COLUMN: The Desert, The Empty Space, and Great Books…

Ali B and the Forty Spaceships — Part the Twelfth [Feb 2016]

“Tavern is either in a cellar or open to the street, and mostly serves only bad cheap drink and very greasy STEW. MERCENARIES love Taverns. Avoid Taverns unless you really want a terrible hangover or a bout of unarmed combat. Stick to INNS.”

—The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones

LAST TIME ROUND, I was waxing lyrical about the movies, and citing Spectre, Mockingjay 2 and especially Star Wars: The Force Awakens as on the verge of making for an exciting festive period at the flicks for us over here in the UK. Needless to say, at time of writing Star Wars is still hoovering up all those record-breaking statistics and spitting them out t’other side with force (see what I did there?). The irony of course, in line with this issue’s theme of ‘contemporary western’, is that many believe the original Star Wars: A New Hope is actually just another western in space (damsel in distress, good guys vs bad guys, the usual thing). Things have moved on a little plot-wise since then o’course, but the key concept of good vs evil is never really far away from most modern entertainment I think, be that in movies, on the telly, or through comics and/or books, or indeed, any good yarn.

The HomesmanThis column usually focuses on fantasy, science fiction and horror, but I’d like to detour a little today, because I recently read The Homesman (Simon & Schuster, 2014 – originally published in 1988) by Glendon Swarthout and found it both refreshingly different and in parts, still quite the horror story. Most will better know the story through the 2004 movie of the same name, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank. Here’s a brief summary: it’s set in the American West of the 1850s, three women have lost their marbles (according to male-skewed popular opinion) and need to be escorted back east across the desert to a sanitorium and/or sanctity with their families. When none of the local men steps up to the plate, it’s left to Mary Bee Cuddy (a resourceful and successful spinster) to undertake the job, but she enlists the services of a low-life claim jumper to assist her (by sparing him a hanging) and sets off on a journey both memorable and at times, truly terrifying. As a god-fearing woman, Mary Bee’s character is portrayed marvellously, which makes what happens en-route all the more shocking, but it does also give low-life George Briggs the chance to ‘redeem himself’, so to speak. My point being that there is no good vs bad here, just some great story-telling and a struggle against time and the elements. ‘Tis a good story, though, so seek out the book if you want to enjoy the writing, although no doubt the film of the same name will cover most bases.

13 MinutesIt’ll come as no surprise to many that Sarah Pinborough happens to be quite high on my ‘I love her stuff’ list (if you didn’t know already, where have you been for the last two years?), so her latest release, 13 Minutes (Gollancz, Feb 2016) was bound to be a hit with me. It’s being marketed as her first YA thriller, and tells the story of Natasha Howland, a girl who was rescued from a river by a passerby after having already been dead in the water for 13 minutes. Written for the most part in first-person, it’s a cracking tale of a young lady who is fighting to remember what happened prior to her ‘accident’ while still dealing with all the angst and peer pressure of college-life, best friends, etc. A beautiful and swift read, there are numerous major twists and turns (something of a Pinborough mainstay) that lead inexorably to a shocking finale. Some will find it unsatisfying, but they obviously haven’t read enough of Sarah’s work to know better. Highly recommended reading.

TheFalconerAnd now for something completely different… The Falconer (Gollancz 2014) and The Vanishing Throne (Gollancz, 2015) by Elizabeth May are a pair of books starring faery-hunter Lady Aileana Kameron on a quest to avenge the death of her mother at the hands of a particularly nasty strain of faery-kind. Set in a steampunk-stylee Edinburgh with lightning guns, flying ‘thopters, and social etiquette all competing for Aileana’s attention, these books mark the debut of an author whose photographic work is already highly respected.The Vanishing Throne And she evidently demonstrates a good eye for visual storytelling, since this shines through in a lot of the descriptive sections of the books, immersing the reader into a rather violent world of nasty faeries and top-notch action sequences. Good reads, both, and part of a trilogy, the third volume of which, The Fallen Kingdom, should hopefully be out next year (2017), it’s somewhat too easy to recommend these as well.

 

DuneMany readers will know that 2015 saw Frank Herbert’s Dune celebrating 50 years since its first publication, and I recently had cause to read Prelude To Dune: House Harkonnen (New English Library, 2004) by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Now although there is a lot of controversy (esp. among fans of the original) over Frank’s son continuing to expand the Dune universe, and the writing itself seems to come under fire quite regularly, I must say I enjoyed this foray back into the world of Dune even if, despite the title, there does seem to be a lot of time and focus spent on House Atreides within these pages.Prelude to Dune: House Harkonnen I haven’t yet read the other Prelude books –Vol 1: House Atreides and Vol 3: House Corrino– but after enjoying House Harkonnen, I don’t think I’ll be quite so quick to turn my nose up should the opportunity come along to read them.

I’ve already outstayed my welcome, so “That’s all for now, folks!”. Take care, and I hope 2016 brings you a multitude of good reading.

* This column originally appeared in the
March/April 2016 issue of BTS Book Reviews

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