Reviews: Someone You Can Build a Nest In

Someone You Can Build a Nest In,
John Wiswell,
Published Jo Fletcher Books,
Hardback, Published April 2024
ISBN 9781529431339

I’ve heard of Nebula-winning John Wiswell before, but not actually had a chance to read him, until Jo Fletcher books spotted me talking about another book and sendt me an advance copy, thinking if I liked that one I might like this. They were correct, and I am delighted that they sent it to me out of the blue like that, as this was one of those rather lovely reads that you don’t just enjoy for good story and characters, but come away sporting a big smile and a warm feeling inside.

It’s your classic love story – monster is feared and hunted by locals, convinced she is devouring people (well, okay, she does sometimes, mostly bad people, or people trying to hurt her though, to be fair), hides in ruins in a remote, dank area (shades of Shrek’s swamp home) where she can have privacy and safety, and also because, although she can shape-shift into human form, she hates having to talk to people and doesn’t quite understand how interpersonal relationships work. And then, injured in her human guise, she is found and tended to by Homily, one of those kind-hearted people who tries to help others.

This has never happened before, and Shesheshen – going under the name Siobhan here – finds herself at first alarmed and wondering what is going on, preparing to defend herself, then slowly realising that Homily helps because, well, that’s just who she is. And as she finds out more about Homily, how her good nature is a reaction to the awful behaviour of most of her family, and how they treat her, the more Shesheshen, still not understanding fully these relationships, finds herself becoming very attached to Homily, and protective of her, in a way a monster really shouldn’t with a human…

As I said, it is the old love story – monster falls for kind-hearted human, who doesn’t know they are really a monster, both have their vulnerabilities and foibles that they share, as they slowly fall for each other in a queer, cross-species fantasy romance, but will it survive when the truth is revealed? Romeo and Juliet, but with monster hunters, people eating and psychotic, aristocratic relatives. And running through it, a delicious sense of dark humour – Shesheshen, hearing monster hunters mutter that they should have brought priests with them thinks, oh, yes, I like priests, they taste so righteous, or having warm memories of being an infant monster, kept warm in the next by being surrounded by her late father’s intestines (he was a very good father, she thinks nostalgically).

It’s about identity, not fitting in, but sometimes finding there are others you can not fit in with in a way you never expected, and how that can really change your life in the most unexpected of ways (although still with people eating – a monster girl has to eat, after all). An absolute delight.

If you are ordering this book, please buy from your local, Indy bookshop if you can – Jeff Bezos does not need more of your money! If you don’t live near a local bookshop, you can order directly from the website of many of them, or go through Bookshop Dot Org, which allows you to support independent bookshops of your choice.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Books: Best of the Year for 2023

It’s that time again when I cast my eye back over some of my favourite reads of the year just gone, from science fiction to espionage history to biography to children’s picture books, and of course my beloved graphic novels (I don’t read quite as many as I did when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, but my comics DNA remains!). As usual, I am sure I will realise I’ve forgotten someone after I have posted this, but that’s usually the way!

And if you fancy trying any of these, please do consider buying from your local, Indy bookshop if you can, rather than the chains or the Giant Website That Shall Not Be Named (if you don’t have a local independent bookshop in your area, but would still like to support one, you can buy online via Bookshop.org)

Fiction

Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor / PanMacmillan

The third and final part of Adrian’s gripping Final Architecture series, dealing with a future where the human diaspora is spread across the galaxy after the destruction of the Earth by the Architects, a mysterious, unknowable, unspeakably powerful race appears from hyperspace and “reshapes” planets, as if making celestial sculptures. Along with other races the survivors on other colonies live in constant fear of their return, and desperate measures are taken, exploring the very fabric of the reality of the universe. Again we see this from the eyes not of great heroes, but our mismatched crew of an old salvage vessel, caught up in politics, crime and galactic destruction.

Despite the size of the book, this is a fairly quick read, as it is so damned gripping and rides along at a terrific pace. Said it before and I will say it again, Adrian is one of the UK’s SF writers to add to your shelves, if you haven’t already, I recommend him regularly in our bookshop.

Starter Villain, John Scalzi, Tor / PanMacmillan

This was an utter delight to read – Scalzi is in his “let’s have fun” mode here. Charlie has had a run of bad luck – he’s relying on a temp job after losing his other work while looking after his ailing father, his marriage broke up, he is back living in the old family home with nowhere else to go, and his siblings want to sell it now their father has passed on. It’s just him and his cats against the world. Then he learns his estranged uncle has passed on, a billionaire and corporate titan, who fell out with his father after his mother’s death, and has never been in touch since.

Now Charlie has inherited his uncle’s business and must arrange the funeral, at which a succession of odd character appear, including some who take to attacking the corpse to ensure he is really dead. It turns out his uncle’s business as just one side of his life, the other was, well, supervillain, complete with a volcano lair on an island (waters patrolled by smart dolphins who want to form a union to get better working conditions). Oh, and his cats are genetically engineered spy cats his uncle slipped into his life to keep an eye on him. And his uncle’s many rivals now scent opportunity as Charlie has to learn the business. Along the way Scalzi manages potshots at the “tech bro” mentality and the idiocy of many of the super-rich (who all assume they must be incredibly clever if they are so rich, of course). This left me smiling.

Dragonfall, L.R. Lam, Hodderscape

I’ve known L for a while as one of our Edinburgh writers, so I was looking forward to this (she had me at the promise of “sexy dragons”!), and as a bonus we had a triple-header of women writers for an evening event at our bookshop, with L, Hannah Kaner and Anya Bergman (see next choices), which I had the pleasure of chairing (great event). This is the start if a new “romantasy” (romantic fantasy, a growing subgenre), which does something interesting and different with one of the most fabulous of mythological creatures, the dragon, and also gives us a compellingly-crafted bit of world-building, including a society with a different take on gender norms.

Godkiller, Hannah Kaner, HarperVoyager

Hannah was also one of our guests at out evening of women fantasy writers event, and I absolutely loved her debut. We have a realm where the royal family outlawed the many gods that existed, which were destabilising society, with gods of all sorts, from the mighty, like fire gods or ocean gods, to tiny, like a god of lost sandals, each with their icon and altars for worship (which fuels their existence), and while many toe the king’s law in public, in private many wish again for their gods. As conspiracies grow across a troubled land, in the best tradition we have a misfit bunch shoved together on a journey.

Hannah brings the characters to rich life, especially on the emotional front – you will really come to care for them. Despite often harsh, brutal elements, there’s also a warm strand of humour woven into it. I’ve just been reading an advance copy of the second volume, Sunbringer, which will be published in February 2024.

The Witches of Vardo, Anya Bergman, Bonnier

We had Anya as part of our trio of women fantasy writers, although this is more historical fiction with a wee smattering of (possible) magic. Drawn from surviving Norwegian court records of witch trials centuries ago, the main characters here are all real people named in those documents, and it will often make your blood boil to read it and realise that, although this is fictionalised, there were women with those names who were treated this disgraceful way by a patriarchal power-base terrified of the idea of women getting ideas above their station.

There’s just enough in there that you could explain some of the more unusual moments away, but equally you could also decide there is indeed some magic involved, the writer leave it to the reader. There have been some great “witchlit” novels in the last year or two, but this one stands out, not least for the historical trial records which underpin it.

The Boys in the Valley, Philip Fracassi, Orbit

I enjoy a good, creepy horror, preferably something that takes the time to build atmosphere, and Philip does that superbly well here – set in a harsh, rural, winter in the US, I was sent this in the middle of the summer, but I still felt those cold winds! The sheriff and his posse seek help at a Catholic orphanage during a snow storm, dragging a hideously injured man they shot earlier, a man covered in arcane tattoos cut into his flesh, a man who should be dead.

He and others had been carrying out some sort of dark ritual, including sacrifices, when the sheriff took them. When the strange man finally dies of his wounds, it is as if the evil in him seeps out into the orphanage and everyone there, like an infection, changing behaviours, unleashing darkness. Delightfully creepy, in the Exorcist vein.

A Haunting on the Hill, Elizabeth Hand, Sphere / LittleBrown

Hand, an acclaimed writer, is, appropriately, a multiple winner of the Shirley Jackson Award; here she is revisiting Jackson’s classic masterpiece, the Haunting of Hill House. Cleverly she side-steps the obvious sequel, instead this is a theatre group hiring the house in the modern era, only to find strange noises and sights and thoughts. Like the original it eschews cheap jump-scare tactics or gore, instead this is psychological terror and atmosphere. I love the original and I have to say I really enjoyed this – ideal for those looking for a creepy, haunting tale on the long, dark nights.

Red River Seven, Anthony Ryan, Orbit

I knew nothing about this book in advance, when the publisher sent me a copy to look at, and within the first few pages Anthony had me hooked right in. A man wakes up on a boat, with no personal memories. He still has knowledge and skills he learned, but nothing about himself – his name, if he had a family, anything of that nature. Others wake up on the ship, save one who appears to have shot himself just before they woke. Each appears to have different skills, as if someone had assembled them as a team, but again no personal memories.

Each bears marks of recent surgery on their skull and torso, and a tattoo with a name (each is given the name of a writer). The boat’s controls are sealed, it is on an automatic course to … somewhere. A radio comes to life, and an artificial voice gives them strict instructions to follow, and will not answer their questions. I won’t say much more because of spoilers, but this has elements of Cube, John Carpenter and even Jeff VanderMeer in its DNA; I found it totally gripping. (full review here)

Infinity Gate, M.R. Carey, Orbit

I’ve been reading Mike’s work since his comics writing days, and here he is doing something new for him – his first foray into Space Opera, with a big, widescreen, multiverse of a setting. In a world very like ours, near future, wars and exhausted natural resources and pollution and environmental collapse, a scientist in Africa has created a portal to parallel Earths – potentially the way to save the world, giving access to near limitless resources.

But there is already a vast confederation out there, of cultures spread across the multiverse, and they really don’t care for anyone else poking their nose into portal technology… Along the way Mike layers in some nice references to racism, bigotry, imperialism and environmental issues across these different but parallel worlds.

Mr Breakfast, Jonathan Carroll, Melville House

I’ve loved Carroll’s works for decades; highly respected by those in the know, and among many other writers, it is a mystery to me why he’s not more widely known. He has a remarkable talent for creating stories that come at you in interesting, different angles than most. Here he has Graham Patterson, a failing stand-up comedian, whose life is falling apart. After one final, poor show, he decides to quit, buy a stupidly large truck, and drive slowly across the US to his family on the opposite coast where he will take up a more mundane job, giving up his dream. On his way he stops overnight in a small town, and is taken with the art on display in the window of a tattoo parlour, prompting him to choose one of their designs.

What he doesn’t know is that this tattoo is special, it gives the wearer a glimpse into alternative versions of their own life, then choose one (or remain in their current life). It doesn’t offer an easy way out – for instance, you may see a version of you that is successful, happy, but that doesn’t mean that life will always be that way, because, well, life. Along the way he starts taking photographs, and these start to weave themselves into the multiple versions of his lives as he attempts to decide who he wants to be.

More Perfect, Temi Oh, Simon & Schuster

Temi gives us a near future in a world very much like ours, but more so, where almost everyone is linked to the Panopticon, a neural net that links not just computers, as we have today with the web, but minds, sharing ideas, even dreams – never be alone! Not everyone loves this idea, and of course it is also wide open to huge abuses, but just as it is seen as odd not to have web access in today’s society, this anti-Panopticon group is viewed as eccentric at best, as a threat to society at worst, and we will experience this world through the eyes of a young woman finally connecting (as was her desire for years) and a young man who has been isolated from it all his life by his dissident father. Shades of the Matrix, Inception and Bill Gibson are woven in with a fresh perspective from Oh (and with a rich seam of diversity too) – she’s a writer to watch, I think.

Ritual of Fire, D.V. Bishop, PanMacmillan

I’ve known David for years through our comics connections (he is a former Tharg, the editor of the legendary 2000 AD comic), and he is also a regular in our bookshop, so when he had the first of his new historical crime novels set in Renaissance era Florence, I had to have a look, and I was hooked. This is the third in the series, and sees our main detective-like character, Aldo, sent out into the surrounding countryside to patrol, sent away from the city, just as a series of gruesome murders of influential Florentines starts, all seemingly linked to an insane religious zealot of a monk who had wreaked havoc a few decades previously, before being put to death.

It’s compelling, with some truly gruesome ends, and David kept me guessing right up to the last few pages as to which way he was going to take it – reading so much I often sense where a story arc is going, but not here, and that was refreshing and welcome. Looking forward to book four this summer.

Viper’s Dream, Jake Lamarr, No Exit Press

When an advance copy of this arrived, I had to have a look – billed as a “jazz noir”, one of my colleague rightly commented, this one must be for you. We follow Viper’s life through a changing Harlem, from the 1930s to the 60s, and the changing scenes around him. Leaving his rural life behind he thinks he will become a great jazz musician, but it turns out he’s terrible, so instead, after a stint working in a jazz club, he becomes a heavy for the owner’s sideline in drugs supplied to the musical fraternity, rising in the ranks, befriending many famous names (people like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear as background characters).

It’s a short but atmospheric tale, watching the world and the music scene change around him as the decades roll past, while a personal history recurs again to prompt his own story arc through this. You don’t need to know jazz to enjoy this book, it is a solid, period Noir tale, but if you do like jazz, it’s a bonus. (full review here)

The Second Murderer, Denise Mina, Harvill Secker

“The Montgomery’s money was so old there was a rumour that some of it still had Moses’ teeth marks on it”

One of Tartan Noir’s great crime writing queens, Denise Mina, turns to Raymond Chandler, with a brand-new tale of his iconic Philip Marlowe, one of the most legendary gumshoes of all time. I really wasn’t too sure about this at first – normally I am not mad on a writer doing a deceased writer’s characters, but I know Denise wouldn’t try this unless she thought she could do it both well and with respect for the original material, and indeed she does.

I adore the Chandler novels, and yes, I loved this too – it felt exactly like having that character and world again, but maintaining Chandler’s feel while never slavishly copying, bringing something of her own style to it too. One for fellow lovers of Chandler and classic Gumshoe Noirs.

Graphic Novels

The Hard Switch, Owen D Pomery, Avery Hill

Owen’s previous graphic novel, Victory Point (also Avery Hill), was one of my books of that year, so when Avery Hill had their annual Kickstarter for upcoming new releases, this is one I jumped at backing. Very different from his previous book, this is science fiction, set on a run down, working spaceship scavenging wrecks in a universe where the material that allows faster than light travel is running out – when it is totally gone, people will be effectively stuck on the planet and its solar system they are on, so everyone is scrambling to get what they can then settle somewhere before it happens, while law and order is eroding. This has a real Firefly vibe to it, and again the artwork is a beautiful, clear line style.

Why Don’t You Love Me?, Paul B Rainey, Drawn & Quarterly

 

Back when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, Paul’s serial Why Don’t You Love Me? Was one we shouted out many times. Fast forward several years and D&Q produced this lovely, big hardback collection of Paul’s fascinating series, a brilliant comic strip that has you thinking it is one thing, then another, then another, slowly revealing layers upon layers – it’s original, unusual and really draws you further and further into it to see where it is really going. It has, rightly, been appearing on best of the year lists all over the UK and US, and I’m delighted that this veteran of the UK Small Press comics scene is getting such wider recognition for his unique style of comics.

Transitions: a Mother’s Journey, Élodie Durand, translated by Evan McGorray, Top Shelf

“I thought I was open-minded… The news of my child’s gender change hit me like a tidal wave, sweeping away all my certainties. Sweeping away the comfort of my tidy little life.”

The ongoing discussions, debates – and sadly sometimes screaming matches – over the issues of Trans identity in our media can sometimes obscure the fact that, when you look past ideologies, social expectations and norms (and often prejudices which many of us probably never even realised we had), much of it boils down to something very, very simple, something that in one form or another we all do: a person trying to figure out who they are, how to live, how to be comfortable in that skin. Durand takes a mother suddenly finding out her girl actually has found herself identifying as a male for some time, now becoming a Trans man.

There is the initial shock and surprise, the mother wondering how this happened, did she do something wrong somehow? But then through a mixture of musings and performing her own research, she does what any good parent does – she tries to understand so she can support her child. A compelling mixture of informative and compassionate.

Alison, Lizzy Stewart, Serpent’s Tail

In lesser hands, this story of a now-famous artist recounting how as a young, naïve woman she met a famous, much older artist and fell into his orbit would be one where it was mostly concerned with the older, more sophisticated, experienced man taking advantage of a younger, less worldly woman, but Alison is far more nuanced. Although it doesn’t shy away from looking at that aspect of the relationship, it also explores a genuine relationship and romance, despite the age and social difference, and the way she is slowly encouraged to learn more about art, then develop her own, part of the path that lead to her later becoming an acclaimed artist in her own right.

It’s a fascinating tale, also an interesting take on that subject of the older artist and younger muse/lover, and one which I am glad to say does not relegate her to just being that, but explores her as an actual person and artist.

Big Ugly, Ellice Weaver, Avery Hill

When we’re younger, especially in our teens, we often think we’re clueless, that everyone else seems to know what they want to do with life, how to act in most situations, unlike us, but hey, when we are older, we’ll have it all figured out. Then, of course, we find out differently, and we realise actually although part of us still thinks others have a handle on life, unlike us, really they’re mostly thinking the same as us. Ellice creates a story of two siblings, sharing a home as adults after one goes through a rough time, that family dynamic of both feeling and wanting to be needed and help while sometimes resenting being needed, of casting back to youthful incidents that somehow you’re convinced are part of what marked your present, adult self, if only this had been different, if someone had done that instead of this your life today would be so much better…

It’s very recognisable stuff to many of us, while Ellice’s unusual art style reminds me (pleasantly) of stills from a cool animated film, with a nice mix of intimate panels and the odd double-page splash, drawing you in.

Non-Fiction

For The Love of Mars, Matthew Shindell, University of Chicago Press

The Red Planet has fascinated humanity for millennia, from deciding it was a sign from the God of War in antiquity, to early science fiction convinced life existed there, to our modern era where we have been mapping and exploring our near-neighbour. While this is a good popular science read, it is also much more – Shindell covers our scientific explorations and knowledge gained of Mars, but he also takes pains to put the planet into a cultural context, what it has represented to humans in our culture as well as our science, which makes this more human and approachable, and all the more interesting.

Making It So, Sir Patrick Stewart, Gallery / Simon & Schuster

I don’t read a lot of biographies, but, well, this is Patrick Stewart… Obviously there is the very important Star Trek element to this, but the other decades of his life are also compelling reading, from a childhood in a small town in rural Yorkshire, on the edge of poverty (outdoor toilet, hiding with his mum when the rent man came to call) through to being bitten by the acting bug, slowly realising that yes, actually working class lads from Yorkshire can go to drama school, not just the posh folks, the Old Vic, landing his dream job at the RSC, starting to get film work and more.

There’s a strong sense of humour running through it all, and he’s not shy of turning that humour on himself at some points (a couple of times it put me slightly in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs). Through all of it shines a love of storytelling, especially with Shakespeare, and the sense of a man who realises how fortunate he has been and is enjoying that life. (full review here)

Wise Gals, Nathalia Holt, Icon Books

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, and often hidden, subject – espionage. The women here all served in the early incarnations of the US Intelligence services, during the scramble to create such departments as WWII raged (some served as spies and resistance leaders behind the enemy lines, risking torture and death), and then helped to set up the new CIA after the war. That in itself would be compelling reading, the tugs and pulls of war, politics and ethics all clashing, and the women themselves ranging from rural, small-town gals to sophisticated society ladies who spoke multiple languages.

What they had in common was a determination to do a good job for their country, and the bravery to see it through – although this also brings them smack into the incredible sexism of the era – they don’t get the pay or promotions or respect male counterparts do, despite often being as good or better at what they do, so they use their intelligence gathering training to construct data on why women are so important to the CIA to campaign for their rights. This is history, politics, culture and feminism all in one, absorbing read.

Camera Man, Dana Stevens, Atria Books

I’ve loved Buster Keaton’s astonishing silent comedy films since I was a child, watching them with my dad (we both still enjoy watching them!), so this was always going to grab my attention. But Stevens hasn’t created just a simple biography, although this does take us through Buster’s life, from childhood on the vaudeville stage, to the new medium of cinema, to his old age, dispelling myths along the way (such as him effectively disappearing into a bottle when his principal movie stardom faded, despite the fact he was very active in a number of fields for decades after this era).

What she has done is take his life and career, but also use it as a way to look at how entertainment, culture and society all changed across Buster’s lifetime, from the late Victorian period to the 1960s, how the newly evolving technology of film affected popular culture, how people like Buster innovated in that embryonic medium, through to the rise of the corporate studio systems, and to the emergence in the 50s and 60s of TV, which revived interest in these almost-lost silent classics. It’s as fascinating for those insights as it is for reading about the life of one of the first, great movie stars. (review here)

Children’s & YA Books

Bumble and Snug: the Shy Ghost, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

I absolutely loved Mark’s Bumble and Snug series, and have been recommending it constantly in our wee bookshop, and am delighted to say quite a few of our younger readers have been just as delighted with them! In this third volume our bestest friend Bugpops are preparing for a magic show, when they befriend a ghost – but, as the title suggest, the ghost has a crippling shyness, and the thought of trying to do something in front of people is very scary, so of course they try to help them.

As with the previous books, there’s a lovely wee adventure here, a lot of humour, but also again an underlying theme of friendship and trying to be kind to others, to understand feelings, that we have them and so do others around us – it’s a good message for young readers to learn, but mostly as with the first two books, the main thing I took from this is just pure joy.

100 Tales From the Tokyo Ghost Cafe, Julian Sedgwick and Che Kutsuwada, Guppy Books

I had the pleasure of working with Julian and Chie at their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last summer, following their previous collaboration, Tsunami Girl, which likes this is an intriguing mixture of both prose and manga. As with Tsunami Girl, the two forms overlap, compliment and indeed enhance the other, the manga performing some storytelling tricks that prose cannot, and vice versa, giving a very rounded view into the characters and the world(s) they explore.

Drawing on famous Yokai tales of Japanese spirits, folklore and myths, our main characters – avatars of the authors – are travelling through Japan to research these tales, each leg of the journey opening up other tales, but with a connecting narrative thread running throughout. There are even some rather lovely nods to characters from Tsunami Girl (you don’t have to read that to get this, but it will add to your experience if you have), in a book which presents rich, Japanese folklore in a very accessible manner, but also in one which is often deeply emotional and personal too.

Mexikid, Pedro Martín, Guppy Books

After chatting to some lovely folks from Guppy Books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, they very kindly sent me a copy of their edition of Pedro’s autobiographical graphic novel, Mexikid, and I am so glad they did! We’re back in the 1970s, with his large family (eight kids!) in a busy, busy household, and about to become more crowded as they are packing up for a road trip south of the border, back to Mexico – their abuelito, grandfather, something of a legend in the family, is going to be coming back with them to the US.

What follows is part family history, but also a gentle exploration of both Mexican and American lifestyles and cultures, and events which shape families and individuals, all delivered in a wonderfully warm, engaging and often very funny way, with much of the humour coming from a child’s point of view, and the tangled nature of family dynamics (something anyone from any culture can identify with!).

Sam Francisco, King of the Disco, Sarah Tagholm, Binny, Rocket Bird Books / Barrington Stoke

Oh but this picture book had me smiling and laughing – we finally find out what cats do when they are out all night long, and it turns out it is partying as DJ Sam Franciso spins the most awesome tunes around! Of course this does keep some others awake, including the street’s grump, Buzzkill Bill, who unleashes his dogs on the cat rave. Except the dogs join the party, as does everyone else!

Whose Dog Is This?, Andrew Sanders and Aysha Awwad, Macmillan Children’s Books

I loved Andrew and Aysha’s previous picture book, Where Has All the Cake Gone?, and this features the same father and young son, and a similarly tall tale as the boy seems to be inventing ever-more elaborate excuses to explain his naughty behaviour, which becomes ever more imaginative and convoluted (including stealing top secrets and the intervention of a brilliant spy dog, no less! It builds to a crescendo that, like the previous book, leaves you wondering if it was really all made up as an excuse, or if there was just a bit of truth to it, leaving you with a huge smile. I’ve read both this and the previous books at our regular Under Fives Storytime, and they went down well.

Rose Wolves, Natalie Warner, Top Shelf

This is a deceptively simple, beautiful tale, told entirely without words, the art carrying all of the story here. A young girl finds an unusual flower in the forest, a flower which blooms magically into an unusual creature, the Rose Wolf. The animal is missing a leg, just as the wee girl is missing an arm, and the two quickly bond, leading to an adventure to find out where they belong in the world around them. Reminding me a little of Slade’s Korgi series (also a wordless, all-ages comic), this is an enchanting, gorgeous, warm delight for both younger readers (the wordless nature makes it especially suitable for any with reading problems) and adults.

Ning and the Night Spirits, Adriena Fong, Flying Eye Books

Ning has trouble making friends with the other children in his village, and also wonders why the villagers always light lanterns to scare away night spirits. It isn’t long before he goes exploring and find he can make friends, starting with the night spirits in the forest. This is an utterly beautiful work, part picture book, part graphic novel in style, with the usual high standards from Flying Eye. Colourful, enchanting and gorgeous, this is ideal for those who adore Studio Ghibli.

Monster Support Group, Laura Suarez, Flying Eye Books

Channel some of your inner Addams Family with this gorgeously ghoulish tale of young Lowell – 12 years old and worrying about body changes. No, not just the usual ones, Lowell is turning into a werewolf!! He finds the local Monster Support Group where they “don’t judge witches by their warts, nor ghouls by their groans.” It’s a lovely little comedy-horror about growing up, changing, learning to be comfortable with yourself and finding the people who will accept you as you are, all with that Addams Family / Tim Burton twist to it. Made me chuckle!

Zepheniah

I come from a musical place
Where they shoot me for my song
And my brother has been tortured
By my brother in my land.

I come from a beautiful place
Where they hate my shade of skin
They don’t like the way I pray
And they ban free poetry.

I come from a beautiful place
Where girls cannot go to school
There you are told what to believe
And even young boys must grow beards.

I come from a great old forest
I think it is now a field
And the people I once knew
Are not there now.

We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe,
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food,
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go,
We can be hated by someone
For being someone.

I come from a beautiful place
Where the valley floods each year
And each year the hurricane tells us
That we must keep moving on.

I come from an ancient place
All my family were born there
And I would like to go there
But I really want to live.

I come from a sunny, sandy place
Where tourists go to darken skin
And dealers like to sell guns there
I just can’t tell you what’s the price.

I am told I have no country now
I am told I am a lie
I am told that modern history books
May forget my name.

We can all be refugees
Sometimes it only takes a day,
Sometimes it only takes a handshake
Or a paper that is signed.
We all came from refugees
Nobody simply just appeared,
Nobody’s here without a struggle,
And why should we live in fear
Of the weather or the troubles?
We all came here from somewhere.”

From “We Refugees”, by Benjamin Zepheniah. Shocked to learn that we lost this unique voice, and far, far too damned early.

Reviews: Making It So – a Memoir

Making It So: a Memoir,
Patrick Stewart,
Published Simon & Schuster

Sir Patrick Stewart recounts scenes from his remarkable life and career, a winding path that has taken him from a young Yorkshire lad in a small town, in a house with an outside loo and days where he and his mum would pretend to be out when the rent man called, to a young man trying to make his way in the world, finding through much encouragement from others who see his potential, that a career in acting is not just for the “posh” folk, but someone like him too, to being a young student actor in the Bristol Old Vic, moving around repetory theatre work, learning his craft, his dream job of being at the Royal Shakespeare Company, then slowly being drawn into film and television… And of course, to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, not to mention leading the X-Men. And somehow still managing to keep his love of live theatre alive, still pushing himself into new works.

Despite my heavy reading load, I must confess it’s not often I pick up biographical works, but, well, come on, it’s Patrick Stewart. I think my first memory of him – although I wouldn’t really know who he was at this stage – was in the remarkable BBC production of I, Claudius, and of course I saw him appear again in films like Dune and, one of my all-time favourites, Boorman’s magnificent Excalibur, where his knight is the first to support the young Arthur (“I saw what I saw – if a boy has been chosen, a boy shall be king!”). And then there is the matter of being the skipper of a certain starship, a ship that is close to my heart and that of millions of others…

To his great credit, Patrick obviously understands that his Star Trek days cast a long shadow over his public perception, but as with his rightly-lauded stage work, he takes that (and clearly has appreciation for it and what it has given him) and uses it to not only explore Trek, but to take even those who mostly know him principally for that work, and introduce them gently to a far wider world (especially Shakespeare). Yes, of course, being an autobiography, this takes us through his life, from childhood to his eighties, and there’s a lot to love here (some of his early, childhood memories in Yorkshire put me in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs in places, there’s a humour underlying it that often made me smile, despite the fact some of that life was damned hard).


(two knights of the stage, Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart, in their Waiting for Godot bowler hats, pic from Patrick Stewart’s Twitter)

But it’s the art and craft of acting and storytelling that are really foremost here, and Patrick’s love for acting, especially on the stage with his fellow actors and an audience, learning how to craft a character, explore the story and the emotions and motivations, how to express them, that’s what comes out most here, again and again. It runs through the entire book, from the earliest days right to the present, especially his deep love for Shakespeare, and what the Bard’s works can tell us of human nature, something he is still passionate about in his eighties (think of him doing daily online reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets during the onerous days of the Lockdown).

You can see the evolution of Patrick as a person and as an actor throughout these decades; indeed the one is often synonymous with the other – certain roles influence the actor’s state of mind (both for good and ill), while of course their personal experiences give them deeper insights into the world and humanity, which gives them new reservoirs to draw on when interpreting a character and bringing them so convincingly to life that we, the audience, believe in them. Rather wonderfully, it’s clear right to the last pages that this is still, in his eighties, a process that continues: he’s still learning, and taking those experiences to channel into his acting, which is a good thing for any artist, and not a bad thing for any person at all to retain that ability and desire.

There’s a lot of self-deprecating humour here – Patrick isn’t shy of pointing out when he made mistakes or simply didn’t know what was what. He recounts meeting Sting on the set of Dune and, being mostly a classical music fan, he had no idea who he was and thought he played in a police band for a moment (he chuckles and adds that Sting has now forgiven him). Given the sheer amount of talented people he has worked with during his long career, there are also, as you might expect, a lot of other now-famous names who crop up. Seeing a young actor whose performance he greatly admires – a young David Warner, on stage, then relating about getting to work with David much later (especially the powerful Chain of Command two-parter in TNG, where David played the Cardassian torturing Picard, most of the scenes just these two actors playing off each other’s strengths). Or the time he was working in theatre in the mid 1960s with a young Jane Asher, when her then-boyfriend Paul McCartney arrives to pick her up in his new Aston Martin, says hello to Patrick and explains Jane has told him he like cars, so here are the keys, grab your girlfriend, we’re going for a ride and you’re driving.

Naturally the chapters on making Star Trek are, to coin an old Vulcan phrase, “fascinating”. Patrick explains how unused he was to episodic television and the tight rush filming each episode required, how as the older actor in the cast he felt he had to set an example and tell his colleagues off for too much larking around on set, with them responding yes, they should dial it down a bit, but he in turn needed to lighten up (and he comes to realise yes, he should, much as Picard did too in later seasons). He also recounts how Roddenberry didn’t seem too keen on him at all, a cause for much regret because he admired what Roddenberry had created. How most of them thought the show would be a “one and done”, i.e. cancelled after one season, because nobody could recreate the lightning in a bottle that made the original Trek so beloved by generations, and how he wasn’t too worried about that because he would return to theatre.


(Sir Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation, (c) Paramount)

As we all know, that was not how The Next Generation turned out, and as it continued and grew, so too did Patrick, not just as an actor inhabiting and evolving his character, but in his own life. His colleagues become a family, and some of them introduce him to the world of conventions, something that seems very peculiar to him at first, and now he’s come to enjoy them because he sees the faces of those fans and talks to some, and realises how much of an impact the show has had on so many of our lives, often inspiring us when we are at our lowest or darkest hours, and that to be a part of that is something to be treasured. I found the chapters where he discussed going back to that role for the recent Picard series especially fascinating – this was a character he had enjoyed but thought well over, reluctant to return to him, until the producers and writers explained how they wanted to explore Jean-Luc as the age Patrick himself is now, how that changed the man.

While there are many ups and downs, as in any life (loss of loved ones, marriages drifting apart, lost opportunities and regrets), the overall tone here is positive; this feels like it is written by a man who has looked back on all those experiences and realised that actually, he is fortunate and in a situation now, at this stage of his life, where he is more comfortable with himself, and realises his good fortune and appreciates it, both in his professional life, and in his personal life (not least with his wife Sunny, where his love for her and how she changed his life shines through). I was left with a big smile on my face as I read much of this, especially the final chapters. It’s an absolute delight of a memoir.

Reviews: 1974 – Scenes From a Year of Crisis

1974: Scenes From a Year of Crisis,
Nick Rennison,
Published Oldcastle Books (Nov 2023)

Rennison is a well-known name – an influential bookseller, commentator on the publishing industry, and author of numerous titles. This, his latest, is a pleasing book constructed in a manner that makes it easy to just dip into when you have the reading time. The structure is simple and efficient – Rennison takes us through a selection of global events that occured throughout the year 1974, month by month, starting with the first of January – with New Year’s Day officially becoming a bank holiday in the rest of the UK (Scotland already marked it as a holiday).

We proceed throughout the months of 1974, with Rennison picking out quite a variety of events and occassions – this takes in everything from high politics to crime, disasters, economic slumps, and entertainment to sport. So we have the tumult of the swinging back and forth between Heath and Wilson, as the UK governments fall and repeat elections take place, against the backdrop of power cuts, mass strikes and the infamous three day week, while across the Atlantic, Nixon is finally forced to resign the presidency (and is pardoned just a few weeks later by his replacement, Ford).

We have the still-imfanous case of the disappearance of Lord Lucan, the travesty and tragedy of the IRA mainland bombings and the botched arrests and trials which saw innocent people locked away for years, and in France, George Pompidou passes away while still in office, the famous gallery in Paris being named in his honour later on.

But the book also takes in many other events around the world, from a devastating hurricane which shattered the Australian city of Darwin, to a terrible train disaster in Zagreb, Kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst holding up a bank with her own former captors, Ali and Foreman facing off against one another for the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match, and Evel Knievel attempting his rocket-powered bike keap over a canyon. There’s the discovery of the astonishing Terracotta Army, and Japanese officer Hiroo Onoda finally accepting WWII was over and surrendering (see my review of the film of this story, 10, 000 Nights in the Jungle here on the blog).

These are all quite short pieces – as Rennison notes himself, it is not a deep-dive into history, it is, as the subtitle of the book infers, scenes from that year, plucked out and present month by month, rather than a heavy history book attempting to evaluate the impact of those various events on how the world developed. But while more detail would be nice, to be fair, that is not what this book is about – it is to give a flavour of that now long-ago year, of the wide variety of events and people that shaped it (and so helped shape the following decades).

It’s ideal for dipping into for a quick read when you have the free time, and would make a nice gift for quite a few people, given it covers a bit of everything (sports, politics, history, culture and more), and, of course, if anyone does want deeper details on any of the events, perhaps this will inspire them to do further reading. There’s also a simple enjoyment in reading about some of these events, especially for those of us old enough to actually recall some of them happening, where for younger readers it’s a glimpse into a now-vanished world, but one where the events that happened still often resonate today.

Reviews: Red River Seven

Red River Seven,
A.J. Ryan,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, ISBN 9780356520056,
Published October 2023

A man wakes up on what appears to be a small naval patrol boat. He has no memory of how or why he is there – in fact, he has no memory of who he is, what he does, where he went to school, the names of any of his family (if he even has a family). And yet his knowledge of the world and his own skills are still there, just his most personal memories are missing. And there are scars from recent surgery, both to his cranium and elsewhere on his body, close to where the kidneys are located. He doesn’t even know where the boat is sailing, as it is surrounded by a deep fog.

And then he sees the dead body, bullet wound through the skull, and realises the sound that woke him was a shot – from the looks of it, self-inflicted. On examining the body and the pistol, he notices he handles all of this professionally – was he a policeman or some other sort of investigator? The body has similar scars to his, and a tattoo reading “Conrad”. Looking at his own body, he find a similar tattoo reading “Huxley”. He soon finds several others in the lower decks, men and women, none of whom can recall any personal details, although all also seem to still recall their particular skills and knowledge, like him – it looks like one may have served in the forces, one was an explorer or mountaineer, one a scientist; all have tattoos to identify them in lieu of their own personal memories of who they are, such as “Pynchon” or “Plath” – all names of authors.

The boat is on its own course, all the screens and dials are blank, the controls are sealed away with little indication of where they are or why they are going to… Wherever they are going. When a satellite phone rings, the voice is artificial and terse, not answering any of their understandable questions, demanding to know their condition and telling them little, except they have to open a buoy which has been dropped ahead of them, which they reluctantly do. Information is drip-fed to them only in tiny increments via this phone link, and when a few of the ship’s screens come to life, they can now see their geo-location and realise they have been sailing off the east coast of England, approaching the Thames. But why they are heading that way, who put them there, what they are expected to find or do, is all a mystery…

I really don’t want to write more about the plot of Ryan’s (better known as Anthony Ryan, for his fantasy series) novel here, because this is one of those tales where the reader knows no more than the characters, and I don’t want to spoil the surprises as they slowly discover little pieces at a time (usually at a cost). I will say that it cracks along at a fair old pace – you’re dropped right into it from the first few pages, the pace, the bewilderment of the characters, the feeling that they are clearly on some sort of urgent mission, that something terrible has happened to the world and that their desperate mission and lack of memory is all connected to it, it all builds into a compelling read that I tore through in a few hours.

It evokes the influences of other works, notably films like Cube and Carpenter’s classic The Thing, along with touches of Jeff Vandermeer’s work, or Mike Carey’s Girl With All the Gifts, while still ploughing its own furrow, building tension, paranoia and a resigned, reluctant acceptance that no matter what horrors are revealed, their only course is to carry on. An excellent, fast-paced blend of horror, action-thriller and science fiction.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Reviews: Hello, Bookstore

Hello, Bookstore,
Directed by A.B. Zax

Here we have a gentle and charming documentary, and on a subject very close to my heart – a local bookshop. Matt Tannenbaum has owned The Bookstore in Lennox, Massachusetts, since the mid-1970s. The Bookstore is a lovely-looking independent bookshop, they type I think many of us who are book-lovers adore – an eclectic mix of titles assembled by the booksellers, piles on tables and corners, unusual books rubbing shoulders with popular, bestselling fiction, the sort of place you can happily spend several hours browsing in.

This is a world I know very well – I’ve been a bookseller for over three decades now, and am fortunate enough to work in a small (but mighty, not to mention award-winning) bookshop, which like Matt’s is far more than a business, it’s a special place in the community. Regulars come in as much for a book browse or reading recommendation as they do a wee chat. Parents can have a nice browse for their own books because the kids are happily sitting in a corner of the children’s section, noses stuck in books, the world beyond forgotten, swapped for the land of words and stories.

Indy bookselling, indeed independent small retailing of any kind, is often precarious – you have limited resources, compared to large company chain-run stores, these days there’s the competition from online (especially a certain river-named site), it can be tough going. But one of the critical differences between many Indy bookshops and big company chains or online is that they are often located in local communities. That’s a crucial factor – they are important places for many of the locals. Like the local pub or coffee shop, they are there as a business, yes, but they are also a hub where people meet, a safe space to relax, those who work there know many of the customers by name and can offer up personal recommendations for adults and younger readers alike.

And when times get even tougher, as they did during Covid, that community aspect is vital. We see Matt and his friends doing what many of us did, trying to keep things running in some form during all the restrictions of the Pandemic, taking orders over the phone or email, or serving people in the doorway (when it wasn’t safe for them to come inside and browse). Like many businesses, we went through the same – having to be closed for a while, then allowed to do a “click and collect” service from the doorway. It allowed some sales, although far less than normal, but it also offered a lifeline to locals; with so many places closed, people stuck at home and only able to walk a short distance during restrictions, being able to ring the local wee bookshop and pick up from there was a great thing in a hard time.

And that’s where the community aspect comes in again – because that same community appreciates all the local bookshop gives, and as it struggles increasingly during the Covid restrictions, rallies around to support that bookshop, to ensure its survival. We’ve all seen the decline of high streets in towns and cities around the world, far too many are full of empty units where there used to be numerous independently owned shops. The old adage of “use it or lose it” is true, if we don’t use those locals businesses, we end up with dead high streets and reliant on a few big chains and online. And clearly the readers of Lennox understand this, because they support The Bookshop through its toughest times, because this is a place they want to keep in their community.

The documentary itself is a gentle delight, taking some scenes through the seasons, intercut with Matt chatting with regulars, reading quotes from some of his favourite works, talking about how he first got into bookselling (he talks about a friend after his navy service, turning him onto Kerouac, Mailer and more and how the then “fell in love with writing”). It’s another aspect of the trade I am very familiar with – few people are in the book trade to make big money; booksellers, distributors, writers (unless you are fortunate enough to become a Stephen King or Ian Rankin or J.K. Rowling) rarely make a lot, they are in it because, well, they love books, they love stories. And there is something rather wonderful about that, which Zax showcases beautifully here. This is just a charming, lovely watch, especially for those of us who are forever in love with the written word and those lovely, tome-lined emporiums where we can find them.

Hello, Bookstore is out now in some cinemas and on demand from Bulldog Film Distribution

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Cymera 2023

The start of June saw our Cymera Festival of literary science fiction, fantasy and horror return for its fifth year (only third time in person as we had to do two years on Zoom during the Covid Lockdowns, of course), and, as usual I was there (and also chairing), and the camera was with me as usual.

Cymera 2023 - Alice Tarbuck, Juliet McKenna, Sharon Emmerichs & Claire North 01

Alice Tarbuck in conversation with Juliet McKenna, Sharon Emmerichs and Claire North in the Pleasance Theatre

Cymera 2023 - Alice Tarbuck, Juliet McKenna, Sharon Emmerichs & Claire North 03

Cymera 2023 - Alice Tarbuck, Juliet McKenna, Sharon Emmerichs & Claire North 04

Cymera 2023 - Alice Tarbuck, Juliet McKenna, Sharon Emmerichs & Claire North 05

Cymera 2023 - Nina Allan. Cory Doctorow & Ian McDonald 01

Nina Allan, Cory Doctorow and Ian McDonald on stage in the Pleasance Theatre. Was nice to catch up very briefly with Cory, not seen him in person in Edinburgh since an event as the old Pulp Fiction bookshop (now sadly long gone), over a decade ago.

Cymera 2023 - Nina Allan. Cory Doctorow & Ian McDonald 03

Cymera 2023 - Nina Allan. Cory Doctorow & Ian McDonald 04

Cymera 2023 - Nina Allan. Cory Doctorow & Ian McDonald 05

Cymera 2023 - Neil Williamson, Grace Curtis & Doug Johnstone 01

Neil Williamson in conversation with Grace Curtis and Doug Johnstone. I’ve known Neil years, he’s a stalwart of the Scottish SF scene, and Doug is best known to readers for his Edinburgh-set crime novels, but this spring he released his first science fiction novel, the Space Between Us (also largely set in and around Edinburgh, before going on a road trip across Scotland)

Cymera 2023 - Neil Williamson, Grace Curtis & Doug Johnstone 03

Cymera 2023 - Neil Williamson, Grace Curtis & Doug Johnstone 05

Cymera 2023 - Rhiannon Grist, Catriona Ward, Anya Bergman & Fiona Barnett 01

Rhiannon Grist in conversation with Catriona Ward, Anya Bergman and Fiona Barnett in the Pleasance Theatre. I was fortunate enough to chair Anya at an event for our own bookshop a couple of weeks ago, and highly recommend her historical novel The Witches of Vardo, based on real court records of witch trial in Norway. Fiona wrote the Dark Between the Trees, a cracking, very spooky, atmosphere horror tale split between the Civil War era (Parliamentary soldiers ambushed and forced into the deep dark woods, where only two emerge with strange tales), and modern era as academics attempt to retrace their route to see if there is any evidence to support the survivor’s tale (it was one of my favourite reads last year).

Cymera 2023 - Rhiannon Grist, Catriona Ward, Anya Bergman & Fiona Barnett 06

Cymera 2023 - Rhiannon Grist, Catriona Ward, Anya Bergman & Fiona Barnett 07

Cymera 2023 - Rhiannon Grist, Catriona Ward, Anya Bergman & Fiona Barnett 09

Cymera 2023 - Kat Dunn, C L Clark & Samantha Shannon 02

C.L. Clark and Samantha Shannon on stage in the Pleasance Theatre

Cymera 2023 - Peta Freestone, Amie Kaufman & L R Lam 01

Peta Freestone chairing Amie Kaufman and L.R. Lam in the Pleasance Theatre. I was fortunate enough to chair a talk with L recently in our bookshop, discussing her new “sexy dragons” romantic fantasy (“romantasy”), Dragonfall, which I loved.

Cymera 2023 - Peta Freestone, Amie Kaufman & L R Lam 02

Cymera 2023 - Peta Freestone, Amie Kaufman & L R Lam 03

Cymera 2023 - Lucy Elizabeth Allan

The Brave New Words strand returned – this is where new, emerging writers get a chance to do a reading from their new work before the start of one of the author panels, nice chance for them to be spotlit in front of an audience and encourage their work. Above: Lucy Elizabeth Allan reading, below – Robin C M Duncan

Cymera 2023 - Robin CM Duncan

I was also on stage (so obviously I did not take pics of that one!), chairing a talk with Dave Cook, Mike Carey and Ever Dundas, which was great fun to do. I got to catch up with a bunch of friends over the long, sunny weekend, including some I hadn’t seen in ages, drink, food, chat, the Cymera Quiz, Shoreline of Infinity night and more. Terrific weekend.

And my chum James was there with his furry friend, Tabitha – I last saw Tabitha back in August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (when she was much smaller!), here she was at Cymera, on James’s shoulder, or sometimes sitting behind his book table in the Creator’s Hall to help him sell his own books. Clearly she is a very literary puss!

James And Tabitha 01

James And Tabitha 02

I was fortunate enough to be asked again to chair an event, this year with Ever Dundas, Mike Carey and Dave Cook for their recent HellSans, Infinity Gate and Killtopia graphic novel series, respectively. As usual you go on the stage thinking “my god, we need to talk for a full hour”, before you know it the time is almost up and yu’ve not touched on several of your possible questions – happens that way every time. Of course I couldn’t take a snap of the event as I was on stage in the Pleasance Theatre with them, but this is the authors signing after the event:

Cymera 2023 - Ever Dundas, Mike Carey & Dave Cook

Reviews: Viper’s Dream

Viper’s Dream,

Jake Lamarr,

No Exit Press

I’ve a long-standing love for jazz, and for Noir, so when an advance copy of Jake Lamarr’s “Jazz Noir” landed at our bookshop, my colleague thought of me right away, and she was right! Covering Harlem from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s, we follow Clyde Morton, who is soon given the moniker “Viper” (not so much for cold-blooded, snake-like behaviour, it’s the hissing sound as he takes a drag on a reefer, the drug of choice of the jazz musicians in Harlem.

We first meet Viper in the 60s, and in flashbacks we get his earlier life – convinced by an old uncle that he can be a great musician, he eventually leaves his home in the rural South to head for New York, just another wide-eyed rub in the big city, ending up in Harlem, drinking in the vibrant African American culture, especially the music of the era, jazz. He is soon disabused of his ideas of musicianship by a friendly but honest musician who runs the shows at a busy venue, who tells him the unvarnished truth – he’s terrible.

But he does help him get an entry-level job, and he soon catch the eye of Mr O, the big boss who runs the club and the drugs sold there, and it isn’t long before he works his way up the ranks, from the muscle to a rusted lieutenant and higher. He also earns a reputation that ensures that nobody will mess with him, in the best Hard Boiled tradition, and we see this take place in the multiple flashbacks from the older Viper, reflecting on the path of his life from the 1960s, as the world has changed around him, and, while enjoying success he’s not sure he’s truly found happiness.

While the story of Viper is engrossing, it’s the atmosphere Lamarr conjures which really draws you right into the book. Right from Viper’s first arrival as the country boy amazed by the big city – not just the size and the bustle of it all, he’s not used to seeing and hearing much of the culture from African-American people, and here it is, the beating heart of it in the 30s Harlem. He even sees a black police officer, which is astonishing to this young man from the Deep South.

As we follow Viper through the decades, we see the world change around him – forced into wartime service, he returns in 1945 to find things different. The jazz scene may still be king, but mainstream white culture has been appropriating it, with busy clubs in different parts of the city, where once they all came to Harlem, although Harlem is still the heart of it, and the African-American musicians all come back to the clubs there after playing the white clubs in Midtown and elsewhere.

The music itself has changed – the Big Band era is giving way to Bepop and new styles, there are different strains of weed being smoked, but also heroin (the drug that would eventually kill Charlie Parker), which Viper refuses to sell. Real characters like Theolonius Monk, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear – you don’t have to be a jazz fan to follow the main narrative, these real historical figures are largely background, but if you are a jazz fan it adds to the atmosphere, and also to the feel of the world changing around Viper, as the music and the musicians (who rely on him for their drugs) change.

And of course there’s a woman – in Noir there is always a woman, and that woman is often a mix of alluring, irresistible and may also lead to disaster. Viper keeps himself in tight control, but sometimes there’s a woman you just can’t quite get over no matter what happens. An excellent, jazz-infused Noir, dripping with atmosphere.

Viper’s Dream is published by No Exit Press on the 20th of April

Reviews: Camera Man – the remarkable Buster Keaton, celebrated

Camera Man, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,
Dana Stevens,
Atria Books

I count the years of defeat and grief and disappointment, and their percentage is so minute that is continually surprises and delights me.”

I’ve adored Buster Keaton for as long as I can remember; when I was very young, the films of Buster, Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were a staple on television, often put on during the school holidays, and were the gateway into that long-ago era of early film for me (and for many others, I would think). I watched them with my dad (who would delight in telling me how he actually saw Laurel and Hardy when he was young, his father taking him to see them on their final UK tour – clearly love of this kind of humour runs in our family). Actually we still watch them together to this day, enjoying them as much, if not more, than we did when I was just a little boy. I imagine this is a scenario more than a few of you will recognise and likely share – not just watching these films and loving them, but sharing them with someone important to you (which always makes them better and even more special).

So, as you may guess, I was more than delighted to be sent a copy of Camera Man by Dana Stevens, film critic at Slate and also a lifelong admirer of Keaton’s work. I was even more delighted to find this is far more than a biography; yes, it does, as you would expect, contain a lot of biographic information, from Buster’s early days as a child star on the vaudeville stages with his family, performing unbelievable – not to mention dangerous – acts and stunts (that would stand him in such good stead when he moved to film), through early exposure to film work, finding his feet in the new medium, the changes as the years pass, the downs as well as the ups, his later life.

Yes, that’s all here, and it is fascinating. However, Stevens also does something far more interesting – she discusses what is going on around Buster as his life and career unfolds across the decades, in popular culture, society and in technology. This means not only taking in aspects of Buster’s world you might expect, such as how the new-fangled moving image (born in the same year as our man, 1895) would start to encroach on the older forms of popular entertainment, such as the vaudeville circuit Buster’s family operated on, or how the introduction of sound, or the emergence of the large studio systems, replacing the many small, independent, seat of the pants production companies, and how this affected Buster, determined his choices and options.

(Above: very early Keaton, from around 1917, working with Roscoe Arbuckle. Below: from both their late career stage – Keaton and Chaplin in Limelight, from 1952)

But it also takes in the wider world around him – we see an early American movie industry where many women held senior positions such as producers and directors, as well as being on-screen talent (sadly something that changed to the still too familiar patriarchal system with the coming of the big studios), we see early experiments in a totally new medium, artists figuring out what they can do with this flickering image, pushing what can be done on film. We also see the wider world around it – the “new woman” of the 1910s and 20s, the multiple connections across all levels of society (one early film critic, a great supporter of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton’s art, would also become a speech writer for Franklin D Roosevelt), we see the emergence of that gloriously hedonistic 1920s Hollywood (so recently celebrated in the film Babylon), where a newly flush Buster buys a big home, with near neighbours like Valentino, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (whose Hollywood mansion boasted a lawn so big the Goodyear Blimp could land on it!). Changes in gender relations, race relations and more as society alters and changes, it’s all in here.

It all serves very effectively not only to give an overview of Buster’s life, his craft and his body of work, it gives it all so much more context, placing it in the world he was in at each moment of that remarkable life, which is vitally important, because it’s all connected, it influences everything. Stevens doesn’t shy away from discussing aspects such as race – a common “minstrel” trope of the period, involving black face and a parody of an African American that is very hard for a modern viewer to watch is discussed, for instance, while she also notes the shoddy treatment Mabel Normand, one of the biggest women in film of her time (and so sadly often overlooked today) received (Keaton’s contemporary, Chaplin, was especially singled out for his chauvinistic stance to taking orders from a women director, despite her having far more experience than he has, just starting out in film). And, of course, it explores the darker moments – the marriage failures, the terrible time lost to alcohol abuse.

However, the main focus here is clearly in celebrating one of the most remarkable figures of early cinema, and rightly justifying why he is important, not just specifically in the history of comedy, but also in film history in general, for his innovations and techniques, his eagerness to embrace new technologies and see what he could do with them, and, most importantly, how he could use them to create a good gag and make people laugh. And there is a lot of laughter to be had here, rather fittingly – it’s hard to read some descriptions of moments from making those films and not to start giggling away with laughter. Frankly, I sat there with a big smile on my face for a lot of this book, pausing now and then to put the book down and then go and watch some of those films (fortunately so many available online now). In fact I think this is a book that encourages you to stop reading periodically and go and watch some of the films it is discussing.

Kudos also to Stevens for using the latter segments of the book to bust (bad pun intended, sorry) some of the myths about Buster’s later life – many still think he made just a handful of films after sound came in, then spent the rest of his life in the shadows of his former reputation, drinking away. And while he did go through some very rough times and a long, dark night of the soul, that’s far from the full truth. Stevens takes us through the 1940s, 50s and 60s; we see Buster still writing, still performing, on stage (at a sadly now gone famous Parisian circus post-war, where he was rightly acclaimed as a great artist) and then getting himself involved in another emerging new medium – television.

Yes, Buster had his own show for a little while in the early days of TV broadcasting in the US, and he found a new outlet for new gags and pranks to delight a new audience. This new medium – whose emergence so frightened Hollywood at the time – would also be a major part of the reason his and other performers from that era had their reputation and place in film history cemented, because some of those old films were unearthed and shown on the new “boob tube”. In much the way it did with Universal’s famous monster movies of the 30s, so long out of fashion, the TV screenings made them new to a different audience – performers like Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Lugosi, Karloff, they all had a renaissance in popular culture this way, and that’s never truly gone away. The book also touches on the first stirrings, decades on from the Silent Film era, to find and preserve that rapidly disintegrating treasure trove before more of it was lost for all time (for which I imagine many of us are profoundly grateful), along with a cultural reevaluation of the importance of those works. He was still working away on new ideas and projects pretty much until the end.

A few years ago I went to a Keaton screening at my beloved Filmhouse in Edinburgh (home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival – sadly closed suddenly last autumn, you can read my report on that sad news elsewhere on LFF). It was a weekend matinee, the cinema actively encouraged family groups with children (with very low ticket prices too). The screening was a bunch of Keaton shorts, then an interval, and the second half was the feature, Steamboat Bill Jr- yes, the one with the front of the house falling on Buster, who emerges unscathed through the window frame (this was all shot for real!). That was also his last independent feature; after this he was folded into the new studio system, working for MGM, who removed his artistic freedom and ruined what could have been good films (sadly a tale many artists in many a medium are too familiar with to the present day, the Suits telling the Talent what works).

A couple of rows in front of me was a man with his two wee boys, maybe around six and seven years of age. They laughed with their dad all through the endless gags of the short films. I found myself wondering how they would react to a feature length silent in the second half; I needn’t have worried, the little boys sat spellbound at Buster’s athletic stunts and laughed and laughed. I include this little personal moment here because it illustrates something Stevens does so well with this book – Buster is as wonderful and funny to new audiences as he was in his 1920s silent-era heyday, and he’s always being discovered by someone for the first time, just as I first found them when I was a kid, watching with my dad, and here I saw that process taking place again. More importantly I got to sit in a cinema, watching a man long dead, restored to life by a magical, flickering beam of light, and that man made people smile and laugh. What a wonderful gift and legacy, one rightly celebrated in this book.

Camera Man is published by Atria Books, out now in hardback, with the paperback release this April.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: lush, erotic, Gothic fantasy in A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood,
S.T. Gibson,
Orbit Books,
Hardback,
Published October 2022

My in-built book radar started pinging as soon as I was offered a sniff at this book, and I am happy to report that instinct is still steering me to books I find I absolutely love. Fair disclaimer at the start: a lifelong Gothic fiend, I am a sucker for a good vampire tale, although to be fair, that also means having read a lot of them, I can also be quite critical – as with, say, fantasy, it can be too easy for new novels to simply trade on well-worn generic tropes. Which makes me all the more delighted when I find one which is taking a fresh angle (while still maintaining a number of the elements you would expect), and, even better, that approach also has a lot of socio-cultural relevance to debates in our own contemporary society.

Constanta is a simple peasant girl in Eastern Europe; her family and village are all but wiped out in an attack, while she is abused and left for dead – until he shows up, like carrion, attracted to the leftovers of the slaughter field. This darkly handsome, powerful nobleman offers her a choice – she has to ask him, he will not compel her (shades of Louis and Lestat) – an offer of a new life of power and privilege, or to slip away into the darkness, just another anonymous victim of another small battle, which history is sadly replete with.

It isn’t much of a choice, and unsurprisingly Constanta chooses life – in her case immortal life – and her battered, abused body heals itself, raising her from certain death, and, satisfyingly, allowing this previously powerless peasant woman the overwhelming strength to take revenge on those who harmed her and cut down all those she knew and loved, while at the same time quenching her new-born thirst for human blood.

In the following chapters we see Constanta settle into her new life – her noble husband, centuries old (a serious spin on the older man / younger woman dynamic!) seems so sophisticated to her, wise, well-read, intellectually curious, so keen to look after her and make her happy. We see, from Constanta’s perspective, the passing of years and centuries, of the two settling into a life together, both domestic and, of course, vampiric, the home scenes contrasting with the depictions of the pair hunting and feeding on humans across various European centuries

Cracks start to appear in her husband’s mask though – his temper, a callous, arrogant streak he tries to keep hidden beneath his cultivated persona. She slowly, across time, comes to realise he used his greater age, experience, power and wealth to impress her when she was most vulnerable and impressionable. Like many in such relationships, she often convinces herself this is all in her mind, or if something offends him, it must be her fault (and he is an expert in ensuring she does – this man could use the entire North Sea supply for his gaslighting).

Across the decades, then centuries she starts to see him more for what he is, as their family grows – a second ‘wife’ with the strong-willed Spanish noblewoman, Magdalena, who challenges him intellectually as well as physically, and much later, Alexi, a young Russian. They become, in effect, his harem, there to satisfy him, and god forbid they act outside his precious rules and wants. This creates an interesting dynamic, not just between the lord and his harem, but between the three of them, Alexi, Magdalena and Constanta.

As the ‘original’ (she finds that there were in fact some before her, who have vanished) Constanta feels, understandably slighted by these later additions, but at the same time, she also feels a kinship – I found this far more realistic and satisfying emotionally, more like real groups of friends and families, the push and pull of love and jealously, possessing but also wanting to be possessed, while other times desiring freedom. And then there’s the sex, centuries of sex; male, female, bi, in a group or pairs, wonderfully lush and erotic – even in later years as Constanta questions everything in their lives, the sex and the hunting as shared and enjoyed and binds them together. The eroticism hinted at in the likes of Interview With the Vampire is out here in full, earthy form.

The story is written from Constanta’s perspective, as if she is writing a series of letters to her husband, who is never named, a deliberate choice, I am sure, and a part of her, now older, wiser, more assured, coming into her own power and realising she doesn’t have to be what he wants, that she can be herself, make her own choices. Dowry drips in deliciously decadent High Gothic, sensual, erotic, dark; it doesn’t shy from serious subjects like spousal abuse and male abuse of privilege either, all areas we’ve all been increasingly aware of in recent years (as we should be), or why some remain so long in such relationships, and I think this very much added to the novel’s power and in drawing the reader into it emotionally.

A deliciously decadent, erotic romp in some places, a darkly, deeply emotional tale in other places, as much a tale of a survivor of abuse as it is vampiric novel, nodding its head to Bluebeard or the 1970s films like The Velvet Vampire, as much as the influential Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. Perfect reading for the dark autumn and winter nights.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity