23 November 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

The Dish 
A Darker Shade of Magic is the first in a dark(er) fantasy trilogy by V.E. Schwab, published by Titan Books. The book is 384 pages long, a medium-sized paperback, and the chapters are cut up nice and small for ease of reading (something I’ve really come to appreciate this last year). The book is positively swathed in praise, inside and out, and it is (mostly) well-deserved.

The Sauce

There are four worlds, all different, but with one bizarre similarity. Every single one has a city called London in them. Magic is real, a living entity that exists in symbiosis with humanity. Kell, an Antari, is able to travel between the worlds, which are otherwise shut off from one another.

The Sweet
V.E. Schwab’s greatest talent lies in creating interesting and charismatic genre characters. She leans on some tropes and steers away from others to create a cast who are familiar yet strikingly unique. Kell, Lila, Rhy, Holland and the Danes are all very entertaining to watch and it’s easy to believe V.E. Schwab had a lot of fun writing their different interactions. The hardest part of writing this book was probably curbing their personalities to get the story written.

A lot happens in A Darker Shade of Magic. The book is never dull. There are fires, explosions, lots of stabbing, magic fights and, when the characters aren’t trying to kill one another, amusing and engaging banter. V.E. Schwab does an excellent line in ‘never a dull moment’ genre fiction and the good thing is that she’s building up quite a bibliography for anyone who might be hungry for more.

My favourite character, by a Grey London mile, is Lila. Anyone who knows me will probably have been able to see that coming. Not that Kell isn’t still a great character. In fact, I warmed to him thoroughly after the first few chapters and magnanimously decided that, yes, he could be the protagonist if he wanted. But Lila has the rough edges that I really appreciate in a character. She’s violent and sarcastic but still possesses a glimmer of charity and a hidden core of insecurity. I liked Lila a lot and, if I buy the second book in the series, it will probably be to see how she gets on.

The Salty
Unfortunately, A Darker Shade of Magic does suffer from Vengeful-syndrome. The story is rollicking along at a blistering pace, full of excitement and twists and turns and the anticipation is rising to a fever pitch and then... Stuff kind of just tapers off.

The ending leaves a lot to be desired. I try not to leave spoilers in these reviews now so I won’t mention specifics, but several characters don’t get enough page space considering how major their roles are. The final battles are also over horribly quickly and result in less of a bang and more of a whimper after how massively they were built up through the rest of the story.

There were also some characters/plot lines who vanished during the story and nothing was ever made of them again. I feel like these really should have been trimmed back in editing rather than just left as loose ends.

For that matter, there are a surprising number of typos in this professionally edited manuscript, some of which are actually kind of major (like, three or four words mangled in what I assume must have been an edit-introduced error, which I saw a couple of times). While I hold traditionally-published authors to a higher standard than the self-published, I actually don’t mind the errors. It might just be the wannabe in me, delighting in the idea that I don’t need to be perfect to be a professional. Though, naturally, I will still try.

The Aftertaste
A Darker Shade of Magic is a good read. It’s got a solid, pacy story with thoroughly interesting characters and the build of tension throughout is sensational. The magic use is thrilling. The rules are simple and flexible enough to produce a lot of interesting results while still allowing the story to move along. Kell and Lila’s relationship was superbly drawn from start to finish and helped drive the major plot points home one after another.

But the ending seems half-baked. Rushed. The ways in which the final obstacles are overcome is a little too abrupt, too easy, to be satisfying. After the tremendous book I’d read, I had hoped for more from the finale.

That isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading. I’d say it very much is. And it has probably interested me enough to buy and read A Gathering of Shadows at some point.

I suppose, ultimately, no matter how harsh my criticisms sometimes are, V.E. Schwab’s work still hooks me deeply enough to keep bringing me back. And really, as an author, is there a greater compliment to receive?

18 November 2020

How Not to Write: Modernity in Traditional Fantasy

(Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Swears)

There’s a fallacy in traditional fantasy, which is that, in the Tolkien-esque fantasy settings we are all familiar with, everyone needs to speak in that oddly stilted manner, verging on thou and verily in every other sentence. I understand it. It seems more like the way folks from the medieval world would talk, doesn’t it?

The problem is, it isn’t how folks from the medieval world spoke. In fact, the way they did talk is probably so far removed from the English we speak nowadays as to make it near-impossible to read for those of us living in the modern world. I mean, have you ever read Shakespeare? That’s more modern than the world of Lord of the Rings and even it’s borderline unreadable in places.

Tolkien wrote his dialogue that way because it was natural for him to do so. He was a rich, white man who grew up in Victorian England. Of course everyone sounds polite and poetic. But Tolkien also wrote his seminal works some eighty years ago. It’s probably time we moved on. A modern writer would seem pretty out of touch writing a novel like Lord of the Rings in this day and age.

I resisted the notion of bringing modern speech into fantasy settings for a long time. Two minutes of watching an episode of Spartacus: Blood & Sand and its absolutely cringe-worthy dialogue put me off the idea of adding cuss-laden modern language to traditional fantasy for nearly ten years. Then I read Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames and I felt myself being talked around to the idea.

The reason why Bloody Rose is such an inspirational book for me is because it marks the moment when I started to consider traditional fantasy to be a valid genre again. (Yeah, it verges more on grimdark, but I don’t strike those same distinctions, because a fantasy world without dark elements is just straight-up deluded about human nature).

Eames brings the fantasy genre up-to-date by threading a rock-and-roll sensibility through it. Bands of heroes are more like bands of musicians, touring, full of vice, conflicted and ultimately bound to self-destruction, but lauded all the same. He used fantasy tropes to examine issues of identity, addiction, grudging maternity, sexuality, unwise hero worship and self-harm and this, to me, was a more rewarding and emotive experience than The Lord of the Rings ever was.

Part of that was due to the language Eames used. By leaning more on a modernised vocabulary, I think he made the thoughts and feelings of the characters more accessible to modern readers. Reading Tolkien’s work, the one thing that never happened was a connection. I did, however, connect with Tam and Cura and Brune and, yes, even Rose. I think it was Eames that opened the door for me to start interpreting fantasy worlds through a modern lens.

I never wanted to write fantasy. I’d read too many books where everything was too stilted, too posh-sounding. It just didn’t do anything for me and I started to drift from the fantasy genre as a whole. Since reading Bloody Rose, I’ve landed a fantasy piece, ‘The Dragon’s Heart’, in Fairytale Dragons by Dragon Soul Press. This story was probably the first time I dipped into a fantasy world with my 21st Century head on. (Spoiler Alert! Not the last).

Writing is meant to be read. Writing craft is all about picking the best tools to make your work accessible and interesting to the reader. Yeah, you can write for the love of it, but you wouldn’t try to publish if you didn’t want to connect with someone out there, right?

Writing fantasy with a modern sensibility, a modern vocabulary, isn’t inappropriate. It’s simply understanding that you can’t actually write authentic dialogue for your ancient setting without verging on absurdity. It’s also a stylistic choice. Maybe my characters don’t live in the modern world, but they’re going to be connecting with people who do. I don’t want a language barrier occluding my message.

Ultimately, I’m choosing to write this way because I like it. Traditional fantasy never really caught my imagination, but a nuanced, modern approach has. And don’t they always say, “write the book you want to read”?

If you want to read that book too, you can pre-order a copy of Fairytale Dragons now. I think it came out pretty well actually.

03 November 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The Dish
Sometimes, I think that the staff at my local Waterstones buy in copies of Edgar Cantero’s work because they know I’m going to come in and buy it. Imagine my surprise when I found The Supernatural Enhancements sitting on a shelf waiting for me upon my last visit, in more or less the same position as Meddling Kids and This Body before it.

The Supernatural Enhancements is a supernatural (whaaaaat?!) thriller/ghost story told in epistolary format published by Del Ray. It’s a tidy little paperback at 353 pages long.

The Sauce
Our protagonist, A, has just inherited a house from his second cousin twice removed. Along with his protector, Niamh, a mute, Irish teenager, he sets out to unravel the mysteries of the house and its ‘supernatural enhancements’.

The Sweet
I can never review one of Edgar Cantero’s books without taking a moment to pontificate about his prose. Cantero has a unique voice that sits somewhere between Lovecraft gothic and a pop culture columnist. His ease with language leads to a lot of evocative imagery interspersed with delightful wink-nudge 90s references (including one about a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle that I adored). Even in epistolary form, Cantero’s mastery of language still shines through and it’s a pleasure to read.

Cantero has a lot of fun with the epistolary format during the course of the book. There’s a brilliant gag at the transition between Act 1 and Act 2 involving the receipt for a swimming pool. In Meddling Kids, Cantero played around with the fourth wall in immensely satisfying ways and it’s clear he was doing that even when he was writing The Enhancements.

The stand-out character of the story is Niamh. Cantero has taken pains to pepper her with interesting quirks but these are secondary to the strong, capable way she performs in the course of the story. She puts me in mind of Conseil from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, who, when faced with Monsieur Aronnax’s fall from the ship, chose to dive in after him rather than leave his side for a moment. Niamh joins Andy and Zooey in Cantero’s rogue’s gallery of characters I’d love to see running into one another at some point.

The Salty
One of my only issues with The Supernatural Enhancements is that it’s too clever for its own good. Cantero obviously went to great lengths to research ciphers and cryptographs for the story and one section of the book involves A. describing the logic he used to crack a coded letter, except that puzzles are easier to work out when you already have the solution. Still, we marvel at Holmes’ genius, even when we know that Conan Doyle already knew who the criminal was.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to marvel at A. I didn’t care for him as a character. I suspect Cantero knew that A. might not be as popular as Niamh, thus his decision to double-down on Niamh’s interesting quirks. And, reading into the psychological profile drawn up by Doctor Belknap, it’s not hard to tell who A. is probably based on.

There’s also an issue with the epistolary format going AWOL in the last Act. I tend to take an epistolary fiction as a promise to the author not to break format, but towards the end of the book there are two scenes told as standard, third-person narrative. While Cantero does play around with format a lot, this felt more like a blip of laziness.

And, for the record, no one likes Scully.

The Aftertaste
The strongest part of The Supernatural Enhancements is its concept. Without giving too much away, this novel gives only a glimpse of a much wider potential universe. There is a lot that could be done with a world like the one hinted at in this book. Indeed, the most interesting character by far in this book is only seen in the last couple of pages.

It’s a good book, worth reading for no other reason than to see Cantero disassembling and reassembling the craft into new and interesting shapes. However, it isn’t as good as Meddling Kids, which isn’t as good as This Body. I would definitely recommend reading either of those first, then picking up The Enhancements if they speak to you.

On the bright side, Cantero’s ability seems to be improving over time, which means his next novel should be sublime. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long.

08 October 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - It Calls From the Sky by Eerie River Publishing

The Dish
It Calls from the Sky is the third instalment in Eerie River Publishing’s ‘It Calls From’ series of horror anthologies. The book contains 23 short stories from several names that’ll be familiar if you’ve read Eerie’s other offerings, as well as some new names that pleasantly vary the content. The team at Eerie River, Michelle River and Alanna Webb, have done another excellent job picking the tales for this amazing collection.

The Sauce
Eerie’s contributors have really gone to town on this concept. It was already an impressive feat to have gotten so many varied stories out of two volumes of Forest. Sky is even more impressive with the mix of work within its pages. Flying monsters, killer rain, fallen gods, floating heads, voices from the sky, storms, aliens and vampire bats all make appearances, and more besides.

The Sweet
If Forest 2 was an overall improvement on Forest 1, Sky is an improvement on both. The strength of the writing is evident here, right from the off. ‘Ascension’ by R.L. Meza plunges you immediately into full-on horror. It’s shocking, it’s sinister, in places it’s absolutely disgusting, but it’s compelling and frightening and the pace marches to the same powerfully inevitable end as the characters themselves. It’s a great start and sets the tone nicely for the rest of the book.

Matthew Brady’s ‘Head in the Clouds’ is another strong piece. It starts out like historical fiction but spirals rapidly with the appearance of Mother Diamante into something surreal and grotesque. Like ‘Ascension’, the sense of foreboding builds to something truly terrible and leaves a strong impression. Edith’s reaction to seeing her brother again is perhaps the most powerful aspect of the story.

You know I have to talk about ‘Tenure’ by V.A. Vazquez, who won my pick of the anthology for Forest 2. Told from the perspective of that guy who appears in every urban fantasy story to advise the heroes of exactly how boned they are against their supernatural adversary, the ‘action’ in the story is relayed via phone while Milo Banerjee struggles with his tenure application. It’s a delightful twist on every similar horror story you’ve read, complete with a strong female character and a frightening, uncertain twist. V.A. Vazquez continues to impress. Additional points for use of the futakuchi-onna, which is a demon I’m personally quite fond of.

Christopher Bond’s ‘Follow You Into the Dark’ stands out to me because of its characters. Bobby and Darlene are, on the surface of things, the kind of white trash characters you see in a lot of horror stories, usually depicted as being dumb, greedy or downright evil. Instead, these two are drawn as loving and kind and it amps up the horror of the story significantly. I mentioned in a recent blog post about the importance of humanism in horror stories and this is a prime example. The horror in this strikes so much harder for how nice the characters are. A brilliant read.

‘The Forgotten Prince’ by Elizabeth Nettleton is another excellent example of this. Pim’s willingness to help a stranger in need makes the terrible events of the story so much worse. This tale’s core concept is how frightening a spoiled child can be when they have exceptional power. The only thing more terrifying than a god with unknowable motives is one that acts like the very worst human beings we know and the threat implied in the ending is chilling.

‘Flying Home’ by Joel R. Hunt is one of those stories that just fits right in here at the Basement. Trapped aboard an aeroplane with a sinister creature, Emma engages in a battle of wills, unable to rely on anyone but herself. I love this kind of story so much and this is a brilliant example of the genre-without-a-name. Emma’s eventual ‘victory’ over the creature is what made this story so compelling for me. Exactly my cup of tea and one of the main reasons I loved Sky so much.

‘Raindance’ by Kimberly Rei hooked me deep. A picture-perfect couple with a nasty, abusive undercurrent. The story teases apart the complicated emotions and conflicts of abuse, all the while delving into a delightful storm allegory. This story’s use of the Wild Hunt was a particularly interesting twist on quite a common piece of mythology, which Kimberly Rei acknowledges herself in Kara’s narrative. The overarching implication being that the Wild Hunt might actually be a similar phenomenon to the avenging Furies of European mythology. A powerful and moving tale.

The Salty
Look, you’re not going to hear me level this criticism at an anthology very often in my attempt at balanced reviews, but Sky has caused me serious problems while writing this. Very few of these stories aren’t exceptional and I found myself scrolling through my Kindle thinking, “I’m going to need to pick and choose here. I don’t have room in this review to talk about all 23 stories”. So what you’ve just read are my cherry-picked favourites, the ones that are more relevant or most appealing to me specifically.

I could wax lyrical about the poetic majesty of Rebecca Gomez Farrell’s ‘Thlush-a-Lum’, or the cathartic strength of Jay Sandlin’s ‘Hate Sky’, or the open-ended novel potential of the likes of ‘Thorn in My Side’ or ‘Keep One in the Chamber’. If I was writing an essay, I could maybe give all of these stories the attention that they deserved, but I’m not. All I will say is that, as I mentioned previously, the level of prose in Sky is an improvement on that in both volumes of Forest. Maybe it was the additional challenge of the anthology theme but I was blown away by the calibre of the stories in this book and the sheer variety of concepts.

The Aftertaste
My pick of the anthology this time goes to Joel R. Hunt for ‘Flying Home’. It has some very stiff competition but, in the end, I had to go with it for being so ‘on genre’ for me personally.

The ‘It Calls From...’ series has always been, in my opinion, good value for money. Sky is a particularly impressive collection and now I’m even more excited for Sea when it eventually arrives. In the meantime, buy your copy of Sky now!

18 September 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - The Drop by Jacy Morris

The Dish
The Drop by Jacy Morris is a globe-trotting jaunt around a ruined world ravaged by the boyband apocalypse. It’s a fusion of first-person memoir and epistolary in the vein of World War Z and Zombie Apocalypse. When Blackthorn Book Tours dropped this into my inbox, I knew I needed to learn more. How exactly does a boyband destroy the world anyway? Well, I found out.

The Sauce
Whoa-Town are the biggest pop music sensation since the Beatles. Their sound is ubiquitous. And that’s a shame, because their latest single, The Drop, causes a strange and fatal disease that brings the entire world to its knees. Living in the aftermath, Katherine Maddox sets out to learn the truth about the Drop and, hopefully, prevent it from ever happening again.

The Sweet
Jacy Morris loves to write. You only have to look at his bibliography to see that. It’s also evident in his sometimes ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style, pulling you into the head of Katherine Maddox as she lives through, and then seeks to learn from, the boyband apocalypse.

The Drop’s biggest draw is the mysterious disease it’s named for. Morris has carefully constructed a multi-stage disease and details its bizarre symptoms throughout the middle third of the book. Through the eyes of Katherine Maddox, journalism student, we see the sickness unfolding, first in her housemate, then her father. The use of inoperable cancer as a yardstick gives an easy frame of reference for the reader to understand Katherine’s pain, and the chaos and uncertainty that unfolds is eerily familiar in the context of current events.

The relationship between Katherine and her father is lovingly drawn and gives the book real backbone. It also gives Katherine a strong driving motivation to see out the rest of the story. Morris plants the seeds for the book’s reveal very early on and these bear fruit in the final section when the truth about the Drop is finally revealed. Morris has planned his novel well and the conclusion is a coherent endpoint that the rest of the story had clearly been leading to all along.

The Salty
My most major criticism of The Drop is that the epistolary sections don’t add much more than colour. Katherine’s first-person memoir and old journal entries tend to capture the essence of the story’s events and the chat room conversations, magazine articles and interview transcripts peppered throughout don’t do much more than reiterate what was already said. I will, however, give Morris credit for a particularly creepy chat room snippet showing Whoa-Town fans as emotionless dolls after they contract The Drop because it is actually quite chilling.

Morris has made an effort to nuance his characters. Katherine Maddox is the prime example and easily the strongest character in the book. However, despite attempts to juxtapose the members of Whoa-Town as members of a wholesome, accessible pop group on one hand and criminals, liars and sexual deviants on the other, this has led the character development down unfortunately stereotypical channels. The gay character hates women, the white trash character from Florida is in an incestuous relationship, the black character is a pimp, the trans character is manipulative, the nerdy kid is forgettable. Even Katherine herself is the diehard, ‘anything for a story’ reporter we’ve all seen many, many times before.

There’s also a minor issue with some of the characters not being as useful to the story as they could be. Ella, a deaf girl, would have been a perfect and justifiably diverse central character, but she parts ways with the story after only a chapter, and the introduction of the Merv character in the latter third doesn’t add much to the overall narrative. Unfortunately, other than Katherine and, to a lesser extent, Freddie, many of the characters in the book are there solely to deliver a payload of information to further the story before bowing out, never to return.

The Aftertaste
The Drop has the conceptual strength and emotional punch of a heavyweight post-apocalypse novel. Morris’s careful consideration of the symptoms of his boyband-induced pandemic, coupled with Katherine Maddox’s personal story of heartache and determination, drive the story relentlessly from one chilling or heart-wrenching revelation to the next, building to a conclusion that really couldn’t have played out any other way.

It's an admirably plotted tale that betrays Morris’s love of writing on every page as he digs into the motivations of his characters and the consequences of The Drop for the world. Morris digs deep into human nature, as well as social and economic issues, to create a rich tapestry of a world that can no longer trust music.

If you are looking for a different take on the apocalypse, one without the usual shambling ghouls, especially a story with heart and conviction, I’d recommend The Drop.

Thanks to the team at Blackthorn Book Tours for my review copy of this book.

07 September 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - The Stroke of Thirteen by Carrie Gessner

The Dish
I’ve been good and hit all my deadlines, so I decided to reward myself by cracking open another Carrie Gessner joint. The Stroke of Thirteen is a stand-alone urban fantasy novel. Anyone who has not yet read Carrie’s short-story collection, Empyrea, should immediately stop whatever they are doing, including reading this, and read that instead.

The Sauce
Grace Pembleton is the last descendent of the founders of Witch Wood. When her grandfather dies, she inherits his Bed & Breakfast, as well as his responsibility to rid Witch Wood of its infestation of supernatural entities. Unfortunately, Grace’s resolution to keep the peace through non-violent means is going to be sorely tested when the monsters decide to avenge themselves against Grace for her grandfather’s crimes.

The Sweet
Most urban fantasy stories with this concept would spend a few chapters killing off the grandfather and setting up Grace as the town’s protector. The Stroke of Thirteen catapults us through Grace’s first four months in Witch Wood, picking up when she is already borderline familiar with the place and the job. It’s a refreshing change of pace that chops several chapters of predictability out of the narrative and I think more urban fantasy authors could benefit from seeing how this doesn’t impact the story in a negative way.

As with Carrie’s other novel, Dying of the Golden Day, and her short stories in Empyrea, it is Carrie’s characters that really shine. Carrie’s worlds are awash with weary twenty-somethings torn between strong conviction and vulnerability. They are sassy and self-deprecating, noble and conflicted, and always have great potential for both light or darkness. In short, they are exactly the kind of characters I like to read about. The cast is rounded out by a number of older folk, formidable librarians, dark-haired women with enigmatic smiles and middle-aged mansplaining elected officials who maybe aren’t quite as unreasonable as they first seem.

The nicest thing about Carrie’s characters is the layers each of them have. No one is one-dimensional. Even the villains have their reasons for everything they do and levels even they will not stoop to. A lot is made of Grandpa Pembleton’s violent methods and it isn’t hard to see why the supernaturals would want revenge on him. At the same time, Grace’s conviction to be non-violent causes a lot of moral conflict on both the human and supernatural side.

Witch Wood is also a wonderful location full of weird creatures and unusual characters. It has a soul and a character of its own that I could liken to Beacon Hills from MTV’s Teen Wolf (another great example of urban fantasy). As such, the Stroke of Thirteen universe has unlimited scope for all kinds of creatures to rampage through the sleepy little town and Carrie shows a number of them in this story itself.

I have to give the story an extra point for the relationship between the three central characters, Grace, Rosie and Phee. Grace alone is an excellent central figure. Her willingness to go to hell and back for her friends, her ability to brush off injury and keep pressing forward, all remind me of the most important person in my life.

But, with her two friends, she is truly formidable and the three share some great moments. I enjoy their banter greatly and, while the story itself is pretty clean depicting them as three very close friends, I will confess that I ship them, maybe just a little.

The Salty
My only issue, such as it is, with The Stroke of Thirteen is that the plot could have been sewn up a little tighter. All of the elements are there - a coalition of vicious supernatural creatures out for revenge, a slow countdown to the fateful hour, the legacy of Grandpa Pembleton and the strange history of Witch Wood itself, which all come together in a storm-infused maelstrom of revelations and bloodshed. Unfortunately, I felt that the ending could have made better use of those elements. This might simply have been my own expectations getting in the way, because I had very different ideas about how the story should have ended.

That being said, the aftermath of the story is very sweet and it is, at its heart, a feel-good tale, much like the stories collected in Empyrea. I simply cannot be upset with a story that makes me feel so happy for the characters I have walked with through those chapters.

I’m also subtracting a point for February, Erin and Alison. Carrie knows why.

The Aftertaste
I always come away from Carrie Gessner’s stories with a lot of mixed feelings. I’m sad, I’m happy, I’m exultant, I’m comforted. I empathise so strongly with these characters and the issues they face. Yes, they live in fantastic worlds filled with strange creatures and conflict, but they have been touched by the same issues as I have - disenfranchisement, lack of clarity in life, a need to belong and be loved. They are, despite being fictional, very real.

I sync with these characters very quickly, and with Grace especially. Every death, every laugh, every terrible revelation and every triumph they face moves me deeply. Carrie Gessner’s work shakes me like a soda can and I’d recommend it to anyone. Period.

31 August 2020

Cramming Plant-Based Food Down Your Throat (or 'Now I Know How Believers Feel')

A lot of people criticise believers for trying to cram their faith down people’s throats and, as an atheist, I am not unsympathetic. There’s nothing worse than being committed to a course in life and someone else treating you like you’re on the fence or misguided.

However, I’ve always ascribed to the view that I understand where believers are coming from. If I thought I knew of a sure-fire way to avoid eternal damnation, you’d better believe I’d be telling EVERYONE about it. This is important, people. It’s the sanctity of your immortal soul that’s on the table. You NEED to know this. There are some people who probably think that prayer is the hand sanitiser and mask for COVID of the soul.

As an atheist, I’ve never felt much compelled to impress my faith in absence on others. I try to live and let live. So long as you’re not hurting anyone, go wild.

But that changed a little when I became a vegan. Seriously, if you’re an atheist and you ever want to walk a mile in a believer’s shoes, become a vegan. It’s transformative.

My partner and I went vegan at the same time. There were a couple of factors at play. We lost a couple of our cats and realised that we were spending hundreds of pounds trying to keep our animals alive while also supporting an industry that killed millions of other animals. MADNESS! There was also the health factor. We wanted to be healthier and, when we looked into it, veganism was the answer.

That’s where Michael Greger, M.D. and his website, Nutrition Facts, comes in. Doctor Greger and his team of volunteers comb through all the reputable, peer-reviewed studies in nutrition to find the scientifically proven truth about food. As it turns out, the best diet for health is a plant-based diet. Hands down.

Now, here’s the crunch. When you look through the literature, you’ll see the negative impact the meat and dairy industry has on the world, the millions of needless deaths from associated cancer, diabetes and heart disease, the pollution, the animal cruelty and suffering, the misery of people who lost friends and family, the money and time lost, especially in the United States, on sickness and healthcare. After you’ve been a vegan for a little while and you’ve started to feel better, happier, healthier, you realise that veganism is almost a magic bullet.

And you want to tell everyone. You want to tell them that you feel better, that you don’t get sick so much anymore and that your old health problems are clearing up and that veganism is how we can all contribute to things like global warming and pandemic prevention. Because it’s not just better for us and better for animals, it’s sustainable and better for the planet too.

Not only that, but they can go vegan. Just about everyone I speak to always says, ‘I could never do that’, but they can. Of course they can. I did. I never thought I could live without cheese. That was the real sticking point for me but, once it was out of the house and I committed not to buy it anymore, the craving went. For a while, I was ‘mostly vegan’ and still ate dairy when I was in restaurants but eventually even that stopped. You can do it gradually. Whatever works for you.

But, once you’re a vegan, now you’re in a quandary. You have this information but, if you start talking to people about it, you’re going to get into arguments and you’re going to sound preachy. Yeah, I can maybe see where the faithful are coming from. I have information that could save people’s lives, reverse their diabetes, eradicate their heart disease, prevent cancer, but how do I get people to engage with it? Maybe I should get myself a box and stand in the street quoting from ‘How Not to Die’.

I think the very worst part about preaching veganism is that it’s evidence-based, but even rational people, who reject faith for lack of proof, won’t consider it. How unbelievably frustrating is that?

I think being vegan has given me a little more sympathy with the faithful, even if it hasn’t made me more of a believer myself. There is evidence out there if you want to look at it and make your own, informed decision. Start with Nutrition Facts and ‘How Not to Die’.

But I’m not going to cram plant-based food down your throat. I’d like to believe that, once you’ve seen the proof, you’ll do it yourself.

04 August 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - It Calls From the Forest Volume 2 by Eerie River Press

The Dish
It Calls from the Forest Volume 2 is the second in the ‘It Calls From...’ series published by Eerie River Press. It collects 26 tales from various authors and provides us all with yet more reasons to be glad we’re staying indoors.

The Sauce
As with the previous volume, this book contains horror stories with one unifying characteristic. They are all, in some way, connected to the forest and the primeval darkness within. There are serial killers, weird tales of fracturing mental states, werewolves and monsters that defy description, all crawling out of the trees.

The Sweet

Volume 2 packs its pages with some very fine stories. Unfortunately, I don’t have space here to devote to every piece in the book. Instead, I have picked out my standout favourites, the ones that had the most interesting concepts, the most gorgeous writing, the most compelling characters or the most dizzying twists.

Several stories in this anthology discuss ecological issues. I Speak for the Trees by Donna J.W. Munro tells the tale of a village that lives in harmony with the forest, never taking more than is necessary and untouched by the outside world. When that harmony is threatened by an occupying force, the result is grisly and shocking. I Speak for the Trees gives a literal voice to the forest and asks if we would still be so destructive if we could hear what it had to say.

Of all the monsters in this book, The Thousand-Eyed Stag by Syd Richardson might be the most interesting and graphic. What starts as a typical ‘monster threatening a sleepy town’ tale becomes a gory body-horror joint in the closing pages. Of all the possible creatures, this was not what I was expecting and it is stories like these, with these twists, that really make Eerie River’s anthologies shine.

Dating in Murderville by V.A. Vazquez would get an honourable mention for the premise alone. It’s a marvellously written story that employs a very different kind of horror. V.A. Vazquez takes the ‘serial killer in the woods’ concept and breathes new life into it, underpinning the tale with effortless attention to detail and quirky dialogue. It’s also my favourite of the anthology.

Spirit of the Forest by Ville Merilainen earns a mention for its use of soldiers on opposing sides coming together to fight a supernatural creature that is stalking them. The uneasy truce that later becomes a firm alliance is very well-developed and leaves us rooting for the heroes. A perfect example of how the relationship between two characters can drive a story and draw a reader in.

Though not the only story to utilise a kind of ‘Swamp Thing’ nature-monster, The Heralding by Ian Ableson, develops the concept with natural-sounding dialogue and the eerie otherworldliness of a monster that has both purpose and cold intellect. Another story with a heavy ecological leaning, which I appreciated a great deal.

Moths to a Flame by O. Sander has an excellent pace from start to finish. The fixation of the main character drives the story and there is impressive use of warmth and colour to really draw attention to the discrepancies between the Kate beloved by the main character and the one that appears to her later. The story delivers on the mounting tension with a very unusual creature and a warning against forgetting the old mythology.

For an interesting finish, A Pillywiggins for Beau Hensel by Stuart Croskell is a beautifully written finale for Volume 2. The tale wrongfoots the reader initially with innuendo but it is actually a story about the forlorn loss of faith in tradition. Daisy’s love for her brother comes through strongly in the narrative and drives towards a conclusion that might even be considered hopeful, if not for what she’d lost. Much like in Volume 1, Eerie River has chosen the perfect note to end the collection on.

The Salty

Some of the stories don’t make full use of the mythology or premise they employ. It isn’t that they’re bad stories - quite the opposite - but the tales haven’t been brought to fruition. A trope inversion, a counter-intuitive twist or an unexpected use of an existing rule could have turned these good stories into great stories.

There is also a similar problem to Volume 1 in that some of the stories are a little over-written. I would attribute this to an attempt at creating tension through a slower pace but, generally, less is more. Some of the authors in the anthology, particularly V.A. Vazquez and Stuart Croskell, are particularly adept at building tension without over-writing their narratives.

The Aftertaste

It Calls from the Forest Volume 2 is another excellent selection of short-form horror from Eerie River. The stories are a varied selection that deal with themes like love, obsession, mental illness, greed, redemption and death. There are also strong ecological vibes running throughout that tie the story to the modern push for greater respect for the environment and the realisation that resources are finite. Many of the tales express concern for nature and give agency to an otherwise passive recipient of human malice.

My favourite has to be Dating in Murderville for its unique concept, strong narrative voice and inevitably chilling conclusion (also, horror-romance is partly what this blog is named for).

If you haven’t already gone exploring in Volume 1, it comes highly recommended. Volume 2 also has a lot to offer. Eerie River will be publishing several more in this series and I can’t wait to see how they come out.

31 July 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Moonlit Dreams, Moonlit Nightmares, Edited by Laura Seeber

The Dish
Moonlit Dreams/Moonlit Nightmares is a fiction collection edited by L. Seeber and published by Antimony and Elder Lace Press. The stories here have been lovingly curated and range across multiple genres, from the supernatural to crime thrillers to outrageous parodies of old horror cinema favourites.

Thanks go to Blackthorn Book Tours for providing me with an advance copy of this anthology to review. As is usually the case with Various Author anthologies, I have tried to give every author a little attention.

The Midnight Feast of Magic, Mischief, Misery and Murder

A Consultation by Moonlight by Thomas Vaughn
A tale from Ancient Rome about a footnote in history and his desire for his own deification. This story’s main draw is its dialogue. The characters are eloquent and philosophical, and a lot is said between the lines as much as on them. The story has a fine irony to it. The reader can already guess at Clodius’ fate as a ruler, given the name we all associate with Rome. We have no need of the prophecy he is eventually given and, though Clodius is described as a man who cares for truth, his reaction to his prophecy shows him for who he really is. The characters also make mention of ‘lesser races’ having the power to divine their own futures, despite having sailed all the way to Thessaly in search of exactly that. It’s a tale of the hubris and sense of superiority men in office tend to have, neither of which are much justified. Of particular interest is Erictha and her powers of necromancy. I’ve never seen a means for communing with the dead as described in this story and I found the grisly details of the ritual captivating. All on a moonlit night in the Mediterranean, which is quite a beautiful destination. A strong start for the anthology.

Phosphene by Sarah Walker

A descent into the limbo between life and death. Adria’s journey is one of self-discovery on the boundary of her suicide. The surreal landscape she finds herself in nudges against Greek mythology, while Adria herself adds a modern perspective by comparing it to Alice in Wonderland. Her antagonist is less a monster and more a metaphor for loss of spiritual strength. Like many attempted suicides, Adria realises that she wishes to live and the ending leaves us feeling renewed.

A Visitation by Parineeta Singh
This tale deals with an omen. It has a quiet and slow-burning horror to it as our heroine, Flora, becomes aware of something terrible about to happen and can do nothing to stop it. The author does an excellent job contrasting the unfolding of the inevitable with Flora’s own inability to change her fate, as she is casually disregarded by her fiancĂ© but unable to take him to task for it. It’s a sad story, but the final image has a certain beauty to it that softens the tragedy.

When the Moon is Full by Dawn J. Stevens

An eloquent narrative without a hint of dialogue. This story deals with a dutiful wife’s reflections on an unhappy marriage, combined with a supernatural gift of prophecy. Despite the passive role Heather takes in her own life, it takes great strength to absent oneself the way she does. It is not a happy tale, but Heather’s sense of responsibility to her husband and daughter make us feel that she is not necessarily a victim. Like the previous story, this one also unfolds a creeping dread, as we learn what Heather’s nightmares portend. In this story, we are left to wonder what the tragedy will be, though Heather herself acknowledges that the outcome is not always bad. That, I think, is the most interesting part of the story. Heather’s outlook is, deep down, a positive one, and serves as inspiration. Ultimately, life is what you make of it.

The Sound of Stars by A.P. Sessler 

An invasion story with a difference. The author’s use of synaesthesia is unique and interesting. The tale presents happy family life and then shatters it with the onset of insanity. What I find the most terrifying aspect, personally, is the thought that an advanced alien race could decide to destroy our world simply because the colour of it offends their senses. To be condemned for such an arbitrary thing is both believable and frightening.

One Stormy Night... by Jesse Moak 

Like an old-fashioned adventure story from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, this tale combines slow-building dread with strange surroundings and alien architecture. The descriptions paint a dark and forbidding locale that wears on the main character’s mind. As with Lovecraft’s work, the protagonist is an explorer who runs up against unexpected horrors on a journey that irrevocably changes him. The story is actually devoid of dialogue until the closing pages, but this helps to impress the sense of strangeness in the rest of the tale.

Anamnesis by Cara Fox 
This story has an almost poetic feel to it. Like the previous tale, there is a sense of a normal person touching ‘the other’ and being completely unprepared for its presence in her life. A lot of the imagery, dark and light, red on white, is very striking. The main character is intuitive and sympathetic and tragically alone in understanding the danger her daughter is in. We can’t help but feel her pain. The ending has a terrible inevitability as it unfolds.

The Magic Circle by Dimitris Psomadellis 

A story of forbidden love and superstition in the vein of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Here, the witches are real but benevolent. The true enemy is ignorance. There’s an interesting power balance, with the female characters solving their own problems and the men always a step behind. The witch sisters are kind and genuinely likeable, and prose is unexpectedly quirky at times, lightening the overall tone.

Receiving Room by Lori Tiron-Pandit 

An epistolary fiction in the form of a dream journal. There is a building sense of foreboding that rises through the whole of the story. The narrator’s focus on the mysterious Margo verges on the obsessive and we learn very little about their own life and personality. The story leaves us caught somewhere between the supernatural and the psychological, much like the narrator themselves. A brilliantly-conceived and unsettling piece. 

Eleventh Hour by Jamie Ryder 

What starts as a story about a man down on his luck being visited by a guardian angel very quickly turns into something much more frightening. A black comedy about a trickster god and the poor fellow who becomes the butt of his joke. In a way, the story also serves as a warning to the reader not to waste the limited time they have on earth, lest they come to the attention of someone powerful, dangerous and maybe just a little insane.

The First Victims Club by Shaun Avery 

A unique story that gives horror movie clichĂ©s new life in the form of ‘The First Victims Club’. It’s a common trope for the first victim of a horror movie to be forgotten within the first few minutes of the film. In this story, the first victim is the most important, chosen for an experiment to alter events after their deaths that cause harm to their surviving loved ones. Kind of makes you wish a series like Friday the 13th had adopted this concept for a sequel.

To Make a Violin by L. Seeber 
A well-written crime thriller that I didn’t expect to see alongside so many supernatural stories. The author has drawn a likeable and sympathetic police detective, as well as a disturbing psychopath for them to play against. The story’s final revelation is built carefully into the rest of the narrative and the twist is satisfying, if unpleasant. An excellent read, superbly executed.

The Experiment by Todd P. Taylor 

A social experiment goes horribly wrong in Todd Taylor’s surreal descent into the life of a homeless man and his benefactor. The story drives at a complex social issue. We are, ultimately, the same except for our circumstances. Oddly enough, the original narrator is handed a way out of his poverty, while the ‘Ratman’ takes his opportunity proactively. Generally, the temptation is to praise the latter but, in this story, the former is actually the more laudable. A solid tale with some evocative imagery throughout.

The Aftertaste 

On the whole, Moonlit Dreams/Moonlit Nightmares is a broad contemplation of a variety of human fears and pathologies. While many have a supernatural aspect, some are purely about the human condition. The ‘moon’ theme running throughout isn’t always especially prevalent - in some it appears only as a background image - but it is an ever-present, watching face in all of these disparate events.

Particular commendations go to When the Moon is Full, The Sound of Stars, Eleventh Hour and To Make a Violin. Receiving Room takes the prize as my favourite from the anthology, however, for its elegant depiction of grief turned to obsession turned to horror.

Once again, I’d like to thank Blackthorn Book Tours for the advance copy of this collection and for the opportunity to soak in some moonlit dreams.

29 July 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Dying of the Golden Day by Carrie Gessner

The Dish
The Dying of the Golden Day is the first book of Carrie Gessner’s ‘Heartfriends’ epic fantasy trilogy. It is set in the fictional land of Inanta and centres on the character, Aurelia, who plays a vital role in the land’s future. Self-published by Carrie herself, this is also the second of her works to feature on my blog!

The Sauce
Magic is a gift given by the Goddess. It comes in three forms - elemental, healing and prophecy. It is also on the wane just as Aurelia, a girl with grey eyes, is born. Coincidence or fate? Aurelia can’t be sure, but there is a prophecy that claims she portends the beginning of the end. This magic system also introduces the eponymous ‘Heartfriend bond’, a dedication between a ruler and a magic user for their mutual benefit and betterment. Carrie uses this concept to great effect throughout the story.

The Sweet

Carrie Gessner’s real strength as a storyteller will always come from her characters. Aurelia is a superbly drawn protagonist who combines physical and mental capability with emotional vulnerability. Her tale is that of a girl trying to do good while wrestling with the thought that she is innately evil. It’s a powerful notion that resonates strongly, even in the modern era. It stands to reason that Aurelia would be my favourite character, but she has stiff competition from the supporting cast.

Prince Renfred, Aurelia’s Heartfriend; Brennus, the enigmatic rogue; Edana, the prophet with a temper; Mira, the Empress of Mydrost. All of them are both interesting and charismatic. The less prominent characters like Renfred’s sister, Minerva, are still supremely charming. Even the villains, such as they are, have their own sense of morality, honour and motivation and the ‘evil’ they perpetrate is, more often than not, a means to a debatably noble end, even if what they are doing is ultimately deplorable.

Just like the Empyrea collection, Golden Day is filled with characters who are equal parts kind and fascinating. If you ever have to choose a fictional world to live in, I’d recommend one of Carrie Gessner’s.

The world-building is also phenomenal. Inanta is a fully-realised land with well-drawn borders, a history reaching back 5,000 years, a mythology and a magic system that feed into one another, and old grudges to be overcome. Every kingdom has a capital city and a number of smaller settlements that the story visits along the way. Expect to come away from this book feeling like Inanta could be a real place.

The story delivers some very satisfying twists and turns, none of which I’ll spoil here, but all are tied together at the front and back of the novel. Either Carrie had a decisive plan or she was very careful about picking up after herself. Nothing here seems to have been done without purpose. As such, this book feels like a very strong first step for a trilogy.

Can I talk about prophecies? I hate them. I hate prophecies and I hate heroes foretold by them. One of the best parts of Dying of the Golden Day was the prophecy regarding Aurelia because it didn’t mean anything good. She isn’t destined for greatness. Depending on the translation, she either brings about the end of the world or her suffering will be legendary. It’s an excellent inversion on the age-old ‘prophesied hero’ trope and I can’t wait to see how it plays out in Part Two.

The Salty

The prose in this novel is not quite as crafted as in Carrie’s short-form fiction. It might be because a novel is longer and more difficult to craft (writers will sympathise with this) or it might be because this novel predates a lot of Carrie’s other work. Either way, I’ll be eager to look into her other novels to find out.

This book also has the unfortunate distinction of being the first in an epic fantasy trilogy and so a lot of ground work has been laid for the following books. As such, this book feels like a first chapter rather than a complete story in and of itself. Perfectly acceptable given the genre - let’s face it, Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t a complete story either - but the book might have been more satisfying with a sub-plot that resolved while also feeding into the plot of the over-arching trilogy.

While the story’s eventual villains are presaged at the very beginning of the book, their presence in the story is quite limited until the last couple of chapters. That being said, when they finally do appear on the scene, they are brutal and events intensify quickly into the finale.

The Aftertaste

On the whole, The Dying of the Golden Day is an excellent first part to the ‘Heartfriends’ saga. It introduces all the major players who will certainly play roles in the rest of the trilogy and leaves off at a point of tension so great I can’t wait to get started on Part Two, which is already available. Between Empyrea and Golden Day, it’s clear that Carrie has a passion for creating strong and charming characters. Golden Day shows that Carrie is capable of playing the long game. There is suspense, intrigue and high stakes. You can’t help but buy in.

If you like epic fantasy, strong female characters, worlds where people must put their differences aside to fight a greater threat, or any combination of the three, pick up The Dying of the Golden Day and its sequel, The Shadow of the Endless Night, on Amazon now. You won’t regret it.

04 July 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - It Calls From the Forest by Eerie River Press

The Dish
It Calls From the Forest is a selection of 24 stories compiled by Eerie River Press (Michelle River and Alanna Robertson-Webb). They range from very short to medium length, though none of them are quite novelettes. The authors are a motley bunch from both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, and the talent compiled here is solid.

The Sauce
This is a horror anthology filled with the grisly, the gruesome, the weird and the wild. The only unifying theme is that ‘something terrible is lurking in the forest’. As you’d expect, there are a lot of wild beasts and savage semi-humans, but no two authors have the same approach and that is exactly the beauty of an anthology like this.

The Sweet
My favourite part of most short story anthologies is the sheer number of quality authors gathered in one place. I usually like to spread my reviews out to give attention to all the contributors but, for 24 stories, that was going to be a challenge. Instead, I’ve focused on the stand-outs that I particularly enjoyed.

The Hike by E.E.W Christman was the first story that really pulled me in. I’ve long believed that a horror story needs a likeable and interesting protagonist rather than the usual irritating slasher-bait that horror movies are peppered with. I identified with and cared for Steph very quickly. The climbing tension throughout kept me gripped right until the climactic twist. And, while I did see the twist coming, it was so well-delivered I simply didn’t mind. I also dig lesbians and nothing keeps me invested like a threatening romance.

Knotwork Hill by C.W. Blackwell stands out with its command of sleek, stylish prose. In a genre that tends to be littered with overwrought, purple description, it was nice to see a story so dedicated to making every sentence count. This story hit every beat and, though the ending wasn’t much of a shocker, it was a smooth ride through some beautiful scenery. The horror genre needs more voices like C.W. Blackwell.

Forest Man by Holley Cornetto taps into a vein of horror I only recently discovered a love for, that being the ‘group of traumatised adults try to conquer their childhood misadventure’ sub-genre. ‘Meddling Kids’ by Edgar Cantero is an excellent example of this and I can now add Forest Man to that list. The story strikes a perfect balance between present day events and flashback, gradually revealing more and more about the incidents of the past and their consequences for the future. The characters feel real and interesting and they keep the story moving along at a fair clip. The story ends the only way it really could end but that just makes it all the more upsetting.

Thirteen by Craig Crawford is a stand-out for its unique concept alone. The story is told from the perspective of a predatory spirit trapped inside a haunted shack. It’s a well-written and nerve-wracking piece, but the narrative conceit is its real strength.

Automatic Contamination by M.A. Smith is another excellent read in the same vein as Forest Man. In particular, I have to give this story credit for the character, Clem, who reminds me just a little of my girlfriend. I adored the fusion of cynicism and simplicity in the narrative, and the effort that had been put into the prose to make this a rewarding read on every line.

Fairies in the Forest by Jason Holden has a lot of strengths, chief among them the characters. The father and son are both charming and that’s what generates the story’s simmering tension. Later, when said-tension is realised, the fear for the characters is real. The horror genre has a nasty habit of making its characters act rashly and stupidly in the face of the supernatural but this doesn’t happen here and Jason Holden should be commended for it. It’s a solid story that doesn’t neglect its principle ingredient - personality.

Hollow Woods by Brian Duncan is the perfect final story for an anthology like this. A story that reminds us that, sometimes, the most dangerous things aren’t the ones that call from the forest, but the ones that walk in there with us. I cannot say how impressed I am with that bit of formatting on the part of Eerie River. The story itself is excellent. The dialogue seemed natural, the situations plausible and the outcome subtly surprising but deeply satisfying. It strikes the perfect final note.

The Salty
One unfortunate issue with some of the pieces in the book is that they can be derivative at times. Sure, I liked Stranger Things and other people liked It, but it’s important to approach things from new perspectives. Even so, those stories didn’t necessarily put me off. I still enjoyed them, probably for the same reason the original stories were so popular to begin with.

There’s also a problem with overwriting in some of the longer stories. In places, it felt that descriptions had been padded or struggles drawn out, either to increase tension or simply to add words. A couple of the stories left me fatigued but others, like the ones listed above, rocked along at a brilliant pace and I didn’t slow down once while reading them.

The Aftertaste
Horror can be very on-and-off for me. When it’s done well, I love it. It is not often done well. It Calls From the Forest has some tremendous fiction in it, some solid examples of note-perfect horror that give me hope for the genre.

Despite how many great stories this anthology had, my Pick of the Platter Award goes to Forest Man by Holley Cornetto, a story which has stayed simmering in my head throughout. I am already looking forward to Sky and Sea in this series, and can’t wait to see what else might come floating down the Eerie River.