Song for a Thursday – Won’t Get Fooled Again

Because.

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Filler content with metropolitan etchings

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #38:-

THE ETCHED CITY: K. J. BISHOP

Tor pb, 332pp, £10.99

Gwynn and the healer Raule were once comrades in an army of freedom fighters, but now they are fugitives, constantly on the move to keep that vital one step ahead of their enemies. Thrown together by force of circumstance they flee the Copper Country for parts unknown, ending up in the city state of Ashamoil, where Raule finds work caring for the poor at a charity hospital, while Gwynn is employed by Elm, a crime lord whose main business is trafficking in human slaves. Gwynn buys an etching of a city scene, charmed by the fact that he himself appears in it, and sets out to learn the whereabouts of the mysterious artist. Her name is Beth and the two begin a passionate affair, but there is something strange and otherworldly about her, so that Gwynn never feels secure in their love and this feeling of dislocation casts a wider net. Ashamoil itself is subject to eerie visitations, with natural law perverted, signs and portents on every street corner, foretelling a crisis for the Elm’s organisation and personal tragedy which will plunge both Gwynn and Raule into deadly peril.

Reading this put me somewhat in mind of King’s Dark Tower milieu, through its use of gunslingers and a comparative level of technology, though Bishop is a superior prose stylist and her agenda (possibly) far more subtle. The plot hangs together perfectly, with every detail fitting into the whole and elements of the everyday and mystery intricately laced together, and there is a compelling subtext taking on the nature of art and faith, love and duty, sacrifice and redemption, seen most obviously in the conversations that take place between Gwynn and Rev, a priest who has taken on himself the task of saving the gunfighter’s soul. The characters are beautifully drawn, with Elm and his gang of miscreants brought to vibrant life on the page. They are undoubtedly criminals and people we would normally seek to avoid, but the author makes them seem strangely appealing, humane even by their own lights. In addition Bishop brings consummate skill to her depictions of places and events, making it all seem somehow wonderful, even the most ordinary happening, while she demonstrates an especial flair for writing set pieces packed with action, giving us such memorable scenes as the fight in the ruined city, the visit to an isolated ‘resort hotel’, and the full scale battle on a bridge between Elm’s gang and the forces of law and order. Her planning is meticulous and the attention to detail cannot be faulted. The end result of all this care and concern is a novel that, while obviously indebted to the whole body of generic fantasy, is a singular and remarkable work of imagination, dazzling with its insights and the sheer beauty of the prose in which they are framed, a small masterpiece by a writer of considerable talent who is destined to go on to bigger and better things if The Etched City is anything to judge by.

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2014: The Story So Far – Third Quarter

Back in July I did a list of my favourite books of the year so far, and as we’re now in November it’s way past time for another update.

For the months July through September, I began and/or finished a total of twenty nine books.

So, in the order I preferred them when I wrote the list ten minutes ago (and, of course, it may be subject to change), here’s my top thirteen books for 2014 so far, with new entries shown in bold:-

The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker (Pocket Books)

The Road – Cormac McCarthy (Picador)

The Three – Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

Dark Father – James Cooper (DarkFuse)

The Broken Ones – Stephen M. Irwin (Anchor Books)

Where Furnaces Burn – Joel Lane (PS Publishing)

Everything You Need – Michael Marshall Smith (Earthling Publications)

The Race – Nina Allan (NewCon Press)

The Unquiet House - Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Murder – Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)

Monsters in the Heart – Stephen Volk (Gray Friar Press)

The Lord Came at Twilight – Daniel Mills (Dark Renaissance Books)

Film Freak – Christopher Fowler (Doubleday)

That breaks down as eight novels, four collections and one autobiography, with Jo Fletcher Books the only publisher to appear twice.

And, although they’re both included in my tally for the year, I haven’t taken into consideration Carole Johnstone’s novella Cold Turkey, as it’s published by TTA Press, or Dana Gioia’s poetry collection The Gods of Winter, as I’ve read it umpteen times before.

And, of course, many of these titles were first published in 2013, if not earlier, so it is a ‘best of Pete’s reading’ rather than ‘best of the year’.

Check back early in 2015 to see which of these titles remain.

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Song for a Saturday – Bring Him Home

Something with a little class:-

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Filler content with gifts

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #36:-

NICOLO’S GIFTS

Neil Ayres

Bluechrome pb, 273pp, £7.99

reviewed by Peter Tennant

This release from new kid on the block Bluechrome is certainly a nice piece of merchandise, with generous layout and appealing line drawings by Kathryn Thorpe, but what about the story?

Nicolo is the son of a British mother and an Italian father. As a child living in Mexico he bears witness to how outsiders are often treated, looking on as disabled children are bullied by others, an event that comes to echo Nicolo’s own end. As a young man he works in Italy at his uncle’s gift shop, but his heart yearns to travel and he is afforded the opportunity to do so as a Mafia courier, an escapade from which he barely escapes with his life. Nicolo throws in his lot with Pavel, a young man from Russian Karelia, and the two travel together, eventually ending up in Turkey, where Nicolo meets and falls in love with British backpacker Sandra. The three of them go back to the UK together, Sandra resuming her career as a teacher and Nicolo following various odd jobs. Eventually they marry, but then Nicolo contracts a debilitating illness. Interwoven with this are the complementary stories of the other people in their lives, Pavel and his career as a wildlife photographer, Sandra’s best friend Alice who is unhappily married to comic book artist Matthew, and so on.

This is an ambitious book, attempting to take in all of life, but also one that is flawed. My first problem has to do with the actual writing. Reading this I get the impression that the author is acutely conscious of his prose style and perhaps trying a little too hard for effect. Each sentence seems to have been fashioned with an eye on the need to avoid cliché, and sometimes the results are quite stunning, with a phrasing that seems to capture perfectly the experience he is describing or throw new light on familiar subject matter, but equally there are many moments that disrupt the narrative flow with formulations that seem needlessly contrived when something simpler would have served far better. Nor does the writer seem particularly comfortable when dealing with action sequences, resorting to a fast forward approach every time these are necessary.

My biggest problem though is to do with the structure. Ayres is at his best when dealing with ordinary events and emotions. He has a gift for getting under the skin of his characters and making them come to life, capturing both their virtues and vulnerabilities, with events such as the break-up of Alice’s marriage and its effect on the children, the relationship between Nicolo and Sandra, Pavel’s attempts to deal with his homosexuality all portrayed in terms that are both savagely real and deeply moving. As a mainstream novel of character Nicolo’s Gifts might have been wholly admirable, but instead attempts are made to produce something more ambitious than this, a book that casts a wide net, a sort of uber-text complete with add-ons from folklore and world literature, so that every so often the narrative flow is disrupted by mock-Aesopian fables, tales within tales that are intended to illuminate events but actually have the opposite effect of distracting from the main story. Elsewhere we have plot strands that never get developed to a logical conclusion, are simply mooted and then forgotten. We never learn why the Mafiosa’s wife gave Nicolo the address of a police station to deliver stolen art to, or the name of the illness that destroys his life, or indeed what exactly his gifts are. At various intervals throughout the book mention is made of Connor, an up and coming musician (and Ayres is superb at capturing the joys of live performance). Connor commits suicide, but his parents are unhappy with this verdict and so the detective agency Nicolo works for is hired to investigate, after which we hear absolutely nothing more about him. Life is, of course, full of such loose ends, but I can’t help feeling literature should be a bit more self-contained.

The failings of ambition are the easiest to overlook, but I believe that if an editor with the talent to match Ayres’ vision had been entrusted with Nicolo’s Gifts and worked with him something truly remarkable could have been produced. As it is, what we have is a possible blueprint for excellence rather than the thing itself.

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Filler content with an urban setting

Here’s a review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #35:-

IN SPRINGDALE TOWN

Robert Freeman Wexler

PS Publishing pb, 94pp, £10

reviewed by Peter Tennant

Wexler’s work will be familiar to readers of TTA from his story ‘The Golden Legend’ in an earlier issue (aka the talking bread story), and this novella shares some of the quirky effects and off the wall humour that made that piece so special, though their use is not quite as effective.

Vaguely dissatisfied with his life, actor Richard Shelling buys a house in the idyllic rural community of Springdale, also the name of the town in a soap opera where he once had a walk on part as lawyer Patrick Travis. He is quietly amused when the locals call him Patrick and act as if he is somebody they know, but as the story continues a series of increasingly bizarre events lead him to the conclusion that something has gone seriously awry. In alternating short chapters we follow the story of the real Patrick Travis, also returned to Springdale to attend the wedding of old friends, but haunted by the memory of his past in the town and a failed marriage to which its people bore witness. His reality also crumbles, as the façade of Springdale is torn down and a deeper truth laid bare.

Like Gore Vidal’s Duluth though not as pointedly this novella blurs the boundaries between reality and the world of soap opera, which for so many can come to seem equally valid, but whereas Vidal’s novel was metaphysically slanted Wexler is more concerned to explore the inner lives of his characters, using the landscape as a tapestry on which their emotional crises can be played out, as each of them seeks a meaning beyond their own lives. For the length of the journey this is a sometimes fascinating and often surreal narrative, offering us complementary character studies, but with little attempt to fit these into any greater scheme of things, something that you or I would recognise as rationally grounded. Wexler’s writing is curiously detached, and there is no sense that we really get to know the characters, which possibly may be one of the points he is making, as at times they don’t seem to know themselves. He emphasises this through the novel trick of having sidebars which throw light on the text and impart to the reader information that may or may not be relevant.

This is an ambitious work given the novella length, and that perhaps is one of its shortcomings, in that the ideas explored here are only touched on and deserved investigation in much greater depth. The major problem for me though is that for all its perceived complexity in the end In Springdale Town is too easily reduced to one of SF’s oldest clichés, the man displaced in time who must never meet himself for fear of cataclysmic repercussions.

File under ambitious failure rather than qualified success.

In Springdale Town has an eye catching cover by Edward Miller and an introduction by Lucius Shepard.

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Trailer Trash – What We Do in the Shadows

I like the idea of a vampire mockumentary, and I love the title, but…

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