The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year 11 – Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris 2017)

You’d have to be very lucky to pick up a  compilation, such as this, and find you liked every story.  Conversely, you’d have to be incredibly unlucky to find that you disliked all of it.

This collection contains some excellent short stories.  It also contains some that, whilst not terrible, undermine the claim to be ‘The best’ of the year.

Some of the stand-out stories include:

  • The Future is Blue by Catheryne M Valente – This is a fantastic tale about a girl with the unlikely name of Tetley Abednego who lives on a floating continent of waste following an environmental disaster caused by the ‘Fuckwits’ i.e. us.  Tetley is widely despised, obscenities are flung her way regularly.  The descriptions of the floating world are vivid.
  • Even the Crumbs Were Delicious by Daryl Gregory – Babes in the Wood meets Philip K Dick in a funny, warm tale.
  • Things with Beards by Sam J Miller – Often dreamlike.  Space creatures deal with issues of equality and social justice.  A story to dwell on and read again.
  • Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson – A high fantasy story concerning war, magic and unimaginable sacrifice in the pursuit of victory.  Simply stunning, a standout in this collection.
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman – Concerns contact with aliens who are sentient but not conscious as “Being aware would just degrade their skill”.  This is an interesting contemplation on how many strive to lose self-awareness.
  • Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley – Eco sci-fi, similar in theme to Catheryne M Valente’s story.  A massive remedial industry exists to prevent rising sea levels.
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R MacLeod – A love story in which the multiple universe theory plays a part.  Very well written and poignant.

There are many more stories, some good and some that are average.  The one criticism of this collection is that it feels too long and would have made a tighter, more impressive book with some of the weaker stories omitted.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy are unlikely to feel short-changed if they buy this book.  There are enough great stories to make up for the ones that don’t quite hit the mark.

Book Review: The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories.

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories – Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (Solaris 2017)

I love the variety and surprises that short story collections often bring.  I was intrigued by this book which aims to showcase global storytelling and to showcase the djinn (alternatively jinn or genie) as an element of folklore with “immense contemporary” relevance.

The stories are written in a variety of styles.  Classic fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction and ‘weird’ feature amongst others.  Many of the writers bring contemporary issues into focus through a lens of magic.

I’ll highlight a few of the stories that stood out:

The Congregation by Kamila Shamsie – This has a traditional feel and is about a boy, fathered by a jinn, who wishes to feel whole again by being possessed by his jinn brother.  There is a lovely line it where a character says “There is no evil here, only love.  God save us from a world that can’t tell the difference.”

Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North – Tells a tale of the Sultan’s favourite lady who is believed to be a witch.  It’s about the suspicion and rumour that dogs women of influence and the hatred they face.

Glass Lights by J.Y YangThis is a lovely story of Mena, a Muslim girl who was told by her grandfather that she is a djinn.  Mena quietly helps others without expectations.  It is a tale of everyday life, passing encounters with strangers and the mundanity and randomness of the working day.

A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar – The immigrant experience is writ large in this tale.  We are told that “Nations are great magicians; they pull borders out of hats like knots of silk.  Here, says the wizard nation, here are the terms of a truce: be small, be drab, above all be grateful, and we will let you in.”  This is a prose piece rather than a straightforward story.

Reap by Sami Shah – US based drone operatives spend long shifts watching and analysing a small village in Pakistan.  Through heat signatures and movements they watch a supernatural horror unfold.  Tense and very effective.

Message in a Bottle by K.J. Parker – Witty and mediaeval in style.  Some of the dialogue is a bit too contemporary to fit in comfortably but an excellent story nevertheless.

Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain – Great dystopian sci-fi about the poor and dispossessed.  A Djinn, a cook and a smuggler set up a kitchen and shelter to provide for the poorest.  Well written.  The descriptions of the simple meals cooked made my mouth water.

Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman – Taken from his novel American Gods.  This is just excellent.  Funny, explicit, moving and empathetic.  It works as a standalone short story.

Overall an engaging, though provoking collection.

 

 

 

 

Book Review:  A Red Sun Also Rises – Mark Hodder (Del Rey 2012)

I stumbled across this book in a pound shop.  The front cover highlights that the author was a winner of the Philip K. Dick award.  Might be a cheap hidden gem, I thought.  Wrong!

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps you may be able to make some useful assumptions based on the establishment that is stocking it.

The cover and the hyperbole on the back suggested a steampunk novel.  The initial tale of a rather weak Victorian country vicar, named Aiden Fleischer, seemed reasonably interesting.  Fliescher takes pity on Clarissa Stark, a lady whose body has been badly damaged in an accident leaving her in constant pain with twisted limbs.  Ms Stark wears very dark, leather bound goggles – one of the few nods to steampunk in the novel.

Fleischer’s fondness for a local young lady, leads to him being blackmailed.  He decides to flee by becoming a missionary and travels with Stark to a remote tropical island. Whilst on the island, Fleischer and Stark fall through an apparent rip in ‘space-time’ to another planet.  I really should have stopped reading there but I carried on like a fool.  

Life is too short to go into too much details but the remainder of the book was filled with some painfully melodramatic and cringeworthy dialogue, aliens with crazy names and a very tenuous grip on understanding their own life-cycle and improbable triple-stage metamorphosis.  

Fleischer undergoes an amazing transformation from a craven man of the cloth to a muscle-bound sword-wielding agnostic warrior.  If this book were ever to be filmed (saints preserve us!) this section would be a montage.

Somehow references to Jack the Ripper are shoehorned into the book, I suspect to remind the reader that it’s set in the Victorian era.

This being nominally steampunk, there is, of course, an airship.  

The plot was needlessly convoluted and when the resolution came I scarcely cared.  My eyes and brain felt tortured by the horror of this ludicrous shambles.  

As a final twis of the knife, the final chapter manages to shunt in a time-lapse, the Second World War and the Bermuda Triangle.  This just left me feeling angry and insulted.

I have read this book so you never have to.  

Book Review – The Murdstone Trilogy – Mal Peet (David Fickling Books 2015)

This is the last book written by Mal Peet before his death in 2015 and his first aimed at an adult audience.  Mal Peet is better known for his books for children and young adults and won a number of awards of the years.

Perhaps a touch autobiographical, The Murdstone Trilogy is the story of Philip Murdstone, a writer who specialises in young adult novels about sensitive boys that are well received critically but don’t actually sell many copies.  Murdstone’s agent twists his arm into writing a fantasy novel, a genre that Murdstone detests.  

This then is a comedy fantasy (or a fantasy comedy?).  It is difficult to avoid comparisons with Terry Pratchett.

Murdstone’s agent explains the essential concepts of ‘High Fantasy’ involving a realm, dark lord, shire, dorcs, dwarves, greybeard, a sword with a Welsh-sounding name, a quest, dragons and an ‘amulet of something or other’.  

“The style for High Fantasy is sort of mock-Shakesperian without the rhyming bits.”

In attempting to write a fantasy in the classic style, Murdstone is visited by Pocket Wellfair (great name) a magically powered scribe from another realm, who needs Murdstone’s help.  In return Wellfair can help Murdstone with his fantasy masterpiece.  Wellfair is a cussing dogsbody and brings to mind some of Pratchett’s characters such as Coroporal Nobby Nobbs of the City Watch.  

As well as mocking High Fantasy, Peet rails against the changes to writing and publishing brought about by the Internet age.  Murdstone rants:

“Writers no longer work in solitude, crafting meaningful and elegant prose.  No. They have to spend most of their time selling themselves on the fucking Internet.  Blogging and tweeting and updating their bloody Facebook pages and their wretched narcissistic websites.”

In channelling the memories of Pocket Wellfair, Murdstone writes Dark Entropy which quickly becomes a bestseller.  Despite being a fraud, Murdstone’s vanity leads him to accept the accolades of the critics and the financial rewards of finally selling more than a handful of books.  Murdstone becomes addicted to success, he is weak and difficult to like as a character but humorous nonetheless. 

Peet also has a good-natured dig at Steampunk, which is described by a librarian from Tavistock library as;

“Victorian time-warp.  Like Blade Runner directed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”

Peet’s satirical take on fantasy and the requirements of writers to engage with the Internet age is a humorous (but not laugh-out-loud read).

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury 2015)

This beautiful looking book is the first novel of Natasha Pulley.  

Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegraphy operator for the Home Office in an alternative Victorian London.  It’s not quite a steampunk version of London, more of a clockwork Capital.  Nathaniel is known as Thaniel (apparently his Dad was Nat) and has synesthesia; he sees sounds as colours and vice-versa.

Whilst working the night-shift Thaniel (surely he could be Nat as well, or Neil maybe?) receives a message from Scotland Yard that a Fenian group known as Clan na Gael had threatened to bomb all public buildings in 6 months time.  I’m no expert on organising a terror campaign but you would think that a half-year’s advanced warning would give the authorities the opportunity to make preparations or even prevent the attack.

On returning to his lonely bachelor apartment, Thaniel, finds that his room has been broken into.  Nothing has been taken but a rather sophisticated pocket-watch has been left. 

We are then introduced to Grace Carrow, a student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.  Grace is a scientist who also owns sophisticated watch.  She suffers from the overarching patriarchal and sexist attitudes prevalent at that point in history but is not a fan of women’s suffrage.  The ladies attending a Suffrage meeting are shown as rather muddle-headed sheep and Grace notes that if women were to be given the vote she would move to Germany.  Through the book we see Grace kicking out against social norms and expectations.  She wants to study, she wants to conduct experiments but it is a struggle.  Her father makes the quite depressing comment that 

One of the great evils of our time for men and women is to be educated beyond one’s purpose in life. 

Both Thaniel’s (it’s making my teeth itch typing that now) and Grace’s watches were built by master Japanese watchmaker Keita Mori.  The watch left in Thaniel’s room saves his life and his attempts to find answers leads him to the workshop of Mori.  

As the story is set in England and features a Japanese man there is, perhaps inevitably, lots of tea.  Thaniel and Mori’s friendship is polite, quiet, deep felt and quite touching.  One of the best ideas in the book is ‘Katsu’ a clockwork Octopus made by Mori that includes random gears that allows Katsu to appear to have a mind of its own.  

Mori has an ability that is unique, inexplicable and, when used, likely to cause fear and suspicion in those around him.  It is this ability that brings Thaniel (make it stop!) into his life.  

The story brings Grace and Nathaniel together in a mutually convenient partnership in which both aim to find a personal truth.  The themes of the book are free-will, chaos theory and predetermination in a London where sexual-equality and gay rights are not in existence.

Overall there were some quite nice parts to the book.  Mori and Katsu were by far the most interesting characters.  I felt ambivalent about the storyline, it had no strong impact and the ending was confusing and not particularly satisfying.  Nice cover though. 

Book Review – The Paper Magician by Charlie N Holmberg (47 North – 2014)

Magic, magicians and magic schools in a rather old-fashioned setting but so much more than a Harry Potter book (which could be good or bad depending on your view of the boy wizard).

Ceony Twill is a young lady who has recently graduated from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined (great name for a college). In this universe, an alternative Victorian England, magic is practiced through man-made materials and Ceony was hoping to be a Smelter, that is one who uses metals in their magical profession.  Much to her chagrin, Ceony is instead bonded to paper magic (viewed as the weakest of the magics) under the apprenticeship of Emery Thane, an enigmatic, quiet and likeable soul with green eyes.  

The use of green eyes to signify atractiveness, danger and mystery must be taught at writing schools and I intend to give a character green eyes if I ever get round to writing a book, which still seems unlikely.

The formal yet quiet and comforting routine of Ceony’s training is exploded when a female Excisionist, a magician who uses flesh and bone, called Lira bursts into Emery Thane’s house and attacks leaving him mortally injured and Ceony bewildered and hurt.

Senior magicians arrive at the scene to take charge and it becomes clear from overheard snatches of conversation that there is a lot more going on than either Ceony or the reader is allowed to know.

Ceony, who has developed a fondness for Thane, takes matters into her own hands and the book becomes by turn darker, stranger and more dreamlike than the initial chapters hinted at.  Odd, affecting and thoroughly readable.

The use of paper for the practice of magic was an inspired choice.  The magic of paper appeals to writers and book lovers and triggers a nostalgia associated with making paper planes, darts, snowflakes and fortune-tellers.

The author is American but gives a largely believable picture of English life.  The only two instances where I suspected the U.S. influence were in the use of the word ‘ornery’ and where a meal of ‘sausage gravy and biscuits’ was mooted. But, these are trivial observations.

Overall, a good book that made me want to read more.

Book Review : Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books -2011)

Here’s a puzzle.  How did a book formerly owned by Cumbria Council Libraries end up in a charity shop in Birmingham?  However, I’m glad that it made this journey (presumably aided) as it’s given me the opportunity to read and review it.  

This is the first novel by Ransom Riggs and I think it would fit in the ‘Young Adult and above’ category, if such a thing existed.  It’s a book that contains a number of quirky monochrome prints of odd looking children doing strange things or people seen in silhouette.  Riggs is a fan of vintage prints and has taken examples from the collections of many of his friends plus his own collection to illustrate this book.  Do the photos illustrate characters already created by Riggs or did the photos give him the ideas for characters?  It’s a question I will ask him if the opportunity arises one day.

The story revolves around Florida teenager Jake and his Grandfather, Grandpa Portman.  Grandpa Portman has told Jake bizarre tales of his early life in a Welsh children’s home during World War II and the friends he had there with special powers or gifts, hence ‘Peculiar Children’.  Jake loved the storries when he was young but as he gets older he, quite reasonably, begins to believe that his Grandpa made up the stories to entertain him as a child.

One day, Jake finds Grandpa severely wounded.  Grandpa gives Jake a cryptic message about going to the island on which the children’s home stood.  Not surprisingly, Jake is given psychiatric care due to this trauma.

The book captures well the awkwardness of teenage years and deals compassionately with mental health issues.  It is also quite funny.  Jake’s observations of family life are deadpan and very amusing.  At a family get together he describes his Uncle Bobby 

“pulling people into corners for conspiratorial chats, as if plotting a mob hit rather than complimenting his hostess on her guacamole,”

Another of my favourite remarks of Jake is a description of his rather snobby mother;

“I did love her, of course, but mostly just because loving your mom is mandatory, not because she was someone I think I’d like very much if I met her walking down the street.  Which she wouldn’t be, anyway; walking is for poor people.”

Jake makes it to thee Welsh island on which his Granpa spent time during the War and the there follows some peculiar twists concerning time-travel and the rift between the ‘peculiars’ that see their gift as the next stage of human evolution (like Magneto and his follower in the X-Men movies) and the remainder who hope to live a peaceful life with the non-gifted.

Whilst reading the book, I did the very strange thing of accepting the overall premise of the story but questioning specific parts that may be seen as inconsequential in the general scheme of things.  We are told that Miss Peregrine’s home for Peculiar Children was bombed by the Germans during the war.  I wondered why the Germans would go to the trouble of flying across the industrial heartlands of Britain to bomb a small Welsh island on which there were few people and scant infrastructure or industry.  Jake meets some Welsh lads who, in response to a comment Jake makes that he things is insincere, says “I thought you were taking a piss mate.”  The correct expression would be ‘taking the piss’, meaning ‘to make fun of’.  Riggs uses the incorrect expression twice but gets it right on the third attempt.  

The relationship between Jake and his well meaning but essentially aimless father is juxtaposed nicely with Jakes relationship with Grandpa Portman, whom he loves dearly despite, or because of, his idiosyncracies and his ability to endure.  

After a slowish build-up, the pace of the book becomes faster towards the end and the threads are woven together at the end in a way that will allow a sequel to follow without much difficulty.  I sometimes wish that writers would concentrate on a book that feels like a whole story on its own rather than the first part of a longer series but perhaps I should just get real.

This is a reasonably entertaining book and a promising first novel.