A Matter of Blood by Sarah Pinborough – Review

sarahpinboroughamatterofbloodI know I’m way behind on this one, but for a couple of years I avoided reading Sarah Pinborough’s A Matter of Blood, book one of The Dog-Faced Gods trilogy. I was afraid that, in comparison to the author’s BFS Award-winning novella, The Language of Dying, (which dredged up the classic fairy-tale image of a unicorn from the depths of the collective unconscious and shoved it onto the page in all its raw and wild glory) a crime-thriller with supernatural overtones might seem shallow. Then I opened it. I read the first paragraph. The first page. By the end of the first chapter my imagination was hungry for the next. It went on like that for the rest of the book. I would read it when I should have been writing. When I should have been talking to my family at the dinner table. I’d wake up at two in the morning and, instead of trying to go back to sleep, I’d use the excuse of ‘insomnia’ to guiltily read for another hour or so. Just one more chapter. Just one more chapter.

Then it ended.

Luckily, it’s the first of a trilogy.

Set in a near-future London where the all-too-familiar financial crisis and austerity have nearly wiped out any pretence at civilized society, the story follows Cass Jones, a troubled London DI on the hunt for a serial killer who has rather a fixation with flies. Especially their eggs. (Eeew. I mean, really—just eeew.) What Cass doesn’t know is that he’s connected to this killer in ways he can’t imagine, and when this case dovetails into another, involving what appears to be an accidental shooting of two young boys, he begins to suspect nothing is as it seems.

Now, little is unique in a tortured cop pursuing a sick serial killer on a case that gets personal. What is unique is Pinborough’s skill at racing this story along, all the while drip-feeding more and more eeriness into each chapter, until at last we’re left wondering whether not just the serial killer but Cass himself is even human. Why, for instance, can he see the occasional flash of gold in people’s eyes? There’s a suggestion here that we humans are a failed bloodline, walking around half-asleep, unaware of who our real masters are, so that what started as a manhunt widens out into what seems a global conspiracy involving beings that could be angels, could be demons, but are more likely some weird mixture of the two. Are these the Dog-Faced Gods of the trilogy’s title? Dunno. They have human enough faces. (And we actually find out what the Dog-Faced Gods are at one point, or at least one possible explanation for them, but I’m not giving that part away.)

Little of course gets answered in this first book other than some of the superficial details of the two cases Cass works on, which leaves a whole world of strangeness left to unfold over the next two novels. Keep an eye out for their reviews coming up. Also be watchful for reviews of Pinborough’s latest two, Mayhem and Poison, both of which have published in the last couple of weeks. (While I wish her well, I do hope she can’t keep this pace up. A novel a week? Sheesh! How’s a reviewer to cope?)

Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan – Review

blood and feathers coverWith Blood and Feathers, Lou Morgan has delivered a witty debut novel that not only entertains but manages deftly to explore the nature of good and evil along the way. It follows Alice, who comes home one day to find herself unexpectedly mixed up with a bunch of angels—that’s right, the guys with wings who fight Lucifer and his band of fallen, most vividly portrayed, methinks, by Gustave Doré. But, unlike Doré’s classic representations, these angels don’t wear white flowing robes and blow long thin trumpets. They wear hoodies (some of them, anyway; some wear suits and ties, others jeans), drink from hip-flasks, and wield guns. Kind of like Milton meets The Matrix, with a bit of Dante thrown in for good measure.

Alice is related to this angelic host in ways she never imagined, and spends much of her time in hiding being slowly drip-fed information about who her long-lost mother was, who she herself is, and what powers she has. (I won’t say anything about those powers other than that, even though they’re basic,  they’re pretty damn cool.) Not much happens otherwise in the first half of the book, except for a few close escapes from Lucifer’s soldiers, so it can feel at times like the story isn’t going anywhere too quickly. But the info Alice gets is info we as readers want (and it’s mesmerizing stuff, to boot), so the pages rarely feel heavy. They turn rapidly enough to keep you going, especially since Morgan has given her main character such a healthy dose of smart-ass that the dialogue fizzles with wit.

The last half of the novel is where the real action takes place. I wish Doré were alive today, because I’d love to see his depictions of the battle of angels Morgan has crafted. (Perhaps a graphic novel might be forthcoming?) Here, also, is where our loyalties begin to waver. What’s going on, and who does Alice side with? As I said earlier, Morgan manages to explore the fine line between the bad good guy and the good bad guy, and we’re not left with any easy answers at the novel’s conclusion. I’d want neither Lucifer nor the Archangel Michael as my manager, so to speak. And I don’t think Alice would, either. Problem is, she’s stuck with these guys.

If I had any reservation, it was that, in a novel that demands we accept angels and Lucifer as real, no attempt is made to show how that reality relates to the likes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Norse mythology, or any other religion or myth cycle outside Christianity. For a while, it seemed there was some suggestion of a connection with Ancient Greece, in that an entity named Charon inhabits Hell. But I was left confused by this minor character, as all the other names, such as Xaphan and A’lbiel, refer to the standard Judeo-Christian angels. Since Morgan does such a skilled job of having all her characters dance the line between good and evil, I’m convinced she could have handled placing this paradigm in the context of World Religion as a whole also.

But this is a minor point, one that probably bothers me only, and which does nothing to detract from a story containing humor, excitement, action and wonder. I see that the sequel, Rebellion, is out in July. I look forward to it. Watch for its review on this site.

 

Whitstable by Stephen Volk – Review

whitstablefront22What is real horror?

That’s the question underlying Stephen Volk’s novella, Whitstable.

Is Dracula real horror? Vampires in general? Maybe the Frankenstein monster, then? Hammer films became a by-word for horror in the 50s and 60s. Do the classic monster images Hammer films brought us in its heyday fill us with the kind of revulsion and fear we would feel in the presence of real horror? Not really. These images are thrilling. For fans of the genre, they’re certainly fun. But real horror doesn’t reside in genre, no matter how talented the writer/director/actor. So what is real horror?

Volk’s intelligent mix of biography and fiction suggests many plausible answers. Ever seen a screeching gull tear into a hunk of rotten fish? Ever had a slab of your heart torn out by the death of a loved one and as a result had to face decades of grief and longing for death? Have you ever been the child victim of sexual abuse?

Real horror like that is almost impossible to face. We instinctively shun it, turn away, pretend not to hear or see — or, if we’re forced to experience it, we then pretend it didn’t happen. So we have the horror genre to act as a kind of filter. The unending stream of painful memories and the grieving heart’s refusal to accept the absence of a lost loved one becomes the ghost story. The abusive parent in your dark bedroom at night becomes the vampire story. And anyone who helps you overcome such horror becomes a real-life Van Helsing.

Cue Peter Cushing, Whitstable’s protagonist. Struggling with the recent death of his wife, Helen, Cushing goes for a walk along the coast one afternoon and meets a boy named Carl Drinkwater. Carl is a fan of monster movies. Or maybe he seeks solace in the idea of being able to overcome monsters. Because for Carl to stay sane, monsters must be real; a mere human wouldn’t be capable of the atrocities visited upon him in his bedroom every night. That would take the likes of a vampire. So, Carl believes his mother’s new boyfriend, Les, is a vampire. This being so, then the man whom he has just met on the beach must be the real Van Helsing. After all, Carl has seen the films. He recognizes the hero. All that remains is to enlist his help.

Despite wanting to sink into his grief alone, Cushing finds himself compelled to help Carl. Reluctantly at first, but as he uncovers the truth, and his worst fears about Carl’s situation are realized, he grows into the role. We follow him through a painful encounter with Carl’s mother, and a diabolically tense scene that night at Cushing’s home, as Les tries to convince Cushing to let him come inside. But Cushing remembers, you have to invite the vampire in, which he won’t do, no matter how often, or how violently, Les asks him to. At one point Cushing even imagines Les has something other than the smell of alcohol on his breath. He imagines it smells of blood, decay and “something of death”. It’s almost as though, if Cushing can believe Les is indeed a vampire, then he, Cushing, can become Van Helsing.

This kind of clever manipulation of the boundaries between real and make-believe drives the rest of the piece. Such that only one place will serve as setting for the final showdown between vampire-hunter and vampire: an old cinema, with only the two of them inside, while the screen shows a Hammer Horror film starring Cushing himself.

A work such as Whitstable can only be undertaken by a true Hammer fan, and it’s clear that’s what Volk is. The story is filled with all kinds of detail about Cushing’s own life, Hammer film trivia, and speculations about the nature of the horror genre. But it’s the tenderness Volk gives to the characterization of Peter Cushing that makes this piece work. If I’m honest, I thought the narrative ran out of pace after the scene in the cinema; and even this climax was somewhat stunted by an overuse of film references. Also (mild spoiler alert) the monster dies offstage. But none of that matters. I’d happily read this tale again—and most likely will—despite its faults, simply because Volk immerses us so well in the mind, the heart, and the emotions of its central character. We find him in the worst stages of grief, so much so that it becomes hard to keep reading about so much pain; and we watch him find a way to move on from that living death, and save a young life in the process. So, you don’t have to be a Hammer aficionado for Whitstable to mean something to you. Only the most passing interest in the Hammer Horror phenomenon, or even film acting in general, will suffice for this story take you to a place where frail, grieving middle-aged men really can become the heroes who kill the monsters in our rooms at night.

Whitstable is published May 26th, 2013 by Spectral Press.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest …

Windblown treesThe November nor’ easter blew,

Year after year like an angry god, through the alders, the plane trees and the yew.

Backward eventually craned their branches to allow the blast

to more easily pass

their bent-back frames.

Such adaptation suggests this calculation:

Trees, like all living beings, can feel.

So when they fall, it need only be themselves and their companions in the forest

Who render that collapse real.

Joe & Me by David Moody – Review

Joe-and-Me-David-MoodyPrior to coming across Joe & Me, I had seen the name of David Moody around, but had read none of his work. (Yes, I know …) But, halfway through this story, the first in the This Is Horror Premium Chapbook Series, I was flipping to the About The Author section to see what else of his I could read. Then I jumped right in and started writing this review, then realized I ought to finish the story first. I was in the initial fluttery stages of an exciting discovery.

Though the process of reviewing the three volumes in this ongoing chapbook series was never meant to be a competition, I’ll have to say that, despite the strengths of The Fox and Thin Men with Yellow Faces, Joe & Me has to be my favorite. It’s a (mostly) gentle story about a family breaking apart for all the right reasons. It’s a story of sacrifice. It’s a story of the power of love. And it’s a story of choices that make Sophie’s look like one between chocolate or vanilla ice-cream. All of this against a back-drop of top-secret military projects that, depending on their use, can either save or destroy life on Earth.

The Me of the title is the father of eight-year-old Joe. He’s a stay-at-home dad who looks after his son while Mum is busy day and night working at an MoD-funded lab hidden in an innocuous-looking old building. Mum is canny and compassionate and puts in clandestine overtime working out a way to use the project—her project—in order to benefit populations rather than destroy them. Usually apocalyptic weapons-projects come off as rather cheesy, but Moody has imagined one that’s just plausible enough. Tensions arise when budgets and deadlines are tight, and MoD power-politics kick in, meaning Mum spends precious little time at home and when she is home she’s tired and grouchy. Is she justified in sacrificing her family in order to ‘save the world’, or should she put humanity’s future aside to care for her son?

Well, Moody contrives a story where this choice gets about as complicated as possible. It’s patiently paced, but never once drags, so I had plenty of time to get to know father and son and grow to care about them and worry for their situation. So, when the peril really arrived, I was chewing the inside of my mouth as I read. I honestly did not know which way the choice ought to go, or what I would do if faced with the same situation (I think I do know now). And even though I think the choice that was made was the only human one possible, its consequences are suitably dire.

What makes this work so well is the normalcy, the near flatness, of the writing. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Moody’s style is far from dull. It’s merely unobtrusive. It gets out of the way. There’s no attempt here to dazzle you with fine sentences. Which means the story flows by you in Dad’s gentle first-person narration with you barely realizing you’re reading. That’s confident writing.

Moody’s one misstep, and it’s minor, is the story’s final line. No need for it. It says nothing that hasn’t already been thoroughly implied, and in fact, the story ends with more of a bite if that line isn’t there. It goes out of the first-person we’ve had all along, into some objective third-person that left me a little bewildered. The narrative ceased to flow. Thankfully, it was only one line, and considering how much else is so, so right about this piece, I’ll forgive him and rush out to buy something else of his to read.

Any suggestions?

The Fox by Conrad Williams – Review

The-Fox-Front-CoverI came late to the This Is Horror Chapbook Party, but am glad I’ve discovered it, because I love the novella/novelette form. It offers more potential for depth than the short story, but can still be read in one sitting. Perfect. D.H. Lawrence excelled at this form, and since the best of his short novels is The Fox, it’s only fitting that I start with the chapbook by the same name from Conrad Williams. It’s also the most recently published of the series.

I’ll start on a superficial level. The cover rocks—stark snowy white gashed by a crimson-rimmed eye with a yellow iris and a dark pupil. The eye of a chicken. A dead chicken. Yet with a coldly accusative gaze, as though it blames you for its untimely passing. Marvelous. Made me want to buy it. Kudos to Neil Williams, the cover artist. My guess is his design was inspired by this line, from the story:

I dream of russet flames flickering over white, and black slashes through amber.

Anyway, on with the story.

The narrator, his wife and two daughters are on an October glamping holiday on a farm in the New Forest. (The logism glamping is so neo it stumped every dictionary in my flat, including the 2007 two-volume Oxford. I finally had to go online to discover it’s a hybrid of glamorous and camping. I felt horribly out of touch.) They open their glamorous tent-flap one morning to a freak snowstorm, and from there events take an eerie turn. A fox has slaughtered the farm’s chickens, not to eat them, but—apparently—just to slaughter them. This disturbs the story’s narrator in ways that are not at first clear. The tension increases with the discovery of a fox-corpse that has no apparent cause of death.

I’ll say no more, other than that the final twist (and it really isn’t a twist per se as the ending has all the inevitability of the booming drums of doom) reveals a little known fact about foxes, and illustrates how, in the great Man v. Nature bout, Nature has all the power, and all the smarts. When Man strikes, Nature strikes back Chicago-style. But patiently. This snow, along with keeping the characters right where they are, suggests the ‘cold’ at which revenge is best served.

The Fox is a tense and atmospheric read. Williams writes prose that is both taut and flowing, sparse and evocative. How he does this, I think, is through his choice of verbs. For instance, the wind did not make the tent walls flap. It didn’t even snap them—no, the way Williams writes it, the wind “spanked against the canvas”. It’s an active force, with a preconceived agenda to punish. That’s just plain good writing. Two sentences in, when I read those words, I decided to relax and allow this prose to rule my imagination for a while. It was a good decision.

Keep an eye out over the coming days for reviews of the earlier chapbooks in the series, Thin Men With Yellow Faces by Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick, and joe & me by David Moody. I also noticed at the back of The Fox that, sometime this spring, Joseph D’Lacey will be publishing one of these called Roadkill.

Life just got a little better.

Branches And Wings – Chapter One (Audio)

Moon-through-elm-tree-boughs-LafayettePark-WashingtonDC-29Sept2012I’d originally intended this to be a bit of shameless self-promotion. Which it still is. However, I found the process of creating an audio version of the first chapter of my novel useful as an editing tool. I realized that, if I can’t speak it so it flows, if it has no variation and rhythm and pace, something’s wrong. And through the process of reading it outloud—as a performance—I found that not just the problems became obvious, but the solutions, too. I recommend this for every writer. Read your stuff outloud. But not just as a way of looking for errors. Do it for real. As a performance. Record it. Listen to it back. Would you like it to sound this way as an audiobook? Why? Why not?

Anyway, so … here’s Chapter 1 of what is called, for now, Branches And Wings. I consider this chapter done. It’s in its final form, and little will be changed between now and when I send the completed novel off to agents or publishers. I’m nearing the end of the penultimate draft, clocking in about 1500 – 1800 words a day, and working on the the final draft at a pace of about 500 words a week. Bit by bit, as I finish new chapters on the final draft, I will release them as audio versions. But not often. No faster than about every month and a half at first, until I really get in the swing of that precious Final Draft.

Enjoy.

Branches and Wings – Chapter 1

harvest-moon

The Alchemist Of Souls – Review

TheAlchemistOfSoulsAnne Lyle has written a gem of a first novel. The Alchemist of Souls is the first volume in the Night’s Masque  trilogy. It’s set in an Elizabethan London largely recognizable aside from a few key details, such as Queen Elizabeth’s marriage to Robert Dudley, which has given the throne an heir apparent. Much else that you would expect from the time and place are there, theatre, filth, fops, intrigue, and Shakespearean cross-dressing resulting in the comedy (and tragedy) of mistaken identity.

There is one other difference, though. And this one’s key. The New World has retained the name the Norse gave it when they discovered it circa 1000, Vinland. And Vinland is inhabited by a faery-like people called Skraylings. Now, I poked around online and discovered that Skræling was what the Vikings called those indigenous inhabitants they found in Greenland and North America. But Lyle’s Skraylings are not Native Americans. They’re short. They have silver hair. They paint their faces with blue swirling tattoos. And they’re magical.

The novel’s main storyline (and its best) concerns Maliverny Catlyn. Like the Skraylings, Mal does whisper up at us from history. He apparently was part of  Walsingham’s network of spies. You can find references to him in the book Elizabeth’s Spymaster, for instance, which Lyle points out in the back of the book. But unlike the older, sterner Puritan of history, Lyle’s Mal is a bit of a dashing young cudgel-wielding rogue who gets press-ganged into Her Majesty’s Service as bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador, who is soon to pay a visit. Here, he gets tangled in all kinds of intrigue, some concerning a theatrical contest (what else?) to be judged by the ambassador, and more concerning his twin brother, Sandy, who languishes in Bedlam. The web grows rather complex, and I found I had to work just a little harder than I wanted to in order to keep the minor characters straight, since they do come to play important roles as the story develops. I could have done with that fabulously useful tool one finds at the beginning of Shakespeare’s plays, and with which Hillary Mantel and George R. R. Martin also provide us—to wit, a cast of characters.

Aside from that, though, I found this to be an immersive and engaging novel. Lyle is at her best when writing about Mal and Kiiren, the skrayling ambassador. Their difficulties with language, how their different cultures and religions are revealed—all of this makes for fascinating and hypnotic reading. Also, I felt as if I walked those smelly Tudor streets as strongly as I’ve felt it reading writers like Mantel or Peter Ackroyd. Here, for instance, is Lyle’s description of Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield.

What hit Coby first was the smell, a thick smoky mix of roast hog, beer, sweaty bodies and of course the mud of Smithfield, permeated by generations’-worth of cow dung and urine. After that came the noise: the clamour of voices, beating of drums, the occasional blare of a trumpet.

I’m growing more interested these days in what alternate history can do with fantasy tropes. I’ve always enjoyed that fantasy best that occurs in the world we already know, rather than in, say, a faux-medieval landscape that needs a map so we know our way around. We all know, pretty much, where London is. Even though this is an alternate London, we still know it enough not to need a map and a long catalogue of made up history behind it to make it seem real. Anne Lyle has given us the Elizabethan London we know from reading history and Shakespeare; but she’s also created a London that has just enough strangeness in its shadows to keep us anticipating wonder. Her bio at the back of the book states she grew up fascinated with history. I do hope that, once the Night’s Masque is complete (Volume Two published in January), she will treat us to another fully realized alternate take on a place and time we thought we knew before we experienced it through her imagination.

Web of Life

continuumAnother from The Planetary Collective, this one a trailer for a feature length documentary called Continuum. I hope its effects ripple out over the species. Enjoy.

We Are Stardust

earth_full_hires copyI came across this video yesterday. I have little to add, and will let the profound words of the astronauts themselves carry the weight of this post. Thanks to Planetary Collective for the original film. I’m interested in their continuing work in raising a more cosmic consciousness among this planet’s intelligent life.

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Random musings on the world from someone work avoiding.

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All things to do with books.

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The writer gives life to a story, the reader keeps it alive.

Anne Lyle's Blog

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My pen is my compass. I appear to have lost my pen.