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.

 

Christmas Countdown Day 13

Emily Nation by Alec McQuay 

Review by S. Naomi Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[This review may contain spoilers.]

At some unspecified point in the future, the world is an arid wasteland thanks to a war without explanation. Onto this stage steps Emily Nation the eponymous protagonist of this remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Emily is an assassin, and by all accounts a pretty good one at that. When her work follows her home to her wife and daughter one day things start to turn very bad indeed, and Emily is left wrecked and ruined, surviving on a diet comprising of mega-violence, casual sex and alcohol in varying amounts, right up until the point she’s dragged back to her home town of Camborne to help the locals fight off a gang of rabid raiders whilst simultaneously trying to figure out what’s going on with the daughter she thought dead.

I really enjoyed this book, and given that there are plenty of questions left unanswered at the end I’m supremely hopeful for a sequel some time soon. It’s borderline hardcore violence with more than a hint of distinctly dark humour, and rattles along at a fair old pace. In places I was reminded of Tank Girl at her best, but with a twist of some of the edgier elements of cyberpunk thrown in for good measure. All in all a fun read and one I would recommend without reservation. Not quite five stars, but not that far off.

Christmas Countdown Day 12

THE ENCLAVE by Anne Charnock

NewCon Press / 72 pgs / £6.99 paperback / ISBN 978-1910935347

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin.

In this novella, Anne Charnock returns to the near future United Kingdom of her first novel, A CALCULATED LIFE (which was a finalist for the Philip K Dick Award). In that novel genetic engineering was aiding the establishment of an elite, with access to upgrades for intelligence, antisocial behaviour etc. whilst the majority are denied these and form a struggling underclass. Whilst A CALCULATED LIFE looked mainly at the privileged through the eyes of a naïve “simulant” Jayna, this novella looks in more detail at the general population, living on minimal support and surviving on a mixture of wits and intimidation.

            The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of two characters who live in an “enclave” outside the city, where like a shanty town most of the available jobs are menial or dirty, and people are constantly scrabbling to make a living. These two characters are Caleb, a bright and enterprising twelve-year old refugee and Ma Lexie, a young widow who is barely tolerated by her husband’s gang family and surviving by using young children without parents as child labour to recycle thrown-away clothes and scraps to eke out a living. Caleb was “recruited” by a scout for the gangs from a travelling refugee group after he lost his mother and he now works in Ma Lexie’s group. When Caleb manages to catch Ma Lexie’s attention with his designs for improving clothes, she promotes him and this allows him a little more freedom to plot an escape. Both characters are simultaneously victims and manipulators. Ma Lexie may control the children’s lives but she is in turn controlled by the gang who at any time could take away her “business”. She promotes Caleb for her own advantage but also in a desire for company and someone to look after her. This is a society where everyone uses everyone. 

            In a short 59 pages, Anne Charnock constructs a very believable world which could easily be extrapolated from current events. This is an excellent example of “show not tell” – it touches on many serious issues whilst still keeping the story paramount and is more effective for leaving the reader to think and draw their own parallels. The characterisation is superb – one is both sympathetic and repulsed by the actions of the characters. The prose is first-rate – precise and sharply accurate, building up a wealth of detail via small observations. It is not a work where the technology is at the forefront, or with a large amount of “action” (although events do happen and there is a very definite plot). and thus, may not suit fans of more traditional SF. However, in my opinion, Anne Charnock in this novella has shown yet again that she can write extremely intelligent and thought-provoking SF.

Christmas Countdown Day 9

“New Music for Old Rituals” by Tracy Fahey
Review by Penny Jones

To say I was excited to get my hands on my copy of Tracy Fahey’s collection “New Music for Old Rituals” would be an understatement. I was pestering the publisher so I could pre-order my copy from the moment it was announced – and was even able to sneakily get my hands on it, the day before it was officially released – And was it worth the wait? Of course it was.

“New Music for Old Rituals” is primarily a folk horror collection, but it is far more than that. Tracy Fahey takes the legends, rituals and superstitions of her homeland and interweaves them into new tales which reflect the horrors, anxieties and sadness that can plague our modern lives. Each tale is prefixed with a photograph taken by Tracy to reflect the concept of the following story. The photographs have a beautiful haunting imagery, and as all of them have been taken within a thirty minute drive of her home, so they truly reflect the hidden magic which can still be found in Ireland. Following each of her tales is a succinct explanation of the history and mythology which has inspired each tale.

The stories that make up “New Music for Old Rituals” are both beautifully written and varied in style. My own personal favourite “The Changeling” was one of the best short stories I have read this year. The story is quietly unveiled by the elderly narrator, making the ending even more horrific and visceral when revealed. Tracy Fahey is a master at lulling you into a false sense of security before revealing the horror beneath. So much so, that by the end of the book, you’re read the stories as if you are in some kind of uncanny valley, everything looks normal, it all seems fine; but you just know that it isn’t quiet right, that everything is just off kilter.

As well as the stories in “New Music for Old Rituals” being beautiful, the book as a whole is a thing of beauty. Black Shuck Books have managed to impart a feeling that the tales you are reading have been handed to you personally, that the book you hold in your hands, may have been someone’s diary or memoir. The Polaroid snaps (with their curling sellotaped edges) and the careful use of the handwritten and Dymo fonts really adds to the feeling that what you have in your hands is a personal retelling of someone’s life events.

The main warning though that this collection imparts, is that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you live, the horrors and fears which infect us never change. Humanity fears change, it fears the outsider; and you – whoever you are – will always be an outsider.

Tracy Fahey is an Irish writer of Gothic fiction.  In 2017, her debut collection “The Unheimlich Manoeuvre” was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. Two of her short stories were long listed by Ellen Datlow for Honourable Mentions in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 8. She is published in over twenty Irish, US and UK anthologies and her work has been reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel, “The Girl in the Fort”, was released in 2017 by the Fennec imprint of Fox Spirit Books. And her new collection, “New Music for Old Rituals” was released in November 2018 by Black Shuck Books.

 

 

 

Countdown to Christmas Day 7

Please send in your reviews to submissions@foxspirit.co.uk for inclusion in our Christmas Countdown. 

***

“All the Fabulous Beasts” by Priya Sharma

I first had the pleasure of reading Priya Sharma’s work when I was a judge for the British Fantasy Awards in 2016, where she won Best short story for her tale “Fabulous Beasts” and I’ve been hooked ever since. So it was with bated breath that I waited for my copy of her debut collection “All the Fabulous Beasts”, and it was well worth the wait. Alongside the beautiful artwork, which Undertow Publications is renowned for, Priya’s stories manage to weave the mundane with the magical, the ethereal with the horrifying, and she has managed to produce an unnerving collection of some of the most exquisite literary horror to date.

Priya’s writing focuses on the uncanny in everyday situations, revealing the darkness and beauty that are so intrinsically a part of life, and showing us that in order to live we inevitably have to die. From the unbreakable bond between a mother and her child in “Egg”, to the heartbreaking story of loss and bereavement within “The Sunflower Seed Man”, Priya shows us the wondrous which lingers underneath the veneer of our humdrum lives.

Identity and family also plays a huge part in Priya’s stories, her best known piece within the anthology “Fabulous Beasts” is a poignant and hard hitting story which grabs you by the throat and makes you look at the horror that can occur to those who live just round the corner; whilst other tales are set in more exotic locales such as India “The Englishman”, Hong Kong “The Absent Shade”, or even in an alternate history of Liverpool “Rag and Bone”, this distance from the horror doesn’t allow you any moment of reassurance, or an opportunity to think of her protagonists as an “other” someone far-away, different, troubled by issues that would never affect yourself. As Priya paints such a vivid imagery of the place that you see the colours that her characters see, and smell the fetid dirt under their fingernails, as cobbles form under your feet and dust prickles at your nose.  

The strength of Priya’s writing and the beauty of the tales transgresses all boundaries, she manages to convey a depth of emotion and understanding for her characters no matter how flawed they may be and it’s that understanding of humanity and all its intrinsic strengths and flaws which make this such a well rounded book. Because it isn’t just a collection of horror stories, or a debut of literary delights; it is much more than that, it’s a book about life; our life, the lives of those who mean so much to us, and the lives of those that we may wish in our weaker moments were dead. An exquisite collection that will delight all readers.

By Penny Jones

 

Countdown to Christmas Day 5

We are going to blow our own wind instruments a little today. My personal preference would have to be the Sax, but you may be more into the Oboe or French Horn. All welcome here. 

Danie Ware, author of the blindingly excellent urban alchemical fairy tale ‘Children of Artifice’ has been featuring heavily over at Damien Seaman’s blog this week with an Interview about her writing career and dayjob and the juggling act many of you raising kids on top of work and writing will be familiar with.

Then there was an in depth review which looked at the prologue debate, the core of family drama in the book and how Danie is a master craftsman when it comes to using description to move things forward and world build at the same time. 

From the review
The book is heartfelt and emotional, authentic and musical, a new mythology that draws its power from the old.

Maybe add this one to your Christmas reading list and don’t forget to drop us a line at submissions@foxspirit.co.uk if you want to share some of your own favourites on the blog this December. 

Countdown to Christmas Day 4

The Motion of Light in Water 
review by Adrian Reynolds

There came a point after devouring much of what was on the science fiction shelves at the local library from the age of 8 that I started to get a sense of who some of the writers were beyond their books. When I came across Samuel R Delany’s The Motion Of Light On Water as a 17 year old I was ready for it in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It was an immersion not just in the mind of a luminary talent, an African-American seeking to discover who he was not just through experimental prose but in every other way. Early sixties New York is brought to vivid life in the text, Delany one of the singers on the folk scene that spawned Dylan. That fusion of art and politics runs through his work and life, and the way Delany seeks to find and assert himself as a black gay man, at that point married to poet Marilyn Hacker, is a life-affirming and chaotic adventure. It dissolved many of the limiting ideas I’d acquired though schooling and the local norms that prevailed, and helped make me aware what’s out there if you’re determined to discover for sure who you are and what you’re capable of. A magical text.