Sunday, May 31, 2020

Instafrights: Short horror stories for the busy gentle(wo)man by John Loc

We don't often have long, uninterrupted stretches of time in which we can sink into a novel, so the aptly titled Instafrights: Short horror stories for the busy gentle(wo)man by John Loc is just right for those of you who want those little snippets of disquiet.

I'm not going to go into great depth with every story, otherwise I'll be here all day, but I enjoyed reading two or three of the stories at a time, then coming back later when I had a moment. Loc's writing style is engaging, with a subtle dark twist of humour that made me giggle every so often. He excels in subverting the everyday, walking that fine line between being deliberately mysterious and paying out just enough information to give a story its sting right at the end. Some tales are just a few paragraphs, but he has a few longer pieces of flash fiction near the end. Instafrights, as the name suggests, is a fun selection of little dark dabs of fiction.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Where the Veil is Thin: An Anthology of Faerie Tales edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbot

I'll admit upfront it was the cover that grabbed me when I chose Where the Veil is Thin: An Anthology of Faerie Tales edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbot. And it's been a while since I've reviewed an anthology of SFF stories, especially modern-day fairy tales, so why the hell not. As can be expected, this was a bit of a mixed bag for me, with some stories not quite hitting the mark for me, but overall a pleasing collection of tales.

"The Tooth Fairies: Quest for Tear Haven" by Glenn Parris is a somewhat grisly tale about why tooth fairies are so enamoured with collecting teeth. The story strives for a slightly gritty telling but left me feeling as a little let down. There were some quirky little characters with a somewhat sticky ending.

In "Glamour" by Grey Yuen, hardened cop Jack investigates what he initially sees as a celebrity murder, but with a twist, and leaves more mysteries than answers.

Seanan McGuire's "See a Fine Lady" is easily one of my favourite stories. And who among us who've ever been trapped in untenable work situations haven't fantasised about the weird spilling over and upending our everyday boredom. Here Frankie, who works in Target, has a day that rapidly turns strange when a woman rides a unicorn into her place of work – a unicorn only Frankie can see. Oh, did I mention the unicorn's name is Kevin?

"Or Perhaps Up" by CSE Cooney was another of my favourites – it has an entirely dream-like quality, dealing with concepts of loss, found family, and the spirits of the dead who reside in a sort of magical fae place. Cooney's prose is beautifully descriptive, and the story made me sad for all the right reasons.

"Don't Let Go" by Alana Joli Abbott had a bit more of an urban fantasy feel to it, about a student and her friends who have an extended stay in the Isle of Man, complete with an entanglement with the local fair folk and a clearly defined romance element. I did wonder how the human protagonists accepted the supernatural events so easily, but it was still a fun read.

We meet Rhenna, a fairy who gets by by stealing bodies in "The Loophole: A Story of Elsewhere" by L Penelope. The writing is gritty and tactile, and unashamedly grim in places, and follows the premise of a fairy's struggle to hold onto a stolen body. It feels more like a glimpse into an alternate reality rather than a finished story with a satisfying resolution.

"The Last Home of Master Tranquil Cloud" by Minsoo Kang is told in a standard fairy tale format, but it didn't really blow my hair back. I found myself skimming more often than not, so it's possibly just not for me.

"Your Two Better Halves" by Carlos Hernandez is a choose your own adventure, but as I was reviewing this in ebook format and there weren't any active links to skip pages, I passed on this story, mainly because I also really wasn't in the mood for the format. The writing also didn't engage me enough to put up with the endless paging backwards and forwards. I'm sure in print format this would not have annoyed me as much.

"Take Only Photos" by Shanna Swendson was quite fun, even if it peters out near the end. Our somewhat misanthropic narrator discovers that they have elves in their home, and a colleague helps them get to the bottom of the infestation.

"Old Twelvey Night" by Gwendolyn N Nix is lovely – a relationship between fae of opposing natures that takes a dark turn near the end. This story is strong, crisp and brings forth poetic imagery. Quite possibly one of the strongest in the anthology.

I admit I'm a sucker for selkie stories, but while "The Seal-Woman's Tale" by Aletha Kontis had some nice touches, it didn't quite hit the mark for me. Perhaps some of it lay in the trolls taking on an almost Tolkienesque orcish role, which felt a bit on the nose for me.

"The Storyteller" by David Bowles is filled with wonder and magical realism, and at its heart it's about the interleaving of family myth and the archetypical role of the storyteller. So much to love about this one.

Maybe it's because I used to suffer a chronic skin condition, but "Summer Skin" by Zin E Rocklyn wasn't really my cuppa Joe. Creepy and nasty, and not for the faint of heart.

"Colt's Tooth" by Linda Robertson offers us a creepy riff on the tooth fairy myth, in this American West-themed tale that offers us a run-in with a barber of dubious nature. Also, if tooth violence isn't your jam, stay away from this story.

I do suspect that with this anthology, your mileage will vary, and the stories that I didn't like may well be more to your taste. Well, that's the whole point with anthologies – there's generally a little something of everything, and the editors have put together a fine selection.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom #1) by Bernard Cornwell

I admit freely that I'm one of those readers who fell into Bernard Cornwell's writing courtesy of the Netflix series The Last Kingdom. Since I've blown my way through all four seasons, I've now turned to the books for my Uhtred fix, and boy oh boy, I'm happy to report I've been having a treat.

My biggest gripe is that I didn't start reading Cornwell sooner.

First off, the source material is rather different from the TV series. I understand that the screenwriters had to deviate (budgetary constraints, visual vs. verbal storytelling, etc). So there are differences, the biggest being that in book one, we have far more detail about how Uhtred serves King Alfred on the ships that they build to protect the coast from Danish incursion.

And also, the Uhtred in the books is, ahem, a little less squeaky clean than the one portrayed in the series. That doesn't bother me, because I think Cornwell has done an amazing job bringing this period of English history to life. As a narrator, Uhtred is an outsider, and having that perspective allows him a particularly fine position to comment on the culture of both the Danes and Saxons, and Cornwell weaves together an incredibly nuanced and detailed telling that has me completely hooked. I'm a happy reader, who's busy with the boxed set currently, and each chapter feels like I'm right back there in the old days, grime, glory, guts and all.

I know this is an uncharacteristically short review for me, but all I can say is that I'm a really happy reader on a complete buzz with Cornwell's writing. This dude is goooood. So very good. I need more.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Predators by Michaelbrent Collings

Predators by Michaelbrent Collings is one of those books I suspect would have done better as a live-action thriller on screen or a graphic novel rather than novel. I admit my interest was piqued when the author approached me to do the review, since I am an African and have done the whole 'African safari' thing. So I guess I'd be kinda in the know. And I get it – I don't often have this sort of novel set in Africa land on my desk.

This is survival horror, brutal and bloody. So if that's not your cuppa joe, step away from this book. This is not for you.

We kick the story off with a cast of characters, many of them women who have been damaged by the men in their lives, and they're all off on safari with all manner of dysfunction playing in the background. Except the safari doesn't quite go as planned, and the survivors end up being hunted down by a ravening pack of preternaturally vicious hyenas that made me wonder if these hyenas weren't perhaps demon possessed or something, because amateur conservationist that I am, I'm not hundreds sold on the idea of hyenas behaving quite the way they do in this book. But anyhow, this is a work of fiction, so I'm going to suspend disbelief. People die and the survivors are pushed to their physical and psychological limits. Gruesomely. Rescue isn't likely. The end.

I *get* that the author intended to show a bunch of women being strong in the face of adversity. I *get* that he did a lot of research to make this feel like an 'authentic' African experience. But as an African reader, the whole time I felt like this was a non-African author trying too hard to create an authentic experience for me as a reader, and it didn't quite hit the mark. Don't get me wrong, Collings is a strong writer, but it didn't quite hang together for me in Predators. Whether it was the lack of motivations for certain events that happened (like the catalyst for when things really go wrong at the start that's never truly explained) or for me what felt a bit like contrived back-stories for each woman whose life is defined by the fact that she is hard done by the men in her life, I remain lukewarm at best. If this had been a film, that focused on the act of survival and perhaps a sisterhood that grows out of adversity without dwelling on the demons of the past, this might've worked better for me. And also, just a note, from a technical aspect, this book had a bucketload of little typos – so a more thorough proofread could have helped.

This is not a bad book, just not quite my cuppa, and if survival horror is your thing, you're probably going to ignore the other aspects that didn't work for me.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Die Aanspraak van Lewende Wesens deur Ingrid Winterbach

Ek gaan eerlik wees – ek het gesukkel met Ingrid Winterbach’s Die Aanspraak van Lewende Wesens. Dit is die verhaal van twee uiteenlopende soekers – Karl en Maria. Karl is neuroties, die soort van mens wat sy hande die hele tyd was en wie meer as net ’n bietjie paranoïes is. Maria se lewe is op die oog af suksesvol, maar sy is basies ’n alleenloper, net soos Karl.

Al het albei vriende, is daar altyd ’n versperring tussen hulle en ’n outentieke konneksie met ander mense. Beide ken verlies – Karl met die vergaan van sy liefdesverhouding en Maria met die verbrokkeling van haar huwelik en die dood van haar suster. Karl se ontkenningsreis begin met ’n oproep van een Josias Brandt, wie hom aanraai dat Karl se vervreemde broer Iggy diep in die moeilikheid is en Karl moet hom in Kaapstad kom haal. Maria se paadjie loop ook Kaapstad toe, wanneer sy meer probeer uitvind van die omstandighede van haar suster Sofie se dood.

Winterbach se taalgebruik is ruig met simboliek, maar ek voel amper asof die mooi skrywe die tempo van die verhaal gestrengel het. Met die hart is die ’n storie wat te doenig het met die eksistensiële kwessies wat ’n mens beetkry en die feit dat daar omtrent nooit ’n einde is wat al die antwoorde netjies uitlê nie. Soos my ma my aangeraai het toe sy die boek vir my geleen het – dis maar ’n baie eienaardige storie, met fluisteringe van ’n Gotiese skadu.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dub Steps by Andrew Miller

Let me start by saying that Dub Steps by Andrew Miller was not quite the novel I expected when I started reading it. The premise hooked me, for sure. But what the ride was entirely unexpected in all the best ways. If you're expecting a TWD setting sans zombies, this is not your book. What you will get is a strangely reflective meandering on the meaning of life interspersed with people trying to figure out what they want while coping with a new reality where more than 99.99% of humankind simply winked out of existence in the blink of an eye. (You'll find out why, near the end, never fear, and it won't quite be what you expected.)

How the remnants cope, varies, and in the telling of their uncovering of their new world and the absurdity of the human condition, we get to know a variable cast of personalities. What I appreciated the most about Miller's writing is the way he humanised even the most unfortunate in his cast. Roy, our incredibly unreliable narrator, sets out on a journey that ends up being both inward and outward. Crippled by his sense of never fitting in, he nonetheless takes on a role within his tiny community of survivors in a South Africa transformed by its people's absence.

Miller manages to pack so much into this book. It is both poignant and pithy, and delivers so much social commentary, even if Roy's constant awkwardness and contrary nature got to me. He's exactly the kind of dude I'd love to hate, yet I couldn't help but feel fond of him. He's a sort of broken-wing, mediocre everyman, and a somewhat tragic figure who stumbles through his world. And yet Roy also displays uncommon wisdom at times, which redeems him as he compulsively attempts to chronicle the world that was – as if that will somehow help him understand what went wrong not only in his life but also preserve the story of the world that was.

While Dub Steps can be considered a work of dystopian science fiction, it's so much more than that. And much in the same way that our lives are messy, often unfinished and all over the place, this is a story that celebrates not only the ephemeral fragility of our existence, but shares the uncommon moments of unbridled joy. This is not an easy read, but it's one that I'll recommend, even if it left me feeling sad and somewhat scratchy behind the eyes by the time I was done.