Winter reading 2019/20

It’s been one storm after the next lately, so it would be a good make sure you’ve got a decent book or two to weather it out indoors. How about one of these?

dark waterDark Water by Koji Suzuki (1996/2004, Harper Collins)

I think I remember seeing the US film adaptation of this story sometime in the noughties when a whole slew of Japanese horror films were reshot nearly scene for scene with an American cast following the huge success of The Ring (the US version of Ringu, released just a few years before).

Along with The Ring and its sequels, there was The Grudge, Pulse, One Missed Call, The Eye, and Dark Water – based on a short story by Koji Suzuki. Now, Suzuki has pedigree here as he is, of course, the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author the Ringu book series, yet I don’t remember this film well or there being much fanfare surrounding it. However, I spotted a copy of Suzuki’s short story collection Dark Water in the wonderful little Japanese book display at my local library and picked it up… and was pleasantly surprised!

Each of the short stories – connected by the theme of water, specifically the water in the Tokyo Bay in most cases – has a slow, creeping dread to it, a fizzling background tension that ratchets up the dread bit by bit, rather than trying to shock or simply gross the reader out. Drowned children haunt several of these stories but not all are supernatural tales. Fear of the deep unknown below the calm surface of the water is often enough.

The translation seems a bit pedestrian – maybe too literal – at times (do I need to be told a ladder is perpendicular to the ground and you must engage both feet and hands to climb it?) but not enough to spoil the book.

The tropes of J-Horror have become well-worn and hackneyed with overuse but this reminded me of how scary it was to see Sadako crawl out of the telly for the first time.

meet me in the futureMeet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley (2019, Tachyon Publications)

Despite Kameron Hurley describing herself as “not a natural short fiction writer” in the introduction to her second collection, Meet Me in the Future, it is through short stories that I know Hurley’s work. I reviewed her first collection – Apocalypse Nyx, a series of tales featuring a bounty hunter called Nyx who works in the matriarchal eastern-inspired border town of Nasheen – for Shoreline of Infinity over a year ago, and now find myself coming back to review her second collection. Why? Because her short stories are so damn good!

This time around, Hurley is untethered by time or place or genre, and readers will find themselves catapulted between worlds, time-travelling in this tale, hacking away at monsters with a machete in that one. You’ll find body horror, sentient, organic space shapes, violence on a galaxy-wide scale, and Hurley’s always diverse, inclusive cast of characters. Indeed, most tales take up the thread from Apocalypse Nyx in flipping gender roles, with society being matriarchal and men being second-class citizens, facing the abuse, harassment, and sexual violence directed at women in real life.

I’ve spent many words on this excellent SFF collection in my Shoreline review which will be published in a future issue. Here’s a sneak peek:

“Conceptually, these stories are out at the weird end of SFF, but her characters are so well drawn, rich in complexity, allowed to be angry, scared, cruel, and even kind sometimes, that they are believably, undeniably human – regardless of their appearance or if their intelligence is deemed real or artificial – which creates an anchor for the incredible things happening all around them.”

tech noir switchbladeTech Noir (2019, Switchblade Magazine/Pulp Modern)

Tech Noir – the name taken from the nightclub in The Terminator full of disco-dancing 80s punks – is a double issue collection of crime stories with a retro cyberpunk flavour and is just as much fun as its namesake looks in the film.

One issue is published by Switchblade Magazine, the other by Pulp Modern, with a fine roster of authors on both sides of the aisle. Full disclosure: I’m sitting on the Switchblade side with my short story Baby on Board, a heist-gone-wrong caper set in a future Scotland.

tech noir pulp modernOn the same TOC are great stories by Eric Beetner (‘Killer App’ – memory thieves get more than they bargained for), Rob D. Smith (Sundown – augmented soldiers, hi-tech, and bad deals form an explosive mix), and Mandi Jourdan (‘Folie à Deux’ – Androids on a hit man’s list get even).

The Pulp Modern issue features an excellent tale by C. W. Blackwell (who appeared alongside me in Exquisite Aberrations by FunDead Publications last year) and a tense, hallucinatory slice of experimental fiction by Jo Perry, author of the excellent Dead is Better paranormal crime series.

By turns gritty, funny, and gruesome, there’s something here for fans of both hardboiled noir and sci-fi.

everything happensEverything Happens by Jo Perry (2019, 69 Crime)

Speaking of Jo Perry, her novella Everything Happens was released towards the end of the year by Fahrenheit Press as part of their ’69 Crime’ series – reviving back the tête-bêche format, where two novellas are printed back to back and upside down in the same paperback.

The first book in the series featured Brit grit crime, this second volume is threaded together by the setting of its tales: Las Vegas, baby! But if you’re expecting The Hangover Part Whatever, or a retread of Fear and Loathing, the you’re in the wrong place.

Perry gets beneath the surface skin of glamour and debauchery synonymous with Vegas and delves into what lies beneath the fever dream of the little Eiffel Tower and the replica of the Venice canals. Jennifer is rushing off to Vegas to get a quickie divorce from her husband, who is simultaneously involved in an armed robbery and is now hiding out in the city. Their stories run parallel with the constant threat of an explosive meeting.

Perry’s prose is incisive but not minimal, long sentences flowing like the traffic streaming down the burning tarmac, flooded with intense detail. The names of places, brands, and celebrities are imbued with cryptic meaning, the magic words of a modern era.

Everything Happens is paired with Derek Farrell’s Death of a Sinner, which is on my TBR pile.

the way of all fleshThe Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry (2018, Canongate Books)

There’s something about gas lamps that give a story that weird duality of cosy fear. It’s no wonder writers return to the Victorian era again and again to give people the shivers – footsteps on cobblestones in the dark, smoke blotting out the sky, fog the ground, the ever-present danger of stepping into a huge pile of horse shit. That last one’s more a practical thing, really, but you get what I mean: instant atmosphere! And Ambrose Parry puts it to great use.

The first novel – The Way of All Flesh – from wife and husband writing team Ambrose Parry (Dr Marisa Haitzman and Chris Brookmyre) follows medical student Will Raven as he tries to find out who poisoned his friend, a prostitute called Evie. Raven works for Dr Simpson, an expert in midwifery, who is researching anaesthetics for use during childbirth. Haetzman herself is an anaesthetist whose PhD research into medical history is put to brilliant use in bringing Raven’s world alive, the fine detail of someone who knows their facts woven into it but not overbearing.

Going between the high and low worlds of Edinburgh’s new and old towns, respectively, creates an interesting culture clash, making it hard to avoid seeing the massive economic disparity in the often-nostalgic portrayal of the Victorian era. (See the views and opinions of leading Tory Party members for example.)

The central characters – Raven and Sarah, a housekeeper with a fierce intelligence, worried about going to waste in a life of servitude – are good company, believable and complicated, but I found the reveal at the end to be too heavily foreshadowed and therefore, not surprising enough. Well-written, there are scenes of both babies and mothers dying during childbirth (not an uncommon thing in the era) that are genuinely heart breaking.

I have a particular interest in historical crime stories. My own 19th century serial killer novel, set in Glasgow, was shortlisted for The Big Issue Crime Writing Competition 2019, and had The Way of All Flesh been available when I was writing the first draft it would have been a great  resource and a powerful spur to get on with it!

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