August 8th, 2010

Guy Adams - The World House

I love guessing about books from the opening line. Guy Adams' The World House (which I am reading in an electronic review copy from Angry Robot - this weekend is very much an AR weekend) has a good opening line for a thug drama "They had threatened to break his legs if he didn’t find them the money owed." Sometimes, though, I wished that the current trend in opening lines wasn't about violence and threats. Not Adams' fault, but it seems to be a very common start to things. Which is a pity, because it means I don't know enough about the book from it. My best guess from the first sentence was an SF version of The Sopranos. I turned out to be not so far off, which means that the opening does reflect the novel, just not in the obvious way.

It's not a cheerful opening. Surprisingly, it's mostly internal - how Miles (the protagonist) feels about things and puts things together rather than what actually happens. It's all set-up. It shows us how Mike reached the place he found himself in. The real story doesn't begin until - in the middle of fear and despair - Mike notices something very odd about a box.

It was at this stage that I realised that the length of the paragraphs was driving me quite crazy. Adams doesn't always break his text up in a normal way, especially at first (this might be changed in the printed version - I hope so). It's a very literary thing to do, pushing whole sequences of conversation and events into one page-long paragraph. It makes the reader do a lot more of the work, breaking down the massive upload of text into understandable pieces. I can see why it's there, but I don't enjoy it, especially in the conversation sequences and in the action bits. I like more help in my reading, I guess, so that I can go straight to meaning and enjoy the story. It's like climbing a ladder to see an amazing view: it's worth it, but it's hard work and it feels a bit precarious. The extra work diminishes the tension a bit.

And there is tension. I love the moment when Mike catches the box. It's the moment when the novel shifts and we're no longer in Thugland. In fact, we're in The World House.

Most of the houses that are worlds are written for young adults and children. It's a theme I love. The notion that the inside is bigger and more special or stranger than the outside, or that a door can lead you somewhere strange, or that our reality is too rational and a house can be a world or a world live inside a house. World houses are not safe, the way ordinary houses are. In fact, I was reading Michael Pryor's The House of Many Rooms just the other day.

So what's special about Adams' house (besides the thuggery and the enormous paragraphs - which do normalise further on, thank goodness)? Why should you read it? Firstly, once you sort out the rhythm and make your own decisions about where ideas end and begin, it's a good read.

Secondly, despite the tone of the opening sentence (and chapter) this is not just about men battering men over money owed. It's violent, and the violence is a key part of the scenery. Readers who don't enjoy people hurting might want to think twice. Because people do hurt. Before anything else happens, they get shot at and beaten up and damaged.

Despite the beginning, this book is not so very predictable. It's a boys'-own adventure for adults, governed by the mysterious box. There are shifts in time and sequences of events get added for character after character. Storytelling by addition. 1 + 1=2 then add 1 and subtract 1 and…this adds to the mystery and when the numbers are right, the addition slows down and action takes its place. We have to hang in there and keep reading if we want to know what the answers are going to be. In fact, it reminds me a little of The Fabulous Riverboat in the form of it and in the rather uncheerful view of humankind.

This is not my sort of book (partly because of the bleak view - it fills me with disquiet), but it's clever and original and inventive and a good read for all that. Also, it's a book centred round a strange house, and books that are centred around strange houses always worth a second look.

(no subject)

I'm going to ask forgiveness in advance. I wrote notes on two other Angry Robot books at the same time I read Lauren Beukes' Zoo City. Now, I remember posting a review of her book, but the others had an embargo for a couple of weeks and I can't remember if I posted the reviews or not. I can't find them using a search engine, so I'm assuming I didn't post them and life got in the way (which has happened a lot this year). This means you get two more review posts in the next five minutes. Ones that I wrote back in May. Sorry, Angry Robot!! You might also get a fourth, later in the day, since these boks were all on my must-read list for the next week.

EDGE by John Meaney writing as Thomas Blackthorne

I'm still doing serious thinking. This means I get to do some more reading, because it really helps me frame my ideas. This means, of course, I get to introduce you to another Angry Robot book. I've given myself a Wednesday deadline for this batch of thinking, so this may well be the last book for a little. We'll see.

What I'm trying to work out is how dynamic history is in novels. This is one of those things that sounds really straightforward and is anything but. It will probably take me two years to work out, but I need to formulate the problem clearly this week. Focussing on someone else's work helps me nut away at the problem and then the words appear just like magic. Except it isn't magic, it's a lot of work. Committee meetings and conferences are also good ways of solving problems, I've found. Enough blathering, onto the book.

Angry Robot have a thing for near-future damaged societies. Zoo City was one of these books. Edge by Thomas Blackthorne is another. Fortunately Angry Robot select their writers of near-future damaged societies rather well. So far, all of them deliver. This includes the writer of Edge.

A very British opening. Could almost be Graham Joyce, sliding between sharp imagery and bad language in a particular way that only British writers seem to manage. Or is it that I only notice it when British writers do this? I wonder if it's because Australian language is also there, in similar texts and is very close but not quite the same, if our dialects are just different enough for the style to hit me. Or maybe it's a peculiarity of a particular type of British writer. Anyhow, none of this is relevant and the feeling of the language faded within a few pages in any case, as I became more used to the writer's style. Blackthorne (aka John Meaney) has one of those styles that's striking initially but that fades into the background and let's the story take over.

Doesn't have the magic of Beukes' work. It's still a good read, with good pacing and some very cool ideas. Very visual. Violent. Occasionally Blackthorne overexplains and makes scenes that should be gentle somewhat technical, but that mostly fits the characterisation so it's not a big issue. There are some wonderful new technologies and some rather scary ones.

I like his updated pop culture. I would, because it includes a production of Nine Princes in Amber. The wider culture is really for geeks, but it does geek charmingly. The book is geek high adventure, with added martial arts. I kept wanting to introduce Blackthorne/Meaney to Alan Baxter (whose books have been taken by Gryphon, if you want more adventure with martial arts, though his are of the dark fantasy kind).

There are two parts to the story, with the link between them being the two protagonists Josh Cumberland and Suzanne Duquesne. The first part is about a lost and endangered teenager and the second to do with the consequences of finding him. The character arc for the two protagonists is good (male in focus, though, which fits the kind of novel) and so the underlying connections ought to be strong, but I still felt a bit disjointed. The teenager was so much out of everything after a certain point and I had thought he was the character everything revolve around.

Still, it's a good adventure yarn with some fun ideas, a few of them firmly rooted in modern British politics.

Amortals by Matt Forbeck

I read an Angry Robot book today*, from their electronic review copy program. It was very satisfying.

Not only it was a good book, but it made me feel almost normal. Almost human? Maybe it makes me feel life is under my control again. Except that I keep wanting to use that old slogan "Tight, taut and terrific" about Amortals, which is accurate, but oh, so wrong. There's not a wasted word. There's not an idea that doesn't make sense. I meant to start it tonight and finish other work, then finish it tomorrow, but it's a read-at-one-sitting book so I've rescheduled some other things.

The plot is all about the investigation of a senior cop who is murdered. Except that murder in this future Washington has complications we can only dream of. And those complications cause complications.

The writing is taut and the protagonist/narrator is grumpy. It's the sort of book that's perfect for a journey – just the right level of familiarity and newness and noir. Also much adrenalin.

I love the opening. Just enough information – just enough fear. Is the hero just a shadow of his former self? Is he a hero? Has he been abused? Or is everything that's happening a sign of total corruption? All this I got from a man watching a playback with another man in the room. Just enough strange terminology for me to know that it wasn't our society, though it might be our future. Everything else was in everyday English. Easy to read. Easy to understand. Easy to get hooked. Very nicely done. As is the rest of the book.

*which was in May. Do not do as I do and forget things.

Gary McMahon Pretty Little Dead Things

The Next Angry Robot book I read was today. Not three months ago. Yes, I'm finally caught up a bit. It's Gary McMahon's Pretty Little Dead Things. I had to finish it early enough in the evening so it wouldn't follow me to bed.

Thomas Usher is one of an increasing number of characters in novels and on TV who talk to dead people and make a living out of it. McMahon sets this up straightforwardly and with much disclaimer. Not the "I am not the kid in the movie" but "I am not a Raymond Chandler private eye." I like this. It means we're over the basic 'what if' premise, have accepted it (because it's uncomplicated) and can move into the story. It also means we know Usher's a reader and where he lives and quite a bit about his personality. And I've been giving too many manuscript critiques recently and really ought to stick to writing this as a review. Sorry, folks. Usher is introduced effectively and even likeably. It's important. The first twenty pages don't quite lift of and certainly don't give an indication that the book will become gripping, but they say stuff that's important, and will continue to be important.

Why is it important? Because this novel would be very depressing if Usher weren't likeable. It's about death. It shows death. It discusses death. For anyone with a passing familiarity with death, it's confronting. Not because it touches deep chords, but because instead of describing the moment of death or the emotions of a dead person, it describes dead people. Corpses, wraiths: dead people. The novel always comes back to them.

All this fits neatly into a normal horror detective tale. The sort with a touch of Sam Spade. It's an increasingly popular sub-genre. This isn't even the first Angry Robot has put out (Nekropolis is quite different in many ways, but it's still got the horror and it still has the unravelling of problems at work to bring the plot together). The focus is slightly different to most, however. This slight difference, this reality of corpses and vacancy of death makes this novel just a bit different to its peers. It makes sense of the changes and why the theme springboards into what it finally becomes. Which is good. I'm very happy to see variants and new ways into topics. I particularly love to see consequences and the unravelling of a person when they're confronted with death and how that unravelling continues and continues when death won't go away and then things change and you have to deal, even though you're unravelled and have almost given up. Because I've seen it happen in real life. It makes McMahon's novel more real. It is, if you like, a variant on a Batman theme: grief hurts and when it hurts enough, it can turn us into amazing people who do amazing things. The achievements and the heroicism doesn't stop the grief, or cure it. It still hurts. This truth is at the core of Pretty Little Dead Things.

This truth doesn't get in the way of tight plotting and good characterisation and nice movement from the personal grief to the wider danger, but I rather suspect it will determine the novel's audience.