Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.

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Book Thoughts: The Attraction of Physical Bookshops

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

A recent newsworthy event was that Waterstones, arguably the leading High Street brick-and-mortar bookshop here in the UK was to acquire Foyles, a chain of independent bookshops with a storied history.

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The outside of my local Waterstones

Ordinarily I would be fairly unimpressed at the homogenisation of the marketplace as I do believe competition fosters the best – indeed, over the last fifteen years or so the number of discrete chains of bookshops has steadily declined through acquisitions. Borders, Dillons, Ottakars… I was even a little disappointed when I visited Hatchard’s in Piccadilly at the recommendation of a friend to find it was a slightly-rebadged Waterstones. Not that that was intrinsically bad… but I’d left the flagship Waterstones store (which I instantly fell in love with) to explore this purported quirky independent.

Returning to the point: the UK retail book market has essentially homogenised into three large players whose stores I do frequent often – a trip down the High Street usually results in popping into all three:

  • Waterstones is the “full-fat Coke” of UK bookshops – stores that have wonderful bookish atmospheres that encourage browsing.
  • WH Smiths, whose more utilitarian “plain vanilla” shops lack a bit of soul, but WH Smiths has that rich history behind the name, for it was WH Smiths that led the popularisation of fiction back in the Industrial Revolution;
  • The Works, a young upstart whose stores are cheap and cheerful, usually packed with items and nick-nacks I have no interest in purchasing but there’s always the chance of a discount steal. Indeed for a long while I did not know that The Works sold books!

Why am I telling you this? Waterstones would have you believe that the acquisition of Foyles is about challenging Amazon as the big intangible behemoth. Whether that’s strictly true (or if it’s a calculated attempt to simply buy up market share) is not really the remit of my blog but it’s a precursor to the point I want to make and started with in the first Book Thoughts post.

But what’s interesting is that each of those three major chains seems to have carved out their own particular part of the book market – Waterstones is perhaps more “premium”; WH Smiths is more in the middle; The Works serves the budget end of the market. And that’s actually a great thing as it serves the entirety of the market with pretty good bookshop coverage – something for everyone!

Not only, in recent times, do I read more physical books while my Kindle gathers dust in a drawer, I find myself purchasing these books in a physical bookshop – usually but not always a Waterstones. Waterstones is certainly not the cheapest place to purchase books but, much like libraries, physical, tangible bookshops I think are important to support.

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I’ve actually been one of those people who goes into a bookshop and photographs a book to look it up later. Indeed, throughout University my first port-of-call would be to buy the paperback on Amazon and have it whisked at near-light speed to me via Prime – because it was convenient and I was hardly the most assiduous student, a fact I take no pride in.

But what I’ve noticed more than anything… buying books on Amazon is so mechanical and, if you like, soulless an experience it’s a little disheartening. What Waterstones, especially, but the others do well also, is to foster a sense of discoverability. Browsing in Waterstones is a joyous experience because their stores are near-universally great places. There’s a sense of care and attention, maybe even a bit of personalisation in each when it comes to the table displays and endorsement cards that adorn shelves.

Again, whether that’s a corporate missive or genuine is neither here nor there. This post is not intended to be a treatise on the rights and wrongs, and the motivations of large companies. I’ve had wonderful experiences buying books from Waterstones, chatting to engaged and enthusiastic staff… it’s an experience I feel Amazon cannot replicate. Amazon does a lot well, but this is one thing I feel visiting a physical store cannot compare to.

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My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

That’s not to say Waterstones as a company is perfect. I’m aware of stories where they’ve acted what seems to be capriciously in notable times, and they’ve perhaps thrown their weight around as the UK’s dominant bookseller to mistreat authors. And it’s easy to chalk them up as another “big corporation” – this is by no means a total defence of Waterstones, but neither is it a total defence of Amazon. Waterstones may still be the biggest bookshop chain in the UK, and about to grow some more, but even then as a corporate identity Amazon is a truly gargantuan behemoth.

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My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

What I am defending is the experience that a physical bookshop gives to its customers – this an experience I am totally in favour of. Waterstones are the totem of what I’d call a welcoming environment for book lovers – not to say independent bookshops are worse, but Waterstones as a brand are cementing their position. And their shops – like all bookshops – are ones we should support as readers.

Physical books are making a surprising comeback, and I’m happy to think about factors other than solely the bottom line on my wallet. I’m happy to pay for the experience of walking into a bookshop and enjoying the experience of being there. Amazon might have the convenience and price factor (and I’m not for one moment saying I’ll never buy a book on Amazon again) but they lack the experience and discoverability that walking around a physical bookshop can provide.

Oh, and the irony among irony? Waterstones’ website is a pale imitation of Amazon – so the battle lines are drawn!

 

The Landlady – Now ready to read!

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I’m thrilled to be able to say that I have decided to release a brand new short story here on On Holliday entitled The Landlady – and it’ll be appearing in five segments over the next few days!

The Landlady formed part of my Dissertation project at Kingston University – I based the book on the work of one of my favourite authors, British horror writer and king of popular fiction, James Herbert, and serves as a homage to his work.

I also recently had the story (self)published in paperback form through print-on-demand service CreateSpace to present to a friend; however the demand and reaction on my Facebook page are enough that I’m happy to say that if you want your own copy of the story in paperback form – in a presentation style as close to a “real” James Herbert novel as I could manage – then you can purchase it for £3 from AmazonAnd if you happen to see me in real-life then I will gladly sign the book and add a personal message!

The story is only short (~10,000 words) so if you’d rather read it online you can start reading it on my site. I’ve split the story into five chunks for your reading pleasure!

I’m immensely proud of The Landlady – it’s my first foray into horror fiction, which was a  and while I was apeing a favourite writer (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?) I’m actually quite excited to explore this as a potential genre.

If you have any comments on The Landlady please don’t hesitate to leave them below this post or contact me on my various social media pages; I’d be happy to hear from you! Enjoy!

Book Review: Nobody True

It is with some happy coincidence that this is my 200th post on On Holliday!

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I recall when exactly Nobody True was brought to my attention – my friend and fellow blogger Chris Kenny posted a comment on an Instagram post I’d made.

Seeing Nobody True in Waterstones reminded me of his endorsement so I picked it up to add it to my growing collection of James Herbert novels.

Nobody True is both my favourite and least favourite James Herbert novel I’ve read so far – which is an interesting statement to make.

The premise of Nobody True is something I found appealing – James True has been having out-of-body experiences (OBEs) since childhood. One night his spirit is on an OBE… and his body is brutally butchered. The story follows True as he discovers the culprit behind his physical murder and some truths that shock him to his very core.

Nobody True is, on reflection, a great read for a James Herbert fan; less so a beginner. This is because James True’s story as an illustrator who works up to the position of art director in an advertising agency is one that should ring true to anyone with a working knowledge of the author’s background – the character of James True is heavily based upon that of James Herbert himself, who started out as an art director in advertising before publishing The Rats in 1974. I found this streak of the author imbued into the protagonist really quite charming and as a fan who’s done a little bit of homework to know more about Herbert’s background as an author it’s really rewarding!

I did like the premise of the book – it’s suitably spooky and has plenty of potential but the execution of it was disappointing. Nobody True is told from the perspective of James True’s experience and this narrative is very susceptible to repetition and generally it feels like it needs a good edit for pacing.

Nobody True could easily be 100 pages shorter with no appreciable “loss” of story. Again, this really disappointed me – especially toward the middle. The protagonist for a good deal of the middle seems to be totally incidental to the plot – that is, the protagonist, in being unable to be heard, or otherwise physically interact or effect events as they happen, becomes as incidental and as the reader and it becomes a hard read after several chapters of James True essentially explaining repeatedly how he is unable to affect anything he is witnessing.

That said, the tension does ramp up with a classic, Herbert-esque scene that grabbed my attention back – the assailant who murders James True strikes again with a brutal scene of debauchery and defilement set in a car park. I won’t spoil it here but it’s a grisly but gratifying scene to read – evoking shades of Herbert’s earlier work, like the infamous gym scene from The Fog as a prime example, but obviously a lot of the gory scenes from The Rats, Lair and Domain too.

Reflecting, Nobody True is a really great idea for a story that I feel Herbert nearly got right. There’s plenty of twists once the book gets going (I liked the initial setup of the book, it felt like the scene was set for the reader to make a conclusion about the culprit, only for that to be nicely twisted in the finale).

However, it pains me to arrive at this conclusion but it wasn’t his most finessed work so I can’t rate it as highly as I’d like. The narrative choice was surprisingly clunky and it did drag in parts toward the middle – the pace did lift but for the most part I feel the astral form of James True as a character was just too much of a bystander to events for too long. Also: the use of footnotes was an interesting (if a little unorthodox) device but these too could’ve been omitted as they’re mostly just extra exposition.

It really disappoints me to write this about a James Herbert novel as I really did want to enjoy Nobody True to the extent that I’ve enjoyed previous books like Domain and The Fog. The idea was sound and the execution was 70% there – it just needed a final push from a good editor and this book would’ve been a song. The revelations of the dual meaning behind its title toward the conclusion were good, it’s just getting there felt a tad arduous (my attention was grabbed again by a well-timed gore scene but that scene being where it was seemed to be more by happy accident than by design, which again just leaves me with the aftertaste of mild disappointment).

Nevertheless though, I did ultimately enjoy Nobody True and it’s certainly a book I feel seasoned fans of James Herbert will appreciate – just perhaps not one for someone’s introduction! Ultimately, it’s left me wanting to read more about the use of OBEs as a narrative device… just in a more finessed and agile form. On that basis, Nobody True is rated as recommended, as opposed to highly recommended.