Meow argh

January 31, 2008

Stray, by Rachel Vincent

Stray, by Rachel Vincent.

‘Straying’ ever deeper into bit-lit territory, we have this 600+ page first novel from Ms Vincent which, despite its size, was a very fast read and a rattlin’ good’un too. I must confess that this one spoke to me, yea verily it compelled me on Amazon, and when its claws were sufficiently embedded I could do naught else but buy it. And I’m happy I did. I like cats.

Stray is the story of Faythe, a female werecat in a world that’s refreshingly free (thus far in the series, anyway) of other were-creatures or supernatural phenomena. Female werecats are apparently quite rare and thus much prized by the various Prides throughout the world which are differentiated as either the more civilized Western-styled Prides or the animalistic jungle-cat South American versions.

Faythe is trying to make a point, breaking away from her rather domineering Pride structure and family to try and make a life for herself rather than just becoming a breeding tabby: she’s at college and attempting to control her own destiny, but things don’t go according to plan when a jungle cat interloper shows up and tries to abduct her. The story roars on from there through cat/Pride politics, romance (hey, it’s bit-lit after all, just in fresher colours) and some very nasty, gruesomely described serial killer elements merging into parallels with white slavery and auctioning.

For a first novel it’s rather polished, the first hundred pages being the most awkward: Vincent settles into a groove from there on in and it sprints towards a rather graphic conclusion (cat justice is a bit like watching your own cat summarily deal justice to an evil rat that’s trespassed in its domain: you’ve all seen it, and it isn’t pretty, especially when it’s enormous black cats dealing selfsame justice to human-types). I quite happily found Faythe’s voice compelling and empathetic, and was cheering along inside when, at one point, she turned the tables on her really rather horrible kidnappers using a mixture of human guile and feline… appetites.

Well worth it, this one. Looking forward to the sequel, Rogue. I just hope she doesn’t overly expand her universe and throw in all sorts of other random supernatural creatures. The cats, their social hierarchies, loves and quirks all, are fascinating enough.


January 31, 2008

Swimming Without A Net, by MaryJanice Davidson

Swimming Without A Net, by MaryJanice Davidson.

That reddish-cheeked popping sound you are undoubtedly hearing is my Hard Nosed Only Reviews Horror persona quietly rolling over and dying. Yep, Swimming Without A Net is bit-lit: paranormal romance, in other words. Which I read on occasion. I read all sorts of things and won’t ignore it as a genre just because so much of it is fluffy bullshit, because some works within are genuinely very good.

This? It’s the sequel to Sleeping With The Fishes, and continues the story of Fred the cranky fish-feeder at the New England Aquarium, who also happens to be a mermaid and is very reluctantly being drawn into the ‘mermaid way of life’ by means of a summons to a convocation by the, er, King of the Mermaids as to whether they’re going to finally reveal themselves to us ground-dwellers.

Between this wafer of a plot is sandwiched a certain amount of romance, sex, would-be romance, generally Fred-related crankiness, some unusual and quite funny mermaid-versus-humans misunderstandings and an utterly hilarious continued sequence wherein the King of the Mermaids (should that be merpeople? hmmm) begins learning human vernacular by watching Al Swearengen talk… colourfully… in the HBO Deadwood series.

And at the end it completely didn’t do what I expected which, in something as frothy as this, was very welcome.

Enjoyable without being deep (no, that wasn’t a mermaid pun: I wouldn’t inflict ’em on you, and that’s offishial), it’s perfect light reading, and very quick. Probably needs the first one read for completeness’ sake but it’s not essential.

(Now where’s the next zombie book?)

Zombie Anthology

The Undead: Zombie Anthology (#1) ; The Undead: Skin and Bones (#2 ); The Undead: Flesh Feast (#3), by various. All published by Permuted Press.

Yep. More flesh-tearin’, blood-goutin’, brain-splatterin’ goodness courtesy of, well, really a great number of people who’ve contributed short stories, most of them on or associated with the Permuted Press imprint. And in general very entertaining, with some of the tales downright thought-provoking and original (all right, there’s always a few stories in any collection that, er, stink like rotting flesh, but across three books so far and probably 800 pages there are remarkably few).

Skin and Bones 

Zombie seems to be a literary genre, in the way of bit-lit (I had to choke those words out, but it’s a genre title like the even worse ‘chick-lit’ whatever I think of its tweeness), all of its own at the moment. Zombie fiction has exploded all over the place, even moving into the ‘legitimate mainstream’: World War Z by Max Brooks is probably the current compelling example. It may well collapse and… rot in a year or two under its own steam — that often happens with subgenres; it may resurrect itself into something new, or ally with paranormal romance (the highbrow term for bit-lit). Who knows? Not I.

If truth be told it isn’t just the blood and guts I’m interested in. I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by apocalypse fiction and well-imagined post-apocalyptic societies, and certainly these three anthologies have nearly a hundred different variations of these, some extremely well realised and some utterly bizarre (I’m thinking of the zombie Wizard Of Oz story here). I also find it fascinating to peek briefly into these little slices of life (or undeath), to be able to see peoples’ imaginations going very briefly mad, unconstrained by the metaphorical shackles of novelhood or the conventions of longer prose. The one thing short story writers don’t necessarily have to do — and this is almost tailor-made for zombie-story writers ;P — is play by the rules of what we might be expecting from a situation. Endings are often grim, horrific, or just a flat-out screaming “WHHHYYYYYY??!?!?!?!“… but very rarely are they predictable.

Flesh Feast


Permuted Press have done well with these. The books themselves are very professionally designed (the contents page of The Undead: Flesh Feast in particular is done like a rather gruesome menu, and hilarious for it) and the standards of the selections therein stay almost uniformly high. You may not like zombies, blood, gleefully flung guts and the end of the world, and that’s your prerogative, but enough of the tales in each volume transcend that into needle-sharp societal satire, pathos, allegory… or are just bloody funny.

And with a pun like that last line, possibly my cue to wrap this review… 😀

PLTTFUTV, by Simon Logan

Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void, by Simon Logan.

It’s like mixing a cocktail of some dubious chemical, wearing welder’s goggles and with the acid burn of your ingredients slowing searing its way up your arms. Take one drachm Brian Wood’s DMZ and Channel Zero, a hundred cc’s of Kathe Koja’s Skin and strip back the oxides off some of Simon’s own Rohypnol Brides and Nothing Is Inflammable, and you have this: a nightmare near-future chemical-fetish world where everything is rubble and broken and rusted, populated by the razor fringes of society and constantly reinventing itself in a nihilistic, furious shriek of death and anger.

The prose and descriptions are barbed wire around your throat. Some elements of the story were genuinely uncomfortable to read, so far off the track of what, in these terrorism-defined days, is socially acceptable, and that’s a good thing — if ever there was a book to tear you out of your comfort zone and make you question the validity of your ideals and your conceptions of art, it’s this one.

From the insanity of the train-riders (hanging onto the outside of a massive toxic waste carrier at 100mph, with death inches over your head, simply for the thrill of it) to junk-city galleries, burned and collapsed and seething with struggling, broken artists and their equally insane, focative art; from the burning, war-torn city streets where SWAT choppers shoot on sight and the taggers and boarders scuttle like cockroaches in the shadows of their wake to the sundered warehouses and the data-pirates, hackers and purveyors; from Elisabeth Afterlife’s hell of self-denial and subsequent journey towards something that might be hope (if that’s what you can call it) to the inimical, monstrous and brutally compelling Shiva (whose rationale makes a hideous kind of sense, which is just one of the reasons you’ll come out of this book feeling as filth-stained as the oil- and rust-choked streets and buildings)… it’s a ride into a world you didn’t know existed, but which is right beneath your fingertips, as cracked and bloody and torn as they might be.

It has the intensity of an acid burn and the cold, jittering brilliance of oxyacetylene. Industrial fiction doesn’t get much better than this.  

A Return to the Nightside

January 20, 2008

The Unnatural Inquirer, by Simon R Green 


The Unnatural Inquirer, by Simon R Green.


The eighth novel in Green’s Nightside series, about the continuing adventures of an ‘occult’ — for lack of a better word — detective who finds things in a hidden suburb of London called the Nightside, where it’s perpetually three o’clock in the morning and every fantastical or nightmare creature you can imagine haunts the streets desperately searching for pleasure or profit.

I’ve always enjoyed the series, and I like this installment; a welcome return to form after the slightly sub-par Book 7, Hell To Pay, which suffered somewhat from being the first book after a multipart arc and thus couldn’t really settle on anything. The Nightside books aren’t brain surgery: they’re easy to read and sometimes the dialogue creaks a little but they’re crammed with ideas and homages to fiction, myths, legends and horrors worldwide. Where else would you find the Punk God of the Straight Razor sharing a drink with the Travelling Doctor (no prizes for guessing who he is) in a bar haunted by Merlin Satanspawn? Where future sci-fi warlords engage in street brawls with aspects of Cthulhu and insane creations like Jessica Sorrow and the Removal Man can delete anything from reality just by disbelieving in it enough? Where the tube trains have no windows and pass through different, hideous dimensions on their way to the various stations, and things try to force themselves through the walls in transit? The Little Sisters of the Autopsy and the Cowboy Sorceror’s Guild? And John Taylor, private investigator and one of the most feared residents of the Nightside, with a special gift that’s, frankly, one of the best literary creations I’ve ever seen, endlessly and somewhat reluctantly building on his reputation…

The story for this one? The Unnatural Inquirer is somewhat akin to Britain’s The Sun and The News Of The World newspapers: all the news that isn’t fit to print, and if it isn’t true they make it up. Someone’s managed to capture images of the Afterlife on a DVD, and now a bidding war is on and the DVD has disappeared. Can John find it? Oh, and there are some fairly heavy hitters about who don’t want absolute proof of the Afterlife in public rotation…

The Nightside is always huge amounts of fun, mainly for the sheer, exuberant scope of mad ideas constantly being thrown at you. Recommended indeed, but start at the beginning with Something From The Nightside. It only gets madder from there…



Spider Pie

January 20, 2008

Spider Pie, by Alyssa Sturgill

Spider Pie, by Alyssa Sturgill.

Bizarro or irreal genre — one of Carlton Mellick III’s bastard lovechildren, perhaps. Spider Pie is a collection of short, short stories (none of them more than five pages long) themed about the violent, grotesque absurdities of life as imagineered by the author. Some of them don’t make a lick of sense, deliberately so; those that do are slightly the better for it, even if the genre doesn’t necessarily require sense, but only the ability to shock or make the reader sit back for a second and then reread.

Favourites? ‘Beware of Kitten’ and the autopsy story about the ice-cream man but they’re all good in their own twisted, intestine-spilling ways. Don’t read Sturgill if you’re expecting neat packages or slice-of-life vignettes: she doesn’t work that way. Read her for not knowing how, or why, one entirely disparate sentence can possibly segue into another, and how it can still (mostly) all hang together. This is stream-of-consciousness poetry hooked on hallucinogens and hammered into prose: some of it will make you laugh, dry-heave or yelp out a hearty “WTF?!?”, but none of it should leave you unmoved.

And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?


January 15, 2008

Se7en (graphic novel)

Se7en, by various.

A graphic novel partial adaptation of the film Se7en, written entirely from the point of view of the serial killer himself, John Doe.

If you enjoyed the film, this is indispensable. If you’ve not seen the film, this is equally indispensable. If you’re a fan of surreal, grotesque art and the insane stream-of-consciousness looping nightmare of the imagined thoughts of one of the most disturbing serial killer archetypes of our time, this is… wait for it… indispensable.

The authors and artists have expanded on the film to weave the thought processes, motivations and background of John Doe into a chilling seven-part descent into utter depravity that simultaneously mirrors and, in some ways, eclipses the source material. They’re helped considerably by access to some elements from the film — notably some grotesquery photographs included collage-fashion, some of which are genuinely hard to look at, and batteries of images created but not necessarily used or only glimpsed in the film itself (witness the 52 Polaroid pictures of the ‘Sloth’ victim showing his descent into the pitiable monster found in the bed by the detectives: they were all created, and many appear within, gruesomely uncensored).

It’s a trepanation of a read: a visual feast of nightmare and monstrosity that sinks into your head like acid and both changes and augments your perceptions of the original film with brutal indelibility. Reading pages ‘culled’ from Doe’s endless exercise books interspersed throughout highlights the kaleidoscopic aura of horror and dementia that, combined with some of the imagery, can make you literally worried to turn the next page.

I’d call it almost perfect. The purist in me didn’t like a few pages of the art, with it ranging through the various artists credited from sublime and queasily photorealistic through to a thankfully few pages of appalling Sienkiewicz-styled knife-scrapings-on-paint-blotches (I’m not a fan of Bill Sienkiewicz’s art in any medium, though others find him groundbreaking; but certainly I feel it doesn’t really have much of a place in Se7en); occasionally the ramblings of a fictive killer’s mind became too obscure to serve the story’s purposes. But they’re very minor quibbles, and even with them I’m still repeating that word: indispensable.

Pick it up and prepare to be harrowed. You’ll never look at comic art the same way again.