‘Locke and Key’ by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

I’ve been wary of picking up any of Joe Hill’s stuff.  I felt that had he not been Stephen King’s son, I would probably have never heard of him.  But I kept hearing good things about his ‘Locke and Key’ series, so I decided it was time to put prejudice aside and take the plunge.  I’m glad I did.  The hardback is beauty in book form. Gorgeous to hold, with a macabre yet inviting cover, behind which lurk and pages and pages of vibrant and evocative illustrations. The writing is great too; the words and pictures marry perfectly making for a compelling read.

This is an unforced and effortless read of the sort that hides the talent of those behind it. (i.e. The writing is so good, it’s made to looks easy). Like all good horror tales, the book’s premise is a simple one.  The house that takes centre stage contains any number of mysterious doors that have peculiar powers. One turns you into a ghost, another can take you anywhere. Oh yes and there is a mysterious girl who lives down a well, who probably isn’t as nice as she first seems. Each of these doors has a key that opens on them, and herein lies the beauty of the series. As long as the writers can keep thinking of interesting things to do with a doorway, they can produce key after key which open a portals to story after macabre story.

Having waxed so lyrical, I do have a couple of reservations. The story does feel a little light. There’s a lot of pages for what amounts to not that much exploration of the themes and ideas suggested. There is a violent back-story to the family that live in the house, and some of the panels were over-gory for my tastes. This book is far creepier when it goes for psychological thrills rather than visceral spills. But these are small complaints. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Welcome to Lovecraft’; it reminded me in places of my all time favourite series ‘The Unwritten’ and at times matches it for storytelling brilliance. High praise indeed. This is a fine starting block for what promises to be an excellent series. I look forward to reading volume two.

The Only Way Is Wessex – ‘The Wordmith’s Tale’ by Stephen Edden

‘The Only Way is Wessex’ is such an unworthy review title for a book of the quality of Stephen Edden’s ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’, I’m almost too embarrassed to use it.  Almost.    Stephen Edden takes one hundred years of English history, and following five generations of the same family, weaves a beguiling tale of life and love in Anglo-Saxon Britain.  In many ways this is a traditional family saga, there are hatches, matches and dispatches, sharp tongues and idle gossip.  The only thing stopping this being a Victorian melodrama, are 900 years of history.

The Wordsmith’s Tale is narrated by Thomas the Piper, who claims to be the great-grandson of Tom Thumb, the diminutive storyteller.  His story opens on the night Tom finally tracked down his true love Fleda, Thomas’s (the Piper’s) great-grandmother, and a former unwilling consort of the Saxon king Edgar.  The family live out a meagre existence as serfs under a kindly but ineffective Thane.  Fleda and Tom’s son, the charismatic ‘Bas the Giant’ decides to take a Viking bride, bringing the family trouble upon trouble.  Troubles that still resonate as Thomas tells his tale, one hundred years later.

This is a novel filled with both tenderness and brutality.  There are deep bonds of love and camaraderie between the novel’s central players, but the harsh reality of life in the year 1000 is unflinchingly realised.  War, plague, starvation, murder, rape, sodomy, and paedophilia all feature many times over.   The women of the novel suffer particularly hard; Anglo-Saxon Britain was certainly a man’s world.  This is not a novel for the faint-hearted, and yet it is packed with likeable characters and many moments of warmth and pleasure.  Most of Tom’s descendants are consummate storytellers, the tall tales they tell are laced with British folklore, giving the novel another, mythical, dimension.

Stephen Edden’s prose is masterly.  The predominant use of words with Anglo-Saxon roots, gives the novel an earthy authenticity, making for a wholly satisfying read.  A good historical novel should be epitomised by a phrase that is often used to describe modern TV shows – ‘scripted reality’.  This phrase fits the  ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’ perfectly, so perhaps my comparison with TOWIE is not so far from the mark.  From start to finish ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’ is a colourful and absorbing novel, describing an overlooked period of history.  I am sad to note that the novel’s publisher ‘Beautiful Books’ (who also published the brilliant, but completely different ‘Romeo Spikes’)  has gone out of business, so this book may become hard to get hold of.  Take my advice and do so as soon as you can.

A World Without Tears? – ‘The Killables’ by Gemma Malley

Another week, another Young Adult fiction dystopia.  This is a genre that I have always enjoyed reading, but now it has burst into the mainstream, is quality going to decline?  Will an army of Hunger Games clones be unleashed onto the high street, track down young and impressionable teenagers, before clubbing to death with bad prose and stolen ideas?  Well if Gemma Malley’s ‘The Killables’ is anything to go by, we don’t have anything to worry about just yet.  Malley is the author of ‘The Declaration’, an understated well-realised dystopian vision.  If you enjoyed that, then you’ll love this too.

For the first one hundred pages or so of ‘The Killables’, I wasn’t convinced.  Malley’s premise follows the standard dystopia formula of taking one aspect of society, drastically altering it, and examining what effect that would have on the world.  In this novel, the population of ‘The City’ have had their ability to be evil removed.  Through conditioning and removal of the amygdala (part of the brain that current (real-life) research has shown can be over-active in perpetrators of violent crime), members of The City are programmed only to think ‘good’ thoughts.  This measure is in a drastic response to ‘The Horrors’; an unspecified apocalyptic event that saw the indiscriminate slaughter of millions.  The City is kept isolated by impregnable walls, outside of which live ‘The Evils’.

Unsurprisingly all is not well in paradise.  Clearly some people are less able to shut out evil than others. Everybody is ranked.  Either A,B,C or D, with A being the most pure.  The City is led by ‘The Brother’ a brainwashing villain worthy of the very best authoritarian regimes.  Everything is controlled, jobs and professions are allocated.  Entertainment non-existent and marriages and relationships arranged.  Evie is a ‘C’ but her prospects are on the up, because she is wanted by an ‘A’; the pure but characterless Lucas.  Lucas’ brother is the non-conformist trouble maker Raffy… and you can immediately see where this is going.

It’s your classic dystopian love-triangle under a romantically repressed regime.  So far, so formulaic.  The City feels all too similar to the setting for Lauren Oliver’s Delirium.  Curiously, in one novel hate is removed and in the other it’s love, yet both create the same sterile world.  There is a fitting inevitability about this when you stop to think about it, and one that suggests that both writers have their world-building spot on.   When talk turns to the possibility of life outside the walls, the novel is pointed so heavily in one direction I started to fear that ‘The Killables’ was going to be a dud.  Far from it.

Whilst its storyline never veers too far from conventional, the novel’s strength comes from the quality of Gemma Malley’s writing, and her handle on what makes us human. Malley’s books (or at least the two I’ve read), don’t have the visceral element of many end-of-days novels, but instead offer a calmer examination of abuse of power, and the strength of human character.  Her characterisation is splendid, making for a deeply affecting read.  The novel’s twists revolve around people rather than plot, which is unusual in this type of fiction and it is a difference that pays dividends.  In the novel’s latter stages, the depth of Malley’s vision is laid out, and the true nature of ‘The Evils’ is revealed.  This makes ‘The Killables’ a much more involved read than anticipated.  One that asks a lot more questions than its opening suggested it might.

After being underwhelmed by the opening third, I ultimately found ‘The Killables’ almost impossible to put down.  This is the first book in a trilogy, but is almost complete in itself, whilst remaining tantalisingly open-ended. With two more books to come, I’m pleased to report that in Gemma Malley the genre has found a safe pair of hands.

The Hunger Games – Before the Rise

It seems that it is ‘Hunger Games’ week.  I find the idea of an HG film vaguely exciting, but being a father of small children, probably won’t make it to the cinema any time soon.  It does occasionally happen, but then I just fall asleep. But I have read the books.

Thanks to a review copy from Amazon Vine many moons ago, I have followed Collins’ trilogy since before it became a phenomenon.  So, to allow me to post something new without doing much work, I shall   take you into the past as I dust off my old reviews.  At the time I posted my first review Amazon was showing less than twenty. Now there are close to 600.   Reading through mine, they still seem pretty accurate; the first novel was good, the second better and the third dire. (Ironically, Mockingjay is the only one of the three that I paid money for).  ‘Catching Fire’ is definitely ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

I have no idea whether I’m right or not, but I stand by my assertion that Collins didn’t originally intend for there to be a trilogy and I think the shambolic final instalment gives this theory some credence.  That said, she has produced a body of work that has swept aside the vampires, and filled bookshops with apocalyptic visions and smouldering unrequited because-we-only-have-fifty-seconds-to-save-the-world relationships, and for that, I thank her.

Battle Royale for the Squeamish – (Posted on Amazon 3rd Feb 2009)

The premise of ‘The Hunger Games’ is almost exactly the same as Koushun Takami’s excellent Battle Royale . i.e. a dystopian future, where the ruling government forces teenage children to fight to the death. Being aimed at a younger market (11+ according to the back cover) ‘The Hunger Games’ is a sanitised version of Takami’s classic; a simpler, less visceral story, with fewer shades of grey (and spatters of blood). The characters in Collins’ story are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there is little or no moral ambiguity. I would hesitate to recommend ‘Battle Royale’ to younger readers, but it is the superior of the two novels. That said, ‘The Hunger Games’ is still riveting and extremely readable .

In addition to Hi-Octane chases, breakneck action and bushcraft lessons, ‘The Hunger Games’ contains some calmer, thought provoking moments. The middle section of the novel is a thinly veiled allegory for the gulf in lifestyle between ‘First’ and ‘Developing’ World countries. The novel’s target audience are offered much to think about regarding the excesses of modern life and the vacuousness of conspicuous consumption.

Somewhat disconcertingly, it turns out that ‘The Hunger Games’ is the first novel in a trilogy. Although the story is more or less self-contained, a window is left open for further books. This feels somewhat forced and stinks of a publisher sensing an opportunity, rather than any real need to continue the story. Mind you, if the quality of writing and excitement generated during the course of this book are anything to go by, Collins’ next instalment should still be a cracker. ‘This Hunger Games’ is first rate teenage fiction, and should captivate even the most reluctant of readers.

A Superior Sequel – Posted on Amazon 26 Aug 2009

If the original Hunger Games novel has a fault, it is that the premise on which it is based is not unique. Koushun Takami got there first with the significantly more complex (and violent) Battle Royale. So was ‘Catching Fire’ able to step out of “Royale’s” shadow? For about nine-tenths of this book, I had thought ‘No!’, but in a scintillating final fifty pages, Collins turns her world on its head and shatters her reader’s preconceptions.

The sequel has the same page-turning qualities as its predecessor, but Katniss, having grown through her experiences in the first novel, now sees the world through older eyes. This gives ‘Catching Fire’ a grittier feel. Collins holds a mirror to First World nations, forcing the reader to ask the question, how different am I to the denizen of ‘The Capitol’? The social comment in this volume is stronger and more subtle than the first.

The action scenes are as exhilarating as ever, though for much of the book, I was disappointed that the author hadn’t been a little braver. It seemed she was content to rehash the first book, rather than take her characters in new, more interesting directions. In the end, my disappointment was premature. The climax to ‘Catching Fire’ is tremendous; action fiction at its best. The final pages reveal a masterful handling of plot, as well as action, and ends on the mother of all cliffhangers. After two excellent books the ‘Hunger Games’ saga is poised for a thrilling conclusion.

Third Helping Left Me Sick (Posted on Amazon 6th September 2010)

I had decided not to leave a review for ‘Mockingjay’ – I figured that such was the quality of the first two books, if you had read them, there was no way you were going to miss out on number three, no matter what sort of reviews it had. Since this page seems to have become a bit of a discussion board for the book, I thought I’d add my two-pen’orth.

After reading the first The Hunger Games novel, I felt that perhaps Collins’ publisher had pushed her into turning what should have been one book into three. I didn’t feel there was anywhere else for the series to go. Despite having essentially the same structure as book 1, book 2 allayed my fears. A strong underlying story seemed to be developing, and it ended with an intriguing cliffhanger. Volume 3 however, has confirmed my suspicions. After such a vital beginning, surely Collins could not have originally envisaged such a garbled and unsatisfactory conclusion?

The problem stems from ‘Mockingjay’ being set in a much wider arena. Collins conveyed the claustrophobia of the arena brilliantly, keeping the tension high at all times. Peculiarly, with Katniss in the outside world, the tension now feels artificial. There are long periods of inactivity, lots of navel-gazing and teenage angst (some might say whining) from Katniss. Then suddenly she is called to another zone, where something dramatic happens. Perhaps because she is not fighting for her life, these sequences lack the drama of the previous two novels. We’ve always known that Katniss will somehow survive, but this time, we know she has to make it to the end of the novel for the big showdown. I couldn’t help wishing Collins would get on with it.

With the first two novels centring around the games, the reader wasn’t asked to suspend their belief too much. Collins gave us a set of rules, and wrote a terrific story within them. The opening out the setting into the wider world, means it needs to stand up to closer scrutiny. The political and geographical system just don’t survive any sort of examination. There is no way an all powerful government would set things up that way. Once you start thinking about Panem too much, the whole premise becomes absurd.

It’s the same case with the city’s defences – it made for great reading, Katniss stalking her prey through the streets of The Capitol, but an it was entirely unrealistic way for a city to defend itself. As for novel’s conclusion, well I don’t want to give too much away, but although powerful, it is extremely disjointed. It feels like Collins bottled writing the ending the novel needed.

The separation of Peeta and Katniss in Mockingjay is a curious decision. The relationship between the two main characters elevated the original novels from good to great. With Gale thrown into the mixture we had a powerful and ambiguous love triangle. We all had our opinions on who Kantiss should be with, and Collins manipulated them expertly. Mockingjay sadly lacks this interaction, pretty much all the way through. Without Peeta, Katniss is diminished; an accurate assessment by the author, but one that spoils her book a little.

All that said, there is still some great writing in here. There are some excellent and tense set pieces, particularly towards the novel’s climax. The author poses questions about how readily the oppressed become the persecutors, in a subtle mirroring of contemporary world politics. Similarly, there is some great analysis of our media soaked lives, and the power of television. Panem is a thinly veiled metaphor for our own world, and anything that prompt questions about its absurdities, can only be a good thing.

So sadly, I was not impressed by ‘Mockingjay’ and feel it to be a sorry conclusion to what should have been an excellent series. In any case, I urge you not to listen to me. Instead, buy the book, read it yourself and make up your own mind!

Living in the Future – The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow by Cory Doctorow

This is the first book I have read in the PM Press ‘Outspoken Authors’ series of novellas.  The list of authors contains some greats of science fiction, young and old, including Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Moorcock, and of course Cory Doctorow.  It is a great testament to the British library system, that I stumbled across this book in my local library.  I have never heard anything about this series before, yet here one was sitting prominently on the shelf in my smallish local library.  One in the eye for the cut-seekers.

So what’s the book like then?  Well, it’s split into three sections.  The first, and by far the biggest, is the title novella.  There then follows a transcript of Doctorow’s speech to the 2010 World SF Convention ‘Copyright Vs Creativity’ and finally an interview with Doctorow in which he discusses writing and his ‘inner nerd’.  I am a huge fan of Doctorow’s ‘Little Brother‘, an incandescent novel that asks important questions about our surveillance society.  The other two Doctorow novels I have read, though masterly in their vision, lacked the punch of his breakthrough.

The strength of Doctorow’s fiction lies in the depth of his knowledge of modern computing and our interconnected world.  This, coupled with his ability to extrapolate how technology might grow, allows him to build plausible and credible visions of the near-future.  Building on some of the (many) ideas he outlined in ‘Makers’, ‘The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow’ is set after the ‘Mecha Wars’ a post-apocalyptic Earth, where self-replicating computers and nano-technology have helped mankind destroy the planet.  Jimmy, the novel’s narrator, is immortal.  Created by his father, who manipulated his genome, Jimmy never grows old.  In world that is failing this is a curse rather than a blessing.

Because this is a story of only 100 pages, it has none of the flab around it that spoiled ‘Makers‘ and ‘For the Win‘.  It’s all story.  A good story with some food for thought for the future – most notably that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  There are some interesting observations on what might happen when computers become more human, and humans more computerised, and a side story of what the father-son bond might be like, if you are going to live forever.  Disney also makes an appearance; old habits clearly die-hard.

The Speech ‘Copyright Vs Creativity’ is a controversial appraisal of DRM and how it stifles creativity.  I must confess that I’m not familiar enough with the subject matter to fully understand what Doctorow was driving at nor do I feel qualified to give it an objective appraisal, but it was interesting essay and a counter-intuitive argument well explained.  Finally the interview gives us a glimpse of the man behind the legend (for Doctorow is legendary in many circles.) He comes across very well, and a capable defender of our digital rights.  He also offers some great tips on writing, which all budding Doctorows would do well to read and heed.

All in all this is a small but well put together book.  PM Press have done themselves proud, and right now, I’m off to the library to see if I can find some more from the series… (that’s a lie it’s 22:30 and pouring with rain)

Delicate and Emotive Masterpiece – ‘The Story of Forgetting’ by Stefan Merrill Block

This review first appeared on Amazon in March 2009

Very occasionally, I discover a book that forces me to re-evaluate the power of the written word; to reorder my hierarchy of essential reads. ‘The Story of Forgetting’ is such a book. It recounts the lives of a several generations of the same family, affected by early onset Alzheimer’s, and it is a triumph.

It would have been easy to make a mess of this emotive subject, but Stefan Merrill Block, provides just the right levels of pathos, science and comedy to engineer a compulsive read. Often sad but never maudlin, Block draws on the latest scientific research, yet never bamboozles the layman with hard facts.

There is a lightness of touch to Block’s prose that belies the devastating consequences of its subject matter. His metaphors and use of language are second-to-none, making each page a joy to read. The novel’s characters are all incredibly believable; whether Block is describing the trauma felt at watching a loved one slowly fade away, or the trauma of an adolescent boy, attempting to ask out a girl, who is way out of his league, it is done so perfectly. If that wasn’t enough, interleaved into the family’s story, is the beautiful allegorical tale of Isidora, the perfect land where all the inhabitants are blissfully happy but never remember anything.

From its first page to the last, this novel is just about as good as fiction gets and reaffirms what storytelling is for; to provoke thought and emotion in the reader and to encourage them to view the world in a different way. This book has indeed altered the point from which I see the world, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

It’s the end of the world as we know it – ‘The Testimony’ by James Smythe

I have read a great deal post-apocalypse dystopian fiction.  It seems to be becoming it’s own sub-genre, but there are far fewer novels that deal with the moment of collapse itself (that don’t involve zombies!).  James Smythe has conceived a believable near-future, and then imagined a way to destroy it.  Whilst not perfect, the result is a scary, credible and thought-provoking read.  He also employs one of the boldest literary devices I have encountered for a while.

The story is told entirely using testimony.  Each of the relatively short chapters is an account of the disaster, told by one of its survivors.  There is no dialogue, no interaction between the characters in the book, just stories about the people they met, the people they loved, the people who have died.  From the outset, you know everybody talking has survived, so one potential source of tension and excitement is lost, yet Smythe’s novel delivers both thrills and emotion.  I should imagine writing the novel in this way was exceptionally hard work, and the results could have been horribly stilted.  Smythe manages to hold it all together, delivering a very effective piece of literature.

The novel’s narrators are from all around the globe, from all walks of life, from US Chief of Staff, to a Chinese online gamer.  Some voices appear more than others; there are core of six or seven narrators that form the spine of the novel, but other voices are brought in to add flavour and authenticity to the mix.  This idea works well, as it allows Smythe to show different viewpoints of the same events, giving the story a global perspective (though most of the narrators are from the UK and the US).

The question at the heart of this novel is ‘What if God spoke to us?’ All of us at once. A mysterious broadcast is heard by everyone  across the globe simultaneously.  The message, only a few lines long, is heard in English.  It’s origin and meaning are ambiguous, but there is a strong implication that it is from a sentient being, who watches over us.  The fallout from this phenomenon is manifold.  Is it Aliens? God? If it is God, which religion is right? Is it telling the truth?  All of the characters have a theory, and so does the rest of the world.  There are huge ramifications for world religion and geo-politics.  Thrown into the mix are some shadowy, probably middle eastern, terrorists, and some shocking attacks against the US.  From there, things fall apart.

Smythe could be accused of taking the all-too-easy route of demonising the US for being responsible for all the world’s ills, but though the White House’s response to events didn’t totally ring true, I think the descent to Armageddon is a plausible one. Yet, as I approached the end of the novel, I still had some reservations.  There seemed to be too many open ends; I could see no chance of a conclusion that wasn’t farcical.  I couldn’t see how Smythe would tie the novel off without it being silly; he author is a cleverer man than me.

Some readers may not like the ending, but I very much did.  If you don’t like thrillers with ambiguous endings, you’re probably not going to like ‘The Testimony’.  Very little is resolved. The What? How? and Why? almost fade into the background, and Smythe even leaves the reader with yet another unanswered question.  What if?  There is a clever change in direction, from apocalypse thriller, to introspective thought-provoker.  The novel becomes about what makes us human, and how we respond to tragedy.  Curiously, my abiding thought at the end of ‘The Testimony’ was the last line of the ‘Cat in The Hat’ – ‘What would you do?’.   This questioning conclusion gives the novel added power over the reader, making it a wholly satisfying read.