Saturday, October 18, 2014

Civilian Reader has… Moved!

Due to my recent shift from PC to Mac, and after seven years of using Blogger, I have decided to switch over to WordPress. I’m sad to be doing so, in some ways, because I’ve become so familiar and comfortable using Windows Live Writer for my reviews, etc. Sadly, that programme is not available for Macs, and no comparable software exists (yet).

The first post I wrote for CR was on April 6th, 2006 – a rather short (hyperbolic) review for David Twining’s The Black Sun. Makes me cringe just a little bit, how badly I wrote back then. But, everything’s a journey, we learn and improve as we go along. It’s going to be really strange, not posting here anymore.

Everything that has featured here will remain – I’m not deleting this blog! (If nothing else, just in case I get fed up with WP and decide to come back – I’m fickle, like that). The first few years’ content will only be found here (everything pre-2013), because for some reason it didn’t transfer everything. However, all new content will only appear on the WordPress version of the site:

Things are starting to take proper shape over there – there have been some formatting issues in the transfer, so some of the blog posts, reviews, and so forth look a little untidy. Many of the links (for example, on the Reviews and Interviews pages) are still to the reviews on this site – over time, I’ll switch out the links to the finished/reformatted versions on WP.

Hope to see you all over on the all-new Civilian Reader!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books/Crown Publishing)

BennettRJ-CityOfStairsUKAnother superb novel from RJB

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself — first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it — stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem — and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

City of Stairs is a superb novel, offering imaginative new takes on classic fantasy ideas and themes, populated by diverse and well-realised characters, and presented in excellent prose. This was one of my most-anticipated novels of 2014, and it exceeded by expectations.

Cover: THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky (Hodder)


Wow. This is a beautiful cover for Daniel Polansky’s next novel. Colour me very excited and incredibly impatient.

THOSE ABOVE is the first novel in Polansky’s next two-part series, The Empty Throne. It is due to be published on February 26th, 2015. Can. Not. Wait.

Polansky is the extremely talented fellow who wrote The Straight Razor Cure (or Low Town in the US), Tomorrow the Killing and She Who Wakes. The first two are amongst the best novels I’ve read. I have shamefully not yet read the third novel in the series (only partly because Daniel signed my book at WFC in Brighton, which automatically made me want to protect the book more than usual…). Hm. Maybe I will read it next…

Also on CR: Interview with Daniel Polansky

Monday, October 13, 2014

Audio Review: TRAVELLING TO WORK – DIARIES 1988-98 by Michael Palin (Audible/Orion)

PalinM-Diaries3-TravellingToWorkThe third volume in Michael Palin’s bestselling diaries

After the Python years and a decade of filming, writing, and acting, Palin’s career takes an unexpected direction into travel, which will shape his working life for the next 25 years. Yet, as the diaries reveal, he remained ferociously busy on a host of other projects throughout this whirlwind period.

Travelling to Work opens in September 1988 with Michael travelling down the Adriatic on the first leg of a modern-day Around the World in 80 Days. He was not the BBC’s first choice for the series, but after its success and that of the accompanying book, the public naturally wanted more. Palin, though, has other plans.

Following the tumultuous success of A Fish Called Wanda, he is in demand as an actor. His next film, American Friends, is based on his great-grandfather’s diaries. Next he takes on his most demanding role as the head teacher in Alan Bleasdale’s award-winning drama series GBH. There is also his West End play, The Weekend; a first novel, Hemingway’s Chair; and a lead role in Fierce Creatures, the much-delayed follow-up to Wanda.

Michael describes himself as “drawn to risk like a moth to a flame. Someone grounded and safe who can be tempted into almost anything.” He duly finds time for two more travel series – Pole to Pole, in 1991, and Full Circle, in 1996 – and two more best-selling books to accompany them.

These latest Diaries show a man grasping every opportunity that came his way, and they deal candidly with the doubts and setbacks that accompany this prodigious word-rate. As ever, his family life, with three children growing up fast, is there to anchor him.

Travelling to Work is a roller-coaster ride driven by the Palin hallmarks of curiosity and sense of adventure. These 10 years in different directions offer riches on every page to his ever-growing army of fans.

This is yet another excellent instalment in Michael Palin’s series of diaries. Unlike the first two audio editions, this one is unabridged. This series is a real must for fans of any of Palin’s work: Palin is genial in his delivery, and there is plenty of gentle comedy. It was a welcome ‘more of the same’.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Guest Post: “Influences & Inspirations” by Jamie Schultz

SchultzJ-AuthorPicMy taste in books, of whatever genre, can be summed up as follows: I like to turn literary rocks over and see if something nasty crawls out. I can’t help it. For this, I thank my mother, who got me hooked on that stuff at a young age. I remember being about eleven or twelve when she came home with a box of used books, one of which was a battered copy of Stephen King’s Christine, old even then. The cover was black with a white or silver striped design with a skull on it, best I can recall, and I thought it looked pretty cool. Plus, I had read some of IT over her shoulder at some point, and, with a twelve-year-old’s typical fascination with the morbid, this seemed like a pretty good author to tackle. My parents’ attitude toward my reading material was, “Whatever you think you can handle, kid,” so I dug in.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Short Story: SARCOPHAGUS by David Annandale (Black Library)

Annandale-Yarrik-SarcophagusAnother excellent Yarrick tale

Trapped in an overturned tank after being caught in a bombing run on Armageddon, Commissar Sebastian Yarrick fights to escape and return to his forces, but as he emerges, he finds himself surrounded by greenskin foes. Can the Old Man of Armageddon survive the onslaught with power claw and Evil Eye, or will he finally fall to the servants of the Great Beast Ghazghkull Thraka?

I’m really enjoying Annandale’s stories about Commissar Yarrick. The author is doing a great job of fleshing out the character’s backstory (and his “present”). This short story manages to give us a look at Yarrick’s tenacity for survival, his faith in the Emperor and Imperium, while also giving us just a hint of the character’s ongoing battle (physical and psychological) with Thraka. Given it’s length, it’s tricky to go into much more detail than that. But, if you’re looking for a quick WH40k read, then this will absolutely suit your needs: it’s very well written, interesting, and adds to the character’s growing mythology. Very highly recommended.

New Books (September/October)


Featuring: Mitch Albom, Gillian Anderson, Kelly Armstrong, Lauren Beukes, Adam Brookes, Christopher Buehlman, Blake Butler, W. Bruce Cameron, Michael Carroll, Al Ewing, Tana French, Peter F. Hamilton, Michael Harvey, Lee Henderson, Steffen Jacobsen, Rajan Khanna, James Luceno, Todd Moss, Claire North, Pierre Pevel, John Sandford, Graeme Simsion, Matthew Smith, Peter Watts, Alec Worley

Monday, October 06, 2014

BROKEN MONSTERS by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland)

Beukes-BrokenMonstersUSA superb, surreal crime novel

Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together. As stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams?

If you’re Detective Versado’s geeky teenage daughter, Layla, you commence a dangerous flirtation with a potential predator online. If you’re desperate freelance journalist Jonno, you do whatever it takes to get the exclusive on a horrific story. If you’re Thomas Keen, known on the street as TK, you’ll do what you can to keep your homeless family safe — and find the monster who is possessed by the dream of violently remaking the world.

Broken Monsters is in many ways a novel of decline: of society, the city, sanity… But not, thankfully, of the author’s talent. Beukes is on top-form here once again, delivering a superb, surreal follow-up to The Shining Girls. It’s really very good.

Audio Review: MORE FOOL ME by Stephen Fry (Audible)

FryS-MoreFoolMeUKA third excellent memoir from Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry invites readers to take a glimpse at his life story in the unputdownable More Fool Me.

It is a heady tale of the late Eighties and early Nineties, in which Stephen – ever more driven to create, perform and entertain – burned bright and partied hard with a host of famous and infamous friends, regardless of the consequences.

This electric and extraordinary book reveals a new side to Mr. Fry.

Stephen Fry is an award-winning comedian, actor, presenter and director. He rose to fame alongside Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry and Laurie (which he co-wrote with Laurie) and Jeeves and Wooster, and was unforgettable as Captain Melchett in Blackadder. He also presented Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, his groundbreaking documentary on bipolar disorder, to huge critical acclaim. His legions of fans tune in to watch him host the popular quiz show QI each week.

I listened to the Audible edition of this biography. And, much like The Fry Chronicles, it is both entertaining and excellently produced. Fry’s performance is, as can be expected, superb – welcoming, honest, and rather whimsical. This is another excellent memoir, and superb audiobook.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Guest Post: “City of Stairs and the Super Tropey Fantasy Checklist” by Robert Jackson Bennett

RobertJacksonBennett-AuthorPicCity of Stairs is definitely a fantasy novel. It’s got dead gods, magic, monsters, political skullduggery, and a healthy serving of mayhem. (I actually think all my novels are fantasy, but that’s beside the point.)

However, despite the popular aphorism, the clothes don’t make the man: if I put on a policeman’s uniform, for example, that doesn’t make me a cop.

So despite City of Stairs having a huge amount of fantasy elements, I sometimes find myself wondering – does it act like a fantasy? Content does not dictate behavior, in other words.

This made me compile what I felt was the Super Tropey Fantasy Checklist, the sort of story components that are immediately familiar, whether you’re opening a book or sitting down to play an RPG. Such fantasy stories often feature:

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Quick Reviews: Graphic Novels Catch-Up


Featuring: Alex + Ada, The Last of Us, Superman/Wonder Woman

Review: THE LAST MAGAZINE by Michael Hastings (Blue Rider Press)

9780399169946_LastMagazineThe_JK_r2.inddA dual-personality novel from the late journalist

The year is 2002. Weekly newsmagazines dominate the political agenda in New York and Washington. A young journalist named Michael M. Hastings is a twenty-two-year-old intern at The Magazine, wet behind the ears, the only one in the office who’s actually read his coworker’s books. He will stop at nothing to turn his internship into a full-time position, and he’s figured out just whom to impress: Nishant Patel, the international editor, and Sanders Berman, managing editor, both vying for the job of editor in chief.

While Berman and Nishant try to one-up each other pontificating on cable news, A.E. Peoria — the one reporter seemingly doing any work — is having a career crisis. He’s just returned from Chad, where, instead of the genocide, he was told by his editors to focus on mobile phone outsourcing, which they think is more relevant. And then, suddenly, the United States invades Iraq — and all hell breaks loose. As Hastings loses his naïveté about the journalism game, he must choose where his loyalties lie — with the men at The Magazine who can advance his career or with his friend in the field who is reporting the truth.

Michael Hastings was one of the best young journalists in America before his death last year. Best known, perhaps, for his Rolling Stone piece that got General Stanley McChrystal fired (a media and political furore that was overblown in the extreme, in my opinion). He wrote excellent books (including The Operators, a much-expanded account of his time with McChrystal) and excellent feature articles for multiple publications. He also, as it turned out, wrote The Last Magazine, a fictional account of his time at Newsweek. Published posthumously, it took me a while to get my hands on the book, and I have very mixed feelings about what I found.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Quick Review: THINKING ABOUT IT ONLY MAKES IT WORSE by David Mitchell (Faber)

MitchellD-ThinkingAboutItOnlyMakesItWorseA superb collection of Mitchell’s Observer columns

Why is my jumper depreciating? What’s wrong with calling a burglar brave? Why are people so f***ing hung up about swearing? Why do the asterisks in that sentence make it okay? Why do so many people want to stop other people doing things, and how can they be stopped from stopping them? Why is every film and TV programme a sequel or a remake? Why are we so reliant on perpetual diversion that someone has created chocolate toothpaste? Is there anything to be done about the Internet?

These and many other questions trouble David Mitchell as he delights us with a tour of the absurdities of modern life – from Ryanair to Downton Abbey, sports day to smoking, nuclear weapons to phone etiquette, UKIP to hotdogs made of cats. Funny, provocative and shot through with refreshing amounts of common sense, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse celebrates and commiserates on the state of things in our not entirely glorious nation.

David Mitchell is a comedian, actor, writer and the polysyllabic member of Mitchell and Webb. He won BAFTAs for Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and has also starred in Jam and Jerusalem, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff and Ambassadors. He writes for the Observer, chairs TheUnbelievable Truth, is a team captain on Would I Lie To You? and has been in two films, neither of which made a profit.

I have long been a fan of David Mitchell’s television work – That Mitchell & Webb Look, Peep Show (which I was actually didn’t love at first), the all-too-short Ambassadors mini-series, and his frequent guest spots on QI and Have I Got News For You being my favourites. After I listened to the audio edition of his superb memoir, Back Story, my respect for him grew even more (it’s among my top ten ‘reads’ of the year, easily). I didn’t know how frequently he had been writing for the Observer, however, so I was pleasantly surprised when I received a review copy of Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse. This is a great read.