Monday, 30 December 2013

Book Review | End of the Road, ed. Jonathan Oliver

Each step leads you closer to your destination, but who, or what, can you expect to meet along the way? 

Here are stories of misfits, spectral hitch-hikers, nightmare travel tales and the rogues, freaks and monsters to be found on the road. The critically acclaimed editor of MagicThe End of The Line and House of Fear has brought together the contemporary masters and mistresses of the weird from around the globe in an anthology of travel tales like no other. Strap on your seatbelt, or shoulder your backpack, and wait for that next ride... into darkness.

An incredible anthology of original short stories from an exciting list of writers including the bestselling Philip Reeve, the World Fantasy Award-winning Lavie Tidhar and the incredible talents of S. L. Grey, Ian Whates, Jay Caselberg, Banjanun Sriduangkaew, Zen Cho, Sophia McDougall, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Anil Menon, Rio Youers, Vandana Singh, Paul Meloy, Adam Nevill and Helen Marshall.


For his fourth anthology for Solaris, a sister of sorts to 2010's very fine The End of the Line, editor Jonathan Oliver has turned to the road story: a genre, as he explains in his insightful introduction, widely mined in film and literature alike — in epic fantasy, for instance, insofar as the road represents the length of the hero's quest — though the fifteen short fictions which follow show that the form has much more to offer.

Thanks in part to Lavie Tidhar, whose guidance Oliver acknowledges, End of the Road is composed of stories from an expansive assortment of authors; some familiar, some fresh. The former camp includes Adam Nevill, S. L. Grey, Rio Youers, Philip Reeve, Ian Whates and, indubitably, Tidhar too; in the latter, a goodly number of newcomers hailing from here, there and everywhere. To wit, tales from Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Thailand and the like lend End of the Road a welcome and indeed defining sense of diversity.

The score and more of stories to be told can be divided down the middle, into those that revolve around the road, and those that are more interested in where the road goes. As the aforementioned editor asserts, "destination (expected or otherwise) is a theme running throughout this anthology, but often it is the journey itself that is key to the tales. And that needn't be a physical journey (though, naturally, the majority of these stories do feature one); the journey into the self is also explored in various ways." (p.7)

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Book Review | The Silence of Ghosts by Jonathan Aycliffe

When the Blitz starts in London, Dominic Lancaster, injured out of service at the battle of Narvik, accompanies his 10 year old sister Octavia to the family house on the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District. Octavia is profoundly deaf but at night she can hear disturbing noises in the house. When questioned by Dominic as to what she can hear, she replies: "voices."

Two nights later she comes into his bedroom to tell him that the dead children in the house want them to leave. And then Octavia falls mysteriously ill... during her sickness she tells Dominic he must go to the attic. There, he releases an older, darker evil that threatens the lives of Olivia and himself.


When Dominic Lancaster goes to war as a gunner about the HMS Hotspur, it's a chance for him to show his family — who have dismissed him to date as a dreadful disappointment — that he may well be worthy of their legacy: a successful port importing business which Dominic stands to inherit after his father's passing.

Instead, he becomes one of the first casualties of the conflict when he loses his leg at the Battle of Narvik. His subsequent recovery is tough; tough enough that Dominic's parents dispatch him to Hallinhag House in the little village of Ullswater... ostensibly to give him a peaceful place to recuperate, but in truth, as Dominic determines, so that he isn't underfoot when the Blitz begins.

He's not alone in the Lancasters' holiday home. For one thing, his ten-year-old sister Octavia is with him. Profoundly deaf for the larger part of her little life, she's another distraction to be disdained at every stage by a pair of appalling parents, but somehow Hallinhag House seems to be improving her hearing. The sounds she starts to hear, however, are of nothing natural.
The house seems more than quiet. Downcast. Full of memories. No, that's wrong. It's full of forgettings. All the years that have gone, and I know so little of the men and women who spent time here, even though they were my ancestors. When I have been here before, the house has seemed filled with light; but that was always the summer and it is winter now. Perhaps the house has picked up on my mood, sensed by new vulnerability, and knows how useless I am. Can houses sense what we feel? Do they feed off all the emotions that have been experienced between their walls? Octavia says there are ghosts here. I admonish her, and I watch her when she comes to this room. She might be serious, but I doubt it. She has no names for these ghosts. Maybe they are silent, like her. (p.29)
Initially, Dominic has little time for such frivolousness, because he too has his sights set on getting better; on learning to walk once more, first and foremost. Assisting him in this is the district nurse, Rose, a beautiful young woman who treats him with care and kindness. It isn't long before Dominic falls for her, though there will be no flings in the future he foresees.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Book Review | Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Twelve years ago, the small town of Coventry, Massachusetts was in the grasp of a particularly brutal winter. And then came the Great Storm.

It hit hard. Not everyone saw the spring. Today the families, friends and lovers of the victims are still haunted by the ghosts of those they lost so suddenly. If only they could see them one more time, hold them close, tell them they love them.

It was the deadliest winter in living memory... until now.

When a new storm strikes, it doesn't just bring snow and ice, it brings the people of Coventry exactly what they've been wishing for. And the realisation their nightmare is only beginning.


Winter is upon us, and with it, inklings of Christmas.

There is no finer time, I find, for families and friends to get together, to share warmth and wine — mulled or otherwise — over stories of sleds and snowmen... all while a blanket of white settles softly upon the trees and streets outside.

But we all know that winter can be wicked as well; a season as cruel as it is cold. At its worst, winter, and the nightmarish things it brings, can kill. And in Snowblind by Christopher Golden, it does... or indeed they do.

"They were like wraiths, jagged, frozen bogeymen, and they whirled about on crushing gusts of wind." (pp.280-281) In the promising prologue of Golden's new novel — a prolonged piece set some years before the bulk of the book — these obscene creatures take eighteen souls young and old: a tragedy that tears apart the small Massachusetts community of Coventry.

A decade and change later, the survivors still struggle. And not just because they are haunted by hellish memories of that dark and stormy night:
Everything in Coventry — hell, the whole country — had gone downhill. The talking heads on TV said the economy was improving, but most of the guys he knew were still scared shitless that their jobs might evaporate out from underneath them. Either that or they were already unemployed. 
Doug himself was just barely hanging on. (p.55)

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Status Update | A Lion King Christmas

I don't know about you, but with Christmas day just a week away, I'm finally feeling festive.

Not least because last night I realised a dream more than a decade in the making, when the entirety of my family got together to attend a performance of The Lion King live. Simba's spotty performance did not ultimately undermine what was a wonderful show overall; a real visual feast that I'm so pleased to have seen.

I've been humming 'Be Prepared' ever since leaving the theatre, and this morning it occurred to me that I could do worse things in life than take Scar's advice.

Which is my way of saying that though I'm usually one of the very first folks to bang on about the year's best books — Top of the Scots has in the past happened in early December — in 2013 my other obligations have regrettably had to take precedence. I've had to stockpile columns, including this morning's edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, and ready a fair few reviews to run on over the holidays. Truth be told, I've been so busy in November and December to date that it only just hit me that Christmas is coming.

And you know what? I want to enjoy it, so instead of spending the few days remaining to me this year putting together Top of the Scots, I'm going to give myself over to the Christmas spirit. To wit, I warrant you won't be hearing a whole lot from me over the holidays, but when I do get back to blogging, it will be worth the wait. Scots honour!

For a sneak peek at a few of my favourites, check out the Reviewers' Choice, in which I count down the three best British books I've read in 2013. I've contributed to another end of year feature as well: Strange Horizons has a few hundred words from me about the books I've gotten most lost in this year.

Now to lose myself in festive merriment...

You all have a brilliant Christmas, and a happy New Year, you hear?

Monday, 16 December 2013

Book Review | The Woman in Black: Angel of Death by Martyn Waites

Autumn 1940, World War Two, the Blitz. Bombs are raining down, destroying the cities of Britain. In London, children are being removed from their families and taken to the country for safety.

Teacher Eve Parkins is in charge of one such group, and her destination is an empty and desolate house that appears to be sinking into the treacherous tidal marshes that surround it. Far from home and with no alternative, Eve and the children move in, but soon it becomes apparent that there is someone else in the house; someone who is far deadlier than any number of German bombs...


What a wonderful ghost story The Woman in Black was! Who, who has read the original 1983 novella, could possibly have forgotten the fate of Susan Hill's determined central character, the solicitor Arthur Kipps — not to mention his unfortunate family? Who, I ask you, slept soundly after having heard tell of the tragedy of Jennet Humfrye, the half-mad mother who saw her only son sucked into the murderous muck of the causeway connecting her home to the eerie village of Crythin Gifford? Who, in the end, could hold her haunting of Eel Marsh House against her?

Over the course of The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, I came to, I'm afraid. In this "fully authorised" sort-of-sequel, though it be blessedly brief, her "bleached-bone" features appear so frequently that she seemed little less chilling, not to mention sympathetic, than the wilting wallpaper which adorns the walls of the ancient estate where at the outset our hapless protagonist is dispatched.

Forty-odd years on from the events of the darkly fantastic classic this new book purports to take its cues from, the Blitz is in full swing. Eve Parkins, a trainee teacher, removes a class of children from the dangers of living in London — and from the comfort of their families, it follows — to a mouldering old mansion in the countryside where weird things start happening immediately.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Book Review | S. by J. J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.

The book: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V.M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.

The writer: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumors that swirl around him.

The readers: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears.

Conceived by filmmaker J. J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, S. is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand. It is also a love letter to the written word.


S. is not what you think it is.

From the moment you slit open the slipcase — the same slipcase that bears the only explicit admission of J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst's involvement — and slit it you will, in an act of introductory destruction that implicates us in the worst impulses of the characters we'll meet in a moment — from the second, then, that we see what waits within, there is the suspicion that S. is not so much a novel as it is an object. A lavish literary artefact.

But also an artefact of art. Of passion. Of intellect. Of ambition. Of all these things and so much more, in the form of a metafiction so meticulous and considered and meaningful, finally, that House of Leaves may very well have been bettered — and I don't make that statement lightly.

What awaits, in any case, is an unassuming clothbound book called Ship of Theseus. The author: a V. M. Straka, apparently. On the spine is stuck a library sticker, complete with an authentic Dewey Decimal reference. BOOK FOR LOAN is emblazoned on the endpapers, and on the backboard, below a record of the dates it's been borrowed on — Ship of Theseus has been untouched, we see, for thirteen years — an apocalyptic warning from the library to KEEP THIS BOOK CLEAN; that "borrowers finding this book pencil-marked, written upon, mutilated or unwarrantably defaced, are expected to report it to the librarian."

The title page makes a mockery of all this. Lightly pencilled in is an instruction to return the book to such-and-such a workroom in the library of Pollard State University. Then, in pen, a note from Jen, who responds as follows: "Hey — I found your stuff while I was shelving. (Looks like you left in a hurry!) I read a few chapters + loved it. Felt bad about keeping the book from you, since you obviously need it for your work. Have to get my own copy!"

Suffice it to say she doesn't. Instead, Jen and the other scribbler, who eventually introduces himself as Eric — though that's not his real name either — compare their notes about the novel, making an immediate mess of the margins. See, irrespective of the resulting small caps scrawl, Ship of Theseus is something of a puzzle...

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Book Review | The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

Tonight is a special, terrible night.

A woman sits at her father's bedside watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters — all traumatised in their own ways, their bonds fragile — have been there for the past week, but now she is alone.

And that's always when it comes.

As the clock ticks in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her...


In my review of Mayhem, published this past spring, I suggested that generations hence, people will revere this as the year of Sarah Pinborough. With six of her books published in the six months since, I think my argument still stands. There was Poison, Charm and Beauty too — a trio of neat novellas riffing on familiar fairy tales with such warmth and wit that Once Upon a Time seems shallow and artless in comparison — whilst the final volume of her first trilogy, The Forgotten Gods, will be re-released in North America in early December, as the previous books in said series have been throughout 2013.

It falls to The Language of Dying to bring the year of Sarah Pinborough to a conclusion, and the postscript it presents is both bittersweet and truly beautiful. It's a life-affirming short novel about a tired old man waiting to die and the family of five that come together to bid him goodbye, and though I did not enjoy it at all, from first to last I admired The Language of Dying wholeheartedly.

It begins, as will we, with this:
There is a language to dying. It creeps like a shadow alongside the passing years and the taste of it hides in the corners of our mouths. It finds us whether we are sick or healthy. It is a secret hushed thing that lives in the whisper of the nurses' skirts as they rustle up and down our stairs. They've taught me to face the language one syllable at a time, slowing creating an unwilling meaning. 
Cheyne-Stoking. (p.1)
In other words a common consequence of chain smoking; as is the terminal lung cancer our unnamed narrator's father has. He's been struggling for months, falling further and further from the waking world for weeks, and with only her to help; meanwhile she, as we'll see, has issues of her own — not least the fear that she simply doesn't fit. To her credit, however, she's been with him since the beginning of this... and she'll see it through to the end as well.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | Smugglivus and the Future of Speculative Fiction

Today, it's my pleasure to point you all in the direction of a post I wrote recently that, in a turn up for the textbooks, wasn't for either The Speculative Scotsman or

We'll talk more about my plans for Top of the Scots 2013 in time, but rest assured that I have been devoting a lot of thought to the prospect of the blog going forward, not least how to handle our annual accounting of the best books and movies and video games of the previous year. 

Indeed, I've been thinking so seriously about these things that when I received an email from Ana and Thea about contributing for the third time in three years to their festive feature, I decided to do something a little different.

To wit, this morning on The Book Smugglers, an overview of the most exciting science fiction and fantasy forthcoming in 2014... according to me, at least:
Fantasy fans have Fall of Light to look forward to, the second volume of The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson. The mighty mind behind Malazan also has another new novel on the cards — a spacefaring farce with the working title Willful Child — which brings us neatly to our next category: the science fiction of the future! 
The Echo by James Smythe will be the first such specimen to arrive. I’d had the pleasure of reading this one already, so I can say with certainty that it’s a fully realised sequel which takes what was great about The Explorer and makes it bigger, better, and still more momentous. Meanwhile a second Smythe is poised to be published in the UK in late May: No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is about something called ClearVista, a revolutionary new technology which purports to predict probabilities.
Please do pop on over to The Book Smugglers' blog to read the rest of the post, and if you like, let us know what you and yours are looking forward to reading next year.

And hey: hang around! Not just because Smugglivus is always a bunch of fun — though, you know, it is — but because this week alone there will be guest posts by some of the very finest of my fellow bloggers, including Jared of Pornokitsch, Stefan Raets of Far Beyond Reality, and Justin Landon of Staffer's Book Review

Good reading: guaranteed.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Book Review | The Waking That Kills by Stephen Gregory

The ghosts that haunt us are not always strangers...

When his elderly father suffers a stroke, Christopher Beale returns to England. He has no home, no other family. Adrift, he answers an advert for a live-in tutor for a teenage boy. The boy is Lawrence Lundy, who possesses the spirit of his father, a military pilot — missing, presumed dead. Unable to accept that his father is gone, Lawrence keeps his presence alive in the big old house and the overgrown garden. His mother, Juliet, keeps the boy at home, away from other children, away from the world; and in the suffocating heat of a long summer, she too is infected by the madness of her son.

Christopher becomes entangled in the strange household, enmeshed in the oddness of the boy and his fragile mother. Only by forcing the boy to release the spirit of his father can he find any escape from the haunting.


We may not know why, or when, or for what, but we will all, in our lives, lose someone we love.

Loss is not the whole of the story, of course. All too often, death itself is shocking, awful, to say nothing of the terrible tales that culminate there, but it's only when we let go — of the memory, the expectation, the guilt or need or even relief — it's only then than we begin to come to terms with the end.

Before The Waking That Kills is over, teacher Christopher Beale will have learned to let go of his father. Though his father is still alive at the start of this short novel — Stephen Gregory's first for five years — he is a sad shadow of the man he once was. A monumental mason by trade, which is to say someone who carves names and dates on graves, Christopher's father has had a stroke, and lives now in a nursing home in Grimsby, England; bewildered, bitter and impotent.

Christopher himself has been working in Borneo for seven years or so. It's a credit to his character that he hightails it home when he hears of his father's condition, ostensibly to be there for the man that made him, but he is, alas, distracted; trapped, perhaps, in an increasingly sinister scenario. "From the sweet, seductive, pitcher-plant entrapment of Borneo, to the Lincolnshire wolds" (p.146) he goes, to take a job tutoring a troubled teenager.

When he drives his father's hearse to Chalke House, however, where will live for the length of the sweltering summer that's just begun, Christopher finds that his status as a teacher is in truth a token. Instead, he is to be a friend to Lawrence Lundy first, and a father-figure afterwards, given the accidental death of his dad, whose memory Lawrence refuses to let lie.

He is a hard boy just to befriend, however. And it's clear from the first that he and his mother are keeping secrets from Christopher, though the truth will only out when he grows closer to both...

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Book Review | The Art of Hunting by Alan Campbell

With the Haurstaf decimated, the Unmer have seized the palace at Awl. The Unmer Prince Paulus Marquetta discovers an ally in the blind girl Ianthe, albeit a dangerous one. She has the power to destroy his mind with a single thought.

But Ianthe’s friendship with the Unmer has made her dangerous enemies. The exiled Unmer lord, Argusto Conquillas is determined to challenge the prince and his followers — and kill anyone who gets in his way.

When the disgraced Gravedigger soldier Granger learns of his daughter’s danger, he must use every scrap of his cunning to protect her. Even that may not be enough as the Unmer, in their quest to unlock the secrets of the universe, have made a bargain with a god... a deal that threatens to destroy the world.


The Art of Hunting begins with what must be the most powerful prologue I've read in recent years. Centuries before the events Alan Campbell has resolved to record in The Gravedigger Chronicles, the drowned world whose depths we plumbed previously is as yet a dry and deadly desert. It's particularly deadly on the dark day the prologue takes place because the world is at war: the Unmer and the Haurstaf battle then — as they will battle again — for supremacy over everything.

One side has taken the conflict out of human hands, however, and called upon a god to finish the fight. "Those who fear to utter Duna's name call her Lady of Clay, for it is said her father moulded her and cast her in the furnace that raged at the birth of time." (p.8) Now she rides into the realm astride a massive mount made of nightmarish materiel:
Composed entirely of the bodies of those it had slain [...] its massive limbs were full of mouths and faces and scraps of armour, swords and shields. A great mess of flesh and metal. And yet those bodies from which it was composed were not dead. Hundreds of slaughtered soldiers gazed out from its knees and its shoulders and gnashed their teeth and screamed. (p.9)
In the midst of this we meet one such soldier whose last wish is "to sit in the dirt and drink the last of his rum and think about how he came to be in this dismal hole on the final morning of his life," (p.1) but his reverie is interrupted by the arrival of an archer who appears entirely unfazed by the horrors of war. "He was carrying a white bow carved from a dragon's rib and had a fine and unusual quiver — a black glass cylinder patterned with runes — lashed to his belt." (p.2) This is Conquillas: the hunter whose harrowing art Campbell's new novel is named in honour of. With but his bow and arrows, Conquillas means to destroy Duna.

And as the distant sound of thunder rumbles, he does.