SFR: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts (2009)

Title:  Adam Robots
Author: Adam Roberts
Source: Adam Robots: Short Stories by Adam Roberts

One Word Review: Soulful

One Line Review: Roberts cleverly asks a ‘What if?’ by putting a robot in a garden then having him be told that the only thing he can’t do is touch a jewel, which then becomes the Robot’s obsession until the test ends.

One Paragraph Review:  At one point one of the robots says of the test, ‘But forbidden by words. Not by our programming.’ And Roberts uses this story to make observations on the nature of obedience, what we won’t get from a certain religion, and what happens if we let robots do everything for us.

Recommended.

SFR: Precious Artefact by Philip K. Dick (1964)

Title: Precious Artefact (1964)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Source: Total Recall/We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick

One Word Review: Twisty.

One Line Review: A Martian Engineer visits Earth to check out a suspicion and P.K. uses this to look at illusions and what we consider precious.

One Paragraph Review: This is my first Philip K. Dick short story and my expectations where dry and obscure and I was pleasantly surprised that I got the opposite. I was engaged with the main character’s dilemma though he makes curious decisions which boil down to ‘do you want to live?’ I liked the twist as he’s not as deluded as I thought he was going to be at the beginning. I’ll definitely be reading some more of his shorts.

SFR: Ozioma the Wicked by Nnedi Okorafor (2013)

Title: ‘Ozioma the Wicked’
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Source: Unnatural Creatures: stories chosen by Neil Gaiman with  Maria Dahvana Headley

One Word Review: Telling.

One Line Review: People ostracise what they fear, and Ozioma can talk to snakes, so they fear Ozioma, only call for her help when they are threatened and Nnedi shows how perspectives can change with one act only to be altered again by another.

One Paragraph Review: It’s nice to see a real a tale of a young girl who doesn’t fear what everyone else does even if that means  they leave her alone. What made this tale more surprising is how far the ‘fantasy’ of a girl talking to snakes turns into a ‘reality’. The gold raindrops were a little bit too fantastical for me but a fine folk tale all the same.

SFR: Do As Thou Wilt… by Storm Constantine (2012)

Title: Do As Thou Wilt…
Author: Storm Constantine
Source: Magic: An Anthology of Esoteric and Arcane edited by Jonathan Oliver

One Word Review: Hopeful.

One Line Review: When an old regret comes back to the fore Leah Metcalfe has to face an old love and the magic she abandoned and Storm comments on relationships, magic, and business.

One Paragraph Review: If you didn’t think that people in the ‘real’ world practice magic the opening  few paragraphs set you straight. Two old friends meet for a chat before getting on to the subject of Leah’s affair and how that has (or hasn’t depending on their view) eaten away at her. It’s a commentary on taking the good and the bad of life  – and abandoning things doesn’t mean you escape from them. Conversely, even if you know things are bad for you why do you stay? Storm gives a glimmer of ‘real’ magic. It may not contain the smoothest transitions as characters are maybe a little too accommodating but as a commentary it’s got a worthy and non-preaching message.

City Watch Re-Read: Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1996)

This post is part of the City Watch re-read by NCA’s Gav aka @gavreads

Feet of Clay

I didn’t think I’d be starting this review by talking about Cheery Littlebottom but life is full of random asides. Part of the appeal of a Terry Pratchett book is his use of fantasy to look at society and its quirks. Sometimes he tackles serious subjects like Death (who as a character isn’t that serious) and sometimes Pratchett challenges your assumptions with a mallet, or in this case lipstick.

You see on the Discworld dwarfs look male, at least from a human perspective where only males can grow beards, they all look like your typical bearded dwarf, which was pointed in Guards! Guards!:

All dwarfs have beards and wear up to twelve layers of clothing. Gender is more or less optional.

But Cheery wants to be seen as feminine and she slowly starts altering the way she presents herself to the world. What’s nice to see in a fantasy story, especially by a man, is an obvious bias in fantasy getting looked at. 

What’s great about the Watch is that they are made up of all kinds of people who take on the mantel of Watchman which then gels them altogether and overrides some of their natural weariness around each other, which rather than stiffing their differences allows them to be explored.

The main thrust of Feet of Clay centres around two whodunits: one involves the death of an old man and the other is another attempt on the life of Patrician. Both are used by Pratchett to explore things. I think that’s what makes the Discworld such a rich playset because not only does Pratchett tell a pretty good story he goes further and uses that to take a sideways look at our world.

Throughout most of the story the Patrician lays ill taking part in a box-room mystery as others in power decide if it’s a good or bad thing for him to die. I’ll let you read and find out what they think of him. But what this does allow is scenes with Vimes, the Captain of the Watch (who is descended from the Vimes who dethroned the last King and has inherited his relatives issues with authority), and those conversations are always worth a read. As is learning why they are trying to poison him.

The mystery of the old man involves the golems (those clay feet of the title) who are seen as automatons rather than people though that opinion is challenged as the story progresses.

There are other threads like Coats of Arms, Corporal Nobbs celebrating good news, more on the relationship between Captain Carrot and Constable Angua, oh and the history of dwarf bread to name a few.

What you get from Feet of Clay is two good whodunits and a sideways look at life without feeling that your being lectured to.

I enjoyed this re-read. I’m a bit reluctant to read Jingo next. I remember it not being as good as Guards! Guards! or this one. But  I really can’t remember it so I’m hoping I’ll be presently surprised. Though as I’ve just got the new Collector’s Library edition of Mort I’m tempted to read some Death books as I’ve never finished Mort and I had a long period of reading Hogfather every Christmas so maybe it’s time to do that again? 

 *

Reviews of the first two titles, Guards! Guards! Men at Armsare on GavReads.co.uk

SFM Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)

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Should we read older SF? Gollancz seems to think so. Their SF Masterworks line has, for the last 14 years, highlighted SF classics and kept them in print. This series of posts is here to try to do two things. One to expand this authors’ knowledge of classical SF, especially eighties SF, and secondly to ask the question are classics worth reading?

I’ll put you out of your misery before we start it definitely deserves that title. Lots of people have been commenting whilst I’ve been reading that it’s one of their favourite SF novels and I can see why.

It hasn’t dated for a start and the SF elements are vague enough that the reader can see them as either some futuristic invention or an extension of currently available technology. Though the central element is scientific but not technological.

The central concept is that humans have discovered they can Jaunte. That is they can disappear from one place to arrive in another in moments. There are limitations jaunting. Without knowing the co-ordinates of your destination jaunting usually leads to death plus there is are limits to distances with each person having their own range in which they can travel.

Bester does a strong job of leading the reader into the concept of jaunting from its discovery to its mass use. He also introduces us to Gully Folye who manages to survive in deep space, alone, for 170 days. When he finally manages to escape he brings with him a grudge and a secret that could change the world.

I say grudge but that really does understate the feelings that Gully has. He has nothing left apart from revenge. And through his quest we get to see and meet a future that has a potential war between inner and outer planets, a place where where you live doesn’t have to be even close to where you work, where there are still people of obscene wealth and power, and you see that we can still be as base as we are now.

I am impressed with Bester after reading The Stars My Destination though in order to justify my feelings towards Gully I really did need to think of him of having a really big screw loose. Even after all the challenges and changes he goes though in order to enact his revenge fantasy he doesn’t alter course even when he seems to have everything else going for him.

But he’s forgiven for his behaviour and his methods. Drifting alone in space is going to drive you mad.

The thing that impressed me is that Bester manages to keep a few cards close to his chest which really do change the game when he puts them into play and it makes you wonder if Gully knew at the beginning what he does at the end if he’d actually take the same journey.

Saying that I don’t see Gully as a sympathetic character and many of his actions made me uncomfortable but how much of Gully reflects to the attitudes of the time of writing and how much is unique to Gully I’m not willing to bet.

The Stars My Destination has stood the test of time and Gully Foyle is a character who has a journey and a tale to tell. He’s also a good example of what you can do when you can focus. You can literally change yourself.

Well worth reading.

This review was originally posted on The SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project Blog

Mini-Review: Equations of Life by Simon Morden

Equations of Life by Simon Morden

Morden dumps us in the middle of London Metrozone, a place where there is some sort of law and order but also gang warfare mainly between Russian and Japanese mobsters. It seems that there has been nuclear fallout in both their home countries leading them fighting for territory elsewhere.

As future SF goes Morden’s version is a little bleak but it is not only a backdrop it is also a character in the main adventure. And it is an adventure. From the moment that Petrovich acts the next three hundred plus pages keep you gripped firmly in his hand as Petrovitch runs around the city trying to stop himself getting killed whilst meeting lots of colourful characters along the way.

Equations of Life isn’t all that it seems. It really is a little sneaky. Yes, the main thrust is all about saving the girl but then Morden sticks in a computer programme that is trying to take over the Metrozone so not only does he have to save the girl but the city itself. Oh and he’s not completely telling the truth. And that adds another layer. A question of redemption and good deeds paying off bad ones and what people do to survive.

Don’t get me wrong this is a narrow focused, fun, tale of heroes and gangster villains with a huge SF heart. It’s not going to make you slow you down and think too much. But that’s not to say that there isn’t lots of thought in the background. There is. Lots has gone into making the world as it is and one of those events that is behind the challenges that Petrovich faces.

And that’s what makes it a fun read. It’s a pulp adventure that is only the start to something bigger (two more book in this trilogy and the first book in a new trilogy just released). You can see why The Samuil Petrovitch Trilogy  won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2012.

Next up: Theories of Flight.

Short Story Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove)

 I thought I’d do some reviews of individual short stories. I hope you find them interesting. 

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, as well as being the title story, is the opening tale of the collection. As an enticement to read on it sets the bar high.

Russell describes what could be seen from the outside as an old man sitting in a lemon grove instead he is an old vampire who is sits out in the sun. How is this possible? Russell answers this:

You small morals don’t realise the power of your stories.

I have to admit that sucking lemons doesn’t sound like a pleasant alternative to blood  but Clyde finds relief for his fangs, though as we go through the story we see the effect on him and his sort of wife Magreb, I saw sort of wife as I don’t think they’ve had a ceremony, and I think they have a different sort of marriage.

Clyde tells us about his life as the current phase is slipping away and that Is where I’ll leave it.

The impression this tale leaves is that Karen is lyrical and imaginative and as such bolds well for the collection.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell is published today by Chatto & Windus.

Review: An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas
An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

Synopsis

Commissaire Adamsberg has left Paris for a police conference in London, accompanied by anglophile Commandant Danglard and Estalere, a young sergeant. The city offers a welcome change of scenery until a gruesome discovery is made – just outside the gates of Highgate Cemetery a pile of shoes, all containing severed feet, is found.

Returning to Paris, the three men are then confronted with the violent killing and dismemberment of a wealthy, elderly man. Both the dead man’s son and gardener have motives for murder, but soon another candidate for the killing emerges. As Adamsberg investigates the links between these two unsettling crimes, he puts himself at terrible risk.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

An Uncertain Place is the sixth novel to feature the peculiar detective Commissaire Adamsberg and perhaps is Vargas’s strangest to date. The several pairs of shoes that trigger this strange series of events doesn’t really give an indication as to how strange this whole case is going to get.

I think you need to be in a certain frame of mind to read a Fred Vargas novel. I say this after struggling with the previous one, This Night’s Foul Work, last year. Fred Vargas demands concentration but not analysis. Her writing also requires a leap of faith; it doesn’t seem that she is going to bring everything together but she always does. She’s the queen of manipulation and deception in that regard.

I put down This Night’s Foul Work I think because I was frustrated as I was more in the mood for a novel that was linear and direct. Not something you’d get from Vargas.  But when I picked it up again, because I know how amazing Vargas can be, I pushed through and  by the end I wondered what the barrier was as Vargas has a way of revealing things so you see what has gone before in a different way and when she does the fog goes away and everything is clear and not how they first appeared.

Not to spoil An Uncertain Place but the same thing happened. There was a point where the story turned in an instant and the mist lifted. Not that she obscures things exactly but like her hero she has a way of storytelling that is unorthodox. And it’s definitely a positive thing for both parties. In Adamsberg’s case you get a detective who is illogical and whimsical (as are the detectives he is surrounded with) and with Vargas you get an author who takes you places that you’d never get to go to with any other writer.

This has to be one of the strangest cases yet. It starts off with the feet in London, which is weird in itself, and it gets weirder. It also parallels  Adamsberg’s  strange relationship with those around him, they intermingle, as they always do in Vargas’s books. I think in this book’s case it’s a good idea to read the last one as knowing some of the characters a bit better would enhance a few key moments.

This book I didn’t struggle with. I whizzed through it. I met Vargas’s mind and let her guide me. She informed me too. I know more about a certain area of Europe and its legends than I did. And she managed to fool me, again.

Summary

Commissaire Adamsberg remains one of my favourite detectives, the cast is quirky, the crime (murder) is as unformulaic as you can get. There is a reason she’s sold 10 million books!

I’m very much looking forward to reading the next one, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. And I won’t have long as it’s out today.

Review: The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman (Square Peg)

The House that Groaned

Literary graphic novels feel pretty rare. I could be wrong as they are outside my radar or more exactly they fall between my main interest in novels and the cursory eye I keep on comics. And I have seen a two graphic novels from mainstream (eg non-comic publishers) in the last year one based on a fantasy novel and one with a fish man, which still fall into ‘genre’ so would have a more identifiable audience.

I’d venture that The House That Groaned hasn’t got a readymade market but will find fans with literary readers and those that love graphic novels but want something that isn’t superheroes and spandex will definitely enjoy it.

It arrived in the morning and I’d read it by the afternoon. Reading comics isn’t something that takes hours but it surprised me as I had other things I should have been doing. So what engaged me?

The world that Karrie Fransman managed to create in 141 Rottin Road.

Visually apart from the yellow lights in the windows on the front cover the rest of the book is black, white with various shades of blue. The style is comic art. Each panel bring it alive as they should but the panels are more than functionary as there is something magical about it.

Not only is there magic in the art but in the story itself. It definitely dips it toe into magical realism, which is quite odd for a story involving the six occupants of house converted to flats. I initially thought it would played ‘straighter’ than it eventually was. But it’s surreal blending of reality with the imaginary is what makes it so absorbing a read.

Barbara moves in to 141 Rottin Road, which is anything but the thick-walled apartment she was told, and allows us to use her as an introduction to the other residents, who are, if I’m being honest, more than a little odd.

And Fransman seems to have great fun playing on their oddities. Though they aren’t so odd to unrealistic. The woman that runs a fat club but really just wants to eat, the man whose only means of sexual excitement is extreme looking women, and then there is the neighbour across the landing…

Even though it revolves around 141 Rottin Road we occasionally leave its walls to see key defining moments in the characters lives (Fransman even includes the building’s life in those flashbacks). And I think that’s the most fascinating aspect; what made them into the strange people that they are?

And that element makes it quite dark. The fact that these people have been so twisted by those key moments and how that has had what we might see as a negative affect on their lives. It’s also a very fun and playful story both in terms of visuals and storytelling like the hall literally filling up with people for the diet class and the a very glutenous food eating scene.

The House That Groaned is the type of story that graphic novels are made for. Visually compelling and narratively complex. It’s also a book that challenges the conventions and expectations of what the medium can do.

Can we have more books like this? Please!

The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman
Published by Square Peg
On sale now