Thursday, December 30, 2010

A cappella Zoo #5 (2010)

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

Reviewed by N.A. 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.

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 Roughly half the stories are previously unpublished.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, but it’s not currently available from 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.

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?”
“Whatever the cost?”
“Whatever the consequences?”
“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.

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 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.

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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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Grimwood, The Places Between (2010)

Terry Grimwood, The Places Between. Pendragon Press, 2010. Pp. 111. ISBN 9781906864200. £7.99.

Reviewed by N.A. Jackson

If there is such a thing as an over-arching cultural obsession these days, it might be the fascination with identity, and Terry Grimwood’s novella taps into this obsession in an interesting way, blending elements of realism and fantasy in a sort of ‘dark night of the soul’ for the main character. The Places Between is a psychological novel exploring the fear and alienation that exist within relationships. Grimwood tackles that most slippery of topics: the male/female divide and the sometimes violent attraction and repulsion between the sexes. This is the driving force behind the novella and not even the most vivid of his well-conceived monstrosities can eclipse that most alien of landscapes, the human condition.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Morris (ed.), Cinema Futura (2010)

Mark Morris (ed.), Cinema Futura. PS Publishing, 2010. Pp. 271. ISBN 978-1-848630-95-6. £25.00 / $38.75.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

As a collection of essays, one of the best places to start in ascertaining whether the book has/will hit its mark is in the editor’s forward. It will, after all, be the editor’s guiding hand that will to a greater degree determine the book’s direction. As it turns out, this book emerges from a freely admitted—nay, a proudly stated—ambition to catalogue a genre that the editor, Mark Morris, has a long had an abiding fascination for. He begins with a very personal snippet about the effect of his first horror film on his eleven-year-old self. And recalls the experience with “fondness and nostalgia.” Having equated horror with science fiction in the arena of speculative fiction, this personal, visceral response is the vein in which he wants his book to run. Morris claims that after the publication of a collection of horror essays he edited, he intended for there to be a ‘sci-fi’ follow up, and he is proud of the result (my emphasis). This is a book that wants to present, not the grave, dry and deeply technical, but the personal and the affecting, from the viewpoint of the affected; moreover, an affected that can lucidly, amusingly, interestingly, describe and to some extent examine the effect they took on board. In describing the brief he gave to his contributors, Morris states that they had ‘carte blanche’ to choose their film, but it was one they had to “champion.” This is no book for the intellectually distant. This is a collection of responses that range from, yes, something of an academic flavour (mentioning in passing social, economic, political and ethical considerations), to the anecdotal, the flippant, the emotional. As Morris himself says, this is a highly subjective book. Perhaps therein lies the base of its charm; it lays the innate subjectivity of any review book, any book of ‘essays on’, wide out into the open. But instead of trying to hide this facet like a dirty little secret as so many ‘intellectual’ tracts attempt to do, it plays on it as a strength. By the writers’ enthusiasms, we are enthused; by their passion and apocryphal moments, we can be recharged, too.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mellon, Napoleon Concerto (2009)

Mark Mellon, Napoleon Concerto. Treble Heart Books, 2009. Pp. 342. ISBN 9781936127085. $13.50.

Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian

It is 1806. Napoleon Bonaparte rules France and most of Europe. Yet Britain remains out of reach; however strong Napoleon may be on land, at sea the Royal Navy is supreme. Then an engineer named Robert Fulton meets an Irish ex-naval captain named Wolfe O’Sheridane at a Paris salon. Fulton has a design for a powerful engine and his new friend has the audacity required to get them both an interview with Josephine herself. Mark Mellon’s Napoleon Concerto (the title is presumably a reference to Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony) is a steampunk, alternate-history retelling of the Napoleonic wars as they might have happened had France possessed the naval might necessary to challenge the British on their home ground.

It’s an idea that, if thoroughly researched and well worked, has the potential to be both a fun thought experiment and a romp. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way.

From the start, Mellon throws us possibilities that might be interesting. At the beginning of the book the major point-of-view character appears to be Robert Fulton himself. Fulton is a genius, though the author soon seems to forget that aspect of his character. He’s fond of money and status and averse to taking risks. All of these traits make him extremely unhappy about the schemes into which his association with O’Sheridane leads him. Moreover, O’Sheridane through Fulton’s eyes appears almost the charismatic fellow the the text seems to expect the reader to believe he is. Fulton’s attraction towards O’Sheridane is pretty extreme—there are moments when Fulton is noticing O’Sheridane’s “muscular thigh next to [his]” where one would think the novel was going in an entirely different direction. This is a point of view (and possibly a relationship) that might be quite fun to explore.

Almost immediately, though, the novel’s focus shifts from Fulton’s contemplation of the Irishman to O’Sheridane himself. O’Sheridane remains the book’s focus for most of the rest of the plot, bar a short period towards the end where Bonaparte takes centre stage. But O’Sheridane is entirely uninteresting. He is too typical an Irishman—the name that could have come out of a bad Mills and Boon romance aside, he is reckless, audacious, red-haired and green-eyed and charming with the ladies. He is a passionate Irish nationalist, and we soon discover that his services to Napoleon are rendered with the condition that should the French triumph, Ireland will be freed.

O’Sheridane’s storyline once again shows the possibility of being interesting with the introduction of Ghislaine, a beautiful widow with her own reasons to be distrustful of Bonaparte. Much is made of Ghislaine’s brilliance, and her capacity to outwit people. On meeting her O’Sheridane is “intrigued by the prospect of how far she would go in her efforts to manipulate him.” So was I. It doesn’t happen.

Ghislaine is one of two female characters in this book, the other being Josephine. This may not be a particularly low number for a war novel set at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but it is certainly unnecessarily low for a novel set to a large extent in Parisian society. Josephine is just portrayed as shrewd, but overly fond of shopping. Ghislaine fares a little better, since as I mention above the book makes much of her intellect. Yet we never actually see this intellect, only hear other people referring to it (often in rather cringeworthy terms: O’Sheridane explains that “for a minute I thought myself in conversation with an exceptionally well-informed minister of the Council of State rather than a beautiful young woman”).

As for the war itself, Fulton’s engine destroys the careful balance of power that prevails at the beginning of the book so that everything that follows is distinctively one-sided. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in the real world most armies are not entirely evenly matched, and the portrayal of a country’s defeat is probably far more realistic. And Mellon’s shipboard battles are some of his best writing. On the other hand, a conflict where one side doesn’t have the ghost of a chance isn’t exactly riveting.

And this is what is strange about Napoleon Concerto. Potentially interesting characters and situations are continuously tossed out or forgotten about. No character actually undergoes any sort of development; what we know about them as soon as they are introduced (Fulton is greedy and materialistic; Ghislaine is pretty, clever and attracted to O’Sheridane; O’Sheridane is reckless, soulful and Irish) is what we know about them at the end of the book. Perhaps Napoleon himself is the only character to escape. And yet it’s never clear what these elements are being jettisoned in favour of; certainly not plot.

Napoleon Concerto is a book containing a number of possible plots and fascinating characters. But in touching on all of them Mellon does justice to none.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Storrs, TimeSplash (2010)

Graham Storrs, TimeSplash. Lyrical Press, 2010. Pp. 261. ISBN 9781616501235. E-book $5.50.

Reviewed by Keith Lawrence

A crime thriller set in the near future, TimeSplash centres on a new form of terrorism, a destructive form of time-travel, and the efforts of the two young protagonists to prevent a catastrophe that will devastate a European city. Graham Storrs’s previous published works have been thoughtful short stories in magazines such as Concept and Bewildering Stories (and indeed here in TFF), but this is his first published novel. The publishers, Lyrical Press, deal mainly in ebooks, and their stable encompasses works from a wide range of genres. Although this novel is marketed both by Lyrical Press and Storrs himself as science fiction, the plot more closely resembles the sort of cold-war spy thriller beloved of beach-readers.

The core of any time-travel story is the nature of time. Is time a mutable thing, a flow of cause and effect which can be altered by time travellers to affect their own present (as in Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant); is it a fait accompli, in which travellers can only observe or at most become part of a preordained chain of events (as in the film Twelve Monkeys); or is it something in between? In TimeSplash, time is envisioned as closer to the latter, something like a glass of water into the depths of which bubbles can be pushed through a scientific straw. The bubbles rush back to the surface and behind them the waters of time heal up just as they were, but the ripples they leave on the surface are devastating.

This attitude towards time neatly avoids excessive complication, but does mean that the time-travel scenes of the book are essentially exotic backdrops before which the action can occur. They perform this role as handily as any foreign port or exclusive casino in a Bond film, and the descriptions of the localised disruptions that dog the time-travellers are engaging.

The plot is not especially complicated, but suits the book well—the pace of the story proceeds evenly and without dragging at any point. It’s interesting, though, that TimeSplash resembles a modern crime thriller not only in its strengths but also in its weaknesses. Some of the dialogue seems clunky, and although the characterisation of the main protagonist (Jay) is relatively even and unremarkable, the two most important supporting characters are rather two-dimensional.

Sandra, the female protagonist, is a woman out for vengeance whose fatal attraction to cruel men seems to be miraculously cured by Jay’s clean-cut niceness. There are very few female characters who appear as more than an adjunct to the men
in this novel, and although Sandra’s part is more substantial it appears to be little more than a simple morality play—Sandra’s failings are sexual and her redemption tied to the love of a good man. In many ways the future of TimeSplash is a bit of a Parson’s Egg—the technology of the mid-twenty-first century, the sexual politics of the mid-twentieth. Although Sandra finally prevails, the middle of her story (in which she is effectively punished for consorting with Sniper, the story’s antagonist) seems more pointed than its conclusion. This progression is echoed in the misfortunes of the only other woman of note: Camilla, a handler put in place in Sniper’s organisation by his terrorist backers.

Sniper himself is potentially an interesting character—his motivation for making the devastating timesplash which Jay and Sandra must work together to foil is actually much more plausible than that of many fictional villains. Sadly, particularly towards the latter half of the book, he rarely appears in any scene without it being used to demonstrate that he is milled from a block of solid evil.

I read the e-book version of TimeSplash. At the time of writing this was the only way to get hold of the book, although it had just been picked up by Big Bad Media for publishing in both physical and audiobook formats, enhancing Storrs’s already thorough work at making the book available and supporting readers and potential readers. The TimeSplash website features links to reviews, vendors, and even fan fiction. For the technically-minded, Storrs helpfully provides a list explaining which formats you will receive if you buy the ebook from any particular vendor, including whether or not they are sold with DRM. Buying from Lyrical Press directly gets you access to 7 different DRM-free formats of ebook, hopefully catering nicely for all forms of hardware—I saw both the EPUB and PDF formats, and apart from a few niggles with the formatting of the EPUB, they were both made to a high standard. This is all extremely laudable, and something I hope other writers and publishing houses will emulate.

I had mixed feelings about TimeSplash:
I liked it less than I wanted to, and in particular I would find it difficult to recommend it to my female SF-loving acquaintances. I found it thought-provoking only in a sense that I suspect Storrs did not intend (i.e. regarding the characterisation of women)—a shame, since Storrs’s short stories have tended to be deeper. As a straightforward terrorism thriller in which the time-travel elements are clever window-dressing, TimeSplash works well; it is a competent story and although the plot is nothing special it is a pleasant read.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Bull Spec #2 (2010)

Bull Spec issue 2, Summer 2010. Pp. 64. ISSN 2152-5234. $8.00.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

I tend to prefer full-sized magazines. Digest sized magazines are fine, but in my opinion they’re never going to match holding a glossy, full-sized offering. There’s the extra detail that can be gleaned from the artwork, and the contents appear far less pinched. Fonts tend to be bigger, too. Bull Spec, as you might have gathered, is a full-sized speculative fiction magazine, with colour covers front and rear, and colour first page and last.

I thought at first this was a magazine purely for fiction, but in fact Bull Spec is very much compartmentalised in that all the fiction is offered first, followed by a graphic short, then poetry, then interviews and features, and an editorial. It struck me as an unusual layout—most, if not all, magazines I’ve read tend to interweave such material—and I can’t quite decide if I like this particular way of doing things, whether it felt clunky to read everything in segments. And then I think, why not be a little different in layout?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tidhar, Cloud Permutations (2010)

Lavie Tidhar, Cloud Permutations. PS Publishing, 2010. Pp. 130. ISBN 9781848630437. £12.00.

Reviewed by Sarah Ann Watts

Cloud Permutations is a novella set on a planet called Heven with a magical South Seas setting. Kal is a boy who just wants to fly, but flying on Heven is tabu, against kastom, and carries a fatal penalty. A very young Kal is warned by his grandfather, ‘One should never speak lightly of clouds.’ Clouds are a mystical and powerful force in this world, ever present in the skies they inspire an almost religious awe and are regarded with respect and fear.

Kal and his friend Vira slip away from school to build a kite, named after the original ship, the Hilda Lini, that brought the people of Man Vanuatu to their new world. Here they have established a new society based on the culture of the world they left. Kastom is everything and traditions endure—like meeting in the nakamal in the shade of a nambanga tree brought from ‘Old Earth’, and the drinking of kava.
“But this, Kal thought, was not Earth. This was Heven. It was a new world, his world and he would not bow down to kastom. He wanted—desired—to fly. And flying had been forbidden by kastom.”
Kal and Vira rebel against this tabu, and the retribution is immediate. Vira falls from the sky and Kal is exiled from his home island Epi to the floating island of Tanna. The decision to exile Kal is taken more in sorrow than in anger—‘those who live in the sky have been offended’ and so Kal must leave. Arriving at the floating island of Tanna he is greeted by the mysterious Moli Solomon, ‘wan woman blong wotadroing’ and learns there is a dark tower in his future.
“It waited for Kal. It had waited for a long time. How long, perhaps, only the clouds really knew.”
So Kal becomes the boy of the prophecy, meets a new friend, Bani Voko Voko Leo, ‘a thief by reasons of ideology’, who has his own prophecy to fulfil. Bani invites Kal to join him on a ‘small trip’—possibly the most casual invitation to a quest since Bilbo Baggins rushed headlong out of Bag End without a handkerchief. Kal sets sail from Naetsaed on a ship called the Sanigodaon with Bani, three students and Captain Desmon for the island of the Narawan, or ‘other’. Soon he discovers that there is so much more to Heven than the small part of it that his people colonised and made their home.

This is a tale that has everything. Described as a planetary romance and with a setting that begs for the Avatar 3D treatment, it is nevertheless the detail and honesty in the characterisation that does so much to bring the story alive and make it real. In some ways it is rite of passage—Kal grows up, he finds a friend and falls in love—and yet there is so much more.

Lavie Tidhar makes inventive use of Bismala language: sometimes there is a translation and sometimes the meaning hovers elusively just out of reach. It is a game he invites the reader to share—there is an inspired chapter heading that invites a gasp of appreciation and many other resonances and allusions lie in wait beneath the surface of the story. This playing with the reader invites complicity; the reading experience takes on something of the dynamic of a story teller telling tales to an audience around the fire.

It is perhaps not only Moli Solomon who draws fabulous images on water. Her creator shares something of the same art, giving us cloud castles that drift just out of reach yet linger in the mind. I felt like a child who didn’t ever want the book to close or the story to end.

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