Archive for August, 2014

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I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for a character as much as I did for Mark Watney. I’m sure I’ve never been so enthralled by the mathematics of potato yields and calorie benefits. And, I have rarely held my breathe for the last quarter of a book as I did with Andy Weir’s The Martian.

As part of a six man team mission to Mars, a freak accident sees Mark Watney presumed dead during a storm that forces his team to abandon the planet and escape into orbit. Watney is not dead (though things continue to conspire to kill him throughout) but he is now alone and stranded on Mars with no radio or communications. He does have the means to survive for quite some time, though not enough to await the arrival of the next mission team.

Watney goes through some remarkable feats, using his ingenuity and skills to “Heath Robinson” a number of solutions against seemingly insurmountable odds. Clearly, as an astronaut, he is a clever character but his sense of humour and ability to stay focused is wonderful. Just as clearly, the author Andy Weir is brilliant in his ability to make weird math and technical material as gripping as he does. Interspersed with chapters that focus on NASA trying to work a rescue, Watney’s log updates pack humour, humanity and the drive to survive into bite sized chunks.

Spending a year and a half stranded on a planet that is trying to kill him, Watney’s story is life affirming. It speaks of the best of human kind; the universal and political free nature of scientific endeavour. Weir’s writing is smart and clear, never losing the reader in amongst all the hard science. The story is a serious page turner and the protagonist is so likeable it’s ridiculous. The Martian is a thriller in every sense of the word; an intriguing, mind boggling, math driven, Mars bound tale of survival.

Review copy
Published by Del Rey

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Edited by Ian Whates and now in it’s third (and a half) iteration, Solaris Rising 3 once again brings forth a veritable feast of short sci-fi stories from a number of great authors, some more well known than others.

First up, I read Cat Sparks Dark Harvest after Mr Whates described it as military sci-fi with a difference. A slice of brutal life for grunts, stuck on an alien world, fighting things they don’t understand, Sparks captures the overlapping banter of soldiers perfectly. Hints and ideas are wonderfully woven to create a view of the world as the group of mercenaries encounter terrifying super-soldiers and the even weirder ‘nuns’.

The transition in perspective from the human soldiers, eager to escape the planet and just as eager to destroy everything that moves, to the nuns is a sharp, revealing contrast. Sparks has seemingly delivered a brief glimpse into a fully fledged world that visually and conceptually offers up a lot.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s When We Harvested The Nacre-Rice is a haunting, dream-like story touched by elegant prose and a melodious rhythm. As two worlds engage in a conflict using only cyber attacks against the augmented senses of their respective enemies, turning days into chaotic storms of illogical madness, the protagonist of the story, Pahayal saves a stranger from drowning. In turns, that stranger’s true purpose and nature is revealed. The mental warfare escalates to physical aggression and the true cost of the conflict is uncovered.

Sriduangkaew’s worlds are wonderfully evolved re-imaginings and the strained yet deeply personal relationship between Pahayal and the stranger is intriguing. Sensitively written and superbly creative, this is a great opening story for an anthology championing new voices in science fiction.

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Like a child who hides his sweets so that he doesn’t scoff them all in one go, I’m the same with certain authors. Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country has been sitting on my shelf giving me the come on for quite some time but I’m glad I waited. You always know you’re going to get a great read with Mr Abercrombie, I just didn’t expect it to be so effortlessly brilliant. Check out the blurb below though, as it was published in 2012, I’m sure you’ve seen it already..

They burned her home.

They stole her brother and sister.

But vengeance is following.

Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old step father Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own. And out in the lawless Far Country, the past never stays buried.

Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer, Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust…

The past never stays buried…

Set in the same world as his First Law trilogy and other excellent stand-alone novels, Red Country takes place 10 years after Best Served Cold. However, Abercrombie has imbued this last book with a remarkably unique atmosphere. Part fantasy and part Western, Red Country is testament to the immense talent of the author as he weaves a tale of epic proportions in a ridiculously readable style that leaves you wanting for more. The characters are brilliantly crafted and, as ever, suitably jaded and rough at the edges. The world building is awe inspiring whilst the story is gripping.

Like many of Abercrombie’s novels, there is a theme to discern and here it is the notion of broken promises and lost dreams. Revenge, redemption and reality feature heavily as well as Shy and Lamb undertake their journey, meeting many a character on the long, dusty way. It’s a journey that takes them into the far reaches of Abercrombie’s world, one where we get introduced to new elements and some old ones too.

The idea of a fantasy Western is probably not new but Joe Abercrombie has nailed it with a precision that is close to perfect. The long trail and it’s trials, the frontier spirit and the lawless pioneers, the savage country and weather, and the broken ideals and dreams of those brave, or stupid, enough to undertake the task of taming the wild. But it’s the characters that make these books so enthralling – those who are breaking promises to keep another oath, those who find tenderness where they thought there was none, the ones who scrabble and scheme for a better tomorrow whilst damning the losses of yesterday, and then the odd one who finds hidden depths.

I thought Heroes was Abercrombie’s best but now I see I was wrong. Red Country is a towering inferno of awesomeness. I just wish I could read it for the first time again..

In the modern age of email there’s nothing better than getting a parcel in the post. Well, other than three surprise packages! All, of course, accompanied by the local, potty mouthed, Jekyll and Hyde postie’s inimitable delivery style..

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The Quick by Lauren Owen has a cryptic blurb attached adding to the gothic horror that awaits inside. I’ve overdosed slightly on zombie novels lately but I think this could be a good, scary read.

You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick –

But first you must travel to Victorian Yorkshire, and there, on a remote country estate, meet a brother and sister alone in the world and bound by tragedy. In time, you will enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of some of the richest, most powerful men in fin-de-siecle England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide.

It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, one of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed.

I’ve been looking forward to reading more John Scalzi and especially liked the premise of Locked In. Check out the description.

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

1% doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’ . . . including the President’s wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, ‘The Agora’, where the locked-in can interact with other humans, whether locked-in ornot. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing those who are locked in to occasionally ‘ride’ these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse . . .

I’ve heard good things about Andy Weir’s The Martian and I have a feeling this may make it to the top of the reading pile. Formerly self published and now with the film rights picked up by Fox, there’s a lot of hype to this novel. Check out the blurb below.

I’m stranded on Mars.

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

I’m in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m screwed

What a great Saturday surprise (including the posties choice use of the English language’s more colourful side)! Now, back to reading…

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The Small World of 212B by Ian Edginton

A comics writer for 2000 AD, Ian Edginton’s tale is a weird and wonderful ride into the world of meta-fiction. What begins for Dr. Watson as a seemingly innocuous but annoying invitation to a wedding soon turns out to be a mystery far stranger than any that the detective duo have tried to fathom previously.

Asked to be best man at the wedding of an old acquaintance, Watson initially declines. But, at Sherlock’s reasoning that the man was a catalyst for their meeting, the good Doctor changes his mind. Arriving at the village where the ceremony is to take place, things seem out of kilter. Eager to report back to Sherlock his findings, Watson only finds things have become even stranger back at Baker Street.

Edginton’s Watson is wonderfully loyal, irascible and inquisitive as ever and the bizarre twist to the tale is a fantastic homage to the canon of Sherlock Holmes and, indeed, the anthology it appears in. A brilliant, fun story.

The Final Conjuration by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Whilst most of the stories I’ve read in the anthology have placed Sherlock in familiar surroundings, Adrian Tchaikovsky has set his Sherlock in the fantasy world of the seven great Lords Wizard. Here, ‘Wu Tsan’ is a magician in the service of one of the great Lords who has had the need to conjure forth a demon to help him with certain inquiries. Brought forth from his world in a fog of coca smoke, ‘the Sherlock’ helped to uncover a number of truths that magic couldn’t discern.

Tchaikovsky has brilliantly painted Sherlock into this epic fantasy world, losing none of the detective’s character as he effortlessly deduces answers from a reality he doesn’t believe exists. Wu Tsan is equally familiar in his unfamiliar role as conjurer, magician and almost master of the demon Sherlock. It’s a fantastic story in every sense of the term.

Review copy
Published by Solaris

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Christopher Fowler’s next novel, to be released in October, is set against the evocative backdrop of rural Southern Spain. Nyctophobia is a poignantly beautiful ghost story that explores what it truly means to be haunted.

Building upon one of humanity’s most primal fears – fear of the dark – Nyctophobia is a devastating and original tale for fans of horror and literary fiction alike, presented beautifully through Fowler’s iconic cinematic style


Isolated and beautiful, Hyperion House is a house of eerie symmetry; uniquely designed to ensure that one half remains always in the light and one half always in the dark.

When new owner Callie Shaw begins to uncover the house’s strange history she finds herself inexplicably drawn to the shrouded servant’s quarters at the back of the house, increasingly convinced that someone is living a half-life among the darkness there…

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The Adventure of the Speckled Bandana by J.E. Cohen

J.E. Cohen’s tale of Holmesian intrigue is set in Seventies America. We’re talking satin bell bottoms, men with long hair and smoking on planes. Indeed, smoking everywhere. The Adventure of the Speckled Bandana has a real atmosphere to it and a Holmes and Watson that are instantly recognisable.

Whilst the bandana in the title is the lead clue and key to the mystery behind this wonderfully crafted tale it is, as ever, Sherlock’s breakneck speed in deciphering the clues that gives the story it’s drive. There’s little to mention without giving it all a way but, suffice it to say, this was a great read.

The Rich Man’s Hand by Joan De La Haye

From Cohen’s Seventies Sherlock the next story takes us to South Africa, Pretoria. Holmes is coming off a crack smoking bender and Watson, the dutiful friend that he is, knows that only a case of serious importance and intrigue will distract the detective enough to get him straightened out.

Ostensibly a tale of a rich man’s murder in a shanty town, Sherlock deduces it’s more than just about a robbery. De La Haye’s translation of Holmes to South Africa introduces witch craft and a worrying trade in organs and genitals with great effect. Poor Watson is dragged along, deeper and deeper into the chase which culminates in a horrifying conclusion. Including a few nice nods to the canon, The Rich Man’s Hand is a grippy yet fun tale.

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A collection of fourteen short stories about the ever popular and evolving Sherlock Holmes, I just read Jamie Wyman’s A Scandal in Hobohemia. Published by Solaris, the anthology looks set to be a must read if all the stories are as satisfying and creative as Wyman’s. And, as you can expect from a publisher as innovative as Solaris/Abaddon, these are not your usual, run of the mill Victorian fodder.

Wyman deftly introduces setting and character in her opening paragraphs, slowly revealing a ‘Watson’ looking for answers in a travelling carnival in the US. Signified by his injured leg, Jim Dandy (our Watson) is trying to question an old palm reader and soothsayer about the whereabouts of a man. Yet, nothing is as it seems.

The classic Holmesian tricks and deceptions are all there but Wyman adds a few neat ploys of her own. The writing is wonderful and it’s a great introduction to the collection. Precise and neat yet immensely engaging, it’s a great example of the craft of short story telling. Plus, it left me hankering for some more alt-Sherlock.

Review copy
Published by Solaris

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Sometimes there’s a book that makes work seem like a nuisance as you just don’t want to stop reading. Yet, you also don’t want it to finish. Blood Song by Anthony Ryan was one of those books for me. Check out the blurb below…

Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of ten when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order.

Vaelin’s father was Battle Lord to King Janus, ruler of the unified realm. Vaelin’s rage at being deprived of his birthright and dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order like a foundling knows no bounds. He cherishes the memory of his mother, and what he will come to learn of her at the Order will confound him. His father, too, has motives that Vaelin will come to understand. But one truth overpowers all the rest: Vaelin Al Sorna is destined for a future he has yet to comprehend. A future that will alter not only the realm, but the world.

Book one in the Raven’s Shadow trilogy, Ryan’s Blood Song is epic fantasy at its finest. Introduced to the protagonist Vaelin Al Sorna when he is a child, the first part of the novel focuses on his journey from boy to man, from a lonely child to a feared warrior. His training by the Sixth Order is brutal, teaching and forging Vaelin into a powerful instrument of war. Along with his band of brothers, Vaelin undertakes numerous challenges as each year passes, whittling out the weak and leaving only those skilled enough to survive the hardships and harsh tests.

However, the book quietly builds as intrigue and mystery begin to insinuate themselves into the story. Vaelin’s life is threatened and a number of times he thwarts attacks against his fellow Faithful. In his final exam, a test of his martial skills fighting three criminals to the death, Vaelin realises he has killed an innocent man. Embroiled now in a web of deceit and political intrigue which pits his place in the Order against the King of the Realm, Vaelin’s infamy and legend grows with each battle. Before long Vaelin is commanding a company of men, sent on a mission designed to cause war.

It is here that the true character of Vaelin becomes clear, as all the losses and lessons that have made the man coalesce. As the novel draws to a close, the plot rises to an uncertain crescendo echoing the title of the book. Ryan’s skill in telling the tale, using the ending as the beginning and focusing on Vaelin makes for a wonderful, fluid read. As each new intrigue is added the book builds and builds, driven first by the characters and then by the stunning and gripping action.

The author has created a fantastic world of fractious nations, civilisations and religions. It’s a brilliant backdrop to Vaelin and his brothers in the Faith and their adventures. But, it’s the depth of the book and how Ryan allows certain elements, such as the curious and fascinating notion of magic, to rise up out of the story that makes it such an absorbing read. Thankfully the second in the series, Tower Lord is already out and I can’t wait to read it. In short, Anthony Ryan is highly recommended.

Review copy
Published by Orbit

For the last decade I’ve been writing about combat sports and strength and conditioning for various magazines and websites. After my recent addiction to zombie novels, I thought I’d have a little fun and apply some fitness ideas to this worst-case horror scenario. I’m sure many of us have thought about what we’d do if an outbreak occurred, how we’d prepare and what weapons we’d gather in an attempt to survive against the flesh eating hordes who used to be our neighbours.*

Now, I’ve heard numerous sources, from films like Zombieland to smart phone apps, expressing that the most useful tool a person can have in a zombie apocalypse is cardio. Let’s consider this for a moment and break down what a zombie outbreak usually entails (as we suspend our disbelief for a little while).

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Whether we are talking 28 Days Later with its fast moving, enraged and infected monsters or the classic George Romero slow, shuffling, brain eaters certain similarities remain. First, as fresh meat, you’ll be hunted. Second, other survivors are normally a threat as competition for food and water grows. Third, in most apocalyptic portrayals roads are chocked with vehicles and general mayhem, panic and loss of order has created a dangerous environment – we’re talking fires, floods and fighting.

Let’s go back and look at cardio in the sense of long distance endurance. Whilst on the surface being able to run for 10-20 miles at a reasonable pace might seem like a good idea, it really doesn’t match our criteria. There’s a fairly common argument in strength and conditioning circles about the benefit of long distance running, the main point being that it can cause damage to joints and is no more beneficial than walking. However, from a zombie apocalypse point of view those issues have little meaning. What does have weight is that, unless you’re an Olympic level marathon runner, your pace won’t be fast enough nor will your stamina last long enough for that kind of cardio to be of benefit.

More likely, you’ll want to sprint away from threats and recover quickly; jump and pull your body over obstacles; fight and maintain your mental acuity. Agility, power endurance and explosiveness are the keys to survival against both human and undead assailants. What I propose is a form of training that will give you the mental and physical strength and stamina to survive.

Sprinting is hard. Sprinting pushes your mind and body. It’s intense and great for apocalypse preparation. Pair it with full body or compound exercises and you have a decent platform for making yourself a survivor.

Training block A:
50 metre sprints with either a set of 10 pull ups/ dips or 20 push ups.

Sprint at top speed for 50 metres before jogging at a reasonable pace to the start line. If equipment allows, perform 10 pull ups or dips, if not perform press ups. Do this three times and rest for 60 seconds. Do as many rounds as possible building up over the training block.

Training block B:
Fartlek training (ok, stop sniggering).

Find a running track or field and map out about 800 metres. After a warm up round, jog the first 600 before sprinting the last 200 metres. Repeat this for as many rounds as possible but aim for between 20-30 minutes of exercise (and then hate me later).

I would look to alternate training between A and B each week, aiming for 3 sessions a week. Continue this training for a block of 4-6 weeks. Remember this is about intensity – sprint hard and push your limits. Afterwards, you’ll be more than prepared to evade a lurching flesh muncher, sprint away from danger, pull yourself over a wall and then wrestler a can of peaches from a filthy stranger. But, you’ll also be mentally stronger, knowing how hard you can push and how quickly you can recover. A fit body and a fit mind equals a survivor. And, let’s be honest, would you rather be a Jesse Eisenberg-esque character or would you prefer to be a Jason Stratham-ish all-action hero?

*Please make sure you have a base level of fitness before undertaking any strenuous exercise or seek the advice of a professional. This article is written for fun so be careful and use common sense.