Archive for Book Reviews
Smilowitch and Blackwood Publishing
September, 2013; $12.95 PB
Reviewed by Josh Black
Originally published in 2008, this 2013 reprint is technically David Fingerman’s first short story collection. A strong Twilight Zone vibe runs through the pages, but it isn’t just mimicry. Fingerman’s voice brings a distinctive flavor to the stories, drawing readers through the cracks of reality to see what’s just beyond. Divided into sections grouped by characters’ ages, the collection as a whole looks at the encroachment of the uncanny through all of life’s stages.
The first section, “Too Young To Know Any Better”, features stories in which the main characters are children. Most are creepy cautionary tales. There are killer toys, cursed objects, and the kinds of places and people your parents told you to stay away from. The stories here read very much like grown-up versions of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, and kids of all ages will delight in the darkness.
In the next section, “Old Enough To Know Better”, the characters are in their twenties and thirties. Some are aimless, others socially deviant, and some are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ll come across alternate dimensions, ill-fated love, and a healthy dose of revenge by way of dark magic.
The journey through life continues in “Is This A Mid-Life Crisis?”, and crisis is quite an understatement. Here are bad habits with eternal consequences, a supernatural prison break, post-apocalypse vacationing, and fear of the dark leading to a very unexpected outcome.
The autumn years of life are reflected on in the final section, “Senior Moments”. Keeping with the rest of the book, these moments are anything but quiet. Death sentence reality shows make an appearance, as do scheming souls, cannibals, serial killers, and snow crabs. Yes, snow crabs.
Edging Past Reality does a good job of setting the stage for Fingerman’s next collection Two Degrees Closer to Hell, which tends to speculate on the afterlife. It’s also an entertaining, wonderfully macabre book in its own right. The unique structure gives a sense of progression, and the single-idea-based, no-frills approach of the stories is refreshingly old-fashioned. Fingerman’s stories bring to mind those of Matheson, Beaumont and Nolan. If much of what’s here seems familiar, it’s in a comforting sort of way. Edging Past Reality is a fine and twisted collection, a perfect choice for when you just want something to escape into.
By Todd Keisling
Precipice Books, 2011, $12.95, 179pp.
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
Todd Keisling is the author of A Life Transparent and The Liminal Man, both of which deal with the character of Donovan Candle: a rather ordinary person who works hard at the mundane things of life so he can take care of his family and not be troubled with the more important aspects such as happiness and satisfaction and self-fulfillment. The fact that he inadvertently gets involved in rather bizarre situations is what gives these two novels the cutting edge they need to stand above the rest.
The novel, A Life Transparent, is the first in this series and introduces the reader to Donovan Candle and the boring job he has as a telephone salesman. He tries to make the everyday quota of sales and to work his way up the ladder to a better position, but his heart just isn’t in it. That doesn’t stop him from being disappointed when he doesn’t get the expected raise or promotion.
When Candle leaves work, he goes home to a wonderful wife. However, truth be told, he’s bored with his marriage as well, but attempts to hide it from his spouse. He does admire his brother, and the freedom the man has as a private detective. He even uses his brother as the main character in a novel he’s been working on for years, but can’t seem to finish.
In other words, Candle’s life is weary, tedious, and uninteresting. He’s not happy with the ways things are, but hey, that’s life.
Things, however, begin to slowly change as Candle starts seeing bizarre apparitions and appears to become transparent to those around him. The man believes he’s becoming crazy. All of that really takes a dive for the worse when Candle’s wife is abducted by a mysterious stranger, who believes he needs a little excitement in his rather boring life. To get his wife back, Candle has to find a person who somehow managed to escape the clutches of the stranger. Unfortunately, once the person is found, Candle realizes that he’s in for a bigger fight…one he might not win without the help of his brother.
What makes this story so good is the underlying theme about how so many people are truly bored with their jobs and marriages and lives. Boy, did this novel hit the nail on the head. The fact is that the majority of people fit this description to a tee. They’re living their lives with a ho-hum attitude and don’t know how to change things for the better or to escape their dire predicament.
What Todd Keisling offers the reader is a supernatural answer to their apparent dilemma, which will hopefully open their eyes to the reality of their life and how lucky they actually are. Often times it takes something drastic to wake a person up so they can see what’s really holding them back. In most cases, it’s simply themselves and their fear of achieving the things they want.
A Life Transparent makes you think and question your own life and how to change a negative into a positive without having to go through what Donovan Candle experiences.
I’m avidly anticipating the second book in the series, The Liminal Man, and finding out where Donovan Candle is in his life and how he’s changed it so he experiences more happiness and fulfillment with his wife, the upcoming child, and his new job with his brother. I suspect that novel will make the reader think as well, which is always good. We need to be questioning our lives so we know if we’re on the right path or not. Books that make you think and question your reality are simply the best, and I wish there were more of them for the readers out there.
Henry Holt & Co.
Hardcover, young adult, $16.99, 272 pages,
November 5, 2013
Review by Amy Shane
Wickedly haunting from the first breath.
What an ironic place for a beginning… at the end of everything. For Merciful and her brother Gospel, they thought it was just the two of them at end of their own little world, until the dead rose from the basement to tell them otherwise.
In a world that’s growing increasingly thin and frail, Merciful and Gospel must find a way to remain, even if that means embracing the words of the animal-like minister and listening to the dead ramblings of the creature living inside their dead mothers body.
Caught in the space between child and adult, Merciful and Gospel must make decisions that affect their lives but also that of the world. When their mother dies, their world seems to die with it. Surrounded by snow, and trapped within their home, the cold creeps in all around them. Quickly, Merciful and Gospel find that they are running out of supplies to survive. Other than the old widow who is walking distance away, they are without a wisp of a soul to run to.
With the body of their dead mother under the table in the cellar, guilt rises up in Merciful’s throat and slowly begins to choke her, while her dead mother’s distant lullaby haunts her. All the while, the one thing they need to fear is the more sinister than holy minister, who preaches from his animal form. He watches with his yellow eyes, leaving discontentment and uneasiness, making sure God’s rules are enforced at any extent.
With echoes of the dead haunting them, they soon realize that they are the last ones living in a broken world, one that is so lonely and corrupt that even God himself has turned his back on it. It is a world so thin that other worlds can breach the veil and speak through their dead.
A dark fantasy horror, this book has an intrigue that sets it apart from all others, hitting on points that form together to create a great horror. It is a world where the dead stored in the cellar speak from beyond the grave. Each corpse, with its own motive, wants to pull you under their own spell. When the only creature left to speak is a God made creature that preaches the Lord’s will, you soon realize the end is near for Merciful and Gospel, leaving you fearing that it might just be the end of the world.
A story that is wickedly enthralling, it closes the door on what we know of our world, forcing us into an alternate realm. It is a world of time that has passed them by, one that is vanishing within a fog, taking with it pieces of their own world along with literal pieces of them.
Jason Vanhee is a fresh voice giving a new perspective to Y.A. horror, with his own unyielding writing style which grips you and pulls you into its evil lair. It haunts you with its lullaby, even after you close the cover.
Young adult, hardcover, 352 pages
Reviewed by Amy Shane
In a world where daughters were married off as soon as possible, with no chance of being anything but a helpmate to a husband, Rowan knows she is lucky to have a father who values a girl’s mind, seeing her equally as great as any scholarly son.
With dreams of journeying down the mountain pass to see the palace city with her own eyes, Rowan knows her secret longing will one day be fulfilled, as she uses her studies as a key to the palace. So when five palace riders on horseback thunder through the village on their way up the mountain, Rowan knows her destiny is about to change. However, destiny can’t be pre-determined, and when an enchanting stranger, instead of the riders, emerges from the forest, destiny is about to take shape. This changes Rowan’s life in a way that even she can’t be prepared for when the dead bodies of the riders are discovered. Rowan’s destiny is about to intertwine with something so vile and sinister, no one is considered safe.
So, when Fiona, a scarlet hooded beauty with raven hair and snow white skin appears in the village, Rowan starts to lose that which she holds most dear. She soon learns that her best friend Tom has been enchanted by the beauty of Fiona, leaving him vulnerable to the allure that befalls him, opening the door to wickedness itself.
Soon, Rowan is plagued with images as if they were “painted on the back of her eyelids by a wicked hand” as death rips out the throats of those that are close to her. Like two words etched in the snow, “it’s starting,” death silently ravages the night, like a vile creature creeping over her. Fear is suddenly awakened with a rumble deep in the woods of something too large to be any animal. A scream pierces the dead of night, sharp and beyond recognition, ripping a new pain of loss through the village where the stench of crimson blood can be tasted in the air, and bringing with it a sinister beast that comes to rest upon the village, feeding with its insatiable appetite upon the villagers. It is a beast that can only be described as one that has gaping wounds for eyes, needle sharp teeth, and rotting breath smelling of dirt and death. The forest suddenly becomes a place in which the devil stalks between the trees, leaving Rowan the only person to discover how to save the village and kill the beast.
In a story where secrets are meant to be kept, The Glass Casket, reads like a classic horror straight from the Brothers Grimm, a tale that was meant to be told, a door opened, and life begun. It is where secrets resurface in the face of a beauty, and death lingers in the shadows. Horrific and gruesome at times, McCormick Templeman knows how to deliver in the world of horror.
Speartip (UK), 2012
Speartip (UK), 2013
Vampire “ Unleashed”
Speartip (UK), forthcoming
By Lee McGeorge
Paul McGovern is a mild, retiring writer, fresh from the university, about to spend six months in Romania working on a series of can’t-miss blockbuster novels.
He is also a vampire.
The qualification stems from the fact that in this trilogy (two novels completed, one more to come) Lee McGeorge fundamentally redefines vampire in some fascinating and frustrating ways.
When McGovern arrives in Romania, he discovers that his new apartment is in a featureless, Communist-era concrete block; the room is as uninviting as the landscape, with no hot water and intermittent electricity and heating. On his first day there, he is accosted in the street by two men, one of whom threatens to castrate him. Shortly thereafter, the same two men severely beat him, this time in the foyer of his own building. With each confrontation, he retreats further and further into himself, his suffering ameliorated only by his acquaintance with a young woman, Ildico.
As much as Ildico becomes a savior-image to McGovern, she also introduces him to a key local belief that ultimately alters him completely: vampires. At first he scoffs at the idea, going so far as to visit a mysterious gravesite deep in the surrounding forests. But as events progress, he is drawn further and further into the realm of myth and legend, even while struggling to rationalize both the idea and its effects on him.
Early in Vampire “Untitled,” his perceptions shift:
A vampire wasn’t some mythical creature that transformed into a bat and flew in the night to drink blood. A vampire was a man capable of inflicting cruelty and violence. Someone who could enact such violence and believe his actions were just. (123)
And yet…. And yet as Vampire “Untitled” nears its conclusion, McGovern sees himself as somehow transformed, not into a bat but into a creature haunted by visions of bloody and gruesome revenge, by the image of an ice-white naked man just on the periphery of his vision, and by the memories of brutal murders he has himself committed.
Vampire “Untitled” brings McGovern to Romania and ends as he plans his escape back to London…to avenge himself on an unsuspecting woman. It introduces the complex ramifications of assigning vampirism as a species of human psychological aberrations triggered by some evil force within the forest. It establishes the changes in McGovern’s core personality, doing so gradually, through frequent dreams and near-fugue states that might or might not reflect reality. The pacing is careful, cadenced, and convincing as events lead to a bloody climax.
In Vampire “Unseen,” McGovern is in London, plotting his revenge for a months-old slight and assaulting or slaughtering anyone who gets in his path. But things are not going to go smoothly for him; unknown to him, a Romanian detective, Corneliu Latis, has been reassigned to follow McGovern, to penetrate his several disguises, and to capture him…or kill him. Latis is now affiliated with a super-secret Romanian hospital/think tank devoted to understanding the pathology of the disease that will—or at least should—degenerate McGovern’s cognitive processes and ultimately kill him. But McGovern is not following the recognizable pattern; he is in fact becoming quicker, stronger, more cunning and capable…and more violent. At the end of the volume, Latis has joined forces with an unexpected and unusual underground figure who can provide him with the funds and the protection to follow McGovern.
The as-yet-unpublished third volume, Vampire “Unleashed” promises to explore the think tank further, to penetrate to the roots of vampirism as it has been redefined, and to bring McGovern’s story to a conclusion one way or the other…and along the way to spill countless gallons of blood in any number of violent confrontations.
In redefining the vampire, McGeorge has established the boundaries—or lack thereof—of what is appropriate and inappropriate for his novels. There is no lack of harsh language; no lack of intensely bloody scenes; no lack of overtly sexual actions and, perhaps worse, imaginings that somehow blend uncomfortably with reality in ways that even the characters do not understand. Certainly not for timid or tepid readers, the Vampire novels establish a creature outside of human norms, one whose entire being is devoted to carnality and violence. And they plays fair with the creature in how they tell his story.
Edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall
October, 2013; $19.95 PB
Reviewed by K. H. Vaughan
In the introduction to Mothership, editors Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall describe their love of science fiction and the process of coming to terms with the absence of people of color in meaningful roles. One need look no further than the monolithic Whiteness of the Star Wars universe with its sinister Orientalist Trade Federation, Gungan minstrel show and lack of voice or official recognition for the Wookie sidekick at the end of Episode IV to see it. The state of SF today is not substantially better, films like The Matrix trilogy aside. It is an issue pervasive throughout speculative fiction. Fantasy continues to focus on mythological versions of Europe that are less ethnically diverse than Europe actually was, and minorities are most commonly exotic foreigners or orcs. Horror is also dominated by a majority male perspective. Minorities and women occupy a limited space, often relegated to villain status or specific non-threatening secondary roles. The half-life of the Black friend in most horror films is relatively short.
Even when there is some effort to change this, by writers who hold a more progressive view of the future and seek to do more than simple tokenism, the overall trend is to add color but in ways that carefully avoid issues of race. When a vision of the future is made color blind, it so often does so by glibly dismissing the issue: the post-racial future somehow has arrived, but as far as how that happened, the large body of SF is silent on the issue. It recalls South Park’s underpants gnomes: stage one, racism and sexism. Stage three, no racism and sexism. There are very few narratives that deal with the difficult transition process, except those displaced into human-alien relations and then either carefully controlled (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was modified the studio after initial screenings to include a less violent and revolutionary ending) or revisionist/apologetic (the heroic White Male saving the indigenes as per Avatar).
When the post-racial future is presented in speculative fiction, if people of color even exist it is nearly always after assimilation into a culture built on the assumptions of contemporary neoliberalism. That is, the subtext almost always suggests that the color of your skin won’t matter in the future as long as everyone is on the same page culturally, with minor exceptions allowed for a hint of flavor. Aesthetic differences such as clothing and food preferences are embraced, as is the occasional cute accent or green sex partner, but meaningfully different perspectives and belief systems are nearly always relegated to alien species that are culturally primitive. You may be welcome as a person of color in the future, but only on terms that the majority can comfortably accept. The stories of Captains Janeway and Sisco are set well away from the cultural core and seat of power. Everyone will ultimately be assimilated, even if the process is less aggressive and intrusive than the Borg invasion.
Yes, there are exceptions. I can name many, but those anecdotes do nothing to counteract the overall historical trend. The base-rates are the base-rates, and the past and present are what they are.
Despite the ongoing ugly and public displays of vitriol and privilege on the internet around the proper place of women and writers of color in speculative fiction, I think there is evidence that we are on the edge of change whether people like it or not. It is not the case that writers of color haven’t been around, but their visibility and influence have been historically constrained. With the international reach of the internet and explosion in small presses, the playing field is tipping in a more inclusive direction, and anthologies by, about, and for people of color are becoming more common. The first that I am aware of (please note, I am not claiming expertise), Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, (Sheree Renée Thomas, ed.) was released in 2000 and followed by Dark Matter: Reading the Bones in 2004. Since the publication of Dark Matter’s first volume, the pace of such publications has increased at an accelerated rate, including Mojo: Conjure Stories edited by Nalo Hopkinson (2003), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan (2004), Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace L Dillon (2012), AfroSF edited by Ivor Hartmann (2012) and We See a Different Frontier: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad (2013). There are also a number of exciting titles slated for 2014 release (see my recent contribution to SF Signal’s Mind Meld). It suggests that, despite all the grumbling from some who seem to like their speculative fiction white and male, different voices and perspectives are increasingly available. The stories in Mothership reflect this general trend. It includes one reprint from 1978, but most of the reprinted stories date from the late 1990s onward, and about half of the pieces are newly published in this volume. Campbell and Hall have selected forty pieces from an impressive international group of writers. There is some flash fiction, but most appear to be in the 3000 – 5000 word range.
I would offer a note of caution for potential readers who may not know about Afrofuturism as a larger cultural movement. The cover art and introduction to Mothership explicitly evoke the science fiction genre. I confess I was expecting, based on these factors, more stories set in the future. Many, if not most, would be traditionally described as something other than SF: a mix of horror, fantasy, and magical realism. Afrofuturism is a broad cultural movement in music, art, and literature that can be difficult to pin down, and does not need to be defined by me. In a sense, that’s part of the point: it isn’t simply about Black people in spaceships, but a broader examination of the experience and perspective of people influenced by the African Diaspora and colonial legacies. It purposefully does not conform to the standard genre boundaries established by mainstream commercial publishing. The term may conjure visions of Afronauts, but the text itself seems designed to force the reader to not only question the role of race and ethnicity in speculative fiction, but to challenge the preconceptions and systems that shape writing as a process and industry. The aesthetic of the movement is anti-hegemonic and revisionist, and not just about getting a more representative sampling of faces in the same whitewashed stories. Does it matter if it conforms to expectations for what science fiction is? It might from a pure marketing standpoint. But the point for the reader who wants to see a diversity of perspectives is that the anthology shouldn’t conform to your expectations of what it should be. Then it would just be the same stories written by different people, not different stories. There is, however, a risk that some readers will have trouble adjusting when the content doesn’t seem to match their expectation set up by the cover and introduction. They should get over it and enjoy the work.
The stories in the anthology are of high quality overall, but when part of the goal is to open the door to a broad range of styles, you can expect that not all of them will resonate with you equally as a reader. But if a particular piece doesn’t, it won’t be because of bad writing. From a technical aspect, the writing is well-crafted throughout. In terms of the selection and arrangement of the table of contents, the editors are successful in varying the pace, length, and tone in order to keep the overall flow of the anthology smooth but interesting. It is a great read.
Ultimately, the volume introduced me to many writers I did not know, and a lot of narratives that don’t fit the standard model that dominates commercial science fiction in film, television, and publishing. I was honestly expecting more stories that would pull me out of my comfort zone or that pushed boundaries further, but it also gave me a lot to think about. I’ll take all the quality, thought-provoking speculative fiction I can get. Mothership is an unqualified success, both as an effort to promote writers of color and more diverse ideas of what speculative fiction is, and as an effort to edit a volume of great stories.
Fans of horror and dark fiction will find plenty of stories within this volume that will scratch that particular itch.
Nick Andors, writer and illustrator
2013; $15.95 PB
Reviewed by Elaine Pascale
A Frozen World is a graphic novel that combines four stories about the various inhabitants of Irongates: a stretch of dystopian urban buildings where characters from the grotesque tradition reside.
The alternate world of Irongates is dark: the images are black and white with an inky resonance. Some pages are quite busy with many panels and small script. The language is poetic and there is a nice consistency to the drawings, making it feel as if the characters belong to a particular space and time. Andors is an accomplished artist: grief and sadness become beautiful on the otherwise unattractive visages. The city setting is gritty and desolate, yet pulsing with an unsettling energy. Irongates becomes a character in much the same way that the Overlook becomes a character in Stephen King’s The Shining.
The first story (or “Link” as it is called) is “Flight of the Nocturnal Vulture.” The unnamed main character introduces us to Irongates by way of a nighttime cigarette quest. Andors lets the images tell the story here. He creatively depicts the main character tumbling among the buildings, intertwined with the structures in a variety of poses that reminded me of Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers.” The buildings appear to be the character’s playground, his familiar yet confining backdrop, and also his burden. The character’s relationship to his environment is like a dysfunctional parent/child relationship: he wants to be free of his surroundings, but he is too much a part of Irongates.
Link 2 “Dying Love” demonstrates the need for “Body Patrolmen”–people who remove the corpses that litter alleyways and sidewalks. This type of employment says a lot about its city. The callous treatment of the dead is paralleled with a macabre love story that does not end with death.
Link 3 “Anneka’s Story” is one of resilience. Anneka, often naked, and always ridiculously coiffed, is a solitary avenger of the evils of Irongate. I enjoyed this link, but I really wanted more of the diabolical The Hand–Irongates’ criminal ruler. The writer in me was intrigued with all of the possibilities of The Hand’s story and connections to the other characters.
Link 4 “A Cold Farewell” is a quiet look at science as an almost illogical addiction. It was a brief link, but it told a full story of the pain of flying “too close to the sun” in a world encompassed by shadows.
A Frozen World, with its violence and nudity, is for adult audiences. The ambiance is claustrophobic and bleak, countered with imaginative and visually interesting images. The sedated characters provide a curious counterpart for the energetic art. Despite being haunted by the stories, I am glad that I took the time to pound the pavement of A Frozen World.