Wanted: Reviewers!!

30 08 2010

Would you like your name spread all over the internet? Do you like writing reviews of books, films and games? Do you sometimes think, I could do better than that when reading a review of your favourite book or film?

Well, now’s your chance. Beyond Fiction is recruiting reviewers for these pages and we’re inviting YOU to send samples of your work to us. We’re looking for top quality reviewers, who can provide us with in-depth write-ups of genre material, with a love for media, an excellent command of English and an ability to write clearly. You will also be encouraged to interview the writers and creators of some the best in popular genre media today.

Please send us a sample or two of your reviews (max 500 words each), along with a covering email telling us if you’ve already been published (and which magazines/websites your work appears in) or if you’re a new reviewer. Please email to:

beyond.fiction.review@gmail.com

We’re waiting to hear from you, and good luck!

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The Ghost Appreciation Month Films now confirmed

27 08 2010

Boo!

Beyond Fiction are excited to announce the 31 films chosen for Ghost Appreciation Month.

Ghost Appreciation Month: The Films

We are looking forward to lots of discussions in October, as we watch the films, read reviews, interviews, articles, etc.

Hope you’re ready, as we are!





‘Cursed’ by Jeremy C. Shipp

23 08 2010

[reviewed by Peter G. Bell]

'Cursed' by Jeremy C. Shipp, 214 pp, Raw Dog Screaming Press, ISBN: 978-1-933293-86-8

I had no idea what I was getting into when I opened Cursed, the latest novel by Jeremy C. Shipp, but I’m happy to say that my faith was rewarded; it’s been a while since I read a book that so consistently surprised and confounded me.

The story is narrated by Nicholas, a man with a guilt-ridden past whose fears of abandonment are realised as, one by one, his friends, family and even perfect strangers turn against him.

His one hope for salvation is Cicely, an oddball acquaintance who believes the fate of mankind has been placed – quite literally – in her hands and that she and Nicholas have been cursed by person or persons unknown. They determine to track down the culprit, but can Nicholas prevent his curse from driving them apart?

The plot is actually quite simplistic, but this only becomes apparent in retrospect as it’s almost devoid of the usual literary crutches designed to keep the reader on track; there are no signposts or clues littered about for us to find. Shipp doesn’t ask us to solve a puzzle – he makes us share Nicholas’s growing sense of helplessness as his curse manifests itself, one day at a time. Narrative twists, when they come, are unexpected and jarring, and usually explode any notions we might have been forming about the nature of the characters’ plight.

The pieces all fit smoothly together though, with the possible exception of the climax, which bundles together a few too many new concepts in too short a space, resulting in a grinding of mental gears. It still provides a solid conclusion though, and I can guarantee you won’t see it coming.

I’m suspicious of self-described “weird” or “bizarro” fiction. While I don’t mind a healthy dose of the surreal in my prose, I’ve read too many pieces that feel forced or pretentious, and usually end up distracting from their own stories. Not so here. Things may happen without rhyme but Cicely’s assertions that they never happen without reason helps ground the more outlandish and offbeat moments in a solid (if uncomfortable) reality, even if we don’t always share her suspicions.

And perception is key. From the very first page it’s clear that the titular curse is likely nothing more than a few unfortunate coincidences, fuelled by a guilty conscience. As one character puts it, “If I’m not insane, then the world is. I don’t know how to handle that.”

Subsequently, Cicely’s determination to blame her bizarre behaviour on another can easily be interpreted as an outright denial of reality and personal responsibility – she has invented a scapegoat for her personal failings and spiralling neuroses. Nicholas, meanwhile, is more reluctant to let himself off the hook. Again and again he blames himself for others’ behaviour towards him; he is damaged and can’t help damaging those closest to him.

This might not sound like a barrel of laughs but the story is refreshingly light on sullen introspection and Shipp ensures a steady supply of off-kilter humour and charm to counteract the story’s more disturbing undertones.

And it does become very disturbing indeed at times, punctuated by a few moments of sudden, shocking horror. Even here though, Shipp demonstrates a commendable restraint, preferring the prospect of unpleasantness to outright blood and guts.

But the book’s real power lies in its characters, all of whom are sparsely but expertly drawn. This is especially true of Nicholas; Shipp never gives us more than the bare minimum of information about him but he coalesces from a few quick, masterful strokes into a fully formed person within a handful of pages.

Perhaps the key is that we are given enough room to invest him with our own anxieties. His sins are never fully revealed so we substitute our own; who doesn’t have things they’d rather keep to themselves? Subsequently, his fear of exposure becomes our own as well.

This is where the novel excels – I don’t think I’ve read anything that so effectively captures the creeping dread of inadequacy.

But then, Cursed isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read; it’s scary, delightful and surprising, all in one. Full marks to Jeremy C. Shipp for making it look effortless.





Bryant & May Mysteries – ‘Full Dark House’ by Christopher Fowler

19 08 2010

'Full Dark House' by Christopher Fowler, 416 pp, Bantam, ISBN: 0553815520

[Reviewed by Sharon Ring]

Right, where were we? In my last blog post, I told you how I came to read the sixth book in Christopher Fowler‘s Bryant & May Mysteries. It was a good read but I felt I needed to go back and start the series as it was intended. And so I did just that. I think I may have also mentioned I’m a little in love with this series. This, then, is not just any old review: this is a Bryant & May review, an account of my burgeoning love affair with Messrs. Arthur Bryant and John May.

I don’t do crime fiction, not strictly speaking anyway. I can appreciate a finely turned detective novel that keeps me guessing to the end and I certainly don’t mind crime fiction that includes an element of horror. Generally though, I find crime fiction to be lacking in heart. By its very nature, all that detective malarkey can be quite cold and clinical, even if all the detecting is being done by a maverick cop or unconventional private eye. Logic is followed, the narrative is linear and that doesn’t excite me.

Full Dark House has that elusive element though – it has heart – and that sets it apart from much crime fiction.

The story begins with the death of one of the partners, Arthur, in an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes Unit offices. Arthur and his partner, John May, have been working with the Peculiar Crimes Unit since the Second World War: there is closeness and camaraderie between the two old men and John is left devastated by the loss of his old friend. John begins looking into the explosion and finds his partner had been dabbling in the past, digging up elements of their first case together. The reader is then drawn into a series of analepses, learning about the original case as well as the current investigation by May into his friend’s death. It’s a common enough trick employed by authors to provide a backdrop to the narrative but Fowler uses the trick to provide outstanding richness and an extra layer to the story.

Bryant & May’s inaugural case runs alongside the present investigation. Nothing is rushed here as the two mysteries are expertly presented for the readers to work out. The reader is, quite literally, getting two stories for the price of one. That extra layer comes from Fowler using the first case flashbacks as a means to define the relationship between the two men and to give substance to their long history as the backbone of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. It is exceptionally well crafted and makes Full Dark House by far one of the strongest introductions to a series of crime novels I’ve ever read.

So, there are quite a few books in the Bryant & May Mysteries. It’d be a shame to use these reviews just to tell you, in non-spoiler fashion, vaguely what transpires. I think what I’d prefer to do is focus on one particular aspect of the series as each novel gets reviewed. As it’s the first book in the series and this is where we find out how the partnership of Bryant & May came to be, then this is what I’d like to focus on right now.

Arthur Bryant and John May meet as colleagues at the Peculiar Crimes Unit during the Blitz. As Fowler tells us, prior to the men’s first meeting, “it was a good place to forge a friendship”. Neither man has gone off to fight the war. Bryant’s health issues, a special dispensation from the Port of London Authority and another, as yet unexplained reason have brought him to work in the unit. May is waiting on confirmation of a war-related post to come up, code-breaker, and has been sent to work alongside Bryant until then.

The two men, despite being mismatched in so many ways, quickly develop a strong rapport as they enter their first case, a suspicious death at a London theatre. Fowler uses the case to show us just how these men’s minds work. John May is a logical man, following leads and procedure as he’s been trained to do: he’s also a bit of a lady’s man, indulging in a brief dalliance with one of the theatre girls. This is perfectly offset by Bryant’s tangential and anarchic ways: he is gifted with insight into all things weird and sees clues where nobody else can, sweeping procedure and paperwork aside in his desire to get at the truth of things.

The friendship between these two men runs deep and true: it would have been easy to lapse into schmaltz when telling their story but Fowler keeps the narrative sharp and witty throughout, giving depth to the characters both as individuals and as a team. There is a real sense of history here, not just in how long they’ve known one another but also in the intensity of the relationship and how interwoven their thinking has become.

Well, that’s Full Dark House. Next up for review will be The Water Room along with some thoughts on the grand old city of London.





The Bryant & May Mysteries – An Introduction

16 08 2010

[written by Sharon Ring]

Sometime last year I received a book from Transworld publishers, the latest (at the time) in the Bryant & May Series by Christopher Fowler. One night, while pondering the possibility of a new title to read and review, I grabbed the novel and decided to give it a whirl.

I read the book in one sitting, staying awake all night in order to finish it. Now, it was a good read, don’t get me wrong here, but something was amiss. Nothing wrong with the story itself, as you’ll see when I get round to reviewing it sometime in the future, my problem was having leapt into the series when it was six books in.

Ah, I thought out loud, I shall resolve this dilemma by reading the series from the beginning. Problem solved. Time moved on, other books were read and reviewed but I never forgot my decision to seek out the first Bryant & May novel as and when time permitted.

That time is now. I am two titles in, not counting the later, sixth novel and I am very much in love with this series. The two detectives in the novels, Arthur Bryant and John May, have won me over completely and reviewing the series for Beyond Fiction is going to be an absolute delight. First up will be Full Dark House, look out for the review later this week.

The man behind the Bryant & May Mysteries - Christopher Fowler





‘Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things’ by Cate Gardner

11 08 2010

'Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things' by Cate Gardner, 188pp, Strange Publications, $11.99 US, ISBN: 978-0-98202-664-1

[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]

There’s an absolutely wonderful line in one of the stories included in this collection (Trench Foot) which sums everything up about Cate Gardner’s stories, and which goes thusly: “Sometimes Amelia forgot she was living with people who existed on the wrong side of reality.”

All the characters peopling the 24 delightfully surreal and beautifully warped tales contained in this book do indeed exist on the wrong side of reality. However, it would be fair to say that the worlds in which these characters have their being are on the wrong side of reality, too. More to the point, these figures simply couldn’t exist anywhere else. From the shunned giant in Through the Warped Eye of Death, hating the brightness, colours and people surrounding him whilst in the midst of mourning his mother’s death, to the strange blue alien in The Man Who Climbed Out of a Suitcase, and from the cast-aside lover in The Forest of Discarded Hearts to the bearded lady haunted by a self-created curse in Reflective Curve of a Potion Bottle, these lost, lonely and displaced figures stand on the outside, looking in, trying to fit themselves into a world that for the most part doesn’t want them.

The tales span the surreal, the tragic, the pointed, the horrific, the magical and the comedic, all of them possessing a poetic, fairytale-like simplicity that emphasises rather than obscures their dreamlike qualities. Indeed, when one reads any one of Cate’s off-kilter tales, it’s easy to imagine being caught up in either a dream or a nightmare: their twisted and brazen illogicality is unsettling, yet everything is internally consistent and makes perfect sense, no matter how disturbing the scenario is. The imagery she employs is always startling, phantasmagorical, bright, and honed with a keen, steel sharp-edge. They are simultaneously hellish yet heavenly, fluffy yet prickly, bright yet malignly sinister, and full of corruption and cancerous danger; we must watch our step here.

The characters, both the good and the villainous, are technicolour archetypes who are themselves made of dream-stuff: feisty little girls like Molly in The Sulphurous Clouds of Lucifer Matches (complete with three classic Brothers Grimm-style wicked witches and an uncaring guardian) or the sinister twin ghouls of Black Heart Balloon, attempting to reach the moon. There are the lonely, too: the top-hatted and pinstripe-suited man of Opheliac, luring young girls down to his watery world in an effort to cure his loneliness; or the wished-away Ruby Ash looking for her heart in The Forest of Discarded Hearts. The wonder about Cate’s writing is that, no matter how unworldly these characters are or how far removed from real-life they may be, we care about them; she brings us effortlessly into their lives and dexterously stirs long-forgotten hopes in us.

Terror abides here, too, as instanced in the chillingly horrific Burying Sam, Cate’s take on the zombie trope. There’s also something eldritch and unwholesome about Manipulating Paper Birds, but then circuses and sideshows freak me out anyway. Cate’s range goes further, as she can also bring us the blackly humorous, as in Bob’s Spares and Repairs, a story about a robot seeking his fortune in the Big City but nearly ending up the victim of a serial-killing ’droid instead.

But let me tell you something else about Cate’s writing: it’s one of the most deeply affecting I’ve come across in a while. I’ve saved the best two stories for last. In a spell-binding tale of deeply true love, Other Side of Nowhere, a young girl decides to follow her dead husband to the ‘below-world’, against the wishes of both the law and her in-laws. The strength of the unbroken bond between the living and the deceased is more than apparent, as is the utter willingness of the young girl to follow her and her husband’s dream and the chilling calmness (and determination) with which she carries out her last wish.

However, for sheer, unadulterated spine-shivering beauty and sadness, then Empty Box Motel is the one. A dying girl’s father is distraught when she tells him that she’ll be allowed home: he knows his brittle daughter’s time is near.  However, both she and the fragile butterflies, pinned to displays in the cabinets in her doctor’s office, long for the place where they’ll be free from the cares of the world and the grip of death: the wind and cloud-laden sky. Ultimately, it is a bittersweet story, but beautifully told, and a tale both heart-wrenching and heartwarming.

This was my first encounter with Cate Gardner’s writing: let me assure you that she is in great company, for its invention and otherworldly qualities very much reminded me of some of Gene Wolfe’s short stories and Shane Jones’ Light Boxes. There’s that same sparkling level of dazzling imagination and originality, that same feeling that the universe running parallel to this one is ever so slightly weirder and considerably more unsettling, a place where all our dreams and nightmares not only have a physical reality but also where the fairies and monsters become our neighbours. It’s a place that we would all like to visit, or at the very least, in the darkest corners of our mind wish that this world was like.

Be warned, however: dreams these may only be, but they possess teeth, and sharp ones at that.

(Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits is available for pre-order. Secure your copy now!)





‘Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits’ – competition

10 08 2010

Cate Gardner, author of Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits, is currently running a competition, with some rather interesting prizes. Find out more and enter:

Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits competition