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Fiction: 'The Ruins of San Francisco' by Bret Harte

Nemo_Aronax_AtlantisExtracted from the archives of The Atlantic Monthly, 2865.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century the city of San Francisco was totally ingulfed by an earthquake. Although the whole coast-line must have been much shaken, the accident seems to have been purely local, and even the city of Oakland escaped. Schwappelfurt, the celebrated German geologist, has endeavored to explain this singular fact by suggesting that there are some things the earth cannot swallow, — a statement that should be received with some caution, as exceeding the latitude of ordinary geological speculation.

Historians disagree in the exact date of the calamity. Tulu Krish, the well-known New-Zealander, whose admirable speculations on the ruins of St. Paul as seen from London Bridge have won for him the attentive consideration of the scientific world, fixes the occurrence in A. D. 1880. This, supposing the city to have been actually founded in 1850, as asserted, would give but thirty years for it to have assumed the size and proportions it had evidently attained at the time of its destruction. It is not our purpose, however, to question the conclusions of the justly famed Maorian philosopher. Our present business lies with the excavations that are now being prosecuted by order of the Hawaiian government upon the site of the lost city.

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Reviewing the DGLA: Introduction & Criteria

AxeHere we go again! For the third year running, I'm going to try to review all ten books on the David Gemmell Legend Award shortlists.* 

Here are this year's finalists - and congratulations to all of them. A huge number (17,000!) of votes were cast, so making it this far is no small achievement:

Legend / Novel

Morningstar / Debut

Ravenheart / Cover:

  • Benjamin Carre for the cover of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (Gollancz)
  • Jason Chan for the cover of Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (Harper Collins UK)
  • Cheol Joo Lee for the cover of Skarsnik by Guy Haley (Black Library)
  • Gene Mollica and Michael Frost for the cover of Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan (Orbit)
  • Rhett Podersoo for the cover of She Who Waits by Daniel Polansky (Hodder)

There are a few new twists and turns this year, plus some lessons learnt, so I'm going to start with the ground rules.

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Friday Five: 5 Perfect Slices of Noir

This week's selection is courtesy of The G, founder and co-editor of nerds of a feather..., one of our favourite genre blogs. The G claims to moonlight as an academic - Professor The G? - and, more importantly, is a fan of the greatest and grimiest of all genres: noir. Without further ado, let's slip into the office, pour a glass of bourbon and talk about the case...

There are two ways to look at noir: as crime fiction set in gritty worlds where darkness reigns and corruption slips its fingers into all things; or more specifically as stories about the amoral or immoral inhabitants of such worlds. Crime fiction luminary Otto Penzler prefers the latter, arguing that noir functions as commentary on the earlier, moralistic hardboiled detective. But that’s always seemed a rather minor distinction to draw, given the vastly more expansive commonalities of setting and tone, and so I favor the broader definition. It works for film, so why not literature?

That said, most noir comes in one of three flavors:

  1. The Hardboiled Thriller, in which a stubborn and ethical hero pushes back against dark and corrupt world, ultimately settling for small, symbolic victories against a backdrop of general hopelessness (e.g. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler).
  2. The Sadsack Tragedy, in which a well-intentioned but weak-willed antihero attempts but is unable to escape the clutches of said dark and corrupt world (e.g. James M. Cain, Jim Thompson).
  3. The Revenge Fantasy, in which a sociopathic product of the dark and corrupt world seeks revenge against its agents, yet is unconcerned with changing or improving that world (e.g. Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark). 

Each represents a different shade of who we think we are, and how we might behave under difficult circumstances. We hope we’re the hardboiled detective hero, fear that we’re the sadsack antihero and, sometimes at least, secretly wish we could just loosen the fetters and be that sociopath hell-bent on getting even. This is the genius of noir: it plays to our senses of self-worth and self-doubt at the same time. 

The Long GoodbyeThe Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

The first selection naturally comes from Chandler, the most literary and dare I say best crime fiction author of all-time (despite all the gaping plot holes). Though The Big Sleep might be more famous, The Long Goodbye is the ultimate Chandler - trope and type filled, to be sure, but at its heart a book about alcoholism, friendship and loss. Incidentally, The Long Goodbye was written as Chandler’s wife lay dying and he was descending into alcoholism - infusing the book with visceral pain and rage arguably missing from his earlier work. Quite simply, a masterpiece.   

Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith 

In Tom Ripley, Highsmith presents the ultimate sociopath: self-interested, jealous and lacking even the most remote evidence of conscience. Yet, one might add, oddly sympathetic too.  For me, this paradox is best exemplified in Ripley’s Game - where Ripley is most fussy about his daily ethics and “civilized” practices - yet engages in a social experiment to see if he can lead a “basically decent” man to commit murder. Ultra-creepy.

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The Kitschies present... Ben Aaronovitch, John Connolly and Triffids!

Tonight! Ben Aaronovitch and John Connolly, interviewed by Anne at Blackwell's Charing Cross. Peter Grant meets Charlie Parker. We're hoping it goes a bit like this:

The event booked out within a week! (Yikes!) We look forward to seeing all the lucky (and/or very, very quick) ticket-holders at the shop tonight. 

But also... Triffids!

The Kitschies are part of the Chelsea Fringe this year, and we're hosting "The Evening of the Triffids" on 21 May.

Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, will give a talk about the science of Wyndham and the awesomeness of astrobotany. 

And Lauren "Deadly Knitshade" O'Farrell will be hosting a workshop in which you can BUILD YOUR OWN TRIFFID.

Because there's a finite amount of awesome in the world, tickets are limited. So move quickly!

Crossing Over: Secret Wars

Secret Wars #1 CoverThis series of articles came about because for better than a year I’ve been promising I’d start writing comic stuff for Pornokitsch and in the course of an exchange about Friday Fives, Jared finally pinned me down.  It’s true - there are photographs. So this is going to be a guide to comicbook crossover ‘events’, in hopes of making whatever the hell they were about clear enough that even Jared can understand them.

Rest assured though, this isn’t going to be an index of issues, tie-ins and continuity minutiae, because frankly, I’ve got a life.  Instead I’ll aim to look at where the crossover came from, which characters were involved, the impact it had both in-universe and among the readership, and give a personal view as a reader.

For reference, I decided I needed a working definition of ‘crossover’ for the purposes of this series, which is:

A comic book story told primarily in a dedicated series and featuring characters from across the fictional universe it lives within.  It may or may not (but probably will) have associated tie-in issues in other series which expand the story (or are designed to do so - your mileage may vary).

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Fiction: 'The Demon Pope' by Richard Garnett

Lucifero_(Rapisardi)_diabolicaTruth fails not, but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime.

“So you won’t sell me your soul?” said the devil.

“Thank you,” replied the student, “I had rather keep it myself, if it’s all the same to you.”

“But it’s not all the same to me. I want it very particularly. Come, I’ll be liberal. I said twenty years. You can have thirty.”

The student shook his head.


Another shake.


As before.

“Now,” said the devil, “I know I’m going to do a foolish thing, but I cannot bear to see a clever, spirited young man throw himself away. I’ll make you another kind of offer. We won’t have any bargain at present, but I will push you on in the world for the next forty years. This day forty years I come back and ask you for a boon; not your soul, mind, or anything not perfectly in your power to grant. If you give it, we are quits; if not, I fly away with you. What say you to this?”

The student reflected for some minutes. “Agreed,” he said at last.

Scarcely had the devil disappeared, which he did instantaneously, ere a messenger reined in his smoking steed at the gate of the university of Cordova (the judicious reader will already have remarked that Lucifer could never have been allowed inside a Christian seat of learning), and, inquiring for the student Gerbert, presented him with the Emperor Otho’s nomination to the Abbacy of Bobbio, in consideration, said the document, of his virtue and learning, well-nigh miraculous in one so young.

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Review Round-Up: This Song Will Save Your Life & The Bunker Diary

The challenge with 'issue-based YA' - the sort of young adult fiction that has teens in difficult 'real world' (ish) situations - is that is completely relies on the reader connecting to the protagonist. Even more than, say, dystopian YA or epic fantasy or Westerns or any other sort of genre. This is about a character, their response to a crisis, and their triumph (or not). Throw in a secondary world setting or a zombie or two, and you've got distractions - an element that can (and often does) offset a character of dubious verisimilitude.

(I understand that I'm backing up into the whole 'lit fic' vs 'spec fic' argument here, and I think that's the same challenge. Speculative fiction is awesome because you have the entire range of human imagination, the possible and the impossible to play with. Literary fiction is awesome because you don't.)

Because I like putting things into buckets, it would seem there are a few ways about this:

  1. The protagonist as mirror. The book has a protagonist that is That Type of Person. They work because they're a recognisable type of person, and they work especially well if the reader is that type of person. They don't work empathetically when they veer into pastiche, but even then, they're tropes - they still work as shortcuts. The range includes everything from Geek Girl to Gossip Girl.
  2. The protagonist as shadow. The protagonist is the everyperson - a blank that can, potentially, be any of us. Possibly they are defined solely by external events, for example, Spiderman, or damn near any character from Neil Gaiman. They work because they're abstract enough for us to slot ourselves into their shoes without having to dislodge an existing personality.
  3. The protagonist as individual. I realise I'm veering into Stating the Obvious territory, but - writing the protagonist to be a person of their very own. They're not meant to be anyone but themselves. They're neither a reflection or a shadow, but a distinct personality. Francis Hardigne's Mosca Mye and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet (the Spy) are the two that immediately leap to mind. Patrick Ness speaks and writes about this all the time, and it boils down to two key points (I think): a) authenticity - teens that act like teens and b) respect - not underestimating the (young) reader. Teenage readers recognise teenagers. 

In my eyes, this isn't a hierarchy, these are different writing 'tactics' to get the job done. There are certainly less successful tactics out there (both 'character as wish-fulfilment' and 'character as sock-puppet for author' spring to mind).

The Bunker DiaryThat out of the way, let's get to the reviews - Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary and Leila Sales' This Song Will Save Your Life.

First, a warning - Brooks' The Bunker Diary (2013), is about as hard-hitting and unpleasant a book as I've ever read. Being 'young adult', it is getting the obligatory references to Lord of the Flies - I'm personally leaning more towards "No Exit" or Concrete Island. 

Linus is a teenage busker. He's a runaway (from a fairly wealthy background) and has taken to the street to find/lose himself. Take your pick. The story opens with him in the titular bunker. He's been kidnapped off the street, drugged, and transported to this prison: six bedrooms, one bathroom, a lot of cameras, no exits.

With his mysterious captor watching everything he does, Linus keeps a diary as his one means of rebellion - he can write what he wants, say what he wants and, in a sense, be free. If the circumstances weren't so horrifically macabre, this is everything he was looking for whilst living on the street. (Hint: theme alert.)

Things swiftly become even more complicated when other prisoners arrive and the captor begins to engage in a more tangible fashion. With every new arrival and new 'stimulus', Linus finds himself tested. Not just physically (in truly awful ways), but - if you'll forgive the word - existentially. With his world reduced to the head of a pin, Linus is continuously challenged to verify his individuality and his animus. What makes him a person and not a nameless victim or a statistic? What makes him unique, distinctive and 'Linus'? All this, plus all the in-fighting, despair and horror that you might be able to anticipate from a hard-hitting tale of kidnapping and torture. 

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Friday Five: 5 Overrated Films

Breakfast_at_TiffanysI just couldn't contain myself, so today's Friday Five is actually an Awesome Eight. Or whatever. It's Friday; my alliterative powers are a little off. Anyway, here are some popular films I think are wildly overrated (or at least inexplicably beloved) and some superior alternatives. No, I don't like Blade Runner or Breakfast at Tiffany's. I know I'm the only one, but there it is. Happy Friday!

The Period Drama: Pride and Prejudice (2004): Tumblr loves five things. Sherlock, Supernatural, Doctor Who, Hannibal… and this film. It’s everything Tumblr likes, in one over-saturated package: doe-eyed, skinny girls in long dresses, hot guys in period costume, gorgeous landscapes, and sweeping tracking shots over the aforementioned gorgeous landscapes. Gif heaven! But this film is such a terrible adaptation of the book – director Joe Wright’s commentary (reproduced slavishly by the Tumblr P&P superfans) suggests both ignorance of the source material and disdain for the time period, which begs the question: why the fuck did he make this film? If you don’t like empire waists and dudes in hats? Don’t make films set in the Regency period. Anyway, people love this stupid film, and I’d probably like it too… if it weren’t an adaptation of one of the greatest books of all time. (All that, but the worst is the bit where the screenwriter just rewrote Jane Austen’s dialogue. Jane Austen, one of the greatest writers in the English language. When Bowdler ‘cleaned up’ Shakespeare history rewarded his efforts by turning his name into an epithet. I suggest we do the same with this: Joe Wright wrighted P&P. And that’s no good thing.)

Superior alternative: North & South (2004). Smart heroine, hot guy in period costume, gorgeous landscapes and a social conscience. Also, it’s a brilliant adaptation of a brilliant book, which you should go read right now. Go. Right now. (This is not a film, I realize, so if you're going to insist that I suggest a movie alternative, let me steer you towards David Fincher's wonderful Zodiac.)

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The Best and Worst Books of March

A few recent purchases and the always-fascinating update on reading.

First, books bought:

Mars EvacueesSophia McDougall's Mars Evacuees (signed at the launch!) and Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.* Ok, Sophia's is a children's book, but still - look! Frontlist SF! Amazing!

The Gulf Coast of Florida. Honestly, not so fussed about Florida. I went there once as a kid and all I remember are mosquitos and this awesome, like, three-dimensional board game that involved climbing a mountain (dungeon?) with traps (monsters?!). An actual board game. That's not a metaphor for Disney World. I was really young.

Anyway, the introduction is by John D. MacDonald and yes, I will buy a massive book of photography if it comes with two whole pages by JDM. (Also, it was on eBay - so cheap.)

Speaking of JDM, I also found a copy of the Corgi edition of Planet of the Dreamers, which has a delightfully Sixties cover - something that's halfway between Jack Gaughan and David Pelham.

That same browsing session also turned up a signed copy of Stephen Marlowe's The Cawthorne Journals. Marlowe (initially the pen name of Milton Lesser, but eventually his legal name! - there's your pub quiz trivia for the day) is one of my favourite Gold Medal authors. This is largely thanks to the Chester Drum series. His other stuff... I can take it or leave it. But it is nice to find a signed (inscribed, actually) hardcover in good condition.

Tragically, as far as physical books go, that's it. There were lots of digital purchases recently, but that's merely bibliophilic methadone. May need to go shopping this weekend...

Second, an update on reading - including the best and worst of the month:

I read twenty 'books' (well, the Goodreads definition thereof) in March - 11 by women, 9 by men. The latter counts two comic books - Moon Knight #1 and Endless Wartime - and a novella. (As above - Goodreads! 'Books!')

It was an odd month: no anthologies or collections and lots of awards-inspired reading. Also, the quality of the March reading was also very, very high, something that mostly (but not entirely) correlates with the latter.

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