Category Archives: Small Press
Three children, Gezz, Luke and Malcolm, are playing on some waste ground close to where they live, when they bear witness to the arrival of an old man and a startling young girl. The man is Professor Wolfgang Droyd and the girl is Anne Droyd – not his daughter, but his android creation, capable of great feats of agility, speed and ingenuity. The two are on the run from the facility where Anne Droyd was developed: The Ministry. The children are initially frightened by the duo, but it soon becomes clear that the two escapees need their help. Soon, the professor is recaptured, and it falls to the three children to take care of Anne in his absense. Whilst Anne is in many ways superhuman, she is sub-human in terms of her emotions and experience. Gezz, Luke and Malcolm arrange for Anne to attend their school, to help her learn how to be human.
On the surface, the novel is a fairly straightforward children’s story, in a similar vein to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures. But there’s also something going on underneath: a look at the human race from the quirky perspective of a non-human. For instance, if someone said to Anne, “Go back,” she might start walking backwards. Misunderstandings are part of the fun of the story, but this is also a theme close to the author’s heart. Will Hadcroft has felt a bit like an alien all his life, suffering a mild form of Asperger Syndrome. I’ve already read Will’s autobiography, The Feeling’s Unmutual (I thoroughly recommend it), and I recognised immediately that some scenes in Anne Droyd were straight out of his past experiences, for instance, his childhood fascination with smokers and a particularly bad bullying incident. The novel is currently marketed as an “Asperger Adventure,” designed to give affected readers a protagonist that they can really empathise with. Note: the novel’s first publication was not aimed at such a restricted target audience; I don’t want to convey the idea that it’s not aimed at all children, when it is.
I sense a three-act structure to the novel. First, the story charts Gezz, Luke and Malcolm’s experiences of getting to know Anne, followed by Anne’s impact on life at school, and finally a showdown with the bad guys from The Ministry. When reading, I couldn’t help thinking about those multi-part dramas that I used to see on Children’s BBC when I was a kid – often adaptations of novels. Anne Droyd and Century Lodge would make a pretty good one.
The novel is not without a few problems. I felt the pacing was rather slow; some of the more mundane and domestic scenes in the novel were over-developed and took up too much reading time. Sometimes, characters made incredulous decisions, like the police apprehending Professor Droyd at Gezz’s house, then failing to search the property for Anne just because the professor told them she wasn’t there. Kids won’t care about that, of course, but this kind of faux pas does hinder the novel from being appreciated beyond its target audience. Quibbles aside, the author demonstrates a good writing ability that shows a lot of promise. I have to confess, also, that I’m reading well outside my preferred genres on this one. Any children’s literature I do read tends to be the more gritty “young adult” stuff. I think kids will enjoy Anne Droyd.
A sequel, Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows, is due to be published in 2008. Keep up to date with news on the author’s blog.
I’ve noticed that there are a lot of zombie novels around these days. Most of them are of the small press or self-published variety. Why is this? Well, I can speak from personal experience and say that zombies sell. Back in the early 1990s, in my late teens, I co-directed and starred in a no-budget zombie flick, Zombie Genocide. This movie simply will not die. Regularly, I get requests for DVDs, while the other – and arguably better – movies I’ve made since then simply sit there and stagnate.
Even though zombies are my favourite movie monster, I’m loathe to jump too far into this sea of fiction, for fear that I will be drowed by waves of poorly written cash-ins on a tried-and-tested formula. Dying to Live, however, piqued my interest more than the others, because the author, Kim Paffenroth, has a degree in Theology (to the unfamiliar, that’s the study of God). Zombie scenarios, to me, have always seemed like the perfect vehicle for discussing life and death, the existence of God, heaven and hell, etc. I was very interested to hear another author’s thoughts on something I had already mused upon.
Dying to Live fits snugly into the mythology created by George Romero. The zombies are slow-moving, hungry for warm flesh, and they go down with a bullet in the head. There’s nothing new about the creatures themselves, and I personally don’t think there needs to be. We begin the story many months post apocalypse, with a solitary man, Jonah Caine, who spends his days wandering from place to place, scavenging for food and hiding from the dead. Right at the start, we see him waking up one morning in a tree-hut to the sound of a lone zombie groaning up at him from ground level. After dispatching this irritation, the neverending quest for food takes Jonah dangerously far into a nearby city, where he ends up surrounded by an army of the dead. He is rescued by the skin of his teeth by a band of survivors who have made a home for themselves inside a museum. Most of the rest of the story revolves around this place: who the survivors are, how they came to be there, and their unusual way of life within those walls.
The book contains various thrills and spills regarding zombies, but doesn’t get down to anything really high octane until about three quarters of the way through. I hesitate to raise this point as a criticism, because I have to remember how much I love the old 1970s Dawn of the Dead, and the 1980s Day of the Dead, both of which had a similar story structure. And like those two films, the real threat in Dying to Live comes not from the zombies but from man’s own wickedness, and we end up with frenzied battle involving the good, the bad and the putrifying.
The book is vey well written. There were times that I paused and thought, “Wow,” at a particular description or observation. I wish I had noted down a few references to share with you now, but take it from me, the whole book exudes an atmosphere that makes you mentally say to the author, “Dude, you have been spending way too much time thinking about this stuff.” Paffenroth has no doubt enjoyed many, many daydreams in the land of the dead – which is, of course, exactly what we want! Consequently, the prose is rich, and you can’t help but think, “If I were Jonah, this is exactly how I would feel in his shoes.”
As well as the philosophical observations, the book will also appeal to those who like a more straightforward horror story. There is plenty of zombie blasting of offer, and when it’s human versus human, the author is not afraid to be mean and nasty to the good guys.
Overall, a worthwhile read, written by an author who is passionate about his subject matter.
I first encountered Harry Shannon on an internet forum called the Horror Author’s Network. He arrived on the scene in 2001 with a short story collection called Bad Seed, published by small press publisher Medium Rare Books. I followed his career with interest, watching as he released book after book in a steady flow between then and now (2001-07). Many spoke highly of Shannon’s work, and his mix of horror and crime fascinated me. Unfortunately, it was difficult to get his books in the UK at a reasonable price, even on eBay (he has become quite collectable). Finally, I was able to pick up Night of the Beast (his second book).
I hate saying what I’m about to say, truly I do, because Harry Shannon and I have corresponded briefly; heck, he even purchased a copy of my own first novel. But I am determined to keep this review blog honest. Unfortunately, Night of the Beast is nowhere near publishable standard. The writing style is sloppy and littered with terrible punctuation; nowhere near enough editing and proof reading has been done. One example is the sentence Peter fired BOOM. It’s rendered just like like that – no breaks. Sloppy, impatient writing. Two of the chapter headings even have a completely nosensical Roman numeral: XVIX. The story is based around the familiar cliche of a terrible ancient evil awakening in a town; it fails to say anything we haven’t seen before among the plethora of existing horror novels and movies.
The publisher also lets the book down. While the text is a nice readable size, the lines are cramped together to save a few pages. Widows and orphans abound. Worst of all, part three of the novel is entitled “NIGHT OF THE BEAS. The T and closing closing quotation mark are missing. How, oh how, does a glaring typesetting error like this go unnoticed? It’s inexcusable first time round, let alone being left unfixed in my second edition copy.
Okay, there are some good points. Peter Rourke, the hero of the story, is a fascinating character, and he’s the main reason why I didn’t give up reading long before the end. I loved the idea of an adulterous, drug-taking rock music producer deciding to try and better himself, daring to walk out of the career that is sucking the life out of him and go back home to the quiet Nevada town of his boyhood. Another fascinating character is Timmy Baxter, a naive, noble-hearted little boy who has to confront the reality that his sister has secretly become a vampire. (When reading the Timmy Baxter chapters, I realised that I was reading an expanded version of one of Shannon’s short stories that I had discovered online years ago. Integrating it was a nice touch.)
Amidst the cliched plot elements and the sloppy writing, there were moments of beautiful prose that reveal Shannon to be a writer of some potential. The reason why this mixture of good and bad writing is contained within the pages of one book is perhaps explained by the fact that the novel was written over a long period of time. Here are Harry’s own words from the introduction:
Night of the Beast has just turned thirty this year. It has sections written drunk on my ass, or wired out of my mind on cocaine in the 1980s (a lifestyle I do NOT recommend for creative or any other reasons) and other scenes carefully composed over a cup of coffee with my toddler daughter tugging at my jeans.
Most authors have ancient works tucked away in a drawer somewhere – poor quality stuff they wrote when they were still finding their feet as writers. Most keep them in the drawer, with good reason. I’d like to think that Shannon’s recently written works are on a different level than this one, but his decision to publish Night of the Beast has seriously lessened the likelihood of me taking a chance on him again.
On the back cover, popular authors Graham Masterton, William F. Nolan (of Logan’s Run fame), Ed Gorman, plus Cemetery Dance magazine, all heap praise upon the novel, with words like “Right up there with King and Straub,” and “The chaos that ensues in the final act is as apocalyptic and enthusiastically satisfying as anyone’s ever done.” One has to wonder about the believability of endorsements. Fair enough, you can say my opinion of the story is subjective, but the sub-standard punctuation and grammar should have made any professional writer run a mile from endorsing this.
The small press publishing arena is exactly that: small. We tend to recognise each other. So I need to say that I have no axe to grind against Harry Shannon. I’ve said everything I wanted to say with reluctant honesty.
Every British person over thirty-five has heard of Blake’s 7. Made in the late 1970s, and running until the early 1980s, comprised of four thirteen-episode seasons, Blake’s 7 was the BBC’s ambitious space opera. This was no Star Trek copycat. Blake’s 7 was about a bunch of escaped convicts who hijack an abandoned super-spaceship and take on the might of a corrupt galactic government. It was aptly described by the series creators as The Dirty Dozen in space. Having the audience root for a pack of thieves, pirates and embezzlers was daring territory for a producer. And it worked. Despite the wobbly sets and poor special effects (the BBC didn’t have the same budget as George Lucas), the nation fell in love with the show. And I would take a guess that this was down to the memorable characters.
After season two was made, something odd happened to the show. Its lead character, Blake (played by Gareth Thomas), left. Rather than cancel the show, the next strongest character, Avon (Paul Darrow), stepped into the leadership role, and Blakeless 7 (no, they didn’t call it that) went on to flourish for a further two seasons. Few will disagree that Avon was the most memorable character in the show. Where Blake was a rather typical selfless zealot, Avon was more interested in self-preservation. He was a cold-hearted realist with a dry wit, living by his own code: he had no problem with thieving, but one thing he never did was break his word. It’s hard to make Avon seem interesting on paper. You’ve got to see the show to know what I mean. When I first revisted Blake’s 7 through the video release that came out in the early 1990s, I had forgotten every character except Blake and Avon.
So this is Paul Darrow’s biography, named after the question he generally gets asked by members of the public when he’s out shopping, meaning, of course, “You’re Avon, aren’t you?” I thought it was odd seeing this biography in print, because I had to ask myself, “What else has Darrow done besides Blake’s 7?” It shows you how little I know. Blake’s 7 may have been his only long-running television role (there are countless shorter ones), but he has a long and varied career in theatre, too.
Darrow’s early years are interesting, particularly a brief stint in military training during his boyhood. Darrow tells the story of how he was placed in the woods overnight with a troop of other boys and a mission to fulfill. He ended up winning by outwitting his superiors … and got disciplined for it!
The least satisfying part of the biography is the sizeable portion taken up with brief accounts of each of Darrow’s roles and all the famous people he has rubbed shoulders with. The author should have asked himself how much of this he expects the reader to remember, because it got a bit like a shopping list after a while.
The Blake’s 7 chapters of the book are, of course, the most enjoyable. He talks about the cast and crew, and gives his own witty guide to each episode in the series (yes, all fifty-two of them).
I really enjoyed reading You’re Him, Aren’t You?, any my only complaint is that I personally wanted to read more about Blake’s 7 and less about theatre. Still, it was an enjoyable insight into an interesting man who has been in my head since I was six years old and shows no sign of leaving. To illustrate: when I was writing my second novel, Chion, there was a scene that simply would not work, because the believability of the character’s extreme actions was stretched to the breaking point. But I couldn’t bear to lose the scene. I tried making my character drunk, but that didn’t work, either. Then I had a brainwave. What if I made him a cold-hearted realist? What if I made him, in essence, Avon? When I rewrote the scene, I knew I had conquered the problem. So, as a little nod to Avon’s help, I named the character Mr. Darrow.
I might one day forget Vila, Cally, Jenna, Gan, and even Blake. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget Avon.
The Hides is the second book in an unnamed series about a boy called Timmy Quinn. Timmy can see the dead. Immediately, everyone’s thinking this is a copycat of The Sixth Sense, but things are a little different in this tale. These dead are not angry spirits calling out for a living boy to avenge them; they are actual physical manifestations, right down to the smell of their rotting flesh. And they don’t need Timmy Quinn for anything. They are able to execute their revenge solo. Timmy is nothing more than a conduit; when he’s around, the dead are able to pass through something called The Curtain, a thing separating their world from ours. And Timmy is left with the terrifying task of stopping them.
Book two sees Timmy Quinn as a teenager, moving from his home in Ohio, America, to the small town of Dungarvan, Ireland (where the author himself grew up). It’s a chance to start again. But Timmy’s stateside girlfriend suggests, “Is there a rule over there that says the dead have to stay quiet?” Of course not. Timmy can never escape what he is. And the dead will always come knocking – or rather, crashing through. This is a story about dark family secrets, revenge, and a hideous monster. In comparison to the first novel in the series, The Turtle Boy, I have to say that I feel The Hides is the weaker of the two. It does contain a very startling and original creature in the closing chapters, but the story does unfortunately go into a bit of a lull halfway through. The Turtle Boy told the story of Timmy’s early boyhood, filling me with a sense of kinship and nostalgia, which was hard to beat. Sequels are always in the unenviable position of having to go one better than the first story, and unfortunately The Hides falls short of that ambition. I finished the book only mildly satisfied, with no real zeal for volume three.
The book is published in the USA by small press publisher Cemetery Dance, as a signed and numbered hardcover, limited to 750 copies. The Turtle Boy was similarly published by Necessary Evil Press, but with 450 copies. It’s a bit odd having a situation where 300 unlucky people have the opportunity to read volume two but not volume one. However, The Hides is marketed as a stand-alone novel, and the story does make sense independently. But it also makes numerous references to the first story, so there is definitely more enjoyment to be had if you are able to start at the very beginning.
On the matter of style, Kealan Burke is a bit of an enigma to me. His vocabulary is often rich, sometimes startlingly so, and yet his punctuation suffers on the most basic level of correct use of the comma. For example, a simple phrase like, “Hi Sandra” (on line 5 of the first page, no less) omits the necessary comma after “hi.” This kind of mistake is all over the place, and it has slipped through unnoticed by the publisher. This, as I have stated in the past, is what I call The Curse of the Small Publisher. Kealan, if you are reading this, get reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, because you are making yourself look like an amateur, and in every other respect you are not.
The Feeling’s Unmutual is the autobiographical account of Will Hacroft, author of a children’s novel entitled Anne Droyd and Century Lodge. You’ve never heard of him, right? And given the novel’s small-press status, I’ll take a wild guess that you haven’t heard of it, either. So, what’s so special about this non-celebrity in his thirties that he gets to have his very own autobiography? Aspergers Syndrome, that’s what.
This condition manifests itself in a difficulty relating with others and in obsessive tendencies, amongst other things. Will has had a “ghosting” of the condition all his life, but was only recently diagnosed with it. That means he’s gone through most of his life not knowing what the heck was wrong with him or why he found certain tasks so hard while others around him sailed through.
I haven’t got the syndrome, but back in school I was the fat kid who was unpopular with the cool people, so I know all about what it feels like to be different. Will’s account is told with raw honesty, and I felt a real sense of empathy with him. Of special interest to me were Will’s digressions into cult television. He often speaks about why certain series, such as Doctor Who, The Incredible Hulk, or The Prisoner, made such an impression on him. In these shows, the hero is a misfit, not belonging in society, but he’s still the hero. Will’s philosophising made me question why I like particular films and TV shows. I realised that the theme which is cloeset to my heart is that of loner men, abused by life, by society, by their own wives even, yet they fight on and win the day, usually standing alone at the end. Now I know why I’m so fond of Mad Max II, The Shawshank Redemption and Gladiator.
There’s something in The Feeling’s Unmutual that’s not directly talked about by Will, but it’s there if you read between the lines: the idea that there’s a big plus side to being a misfit. From a very young age, you will see Will demonstrating an uncommon compassion, such as trying to help a school friend when everyone else (the typical, popular kids) just wants to cause pain. Later, in another context, Will has the courage to help a girl who is being sexually abused by her stepfather. Will simply tells what happened and doesn’t blow his own trumpet, but what I’m seeing is this: suffering breeds character. You don’t build courage by having an easy life. And what I’m getting at is that maybe it’s not so bad to be a misfit. Maybe, in fact, it’s best. Popularity and cruelty are easy elements to find together in a person.
I recommend this book, not only for sufferers of Aspergers Syndrome, but for everyone who has ever felt like a misfit. Will’s life story will touch your heart.
I first heard of David Langford in my late teens, as a reader of the science fiction magazine Interzone. If there’s one story from that period that sticks in my mind more than any other it’s Langford’s story “BLIT,” which is weird because I don’t think I even properly understood it at the time. I haven’t read a single Langford story since (for no reason other than I don’t buy many mags), but the memory of “BLIT” was potent enough to move me to select this collection of thirty-six stories for review.
The book is divided into four sections: 1. Gadgets and Glitches; 2. The Questing Beast; 3. Irrational Numbers; and 4. Basilisks. Those roughly translate as 1. Sci-fi; 2. Fantasy; 3. Horror; and we’ll talk about 4 in a minute.
The sci-fi section is the most enjoyable. The stories are for the most part short. Langford’s prose is generally non-descriptive, and he wastes no time on characterisation. He’ll start a story with two characters talking, and the reader might be left to guess their appearance, their ages, and even where the conversation is taking place. Believe it or not, this is not a criticism; it’s just how he does things. Langford’s fiction is one hundred percent ideas-driven. I have never before read so much variety of original thought packed into 280 pages. This is partly due to the fact that this volume spans almost thirty years of Langford’s career, but it’s also because the stories are very concisely written. There are no wasted words, and if you’re not concentrating properly you can easily find yourself confused. The main reason why this book took so long for me to review is because I enjoy reading in bed at the close of the evening, and with Different Kinds of Darkness I just couldn’t manage it. You have to be fully alert to read Langford.
The only part of the book I didn’t enjoy very much was the fantasy section. The fantasy genre lends itself to description more than any other, and when Langford just kept skimping on detail, the stories failed for me. More often than not I found myself confused, grappling to understand the strange worlds Langford was painting. A few more brush strokes would have taken away the confusion. Thankfully there are only four fantasy stories in the volume.
The sci-fi section occupies an entire half of the book’s pages, and it’s here that you’ll find the best stories. But be warned, to appreciate Langford you have to like your sci-fi wild and wacky. The author is quite liberal with his manipulation of physics, and if you’re prepared to accept that, you’ll be amazed at the unexpected places some of these stories take you. And quite often there’s a lot of humour thrown in. One of my favourites is called “Leaks,” a story about a man with a minor super-power: the ability to transfer liquid from one container to another by sheer will-power. Nice trick if you want a free refill at the bar, but not much use for fighting crime. If that’s not a wacky idea, what is? But trust me, you’ll never guess where a story like this is taking you, and you’ll be delighted when you get there.
I have nothing much to comment about the horror stories, except that they were above average on the whole. I should say that the categorization of all the stories should be viewed loosely, as sci-fi elements tend to crop into most of Langford’s tales, even his attempt at a Lovecraftian one!
The last section collects together four stories which are linked by a common theme. Here we have “BLIT” and its three sequels. These are stories about visual images affecting the brain; i.e. data enters the brain through the eyes, and some data the brain just can’t handle. A BLIT image is a pictures which can kill you if you look at it. The final story, “Different Kinds of Darkness,” is a tale about extreme measures taken to protect the young from exposure BLIT images in public places. I loved this story, and the whole volume is deservedly named after it (and it won the Hugo in 2001!).
I’m a big fan of George Romero’s zombie flicks, so a book with the title King of All the Dead instantly got my attention, and the words “Attacked by the reanimated dead wherever they go” on the blurb made it an easy sell.
The first thing I should say about King of All the Dead is that it’s not attempting to imitate Romero’s work, as countless movies have done. It’s not even an “end of the world” story, with a handful of humans battling an ever-increasing zombie population. This story is concerned with one woman: Lisa.
Walking through the woods on a sunny afternoon with her sister Alison, Lisa comes across a bizarre sight: a Transit van, parked among the trees off the main track, with the lights on and the engine purring – and a hosepipe connected to the exhaust, feeding to the window. No sooner has Lisa saved the driver – a man called Ben – from committing suicide than a mysterious whirlwind-like force breaks into the clearing and kills Alison. Lisa manages to escape by taking charge of the van. Ben is in the passenger seat, semi-conscious, so Lisa makes a quick decision to head for the hospital, struggling to understand what’s happening to her. Before the end of the story she will have done a lot more running than that, because the occasional deceased hospital patient is not quite so dead as you’d expect.
King of All the Dead is a short and snappy novella. The story moves along relentlessly without a single pause for a break in events or a single chapter division. All this is good, as it helps to pull the reader into the panic experienced by the characters. On the downside, however, I felt very little empathy with them. Compared with the rich character development you come to expect with, say, a Stephen King novel, the characters in King of All the Dead didn’t really come to life.
I thought the logic of the story was badly flawed in places. Alison and Ben travel to various locations in the course of story, and each time the same zombies show up and attempt to grab them. How the zombies manage to travel so quickly across miles of countryside is never explained, other than they were transported by supernatural means. But even that begs the question of why a force as powerful as that needs to rely on a bunch of shambling corpses to finish Lisa and Ben off. The most ridiculous moment was a flock of zombie seagulls swooping down for the kill. How a dead bird as enough aerodynamics to fly, when a dead human has trouble walking, is beyond me.
Towards the end of the story, the authors attempt something which is almost impossible to pull off convincingly – they take us to the afterlife, or rather, their version of what the afterlife might be like, which is all anyone can do. I admire them for being ambitious, but their version of the afterlife didn’t give me the slightest feeling of wonderment.
Normally I wouldn’t have to comment on issues pertaining to the publisher, but I’m going to make an exception, in light of a glaringly obvious typesetting error: every hyphen and dash throughout the entire book is missing. I spotted the problem within half an hour of reading, due to the glaringly obvious wide gaps in the text. It’s sheer negligence on the publisher’s part that this book went to print in this state.
I seem to have a problem with comic novels. I read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought, ho-hum. I tried Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind and I yawned. Arguably the latter isn’t Pratchett’s most revered work, but Hitchhiker’s – it’s hailed as a sci-fi humour classic. What’s wrong with me?! The thing is, how can I then pick up Vampire Dawn by Philip Henry (whoever he is!) and get a real kick out of the book’s humour? Go figure. Actually it might have something to do with the fact that both Henry and I are from Northern Ireland; I’m told we’ve got a particular sense of humour over here.
Vampire Dawn is Philip Henry’s first novel. It’s the story of a man called Christian Warke, whose job as a vampire hunter for “The Ministry” ends up putting his wife too much danger. When she gets drained by a vamp, Christian vows to track down and execute the one responsible. Many years later, Christian is a burnt out shell of a man, dependent on copious amounts of alcohol to get him through the day. But he’s finally catching up with Xavier, the vampire he has sworn to kill. Xavier, on the other hand, has his own story to tell about what happened all those years ago.
I like the vampire mythology Henry has created. It has a light-heartedness about it that is probably derived from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without all the ridiculous teen-speak (you know, words like “icky” and “gooey” and “thingy”). There’s even a superpowered female Slayer in the novel, but thankfully she doesn’t take the spotlight. And the similarities end there. The vampire hunters in this novel are not superhuman, but a very ordinary bunch of people who belong to an organisation called The Ministry, something more akin to the FBI than Buffy and her loyal chums.
The first chapter of the novel concerns a young couple parked in a car at night. Before they get predicably bitten, Henry treats us to a series of jokes derived from Queen songs lyrics, as the young man attempts to flatter his girlfriend. Anyone remember “Fat-bottomed girls, they make the rocking world go round”? You can imagine how well that one would go down with a girl. Henry has a genuine talent for telling a good joke, and you’ll find plenty of them scattered throughout the novel. The story also gets very serious in places, particularly near in the end, in a chapter called “Heroes & Monsters,” where there are some jaw-droppingly unpredicatable moments.
Henry’s skill at bringing characters to life is fair – not good enough for me to care greatly about what happened to them, but they’re certainly not cardboard either. At times the good guys acted in such a way as to make me dislike them, e.g. Christian with his drink-driving, toasting his bottle of whisky to a passing police officer and then using his Ministry credentials to bully his way out of a fine. “Well, you see,” he later says to the girl in the passenger seat, “there’s one set of rules for the rest of the world, and one set for me.” It funny and it’s macho-cool, but it harms the reader’s attachment to the character. It’s the same with all the swearing. I can live with it when the author is striving for realism, but not when it just there to sound cool. Much as I enjoyed reading this novel, the characters left me with a slight bad taste in my mouth.
Early on in the novel, Henry introduces a spiritual element: the need to restore a proper “balance of good and evil” to the world. I thought this was illogical and hokey, and I feared it was going to kill the story, but it stays very much in the background, and could even have been snipped right out. Thankfully the story takes some unexpected turns and keeps the reader on his toes, never sure what to expect. Best of all, I found my interest level gaining the further I got into the story. Too often I’ve got halfway through a novel and found myself running out of steam, persevering with a story that has lost its momentum. Henry is a very capable story-teller for a first timer.
The Curse of the Small Publisher unfortunately rears its head with this novel. Maybe it’s too petty to mention but I’ve noticed in general that small publishers do not proof read their books properly. It bugs me because two readers with a red pen each at the pre-press stage is all it would have taken for Black Death Books to catch 99% of the typos. Thankfully there’s aren’t many, and anyone who reads for enjoyment (which is the only way to read) can forgive it.
This one’s definitely for those who prefer Joss Whedon to Bram Stoker. It’s a worthy first novel, and Philip Henry is one to watch.
White Bizango is the story of American police detective John Lafcadio versus a mysterious adversary whose weapon of choice is voodoo. No doubt X-Files warning bells are already going off in readers’ minds, so let me say right now, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a straight crime story, which never strays very far from planet earth, and is all the better for it.
The 150-page novella kicks off in the wake of a kidnapping. A young boy has been taken from his mother, right in the middle of a busy shopping mall. Lafcadio is hot on the trail, and we’re quickly treated to an tense chase scene with a surprising conclusion. As the manhunt develops, there are plenty more shocks awaiting the reader, none of which I would dare spoil.
John Lafcadio is a basically good-hearted cop with a dry wit and a cut-to-the-chase manner. Gallagher writes in the first person and uses it to full advantage, giving the reader a hefty slice of what’s going on inside the man’s head, and really bringing him to life.
Gallagher also has a knack for describing things vividly in very few words, and in quite a humourous fashion. For example, instead of talking about “a very fat woman in a green dress”, you get “a woman in a green tent”. There are a few real gems in the book that got me smiling.
Voodoo features heavily in the story, and I get the impression that Gallagher has done his homework. Instead of using voodoo as a cliched scare-tactic designed to give the reader the heebie-jeebies, Gallagher goes for the subtler approach of showing the religion’s misuse as a weapon of crime: people being controlled (and their wallets emptied) by making them afraid.
If there’s one aspect of the book I’m a little disappointed by, it’s the way it ends – only because the fast-paced, surprise-filled journey hints at the promise of something a bit more unexpected. Don’t get me wrong though, the ending does bring the whole story to a good close, and there wasn’t a moment of boredom the whole way through the tale.
I read some Stephen Gallagher back in the eighties (Valley of Lights and Oktober), but I never kept pace with his writing career. If White Bizango is anything to do by, I’ve probably been missing some great books.
The Turtle Boy takes place in Delaware, Ohio, a small town with plenty of woods and undeveloped land – a young boy’s paradise. The boy in question is Timmy Quinn, who likes nothing better than to play outdoors with his best friend Pete. One summer’s day at Myers Pond, they encounter a strange boy called Darryl – a boy with dirty, torn clothes and hair that was shorn away in patches, and a smile like a row of ripped stitches. Odd in appearance and even odder in behaviour, Darryl enjoys feeding his own ankle to the turtles in the pond. Soon after this meeting, Pete’s father starts acting out of character, grounding Pete and telling Timmy to stay away from his son – for good. It’s clear Pete’s father has something to hide. There are terrible secrets in Delaware, Ohio, and the boy Darryl is determined to reveal them.
Kealan Burke, like myself, is a “new kid on the block” in the writing scene. Aside from numerous short story publications (many collected in a volume entitled Ravenous Ghosts), this is his first novel (to be technically correct, as it is a 100-pager, I should use the term novella). I always approach a newbie with some caution, because you’re never quite sure what you’ll get. But I am delighted to report that this man is clearly going places.
The first thing I noticed was Burke’s use of language. Here’s a prime example:
Though young, he could still remember his father carrying him on his shoulders through endless fields of gold, now replaced by the skeletons of houses awaiting skin.
When an author goes to the trouble of dressing up his prose with imaginative metaphors like that, you know you’re reading someone who cares deeply about the art of writing itself.
The next thing that struck me was his ability to portray child characters. Too often writers stumble at this, writing young characters with overly wise attitudes, but when I read about Timmy Quinn’s life I thought, “That’s it exactly!” The joy in outdoor pursuits, projecting your imagination onto your surroundings; the volatile nature of childhood friendship; the need for love from parents. It’s all there and it all rings true.
As for the story itself, it’s not particularly original, but it is still something of a page-turner, filled with mystery. I had hoped for a little more explanation than I got at the end, but any dissatisfaction is made for in the knowledge that this is the first tale in a series about Timmy Quinn. In fact, this is one of the rare occasions that I’ve wanted to re-read a novel only weeks after finishing it. The Turtle Boy is also, in my opinion, the right kind of horror story. In the horror genre, too much literature concerns itself with grossing out the reader or breaking taboos, losing sight of the proper goal: storytelling. No such mistakes here.
I don’t often comment on a book’s presenation, but in this case I’ll make an exception, in light of the effort that has been put into it. The Turtle Boy is an expensive book to buy, but is the most beautiful book on my shelf. Necessary Evil Press really did a good job. To cap it all, it’s a numbered edition of 450 copies, all signed by the author. I have no qualms about paying big money for this book, becuase these will be like gold dust in about ten years, by which time I would expect an awful lot more people to know the name Kealan Patrick Burke. Like I said, this man is going places.
In summary: perfect bed-time reading. During the week or so that it took to read The Turtle Boy, I really looked forward to curling up in bed for a short read before sleep – an experience that is too rare.