Books I Read In November 2012
This Book Is Full Of Spiders – David Wong
I was greatly impressed with David Wong’s first book, John Dies At The End, which managed to combine absurd, profane humour and existential dread in a way that was simultaneously hilarious and depressing, so I was eagerly awaiting this sequel. To be honest, it’s not what I was expecting, to start with it’s definitely not as funny as it’s predecessor; not because of a decrease in quality, but because there are simply fewer jokes in this one, the balance between horror and comedy has definitely shifted in favour of the former. This time around, John, Dave, and Amy struggle to cope with an outbreak of alien spiders1 which burrow into peoples heads, take over their bodies, and eventually mutate them into terrifying monsters. Of course, since most people are unable to see the spiders, they assume that it’s a plague of zombies taking over their anonymous Mid-Western toilet, and react in ways that make everything even worse . . . The main thrust of the book is a thorough deconstruction of the zombie apocalypse genre, exploring the various assumptions in it and what it says about geek culture that they’ve become so prevalent. It’s cleverly done, and in parts it’s genuinely thought provoking. It’s also, as I said, more horrific than funny, although it is still funny. Like the first book, the horror is more about existential fears about the nature of life and humanity rather than sudden shocks or grotesque body horror, and that’s certainly been kicked up a notch in this one. Part of this I think is because for most of the book the three main characters are separated, unlike the first one where whenever Dave’s despair threatened to become overwhelming John would do something absurd and balance out the mood. At times the tone threatened to tip over into adolescent nihilism; it never quite does so, but there were a few times when I found myself wondering why the heroes bothered doing anything at all if it was that pointless. I don’t want to go overboard with this, I should probably emphasise that it is genuinely funny, it’s just that it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. All in all, it’s a very good book, even if on balance I just about preferred the first one, and like the first book it’s far more intelligent than it might appear on the surface.
Judge Dredd Year One: City Fathers – Matthew Smith
There’s something odd happening in the black markets of Mega City One; addicts are suffering permanent freak-outs, a Justice Department peeper’s been savagely murdered, and none of the usual suspects seem to be responsible. The pressure is rising, and it’s up to rookie judge Joe Dredd to get the bottom of things before they explode. This is the first in a new series of novellas following the legendary Judge Dredd’s first year out of the academy, before he became known to everyone in the Big Meg as the unstoppable, iron-jawed avatar of the Law. The central idea is sound, since it lets the authors tell stories about Dredd fighting crime without having to worry about the extensive Dredd canon, but in this case at least the fact that Dredd is still green isn’t especially important. There are periodic references to him not being totally assured of himself, and occasionally the other characters give him stick for being young and unproven, but it’s mostly a case of being told, not shown. If it wasn’t for the author telling you these things outright you wouldn’t be able to tell, and the majority of the time Dredd acts the same as he does in his classic, veteran incarnation. I suppose the difficulty is that you can’t change the personality and nature of a straightforward character like Dredd that much without losing them completely. On the up side, it looks as though his relationship with his dubious brother Rico will probably get more play in the coming stories, which could prove fruitful. Anyway, when you get down to it, this is fast-moving, hard-hitting action that gives you pretty much everything you’d expect from Judge Dredd, even if it’s obviously closer to a standard one-off episode rather than part of the classic, epic arcs. He is the Law, and plenty of creeps and perps get brought to justice – nothing earth-shattering or original but entertaining and competently executed.
The House of the Dead – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
It occurred to me reading this that of the few Russian novels I’ve read, a significant minority have been set in prisons. I hope this has not warped my perspective. This one is the reminiscences of a man condemned to a Siberian prison in the nineteenth century, I assume that it’s at least partly autobiographical but to be honest I don’t really know enough about Dostoyevsky to be sure. There’s not really a plot as such, just a series of observations on life in prison and on the men around him. The narrator is a nobleman, and he finds it difficult to get on with the common men who make up the majority of his fellow prisoners who resent his former privileges. The psychology of men in prison is probably the main focus of the book, on the ways they try to cope with their punishments. There’s a repeated emphasis on the fact that it’s the lack of liberty, being denied the freedom to control their own lives, that is the real suffering rather than the physical discomforts of the prison. This is something that I’ve always thought blindingly obvious, but over a hundred years down the line it still seems to need saying. One thing that did strike me as rather odd was that throughout the book the narrator is shown to be a sensitive man, who suffers from being in such primitive conditions with common criminals, with almost no thought given to the crime that put him there in the first place; he murdered his wife, which is hardly a minor offence or something that could be put down to misfortune. This could be related to the position of women in society at that time, where it seems like most people assumed that a man would beat his wife as a matter of course, or it could simply be because the author wasn’t really interested in the narrator’s story and just wanted a reason why he would be in prison for a long time. It’s not really a big deal, it just struck me as odd. One other thing that kind of sticks out is the lack of a real ending, it just sort of stops, which is probably inevitable with a book with as little plot as this. Still, that’s not really the point, it’s not the kind of book you read to find out what happens next. It’s heartfelt and beautifully written, as you’d probably expect considering it’s provenance.
Beyond Heaving Bosoms – Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan
I don’t actually read romance novels, but as a huge fan of the more disreputable end of the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum I feel like I have some sort of vague kinship with people who do. A brief examination of my Kindle reveals that if you only count full-length works of fiction, approximately 25% of it’s contents are works from the Black Library, so I’d hardly be in any position to criticise others for devouring Mills & Boon or whatever even if I so desired. After all, they’re both genres that tend to inspire fanatical loyalty amongst readers and contempt from outsiders, often relying on stock characters and plots, and aiming to entertain and distract rather than uplift or inspire. Which is why I follow Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, the blog by the authors of this entertaining investigation into romance novels. I acquired this book in a slightly roundabout way – I noticed that it wasn’t available on Kindle, and thinking that I might like to read it sometime I sent the authors a message enquiring about a future release. Turns out it is on Kindle, but for some reason not in the UK, which apparently they were unaware of. Anyway they emailed me a copy, which was very good of them. It does feel rather like a blog that’s been expanded into a book, but not in a bad way; the main thread, a rough history of the genre from the 1970’s onwards, is interspersed with silly jokes, charts, etc. It could be called a defence of the genre, except that the point is that it doesn’t really need defending at all, most of the criticisms levelled at it are rooted in sexist stereotyping. It probably says something that romance fans fantasising about people falling in love is considered less respectable than my fantasising about people engaging in mass violence with axes and laser guns. The overall tone is one of affection for the genre, celebrating the strengths, revelling in the silly bits and acknowledging the flaws. The parts that talk about the community certainly sounded familiar, particularly the tendency for fans to turn on anyone who they see as betraying the community – I suppose that’s something endemic to small, closely-knit groups who feel threatened or disrespected. I can’t say I’ve been inspired to start reading romance novels, but I certainly enjoyed this and I’ll probably get the authors’ other book at some point. Also the choose-your-own-adventure section is hilarious.
Black Hand Gang – Pat Kelleher
The First World War is at it’s height with the battle of the Somme just beginning, when a regiment of Pennine Fusiliers suddenly find themselves catapulted into a place even more hostile than the Western Front. Just as they’re going over the top, a mysterious forces transports them to an alien planet, along with a few miles of trenches and no-man’s land. This action sci-fi moves along at a pretty pace, no sooner have they arrived on the verdant new world than they’re confronted in quick succession by the hostile wildlife, some very dangerous fauna, and a civilisation of intelligent insectoid creatures. Also, the diabolist responsible for their predicament2 is still lurking in the ranks and stirring up trouble in pursuit of his twisted god. I was impressed with this, for me the secret to pulp sci-fi is the balance between ideas and action and that’s done well here. The central conceit is a good one, and it’s well exploited, as the first in a new series it’s clearly more about introducing the setting and the characters than exploring any of them in depth. The characters themselves are mostly fairly familiar archetypes, but by and large they stay on the right side of cliché. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series, at the very least there should be plenty of ‘plucky Tommys versus insects’ battles and people getting eaten by killer trees.
Shotguns vs Cthulhu – Various
The writers of the stories in this anthology seem, broadly speaking, to have interpreted the title in two ways; stories which are more action-orientated than usual, and stories that are ‘traditional’ in form and which feature shotguns as plot points. By and large most of them feel like they belong in an anthology with this title, the only one which maybe seemed like a stretch was Ekaterina Sedia’s story and in any case it’s a good story so why quibble. The highlights are Adam Scott Glancy’s reworking of a certain horror classic in the Delta Green style, and Ken Hite’s ‘Infernal Device’, which is just brilliant. Cthulhu himslelf actually only crops up a few times, whereas Shub-Niggurath, Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young, appears in quite a few stories, not that that’s a bad thing3 of course. The overall standard is high, I liked some stories more than others but I don’t think any of the could be called poor.
The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan
Brutal fantasy noir by the author of the excellent Takeshi Kovacs cyberpunk novels. This is definitely in a similar vein to those books, taking the fantasy genre and injecting it with a significant dose of sex, violence, and cynicism. Of course, there’s always been a lot of violence and a fair bit of sex, but it’s taken up a notch here; the violence is savage and bloody, with people being crippled and broken rather than just either being basically unaffected by wounds or instantly killed. The sex is also more graphic than usual, and also a little different in that Ringil, the character who gets most screen time, is that rare creature – a gay man in a fantasy story. Ringil is an interesting character, he’d be insufferable except that you can see exactly why he acts the way he does; in a society that’s viciously bigoted he’s able to survive only because of the half-hearted support of his family and his considerable prowess as a warrior and killer. The other two viewpoint characters, an exiled barbarian chief and the sole remaining member of a technologically advanced race which recently fled for another world, are both similarly outsiders who find themselves having to defend a society that is either uncaring or actively hostile to them. My only real complaint is that the cynicism does sometimes get a bit excessive, the flaws of the world are shown well enough that having the main character dwelling on them explicitly seems redundant. Anyway, recommended to people who like a little blood, sex, and misanthropy every now and then.
Cold Warriors – Rebecca Levene
A Russian oligarch is trafficking in potentially apocalyptic artefacts, and the Secret Intelligence Service’s newly reactivated Hermetic Division sends two officers to intercept them; one of them a new recruit whose colleagues tend to have remarkably poor life expectancies, and the other an officer who’s spent the last two decades in the grave. I’ve always liked the espionage/supernatural crossover genre, this one isn’t anything particularly great it but it passes the time well enough. It’s alright, and some of the ideas are pretty good, but it doesn’t really make the most of them and the action scenes aren’t that exciting. It’s not bad, just adequate.
1 An outbreak for which they are only partially responsible.
2 Or is he?
3 Like all Lovecraftian deities (possibly excepting Nyarlathotep) she/it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but simply exists.