Writing, life, politics

Category: Reviews

The Gutter Prayer, by Gareth Hanrahan

I’ve just (belatedly!) ordered the signed, limited Goldsboro Books edition of the Gutter Prayer, the debut mainstream novel of my very good friend1 Gareth Hanrahan (actually Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, but that’s apparently too long a name to fit on a novel’s cover). Limited edition as it is, it costs £24.99, but I think that’s actually excellent value for money given that Gar’s first published work cost me €4002.

The paperback version isn’t being published until January, but ARCs are already getting some pretty stunning reviews, such as this short but sharp one on Goodreads:

“From carrion gods to alchemical warfare, this is genre-defying fantasy at its very best. An absolutely stunning debut. Insanely inventive and deeply twisted. I loved it! Highly recommended.” – Michael Fletcher

Alternatively, you can check out Gar’s own elevator pitch, or the series of blog posts he wrote about the story’s fantasy city setting. Either way, I’d recommend checking it out, and I’m not just saying that because he’s a mate.

1I mean this in the genuine non-Hollywoodian way, as in we attended each other’s weddings. At his, my wife and I stood on a County Kerry beach in glorious sunshine and watched a magical ceremony. At mine, he couldn’t go back to his hotel room, and I believe ended up part of a group who were locked out of the hotel – but in my defence I’d already departed on my honeymoon at that point, and so I’ll admit to no responsibility.

2This was at the 2003 (I think!) Gaelcon charity auction, back in the pre-Lehman days when Irish charity auctions were mad, bad, and dangerous to one’s wallet. If you don’t believe me, here’s a video of me paying for the lots I won, afterwards, although I should point that that about €300 of that was Evil G’s.


Review: The Fat Controller’s Busy Day

One of the hazards of having a day job, a writing career on the side, and a two-year old daughter, is that it does rather cut into the time you have available to actually read fiction, let alone review it. But I do feel that as an author it’s important to try and “put something back” by providing reviews, so I’m going to start now with some thoughts on something I read recently.

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FatControllerPic“The Fat Controller’s Busy Day” is a frankly disturbing piece of work, reading – as it does – like Animal Farm might have read had it been written by a reactionary conservative rather than a progressive socialist. The story’s essential plot is as follows.

The manager of Sodor’s railway system, the hereditary baronet Sir Topham Hatt, has been slimming down his workforce, promoting Thomas the Tank Engine to his own branch line while leaving his previous shunting position unfilled. Historically, tender engines have not been required to assemble the coaches that make up their trains. But Hatt now decides to eliminate this labour demarcation, and orders them to shunt.

Three of the tender engines – Gordon, James and Henry – refuse, working to rule, and performing only those duties that they have previously performed. They will pull trains, but not assemble them. On the first day of the work to rule, Hatt asks the fourth tender engine, Edward, to assemble the passenger trains. Edward, who Hatt sees as a “really useful engine”, but whom might less charitably be seen as a management lackey and class traitor, agrees, and as a result is ostracised by his workmates.

Upon hearing of this, Hatt – who is colloquially known as “the Fat Controller” – is outraged. He immediately institutes a lockout, barring the three protesting engines, and initiates an emergency passenger service using Edward and Thomas, a tank engine happy to serve as a strike-breaker. However, more labour is required, so Hatt now recruits a new tank engine, Percy. Percy, a young and naïve engine unaware that he is being recruited into the management side of a labour dispute, eagerly agrees.

The three engines successfully run the emergency service. There are fewer trains than usual, but the passengers are content as they wish to see the three “rebellious” tender engines punished. Eventually, the three tender engines – who have been confined to their engine shed – agree to comply with all Hatt’s demands. From now on they will accept the abandonment of their previous, protected status, and will shunt alongside their tank engine colleagues.

I feel this book is fundamentally misnamed. The Fat Controller has not had a busy day, being as he is a capitalistic industrialist born into inherited wealth who emotionally manipulates his workforce into serving him, and backs this up with an extensive propaganda campaign. I personally feel that this book would have been more honest, had it been titled “Edward the Scab and Percy the Strike-Breaker”.

On the other hand, my daughter loves it.

Thoughts On Recently Read Books

In no particular order, and in no way a complete list, here are some thoughts on some books I’ve read recently. These aren’t quite reviews, and I’m not therefore going to be scoring them.

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Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Like David Devereux’s Hunter’s Moon, which I’m writing about below, this book comes into the category of “Book I probably wouldn’t have bought under normal circumstances, but did so because I met the author and he seemed like a pretty cool bloke.” And like Hunter’s Moon, if I were assigning scores, I’d probably give Tail of the Blue Bird a 4 out of 5 “good, I really enjoyed it” rather than a 5 out of 5 “great, it blew my mind” because it’s not quite my thing. (i.e. If I really liked it and it isn’t quite my thing, then if it really is your thing then it might just blow your mind).

I met Nii Parkes at the London Writers’ Club a few months ago, when he came to give a talk. As I said above, he seemed like a pretty cool guy, so I bought a copy of his book, and read it on the train that week. What’s it about? Well here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Sonokrom, a village in the Ghanaian hinterland, has not changed for thousands of years. Here, the men and women speak the language of the forest, drink aphrodisiacs with their palm wine and walk alongside the spirits of their ancestors. The discovery of sinister remains – possibly human, definitely ‘evil’ –and the disappearance of a local man brings the intrusion of the city in the form of Kayo; a young forensic pathologist convinced that scientific logic can shatter even the most inexplicable of mysteries.

As events in the village become more and more incomprehensible, Kayo and his sidekick, Constable Garba, find that Western logic and political bureaucracy are no longer equal to the task in hand. Strange boys wandering in the forest, ghostly music in the night and a flock of birds that come from far away to fill a desolate hut with discarded feathers take the newcomers into a world where, in the unknown, they discover a higher truth that leaves scientific explanations far behind.

Tail of the Blue Bird is a story of the clash and clasp between old and new worlds. Lyrically beautiful, at once uncanny and heart-warmingly human, this is a story that tells us that at the heart of modern man there remains the capacity to know the unknowable.

As novels go, it’s perhaps a little more literary than I generally go for – but it’s still a very good fun read. Nii uses a lot of Ghanian words, phrasing and manners of speech (something which he discusses here); this can make the book slightly harder to read, but in return really transports you to this other world and culture.

I think I can best explain this book to my roleplaying readers by saying that after reading it, I wanted to run a Call of Cthulhu / Trail of Cthulhu game set in Ghana, because it perfectly catches that Cthulhuesque point on the cusp of reality and magic.

Anyhow, it’s a good book and I enjoyed it.

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Hunter’s Moon by David Devereux

This is another book that I originally bought because I met the author (we were on a panel together at Dragonmeet), and he turned out to be a cool bloke – but it’s good enough that I now would have bought it anyway, something that I can say with some certainty because I’ve just ordered its sequel, Eagle Rising.

Hunters Moon is of the genre that I believe is called Urban Fantasy; this isn’t typically a genre I read, which should be borne in mind when reading my comments. (i.e. I thought it was pretty damn good, so if you are into urban fantasy you might think it was pretty damn great).

The book’s probably best summed up by the tag line on the cover: “Magician by profession. Bastard by Disposition.” but if that’s a bit cryptic for you, here’s the back-cover blurb:

“My name is unimportant, but you can call me Jack. I’m a musician by choice, a magician by profession, and a bastard by disposition. I’d been doing the magic thing for about five years when they found me. They said I had a talent, that I was smart enough and fit enough and enough of a shit that I could serve my country in a way most people never even get to hear about. And I did want to serve my country, didn’t I? I didn’t really want to contemplate what might happen if I said no.”

Jack has found himself on the front line of a secret war, so bizarre, so terrifying that most people simply wouldn’t believe it was possible. Working for a secret organisation tasked with defending our country from whatever supernatural threat faces it. MI5 know nothing about it and would laugh if they found out. Well at first they would … 

Wherever the forces of darkness gather, Jack is there in the shadows, waiting for them.

He is a very modern sort of magician – trained in a variety of the magical arts, adept at exorcism but also a dab hand with a Heckler and Koch, skilled in unarmed combat and electronic surveillance. And with a coven of witches calling on their dark master to help them assassinate the prime minister he’s going to need all those skills and more.

It’s a good quick read; fun, action-packed, and with one particular incident of assassination whose method still makes me both smile in admiration (at the inventiveness of the author’s mind in coming up with it) and wince in horror (at the horrible awfulness of the victim’s demise).

I won’t spoil anyone’s fun by revealing it further, but trust me, when you get to the bit where you’re shaking your head and saying, “Oh God, no, that’s just sick!” you’ll know it’s the bit I’m talking about.

I liked it.

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Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski

Red Moon Rising was a Christmas present from my lovely wife; that she has good taste and knows me well is evidenced by the fact that I really enjoyed it. It tells the story of the very first part of the Space Race, starting from the V2 rockets of the Second World War, and ending with the launch of Explorer I, the first US satellite, on the 31st January 1958.

I’m quite a space nut, and thought I was already well-versed in the history of space exploration. But this book went quite a bit deeper than my previous level of knowledge, with many fascinating anecdotes that revealed the degree to which chaotic internal politics influenced the decisions taken by both Eisenhower and Khrushchev during this period.

If you’re into space, I’d strongly recommend this book.

Adam Marek’s Instruction Manual For Swallowing

A few weeks ago, I went to Tales of the Decongested, an event about which I didn’t blog because I was more concerned over the disappearance of my entire website, due to what turned out to be some kind of idiotic cock-up by my hosting company.

So what I didn’t mention was that I met a pretty nice guy called Adam Marek, who’d been one of the readers at that evening’s event, and that he’s sold me a copy of his short-story collection, Instruction Manual For Swallowing. Now I’ll be honest here and admit that I’d bought the book purely on the basis of him being a nice guy and knowing from personal, and sometimes bitter, experience just how crap it is to be carrying about a bag full of books at least some of which you’d rather like to sell.

You’re chatting, you mention that you’ve written a book, they say something polite about perhaps buying it, you reveal that actually you do have a copy with you if they’d like to buy it, and the entire conversation then trundles neatly into the parking gallary of embarrassment, the easiest exit of which is for the non-author side of the conversation to offer up a crisp ten pound note. (Non-authors might disagree about this being the easiest way to resolve the embarrassing situation).

(I should stress that in no way did Adam hard sell me, guilt trip me, or anything like that. He was calm, polite and totally at ease – but I can get myself feeling embarrassed and guilty in an empty room and need no help from others).

Anyhow, so I bought it because he was a nice guy and it’s not very nice when you have a book to sell; but when I flipped it open and glanced at the first paragraph of the first story, I figured that I had no worries – because this was looking like a book I’d have bought anyway:

I once met a man with a 40-litre monkey. He measured all his animals by volume. His Dalmatian was small, only 18 litres, but his cat, a Prussian blue, was huge – five litres, when most cats are three. He owned a pet shop just off Portobello Road. I needed a new pet for my girlfriend because our last two had just killed each other.

More excerpts…

How cool is that for a beginning? I may as well at this point give you the blurb:

Robotic insects, a restaurant for zombies, a woman pregnant with 37 babies…welcome to the surreal, misshapen universe of Adam Marek’s first collection, where the body is fluid, the spirit mechanised and beasts often tell us more about our humanity than anything we can teach ourselves.

The stories are difficult to classify by genre. They don’t read like science-fiction or fantasy, but nearly all of the stories have some kind of fantastical edge. I think I’ll leave it by just saying that it’s a pretty damn good book and I really enjoyed reading it.

Oh, and Adam’s now got a new website up, complete with a blog and a Twitter feed.

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