Review: Ascendance by John Birmingham

9781742614069The final instalment in the Dave Hooper trilogy brings events to an epic crescendo.

Not for the first time John Birmingham lays waste to the streets of New York. The Dave, who has been struggling to come to terms with his recently acquired hero status, has learnt he may not be the special and unique snowflake he led himself to believe. Meanwhile the monsters, who have been unleashed upon the world, are starting to learn and adapt to human technology and tactics with the aid of a few brains.

The Dave and his new-found companion are almost overwhelmed by the new and numerous attacks in New York. Their task is made more difficult as Dave’s newly acquired powers come up against some unwanted interference from some of the more empathetic demons. As they cut and hammer their way through swathes of orcs and demons Dave soon finds he is making some very tough choices about who will survive each onslaught. Decisions he is not ready or comfortable to make. Being a hero is not the party The Dave had hoped for and as the tide continues to turn in the monsters’ favour the strain is beginning to show leaving him even more vulnerable.

This maybe the conclusion to the Dave Hooper trilogy but John Birmingham is far from finished with this new universe he has created and is in the process of tearing down. I can’t wait for the ebook spin offs he has got planned and the next epic chapter whatever and whenever that will be.

Buy the book here…

Review: Resistance by John Birmingham

9781742614052John Birmingham takes up where he left off at the end of Emergence. Dave is enjoying a well-earned rest after the battle of New Orleans while the rest of the world is coming to terms with the fact that monsters (Orcs, dragons, super-sized bugs, you name it) are now among us and wanting to re-subjugate their old food source. However human technologies are proving more than difficult, if not impossible, for them to overcome. New hordes of monsters soon start popping out all over the world and Dave quickly realizes that superpowers do not mean he is infallible. In fact they can even make him a bigger arsehole that he was previously.

You can tell Birmingham is having a lot of fun with The Dave as he is now known. But he also knows the limits. Dave is not hero material. He’s a pig and his new over-extended ego only expands these notions. While recovering in Las Vegas (of all places) following events in Emergence Dave really goes to town. But just when you think JB has tipped The Dave too far into chauvinistic, a-hole extraordinaire he brings his hero crashing down to earth, literally and figuratively.

JB keeps the action coming thick and fast and choosing to put us inside the heads of some of the monsters is brilliant, both for some wicked laughs and to set up some very nice spanners in the works. But the book is all about The Dave. He may not be the hero we deserve and may not want to be the hero we need but he is slowly learning the hard way how to be both.

I have no idea where book three is heading and cannot wait to find out. The even better news is the way John Birmingham has written this series I won’t have to wait too long.

Buy the book here…

Review: Emergence by John Birmingham

9781742614045John Birmingham delivers in spades in the first book of his explosive new trilogy.

Dave Hooper is not your typical hero. In fact he is a bit of an arsehole. He works on the oil rigs and blows most of his pay packet on booze, drugs and women much to the ire of his very-soon-to-be ex-wife and two kids. Dave is nursing a particularly nasty hangover on the way to work when all hell literally breaks loose.

Dave’s oil rig has been drilling deeper than anyone ever has before. And they may have just drilled too far. A barrier sealing off our world from another has been broken and creatures that haven’t been seen in millennia have come through and begun feasting on a long-lost delicacy; human meat. And so begins the adventures of Dave Hooper who is inadvertently thrown into this maelstrom and in the process inherits some kind of superpowers to fight these monsters from below. As Dave, the military and the outside world try to come to grips with what is happening more ‘gaps’ in the barrier appear and two worlds who haven’t been in contact for thousands of years will erupt. And an overweight, barely sober, safety engineer appears to be our only hope of survival.

Birmingham mixes up a combination of Middle Earth orcs with a Marvel universe sensibility but with his own trademark humour and insight firmly stamped all over any comparisons. As with Birmingham’s previous books he creeps in a geo-political undertone to the consequences of what he puts in motion which only makes the reading more fun. The next two installments in the trilogy have already been written and will be released throughout 2015. I can hardly wait to see what happens next (especially after the epilogue!!!)

Buy the book here…

Mid-month round up – the war edition.

It’s the middle of October and my bookself doth overfloweth with far too many excellent recent releases which all seem to tie back into conflict. If you are looking for a non-fiction read this month, here’s are some recommendations; from a war-correspondent looking for work-life-romance balance in Kabul, to a woman who mobilised a nation for peace, to John Birmingham deciding to be very unpleasant to most of the planet. Enjoy.

The surreal one – The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker

If you’ve ever wondered what war reporters do to wind down in the evening and who the hell they find to date, this is the book for you. Kim Barker started  as a new war reporter in Afghanistan in 2003, when the war there was a side story to Iraq and her pieces were constantly side-lined by other bigger, better, more glamorous wars. While she learnt over the next few years (very slowly, and occasionally through hilarious errors) to navigate Afghan culture and a world often without electricity the stories grew from a forgotten war to what would become the front line of the so-called war on terror.

While she was learning the ropes, Kim dined with warlords and war reporters, managed to self-sabotage every romantic interest she met, dealt with an amorous Pakistani former prime minister, and got far too tangled up in the complicated and neurotic love lives of other ex-pats. As the conflict gradually escalates, Kim chronicles the reality of a job that involves dealing with danger and deprivation on a daily basis and how you gradually became acclimatised and maybe even addicted to a life on the edge of conflict.

If you are looking for an in-depth political analysis of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is not the book you are looking for. But if you’re interested in how war correspondents and peace-keepers work and, more importantly, live and love in a war-torn land, Taliban Shuffle is a fascinating, funny and often surreal look at the reality of life as interloper in a growing war zone.

The uplifting one – Mighty Be Their Powers by Leymah Gbowee.

This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would—unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us…. You have not heard it before, because it is an African woman’s story, and our stories are rarely told.”

Leymah Gbowee wanted to be a doctor but when civil war erupted in Liberia, the conflict tore apart her life and dreams. Years of  fighting destroyed her country and claimed the lives of relatives and friends. Gbowee survived the civil wars but became a young mother, trapped in an abusive relationship, without the resources to free or even sometimes feed herself.

Mighty Be Their Powers tells how she changed her own destiny and the destiny of her nation. An impoverished mother of 4, she trained as a trauma counsellor, working among girls and women raped by militiamen and those militiamen themselves. In 2003 she mobilised women from across Liberia’s highly-polarised ethnic and religious divides into a peaceful protest calling for an end to Liberia’s brutal 14-year civil war. Her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War is both the story of those protests, which led to Gbowee being awarded a Nobel Peace laureate, and of her own struggles with the price that her activism demanded of her personal life and her family.

The not quite non-fiction one  –  Without Warning by John Birmingham

So my last recommendation is not non-fiction but an alternate history that blends reality with sci-fi to pretty much put the entire world in peril. John Birmingham is not, by his own admission, a very nice man when it comes to the world he builds for his characters or what happens to them once they are there.

“I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but yeah.”

His most recent series opens in 2003, just before the Gulf War starts, with the disappearance of almost everyone in the USA.  Birmingham was inspired to write it after hearing someone say the world would be a better place if the United States disappeared, and – while you can make up your own mind on that one – this page-turner presents a vivid and terrifying picture of one way events could unfold in the USA simply ceased to be.

Killing me softly – fluffy bunnies and character deaths

I’ve always been a softy when it comes to literary characters and, in hindsight, taking both Black Beauty and Watership Down on the holiday may have been a bad move. For books about bunnies and ponies, they both have surprisingly high body-counts. My family had hoped to enjoy a quiet week away with the seven-year-old me occupied by ponies and rabbits, instead they got a week of hysterics as key fluffy characters died and then had to listen to my musings on mortality over every meal. Not really the holiday they had hoped for.

It’s not just fluffy characters I mourn; when it comes to books I’m a full-on optimist with a massive sentimental streak. I find it hard to say a final goodbye to favoured characters, hoping for final reprieves and unlikely escapes long after the point where it becomes obvious that they are due to get the chop. I’m capable of holding out hope even if they have been declared long since dead and unlikely to come back (unless as a zombie). When it comes to losing characters, I’m far better at “au revoir” than just saying a straight goodbye.

Which is odd as this sentimentality doesn’t apply to other art forms. I find it annoying when movies are unwilling to follow through on threats, sparing everyone and wrenching the plot to ensure that everyone walks away in the end. (If you are going to have a move called The Expendables, expend someone). I’m more than happy to see characters killed in full and glorious techicolour. So why is it so difficult for me, and many other readers, to deal with the death of literary characters?

It’s not just readers that finds the death of literary characters difficult. J.K. Rowling had sketched out the deaths in the Harry Potter series years before she started to write the scenes and cried as she wrote some of them. She made herself follow through for the sake of the continuing story, despite pleas from friends, family, her fans and other writers (John Irving and Stephen King famously begged her not to kill Harry Potter in the final book of the series).

“Otherwise what would you do? You would just write very fluffy, cozy books,” she said. “You know, suddenly I [would be] halfway through ‘Goblet of Fire’ and suddenly everyone would just have a really great life and … the plot would go AWOL.” Rowling also pointed out that King and Irving were not in a good position to ask for characters to be spared, with their own high literary body counts. “When fans accuse me of sadism, which doesn’t happen that often, I feel I’m toughening them up to go on and read John and Stephen’s books,” she said. “It’s a cruel literary world out there.”

Not all writers feel so conflicted – or so moderate – in their dispensing of death. You don’t get much crueler than George R R Martin, whose pen scythes it’s way through supporting and main characters alike. But Martin has always been a tough cookie when it comes to killing characters, as he reveals in one interview where he says that Gandalf should have stayed dead:

“I do think that if you’re bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that’s a transformative experience. Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, “Fly, you fools.”

What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he’s sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.”

And it’s not just the deaths of human characters that reader can find hard to deal with. When Stephen King had a character kick a dog to death in his novel Dead Zone he received more letters of complaint than ever before.”You want to be nice and say ‘I’m sorry you didn’t like that,’ but I’m thinking to myself number one, he was a dog not a person, and number two, the dog wasn’t even real.” I’m not the only one with a sympathetic streak for ponies, puppies and all things fluffy; readers can clearly emotionally invest in anything and everything in a book. So why would a writer choose to kill off characters, and choose to do so with seemingly reckless abandon?

John Birmingham, who’s most recent offering opens with the death of 300 million and goes from there, is unapologetic. After being told he was a “nasty author“, he agreed wholeheartedly.

“I am, I really am. I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any After America spoilers, but yeah.

Is that such a bad thing though? When you write books full of explodey goodness, I think you’re shortselling the reader if some of those explosions don’t kill off the odd character. Even a favourite character. One of the great joys of reading a story or watching a movie where you’ve bonded with a character who is in great peril is not being quite sure whether they’re going to survive to the end… Nobody really likes to lose a favourite, but losing them every now and then is what makes having them in the first place so precious. And that can be so of both high culture and low.

When Norman Mailer was asked about the cruelty with which he treated his characters in The Naked and the Dead he replied with a brief lesson he learned about characters from reading Tolstoy. “Compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful. In any case, good or bad, it reminds us that life is like a gladiators’ arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not.”

Which is, I guess, a reasonable way of saying that characters should serve the story and sometimes that story includes pain and mortality.

But I’d still still prefer if we could let the fluffy ones live.

 

 

How to Organise and Convert Your Ebooks with Calibre

If you’re reading this blog then you’ve probably got an interest in ebooks. If you do, then you may have already heard about Calibre. Calibre is a free, open source, cross-platform (Windows, Mac and Linux) ebook reader, organiser and converter. If you’ve ever listened to music you downloaded from the internet, then you’ll probably be familiar with iTunes. Calibre is just like iTunes, but for ebooks, and not owned, locked in and operated by Apple. Did I mention it’s free? Download it here.

It’s a pretty big download, so it might take a while. Also, if you’re trying to install it on your work computer, you’ll probably want to get in touch with your IT department, because you need admin privileges to install it. If you’re at home, then fire away.

 

Installed? Great. The first step you’ll be confronted with once Calibre is installed and you open it for the first time is the wizard.

This is not the wizard you’re looking for.

This is the wizard

You’ll be asked to find a place on your computer to store your ebook files, and to determine what kind of e-reader device you use. Calibre supports a broad variety of e-readers, including the Kindle, Sony and iPad. If you use more than one kind of device, then don’t worry – Calibre supports more than one.

Look! It’s John Birmingham’s latest book: After America

The next window should be relatively familiar to anyone who has used iTunes. It has a library where you can filter your ebooks by author, title, series, publisher or rating. You can also search for keywords. All of those search functions will be pretty useless to you right now, though, because you haven’t added any books.

To add a book, hit the ‘add’ button, and find your ebook file. Calibre supports virtually every format you can imagine for an ebook, though you should keep in mind that if you bought that ebook from a store (like Kobo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble or even Booku) it’s likely it will be protected by DRM (digital rights management), which will stop you messing around with it. Never fear, though! Calibre still allows you to import books with DRM, organise them and load them quickly and easily onto your ebook reader (you just can’t convert it to another format or read it from within Calibre).

Also, strangely, Calibre does not support Microsoft Word format – so if you want to read something you only have as a Word file, open that sucker up in Word first and save it as RTF. Then add it.

There are plenty of places you can buy ebooks from that don’t have DRM, and there are plenty of places you can download ebooks from for free as well. You can find a few of them in the resources at Booku. For those ebooks, Calibre really comes into its own.

Calibre can automatically download the cover, publisher, publication date and blurb for your ebooks from the internet. You can save ratings and tag your books for easier searching.

Calibre will also convert your non-DRM ebooks from one format to another. Say you have a free ePub book, but you want to read it on your Kindle. By hitting ‘convert e-books’ in Calibre, you can easily and automatically convert your ebooks from ePub to Kindle’s Mobi format. Then to send it to your Kindle, all you need to do is hit ‘Send to Device’, and Calibre will automatically email the file to your Kindle (though you will need to tell Calibre your Kindle’s email address in ‘Settings’ first). If you want to send a book to your Sony reader, just plug it in and Calibre will automatically copy the book you select onto your reader. Calibre will even send your book via iTunes (or email) to your iPad or iPhone. It’s very versatile, and once you get the hang of it, it’s very easy to use.

Calibre can do a lot more than convert and organise your ebooks. It can automatically download news from your favourite blogs and news outlets, package them up and send them to your e-reader. If you’re a self-published author trying to convert your own ebook, it can pull apart ebook files so you can iron out the bugs. And it can do much much more. But those are topics for another blog post, and you don’t need to be interested in any of that to get some use out of Calibre. If you have any questions about Calibre, or any of the topics raised in this post, feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

The Kind of the Rest – My New Novel

In my last post I wrote about a nightmarish scenario in which books we read are created automatically by a software algorithm. I’ve had time to think about it since then, and to use the wonderful TweetWriter, a promotional tool for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. TweetWriter takes the body of writing that makes up your Twitter feed and creates a customised book based on your style of expressing yourself, which, as everyone knows, is usually at its finest in tweet form. Here’s my automagically customised back cover blurb:

When asked to described the real Joel Blacklock, Joel would often say “I am the walrus”, but 127 loyal fans will always know Joel best as the prolific writer who published over 1643 works, all written from Joel’s secluded playboy style mansion in Sydney, Australia.

In this astonishing latest work, ‘THE NAME OF THE KIND’, Blacklock’s writing is both mesmeric in tone and labrynthine in structure, and is surely destined to achieve the status of a contemporary classic.

Hear that? ‘Mesmeric in tone and labrynthine in structure’. One hundred and twenty seven fans can’t be wrong!

Let’s just say the software algorithm that will write a true bestseller is some time away. Quite aside from the fact that the back cover blurb is littered with errors and the title of the book is different on the front and back (I tend to think The Name of the Kind is better than The Kind of the Rest – thoughts?) I can’t imagine a single person would even pick this book up off the shelves.

Nonetheless, for the curious and the lazy, here are a few of Twitter’s finest minds at work.

The always adorable @stephenfry:

The redoubtable @johnbirmingham, erm I mean John Birmingha:

The terrifying @tara_moss:

What about our potential prime ministers? Here’s Red:

And the Mad Monk?

Check out your own book titles and link to them in the comments.

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival runs from 27 August to 5 September 2010.