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April 2014

Completing Dahl: Dirty Beasts and Rhyme Stew

This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

Dirty beastsWell, they can’t all be winners…

Dirty Beasts

Dirty Beasts is a companion to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. My father bought me Revolting Rhymes when I was young, and I remember thinking was absolutely hilarious. I have no idea if it would induce side-eye and skeptical eyebrow now, as did many of the pieces in Dirty Beasts. Though, to be fair, I liked this book better than Rhyme Stew which I’ll get to in a moment here.

So… Dirty Beasts. It contains nine poems, all about animals such as the pig, the scorpion, and the anteater. (Wikipedia thoughtfully lets us know, however, that “The Tummy Beast” is made up—who says it’s not a reliable source?) Many of them are enjoyable if you’re into the schadenfreude and misanthropy of Dahl (and if you’re not, I’m not sure why you’re reading this). The pig from “The Pig,” for example, doesn’t need a spider and a whimsical plan to save himself from being butchered—instead, he just up and murders the farmer… and eats him. Nice!

In fact, animals devouring humans is a major—dare I?—motif in Dirty Beasts. “The Ant-Eater,” in another justice-for-exploited-animals story, eats an aunt. The lion is super into devouring kiddies. Crocky-Wock, the Crocodile, also enjoys a spot of child. My personal favorite was not one of these, however—it was “The Porcupine” which isn’t so much about porcupines as how terrifying dentists are.

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Review Round-Up: Westerns, War and the Under-seas

LambertSomewhere between three and five reviews, depending how you count them: Lee Floren's High Gun, J.L. Bouma's Vengeance, Eric Lambert's The Long White Night and Guy Boothby's The Kidnapped President and A Crime of the Under-seas.

Eric Lambert's The Long White Night (1965) - a story of war and its consequences. Lawrence Primrose is a born soldier, a working class stiff who 'finds himself' when he joins the army. He quickly rises through the ranks to become a completely detestable sergeant. He's by the book, unrelenting, priggish - but we forgive him because he's also a fierce bastard in combat, saving his men over and over again.

This is why his court martial for cowardice is such a surprise, and why the officer that breaks him, Colonel Goss, is the real monster of the piece. Years after the court martial and the fateful battle that prompted it, Johnny Hume (once a terrible soldier, now a half-decent psychologist) has set himself to reveal the awful truth behind the events of that fateful night.

The majority of the book is a helter-skelter mix of present day (Hume trying to find Primrose in the years after the war) and past (from boot camp through to the battle). This is all neatly managed, as the author makes untidy Hume and uptight Primose both empathetic and intriguing characters. The latter especially - the snarky Hume is a bit too much of a literary cliche, while Primrose seems to have some genuine pathos to him. What they do during the war, and how it impacts their lives after it, is all connected and capital-m-Meaningful. The author has a clear bone to pick with over-stuffed post-war politicians and a stratified class system, two themes that come through very clearly and by no means harm the book - it is good to read a book on war and its aftermath that tries to paint a picture broader than the central redemption story.

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Fiction: "Enter the Dragon. Later, Enter Another" by Lavie Tidhar

1.

Julian Assange’s Impenetrable Fortress of Ice lies on top of Mount Terror, on Ross Island in Antarctica.

It is a beautiful, icy desolation, hiding inside it the Planet’s Most Wanted Man. His name is Julian.

The Fortress is patrolled at all times by WikiLeaks guerrillas, battle-hardened veterans of the War on Info, the War on Terror, the War for Family Values and the American Way of Life. Behind its sheer ice walls the WikiLord resides in utilitarian splendour, banks of computers broadcasting a continuous digital signal to overhead satellites, spreading the word. The words.

Data. All, as the faithful say, is Data.

Information wants to be free.

2.

They bred me out of the black vats, deep underground, moulded me out of the greatest warriors of all time, General Schwarzkopf and Chuck Norris with a hint of Idi Amin, a touch of Bruce Lee. I am the Dragon. I kill at the speed of thought. I come to Antarctica as men have done over centuries, by sea. A British ice-breaker deposits me on frozen land. Broken icebergs drift across the ocean. I practice by breaking solid ice with my bare hands. I stare up at the frozen volcanoes, at Mount Erebus and Mount Terror. Erebus is a beautiful cone of snow and ice, but the eye is drawn to Terror, where battle drones fly like dark birds in the sky.

I kill a bear with only my knife and wear its hide.

I am ready for this task, as ready as I can ever be.

I reach the volcano.

I begin to climb.

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Underground Reading: The Garden of Stones by Mark T Barnes

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

What's it about?

17046606Mark T. Barnes' The Garden of Stones (2013) opens on a truly epic landscape. The realm is in chaos. After the fall of the Awakened Empire (the latest in a series of empires), the land has been divided between the the avian Seethe, their semi-human creations, the Avan, the humans and a host of other creatures. The species all differ on their approach to immortality - a theme of The Garden of Stones - and the many different paths to death (and beyond). Some elect to stay on this mortal coil in the form of artificial bodies. Others have become ghostly creatures. For the Avan, there's even a form of psychic race-memory, where the leader of their people retains the knowledge of those who went before. And this is a very old world, with a lot of backstory knowledge.

As well as this weight of history, there is also the burden of prophecy. Corajidin, master of one of the great houses of the Avan, is dying - but his personal sorceror informs him that not only will he live, he will rule and restore the Empire. As the book begins, his plotting has set wheels in motion: the other Great Houses are in a state of upheaval, ancient relics are being uncovered (and they really shouldn't) and, generally speaking, shit's goin' down.

Fortunately, the warrior-wizard-scholar-mercenary-adventurer Indris stands in the way. Initially roped in through a sense of obligation - Indris' oft-referenced missing wife is the daughter of one of the Great Houses - he soon realises that there's a larger game afoot. Indris and his companions may be the only people that can stop Corajidin's ambitions.

Golly.

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Friday Five: The Best of Bristol SF/F

This week's guest is Peter Sutton (@suttope), who is plugged into the writing scene of one of the UK's most dynamic literary cities - Bristol. We asked him if he could share some of his favourite Bristol SF/F, and, well, as you can see... it caused some consternation. Over to you, Pete...


Five Bristol writers of SF&F? Five SF&F books set in Bristol?! Five minutes to write this post?! OK, best get on it...

There is Bristol SF/F and there is Bristol SF/F, let me explain - no it will take too long, let me summarise.

Bristol is a city that has a radical edge, is small enough to have a real sense of community and large enough to be cosmopolitan. There is a Bristol Science Fiction and Fantasy Society and a Bristol Fantasy and Science Fiction society (reminds me of a certain scene in The Life of Brian) and of course it plays host to BristolCon which is both highly regarded by the industry and well-loved by locals and runs a monthly SF&F get together with stories from local writers. There is also a strong genre edge to the Bristol Festival of Literature which produced the utterly bonkers The Kraken Rises! in 2013.

Five writers from Bristol who write SF&F would include Angela Carter, JK Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones, Joanne Hall and Jonathan L Howard.

Charmed-Life2Angela Carter wrote some ‘magic realism’ apparently. As Jonathan Pinnock (another Bristol writer worth checking out) tells me, when he talks to Literary types he also says he writes Magic Realism. When he talks to everyone else, he says it’s SF/F.

JK Rowling wrote some fairly well-known stories about wizards or some such, or at least that’s what I’ve been told

Diana Wynne Jones wrote a ton of stuff, mostly for kids, but check out her bibliography - that’s a lot of words…

Joanne Hall tells me she makes things up for a living and has written a book about felines where the cat people are not quite what you’d expect and some other cool fantasy….

Jonathan L Howard... one of these writers is not like the others (hint: he lives in Keynsham) but he has written some marvellous books and wears all black and I couldn’t possibly leave him out. (I’ll pick up the cash from you later, JLH)

And my Top 5 SF&F books set in Bristol? These are mostly at the SF end of things, and looks like Bristol is ripe for a fantasy, possibly involving - scribbles down new book idea.

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Unpacking the 2014 Eisners - Part 1

Eisner awardsThe nominations for this year’s Eisner awards have been announced, and as they sometimes manage they’ve done an excellent job of highlighting exactly how vibrant and diverse the market is.  Note, by the way that when I use ‘diverse’, I just mean ‘varied’, not ‘reflecting diversity’, because, comics. Progress is happening on that front, but that’s a different discussion.

There are one hundred and sixty nominations across thirty categories covering traditional print comics, web comics, comic journalism, academic works and US versions of international material (the Eisners are nothing if not US-centric). The big names in comic publishing are well represented, though DC’s Vertigo-based glory days seem increasingly remote, but there’s also a decent showing from far less well-known names such as British publisher SelfMadeHero, whose output I suspect I’ll discuss on a future occasion.

With this many nominees I’m not going to pretend to have read them all, but of the things I have read, here are a few that I thought were worthy of comment.

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Film 101: Captain America (2011) & Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier_Teaser_posterCaptain America (2011), The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Okay, first of all, I’m going to make a lot of jokes about how hot Chris Evans is.

Secondly, I’m going to spoil Captain America, Avengers and Winter Soldier. Sorry! Really, though, I mean it: spoilers from here on for all three films.

(Thirdly, I saw Avengers when it came out, so it doesn't count as part of my Film 101 project.)

* * *

Back in the old days, I didn’t think very much of Captain America. I liked the X-Men, with their stupid costumes (so many flappy coats and tiny pockets!) and soap-opera lives. All the old standards – Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four - seemed so old fashioned. But none more so than Captain America. I mean, come on. So hokey!

And yet, in 2012, I turned into a Captain America fan. And it wasn’t because of the first Captain America film. It was because of Avengers. And then it was because of Avengers Alliance, that ridiculous Facebook game we’re always talking about. And then it was because of Mark Millar’s run on Avengers Ultimates. It all broke me. Because this Captain America embraces his hokieness. And finds a place for his hokieness in the modern world.

And this run of cross-media stuff, that all ties together in a surprisingly less-unwieldy package than you’d suppose, totally works. But I’ll come back to that.

To be honest, I only just saw the first Captain America film all the way through a week before Cap 2 was released. I tried watching it on a plane not long after it first came out and couldn’t get into it, but I wanted to see Cap 2, so I forced myself to try again.

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Review Round-Up: Four Decades of the Plutocracy

This Woman is DeathA romp through forty years of mediocre genre fiction... or, a thorough investigation into the secret rulers of the world? You decide.

Stephen D. Frances' This Woman is Death (1948) claims to be a 'fast moving thriller'. Having now read it, that's three lies. This Woman is actually a stodgy political thriller about a well-meaning secret society who recruit our protagonist to do odd jobs for The Greater Good. It is notable primarily because, on the spectrum of secret societies, this is on the "Pro" end of the spectrum. The collusion of powerful millionaires and aristocrats is a good thing - they can do what namby-pamby governments and lawmakers cannot. Their quiet work regulating the world is what keeps us from dissolving into chaos and war. Of course.

This Woman is Death is also spectacularly boring: it spends most of the book with the character (who is mystifyingly worthless) being recruited. As if ashamed by its own premise, the bulk of the dialogue is spent in tepid philosophical banter. When the action does kick off, it is misogynistic and unpleasant. This is presumably an attempt to emphasise the real world horror that results from theoretical decisions, but that may be giving the book too much credit. The result is a book that oscillates from being dull to being mean - and is thoroughly unpalatable and unpleasant at every step of the journey. (Intriguingly, this edition, which seems to be from the 1960s, was published as a "Stephen Frances" novel, and not under Frances' far more popular pseudonym: Hank Janson. Possibly because it doesn't actually feature the character of Janson?)

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Renay on "My Favourite Disney Songs"

Music really shapes who we are, and I had a minor revelation on this point a few weeks ago. Recently, Jared asked Twitter to name their five top Disney songs. I answered sarcastically and cited Gaston in all five slots, but after considering the question I realized that I had a more serious answer.

Of course, my response breaks Jared's initial rule of five songs, but hey, it's me, I never saw a rule I didn't like to stomp. Part of this is because I grew up on Disney. I didn't have siblings or a lot of friends, so I spent a lot of evenings watching television by myself. The Disney Channel was a staple in my media diet until I was 19. But I also found that a lot of my answers were nonstandard. A lot of my songs came, not from traditional animated Disney films, but from their short features, albums, live-action movies, and covers of songs. And while I was considering my extremely eclectic list, I realized that part of why I embrace so many different sorts of music as an adult is because I was introduced, by Disney, to so many different styles of music very, very young. 

My list of favorite songs from (or provided by) Disney:

07. You Are The Music In Me — High School Musical

I really enjoy The High School Musical films, because they're so upbeat and happy and I still love imagining the world where no one is just one thing, but a vast collection of likes, dislikes, skills and hobbies, and free to explore them all. I will never not love that trope. But, in the end, I just really came to like the chemistry of these artists. The secret to my enjoyment of this song is definitely because of the quiet, piano beginning.

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Site Outages / New Mailing List

I'm sorry about the downtime that Pornokitsch and Jurassic London have both been experiencing lately. Hackers have been going after Typepad and, although they've been battling valiantly (and giving good customer service), our sites have been rather erratic for the past week. Good thing this didn't happen before the Hugo nominating was in, eh?

There's news about this over on TechCrunch - it seems like hackers are hitting the site with DDoS attacks in the hopes of getting 'ransom' money. Needless to say, I hope you join me in cheering on TypePad as they fight the good fight.

Given that we are a blog that's mostly book and film reviews and the occasional chili recipe, there's not a lot here that's time-critical. And we don't take advertising, so there's no money lost (just a bit of dignity). 

However, we do now have our weekly short story - and since that involves a bit of investment on our part, we want to make sure that it gets to readers!

If you're interested in getting our weekly dose of free fiction sent to you by email, please sign up below. The weekly email will go out on the same day as the blog post, and will contain a short introduction, the complete short story and maybe a related link or two. 

Get our weekly fiction by email

 

If you're in a signing up kind of mood, there are also mailing lists specifically for Jurassic London (primarily for pre-orders and book releases) and The Kitschies (which is for publishers, authors and agents - primarily about the submissions process).