Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Watts, Heart of the Kingdom (2011)

Sarah Ann Watts, Heart of the Kingdom. Silver Publishing, 2011. 5000 words. ASIN B004MDLLZ4. £1.44 / $2.28.

Reviewed by Regina de Búrca

The cover art for ‘Heart of the Kingdom’ made me want to swap this magical fantasy romance for something on the review list with subterranean journeys instead. I wondered whether the Fabio-lookalike on the cover was asleep or simply dreaming! But I was raised not to judge a book by its cover so I persevered. I was surprised to find a letter from the publisher on the next page, thanking the reader for not pirating the author’s work. This appeal to readers is quite sweet; certainly a more pleasant approach to the music industry’s stance on DRM.

‘Heart of the Kingdom’ began on page 6 out of this 30 page e-book and as I started to read I wondered how so few pages could contain enough to keep a reader satisfied. But as I read on I found that the form of this narrative is moot. This is a nicely crafted story that works very well. It is compelling and different from any of the romance genre tales I have read before.

The e-book tells the story of Elynas, a former king and servant of fire and Melior, a knight and creature of water. Their innate elemental natures prohibited them from ever being lovers. But Elynas is paying for his efforts to save Melior’s life with the aftershocks of a spell cast on him by his wife.

The language is economical, with plenty said in very few words. The reader gets a glimpse of the characters and what they are up against. The narration takes the second person’s point of view; this technique alone makes the story stand out. The heartbreak of lost love is intimated beautifully; the reader can really feel the sense of devastation as it is built up in the narrative.

My only issue with this e-book is how it has been presented. The cover really did put me off and it would be a shame if that happened to anyone else, since this story is a great read.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Nath, The Cyclist (2010)

Fred Nath, The Cyclist. Fingerpress, 2010. Pp. 304. ISBN 978-0956492517. £12.99 / $19.99 / €15.99.

Reviewed by Jerome Kemp

The Cyclist is the debut novel by Fred Nath, a neurosurgeon from the North East of England, and it is published by Fingerpress, an independent, London-based publisher, who claim on their website to publish non-fiction and “top-quality fiction across a range of genres.” The précis sounds promising enough: a thriller set in 1943 Aquitaine; Jews being rounded up; a sadistic German SD officer on the scene; the murder of a sweet young chanteuse; and a sterling French policeman, Auguste Ran, wanting to redeem himself for his complicity in incipient Nazi atrocities, and, as a consequence, having to escape to Switzerland with his family and oldest friend.

Unfortunately, this expectant interest is soon overturned, and any ideas of getting into this story—such as it turns out to be—are pretty much abandoned. The prose is at times awfully clunky and the narrative voice which it conveys uncomfortably earnest. For me, at least, the problems in style and voice are too great to have afforded any hope of becoming involved in the rather simple, though perhaps potentially rather good, story.

So, to the first stumbling block, on the first page, where Nath, perhaps in his eagerness to impart a realistic, atmospheric detail, goes so far as to describe a woman thus: “An elderly woman, curly grey hair and sagging breasts...”

Of course, I concede that sagging breasts certainly amount to a realistic detail, but surely not a very necessary one. Or perhaps I’m being too sensitive and shouldn’t attach much importance to it, that it’s natural enough in the flow of the narrative? Or then again (and this is what I was actually at first prepared to think) maybe the author is up to something: perhaps there would be some consequent detail about this woman’s breasts (in her youth perhaps) that would render their present sagginess all the more striking, poignant, or, for that matter, funny. But it’s clear, once you’ve got to the end of the opening page, that no such future revelations or explanations are likely to be forthcoming. Instead, the thing that I then became most aware of was the childishly earnest narrative voice.

Indeed, it is a narrative voice which, by virtue of its childishness and wish to blandly over-describe, often brings forth wasteful, explicatory sentences, tagged on to the end of paragraphs (whether or not the paragraphs are redundant already is open to question), as with:
“He shoved Claude’s body into the hollow trunk. It was an impossible task, because the feet stuck out and he had to gather fallen branches and armfuls of leaves to hide them. Anyone walking the path in daylight might have spotted the corpse otherwise.” (my italics)
And there are other moments where the writing is just inappropriate.
“Brunner swayed back and forth. A greenish colour began to evolve on his face and it gave Auguste a deep satisfaction and pleasure to imagine the wine jettisoning from the German’s gullet...” (This somehow had me thinking of vorsprung durch technik advertisements.)
Or a bit silly:
“The wicked English, the ‘Rosbifs’, were rumoured to haunt the ruins, though Auguste paid no attention to such childish beliefs.” (Presumably this was to reassure us of our hero’s sense of reason.)
Or again:
“They embraced and he held her as tight as he would the edge of a cliff from which he had slipped. He felt like a plummeting man.”
He felt like a plummeting man? After reading that, so did I.

But there is more. The most irritating grammatical feature is in the use of commas. They sometimes crop up understandably to denote a subordinate clause, but don’t then reappear to mark its end, e.g.:
“The light, he was sure came from a torch and he saw it hover then extinguish. (sic)”
Or sometimes they just crop up in the wrong place:
“Zara, ma fleur, Zara,” Auguste said, reaching towards the stairs with one hand, grasping the empty air as if by doing so, he could mend the hole Odette and he had made in her life. (sic)” etc.
But in fact, the most hideous editorial feature is the prevalent and inappropriate hyphenating of words when interrupted by the line ending, as with: “pu-shed,” “ca-lled,” “fl-ailing,” “ke-ep”—and, of course: “Aug-uste.” So it does come as quite a shock that the book has been published in its present state, and I think the publishers (Fingerpress) and editors have to be held partly responsible for many of its flaws.

To some extent these editorial mistakes perhaps make it difficult to fairly and fully appraise the novel’s (would-be) literary merits, though on the other hand they do serve to complement its most obvious demerits. On the whole the characterisation is wooden. The protagonist—chief of police Auguste Ran—is unremittingly and (most importantly) unrealistically earnest. His friendship with Pierre, the Jew he’s known since childhood, is mainly defined by the way they rag each other about their respective faiths (Judaism and Catholicism) which isn’t particularly endearing (as it’s presumably supposed to be), it’s jarring and unconvincing. Indeed, the attendant theme of Ran’s struggles with his religious conscience is also handled with unrealistic simplicity. The characterisation of the German officer, Brunner, is, however, a little more engaging (and the scene involving the Nazi Barbie is interesting), but even here there is a sense that Brunner’s evil is never properly communicated: it is, I suppose, to be taken for granted. As it turns out, the lesser characters (the treacherous colleague, Claude, and the loyal secretary, Édith) are more convincing: it is perhaps a shame that more attention isn’t paid on them.

In fact, there is a sense that if this book had been properly edited and the author had had some sensible feedback with regard to characterisation and narrative voice, the story itself could have won through, and this could have been a passable novel. (In its present state, though, any emphasis on the purported theme of ‘a search for absolution’, as indicated in the ‘Note to the Reader’ before the start, again seems uncomfortably ambitious.) There are some scenes, particularly towards the end, which, in spite of editorial or authorial neglect, do just about sustain the reader’s engagement. And although this does not hold for the book as a whole, it may be fair to say that the author can envisage a good story: he could just do with a bit more care and guidance in putting it into print.

So what might have been, if ably handled, an interesting insight into a certain period and place in history, and even an exciting thriller, is rendered a lumpen, badly edited—or perhaps just not edited—account of people that, in their unrealistic portrayal, are impossible to identify with.

Oh yes, and then there were the sex scenes... but that would be too much...

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Solomon, Visitors to the Inner Earth (2011)

Professor Solomon, Visitors to the Inner Earth. Top Hat Press, 2011. Pp. 314. ISBN 978-0912509105. $16.00.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

At first glance Visitors to the Inner Earth by Professor Solomon looks a bit like one of Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. The photo of the author on the back cover, preparing to enter a cave and wearing a tool vest, hard hat and dapper shirt and tie as well as the light-hearted cover illustration, all help maintain the impression that this is a tongue-in-cheek visit with some of those who claim to have travelled deep into the earth and found remarkable things there.

Not so.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Stracher, The Water Wars (2011)

Cameron Stracher, The Water Wars. Sourcebooks, 2011. Pp. 256. ISBN 978-1-4022-4369-1. $16.99.

Reviewed by Regina de Búrca

Cameron Stracher’s The Water Wars is a YA dystopian novel set in a world where water is a rare and precious commodity. The countries in the novel’s world are in conflict as they try to gain control of the little drinkable water that is left. 15 year-old Vera narrates the story that begins with her meeting the mysterious Kai, who tells her of a river that exists but is being kept secret by the authorities. When Kai goes missing, Vera and her brother Will go in search of him and learn the truth about the worldwide drought: that it is due to lack of access to water, not a lack of water itself. The premise of this novel was intriguing, and when the book arrived I loved the stunning design of the dust jacket, but I’m afraid this book did not match my expectations.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Lowe, Tour of Beaujardin (2010)

Marc Lowe, A Tour of Beaujardin (or, The Derelicts). ISMs Press,
2010. Pp. 48. £3.00/$4.50.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

ISMs is a Manchester-based independent press, producing chapbooks and e-books, that specialises in edge fiction: odds and sods, curios and, in their own words “to promote the best of the darkest, quirkiest, most surreal new writers in town.” Also a publisher of an e-zine, Sein und Werden that sees itself as “a literary magazine of experimental prose, poetry and artwork that seeks to merge and modernise the ideas behind Expressionism, Surrealism and Existentialism,” there is a distinct stand for individuality and an unashamedly choosy editorial position. If it’s not clever, witty, dark as pitch and unrepentantly visceral, it probably won’t make it in. This could be seen as literary snobbery; instead, it is a filter for odd little offerings like A Tour of Beaujardin (or The Derelicts).

Lowe’s touch is light, inviting implication and reader involvement. He sketches the frame, sets the mood lighting: the reader fills it with the dark scenes and dystopian details gleaned from previous novels read, films watched, etc. Like the image on the cover; a figure half-hidden in the shadows of tall blocks, he is deliberately allowing interpretation of a half-seen view. A writer of dark and weird subjects, highly educated (to masters level), it would be naive to assume that his writing, while having all the freshness of spontaneity, is not heavily influenced by literary and creative themes. Certainly the reading of his work brings multiple readings to mind. Some may be intentional: it is a credit to him that his work is able to provoke such thinking.

The story is ostensibly a ‘tour’ of an insular, isolationist and crazed city-scape. There is heavy irony in the name. Translated to ‘beautiful garden,’ it suggests open spaces, cool flora and pleasantly scented airs. What actually emerges is a 1984-esque, grimy, controlling and paranoid construct. The voice, predominantly that of the guide, is at once specifically individual (offering disallowed anecdote and personal reflection) and the voice of humanity crushed by the weight of systematic control. On one level, the book is a critique of enormous institutions that overwhelm the human being.

Cutting the story into unequal sections creates a tour-book-style set of descriptions, delineating districts and locations like differently shaded areas on tourist maps. The effect on reading these sections, especially as they change from descriptive detail to opinions (see below) is of an anxious haste. One is left with the impression that being a visitor here is almost forbidden. There is a steadily building sense of menace, until it spills into a violent conclusion, when the one being guided—the ‘you’ up till now—takes on the ‘I’, and is left to face the dangers of the place alone.

The sections are akin to monographs, all centred on the depiction of the city. Thematically this is a landscape of fear, repression and danger. There are extremes of rich and poor, unrealised tenderness in unlikely places, oppressive, fascist politics and what could be a severe critique of modern capitalism: the injunction to work fourteen or so hours a day, when all workers (all adults over school-age) are locked in the tall glass monolith buildings, leaning at feverish angles to accentuate their looming presence. The main roads are a constant stream of mechanised death: the crossing lights are too short, the vehicles are nose to nose and one must be careful no blood is splashed onto one’s shoes from the latest victim. No sense of mortality or recognition of human suffering or human connection is allowed here in this post-modern creation. Strong stuff, indeed.

Going deeper, a reviewer of a previous work of Lowe’s names a “maddeningly logical construction.” The deliberate sectioning of parts is a solid construct in a rushing narrative. It is logical, indeed, for a heavily monolithic city to be described in parts: in bricks of description building it up. Yet the description is about implied details, hints and ambiguities that are wide open to interpretation. If “maddeningly logical” describes the clash and strain of flexible narrative breaking against consistent form, then Lowe is infuriatingly logical in his writing. The “relentless intensity of imagery” the reviewer ascribes to the earlier story, is present within Beaujardin, but it is due to the deliberate non-describing of actualities and landmarks. The reduction of physical detail is conversely proportional to the narrative moving into personal soliloquy; the desperate desire on the part of the guide to make his mark on the mind of the visitor, despite bending rules and saying and showing that which he admits is forbidden.

The city is not so much around in physical form at this point as embedded, in the way of repressive regimes at their worst, within the psyche of the citizen. Yet even as the landscape of the narrative changes from physical to psychological there is never any doubt that this is still The City. There is now a merging of what is seen (sense) and what is thought (response) into a single place where sense and response meet when one replies to the other in the ordering of the intellect. The city now stands as a map of the human mind, in a metaphorical tour of the self. The guide is a nervous, haunted Virgil, always looking over his shoulder for some demon-manifestation of the city- guilt, perhaps?—to come and claim him.

Eventually we have to ask: is the reader, invited by the act of reading into this place and time, a visitor, or are we actually the guide, walking in areas of uncomfortable questions and painful revelations that could well await us should be probe into our own minds and souls? The death of the guide in the end would be worrying indeed in this context, if there was not the switch to the visitor’s viewpoint. This appears an exemplar of a change in mental tracks; expressing the flexibility of the mind moving from one viewpoint to another. But the nightmares will still haunt us: wherever we go, we take ourselves with us; the ‘I’ of the narrative might have changed over, but remains indisputably ‘I’. The awakened interest of the dark denizens of the city-mind; those thoughts we would rather disavow, but which still linger in the gutters of our subconsciousness: mental derelicts of the subtitle, and against which the new narrator (the new consciousness) needs to defend itself, is a dire warning against thinking oneself too civilised and dabbling too lightly within dark places. The forbidding style and repressive surface politics of the city (see above) is mirrored in the implied injunction that such dabbling, such soul-searching is likewise forbidding and forbidden: one will not find answers in pure introspection. Indeed, it might lead to one’s doom. Be warned that even the guide has paid the price for his transgression.

The short, statement style is common to Lowe’s writing. A review of other forums for his work present short stories and longer works cut into smaller bite-sized sections. Perhaps this is a comment on the intensity of a moment making a lasting impression rather than an elongated experience. Or perhaps this is homage to the cut-away edit that, once adopted by early cinema in the 1920s, revolutionised how stories were told and paved the way for the concise style of the ‘classic’ cinematic style. That is, the beginning of shortened attention spans as input becomes shorter, faster, and more immediate. The immediacy of Lowe’s writing is one that smacks right into the cerebrum: a filmic trick that comes from the hurried pacing of the story, the hurry of the guide and the creeping uneasiness, finally ending in a blaze of guns that would not be out of place in an apocalypse film or last-stand dramatics.

The book itself is in chapbook format: printed on thick, cream-coloured paper with neat, slightly old-fashioned looking print, there is an air of a historical document, even a testament. There is definitely criticism of modernity in here, but also an ironic embracing of it, in the cut-up presentation and in the elements of filmic melodrama.

As an existential exercise it is robust. As a surreal tale it is a success. I was entertained and intrigued. I enjoyed it greatly; perhaps this was down to the size (that short attention span again!), but any longer and it would have failed as a sketch piece. It is provocative: obviously and deliberately so. Unconventional in its length, presentation, and style, this is a mental exercise, an outpouring of a creative bubble. The written words begin and end decisively, but after finishing, it felt as if I had stepped into a longer story I can almost read at either end: speculation on the previous life of the guide and the fate of the visitor. Perhaps this is Lowe’s biggest existential message; nothing exists in a vacuum, and has reasons before and effects after. Left with an impression that I had been lead to respond as such, in blatant and playful juxtaposition to the pithy presentation, the best way to sum up is not at all, but to leave with a...

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Christian, Love without Gun Control (2010)

M. Christian, Love without Gun Control. Futures-Past Editions, 2010. Pp. 162. ISBN 9781615082162. $15.99.

Reviewed by Jaym Gates

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when Love Without Gun Control showed up to be reviewed. The cover is very retro-pulp-comic, a scene on Mars, all bright colors and simple lines, misleading as to the content. It seems more like a graphic-novel cover, or a series of 70's porn. The book itself is quite thin, only 155 pages. I was pleasantly surprised. The collection opens with the eponymous story, ‘Love Without Gun Control’, published for the first time in this collection. Ultra-violent and rather bizarre, it is somewhat reminiscent of a D. Harlan Wilson story. A sort of modern-day Western romance, the story really does defy labeling as it shows the effects of one snake-oil doctor’s ‘love potion’, applied erroneously, and the destruction that can come from thwarted desire. A fun, rollicking ride with a very unique flavor.

The second story, ‘Needle Taste’, is a unique concept with an ambiguous ending. The story itself is a totally different beast from the previous tale, but the wistful tone holds up the strange story well enough until the end, when it feels a little... abrupt. If there’s a weak one in the bunch, it’s this one, simply on a relative scale. It is in no way a bad one, it just doesn’t have quite the force of the others.

...seeking a forever-quiet man in the whole buzzing, humming, singing, cackling city.
‘Hush Hush’ is my favorite story in the collection. The language is absolutely beautiful: weird, eery and slippery. The tale is half mystery, half internal journey. Whether he solves the mystery or not is really unimportant. What he learns along the way is not. This was a lovely to read for the language as for the story.

‘The Rich Man’s Ghost’ is probably my least favorite of the stories. It lacks the smoothness of voice, the weird beauty of most of the other pieces. The story is a little less Weird, too, and maybe that colors my opinion.

‘Wanderlust’ is one of the stories that I’m not really sure, at first, how I feel about it. On the one hand, the reader is kept in the dark until the very end of the story. I simply didn’t have a clue what was going on. On the other hand, the writing is very rich, so it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to enjoy the ride. A man who inspires absolute ecstasy from everyone he meets comes across a bit thin at first, but their reactions if he stays around for longer than a few minutes are... interesting.

‘Orphan’ is chilling and haunting. A young man running from something, to something, carrying a horrible secret. There were a couple of places that could have used a clarity edit or that read a little contrived, but overall, definitely a memorable piece worth reading again.

Really, though, I’d be hard-pressed to say that any story in this collection is best skipped over or read in a hurry. There’s just enough variation in the stories to keep them unique, and enough cohesion to develop a voice that just draws me in more deeply, the farther I read. (The first story is an odd difference to the rest of them, but no less enjoyable.) The cover-art remains a sticking point, as it has no apparent connection to the content, and prose like this needs something lovely to wrap it up, and what it has is not something I would be wild about displaying on a shelf.

Read this one slowly, because each story is best savored and mulled over. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of M. Christian’s stories.

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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Hultquist, Off Track (2011)

Michael Hultquist, Off Track. Belfire Press, 2011. Pp. 244. ISBN 978-1-926912-25-7. $12.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Off Track is the powerful third novel by horror writer and screenwriter Michael Hultquist, from small, independent publisher Belfire Press. Targeted at a young adult readership, this is the story of an abused boy after a stint in juvenile detention, fostered by a couple with problems of their own in a cleaner-than-thou small-town suburb. In this impossibly perfect setting, our protagonist has to deal with layers of institutional prejudice, hypocrisy, distrust, bullying, abuse and the desperate posturing of high school boys, as well as his own red-hot temper as he tries to overcome his past and adapt to a normal life. Again and again the good is balanced by the bad, as the world increasingly seems determined not to give him a second chance, even if he decides to be able to give himself one. This is not an easy book to read.