All posts in Review

27th March, 2011: Completely Wicked

Last night we fulfilled this year’s allotted “go to London and see a show”, and caught Wicked. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a Broadway/West End musical which tells an alternative version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, following the history of the Wicked Witch of the West before revealing what really happened when Dorothy arrived in a tornado. It’s funny, sad, intelligent, subversive, and clever, and is quite, quite wonderful. Actually, it was more than that – it was outright amazing. Superb staging, wonderful numbers, terrific cast, and a rock-solid story.

It was the story element that really surprised me. Wicked is based on the book by Gregory Maguire, which I intend to read. I understand that the musical is considerably different to the book, which is just a testament to the skill of Winnie Holzman, who wrote the adaptation. As an exercise in storytelling and plotting, Wicked is exceptional, and is worth seeing just for that, regardless of the musical numbers. Plus, it’s obviously a fantasy, and one which I think should appeal to any SF reader. And, of course, writer – watch Wicked and I think you might learn something. I know I did.

Wicked is also a great example of the dramatisation of a novel – like I said, I haven’t read the original book, but I’m hoping/assuming Maguire got a good deal on the rights. The Broadway show clears $1 million in ticket sales per week, while the London show hit £1 million per week in December 2010. And then there is the US touring version, and productions in Germany and Australia. Even with the most basic kind of dramatisation contract – say, 8% of the profits – Maguire should be absolutely coining in.

Not that making large amounts of money should be the aim for writing – in fact, that’s totally not what writing is about, for a variety of reasons which should be very obvious. But, there is nothing wrong with recognising success, and if having his novel turned into an award-winning, hugely successful musical means Maguire doesn’t need to worry about paying the bills and can focus on writing, then all the better. Of course, maybe he had it made before Wicked. I don’t know, and the internet is low on info on him, it seems.

Despite being a weekend away, as I mentioned yesterday I managed to get some writing of my own done. Not much, but better than nothing. I have plans for the coming week to catch up, anyway.

Today I updated Scrivener from 2.0 to 2.0.5 and now it’s reporting a peculiar wordcount. Yesterday I wrote 1,004 words, but Scrivener thinks I’ve written 3,009. I’d love to have written 3,009 words, but until I export the manuscript to Word and do a wordcount there I can’t figure out the disparity. So today’s stats are a little wonky, but should be accurate. Just don’t try and add anything up from my previous update.

Project: Hang Wire (serial killers and superheroes in San Francisco)
Words today (Saturday): 1,004
Words total: 57,452/100,000 (57%)
Total words for 2011: 87,400

Review: The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone is one Stephen King book I’d been looking forward to – as one not so familiar with his work (until recently, that is), I must admit I hadn’t heard of this particular novel. I know a film and a TV series were based on it, but I never made the connection that it was one of his novels (and I haven’t seen either yet). But King talks about it a fair bit in On Writing, so when my Kingathon hit The Dead Zone I felt a certain familiarity with it.

And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I think it’s King’s strongest novel since ‘Salem’s Lot (which still occupies the top spot for me). The novels between these two have their share of problems – The Shining lacks direction and The Stand is brilliant but too long – but with The Dead Zone, King is back on top form.

High school teacher Johnny Smith is involved in a car accident and stays in a coma for four years. When he wakes up, he apparently has the gift of psychometry, being able to discern details about people and objects by touching them, even being able to see glimpses of the future. What he sees about red-neck conservative politician Greg Stillson – and how the future will pan out with Stillson in the White House – fills him with terror, and forces him to take drastic action.

With Johnny’s four-year coma, and the rise of Greg Stillson, The Dead Zone takes place over a very long period of time. This is common to all of King’s early novels – Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand each take place over weeks, months or years, but not since ‘Salem’s Lot have I had a real sense of the passage of time. The world moves on and the characters in The Dead Zone get on with their lives as best they can, with the main plot coming into (and out of) their lives periodically until the crisis point is reached.

I was surprised a little to find the main plot of The Dead Zone – the central story idea which King describes in On Writing – does not come into the book until nearly the three-quarter mark, but this is no bad thing. The characters and their lives are so vividly written that I actually thought the book could have been much longer. I also would have liked Sarah Bracknell to have had a larger role, and knowing King’s writing method I wonder if he expected her to as well, but it just didn’t turn out that way. But that’s a minor quibble – her relationship to Johnny is poignant and adds a melancholic air to the book which I enjoyed, not to mention a very moving epilogue.

The Dead Zone was the last Stephen King novel published in the 1970s, which saw four books published under his name plus one short story collection and two novels as Richard Bachman. Although I complain about The Shining, these seven books are rock-solid. Do they represent King’s best work? I have no idea, as I still have a very large number of novels to get through. At the back of my mind I’m trying to pinpoint the period when the drink and drugs began to take their toll and his writing suffered (as people say it did), but so far I haven’t been able to detect any changes.

5/5

The Dead Zone was reviewed as part of Book Chick City’s 2011 Stephen King Challenge; for more information and book reviews from other participants, click here and here.

Review: The Long Walk

The Long Walk is one of a batch of novels that Stephen King wrote sometime in the early-to-mid 1970s, before the novel that would eventually be published as his debut, Carrie. Some of these earlier works were later published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, for reasons that even he can’t quite explain. Apparently as soon as the first so-called “Bachman Book” was published (Rage, in 1977), King started receiving letters asking if he was Bachman. While the King-Bachman connection is not quite so obvious with Rage, which has a certain “edge” to the writing which King’s writing usually lacks, The Long Walk is very clearly Stepken King. It is exceptionally well written, as to be expected, but it also features a number of “Kingisms” which I suspect might be a New England thing – for instance, the use of “it was ten of four” to indicate ten minutes to four, and one of his favourite little proverbs: “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me win this stock car race”. As far as my memory serves, this first appears (in publication order anyway) in ‘Salem’s Lot, and then is reused in both The Shining and The Stand (twice there, I think). If this his one of his signature lines (and as I’m only halfway through The Dead Zone now, I can’t tell; I don’t recall it being in Under the Dome either), then it is a clear indication that The Long Walk is one of his. Not that it requires any particular signature – King’s voice is loud and clear in this book.

The Long Walk is remarkable in its simplicity. Set in an odd, apparently totalitarian America of the near future, it tells the story of Ray Garraty, one of one hundred teenage boys taking part in the Long Walk, a bizarre national sport which involves the participants walking at no less than four miles per hour until there is only one boy left standing. Any participant who falls below the required speed gets three warnings before being shot by soliders accompanying the walk in half-track vehicles. The Long Walk is a brutal and horrific event, but the prize for the winner is, it seems, anything he may desire. Participants are selected by means of a voluntary lottery, and those ‘lucky’ enough to get in become celebrities. Bets are placed and the roads are lined with thousands of spectators cheering the walkers on and, hopefully, to see some unfortunate boys buy the farm. The Long Walk is like some kind of non-combatitive gladatorial contest, a gruesome spectacle appealing to the very base instincts of humanity.

The novel is fairly linear, beginning with Garraty setting off with confidence somewhere near the Canadian border and heading south, through his hom states of New England (another King giveaway). The book ends when there is only one walker left, and I won’t discuss the plot any further without the risk of spoilers. Suffice to say what could be a very dull, padded book (and at 384 pages its not as typical King doorstop, but it’s not short either) is a superb character study. Character is what King does best, and in a way I’m surprised that he chose this book to go out under the Bachman name. It’s a very worthy addition to the main King canon, much better I think than The Shining, published a couple of years earlier. The Long Walk was published in July 1979, and just one month later The Dead Zone came out under King’s real name, so perhaps market saturation was a consideration.

The Long Walk is dark, disturbing, and quite horrific, and grinds towards the inevitable conclusion which still manages to surprise. It’s an essential read for any fan of psychological horror, and in a way it is a shame that the most widely available edition at the moment is as part of The Bachman Books collection. To me this implies it is somehow a lesser work, even a long short story or novella rather than a proper novel. But it is a powerful, standalone book, and one I think I will return to many times in the future.

5/5

The Long Walk was reviewed as part of Book Chick City’s 2011 Stephen King Challenge; for more information and book reviews from other participants, click here and here.

The werewolf and me

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for author Cherie Priest. Her steampunk adventure Boneshaker is a work of art.

Over at Dark Fiction review, I talk about her 2007 werewolf novella, Dreadful Skin.

Enjoy!

Review: King Maker, by Maurice Broaddus

There are not many things I like more than a good genre mash-up – taking elements and tropes from completely different types (the more contradictory or removed the better) and jamming them together. The end result can be pulpy or high-art, and when it works, a new, eclectic subgenre can be formed. It’s also something that makes a lot of publishers nervous, as there is a perception that these kind of books are difficult to sell because they’re not easy to categorise. Having said that, urban fantasy and paranormal romance – two similar but not always interchangeable subgenres mixes – have flourished in recent years. However, even stories in these new(ish) categories are prone to falling into rigid format and type – having discovered what works and what doesn’t, quite naturally the market has narrowed to the stereotypes of urban fantasy that are known to be popular. Which is perfectly logical and quite understandable – I’m not using the term ‘stereotype’ here in a derogatory sense – but it does mean that for people like me, who don’t like that kind of thing, urban fantasy is generally a genre that holds little interest. Until now.

Angry Robot Books have quickly established themselves as purveyors of fine speculative fiction, disregarding most genre definitions and restrictions in their quest to just publish some damn good stories. As a result, they’ve given us what I think is probably the first true urban fantasy – King Maker, by Maurice Broaddus.

The back cover blurb says it all:

The Wire meets Excalibur in this stunning retelling of the King Arthur legend on the streets of inner-city America.

Add that to the stunning cover, and I’m sold – hook, line, and sinker!

Broaddus’s story is grim and gritty, a world of gang crime, guns and drugs. The characters of the King Arthur legends are wonderfully and originally transposed to this setting – Uther Pendragon becomes Luther, cigarette smoke never far from his lips; Arthur is King James White, Merlin is Merle, Guinevere is Lady G, Lancelot is Lott, and so on. Each of these characters – and the many more who appear in the course of the story – are wonderfully crafted, each a unique personality. If Broaddus hadn’t managed this, a lot of King Maker would be reduced to confusing skirmishes and interludes. As it is, while the cast is large, the individual story threads are easy to follow and, importantly, easy to pick up when a character disappears then re-emerges several chapters later.

The other great strength of King Maker is Broaddus’ depiction of the bad side of Indianapolis. Although familiar with many US cities, I’ve never been to Broaddus’ home town before, but I had no problem creating an image of the place in my own mind, such is the attention to detail that the author manages to continue right through the book’s 400 pages. It’s a depressing view of a city, all desperation, futility and dead ends that come with that end of society, and while few of us ever have any real exposure to that side of life, King Maker always feels very real and believable.

Where King Maker struggles is not so much to do with this book itself, but the fact that it is just the first of a trilogy, with King’s Justice and King’s War to follow. As such, while an excellent character study, King Maker is somewhat light on plot, spending most of the time moving the various players into position for the next two books. This isn’t a bad thing, but I wonder if the trilogy would benefit from being read together a single story – perhaps Angry Robot might even reprint the series at some point as a single bumper volume?

As a result of this, King himself – portrayed so wonderfully on the cover – is really more of a background figure, slipping in and out of story for most of the book and failing sometimes to engage the reader due to his distance. While I’m familiar with the King Arthur legend, I haven’t read Le Morte d’Arthur or other “original” source materials, so I’m not sure how closely King Maker actually follows the Arthur narrative (if it does at all), and whether the light plot and lack of engagement of King himself is just a reflection of the original myth.

This aside, King Maker is a fascinating novel, a true urban fantasy in the literal definition of the term, and with assured prose and strong characters, should be on every SF fan’s shelf. I look forward to the sequels with interest.

[rating:4]

For more information on King Maker, check out Angry Robot Books, where you can find a sample chapter from the book. Author Maurice Broaddus can be found at MauriceBroaddus.com and is also on Twitter as @MauriceBroaddusKing Maker was supplied by Angry Robot Books as an uncorrected advance review copy.

Review: The Incendiary’s Trail, by James McCreet

James McCreet is something of a success for the Macmillan New Writing imprint – his debut novel, The Incendiary’s Trail, was released under MNW in hardcover in July 2009, and in January 2010 arrived as a paperback via the main Pan Macmillan banner.

In 1840-something (the year is never specified), the newly formed Detective Force must employ an unusual, even controversial, tactic to stop a murdering firestarter blazing a trail of death and destruction across London. To catch their man, they resort to employing another criminal as an informant and unofficial agent, much to the horror of the police commissioner, who fears a scandal should the news reach the general public. But the risk pays off, as our detective heroes and their unusual accomplice race towards the fiery climax.

The Incendiary’s Trail‘s strength lies in McCreet’s vivid description of the seedy, putrid underbelly of early Victorian London. He’s clearly done his research, and while we track the story from beginning to end, we get various “excursions” and observations on the London underworld thanks to the book’s narrator, a newspaper journalist who is covering the amazing case of the incendiary. At time the detail is a little too thick, only there to show exactly how much research the author did, but it is written in a wonderfully Victorian style and is a delight to read, and the occasional use of archaic spellings throughout the text helps to set the scene. For this alone I’d recommend the book to anyone with an interest in 19th century life – I’m a fan of the Victorians myself, and even I learnt a thing or two!

The story itself is quite interesting, although the incendiary himself comes across more as a ruthless murderer than a flamboyant firestarter. Written in a pseudo-Victorian style, the story does tend to feature less action than a modern-day story, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem, it does show up a major flaw in McCreet’s writing – character. Large parts of the book consist of two or three people sitting down in a room to discuss the case, or swap hypotheses, or have the detectives squaring off against their unlikely collaborators. Unfortunately none of the characters are distinguishable from each other, be it policeman, detective, or the criminal masterminds Noah Dyson or “The General”. A few times my attention wandered, and after a few paragraphs of dialogue I couldn’t tell who was speaking. Perhaps more important, at some points it didn’t matter who was speaking, as dialogue-heavy chapters centred around police meetings where there mainly to push the plot. This achieved, the action would restart in the following chatper. It’s a shame, because with strong characters, The Incendiary’s Trail is a book I would really love rather than just like, but I found everyone is annoyingly two-dimensional. Perhaps this is a problem with the author’s chosen style – in trying to emulate Victorian prose, everybody talks very formally, with every 19th century dialogue cliche in evidence. This is all very well, but there is a big risk that everybody will sound the same. Unfortunately, this is the case with The Incendiary’s Trail.

The other issue I have with the book is perhaps less the author’s fault and one to ask McCreet’s editor about. There are some quite eye-popping continuity and textual errors throughout the book, which, while undoubtedly introduced by McCreet himself in his drafts, should have been picked up immediately and corrected by his editor. For example, at one point a house guest is offered tea but declines, and later the same page the host wonders why the guest hasn’t touched his tea (that’ll be because he didn’t want any?). Elsewhere, someone is sitting down, then stands up, then rests his head against the chair (so he’s sitting down again?), and then sits down. These are minor errors and in isolation they might be hard to notice, but the book has plenty more. A more serious gaff is the switching of point of view (and character, and actually location) between two paragraphs with no break in scene or even story flow (implying the change is deliberate). All of these should have been picked up prior to publication, but as it is, they make the writing feel very green, almost as if it’s the draft-before-final. Given some more work, The Incendiary’s Trail would shine. As it is, it merely glints dully. You can see the potential there, and there is enough to keep the reader intrigued, but it needs another draft and another editorial pass.

All of which makes me wonder about the Macmillan New Writing imprint. With MNW, the author doesn’t get an advance, but gets a larger royalty on sales than is normally offered. So if a book is good and does well, the author can potentially earn much more from it than if they’d gone the traditional route. If a book doesn’t sell well, the publisher has reduced their risk as they didn’t pay out a lump sum to begin with, which might never be earned back, and both publisher and author at least get something back. There are a lot of people who are of the opinion that advanceless book deals are unacceptable, and that it doesn’t even count as a professional sale. I’m steering well clear of that argument as I can see pros and cons from both sides. But I do wonder how far the cost saving/risk reduction goes with the publisher. McCreet himself has said that the editorial input on his manuscript was light, and I think this shows in the finished product. Does this mean that less is spent by the publisher on editorial time, reducing costs even further? It’s impossible to tell, of course, and such data is commercially sensitive to the publisher and, quite rightly, is none of our business. Also, I’ve read plenty of other books that made it to print but which were clearly in dire need of a closer edit! But the fact that The Incendiary’s Trail originally came from the MNW imprint played at the back of my mind as I read it.

Despite my misgivings, The Incendiary’s Trail is an entertaining read. If you are a fan of Victorian literature or just the 19th century in general, it’s a must-read. Fans of crime and police procedural fiction will also want to snap this up. While it may lack characterisation and have some distracting editorial goofs, there are some spectacular and memorable set pieces, and I am very much looking forward to McCreet’s next novel in the same setting, The Vice Club, due out later this year.

[rating:3.5]