Thursday, December 30, 2010

A cappella Zoo #5 (2010)

A cappella Zoo #5, Fall 2010. Pp. 119. ISSN 1945-7480. $4.00.

Reviewed by Nick Jackson

The vibrant orange and blue cover of this collection of stories and poems is a good reflection of the lively and multifarious contents. There are some beautifully written and powerful pieces of fiction and poems in this issue. According to the website, A cappella Zoo is a magazine of magic realism and slipstream with a strong literary slant that has been running since 2008. Editor Colin Meldrum’s interest in science fiction and mythology comes through strongly. Many of the stories feature animals: some fantastic birds, a herd of pigs, an enigmatic snake, a mute lake creature and an engaging Chilean sea blob. But what is wonderful about many of these stories is how the characters are obsessed with and subtly changed by these animals.

In Nancy Gold’s exquisite opening story, ‘Showtime’, bird wings sprout from the human protagonists and flight is a poignant metaphor for escape from the pain of reality. Gold’s intense drama of spoiled human desire is described with unsentimental directness. There is something sinister about the birds in Kate Riedel’s ‘Birds Every Child Should Know’, or at least about the way they appear and disappear. The story is inconclusive but this does not detract from its strangely powerful effect.

In Mike Meginnis’s ‘The Snake Charmer’s Teeth’, the snake creates a temporal and thematic link between two stories—that of a power-seeking snake charmer and that of a young girl suffering abuse by her father. The concept of the story is interesting but I was rather put off by the long strings of adjectives Meginnis uses and although the characters are well drawn the dialogue seems oddly unnatural. Meginnis gives his story an exotic setting but I found the lack of a specific cultural location frustrating. The author is fond of lines hinting at enigma such as: “Do not think this means what it does not mean.” But since the mystery of this line is never explained I was left feeling a little cheated. It’s a shame that the author knows so little of snake biology that his serpent has green blood.

In ‘Borges’ Bookstore’, David Misialowski takes the Argentinean writer’s idea of the infinitely expanding library to a chilling conclusion and evokes a dark labyrinthine setting for his tale of retribution and despair. The compulsive acquisition of books that is the nemesis of Misialowski’s character has its echoes in ‘The Collector of Van de Voys’ by Edmond Caldwell. This is one of the outstanding pieces of fiction in the magazine. From a deceptively prosaic beginning, the reader is pitched into a surreal nightmare that allows the imagination to solve the puzzle of its carefully arranged narrative clues and vivid imagery.

Benjamin Robinson’s ‘The Abandoned City’ works in a similar way on the reader’s imagination, pulling back from an overt explanation of its mysterious core. An ice-cream manufacturer invents a new brand of ice-cream, the flavours of which have a sinister origin. It is only the author’s skill in keeping the tone light and the dialogue snappy which prevents the story from having an extremely unpleasant after-taste, but it’s put me right off Raspberry Ripple.

Although less powerfully written, ‘Somewhere Near Gerasa’ by Alex Myers captures the crazed voice of the madman from the biblical parable in which the exorcised demons take possession of herd of pigs. Jason Jordan’s ‘Pestilence’ is chockfull of ideas and has a chirpy style though I found the story, about a block of flats visited by a series of unexplained physical phenomena, curiously uninvolving. The fact that the residents of the flats are known as One, Two, Three and Four doesn’t help me to feel interested in them as individuals. The story is narrated by one of the residents to a visiting reporter but this technique has the effect of distancing events still further. The daily plagues that haunt the occupants of the house hold no element of surprise for the narrator and this sense of acceptance kills off some of the story’s dramatic potential.

A story that worked much more effectively, due mainly to the beautifully described relationship between an aging couple, was Theodore Carter’s ‘The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob’ in which the blob in question acts as a metaphor for the change that engulfs the couple’s life. The author tells this story with a great deal of gentle humour and a wry sense of the absurd elements that make up long-term relationships. ‘The Creature from the Lake’ by Hayes Greenwood Moore works in a similar way—the eponymous creature, though more of a presence in the story than the blob, works mostly to illuminate the relationship between the human couple who adopt it. This was another excellently written piece.

Short but sweet is Tania Herschman’s ‘Einstein Plays Guitar’. Herschman displays a talent for immediacy of dialogue and the clinching detail that makes a piece of flash fiction work. ‘A Tale of a Snowy Night’ by Naoko Awa (translated by Toshiya Kamei) is a much slower story that unfolds in a dream-like sequence but leaves its magic unfulfilled, fading into an exquisitely expressed nothingness.

The best of the remaining stories was Phillip Neel’s ‘The Crushing’ which starts in a low key but quickly spirals into a thought-provoking and, at times, viscerally engaging indictment of modern consumer culture. Catherine Sharpe’s ‘Shades of Grey’ is a much more tightly-focussed human drama about a woman who receives mysterious messages on her mobile phone. The story captures some lovely details of everyday life and the small but keen suffering imposed by our relationship with technology. Melissa Ross’s ‘Movie Man’ is possibly the most innovative piece in the collection in terms of its lack of narrative structure and general weirdness. This was an odd and rather inaccessible piece for me.

The fiction in this collection is interspersed with some very fine poems: Feng Sun Chen’s ‘Eclipse’ evokes the numbness of bereavement with great economy and vivid imagery. Kristine Ong Muslim’s ‘Conrad’ series is a poignant mini-saga. ‘Sleepmaps’ by Barry Napier and ‘Antarctica’ by Amy DeBevoise address the current preoccupation with consumerism and the environment in startling dream-like images.

I was impressed too with the way some of the poems echoed the bird themes of the fiction. Of particular note was Charlene Logan Burnett’s ‘Circling of Cranes’: - It is said of the crane, if you ask him / he will carry across migratory oceans / smaller birds, the souls of the dead, a lost maiden folded between the scapulas of his wings.

I loved the surreal insect imagery of Travis Blankenship’s ‘Molesting the Legend’, even if the poem’s subject remained inaccessible to me. The language of Daniela Schonberg’s ‘Let This Be My Refuge’ is perhaps a little too rich but I found it hard to resist: how delicate your words / hung, framing your obsidian features / like long lappets of moon jellyfish, / the acoustic notes plucked to puncture.

Also effective were Lisa Groves’s ‘The Cat and the Fiddle’ and Anna Jaquiery’s ‘Fragmentation’. ‘:sign language:’ by
Joseph A.W. Quintela was interesting in its use of layout and had some arresting phrases: dry prairie stretched like sprouted saran wrap, and cool as a radio-active cucumber. Nathaniel Taggart’s ‘How to Fall Down’ has a gently magical opening: The birds are unfixed furniture. Humming / wings spill ink on the canvas and a brutal ending. ‘What the Calf Daughter Knows’ by Rob Cook is an even more disturbing poem that delights in the reiteration of its carnivorous images. There was a possibility for this poem to convey its message in a subtly surreal way through a series of images but the poet seemed to want to render his message unambiguous: Then the teenagers emptied on the ground / a bag of what they called happy burgers. / They said I was a calf.

A capella Zoo is an engaging and beautifully-presented ‘zine which features some talented authors and poets. The mythological and science fiction preferences of the editor certainly lived up to my expectations of these genres. As for slipstream—with the exception of Melissa Ross’s ‘Movie Man’ and Phillip Neel’s ‘The Crushing’, the stories seem to aim more in the direction of the literary mainstream.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gardner, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits (2010)

Cate Gardner, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits. Strange Publications, 2010. ISBN 9780982026649. $11.99.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

This is without doubt a most unusual collection of short stories. It’s nice when a writer finds a unique voice, and Cate Gardner has done just that with Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits. The book is a trade paperback edition, just short of 200 pages in length, with a rather monochrome cover that’s nevertheless still pleasing on the eye. Roughly half the stories are previously unpublished. The rest are reprints, but given Gardner’s fiction has graced the likes of Postscripts, Fantasy Magazine, Shock Totem and other professional venues, it’s clear a reprint is not something to sneer upon. I found the book available for purchase on the publisher’s website, and at Amazon.com, but it’s not currently available from Amazon.co.uk. This struck me as odd given that Gardner is an English author; whether this is an oversight, or if there is a reason for the omission, I’m not sure.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gates/Holt, Rigor Amortis (2010)

Jaym Gates and Erika Holt (eds.), Rigor Amortis. Absolute XPress, 2010. Pp. 148. ISBN 9781894817837. $14.95 print / $2.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

Sex and Death; do any two things more preoccupy the human condition? Sex makes us feel alive, it is instrumental in the creation of life itself. Death is our only certainty, our inevitable decay is only a matter of time and our control over it is miniscule at best. Perhaps we get to pick the where, when and how, but we never get a choice about the if.

In Rigor Amortis we have a book that is not really about sex and death. It’s more about sex and undeath. That crawling hunger we all feel replaced by another kind entirely. The lengths we might go to out of lonely desperation or simply the grief of a lost love, those stories are here too. Sometimes it’s gray-green flesh meeting pink or perhaps some straight-up zombie on zombie action. These are stories of loss, experimentation, and control. Genitals grind, teeth scrape on bone, and sometimes it’s happening all at the same time as strips of flesh slough away or are torn off in a passionate frenzy.

The book began as a Twitter joke by Gates and some of the authors, a commentary on the oversaturation of zombie-related fiction on the market. It took on a life of its own and soon Holt brought the collection to the attention of Absolute XPress, a direct-to-reader publisher known for a focus on genre books. The trip from Twitter to “real book” was a surprisingly short one and an interesting example of how different modern technology has made the writer’s struggle. The book itself is in four sections labeled Romance, Revenge, Risk and Raunch, and coming in at only 134 pages, it is a short and sweet collection of flash fiction. Most of the stories found here are no more than a page or two long making them easily, ahem, digested in a single sitting.

The Romance section contains stories such as ‘Til Death Do Our Parts’ by Kaolin Imago Fire (14) in which a freshly turned couple are intent to spend what little remaining time they have together in fiery passion. It is only a couple of pages but one gets the sense of urgency they both feel at their quickly deteriorating state as simple things become more and more difficult. As well as ‘Surrender’ by Xander Briggs (22), a quick tale of a woman trapped in her home by the ravening hordes and the now nearly mindless man she loved having just enough of his self left in his rotted skull to come looking for her.

Revenge contains stories of a more sinister nature, like ‘Love, Love (And Chains) Will Keep Us Together’ by R. Schuyler Devin (37) in which a man’s dream girl comes literally bursting into his apartment, infected and insane, and he does the only reasonable thing he can think of, hold her prisoner and use her as a squirming sex doll. The Revenge section contains the most examples of the human being the aggressor rather than the victim, and in the case of ‘Syd’s Turn’ by R. E. VanNewkirk (58), a powder procured from a local bokor leads to a new type of BDSM play in which a young couple take turns zombifying each other into sexual submission. Incensed over his treatment during his last zombification, the titular Syd takes his turn at being master too far for too long. As the rotting flesh sloughs off of his beloved it is then that you get the true horror of the situation, and it is a story about how sometimes when we give power over ourselves to others, we may find that they abuse it beyond return.

Risk is the section for experimentation, the section in which Michael Phillips dreams of surrendering to the zombie apocalypse in his prose poem ‘Waking Up Someone Who Isn’t Me’ (77). It is a place where a “Z-curious” girl can make a Craigslist hookup with the undead girl of her dreams (no maggots please) in Sarah Goslee’s ‘My Summer Romance’ (81). From one perspective it could be seen as the tale of a doomed romance, from another it is a cautionary yarn about the dangers of online predators. It is a tale of misguided exploration and restraint that ends as all summer romances must, in horrible bloodshed.

The final section, Raunch, is what its name implies. If you haven’t gotten your fill of squelching zombie genitalia by this point, this is the section for you. Your first stop is an undead sex club for a little gangbang action (don’t forget your penis!) in ‘Urbanites’ by Pete “Patch” Alberti (99). Afterward, make a stop in the restroom to tidy yourself up and maybe have a chance encounter with a beautiful stranger in V. R. Roadifer’s ‘Honey’ (109). We end the section and the anthology with ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Zombie Orgasm’ by Annette Dupree (119). It is a bizarre if somewhat clumsily titled piece about a sexually frustrated gun nut of a girl who finally finds the satisfaction she’s so longed for when an army of zombie lesbians show up at her doorstep wielding the ultimate love toys.

I’m just going to come right out and say it, I loved Rigor Amortis. Beginning to end and front to back. I have absolutely nothing really negative to say about it. The worst that can be said is that it is a book of zombie erotica, which has a certain squick factor that is certainly not for the squeamish, but it is well written squick for all of that.

It’s not just about sex and death, of course, but also about our relationships. It is about a longing to be together beyond the veil and how, given the opportunity, we can be overly cruel even to the ones we love. Especially to the ones we love. Our capacity to love is great, but our capacity to take advantage of even the most deleterious of situations can occlude it easily when we are put into a situation where the old rules no longer apply and the new rules barely exist if at all. Sometimes love is beautiful and sometimes it is rancid and festering and full of pain, but we hold onto it anyway. If these are the sort of stories that interest you, you could do far, far worse than this little anthology.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #26 (2010)

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #26 (December 2010). Pp. 64. $5.00.

Reviewed by Keith Lawrence

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, now in its fifteenth year, is just as eccentric a publication as its name suggests; possibly a genre magazine which does not claim to represent any particular genre, possibly a literary magazine without a dogmatic attachment to the trappings of high art. The pieces in LCRW #26 range in length from limericks to full-length short stories, and form a constellation of points somewhere within the square whose corners are SF, Fantasy, Slipstream and Magical Realism.

In general I liked the longer works best. Patty Houston’s ‘Elite Institute for the Study of Arc Welders’ Flash Fever’ is an intriguing story, simply written and set in a solid world of metalwork, bureaucracy and unrequited love. Similarly, Rahul Kanakia’s ‘The Other Realms Were Built With Trash’ gives us a deftly-imagined tale harvested from the details of fairy lore. ‘Three Hats’ by Jenny Terpsichore Abeles and ‘Death’s Shed’ by J. M. McDermott are low key but enjoyable short stories in the magical realism vein, and Sean Melican provides a historical novel about the pioneer military submariners in ‘Absence of Water’. This last is both interesting and educational, although I found the way its narrative jumps frequently and erratically between dates made the story much harder to follow than I thought it could have been and did not add a great deal. A minor caveat, though.

The highlight of LCRW #26 for me was ‘The Cruel Ship’s Captain’ by Harvey Welles and Philip Raines. It is an excellent example of writing which would be terribly belittled by assignment to a genre—a fantastical story of captives in a magical pirate ship which is crafted in beautifully intricate language. The setting and prose work together to make an entrancing tale. As a fantasy world Welles and Raines’ construction is original and thoughtful, a place that could easily provide a backdrop for a much longer work. In fact the only real problem with it was that as the first story in the issue it sets quite a challenging standard for the remaining pieces to live up to.

On the other hand I found ‘Alice: A Fantasia’ by Veronica Shanoes to be artistry taken a little far. I must admit I became slightly wary of this story when I realised after the first few paragraphs that the Alice of the title is that Alice (who must surely be one of the most overworked characters in literary history). It was the last third of the story, however, that really cemented my opinion—the prose gives way to a meticulous filigree stream-of-consciousness sort of thing which I found both bewildering and amazing. It is technically so clever that one cannot help but be impressed by how much careful work it must have taken, but at the same time it is an incomprehensible end to an otherwise straightforward tale.

The non-prose pieces I found similarly unsatisfying, if only because the better stories are so poetically written that they render the poems almost superfluous. In fact, this effect can be seen in the work of a single person: Lindsay Vella, who contributes five poems—three short ones (‘The way to the sea’, ‘Spit out the Seeds’, and ‘Thirst’), and two longer, more prose-style pieces (‘The Seamstress’ and ‘Poor summer, she doesn’t know she’s dying’). The two long pieces are works of straightforward but engaging imagery. The shorter poems, on the other hand, are linguistically pretty but for me too opaque to be truly satisfying. Poetry can (and should) leave room for personal interpretation, but a poem too open is like a blank sheet of paper—sometimes too daunting to project upon. Of course, preference in poetry is such a personal thing that one reader’s opinion will be quite unlike another’s, but I suspect I may not be alone in my opinion here. A similarly polarizing inclusion might be Darrell Schweitzer’s twin limericks: ‘Dueling Trilogies’, which were... well, not bad, but they did seem a little out of place with the rest of the issue (and I was not convinced that they can be spoken in the correct rhythm).

The only non-fiction piece—a version of Ted Chiang’s lecture ‘Reasoning about the Body’, was pleasant to read and thought-provoking, although it did invoke in me the odd sensation of agreeing completely with someone’s conclusion (that SF writers rely a bit heavily on certain tropes and would benefit from casting their net further) while being wildly ambiguous about the process by which they reach it—in particular, he relies on the argument which I have heard more than once recently, that every age reasons about the human brain in terms of their existing technology. It may be (since this lecture was given in May of this year) that the reason I have heard this before is that other people have taken his idea and run with it. But I have heard it enough times now to start to question how true it is—did Freud really think of the brain as operating in some way like a steam engine? We do, after all, now know a lot more about how the brain works, so perhaps our view of it as a computer is more reasonable and much closer to the truth. At any rate an interesting article, well worth the read.

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 26 also contains work by Carlea Holl-Jensen and Gwenda Bond. Overall I both enjoyed and was impressed by it, and would recommend anyone with a taste for poetical prose to give it a look. It is not without faults, but with every dubious piece surrounded by at least two good ones the reader will not be disappointed.

Technical Addendum: In writing this review I had access both to the PDF and EPUB versions of LCRW #26. The magazine is published in its electronic form by Weightless Books (an ebook-only publisher run by some of the same team that produce LCRW that provides a variety of books and magazines in EPUB and PDF formats). The PDF edition replicates the print edition, and is therefore perfectly laid-out but not ideal for reading on all devices. The EPUB edition, although considerably more readable on electronic book than the PDF, was laid-out rather haphazardly—the advert images were spread at random, and some of the advert text was rather unfortunately placed—for instance, ‘Poor summer, she doesn’t know she’s dying’ appears at first to tail off into something about people moving couches, actually a section of a following advert. Since the producers of the ebook and the publishers are in this case the same people, I would have expected a little closer attention to the finished product.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rix (ed.), Blind Swimmer (2010)

David Rix (ed.), Blind Swimmer. Eibonvale Press, 2010. Pp. 360. ISBN 9780956214751. £10.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Creativity in isolation. This, we are told in the forward by editor David Rix, is the theme upon which Blind Swimmer, the new collection from Eibonvale Press, is founded, and the deciding factor when choosing stories for inclusion. It might be well at this point just to consider what he means. Is it possible to be creative in complete isolation? What constitutes “isolation”? When a collection of stories comes from a collection of disparate authors, it can help to consider the whys and hows of the collection’s intent as a means to determining the relativity of the stories. The book is a wide and varied mix of strange, ordinary, fantastic and irreverent stories that seem anything but isolated, filled as they are with the immediacy of their plot and description. Sometimes the characters themselves have only a secondary connection to “creativity” as they stumble towards their denouements.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Roberts (ed.), Zero Gravity (2010)

Alva J. Roberts (ed.), Zero Gravity: Adventures in Deep Space. PillHill Press, 2010. Pp. 266. ISBN 9781617060007. $16.99.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

Zero Gravity: Adventures in Deep Space is an anthology themed around stories firmly rooted in long term space exploration or in futures so advanced that space-faring ships have become the norm. Science vessels, space smugglers, and interstellar churches populate the book alongside alien beasts and creatures from beyond. Beyond the A.I. Singularity, beyond the edge of the solar system, sometimes beyond the light of the furthest stars, they are stories that deal with the future of humanity’s inevitable move to the stars with ideas rooted firmly in our social evolution, or lack thereof. The science in some stories may be farfetched, but how the characters deal with it is not. There will always be crime, there will always be fringe elements that live on the edge of social acceptability and even further, in the places others fear to tread. Human exploration has always been driven by a need to discover a better life, a place where one could live the life one wanted or a place where riches were abundant. Cities of gold, trade routes, lands of freedom. We are always looking for something better: there will always be those willing to take advantage of others if it means an easy score; always those who seek the precious freedom of living on their own terms, even when it means eking out a meager existence on the edge of survival.

The anthology opens with one of the latter, the story ‘Junker’s Fancy’ by Rosemary Jones (1), and it’s a strong opening, quickly pulling the reader into the far reaches of the solar system. It concerns a Junker—one of the space salvage operators who live most of their lives in their ships with minimal systems to extend time between dockings—named Jacie running across a major haul, a big government ship dead in the water. The only problem? One of the crew is still alive, but he doesn’t have long. What to do? Jones sets up her universe rather nicely in just the first few paragraphs so that when events start truly playing out, you feel at ease with the story. Every fantasy world has its own lexicon and hers is easy to grasp and understand quickly, helping drive the story telling forward rather than bogging it down in attempt to pepper her universe with flavor. Jacie is a character who lives most of her life alone in the far reaches, only docking to resupply. It’s an eremitical lifestyle and her unexpected passenger is a disruption, but is it a welcome one?

Also quite good was Kenneth Mark Hoover’s ‘To Stand Among Kings’ (88), which contains in its short span such a wealth of information about its particular universe that it is clear the author must have spent a significant amount of time creating races and political affiliations and seriously considering the evolution of society before beginning to write. This is a universe where the Church has split off so many times it has completely separated from Earth itself. The story is one of political intrigue and trade agreements, betrayal and wars fought over resources and the rights of an indigenous people. The ending was a bit weak, but the journey to that end was, as it always should be, pleasantly satisfying.

‘Tangwen’s Last Heist’ by C.B. Calsing (146) was a story that at first felt a little flat; it started out a bit too generic for my taste but managed to rope me in as I read on. It is the story of a smuggler who gets in over her head trying to go legit, and it is quite possibly my favorite of the book. Tangwen’s contract target turns out to be a little more heavily connected than even her client expects and a snap decision at a critical moment puts her into even hotter water than she had been in before. A bad situation for a girl simply trying to retire. Faced with an impossible situation, Tangwen attempts to do the right thing, only to be met with political corruption that seeks only to punish rather than listen.

All in all there are no singularly bad stories in the collection, but some are flawed. Some are perfectly good except for certain passages which feel weak or rushed. Others simply never quite live up to their subject material, such as Will Morton’s ‘Glacier Castle’ (188), which had some of the least credible dialogue in the book and was generally a mess. ‘Glacier Castle’ is the tale of a wrecked colony ship, woefully off course and stranded on a bitterly cold and inhospitable ice planet. In an effort to keep up morale while the ship’s crew effects repairs, it is decided that those not otherwise occupied would use the building equipment at hand to construct a great ice palace. The dialogue is clunky in places, the timeline difficult to follow. There are moments when I’m not sure how much time has passed or who exactly certain characters are. There is invented slang that never gets defined enough to make it feel natural. It is not a bad story on the whole but felt as though it needed another pass or two by the author to be ready for publication.

As a whole, Zero Gravity is full of stories that seem to understand that humanity is no longer physically evolving in the original sense. We no longer worry about those genetic markers that in the past made a mate unacceptable. Today we evolve through social interaction and technology and this will most likely still be the case as we hurl ourselves outward beyond the stars. On the perimeter of the universe it will be our technology and our ability to co-habitat with our fellows that will serve us and I feel this collection gets that right. It is just plain good reading that should easily please any fan of deep space fiction. It is light, good for afternoons on the porch or, if you’re like me, a quick story to relax a bit before bed.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rhein, The Bone Sword (2010)

Walter Rhein, The Bone Sword. Rhemalda Publishing, 2010. Pp. 221. ISBN 978-09827437-2-0. $14.95 / £13.95.

Reviewed by Sam Kelly

This isn’t Rhein’s first book, but his first with new imprint Rhemalda Publishing. My first impression of The Bone Sword, looking at the cover artwork, was a feeling of sinking doom. From the luridly coloured sky to the distorted, badly proportioned, and vastly over-photoshopped Renn-Faire blonde woman, none of it gave a good impression. Looking at the spine, the title and author’s name have been carefully placed so that they don’t stand out. The cover is credited to “Rhemalda Publishing”, which is quite fair enough; if I were the artist for this, I wouldn’t want to be credited either.

The blurb on the back is quite promising:

Malik emerges from the swamps of Plaiden seeking only shelter, food, and the time necessary to take the chill from his bones. But after a barroom brawl lands him in trouble with the local authorities, he flees to the mountains with two orphaned children who have the power to heal. Pursued by the vicious Father Ivory and his Nightshades, Malik and his charges become the centre of a grassroots movement that quickly blossoms into a full-fledged revolution. Their problems are compounded when news of their exploits draws the attention of Malik’s former Captain, a swordsman of legendary prowess who will not stop until Malik and his followers are dead. As the final battle approaches, Malik must face both his inner demons and his former master in a duel that will determine the fate of the free people of Miscony.
You’d think, with a blurb like that, that there must be much more inside. Sadly, that’s the entire plot; what you see there is what you’ve got. Still, the saying about judging a book by its cover is there for a reason, so I opened it up and prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t. The first thing I saw was the Map, and it’s, er, quite traditional. Miscony is a forest land, bisected by the Old Road, the East Road, and the Ergeron River; the map also features the Northern Tribes, the Southern Kingdoms, and the Eastland Spires. The legend (a simple “Miscony”, in a standard black-letter font) and the compass rose would be perfectly unexceptionable if not for the absurdly overenthusiastic use of drop shadows, rendering them nigh-illegible. This isn’t the author’s fault any more than the cover is, of course, but it’s still rather unimpressive.

Turning to the text itself, on the first page we have foliage that glistens appreciatively and a protagonist who’s hot with fever while every part of his body is wet with cold. There’s a great, life-changing dilemma in front of him: should he go to the pub? (SPOILER: he does.) It turns out to contain lower-class men in homespun tunics, drinking mugs of foaming beer. Whilst I wouldn’t normally recommend literary criticism texts to a writer seeking to improve his craft, I think in this instance that Walter Rhein would benefit immensely from a close reading of Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

The tavern has a resident bully, and the resident bully has a couple of scantily dressed girls; Malik uses “protecting the honour of peasant women” as part of the reason to kill him, but of course he leaves immediately and then never thinks of them again. Unfortunately, the misogyny and classism shown here (“[T]he regulars immediately stopped their drunken antics and swivelled their fatty jowls to the entryway with the telegraphed interest of a less-than-intelligent dog.”) set the tone for the rest of the book, and the only purpose of this chapter is to show us Malik’s rash impulsiveness and the titular Bone Sword—the legendary weapon of the Camden Guard. Presumably, this sounds like a good fantasy name to the author, but as a Londoner I’m imagining patchouli-scented Guardsmen wearing platform boots and eyeliner.

The writing style is rather laboured and riddled with fantasy cliches, passive tenses, and ill-considered metaphors.
The achievement had startled Jasmine, for never before had she dared to test the strength of her powers. But after seeing the reaction of Gerard and the other men of Elmshearst, her spirit had been soothed. The healing of the elder had opened a floodgate, and Jasmine had labored long into the morning curing hundreds of ailments of all shapes and sizes.
Jasmine’s healing powers are the focus of the novel’s other plot strand; the Church considers them demonic in origin, and she has moral qualms about using them on people who will then be killed because they’re demon-tainted or who will go on to kill others. However, those are resolved (mostly by Malik) and she goes on to become the leader of an outright rebellion. Well, to be honest, she’s manipulated into it, as we see here with Malik talking her into becoming their innocent figurehead and potential scapegoat.
“A queen? I’m a peasant girl! I know nothing of these things!”
“Your heart is pure, Jasmine. Simply guide our swords.”
“We offer ourselves as your noble knights and servants. Do you accept our pledge?”
“What are you asking of me?”
“That you guide us and tell us where to strike, for we trust your judgement above our own. Shall we stop Father Ivory? Shall we stop these killings?”
“Yes.”
“Whatever the cost?”
“Yes.”
“Whatever the consequences?”
“Yes.”
“And you’re willing to bear the burden of this decision?”
“I am.”
The text, however, wants us to support and sympathise with the rebellion, and to admire her noble assumption of responsibility. In the end, the corrupt Earl dies, and Jasmine becomes Queen—but then again, generic mediaeval peasants are usually stuck with the feudal system even after the revolution. That may change if there’s a sequel—Jasmine does talk about the lack of real change at the end, but gets fobbed off with a pat answer by one of the ex-rebel leaders.

It’s a bit of a curate’s egg of a book, though; I was never in any danger of not finishing it, and not just because I didn’t want to miss the next nugget of appallingness. The plot is basic and entirely unoriginal, but serviceable and fairly well paced, and the themes the book poses (how much loyalty do you owe to an organization that doesn’t repay it? When do you have to take a stand?) are good ones. The Camden Guard, despite the name, are an interesting piece of worldbuilding, and it’s good to see a fantasy castle with garden features as well as fortifications—in this case, a hedge maze which plays quite an important role in the ending. It’s also good to see a protagonist of colour, though the name “Malik” and a reference to “long black hair” are the only indications we get.

I’d have liked to have seen more female characters and more agency given to them; I like Jasmine, but she’s dreadfully constrained and never gets to do anything for herself. I’d also have preferred a general expansion of the story, and some motivations for the characters beyond goodness, arrogance, or self-righteous religion. Mostly, however, I’d have liked a more thoughtful descriptive style, and much less reliance on lazy conventions in both setting and narrative.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thompson, Sylvow (2010)

Douglas Thompson, Sylvow. Eibonvale Press, 2010. Pp. 308. ISBN 9780956214775. £8.99.

Reviewed by Regina de Búrca

Sylvow is promoted as a literary science fiction novel that explores the modern world’s relationship with nature. The book lives up to this weighty promise and at times exceeds it, defying genre constraints. This overspill makes it a difficult book to review, not to mention a challenging read. Nevertheless, I added Douglas Thompson’s first book, Ultrameta (*) to my reading list on completion of Sylvow, as I enjoyed the author’s compelling style and would like to read more of his work.

The novel is an environmental allegory set in an imaginary Northern European city. The story follows five main characters who are threatened by an ecological disaster. Leo, disillusioned with modern life, opts out and goes to live in the forest that surrounds the town of Sylvow. He believes that “Gaia”, the force of nature, will wreck revenge on the humans that have abused her planet. The forest is a magical, sentient place, not unlike Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. Leo’s sister Claudia, and his abandoned wife, Vivienne, go in search of him, accompanied by a patient of Claudia’s psychiatrist husband, who remains in civilisation but is the fifth viewpoint character. The search party discovers that there is truth in Leo’s theories and that the government is conducting experiments in an attempt to communicate with the power of the forest.

This novel is ambitious in scope. It is surrealist, while also dealing with complicated human relationships against the backdrop of an ecological theme. It is thoughtful, considered and raises philosophical questions about sanity and madness; the natural and constructed. The core plot—that of nature rising up against her human oppressor—is framed by magical realism, in the vein of Jonathan Carroll’s writing. The imagery is clear and vivid, written with striking detail. Sylvow has an interesting structure, taking the different points of view of all the main characters, with an interlude chapter in the middle of the book. It is nicely designed, with an attractive frontispiece and vignettes, in addition to pertinent quotes at the beginning of each chapter. The cover art is also striking.

As the natural forces grow stronger the tables are turned on the people who tried to conquer and tame the environment. This wild, consuming force is also echoed in the main characters’ behaviour as they increasingly break limitations imposed on them by society and act on a more instinctive level. The characters free themselves in varying degrees, culminating with Leo, the character who has completely transcended modern life’s constraints by living in the forests that surround Sylvow. The boundaries between humans and animals collapse with horrible results. “Logically, such a time had to come for some people, when on an arbitrary whim their lives were just totally wrecked by the untrammelled forces of nature” (104). This sentence attempts to capture the ethos of the novel, however, it is the self-destructive tendencies of the characters that seemed to pose a bigger threat. The characters in the book do a good enough job of ruining their own lives, they don’t need an external force to do that for them.

During the course of the novel, nature begins to win out, no longer oppressed by humans. Plant life proliferates, while the characters’ animal natures begin to take over. The idea of the balance shifting is a satisfying notion, yet it does not improve the situation of the characters or the world they live in. I would have liked to have seen the ecological changes bring equilibrium and effect some positive influence, but instead the wild influence of the natural seems to bring out the worst in the characters, while causing havoc in their environment. With the result that the plot of Sylvow sabotages what it sets out to do: it shows what chaos could ensue if nature were not controlled, adding to the argument that natural forces need to be harnessed.

This novel is far from a cosy read. Thompson jolts the reader out of a sense of security by shaking up plot elements and creating characters that are unpredictable and at the mercy of their passions. Their frailty, and the frustration they feel because of it, mean that the threat of disaster comes almost as a relief, as it promises an end to their turmoil. I felt there wasn’t enough distinction between characters, particularly the personalities of the female characters Claudia and Vivienne. Their motivation was unclear and I felt they didn’t contribute enough to the plot as a whole despite being given interesting placements in the story. I would have also liked to read about Leo’s character in more depth, as his character is so instrumental to the plot. By developing his role, the plot would have also been enhanced.

Sylvow contains so many ideas that at times I wanted the author to focus and develop particular aspects further—particularly Leo’s character, as he understands and embraces the force of change more than the others. I would have preferred if nature had more of a redeeming quality in this novel, instead of it deepening the dystopia. I feel the author had a real opportunity to contribute a fresh, new worldview, but instead of speculating on the potential of a world where nature is respected and heeded, at times the book reads like a treatise on the hopelessness of the human condition. However Sylvow is an interesting and diverting read, and I look forward to reading more of Thompson’s work.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rand, Anthem (1936)

Ayn Rand, Anthem. Cassell & Co, 1936. Pp. 105. (various editions)

A feminist review by Paul Wilks

Anthem is a dystopian novella by Ayn Rand first published in 1938. It is set in a devolved and semi-primitive future society, beneath an oppressive ruling body known as the ‘World Council’. The protagonist is a male named Equality 7-2521 and the novel tells of his life and subsequent disenfranchisement with society. The novella itself is essentially an early exploration of Rand’s own philosophical ideas regarding individualism and subsequent criticism of the opposing ‘collectivism’. These ideas would be realised in greater depth by Rand’s later novels; namely The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but Anthem demonstrates a brief critique that relates to her country of birth, a socialist Soviet Russia.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Lewis (ed.), Null Immortalis (2010)

D.F. Lewis (ed.), Null Immortalis: Nemonymus #10. Weirdmonger Press, 2010. Pp. 328. ISSN 1474-2020. $10.00.

Reviewed by Jaym Gates

Null Immortalis is, in appearance, a handsome book, a trade paperback that just might be one of those things some intrepid bookstore explorer pulls off a shelf in twenty years because it catches their eye. Nine previous Nemonymous books have been released by editor Des Lewis, with number 10 the last of the series, and the first to have the author’s bylines attached to the stories. The cover is quite classic, soft colors and a slightly aged look, and gives little indication what might be within.

Nemonymous Ten contains 26 original pieces of fiction from different authors. The content has a literary tone, focusing inwards on the characters and events, with subtle genre influences; the quality of the writing is typically high. Some of the pieces are subtly terrifying, such as ‘The Return’, by S.D. Tullis, others, like ‘Turn Again’, by William Meikle, are sweetly nostalgic, and a couple (‘Lucien's Menagerie’!) are downright horrific. But many are of very similar flavor: internalized and meandering.

There’s a strong sense of conceit in this collection, and a lack of coherent purpose, or at least not any obvious purpose. The only binding threads are the meandering style and the use of the name ‘Tullis’. Too many of the stories ended with a feeling of the author giving a ‘nod-nod wink-wink’ to the other members of their group, while the reader is left on the outside, asking what just happened.

‘Lucien’s Menagerie’ by David M. Fitzpatrick, is a refreshing change to the fairly monotonic, rambling style of most of the other stories. A woman has the chance to reclaim her childhood home on her husband's death. He left only one stipulation: she has to stay in the house for one night, with this hunting trophies. Dark and horrific, it keeps a slow, building tension, with a clear plot. While it is cerebral, it isn’t self-indulgent. The simplest of the stories and not the most original, it also left the most lasting impact.

Reggie Oliver’s ‘You Have Nothing to Fear’ is a tale of artistic license and endeavor gone wrong... and revenged. Old schoolmates follow interwoven paths defined by their arts and the women who fascinate them. Clear and strongly-written, this is a good story, although without any clear speculative elements.

‘A Matter of Degree’, by Mike Chinn, is a good example of what I did not care for in this collection. Passively voiced, several pages of musing, and a conclusion that falls just a bit flat—no pun intended, given the ending—the story of a man vaguely feeling his way towards immortality just falls short of memorable.

I had the opportunity to talk about this collection with someone familiar with previous works. The tenth book in the collection, and the first one to have the author's names attached, this is a closing to a series. Based on descriptions of earlier books, I think Null Immortalis would have greater impact if one were familiar with earlier collections. Given the limited print runs on each of the books, it is unlikely that one would be able to collect all ten without some serious searching. However, it may be worth the try. More information can be found at the Weirdmonger site.

Overall, this collection blends slipstream, weird, literary, horror and surreal influences. It isn’t to my taste, although I usually like introspective pieces, but the majority of the writing is solid. I think it would benefit from a second reading, perhaps a slower pace to ingest each story and consider it at greater length.

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Travis, Mostly Monochrome Stories (2009)

John Travis, Mostly Monochrome Stories. Exaggerated Press, 2009. Pp. 199. ISBN 9781409281696. $12.10/£8.01.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

John Travis is a new name to me, and after a little researching, I discovered he is a new name on the fantasy circuit, so far publishing this book and one other; a novel (The Terror and the Tortoiseshell—coincidentally an extension of one of the short stories in Monochrome). Having found success with the smaller presses, Travis won’t necessarily be found on the shelf of your local Waterstones, and this singularity and quirky, cultish positioning chimes in tune with this strange and wonderful collection of tall tales. Douglas Adams, writing in The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, talks about how if one can just turn one’s head a certain tiny fraction of a degree, one can slip between realities, into a fantastical, mythic realm. I think that the denizens of that realm would be reading Travis. Any responses, I feel, I attempt to make as a reviewer, seem half-hearted, pale wannabes compared to poling about in John Travis’s darkly intriguing imagination!

In the author’s note he mentions a condition he has long had: Synesthesia, where the senses are jumbled up; seeing smells, hearing colours and the like. The afterword by his friend and publisher, Terry Grimwood, calls the stories dreams and hallucinations. The introduction, by Simon Clark, places the tales’ impact very much in the realm of the mind, especially in “phobias, paranoia, obsession.” This is no easy read, no cosy snuggle-up book. It challenges, provokes and wrings out a genuine emotional response. Unfortunately, it can also be very hit and miss.

The lurid flashes of fiction are not neat packaged tales of stylistically neat, artistically-packaged fictional lives found in the larger number of novels. Some I could follow easily, other I could not follow so well, yet all left me with the sense of unease that I had experienced something like that before. By their very strangeness they are very familiar. Interestingly, Clark relates this to a sense of Travis’s hometown influencing his writing with some of its feeling of prickly strange-usual-ness. And yet Travis has managed to bring the same out response in me; a distant and removed reviewer. This ability to channel the spirit of intention into a fictional form, and make it accessible to those who have not shared the author’s own lived experiences is enviable indeed, and quite possibly hails him as a writer of extraordinary emotional impact and depth.

The reader is, more often than not, right at the immediate start, or even in the middle, of a series of events, which finish up tight on the wrap of the main action. One is in there, with the characters in a disturbingly close relationship, whirled through a snapshot of events whizzing past. With such close proximity, it is no wonder one cannot help but feel hooked in. As short stories, they more than fulfil the criteria of getting as much done in a short time.

However, it is in the writing itself, sometimes almost disintegrating into a stream-of-consciousness style of ramblings and loose associations that can alienate the reader as much as it piques. All very clever, yes, but I was lost on occasion; my least favourite tale was ‘Hey Garland, I dig Your Tweed Coat’ for that very reason. I felt as if I was watching a virtuoso in performance who was on such another level that I was not being invited to share, only to stand in awe, and given the greater approachability of even the strangest of the other stories, I took this one tale as the aberration. It seemed to want to out-Joyce Joyce! The emotional colour, by far the strongest aspect of Travis’s writing (the creative colours screaming off the page, sometimes running to the discordant in their visceral power), came across clearly in ‘Garland’; I caught the bittersweet sense of failure of the character’s soul, but it felt over-ambitious and overblown for what it was trying to achieve.

In the course of the tales, Travis flirts with horror, gothic, ghostly, comedic, psychological thrillers genres and even the plain downright odd. But the stream-of-consciousness I mention above is his special skill, peculiarly filtered through the view of the third person, breaking the sanctity of the traditionally removed third person and writing the third as intimately as the first. It is when Travis uses the first person from the start of a story that the reader actually feels less intimate with the character. Perhaps it is because the first person signals a report from a character in hindsight, and thus comes closer to normative story telling, whereas his third person runs parallel to the events the character is undergoing. I started to suspect that the author is playing with the conventions of first and third person narration specifically to unnerve the reader and jolt them from complacency; certainly the unnerving subject matters seem to bespeak a desire to make the normal seem anything but.

I mentioned that this is no cosy curl-up-with-a-book read, and it is no picnic for Travis’s characters, either. Given the shock-tactics of his writing style, it does not mean we are in for plain sailing. All the characters are undergoing a period of stress. Whether supernatural or psychological, through break-downs, breaks with reality and paranoid delusions. The reader is trawled through the raw wounds of their fears and visions, Travis painting his backdrop in the colours of their consciousness.

The scope for readers’ interpretations is huge. It could be literally a series of horrific incidents, or they could be the metaphorical ravings of overheated imagination. The feverish intensity reminded me strongly of Goya and Dali’s sometimes nausea-inducing visions. If one were to really try to pin down any take-home message from Travis’s writing, then perhaps it could be described is as a series of gothic morality tales. These include admonitions to be wise (‘The Happy Misanthropist’, ‘The Dance of the Selves’), to be good and stick to the path (‘Dragging the Grate’, ‘Ode to Hermes #54’) and to be vigilant of others; there are characters here for whom society has failed, leaving them broken, breaking and alone.

It is these that provide the most heart-rending stories. In ‘Nothing’, a widower, utterly destroyed by the loss of his wife and daughter, falls deeper into seclusion and delusion, believing that be sealing himself in, he can bring them back. We have all had moments where we have thought that if we wish hard enough, things might come true. Travis hooks us in with this shared hope: will this be a fantastical tale with a happy, supernatural ending? Will it be a classic narrative sop to the social fear of death; wherein the poor man sees them one last time and makes his peace, perhaps to emerge into the sun? Instead we are faced with brutal reality: lean description, every word counting, in a short, sharp shock of icy failure. Even the detail that the widower is trying to capture: the flakes of skin from his lost ones he believes are dancing in motes of dust, is at once an utterly mundane aspect of housekeeping, yet is pathetically hopeful; the widower’s fairy-dust to sprinkle over his loss and numb the pain. But the widower is denied the happy ending: this is real life, people, and he dies of malnutrition. Reality brutally intercedes into ritual and cracks open the tabernacle of false belief.

‘The Man Who Nailed Himself to the Bench’ I found one of the more disturbing reads, but a prime example of when Travis’s lurid, hallucinogenic third-person-intimate style is pitch-perfect. On reflection, this is most likely a tale of a paranoid schizophrenic breaking apart, topped by his eventual death after he literally nails himself in place to prevent his demons taking him away. And in marked contrast to ‘Garland’, although it reads like wading upstream into the protagonist’s mind and peering fro some sense of place and time through his skewed vision of the world, stylistically there is much greater cohesion between content and presentation. This is a disturbed individual; we face his fears with him, but we are not left wallowing, or detached. The balance is better preserved.

Still more stories are closer to nightmarish fairytales (‘Pyjamarama’, ‘It Grows in Your Face’ and ‘Reduced to Clear’), where the characters struggle with seemingly incomprehensible events which may or may not lead them along a path to greater understanding. And some are piquant little bitter-sweet vignettes (‘Beyond the Call of Duty’ and ‘The Flooding of Mark Wiper’).

In the end, the only consistent factor in Travis’s mixed bag is that these are tales crafted for the joy of writing; for a reworking of the mundane in a palette of a triumphantly minor key. Ironically, for Travis these are his “monochrome” tales: the ones his synesthesia does not lead him to see in Technicolor! Travis has technically succeeded as a dexterous and gifted writer. However, I found it a shame that on occasion I was left standing, abandoned by the writer as he spiralled into a froth of creative excitement I could not follow. I like to be challenged: but being left behind like that is akin to being last in the race, wheezing in behind the others; no part of their excitement or pleasure. Or listening to an amazing piece of highly complex, intertwining melodies, knowing it is the work of a genius, but unable to hear more than a mess of notes. Sometimes Travis’s mind leaps a little further than common expectation can reach, and while genius proficiency is much vaunted, how can it be proved when the end result sounds to those more earth-bound souls doing the assessing as a mess?

The best summing up comes from Grimwood: “John once described his work as literary Marmite. You either like it or you don’t.” I heartily concur, but I would not hesitate to recommend Mostly Monochrome Stories to anyone who wants to be deeply intrigued, and who just might be beginning to suspect the world is a little more tilted than we expected...

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Schramm, Black Market Memories (2010)

David A. Schramm, Black Market Memories. CreateSpace, 2010. Pp. 216. ISBN 1452863091. $14.95.

Reviewed by Sam Kelly

This is David Schramm’s first fiction book, self-published through CreateSpace.com. It’s solidly bound and set in a thoroughly readable typeface, with a rather decorative galactic navigation map on the front cover. As the website says, “Frustrated by other intergalactic adventures that rely upon fantasy science such as Faster Than Light and Warp drives, Worm Holes and Star Gates, Schramm shows us a future based on real physics and achievable engineering”, and he certainly has the credentials to do that. It’s largely a police procedural, using the tropes of thwarted kidnap, witness protection, and murder charges to examine his future world and peoples’ emotional relations within it.

There’s a lot to like about Schramm’s worldbuilding imagination, with Stellars (uploaded humans in zippy little space computers), virus-laden grenades, and digital drugs injected by laser gun. Simgames, virtual worlds addictive enough that they were outlawed decades ago, are a major plot point.

Sadly, Black Market Memories is very much let down by Schramm’s writing style, which is rather pedestrian, crammed with infodumps and sprinkled with acronyms like hundreds and thousands on a fairy cake. Each piece of new technology (the Stellar Unit, the surgical lasgun, the Electromagnetic Pulse, the Paired-Particle Digital Quantum Radio, the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Package…) is carefully introduced with its full name and a description, and thereafter referred to by its acronym each time. I don’t doubt there are readers who appreciate this approach to futuristic technology (indeed, I’m sure Schramm is one) but I’m very much not one myself.

The novel is set around the year 3600. Of course, given that Schramm adheres strictly to lightspeed limitations (while explicitly leaving out relativity) that’s not as many centuries of development as it sounds, and none of the social structures or pastimes we see are at all unrecognizable to us. (Several, like the Stellar repair shop/hospital, are described as deliberately mimicking the originals for comfort.) It’s refreshing in a way; we see so many SF novels taking it as a given that everything changes, and it’s good to be reminded that that’s a genre convention and not an article of futurology.

Crime bosses are establishing an illegal simgame (set in 18th-century Earth—I’d have loved to have seen scenes set inside it, a la Steel Beach or Halting State, but alas, it was not to be) and kidnapping or murdering Stellars so their stolen memories will bring the world to life. Ex-Navy SEAL and now Ranger (policeman) Arden Hughes is on the track of their hired serial killer, determined to protect his brilliant biochemist ex-lover Bobbi Rimfeldt. The plotting is not at all bad, if straightforward, but the characterization is flat, almost notional; it’s not so much lightly sketched as it is a third-generation photocopy. Arden has no motivation or interests besides protecting his ex-girlfriend and the rule of law, and Bobbi’s studies are driven by her strong mothering instinct. We see these almost entirely in narrative backstory, and the flat, almost unwavering emotional register of the text makes it extremely hard to learn more about them.

There’s the core of an interesting far-future police procedural here, and some creditable attempts at examining what it is to be human (and to be vulnerable) without the flesh, but they’re almost unrecognizable beneath the overgrowth of tin-eared acronyms and distracting prose, and they don’t make nearly as much use of the setting’s unique strangeness as it deserves. Minds without flesh, isolated by airless space and connected by communications networks, donning and changing semblances as easily as we change hairstyles; a dense, addictive virtual world powered by helpless slaves; a new, alien world evolving its own vibrant life. A more disciplined style, with much more of a focus on character and worldbuilding details rather than on technology (and more of a willingness to allow the reader to learn, rather than being told) would have brought out a great deal more from the setting.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lowe, Sui Generis and Other Fictions (2010)

Marc Lowe, ‘Sui Generis’ and Other Fictions. ISMs Press, 2010. Pp. viii + 89. Free eBook (donationware).

Reviewed by Nathan Lea

‘Sui Generis’ and Other Fictions is a collection of twenty-three distinct short stories that, whilst using different themes and topics, each focus in one way or another on the notion of “uniqueness” as the title of the first story suggests. These stories were written between 2004 and 2006 whilst the author lived and taught in Hiroshima, Japan, some of them having since been published. Certainly, the author’s knowledge and experience of Japan are present in the stories, some of them being set in Japan, whilst others adopt a cleanliness of style and vividness that one might associate with Japanese aesthetics.

That is not to say that Lowe has mimicked or been overly influenced by Japanese culture in intellectual or aesthetic terms. The reader of this work is treated to a variety of themes that cover everything from slapstick humour, science fiction, through suspense (including the supernatural) to drama and philosophy. On a technical level, the stories are written according to a consistently clean and clear style, which adapts itself to the nature of the tale being told. In addition to this, Lowe ensures that the texts are detailed to the extent that the reader can immerse themselves in them, appreciate them and enjoy them for what they are.

Through some of the stories, Lowe applies an unusual method of relaying how time elapses. Readers who are familiar with the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot that finished airing last year will remember how different periods of the story were told out of the sequence in which they occurred, achieving a form of narrative effect that allows viewers to appreciate the story in different ways depending on what information they have been presented throughout the show: Lowe achieves something very different here, by weaving the non-linear nature of his tales as a narrative device more for the effect rather than a means of discovery—it is a bold manoeuvre for stories that last between three and five pages, compromising neither the narrative flow or the quality of the writing.

But Lowe doesn’t focus on temporal manipulation alone: he skilfully takes other factors and uses them to warp the narrative experience in a way that works to emphasise and invigorate the stories that are being told. Where appropriate, Lowe has turned convention on its head in terms if narrative flow, interjecting his own comments where one normally would not expect, let alone think that such “interference” work. In addition, this unusual approach is also clear from the way that characters behave, as well as how philosophical notions drive and perpetuate the story—I couldn’t help but feel that aside from attempting to create a truly unique experience between each story, and then form a collection of unique stories uniquely, there was a self-perpetuating element to many of the stories. Reading them was as though they each had their own flicker of individuality and life, something that I have not to date observed in reading a collection of short stories.

Lowe’s style is approachable, understandable and written at face value—what you read is what you get. Whilst some of the events and topics themselves deal with matters that are by no means new material, they are nevertheless compelling and particularly where there are psychological themes, told with a sensitivity that works brilliantly. In other tales, suspense is genuinely gripping, gore grim and thrillers are enticing. Lowe also uses reader participation effectively—he tells his stories based on what must be his own experience, but in such a clear way that it will resonate with other readers’ own experience to deliver a truly personal familiarity.

In terms of criticism, there are two areas that should be mentioned. The first is that a couple of the stories ended abruptly, in a way that left me feeling slightly robbed, much in the same way as when one has not finished all the delicious treats in a pack, and has them snatched away. In these cases, I couldn’t help but feel that more could be written for them, but I acknowledge that Lowe’s mission seems more avant garde, and others might feel that these abrupt conclusions work particularly well. The other is that I didn’t immediately understand a couple of the tales, prompting me to re-read them. That said, I did at least feel compelled to re-read them!

To end on a positive note, as this work deserves, ‘Sui Generis’ and Other Fictions will make readers think, and demand their full attention, which is exactly what this work should be granted.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Harding (ed.), Music for Another World (2010)

Mark Harding (ed.), Music for Another World. Mutation Press, 2010. pp. 270 ISBN: 9781907553004. £8.99 / $14.00.

Reviewed by Meredith Wiggins

In the introduction to Music for Another World, Mark Harding describes his selection process as unrelated to any consideration of form, genre, plot, or music. Instead, Harding’s choices were dictated by the stories themselves: they were ‘...stories that made me want to harangue innocent commuters at bus stops with précis of the plot, or tie people to chairs to read excerpts aloud at them...’ Of course, the thread that links each of the 19 stories together is music and its transformative, mysterious, and somewhat nebulous power over sentient beings (human or otherwise).

The stories themselves are wide-ranging, being set in any time from the recent past to modern day and well into the far-flung future. Characters vary in gender, ethnicity, and species - from a many-gilled alien warrior with a voice like a siren (in ‘Festspeel’ by Vincent Lauzon), to a sentient ship who likes to be sung to (in ‘Lorna’ by Tom Brennan), to a not-so-tortured musician with the desire to become immortalized in his first (and last) album (in ‘The Legend of Left-Hand Lewis’ by Maxwell Peterson). As varied as the characters in the stories are the backgrounds of the authors who wrote them; Harding notes that submissions came from Guildford to XiaMen, and many places in between. It is possibly a testament to the interesting mixture of authors that the themes explored in the collection themselves are diverse: loss, obsession, desire, solitude and redemption, among others.

I enjoyed reading this collection immensely, but I did have some difficulties with the pacing. Though the book was sectioned into ‘acts’, there were many times when I felt plucked out of one world and thrown into another. However, whilst this anthology is perhaps not the best example of how well thematically-driven collections of stories can work together to create an overarching narrative structure, it is certainly a testament to the discerning taste of the editor; I found myself agreeing wholly with Harding’s desire to discuss and share many of the tales in this book with anyone who was willing to listen. A few of the stories weren’t new in plot or structure, but were imaginative re-workings of familiar themes, whilst in others I found wholly new ways of seeing music that I had never previously considered. For example, the characters in ‘Arrhythmia’ by Neil Williamson live in a world dominated by rhythm; they work and interact to a collective tempo. However the narrator, Steve, feels nothing but dread about the endless cycle of work, eat, play, sleep. The root of the story lies in Steve’s perceived isolation—his misery is magnified because he believes no one feels the way he does. However when he hears a beat that drowns out society’s intonations and finds someone to share it with, the experience isn’t what he was expecting.

While many of the stories in this collection left me wanting more, there was one in particular which seemed to create a whole world through suggestion, and left me with the fervent hope that it will be expanded into a full length novel at some point. ‘Star in a Glass’ by Vaughan Stanger is the story of the re-forming of a ‘prog-metal-ballet’ band in the near future. The story itself is in some ways an interesting character study, being centred on the egos of once-great musicians hoping to re-live their glory days. However, the details Stanger intersperses within the tantrums and trials of the band create a richly textured (if somewhat gritty) world; one which I would personally love to visit again.

Not being musical myself I picked up this book with not a little apprehension, wondering if I might be put off by technical jargon or musical snobbery, but instead I found in its pages new ways to hear, see, and experience music, and a new appreciation for why it is such a powerful art form. Some of the characters in the collection also seemed to experience music differently at the end of their stories, leading me to believe that the editor may have either consciously or subconsciously chosen works with an emphasis on how music can affect and change the nature of life, reality, and society.

Music for Another World is the first offering from Mutation Press, the brainchild of the editor of the book, Mark Harding; and if this anthology is anything to go by, I’m sure Mutation Press will be “increasing bibliodiversity” for quite some time.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Astruc, A Festival of Skeletons (2010)

RJ Astruc, A Festival of Skeletons. Crossed Genres, 2010. Pp. 175. ISBN 145375735X. $8.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Fantasy and science fiction have long had a tradition of being flexible staging arenas for social and political debates and diatribes; a ‘see here, this is important, so get your eyeballs around this!’ earnestness. Refreshingly, while some more thoughtful aspects do appear in Astruc’s A Festival of Skeletons, this is principally an off-centre novel with elements of surprise and subtlety. The packaging of this novel leads one to expect a frothy, comedic fantasy novel, peopled by grotesques and stereotypes.

Not much is obvious about this tale. For a start, a brightly-coloured volume arrived with a cover depicting main characters in garish costume and with a queer intimacy the reader is plunged straight into character action. The author’s style does not lean towards detailed description, and this is perhaps the best and most subtle technique at her employ. We come upon characters and geographical and social minutiae piece meal; bit by bit we learn motivations and history, as if we are genuinely there, learning from scratch. Though the writing style is omniscient narrator (we can be anywhere, in anyone’s mindset from one chapter to another), it is a narrator that is omniscient only in terms of where it allows us ears to see and eyes to hear. We have to be patient. Thus we may start being baffled and more than a little annoyed by the transvestite mortician, his whims and mercurial moods. But by the end of the book he is nothing less than a much-maligned hero, with good reasons for all he does.

In a world constructed of three major landmasses arranged in a ring around a central sea, the action takes place in the city of Kamphor; principal city of the land of Gavistan. Kamphor lies at the edge of the large central sea, which is also the home of a race of ‘merkind’: a non-gender specific designation of a race of mermen and women. The merkind in Kamphor live on a floating slum in the harbour made of left over wood and building materials; a second-class citizenry faced with some xenophobic attitudes by the majority human inhabitants. These merkind are not a cuddly misunderstood race; they take years to mature from formless, limbless sac-like young and once mature and humanoid in shape, are cantankerous, cannibalistic and prone to firing poisoned barbs from any number of hidden orifices.

The human inhabitants live in an environment that adheres to some staples of the fantasy genre: a High-Renaissance-style mode of living including horse-drawn vehicles, an aristocratically structured social hierarchy, gold and silver coinage, gothic architecture, free-flowing magic, magicians and obligatory flowing robes, but also incorporates a number of incongruous modern-isms (high heels, trashy underwear in man-made fabrics, guns, plastic nick-knacks and a Nineteenth Century repertoire of embalming and mortuary techniques). The result is a hotchpotch setting that is recognisably ‘fantastic’, yet also very immediate and empathic to a modern reader.

We are introduced the main character and mortician, Ebenezer Sink, in the very first paragraph. Sink is a middle-aged, acerbic cross-dresser who can accurately predict people’s deaths after physical contact. He has some dubious history and contacts at the Royal court, and lives opposite noisy students whose drunken debates on a social revolution prefigure the rationale behind the baddies’ own plans later on. The murders; a series of violent deaths among prostitutes in the city’s East End, are no doubt a nod to Jack the Ripper, and are what drawn Sink into the case. What us not made clear until later is why Sink feels himself obliged to be the investigating expert on the deaths, nor what his credentials are to do so, although a second magical talent is alluded to, if not fully described, early on. His assistants at the West End morgue; Joshua; a very ordinary young man following a 15 Step process and a merkind with a chip on both shoulders called Vona, who seems lumbered with all the household chores, both have their parts to play in the ongoing investigation. This latter is hindered as much as possible by an angry young policewoman and Sink’s rival at the East End morgue, his ex-apprentice, Torvault. There is also an unlikely Don Juan in the form of a small, fat kitchen hand and a couple of extra loops in the tale. Then the dead start to rise and the city is under siege. This unlikely band of heroes and enemies must work together if they are to save the city, and, indeed, the world. Finding out why and by whom the prostitutes are being killed is only the beginning, for while the murders may forward the baddies’ ambitions, a darker, more desperate villain lurks in the shadows; a necromancer with nothing to lose...

Although both xenophobia and sexism are raised in the course of the character development of both Vona and the policewoman, Arifia, neither play terribly strong parts in the overall story arc. Yes, the merkind are second-class citizens, mistrusted and generally left to their own devices. And yes, women have a harder time trying to find equality in the social scheme, but these are not major factors in a plot where the main character is a cross-dresser with sufficient personal angst to sink a battleship. It could be said that Sink’s traumatic emotional past (he lost the love of his life years ago and has never looked at another since) and his adherence to women’s clothing endorse him as a strong ‘feminised’ character. This is of course a load of old tripe. Sink’s failings: his undoubted love of material gain, his closed emotional book, his sarcasm and dry wit, as well as his pig-headed secrecy about himself and his motives, make him both unsympathetic and decidedly ‘male’ in any theorist’s handbook. The fact remains, his is a difficult and uncomfortable primary character for readers to get to grips with; more anti-hero than pure hero.

Vona’s and Arifia’s continued resentment make them thoroughly unsympathetic, even rather two-dimensional characters; not exactly poster-children for their respective causes. It is not until during the climax of events that they mellow sufficiently to enable approachability, depth and much-needed wisdom to surface, hinting of more to come for their characters’ social dynamics. This could be Astruc’s point: that the dogmatic individual is a ridiculous figure and that only through engagement with the wider world, and maturation into a broader view, will they be able to develop.

The male characters, being more fallible, unlikely and potentially tragic make for more interesting reading, and are the main plot drivers. Considering that their secret traits include sexual predator, serial killer and cataclysmic, obsessive nervous wreck, they are not what a ‘moral’ tale should espouse as its heroes. And the thwarting of evil should be a moral tale, right?

Well, perhaps this is the novels’ truth: no one is perfect, and heroes are more often than not unlikely. This is not just a moral tale, though; it unpeels layer after layer of geographical, social and character detail like a magical onion of narrative possibility, revealing plot layer after plot layer, and finally stands revealed as a raw, painful core of love and loss, and the lengths people will go to, to seek peace from emotional wounds and scarring. As unbalanced and un-heroic as he appears, it is Sink who is the sanest one of all. For he has come to terms with his loss, and must be the one who has the hardest job of all; ensuring that loose ends are tied up, that social justice is served applicably and not blindly, who actually bears the burden of others’ actions. I came away from all this with the impression that this is a book about accepting one’s faults and bearing responsibility for them; a book about maturation.

It is a highly personal novel that blasts out of the water other novels that seek merely to be a stamping ground for authorial hobby horses. According to the author’s bio, the novel was first drafted during a ‘self destructive bender,’ and, indeed, the uncomfortable frankness of it makes this a less than cordial read. But it is a fascinating one. Astruc has packed more into her tight structure of just 15 chapters (reflecting the 15-steps process of the novel’s self-help group) than more indulgent fantasists do in longer books. This is primarily achieved by the style of writing. We are not privy to every last bit of information before we meet a character and we are as much in the dark as they over events until they have faced them. Clarification and explication come piece by piece, scattered over the chapters, so it is not until the final dénouement that we have all the pieces to the picture. Moreover, there is some suggestion that this is an author playing with the reader; this is a hall of mirrors that reflects onto the reader the emotional impact of the character’s experiences because they are elements that we can relate to: we are caught by the recognition. We become as involved as the characters; and we have much invested in reaching the end.

As mentioned above, I was expecting A Festival of Skeletons to be a frivolous comic fantasy novel. I was ambushed instead by a very believable realism and a deep tale of loss, revenge and very unlikely heroes. That said, the ascorbic, dry style will not be to every reader’s taste, and it would not surprise me if Astruc alienates as many readers as she draws into her fold. But for those who stick with it, this is a challenging and fascinating take on the fantasy genre. I for one sincerely hope that she revisits Kamphor, or moves further afield to one of the other countries within her world.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

James (ed.) Warrior Wisewoman 3 (2010)

Roby James (ed.), Warrior Wisewoman 3. Norilana Books, 2010. Pp. 302. ISBN 9781607620617. $12.95 / £9.50.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Warrior Wisewoman 3 is an ambitious and impressive anthology from Norilana Books’ science fiction division, a publisher responsible for speculative series’ including MZB’s Sword and Sorceress and Lace and Blade. The explicit theme of the Warrior Wisewoman series of books is that of science fiction with a strong female protagonist. The editor James is keen to point out in the introduction (12) that almost half of the stories in this volume are written by men, and she plays down the idea that such a collection might favour female authors. This is a fair point, but insistence on the fact that she doesn’t know the sex of an author until she’s decided she’s interested in a story is an uncomfortable reminder of the “colorblindness” fallacy in discussions of race; with a near 50/50 split in the ToC, however, I’m obviously not suggesting latent sexism in this case. And indeed the contents of this volume show a very wide range of approaches to questions of gender, from the unspoken inclusion of strong women to the explicit addressing of gender inequalities and prejudices; some of the best stories in this overall fine anthology sit at either end of this spectrum. The question is, does this focus on strong female protagonists result in a different kind of science fiction than a more mainstream anthology might?

Several of the stories in this collection take a “slice of life” approach to their subject matter: rather than a classic story structure with problems overcome or journeys undertaken, more than one of these stories have an anticlimactic shape with the protagonist enduring, surviving or demonstrating humility, and living to face another day. Perhaps this is a male reviewer criticizing “female” virtues, but I think there are also issues of genre in this question. The stories in this anthology are science fiction in the technical sense that they are set in a world recognizable as our own or in one of humanity’s possible futures, and the settings are explained in terms of science and rationality rather than supernatural or faith, but few if any of these are “hard science fiction” or stories whose climaxes involve the solution of technical problems; nor are there action stories whose conclusions require the physical defeat of a foe (although there are military SF stories, some of which are quite disturbing).

One complaint: the editor’s one-sentence summary/introductions at the top of each piece add nothing to the story that follows, and in some case are spoilery and irritating. I ended up deliberately avoiding reading them, and having to avert my eyes became a major irritant at the start of each new story. This is a personal preference, but I really wish editors wouldn’t feel the need to do this.

There are several excellent stories in this anthology, including the first several in the table of contents (good scheduling on the part of the editor there: most memorable pieces toward the beginning and end as well as spread evenly throughout the listing). The first story that really stood out for me was Aimee C. Amodio’s ‘Tourist Trap’, a beautifully written and unsettling story full of harsh truths, unflinching philosophy, and glimpses of beauty in the cruelest environments. The protagonist is Haryn, a tourist guide on a beautiful world where the rich come for decadent vacations, but the locals, the guides and other inhabitants of this alien planet, who have developed an intricate and expressive sign language because of the danger of exposing their hearing to the savage wild. The antagonist, the sentient alien ocean, perhaps the most terrifying, implacable, and just plain alien extraterrestrial intelligence since Lem’s Solaris. The story gives us the conflict between locals and tourists, demonstrates the beauty and foreignness of non-spoken language in a way that I have never appreciated before, and demonstrates the importance of respect for nature, even when that nature is in danger of killing you. A wonderful story that belongs in any collection of mind-expanding science fiction.

‘Mayfly’ by Gary Kloster is one of several stories in this anthology whose villains are trying to create a world without life-saving technology; in this case it is short-lived men angered by a vaguely described breakthrough that grants women eternal youth, but mysteriously doesn’t work for males. The science is very much second fiddle in this piece, but the protagonist, a 250 year old woman with the body of a teenage girl (who walks all over the men in the story, both intellectually and in quality of characterization) convincingly explores important issues of gender inequality, the value of life, the perniciousness of “non-prejudiced” conservatism. The victory in this story is won by violence (and more “magical” technology), but this is a story of ideas above action.

Another story that broke the mold, for me, and addressed important issues of gender and cultural respect was ‘Bearer of Burdens’ by Melissa Mead. In this lovely, understated piece the viewpoint character is male, an off-world genius artist brought to a closed, very constrained society to paint a very sensitive commission; but the heart of the story is his subject, Bearer Amberlynn, an enormously fat woman who takes on the griefs, joys and food offerings of her community. The painter’s task is to capture the Bearer’s beauty and show it to the world, while helping Amberlynn and her maidens gain a little freedom from the conservative Mandators who control everything in this world. A beautiful, delightful, infuriating and heartbreaking story.

The stand-out piece for me (and one of my candidates for top story of 2010 so far) was John Walters’s ‘Dark Mirrors’, a gritty military SF piece set in a brutal prison during a nightmarish interplanetary war that humanity is losing. Despite its setting, this story does not rely on violence for its climax. Rather, Walters demonstrates again and again (in both medium and message) the true meaning—and the true power—of pacifism, without excessive sententiousness or moralizing. In little details that you don’t see unless you’re looking for them, as well as in the big picture told only through infodump, we see violence begetting violence, we see that even winning a conflict through combat takes you further away from your desired ends. A gorgeous piece of writing; if this had been the only story worth reading (which it assuredly was not), ‘Dark Mirrors’ alone would have made this fine anthology worth reading.

A few of the pieces I am less able to praise so unreservedly, not because they are weak stories (I don’t think there are any of those in this volume), but because they left me unsettled or unhappy with the conclusion.

In ‘Natural Law’ by Alfred D. Byrd a diplomat causes a major diplomatic incident by secretly and illegally subverting the suffering that would be caused by the policies of a cult of “natural humans”. This could have made an interesting and dramatic conflict, but never explores the possibility that interfering with another culture’s mores is in fact wrong, and therefore remains one-sided and shallow moralizing. Therese Arkenberg’s ‘To the Altar’ is even more disturbing; a well-written story of an unending and increasingly jingoistic war, and the convincing process by which the peace-loving president of one nation comes to the decision to use a nuclear bomb to strike a crushing blow, kill countless innocent civilians but end the war. Alternative course are never explored, leaving the impression that this story does little more than justify atrocities like Nagasaki and Hiroshima (and of course the strategic killing of innocents by bad guys too) rather than tell a new story or explore moral complexity. ‘The Truth One Sees’ by Kathy Hurley is a story that uses science fictional conceits—hidden aliens, holograms and other hi-tech trappings—to bolster a psychic protagonist and some cheap stereotypes about closed-minded skeptics.

On the whole this anthology works extremely well, with a very diverse mix of story types and narrative adventures, stories that ask questions and challenge the reader’s expectations rather than merely providing escapism or flash-bang action and entertainment. Such variety and diversity makes it difficult to answer the question of whether this collection of female-focused science fiction has a different tone from the genre at large. Perhaps the focus on protagonists (heroines) who have ethical decisions to make rather than wars to win; who triumph through empathy or diplomacy rather than a strong arm or merciless spirit; whose adventure involve the desire for children rather than riches; whose concerns are at the human level rather than involving whole empires or planets. These are all stereotypes, and any one of them would be problematic and borderline offensive if stated as a generalization. As a break from science fiction commonplace, however, it makes for an anthology that this male reader finds refreshing and original, and of incredibly high quality.

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