Christmas Day! Enjoy a story on us.

SOOT

K.A. Laity

She hated London.

The grind, the grime, the grit—and that wasn’t even mentioning the basement flat. Lucky, she had been lucky to get it, everyone said so at the lab—and for the price! It was unheard of. Chance connections: her aunty Barbara who knew this woman from secretarial school back in the day—back when they had things like secretarial schools. This strange woman Mrs Cuttle who only rented to people after examining her crystal ball for the truth. The ball was not clear like glass but a smoky quartz—or so she said. What did Diana know about things like that? Hooey. That’s what her dad would have said but he was five years gone. With mum gone this summer in the slow free-fall of cancer, she was alone alone alone in this big city. Her first Christmas in London and she was on her own.

Diana was so low on Christmas spirit that when the fella in the shop around the corner wished her ‘Happy holidays!’ she very nearly snarled, ‘Bah humbug!’ Yet she found reading Dickens soothing. Not that one of course. She picked up a copy of Dombey and Son in Skoob Books, and read it on the bus, enjoying the characters’ suffering. Unmoved by little Dombey’s pathetic death scene, Diana did find some spark of interest in Alice’s plans for revenge. Revenge was an emotion she could nourish. Pity there was no one to aim it towards. You can’t kill death.

The habitual need to invest in holiday cheer would die hard though. Diana stirred herself to buy some baubles to hang around the room to try to make it look festive, though it looked more bedraggled than ever. The light was wrong. Perhaps it was the angle. The windows were small and because it was a basement flat you only saw feet, endless feet. Maybe it was the strobing effect: there really ought to be a warning for the flat like they have at the start of films: May cause seizures.

 

Foot parade until suddenly there weren’t any feet because it was the end of the working day. Single pedestrians wandered. It was worse because you heard each step distinctly on the pavement. There weren’t many: it was a cul de sac and there was no pub down the street to draw them, not even a café to get latté-drinkers. Diana found it mesmerising: the tap of shoes out of sight, getting louder, passing by, then fading away. She couldn’t tune it out. The only street light was a distance away so depending upon which direction the person walked from their elongated shadow would either fall before you saw the feet or linger afterward like some kind of ghostly presence.

Then there was the coal stove with its ash pit drawer. Mrs Cuttle made much of it as a feature of the flat. ‘Antique and very valuable! Why if I sold them off I could probably buy the house next door, too. Incredible iron works!’

‘So why don’t you?’ Diana asked, mystified.

Mrs Cuttle stared at her. ‘What would I do with two houses?’ Rapacious London capitalism seemed to have passed entirely by her notice.

The coal stove didn’t supply the heat, thank goodness. There was an entirely modern and efficient boiler set with hot water and heat so the little flat was snug and warm. Too warm at times, so she would open the doors on the coal stove. There was a little cool air that came in where once the coal burned or the ashes fell. It made Diana feel a little less suffocated by the subterranean rooms.

She must have been dreaming that night, of course. Or it was the lingering effects of her mother’s death. Grief ebbs and flows unpredictably: a tempest one moment, a puddle splash the next. Diana awoke to the sound of her mother’s laboured breathing and then wondered where she was. There was no hospital beep. As she stared off into the strange gloom she saw eyes glow golden.

Not her mother’s eyes. She caught her breath and then stayed silent. Some childhood memory persisted, warning that silence and stillness would protect you from whatever assailed you in the dark. For a few moments Diana clutched the covers of her bed and listened. The whole of London seemed to have disappeared in the night and there was only she and the eyes that watched her.

Then a blink and they were gone.

Diana heard a clicking noise and then only her own breath and wondered if perhaps it, too had been a dream. She lay back down, intending to sleep, tossing and turning and checking her phone for the time every forty minutes or so until it was nearly time to get up and only then falling asleep. Her alarm jarred her awake with its jaunty steel drums far too soon.

The whole day she felt out of step. She went to the lab although Dr Abbott had shooed them away until after the first of the year. Diana did not need to be there. She could have been anywhere: in Bruges, in Bucharest, in Brigadoon. No one needed her. Her aunty Barbara invited her to come back home and share the holidays with the endless brood of sons, daughters, children and grandchildren and the other foundlings that made their way to her door, their sad stories told and retold until they lost all meaning.

Diana did not want to be one of the foundlings. Better to be alone. Mrs Cuttle didn’t believe that. She invited Diana up for a rousing cuppa or to make gingerbread or toffee. Sometimes Diana found it too exhausting to fight against the constant cheer and submitted, drinking the milky tea and eating whatever was proffered, allowing the stream of running commentary to run over her like a cool breeze. Mrs Cuttle seldom required a response, so secure was she in her knowledge of the world. Whether she was talking about the man who came to dinner and surprised her with his scheme for renewable energy that required only a small investment on her part, or delineating the gremlins known to affect the baking of breads in the winter months and how to allow for their influence without altering the taste of the loaf, Mrs Cuttle was up to the challenge.

‘You don’t mind the stove?’ she said abruptly, startling Diana with a direct question.

‘Mind it? No.’ Why should she mind it?

‘Generally its good to have a source of iron in the place as it keeps ‘em away.’

Diana was confused. ‘Keeps who away?’

‘Why, the Gentry of course!’ Mrs Cuttle was off and running on the topic with such enthusiasm and a sure sense that her listener shared its familiarity, that it was some time before Diana figured out that by the ‘gentry’ the older woman did not mean people in DeBrett’s but those in the Sidhe.

 

Away with the fairies suddenly made so much sense: Mrs Cuttle and her crystal ball that wasn’t and her peculiar habits. Lucky, she was, lucky to get this flat, Diana reminded herself when she finally managed to extricate herself from the too-warm kitchen, the gingerbread and the elderberry wine—‘just a little, for your health!’

If her mum had lived it might have all been very funny to tell her about over their long phone calls but there was no one who might have been amused by it. Nursing someone over a long illness tended to cut down on your social life. Aunty Barbara remained steadfast but few others did. Mum’s bridge club sent baskets. But the day to day trudge made Diana wish for the umpteenth time that she had not been an only child.

‘You should get a pet!’ Mrs Cuttle had cried earlier. ‘What a comfort Fifi is to me.’ She turned to pat the old dog on the chair where it lay snoring. This indeterminate ball of fur woke long enough to snort, as it was perpetually short of breath, and fart noisily before lapsing back into its murmuring dreams. Diana blanched. She could not imagine anything less comforting than that smelly creature.

Yet lying wide-eyed in the dark later she wondered if there were not something in the idea. Without the lab to go to her days hung long and limp, waiting to be filled with something. Even Dickens was letting her down. Her eyes glazed over poor Florence’s fretting. She kept losing her place. Maybe she ought to have picked up something cheerier—Wodehouse or Heyer—but she could not bear the thought of such sparkling happy folk. Perhaps something fun but with a little suffering too: Trollope? Pym.

Contemplating possible novels finally allowed her to drift into troubled sleep until she woke with a start of fear. She could not breathe. A heavy weight lay on her chest. I’m dying. It’s a heart attack. A sliver of light shot across the room to illuminate the black shape that hovered upon her chest.

Diana cried out and the black shadow floated up and away in silence, disappearing into the darkness or perhaps the coal stove. For a moment all she could hear was the tell-tale beat of her heart—assuring her it was very much working—and her own ragged breath.

Was it a dream? The shaft of light had hit the shape with an uncanny accuracy. The room was dark once more. Diana took a deep breath and then shot out of bed, crossing the room in a bound to close the door to the coal stove, not daring to look inside. She had to kneel down to reach the ash pit door, so she dared a look inside. Golden eyes glowed back at her and she yelped, slamming the door shut.

She hopped back into the bed, tucking all her limbs in safely. A childhood belief that inside the covers was inviolable stuck with her. I’ll never get back to sleep now! Yet in what seemed like a twinkling Diana blinked awake in dappled sunlight interrupted by the legs of the morning commuters and shoppers.

Throwing back the covers she gave a cry of dismay: her hands, the blanket, the sheets all bore the blackness of coal, as if the creature had bled grim death upon them. Shaking Diana hastened to wash it off her hands. The coal dust swirled down the sink as if it were heading back to the pit.

What happened? Maybe it was a dream. Maybe she had imagined it all and had gone to the stove to slam the door—which was certainly closed now, both of them. There had been no weight, no golden eyes, no weird creature from her imagination and certainly no ray of light from the window with pinpointed accuracy like the lantern in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ of course.

Diana sat down at the little table in the kitchen area and rubbed her face. Some coal dust appeared on her fingers so she went back to the sink and looked at the mirror she normally avoided and grimaced. There was black on her neck and chin, doubtless from the bedding. She would have to do some laundry today.

Moving like an automaton, Diana stripped the bed and stuffed everything into the little washing machine, throwing her nightshirt in, too. I really need to get out. She took a quick shower, shivering because the washer monopolised the hot water. Throwing on random clothes, Diana shoved Dombey in her bag and headed out the door, locking it behind her and wondering if she was locking anything in there.

For a moment she stood on the pavement uncertain, allowing people to stream around her like a current. It was Christmas Eve. Where could she go? Maybe the British Museum was open at least for a little while. It gave purpose to her stride, yet when she got there it was shut. Diana wandered through some of the nearby shops, pretending to browse. Her eyes glazed, staring through windows as if to find answers—or at least to resist thinking a little longer.

In the window of Atlantic, her gaze fell upon a vintage book promising to reveal the secrets of the fairy folk and her heart leapt up. But then Diana caught herself and turned away from the colourful shop window. Are you mad?

After a beat, she thought what if I am?

Diana wandered along intending to buy something if only as a distraction. You need food, she scolded remembering nothing much would be open the next day. Diana treated herself to the upscale grocery store and even bought a bottle of wine and some cheese before losing the will to shop any more. As she came out the back entrance she spied that Skoob was indeed open that day and descended with gratitude into its depths. Books would never lose their allure. Definitely Trollope or Pym—funny but sad—or perhaps a Brontë to remind her what feelings were.

Diana reached up for a Pym on the new arrivals shelf and instead grabbed a book on the history of fairy folk. She set it down as if it were on fire. Her vision clouded with black soot for a moment, then she fled the shop.

‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ Mrs Cuttle cried as they passed in the foyer. Diana tried to smile though she could feel only her teeth. ‘Come round tomorrow midday for sherry and mince pies, do. It’s a tradition here!’

Diana escaped to her flat. The winter light shone weakly, catching stray motes in the air. She put the groceries in the wee fridge and got the bedclothes out of the washer. Would they have time to dry before the night? No matter. She could curl up in the comfy chair. Maybe she would sleep better.

Fishing Dombey from the depths of her bag, Diana sat down to read. Five minutes later she still stared at the same page. Maybe some television. She reached for the remote and clicked it on.

‘…about the fairy tradition in Cornwall.’ Click.

This is madness. When you start connecting coincidence you might as well get your own crystal ball. Diana stood up, took a deep breath and strode over to the coal stove. One, two, the doors were open. Fine: there was nothing there. Let’s be really sure.

Diana grabbed her phone and tapped on the torch app. The light glared with a savage fury. The iron guts of the stove were black with old fire and burnt coal. The chimney pipe disappeared into the house above. Diana knelt to look through the ash pit. Like the stove above it the walls were black from the past burnings and a layer of ash coated the bottom. It seemed to be angled down. Where did the ashes go? Perhaps there was an exit door.

In any case, there was nothing in the stove.

All at once Diana felt exhausted. She washed the ash off her hands, turned on the television to some quiz show and sat in the comfy chair until she nodded off. When she woke it was dark. Everything felt wrong.

It took an effort but she got up, sliced some cheese and put it on a plate, poured a glass of wine and sat down again. There was some brash holiday show on now. Diana chewed the food and sipped the wine and tasted nothing. She considered another glass of wine but fell asleep before she could fetch one.

Something brushed her leg. She gave a startled yelp and her hand clanked against the empty plate on the little table. A documentary about some kind of factory was playing on the television. Her hand reached for the remote and snapped it off.

There was something in the room. She could hear it over her own breath. Or she imagined it. Had she left the stove open? Diana couldn’t remember. Her eye adjusted to the light. The drying sheets loomed in the darkness like an abandoned circus tent. Then they billowed as something moved behind them.

Fury more than fear propelled her from the chair. Diana snatched at the sheets and the rack clattered to the tiles. Out of the corner of her eye some vague black shape slipped away into the darkness leaving her all alone.

Diana wrapped the sheets around her like a shroud and curled up on the bed, willing herself to sleep.

She woke at dawn, exhausted, and made the bed properly. Her mother’s edict: if you make your bed you begin the day right. Happy Christmas, mum. I miss you. She sat down on the bed and cried. When she had cried enough, Diana forced herself to get up, shower and dress. After a few cups of tea she had the will to face the day.

Unable to manage reading, she watched mindless holiday television programmes until it was time to go to Mrs Cuttle’s little do. There were only a few people there yet the hubbub suggested a party three times the size. Music blared from tinny speakers whilst the television competed for attention. Everyone talked at the same time.

‘You made it! Have some sherry. Watch out for the mistletoe. There are mince pies on the table and chocolate and some kind of nut thing that Mr Cosmo brought.’ Mrs Cuttle had already downed a lot of sherry. Everyone had. Diana wondered how they would manage dinner later. Perhaps they didn’t.

She was the youngest there by decades. Miss Lastima, the Spanish boarder as Mrs Cuttle always called her, was probably nearest in age. She looked like a model, taut and impeccable, probably fifty though she looked a careful forty in her Prada jacket.

‘I think something’s got into the flue of the coal stove,’ Diana shouted to Mrs Cuttle when she could think of nothing else to do or say to these people.

She only nodded and bellowed back, ‘Mr Cosmo hears singing in his.’

‘Singing? In his coal stove?’

‘Yes, or maybe it was the bathroom vent. It’s not you, is it? No, I suppose not. Too far up.’ Mr Cosmo had the flat at the top of the flat with a view of Tavistock Park she claimed, though Diana suspected that was only if you were to hang out the window an squint a bit.

Mr Cosmo was conferring with three men in hats who looked as if they might be part of some secret government organization or perhaps some remnant of the Golden Dawn still haunting Bloomsbury. Diana decided it was not worth quizzing him on something so ephemeral.

‘I have a message for you,’ Mrs Cuttle said absently, as if it had just come to her then, though she added that it had come via the crystal ball. ‘Carpe diem, the spirits say. You must seize the day!’

Pithy as a mass-produced fortune cookie. ‘Oh yes, I see.’

‘Ah ha, a Sagittarian no doubt!’ Mrs Cuttle wandered off to pour more sherry all around and Diana helped herself to some cheese sticks and sausages before slipping out to head down to her flat.

The desultory baubles looked especially bereft now. There was no tree, there were no presents. Just Dombey waiting on the kitchen table. She could not stomach Florence just now. Diana poured a glass of wine and watched television until her head nodded again. Too early to go to bed, the winter light protested weakly. I’m the boss of me, Diana reflected. She put on an oversized t-shirt and got in bed.

She woke once more in a panic, a heavy weight on her chest. I’m dying!

With an effort, she shouted, ‘Get away!’ In a flash the black shadow leapt off her chest and bolted for the coal stove. Diana hopped out of bed and flicked on the lights. Black soot covered her chest and left a trail across the floor. She grabbed her phone and put on the torch. She drew a breath and crouched down to look into the stove.

It was a cat.

For a moment she just stared open-mouthed while its bright eyes took her in with panic. Then she laughed so loud that Mr Cosmo must have heard it through his sherry stupor four floors away. The black cat tried to flatten itself to the floor of the stove then started scrabbling up the flue.

‘No, come back!’ Diana cried. Thinking quickly she grabbed a bowl and poured the last of her cream into it. Cats liked cream or else cartoons lied. She put it in the stove near the door. ‘Here puss, puss, puss.’

Nothing.

Diana sat there for an hour, alternately calling the cat and babbling about all the stupid things she had imagined, the coincidences that she had weaved into magic and fairy tales. Finally she saw the green eyes peek out at her. Slowly the cat dropped from the flue and stared at her. Its eyes dropped to the bowl and then flashed back at Diana.

‘It’s all right now. The scary part is over,’ Diana said and cried because that’s what her mum always said after the Ghost of Christmas Past had gone.

The cat crept up to the bowl and started to lick at the cream. Droplets appeared at the end of the black whiskers. ‘I’m sorry if I scared you. I thought you were a nightmare. Maybe I should call you Nightmare. Or Night.’ Diana laughed. The cat seemed less spooked now.

It took another half hour to coax it out of the stove, but when it came out—warily sweeping the flat with its gaze—it crossed over to where Diana sat cross-legged. ‘Curiosity always, eh?’ She held out a hand to see if it would allow her. The cat sniffed her fingers and then brushed lightly against the hand. Diana ran one finger along its spine. It came away black.

‘If you don’t belong to someone already, I think I’ll call you Soot,’ Diana said with a laugh as the cat circled around her, fearless now.

Neither of them noticed the pair of golden eyes that blinked twice from the ash pit before disappearing into the black.

~THE END~

Countdown to Christmas Day 24

It’s Christmas Eve, so we are just going to remind you what has been covered so far this month.

December 1st – We gave a quick run down of some of the Fox Spirit titles available that we would define as winter reading.

December 2nd – Sarah Daniels gave us short reviews of five beautiful children’s books for Christmas.

December 3rd – Anna Thomas does short reviews of her five favourites by Japanese Writers, read in 2018

December 4th – Adrian Reynolds reviews The Motion of Light in Water

December 5th – We check out Children of Artifice and it’s author Danie Ware as they get the spotlight on a new writing blog.

December 6th – Michelle Fry does five favourites in brief including the Fabulous Juliet McKenna.

December 7th – Penny Jones reviews Priya Sharma’s new collection of horror shorts.

December 8th – Five top December reads in brief from Lynn E. O’Connacht.

December 9th – Penny Jones returns to take a look at Tracy Fahey’s latest collection.

December 10th  – Highlights James Bennett, regular skulk member and author of the Ben Garston series. 

December 11th – Fave Five Anthologies by Jenny Barber, who has edited some of ours.

December 12th – Carol Goodwin reviews The Enclave by Anne Charnock

December 13th – S. Naomi Scott takes a look at Fox Spirit title Emily Nation by Alec McQuay

December 14th – Carol Goodwin reviews a collection of short Shadow of the Apt tales by the lovely Adrian Tchaikovsky

December 15th – Kim Bannerman reviews Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, by Eugenia Bone

December 16th – Carol Goodwin reviews Jan Edwards’ Defender, book two of Hive Mind

December 17th – Jenny Barber reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

December 18th – Review by S. Naomi Scott of Kindred by Octavia Butler

December 19th – Penny Jones looks at Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones

December 20th – Spotlight on K. Bannerman with Damien Seaman

December 21st – Part one of Penny Jones’ examination of tradition.

December 22nd – Part two of Penny Jones’ examination of traditions

December 23rd – Part three of Penny Jones’ examination of traditions

And on CHRISTMAS DAY we have a fabulous short story by K.A. Laity so pop by and read Soot.

Just a reminder that for every post not written by Aunty Fox, we are donating £5 to http://www.booktrust.org/ to help give some kids a happier new year, so thank you to everyone who took part in this years Christmas Countdown. 

We hope those of you visiting the blog found something new to enjoy too.

Christmas Countdown Day 23

Magic and traditions of Christmas by Penny Jones Part 3

He’s been, he’s been. Can I open my presents now?

My final tradition at Christmas is of course the Christmas book. As a child it was always an annual, and I am stupidly excited that this year “The Sinister Horror Co.” have produced a horror themed Christmas annual, it will be my first present opened on Christmas day, and I’m really excited to read it (during their launch at SledgeLit, I closed my eyes and stuck my fingers in my ears so that none of the wonder would be spoiled for me, before Christmas Day). Usually my Christmas book (one of the many of them) is by Stephen King. The one year he didn’t release a new book in time for Christmas, he ruined Christmas for me (still haven’t forgiven him). Christmas afternoon is usually spent playing games and being social, but the whole family are really just counting down the minutes until we can slope off to bed with our newest tomes, and indulge in the real meaning of Christmas. Books.

So if you are looking for something traditional to read this year, you can’t go wrong with Charles Dickens’s “The Christmas Carol”, John Masefield’s “The Box of Delights”, “The Sinister Horror Co. Annual”, or Stephen King’s “Elevation”.

Merry Christmas everyone, and remember… “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”

Countdown to Christmas Day 22

Christmas Magic and Traditions by Penny Jones Part 2

Where did I put the bloody scissors?

The second part of our Christmas traditions comes when we are wrapping the Christmas presents. Again for this mind numbing, finger cramping, sellotape sticking fiasco, we want something cheery and Christmassy to pass the time. So as I peel the sellotape (and the skin) from my lips (ouch! Yes it did bloody hurt and I no longer rip the sellotape with my teeth), try to find the scissors which have gone walkies again, and wonder why we thought our second cousin’s baby would want a set of handkerchiefs. We put on the ever so Christmassy “Box of Delights”, again another Christmas staple I’m sure of many people. This BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s novel has the Christmas spirit in spadefuls.

From the moment it starts with the tinkling refrain of “The First Noel”, to the snowstorm and Christmas Eve Carol service at its finale, the whole series screams Christmas, and scream it certainly does. With witches, evil clergyman, demons and pagan magic; this is what Christmas is surely about.

 

Christmas Countdown Day 21

Christmas Magic and Traditions by Penny Jones Part 1

The Gordian knot of Christmas lights

Christmas is a time of magic and tradition. But although I’m sure some families gather round their Christmas tree to eat mince pies and drink mulled wine, whilst others may go to their local church for midnight mass or to attend the carol service. Happily watching as their precious cherubs shuffle down the aisle whilst wearing a tea-towel on their head, or scratching at their tinsel halo. Our family have their own traditions (Okay we may do all of the above too; except for the mulled wine, I really hate mulled wine). However our traditions are sometimes a bit darker than the expected jolly frivolity of the season, but I’m pretty sure that when you look closely at your own family traditions, you’ll wonder yourself whether you are waiting for Santa or Satan.

Our festivities start when we put up our Christmas tree. The children (now 21 and 19 years old), still come up for the annual swearing at the tangled mess of lights, “picky food” (their term for a buffet), and the first annual showing of “The Muppet’s Christmas Carol” (one year we made the mistake of watching it before they came up, and they still haven’t forgiven us). Now that all sounds lovely and sweet. I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, how Christmassy, and yes it is. There is a long tradition of ghost stories of Christmas, and The Christmas Carol is a wonderful reminder of the joys of the season. The loneliness of Scrooge, the slow starvation of the Cratchits, and the looming death of their son Tiny Tim, the family arguments with Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and of course poor Bean Bunny freezing on the streets of London.

So the four of us, safe in our warm house and with full bellies, decorate a superfluous tree with decorations that cost an arm and a leg, whilst singing along to the jolly songs that tell the story of greed, death and redemption. Oh happy times.

Christmas Countdown day 19

Review by Penny Jones

“Naming the Bones” – By Laura Mauro

Laura Mauro is an award winning author and is best known for her horror and sci-fi short fiction. She was born and raised in London, where her BFS nominated novella “Naming the Bones” is set.

“Naming the Bones” is a wonderfully creepy novella published by Dark Minds Press, and is a thing of beauty, with its instantly recognisable cover art by Peter Frain the book grabs your attention, drawing you in, before you even start to read Laura’s mesmerising story.

The title of the novel “Naming the Bones” comes from the coping strategy of the protagonist Alessa Spiteri, who following a bombing incident on the London underground struggles to cope with returning to her day to day life, and uses the simple trick of reciting the bones in the human body as a distraction to her growing fears and anxiety. However it isn’t just the trauma of the bombing that bothers Alessa, but also the disappearance of a fellow commuter who wandered off down the underground tunnel towards a light and what he thought was help; but instead was just a darkness that seemed to swallow him whole. Now that darkness seems to be everywhere for Alessa, and as it encroaches on her life more and more, she realises that the monsters in the dark are more than just figments of her traumatised imagination.

“Naming the Bones” is a gritty urban horror story about PTSD and the fallout following a London bombing. The dark nature of the story however is lifted by Laura Mauro’s beautiful use of language and setting. “Naming the Bones” is definitely worth reading.

Countdown to Christmas Day 18

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Review by S. Naomi Scott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kindred is a dark and deeply disturbing novel that predominantly explores the lives of slaves in the antebellum South through the eyes of a time-travelling protagonist. The fact that this protagonist, Dana, is a woman of colour from the 1970s allows Butler to show a strong juxtaposition between the world that Dana knows and the world she finds herself unwittingly thrust into.

The story itself is told entirely from Dana’s perspective, and follows her as she is bounced back and forth in time. Her home is in 1970s California, where she is settling into a new property with her (white) husband, Kevin, while her trips to the past take her to the pre-Civil War Maryland plantation of Rufus, the son of a wealthy white landowner. Between trips, she piece together evidence to suggest that Rufus could be one of her ancestors, and that the daughter of one of the local freed slaves may be as well. In one trip, she also inadvertently brings Kevin along with her, resulting in him being left behind when she is bounced back to the present. They reunite on Dana’s next trip, though five years have passed for Kevin, leaving him bitter and cold at the atrocities he witnessed while he was in the past. The novel ends with Dana killing Rufus and returning to the present for the last time, losing an arm in the process.

This is not an easy story to read as it highlights some of the worst elements of racism and discrimination inherent in American society during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the almost casual way in which people of colour were dehumanised by their owners at the time. In portraying the slave/master dynamic, Butler rarely pulls her punches. The slave owners are shown to be cruel almost to the point of sadism, though in most cases this appears to be simply a side-effect of the near-institutional belief that the slaves are nothing more than property, objects to be bought and sold, and used for the betterment of the whites. It’s obvious that Butler wants to shock the reader into thinking about the subject matter, that she wants the reader to explore the historical and social notions of slavery that she presents within the narrative, and she does this with skill.

Having read a large chunk of Octavia E. Butler’s work over the last few months, I really wanted to love this book. However, while I found it to be an engrossing and thought provoking read, I don’t think it’s quite worthy of a full five stars.

Countdown to Christmas Day 17

Into the Drowning Deep

Mira Grant

Reviewed by Jenny Barber

To my perpetual annoyance, I’ve never been able to get my hands on Mira Grant’s novella Rolling in the Deep, despite it only coming out in 2015.  I mean, mermaids and Mira Grant is a combination that shouldn’t be missed, amirite?  So the publication of Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep was an immediate buy and I’m not kidding, I have read it at least four times in the last year.

Fortunately, despite Into the Drowning Deep being a follow-up to Rolling, you don’t have to have read the latter to get the full thrills and spills experience of the former. In fact, the necessary details are effortlessly slid into Drowning’s narrative so it gives you the bonus of two books in one!

So, what’s it all about?  Seven years ago, Imagine Entertainment sent the cruise ship Atargatis to the Mariana Trench to film a mockumentary about mermaids.  (Thus, Rolling in the Deep.) Unfortunately for them they found real-life mermaids and the mermaids were not friendly.  History records that all crew and passengers of the Atargatis disappeared, surviving footage shows fragments of the tragedy but most of the viewing public is in two minds on the veracity of what was broadcast.

Tory Stewart, however, is certain the Mariana mermaids are real. Her older sister was one of Imagine’s media personalities working on the Atargatis for the ill-fated mockumentary, and Tory has spent her adult life trying to find hard evidence to prove the truth of what happened to her sister.  After spending years studying marine biology, with a specialisation in understanding the information sonar readouts give about deep sea population, Tory and her lab partner, Luis Martines, discover sonar evidence of something hinky going on in the depths of the Mariana Trench.  And as it happens, Imagine Entertainment are just about ready to launch a follow up mission to discover the truth about the Atargatis and the mermaids. (And fulfil the inevitable corporate dodgy interests along the way. But then, you’d expect nothing less…)

Tory and Luis get invited to be a part of a crew that includes ex-eco-warrior and infamous mermaid expert Dr Jillian Toth; Olivia Sanderson, Imagine’s latest media face; and a motley crew of others who include extreme big game hunters, corporate representatives, scientists of various stripes and trained dolphins. (And yes, the dolphins get a point-of-view chapter of their own!)  Some believe the mermaids are real, some don’t and are just in it for the corporate funding of their work, either way, no-one is ready for what they find when they reach the Trench…

It should go without saying that if you’re reading a book by Mira Grant (or her alter ego, Seanan McGuire) then you’re going to get a healthy range of well-drawn diverse characters centre stage – and Into the Drowning Deep is no exception – here you’ll find characters of a multitude of ages, abilities, sexualities and nationalities, with a delicate balance maintained between recognising their individualities, and exploring how who they are affects their life and interactions with each other.

It’s this kind of easy and consistent representation that makes Grant’s books a must-read, regardless of the specific story, but Drowning is no slouch in the story department either – it’s a juicy romp of a novel that balances monsters of the deep and tense survival horror, with fascinatingly plausible science and a whole host of interesting themes that wind their way throughout. Issues such as environmentalism and the effects of climate change and oceanic depletion form both the foundation of the world setting, and the motivating force for the mermaids’ recent emergence and desperate mass feeding behaviour.

Communication and alternative perspectives are also strong threads that tie the story together – we see the story from the viewpoint of a range of humans, as well as from the mermaids, and the ship’s dolphins, creating a multi-directional view of both general life in the depths and of this particular story of the sea.  But beyond that, there’s a constant push and pull of communication efforts as disparate people try to bridge their differences to find common ground to be understood – from the obvious attempts of humans bodging a common language with dolphins and mermaids, to the more subtle shades of human communication where neurodivergent personnel have to navigate the shifting and often confusing behaviour and language of neurotypicals; or deaf scientists have to find ways to work with the hearing, both with and without the aid of the resident sign language interpreter.

Each thread, and each perspective, makes the story that much richer and when you add to that some intriguing scientific concepts and the sheer pulpy horror fun of killer mermaids swarming a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, what you’ve got is a magnificent tale to chill your bones over the Christmas period and beyond!  Highly recommended!

Christmas Countdown Day 16

DEFENDER (Hive Mind 2) by Janet Edwards

CreateSpace / 354 pgs / £8.99 paperback, £3.99 ebook / ISBN 978-1981728275

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin.

I am not a fan of the term YA as I feel it creates an artificial separation and removes many excellent novels from the attention of “adult” readers. Indeed, many fondly remembered SF books from earlier years such as Andre Norton or much Robert Heinlein, would now probably be classified as YA. Janet’s novels to me have that same appeal to a very wide readership – indeed my son was fighting me to read this book first when he saw I had it which is not something he does with most of my reading material (Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch being the other notable exceptions).

            In the first book, TELEPATH we saw Amber as she turns eighteen and enters the Lottery, the psychological testing that determines the future role and rank of every citizen based on their aptitudes and society’s needs. However, Amber is found to be a very rare and valuable telepath. Telepath’s are vital in detecting criminals and preventing crimes in the vast closed community of the Hive in which she lives. So valuable is this ability that unlike other citizens she will not be imprinted with relevant information (and attitudes) and she must be protected and her abilities kept secret from all but a handful of people.

            In the first book we saw Amber getting to know her team who both protect her and help her hunt. She had to come to terms with incidents from her childhood and adapt to her new circumstances. In this second book, set only a few months later, Amber is now working effectively with her team in identifying potential criminals and preventing incidents. However, finding a dead body of someone they knew without Amber having detected any warning signs of a crime precipitates a crisis. Someone with close knowledge of telepaths and how their teams work is clearly involved. As they try to uncover the traitor and their plans for massive destruction and disruption, Amber must also struggle within her mind as opening her thoughts to others brings its own threats to her sanity and identity.

            As with other books by this author, DEFENDER combines well a strong plot and narrative with interesting and fallible characters. The story is well paced and the reader wants to keep reading to see what happens next. Amber in particular is extremely likeable and shows development and growth as she deals with both professional and personal crises. As well as the plot strands of the traitor and Amber’s psychological health, there is clearly a larger arc plot developing around Hive Societies and the complexities of being a telepath as Amber starts to learn and importantly question her new circumstances. YA or crossover it may be but there is a lot of story and depth in these books while still appealing to that market. The author is not afraid to move to different characters and settings than her previous series and the world of the Hives is interesting and very different from that of the Earth Girl series. The style and SF settings remind me very much of Anne McCaffrey’s non-Pern series (eg The Talent, Crystal Singer and The Ship Who … series) and anyone who enjoyed those will find much to like here. Another thoroughly enjoyable SF novel that will appeal to many.

Christmas Countdown Day 15

A review of Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, by Eugenia Bone.

Review by Kim Bannerman

            As dusk settled over the woods, I spotted the thing through a break in the trees, where the underbrush was thinnest. Imagine, if you will, a floppy-frilly brain, about the same size and shape as head of cauliflower, squatting on the top of a rotten log, an eerie ghostly white against the gloomy damp.

            I crept closer, utterly perplexed. I’d never seen anything so alien. I took a photo, and once my hike was finished and I’d returned home, I sent the picture to a neighbor, who also happens to be a botanist, and asked her what it might be.

            Instantly, I received a text.
            ‘Where?’
            I told her the trail and location of the rotten log.
            ‘Tell no one,’ she urged. ‘Must get it immediately.’

            What clandestine monster had I stumbled across? The brain, she informed me the next day, was a sparassis, a difficult-to-find delicacy that, once washed of bugs and boiled, has the texture of egg noodles and a mild flavor. After my message, she’d immediately donned her boots and raingear, grabbed a flashlight, and headed out into the misty night to find the rotten log, harvest the beast, and devour it with butter. The reason for her excitement was made clear when she explained, that same rotten log will sprout more sparassis next year, and they are not easy to find in the wild. As for the precise location, she’s swore me to secrecy.

            There’s a certain type of madness that is mycophilia, the fiery passion for fungi that overwhelms all rational thought, that sends neighboring botanists into the black woods in the middle of the night with a only a jackknife and a canvas sack. Soon after sharing the discovery of the sparassis, I received a gift: a copy of Eugenia Bone’s book, Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms.

            The book appears at first glance to be a compendium of fungi, but instead, it perfectly captures the characters and personalities of mushroom-lovers, and is more of a journey through this strange, bizarre, and multifaceted community than a simple field guide. Bone, an internationally-acclaimed journalist and food writer, divulges a slew of facts, figures, and trivia about mushrooms as we follow her on her voyage into the fascinating subculture of fungi enthusiasts — from scientists and mushroom hunters to truffle aficionados and medicinal researchers. It’s an engaging book, not only for widening your appreciation of the mushrooms on your pizza, but also displaying the hidden passions that lurk in people’s hearts. You may have a mycophile in your life, and not even know it.

            Bone’s writing style is casual, relaxed, with just a hint of bewilderment, and you can sense her own mycophilia growing as, chapter by chapter, she follows hunters into the wilderness, explores mushroom farms, and meets with mycologists around the world. Can it be a coincidence that, since writing this book, she has become the president of the New York Mycological Society? I sincerely doubt it.

            Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms has doubtlessly sparked new generations of mycophiles to sprout in dark corners, and it certainly altered how I look at mushrooms, whether they’re on the forest floor or in the produce section of the grocery store. The book provides an eye-opening introduction to both fungi and human behavior, unearthing gems in both realms. I may have given up a cherished location to a prized and delicious fungus, but I received a book that revealed a whole new world in return, and that’s fine with me.