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Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

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Twin Freaks, by Paul Magrs
title or description

The last book by Magrs I read was the brilliant Exchange, here: http://marcusgipps.livejournal.com/27545.html. I don't know if he's done anything since - he is a very very prolific author - but this sat on my pile for a month or two because I wasn't entirely convinced I wanted to read a book about reality/talent shows. Seeing as I rate him as an author, I shouldn't be put off by a crappy cover, but I just couldn't bring myself to open the book up. In the end I did something that I rarely do with known authors, and read the blurb on the back. Of course, I instantly regretted not having done that earlier. The set-up all seems a bit obvious - sisters constantly trying for TV shows, one talented but ugly, the other beautiful but with "the voice of a warthog" - until the last few words of the back cover.

"Singing Siamese twin sisters".

How can that not be great?

Anyway, the book itself is really rather enjoyable. Magrs has a style of writing that is quite distinctive, and very easy to read. There is a curious mix of surrealism and realism, over-the-top antics and quiet, quite touching moments. The suggestion that the sisters 'team-up' and fake their way onto Diva Wars almost sneaks onto the page, and the actual specifics of the competition aren't examined in much detail at all. Instead the book concerns itself with the consequences of the deception, both on the sisters and on their immediate friends and relations - their occasionally drunken and always strange mother, her new man, his mother and so on. Each of these people is memorable and consistent - even when their behaviour seems out of character, there is always a reason for it, and so everything rings true. Magrs greatest skill is presenting us with realistic, believeable people, caught up in a complex and often unbelievable world.

Sadly, he isn't always as strong on plot. The book ends on what could be called a cliffhanger, although in fairness it is a brilliant one. There are just a few places throughout the book where even a willing suspension of disbelief can't quite overcome the sense of an author with a great idea who has slowly painted himself into a bit of a corner. I don't really mind, to be honest, because the view from the corner is a great one, but anybody looking for watertight plotting and ultra-realistic settings should probably not be bothering with Magrs at all. After all, he wrote a great book called Hands Up about a demonic hand puppet, which was one of the loveliest books about growing up I've read in a long time. He just may not be for everybody, but I think he's worth checking out.

I read this on holiday over Easter, which shows how far behind I am in this blogging malarkey. I read a proof, but the book is published in June in paperback, ISBN: 9781416926702.
The Book of Dave, by Will Self
title or description

I haven't read any Will Self for a long time. Not for any particularly good reason, just because I haven't really ever felt the urge. I enjoyed his short stories many years ago, but the novel or two I read didn't really do it for me. Lots of people I knew raved about Dorian, but I still couldn't quite be bothered. I only really read this one because we had an event with him on publication last year, and both his reading and the discussion that followed sparked my interest. Still, it has taken me almost a year to get around to it, even though I had a nice signed copy sitting on my shelf. I'd picked it up and looked at it a few times, and so decided to take it with me on holiday so I would have no choice but to read the dan thing.

The reason I had been tempted by the book was the same reason I kept on deciding not to read it quite yet. One of my two favourite, most-loved books is Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, set in a post-apocalyptic England, where language and culture and history have degenerated into a barely recognisable setting. I've also enjoyed the various homage/pastiche books, such as the middle section of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and, to a certain extent, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Self had been quite open in the fact that he had been influenced by Hoban, and to be honest I wasn't entirely convinced that he could pull it off. A book has to be pretty damn good to convince me to compare it to Riddley Walker, and I wasn't entirely convinced by the idea of alternating chapters, past and present.

To be fair, the book is actually pretty good. I think I enjoyed the future sections more, probably because I was looking for a Hoban-type book, rather than the story of a london cabbie having a bit of a breakdown. Having said that, the present day bits were rather enjoyable (in a fairly dark way, most of the time), and in many ways Dave (the cabbie) was more entertaining as a character than the future protaganist, Carl (who shares a name with Dave's son). The plot is too complex to be broken down here, but in the end the two sections have very little in common with each other. There are thematic links, certainly, and both parts do answer some questions that have been raised in the other strand, but still, I would have been fairly happy, I think, if the book had just contained the "Distant Future" bit.

Having said that, the "Recent Past" chapters do inform our reactions to the future stuff, and fill in some of the reasons for the strange ceremonies and beliefs and language and so on. Hoban manages to fill us in on all the important information without any 'proper' English, and I suppose it is unfair to expect Self to do the same (after all, he isn't writing the same book), but I did feel that it was a little bit of a cheat. I don't want to give the impression that I didn't enjoy the Dave sections, because I did, I just felt that the whole structure of the book was weakened by the constant to-ing and fro-ing between the two.

The ending is as downbeat as one would expect from Self, but then there has been a sense throughout the book that things are not going to finish well. After all, we know that the future of London is not going to be a happy one, and the sheer grimnness of the future civilisation suggests that future-Carl will not long be able to resist the forces that are against him. However, we do not get to see the end of his journey - the last future section ends with him walking away to face his future, be it good or bad (actually, here Self does the same thing as Magrs did in Twin Freaks - making the reader decide for themselves what will happen after the story is over). There is then a coda which wraps up Dave's story and ends with the final betrayal of his beliefs. It is no surprise that a future influenced by Dave will not be a friendly one, and I was forced to rethink my (possibly over-optimistic, anyway) hope that Carl might prevail. Life isn't easy, and people we love can hurt us. Not a cheery book, but in many ways a good one.

I read a signed/personalised Hardback while on holiday over Easter, but the paperback is now available, ISBN: 0141014547.
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
title or description

Hooray, yet another large debut fantasy novel from Gollancz. After a couple of more mainstream books, I wanted something big and silly and fun to read as well, especially as The Book of Dave had been such a gruelling read. I'd been told by a couple of people that I would like this one, but then it is the publishers job to convince me of these things! However, the Gollancz list is very strong at the moment, and they have picked up some very strong new authors, so I couldn't really argue about trying this one. But yes, it is another fantasy trilogy. Look away now if you're not bothered, although to be honest if you're not bothered you're probably not looking at this page anyway. Actually, is anybody? Who knows...

Sorry. Anyway, this is (again), a really pretty good first novel. I know that it came out in the States a few months ago, and had some great press there, but I wasn't convinced that it would therefore be something that I would enjoy. I mean, the Trudi Canavan books had good hype about them, and I found the first one to be slightly dull and unoriginal (http://marcusgipps.livejournal.com/34680.html). And, as you can see from the cover above, no-one really seems to be trying to sell this as anything other than a Fantasy Book. That cover is the US one, thankfully - the UK version is slightly better, although it still looks a little too Canavan for my tastes.

The first fifty or so pages are pretty interesting, as we meet an innkeeper with a Mysterious Past and an apprentice who is clearly not all that he seems, a demony thing attacks, and an itinerant writer comes to the inn, recognises our barman and convinces him that he should tell the story of his life. And then we're into the standard territory of 'precocious child with surprising aptitude for magic, parents killed by 'Evil' from the old 'Legends', "I will avenge you"' and so on. I know that all sounds pretty cliched, and to be fair there are points where it comes off that way, but Rothfuss is actually a pretty good writer, and he makes some of the obvious conventions of the genre seem less objectionable than they sometimes do.

And, of course, this is a genre book. Just because I prefer novels that play with the rules rather than by them doesn't mean that this sort of thing is bad, just that it isn't always for me. To be fair, as the book progressed I did find myself getting into it a lot more. Yes, there isn't anything really ground-breaking here, but once the plot starts to get going (ie after Kvothe's parents are killed), Rothfuss manages to make the tropes rather fun. Yes, we spend time with the orphan as he tries to survive in an unpleasant and cruel city by stealing, and yes, we follow him as he goes to Magic University at a very young age and gets bullied by snobs, falls in love, makes an enemy of the Most Powerful Boy in School, finds that some teachers like him and some dislike him unreasonably and unfairly, and so on and so on.

That sounds like I didn't like the book, but everything is done with such vigour, and is so entertaining, that I could forgive most of it. I found myself really hoping that Kvothe would get to go to school, and would win the music competition thing, and would humiliate the bullies and so on. In fairness, I rarely assumed that he would always manage these things - Rothfuss is prepared to put his lead through some hard times, and there wasn't really ever a sense that everything was going to go perfectly for him. There are lots of little mysteries set up that are clearly going to pay off at some point later in the series, and, although many of the characters are a bit two-dimensional compared to Kvothe, there are a few that stand out as well-developed and written.

There were a few bits that annoyed me - if you saw Mystical Legendary Evil things kill your parents, tell the teachers at your Magic School who clearly know all about them, for fuck's sake, don't just go 'ooh, they won't believe me, I'll do it all by myself'. And if the Most Powerful Boy in School sets out to destroy you, don't put yourself in obvious positions where he'll be able to. Apart from a few minor things like that, though, I blazed through the book and was looking forward to more.

Having said that, one thing did strike me when I reached the final pages. Throughout the narrative we have jumped back and forth between Kvothe telling the story of his childhood and Kvothe, retired and hiding from his fame/infamy and just wanting to run his little bar in the middle of nowhere, in a town that has just been attacked by some sort of Terrible Demon. Only a few pages every fifty or so, but we are clearly meant to prepare for Kvothe to pick up his old sword (it lives above the bar, of course) and go out and take up his place as the most famous hero of his age. And by the end of the book, almost seven hundred pages in, how far have we got into his life story? As far as the beginning of his second year at Magic School. One of the quotes on the cover blurb is "I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are let in", so we have a bit further to go, I guess. The whole series is called "the KingKiller Chronicle", and we haven't even met a King yet. If we get to the end of book three or whatever, and finish the 'story of my exciting childhood and amazing life', and the whole series ends with "and now I must go and see what this new threat is", I will have to punch somebody. Seriously. Probably not Rothfuss, seeing as I've never met him, but perhaps his UK editor or something. Just saying. Warn me now if I need to expect "the KingKiller Chronicles II - this time we're not going to just look at the past" or something.

Anyway, I rather liked it. I read a proof, and the Hardback is published in September over here in the UK, ISBN: 9780575081390.
The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange, by Mark Barrowcliffe
title or description

I picked this up at work (while I was still temporarily at the SF/gaming shop) because it was one of the few books that wasn't completely off-putting for me, and I needed something light to read on lunch breaks and so on. Also, I still felt that I ought to be making some effort to understand the gaming side of things, which I still really didn't get at all.

Much like Dalek, I Loved You (http://marcusgipps.livejournal.com/37352.html), this is a biography told through an obsession. As with the other book, a very male thing to be obsessed with, and to spend your formative childhood/teenage years thinking about. Again, a terrible/great pun for a title (depends on how you feel about puns, really). And again, a rather nice book that is probably too involved in the subject matter to ever really attract a non-interested audience. With Dalek, I knew enough about Who to be able to get all of the little references, and to not be put off by them. I've never really played Dungeons and Dragons, but I've read my fair share of fantasy novels (obviously...), read a few of the tie-in books when I was a kid, and have played a couple of the games on the computer from time to time, so I coped with this, although I'm sure I missed some of the jokes and references. I think lots of people wouldn't bother to pick this up, though, which is a shame.

There isn't really any reason for this sort of book to be published - the lives of these people aren't that exciting, and tying them to a fad/hook will probably limit the size of the audience that will be prepared to even look at the book, let alone buy it. Yes, I know it worked for Nick Hornby, and it has worked for a couple of other people, but mostly these seem like books that don't really have a purpose. But again, as with Dalek, I found myself enjoying this. Barrowcliffe is an engaging writer, and he's quite prepared to admit just how worrying he was at times. And, of course, nowadays he's much more balanced, and has given it all up. Except... But yeah, it worked for me, even though I didn't expect it too. Worth reading if you're into D&D, and worth having a look at even if you aren't. Bit blokey, though, in places.

Out now in Hardback, ISBN: 9781405091268. I read a shop copy while eating lunch and smoking and so on at work.

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