uncanny grasp of language. While I’ve never heard any of his musical works I’m already inclined to believe that his reputation as a master lyricist is well deserved. Each paragraph is loaded down with incredibly rich imagery and a truly wonderful knack for creative metaphor. What marks him aside from many similar novelists is the way he doesn’t lean on this to carry his work. It remains at the same time unmissable and subtle, slipped in effortlessly, almost like an afterthought. Writing in this manner all too often comes off as pretentious or egotistical whereas Darnielle manages to make it seem almost as if he’s lurking in the background, barely wiling to commit his words to paper let alone bask in the praise of others.

And what on earth does Wolf In White Van mean as a phrase? Well that’s for you to find out. When the reveal comes it’s almost incidental but nonetheless haunting, a motif you’ll carry with you for the rest of the book and beyond.

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The Girl Who Would Be King

The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly ThomsonReview: The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thomson (1979 Semi-Finalist Inc, 2012)

This review has been languishing in the ‘must-write’ pie for months and it’s a damn disgrace. The delay that is, not The Girl Who Would Be King which is bloody splendid. Kicking myself now for not having spread the word sooner. I think I heard about this one over at io9 and ended up downloading it as a spot of light reading for my summer holiday back to Scotland. Good choice yet bad choice – it had me utterly rapt from beginning to end but unfortunately was over in a flash as I devoured the majority of the pages on one sleepless flight. But anyway, before the praise I’d best go through the formalities.

Bonnie Braverman was orphaned by a fatal car accident, leaving her to spend much of her youth in a group home and pining for the return of her long-lost brother. Always the shy and retiring type it comes as something of a surprise when she finds herself rescuing one of her fellow inmates (for want of a better word) from the clutches of an imposing bully and her gang. Surely people aren’t normally able to hit that hard? And did she really just jump onto the roof of that building? Something has awoken inside Bonnie and it begins drawing her inexorably towards her ultimate fate.

The other half of that fate is Lola LeFever, a girl of similar years and verging on adulthood. Lola shares Bonnie’s orphanhood but with a slight difference – she murdered her mother herself in pursuit of a power she believed her to possess. A power which was Lola’s birthright and squandered by her useless, drug-addled mother. Before long she too is feeling the draw of the force inside her, leading her towards her opposite number, her nemesis.

The Girl Who Would Be King pitches a fairly classic good-vs-evil story put dresses it up with two post-adolescent American girls donning superhero costumes and trying to figure out just what they’re capable of. Woah, holy coming-of-age metaphor. You might guess from the subject matter that Kelly Thomson doesn’t take things too seriously but the book does actually have a fair amount of emotional heft and depth to it. While Lola’s story does provide some wonderfully over-the-top supervillain shenanigans there’s a whole lot more darkness and gravitas with Bonnie as she struggles to do the right thing while the world’s deck of cards seems stacked against her.

Actually, halfway through the novel I kind of expected a ground-shaking plot twist as a result of Bonnie’s trial by fire. I could smell it coming, it seemed like such a perfect way to throw expectations out of the window. When it didn’t happen I almost wanted to hunt down Thomson’s email address and just ask, “Why??? Why didn’t you go this way???” But in the end it didn’t matter because the way things unfold is just fine. Sometimes it’s okay to just play it straight and keep piling up the tension until the grand finale and that’s the way it happens with The Girl Who Would Be King.

So yeah, maybe it missed a fantastic switcheroo but there’s still plenty to recommend this novel. An original plot despite borrowing heavily from the usual superhero tropes; two very strong characters in the form of Lola and Bonnie; and some action so ridiculously fun that Amazon had to print a disclaimer on their site that this is a prose novel, not a comic. It’s lightweight for sure but no less fun for that and noteworthy for the fact that its creation was funded by Kickstarter. Definitely one with which to while away the incoming winter nights.

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Sorry for the brief break in posting. I’ve got an article to write for a local magazine and a big Halloween show coming up for a new band, lots of practice involved. Mostly though it’s because I’m currently picking up the pieces of a broken relationship, one which I very much did not want to end. Hoping to get posting again by the start of next week, there are a few great reads I want to tell you about including Constellation Games and iD (Madeline Ashby’s sequel to vN).

Go read something awesome, I’ll be back soon.

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The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry by Iain BanksReview: The Quarry by Iain Banks (Little, Brown, 2013)

It’s always the good ones. For those unaware of recent events, Scottish author Iain Banks recently died of cancer. Surely one of the most popular authors of recent times, he penned such wonderful fiction as The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and The Bridge, not to mention his groundbreaking science fiction output as Iain M. Banks. Thankfully for us he was able to leave one parting gift. The Quarry is Banks’s swan song, a final goodbye to a world about which he had mixed emotions to say the least.

The Quarry is told through the eyes of Kit, an eighteen-year old boy living with his father in their remote cottage. Their home teeters on the edge of an ever-expanding quarry, one which has now acquired their property and will soon swallow it whole. Kit is not what is politely termed these days as ‘neuro-typical’. Floating somewhere on the autistic spectrum he is blunt and awkward, yet in many ways focused to a remarkable degree. Kit’s days consist of playing an online game known as Herospace, where he accumulates some real-world pocket money, and taking care of his father, Guy. Guy is slowly wasting away, being consumed by the late stages of cancer.

The short time-span of the novel revolves around a group visit to Guy, old college friends coming for one last hurrah before the inevitable. What little plot there is takes the form of a quest, the hunt for an elusive videotape which contains material embarrassing to all present – the rebellious Marxist film critic, the obnoxious right-wing politician, the neurotic …, the hipster corporate ladder-climbers. As the story unwinds the nature of the offending media and its implications for the guests becomes clear, but this is all so much smoke an mirrors.

For all its window-dressing as an ensemble drama, The Quarry is a final monologue delivered by a dying man. It’s Banks’s farewell to the world wherein he’s finally given utterly free rein to vent his feelings about the world which he spent a glorious career attempting to understand. There is a great deal of warmth and affection in his writing, a real sense that he was going to miss this place once he departed, but I’ll be honest – it’s the vitriol that grabs me. There are few targets which escape his ire and he is magnificently unrestrained at times. To wit:

“Fuck that. That’s just evangelism in disguise.” – On the demands of Alcoholics Anonymous that one surrender to a higher power.

“When you stare into the void it, like, stares back at you”
“Does it fuck.”” – On endlessly repeated philosophical deepities.

“Pre-identing up-torrent crisis nodes and realitising positive issue-relevant impending-threat-modulated countermeasure envision-sets within the applicable statutory and regulatory challenge/riposte-space.” – On ubiquitous corporate and managerial garbage-speak.

This is merely the tip of a grand iceberg smashing its way through the modern world. While the majority of the invective comes, unsurprisingly, from the imminently life-bereft Guy, all of the cast members get their chance to take stabs at anything in their way. Left-wing Holly and Tory Paul are obviously set up as foils for each other but through the course of the novel everyone finds they have an axe to grind.

Another surprise was just how well I identified with the two main characters. Okay, I’m sure that my affinity for cantankerous Guy and his lack of patience with an imperfect world is little surprise. I actually look forward to old age so I can deliver my rants and air my grievances with greater authenticity. However, it was Kit’s isolated worldview which struck the greater chord. Thrust into the world without the social machinery which others take for granted, Kit is left baffled by basic human interaction (who the hell invented small-talk, white lies and pleasantries?), threatened by gatherings of more than a couple of people and utterly clueless about affairs of the heart. Indeed one of his simplest lines could sum up much of The Quarry and my own opinion about existence: “I’m never going to understand people”.

It’s a great shame that Banks has left us but he did so with great style, delivering one of his funniest and most personal works yet. If you’ve never read him before then I urge you to start immediately. For those already familiar, pick up The Quarry for one last fling, then start working your way back through your old favourites.

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Nexus by Ramez Naam

Nexus by Namez RaamReview: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot, 2012)

The mind is a beautiful, wonderful, intricate thing. But it’s also flawed at some fundamental levels. The product of aeons of slapdash evolutionary bodge jobs, it’s inefficient, slow and running far below its potential. But what if we could change all that? Hack the brain, patch its OS, free it from its evolutionary origins and launch it to the next level, Humanity 2.0? What would we be capable of? Would it lead to good, evil or a subtle blend of both? And how would the populace – and more importantly, those in power – react?

Welcome to the world of Nexus, debut novel of Ramez Naam. The Nexus of the title is a new wonder-drug unlike any which have gone before it. Capable of rewiring the brain of the user to produce unbelievable highs, craft total fantasies and enhance the user’s abilities, it understandably draws the ire of governments around the world. Under a harsh new regime, hardwired into law by the fictional Chandler Act and Copenhagen Accord, such ‘threats to humanity’ are criminalised and their research outlawed. However, for some the lure of Nexus’s potential is too much to ignore. Kaden Lane, along with his colleagues Ilya and Rangan, create a nanotech-enhanced version of Nexus, enabling it to literally rewrite the brains underlying systems, remain in the body permanently and even allow direct brain-to-brain contact and control.

Not surprisingly, Kade and company find themselves targeted by the ERD (Emerging Risks Directorate), a government agency which makes today’s NSA appear restrained and rational. Faced with spending the rest of their lives in a deep, dark hole they are forced to cut a deal. Kade agrees to help the ERD, under the guidance of young, bio-enhanced operative Samantha, to infiltrate a Chinese organisation supposedly working on posthuman technology. The tech is the stuff of dreams to idealistic Kade, but to Sam and other zealots in the ERD it represents nothing less than an immediate threat to humanity as a whole.

Before long Kade and Sam are in Bangkok, attending a conference with the underlying goal of securing Kade a research position with Shu Yung-Su, enigmatic scientist and ERD enemy number one. Of course, the unexpected happens and before long they are caught between several factions fighting over the future of humanity and, above all, the Nexus 5 implant carried in Kade’s head.

Nexus may be Ramez Naam’s first novel but it certainly is not his first publication. A respected technologist, involved in the creation of IE and Outlook (yeah, I know…), he recently published More Than Human. Basically a non-fiction primer for Nexus, More Than Human laid down the current state of play as regards neurological research. The levels of technology within our reach right now are simply staggering and make novels like Nexus extremely important.

You see, despite its appearance as a book for tech-junkies dressed up as an action thriller, the core of Nexus deals with the potential of the technology and the reaction towards it. In the characters of Sam and others at the ERD, Naam crafts a chillingly convincing portrait of the fear, ignorance and resulting paranoia at the heart of government. Unable to accept the possibility of everyone having access to technology with the power to fundamentally alter the world, they must assume that it will be used for evil and attempt to shut it down, lock it away forever (except where they decide to use it themselves). In the current climate of oppressive laws and treatment of anyone who refuses to toe the government line as traitors and terrorists, the alarmist line depicted in Nexus rings all too true.

Naam isn’t entirely one-sided though. Despite being clearly in favour of new technologies, and particularly making such advances available to everyone to ensure true democracy, he does illustrate the dangers of going too far to the other extreme. He asks how a world inhabited by humans and posthumans alike would behave. Would both co-exist peacefully or would the gulf in abilities soon lead to a hideous caste war?

The book itself is remarkably well written, especially for someone with Naam’s background. Despite a shaky start it soon finds its feet and fleshes out the main chracters wonderfully. The key players – Kade, Sam and the wonderful Cole Wats – work together beautifully and convincingly. The plot is played out at a good pace, with events intensifying towards a satisfying climax and few loose threads left untied. The action has received some criticism as being overblown and distracting from the central plot but I have to say I loved it. In fact it recalled the epic sequences in Neal Stephenson’s reamde, high praise indeed, although it inevitably lacks Stephenson’s in-depth knowledge of every single subject ever conceived of by mankind.

There were only a couple of things which detracted from Nexus. The first was the language employed at times. In a futuristic, energetic thriller it is more than a little anachronistic to hear a phone referred to as a ‘blasted thing’ or have characters exclaiming ‘Bloody hell!’ This isn’t steampunk. Okay, it raised a smile the first time but seriously Ramez – learn to swear with conviction! Secondly, there was enough cliche in the book to sink a battleship. Some elements, like Sam’s traumatic backstory being mirrored later in the book with roles reversed, were just unbelievably corny. Although counter to this I must vote ‘Confucian Fist’ as the best name for a shady clade of super-soldiers ever.

So, a hearty recommendation for Nexus. It’s a staggeringly good debut novel, by turns sci-fi, thriller, scientific lecture and political diatribe. Somehow it manages to blend these elements almost seamlessly into an addictive whole, one which you will be urging your friends to pick up for months to come.

(Angry Robot have kindly provided me with an advance reading copy of Crux, the upcoming sequel to Nexus. Expect a full review as soon as it’s finished.)

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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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Why am I here? The origins story…

So, another blog full of book reviews. Hip-hooray, just what the world needs. One more antisocial hermit banging away at the keyboard from the safety of his cave, attempting to spread his affliction to the world at large? No thanks. But it’s not my fault you see, it’s a compulsion.

Ever since I left the UK to teach in Asia I have suffered. Unfortunately a Tardis-bag has yet to be invented which would allow me to carry my book collection with me. As Asia isn’t exactly renowned for a love of literature – unless you include the ever-present comics – it has been difficult to source books locally. Yes, Amazon exists. However I feel uncomfortable having lumps of dead tree flown around the world using dead dinosaur-powered aircraft just to suit my whims. Enter the Kobo…

Prior to 2011 I was an e-book skeptic. You can’t read on a screen. It doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t smell the same. How can you dog-ear a page? Or write notes? You know the drill. Practicality (spurred on by my father’s generosity) got the better of me though and soon I had a vaguely paperback-sized lump of plastic in my hands.

Power – on! E-Ink screen – activate! First page – flick! Skepticism – destroyed.

So I read. I read and I read and I read. The stories flip and flail around my skull, desperate for me to spread the word about them so they can find new home. My cranium is cosy but sparsely decorated, they deserve better. Unfortunately my choice of career and locale limits transmission. Children and Chinese speakers are not the most enthusiastic recipients of garbled rants extolling the virtues of near-future sci-fi, post-apocalyptic wonderlands or cautionary tales of the demons lurking behind every door. Hence this blog.

Before I sign off, thanks should go to my literary comrade Splendibird at her virtual home, The Mountains Of Instead. Two years ago, knowing my rotting taste in books, she invited me to review Max Brooks’ wonderful World War Z for a zombie week she was hosting. A year or so later she invited me to submit regular reviews and I have been doing so with gusto. Without her I’d probably never have started this. (Don’t worry m’dear, I’m not abandoning ship. This just allows me to post more than I would normally, not to mention giving me a chance to spill the gory details on works which might not be to your readership’s taste. Things with guts flying everywhere.)

So that’s it. Book reviews. Sci-fi, fantasy, horror mostly. Stay. Enjoy. Thanks for listening.

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