A few days ago, a copy of Alma Katsu’s third novel, The Descent dropped through the mailbox. It is the third novel in the author’s The Immortal trilogy, but I didn’t (at the time) know too much about the series or the author, so I took the opportunity to send her some questions.
Monday, December 23, 2013
An Interview with ALMA KATSU
Christmas Fiction Review Catch-Up: Jonathan Dee, A.S.A. Harrison & John Niven
I am falling terribly behind on my reviews. So, in order to get caught up a bit more on the backlog, I’ll be combining some reviews into thematic posts (of sorts). This one takes a look at three non-SFF novels I’ve read recently.
Jonathan Dee, A Thousand Pardons (Corsair)
Ben and Helen Armstead have reached breaking point and it takes one afternoon – and a single act of recklessness – for Ben to deal the final blow to their marriage, spectacularly demolishing everything they built together.
Helen and her teenage daughter Sara leave for Manhattan where Helen takes a job in PR – her first in many years – and discovers she has a gift for spinning crises into second chances. But can she apply her professional talent to her personal life?
I rather enjoyed this. It was a quick read, but not perfect. The novel starts out with the sudden, spectacular dissolution of Helen’s marriage to Ben, who is quite the narcissist experiencing quite the midlife crisis and breakdown. The first part of the novel follows Helen as she makes her way to New York, and stumbles into a PR job. She has a knack for coaxing out appropriate, believable apologies out of her clients. For a short time, she is able to enjoy this success. Then the novel brings Ben back into the narrative, and we get a more even-handed impression of the two characters – while I had enjoyed reading about Helen, and it did take a little while before reorienting myself for Ben’s side of the story, the novel benefited from them both being central. Dee’s prose is fluid, and I rattled through this novel at quite the pace. At times, though, things moved perhaps a little too fast – Helen’s advancement in the PR business jumps ahead slightly, and Dee doesn’t give much time over to Helen and Sara’s new lives in the big city. I think the author could have spent some more time exploring what each of the characters was going through.
Nevertheless, A Thousand Pardons is an enjoyable novel about a marriage in ruins and a family in crisis; about the limits and joys of self-invention; and about the peculiar seduction of self-destruction. It is also the tale of redemption and forgiveness, of sorts, and the enduring connection families can feel with each other, despite some of the most difficult of circumstances. It’s not a bad introduction to Dee’s fiction, and I enjoyed it enough to convince me to pick up The Privileges at some point in the not-too-distant future.
A.S.A. Harrison, The Silent Wife (Headline)
Todd Gilbert and Jodie Brett are in a bad place in their relationship. They’ve been together for twenty-eight years, and with no children to worry about there has been little to disrupt their affluent Chicago lifestyle. But there has also been little to hold it together, and beneath the surface lie ever-widening cracks. HE is a committed cheater. SHE lives and breathes denial. HE exists in dual worlds. SHE likes to settle scores. HE decides to play for keeps. SHE has nothing left to lose. When it becomes clear that their precarious world could disintegrate at any moment, Jodie knows she stands to lose everything. It’s only now she will discover just how much she’s truly capable of...
Oh, how I wanted to love this book. For months, it seems, I’ve seen so much praise and a constant trickle of links for great and gushing reviews on Twitter. The book itself is covered in eye-catching blurbs from prominent authors, reviewers, and so forth. So how was it? Well… Politely? It wasn’t for me. Bluntly honest? I was bored. Throughout. I didn’t like either of the main characters. He is a douche, a lecherous cheater, who seems to only appreciate what his wife does for him and the fact that she’s attractive. She is fastidious to a fault, ordered and lacking any impulsiveness and rather bland:
“Meticulous planning has its merits. Life at its best proceeds in a stately manner, with events scheduled and engagements in place weeks if not months ahead. Scrambling for a last-minute date is something she rarely has to do, and she finds it demeaning.”
Now, I understand that both of the characters were probably meant to come across as either a complete ass (him) or quietly in denial about everything (her), but damn it doesn’t make for interesting reading. The synopsis above is not the whole synopsis. I cut the following:
“A chilling psychological thriller portraying the disintegration of a relationship down to the deadliest point when murdering your husband suddenly makes perfect sense.”
I found this as chilling as tepid tap water. That being said, in terms of prose and construction, The Silent Wife is very competent. The author’s prose are very well constructed, which is really the only reason I kept reading. That bit about the novel being a “chilling psychological thriller”? I was waiting for that to happen right up until I turned the final page. Maddeningly bland. This was the biggest let down of the year, I was left wondering if what I bought and read was the same book everyone else had been talking about…
John Niven, Straight White Male (William Heinemann)
Kennedy Marr is a novelist from the old school. Irish, acerbic, and a borderline alcoholic and sex-addict, his mantra is drink hard, write hard and try to screw every woman you meet.
He’s writing film scripts in LA, fucking, drinking and insulting his way through Californian society, but also suffering from writers block and unpaid taxes. Then a solution presents itself – Marr is to be the unlikely recipient of the W.F. Bingham Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Modern Literature, an award worth half a million pounds. But it does not come without a price: he must spend a year teaching at the English university where his ex-wife and estranged daughter now reside.
As Kennedy acclimatises to the sleepy campus, inspiring revulsion and worship in equal measure, he’s forced to reconsider his precarious lifestyle. Incredible as it may seem, there might actually be a father and a teacher lurking inside this “preening, narcissistic, priapic, sociopath”. Or is there.
This was a very pleasant surprise. There was a bit of a rocky start – the first couple of chapters painted an awful picture of the protagonist, and I worried that I’d always struggle to engage with him. However, Niven very quickly surprised. Straight White Male ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year.
Kennedy, our protagonist, starts off as one ugliest protagonists I’ve read about. He’s kind of awful: spoiled, wasteful, a drunkard, lewd, a sex addict with an unhealthy disrespect for women (sleeping with someone in the cloak room at his wedding, juggling multiple porn platforms at once)… He’s a complete narcissist. He’s not a pleasant guide for a lot of the opening chapters, which did make me wonder if I wanted to continue reading. Everyone else Kennedy interacts with is as well-written as this asshole, which made me stick with it, and eventually we learn why Kennedy is the way he is, and see his character develop. Niven can definitely write, and write very well, which kept me coming back. So, if you aren’t a fan of anti-hero protagonists, I’d recommend still sticking with the book, as it gets very good.
I really liked the way Kennedy gets to say and do all the things I bet many people living and working in or with Hollywood would love to say to all the self-important, pompous “artistes” with inflated senses of their own genius... He doesn’t shy away from opining on their flaws (or shouting them at prima donna, uneducated actors). His internal and external commentary is often very funny. He’s also honest about why he does certain things. Kennedy is also not sparing on his frustrations with the publishing industry, either.
“Busy jumping from rewrite to polish to dialogue pass because, of course, all this was easier (and much more remunerative) than spreading his intestines across the page for two fucking years writing a novel. Because the only things he wanted to write about he couldn’t. He wasn't blocked so much as... finished. The novel? That was a man’s business. He was done with it. Not that anyone knew that yet of course.”
What was most interesting, however, is how Niven slowly unveiled the tragic story of Kennedy’s sister, and how that has effected his behaviour. A lot of what he does, in the end, seems like avoidance and alcohol-fuelled coping and distraction. After the story shifts to the UK, things move quite a bit faster, too, which was a little disappointing. I would have liked some more… well, everything, really. Rather than reading that as an indictment of the novel, consider it my way of saying I wish it had been longer, because it was so good. Which it was.
Straight White Male is a very good novel on some of the many neuroses and coping mechanisms to which men can turn. Funny, irreverent, touching, and well-written, this is definitely recommended.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
An Interview with PAT CADIGAN
A few days ago, I got an email from an editor at This Is Horror, a UK indie publisher. I haven’t been the biggest of horror readers, but the email was about Pat Cadigan’s latest chapbook, Chalk. I was intrigued, and will hopefully have it read and reviewed in the near future. I’ve been aware of the multi-award-winning Cadigan for years, though, and so I took this opportunity to interview the author. So, here we chat about her work, the chapbook, writing, and more…
Monday, December 16, 2013
Artwork: “Gotrek & Felix: The Serpent Queen” by Joshua Reynolds (Black Library)
I must have said it a hundred times on the blog, now, but I really must get around to reading Josh Reynold’s Road of Skulls, his first full-length novel featuring my favourite Dwarf Slayer and human companion… In advance of that, though, I spotted the artwork for Reynolds’s next novel in the series, The Serpent Queen:
Sorry for the low-quality image, but I wanted to share the cover anyway. It’s one of my all-time favourite fantasy series, so I’m always excited for news and more fiction (even if it does take me altogether too long to get around to reading them…). Here’s the synopsis:
Gotrek and Felix: unsung heroes of the Empire, or nothing more than common thieves and murderers? The truth perhaps lies somewhere in between, and depends entirely upon whom you ask... Travelling to the mysterious south in search of a mighty death, the Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his human companion, Felix Jaeger, find themselves caught up in a battle between warring kingdoms. Captured by the sinister Queen Khalida and forced to do her bidding, the adventurers must brave the horrors of the sun-soaked Land of the Dead, where the dead do not rest easy.
Serpent Queen is due to be published in March/April 2014. Road of Skulls and David Guymer’s City of the Damned are available now from Black Library. In addition, the first in the series, William King’s Trollslayer, has recently been re-released as part of the Black Library Classics series – it is, in my humble opinion, a must-read.
Uncanny X-Men, Vol.1 – “Revolution” (Marvel NOW)
A so-so ‘start’ to a new Uncanny X-Men series…
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis | Artist: Chris Bachalo (1-4), Frazier Irving (#5) | Inks: Jaime Mendoza, Tim Townsend, Al Vey, Victor Olazaba & Frazier Irving | Colours: Chris Bachalo & Frazier Irving
The true flagship X-Men series returns... NOW! In the wake of the Phoenix event, the world has changed and is torn on exactly what Cyclops and his team of outlaw X-Men are – visionary revolutionaries or dangerous terrorists? Whatever the truth, Cyclops, Emma Frost, Magneto, and Magik are out in the world gathering new mutants and redefining the name Uncanny X-Men. But the challenges that they must overcome are fierce: once again, robotic Sentinels hunt the team and the mutants they protect... but when you find out who’s doing the hunting, your jaw will drop! And if that's not enough, there’s a mole on Cyclops’s team – but who is it?
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #1-5
This is not a bad start to one of the Marvel NOW re-launch titles. Nevertheless, I had some issues with it, but they are more related to the overall direction of the Marvel NOW titles than this series per se. So: some good, some middling.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Keeping Elfy at Christmas…
Over a decade-and-a-half ago(ish), I was rather addicted to reading the background sections, stories, and special character histories from the Warhammer Armies range of books published for Games Workshop’s tabletop game. They used to be considerable books, actually, before a decision was made to strip out much of the background information, army and character histories, etc. [Boo!] Because of my peripatetic upbringing, I never actually had anyone to play the game(s) with, though, despite my obvious interest in and affection for the fantasy and science fiction systems GW produced – understandably, there was only so much patience my over-worked father could have for them. So, I made up for this by devouring the books and writing Extremely Bad fan-fiction. Like, really, really bad…
Anyway, while selecting my Christmas reading for my trip to Canada, I realised something: an Elf trend. True, it’s a trend that has been broken with a massive time-gap in the middle, but one Christmas, I found Warhammer Armies: High Elves waiting for me under the tree [pictured, above]. Including this year, for the last three Christmases, I will have read William King’s Tyrion & Teclis trilogy. These two characters feature heavily in the (very well-read, now-fallen-apart) edition of WA: HE that I had, which is perhaps partly why I have enjoyed the trilogy so much.
So, I guess, this is how I keep Elfy over Christmas…
William King’s Blood of Aenarion, Sword of Caledor and Bane of Malekith are all available now, published by Black Library. I would also strongly recommend the Gotrek & Felix series, which he created.
I apologise (only a little) for the fact that this post was, basically, all about getting to use that pun…
Books Received (December)
A nice selection again, this month – and a mixed bag, to boot. Two publishers have four books each – Headline and Arrow/Random House – but it’s a testament to their varied lists that they aren’t all the same (saving two Star Wars novels). Headline, actually, has been really impressing me this year: they buy and publish a great range of titles, and as far as I can tell are often pushing the boat out, too. It’s been a (thankfully) slower month, too, so I have some chance of actually being able to catch up on some/most of this. It certainly helps that a couple of these have been on my Must-Read list for a long while (here’s looking at Breach Zone, Razor’s Edge and Scoundrels), but the unexpected arrivals look interesting, too.
Friday, December 13, 2013
Fairest, Helheim, Numbercruncher, Peter Panzerfaust, Sex, The Walking Dead (Graphic Novel Catch-Up)
Another round-up of recent reads. I’ve actually been reading a lot more comics/graphic novels than I’ve been reviewing, but I’ve decided to review only the ones I feel really ‘need’ a review. That is, those that inspire particularly strong opinions, or from series that I am particularly fond of already. Others, for example The Walking Dead, have been reviewed plentifully already and my positive reviews wouldn’t really add much to the discussion. But this didn’t stop me from writing something here anyway.
Reviewed: Fairest Vol.3, Helheim Vol.1, Numbercruncher, Peter Panzerfaust Vol.1, Sex Vol.1, The Walking Dead Vols.1-6
Thursday, December 12, 2013
President Obama in Comics: An Interesting and Peculiar Selection from the Sub-Sub-Genre…
President Obama has already featured in a number of comic books: be they comic/graphic adaptations of his life story, campaign-biography style one-shots, or cameos in established series comic series (such as Marc Guggenheim’s Avenging Spider-Man, below). Few presidents have excited the imaginations of such a broad segment of the American public and creative industries as has the 44th president. As someone who is interested in the cross-over areas of politics, media and pop culture, these past five years have been a fertile time for alternative presidential coverage.
Boom Studios’ Barack Obama 2012 Election Issue
Barack Obama: The Comic Book Biography (IDW, 2012); Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man: Election Day Cover, 2008 (above) and interior pages (below)
Most recently, IDW Comics published The Other Dead (currently at issue #4), which is elevator-pitched as “Zombie Animals Devour the World”. The longer-form description sounds like a familiar, fauna-twist on The Walking Dead:
“As a weary community braces for the onslaught of an incoming superstorm, an even more insidious force grows right under their noses! When a sudden outbreak turns every animal in sight into raging, flesh-craving monsters, a colorful cast of characters will have no choice but to contend with THE OTHER DEAD!”
But, as the series unfolds, and the infection spreads across America, a diverse cast of characters – “ranging from a demon-obsessed death metal band to a paranoid survivalist to the President of the United States himself” – will try to contend with and combat “the most unpredictable zombie outbreak in history.” I don’t have any interior page previews featuring the president, but of the 11 cover variants that have thus-far been revealed for the first four issues, there are two (#1 and #4) that feature President Obama prominently, toting some serious firepower:
The Other Dead issues #1-4 are out now, published by IDW Comics. The series is written by Joshua Ortega and Digger T. Mesch, cover artwork is by Kevin Eastman, interior artwork is by Qing Ping Mui, and colouring by Blond.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
An Interview with TOBY VENABLES
Today, an interview with horror author Toby Venables, whose latest novel Knight of Shadows was recently published by Abaddon Books. We chatted about the changing nature of genre fiction, writing, undead vikings, and a 12th Century James Bond…
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Mini-Review: “The Language of Dying” by Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)
An affecting, slim tale of loss, family and never-forgotten pain
Tonight is a special, terrible night. A woman sits at her father’s bedside watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters – all traumatised in their own ways, their bonds fragile – have been there for the past week, but now she is alone. And that’s always when it comes. As the clock ticks in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her...
Clocking in at only about 125 pages, The Language of Dying nevertheless packs an emotional wallop. A daughter watches over her dying father, as her brothers and sister visit their childhood home. Each is dealing with their own issues and difficulties – be it drug abuse, general unhappiness with their lives, and also their difficulty in dealing with the imminent death of their father. The narrator recounts a number of fond memories and also some extremely painful ones (which, if I recall correctly from a blog-post the author wrote not too long ago, may be at least inspired by certain real events). The book is filled with a great many small, intimate details – it’s quite British, too, in that respect. The family is clearly a broken family, in many ways, and their dealings with each other can be difficult and cause friction. But then, at other times, they reminisce together over happier times. There is perhaps, also, a history of mental instability. This gives a certain dreamlike and questionable quality to a possibly-supernatural slant to the story that is alluded to at the start, and appears again at the end (one I really liked – and I enjoyed the ambiguity).
“… I still look. Forty next birthday and I’m looking out of the window for something that may be imaginary, that I haven’t seen in fifteen years, if ever I saw it at all…”
This is, as I say right at the top, is a powerful, elegant tale of loss and family, and some of the different manifestations of grief. The story is incredibly moving, and I will admit to shedding at least a couple of tears (ahem, ok, more than that). A remarkable, short piece of fiction. Very highly recommended.
Short Story Reviews: “Riven” & “Hand of Dust” by John French (Black Library)
Two short stories by one of Black Library’s up-and-comers
As one of the vaunted Crusader Host, Brother Crius stood as the representative of the X Legion upon the soil of Holy Terra, but when he learns of the death of his beloved primarch Ferrus Manus at the hands of the traitors, his stoic, mechanical grief imbues him with the strength and resolve to undertake a special mission on behalf of Rogal Dorn himself. Striking out into the stars, he searches for any signs of his lost Iron Hands brethren, hoping to bring them back to Terra to aid in the final defence of the Palace. The question remains – just who has survived the slaughter on Isstvan V, and what yet remains of them?
I’m always happy when a new piece of Horus Heresy fiction is released, and this one is by an author I have not read much by, before. The story follows Brother Crius, a member of the Iron Hands, struggling with the loss of his Primarch, Ferrus Manus. He is tasked by Sigismund, the First Captain of the Imperial Fists to seek out any other survivors of the Isstvan V massacre, and bring them back to Terra to bolster the defence against the eventual attack by Horus’s forces. Heading out, with the support of an Imperial Fists captain, what Crius and his companions discover is not at all what they were expecting – nor, actually, what I was expecting.
I like what French has done with this story. While I wasn’t entirely clear as to why Crius was incarcerated at the start of the story, the author nevertheless has written a pretty great story. We see a little bit more of what makes the Iron Hands tick, and also a little bit of the psychological damage that the death of Ferrus has caused. True, it’s still a relatively short story, so there isn’t too much of this, but I would certainly like to read more about the Legion pre- and post-Ferrus’s death. The final battle is pretty intense, and not over-described (which was certainly welcome to me). Overall, this is a recommended addition to the growing Heresy story.
On Prospero, a solitary living soul walks across the shattered world. Beneath the ruined spires, Ahriman, exiled son of Magnus the Red and destroyer of his Legion, contemplates what once was, what is, and what may yet be. And amidst the dust of the long-lost paradise world, the sorcerer faces his mistakes and decides his destiny.
This (very) short story is part of Black Library’s Advent Calendar series of eBooks. It is also the second by French featuring the Thousand Sons (All is Dust, another micro-story, was released early last year). Hand of Dust follows one of the greatest sorcerers of the Thousand Sons traitor legion – Ahriam, the architect of the Rubric that ‘froze’ his fellow legionaries, in an attempt to rescue them from the fate that has plagued the sons of Magnus for centuries.
Hand of Dust is perhaps too short to really have much to write about it. The premise is interesting, and I think it could (and, perhaps, should) have been extended. It’s like a teaser for French’s writing and also his Ahriman fiction. It’s a good one, too. As with Riven, above, French’s writing is pretty solid and well-crafted. It is perhaps not as streamlined and fluid as some of the other, more-established Black Library authors, but it’s still very good. It will certainly be interesting to see how he develops over time.
French also wrote the first Ahriman novel, Ahriman: Exile (below), which is out now, and has now been bumped up my tottering TBR mountain. Ahriman also features in Rob Sanders’s Atlas Infernal and Graham McNeill’s superb A Thousand Sons (and a handful of other Horus Heresy novels). French will also be writing a follow-up to Exile, Sorcerer, which is due for publication in 2014.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
“The Emperor’s Children” by Claire Messud (Knopf)
An interesting tale of privilege in New York, in the lead-up to 9/11
A novel about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way — and not — in New York City. There is beautiful, sophisticated Marina Thwaite — an “It” girl finishing her first book; the daughter of Murray Thwaite, celebrated intellectual and journalist — and her two closest friends from Brown, Danielle, a quietly appealing television producer, and Julius, a cash-strapped freelance critic.
The delicious complications that arise among them become dangerous when Murray’s nephew, Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, an idealistic college dropout determined to make his mark, comes to town.
As the skies darken, it is Bootie’s unexpected decisions — and their stunning, heartbreaking outcome — that will change each of their lives forever.
This novel came very highly recommended, but for some reason it took me quite a long time to get around to reading it. I have a weak-spot for novels set in New York City. This is the first one I’ve read that takes a look (near the end) at the impact of 9/11 on inhabitants of the city – not in terms of politics or the War on Terror, but rather as an event that would turn the lives of these protagonists upside down, in both large and small ways. I certainly enjoyed reading the novel, but it’s not perfect. It offers some shrewd, pointed commentary on the foibles and anxieties that face or characterise the lives of privileged (and some not-so-privileged) white youth in New York City.