Thursday, 22 March 2018

Book Review - Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford first came to my attention via the first story in this book. Along with Joyce Carol Oate's Fossil Figures, Polka Dots and Moonbeams was a real standout in Sarrantonio and Gaiman's anthology Stories. An unexpected slice of period piece, Polka Dots and Moonbeams mixes a swift cocktail of love, addiction and existential uncertainty within a backdrop that feels fresh. It's menacing, ambiguous yet strangely beautiful at times too.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this story appears to be very much in one of the two major veins which Ford writes. In this, he creates a fantasy setting borrowing from periods that aren't necessarily - most commonly doing his own very specific flavour of Dickensian steampunk. Like his earlier trilogy The Well-Built City, they are often concerned with ideas of uncanny science as can be seen in stories like Daltharee and The Dream of Reason. Both of these stories concern that of a mad scientist, and their strange and rather sinister approach to science they contain an eerily convincing quality. The Dream of Reason particularly is another stand-out from the collection. 

Also in the darkly-Dickensian setting are Doctor Lash Remembers and Daddy Longlegs of the Evening. Both are excellent examples of Ford's ability to tread between the uncanny and outright horror - the latter notable for retaining its atmosphere whilst indulging in an enjoyably pulpy tone.

When taking on more conventional genres, Ford's stories are no less unique. Sit the Dead is an excellent vampire romance, and Coral Heart is a very strange take on heroic fantasy. The longest story in the collection is Wish Head, a murder mystery about a beautiful young woman's body that is washed up in a local river. It's melancholic and sinister, and surprisingly one of the fastest reads in the whole book despite being the longest. It's preoccupation with strange symbols is echoed somewhat by Relic, a story about lies and faith.

When he's not writing quasi-period pieces, Ford tends towards a high unique blend of the fantastical and the autobiographical. Down Atsion Road, The Double of My Double Is Not My Double and The War Between and Heaven and Hell Wallpaper are all examples of this. Another real standout from the collection is also in this: Every Richie There Is is almost not fiction at all, by the author's own admission, but it's a haunting snapshot of a life glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. 86 Deathdick Road, meanwhile, is disturbing in a way I've rarely encountered outside of the works of Richard Shearman.

It's not all darkness and melancholia: short stories like The Seventh Expression of the Robot General and After Moreau are playful and funny. 

The final standout in the collection is Ganesha, a story about a young woman and a Hindi deity. The story of faith and self-actualisation exudes pathos, and expresses the core concepts in a highly creative and interesting manner.

Crackpot Palace is an excellent collection, full of great ideas and unique atmosphere. Not every single story lands, but most do. Worth a read, especially if you're a fan of the works of writers like Kelly Link and Michael Swanwick.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book Review - Pavane by Keith Roberts

Oft cited alongside Lest Darkness Fall and Bring the Jubilee as one of the all-time great alternate histories, Pavane is set in a world where Great Britain is part of the New Roman Empire and the Catholic church has a stranglehold over the West as a whole.

Structurally, Pavane isn't quite a novel nor is it a collection of novellas. It walks a line between both - six interconnected stories that slowly unveil a world both recogniseable and otherwise. Each story is self-contained enough to be enjoyed alone, from small, quiet stories of people living lonely lives to tales of rebellion and civil warfare. Together, they weave a spellbinding tapestry of power, religion, tradition and technology.

Although there are recurring characters in a few of the stories, the through-line is expressed in the world. The smaller stories take place against a world that is changing slowly, and each story exposed different elements of that world. In each story the nature of the setting is important to both the plot and the characters, and as with the best world building they both seem extensions of the world itself, whilst remaining individually interesting.

The tales within Pavane are more in line with historical or period pieces, compared to any sci-fi or fantastical plot lines. All of the speculative elements are not confined to the world however. Traditional folk lore is worked into the story in subtle ways that leave the precise nature of the world ambiguous. They help bring together both the tension of new versus old, whilst also blurring the divisions between the two. It is the foreign powers that is keeping Britain all but feudal, but even more ancient ideas religion and spirituality in Britain remain.

At its heart, however, is the characters and their emotional journeys. The setting and all of its atmosphere are backdrops to stories of lonelines and tragedy. At their best they are bittersweet, with a dash of pathos scattered throughout. The Signaller and The White Lady, specifically, were my favourite of the novellas.

Stylistically, Roberts takes his time. He isn't rushed. The writing is detailed. To get the most out of this novel you have to be ready to sink into a story full of detail and often slow to get going. In most cases that would make the writing too stiff and dry, but Roberts imbues it with a sense of melancholy and wistfulness.

Pavane is a beautifully written and evocative book. Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Top 10 Best Books of 2017

The best books I read last year! Hon. mention to Uprooted, which was a very excellent time.

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10. Harbinger of the Storm Aliette de Bodard

Do you like fun? Harbinger of the Storm balances political intrigue, an exotic and fascinating culture, magic and even a bit of metaphysics against each other brilliantly. It's really a cracking read.

9. Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Thickly detailed and inventive, Hothouse is quite the journey. Through the eyes of a couple of post-humans we see a world where the whole world has been taken over by plants. It's detailed and rich, and genuinely rather fun and scary at times.

8. Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Three locked door murder mysteries, and in each case Jack Glass is the killer. So whodunnit? (Hint: it was Jack Glass).

This book was definitely too clever for its own good, and Roberts can't quite deliver on the promise on a couple of the mysteries. Still a great book, fueled by ideas, in turn funny and dark. Genuinely sad that it's unlikely we'll not get another book with the characters and world again.

7. Babylon by Victor Pevelin

Ridiculously quotable, funny and absurd; Babylon (or Homo Zapiens or Generation P) is a hell of a strange trip. Filled with drugs and the guiding voice of Che Guevara, it has a very strong post-soviet union feel to it.

6. The Short and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Following the titular Wao and in his family, Diaz weaves an absurd and bittersweet tale. It's filled with asides about Puerto Rican society and recent history, all the whilst demonstrating how Wao's geeky proclivities help shape his views of the world. There's just a dash of the fantastical sprinkled on top too.

5. The Race by Nina Allan

I'm actually shocked this is this far down the list to be honest - The Race is a story soaked in ambiguity and an underlying sense of menace. Christopher Priest style narrative trickery turns a novel about a woman's relationship with her brother into a story that unsettles just as much as it pleases.

4. Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall is bright, airy and very pretty. It's tragic and poignant. It's also a haunted house story. I mentioned in an earlier list that Hand accomplishes an incredible tightrope walk in this story, and I'm not sure that I need to say anything else.

3. God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

Like many of the best satires, Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr Rosewater is probably more relevant today than it's ever been. Terrifically funny, dripping with cynicism and genuinely moving in parts, this novel has a strange resonance with Catch-22. Possibly my favourite Vonnegut.

2. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

A little slice of Americano, helmed by the great beast from ancient Crete. The attention to detail that makes the situation way more believable than it should do and the vulnerability of the narrative voice both cause the book to come to life.

1. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

To say that there's nothing I've ever read that is quite like The Iron Dragon's Daughter may sound trite, but it's also entirely accurate. The novel is strange and unexpected and totally beguiling, not to mention brilliant.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Top 5 Worst Reads of 2017

List number three, and this is the spicy one:

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5. Voice of Our Shadows by Jonathan Carroll

There's a lot of individual elements to this story that are rather good - a great first chapter and some memorable set-pieces - but it genuinely seems unfinished. About halfway through the story kind of loses direction, some more things happen that don't appreciably effect anything, then there's a very sudden ending which is massively disappointing.











4. The Falconer by Elizabeth May

In a sense putting The Falconer on this list at all is rather harsh - it's not really like its outstandingly bad. But it's not outstandingly anything, just kind of exists, and that kind of mediocrity is much worse than other books that have many more flaws. This is a shrug of a book.













3. World War Z by Max Brooks

Filled with really great concepts, and a few characters whose stories could be interesting, this book takes a fantastic premise and renders it a slog by being less interested in telling a story and more interested in largely irrelevant minutiae.













2. The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Charming for a while, but uninspired. I'm generally not a fan of period fantasy, but this is quite easily the worst example of it I've encountered. Paced really awkwardly, structured poorly and one I came very close to not finishing.













1. Bloodlines by Claudia Gray

This was just hot garbage.

Top 5 Most Disappointing Books of 2017

Second list reflecting on last year's reads, and this time it's the five most disappointing ones. Again, just because it disappointed me doesn't mean I didn't like it or thought that it was bad. Number three especially is a good book.

Honourable mention goes to Sharp Ends; Joe Abercrombie's writing doesn't seem to fit short form at all.

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5. Smiler's Fair by Rebecca Levene

I was excited about this book going in, and even more excited after a devastating prologue. The writing was good, the characters were engaging, the world was drawing me in and I dug the premise quite a lot. It felt creative and rather fresh. Then it all rather fell apart at the end, becoming contrived and somewhat pointless. Still going to give the sequel a look though.











4. Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

I reeeeeally want to like this series. Novik, as I saw with the surprisingly excellent Uprooted, is a great author, and the world these books explore is great fun. Throne of Jade was meandering and somewhat mundane, and I really had trouble particularly getting invested in either Laurence or Temeraire.












3. The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

This book rather suffered from a case of raised expectations: Roberts is a superb author, and the concept behind this book seemed fantastic. Although the central plotline in the book was mostly really fun and atmospheric, the consistent interruptions of other side stories drained all sense of narrative drive from proceedings. The end didn't help either.











2. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

For a while The Magicians really pulled me into its world, developed a compelling will-they-or-won't-they. Roughly halfway through the book it takes quite a big step in terms of the actions of the characters, and never quite took me with it. By the end this book felt like an obligation, and the way so many of the interesting and ambiguous early ideas were explained later on felt rather simplistic and unimaginative - not to mention the character arcs that Grossman believes he's taking the characters on never really works.








1. Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll

You know, about halfway through this book I was convinced that with Carrol I'd happened across a new potential favourite writer. I ordered a couple of his other books before I finished this one.

This was a mistake.

Land of Laughs has some arresting scenes, some creepy ideas, characters that it is easy to invest in and a charming narrative voice. It's also not very good at all.





Top 5 Most Surprising Reads of 2017

It's the start of a new year, so I'm going to spend the next few posts reflecting on what stood out to me of last year. I intend to run down my most disappointing, worst and best reads from the last year, and I'll be starting off with most surprising. Note that this can be surprising in any sense, and doesn't necessarily mean good (although most of them are, indeed, very good).

Honourable mention to Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I had no real expectations for but ended up having one hell of a good time with.

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5. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Not only is concept and its execution a delightful surprise in and of itself, but throughout much of the book I was unsure how much I really liked the book. Then the ending happened - this a brilliant and beautiful story, told with grace and intelligence.













4. Polka Dots and Moonbeams by Jeffrey Ford

Among Stories (edited by Gaiman and Sarrantonio) this was one of the shorts that I wasn't particularly looking forward to it, having never heard of Ford before. My general antipathy towards period pieces, too, made me wary going in. It was truly excellent, then, to find such a great little story waiting for me.












3. Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

This was another one I went into blind. One of the things that make this such a resonant and brilliant horror story is that it is told with a sense of awe, and is more taken with the beauty of the setting than it is with the horror, whilst continuing to be an effectively creepy story. Hand takes on a balancing act that is beyond delicate and accomplishes it with aplomb.











2. Ring, Spiral and Loop by Koji Suzuki

Whilst the other books mentioned so far surprised me in large part due to how good they were, this trilogy just plain baffled me. Whilst Ring follows the story familiar to those who've seen Ringu/The Ring with some differences, the sequels take the story in a flabbergasting direction. It's incredibly difficult to sum up really, but suffice to say I really wasn't prepared for the wacky journey Suzuki had in store for me.










1. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

I first read about this book in a big fantasy annual I had back when I was 14/15. I remember seeing the cover, reading the description of a young changeling stealing an iron dragon and making a bid for freedom. There was nothing to say that it was no more than a quirky, fairy-tale influenced epic fantasy.

Then fourteen years later I pick up the book and halfway through the first chapter the twelve year old main character starts menstruating.

Turns out, what was in store for me was very different to your average epic fantasy.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Upcoming things (Oh the horror!)

Would say that I intend to start posting on this thing regularly, but given my track record...

Anyways, this post is a forewarning to say that I'll be reviewing a number of horror short story collections next month, they go as follows:

- North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud
- The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron
- Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman
- The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates
- Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand
- Black Tea and Other Tales by Samuel Marolla
- Songs of a Dead Reader and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
- The White People by Arthur Machen

Might try out a few new things with these, so look out for that. In the meantime, lemme know if there's anything I should at to the list.