Saturday, 29 December 2012

2012 - A Reading Year In Review

The close of the year is a decent opportunity to reflect upon and share a few of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading and haven’t yet had time to feature here.  Unsurprisingly, there are a few of these.

2012 was a year I set myself to expanding consciously upon my previous reading horizons and looking to material outside of my normal comfort zone, this being something I achieved in part – both as a result of ensuring varied content for the blog and otherwise.  This notwithstanding, there has also been plenty of time for genre reading – this being a firm favourite and something I tend to revert to at varied intervals.

Spec Fic

I’ve been reading spec fic ever since my parents bought me a copy of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl’s Moving Castle for a previous birthday.  Looking back, a number of this year’s reads fall within this category, such as the subject of my previous review entry; this also being a re-read for this year (as for many). 

Additional stand out reads for this year include Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls and my first reading experience in connection with the works of Catherynne M Valente – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, described within the blurb upon the cover as “a glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom” by Neil Gaiman.  Winner of the Andre Norton Award and similarly lauded by the author of The Last Unicorn, Tamora Pierce and Holly Black, this is one novel which deserves the praise heaped upon it.  I was similarly impressed by the highly anticipated follow up The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There.  Intelligent writing for smart readers.  Highly recommended.

Mixing YA into the melting pot here, I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed Kate Milford's The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands, which I read almost back to back, having ordered one whilst I was approximately halfway through the other.  Milford blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction by adding a certain amount of historical background into her tales of crossroads bargaining and demons and produces something noteworthy on each occasion as a result.  Genuinely entertaining reading.

Short Fiction

Probably not as many in this category as I would have liked, although I’m always on the look-out for suitable shorts.  I have, however, been dipping in and out of Shadow Showthe tribute anthology to Ray Bradbury and particularly enjoyed Kelly Link's contribution, Two Houses

During my random internet trawls for short fiction I also came across Calum Kerr's collection of flash fiction, 31, inspired by recent participation in NaNoWriMo and each entry of which was written in a single 10 to 20 minute sitting.  I, for one, enjoyed them, being partial to the odd piece of “shorter than short”.

Kate Milford’s The Kairos Mechanism probably also deserves a mention here, being novella length.  This is effectively a “bridge” story between The Boneshaker and her subsequent prequel novel, The Broken Lands but well worth the read simply on its own merits as a folklore based fantasy tale.  The project was originally Kickstarter self-funded but is also available in paperback and e-book format via Milford's own website.

Despite not having been published this year, I’m also mentioning Kat Howard's The Calendar of Saints as one of the pieces of short fiction which has had a significant effect upon me more recently.  A beautifully written tale of the blade as both instrument and point of honour.

Historical Fiction

YA also features here, with Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity being the one which impressed me the most.  Wein produces an affecting duel narrative detailing the fate of two friends who become involved in the British war effort – the “sensational team” referred to upon the back cover.  Gripping and full of well researched detail.


Despite being (arguably) better known for her genre fiction, my most recent experience of Elizabeth Hand's work stems from her foray into the world of crime/literary thriller in the form of Generation Loss and Available Dark (another example of a prequel published subsequent to the events which follow it, similarly to Milford’s The Broken Lands).  An unlikely examination of art and redemption.

Graphic Novels

Graphic novels also feature within my 2012 reading list, despite this previously having been a neglected area for me.  Some of this is due in part to the sheer readability of Locke and Key, a series I’ve been following throughout this year and which arguably opened my eyes to a subsection of the bookshelf I’d previously been missing out on.  I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion to this series and will hope for the possibility of stand-alones, even once the overall narrative arc is concluded.

Whilst this isn’t a comprehensive list of the works I haven’t previously referred to here for this year and isn’t intended to act as a “best of”  or “top five” or “ten” in the strictest sense, it does highlight at least a couple which I feel are well worth the time expended upon their contents.  Hopefully there’s something which may take your fancy and provide some reading material for the next occasion on which you have time for the written word. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Feet Firmly Facing Forwards

Howl's Moving Castle will be familiar to many, whether as a result of prior knowledge of Diana Wynne Jones' work (of which I’ve made no secret that I’m a fan) or as a result of the more recently released Miyazaki illustrated film, which is also highly recommended.

The book is deceptive and, ultimately, fascinating in light of its subtly subversive effect.  Whilst the narrative commences as what purports to be traditional fantasy, set in the Land of Ingary in which the workings of destiny and magic play a pivotal part, matters soon take a twist towards the less certain. 

We begin with Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters, apparently doomed to fail “first, and worst” if the three set out to seek their fortunes.  As such, she seems consigned to an unremarkable life, not even being the “child of a poor woodcutter”.  It is at this point that it becomes clear that the narrative is intended to play upon the reader’s preconceptions of the fantasy genre in much the same manner as is seen to be employed in Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Soon enough, Sophie becomes aware her younger sisters have switched places with one another, having been sent off to gainful employment and apprenticeship as apparently befits their station in life – a solution both are dissatisfied with and for which they find their own solution, having teamed up together.  Not only this but Sophie is confronted by the infamous Witch of the Waste; someone who has apparently formed an ill opinion of her for reasons Sophie herself is incapable of explaining.  As punishment for her supposed competition with the witch, Sophie is transformed into an old woman and finds herself forced to leave her life behind her.  The search for her fortune leads her to the moving castle which is the subject of the title to the novel. 

By this stage, all three sisters are seeking to live their lives on their own terms, to a greater or lesser extent, notwithstanding their apparent predetermined destiny – even Sophie has left the hat shop which was intended to be her inheritance behind, although she attributes this to her unexpected transformation, inferring there was little choice in the matter.  Despite this potential unreliability within our main protagonist, clearly, we have left the realms of the straightforward behind.  Matters are not as they would seem and, apparently, cases of mistaken identity abound.  Sophie’s sisters, Lettie and Martha, are now masquerading as one another and Sophie is forced to pass herself off as “Old Sophie” in light of the spell cast upon her.

Similarly, there are many forms of magic at work once Sophie sets off upon her travels.  Seemingly, the transformation has affected more than just her appearance.  Sophie finds she is capable of exerting herself more, freed from the trappings of her status as the eldest of the family – even manipulating her way into a position and board at the moving castle which is the subject of the novel’s title.  This is not without its hazards.  Howl, the wizard who owns the castle is vain, cowardly, stubborn and prone to chasing after the local women – but only until he has secured their interest.  At that stage, he abandons them for new territory.  Add in a fire demon with whom Sophie makes a bargain, several magical contracts which require to be broken, the continued opposition of the Witch of the Waste and a spell cast unwittingly which appears to have rebounded against its originator and you have the basic elements which constitute the narrative.

This is a journey in more ways than one, with Sophie’s literal journey forming the basis for self-discovery, having set off on her travels.  Ultimately, it transpires that Sophie’s true destiny can only be discovered through standing on her own two feet, as opposed to accepting what is deemed acceptable or appropriate for her.  Being both stubborn and outspoken, she is an engaging heroine and sparks fly in more ways than one when she and Howl confront one another.  Howl, too, learns from their encounters, being forced to confront his own fears and engage in genuine honesty – something which leads directly to the concluding denouement with the Witch of the Waste and, therefore, in some senses, rebounding against him.  It is for the reader to discover how successfully the pair are able to battle against these odds towards the tying up of loose ends and happiness on their own terms.

The strength of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in taking what is arguably a standard fantasy format with which to commence a narrative arc and spinning a less than traditional tale via its composite elements.  Neither Howl nor Sophie constitute the “standard size fits all” hero or heroine, both being as stubborn as one another and it is this which speaks so powerfully to the reader.  They are flawed.  Both demonstrate significantly bad moods, on occasion, with humorous and unexpected consequences.  They make mistakes which they are forced to seek to remedy.  They flounder and grow as a result.  Ultimately, both are unquestionably human in their portrayal and we, the reader, empathise wholly as a result. 

Further, despite being written several decades ago, the novel remains fresh in its message that life is to be lived on our terms and is what we make of it – this being something Sophie learns by its conclusion.  Having reading it on several occasions, I find myself returning to it at regular intervals – perhaps the highest praise I can offer.     

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Places Historic (Selective Shorts Series)

Highlighting another short story I located courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine today, this being Holly Black's Heartless.

Heartless is a narrative concerning the aftermath of battle and destruction – and the pickings which may be sifted from the battle ground in that aftermath by those who follow in the wake of the warriors; the camp women who scavenge amongst the corpses.  Ada is one such and this is her story.  The story of a “hedge-witch no more”, forced to scrounge for the spoils of war as part of the camp or face the possibility she may be killed by those who have invaded her lands.

Death appears in many guises within what is a deceptively short story at 3656 words – not only does Ada make her way through the physical remnants of the soldiers’ remains as they lie discarded about the battlefield but she is faced with the choice concerning whether or not to leave a surviving soldier to his eventual demise.  When she attempts to abandon him she is prevented from doing so by an ancestral manes, whose innate capability for good or ill is rumoured to be questionable.

Similarly, sacrifice plays an important part within the overall story arc.  Ada wears a finger bone about her neck to sever her emotions from the situation in which she finds herself and ensure she feels no fear or pain.  Ultimately, as the story proceeds, it becomes clear that there is more than the literal and simplistic manner in which pain can be encountered and that there are circumstances within which failing to act or care may be more harmful than the alternative.  Further, Ada’s choice concerning whether to live or die mirrors her decision regarding the nobleman she must decide whether to aid or leave to death. 

The imagery related to the severed finger and manner in which Ada is thus rendered “heartless”, as per the title, is also neat, with Roman culture in mind.  An economic tale which takes us to places historic.   

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A Lovely Little Love Song

The author of Goodnight Mister Tom and Back Home, Michelle Magorian, will be familiar to some already.  I, however, have a soft spot for one of her works which I’ve seen less “buzz” about online, A Little Love Song (Not a Swan in the US).  Those already au fait with Magorian’s works will know she has written a number of novels set within war time Britain and A Little Love Song follows in both Goodnight Mister Tom and Back Home’s footsteps in this regard.

To quote the blurb on the back cover:

“At seventeen, Rose is convinced no one will ever love her, living as she does in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Diana.  If Diana is the swan, Rose is the ugly duckling.  But for both girls this is going to be an extraordinary summer.

It is 1943 and the war has left its mark even in the sleepy seaside town where the girls have been sent out of harm’s way.  For the first time in their lives they are free of adult restriction.

For both girls it is a summer of self-discovery, but especially for Rose who unearths a love story set in another war, a story that becomes more real when she falls in love herself…” 

A Little Love Song is one of my re-reads – the books I “revisit” every once in a while, to re-experience the pleasure of reading again.  It’s also perhaps my favourite Michelle Magorian work to date.  Whilst Magorian revisits familiar territory in terms of the setting for her narrative with the war time theme, there are a number of respects in which this novel differs from those which precede it.  Rose is noticeably older than either of the main protagonists to whom we have previously been introduced, William Beech or “Rusty” Virginia Dickinson in Good Night Mister Tom or Back Home respectively at seventeen.  Consequentially, the reader is introduced to altogether new emotional territory.  Nor is Magorian reticent to delve into these depths. 

Through Derry, the local bookshop owner’s teenage cousin, Rose takes her first faltering steps towards a relationship and we see this rebound as she is tricked into a sexual relationship and her emotions are played upon, with Derry referring on a number of occasions to the fact that he is go off to war from which he might not return.  Away from parental supervision, Rose also finds herself associating with an unmarried mother to be, Dot, who was unable to marry her boyfriend, Jack, due to her father’s having withheld his consent.

Balanced neatly with these aspects of the narrative arc, Rose discovers the events which preceded it within the village of Salmouth and particularly those affecting Lapwing Cottage, the residence both she and her sister, Diana are renting and which had previously belonged to the locally infamous “Mad Hilda”.  Having discovered “Mad” Hilda’s diary and a letter which appears to encourage the reader to review the diary’s contents, Rose begins to appreciate that matters are not always as simplistic as they may at first appear and, indeed, that “Mad” Hilda may not in fact have been mad at all…  A moment of self-realisation confirms that, ultimately, it is “Mad” Hilda’s diary which prevents her from disassociating herself from Dot and allowing their friendship to develop and another, equally important, relationship to grow.  Furthermore, “Mad” Hilda’s diary takes on even greater significance once Rose realises it holds more than just the secret of Hilda’s sanity and has particular significance for someone with whom she is acquainted in the present.

Rose begins the narrative as an inexperienced and relatively na├»ve teenager who has never had to fend for herself.  By its conclusion, she has taken on employment and action to involve herself actively in the war effort.  Furthermore, she has developed the confidence to begin to write and she is engaged in a genuine, adult relationship.  Ultimately, the mistakes she makes along the way make this journey all the more credible.  Not only that, but the self-sworn “ugly duckling” has become a more self-assured and “darling” goose to her love and we, the reader, are happy for her for it.  Ultimately, happy does not have to mean absolute perfection – it simply means becoming self-aware and comfortable within our own skin; a pretty positive message to end Rose’s journey with - and ours with her.       

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Pondering Performance Poetry (Poetry Corner)

I had the opportunity to experience performance poetry at a writing event recently, which highlighted the fact that I haven’t had chance to read much poetry lately; something I may aim to rectify over the coming months.

For me, performance poetry is particularly fun, given there’s an acting element to the manner in which a poem is delivered or that it’s an opportunity to reconnect with the way in which words sound when spoken aloud or to project poetry interspersed with humour; reasons why I enjoyed Mark Gwynne Jones' Plasticman (audio version of the poem here).
Perhaps, with this in mind, I may well find myself indulging in further performance based poetry events in the future, as I reintroduce poetry into my regular reading list, given the extent to which I connected with its performance based aspect in this instance.  Here’s hoping!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Just For Fun

Horror-style haiku!

No body’s perfect
Certainly not mine – not now
Rot long past skin deep

Gristly old man bones
Unappetising dinner
Got stuck in my teeth

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Something Sinister Lurks…

In the Tall Grass...

In The Tall Grass is a Stephen King Joe Hill novella collaboration previously released as a two–parter within Esquire and recently released in e-book and audiobook format.  The story begins when a brother and sister pull off to the side of the road after hearing a young boy call for help from beyond the tall grass which forms the title to the story.  Within minutes they have somehow become separated, disoriented and unaccountably lost.  Gradually, they realise something is toying with them, blurring the lines of reality, so that they end up travelling in circles; close to one another and yet never able to reach one another, even when apparently within close proximity and able to converse. 

The premise of the situation is simple and touches upon themes previously addressed within King’s works (Firestarter and Children of the Corn come to mind in respect of the “tall grass”) and it works.  We, the reader, are taken into dark territory, here.  The narrative is disconcerting and, in places, physically and conceptually disturbing, without getting spoiler specific – so, not for the faint at heart.  Ultimately, both characters and situation turn full circle, adding to the sense of a complete narrative arc and claustrophobia of the scenario, from which, it seems, there is no escape.  This leaves a lingering sense of the inevitable on which to ponder as the story closes, as well as a possible need to clean up from the gore.  Chilling and bloody.

As an added bonus, the e-book format includes excerpts from the forthcoming Dr Sleep from King, sequel to The Shining and the beginning of Hill’s forthcoming NOS4R2.  Incidentally, NOS4R2 is already on my TBR’s mental listing…  

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Survivor’s Story (Graphic Illustrations Series)

The Walking Dead will need little introduction to many who have already seen the ABC series.  Having recently caught up on Season Two via DVD, I figured it was about time to avail myself of the graphic novel series from which the series originated.

“The continuing story of survival horror” referred to on the cover to the volume does a good job of summarising precisely what it is the covers conceal between them – the story of a group of survivors who are fighting against the odds for their lives in a post-apocalyptic world which has been overrun by zombies.  (If you opt for the hardcover volume, as opposed to the trade paperbacks, you get the first two volume trade paperbacks within the one hardcover format, here.) 

The story concentrates predominantly upon Rick Grimes, a cop in a former life, his wife, Lori, their son, Carl and the people whom the family have found themselves surrounded by during the course of their journey to date as they travel around America, seeking to stay alive and fight off the ever present danger to which they are forced to remain alert. 

We begin with Rick’s wakening from a coma in hospital, surrounded by the undead, travelling rapidly to Atlanta and beyond, as he searches for his family in amongst the chaos, confusion and walking dead or “walkers” as they subsequently become known.

Pushed to the limits as they are by the circumstances within which the group and the others they  encounter along the way are, the graphic novel series is a study in human psychology and the lengths to which individuals are willing (or otherwise) to go to survive.  Unsurprisingly, the necessity for unceasing vigilance drives some to lengths to which they had not possibly considered they were be willing to go.  There are those who do not survive, whether as a direct result of zombie attack or otherwise.  Similarly, characters are shown to clash over decisions and judgment calls – frequently.  Given the pressure they remain under at every stage, this is scarcely surprising.  No one individual is perfect or remains infallible in the face of danger; particularly given the high stakes.  In this kind of scenario there are no genuinely easy answers.  One wrong decision results in loss of life - possibly the decision-maker’s own.  Small wonder there is a tendency towards aggression once the immediate zombie-related threat has passed.   

The lack of certainty as to who will stay safe from one day to the next feels real and adds to the sense of threat under which the group travel.  Similarly, the geographic boundaries of the narrative switch rapidly, with the group changing location a number of times, given winding down too much could result in their premature death.  No one resting place remains secure for long, with the nomadic group forced to relocate, their RV being the only constant within the equation.  This keeps both characters and reader on their toes, as we are unsure from which direction the next threat to their existence may come.  In some instances, this stems from the individuals they encounter.  In others, the threat is more mundane; such as a lack of fuel for transportation, leaving them momentarily stranded.  Again, this builds upon the overall concept of survival horror.  Practicalities are a necessary evil; even in a world overrun by the undead.  Food is just as essential as shelter and Kirkman ensures we are aware of this along the way.

Further, the constant shadow of death is seen to have an impact in each instance on those who are left behind.  We see those who struggle to reconcile themselves with the fact that friends and family have passed beyond their aid and seeking to maintain compassion for those who have succumbed along the way, as well as the longer term effects of coming to terms with loss.  Whilst the narrative is violent and pulls no punches in terms of the manner in which the characters are dispatched, it never feels gratuitous. 

Ultimately, this is a gripping and pacey character driven tale of humanity, rendered beautifully in black and white (or grey) throughout.  The narrative zips past, leaving the reader wholly committed to following the future turmoil surrounding the group by its conclusion.  As you may have gathered, I will be back for more.    

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Celebrations Ensue

Following on from my previous post related to Neil Gaiman's All Hallow's Read, I recently learnt that he has released a free audiobook download of a short story, Click-Clack the Rattle Bag, in conjunction with Audible in celebration of the festival.  Even better, each free download results in a donation to charity.  US and UK sites are accessible here (US) and here (UK), subject to which you’ll have access to a suitably spooky story for Hallowe'en.  It’s approximately 10 minutes long and sends a shiver down the spine by the conclusion.  Be quick, though, as the story will only be capable of download until Hallowe'en.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Being Human (Selective Shorts Series)

Nina Kiriki Hoffman is an author I was introduced to via a second hand copy of The Thread That Binds The Bones a while back.  Hence the fact that I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her recent contribution to the online magazine, Lightspeed, Monster, Finder, Shifter.  Effortless prose aside, this story about a family who have produced several generations of “monster-finders” is actually an examination of what it means to be human and the difficult choices it can be necessary to make in an ongoing quest for knowledge and self-realisation.  Thought provoking and capable of transporting one fully into the world it inhabits within just under 7000 words.

And another thing - it also reminds me to find time to take a look at her most recent collection of 16 examples of her short fiction, Permeable Borders when I get chance.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Worst Things Come In Small Packages...

“When Judas Coyne heard someone was selling a ghost on the internet, there was no question what he was going to do.  It was perfect for his collection of the macabre and the grotesque: the cannibal’s cookbook, the witch’s confession, the authentic snuff movie.  As an ageing death-metal-rock-God, buying a ghost almost qualifies as a business expense.

Besides, Jude thinks he knows all about ghosts, Jude has been haunted for years…by the spirits of bandmates dead and gone, the spectre of the abusive father he fled as a child, and the memory of the girl he abandoned, who killed herself.  But this ghost is different.  Delivered to his doorstep in a black heart-shaped box, the latest addition to Jude’s collection makes the house feel cold.  It makes the dogs bark.  And it means to chase Jude from his home and make him run for his life…"

It was the modern slant within the premise of this novel which reeled me in initially.  After all – why not someone seeking to sell a ghost on the internet?  Dante Knoxx famously sought to auction his soul to the highest bidder via ebay before he was banned for doing so for breaching one of the firm’s policies and the listing was pulled by the site.  (This also puts me in mind of the occasion upon which GameStation inserted an "immortal soul" clause into online contracts as an April Fool’s Day joke.)

Heart-Shaped Box, is however, much more than simply the promise of its premise and a powerful page-turner – although it is undoubtedly both of these too.  Joe Hill's debut novel is, ultimately, an examination of the human condition with psychological depth. 

At the outset of the novel, Jude Coyne, the main protagonist, is a man who has “worked his way through a collection of goth girlfriends” who have “stripped, or told fortunes, or stripped and told fortunes, pretty girls” adorned with “ankhs and black fingernail polish” who he names solely by their “state of origin”.  His present girlfriend, whom he has dubbed Georgia, is twenty-three to his fifty four years of age.  He appears to demonstrate little real regard for her, beyond an appreciation for her goth “adoration” and other adult-oriented benefits of her youth.  Indeed, his stall is set out early in the narrative when he notes that each of his girlfriends, Georgia included, want the “harshness” he provides for them – thus no-one goes away “disappointed”.  Even if at first the end of the relationship and necessity to leave isn’t appreciated by them, they “always” work it out “eventually”.

The clever aspect of the narrative is the manner in which Hill “strips back” the layers surrounding Coyne’s heart and provides us with a man seeking some form of redemption and forgiveness.  Gradually, we learn that the last of Jude’s former girlfriends, Georgia’s predecessor, so to speak, whom he had nicknamed Florida, fared badly as a result of his treatment, given she was predisposed to depression – something Jude had found himself unable to cope with once it spiralled out of control.  Now Craddock, the girl’s stepfather (and the ghost whose suit is proffered via the website in the heart-shaped box of the title) is out for revenge.  This affords us the opportunity to explore Jude’s disquiet over the manner in which he shipped Florida back to her family, particularly once he becomes aware that her background was considerably more complex that he had envisaged and the support he had presumed would be afforded her was lacking.  Via the gradual breaking down of barriers, we come to see that Jude is far removed from the unsympathetic character we are introduced to at the outset of the narrative.

Heart-Shaped Box is very much a novel centring upon haunted individuals in both the literal and figurative sense.  Jude, Florida and even Georgia, or Mary-Beth Kimball, as we come to know her during the course of the novel, are haunted by their past, whether as a result of their own previous actions or those of others in their interactions with them.  It is once these actions are confronted that they take on genuine resonance for the reader – once we come to know them fully, “warts and all”.  Broken and flawed, capable of mistakes, sometimes multiple, we feel for them nevertheless.  Confrontation leads to knowledge and acceptance and, in the case of Jude and Mary-Beth, becomes a dialogue of love against the odds.  Ultimately, this is a touching rumination on the possibility of redemption and human frailty in its various guises.  

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Ahem! Announcements, ahoy! (All Hallow’s Read)

Autumn is upon us already and the nights are closing in, which makes it time to give a mention to Neil Gaiman's pet project for the month, All Hallow's Read.  The premise itself is simple – during the week of Hallowe’en or on the night itself, you give someone a scary book (interpretation of “scary” being at the whim of the giver).  There are even a number of suggestions concerning potentially suitable books on the relevant website, organised by age range.

Why not give it a try this year and spread the word?  Equally, feel free to add your recommendations for suitably scary books within the “comments” section below!

And another thing - reviews for “scary” books and short stories will follow throughout the month of October in the build up towards Hallowe’en!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Chilling With Chilling Tales (Selective Shorts Series)

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much I enjoy reading short fiction, whether in the form of a collection or in singular format, in magazines, both hard copy and online.  Given this, I wanted to contribute a review or two concentrating on specific stories I’ve come across during my random readings (hence the reference to the “Selective Shorts Series”), purely on an ad hoc, as and when basis.

First up is Barbara Roden's contribution to the Canadian horror fiction collection, Chilling Tales – 404.  Essentially, at its most basic level, the story is one concerning office workers under pressure within a corporate environment.  So far, so familiar, in terms of its premise.  The initial dialogue confirms a colleague’s office is empty, save for the remaining desk and chair, even though neither of the two workers conversing had been aware he was due to leave.  Wilson, one of the two, appears to have been allocated a number of the files which had been being dealt with by the now absent Dwight; files which have simply appeared on his desk overnight without an explanation or accompanying note.  The “404” of the title refers to the white screen confirming “file not found” which is pulled up by a search for Dwight’s profile on the company website after his somewhat mysterious disappearance.

From this set up, we gradually become aware that it is not only Dwight who has become absent from the office and paranoia sets in amongst the workforce, who are under the supervision of a seemingly increasingly sinister supervisor intent upon enforcing the stringent regulations put in place by the company.  Ultimately, this causes them to question their sanity and sense of self.

A fun and slightly tongue in cheek tale about the office environment, as well as a brief commentary upon the malleability of words and documentation, subject to the interpretation placed upon them.

A Couple of Other Things:

Those wishing to sample Roden’s work can find an example of one her short stories, The Appointed Time, freely available on her website here.   

Also – a couple of blog entries concerning the editing process for those interested in the structural aspects of writing:- here and here.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Freaking Out Over Freax and Rejex

Freax and Rejex marks Jarvis' return to the realm of Dancing Jax, a world within which the book of the same name has lulled the vast majority of the British population into a state almost demonic possession where they are convinced of their “true” identity within the sinister fairy tale realm of Mooncaster.  Those who submit to the influence of Austerly Fellows’ occultist text become part of his “magickal Kingdom” and a member of its playing card-based Court.  As a result of this, they also become devoted and submissive to his proclaimed figurehead in our “real” world (which they consider to be a pale imitation of that which they inhabit when in Mooncaster), the Ismus.

Where Dancing Jax concentrated predominantly upon setting up the Court itinerary, Freax and Rejex has its focus firmly upon those teenagers upon whom the lure of the text has no effect – the so-called “Aberrants” who find themselves persecuted, both for being different to what has become established as the “norm” and for what is deemed as resistance to the new British regime and, thus, subversive and dangerous. 

By the outset of the second book within the Dancing Jax trilogy, the text has been published on a wide-scale basis and we are made aware via the “Baxter Blog”, a singular website of resistance hosted via a Dutch server (and scrambled via other channels), that the vast majority of those who sought to protest against the hostile takeover of the Jax regime have been silenced and force fed sections of the text.  As a result, they have become one of the mass of “brainwashed sheep” who now populate the British Empire.  There remain a “scant few” who still resist, whether simply via avoidance of the book or natural immunity.  Martin Baxter, writer of the many times re-established “Baxter blog” and one of the few resistant individuals remaining by the conclusion of the first book in the trilogy, urges those few resistant individuals to abandon Britain, a “finished” country, via his escape route, suitably protected by safeguards put in place to ensure those who have fled are not discovered.

By ensuring his audience is reminded of the risks of resistance in this manner, Jarvis establishes a clear sense of threat at an early stage.  Further, we see the first death before the conclusion of the first chapter, meaning we are aware nothing is certain and the security of characters to whom we have been introduced is not guaranteed.  Without giving away the fate of specific characters, this is something which continues throughout the narrative.

Not content with the chilling effect produced by the first book’s cult-style parallels and premise, Jarvis seeks to up the ante within the second.  A weekend of “glorious Mooncaster-themed fun” has been organised for children aged between seven and sixteen who have not yet “found their way” into the Realm of the Dawn Prince, otherwise also known as Mooncaster.  As might be expected, the Ismus intends for this to form part of a global publicity campaign aimed at “damage limitation” in light of the rumours circulating concerning his bid for the minds of the populace, whilst also ultimately serving his own means and ends.

The “weekend” camp is filled with a hot potch of characters from across the nation and for whom, similarly to a Big Brother style situation, close proximity, coupled with the stresses of the growing realisation that there is no intention to release them from the confines of the camp once they have crossed the threshold, prove too much.  The initial games and feasts give way rapidly to enforced reading of the “hallowed” text and declaration that the teenagers are to be deemed “internees” of the camp, subject to supervision by guards and capable of punishment in the event of disobedience.  By this stage, the holocaust parallels are obvious.  Sure enough, those who have travelled to what has been specified as a “holiday camp” are set to physical labour, forced to “earn” their place within the facility.  At sixteen, they are advised they will be relocated to an adult camp.

Jarvis cleverly subverts our expectations in connection with the teenage “interns”, by ensuring the stereotypical views we might hold of “chavvy” Charm and the arrogant Marcus, for example, do not ultimately prove to be sure-fire.  Once again, as with Jax, his skill in ensuring his characters’ dialogue rings true and in demonstrating regional accents simply via his choice of words and sentence construction adds to the equation.  Ultimately, a number of the characters who appear weaker at the outset or less likely to succeed are those we find ourselves rooting for as they attempt to pit themselves against the will and control of the Ismus and his itinerary.

Whilst we see some of the creatures known to frequent Mooncaster within the camp’s bounds during the course of the narrative, arguably, it is not as a result of these threats that we are subject to the greatest sense of horror.  Frequently, the treatment to which the children are subject makes for extremely uncomfortable reading, whether or not blood is shed and there is one specific example towards the conclusion of the narrative which provides a particularly harsh psychological blow and gut wrenching moment, for the reader and characters alike. The more susceptible might find themselves looking away from the page for a moment, as this is definitely not a read for the faint hearted.   Here, Jarvis also provides a clever contrast between the manner in which Ismus’s Lockpick treats the children, toying with them whilst doing so and the more obvious cruelty of the Punchinello guards. 

Ultimately, it is the manner in which the children see their personal identity eroded and the frequent sense of a lack of control over events which comes across particularly clearly via the events and this which is especially disconcerting.  The immediacy with which social media and the reach of the internet is both able to aid and hinder the spread of the “Jax” manuscript is also an aspect which is hinted at by the author and thus proves itself interesting to speculate upon.  It appears fitting that this is something which is alluded to but that throughout the bulk of the novel that Jarvis concerns himself predominantly with maintaining his overreaching focus upon the fates of the children within the camp.  By the conclusion, however, this is something which once again comes to the forefront for reasons which will become clear to those who avail themselves of a copy of the book.  In bringing things full circle, Jarvis thus places events in a position so as to leave them ready for the conclusion of the trilogy.  In Fighting Pax the Ismus envisages extending his reach even further than has previously been the case…

Freax and Rejex is, once again, both dark and disturbing and, as such, remains with the reader after the conclusion of the narrative.  The writing is tight and events well-paced, whilst also allowing for satisfying character development.  Pleasingly, the second of the three book story arc also has the clout to stand alone on its own merits, whilst slotting neatly into place for the purposes of the trilogy.  Taken together, this is one trilogy it’s easy to find oneself lured towards reading.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Casting The Net

Dropping in to highlight a few of the things I’ve found during my internet travels on the writing or creative front:


Insights from Cheryl Klein into timescales within publishing

Susan Morris on how to deal with editors

Writing Tips

Justine Larbelestier on what to study to become a writer

Websites/Other Entries

Date a Girl Who Reads via Blitzkriegkate (highlighted by The Book Smugglers Tumblr)


Being fond of stop motion animation, this video recently caught my eye and reminds me of what I like to see in my mind’s eye via words

Neil Gaiman’s suggestion that, above all, one should strive to make good art

Finally - Holly Black providing us with an example of her writing as a teenager (at this year’s Leaky Con)

Friday, 7 September 2012

Developing Love For Lovecraft (Graphic Illustrations Series)

For those already initiated into the Hill/Rodriquez realm of Locke and Key, Clockworks, the fifth volume within the saga will need little introduction.  For the previously uninitiated, Locke and Key is centred around Keyhouse, a New England mansion containing doors which transform those who pass through them and which also houses a malevolent creature bent upon opening the most dangerous door of all… 

As is suggested by the title, the “doors” are opened by a succession of keys, capable of everything from transforming an individual into a ghost, to letting one open one’s own head to glimpse the memories it contains within it.

Having relocated to Keyhouse after the murder of their father at the outset of Welcome to LovecraftClockworks sees the Locke family brought full circle, back to the events which precede their arrival at the Keyhouse premises in Massachussetts and which have shaped their nemesis, Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio prior to his descent into the merciless killer the children are faced with in the present day.  Harking back to past events is of course a pattern which has been seen on a number of occasions throughout the course of the narrative arc.  Clockworks, however, is an opportunity for this aspect to be explored in detail prior to the denouement we are already aware will follow within the forthcoming Omega.

The instalment is timely, given the reader is fully invested within the fate of the Locke children by this stage - and the stakes are high.  Dodge already has control of the youngest Locke sibling Bode's body; something neither Tyler nor Kinsey, his elder brother and sister are aware of.  This grants him unrestricted access to Keyhouse in his search to find the Omega key which will allow him to open the Black Door and release what is contained beyond it.

The timing of Clockworks' explanations is clever.  By holding back on the action and presenting us with an explanation as to how the characters have found themselves in the present position, the conclusion itself is guaranteed additional impact and resonance.  Having already seen the children in the aftermath of their father's death and the manner in which they are forced to cope with it, whilst simultaneously finding their feet at a new school and establishing new social circles, we now see the manner in which the death itself will come to pass, given we are privy to Dodge's transformation from friend to foe.  Thus pre-prepared for the way in which the death will ultimately affect the children, the foreshadowing of it via flashback hits home more sharply than if the chronology had been reversed.

Further, the exploration of the relationship between Rendell, the Locke children's father, and the boy who will subsequently become Dodge renders the character much more than simply a cardboard cut-out villain bound upon a course of evil from which he cannot deviate simply for plot purposes.

Sacrifice and the extent to which this is necessary for Dodge to be successfully defeated is a key theme (no pun intended) within Clockworks.  This applies not only to Rendell, the children's father but also a number of the members of his original band of friends.  Thus, there are echoes of the Spiderman motto concerning the great power accompanying great responsibility here.  Ultimately, this is shadowed by regret at its misuse by the time we have explored the manner in which Dodge becomes evil and origins of the keys we have seen the children utilise throughout the story arc.

In amongst the question answering we also see exactly how Erin lost her memories, what lies behind the door Dodge seeks to open and even how Dodge became the girl first encountered in Welcome to Lovecraft, all of which is dealt with in a suitably satisfying manner, as opposed to simply feeling like loose ends being tied with haste.  Again, this is another example of the manner in which the narrative has come full circle for the purposes of the present volume.

Neither narrative nor illustrations pull any punches and Dodge's anticipation of his first killing spree is provided in a gory two page spread towards the conclusion of the volume well deserving of its multiple Eisner nominations.  Both are equally apt (if not for the faint hearted) and provide a clear example of the extent to which the storytelling abilities of both writer and illustrator mesh so successfully throughout Locke and Key.  Possibly, therefore, the only negative aspect of Locke and Key is that Omega marks the final chronological volume of our journey within the original world of Keyhouse and its inhabitants.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Picking Your Team

“Just because Mel lives in New Whitby, a city founded by vampires, doesn’t mean she knows any of the blood-drinking undead personally.  They stay in their part of town; she stays in hers.  Until the day a vampire shows up at her high school.  Worse yet, her best friend, Cathy, seems to be falling in love with him.  It’s up to Mel to save Cathy from a mistake she might regret for all eternity.

On top of trying to help Cathy (whether she wants her to or not), Mel is investigating a mysterious disappearance for another friend and discovering the attractions of a certain vampire wannabe.  Combine all this with a vampire cop, a number of unlikely romantic entanglements, and the occasional zombie, and soon Mel is hip-deep in an adventure that is equal parts hilarious and touching.”

Team Human is a collaborative novel from the pens of authors Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan (who blogs here), produced as a result of a mutual love of vampires and romance, both of which feature largely within the plot of the aforementioned work.  More than this, it is also a tongue in cheek look at the vampire literature genre post Twilight, when the species must automatically be both attractive and sparkly.  Not only is account taken of the world-wide spread of Meyer’s work, there are also sly references to the attraction of high school for the undead which are seen within television programmes such as The Vampire Diaries (and L J Smith herself) and a dedication to the works of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Tanya Huff, Stephen King, Bram Stoker and Charlaine Harris, amongst others.  It is also a lot of fun, being a self-confessed parody.  For Bella and Edward, read Cathy and Francis; without the addition of a Jake character or love triangle.  Vampires walk in broad daylight – encased in Hazmat suits.

Starting out as a Team Vampire versus Team Human standoff, Team Human becomes more than this.  Mel makes for a spiky, yet plucky heroine, equipped with the ability to produce a quick quip where needed.  Cathy demonstrates that her determination to become a vampire is more considered than simply a need to be with Francis for eternity.  Ultimately, this ensures Mel is forced to confront her initial pre-conceptions concerning “Team Vampire” and understand the choices made by others – even if these are not the choices which she would make for herself.  It is also a narrative about love for others and the nature of friendship, clearly demonstrated by the nature of the changing (yet unchanged) relationship between Mel and Cathy.

Team Human is also a book which centres around the issue of emotion – something highlighted by the fact that, for the purposes of this narrative, vampires are incapable of laughter or crying.  Emotional ties are also a central part of the “mystery” sub-plot introduced by Larbalestier and Rees Brennan and form an important aspect of Kit’s (Mel’s love interest) ultimate decision as to whether to become a full member of his “Shade” or to remain human.

Despite being written by two separate authors (or perhaps because of it), the narrative within Team Human flows.  Ultimately, what starts out as a mix of parody and satire becomes more than the sum of its parts and holds a certain charm of its own.  

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Monstrous Undertaking

“The monster showed up after midnight.  As they do.  But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting.  He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster, though, is something different.  Something ancient, something wild.  And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.”

A Monster Calls comes complete with a number of accolades, being both the winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature and its companion prize for illustration, the Kate Greenaway Medal – these within the same year, no less.  It is a deserving winner on both counts and marks a second Carnegie Medal win for Patrick Ness; also second year running in terms of recognition via the award. 

On this occasion, however, Ness cannot take the entire credit for the novel, nor does he make any attempt to do so.  As has been readily acknowledged, the premise for the novel (written by Ness) stems from the final story idea of Siobhan Dowd, a previous Carnegie Medal winner herself, who died of breast cancer in 2008.  She provided the name Conor for the novel’s main protagonist and the concept of the storytelling yew tree giant who materialises in Conor’s bedroom from which the narrative develops.  These had been set out within e-mails to her commissioning editor.  The concept of the novel’s opening had also been produced in draft.  When Dowd died sooner than had been anticipated, Ness was asked by Dowd’s editor to produce a novel inspired by the original idea.  This he describes as having been “handed a baton” which he invites the reader to “run with”.  He dedicates the finished novel to Dowd, noting this would have been her fifth book, had she been afforded the time to complete it.

A Monster Calls is, at the outset, the story of Conor, a thirteen year old boy, whose mother is seriously ill and who is visited by a figure in the shape of a yew tree, who tells him stories.  It is, however, much more than this.  Similarly to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Conor is informed he will receive three visitations, following which the yew tree will extract one “truth” from him himself.  Again, similarly to Scrooge, Conor will be changed by the experience, for “stories are the wildest things of all”, according to the monster.  “Stories chase and bite and hunt”.

A Monster Calls is indeed a dark and haunting novel, dealing with a troubled teenager brought face to face with his mother’s battle with cancer (although the illness itself is never named at any stage during the narrative).  He is the subject of school yard bullying and the offspring of divorced parents; issues which are also seen to have an effect upon him within the body of the novel. 

Conor is shown to be both isolated and frightened as a result of his mother’s ill health – he struggles socially, becoming noticeably withdrawn, save for his dealings with the yew tree monster; a figure he tells himself he is simply imagining, although his floor is covered with red yew tree berries and spiky leaves when he wakes post visitation.

The nightmarish quality of Conor’s dealings with the yew tree monster are highlighted by Jim Kay's black and white illustrations throughout.  Here, the lack of colour adds, as opposed to detracts from their power, making them shadowy and affecting – in some cases they span a double page within the hard copy format of the novel or completely surround the words upon the page, adding to the broody and ominous overtones within the artwork.  (Do yourself a favour – opt for the physical version of this one, as opposed to the e-book format on this score; similarly, make your way across to Kay's website to sample other examples of his work).

Ness utilises clear and simple language throughout, the result of which is that the emotional intensity of the narrative is communicated to the reader without ceremony.  Nor is it needed – the direct nature in which the story is addressed and its simplicity emphasise its subject matter.  Concise prose aside, however, Ness refuses to let his readers off lightly.  There is plenty of food for thought for both younger and older readers alike.  The parables with which Conor is regaled by the yew tree monster are shown to be deceptive in their conclusions and ambiguous in terms of interpretation.  As such, they lead Conor to question himself and to enter into questionable behaviour.  This makes him both human and a similarly shadowy individual to that which visits him at 12.07 on each occasion - and all the more compelling for it.  Black and white become murky and populate the grey “somewhere in between” which is also illustrated within the yew tree’s stories.
This brings matters back to the concept of storytelling and the power it can create.  Stories can prompt change; the truth, palatable or otherwise, is capable of making a difference.  Thus, Conor must face his own truths and tell the hardest story of them all – the fourth story of the novel; his own.  His struggle to do so towards the conclusion of the narrative is described in the blurb on the back cover as both “harrowing” and “transcendent”.  Unsurprisingly, this means A Monster Calls does not make for what might constitute a comfortable read on occasion.  Nevertheless, it is one which should not be missed.  It is one which will linger beyond the concluding prose and illustrations.    

Sunday, 12 August 2012

On Your Marks...

It being approximately halfway through the year and also summer season, I thought it was about time to collect together a list of a couple of the books I’ve read so far this year and haven’t had chance previously to post a comprehensive review for.

Michelle Hodkin's The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer – the story of a girl calling herself Mara (although that is not her real name) who wakes up in hospital with no memory of how she got there following an accident she can no longer remember which resulted in the deaths of her friends, although she herself remained unharmed.  A spooky supernatural mystery with a romantic sub-plot.  (YA/fantasy/horror/romance/spec fic.)

Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (known as Sea Hearts in Australia) – a novella about an island community prone to intermarriage with selkies who are “persuaded” into their human form by the witchcraft of the local seal-witch, Misskaella.  Bleak and compelling.  The narrative is provided from multiple perspectives.  (Fantasy/spec fic.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl – a complex first person narrative by India Morgan Phelps (“Imp”), a schizophrenic woman, who struggles to unravel her encounters with what may be mythical creatures or, alternatively, symptomatic of her illness.  Intricate and raises as many questions as it answers.  A study of an unreliable narrator and mental illness, as well as being a consideration of the nature of truth.  Ambiguous and haunting in its conclusion.  An adult read. (Horror/spec fic.)

Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars – a collection of four novellas, all dealing with the issue of retribution.  1922 is the murder confession of Wilfred Leland James; Big Driver deals with a mystery writer’s encounter with a stranger during a back road shortcut on her way home.  Fair Extension documents a deal with an individual who sells a variety of differing extensions – for which there is always a price.  A Good Marriage queries the extent to which we can know another person – “even those we love the most”.  Darcy Anderson discovers a box under a worktable whilst her husband is away on a business trip and realises he isn’t the man she had thought he was – just as he is heading home.  Harsh and thought provoking, grisly and graphic illustrations of human behaviour.  Fair Extension represents the most overt reference to the supernatural here. (Horror/novella/collection.)

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall – which scarcely needs any introduction.  The fictionalised biography documenting the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell within the court of Henry VIII of England which has now been followed by a second part within what is intended to be a trilogy, Bring Up The Bodies.  Winner of the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.  (Historical fiction.)

Donna Tartt's The Secret History – one I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for a while, given I’d seen a number of positive reviews.  A novel concerning a group of classics students at an elite Amercial college and a Bacchanal which ultimately resembles a Greek tragedy in some respects.  To say much more would compromise the impact of the narrative.  One to experience yourself.  (Contemporary fiction.)

Jo Walton's Among Others – another one I’d heard quite a bit of buzz about before I had the opportunity to read it.  This is one written for anyone who has ever sought consolation or solace between the pages of a book – the narrator, Morwenna Phelps (“Mori”) finds her haven via a local library’s science fiction book club.  Play count the insider references on your way through the narrative – there are an impressive number to note.  This aside, Mori advises us (via her diary entries) she is a girl capable of talking to fairies.  Similarly to The Drowning Girl, it is for the reader to decide whether this is a psychological tool designed to offer comfort from the narrator’s less interesting “real” life or represents a true account of Mori’s suggested powers.  (YA/fantasy/spec fic.)

Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger – a ghost story set in post-war rural Warwickshire in which a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family for over two centuries.  Slow building, subtle narrative centred around poltergeist activity.  (Contemporary fiction/supernatural.)

Saturday, 11 August 2012

A Delusion of Princes

A Confusion of Princes marks Garth Nix's return to the sci-fi genre post Shade's Children and a welcome return to the field it is.  Whilst Nix is perhaps best known for the brilliantly inventive Abhorsen Trilogy, Confusion revisits a genre within which Nix had already set a high benchmark with his tale of a not so distant future in which a set of evil Overlords have ruled for a period of fifteen years due to a catastrophic “change”.  (Whilst this set up is now relatively familiar within the YA sub-genre, Nix can arguably be credited as somewhat of a trend setter for providing us with a clear example of post-apocalyptic dystopia prior to the popular and recent emergence of the genre).

Genre similarity aside, however, A Confusion of Princes provides us with an altogether trickier protagonist for consideration and one who causes Nix to have to work harder as an author to convince his audience to engage with. 

Confusion concerns itself with the story of Prince Khemri, a genetically enhanced individual trained to become a Prince of the Empire and one who is engaged in a battle for supremacy as one of ten million princes, only one of whom can ultimately succeed in becoming Emperor.  The remaining candidates will find themselves eliminated one way or another…  So far, so promising.  Nix also takes the trouble to ensure his language is spot on sci-fi specific and we are soon drawn into a Heinlein-esque environment in which the Imperial Mind, Bitek agents, Mektek armor and Psitek force shields are par for the course.  (Nix even credits Heinlein within his own Acknowledgments at the outset of the novel). 
Clearly, however, Nix is not content merely to provide a convincing backdrop within which for his characters to run rampant or to revisit old ground in his provision of a sci-fi premise for his narrative thread.  In providing us with Prince Khemri as his main protagonist, Nix seeks to up the ante further.  The Prince is a youthful narrator, “not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time” and, thus, it might be presupposed one with whom Nix’s intended YA audience might engage.
This assumption is challenged quickly and by deliberate design.  Despite being made aware at the outset of events that Khemri has been separated from his parents as a baby at the specific instructions of the Emperor, he spares little thought for them, suggesting there is “no point” in doing so.  He is convinced of his “special” nature and the certainty that he will one day become Emperor.  This persists even once he has become aware he is one of the millions of Princes who are to compete for the honour of ruling the Empire.  As such, it is difficult to find any initial sympathy for Khemri, even once we become aware his supposed security cannot be depended upon, as an initial attempt is made upon his life as part of the candidacy process.  True to form, Khemri is supplied with a Master of Assassins, Haddad, who successfully foils the assassin’s attack.  Additionally, we are advised within the very first sentence of the novel that he has died three times and been “reborn” on each occasion, which reduces the overall sense of threat which might logically follow any reference to death.  Still, Nix is quick to ensure the reader is aware matters are not as clearly cut as they might at first appear and utilises a number of devices to do so.

Despite Khemri’s initial arrogance, Nix ensures this is undercut at the outset by the Prince’s recognition of his own “wilful misapprehension” at his sense of importance, thus ensuring we are aware his overall outlook has changed somewhat since the occurrence of the events presently charted.  Similarly, later, the Prince freely admits when he is slow to react to a potential threat, which directly contradicts the posturing we witness elsewhere.  Further, we are shown that the mouthy candidate has learned at least a modicum of tact whilst he is subject to the discipline of the Naval Academy as part of his path towards eventual rule of the Empire.

Nix keeps events pacey throughout, zipping through Khemri’s naval training and the various Princes with whom he may find himself in more serious competition as their numbers dwindle in their race towards the finishing post.  This works both ways, ensuring pages turn quickly and we are hard on the heels of Khemri’s own urgency to prove his overall worth but also serves to prove that, in some instances, we are aware it would be interesting to spend additional time with those we encounter along the way to explore in-depth analysis of characterisation.  (This is also arguably true in the context of the subsequent burgeoning love story).

The primary focus being Prince Khemri, Nix engineers a scenario in which he finds himself required to rely entirely upon his own “smarts” without the back up of his genetic engineering and it is here that the narrative proves most interesting.  The specific events of the scenario aside, it is once Khemri, or “Khem” as he is dubbed, is separated from the underlying support of the Empire that the character really comes into his own.  None of the situations in which he finds he himself are “standard”, causing him to have to think “outside the box” and reflect upon what constitutes social interaction.  Ultimately, Khemri is forced to contemplate what it means to be human and to confront the concepts of loss, life and death.  For a 337 page book (paperback version), this is no mean feat, considering the manner in which Khemri is first presented to us.  That Nix pulls it off in the main is just further evidence of his “chops” as a writer, if we still required to be convinced.

By the point at which we are advised of Prince Khemri’s impending third death and the narrative has effectively caught up with itself, the outcome for him is no longer clear.  Nix keeps his readers guessing right up until the last few pages as to whether there will be a happy outcome for the Prince and whether he will ascend to the lofty heights of Emperor.  Given Khemri’s thought process throughout these events, the final couple of paragraphs of the novel provide a suitable note on which to end matters and yet leave the reader with something to ponder beyond the words set out upon the page.  Again, this speaks for what Nix is able to achieve within what remains a reasonably slight volume by modern standards, with the themes addressed much wider in scope than initially envisaged at the outset.  As such, the audience, much like Khemri, encounters more than first bargained for upon their journey. 

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Reflections Upon Reflections

So to speak.  As someone who has upon occasion pondered  the make-up of fiction for academic purposes and has a fascination with the writing process, I was quick to place a copy of Diana Wynne Jones's  Reflections on order, not least because she is also one of my favourite fantasy authors.  As an added bonus, this also means the opportunity to read Neil Gaiman's Foreword to the collection of papers – a treat in itself, given he knew Diana Wynne Jones personally and the wording of his contribution to the pieces reflects this in tone.  It is also poignant, given the anthology was compiled from existing manuscripts in the knowledge that Diana was terminally ill.  Her Preface confirms she envisaged them as an opportunity for readers and students alike to reflect upon both her “ideas and convictions about writing for children, writing, and fantasy generally”, in addition to providing useful material charting “the creative process itself”.  In this, she is entirely successful.
The contents of the collection range from literary criticism related to the shape of the narrative in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and a review of Mervyn Peake's Boy in Darkness to anecdotes concerning reading tours and information concerning the origins of, amongst others, Fire and Hemlock and The Merlin Conspiracy.  There are also hints for developing writers concerning characterisation and one of the last ever interviews conducted with the author prior to her death.  Any one of these makes the book worth reading for anyone even remotely familiar with Diana Wynne Jones’ works or of a creative bent personally, as I’ve already stated previously.

For me, one of the things which struck me most whilst making my way through the various contributions was how strongly the author’s personality came across within her descriptions of the “two kinds” of writing required within speculative fiction (i.e. writing for children and for adults and the differences between the two) and “Answers to Some Questions”, to cite merely two examples within the entirety of the text.  I was also fascinated by the biographical detail within the section entitled “Something About the Author”, given it was apparent from the brief autobiographical hints apparent within her The Time of the Ghost (US version here, for one) that Diana Wynne Jones had had what might be termed a somewhat unusual childhood.  

As a fan of this author’s works in general, this is a welcome addition to my collection and I was glad of the opportunity to familiarise myself with additional material from her; previously unpublished in a number of cases.  I’m only sad that it emphasises the fact that there will be nothing further to add to the collection and that those who value the significance of Diana Wynne Jones’ writing to the field of speculative fiction (such that she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Fantasy Association in 2007) will not be afforded the opportunity for additional examples of her offbeat sense of humour, original plotlines and quirky characterisation.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Alternative Norman Conqueror

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read and appreciate Alan Ayckbourn's inventive and comic trilogy of plays, "The Norman Conquests", comprising “Table Manners”, “Living Together” and “Round and Round the Garden”.  All can be read separately; together, however, they take on added nuance and meaning, given one shows us what happens in the dining room over the space of the weekend, whereas the others provide an account of the events within the sitting-room and the garden, respectively.  From what I’ve read, Ayckbourn seems to have envisaged this affording the audience the opportunity to see a trilogy of plays which present all “four walls” of a setting – something he notes that audiences themselves are often required to function as.  

The plays concern themselves with six main (and only) characters who gather together on a weekend in July at a country house.  The house itself belongs to an unseen but tyrannical invalid whose unmarried daughter, Annie, cares for her.  On the Saturday evening when the plays start, Annie’s brother, Reg, and his wife Sarah have just arrived to take over nursing duties from her so that she can have a break and go away for the weekend.  Reg gives this little thought.  Sarah, however, assumes the weekend will afford Annie an opportunity to go away with the local vet, Tom, who has been making regular visits to see Annie without actually ever getting around to courting her.  In fact, Annie has made arrangements to go away to sample the delights of the less than sultry East Grinstead with Norman, an assistant librarian with “a rather aimless sort of beard”, who is prepared to court anyone, given half an opportunity and who also happens to be married to her sister, Ruth…

Despite being written in the Seventies, the plays remain fresh and the humour intact.  The chief delight, however, stems from Ayckbourn’s deft characterisation throughout.  Not only do Reg, Annie and Ruth provide a realistic portrayal of familial relationships when forced into close proximity with one another and the spats which are prone to occur with their respective partners (Reg has food thrown at him by Sarah in “Table Manners”), we also see the layers to each during the course of the two days they spend in one another’s company.  Whilst Annie is initially portrayed as somewhat of a doormat, having taken on a significant degree of responsbility for her mother, this is not the full story.  She is both capable of arranging a weekend away with Norman and standing up to Sarah when necessary.  Sarah struggles to maintain her sense of order and control in the face of emotional turmoil.  Ruth is revealed to appreciate the unconventional nature of her relationship with Norman, in a “chalk and cheese” form of attraction.

In the midst of matters, Norman acts as a sort of wrecking ball, creating chaos wherever he lands.  Bereft of his opportunity to whisk Annie away for the weekend by a disapproving Sarah, he proceeds to wreak havoc.  Interestingly, however, he does this on a number of occasions at the instigation of others.  Annie is keen to be whisked off her feet by someone and experience some excitement, whilst Sarah has been starved of attention.  Tom actively seeks his advise as someone he considers wise in the ways of the world, something he himself cannot pretend to be.  For this reason and given his portrayal as somewhat of a lovable rogue, it is hard to dislike the character.  He displays charm in his interactions with the others, despite the manner in which his affections waver between them.  As such, Ruth’s description of him as an “oversized unmanageable dog” who is prone to “jump up” at those who encourage him is accurate.  Ultimately, this is something the women he approaches come to appreciate via personal experience by the conclusion of the plays, leaving them disillusioned and dismissive.  This leaves the audience to ponder whether and, if so, to what extent this reaction will lead to any change in Norman, who, in his own words, “only” sought to make them “happy”.   

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Magical “Minis”

I’ve previously mentioned my liking for shorter fiction; something which encompasses the challenges presented by significantly shorter word limits in the form of flash or even micro fiction.  If you, too, like prose in “bite sized chunks” on occasion, you might want to check out Erin Morgenstern's on-going project, Flax-Golden Tales.  Her form of the “Friday feeling” is an original ten sentence short story, inspired by a specific photograph taken by Carey Farrell

The tales are posted weekly, each with a differing theme; predominantly fairy tale oriented.  Princesses and Monitoring System are a couple of my recent favourites.

Incidentally, her first novel, The Night Circus, is also well worth a look if you like the sound of a novel in which a circus arrives without warning and is only open at night.  Add in a duel between two young magicians and you have the premise of Morgenstern's debut.  Recommended.