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

The Apocalypse Codex (Laundry Files, #4)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

There’s an American preacher reaching up to Number 10 and getting much deeper than he should. The Laundry are worried, so they send (the long-suffering) Bob Howard to investigate. Well, they send some other people and send Bob to keep an eye on them. I guess he’s finding out who watches the watchers.

We find out more about the Laundry in the fourth book in Stross’s series, and there are revelations about Bob including fallout from the last book (The Fuller Memorandum) and a bit of a jaw-dropping ending (not to mention the worrying sight of an Auditor smiling).

This book wasn’t nearly as dark as its predecessor. It had some disturbing images (maternity/spinal injury unit, I’m looking at you!), but nothing along the lines of what happens in the previous volume. I’m very glad of that, although I still think that as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN approaches, I may find the books harder to read (post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t really something I like).

This book did continue a trend started in the Fuller Memorandum of it not all being told in the first person. Stross (and Bob) acknowledge that it’s sometimes useful to be able to tell things from other points of view, and this is acknowledged at the outset of this volume of ‘Bob’s memoires’. Following the end of this book, I think this is something we’ll probably see more of this to come, as Bob leaves the everyman sphere that made him such a great narrator as part of his rise up the management tree.

Cameos from Pinky and Brains are present and correct, and this book’s gadget is a bit of a doozy (even if I don’t think it gets nearly enough use).

So still spy-fi-ish, but as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN looms and the loonies and cultists (sorry, tautology) come out to play, the books are getting steadily darker in tone. Still very enjoyable, if not as much fun as they have been.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356500980
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2012

The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry Files, #3)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Bob Howard’s not having a good time of it. A routine exorcism goes wrong; cultists are running around London, attacking him and his wife; his boss has disappeared; and he’s been seconded on to yet another committee. But at least he’s got a decent manager at the moment (following the demise of his last one).

The third Laundry novel is much darker than its predecessors, with CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN starting to come to the fore, and much nastier scenes, including cannibalism and child sacrifice. It’s all relevant and you never get the impression that Stross is throwing stuff in purely to shock, but still, it does come as a bit of a shock to the system after the somewhat lighter hijinx of the previous novels.

The plot seemed a bit looser as well; I was able to guess the two big plot twists before they happened (which is unusual for me, I never see them coming), but this didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book. Bob is still a great wise-cracking, Emacs-loving geek protagonist, and the supporting cast are all present and correct. Mo gets slightly scarier in each book, we get revelations about Angleton and a cameo from Pinky and Brains.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and sit in a corner and try not thinking too hard to do my bit to help prevent CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841497709
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Down Among the Dead Men (Forest Kingdom, #3)

By Simon R. Green

Rating: 2 stars

A decade ago, the Darkwood rose up and threatened to swallow the Forest Kingdom. It was driven back, but with great loss. Now a fort built on the border of the kingdom has gone silent and a small group of Rangers are sent to investigate, finding an evil more ancient than the demons of the Darkwood.

I didn’t really notice the author of this book when I bought it, just caring that it sounded vaguely interested and was the right size to fit into my pocket, but Simon R. Green is known as a horror writer, and I’m not a horror fan by any means. However, after reading it, although there is horror here, it’s very visual horror. It’s not the long drawn-out horror that can leave you uneasy for weeks afterwards, but the splatter-horror of the cinema. If this book had been a film, it would be gory and there would be a few ‘jump’ moments, but because I don’t have a particularly visual imagination when I’m reading, I only smiled wryly at the column of blood that erupted when a trapdoor was opened, for example.

The story was okay, albeit not hugely original, and the magic system was infuriatingly vague and unsatisfying. The characters were just sketches, with only Sergeant McNeil, the leader of the Rangers, getting any filling out at all. An enjoyable enough way to spend a few hours but utterly unmemorable.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575056206
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1993

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress