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Top five posts — July 2012

Well, for better or worse, here comes another six-month snapshot of this site’s performance. I seem to have managed to get on to a more regular posting schedule. To be honest, I still don’t understand how the ranking system correlates with the number of hits, nor whether the improvement in the regularity of my postings is the reason for the improvement in traffic numbers. All I can say is that, in the first six months of 2012, I’m averaging 976 hits per day with the total number of hits over the lifetime of the site now standing at around 285,050. I still have no real sense of whether this is good or bad for a review site. The only consolation is that traffic numbers do seem to have been relatively stable over the last four months.

As predicted in the last report, the Dong Yi pages have taken over nine of the top ten pages on the site. I’ve become very popular in the Philippines although that’s dropping off as the final episodes are being broadcast. It seems somewhat redundant to list the top five Dong Yi pages. Suffice it to say that the average number of hits for that top five is 7,573 hits per page. In both the following lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists (excluding Dong Yi pages). So the top five of the other film/anime pages is:

Hellsing or Herushingu
Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato (1)
Conan (2011) (3)
Sex, manga and anime (2)
Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi

These five pages have an average of 2,911 hits per page — less than half the number of hits for the top five Dong Yi pages. Obviously, I’m going to have to be more careful about selecting the content to comment on if I want traffic numbers to rise. It’s fascinating that only two of the top twenty pages relate to Western content. This increases to seven of the top thirty, ten of the top forty, and fourteen of the top fifty. I suppose I must be one of a more limited number of people writing about “foreign” material in English. As to books, here’s the current top five:

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (2)
Troika by Alastair Reynolds (1)
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (3)
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
Enormity by W G Marshall

In the last snapshot, the average for the top five books was 421 hits per page. This time, we’ve improved to 753 hits per page. I still find this rather depressing and I can only conclude that the number of sites offering ebook and other digital versions are swamping out the reviews. Why the same things doesn’t happen to the film and television content is one of life’s great unknowns. So there we have it. Another six months under my belt and a big thanks to all those who now follow the site. You’re part of the reason for the stabilisation of the daily number of hits.

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , , ,

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

December 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Six months ago, I offered a second snapshot of this site’s performance by publishing the top five pages for both the visual and printed media. On this New Year’s Eve, I’ve decided to look back again since there does seem to have been yet another change.

For the record, the site had just over 1,500 hits in January, 9,000 hits in June, but this December is comfortably over 17,550 hits. It seems I’ve become rather more visible on the all-powerful Google rankings. What makes this somewhat fascinating is the interest in “foreign” material. I don’t consciously pick subject matter thinking this will get a lot of hits. I write about what I happen to have seen or read. My decision to write about Dong Yi, a very good Korean serial, has proved a major success with all the pages dominating the top quarter of the page counts. Indeed, there’s a chance the next top five in six months time may be all Dong Yi pages. The current top page is over 4,750 hits with the top five having 12,590 hits between them. This ignores the 36,500 hits on the Home Page which are anonymised on WordPress. The figures in brackets are the positions in the last listing.

Dong Yi — a review of the first 22 episodes (1)
Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato
Sex, manga and anime (2)
Conan (2011)
Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23-29

The average page hits for the top five books has gone up from just under 200 to 421 but this remains a pale shadow of the average for the top five visual media at 2,518 hits. It says something about the way the rankings work that a review of Conan, a film based on a written work, can get three times the number of hits for Troika.

Troika by Alastair Reynolds (1)
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (5)
Songs of Love and Death edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois
Feed by Mira Grant (4)
Daybreak Zero by John Barnes

The average hits per page across the entire site is 278 which is a fairly dramatic increase from 112 hits six months ago.

So there we have it. I’m finishing the year on a high note. It will be interesting to see whether I maintain the momentum or drop back down into the doldrums. Frankly, this internet phenomenon all seems rather arbitrary and disconnected from what I do. Perhaps I should invite a publisher to send me a book for review that explains how the ranking system works and maximising performance. Not that it matters that much since I’ve not commercialised the site. I suppose setting up my own domain and trying to sell advertising would make a difference. Until then, I’ll bumble along and see what happens.

A happy and successful New Year to all who read this.

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , , ,

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Some six months ago, I published a short piece celebrating Two Milestones. I did my best to be modest about achievements. After all, I hadn’t been trying very hard to promote the site and my postings to it had not been very consistent. But I put up the top five pages for both books and films, remarking in a neutral tone that each of the ten pages had secured more than one-hundred hits.

Six months is not a long time, but there has been a minor transformation. Having decided to share the space more equally between books and the visual arts, I have found significantly more hits for the latter. Indeed, my top page is approaching 1,500 hits with 5,458 hits spread between the top five pages.

Dong Yi — a review of the first 22 episodes
Sex, manga and anime
True Grit
The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang
Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (4)

In both lists, the numbers in brackets are the placement in the last top five lists. For the record, Dong Yi is a marvelous historical Korean drama, the main focus of Sex Manga and Anime is the anime serial Zero no Tsukaima, and True Grit is one of only two Western entries in the top ten.

As to books, the top five is:
Troika by Alastair Reynolds
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow (2)
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine (1)
Feed by Mira Grant
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

We are only averaging just under 200 hits for these five pages, but the overall average for the book pages is slowly catching up to the films, television and anime pages. There’s hope for the printed media yet. The average per page across the site is 112 hits and, before you ask, there is one page that has stubbornly refused to collect more than 1 hit in some two years.

As a postscript, the stubborn page that had only collected one hit since being published in June, 2009 collected its second hit on August 7th 2011. Perhaps it will now develop escape velocity and rise rapidly to four, or even five, hits.

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , , ,

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

When I started this site, it was really just a way of letting off steam. I spend so much of my time writing what others pay me to write, this was my busman’s holiday. But as weeks have become months, I’ve found myself spending slightly more time on this. Traffic has been increasing to the point I may actually have to take a more professional approach. Not that I’ve any plans to monetise it, but the whole enterprise might have a better feel if I begin to be a little more disciplined. Ah well, we’ll see what happens. If anyone out there would be interested in contributing reviews or opinion pieces, let me know. There’s an e-mail address on the “About” page. The site might benefit from a diversity of views or spreading the coverage to include music, games or more general topics of interest.

So we’ve a New Year approaching and I’ve just posted the 150th review. To celebrate both landmarks, I decided to post the top five posts for books and the visual media. Thanks to your support, all the pages in these lists have one-hundred or more hits. I say this without any real sense of achievement. The top review sites have pages with thousands of hits. But it’s nevertheless satisfying that, without any real effort on my part except writing and publishing the pages, I am attracting hits.

I place no particular significance on the success of these winning posts. I had originally speculated I might do better with reviews of anthologies because each page would mention multiple authors — all the better to hit me with. That there are two anthologies in my top five books is therefore a pleasing result. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next twelve months. As to the films (none of the television reviews made it into the top five), with one exception, the most popular are “foreign” language where there are not so many mainstream reviews. I’m popular by default but not proud. I take my popularity no matter why it comes. So, without more ado, here we go:

Top five books
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow
Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern
Jade Man’s Skin by Daniel Fox
Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham

Top five films
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes in the original Swedish
Bruce Lee, My Brother
Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec or Adele: Rise of the Mummy

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross

September 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently, I was privileged to see a juggler keep an uncountable number of balls in the air for a short period of time. It was one of the more remarkable feats of physical ability I have seen. For an achingly beautiful minute or so, the balls seemed to transcend gravity and float in the air. Then, as is the case with all acts of magic, it had to end. He smiled in response to the audience’s sigh and caught the balls. With an apology he left the stage because our time was up.

So it is that we reach the end of the sixth in the Merchant Princes series. It’s The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross (an apparent reference to the opium trade) and he manages to catch most of the balls he thought were important while moving to a resolution of sorts. Perhaps I really should have browsed through The Revolution Business before starting out on this concluding volume.

Frankly, leaving this much time between episodes is completely nuts. At my age, memory grows fallible and, worse, interest declines. As you read any series, you play a game with the author, trying to second guess where he might take the plot, how he might resolve narrative arcs. More than a year has passed since reading Volume Five and I couldn’t remember who many of these people were. Worse, all the little info dumps slowed things down at the beginning without completely fulfilling their purpose of enlightenment. When you are talking about the accumulated wisdom of five books, the sixth had better be good, or die because high expectations are not met. Publishers please note. As a reader I could not care less about your commissioning cycle or the commercial decisions as to when a hardback should be released as a mass market paperback. If we are in the middle of a potentially interesting series, we should just get on with it.

Well, the best you can say about this ending is that it ends. When this all started out with The Family Trade in 2004, we had a richly embroidered story about Miriam Beckstein. It ends as thin gruel with Miriam a modest character, no longer really the mover or shaker she promised to be. Perhaps that’s how life works. The people who emerge from the crowd as potential leaders can just as quickly be submerged back into the faceless tide again. Salience is transitory. But when an author invests so much effort in building up a character and then sustains her as a major player for the first three or so books, it says a great deal about an author losing focus or direction to effectively throw her away. The story becomes more important than the characters (than any of the characters). In the end, everyone is moved around the gaming board like pawns so they can finish where they are supposed to finish. There’s no interest or attempt to involve us emotionally in any of the outcomes. It just ends.

At this point, I cannot avoid mentioning an alarming note in the Acknowledgements. “My agent, Caitlin Blaisdell, nudged me to make a radical change of direction. . . David Hartwell and Tom Doherty encouraged me further. . .” So there was a conspiracy to persuade a fine author to throw away everything that was good about his previous books, and to subordinate everything to the plot. Well, in future Mr. Stross, I suggest you ignore what others tell you and stay true to who you are as a writer. You had fine instincts when you started off. To let it peter out like this is a creative disaster. Except, I place the blame more squarely on your agent. When you were deciding how to develop the plot going out of Volume Two into Volume Three, it should have been obvious to everyone on the inside that you were being very ambitious. At that point, your agent should have renegotiated your contract. You have clout. The publisher would have accepted a proposal to split the six book series into a trilogy and then sequences of books set in the different worlds in parallel. This would have let you do justice to the characters and the scale of your imagination (or perhaps that was just too boring a prospect for you). As it is, you opened the floodgates on your imagination and watched the flow spread out across the countryside going into Volume Four and then realised you were constrained by the six-book limit. This forced you to put the brakes on in Volume Five and then end it like this. Worse, you have also been persuaded to borrow stylistically from your other work. If I had wanted to reread your stories with CAPITALS about bombs going off thanks to nameless agencies, I would have picked other books off my shelves.

You are a writer who could become dominant, but you will throw away major goodwill if you allow the publication of books like this. Frankly, it is an insult to loyal fans.

For the other reviews of books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune’s Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless.

Inception (2010)

The world continues to throw up the occasional marketing campaign to stimulate curiosity. I enjoyed the recent Batman films so going to see Christopher Nolan’s stand-alone science-fictional effort, Inception (2010), seemed a good idea. Every now and again, it does me good to run with the herd, to remember what it’s like to jump off a cliff with all the other lemmings.

So there I am, comfortably installed in the cinema — amazingly only the one trailer for Harry Potter, no ads. Thank God for longer films! Shame about the Potter. And so, in the best of the racetrack jargon, we’re off and running.

About fifteen minutes into the film, I register a discussion about perceptions in a dream. Cobb, our hero, asks his architect how they arrived at this particular place in Paris. She cannot remember. There’s a discontinuity. I am immediately triggered into comparing the medium of film with dreaming. Because of the time limitations, directors cut between one scene and the next, leaving it to the viewers to fill in the blanks. We are well trained, always being prepared to infer the missing events. So dreams are also discontinuous as the subconscious flits from one set of narrative elements to another. I begin to wonder whether any of what we are watching is intended to be “real” or is it all to be a dream. I am further reinforced in this speculation as the idea of multiple levels in dreaming is introduced and discussed. Then the game is completely exposed when Cobb is trying to escape in Mombassa and runs down an ever-narrowing passageway.

Perhaps I am too old to be watching young film-makers try to say something new.

In this instance, I can identify two good things about the end-product. Even though it’s not terribly original, I like the logic of the plot. Having decided which of the possible stories he’s going to tell, Nolan is very disciplined, carefully setting out his ground rules, and then watching them play out to the end. Overall, I think it goes on for about twenty minutes too long. There’s just too much repetitive shooting and explosions, particularly in the third level where the snow looks pretty even though the action is tedious.

The second good thing is the quality of the cinematography and design. Some of the dreamscapes are impressive although, again, the zero gravity sequence goes on too long.

But there’s a real problem. I think the best way to explain it is to remind myself of the number of exciting games I have watched. When you spectate, particularly as a player yourself, you are immediately drawn into the ebb and flow of the action. Although there’s always satisfaction in watching any game played really well, nothing beats the raw emotion of empathising with the winner and commiserating with the loser. Any good work of fiction, whether on the page, on stage or the screen must encourage us to suspend disbelief. It may not be real, but the director hopes we will empathise with the key players.

The mark of a great film is the way in which it captures and holds our interest. We must want the key protagonist to win, or not to lose too badly. The difficulty with Inception is that it’s like watching over someone’s shoulder while he or she plays a video game. I can stand this for a few minutes but, with little turning on the outcome, I’m rarely involved. It’s different if I’m the one playing. Then, regardless whether my level of performance is good or bad, it’s my effort and, as a competitive soul, I dislike losing to some stupid machine. But all I was doing this afternoon was watching Nolan play a first-person shooter game. It had great visuals and Zimmer’s music was the usual atmospheric pomp, but I was not involved. These were not real people. At best, they were projections of the subconscious mind. In a sense, it did not matter which actors happened to be on the screen at any one time. They were merely going through the motions necessitated by the plot. On three occasions, individuals were asked to make a leap of faith. I could not do it. I wish it were otherwise, but Inception (2010) is a film you admire for its technical virtuosity but forget because it had no heart.

As always, I can pick winners for this won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form at the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention.

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Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

July 26, 2010 1 comment

This is the second in the series by Walter Mosley featuring Leonid McGill. Following on The Long Fall, we are pitched back into the realpolitik of New York with our eponymous hero working directly for Alphonse Rinaldo — a fictional consigliere to the Mayor who fixes what the city needs.

It’s always interesting to see how a series develops its own agenda. Although ostensibly about a PI solving crimes, Mosley is more interested in exploring the relationships between people based on how honest they are. In this, the touchstone of honesty is applied not just in what they say, but also in what they do. A man may be without conscience when it comes to killing. This is a brutal kind of honesty and, once you are aware of this man’s character, you can define the relationship you can form with him. In this, it’s possible to separate the essential nature of the man from what he may sometimes do. He may be unfailingly loyal to his friends, a wise counsellor and, if needed, a defender of the innocent. Are we to say this is not a good man. Morality is always an exercise in relativism. Although Kant and other philosophers prefer to define some moral principles in absolute terms, such certainty rarely works in all cultural contexts. Circumstances dictate exceptions to every rule.

Within his marriage, McGill’s relationship with his wife is defined by what he does not say and do. When he does speak, it’s usually to lie about what their sons are doing. Dimitri, his son by blood, rarely speaks to his father. Twill, who was born during the marriage but not with McGill as his father, is a kind of spiv in the making. So far, his criminality is relatively low level, but he has an easy-going charm that may mark him out for an effective life in sales. Whether this will be selling the Brooklyn Bridge or more legitimate property remains to be seen. Shelly, a daughter, is not relevant to this story.

This is not to undervalue the racial element that runs as a steady thread throughout almost all Mosley’s fiction. But, rather in the same way that the U.S. has become increasingly unwilling to discuss the structural and institutionalised racism that permeates so much of its life, so Mosely is here more oblique in his treatment of racial issues. That Dimitri spends the book infatuated with and hiding a high-class Russian prostitute from her pimp is never commented on. That various white men and women physically threaten McGill is simply the way the world works when words are not a sufficient deterrent. It’s left to the reader to impose his or her own interpretation on events. This is a significant shift from the Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlow and some of the stand-alone novels like The Man In My Basement where the discussion of race is overt. I mention this shift not to suggest that Mosely is himself becoming less honest. It’s entirely possible he has toned it down because, in these increasingly hypocritical times, the more honest books about race relations in the U.S. do not sell. Authors who want to earn a living cannot afford to alienate too many of their readers.

In fact, Mosley engages in a nice piece of misdirection. Having been raised by a political activist, the younger McGill still carries the intellectual baggage of the communist idealism that drove his father. So, in various reminiscences punctuating the interior monologue, we are treated to some of the wisdom of his father. As explicit commentary on the U.S. and its current political stance, it draws attention away from the subtext of race.

Overall, this is another fast-paced PI novel where, from the moment he accepts the assignment from Rinaldo, he is fighting to thwart a malicious plot to kill the named young woman. In the midst of this, he must save his sons from their well-intentioned desire to take on a major prostitution ring, help a man whose life he blighted in the past, and offer physical support for an ageing surrogate father figure. Did I mention decisions about what to do about his marriage and resolving issues with his girlfriend? And then there’s the new manager of the building where he has his offices. He would prefer McGill to leave. This is a classic recipe of ingredients, all stirred together with style and panache by a wonderful writer.

This is a terrific PI novel. Start with The Long Fall, the first in the series, to understand who everyone is.

For a review of the last two Easy Rawlins novela, see Blonde Faith and Little Green. The third and fourth Leonid McGill novels are When the Thrill Is Gone and All I Did Was Shoot My Man. The new stand-alone pairs of novellas are The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin and Merge and Disciple. Now comes a new ebook, Jack Strong.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

July 26, 2010 2 comments

Having had sand kicked in my face for my whinging about the size and weight of some modern hardback books, I went back to the trunk where I store the few remnants of my youth. There it was. Just as I remembered. The Charles Atlas dynamic tension course. Now, of course, you all think of dynamic tension as being one of these fancy postmodernist theories about narrative — the idea that an author should be able to hold the interest of the reader from start to finish. But, as one who consumed a diet of comics as a kid, the idea I would be able to beat the bully to a pulp and get the girl was a terrible lure to the insecure and callow youth that I was.

Over the last weeks, I have been training in self-resistance, reading only light trade paperbacks while working out the Atlas way. Today sees the proof of the pudding I once was. The weight is now gone from the waist as chords of rippling muscles play across the upper body of a old god holding up the world and a fair-sized terrapin. I have even mastered the Shaolin one-finger technique for turning the pages.

Thus prepared, I was easily able to lift and hold Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson. For once, I am able to say this was a delight to read. Recently, I seem to have been caught in a rut of indifferent to poor books. This broke the run with such amazing power, I was immediately checking his web site. Sadly, there do not seem to be any plans for a sequel. I know there’s a terrible glut of trilogies, but if he could maintain the same wit and style, I would happily buy the next in series.

Is this book perfect? In one sense, this is a meaningless question. We are into the world of individual sensibilities. All readers have monster egos and can think of ways in which they believe any work of fiction can be improved. In this case, we have the sudden loss of all narrative connection with Dedelin once his two daughters have left for the capital. I find it impossible to believe he would not have attempted some search for his favoured daughter. There would also have been the preparations for war. That said, I suppose it might have pushed the book into trilogy mode. Once you start considering what everyone else is doing, the wordage expands to fill the space available — Parkinson’s Law of writing. So, no book is every completely perfect. Yet this comes close.

This is about real people in an unreal situation. We have sisters who find themselves in unfamiliar territory, both literally and metaphorically. Some of those around them are wise, others foolish. Perhaps sometimes those who are both foolish and wise at the same time prove to be the best. We have those who smile to conceal their nature and those who are silent because they must learn how to speak. As we progress, the innocent must learn the hard lessons of life and the overconfident must recognise those who stand together can be stronger. All life is here from the lowest in the slums to the highest in the land. And let’s not rush to judgement on who is better. Status counts for nothing when real choices must be made.

And all is told with a remarkable wit. It’s genuinely rare to be able to accuse a writer of high fantasy of breaking the mould of seriousness that so often pervades works of magic. Frankly, the irreverence and iconoclasm are utterly refreshing. As a final test, I gave the book to my wife who asserts a blind and unreasoning prejudice against fantasy. A mixture of threats and promises of a high quality meals in one of our better local restaurants persuaded her to start reading. It took her three days but she made time to finish it. She then promptly asked for more. Believe me. There can be no higher recommendation than both a tired old guy who has read thousands of books “just like this” and a wife who usually hates fantasy both unreservedly like this book. Ignore it at your peril!

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul,
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber

In the good old days before the birth of the Internet, we were all the victims of failing memory. If we half-remembered a line, placing it was always a delightful challenge. The various books of famous quotations were always serendipitous ways of passing an idle hour as the search would inevitably be diverted by delight in seeing old friends on flicked through pages. Today, it’s more efficient as we trigger a googling only to find many possible sources. So it was that I thought, “sins of the father” and then found myself pitched into lists of Biblical references which, inconveniently, contradict each other. It seems the generational transmission of sin was always controversial as the notion of personal responsibility vied with vicarious liability if there was any suggestion the sons had benefited from the father’s sins.

So picture a house standing out on its own in the countryside. To the eye outside, it’s all straight lines. But inside it’s all curves. Houses pass through time, handed down as the accumulated wealth of the family. They are the wombs in which the young are conceived and are carried until it’s time to give birth to each new generation. Wombs must be flexible in size, ready to expand and contract. There must be passages in and out for fertilisation and evacuation. A house is life. A house is a place in which we die when disease or old age catches up with us.

So picture such a house. It’s the means whereby a curse might pass through time. Do the sins of the father really justify visiting revenge on the innocent children? Is such a question meaningful? Perhaps a curse is like a computer program, forever set to repeat its operation when certain conditions are met. How or why the program was written never matter to the computer. It has no mind to make moral or any other judgements. It simply executes. . . an appropriate word when dealing with curses.

So picture a house — each new generation of owners may be manipulated. There are traps and lures. Once the hook is set, it floats or sinks depending on the weights attached. All good fishermen know where the targeted fish like to swim. History guides them.

No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber is a fast and pacey read for two-thirds its length. It runs well as all muscular stallions will when left to run the course at their own speed. But there comes a point in every narrative when calculations must be made. In part this is driven by the power of the horse, but the expectations of the crowd at the track also come into play. Seeing a front runner burn out before the finishing post does not appeal to the betting fraternity. It wants to see winners. So the little chap perched precariously on this mass of pounding flesh uses a mixture of encouragement and pain, hoping to guide the unthinking animal to its best result. It must be held back, positioned just right, then readied for the sprint to the line.

This is a wonderful atmosphere piece that, perforce, must fit into the readers’ expectations. So, acting on the trainer’s instructions, the jockey takes out the whip and hits the horse.

Everything is great up to this moment. The horse then veers off into a different race in which ghosts from the past rear up in the present.

Shame really. If only the jockey had kept his nerve, this horse would have run a great race. As it is, it all gets far to literal in the last third and the horse tails in at the end. But if your thing is fighting the good fight and seeing the good triumph over evil, well, this ending is for you.

The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory

You know you’re in trouble when the author, Daryl Gregory, sets a novel about DNA shifts/human evolution in a hick place called Switchcreek, Tennessee. This is like the author taking a rubber hammer and driving a spike into the reader’s head to get him, her or the other to pay attention. How else are we to understand something is “significant”? Sadly, this naïveté is symptomatic of a very pedestrian story of everyday rural folk who wake up one day to find the ones who survive the transformation are suddenly three or, may be, four different species. Ho hum, was there ever such a day! Off to bed as Tennessee white trash, the next day awake as Alphas, Betas, Gammas (no,wait, that’s Brave New World) so this must be Argos, Betas and Charlies. Perhaps that’s why the author called the novel The Devil’s Alphabet, keeping the Deltas up his sleeve for the sequel.

This is a mystery story buried in a portentous story about how one isolated community might suddenly be kicked into a different evolutionary path. It’s a kind of Midwich Cuckoos event and may presage the first attempts of an invading virus from a parallel world to gain a foothold in our neck of the woods. Or perhaps that’s an invasion from three different worlds or dimensions. Frankly, I lost interest after the first efforts to explain what might be happening. That the author keeps having different attempts at explanation is slightly desperate because it doesn’t get any better each time it comes around.

So we have the usual ragbag of tired plot devices. The rest of Tennessee avoids the town like the plague (which is hardly surprising because the inhabitants have been struck down by some kind of mass epidemic). There are the usual drive-by attacks by these unfriendly neighbours until, slowly, they grow bored. No-one else falls ill. It’s not contagious or infectious. Yawn. Then, thirteen years after the first, a village in Ecuador has the same problem so the US army encircles Switchcreek in a quarantine and, to assure the local population of their goodwill, they shoot the first couple who try to leave town. Those soldiers. . . Fresh from Iraq, you can always rely on their welcoming spirit.

In the midst of all this stuff, one of the older transformed women apparently commits suicide. Yeah, right. So we all start guessing whodunnit. To help us through the tangled web, a returning man, not apparently affected in the original outbreak, runs from one local character to another until we have met the assembled cast of potential killers. Roll up, roll up! Place your bets. And it turns out it’s the always obvious. . . although the reason for the killing is actually quite clever so score one for the author in this one-horse-race.

Overall, this is a somewhat tiresome and rather boring book that offers a vague sfnal explanation for some rather weird physical transformations while investigating a fake suicide. Our hero (for want of a better word) goes through the usual PI travails of being beaten to a pulp for daring to stick his nose where it’s not wanted, getting hooked on some a strange vintage brew, and emerging from the whole thing in one piece by virtue of finding enough buried bodies with which to blackmail to key players into letting him go.

Not recommended unless you are desperate for something to read.

As an added note, The Devil’s Alphabet was a finalist in the Philip K. Dick Award 2010 for Best Novel.

Here are reviews of other novels by Daryl Gregory:
Afterparty
Raising Stony Mayhall
We Are All Completely Fine
and an equally wonderful collection Unpossible.

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