Archive for June, 2013

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill

The Small Hand and Dolly

I suppose if you start with the broader genre of horror, the supernatural ghost story is rather like a cousin. In other words there are some shared genes, but with genre walls usually maintained efficiently, the authors are aiming at slightly different emotional responses from the readers. That said, we should not distract ourselves or prejudge as reviewers because of the genre or subgenre label. The essence of any successful creative work is that it’s believable. Which, of course, inevitably leads to scepticism that a ghost story can be believable. The majority of people are sufficiently rational to accept there ain’t no such thing as a ghost. If believability is our criterion, every attempt to conjure a ghost would fail. But this ignores the more subtle truth. As readers, we can believe in the psychology of the protagonist who, for whatever reason, believes he or she’s being haunted. In the real world, we all have issues to deal with. Guilt, for example, can lead to bad dreams. If our protagonist loses enough sleep, he or she may hallucinate or become delusional. In such cases, there’s no knowing what our imaginations might impose on our rational minds.

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill are two quintessentially British novellas (Vintage Books, 2013). Ah, another Pandora’s Box to open. If I had to distinguish the American from the British approach to the supernatural, it would be in the scale. The transAtlantic ghost story is usually more explicit and showy with more overt mayhem. British stories tend to be understated and more about the sense of terror that comes as we empathise with a protagonist who suddenly finds him or herself cast adrift from secure moorings in reality. If I had to capture the principle underpinning the British more literary style, it would be that less is more, i.e. that the vicarious fear or terror arises more from hints and suggestions than from anything explicit. The template relies on the skill of the author to create an appropriate atmosphere and then leaves it to the reader to anticipate the worst. I suppose the best in ghost stories gives us the option of a rational explanation, e.g. by supplying a family background which includes some degree of mental disorder. Indeed, we might consider the appearance of a ghost as being a defeat for the author’s inventiveness. Then it all comes down to the characterisation and, sometimes, flirting with the device of an unreliable narrator to create the requisite effects. If there are cracks through which the ghost is going to emerge into our world, they will be cracks in the character of the protagonist. So perhaps the protagonist is just imagining the cold breeze on his neck or is having an anxiety attack. In the right mood, we can all abandon the thin veer of rationality and revert to a more primitive state in which we’re afraid of what may be lurking in the dark just out of sight.

Susan Hill still has the magic

Susan Hill still has the magic

One of the more commonly used devices is the abandoned or rundown country house as an extension to gothic romanticism which enhances its more melodramatic aspirations by placing the action in mediaeval piles. Even Dickens got in on the act with settings such as Satis House in Great Expectations, albeit not with supernatural overtones. So in The Small Hand, our bookseller “hero” is lost and, in the hope of finding someone to ask for directions, enters the overgrown gardens of what proves a derelict Edwardian house. This is a beautifully sustained moment as everything suddenly stills. Not even a cricket would have dared break the silence. Imagine how you would react in this moment of relaxation and peace if you felt the small hand of a child sneak into yours — as if you were suddenly trusted to be a friend. Yet when you looked down, you were alone. So begins a journey. Our bookseller has people to see and books to find. He travels around. Most of the time he feels safe, but then come disturbing episodes. Perhaps he’s no longer alone or maybe he’s following in his brother’s footsteps and developing an anxiety disorder. Is he merely succumbing to panic attacks? This is a supremely assured and elegant novella in which certainty and peace of mind are suddenly put under pressure. When you begin to doubt yourself, how do you tell what’s real?

Dolly takes us into the fens, to a hamlet called Iyot Lock where, appropriately enough, you find Iyot House. After a gap of forty years, Edward Cayley, our first-person narrator, returns to the house. As he approaches the house through the churchyard, he finds himself attracted to three graves near the wall. Perhaps he hears a rustling. . . there’s something just at the edge of his memory, something he can’t quite remember. As a slightly frail eight-year-old boy, he’d never been afraid of the house. Surely this is not the time for fear to come? Now his Aunt is dead, there’s the question of inheritance. And that’s why his cousin Leonora van Vorst comes back into his life. In the backstory, Kestrel Dickinson was one of three sisters who disliked each other. She and Mrs Mullen, the housekeeper, do their best to make the two cousins welcome. They reopen the attics which had largely been ignored since the tradition of having maids had died. Orphaned Edward proves persistently polite about staying there during his school holiday. Like her selfish mother, Lenora is spoiled and aggressive. She hates everything about being sent there as a companion for Edward. There are only two things they share — a love of thunderstorms and an absence of parental love in their lives. And then comes the incident with the doll. Of course, at the age of eight, they are not completely responsible for their actions, but that doesn’t prevent those around them from feeling resentful. Perhaps even wanting to take some measure of revenge when the children have grown old enough to understand. Except, Edward’s motives and actions were more human, maybe even honourable. If there were to be consequences, he would be forgiven. Ah, if only life could be so fair. After all, what happens is just bad luck. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts.

These two novellas represent a tremendous achievement, flirting with the borderline between the pain and hardships of real life, and the unlikely possibility of supernatural interventions as one of the causes. The Small Hand and Dolly are destined to be ranked highly in the all-time list of classic ghost stories.

For reviews of two other books by Susan Hill, see:
The Betrayal of Trust
A Question of Identity

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

June 29, 2013 2 comments


The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013) is playing in the sandbox of male fantasy wish-fulfillment. From the earliest days of the comics, boys have been presented with heroes who suddenly discover they’re not the usual downtrodden losers, endlessly condemned to slave at the chalk face as bored students before transitioning seamlessly into unemployment or the miseries of exploited slave labour. At a stroke they find they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, fight crime as a caped crusader, and avoid acne. It always was a seductive dream. Then along came the anime series which showed us that the only requirement for being able to win in competition or battle was self-belief — the power of your will was translated into the strength of your Pokemon or BattleBot (sorry that’s real world fighting with geeks using physical robotic avatars but the idea’s the same). Some of these stories are painfully exploitative rather than inspirational, i.e. they exist to sell the games, the cards and other tied-in product lines rather than to provide practical guidance on how to mitigate the pain of everyday existence in our current reality. People cannot suddenly transform their lives by their own efforts. They either start with natural abilities or they have guidance on how to make the best of what they have. Only a tiny percentage of the young become major performers in their chosen field of activity.

Because comics are strongly gender biased, those aimed at young males naturally cater to the fantasies of their target audience. That means all the girls are mere ciphers who fit the prevailing male stereotypes. They must be stunningly attractive and, at first, cluster around the confident but brainless hunks already in the scene. But when our protagonist’s superpowers emerge, he becomes the babe magnet as a fan club forms for the masked or thinly disguised alter ego who now bestrides the neighbourhood doing good. So our hero gets to do cool stuff in physical terms and becomes the most sexually attractive person on the planet with the pick of all the most attractive women he sees. You can’t have a fantasy better designed to sink its hooks into young males.

Wesley Chu in hero mode

Wesley Chu in hero mode

So the point of this story is to find a man who could not be farther from the hero stereotype. Meet Roen Tan. Naturally, he was bullied at school and has grown up overweight and with a level of self-esteem one point above zero. He’s what the IT trade would laughingly call a code monkey and he’s pathetically grateful to be bullied by his line manager into working an insane number of hours for very little money. This provides him with enough cash to drink himself silly in inappropriate clubs, not picking up girls or having any fun (other than the consumption of more pizzas which add to his girth). So you can imagine his surprise one morning when he wakes up on the floor of his shared apartment. Usually, he manages to make it to the bed before he passes out. What he fails to realise is that he’s now become the host for an alien who can control his body while he’s asleep. OK so this is not the most original of science fiction tropes. The alien is one of a group who crashed on Earth several million years ago and all they want to do is get back home (thank the powers above it’s not an alien invasion story). Except they have to wait until humans have developed a level of technology that will make return possible (ignoring the passage of time and the fact their return might not be entirely successful as things will have changed back home while they were away). Originally all our aliens were singing from the same hymn book but, as time passed, a disagreement arose as how best to push our evolution. One group was all for using conflict and wars to drive development. The other wanted to be more patient and encourage curiosity and creativity. When they could not agree, they broke into armed camps and have been fighting each other using humans as their hosts ever since. Yes, they provoked all the more recent wars and had hosts in key positions on both sides. Yawn. We’ve been there and got the T-shirt on this trope so many times.

So only one thing saves this book from dropping into oblivion. No matter how competent the alien, he’s only as good as the host when it comes to doing anything “important”. Although the alien can control the body when the host is asleep, this is not going to produce anything useful when the host wakes up (people on average sleep between seven and eight hours which leaves the host exposed to danger the rest of the time). So the alien has to negotiate with the host to persuade him to sign up for combat training. The bulk of the book therefore follows the slow process of losing weight, getting fit, and developing the reflexes to be able to fight and shoot. Except the mind is less than willing. This produces very indifferent results when our hero suddenly finds himself at risk. No matter how much he has trained, he still lacks self-confidence. His first instinct is to run but that’s not going to save him. At some point he has to fight. The interest therefore comes in watching the alien manipulate the human into at least attempting all this training, and then supporting him until his mind catches up to the new levels of physical fitness.

The result is slow moving and, despite the action sequences going on around him, less than engaging because the only way he survives is by accident. Coincidence and contrivance loom large to save our hero from his failure to develop proper reflexes and complete lack of self-confidence. There are vague attempts at humour but the jokes are repeated and quickly grow tiresome. It all goes on far too long before we get to the predictable climax in which the girl our hero has fallen in love with is threatened by evil Emperor Ming and he discovers he can hit harder than a girl. If someone in an editorial role had cut out all the deadwood, this could have been a good but limited story. There would have been some degree of balance in the characterisation to include believable human and alien females, and some explanation of how the alien sexuality works. We seem to have male aliens in male hosts. What happens when the genders fail to match up? Why is a coma not the same as sleep? These and other questions are just left hanging. Sadly, The Lives of Tao is bloated and boring. That it’s set up for a sequel is not good news unless someone with a lot more experience takes over the editorial role and guides this young writer round all the pitfalls.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) A Lake District Mystery 6 is an intriguing trip down memory lane for me. Being old enough to have lived through a part of what some historians would have us call the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, there’s always a nostalgic resonance when I pick up a book like this. Although set in contemporary England, and specifically in the Lake District, a picturesque area in the North West which I know reasonably well, the essence of the book is instantly recognisable. This is what we might reasonably call a middle class murder, albeit one shading towards the upper than the lower reaches.

Daniel Kind, our amateur detective, is one of these academics who’s made the transition from bookish don to television personality. Not for him the swanning around Oxford, emerging briefly from library stacks to vouchsafe a few words of wisdom to reluctant students. He’s been beamed into people’s living rooms, pontificating about this and that with his cut-glass accent, good looks, and incredible command of his subject matter. Ah such are the joys of the cult of personality. Better still, as the son of a senior ranking police officer, he comes equipped with the interest and skills to be an investigator. You can’t ask for a better stereotype than this. Also lurking in the foreground is DCI Hannah Scarlett, a reasonably senior police officer who worked with the aforementioned celebrity’s father, and now runs the cold case department in Cumbria (given the customary weather conditions, that’s a good department to run). She’s also middle class and, of course, going through the usual relationship angst that afflicts women who are trying to balance career with a “happy ever after” relationship. Naturally, once this pair overcome their immediate social problems, they are made for each other.

Martin Edwards shows off his teeth

Martin Edwards shows off his teeth

In this case, the investigative relationship is slightly better balanced than usual. When detective fiction was first setting off, we had Sherlock’s genius described by his sidekick John Watson. As a fictional ploy, this gives us an Everyman to follow around in the footsteps of the Great Man to be amazed by his brilliant insights. Hannah Scarlett as a potential partner is no dummy and, given the right circumstances and a little more ambition, she could easily rise to the highest levels. She’s very comfortable in the presence of our academic celebrity and not at all phased by the status of those whom she must investigate. Between them, they are inspired by the idea of arriving at a result which represents “justice” as an abstract ideal. This particular hamlet has a history which involves an unsolved murder where the battered face of the victim was covered by a blanket (the shroud of the title although there’s a different type of shroud that puts in an appearance later in the book). So the academic historian is off to trawl through the local records while the modern replication of the murder falls to the police. Except, of course, there’s no such thing as coincidence. By the time we have three deaths with the faces of the battered victims covered by a blanket, even the most dimwitted would see a connection. The problem, therefore, is to explain what links a death almost one-hundred years ago, with two deaths in the last five years.

From this you’ll understand this is playing with the Golden Age conventions. It has a pastoral setting in a relatively remote part of the English countryside, thereby creating a limited set of suspects. The whole is tightly plotted as a puzzle which the reader is invited to solve as our amateur and professional detectives pursue their investigations. At every stage, we’re able to observe the facts as they emerge and to understand the deductive processes involved in analysing those facts and arriving at a reasonable whodunnit solution. The only feature which distinguishes this book from the classic novels of more than fifty years ago is the amount of psychological depth invested in the characters. We’re given enough information to be able to understand not just the detectives, but also all those who are involved in the investigation. Whereas the classic Golden Age book simply set out to pose and answer a puzzle, this sets out to explain all the mysteries including who everyone is. This does not, of course, change the end result. Peace and order is restored to the British countryside so all is well with the world once again. For these purposes, we can overlook the dead bodies and the social and economic hardships caused by the murders. Bad stuff happens, even in idyllic countryside.

I suppose, having been an academic in a previous life, I’m predisposed to like an academic as the male protagonist. I recognise the type. In this instance, the resolution of the puzzle is consequently pleasing because it arises through the application of scholarly skills. It’s academic archaeology unearthing the clues in the past. I confess to being pleasantly surprised by the way the different motives overlapped through time. The common denominator linking the murder is easy to see. But understanding the precise mechanisms at work is more challenging. There’s also quite a satisfying link between the central mystery and the turmoil in the female detective’s life. No-one is immune from the insecurities she feels — it’s always difficult to leave the past behind and stay positive. Put all this together and The Frozen Shroud is a great success. It contrives to preserve everything that made the old puzzle mysteries such a joy to solve, it adds a very good police procedural element, and says interesting things about the people involved.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 27, 2013 2 comments

Without a Summer

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2013) The Glamourist Histories 3 has produced a real internal debate and, even as I sit down to write this review, I’m still undecided on what my final decision should be. It all revolves around the merits of pastiche as a literary form. It has long been acceptable for one author to write in the style of another, usually to celebrate the skills and style of that other. I suppose in some senses, it’s a form of homage, albeit without the servile overtones that tend to be associated with the word. And we should distinguish parody because there’s no intention to make fun of the source material or its author. No matter how we end up defining pastiche, humour is not the intention (unless, of course, the author being celebrated is a humourist). So here we go with Mary Robinette Kowal writing in the style of Jane Austen, i.e. we’re to take it that this is how Jane Austen herself or other Regency writers might have written science fiction or fantasy. Ostensibly set in 1816, it deals with the literal fallout of the volcanic eruption of Tambora in the East Indies. It’s one of the few times we’ve come close to a nuclear winter as ash in the upper atmosphere produced a prolonged period of cold. So Ms Kowal’s intention is to take an actual historical event and to weave a story around it in a style of the period.

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

My problem with all this artifice is to decide how we should assess its merit and then whether the result works on those terms. As a reviewer, I could decide to accept the author’s intention as being to write a “Regency” novel. This would involve my applying criteria that Regency critics might have adopted. Or I could ignore its declared purpose of recreating a period work and judge it purely as a contemporary novel. So let’s be blunt about the first option. No Regency author would have written a book exactly like this. The core conceit is a system of magic that no author of that time could have imagined. Our two lead characters are capable of manipulating the aether for a number of different purposes and effects. Spread over now three books, the author has invested considerable effort in constructing an internally consistent set of rules for the exercise of this supernatural skill. Indeed, for the purposes of this book, we have an extension of the skill set to encompass coldmongering which is an elegant idea. So it’s pointless to try judging it as if it had been written two hundred years ago. Equally, we’re not in the business of trying to judge it in the same way as the efforts to complete Sanditon, i.e. the author takes the original incomplete work and attempts to continue the story in the same style. This is very much an original work albeit that it plays the game of social manners appropriate to the Regency era. Hence, if I’m not judging it to determine whether it succeeds as if written two hundred years ago, the primary question to answer is what value is added to the story by pretending it was written by Jane Austen.

So here I get into trying to second guess the marketing strategy. I’m assuming there’s a massive market for the real Jane Austen’s work. You only have to look at the outflowing of adaptations on the small and large screen to see our age is still fixated with this author’s view of the world. This would suggest that an author could trade on this love of the original author to sell her own fiction. What we have is a heady romance as Jane’s sister Melody comes to London and finds what may be love in an unfortunate quarter. We have all the problems of chaperoning and the etiquette of courtship set out for us at some length — a feature which rather pushes the glamour element to a backseat.

I’m therefore driven to a view which is no doubt strongly influenced by my male gender. I found Without a Summer to be as dull as ditchwater. I’ve tried to find added value in the pastiche but, frankly, I now conclude this has been a red herring. At best, this is a third-rate fantasy novel. There’s little development to the central conceit. The primary focus is romance threatened by political manoeuvring. From this point of view, the second novel was far stronger with genuine innovativeness on display. Sadly, this has dropped back to a very poor standard.

For reviews of the other books in this series, see:
Glamour in Glass
Shades of Milk and Honey
Valour and Vanity.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

DCI Banks: Dry Bones That Dream (2012)

Dry Bones That Dream

In DCI Banks: Dry Bones That Dream (2012) we confront a fundamental truth. Every now and then, these tales of the lives of those who live in darkest Northern England have to include a family which has a little brass. If for no other reason, it matches the idiom there has to be a little brass amongst all the muck. Except, of course, the brass is nearly always ill-gotten gains. In this opening sequence, we have a rich man’s home invaded, his daughter and wife tied to chairs. The man of the house is dragged outside. The body is found in the garage with the head removed by shotgun blast. Obviously his life as an accountant was not as boring as comedians would have us believe is the norm for that profession. Despite being less than honest over his time sheets which led to him being fired from his last job, his finances have remained in robust health. The man was obviously a credit to his profession. Except the night he was killed was his wedding anniversary and it turns out he was less than faithful. Another woman, Pamela Jefferies (Patricia Potter) comes forward when the victim’s photograph appears in the newspapers. She leads them to a flat where he had a second home — a fact confirmed when his fingerprints are found on all the obvious surfaces (not Pamela’s, of course, she takes a shower every now and then).


To make life interesting for our dour bobby, DCI Banks (Stephen Tomkinson), he’s warned off talking to a local MP Martin Fleming (Patrick Baladi). Apparently there’s a major corruption investigation in progress led by a rival of his called DCI Burgess (Richard Dillane). Then a local solicitor called Daniel Northcliffe is reported missing. Needless to say, our unstoppable force for justice (Northern style) ignores instructions and talks to Martin Fleming. Not that it gets him anywhere, of course. It’s far too early in the episode for it to do any good. In the midst of all this, the accountant’s son comes back from America and explains why he chose to absent himself. It seems he disapproved of his father having a relationship with “another woman”. When shown photographs, it proves to be a third woman. Gasp! Not Pamela Jeffries who’s now been beaten up in her own flat by an unknown assailant. This accountant who seems to be a downtrodden weed at home with his dominant wife, is actually a womaniser who can attract birds from the tree just by whistling a little tune. Well that conjures up all kinds of possible motives for removing his head.

Stephen Tomkinson commiserates with Patricia Potter

Stephen Tomkinson commiserates with Patricia Potter


Meanwhile, back in the dark reaches of the police station, DI Helen Morton (Caroline Catz) seems socially maladjusted and her attempts at fitting in are not a success. When told to make an effort by cracking a joke about the people she works with, the result is so cringeworthy, you wonder how she ever managed to survive as a human being, let alone get promoted to a senior position in the police force. As penance for being less than a complete human being (although she does have children so something is working right for her somewhere in her life), she gets to lead a SWAT team in pursuit of the man who attacked Pamela Jeffries. This involves lots of running through dark passageways with water on the floor. Such exercise is always good for the soul in Northern circles. And no, it’s not a sewer. It’s Thruscross Reservoir with everyone running around inside the dam(n) wall. Meanwhile, without asking anyone’s permission, Banks has cracked the case and calls a meeting at the seaside, buckets and spades optional. What makes this rather artistically placed house so memorable is that the salt from the sea would be rotting all the wood and metal in the fabric of the building. The cost of maintenance must be phenomenal. Worse this heap of rotting masonry was filmed in the same dark, Satanic mill style. This cliff-top mansion was intended to become a home based on love, yet it turns out it was just as cold and cloudy as the rest of the scenery in this series. The only things missing were a storm, forty-foot high waves and a monster singing a lullaby in duet with the foghorn of a nearby lighthouse.


Thematically, we’re all supposed to be thinking about identity. Here’s this mild mannered accountant who’s been quietly living different lives like he had multiple personality disorder, while both Banks and Morton have personal issues to resolve. Oh dear, Banks is having an argument with a rival officer and he’s potentially attracted to Pamela Jeffries, both a witness and then a victim who lends him her prized possession. As a detective, he’s a dinosaur when it comes to technology and doesn’t know his twitter from his elbow. What use is a policeman who only has his intuition to rely on? Well you’re all going to have to suck it up because he gets enough evidence to arrest the MP and earns the “thanks” of his rival. Because he has to suffer as a character for being Northern, he sends the prized possession back to Pamela Jeffries, and he finally persuades Morton to sit down and have a drink with the rest of the team. We expect Stephen Tomkinson to be robotically unhappy (like all the men in the North), but Caroline Catz as Helen Morton is beyond belief. In these first two episodes, she’s gone from ghastly stereotype of humourless female in a senior management position, to drowned rat in a reservoir who ends up with a dead suspect on her hands, to one of the gang playing cards and knocking back the hard stuff, without any particular rhyme or reason to any of it. There’s some ingenuity in the methodology for committing the crime and irony that borrowing the Scottish reluctance to open the wallet is the cause of the downfall (obviously, you should leave penny-pinching north of the border). But Dry Bones That Dream is a tedious grind from start to finish.


For reviews of the other episodes in the series, see:
Cold is the Grave (2011)
Friend of the Devil (2011)
Innocent Graves (2012)
Playing With Fire (2011)
Strange Affair (2012).


Categories: TV and anime

Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams


Value is one of these rather annoying words where meaning can change quite significantly depending on the context in which it’s used. If we start off in personal terms, we may have moral or ethical values as the basis for deciding whether to do or refrain from doing anything, i.e. they represent a set of preferences against which we judge whether we should act. However, these values may take on a more imperative nature if they are shared by the majority of people in our community. Indeed Kant argues that if the given moral value is recognised as valid and applied by the majority, it becomes an obligation. If social enforcement is insufficient to ensure compliance, law-makers can enshrine the value in laws and use punishment as the means of enforcement or award compensation to those who are damaged by noncompliance. But if we move into economics, we begin to talk about measuring value by reference to a currency or equivalent medium of exchange, i.e. there is assumed to be a link between value and the price people are prepared to pay for the goods or services.

Tad Williams

Tad Williams

Applying this, I might well see aesthetic value in a work of art that few others might see. If there was little or no demand, I might acquire the object of subjective value for a small monetary payment. But if the majority see intangible value in the goods or services, they will pay more to acquire it. Going back through my collecting years, I think the smallest book I bought new was Ringtime by Thomas M Disch. It was published by Toothpaste Press and cost $35 in 1983 for 40 pages, signed and limited to 100 copies. In my defence, I was collecting Disch and it was a rather beautiful production. All of which brings me to Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams (Subterranean Press, 2013). It sells as an ebook for $3.99. As a paperback chapbook limited to 750 copies, it sells for $15. It has 64 pages with the cover and extensive interior illustrations by William Eakin. But don’t let the advertised number of pages deceive you. This is a short story, spread out over the pages with a “nice” piece of design.

So here comes your decision. As short stories featuring a dragon and a princess go, this is elegant and quite witty. The artwork genuinely contributes to the aesthetic value of the production. Indeed, the final sepia panel completes the story in a way words would struggle to match. In other words, this is worth reading and seeing as artistic content. But when we come to economic value, I find myself in trouble. When I bought the limited Toothpaste edition, I realized it was a calculated gamble as to whether it would hold its value. Looking it up on Abebooks, I see a fine copy offered at $350. I’m not convinced it will sell for anything like that (less than $100 is more likely), but you get the idea that it has more than kept its economic value. I don’t believe a paperback chapbook selling for $15 will hold its value. Since I don’t own a Kindle or Nook, I can’t say whether many will buy this at $3.99. But what I can say is that electronic versions cannot be resold, so there’s no residual value. I therefore arrive at the conclusion that only the diehard collectors will buy this slight piece and not worry about the economic cost. For them, just owning it will be value enough.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Holders by Julianna Scott

June 24, 2013 4 comments

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Since my wife used to work in a building almost next door to their offices in Nottingham, I’ve been following the progress being made by Angry Robot Books. Not the most pressing of reasons, I know, but Angry Robot has been publishing some interesting titles making it worth watching their list. While I looked away, there were then developments. They added a young adult line called Strange Chemistry, followed by crime and thrillers with an imprint called Exhibit A. So here I go breaking another of my house rules and, despite my usual contempt for all things YA, I’m plunging into The Holders by Julianna Scott (Strange Chemistry, 2013) to see whether a dynamic British company can do better with the urban fantasy subgenre for teens (I’ve also got two of Exhibit A’s titles and will be reviewing them in the days to come). Having already declared by prejudices, I need to offer a brief definition of YA as a starting point for this review. In theory this is content aimed at those aged between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Since people of this tender age range are supposed by book packagers (and parents) to have undeveloped tastes and to be emotionally vulnerable, their tastes have to be guided away from adult fiction in the non-pornographic sense of the word, and persuaded to read fiction that’s safe and, in many ways, educational. That said, there’s actually evidence people up to the age of twenty-five buy YA without embarrassment. It seems some people’s level of reading skills and emotional development never progress beyond, say, seventeen.

Why pick the age of seventeen? Because the lead protagonist of this first-person narrative is a seventeen-year-old girl and she’s going through the usual rite of passage or coming of age experiences required in YA mode. Because this is also urban fantasy, our young heroine is also required to fall in love but, because this is to be emotionally safe (and not give young readers the wrong idea), she must be chaste. No matter how strong the attraction, she cannot go beyond hand-holding and the occasional kiss. This is unrealistic. UNICEF estimates that more than 80% of teens have sexual intercourse in Britain and the US. The teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are the highest in the developed world. For books not to reflect this statistical reality is surprising if the books are in any way intended as a constructive influence on opinions and behaviour. Yet not just YA but also the majority of books in the urban fantasy subgenre are aimed at female readers who want romance with a supernatural edge. I have no problem with a concept that ring-fences fictional behaviour for educational purposes, i.e. which represents a discussion and commentary upon the behaviour and the downsides of stepping outside the fence. But it does seem problematic when the fence is uncritically presented as a social good, i.e. it becomes propaganda addressed to young minds which are more easily influenced.

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

This leads to a secondary question of why I’m harping on about YA having an educational purpose. Well this book is playing in a well-trodden sandpit for the purposes of offering conservatively framed guidance on how children should react when their parents split up. Our heroine was celebrating the arrival of a baby brother and looking forward to a move across country. Everything went well with the packing and her mother moved. Unfortunately, the father disappeared. This left mother and daughter devastated. So this theme is the main structure on which the story is based. When his son is ten, missing Daddy sends his minions to bring the sprog to a school in Ireland where he can be “safe”. Protective sister goes with him and must therefore reach some form of accommodation with her father. It’s all about forgiveness. Yet, of course, it’s not that straightforward. It turns out that Daddy has some super powers and it’s probable his son has inherited them. He’s being brought to Ireland for testing because, gulp, he may be the Chosen One mentioned in the Prophesy. There must always be prophesies when magic is involved. In this case, we’ve got a series of different types of power. Super Daddy is like Charles Xavier with mind reading and adjusting powers. Needless to say, there’s a counterbalancing mind-adjusting elder who’s out for world domination. That’s why the Prophesy calls for a hero to save the world.

Within five pages of the start, it’s obvious what the broad plot is going to be and what the authorial choices are. The way the plot then develops telegraphs the love interest and how the hero thing is going to work out, i.e. because this is written for the YA market, there can be no real surprises and it must be obvious how everything will be resolved. That way, the young reader can sit back and just savour the steady progress to true love and beating the immediate threat to safety. In fact, the threat comes into focus almost at the end making it all rather perfunctory. This leaves plenty of time to resolve separated parent issues and to work through an allegory about how relationships are formed. Think of it this way. Here’s a young woman who’s been dominant in protecting her younger brother. She meets a slightly older man and there’s a spark. Now how does this work? Does the more experienced and more physically powerful one take the lead, or should the roles reverse when she’s got a long track record of being the dominant one in a broken family? It’s actually socially constructive to discuss the nature of love and explain the different ways in which relationships can be formed and broken. To that extent, I think the book is quite useful, particularly because the love interest also comes from a broken family where he was abandoned by his adoptive parents. As a piece of urban fantasy, it’s completely gutless and anaemic. There’s never any real sense of threat or danger. It’s serene progress to the obligatory happy ending to the first book in an intended series. Of course, the evil one may prove more of a handful when he appears in later volumes, but I suspect this series will keep everything in the safe rather than the edgy zone. As an adult, I can see all the ways in which this could have been so much better, but authors writing for this artificially constructed YA market are not allowed to write anything dangerous. So The Holders has some good supernatural ideas (which are not properly developed) and might be useful for younger readers on dealing with divorce and separation issues, and how to make new relationships. From me, that’s high praise.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll

The Shape Stealer

There are times I wish I was an expert in everything. That way, when I come across something unexpected in a work of fiction, I would know just how fictional it is. In this case, I’m happily reading an uncomfortable blend of science fiction and fantasy, and come across a plan to destabilise the world’s economy by creating a bubble in the value of gold and then puncturing it. The book describes this as a pump and dump plan but, if my understanding is correct, it would be almost impossible to apply this to a commodity such as gold. In the real world, the early months of 2009 saw the price of gold at $800 per ounce, but once we came to the autumn of 2011, it had risen to more than $1,900. This was a bubble, i.e. the price did not reflect the economic law of supply and demand. Consequently, optimistic investors were saying there was no upward limit for the price. Trying to pump a commodity trending upward is never going to have a major effect. If there’s an unexpected spike, there will be a price correction and then the underlying trend will resume. Now we’re heading back down in value, i.e. the bubble is deflating and, so far, the world’s economy has not collapsed. So it seems to me that the plan to wreck the world being advocated by the forces of evil in this book is doomed to fail without any action being required from the forces of good. They could just sit back and laugh as evil’s plan failed.

All of which brings me to this quite extraordinary collision between science fiction and fantasy. The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll (pseudonymous team of Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky) (Tor, 2013) is the third in the Black Swan Rising trilogy dealing with the “love” between Garet and Will. As in all books now posing under the urban fantasy label, this must be one of these agonising relationships. She’s one of these protector figures (save the Earth!) and he’s a vampire (save me from myself!). Obviously they are made for each other but, as is always the case, there are problems (no! really? well, do tell). This problem is certainly different.

Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky

In the last book, our happy couple travelled back in time and met up with his younger self (two vampires to love are better than one). When two returned to our time, she came back with the “young” version and not the “old” one she loves (Holy cow, Batman, that’s some mistake coming back with the lusty “young” one rather than the jaded tired “old” one). This left the “old” one the chance to carry on “living” so, for the second time of asking, he exists through the four-hundred plus years to the present so the two versions of himself can be together again with the woman they love. Notice the potential for paradox here. If the “young” one travels forward in time and so doesn’t do everything he previously did as he lived through time, that rather changes the past in a big way. Indeed, when reliving the four-hundred years, the old vampire in love dedicates his existence to good, avoiding the feasting on humans as much as possible, and generally being a nice guy (Garet has really been working her mojo on this vampire). This means absolutely everything about the past gets messed up by all that good.

Sitting in the middle of all this absurdity are different interested parties. There’s a group of temporal guardians whose job it is to keep the cause and effect sufficiently in check so that any changes to the past make only minor changes to the present (ignoring the butterfly effect for these purposes). To achieve this, they sit outside current time with exhaustive records of their “past”. Whenever anything changes, one of the ledgers drops off its shelf in the library and they can quickly see what’s changed and decide whether to fix it. This temporal limbo is also used by the fey as they pass through from Earth to their “home” land (and back which is why there’s a time loss when they take humans for a visit). There’s also a dissident group of time travellers who are called Malefactors (kinda mediaeval name for the bad guys) and generally make a nuisance of themselves by squeezing themselves through the dimensions into our time like toothpaste out of a tube. All these time guardians and warring Malefactors have some very nifty technology including some advanced weaponry (presumably brought back from the future). And, finally, there’s Dr John Dee and a shapeshifting “monster” from ancient Babylon who just want to take over the world and run it their way. So, summing this up, Dr Dee and the fairies (led by Oberon) travel through time by using magic. The chrononauts have time portals and can use clockwork devices built into watches (how original) to move through time and also space (TARDIS watches are cool).

Now there are times when absurdity is a good thing, e.g. using reductio ad absurdum in a philosophical debate or as a form of mocking mirror to reality. In electing to write about time travel, authors should be applying the established rules so, through its failure, this book is what we must politely call a time fantasy where none of it makes any sense as mathematics, physics, philosophy or logic would require. This could have been a good mechanism for mocking the trope of time travel. Once you get into the question of paradox and then have to address the possibility of paraconsistency where a proposition may be simultaneously true and false, there’s great potential for humour. But this book is plodding and dull. It’s intended as a soppy romance where our heroine gets to love two versions of her imperfect man in a world dominated by magic, i.e. a world where events are completely arbitrary and fairies can teach the vampire how to rearrange his molecules in real time to avoid being injured when bullets pass through him (sorry, I mean the vampire can rearrange his molecules so that the bullets pass through him without injuring him). Instant self-repair would be absurd, right? Particularly if he was shot in the head and had to stop thinking for a moment.

So if you’re heavily into urban fantasy and have absolutely no interest in anything that makes any sense, The Shape Stealer is for you. But if, like me, you prefer there to be an underlying logic and order to a plot, you should wave your wand in a way that will send all the copies of this book back in time so it was never written and cannot now be purchased from secondhand book dealers around the world (paradoxes rule!).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield


If a reviewer is bold enough to describe a writing style as simple, this is often taken as a criticism. The reason, I suppose, is that children write short sentences, often avoiding the use of long words, and few would call their work “literature”. So, over the years, a pejorative meaning has come to be attached to the use of the word. Yet, of course, some writers are famous for the simplicity of their writing style, praised for what critics call minimalism in language, i.e. distilling everything down to the bare minimum required to say what you mean or avoiding the use of any words deemed unnecessary (or redundant) (sic). So in Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) we go with a first-person narrative set in 1979 and written in a very simple style. Although we’re told at the end that this account of events was written much later in the author’s life, most of the time we’re left to believe this is a contemporaneous account of his “adventures” by Lee Shelby, a twenty-one year old English major with a liking for Ernest Hemingway. Now before you get your hopes up, this is not even remotely like the Hemingway style. But the approach is similar in spirit, i.e. the text is structured in short paragraphs and wherever possible, short sentences. The vocabulary is mostly simple but, because we’re often on the run and under pressure, the English is quite vigorous and forceful. So the result avoids being plain by virtue of its simplicity. The directness means the plot is moved quickly along and the thriller qualities are enhanced.

However, style on its own is never enough. There must be sufficient sustenance in the plot to satisfy the reader. The problem actually comes from the writing style. If you strip out all the superfluous, that means you’re leaving out all those interesting little details and asides that can add character to the book. Sometimes passages of description setting the scene or sketching the people involved add an extra dimension to the text by rounding it out. And, to my mind, that’s where this book is a little shaky. In essence what we have is a young man driven to rash acts out of love. Without thinking too clearly how this will all play out in the future, our heroic idiot robs a drug dealer as he’s buying 5 kilos of Peruvian flake, and makes off with both the drugs and the $75,000 purchase price. He’s thought far enough ahead to plan where to hide except nothing quite works out as he hopes. The accumulating problems force him back to the scene of the crime and we follow him as he tries to save himself (and Laura, the girl he loves).

Jim Satterfield

Jim Satterfield

As a plot idea, this is great for a back-of-the-envelope pitch to movie moguls. There are legends about people selling ideas but then failing to deliver in the detail. In this case, the hero’s inexperience means he’s completely at sea. The only way he can therefore get back to shore is by relying on other people to help him. Although the first person in this daisy chain is more or less in his plan from the outset, most everything else that happens is through coincidence or accident. People prove unexpectedly helpful and skillful, there are ferocious animals that (in)conveniently maim and kill (yes, there’s real drama), and the legal system ends up getting bent out of shape to accommodate what our hero and all his helpers did (and they broke a lot of laws). I’m not saying it’s all unrealistic. Taken as individual episodes, life can sometimes work out like this. But once it’s all accumulated into a single plot, the whole feels very contrived. Take the question of animals as a hypothetical example. If an author introduces a skunk, the odds are it will spray out noxious substances at some point. That’s what the stereotype does if it feels threatened. For me, this is a real problem. As a backstory, the author may legitimately feel obliged to explain why his fifty-year old protagonist is called Skunk Boy (it was an unfortunate incident on the way to school that blighted his life). But if the skunk befriends the boy and, when a school bully approaches, the skunk runs forward and sprays the bully, the response of the reader is rather different. Now how are we to react when, later in the same book, the author introduces a parrot that can make the noise of a gun being fired? This is not deus but animals ex machina. You’ll be relieved to know there are no skunks or noisy birds in this novel, but you get the idea.

If I can’t take pleasure in the prose, I look for satisfaction in seeing a good plot well executed. Sadly Saving Laura falls on the wrong side of the plot line. That said, you may well enjoy this simple and sometimes quite elegant prose enough to carry you through a slightly thin thriller plot. Your choice.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

June 21, 2013 2 comments

Secret Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

There’s real skill required to write a series. Far more than most people realise. Let’s say the author has signed a three-book deal. That ties him or her to the agreed formula which, in most cases, will be both a group of characters and a particular setting. So, for example, Miss Marple lives in St Mary Mead and, although she’s wont to travel around a little, the basis of her investigative style is drawn from her observation of life in the village. That way, even when she’s on holiday in the West Indies, she can remember what the butcher did to the baker’s assistant that so upset the candlestick maker. In other words, there’s a core magic formula that, after the first few books, turned the remainder into must-haves for the loyal fans. To depart from this formula is to lose the fans. But to do nothing more than repeat the formula will also lose the fans through boredom. There has to be development to keep the core ideas interesting. Hence even Miss Marple must go on holiday.

So, after a highly successful opening set of three, we’re back with The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2013) which is the first in a new three-book deal featuring Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne in a steampunk version of Victorian England which, appropriately enough, began with the assassination of Queen Victoria. If you’re proposing to derail readers into an alternate history, killing off the titular queen for the age is the best possible starting point. The magic of the first book lies in its exuberance. There’s not a page goes by without some new idea or sly joke. As debut novels go, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one of the best. However, in this moment of heady success, there’s a problem. Once you’ve described the setting and cracked all your best jokes, you have to find something new to write about. Fortunately, the plot of The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is terrific and kept everything moving along nicely even though the repetition of some of the jokes was wearing very thin towards the end. This led us into Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon which opened the door into some very interesting and more serious possibilities. As I said during that review, “. . .an inventive mind could devise a way into a different future. It will be interesting to see whether Pyr offers us the chance to see it unfold.” So my thanks to Pyr for renewing the book deal. This proves to be a particularly ingenious way of developing the plot.

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Notice my reference to the plot. All the humour that characterised the first in the series has gone. This is altogether darker with the death of an important character, albeit not one we see too often. We’re nevertheless aware of this individual’s significance throughout. The key to understanding just how ingenious the plot lies in the need for all time travel books to follow strict logic. With the death of Queen Victoria in the first novel being caused by a time traveller, we’ve been following the cause and effect of the different changes in history as they occur. At the end of the last book, the situation had grown more complex as a new player entered the game and tried to destabilise the new version of history. With that threat defeated, Burton was left. . . Well that always was the question. Just where was Burton left?

At this point, I’m going to get a little vague because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of this book. I emphasise that this is a direct continuation of the last trilogy and, although you might enjoy this as a standalone, you will not appreciate just how good it is unless you’ve read the other three in order. This is a serial, not a series of standalones in the same place with the same characters. This time, we’re into Bram Stoker land (appropriately young Bram is a character) with the arrival of a vampire-like force by sea. This time, the ship crashes on to the rocks of Anglesey during a terrible storm with the captain lashed to the wheel and all the crew and passengers (bar one, of course) dead on arrival. This gives us a broad supernatural framework on which to build our multiverse plot. Yes, that’s right. All the messing around in time has been multiplying the branches except there’s one common feature. Sooner or later, there’s a major war. Those of you with some grasp of history will recall our First World War occupied the years 1914 to 1918. In different timelines, this conflict comes at different times but it always happens. However, in this timeline, under the guidance of Abdu El Yezdi, the British have been moving towards a political rapprochement with Germany, therefore making war less inevitable. So the big questions for Burton are to identify Abdu El Yezdi, to explain how he has been giving such good advice, and to find him — sadly this fount of wisdom has stopped transmitting thereby leaving the British government up a creek wondering where their paddle has gone.

We still have some of the steampunk but most of the more extravagant technological innovation has gone in this timeline. There’s also slightly less political discussion, leaving more time for this rather pleasing blend of Victorian/Edwardian style adventure to be updated for modern sensibilities. Putting all this together, The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi is a wonderful continuation of the earlier trilogy, i.e. you really should have read the others in order before coming to this.

Once again the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the other four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Return of the Discontinued Man
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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