For my full-length review, including review of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
With Shimmer's latest, expect the usual shimmery fiction...moreFor my full-length review, including review of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
With Shimmer's latest, expect the usual shimmery fiction: fantasies with quiet, strong prose, a positive and often sentimental approach to a varied set of ideas. While Shimmer is consistent with its style and good quality writing, as well as with its authors, personally I feel the zine can do with a little noise, some straightforward, less poetically abstract imagery, and often more subtle and ambiguous approaches to its varied ideas. I would also like to see some longer stories included, but that's for personal taste, not general aesthetics.
Shimmer Seventeen features a little sci-fi, some nice ghosts, as well as more than one second-person narration, several unsympathetic mothers and three Canadians, all tossed to the far-end of the collection. My favourites are those by Alex Dally MacFarlane, Yarrow Paisley and Kim Neville.(less)
For my full review, and reviews of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
The latest issue of The Fiction Desk features fifteen stories compre...moreFor my full review, and reviews of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.
The latest issue of The Fiction Desk features fifteen stories compressed into 136 pages. No, the font is not shrunken as my opening sentence seems to imply, but instead volume five contains short short stories, including the winner and finalists of their recent flash fiction contest. Not a fan of flash fiction, I was hoping some long pieces would have been included to balance out the issue. Balance, however, turned out not to be a problem, though I find that overall the fifth TFD is so far the weakest. There are no bad stories by any means included, but the consistently strong stories I am now used to are replaced by consistently slightly-above-average stories. I am, however, pleased yet again that the mainstream is ensnared among the unusual, and we have yet another good fantasy from Ian Sales and, my favourite story from the collection, a great surreal piece from Tony Lovell.
As usual, the cover is excellent and the book looks and feels great.(less)
Trapped in their small square room, Ma and Jack experience two separate realities. To five year-...moreFor my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.
Trapped in their small square room, Ma and Jack experience two separate realities. To five year-old Jack ROOM is his entire universe, and the universe of that room is experienced as another four-letter word, WOMB. To Jack the room is the safest possible place. He is linked twenty-four hours to his Ma and the world she has designed for him. In their room Jack is secure, happy, enclosed in a kind of prenatal state he does not wish to relinquish. It's as though the umbilical cord were still attached, and he is being fed all he requires for healthy development. Ma on the other hand experiences Room as a contrary four-letter word: JAIL. To her this is a prison where captor "Old Nick" has held her for seven years, given her the bare minimum to survive while regularly raping her. Jack and Ma, as tightly bound as they are, are ironically experiencing two separate realities. While Ma hopes only for release, Jack has difficulty in understanding why she would desire so desperately to leave such a comfortable, safe environment.
Their captor "Old Nick" also acts as the embodiment of each of their experiences. To Jack he is Saint Nicholas, as in Santa Claus, a semi-real being who brings them sundaytreat; a special requested item each Sunday. To Ma he is very much "Old Nick" in its form as a nickname for the devil, a purely evil entity driven by a demonic nature. Jack experiences Nick as a kind of benevolent yet odd stranger, while to Ma he is a monster.(less)
The populace of affluent Hampstead, Connecticut, and its outlying regions are unknowingly facing the fallout of leaked bioweapon DRG-16. Simultaneously a generation-dormant supernatural evil awakens to claim vengeance on the descendants of four families that had defeated its previous incarnations. This unusual mix of mad science and outright supernatural horror is a rare combination, and Straub's attempt is a worthwhile read. Admittedly there is at times a lack of balance between the two elements, with the supernatural kidnapping the reigns throughout the better portion of the latter parts of the novel, while I was hoping DRG-16 would interact more directly with the supernatural. Straub does attempt to meld the two with characters considering the possibility that the supernatural exists only their virus-affected minds, a great notion which he does not build upon beyond some brief discussion. While this would have been an excellent additional element to complicate the narrative, even eliminating some of the nightmarish visions in order to maintain its current length, I do understand that readers would be invested in the supernatural and this would only be a distraction; few would be caught up in this additional mystery, unless Straub set it up at the start of the novel.
The novel's build-up, or complication if we were to turn to Aristotle, is superbly presented. A layered narrative involving various styles, approaches and innumerable characters is solidly constructed. The town is delineated to such a point of clarity that I feel I can make my way through its streets, and the people are so invested in, though of course a fair share of stereotypes are included in their number, that like the town we see them clearly and never really lose track of even the minor players. The novel incorporates an incredible number of sub-genre elements, including serial killers, hallucinogenic experimental drugs, telekinesis, doorway mirrors, walking dead, suicidal pets, a haunted house and a big bad monster. These items do not stray, since most are linked to either to our vengeful dragon or DRG-16. Some are hallucinations rendered by one of these evils, and Straub, for the first half of the novel at least, manages to balance each element well. Only when the book delves deeper into its hallucinatory faze do I feel his grasp has slipped.(less)
For my full-length review and reviews of each story, please visit Casual Debris.
Though the anthology gives its contributors a wide range of possibilit...moreFor my full-length review and reviews of each story, please visit Casual Debris.
Though the anthology gives its contributors a wide range of possibilities with the idea or image of the gargoyle, re-imagining the concept of a gargoyle or simply re-defining it, there is still less than inspirational material here, and the three reprints selected for inclusion, beside the fourteen originals, do little to heighten the book. I cannot think of a mostly original anthology so diverse and at the same time so disappointing. Most of the stories are straightforward fantasy, and though it was part of Ace Books's Dark Fantasy series, few of the stories are all that dark. The ones worthy of a read are those by Charles L. Grant, Don D'Ammassa, Wendy Webb, Lucy Taylor and Brian Hodge. The rest are altogether forgettable.(less)
With its minimal plotting and abundance of anecdote, Big Fish reads more like an extended character ske...moreFor my full review, please visit Casual Debris.
With its minimal plotting and abundance of anecdote, Big Fish reads more like an extended character sketch than a full-fledged novel, in which narrator's father Edward Bloom overshadows every other aspect of the book, including the narrator himself. While character sketches can be rewarding, narrator William is so removed from the narrative, there only to tell us how absent his father was and simultaneously how much he loved him, that a novel about story-telling fails to produce a good story-teller.
Ironically, the narrator is presenting us with an absent father, while as a reader I found myself flipping through pages of an absent narrator, a voice informing me of his presence and surface identity, but otherwise removing himself from the narrative. While I enjoyed some of the anecdotes and found some of the situations interesting, I was unable to immerse myself in the overarching story-line. The narrator appears unsure as to how to present much of his material, either through his own semi-defined voice or in awkward attempts to usurp the voice of his masterful story-teller father.
The subtitle "A Novel of Mythic Proportions" is appropriate, since many of the stories are borrowed from myth. There are elements of Odysseus and Heracles interspersed, with both tremendous voyage and insurmountable task applied to various Bloom adventures. Bloom is driven by a seemingly higher purpose though it might not be the Olympian rulers. Rather than any god he is driven by a selfish and often childlike need to possess or to experience, to live under his own terms. A difficult character to like, and while I did not dislike him I was often left indifferent. I can admire Odysseus for his cunning, perseverance and pure love of Penelope; I can admire Heracles for his boundless feats and victories (though not for the rape). I cannot admire Bloom, though a unique eccentric, for his inverted existence and neglect of those around him, including those characters in his mythology, such as the abandoned swamp woman Jenny Hill.(less)
During the latter era of the Crusades, Prince Manfred, overseer of Otranto, is profoundly shaken wh...moreFor my complete review, please visit Casual Debris.
During the latter era of the Crusades, Prince Manfred, overseer of Otranto, is profoundly shaken when his sickly son and only heir is killed by an over-sized helmet on the morning of his betrothal to the beautiful Isabella. Alas, the curse of Manfred appears to be coming to fruition, vengeance against his lineage that had unlawfully taken ownership of the region and castle of Otranto. Soon thereafter heroic peasants, ominous knights, comedic servants and colossal spectres abound at the castle while Manfred attempts to salvage his lineage via some vulgar attachments.
A great deal has been written about this little novel, from the elements that help establish Gothic fiction to its historical context, and much of the criticism and historical evaluation of The Castle of Otranto is fascinating. Walpole chose to publish the text under the pseudonym William Marshal, and went to great lengths to convince the public that Marshal was merely translating a recently discovered manuscript by the (fictional) Italian Onuphrio Muralto from the early medieval era. Critics were fascinated by the translation and the work itself, and the book sold well, so that Walpole admitted to its authorship, resulting in critics panning the book for its overly melodramatic style and its purely Romantic approach. Readers, however, continued to be entertained.
The novel is marred for modern readers due to its incredible level of melodrama and the sudden reveal of information, a kind of deus ex machina, that exposes secrets unknown to the reader and most characters, information withheld, that brings the plot to its conclusion. With patience, however, the novel is enjoyable partly because of its melodrama, and though the prose is uneven, the ambitious use of language is often unique and a treat to the linguistic portions of our brains. Taken tongue-in-cheek of course, the nearly absurdist humour continues to be effective, though the villain Manfred is at these moments comical himself in his frustrations, diminishing his status as über melodramatic bad guy. The intense melodrama and wild humour make for an unusual mix, yet help to raise the novel above the weights of darkness and gloom that otherwise drag after steady, uninterrupted reading.
Despite its positive and eccentric elements, The Castle of Otranto remains consistently reputed as a terribly dull work that launched an incredibly rich and lucrative literary and eventual film (sub)genre. The novel's quasi-historical elements, broad yet ruinous landscapes, gloomy themes and tone, powerful characters and emotions, not to mention the requisite appearance of a ghost, helped to enliven imaginations of the later Victorians who themselves propelled the literary Gothic forward into the twentieth century. Since then film has broadened its scope so that the Gothic appears a full-fledged genre of its known. The seventeenth century Gothic borrowed from medieval history and poetry, whereas current Gothic fiction borrows heavily from the eighteenth century, reminding us of just how long the genre has been striving, since while it borrows heavily from the past, the contemporary form finds itself attached to a century beyond the genre's initial works.
What I liked about The Castle of Otranto as a novel rather than a literary artifact is the mysterious giant phantom whose body parts appear at different parts of the castle. Truly creepy to this day, its effect weakened by the comedy surrounding servants trying to explain their sight of it. The idea of two leaders planning to marry each other's daughters in order to guarantee that each has an heir to their respective kingdoms is both interesting and sickening, controversial even in its day. We have a medieval priest who fathered a son, and two princess heroines who love the same heroic peasant. Walpole wrote in a later edition preface that he was attempting to combine elements of both traditional and contemporary romance. I believe the intention since the book has elements of traditional chivalric romance along the lines of The Romance of the Rose, mixed in with quite modern ideas, like the hero who settles for the woman he does not love since she understands his grief over the woman he has lost and cannot stop loving. Life even for our heroes holds misery, a far removal from notions of classic romance.(less)
Publishers of Bete Noir Magazine released their second anthology last year, a small seventy-eigh...moreFor my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.
Publishers of Bete Noir Magazine released their second anthology last year, a small seventy-eight-pager featuring seven stories, each representing one of the cardinal sins. The concept has been put to use for the anthology in the past, and I even recall a popular US magazine contest many years ago employing the theme for a vast monetary reward and selected a gluttony tale as its winner. For All Eternity generally relies on genre tales, fantasy with elements of horror, to tell of situations featuring each sin. A good quick read overall, there were two stories I simply did not like, though I was pleased to see that the book did not discriminate and included a non-genre story which is among my favourites.
Overall there is good variety in approach, setting (time and space) and interpretations of each sin, some more straightforward than others. My two favourite sins as per the anthology are wrath and pride.(less)
Number 16 presents us with thirteen shorter short stories. There are some unfortunately weak ent...moreFor my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.
Number 16 presents us with thirteen shorter short stories. There are some unfortunately weak entries in this volume, mingling with some effective ones. Despite a few good tales, the consistent tone and consistent shortness of these stories makes for a somewhat average read, an entirely different experience from Shimmer #15. I think I would prefer the magazine if it included greater variety in style, tone and in the case of this issue, length. The shorter stories make for a choppy, interrupted read, and the similarity in tone unfortunately fails to bind. Something longer? Something wilder? I don't think it would harm.
I like Shimmer quite a bit but feel it can be better than it is, a feeling emphasized when reading a weaker entry. A quote on the magazine's back cover and included on its webpage opines that the magazine features stories "built on fresh ideas or at least interesting twists on established ones," and that fantastical elements pervade each tale either overtly or via "the mere shimmer of possibility..." While true with most tales here, a few fall astray of this definition. There are a surprising number of stories that have no fantastical element, though they do imply fantasy and I suppose that is the "shimmer of possibility."
Shimmer has some entertaining author and staff profiles and little photos in their backpages which I genuinely enjoy. In fact, it makes me feel badly when I write less favourably about a particular story. This review, hence, makes me feel badly three times over :( My favourites are those by Leunig, Ginoza, Gardner, Jablonsky and Bell. (Sounds like a law firm.)(less)
A Separate Peace was turned down by several US publishers before finding a home with the large UK publishing house Secker & Warburg. Perhaps the British sensibilities of the 1950s, not long since devastated by the war, recognized many of the topical aspects of the boarding school amid war conflict. Or perhaps the boarding school experience, being so much more common at the time in the UK, made it more accessible to the general reading public. Whatever it was that helped launch the eventually popular American novel overseas, what appeals to me most in A Separate Peace is not the plot nor the teen anxieties, however extreme, but the chaos of structured life bowled over by war. International conflicts only highlight the natural conflicts found in closer communities, and the sad reality that these boys are being educated and trained in the civilized world of boarding school only to be released to their death as soldiers. This reality is more devastating than the plot-entwined tragedy our protagonist encounters. Moreover there is a striking contrast between living such an isolated existence when all focus, your own included, is on international conflict.
Protagonist Gene Forrester experiences a series of personal tragedies as he slowly discovers his interpretation of reality is flawed. Believing that friend Phinneas ("Finny") is threatened by and attempting to subvert his own successes, Gene fights a passive battle that generates anxiety and guilt, not to mention tragedy. The notion of a skewed concept on reality is effective within a reality that is experiences a world at war. If such incredible, large-scale devastation is possible, then so are the infinitesimal conflicts between recent friends.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the novel, and the ideas of a shifting view of reality is what raises it to its level. Granted the plotting and central themes are well developed and tightly woven into the fabric of the novel, it is these secondary elements that make the core so much more evocative.(less)
There is a lasting cultural tradition linked to the circus, both as concept and in fact. While c...moreFor my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.
There is a lasting cultural tradition linked to the circus, both as concept and in fact. While circuses no longer generate the kind of interest from visitors they once did, what with the incredible alterations to our sources of entertainment, particularly as affected by modern technology, as well as our evolution from primitive gullibility, there still exists within pop culture a fascination with the circus. Whether it be an unfortunately short-lived series such as Carnivale or a persistently beloved novel such as Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, even if we haven't visited an actual circus, replete with acrobats, animals, a bearded lady and numerous clowns, we are drawn to visit them via representations of circus. Everyone has gone to the circus: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, James Bond, Dumbo, Brother Cadfael, vampire hunter Anita Blake, Batman & company, Cecil B. DeMille, Federico Fellini, John Wayne, Curious George and so forth. The circus permeates our imagination and offers so much possibility.
Though it is a circus as far as spectacle is concerned, The Night Circus adopts more of a Cirque du Soleil approach rather than a Barnum & Bailey approach, replacing more traditional circus elements with a specific type of performance. The acts in The Night Circus, like the acrobatics of Cirque, are very real; nothing like Barnum's "sucker" displays.
Unfortunately, despite a few good ideas and some nice touches, Morgenstern fails to generate wonder with her overly manipulative and consistently under-achieving novel. In the Morgenstern circus the only awe I experienced was with the consistent anti-climax of the carefully generated suspense. The author and marketing department claim there is a competition in the works, bitter and fierce, and yet the competition is illusory, vacuous and even comical. Our male competitor, the dense and dull Marco, knows his competitor is Celia, who is unaware that he is her rival. For over a hundred pages we wonder how she will discover the identity of her bitter competitor, someone she has been told to watch out for throughout most of her life, until finally, in comical fanfare he walks up to her and... tells her. What a reveal! Appropriate for the lunacy that is the circus of the night.
My greatest discovery related to this novel is how, as time passes and distance is created, I dislike this book more and more. At first I thought it dull and unnecessary, granted with some minor good points, like clock-maker Friedrick Herr Thiessen and a few scattered visuals, whereas now, a week or so after completing the novel, I am straining to control my fingers from spewing expletives, something I tend to do only in conversation.
The convenience of character and events allows the novel to unfold in a less than magical, obviously mechanical way. I wondered at its identity: can one class this as young adult, or would most young adults be bored with pages of description, its blacks and greys? On an emotionally level the novel is certainly less than adult, as even promising characters such as Bailey are fated to become under-utilized and end up existing only as necessitated by the outcome. I continue to wonder who this novel appeals to and why it is so appealing. Reviews at Goodreads are mixed though the rating is fairly high, and, if we are to gauge by avatars, seems to appeal to all ages.
Ultimately, The Night Circus puts its audience to sleep.(less)
The Winter's Crimes series began with the first anthology published in 1969, edited by George Ha...moreFor my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.
The Winter's Crimes series began with the first anthology published in 1969, edited by George Hardinge. Hardinge approached the project with a similar outlook to the literary Winter's Tales collections begun in 1955, requesting novelette-length stories appropriate for leisurely reading. As with Tales, Crimes also organized their stories alphabetically by author, thereby potentially sacrificing the normally important anthology principle of a gripping lead-in story.
Hardinge was chief editor on the series for most of its installments, but passed on his role for the fifth annual to Virginia Whitaker (1973), while the eighth was taken up by Hilary Watson, who would later edit several other installments, numbers ten and fourteen under her maiden name, and even more under her married name Hilary Hale, altered following her marriage to fellow Macmillan editor James Hale. There would be a total of twenty-four Winter's Crimes as well as at least three Best Of... collections. Winter's Crimes 24 was published in 1992.
This was my Winter's Crimes anthology and I was largely disappointed. The stories are not terribly interesting, from downright bad to average. The writing level is inconsistent and while the better stories were entertaining enough, they did not surpass ordinariness. Some stories were even marred by their length, and the better ones were the few short story length tales included. These soft mysteries which function on a simple idea or twist are better suited to the shorter length, so that when stretched out much of the information feels unnecessary and misplaced. The best example of this is Audrey Erksine Lindop's "Two Bottles of Chianti," which is not terrible but overly and needlessly long.(less)
Pervading deWitt's award-winning novel is the notion that in a meaningless world we must forge for...moreFor my complete review, please visit Casual Debris.
Pervading deWitt's award-winning novel is the notion that in a meaningless world we must forge for ourselves some defining purpose. The story is not about the world it creates, despite its vivid attention to detail, but about how man must find purpose in an absurd and purposeless universe. Throughout the novel its protagonist Eli Sisters contemplates his own role in society, and the various paths that were at different points available to him.
"What is it that makes a man great?" muses the Commodore, declaring that a great man is "one who can make something from nothing!" This is a violent, chaotic world without meaning, where all life has little value and the absurd is commonplace. The enigmatic evil little girl has sense enough to recognize that the world lacks sense, while the various characters throughout, such as Herman Kermit Warm and the dentist, reflect on the paths that have led them to their respective stations in life. This is not a Kieregaardian world where faith leads one from the meaningless to eternal salvation, but one where God has no place and man must furnish himself with purpose as a form of salvation.
True to the hype, The Sisters Brothers is clever, intelligent and often funny, yet manages to be entertaining even without its philosophy, but of course its ideas escalate the novel beyond mere entertainment. And it has that gorgeous cover and interior design.(less)
"WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK IF YOU ARE ALONE. BUT IF YOU DO, KEEP REPEATING TO YOURSELF, "IT'S ONLY A BOOK. IT'S ONLY A BOOK." This hyperbolic announcement, blaring in thick bold type at the top of the back cover, is perhaps ingenious 1973 marketing at work, and may have helped propel the novel to many bestseller lists, but it is unfortunately misleading and might even lead to disappointment to contemporary readers. The novel contains clear horror elements, yet the weight of the plot rests on elements of mystery and suspense. Indeed the first three quarters of the book read like a cozy mystery (minus the humour element) rather than a piece of horror, as Ned first begins to integrate into the community, and slowly discover that something is amiss. The last quarter of the novel is very much horror, more akin to classic horror than anything modern; we are still shy of the era of Stephen King and Peter Straub.
Community conspiracies are prevalent in varying forms of horror, from novels such as Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives to recent television anthology episodes of the Forrest Whittaker-hosted Twilight Zone ("Evergreen") and Mick Garris's lackluster Fear Itself ("Community"). There are unavoidable elements of irony in that the reader, aware that the novel (or show) is of a genre, are a step ahead of the protagonist for the bulk of the plot, whereas the sequence sees the narrator defeated by the community.
Which brings us to the major flaw of Harvest Home. Once he understands what is going on at Cornwall Coombe, and that he and his family are in danger, rather than tell his wife and daughter what is going on and quickly drive them back to New York, he keeps the secrets to himself and decides to catch a sneak peek at what goes on during the night-time ritual of the annual Harvest Home celebrations. Constantine, overall, is not a sympathetic character: he i aggressive, macho, and though he genuinely cares for his family, there is a certain distance between himself and both Beth and Kate. We learn early that their marriage has been troubled, as has Kate's upbringing as she suffered health-wise via her parents' difficulties, and this history makes of them easy targets for Conrwall Coombe's unique society. The novel, with its matriarchal universe, can almost be read as a kind of 1970s feminist treatise, where a traditional matriarch defeats the modern macho male, except for the hints of misogyny that creep into the text. Most of the women, including Beth, seem to be derived from the 1950s wife ideal, and this would be great if it were addressed, that the housewife of old is a vessel for a strong woman, someone repressed and finally breaks through that shell via the Harvest Home celebrations. Alas the text does not address that issue, and these women come across merely as dated.
Despite this bothersome flaw, the novel is well written, well constructed and the community terror is very much real. Cornwall Coombe is populated with various characters, and the most frightening aspect of these people is that the tradition of Harvest Home is so embedded in their lives that even those who do oppose it are trapped by an age's old tradition.(less)