Tag Archives: Book review

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.

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]

Wool – Hugh Howey – [Book Review]

If Plato was still around today, it’s likely he would have been a big fan of science fiction. After all, he used fantastical constructs to explore the human condition, pioneering a unique exploration of individuals’ perception. That’s pretty sci-fi.

Plato Cave
Plato’s Cave

We can assume, too, his favourite sub-genre would have been dystopian sci-fi, if his Allegory of the Cave is anything to go by. In it, he imagines the plight of chained captives, held in position underground, their reality controlled by restricting their vision to view nothing but shadow puppets cast upon a wall by the light of an unseen fire behind them.

With no frame of reference or experience of the outside world, the shadows on the wall would constitute reality for those hapless captives. The sounds of the captors’ footsteps and voices would reverberate in the cave, Plato thought, and thus the illusion would be formed that the sounds were made by those very shadows. This was Plato’s dystopian vision – a populace imprisoned and manipulated by their overlords to such a degree that they knew nothing of it.

It is perception and the revelation of truth that drives dystopian fiction. At its best, it represents a functional, albeit oppressed, society, unaware of the shackles that bind its citizens: take for instance the controlled happiness of Brave New World; the Papa John’s clones in Cloud Atlas; the history-incinerating regime of Fahrenheit 451. Drama is drawn from characters finally noticing their prison, and rebelling against it.

Continue reading Wool – Hugh Howey – [Book Review]

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours — a call for critique

Writers! I seek critique and offer my own unique services in return.

I propose a scheme, if you’re keen, in which we swap stories of similar length and critique the bejeezus out of them, before sending the mutilated corpses of our creative babies back to each other, weeping ourselves to sleep over the deluge of red ink.

I have three tales ready to be torn to smithereens, and suggest a straight swap with anyone who has a story of similar length (let’s say no more or less than 500 words’ difference?), to ensure we’re not exchanging a short story for a Tolstoyan tome.

All three are vaguely horror, while The Pumice Stone opens with a little bit of rude blueness.

Continue reading I’ll show you mine if you show me yours — a call for critique

The Martian – Andy Weir – [Book Review]

So I finished reading The Martian – yay!

But now I have to write a review – bummer.

Why am I bummed out? Well, I could focus on the childish prose inherent in the protagonist’s epistolary narration, but detractors would argue his persistent wise-cracking is a character-building defence mechanism.

Instead, I could laud the compelling science behind stranded Mark Watney’s struggle to survive on Mars – and be shouted down by the literary brigade for valuing detail over drama; equations over emotion.

If I talk about the adolescent dialogue among Nasa’s supposed brightest, I’ll be derided…

If I admit the science got dull, I’ll be scorned…

And, if I try to parody the writing style in my review, I’ll just kind of explode…

So, yeah… I’m pretty fucked.

 

Continue reading The Martian – Andy Weir – [Book Review]

The Last Family in England – Matt Haig – [Book Review]

Labrador Prince struggles to keep his human family safe
Bought in Pai, Thailand

I found The Last Family in England in a bookshop in Thailand and bought it for my girlfriend. She’d loved The Humans, also by Matt Haig, but had lost it in a hotel somewhere before finishing it, so I figured this would plug the gap until I bought another copy (yeah, you’re welcome, Haig, you’re welcome).

But, before she could glance at it, I thought I’d take a look.

I read it in two days.

Continue reading The Last Family in England – Matt Haig – [Book Review]

Notes from the 60s – my Mum’s take on Graham Greene

Four shillings
Printed in 1969

I’m reading Graham Greene’s The Heart Of The Matter at the moment. It’s not exactly inspiring anything towards my ethereal steampunk fantasy, but Greene’s one of my brother’s favourite writers, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

It’s the kind of thing that was probably on my Uni literature course that I neglected to read because I was too busy farting about.

I found it on my parents’ bookshelf a few weeks ago – a yellowing Penguin classic print from 1969 nestled among its peers, all bought by my Mum while she was at university.

The price on the back cover says United Kingdom 20p / 4 shillings. That was probably about 50 quid in today’s money.

The story’s about a middle-aged Englishman in West Africa during WWII, whose love for two women, and his attempts to keep them both happy, lead him to disaster.

It’s good, but what I’m enjoying most are the little notes scrawled in the margin by my 19-year-old mum-to-be. They’re few and far between, but I love coming accross them.

Continue reading Notes from the 60s – my Mum’s take on Graham Greene

The Hook – Donald E Westlake – [Book Review]

They say “Write what you know” – and if I was Donald E Westlake’s wife, I’d have been having kittens when The Hook came out in 2000.

That’s not to say I view all fiction as a reflection of its creator’s nefarious fantasies, but The Hook is so self-referential, the comparison is unavoidable.

Continue reading The Hook – Donald E Westlake – [Book Review]

A Suitable Vengeance – Elizabeth George – [Book Review]

Writing a whodunit is tough to get right. It needs plenty of characters, many of whom with motive to murder; it needs duplicitous clues, which might lead an investigation in separate directions; it needs red-herrings and plot twists; and it needs to drip-feed information to the reader to keep them guessing.

I don’t read many mysteries of this ilk – Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane novels being the exceptional exceptions – so when the meagre book exchanges of south-east Asia produced A Suitable Vengeance I was naturally excited.

Continue reading A Suitable Vengeance – Elizabeth George – [Book Review]