book reviews by Althea

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A Plague of Unicorns – Jane Yolen ****

This story reminded me a lot of fairy-tale inspired books that I read as a child. It’s clever, not at all condescending, and has an old-fashioned charm – mixed with a few modern twists.

The monks of a certain monastery have long been resigned to the fact that once every year, they’re visited by a migrating herd of unicorns that ravenously chomp up all their golden apples. After all, they’ve got plenty of red and green apples to use for snacking and baking.

However, when a new abbot arrives, with a special recipe for making cider from golden apples, he’s determined that things will change. Heroic (literally) efforts are expended toward saving the apples from the pesky unicorns – all in vain.

Meanwhile an annoyingly curious young ducal heir has used up nearly all the patience the residents of his family’s castle have to spare. His older sister, Alexandria, is the only one who still bothers to answer his incessant questions. When he’s sent to study at the monastery, a solution to the plague of unicorns may finally present itself…

The short novel is a quick read. It’s aimed at middle-grade readers, but I felt that the writing style and the humor is such that it will be enjoyed equally by fantasy and fairy tale fans of all ages.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Zonderkids for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.


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Dangerous Games – Jonathan Oliver, ed.

*** “Big Man” by Chuck Wendig
A bit of a Stephen King feel here, I thought. An incident of road rage leads to something a bit stranger and possibly supernatural. It could be seen as an exploration of the negative aspects of the macho idea of masculinity – or just as a freaky contemporary horror story.

**** “The Yellow Door” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Lovecraft tribute alert! One of a group of college friends plans an evening out at a seedy Chinese gambling hall. They regard it as quite an adventure… but when one of them orders the Shoggoth Soup, a slide into madness may be inevitable. Moreno-Garcia does a great job of capturing the horrific feel of Lovecraft’s tales and transposing it into a modern setting. Very successful.

*** “Die” by Lavie Tidhar
Nice setup: two people must enter a white room. On a table: dice, and a weapon. A roll of the dice determines who must attempt to kill who. Failure to comply is met with reprimands from a disembodied voice, and electric shocks. However, the piece felt unfinished, and didn’t really take it anywhere that similar scenarios haven’t been taken before.

**** “Chrysalises” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
This is the first piece I’ve read by “Sriduangkaew” (it’s a pseudonym) since it was revealed that she’s (well, if the author is even a woman – no one knows) a racist, liar, backstabber, and all-around not-very-nice person.
Personally, I believe that a person’s work should be judged separately from their personal life. So, for me, I’m filing Sriduangkaew away with Orson Scott Card. Both authors hold personal opinions which I find repulsive (although they are not the same opinions!) I find both authors’ output to be hit-or-miss, but to have included some excellent writing. I’ll continue reading their work – but I won’t pay for it.

This story is one of the better ones I’ve read by Sriduandkaew. It has wonderfully weird, grotesque and vivid imagery.
In one scenario, a queen is forced into making devils’ bargains with aliens. (Are they actually offering her kingdom protection, or is this more like a ransomware situation?)
In the other scenario, an equivalent situation is affecting a small village. Fighting insects, which must be grown as parasites on the bodies of human children and then nurtured by the memories of adults, are the only protection the village has against an annual attack. Due to the loss of memories, no one even recalls how this terrible ‘war’ began, but the village is slowly losing due to attrition.
It’s set up very, very nicely, and the writing is lovely. I did wish that the two scenarios had been more explicitly linked and tied together at the end.

*** “South Mountain” by Paul Kearney
A group of Union Civil War re-enactors are on a camping trip. One of them is a black man, new to this hobby, seeking to understand his family roots. In the dark southern night, no lights from neighboring towns are visible… and the reader realizes before the characters that something eerie may have happened.

*** “The Game Changer” by Libby McGugan
When a father’s only son is dying of cancer, he’ll go to extreme lengths to clutch at hope. Here, the straw he grasps is an experimental treatment. But hope may come in a more metaphysical (or quantum?) form.
A bit too sentimental for me, but contains an interesting (if unlikely) idea.

*** “Distinguishing Characteristics” by Yoon Ha Lee
We’re used to the idea of mundane young people playing role-playing games, and taking on fantastic, dramatic identities. But what if people in a dramatic fantasy world played a role-playing game?
It’s an interesting idea, beautifully written, and the story contains some interesting ideas. However, it felt inconclusive (almost unfinished) and I just didn’t find myself very interested in the game. Game as sedition? Cool, but I really just wanted to find out more about this world and its politics, and perhaps explore a more traditional narrative arc in the given setting.

* “Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD” by Gary Northfield
Brief comic about a bored spaceman who makes an unfortunate mistake. I was very unimpressed by the execution.

*** “Death Pool” by Melanie Tem
A young man in the foster system, who clearly has some serious emotional issues, goes to a bookie to place a bet on possible celebrity death dates. While there, he seems confused and is weirded out by the whole thing. After placing his bets, he becomes obsessed with the gamble, and believes himself cursed or maybe stalked/haunted by the bookie.
There’s a nice ambiguity here about whether the supernatural is involved, or whether it’s all mental illness. It ends up being a surprisingly incisive exploration about why some people in our society might fail to succeed.

**** “The Bone Man’s Bride” by Hillary Monahan
The idea of giving a yearly tithe to a god or devil; a sacrifice of a healthy young person, is hardly new. However, Monahan gives this trope a surprisingly fresh – and very creepy – twist in this story. Set in a Depression-era dustbowl town (?), we follow one teenage girl who’s destined to be this year’s ‘bride.’ Bloody, nasty and vivid. I look forward to hopefully seeing more from this new writer in the future.

**** “Honourable Mention” by Tade Thompson
There’s a game with a significant cash prize. An outside observer, at first glance, might think that the game was an ‘ayo’ tournament – all the players, after all, are engaged in the traditional African board game. However, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses at ayo. The prize money is given to the contestant who can stay awake the longest.
For one entrant, the prize money is his hope of escape from a life of misery (we assume he’s been a victim of human trafficking). To win, he’s willing to risk everything… and to follow the peculiar instructions of someone’s who’s rumored to have won in the past.
Fascinating depiction of a custom and community that I’m not familiar with – and some truly nasty magic – combine to make a compelling story. Thompson’s a new writer for me; I’ll be interested in reading more of his work in the future.

*** “Loser” by Rebecca Levene
Can’t say too much about this one without giving too much away. It’s a sad tale about making friends with the new neighbour next door – who turns out to be an abused child. And it’s a serial killer story.

*** “Two Sit Down, One Stands Up” by Ivo Stourton
A futuristic Russian Roulette game… the fad of the clubs. The catch? It’s always played against “yourself.”

*** “Ready or Not” by Gary McMahon
A man returns to his hometown after an absence of many years. We’re not sure why, but it seems, although it looks like he’s ‘made good’ that he’s reluctant to be recognized or remembered. Since this is a horror anthology, the reader can guess that there’s a dark secret to be revealed.

*** “The Monogamy of Wild Beasts” by Robert Shearman
This is a seriously weird one. It looks like a replay of Noah’s ark… but there are three modern-day people aboard, and they seem to be cruelly and sadistically killing the animals. As more of the scenario is revealed, it becomes even stranger. I can’t say I actually liked this story, but then again, it’s not like I was really supposed to.

*** “The Stranger Cards” by Nik Vincent
A lawyer is given a pack of playing cards by a serial killer facing Death Row. The lawyer fails to get the man any kind of reprieve or appeal… and then, the killings start again.
This story has both feet firmly planted in its genre, but it’s a solid entry.

*** “All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again” by Helen Marshall
I think that Nick Cave would like this story very, very much. That said: I didn’t love it. The writing is lovely, and the story emerges, lush, heavily draped with symbolism, with weirdness that emerges in such a way as to make the reader wonder what’s ‘real’ and what’s metaphor. It’s very well done; it’s one of those where I honestly have to say, “it’s not you, it’s me.”

*** “Lefty Plays Bridge” by Pat Cadigan
Explores the interpersonal dynamics in a foster home, especially those of two twin girls from an abusive home. The setting: one evening’s bridge game. The undercurrents: vicious.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable anthology of modern horror stories. Many thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read a copy of this collection in return for an honest review.

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Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson – Darryl Jones, ed.

E.T.A. HOFFMANN, The Sandman
(1816). Remarkably modern-feeling in theme, probably because lately we’ve had quite a few writers harking back to this kind of story. The sinister traveling merchant Coppelius/Coppola, selling his ‘eyes-a’ is reflected in “Ilse, Who Saw Clearly” by E. Lily Yu, for example. And of course, the whole steampunk genre loves to explore the idea of clockwork automata.
To a modern reader, the structure of the story flows a bit oddly and unevenly, and the language is quite overwrought (although this may be an artifact of translation (?) – but its careful ambiguity and depiction of a decline into madness are effectively done. I was familiar with the plotline of the ballet, Coppélia, which was based on this story – but the original tale is far, far darker.

WILLIAM MAGINN, The Man in the Bell
(1821). A bell-ringer is accidentally trapped in a belfry while his colleagues are ringing the bell: an overwhelming experience. That’s it. I guess that the brief piece is supposed to function as a metaphor for psychological breakdowns and the difficulty of dealing with life in general… but still. The overwrought language left me saying, “Dude! OK, that all sounded a bit dangerous and unpleasant and all, but pull yourself together already!”

JAMES HOGG, George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell
(1827). This is one of those creepy tales that feels suited to late nights around a bonfire.
A coachman is hired to take a fare to an unusual destination: “‘there is no man in Scotland who knows the road to that place better than you do. You have never driven on any other road all your life; and I insist on you taking us.’
‘Very well, sir,’ said George, ‘I’ll drive you to hell, if you have a mind…”
With hell, getting to your destination is easy. But it requires a contract to get out of that place… a contract promising to return.
I usually don’t like tales that depend on the “it was all just a dream… or WAS it?” device, but this story actually uses that human tendency upon wakening to confuse dream and reality to great effect.

HONORÉ DE BALZAC, La Grande Bretêche
(1831). Very familiar-feeling… perhaps I’ve read this before, possibly a different translation? Similar to Edgar Allan Poe in feel (view spoiler).
I’m not at all sure the multiple ‘layers’ of the story are necessary: At a social gathering, a man tells a story about a man who is drawn to the grounds of a decrepit and abandoned mansion, who is then told a story about the circumstances of that abandonment, and then seeks out further information on the former inhabitants of that home and the appalling events that occurred there.
However, the story itself is quite effectively horrific, driving home its point about the cruelty and evil that men can do…

(1835) I’ve read nearly all of Poe at some point or another, but I didn’t have a memory of reading this one before.
For such a short piece, I felt like it took a while to draw me in. However, it certainly ends with some drama… (“Pow, right in the kisser…?”)
Here we have a young couple – the young man: dark, brooding, and perhaps unhealthily obsessive… the young woman: lovely, without fault, yet languishing of illness.
Of course, tragedy will strike – and horrors beyond tragedy.
Just coincidentally, I read this the same day i went to see the Poe exhibit at the Grolier Club:

SHERIDAN LE FANU, Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter
(1839) Another multi-layered tale: our narrator tells us that he used to know a man who owned a strangely evocative painting with an illustrative air about it. Whne he finally asked his acquaintance to tell him more about the artwork, this tale was the one that was told.
An artist of no great means has long been in love with the daughter of his wealthy patron. However, since he has never declared his hopeful intentions, can he really say anything when the father decides to bestow his daughter’s hand upon another? There’s true love – and then there is the hope of wealth and position – and then there is the possibility of far, far worse than a simply loveless marriage; which is what befalls this hapless bride.

(1843) A young woman has always thought that the small birthmark on her cheek was rather a charming feature. Certainly none of her many beaus ever thought it detracted from her beauty. But the man she finally married not only sees it as a flaw, but becomes obsessed with this imperfection, and insists on trying medical and alchemical methods to remove it.
This obsession leads to the destruction of the couple’s happiness, some ethically suspect actions, and, of course, eventual tragedy.
The whole piece is heavily allegorical and works as a metaphor for the potential that all of have to let small things bother us more than they should. I actually thought the piece would’ve been stronger if the message was a little less heavy-handed, and a little less religious.
(Previously read… many years ago.)

HERMAN MELVILLE, The Tartarus of Maids
I’ve read elsewhere that ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ is usually published along with another ‘sketch’ called ‘The Paradise of Bachelors’. I do find it rather odd to only present one, because ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ refers several times to the ‘Paradise of Bachelors’ in a way that is quite confusing to one who has not read it.
‘The Tartarus of Maids’ is a socially-motivated piece. The protagonist travels to a paper mill to place an order for his company, and takes the opportunity to tour the facility. While there, he observes the wan-ness and misery of the female workers, and describes their plight with sympathy.
The language is very poetic and evocative – it’s a beautiful piece, and relevant as well, considering that unhealthy and unhappy working conditions in factories are still a problem in many places around the globe.
I also found it fascinating that this writing – as early as 1855! – points out the problem with calling working women ‘girls.’
Too bad that apparently few people took this bit of Melville’s writing to heart…

A very Hammer-Horror feel to this short horror story.
The proprietress of a boarding house decides to move the location of her premises from Bleecker Street to a bit further uptown, 26th St. She’s got a great deal, because the house she’s moving into is reputed to be haunted.
Her boarders are more enthused than otherwise about the move. Indeed, it sparks a veritable craze for the supernatural. The common area is all abuzz with the possibility of ghosts.. but for quite some time, nothing unusual occurs.
However, one night, after two men have been smoking perhaps a bit too much opium, something does happen…
No morals or allegories here, just a fun, spooky story. Loved the New York City setting.

CHARLES DICKENS, No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man
(1866) I believe I read this one years ago… it seemed familiar.
Out for a stroll, a man decides on a whim to strike up a conversation with the railroad-worker he encounters. The signal-man seems intelligent and interesting – but something is clearly bothering him. When he starts talking about strange spectres and phantom bells, his new acquaintance begins to seriously consider trying to get him to seek help.
However, there may be more to the eerie manifestations the signal-man reported that those of a more scientific bent would have credited…
Nicely creepy, classic ghost story.

ÉMILE ZOLA, The Death of Olivier Bécaille
(1880). What would you do if you were buried alive?
No, really, what would you do?
This story takes this horrific scenario, and deals with it remarkably calmly and realistically. A man becomes conscious of his wife wailing over his seemingly-dead body. he can hear and see, and is aware of everything in the room around him. However, he’s unable to move a muscle to respond to her. He wonders: is he actually dead? Might it be that consciousness does not depart the dead body?

RONALD ROSS, The Vivisector Vivisected
(1882). Apparently, this story was unpublished at the time of its writing, which is slightly odd, because out of all these stories I definitely felt most with this one that I was missing nuances that would’ve been obvious to a contemporary reader. But humor is often like that, and this is clearly intended as a humorous story. Some of the ‘Irish’ humor feels… dated, to put it kindly, but other bits have aged quite well, as in the description of Dr. Silcutt, “famous for his excellent work on the encephalon of politicians. He was… at the time, much excited by his recent excellent discovery that gold produces effects different from those of copper when approached to the different nerves of those engaged in public services. Titillation of the palm with the former metal produces contraction of the flexors, with the latter, contraction of the extensors.”
It’s a riff on the Frankenstein tale, with mad scientists and a moral message. The story is of particular interest to those with an interest in the history of medicine for its prediction of an artificial ‘heart.’ Interestingly, the author was himself a physician.

(1884) Great set-up, excellent writing… but the ‘scary’ ending didn’t work for me at all. I felt like it was on the level of spooky stories kids tell each other during sleepover parties (do kids still do that?)
It’s about some young medical students whose duty to procure dead bodies for their eminent professor leads them down a spiral of moral depravity and blackmail. A nice exploration of guilt and complicity.

RUDYARD KIPLING, The Mark of the Beast
(1890) Just recently, Kipling’s horror stories were recommended to me. This one is quite excellent.
The ‘mark of the beast’ here has nothing to do with Satan. It’s a bit more literal than that…
Some wealthy British men in India are out late at a party. One of their number gets falling-down drunk, and two of his associates take it upon themselves to get him home. However, on their way, the drunk man gets aggressive, and before his friends can stop him, in a move of total douchebaggery he intentionally desecrates a shrine of Hanuman that they happen to be passing. Religious services were in progress and the less-drunk men fully expect to be physically attacked in punishment for their serious transgression. Instead, the only thing that happens just then is a strange encounter with a leper at the temple.
Later, however, they realize that they might not actually have gotten off as easily at it seemed.
Kipling often gets a bad rap for his colonialism and belief in manifest Destiny – but this story, while it may not portray Hinduism accurately, has a pretty strong message about having respect for belief systems that may differ from your own.

(1891) This is an attempt by Bierce to depict the horror of the aftermath of the Battle of Chickamauga (1863)- a significant Union defeat, and a bloodbath. To do this, he describes the perspective of an uncomprehending toddler who comes upon the retreat by chance. It really didn’t work for me – I found it too over-the-top and contrived.

(1892) A re-read of a classic. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a spooky-as-hell ghost story which maintains a nice ambiguity all the way through – but it’s also a raw, effective protest against the infantilization of women and even a call to arms regarding awareness of mental illness. Gilman is great at leaving what doesn’t need to be said unsaid. There are no ‘morals’ stated here, but her stance is clear.
(And was that room ever a ‘playroom’ or ‘gymnasium’? Oh hell no.)

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, The Case of Lady Sannox
(1893) Not a Sherlock Holmes story – nor would I say it’s one of ACD’s best. It is, indeed, truly horrific – but it’s also quite predictable. Perhaps that’s intentional. At the very outset of the story, we’re told that a society lady has ‘taken the veil’ and that a celebrated surgeon, who had ‘relations’ with her, has gone insane.
Naturally, we expect to find out what caused this – and indeed we do, in a disturbing tale of jealousy and vengeance.

(1893) Sometimes evil comes wrapped up in a jolly package.
A honeymooning couple, travelling through Europe, make the acquaintance of a vacationing American, straight from the Wild West (and it’s rather hilarious to read the British stereotypes of such a character). The American seems genial and amusing, and they gladly accompany him to Nuernberg, where they visit the torture museum. (Which is still there – although the iron maiden that the story references is now on display in Rothenburg ob de Tauber.)
When the American kills a kitten through a combination of foolishness and callousness, the events that transpire weirdly echo and reflect a story he told the honeymooners about something that happened among the Native American tribes – a story that the reader feels has had some of the worst – and most damning – details removed.
Mothers are legendarily fierce in the protection of their children – or in taking vengeance for them – and this tale makes full use of that.

ROBERT W. CHAMBERS, The Repairer of Reputations
(1895) I have the whole ‘King in Yellow’ collection sitting on my ereader… I really need to get around to reading it! This story is wonderfully weird – and disturbing on several levels.
Set in a future 1920, the world has made several steps toward peace and stability. (I’m not sure I like them, and I’m also not so sure the author does, either.) The introductory segment drags on a bit, reminding me a bit in style of Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (1888). Then, the story really starts…
Our narrator lets us know that after a fall from a horse, he was unjustly confined to a mental institution for some time, until his doctor realized that it was all a mistake, and released him. However, he still seems to have a strong desire for vengeance against this doctor. He also seems to harbor ambiguous feelings toward his brother, and his brother’s vibrant young fiancee.
He enjoys spending time with a grotesque and mysterious man who claims to make his living ‘adjusting’ reputations – dealing with scandals – through a network of informers. Everyone else seems to think this man is insane. Is he? And our narrator himself? It’s true that he admits to having read ‘The King in Yellow’ – the enigmatic work that is reputed to drive every reader mad…

ARTHUR MACHEN, Novel of the White Powder
(1895) Straight-up horror, here. The narrator is concerned about her brother. Intent on becoming a lawyer, he has devoted himself to his studies… to the point of obsession. His health seems to be declining from stress and long hours. Finally, she convinces the young man to see a doctor. He returns with a prescription – and soon, he’s more outgoing and relaxed. She breathes a sigh of relief – but not for long, as the pendulum swings in the other direction. Soon, he’s out partying all the time, neglecting his studies completely. And that’s only the beginning…
The first section, the story, is excellent. I wasn’t so enthused about the overlong ‘explanation’ appended to the story. I felt it detracted from the horror.

RICHARD MARSH, The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand
(1898) Have I read this one before? I’m not sure. It was familiar, but it’s not the only horror story to feature a disembodied hand…
Here, the hand in question is received as an unsolicited gift by a collector of curios. However, such a gift is too morbid for his tastes. He’s further squicked out when he touches the hand and discovers that it feels alive… and even moves. Yet more disturbing is when he realizes that he is unable to even speak to his friends about the strange object.
Gradually, the grisly story behind this curio is revealed. Classic, spooky stuff.

W. W. JACOBS, The Monkey’s Paw
(1902) Previously read (several times).
The definitive tale of wishes gone wrong. Strong, but not as scary as I’d remembered it, somehow. (I didn’t recall there being so much forethought about what state the son might be in when he returned.)

(1902) Classic horror. There’s a haunted house in town… since it was abandoned, fifty years ago, only one person has dared to try to live there… and she promptly died. Rumors abound about the curse on the place… but only one elderly town resident remembers the woman who used to live there, Luella Miller, and what happened to give the house a bad name forevermore.
The tale skirts around the edges of the supernatural in such a way as to remain thoroughly believable – and its insights are cuttingly acute. I hope you’ve never known anyone who’ll you’ll see in the character of Ms. Miller – but chances are, you have.
I liked this well enough to immediately pick up a whole collection of the author’s stories.

M. R. JAMES, Count Magnus
(1904) The ‘Dracula’ influence is strong in this one… A definite must-read for fans of classic vampire fiction.
Some papers found in a long-empty house reveal the story of one would-be travel writer’s experience with the titular Count, whose locked sarcophagus lies in a remote Scandinavian church. The writer uncovers local stories of men who walk when they should be lying dead… and the reader can assume that there’ll be no good end to this investigation.

FRANCIS MARION CRAWFORD, For the Blood is the Life
(1905)Previously read; not sure when – this is a heavily-anthologized piece!
A classic of vampire fiction; it features a seductive femme fatale whose unrequited love persists beyond the grave. The supernatural elements are mixed in with a story of mundane theft and murder in a small village, with all the expected drama of the Italian setting (as the author puts into his character’s mouth: “Deeds that would be simply brutal and disgusting anywhere else become dramatic and mysterious because this is Italy and we are living in a genuine tower of Charles V built against genuine Barbary pirates.”)
However, I found that the most memorable part of the story was its framing device, with the eerie image of the grave with a body lying on top of it, which is only visible from a distance.

(1910) A hunting party that ventures into forbidden territory has a run-in with a creature out of legend. This horror classic has some very well-done elements. I like how the ‘rough’ talk of the huntsmen and their guides is contrasted with the lovely and evocative descriptions of nature. Blackwood does an excellent job of conjuring up the vastness and mystery of the untamed North American wilderness. Unfortunately, it does contain a few racial slurs and depictions which, while they may serve to contribute to the setting of the story, are quite jarring to a modern reader. There are also elements of the ‘horrific’ in this story that came off as… well, just a bit silly. But overall, the juxtaposition of small blustering (but strangely vulnerable) men against the unknown is quite effective. It does indeed evoke “savage and formidable potencies lurking behind the souls of men, not evil perhaps in themselves, yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists…”

W. F. HARVEY, August Heat
(1910). One day, an artist, feeling restless in the stifling August heat, sketches the vivid image of a man that’s popped into his head… a man clearly caught at a significant and dramatic moment. Later, he goes for a walk – and encounters not one, but two eerie coincidences.
Very nicely structured, and the tale ends at a perfect moment of suspense.

E. F. BENSON, The Room in the Tower
(1912) Previously read, but not sure where. This on has appeared in quite a few anthologies over the years.
A young man has been having a recurring nightmare for over a decade. In the dream, he’s usually a guest at an acquaintance’s home. When the hostess lets him know that he’ll be sleeping in the tower room, he is overcome by an inexplicable feeling of dread.
Then one day, in real life, a friend invites him to a party. Although it’s a different friend, and the details are different, he is overwhelmed by deja vu as he enters the house. Will he finally find out what his dreadful presentiment foreshadowed?

(1912) Loved this one!
After a ship is blown off course in a storm, a derelict ghost ship is revealed, drifting in the distance. After completing their necessary repairs to their own vessel, the sailors set off in a longboat to investigate. They’re curious, of course, but also hoping for lost treasure. Unfortunately, what they find is in no way anything like what they were hoping for.
Vivid, tense, and also pretty disgusting. I kept picturing this one getting told by a portside tavern’s fireplace…

All in all – this book is a wonderful collection of classic horror tales. My only quibble is with the footnotes. The items selected for footnoting seem completely random. A good number of them are simple dictionary definitions [copied from the OED] of basic vocabulary words (not even obsolete or archaic language – some that come to mind are ‘gewgaw,’ ‘doublet,’ ‘ineludible’). Meanwhile, more obscure terms and references to long-gone customs go without explication. However, I didn’t want to ignore the footnotes completely, because some of them DID include interesting information. I would advise the author to trust his readers to have a decent vocabulary (and access to a dictionary, if necessary.)

Many, many thanks to NetGalley and Oxford University Press for the opportunity to read this hefty, classic collection. As always, my opinions are my own.

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Carbide Tipped Pens: Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction – Ben Bova, ed.

**** “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson
This one could almost be a companion piece to Ben H. Winters’ ‘Last Policeman’ series… OK, the specifics of the disaster are different, but I thought it was similar in feel. Some might find it too sentimental, but it worked for me.
A socially-challenged but brilliant physicist is struggling with the minutiae of life… from the fallout of divorce to the struggles of being a single father. He’s the only one who realizes what’s happening when a strange phenomenon is seen in the sky…

**** “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” by Aliette de Bodard
One thing de Bodard is very good at is really giving the reader a sense of a full and complex world around her stories. This one shares a theme I’ve seen in other of her stories: exploring the feelings of members of a minority culture that’s been decimated by contact with a more powerful civilisation. The main character here is both surprised and suspicious when a man purporting to be someone who was important to her in the past turns up. He says he has something to give her. But is it really him, or is it a trap? In a world where switching bodies is common, even a professional verifier of identity can have trouble ferreting out the truth.

* “Thunderwell” by Doug Beason
OK, this guy has a PhD in physics, and works at Los Alamos, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that the unlikely scenarios involving nuclear launches in this story may be more theory-based than they seem to a casual reader. However, this is still just not a good story. The writing is terribly awkward, full of strange word choices and tortured grammar. The characterization (what there is of it) was unconvincing. The dialogue was stilted. I was genuinely surprised that the author has published novels to his name.
After a supply ship fails to deliver its payload of necessary supplies to Mars, one of the stranded astronaut’s wives (who just happens to be highly placed in the government’s nuclear energy division) is convinced to implement a dangerous plan. If all goes well, her husband and his colleagues could be saved. But the cost of failure could be much higher.

*** “The Circle” by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)
Credited as an ‘adaptation’ of an excerpt from Liu Cixin’s recently-translated ‘The Three-Body Problem.’ I recently read the novel, so I was slightly taken aback when, after a different set-up, I suddenly found myself re-reading some very, very familiar passages.
The author is enamored of the idea of creating a non-electronic ‘computer’ using binary rules. After all, it’s just math, and not technically dependent on technology. The iteration of the idea found here may actually be stronger than the one in the novel.

**  “Old Timer’s Game” by Ben Bova
If advances in anti-aging technology are made, enabling men of sixty (or even older) to maintain the vigor of twenty-year-olds, how would this affect professional sports? That’s the question Bova asks here, through the device of a Sports Commission’s interview with an aging (or, not-aging) athlete. I’m not generally a fan of sports stories, but my problems here weren’t with the theme. I just didn’t feel there was enough to the piece, and I found the portrayal of the athlete to be more condescending than humorous.

*** “The Snows of Yesteryear” by Jean-Louis Trudel
A couple of scientists doing climate-change-related investigations in Greenland accidentally uncover a corporate-terrorist plot. OK, but not particularly memorable.

**** “Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen & Gabrielle Harbowy
Medical advances have allowed for many ailments to be treated by specially-programmed cells, which are ‘tattooed’ into a client’s skin and are triggered into appropriate response when needed – when all goes well. As with any new and delicate technology, all does not always go well. Indi is a talented lawyer who’s made her reputation protecting the victims of tattoo treatments gone wrong. She’s the bane of the medical company that’s patented these treatments. Until now, Indi has strictly avoided becoming a tattoo client herself due to a potential conflict of interest. But circumstances may make her stance untenable.
Really nicely done. Great characterization, meaty ethical issues.

***  “Lady with Fox” by Gregory Benford
If Anais Nin had been in a time and place to write a cyberpunk story, it might’ve come out something like this. An enigmatic femme fatale and the two men (and the hints of many more) caught in her web. However, the weirdly alluring promise here is one centered on neurological research and the new technology that allows two dreaming minds a kind of telepathic communication – the ‘konn.’ The scientific reality has quickly acquired illicit overtones of both sex and spirituality. Strange and interesting.

**  “Habilis” by Howard V. Hendrix
Some time ago, a soldier captured by the alien enemy was given an artificial replacement hand – and then, inexplicably, let go. Now, he’s working an unglamorous job as a fish hatchery manager on a frontier planet. This ‘story’ is his philosophical rambling to his co-worker about human consciousness and its relation to left- or right-handedness.
It feels very unfinished.

*** “The Play’s the Thing” by Jack McDevitt
Slight shades of Connie Willis here, I thought. A researcher programs an AI simulation of William Shakespeare – which ends up exceeding its creator’s expectations significantly. There’s ironic humor in how the programmer handles the situation.

***  “Every Hill Ends With Sky” by Robert Reed
A researcher’s computer simulations emulating the development of life in the solar system come up with some surprising results.
These results have no effect on humanity’s self-destructive spiral into collapse. A generation later, a young woman in a post-apocalyptic landscape looks to those simulations for a hope that is less than a wisp of a prayer…

** “She Just Looks That Way” by Eric Choi
Most young people know what it’s like to have that unrequited love that you just can’t get over. The young man here is willing to go to desperate measure to ‘wash that girl right out of his head’ – he wants to undergo an experimental treatment intended to treat body dysmorphia to make him unable to love the object of his affections. There are some serious logical holes in his assumptions, and unfortunately I felt that the story’s end was a bit of a cop-out as far as dealing with some of the issues it brings up.

***** “SIREN of Titan” by David DeGraff
I’m awarding an extra star here, just because it’s so refreshing to see a sometimes-pernicious trope turned on its head. There are so very many, many stories that trade on the fear of technology escaping human control. From ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘2001’ and beyond, in fiction our creations have run amok. In this story of a robotic space probe and its human control team, it happens again – but the real danger is shown to be our fear, not our technology. Thought-provoking – and heartbreaking.

** “The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars” by Kate Story
There have been enough re-tellings of Romeo and Juliet. I don’t think we need any more, especially not ones as self-consciously meta- as this one.
This tale places the familiar story in an outer space mining station, tenanted by two rival corporations. There are some original twists and entertaining details, but I wasn’t fully won over.

* “Ambiguous Nature” by Carl Frederick
Sorry, but this was just a string of stereotypes. The Regular White Guy scientist protagonist. The aboriginal Australian physicist sidekick who talks about the Dreamtime and goes by a demeaning-sounding nickname. The wife and mother who exists to act nurturing, say she doesn’t really understand all that difficult physics stuff, and to freak out protectively about her child. The child who says stuff like, “Gosh!” Stilted dialogue, and a not-too-mind-blowing concept about how SETI researchers might be looking in the wrong places.

*** “The Mandelbrot Bet” by Dirk Strasser
One of those that conflates the understanding of mathematical concepts with the application of those concepts. I know this idea has its adherents, but I’m not one of them. A paralysed physicist figures out some equations and finds himself at the end of the universe.

**** “Recollection” by Nancy Fulda
I didn’t think this would be up my alley, but I ended up finding it very touching. A new treatment has been developed for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, while it arrests the progress of the disease, it is unable to restore lost memories. The story explores one family’s – specifically, one couple’s – wrestling with the new reality that the treatment has given them. Very realistic, and something that could be a real issue within our lifetimes.

Many thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this anthology. As always, my opinions are my own.

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The Genome – Sergei Lukyanenko **

According to the author, this book was intended as a parody of space opera.
(“In the closing section, Lukyanenko hides a sort of acrostic message for his readers: “This novel is a parody of space opera and cyberpunk. The author values your sense of humor…””)

Glancing through some of the other reviews of the book, it’s clear that quite a few readers missed the ‘parody’ element. And honestly, I’m not sure it really comes through. Maybe something was lost in translation? At many points, the book reads like an imitation of Heinlein-type SF.
Having read the author’s ‘Nightwatch’ series (and enjoyed them very much), I trust him that he’s intending to poke fun of sexist (and racist) tropes by, for example, having the captain get it on with every female character, or having a black, female, spacer who is clearly the most qualified member of the crew automatically fall into a role of serving drinks. (Good thing she wasn’t “a feminist; no one could have gotten her into a kitchen, even at gunpoint.”) And that’s not even mentioning the genetically engineered, 14-year-old nyphomaniac…

I suspect there are other elements to the humor that may have flown over my head due to different cultural reference points.

There can be a fine line between imitation and parody, and for some of this I think you kinda had to be in on the joke.

I also had difficulty with the structure of the book. The beginning was promising, with a nice quick setup. And then the new captain has to gather his crew. Fully 66% of the book is devoted to this crew-gathering process, to the point where I was saying, “is there going to be an actual plot here at all?”

Yes, there is. Over half-way through the book, there’s a murder – and the book becomes a standard murder-mystery genre entry – complete with Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The abrupt shift is unexpected and jarring; I didn’t feel it worked that well.

It all concludes with rather a lot of meaningful philosophizing, which works better if you were taking the book as a serious work, rather than reading it as a tongue-in-cheek parody. I found myself not knowing quite what to think.

Many thanks to NetGalley and to Open Road media for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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World of Trouble – Ben H. Winters ****

(Last Policeman #3)

A strong ending to the trilogy.

I almost felt that the middle book could’ve been skipped, but the story is back on track in the third.

Former detective Hank Palace’s sister was last seen in a helicopter, zooming off with a cultlike group with seemingly far-fetched plans to rescue an imprisoned physicist and save the world in a daring last-minute bid to knock the asteroid that’s headed for Earth out of its apocalyptic trajectory.

Hank is feeling guilty that his last interaction with his sister involved his refusing to believe her and shooting down her hopes. (And maybe he has a little bit of hope that her optimistic beliefs aren’t quite as cockamamie as they sounded?) With two weeks to go till impact, Hank decides to take on a last case – a personal case – and sets out to track down his sister.

As one might expect, given the scenario, there’s a desperation and sadness to this book. But it’s also a tense and grippingly-told story. Bringing the personal element to it to the fore is a winning strategy, as we see Hank struggling to use his OCD-like obsession with detective work to try to bring meaning and a sense of conclusion to his life and to the increasingly senseless violence and entropy that surrounds him.

Highly recommended for all fans of apocalyptic fiction.

Many thanks to Quirk Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Cold Hillside – Nancy Baker *****

It’s been a while since I encountered a book that I consciously found myself trying to read more slowly, because I just didn’t want to find my time in the author’s world to be over… but ‘Cold Hillside’ did this.

In presentation, I was reminded a bit of both Pauline Gedge and Guy Gavriel Kay (two of my favorite authors). Like those writers, here Baker eases us into a lovely, culturally rich, but sometimes harsh world. The story encompasses both the higher echelons of court politics and those quotidian dramas and decisions that can mean the world to those they affect.

There are two narrators, Teresine and her great-niece, Lilit.

Lilit is a typical teenager – willful and rebellious. She can’t understand why her mother is so opposed to her going to the annual Fair, the one time when the people of her country see and trade with those of Faerie. But now that she’s become an apprentice jewelry-crafter, her mother’s word is no longer law. Lilit’s trying to find her place in the world as an adult – but a drunken encounter at a tavern with a handsome young man who coyly hints at having a trace of Fey blood may lead to Lilit having to make adult decisions sooner than she was expecting. Her society has very harsh rules and customs concerning the Fey, which give her choices greater weight.

Teresine is treasured by Lilit, who loves her like a grandmother, but the past has always been something the older woman has refused to speak of. In her chapters, we learn what happened to her as a young woman. Sold by her parents into slavery, she escapes as a refugee and is brought north, ‘adopted’ as a confidante to the heiress to the throne. With difficulty, Teresine negotiates a new life, new customs, and the politics of a new land. And once, her position leads her to a dangerous obligation: a venture into the forbidden court of the Fey.

This is a rather slow-moving, deliberate book. Information is gradually revealed, carefully presented. The characters are finely drawn – I found myself fully involved in the lives of these two very different women, separated by generations and life experiences, but bound by bonds of love and blood. The depiction of Faerie is truly fey – magical and alien – and threads of Faerie entwine throughout the story, but the main focus remains the very human decisions that Teresine and Lilit must make.

Beautiful book. Highly recommended.

Many, many thanks to Netgalley and ChiZine for the opportunity to discover this author. As always, my opinions are unaffected by the source of the material.