Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Lives of Tao

  Here's another big release from Angry Robot books - 'The Lives of Tao' is out on April 30th. It's the debut from Wesley Chu, and it's been very well received so far. I have to admit, it's not
Angry Robot, £8.99
really my type of thing, and it's not going into my top reads of the year - but it, objectively speaking, did have lots to recommend it. 

   Roen Tan is an overweight and unhealthy IT technician. On the way home from work one night he suddenly finds his body invaded by an alien being - Tao. The next few days are a whirlwind of paranoia and confusion as he battles through the suspicion that he has gone mad, and comes to believe the voice in his head telling him that he is now the host to an alien. Tao tells his new host that he is a Quasing - beings which have inhabited the Earth since before the evolution of humans. Roen learns that the Quasings have split into two factions - Tao is a Prophus, and he is involved in the battle with the Genjix, who want to subjugate the human race in their effort to return to their home planet. Roen has inadvertently become a part of a ruthless war, but in order for him to be useful, Tao must first transform him from out-of-shape office drone into a fit and strong secret agent, with all the skills that involves. 
   It's a fun journey, and the internal dialogue between Roen and his new teacher and partner is lightning-quick and snippy. The most fascinating aspect of the story is the fact that Tao is an immortal being who simply transfers to a new host upon the death of a previous one, so he has seen the entirety of human history from one perspective or another. In the course of this time, the Quasings have accumulated an immense amount of knowledge, and often managed to be in the right place to occupy extremely influential historical characters as hosts. So Tao can teach Roen using stories of the time he occupied Genghis Khan, General Lafayette, Sun Yat-Sen, and lots of others.
   While I did find some passages to lack the engaging quality of others, I found myself thinking frequently about how well this novel would translate to the big screen. It's precisely the type of story which I absolutely love in a movie - an action thriller with a fantasy or science fiction basis. I'm unsure as to how a filmmaker might overcome the narrative difficulty presented by the extensive internal dialogue between Roen and his symbiotic partner Tao, but I suppose that's why I'm not in the screenwriting or directing business! This is an energetic and fun novel, and it's well worth a read for any fan of this genre.
   A little while ago I reviewed Emma Newman's 'Between Two Thorns', the first in a planned 'Split Worlds' series. You can find my review here. I've recently received the second in the series, and I can't wait to read it, but in the meantime I've discovered Emma's website, containing links to no fewer than 54 short stories based in the world of the 'Split Worlds' series. I'm planning to read those before continuing with the series. I've read about 20 so far, and they are enjoyably quirky and whimsical. Go have a look!
    I also finally read 'The Rights of the Reader' by Daniel Pennac this week. It's a passionate defence of reading for pure pleasure, and an exploration of the experience of reading from early childhood - from a bedtime picture book for a toddler, through learning letters, to exhaustive comprehension exercises in school. He finishes with ten concise 'Rights of the Reader'. The new translation by Sarah Adams is published by Walker Books and illustrated by Quentin Blake, and Walker have produced this illustration of the ten Rights:
'The Rights of the Reader' by Daniel Pennac, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Published by Walker Books, £6.99.
   The book has made me think a lot about how to pass on a love of reading to the next generation - how could I make sure that a child enjoyed books as much as I do? I'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


   This week I've read three excellent novels: 'Angelmaker' by Nick Harkaway, 'The Carpet People' by Terry Pratchett, and 'The
Quercus, £6.99
Dragons of Ordinary Farm' by Tad Williams and Deborah Beale.

   'The Dragons of Ordinary Farm' is a really fun fantasy adventure, suitable for ages ten and up. The story opens as siblings Tyler and Lucinda are sent away to their Uncle Gideon's farm for the summer. They've never met him, but are dubious about the possibilities for fun for two urban kids in such a rural setting. Of course, they soon discover that things are not all as they seem at the farm as dragons, a flying monkey, and a herd of unicorns are joined by some very mysterious farm workers. There's a brilliant plot point which promises so many possibilities for many more great adventures to follow. I can't wait to pass this one on to my young sister!
   At the moment, I'm keeping my eye out for the second novel in the series 'The Secrets of Ordinary Farm', and one of the co-authors, Deborah Beale (wife of fantasy writer Tad Williams, the other author) tells me: "Soon I will be putting my head back into the world of Ordinary Farm, and I'll be there for an extended period of time." I'm glad to hear it, because I'm looking forward to further adventures there!
Random House Children's, £6.99
   A few weeks ago I picked up a novel from my 'Books About Tiny People' list, and it was also a major item ticked off another list - the first time I've ever read Terry Pratchett! I know, I know.. How can I call myself a fantasy fan when I've never read any of his many novels (especially since my cousins have loads, so I wouldn't even have to pay for them) - anyway it's a pleasure I've finally experienced. Pratchett wrote 'The Carpet People' while still in his teens, and it was first published in 1971 when he was 23. He has since re-written it, and it was re-released in 1992. It's suitable for ages eight and up.
   'The Carpet People' describes the adventures of a tribe called the Munrungs as they voyage across their world, the carpet, after their village is destroyed by a mysterious force known as Fray. My favourite aspect of books about Tiny People - recognising everyday objects as they are described from the perspective of someone millimetres tall - is one of the aspects of this novel which I found the most fun. The only source of metal in the world of the carpet is a mysterious round plateau, which fell from the sky in the distant past. Explorers have reported that the letters 'ON EPEN NY' are inscribed around the plateau. The Munrungs mission takes them to the big cities of the carpet, they meet many fascinating characters, and they get wrapped up in a leadership battle. It's a really fun adventure, a definite recommendation for any fantasy fan. 
   I've been dragging my feet when it comes to reviewing 'Angelmaker' - Nick Harkaway's brilliant second novel. It presents a couple of
Cornerstone, £7.99
problems for me: first, I listened to it as an audiobook rather than reading a conventional paperback; second, it is just defying any description in my mind. Just to be clear: unlike my other two reviews above, this one is definitely for grown-ups! Here's the blurb:

  "Joe Spork, son of the infamous criminal Mathew 'Tommy Gun' Spork, just wants a quiet life, repairing clockwork in a wet, unknown bit of London. Edie Banister, former superspy, lives quietly and wishes she didn't. She's nearly ninety and the things she fought to save don't seem to exist anymore. She's beginning to wonder if they ever did"
   'Angelmaker' is a riotous whirlwind of a story, with old-fashioned London gangsters, a clockwork doomsday device, hooded monks, an ancient brotherhood of undertakers (the Waiting Men), colonial espionage, and a pet bulldog with one tooth and two glass eyes. Joshua Joseph Spork is an intriguingly unlikely hero for such a sprawling end-of-the-world scenario, and his journey (and his decisions later in the novel) are vastly satisfying. He is accompanied on his adventures by a host of supporting characters with fantastical names: Billy Friend, Rodney Titwhistle, Mercer Cradle, and an eastern supervillain called Shem-Shem Tsien. An intricate clockwork doomsday device called the 'Apprehension Engine' is accidentally set off by Joe, and the consequent threat to the future of life on Earth starts him on a perilous journey overrun by these, and many other manic characters. How much more terrifying is this clockwork device, which demands enormous skill to alter or stop, than a humdrum modern digital-age bomb with an on-off switch. I also wouldn't recommend that you read about the Brotherhood of Waiting Men's final test for membership while you're waiting for your dinner. 
Harkaway with his Red Tentacle. Photo: Sarah McIntyre
   'Angelmaker' has been understandably very well-received, and has won a number of awards and accolades to date. On April 8th it was announced as being shortlisted for this year's Arthur C. Clarke award, one of the most prestigious in the science-fiction/fantasy community. It won the 'Red Tentacle' award for Best Novel in February at the Kitschies, awards held to honour speculative fiction which is 'intelligent, progressive, and entertaining'. It was named as one of the Wall Street Journal's Best Mysteries of 2012, and one of The Guardian's Best Science Fiction of 2012
 The problem with listening to something like this as an audiobook (for me) is that it makes it so much more of an ordeal to pause every time a particularly juicy quote, funny phrase, or brilliant character shows up. I've been listening to bits again to try to recapture some of these moments. It's even more amazing second time around.