Blog Advent Calendar – Dec 2nd: Cradle Will Rock

Merry Christmas everyone! In the last few years I’ve run a blog ‘advent calendar’ which I blog daily about something I love, but – without sounding Scrooge-ish – that’s becoming more difficult year on year. So this year round, following in the footsteps of ghostlandia last year, I’m attempting to post a piece of flash fiction daily.

December 2nd – Cradle Will Rock

9pm was the time that everything quietened down, when every petty irritation and frustrated ambition of the day receded into a suburban hush, and he could lie down full stretch on the sofa with an open beer in his hand and close his eyes. The house’s breathing would slow down, the windows dim from a rosy pink to a strangled blue.

From the baby monitor, on its quietest setting, the sound of her singing upstairs – nursery rhymes. Its always her job, because every time he sings Rockabye Baby he skips a line and finishes the third line grasping for a nonexistent fourth. Occasionally, he’ll hear Thomas gurgle or giggle.

From this distance, it’s soothing. Upstairs and out of the way, at the end of a long hallway, volume turned down on everything and everyone.

Rockabye baby, in the treetop…

The doorbell rang, and he startled awake.

Who’s that at this time? From the monitor. I’ve nearly got him down. Go answer the door!

He set the beer aside and stumbled into the hallway, stubbing his toe on the open baby-gate. He swore lightly, then shushed himself quickly, reaching for the front door handle.

“Hello,” said the woman on the doorstep.

He wasn’t sure who she was – she looked faintly familiar, perhaps a distant cousin of his mother’s. She bore the expression he was becoming familiar with these days:  sympathy, outlined with soft eyes and a tilted head, and a tinfoil wrapped bowl held up to him.

“I’ve brought you this,” she said. “I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be so hard for you. I lost my husband just three—“

“Thank you,” he said woodenly, and took it. This, apparently, was the punishment for grief: casseroles and heart-to-hearts with strangers. “Thank you,” he repeated again, unsure of what else to say, and then closed the door. After a moment he heard her shuffle away. His behaviour wouldn’t be questioned: one of the few upsides.

He returned to the living room, and put the casserole on the table next to the unwashed plate from dinner (a shepherd’s pie, alighted on his doorstep from another caring food fairy sometime on Wednesday.)

Who was it, darling?

He squeezed his eyes shut, covering his face with one hand to prevent. If he squeezed tight enough, his eyes teared up.

Well?

“No-one,” he said aloud.

There was a pause, accompanied by the faint flicker of the monitor’s yellow LED. Then, quietly, as if the voice had drifted away on the wind to the furthest reach of hearing, when the wind blows the cradle will rock.

Advent Calendar: Dec 1st – ‘The Tidelings’

Merry Christmas everyone! In the last few years I’ve run a blog ‘advent calendar’ which I blog daily about something I love, but – without sounding Scrooge-ish – that’s becoming more difficult year on year. So this year round, following in the footsteps of ghostlandia last year, I’m attempting to post a piece of flash fiction daily.

This particular piece is something of a cheat, as it’s a piece that came runner-up in the PIYE Grave Tales competition last year sometime, and as a piece of flash fiction was itself cut down from a short story that appeared in Shenigans (Obverse Books), recently reprinted in Glitterwolf: Halloween. Thing is, I thought today was still November, so you’ll have to excuse the dodge.

December 1st: The Tidelings

“They sing the horizon,” my mother said, “but all they have to offer is darkness.”

I was barely four the first time she first told me this, stroking my forehead as I shivered off the remains of a fever in my corner of the attic. In the wavering uncertainty of illness and youth, my memories are jumbled out of order. She must have already told me the story of the Tidelings before delivering her shape to the music in my head: “They sing the horizon,” she had said, and with a child’s uncomplicated wisdom, I understood.

She kissed my forehead, and departed. I was left alone, staring up at the roof. The square skylight framed a patch of sky, freckled with stars.

On the very edge of my hearing there came the whispering from the spiral of my ear. I could hear their song, as if the echo of the sea in a shell had been given melody and voice. When I closed my eyes I could see them on the edges of the harbor, rising up out of the water for long enough to call out to me, before dipping their heads back under to chase in deep curves beneath the surface.

But now at night when I slipped into sleep, I could see them. No longer circling the sea, on the edge of the light. Now they came crawling out of the waves on the shore, dragging their stunted lengths up the lamplit streets. I would hear their hoarse gasping as they drew near my window, the damp scrape of scaled flesh on the slates outside.

Then:

Tap.

Tap.

Tap.

I would lie and stare resolutely in the other direction, but on some nights the light would catch over the window right. I would see their shadows cast across the boards, leaning over the skylight, clawed hands extended from the tangle of drowned hair, rapping a sharp knuckled against the glass. Then I would awaken with a start to the smell of salt and seaweed and their refrain reverberating around my head. Rising to look out the window, there was never anything but the circle of rocks, isolated in its remote twist of the bay and cast red by the warning eye of the lighthouse.

And each night, tapping would get more and more insistent. But I would never turn around, just kept focusing on the same patch of wall.

Until, on the day of my thirteenth birthday, I decided to seize the day—or the night.
There was the song, the crawling, the slithering, the tapping. “They can only offer darkness,” she had said, and on this particular night it was not a warning, but a promise. The Tidelings’ shadows lurched across the floor, knocking for me. I sat up in bed, pushed the covers back, breathed in courage.

And turned around.

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon – David Barnett

untitledThe first Gideon Smith novel, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl was one of my favourites of last year – a breakneck potboiler of steampunk and Victoriana that whipped the small-town hero up into a world of airships and vampires on the streets of Whitby, London and, eventually, Egypt. I pre-ordered the sequel as soon as I could, and then completely forgot about it; it’s always gratifying when a book you had not idea was coming out pops through your door.

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon takes our hero off to the American West – in Barnett’s world the site of a tense rivalry between the Japanese and the British, with the lawless stronghold of Steamtown perched in the middle. He’s questing after the brass dragon of the title, who’s been abducted alongside Maria, the mechanical object of his affections.

This is an entirely different beast of a novel to Mechanical Girl, it has to be said. The first book raced through at an incredible speed, from set-piece to set-piece, whereas Brass Dragon is far more stately in pace, taking time to build a more complex world (which is entirely necessary as Barnett’s alt-history here is a marked step away from the broad strokes necessary to paint gothic London). There are glimmers of the first book’s gleeful right-turns, such as the sudden diversion into a Godzilla riff at the end, but for the most part this seems to be a concerted effort to weave a wider, more detailed tapestry. There’s a multitude of character strands, with several overlapping semi-mythical Spanish heroes popping up in guises all over the place (occasionally a touch confusing, but it works itself out) and what seems like a far more focussed choice to introduce a wider political and historical scope to the book.

That being said, it’s still got its share of set-pieces, and its here that Brass Dragon shines, because the action is several leaps ahead of the first novel, assured and thrilling. It’s also a chance for the supporting characters to step up and take deserved centre stage, with Bent getting the best lines, Rowena going around generally being quite awesome, and Louis Cockayne rehabilitated into Han Solo. If anything, it suffers from the same problem as the first novel in that Gideon is by far the least dynamic and Maria barely exists in the narrative.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one still certainly recommended to fans of the steampunk genre. It doesn’t quite rank up there with the first novel for me, but I’ll hold up my hands and admit that that’s probably far more to do with personal feelings on the choice of subject (I generally dislike the western genre, whereas I’m particularly enamoured with daft Victoriana) than anything intrinsic in the book itself. And its certainly a million miles from a disappointment, which is always the worry with a sequel to a much loved book.

The Story of Fester Cat – Paul Magrs

fester

I don’t understand humans. There’s a perfectly good ball, and a perfectly good bone, and most of a perfectly good rope, and what do they do? They sit and stare at things all day long. Computer screens. Weird square things they hold on their knees and swat me away from when I paw at them. Books.

I really don’t understand books. I tried staring at one once – the expensive one in Matt’s study that I pulled down because it smelled musty and delicious. I stared and stared and nothing much happened, so I ate most of the outside. He wasn’t very happy when he found it.

I’m getting distracted. Sorry. Back to the square things. Something Matt called a Kindle. He’s been staring at it all day, and then every hour or so putting it down and running over to hug me. I don’t take well to hugs. I’m a wolf.

Okay, sometimes I take well to hugs. But I’m still a wolf.

Whatever he’s doing with this staring, he seems to have finished, because he’s put the grey square thing down. I bring him the ball and wag my tail — fetch time! — but then I notice something. That grey square thing must have been really sad because he looks like I look when he goes to the shop without me, and he’s crying. Out of nowhere, he grabs me, flips me upside down and wraps me up in a big hug.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, but I want to know, so when they’re not looking I sneak up to the grey square thing, pick it up gently with my mouth and go and hide it in my bed. Then later, when they’re both snoring away, I nose the button until it switches on, and I have a look at what he’s been staring at.

It’s something called The Story of Fester the Cat.

Not a promising start. I don’t like cats. I’m a wolf.

So, this book seems to be about a cat. In fact, it’s written by a cat (How? Has anyone asked about that? But then, I’m a wolf reading a Kindle, who am I to judge?) This Fester is a bedraggled stray who one day walks into the garden of two men, Paul and Jeremy, in a Manchester suburb, and sticks around until they adopt him into the family. I think I can see why Matt would like this story — after all, he and John have adopted me, and when they pick me up and subject me to those awful hugs that I hate so much, they say words like ‘family’ and ‘pack’? I don’t know why that would make them sad.

Except that in the beginning (which is really the end, but it’s at the beginning, because this cat is quite a clever writer, I think) poor Fester gets taken to the hairdresser which is really a vet and then he dies. Sometimes they take me to the vet. Am I going to die?

This makes me very sad, and I pad downstairs and claw the carpet for awhile to cheer me up. Perhaps that was why Matt was crying. Him, John and me are the pack, and I think I’m going to die. How long have I got? It could be any second. When I was there last, the vet said he’d see us soon.

I hear a sound upstairs, and creep up to see what’s going on. Matt, unable to sleep, has gotten up and gone to his office at the back of the house. He’s very proud of his office; it’s like a nest made out of books. I like the smell. He’s sat in front of the computer, typing something. I put my head on his knee, and read what he’s written.

Review: The Story of Fester the Cat – Paul Magrs

You could argue that The Story of Fester Cat is the final perfect meld of the magical and the mundane in the patented Magrs style–

(I’ve read the biography. This cat seems to have written quite a few other books. It’s a very prolific cat.)

but that’s not really the point of this book. This feels like a book that sprang straight onto the page with the full force of necessity, simultaneously urgent and unhurried. It would have been really easy for a story narrated by a cat to have all the depth of an internet meme or a youtube pet video, but it’s following in a fine literary tradition and circumnavigating around that nonsense. Imagine Tuesdays With Morie, but feline: sentiment without a cloying sense of emotional manipulation. And as for the voice of Fester, it’s very easy to forget it’s written by Paul himself, and not the cat…

I find this very confusing. Surely the book was written by Fester? This is really very strange–it’s up there with staring at the grey squares all day. How odd for humans to go around writing stories and pretending they’re animals. I’m sure Matt wouldn’t do anything as silly as writing a story pretending to be me. For a start, what would he know about being a wolf?

I look back at him on his computer. He’s hammering the delete key, and all the words he’s typed disappear. He slumps his chin on his hand. He looks thoughtful, like I do when I’m chewing a bone and thinking about how long its been since I went to the park, or chewed a coathanger, or played rat. Then he starts typing again, and I shuffle closer. He notices me, and keeps typing with his right hand while scratching behind my ear with his left hand, which I like, so I don’t pay attention to what he’s writing for a minute. When I do, he’s written another, different, paragraph.

It’s hard to review this book without feeling as if it was written specifically for me, which is ludicrous, because there are demonstrably plenty of people out there who actually knew Fester in person, and in character. Facebook on the day of the final visit to the ‘hospital’ was filled with statuses — and we’re British; apart from Princess Di, we don’t do public sadness.  But this book is full of touchstones and resonances that it was hard not to relate: the Manchester suburb with its soap-like dramas and the ‘gays’ in the end house; the old friends whose big-city horizons have diverged; the familiar phrase ‘oh, you could make this house so nice…’ as you’re trying to pull together your own sense of home; and, of course, the feeling that a wordless, furry friend trotting about the house is indescribably making the two men in this little terrace into a family. They say that books turn up at the right time in your life, and this–

Stop. He’s deleting again. I don’t know why, I thought it was quite good. But I’m only a dog, I don’t know these things, I suppose.

Did I say dog? I meant wolf. I am a wolf, most definitely, raised in the frozen wilds of Eccles, before the boys brought me all the way here, to their home in Salford.

He’s started typing again:

If nothing else, The Story of Fester the Cat may have given the literary world its first transgender cat.

What?

I’m confused for a minute, and then I remember Bessie, with the bollocks. I liked her. I think we would have gotten on. Transgender? Who knew. Still, I’m an inclusive wolf, I’m down with gender politics.

For some reason, he’s deleting it again. No wonder he never finishes writing his novel if he keeps on at it like this.

I’ve been having trouble writing a review because it’s so easy to forget this is actually a book, and not just a story being told to me by the cat curled on a wicker chair in the sun next to me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I sniffled my way through the start and end of the book–

(I’m ashamed for him though. Wolves don’t cry.)

–because The Story of Fester the Cat is vivid and moving, and gripping in a way that’s quite hard to define. I’ve had so much trouble writing this review that I’ve started it four times, and it never quite says what it’s supposed to. Our Iris should have many, many more years before she needs to go visit the ‘hairdresser’–

(Oh, thank goodness. Now I won’t need to chew any more carpets in worry.)

–but I hope that when she goes, she’s left as indelible a mark as Fester has. But this still isn’t really a review is it? How shall I boil it down? Publicists like it to be short and pithy. How about: ‘A book that, upon reading the last page, will make you immediately rush to hug your pet.’ No. Trite. I can do better–

He’s stopped typing again, and I expect him to start punching the delete button, but instead he spun around, grabbed me around the middle and picked me up. I struggle because I am a wolf, dammit, and I don’t like hugs, I really don’t–until I’m on by back being cradled and Matt’s rubbing his face into my belly and I actually quite like that, so I suppose I’ll let him hug me. But there’ll be no more reading of books on the grey square thing if this is the sort of behaviour he’s going to indulge in. A wolf mustn’t let her pets become unruly.

Still, it was quite a good book, I suppose. For one written by a cat anyway. Perhaps when they’re asleep next, I’ll bop the kindle on with my nose and have another read. Maybe I’ll even have a go at wrapping my mouth around that silly word again. How does it go?

Got it.

‘Ungow.’

The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman

914-4kSKvLL._SL1500_So, imagine P. G. Wodehouse ran into Will Self in a speakeasy, and the pair got roaring drunk and decided to rewrite The Berlin Stories by way of Day of the Locust. Dazed and hungover in the morning, they look shamefaced at each other and slink away, leaving the slightly greasy pages of their manuscript, The Teleportation Accident, on the bed. The maid comes along, picks it up, thinks it’s pretty good and – hey presto! – it’s Booker longlisted (I imagine that’s how these things work, right?)

I’ve come to The Teleportation Accident via the all-knowing book pot, without really remembering how it got there, and vaguely suspecting the book was a 1950s sci-fi pastiche. It’s not, because the teleportation of the title is actually only really a stage trick, and the novel is instead a sort of history-sex-farce taking our ‘hero’ Loeser from pre-war Berlin, to Paris, and finally to Los Angeles, all in pursuit of Adele Hitler (no relation), a woman he is erotically obsessed with to the point of absurdity. The book is partly a three-act wander through the three cities, all three sketched nimbly and evocatively, but it quite unashamedly avoids exploring anything of what is happening regarding the war — Loeser makes a point of not really giving a flying fuck, leaving the horrors of the era to hover at the edges, encroaching on the text only through the reader’s own sense of context. When it comes to plot there’s simultaneously not a lot else happening – the backbone of the book of his search for Adele, and the paunchiest section of the book is when that quest seems to waver for awhile – yet crammed full of entertaining subplots that include a serial killer, a saucy book about nurses, a potential poltergeist, international espionage, avant-garde theatre, a philandering novelist and a French con-man. Somehow, the novel strings those all together to be not only cohesive, but so downright well-knitted together that the whole thing feels like a perfectly-constructed murder mystery wherein both its clues and its solution are rather unusually holistic.

Part of this, and one of the finest quirks of the book, is it’s dogged dedication to Chekhov’s gun principle: anything that is introduced, even in a passing mention, without fail, will always return, with varying degrees of significance. But a novel mentioned by a character in chapter three will undoubtedly return at the conclusion, much the same as an integral figure’s story vanished from the narrative may be unexpectedly concluded through the odd machinations of seemingly unimportant details later in the novel. It’s something of a masterpiece in that regard, and it’s the wily inventiveness of all its many ludicrous twists and turns, fused with genuine hilarity, wicked turns of phrase and a superbly unreliable narrator that makes The Teleportation Accident the most compulsive read of 2014 (sped through in two nights), and the book pot’s best success to date. Highly recommended, if you stop just before the inexplicable last chapter.

Wilde Stories 2014

w487149I’ve reviewed some of the previous Wilde Stories collections in the past (20082009, 2013  – I’ve got a three year gap to fill in.) I generally consider them a reading highlight of the year, collecting together gay-male-protagonist speculative fiction. It’s taken me awhile to get around to this year’s edition because my to-be-read pile has grown ever-teeteringly higher, but I’ve plowed through it in a couple of days.

It’s a bit of a different beast to previous collections. For a start, as several other reviews have noted, this anthology is playing far more in the ballpark of horror than previous editions, which prefer the queer and weird. Several of the stories are arguably not speculative fiction in the strictest sense, but horror with the faintest hint of the strange; case in point is the opening story Grindr (which I’m surprised it hasn’t taken longer for someone to write) in which a man is stalked by a preternaturally omnipresent person on Grindr.

Secondly, previous anthologies have tended to leave me with a feeling of well-rounded adoration for the anthology, with the picks generally leaving me somewhere on the spectrum between appreciative but apathetic through to deep love. For me, this anthology feels a bit polarising, with the picks feeling — to me — either being bloody superb, or disappointing, without as much middle ground as usual. That being said, the other reviews of the anthologies pick out stories that I didn’t personally like (one story, that shall remain nameless, I actually found incomprehensible), which proves that, as always, this is the game with short fiction anthologies. It’s readers taste, and you can’t please everyone. And, as usual with Wilde Stories, at least the stories never feel pedestrian or familiar. (I also think it’s worth noting that most of the stories I especially enjoyed were ones that were culled from Lethe titles of 2014.)

And so, not wishing to sound uncharitable or grumpy, I shall pick out the stories that I consider the highlights:

Caress by Eli Easton is a male-male romance romance steampunk tale that manages to finesse both components of the genre to make a story that is moving, subtle, and steampunk as hell without overdoing it — although its strongest imagery is its opening ‘Angel of Seven Dials’ sequence.

The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere by John Chu won a Hugo award, deservedly, and tells the story of a young man coming out to his traditional Japanese family in a tweaked world where water falls on you from nowhere whenever you lie. I’ve always loved real-world stories with a spec-fic twist, and this story kicks itself into a whole other kind of gear when it diverts a third of the way through into a family comedy.

Lacuna by Matthew Cheney is a double-layered story in which a writer, recently broken up with, writes a Edgar Allan Poe-esque story. The halves slot together smartly to give the bloody horror of the Poe segment a layer of irony and self-awareness that benefits both, and it manages a tricky balance of pastiche style and actual visceral horror.

Midnight at the Feet of the Caryatides by Cory Skerry is quite likely my favourite of the anthology, although amongst these selections its a touch call. It does a tremendous amount of world-building in a small space of time, our protagonist being a malformed gargoyle struggling against a trust-fund gang who rule the school to protect his love, an aide in the library. Boiled down like that it sounds a bit undercooked, but its atmospheric, quirky and just the right kind of sweet.

The Revenge of Oscar Wilde by Sean Eads is a marvellously verbose piece that casts a post-Reading Gaol Wilde as a zombie slayer in Paris, defending his zombie-bitten love Bosie. The first three quarters are great for the smart synthesis of Wilde-esque wordplay and literary references with a hard-bitten action-hero zombie-killer aesthetic. And then there’s a helluva bold ending that elevates it even further.

Parasol Protectorate: Soulless – Gail Carriger

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front for awhile – bit of a mixture of life getting in the way (misbehaving dog, house DIY), writing burnout, and a couple of books that I’ve read that either I didn’t like enough to review (shall remain nameless, but one was not amused), was being reviewed elsewhere (Looking After Joey) or I’m holding off on posting until release date (The Story of Fester Cat). Somewhere in there the Book Pot spat out the first in a series of books that, to be honest, I don’t know why the hell I haven’t already read.

So, what ho, crivens and… um, something else, it’s time for a spot of tea and steampunk: it’s the first of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Soulless.

soulless-gail-carriger-634x1024I’ll steam (pardon the pun) through the synopsis. Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a forthright spinster belonging to a frivolous family in alt-Victorian England, whose main concerns is her lack of husband prospects. Her main concerns is that, due to a distressing lack of soul, she is one of the rare few able to neutralise supernatural powers with one touch. In this case, the supernatural powers are vampires and werewolves, as this is a London in which humans (relatively) peacefully co-exist with supernaturals. Only some of those supernaturals are going missing, a terrifying wax-faced man is after Alexia–and there’s this whole business with Lord Maccon, the sexy werewolf Alpha.

I flicked through the goodreads reviews and, whilst there’s a lot of love for the series going around, the few that didn’t take to it were hilariously short-sighted. “Tries to mix up too many genres” was my favourite, as if it’s a heinous crime to stuff some things into your novel that your reader might not expect. It’s not even particularly fair; Soulless is halfway between a penny-dreadful murder mystery and a bodice-ripper, which is absolutely fine as it does both remarkably well.

If you look too hard, there are quite a lot of loose threads in Soulless you could pull at, but it would be a bit uncharitable, and rather like trying to pull threads out of a candy floss–despite your dissassembling, the confection will be just as light and delicious as before. So: the romance is hardly will-they-won’t-they and is obvious from page one; the conspiracy is likewise easy to figure out purely based on the appearance of characters that serve little other purpose other than a last-act reveal of villainy; and, for a 300-page novel, it’s actually pretty thin on plot.

Thing is, I don’t give damn about any of these things, because what Gail Carriger has in spades is charm and verve–she carries the whole book off with airiness, delight and a nod and a wink. Her central character, Alexia, is the perfect balance of feisty and vulnerable, a tricky balance to pull off, and her love interest Maccon is sufficiently charismatic enough to warrant some of the breathier passages eulogising his body. She also excels in diverting background characters–Lord Akeldama, Floote and Professor Lyall all shine–but judging by Soulless her finest moments are the sex scenes. Or the almost sex-scenes. Or the extended escape sequence in which Alexia must cling to the naked Maccon lest he turn werewolf, which is still basically a sex scene. Every steamy encounter is simultaneously downright hilarious, poking fun at the very genre it’s dancing in, and really pretty hot. Fetch me a werewolf Earl, please.

From a purely technical point of view, Carriger also handles the world-building well, creating a clear and logical picture of both Victorian London and its restrictions and opportunities, and how this has changed with the public lives of werewolves and vampires. There’s plenty of room in this world for exploration too, and I look forward to the second volume immensely, but with some reservations. Soulless seems to trade in the steamy romance section as heavily as it does its steampunk adventure (although the covers don’t quite reflect this) which, if the rest of the genre is anything to go by, should mean she spends the next few books splitting up with Maccon and being involved in tiresome love triangles with other supernatural beings. And, to be honest, I’d rather that wasn’t the case. They’re a great couple–keep them together and send them out on some adventures with a bit of meat on their bones. But keep writing the sex scenes.