Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman

I've been here for too long.
Done things I shouldn't have done.
I picked this up, along with Russell Hoban and Robert Westall, in my favourite bookshop in Hay (being told at the time that my three modest purchases had tipped them over the £500 mark for the day - huzzah). At home, I rushed to my shelves to show my other Haldeman novels the new addition, only to realise in horror that I'd previously donated The Forever War trilogy to my local Oxfam back in 2012 and I sat down in disgust. But not for long. 

I've come to realise that I might have read quite a lot of what I read for the wrong reason - as far as books go I wanted only to have wallpaper in the rooms of my house that screamed intelligence, sophistication, a critical appreciation of what it is to be human and alive in these trying times, and I thought the only way to do that would be to have walls lined with classics, with oblique and post-modern fiction, with challenging and difficult works by challenging and difficult authors. But you can have all that and more, most importantly enjoyment, by purchasing and reading good science fiction, and not being ashamed by the assumed stigma of genre fiction. I love sci-fi. 

You heard me.

I do. Don't worry, this blog isn't morphing into some fawning genre fiction love-in, but I am not going to hold back on reading what I enjoy, hence my current glut of Neal Asher. But back to Haldeman, and this, winner of the Nebula Award in 2005 for best novel, in which two aeons-old extraterrestrials stalk the Earth, one seeking to understand and one looking to destroy. They can both change their appearance, mimicking other life forms, and with the advent of homo sapiens as the dominant animal on the planet, they leave their primordial states to walk upright among us. One is drawn to the horrors of war, the other, the study of life. As the two aliens spiral around each other across the centuries, they both find themselves drawn to Samoa as the discovery of an alien artefact proves the catalyst to their final reckoning and reveals the purpose of the Changeling's long sojourn on Earth.

Haldeman is a sparse, intelligent writer, quick to ramp up the action and never afraid to attack the status quo. Among his numerous targets is the US government, criticised here as a near totalitarian state, and marginalised by the human protagonists as far as is possible. Also under attack is his favourite subject, war, but this time, not the Vietnam 'police action', but rather the second World War, notably the death camps of the Nazis where the Chameleon finds work with Dr Mengele, and the Bataan Death March in the Phillippines. His elegant prose leaves much between the lines and he never fails to be thought-provoking.

If you're going to read one sci-fi novel in 2017, I would recommend something else, maybe a Robert Reed or Iain M Banks, just because they're great, but if winning awards does it for you, then you should try the book that beat Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to the 2005 Nebula Award. You won't regret it.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Cats Of Seroster by Robert Westall

I am Cam of Cambridge! Cam Cam Cam!
So, first the facts. Set in a fictionalized France of the sixteenth century, this young adult fantasy throws an English wanderer, 19 year old Cam, in amongst large, thinking, reasoning cats, descended from lineage that stretches back to Ancient Egypt, called Miw, who have been gently (and not so gently) directing the humans of their city and its surrounds for countless centuries, using their telepathic powers. Periodically however, they have had need to call upon the powers of the Seroster, a quasi-mythical warrior and cat-friend, reincarnated as the need arises, and whose gigantic sword and people-slaughtering capabilities are occasionally required to slaughter foes and scatter enemies and so forth. After the usurping of the ducal seat in the aforementioned city by some rather crude and un-cat-friendly types led by a rapacious fellow by the name of Little Paul, the Miw are forced into action, and Cam's part in the story begins!

Now the context. Many* might wonder why I've thrown back into the mix another teenage fantasy novel when I've previously made half-hearted apologies for so doing. The reason is very simple: I came across this on a recent trip to Hay on the shelves of the Hay On Wye Booksellers and for the sum of one English pound** it was an opportunity to revisit a nearly forgotten part of my childhood.

When I was *mumbles* years old, I got this from the library and simply devoured it. In retrospect I was baffled by what was going on, but it nonetheless inspired me to try my hand at my own, highly (highly) derivative novel, thumped out on the keys of my parents' old typewriter (a love for which has followed me through the years). As I recall I was amazed there were that many words in me.

So of course, I was delighted to find it again, having struggled to remember the title on and off for years. And I was not disappointed. It's still a marvellous read, not unduly violent despite all the killing and battles, and a lot of fun. However, I can see why I might have struggled as a young person to follow what goes on, as he leaves quite a bit to the imagination of the reader (bearing in mind I had no imagination as a child). It also ruminates heavily on the subject of death which, as a child, I found darkly exotic and titillating if ultimately confusing.

Westall was always a favourite author, and his ghost stories scared the bejeesus out of me when I was a teen, so if you have an older teen who might be a reluctant reader then why not drop this casually on to the sofa when he or she is next face-planted on his or her iPhone and express surprise at its appearance, given it mysteriously disappeared over thirty years ago. Perhaps they will heed its call!


*Ibid

**Or about $0.49 American as of December 2016...

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Empire Of Booze by Henry Jeffreys

...the kind of pleasure-seeking individual
who could have provoked a puritan revolt
with a raised eyebrow.
When it comes to books from Unbound I am entirely likely to go easy on them, from a criticism-point-of-view. They are, after all, trying to do something amazing in the publishing world and I'm all for that, indubitably. That said, when I pledge for books whilst in thrall to drink, occasionally, when they do finally make it into print (if at all), they are not quite as amazing as I had drunkenly expected.

As an example, I proffer Empire Of Booze. I think I'd been at some sort of literary event, where someone or other was sloshing around either hedgerow cocktails or exciting, hipster 'craft' beers, and not only did I indulge myself both with the tasters on offer, I immediately bought their book, and I also chucked twenty or thirty quid at this, as it was sympathetic to my contemporaneous desire for more of the same.

Now, don't think that I'm saying this is a bad book; it is certainly not! Rather, it is informative, entertaining, enlightening, enjoyable and accessible. However, I could if I so choose level charges that it starts out feeling just a little too glib, limply whimsical, repetitive, and filled with the names of people and places (presumably through necessity) to the point of readerly exhaustion. I gave up following the families and chateaux and just let it all wash over me. It also reads like a series of collected newspaper articles in a Saturday supplement: neither ostensibly scholarly enough (though I don't doubt its accuracy given the extensive reading list at the back) to be a solid historical account of the British influence on alcoholic beverages, nor whimsical enough to be an amusing comedic stroll through the tastes of British intemperates down the ages.

After a slow start, it does gather momentum and interest however, and the latter chapters on whisky, particularly the effects of prohibition in America on Irish whiskey sales, are downright fascinating. I found myself enjoying it more and more after my initial and frankly quite mild disappointment. It just wasn't what I expected, although ironically the record of quite what that was has been lost in the fog of drunken enthusiasm. Still, I've certainly been drinking more since I read this and as a result, so if that isn't cause to celebrate* then I don't remember what I was saying.

*with a whisky and green ginger wine!


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

A Cigarette Paper's Thickness, by G.R. Buchaillard-Davies

Coming soon to a waste-paper
basket near you...
It's November, so you can bank on two things:
1) I will be sporting facial hair for no discernible reason
2) I will pretend to write a novel so I can feel better about myself

I do myself a disservice - I'm growing facial hair because I like it. 

Anyway, just so you know and are not *titter* disappointed at the lack of activity on this blog in the next thirty days, I shall be beavering away, re-reading my manuscript, removing most of the curse words and cutting down on the gratuitous verbosity in an attempt to craft a passable ebook, for self-publishing in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, I've already mocked up a cover design. What larks! Cart before the horse as always. 

Should you feel motivated to support my Kickstarter campaign, please note I haven't got one. Instead, please harass and harangue me at every opportunity so that I am suitably motivated, and if you do want to throw your cash around, then there are far more worthy causes than me and my hirsute face. This chap, for example:

https://www.gofundme.com/Matthew-Parsons

Thanks everyone.