BooksOfTheMoon

Bear Head

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Jimmy Martin is a construction worker on Mars. He’s used to doing a bit of data smuggling in his head to feed his drugs habit, but he’s not used to the data talking back. Jimmy has a fully fledged bear in his mind, and one that wants to talk to the other colonisation effort on Mars. The one nobody wants to admit is there. And Jimmy’s got to along for the ride, whether he likes it or not.

I enjoyed Dogs of War a lot, but I struggled with its sequel. The themes of sanctity of thought and slavery are fully front and centre in this one even more so than its predecessor, this time with added rape. I really hated Jonas Murry, from the first book, but Warner Thomson leaves Murry in his dust. I mean, Tchaikovsky isn’t exactly being subtle here about Thomson’s model here: the empathy-less, narcissistic businessman turned politician, who jumps on whatever right-wing bandwagon is rolling. Every time he turned up, I felt my stress level go up in anticipation of what horror was going to happen to Carole, his PA (and whose PoV we see through in chapters featuring Thomson) and I just wanted to scrub my skin.

This book certainly doesn’t feel as fun as its predecessor. Partly it’s that we don’t get as many bioforms, most of the PoV characters are human (or, at least, humaniform, since the people sent to Mars have been heavily modded to help them survive). Honey, the bear from Dogs of War, is the only Bioform PoV that we get, and she’s older and more worn down than the young, idealistic bear of yesteryear. Jimmy, whose head Honey ends up living in, isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs either. He’s a washed-out, drug-addicted construction worker, mostly there to let other people spout exposition at him.

It’s a depressing, dystopian future that Tchaikovsky has created here, where hard-won freedoms are being eroded, and the Bioforms are finding themselves new targets of old racisms. But it’s the casual way that “Collaring” (basically slavery that makes you permanently loyal to a person or company) is being being promoted by the corporates of this world that depresses me the most. Sure, I can very much believe that rich and powerful people and corporations would jump at a return to slavery, but seeing such an imagined future spelled out is difficult to stomach.

I appreciate the writing and the plot, and the very clever use of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but despite all that, I felt that this was a slog to read, and didn’t really enjoy the experience.

Book details

ISBN: 9781800241565

Snapshots from a Black Hole and Other Oddities

By K.C. Ball

Rating: 3 stars

K. C. Ball is an author I’m unfamiliar with, but I got this collection as part of a Humble Bundle and it’s a good one. It’s a very heterogeneous collection: the author is happy to turn her hand to pretty much any genre and she makes a good go of it. As always, some stories work better for me than others (for a start, I’m not a horror fan, so those weren’t generally fun for me) but there are some gems in the collection.

The title story is interestingly told from an AI perspective and leaves a haunting image in the mind. There are (attempted) alien abduction stories, zombie stories, ghost stories, (kind of) time travel stories and more. My favourite in the collection is probably Flotsam about a disaster in low Earth orbit that happens to a small crew, trying to clean up orbital waste. I like the characters, the believable actions of the corporation and the solution.

There are author’s notes at the end of the book (although I might have liked to have these after each story, while the story is still fresh in my mind, rather than all collected at the end) which are an insight into the author’s mind while she was writing.

The collection shows a talented and versatile author who passed away too young. I will look out for other of her work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780984830114
Publisher: Hydra House Books
Year of publication: 2012

Blackwood

By Hannah Eaton

Rating: 3 stars

This is a story of everyday folk horror. While it obviously takes inspiration from the likes of The Wicker Man (a film I must confess that I’ve never seen), it never goes to such extreme lengths as that does. In fact, with its focus on village life and domestic affairs, it very much feels like the epitome of the banality of evil (I could believe that it’s the Mirror Universe’s version of Ambridge). In a rural England only slightly sideways from our own, there’s been a murder, one that closely parallels a similar murder from 65 years ago. But the villagers aren’t exactly keen to co-operate with the authorities.

Interleaving events in both timelines, it’s a compelling, if somewhat grim, read. While the overt racism of the historical timeline has been suppressed by the present one, it’s been turned into the genteel, very English kind, combined with NIMBY-ism and an inward-looking outlook that fears difference.

The scene of the village council (the “ealders”) meeting in a home living room is possibly one of the most chilling in the book, as they talk usual village council stuff and then casually mention (and joke) about evicting a tenant who’s behind on her rent.

There’s hope in the next generation, as we see the youngest members of our PoV family interested in the outside world and trying their best to effect change, but being hampered by age and powerlessness.

The author spends a lot of time with the police investigation in the past, focussing on their credulousness and willingness to believe the first explanation that comes to mind, so that they can get home to their tea. The modern investigation gets almost no screen time at all, and we don’t really spend any time with them.

The art is all pencil work, with no pens to sharpen it. It’s an odd style, one that I’ve not seen before in a professional work, but it does seem to fit the folk horror style.

Giving a score to a book like this is difficult. I can very much see the artistic merit in it, looking at bigotry in all its mundane forms. It’s got important things to say and is just as relevant in 2021 as it might have been in 1950. But, as a non-white, liberal city-dweller, it left me uncomfortable and depressed. Yes, it made me feel things, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781908434
Publisher: Myriad Editions
Year of publication: 2020

Stories of Hope and Wonder

By Ian Whates

Rating: 4 stars

This collection follows in the footsteps of Flotation Device: A Charity Anthology in being pulled together quickly near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in order to raise money for the NHS in the UK. Floatation Device was the local effort of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, while this was edited by Ian Whates of NewCon Press so has access to a much larger range of writers. There are over fifty stories here, comprising nearly a quarter of a million words. In all that, there are bound to be some that work better for an individual taste than others.

There are stories from across genres: lit-fic, SF, fantasy, horror and more. I’m not really a horror fan so those didn’t really work for me, but there were more than enough others to make up for it. There are stories from well-known names including Stephen Baxter, Christopher Priest, Tade Thomson, Lauren Beukes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter F. Hamilton and many, many more. It’s hard to pick out individual stories in such a large collection, read over so long, but I really enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Wars of Worldcraft (the pun in the title along endeared it to me) and Ian McDonald’s An Eligible Boy, set in the same world as his novel River of Gods.

So if a story doesn’t work for you, just move on, it’s not not like you’re short on choice. And it’s for a good cause.

Book details

Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

Meddling Kids

By Edgar Cantero

Rating: 3 stars

I loved the elevator pitch for this book (basically: Enid Blyton meets H. P. Lovecraft). A group of Famous Five-esque teenage detectives grow up and go back to revisit their last case – it was just a guy in a mask, as always… wasn’t it?

I enjoy the story itself, but like other reviewers on GoodReads, I found the author’s literary ticks distracting. The occasional dropping into screenplay format and meta-textual awareness of being a piece of fiction grated and, for me, didn’t add anything to the story. I found the changes in format and sly winks at the reader distracting and they pulled me out of the story.

The story itself is enjoyable. I read a lot of Enid Blyton when I was young, and loved to see those tropes taken apart and re-examined here (with a bit of Scooby Doo thrown in), as well as the supernatural element. The characters felt real enough to keep me going, despite the author’s antics, with Andy, Kerri and Nate all being drawn well enough to be sympathetic despite their various flaws. Tim(my) the dog was my runaway favourite character though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785658761
Publisher: Titan Books Ltd
Year of publication: 2017

Out Of Space And Time

By Clark Ashton Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I was vaguely aware of Clark Ashton Smith as a collaborator of H. P. Lovecraft but little beyond that, so I thought this collection of short stories might serve to provide a flavour of his work. It did, but not in the way that I’d hoped. Although I enjoyed the first story in the collection, The End of the Story, I could probably have just read that and then stopped. The prose is so purple it heads towards infra-black and the tone is rarely anything other than portentous and pompous, to a degree that I found quite infuriating (but which did mean that the rare flashes of humour were all the more unexpected and welcome).

The work, to an amateur eye, like mine, reads like Lovecraft (on a bad day) but feels quite heavy and kludgy. I did finish the collection and, for what it’s worth, my favourite story of the collection, The Monster of the Prophecy is quite near the end, so I’m (mostly) glad that I got that far. This story concerns a human encounter with an alien and contains one of the aforementioned rare flashes of humour, that made it stand out for me.

On the whole though, whilst tolerable in small doses, I struggled with this one and I won’t be looking out any more by Smith.

Book details

ISBN: 9780803293526
Publisher: Bison Books
Year of publication: 1942

The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files, #7)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

The Laundry Files rumble on and volume 7 is narrated by Alex the vampire PHANG, who first made an appearance in The Rhesus Chart. Here, Alex is sent to Leeds, along with his friend and mentor Pete the Vicar, to scout for a future northern headquarters for the Laundry. What he doesn’t know, is that the city has already been infiltrated by the vanguard of an invasion from another reality and that CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN isn’t the only threat in that spectrum.

Well blimey! I swear that every Laundry book will be the last one that I read (I’m really rather squeamish and horror isn’t my preferred genre. The Laundry got its tentacles into me when it was still masquerading as humorous urban fantasy), and yet every one has enough in it to make me want to read the next. And blimey, what a punch this one made. The last third or so of the book is a full scale running battle, told from multiple viewpoints, as the invading force tries to attack the Laundry headquarters at Quarry House in Leeds, Alex off on his own, probably suicidal, side track and a disastrous decision to trigger MAGINOT BLUE STARS in an urban area.

It really felt like the invaders had the upper hand a lot of the time, so every time the human defenders got a score in (by accident or not), it was a punch in the air moment. Stross is really good at these battles (partly because he’s a military hardware buff in real life, so he knows his Starstreak from his ASRAAM. But also partly because he splits up the viewpoints, giving us multiple viewpoints on to the action, juggling the threads very well.

Back at a human scale, it was nice to see Pinky and Brains back, and getting more screen time this time – Pinky even going out into the field. And the romance between Alex and Cassie is very sweet and awkwardly believable (the scene with meeting the parents in particular was made of cringe). It was a way to keep the focus human even as Leeds is crumbling around them.

So yeah, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and Alex is a great new character, although I do miss Bob and his very informal narrative tone (he’s back next year’s The Delirium Brief, though). Oh, and it’s slightly hilarious to see just how much awe that he and Mo now inspire in the likes of Alex. He regards Bob (sorry, Mr Howard), the way that Bob regarded Angleton. So I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how the Eater of Souls 2.0 copes, after tentacled horrors from beyond spacetime, with being grilled by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356505343
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2016

The Apex Book of World SF 4 (Apex Book of World SF #4)

By Mahvesh Murad

Rating: 3 stars

I’ll get on to the important stuff in a minute, but did anyone else notice the smell of their book? I don’t know if it’s something to do with the binding process used, or the glue, but it really doesn’t smell like a book at all. In fact, it smells sort of unpleasant.

Anyway, skipping over that, this was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It was very definitely speculative fiction, not science fiction. There was a reasonable amount of fantasy as well as SF and more horror than I would have liked.

Highlights included The Gift of Touch, a space opera about a freighter transporting some passengers, which reminded me a bit of the marvellous The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet; The Boy Who Cast No Shadow, a tale of being different, literally and metaphorically, powerful and melancholic; and The Symphony of Ice and Dust about an expedition to the far reaches of the solar system and the remains that they find there.

There were a number of misses for me as well, stories that I just didn’t really get, including Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith, which may have been a Jewish zombie tale, but I’m not really sure. I felt completely lost for most of that one. Jinki and the Paradox was going okay until the end, when it lost me again. I’m really not sure what to make of the last story in the collection, A Cup of Salt Tears, it’s not the way that I would have chosen to end the book, this Japanese almost fairy tale about a woman whose husband is dying and a kappa comes to her and tells her it loves her. Very odd, a bit melancholic and (there’s a theme emerging here), I got completely lost by the end.

I like the little flash pieces in between some of the longer stories. While they weren’t all to my taste, they were short enough to not outstay their welcome if they weren’t. And they were nice little palate cleansers between the chunkier stories.

So an interesting collection albeit one that I sometimes struggled with. I don’t know if that’s just the stories picked, or the international nature of some of them. I certainly felt that there were a few where knowing more about the cultural context would help me understand them, but it was good to read stuff from a different point of view to the usual British/American perspective. I’m not sure that I’d buy any of the others, but I might look for them in the local library.

Book details

ISBN: 9781937009335
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Year of publication: 2015

The Annihilation Score (Laundry Files, #6)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

The sixth volume of Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series is the first not to be told from Bob Howard’s point of view, instead being narrated by his wife, Dr Mo O’Brien as she is tasked with establishing and leading the Home Office’s new superhero team while dealing with the Pale Violin that she has carried for some years and also trying to do something about her disintegrating marriage to Bob.

There’s a lot of interesting complexity in this book, particularly set as far into the series as it is. After reading it, I had a shot at the spoiler thread about it on Charlie’s blog (a ‘shot’ at it because it’s nearly 600 comments long!) which definitely helped contextualise it a bit.

One thing that I get out of it is that I don’t necessarily think I like Mo. And I really like that. The fact that Stross told a good first person story and didn’t make the narrator that likeable is the mark of a good storyteller. And coming with five books’ worth of background helps as well. Until now we’ve only seen Mo from Bob’s point of view, and, as Stross points out again and again, Bob is a highly unreliable narrator. But specifically this is the woman he’s still in love with and has been married to for a decade so when we see her from his point of view, she’s on a pedestal. From her own point of view, she’s, er, less so. And this is hardly the best time to getting into her head, as the stress of trying to contain the Pale Violin (which she names Lecter) and everything she’s had to do as Agent CANDID is finally getting too much for her. Just when she has to effectively build a new Home Office department from scratch and deal with the politics of that, not to mention separation from her husband, an attractive new male colleague and working with her husband’s exes.

So an awful lot in there, and I look forward to seeing more from her and Bob, although that could be a while yet, as the next book in the series is to be narrated by Alex (the vampire from The Rhesus Chart) and it’s only the one after that which will once again star Bob.

Mind you, I came to these books for the geek humour and spy thriller vibe, with a bit of Lovecraftian stuff going on in the background. That’s obviously a bit of a false-flag. The series is very clearly tending towards horror with a bit of humour thrown in. As CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN intensifies, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep on reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356505312
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2015

The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files, #5)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

“Don’t be silly, there’s no such thing as vampires!” That is the recurring refrain of this book. Of course there are vampires, and Bob Howard has to deal with a nest that has emerged in a leading investment bank in the City, on top of struggling with his marriage, dealing with management cargo-cult of Google and a slightly psychotic ex-girlfriend.

Goodness me, this was certainly a bit of a challenging book. I enjoyed the light-touch humour and tongue-in-cheek Lovecraft of the early the Laundry novels, but they have certainly been growing grim of late. This one lulls you into a false sense of security and then whams you in the last few chapters, leaving you bruised, yet also desperate for the next one, given what happened at the climax of this one.

There’s still lots to like here, with Pete, the vicar who Bob drafts in for some research in the The Apocalypse Codex, becoming more of a player, as well as Alex, the vampire banker who kicks off the whole affair but is probably one of the more sympathetic characters in the book.

But, I do have to wonder if it’s time to give up on the Laundry. Horror has never been my favourite genre and these days, as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN draws ever closer, Bob’s memoirs are definitely more horrific than humorous.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502533
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2014

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