Friday, 24 February 2017

Reading now: Never a Dream, by Darren H. Pryce

Review coming soon: Netwalking Space, by Joyce Reynolds-Ward - 3 Stars

This isn't a full review (yet), just a bookmark to say a review will be added soon. For some reason, although I can't put my finger on why and the book is in no way badly written, I just didn't relate to the story very well or tune into it. I need to think about whether that's my fault or the authors before I put pen to paper.

Review coming soon: Alexandria, by Gregory Ness - 5 Stars

This is a sequel to Antioch, by Gregory Ness, which I enjoyed and gave five stars to, so had to give this five stars as well as it is more of the same and at the same standard. 200 pages is a little short for my taste but there are probably more tales to come. PS, This isn't a review (yet), just a place holder, as I'm behind with writing them up.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Review coming soon: LARC Transmissions, by S. Shane Thomas - 4 Stars

Yes, this is what I was missing! Proper sci-fi imagination, where the fist few pages have you swimming with augmented humans as they explore beneath a sheet of oceanic ice on Enceladus, one of the smaller moons of Saturn, as the indigenous life swarms up to see what they're doing and try to seduce them or nick their flippers, which anyone who's visited Cairo will find eerily familiar. This is the first in a compilation of forty six short stories (obviously some are better than others) on a theme of interstellar travel and colonisation. There's a lot of imagination, originality and some chaos, so I have to say I liked it although a review will follow later as I've got a bit behind with writing them up.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Rarity from the Hollow, by Robert Eggleton - 3 Stars

Do you know the plate spinning game, kids? It’s really fun. What you do is borrow the drill from Daddy’s shed and make a lot of holes in the floor of your front room, then you need to poke all the bean poles you can find from the garden into the holes but always make sure you can reach the top because that’s important. When it’s ready and you have a forest of sticks, carry out a couple of dinner service-loads of china plates from Mummy’s cupboards and place them one by one on top of the poles, swishing and swirling each pole around in a circle to make the plate spin on top of it. Isn’t it beautiful? Call everyone in the house to come downstairs and have a look, then do all of the plates like that, tens, twenties, try to do thirties, swirling and spinning, returning to the earliest ones as they slow down and begin to wobble, speeding them up again, circling the pole, quicker and quicker but not too much until everyone comes in to see what you’ve done and all these beautiful, complicated pieces are spinning in the air at once and you even have time to go and make a cup of tea and come back, not too late to miss the critical moment though, milking the tension, waiting for the final remaining seconds to count away as everyone holds their breath, then smile your finest lopsided smile, let your eyes go blank, far away and allow all of the plates to smash on the ground. Lovely. What a protest.

I should add that the first time I saw this trick, they got the ending completely wrong, saved the plates and no one talked about it at all. Part one of this book is the former, with so many plates in the air that almost all have passed beyond a child’s ability to control and it starts with some of the ugliest: an overwhelming portrayal of monstrous abuse and suffering within a family, child and wife-beating, fight or flight stress, perversion, exploitation and entrapment. The soundest advice would be to let the whole situation smash and then walk away and start again in a foster family. As it is, the social work hangover from the first third of the novel casts a shadow across the rest of the book, so even when the story lightens up it’s still in the context of the opening chapters.

The little girl reacts to each vindictive incident and her mind maladjusts into worrying, defensive trenches. Her behaviour at school is a clue, inappropriate sexual language and little screams for help. The father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (some people shouldn’t return from wars) and is taking it out on his wife and child, so he’s more sick, evil and guilty than anyone he presumably joined up to protect his family from. It took me far outside my comfort zone and into territory I would never have chosen to explore. Until the book changed, I felt conned by being told this was sci-fi and I could see that the author wanted to convey the full impact of awfulness that the child was trapped into but, as a customer, I don’t select books to be sickened. I decided after reading The Omen, no more horror for me thank you Damien, so just push off would you? Go on, shoo! and take your little knives and tongs with you. Sunny side up for me please.

Imaginary friend escapism syndrome, that’s another thing this book picks up. Not only does the small girl talk to trees and thinks that one at least talks back because there’s a ghostly child inside it (more rottenness) but she is revealed to have a unique kind of imaginary friend who isn’t from her own neck of the woods at all, or even her own solar system. Hooray! Sci-fi at last. At first I thought this was a child’s way of describing the internet, as in you ask a question and it replies, like a search engine, but after staring at the page a bit longer I could see her bestie was some kind of automaton or life form, a sort of mechanised E.T.

What’s his name? What’s his game? That would be telling.

About a hundred pages in, I struck a seam of welcome humour which the author had held back until he’d had enough of the mood-pit he’d dug for us. “Lacy Dawn gave up on getting any attention from her father and decided to practice for the next spitting contest at school”, soon followed by “and there’s a door on my bedroom… it’s sure cool… open, shut, open, shut, open open open. Shit, I’ve locked myself out.” It’s lines like that that make me want to keep reading.

In the middle third of the book, the stressed child, Lacy Dawn is shown scenes of human pre-history, as her parents are re-educated. She’s then presented with a contract and a job to do, a big one, presumably to repay the repair work done on her parents. I don’t know how resilient children are but my guess is that she’s permanently damaged already and this would put her out of immediate danger from them but not from her mental damage. The father then says “I have to think of what’s best for my daughter”. That’s shocking too, in a way, because the reformed character has no insight into what he’s already done to her.

In the space of a sentence or two, members of the family nip off to another location in the Universe and the story changes to a sort of flamboyant alien capitalist heaven shopping fantasy, where the characters can spend as much unearned pocket money as they like. The cosmopolitan society they’ve entered is awash with alien species that, with the diversions of a whole galaxy open to them, all have one desire in common; hanging around in a big shopping centre. Saving the World, correction the Universe, also gets added to the adventure because there’s a new high level threat for the hick people to deal with. The irony is that, to me, the most alien characters encountered are this particular set of humans. I’ve got nothing in common with these people, so find them other worldly too. Cucumber sandwich anyone?

Is the book traumatic? Yes, I think that’s one aspect that the author wanted to include. Is it a mess of subjects? It reads like a child psychology professional creating some horrible fiction from the nasty things they’ve been exposed to through their career (to educate rather than entertain the reader) and then thinking they’ve maybe gone a bit too far and lightening the mood with an escapist fantasy that, to me, is a metaphor for the child having retreated so far into their own mind, looking for a safe place, that they’ve dislocated themselves from reality, curled up in a foetal ball, hugged their knees and started rocking. If you have no hope of being saved by anyone real, why not imagine your best chance is to meet an alien who makes your parents nice and really values you, for a change? It’s a variation of the knight on the white charger galloping to the rescue, on one hand a real-life disgusting nest of crime called “home” and on the other a fantasy solution which is never going to happen no matter how long you poke your nose out of the window of the dark tower and wave that silly handkerchief.

The closing third of the book has a different theme again, as the family direct their energies on a fantastic alien cockroach round-up, ye-haw, complete with dressing up in random fancy dress outfits, talking wood, chatty dogs and a squirming insect nation that Bill Bailey may have already sung about (does he know something?).

That’s three themes which I have trouble reconciling. I think criticising structure is valid because that’s a fair target and “what on Earth possessed you to put these three things together?” is a fair question not satisfactorily answered by the text.

Important: The fact that I don’t like the subject shouldn’t affect my assessment and rating of a book’s quality, although being objective isn’t easy when the neighbour’s sexually abused and murdered daughter who’s become a dryad has the same name as me. I know that if I don’t like sporks and I agree to review The History of Sporks, my inclination has to be set aside because the criteria must be strictly about whether it is, in relative terms, a high or low quality work of its type. Spork fans can then rely on the reviewer’s opinion and rest safely in their beds to rise tomorrow and make better informed spork-related purchasing decisions. Hail Spork! This is another metaphor. I only said hail spork because I won’t say hail child abuse. However, I am not going to rate the quality of the book lower because of my personal feelings about the subject (aversion). If the characters were designed with the intention of upsetting the reader, then well done because the writer has demonstrated that he has the level of skill to achieve that aim. Was it to make a point? Yes. Will raising awareness improve lives? Insignificantly, unless the book is issued in prisons. How many readers of this book already work in social intervention? Probably most. It will certainly also depress a few good people in the outside world. Some combinations work, Zen and Motorcycle Repair, some don’t, fish and bicycles. Domestic abuse vs sci-fi vs shopping vs bug hunt is a sub-genre with a population of one book so far and I can’t see that changing. Can I criticise it though when the author is setting out his stall to combat child abuse? Well, yes, but only if the rest is a cat’s cradle anyway.

Objectively then, is it a really cool and entertaining story about a horrible topic? No, not really. It’s a competent story covering a horrible topic but it isn’t literature and I don’t think the themes jam together very well or make pathfinding headway in sci-fi originality. The portrayal of an alien robotic presence and the way it changes to please the child is so/so, nothing special, and its society’s interest in commercialism has already been done thoroughly with the Ferengi of Deep Space Nine. The reason why the alien would be interested in saving the child is not as credible as a similar film called The Last Star Fighter, where the boy is chosen because he has a realistic skill (his reaction speed when playing Space Invaders is relevant to being a pilot). Is Lacy Dawn at the pinnacle of managed evolution and displaying an impressive problem solving intelligence? Well… disbelief suspends only so far when she so frequently talks about her pants.

I rate this as a reasonable read for people who aren’t as sensitive as me, a middling quality story with an unusual combination of themes that will certainly provoke thought and appeal to a defined audience of people who want to hear about social malfunction, some people adore their sporks, and sending all the profits to charity shows the author’s heart is surely golden but it isn’t the best thing I’ve read this year in sci-fi and squashing these subjects together in this way, like speed-dating for the good, the bad and the ugly hasn’t convinced me it’s anything more insightful and impactful than culture shock. Please give this book out in specialist prisons because that’s where the message can be used to best effect. Just don’t tell me this stuff is going on in the world, adding me to depressing mailing lists and send the clippings (head, bucket of sand), just call the professional bug services instead. I’m off shopping with fingers in my ears. La-la-la, la-la-la, I can’t hear you, cheering up already.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Refuge, by Judy Griffith Gill - 4 Stars

For the record, I’m reviewing The Refuge 2nd Edition and I haven’t read the original printing of this colonial science fiction series but as the page count has changed in this update, I thought that suggested post-publication improvements and extra content. I’ve since found a note from the author at the back which says that the changes were to connect the first book to later developments in the sequels.

This story is set at a future time when humans have spent one or two hundred years colonising other planets, yet still haven’t mastered the elements on this particular one, which suffers from terrible winters on alternate years, with wind speeds and cold at such a magnitude that even the Viking sagas couldn’t keep up with them. When walls are breached by the gale, people really do get sucked out to their doom, so the colonists rely on cryogenic technology to survive the winters. (Spoiler alert for the next sentence) What doesn’t work too well at this colony is the rule of law, as someone has been selectively tampering with the life support freezers.

Judy Griffith Gill has presented us with soft sci-fi of the children and families type, then spiced up the plot with psychic awakenings, murderous deeds and officials who don’t have their hearts in the right places. Survival is another strong theme, combined with parenting and protection. The pace is not fast but that’s good sometimes as you need time to soak in the atmosphere and believe it, slowly compiled drama, lengthy and solid like the early sagas, which the structure and open system setting that already suggests this instalment will fit into a longer form.

The original name for Star Trek was going to be ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ and this story feels like that sort of journey, with men, women and children (not necessarily family) homesteaders exploring a new and untrusted territory and trying to work out how they can naturalise into it, to survive and not be rejected by the land, the sky and carnivorous beasties. It’s a voyage into ‘the Wide’, as the characters call it, the blue yonder of old, so paint yer wagon and herd the critters. Can they do it? Can they survive when even their own kind are resistant to change. In another sense, can these technological folk return to nature when their technological support fails and rusts, as it has to eventually? Taking a step backwards in tech is hard, particularly for those who have lost the knowledge because they never thought it would be useful to anyone again – the same reasoning behind me never bothering to learn how to knap flint.

I would normally classify this as a 3 star story, well told and plodmanlike, imaginative enough to avoid negative comments and so on, but what elevates it with a jolt is the inventive vocabulary. Just as many writers have done before her, Judy has assumed that language will have morphed and twisted in a few hundred years from now as it is a living tool that adapts to the people that use it. Quite correct. The grammar in this story has stayed the same but it would be a step too far to alter that too because it would harm the book’s readability, so another good bit of reckoning. Other writers have tried this method, adding language, particularly with elements of youth gang-slang (Anthony Burgess) but usually the invented words are not credible, just cop-out swear words like ‘frak’ or a string of nonsensical pants like Tolkien’s poems in Elvish. Judy’s dialect words are really good and very credible. Really good. I can imagine feeling comfortable (not ludicrous) saying I shouldn’t vetch (currently: “a widely distributed scrambling herbaceous plant of the pea family, which is cultivated as a silage or fodder crop”) as it’s a better use for the word than our time’s definition. I might start using it now. Vetch vetch, I love that crunchy sound, like slippers in the snow. Apolz is an obvious contraction, as it pute and lavo, all representing the end of an existing trend of shortening words in our hurried lifestyles (this process has already started in text language), which will presumably become more hurried and words will keep transforming. Then there’s the new plant, animal and object names, the glasses of sillyberry juice (yes please) and children chasing the dragonflitter (sounds fun), running in your gummies and a string of useful alien farm animals (the Earth species all failed to adapt). If the author can keep it realistic, I suggest she should keep going with this language invention because she’s done better than not only Star Trek and A Clockwork Orange (which was good for exploring crime and punishment, not for “blood running red and kroovy”. The more celebrated devotchka, chai and droog don’t even count as invented because they are loan-words) but has also matched the credibility of some of the stuff Lucas Films and Jim Henson invented.

If you don’t mind me going all decimal on you, this is my internal dialogue typing, towards the end I was forming an opinion and thinking a 3.6 value doesn’t deserve to be put down to 3 stars when it’s a more professional piece than that but raising it to 4 stars would need at least another layer, like a twist in the tail. Fortunately, this was provided in the nick of time by a sudden change of direction with a whole bunch of new input, like new characters, spaceships, FTL travel, nanobots, arrested ageing and reconnection with space travel heritage which hinted that the colony had been established on the wrong planet by mistake, which is a splendid way to start but only revealed at the end, all of which had the welcome feel of a fresh rain and oxygen into what was feeling like a fully explored and overly circled pool. The slider in my mind moved up to 3.9 as the new material gave a starting point to the next book. New is healthy and these were the first green shoots of a new phase. Every colony needs to plan for the future.

All in all, a fluid read with a rich diet of invented words and some creatures that I quite like. It’s set up like a part of a greater story, as one person’s life is just a part of their family story, which is a part of the history of their land, which we will find out about in greater detail through sequels. It isn’t at the intense and imagination-exploding level of inventiveness that it would need to be to get a top rating from me but it’s better and much more realistic than a whole swathe of colonial soldier yarns and the weather closing in did make my fingers go cold and stick to the Kindle. Still, mustn’t vetch.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Truth About Sharks and Pigeons, by Matt Phillips - 2 Stars

How do I feel about this book? I hate stabbing things because the authors try so hard and take it personally but I guess most of the sales of this title have already happened and it won’t make much difference if I do my job the way I should, as a reviewer.

The ordinary animal that suddenly speaks to a human, a pigeon, instantly made me think the author had read and enjoyed Expecting Someone Taller by Tom Holt, in which a badger gets run over and then unexpectedly speaks to the driver. This was an original surprise in 1987, when Holt did it. Tom Holt’s book wasn’t superficial either because it was set against the background mythology of three Wagner operas and his badger was a parody of Fasolt or Fafner, but this scene is built on no sort of cultural or intellectual foundation like that. Is it commendable when a piece of theatre that operates on two levels is recreated years later on only one? This isn’t a direct accusation of copying, just a suspected strong influence which may even have been subconscious. Tom Holt’s matter transporter is the Tarnhelm (more Wagner mythology). In this book it’s a matter transporter.

“What the hell’s that”, near the start, immediately made me think of Arthur Dent using the same line when he encounters the Dentrassi. I’m sure it’s been in a lot of other things too but, seeing as the author has read or seen the same cultural influences as I have and even my parents can quote from and he so dearly wants to be just like them, the other writers not my parents, it’s a fair bet the voice in the author’s head when he reads his own line aloud belongs to the actor Simon Jones. It doesn’t end there. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide, talking white mice secretly run the world and humans have completely misinterpreted their relationship with them due to their successful designs and intrigues that were intended to keep it that way. The similarity with this is that a different species of talking creatures secretly run the world and humans have completely misinterpreted their relationship with them due to their successful designs and intrigues that were intended to keep it that way. Subconscious again, she said, defending the author.

The use of an unlikely hero is fair enough and isn’t copying and aping because it’s a popular style. I prefer unlikely heroes, beta people, and many others would agree, including this author. Tom Holt always wrote unlikely heroes (except in Ye Gods, which sent up heroes) and so did Douglas Adams, so I think the author likes them both and thought it works out better this way, which it does of course. Other countries have the capable alpha hero and the hometown best friend but the English style is to dispense with the hero completely and drop the best friend right in it up to their neck. I think this writer’s choices have been formed around how other humourists have entertained him, so it’s not wrong and it’s good for the story and I wouldn’t want it changed but he is following an existing format without trying to stamp his individual style onto anything and make any theme in this book his alone, which he should try to do if he wants to stand in this sort of company. This is not a pioneering work, is it? Perhaps a comfortable re-tread. The story doesn’t say anything or do anything I object to. It just meanders along and involves a lot of talking animals, which fails to be unexpected when you’re into the third species.

Let’s recap: Inferior to the authors he's been influenced by and is trying to emulate. Friendly and bonkers, well intended, by someone who wants you to like it and them, but disappointing. Sort of fun but a wobbly fairground mirror reflection of what he was trying for. I want to read originality.

Is it funny though? I found two good laughs and they were good but two is two, last time I counted, and I get more laughs than that giving head. The idea with the mark they put on the hero’s forehead is funny slapstick and I did laugh out loud. The slinky in the torture chamber is sleek and effective humour, probably the high point of the book. You buy it, you take your chance, but if this publication ever gets reprinted and he puts “laugh out loud” or “sleek and effective humour” with the critics’ quotes on the back, I wouldn’t find that very amusing.