Category Archives: Book review

What I learned about pacing & structure reading obscure pulp sci-fi THE BIG EYE

I have of late, and wherefore I know not, begun to colour-code my bookshelves.

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As you can see, I clearly don’t have enough books yet. However, to that end, I’ve been spending inordinate amounts of time and money hunting for book bargains on eBay.

One fine seller I discovered has reams of sci-fi pulp fiction that they’re selling in sets of three, original prints from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The covers are amazing.

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(Of course, with my new-found book ordering system, I no longer judge a book by its cover, nor indeed its contents, but its spine. I am currently in desperate need of more greens and blues.)

One of the novels, which came bundled with Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples Of The Sun, tickled my fancy in its own right; for its name, its cover, and, upon delivery, its musty odour.

Look at that ridiculous title, that 50s artwork, that awkward pose, as though someone has been caught entirely by surprise by a meteor. Holy shit!

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So I dived into The Big Eye by Max Ehrlich with an unblinking fervour, and was engrossed within a few pages. The story is fairly simple – the near-future world of 1960 (!) is on the brink of cataclysmic nuclear war. Our protagonist, a research scientist working at the largest cosmic observatory ever constructed – the eponymous Big Eye – is sent to New York with a briefcase to deliver to US generals deciding whether or not to make the first strike against those blasted Commies.

The book opens as PROTAGONIST (let’s call him 1950sMan, for there’s not much more to him, to be honest) is flying in to land in New York, which has been all but evacuated for fear of being the prime target for the damn Ruskies. There are reports that earthquakes across the States are being cause by a new Soviet secret weapon, and…

OK, it’s not that simple.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence now by warning you of SPOILERS. The freaking front cover is the spoiler. It turns out the earthquakes weren’t administered by a Soviet super-weapon (gasp!), but were in fact the result of magnetic interference from a gigantic rock hurtling through space towards Earth.

Unfortunately, unlike me, the author does insult your intelligence, by persisting with this conceit for a good hundred pages before anyone admits the world will end by meteor and not by missile.

So the story rattles along with the reader in no doubt as to what is happening, and the author pretending it isn’t obvious, like a partners in a failing marriage too polite to mention the D word.

I suppose Ehrlich wouldn’t have known while he was writing it that the cover would give the story away, but regardless, it’s clear there’s a lack of story here. It’s all padded out with a fruitless errand (1950sMan is ordered to take a briefcase (containing we don’t know what) to some generals, but is ordered to return before he can make the delivery, and to no consequence), and a mundane love story.

Double vision

There is a twist – two, I suppose. The first is really, really silly. It turns out, the celestial body spotted with The Big Eye turns out to resemble… a BIG EYE. The planet has a mountain range on it of prominently ocular proportions, similar, I suppose, to Jupiter’s red storm.

Then there’s the really big twist, and it is a shameful doozey. IT TURNS OUT… the Big Eye was always going to miss the Earth, and the astronomers got together to play a trick on the world, in the hope it would prevent a nuclear apocalypse.

The ruse works – the world becomes a peaceful, decent place, with a world government and the dissolution of borders – and for some reason inspires a cure for cancer. There’s a little drama concerning the head astronomer, who kept the secret even from his sick wife, who might have lived had she felt there was a world to live for. But otherwise it’s a bit of a damp squib.

But also, the big reveal – like everything else in the book – is so laboriously signposted you find yourself once again clawing at your eyes for Ehrlich to spit it out.

So what did I learn reading this piece of pulp from the Atomic age?

  1. Treat your reader with respect. Acknowledge their intelligence, and don’t needlessly hide things from them that they no doubt have already gleaned.
  2. Cataclysmic sci-fi requires more than the end of the world to retain your attention. Interesting characters are paramount, with the odd perplexing moral dilemma for good measure. Global events are meaningless unless they physically and emotionally affect your protagonist.
  3. Padding your book is as obvious as stuffing a pineapple down your trousers – no matter how impressive the girth, upon closer inspection you will appear misshapen and ultimately unsatisfying.
  4. (Unless you are particularly enamoured with pineapples)

 


 

Thanks for reading – leave a message if you’ve ever delved into pulp, I’d love to hear recommendations or if you just have fond memories of these silly stories.

And if you’re not already, feel free to sign up to this blog. There’s a follow button at the top of this page on the right!

Take it easy!

 

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The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – Rod Duncan – [Book Review]

Bought on a whim in an International Book Day promotion for 50p from Angry Robot, Rod Duncan’s The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter was a very pleasant surprise indeed. The steampunk mystery is set in a parallel-universe England around the turn of the century. Britain is divided between an aristocratic Kingdom that extends from the Midlands to the English Channel, and the sober Republic to the north.

Told through the eyes of cross-dressing private investigator Elizabeth Barnabus and her “brother”, the story weaves a rich and absorbing world through glorious Victorian language and sensibilities, while drip-feeding us the setting’s history as and when we need it. This is the correct way to give the reader the information they require – on a need-to-know basis, allowing us to enjoy the characters, the action and the peril without unnecessary distraction.

Much to my delight, my fears of an unresolved storyline left open to reel the reader in to an entire series were unfounded. The story is complete in itself, with the merest hint of a wider narrative to come sprinkled into the glossary appendix, with talk of falling empires and the involvement of our humble heroine. Again, this is how it should be: entice readers back with a good story, not unanswered cliff-hangers.

Having said that, I have bought the second book in the series – which is unusual for me. With so many stories out there in the market, I try to keep my choices eclectic, and seldom return to a world, even if I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it (Hyperion being an exception – both books are essential reading). So to have drawn me back for another episode in high praise indeed.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of the steampunk genre.

——

[For larks – here’s a couple of pictures of me in a costume I made for Bestival 2010 of a steampunk time-traveller I made up, named Dr Heimlich Spoading. The backpack was designed to carry two bags of space wine (those silver bags inside boxes of wine), and had a latch for the tap to poke out. I don’t think I’ve ever been as drunk as the night I wore that little number – and it unfortunately did not survive the muddy night.

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35 #2

Handy links!

You can buy Rod Duncan’s first book in the Gas-Lit Empire series here: The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.

Rod is also quite active on Twitter, and seems a nice chap; so here’s his Twitter handle: Rod Duncan

The Stars Are Legion – Kameron Hurley – [Book Review]

Kameron Hurley’s biopunk sci-fi adventure The Star Are Legion is as unique as it is bizarre. Hurtling through the cosmos in an organic starship, space-faring women wage war with the other world-ships in the cluster, en route to some long-forgotten destination, while birthing ship components and murdering mutants.

The story revolves around two main characters, one with amnesia, who spends the book trying to discover who she is and what she has done; and her handler, who tries to enact some gradually revealed master plan.

It’s a tricky prospect in first person present tense. Although the mind-wiped Zan discovers the world with the same curiosity as us, the cunning Jayd must keep her goals from the reader, which can get a little frustrating at times. It was a brave move to adopt her perspective, and is admittedly well-handled, but the risk is always of making the reader want to shake the narrator by the neck to spill the beans. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW, DAMNIT – WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?

It’s hard to know who to trust with all these unreliable narrators, but gleaning the evidence with Zan is a compelling way to reveal the backstory. The twist did not smash me in the face, though, which I had hoped; but I’m not sure how else it could have been delivered. Elements of the mystery sprinkled throughout perhaps gave too much away, or maybe it was the choice of using both POVs that softened the punch.

However, the visceral descriptions of the world-ships, the ubiquitous imagery of birth and pregnancy, and the ignorant civilisations that inhabit their rotting worlds all make for a powerful read. It’s bleak – hideously so, at times – all oozing membranes and cancerous cityscapes, pointless conflict and maniacal despots, who dismember dissidents and drive their civilisations into oblivion.

It wasn’t until I read an interview with the author that I grasped the concept – the ships are colony vessels, whose inhabitants have evolved while in space on their way to some destination, but the mission has long since been forgotten in the annals of time. It’s a bit like the movie Pandorum, but without non-evolved humans to tie the story to a contemporary foundation (and it’s rather more sophisticated than simple devolution to mindless savagery).

Not that this matters terribly. Characters with clear agency don’t require exhaustive back-stories to be engaging, after all. As long as we know what they want, and perceive their obstacles, we can get behind them, cheer their victories and mourn their losses.

It’s also a very quick read, as first person present tense tends to be. Though I admittedly felt the second act was a little too long in comparison to the end and the beginning, the range of settings, ideas and characters kept me interested. And I’d definitely read more from Hurley. Entertaining, evocative, visceral sc-fi fantasy that recalls 1960s-style bizarre space romps. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Handy links!

Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion is available on Kindle here

The author is good on the Twitter too, and worth following for insights into publishing and all things sci-fi. She can be found here: Kameron Hurley

Finally, Hurley often posts candid blogs about her publishing income (among a raft of other things) over at kameronhurley.com

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury – [Book Review]

I’m a big fan of Ray Bradbury. The man was an expert storyteller, but also a visual and rhythmic genius to boot. His colourful imagery blooms with bright vocabulary and flowing sentences that drift upon a stream of ideas unbound by the norms of grammar and syntax. His prose is poetry, in a word. I even chose a passage from Something Wicked This Way Comes to be read at my wedding, despite the fact it’s a horror.

Why love the woman who is your wife? Her nose breathes the air of a world that I know; therefore I love that nose. Her ears hear music I might sing half the night through; therefore I love her ears. Her eyes delight in seasons of the land; and so I love those eyes. Her tongue knows quince, peach, chokeberry, mint and lime; I love to hear it speaking. Because her flesh knows heat, cold, affliction, I know fire, snow, and pain. Shared and once again shared experience. Billions of prickling textures. Cut one sense away, cut part of life away. Cut two senses; life halves itself on the instant. We love what we know, we love what we are. Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, flesh, heart, and soul.

That’s a father trying to imagine how to describe love to two pre-teen boys, so that they can understand it. It’s lovely.

However, I’d not heard of The Martian Chronicles until it came up in conversation on Twitter with my pal Jon. It was excuse enough to impulsively order it, and I can’t say I’ve been disappointed.

Continue reading The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury – [Book Review]

Railsea – China Miéville – [Book Review]

No author has graced the pages of this blog as frequently as China Miéville. I’m a fan – there, I said it. He writes with chameleonic flair across the genre spectrum, with an imagination the rest of us can only envy. His worlds are vividly bizarre, rich but peculiar, inhabited by characters that more often than not have depth and agency to spare.

Though I have not been universally enamoured with his work (Kraken was awash with ideas but the protagonist was weak), I thoroughly enjoyed Perdido Street Station and still recommend The City & The City whenever anyone mentions noir, sci-fi, thrillers or deeply poignant analogy in fiction.

So, what of Miéville’s 2012 post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure Railsea? Here’s my verdict: it’s bloody brilliant.

Continue reading Railsea – China Miéville – [Book Review]

Disintegration – Richard Thomas [Book Review]

I came across Richard Thomas through his column on Lit Reactor. The strength of his writing advice and his authoritative tone persuaded me to have a nose at his published works. Fortunately, Thomas ends his articles with a link to one of his many stories – yup, that’s called marketing, folks. And sometimes it works.disintegration_rt

But I have to admit, when I started reading Disintegration, I thought it was a parody. It read like Raymond Chandler had woken up in the 80s, boshed an ounce of coke and angrily smashed out this thriller while punching himself in the face. It was so stylised, it felt like a fan fiction story pumped full of steroids.

The basic premise involves an alcoholic depressive who comes under the employ of a mysterious Russian gangster, Vlad, who instructs our narrator to murder his enemies. Of course, our man wasn’t always a tattooed thug (he gets a new tat every time he kills, natch). No, he used to be a cop, with a family, but grief pickled in booze left him soulless and alone, except for his pet cat.

Continue reading Disintegration – Richard Thomas [Book Review]

A Game of Thrones – George R R Martin – [Book Review]

Before you start, I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I bought a copy of Game of Thrones because I’m a fan of the show and wanted to read the original work from which it sprang. I’d been told about its narrative structure, too, and wanted to see how it was handled, as multi-viewpoint third-person is how I’ve set my own work.

For those unaware, each chapter in Game of Thrones bears the name of the character it follows (which results in a contents page that looks like a goldfish trying to name all the protagonists).

The problem with coming back to evaluate a story having seen the TV series is, all the characters already have faces – Peter Dinklage will always be Tyrion in my head, Sean Bean will always play Eddard. There’s no imagination involved because those roles have already been filled by HBO.

Similarly, there are no surprises. The first series followed the first book down to the last scene. My friend tells me the show diverts from the books more in later seasons, and outright cuts many characters from the narrative, but this first book is practically the first season’s screenplay. Apart from, of course, this page of differences, which includes nerd-facts like:

  • In the book, Jaime pushes Bran from the window with his right hand. In the show he uses his left hand.

Right. I can’t believe the filmmakers took such liberties.

Continue reading A Game of Thrones – George R R Martin – [Book Review]

Dying for a Living – Kory M Shrum – [Book Review]

Zombies! 

They’re bloody everywhere aren’t they? Western media is awash with the shambling degenerates, mindlessly meandering through malls or ineffectively banging against baffling barriers of glass. Of all the stages of human life, only babies are more hopeless.

The zombie theme has reached saturation point – nay! It reached saturation point over a decade ago when 28 Days Later tried to reanimate the rotting genre with super-fast zombies. Cillian Murphy tried to trick us, but we knew what they were. You can call it “the Rage” all you like – they’re still zombies.

So while The Walking Dead went back to basics to find human drama in a world of brain-chomping corpses, Kory M Shrum sought an entirely different form to explore life after death.

Continue reading Dying for a Living – Kory M Shrum – [Book Review]

The Stone Man – Luke Smitherd – [Book Review]

There are two reviews one can write for Smitherd’s break-out 2012 novel The Stone Man. The first disregards the typos, missing words and other stylistic howlers…

And the other, does not.

I’ll therefore leave the latter for later, so you can stop reading if you think it unfair to criticise the editing of a self-published author. I’m still undecided as to whether it’s acceptable – at the fourth published version, no less – to still contain mistakes of this quantity.

But let’s say polish and quality don’t matter. Let’s say a story should be measured only on its characters, its immersive writing, its pacing and its emotional impact. How well does it do on the story-telling front?

(Note: contains some spoilers.)

Continue reading The Stone Man – Luke Smitherd – [Book Review]

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – [Book Review]

I’m the first to admit, some of my book reviews can be somewhat scathing (my treatment of Rogue Forces by Dale Brown and The Hook by Donald E Westlake come to mind). I think that’s because it’s often more fun to find fault than it is to fathom finesse, if you’ll excuse the alliteration. It’s certainly easier to pick holes.

That’s why this review of Station Eleven by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel is so difficult. If there’s one word I can use to describe it, it’s “effortless”.

Effortless in the sense that I was never obstructed by some forced narrative technique, or distracted by a clumsy phrase or metaphor. I was taken by the hand around this fictional world, the events of interest pointed out but never laboured over, and never was my hand squeezed too tight or my head shoved to examine something uninteresting. It was effortless storytelling.

That makes it difficult to analyse. It kind of washed over me, leaving an evocation of regret in its wake – for that seems to me the central theme.

Continue reading Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – [Book Review]