Sunday, 18 June 2017

Upcoming things (Oh the horror!)

Would say that I intend to start posting on this thing regularly, but given my track record...

Anyways, this post is a forewarning to say that I'll be reviewing a number of horror short story collections next month, they go as follows:

- North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud
- The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron
- Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman
- The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates
- Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand
- Black Tea and Other Tales by Samuel Marolla
- Songs of a Dead Reader and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
- The White People by Arthur Machen

Might try out a few new things with these, so look out for that. In the meantime, lemme know if there's anything I should at to the list.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Doctor Who - The Pilot review

New Doctor Who! And I'm only a month and a half getting round to watching it too.

It's all in the Rhythm

It has often been the case under Moff that Doctor Who seasons have started with swagger, with lots of ideas and images and energy, before settling into a pace and tone that'll be more common throughout the series. The opening of Smith's time on shows tended to fill in the blanks and convey a sense of space between seasons, whilst being filled with nods at mini-adventures and character jokes and often character development, extremely truncated; this is especially obvious with Asylum of the Daleks very quickly setting up a separation between Amy and Rory.

The same flair returns in buckets with The Pilot, but it's a slightly cooler, more laid back flair. Less overexcited puppy. It's whimsical, but less ostentatiously so than before, which is funny because its pretty much still the same thing as before. Ideas by the bucket, loads of information crammed in quickly through a mixture of visual cues and quick cuts. Part of it is that Capaldi has settled into a very specific vibe, a sense of quieter eccentricity than Smith. The music specifically deserves a mention, bringing a jaunty feel to the opening ten minutes. Somewhere between the script, editing, music and directing there's a weaving of lightness into the drama without at any point having to sacrifice it.

Capaldi's Cape

Capaldi as The Doctor is really looking like he's enjoying himself now, somewhere between Merlin and Your Grandad Who Thinks He Is Cooler Than He Actually Is. Decked out as he is, it's difficult not to want to see the grand magus side of him played up even more - they've nailed an image and feel for his version of The Doctor that makes it very sad this season is reported to be his final outing.

Trusting the Audience (Almost)

There is this terrible thing that television and film are prone to doing. Often when something has happened, or a character has noticed something they'll narrate it to the audience just in case the audience doesn't have a working pair of eyes (or is more interested in their phone than what they are watching). "Show don't tell" is a cliche of writing advice, and at its heart misses one key idea - things that show rather than telling require more from their audience. Telling make movies easier to watch, books easier to read, specifically because you're having pretty much everything hand delivered to you.

There are lots of little moments in this episode that very well could have been explicitly explained. Comments about moving boxes, mysterious figures in photos. Instead, the filmmakers trust the audience to connect the dots for themselves, and as such the moments aren't ruined by redundancy.

There's one particularly egregious moment where this is rather not followed on. A moment where new companion (Bill) talks in a repetitive sense about whatever strange thing has happened (in this case, to do with a reflection) - it's often been used by both RTD and Moff as a way to demonstrate something is difficult to be conveyed on screen, and is always spectacularly unconvincing.

Building Relationships

In Belly of the Beast, Smith's second outing as The Doctor, it is suggested that during her time growing up The Doctor became her imaginary friend of sorts, and as such she knows him better than he know himself. At this point, as far as the audience knows, she's probably not spent much than twenty-four hours with The Doctor at that point. It fell terribly flat, because we hadn't seen the bond develop at all.

Throughout New Who, there has been a tendency to take short-cuts in developing relationships, which Moff being perhaps worse than RTD. This episode nails it, however. Time passes. The Doctor and Bill grow closer in small ways, whilst The Doctor seems to be drawn to the idea of becoming a father figure to her. These aren't developed in big shouty set-pieces, but in small ways, ones which (to harken back to my last section) are never said out loud. We learn about Bill through hints, and her growing closeness with The Doctor, through hints not exposition.

A Question of Structure

My biggest personal problem with Moff's writing is often it can be structured poorly - the aforementioned Eleventh Hour was a great whizz-bang journey of action without laying down the character beats it was intended to; episodes like The Wedding of River Song were a string of set-pieces that failed to really put down the proper groundwork to feel satisfying; Deep Breath spent half an episode of inconsequential character hijinks, and didn't introduce the real threat until roughly halfway into the episode, such had no real narrative drive.

The Pilot juggles characterisation and intrigue (slowly developing into threat) excellently, never standing still but never hurrying either. Whilst we learn about Bill and see her growing relationship with The Doctor, the plot keeps introducing new elements that are growing until the point they force the characters into action.

Promising Things to Come?

Looks very likely. Bill annoyed me a little based on teaser trailers, but this first episode sold me on her 100% - she seems to have a more natural chemistry with The Doctor than Clara did. If the season can continue with the same panache it started with, then we're in for a treat.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Book Review - The Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones

Better than Disneyland
Capitalism, capitalism, capitalism. If our society were to discover a gateway to an alternate universe, a universe which is very much like a typical world from high fantasy, then what would we do? Share information and technology? Embrace this miracle as a chance to learn from the new world?

In The Dark Lord of Derkholm we’ve commodified it, selling tours around the fantastical world that allow people to have their own quest. People can rampage through a world, fighting battles, defeating vampires and demons before slaying the dark lord, and saving the world.

It takes the world all year to recover properly, and then they have to do it all again.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Juggling Responsibilities.
As the new dark lord, it’s wizard Derk’s job to organize the tours. Naturally, organizing a whole world gives him rather a lot to do. Wynne Jones gives herself an awful lot to do too: through the marriage of mundane logistics and fantastical surroundings, she looks to convey familial drama and intrigue. Throughout the story there’s lots of hanging plot threads, and almost always more than one thing going on at the same time.

Not only is there the lingering threat of arch-capitalist Mr Cheney, who functions as the primary antagonist of the story, there are also other dangers in the world; demons, dragons. Even a potential saboteur amongst their own ranks. There are twists and turns and agents acting behind the scenes here.

Despite all the elements that she is playing with, Wynne Jones keeps things generally very well balanced. At times there’s a little bit too much and too little at the same time – there’s no real obvious end goal being worked towards, and coupled with the slightly meandering structure of the story, this can create the sense that the story gets stuck in a rut.

Lots to do
The story is focused around Derk and his rather large family, and their relationships with each other form the emotional core of the story. Even in this Wynne Jones convincingly marries the mundane and the fantastical – three of the family members are griffins.

Despite this, Wynne Jones creates a very solid picture of a family creaking at the seams under pressure. The characters are all very Wynne Jones – there’s a certain gentleness to them, even whilst the events are less so.

Just for context
Amongst all these balancing acts, Wynne Jones’ biggest triumph is the world that she creates. In introducing all these ideas that are more modern, she successfully creates a sense of a genuine fantastical world too. She parses out elements of the world slowly, keeping back new things to be introduced later. There’s also a lingering sense of a bigger world just off the page too, that the characters are just too busy to take us to.

That she manages to maintain this sense of the fantastical amongst the mundane, and does so throughout the novel is its main strength. It’s conclusion is unfortunately rushed, and the plot drive can sag at times. A worthy read, nonetheless.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book Review - Eye in the Sky by Big PKD

To say that Dick was ahead of his time, is to say that winter in Arctic is a tad nippy.

What would modern media, modern sci-fi, look like without his stories of paranoia and existential terror? Maybe the same - the ambiguities of modernity that fuelled his neurosis (well, that and drugs) are more present and relevant than they were when he was around. Increasingly we interact with worlds that don't exist, and the one that does is being increasingly bent around creatures like Twitter and Facebook. Nonetheless, break down most big sci-fi films or TV shows nowadays, and you'll find them filled with Dick's DNA, like zeitgeist induced bastard children.

Which is to say, it's really odd that he's such a bad writer.

Bad may be an oversimplification. No one could argue that his ideas are anything less than big and interesting. Paranoia seeps from the pages with such vigour that it's clearly coming from somewhere very genuine. Few can create such a cloying and personal sense of threat and distrust of your very senses.

Eye in the Sky is a funny book, as it doesn't even have that - certainly not to the same extent. It follows a small group of characters as they are involved in accident involving lasers, and find themselves in a world which is subtly (then not so subtly) different.

Eye in the Sky is a funny book not just because it hasn't really got Dick's strengths on full display, but because it is also stronger in a more conventional sense. The prose is better - much better in fact, whilst still being recogniseable Dick. It flows better, sets a better pace. The side characters, too, are given unique personalities and space to breath, and beyond the plot itself is intertwined with who they are as people.

The dialogue is still bad, but you can't have everything.

What makes this book so curious is the fact that despite being stronger in many ways than a lot of his other stories, it is probably one of the weaker of his that I have read. The idea is great, the characters are better than your usual Dick fare, but the complete package is somehow less. Perhaps it is because Dick is best when he's just doing what he is good at.

The ending is a problem - it does not, in any real meaningful way, relate to the story. It has an uncharacteristically happy tone, and any ambiguity that may have been implied was lost. Eye in the Sky was listed by Dick himself as one of his most important books - for myself, I'd recommend giving this one a miss.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Top 10 books I read during 2016

Best books of 2016

2016 is done, and here's the top 10 books I read in 2016!

But first, a few words on hon' mentions:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

To be quite honest, this didn't actually make the shortlist, but it is still worthy of a shout-out: the idea is adventurous, the execution is excellent. Mitchell walks a fine line between creating a distinctive voice for each story whilst still making them feel like a larger overall story. Filled with ideas, humour, tragedy, action - it's a book the marries the big and the small beautifully. The writing can be a bit too on the dry side at times though.

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

This is an odd beast, well written throughout and highly idiosyncratic. The story is built around a number of real texts and characters, meaning from the off I was ill-prepared to really get the most out of the story. The ideas and atmosphere conjured by the story were excellent, but the novel felt like a bit of a meander that never really went anywhere. Set-pieces strung together without the narrative drive to properly give them weight: nonetheless, what The Vorrh does right it does brilliantly.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie's first foray into YA waters was a compulsive, well-written story featuring a particularly interesting protagonist. This was the one that gave me the most indecision as to whether or not it was worthy of inclusion, so consider it an honourary number 11.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Atwood's famous (not sci-fi) sci-fi novel is a small and detailed depiction of a society, and the experience of a "handmaid" in the servitude of one of the society's most prominent figures. The novel deals with many blunt themes, but Atwood weaves them in subtly and explores nuances to an extent that took me aback. Atwood's prose is mostly beautiful, but occasionally falls into overwriting and the physical description that goes into the novel goes into detail that can be a little pointless. Couple that with the mono-atmosphere of crushing oppression, and I found I could never quite outright enjoy the novel. Not that I regret reading it - it's a remarkable, possibly brilliant novel.

The main event:

10. Nymphomation by Jeff Noon

Nymphomation is the fourth of Noon's novels and serves as a direct prequel to Vurt, but also a sort-of sequel to Automated Alice. By my reckoning it's the closest he's come to reaching the heights of Vurt. Filled with ideas, Vurt tells a story of experimentation and blends reality, computation and the altered perception that made him famous. It has one hell of a finale.

9. Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Weaveworld is an unwieldy, uneven creature. Frequent resets are put on the story, and what is meant to be downtime deflates the story's momentum. It's tone is also a little off - sometimes it's too grotesque and horror-y to really work with some of the fairy tale fantasy style. Nonetheless, this epic is filled with great set-pieces and ideas, and tells a story that builds brilliantly. It's most comparable to a full TV series than anything else.

8. The Sirens of Titan

SoT has a very different feel to it than any of the other Vonnegut books I've read - there's a Douglas Adams quality to the story. It's got some great ideas, some curious narrative choices and at times is a bit fractured. There's a curious pathos to the book too, and somehow the novel manages to draw it's scattered strands together.

7. The Builders by Daniel Polansky

Goddamn, this was fun.

6. The Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

The Angelmaker was my first venture into the fiction of Nick Harkaway, and hoo boy. This novel was most of the genres. It was a wacky overstuffed action drama, a comic book and a hollywood movie, a superspy gangster flick, filled with fantastical trappings and sci-fi ideas. Larger than life characters. Early I mentioned the set-pieces in Weaveworld, but this novel is pretty much the king of set pieces. It was let down, however, by structural issues - don't expect the central plot to actually start moving until roughly 450 pages in.

5. Blue Beard by Kurt Vonnegut

This year was year of Vonnegut for me, as I read seven of his novels. Blue Beard stands out as the only one which is not generally underpinned by cynicism about life in general, although it's not free from pot shots at the culture of the rich. It's a down to earth novel, no structural tricks or fantastical ideas. It's the story of an Armenia-American artist who keeps to himself, and what happens when people start imposing themselves on his life. Has one hell of an ending.

4. After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After Dark takes place in one night, as a young woman and a young man meet in a cafe. This off-beat story is sinister at times and gritty at times, but filled with heart and novelty. Murakami creates a real sense of Murakami-ness without dipping into the casually fantastical, and the comparative length of the story is a good fit I think. There's just enough story told, and just a hint of resolution - but in this well-crafted tale, that hint is enough.

3. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Area X is a creation of incredible power, heavy and suffocating, but beautiful and wonderous. The biologist, too, makes a main character who fits the story brilliantly. She's distant and cold, and as the reader you definitely can't trust her. This a novel that really should have commanded the number one spot, and yet...

(Notice that the sequels aren't on this list).

2. Nation by Terry Pratchett

So this might be my favourite Pratchett book. Full of heart, anger and humour, Pratchett has created a story here where the little things are the king. It's a triumph of small heroism, and he creates characters that are a joy to spend time with. Not that it lacks ideas, or that it doesn't have big moments. Nation is a coming of age story that traverses ideas and emotions whilst keeping the focus tight. Pratchett's writing is as brilliant as it always was.

1. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away World is an incredible romp, similarly filled with ideas and wit and tragedy to The Angelmaker, but a little bit less bombastic. The trade-off is that the structure of the story makes sense and the focus on characterisation is a lot stronger. Not to mention it has, hands down, the best will-they-or-won't-they I've ever come across. It's a twisty and turn-y adventure, with more ideas than you can shake a stick at. It's a glorious triumph.