Five Mini Reviews by Lee Murray
Wherein I cannot manage to write in-depth reviews for all the fabulous books on my device, or on my nightstand, but I want to feed as many authors as I possibly can, so I cobble together a selection books I have enjoyed recently and put up some quick-fire reviews that I hope will somehow translate into the sales equivalent of a cup of coffee for the authors concerned.
Flight of the Fantail by Steph Matuku (Huia)
Despite the title, fantails do not feature significantly in this novel. However, I loved the speculative premise and the wonderfully unapologetic New Zealand setting and vernacular. In this YA thriller with science fiction underpinnings and big business framed as the ultimate antagonist, the author does a good job of suspending disbelief in this disaster-survival tale. The editor in me says there is a little too much head hopping and that possibly some readers will be confused by the barrage of characters and character names in the first scene, but overall the narrative is sufficiently suspenseful and entertaining that most readers who forge through that initial onslaught will likely be forgiving. Flight of the Fantail is definitely worth a read.
The Warning by Kathryn Croft (on Audible)
At the center of this literary thriller is a family broken by the death of their teenage son and brother. Three years on, the surviving members have moved house and are coping, of a fashion. But an unexpected email sends the mother into an impassioned search for answers to what police have deemed an accident. Good writing without being spectacular, despite its bestseller billing. I think the real reason I didn't connect strongly with The Warning was because I didn't really identify with the main protagonist-mother, Zoe.Her grief was evident, but felt a little too 'tidy' in places. Too well reasoned. Although, it's possible that is exactly how a parent who is only barely coping with their loss might behave - I don't know. I felt as though the character (author) was holding me at arms' length, so while I understood what she was thinking, I didn't get a true grasp of how she was feeling, and especially the evolution of that feeling. Then again, the author has sold over a million copies of her work and is hard at work on her 8th novel, so maybe that's just me. In general, the novel explores the universal theme of secrets and especially how these place a wedge between family members who might otherwise trust one another. The Willow Nash narration was excellent. While the book was enjoyable, and I did listen through to the end, I'm not sure I would actively seek out another Croft title, although I would definitely listen in to other works narrated by Nash.
Netherkind by Greg Chapman
Chapman's third novel, Netherkind, gets off to a slow burn of a start. We meet the main character Thomas, a humanoid creature disgusted by his hunger and yet desperate to feed. It's an ongoing struggle for Thomas, a constant battle to reconcile his humanity with his primal needs. In the first chapter, there's a skinsuit sloughed off in the shower, a calculated death, and a sexual encounter. Then there's the unexpected yet inevitable betrayal and after that, things ramp up, Chapman drawing the reader inexorably into his creeping flesh-eating world, because, as you might expect from this Bram Stoker nominee, reality is just the face of it, and there is an entire world waiting behind this first chapter, an ugly sister-world full of mythos, and history, and shared somatic understanding. Chapman introduces this dark fantasy world, which straddles our own, and feeds from it. It's an ambitious and highly original concept which Chapman handles well, redefining Frankenstein, and grafting new flesh on the human-monster genre. Horror to make your skin crawl.
Ventiforms by Sean Monaghan
In this story, a short take from a wider universe from Monaghan, and first published by Asimov's Science Fiction, Tailé Aronsen travels to the bleak planet of Zepheirre on a mission to find her son where he has been working on the ventiform art installation by the rich and famous creator Shalinka Switala. But it isn't only the planet that is unwelcoming, and Aronsen's new hosts seem decidedly evasive about the state of her son. Ventiforms is an evocative story of art mixed with AI and a awkward family reunion. Overall, the tale appears to be a slice of a bigger picture, since we never really know why the protagonist has been overcome by an urgent need to find her son after so many years apart. And without wanting to give too much away, the finale is somewhat of an anticlimax with this reader wondering why the heck someone else hadn't gone in and done the exact same thing to resolve the issue. Perhaps that was the author's intent: to highlight the dangers of maintaining boundaries out of a sense of politeness. In any case, the story is definitely worth the investment, as it is imbued with wonderful world-building, particularly the descriptions of the ventiforms themselves, instrumental art forms which make me want to meet Switala in person. In fact, if I were to win the Lotto, I might just spend the billions to travel to that inhospitable planet to see them for myself.
Choking Back the Devil by Donna Lynch (poetry)
I couldn't wait to get my hands on this collection by my Raw Dog Screaming Press colleague, Donna Lynch and she doesn't disappoint. As with all Lynch's poetry, there is no pretension in Choking Back the Devil, no fancy poetic forms of iambic pentameter, rhyme, meter, enjambment, and foot. But nor is there any artifice. Lynch, I think, has no time for it, too preoccupied with taking those bone-cutting shears of hers, and using them to tell her truth. Being real. Because these poems embody and embrace everyday pain. My pain. Seriously, it's as if she has been sitting on my shoulder for years, and now she has plucked up all my secrets, lifting them out of camphor chests and dog-eared journals, dusting those nightmares off, and making them beautiful.
Choking Back the Devil studies mental illness, dysfunction, predation, abuse...and fairy tale. "Honey' is a particular favourite, a fable with carnality at its core, and, for once, the villains and victims get their just desserts. I almost cheered out loud. Poems like Borderline: A Horror Story in 7 Small Parts
chewing through what's left of you
digging at you with a blunt broken nail
slamming into you, full force, the second you close your eyes...
It's what Lynch does. There are no turnips in this collection.
Adding to the production is Archer's gruesomely apt cover image, always perfect, and poet David Cowen's insightful foreword, an introduction that does its job with sparkles. I recommend reading Cowen's words first and last, since not only does he incite readers to dive right in -- never mind that you might break your neck on a silently lethal object or drown in the poems' startling clarity -- but afterwards, for that wabi sabi moment of communion, when you realise you have joined an exulted group of Lynch fans, people who have read her work and glimpsed the thing inside. He concludes:
"I find something transformative in this work. Something far beyond the typical presentation of archetypes we often see in speculative poetry. I think this volume elevates Lynch to the next tier of upcoming dark poets that will dominate the genre."
Definitely transformative. Lynch is undoubtedly the Imperator Furiosa of horror poetry.
Disclaimer: I have met three of the writers mentioned above, or if I haven't met them, I have exchanged emails with them, so you really can't trust my judgement. I highly recommend purchasing a copy of these works and checking them out for yourself.