Reviews

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Book review

June 22, 2011

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Canongate '14.99

Reviewed by Jay Eales

When this book was published, and the author interviewed on a radio programme, the cry went out across the social media: 'A werewolf novel by a literary novelist? They come over 'ere, stealing our genres'' Generally, this was from people unfamiliar with Duncan's previous books. I, Lucifer, where it's the end of the world, and the Morningstar lives a month as a man to see if God will let him back into Heaven. Death of an Ordinary Man concerns a dead man exploring the mystery of his own death. Weathercock dabbles with miracles and exorcisms. Duncan may be mentioned in the same breath as Martin Amis and Will Self rather than Charlaine Harris and Laurel K Hamilton, but any accusations of him slumming it in the currently hot genre pool are wide of the mark.

I tore through the book's 346 pages in four lunch breaks. The chapters are short and punchy, the prose polished and considered. From the perspective of the main protagonist, 200 year old Jake Marlowe, we're given a man/monster in decline. It's a muscular novel, full of sensuous language and physical excess, just what you'd expect from the life of an animalistic avatar. The second section title sums up the werewolf lifestyle perfectly: killfuckeat.

Beginning with the news that the Berliner is dead, and that Marlowe is the last, we have a scenario where Marlowe welcomes his own oblivion at the hands of WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena), aka the Hunt. But Grainer, head of the Hunt wants more from his last great safari. But how to motivate a suicidal werewolf to make more of a fight of it? Naturally, he finds a way, and the game is afoot. Martin Amis + John Le Carr' + Joss Whedon = The Last Werewolf.

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The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon. Book review

June 22, 2011

The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon. Solaris (July 2011) '7.99

Reviewed by Colin Leslie

The Concrete Grove is an inner city housing estate in the North East of England. Dominated by drugs, crime, gangs and violence this is the place where teenager Hailey and her mother Lana find themselves following her father's death and subsequent debt issues. Thrown in among the violence, it's not long before they are drawn into the dark underbelly of the place.

At the same time Tom is struggling to come to terms with his wife Helen's illness which has left her confined to bed. Lana and Tom find salvation in each others company but it's Hailey who begins to see that the Concrete Grove and it's dominating skyscraper, the Needle, might just be hiding even bigger secrets.

As usual with Gary McMahon, the whole book has an extremely dark tone. His marvellously realised characters (apparently all of whom are based on real life figures) are fascinating, tragic and often dangerous and the darkness of the location is the perfect match for them. At the heart of the book though is a deeper level of parallel worlds and supernatural creatures. With more than a passing nod to the likes of Arthur Machen, McMahon offers us tantalising glimpses of a much deeper mythology. It's this undercurrent which sets this book apart from McMahon's other works to date and in my opinion places it above these. This book is an outstanding mix of urban horror and dark fantasy, hints of King's The Dark Tower series, hints of Holdstock's Mythago Wood, but above all the realisation of McMahon's talents as the outstanding British horror writer of our times.

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The Mammoth Book of Dracula edited by Stephen Jones. Book review

June 19, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Dracula edited by Stephen Jones. Robinson '7.99

Reviewed by Jenny Barber

There is a certain genius to the underlying concept of The MBO Dracula (originally published in 1997 as The Mammoth Book of Dracula: Vampire Tales for the New Millennium) ' where you get to follow Dracula through the centuries and experience a jawdropping range of adventures covering a fascinating variety of styles. Here you'll find stories that are creepy, moving, disturbing, funny, gory and, in a couple of cases, both incomprehensible and hard-going.

There's the classic Where Greek meets Greek by Basil Copper, with its enchanting story of a gentlemen who becomes enamoured with the mysterious woman he meets on holiday and discovers, inevitably, that there is far more to her and her aged companion than previously expected. Or for Kim Newman fans, there's the excellent Coppola's Dracula ' set in the Anno Dracula 'verse, which tells of the making of a Dracula movie (filmed, of course, in Transylvania) and is chock full of nefarious doings and an intriguing vampire lady whose charitable impulses get her into trouble.

On the lighter side, there's some delicious humour to be found in Nancy Holder's Blood Freak and Jan Edwards' A Taste of Culture. The latter is a short and very funny account of Dracula out choosing a takeaway while the former brings Dracula into the sphere of Timothy Leary with some mind-bending results.

In The Last Testament by Brian Hodge, Dracula not only becomes pope but also has a remarkable meeting with his maker. This one is quite genius. The habit of meeting notable people continues in Daddy's Little Girl by Mandy Slater, where this time it's Dracula's daughter who has an interesting encounter with Aleister Crowley and must deal with her father's response to her actions.

Other stories include forays into insanity and home-care, thwarted Nazis and unfortunately placed construction projects. All in all, The MBO Dracula is an enjoyable read with plenty to suck you in (I know, sorry!).

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The Meowmorphosis by Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook. Book review

June 19, 2011

The Meowmorphosis by Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook. Quirk Classics $12.95

Reviewed by Mike Chinn

The original Metamorphosis had Gregor Samsa wake up one morning as a cockroach (or some kind of giant nasty insect ' opinions differ); in this mash-up from Quirk Books, Gregor becomes ' a giant fluffy kitten. And ' well, that's it, really.

From the opening idea, Cook has nowhere to go but trot out Kafka's tale of alienation and isolation with a cute kitty instead of a huge bug. Bit of a one-joke book, really; worse, it's not actually funny.

That Gregor's parents are repulsed by an adorable cat should be absurdist ' and I'm sure that was the intent ' but instead it's just absurd. The author has left in too much of the original Kafka without thinking it through. (Such as Gregor finding he has trouble walking because he has too many limbs. True if he's suddenly an insect with six, not if he's a cat with four: same number as humans. Or can't we walk on all fours?).

Worse, halfway through Gregor escapes into the outside world and meets up with another cat that used to be human: Josef K. Suddenly the book's become The Trial. Maybe Cook realised there just wasn't enough original material to make a modern-sized novel; but whatever the reason, it's more cul-de-sac than detour. Gregor goes back home, gets covered in muck and dust and frightens the lodgers. The appendix is a cod biography of Kafka which isn't half as funny as it thinks it is, along with some irritatingly dumb discussion questions. A depressing book ' for all the wrong reasons.

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Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Book review

June 19, 2011

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Gollancz SF Masterworks (2011) '8.99

Reviewed by John Howard

The plot of Hyperion is deceptively simple. Seven very different people have been thrown together, selected to make a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on the backwater planet Hyperion. And on the way they tell their stories. Simple, yes? Oh no. The Time Tombs aren't just any chambers carved out of the rock: they seem to exist in their own time field steadily moving backwards against the stream. They have been thoroughly explored and seem to be empty; but are now about to open, and reveal their contents and purpose. And there is the Shrike, a murderous creature and/or machine somehow connected with the Time Tombs, worshipped by its church as the Lord of Pain, and which is now on the loose.

We are in the Hegemony, the human-controlled area of space whose worlds are held together by the farcaster portals and the democratic institutions of the Senate and the All Thing. The whole set-up works because it is operated by the TechnoCore ' the community of AIs originally created by humanity but which seceded and became independent. Now there are suspicions that the AIs are not really disinterested partners but an enemy within the gates, possibly in league with the spacefaring Ousters, who are preparing to invade the Hegemony. So the pilgrimage takes place against a fall of the Roman Empire sense of widespread impending doom. The existing human order is in danger of being overthrown and replaced by something new and very different. The gods fall.

To read Hyperion is to open a chest of dark jewels. The unlikely pilgrims are haunted and possessed; they are people who have lost something and whose stories ' grim, funny, wistful, sad ' circle around throughout the Hegemony and yet connect with gothic Hyperion and Keats' ancient poetry. The goal is reached and the stories are all told; but the story hasn't ended. There are more cantos. And the waiting Lord of Pain always has more to teach.

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Welcome to Bordertown edited by Holly Black & Ellen Kushner. Book review

June 19, 2011

Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands edited by Holly Black And Ellen Kushner. Random House $19.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

When Terri Windling's Borderland and Bordertown appeared in the late 80s she was not the first by any means to imagine a place that lay between the Realm and the World. But it was her Bordertown that many believed defined the roots of modern urban fantasy. Her Bordertown is a land filled with runaways and lost souls in search of those things that we desire the most and never quite manage to attain. That is not to say that this is a volume filled with unremitting angst. It isn't. Its streets are dark and its inhabitants most often darker, yet they are filled with music and art and esoterica that fills us with wonder.

The book's content dives between short stories and poetry (and even one short graphic-story) by many of the biggest names in urban fantasy: Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Ti Pratt, Will Shetterley, Patricia McKillip and many more.

The overriding theme of this collection is of dawning realisations and acceptance. Most of the tales deal with the rigours of being a 'noob' in the city. In de Lint's 'A Tangle of Green Men', it's all about the getting there; and why. And though most are seen from a World dweller's perspective, 'Incunabulum' by Emma Bull shows what it is to be from the Other Side, from the Realm, with all of the resultant expectations made of her protagonist by Worlder noobs. But then expectation is at the root of all that occurs on the streets and in the back alleys of Bordertown. In amongst the dirt and the fight for survival are the music and art that make it all worth the while. This is urban fantasy as it should be. Excellent collection and highly recommended.

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Peake Studies Vol 12 no 2. Magazine review

June 11, 2011

Peake Studies volume 12 number 2, edited by G Peter Winnington (April 2011 issue)

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

Peake Studies is all about Mervyn Peake, the poet, writer and artist. The bulk of this issue deals with three radio programmes, all broadcast in 1947. The first two were short ten minutes talks, of which this journal publishes the transcripts. They are interesting to read but it would be even better to hear. Alas, the BBC wiped the tapes years ago (typical Beeb!). The first talk is rather metaphysical: Peake describes the world 'As I See It'.  I rather like the line 'Each painting, each book, each poem, each drawing should be an adventure with the dice weighted against him.'

In the second show Peake talks about the task of illustrating books, drawing pictures for other people's words. The first book he thus illustrated was Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark ' and this was while he was still in the army. The third transcript is of a round-table discussion, in which Peake is interviewed by a 'professional' reviewer and lay readers, where they attempt to analyse the way he wrote. Did he write to a plan? At one point Peake describes the process similar to that of a train journey: 'I would know what stations I would be passing through, but I wouldn't know what people would come into the carriages.'

An article by Kay Fuller ' who worked at the BBC ' provides intriguing insights into the man and his working methods. Plus there are reviews and news and 'Oodles of Doodles' by Mervyn Peake. The journal is edited by G Peter Winnington and is published in Switzerland (in English); to subscribe to Peake Studies email peakestudies@gmail.com or visit their website.  

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Land That I Love by William Freedman. Book review

June 11, 2011

Land That I Love by William Freedman. Rebel ePublishers (price not known)

Reviewed by Debbie Bennett

The publishers tell me that the unfeasibly large-bosomed scantily-clad woman holding a gun on the cover of this book does not make it an SF/porn novel. So put your tongues back in, guys. If you want to spend your money, make sure you know what you're getting for it. This is SF comedy, although more parody than out and out slapstick. Or political satire on a cosmic scale with a passing nod to Douglas Adams.

A synthesised planet explodes and President Pickfour of the Eminent Domain has to find out who is responsible. Is it the Terrahists ' who think that the galaxy should be ruled by Earth,? Or maybe just the Americans? President Pickfour, together with his Foreigners Advisor Croupier and a host of other advisors set off to find American President Watts Barber. But nothing is ever straightforward, as a cast of improbably-named characters romp across a galactic stage in their search for the truth as they know it.

There are some clever observations, such as President Pickfour's men going looking for WTFs ' Weapons of Tremendous Force ' although the President clearly thinks the acronym has another origin. It does make you wonder how much our own politicians know and how much they simply make up as they go along. If you like lampoons and the parodies of the classics that were popular not long ago, you'll enjoy this too. SF with a twist and a spin.

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15 Miles by Rob Scott. Book review

May 30, 2011

15 Miles by Rob Scott. Gollancz '7.99

Reviewed by Jim McLeod

Detective Samuel 'Sailor' Doyle, has transferred from Vice to homicide, bringing with him a drink and drugs problem, brought on by the years of being a vice cop.  He hates himself, he hates the fact that he now has a mistress, and he hates how he is driving his family away. A visit from a Presidential candidate, and the discovery of two corpses at a rundown farm, littered with dead animals, throws the rookie detective on a murder trial that may well spell the end for all. For unbeknownst to Detective Doyle, he is now the carrier of something terrible, could this be revenge from beyond the grave?

Before you naysayers start groaning about another severely damaged cop with a drink and drugs problem, let it be said that Rob Scott has created a brilliant protagonist in Doyle; through the course of the novel you will go from utterly hating the man to grudgingly having respect for the detective. 

This is Rob Scott's debut solo novel, and it marks the introduction of another gifted author to genre fiction, although the supernatural elements of the story are fleeting and barely touch on the narrative. Personally I would have liked a stronger supernatural aspects to the story. That said this is a good story, well written, and will keep you enthralled right up to the conclusion.

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Cantata-140 by Philip K Dick. Book review

May 30, 2011

Cantata-140 by Philip K Dick. Gollancz '7.99

Reviewed by John Howard

Cantata-140 was first published in 1966 as The Crack in Space. This new reprint takes the title of the first half of the novel, published on its own as a magazine novella two years earlier. Both versions of the story come from the time when Philip K Dick was producing some of his finest and most memorable work, such as The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

The intriguing title is a reference to the cantata Wachet auf by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose compositions are often referred to by their catalogue numbers: in this case 140. Wachet auf ' 'Sleepers awake' ' turns out to be the deciding factor in the US presidential election campaign being fought along mainly racial lines in the vastly overpopulated world of 2080, where millions are kept warehoused in frozen sleep until a solution can be found. At the same time a faulty jiffy-scuttler seems to provide the answer: a hole in space leading through to an apparently idyllic and uninhabited planet. A freewheeling mixture of personal, commercial and political vested interests squabble over whether or not the bibs ' the sleepers 'bottled in bond' ' are to be woken up and sent through the rupture in the jiffy-scuttler's tube-wall. But is this really such a simple solution after all? For a start, the new planet is found to be uncannily identical to Earth, but seemingly without any of the expected inhabitants'

Cantata-140 is a fine example of Dick's fast-moving and oblique storytelling and world-building, with his characteristic challenging combination of invention, compassion, and attention to the concerns and realities of future society and the people who must live in it. Philip K Dick's place as one of the few genuinely vital science fiction writers ' even now, thirty years after his death ' still seems certain.

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