Monthly Archives: August 2014

Review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

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I always find it fascinating how a cluster of books often appear on the bookshelves at the same time dealing with a similar subject. Not the slew of copycat wannabes who turn up trying to replicate a runaway best-seller no one saw coming – I’m talking about when the timing means that several authors were working on similar projects at the same time, often with completely different themes or approaches. I’ve been reading a steady trickle of excellently written books by established writers about this particular theme – that of a particular character living parallel or recurrent lives. And this is the latest addition.

first 15 lives of Harry AugustHarry August is on his deathbed again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always restarts to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a live he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next – and what he did before – and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

That’s the blurb and for my money – that’s one of the best blurbs I’ve read. Ever. Kudos to Orbit for that effort and the clever book cover – does the book measure up?

It’s certainly different to North’s other work. She writes the Young Adult Horatio Lyle series as Catherine Webb and her adult fantasy Midnight Mayor series under the name of Kate Griffin – you can read my review of her first book in the series A Madness of Angels here. This book is more literary in tone, relying less on breathless immediacy and more on measured exposition with a slower narrative pace. And there’s nothing wrong in that – but be aware that if you’re expecting the same full-tilt adventure-packed deal she offers in her other fiction, this is a more nuanced, considered book and while there is plenty of action, it is differently packaged.

As it happens, North is visiting a very familiar science fiction trope – that of the trans-human who has shifted into something different by dint of having lived so long. The big difference is that trans-humans as depicted by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Greg Bear owe their longevity to scientific development, while Harry August and the handful of other returnees he encounters during his lifetimes, owe their existence to a genetic quirk.  As a kalachakra, after he dies, he goes straight back to the year of his first birth – 1918 – and relives his existence, with the memories of his previous lives impacting on his choices and decisions. For my money, Harry August is the most effectively depicted post-human I have yet encountered. While never forgetting his difference, North has managed to still make him sufficiently sympathetic that I really empathised and cared about him – a feat, as he has become something other than fully human and is certainly not particularly cuddly or even likeable at lot of the time.

What we get is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be human and the effects of determinism – how far can Harry influence or alter the events in his lives – alongside the cracking adventure story that steadily evolves. North crafts this story with consummate skill and subtlety. The denouement is gripping and shocking and if this book isn’t shortlisted for every award going as one of the best science fiction books of the year, then she will have been robbed. Give it a go. It’s a masterpiece.
10/10

Salt & Storm by Kendal Kulper

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This sounds like a great recommendation – so I thought I’d pass it on…

readful things blog

Salt & StormSalt & Storm by Kendall Kulper

A sweeping historical romance about a witch who foresees her own murder–and the one boy who can help change her future.

Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island’s whalers safe at sea, but her mother has forced her into a magic-free world of proper manners and respectability. When Avery dreams she’s to be murdered, she knows time is running out to unlock her magic and save herself.

Avery finds an unexpected ally in a tattooed harpoon boy named Tane–a sailor with magic of his own, who moves Avery in ways she never expected. Becoming a witch might stop her murder and save her island from ruin, but Avery discovers her magic requires a sacrifice she never prepared for.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever find the perfect…

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Review of AUDIO BOOK Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes

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I’d read this children’s book with great enjoyment a few years ago, after Ali visited West Sussex Writers and gave a lively, informative talk on writing for children. But having recently bought my granddaughter a Kindle Fire so she can listen to books she enjoys, a very looong, boring drive in slow-moving holiday traffic was sweetened by hearing the adventures of Rachel and Ben, Polly and Freddy beautifully narrated by Glen McCready.

It is 1956. Freddy and Polly have never minded helping their genius father with his experiments. Even when that means being put into frozentimecryonic suspension having their hearts frozen…. It is 2009. Ben and Rachel have resigned themselves to a long, dull summer when they find the hidden underground vault in the garden and inside it two frozen figures, a boy and a girl…Can Polly and Freddy adapt to the 21st century?

This is an excellent book – the overarching story is exciting enough, but the joy of this book is the continual difficulties experienced by Polly and Freddy in acclimatising to life in 2009 after being in cryonic suspension for 53 years. Sparkes has clearly done her research and the result is at times poignant, at times surprising and often laugh-aloud funny. We spent our time in traffic jams giggling at the lovely humorous touches, rather than fuming at the slow pace of our journey to Ringwood. Polly and Freddy are fitter and tougher than Ben and Rachel – but their gender roles are far more rigid. Polly blithely assumes that Rachel will help with the domestic chores, and the boys don’t need to. Some of their other attitudes are jarring, too.

Back in the era of the Cold War, there were political tensions and rivalries that mean Polly and Freddy’s brilliant father could have drawn down unwelcome attention from plenty of people. And when his children are finally woken up from their frozen sleep, all they want to do is discover what happened to him, and why he didn’t wake them up in a few days as had always happened before.

Sparkes’ sharp observations on the differences between children of the 1950’s and now has stayed with me since we finished listening to the adventure. I have promised myself that when I have the time, I shall sit down and play it again. This superbly told and well written story deserves my undivided attention.
10/10

Review of the first night of Before the Dawn – Kate Bush in Concert

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Last night we found ourselves queuing outside the Hammersmith Apollo, still not quite believing our good luck that we’d managed to get tickets for the eagerly anticipated opening night of Kate Bush performing for the first time in 35 years…

Himself is a Fan and as such logged onto Kate’s fansite years ago – so received an email asking if we were interested in buying tickets Kate-Bush1and offering us an opportunity to do so on the Wednesday before the tickets went on release on the Friday. Which was why we found ourselves rubbing shoulders with all sorts of interesting people, whose main topic of conversation was when they first became Kate Bush fans and what she might be singing. I was sitting next to a lovely young couple who’d travelled from Germany, a Dutchman was seated directly behind me and a lady from Brisbane, Australia was behind Himself. She is an artist and often paints Kate as she regards her music as an inspiration. We didn’t exchange names – but we told each other all about how much Kate’s music mattered to us.

As for us – Kate’s music is the soundtrack to our relationship, from meeting up at college as friends, to gradually falling in love as I staggered away from a disastrous marriage, vowing never to get caught up like that again. You won’t be surprised to learn it wasn’t exactly a whirlwind affair – and that Himself has great perseverance and is amazingly kind… This is stuff I don’t generally share on my blog. But I’m talking about Kate’s music – personal, intimate and always emotionally revealing.

Having said that, I wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotion I felt as the band marched onto the stage – and there she was. I found myself on my feet, hollering with everyone else, overwhelmed to actually see her… And then she launched into ‘Lily’ from The Red Shoes. Several things were immediately apparent. She is still very beautiful and comfortable in her skin and that remarkable voice has matured and is better than ever. She has also collected around her a group of exceptional musicians – I think she intended to introduce them, but everyone else was as blown away as I was and we were all rather noisy about it. Especially as straight after ‘Lily’, she gave us a fantastic version of ‘Hounds of Love’

katebush1She then sang, ‘Joanni’, ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Top of the City’ and ended that section of the show with ‘King of the Mountain’. There was nothing from the first four albums, which is fair enough when you consider her vocal range in those early days. There was something of a game she played with her audience, in that the intros to each song were extended and slightly altered so it wasn’t always immediately apparent exactly what we were going to hear next. And when the man leapt onto the stage with a bullroarer, I immediately thought she was going to launch into ‘The Dreaming’. But no… this was the amazing introduction to The Ninth Wave, the second side of The Hounds of Love album.

Using footage filmed in an immersion tank, Kate played a drowning woman and the straight concert morphed into theatre, complete with sophisticated effects like a helicopter search, and a submerged room where Bertie played her son in a script about burnt toad in the hole, written by author David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame. We were treated to an operetta of The Ninth Wave – and it was wonderful to see a visual interpretation of this song cycle by the writer and performer, who brought to bear her meticulous attention to detail and no-holds-barred approach we have come to expect from her albums. Consequently, the standard of acting, the special effects, the staging of the songs and Kate’s own performance were superb. Alongside her on the stage throughout the show was her teenage son Bertie, who she singled out and thanked as the person who encouraged her to see this project through. He had a major role during The Ninth Wave and later, during the Sky of Honey sequence he played The Painter, with his own solo.

And, for me, this was the icing on the cake. For particular and very personal reasons, Arial has huge emotional resonance – particularly The Sky of Honey section, which got me through a particularly challenging and grim winter… And when I realised that Kate was going to be performing this particular song cycle – it was like Christmas Day and my birthday had just been rolled into one spectacular present. Seeing ‘Somewhere in Between’ sung by Kate was amazing. There was a lot of footage with birds and a dark undertone that always exists within Kate’s work – with a wooden doll about four foot high wandering around the set, occasionally getting a comforting hug from Kate. The puppeteer managed to produce some really lifelike movements – think of the model horses from the musical Warhorse.

Bertie’s presence and this model representation of him as the child he was when Kate was working on Arial left me very moved. She has always been – justifiably – wary of letting the rest of the world into her personal life, clearly feeling that her work should speak for itself. And in this first concert appearance for 35 years, she has chosen to give us not only access to her personal vision of her creative world, but allowed us a chance to see her only son on the stage alongside her.

She ended the concert with a beautiful rendition of ‘Among Angels’ just playing the piano and her final number was an amazing version of ‘Cloudbusting’ with the audience on its feet joining in the chorus. And… I’m still in a spin. This was a remarkable performance unlike anything else I’ve ever seen – part pop concert, part theatre and all Kate, who is still pushing boundaries and successfully setting the bar for others to follow.
10/10

Review of The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

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I nearly didn’t pick this one off the shelves on the grounds that it looked a tad weird – and recently I’ve read some pseudo-philosophical science fiction that had me wanting to batter my head against a brick wall… But when I saw it was an Angry Robot offering, I grabbed it – and I’m very glad I did.

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen Tan woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it. He lives of taowasn’t. He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes. Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

And that’s the blurb. I really enjoyed this one. As well as providing plenty of thrills and spills, Roen’s painful conversion to a fit, muscle-bound action man is just that – painful. And that’s fine with me. We all know just how hard it is to lose weight and get fit – if it was easy we’d all be doing it at the drop of a hat, so I do get a bit fed up when fictional characters run around a track a couple of times, with a personal trainer yelling in their ear and in the following chapter they’re now sleekly fit and raring to go. Chu really puts Roen through the wringer – and like watching many painful conversions, it includes plenty of funny moments along the way.

Roen is a great character – I liked his panic during his first firefight, his fear before assignments and that he grumbles constantly when he’s bored and cold and feels very intimidated by all the black-clad agents around him. He is far more the sort of hero I can understand and empathise with… I also liked the fact that he is tongue-tied and clumsy around his female trainer – and that Tao has to train him word for word when he wants to ask a particular girl out. The relationship between Tao and Roen steadily grows throughout the book and I every much enjoyed the bumps along the way.

As well as Tao and Roen’s narrative, we also have an insight into the opposition in the form of Chivya, who loathes Tao and is driven by his own ambition to get a seat on the Genjix Council and a desire to defeat the Prophus. The world is chillingly depicted, with the aliens battling for supremacy, and in addition to being responsible for our development, they have also been the cause of most of the major wars that have blighted our history. It’s a neat twist, with many world leaders inhabited by a Quasing. It’s been done before, of course – but I enjoyed this particular version. Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable tale with plenty of action, some humour and an entertaining premise keeping it all rolling forward at a good clip. I look forward to reading the sequel, The Deaths of Tao and have definitely marked Wesley Chu as One to Watch with this impressive debut novel.
8/10

Moments, Moments, Immortal Moments

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This is a wonderful celebratory piece about what I label in my head ‘golden times’ – those slices that stand out in your memory. As you read it, perhaps you, too, will recall some of your special times and what triggered them…

The Immortal Jukebox

Sometimes it might take just a single beat of your heart. A lightning strike seared into your memory: something really crucial has happened and whatever happens from now on it will be in the shadow of this! Maybe it’s the first time alone together when she called you by your name and it felt like a new christening. Or the time your toddling son folded his hand into yours without thinking as he looked for stability and security on the road ahead.

Sometimes it might take years; the slowly dawning realisation, (like a photograph emerging from the darkroom) that it was that moment, that event, which seemed so trivial at the time, where a new course was set that’s led you to your current harbour.

Moments, moments, moments. Our lives in our imaginations and memories are never a complete coherent narrative but rather a silvery chain of moments: some cherished…

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Film Review of District 9

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district 9While my friend Mhairi Simpson was laid up after coming off her bike last week, we had the good luck to encounter this film, courtesy of the good ol’ Syfy channel. As Mhairi hadn’t seen it, I was very glad to have an excuse to watch it again.

Released in 2009 by TriStar Pictures and directed by Neill Blomkamp, this science fiction thriller is set in the very near future, when a huge space ship appears in the sky over Johannesburg in South Africa. And just hangs there. Three months later, a task force eventually breaks into the ship to find it contains around half a million sick and starving aliens. Transported to a camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the aliens are provided with food and the most primitive, rudimentary basics required for existence and left to get on with it. They do.

Living in squalor, they barter whatever they can for tins of cat food and pieces of meat. Inevitably, illegal interest in their technology is centred around their impressive weaponry. Despite the fact that humans cannot activate these lethal pieces of kit as they are keyed to alien DNA, a Nigerian crimelord based in the centre of District 9 is busy building up an arsenal. He is convinced that if he consumes enough alien body parts, he will eventually be able to activate these guns which will give him an unassailable advantage in the human criminal underworld.

The years wear on and the alien population continues to grow, despite their revolting living conditions. Ill educated and brutalised by their bleak existence, the aliens – or Prawns, as they come to be known – don’t make comfortable neighbours and the humans living alongside them become increasingly vociferous in their complaints. So some twenty years after they first appeared, a scheme is hatched to move the aliens on from District 9, where they have been living, to District 10 – a barren hellhole right out in the bush. The move is to be overseen by a tough military organisation, the MNU, who go in mob-handed with an enthusiastic Afrikaner office jock by the name of Wikus van de Merwe played brilliantly by Sharlto Copley. However, things don’t go according to plan…

The timeline is fractured, with much of the backstory very effectively told as a documentary, first of the alien roundup and then of the unfolding events. The wobbly camera-work, abrupt stops and various narrators giving their thoughts and opinions on what occurred is very cleverly interleaved with the visceral action.

It doesn’t take a genius to quickly realise that this film is more than just an escapist junket about yet another alien visitation. The district9.2proposed clear-out of District 9 is based on the forced evictions and removals of whole populations, both during the South African apartheid years and since, when in an attempt to dislodge some of the shanty towns that had built up during apartheid, the government have resorted to the kinds of tactics shown in this film. The less than subtle nod to recent history – District 9 in reality was the infamous District 6, where 60,000 blacks were forced to move out – gives the action extra emotional punch. This is echoed in the haunting soundtrack, which plays as aliens are shown scrabbling around on rubbish tips…

However, I don’t want you to go away with the impression that this is just some neo-political rant about man’s inhumanity to man. This film also produces plenty action-packed chases, fire fights and destructive explosions to keep the most avid action-junkie satisfied. I loved the ending – which managed to be moving and tie up the main story arc, while conveniently leaving the door open for the sequel. And if this team get together to produce said sequel, I’m definitely going to be right up at the front of the queue to see it at the cinema. An intelligent, thought provoking science fiction thriller that exposes humanity’s greed and brutality in an entertaining action-fest doesn’t come along every day of the week…
9/10

Thoughts On the Hugo Awards, 2014

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I’ve been following some of the LonCon doings on Twitter, wishing I was there… But in the wake of the 2014 Huge Awards ceremony I thought I’d do the next best thing and reblog John Scalzi’s thoughts on the whole thing. Congratulations to everyone who won!

Whatever

In no particular order (and for reference, the winners are here):

1. I am super-delighted that the Hugo Best Novel Award went to Ancillary Justice. One, because it’s fantastic, but two, because I feel entirely unwarranted pride in Ann Leckie’s career, because I gave her her first professional sale, and was delighted to give AncillaryJustice a blurb for when it came out. I had nothing to do with the book’s success, other than receive the pleasure of letting people know I thought it was great. I’m still super proud of its clean sweep of the major SF/F awards, and of Ann. This is just great.

2. I’m also giggling that Charlie Stross name-checked me and Lou Anders when he won for Equiod; I remember that fateful night in Denver in 2008, when the messy seeds of that story were planted with two words, the two words being…

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On Birthing Books: Breathing Space

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A bit of context – I am an avid reader, I teach Creative Writing at Northbrook College in Worthing, West Sussex and I write. I’ve been writing for what seems like forever and while I have written the occasional short story and poem, I write mostly science fiction novels.

Breathing Space is the third book in a trilogy I started with Running Out of Space about 19-year-old Jezell Campo, the daughter of an Sarah writingIberian merchanter who yearns to serve on her father’s ship. I wrote RooS, followed fairly quickly by the second book, Dying for Space, as at that point I had a publishing contract for the first book and the publisher was also interested in other books – subject to sales. However things didn’t work out, the publisher and I parted company and the copyright reverted to me before the book got to see the light of day. Instead of going on to write Breathing Space, I started Netted, a post-apocalyptic story set in Maine, as the whole experience with RooS left me feeling a tad raw and disinclined to continue in Jezell’s world.

But after completing Netted and working on an extensive rewrite of another novel, Jezell wouldn’t leave me alone. I liked the idea of writing a science fiction crime series and Jezell seemed the ideal protagonist all set to solve my murders – I even have the plot of the first murder mystery sketched out, along with the working title of the book, Murder in Space… But, of course, Breathing Space needed to be written to complete her story arc up to the point where Jezell starts sleuthing.  I’ve always written organically – but back when I was writing Dying For Space, I had a forest of ideas about how the story arc for Breathing Space should progress. So when I finally started writing the book in mid-May, I had a fairly good idea where the story was going – all I had to do was to get it down.

But it wouldn’t. I restarted Chapter 1 three times – it didn’t help that I was also grappling with Scrivener and it managed to tuck away the first couple of chapters in a dusty corner of my hard drive. I’d read that Dropbox and Scrivener didn’t play nicely together, but hadn’t realised the implications of what that entailed… I stayed up all night looking for the missing work – somehow the backup on my memory stick hadn’t stuck, either – and the missing files popped up suddenly when I’d all but given up searching and was in the process of shutting the computer down in exhausted despair.

I’ve sorted that out now, but still wasn’t happy with the beginning of Chapter 1 and didn’t want to move on, because I’ve learnt from experience that as I always write chronologically, if the start isn’t right, then the wrongness will eventually catch up with me and I’ll hit a brick wall further along the way. There seemed to be an awful lot of narration in Jezell’s voice, telling the reader about slices of her life in the interim – Breathing Space starts three years after Dying for Space ends – and scene setting. I didn’t like it. The other two books were fairly light on looong passages of description and explanation, relying on taking the reader into the scenes as they happened. In comparison, this book seemed a lot flatter and less vivid – even though the opening scenario had plenty of drama.

I read what I’d written, then discussed the problem with my writing group – Sarah Palmer, Geoff Alnutt, Debbie Watkins and Katie Glover – who were all really helpful. They agreed that I needed to cut down on all the explanation, and Sarah suggested I start the story earlier before the first crisis hits Jezell, so we get a sense of her in happier times and I’m not constantly having to refer back to the moment when it actually goes wrong, because the reader shares it… Debbie pointed out that her relationship with her second in command didn’t ring true – there needed to be more of an edge to it. Which made perfect sense – focusing on all the other plotpoints, that was an aspect I’d overlooked. At last, I could rewrite Chapter 1 and make it work.

I’ve still had to curb my tendency to write too much tell instead of show – I’ve currently cut 10,000 words from the manuscript and I’m only on Chapter 13, but I am finally comfortable back in Jezell’s skin.

This has been the hardest novel to start by far – I normally start books very quickly and slow down during the boggy, mid-book bit, accelerating again once I get to Chapters 21/22 when the ending feels within touching distance. So I’m wondering if my normal writing pattern will surface as I continue working.

Has anyone else found it a terrific struggle to start a writing project they thought would be very straightforward? I’d be interested to hear about it, if you have…

Robin Williams: Suicide Is Everywhere

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There’s been a lot written about Robin Williams – but this is the best article I’ve read – so thought I’d share it with you…

Sadie Hasler

I haven’t really known what to say about Robin Williams.
Almost two days have passed and I haven’t said much more than a sentence about ‘what a shame it is’.

Which is odd because words about suicide usually come easier to me than shopping lists. My Dad killed himself ten years ago, and I’ve almost finished a book about it, and usually, now, I find spewing words about it as natural a part of my day as running a bath or taking the binbags out. I’m like a marine now in the writing about suicide. Through the applied articulation of grief I have written myself ‘well hard’. In fact most of the time I have to stop myself from banging on about death all the time because I don’t want to be a total drag of a loser of a sap of a dick and I am aware that not…

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