Hekla’s Children reviewed

 

Hekla’s Children by James Brogden. Titan £7.99

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

Quite simply, I was captivated by this novel almost instantly. I admit that some may think I’m somewhat biased: I’ve known James Brogden for many years and have included some of his short stories in the magazines I edited for the British Fantasy Society, as well as publishing a collection of his finely crafted short stories (Evocations, The Alchemy Press). However, and trust me in this, if I hadn’t enjoyed Hekla’s Children I wouldn’t have read it so quickly and you wouldn’t be reading this review.

Nathan is a teacher who has a simple task, guide four teenagers round Sutton Park as part of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. Except that he’s too infatuated with Sue and hangs back observing them from a distance. As the children cross a stream and continue trekking, he sees the terrain alter. The stream is now a river, the ground becomes a wooded hill. Yet within moments the real world returns – all except the four kids.

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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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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.

 

 

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.

 

The Moonshawl by Storm Constantine reviewed

The Moonshawl by Storm Constantine. Immanion Press £11.99

Reviewed by Debbie Bennett

I started reading the Wraeththu books far longer ago than I’d care to admit. I’m a great fan of all Storm’s work, but the Wraeththu stories have always felt richer and deeper, probably because it’s a world with (in?) which she’s lived for so long – a world that I know has inspired a lot of fan fiction and armies of dedicated followers. The Moonshawl is the third in a Wraeththu trilogy (following The Hienama and Student of Kyme), but is perfectly readable independently, although having a grasp of the basic premise of this new world would certainly help. There’s a detailed glossary of terms, characters, religious festivals and all manner of interesting facts and snippets at the back of this book, which make fascinating reading in themselves.

After a hundred years, the Wraeththu race has come full circle and rather than leave humanity far behind, they are looking back to the days of their birth – their inception – and trying to learn from the mistakes of the past. But the past doesn’t always want to let them go. And in rural Wales, the grip of history is stronger than ever on the local hara, as two warring families vie for supremacy in the small town of Gwyllion.

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Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch reviewed

Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. Gollancz, £14.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

For the uninitiated, Foxglove Summer is the fifth Peter Grant volume.  We catch up with our perennially reluctant hero PC Grant, England’s youngest wizard, moping over the sudden and devastating (not to mention physically painful) betrayal by PC Lesley May. May was Grant’s Met. Police partner and fellow student of magic at the Folly (Broken Homes; Peter Grant book 4). Yes, there is a lot a back story, as you would expect from the fifth book in any series, but not so much that the unacquainted could not catch up very quickly. We are expertly drip-fed all the facts we need to know about Grant’s boss, the enigmatic Chief Inspector Nightingale, head of the ‘Falcon (spooky stuff) Department’ based at the Folly, and we finally gain some hints to the origins of the Folly’s doubly mysterious and patently scary housekeeper, Molly.

That is the Folly crew all assembled – and off we go on another day in the life of a wizardly cop; except that The Nightingale is sending PC Grant, the archetypical London boy, to the depths of rural Herefordshire to cover routine enquiries into the disappearance of two young girls. Routine enough, according to Nightingale, too give Grant the space to recover his shattered wits. It soon becomes apparent that this is far from routine. Grant takes a hesitant lead into investigations of the magical kind, aided by the local plod, DS Dominic Croft, in a frantic search for the missing girls that is increasingly looking both less and more lethal than he ever expected – and all trails lead to Pokehouse Wood’s long association with the weird and dangerous. Meanwhile Beverley Brook, Grant’s genus loci girlfriend, arrives apparently to lend her support, whilst simultaneously following her own agenda, and the errant PC May is sending Grant texts from places unknown, warning of dire thing yet to come!

Grant, a student wizard, is inexpert in his craft so that his well-being can never taken for granted. He does not/cannot ‘zap’ his way out of things as heroes in these things so often do. Instead he must rely on his wits, hard work, judicious slices of luck and all the help he can get from the otherworldly community to get by.

Foxglove Summer is urban fantasy the way it should be. The kind of book that keeps you up way past 3.00 am because you really need to ‘read to the end of this chapter’ and then the next … and the next… Aaronovitch’s laconic humour is skilfully left inside the head and lips of his viewpoint character and adds yet another level of entertainment – though this is not ‘comic’ fantasy. Foxglove Summer is well paced and engrossing. You do not have to have read the previous four volumes as it stands on its own well enough, though having the history at hand is always going to help. A fun read and thoroughly recommended.

 

Best British Horror 2014 reviewed

 

Best British Horror 2014 edited by Johnny Mains. Salt Publishing £9.99

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

If you know of editor Johnny Mains’ tastes in horror fiction – The Pan Book of Horror Stories and such like – you might expect that Best British Horror 2014 would follow a similar path, but you’d be wrong; you will be very pleasantly surprised by the range of stories included in this anthology. Here are 21 stories first published in 2013 from writers including Ramsey Campbell, Tanith Lee, Reggie Oliver, and Adam Nevill, from sources such as Black Static, Terror Tales of the London and The Tenth Black Book of Horror. It’s natural that any anthology will include stories that don’t gel with the reader (if you like all the tales it’s probably because you edited the book). In my case there are just a couple that didn’t work for me. So I’m pleased to say that, in the main (sorry for the pun), the vast majority are worthy selections, ranging from the surreal via humour to the disturbing. I’ll just mention four of my favourites.

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