Jeff Strand, the author of horror titles Blister and Cyclops Road, said recently, “Packing is 60% putting things into boxes and 40% going, ‘Where the hell did I put the tape?’” As someone who’s been up to her elbows in boxes and bubble wrap herself over the past month, I totally agree about the tape. Although when it comes to putting things into boxes, most of the time is consumed lingering over your book collection. It’s a delicate ritual: pulling each tome from its place on the shelf, running your fingers along the spine, that delicious puff of vanilla air as you flick through the pages. Every time, that rush of rediscovery: “I remember this story! This author! That plot twist at the end.” Sometimes you take a picture. Post the book cover on social media. And while you’re there, you might take a little detour to the bookshop in the sky, where you check out the author pages, in case this one or that one, has something new out. They do, of course. I buy them on kindle because there is the faintest possibility I might move house again one day, and clearing a bookcase shouldn’t take a fortnight, after all.
First up, is a title from Simon Petrie. I’ve been a fan of Petrie’s writing since reading this chilling little volume: a deep space tale named Flight 404, picked up at a national convention, where it went on to win the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novella. Continuing his passion for hard sci-fi mysteries with heart, Simon’s latest offering, Matter’s Arising from the identification of the body (Peggy Bright Books), is a police procedural set on Titan. It hooks me from get-go:
She took her helmet off. That’s where it starts; that’s where it ends. That’s all there is. If there was something to explain it, would such an explanation help? I doubt it. But there is nothing, no note, no message, no final transmission. There’s just one last desperate deed. She took her helmet off.
In Matters Arising, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist exposes herself to Titan’s frozen atmosphere, only they drag her inside and she agonises the past part of an hour before she succumbs. Why would a young woman in love take her own life? Investigator Guerline Scarfe is assigned to the case, in the hope of preventing similar losses.
Petrie’s worlds are full of gadgets and Matters Arising is no exception with its super-fast transport and telepathic re-adaption. The technology is well-conceived and dropped neatly into the story, quietly at first, until we can’t quite imagine being without it, Petrie reminding us, the tarnish has already set in. Well written and original, with characters who are both unique and recognisable, this is a satisfying read. Well worth the quick detour.
After putting Jade Gods, the third instalment of Patrick Freivald’s Jake Crowley action horror series into a box, I remembered that Freivald released a little book of horror bites recently. I skim my iPad until I find it: Double Barrel Horror. Two horror shorts. Just enough time to read between boxes and while having a restorative cup of coffee. The cover of this one is crude and generic. Halloweeny even. In fact, the handmade quality of the covers are a trademark of this series, even if it looks like something I might cobble together. But readers shouldn’t be be put off by the simplicity of the design, because the stories in Double Barrel Horror are startling and brutal. Frievald’s style is always pithy and he has no compunction about the grotesque, so shy and squeamish readers need not apply.
The first story in the duo, Roadkill, tells of Jim and Gina’s trip to work, on a morning that goes from bad to worse. An everyday commute with a Lovecraftian twist, it’s a story that will make you insist on keeping your phone charged. In The Getaway, Alan and Bud pick the wrong vehicle to carjack after their jewellery heist goes awry. A story to make you shiver in the heat of the Mojave Desert, bizarrely, this one could be playing out in any Motel 6. Frievald, a high school teacher, takes his inspiration from the quotidian, which he extrapolates into the surreal. Apparently, he lives somewhere in middle America, where it’s not safe for folks to step away from their vehicles.
I start a new box for my Greig Beck collection. Beneath the Dark Ice. The First Bird. Fathomless… I’ve loved every one of Beck’s novels: well researched engaging suspenseful adventures with protagonists you want to root for. Plus, he writes the kind of monsters that make your intestines squirm. This year, Macmillan released a third title based on his paleo-linguist character, Professor Matt Kearns. The Immortality Curse opens in true Beck style with the bizarre and gruesome death of Clarence van Helling, an uber-rich explorer missing for decades on the trail of for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Clarence’s widow, Eleanor van Helling, impervious and somewhat imperial, has been faithfully waiting for his return, but now the grande dame won’t rest, enlisting Kearns’ help to discover the truth of what happened her beloved. But other parties intent on obscuring the 5000 year old mystery are also hot on Clarence’s trail. Hero Matt Kearns is on a surfing holiday and doesn’t want a bar of it, but for Eleanor’s impressive collection of historic artefacts, and the attractive FBI officer, Field Agent Rachel Bromilow, both of which have the young professor drooling.
The Immortality Curse is full of all the things we’ve come to love about Beck’s writing: breakneck pacing, unspeakable monsters, shaky alliances, hostile terrain, and enough hairpin plot turns to give you whiplash. Unlike his Arcadian series, where the protagonist is enhanced to almost superhuman ability, Kearns is a reluctant hero. An ordinary young man, albeit too smart for his own good, he’s a bit of a contradiction: with flailing resolve, slightly compromised morals, and a curiosity that borders on obsessive. The character is sufficiently flawed to be both plausible and likeable, which may explain why many readers are touting this book as one of Beck’s best to date. I expect there will be some who are put off by Beck’s interpretation of the subject matter, the way he has cleverly interwoven biblical references with reasoned conjecture in this frenetic contemporary nail biter, but for pure escapism, there is simply none better.
Next up, I lift my collection of Kevin Berry titles off the shelf: the YA high fantasy titles Dragon’s Away, Growing Disenchantments and Fountain of Forever written in collaboration with former spouse Diane under the penname KD Berry, plus his new adult contemporary series, quirky solo titles looking at life with Asperger’s. I find Stim easily enough and I look everywhere for its sequel, Kaleidoscope. It’s not here, but I have a pretty good idea where it’ll be. Frowning, I make a mental note to check my mother’s bookshelves after the move. Last to go in the box is Stranded Starship(The Fairytale Factory), a hard sci-fi interactive novel for middle graders. Hilariously funny, and delightfully chaotic, it was a finalist on this year’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards for Best Youth Novel. In fact, all of Berry’s work has that tongue in cheek self-deprecatory manner, revealing his immeasurable wit and making his books a joy to read.
Berry’s latest book, Teleport, is something of a departure. Science fiction fantasy, it’s a first person account by Maddie McLeod a brilliant ‘Creative’ who’s been charged with developing a working teleportation device for her Patron, one of the handful of oligarchs who control the world’s resources, and thereby its people. She’s so close to achieving it, but the pressure is intense because she needs the Patron’s favour when her daughter Cassie’s fate is decided on her eighteenth birthday. Set in 2065, it’s a provocative post-apocalyptic look at a new forms of civilisations and technology and their impact on individual choices and social control. Readers will find Berry’s decision to cast the uptight and gauche Maddie as his protagonist, rather than her brilliant and socially promiscuous daughter, as surprising as it is refreshing. Teleport is an ambitious story, serious and unexpected, with incredible world building and quirky compelling characters. To date though, the reviews have been patchy, and not because the writing is poor. I suspect it’s because Teleport is one of those stories that’s hard to define, with the kind of unusual content which indelibly changes a genre, like Card’s Speaker for the Dead, or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The kind of story that appeals to readers who like to be challenged.
There’s just enough space in this box for a couple more. The Wizard’s Guide to Wellington. Miss Lionheart and the Laboratory of Death. Books written especially for precocious middle graders by former scientist and teacher, AJ Ponder. Her newest title released this month, The Frankie Files targets the same audience and is a series of interconnected tales chronicling the hi-jinks of an enthusiastic little scientist with a highly inquiring mind and dubious spelling abilities. Robinne Weiss, scientist and author of A Glint of Exoskeleton, describes the book as “a silly and delightful read that kids are sure to love.” Featuring a tomato monster on the loose, a rebellious and belligerent homework machine, a confiscated shrink ray and a dangerously effective time travelling device, Ponder’s prose has a duality which will also appeal to parents, making it ideal for reading aloud at bedtime. The Frankie Files also includes Ponder’s award-winning short story, Frankie and the Netball Clone. I make a note to grab an extra copy of this one for my niece.
Enough! I have to get these boxes finished. Closing it up and smothering it in packing tape, I heave it onto the already teetering stack of boxes.
Two weeks later, we’re 500km away in our new home: the beds are up, I have a new fridge, and two Allen keys have been sacrificed assembling our patio furniture. The mountain of boxes as high as Olympus in the garage is getting progressively smaller as we find new homes for things. When the shelves are up, I start on the books.
Peeling back the packing tape, I open a box. “Ooh look, I haven’t read this book in ages!”
And so it goes, the packing process repeated in reverse…
Disclaimer: I have been lucky enough to meet all of the authors whose work is reviewed here, some more than once.