A Book Review Blog

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The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons edited by Paula Guran

The last time I took a look at one of the Mammoth short story anthology, I was somewhat disappointed, as it didn’t really fit the theme terribly well. So I started The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons with perhaps a little more trepidation than I initially picked it up with. But it did have stories by Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin, so I thought that there could at least be potential.

The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons is an anthology of short stories focusing on angels and demons, both traditionally Christian in origin and more modern reimaginations.
First of all, and this might just be a personal gripe, but this is the first anthology where the editor has preceded each story with a snippet of information and a whole dollop of why this story/author is awesome, and it’s really not needed. Rarely is the snippet of angelology or demonology especially necessary to understand the story, and it’s really distracting to have the editor act as a hype-man. If you’ve included something in an anthology, I am going to take it as a given that you like the story in question, it doesn’t need to be hammered home.
As for the actual content, I found that the stories were generally more consistent in meeting the brief than my last Mammoth anthology. There were a few duds, of which the worst was easily “Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark” by George R. R. Martin. Considering that I was expecting his entry to be one of the safe bets, it was really disappointing to find such a poorly-written mess under his name. But while there were only a handful of outright duds, there were only five that I would actively seek out to read again: “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel” by Peter S. Beagle, “Sanji’s Demon” by Richard Parks, “Oh Glorious Sight” by Tanya Huff, “Elegy for a Demon Lover” by Sarah Monette and “Demons, Your Body, and You” by Genevieve Valentine. Beyond those four and the handful of duds, the stories included were just kind of okay. I would have hoped to get a better success rate than 5 out of 27, quite honestly.

Not a bad anthology by any stretch of the imagination, but there were only a handful of really good stories to appreciate here. While there were similarly only a handful of outright bad stories, that still leaves over half of the anthology as stories that will leave you going “meh”. Having the editor act as hype-man before every story just made the experience aggravating on top of that. 3/5

Next review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Signing off,

The Mammoth Book of Body Horror edited by Paul Kane & Marie O’Regan

You may be wondering what could have possibly made me pick up The Mammoth Book of Body Horror. I have something of a soft spot for the body horror sub-genre, as it’s pretty much the only type of horror that I can watch without having to worry that the orchestra will set off my noise aversion with jump scare chords. And having come across a book that included not only the inspiration for one of my favourite horror movies, John Carpenter’s The Thing, but several other stories on similar themes, I couldn’t really resist the temptation to check it out. 

The Mammoth Book of Body Horror is a collection of body horror stories, ranging from classic writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe to more modern writers like Clive Barker and Stephen King. 
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m really rather disappointed. Considering just how grim body horror can get, I couldn’t believe just how many more or less unequivocally happy endings there were in this collection. I could kind of understand this with some of the pre-20th century stories, but once you get to post-war stuff I was actively stunned by the unbelievable level of optimism that a share of these stories had. I mean, “Who Goes There?” the story that I picked up the volume specifically to read, has the characters kill off everyone assimilated by the Thing and then everyone has a big sigh of relief and gets back to work happy that they interrupted the Thing before it perfected anti-gravity. And no, that last bit is not an exaggeration, which only takes the story from mildly disappointing to outright silly. I think I’ll stick to the film adaptation. 
There are also a few stories that I would argue don’t really qualify as body horror at all. The two that stick out most in my mind are “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe and “Changes” by Neil Gaiman. I love both of these writers, but I couldn’t tell you why either of these stories was included. With Edgar Allan Poe, not only does the inclusion not make sense, but it’s made all the more baffling by the existence of his story “Ligeia” which is infinitely more appropriate for this collection. And with Neil Gaiman, the alteration detailed is gender reassignment. First, the last time I checked involuntary gender reassignment was claimed by the stupider sub-section of romantic/teen comedies. Second, nice going alienating your transgender audience. Third, it’s a change that can be easily reversed, so it hardly counts as horrifying. It just fails as a body horror story on all levels. It’s an interesting story on its own merits, but shouldn’t have a place here. 
That negativity out of the way, there were a few stories that did scratch my body horror itch, if not to the extent that I had hoped. Probably the best of the actual body horror stuff was “The Body Politic” by Clive Barker, “The Chaney Legacy” by Robert Bloch, “The Look” by Christopher Fowler and “Residue” by Alice Henderson. Some stories that were good, if not necessarily proper body horror were “Survivor Type” by Stephen King and “Black Box” by Gemma Files. 
A rather disappointing showing actually. I might be somewhat inured to body horror, seeing as I have yet to see the microwaving baby scene from Victims beaten for most uncomfortable, but there wasn’t much in the way of proper scares or discomfort. Some of the stories even had happy endings which was just absurd. There were a few decent stories though, so not a complete wash. 3/5 
Next review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson 
Signing off, 

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Unusually, I’ve gone for two short story collections on the trot. Maybe it’s because I’m on holiday, but I’ve found myself really in the mood for something more bitesize. And considering that I’ve mostly enjoyed the dark fantasy stuff that Holly Black has written, I was interested to see how she holds up using short forms of fiction. Anything to take my mind off my sunburn has to be some good anyway. 

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories collects a series of short stories by the Curse Worker series author Holly Black. Some of the stories reference some of her longer work, with “Going Ironside” and “The Land of Heart’s Desire” being set in her Modern Faery Tale series, while the opening tale “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” is set in the same universe as her novel of the same name. The subject matter ranges from vampires to unicorns and even as far as living books and girls whose touch can kill. 
Usually I prefer single-author anthologies, as you tend to get a more even tone and quality to the stories contained due to only coming from one author. Usually that’s the case anyway. For some reason, Black seems to be a writer that I either love or could give or take, depending on what of hers I’m reading. It was very much in evidence here. On the side of absolutely love, I would have killed to have more stories like the eponymous “The Poison Eaters”, “The Coat of Stars” or “The Dog King”; those stories were my certain top three when I was looking over the contents in preparation for this review. And much of the rest of the stories were similarly strong. But for me, there were four stories that just fell flat for me: “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, “Virgin”, “In Vodka Veritas” and “Going Ironside”. With those stories, there just didn’t seem to be much actual content within them to grab a reader’s attention. And considering that there’s only 12 stories in the collections, I don’t feel confident giving it top marks when there was around a third of the content that I was ambivalent at best about. Were there perhaps more stories with the quality of the three that I picked out as my favourites, then I’d perhaps feel a bit more positive about the collection. 
Quite a good collection overall, but The Poison Eaters and Other Stories is somewhat brought down by a few stories that, while not necessarily bad, are much less interesting. I’d still read it for “The Poison Eaters”, “The Coat of Stars” and “The Dog King”, but you might want to go in aware. 3.5/5 
Next review: Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean 
Signing off, 

Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Of all the titles in that Humble Bundle, Machine of Death was probably the one with the most morbidly intriguing title and premise. But it was an anthology of short stories, which can be anywhere on the spectrum of quality due to the sheer number of writers contributing. But there’s only so long that someone can resist a premise like that.

Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories centred around the idea that there is a machine that can predict the means of your death. Not the date or any other context, just the means by which your life will end. Sometimes the machine is straightforward. Sometimes the machine can be almost perversely ironic in its predictions: for example, a man presented with a slip stating OLD AGE may be just as likely to die as the result of being run over by a pensioner who can’t see over the wheel as he is of passing peacefully in his sleep. Sometimes the machine is just incomprehensible, spitting out slips reading ALMOND or FLAMING MARSHMALLOW. Machine of Death collects a variety of stories that explore the various reactions to knowing in a roundabout way how you are going to die.
I’m actually quite impressed at the overall quality of the work on display here, considering that it collects the efforts of several different writers, and generally people who are more known for their work with internet reviews and comics. For instance, I wasn’t aware that Randall Monroe from xkcd wrote fiction, and while I love his work on that comic I wasn’t sure how that would translate to a more traditional work of fiction. And while there are a couple of stories that, while not necessarily complete duds, could have done with a bit more polishing, there wasn’t really anything that stood out as ruining my reading experience. Probably the thing that bothered me most was that there are a few stories that focus on the creation and spread of the Machine of Death, and none of those quite meshed together. It’s a fairly minor issue considering, but it did niggle a bit for me.

Perhaps a bit of a morbid recommendation, but Machine of Death is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what the human race does with the knowledge of their own demise, with reactions ranging from relief to outright paranoia. Maybe not for those who are after a bit of light fiction, but definitely a book that I can recommend to those willing to suspend their disbelief. 4/5

Next review: The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Signing off,

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

When I was at university, one of my first year courses was an introduction to medieval Italian literature through the means of the works of the three writers whose work would most influence what would become standard Italian: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio. At the time, I devoured the poetry of Dante and Petrarch with relative ease, but simply didn’t have the time to read through the entirety of The Decameron, so only read the stories set to us as homework. Having more time to spend reading now, I decided that I would actually sit down and read through it as much for completeness’ sake.

The Decameron is an interesting book structurally. The book starts by following a group of ten Florentines as they leave Florence to take refuge from the Black Death in the countryside. In an attempt to keep themselves amused, they decide to tell stories to one another. These stories continue for ten days, with one story apiece, until they decide to head back to Florence. On the majority of the days, the stories will revolve around a particular theme, one example being a set of love affairs that end tragically. It’s a structure that almost makes the book worth it, simply because frame narratives don’t tend to be all that common.
I don’t think that I can recommend The Decameron for anything beyond its historical value, because there were so many times that I considered putting the book down because of its subject matter. I went into it knowing that there would be dissonance between my values as a modern, very liberal reader and the values of the medieval writer, but most of the time I’ve found that it’s stuff that you can sort of ignore or understand within its historical context. In this case though, I couldn’t help but feel really uncomfortable, because the level of misogyny in some of these stories is truly remarkable, depicting a level of cruelty towards women that I haven’t seen in even other texts of the time. Several examples spring readily to mind. A woman who won’t cheat on her husband is tricked into thinking that he’s having an affair, suffers rape through fraud and is then blackmailed until she agrees to continue the affair. Another is savaged about the face and neck by a wolf because she didn’t heed a warning that her husband gave after having a nightmare about just such an event. And one final example, one woman is left naked in the open at the height of summer without shelter or water, to the point that her skin is cracked and openly bleeding. All of these are presented as being her just desserts for their behaviour. Quite honestly, I was expecting that there would be the whole thing of condemning women if they aren’t virtuous whilst simultaneously whining that they won’t sleep with the male protagonist simply because they’re already married to someone else, but this level of sheer animosity was something else. It got to the point that it honestly felt like Boccaccio was vicariously living out a revenge fantasy on some poor woman who spurned his advances, and that is not something that I would recommend to anyone. Sure, there are a few stories that I might recommend, like the story of Lisabetta and her pot of basil, or the stories featuring Saladin, but they get overshadowed entirely by the entries that are so obviously and violently anti-women.

I might recommend this if you’re interested in the time period or if you’re looking to compare Boccaccio’s work with that of Dante or Petrarch, but even then only with caution. Some of the stories contained within are so deeply resentful and bitter towards women that I had trouble finishing the book at times. It’s one of the only books that I have considered burning passages from, and that’s positively sacrilegious for me. 1/5

Next review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Signing off,

The Complete Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm

Grimm’s fairy tales have been the source of a fair bit of fascination for me ever since I was a teenager. That was around the point where I found out that the stories that I was told as a child were really quite sanitised and comparably tame to their original sources. And the source for quite a lot of these tales, at least in their written forms, was the Brothers Grimm. So, when I saw a book touted as the complete works, I picked it up mainly to see what I missed as a child.

I can’t really say that many of the tales in there were new to me. As there were 279 noted in the contents, I was hoping that there would be a lot of new tales that would surprise me. Admittedly there were some new tales, but it seemed to be that a lot of them were more the result of mixing and matching elements used in other tales. Possibly this is a result of them being passed down by word of mouth, but when there are at least four different stories where the princess wins back her unfaithful/enchanted betrothed by bribing his new bride with pretty dresses and weeping outside his bedroom, then there seems little point in listing every single one of them within the collection. Really though, I think this is as much my own heightened expectations interfering with my reading of it. While there were some tales that seemed so similar that they might as well be the same thing, there was enough variety to keep my interest up.
One of the things that was really noticeable was the weird mix of themes. I was always taught that fairy tales were a method of teaching children moral lessons, so the fact that there seemed to be two main lessons that were taught and conflicted with one another. The first was that if you are hard-working and virtuous then God will send good fortune your way, and if you are likewise mean-spirited and lazy then your cruelty will come back to hurt you later. The second was that if you want to get ahead in life, you should rely on your wits and a little bit of luck. While the two lessons needn’t be mutually exclusive, more often than not the protagonists from the second type of story wouldn’t necessarily be the sort of sweet, good hero or heroine that you would necessarily want to see succeed. I’m not even going to get into the stories that seemed to have neither moral nor point; these are few and far between, but very confusing when they do occur.
The main thing that I can see putting people off is the anti-Semitism. Fortunately it doesn’t turn up all that often, but when it does appear in stories like “The Jew in the Thornbush” it hits you like a Glasgow kiss. It really isn’t subtle. I had an inkling that there might be some attitudes present that aren’t so well tolerated now and my basic knowledge of German history gives me a bit of contextual background, but that really doesn’t make it any easier to read. I would say that if you’re really bothered by this particular brand of discrimination, then you may wish to be very careful when reading this. If a Jew appears, the likelihood is that things won’t go well for him, so it’s at least easy enough to avoid if you’re truly determined to read this collection.

Overall, a bit of a patchy collection, but still something that I would take a look at if you’re interested in fairy tales or other traditional stories. I maybe wouldn’t advise reading it more or less uninterrupted like I did, instead dipping in and out occasionally. Maybe avoid if you have triggers involving anti-Semitism. 3/5

Next review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyby John le Carre

Signing off,


Paris Noir edited by Aurelian Masson

Having started a work experience placement, it seemed like a good time to try a short story collection again. And what better place to start than Paris Noir, a collection of noir detective fiction set exclusively in the arondissements of Paris? I have a fascination with the noir style and visuals, so this seemed like a perfect idea.

The thing that I forgot about was the main reason why I don’t read short story collections so much: unless it’s all by one author, then the tone and quality can be really erratic. There were several stories that made me sit back and think, “That wasn’t noir, in any way, shape or form.” The ones that spring to mind in particular were “The Revenge of the Waiters” by Jean-Bernard Pouy and “No Comprendo The Stranger” by Herve Prudon. The former had an interesting set-up, but quickly devolved into a farcical adventure by waiters, while the latter was one man’s rambling journey up the Rue de la Sante as he talks about his health. There were, however, more than enough stories in the collection to justify buying the book.
The collection starts out strong with the stories of “The Chauffeur”, in which the eponymous driver falls in love with the prostitute he transports, “The Chinese Guy”, a story of sexual obsession, and “Big Brother”, an unsettling account of a robbery, all in quick succession. After those three the collection tails off a bit, but there are still gems left before the end in the form of “La Vie en Rose” and “Precious”; both are accounts of the murder of a woman, but each with a very different emphasis and tone.

Overall, patchy in terms of tone, with most of the really good stories right at the beginning. Still not a bad read though, as Paris is definitely a city that suits the noir sensibility. Probably a good recommendation for someone who loves Paris, noir fiction or both. 3/5

Next review: Zorro by Isabel Allende

Signing off,

Nothing Less Than a Man by Miguel de Unamuno

This was a difficult one to get my hands on in English. This was the last university text that I had to find and read, and the fact that the book it came in didn’t appear to be in print over in the UK only made it that much harder. Hence why I have an old, battered copy of Three Exemplary Novels that I had to get shipped from the US. So after all that, was Nothing Less Than a Man worth the time and effort?

Nothing Less Than a Man starts with a young woman named Julia, who is renowned for miles around for her beauty. Her father is experiencing financial troubles and sees her beauty as a means of clearing that debt; aware that her father means to sell her, Julia starts having relationships with the men who attempt to court her, in order to find a man who loves her enough to elope with her. Eventually she attracts the attention of Alejandro Gomez, a mysterious self-made man who has just moved into the area. In return for paying off her father’s debts, he asks for a meeting with Julia, who is so taken with him that she immediately accepts his proposal of marriage. Thus, things are happy for a time, this happiness only marred by Julia’s uncertainty about Alejandro: does he truly love her or did he just want a trophy wife?
This didn’t end the way that I thought it would. After certain hints, Alejandro starts to take on these ruthless, Bluebeard-style qualities, based on the little of his life that the reader can gather, but he doesn’t really seem to realise the potential of such qualities. It’s weird. I’m happy that I wasn’t able to predict how the plot would end, but at the same time it’s left me in a strange position of being unable to describe just what it was that I read. On reflection, I guess that overall I liked the portrayal of the marital relations of someone who is desperate for proof of their spouse’s love, potentially at the cost of her marriage or sanity.

This is another quick read that I would be happy to recommend, should you come across a copy of Three Exemplary Novels. I’d certainly be willing to read other works of Unamuno’s, if anyone has read anything of his that they would recommend. 3.5/5

Next review: Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Signing off,

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I suppose that I should have expected to see this come up as part of my studies. The Yellow Wallpaper is quite infamous for anyone who has any interest in Gothic or Feminist literature; I happen to like both, so let’s see how this turned out.

The story follows an unnamed female narrator who has temporarily moved out to the country with her physician husband so that she can carry out the rest cure that he has prescribed for her. She is installed in a former nursery, with a hideous yellow wallpaper that she can’t help but dislike. Unfortunately, due to her husband and her nurse’s dislike of her writing, she is left with really only one option with which she can stimulate her mind: following the pattern in the wallpaper; this preoccupation with the wallpaper becomes something more when she starts seeing shapes moving behind the pattern.
This was honestly a lot creepier than I had assumed it would be. The idea of having all mental stimuli removed for long periods of time is something that I can’t really imagine, so I can fully believe that she starts to go crazy as a result. I guess I just keep underestimating the power of the short story, although I keep being proved wrong.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a very quick read and definitely worth your time checking out. 4.5/5

Next review: Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton

Signing off,

ZOO by Otsuichi

There are some books that you just pick up on a whim. ZOO was one of those books: as it was one that was being given away for free at a convention, I was hardly going to pass it up. But now that I’ve gotten around to reading it, will it be a case of complaining about things that I didn’t have to pay for?

Now, as this is a collection of short stories, I will be taking a slightly different approach to my usual one. Instead of discussions of plot and character, I will talk a little bit about each story in the collection. 
The title story of the collection, ‘ZOO’, is probably one of the more disappointing stories included. When the story is about a man who receives pictures in the post of his ex-girlfriend’s body as it progresses through decomposition, you expect it to really wow you. While it is admittedly creepy, I thought that it could have been paced better, to make better use of the tension created by the situation. 
‘In a Falling Airplane’ is one of the more interesting stories from a more critical viewpoint, as it focuses on the actions of people who have nothing to lose as they are confronted with a life-threatening situation. 
‘The White House in the Cold Forest’ more than delivered the eeriness that ‘ZOO’ was missing, as it follows a girl who has grown up with almost nothing but abuse as she is unleashed into the world. The narrator’s lack of comprehension regarding her own actions is incredibly creepy. 
‘Find the Blood!’ is a mystery story of sorts, as a family try to figure out who could have stabbed their father figure in the back as well as finding the bag of blood that could potentially save his life. I was surprised by the humorous tone that it took, but it was unexpectedly effective. 
‘In a Park at Twilight, a Long Time Ago’ is the shortest of the bunch, and is enjoyably creepy for the two pages or so that it lasts. 
‘Wardrobe’ is another mystery story, revolving around a woman who hides the dead body of her brother-in-law in his wardrobe. This was actually another disappointment, as I didn’t feel that the mystery actually worked. While I did enjoy the twists and turns that events took for the majority of it, when the ending came up, I couldn’t help but feel cheated as I felt that I had been denied information. 
‘Song of the Sunny Spot’ kinds of feels like it should be in a different collection, as it contains none of the macabre features present in the other stories. That isn’t to say that this is a bad story though; on the contrary, I think it’s one of the stronger stories, with a genuinely touching relationship between the narrator and the dying old man who built her to look after him. 
‘Kazari and Yoko’ brings the collection back to the nightmarish end of the scale, as it follows the wildly different treatments of the two eponymous sisters. It is a seriously messed up story, with seriously messed up people inhabiting it. I can’t help but still feel wary when I look back at it, but then I suppose that is the sign of a good horror story. 
‘SO-far’ is a strange one. Granted, that statement doesn’t mean much in light of the rest of the collection, but even compared to the rest of the book, this story is strange. In it, the reader follows a young boy as he has to act as a mouthpiece for his parents when it appears that they can no longer see, hear or perceive each other. If that isn’t odd enough, there is a plot twist at the very end of it that I was genuinely not expecting. 
‘Words of God’ is another strange one. This one is more on the unpleasant side though, as a teenage boy goes through life, occasionally influencing things through the power of his voice. I couldn’t help but feel really uncomfortable with this one; while unpleasant or morally dubious characters are more common here than I’m used to, this was one of the few characters that made me feel really uncomfortable. 
‘Seven Rooms’, the final story and probably the longest of the collection, is utterly terrifying when you’re actually reading it. Considering that it involves a brother and sister as they get caught in a death trap that takes a week to kill you, that’s understandable. The problem that I had was that after I had finished reading it, I couldn’t help but realise that the killer and his MO are really impractical and would never be able to operate without the police investigating. That might just be me, but if you’re going to use horror involving things that are plausible, such as serial killers, then everything needs to be plausible for it to be truly scary. I felt it failed a bit there, but it was really thrilling to read nonetheless. 
Overall, I was very impressed with this collection. The dark tone and macabre characters that inhabit these stories were very refreshing, considering the lighter material that you often find in shorter prose. I would definitely recommend these to someone who enjoyed horror or the darker end of the fantasy spectrum. 4/5 
Next review: Rule 34 by Charles Stross. 
Signing off, 

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