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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Mini-reviews - Ferny Tree, Brothers of the Knife, Silent Betrayal, Red Gear 9 and more

A blogpost about some of the fabulous reads I’ve enjoyed over the summer break.

As it turns out, my 2018-2019 summer reading comprised mostly of unpublished manuscripts, including 32 student novels, and a further 87 novels for a national literary award, as well as some catch-up reading for awards rounds. Yes that is a lot of reading! Happily, I still found some time to read for me, so here is selection of those for me titles with their corresponding mini-reviews.

Beneath the Ferny Tree: A Horror Collection by David Schembri was my first read for 2019 and an excellent start to the year with its dark selection of short stories, flash fiction, and poetry. The opening story, The Unforgiving Court, is a showstopper, a supernatural holocaust tale, at once a metaphor and also absurdly real. Highly relevant even today, the story is brutal, its desolation rendered even more poignant by a moment of connection between enemy characters. Other favourites include cautionary tale, Severed, and Atlantica, a historical creature feature so vivid that it leaps off the page—proof that Schembri has done his research well. Of the poems, the eponymous, Beneath the Ferny Trees resonated for me with its ominous twist on the Riding Hood fable. Interior art, also by Schembri, is spectacular and deserves a gallery exhibition in its own right. This is definitely a collection to savour. Readers might want to check out an interview with the author was recently been released on the AHWA Sinister Reads blog, providing insights into how the collection came into being.

Brothers of the Knife, the first book in Dan Rabarts’ Children of Bane series of five was released by Omnium Gatherum in January. I can’t tell you how much I’ve looked forward to seeing this series launched. I’ve been working closely with Dan for several years now, collaborating on two anthologies and a book series together, so naturally it isn’t the first time I’ve read Brothers of the Knife, but there is nothing quite like reading the book when it lands on release day. Brothers of the Knife, Dan’s first novel, is hard to categorise. Central to the story are elves and dwarves and a high quest with dire consequences, so that would clearly make it fantasy, but the appearance of airships and cyborgs suggest it could sit nicely on the bookshelf with your steampunk collection. And there are also supernatural elements at play—mages and magic interspersed with sword and scimitars—so perhaps it is better categorised as a sword and sandal story. But what about handy the recipes for travellers on the run? The in-depth look at dysfunctional family dynamics? [She throws up her hands]. One thing is sure, Brothers of the Knife is fast-paced and laugh out loud funny, a comedy of errors in which our hapless hero, Akmenos, stumbles from one calamitous situation to another, aided by unexpected allies in some, and by hindered by those he least suspects in others, always armed with his pepper-pot, and his progress observed by any number of unseen protagonists…

Check out the blurb for yourself. You’re going to want to grab a copy:

Akmenos only ever wanted to bake a perfect soufflé, but the murder of an elvish prince at his banquet table sweeps him into a spiral of intrigue, deception and betrayal which is bigger than even his biggest casserole dish. Caught in a desperate struggle between warring nations and shadowy organisations, Akmenos must stay one step ahead of the sinister figures intent on hunting him down ‒ his own brothers among them ‒ while he tries to clear his name, unmask the true killer, and find a decent cup of tea. Stumbling from one misadventure to another across continents and planes as the world and his family crumble around him, Akmenos will need to be stronger than he ever thought he could be ‒ stronger even than the blue cheese down the bottom of the larder that should’ve been thrown out months ago.

Released in January, The Influential Author by Gregory Diehl is a comprehensive how-to guide for writers of non-fiction. The book covers why we write, deciding on a topic, developing and refining your message, tips for presenting the work, as well as promotional strategies and potential outcomes. All sound stuff and presented in an orderly easy-to-find format. The material appears to be aimed primarily at first-time writers of non-fiction, but even old hands will find this a good refresher text, covering standard practices as well as a few new trends and approaches, many of which could also apply to fiction writers. Definitely some gems between these pages, The Influential Author is a sound addition to any writer’s toolkit.

Vaccine Science Revisited: Are Childhood Immunisations As Safe As Claimed? by James and Lance Morcan. Before everyone gets excited and jumps up and down, I’m going to say right now that I fall fully in the vaccination camp: I consider vaccinations are a public service necessary to protect the very young, the elderly, and all immune-compromised people in our communities. I have had my kids vaccinated for a range of illnesses (and for all the countries we relocated to), we all get an annual flu shot, and we make sure we’re vaccinated when travelling to places where we might be at risk or could put others around us at risk. I have a child on the autism spectrum and, yes, I’m aware of the erroneous and misleading research that inspired unfounded guilt in thousands of parents of autistic children and went on to spawn the anti-vax movement. But as a direct descendant of Edward Jenner, a former scientist, and someone who is allergic to certain tableting agents used in a variety of vaccines and pill preparations, I’m still open to further investigation of whether the vaccines we systematically offer families (HepA, Polio, MMR, Rotavirus, Varicella, HepB, DTaP, Pneumoccocal, Meningococcal and Hib) might be improved, or the timing of when those vaccines are administered changed, and what may be the long-term generational consequences of systematic vaccinations. Just because I believe that vaccination is the safest way to protect all of us currently, doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to learn and the release of this book is timely. Written in a conversational layman’s style, it highlights some of the dangers which our common vaccines (and their tableting / binding agents) present to certain demographic groups in particular, and the shortcomings, in the authors’ view, of some vaccination research. I suspect the authors’ intent in writing this work wasn’t to come down on one side or the other, or even to incite a riot, but rather to look for opportunities to open a discussion around the outcomes and consequences of vaccination that might have been overlooked in all the controversy. It’s certainly an interesting text and while reading it I occasionally found myself side-tracked, dipping into a number of the cited works (there are 740 references with hyperlinks to the original papers) to learn more, so in that respect, Morcan & Morcan have succeeded in creating an engaging and thought-provoking volume.

Silent Betrayal by Delphine Boswell. The second book in Boswell’s gritty and compelling Dana Greer mystery series shares many of the elements that drew readers to the first book: the ruthless murder of a child, small-town treachery and intrigue, and 1950s prejudice and intolerance reminiscent of the George Gently television series. Once again, sleuth Dana Greer must overcome her own demons while searching for the truth behind the deceptions. It doesn’t help that the local players are determined to look out for their own interests. True to the genre, Silent Betrayal is nevertheless a unique story, with plenty of unexpected turns and fresh horror to keep the reader guessing. Plus, there is nothing cosy about these mysteries as the blurb for Silent Betrayal reveals:

A young boy’s body is found in his cell at the St. Aloysius Gonzaga Youth Home located in a small town in Texas in 1953. Dana Greer, private investigator under contract by the Catholic Church, is brought in to solve the case. While attempting to find the murderer, Dana realizes nothing is as it appears: the prison, run by a group of abusive Franciscan brothers, is a circus of horrors; the southern town of Punkerton is a cesspool of corruption and intolerances; and the Ku Klux Klan, lurking in the shadows, is eager to seek revenge even against the innocent.

Mystery lovers should put this series on their wish list.

On audio, while using the Nordic track machine, I enjoyed two Jack Reacher titles by Lee Child: 61 Hours, and Past Tense. Without going into the merits or demerits of Cruise playing Reacher in the screen versions of the role, for me, the series offers classic escapism, the adventure formula prescribed and predictable, and executed in Child’s indomitable style, which is sparse on emotion, but made up for by the author’s keen attention to detail. In both titles, the RC Bray readings are excellent, and while the narrator’s female voices tend to be a little breathy, the productions are easy to follow, high quality, and with good pacing. So what of the stories? My father-in-law, who also had Past Tense on his summer reading list, insists it is the worst Reacher title ever written—which was a good inducement for me to consume that volume first. What was it in this story which might have put off a die-hard Reacher reader? In Past Tense, the latest title (Nov 2018), Jack Reacher loses his ride and ends up stranded in New England, not far from the town where his father was born, so, in no particular hurry, he decides to take a detour, only to find no one with his father’s name ever lived in the township. Naturally, Reacher can’t leave it alone. Meanwhile, not far from town, a Canadian couple looking to start a new life, have also found themselves stranded when their car breaks down. Lucky for them, there’s a hotel with rooms available. As Reacher continues to investigate his father’s story, he stumbles on another branch of the family, which leads him to the hotel where the Canadians are not enjoying their stay… On the face of it, the story follows the traditional Reacher format, where the hero rolls into town, usually by accident, and gets himself embroiled in something untoward and sinister, usually because of small town prejudices towards the ex-military man of no fixed abode and, seemingly, nothing to lose. However, in Past Tense, the ‘something untoward’ while horrific and suspenseful (and the part I enjoyed most), has little to with Reacher and it is only at the last moment that Reacher uncovers the tenuous connection and gets involved. I suspect this is why my father-in-law found the book inferior: the Reacher backstory thread and the ‘mystery’ to be solved are only loosely connected—and might have been able to stand-alone without the other’s intervention.

In 61 Hours (a 2010 title) however, Child’s original formula remains intact. Here, a violent snow storm has blown up and an inattentive driver sends the bus, carrying Reacher, off the road. Once again, he ends up in the nearest small-town, this time in South Dakota, where the local police suspect he has something to do with a recent prison breakout at the local penitentiary. Reacher persuades them otherwise, and in the process, gets involved protecting the vital witness needed to collar a vicious gangster. In this story, Reacher’s personal thread is entwined with the ‘something untoward’ from the get-go, and that link between the two may be why the story resonates. Also, in 61 Hours, Reacher has time to develop a relationship with the witness, and, in my view, that emotional connection between the characters is what makes the reader care about the outcome. I didn’t particularly like the title or the authorial intervention counting down the hours, which seemed contrived, a cheap attempt to create suspense, since Reacher himself had nowhere to be in 61 Hours, the countdown relating instead to the villain’s timetable. But overall, a good story for escapism and an excellent study in how to maintain a winning formula.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Memoir doesn’t feature often on my reading pile, but I’ve been invited to visit my mum’s book club and they’ve selected this as their title for the month, so I moved it up the pile. When Breath Becomes Air is the end-of-life story of neurosurgeon and writer, Paul Kalanithi. Told in his own words, it is a study of death and dying and how to live fully, even when time is uncertain. It’s a quick read, clean, methodical and stitched together neatly as one would expect from a doctor, but also meandering at times, in keeping with the vagaries of his illness, and always in achingly beautiful prose. The story is truncated, ending abruptly when the cancer takes over, and the author’s wife takes up the tale in a moving epilogue which fills in the obvious gaps in the narrative. Mostly, it is a tale about striving to move forward when life is carrying you inexorably to a standstill. Recommended.

100-Word Horrors by Kevin Kennedy. This one’s been on my kindle for a month or two, and I finally made time to read it, which is crazy since it’s a quick read and highly entertaining. Like good espresso, these collected stories are concentrated and dark and come in little servings. Drabble lovers will adore this book, with a table of contents that reads like Who’s Who of Horror. Contributors include (but are not limited to) Lisa Morton, Mark Lukens, Richard Chizmar, Sarah Tantlinger, Jeff Strand, Glenn Rolfe, William F Nolan, Michael Arnzen, Ike Hamill, and Chad Lutzke. Can be enjoyed in the smallest sliver of downtime and for a tiny price. A great little horror sampler, I highly recommend this collection.

Red Gear 9 by Matt Betts. Not available yet, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of this latest title from Matt Betts coming soon from Raw Dog Screaming Press. It’s the second book in the Odd Men Out series about which Publishers Weekly had this to say: “The stakes are high, and the action and surprises are nonstop as Betts skilfully mixes elements of steampunk, alternate history, science fiction, and horror.” And Betts has done it again in Red Gear 9, a fast-paced alternate history post-American Civil War thriller, complete with airships and zombies! What’s not to like? With Red Gear 9, Betts delivers a genre-bending tale with just the right combination of pathos and humour for a thoroughly satisfying and highly provocative read. Anyway, as I said, it’ll be out later in the year, and while it works perfectly as a standalone, I’m convinced you’re going to want to read the first book, so you may as well do that now and save yourself the frustration later. Get your copy of Odd Men Out here.

Disclaimer: I have met or corresponded with at least five of the authors/editors listed above, so you really cannot trust me not to be biased. To determine if my mini-reviews are on the money, I recommend purchasing a copy of the books listed and deciding for yourself.


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