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Parasite (Parasitology)
Parasite (Parasitology)
Price: 4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars An easily readable and enjoyable novel, but infuriatingly meandering, 11 April 2014
This review was originally published in issue #250 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

What makes the tin-hat brigade of paranoids scarier? When they know what they’re talking about, seemingly.

I haven’t read any of Mira Grant’s other novels, but the spiel attached to “Parasite” establishes her as more than qualified to comment on matters of biotechnology, pharmacology and ethics.

The novel follows Sal, who was Sally until a car accident left her a complete amnesiac. In a world where almost everybody has genetically-engineered tapeworms inside them boosting their immune system, Sal’s worm having helped her survive apparent brain death makes her a medical marvel and minor celebrity. This places Sal at the epicentre of the events that unfold, all linked to tapeworm firm SymboGen.

The fact that SymboGen is evil is apparent from the beginning. Grant, presumably, decided that no one would be at all fooled by this fact, so the introductory prologues make it abundantly clear.

The manner of the evil, however is not obvious. Not until about midway through the book, at least. And therein lay the problem I found with “Parasite”.

The writing itself was excellent. Light and quick paced, it guided the reader through what are complicated and difficult subjects with a confident ease. Similarly, the characters are believable and – for the most part – sympathetic.

But the big twist at the end wasn’t nearly as surprising as it thought it was. I figured that part out by about the midway mark and was from there on growing gradually more and more frustrated with the novel’s refusal to show its hand.

Part of that, I suspect, is down to the trilogy format. In the same style as Eastenders, it wanted to end on a shocking moment. And so at least once deliberately stalled for time on that point.

Which was, as I say, a little frustrating.

I had the feeling that there was space here, if the stalling for time and backtracking could be cut down, for more of the story to be told within the one volume. Maybe all of it.

The reason that I make the point is that I enjoyed “Parasite”. I did find the story exciting, and it was something I wanted to read more. But like with an ITV drama, I kept having to wait to get back to it.

Which shouldn’t, honestly, be allowed to subtract from the fact that this is an easily readable and enjoyable novel. It is a science-run-amok story in the vein of Frankenstein, wherein the question is not how much is science capable of, but how far should it go. The ethical ramifications of scientific advances, particularly in biology, are far from a new subject, but Grant handles them deftly, and she does so in an entertaining and exciting way. There are very few people who would be able to read “Parasite” and not come away having learnt something.


Chalk
Chalk
Price: 1.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent and enjoyable short story, 27 Nov 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Chalk (Kindle Edition)
Though I'm a frequent reader of the site, before I picked up "Chalk" I hadn't actually read any of This Is Horror's series of chapbooks. Which is somewhat surprising, given that I'm a reader of pretty much all of those writers published.

But somehow they have -- so far -- escaped my attention. Until, as I say, "Chalk".

Pat Cadigan is something of a legend in the SF community, having won the Arthur C. Clarke award twice and (more recently) a Hugo award. This is her first foray that I've seen into horror, and so I was expecting good things.

And I wasn't disappointed.

"Chalk" is a short story following a pair of children, Dee and Mary, growing up in small town America, playing and exploring their neighbourhood and discovering certain places where they are apparently invisible when together, through the use of possibly magical carpenters chalk

It is a heady mixture of nostalgia and potent social comment. The setting comes alive under Cadigan's prose, with the simple familiarity of childhood eyes. A small area of the world is inflated in scale, comprising the entire world with only a misty and undefined land beyond. It harks back to a soft childish ignorance which we all experienced where we saw our surroundings at a much closer and more intimate level than in later life.

Childhood friendship is also a big theme, with the bond between Mary and Dee tested gently by differences between them, but also forging a genuine closeness between the two girls. The tragedy-tinged conclusion reflects on this, harking at the separation which almost inevitably affects childhood friendships -- I myself am still in contact with few of those I knew in my school days.

Cadigan is an excellent writer. I'm not sure that was ever in doubt, but her prose sparkles with a cheeky life in the voice of her central character. It isn't easy to write a complex story from a child's perspective, but Cadigan displays here the lightness of touch to make the images and ideas resonate within the reader.

The tone of this story is wonderfully pitched. It blurs the line between the unexplained and the unexplainable, underscoring that in many things in life we simply can never know the realities and absolute truths. That lack of explanation is mirrored in the inescapable sorrow of the conclusion, and the simple fact that childhood years cannot, once passed, be reclaimed.

This is an excellent and enjoyable short story, well-written and with complex and realistic characters. The length and pace are perfectly set, and the horror creeps subtly up out of universal memories and nostalgia. I have long been an advocate of short-form fiction and I can't help but feel in that objective the combination of Pat Cadigan and This Is Horror in "Chalk" is a major step forward.


Across the Event Horizon
Across the Event Horizon
Price: 3.08

5.0 out of 5 stars An anthology to read and read again, 20 Nov 2013
This review was originally published in Interzone #247 July - Aug 2013 (Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine).

When I was a fresh-faced pup, new to the beckoning worlds of science-fiction and their siren calls of "what-if", one of the first stories I chanced upon was in TTA's own podcast -- a little tale entitled "The Scent of Their Arrival", by a wordsmith called Mercurio D. Rivera.

It clearly had some sort of impact, given that I'm still devouring any and all speculative fiction with the gleeful gratitude of a starving man given a pasty. So it shouldn't really surprise anyone that I jumped at the chance to read and review Rivera's short story collection.

"Across the Event Horizon" treats us to fourteen stories, taking us on a journey across the universe and beyond. All of them have a profound basis in human (or non-human) relationships, and they have a unifying theme of questioning who we are and what our place in the universe is - on both as individuals and a species.

I haven't the space to analyse every story -- although I easily could - so I will focus instead on a selected few. And given my own relationship with Rivera's stories, it makes sense to start with "The Scent of their Arrival".

It was somewhat strange to be rereading and rediscovering this story after so long -- which is something that many readers will find, as a not inconsiderable number of these stories were first published in [Interzone's] vaunted pages. But it had lost none of its potency; the vivid way that Rivera conceives and then relates of such a radically different species and the concurrent communications issues, and then blends it with a strain of pure horror to leave a conclusion ripe and heavy with foreboding.

"Longing for Langlana" is another highlight of the collection. A story told over a lifetime, heavy with unrequited love and dreams of what may have been. It exemplifies Rivera's storytelling that the full message of "...Langlana" is told over multiple levels. The threads of the characters personal relationships are part of a patchwork of a bigger relationship between humanity and the Wergen. The feelings of individuals within the story are insignificant in scale, and yet integral to the whole.

"Bargonns Can Swizzle" is one story which I wished more could have been made of. Beneath the delightful whimsy of the almost Whovian title, lurks the story of an internet relationship over such scales of distance that the radical differences come across as sweet. But I would have welcomed more explanation of the differences between humanity and post-humanity, differences which lurked under the surface and which I feel a longer piece would have given Rivera the chance to explore.

"Dear Annabehls" and "Snatch Me Another" however, are exactly what I look for in science fiction. Radical ideas, approached through innovative form. They are so intricately interlinked that I can't really analyse them separately. "Snatch Me Another" sets up the idea of infinite realities and the ability to `snatch' items -- and even people -- from neighbouring universes at will. And hot on its heels, "Dear Annabehls" explores the resultant dissolution of the boundaries between them through the medium of an agony aunt. It's impressive, it's imaginative, and it takes the story to its fascinating conclusion in a way which had me wishing more stories were written like this.

Speaking of boundary pushing ideas, "Dance of the Kawkaroons" is one of the best colonisation-themed stories I can recall having read. As a pair of explorers discover an alien species with remarkable properties, the resulting `exploitation' is disturbing in of itself -- but not half as disturbing as the final suggestion of turning the tables.

Finally, "Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us" is a completely different beast of a story. Set in a semi-post-apocalyptic near-future, this is a story steeped in Dominican culture, and the accordant superstitions. For a story which starts off decidedly odd, it takes a stark route into the darkest recesses of human nature, exploring how much we are willing to do to keep us and ours safe.

This is an anthology to read and read again. Rivera is blessed with a sharp pen, and a sharper mind, and the themes and ideas which he chooses to explore are always thrilling, and handled with a deft and adventurous wit which is a pleasure to read.


Lurker
Lurker
Price: 1.93

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Deftness of touch keeps it keen and focused, 20 Nov 2013
This review is from: Lurker (Kindle Edition)
For a man as active as he is in the UK horror scene, it's truly remarkable that I don't think I've ever read anything by Gary Fry before. He seems to be everywhere at the moment, almost unavoidable.

It's not likely to change in the near future, as Fry launches what looks like some sort of dastardly plan for transatlantic domination, with a nine book (nine book) deal with stateside publisher DarkFuse.

I'm always in favour of horror getting a louder shout, and the kind of reviews Gary has been getting have left me intrigued for a while now. Anyone who the great Ramsey Campbell himself describes as "a master" is clearly not messing around with this stuff.

With his novella Lurker, Fry looks set to kick off a new and prolific phase of his writing career, so let's open up the bonnet and see what we have here, shall we?

Lurker centres around Meg, a forty-something woman recently moved to the north Yorkshire coast after a stillborn baby. Her husband Harry is distant emotionally and geographically- working in west Yorkshire for part of the week. Exploring her new home, Meg comes to notice something stalking the coastal landscape, connecting stories of missing people with local legends of a creature unearthed by overzealous mining.

The first thing I have to say about Lurker, is just how easy reading it is. Its short length, coupled with its fast, almost compulsive pace it's quite comfortable to read in one sitting. This is, I think, an under-appreciated feature in fiction. It's easy to forget that fiction is an entertainment medium, so to come away from Lurker with a distinct feeling of being entertained means to me that Fry has hit the mark.

He also didn't over-explain. The creature he created -- I won't even call it "lurker" -- is a suggestion and a series of images, a few potent facets enough to create an idea which creeps through the consciousness of the reader as easily as it does across the Yorkshire cliffs.

So too, Lurker shows a deep earthing in its location. Fry is clearly intimately familiar with this stretch of the North Yorkshire coast, and there is a presiding sense of local mythology running through the story, adding to the believability and making the horror more present, more real.

The only real criticism of it that I have is the counterpoint to the readability I praised before. It is a short novella, and both the story and Fry's writing could have sustained it longer. A full novel would, I feel, have given the space for further explanation of Meg's depression and allowed her rising suspicion of Harry -- and the creeping horror of the creature which accompanies it -- to have blossomed more slowly and with a more sinister pace.

But faced with Lurker the novella, I can't hold that too strongly against it. Whatever length, this is a solid, enjoyable piece of writing. Monster horror has a tendency to lapse into the camp or trite, which might explain why Fry chose to set such a fierce pace, but the deftness of touch that he displays keeps it keen and focused. If the nine Gary Fry books to come from DarkFuse are of the same quality as Lurker, then they really have struck upon a sure winner.


Horror Without Victims
Horror Without Victims
by D F Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.73

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Top-of-their-game horror authors pushing genre boundaries, 10 Oct 2013
This review is from: Horror Without Victims (Paperback)
I was particularly intrigued when I received "Horror Without Victims". As an idea, it seems so very simple. But when you sit and think about it for a bit, it actually subverts the very genre, being close to a contradiction in terms. I looked forward to a treat of top-of-their-game horror authors pushing genre boundaries.

The opening story, "Embrace the Fall of Night" by John Howard, did not speak to me if I'm honest. It felt too cold, too removed, and far too abstract. It was an interesting approach to the theme, but as a story it lacked the vitality to draw me in enough for the cold descriptive language to properly chill me.

Gary McMahon is one of my favourite contemporary writers and his offering, "The Horror", shows off some of his power with stories and themes. It's not an overly complex piece, but within a few simple strands of plot Gary turns the concept of victimhood on its head. Compelling stuff, without wasting words.

Similarly, "Clouds" by Eric Ian Steele seems to play with perception. Is someone a "victim" of a horror, if they don't regard it as a horror? The conclusion feels a little like a volte face from dark to light, but I guess that's part of the point, and it's a well-written little story.

"The Carpet Seller's Recommendation" by Alistair Rennie is a similar tack to "Clouds", defining victimhood in the eye of the would-be victim. It has a vaguely Lovecraftian feel to it, taking atmospherics from its colonial setting. It's pretty good, if that's the sort of story you like, treading the line between feeling outdated and steeped in mystery.

From the realist -- if exotic -- Aliya Whitely's "Waiting Room" is more abstract, more allegorical, and a whole lot weirder. But it also has a soft beauty, a lingering sense of vulnerability. I rather liked it, and its point that if everyone is a victim, the only people we can really be victims of is ourselves.

I'm not sure if the editor has intentionally paired the stories, but "For Ages and Ever" by Patricia Russo is similar. It has a fantastical quality, and a much more direct focus on the role that individual perspective has on what constitutes victimhood.

I'm not sure exactly what to make of "Night in the Pink House" by Charles Wilkinson. I enjoyed reading it, and it was quite dark, but aside from one particular element, I'm not sure how it qualifies as victimless. The horror is dark, though, the shadows in the depths of human nature.

Mark Patrick Lynch's contribution, "Point and Stick", really peaked my interest. As well as an engagingly realistic setting and character, it takes the idea of perception and shows how it can be warped by a constrained knowledge of the facts. What looks like horror to one person may not actually be so, and someone who appears to be a victim could be precisely the opposite. But in the end, those constraints leave a near-infuriating veil of mystery.

"The Blue Umbrella" by Mark Valentine is something different. A reverberating sense of sad entropy wrapped up in an odd bookishness. Its muted, but gloomy, imagery means that it isn't one which stands out, but it does linger.

I'm not familiar with Rosanne Rabinowitz, but her story "Lambeth North" is a particularly good offering. The story of three middle-aged woman, and the changing nature of their friendship. The horror isn't from any tangible source, but a subtle, unstoppable creep of time running us all down and the wondering of what else lurks beyond what we know.

Again, I'm not sure if "The Cure" by John Travis is victimless, but it's certainly weird. A rich man accepts an offer of an outlandish cure from shadowy individuals, in what midway through seems the build-up to a weak pun. It actually gets much odder than that. I'm unsure.

"We Do Things Differently Here" by David Murphy is not victimless. The sense of victimhood is the result of a strange perversion of nature, but it`s victimhood all the same. A naive woman journeys to a strange land for love, and ends up fleeing with more than she bargained for when she realises the true nature of their way of life. It's not a bad story, but I don't really see how it fits here.

DeAnna Knippling's "Lord of Pigs" is the sort of horror I can really go for. It's dark, without being too dark, and uses the child's point of view to employ a detail-by-suggestion style of storytelling. It's also morally ambiguous, which is where the victimlessness comes in. There's a resounding tone of innocence throughout the whole thing.

"Like Nothing Else" by Christopher Morris harks back to the victimhood in the eye of the victim theme which some stories had already touched on, but with a bizarre blend of fantasy and erotica. It's brutal, and fairly squirm inducing, and I'm not sure if it didn't push a little too far for my liking.

"In the Earth" by Rog Pile was victimless. Genuinely victimless, not out of a technicality, but because the horror exists through a sense of foreboding, of something which might happen, somewhen in the future. It's a deeper fear, which lacks the immediacy, and is employed well in a slow crescendo. A very good story.
"Scree" by Caleb Wilson is an end-of-the-world story, which offers little to no background explanation for what's going on. It's metaphors are abstract and a sense of loneliness consumes it, but it isn't imminent doom which is the most prominent feature, but endless waiting.

David V. Griffin's "The Week of Four Thursdays" is the portrayal of the disintegration of a life, the personalisation of obsession which burns so brightly that it consumes all. The main character doesn't care, doesn't mind what is happening and certainly doesn't consider himself a victim. There's a fragrant sadness to it, but overall it feels like a piece suspended, waiting.

"In Dreams, You're Mine" by Jeff Holland is a short piece, about facing fears. Which is, again, a very interesting response to the theme. It's a nice idea, that although facing fears can be terrifying, once done you cannot ever be said to be a victim.

"Walk On By" by Katie Jones again takes the initiative. Here the lack of a victim is down to a choice -- not of the would-be-victim, but the aggressor. It's a standard story, which might have weathered a bit more fleshing out, but as a response to the theme it was very interesting.

Why is it always ventriloquists and their dummies? There's something fundamentally creepy about them, isn't there? "Vent" by L.R. Bonehill ploughs this particular furrow, tying it up with maternal love and rejection. I see what Bonehill is getting at, and it`s a potent piece certainly, but it would be very easy to take a very victim-centric reading of this tale.

"The Yellow See-Through Baby" by Michael Sidman is a gem of a story. Really, a gem. Writing from the perspective of a toddler is difficult, and Sidman pulls it off with aplomb. In a similar way to Jeff Holland's contribution, it's about facing and overcoming fears, but the mode and method of that makes this a truly excellent piece of writing.

The first thing I noticed about Kenneth C. Wickson's "The Boarding House" was the semi-colons. So many semi-colons. And why were they there? I spent most of the story trying to figure it out. But erratic and eclectic punctuation aside, the story wasn't bad. A little underexplained in places -- we're left to presume who "she" is -- but a solidly workmanlike tale about a creepy house, alive with memory. I just wish I understood the damn semi-colons.

Similarly in "The Callers", it stood out straight away that Tony Lovell had got his tenses in a muddle. The story was in present tense, whilst the dialogue tags clung stubbornly to the past tense. Once you get past that, though, there's a lingering sense of the sinister, which creeps over the text. Again, it's underexplained, but here I think that's the source of the horror. That something tragically malignant lurks just out of perception.

"Still Life" by Nick Jackson might be my favourite story in the collection. The horror of it is based purely in the descriptive language, conjuring a clearly realised world of decay, neglect and ruin. The prose sent shivers down my back as I read it. The only minor criticism I have is that I wish it hadn't been so forward about its victimlessness. A handful of sentences, too direct, too on the nose, and not at all needed. But even despite that, it was still a masterpiece.

The closing story, "You in your small corner, and I in mine" by Bob Lock, was another short-but-strange one, and I rather liked it. Turning the tables on the horror by changing -- literally -- the perspective creates rather an upbeat little story. And for an anthology like this, closing on an positive note feels...right.

The anthology itself was a mixed bag, but then they always are. The story I saw as its crowning glory another reader would see as top of the rubbish heap. And that's why I like reviewing. Everyone reads their own stories into them, and no two reflections on them will be the same.

But what DF Lewis has done here is provide a fascinating theme to rally his authors to push beyond the usual boundaries we box ourselves into. And in that he has done a great job, and should be lauded. This is an anthology which will make you think, and I can think of no possible better reason to recommend it.


Whitstable
Whitstable
Price: 2.04

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A profile of a man wrapped in a powerfully and sinisterly creeping story, 5 Jun 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Whitstable (Kindle Edition)
To the very best of my knowledge, I have never read a short story, novella or novel by Stephen Volk. I do, however, know of him from his columns in bimonthly horror magazine Black Static, as well as his work as screenwriter for the BBC's seminal Ghostwatch, paranormal TV series Afterlife, and more recently the horror film The Awakening.

So Whitstable is my first encounter with Volk's prosaic fiction, a hugely ambitious novella from Spectral Press, a small independent publisher which has lately been making big waves with its dedication to publishing high-quality short fiction.

Released to mark the 100th would-have-been birthday of that titanic figure of cinematic horror Peter Cushing, the novella centres around Cushing as the main character, and is a combination of chillingly grounded horror and a sincere homage to the man himself.

It takes place in 1971, in the aftermath of the death of Cushing's wife Helen. After a chance encounter with a young boy on Whitstable beach, Cushing comes to suspect he is being abused and grapples with the morality of what to do as he copes with his own grief.

This is a powerfully emotionally piece, and Volk introduces us immediately to a despondent and world-wearied man, in the throes of his bereavement. The bleak descriptive language coupled with pointed use (at times verging on overuse) of rhetorical questions places the reader perfectly into Cushing's mindset, leaving him raw and vulnerable as the story begins to unfold. Purely as a construction on the portrayal of the misery of loss Whitstable would be notable in quality -- it would be hard, if not impossible, to remain unmoved by it.

But whilst Cushing as a character and a person is the undeniable focus of the novella, it is -- mercifully -- more than simply 140 pages of an old man wallowing. The introduction of a child, who sees no difference between Cushing and his signature Van Helsing character, provides the catalyst for the story, but also an interesting insight into the way he is viewed. To Carl, the child, he is the protector, the saviour, the one who fights the dark things in the world and triumphs with a blaze of sunshine.

And so Volk's Cushing tries to live up to. I found I had to keep reminding myself that this was a character, not the actual Peter Cushing. Volk has created an emotionally authentic and believable version of a famous film star, and propped it up with the scaffolding of very intimate details about his life. The amount of research which went into this must have been breathtaking -- indeed, I imagine it took a lifetime of fandom.

But where I felt this came into its own was in how effortlessly it brought together the subject matter of Cushing's Hammer films with the darkness which walks everyday streets and lurks in ordinary English houses. The parallels drawn between the vampiric and supernatural which Carl perceives and the darker truths which Cushing -- and the reader -- see are more deeply chilling than a lot more violent, gory or explicit horror novels.

And just to take a moment for appreciation here; Spectral Press have done a fantastic job. Not only have they published an excellent piece of work, but they have done so in a beautiful physical edition, as well as a bargain price Kindle e-book at 2.04. If Spectral Press can repeat this excellent balance of quality and price (which there is every indication that they will) then it can only mean good things for short fiction.

In summary, I found Whitstable an excellent and powerfully moving read. It was a brave decision for Stephen Volk to try and write about such a well-known and -loved individual such as Cushing, and in the hands of a lesser writer he could have ended up either being Van Helsing, or simply coming across as a caricature. But Volk was more than equal to the task, and the result is a lovingly crafted, yet fundamentally honest and believable, profile of the man wrapped in a powerfully and sinisterly creeping story.


Path of Needles
Path of Needles
Price: 2.98

3.0 out of 5 stars A better than average crime novel, 5 Jun 2013
This review is from: Path of Needles (Kindle Edition)
It is, I think, good to expand your horizons on a regular basis. That applies in all aspects of life, but especially (in my opinion at least) with reading and writing. It's all too easy to box ourselves in to what is comfortable, what we know we like, and before we know it we end up stagnated in -- to use a rather clichéd example -- Tolkeinesque high fantasy.

Path of Needles then, being a crime novel, is a bit of a departure from previous form and favour for both myself, as the reader, and Alison Littlewood.

I read, and rather enjoyed, her debut novel A Cold Season over a year ago. It was a horror novel both easily accessible and eschewing the easier monster-based paths of horror for a creeping and lingering chill. But Path of Needles is cut from a different mould, so even as I opened the cover I knew that I would have to put my preconceptions aside to see what waited within

Path of Needles utilises that classic cornerstone of mystery crime fiction, the themed serial killer. To the best of my knowledge, this doesn't tend to happen in the real world, but since "random homicidal nutter kills for no obvious reason" doesn't lend itself naturally to exciting fiction. Here the theme is fairytales.

There seems to be something of a trend towards fairy tales lately. It was clear with the spate of Snow White films last year, but now it seems to be getting a major hat tip from the fiction world -- Sarah Pinborough's Poison comes to mind. I'm not completely sold, but even I have to admit that it makes a welcome change from brooding teenaged vampires.

Anyway, the novel centres around a series of murders in West Yorkshire, where the bodies have been staged to resemble fairy tale dioramas. Fresh-faced policewoman Cate Corbin and folklore teacher Alice Hyland are brought together in the effort to decipher the killer's messages and motives and bring the murder spree to an end.

The power of Littlewood's writing in this novel clearly stems from her horror background. She weaves the fairy tales right into the fabric of the story. There's no tipping of hands, no showing of cards, and it remains a possibility that the plot could take a sharp turn off the path, and the supernatural explanations hinted at -- and scorned by the characters -- could turn out to be the reality. That blurring of this line between natural and supernatural is what gives Path of Needles its edge, and takes it beyond the usual crime fare.

And a lot of work has gone into it. No Disney princesses grace these pages, Littlewood has done her research into the histories of fairytales. The variations she brings out -- older and necessarily more brutal than modern interpretations -- are different, interesting and in a number of places surprised me with content and ideas which I hadn't encountered elsewhere. Throughout, there is a pervading sense that a lot of work has gone into this novel.

However -- and there always, it seems, has to be a however -- it is still crime fiction, and I still had some of the issues with it that I tend to with that genre. It's all so...by the numbers. A whistle-stop reveal of evidence, clue by clue in exacting order, which though undoubtedly superior to your average Midsommer Murders episode still has the dread touch of formula on it. The backstory of the killer, for example, felt like a time-worn simplification lifted from the pages of too many other novels within the genre. It was tailored to fit this story, granted, but I was left wanting something more.

Littlewood is a very competent writer. Her prose rolls of the page with a light and easy-to-read touch -- I read most of it in the sun on holiday -- and she has a gift for creative story-telling. By the final act, I was hoping for a sea-change in the story's direction comparable to A Cold Season to really knock my socks off. So whilst the novel was a perfectly good crime novel -- better than average, I would even chance -- I was ultimately left feeling a little unfulfilled.


Outlaw Bodies
Outlaw Bodies
by Anna Caro
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.51

2.0 out of 5 stars A regretful and souring sense of disappointment, 25 May 2013
This review is from: Outlaw Bodies (Paperback)
This review was originally published in issue #245 of science-fiction magazine Interzone #245 Mar - Apr 2013 (Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine). You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

If science-fiction has a point beyond simple entertainment - and I would imagine most Interzone readers would say it does -I would submit that the most likely candidate is to push boundaries and challenge norms. So it's fairly encouraging to see Outlaw Bodies wedding itself to that idea from the introduction: an anthology of stories revolving around "any body that defies social norms and expectations".

With that as a mission statement, Jo Thomas' "Good Form" is a good start. Painting a strangely alarming vision of the future, it shows the construction and education of an artificial intelligence. The conclusion leaves an unsettling taste, with deeper musings on the nature of intelligence and when exactly the pupil outstrips the teacher.

Vylar Kaftan's "She Called Me Baby" is a story about a mother-daughter relationship, ramped up to eleven as the daughter is a clone, as a publicity gimmick by her "mother". It's a subtle story, wearing its themes softly and with a lightly emotional touch, and an ending which sadly strays a little into the predictable (or perhaps inevitable?).

"Millie" by Anna Caro went to the heart of the anthology's theme. A girl without a body, struggles to grow up experiencing the world through an artificial aid which is more like a pet. It was a good story, but tended to confuse and lose me along the way.

I'm generally wary of editors including their own stories in their anthologies, and Lori Selke's "Frankenstein Unravelled" rather seems to justify those concerns. It's well-enough written, with the technical competence of a clearly talented writer, but as a concept Frankenstein's monster grappling with the healthcare system was a bit bland.

I rather liked "Her Bones, Those of the Dead" by Tracie Welser, yet thinking on it I'm not entirely sure why. It was a simple yet effective story about a character uncomfortable in her skin, seeking the solitude and comfort of another way of life. It stuck with me long after I had turned the page on it - which can only be a compliment.

It took me a while to make up my mind about Emily Capettini's "Elmer Bank". It wasn't poorly written, and the idea of a world in the aftermath of a gender war was ripe and interesting. But too often the explanation seemed focused in the wrong direction--exposing flaws in the setting, rather than elucidating the mechanics or advancing the story.

And now we reach my least favourite offering. "Mouth" by M. Svarini started out promisingly, with a bold and imaginative world where people are grown in labs, and biology is the plaything of a decadent society. So it was disappointing to see it fade into a straightforward, if explicit, erotic fantasy. I don't read erotica, so maybe I've missed the point, but then this isn't an erotica anthology, so I'm not really sure what the point was.

"The Remaker" by Fabio Fernandes is, I think, my favourite. It kept me guessing, uncertain until it was done whether I actually did like it or not. At face, it's a story about a literary mystery, set in a vastly transformed world. But through that, it moves to the sort of fundamental themes on which the anthology as a whole sets its sights. The constant popular culture references get a bit grating, but the writing glimmers nonetheless, and the characters crackle with life.

Closing out the collection, Stacy Sinclair's "Winds: NW 20 km/hr" is another very good story. Featuring an unconventional pregnancy and birth, it manages to weave compelling themes of motherhood, fatherhood and what it means to be human, into a surprisingly short piece. An excellent curtain-closer.

Outlaw Bodies features some very good stories, and sets itself some very laudable aims. Unfortunately, it also hamstrings itself to some extent with a sense of inconsistency. Some of the stories in this collection were outclassed by the subjects they set themselves. That inconsistency, and the failure of some of the pieces to measure up, leaves a regretful and souring sense of disappointment which mars the experience.


Spin
Spin
by Nina Allan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Blurs fantasy and reality into a heady and intoxicating cocktail, 11 May 2013
This review is from: Spin (Paperback)
Nina Allan's "Spin" is the second of TTA's new series of novellas -- the astute amongst you will remember that I also reviewed the first; "Eyepennies" by Mike O'Driscoll. "Spin" is set in a strange version of Greece, which seems recognisable, but strays in distinct ways into a fantastically strange world.

Layla, the daughter of dye magnate, leaves home to make her own life and find success as a weaver. But, with the death of her mother -- executed for "clairvoyancy" crimes -- hanging over her, she struggles to escape the uncomfortable touch of destiny.

There are layers of meaning hidden within this story -- hidden to a depth that I don't seriously believe that I have understood them all. One, on the very edge of my periphery, is a heavy influence of the classical myth of Arachne. But as I said, I know very little about that.

I did, however, still enjoy the story in its own rights.

Allan has created a palpable sense of location here. The prose drips with a hot Mediterranean sweat which gives the whole story a sense of slow and exotic weariness, a real palpable sense of both the weather and the lingering sense of oppression. Layla is very much a woman trapped; by her parentage, by the expectations of the people she meets, and by her own gift for embroidery.

So too the characters hum with a vitality of their own. Layla leads the charge, with an achingly sympathetic urge for freedom and independence -- ultimately the architect of a peculiar kind of arrogance which forms her downfall. But behind her is a rich and fascinating cast. Bit parts, mostly, but they all feel complete and whole. Like we are simply passing through their stories, and that greater of them remains untold -- but that is a different tale.

Of course, the flipside of such an abstract tone is that it requires closer attention. Twisting avenues of plot and description will see the unfocused reader lost and turned around. Several times I had to re-read passages simply because their labyrinthine complexity had confused me.

But to call this anything but excellent would be a lie. I loved it because it excited me, and I found myself so easily consumed by it. With beautiful settings and compelling characters, Allan writes a subtle smudging of real-world lines, blurring fantasy and reality into a heady and intoxicating cocktail.


The Thing (2011) [DVD]
The Thing (2011) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Offered by skyvo-direct
Price: 7.12

3.0 out of 5 stars Managed to capture some of the feeling of the original, but add more modern touches, 14 May 2012
This review is from: The Thing (2011) [DVD] (DVD)
I'll be honest, I approached this with some trepidation. The original film The Thing is a classic of sci-fi and horror, one of those films I watched as I began my awakening to the genre, and loved every moment of. Coupled with my general distrust of remakes, I wasn't at all convinced that this would be a sound investment of my time.

Surprisingly, then, I can report I rather enjoyed it. It managed to capture some of the feeling of the original, but add to it with more modern touches. The film is actually a prequel rather than a remake, which begs the infuriated question, why does it have the same name as the original? I don't have the answer to that, but the film itself does fit perfectly into the original which is rather gratifying in itself.

But that it works as essentially fan fiction to the original should not at all be the gauge of its success or failure. It must stand as a film in its own right- which it does rather well. The CGI rendering of the titular Thing gives it a rather different flavour, swapping the 80s gore effects which Carpenter was so fond of for a more Dead Space appeal. Indeed, the Thing more resembles the necromorphs from those video games than I remember previously.

The story itself was sound, but then it was half-written by the film it was expanding upon. A team of Norwegian scientists in the Antarctic discover a crashed alien spaceship along with an alien frozen in a block of ice, and remove the latter for examination. Except it's not quite dead, and the alien cells can imitate human cells, and you can probably see where this is going.

The pacing goes for a little less claustrophobic paranoia, and a little more big budget action, but I think that's more a sign of the times than anything- and aside from there being no real explanation as to why there is such an abundance of flamethrowers at Antarctic bases, it doesn't stray to far from the believability of the premise.

One interesting note is that it does seem to be staffed by lookalikes. The female lead, at certain angles, bears rather a resemblance to Firefly and Stargate Atlantis actress Jewel Staite (but isn't). The can't-speak-English Norwegian heavyman looks sort of like Liam Neeson gone native (but, unsurprisingly, isn't). And the English radio operator looks the spit of Tim Roth (but isn't). None of which has any bearing on anything really, but I thought it was interesting...

In the end, though, as much as I enjoyed the film I'm left wondering why it was made as a prequel to 1982's The Thing. Yes, it fitted perfectly with it, but that's because it was made to. It didn't have to be. It had flavours and inspirations from a variety of other sources, including as I've already mentioned the Dead Space video game series, and the first Alien vs Predator film. I'm a little disappointed that it wasn't pushed as an inspired-by-but-unrelated film, injected with a bit of originality and allowed to go its own way a bit more.

Even straight-jacketed to someone else's film I enjoyed it, but I do think I would have enjoyed it even more if it was its own film. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who is getting sick of remakes, prequels and the like.


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