Monday, October 05, 2015

James, Mesmerist’s Daughter (2015)

Heidi James, The Mesmerist’s Daughter. Neon Books, 2015. Pp. 28. ISBN 978-1-3113-6569-9. £4.00.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Nicola’s mother is a wolf. Maybe a werewolf, maybe a wolf disguised as a human during the day, maybe a magician or mesmerist of some kind who is able to pull the sheep’s clothing-wool over people’s eyes at will. During the day she is a sarcastic, dissatisfied, compulsive liar, somewhat bullying mother and unfaithful wife; at night she sloughs her human skin and voraciously attacks Nicola in her bed. Afraid that she is not able to control her voice and keep her mother’s secret, Nicola stops speaking altogether after the age of 4, and goes through her whole childhood voluntarily mute, thereby treated like an idiot by the world and especially her lycanthrope mother. The story of this semi-real life is interspersed with scenes from Nicola’s later stays in a psychiatric institution, where she reflects with the benefit of hindsight on her paranormal childhood. This short novella by Heidi James, author of the well-received spousal-angst novel Wounding, reprinted by Neon Books who specialize in poetic and slipstream chapbooks, tells a story full of unsettling developments and leads to the bathetic, inevitable climax. This is not the first story to use monstrous imagery to describe an unhappy childhood, nor does it break new ground in its use of unreliable, potentially psychotic narrator, but it is a refreshingly unapologetic combination of absurdist, surrealist, and nightmarish content in the service of a genuinely emotive story.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Prokopiev, Homunculus (2015)

Aleksandar Prokopiev, Homunculus: Fairy Tales from the Left Pocket. Istros Books, 2015. Pp. 140. ISBN 978-1-9082-3623-4. £9.99 pb/$4.99 e.

Reviewed by Małgorzata Mika

Today, I shall tell you a fairy-tale; not the bedtime story that allows you to safely drift into the realm of dreams; nor will it be shaped in the image of a Disney princess whose amygdaliform eyes filter out all the symbolic content to leave you with a B-Smart version of the original story. The Western consuming approach to literary left the legacy of our ancestors in a rather consumptive condition. It coughs and spits emptiness into the cartoon-shaped chimeras of once lost three-dimensional treasures. A common reader may find it doubtful that a different kingdom expands beyond the barbed wire of our prison camp. In fact, seven seas and seven forests can bring us to the place where the true jewels can be found, if you travel long enough. The collection of stories Homunculus: Fairy Tales from the Left Pocket is one of them.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Poelsma, Fly (2015)

Anneliese Poelsma, Fly and other stories. Self-published, 2015. Pp. 68. ASIN B00S5Z5XUE. $3.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This short collection of dark stories by Australian artist and writer Poelsma, touches on several themes including domestic horror, delusion and mental illness, queer characters, and the unreliable narrator, or narrative as seen from inside the protagonist’s head, rather than objective reality. While the six stories themselves are rather mixed in quality, there is a coherence of theme, combined with fiction that cosily hugs the border between genre horror and literary. This collection sometimes edges dangerously close to exploitation and stigmatization of mental illness, but is written with a crystal-clear competence and control of prose, and an uncommon sensitivity to character, especially marginalized or self-loathing personalities. Some of these stories made me uncomfortable with the subject matter, but all made me uncomfortable with the wider world, which is an achievement of the writer, especially in a somewhat risky crossover of genres like this one.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Öberg (ed.), Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep (2015)

Peter Öberg (ed.), Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep. Affront Publishing, 2015. Pp. 324. ISBN 978-91-87585-31-9. $17.50.

Reviewed by Margrét Helgadóttir

This anthology, edited by Peter Öberg and published by Affront Publishing in 2015, is a collection of twenty-six stories within the speculative genres, all written by authors from Sweden. As the title of the collection indicates, you will find plenty of stories in it about robots, cyborgs and machines, but the book actually covers quite a broad range of themes, plots and subgenres, stretching from steampunk, horror, fantasy, weird, post apocalypse to space colonies and space travelling. Many of the tales circle around ethical questions connected to the relationship between humans and machines. Though there is disappointingly little about this book that screams “Swedish”, except for the nationality of the authors and the editor, I would still recommend the book for all lovers of science fiction, because the tales told are a really good read.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ashley (ed.), Sensorama (2015)

Allen Ashley (ed.), Sensorama. Eibonvale Press, 2015. Pp. 290. ISBN 978-1-9081-2537-8. £9.50.

Reviewed by Wendy Bousfield

Sensorama’s twenty-one original stories, mostly by British contributors, extrapolate changes in the human (or humanoid) sensory apparatus. Though he does not describe the book’s origins, editor Allen Ashley must have given would-be contributors a writing prompt: What if touch, sight, taste, smell, or hearing were augmented, blocked, or altered? Set in the near future, Sensorama stories have no alien extra-terrestrials. With three exceptions, discussed below, characters are human beings like ourselves.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rauch, What if I got down on my knees? (2015)

Tony Rauch, What if I got down on my knees? Whistling Shade Press, 2015. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-0-9829335-5-8. $12.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Rauch is a name not unknown on the speculative fiction circuit, where he publishes in anthologies and magazines. He has, to my knowledge, tackled morality and fairy tale formats with great aplomb, creating an interrogative space of uncompromisingly active engagement between story and reader. His stories will make you think, whether you realise it or not. As the master Terry Pratchett said, “fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.” Rauch may move into out-and-out surrealism on occasion, but his stories remain true to Pratchett’s idea: they work mental muscles, and blessedly, it is a highly satisfying exercise to be put through.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Nayman, What the Hell Were You Thinking (2015)

Ira Nayman, What the Hell Were You Thinking?: Good Advice for People Who Make Bad Decisions: volume 6 (Alternate Reality News Service). Aardvarks Eyes Press, 2015. Pp 362. ISBN 978-1-9276-4506-2. $14.99.

Reviewed by Ashley O'Brien

What the Hell Were You Thinking? Good Advice for People Who Make Bad Decisions! is a curious and fanciful good time. The book consists of a collection of advice columns in an alternate science fiction universe, where the greatest technological feats and most unusual discoveries have already taken place: virtual consciences, genetically modified beings, aliens, and more. The advice columns showcase a complex and rich world of scientific achievement and exploration, the stories in the letters range from bizarre to ludicrous, while always being fun or funny.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Roberts & Wessely, Cranky Ladies of History (2015)

Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely (eds.), Cranky Ladies of History. FableCroft Publishing, 2015. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-0-9925534-5-6. AUD$34.95.

Reviewed by Valeria Vitale

Cranky Ladies of History, edited by Tehani Wessely and Tansy Rayner Roberts, and published by FableCroft, is the literary outcome of a crowdfunding campaign in March 2014. The theme, as the fundraiser announced, are the stories of women who have challenged (and sometimes changed) the expectations of what sort of behaviour was acceptable or appropriate for them, from ancient to more recent times. I was fond of this project even before reading the book. I liked the idea that these stories would contribute to make women in history a little more visible, to remind us that these protagonists (and many others like them) were not mere accessories or docile companions. In other words, in spite of what history written by men wants us to believe, this anthology points out that women existed and had agency, not only as daughters or wives or mothers of someone else.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Kendall, Stranger Days (2015)

Rachel Kendall, Stranger Days. Oneiros Books, 2015. Pp 149. ISBN 978-1-329-17123-7. $11.36.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

Halfway through Rachel Kendall’s Stranger Days the characters have a debate about the nature and making of art. The unnamed protagonist (who sometimes likes to act out another version of herself called ‘Charlotte’) declares, ‘Artwork is private until it’s put up for sale, then it’s public. A diary might become art once it’s published. Just because it’s a private life, doesn’t mean it can’t be a commodity’ (97). Stranger Days is a short novel presented as though it was a diary, written over the course of a hot summer in Paris while the protagonist works on a novel, argues with her boyfriend Z, and develops an intense crush on a mysterious woman called Elodie. The conversations about art and performance are reflected both in the form the story takes and in the actions of the characters. The book is billed as being existentialist in nature; the questions it asks are not only “What is art?” but also “What is experience?”

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Howard, Touchstones (2014)

John Howard, Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic. Alchemy Press, 2014. Pp. 294. ISBN 978-0-9573489-7-4. £11.00.

Reviewed by Małgorzata Mika

This troublesome f-word. It appears out of the blue to startle or outrage. It conforms to no norms, pushing and shoving among respectable authors of equally respectable literature. It chews a gum of literary conventions to utter a loud ‘pop’ when a balloon of high literary ideas breaks to be rechewed again. This is the fantastic in all its insolent beauty. The case of John Howard’s collection of essays, one may say, is all the more insulting, concentrating on revolving around the writers whose prose fits into such gutter-born genres as horror, science fiction and fantasy in the stages some might classify as evolving or cult. Probing the darker corners of literature seems hardly surprising since Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic was released by The Alchemy Press, an award-winning independent publisher well-known for its fantastic proclivities. More so, the prevalence of horror and the weird among a caboodle of twenty-two texts is detectable, without the need of using the services of a professional medium. John Howard’s scholarly interests in the fantastic resulted in a peculiar combination that acquaints a reader with the works of the famous writers who are paragons of fantastic fiction, as well as those whose brilliant texts dissolved in the mist of other literary works. A mixture of the known, unknown and some eerie novelties is inviting, unearthing the talents long buried in the thick soil of 20th century fantastic literature.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Wilchcombe, Neob (2015)

V. E. Wilchcombe, Neob. Austin Macauley Publishers, 2015. Pp. 146. ISBN 978-1-78455-052-3. £6.99.

Reviewed by John Marr

Neob is a fantasy/science-fiction novel by V. E. Wilchcombe, published by Austin Macauley, a small independent publisher based in London. This is the first of an envisaged suite of novels set in the same universe, and very much reads as an introduction to the distant planet Neob, its native inhabitants and its other-worldly interlopers. This is not to say that the novel lacks for action—a remarkable amount of activity is packed into its brief length of 146 pages. However, such brevity is the book’s main downfall, as few of the ideas bursting out of this book are given much room to breathe, sometimes making for a disappointingly shallow read.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Thompson, Rhymer (2014)

Douglas Thompson, The Rhymer: an Heredyssey. Elsewhen Press, 2014. Pp. 192. ISBN 978-1-9081-6841-2. £9.99 pb/ £2.99 e.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

The Rhymer is the eighth novel by Scottish weird and speculative author and editor Douglas Thompson, published by British small press Elsewhen. This novel is one of the more surreal and absurdist tales Thompson has written, parts of which were previously published in serial or standalone form in other fantastic magazines. It is entirely written in a style somewhere between free-association, free-verse, and comic semi-rhyme, which sounds like it would be hard to read, but actually isn’t, although the story does veer wildly and apparently out of control between satire, grotesque, bizarre, mystical and pseudo-scientific allegory. While I felt this novel sometimes sacrifices plot continuity and character consistency in name of moving the story forwards, it is a bit hard to tell to what degree this is the result of lazy writing, and how much a symptom of the rapidly changing realities in the story itself. I confess to not particularly liking any of the characters, or indeed the narrative voice, but I did find it pleasant to read, challenging in the way that literature should be, and sometimes startlingly original.