Book Review: Riding the Centipede by John Claude Smith

NB. I was provided a copy of this book from the author as a result of a long standing friendship. He didn’t solicit a review.

I’ve read pretty much everything by Smith and for a good reason – he has a unique voice in the dark fiction writing world, and it is very effective. This is his first novel, and certainly one of the things I was looking for when reading it was the transition from short ficiton to substantial length pieces, particularly in terms of theme and style. When completing Riding the Centipede I was not disappointed – it has Smith’s style all over it and then some. It is an excellent work and deserved shortlisting in last year’s Stoker Awards.

Continue reading “Book Review: Riding the Centipede by John Claude Smith”

Book Review: A Mer-Tale by Jan M. Goldie

I should begin this review by saying that as Managing Director of IFWG Publishing Australia, I have published Jan M. Goldie (Brave's Journey – young teen fantasy), but I was not compelled in any way to review this book. I was simply handed it for my personal enjoyment. Which I did.

A Mer-Tale is a Young Adult contemporary fantasy novella, skirting closely science fiction. It primarily tells the tale through the POV of Thala, a young mermaid from an ancient mer-family, facing many personal and collective challenges, including the extinction of her race at the hands of an aquatic, alien race. I'll leave most of the spoilers now – it is worth a read.

I enjoyed A Mer-Tale and am impressed with strong world-building and character development in a relatively short work. At the same time, I feel that the story could have been longer, and there are a few places that are hurried – being a young adult story (as opposed to a young teen tale – middle grade), I think the audience would have appreciated delving a little deeper into the world, the cultures depicted, and most importantly, the characters and their interrelationships. Having said this, this is not a deal breaker – as I have already stated, Goldie has achieved much in a small space, which is no mean feat.

Thala's character is the most developed, which isn't surprising as it is her POV that dominates the story and given its first-person mode, allows the reader to easily slide into her thoughts. She is, above all else, and even beyond her prodigious burgeoning powers, a girl of determination and courage. This is, in my view, the theme that runs through the novella – the power of love and determination. Interestingly, there is a somewhat parallel thread running through the secondary narrative – that of Shiv, the uber-evolved alien (and which I think may have needed more expansion).

An outstanding dimension of Goldie's work is her scene-setting, bolstered by her strong imagination. Mermaid and Selkie tales abound in genre literature and Goldie has been able to knit such a tale with a fresh spin, most notably the concept of an alien/Earth conflict, with almost insurmountable differences, occurring beneath the ocean waves, and with humanity oblivious to it. On the surface this plot-line could appear ridiculous, far from the reach of suspended disbelief, but not in this particular case. It is strong and believable world-building.

I would recommend this one-night read to any lover of mermaid tales or imaginative young adult fiction. Four out of five stars.
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Book Review: Evermore by Isobelle Carmody and Daniel Reed

I’ve been a bit remiss in reviewing Carmody and Reed’s graphic novel, Evermore, as I have read it some time ago. Particularly because this book is a treasure.

I am not always an avid reader of fairy tale reboots for adults – probably because getting it right requires a great deal of skill by a writer, but if it is very well constructed, it is an absolute pleasure to read. This is the case with Evermore, and especially when it was wrapped in visual magic.

Evermore is a story written through the point of view of Princess Rose, a teenager confined to a keep by a ruthless King. The language is the English of the fairy tale, archaic in form. The clothing of the princess, and her limited companions are medieval in style, as is much of the architecture of the princess’ home. And yet, from the very beginning, there is the sense of a post apocalyptic setting, and modern technologies are glimpsed or referenced. This is a mysterious juxtaposition, sitting elegantly on the pages, but at the same time forming an uneasiness in the narrative.

Without providing spoilers, Rose discovers her heritage is more complex than she had thought and with her growing conspicuous womanhood, will be the object of suitors’ desires. She learns that it is unlikely she will be wed, but instead, suitors who will battle for her hand will all end in agonizing deaths. She needs to escape her nightmare world to where her mother had originated, across a desolate desert.

I simply can’t say much more about the plot. It would be unfair to you, the reader.

It is my understanding that Evermore was a story that was written before it transformed into a graphic novel. And while there are a scattering of pages that contain reasonably long passages of text, compared to rich illustrations with quantities of text what readers are normally used to, it is not a downside to the work. The words are evocative, strong, and unmistakebly carries the protagonist’s voice.

Daniel Reed’s artistic skills do not expand Evermore’s story – it compliments it. Aside from extraordinary quality of art in terms of rendered characters and depiction of the world settings, it is also fresh and artistic in terms of the way Carmody’s words are woven among the frames. Colour and tone choice is generally dark and tending toward monochrome, adding to the atomosphere of bleakness of a post apocalyptic world, and depressed by tyranny. The words are typed with a derelict typewriter, which has forced the protagonist to add the ‘f’s by hand, as the f/F key is missing – the reader can’t miss it, but instead of being a distraction, it anchors the reader deep into this world. Reed loves to skew images and text in odd, quirky angles, again adding to the uneasiness of Rose’s predicament.

Evermore isn’t a standard sized graphic novel; it is a sizeable 135 pages long. It is a fairy tale but it is fresh and atmospheric, and has a unique backdrop. The story is original, with a fantasy style, but ultimately driving into a science fiction conclusion. We don’t have a helpless princess being rescued by a prince – instead we have a girl growing into a woman, and with the aid of the sacrifice of caring friends and drawing from her mother’s strength of character, a heroine who withstands the greatest of tests, without the need to resort to violence. We have tragedy and palpable evil depicted, but at the same time we have triumph of love and devotion. The conclusion isn’t a classical fairytale ending, as Carmody realistically depicts the price that sacrifice and suffering must reap. And yet the story’s ending is still a fairy tale.

It boggles my mind that Evermore hasn’t been shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards as I am sure it will linger longer in the minds of its readers than the majority of graphic novels produced in Australia in 2015. I’m still scratching my head.

This piece of art deserves 5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: Autumn in the Abyss by John Claude Smith

Autumn in the Abyss cover

I had the pleasure of reviewing John Claude Smith’s earlier collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me. I was suitably impressed with Smith’s work, and so I embarked on my new reading journey with Autumn in the Abyss with some excitement.

I was not disappointed. In fact, I can see a maturing of Smith’s style and subject matter/themes. Deeper insights and sophistication; greater complexity—and yet a well balanced structure. Additionally, Dark is Light Enough for Me was a heterogeneous collection of short fiction, without an obvious thematic context of the whole (albeit, it was a good collection of individual stories), while Autumn in the Abyss is, on several levels, a case where the stories, together, have strong collective impact, more so than the individual components. More on that later.

Smith is a visceral writer—he does not feel the need to be limited in subject matter and description to get to the guts of a tale, and yet he is also an artist, choosing from his expansive palette to achieve the right hues, proportions, texture. Squeamish readers should carefully consider reading his work.

Smith’s five stories have two major themes or threads running in a zigzag fashion through them, both distinctly Lovecraftian in influence, and clearly delivered in a unique voice.

Firstly, and most notably conveyed in the first story, ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, the author deliberately eases the reader into a creeping and growing sense of cosmic horror. There’s nasty shit out there and humanity features rather insignificantly. While this sense runs through all the other stories to some degree or another, ‘La mia immortalita’ certainly oozes this sense as well. Smith’s style—and again, particularly in ‘Autumn in the Abyss’—pays homage to Lovecraft’s style, particularly with the use of first person in ‘Autumn in the Abyss’.

The second thread is more interesting and effective, and saturates the last four of the five tales: the depths of depravity and evil that humans can attain, without the aid of the supernormal. By intertwining the cosmic-layered horror with the human-layer, Smith etches a greater clarity in each, but the human side of the equation is the most disturbing, and insightful.

The first story, ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, was a pleasant surprise and sowed the seed of my view of Smith’s growing sophistication. On the surface the short story is a surrealistic tale of a man obsessed with writing a biography of a long dead Beat-period poet. I won’t spoil the ending by detailing much more of the plot. As stated above, it decidedly invokes HPL’s style and allusions to the Mythos. Smith slowly and cleverly reveals horrifying powers linked with the poet that the narrator is obsessed with, where words have multidimensional powers that parallel Lovecraft’s depiction of the terrifying dimensions associated with angles in space and time, as per the ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ (which in turn was influenced by Frank Belknap Long/August Derleth). Ultimately, the most Lovecraftian element of Smith’s story is the sense, at the end of the tale, of the utter futility of humankind, in the face of horrifying powers that dwell on the edge of perception. This is a highly recommended piece, for the reasons outlined above, as well as being a great horror tale in itself, and its thorough research into the poetry movements in the US in the 1950s and 60s.

‘Broken Teacup’ is probably the most disturbing of Smith’s short stories, where he explores in jagged, clawing depth the depravity of humanity. Nothing can easily come near the heartless horror of men who choose to torture and destroy people for the sake of entertainment—including their own. In terms of tapping into a dark, bleak underbelly of America, this story is somewhat reminiscent of ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ in The Dark is Light Enough for Me, although without the brief moments of humor. This story, however, is plainly intense. Where one of the dimensions of horror that comes out of Lovecraft’s ancient, alien gods is the sheer detachment of these cosmic entities, in this tale Smith presents a very different, vivid detachment from a pair of snuff moviemakers. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a well-constructed story.

La mia immortalita’ moves away from the physical horrors that can be perpetrated by humanity, to the psychological. Again we have indifference in an individual—in this case a self-obsessed artist blind and deaf to the feelings of other human beings, even those who are close to him. A strong piece, adding another dimension to the impact of the anthology as a whole, and drawing from Smith’s exposure to art, and in particular, sculpture.

‘Becoming Human’ seems, perhaps coincidentally, to draw the physical and psychological together. This story has the least tie-in with the Lovecraftian theme, but certainly stabs deep into human depravity. Two detectives’ lives were scarred for life by their exposure to a sadistic serial killer, leading to the suicide of one. The other is an emotional husk and must contend with a copycat killer and his own humanity at the same time. This story contributes the least to the two-theme effect of the anthology as a whole, but doesn’t lack quality, and certainly does provide another insight into the indifference of evil—with a twist.

‘Where The Light Won’t Find You’ is the last story and rounds the anthology nicely. Mr. Liu and representation of his ‘patrons’ make another appearance, and, most interestingly, draws a little back from the visceral horror well executed in most of Smith’s previous stories. Yes, there’s some nasty stuff, but it’s at an arm’s length, where the focus is on a young man, following an argument with his girl friend, enters a movie theatre with dire consequences. This story isn’t as deep as the previous tales, but it adds information about Mr. Liu and his patrons, and contributes granularity to what evil is (and isn’t) at the supernormal level.

I had a lot to say that’s good about John Claude Smith’s ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, and it is deserved. The allusions to the sinister, indifferent powers that exist beyond most of humanity’s perception is well crafted and multi-dimensional when the anthology is read as a whole. The evil that exists in human beings are more tangibly described, and are more horrifying by far. So much so that even the mysterious Mr. Liu and his patrons must sit up and take notice.

I recommend this anthology to any serious reader of horror. Five well-deserved stars.

The book can be purchased in print and ebook format from all good online stores, including Amazon.
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Book Review: The Bounty Hunter by MF Burbaugh

Bounty Hunter

I had the pleasure of reading this book prior to publication.

It is a story that works on two dimensions – at the superficial level, it is a story about revenge and fixing what is right – a classic tale that fits right in any genre, but Westerns come to mind. But if you scratch the surface, there's a lot more. It is also a critical dig at the abuse of power, and particularly by people who have sacred responsibilities to their nations and people. It is also a human story, about how trials and tribulations can change people, and yet, with courage, retain what is essential to be human.

The story is saucy without being over the top. It is swashbuckling, like any good heroic fantasy should be, and it has its moments of humor.

A very good read indeed. Worthy of 5 stars.
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Book Review: Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times

Witch Hunts cover

When I purchased this book I was looking forward to read it, as the subject matter was one I had an interest in, and I haven't read a graphic novel in a long while. It was pleasurable to find that Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, exceeded both my cravings.

It isn't easy to produce a non-fiction graphic novel – how do you encapsulate complex concepts or events in graphical form, in just a few pages, if that? While a picture may represent a thousand words, will you create the right picture, or doom the reader to the wrong thousand words? How can a bundle of pages of graphics with brief phrases, truly represent the overall theme?. Well, Rocky Wood and Lisa Morton's research and words, combined with Greg Chapman's excellent craftsmanship, certainly does tick those boxes. The reading experience is emmersive, emotional, educational.

In terms of the graphics, I particularly liked the tastefulness of the product. Sexuality, particularly the predatory side, is a part of the Witch Hunt experience, alongside brutality and sadism (all, mind you, perpetrated by those persecuting alleged witches), and yet Greg Chapman is careful in terms of how much graphic violence is portrayed – without losing the sense of what was happening. Kudos to him.

The narration, stemming from the research, is clear and concise, and equally importantly, is consistent from start to finish in terms of style. A dimension that I appreciated was the clarity of the moral message coming from the writers – this was a despicable period and it was more than just a matter of superstitious fear, it was also entwined with greed, avarice and misogyny. It was important to call a spade a spade.

As you can tell by my spiel, I really enjoyed the work, and because it is so crammed with interesting history, it is a book I can refer back to, and reread with pleasure.

A well deserved 5 stars, and worthy of winning awards.
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Book Review: Green by Jay Lake

This is an unusual review for me to make, in part because I haven't previously reviewed an author who I have followed as closely as Jay Lake, and because I don't normally review novels where I have read other reviews of the same work before. It just happened that way.

I can't exactly recall when I heard of Jay Lake, but some time over the last few years I disovered I enjoyed the way he thought and wrote about things, and I also have huge respect for his honesty, particularly with his challenges with cancer. I read a few of his short stories and found that I also liked the way he wrote.

Green is one of his more recent novels and I admit that my interest in reading it was catalyzed by its mixed reviews. Since I had the misfortune of reading these reviews before reading the novel, I would also like to devote a little of my review time to some of the common criticisms – which I genuinely believe are poorly rendered.

Let's get the salient points of the earlier reviews out of the way.

The one that is most ludicrous to my mind are the several commentators who chose to criticise Jay Lake's dedication. I wont repeat the dedication but it is to his daughter and it is clearly personal. I have read enough of Jay's blogs to know that he has a wonderful father-daughter relationship and the dedication in my mind is an extension of this. Because the book covers adult topics and the main character's  (Green's) open sexuality is explored somewhat in this book, commentators seem to think there is a complication with Jay dedicating the book to his daughter. This is a reflection of poor thinking on the part of the commentators, who should focus on the novel, not the dedication.

Some of the criticisms of Jay's novel are directly, or indirectly, associated with the his treatment of Green's sexuality. I can add that I read a few snipes at his choice of certain words, such as "sweetpocket" for vagina. The biggest problem that I had with such criticisms (the general sexuality topic, not the choice of words), is that the commentators didn't really explain why they had a problem. What surprised me was that when I read the book I didn't actually think the sexual descriptions and themes were overdone at all, and half-expected more becuase of those earlier reviews. In my mind Green's sexuality  – particularly the same-sex experiences, are entirely consistent with her most unusual upbringing, where it was dominated by insulated, female-only cliques. More importantly, it was not something that dominated the story – this is not an erotic novel. I believe that most commentators who took strong issue with this aspect of the novel are really dealing with their own biases. Regarding the choice of words for women's body parts, I think again that the choices made by Lake were made to reflect Green's upbrringing – after all this novel is written in First Person.

Nuff said on that.

I enjoyed Green. I particularly liked the world-building. It was partially carried out by using real world reference points to allow the reader to more readily dive into the many different races and locations he constructed. Kalimpura has a north African feel to it, and Copper Downs smacks of Europe. Even choice of names of characters and places follow the same patterns. And yet, there are unique elements to the world as well. I like the setting of the technology levels more into the renaissance than in typical Middle Ages, which adds color to the story. It is always refreshing to read a story that isn't heavily awash with multiple races of sentient beings (elves etc), and the Pardines (a feline-like warrior race) added just the right degree of 'differentness' to the world, without overdoing it. While not unique, jay Lake makes good use of the idea of a world closely associated with gods, and the symbiosis that exists between those who worship and those who are worshipped. One of the earliest books I read that covered the concept of gods relying on workshippers to exist, was the Merlin novels by H Warner Munn – Lake treats the concept equally as well.

The character Green is complex. Very complex, and after all, she is what this story is all about. Her journey, growth, and her ability to reconcile her most tumultuous early life with the many two-sided benefits she gained from it. This theme is explored with further depth in her many interactions with people who were instrumental in forcing her destiny – and many ironies fall out. This major theme, and the way Lake has portrayed it, is reason alone to read Green and admire it.

Green is written essentially in three parts, and for much of the reader's journey, there is a small undercurrent of concern that they aren't tied completely together. The first part of the story is an odyssey – Green's. It is about how she is sold and how she suffers and becomes skilled in many crafts as a trainee concubine. Her interaction with the Dancing Mistress and Federo (the agent who bought her), adds spice to the story and (only later found), crystalizes why in fact the three parts of the novel are in fact fundamentally one story. The second part of the story is when Green returns to her homeland and gets trained as a religious assassin in Kalimpura. While elements of this part are important extensions of Green's 'journey' – particularly reality checking her mental template of her origins – the Kalimpura setting does feel like a very different story, with different aspirations and purposes for the protagonist. However, the third and final part – back in Copper Downs, but now a degraded land under threat from the genesis of a chaotic god. Again, this is a different story, and yet, as it unfolds, all three parts start to intertwine in many more ways than what could possibly be imagined. I don't want to give too much away of the plot – I will simply state that Lake successfully adds unifying reasons for events in all three parts, where Green was an important witness or actively involved.

So how well does Jay Lake do all this? I think admirably. Lake successfully develops a very complex character – as I stated, in my view this was the prime purpose of the novel. And yet, he also weaves a complex plot that, for the first two thirds of the story, appeared to be quite linear. I don't know if the starkness of change of the three 'parts' of the novel could have been made less stark or not – or if it was entirely intended, but I think Lake pretty much pulls it off.

I would recommend Green to any discerning fantasy reader – particularly if the reader is after depth of characterisation.

Five stars.

Book Review: The Story of England, by Michael Wood

I always take a little longer to read non-fiction – just the nature of the beast.

Michael Wood is a long-standing favorite of mine – in tandem with his television series. He truly is a rarity – a historian who knows how to popularize history without losing insight and scholarship.

When I heard about his The Story of England, I just had to get it straight away. The concept of depicting the culture and history of England from prehistoric times to modern day, through the archives and archaeology of a single set of village hamlets, was inspiring. And I can say that the reading validated my anticipation.

I particularly liked the medieval period of history, and the Tudors, but I can say that the book was interesting and insightful throughout. What I particularly liked was his ability to use contrasts and comparisons between different time periods (often with examples of families who lived in or near the locale for those represented periods), and expressing insightful patterns in history.

And of course, his writing is crisp, fluid, and even at times, poetic.

Perhaps the only criticism I can throw in – which does not undermine my rating of 5 for this work – is that the geography often mentioned of areas outside of the locale are not represented by maps. As a non-Englishman, I simply lose my sense of direction and geographical context when reading about various counties and cities. It would have been helpful to have a few extra maps.

I heartily recommend this book to any student of history or culture.

Five stars
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Review: Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

I have a major interest in Temple Grandin, and books on Autism/Asperger’s, because I have a 5 year old daughter with Asperger’s. Nevertheless, Thinking in Pictures is a well written book without that bias.

This book is NOT about Temple’s life – you need to read Emergence to get the story, and it is well worth reading, but ten years later Temple’s writing style has improved amazingly. I keep thinking that the movie on Temple’s life would have had more influence from Emergence than Thinking in Pictures, but this book has all the publicity associated with it – go figure.

This book is in many ways technical – what it really is about is Grandin’s understanding of what autism is, and how autistic people deal with it, and how ‘normals’ should deal with it. It is well founded in latest findings in psychology, and has a fresh perspective in terms of Grandin’s immense experience in animal behavior. She does use examples drawn from her life, which does, in a way, provide a form of autobiography, but as stated above, it is not the point of this work of non-fiction.

I can honestly say that I have a more synthesized, cohesive understanding of my daughter’s condition reading this book, than all other books put together.

An excellent read, but if you are after an autobiography, you will be disappointed.

Five Stars.
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