I read a lot of e-books because it’s an inherently versatile format that encourages experimentation. Also because a lot of e-books tend to skew short and I’m interested in those forms, learning how they work and doing them myself.
Plus books are GREAT and I love reading.
So, here’s what’s going to happen. Every now and then I’ll do a big roundup post of the e-books I’ve read and liked recently. That second word is important too; there’s been some stuff I’ve read in the last couple of months I’ve really not got on with. That doesn’t deserve my time, so it doesn’t deserve yours either, hence the absence of bad reviews here. Instead what you’ll see is the parade of really good stuff that I’ve found recently, including a Matt Wallace novella, an Annie Bellet short story and a raft of Jurassic London stuff.
If you like the sound of a book, click on the cover and it’ll take you to the buy page. If you don’t, keep reading. So here’s the first one, from Jurassic London:
Rose Biggin‘s story combines real murder with fictional murder. A performance of Julius Caesar is heading to the big finish and this finish is going to be much more permanent than one cast member is expecting… It’s a chilly, very funny piece that never even considers giving you context outside the cast. You know who’s going to die, you know when and you see it happen. And, like the rest of the cast, you just keep on acting. Subtle, brilliant and dark.
One of the several chapbooks Jurassic London have released in their A Town Called Pandemonium universe, The Rite of Spring starts with a very different take on the first performance of the infamous ballet. Rose Biggin’s ‘The Russian Revolution’ is delivered with such a straight, level tone of voice it reads more like historical reportage than fiction and the reactions to the piece she describes are disturbingly plausible.
The idea of something unprecedented in normal life is expanded upon with ‘The Invisible Rhinoceros’ by William Curnow. This is in the curious position of being one of my favorite stories but the least successful fit for the anthology. It’s a classic idea, the brush with something impossible that we choose not to quite look at and it’s beautifully executed but it doesn’t quite sit with the other stories. Which, given the subject matter, may be the point.
Martin Petto’s ‘Letter From The President of the British Board of Film Censors’ is the most laconic piece here and also the funniest. It’s exactly what the title suggests but as the story goes on you get hints of personal agenda and an ending that may be subversive, wry or be the only part of a titanic battle we ever get to see. Regardless it’s an excellent piece, playful but with a hard edge to it.
Finally, ‘Pick’ by SA Partridge does three things at once. A knowing riff on the ‘bored rich people abroad have adventures’ story it’s also a subtly forceful condemnation of imperialism and a nicely ambiguous horror story. All that’s clear, as the story closes, is something awful has happened. But, appropriately for a book about sudden, drastic change that’s all we know for sure. Another impressive entry in a very impressive series.
Starvation and overpopulation are endemic and, humans being humans, we turn in on ourselves. Detective Jon ‘Busboy’ Pacson is a homicide officer without portfolio. Officially he’s a floating detective. Unofficially, Pacson is the guy you call when you get a cannibalism case. And there are a lot of them…
Matt Wallace has been doing artful things with digital fiction for years and this is one example. It’s a blood-slick, gristly world and Wallace uses Pacson as our guide to it, laying out the trail of clues even as the bodies continue to drop. The end result is always gory, always horrible but never inhuman. This is a tragedy, a story about how low we’ve all fallen and about one cop who’s painfully aware of it. Haunting, confident, brutal and he’s only got better from here too.
Like The Rite of Spring, this is a chapbook anthology set in Jurassic London‘s A Town Called Pandemonium universe. It’s slightly alternate history but here even that idea is played with. These are stories not about legendary Irish leader Jim Larkin but about the shape he left in the world and the world he moved through. It’s a gutsy move but it pays off with a quarter of four of the best stories Jurassic London had brought out to date.
Archie Black’s ‘Sackville Street’ explores the man and his environment as indivisible, an ideological ghost forever stone-taped into the architecture of his city. Stuart Suffel’s ‘Coward’ ignores Larkin but focuses on the shadow he cast and the quieter heroism of those trapped inside it. It’s the gentlest piece here and one that carries a heavyweight emotional punch that’s entirely earned.
‘Lockout’ by Damien Kelly hits even harder, despite having a far smaller focus. It’s the story of Alice Brady and what she does to maintain individuality in the face of both history and mortality and, again, it’s remarkable. Finally Martin McGrath’s ‘And Dublin Wept’ closes with the alternate history angle very much back to the fore and a final line that’s as chilling as any you’ll read this year. Together they create a small and extraordinarily powerful anthology that sits in no one’s shadow and casts a long one of it’s own.
Thelma York was the first lady of space, an astronaut who led the way for humanity to spread out to the other worlds. But that was thirty years ago and Thelma has other things to occupy her time. Her ailing husband, her memories and, perhaps, one last flight.
This and First Flight were my first experience of Kowal’s work and they won’t be my last. She writes with a light, character-driven touch and embraces the untidy realities of life in a way that throws light on both them and the science fictional background she sets them in. Thelma’s mindset is a kinder, more sensible version of the classic astronaut ‘go higher, go further, go first’ approach and Kowal uses that to paint a portrait of a complex, flawed, deeply likable person. There’s no overwrought drama here either, simply an extended conversation between two adults about what the best solution to a difficult problem is. Gentle, clever, character-driven SF at its best.
As is this. An unusual kind of time travel allows a very specific observer to take a look at the Wright brothers a little ‘early’. But, as is so often the case there are complications.Like the previous story this revels in the glorious complexity of everyday life. It also allows Kowal to show off a very different viewpoint, and the interactions between her old, stoic lead and the other characters here are immense fun. They also allow her to explore what happens when individuals are confronted with their history and how, sometimes, they soar even though they know no one will see. A different perspective on history and an excellent story.
‘Black Paintings’ by James Smythe is a story that’s resonated a lot more with me this week. After yet more calls for the UFC to revise their stoppage rules after not one but two utterly brutal fights, Smythe’s story of how we use combat to medicate against horror has an extra ring to it. It follows an extremely rich, extremely ill man facing down his imminent death and finding solace of a sort in a painting. As he studies it obsessively, he finds something holy encoded into its desperate lines; the moment where a fight turns one way or the other. The moment where victory becomes possible off the back of defeat or, at the very least, you get to make the other fighter sweat for the win. Unflinchingly, hauntingly bleak its one of the strongest short pieces Smythe has done and is as haunting as the painting it revolves around.
One of Jurassic’s annual Christmas treats, the 2014 Stocking Stuffer is a typically energetic, breathless burst of flash fiction invention. ‘The Quantum Quadrant Speed-of-Light Elite Fleet Christmas Party’ by Rose Biggin is classic SF sugar high combined with a familial dynamic while ‘Drones’ by Paul M Ford proves that butlers are always in control, even when they’re not strictly corporeal. ‘Afterwards’ by William Curnow is a haunting examination of the after effects of deep space warfare and the livings scrounged by those who clean up after it’s all over. Finally ‘Light’ by Erin Horáková is an ebullient, bouncy story about the perils of space piracy and dowrys. All of them have spark and wit, none of them outstay their welcome and this is a present anyone would be happen to find sitting next to their tangerine wrapped in silver foil.
Durzo Blint is an assassin. He’s The Assassin, a man who was brought death to countless decades under countless names. And now it’s time for another.
This is my first foray into Weeks‘ work and it’s a decent on ramp. You get an idea of who Blint is, what he is and most importantly you get a lot of context. Weeks is best known for his action and the fight scenes here are fast, hard and tense. But what stays with you, oddly, are the character beats. Durzo is a man at war with both his enemies and his countless years of experience. He wants things to change but the only bigger threat in the room than Durzo is his reputation and that can cause problems for everyone, even himself. It’s a smart introduction to Durzo and his world and a refreshingly grounded, pragmatic piece of fantasy.
Ryska’s a survivor; of her world, the experiments that made her less and more than human and day to day life. But today Ryska is going to make a choice. One that will take her chances of survival out of her hands…
This is my first exposure to Bellet’s work but it won’t be my last. It’s action-oriented but like the best action she grounds everything solidly in character. Ryska has good reasons for everything she does and that, along with her resourcefulness, further reinforces just how much trouble she’s in. A closed fist of a story with not a word spare it’s a great introduction both to Bellet’s work and a world I’d be happy to see her revisit.
Another deceptively simple story about the perils of fitting in and what happens when we don’t know quite where we should be. It’s character driven SF that uses the toybox of Anime tropes but does so in a refreshingly open and overt way. There’s a lot to unpack here in a piece that’s by turns gentle, brutal and hopeful. It’s never dull, frequently excellent and embodies a lot of what makes the digital field great; the ability to find, appropriately enough, a home for stories that are as good as they are unusual.
Finally, Curran‘s piece is a haunting, deceptively simple story. Something terrible has happened and, as the investigation digs in, it seems that the cause of the event may have been far smaller and far more dangerous than any bomb. This is quietly chilling stuff with no explanations offered. Instead we’re left like the survivors, dazed, wondering what just happened and terrified that it might happen again. Wonderful, minimalist, elegant horror.
So there you go. Click on the covers of anything that sounds good and you’ll go straight to the buy page. And if you don’t find anything? Check back here in a couple of months. I’ll be doing this again.