fantasy

Reviews of a couple of books

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I’ve had a couple of new reviews up in the last week or so. My review of The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (as promised a few weeks ago) is now at Luna Station Quarterly. It’s a sort of fairy tale, certainly a beautifully imagined SF novel, and surprisingly for my Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction slot, pretty recent (out in paperback in the UK either this month or last).

The other review is The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, another free book from The Bookbag. Nothing SF about this one, it’s about an old widower from York having a series of entertaining/poignant adventures.

Go read the reviews, then read the books. I’m enjoying the lifting of my self-imposed Trollope ban by reading The Prime Minister at the moment. I shan’t review it, but you can imagine the joy it’s bringing me.

Quick round-up

I hope regular visitors haven’t been pining too terribly, but in my defence I’ve had visitors, been ill, and lost track of the days during a week off work for Easter. I have been reading lots of books though, and there’s a couple of new reviews up at The Bookbag, both crime novels of a sort. Firstly, from a few weeks ago Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers, in which a couple of old women get caught up in sinister goings-on while trying to help a homeless young woman in a genteel village. Then there’s The Bursar’s Wife by EG Rodford, where a grumpy middle-aged private detective (who must be related to Ed Reardon) does surveillance work around Cambridge and stumbles into something sordid that ends up a bit close to home.

I’ve also read another one of the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch, in which PC Grant continues to learn magic in a forgotten branch of the Metropolitan Police. Grant is such a likeable character and there’s such an obvious love for and depth of knowledge about London that they’re a delight to read. Essentially police procedurals but involving weird stuff that the everyday police don’t want to get involved in if they can at all help it.

My most recent read was The Gracekeepers by Glasgow-based author Kirsty Logan, which is fabulous and magnificent, and I shall be reviewing it forthwith. Huge thanks to my eagle-eyed dad for spotting a review of it in The Guardian a while ago and suggesting it should go on my To Read list.

Right, that’s about it for now. Did I mention I’m on the radio soon? As the schedule stands right now (though we’re still tweaking) I’ll be reading two stories – one from The Little Book of Northern Women, one you won’t have come across before – Andrea Hardaker will be reading two stories, and Rosalind York will be reading a story and a few poems. All interspersed with snippets of The Cure and The Kinks, The Fall and The Rolling Stones. Chapel FM, April 17th, 2.15pm (full schedule for the festival here). Be there or be awfully disappointed.

The Honours by Tim Clare

Another one of those books I read based on a recommendation, this one after my dad read a review of it in The Guardian and pronounced it ‘your sort of thing’. As usual, the time between writing down the title and author, and actually reading the thing was quite long enough to have forgotten any kind of conversation about the book’s contents, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had an idea it was probably fantasy or sci-fi, but it was shelved under general adult fiction at the local library, and though the prologue makes it pretty clear the book has fantastical elements, the first half of the novel ticks along as an engaging 1930s thriller, all spies and intrigue and gathering warclouds, and I was beginning to doubt my interpretation. However, it’s definitely dark fantasy (bordering on horror in places).

Set in 1935, the central character is 12 year old Delphine Venner, a tomboy with an obsessive interest in war and guns. Going to live on a country estate with her upper middle class parents, as part of an exclusive rest home cum improvement society, the bored and lonely little girl goes exploring, living out fantasies of Great War trenches, and suspecting every grown-up she encounters (apart from her dad) as being Up To No Good. The truth, however, is beyond even Delphine’s imagination.

As you might expect there are secret passages for Delphine to find, good places to hide, woodland to explore and large grounds for her to wander in and keep out of everyone’s way. I found her an engaging character to follow, and all the bad decisions and character flaws necessary for the plot to unfold seemed to flow naturally from her age and background. Once the fantasy plot kicks in it’s gripping, but prior to that you have to be willing to tag along as this girl imagines her way through long, lonely days, overhearing cryptic conversation snippets that neither she nor we can interpret (OneMonkey found it dragged on him after a while, too big a gap between meeting Delphine and her world, and anything genuinely exciting happening). I suspect there will be a big overlap of readers with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.

Confluence by Paul McAuley

If you fall into that centre bit of the Venn diagram of fans of Dune (Frank Herbert), Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake) and Shadowmarch (Tad Williams) that likes all three of those series, may I recommend (assuming you haven’t already read it) the Confluence trilogy by Paul McAuley, which I’ve written a nice review of over at The Bookbag this week. I can’t believe I hadn’t read any of his novels before!

Beside the Seaside: Stories set around the Yorkshire Coast (edited by Scott Harrison)

How could I resist this short story collection when I spotted it in the library a few days after my east coast jaunt? Particularly with its old train poster on the cover. Add to that the promise of ‘A collection of thriller, science fiction, & horror to stimulate the mind and invigorate the senses’ (despite being on the general fiction shelves) and I was looking forward to finishing the novel I was reading at the time so that I could dive in.

The stories (by a Doctor Who novelist and other established writers as well as some less well-known) are:
That’s the way to do it, by Alison Littlewood (chilling fantasy set in Scarborough, involving a sinister Punch and Judy man); Landlady Interface by Lee Harris (Robin Hood’s Bay, far in the future in a guest house run by an outmoded AI named Ivy); Scarborough in July by Sadie Miller (A day in the lives of four loosely-connected people, neither thriller, nor science fiction, nor horror); The Woman in the Sand by Trevor Baxendale (Kate and her 7 year old son have an unsettling encounter with a sand sculptor); She Who Waits by Gary McMahon (mild horror/ghost story about a grieving widower and the legend of a local haunting); Scarborough Warning by Sue Wilsea (a secret holiday in Scarborough that doesn’t stay secret for long enough. Well-written, but more mainstream fiction than any of the quoted genres).

The stand-out stories for me were The Last Train to Whitby by Scott Harrison (a gripping 1950s secret agent story with just enough of a light touch to stop it being grim. Quite 39 Steps with its railway compartments and codenames, double-crossing and paranoia, and made good use of the setting) and The Girl on the Suicide Bridge by JA Mains (powerful dark fantasy about the all-consuming love of a teenage girl for her troubled older brother, in a town where the nearby bridge is a national suicide-magnet. Hard to say much about it without spoilers, but it will stay with me for a long time I think).

Unfortunately, the whole book was riddled with typos and felt like it hadn’t been proof-read, which was a shame as it looked enticing and professional, and the intro from David Nobbs (he of Reggie Perrin fame) persuaded me of its quality when I picked it off the shelf. The mistakes were only mildly irritating until I got to Sadie Miller’s story, and by the end of it I felt quite sorry for her as they’d started to overshadow her writing a bit (for this grouchy pedant, anyway), for instance ‘The water was icy cold and she submerged herself, as fast as soon could, which always seem to help.’

There was an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the theme, with some stories making full use of their setting and others (like Landlady Interface) feeling like they were more about the characters. Personally, I would have liked more of a mix of settings, as all but 2 were based in Scarborough (my least favourite part of the coast), but you can’t have everything. Maybe there’s just not much drama to be had from Filey. I would recommend if you’re drawn to the darker side, read this then go to the Yorkshire Coast yourself to soak up the atmosphere (and if you’re a writer, start work on something that might fit in a follow-up volume. Preferably set in Filey or Brid…)

A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction

The first book review I’ve written for Luna Station Quarterly has appeared today (Doctor Who novel, nailing my colours to the mast at the start), which is exciting and I urge you all (assuming you’re a partaker of speculative fiction) to go and read it, then lose yourselves for a couple of hours in the vastness of their archives. Further reviews should emerge quarterly, in a column I’ve called ‘A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction’, mainly because I’ll be reviewing whatever I happen to have stumbled across that’s good, so it’ll be a bit random (but also because I once did a research project involving random walks, and you know me and maths jokes).

In other exciting news, my friend Alice and I will be holding a story-telling event at the York Festival of Ideas on June 10th (I’d link to their site but it still has the 2014 details up, I’ve seen a proof of the programme this week and when it’s available I’ll mention it here). The theme of the festival is Secrets and Discoveries, so our evening will focus on the importance and the dangers of secrets, through myths and fairytales, and a couple of stories I’ve written (one historical, one sci-fi).

What with all that and the writing workshop I’m going to in the morning, I feel positive and busy, but none of this is getting me any further with editing the sci-fi noir novel…

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.