Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by SA Hunt (The Outlaw King #1) #review

Title: The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree (Book #1 of the Outlaw King series)
Author: S.A. Hunt
Author published, 2013

I’m a huge fan of stories where Earthlings inadvertently find themselves stumbling into an alternative world filled with magic, so S.A. Hunt’s The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree snagged me from the get go.

Ross Brigham was never close to his father, Ed, who was a famous author of a fantasy series possibly as iconic as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. While Ross himself was not too shabby himself when it came to stringing words together, I get the impression that he walked in his father’s shadow.

When Ross returns from active military service in the Middle East it’s to make the discovery that his home life, as he’d looked forward to, no longer exists. He might live in his dream home, but his wife has left him. Not only that, but his father has died, and having nothing better to do, Ross attends the funeral of a man he suspects his fans knew better than he ever did. What he wasn’t prepared for was to see the impact his father’s writing had on others’ lives.

Predictably that’s when things start becoming more than just a little bit strange for Ross. The long and short of it is that he agrees to finish writing his father’s so far unfinished series about a world ruled by a mystical gunslinger king. Ross befriends two of his father’s young fans – Noreen and Sawyer – who know a helluva lot more about his father’s writing than he does. Ross is no Christopher Tolkien, that much is for sure.

Where C.S. Lewis had a magical cupboard, Hunt present us first with a magic mirror under a church, followed by an elevator ride into this other world, that sees Ross relying heavily on Noreen and Sawyer’s knowledge of the books as they explore. What follows is an adventure, yes, part murder mystery, but also an examination of the creative process.

Hunt doesn’t cover any new ground with this book. That being said, he does take one of my favourite tropes – that of an Earthling transported to another world – and puts his own stamp on it. And, let me tell you, Hunt’s imagination is a wonderful, strange place to be. If you’re looking for elves, orcs and dragons, then you had best go elsewhere for your jollies. This novel recalls everything that I love about westerns, but it’s also in part a surreal homage to The Neverending Story, for all the metaphysical reasons encapsulated in Michael Ende’s work. But this is all fantasy – The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree leaves me feeling that I’ve dipped into a curious melange that is unlike anything I’ve read recently.

If you can push aside your expectations and just hold on for the ride, you will be transported to some of the most well-realised and utterly strange settings you’ve seen in a while.

Yes, the pacing is a little uneven in places, but oh my, Hunt really understands how to evoke a sense of place, wonder and mood, even at his most surreal moments that I could overlook any rough edges (there weren’t many).

I kept thinking a little about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series while reading – maybe the whole mystical gunslinger vibe – but overall I just loved every moment of this book and I’m keen to go on to book two. Watch out for this author. His imagination has run wild and it’s abso-bloody-lutely awesome.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mud, (fake) blood, sweat and tears for the silver screen

WHENEVER I let slip that my husband is a film-maker – surreal horror/art films no less – people naturally make the same erroneous assumption as when I mention that I’m a published author.

“Oh, you guys must make lots of money.”

At which point my hysterical laughter is met with looks of dull incomprehension. I must add, darling, that to make a small fortune in independent film-making (or publishing, for that matter) you need to start with a large fortune. Considering that most of us are not in possession of a large fortune… Well, say no more.

Some wives have husbands who like watching rugby or cricket with the boys down at the local. I have a husband who likes to meet up with his fellow co-conspirators to plan their next movie. The actual scriptwriting is the easy part. This process usually involves drinking copious cups of coffee or chosen beverages while the two intrepid directors-writers hash things out. Emails fly, and sometimes there are long, animated phone conversations at odd hours. But eventually the guys will have their script.

Then the fun really starts. It’s called pre-production, and that’s when things become really weird. To be fair, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“We need a fake animal carcass.”

“We need to make a meat mask.”

“We need at least six litres of fake blood.”

Luckily, Cape Town has numerous prop houses that stock such arcane items as fake animal carcasses (they’re made of foam, in case you’re wondering). I also now have a large, rusted vintage fridge lurking in my yard. Don’t ask how it got there. It was a prop in their last film. I don’t know who the hulk belongs to and I have a nagging suspicion it’s moved in on a semi-permanent basis and won’t be paying rent.

Also, we’ve made good friends with people who are in the business of creating special FX make-up and prosthetics. We’ve also figured out our own recipe for making really convincing fake blood. (It involves corn syrup, food colouring, dishwashing liquid and coffee, and mixing it up to the right consistency isn’t as easy as chucking all the ingredients into a bowl.) Invariably someone has to mop up the fake blood. That would be me.

Never a dull moment.

Camaraderie makes it all worthwhile...
Ronnie and Thomas enjoy the creative process...
We go through litres of fake blood every time we film. We’ve also discovered that Worcestershire sauce will do in a pinch if we need to show the stuff running down a wall.

But nothing beats the camaraderie that happens when we’re shooting. I think that’s part of the reason why I keep tagging along and making myself useful. We’ve been in some pretty insane locations over the past few years, including a derelict warehouse, an ancient school hall, a butchery (with prerequisite flyblown, meaty chopping block) and an abandoned quarry.

Granted, if the team needs someone to go to collect the make-up artist; find a hammer (on a Saturday morning, month-end in Woodstock, no less); make lunch for a dozen hungry crew members; or mop up the fake blood – it ends up that the lucky person is me.

Let it be known that I make coffee and tea like a boss.

I’m cool with all this. For once the mere fact that I don’t have any special skills on set means I get to play fly on the wall while nominally lending a helping hand.

Yes, there are bucket-loads of “hurry up and wait”, but each film is different, each experience offering its own challenges and rewards. I’m sure as hell not doing this for the money.

Once all props and equipment have been returned, we enter that dazed “What now?” phase. What, we have weekends? What on earth are we to do with ourselves?

Except then the lads begin to edit, which usually leads to my falling asleep on the editor’s couch while the guys crowd around the computer. By the time we go home it’s so late it’s early, and it’s usually on a school night, which means I resemble something that crawled off the set of Evil Dead by the time I turn up for work in the morning.

“But is it worth it?” you ask.

Hell, yes. Nothing beats sitting in that cinema and seeing the results on the silver screen. The rapt faces of the audience are something to behold. Oh, haai, yes, and the team winning awards. It doesn’t affect the bank account, but it does feed the ego.

Seeing my name at the end of the credits with special thanks, no less. That helps. It almost makes up for having to put up with my husband’s stress. Also, the joy of seeing the films end up at assorted arts and film festivals all over the world. And winning international awards too. That totally rocks. Granted, we’re not going to be trotting up the red carpet for an Oscar any time soon, but hell, to borrow something Neil Gaiman once said, we’re making good art.

And that matters.

See aLONE in its entirety.

See the La Mia Carne trailer.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories compiled by Diane Awerbuck & edited by Louis Greenberg #review

Title: The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories
Compiled: Diane Awerbuck
Edited: Louis Greenberg
Publisher: Umuzi, 2013

Short story anthologies number among my guilty pleasures, and it was impossible to resist when two of my favourite South African bookish folk – Diane Awerbuck and Louis Greenberg – put their creative minds together to bring out this selection of 31 tales. There is a little bit of everything here to please most palates, and I enjoyed not really knowing what I was getting into whenever I started a fresh tale.

It’s also far beyond the scope of this review to give detailed mention for each story, so I’ll highlight a handful that stood out for me.

“Revelations” by Jennifer Thorpe is filled with barbed humour made me snigger quietly to myself for the naïveté of the narrator pondering the End of Days and the fate of a beloved pooch.

Ilze Hugo’s “The Ghost-Eater” from which the anthology derives its name offers sly, paranormal humour. Fred Mostert, the ghost-eater, is a character I won’t easily forget – especially for his Klippies en Coke and his penchant for KFC.

Then there are stories like Daniel Bertie’s “The Writing Class” that are just downright disturbing in the most deliciously devious pet-“murgling” ways.

I’ve been following Liam Kruger’s career with interest and his “& Found” features his signature alcohol-steeped observations. Many of his characters offer an uncomfortably seedy vibe and this tale, which features a magician with a rare gift to find lost property is no exception.

Mia Arderne’s “The Fool” amply conveys that dismal “morning after the night before” miasma as the protagonist suffers the depredations of both genders. The crushing despair is painful, and you can’t help but feel that the protagonist is the only one to blame for her misery.

“The Nazi Insurgence Reaches Blairgowrie” by Werner Pretorius brings with it a sense of unrelenting claustrophobia as the protagonist deals not only with a midlife crisis but also his father’s dementia.

As stated earlier, this is but a selection of stories that stood out for me, and I’m certain other readers will resonate with different examples. A sense of Africa in all its diversity permeates this anthology, which brings with it a resonance for locals, and perhaps a taste of the exotic for non-Africans. The tales run the spectrum, from lit fic through to spec fic, and if you’re in the mood to dip into fresh voices worth keeping an eye out for in the future, then you can’t go wrong with The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories. Here you’ll find tales that are humorous, disconcerting, dark or poignant; they will quietly slip you into unexpected realities for a short spell, as all good short stories should.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

10 minutes with Suzanne van Rooyen #author

Part of the reason why I review books is so that I'm constantly exposed to new authors, and I've met some awesome people over the years. I'm happy to present fellow South African author Suzanne van Rooyen, who's scarily awesome. To give you a hint, she's into Neil Gaiman and Poppy Z Brite, which immediately makes her good people, in my books. As if it's not enough, she's also into music. I've recently read her novel, The Other Me, which I feel is how contemporary YA *should* be written. Go check the book out on Goodreads. I've been an annoying gushing fangrrrl by telling everyone to go out and buy that book immediately.

So, Suzanne, what do you love about Brite and Gaiman? 

Oh indeed! Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite was the first book I ever read twice, and then a third time. I just didn't want it to end so when I got to the last page, I just started from the beginning again. That book is what made me want to start writing. Ghost was also my first real book boyfriend and he'll always have a special place in my heart. As for Gaiman, my love for him began when I started reading his Sandman graphic novel series. The scope of those stories, the intricacies and complexities of the plots and worlds were mesmerizing and held me enthralled for years as I saved up my pocket money to buy each volume. I'm a huge fan of Gaiman, not only because of his writing but because of the way he views fame and talks about being an author. I love his candour and sense of humour.

The Other Me is, in my opinion, a brave book, because you treat subjects I suspect the bigger local publishers might shy away from. Your teens come across *exactly* as I remember my school days, warts and all. Can you share a little insight into the story?

Yeah, these aren't easy topics, least of all when in a South African setting. This story is extremely personal and was largely inspired by my own high school experiences attending a private all-girls Catholic school and feeling like a total freak. You can read more about that in my Dear Teen Me letter over here. This story had been rattling around in my head for a while. Gabriel – my male MC – was born first as an amalgamation of many of the beautiful but broken boys I knew growing up. Treasa was more complicated. I knew her story and who she wanted to be, but I didn't know how to tell her story in a way that might get my book published. In the end, I stopped caring about 'publishability' and just let Treasa tell her story without trying to censor or edit her. As nervous as I still am about this book being out there given its sensitive subject material and how much this story means to me, I'm so glad I gave my characters the freedom to be who they truly are - which is the core theme of this novel: having the courage to be your authentic self.

Your love of music shines through too (and this is probably why I related even more, because I studied music as a double subject for matric). Can you tell a little more about your background related to music?

Sure. I started playing piano when I was six and played my way through all the UNISA grades. I did music and music performance for Matric before going on to do a Bachelor's of Music and then a Master's in Music, Mind and Technology. I think I'll always be a musician first, a writer second. My current day job includes teaching music to 7th and 9th graders so music is still and always will be a huge part of my life. Like Treasa, in high school I was a choir nerd, I played piano and flute, and I don't think I would've survived my teenage years without my music – hence the musical theme in The Other Me.

For me it's the guitar, and possibly also the only reason why I made it through high school without doing something completely stupid. Can you tell us a little more about the publishing path that you've followed so far? What have been some of the challenges you've faced? And some of the highlights? 

I got published almost by accident to be honest. In 2010, a friend told me about NaNoWriMo. Up until then I'd only been writing for fun and never taken it too seriously. However, after continuing to work on the novel I started writing during that NaNoWriMo session, I toyed with the idea of getting published and submitted my story to an indie press on a whim. I knew very little about how the publishing industry worked and was totally unprepared for an offer to publish my novel. It was a baptism by fire, as they say, as I had to learn a hell of a lot about craft, publicity, editing and publishing in a few short months between signing the contract and seeing my book in print. It was surreal but it was also exactly what I needed at a time when I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life. After that, I started pursuing publishing more seriously. After becoming a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition in 2012, I landed my US-based agent as well as my second book contract. It hasn't been an easy publishing path at all and I still have so much I want to achieve, but having had three books published in less than three years of taking this writing thing seriously feels like a major achievement unto itself.

Choose one person who absolutely inspires you (living or dead). Who? Why? 

Christopher McCandless, perhaps better known as Alexander Supertramp. His story as told by Jon Krakauer in the novel Into the Wild (which was also made into a stunningly beautiful movie), changed my life. Reading that book resulted in a major paradigm shift for me, from waiting to have money to start living and being happy to being happy with living the life I had regardless of my bank balance. While I don't think McCandless always made the best decisions, his fearless determination and ability to break free from societal expectation has been hugely inspiring.

If someone's interested in your writing, which three titles would you recommend, and in which order? 

The Other Me for sure - it's my newest YA novel and a departure from my usual science fiction writing.

Obscura Burning – a darker, edgier and weirder read for fans of both sci-fi and contemporary.

And then I strongly recommend waiting for my brand new YA science fiction novel titled I Heart Robot. That's due out in 2015 from Month9Books.

What are you reading at the moment? Why would you recommend this book? 

I'm going to cheat and talk about a book I just finished, The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely. I can't say enough good things about this book. It's a contemporary YA novel about a boy living in the wake of abuse at the hands of his local priest. It's a beautifully written novel that is raw and unapologetic, but always sensitive considering its somewhat controversial subject matter. This story broke my heart, left me with a major book hangover and will haunt me for months to come. For anyone who enjoys poignant stories about broken boys trying to put themselves back together then this is the book for you!

What's next on the schedule for you? What can your readers look out for? 

I Heart Robot is scheduled for release January 2015! I'm so excited about this book! It's about a girl who unwittingly falls in love with an android boy who is the only 'person' who gets her love of music. Music is a major theme in this novel too and it's set in a futuristic Scandinavia.

There should also be a second, and hopefully a third book, in the I Heart Robot series to look forward to as well.

I'm currently working on a New Adult science fiction novel in a similar vein to Obscura Burning, which I hope to have on submission with my agent later this year.

2014 is going to be a very busy writing year!

About the Author:
Suzanne is an author and peanut-butter addict from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. When not writing you can find her teaching dance and music to middle-schoolers or playing in the snow with her shiba inu. She is rep'd by Jordy Albert of the Booker Albert Agency.

Website, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Queen's Hunt (River of Souls #2) by Beth Bernobich #review

Title: Queen’s Hunt (River of Souls #2)
Author: Beth Bernobich
Publisher: Tor Books, 2012

Beth Bernobich is one of those authors for whom I’ve developed a serious case of instaluv – so I’m compulsively working my way through her books as and when my reading schedule allows. What I adore about her writing is that she’s unhurried, focusing on the relationships between people and also developing whole characters who not only love, but also maintain interests and aspirations. These elements, of course, get derailed by events not always under their control, which keeps me turning those pages.

In book #1, Passion Play, we are introduced to Ilse, who has run away from an arranged marriage and by happy fortune ended up in the employ of Raul Kosenmark, who is unofficially a noble spymaster who rules a shadow court behind the respectable façade of his pleasure house.

In the first book, we are only privy to Ilse’s perspective as she falls in love with Raul, explores her latent magical talent, and becomes deeply involved in political intrigue. By book #2 we follow the tale from multiple points of view which, although took a little getting used to at first, definitely broadens the perspective and in hindsight was quite necessary.

The story as it stands, tells us that war loom between nations, and a despotic ruler, Leos Dzavek, who has had an unnaturally long lifespan, seeks to find the missing Lir’s jewels in order to re-establish his power. This plot element recalls a little Tolkienesque buzz with the Silmarils, if anything, for those of you familiar with that particular McGuffin. Standing against Leos, we have three young people: Ilse, Valara and Miro, who discover a shared history in their past lives related to the jewels and their historical theft and their relationship with Leos.

Okay, that is the underlying spine of Queen’s Hunt – the search for the jewels and the eventual outcome that I’ll not share because, yeah. SPOILERS.

Valara is a queen in exile, who through a quirk of fate ends up in the company of Ilse, who’s gone into self-imposed exile in order to protect Raul, and then a cast of secondary viewpoint characters who all play integral parts to the plot. We even pop into Raul’s head a few times, which is lovely.

Each character has his or her smaller story arc, so I can best describe this saga as a gradual unfolding or unravelling of a massive tapestry, of which we, as readers, only see small parts of the larger pattern.

Bernobich is concerned with texture, sensation and colour. Her writing is visceral and rewards the patient reader. What I especially love is that she doesn’t explain everything, all at once, for which I am very grateful. There’s nothing worse than plodding through reams of exposition – a sometimes unavoidable aspect of fantasy.

Granted, there were a few key moments in Queen’s Hunt where the pacing went a bit quick for my liking, and I felt as if Bernobich glossed over the action in important sequences where I personally needed a little depth in the layering department, but these were few. It would have helped then to have a better understanding of the characters’ motivations, but this is a minor quibble on my part and could possibly also be written off to individual taste.

More than anything, I’d like to underscore how real the characters and the setting feels to me. People don’t achieve what they want. Things go wrong, sometimes catastrophically so. They then have to deal with the repercussions of their actions – and they pay for it, sometimes with their lives.

Bernobich effortlessly sweeps me away into her setting where myth, magic and courtly intrigue are the order of the day, with refreshingly non-Eurocentric set dressing. (There are no blond, blue-eyed gallant knights, in other words.) I can’t wait to pick up book #3, Allegiance, and I’m certain there are many more surprises in store.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman #review

Title: Anno Dracula (Anno Dracula #1)
Author: Kim Newman
Publisher: Titan Books, 2011

The first time I picked up this novel it didn’t quite stick. I think I was still in my early teens so in hindsight most of the references and interactions would have gone way over my head. I’m glad that I’ve given Anno Dracula another shot, mainly from a research perspective in the genre. On one hand, Kim Newman has a prodigious understanding and love of the vampire genre, of which I’m in awe. Anno Dracula serves as a fitting homage to vampires in popular culture over the years and Newman is adept in painting a thoroughly dystopian Victorian London.

But… And there is going to be a but. Pacing and tension. We are, from the beginning of the novel, well aware of Jack the Ripper’s identity, which robs the story of a lot of its tension. It’s not so much as *who* the murderer is but *how soon* the characters uncover his identity, but even as he continues in his actions, Charles and Genevieve, our two protagonists, sort of bumble along. They pay lip service to their investigation while spending more time staring into each other’s eyes. That they’re going to fall into mutual fascination is charming and inevitable, and the difficulty presented by a mortal/vampire relationship is unavoidable.

The biggest stumbling block I faced with this novel is that it doesn’t really move and, once the crime is solved, the plot takes a sudden twist into unexpected territory, with very little build-up to suggest this as the possible alternative. I’m tempted almost to think that the ending was latched on. I mean, it’s not an implausible conclusion but I would have liked a bit more foreshadowing and felt that the Jack the Ripper story arc was a bit of a red herring to mask the actual ending.

Yet, what I did like about Anno Dracula was seeing the assorted literary characters have their little cameo appearances. Even Anne Rice’s Lestat (and I’m wondering if she’d have a conniption fit about this considering her attitude toward other writers appropriating her darlings in fanfiction).

This very habit of populating his novel with existing personalities is also Newman’s weak point. While it’s certainly fun seeing how many of the characters I could recognise, this also meant that the focus of the novel is diffuse – hence the massive pacing issues. Consequently it’s also difficult to become emotionally invested in any particular individual.

The world-building, however, makes up for the pacing. Newman goes on to show that vampirism only serves to accentuate social ills. The unintended consequences are not pretty. Newborns from the lower classes suffer even more than before – and further divides are introduced into the community – that of the warm and the turned. (This makes me think a lot about how affirmative action and cronyism is affecting contemporary South Africa.) A new class is emerging with its own brand of discrimination as vampires rise in power and favour others if their kind. This is a fascinating social dynamic to examine.

The premise of Anno Dracula is fantastic. Newman begins with the question of “What if Dracula wasn’t defeated by Van Helsing and co?” In Newman’s milieu, Vlad Tepes has taken temporal power by turning Queen Victoria and becoming the prince consort. Vampirism has become de rigueur, and the British Empire is at the peak of its power. (Though it’s quite clear that there’s something rather rotten at the empire’s heart.)

Jack the Riper is at large, only he’s targeting unfortunate vampire prostitutes instead of warm women. Vampires from all over are flocking to London now that their state of being has been offered a veneer of respectability – and this uneasy, unnatural situation is slowly fomenting social discord.

Charles and Genevieve are lovely, complex characters, and it is easy to grow quite fond of them if you can deal with the polarised focus of the novel, as well as its uneven pacing. If you are a die-hard fan of the vampire in literature, then you should definitely consider giving this one a chance – a worthy read.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tempus by Holly Lauren #review

Title: Tempus
Author: Holly Lauren
Publisher: Libertine Press, 2013

From the get go Tempus by Holly Lauren looks and feels like countless American high school-set YA, with prerequisite love triangle, cheerleaders and football jocks. And you can be forgiven for assuming that, because for the first half of the book that’s pretty much all there is. Except that the protagonist, Chapel Ryan, occasionally suffers what she terms as “hallucinations”. For all that Chapel is your average cheerleader type, with a prerequisite loyal tight-knit group of quirky friends, she literally stops time occasionally, and has little control over these episodes.

Consequently, she thinks she’s a freak and she goes to great pains to be as normal as possible. Her home life might look ideal from the outside, but tensions abound. Her stepfather is an upwardly mobile politician and Chapel’s mum, Valerie, is focused on raising Chapel’s young twin half-sisters. So Chapel can be excused for feeling a bit isolated on the home front, especially since she is still struggling to come to terms with the fact that her biological father died when she was only three. And she so doesn’t like her stepfather. He’s uber creepy as all hell and I don’t blame her for giving him the cold shoulder despite his generally amiable advances.

One of the main accusations I often level at YA fiction is that the main character is primarily boy-obsessed. Not so in Tempus. Chapel is a well-rounded character. She worries about what her future holds beyond sole interest in the opposite gender. She takes charge of her life as much as she can while still technically a minor. She genuinely cares about her friends. She’s a hard worker who’s not afraid to stick to her guns. Chapel tries to do the right thing and applies common sense when solving problems. (Oh, guess what? She’s not clumsy! You have absolutely no idea how refreshing this is.)

Yes, it can be argued that Chapel’s a bit squeaky clean (hello, she’s a Sunday school teacher, it don’t get squeakier than that) but at no point did she make me want to gouge out my eyes.

A word on the love interest: Isaiah is the dark, dark, edgy and unsuitable boy with a dodgy past. He also lives next door to Chapel (but it’s not so much of a coincidence as you’d think). His stalkerish behaviour, however, does creep me out a bit, so I wasn’t entire comfortable with their relationship. Okay, he wasn’t as bad as Edward Cullen, but he was pretty bad.

The reasons, for his behaviour do become clear later on yet still, yeah, I’d be less than thrilled if my love interest pulled a few of the stunts Isaiah does right in the beginning when they’re first getting to know one another.

Let me add that Lauren is pretty good at misdirection. There were a few outcomes in the story that I expected, especially with regard to the love triangle trope that she successfully uses as red herrings. And I think those little bits of misdirection definitely contributed to my enjoyment of the story.

The underlying premise of Tempus relates to the concept of genetic mutations that allow people to perform an assortment of supernatural feats. Over the years, these people have formed secret societies and they’re not playing nicely with each other. With her rare ability to stop time, Chapel finds herself in the midst of a tug-of-war for her loyalty. She doesn’t have all the details and for her it’s a race to uncover the truth about herself, her father’s death and stay a step ahead of a dangerous enemy.

Lauren throws in a few sneaky twists and turns, so not everything is as one would expect. World building is generous and offers a lot of scope for development of the story.

Of course no review would be complete unless I shared a few of my niggles. While overall pacing is tight, and only a few typos grabbed me by the eyeballs (mostly homophone abuse) there are some moments when the writing goes too fast and I had to reread passages a few times to gain the gist of what was going on.

That being said, these moments didn’t make me want to chuck my phablet across the train carriage because Lauren settled those speed wobbles quickly.

Tempus makes me think a lot about the X-men and in that respect should appeal to superhero fans. Would I read book two – definitely. Lauren delivers a solid, action-packed YA tale that’s tight, features well-defined characters and has a lot of potential for an ongoing series.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dark Harvest: Six of the Best with Anna Reith

Whenever I pull together an anthology, I'm always keen to include Anna Reith's writing. She totally hits the mark for me. Her tales might not move quickly but they are lush and evocative, and filled with mood, texture and colour. So, she was perfect for Dark Harvest, which is available in print, Amazon, Kobo and Nook. But... Over to Anna.

Tell us about your story. Where did you pick up the story seeds?

The Weeping Blade is a tricky one. It’s probably one of the weirdest stories I’ve written to date, in several ways. It’s to do, loosely, with how places are altered by habitation, and how we’ve altered ourselves, and our perceptions…and maybe a little to do with how thin that veneer of civilisation is. That said, most of it is really quite light-hearted, and I think that was my inspiration. We often cope with the more terrifying aspects of our humanity—and our mortality—either through humour, or the prosaic mentality that Six has in the story.

What creeps you out?

It’s terrible, I know, because they’re very beautiful and interesting critters, but I have a mild almost-phobia of slugs. This is due to a house I once lived in—it was like The Amityville Horror, but with hygroscopic mucus instead of blood.

That aside, I think the scariest things are those we don’t face head-on: not just our worries, fears, or skewed perceptions, but the actual nature of our reality. We understand so little about the universe, and while the limitless potential in it is fascinating, it also makes human beings seem extremely small. The way in which we’re basically hard-wired not to explore that, mentally, is pretty creepy.

Why do you love dark/unsettling fiction?

Well, following on from the universe and infinity, I think weird fiction is the perfect medium to delve into that. It’s the place to put aside conventions and examine the unknown and unseen; the shadows at the corner of our eyes, which are never there when we turn around. Of course, the question is whether there’s genuinely “something out there” that we have yet to understand, or whether all those shadows are simply reflections of us.

What are you working on now?

I…have too many things to do. *grin* My output’s been slowed due to ill health and upcoming surgery, but I’m polishing up the first instalment of a sci-fi series and working on two dark fantasy novels, alongside the forthcoming sequel to my murder-mystery-glam-rock-fantasy-thing Dead in Time. I also hope to be adding some new short stories to my website soon—it’s been a while since I released any new free reads!

What’s the most unexpected thing people discover about you?

That I’m not Polish, I think. A lot of people I meet seem to assume I’m Polish, Czech, or American, for strange and unspecified reasons. Either that, or the fact I knit and quilt a little bit (I studied textile arts for a while). Not sure why this is unexpected, but apparently it is.

Tell us a little more about what you’re reading at present?

Right now, I’m hip-deep in some research reading for a couple of different projects, so I haven’t been reading much fiction. The Christmas Book Fairy did kindly bring me the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, however, which are a gut wrenching but extremely powerful read. I’ve also really enjoyed Olive Moore’s Spleen, which I hunted down after seeing the sculpture of her by her husband, Sava Botzaris, and deciding I needed to read everything she’d ever written. Lovely, lucid prose dripping with 1930s aesthetics…I think she’s justly described as a blend between Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. Beyond that, I have a To Be Read list longer than my arm, so one thing I’m hoping 2014 brings is the opportunity to catch up on some of it!

For the things I’m getting up to this year, free reads, and associated stuff, you can find me at or

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Hereafter Gang by Neal Barrett Jr. #review

Title: The Hereafter Gang
Author: Neal Barrett Jnr.
Publisher: Crossroad Press, 2013

If I have to sum up The Hereafter Gang in one word it would be “nostalgia”. That’s the only way to truly encapsulate what this book is about. On a superficial level this is a story about a man’s death and his journey into the afterlife where he spends his time sorting out his head before he goes back for another round.

But it’s more than that.

Mostly, this is a story about remembering and finding meaning. Doug exists almost as a sort of everyman, and here I’m also going to draw parallels between The Hereafter Gang and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. If you read and enjoyed Kerouac’s masterpiece then ten to one you’ll *get* what Barrett is up to in The Hereafter Gang. And you’ll understand why I compare Doug with Dean Moriarty.

The pace is slow and the narrative unfolds gradually, matching Doug’s characteristic as a drifter who cuts loose the moment it seems that he’s about to put down roots or commit to a lasting relationship. He intentionally sabotages himself and there’s a degree of irony in the fact that he works so hard to avoid any real work.

The Hereafter Gang was initially classified as a work of science fiction, but in my mind it’s most emphatically a work of literary fiction that flirts with a generous helping of magical realism.

Neal Barrett Jnr. remembers a lot here. Every scene, every paragraph is rich, dense and textured with an iconic vision of a bygone America – or perhaps an America that only exists in the memories of those who grew up during the first half of the twentieth century.

Though The Hereafter Gang begins conventionally enough, Dough’s recollections of his rejuvenating “soil immersion” quickly clue readers in that things are about to get very strange – and they do.

Doug finds his opposite and guide in Sue Jean – the epitome of innocent yet seductive “cookie” who features prominently as an object of fascination. She is the sum of all the women he has ever loved though there is more to her than meets the eye. Don’t let appearances fool you, in other words.

If you’re looking for a novel that gets to the point quickly, then this one might not be for you. But if you’re in search of a tale that’s like a lazy cat stretching in a square of late-summer sunlight, that’s laden with sensory delight, then The Hereafter Gang will be an absolute treat. Barrett’s writing is pure joy for the thrill of creating vivid imagery that speaks on multiple levels that may leave you hankering after key moments in your own childhood.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr #review

Title: Daggerspell
Author: Katherine Kerr
Publisher: Spectra, 1993

Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle probably had a lot more influence on my writing than I’ve previously considered. This is an epic saga of swords and sorcery that employs many of the classic hallmarks but also subverts them (for instance the “damsel” is perfectly capable of showing the boys up). The basic premise is based on how entangled the fates of individuals are so that each time they are reborn, they must work through unresolved issues.

The story begins with young lord Galrion who is drawn to magic – or dweomer as Kerr calls it – but as a nobleman he is also expected to marry the right girl to further his family’s interests. But events go horribly wrong and Galrion swears to the gods that he will not rest until he has set the great wrongs right. The gods grant him that wish and that is how he takes on the persona of a travelling “herbman” and dweomer master who goes by the name Nevyn (or “no one” – the meaning of the name). Nevyn is a wandering Jew-type character who is fated to live indefinitely until he succeeds at his task.

The cruellest twist of wyrd is that Nevyn is doomed not to be romantically reunited with the woman he loves, and must watch from the sidelines as Jill hooks up with pretty-boy Rohdry, who appears to have a Chosen One type prophecy hanging over his head. The latter makes him a target for a sinister dark dweomer master who does his best to manipulate others to do his dirty work and remove Rhodry from the playing field.

This is book #1. There are 15 books in the cycle. I am well aware of the fact that once I can track down copies that I’ll have a lot of reading ahead of me.

It’s always fun to return to a book that was read many years before and see how my opinion of it shifts based on my current mindset. I was still very much Christian when I first read Daggerspell in my early teens. Nevyn’s use of pentagrams and his calling up elemental spirits and astral travelling really bothered me. Now, of course, I’ve outgrown my childhood prejudices about esoteric matters, and I don’t have a problem with these aspects of the story. I do, however, pick up on Kerr’s good/evil, white/black dualism. Granted her conception of good vs. evil is not completely heavy handed as, say, Tolkien, but the bias is very much there.

The prose itself is solid, and the world-building vivid, but Kerr does employ multiple points of view – and sometimes those shifts do jump around a bit. Not enough to totally annoy me, but I did feel the very last viewpoint character – and a totally new one at that, who only gets introduced at the end – does feel a bit like a forced foreshadowing for the next book. We already have enough hints – don’t ruin the surprise already. Or at least that’s my feeling on the matter.

Jill and Rhodry, we must remember, are still in their late teens, so they are bursting with hormones and their behaviour is completely in line with their characters. They are impulsive, quick to take offense and intense in their display of emotions. This might annoy some readers who’d prefer more mature behaviour, but I found this endearing (indulge an old bag, will you?). There wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.

A word on gender inequalities – part of this novel’s underlying theme includes strong female characters who take back their power from a traditionally male-dominated culture. Mention must be made of Lovyan, Rhodry’s mother, whose story arc tells of a strong woman who has found ways to empower herself despite restrictive cultural norms. The star of the show, of course, is Jill, who eschews standard roles. She rides horses and can fight with a sword and brawl as well, if not better than most men thanks to her father, Cullyn, who gave her an unconventional upbringing.

The fact that Jill was capable and empowered in a man’s world made her incredibly appealing to me all those years ago, and for that for that very reason makes me appreciate her now. I feel her betrayal keenly when her father essentially sells her out to Rhodry as his mistress, knowing full well that they will never marry.

Yet, when the time comes, Jill can act where others hold back. Her bravery is refreshing, as well as her whole-hearted passion for living.

Daggerspell has stood the test of time and though I’ve heard mixed reports about the cycle of novels as a whole, I’m keen to dig in and see how the other books I’ve read have fared.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dark Harvest: Six of the Best with Autumn Christian

Autumn Christian writes the kind of fiction that fills your ears with moth wings and sibilant whispers. That's the only way to describe it. And I'm totally stoked to have her on board as one of the Dark Harvest contributors. You can pick up Dark Harvest in print, on Amazon, Kobo and Nook.

Welcome, Autumn, tell us about your tale. Where did you pick up the story seeds?

Crystalmouth is a dark fantasy about two siamese twin sisters who are stalked by an incubus. I've always been fascinated by conjoined twins, and the relationship they must have. What happens when two girls made to feel like a monster encounter a monster?

What creeps you out?

Mostly everything on earth - especially babies, dark rooms, and other people. I cross the street to avoid acquaintances because I've forgotten their names. I run out of parties with panic attacks. When I was twelve I was convinced I was being stalked by some consort of the devil who only appeared whenever I closed my eyes. I close my eyes in horror movies when someone's eyes are about to be gouged out. I'm terrified someone I hate is going to propose marriage. Maybe one day I'll wake up and find myself on a bed in the middle of the ocean - with no recollection of how I got there.

Why do you love dark/unsettling fiction?

That's a good question, why am I attracted to things that I find horrifying? I'm actually quite a sensitive person, with a sensitive stomach, and yet I'm attracted to gore, melancholia, and everything disturbing. It's a genre that sort of has belonged to me since I was a child - I remember being given BabySitter Club books and ditching them for Goosebumps. Who gives a fuck if Sally Whatever gets a boyfriend, I want to read about dancing skeletons and vampire poodles. I have a strong attraction to the unknown and the mysterious. In a world where anything is possible, what will be the outcome? And if I was thrust into a similar situation, how would I react? If I was being chased by a fanged, spit dripping rabid vampire poodle, would I escape, or join the ranks of the living dead? I love dark and unsettling fiction because it's always a question, and the story an exploration of that question.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a few short stories, attempting to be a better human being, and a short novel about aliens, demons, and cannibalism that I'm hoping to release later this year. Last year I focused on being happy and failed miserably, so instead I think I'll just focus on writing more. I'll also have paperbacks out of my novels, We are Wormwood and The Crooked God Machine soon. And then I'll throw a party.

What’s the most unexpected thing people discover about you?

This is difficult - that I'm a lesbian? That I'm really short? That I'm incredibly shy in person, or that I'm not shy enough? I have a lot of crazy stories - including one where I got someone to drop a gun with a wrist lock. Six years of martial arts training paid off.

Tell us a little more about what you’re reading at present?

I'm a bit of a grazer when it comes to books, so I'll often have several on rotation. I'm currently reading Rab Fulton's Galway Bay Tales, as well as A Greater MonsterNightwood by Djunes Barnes, my own book that I'm attempting to edit, and The Shining Girls.

See Autumn's website, follow her Twitter @autumnxtian or go like her Facebook page.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tainted (Broken #2) by AE Rought #review

Title: Tainted (#2 Broken series)
Author: AE Rought
Publisher: Strange Chemistry, 2013

Our classics are a great source for inspiration, and AE Rought has paid homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in her Broken series. Though I didn’t get to read book #1, Broken, I didn’t feel at all lost in the story. The premise is clear: Alex Franks died, but his scientist father brought him back to life, but at a cost – the deaths of other young men. Now another’s heart beats in his chest, and Alex finds himself infatuated with the late Daniel’s girlfriend, Emma Gentry. Fortunately for Alex, Emma returns that love, and the two are so happily in love it’s positively gooey. But in a good way.

Of course if things were to remain that rosy, then there wouldn’t be much of a story, and there are plenty of complications our hero must face. He might have been offered a second chance at life, but he’s still tied to Ascension Laboratories, where dubious medical practices exists cheek by jowl with life-saving research.

Alex needs Ascension in order to maintain his unnatural existence. Unfortunately this entangles him with Hailey Westmore, who is a rather svelte, Evil Ex-Girlfriend of the highest order whose existence is integral to Ascension. She’s so deliciously wicked, and as the story unfolds, she’s so clearly at the heart of his problems but we just can’t pinpoint how – and she can’t just go away either.

Alex can’t find a convenient solution to this problem. He might be his father’s heir – a privileged young man – but he’s still just a teenager, who’s busy finishing his education, and is faced with all the other frustrations of not being a hundred percent in control of his life. Which tells, when the proverbial large, overripe fruit hits the fan – as it does. The plot curdles, and Alex’s frustrations increase. Things are happening in his life, and he’s at that awkward stage where well-meaning adults are still trying to take care of him – which to a degree paralyses him from solving his problems. When he does act, the results have far-reaching, unintended and tragic consequences.

Rought is a mistress of the Gothic novel who has imbued this literary style with her passion for a darn good love story that transcends the boundaries of death. If you’re looking for a contemporary paranormal tale that’s going to press all the right buttons, then add this one to your reading pile. Tragedy, madness, true love – what more could a reader ask for?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Dark Harvest: Six of the Best with Sonya Clark

Dark Harvest collects some pretty awesome authors. Okay, well, that's my opinion because I'm the editor and I picked the authors because I think they rock. Tonight's special feature is none other than Sonya Clark, who's certainly an established guest here. She's got a lovely novel out with Carina entitled Trancehack, which she terms as witchpunk. Go check it out. 

For now, she's here to chat about the story that appears in Dark Harvest. So, Sonya, tell us about your story, Musicmage? Where did you pick up the story seeds? 

Musicmage is about a mage given one weekend out of an asylum to help solve a murder, but she’s more interested in chasing the music that feeds her magic. The seeds for this story blew into my head from a variety of places. My own love of both music and magic made combining the two feel natural. I also had the desire to write something with a bit different tone than what I normally write. Short fiction is a great way to experiment. Around the time I was fiddling with ideas, I stumbled across some David Garrett videos. His version of Kashmir made its way into a scene in the story.

What creeps you out?

Clowns. Toys that come to life by themselves. Clowns. Weird smells. OMG, clowns. I have some serious clown-fear thanks to Stephen King’s IT. One of these days I’m going to have to face that fear by writing a story - one that involves flamethrowers. “Clown meets business end of flamethrower” sounds like a good idea for a therapeutic story, LOL.

Why do you love dark/unsettling fiction? 

I think it’s a healthy way to deal with our fears and nightmares, and the dark parts of ourselves that aren’t strong enough to dominate our personalities but still exist and need expression. Plus, sometimes it’s just fun to get down with the spooky.

What are you working on now? 

Right now I’m getting started on the third book in my Magic Born trilogy. I’m also tinkering with a few short story ideas.

What’s the most unexpected thing people discover about you?

It seems to really catch people by surprise that I don’t just like music, but that I know music history. And it does seem like that surprise is at least a little bit of a gender thing - “why does a girl know so much about Robert Johnson/Led Zeppelin/whoever?” It’s really blown some minds that I’ve been to all three of Robert Johnson’s gravesites. I love music history, I love knowing the stories behind the songs and albums, the life stories of the musicians and what drives them. I love music-related sites and museums, and since I live about halfway between Nashville and Memphis I’ve been fortunate to visit some really fantastic places. I love new music too, both new-to-me and brand new releases.

And I love being able to infuse my fiction with my love of music. ☺

Tell us a little more about what you’re reading at present?

I was given several books on writing for Christmas so I’ll be working my way through those over the next several months, in my own sort of “home school for writers” thing. Having been published doesn’t mean a writer is through learning the craft. There’s always more to learn, and there’s always room for improvement. So I study and work.

I also read for fun, and I think a writer can learn from that, too. But we all start out as readers first, right? Lately I’ve been reading my way through the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh, along with my usual mix of urban fantasy and romance. I’ve got a book by fellow Dark Harvest contributor Amy Burgess waiting on my Kindle – The Circle: Blood Gift. And of course I’m reading the rest of Dark Harvest, one story at a time. As I make my way through it and take in the diversity of stories and level of talent, it makes me even more proud to be a part of this anthology.

About the author:
Sonya Clark grew up a military brat and now lives in Tennessee with her husband and daughter. She writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance with a heavy helping of magic and lots of music for inspiration. Learn more at her website and follow her on Twitter.

Buy Dark Harvest in print, on Kindle, Kobo or Nook.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cruel by Eli Wilde #review

Title: Cruel
Author: Eli Wilde
Publisher: Perpetual Motion Publishing, 2013

Evan Jameson, by his own admission, is not right in the head. Superficially he might seem to be a gentle, soft-spoken person, but beneath that thin veneer lies something vicious and nasty that likes causing pain. Through a series of first-person accounts Evan discusses the key moments in his life, from childhood all the way to adulthood. One thing is certain – Evan exists as a nexus of cruelty: the casual cruelty done to him by others and the cruelty he himself inflicts.

I’ve often felt that children, through their lack of compassion, are capable of surprising degrees of cruelty akin to the worst that adults inflict – and some of the scenes depicted in this story will shock sensitive readers; there is no way to soften the blow. Evan is an innocent and we view the world through his eyes. He is a spectator to and sometimes unwilling participant of the immensely vicious acts of his peers, and he bears scars, within and without.

Whether his upbringing results in him being maladjusted as an adult or whether Evan inherently suffers from a mental condition is besides the point. The adult is damaged goods and I get the impression that he is only going through the motions of what he thinks is socially acceptable behaviour – mostly just to keep people at arm’s length.

The most notable relationship the adult Evan has is with the couple Denise and Morris, but once again he is the focus of others’ cruelty. Morris is a Maurice Conchis-type figure to Evan’s Nicholas Urfe.

This is not an easy story to read. It is not a feel-good novel either. If depictions of cruelty to animals and abuse upset you, do not read this book.

What Wilde achieves, and does so exceptionally well, is examine the hopelessness of the human condition. This work is dark and there is no remorse and no release unless it’s the oblivion offered by death. Yet, all through this work, Evan somehow retains a purity of essence. He encapsulates and distils the soul of a doomed generation. Life is essentially short, brutal and meaningless, but some of us can choose how we play the hand we have been dealt. The outcome might not be happy, but it brings with it some sort of resolution.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Blood Gift (The Circle #1) by Amy Lee Burgess #review

Title: Blood Gift (The Circle #1)
Author: Amy Lee Burgess
Publisher: Loose-id, 2013

Vampires, blood and sex seem to go together like peanut butter, jelly and freshly baked bread nowadays when one opens a paranormal novel, but Amy Lee Burgess takes what some might feel is a tired trope and she makes it her own in a way that thoroughly engages all the senses.

When Claire became a vampire, she thought she’d get a second chance at happiness with a dream lover. Before this, she never had things easy. As the only child of an alcoholic mother, she suffered years of abuse as the focus of her mother’s ill will. Then she ended up with a junkie boyfriend who thought nothing of pimping her out so he could score drugs. Hardly a bed of roses. Yet Circle Master Oliver saw some quality in Claire that he admired, and had her turned into a vampire to be part of his London Circle.

Vampires are hardly a cute, cuddly family, and worst of all, Claire’s master, Parker has pulled a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde stunt on her – he is most assuredly not the charming, perfect partner who initially swept her off her feet. He claims his treatment of her is for her own good, and though she fears what her master might do should he find out, Claire finds herself drawn to Andre – Parker’s arch-rival in the Circle.

The biggest problem Claire has yet to face surfaces early on in the story. As a vampire she has always been able to read others’ – mortal and vampire – minds. Parker has told her that should their Circle Master ever discover that Claire has this ability, that she’d be staked. Yet a secret with so much importance cannot remain hidden, and unavoidably causes much strife within the Circle when it eventually comes out.

Old conflicts simmer beneath the surface, and time is running out for Claire. If she can’t work through her personal demons, she will die, as her powers slowly grow and bring with them crippling side-effects. Stunted by past cruelties she endured, Claire struggles to master her gift.

Claire is a remarkably complex character, but then I’ve come to love and expect that from all Amy’s creations – individuals who embody contrasting characteristics. Claire is damaged yet she, in her own way, does reach out to help others in similar situations. Which is ironic, because she is unable to heal herself.

The fact that this is a story featuring vampires is secondary to the primary theme – that of personal redemption and coming to terms with past ills, whether they were deserved or not.

So far as vampires go, Amy has nailed them with regard to their behaviour. They are sensual and hedonistic, and they revel in bloodletting. More so, they’re not perfect; their behaviour is often short-sighted. They get angry, display lapses in judgment – which makes them all the more fascinating to observe.

I’ve walked a long road with Amy, and have seen this novel’s earliest incarnation as a blog serial develop through successive revisions that resulted in Blood Gift. All I can say is that I’m in awe of Amy – not just her keen perception when it comes to characterisation, but also her ability to convey emotions and thought processes. Her characters might possess supernatural abilities. Hell, they’re not even human anymore, but they’re still people.