Wednesday 25 September 2013

Story by Robert McKee




Mckee has some strong views about films and he’s not going to let you learn about the nuts and bolts of story without beating you over the head with those views every chance he gets. European cinema? Load of rubbish, last 20 years of cinema? Load of rubbish, Hollywood & Asian cinema? The only people who can make “proper” films i.e. films that tell stories properly. The nuts and bolts are there and I didn’t pearl rule it but lost interest a little less than half way through. The examples he uses are mostly films I’ve not seen (Obviously I’ve been watching the rubbish films instead) and the style is both dry and overwrought. In the end this book goes onto the discard pile.


Overall – The style is not for me but there are useful things to glean

Monday 23 September 2013

Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake


Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

A dusty tome languished on the shelves for many years, once dipped into but abandoned like an unwanted child, guiltily, stealthily. Then a chorus of voices called for it to return to the light, called for it to be given voice once more, demanded it be read. So read it he most assuredly did, studiously, laboriously, willingly, eventually. Such words, descriptions built upon description like a house made from massive blocks of granite like the abandoned building blocks of long dead gods. But wait, this tome is in three parts, three months assigned to its investigation. Three months were needed, as like a barium meal it is difficult to ingest but illuminating in effect. Part the first sees Titus Groan born into a family of such old and bizarre ritual that the very walls of his home and the life of the castle itself in its daily minutiae is the main character. Doctor and twins, sister and parents, servants of all stripes, and all physical types, thin and fat, old and young, and carvers of bright carvings are lesser characters, small actors upon a grand stage. All lovingly, minutely, richly, sometimes tediously detailed. A plot you ask, why yes there is the barest one but it is subsumed, servant to the description, kept in dark places and fed on worms and scraps. Part the second sees the child grown and the birds come home to roost, such birds, all manner of feathered kind, like unto the birds the countess Groan can call to her despite her carpet of cats. There is a flood, a biblical, catastrophic, all-encompassing flood which moves the second part to its denouement. This second part was the one most avidly consumed. Part the third sees Titus leave the castle and become lost in the larger world and is the weakest of the three, a product of sick bed and inadvisably abandoning the looming, brooding, ubiquitous castle. Young Groan comes close to losing his mind, is Gormenghast real? Taken together the three are less than excellent yet more than merely good but require a concerted effort to consume. The third is terribly flawed and the runt of the litter, one perhaps best left in the dark. Now that it sleeps once more upon the shelf would he recommend it, or leave it to slumber? Could he envisage another adventure within the dusty parchment in the future. All is unsure.

Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracks. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs...
And darkness winds between the characters.

Overall – Like a whisper in a dream, disturbing, portentous, absorbing, infuriating, incomparable…
The tartar steppe by Dino Buzzati


Giovanni Drogo graduates from military academy and is assigned duty at Fort Bastiani on the border of the Tartar Steppe in the mountains, on the edge of a desert. It is an obscure posting and one he is not entirely happy with and one that several people try to dissuade him from. Wanting to leave immediately he is convinced to stay for 4 months by the commanding officer. This is Catch 22 as written by Magnus Mills as Drogo suffers the pointlessness of his posting, the solitude of being so far away from home, apathy combined with duty, insensitive rules poorly applied and an institutional lack of decisiveness taken to the heights of absurdity but held up as an ideal to aspire to. Highly recommended.

Overall – sparse yet beautifully told

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Poetry in (e)motion: the words of Scroobius Pip by Scroobius Pip


Scroobius Pip came to prominence with “Thou shalt always kill” as part of a hip hop duo but he startred as as spoken word artist turning up to entertain lines of people queuing for bands or poets. He put a call out for people to illustrate his poems and then chose the ones he liked best for the book. As it is a variety of styles there are some I liked a lot and some that were OK.

Overall – if you’re a fan of his work then you’ll love this, if you’re not a fan this is a pretty good introduction, however as with all poetry it’s better performed I feel

The rise of Ransom city by Felix Gilman


I really wish I’d managed to write a review right after reading this to do it justice. Gilman has followed up on The half-made world with a stunning sequel. Together they are definitely in my top 10 reads this year. To avoid spoilers I won’t sum up the plot except to say that although it follows, in time, the events of the first book it departs from it as well. This time round we follow Harry Ransom who has invented a process that he feels will change the world. We see a lot more of the world especially the world of the Line in this book and meet a whole host of complex and captivating characters. This is literary fantasy at its best, comparable to Shriek: an afterword by Jeff Vandermeer (one of my favourite books) and cements my impression that Gilman is an author to watch. I will be revisiting Thunderer so I can read The gears of the city and await his next book eagerly. For those who have not read The half-made world I advise to read that first, although this could potentially standalone but you’d lose some of the effect I feel.

Overall – must read sequel but read The half made world first

The falling sky by Pippa Goldschmidt


Jeanette is a young post-doctorate chasing a permanent position at university. She goes on a viewing trip to Chile and discovers an anomaly which, if not just an observational glitch, would throw much of modern astronomy in doubt (something that would make red shift unreliable). Her boss encourages her to publish hinting that it will aid her career and when she does she is not prepared for the consequences. On the home front she embarks on a new, intense relationship that goes in an unexpected direction. To top it off her sister died when she was young and she has never got over it and as both her professional and personal lives start to spiral the trauma of losing a sister makes itself felt again. This is an engaging and interesting read. It has mixed reviews elsewhere and reading some of the ones that give it a poor rating I feel it necessary to point out that not everything is wrapped up at the end so if you want your plots to all be resolved look elsewhere as this is the biggest gripe people seem to have. For me it was a bit more realistic and the way it’s written, to explain why would contain spoilers though. A nodding acquaintance with astrophysics would enhance the read but isn’t totally necessary, although I have read some reviews saying there was too much science in the book.

Overall – Engaging and interesting read

Comets: visitors from deep space David Eicher


The book has a foreword by David Levy of Levy-Shoemaker fame and Eicher himself is a comet finder. This book is simply everything you ever needed to know about comets, what they are, what they’re made from, where they come from, how they’ve been viewed throughout history, how to find them and even how to photograph them. As there will be a bright comet in the sky later this year it has been rushed out a bit but to honest the book doesn’t seem to suffer from it. The science is patiently and expertly explained so that it’s very accessible and if you have any interest in comets I highly recommend this book.

Overall – hugely enjoyable pop science. Look to the skies!

The fictional man by Al Ewing


I was enjoying this book at the beginning: it has a nice premise, that it is possible to translate fictional characters into flesh and blood people, and a nice writing style. About half way through though I realised I was hooked and when I had to put it down to go to work I couldn’t wait to get back to pick it up again. As it develops it gets more and more interesting even if some of the twists could perhaps anticipated. The utterly flawed main character keeps us involved with the plot and as it becomes ever more deliciously meta the writing becomes ever more impressive. There is a lot to like here, the narrator with all his flaws always holds your attention, his self-narration  You're a good Joe, Niles. You really are a good Joe, the whole fictional idea and its execution, the supporting characters - especially the fictionals, the story within the story and the other story within that story, the creepy horror of peg boy, the crazytown feel of Ewing’s alternative LA and Niles’s attempt at getting into film. Well before I run into giving it all away I’ll stop, except to say that you should read this and I hope I haven’t over-egged the review!

Overall – Highly recommended especially if you like metafiction and stories about the creative process

Lupus Rex by John Carter Cash


The crow king is dead and as the Murder of crows gather in the Murder field to choose the next king they send away all the other animals that follow the Order including the badger, mice, rat and especially the quail. When some quail are discovered to be missing three turn back who become our main protagonists. When the hidden past begins to be revealed the forest becomes ever more dangerous as an ancient enemy returns. Told in an idiosyncratic voice this is comparable to Watership Down in its feel of a fable and anthropomorphism and I bet Cash will be fed up of that comparison very quickly! It also has a mythic, almost epic fantasy feel on occasion.  As YA its simplicity could perhaps put some off but after a while I was drawn in and didn’t have my usual problems with that medium (YA is not a genre I believe as you can have YA horror or YA SF etc.). Cash drops you straight into the world with no expositionary run up and it takes a few pages to catch up. The characters are alternatively trope like and deep and at times the prose takes a weird turn but is always lyrical and readable and thoughtful.

Overall – Dare I say that this is YA for people who don’t like YA but also will fully satisfy those who like YA?   

Monday 16 September 2013

A brief (?) hiatus since last week was travelling with work – visited London and Paris and spent the weekend in a yurt sans electronics. I did however use a Nook for the first time – to read an ARC of Comets by David Eicher, the Fictional Man by Al Ewing and Lupus Rex by                John Carter Cash. Reviews very shortly. Whilst using a proper e-reader for the first time (have always just used the Kindle App before) I found it pretty good and the battery lasted very well indeed.


Whilst in London I went to The special relationship evening at the Book club where Hannah Berry, Toby Litt, SJ Harris and William Goldsmith with an evening of graphic novel fun. Nora Goldberg came dressed as Robert Crumb but it seems no-one caught that on camera. SJ Harris interviewed the eponymous protagonist of his book Eustace who eats a lot of soup apparently. Hannah “comics practitioner” Berry acted out two scenes from her new book with an SF author whose name escapes me (this is why I need to pick up cards from people!) including a Jungle rap, , William talked about his forthcoming book and Toby Litt spoke a little about Dead Boy Detectives and read out a short story. In between times Tom Basden entertained us with song, film and readings from a choose your own adventure book with an unlikely famous actor author. It was a highly entertaining evening and I got to meet Nora who I follow on Twitter which is nice.

Importnat lesson - make notes! or at least don't leave reviewing an event for a week...

I watched Iron Man 3 and The Perfect Host last night and was glad to see that a) not all big budget movies are bad (I liked the Kiss Kiss Bang  Bang references in IM3) and b) Hollywood can still do intelligent films (Although Perfect Host completely passed me by at the cinema) - recommend both of them.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Went to see Juan Pablo Villalobos at the fantastic Mr B's last night. Villalobos is published by the interesting who have published the translations of his first book Down the rabbit hole and his second Quesadillas
The event in Bath was a lot of fun - there were songs by the Bookshop band, there was great food from the Firehouse (including Quesadillas of course) and Villalobos was a great speaker - he read the first paragraph of Quesadillas in Spanish and then the first page or so in English. The conversation ranged across Mexican politics and the writing process and was really fascinating.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

The lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst


The subject itself is interesting, such as how did the lighthouses around the coast of Scotland get built? The biography of the family that did it, including Robert Louis Stevenson is also of interest. The historical time period itself from the late 1700’s to the late 1800’s is also inherently interesting. A good non-fiction writer can grip you with a narrative of the subject but sadly Bathurst failed to grip me. Oh there’s lots to like in here, a discussion of lighthouse technology, architecture, the reasons for lighthouses, the struggle to build them in remote places but it just wasn’t brought alive enough for me. For a subject so soaked in the ocean waves she managed to make it a little dry.

Overall – Fascinating subject slightly too dry book for my tastes

The black project by Gareth Brookes


Richard is socially awkward and he has no real friends. He makes a succession of girlfriends out of household objects of increasing complexity and anatomical verisimilitude. His grandfather’s workshop, his mother’s clothes, pornographic magazines found in the woods are all used to further his obsession. The art is beautiful and idiosyncratic, made from lino cut and embroidery. Brookes brings you into Richard’s world and makes it seem normal and makes Richard a very sympathetic protagonist. The tale is set in an unspecified time, but one that is instantly recognisable as before computers, riding around on rubbish bicycles with crappy handlebar gears, penny for the guy, wanting your own private space but your mum still comes into your bedroom whenever she wants. This is an endearing and odd tale and highly recommended.

Overall – What could be a very dark and sordid tale is told with humour and is all the more human for that.



Monday 2 September 2013

Immobility by Brian Evenson




Josef Horkai is awoken from storage half paralysed. Those that wake him inform him that something has been stolen from them, that he is a fixer and that he must get it back. The world has been destroyed by catastrophe and only he can make the journey outside, carried by two men in hazard suits that they refer to as mules. What they tell him doesn’t quite add up but he sees little choice in believing and helping them. He has to get it back soon and hurry back so they can freeze him again before his own time runs out from a creeping paralysis that they can slow but not stop.


Evenson creates an atmospheric book from this premise, with a protagonist that knows very little and explores the world with nearly new eyes. The desolate blasted landscape is brought vividly to life and a selection of odd characters inhabit it, Evenson’s prose is stark and well suited to the subject matter and the book, as well as having a quest like structure meditates on some deep philosophical existensialisms. There are some issues, the protagonist seems a little too clueless perhaps and the twisted tale could have been straighter and had just as much, if not more, impact. However these are very minor niggles and on the whole this is a great book.


Overall – Stark, philosophical, apocalyptic. Not your run of the mill SF. A tale beautifully told.


All the little animals by Walker Hamilton






Bobby is 31 years old but has learning and emotional difficulties and is really a young boy trapped in a man’s body. His mother owns a large department store but when she takes up with a man that Bobby calls “The Fat” things go downhill for Bobby. When she dies he runs away. Written from Bobby’s perspective this is a powerful tale marred slightly by the moustache twirling Fat who felt a little too Eeeevil to be real. Bobby takes up with a Mr Summers who sees it as his job to bury all the small animals that are destroyed by cars in Cornwall and who takes Bobby under his wing. The book is divided into several sections and each section has an illustration of a small dead animal drawn by Seb Howell. This is a book that could probably be read in one sitting (I read it mostly in queues a little at a time) and it is an affecting story.


The opening lines are - I can remember the tune, not the name of it, because I’m no good at names, but the sound of it. I’ll never forget the sound of that tune. I can’t remember the driver man’s face though, and that’s funny really, because I watched him as he died and yet his face is just nothing under black hair in my memory. Poor driver man.


Overall - Written in a simplistic style with a very individual voice it is an effective little story

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