Thursday, 29 July 2010

Review of Simon Clark - Ghost Monster

Pel Minton is a young American woman with a mission. She wants to see the world, working her way around the globe. Six months into her trip and she's got as far as England and is still there, working as a field archaeologist. She has decided, however, that her current dig, at a cemetery in the coastal village of Crowdale will be her last before moving on.

What she hasn't counted on though, is the Murrain curse. Centuries earlier Crowdale was terrorised by Justice Murrain and his army of the insane. Murrain was eventually defeated and his ghost and those of his Battle Men are trapped in a mystical prison controlled by a mosaic in the family mausoleum. The town is safe as long as the mosaic remains intact.

Unfortunately, though, the cemetery is falling into the sea, a victim of rapid coastal erosion and the spirits of Murrain and his followers are beginning to break out. So, unless the archaeologists can convince the authorities that their site is worthy of protection, the necessary coastal defences to prevent the mausoleum from being destroyed will not be built.

The setting and set up of this book are superb. The town has a wonderfully complex history. It's protectors, the Murrain family, descendants of the former town persecutor, are reviled as outsiders by people unaware of the efforts to keep the town safe. The myths of the "Ghost Monster", the children's nickname for the mosaic itself is endearing and totally believable.

The characters too are, for the most part, very real. Okay the bad guys, the insane Battle Men, are stereotypes for the most part - but in their role as the big bad, this is not detrimental. Pel is a good enough lead character. She's not going to be memorable in the way that some horror characters would be - Mother Abigail anyone? But she's real. You can sympathise with her. As you can with the archaeological site director and the present day Murrain family members.

But it's the story itself that doesn't totally live up to its part of the bargain. It's a good set up. Possession is a disturbing horror concept and Clark handles it well. But the book's progress towards its climax feels, at times, somewhat laboured.

The subplot, with the personal vendetta of one family against Jacob Murrain, after an event decades earlier, may be necessary to trigger certain elements of the main plot, but it doesn't ring true. It feels a little forced, necessary only to speed up the climax. The three characters involved stand out as very one-dimensional when compared to the main roles.

This book is not one of Clark's best. To find out what he can really do you should try Darkness Demands or Vampyrrhic. But it's certainly entertaining. And it's setting in an archaeological dig and its plot use of coastal erosion does make it at least a little bit different from the norm. Shame about the title though.

Review of Mike Resnick - Starship Mercenary

You know what you will get with a Mike Resnick novel - a galaxy-spanning backdrop, larger than life characters and above all else action. Resnick is not an author who will spend time convincing you of his scientific credentials - you are not going to need to wade through page after page of technical specifications. Nor are you going to receive exquisitely woven intricacy - rich background detail is not Resnick's speciality. After all when you think about it, both of these things would get in the way of the action. And the action is superb.

Wilson Cole and the crew of the former Republic Navy Starship the Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy R) are continuing their attempts to make a life for themselves on the Inner Frontier, outside the reach of the Republic. This is not easy; Cole and his crew are military men and women. They have always lived ordered lives, ruled by discipline and law. The inner frontier, however, is a much different place.

Having tried their hand at ethical piracy - and realised such an endeavour is plainly impossible - this volume sees them becoming mercenaries, although still working within a strong sense of right versus wrong.

This new line of business sees them protecting worlds from the threats of warlords, exposing cheats in casinos and rescuing a fence from incarceration on an alien - all of which Cole achieves using a minimum of force and a maximum of guile. However his ethics over choosing which contracts to accept beings him into conflict with the Valkyrie (or Val as she prefers to be called), a former pirate who joined the Teddy R in the previous book.

When Cole refuses to accept a commission as part of a warlord's armada intent on wiping out a world refusing to pay tribute, Val is incensed (as well as drunk) and heads off to join the mercenary fleet on her own. It's a decision that sees Val and Cole on opposite sides when her warlord new boss and former captain find themselves on opposing sides following an argument in a casino.

In similar fashion to the previous volume Resnick shows the difficulties of trying to operate ethically in a lawless frontier - after all morality applies as loosely to a mercenary as it does to a pirate. Cole, however, has a very strong morale streak and he is determined to apply this to his new professions - despite these attempts seeming very oxymoronic and impossible to fulfil.

Cole as a central character is superb. He is an idealist in many ways, but a realist in his expectations. At the start of this series, whilst he was still a Navy officer, he relieved his captain of command to prevent her from destroying a world and killing millions of sentient beings. He did this fully aware that the Navy would not agree with his actions and that he was heading for a court-martial for mutiny. But he did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do. That one thing sums up his personality.

But this is not a book to succeed or fail on the strength of a single character. His crew is also full of wonderfully real and wonderfully over-the-top characters. Cole's second officer, Forrice (or Four-Eyes) is a sex-crazed alien with an evil sense of humour. Security Chief Sharon Blacksmith is almost Big Brother on legs. David Copperfield, an alien infatuated with the works of Charles Dickens who dresses as an English Victorian gentleman. Val, the redhead giantess former pirate who can outfight, out-drink and out-sex any man. And that's to name just a few.

Resnick writes a kind of fiction that should appeal to fans of Captain Kirk and Arnie-style sf-action movies. But don't think means it is brainless. Resnick delivers morality tales in lawless realms complete with romantic outlaws and much derring-do.

It's not one for the fan of great prose, nor of hard science fiction. But if you want to be entertained and don't care about the (currently-thought) scientific impossibility of faster-than-light travel, the difficulties of maintaining an empire spanning hundreds of thousands of worlds or just how your ship's shields actually work then there are few better than Mike Resnick.

Review of Ray Garton - Bestial

In horror movie-land sequels are pretty much a par for the course. You make a good horror film, it seems it only makes sense to go back and milk the idea a second time. In the world of horror books (note - not dark fantasy or paranormal romance, I mean HORROR) this has been less common.

I'm not saying they don't exist - Graham Masterton's Manitou and James Herbert's Rats both started series - and sure you get books set in a repeated environs - take Gary Braunbeck's Cedar Hill short stories and novels, and Stephen King's version of Maine. But straight sequels, picking up the action from the end of the prior book or soon after, haven't filled the shelves in bookstores.

I guess part of the reason for this is the rather final end that most horror books have. Zombies are destroyed, vampires staked, demons exorcised, witches burned etc, etc. Okay, Dracula can be resurrected over and over but mostly you get to the end and that's it.

Recently though this seems to be changing. L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims have begun a series featuring secret British Government Department 18. Bryan Smith followed up his 2005 debut novel House of Blood with Queen of Blood, and Mary SanGiovanni followed her debut The Hollower with Found You.

Ray Garton has continued this trend in producing a sequel to his 2008 werewolf novel Ravenous, as well as an indirect sequel to earlier novels with the re-appearance of paranormal investigators Gavin Keoph and Karen Moffett. Ravenous is a good choice for a sequel. Its ending was wide open, the sheriff of Californian town Big Rock had been killed, along with the werewolf hunter and the werewolves had won!

We pick up the action with the lead werewolf, Irving Taggart, having taken over as sheriff, intent on taking total control of Big Rock. Our investigators have once again accepted an assignment from horror author and weird-stuff aficionado Martin Burgess and arrive in Big Rock to uncover the truth - unaware just what they about to walk into. Fortunately for them they have allies, as we discover that not every werewolf is happy with their transformation or with the intentions of pack leader Sheriff Taggart, and one or two of the unchanged townsfolk are finally determined to fight back.

There are some nasty bits in this book. Werewolf babies are born fast, strong and feral and very, very hungry, which leads to a rather pleasingly bloody and violent little birth-scene in a hospital ER - and it has an all-action, no-holds-barred gorefest of an ending.

But there is one aspect of this novel that is likely to upset some more than the flesh-ripping or graphic sex, and that's the author's treatment of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Garton was raised in this church and it's plain virtually from the start he is not a fan. It's a shame really for, though the church made a good centre for some of the action, the scathing tone adopted for these sections does distract, and could cause some to avoid reading it at all.

It's not perfect. It has flaws. But the writing is strong, the horror stronger! Garton has a great knack of writing extreme horror and strong sex (often combined). I definitely want the next Garton novel.

Review of Ray Bradbury - Dandelion Wine

Dandelion Wine in many ways is a coming of age story for its most frequently occurring character. The book starts with the start of the summer of 1928. Doug Spalding is twelve; his younger brother Tom is ten. Doug has made an important and quite revelatory discovery about himself - he is alive! And he intends to celebrate and relish every minute of it and of this summer.

Unlike many of Bradbury's books this is not science fiction or horror, or at least not overtly. There are some hair-raising moments and more than one of the stories concern death - even going as far as Green Town having its own serial killer.

One of the most wonderful imaginings in this book concerns and old civil war soldier, and his tale telling, the rapt attentions of the young listening to stories so far removed from their present they could almost be in another country. But this is far from the only highlight, we read of friendships, hopes and dreams, treasured items, and above all regular folk adapting to changing times.

Having a 12-year-old boy as central character helps this feeling of change. Doug is starting to see not everything is eternal and unchanging - a point emphasised by his taking the final ever trolley bus journey to the end of the line and back - with the old track-bound cars being replaced with regular buses. But not all is negative.

Yes, there is a sense of the inevitability of change, but change that can bring new opportunities, new adventures as much as end to the ways of old.

The stories are like spinning threads, weaving gently across a summer in a small American town, carrying the characters in an out of the focus and allowing the readers glimpses of their ordinary yet magickal lives.

New Short Story Sale

Demon Minds have just sent an acceptance for my short story "Acting's a Hell of a Job". It will be appearing in their Halloween issue.

If you want to check out their site you can find it at - http://www.demonminds.com/

Monday, 26 July 2010

Review of Will Elliott - The Pilo Family Circus

There are a number of things that children love but adults can find creepy, disturbing or just downright scary. Think of puppet shows, balloon animals, ice-cream truck jingles and worst of all clowns.

One night on his way home from work Jamie almost runs over a clown standing oblivious to his surroundings in the middle of a Brisbane street. He thinks little of it. The following night he encounters more of them, all seemingly out of it. When Jamie recovers a small bag one of them drops - believing it contained drugs as they had to have been on something - without realising it, he has put himself in great danger. For now the clowns are aware of him.

And now he has a simple choice - pass an audition to join the circus or die. Unfortunately for him he passes the audition.

This particular circus is a little stranger than most, more sinister and definitely more dangerous. Jamie, now re-christened JJ the Clown, finds himself a member of an antagonistic troupe. There's none of the famous carnival camaraderie; this is more like a civil war with face-paint and big tops.

It's also not your typical circus of trickery, sleight-of-hand and fakery. The freaks are real (the show has a matter manipulator to create them); the fortune-teller can actually see the future and has a crystal ball she uses to spy on the carnie folk. And the clowns try their best to inflict injuries on each other during the show - relying on the magickal powers of their face-paint to prevent them dying and heal their injuries quickly.

But this protection comes at a price as Jamie finds out - the greasepaint might save his life but it makes him a different person - the sadistically violent, uncaring and self-centred JJ, perfect for this clown posse. He also finds the circus's true purpose. Enter through these gates and you wont find yourself losing money on the stalls and you needn't worry about your wallet going missing. This circus steals souls.

This book is bizarre - it's almost as you might imagine a collaboration between Chuck Palahniuk and Salvador Dali, providing they are supplied with enough hallucinogenics and amphetamines to keep them going. Yet is more than just surreal brutality.

To go with this weirdness and mayhem Elliott has even managed to supply a pretty decent plot and some well-rounded characters - okay well-rounded in a kind of slightly out-of-focus, fluorescent, rabid-dog manner but still they're there.

And it's the interactions of two of these characters that provides the books highlight. Jamie and his psychopathic clown alter ego JJ are battling for control of their body and their place within the circus - each trying to gain the upper hand.

Elliott's other great achievement here is that it all holds together. It would have been easier to allow the weirdness to get away, for the violence to destroy all in front of it. But it didn't, it's coherent - as well as splendidly absurd in just the right way. Now I need to go for a lie down.

Review of Chris Roberson - The End of the Century

Strand One - Galaad, a young man from Wales, has been having visions of a woman in white trapped in a glass tower on a remote island. He journeys to Caer Llundain (London) to tell of his visions to Artor (Arthur to you and me). Artor believes his visions to be true and organises a quest to rescue the woman in white.

Strand Two - Sandford Blank is a Victorian Private Investigator with a mysterious shady past. (Yes he does sound a little like Sherlock Holmes.) Together with his associate Miss Roxanne Bonaventure he is called in to investigate a series of murders in London threatening to disrupt the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria.

Strand Three - Alive Fell is a teenage American who suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy. She's run away to London, following clues given to her in hallucinations during epileptic attacks. Once there she encounters a former spy from a secret British Intelligence organisation MI8 - tasked with pursuing supernatural foes. She also discovers that there could be some truth to the hallucinations that compelled her to come to England.

The most impressive part of this segmented novel is that the three parts are equal. No single part rises above the others. Usually when reading this kind of book one segment is noticeably more enjoyable than the others. As it's human nature is to want the good bits there is a natural tendency to rush (or skip) the others. No such worries here - this book is remarkably well balanced.

Roberson has also managed to write each strand in a slightly different voice, making slight changes to the language to suit the period. But it's not done to excess. Blank and Bonaventure's diction is the wonderfully self-restricted, clipped prose of Victoriana. The Arthurian tale is told in a restrained heroic tone - everything measured against masculine bravado; and the modern tale is more edgy, more a case of fighting a system as well as a definite enemy.

But the book has one or two flaws. Firstly right from the very first page there is an all too obvious inevitability that the three story strands will join together. This knowledge does hamper the pleasure of reading. You find yourself waiting for those links to arrive, and doing so does distract. But this is minor, and some might find it pleasurable to spot these links.

But the main problem is the switching between the threads. It's jerky - especially as each section appears in the same exact order - Arthurian into Victorian into modern day before beginning the loop again.

When you do return to each in turn you pick the tale up exactly where you left it. If these are linked tales there should be more of a feeling of progress across the strands despite their differing time periods. It’s slow, hard going.

I've read longer books. I've read books that took longer to get to the action. But these gave more. If I've moved forward so little plot-wise after two hundred pages, I want to have enjoyed some wonderful, deep character and world building. Here you get little of that, because in reality you are only seventy pages into each tale.

It's a shame, for Roberson has created fine characters. And his plot, once you get to it, is not bad. It has intrigue, adventure, touches of the supernatural and magickal, a little humour and a definite David versus Goliath vibe.

So, I have advice for anyone thinking of reading this book. Do! But I would recommend your reading the first twenty-eight chapters of this book as three separate linear tales. That is start from the beginning and read every chapter headed "Twilight" (Arthurian) until you run out of book. Start again and read all the "Jubilee" (Holmesian) chapters (except chapter thirty), and then the "Millennium" (present day) chapters.

When you have done this then begin reading what should have been the fourth separate linked short story of the book at chapter twenty-nine and read to the end. I have a feeling it will be a lot more satisfying that way. A pity it's not how it was presented.

Review of Brian Keene - Castaways

Okay - I'm going to post another couple (maybe three) this evening. Here's the first...

Many matches can be considered as made in heaven - strawberries and cream, hot dogs and mustard to name but two. Brian Keene has introduced another - Reality-TV show contestants on a tropical island and a tribe of previously unknown pygmy cannibals.

You just can't go wrong with a combination like that. Except that is if you are a contestant, cut off from your only means of escape by a tropical storm that has grounded the helicopters. Fortunately amongst the ranks of stereotypically vapid wannabe celebrities are one or two people you will actually like - and feel may have a chance of surviving the show.

This book is well balanced. It has a great concept, an element of gore (although not overdone), a few good scares and a band of disparate powerless underdogs facing seemingly insurmountable odds and a good touch of humour. It has its flaws, a pointless subplot concerning terrorism, and unnecessary character development of the some of the ingredients on the pygmy's main course. But despite its faults, this is a well-crafted entertaining horror.

 

Book Details

ISBN: 08439-6089-2

Page Count: 285

Price: $7.99

Format: Paperback

Release: February 2009

Publisher: Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing)

Webpage:

http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/productdetail.cfm?product_id=2294&L1=1

 

 

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A horror film top tip

This weekend I watched a relatively new release horror film that I feel I need to mention to anyone who happens to read this blog.

The film has a really fun title - Backwoods Bloodbath and a cool silhouetted scythe on the cover. Ok, the plot is a little familiar - group of city folk head to a remote cabin in the woods in a region where there's your stereotypical local legend (can't really call it an urban legend in the middle of nowhere) and encounter a mad man (yeah, the one the locals went on about) armed with a scythe who proceeds to start killing.

But an overused plot is nothing a well made horror film can't overcome. Good directing, halfways decent acting (screaming doesn't have to be Oscar winning level to be effective), and some kick-ass effects and you can have a really good gory scarefest out of this much-used scenario - after all they wouldn't keep using it if it didn't work.

However this film isn't all the things you might hope - and certainly not what I hoped. I sat down to watch this with a couple of friends on Friday night hoping to have fun both with the film and at the expense of it - half the fun is shouting at the characters after all. But what we got was a serious appalling movie. Badly acted, badly directed, abysmal dialogue and ludicrously inserted, seriously bad effects. I mean this was just plain bad.

I don't normally like writing scathing reviews of films. I try to find something good in every film I see. Problem is with this film I just couldn't. Please avoid.

Review 3 of L.H. Maynard's and M.P.N. Sims's Black Cathedral

In case you haven't heard of buzzword bingo - here are the rules. The players enter a business meeting with a card with a number of buzzwords written on it. Then these words and phrases are crossed out as they as spoken in the meeting (but not by the person whose card features the word). The first person to complete their card wins.

With this book you could almost play X-Files Buzzword Bingo -

Secret Government Organisation - check!

Psychic Powers - got that one too!

Ley lines - and that!

Big Brother Style Corporations - on a roll now!

Mysterious deaths on a deserted island and a satanic cult - you better call the scorer over now. I think I have a winning card.

But what prize might it have won me? Well you would be forgiven for thinking a book combining all of these different plot elements (and I haven't named them all by any means) would be confusing at best - downright unreadable at worst.

Well, it actually isn't that bad. Despite the myriad overused plot hooks, the stereotypical characters (can you think of a maverick lead investigator at odds with his boss?) Maynard and Sims have actually produced something entertaining.

Essentially the story is this. A team building exercise on a remote Scottish island goes wrong - badly wrong. All the group members suffer gruesome deaths, and their bodies are never found. Nor for that matter is the rescue helicopter.

Their employer - a large US based multinational that feels equal parts Orwell and Occult - wants to know what happened and has tasked Department 18 (a secret British government body who investigate the paranormal) with uncovering the truth. And they have one condition - the expedition must include Robert Carter - even though he's just been fired after years of insubordination.

And so off the group go to their date with destiny (or at least the plot climax). Not everyone is going to survive (that's a given in horror novels) and there's the inevitable twist as the action starts to gear up. This book really is that formulaic in many, many ways.

But for its faults there is a lot to recommend this. For one Department 18 is interesting. It takes the X-Files vibe further. Its investigators are all psychic in one way or another. They have great toys - these guys are like a room full of spooky James Bonds - possibly without the martial arts skills though.

This is intended to be the first book in a series. Considering the amount they've crammed in here - this gives me visions of D18's next case featuring a lost tribe of half-alien, ghostly werewolves and their war with vampiric sorcerers who have taken control of the internet in a fiendish plan to hypnotise the whole world into following their diabolic ways. Whatever the authors pick for the second book I definitely want to read it.

Book Details

ISBN: 08439-6199-6

Page Count: 287

Price: $7.99

Format: Paperback

Release: January 2009

Publisher: Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing)

Webpage:

http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/productdetail.cfm?product_ID=2272&L1=1

 

 

 

Review 2 of L.H. Maynard's and M.P.N. Sims's Black Cathedral

What do you get if you throw a secret government ghost-hunting organisation, psychic powers, ley lines, a maverick investigator who hates his boss, sinister multinational corporations, satanic cults, a secret Vatican order and a remote, deserted Scottish island into a pot and stir.

Well by rights it should be an ungodly mess, a disjointed novel crammed to overflowing with so many overused dark fiction stereotypes you wonder how they managed to close the book's covers. It almost reads like a season trailer for the X-Files.

Somehow though Maynard and Sims have managed to make all these pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. Not perfect by any means but it is entertaining. The characters are engaging; the plot is well paced; the organisation (Department 18) has sufficient promise to sustain the promised series and the cult at the crux of the plot is original enough to keep your interest. Not a bad start - let's see where book two goes.

Book Details

ISBN: 08439-6199-6

Page Count: 287

Price: $7.99

Format: Paperback

Release: January 2009

Publisher: Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing)

Webpage:

http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/productdetail.cfm?product_ID=2272&L1=1

 

 

 

Review 1 of L.H. Maynard's and M.P.N. Sims's Black Cathedral

This next one is a bit odd. I read this book when it came out and wrote three reviews, each targetted at a different magazine. Guess how many of them sold - yep, none. So here's the first. I'll post the second and third straight afterwards...

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Most of the elements of the book will seem familiar - even too familiar. We have a secret government department operated by psychics, all of whom are feel as though they've been dragged out of 1960s-90s TV spy/cop shows and liberally dosed with special mind-powers, investigating paranormal events - not exactly a fresh idea.

Add to this a powerful loose-cannon top operative with a knack of pissing off his boss - a boss who finally had cause to fire him only to see him brought back for one last mission.

We also have mysterious secret religious organisations, including a satanic cult and a secret Vatican order, and a remote island location, which has been the centre of spooky goings-on that just happens to be at the convergence of a number of ley lines. It sounds like you could have put all the elements from Hammer House of Horror into a hat and drawn out half a dozen to make the plot.

But oddly enough it's not a bad read. The characters might be overly familiar but they're comfortable. You don't find yourself irritated by them - well except for their grouchy boss, but you are supposed to find him annoying.

The tale focuses on an investigation by the secret British government Department 18. Robert Carter is the fired maverick investigator. His association with the department seems at an end when his partner goes missing during an investigation, until the events on Kulsay Island require his special skills.

Kulsay Island, off the coast of Scotland, is deserted. No one has lived there in decades. Perfect territory for the kind of team building exercises one American organisation wants its employees to undertake. Unfortunately this is one island whose spooky reputation has substance and their people all disappear. The corporation's CEO wants Department 18 to investigate, and insists Carter is on the team.

For all its lack of originality this is wonderfully entertaining. For one thing the authors have managed to bring the myriad of threads together into a cohesive whole. For all its pick & mix plot makeup this holds together. The investigators manage to step out of their PC all shades of the demographic stereotypes, become realistic individuals and gel as a team.

The plot is paced well. It's not action from the get-go, but builds tension gradually towards the very effective climax. Here the authors have been very clever. The bad guy is not revealed from the start. We follow the investigation in real time, as it were - we're slowly drip fed snippets of information as the investigators make discoveries and deductions. So as their levels of fear and excitement build so do ours.

Maynard and Sims have also managed to set the groundwork what could become a very entertaining series of Department 18 paranormal investigations, while not sacrificing the action and excitement of this first story. I have a feeling this could be a great series. I can't wait to read more!

Review of Zoran Živković - The Bridge

This is a difficult book to fully describe. If you'll indulge me I believe I know the best way of summarising The Bridge.

Imagine a drunken conversation between Franz Kafka and Salvador Dali, one in which Dali challenges Kafka to write a book based on a few compulsory elements suggested by the painter. Firstly each of the three linked stories must start with an impossible encounter (a man meets himself, a woman meets a dead former neighbour and a teenage girl meets her future son). Each story must feature an antagonist with red hair, a mismatched item of clothing, a pursuit (mostly on foot) and all must end at the same place - on the bridge of the book's title. Oh, and nothing in any of the stories must make any real sense, although the main characters must, in the end, accept everything.

That just about sums this book up. It gives a better overview than a direct explanation of the plot could.

For all its weirdness it is beautifully written - Zoran Živković's prose is always elegant. Even when his plot is this obscure his narrative flows wonderfully well. There are few authors who could sustain your interest when each tale can be viewed as a series of increasingly bizarre, random events. A man entering a brothel to eat flowers, playing a version of ten-pin bowling in a church with wine bottle for pins and a young man in a bath full of shoes are typical of the scenes you will encounter in this book. There are stranger.

He is also playing with the structure of the short story in this book. His are not the traditional tales of exposition into conflict rising to climax then denouement. He often begins his tales somewhere in the middle of nowhere, then meanders through a surrealistic fantasy analogue of our own world before dropping us off at a point some time later, not necessarily at a recognisable end point, having allowed us to share his unique world.

Don't start reading a Živković book expecting to be told the "whys" of the situation. You will rarely get the answers you want. In this book the encounters just happen - treat the fact a man can meet an alternate version of himself as reasonable and don't go looking for an explanation. Go with it!

It's worth the effort. Because if you can accept the variation from traditional story structure you will feel enriched by your visit, and you will certainly marvel at the writer's imaginings - even when you are struggling to understand how someone who dreams this stuff up is not in an asylum. But for all his flights of whimsical fantasy Živković's tales are very grounded.

The tales work so well because of their focus - the involvement and motives of the lead characters. The man in the first story follows himself for purely selfish reasons - he is afraid that the copy might cause him embarrassment. The woman in the second follows her dead neighbour out of a feeling of concern, the girl in the third out of a bizarre maternal instinct.

Živković has made these people real and, through them and their bafflement at the events they witness, we can connect with the story. Also when the tales end - usually abruptly - their acceptance of events allow us to accept them also.

This is the kind of fiction fans of David Lynch's more offbeat moments would enjoy. This is Twin Peaks on acid, dream-sequence style fiction - all overlaid with a very European sensibility. In short it is extraordinary. To anyone who has read Živković before this probably comes as little surprise. He is like a modern gritty urban Lewis Carroll.

His Alice is less likely to fall down a rabbit hole to find her fantasy world than enter through a shabby looking doorway in a seedy brothel. But for its extra dimension of edginess over Carroll's work, Živković has the same innocent whimsy. His characters may live in a world of murder, theft and deception but it's seemingly kept at arm's length - it never touches them directly.

Okay it might not be the best idea to be a friend of a Živković lead character - they can have a high mortality rate but their grisly, and usually bizarre, ends are remote from the action and not described in excessive detail. For his protagonists Life will just carry on getting slowly more and more unreal.

Živković has been an active writer in his native Yugoslavia / Serbia since the 1980s and has been a publisher, academic and even written and hosted a television show. Outside the Balkans though he has remained unknown. Thankfully in recent years translations of his work have seen publication both in the USA and UK from a variety of speciality presses.

The nature of these presses though results in his books being published in limited editions so few people will be reading his work in English. His work deserves to be read, but it is likely his books only ever see publication in the small presses and Zoran Živković will remain the greatest writer you've never heard of.

Review of Paul Collins - Quentaris: The Spell of Undoing

So here's the problem. You have a successful young adult fantasy series that's run to more than two dozen titles. How do you keep it fresh? After all, even in a city as rich as Quentaris, there are only so many stories you can tell - surely? That's the dilemma that faced Paul Collins and Michael Pryor - the creators and editors of the Quentaris novel series.

Well their idea is just about the most original I've ever come across. Quentaris has been ripped out of this world and thrown into the rift-maze to end up… - well no one knows where. Different! Oh, and just to make it more fun, the city is now equipped with sails so it can now navigate through the various other worlds, meeting other city-ships as they go.

Brilliant surreal, it's like a Terry Gilliam young adult novel. Quentaris travels see them encounter dragons and pirate cities (the former helping, the latter attacking) and generally trying to find a way to adapt to their new environs.

As a counterpoint to this grand scale main story Collins has provided, interspersed with the city's ordeal, a very personal story of struggle. Tab Vidler is an orphan, determined to make it as magician. You just know she is going to be important in Quentaris's survival.

This is quite simply wonderful. Enough of the old Quentaris remains - the city is still the city we know, the people are the same people we've read about before but everything is different. Collins and Pryor should be applauded for this. Not only is it one of the most inspired of directions I've ever seen an established series taken, but to make such a change without it feeling forced is commendable.

They've given the city a new life and set the stage for a whole new, and eager anticipated (by me), new set of adventures whilst producing one of the best books in the series so far. This could have been so easily a "necessary" book, one that was not all that enjoyable to read but needed to give the subsequent titles somewhere to roam. It's not. This is great.

Long may Quentaris reign!

Book Details

Ford Street Publishing (and Imprint of Hybrid Publishers)

http://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/fordst.html

186 pages

ISBN: 978-1-876462-53-6

March 2008

Review of Graham Masterton - Death Mask

Graham Masterton has built a reputation over the past three decades for hard-hitting, easy-to-read horror novels. He might not be talked about in the same breath as Stephen King or Dean Koontz, but he's reliable. You know you are not going to get a bad book if it has Masterton's name on the cover.

And here, that's exactly what you get - a book that's not bad. It's got the usual touches of Masterton horror violence - just enough to satisfy without descending into seemingly endless descriptions of limbs being ripped off. The characters are pleasant, fully rounded. And the plot is reasonably interesting, reasonably well paced - building nicely from an easy start to a well-structured conclusion.

But it's nothing more. Masterton has done better than this - much better. The plot crux is a little too obvious. If you start with an artist, Molly Sawyer, drawing a rose that miraculously comes to life you just know that her drawing a sketch of a murderer responsible for the brutal slaying of a man and serious injury of a young woman is not going to go well.

So when the attacks increase, and the police seem unable to find the killer, it is a little obvious that perhaps, just perhaps, Molly's sketch has also, like her roses, left the page and become alive. Add to this a mother-in-law who's a bit witchy (tarot cards always in hand) and a husband who's the stereotype of scepticism and this seems a little lazy.

That said though, it's not bad! For it's faults this book is easy to read. It is easy to sympathise with the good guys, easy to want them to somehow defeat the undefeatable evil. It has enough slight twists along the way, a small surprise or two just to keep you on your toes, and a feel good ending.

It may, on some levels, be a bit of a paint-by-numbers style formulaic horror novel, but Masterton's skill for horror and the ease of reading of his prose have made this a relaxing, entertaining read - a good pick for lazy summer days when something more challenging wouldn't suit the mood.

Review of Bryan Smith - Soultaker

At first glance this book might seem worrying for a true horror fan. We have a coven of witches based in an American high school. It sounds like it might be heading for the Twilight with broomsticks territory. You know the kind of thing - three hundred pages of teen angst and rampaging hormones with occasional glimpses of the supernatural thrown in.

Thankfully though, this isn't. This is horror, real horror. It might be set in a school, but these aren't girly-girl witches trying to use their powers for good, and worrying whether the Quarterback looked at them in class. This teenage coven is pure evil, no doubt about it. They are intent on using their powers to control and kill.

The story itself is not exactly original. Myra Lewis is the new girl in town, the demonic coven leader and alluring goth-girl (a bit stereotypical having a goth witch). Within weeks of arriving in school she's recruited many of the in-crowd girls, and they've began terrorising the rest of the school - including the staff.

Against her is Jake McAllister, back in town to stop his brother his brother throwing his life away - and totally unaware his brother Trey is in the thrall of Myra. Together with a few new-made allies - the usual batch of outsiders that end up fighting bad guys in these books - Jack determines to defeat the forces of darkness.

So in pure story terms this is a case of been there already. But this is not about originality. This book gives you every element you could want in a horror tale - pure unadulterated evil, a hopelessly outgunned, mismatched bunch of good guys fighting seeming insurmountable odds, gore, sex, some plot twists and then some more gore.

Books like this succeed because they don't give you time to stop and look around. It doesn't take long to get into the action - within a handful of pages Smith takes us into a sex magick ritual in a forest clearing. This sets the pace for the book as a whole, for throughout its three hundred pages there is no pause, no unnecessary character building background tales to break up the (blood-) flow. This is horror as it used to be, as it should be.

Bryan Smith is one of a growing band of newer horror writers that are pumping the genre full of gallons of fresh blood. Reading his books makes you realise why you read horror in the first place.

Review of Jenny Mounfield - The Ice-Cream Man

Three school friends decide to get their own back on the Ice-Cream Man after he deliberately drives away from them despite having seen them. That, they thought, was that. However the Ice-Cream Man has other ideas and he begins to make their lives hell, repeatedly passing by their homes, playing his tune, sending emails and calling their mobiles - always identifying himself as the Grim Reaper.

This book plays right into one of my pet hates. I have always felt ice cream vans to be creepy. These vehicles come into your neighbourhood playing a distorted, out-of-tune, monotone version of a typical children's song. No one bats an eyelid when they appear, and there is an instant trust to the person in the brightly painted van. Just the kind of thing to make a wonderful horror tale.

This has some of the elements of great boys-own fiction. The three lead characters are such a disparate bunch, each with their own problems. Rick is still mourning the death of his father, and trying to cope with his mother falling apart - spending much of her time passed out drunk. Marty is wheelchair bound, and fighting his mother's desire to molly-coddle him and stop him being a teenager. And Aaron is the fat kid, bullied by his older stepbrother.

These are not stereotypes though - we're not talking dial-a-troubled-kid clones, no just-add-water instant-mix characters. Mounfield makes you invest in these three kids; she involves you in their world and their fears.

The author has managed to walk a fine line. There is nothing in this book that I would make it unsuitable for younger readers. Indeed the bonding of these three, all somewhat broken, teenagers and their determination to overcome their handicaps and beat back anything life throws at them is admirable and, to a degree, inspiring. For adult readers she has managed to make you feel what your fourteen-year-old self would in the characters' places, bringing together the us-versus-them feeling kids have when dealing with their parents, and the unease around authority figures (adults in other words).

The horror element in this book is more an undercurrent of dread. It's not a book to pick if you enjoy hack-n-slash; our ice-cream seller is not a flesh eating zombie or a demon wishing to rearrange your limbs. This book will unsettle rather than gross you out. It plays on your fears that someone is watching you or out to get you and that no one will believe you. And it will definitely make you think twice when you next hear that reedy siren blaring out Teddy Bear's Picnic, Turkey in the Straw or, as in this case Pop Goes the Weasel — 'Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle…'

Ford Street Publishing 2008

http://www.fordstreetpublishing.com/

Review of W. D. Gagliani - Wolf's Gambit

At first glance this book didn't fill me with much hope. Stories where the protagonist is a supernatural being fighting against their beastly nature and attempting to make amends as a detective or police officer are hardly groundbreaking. Okay, it's normally a vampire cop but it's not a great leap having a werewolf cop.

Add into it the almost-cringeworthy name of Dominic Lupo (yes, lupo is the Italian word for wolf) and the fact I hadn't read the first book and this was feeling like it was going to be a pretty dismal read. Thankfully it wasn't as bad as I feared.

Nick Lupo is a Milwaukee detective and a werewolf. Every full moon he leaves the city and heads for the wilds of the Eagle River reservation lands where he can unleash his Creature in safety. Or he could, for members of the tribe's council are being murdered, ripped apart in what seems to be an animal attack, and Lupo has to accept the fact that he might not be the only one of his kind.

Sheriff Tom Arnow is an in-comer, a city cop looking for a quiet life in the sticks. Under pressure from the Mayor he needs to stop the murders before every member of the council have been killed.

There isn't all that much to this story, its characters or its setting, that is in any way original. You could pick elements from TV shows like the X-Files, Buffy and Forever Knight, mix it all up and produce a story similar to this. But I can guarantee it wouldn’t be as good.

Gagliani has somehow overcome the book's seemingly insurmountable issues and produced a decent read. Lupo, his girlfriend the reservation doctor, Arnow the sheriff and Sam Waters the tribal elder are all endearing.

The bad guys are not totally one-dimensional, killing-machine monsters. They have personality and their own inter-relational issues - the tension over Alpha-status within the pack is a very nice touch. And the element of mystery about their employer and his unknown motives are all wonderfully done.

These, together with an easy writing style, succeed in making this a fun book, one that can be read independently of the series' first title Wolf's Trap (you can take my word in this, I haven't read it). It's not a book that will set your world on fire. Possibly not even one you will remember overly a year after you've read it. But it is one that will entertain. And sometimes that's exactly what you want from a book.

More Reviews - Rio Youers - Old Man Scratch

Johnny Gregson's dreams of a quiet retirement with his wife in their new country home are quickly ended when he encounters his new next door neighbour, Scratch Clayton. Scratch is a cantankerous grumpy old man who seems to take pleasure from turning the lives of the incomers into an absolute hell.

Nothing he does is illegal as such. And little is violent, even though Scratch, despite his age, is still an imposing and intimidating figure. But his actions build insidiously making it seem as though Scratch's every pore oozes hatred.

At the same time Johnny is beginning to notice that something is not quite right about the bend in the road hear their houses. Being a blind corner, road kill is commonplace. At least once every week Johnny finds himself dragging the remains of another creature to the roadside from in front of his driveway. But he notices that shortly after he does so, the bodies disappear. Not in the kind of way you would expect carrion eaters to gradually eat away at the rotting remains, but totally - as though they were never there.

This is not an out and out horror story. In many ways it is a simple story of the struggle between two old men who just plain don't get on. And in that it might remind you of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon's typical on-screen, antagonistic relationship. But there is a strong undercurrent of something not quite right running under the surface.

This short tale (the book clocks in at just 57 pages) is wonderfully atmospheric. It relies on spookiness rather out and out gore for its horror credentials and when its violent scenes do arrive, they are short and not overdone for shock value. It's good that this is so too. This book is all about mood. Having a few pages of overly descriptive gore would have spoiled the effect.

Its length may worry some though. Twelve pounds (roughly twenty dollars) for less than sixty pages? It's a hefty asking price. And being honest its content may also be a sticking point. This does not have your traditional novel format. Compared to mainstream this may feel incomplete, lacking the resolution many seek in their fiction. If you have read the Twilight novels and want to read other dark fiction trust me, you don't want to start here.

But thank the heavens it doesn't conform to the so-called norm. Imagine how bland that would make the world. Go on, give your reading muscles something more than just the next vampire romance novel.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Murali and Tourmalet

Sri Lankan test cricketeer Muttiah Muralitharan has retired. He played in his final test match today and fitting took the very final Indian wicket to bring his personal tally to 800 wickets in 133 tests. 800 wickets!! Now that's something I judge as worthy of a second, totally superfluous exclamation mark. That mark will take some beating. I feel privileged to have seen him bowl on a number of occasions. I might not be Sri Lankan, and a number of the wickets he took in his career may have belonged ot English cricketeers but the man was something special.

I don't think I've ever mentioned cycling in my blog. Anyone who knows me would probably think there is a really good reason for it - let's face facts, I'm not known for my fanatical devotion to keeping fit. But I like watching the big Tours - Italy, Spain and of course the Tour de France.

For all that it is effective a bunch of guys riding bicycles along deserted roads, which on the face of it does sound a little dull, I find the race fascinating. Okay part of this might be my love of France and Italy (although I have no great love for Spain, nothing against it just never appealed) but I like watching these races.

And today's tour stage was incredible. Again on the face of it you might say it was dull as nothing really changed. Andy Schleck didn't manage to rode away from Alberto Contador and they rode in together resulting in an unchanged 1-2 in the race. But they were riding up the Col du Tourmalet. They rode up a mountain for 20 kilometres (at the end of five hours of racing) at a gradient of about 9% for large parts. Those guys are amazingly fit.

You can't help but be impressed by them.

Three

Okay, the question has been answered. I had enough time to post three book reviews before the episode finished...

Hope you like them. I might post a film review or two in the next few days. Those kindly folk at Organic Marketing have been good enough to send me some more review copies and I think I might post the details here. Or at least short notes about them. I may still go out to find them an alternate home whilst my main market is temporarily unavailable. (Terry from Murky Depths is going on holiday for a bit so there's not going to be much in the way of activity in that direction.)

The episode of House BTW was the right back from the beginning - Occam's Razor from near the start of season 1. Cool show although my wife occasoinally tells me I'm about as subtle as House and have other of his idiosyncrasies. Mind you she does know me best.

Review of L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims - Black Cathedral

What do you get if you throw a secret government ghost-hunting organisation, psychic powers, ley lines, a maverick investigator who hates his boss, sinister multinational corporations, satanic cults, a secret Vatican order and a remote, deserted Scottish island into a pot and stir.

Well by rights it should be an ungodly mess, a disjointed novel crammed to overflowing with so many overused dark fiction stereotypes you wonder how they managed to close the book's covers. It almost reads like a season trailer for the X-Files.

Somehow though Maynard and Sims have managed to make all these pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. Not perfect by any means but it is entertaining. The characters are engaging; the plot is well paced; the organisation (Department 18) has sufficient promise to sustain the promised series and the cult at the crux of the plot is original enough to keep your interest. Not a bad start - let's see where book two goes.

Book Details

ISBN: 08439-6199-6

Page Count: 287

Price: $7.99

Format: Paperback

Release: January 2009

Publisher: Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing)

Webpage:

http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/productdetail.cfm?product_ID=2272&L1=1

Review of Joel A Sutherland - Frozen Blood

This is old-school horror, the kind of book that you might have seen back in the 1980s. It's straightforward, no-frills, no hidden meaning scary atmospheric stuff. Its set-up is old school too.

Two estranged sisters are coming back into each other's lives due to the recent death of their father, and the reading of his will, taking place in his mansion near Ottawa during a severe and seemingly never-ending hailstorm.

There is a great deal of mistrust between the two. Tara is a recovering alcoholic. Her relationship with sister Evelyn was destroyed following the death of Evelyn's daughter - killed by a drunk driver - an act her sister symbolically identifies with Tara herself. Before the evening described in the book the two had not communicated in three years.

There's even the kind of twist you would get in many 1980s horrors. After about sixty or so pages everything points to a battle between the two sisters - each descending into their own brand of madness - and heaven help anyone who gets in the way.

However things change. The storm, initially seeming to be the device used to keep the sisters locked together in the family home, claims its first (in these pages at least) victim when the lawyer attempts to leave. The ice pellets of the hailstorm tear at his skin, beat him unconscious to the ground, reducing him to a bloody pulp.

But this is not a book that relies on shock. Even with the lawyer's death you'll find no detailed descriptions of gore. The author is going for atmospheric fears, using the isolating power of a serious storm to unsettle. There are no demons, no mysterious strangers, witchcraft or magicks here.

The ghosts Tara sees and interacts with regularly could be a result of her mind. There is no conclusive proof they actually exist. Even the mysteries (the off-screen alterations to the contents of the house) are in essence mundane, much more likely the result of malevolence on one sister's part, or madness on the other.

This book works best in the way it gradually increases your knowledge of the sisters' relationship through a Tara's flashbacks and conversations with the dead. The initial sense of incompleteness may seem a little confusing. But this slow peeling back of the layers gives you each new piece of information at just the right moment - when its affect is greatest.

In many ways the familiar big-old-house setting, sibling rivalry and deeply flawed main characters work for him. He's not wasting time describing the background. We know it and he knows we know it. It allows him to get one with it - to tell us a story.

Sutherland is not the finished article by any means. His descriptions are occasionally prosaic when they could make the scene more real. Some of the jumps are too abrupt, the dialog a little stiff. But his pacing is good, and he presents an ending that doesn't wimp out. His ability to spin a good yarn, with just the right creepyness-factor makes this a very entertaining debut novel.

Review of Michael Coney - "Hello Summer, Goodbye" and "I Remember Pallahaxi"

As with every summer Drove is visiting Pallahaxi with his parents. This year however things are a little different. Drove is on the verge of manhood, and Browneyes, a girl he met the previous summer, is occupying the majority of his thoughts.

However, just as Drove is becoming more involved in the world at large, the world is about to get involved in his life. His father is a Parl (a member of the government) and not at all happy that Drove is showing interest below his social standing, something about which Drove cares nothing at all.

But as well as obstacles to his love life Drove and the entire world will have to contend with an infrequent astronomical even that plunges the whole world into darkness (and cold) for forty years - the Great Freeze.

Like much British science fiction, this is bleak in ways American fiction rarely is. The further you get in the book the more you become certain that the ending is going to be anything but "happy-ever-after".

This world is remarkably well realised; the prose and descriptions are exquisite. The growing relationship between Drove and Browneyes, despite the opposition of his parents and the suspicions of hers, is portrayed brilliantly with just enough detail to show progression but not to become even remotely graphic.

This gentle love story is the only light relief of the novel. This is a dying world. The townsfolk are becoming more and more aware that all is not right, that this worse-than-normal cold is not just a fluke but an indication of future times.

This, together with the growing secrecy and out-of-the-ordinary behaviour of the government, is leading to growing frictions between the classes. But it's all done in a very understated English way. It is also not a good versus bad tale. Each side is simply trying to survive, although the means the Parls are using are less than totally moral.

" Hello Summer, Goodbye" was voted in a one newsgroup's poll as the greatest British SF book of the 1970s. Given that he was up against Arthur C. Clarke, Bob Shaw, Edmund Cooper, John Brunner, Brian Aldiss and James White (amongst many others) it's certainly an achievement.

This has all the government paranoia and small-man-against-the-big-machine feel of a George Orwell novel but its wrapped in a lyrical poetic gentility. This is a classic. It deserves to be more widely read.

* ~ *

Packaged alongside this is Coney's sequel - "I Remember Pallahaxi" - so far unpublished although posted on the author's website shortly before his death in 2005.

Any reader of the first book could easily it set on a lost human colony world, so far removed that all memory of origin is lost, together with all the advanced technologies that used reaching the world.

This time the characters are noticeably non-human, possessing genetic memory enabling them to search the memories of their ancestors (from birth to the moment of each subsequent generation's conception). This trait forms the basis of their society, with the man-chief and woman-chief of each village chosen because they posses the longest genetic memory. (The presence of actual humans on the world, running a mining operation, acts to confirm their alien-ness.)

As before a Great Freeze is approaching. And once more it plays an adolescent love story against the end of the world. This time, though, we know the great freeze is survivable. After all these are the same beings and the same world, someone must have survived the first time. So it's impossible to feel the same degree of tension as before.

The two youngsters are also as separated by circumstance as Drove and Browneyes. Hardy is the nephew of the Man-Chief of Yam, an inland hunting-farming village. Charm is from Noss (a coastal fishing village), the daughter of the Woman-Chief. The two villages exist in a state of mutual suspicion.

It's been a poor year for Yam. With crop yields down and game hard to find, they approached Noss for a loan of fish to cover the winter, against a share of the following year's crop and hunt. The deal had been achieved due to the diplomatic skill of Hardy's father Bruno, the Yam Man-Chief's elder brother. (In a brilliant touch the youngest child assumes the title due to their possessing a greater share of their father's memory).

The following year Yam's crop is even worse and game even more scarce. Bruno is murdered (a truly shocking event when all descendants will remember the act) and his diplomacy lost just when it is most needed. Relations between the two villages deteriorate rapidly when they need to be working together.

Hardy is also in danger. Despite earlier accusations of Noss's guilt over Bruno's murder he realises the threat is from a much closer source. Noss, and more specifically the Woman-Chief's daughter Charm, could be his only salvation.

This suffers the same problem as most sequels. After all, we've already been-there, done-that. So unless it progresses the story in a new direction there is always going to be disappointment.

In the case of "I Remember Pallahaxi" this is not great. Coney's prose is still wonderful; his characters are just as involving, and there are enough differences to maintain interest.

The natives are less technology-dependent, having found equilibrium with their world. They possess genetic-memory that should jar with the first book, after all Drove and Browneyes did not. But it's handled beautifully, with the lead characters asking the same questions as the reader, and investigating this change, believing it key to their future.

There is also the human mining colony. This seems unnecessary and incongruous. They play such a small role in the story, why are they there? But their greater knowledge aids Hardy and Charm's search for answers about their world.

Okay, so it doesn't measure up to the first book, but it has its own appeal.

Some more reviews are coming...

I said yesterday I was going to post some reviews and so the next couple couple of posts will contains them. How many I'll post is pretty much up to Dr Gregory House. I'm watching the end of an episode of House before I get some sleep so...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Enough for now

Okay, over the next few days you might find this blog gets a number of new reviews added but I think I'm going to stop for tonight. Five reviews in one go is a big hit. Any more and no one's going to read them

Review of Darrell Schweitzer - Living with the Dead

Darrell Schweitzer is an American. I just thought I should mention that up front because this reads like European fiction, not American. Not saying anything is wrong with American fiction, it's just that an acceptance of whimsy as normality is not something you usually find in American fiction.

The story is set in a small coastal village. At random intervals the villagers awake to find a pile of dead at the docks. But unlike our world here the dead do not decompose and they are not buried and forgotten. The villagers, under direction from an unseen oppressive government dedicated to maintaining "the order of things", are required to give the dead a new home - to take them into their homes and treat them as guests.

This is not considered strange or repulsive, it's just the way it is. The villagers do not consider it onerous, it's just the way it is, the way it always has been and the way it always will be.

Another element you would normally associate with European writers over American is that, in truth, there is no all-encompassing plot. The novella briefly follows several of the villagers - a government official who discovers the most beautiful woman in the world amongst the dead, a schoolteacher determined to maintain order, a child in her class.

Each person has a little cameo tale, each interlinked, showing how they adapt to their lives amongst the dead. How they cope as new arrivals reduce the available living space they have more and more. We read of their taboos (mainly treating the dead with anything other than reverence), their fears and their desire to maintain a status quo, no matter how odd or difficult it may seem.

And whereas you could say there is a general them running through this, a feeling that you are viewing a momentous period in the lives of the villagers, there is no definite flow, no feeling that momentum is building towards an inevitable change.

Also despite the book being populated by the dead it's not a horror tale. This isn't a case of a voodoo priest reanimating corpses, or some evil sorcerer with plans of world domination. So don't go looking for a reason of why the dead appear, they just do. Accept it! Go with it! The reason for this phenomenon is not important, this story is at a much more human level. These are people, like you or I, just in a totally offbeat environment living their lives.

So if you're looking for a detailed plot and full resolution (a happy-ever-after ending), or a traditional horror tale with an easily-identifiable bad-guy I would say you're probably better off sticking to the mainstream. You'll miss out on an enchanting little tale though.

Review of Kevin J. Anderson - Metal Swarm

Both the Human HANSA and Ildiran Empires are in a state of disarray. Despite being on the winning side in recent galactic-wide wars against the gas-giant dwelling Hydrogues, both have seen their forces severely depleted. Having internal troubles as well has not helped either race.

The human race is on the verge of a civil war with the increasingly paranoid HANSA Chairman Basil Wenceslas refusing to admit that Earth's problems are largely the result of his own actions and his making enemies of humanity's independent offshoots at a time Earth needed allies. The Ildiran leader, Mage-Imperator Jora'h, has his own problems attempting to recover from the damage his mad half-brother did to the thism, the Ildiran's mental links.

Both races need time to recover, but (as expected) that is the last thing they are going to get. The sun-dwelling Faeros are back and intent on ridding the Universe of Ildirans - and humanity seems trapped between the murderous black Klikiss robots and their creators.

Anderson is playing on a galactic stage here; we have seven species (two humanoid, one insectoid and four very alien) and one artificial life form in a struggle across hundreds of solar systems. This kind of grand scale concept does risk the author "going-off-on-one" and writing a novel so vast as to be totally disconnected and unreadable. But he's used a very good technique of tying the action down to a manageable readable level. Each of the one hundred and forty-six fairly short chapters in this book tells its story from one person's point of view, giving a human (or Ildiran) perspective to the events.

Lengthways, this series ("The Saga of the Seven Suns") is quite simply colossal. This sixth volume runs to nearly seven hundred pages in hardcover and some of the previous volumes have been even longer. The obvious worry with series like this is whether the story can sustain the interest of the reader over so many pages. Well for the first five volumes this has been absolutely no problem, this series has contained so of the most compelling space opera I have read in years.

This sixth book though is showing the strain. There is a feeling here of being a bit of a filler, a way of getting from the position at the end of book five to the point when the concluding seventh volume needs to begin.

It's a harsh comment in some ways. There is a lot of good action in these pages; the set up at the end of the book is brilliant, leaving a wonderful cliff-hanger at the end - one will leave you desperate for the release of the final volume. But I believe that, although "The Sags of the Seven Suns" is good as a seven-book series, it could have been truly great over five. I would still gladly recommend the series to fans of space opera despite this observation; Anderson has re-awakened a liking in me for this sub-genre that has been long dormant.

Review of Justin D'Ath - Pool

Wolfgang Mulqueen is a sixteen-year-old schoolboy in New Lourdes, Australia working a summer job at the miracle pool that has put the town on the map (and caused its renaming from Loddon Springs). The water in the pool has a slope - finding its "level" a few degrees off horizontal - and, since an incident a dozen years previous, a reputation for healing properties.

A butterfly lands on one of the pool's visitors, a blind girl slightly older than Wolfgang named Audrey, who visits the pool daily but not to experience its waters, preferring to sleep in the shade of an umbrella poolside. The butterfly collector in Wolfgang cannot resist taking a closer look and so he announces himself to Audrey so his approach does not scare her.

This single event begins an unusual summer for Wolfgang. He begins a friendship with this unusual blind girl - one that is encouraged by her father who actually pays Wolfgang to spend time with his daughter, so worried is he by her solitary and nocturnal nature. Their friendship blossoms, despite Wolfgang seeing her more bizarre side, including a liking for walking through cemeteries at night, and finding out more about the mysterious events of her past.

This is a young adult novel. I thought I'd better mention it. It doesn't read like other young adult fiction I've read. Its plot is more surreal, and its characters more flawed - just witness the monetary agreement between Wolfgang and Audrey's father for proof. It's also not a book for traditional plot-strand resolutions. This is not a give-away, by the way. Right from the off you feel this is not going to be a standard boy-meets-girl-during-a-supernatural-event-happily-ever-after tale.

There is a deal of the boy-meets-girl in this book, the two go on dates and there are first kiss moments, but there is something different underlying the whole. Audrey's back-story, with regards the accident that left her in a coma for months and caused her blindness, has uncanny timing when compared to the sloping pool and Wolfgang's own life. She also seems disconnected somewhat, as though she never totally returned after reviving from her coma.

The human side of the story is not lost amongst the spookiness. Wolfgang is a typical sixteen-year-old, full of hormones and very much aware of Audrey as female. He matures through the book, as witnessed by the changing of priorities regarding his butterflies. And, although he still has childish tendencies including a stutter when he becomes embarrassed or nervous, the Wolfgang at the end of this book is noticeably older than at the story's beginning.

There are some tender moments in the story, in the relationship between the two main characters - most especially during a trip to the zoo butterfly house, so he can properly introduce her to the creatures and show her his passion for them. It's their interaction that is the strongest part of the novel - D'Ath has managed to make their stuttering feelings totally believable.

It's not a book that is going to make me concentrate on reading young adult novels; I still want more to my fiction. But it is one that proved to me that books for younger reader have great merit.

Second (Third) of the book reviews (Stephen Baxter)

Onto another of the never published reviews - Stephen Baxter
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Review of Stephen Baxter - The H-Bomb Girl

Laura Mann is in a difficult position - fourteen, parents are splitting up and she is moving from the only home she's ever known to her mother's hometown Liverpool. To make things just that little bit worse it's October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis unfolds; and for some reason everyone is taking a special interest in her - as though she is the lynchpin of a turning point in history.

Mort, a US Airman boarding at her house seems to watch her every move. Miss Wells, a teacher at her new school is eager to be a confidant and offers help a little too assertively, and the forty-something Jive-O-Rama waitress Agatha fauns over Laura. And all Laura wants to do is get on, make new friends in a new town.

They all seem to believe that Laura is a pivotal player in a pivotal moment in history, something a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl struggles to understand. To further confuse matters Laura discovers Miss Wells, Agatha and Mort may not even be from 1962.

I've read many Stephen Baxter books over the years. Without exception I've found them good reads, although hard work. He writes demanding prose. Although this isn't the first young adult book Baxter has written it's the first I've read. Before starting I couldn't imagine how his style and tendency for dense plotting would work for younger readers.

It does, and possibly due to his making it personal. The book is set in Baxter's hometown, where he lived when he was fourteen; the time's not long before his teenage years, so he knows the people and places. That familiarity gives the book richness I didn’t expect.

The story itself could have been trite and predicable - after all we have a teenage girl being courted by various parties seeking her help to further their causes. Baxter avoids this though, by introducing some wonderful touches, not least of which are the reveals - of the time travellers' existence in 1962 and their background stories and plans.

This interweaving of supporting cast back-stories and multiple possible future timelines proves one of the books real strengths. Baxter has, for the most part, managed to bring hard sf concepts to a younger audience without weakening the plot or having lightweight science. There are a few moments when it doesn't quite work - when Laura and friends find unusual objects (modern day tech) in Miss Wells' locker it's a little hackneyed.

Generally Baxter blends his story into 1962 well, effectively using pop-culture references - the Beatles and James Bond being "new" - and his time-travellers are just different enough to cause double takes.

It's interesting that the lead character is female. SF traditionally appeals to boys more than girls and, from my memories of this age, teenage boys are less likely to empathise with a female protagonist than male. I hope Baxter hasn't limited his potential audience, this is very entertaining and deserves to be read widely.


An Old Book Review - Amber Benson

Okay not that old. I thought after I'd posted the review of the Skipp/Spector book The Bridge I thought to myself about posting other reviews. Well I have over the last few years written reviews for a number of books and then been unable to find them homes. Okay I will admit some of them were rejected but even the rejections were usually not because the reviews were crap.

Honest, I'm not just trying to soothe my own ego - prevent damage to the poor fragile things. I'm going on what I've been told. A lot of these were rejected because I'd send in two or three reviews to editors who only wanted one so they could pick the best for them. And the others languished. Until now. I'm going to post them one by one. So here goes, first one up - second if you count last night's but that's different. I wrote it for this blog.
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I.E. Lester - Review of Amber Benson and Christopher Golden - The Seven Whistlers

Rose Kerrigan, Mike Richards and Alan & Jenny Bryce live in the small New England town of Kingsbury. Although they have day to day issues, they live quiet, generally happy lives and have settled into a routine, including regular get-togethers at the town pub, the Pennywhistle. But, as this is a horror novel, you know this tranquillity is not going to last.

Rose is the first person to notice the changes -she sees two large black dogs tear apart a stag in the woods behind her parents' cabin. She is not the last. At the same time a series of accidents and misfortunes begin to happen.

It's the way that the foreboding builds that is the book's real strength. The presence of the dogs increasing steadily in number towards becoming the Seven Whistlers of the book's title is handled well, without being too obvious, but it’s the misfortunes that really increase the menace. They suggest an evil atmosphere is overcoming the whole town.

This is exactly the kind of set-up and delivery you would expect in a Stephen King novel - same kind of town, same kind of social group, and same kind of underlying sense of increasing dread. The main difference between the two is page length. Stephen King would have spent over one hundred pages setting the scene, introducing the characters and giving them back-story before any action really started. By the time King would have hinted that all is not right in small-town paradise, this book has already finished.

And it's that shortness that is the quite-literal shortcoming of the book. The setting is superb, Kingsbury is a perfect horror town. The group of friends are convincing, as are the supporting characters we meet along the way. And the horror of the tale - the hell-hounds are suitably menacing and a pleasant change from some of the so-called scary monsters I've read too often.

But this needs more length, more time to tell the story. I've read so many books over the years and have thought on many occasions that books are just too long. That they are padded to suit the 500-page liking of the best seller charts in bookstores and supermarkets, as though the old adage "Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width" has become a reality of publishing. But for once I wish the authors had made this longer. This is a good read at 143 pages, but I feel 300 pages would have made it a great read.



Tuesday, 20 July 2010

A book review - John Skipp & Craig Spector - The Bridge

I've got one or two book reviews over. I normally try to send these all in to various mags etc to get published but I have a couple of books I've read and not managed to find a home to send in a review (not because they're rejected, merely because I try not to oversaturate the markets I submit to). But I still think these books need a bit of an airing so I'm going to post some of the reviews here.

First up is John Skipp and Craig Spector's The Bridge - just reprinted by Leisure Books. If you fancy ordering it I'm adding the Amazon link

http://www.amazon.com/Bridge-John-Skipp/dp/0843963964/ref=tmm_mmp_title_0

The people of Paradise Pennsylvania are people you'll find anywhere. They want to make a few bucks, live comfortable lives, and not be overly bothered with the messy stuff. So they entrust their waste to a waste management company and forget about it. Only problem is that company has been illegally dumping the toxic goo for years, and now all those chemicals have reacted and produced a big bad monster who's bringing the fight back to the townsfolk in true gorefest fashion.

This book originally came out nearly two decades ago in 1991. It's hard to believe. Its core plot of mankind ruining the planet (dumping toxic chemicals in this case) until the Earth decides it's had enough is, if anything, more suited to this decade than the nineties.

This is horror as a vehicle for an environment point and, despite reservations to the contrary before starting reading Messieurs Skipp and Spector have proven that horror is the perfect genre for such a political point. And they've done this by not forgetting the most important thing in a novel - a damn good plot. Oh, and great characters and wonderfully easy-to-read prose.

You'll be left wondering one thing when you've finished this novel. Why the hell didn't this book raise the two authors into the same heady heights as Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Yes, it's that good.

Start the week with a rejection

My short story Chicken has been rejected by DF Underground. Ah well, such is life. Time to try, try, try again (or whatever those old clichéd phrases would have us do).

In any case I like the story so I've resubmitted it someplace else. Hopefully it will find kinder eyes this time.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Ten new reviews posted

UK sf/horror site Murky Depths have posted another ten of my reviews

Book Reviews
Ray Garton's Scissors
Stephen King's Blockade Billy
Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman

Film Reviews
Alice in Wonderland
Bikini Girls on Ice
Daybreakers
Resurrecting the Street Walker
Vampire
The Wolfman

You can find all of these at - http://www.murkydepths.com/

Saturday, 17 July 2010

No Heavy Lifting (writing news)

The title of the blog entry comes from a favourite author of mine (Mike Resnick). He always described a second (or third etc) sale of the same piece as a "No Heavy Sale" meaning that he'd not had to do any actual work for the sale.

Well I've just had one.

Last year a short story of mine (Waiting Room) appeared on UK horror site House of Horror. Well now it's going to appear in print in an American anthology called Dreams and Screams being published by Liquid Imagination.

I could get used to this - but I suppose I'll have to write more stories and get them sold the first time before these events are likely to be common.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

This bizarre world

I've just read a news article on the BBC News website that reminded me that there still are people in the world who want to do spontaneous things just for fun. Apparantly there is a tradition that's grown up in recent years in California which sees thousands of people moon passing trains on a given day each year. The appropriately named Moon Amtrak day was yesterday, July 11th.

The even have a website dedicated to the event

http://www.moonamtrak.org/

Yeah, and you'd guess for something fun, the authorities are trying to "crack" (sorry couldn't resist the pun) down on it.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

2 sales / 2 rejections - some kind of balance I guess

New Myths (http://www.newmyths.com) has bought another two of my book reviews - for Harry Turtledove's Hitler's War and Tim Waggoner's Dead Streets. I think this makes it to eight that I've sold to them - in addition to the three articles.

But on the short story side I've had two rejections - from Daily Science Fiction and Black Ink Horror. Ah well, I'll keep trying.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Charles Saatchi

I've just read the news story about Charles Saatchi donating his gallery containing a collection of more than 200 pieces of contemporary art to the nation. Wow!

The Saatchi Gallery is a 70,000 sq ft exhibition space in Chelsea. It's becoming the Museum of Contemporary Art for London (shortened to Moca London).

And it includes some very famous pieces including Tracey Emin's My Bed. Again wow!

Just goes to show people can surprise you, and in a good way.

Thank you Mr. Saatchi