Helen’s Story reviewed

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Helen’s Story by Rosanne Rabinowitz. PS Publishing 2013

A retro-review by Peter Coleborn

I read Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan a long, long time ago and sadly I can’t recall the details. Having just read Helen’s Story I think I should find my copy and re-read it. This is because Rabinowitz takes Machen’s novella as her starting point and looks afresh at one of the characters in Pan – Helen Vaughan – and tells her story. The good thing is, you can read Helen’s Story without prior knowledge because the writer so ably immerses you in her tale, dipping into the now and the then with consummate ease.

Helen lives in London, an artist of massive canvasses, painting landscapes that tell her story, attempting to capture everything that happened to her, attempting to find a way to join her companion – a creature that morphs into whatever shape or gender it chooses, including a certain being that is – well – Pan. She stages showings in her studio, using some of the raw responses the paintings cause in the viewers to embellish, enhance and further her work. Among the audience is a man who bears an uncanny history with hers.

Helen’s Story is so well written the novella flows effortlessly through the reader’s mind, subsuming him or her into this exotic and very erotic tale. Helen Vaughan is a strong character yet at times suffers from self doubt – a result of her strange upbringing, in a house with a cold scientists, in boarding schools in which she is the outcast, and in the woods with the creature who becomes her life-long companion, even if it neglects her for decades at a time. Helen is a timeless woman, born in the 19th century, her appearance evolving to remain youthful. The final scene in Helen’s studio is a set piece in which she and the audience become subsumed into her work, chasing the elusive companion.

This novella is another exemplary publication from PS, beautifully produced and designed, from the gorgeous cover art (by Erika Steiskal) right through to the final endpapers. Helen’s Story is a tour de force of one woman’s fight to understand her nature – and is quite simply a masterpiece. I’d place it in the same class, the way it mixes the real and the myth, as Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce and Among Others by Jo Walton. I saw a post online that the book is now out of print. Let’s hope some other publisher picks it up so everyone can read and enjoy it

 

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Alchemy Press book launch

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For those going to FantasyCon by the Sea this year, The Alchemy Press launches two anthologies at noon on Saturday 24 September:

Promises to be a great book launch. Many of the contributors will be in attendance.

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home… reviewed

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books $17.99

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

This is a better-late-than-never review. I obtained this book in hardcover back when it first appeared in 2011. It went into the teetering to-be-read heap and that’s where it stayed until I recently spotted the second book in the series in W.H. Smith. So I thought: I really should find Miss Peregrine and read it. I am so glad I did. Miss Peregrine is best described as “weird fiction” — a story that makes you look at the world askance, that makes you shiver because of its strangeness and charm.

Can you judge a book by its cover? Or in this case, by the overall production values? Did the smart layouts and internal photographic illustrations mask a less-than-good read? In this case, no, they did not; in fact they enhanced the book. The whole package looks fabulous and the story is equally fabulous (see later).

Jacob’s grandfather is killed. His last words are cryptic hints that disturb the 16 year old boy, which together with grandfather’s tall tales, lead to nightmares and obsessive behaviour. Eventually Jacob learns of an island, off Wales, on which he hopes to find the mysterious Miss Peregrine and her home. He travels there, with his father (on a bird-watching trip), only to discover the home is in ruins, the result of a bomb dropped on it in 1940, over 60 years ago.

Yet there is something else going on, something … peculiar. Jacob comes across Emma and other youngsters, and eventually enters Miss Peregrine’s home, stuck in a time loop. Stuck there because of the dangers of the outside world. Dangers that threaten to find them, destroy them.

I read fewer and fewer novels these days. I usually stick to short story collections because too many novels are not edited down, not tight enough. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not one of these books. Even when Riggs seems to wander off on occasion it doesn’t matter because – and this is a real bonus – the writing sparkles. It engages. It carries you along. The only problem I have is that the last chapter, the big climax, is a bit over-written; Riggs describes too much of the action which, I feel, slows down the pace when it should be racing. Despite this, Miss Peregrine is a tremendous read, thoroughly recommended. Although Jacob is 16, this is not simply a YA book. Ransom Riggs tackles the youth’s problems with a grown-up approach; it is a book for all ages.

A few nitpicks. Some of the references that Jacob makes (the book is in the first person) feel a bit too adult. I made a note of these but, typically, I’ve mislaid that piece of paper. I don’t think that the people in the time loop would use metres – they’d be measuring distances in Imperial. And the book will undoubtedly draw similarities with the X-Men and their school for gifted youngsters. Don’t worry about them. They certainly are not enough to spoil the reading experience.

 

 

2016 World Fantasy Awards

Final Ballot and Life Achievement Award Winners for the 2016 World Fantasy Awards have been announced.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT

  • David G. Hartwell
  • Andrzej Sapkowski

NOVELS

  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Knopf/Faber & Faber)
  • N K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (Orbit)
  • Naomi Novik, Uprooted (Del Rey Books/Macmillan UK)
  • K J. Parker, Savages (Subterranean Press)
  • Anna Smaill, The Chimes (Sceptre)
  • Paul Tremblay, A Head Full of Ghosts (William Morrow & Co.)

LONG FICTION

  • Kelly Barnhill, The Unlicensed Magician (PS Publishing)
  • Usman T. Malik, “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” (Tor.com, Apr. 22, 2015)
  • Kim Newman, “Guignol” (Horrorology, edited by Stephen Jones, Jo Fletcher Books)
  • Kelly Robson, “Waters of Versailles” (Tor.com, June 10, 2015)
  • Bud Webster, “Farewell Blues” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan./Feb. 2015)

Continue reading

The Death House reviewed

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The Death House by Sarah Pinborough. Gollancz.

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

I’ve been kicking myself (metaphorically of course) for not reading The Death House until now. It’s been sitting on my shelves waiting patiently for its pages to be turned, its words read.

Sarah Pinborough’s science fiction novel is set in a dystopian future/alternate world (it’s not obvious which and it’s not important), in a house that resembles an approved school on an isolated island somewhere far from civilisation. It’s a place where “Defective” children are housed until they die from the illness triggered by their defective genes, a place where there is only one way out – on a gurney, their existence then wiped away. It’s a bleak scenario and yet, despite the death that awaits the inmates, it is a coming-of-age story that bubbles with the promise of life.

Toby is the de facto head boy of Dorm 4. He whiles away the days in semi-boredom, avoiding the attention of Matron and her staff, living for the nights when he is alone, echoing the location’s isolation. The status quo is shattered when a new bunch of Defectives arrive, including the teenage girl Clara. At first he resents her, that she too has discovered the secret of the vitamin pills; soon, though, he becomes besotted. Together, they plan their escape (from a place that no-one, ever, has escaped from).

Sarah Pinborough readily gives away two of her inspirations for this novel: The Lord of the Flies and the Narnia books (there are hints of others). And yes, the children do form tribes, do develop friendships and hatreds. Unlike Lord of the Flies, however, they know their future; know that there is no ship on the horizon to release them from captivity. She is able to enter the heads of the boys with consummate ease, depicting their concerns expertly – no doubt lessons she learned as a teacher.

Neil Gaiman endorses the hardcover edition; Stephen King the paperback. Who am I to disagree with these two giants of the field? The Death House is a thoroughly engaging read (it’s a cliché but I really found it difficult to put the book down when I had to get on with life). Toby, Clara and the others are real people and if you don’t finish this novel with tears welling up then you are probably a robot. A tremendous book and one I have no hesitation in recommending.

 

New books

  • Neal Asher – Dark Intelligence – Pan £8.99
  • Tony Ballantyne – Dream Paris – Solaris £7.99
  • Christopher Fowler – The Sand Men – Solaris £7.99
  • Alexander Freed – Star Wars: Battlefront: Twilight Company – Century £19.99
  • Wayne G Hammond & Christina Scull — The Art of the Lord of the Rings — Harper Collins £25
  • Marcus Hearn – Thunderbirds: The Vault – Virgin £25
  • Dave Hutchinson – Europe at Midnight – Solaris £7.99
  • George RR Martin — A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms — Harper £20
  • Paul Meloy – The Night Clock – Solaris £7.99
  • Adam Nevill – Lost Girl – Pan £7.99
  • Stephen Nicholas & Mike Tucker – Doctor Who: Impossible Worlds – BBC £35
  • Terry Pratchett – The Shepherd’s Crown – Doubleday £20
  • Rob Redman (ed) – Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye – Fiction Desk £9.99
  • Justin Richards – Doctor Who : The Time Lord Letters – BBC £20
  • Brandon Sanderson – Shadows of Self – Gollancz £18.99
  • Brandon Sanderson – Legion – Gollancz £8.99
  • Brandon Sanderson – Legion: Skin Deep – Gollancz £9.99
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir – The Undesired – Hodder £14.99