Ghostly Corners in a Fictional London: Where Shadows Gather by Michael Chislett

Monday, September 16th, 2019 | Posted by Mario Guslandi

WHERE SHADOWS GATHER ~ MICHAEL CHISLETT-smallWhere Shadows Gather
Michael Chislett
Sarob Press (224 pages, £33.95/$60.00 [including shipping], July 2019)
Cover by Paul Lowe

Following his previous, acclaimed Sarob Press collection In the City of Ghosts Michael Chislett provides another bunch of ghostly tales, mostly set in the fictional London borough of Milford and the suburb of Mabbs End. Five stories are brand new, whereas eight have previously appeared in genre magazines (especially the excellent Supernatural Tales).

Chislett has a knack for creating creepy urban atmospheres, depicting sinister encounters and eerie experiences. Although, in my opinion, not up to the level of his previous collection, the present volume confirms his ability to create elegantly written, disquieting stories.

Among my favorite pieces are: “In the Garden,” an unusual story of botanical horror, where an ordinary garden of a London suburban house becomes the venue for ancient pagan forces, “Downriver,” an atmospheric tale where a walk along the Thames turns into a veritable nightmare and “The Raggy Girl”, a modern, disturbing ghost story revolving around a frightening apparition among the ruins of an old apartment building now being demolished.

A couple of stories are actually taking place overseas, such as the gloomy “The Coast Guard” set on the Baltic shore, hosting strange foxes and other horrific creatures.

The two highlights of the book are  “Mara,” an excellent, dark tale of vampirism featuring a beautiful but deadly vixen and an equally dangerous gentleman, and the outstanding “Endor,”a powerful, intoxicating mix of witchcraft, eroticism and possession.

A warning to the potential reader: if you’re interested in this book hurry up and order a copy. As usual, Sarob Press volumes have a limited print run and become quickly unobtainable.

Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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The Dawn of Comics in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

Saturday, September 7th, 2019 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

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It isn’t often that comic books are a legitimate topic in works of literature, or that when they are, the book in question wins a Pulitzer. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, is such a novel. It was published in 2000 to near universal acclaim. It tells the story of two Jewish cousins from 1939 to 1953.

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Dinosaurs, Mermaids, and Haunted Lumber: The Best of L. Sprague De Camp

Saturday, September 7th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

The Best of L. Sprague De Camp Book Club Edition-small

The Best of L. Sprague de Camp
(Science Fiction Book Club edition, 1978. Cover by Richard Corben)

The Best of L. Sprague De Camp (1978) was the fifteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Poul Anderson (1926–2001) gives the introduction. Darrel Sweet (1934–2011) does his second cover of the series, the first being The Best of Cordwainer Smith. L. Sprague De Camp (1907–2000), still living at the time, wrote the afterword.

I’m a fairly late-comer to science fiction. I grew up with Star Wars and typical sci-fi shows and movies of the late 70s and 80s, but my reading picks tended to be more towards fantasy and horror. So, like many of these classic sci-fi authors in the Del Rey series, L. Sprague De Camp was a new name to me. And it’s interesting, I think, how one can come to a new writer.

In all honesty, I was not looking forward to reading this volume. Most of what I’ve read of and about De Camp hasn’t given me the most favorable impression. Case in point: A couple of years ago I compared De Camp’s Robert E. Howard (REH) biography with Mark Finn’s. If you know anything about De Camp’s reputation among many REH fans, you’ll know that it is usually less than favorable (again, see my earlier post for more details). And, after reading De Camp’s REH bio, I came around to agreeing with some of this critical press. In short, I thought that De Camp could often come off as conceited with his overly bold claims, especially given his tendency of providing insufficient evidence — or none at all!

But after reading The Best of L. Sprague De Camp, I have to say that despite his reputation with many an REH fan, this has become one of my favorite volumes in the Del Rey series. I found De Camp to be a very fascinating writer. Two things, I think, really stand out in his science fiction writing.

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Making our Journey to Machine Domination More Fun: The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty

Thursday, September 5th, 2019 | Posted by SELindberg

The Robots of Gotham cover wrap-small

Wearing aluminum hats won’t help us anymore. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant likely conspire against humanity, and no doubt will copulate and have gendered, machine children. That is one vision of the future. The Robots of Gotham will at least make our journey toward machine domination more fun. Todd McAulty’s first-person blog-style is profoundly easy to consume. Highly recommended for everyone who has a smartphone!

What is the best way to deal with being constantly surveilled by devices? Reading fiction about robot invasions can help, preferably paperbacks (eBooks and Kindles are monitoring you). Todd McAulty’s The Robots of Gotham has already received great praise from Publisher’s WeeklyBooklist, the Toronto StarKirkus Reviews, and numerous authors. Here is more.

Artificial Intelligence

I am by no means an expert in artificial intelligence, which makes my perspective even more alarming (exciting?). Many readers likely share this history, and it is why you’ll enjoy Todd McAulty’s The Robots of Gotham.

As a teenager (1980’s), I had the experience of interacting with Apple IIe and TI94 computers (when data was never stored on disk or was saved to tape), which had users game with a computer that served as a dungeon master. Digitized, text-based adventures like Infocom’s Zork provided a surreal version of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. Practicing science for decades, I’ve witnessed computers grow from simple calculators to devices that measure, store, analyze and report data with limited human intervention.

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Blogging Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Part Six

Friday, August 30th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Master_of_Kung_Fu_Vol_1_33Master of Kung Fu #33 sees writer Doug Moench continuing to build upon the series’ new direction while also continuing to deploy offbeat humor sparingly to great effect. This first installment of a three-part storyline begins when Shang-Chi thwarts an assassination attempt on Clive Reston by a highly-advanced automaton. The reader and Shang-Chi learn from MI5 that the automaton is one of the toys of Mordillo, a robotics genius and master assassin who, it transpires, was the force behind Carlton Velcro.

Shang-Chi is provided with his own swank London townhouse (courtesy of MI5). While Clive Reston is showing him around his new digs, they encounter Reston’s former lover, seductive MI5 agent Leiko Wu. Her introductory scene, taking a bubble bath and shamelessly dressing (barely) in front of Reston and Shang-Chi establishes her not only as a Bondian seductress, but also signals her as a confident and capable woman who is content to leave a string of broken hearts in her wake. Doug Moench excels at establishing a sense of fatalism in his work. Just as the reader understands that Shang-Chi compromising his principles in working for MI5 will only lead to regret; so too the reader understands that the innocent and somewhat naive Shang-Chi falling for the far more worldly Leiko Wu is also fated to end in pain and suffering. Shang-Chi, in his professional and personal choices, chooses the short-term good and ignores the fact that the long-term can only lead to misery.

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Davey Jones, Alien Spores, and Riding on a Comet: The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun

Saturday, August 24th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun-small The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun-back-small

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun (1978) was the seventeenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. J. J. Pierce returns to give the introduction to this volume. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) does his fifth cover of the series (tying with Dean Ellis at this point). Raymond Z. Gallun (1911–1994), still living at the time, did the Afterword.

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database reports that Gallun (rhymes with “balloon,” not pronounced “gallon”) wrote five novels, including The Planets Strappers (1961, see Rich Horton’s review here), The Eden Cycle (1974) and Skyclimber (1981), but these were written later in his life. Most of Gallun’s writing career is comprised of dozens of short stories and serials. Like so many of the authors in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series, Gallun had been a prolific writer in the pre-WWII heyday of the pulp magazines. But unlike many pulp authors, including many in this series, Gallun seems to have stayed mostly within the sci-fi genre instead of branching out to fantasy, horror, detective, etc. And we’re talking “old school” science fiction!

Overall, I’ve liked the majority of the authors that I’ve read thus far in the Del Rey series. But there have been some that I liked better than others. I found Frederik Pohl and John Campbell both a little hard to get into, and I found Cordwainer Smith very difficult to sync with, though there were stories in all of these collections I enjoyed. But I have to say that I really, really struggled reading The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun, more than any other book in this series so far.

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In 500 Words or Less: Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

Friday, August 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

oie_19192747vo7iIQCxCatfish Lullaby
By A.C. Wise
Broken Eye Books (118 pages, $14.99 paperback/eBook forthcoming, September 3, 2019)

You’d think stepping away from a regular column reviewing would make writing a new review easier, but apparently not. I’ve been struggling with how to start talking about A.C. Wise’s Catfish Lullaby because the first thing I want to start with how I didn’t get the story I expected from the back-cover blurb. But that sounds like a criticism, and it really isn’t; I loved the story I got, which feels like a tonal blend of Stranger Things and Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, set in the Bayou with more diverse characters.

Maybe we base too much of our expectations on the blurb. Lullaby’s focuses on Lewis, a “town of secrets,” and the character Caleb stepping into his father’s role of sheriff to unravel the mysteries of the Royce family and legendary monster Catfish John. That sets the expectation that you’ll mostly follow adult Caleb as he deals with his past. Instead, the novella spends most of its time on young Caleb, affected by the Royce family’s traumas and getting to know Cere, the youngest Royce child and survivor of her family’s apparent destruction, only moving ahead to adult Caleb for the last third.

Normally that sort of long dwelling on a character’s past would throw me, but not the case here. Wise builds this ongoing mystery that’s compelling, I think, for two reasons. One is the way that Caleb struggles to make sense of what’s affecting Cere and how to help her, as well as dealing with 1980s and 90s prejudice and later living up to his father’s name. He has a genuinely pre-teen attitude that most writers can’t pull off. He and Cere are immediately interesting and likeable characters, and so I kept reading to see what choice they’d make, regardless of whether the mystery got solved.

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Exploring a More Pleasant Future: A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

Sunday, August 18th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

Fugue for a Darkening Island-small Indoctrinaire-small2 A-Dream-of-Wessex-medium

Covers by Mike Ploog, Bruce Pennington, and uncredited

I like Chris Priest’s writing a lot. “An Infinite Summer” is one of my favorite SF stories. The Inverted World was one of the first serials I ever read in an SF magazine (Galaxy, in 1975 or so), and it fairly blew me away. I read Darkening Island (Fugue for a Darkening Island) at just the right age to be impressed by its non-linear narrative structure.

But for some reason, maybe because his books don’t seem to get much push in the US, I haven’t been following him lately. Recently I read his first novel, Indoctrinaire, which had some good ideas but ultimately was pretty obviously a first novel, and no better than OK. I have just now read what I believe to be his fifth novel, A Dream of Wessex (US title The Perfect Lover), from 1977. This is a very interesting novel, and a pretty good read.

The basic idea is quite “Priestian,” a (very little) bit reminiscent of Indoctrinaire: in the near future of 1977 (1985), a research project is set up whereby a group of people sort of “pool” their unconsciousnesses and create a realistic world 150 years in the future. Ostensibly this is to explore what might be done to reach a more pleasant future. The dreamed future is set on “Wessex,” which is the western part of England after it has been separated from the mainland by earthquakes, with the new channel roughly along the path of the river Stour.

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Magic that Enchants the Reader: The Beast’s Heart: A Novel of Beauty and the Beast by Leife Shallcross

Friday, August 16th, 2019 | Posted by Caitlin McAllister

The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross-smallThe Beast’s Heart: A Novel of Beauty & the Beast
Ace Books (416 pages, $15 trade paperback/$11.99 digital, February 12, 2019)
Cover by Lisa Perrin

This beautifully simplistic retelling of a “tale as old as time,” is pure magic. The story sparkles at every turn and enchants the reader with a new perspective: it’s the beast that narrates his own story in this version of the familiar fairytale.

For over a century Beast has roamed wild over the land he once ruled, driving away anything or anyone that lives there, his humanity essentially stripped away. He has little memory of what his life once was until he encounters a strange woman who leads him back to his previous domain, a castle in the heart of the forest. Suddenly he begins to have flashes of what was lost. As memories return, so too does some of the splendor that once saturated the castle: a roaring fire in the hearth, one luxurious velvet chair, corners of the garden sodden with out-of-season blooms.

As life returns to the castle, Beast slowly regains his humanity. He relearns to stand on two legs, his paws begin to look more like hands, and he realizes he can read! When a weary traveler wanders onto his land, he also realizes his isolation. Curious about the man, Beast allows his castle to lure the traveler in and care for him. Through the magical abilities of his abode, Beast is able to see the man’s dreams, and in them the man’s daughters. The youngest, Isabeau, immediately captures Beast’s heart.

Thus begins Beast’s plot to bring Isabeau to the castle and her eventual agreement to stay for a year. What unfolds is a beautiful relationship that examines what it means to love someone. Through the use of a magical mirror, the reader also gets to be a voyeur in the lives of Isabeau’s family left behind. Their experiences also lend to the theme of human connection and illustrate an idyllic country existence full of color and substance. Just as we root for Beast and Isabeau, so too are we cheering for them to find love and compassion.

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Blogging Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Part Five

Friday, August 16th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Master_of_Kung_Fu_Vol_1_29Master of Kung Fu #29 was the beginning of the much-promised new direction the series would take. Having carefully established warring factions of the Si-Fan with loyalties divided between Fu Manchu or Fah lo Suee, writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy now set aside this key storyline they had developed and expanded since replacing Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin on the book and took Shang-Chi in a decidedly different direction, albeit one that would guarantee the series’ longevity.

While Moench had taken pains to ensure a greater fidelity to Sax Rohmer’s work, he would still deviate from it at key points. Part of this was in shaving twenty-some years off the back continuity inherited from Rohmer to make elderly characters like Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie a bit more viable in the 1970s than they would be as men who should have been in their nineties. More importanly, Moench chooses to make Petrie an MI5 agent the same as Smith rather than simply Sir Denis’ lifelong friend and amanuensis.

Shang-Chi is summoned to Sir Denis’ New York estate where Black Jack Tarr and Clive Reston have already gathered along with Dr. Petrie. Smith offers Shang-Chi a place among his operatives in taking down heroin dealer Carlton Velcro. Reston is the key man in the operation as he has taken the identity of Mr. Blue, the New York connection in Velcro’s heroin pipeline. Reston’s personality has been softened to make the character more mature and more of a team player with Tarr, Smith, and Petrie.

Shang-Chi is torn between his pacifist philosophy and his trust in Sir Denis as a good man who desires to eradicate evil from the world. A visit to a Manhattan rehab clinic is enough to convince Shang-Chi that stopping the powerful heroin dealer is justification enough to use violence against the greater social ill. Of course, this Machiavellian decision is one that will bring Shang-Chi much grief. It is to Moench’s credit that the reader immediately understands that choosing to be a hero brings Shang-Chi closer to the the philosophy his father has embraced – a philosophy Shang-Chi has sworn to reject. Choosing Sir Denis as a father figure illustrates that Shang-Chi, like the traditional reader of Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series,  fails to perceive just how much of a mirror image Sir Denis is to his venerable foe.

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