Closing Time

I fell out of the habit of keeping this site up to date and it now feels like a huge job to get it back to where it needs to be.

As a result I’m making the conscious decision to stop maintaining it.

If you like my reviews, I’m still publishing them on the following sites:

Horror and SF reviews: https://www.scifiandscary.com/author/olly_c/

Crime and thriller reviews: https://criminolly.wordpress.com/

I have also written a post about my experiences reading only female authors in 2018 for Sci-fi and Scary which will be published soon.

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Review: The Leak of Madness by Alice J Black

This review first appeared on scifiandscary.com

Ever read a book that you know you shouldn’t like but you do anyway? ‘The Leak of Madness’ was that kind of book for me. It’s a shallow, silly ghost story with no scares, a cliched heroine and a plot so slight it’s almost non-existent. And I loved every bloody page. It’s the novella prequel to the Soul Seekers series, which looks to have two other books in it. If they’re as much fun as this one I’ll be very happy indeed.

The millennial heroine Peyton hears ghosts for reasons which are never made clear. She drinks cider and vodka to blot out the voices and sleeps around. The promiscuity isn’t necessarily a defense against the paranormal, but she feels bad about it like she does about the drinking. On top of that her parents died mysteriously so there’s lots of opportunities for 20 something angst. I’m assuming the mystery of her parents’ demise will get resolved in a later book in the series. My money is on ghosts.

Unlike many alcoholic protagonists, Peyton’s drinking doesn’t really seem to have any ill effects on her. She wakes up in a mortuary at the start of the book after a heavy night, but aside from that only problem her drinking causes is the disapproval of her best friend Olivia.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Peyton and Olivia attending Olivia’s brother’s wedding. That might not sound like the most gripping premise for a horror story, but wait…. The country house hotel the reception is held at is HAUNTED. What’s more, Olivia won’t let Peyton drink. This means a lot of the book is about the ways in which she sneaks crafty tipples. Most of these come from hunky barman Jake. No prizes for guessing where that leads…

The ghost stuff in ‘Leak of Madness‘ is all deeply silly. It’s about as scary as an episode of Scooby Doo and resolved in a similarly nonsensical manner. If I hadn’t enjoyed the rest of the book so much the end would have frustrated me. As it was it made no less sense than the rest of the goings on and so worked perfectly.

So why did I like it so much? I JUST DID, OKAY!

It’s like the literary equivalent of a big mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows. It demands nothing from the reader and in return gives likeable characters, simplistic wish fulfillment fantasies. Plus ghosts and sexy times. And sometimes, friends, that’s all you need.

Review: Phasma by Delilah S Dawson

 

This review first appeared on scifiandscary.com

Phasma’ (or to give it the full title it has on Amazon ‘Star Wars: Phasma: Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Star Wars the Last Jedi)’ a moniker with more colons than a proctologist’s conference) is one of the new official Star Wars novels that have been released since the universe was rebooted by Disney. Aside from the movie novelisations of the original trilogy which I loved as a kid, I think the only other Star Wars book I’ve read was ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ by Alan Dean Foster, the very first original Star Wars novel, which was published in the late 70s. All that should tell you that whilst I like Star Wars I’m not a mega fan. This review should be read with that in mind, especially when I inevitably screw up some piece of series lore.

As you’d expect from the title, ‘Phasma’ tells the story of Captain Phasma, the super kick ass and excessively polished female stormtrooper from ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’. I’ll confess to having thought she was a completely awesome character in the movies, and clearly I wasn’t alone, as not every henchperson gets their own spin off novel, not matter how shiny they are. Purely on the basis of Phasma’s presence I thought the book would be fun, but what I didn’t expect was for it to be quite as accomplished, entertaining and (dare I say it) polished as it is.

I think it’s the structure that makes it work so well; rather than being a straight retelling of Phasma’s origins, Delilah S Dawson instead frames the story as the lengthy interrogation of a Rebel spy, Vi Moradi, by a First Order stormtrooper, Captain Cardinal. Cardinal has a grudge against Phasma, for reasons that are revealed as the book progresses, and Moradi possesses information that he believes can unseat his rival from her position of power.

The relationship that develops between the two works perfectly, and the way the story within a story distances the reader from Phasma (who is fascinating in small doses but whose taciturnity and air of mystery makes her border on the dull in anything except action scenes) allows Dawson to play to the titular character’s strengths – smashing stuff up and being ruthless. In reality, whilst Phasma’s name is on the cover, the book really belongs to two other women – the spy Morodi and Siv, a healer in the same primitive tribe that Phasma comes from. The stories of Phasma’s early life and initial contact with the First Order are relayed to Cardinal by Morodi, who in turn learned them from Siv who was present for the events. The three contrasting women, Morodi, Siv and Phasma, are the core of the book, and it’s a testament to the newfound inclusivity of the Star Wars series, that it is women rather than men that carry the novel.

The structure also lends itself well to a Star Wars story – it’s deliberately episodic, which plays to the series’ fondness for memorable set pieces, and there are a number of fun SF spectacles to enjoy. Battles between stormtroopers and primitive warriors, vicious alien wolves, insane droids, flesh eating beetles – none of it is desperately original, but all of it is told with an energy and panache that make for a really fun read. Throw in some nice commentary on the dangers of unrestrained capitalism and the origins of fascism and ‘Phasma’ ends up being a thoroughly entertaining read – exciting, politically savvy, amusing, imaginative and even a little moving at times – it’s the perfect book-shaped companion to the modern Star Wars cinematic experience. What’s more, it doesn’t get so bogged down in nerdy detail that you need to be a massive fanboy or girl to appreciate it.

Review: Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss

This review first appeared on scifiandscary.com

Reviewing books is a bit of a balancing act sometimes. I thoroughly enjoyed Lynne Truss’s comic horror tale ‘Cat Out of Hell’, and stand by the 4-star rating I’ve given it. The rating is an entirely subjective one though, it’s my opinion of the book immediately after finishing it. It’s what I think of the book now, in a year’s time I might feel differently. I write this in the absolute certainty that a lot of people who read the review won’t like the book at all.

Anyway, enough navel gazing, on with the review.

‘Cat Out of Hell’ is a silly, witty, gripping, inventive and occasionally creepy short horror novel about evil felines and the truth of their nine lives. The protagonist is Alec, a mild-mannered librarian who gets pulled into investigating mysterious goings on relating to an urbane talking cat Roger. What follows is as ludicrous as you might expect. Thankfully the author tells the story with such enthusiasm and joy that it works.

The cover proudly boasts ‘as read on BBC Radio 4’ and that sums the books up perfectly. It’s very British: cosy and clever and entertaining. There is horror here (the climax is pretty gruesome), but it’s not going to give anyone nightmares. The gore is theatrical, appropriately enough given that it’s published by the revitalised Hammer brand. The horror often feels like something that might have graced British cinema screens in the 1960s or 70s. The blood never seems truly real and the horrific events somehow distant.

Like many classic horror tales it often uses letters and second hand accounts of events to tell the story. This allows Truss to keep the talking cats just enough at arms length that they don’t seem completely ridiculous. She brings things up to date by throwing in emails, out of office replies (to great comic effect) and references to YouTube clips. International audiences may struggle with the with sheer volume of British cultural references packed into the book. Truss throws in Sherlock Holmes, Kenneth Branagh, James Bond, Judi Dench, The Durrells and Littlehampton among others. The weaving of such specifics into the book gives it a definite sense of place and time. This might have seemed at odds with the fantastic events Truss is relaying, but her light comic touch makes it work.

That comic tone as well as the references make this an almost overwhelmingly English book. Truss infuses it with a gentle surrealism that’s a little like Monty Python. There is also a warm affection for English culture and places that worked perfectly for me but may not for every reader.

If the above appeals then I think you’ll enjoy this book. It’s not deep or groundbreaking, but it is gently entertaining, funny and creative. Best read by the fire on a wintry Sunday afternoon with a pot of tea and some chocolate digestives.

Review: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

 

 

This review first appeared on scifiandscary.com

‘Fever Dream’ is as hypnotic, bewitching and nightmarish as its title suggests. It’s short (shorter than the quoted 194 pages suggests, I read it on Kindle, but I’m guessing the printed edition must have a pretty large font to have filled that many pages) and demands to be read in one sitting, pulling the reader through the story with no chapters or breaks, just a constant stream of mysterious events. It’s hard to classify, marketed as literary fiction (and shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2017), but filled with an existential dread that seeps into your bones and packed with hints of the paranormal and body swapping that are familiar from genre novels.

Whilst this isn’t a ghost story, it often feels like one, adopting the narrative technique common in supernatural fiction of the events being relayed by one character to another. In fact the whole book takes the form of a conversation between a young woman (Amanda) and a mysterious child (David), as he sits at her bedside in hospital. Neither of them are reliable narrators and like a lot of the best fantastic fiction, it is often hard to tell whether the apparently magical events described have actually taken place or have been imagined or invented by the characters.

The story they tell each other centres on a strange sickness that has afflicted David, with events quickly spiralling to pull in Amanda’s daughter, Nina, and David’s mother, Carla. ‘Fever Dream’ examines maternal love in detail; the two mothers have very different relationships with their children, allowing the writer to portray both a sympathetic mother and one whose reaction to her child is more challenging but perhaps not totally unfamiliar. Schweblin uses the notion of “rescue distance” to describe the amount of physical separation a mother can stand from a young child, a concept that immediately resonated with me as a parent, and her description of familial love is convincing and adds an emotional depth to the story that makes it even more compelling. Beyond the parent/child relationships, ‘Fever Dream’ casts a light on societal responsibility to future generations, subtly weaving in pollution and GM crops to the story.

There is a pervading sense of dread throughout, with the central mysteries of the book forcing the reader to conjure up their own terrible answers to the questions the characters ask each other about what has happened to them. I don’t read a great deal of translated fiction, but Megan McDowell seems to have done a great job of translating this into English from its original Spanish. The conversational prose is naturalistic and engaging and makes the story more credible than a less accomplished telling might have. It certainly never has the distracting clunkiness that some European thrillers I have read in translation have been cursed with.

If you haven’t guessed already, I found the book utterly gripping, it captured my attention like nothing I have read recently, and the deliberate ambiguity has left me preoccupied with it since reading the final page. It’s a great piece of horror fiction, even if you won’t necessarily find it on the horror shelves of your local bookstore.

Review: Strain of Resistance by Michelle Bryan

 

 

This review first appeared on scifiandscary.com
Sigh.

I don’t really know how to review this one. It’s not bad exactly, there’s nothing truly awful about it – it’s readable, pacy, packed with action, has some okay ideas and a reasonable lead. Unfortunately, there’s also nothing that good about it. It’s all just overwhelmingly familiar and shockingly unsurprising. A by the numbers SF/Horror/Action mix that never had enough depth or originality to really engage me. As a result I found myself whizzing through it as quickly as I could so that I could move onto something else. What’s more, it advertises itself as “Mature themes. 17+ Rating”, but what that means in reality is that there is a lot of swearing, a fair bit of blood spatter and a couple of pretty dull sex scenes. It ends up reading like a not very good YA novel that’s trying to be edgy and cool.

The setup is simple – an alien parasite is unleashed on Earth (it isn’t explained why, it just happens), lots of people die. The plucky survivors that remain fight the “leeches”, parasitic worms that take over human hosts. There are good survivors (like spunky heroine Bixby) and bad survivors (Ravagers). The good survivors live in a hotel and eat regular food. The bad survivors live in the ruined city and eat people (it’s never really made clear why, just, you know, that’s what some people do after an apocalypse). So basically it’s like a thousand self-published carbon copy zombie novels, only with alien parasites rather than zombies.

The group Bixby belongs to are tough resistance fighter types who go on raiding missions to find stuff. We know they’re tough resistance fighters because when they’re not on missions they play poker and insult each other a lot. One is Bixby’s kind of boyfriend, but she’s still hung up on an old (missing presumed dead) boy, so there’s lots of drama. The rest of them kind of blur into one, and where they don’t it’s because they’re lazy (and sometimes slightly offensive) stereotypes. There’s a sweet old lady, a harsh but fair leader, a hard drinking mom type and a possibly psychic woman with Downs Syndrome.

At times the high level of cheese is kind of fun (lines like “We’ll keep you safe, little Bixby, or my name isn’t Captain John Cooper” made me smile), but it quickly becomes apparent that the cheese isn’t backed up by any substance at all. The plot is incredibly slight – they go on a mission, there is a setback which they overcome, they complete the mission. That might not have been a problem if the characters weren’t paper thin, bland and uninteresting. The author tries to keep things current by throwing in lots of geek references (Marvel, Raider of the Lost Ark), but all these serve to do is highlight the originality and storytelling passion that is lacking in this book.

There are some fun scenes (I quite liked the huge dog character who appears near the end) but these are rare glimmers of light in what is otherwise a pretty grey darkness. If you’ve never read or seen a post-apocalyptic book or movie you might enjoy this, otherwise I’d recommend avoiding it.

Review: From Elsewhere by Sara Baethge

 

 

This review first appeared on scifiandscary.com
‘From Elsewhere’ is a hard book to review because I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything like it. The premise is simple and not particularly original, but has promise. A human-like alien lands on earth. It’s familiar because it has been done many times before, and done well. Movies like ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and ‘Brother From Another Planet’ are classics because they use their alien protagonists to cast a different light on human society. Bringing an outsider’s view has enormous potential for both social commentary and comedy.

In ‘From Elsewhere’ the alien is being pursued by a different species of extraterrestrials, who are also indistinguishable from humans. It’s easy to see how a story about an alien fugitive on earth could be exciting and action packed. Imagine the drama that could unfold as his pursuers hunt for him. Imagine….

Now keep imagining, because ‘From Elsewhere’ contains none of the above. There’s no comedy, no social commentary and certainly no excitement. The absence of thrills isn’t even down to bad writing (although there is plenty of that). The writer just doesn’t bother to include any even remotely exciting events beyond the initial crash.

The plot is essentially this. Nysol (who is from the Sharill race of space pirates) is being chased by member of the Kisleem species. The Kisleem are the dominant race and the Sharill are in a kind of guerrilla rebellion against them. Nysol crash lands on Earth in a national park in the US. He meets Sean, a human who is camping there. Sean inexplicably mistakes Nysol for Kevin, an acquaintance of his. Nysol then uses an alien device to wipe Sean’s memory and take his knowledge for himself. The rest of the book is about the implications of that act and largely takes the form of people talking about it. Some of Sean’s friends and neighbours get involved, as does Poit, a Kisleem policeman who is chasing Nysol. A few other things happen, mostly to do with characters having their memories wiped or restored, but not many. Anything that does happen is discussed at length before it happens and then again after the fact. I’m not sure I’ve read a book where the ratio between things actually happening and people talking about them was weighted so heavily in favour of the talking. This might not be a problem if any of the characters were engaging or the dialogue was snappy. Sadly neither is true. Sentences in ‘From Elsewhere’ often run on unchecked, as if daring a full stop to try and put an end to them.

““I have to object to your decision, also,” said Amy. “First you said that you were our friends, but now you’re basically picking and choosing which ones of us you want to keep imprisoned here; what are you going to do next, decide that some of us need to be iced just like you do to those Sharill who you call enemies, as well?””

This absence of pace or tension infects the whole book. The characters never seem to care about the events on anything other than an intellectual level.

““Making up stories just to have other people unknowingly fill in non-player character roles in your game is a pretty messed up thing to do; you really ought to leave everybody else out of this pointless make-believe! People who’ve never met you, like Amy here, are taking what you are making up v seriously. Please don’t try to take advantage of Sean’s momentary confusion, and stop lying to my neighbors to make them mad at me.””

Even when the characters aren’t under stress their dialogue is weirdly robotic like they don’t really understand communication. If it was the alien characters who spoke like this I could understand it, but it’s all of them.

““Ok,” Randall said to them all; “let’s go into the next room and play some playstation or something instead of continuing our D&D campaign since Sean isn’t here. I say right now that I’ll defeat you all in Call of Duty!””

Despite the modern references, the book often feels like a bad pulp SF offering from the 1950s, or maybe a lost offering from Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional SF author Kilgore Trout. Taken in that way it’s kind of fascinating. I found myself almost eager to keep reading it because I had absolutely no idea where it was going. Sadly it wasn’t anywhere interesting.