Reviews

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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A Dance of Ghosts by Kevin Brooks. Book review

May 30, 2011

A Dance of Ghosts by Kevin Brooks. Arrow '6.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Many readers of fantasy and horror also have crime novels on their shelves. This volume, a debut adult novel by Brooks (he has previously written prize winning children's novels), is pure crime. The first person narrator is John Craine, a private investigator working out of the Essex town of Hey. Most of his cases are insurance fraud but he is recommended by an old friend to the mother of a missing girl. Anna Gerrish disappeared a month ago and the police have made no progress. The generally held view is that she has probably run off to a better life. Almost immediately, Craine finds the past catching up with him. Mike Bishop, the corrupt copper his father tried to expose before committing suicide is in charge of the case and when he is attacked, Craine suspects Bishop is behind it.

Craine is one of the generation of detectives who has to have a troubled past. Sixteen years ago his wife was brutally murdered. The killer was never caught but when he finds Anna Gerrish's body and DNA links the two deaths, Craine knows this is impossible. As with any first person narrative it is possible to regard the view point character as an unreliable witness. This is doubled by the fact that Craine drinks heavily and admits to having used other substances

While much of this novel is fairly standard fare for the crime genre, there are a few interesting twists and it has obviously been set up for sequels. This is light reading to while away and hour or two.

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The Watchers by John Steele. Book review

May 30, 2011

The Watchers by John Steele. Bantam Press '12.99

Reviewed by Jim McLeod

Jay Harper is on the trail of a missing Olympic athlete. Arriving in Switzerland, he meets the attractive but aloof Katherine in a hotel bar. She's a high class hooker who can't believe her luck ' but not all luck is good.

Marc Rochat spends his time in a belfry talking to statues, his cat and some ghosts.  He has to watch over the town of Lausanne, looking for the angel his mother told him he'd have to save. Believing that Katherine is the one, he thinks his moment has come ' but not all moments are good. As angels go to war over the fate of mankind.

John Steele has certainly come out with all guns blazing for his debut novel. You can tell that he was an award winning cameraman as the book has a number of beautifully described passages which allow you to picture the scene as clearly as if you were watching it on the screen.

You could describe this as a take on Gaiman's Neverwhere. However, this would do both novels a disservice. Yes, there are some similarities but there is enough of a unique voice to the novel to lay to rest these comparisons. As with many first novels, there could have been a more liberal use of editing as the narrative does get bogged down at times with a few over descriptive passages that do play havoc with the pacing. However, this is still a book worthy of your time.

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The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn. Book review

May 30, 2011

The Scar-Crow Men: Sword of Albion Volume 2 by Mark Chadbourn. Bantam '12.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

The year is 1593. This is a time of intrigue and suspicion where nobody really knows who can be trusted, and if that were not enough, plague ravishes the city of London. In all of this mayhem, Will's closest friend, Kit Marlowe, is murdered and Will embarks on a course of bloody revenge on the killers. In doing so he unearths Unseelie enemies amongst Elizabeth's courtiers far more deadly than any he has encountered before.

Second in the Swords of Albion adventure series, The Scar-Crow Men is another swashbuckling adventure full of sword fights and chases through dark streets and magick-infested halls. There is plenty of action here, and bags of verisimilitude. As ever, Mark Chadbourn's fantasy is of a very dark kind, where blood and guts and magicks abound in buckets.

One has to wonder how 'England's greatest spy' can work incognito when he is so well recognised, but it's a small point, and of course not at all relevant when the enemy he is trained to fight is neither English nor human. A curious ending, which I cannot give away of course, but set fair for the third volume. A must for all Chadbourn's fans.

Volume one of this series, The Sword of Albion, (published as The Silver Skull in US) is now available in mass market format from Bantam at '7.99.

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The Crippled God by Steven Erikson. Book review

May 30, 2011

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson. Bantam Press '20

Reviewed by Karen Stevens

The remains of the Malazan army, led by Adjunct Tavore, make their final match into the previously uncrossed Glass Desert. If they can survive the trials of the desert and treachery from within their own ranks, they face a deadly enemy ' the Forkul Assail, a ruthless race which intends to scour humanity from the face of the world. Elsewhere an army of refugees stand at the gates of the lost city of Kharkanas to face the Tiste Liosan who are breaching their way through Lightfall while the three Elder Gods plan to release the Otataral Dragon from her prison.

It's impossible to write a more detailed description of The Crippled God because it's a huge book (900 pages) with many parallel plot-lines to follow. This is the last of Erikson's Malazan Books of the Fallen series and a direct sequel to Dust of Dreams. Don't read it without reading the previous books first or you'll be lost amongst its twisting plots and huge cast of characters.

Erikson is an excellent writer and has created a massive fantasy world, alien but still believable and with a hard edge of realism lacking in many novels. His characters aren't traditional heroes but fighters and survivors drawn in many shades of grey, grim and worn-down by all they've been through, who are repeatedly kicked down but keep getting back up again. The action scenes are brutally realistic, with plenty of dazzling sword-play but also an unflinching description of the gory carnage of the battlefield. 

I recommend this book. This is heroic fantasy that's been dragged through the mud and kicked a few times. It's gritty and it's bloody. And it's all the better for it.

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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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