Thursday, 15 April 2010

Review - The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

Steampunk is in a great place right now. Thanks to boundary-pushing authors such as Cherie Priest, George Mann, James Blaylock and Stephen Hunt it’s a genre that’s no longer just the Victorian era with airships. It has started to expand into new and varied landscapes. A Science Fiction sub-genre that’s not afraid to experiment, to shock, surprise, or even to horrify. Right now, it seems, there isn’t anywhere that Steampunk isn’t afraid to go.

Set in a strange alternate London of 1888, The Bookman concerns itself with a young man named Orphan, a poet with aspirations of greatness. When the two people he cares most about in the whole world are suddenly killed, Orphan finds himself dragged into the terrible machinations of the sinister Bookman - terrorist to some, freedom fighter to others. Orphan soon finds himself aboard the Nautilius, on a course for the L’lle mysterieuse, with writer and adventurer Jules Verne. There he must uncover the connection between The Bookman’s deadly mission and the strange alien lizards that now sit upon the throne of England.

This is Lavie Tidhar’s first solo novel, and what an amazing start it is. Coming across like the bastard son of Kim Newman and Arthur Conan Doyle, and yet surprisingly Dickensian in its depiction of a squalled and decaying London at the backend of the 1800s, Tidhar’s novel is, in turns, beautiful, shocking and downright distasteful. Tidhar’s prose is rich and beautifully evocative, yet crisp, clear and alarmingly simplistic.

There is an odd, almost dreamlike quality to the book, sometimes giving the impression that the whole thing was furiously written in a fit of drug-addled euphoria. The fabric of the world appears worn in places too, allowing other fictitious worlds to encroach and overlap for brief pages at a time. At one point in the novel a bomb explodes, burying the hero in a cascade of nearby books, a glance across the titles plunges us into the worlds of Stephen King’s Castle Rock and Derry, Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, Robert Rankin’s Hugo Rune series, P.G. Wodehouse’s Blanding books, Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels…the list goes on.

As with Newman’s wonderful Anno Dracula series, Tidhar sprinkles his novel liberally with characters from both fact and fiction, famous historical figures of the time brushing up against his own richly crafted characters as they wonder across this surreal landscape. In this remixed turn-of-the-century London Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis James Moriarty is Prime Minister, running Britain and its Empire beneath the shadow of the Le Lezards, while French novelist Jules Verne is both travel writer and intrepid explorer on the side – inspirational fodder for his future novels.

From fake Lord Byrons to ancient prophetic automatons and mohican-haired punk lizards this is a city-wide penny-dreadful peepshow, a Victorian pandemonium carnival that has spilled out onto the streets and embedded itself into the very social fabric. Two worlds, one human the other (literally) alien, poised on the brink of bloody revolution and only one person can stop it.

But is it Orphan or the Bookman?

Without a doubt The Bookman is the second best book I’ve read so far this year, with Kaaron Warren’s Walking The Tree still occupying the top spot. Proving, if proof were needed, that although Angry Robot's back catalogue has barely reached its twenties this little division of Harper Collins is producing some of the most exciting and important works of SF, Fantasy and Horror of the Twenty-First Century.

So don’t take your eyes off them.

The Bookman can be found at the Angry Robot website

Monday, 12 April 2010

Blaze by Richard Bachman - classic horror

Between 1977 and 1984 author Richard Bachman published five novels before his sudden and unexpected death in 1985 of cancer of the pseudonym. Dicky (as he was known to his friends) was never a major player in the world of literature, he never made the best-sellers list (his final novel Thinner sold around 28,000 copies) but during his brief seven year career he managed to build up a sturdy and somewhat faithful cult following, before being ‘outed’ as best-selling novelist Stephen King by a Washington book clerk and writer, Steve Brown. Rather tellingly after that Thinner went on to sell over £280,000 copies! Who said you should never judge a book by it’s cover…or author?!

Written in late 1972 – early 1973 during his ‘Bachman’ writing era King soon lost confidence in the novel, considering it to be “crap” and, although it was briefly considered as a follow up to his debut novel Carrie (it would lose out to the vampire infested book Second Coming, soon to be re-titled as ‘Salem’s Lot) he abandoned it without showing it to a single publisher. Instead it languished for thirty-four years as an infamous ‘trunk’ novel, packed away in a cardboard box, pushed into the corner of a cupboard before being dusted off in 2006, extensively revised and rewritten and released as Bachman’s (until now undiscovered) seventh, and final, novel.

Blaze, like Bachman’s 1981 novel Roadwork, is an attempt at what King himself calls a “serious novel”; all supernatural, horror or Sci-Fi elements ejected in favour of gritty realism and bare-bones story-telling. Clayton (Blaze) Blaisdell Jr, thrown down the stairs by an abusive alcoholic father when he was only six years old, stumbles through life as a semi-retarded giant, friendless save for the weasely, manipulative con-artist George Rackley. As the novel opens George is dead and the clueless Blaze finds himself alone once again; frightened and confused, yet resolutely determined to put George’s final plan into action – kidnapping a baby and ransoming it back to it’s rich parents for a million dollars. Things start to get a bit complicated however when Blaze finds himself unexpectedly falling in love with the little ankle-snapper and gradually becomes reluctant about giving him back.

There is no doubting that this is classic King at his yarn-spinning best. Following hot on the heels of the wonderfully apocalyptic Cell and the poignantly touching Lisey’s Story, Blaze is a ruthless and unflinching study of child abuse, mental cruelty and social ignorance in small town America. Original conceived as a follow up to his novel The Colorado Kid for Hard Case Crime publishers it’s flat, disconnected tones brilliantly hark back to the pulpy noir fiction of the 1950s creating a stark, unrelenting tale of pain, rejection and, ultimately, crime. Rewritten by King at a furious pace the narrative rattles along at breakneck speed hardly giving the reader time to catch their collective breath, and although it lacks some of the warmth and familiarity often associated with the author’s longer novels (at a mere 291 pages little time is given for any real in depth character development) Blaze still fails to disappoint and contains everything we’ve come to expect and love from a Stephen King novel. It’s just a pity that we’ve had to wait thirty-four years for this little gem to finally hit our local book shops!

Interestingly, all proceeds from Blaze go to The Haven Foundation, an organization specially created to help down on their luck freelance writers, so if you buy this book not only will you be getting a thumping good read but you’ll also be doing your bit for the odd struggling artiste! Now, doesn’t that give you a lovely warm glow inside!

Up next a review of Lavie Tidhar's new steampunk bestseller The Bookman.

Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod - classic SciFi

Let’s face it, the political thriller is a predictable breed, its greatest strength of pure readability is derived from the very conventions we have come to expect and – dare we say it – demand from such a genre; conspiracies, misinformation, skulduggery, underhanded political machinations, and so on. So many novelists in recent years have profited so handsomely in this field; Tom Clancy, Dan Brown and Fredrick Forsyth, being at the very tip of this humungous and ship-threatening iceberg.

Odd, then, that it should be these very conventions that are, arguably, The Execution Channel's greatest downfall, the latest offering from Scottish Sci-Fi powerhouse Ken MacLeod. Such a pity as, on the surface, this novel has so much more going for it than, say, the clumsily written novels of Dan Brown or the technobabble heavy tomes of Mr Clancy.

The plot takes those tried-and-tested thriller favourites – terrorist attacks on military and civilian targets, the world pushed to the brink of World War III, conspiracy theories, spies – and gives them a refreshing little Sci-Fi spin. Set in a Britain of the near future where the internet and 24 hour news channels are uploaded directly to our mobile phones; a constant wall of white noise that shapes, controls and dominates our lives. Add to this mix a group of peace demonstrators trying to prevent the world from plunging into nuclear Armageddon, secret government organisations with hidden agendas, a French spy and a conspiracy theorist computer nerd and there you have your plot.

The trouble is, after all this is set up in the first few dozen pages of the novel pretty much nothing else happens for the next 200-odd pages. MacLeod liberally shuffles his characters around the story’s landscape, utilising a vast array of transportation (planes, trains and automobiles of various description) as the cast meet up in various remote locations throughout the UK to spend 10 pages dumping vast chunks of exposition upon the reader, before moving them on to begin the whole process again several pages later. To make matters worse each of the principal players (of which there are a fair amount, mind you) have several theories concerning the unfolding crisis, which they all too enthusiastically, and at great length, constantly choose to explain before rejecting and then (frustratingly) decide to revisit again. So many varied and conflicting theories are flying about back and forth between each character in the course of the story that it leaves the reader feeling dazed, confused and more than a little annoyed. It feels as though the characters are merely speaking there minds, thinking out loud, rather than actually trying to infer to the reader that their explanation might, in fact, be the truth behind the attacks. It’s not until the final 30 pages or so from the end of the book that the truth is finally revealed. Sadly, by this time you either find yourself not caring or waiting for one of the other characters to shoot it down with yet another theory of their own!

However, having said all this, there is still much enjoyment to be had from reading The Execution Channel. As usual MacLeod’s prose is sharp, incisive and refreshingly crisp – something we have come to expect and admire from the author since his debut novel The Star Fraction some 12 years ago. The characters which populate this terror-stricken future world are wonderfully detailed and breathtaking in their complexity (like novelist Stephen King, one of MacLeod’s greatest strengths lies in his characters), and, at just a little over the 300 page mark, the novel never threatens to outstay its welcome, but rattles along at a satisfying, attention-friendly pace.

Although not quite this reviewer’s cup of tea, The Execution Channel is without doubt an interesting (if somewhat deeply flawed) exercise into hitherto unexplored territory by a writer who has over the past 12 years, quite deservedly, carved himself an important and well respected little niche in the Sci-Fi genre. No doubt if you are a hardened enthusiast you’ll love it, if on the other hand you’re a Ken MacLeod virgin then you’d probably do better starting with The Star Fraction or Cosmonaut Keep and work your way up from there!

Lisey's Story by Stephen King - mini classic horror review

A lot of criticism has been aimed at Stephen King over the last few years, chief of which being that he has, in recent years, become somewhat samey and unoriginal in his storytelling. This is a tad unfair when you consider that there are several British Horror authors who have been writing the same book for the past twenty years!

Lisey’s Story, his second release of 2006, tells an old and familiar tale in a rather refreshing and inventive way. The main story – that of Lisey’s marriage to her troubled novelist husband, Scott Landon, and his abrupt death – is told in a series of flashbacks, half-remembered memories and dream sequences, interwoven somewhat smoothly into the novel’s two subplots – that of the psychotic ‘Zack McCool’ and Lisey’s mentally unstable sister, Amanda. King’s strength has always been in creating believable characters, and here is no exception, written with all the depth, tenderness and seat-of-the-pants suspense that we’ve all come to expect over the last 32 years. The plot twists like a narrow mountain road as secrets are unearthed, and Lisey attempts to come to terms with her husband’s death and heal old wounds.

Not the classic King of the mid 70s – early 80s by any stretch of the imagination but a brilliantly written, powerful book nonetheless, and proves without a doubt that Mr King has a hell of a lot more mileage in him yet!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Interview with Joseph Lidster

In the run up to Hub's Doctor Who Special I will be posting a series of small interviews with those writers who have kindly contributed specially commissioned pieces for the Easter Special.

The last of my interviews is with Joseph Lidster, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures scriptwriter and regular contributor to the Big Finish audio range.

Hi Joseph. You’ve written short stories and audio plays for Big Finish’s Doctor Who range as well as scripts for the television spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. How did you first become involved in writing for the Doctor Who universe?

I’d always enjoyed writing but, didn’t really know how to get anywhere with it. I did a media degree at university but that didn’t help in finding work so, after I graduated I went from job to job, and kept applying for work in the television industry – with no success. In 2001, I decided to pitch a story to Big Finish Productions. I’d always been a fan of Doctor Who although I hadn’t heard any of the audios and had stopped reading the books by that stage. However, I had this idea that I thought might work and, to be honest, it was my last ditch attempt. I’d decided that if this wasn’t successful, I’d have to consider really looking at a career elsewhere. So, I wrote up this idea I’d had about aliens pretending to be DJs, trying to take over the world with dance music and pills, and I sent it off. A few months later I got a letter from Gary Russell saying that he liked it and would I be interested in developing it further. To which I, obviously, said yes.

After that, I ended up doing a lot more work for Big Finish, and then, thanks to a chance meeting in a pub, was employed to write the BBC Doctor Who and Torchwood spin-off websites from Christmas 2005 through to 2007. This got me known at BBC Wales so the Torchwood production team contacted me with regards to writing an over-commission for the second series. The over-commission became a commission and from that I got an agent and The Sarah Jane Adventures and so on.

As a child growing up which specific television programmes have been the biggest inspiration or, to one degree or another, had the greatest influence on your writing today?

Doctor Who was undoubtedly an influence. As a kid, it was just so exciting and scary. And, as I got older, I became fascinated by the history of it. I loved how it had been this epic thing, going on for years, with so many Doctors and companions and adventures. I also loved the soaps and things like Casualty and Miss Marple and so on. I’ve always loved stories – so I watched loads of TV drama, whatever the genre really. I think a huge influence on me, though, was Cracker which I just thought tackled some really clever ideas but presented it all in a mainstream way. It wasn’t trying to be depressingly intellectual or anything like that – but it had proper flawed characters and a great mix of story-of-the-week and ongoing arcs. I still think it’s one of the best shows that’s ever been on television.

With a few possible exceptions most writers are avid or veracious readers. As the greater percentage of your work so far has been either Science Fiction or Fantasy would you say this was indicative of you as a reader? Take me through the kind of books that are sitting on your bookshelves.

I’m actually not really a huge science-fiction fan. I always saw Doctor Who as more horror and adventure. I don’t read as much as I’d like to but, looking across my bookshelves, I can see Douglas Coupland, Brett Easton Ellis, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, a little bit of Shakespeare, a little bit of Charles Dickens, James Herbert, John Wyndham, stuff by some of my mates like Sarah Pinborough and David Llewellyn and quite a few biographies and TV script books. And, of course, Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures! So yeah, I’m not sure how you’d sum up that lot. I guess I like things which, without getting pretentious or worthy, explore the human condition. But, more than that, I just like stuff that’s funny or scary. Or, ideally, both.

Do you remember the first thing you wrote that was rejected and how did you deal with that as an aspiring writer?

I was very lucky in that the first thing I pitched was The Rapture to Big Finish, which got made. There were a couple of short stories over the years at Big Finish which were rejected, but I’ve been very lucky in that it hasn’t happened too much. I’ve had it since with TV series ideas, and worked on shows that then didn’t get past development and, yeah, it’s depressing. I get very into whatever I’m writing, it tends to take over my life, so when you spend all your time and energy and put so much into something, and then it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s obviously not a great feeling. But that’s part of the job so you deal with it. I always keep everything in case an idea might be worth pitching again the following year or cannibalised and used in something else.

Some writers write when the mood takes them, while others treat it as any other 9 to 5-type job with strict routines and personal deadlines. Which kind are you? Talk me through a typical writing day for you.

I don’t think I have a typical writing day really. I’d love to be, and am trying to be more 9-5 – I really envy writers who can do that. I have my own rules, I guess. I always make sure I’m up by 9am (even if I’ve worked into the small hours). The TV doesn’t go on at all during the day. And… actually, I can’t think of any others! I get up, drink lots of tea, smoke too many cigarettes and occasionally eat. I usually faff about on the Internet for half an hour, then reply to emails etc. And then I try to get on with it. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t happen so I’ll do some housework or go for a walk then try again. Sometimes I’ll fly through scenes during the day but then sometimes I won’t get anything substantial written until the evening.

There’s a certain section of the Doctor Who fanbase who are pretty notorious for being quite verbose and ‘free’ with their opinions on episodes, stories and literature they don’t like, particularly now with the growth of the internet. What’s the worst thing you’ve read about one of your own pieces and how do you handle those types of reviews and opinions?

Oh, I’ve read some awful things but you get used to it. In a way, I was pretty lucky in that my first play was really unpopular with a large percentage of online Doctor Who fans. I was never really part of fandom or anything so I didn’t know what they liked or disliked – and a lot of them certainly didn’t like Doctor Who going to Ibiza. That first script was definitely not my best work and I learnt a lot from it, but I actually learnt very little from feedback on the forums or anything. So yeah, I’ve never really written for the fans, even when I was doing the Big Finish stuff, which was ostensibly aimed solely at them.

I still read the forums occasionally but I don’t take any notice of them. There’s so many reasons why someone might like or not like something you’ve written and it’s rarely got that much to do with the actual script. The only times I get even remotely bothered by it are when there’ve been people questioning why I get work, rather than what I’ve written. Accusations of nepotism are always irritating (my favourite was when someone suggested I’m employed because of my ability in bed rather than my writing skills! I wish!) I think the maddest thing I ever read, though, was someone who said that if they ever met me in the pub they’d glass me because of the continuity issues in one of my plays! So yeah, sometimes it’s a bit mad and a bit scary but I’ve a good life, doing the job I love, friends, family, a good social life and so on. So I tend not to care so much what someone with a fake name on the Internet thinks about me.

What advice would you give to all the would-be scriptwriters out there who are desperate to get their scripts looked at and, hopefully, produced?

It’s the oldest advice ever but it’s still the best: if you want to write, write. Just constantly write. And take any opportunity that presents itself – look out for writing schemes, competitions and so on. There are things like the BBC’s Writer’s Academy and companies like Big Finish often have opportunities for unpublished writers. And once you’re in, you’ll start meeting the right people. I’d also say, though, that you need to live a little. Have other jobs, go to the pub etc. Writers need to know how people live and interact and talk to each other so don’t spend your life in a dark room, pretending you’re some tortured undiscovered genius. Get a normal job and write in your spare time. Go to every party you’re invited to. Keep in touch with your friends and family. Not only does all that help you write better, but also it’s the kind of thing that becomes much harder once it’s your full-time job.

You can follow Joe on Twitter here

His audio plays for the Doctor Who and Dark Shadows ranges are still available to order or download at

Joe is currently writting for series 4 of The Sarah Jane Adventures which will be aired on BBC1 later this year.