Thursday, 22 December 2011

Deadline - Mira Grant (Orbit, 2011)

When I read Feed, the first book in this trilogy late last year I wondered what came first - the story or the title.  Because as the title of a book about zombies and bloggers it seemed too perfect and, besides, blogs are so very 2006.  I wondered if the author had enough plot to last three thick novels, or whether she’d be either winging it or scraping the bottom of the barrel soon enough.
Not that it really mattered.  Feed was a damn fine book, and in playing out a genuine political thriller against a backdrop of everyday zombie infestation, Mira Grant created something new in a sub-genre which too often lately has felt a little bit desperate and more than a little prone to novelty for the sake of novelty.
Deadline, the second book in the series, continues the adventures of a small group of bloggers almost where book one left off, and for the first several hundred pages doesn’t flinch in facing up to the challenges engendered by the finale of Feed.  Pleasingly, as the reader moves through the early stages of the book that stunningly unexpected ending isn’t immediately reset or glossed over, for one thing. No miracle occurs (though, in this zombie filled America, any miraculous rising is just asking for a bullet in the forehead).  Instead Grant demonstrates that she does indeed have a plan and that there’s plenty more of this story still to tell.
The new characters in the End of the World Times crew manage adequately to fill the shoes of those left behind, though in a couple of cases they do so by being very like the people they’re replacing.  The appearance, in the flesh, of English Indian Mahir was another real highlight, with Grant getting the restrained personality I’d imagined him having in the first book onto the page to great effect.
Additionally, Grant continues successfully to build up the background to her zombie ravaged world.  We learn that not only has Alaska been lost to the zombies, but the entirety of India has been surrendered, with Indians now scattered across the globe.  Pleasingly, Grant also shows real confidence in her story in not feeling obliged to drag the politicos from the first novel into this one – not only does Senator (now President) Ryman not star in Deadline, but he barely warrants a mention.  It would have been very easy for the author to tag he and his wife onto the plot, but the novel would have suffered as a result and I’m glad she resisted the temptation.
Less pleasingly, Grant appears not to have learned from problems raised by critics of the first novel. 
For one thing, the main character is in many ways totally unlikeable,  which can be a bit of an issue in a first person narrative.  One reviewer of Feed said she’d almost given up on the book after a scene in which George, the narrator, shows herself to be a wholly callous and selfish individual. While I agreed with another reviewer that this was a sign of good characterisation rather than an unacceptably unpleasant narrator, in this sequel the new narrator, Shaun, proves himself equally disturbing once we get our heads inside his.  One line is repeated about him until it becomes almost a mantra - Shaun has no compunction about hitting women.  It’s presumably intended to lend credence to the idea that Shaun is a man getting near the end of his tether, suffering hugely (indeed, to the point of insanity) from grief, and channelling all his emotions into what he knows best, physical action.  But even so, it’s very, very difficult to build up any feeling of identification with a man who all but boasts about bullying people weaker than he and who has such a casual attitude to violence against women.  It jars, to say the least, and continuously does so, even as I was building up some feeling for Shaun as a character.  
            Perhaps this is a deliberate ploy by the author, designed to keep the reader edgy, to reflect the edgy nature of the story, but if so (and for all its obvious success) I would prefer not to be so manipulated.
A far bigger issue, though, are the latter stages of  the book where the promise of the first three quarters, that this is not another genre series content to reset, reuse and revive, are  thrown away.  After four hundred  taut, well written and tightly plotted pages, suddenly one cliché follows another as the end of the book heaves into sight.  A character who was obviously marked for a self-sacrificing death from her first appearance suffers a predictably self-sacrificing death; the adoptive brother and sister heroes of the series turn out, not at all unexpectedly, to be the exact two people with the special physical qualities required to defeat the virus; and then - worst of all – the brilliantly stark ending to the first novel is made pointless in a coda which makes me fear for the quality of the final book in the trilogy.
All of which is a real shame.  This is a near 600 page thriller that I rattled through in one train journey, but for all that I’ll think twice about buying the third book after the wheels came off so spectacularly towards the end of this book.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

An Obverse Year

Having been reminded of the date both by the fact I shaved my Movember moustache off this morning and Paul's blog post about stories he's written this year, December 1st seems as good a time as any to reflects on the various bits and pieces Obverse Books, mine own tiny book imprint, have pushed out into the wild this year.

First up was the initial volume in the inaugral Obverse Quarterly, the Johnny Mains edited Horror anthology, Bite Sized Horror.  I'd be lying through my teeth if I said that year one of the Quarterly has exactly been a commercial triumph, but I'd be equally mendacious if I said that I was anything other than delighted with the quality of the books themselves.  And Johnny got us off to a great start, with six scary as hell stories from a pretty impressive line-up of modern horror writers, including himself.  The description by the Short Review reviewer of this as 'top notch dark fiction' wasn't far off the mark, if you ask me.

 We'd put out a couple of books just before the turn of the year, so the first month or two was pretty quiet, but come March and there was a flurry of books either being published or being put together.

In May, a long sought desire for Obverse was fulfilled when I edited and published a collection of Faction Paradox short stories.  The quality of the writers was such that I can make little claim to the credit which poured in the direction of A Romance in Twelve Parts, but I think I'm right in saying that this was the most critically acclaimed book Obverse have done so far, with more incredibly positive reviews than even the Iris books.  Looking ahead to next year, we definitely hope to build on this first collection in several different this space!

 Next up on what increasingly looks like the Obverse Conveyor Belt was book two in the Quarterly - Senor 105 and the Elements of Danger.  Edited by the incomparable (and newly married!) Cody Quijano-Schell with stories from several entirely new to Obverse authors - and one by one of the mysterious Petit sisters - I thought this was perfect little book, from brilliant cover art by Paul Hanley to the little image of a jukebox which ended the book.  If you haven't read it, this is the book from this year that I'd recommend you go out and buy right now!

Book four this year was a bit of an oddity - but a very, very enjoyable oddity indeed, and one which turned out to be the book which got us some national publicity, no less!  Basically, Paul Magrs and George Mann, two of my favourite writers and people, were looking for something to have to hand at conventions, readings and other publicity related gee-gaws, and between us we came up with the idea of doing one of those tete-beche books (where two books are presented in one binding, with one book flipped 180 degrees in relation to the other).  In the aptly named Team Up, Paul had one side for The Dreadful Flap and other Stories and George had the other for his Newbury and Hobbes collection, The Sacrificial Pawn.  The book was a big success, possibly because - in spite of enquiries from Waterstones, Forbidden Planet and several other big chains, we decided to stick to our original decision to sell the book at just about cost, and only via our website or form the authors directly at conventions.  This is one experiment I'd like to repeat next year, actually.

Finally, for 2011, there are three books out in the next month.  First up is book three in the Quarterly, featuring the science fiction short stories of US Civil War veteran, Fitz-James O'Brien.  Then we have a limited edition small Christmas collection from George Mann, and - somewhat delayed for reasons beyond anyone's control - Wildthyme in Purple, which I personally think is amongst the best Iris collections to date!

And that's that for this year (though we have a very special release scheduled for January 2012 which I'm really excited about).  Which might be a good point to thank Cody, without whom this entire enterprise wouldn't be possible; Paul, who started it all with me back in 2008 and has remained supportive throughout; and George, who is just the nicest, most encouraging person ever.

And of course all the authors and artists, old and new, who were in our books this year...

* Dave Hoskin 
* Philip Purser-Hallard 
* Niamh Petit
* Matt Kimpton 
* Jon Dennis 
* Jay Eales 
* Ian Potter 
* Daniel O’Mahony
* David N Smith
* Violet Addison 
* Scott Harrison
* James Milton 
* Blair Bidmead
* Reggie Oliver
* Johnny Mains
* Conrad Williams
Paul Kane
David A. Riley
Marie O’ Regan
* George Mann
* Paul Magrs
* Cody Quijano-Schell
* Julio Angel Ortiz
* Joe Curreri
* Lawrence Burton 
* Steve Mollmann
* David McIntee
* Paul Ebbs
* Simon Bucher-Jones
* Geoffrey Hammell
* Steffan Alun
* Dale Smith
* Richard Salter
* Iain McLaughlin
* Richard Wright
* Nick Campbell
* Paul Hanley
* Mark Manley
* Bret Herholz