What I’m Reading

I’m currently doing battle with The House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski and rarely has such a phrase felt appropriate. A seven hundred word plus exercise in wall-breaking, philosophy, and metawriting wrapped up in a lovecraftian horror story of space, angles, and echoes.

I’m enjoying it in the sense that I’m piecing together the story from many disparate strands of pseudo-commentary and overlapping notes on notes where the footnotes become the main story and back again, battling with white space, layout changes, and a general sense of reading at least four books simultaneously.

In other words its like my brain when I’m reading my usual three of four books at once and keeping the strands separate or overlapping as needed depending on the interrelated nature of those books.

I’m enjoying it, even though the word goblin part of me wants to get to the meat of it rather than building up the supporting architecture. So the whole experience is frustrating and rewarding in one, and I’m grateful to the people who kept prodding me to give it a go. I’m only fifty two pages in. I may be some time…

Back Home

We came home early from up North as plague – or at least heavy colds – descended on the Maidment households. Feeling it was better to recuperate in our own beds, we fled back South on Boxing Day, joining the thousands on the roads travelling between their own branches of families over the Festive period.

Surprisingly, the traffic actually flowed well despite being so heavy so we made good time and collapsed with pizza and presents we hadn’t taken with us to console us.

Today we therefore had a lie in rather than spending it all on the roads. We even dared travel in to Kingston in search of a book of pattern-making for Lady M, and ended up buying… well, rather a lot of books really

We don’t have a book problem. We have lots of books. It’s no problem

I do need to remember that getting rid of older books is not an automatic prompt to replace them. Oh well

Geeky Romance

Part of our love language in our geeky polycule is to buy little things relating to our favourite fandoms. This may be Funko figures, or badges and other memorabilia – but especially it manifests in the purchasing of books. It is a common part of any of our wanderings in town to go into bookshops and keenly observe what we each are drawn to as a clue for birthday and other celebrations.

Lady M has this week been studying for a Foundation ITIL course as part of her work development – and has of course been finding her common sense and experience rewarded in how she has flown through the lessons and excelled at the practice papers.

This is, however, still a stressful week, and so at lunchtime I checked in via text to see how she was doing. Her mock exam had gone well, but a migraine was threatening to develop. Where others may have offered flowers or chocolates, I immediately offered to whisk her away at the weekend for a trip to the bookshop to buy her some books.

This is very much a type of romantic language that I love and appreciate, and a mode of gift-giving I wish to promote. You’re welcome.

Recent Reads

The last few months have seen me return to using the Kindle app on my phone to catch up on reading on my way to and from work – and I’ve mostly been mainlining Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series.

The concept of the series is relatively simple to those of us with a geeky side, or at least an appreciation of mathematics and Lovecraftian horrors. Magic is basically advanced mathematics. The performing of complex mathematic formulae resonates with other dimensions and attracts the attention and response of entities in those nearby realities. Most of those entities are generally inimical to life in our set of dimensions. 

To try and mitigate the effects of rising numbers of people and computers the British Civil Service contains a secretive branch descended from the wartime SOE (Special Operations Executive) which tidies things up before things like the transfiguration of Wolverhampton into Nyarlahotep become more than an ill-defined PhD paper, or a televangelist can resurrect a Sleeping God.

Just don’t forget your security pass when entering the office after hours or you’ll be eaten by the Residual Human Resources (don’t use the Z-word).

It’s a great series available for not a lot of money, and it makes me quietly giggle on the bus so that more people than usual shuffle away from me. Go find it, it’ll make you smile without even needing a geas.

Short Story: Hunter and Prey

The rain had been threatening to turn to snow most of the afternoon. It fell upon the unwary without mercy, but like most bullies it hadn’t the courage to do more than inconvenience everyone.

Occasionally a thicker splat of almost slush promised a turning point, but by now nobody was holding their breath. The splashes in puddles did little more than catch the hunter’s eye.

He paused under the overhanging concrete shelter outside the row of shops, and cursed the sudden trickle of ice water that had sneaked under his clothing from his hat. He’d been sure he’d found it this time.

His prey was elusive. He could respect that without lessening his focus on the goal. It takes time to run down any target worthy of the name. This one had led him a merry chase this afternoon.

From long experience, the hunter knew he needed a distraction. If that wasn’t available, he’d need some kind of cover. The prey knew it was being tracked. A library was nearby, so he went in and pretended to browse the shelves for a while.

He wandered the shelves that bent and twisted like the folds of a brain. He turned down offers of help from staff, and was careful to mingle with the other customers. He hoped it would be enough to hide his scent.

He feigned a casual glance through the front windows, and saw a flicker of motion. That was it, now was not the time to be hasty.

He slung his bag over one shoulder in a show of affected nonchalance. He didn’t really feel it, but it would have to do. The doors of the library whined open automatically as he approached.

He ended up leaving close behind a young mother and child, their books in the bottom of the lightly-framed pushchair. If his plan worked, he’d be mistaken for just another library user, maybe even as part of this family.

If books and stories were the lifeblood and memories of a library, he may be assumed to be sated by his searches in the stacks.

He shifted his bag again, as if heavily laden, and aimed his footsteps towards the nearby coffee shop. The young family also seemed bound for it, and so his cover was safe. The sounds of their splashing feet and the hiss of the pushchair’s tyres were comfortingly mundane.

His pace never deviated from it’s steady rate. He’d walked thirty three steps before his prey appeared. The bookshop wavered into view, relaxing it’s guard as he began his step past the doorway.

That was it; the mistake the hunter had been waiting for. He pivoted on his heels and swung his leading leg round into the entrance.

The bookshop, born of stories and belief, hope and mystery, shuddered and tried to fight back. It was too late. The hunter of books had found his true prey. Stories he could take home forever for his shelves back home. The bookshop began to mourn the pages that would soon be leaving.

Musings and Muses

I’m blessed with the company and at least grudging acknowledgement of a wide range of beautifully odd people, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Between the fearless men, women, and occasionally undecided of the #Tuesday crowd and the staunchly acerbic miscreants who’ve stuck with me on social media, I couldn’t ask for a fiercer, more awesome group of people to light up my day.

Then there are those who have got drawn into my orbit and who really arent sure what they’re getting into. Don’t worry, we’ll have you so distracted you won’t care enough to fight your truly surreal real selves from emerging in due course.

Okay, do you think that’s scared the normals away? Just us freaks and weirdos left? Excellent.

I’ve had two conversations today that just seem to shine a suitable light, and I thought I’d share them and maybe raise a smile.

The first was with the beautiful Mre B, with whom I’ve had a running conversation via messaging most of the day. As part of that conversation, I mentioned my disquiet that I discovered yesterday that a book shop exists about ten minutes away, the existence of which I had been unaware of for over six years. 

I mentioned that I had been strong, and not bought anything when I found it. Her exact words were: “I’m a little concerned about you resisting the temptation of a bookshop…”

As anyone who has seen my home will attest, this is a fair comment, given I have enough books to make shelving on which I can store more books.

I was in a whimsical mood, and so this was my defence: “I have some self-control. Some. A bit. Occasionally. If I have no money. Okay, I admit it, I didn’t go in because I had no money. I stopped and looked longingly in the window at the precious things until they asked me to leave…”

The conversation got a little surreal from there, involving policemen and shop assistants with cattleprods. It’s been that kind of day.

By contrast, while winding down this evening with Lady M, we hugged and she stumbled in the direction of a nearby window. This led me to quip that I didn’t fancy calling her boss to say that Lady M wouldn’t be in work in the morning because we’d hugged and then she’d jumped out the window, and I was finding it very hard not to take it personally. It ticked Lady M so much, we nearly had another asthma incident.

Somehow these two conversations seem to sum up the randomness, joy, and surprises of my life right now. It’s been a pretty awful year, but in this last week or so I’ve started smiling again – grinning even – and had a renewed burst of creativity when it comes to my writing (as an added bonus). 

I could even be accused of being happy; and I’m sure that has some people looking anxious right now, if not for the exits.

How the hell did that happen?

Book Review: The Devil’s Detective – Simon Kurt Unsworth

I picked this book up on a whim, and after a couple of false starts I was able to devote some time to this dense police procedural set in Hell. I’m glad I persevered with it.

Hell, as depicted here, is definitely other people. The days of burning brimstone are long gone, and instead a crushing and labyrinthine Bureaucracy exists. The Damned don’t remember why they are here, only that they deserve the brutality of demons and crushing banality and squalor around them. 

Our protagonist, Thomas Fool, is one of Hell’s Information Men, tasked with solving or at least reporting on crimes committed against humans. There’s usually no resolutions or punishments and it’s another thankless and unending task that is as much a punishment as anyone else’s.

Brutalised bodies start cropping up, an angelic delegation is in town on an inspection and to administer a lottery of souls to be released from Hell, and Thomas knows that all eyes are on him.

The violence is grisly and the misery unrelenting, and yet like Dante’s Inferno there are new visions and even a beauty in the unfolding structure. I feared I was in for an extended short story by someone who had read too much Neil Gaiman, but I was relieved that instead there was an individual voice and inventiveness at play. This is a story that puts it’s own stamp on the tone and narrative.

There’s some intriguing world building here, and I was pleased that it wasn’t spoon-fed to me, leaving room for ambiguity and inquisitiveness to match that of the weary narrator and protagonist. Not every plot twist was a complete surprise, but by the same token nothing felt entirely pulled from a hat, staying in keeping with the established rules of the setting.

What was a pleasant (for lack of a better word) turn of events were the changes to the status quo along the way that served to underline the treacherous nature of Hell. I’m torn between wanting more books in this setting and being happy with it as a standalone tale.

Over all, an engaging read once I got to grips with it, with unrelenting misery that serves a purpose. Four out of five pitchforks.

Book Review: The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

hangingtreeI’ve been waiting on this book for what seems like an age, and then with everything that’s been going on recently I then managed to completely lose track of the publication date. It was therefore a very nice surprise to realise on the first day of my leave that it had downloaded to my Kindle.

What follows is a spoiler-free review based on my first read-through, completed yesterday in a single read while wrapped up in bed with multiple mugs of Bovril though the morning.

If you’ve not read any of the Peter Grant novels or comics before then this will still be enjoyable, but you really do need to go an read what has come before so that you get half the context of half the references in this story.

Go on – this review and book will still be waiting for you. Don’t miss out the comics which have already been collected in a bound trade paperback either – they are in continuity and are set between the events of the last book (Foxglove Summer) and this one.

Right, that should keep the newcomers busy while we get on with this. As the last paragraph reveals, the comics are worth reading, for the same reason that you should have read the previous novels – but they are not vital. That is the joy of this series, and this book in particular. Any references to previous stories’ events and characters are dealt with as colour rather than necessities – throwaway comments that hint at the rich stew of past adventures rather than relying on them as plot points. Anything relevant to the immediate plot is laid out for you briskly so that continuity is a scaffolding rather than a scaffold. (See what I did there?)

I do wonder, and I’ll be sure to ask when I next get to a book signing, if this attention to detail and back-story has been enhanced by the experience of writing a comic book. There seem to be so many callbacks and characters popping up that you could be forgiven for wanting to make your own case wall to keep track of everyone. It’s a massive contrast to the leafy and somewhat isolated themes of the previous novel, which seemed intent on keeping the regular characters as much on the borders of the story as possible.

The strength of this series, for me, has always been the ensemble cast and the interactions between them. The usual dry and self-deprecating humour in Peter’s internal monologues continues – a comfort blanket of caustic wit that draws you in and along on his journey without being actively mean. All the regular cast get moments to shine without edging out either the protagonist or the plot – and the story fills out yet more back story for certain characters that will add weight for re-readings of earlier books.

At one point I was going to make the criticism that the book has so many recurring characters that it was in danger of getting muddled. New characters introduced in this story go a long way towards spacing things back out again and adding new ingredients to the mix, but even so there were points where I did ask myself if the whole thing was going to wrap itself up in a Möbius Strip and strangle the plot.

To my great relief, that didn’t happen. There are resolutions, and climactic battles that bounce from suspense to drama to surreal humour to wide-screen action without breaking sweat and I finished the story with a sense of satisfaction.

But

There’s an awful lot of sub-plots waving in the wind, setting things up for future tales. I don’t know if they will be resolved in the comics, or in future stories and I do hope that the temptation to throw plot points at the wall to see what sticks is avoided. I keep going back to the comic books and the influence of that writing style. Chris Claremont, legendary writer of the X-Men, became famous and then notorious for throwing sub-plots into the wind and then taking forever to resolve them, if he ever did. It lead to a soap opera feel where laying threads for future plots sometimes made the current plot play second fiddle.

I really hope that Ben Aaronovitch resists this temptation. I also hope that the comics generally stay as their own thing that occasionally get referenced in the novels, rather than important story elements shifting over to the new medium for resolution. Cross-media storytelling can be fun, but it shouldn’t be at the risk of confusing people as to where their plot lines have disappeared to. The balance seems to be about right at the moment, I’m happy to say.

Like life, there are no definitive endings, and there are always loose ends, which plays to the aforementioned loose plot points. There’s no grand closing of the book, just the sign off on the case, and the realisation that life goes on. This has been another chapter in Peter Grant’s life, just like each month is for the rest of us. We’ll see how he’s moved on and grown in the next instalment.

So if you can’t already tell, I really enjoyed this book. It doesn’t contain the wisdom of the ages and its generally light fare, and that’s absolutely a selling point. It’s fun. It rewards regular readers with knowing nods and small updates, and best of all tells a story.

Can’t ask fairer than that. Five out of Five Lux Scinderes

New Books And Old

Buying or receiving new books has always been one of my great joys. There’s something about the smell and feel of a book I’ve yet to read that excites me and puts a great big happy smile on my face. It doesn’t matter if it’s an old book, or if it’s fresh from the shelves of a book shop or library. I can ease open this new friend and begin new adventures, or I can go back to an old favourite and either reimagine the scenes or search for things I missed last time.

Today I was lucky to find two books that fell strangely into both categories. The first is the first in the new series by Gail Carrier, whose Parasol Protectorate series we devoured a couple of years ago. This new series, The Custard Protocol, picks up in the same alternate Victorian London with Prudence, daughter of the first series’ protagonists. I’ve just read the first the first chapter and am as enchanted as ever. I suspect I may have to fight Lady M to read it through first.

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I just can't odd...

The second is a reprint of a book that I’ve not only heard about, but that has inspired countless other stories, from the work of HP Lovecraft to the recent first series of True Detective. This slender collection of short stories is The King In Yellow, by Robert W Chambers, and is something I’ve been vaguely looking for over the last few years.

The guy at the counter thanked me for buying it, as the cover had been freaking him out every night as he locked up. This bodes well…

So, something new and old in one package, and something that’s a little of both in the other. My gaming stories may be about to get a whole lot weirder…

Good grief, is that the time?

So yes, I’m aware that this isn’t perhaps the most regularly updated blog at the moment – and that’s partly down to life having its little ups and downs. As a result I’m sometimes not really in the mood to write here after complex days at work or after slogging after a deadline.

That said, its gone midnight here, t’other half is sleeping off what was sounding suspiciously like the beginnings of a migraine earlier, and I’ve just voraciously consumed the first four books in the Parasol Protectorate series. At the risk of sounding like George Takei: “Oh My!” Run, don’t walk, and grab these books for some lighthearted steam-punk horror-fantasy romps. I wish I’d written them, they’re that good.

Perhaps its the characterisation in them as the main protagonists seem to resemble us in many ways – both in terms of acerbic humour and bloodymindedness and in the passionate daftness. Though that said I’m reasonably certain I’ve never been mistaken for a werewolf and t’other half is not even remotely Italian…