Haunted Futures edited by Salomé Jones.

Haunted FuturesHaunted Futures is a KickStarter-ed (is that a verb yet?) multi-genre anthology of what might be described as weird fiction, taking a look at life, and sometimes more importantly, death, in a variety of futures. And maybe one present. The dedication at the beginning of the collection reads: To the future – yours, ours, everyone’s. May it be haunted by only the delightful specters. [sic]

The idea of being haunted is an interesting concept. Haunting usually has negative connotations. Someone who looks haunted might be anxious or distressed or worried. A place that is haunted is associated with death, often tragic. But it can also mean to be pre-occupied or obsessed with a memory or an emotion. So who and what has Jones compiled here with this crowdfunded collection of short stories.

Well, there are a couple of headline acts: Warren Ellis, Tricia Sullivan and Jeff Noon. And a bunch of writers I’ve not come across before. Let’s have a brief look at each of these stories and see what they came up with under the banner concept of haunted futures:

You’re Welcome by Felicity Shoulders

The collection begins with the story of a mother whose daughter has left home and is thinking of getting a dog. Darla, the daughter, disappears and Marit, frantic, tries to piece together the mystery. She uses a system call Genie (which I guess is the future version of Amazon’s Alexa) that provides for you using algorithms. This is an interesting take about control, and getting on with life. Shoulders’ writing is engaging and draws you into the story.

Retirement Plan by Pete Rawlik

We’re now in alien invasion territory. There are ships from somewhere else, but no actual aliens. Rawlik’s tale is like a disaster movie from the point of view of reasonably ordinary folk. There are plenty of ideas from the movies, such as the Mechs and the interiors of the space ships. The theme seems to be about population control. There is talk of terraforming Mars. A fun and satisfying read.

Split Shadow by SL Huang

Huang has written a powerful story about something you don’t usually come across in science fiction; mental health. This feels like a very honest telling. The story concerns friendships amongst what might be perceived as the underclasses – the mentally ill, the addicted, the homosexual. In the future, people can be split into the good parts of themselves and the ill or depraved part. That part doesn’t usually survive, but sometimes… Dora sets up a support group for the splits and finds friendship and hope. It is a very human story that reminded me of Never Let Me Go and Spares.

Futures Past by Thord D Hedengren

What is art? What is life if not art? I really like the premise of this tale, although the execution isn’t quite there. But that’s a personal preference as I’m not a fan of epistolary fiction. A serious of letters from a man to his wife interspersed with her coming out of some kind of medical condition. The slow reveal through the letters is great and the payoff is terrific and quite heart-breaking.

The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency by Tricia Sullivan

I’m quite a fan of Sullivans. She tends to have pretty sharp takes on technology. In this story she takes a look at the future of augmented reality. There is some proper darkness here, as the AR people use has attracted their dead relatives – who won’t leave our protagonists alone. How do we think about death and the dead, when they can still exist with us – but they’re not ghosts! While the previous stories have been good, Sullivan’s skilled prose really stands out in the collection (only really matched later by Noon).

Ghostmakers by Warren Ellis

I didn’t quite get this one. Ellis has written some of my favourite comic books but this is the first time I’ve read his prose. It is good, but left me a little cold, despite having an absolute cracker of an opening line. It reads like a fairly dry, almost technical story of death and doing a job, as the Exotic Crimes Squad goes about its business. It sounds intriguing, but it lost me a little.

Comfort Food by Alex Acks

Another epistolary tale; diary entries from someone who might be described as a network engineer. There are cameras everything and data on everything. Someone has to watched. But there’s a glitch. A ghost. But is it in the network or is it in the person? Half way through, this short also becomes a comment on celebrity worship, as the engineer spots the odd and repetitive behaviour of one of the most famous people on the planet. There’s interesting traces of past and/or future for the reader to ponder. My thoughts are that the ghost is more likely to be in the person than in the machine.

Salvation is a One Time Offer by Armel Dagorn

Another issue not normally found in speculative fiction (unless you’re Neil Gaiman): homelessness. This is an enjoyable story of how a rich and successful salesman of wonder footwear ends up on the streets. In this case, amusingly, he jumps on a health-food bandwagon which has an unfortunate effect! He tells the story to another successful protagonist…and has he infected her too?

Guardian of the Gate by Lynnea Glass

This is the second story in the collection that I just didn’t get. Again, more of a preference thing. This is a second person grand vision of ancients and abysses and galactic gates. I’m not even sure that the story is here as I was totally disengaged.

Spy Drug by Greg Stolze

Meanwhile, this was proper fun. A very short story about the titular drug. I love Stolze’s idea of a drug that can give you the confidence of a Bond-like spy. This is about infidelity and the very nature of existence told via the medium of drug control – or the lack thereof. A confident and entertaining read.

Shift by Liesel Schwarz

Shift is another entertaining piece; this time about a civil war. Humanity has been split into two – the pure humans and animal-human hybrids caused by the integration of animal DNA. More spying and suchlike too. I think that this is also a story of teenage love in adversity. And with the graffiti too, just the struggle of being a young outsider… I love the idea reveal of the gran character. Lots to like here, although I’m not sure of the science in this science fiction – a human to a wren?

Greenwood Green by John Reppion

A real oddity in this collection. Reppion’s story feels like an old-fashioned horror. Set in an abandoned railway station in the middle of a cemetery it is creepy and surprising. The theme turns out to be plants versus animal and it so very effective – especially the scenes ‘out of time’. Readable and enjoyable as a standalone, and while the theme might just resonate with the idea of haunted futures, the style and tone are out of place here.

Future Noir by Michael Grey

The title says it all. This is science fiction noir at its most entertaining. The afterlife has been proved. So how does that affect religion, technology and life itself, when everyone knows that there is more after this existence. But there’s a problem. Of course. How do you solve the first murder in 20 years, when you can communicate with the dead. Grey handles the dilemnas well. A great read.

Remember the Sky by Gethin A Lynes

I have no idea what happens in this story. There are at least two Arks. People want to see the sky. There are leaders. There are population issues. Each passage starts with a meaningless date and population numbers, which don’t seem to relate to the prose. Either I’ve completely missed the point or this is too smart for its own good. I could not find a way into this story at all. Not for me.

Mercury Teardrops by Jeff Noon

Back on deliciously safe ground with Noon. Nobody writes quite like him. We’re in a post-human world. Mind-body duality is considered alongside machine-flesh duality. Technology has failed, so what happens to the technology within a person? And what happens when someone dies and someone loves that person? A key to the success of this story is Noon’s descriptive prose, and his integration of music and the emotions it engenders. Powerful stuff.

As usual with any collection of short stories, some stand out and some simply don’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that they won’t work for you. Tastes vary, but there’s something for most fans of speculative fiction here. And the best thing about collections like this is that they give voice to new or unknown names. I’ll be looking up Greg Stolze, John Reppion and SL Huang for sure… Alex Acks is definitely one to keep an eye on too. For me, the best in this collection come from Noon, Huang and Reppion. Nods to Schwarz, Sullivan, Grey and Stolze.

Haunted? In some case I think these stories hit the brief. The stories about death are particularly germane. There’s not a lot of optimism to be found, but maybe as a species, optimism is undeserved. I think this is an interesting collection of ideas and styles that, with the one contextual misstep, is worth any fan of speculative fiction’s time.

 

 

Note: I contributed to this project via KickStarter. Find out more: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/960264226/ghostwoods-books-our-2014-15-list-of-6-to-8-books

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

WalkawayThere’s a saying that he who dies with the most toys, still dies. In Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, he/she/they who dies with no toys, gets to live forever. What is a walkaway? In this story, someone who abandons normal, or default, society and literally walks away. With nothing. And subsists not in a sharing economy, but within a gifting economy – everything freely given and nothing required in return. A communist utopia where you expect nothing in return for your efforts.

We’re in a climate-change ravaged near future and the rich are richer and more powerful than ever. Hubert, Etc and his friend Seth meet Natalie at a Communist party – where the disaffected young party all night and pour scorn on society’s sheep they see on the morning commute. Except Natalie is the daughter of the very powerful ultra-rich and over-protective Jacob. They decide to walk away, and they meet Limpopo; a natural leader but one who rejects hierarchy. In this extrapolated future, everything (food, clothes, tools, even medicine) can be 3D printed and society is tolerating these walkaway communities. Just about. Life can exist because everyone acts altruistically. Which is anathema to the ultra-rich elite. And Jacob wants his daughter back. Meanwhile, at a walkaway university, researchers and mathematicians have been able to download the consciousness of a dead colleague into a computer. Is this immortality in a utopian society?

Cory Doctorow knows what his subject is and who is readership are. The writing is excellent, if occasionally incomprehensible. This is because he writes in techno-hacker counter-culture lingo. Which is fine if you’re aware of the rules of the game. You need to understand who infowar researchers are and what it means when an infotech goon pwns everything! I imagine that someone less aware wouldn’t have much inkling of what he is talking about. There is plenty of wit and comic satire if you can dig beneath the jargon. It is pretty much on the button too, with even the term ‘snowflake’ included. There is plenty of darkness explored, especially in the relationship between Natalie and her father, but there is always hope that everything will work out, despite the repetition of attacks on our heroes, especially once the post-humans have been stabilised.

The story itself is fine, although is a tad repetitive: sitting around talking about political and ethical philosophy (from what is ownership and property to the intricacies of neurobiology and what life is) followed by a violent attack, someone dies and is put in the computer, move on; and repeat. About half a dozen times. The characters are all interesting with multiple motivations. The good guys are all about love and tenderness and equality – there is gender and sexuality fluidity and every leftist and liberal ideology discussed. And there is an awful lot of discussion. Pages and pages; sometimes in the storytelling, sometimes in character discussions. There is so much detail it almost blows the mind. Doctorow demonstrates what appears to be an immense intellect. Meanwhile, the bad guys are shades of grey. Jacob is motivated by both greed for his power and some misguided emotion for his daughter. Another non-walkaway turns out to be not all she seems. And now those with nothing have created immortality, and the rich aren’t happy.

Proper science fiction this, from Doctorow. A warning of our times. An investigation of what it means to be a human today and where the future might take us. What immortality might look like and how it affects the psyche. A look at the science of today and of tomorrow. And in the vein of many a classic science fiction novel, can a utopia ever work? A few tweaks with the plot would have made me happier. Slightly less discussion and more of the tender human moments such as when Tam listens to Seth putting his slippers on. Those who follow Doctorow’s sharing/hacking/fluid cultural ideologies will get a great deal from this book. Those not familiar, I imagine, will struggle. Not for everyone, but spot on for the few.

I received an ARC from the publisher. Quotation was not allowed.

20 years of Buffy: top 10 vampire novels

Ooh, there’s a bandwagon passing by, may as well hitch a ride…It’s been 20 years since one of my favourite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired in the US (March 10, 1997), so in tribute to all things vampire-y, here are my top 10 novels on said creatures of the night . . .

  1. I am legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

I am legendOK, so not your traditional vampire novel, Matheson’s classic is a post-apocalyptic survival tale. The ‘survivors’ are vampires however; only coming out at night and hoping to feed on the last man alive’s blood. Matheson is such a terrific story-teller and this book really captures the isolation and terror of being the prey. There was also very little like it before!

 

  1. Night Watch by Sergie Lukyanenko (1998)The Night Watch

There’s something oddly enjoyable and readable about this Russian clichéd-ridden nonsense. The dark and the light battle it out in and around Moscow, starring Anton on the light side, reluctantly protecting the ordinaries from vampires and other demons.  I read this for some fluff, but found it very engaging. Oh, there’s also a chosen one motif!

  1. Anno Dracula by Kim Newman (1992)

Anno DraculaApparently, Queen Victoria has married Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Count Dracula. Newman chucks everything into this historical re-imagining of vampire and Dickensian classics, as ‘almost’ good vampire Geneviève Dieudonné investigates the so-called Ripper murders. This a rollicking tale with plenty of nods and winks.

 

  1. Already Dead by Charlie Huston (2005)Already Dead

And talking of almost good vampires, Already Dead constantly reminded me of Blade. Huston’s series of vampire novels is a horror/detective noir mash-up, featuring vampire detective Joe Pitt. Pitt solves cases using extreme violence and Hollywood sardonicism. Manhattan is as much a character in this novel as the humans and supernaturals, as Pitt battles against the various clans of New York.

  1. Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite (1992)

Lost SoulsClassic gothic vampires here, set in the American south. These tortured souls hang out in the Missing Mile club all dressed in black and moping around looking for meaning. Brite’s evocative prose and stark outlook lead to a fascinating and horrific road trip to New Orleans. You can feel the heat in the night.

 

  1. Salem’s Lot by Steven King (1975)Salem_s Lot

It would be remiss of the universe if Steven King hadn’t written a brilliant book on vampires. In only his second novel, King manages to put moments of vampire into everyday cultural context, such as the idea of a vampire floating outside the bedroom window. The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is being infected with vampires. A writer returns to confront his childhood memories. Terror ensues!

  1. The Radleys by Matt Haig (2010)

The RadleysA different kind of vampire story here. The Radleys just want to be a normal family. Left alone. They are vampires but they abstain from feeding. However, the kids don’t know what they are. Yet. Haig really taps into what makes people normal in this increasingly bloody novel. Touching, but great fun too.

 

  1. Fevre Dream by George RR Martin (1982)Fevre Dream

Who knew Martin wrote one of the best vampire novels of all time? Another one set in the American south, this novel features life on riverboats on the Mississippi in 1857. Martin also writes about the idea of a good vampire, but in this case, a quest to unite the vampire race with humanity, which is against the odds of the bad guys. Fevre Dream is a brutal description of vampirism during one of America’s most romantic eras.

  1. Let the right one in by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)

Let the right one inWhat might it be like to really exist as a vampire? To be trapped in a 12 year old’s body but to live for decades? In Sweden? Lindqvist captures 80s life and the terror of changing from a child to something more in this classic. And what of being bullied for being different? And what if you could take revenge? This is an utterly brilliant book about so much more than supernatural creatures that only come out at night. Just like Buffy isn’t about a teenager who slays vampires at High School.

  1. Sunshine by Robin Mckinley (2003)Sunshine

I’ve already said a lot about Sunshine over here. I simply love this book. Mckinley’s writing and characters are evocative, awesome, fun to spend time with, intriguingly damaged and beautiful. Sunshine is a magical baker, but maybe something more supernatural too? When she’s imprisoned with the enigmatic vampire Constantine, she learns so much her life will change forever. Has the vampire fallen for her? Is this Buffy and Angel all over again . . . ?

And no, I haven’t read every vampire book so your favourite probably isn’t on my list and yes, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is intolerably dull and I didn’t like it.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norse-mythologyPerhaps the most striking thing about Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – amazing cover and jacket aside – is that it reads like a Neil Gaiman novel. Indeed, it could possibly fit in as an extended prologue to American Gods. So how is it that an author of comic books, children’s books and the occasional adult novel turn existing myths – from a culture not his own – into something personal and inclusive to all?
Norse Mythology is Gaiman’s interpretation of classic Norse myths, inspired by his personal interest. This stems from Gaiman’s love of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Thor which Gaiman read as a child. So -what we have here is a relatively short retelling – and not a re-imagining – in a series of 16 tales from the dawn of creation to Ragnarok – the Norse end-of-times. You can read each tale in isolation, or taken as a complete piece there is a rough structure, as we’re introduced to all the favourites (Odin, Thor, Loki, Frigg, Baldur, Heimdall, giants, dwarfs and all the rest) and how they came to be the characters that some might know and love.
Is it a novel? I don’t think so. A collection of tales. Certainly. Anyway, the book of stories opens at the beginning of course. We learn how the nine realms and other classic locations (Asgard, Hel, Midgard, Valhallah, and the rest) came into being. We learn of the World Tree – Yggdrasil and the first gods (Buri and Borr) and how it led to Odin becoming the All-father. There are stories of the tribalism between races: Aesir (wise Odin, mighty Thor, beautiful Baldur, etc.), Vanir (Godess of love, Freyr for example, who everyone seems to want to wed), Asynjur (Frigg and Nanna amongst others), the frost giants, other giants, including one who own enormous beer-brewing cauldrons (Hymir), norns, dark and light elves, and creatures such as the giant wolf (Fenrir) who is also the son of Loki (and his other offspring, including Hel, and the world serpent Jörmungandr). It’s amazing how many children these gods have!
And of course we’re introduced to the first humans, created by the gods, Ask and Embla.
So why are they so readable and why has Gaiman made these his own. I’m not familiar with the detail of Norse mythology. I know a little from my younger days and a little more from the Marvel comic book universe. I don’t know how accurate Gaiman’s depiction of the characters or the events are. I’d hazard a guess at them being spot on! But Gaiman’s gods are fallible, human, lusty, lucky, vain, inconsequential, foolish, dumb, brave and mostly fortunate. They make rubbish choices when it comes to life and love. The story of The treasures of the gods tells of how Odin got his arm ring and Thor got his hammer for example, but these gifts are undeserved. Meanwhile, The Death of Balder has a ridiculous plot point. But Gaiman doesn’t try to re-write it. You get a real sense of these characters. Not necessarily as Gods, but as us; prone to error and goodness and, well, being human. Not all the stories are so black and white, hero and villain.
So Gaiman’s re-telling is really the story of how the Norse Gods came by their godly powers. Almost a comic book origin story. It is little different from the Marvel universe . . . give ordinary people powers or tools to make them godlike and they become corrupt. It’s a combination of the humanity Gaimen instils in the characters and his ever-readable, brilliant prose style that makes you feel like this is a fresh and original telling. Witness:
There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to Loki for advice.
And:
“How terrible. How Sad. You have killed my brother,” said Loki. But he did not sound sad. He did not sound sad at all.
This writing has wit and quirkiness and charm. As exemplified above, brevity is perhaps the key. There aren’t long arduous passages of description. This book is the art of storytelling. There’s no criticism of the characters’ actions, nor preaching about the outcomes. Gaiman writes all the right words in all the right places.
Gaiman tells his tales of Norse Gods we can in someway relate to. That is what makes this a terrific book. You don’t need to be a scholar of any mythology, or even a fan of Gaiman’s previous work, to find something here. There are battles and romances, gods die and are reborn, there are lessons and adventures and fun to be had.

The end of my Winter of Weird: Thoughts on The Weird

the-weirdAnd so it comes to end. On 31 October 2016 I embarked on a mission to read the short story anthology The Weird (2012) – edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – from cover to cover, averaging a story per day. I almost achieved the goal, hitting the 110 stories in 117 days. Not too bad, considering all the other stuff I read during the same period, too.

It feels, well, weird, now it’s come to an end. Stories of ghosts and monster, aliens and demons have been with me almost as a comfort blanket for the past 4 months. And yet, as I’ve said before as I’ve marked this quest, it didn’t have any kind of effect on me. I wondered if I’d get creeped out, or even have nightmares. I never get nightmares. Maybe because the stories didn’t get under my skin in the way I’d hoped. I certainly didn’t find a new favourite writer, although some of the authors featured within this anthology will be added to my to-read list.

The Weird, as mentioned, features 110 short stories. Not quite 110 authors as some are featured twice. It is the very definition of a weighty tome; my edition coming in at more than 1100 pages (and featuring two page 800s!). Some of the stories are relatively long: novellas or novelettes almost, depending on your definition. Others are just a few pages. Each story comes with a brief introduction about the author, their notable works and where-else they’ve been published. We have big names and relative unknowns, novelists and short-story specialists. Authors who are known for a particular genre writing in a different one; authors treading familiar ground. The first in this collection is Austrian Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908) and the last is Australian K.J. Bishop’s Saving the Gleeful Horse (2010). Nations covered include Iran (Reza Negarestani), Czech Republic (Michal Ajvaz), Nigeria (Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri), Poland (Stefan Grabinski), Japan (Hagiwara Sakutaro), Benin (Olympe Bhely-Quenum), Italy (Dino Buzzati), Guatemala (Augusto Monterroso) and many others. This is truly a global story of weird fiction. Of course, the usual suspects are all present and correct too: Gaiman, Miéville, Kafka, Barker, Borges, Carter, Aickman, Lovecraft, Peake, Bradbury, King, Walpole, Russ, Ellison, James, Blackwood et al. The oddest name on the list might just be Joyce Carol Oates.

And in the 110 stories, there is something for everything I’m sure. But also probably something for everyone to not get along with too. Out of the pack, while I didn’t engage with a fair few, I can say only one left me completely cold: Singing My Sister Down (2005) from Australian Margo Lanagan felt like an exercise in confusion with no coherent message, plot or empathy for any of the characters, as a ‘weird ritual’ takes centre-stage. It would take too many words to describe and nod to each story on display here. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the classics: Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier (1971); The Snow Pavilion, Angela Carter (1995); The Brood, Ramsey Campbell (1980); The Willows, Algernon Blackwood (1907); Casting the Runes, M.R. James (1911); Mimic, Donald Wollheim (1942) and others.

A couple of nods should go to George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings (1979) and Daniel Abraham’s Flat Diane (2004). The former is a totally enjoyable and unexpected sci-fi romp from the master of fantasy, while the latter demonstrates that you can write about horrible and brutal subjects with poignancy, warmth and beauty. One of the best in this collection…Looking back over the list of stories here, I recall enjoying this little oddity (Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands (1987) by Garry Kilworth) or that complex exploration of weird writing (such as Finland’s Leena Krohn with Tainaron (1985)). In the end, however, there are just dozens of great, odd, disturbing or interesting stories that I will return to in time, such as Brian Evenson’s The Brotherhood of Mutilation (2003) or Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s The Hell Screen (1917).

While science fiction, specifically, evolves as a form of literature over time, reflecting the times and ideas of the culture it comes from, I found that many of the themes here haven’t evolved so. The writing styles have, for sure, and a willingness for experimentation in language and form. However, with one or two exceptions – such as the excellent In the Lion’s Den (2009) from Stephen Duffy that uses CCTV as a plot device – many of the stories that feature later in the anthology could easily have been written in years gone past. No evolution of theme or creepiness or weirdness. A rare comment on our times (war being the most obvious theme here). T.M Wright’s The People on the Island (2005) seems to feature a trapped colony that could just as well come from Kafka or Borges for example. Meanwhile, Hagiwara Sakutaro’s The Town of Cats (1935) could be a companion piece to Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager (2003). It is interesting, however, that I’m always on the lookout for original and unusual styles of writing, and yet it is often the most traditionally written that I’ve enjoyed the most. So maybe it’s the originality of the subject that I’m craving. Something I’ve never read before, such as Mark Samuels’ creepy The White Hands (2003) a metafictional gothic chiller or James Tiptree Jr’s witty The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats (1976).

My absolute favourite: I couldn’t possibly pick one…

Enough! I can’t mention all these stories, although flicking back through my edition I remember some of them fondly and look forward to reading them again. Which probably says a lot about me. Stories of battling cities, creepy cages, ghoulbirds, mysterious strangers and stranger houses, death, captivity, rats, autopsies, devils and a whole lot more have had no adverse effect on my psyche. Which is both odd and deeply satisfying. My Winter of Weird doth conclude, but my personal weirdness continues.

A love letter to books: Fav Re-reads – The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly

the-book-of-lost-thingsIt’s been about 8 or so years since I first read The Book of Lost Things. What this re-read has nicely demonstrated is that memory plays tricks on you. I remember this book as being a sad story which incorporated fairy tales and aspects of World War II. In fact, it is a heart-breaking, beautiful and brutal love letter to books that subverts fairy tales to show how complex humans are.

When I was reading Connelly, I was struck by how beautiful his writing is (“She was night without the promise of dawn, darkness without hope of light” – has the Big Bad ever been described thus?) and how there is so much packed into the 348 pages of my edition. Almost every other page there was something I wanted to make note of. Either a phrase or a passage or idea. The story begins with the horrible premise of a young boy, David, trying to save his terminally ill mother from leaving him by modifying his behaviour; making sure he does everything in even numbers, for example. Connelly shows how the strong their relationship is during the early pages through both their love of books. “…although both were lost in their own individual worlds, they shared the same space and time”. Of course, when she dies David’s father finds love elsewhere. Before long, a grieving and guilt-ridden David has a half-brother getting all the attention. He finds solace in whispering books. (I love the way the books mock David’s doctor when he’s wrong. And Connelly’s description of how a child feels on dealing with a academic is awesome). When he’s transported into a world of fairy tales, he must battle some familiar foes and makes some interesting alliances in order to get back home.

What I especially liked is Connelly’s subversions. In the magical kingdom, a new breed of half-wolves half-men are the result of Red Riding Hood’s sexual perversions (“’Lovely wolf’, she whispered. ‘You have nothing to fear from me.”). Meanwhile, ‘Hansel’ is a little boy who cries while his sister provides – and they punish the woman in the candy house, before ‘Gretel’ abandons her brother. However, these subversions also bring about Connelly’s only real misstep. After the heart-break of David’s real life, he meets a Woodsman. It appears that the adult is torn apart by wolves. David then meets a collective of dwarves and a mean, obese Snow White. The novel descends into a darkly comic treatise on the oppression of the worker. But David is soon back on his journey and witnesses a Huntress slay a deer-girl. The Huntress then gets her comeuppance in the creepiest manner imaginable. The tonal shift from brutal horror and back again for the diversion into Snow White’s world sits uncomfortably with me. But maybe the horrors throughout the book were a bit too much and some levity was required.

I’d also mis-remembered Connelly’s novel as being more of a young adult story. So while it features the emotional growth of a 12 year old boy, this is no book for kids or even young adults. This is an adult book with adult themes and some nasty scenes.

When I first read this book, I hadn’t read all of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I have now, and I hadn’t equated the character of Roland here with King’s tale. Both are a tribute in a way to Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning. Which I’ve not read. In this story, Roland is almost unbearably lonely and has little faith in humanity. Maybe he’s right…There is a theme of the nastiness of war that runs through The Book of Lost Things: in our world it is WWII, while in the magical world, it is the gathering of the wolves (“So you left behind one war, only to find yourself in the midst of another”). Death is unbelievably horrendous in all its forms here. Even the bad guy – the Crooked Man – is only trying to stay alive (although is also incredibly evil). Only the death of a missing girl, Anna, has any real positivity.

I felt the end was a little rushed. The Book of Lost Things isn’t a long novel, but when brave David defeats his enemies and his lessons are learned, the Woodsman unexpectedly reappears and before we know, David is back in ‘our’ world. It was also fairly obvious who the king was and how it reign came to pass. The end of the magical journey happens to quickly without the weight it earned from the rest of the novel.

There is real melancholy and depth and sorrow here. Pain is real and is felt, demonstrably, by the characters here. When David finds Roland’s body, he bends over in agony. Heart-wrenching. Much more than I recalled. However, the title should give it away. The things lost as a child when we finally must grow up. Life is almost unbearably tough at times, and not at all fair. When David’s story concluded, pretty much as the Crooked Man had foresaw, I had a lump in my throat.

I’m very happy that I re-read The Book of Lost Things and I hope that my memory of it remains true. Life is hard. Death is horrible. But Connelly loves books and stories and maybe they are what we need. This ain’t no kids book of fairy tales, but a brilliant, beautiful and brutal work of magic.

82 Weird stories in 93 days

young_daphne_du_maurierSo, in the 93 days since 31 October I’ve managed to read 82 stories from weird fiction compendium The Weird. So odds are that I won’t read the remaining stories in the next 7 days. But hey, I’ll keep ploughing on. There’s actually 110 anyway, so I think they’ll be done by end of February. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest. I thought the process would affect me more. The stories themselves haven’t penetrated me the way I thought they might. Sure, I’ve been inspired and I’ve wrote a short story myself, one that I’d hope would be classified as weird.

I’d kinda hoped that weirdness might infect my dreams and my waking thoughts. I’d wondered if imaginations of ghosts and aliens, strange cities and nightmare futures would creep into the corners of my vision. But nada. Nothing. Not a peep. Not a nightmare. Not a strange dream or an odd occurrence. Damn fiction for promising so much and delivering so little.

I’ve not really ‘discovered’ potential new authors yet. There’ve been a couple who’ve piqued my interest enough to investigate further. Elizabeth Hand and Kathe Koja among them. I enjoyed the imagination and description of Hand’s story, and her prose style generally and the passion and oddness of Koja’s. I’d already planned to read some more Robert Aickman.

But still, as a collection of short stories, there’s been plenty to enjoy. So with 28 stories remaining, here are some of my favourites thus far:

Algernon Blackwood, The Willows, 1907

Daphne Du Maurier, Don’t Look Now, 1971

Donald Wollheim, Mimic, 1942

Elizabeth Hand, The Boy in the Tree, 1989

Paul Wilson, Soft, 1984

Garry Kilworth, Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands, 1987

George R.R. Martin, Sandkings, 1979

Karen Joy Fowler, The Dark, 1991

Kathe Koja, Angels in Love, 1991

M.R. James, Casting the Runes, 1911

Ryunosuke Akutagawa, The Hell Screen, 1917

 

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Daphne_du_Maurier.jpg

On activist fiction: Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny

everything-belongs-to-the-futureEverything Belongs to the Future is the debut fiction novella by renowned author and journalist, Laurie Penny. As well as her non-fiction books exploring gender, sexism and capitalism, she writes The Guardian, The Independent, Salon, The New Inquiry and many more. She is a loud voice who I follow on Twitter. I agree, generally speaking, with her politics, although I haven’t read her non-fiction books, only some of her articles.

Penny crams a decent amount of plot into not so many pages. We’re almost 100 years hence and the rich can almost literally buy time. Or rather an extension of life from the moment they take the medicine; a kind of ‘Fountain of Youth’ wrapped up in a blue pill. We’re in a divided England. The gaps between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever. Specifically, we’re in Oxford. A group of activists are living in a co-op house and are plotting against those who’ve been ‘fixed’. You see, the scientist inventor of this remarkable technology has fallen in with our perfectly representative house-mates. Nina and Alex, Margo and Fidget are the kind of activists that you’d imagine Penny might know in real life. Scruffy, punky, gender fluid and sexually diverse. Which is a good thing in theory but a little obvious from Penny. I’d have liked a little more stereo-type mould-braking.

It was the four of them, Nina and Alex and Margo and Fidget, and they were off to rob the rich and feed the poor. An exercise, as Margo put it, as important for the emotional welfare of the autonomous individual as it was for the collective.

Inventor Daisy, who is all but a child in an old body, has had enough. She wants to fight back and so when she meets our anarchists at a party they’ve crashed, she joins their cause. And they invent a timebomb. And they plan to set it off at the Big Event! But, one of their number is not who they seem and despite falling in love, must betray the group.

Pretty good story but to be honest, I’d have preferred it fleshed out into a full-length novel. I felt that that character development and the reveal of the betrayal plus consequences was a little rushed and quite under-developed. Without giving anything away, too much happens too quickly and like a cheap burger, left me wanting something more substantial after the initial hit.

There is a lot to like about Everything Belongs to the Future but the brevity of the story means that there’s no room for subtly or metaphor. This feels like Penny’s fantasy activist future. A cause that she’d like to fight. She would like our current situation of the power in the hands of the rich elite to escalate so she can be one of her characters and dramatically bring about revolution. It might be a bit too zeitgeisty for its own good, and might date quickly. I’ve not read much other science fiction where early 90s crusty-types persist into the future…but who knows, I guess. Science fiction isn’t about prediction, as such… And yet I admire and agree with the message of the story. It’s really good science fiction. A plausible premise. A divisive technology. A warning about our times. A little dystopic.

The group of activists represent Penny. Clearly. The betrayer should have been a stronger voice in opposition, which would have brought more depth to the story. Again that calls for a longer book. Daisy is the best character, of course, with the most depth. She has so much riding on her moral choices. She knows her choices are monstrous. Penny shows how people can be pushed over the edge:

“I realize it’s an escalation,” said Nina, “and I realize it’s the kind of escalation we’ve never considered before…I hate these people. I hate the suits and I hate the scholars and I hate the state…”…Her voice was flat and a little frightening.

So what about the message? The rich have power and the poor have nothing? It is of course a truism and this might be a plausible extrapolation. Penny is right to highlight it, because in these troubled times, people need to understand the choices they make. People in power never represent the ordinary person, whatever they might promise. The problem with books like this is that they inevitably speak within an echo chamber. Despite being a fine piece of writing, I’m not convinced many outside the choir will be interested in the hymn sheet.

Activist fiction is a difficult trick to master. Dangers of being overly polemic and just being plain shouty are obvious. The author needs to strike a balance between story, characters and message. There’s nothing wrong with Penny’s writing. Her voice is strong. Her prose is enjoyable, well written and very readable. She can tell a story. I think Penny almost gets it, but misses. Probably due to a combination of the strength of her personal convictions and the length of the story. I wish she’d taken more time and written something at least twice the length. I imagine anyone who didn’t have sympathy with Penny’s viewpoints would really take against this book. I enjoyed it for what it was, but would have preferred something greater.

On reading thrillers: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

behind-her-eyesThis is not a review. Maybe. This is not a critique. Probably. This contains spoilers. (Lots of spoilers!) This is a reflection on how Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough made me feel as a reader. I’m not a fan of a thriller. Not that I’m read (m)any. Straight thrillers that is. Not involving the future or horror or supernatural, anyway. I wasn’t going to read this book, because of my prejudices; but I’m a fan of Pinborough’s work (although not everything she writes is of interest) and there was a buzz around that #WTFthatending on Twitter. So I thought I’d give it bash.

After about 80 or so pages I thought I was wasting my time.

This is the story of Louise, David and Adele. And Rob. Very ordinary sounding people. The kind you might meet. Louise is a single mother. Her ex ran off and is having a kid with another woman. She is bringing up her son on a part-time wage. David and Adele are a married couple. She’s a lady who lunches, and does the gym. He’s a head doctor. Louise works for him at the clinic. Rob is Adele’s old friend from more troubled times. All very normal. All very ‘not my cup of tea at all’. And how to make an interesting thriller out of all this? Is it going to be about just relationships?

Obviously, not all is what it seems. Louise and David met in a bar before David joined the clinic where Louise works. They’re having a thing. Adele knows about it. She had a troubled childhood, from which David saved her. She spent time in a clinic where she became best friends with Rob. Rob who went missing. David is very unhappy in his marriage. Louise doesn’t have many friends and is a little overweight, and befriends Adele. OK, so some elements of a thriller there.

I wouldn’t say Behind Her Eyes typifies my problem with thrillers (and mysteries and crime novels), but it shines a light on them. Which makes me glow as a hypocrite. I love metafiction. I enjoy the concept of the author and the book playing games with the reader. I love it when the fourth wall breaks. When the characters are aware that they are fiction. All these elements hold true with thrillers of this type, but the pretence of being ‘real’ remains. My spot-lit issue. In Behind Her Eyes the story is told mostly from the first-person perspective of both Adele and Louise, alternating chapters. Occasionally, a chapter called ‘Then’ comes in, which is a third-person view of Adele’s old relationship with Rob. If this was metafiction, Adele and Louise would be aware that they are fiction. In this, they are not, but they still talk to the reader. But who are they really talking to? This isn’t epistolary fiction. So. They play games with the narrative, only revealing small clues about what they know, or in Adele’s case, her manipulation of the characters. Especially in the last paragraph or sentence of a chapter. Which is all fine, by the way. Just not a style I’m comfortable with.

And yet. And yet I fully engaged with their stories, by Chapter 18. By this point Adele (therefore Pinborough) was being more open with the reader that she was indeed playing both Louise, and us. It is interesting, following an author on social media. You get the occasional glimpse into their life. And then when you’re reading their book, you wonder…I’ve seen that Pinborough enjoys a glass of wine. As does Louise here. There is more reflection on social media and fiction required… Another time. Anyway. Pinborough really engaged me with her characters. Her writing is fluid and lacks complication or pretention. Very readable. But it is deliberatively manipulative. I’m not sure I like that, outside the realms of metafiction.

It was Chapter 18 when hints of supernatural are dropped in the story. My pique rose. Not such a straight thriller after all. I now couldn’t wait to keep reading this story. I was being sucked in by the breadcrumb trail. Is this because I knew it was about supernatural or because of the story? After all, if it wasn’t supernatural, I might not have been interested in the marital and psychological games being played out. Throughout, Pinborough drops hints and clues, which at the time, seem incidental or simply setting up characters. Early on, Adele insists in seeing Louise’s little flat. Does she think she’s better than Louise and wants to prove it? Later, it is revealed that for the supernatural elements to work, the dreamer must be able to picture the place that they want to visit. Nicely done.

So to the #WTFthatending of Behind Her Eyes. Can a whole book be a deliberate ploy to sell an ending. Is it a cop out? I know a lot of people were bummed out by the film version of The Prestige. They felt like they’d been played. When the end came, here, I’d already sort of got, and it made a whole lot of sense. Almost like the scene at the end of The Sixth Sense when all the clues are laid out for Bruce Willis’ Malcome Crowe, I could picture all the moments that led to the reveal. I liked it. But then the coda. Less obvious, and much less sign-posted. It felt almost tacked-on. Not really necessary. The conclusion of Louise’s story was enough of pleasing #WTFthatending for me.

Thrilling, no? Manipulative, yes. Is that a good thing? I felt I’d been played a little, from the start. Maybe if I read it again, I’d see more evidence of the coda being set up. I remember the feelings Rob had around David when they first met, but as this was the third-person perspective, it didn’t read as a clue.

I can’t decide if I loved this book. Probably not. Just liked. Not as much as I’d loved Pinborough’s The Death House. I think had Behind Her Eyes ended without the coda, that would have been enough and I would have enjoyed it more. I’m sure others will love it. After all, it is so very well written; engaging and interesting and yes, a page-turner. It isn’t enough to make me want to pick up another thriller, but I was very happy that it became a supernatural story. Otherwise I doubt I’d have cared. The dreaming elements gave the story more heft for me. Although Louise and David were empathic characters of course. I suppose I don’t like being played. If someone – the author – is messing with me as a reader, I prefer the characters to let me know they’re in on the game. But that’s just me. Enjoy Behind Her Eyes; if nothing else, if you take away my prejudices, it’s a damn fine read.

 

I read an eARC for Behind Her Eyes kindly supplied by Net Galley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

Update: Several hours after finishing reading Behind Her Eyes it occurred to me that this is a better book than I give it credit for, as it has made me think about the nature of fiction and what it means to me. So that’s a good thing and important too. Books should make you think and so Pinborough has achieved a vital service to me, and I hope to others too.

Reflections on what I liked in the 31,536,001 seconds of 2016

Time for the annual reflection on all things geekery that occurred to me in the previous 31,536,001 seconds. 2016 was a bleak year for sure, but there was much joy to be had from the creation of fiction. As ever, I’m always on the look out for something a tad different and unusual, so before the top books, honourable mentions should go to: Making Wolf by Tade Thompson (looking forward to reading Rosewater soon), Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Race by Nina Allen.

In total I read 39 fiction novels, listened to 10 audio books, read 6 nonfiction books and 3 novellas and half a book of short fiction (The Weird – my Winter of Weird shall continue). Plus some graphic novels. According to GoodReads, my year looked like this: https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2016/6304958

Thusly, in order:

The Thing Itself (2105) by Adam Roberts. I thought that this was smart and funny and creatively unique. It had me gripped and interested in both the characters and story from the outset.

the-thing-itself

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014) by A S King. How can I relate to a teenage girl in the USA? King’s genius characterisation and story telling! Bonkers and brilliant and heart-warming and bleak and reaffirming.

glory-obriens-history-of-the-future

All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders. A refreshing mash up of science fiction and fantasy that was engaging and funny and I can’t wait to read what Anders comes up with next.

all-the-birds-in-the-sky

Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. See Glory re: Meche; only in Mexico in the 1980s. Mix tapes! Magic. Complex teenagers being wonderful and difficult.

signal-to-noise

A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) by Becky Chambers. There is more humanity in Chambers’ pages than in most other science fiction and the mind-body dualism is a great story-telling device.

a-closed-and-common-orbit

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) by B S Johnson. Metafiction. Raging against the machine. Why this isn’t a classic along the lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four I have no idea.

christie-malrys-own-double-entry

Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson. A prescient look at politics and people dressed up as a science fiction spy thriller. What’s not to love about Hutchinson’s wit and verve! (Also, currently reading the final book in the series.)

europe-in-autumn

I think there’s some pretty damn fine books there!

My history of science fiction challenge continued. Slowly. As usual. What? There are lots of books to read. I spent a while trying and failing to get a hold of an English translation of Ravages (1943) by René Barjavel but my favourite wot I read was Swastika Night (1937) by Murray Constantine. I also finished reading all of Vonnugut’s novels in order too. I might try that again. I’ve been thinking about Philip K Dick, but that’s a lot of books…

Moving on.

I saw 31 films for the first time. My favourites in no particular order were: Midnight Special, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, The Lobster, Tale of Tales, Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Crimson Peak, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Meanwhile, the absolute stinkers were: Batman V Superman, Independence Day: Resurgence and Jurassic World.

And some TV I’ve enjoyed: Stranger Things, Luke Cage, Black Mirror, Daredevil, Agent Carter, Better Call Saul, Penny Dreadful, iZombie, House of Cards, Preacher. Yes, I like things bleak and funny and nostalgic when I’m chilling in front of the telebox.

Finally, some comic series I’ve enjoyed are: The Wicked and the Divine (although I’m getting a bit bored of it now – why can’t these things just have shorter runs? – I’m looking at you, Saga), Injection, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Scarlett Witch, Kill or Be Killed, Monstress, Paper Girls, Negative Space, Deadpool Max and Ms Marvel.

Shout out to a couple of podcasts too, that mean my to-read list is ever expanding: Robin and Josie’s Bookshambles (must read some Steve Aylett) and Backlisted (where I heard about the Johnson).

So there. Thank you to all the creatives, artists, writers, directors and others whose vision and talent have brightened by life while the world crumbled.