The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman

914-4kSKvLL._SL1500_So, imagine P. G. Wodehouse ran into Will Self in a speakeasy, and the pair got roaring drunk and decided to rewrite The Berlin Stories by way of Day of the Locust. Dazed and hungover in the morning, they look shamefaced at each other and slink away, leaving the slightly greasy pages of their manuscript, The Teleportation Accident, on the bed. The maid comes along, picks it up, thinks it’s pretty good and – hey presto! – it’s Booker longlisted (I imagine that’s how these things work, right?)

I’ve come to The Teleportation Accident via the all-knowing book pot, without really remembering how it got there, and vaguely suspecting the book was a 1950s sci-fi pastiche. It’s not, because the teleportation of the title is actually only really a stage trick, and the novel is instead a sort of history-sex-farce taking our ‘hero’ Loeser from pre-war Berlin, to Paris, and finally to Los Angeles, all in pursuit of Adele Hitler (no relation), a woman he is erotically obsessed with to the point of absurdity. The book is partly a three-act wander through the three cities, all three sketched nimbly and evocatively, but it quite unashamedly avoids exploring anything of what is happening regarding the war — Loeser makes a point of not really giving a flying fuck, leaving the horrors of the era to hover at the edges, encroaching on the text only through the reader’s own sense of context. When it comes to plot there’s simultaneously not a lot else happening – the backbone of the book of his search for Adele, and the paunchiest section of the book is when that quest seems to waver for awhile – yet crammed full of entertaining subplots that include a serial killer, a saucy book about nurses, a potential poltergeist, international espionage, avant-garde theatre, a philandering novelist and a French con-man. Somehow, the novel strings those all together to be not only cohesive, but so downright well-knitted together that the whole thing feels like a perfectly-constructed murder mystery wherein both its clues and its solution are rather unusually holistic.

Part of this, and one of the finest quirks of the book, is it’s dogged dedication to Chekhov’s gun principle: anything that is introduced, even in a passing mention, without fail, will always return, with varying degrees of significance. But a novel mentioned by a character in chapter three will undoubtedly return at the conclusion, much the same as an integral figure’s story vanished from the narrative may be unexpectedly concluded through the odd machinations of seemingly unimportant details later in the novel. It’s something of a masterpiece in that regard, and it’s the wily inventiveness of all its many ludicrous twists and turns, fused with genuine hilarity, wicked turns of phrase and a superbly unreliable narrator that makes The Teleportation Accident the most compulsive read of 2014 (sped through in two nights), and the book pot’s best success to date. Highly recommended, if you stop just before the inexplicable last chapter.

Wilde Stories 2014

w487149I’ve reviewed some of the previous Wilde Stories collections in the past (20082009, 2013  – I’ve got a three year gap to fill in.) I generally consider them a reading highlight of the year, collecting together gay-male-protagonist speculative fiction. It’s taken me awhile to get around to this year’s edition because my to-be-read pile has grown ever-teeteringly higher, but I’ve plowed through it in a couple of days.

It’s a bit of a different beast to previous collections. For a start, as several other reviews have noted, this anthology is playing far more in the ballpark of horror than previous editions, which prefer the queer and weird. Several of the stories are arguably not speculative fiction in the strictest sense, but horror with the faintest hint of the strange; case in point is the opening story Grindr (which I’m surprised it hasn’t taken longer for someone to write) in which a man is stalked by a preternaturally omnipresent person on Grindr.

Secondly, previous anthologies have tended to leave me with a feeling of well-rounded adoration for the anthology, with the picks generally leaving me somewhere on the spectrum between appreciative but apathetic through to deep love. For me, this anthology feels a bit polarising, with the picks feeling — to me — either being bloody superb, or disappointing, without as much middle ground as usual. That being said, the other reviews of the anthologies pick out stories that I didn’t personally like (one story, that shall remain nameless, I actually found incomprehensible), which proves that, as always, this is the game with short fiction anthologies. It’s readers taste, and you can’t please everyone. And, as usual with Wilde Stories, at least the stories never feel pedestrian or familiar. (I also think it’s worth noting that most of the stories I especially enjoyed were ones that were culled from Lethe titles of 2014.)

And so, not wishing to sound uncharitable or grumpy, I shall pick out the stories that I consider the highlights:

Caress by Eli Easton is a male-male romance romance steampunk tale that manages to finesse both components of the genre to make a story that is moving, subtle, and steampunk as hell without overdoing it — although its strongest imagery is its opening ‘Angel of Seven Dials’ sequence.

The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere by John Chu won a Hugo award, deservedly, and tells the story of a young man coming out to his traditional Japanese family in a tweaked world where water falls on you from nowhere whenever you lie. I’ve always loved real-world stories with a spec-fic twist, and this story kicks itself into a whole other kind of gear when it diverts a third of the way through into a family comedy.

Lacuna by Matthew Cheney is a double-layered story in which a writer, recently broken up with, writes a Edgar Allan Poe-esque story. The halves slot together smartly to give the bloody horror of the Poe segment a layer of irony and self-awareness that benefits both, and it manages a tricky balance of pastiche style and actual visceral horror.

Midnight at the Feet of the Caryatides by Cory Skerry is quite likely my favourite of the anthology, although amongst these selections its a touch call. It does a tremendous amount of world-building in a small space of time, our protagonist being a malformed gargoyle struggling against a trust-fund gang who rule the school to protect his love, an aide in the library. Boiled down like that it sounds a bit undercooked, but its atmospheric, quirky and just the right kind of sweet.

The Revenge of Oscar Wilde by Sean Eads is a marvellously verbose piece that casts a post-Reading Gaol Wilde as a zombie slayer in Paris, defending his zombie-bitten love Bosie. The first three quarters are great for the smart synthesis of Wilde-esque wordplay and literary references with a hard-bitten action-hero zombie-killer aesthetic. And then there’s a helluva bold ending that elevates it even further.

Parasol Protectorate: Soulless – Gail Carriger

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front for awhile – bit of a mixture of life getting in the way (misbehaving dog, house DIY), writing burnout, and a couple of books that I’ve read that either I didn’t like enough to review (shall remain nameless, but one was not amused), was being reviewed elsewhere (Looking After Joey) or I’m holding off on posting until release date (The Story of Fester Cat). Somewhere in there the Book Pot spat out the first in a series of books that, to be honest, I don’t know why the hell I haven’t already read.

So, what ho, crivens and… um, something else, it’s time for a spot of tea and steampunk: it’s the first of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Soulless.

soulless-gail-carriger-634x1024I’ll steam (pardon the pun) through the synopsis. Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a forthright spinster belonging to a frivolous family in alt-Victorian England, whose main concerns is her lack of husband prospects. Her main concerns is that, due to a distressing lack of soul, she is one of the rare few able to neutralise supernatural powers with one touch. In this case, the supernatural powers are vampires and werewolves, as this is a London in which humans (relatively) peacefully co-exist with supernaturals. Only some of those supernaturals are going missing, a terrifying wax-faced man is after Alexia–and there’s this whole business with Lord Maccon, the sexy werewolf Alpha.

I flicked through the goodreads reviews and, whilst there’s a lot of love for the series going around, the few that didn’t take to it were hilariously short-sighted. “Tries to mix up too many genres” was my favourite, as if it’s a heinous crime to stuff some things into your novel that your reader might not expect. It’s not even particularly fair; Soulless is halfway between a penny-dreadful murder mystery and a bodice-ripper, which is absolutely fine as it does both remarkably well.

If you look too hard, there are quite a lot of loose threads in Soulless you could pull at, but it would be a bit uncharitable, and rather like trying to pull threads out of a candy floss–despite your dissassembling, the confection will be just as light and delicious as before. So: the romance is hardly will-they-won’t-they and is obvious from page one; the conspiracy is likewise easy to figure out purely based on the appearance of characters that serve little other purpose other than a last-act reveal of villainy; and, for a 300-page novel, it’s actually pretty thin on plot.

Thing is, I don’t give damn about any of these things, because what Gail Carriger has in spades is charm and verve–she carries the whole book off with airiness, delight and a nod and a wink. Her central character, Alexia, is the perfect balance of feisty and vulnerable, a tricky balance to pull off, and her love interest Maccon is sufficiently charismatic enough to warrant some of the breathier passages eulogising his body. She also excels in diverting background characters–Lord Akeldama, Floote and Professor Lyall all shine–but judging by Soulless her finest moments are the sex scenes. Or the almost sex-scenes. Or the extended escape sequence in which Alexia must cling to the naked Maccon lest he turn werewolf, which is still basically a sex scene. Every steamy encounter is simultaneously downright hilarious, poking fun at the very genre it’s dancing in, and really pretty hot. Fetch me a werewolf Earl, please.

From a purely technical point of view, Carriger also handles the world-building well, creating a clear and logical picture of both Victorian London and its restrictions and opportunities, and how this has changed with the public lives of werewolves and vampires. There’s plenty of room in this world for exploration too, and I look forward to the second volume immensely, but with some reservations. Soulless seems to trade in the steamy romance section as heavily as it does its steampunk adventure (although the covers don’t quite reflect this) which, if the rest of the genre is anything to go by, should mean she spends the next few books splitting up with Maccon and being involved in tiresome love triangles with other supernatural beings. And, to be honest, I’d rather that wasn’t the case. They’re a great couple–keep them together and send them out on some adventures with a bit of meat on their bones. But keep writing the sex scenes.

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury

something-wickedOne of my current projects is editing an anthology of carnival-themed fiction, and in dealing with my clutch of authors, time after time they have name-checked Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Wishing to maintain a vague semblance of integrity, I have had to nod mutely and try not to mention that I haven’t actually read it.

Thought I’d better fix that.

I read the first quarter of the book in a coffee shop in the centre of Manchester. I’d gotten locked out of the house, and walked an hour and a half to the city centre, where I was stranded. At a loss, I popped into Waterstones and emerged with Something Wicked This Way Comes. Whereupon, I devoured it.

It opens with Jim and Will, two boys born a day and a house apart, both on the autumn cusp of thirteen, with the end of October creeping close. A portention lightning rod salesman appears, and warns of a storm coming, and a storm it is: Cooger and Dark’s carnival is arriving to tempt the townsfolk into their dark entertainments. The hall of mirrors that shows you the endless fractured permutations of your self. The carousel that can turn your age forwards and back.

Plotwise, the novel is actually pretty slender and with a little bit of prodding the holes in it disintegrate pretty quickly, but that is completely beside the point of the book. The point of the book is atmosphere, which Bradbury ladels on liberally. I saw a review on goodreads that made me laugh–“Bradbury never met a pudding he didn’t like to over-egg”–and there’s truth in that, because every paragraph of the book borders on poetry, and like any poetry stretched over 300 pages it can get a bit wearing, but when it soars, it really soars.

The highlights are often those moments that settle outside of the horror aspects of the carnival–the book is at its best and most gripping delicately and evocatively pencilling in the relationship of Jim and Will, dashing boldly on the edge of the shadows of summer, both eagerly and fearful for the temptations of adulthood. The bittersweetness of aging is an unsubtle theme of the novel, with the boys, with those tempted to return to childhood on the carousel, and with the disconnect of Will’s father, the librarian who fears he isn’t understood by his child–those moments, the ones that take the fantasy and use them to breathe life into our own unspoken, fragile feelings are the ones that make this a justifiable classic.

And, stepping away from literary pretensions, its genre moments have an elegant dread to them too–the dust witch searching the city in her balloon, the boys quivering in the drains as the Illustrated Man searches for them overhead, the sinister threat of Mr Dark. The carnival geeks themselves are present but indistinct, skittering on the edge of the story, and there’s a real sense of the weird about the carnival, which other stories have misplaced for exoticism.

And, justifying my anthology project, its queer as hell–from the arch camp and melodrama through the allure of the transgressive other, right down the Jim and Will’s relationship. I mean–come on, unrequited crush, clearly. When I started the book I was gripped by Bradbury’s eloquent use of language and the shiver of recognition some of his best sentences could produce. As the novel wore on I was left subtly with the feeling of all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go, but if you want to see what this book is without any of its poetry or beauty, nip on youtube and have a look at the trailer for the dreadful film version.

The Unnaturalists – Tiffany Trent

12988074Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly – the cover for this (and the sequel The Tinker King) is sexy as hell. Like, in my line of work, I get excited (and a bit jealous) about great book covers but I love these.

There, now I can be less shallow and suggest you might also like this book for something other than moody steampunk and typeface-porn. Because you probably will.

I’ll try and race through the set-up: we’re in a Victoriana London that’s religious system now runs on science (Saint Tesla, etc.) and Vespa Nyx works in a museum of ‘Unnaturals’ – mythic, magic beasts in suspended animation for the delight of the public. Meanwhile, outside the city, there’s the Tinkers, who live in harmony with the unnaturals, on the edge of the toxic creeping Waste, and are being picked off by the city-dwellers, dragged off to work in factories. Which is what happens to the family of thirteen-year-old Syrus. And, as we might expect, Vespa and Syrus’ paths are due to cross…

However – refreshingly- it’s not just a pedestrian steampunk outing. In fact, it takes only the fine bones of the genre, and fleshes it out with the sort of at-one-with-the-elementals mysticism and cultural diversity that it put me in mind less of airships and clockwork than series like Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori. Also, happily, it takes a turning about halfway through that satisfyingly derails your expectations, and builds to a showdown at the end that for once doesn’t feel either pat or anticlimactic (and I have to say, that’s rare to find in adventure fiction.)

The Unnaturalists isn’t a perfect novel in one of those ways which is really more a compliment than an actual complaint. Chiefly, I wish it was a good half a book longer, because the first third is taken up in such a kaleidoscopic medley of wonderful invention (the Tinkers! The sylphids! The manticore! The factories! The Raven Guard! The Architects! The aristocracy!) that it’s hard to take a chance to fully appreciate the really wonderful world-building that’s going on. I’d happily read the padded version of this novel where I can really explore everything that’s happening, because Trent has really gone all out on imagining a firecracker of a world. Whilst I appreciated the imagination, it was hard to actually settle to the story, and it’s a third of the pagecount before the story settles into itself. (I’m always loathe to pick up on this sort of thing though – the book classifies itself as YA on the reverse of the cover, and I know from other writers that publishers central tenet for this genre is ‘faster! faster! faster!’)

And, of course, there’s a romance, but thankfully not one that absorbs every waking moment of the female protagonists mind. She might have a touch too many ‘oh his beautiful eyes’ moments, but she’s also canny and independent to offset it and – in a great touch – there’s a nice little plot twist in the relationship that keeps it fresh and, I admit, I didn’t see coming.

Thankfully, there’s a sequel – The Tinker King – which I will be grabbing hold of sharpish. Setup out of the way, it should be great to see the characters go out an explore the extraordinary world that Tiffany Trent has created. It’s a great adventure, it’s very well-written (not a clunking sentence to be seen anywhere) and it’s got a bucket-load more imagination than a good deal of the books on your shelf, I promise you.

Doctor Who – 11 Stories

Doctor-Who-11-Doctors-11-Stories-Neil-Gaiman-book-reviewI bought this book in some anticipation back during the 50th Anniversary, and then just sort of… forgot. I was reminded of it by the very friendly and seemingly mirror-of-my-every-interest Bec Graham when she pointed out during #bookaday that one of my picks – Enid Blyton’s Five-Find-Outers – turn up in the collection. So I’ve unboxed it (all the books are now unpacked! Celebrations are to be had!) and plowed through it on a weekend working back home in the country.

There’s a short story for each of the eleven incarnations of the Doctor (no War Doctor, sadly) by a well-known name from storytelling of recent years. There’s a slightly odd mix of marketing happening here, as they’re mostly all stalwarts of the young adult novel (either long-established like Malorie Blackman and Philip Reeve, mega-selling and beloved of the current generation like Derek Landy and Charlie Higson, adult-crossover wunderkind, like Neil Gaiman and Patrick Ness, or just generally a really odd choice – like Richelle Mead) but the weighting of this on the fifty-year anniversary and the release of it for the kindle in 11 small segments is very adult in its approach. That aside, it’s still a great lineup, and you’d expect good things.

Eoin Colfer’s A Big Hand For The Doctor is not a great start. I’ve never read Artemis Fowl, but I was seduced by the frankly beautiful cover for WARP and then promptly gave up after six lumpen pages of prose. This story is laboured, unimaginative and wastes a great Peter Pan pastiche on a rather out-of-character action romp that hangs on a MacGuffin that, had it been introduced in a full novel or episode might have creaked by, but totally unbalances this slender story. Gah.

Michael Scott’s The Nameless City is a step up, though not a huge one. At least Scott can string a sentence together with a big of verve, which is handy, because half of this story is tense waiting for the doors of the TARDIS to open. However, whilst I’m all for literary mash-ups, I remain unconvinced that the barmy, optimistic world of Doctor Who is a good mesh with the dark, wild fear of the Cthulhu mythos.

Marcus Sedgewick’s The Spear of Destiny is – judging by a few of the reviews I read afterwards – pretty much exactly what you might expect from a Third Doctor story: i.e. James Bond with the Vikings. It’s entertaining, hits all the right notes in the right order, and would probably make a pretty good episode, and that’s the long and short of what I can say for it. It sails on it’s crowd-pleasing character returns which are, in fairness, rather excellent.

And just when I’d feared the book was going to be that worst kind of YA (the one that assumes its readers can handle on the most basic Scooby-Doo adventure, the collection gets good. Philip Reeve’s The Roots of Evil is a world-building gem that plonks the Doctor on a tree-planet, where people live amongst the roots and somewhere deep inside the very angry spirit of the trees has been waiting for the Doctor to arrive – without harbouring anything near the kind of hero-worship we’re used to with the Doctor. Atmospheric and emotive, and at last, a strong step forward.

Followed immediately by Patrick Ness’ Tip of the Tongue. It’s the first story to really tackle Doctor Who with anything other than superficial whimsy, and although other reviewers complained it was Doctor-lite, I don’t mind at all. In fact, bring on Ness to write the next Doctor-lite TV episode, in my opinion. In this story, a craze has spread across America amongst teens for a small fluffy creature that sits hooked on the tongue and always speaks the truth. Our hero hopes that his will help him land the unattainable cool girl from school. His friend to whom he remains oblivious hopes he learns his lesson. It’s a coming of age story filtered through Doctor Who with great results, and features what may be the finest sentence in English Literature, “the sheepfish looked sheepish.” Oh yes.

Richelle Mead’s Something Borrowed is a bit of a falter in the pace – but not a terrible one. Like The Spear of Destiny, it’s doggedly functional. When you’ve got people in here like Ness and Reeve, it’s hard for your prose not to come of a bit lumpy, but it trots along fast enough and gains bonus points for what might be the gnarliest invention in the anthology: a laser prison that shrinks every time you touch it, constricting tighter the more you struggle.

Malorie Blackman’s The Ripple Effect, however, is brilliant. Blackman has set sights on one of the most fundamental icons of Doctor Who and really whacked it one. You see, in this parallel universe, the Dalek’s are nice. They’re philosophers, scholars, and healers. People from throughout the galaxy flock to them, like zen masters. Surely this is a better parallel world… right?

Alex Scarrow’s Spore is an odd beast. Tonally, it seems a very long way away from Doctor Who, being more in the vein of the post-apocalyptic body horror games like Fallout, but it seems to work for the Eighth Doctor and – whether it ‘fits’ or not – the story was actually pretty absorbing (and nasty, too.) In fact, it has something of a feeling of Torchwood about it – X Files with time travel.

Charlie Higson has sidestepped the fan expectation with his Ninth Doctor story The Beast of Babylon – this is not a Rose story. In fact, this is a whole adventure that occurs in the seconds between the TARDIS dematerialising at the end of Rose, when she’s said no to coming adventuring, and it rematerialising to mention that it also travels in time. Here, the Doctor scoops up another companion – whose true nature is cleverly disguised by the narration – and they go off on a hunt for a mythic planet-devourer who’s popping up sometime in Babylonian history. It’s what Doctor Who vs Cthulhu could have been, and the Ninth Doctor characterisation is spot on – of all of them, this is the easiest to envision being performed, with Christopher Ecclestone’s voice shouting off the page.

Derek Landy’s The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage is just… brilliant. The Doctor and Martha end up in the world of stories, in which everyone and everything serves its story purpose only. Archly deconstructing the tenets of Enid Blyton books and their ilk, it’s liable to make you laugh (and sometimes wince) at its unpicking of your childhood reading, and then tops the whole thing off with a blinding chase scene through all the stories that Martha can remember (Rapunzel vs Dracula!). I loved this story.

And then we round it off with Neil Gaiman’s story Nothing O’Clock, which, much like his episodes for the show, is mainly about the fun of watching Neil Gaiman do Neil Gaiman, with a TARDIS. This one’s all about his trick of making the mundane (corporate accounting in this case) monstrous (aliens buy up every single home in the world, in order to take over earth legally) which sounds dull precis but is smart-as-a-whip in practice. It’s hard not to just take the story on face value as a very strong entry in the anthology, but the reality is, Gaiman can do better, and this one is all about set-up with a bit of a half-gasp of an ending (a great outing for anyone else, a touch disappointing for Gaiman.)

All in all, though, it’s a decent volume. Not spectacular, but certainly decent, and certainly a fitting tribute to fifty years. There’s a split between writers that have taken the premise of Doctor Who to write a straight-forward little adventure, and those that have decided to use it to tell something inventive, which – most of the time – is Doctor Who down to a tee anyway.