Category: Books

Book Review: Lot — Bryan Washington

If was a paid outlet, Lot would likely be given to a queer person of colour to review. As this is a one man outfit, that’s not an option, but this review of Lot will attempt to tackle the stories contained within this collection without the air of tourism or gentrification.

Short stories, that publishing bastion which was once dominated by genre and feared by book vendors, are suddenly commercially viable. Between Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black and Bryan Washington’s Lot, the form is receiving a renaissance of public attention. Lot itself is a stunning debut collection that asks the reader what constitutes a collection of short stories and what makes up a loose novel, when every story shares the same neighbourhood and most of them the same narrator. Regardless of its taxonomy, Lot is a book worth more than dipping into.

Book Review: Stay Up With Hugo Best — Erin Somers

People who dismiss the idea of literature, both modern and classic, tend to view it as variants on a single story: a middle-aged man grappling with the perceived failures of his life seeks solace in the arms of a much younger woman. This is often further reduced to a professor and student dynamic. In Stay Up With Hugo Best, Erin Somers flips the script with the concept “what if that alleged classic literary had its script flipped: the exact same story from the perspective of the woman”. The thing is that it’s exactly the same. A woman ineffectually tries to save a boring but overly wealthy man from himself. Without finesse or an actual point of difference, Stay Up With Hugo Best doesn’t work.

Book Review: Two Can Keep a Secret — Karen M. McManus

Karen M. McManus’ second novel is an evolution of her craft. One Of Us Is Lying was a hooky little high school mystery that couldn’t quite grasp the concept of unreliable narrators, but Two Can Keep A Secret is a small town extravaganza that ticks a lot of boxes. If you tick the right boxes in the right ways, it doesn’t matter if they’re clichés. This is a genre based around the right material done well.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Danse Macabre

You don’t have to always follow your heroes through the gates of Hell. If Indiana Jones asks you to step into the Temple of Doom with him, you say “no thank you, Mister Jones. Call me when you’re looking for the cup of a carpenter, I want something a bit less imperialist.” This is a laboured metaphor already, but it turns out that Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s first non-fiction effort,is full of them. And “heh heh” asides. And blatant errors — Peter Pan and the “Wild Boys”, “Anarchy for the U.K.” — that have not been corrected in thirty years of reprints.

It’s not a case of don’t meet your heroes, but rather a case of “the past is a different country, you weren’t born yet, and nothing in this book means anything to you”. Danse Macabre does not hold up to a modern reader, dealing as it does with works that have largely been obscured by time, none of which have endured like the output of its author. Scrappy, and written with a giant chip on its shoulder, Danse Macabre is a curio.

Book Review: Nightflyers — George R.R. Martin

There was a time when George RR Martin was a somewhat prolific writer. Before he was sitting on a large pile of money and an even larger writer’s block, Martin wrote a little bit of everything: short stories about psychic rats; novels about Southern vampires long before Sookie Stackhouse; a fantasy history of a fake band. Nightflyers is his psychic science fantasy horror novella. 

Constant Reader Chronicle: Pet Sematary

This entry does not contain spoilers for the content of Pet Sematary, but it does address the overall tone of the piece, which, to some people, amounts to the same thing. You have been warned about this 36 year old terror.

Stephen King has that weird sort of luck: terrible things happen to him but they’re not as bad as they could have been, or terrible things almost happen to him and they turn into one of his bestsellers, even though he doesn’t like the finished product. Though King’s personal life is now largely defined by his car accident, back in 1979 young Owen King almost got killed by a truck while the King family lived between a busy road and a Pet Sematary. It did a number on King’s psyche, and thus Pet Sematary was born — a book that is too dark and too real for him to enjoy, published largely out of a contractual obligation. Where your standard King novel up to this point (and, admittedly, a few were skipped by this reader to get to Pet Sematary in time for the movie adaptation) offers some degree of hope, regardless of how many terrible events occur between their pages, Pet Sematary is largely a black hole. Abandon all hope ye who inter here.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Firestarter

The Vietnam War, Watergate, the existence of Richard M. Nixon, the Cold War and basically anything overtly political in the wake of World War II bred a healthy distrust of the US Government. Whenever something even vaguely good or hopeful eventuated, like a fresh faced Kennedy with an impenetrably thick accent, it got shot down. It is through all of this that Stephen King brought us Firestarter at the turn of the eighties, just before Ronald Reagan came along to Make America Great Again for the first time, a legacy being paid for – with interest – in the modern era.

Firestarter is the sort of novel that, were it not presented in the traditional King “bestseller with depth” format, is both written and read under the safety of a tinfoil hat. In the world of Firestarter, and our own Keystone Earth, governments are capable of great evil. But in King’s world, evil produces tangible results.

Book Review: The Rúin — Dervla McTiernan

Australians are cannibals. We will claim anyone as our own if given enough ammunition. Russell Crowe? Australian. Nicole Kidman? Australian. Naomi Watts? Australian? Mel Gibson? … you can probably keep him now, America. Dervla McTiernan, an Irish expat situated in Perth since 2008 or thereabouts, has written a crime novel set entirely within Ireland. But sure, she’s ours.

Constant Reader Chronicle: The Dead Zone

Stephen King’s fifth novel was published eleven months after The Stand, which towered even in its original abridged form. The Dead Zone is a mere half the length, but it takes longer to get somewhere. Some King novels you’re under the spell of at the time, and others you receive in retrospect. The Dead Zone is a novel that exists on the periphery — in its own Dead Zone — and defies expectations. It runs with some themes that are already recurring in King’s work, and introduces the embryos of ideas that will bear such fruit as one could scarcely imagine.

Book Review: Hark! The Herald Angels Scream — Christopher Golden, editor

December is a rough month for reading and, depending on the reader, any Christmas themed book undertaking may well keep you occupied well past the day of festivities. Hence Hark! The Herald Angels Scream was finished on New Year’s Eve. The best thing about it is the title, which isn’t exactly a shame, but this collection of vaguely Christmasy horror is a mixed-bag, and a randomly curated one at that. These eighteen stories range from twelve pages to novella length, and a lot of them have exactly the same ending: children dying, women screaming in another room or, often, an unholy combination of the two — and then, consecutively.

It’s not entirely clear why Hark! The Herald Angels Scream begins with a streak of its weakest stories, including a travel nightmare where the people “punished” for Christmas infractions are completely innocent. There are a few transferable curses on display, there’s a stern warning of the dangers of technology in that unbelievably accelerated way those sorts of stories take on, and also a bizarre entry in what is presumably a pre-existing world that remarkably little information exists about.

But Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is not without its gems: Jeff Strand’s brief “Good Deeds” is a genuinely amusing study of a truly awful Christmas song, which is particularly relevant to the last six weeks of the year when all of the music in public spaces is both a) about Christmas; and b) somehow something you’ve never heard before from that incredibly specific cottage industry; “It’s a Wonderful Knife”, editor Christopher Golden’s contribution, does more than coast on its title and offers a magical movie history time travel revenge tale; John McIlveen’s “Yankee Swap” is a seasonal Saw take that doesn’t quite stick the landing but is arresting up until that point; Tim Lebbon’s “Home” provides a post-apocalyptic ritual in a world that’s moved on; and it’s all tied together by Sarah Pinborough’s quite long “The Hangman’s Bride”, which starts with a chimney adventure and is almost as emphatic as Dickens at assuring us that Tiny Tim did NOT die by the end.

Hark! The Herald Angels Scream isn’t a consistent collection, and it’s not overly fun to dip in and out of, but there are a few pieces genuinely worth the time. It’s an impressive collection of authors, but apart from the final story there’s no logical order to proceedings. Horror and Christmas are bedfellows from way back — A Christmas Carol is a ghost story after all, and through it Dickens invented the modern conception of the day — but Hark! The Herald Angels Scream isn’t quite enough to put you in the festive mood enough in time for the day itself.