Reviews

Sirius by Olaf Stapledon. Book review

May 30, 2011

Sirius by Olaf Stapledon. Gollancz '7.99

Reviewed by John Howard

First published in 1944, and now appearing in the SF Masterworks series, Sirius is probably not as well known as two of Olaf Stapledon's other novels, Last and First Men and Star Maker. And while Sirius is very different, having none of the eon-spanning sweep and cosmic scope of the earlier books, it is nevertheless one of Stapledon's most important works ' and because of this difference, not despite it.

Sirius is the story of an Alsatian dog whose intelligence has been artificially enhanced, allowing him to be able to communicate with Trelone ' the scientist, and effectively Sirius' creator ' his family and a few trusted friends. In particular, Trelone's daughter Plaxy forms a specially close and intimate bond with Sirius. As in several of his other novels, Stapledon uses the viewpoint of an outsider to take a sensitive look at society, exploring and commenting on its positive and negative aspects. He was always far too subtle and rational a writer to take the easy way out and produce a mere heavy-handed satire. And the tensions between Sirius' canine heritage and the human amply justify the novel's subtitle 'A Fantasy of Love and Discord'.

Despite Sirius having been published nearly seventy years ago, its themes have a very relevant feel to them; there are also hints of some of the ideas that Arthur Machen used in The Terror (1917) when the previous world conflict also caused many to consider humanity's possibly precarious place in the wider setting of 'brute creation'. In Sirius, as he did in Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon teasingly and movingly pursues the chaos and glories of being alive, even of a dog's life, as far as the Ultimate. And then returns to earth, leaving the reader considerably enriched by the journey, and with a book to be treasured.

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Stories: All New Tales edited by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio. Book review

May 30, 2011

Stories: All New Tales edited by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio. Headline '.6.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

The intention of these editors is to provide the reader with new, sharp stories. All those included here are well written and verge towards the horror, turning up the corners of humanity to glimpse the base under the covers. Some authors, such as Roddy Doyle and Jodi Picoult, are not generally regarded as genre writers but their stories do not seem out of place here. The stories cover a wide range within the genre from SF to fantasy, including evocations of myth and folk tale. Many have a contemporary setting that encompasses the bizarre and surreal but all have the kind of edge that may make them appeal to the horror reader. The biggest problem is that few of these stories are memorable. But a few are outstanding.

Elizabeth Hand's novella 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon' has already been nominated for a Hugo. It tells of a group of friends intent on recreating a fragment of ancient film showing man-powered flight two years before the Wright brothers launched a new era at Kittihawk. Using models and modern technology it is a gift for a dying friend but also an exploration of change and regret. It is has a gentle charm

'Samantha's Diary' by Diana Wynne Jones is memorable for its over-the-top humour. It takes a theme that others have tackled before but treats it with the aplomb of an experienced writer who knows how to turn a clich' on its head. In the far future, Samantha is charmed when, on 25 December, a gift of a bird in a leafless tree is delivered. The next day she receives another plus two pigeons. By third day, the same gift with the addition of three chickens, the reader and Samantha's boyfriend are beginning to get an inkling of what to expect next. Samantha however has the problem of feeding all the birds, find space for them and they are not house trained. As the days pass, the cute gift turns into a nightmare.

 Also of note are 'Wildfire in Manhattan' by Joanne Harris and Joe Hill's 'The Devil On The Staircase'. In the former, the Norse Gods are hanging out in New York. Lucky (Loki) is a very flamboyant, accident prone rock musicians ' his gigs seem plagued by lightning strikes and fires. Then his fellow gods start being killed. He and Arthur (Thor) try to defend Sunny with unexpected results. Joe Hill's story is unusual in that it is written in the form of a flight of steps. The narrator spends his childhood and youth helping his father repair the steps leading from his village to the valley. It is when he commits a crime that he discovers the truth about lies.

This is the kind of book that is ideal to take on holiday or read on a train.

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Greybeard by Brian Aldiss. Book review

May 30, 2011

Greybeard by Brian Aldiss. Gollancz '7.99

Reviewed by John Howard

During the winter of 2029 Algy Timberlane, his wife and some neighbours decide to leave the Oxfordshire village of Sparcot and sail down the River Thames to the sea. This is no holiday trip. There are rumours that Banbury is being invaded by Scotsmen, and that feral stoats are about to overrun the village.

Although Algy is the Greybeard of the title, he is one of the youngest humans alive. In the early 1980s the 'Accident' occurred, resulting in humanity and most mammals becoming sterile. And ever since, the human population of the world has been aging and dying, unable to be fruitful and multiply. Civilisation is fading away fast. In the countryside nature has come back into its own, leaving the remaining humans in isolated groups eking out a hand to mouth existence. The remaining towns are slowly falling apart. In a world reminiscent of After London and Earth Abides the future seems limited to the few decades left until the last human dies of old age: 'Man's the thing that's stopped, not death. Everything else but us ' the whole bag of tricks ' goes on unabated.'

In Greybeard (first published in 1964) Aldiss makes his disintegrating twilight human world into a place of wild beauty and burgeoning life even as most of humanity live lives of quiet desperation in a Thomas Hardy setting. In many ways the Thames Valley is as much a part of the story as any of the characters; it's certainly more than a mere background. The trip down the Thames also evokes Three Men in a Boat, but with the comic aspects bleaker, and moments of human warmth and values set against time inexorably running out. What lingers in the memory is the ongoing voyage along the overflowing river, the rhythm of the seasons showing that life goes on, with humanity still having reasons for hope.

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Various Authors edited by Rob Redman. Book review

May 30, 2011

Various Authors edited by Rob Redman. The Fiction Desk '9.99

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

Sometimes one has to read outside the confines of genre. And as much as I love fantasy/horror short stories there are times when I need to go off at a tangent. This is where Various Authors comes in. (Of course, one could argue that all fiction is just a bunch of lies and is, ergo, a form of fantasy fiction ' but I'll not go that route today.) Anyway ' this anthology features twelve new stories from authors I'm not familiar with but, judging from their contributions, writers I'd like to encounter again.

One writer I should've recognised is Patrick Whittaker ' he won the BFS short story competition a year or two back with 'Dead Astronauts'. I dug out that issue of Dark Horizons and re-read and thoroughly enjoyed the quirky, surreal and humorous account of astronauts falling from the sky littering up the lawn. Whittaker's story in Various Authors is 'Celia and Harold', equally strange and weird. It's a horror story (can't get away from them) about being trapped, unable to avoid the inevitable.

Other contributions include stories that touch on frustrating lives, on coincidences perceived or actual, on aspirations. It's difficult to pick highlights: probably 'How to Fall in Love with an Air Hostess' by Harvey Marcus and 'Crannock House' by Ben Lyle ' although, to be honest, I enjoyed them all. I imagine, however, that these stories won't appeal to everyone because often they end unresolved; they are snippets of a larger story that continues after the final full stop. And yes, that can be frustrating but the quality of writing makes up for this. The characters feel just right and the narrative flows seamlessly.

Various Authors is volume one in an intended series published by The Fiction Desk which began life as a blog:. Well worth getting hold of ' and reading.

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Insidious. Film review

May 30, 2011

Insidious. Director James Wan /Writer Leigh Whannell

Reviewed by Benedict Kendall-Carpenter

A horror film without gore? From the creator's of SAW? Horror fans will need no introduction to creative duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell. For their latest offering they've changed gears ' gone are the elaborate 'traps' and tortures of SAW and in their place something a little more subtle, a little more atmospheric, a little more, dare I say it, insidious. Insidious is, broadly speaking, a haunted house film ' albeit the film's tagline proclaims 'It's not the house that's haunted'' but more on that later.

Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne), along with their three children, have moved into a new house. Everything seems rosy, idyllic even, though their happiness isn't destined to last long. Things start to go wrong when one of the couple's sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) hears noises in the attic. He goes to investigate. The tension builds. He climbs a rotten stepladder to turn on the light. The tension mounts. He reaches for the light switch ' and, as the viewer, and no doubt reader has already guessed, he falls. He screams and his parents run to help. He's upset and had a minor bump on the head, but he looks like he'll be all right and they tuck him into bed. Only, he doesn't wake up. They take him to hospital ' the doctors are baffled ' he's in a coma ' they can't explain why. And the film begins proper.

For the next thirty minutes the film is good, very good ' genuine edge of the seat, look through your fingers stuff ' make no mistake it will get you. The hauntings escalate and the family moves house. However, the hauntings follow them ' everything's set for a truly memorable film. But a ridiculous plot soon intrudes. It turns out that Dalton is an 'astral traveller'. When he sleeps he goes to a parallel world of spirit called 'The Further' (which was the film's original title) and while exploring this world he's attracted the attention of some rather nasty so-and-so's ' it isn't the house that's haunted, it's the kid (Poltergeist anyone?). Cue the intervention of a psychic and two poorly placed and desperately unfunny paranormal investigators (one of which is the film's writer).

I don't understand mixing horror and humour ' they're like oil and water ' they just don't mix. Wan and Whannell attempted this humour/horror thing in the terrible Dead Silence ' a film that could have been scary (ventriloquists and their dolls are, for me, deeply disturbing). Anyway back to Insidious: the psychic discovers where Dalton's 'soul' (yawn) is trapped. Dalton's dad, who we now learn was also an astral traveller in his childhood, travels to The Further and rescues Dalton from the clutches of a creature that had been scary but isn't anymore (in fact when you finally get a good look at him you realise he looks like he's related to Darth Maul). That's more or less it, though there is a particularly lame 'twist' (you see it coming a mile off). The thrills and chills had ended forty minutes ago.

The acid test for any horror is whether or not it is scary ' and Insidious delivers for the first hour; sadly it can't sustain the tension and terror and the film dwindles and eventually disintegrates. For this haunted house, it's a case of rent, don't buy.    

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Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Book review

May 30, 2011

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Gollancz '12.99

Reviewed by Mel McLeod

Rookie detective Peter Grant is somewhat disconcerted to be approached by a ghostly informant ' from there it is a short step to becoming the first trainee wizard in the Metropolitan Police for half a century. Soon he is chasing vampires and dealing with grotesque and unpredictable murders, not to mention the exotic and capricious Mother and Father Thames, the warring Gods of the river. Gradually, Peter realises that the mayhem is being caused by a revenant, a phantom that is sequestering people's bodies and deforming them to increasingly resemble Mister Punch, a figure feeding on the frustration and anger of Londoners. When his erstwhile colleague Lesley takes to the stage at Covent Garden and drives the audience into a murderous frenzy, Peter twigs that the answer must lie in the past.

This is brilliant: very funny in parts, and totally original. Aaronovitch says a great deal in a few apposite words; he creates an endearing hero, weirdness which becomes increasingly disconcerting, and an enduring vision of an alternative London. His knowledge of the city is unparalleled but lightly worn; his writing is precise, unfussy and unpretentious, and his imagination is unbridled. He mixes folklore, legend, history, geography, tradition and old wives' tales: the tale is gory but not grim, and he keeps his readers not on tenterhooks but on burning coals throughout. By the end we see London in an indelibly different light ' who will ever be able to visit Covent Garden again without looking over their shoulder? This is fantasy with myriad twists, and humour with punch!

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White Cat by Holly Black. Book review

April 10, 2011

White Cat: The Curse Workers Book 1 by Holly Black. Gollancz '7.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards 

Holly Black describes this as '...a novel about capers, curse magic and memory...'  I am not sure I can put it a lot better than that --  but I shall try.   

Cassel is the only non-worker in a whole family of Curse-Magic workers and his elder brothers look down on him as a result. His father is dead and his mother in jail for 'Working' a sting. In fact, as Curse Working is illegal, many Workers are employed by a Curse-Worker Mob boss. Enough for any 17 year old to cope with you would think? But Cassel has a lot more to contend with. His sleepwalking results in his being suspended from school,  and he has been haunted constantly for the past three years by memories of his murdering his girlfriend, Lila ' who is the only daughter to the afore-mentioned mobster.

With an opening like this you know life can only get complicated and so it does. A white cat is communicating with him through his dreams, and then it turns up in person. The magic in White Cat is consistent throughout and the place and people are totally believable. Cassel himself is not just a crook by default. He enjoys the thrill of chasing down his mark, even without the aid of magic. He's a con-man and you know you shouldn't like him; yet you can't help yourself.

Like many of the paranormal romance titles this is marketed as YA but will also be found among the adult section, with characters, intrigue and pace of a high quality that sets the page-turning quotient on high. I read White Cat in one sitting. A highly recommended tale. (Red Glove: Curse Workers Book 2 is expected May 2011.)

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The Last Lovecraft. DVD review

April 10, 2011

The Last Lovecraft directed by Henry Saine.
Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

Now here's a daft idea for a story: that famous scribe from Providence didn't write fiction. His cosmic horror stories were all true, and the Great Cthulhu really does bide his time in the sunken city of R'lyeh. And even more fanciful, Lovecraft has a direct descendent living in the here and now. Cthulhu's acolytes have am artefact, a piece of the key that will unlock the door incarcerating the great old one. Meanwhile, Jeff (Kyle Davis -- the last relative) and his friend Charlie (Devin McGinn), are entrusted to protect the other portion of the key. Yeah, a couple of idiotic teenager nerds expected to save the world!

But The Last Lovecraft is a funny film. It's not likely to leave you breathless with laughter -- unless, that is, there're are you and some mates with beer (or wine) and popcorn; then you'll be unable to keep a straight face. For example, who is this Cthulhu creature? Simply solved with a comic-book graphical layout. Want to know how they get from A to B? Just follow the dotted line on the map. And are special effects a whole lot above The Creature from the Black Lagoon? OK, maybe I'm being a harsh here. But this movie is played for humour -- and as such is a great success.

The movie is released on DVD about now.
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The Painter, The Creature, and the Father of Lies by Clive Barker. Book review

April 10, 2011

The Painter, The Creature, and the Father of Lies by Clive Barker, edited by Phil and Sarah Stokes. Earthling Publications. $35.00
Reviewed by Peter Coleborn
 
When he lived in London an electrician came to fix an appliance. He noticed some Hellraiser merchandise and said: "Have you seen those films? They're sick. I mean, whoever makes these films must be a fucking nutter" (page 37) -- the kind of comment that surely appealed to Barker's sense of the absurd. It appeals to mine.

So, who is this Clive Barker? Well, he is a polymath, damn him: film maker, script writer, artist, illustrator, novelist, short story writer... I wouldn't be surprised if he's penned an operatic libretto, composed a symphony, played lead guitar with Bruce Springsteen, solved Fermat's Last Theorem.

This book confirms another arrow to his quiver: Clive Barker is an erudite commentator of fantasy. There are around a hundred essays here, mostly a few pages long, culled from Barker's introductions and articles that have appeared since he burst out of horror's abdomen in the early 1980s. You remember them, surely: The Books of Blood. With these volumes Barker was designated the new voice of horror. With hindsight, we see that he was a lot more; he was not content to be hemmed in by those boundaries -- and in fact he admits that he is no longer the man who wrote "In the Hills, the Cities". He says that those early stories of damnation have mostly been replaced by stories of redemption.

I guess there is just so much Barker can say about Hellraiser or Nightbreed without repeating himself, and the several introductions to these films, and his books, confirm this. But when he is allowed to meander off to other areas in the field, to the events that surround the films and stories, to the people and events and places that affected him,  and, especially, when he writes about himself,  then you get a flavour of the real Barker. He comes across as a passionate man (for example, he comments acutely on taboo and censorship: "Two steps beyond the perimeters of Good Taste is where the best journeys begin") and with a touching humility about the things that made him the person he was, the man he became. I suggest that the reader takes his/her time and not read this book in sequence, or in one (long) sitting. Delve into it now and again, pick and choose. Savour it as one would a box of Thornton's chocolates.

At FantasyCon 2008 Clive Barker gave an off-the-cuff speech about the fantasy genre -- although he in fact condemned the use of "genre" -- saying that we (fantasy writers and readers) must think bigger than that. When reading these essays I can hear his conviction -- his passion. If you haven't had the opportunity to hear his words in person, this collection gives everyone the great opportunity to learn a little about Clive Barker, about what makes his blood flow, his lungs inflate, his brain fizz.

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Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler. Book review

April 1, 2011

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler. Bloomsbury (2011) '7.99.

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

The title pretty much sums up the plot. Jane Mansfield, an ardent Jane Austen fan circa 1813 wakes up as 21st century Jane Austen fan, Courtney Stone, living in the LA of 2011. Or did Courtney really just lose her memory and slide into a fantasy Austen persona after hitting her head in the swimming pool?

The premise is one of 19th C Jane with all the usual innocence and skills of a fan-flapping 19th century debutante, swapping places with 21st century Courtney, a film exec's PA.

There are plot devices here that leave you wondering if we are following Jane or Courtney, such as meetings with the Gypsy fortune teller in a down town bar, and slippage into Jane's old life. In the end I am not sure I cared very much as I could not see it as anything more than a rather anaemic role reversal of the TV programme Lost in Austen. It's not badly written, but is basically a rather slight romance, with not enough input from the 'Courtney' side of the equation to persuade me that it has real fantasy credentials.

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