Posted June 16, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
My thanks to Professor Bryan Gaensler for delivering up this weekend's freebie read, an edited chapter from his awesome book of thinky science things about the universe. Yes. The whole fucking universe. Today's extract is a roaring piece about the loudest sound never heard, and Extreme Cosmos is chockers with stuff like this that kids and teen geeks in particular would love.
It's probably also worth bookmarking for Father's Day
Posted June 12, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
Got a mess of my own making to clean up today, so I thought I'd reach back into the archive for this one, a review of Cell by da King. It got a relevence refresh with news that a movie adaptation is back on track and scheduled to begin shooting later this year. John Cusack is set to star. Given the success of The Walking Dead and the anticipation surrounding Under the Dome, it's almost a lay down certainty to reach the multiplexes sometime next year. I remember this as being one the creepiest King books ever, and viscerally horrifying with it.
The supermarkets and mega stores like Borders will probably discount Stephen King's latest novel, Cell, using it as a loss leader to drag punters into the shop. You might even get it for less than twenty bucks, but don't imagine for a second that's all you're going to pay. There'll be a heavy toll levied on anyone who reads this thing from cover to cover; vivid nightmares that wreck your sleep for however long it takes you finish and get the creepy thing out of your system
As with the best of King's work, Cell comes with a simple premise. At 3.03pm, US Eastern Standard Time, some sort of Pulse runs through every mobile phone in the world. Anyone using their natty little Erricson at that time goes violently insane. And as the author points out, who doesn't own a mobile nowadays? As millions of zombie's possessed by their batphones suddenly turn on the rest of the population, those not affected at first begin to ring friends and family to warn them or to find out what's happening, and they too get zapped by Satan's Own telco. Only a small percentage of people remain unaffected, either because they don't have mobiles, or they stay off them long to realise that they are the source of the problems.
Keeping such a global disaster personalised is the role of Clay Riddell, 'a young man of no particular importance to history', a graphic artist caught in Boston during the Pulse. The book follows his attempts to make it home, a hundred miles away, to his twelve year old son, for whom he had only just purchased a mobile phone. Clay throws in his lot with an ensemble cast of suppporting survivors; notably Alice, a traumatised teenager and Tom, a confirmed bachelor of much less than heroic stature, who turns out to be one of the most sympathetically drawn gay men you'll ever find in pulp fiction.
Possibly the goriest of Stephen King's books so far, it won't be for everybody. Never one to resile from painting humanity in the worst light, recent events seem to have darkened his view of us even further. The book is current enough to include references to Hurricane Katrina, and the aftermath of that disaster informs the shocking and occasionally sickening portrait of a world in collapse which takes up the first part of the narrative.
With it's legions of blank-eyed, shuffling undead unpeople, Cell quickly reveals itself as a zombie horror story, in the style of George Romero, one of King's favorite auteurs. And like Romero, King uses the iconic figure of the zombie for satircal as well as scarifying purposes. When the phone crazies, as they are quickly dubbed, begin to exhibit flocking behaviour, and march in jerky lockstep to nearest mega mall to strip it clean of rapidly decaying foodstuffs, they recall scenes from Romero's Dawn of Dead, which was as much a commentary on American materialism as it was a low budget splatterfest.
As usual, King's story is loaded with references to the world of real things – a phrase of which he is very fond – and while some of these merely provide verisimilutde, others point to a deeper intent on the writer's part. The opening scenes are purposely drawn in the shadow of 9/11, and Al Qaeda's mass casualty attack haunts both the action and the thoughts of the main characters throughout. King is also The King however, and a world full of flesh eating zombies isn't nearly interesting enough to keep him at the keyboard. He amps up the story wattage with a developing subplot about the victims of the Pulse beginning to act as a single organism with weirdly otherworldly Stephen Kingly-type super powers.
It might all sound like a load of old cods, but all of his books would, when viewed in blurb form. King pulls them off because he has that rare facility of making you believe it could happen. I challenge anyone to read this book and feel comfortable making a phone call right afterwards. Indeed, like all true art, the Cell lingers in your mind, having its greatest effect when the immediate experience of the work is over. It's like a depth charge, sinking deeper and deeper into your subconcious and detonating days afterwards in the form of some very unpleasant dreams.
It can and will be read on different levels. As simple freak show carnography. As a satire on commercial culture. A homage to Romero. Even as a reflection on the war in Iraq. (One character makes this link explicit). For me though, it marks a stunning return to form of the heaviest hitter in the world of the airport novel. If you don't mind being pursued through your dreams by a ravening host of zombies, this one is for you.
Posted May 20, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
Nobody believes you when you say, "I don't read the reviews," and they probably shouldn't if you're just some baby author, gamely pretending to give less than a shit about the cruel and unusual judgment of others. But eventually, as a writer, or any kind of public performer I guess, you do stop reading them because ... you just stop caring. Really. Either the punters liked the book and bought it, or they didn't. It doesn't mean you would not be wounded by a harsh word. But eventually, you don't bother to seek them out as you once may have.
Mainstream reviewers in the print media judge often titles by criteria that shouldn't apply to them. It can make for an entertaining read, for instance when somebody who's been forced to grapple with Dan Brown takes out their resentment and superiority complex on the poor dumb rich bastard. But it's not going to affect Brown's sales, or more importantly, his writing. He'll just keep doing what he does and banking the royalties.
The other reason I don't read reviews is that having done my fair share of reviewing for money I know how fucking dodgy and unprofessional are many of the published reviews in the mainstream press. I avoid writing them now because there just isn't the money in it to justify my time. A hundred and fifty bucks for a week's work? No thanks. And it is a week's full time work to do it properly. I've always believed that a proper review demands at least two read thru's – the second one as you take notes – before you even put pen to paper. There are pro reviewers who work that way, but not many, and they are almost all fulltimers at a broadsheet.
But just because you read a regular 'name' reviewer in a broadsheet newspaper doesn't mean you're getting a better review than you would from a committed amateur at their blog. I've known a few fuckwits who simply reviewed the cover art and the blurb. Met one or two who boasted of trashing a book for purely personal reasons, or because they were simply paid to by a media outlet with a grudge. It's never happened to me, but it has happened to a few unfortunate authors I know of, most famously Matt Reilly. (And again, seriously, to what end? It's not going to affect his sales or his writing technique).
No one dreams of being a book reviewer when he grows up. You might dream of writing poems or novels or essays or even, if you are perennially picked last for teams in gym class, literary criticism (“We don't want Robbins, you can have an extra player”; “We don't want him, either!”) These forms have their glamour, even if only the novelist is much prized by the united malls of America. But as Samuel Johnson almost said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote book reviews, except for money.” ...
Most reviews are merely serviceable, because reviewing is a service industry. Readers want to know whether they should read a book or skip it. Some publications append letter grades to their book reviews, a development I view somewhat as William F. Buckley regarded the Second Vatican Council. Deadlines are deadly to the polish of prose. Daily or weekly reviewing requires that something be said about works of which often there is not much to be said beyond "Read something else."
I'm kind of curious, given what a sophistumucated, worldly readership we gots here at the Burgerstand, just how many of you do read book reviews?
40 Responses to ‘On reviewing for money, love and hatred.’
Posted May 19, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
Anna Krien does that work now. She goes to places, finds things out, and writes about them. At great length and with cool intelligence. Here, she's launched into a story that never goes away, has been covered extensively, but rarely with nuance.
Elite sport and sexual assault.
Night Games reminds me of a piece I read many years ago in the now defunct Times on Sunday. A couple of female journos accompanied the Australian cricket team through a domestic tour and wrote about what happened on that tour, but off the field.
It was only feature length, say two thousand words, but it went off like a bomb. There were no allegations of rape, but you were left with the very clear impression that the Aussies thought of their female followers, who were legion, as nothing more than convenient holes.
Example? Two senior players met in the lift riding down to the foyer of their hotel. The girls they'd spent the night with rode down in the same elevator. The men ignored them, until one turned to the other and said, "Jeez, yours was a bit ugly wasn't she?"
His mate replied, "I was only going for the crease."
The Windies, by way of contrast, were more succesful with the ladies, possibly because they treated them well. The Poms just drank heavily. Very, very heavily.
Anyway, Krien has done the hard yards for this book.
It should be The First Stone for a new generation.
The extract is below. I've decided to run the book extracts on Sundays because it's more likely people will have the time to read them at their liesure on the weekend.
Posted May 15, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
His royalty cheques are so vast each comes with its own post code and team of town planners. And yet everyone hates him and hates the books and hates themselves for living in a world where Dan Brown is even possible.
Well, everyone I know.
But somebody out there must have read his damn books. The da Vinci one sold upwards of forty million copies, dragging his previous titles along in its wake for a few million more. This latest, Inferno, has an inital print run, hard back I assume, since that's where the big profits are, of four million in the US alone.
Someone is reading these books. They have to be. They just have to. Someone other than snarky reviewers who have been waiting for years to unsheath their cruellest blades. Although, their numbers are legion.
The tall writer Steven Poole opened the wooden door of the strong house and peered at the small figure on the stone doorstep.
It was a boy. Cradled in his palms the boy nervously proffered a startling object. It was the new book by the famous novelist Dan Brown.
The tall writer took the precious artefact from the nervous boy's hands and thanked him. The miniature human scuttled off. An idling engine revved into life. The writer glanced down the street, then retreated into the residential building. He knew he had better get to work. Looking at his Tag Heuer Swiss watch, he calculated that he had only 48 hours to decode the arcane puzzle of the bestselling author's latest novel.
Peeling away the plump layers of protective wrapping, the writer opened the big book and out fell an obscure document. It was a nondisclosure agreement in threatening legalese. The long-awaited novel was strictly embargoed. Nervously, the freelance writer looked out of the glass window. He saw a bright glint on a distant rooftop. Was that a reflection from the sniper scope of a patient beautiful female assassin dressed in black leather, waiting to shoot him if he let slip any details of the important book too soon?
And this stinging one liner from Jake Kerridge in The Telegraph: "As a stylist Brown gets better and better: where once he was abysmal he is now just very poor."
Well, poor in one sense, maybe. But only one.
82 Responses to ‘Has anyone actually read Dan Brown?’
Posted March 24, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
I finished a book with great sadness this week. It wasn't a sad book. But I become so deeply invested in it that to finish the last page was like walking out on a relationship. I'll be back, there's a sequel on its way, but… You know. The book was The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss, number two in the King Killer Chronicles. The first book in the series was called The Name of the Wind and I picked it up on the recommendation of iPhone traitor, Andy Inatkho. I think he recommended it during Mac Break Weekly.
I was drawn to it for the same reason I was drawn to Stephen King's The Stand as a teenager. Bulk. Value. The Name of the Wind runs for more than forty-five hours and it set me back only one Audible credit. A despicable way to value a book, I know, and yet Name of the Wind is such great value that I'd be doing you, Rothfuss and Audible a disservice if I didn't pimp it out simply on its dollar metrics.
Having got that unpleasantness out of the way, allow me to gush. This is one of the best books I've read in about ten years. Not just one of the best genre titles, or fantasy novels. One of the best books, period. I'll have to qualify this of course, because I listened to rather than reading it, but having listened, I'm going to do something I almost never do and go back and buy myself a reading copy.
The narrator, Rupert Dégas, deserves a special commendation. I don't know how much they paid him, but it probably wasn't enough. He narrates the English edition, and while I understand the American narrator is very good, I just don't know how he could possibly bring the same awesome to a story which is set in a thinly disguised ye olde England. Degas' voice just seems to suit the text. And he is a great voice actor, with hundreds of different accents to draw on; useful given that although most of the book is narrated in the first person, there are hundreds of characters with speaking parts. I'm not exaggerating. Hundreds. Dégas gives each of them a life of their own. I think I miss his storytelling the way a child misses bedtime stories when they have grown too old for them.
But, he did not write the book. That was Patrick Rothfuss, and to him I say props my good man and huzzah. There was so much for me to potentially hate about this book. A redheaded hero, who plays the lute and… Well, that's enough. But Kvothe, the narrator, is also a kick arse magician and a sort of medieval ninja. The long arc of chapters where he acquired his ninja skills, slowly and painfully, was one of my favorites. The story is his biography, in effect, as told to a traveling scribe known as Chronicler. He has apparently done something awesome and terrible and is now hiding out, incognito, posing as an innkeeper in some awful village at the end of the world. Dark forces are gathering, natch. But they're doing it in the background.
Most of the story is concerned with how he got there.Rothfuss is a great writer, is obviously something of an autodidact and these books are so long that he has more than ample opportunity to indulge himself in a little showmanship about how much he knows. It never feels like info dumpage, however, and I came to look forward to these diversions as much as I did to the swordplay and the splodey.
A precis of the plot? It's Harry Potter. A remarkable kid finds out he has remarkable powers and he kicks ass with them. It's way better than that though. There's a beautifully written love interest. Er, for the ladies. And I think the thing that really sets it apart is the time Rothfuss takes to show us everything. Almost as thought we're reading in real time. It sounds potentially eye glazing, but it's not. It's hypnotic. As testimony to how much I enjoyed this novel I'm writing this out before I've finalized my Amazon Associates status, so I can't make any money off recommending it. I can only recommend that you go read it, or listen to it, because it's really that fucking good.