Monday, 2 August 2021

My Year in Books 2021: July

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read for pleasure recently, and once again it's a short post. My to-read pile is getting dangerously tall, so hopefully I'll be able to catch-up a bit and have more to share next month.

In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June

And here are the books I read in July...

Bone Harvest by James Brogden (2020)


The first book on this month’s list was very nearly the final book on last month’s. It’s another from my Abominable Books pile, and it’s another bit of surprise folk horror. I don’t know why, but I had it in my head that this was another American novel (this is what comes of my resistance to reading blurbs before I start reading!). In fact, Bone Harvest is set in the UK, mostly around the English-Welsh border and then in Staffordshire. And I’ll say right off – I loved this one, despite not being the world’s biggest folk horror fan. The story begins with an unnamed man deserting in the trenches of WWI (he continues to be technically unnamed throughout the book, though he adopts the name Everett from some stolen dog tags). As the deserter moves amongst the carnage of the war, he meets with the ‘No Men’ and is introduced to the religion of Moccus, a pre-Christian deity whose followers consume their god’s flesh in a cyclical ritual. When he returns to the UK, the deserter seeks out those followers and becomes an acolyte of Moccus. The first half (roughly) of the novel was really striking and totally unsettling, and I was fascinated by the deserter as a character. However, the book really comes into its own in the second half as we move into the present day and to a wonderful setting for folk horror: allotments. This one is a real page-turner with a rich story and excellent characterization.

Sealand: The True Story of the World's Most Stubborn Micronation by Dylan Taylor-Lehman (2020)


I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole earlier this year. When Prince Phillip was first taken to hospital, I noticed a number of strange Twitter accounts sending him their (rather formal) regards. Each account looked like an ‘official’ account of an embassy or other state functionary, complete with crests or other state insignia, but all of them had names that were nothing like any country I’d ever seen before. Intrigued, I looked one of the names up and discovered it was the name of a micronation: a small ‘country’, founded by an individual, with claims of sovereign identity despite existing within the boundaries of another country’s territory. I started reading about the history and theory behind micronations – from the serious attempts at secession (sometimes for tax purposes) to the more frivolous home-based projects – and I couldn’t help but notice the name ‘Sealand’ kept popping up. And with good reason, it turns out. Sealand is one of the longest-standing, but also (arguably) the most successful micronation. Founded in 1967 on a disused naval fort off the coast at Southend, Sealand is a ‘principality’ ruled by an eccentric ‘royal family’ who have seen off numerous attempts to usurp them over the years. Taylor-Lehman’s book takes us through the hilarious, terrifying and occasionally downright unbelievable story of the Bates family and their concrete micronation. I can’t do justice to how bonkers the story is – and I’d definitely recommend reading the book to learn more. It’s even stranger than you might think.

The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching (2020)


I read a review of The Madman’s Library in the Manchester Review of Books earlier this year, and I knew it would be right up my street. Interestingly, I’d bought a copy of one of the author’s other books – The Phantom Atlas – as a birthday present for my brother, but I didn’t realize it was by the same author until I was part way through The Madman’s Library. We’re going to do a swap, so I might write about The Phantom Atlas in the future. For now… The Madman’s Library is a beautifully illustrated coffee-table-type book about curiosities from the world of literature. Some of these are well-known – the Voynich manuscript gets some attention, as does the Codex Gigas (aka the Devil’s Bible) – but there’s an absolute wealth of other, more obscure stories here that are a delight to dip into. Some books are just bizarre or baffling, but others reveal a lot about the history of literature, writing and bookbinding. Most of the books discussed are unique (in one way or another) artifacts, so this isn’t a timeline of the development of the book. It’s arranged thematically rather than chronologically so you can dip in and out of different types of strangeness (one grisly chapter looks at ‘Books of Flesh and Blood’, for instance, and another ‘Cryptic Books’). I personally enjoyed ‘Literary Hoaxes’, many of which were new to me. This one is a strong recommendation for people interested in the weirder side of the history of the book.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Review: The Global Playground (Theatre-Rites, Manchester International Festival)

Sunday 4th July 2021
Manchester International Festival
Great Northern Warehouse

On Sunday 4th July, I was at Great Northern Warehouse to watch The Global Playground by Theatre-Rites, one of the shows at this year’s Manchester International Festival. This was a big event for me, as not only was it the beginning of this year’s festival, but it was also my first piece of live theatre since February 2020. I’ve been reviewing productions for this blog and for North Manchester FM throughout lockdown, but these have all been digital shows. Sunday marked my first time in a theatre space since before the first lockdown began (and I want to give credit to the staff at Great Northern Warehouse and the Manchester International Festival volunteers for the brilliant work they’ve done to make the space seem welcoming, comfortable and safe).

My radio review of The Global Playground will be going out on North Manchester FM this week, and on Hannah’s Bookshelf later this month, but here’s the blog version...

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

The Global Playground is a family-family production by acclaimed children’s theatre company Theatre-Rites. The show is premiering at Manchester International Festival and, alongside the live shows, there will also be a film version of the show available online.

The phrase ‘family-friendly production’ might not be one that you associate with Manchester International Festival. The festival prides itself on featuring challenging, ground-breaking and provocative art from internationally acclaimed writers, producers and performers. Perhaps you might find it hard to imagine that the description ‘challenging, ground-breaking and provocative’ could apply to a show aimed at eight-year-olds and up. And yet, that is exactly the kind of work that Theatre-Rites have been producing for the past quarter of a century (this year marks the company’s twenty-fifth birthday).

The Global Playground is a dance performance, featuring a little bit of live musical performance, a little bit of filmed footage, and a little bit of puppetry. It’s performed in the round, with the stage transformed into a film studio. Sean (played by Sean Garratt – each of the performers uses their own name in the show) is trying to make a dance film and is waiting for his performers to arrive. We get a little glimpse of puppetry at the beginning, as Sean introduces us to his lightly anthropomorphized camera, to which he speaks throughout.

But it’s not long before the human performers start to arrive on stage, each signalling their arrival with a dance performance. First is Annie (Annie Edwards), then Jahmarley (Jahmarley Bachelor), and then Kennedy (Kennedy Junior Muntanga) and Charmene (Charmene Pang). As the dancers arrive, tensions start to emerge. Sean is stressed about getting his film made – the film’s composer (Ayanna Witter) hasn’t been able to come, and has sent an alternative musician in her place (Merlin Jones). He is so distracted when Annie arrives that she almost walks off the set when he ignores her. And Kennedy was supposed to be performing a duet with another dancer – Thulani (Thulani Chauke) – who hasn’t been able to make it.

While this last detail fits well with the stress and tension of the opening section of the show – where Sean moves around the stage, attempting to set up his camera, shouting at his production assistant, and worrying about whether the project will come together – it was actually added to the show when real-life intervened. South African dancer Thulani was unable to travel to Manchester to perform in the show, and so his duet performance with Kennedy is achieved through the use of projected film mimicking a video call. Although this is a necessary response to real-life circumstances, it was integrated really well into the performance, with the ‘video call’ conceit (complete with glitches and buffering echoed through the sharp jerky movements of a frustrated Kennedy on stage) drawing attention to some of the themes that will subtly emerge through the production as a whole.

The opening dance performances – coupled with Sean’s gently comedic performance as the slightly highly-strung filmmaker with a job to do – feel a little fragmented, as though the cast are somewhat hesitant in bringing their individual performances together. That’s not to say the opening isn’t joyful and exuberant, with high-energy solo performances merging into pairings and ensemble moves. However, the vague feeling of hesitancy about the ensemble performances are building the audience up for the overarching theme of what we’re watching.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

For the adults in the audience, this fragmented feeling might lead to a bit of uncertainty. But I wonder if the children understood better what was going on. Theatre-Rites are leading proponents of challenging theatre for children – they believe in approaching theatre for younger audiences with the same seriousness and depth as productions for adults. Nevertheless, there was clearly no desire to baffle or bemuse their younger audience members. While the choreography (by Gregory Maqoma) and performances were striking, and designed to push at the limits of youthful attention spans, the story here will have been familiar ground for the kids. Sean wants to make a film, but he and his friends keep squabbling about things – they’ll only be able to achieve what they want to achieve when they put their disagreements behind them and work together.

And, indeed, that is what The Global Playground is about. This aspect of the story really comes to the fore when Sean is sent a surprise package: his ‘American funders’ have decided that the film needs a puppet, and so they’ve sent him a puppet. Garratt’s puppetry skills were put to good use with the arrival of the fluffy, bright orange addition to the cast (including performing a song, which is certainly worthy of respect!). However, what really struck me when the puppet came out of the box was the wave of recognition from the kids in the theatre. It was like they knew immediately what this orange thing meant, and there was a really heart-warming immediacy in their reaction to it. It says a lot about Garratt’s abilities, but also about puppetry more widely, that the children in the audience related to it straightaway. (I’m not going to lie… this adult did a bit as well!)

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

The Global Playground is a show about the connections we make with one another, and how we can achieve our ambitions when we collaborate with others – including people of different backgrounds – and when we focus on a shared goal. This aspect of the story comes together in an exhilarating celebratory performance towards the end, which allows percussionist Merlin Jones to really drive the mood and energy alongside the dancers.

In addition to this, this is a show about the ways in which the circumstances of the modern world (the very modern world – the spectre of lockdown haunts the edges of this production in subtle and complex ways) can both augment and frustrate our desire to make connections with others. Ingrid Hu’s design – with Sue Buckmaster’s direction – make the film stage into an interactive space, where the tools of filmmaking (tripods, lights, reflectors) are repurposed and integrated into the dancers’ performances, as props, costumes and stage sets. Like Sean’s anthropomorphized camera, even the most blankly material object becomes humanized as the dancers reimagine them.

There is a dark side to this, as the show takes on a more ominous tone. Dry ice that was sprayed onto stage by Annie in a fit of gleeful mischief becomes a fog; lightboxes that had been tossed around in fun become hiding places, and the camera re-emerges as a surveillant monster, red eyes seeking out the cowering dancers. While Annie, Jahmarley, Kennedy and Charmene survive this – of course – a sense of doubt lingers even in the final celebration of a job well done, when we watch Sean’s film and find that his camera has been actively editing the footage he’s recorded. The film we see is moving and triumphant… but it’s not actually what we’ve experienced in real-life.

And it’s in this that The Global Playground is at its most thought-provoking. I don’t know whether the children in the audience will have made the direct connection between the ambiguous character of the camera, the subtle questioning of digital vs real-life connections, and their (for most) recent experiences of online learning and family-time-via-Zoom, but it is to Theatre-Rites’ credit that they offered this subtext to their audience, to inspire and provoke the imaginations of both young and… well… not so young.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Of course, as the show’s title suggests, The Global Playground is very much about fun and play as well. The energetic and joyful performances by the dancers, as well as a gently comedic turn from Garratt, make this show a lot of fun to watch. Particularly in the second half of the show, it’s very easy to get swept up in the movement and sounds – with Maqoma’s choreography switching seamlessly between styles and tempos – and in the impressive integration of props and set-dressing by the performers.

This is very much a ‘family friendly’ show – but not the one you might expect. It’s intelligent, stylized and laden with subtext, but, in my opinion, Theatre-Rites have pulled off the impressive feat of making this enjoyable for a mixed-age audience, without ever talking down to the younger members or giving sly winks to the adults over their heads.

Overall, I enjoyed The Global Playground. It’s a surprising and unexpected production that is at once exuberant and thought-provoking. The show is suitable for over-8s, but I’m not sure there’s really a maximum age!

The Global Playground is on at Great Northern Warehouse until Sunday 18th July, as part of Manchester International Festival. It will also be presented digitally, as a film version. For more information, and for tickets, please visit the Manchester International Festival website.

My Year in Books 2021: June

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I read for pleasure last month. Only three books on this list this time. I am about two-thirds of the way through a book I'm really enjoying, but I didn't quite finish it in time to include it in this month's post. I guess it'll have to wait until July. For now, here are my mini-reviews of the books I actually finished in June.

In case you're interested, here are my reviews from previous months: January, February, March, April, May

Madam by Phoebe Wynne (2021)


A while ago, I signed up for something called Secret Readers from Hachette. It seemed to be a project where readers were given access to read an eBook (either pre- or post-publication) so that they could give some feedback afterwards. It was advertised as ‘get a free eBook’, but it was obviously more about gathering reviews and responses to recent titles. Either way, I didn’t hear anything back for them for a while, and then when I did I couldn’t work out how to access/read the ‘free eBook’. Out of the blue, I got an email from them this month offering me a choice of three titles, so I thought I might give it another go. I chose Madam, and I read it on the rather frustrating browser version of the proprietary e-reader (but I’m not reviewing that, so I’ll let that go). Madam is set in the early 1990s. A young Classics teacher called Rose is offered a job at a prestigious girls’ boarding school. When she gets there, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s something quite quite wrong at Caldonbrae Hall. While there are shades of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and also of Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages (which I read that last year), the plot also bears some similarities with Never Let Me Go. However, while Madam has its charms, the revelations are a bit implausible here, and I’m not a fan of vague shadowy organizations with inexplicable omnipotence. Not a strong recommendation.

The Apartment by K.L. Slater (2020)


And now another book that I read because I was offered a free eBook (okay, not strictly ‘free’, but included with my Prime membership). The Apartment looked to be fairly standard domestic noir stuff: Freya Miller and her young daughter are looking for somewhere to live, when a chance encounter in a coffee shop brings her an offer of an unbelievably cheap apartment for rent. Is this offer too good to be true? Of course it is. Will that encounter turn out to have been less of a chance? Of course it will. I started this one thinking I might quite like it, but I’m afraid it wore thin rather quickly. Freya makes a lot of very silly decisions – even by the standards of the genres – and her daughter is the least convincing five-year-old ever. A couple of the other tenants in the strange apartment block are curiously engaging, but it’s just quite hard to buy into the protagonist’s predicament. I had an uneasy feeling from the start of this one that the big reveal was going to be implausible – and that turned out to be the case. Again, even by the standards of the subgenre, I struggled to believe in what was revealed. It’s a bit of a shame, because the set-up is pretty intriguing, and there were some aspects of the creepy apartment building that did capture my interest. Overall, though, this one was a bit of a disappointment. I should probably avoid free eBooks for a while.

The House of a Hundred Whispers by Graham Masterton (2020)


Leaving aside the free eBooks, I turned back to my sometimes-neglected Abominable Books pile. The House of a Hundred Whispers was one of the recent featured books (I think it might have been in last month’s parcel). From the blurb, it looked like a haunted house story set on Dartmoor. And I guess it is a haunted house story set on Dartmoor… but it’s also something else (and it’s not your average haunting either). The book begins with the death of Herbert Russell, former governor of Dartmoor Prison. His estranged children arrive at Allhallows Hall, Russell’s rambling Tudor mansion, to attend the reading of his will. The will holds some surprises for the family, but there are more shocks to come when Herbert’s grandson Timmy disappears, and the family starts to realize that there’s something not right at Allhallows Hall. As I say, this isn’t your average haunted house. I liked the reveal of what is haunting the house, and the deeper story of how and why it’s happening is well-done. But what I really enjoyed was the sense of place, story and history that imbue Masterton’s version of Dartmoor. My only real criticism here is that the characters and their motivations sometimes strain credibility a little – I couldn’t always believe their reactions to the building horror. Some of the characters (particularly the police who are searching for Timmy) are a bit quick to swallow the Russells’ tales of supernatural occurrences at the house! Overall, though, I enjoyed this one.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

My Year in Books 2021: May

Time for my monthly mini-reviews round-up post, and I'm afraid it's another short one. This month has flown by, and I just don't seem to have had much time for reading (outside the books that I read for review and research, but I never include those in these posts). Interestingly, there is a little bit of a theme (certainly with the last two books on this list). I found myself using the same words ('muted', 'melancholy') to describe books published over the past year by writers whose previous work wouldn't usually be described in that way. I'm wondering whether that's an indication of a 'lockdown effect' on their writing, or a 'lockdown effect' on the way I'm responding as a reader. Or maybe it's just a coincidence!

In case you're interested, here are the posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April. And here are my reviews for May...

Maggie's Grave by David Sodergren (2020)


Still trying to catch up with the towering pile I’ve got from my Abominable Books subscription! I can’t remember which month I got Maggie’s Grave, but it seemed like high time I read it. This one was very much a game of two halves for me: one aspect I loved, and another not so much. So… the bit I loved… Maggie’s Grave is set in Auchenmullan, a small Scottish town that’s well-nigh deserted since the last employers closed up shop and people started moving out. The town is cursed, partly by the circumstances of the post-industrial modern world and partly by something else (which I’ll come to shortly). I really enjoyed the way Sodergren evokes the dying town of Auchenmullan. There’s something beautifully unsettling about the empty streets with just a single occupied house, and the beleaguered bowling alley that’s the town’s last remaining business. However, while I would happily have read a slow-burn weird-fiction horror set in Auchenmullan, that’s not what Maggie’s Grave is. It’s a much more in-your-face gory tale about a witch who was executed in the town and comes back periodically to take revenge. The death of Maggie Wall is described in detail in the opening chapter, so there’s no mystery here, and the rest of the story is mostly a series of cinematic bloody set-pieces as the (somewhat underdeveloped) main characters try to evade the supernatural enemy (and some human ones as well). Maggie’s Grave has its appeal, but it’s not quite to my tastes.

The Night Gate by Peter May (2021)


This next book was a bit of surprise – and by that I mean I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to be written. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you’ll know that Peter May’s Enzo Macleod books are my comfort-reading series. I’ve read all them several times, and I reread the whole series (again) during lockdown. In my previous blogs, I’ve talked about Cast Iron as the finale to the series – because I believed it was. And I was right… until this year. Plot twist: May wrote and published another (final?) Enzo novel during lockdown, which brings Enzo’s story up to the present day. We rejoin Enzo years after the dramatic conclusion of Cast Iron. Not only is he older, he’s remarried, retired and living in Cahors during a pandemic. And yet he still manages to get drawn into a cold case involving the discovery of the remains of a German WWII airman in a small French village. It’s not long before the case gets a bit warmer, though, as a present-day murder occurs shortly afterwards. There’s a more melancholy tone to The Night Gate than the previous books in the series – and not just because of the COVID backdrop. Growing old doesn’t really suit Enzo, and growing up hasn’t been easy for his daughters and sons-in-law either. Overall, it’s a far more muted end to the series than Cast Iron was. At times, the story of the (well-crafted) WWII-era mystery dominates a bit as well, so this isn’t solely Enzo’s story.

If It Bleeds by Stephen King (2020)


Next, I went back to catching up my Abominable Books pile. This one was my mystery second-hand book last month, so it came wrapped in brown paper, string and a wax seal. Very exciting! This is a collection of four novellas from King that was published last year. The title novella is a story in King’s crime series (which began with Mr Mercedes) and a sequel to The Outsider. It’s the first story to feature Holly Gibney, a minor character in previous books, as the protagonist. As it really is a sequel, I found it a little hard to follow at times as I haven’t read The Outsider. In fact, I haven’t read any of King’s crime novels, so I was occasionally confused by mentions of other characters and plots. I did enjoy the central premise though, so maybe it’s on me for reading out of sequence. The other stories here were good solid King fare – though perhaps a little muted compared to some of his other work. Mr Harrigan’s Phone is a typically Stephen King take on the idea of someone being buried with their mobile phone; Rat treads familiar ground with its story about a writer locking himself away to finish his work and… not doing so well. My favourite of the four was definitely The Life of Chuck, a three-part story told in reverse. It’s a more melancholic and beautiful take on humanity than you might be expecting, and it’s certainly the most thought-provoking of the four.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

OUT NOW: Fantastika Journal 5:1 (May 2021)

The May 2021 issue of Fantastika Journal is out now.

Editorials:

The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow: Practising the Impossible
Rob Maslen

Articles:

'All of her made part of […] the Wood': Consumption, Transformation, and the Limits of Subversion in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted
Eilis Lee

'White is Not My Colour': Penny Dreadful, the Postcolonial, and the Changing Gothic Heroine
Carey Millsap-Spears

Conscripts from Birth: War and Soldiery in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future
Mike Ryder

Prepping for the Latourian Apocalypse, from Doomsday Preppers to Broken Earth
Derek J. Thiess

Non-Fiction Reviews:

Emily Alder, Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle (2020)
Fredrik Blanc

Mike Ashley, Science-Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990 (2020)
Derek Johnston

Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures (2019)
Chase Ledin

Nivedita Bagchi, Human Nature and Politics in Utopian and Anti-Utopian Fiction (2018)
Peter J. Maurits

Francesca T. Barbini (ed.), A Shadow Within: The Evolution of Evil in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2019)
Taylor Driggers

Eleanor Beal and Jonathan Greenaway (eds), Horror and Religion: New Literary Approaches to Theology, Race and Sexuality (2019)
Chloe Campbell

Catherine Belsey, Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History (2019)
Lucy Hall

Mark O’Connell, Notes From An Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (2020)
Oliver Rendle

Carys Crossen, The Nature of the Beast: Transformations of the Werewolf from the 1970s to the Twenty-First Century (2019)
Hannah Priest

Dan Dinello, Children of Men (2020)
Ezekiel Crago

Paul Dobraszczyk, Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination (2019)
Thomas Kelly

Charul Palmer-Patel and Glyn Morgan (eds), Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction (2019)
Paul March-Russell

Dawn Stobbart, Videogames and Horror: From Amnesia to Zombies, Run! (2019)
Matt Coward-Gibbs

Peter Swirski, Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future (2019)
Joe Howsin

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (2019)
Alison Baker

Toby Widdicombe, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Guide for the Perplexed (2019)
Mariana Rios Maldonado

Conference Reports:

The Gothic 1980s: The Decade that Scared Us (June 8, 2019)
Thomas Brassington

Science Fiction Research Association Conference 2019 (June 21-24, 2019)
Alexandria Nunn

Queer Fears (June 28, 2019)
Daniel Sheppard

Religioni fantastiche e dove trovarle (July 3-6, 2019)
Chiara Crosignani

15th International Gothic Association Conference – Gothic Terror, Gothic Horror (July 30-August 2, 2019)
Alissa Burger

Gothflix: A Conference Celebrating Netflix and the Gothic (February 1-2, 2020)
Kat Humphries

Beyond Borders: Empires, Bodies, Science Fictions (September 10-12, 2020)
Beatriz Herrera Corado

Fiction Reviews:

The Terror of the Transcendental
A Review of Roarings from Further Out: Four Weird Novellas by Algernon Blackwood (2019)
Michael Wheatley

For a Wider Weird
A Review of Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937 (2020)
Steen Ledet Christiansen

'Trespassers will be persecuted'
A Review of Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain (2020)
Stuart Spear

Do Androids Dream of Electric Nirvana?
A Review of Readymade Bodhisattva (2019)
Lauren Nixon

S is for Superhero, H is for Heart: Shazam! and the Magic of an Inclusive Family
A Review of Shazam! (2019)
Zvonimir Prtenjača

'Nothing is Everything is Really Quite Something'
A Review of Nothing is Everything (2018) by Simon Strantzas
Oliver Rendle

'Politics can wait until the Khan is dead'
A Review of Ghost of Tsushima (2020)
Charlotte Gislam

Tales of Two Tagores: Fantasy between Folklore and Children’s Literature
A Review of Fantasy Fictions from the Bengal Renaissance: Abanindranath Tagore’s The Make-Believe Prince and Gaganendranath Tagore’s Toddy-Cat the Bold (2018)
Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

'I’m the Devil, and I’m here to [Re]do the Devil’s Business': Alternative History as Political Commentary
A Review of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019)
Trae Toler

For more information, or to subscribe to the journal, please visit the Fantastika Journal website.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

OUT NOW: The Fourth BHF Book of Horror Stories, ed. by Darrell Buxton (BHF Book of Horror Stories, 2021)

A new collection of short stories inspired by British horror films, including 'Delivery' by yours truly...


The moon is full... the witching hour approaches... time to devour sacrificial offerings anew!

Drug-induced paranoia brings familiar television figures to sinister life...

Something nasty dwells beneath the floorboards of a country cottage, awaiting the new tenants...

An unexpected postal delivery leads to the uncovering of an ancient vampire's legacy...

Strange surgical practces are employed to remove a deadly tumour - with post-op consequences...

Over thirty new tales of terror emerge from the tomb! The weird world of British horror cinema inspires this latest collection of distrubing fiction, putting fresh spins on a cornucopia of chilling characters last glimpsed through the haze of late night television or encountered at menacing midnight movie marathons. Dare you venture beyond the silver screen, into a nightmarish new dimension bringing all your frightening favourites to the printed page? Be brave, be bold... or be buried!

Contents:

Night Thoughts by Sam Dawson
Carrion Screaming by Samantha Jayne Crosby
Hard Core by Darrell Buxton
Starr Student by Ken Shinn
The Night Bus by Franklin Marsh
Protein by Tony Earnshaw
The Phoenix for the Flame by Ken Shinn
Vultura is Dead... and Well and Living in London by Simon J. Ballard
Paging Doctor Death by Ian Taylor
Tea with Mrs Hindley by Jez Connolly
Good Boy by Adam J. Marsh
By Dawn's Early Light by Tony Earnshaw
Delivery by Hannah Kate
Gentry in the Country by Sam Dawson
The Little Red-Haired Girl by Ken Shinn
The Endless Depths Above Us by Paul Newman
The Making of Lord Courtley by Simon J. Ballard
The Making of Johnny Alucard by Simon J. Ballard
Frankenstein's Tortoise by Wayne Mook
Calhoun Despairs by Martin Parsons
Glad It's All Over by Ken Shinn
Tansy's Poppets by Selene Paxton-Brooks
The Interview by Jason D. Brawn
Luxuriate Effervescently by Darrell Buxton
Just a Click and the Agony by James Stanger
A Bloody Nuisance by Ken Shinn
A Voodoo Favour by Ian Taylor
Telling Stories by Lawrence Gordon Clark

Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to Angelman UK. For more information, or to buy a copy, please visit the book's webpage.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

My Year in Books 2021: April

Time for my monthly blog post about the books I've read for pleasure recently. It's not a bad sized list (though not my longest), but sadly there was really only one standout book this time.

In case you're interested, here are my other posts from 2021 so far: January, February, March

One by One by Freida McFadden (2020)


For some reason, I was back on my ‘Books Like And Then There Were None’ kick this month… with somewhat different results to last time. I’ve still not read The Ninth Guest (the book the precursor to And Then There Were None), but I did find two books on Prime Reading that looked promising. First up, I read One by One – not One by One by Ruth Ware, but a different One by One. Hmmm… One by One by Freida McFadden is about a group of friends – Claire (the narrator), Noah (her husband), Lindsay (her best friend), Warner (Lindsay’s new boyfriend), and Jack and Michelle (their old college friends). The group are heading off to a luxury spa, which is somewhat surprisingly set in the midst of a forbidding forest that may or may not be home to bears and coyotes. Of course, as soon as they get to the forest (with no mobile reception), the car breaks down and they’re forced to head out on foot. We’re already primed for the deaths to start, by both the title and the use of the near-ubiquitous chapter-in-italics-with-an-undisclosed-narrator technique. One by One is an alright read, but it’s a bit predictable and the characters aren’t the most nuanced. It also uses an… erm… familiar trope (from And Then There Were None and Saw) but in a way that makes it quite obvious what’s going on. All in all, this isn’t the worst Prime Reading book I’ve read, but it isn’t the best.

The House Party by Mary Grand (2020)


And onto the next one… The House Party sounds like it’s going to be classic And Then There Were None territory, doesn’t it? Well, sadly, it isn’t. The eponymous party is simply the backdrop to the first chapter – all of which takes place outside the party rather than actually in it. The party in question is a housewarming for Kathleen and Patrick’s fancy new house, and all their friends are having a great time. Kathleen isn’t, though, and she takes time out to talk to her mild-mannered friend Beth (who is the novel’s protagonist) about what’s bothering her. Of course, she doesn’t give quite enough detail – she just says that someone at the party has been threatening her, and that she’s worried they know her big secret – so when she turns up dead shortly afterwards, Beth doesn’t have a lot to go on. The party itself isn’t really an important plot point, but it serves to provide a list of suspects. I’ll admit that there was a lot here that didn’t work for me (e.g. the murderer is really obvious, and there’s a very odd eBay link embedded into the text for some reason), but I did like the main character. I enjoyed seeing Beth coming into her own as she insisted on pursuing the truth, despite all her friends telling her to let it drop. Other than that, this one didn’t really do it for me. Like One by One, there weren’t a lot of surprises with this one.

The Arrangement by Miranda Rijks (2020)


I really can’t explain what happened next. I have a towering to-read pile, and I only read One by One and The House Party because of my And Then There Were None thing. I don’t know why I went on to read The Arrangement, which certainly didn’t give any indication that it would be something along those lines. It’s a domestic thriller that touches on the world of sugar daddies/babies. But it isn’t The Arrangement by Robyn Harding (the ‘master of domestic suspense), which is set in the world of sugar daddies/babies. It’s a different The Arrangement. Between this and One by One, I feel like I’ve stumbled into the mockbuster section of Prime Reading (you know, like watching I Am Omega when you meant to watch I Am Legend, which wouldn’t be a bad thing – I Am Omega is great). I don’t have a huge amount to say about The Arrangement (the one I read), as it’s a fairly pedestrian thriller with an unremarkable conclusion. It’s another book marketed as having a ‘stunning twist’, when, in fact, it just has a standard reveal. Divorced mother-of-two Grace is devastated when her daughter Abi is murdered while on holiday in South Africa. The police believe it was a random attack by a drug addict, but when Grace discovers Abi was working as a sugar baby, she suspects there’s more to her daughter’s death. At least she has her oldest friends by her side to support her, eh? Not a strong recommendation.

Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill (2010)


I decided to switch from domestic thrillers to darker fare next, when I returned to my towering Abominable Books pile. The first one I chose from the pile was one of the ‘bonus’ (secondhand) books that come with the monthly subscription. Surprisingly enough, I hadn’t read Nevill’s Apartment 16 before. I’m very glad I have done now, though, as I really enjoyed it. The book’s protagonists are Apryl, a young American woman who has unexpectedly inherited a swanky London flat from an estranged great aunt, and Seth, a night porter who works in the building in which the flat is found. However, the book’s main character is really the apartment building itself. I completely fell in love with Barrington House! It’s an ostensibly upmarket block in one of the more expensive areas of London – a number of the flats belong to rich foreign businessmen and various upper class types. But what we actually see of Barrington House is an unsettling shadow of (probably) former glory. The flat Apryl inherits is gloomy and outdated, and it’s filled with the debris hoarded by her great aunt. Other flats that we ‘see’ reveal a similar story. The staff accommodation – what we see of it – is cramped, overheated and oppressive. And then there’s Apartment 16… this flat has been emptied for over 50 years, but the place has a strange effect on night porter Seth. I was definitely captivated by this setting, and the reveal of Apartment 16’s history was suitably chilling and unpleasant.

The Last House on Needless Street (2021)


I’m torn with this one. It was the featured book in the March Abominable Books box. It looks amazing, and it’s certainly had a lot of high praise. And that’s kind of the first problem… This is undoubtedly the most over-hyped book I’ve read in a long time. The hardback edition has FIVE pages of gushingly OTT blurbs from writers including Stephen King, Joanne Harris and Adam Nevill, describing the book as the most exciting thing they’ve ever read, better than Shirley Jackson, the best book since Gone Girl, etc. etc. No book could live up to that, and The Last House on Needless Street certainly doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully written, and it has several wonderfully-realized unreliable narrators (always a key to my heart). But the story itself is pretty mundane and predictable. Ted is a loner who lives in the eponymous house, sharing his life with a young girl he calls his daughter and his cat (who sometimes narrates). Dee is a troubled woman searching for her sister Lulu, who disappeared a decade earlier. The book sets us up for one story, before revealing that something else is going on. The author includes an earnest afterword and bibliography about that something else, stating that she wanted to write sensitively about a horror cliché. However, in order to do that, the book falls back on probably the most clichéd trope of the genre. The Last House on Needless Street is good, but it’s not Shirley Jackson good.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

My Year in Books 2021: March

Well... this is definitely a longer post than last month's! I've read a few more novels this month than in February, mostly due to me finding a new series I like and binge-reading most of it.

So here come my mini-reviews of the books I read in March, and in case you're interested, here are the other posts so far from this year: January, February

The Boatman's Daughter by Andy Davidson (2020)


I’ve fallen really behind with my Abominable Book Club reading (that’s the amazing monthly horror book box that I subscribe to). I’ve got a few months’ worth of books from them to read – all of which look great – and so I thought I’d make a start on catching up this month. The first one I read was the featured book a couple of months ago. The Boatman’s Daughter is the story of Miranda Crabtree (the daughter of the title). It begins with Miranda accompanying her dad on a job – he is taking the local ‘witch’ out to perform some clandestine service for Billy Cotton, the local (unhinged) preacher. Things take a pretty unpleasant turn early on, setting in motion a dark tale in which Miranda is forced to take on horrible work for horrible people, before realizing that things have to change if she’s going to ensure her survival (and the survival of those she cares for). That plot summary is a bit rubbish, to be honest, but I don’t want to give too much away. The dark, unsettling pleasure of The Boatman’s Daughter lies in its feel as much as its plot. The book is Southern Gothic, but in the best possible way. It’s full of sleazy darkness, the oozing murk of the bayou, and crumbling old buildings that house really nasty secrets. And, like all good horrors, the shadowy supernatural threats are utterly overshadowed by the human ones. It’s darkly lush and really quite compelling. Definitely recommend this.

Deity by Matt Wesolowski (2020)


The next book I read was also from the Abominable Book Club, but it was actually the featured book in this month’s parcel. Despite still having some books to catch up on, I couldn’t wait to read Deity. It appeared to have been written especially for me. Deity is the fifth book in Wesolowski’s Six Stories series (though you don’t need to have read the others). The series premise is that online journalist Scott King presents a podcast exploring the darker mysteries of the online world. Each story is presented through six interviews, each offering a different perspective. It’s Rashomon for the internet age. I was completely intrigued by this premise (and if you’ve read my blogs before you’ll know how much I adore unreliable narrators/narratives). And I was not wrong to be intrigued – this book was absolutely right up my street. Deity has Scott King explore the case of Zach Crystal, an enigmatic pop star who died amid a flurry of #MeToo allegations. The book came out in late 2020, and it’s understandably been described as ‘timely’. It opens with epigraphs from books about Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson, but I suspect they were added shortly before publication. Wesolowski’s Zach Crystal is an amalgamation of elements inspired by other pop culture stories (not least a certain iconic pop star who was… bad?), but with a very British backstory. Deity is incredibly readable, and I loved it. And I bought the rest of the series the minute I’d finished it!

Shame on You by Amy Heydenrych (2017)


For reasons best left unsaid, I jumped away from my Abominable Book pile and grabbed the first eBook to hand. This next one was on Prime Reading, and I chose it because the blurb looked the most intriguing of the available titles (and I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to do that again). Heydenrych’s novel is about Holly Evans, a lifestyle influencer who has amassed large numbers of followers on Instagram and YouTube. Holly posts food videos, espousing a vegan, raw food, clean eating diet that – raise your eyebrows here – she says helped to her to beat cancer without the aid of chemotherapy or other chemical intervention. However, Shame on You doesn’t start with Holly’s rise to social media fame. It starts with a dishevelled and bleeding Holly stumbling into McDonald’s one night after being attacked. What could have led to this? And is Holly’s social media life somehow to blame? Actually… you don’t have to read very much of the book to find out the answers to this, as the circumstances of the attack and the motivation of the attacker become apparent very early on. Sadly, what isn’t said outright in the first couple of chapters is pretty easy to deduce. Shame on You has an interesting premise, but the execution is rather pedestrian and lacking in surprise (unless you count my surprise that, despite knowing her attacker has been in her flat, Holly never once considers calling a locksmith). Not a strong recommendation from me.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski (2016)


So after that slightly random departure, I went back to Matt Wesolowski’s series and started at the beginning. Six Stories is Wesolowski’s debut novel and the first in a series of (at the current time) five books. It was little weird reading Six Stories having already read Deity, though I can’t explain exactly why that was without giving a major spoiler. This did make me wonder what it would’ve been like to pick up Six Stories without any preconceptions, but it also made me realize that this is a series that can stand being read out of sequence. Six Stories follows the same format as Deity – a mystery is explored and discussed via interviews on a podcast, and each of the six chapters is an ‘episode’ of the show. The mystery here is the death of teenage Tom Jeffries, who disappeared during a trip to Scarclaw Fell and whose body was found a year later. Podcast host Scott King speaks with people who knew Tom, or who were involved in the case, to try and get to the truth of the case. There’s plenty here about the complexity and nuance of teen dynamics, but also a healthy dose of sinister folklore and urban legend, particularly focused around the supposedly supernatural threats that lurk on Scarclaw Fell. The mystery here held, perhaps, fewer surprises than Deity (and some things were quite obvious early on), but the way the story is told is just captivating, and I really couldn’t put it down.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski (2017)


After Six Stories, I went straight into the second book, Hydra. And I think this one is my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. Following the same format as the other books, Hydra sees Scott King look into the ‘Macleod Massacre’ of 2014. A young woman named Arla Macleod killed her family in a shocking and frenzied attack. She was found guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility and sent to a secure unit. But why did Arla do it? Is ‘psychosis’ enough of an explanation? Spoiler alert: no, ‘psychosis’ is not enough of an explanation, and the book does an admirable job of attempting to cut through some of the panic induced by the word (though I will say, as a minor criticism, it doesn’t go far enough and still relies on the idea that ‘psychosis’ only exists in the super-scary hallucinations-and-violent-delusions flavour, ignoring the somewhat more mundane breaks from reality that are more common). That said, I enjoyed the way the book’s fictional podcaster pushed to get under the skin of Arla’s story, revealing some pretty horrible things in the end. While Six Stories and Deity cloak their stories with a folk horror fog, Hydra draws on urban legends, creepypastas and internet games (Black-Eyed Kids, the Korean Elevator Game). It was also nice to see the first appearance of Wesolowski’s own antichrist superstar Skexxixx, who appears in Deity as well. This fictional character is turning out to be way more sympathetic than his real-life counterpart!

Changeling by Matt Wesolowski (2018)


I really have just ploughed on with Wesolowski’s series, haven’t I? I’m finding them a bit moreish! And I’m now really not sure whether Hydra is still my favourite, or whether it’s been usurped by Changeling. I’m definitely noticing some themes that run through the Six Stories series as well. While the mysteries in each book have a hint of the supernatural, they all have a very human heart, dealing with social issues that are both current and, sadly, deep-rooted. There’s a recurrent sympathizing with the disenfranchised – particularly children in care – and an implicit criticism of just how much of blind eye is turned when someone is exhibiting behavioural problems indicative of trauma. But all the books also reveal a fascination with both traditional and contemporary folklore and, strikingly, terrifying forests. Changeling has all of this in spades: podcaster Scott King investigates a thirty-year-old missing child case. One night in 1988, little Alfie Marsden went missing from his dad’s car on the edge of Wentshire Forest Pass (and Wentshire joins Six Stories’ Scarclaw Fell and Deity’s Crystal Forest as a place of sylvan terror and folk legend). But there’s more to the story than just the threat of the forest’s fair folk. I’ll admit to spotting the secret here, though I wasn’t totally sure that it was really going to go where I suspected. But it did, and the ending packed the punch I was anticipating. As with the other books in the series, I couldn’t put this one down.