Tuesday, 22 July 2008

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Sunday, 20 July 2008

"The Haunter Of The Ring & Other Tales" by Robert E Howard

"The Haunter Of The Ring &
Other Tales"
by Robert E Howard
Format : Paperback, 397 pages
Publisher : Wordsworth Editions

£2.99, that's just £2.99 or 3.77 euros or 5.96 dollars, what else could you buy for £2.99 that would thrill you, shock you, amuse you and generally entertain you for a good 5-10 hours (suggestions to the usual address!). Seriously £2.99, now you may have noticed that this blog is by Highlander and that's a slight clue that I may be Scottish and you could imply that I am tainted with that Scottish racial stereotype of being careful with money, after all we all know that
"Copper wire was invented by two Scots fighting over a penny" or that " A Scotsman never buys an address book, he scores out the people he doesn't know in a telephone directory." Well there is a certain element of truth in that but its not just me, even when I took this book to the till the assistant had to ask for help as there was clearly a problem with the price ("£2.99 that can't be right"). So I think we can safely say this book is cheap, as cheap as wee Jock MacCheap from 29 Cheap Street, Cheaptown, in fact. Three cheers then for Wordsworth editions, not only have they avoided the cynical trap of publishing out of copyright material and charging a tenner for it, they have also decided to publish out of print or lesser known material by key figures in the supernatural genre thereby keeping the genre's legacy alive, why if I had a hat it would be off right now!

Robert E Howard was a fascinating character. Of course, most people who have heard of him (and that's probably the vast minority) immediately think of Conan. Not only do they think of Conan but they think of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the 1982 film (trashy but fun) what they don't think of is the man who single handedly invented the sword and sorcery genre, a man who was mates with H P Lovecraft, a bookish boy who became a leading prizefighter or a man who achieved this in a short lifespan of 30years before committing suicide whilst watching his mother die.

Howard was a leading light in the pulp magazines of the 1930's (such as Weird Tales) along with many of his contemporaries (can you imagine visiting the newsagent to pick up the latest issue with new stories by Howard, Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith !!) and perfected the art of short story writing in the process. Wordsworth editions have picked up many of these short stories and crafted this collection, all with a supernatural twist. we therefore get early Conan tales, Cthulhu mythology tales, Ghost stories, Indiana Jones style adventure tales and sheer trashy adventure crammed into the 400 pages of this book.

To my mind the stories which succeed best are those which draw on Howards extensive knowledge of Celtic/Pictish mythology (The Cairn On The Headland) or those he wrote whilst corresponding with Lovecraft and which add to and enrich the Cthulhu mythos (The Children of The Night) but there are several which cross over such as The Black Stone which contain elements of both. There are weaknesses, clearly these stories were written with a pulp market in mind so whilst they read easily, several are pretty shallow, there are also some uncomfortable racist and sexist comments which in our "pc" world would be unacceptable but when the stories work they are brilliant, the sacrifice scene in "The Black Stone" for example even 76 years after publication can still shock.

The books true strength is in revealing the depth of Howards talent (and importance) and as a starting point for the reader wanting to enjoy the Howard that exists beyond Conan and reassess one of the founding fathers of the modern genre. Oh and did I mention its £2.99 !!!!!!

Rating 4 out of 5

Monday, 14 July 2008

Banquet For The Damned by Adam LG Nevill

"Banquet For The Damned
By Adam L G Nevill
Format: Paperback 368 pages
Publisher: Virgin books

First novels are always a bit of a gamble but when you are browsing and find a book which has elements of the occult, witchcraft, supernatural, ghosts, rock stars and is set in the quaint Scottish town of St Andrews it becomes a lot easier to take that gamble. In fact, it could be argued that it is our duty as horror/SF/fantasy fans to support these authors by taking that gamble, only then can we reclaim the genre from the overpowering decay of the (writing by numbers) dark fantasy/vampire/romantic novels which dominate the increasingly smaller shelves of the horror section and replace it with good old fashioned ghost stories.

So buy the book out of principle and feel good about yourself, then read the book and you will be justifiable proud that you were there at the start supporting a major new talent and getting to read a bloody good book into the bargain.

While the plot is fairly standard fare the wiring is above average. Two average musicians invited by an occult guru to take part in research in St Andrews, needless to say when they get there they are confronted with a slightly different reality and are immediately embroiled in a web of occult happenings. The book really impacts with its sense of place as we see behind the facade
of the grand old buildings of the university town to the darker nooks and crannies beyond. St Andrews is a town I know well and this book certainly succeeds in imbuing the place with the right atmosphere, on the face of it clean cut and good living but underneath a grimy underworld with a dark heart.

The author knows his history of the supernatural and many of the aspects of the horror are based on apocryphal tales or real life characters. The horror itself is implied through glimpses, thoughts and sounds. This is less the blood and gore of Shaun Hutson and more the supernatural of Phil Rickman. Indeed early Rickman (before bloody Merrily!) or later Herbert would appear to be the major comparison points, there is the same sense of place, flawed characters and underlying occult influences all tied together in a rollicking good plot. So any flaws, well minor
ones really, but to my mind some of the dialogue writing was poor and the plot had a couple of points where the characters actions seemed improbable but nothing that seriously impaired my enjoyment of a good first novel and a worthy addition to the library of great ghost stories.

Ghosts, hags and rock'n'roll whats not to like.

Rating 4 out of 5

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

"Dandelion Wine"
by Ray Bradbury
Format: Paperback 256 Pages
Publisher: Bantam Books

How do you categorise a novel like Dandelion Wine, its not SF (but it has a time machine, of sorts), its not horror (but it has a serial killer), its not even fantasy (although it has a witch or two). You feel that if Ray Bradbury had stuck to one genre he would be declared a genius but as many of his books are simply unclassifiable he is often (wrongly) overlooked, he truly is a master of all trades and jack of none.

Dandelion Wine is a mish mash of ideas based on a semi-autobiographical account of the long hot summer of 1928. Whilst the book is based in small town America, the themes of long lazy summer days, childhood adventure and growing up are universal, Bradbury succeeds by taking these familiar themes, twisting and bending them into these bizarre creations which we can relate to on a basic level but which are expanded into many different levels.

Each summer Douglas Spaulding and his family collect Dandelions to make Dandelion Wine, a bottle for each day so see them through the hard winter and remind them of the glories of summer. Tied up with these bottles are memories of events that happened to Douglas and the other occupants of Greentown, Illinois.

The book therefore is composed like a series of short stories linked by the summer and the creation of the wine, some contain happy memories some contain sad. Indeed death and the ageing process are recurring themes throughout the book and we see Douglas becoming aware of his own mortality as the summer moves on. Hang on though, that all sounds totally depressing and frankly quite boring, well its absolutely not. The book is life affirming, joyous and at times completely gripping, if you are prepared to suspend reality and live the characters lives.

As I mentioned earlier, the stories are wide ranging and we do get a bit of everything but in a good way. Bradburys' dialogue writing is fantastic and very reminiscent of Stephen King. They both seem able to create a character simply by letting them speak in a natural and engaging way, both easy to read and yet driving the story perfectly. Another piece reminiscent of King is perhaps one of the best pieces of suspense writing anywhere. I defy anybody to read pages 158-176 without gripping ever so slightly tighter to the pages of the book.

The book isn't for everyone, some may find it mawkish, others may think it too clever, but for me Dandelion Wine stands as one of the great works of 20th Century fiction, up there with To Kill A Mockingbird or The Catcher in The Rye and in my opinion cruelly overlooked by comparison.

I believe Mr Bradbury has a new collection of stories based, once again, in Greentown due for publication in the autumn. I for one can't wait and will raise a toast of Dandelion Wine to his good health, long may the memories keep coming.

Rating 5 out of 5

Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C Clarke

"The Songs Of Distant Earth"
by Arthur C Clarke
Format : Paberback, 240pages
Publisher: Voyager (UK)

It goes without saying that Arthur C Clarke was a visionary genius and a lynchpin in the creation of the SF genre in the UK. Sadly Clarke died in March 2008 and with him died the golden age of SF. I read most of Clarkes' works many years ago but the publicity surrounding his death prompted me to revisit some of them.

The Songs of Distant Earth, the novel, was written in 1986 but was based on an older story published in 1958. The novels' plot is a simple affair, the Earths scientists have worked out when the sun will go supernova destroying the solar system. In order to maintain the human race starships are dispatched containing all the materials necessary to start life on a new planet.

The story focuses on the planet Thalassa settled by some of the earliest pioneers. The Thalassans are visited by the starship Magellan, one of the last ships to leave the Earth which needs to stop enroute to its final destination to replenish its ice shield.

It should be said that there is little action in this novel, it mainly concerns itself with the interaction between the two groups of settlers and the tensions in the Magellans crew (based on those of the original Ferdinand Magellan expedition). It is thought to be a deliberate reaction by Clarke to previous criticism that his novels were weak on characterisation and relationships. We therefore get fairly protracted scenes of love triangles, romantic walks and long speeches, exploring for instance, Clarkes atheistic stance, all at the expense of his better known scientific theory mixed with futuristic action.

So does he pull it off, well yes but at the expense, I think, of plot. The novel is short and several strands of the story feel undeveloped, in particular the interaction between humans and endemic species is explored but never fully developed. The whole thing feels like a snapshot and it may be that this was intended but it leaves this reader slightly disappointed. Given Clarkes propensity for sequels it is somewhat surprising that this book didn't receive one. Having said that, as an exercise in writing emotive SF, it largely succeeds and certainly the sequence towards the end where the Magellan is preparing to leave is very emotional.

I would recommend this book to all readers but if you are new to Clarkes' work then perhaps its not the best place to start (try Rendevous with Rama instead), of course the whole issue gains a new layer of poignancy with Clarkes death but books like this are a fitting legacy to a true genius.

Rating 4 out of 5

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Mass Effect- Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn

Hang about (I hear you cry), this is supposed to be a site about books, literature, instead we get some kind of trashy game spin off, explain yourself highlander......
Okay, I don't play a lot of computer games, never have done, my attention span is such that if I don't complete a game without being killed I probably won't play it again, but the idea of games now that's a different matter. Why, with only a bit of imagination I can become my favourite book hero and take on all comers, great... until I get killed again!
So my game playing is selective, what I want is escapism, not some convoluted management strategy whats it, or some complex fantasy where you need to play for 3 years to reach level2. I want a game where I can switch on and within minutes be killing aliens, orcs or (insert favourite baddy here). Of course if the game has a story then its almost like (i wonder if anyone has thought of this!) interactive fiction. Well that's the theory, it never works that way, by the time you've got the installation, loading, settings etc out of the way I've usually given up and the magic has gone, but the weird thing is I keep trying. So along comes the latest and greatest scifi game this side of Wing Commander and what do you know I'm out there shooting aliens again. Mass Effect, the game is big, full of big ideas, big ships, big worlds and big guns. Clearly a lot of effort has gone into the game much of which is directed towards creating a believable world and deep back story (hey isn't that a job for a book) well yes and hey presto here it is. Now given that my teenage years are a dim and distant memory, it was with some trepidation that I approached the checkout with this book ( I could see the assistant sniggering, all the cliches nerd, geek were forming in his, obviously superior mind) luckily I had my son with me so just said it was for him and legged it out of there before you could say warhammer.

Hey Highlander, were halfway down the page here, where's the review..

Oh the review, right, I knew there was something. Well a detailed summation then... its okay, seriously not too bad, not too good just okay. Clearly the bulk of the world creation, races and characters (some from the game) are already in place so not much work needed there.. Plot, well yes there is one but its not brilliant. It forms part of the games back story so really to get anything out of it, read the book play the game and its fine. Kind of like a standalone episode of (insert favourite generic scifi show here). So a guilty pleasure, good holiday read, scifi lite if you will. Now wheres that joystick, I'm off to bag me some alien...

Rating 3 out of 5

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

I am gradually working my way through all of Mr Banks' cannon (both with and without the m). This is the fourth of his Sci-fi books I have read and having thoroughly enjoyed the others I had high hopes for this.

First of all can I congratulate orbit on their presentation of the Banks SciFi books. I just love the covers, they immediately take you to the alternative space, that other universe. Whilst they often don't have much to do with the book, this one does and the whole presentation is a joy.

So to the story, or rather stories, as this is one of the most intricately plotted books I have read in a long time, perhaps too intricate. The plot swings back and forth through time and space following the career of Culture's Special Circumstances operative Cheradenine Zakalwe. From pastoral childhood to deep space warfare its all here, all beautifully described and lavishly detailed. At times it feels like a collection of short stories as the agent recollects key points in his life whilst following the strands of his current mission. Being a culture novel the familiar drones, bizarre ship names (sense of humour present and correct) and detailed political machinations are all there. The book reaches a fascinating and frightening climax with several key scenes described in the kind of detailed, memory burning fashion that Banks is so good at, you just know these scenes will stay with you for a long, long time.

So its perfect then, well not quite, as I said the plot is so detailed and interlinked that only a repeat reading would fully draw the story together, but its nearly perfect and certainly is up there with the best of Mr Banks' work.

Rating 4 out of 5