Monday, 31 March 2014

Book Review | Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

Michael Gibson has returned to the quiet Appalachian home of his forebears to take care of his grandmother. Sadie is old and sickly but she has an important story to tell about growing up poor and Melungeon (a mixed race group of mysterious origin) while bedeviled by a snake-handling uncle and empathic powers she but barely understands. 

In a field not far from the family home, however, lies an iron-bound crate within a small shack buried four feet deep under Kudzu vine. Michael somehow understands that hidden inside that crate is potentially his own death, his grandmother's death, and perhaps the deaths of everyone in the valley if he does not come to understand Sadie's story well enough.


Folks are rarely as forthright in life as they are in literature.

Communicating the truth of the human condition would make for some messy stories, so even the most deftly developed characters are at best partial pictures of the people they’d really be. After all, we wear different faces each day, don’t we? We wear one at work, another at home; one in the company of our mothers, another alongside our lovers.

During your life you play many parts—a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, a hero, a villain. You enter people’s lives and then you exit them. You say your lines—you inspire some people, and maybe some people hate you. And then, well, you leave the stage. (p.233)
Whether you receive a round of applause when you do, or boos, is up to you.

Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem is a book about the conflicting legacies we leave which deals with death and depression and disability whilst trading in tension and frequently intolerable terror to excellent effect.

Our man Michael is almost a monster at the offing. On the back of a bad breakup he’s come back to the house in the South where he was born and raised; ostensibly to look after his ailing grandparent, but in truth he’s considering killing her—or at least letting her die. He decides against it, eventually, before settling in to suffer through some more of old Sadie’s story.

See, for some reason she’s determined to tell him about her hardships in this here hollow. About the preacher whose hellish services she was pressganged into attending as a girl, and the ungodly horrors that followed:

They’d had the most gruesome murder anybody had ever heard of and the murderer in the local jail and the deputy scared to death of angry folks taking his prisoner and her daddy almost shot the most popular moonshiner in the county and there were two big families now that didn’t know how to talk to each other and of course there was the preacher going a little crazier each day. Who walked around with a snake under his shirt curled around his chest and belly. (p.217)

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Book Review | The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick

Lucien de Fontein has grown up different. One of the mysterious and misshapen Orfano who appear around the Kingdom of Landfall, he is a talented fighter yet constantly lonely, tormented by his deformity, and well aware that he is a mere pawn in a political game.

Ruled by an insane King and the venomous Majordomo, his is a world where corruption is commonplace, but it's only when Lucien discovers the plight of the "insane" women kept in the so-called Sanatoria that he realises how deeply rooted the day-to-day decay is.


To paraphrase A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh—and Tigger too!—the things that make us different are the very things that make us us.

But when you're different—and who isn't?—fitting in is a difficult thing. It's far harder, however, for the likes of Lucien de Fontein, a young man who has no ears, I fear, and must display his most significant difference every day, come what may.

There are others like Lucien. Other Orfano, which is to say "witchlings [...] whose deformities were an open secret among the subjects of Demesne in spite of the Orfano's attempts to appear normal." (p.10) Lucien has long hair to hide the gory holes on his head, but no matter how hard he tries to fit in with his fellows, they reject him repeatedly. Evidently, "the life of an Orfano was a lonely one," (p.17) if not without its privileges:
"Years of schooling. Almost daily education in blade and biology, Classics and chemistry, philosophy and physics, art, and very rarely, assassination. He had been given the best of everything in Demesne as set down by the King's edict, even when he'd not wanted it, which had been often. Now he would be bereft of everything; all thanks to Giancarlo." (p.43)
Giancarlo is Lucien's Superiore, an instructor of sorts who can't stand the sight of our Orfano... who has gone out of his way to break him at every stage. So far, Lucien has held fast in the face of Giancarlo's cruelty, but everything comes to a head during his final Testing: the emboldening moment when he is to trade his paltry porcelain blade for real steel, and indeed the scene with which Den Patrick's debut begins. But the bastard master pushes his intemperate apprentice too far, and Lucien's response—to attack Giancarlo rather than the innocent he is to kill—leads to his exile from Demesne.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Guest Post | "The Perfect Blade for Every Battle" by Sebastien de Castell

It’s a dangerous world out there, and if you’re not careful you could soon find yourself on the wrong end of an opponent’s knife, a zombie’s tooth, or a werewolf’s claws. If you’re reading this, then I’m assuming three things: first, you’re in terrible danger. Second, you have, for some reason, kept a copy of this article in your pocket. Third, you’re standing outside the only 24-hour sword shop in town. Oh sure, you might think that these are ridiculous and statistically unlikely assumptions to make, but then why are you still reading this article? Really. Go away. That’s right—run off back home to your microwave dinner and Desperate Housewives marathon. The rest of us have blood to shed. 

Still here? Right, then, well done you. Now you need to get inside that 24-hour sword shop and quickly pick out the right weapon for the battle ahead. To maximize your chances of drinking to your enemy’s demise (and minimising the odds of your skull being used as a tankard when they drink to yours), follow the handy guide below to match your current duelling dilemma with the right weapon for the job. 

Scenario 1 - It’s the Zombie Apocalypse

I put this one first as, based on popular media, it's apparently the most likely danger you’ll face this year. Cheer up, though, last year’s edition would have required you to prepare to face off with hundred year-old emo vampires whose only weaknesses are sparkling prettily in sunlight and occasionally brooding to death. 

Right, back to the zombies. What we need here is a good cleaving weapon. You might think a nice double-bladed battle-axe is the way to go, but the truth is, they’re actually pretty hard to wield accurately. Also, if you miss, it’s hard to bring it back around in time for a second try before your ex-neighbour chomps into your face and infects you with the deadly zombie virus (not to mention some pretty serious halitosis.) This will severely curtail any hopes of attracting a member of the opposite sex. 

Now, some of you are probably hoping I’ll tell you that The Walking Dead has it all wrong (well, they do about the crossbow thing but that’s another story) but when it comes to zombie fighting, Michonne has this thing figured out: get yourself a good katana. 

The katana is a traditionally made Japanese sword and one of the finest bladed weapons ever devised. It’s designed for slicing and delivers devastatingly sharp cuts against flesh, sinew, and bone. Can it really decapitate a zombie in one blow? Absolutely. The Japanese used to test katanas by cutting through dead bodies (evidently practicing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse to come.) Regrettably, it’s useless against Godzilla, which makes me wonder if the Japanese were really all that prescient, after all. 

Bonus Tip: While you’re at the store, grab yourself a bokken. This wooden practice weapon is roughly the same size and shape as a katana, but if you sharpen the end just a bit you’ll be ready in case Edward Cullen ever loses his cool and comes for you with his fangs bared. In fact, if you see Edward or any other Twilight vampires you should probably stab them through the heart even if they don’t seem threatening. Just in case, you know? 

Scenario 2 - Road Warrior Dystopia

Zombies? What a preposterous idea. We all know the future belongs to roving bands of ex-punk rock bassists ravaging the countryside in search of... well, it’s not entirely clear what they’re in search of, but they’re planning to kick your ass. So grab a blade and start cleaving black leather biker gangs. 

Your weapon of choice? The European bastard sword. This classic Medieval and early Renaissance monster is the jack-of-all trades you need to deliver judicious quantities of mayhem to all kinds of maniacally grinning mohawk monsters. Some hyena-faced lackey smirking at you while flipping his switch-blade in the air? Good—you’ve got more than enough reach to take him out. Armoured skateboarder is coming at you with a baseball bat? The bastard sword has the strength to parry that blow before you smite the post-apocalyptic Tony Hawk wannabe into the ground. 

Oh, and in case you’re thinking that broadswords were too heavy, they historically weighed between 2.5-3 pounds which was very close to sixteenth century rapiers. Bastard swords could also be wielded with two hands, making them easier to handle. Also, you get to say bastard a lot. Bastard. 

Scenario 3 - Real Life Duel

I know what you’re thinking: what if undead creatures with no biologically explainable capacity for movement and brain-eating don’t spontaneously rise up in oddly convenient urban centres around the country? What if completely foreseeable oil depletion fails to result in a world where everyone paradoxically drives around in gas-guzzling trucks? Alright, then, let’s prepare for something believable: a duel to the death with a fellow human over a question of honour. 

Yes, the classic duel at dawn. The cause? Likely some unintentional slight caused by a poor choice of words that triggers a light slap with a soft white glove. Your options? A simple apology or a deadly and prolonged fight resulting in death for one of you, murder charges for the other, and misery for both your families.

Right, duel it is then. 

You might be thinking rapier here, and if you were living in the 15th or 16th century I would agree with you. But the rapier is still a fairly heavy weapon to handle and that affects its speed. What you want here is a small sword. Yes, I realize the name "small sword" doesn’t inspire you with testosterone-filled confidence, but the small sword was fast—crazy fast—and the point was sharper than any blade that came before it. The only one thing that matters in a real swordfight is putting the pointy end into the other guy first. That’s why, by the late 17th century, the small sword had all but eliminated the rapier as the duelling weapon of choice. It’s also light enough to carry with you at all times and is surprisingly convenient for cooking hotdogs around the campfire. 

Scenario 4 - Crime of Passion

Troubles at home? Starting to suspect your spouse may be stepping out on you with someone from the accounting department? Where others might pause and consider thoughtful dialogue with their significant other, you refuse to waste time with ego-crushing self-reflection and expensive couples counselling. Instead, you’ve decided to commit the sort of love crime usually reserved for melodramatic classics of the French cinema. 

If murderous revenge is on your mind, then there’s only one weapon that will do the job the way it needs to be done: the N-Force Vendetta Double Sword. Yes, the N-Force has it all: big and bold enough to compensate for any masculine insecurities you may be experiencing, and with two separate blades you can offer one to your nemesis as a chance to defend themselves, or, heck, why not use one blade for your enemy and one for your spouse? Best of all, if you do a little research online you’ll quickly learn why the N-Force Vendetta Double Sword is the perfect blade if it turns out you haven’t stumbled upon the love of your life cheating on you with your best friend but instead have discovered them planning a particularly thoughtful birthday party for you. 

Hopefully these handy tips will get you through your next night of bloody battle, but if your sword fighting needs go beyond these every-day scenarios—if, for example, your king has been murdered and it turns out that every noble is a tyrant and every knight a thug—can I respectfully suggest you get yourself a copy of Traitor’s Blade and let Falcio, Kest, and Brasti be your guides on negotiating life’s little challenges?

Friday, 21 March 2014

Book Review | Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

The King is dead, the Greatcoats have been disbanded, and Falcio Val Mond and his fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti have been reduced to working as bodyguards for a nobleman who refuses to pay them. Things could be worse, of course. Their employer could be lying dead on the floor while they are forced to watch the killer plant evidence framing them for the murder. Oh wait, that’s exactly what’s happening...

Now a royal conspiracy is about to unfold in the most corrupt city in the world. A carefully orchestrated series of murders that began with the overthrow of an idealistic young king will end with the death of an orphaned girl and the ruin of everything that Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have fought for. But if the trio want to foil the conspiracy, save the girl, and reunite the Greatcoats, they’ll have to do it with nothing but the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands, because these days every noble is a tyrant, every knight is a thug, and the only thing you can really trust is a traitor’s blade


A great blade has to be sharp, sure, but it needs a bit of weight as well—heft enough to fend off the weapons of enemies. You don't want your hardware to be too heavy, however: it needs to be perfectly balanced between point and pommel. In addition, a good grip is worth investing in, because if you can't hold onto your sword properly, what's the point of wearing one, I wonder?

Once you can be assured that your weapon attends to the necessaries aforementioned, there are a few other things worth considering. For starters, size certainly matters... which isn't to say bigger is always better. In some situations, a small sword—say a rapier—is markedly more suitable than a sabre. The accessibility of your blade is also important; you probably want to have it handy. Last but not least, I dare say a little decoration goes a long way, so long as it's tasteful.

These are all qualities Sebastien de Castell hones to a piercing point over the course of his swashbuckling first fantasy. Like the sword its disgraced protagonist carries, Traitor's Blade is short and sharp and smart, and very well wielded, really.

Our man is Falcio val Mond, the First Cantor of the Greatcoats: an elite legion once held in high regard as "legendary sword-wielding magistrates who travelled from the lowliest village to the biggest city, ensuring that any man or woman, high or low, had recourse to the King's laws." (p.1) In the years since he took up the titular trench in a fit of fury following the butchering of his beloved, Falcio been seen as "a protector to many—maybe even a hero to some," (p.1) but everything's different when Traitor's Blade begins.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Scotsman Abroad | The Great Geeky Debates

Maybe you'll have spotted it, maybe not... but guess what? I was in this morning's Mind Meld!

In case you weren't aware, the Mind Meld is a regular feature on the Hugo award-winning SF Signal which asks a bunch of genre fiction's best and brightest to put their heads together to answer a certain question. 

Truth be told I don't know what the Irregulars were doing, inviting yours truly to participate, but I wasn't going to miss it. Didn't hurt that the question was such a fun one. Let me hand it over to James Aquilone:
What was the first or most memorable geeky pop-culture debate you ever had? Or what’s that one thing you can’t stop ranting about? What was the outcome? Are you still on speaking terms with your opponent? Why are you so passionate about this?
In response, I wrote about "the years a friend and I spent butting heads over a couple of comic books. He was a Marvel man; me, a DC devotee. He read The X-Men; I was an unabashed Batman fan. Matter of fact, I still am, and I’d bet my last penny he’s still got the hots for Emma Frost."

Be warned, though, that my piece, at least, takes a turn for the serious... because this friend is firmly former, unfortunately, and our different interests—up to and including the arguments we had about whether Batman and his entourage would be a match for Marvel’s supermutants—had a part to play in that:
As kids we were great mates, he and me. As adults, our friendship fell apart. So whether it’s Star Trek versus Star Wars or the merits of manga as opposed to anime, take heed, dear reader: at the end of the day these debates can be about the people as much as the particular properties.
Click on through, as you do, to read the rest of the Mind Meld in question, which also features Mur Lafferty, Maurice Broaddus, David Lomax and a whole load of other awesome authors. 

(I'm aware that I'm the only contributor without a short story or novel to my name, but I have no shame.)

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Book Review | Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

"A black moon had risen, a sphere of sleeplessness that pulled at the tides of blood-and invisible explanation for the madness welling inside."

The world has stopped sleeping. Restless nights have grown into days of panic, delirium and, eventually, desperation. But few and far between, sleepers can still be found—a gift they quickly learn to hide. For those still with the ability to dream are about to enter a waking nightmare.

Matt Biggs is one of the few sleepers. His wife Carolyn however, no stranger to insomnia, is on the very brink of exhaustion. After six restless days and nights, Biggs wakes to find her gone. He stumbles out of the house in search of her to find a world awash with pandemonium, a rapidly collapsing reality. Sleep, it seems, is now the rarest and most precious commodity. Money can't buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it.


Black Moon is a book which wants to confuse you, and in that sense, it's a soaring success.

The thought behind its apocalypse is appallingly plausible: a plague of infectious insomnia has wounded the world, laying almost the lot of us low in the process. Without sleep, the larger part of the population is losing it. Unable "to distinguish fact from fiction," (p.3) to tell dreams apart from reality, the inflicted become zombies, of a sort. Thankfully they're absent that habitual hankering for brains, but "the murderous rage they feel when seeing others sleep" (p.44) has already led to indescribable violence on a scale that beggars belief.

It falls to the few who remain relatively rational to figure out what in God's name is going on:
Many in the scientific community were focusing on a known disease—fatal familial insomnia—the idea being that this was some kind of mutated strain of the already mutated variation called sporadic familial insomnia. Whereas FFI was believed to be hereditary and limited to less than forty families in the world, and took up to two years to kill the afflicted, this new iteration seemed to be some kind of unstoppable upgrade. Accelerated, resistant, moving through the four stages of demise at three times the speed. 
But this was just the leading theory. No real connection had been made, and the medical community remained confronted by its greatest fear: a mystery. (p.35)
A mystery that is very probably unsolvable, given the worsening condition of those looking into it.

Black Moon isn't a long novel. Nevertheless Kenneth Calhoun proffers three diverse perspectives rather than allowing readers to settle into a single just-so story. Of these, we hear from the easiest to like, namely Lila—a little girl sent her away for "her own safety" (p.78) who feels betrayed by her parents—the least. A shame: hers is certainly a familiar figure in apocalyptic fiction, but she's sweet and real and resonant in a way that the other pair of protagonists can't match.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Guest Post | "The Dawn of Autumn" by Dave Hutchinson

I said as much yesterday, but it bears repeating here: Europe in Autumn is awesome; a canny concoction of sci-fi and spies which took me entirely by surprise, largely because I wasn't familiar with its author beforehand.

In the weeks since reading it I have, however, gotten my grubby paws on The Push, and it was bloody good too. So it was with high hopes that I approached Dave Hutchinson about putting together a guest post for TSS, and sincere glee when he agreed.

As is my habit, I asked the author a selection of questions, with my fingers firmly crossed that he'd be able to come up with something fun in answer to one. What I didn't expect was for him to answer them all! Here, then, is an absorbing account of how Europe in Autumn came about which also takes in the relevance of short stories on the novel form, Dave's personal favourite pocket nation, and—last but not least—his ideas for a potential sequel.


Years ago, a friend of mine—oh, why not drop names? It was Stephen King’s Polish translator—told me that I was, at heart, a short story writer.

This was a little disappointing, as I’d just finished what would be my first published novel, The Villages. It had taken me over a year of very hard work and I was rather pleased with it. But then I had a think about what he’d said, and I realised he was right. Virtually everything I’d written since I began to write somewhere back in the mid-70s was short-form. Some of it was very short indeed.

The Villages itself grew out of a short story which I workshopped with some other writers. In the course of the workshop it was suggested that maybe the story could be the seed of a novel. When I expressed doubt about this—I think I actually said, "Are you out of your minds?"—someone suggested a simple way of doing it. “Just look at it as a novella and keep going.”

Of course, it wound up being more complicated than that. The story got rewritten and rewritten and sort of grew backwards and forwards and sideways until it was sitting buried, a little to one side of the heart of the book, like the grit in a pearl and only I could tell it was there.

After The Villages, I went back to writing short stories. And as time went on, the short stories got longer and longer. Where I had once been able to tell a story in a couple of thousand words, now my stuff felt uncomfortably rushed if it ran to less than about ten thousand. I don’t think I was getting more verbose in my old age, it’s just that the rhythm of the stories I wanted to tell needed space to breathe.

Europe in Autumn started out as a completely different novel, set in three similar but separate versions of Europe. In the first, a journalist investigating what seems to be a routine Drugs Squad raid gone wrong in London suddenly finds himself in a reality where he never existed. In the second, a worker on the Warsaw Metro gets involved with a shadowy crime boss and a Continent-wide conspiracy. And in the third there was Rudi the Coureur, bless his little cotton socks.

The idea was to write the book in alternating chapters from the point of view of each of the characters, until somewhere near the end all their stories connected up, but early on I found myself more interested in Rudi’s story than the other two. Okay, I’ll put my hands up; the Rudi chapters were easier and more fun to write. Eventually, I shelved the other two stories and concentrated on Rudi.

I wound up writing the book the way I did for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the Rudi chapters I’d already written were quite self-contained because I still wasn’t sure how they’d fit into the original book and I wanted to be able to swap them around if I had to.

Secondly, though—and more important, I think—by that time, I was reading a lot of Alan Furst. In case you’ve never read him, Furst writes these wonderful, atmospheric, almost impressionistic espionage novels set around the beginning of the Second World War—what someone once called "the midnight of the century." Many of his books tend to be structured as self-contained chapters within the larger narrative, the way each novel itself is just part of a huge mosaic picture of Europe on the brink of war. I liked that, and though I can’t pretend to be anything like as good as Furst, I thought I’d like to try and pull it off with Europe in Autumn. It’s a structure I find rather pleasing, and of course it keeps me in my comfort zone, writing a string of short stories and novellas which add up to a larger story.

Of the locations in the novel, I’ve only really been to London and Poland. I live in London, and I’ve visited Poland quite a lot. It’s a country I’m extremely fond of, but I didn’t want to prettify it. That’s for another book, maybe. A friend of mine says I "get" Poland and that’s really quite a compliment.

The other locations in the book really come mostly from research. I’ve never been to Prague or Estonia, for instance, although I really want to visit Tallinn one day. Again, though, I didn’t want to prettify any of these places. The central premise of the book, the engine that drives it, is fantastical enough; I wanted to balance that with as realistic and rational a picture of Rudi’s Europe as I could come up with.

Having said that, I was a bit cruel to Scotland. I have no idea—and I suspect no one else does, either—how Scottish Independence is going to shake out [you're scaring me, mate!—Ed.] but for the purposes of the book I needed it to happen in a certain way, a way in which I really hope it doesn’t happen. The bit about it being bankrolled by the Chinese was meant as satire, but since I finished the book there’s been news of Beijing investing heavily in the Manchester Airport redevelopment and the Prime Minister selling a large part of the nation’s supply of pig semen to them, so I have to wonder...

The Europe in Europe in Autumn is one of proliferating pocket nations, a place where U2 fans can set up their own little country, for instance. I’ve been asked a couple of times whether I’d like to set one up myself, and to be honest the idea never occurred to me while I was writing the book. I rather like the idea of a national park that’s a sovereign nation, though, so if I were to do it I think it would be splendid for the Peak District to declare independence and strike out on its own. No motor cars, no heavy industry. Just a big quiet place. I could do with living in a big quiet place.

At the moment, I’m working on a novel which is a sort of companion to Europe in Autumn. It’s not a sequel so much as something that happens in parallel to the action in the first book. Since I started plotting that out, I’ve begun to see possibilities for a direct sequel, picking up the action in Europe in Autumn maybe ten or fifteen years down the line. But we’ll see. That’s a way away yet.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Book Review | Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

Rudi is a cook in a Krakow restaurant, but when his boss asks him to help a cousin escape from the country he's trapped in, a new career—part spy, part people-smuggler—begins.

Following multiple economic crises and a devastating flu pandemic, Europe has fractured into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Recruited by the shadowy organisation "Les Coureurs des Bois," Rudi is schooled in espionage, but when a training mission to The Line—a sovereign nation consisting of a trans-European railway line—goes wrong, he is arrested, beaten and Coureur Central must attempt a rescue.

With so many nations to work in, and identities to assume, Rudi is kept busy travelling across Europe. But when he is sent to smuggle someone out of Berlin and finds a severed head inside a locker instead, a conspiracy begins to wind itself around him. 

With kidnapping, double-crosses and a map that constantly re-draws, Rudi begins to realise that underneath his daily round of plot and counter plot, behind the conflicting territories, another entirely different reality might be pulling the strings...


Maps are a way of rationalising landscapes, but what kind of map can help us come to terms with a country that changes every day? With a world that defies definition?

Dave Hutchinson's vision of Europe in the near future is as plausible as it is novel. In the aftermath of catastrophic economic collapse and a flu pandemic which led to the death of many millions, the Union begins to splinter:
The Union had struggled into the twenty-first century and managed to survive in some style for a few more years of bitching and infighting and cronyism. Then it had spontaneously begun to throw off progressively smaller and crazier nation-states, like a sunburned holidaymaker shedding curls of skin. 
Nobody really understood why this had happened. (p.27)
However unclear the reasons may be, "pocket nations" (p.27) now proliferate across the continent, each with its own borders and orders. Anything goes in some, whilst in others, next to nothing does. With more and more of these micro-countries appearing every year, a gap has opened in the market: there's a dire demand for people prepared to brave Europe's impossible topography in order to transport packages—or perhaps important persons—from state to state in spite of tight guidelines.

Some call the organisation which has sprung up to meet the needs of this new niche a company of "glorified postmen." (p.124) Others don't believe in them, even. But they exist, I insist, and they call themselves Coureurs.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Book Review | Cat Out Of Hell by Lynne Truss

The scene: a cottage on the coast on a windy evening. Inside, a room with curtains drawn. Tea has just been made. A kettle still steams.

Under a pool of yellow light, two figures face each other across a kitchen table. A man and a cat.

The story about to be related is so unusual—yet so terrifyingly plausible—that it demands to be told in a single sitting.

The man clears his throat, and leans forward, expectant.

"Shall we begin?" asks the cat.


Fun fact: I do most of my reading with a cat on my lap.

She came into her name, Page, by interposing herself between book and user from birth, basically; by sleeping in, on and under the many novels lying around in the library; and by chewing her way through on a fair few too. This latter habit hardly made me happy, but she's been treated like a Queen in any event. Despite resolutions arrived at when she was a bitty little kitty that I wouldn't make the mistake of spoiling her... well, I have, haven't I? She's irresistible, really.

But with rather alarming regularity, she appears in the periphery of my vision—paws primed to pounce; frenzied eyes fixed on mine; tail wagging to say she's acquired a target; ready, by all accounts, to eat me, or at the very least mistreat me. So I have had call to wonder why even the cutest cats seem to harbour such hatred. In her first full-length fiction for in excess of a decade, Lynne Truss offers a potential explanation:
They get all the best seats in the house, they have food and warmth and affection. Everything is on their terms, not ours. They come and go as they please. Why aren't they permanently ecstatic? Well, now it's explained. It's because they're conscious of having lost their ability to do serious evil, and they feel bloody humiliated. (p.173)
Imagine the following in Vincent Price's voice, for so, it is said, Roger's repartee resembles:
Up until, say, two thousand years ago, all cats had powers unimaginable to the average cat today. The species had been vastly diminished by time and domestication. In the modern world only one cat in a million has the character, the spirit, the sheer indomitable life force to fulfil that universal feline destiny of nine lives as part of a conscious programme of self-completion. I am that one in a million. And if I seem quite pleased with myself—well, so would you if you'd survived the shit I had to go through. (pp.34-35)
Roger is a cat, in case there's any confusion. "The feline equivalent of Stephen Fry," (p.44) at that... which is to say smart, charming, warm and—from time to time—quite, quite wild. Having "travelled romantically in the footsteps of Lord Byron in the 1930s [he] now solves cryptic crosswords torn out daily from The Telegraph" (p.86) when he's not otherwise occupied killing or merely maiming his keepers. So it seems, at least.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Quoth the Scotsman | Claire North on The Theory of Everything

You'll have heard about Harry August: the title character of a nearly-here novel by someone calling herself Claire North. Furthermore, you may be aware that the first book to feature the fellow documents the highlights of his first fifteen lives—he's an immortal, after all, both blessed and cursed to live his life again and again until who knows when.

What you might not know is whether The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is truly any good, or just the latest in a long line of debuts perpetually pitched as the next next big thing. Well. Consider this confirmation: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an extraordinary novel, as the publicity has promised. I'll be reviewing it in full at a later date, but for today, a quick quote.

It takes the form of a discussion between our protagonist and his friend and fellow academic, and it touches on two topics I've been dealing with whilst teaching recently: the inadequacy of studying any one subject without others to temper our learning, as well as the question of academic success versus actual education. Here, Harry's helping Vincent figure out his final year thesis:
The turning of the stars in the heavens, the breaking of the atoms of existence, the bending of light in our sky, the rolling of electromagnetic waves through our very bodies...
"Yes yes yes." He flapped his hands. "That's all important! But ten thousand words of thesis is... well, it's nothing. And then there's this assumption that I should focus on one thing along, as if it's possible to comprehend the structure of the sun without truly understanding the nature of atomic behaviour!"
Here it was again, the familiar rant.
"We talk about a theory of everything," he spat, "as if it were a thing which will just be discovered overnight. As if a second Einstein will one day sit up in his bed and exclaim, "Mein Gott! Ich habe es gesehen!" and that's it, the universe comprehended. I find it offensive, genuinely offensive, to think that the solution is going to be found in numbers, or in atoms, or in great galactic forces—as if our petty academia could truly comprehend on a single side of A4 the structure of the universe. X = Y. we seem to say; one day there will be a theory of everything and then we can stop. We'll have won—all things will be known. Codswallop." 
"Codswallop and barney," he agreed firmly, "to paraphrase Dr Johnson." 
Perhaps, I suggested, the fate of the universe could briefly take second place to the thorny issue of graduating with honours? 
He blew loudly between his lips, a liquid sound of contempt. "That," he exclaimed, "is precisely what's wrong with academics." (p.190)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August will be published by Orbit on April 8th, and you really need to read it: it's as good as guaranteed to be of the best books of the year.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Book Review | Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border—an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.

Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.

But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.


A biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist venture into Area X.

Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn't it? Well halt that thought, because Annihilation is no laughing matter. On the contrary: Jeff VanderMeer's first new novel since Finch is a nightmarish narrative about the fungus among us which trades in terror and tension rather than simple titters. It's the award-winning author's most accessible text yet... though there's a very real chance Annihilation will leave you with weird dreams for years.

So what the hell is Area X?
The government's version of events emphasised a localised environmental catastrophe stemming from experimental military research. This story leaked into the public sphere over a period of several months so that, like the proverbial frog in a hot pot, people found the news entering their consciousness gradually as part of the general daily noise of media oversaturation about ongoing ecological devastation. Within a year or two, it had become the province of conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements. (p.94)
But of course, there's more to the story.

At bottom, Area X is an anomaly; a treasure trove of the unknown. Our unnamed narrator—the biologist of the aforementioned four—describes "a pristine wilderness devoid of any human life," (pp.94-95) but this image, like many of the pictures she posits, is imperfect. After all, the Southern Reach has been overseeing trips into this treacherous territory for several decades. Annihilation, in fact, follows the fortunes of the twelfth such expedition to date... or so the agency tells its members.

They are women to a one, and they are represented throughout by their respective roles. "A name was a dangerous luxury here. Sacrifices didn't need names," (p.134) and that is exactly what they are—that is how some of them even see themselves—thus they are not people but purposes. Their mission: to map Area X. To explore and more in service of the Southern Reach's knowledge of the anomaly, though the agency may know more than it's willing to admit.