Mike Finn
Review
5 Stars
"Bird Box" by Josh Malerman - highly recommended
Bird Box - Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman knows where our fear lives. 

 

It's not in the gushing splatter of arterial blood or in staring into the eyes of a predator ready to pounce or in fighting for your life with something monstrous. These spike our adrenalin, call on us to fight or flee and then they are gone.

 

Real fear, the kind that eats at you with the slow relentlessness of rust, comes from living with a threat you cannot fight or run away from. Real fear, the kind that hunkers down in your mind and stays there, comes from being vulnerable and helpless for long periods of time, from knowing the threat is there but not when it will strike, from understanding that surviving the last hour doesn't lessen the threat of the next.

 

In "Bird Box" Josh Mallerman has created the perfect situation for extended exposure to deep, corrosive fear. He creates a world were seeing something, no one knows what, will make you kill others and then yourself. Where sight, the sense we all depend on most, becomes a threat, not a defence. Where anyone, including you, can become an enemy in an instant. Then he locks a group of people house that at first seems like a haven but slowly becomes a cage, and lets the fear fester and the tension build until threat is a constant unwelcome companion.

 

Early in the book, there's a scene with one of the men from the house fetching water from the well. He's blindfold but he's done this many times before. He's has a rope around his waist, held by a housemate. There are sticks to mark his path. He tells himself that if he follows the routine, he'll be safe. Then he thinks he hears... what? who? how close?

 

Malerman turns that walk to the well into a scene more heart-thumping than a face-to-face confrontation with the nightmare creature of your choice.

 

This goes straight for where our fears live. 

 

I won't reveal the plot but I will say that I stayed up late to finish "Bird Box" because I couldn't go to sleep without knowing how the book ended.

 

If you haven't read it already, I recommend it to you. It's as close to perfect as a horror book can get. The tension is almost unbearable. The fear is visceral. The people are real. The events, well they're a perfect mix of heartbreak and hope.

Remembering Vonda McIntyre

Task 2: In keeping with the minute of silence, tell us about the authors who have passed this year that you will miss the most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vonda McIntyre died in April, aged seventy.

 

In my mind, she's still here because her books are still here and they are what I had of her.

 

 

I read "Dreamsnake" in 1980 and it formed the way I thought about Science Fiction. It stayed with me over the years as a favourite book. I still have the original paperback with this startling cover. 

 

I listened to the audiobook version in 2014, after a gap of more than twenty years, and had my impressions of it a great book reconfirmed. I also saw more clearly how Vonda McIntyre declined to follow the male view of Science Fiction that had dominated the genre up to the 1980's.  In "Dreamsnake", is an exciting adventure that calls for bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of physical danger but where problems are never resolved through violence. The strongest themes in this book are freedom, responsibility, and mutual obligation. Yet the book also reads as a quest-based adventure.

 

“Snake”, the Healer who uses venom as a cure, remains one of my favourite characters in Science Fiction. She is honest, brave, determined to help others but not superhuman. She is prone to anger, guilty of arrogance from time to time and often endangers herself and others because of a fundamentally naive world-view. Yet she is the kind of person who will always inspire fierce loyalty without ever seeking to do so.

 

So I remember Vonda McIntyre today and many other days for the gift she gave my imagination when she wrote "Dreamsnake".

Off TOPIC POST: Letting Mike Harding's "Bomber's Moon" help me rember the War Dead and that we owe them peace.

It's Remembrance Sunday today, the day when we remember the War Dead in the UK.

 
 

My town was full of people, many in uniform, gathering by the Abbey, to ensure that we don't forget the people the wars killed.

 
 

It brought my mind back to a poem written by Mike Harding, called "Bomber's Moon". Mike is a singer and comedian, probably best known for his humorous song, "It's Hard Being A Cowboy In Rochdale."

 
 

He wrote "Bomber's Moon" in honour of his father, who was killed while flying a bombing raid in World War II, a few days before Mike's birth.

 
 

At the start, the poem seems to be giving the same "brave airmen" view of bomber crews that we saw in propaganda movies in the Forties and Fifties but, by the end, it's clear that the real focus is on the cost in lives of those fighting and those on whom the bombs fell.

 
 

I love the plea in the final verse, set forty years after the death of the aircrew:

 
 

’83 in Bomber County
Mrs White dusts the picture and she cries: Chalky White in uniform
Looking as he did the day he died.
And for God’s sake no more bomber’s moons, No more young men going out to die too soon, Old men sending young men out to die, Young men dying for a politician’s lie.

For God’s sake no more bomber’s moons,
No more young men going out to die too soon,
Old men sending young men out to kill.
If we don’t stop them then they never will.

No more – no more bomber’s moons.
No more – no more bomber’s moons.

 
 

Today we are being led by politicians who care only for themselves, who lie, who can't lead or plan but who have military ambitions.

 
 

We need to honour our War Dead by making sure these politicians never have the chance to send young men out to kill or die.

 

 

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 18%. - a lesson on where corruption starts
The River King - Alice Hoffman, Laural Merlington

"The River King" is nineteen years old but it reads as if it were written as a comment on Trump and the GOP.

 

It takes place in a private co-ed school, attended mainly by the privileged. It deals with what happens when two people who are not privileged and who have no desire to join, encounter the unwritten but ruthlessly enforced rules of the prevailing hierarchy.

 

I've just read a part where the best looking, most privileged senior is brought to our attention by the omniscient narrator.

 

The narration is chilling. What it describes lies at the heart of corruption. It's the infection that rots a society. Yet it's described in the accurate, unemotional, judgement-free tone a vivisectionist might use when dictating their observations on how the heart of the animal they have just sliced open still beats.

 

So the handsome and privileged boy is described as being aware of his privilege, of being grateful for it and of being greedy for more.

 

Grateful and greedy. That's a disturbing combination in the privileged. I think I'd prefer entitled and self-satisfied.

 

The boy revealed in this way will do anything and get others to do anything necessary to protect and expand his privilege.

 

The narrator then explains the group the boy leads. Through their dishonest response to an unfortunate circumstance that affected them all, these boys, who already valued conformity and loyalty, have learned that, while following rules may breed unity, breaking the rules together ensures it.

 

So they have institutionalised rule-breaking, built it into a hazing that ensures loyalty and fundamentally corrupts all who carry out the task required to earn acceptance into the group.

 

It seems to me that this captures the values and behaviours of the US Senators who have kept Trump in power while enriching themselves. Grateful and greedy for privilege and willing to sacrifice their own integrity/morality if it buys them membership of the Big Boys Club.

 

OK - my cranky old guy won - abandoned at 25% because I can't take any more of this writing.
Unchained - Shayne Silvers

I suspect there's a good story here but I'm only going to find out what it is if someone makes a TV series.

 

I can't cope with the text. It doesn't work and every time it fails. I'm pulled away from the story.

 

What finally made me give in was a chapter in which our heroine goes to a fancy auction to make a bid on an important artefact. The words used to describe the people in the crowd and our heroine's reaction to them left me baffled.

 

It started with describing a man in the crowd by saying:

 

"He looked deceptively strong."

 

What does that mean? If he looks strong then where's the deception? If he's stronger than he looks how can you tell you're being deceived only by looking at him?

 

Then I got the reaction of the crowd to a dominant male described as:

 

"Those around him gave him a discreet, but wide berth. Several paces around him remained empty." 

 

What part of giving someone a wide berth is discrete? How do you do that?

 

Then I got this description of the route down into the auction hall:

 

"The stairs were half that of the ones we had entered,"

 

I think the author means to say there were half as many stairs but WHY NOT SAY THAT.

 

A paragraph later, as the crowd starts to move to the auction hall, I got:

 

"I made no move as I turned back to the man who had mistaken me."

How do you do that? How do you simultaneously make no move and turn back?

 

What finally broke my will to read were two encounters within a few pages, with the word "Belaying":

 

"Faint creases marred the corners of his eyes, belying that he was no stranger to laughter."

 

and

 

"No one stood near the book now, belying that they had recorded the video prior to auction."

 

This made me want to give the author my impersonation of Mandy Patinkin in "The Princess Bride" and say:

 

 

 

I want to read a book to enjoy it, not to have it keep summoning my inner-snark, so I'm going to let *Unchained* remain unfinished.

 

Reading progress update: I've read 13%. A smile from me and mutterings from the cranky old guy.
Unchained - Shayne Silvers

So, this is sliding along nicely. Blood has been spilt, secrets sown and backstory partly shared. It's light but fun.

 

Meanwhile, the cranky old guy I'm trying not to listen to insists on pointing out inconsistencies in the narrator's tone (he uses that kind of language). "How," he askes with a gleam that he will not admit is spiteful pleasure in his eye, "can this twenty-something American narrator use this archaic form of words :

 

'Fearing he would harm himself further if he woke to find himself surrounded by strangers, we had decided to keep him here until he woke up.'

 

and a little later start sounding like a teen when talking about her best friend: 

 

'Claire had the biggest heart I had ever seen. Simply put, she was the bestest.'

I mean, 'bestest'? Seriously? It's not even teen, it's faux teen."

 

 

I tell him to let it go, relax and enjoy the show.

 

He mutters something about standards being important and that the show he's enjoying is just not the same as the ojne I'm enjoying.

 

Then we both settle down and read some more.

 

 

 

'

Marks & Spencers 2019 Christmas adverts is... well... different

There was a time when M&S ads were part of the magic of Christmas. They showed Christmas as we all would like it to be. This year... is about ill-fitting jumpers. This is a company that's lost it's way.

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH7Htz_oY3Q

Review
3 Stars
"Strange Practice" by Vivian Shaw
Strange Practice (A Dr. Greta Helsing Novel) - Vivian Shaw Groza

"Strange Practice" is a unique exceptionally calm view of modern London's undead and non-human society under attack by (misled) murderous Christian Monks.

 

Set in contemporary London, "Strange Practice" is the first book in a series about Dr Greta Helsing who, having recently inherited her father's long-established Harley Street practice is one of only two medical practitioners in London offering specialist medical services to the "differently alive". Her patients include demons, ghouls, mummies, vampires and vampyres (yes, there's a difference - at least medically).

 
 

Greta is a very centred, very dedicated medical professional who has grown up the company of her father's non or no-longer human patients. She has no superpowers and no urge to join the ranks of the undead. She just wants to keep all the Differently Alive as well as possible.

 
 

Her job is made harder and ultimately her life is threatened by a strange sect of monks who are attacking and killing London's other than human population.

 
 

To survive, Greta has to work with London's most senior vampire and an unlikely team of non-human and human allies.

 
 

I took a while to acclimate to "Strange Practice". Vivian Shaw writes in a calm, gentle, very normal way that's completely at odds with the weird things going on. At first, this created some distracting dissonance but, once I settled in to it, I decided I liked it. It was comfortingly English, in a stiff-upper-lip kind of way.

 
 

The trope twisting in "Strange Practice" is thorough but gradual, so I almost didn't notice until the end that, in this book, the bad guys had become the good guys and the good guys had become the enslaved instruments of evil.

 
 

The vampires (and vampyres) in this book are unlike any I've encountered before. They aren't vegan and they don't sparkle in the sunlight but they are exceptionally polite and are happy to accept the burden of Noblesse Oblige when looking after other members on the non-human community. This took a lot of getting used to. I found myself rooting for a sort of "League Of Undead Gentlemen".

 
 

"Strange Practice" was a fun, with an interesting plot and a gentle tone.

 
 

I started "Strange Practice" as an audiobook but ended up sending it back to Audible. The narrator sounded like she was doing a slightly below average sight-reading rather than a well-prepared narration. Her inappropriate stresses and mechanical mangling of phrases distracted me. Once I was left alone with the text, the voice in my head made a much better job of the reading thing.

 
Reading progress update: I've read 9%. I’m gonna ignore my cranky old guy.
Unchained - Shayne Silvers

You know when you open a. graphic novel painted by an artist you like, one with a familiar style and a favourite palette and although the novel is about a new character, you immediately feel you’ve read it before? « Unchained » is like that.

 

The opening is violence in the rain, a young women haunted by violence in her past, magical weapons, beasts attacking with fangs and claws and an old (at least to the young woman) male mentor playing distant, disciplinarian but loving, father figure. I’ve been here.

 

Except I’ve not had the old guy work for the Vatican before. Or have a woman, apparently in her twenties, sound so much like a teenager.

 

It’s formulaic but slick. The images a clear. The pacing is fine. The characterization either hasn’t happened yet or is going to be of the « you could be this young girl » type, which would work better if I wasn’t a man in my sixties.

 

 I’m going to let it entertain me and try to switch off the annoying old guy sitting in my head going, « Ha! You expect ME to believe THAT?´. He sometimes forgets how to have fun.

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.
The River King - Alice Hoffman, Laural Merlington

I've only just started "The River King" but I'm already smiling at having found something distinctive and wonderful.

 

I'm luxuriating in surrendering myself into the hands of a dryly witty, joyfully articulate and completely omniscient narrator who is curating my journey through the life of an unconventional woman at a small boarding school in a tiny Massachusetts town.

 

The form is close to that of a well-edited early twentieth-century novel but the sensibility is that of the early twenty-first century.

 

Already, beneath the apparently benign narration, I sense something darker lying in wait.

Door 4 Task 2: An Avid Reader's Wish: I want a bigger share of the money I spend on books to go to the people who write them.

 

 

Task 2: Start a revolution: What one thing would you change about the book-reading world? (Be it publishing, distribution, editing, cover art, bookstores – anything having to do with books.)

 

 

 

Fiction is important to me. I get a great deal of pleasure from visiting the people and places created by the imagination and hard work of authors around the world.

 

I read 150ish books a year and I buy twice as many as I read, which is why my TBR pile stand at more than 1,000 books.

 

My reading has been helped by audiobooks, which allow me to read while driving or doing mundane chores or simply sitting with my eyes closed at the end of the day, and by ebooks, which let me increase the font size to something my failing eyes can cope with.

 

Yet, when Guy Fawkes task 2 asked:

 

"What one thing would you change about the book-reading world?"

 

my mind didn't go to improving the technology used to distribute and read books. My answer was:

 

"I want a bigger share of the money I spend on books to go to the people who write them. "

 

In a thriving book market, writers live in poverty.

 

The book market is thriving. In 2018, 675 million books were sold in the US. The net revenue of the US book publishing industry was $25.82 billion. Audiobooks sales were $940 million. Ebook sales were $162 million.

 

Yet a 2018 Authors Guild Survey of 5,067 part-time and full-time American authors showed a 42% decline in author earnings in the past decade, with full-time authors achieving median earnings of $20,300 which is below the Federal Poverty Guideline for a family of three or more.

 

This is despite a trend for full-time authors to supplement their income with other writing-related activities, such as speaking engagements, book reviewing or teaching. 

 

The Author's Guild sees the impoverishment of authors as caused by:

 

"The growing dominance of Amazon over the marketplace, lower royalties and advances for mid-list books (which publishers report comes from losses they are forced to pass on), including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 per cent of net ebook royalty. 

 

The blockbuster mentality of publishers who grant celebrity writers massive advances and markets them wildly at the expense of the working writers."

 

Amazon is the key to change

 

The market leader here is not the Big Five publishing houses, but Amazon. It doesn't publish its revenue from book sales separately but it dominates the market in ebook sales, audiobook sales and subscription services like Kindle Unlimited ad Audible. It has become a publisher in its own right, is the most significant channel for third party publishers and has created a large and growing re-sale market (from which authors earn nothing).

 

The kay to lifting writers out of poverty is for Amazon to lead the way in providing a bigger share of sales revenue to authors, to giving them a share of the resale market and to invest in the growth and development of the writers on whom their business and my reading pleasure depend.

 

I believe that Amazon's treatment of authors needs to be publicised in the way that its treatment of its warehouse staff and delivery drivers has been, so that Jeff Bezos can make a choice between social stigma for the sake a few percentage points in the overall Amazon business or restoring his claim as a visionary in the book market.

 

How Amazon Could Help: A Sustainable Authorship Model

 

I'd like to see Amazon coming up with a "Sustainable Authorship" model, like the ones used for other limited natural resources like forests and fish, that supports and nurtures each generation of new writers and fairly rewards well-established mid-list authors.

 

As part of such a scheme, Amazon could sponsor creative writing programs that would bring income to the writers teaching them and encourage new writers to get their work published.

 

Amazon could amplify the work of platforms like Patreon to provide crowd-funding to writers. Having an option to make a donation via your amazon account or as part of a subscription service could release a lot of funding.

Reading progress update: I've read 11%. "Lost" and "The Tolling Of Pavlov's Bells"
Laughter At The Academy - Seanan McGuire

I've read two more stories from the collection.

 

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"Lost"

 

Sometimes it's the quiet, slight stories that slip beneath my defences and take up permanent residence in my imagination. "Lost" is one of them. 

 

It's a short and fairly simple tale, told as a shared recollection of a grown man remembering his youth and the opportunity he lost but that he has not been able to forget. This is a story that twists the threads of the Pied Piper and Peter Pan into something new and tantalizing.  

 

The simplicity of the story is deceptive. The narrative is really a carrier, a disease vector hosting a series of questions and possibilities that colonised my imagination. At the heart of this story lies a question about the nature of belief, the kind of belief that only children can fully embrace and even then, not all children have the capacity fully to commit themselves to the truth of an idea. What if the passionate belief of children made the things that they believe in true? Would we adults allow ourselves to see and accept that truth?

 

It's a fascinating idea. One of the attributes that distinguishes the adult from the child is the ability of the adult to distinguish between facts and stories. Yet what if the stories hold more truth than the facts?

 

I found myself wondering if I was one of the children who would have believed or one who would have stepped back? Whether I am an adult who is open to seeing what the children see or if my grasp on reality s so tight and so desperate that new truths are too risky to reach for.

 


 
 
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"The Tolling Of Pavlov's Bells"

 

The style of this story is an almost playful depiction of the mad scientist as a threat to life on earth. Its content is about as playful as a game of Russian Roulette. The dissonance between content and style makes the story quite creepy.

 

The storytelling is matter-of-fact but non-linear. This allows the horror of what is happening to emerge slowly, like the gradual spread of a rash.  

 

The science content of the story is distressingly plausible. This would not be so hard to do.

 

Except who would do this? Perhaps the most frightening thing about this story is that the scientist planning and perpetrating this atrocity is educated, rational and clear-sighted, making her a Mad Scientist who is mad only in the way that a sniper in a tower, aiming with care and shooting with precision, is mad.

 

The behaviour of humans en masse that is shown here, their reaction to the bells the scientist rings, is also depressingly plausible. As the climate change debate shows, we deny science that tells us unpalatable things. As the success of the anti-vaxer movement the Russians have used social media to create shows, our response to poorly understood threats is driven more by fear than by rational thought.

 

I also loved the vein of humour in the story that turns book signings into lethal occasions.

Door 1 Task 1 - A Reader's Lament For Harry Dresden

Door 1:  Dia de Los Muertos

 

Task 1: Compose a limerick or short poem in honor of a favorite book character.

 

 

It's the Day of The Dead so I thought it would be ok to do something a little more mournful so I woke my inner fan-boy and attempted a lament.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DOOR 1 - Task 3

Door 1:  Dia de Los Muertos

 

 

Task 3: Write an epitaph for the book you most disliked this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I've picked "The Last" by Hanna Jameson.

 

The paperback version of this is still being heavily promoted in English bookshops so perhaps someone is enjoying it but it's been mouldering on my DNF heap since January.

 

The doggerel below is my way of letting go of the fact that I pre-ordered this book.

 

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 47%.- I'm astonished
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley, Dan Stevens

I was prompted to read this by the references to it in "The Strange Case Of the Alchemist's Daughter".

 

I'm astonished: by how good the book is, by how different it is from any movie version I've seen, by how many stories can be nested in a single narrative and by the power of taking things slowly.

 

Most of all though, I'm astonished at just what an absolute tosser narcissistic fantasist Frankenstein is. I keep wanting to slap the man.

Reading progress update: I've read 5%. The first story is a great start to the collection
Laughter At The Academy - Seanan McGuire

I love the sense of intimacy that I get when an author gets the chance to select the stories of theirs that they love the most and then introduce each one. As Seanan McGuire puts it: 

 

"This isn't necessarily 'The Best Of,' but it's the pieces that I love most, that I most want to share."

She has picked stories twenty-one stories, all published between 2009 and 2017. They all stand outside the main universes that she normally writes in. This means each on stands or falls on its merits. I like that. 

 

So far, I've read the first story and it was a blast.

 

The title already had me smiling:

 

"Laughter at the Academy:  A Field Study in the Genesis of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder (SCGPD)"

 

As an introvert who has learnt to pass in an extrovert's world and has often had to repress the urge to tear down the noisy, showy, shallow world that they take for granted and expect everyone else to embrace as normal and a replace it with a place where normal people - people like me - can live, I was enthralled by the premise of this story of a society so afraid of creativity and the  creative geniuses /mad scientists who unleash it, that they've classified some kinds of creativity as mental illness and have tried to legislate it out of existence. I think that's a world that deserves to be burnt down. I was cheering for the firestarter all the way through.

 

I loved the pace of the story, its humour, its lack of remorse and its originality.

 

I think the quote at the start of the story gives you a good flavour of the mind at work here:

 

"Upon consideration, we must agree that the greatest danger of the so-called “creative genius” is its flexibility. While the stereotypes of Doctors Frankenstein and Moreau exist for good reason, there is more to the CG-afflicted than mere biology. So much more. The time has come, ladies and gentlemen, for us to redefine what it means to be scientists…and what it means to be afraid."—from the keynote speech delivered to the 10th Annual World Conference on the Prevention of Creative Genius by Professor Elizabeth Midkiff-Cavanaugh (deceased).

 

I love how the first sentence perfectly captures the pompous condescension of mainstream thinkers talking about non-mainstream thinkers and the threat tucked away in the last parenthetic word.

currently reading

Progress: 24%
Progress: 52%
Progress: 37%
Progress: 26/246pages
Progress: 61%
Progress: 5%