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January 2012
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March 2012

Underground Reading: Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones

DogsbodyDiana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody (1975) is more about power than puppies. Despite its heart-warming premise, this children's book is more about scheming and anger than big-eyed fuzzy wuzzies.

Sirius is a luminary, one of the cosmic entities (embodied in stars) that rule the universe. He begins the book on trial for his celestial life, accused of murdering a lesser star with a Zoi (an Infinity Gem sort of thinger). Sirius has a rubbish defense and, being known for his terrible temper, the court finds against him. The Dog Star is shunted to Earth and reborn as a normal dog. If he can find the missing Zoi, Sirius will be allowed to re-ascend. If not, well... this dog will go to heaven the old fashioned way.

Sirius' dog life is far from a Disney movie. His first memories are starvation and then, horribly, being chucked in the river with his litter mates. He's saved by a little girl, Kathleen, only to join in the misery of her life. Kathleen is part Irish and virtually an orphan. Her mother has fled overseas (not wholly explained) and her father is in prison for his involvement with the IRA. Kathleen is bullied by virtually everyone in her small town, especially her domineering, selfish aunt, Duffie. 

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The Weeks that Were

...and boy, were they.

We did manage to squeak in a review or two:

  • Rachel Aaron's The Spirit Thief (2010) (and why chatty heroes are a good thing)
  • Ethan Cross' The Shepherd (2012) (and why doingeverythingatonce doesn't always work so well)
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies (2004) (and what we are trumping who we are) (a guest review by Tom Pollock)
  • James Maxey's Greatshadow (2012) (and why cosmic team-ups are such good fun)
  • Thomas Mullen's The Revisionists (2011) (and how history is out to get us)
  • Lavie Tidhar's Going to the Moon (2012) (and how to swear your way into a reader's heart)
  • Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Darksword Adventures (1988) (and how dystopias keep the trains on time)
  • Walter Jon Williams' The Fourth Wall (2012) (and if a conspiracy falls in the forest and you're too self-absorbed to notice, does anyone care?)

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Friday Five: School Stories [Competition]

We're handing the reins over again this week. And the topic? Fictional schools. 

Childrens CrusadeThere's some huge variety here, proving exactly how important those formative years are for authors, comic book creators and film-makers. Would you rather attend the den of debauchery from The Rules of Attraction or be one of Buffy's ill-fated classmates in Sunnydale? Would you rather try out for Quidditch with Harry Potter or learn military philosophy in Starship Troopers? Wizarding at Brakebills or alchemy in Mallorea? For all we know, your idea of "education" is being dropped on a desert island with a stack of weapons, a la Battle Royale

One classic SF school? Scott Andrews' St. Mark's. After the apocalypse, this remote school becomes a hub of activity (not all good), with militarised schoolkids battling bandits, slavers, cultists and one another. The St. Mark's Trilogy is one of our favorite series, and the final volume, Children's Crusade, was a Kitschies finalist in 2010. 

Accordingly, we've got a (brilliantly) signed copy of Children's Crusade to give away to the best answer (well, "best" in that we'll choose it randomly).

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New Releases: Going to the Moon by Lavie Tidhar

Going to the MoonGoing to the Moon (2012) is a collaboration between Lavie Tidhar and artist Paul McCaffrey. The result is a short and sweary picture book, the story of a young boy Jimmy who wants to be an astronaut and struggles with Tourette's syndrome.

Mr. Tidhar is a literary enigma. A huge portion of his writing output seems composed of pastiches and "think pieces", combining his excellent ability to mimic voices with a simmering revolutionary fervor. This is a man that gleefully corrupts genres - from the "guns and sorcery" of Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God to the alternate-alternate history of HebrewPunk's "Uganda". Even Osama is a subversion, presenting Philip Marlowe by way of Philip K. Dick and bending noir in a way that even a drunken Hammett never would've foreseen. 

Although he's the master of masks and voices, Mr. Tidhar's prodigious range seems to beg the question of where the real Lavie Tidhar might be hiding. We've read the Tidhar Chandler, the Tidhar Campbell, the Tidhar Moorcock, ad infinitum, but, to borrow a phrase from Kronk, "there's a wall there". There's no question that Osama is a breakthrough work, but, if it has any flaw, it is that, however much it is a stunning composition, there's still a sense of emotional distance. 

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Where's Pornokitsch?

This is a bit of a brain dump, but we're in one of our rare bursts of planning - and here's how the next few months are shaping up.

Tonight, we're at the inaugural "Science Fiction Social" at Waterstone(')s Gower Street. The event is organised by the Arthur C. Clarke Award and kicks off with a panel on the future of awards (with Nick Harkaway, Gillian Redfearn, Tom Hunter and, er, Jared [hi!]). It starts at 6 pm, entry is free, etc. etc.

If panels aren't your thing, Forbidden Planet have a great signing going on, only a few blocks away. Debut author Benedict Jacka is joined by the amazing Kate Griffin (who basically only does one signing a year, so pounce!). It also starts at 6 pm, darnit.

March 8 brings the next Kitschies' event - a Gothic Evening at Blackwell's Charing Cross. It starts at (wait for it...) 6 pm. Free entry, no ticket required. Lots of lovely guests. Details here, hope to see you there, you know the drill. A couple people have asked us if they need an invitation, which is worrying - the event is totally open. Come one, come all. Bring all your friends and family. 

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Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies by Tom Pollock

Stamping ButterfliesIf there's one near-unforgivable to use cliché when reviewing, it's the phrase "Human Condition". Saying a book is "about The Human Condition (TM)" is a pointless, spineless vacuity, effectively tantamount to saying "This book has people in it". So I'm not going to use it.

Instead, I'll say this: Stamping Butterflies (2004) is about the Human Conditions, about the circumstances in which we become, and cease to be, people.

In Jon Courtenay Grimwood's mind-bending and heart-breaking reaction to the post-9/11 stomping of individual rights by western governments, three stories are threaded together. In 1970s Marrakech, a young poor boy comes of age, discovers sex, drugs, punk music, maths and other good things, and then has his innocence painfully chewed up by the security apparatus that rules the red city.

In the present day, an anonymous tramp makes an inept attempt on the life of the President. While the world's media looks on, he is convicted in absentia by a military court, tortured and sentenced to death, even as he displays signs of epoch-making genius. Finally, in a far-future distant world, a young emperor, trapped by the constant scrutiny of the hundred-and-fifty odd billion citizens of his demesne, awaits the assassin who will free him.

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Review Round-up: Fantasy, Fantasy

There's been quite a bit of kerfuffle on the internet lately about fantasy - specifically, epic fantasy. Good, bad, regressive, entertaining, etc. etc. And, hilariously, it always seems to degenerate into each side screaming that the other is reading it wrong. As if that's even possible.

Our own opinions are, per usual, all over the shop. But the general thunk of this site is that genre books - all genre books - should be treated with the same respect and scrutiny as any other form of literature. Looking at epic fantasy, there are books that are painfully reductive, conceptually brilliant and everything in-between. Like all genres, epic fantasy has strengths and weaknesses: tropes that make some discussions easy and stereotypes that make others hard. Selectively prioritising one over the other is the privilege of each reader (and, to some degree, reviewer). But what doesn't exist, under any circumstance, is a wrong way to read a book

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, two epic fantasies: James Maxey's Greatshadow and Rachel Aaron's The Spirit Thief.

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Review Round-up: The Revisionists and The Fourth Wall

Two more books about conspiracies, paranoia and sinister organisations that go bump in the night.

The Revisionists UKThomas Mullen's The Revisionists (2011) is a time-travel novel with a twist. Zed, the primary protagonist, is an agent from the future - back in our present to defend his timeline's status quo. Indoctrinated with horror stories of "The Great Conflagration", Zed and other agents are ever mindful of the stakes of their missions. They might do distasteful things (murder, a bit more murder, some more murder), but they do so in the name of species survival. Unless history plays out in a certain way, their future will never come to pass. 

Zed - neurotic, pressured, exhausted Zed - is only one of the book's viewpoint characters. The others vary from a second-tier spy to a corporate lawyer facing a crisis of conscience. Initially, their paths seem utterly irrelevant to the greater course of the book, but Mr. Mullen cunningly weaves everything together by the end.

If anything, the book sets out to disprove the "Great Man" theory in favor of the Butterfly Effect. The future isn't forged by titanic figures, it is scrawled haphazardly by a series of tiny incidents. Zed is aware of this (hell, he's trained in it), but the real thrust of The Revisionists occurs when he starts skiing off-piste. Zed is supposed to go back "home" after every mission, but a fluke change of heart has him stalking around Washington DC for far longer than he should. Although he attempts to stay aloof, he's naturally empathetic. Despite his best attempts, he winds up making connections and, therefore, making an impact.

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Friday Five: More Human than Human [Competition!]

For this week's Friday Five, we're turning it over to you again. 

6a00d8345295c269e2014e8a61077d970d-800wiThe topic? Cyborgs. Upgrading humanity is the stuff of great SF - from Robocop to Cybermen. They're in comics, film, television and (gasp) even a book or two.

Some of the best examples of cyborgs in literature can be found in Kim Lakin-Smith's Cyber Circus. Hellequin and Nim both wrestle with their "enhancements": embedded technology that proves both blessing and curse. 

So, here's the spiel - let us know your favorite cyborg (in any media) in the comments. One of you will win a signed copy of the BSFA-nominated Cyber Circus. The standard rules of logic and fair play apply: you can't choose something that someone else has already selected, the definition of "cyborg" is open to interpretation (as long as you can back it up) and passionate debate is, as always, heartily encouraged. We're only shipping within the UK this time (sorry), but awesome overseas responses will be rewarded with affection (and maybe even an eBook...).

The winner will be selected at random by a special bio-technological mechanic (e.g. we'll print out all the responses and see which one the cat chews first). The MechaFeline selection process will take place next Wednesday (22nd), so get to 'borging.


Haven't read Cyber Circus yet? Our review of it is here. And the author is signing this Saturday at Waterstones Derby (at noon o'clock).

The future of literary prizes

Next Thursday, Waterstones Gower Street and the Arthur C. Clarke Award kick off their new "Science Fiction Social" series: a combination of shmoozing and geekery in Central London.

The inaugural event features a panel is on the future of literary prizes. This is, of course, a topic very near and dear to our hearts. The panelists are Gillian Redfearn (Gollancz), Nick Harkaway (Angelmaker) and Jared Shurin (howdy!). Tom Hunter (director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award) will be moderating the discussion and doing his best to keep us on track.

Good fun, good company and an interesting topic. Plus, if the panel ends in a draw, we'll settle it in Thunderdome.


Waterstones Gower Street (2nd Floor)
82 Gower Street
London WC1E 6EQ

Thursday, February 23rd 6.00pm

Free entry, but please RSVP so Waterstones can figure out the numbers.