Book review – Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Perdido Street StationI’ve been reading a lot of short stories over recent months and it’s been a while since I got stuck into a proper novel. On deciding that it was time to read long fiction again I turned to this brick of a book I picked up in a second hand book store some time ago. I’ve heard a lot of talk about China Mieville over the last couple of years and he’s clearly something of a flavour of the moment. I don’t know anyone that’s read his stuff and didn’t like it. So when I saw Perdido Street Station on the shelf for $4, I decided to give him a go myself.

I got the trade paperback edition of this book and it really is a brick. Just over 700 pages of heavy paper makes this book physically uncomfortable to read. It makes your wrists ache holding it up. And it’s taken me ages to read it because I haven’t taken it anywhere, so I’ve only read it sitting at home. But this enormous tome contains a tale of incredible depth and imagination.

Mieville is a writer with a rich and intricate gift for prose. Pretty much my only gripe with the actual writing is the overuse of certain words and character names. I’m surprised his editor didn’t thin this stuff out. There are instances of the word “little” four times in the same paragraph, for example, or the same descriptive word used twice in two sentences. And he repeats a character’s name numerous times when we know that’s who he’s talking about. Isaac did this then Isaac did that then Isaac did the other, and so on. It stands out because otherwise the writing is quite beautiful and literary. I had to reach for the dictionary on several occasions reading this and that’s unusual for me. And good, because I love learning new words.

Mieville has an imagination that must make his skull ache. The story is set in the imaginary, steampunk city of New Crobuzon. His impression of this city is fantastic, clearly based on a kind of London with added madness. The city is populated with all kinds of strange creatures, from bug headed kephri to amphibious vodyanoi, to mechanically remade humans to bird-people called garuda. Plus the usual gammut of messed up humans. The descriptions of people and locations is laid on in minute detail. You can hear, feel, smell and taste New Crobuzon and its denizens on every page.

The story is a convoluted affair that centers around two main plot ideas. One is the story of a wingless garuda desperately searching for a way to fly again and the other, as a direct result of the first, is a terrible threat released over New Crobuzon that leads our main players on a terrifying and deadly quest across the city. There are certain instances when things the characters need just seem to pop up conveniently at the right time, like the Construct Council and Jack Half-a-Prayer, which is unfortunate but forgivable. I was particularly impressed by the way the main characters kept crossing paths with other people trying to deal with the threat over New Crobuzon. It was interesting to see a story that didn’t have one band of heroes doing all the work while everyone else was oblivious. Everyone knew something was up, lots of people knew exactly what was up and many peoplle were trying to fix it.

The book is full of grit, dirt, blood and horror. It’s also full of flawed characters and their various attempts at doing the right thing. It’s an incredibly well realised world and society and an incredibly complex tale very well told. In places it drags a little bit, but all the time you’re in New Crobuzon, learning more about it and its populace, so it’s time well spent. One thing that did confuse me though – why was the book called Perdido Street Station? That particular architectural character does crop up several times throughout the book, but it’s certainly not a main player in any way. I’m at a bit of a loss as to why it was chosen for the title. I can think of several better titles, but that’s hardly relevant, I suppose.

I can see why people are fans of China Mieville and I think I’ll be reading more of his stuff.

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Lost – it’s finally over

lostAfter six mind bending seasons, Lost is finally over. I’m sure I’m about the slackest viewer there is when it comes to watching this show, but if you haven’t seen the finale yet and are still trying to keep any surprises fresh, then don’t read on – there will be spoilers in this post.

So was it worth it? Lost was a show that had all the best and the worst of big budget serial television. I don’t care what the writers try to tell us, they didn’t have a clue what they were doing when they started out. I’m quite prepared to believe that they had a basic story in mind, with a basic resolution, but then they got all crazy and kept sprinting off in random directions with no end point in sight. When people started wandering away from the show in droves because it was disappearing up its own arsehole, the writers suddenly had a panic and said, “No, wait! There’s a real end! A definite, no questions finish and it’ll be in… err… 2010. Yeah, 2010, at the end of season 6. Bear with us, it’ll be worth it!”

Following that annoucement they must have sat down around a table and said, “Fuck! How the hell are we going to tidy up this mess in two more seasons?”

Pretty much everyone was guessing around the middle of season 2 that the island was actually some kind of purgatory. All the key characters had something in their background that led them to a place where they needed some kind of redemption before “moving on”. The ridiculous “multi-denominational church” at the end was so lame. I’m using quote marks because it was clearly a Christian church and one tiny stained-glass window in a back office somewhere with symbols of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism along with a Christian Cross does not a multi-faith temple make. Especially with Christian Shepherd in the house. At least Kate was decent enough to point out how dumb a name that was.

lamechurchThe truth is, this story could have been really good if they had written it specifically for a two or three season run. They could have really developed the redemption required of the characters, the story of Jacob and the man in black (why doesn’t he have a fucking name!?) and the nature of the island without all the crazy Dharma Initiative stuff and random polar bears. Or they could have gone with the mad Dharma stuff and not had the purgatory island story at all (or post-island real world purgatory). Or the whole Charles Widmore situation that never really resolved into anything and supplied no answers whatsoever. But they had massive viewing figures and a massive budget and they went a little mad.

If Lost was a novel, the editor would be pulling their hair out. They’d need an entire box of red pens, desperately striking out filler, searching for a solid story. Of course, we want subplots and intrigue, threaded cleverly through the main narrative. But with Lost it’s like the writers regularly sneezed new stories into the pages of the script and just sat back to see what would happen.

The end result is a generally unsatisfying finale that took an easy route for all the characters but left numerous questions unanswered. I’ve been having a little look around the interwebz and there are a lot of Lost apologists desperately trying to shoehorn some kind of explanation into the story, but even they have to regularly say things like, “The writers clearly decided to let this story thread slide.” Which is a real shame. That’s why I say that Lost shows us the best and worst of big budget serial television. They had a potentially great idea, but no clue how long they’d have to run. So they just ran and ran until they had to suddenly tidy everything up. I would much rather have seen the show run for half as many seasons and tell a decent, coherent story that was pretty much planned and written from start to finish before production even started. Sadly, that’s not how serial TV seems to work these days.

Of course, many series have no end point and you have a set of characters and a situation and you tell many short stories with a handful of over-riding story arcs that occasionally get resolved. Things like Star Trek work that way and you keep making stories with the charaters and settings until viewing figures drop so much that you get canned. But Lost wasn’t like that. Lost was clearly one over-riding story that needed to be told, but never really was.

A few of the things left unanswered really stick out. Were the characters all killed right away and everything on the island was purgatory? If so, that’s one twisted deity playing crazy games with people. Or was the secondary timeline, with all the characters back in the real world in season 6, the actual purgatory (as seems to be the generally accepted case)? What about the time travelling? What did that actually have to do with anything? If nothing on the island really happened, why were they all in the church at the end as the most important people in each other’s lives? If the island stuff did happen, then that clearly wasn’t purgatory and all that crazy stuff with the light and the island’s powers has gone completely unexplained. What about Desmond? Seriously, what the hell was he supposed to be? Some kind of “failsafe” apparently, a fixed, unchanging point… in what? And so on and so on. That’s barely scratching the surface of the unanswered questions.

The “real world” stuff in season six was referred to as a “flash sideways”. Producer Damon Lindelof said that term was used to imply “that one of them isn’t real, or one of them is real and the other is the alternate to being real.” What? You mean you don’t have any more of a clue than the rest of us about what’s going on. Apparently the producers have said since the finale that everything on the island was real and the people that got away (Sawyer, Kate, etc. on the plane and others before them) lived out their lives while others died on the island, but they all met up in the lamechurch at the end because “there is no now here”. Ooh, way to get all metaphysical. But it doesn’t really add up.

The most likely explanation is the one given by Jack’s dad in the alternate timeline – that is, the whole alternate timeline thing was a reality created by all the characters, with the exception of a whole bunch of characters for reasons unexplained, as a place to meet up after they all died, whenever that happened to be. So presumably Kate never loved anyone again until she died at some indeterminate point when she met up with Jack in the afterlife waiting room of the lamechurch. Same for Claire, who met up with Charlie again. These are just two examples – you have to feel sorry for anyone they might have fallen in love with since the old exciting island days that never got a look-in after the final curtain sometime in the future. So you see, it is the most likely explanation, but it’s actually bloody awful as explanations go.

On the whole Lost was a clever and interesting series while it played out. I watched regularly and I enjoyed it. I’m glad it’s over, because it was getting to the point where plots were running into each other like blind people at an amateur barn dance and it was just getting plain silly. It was clearly going nowhere. I do feel a bit cheated that the whole thing was wrapped up as it was, with no real explanation except vague hints that don’t make sense.

Then again, that’s pretty much in keeping with the whole premise of the show since day one.

If you want to read a highly entertaining wrap of the final episode, I suggest this by Ree Hines. There’s also the Lostpedia, for all the answers you’ll ever need. (No, of course that’s not true, but the Lostpedia really does exist).

Regardless, there’s one thing we can all agree on and all be thankful for. Lost is finally over.


Lost – it’s not a Christian allegory. No, really, it’s multi-faith. Honest.

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For all the writers out there that think they work hard

I count myself among the slackers in comparison to this lot. Writing is an often thankless task, slogging away at improving our craft and, hopefully, eventually developing a decent level of skill and recognition. But I don’t think many of us work as hard as the folk listed below. I saw this over on Lynn Viehl’s blog and it blew me away. Lynn posted it as a quiz, but I’ll just hit you up with the facts*:

1. Officially recognized as history’s most prolific novelist for writing 904 books under six pen names:

Mary Faulkner (1903-1973) – South African author who is ranked by the Guiness Book of World Records as history’s most prolific novelist for writing 904 books under six pen names.

2. More than once wrote a 35,000 word novel overnight:

Prentiss Ingraham (1843 -1904) American dime novelist of 600+ books, 200 of which were on Buffalo Bill, who also “occasionally” wrote a 35,000 word novel overnight.

3. Currently holds the world’s record for longest novel title at a whopping 290 words:

Davide Ciliberti: Italian author who currently holds the world’s record for longest novel title: “Per favore dite a mia madre che faccio il pubblicitario lei pensa che sono un pierre e che quindi regalo manciate di free entry e consumazioni gratis a chi mi pare, rido coi vips, i calciatori le veline e le giornaliste, leggo Novella e mi fotografano i paparazzi, entro neI privé saltando la coda, bevo senza pagare, sono ghiotto di tartine e gin tonic, ho la casa piena di oggetti di design, conosco Paris Hilton, Tom Ford ed Emilio”.

Which, when put through a Google translator, apaprently reads:

“Please tell my mother that I make you think that advertising is a gift and then pierre fistfuls of free entry and free drinks to those who seem to me, I laugh with VIPS, players and journalists from the tissue, I read and photograph the News paparazzi by jumping the queue in privé, drink without paying, are fond of sandwiches and gin and tonic, my house is full of design objects, I know Paris Hilton, Tom Ford and Emilio”

Yeah, don’t ask me.

4. Penned a 1.5-million-word opus that is widely considered to be the longest novel in English:

Marcel Proust, author of “In Search of Lost Time” a single book which is a staggering 1.5-million-words.

5. Used 70 different pen names to write 850+ books:

Lauran Paine (1916-), an American paperback novelist, used 70 different pen names to write 850+ books, mostly westerns but also some mysteries and romances.

6. Composed one of the earliest novels in human history:

Murasaki Shikibu, aka Lady Murasaki, a Japanese woman who composed “The Tale of the Genji” around the eleventh century in Japan.

7. Wrote a 110,000 word novel in 21 days without electricity, running water, paper or pen:

Lynn Viehl herself: “During the 2004 hurricane season my family and I went through four consecutive major hurricanes which devastated our region and knocked out our power for nearly a month. I wrote Afterburn, a 110,000 word SF novel in 21 days during that time without electricity, running water, paper or pen. In fact, I wrote the entire book on a battery-powered Palm PDA with a folding keyboard with no means of backing it up, printing it out or otherwise saving it (I couldn’t even change out the batteries because it had no memory card.)”

Now that’s just crazy.

Lynn actually has, as at the start of this year, 45 novels published in 5 genres. So if you think you’re working hard, think again. And maybe use some of the facts above for inspiration. I know I will be.

* And when I say facts, I’m taking Lynn’s word for it and not corroborating any of this. I’m happy to hear in the comments if anyone has any corrections.

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Dark Pages preview #1

Blade Red Press is very proud of its first anthology of dark fiction, Dark Pages. Over the coming weeks we’ll be publishing here (and in various other places online) excerpts from all the great stories in this excellent collection. If you haven’t got yourself a copy yet, these previews are sure to convince you to buy a copy. You can get a copy directly from us or at Amazon and all other good bookstores. Click here for all you need to know.

Meanwhile, here’s the first excerpt. This comes from the opening story in the anthology.

The Stain of the Psychopomp King
by Lucien E. G. Spelman

I was a nervous wreck the first day I saw my father. He was at war when I was born and through most of my early years, and although he would write my mother concise letters every few months (a page or two of neat handwriting meant to reassure her that he was still alive), he never wrote to me. I never knew him. As far as I as was concerned, he was only a legend and a photograph. A stranger.

The last letter he wrote to her said he would be home before my sixth birthday.

He kept his word.

On the day of his arrival I paced around the front window, waiting and watching until I saw the old yellow taxi pull up to the curb. The back door groaned open and out came my father, followed by a large, rough-looking dog that I thought must be a gift for me. A thought which only served to increase my anxiety. My father stood staring at the house. Squaring off with it as though he might lay siege to it. As though it were an obstacle. After what seemed like forever, he ran his fingers through his thick hair, hoisted his duffel bag onto his shoulder, and started up the walkway with the dog padding alongside. The dog cast watchful glances here and there, but my father seemed so calm, so sure of himself, that I immediately wanted nothing more in the world than to be him. To be with him. At the very least, to be alongside him. Like the dog was.
He reached the top of the stairs and saw me peeking out from behind the curtains. He offered me a wink, but as soon as I knew I was spotted I panicked and snapped the curtains shut.

My mom threw open the door and wrapped her arms around him so desperately I thought for one horrible moment she was trying to strangle him. There was always a melancholy desperation in my mom. My father smiled, hugged her back, and winked at me again. But it was clear, even to an almost six-year-old, that he would never be all the way home. His eyes told a dark story. His eyes told the world that part of him would simply be somewhere else forever.

The dog walked through the door behind him, eyed me warily for a moment, and finally offered me his ear to scratch.

My father shook my hand, then kissed the top of my head clumsily.

As it turned out, the dog was not a gift for me, and my fears about him proved to be unfounded.

My father called him Hound (although he looked more like a shepherd) and he was a constant companion to our family, and a vigilant watchdog until the day he died.

Until the day they both died.

*

My father got a job as an ironworker at Yankee Steeplejacks and settled into postwar life the best he could. He went about his new life with gently imposing dignity, providing for my mom and me without complaint. He asked for nothing, rarely spoke unless spoken to, and in the evenings he played his trumpet in the basement. It was an odd choice of instrument for such a quiet man, but the type of music he played on the thing suited him well–wistful, melancholy strains and passages that would drift up through the heater vents. My mother and I would listen in the living room; she knitting; me alphabetizing my comic book collection on the floor, or petting Hound; each of us pretending to be doing something mundane, but in truth simply being carried away by the notes. Each of us trying to be near him.

*

He never mentioned the war or his experience there, but one sultry evening, there was a reminder of his time away. Suppertime; a staccato knock at the door; a man in uniform. My father spoke with him for a few moments in his own tongue. I had never heard my father’s native language before–only the residue of it when he flattened out his r’s or pronounced certain words with ”th” in them: zis and zat for this and that.

It was disconcerting. It seemed to widen the gap between us somehow.

As the man at the door spoke, my father became first crestfallen, then wistful, then determined. I watched the display with fascination. It was more emotion than I had ever before seen him show, and I could read it all without understanding a word. I suddenly hated the man at the door for his ability to move my father so deeply. Eventually, the man handed him a large map rolled into a tube, then saluted. My father returned the salute, barked out what sounded like an order, and firmly closed the door.

He excused himself from supper, and when my mother asked him what was wrong, he said a friend from the war had been killed, and then he said something strange: He said he would have to play him home.
He didn’t say anything more.

He went down to the little basement, and that evening he played all through the night and maybe even a little into the next day, because when I got up for breakfast, he was just coming up from the basement, eyes red, hair wild.

*

The first time I saw the stain, the tattoo, the whole tattoo, I was almost twelve. My father took great pains to hide it. He wore long-sleeved shirts all year long, even in the stifling New England summers, but even so, the marks and lines of it would peek out beneath his sleeves. He even hid it at home. He would dress in his room with the door closed, and he would never leave the shower wearing anything less than a long terry robe. It didn’t seem he was hiding it from my mother, though. Of course she had seen it. She could be in the room while he dressed. They even took a shower together once, on New Year’s Eve, my mom drunk and giggly from champagne. But he damn sure hid it from me. It was maddening. He was maddening.

After school one afternoon, sensing that the time was right, I rolled the dice and asked him flat out to let me see the whole thing. He glared at me at first, wounding me. Wasn’t I his son? Didn’t I deserve to understand his history? To be a part of his history? The hurt turned to anger, and I glared back. Fiercely (I thought). Piercingly (I hoped). And for some reason, that seemed to soften him. He broke from my gaze, shaking his head and muttering something to himself that I didn’t understand, and then finally let loose with a wide toothy smile. It was beautiful and terrifying. Like seeing a painting come to life. He laid the newspaper by his side and stood up. His callused hands worked the buttons of his flannel, seeming almost too big for the job. He folded the shirt neatly, laid it next to the paper, and then took off his undershirt. He stood for a moment regarding me, his undershirt balled in his fist, waiting for the inevitable reaction; his body was a mass of scars. The largest ran from his left shoulder across his chest and disappeared below the waist of his Levis. There were circular scars with pinched edges, tiny star-shaped scars in a constellation above his rib cage, a diamond-shaped scar at his throat. Each a secret history. He turned to show me the tattoo, and I was unsurprised to find more scars on his back, including one that looked like a burn running across the tattoo, warping it a bit. The tattoo was a line of music running from his left wrist to his right, across his shoulders and back. I knew the tattoo had notes of course, I had seen them on those rare occasions peeking out, but I thought there might be something more. A dragon or something. A mermaid. Felix the Cat. It was just music. He opened his arms out to straighten the staff, and let me have a good long look at the quarter notes and half notes scored in blue ink against his pale flesh.

Against the fading light from the window, he was a fleshy silhouette of a cross, scarred and irregular.

“Is it a song?” I asked.

“The bones of a song,” he said.

My eyes shifted from the music to the scars and back again. A few notes, the ones on the burned skin were difficult to read, compressed and discolored.

I soaked him in. I soaked in the notes. The lines. The bars. The fanciful “S” that I would learn later was a treble clef.

“Enough?” he said, breaking the spell.

“Enough,” I said, but frankly I could have looked at him forever. Each scar held a tale, and if he wouldn’t tell me, then I would’ve been content to stand there and make them up. Just to have the fable. Just to have the story of him.

He pulled on the t-shirt, grabbed the flannel from the couch, and patted me on the head.

“Why don’t you go play with your friends,” he said, and headed for his cave downstairs.

I pretended to leave, but when he was out of sight I went back to the couch and sat there watching the dust motes chase each other in the fading light and listened to him play.

*

My mother never helped when it came to solving the mystery of my father. She could be maddeningly obtuse when she wanted to. I would try and trick her into offering information about him, but she never took the bait. It became a kind of game between us. I once lied to her that kids at school were making fun of me because they thought my father was a German spy, and she said to tell them he spoke with a Scandinavian accent, not a German one, but if they wanted to discuss it further, she could send him down there if they liked. That put an end to that.

I was determined to solve the mystery of my father on my own, then. I would spy on him when he wasn’t looking, the scars and the notes and the war and the language framing him, gilding him sometimes: a warrior hero. Tarnishing him others: a Nazi spy. But mostly just blending together, creating a haze, making him more arcane, more impenetrable.

I did it on my own. I crept down the stairs, terrified that he would come home early and catch me. I pulled the chain on the single bulb hung from the floor joists, which seemed to cast as much shadow as it did light, and was almost disappointed with the simplicity of the room. A music stand with a tattered, leather-bound book of sheet music standing on a round Persian-style rug, threadbare where my father stood. His trumpet sat in an open, old brown and silver case next to the music stand, gleaming in the single light. As I crept forward, Hound moved from the shadows, and began to growl and whimper at me. I had no idea he was there. I had no idea even how he got there. When I last saw Hound he was in the kitchen, quietly napping by his dinner dish. I jumped, startled. Guilty. He must have snuck behind me. I spun around and caught his eyes, pleading with him silently not to make any noise. He ignored my pleas, and the growls and whimpers became barks. Loud and purposeful. I heard the kitchen door slam.

“Shit,” I muttered.

I executed a panicky about-face, and ran up the stairs, straight into my mother. For the first time in my life, I saw a flash of her anger. She grabbed me by the arm fiercely.

“Would you like it if I looked in your closet? Under your bed? Between the mattresses? In your secret places?” she said. She was shouting. She had never shouted before.

“No, Ma’am,” I said, flushing, eyes brimming with tears.

“Leave people their safety,” she growled.

I’m sorry! I thought, You never said it was a rule. Nobody ever said it was a rule that I couldn’t go down there, but I said nothing; I just looked at my shoes.

And then, all at once, the anger was gone and her face was round and soft and kind again. It was as if she were reading my mind. She brushed back my hair.

“Go and play outside,” she said, gently this time.

They always seemed to want me outside.

*

My secret, guilty pleasure was to go and watch him high in the buildings downtown, walking fearlessly across the beams. He would stop sometimes and gaze out into the distance, out to the sea, just standing there with one hand in his pocket and the other wiping the sweat from his brow. At those moments, from that distance, I felt closer to him than I ever had, my tiny little father up in the skyscrapers. He seemed vulnerable. At those moments I could almost imagine I knew his secret heart.

Once, on a particularly windy day, I played hooky and went to watch him. I was worried because another steeplejack had died the month before–buffeted by the wind until he lost his footing and slipped, prayers and admonitions splitting the air as he fell. I watched him fall, but never told my father. I wondered which was the last word to escape his lips as he landed between the tables at the outdoor café with a wet thump. God, probably.

I arrived at the worksite just as the lunch whistle blew, and my father turned and saw me. The blood drained from my face, and I ran away so fast I left my lunchbox sitting on the sidewalk. That evening when I got home from school, a note was sitting on my bed attached to the lunchbox, and next to a brand new King Silvertone trumpet. It said:

I would prefer you attend school. – Dad

I assumed he meant to give me lessons, but he never brought it up. Finally I asked him over dinner one night if he might be willing to teach me, but he said he didn’t know how to teach, and then changed the subject in his simple but firm way. My mom put her hand on mine under the table and held it like that until dessert, eating awkwardly. The next day there were three trumpet instruction books on my bed: 20 All Time Hits–b Flat Solos, Sugar Blues for Trumpet, and The EZ TRUMPET METHOD Instruction Book–Beginner to Advanced.

From that point forward, when he was playing in the basement at night, I would go practice in my room, leaving my mom alone to knit and listen to the strains of this discordant duet. Eventually I got good enough to be able to jam along with records, performing duets with Armstrong and Eldridge and James. But never my father.

*

Want to read more? Plus thirteen other equally engrossing tales of dark fiction?

Get your copy of Dark Pages now.

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International Thriller Writers

As a writer, being a part of writers’ organisations can be very valuable. Some are more active than others, of course. For example, I’m a member of the Australian Horror Writers’ Association or AHWA. That’s a great thing to be a part of. We have active crit groups, forums, market hives (so we can find good places to sell our work) and even a very well respected Association magazine called Midnight Echo.

I’m a member of the NSW Writers’ Centre, which is another great organisation that offers all kinds of courses, help, advice and so on.

As RealmShift and MageSign are published by Gryphonwood Press, I also qualify for membership of International Thriller Writers, or ITW. Gryphonwood Press is a recognised publisher with ITW and that’s what it takes to qualify for membership. My membership has been recently confirmed.

The website is very slick and certainly seems to offer an awful lot in the way of author support, just like the AHWA. I’m looking forward to learning more about what they offer and seeing what I can learn from them and get out of my membership. My journey as a writer continues ever onward.

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