The Judas Pair

Time to play catch up…

I have been reading constantly for the last few months despite the lack of posting here, so let’s pick things up with a quick look at The Judas Pair by Jonathan Gash.

This is the first book to feature the roguish antique dealer, Lovejoy. It’s an enjoyable romp despite being very much of its time, i.e. the late seventies.

After some humming and hawing, Lovejoy accepts the job of tracking down a legendary pair of flintlock pistols despite doubts that they even exist. He soon discovers that two people associated with the pistols are dead and this is enough to convince him the weapons are less legendary than they seem. Armed with a bit of ingenuity and bundles of charm he devises a plan to track down the pistols and apprehend the murderer.

The Judas Pair is a fairly short novel of just over 200 pages and as such didn’t take long to read. It has enough plot twists and turns to keep you guessing and the pages turning and I enjoyed the book enough that I can see myself working through the series in times to come.

It’s worth mentioning that, having been a fan of the BBC tv series, I kept comparing the story with my memories of the antics of Ian McShane, Phyllis Logan, Dudley Sutton and co. There are similarities between the two but the differences are enough to give the books a life of their own – pretty much what you would expect with any work that has been adapted for film, tv or stage.

Find out more over at Goodreads.

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I Am Legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson is one of my favourite books. It is a genre spanning classic merging apocalyptic fiction, sci-fi and horror whilst turning the lone-vampire-terrorising-Carpathian-village paradigm completely upside-down.

Robert Neville is a lone survivor in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a plague that has made vampires of its victims. He ekes out an existence in Los Angeles: scavenging and systematically hunting and killing vampires by day; besieged by a blood-thirsty horde at night.

Starved of human contact, his loneliness brings bouts of depression from which he retreats into the embrace of alcohol. The constant nightly assault of the plague’s victims bring him to the brink of madness but in time he comes to think it may be possible to cure the disease, to reverse its effect and regain some measure of societal sanity. So he begins a study of blood, bacteria, psychology and other branches of science in search of a treatment that will restore normality.

Of course, in such a world, things can never be so straight-forward.

Although a fairly short book (about 160 pages), I Am Legend is packed with ideas and information. It contains elements of horror and science fiction, as well as strands of science fact. There are vampires and violence and what I still consider a brilliant sting in the tail. But all that aside, I think it is essentially a tale of loneliness and abandonment. An examination of the most terrifying aspect of being alive, perhaps – being completely and utterly bereft of any human contact. As such I think it works very well and I doubt there is anyone that wouldn’t be moved by Robert Neville’s plight.

What else? Well, there are the movies: The Last Man On Earth – a very good movie starring the great Vincent Price and perhaps the truest to the novel; The Omega Man, not so faithful to the book, starring the even greater Charlton Heston (a movie that I remember very fondly from childhood days); and finally, the effects driven modern adventure romp I Am Legend starring Will Smith (whose greatness is still to be decided, at least for me) and perhaps only a distant relation to the novel. There may be others but these are the ones I’ve seen and I’d pick The Omega Man as my favourite.

Ah, well, maybe it is better to set the movies to one side and settle for the book.

Ender’s Game

If you employ the services of your favourite inquiry apparatus to scan the content of this rather marvellous electric webternet you will be presented with many reports that Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card is considered to have lost a few of the, erm, cards from his deck. Having read some of these dispatches I must stress that I disagree with his views and find some of them quite appalling but I don’t see this as a reason not to read this novel.

That said, Ender’s Game won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and, despite it’s author’s unorthodox outlook, is considered by many to be a classic of the sci-fi genre. The novel has also been made into a movie which I’m keen to see – though I suspect I may end up waiting for the DVD rather than watching it on the big screen. So I decided to set any further consideration of Card’s opinions to one side and read the book.

Ender’s Game introduces us to Andrew Wiggin (Ender) who is enrolled in Battle School where children are trained to fight in a war against an alien race known as “buggers”. It soon becomes apparent that Ender has a talent for leadership and, seen by some as mankind’s best chance to win the war, is promoted to Command School.

It is difficult to say much more about this book without revealing plot details that will spoil things for other readers. I can say that I found Ender’s story thoroughly absorbing and something of a page turner. It’s a well-paced sci-fi thriller which packs quite a bit into its 300+ pages.

There are a few violent scenes depicted in the book and having children as the protagonists in these is somewhat unsettling. Ender’s abusive treatment by the adults that provide his military schooling is also somewhat disturbing but then Ender, through his actions, is not necessarily deserving of the heroic accolades he receives come concluding scenes. The book has drawn some criticism for this (notably by John Kessel in his essay Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality – a very worthwhile read btw but you should read the book first). So there is much to provoke thought should you be so inclined.

Of course, I prefer to set the criticism and examination of the book’s intended message to one side and enjoy it as the entertaining slice of sci-fi that it undoubtedly is.

Kraken

What can you say about a book such as Kraken by China Miéville?

It is a marvellous, fantastical mix of vanishing giant squid, guardian angels cast from bottles, a talking tattoo, assorted cults, conjurers, deceased crime lords, timeless assassins, familiars on strike and so much more. And then there’s Billy Harrow propelled into the middle of this chaos when he discovers the miraculous disappearance of that giant squid from its home in the Natural History Museum.

This tale is a phantasmagorical smorgasbord of supernatural imagination which at times leaves you struggling to take on board the latest wonder revealed by a turn of the page. So although I enjoyed the story I did find myself a bit overwhelmed trying to keep track of everything that was going on.

Miéville is a part of the New Weird genre, which I’ve only been peripherally aware of up until now. And I guess that is appropriate as there is much weirdness at play in Kraken. Though based on my past reading experiences I’d opt for Lovecraftian as a more familiar categorisation and certainly a source of influence. A lot of the scenes described in Kraken struck me as very reminiscent of those created by Lovecraft in those stories featuring other and parallel worlds (e.g. The Horror At Red Hook, The Colour Out Of Space, At The Mountains Of Madness). I also felt I detected the influence of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and Imajica. Given Lovecraft’s and Barker’s influence on the genre of fantastical horror such comparisons are perhaps no bad thing.

Anyhow, Kraken is a very impressive work of imagination and an absorbing read. Be warned, though, some of the scenes conjured by this particular imagination are dark, disturbing and a-drip with gore.

Enter Miéville’s world at your peril.

Deadline

Deadline is Mira Grant’s sequel to Feed (which I “reviewed” here) and the second book in her Newsflesh Trilogy.

If you’ve read Feed then you already know of its dramatic conclusion and are wondering how the story can move on from there. Well fear not, for the story moves on at some pace and with plenty of twists and turns. Some new characters are introduced as Shaun Mason continues to investigate the genesis of the Kellis-Amberlee virus which makes zombies of those it infects.

As he and the After End Times blogging crew pursue various leads they find themselves at odds with the Centers for Disease Control and mired in a web of conspiracy that grows ever thicker. They track down a secret and unofficial laboratory run by Dr. Shannon Abbey who discloses some surprising facts about the virus and how she is attempting to treat it.

Armed with this information and some unpleasant facts gleaned from the CDC about how the virus is being used to control the population Shaun and his team return to their current base. Travelling under cover of a hurricane they soon realise that fresh zombie mayhem is afoot. There have been mass outbreaks of Kellis-Amberlee amplification across the country. A second Rising has begun.

The second book of the Newsflesh Trilogy is a match for the first in terms of pace and excitement. Mira Grant continues to build her post-zombie-apocalypse world by providing more history and further exploring the nature of the zombie virus. She adds further detail and explanation to the reservoir conditions which allows the virus to be hosted in the human body prior to amplification. And, most importantly, she adds more depth to her characters through dialogue, backstory and exploration of the situations they find themselves in and the emotional consequences they are exposed to. There is no sign of second-novel-in-a-series-slump here. A fact borne out by twists, turns and cliff-hangers that leave you wondering what the hell is coming next.

Deadline deserves a big thumbs up and all the attention you can give it.

The Lost Symbol

It’s taken me a very long time to get round to reading Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol and I know it’s a work of fiction – suspension of disbelief and all that – but:

Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh. Dear.

Some interesting ideas, some exciting scenes but I found the characters (even the long serving Robert Langdon) rather uninspiring and lifeless. Also the boundaries of belief are stretched just a bit too far with respect to the amazing achievements of noetic “science” and the Masonic symbology which seems to hold the very fabric of Washington D.C. together. And as for the last 6 chapters and the epilogue? They really just pad the book out and could easily have been condensed sparing us more nonsense about secret wisdom encoded in holy books and lost secrets of the ancients (and not so ancients).

Overall I was disappointed and can’t really give it that high a recommendation.

That said, I’ll still probably give his latest tale, Inferno, a chance to offer redemption at some point.

Blood Music

I’ve now got a few of these book view things to catch up on so I’ll start with some thoughts on Greg Bear’s novel Blood Music which I kept seeing in lists of classic sci-fi novels. As the recommendations always seemed very positive I figured I’d better read it myself. This turned out to be a pretty good decision.

The story takes the idea of biotechnology running amok as its main theme and is set kind of in the present-ish. Vergil Ulam’s employer grows worried about the dangerous potential of his experimentation with biological machines and decides that the work must be destroyed. Ulam has too much invested in what he has achieved and, in a panic to preserve his creation, injects himself with a solution containing some of the machines which he has dubbed “noocytes”. His intention is to recover them later and resume his work but this plan goes awry and events soon take a turn for the worse.

Or perhaps the better?

Conditions within Ulam are just right for the noocytes to replicate and evolve. As awareness dawns they begin to make subtle alterations to Ulam’s physiology correcting defects, implementing improvements. Soon they are on the move as Ulam’s contacts with other people allows his “infection” to be transmitted.

It is difficult to add more without giving too much of the story away, so I’ll close by saying that what follows is a thought-provoking and at times nightmarish vision of a world where a scientific leap made with the best of intentions leads to dramatically unexpected consequences. Perhaps there are some places that we should not allow science and technology to take us?

Does Blood Music live up to that tag of classic sci-fi with which I had seen it so widely associated? On balance it does, being a well written exploration of the unknowable results of biological tinkering.

2001: A Space Odyssey

I re-read 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke recently because I fancied watching Kubrik’s movie and wanted the book fresh in my mind for comparison – there are some pretty major differences between the two even though they were developed in parallel and took Clarke’s short story The Sentinel as a starting point.

Both the book and the movie are rightly considered classic sci-fi material. The book is a quick read, weighing in at around 220 pages, but there is a lot packed into it. A mysterious monolith, an evolutionary leap, a voyage to Saturn, a conflicted computer, death, chaos, aliens and a mind-altering finale.

The movie contains all these and more. Clocking in at over 140 minutes, it is one of the most visually stunning movies you’ll ever see. The sets are amazing and the effects always make my jaw drop, especially the ground-breaking space visuals which are hugely impressive. Also notable is the lack of dialogue for much of the film with music and sound effects being used extensively instead. I think this enhances the movie by making you focus on and think about what you are seeing making it a thoroughly absorbing experience.

In short: brilliant book + utterly spectacular movie = classic sci-fi.

Life Of Pi

Life Of Pi by Yann Martel is a book that has intrigued me since I first saw it on the shelf of a local bookshop back in 2002, when it won the Man Booker Prize For Fiction. In fact, during visits to various bookshops I’ve found myself with a copy in the pile of books I planned to buy only to swap it for something else. Then the book got made into a movie and so reading it became a lot more urgent – it looks like a movie I want to see and I prefer to read the book before seeing the film.

So, the book?

Well, you just have to wonder how things are going to develop when a young boy finds himself adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger called Richard Parker for company. The fact is that the story develops in all kinds of ways as Pi and Parker find themselves at sea for 227 days. This presents Pi with a number of practical issues to overcome, the most pressing of which is to ensure he doesn’t get eaten by the tiger.

As Pi adapts to his situation, makes plans for his survival and drifts on the Pacific his story is told in a series of flashbacks. We find out about Pi’s family and their zoo, discover how he got his name and learn how he aspires to be Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time. We also hear the amusing tale of how a tiger came to be named Richard Parker. Most importantly, we learn about the human spirit and the will to survive.

It’s quite an engaging tale, so much so that you start to empathise with Pi, sharing his fear, frustration and moments of triumph. Especially when he has his somewhat surreal meerkat encounter as the tale draws to a close.

This one deserves a big thumbs up and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie – eventually – some time after it becomes available on DVD.

The Dark

As I’ve said elsewhere, The Rats by James Herbert is one of my favourite horror novels and I rank Herbert himself among the best of the horror authors I’ve read. Yet The Dark is a book that I’ve somehow managed not to read until recently. I guess the main reason for this delay was just not having come across a copy to buy or borrow until I picked up the Kindle version in a promotion on Amazon.

Anyhow, I finally got round to reading it and overall found it an enjoyable experience. In this outing Herbert mixes elements of the haunted house, occult and possessed sub-genres to good effect and the story nips along at a fair pace. There’s a fair bit of action sprinkled with gore which, let’s face it, is what you expect from a James Herbert tale. I wouldn’t say that it was an especially scary read but it does provide a few shocks and confronts the reader with some extreme and unsettling scenes – indicative of the madness gripping the victims of the evil force they have fallen prey to.

Although I did enjoy reading The Dark, I don’t think it’s one of James Herbert’s best. I felt the pace slowed down and the plot became a little unclear early in the second half of the story (too much going on and maybe too much wierdness?). However things did get back on track, the pace picked up and matters were brought to a conclusion – which I’d like to say more about but won’t (spoilers and all that, you know). I will say that I felt the conclusion worked though I’ve since read a few reviews that suggest it doesn’t. I think that just means that it is one of those thought provoking endings that we all read different things into. Which is perhaps the result the author was aiming for?

In conclusion: if you’re a fan of James Herbert you’ve already read this. If not then this one will unsettle you enough to keep you awake on a long flight or stop you falling asleep at the beach. However James Herbert has written better books (The Rats, The Fog, The Secret of Crickley Hall, Portent, etc).