Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Touch, by Alexi Zentner


TouchTouch by Alexi Zentner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zentner presents a fascinating, historical story of hardship, endurance and superstition set in the British Columbia/Yukon interior around the late 19th century. The characters are well-defined, the environmental descriptions vivid, the plot intriguing.

Memorable, readable, recommended.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Gibberish, by Gordon R. Gibb

Gibberish: Tall Tales & Domestic Disasters from Beyond the MicrophoneGibberish: Tall Tales & Domestic Disasters from Beyond the Microphone by Gordon R Gibb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An engaging, witty, often hilarious series of articles, anecdotes and broadcasts by Peterborough native and broadcaster, Gordon R. Gibb. The collection is highly readable, written in very easy and accessible language. Very much put me in mind of Stewart McLean.

Great reading for the commute, the waiting room, wherever, whenever.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Stonehenge, by Bernard Corwell

StonehengeStonehenge by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written with Cornwell's usual impeccable historical detail, research and biting vision, Stonehenge is a vision of how the great henge may have come to exist, richly embroidered with believable characters, political machinations, and religious fervour.

As always Cornwell's writing is lean, and his plotting searingly tight.

Recommend highly for the lover of good historical fiction.

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Over-exposed

Thought I'd share a short story from my collection And the Angels Sang, in this case one entitled Over-exposed.

ISBN 9780973927801 $23.99
eISBN 9780986563058 $4.99
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He runs now, the siren hurting his ears. His legs rise and fall, rise and fall, although he feels as though he travels nowhere. Heat spurts through his chest. Adrenaline. His hand touches the camera bag. He looks over his shoulder to Kay and Meagan. His wife’s face is red from running. She clutches Meagan’s small hand. He tightens his grip on Chris’. In his mind the frame freezes – an image of terror.

Keep the children close.

He looks now to the escalator. It’s crowded with shoppers who shove, fall, trying to escape to the shelter on a sub-level of the mall. The river of people becomes a torrent on the escalator as they tumble one over the other.

“The stairs, Peter!” his wife yells.

He veers to the left. His camera bag tags a display case. Royal Doulton explodes through the case to the marble floor. Still the siren shouts.

Get to safety. Get below. Get to where the terrorists can’t get you.

A side-entrance to the mall flashes by. He changes direction sharply, grabbing Kay’s hand. She loses her hold on Meagan. His daughter screams.

Kay scoops her up. He wants to clutch both children. He knows better. One adult to one child. That has always been their rule. It has always served them – against charging rhinos, in capsizing canoes; the fact that they took care of one child each brought them through.

He has to believe it will bring them through now.

The escalator in the empty hall is near. It remains motionless. He leaps onto it and bounds down, Kay close behind. A voice announces over the broadcast system: Proceed to shelter.

Another part of him notes the stilted cadence of the voice. Auto-systems are in place, he thinks, and sets off at a sprint when he reaches the bottom of the stairs, pulling along his son. His camera bag bangs heavily against his side. It does not occur to him to throw it away. So much of his life is tied up in that bag. He has run with it before.

Further down the hall the crowd pushes in from another entrance. Their screams mix with the siren.

“Hang on,” he yells at Kay.

His wife clutches the strap of his bag and runs with him, his gear keeping them together. They break upon the flow of bodies, now pushing across them, sweeping down the hall in a relentless flow. He must reach the other wall. On the other wall is the door to the shelter.

Fighting, he comes to the centre of the flow. He cannot help memorize the faces around him: an adolescent girl, her face twisted with fear, black streaks on her face from mascara. He thinks of a battered harlequin.

He blinks and pushes further.

An old man, his eyes closed, carried like a grey leaf.

Almost to the wall now.

Fear is real around him. It is in the sweat of every body he shoves past.

Was it a dirty bomb that hit? Are there bio-agents hidden in that bomb?

He feels Chris’ fingers slip. He grabs his son’s wrist, tightly. Chris yelps. No time to apologize. His son’s skin is damp beneath his palm.

He hits the wall and shoves his shoulder to it, moving in the tide to the door. It is within view. He can still feel a pull on his camera bag. Kay and Meagan are with him.

The door rises, slowly, inexorably, as if the floor sprouts this massive, white slab.

He lurches forward, shoving people out of his way. A toddler screams before him, terrified in the crowd. For a moment he hesitates.

The door is up half way.

His eyes still see that child when he shoves past. It has to be either his children or someone else’s.

People stand before the ascending door, screaming, pounding on the concrete. Red splotches pattern the whiteness. People attempt to scramble over the top.

It is three feet from the ceiling.

He drags his family the final distance. The door rises still. He manages to hoist Chris to the lip of the door, yells at him to jump. He glances at Kay who is doing the same with Meagan. Chris disappears down the other side. Peter leaps. Two feet left in the opening. His fingers catch. People pull on his legs from below, trying to bring him down so they can come up. Concrete grazes his arm. In the moment he falls to safety he glimpses his wife and daughter falling away from him, back down into the mob.

The siren screams and screams in his ears.

These bombs go off in clusters now. They have become clever, these terrorists.

The door seals with a deep rumble.

Oh, God, Kay. I love you.

He presses against the door, his chest pounding. He is unsure whether the pain in his chest is fear or loss and realizes it doesn’t matter. Chris is at his side, quaking. Peter slides down the door and gathers his son into his arms, tucks the boy’s head under chin. In a moment he feels his son sobbing.

“What about Mum and Meagan?”

The pain in Peter’s chest explodes. He has no answers. He weeps when the ground tilts beneath him; he clutches his son to himself. The sounds of grief keen through the shelter.

There are so many of them here – men, women, children, huddled together like lumps in a web. Their faces are distorted. Some scream. Some weep. Some try simply to organize in an attempt at normality. Some begin to strip and stuff their garments into plastic bags from the shelter’s supplies.

Reduce the risk of radiation. Reduce the risk of contagion. Mechanically he forces himself and Chris to do as the others.

He closes his eyes to shut out the faces his mind won’t stop recording. In the darkness there are only the faces of his lost wife and daughter.

Mercifully, grief exhausts him. He crawls to a corner and braces himself, tucking his son under his arm, his camera bag a pillow. It isn’t the first time he’s used it for a pillow.

There is a distant sound – the people in the shelter silence for it — thin, wailing, like the screams of all the world. It is the wind that comes after the blast. He knows if he can hear it they aren’t safe. That becomes apparent when a hairline crack snakes down the wall. It runs from the ceiling to the frame of the massive door.

This, he also shuts out. For a few hours he and his son will sleep. Perhaps carbon dioxide won’t fill the shelter. His mind flashes photographs of his wife and daughter, like a relentless slide carousel.

He wakes all at once. Chris stirs in his arms. He touches his son’s yellow hair. It is damp with sweat. For a moment Chris looks up at him. His eyes are odd. Fear swells.

Carefully, he eases away, checking his watch. He has slept twelve hours, enough time for one of the designer viral hemorrhagic viruses to manifest.

He glances around. There are so many people here, bundled into blankets, whispering in groups, wandering idly. He rises to gather information. The survival of his son and himself relies upon that. Yet even as he passes through this, the main room, he knows there is nothing of survival here. Already sickness seeps among them. One infant is dying. He can tell just by the way it wails, frail and helpless. Other children are apparently dehydrating, swinging through fits of stupor and hyper-excitement. The smell of ammonia hangs in the air.

From here he walks down a wide corridor off which many rooms and dormitories open. They are all as crowded as the entrance where Chris sleeps.

When he passes one doorway the smell of food stops him. A man stands over a Coleman stove, stirring something in a black skillet. Whatever it is, there is garlic in it – savoury, unusually home-like in this grim place. A woman sits at a table nearby, cradling a girl’s head on her shoulder. The girl’s eyes are glassy. Like Chris’

He steps into the kitchen and sees another twenty tables around which adults and children sit. It is then he smells the coffee – burnt, acrid.

He cannot stop recording the faces. As if to find a focus he walks to the woman and the girl. The man at the stove brings the pan to the table and sets it down, offering the woman a fork. As Peter draws near, the woman tries to feed the girl yellow eggs. The girl, her hair a meadow of tufts, whimpers and turns her face to the woman’s neck. A hopeless look passes between the man and woman.

They notice him now.

“She ill?” Peter asks. It is a stupid question, he realizes.

“She has cancer,” the man answers. “We were taking her shopping before her next treatment.”

His attention centres on the girl. She can be no more than ten. The lantern lights are harsh. His vision distorts so that there is only light and shadow. He thinks of the Sabatier effect, solarisation of film. She sits there motionless, all darkness and brightness, as if she were the print over-exposed to create art. Her hair forms the Mackie lines around her face – sharp scratches of whiteness where light meets dark.

With this light and a 100mm lens he could shoot at f8 for a normal exposure. But if he opened up to f4 that would over-expose by two stops, just enough to start the Sabatier on film. Just the way he had shot Meagan and Kay last year. The print won him acclaim in his last exhibition.

He blinks and the Mackie lines dissolve. There is only a girl sick with radiation. It is not cancer that kills her, he knows.

“She has cancer,” the mother weeps. “It’s the cancer.”

It’s not. He turns away to Chris, back through the corridor thick with people, back through the conversations of organizing, back through the people sleeping wherever they find a place.

His son still sleeps on the concrete where he left him, pallid, his head on the cushion of his arm. There are bruises on his son’s arms – ruptured cells, haemorrhaging. He knows when Chris wakes hyper-excitement will set in, his nervous system under attack. There will probably be seizures like epilepsy. He’s read about some of these new viruses. Science designed for destruction.

Carefully, he slides down the wall beside his son. He hides his weeping behind his hands, his shoulders shaking. How is he to save his son from this?

After a while Chris awakens and complains of hunger and the need for a bathroom. Peter nods and composes himself. He leads his son through the shelter to the bathrooms. From there they go to the kitchen and find a meal being served. They sit. They eat.

He watches the girl who has cancer. She is still lethargic, resting her head on her arms.

His attention flicks back to Chris. The boy shovels canned stew into his mouth, oblivious to the chatter around him.

A man shouts over the noise, bringing the room to silence. The organization of survivors begins. There has been no radio contact. They have no idea if rescue is coming. A doctor is identified, then a biologist. Other people with their own fields of expertise come forward. Labourers, office workers. Peter stays silent. They will have no need of photographers. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. He doesn’t believe in digital photography. All his film is exposed, he knows. Use a dirty bomb to deliver a double threat.

The meeting goes on for hours. There are arguments over plans of action. He becomes aware of Chris sleeping against his arm. Carefully, he carries his son back to their corner. Chris sleeps while he remembers those last moments when he lost Kay and Meagan.

He wakes to the sound of people calling breakfast. Now there is a queue for food. Oatmeal.

He takes coffee and makes sure Chris eats. They find a table and sit.

The girl with cancer fidgets this morning, dark smudges like charcoal under her eyes. Her mother leans toward her, whispers. The girl bursts into tears and flees the room.

At lunch he catches only a glimpse of her as she darts in for a peanut butter sandwich and darts out.

When dinner is served she doesn’t appear at all. He can hear her, though, racing through the shelter, screaming. Her mother sits at the table and weeps, her husband’s arms enfolding her.

That night, after the lights darken, Peter’s attention is drawn by a flurry of sounds near the kitchen. He rises, walks, his steps quicker as he sees lights. When he enters the kitchen the girl thrashes on the floor in a seizure. The doctor is with her, trying to free her tongue. Too late. She bites it. She screams and screams. Her mother sobs in great shudders, clasping her hands to her face. A foul smell rises from the girl as she loses control of her bowels.

“It’s the cancer,” the mother mumbles.

The doctor stares at her bleakly, returns his attention to his dying patient. The blood won’t stop coming.

Peter turns away, his hands impotent, and makes his way through the sleepers to his son. He eases down the wall. With his fingers he traces a line along his son’s cheek. He presses his lips against that cool skin, straightens.

He flips open the bag filled with two cameras, film, lenses, flashes. The Nikon is in his hands. It is a battered camera, all manual, better artistic control that way. The 100mm lens is on. His favorite. A lifetime of creation in this camera.

He fingers the black strap, his attention sliding to his son who sleeps fitfully. The strap is still strong, even after al these years of use.

He inhales sharply and slips the strap around Chris’ neck and pulls. His vision of his son blurs, as if he were shooting a frame with a Vaseline screen. Chris kicks, his hands tight around his father’s arms. Peter tries not to look, his eyes hot with tears, his skin crawling with horror.

He still weeps when he goes back to the kitchen for a chair, brings it to where Chris lies, climbs it, hooks the camera over a support beam, ties a knot that will tighten with weight, and slips his head into the strap. No one pays attention when he kicks the chair out.

Monday, July 21, 2014

At Union published in Postscripts to Darkness, vol. 5

My dark speculative fiction short, At Union, appears in volume 5 of Postscripts to Darkness this month.

cover art by
Cherry Valance


The story is about a train a father meets at Toronto's Union Station, hoping to find his daughter who died of leukemia.

The gang at PstDarkness are hosting a launch on July 31, which happens to be the day after my birthday, in Ottawa, at the Raw Sugar Cafe.  Some of the authors appearing in this issue will be there to do readings: Evelyn Deshane, Alexander Polkki, and Matt Moore, along with cover artist, Cherry Valance.

Copies can be purchased here, although I see the good folks at the mag haven't yet added volume 5 to the offerings.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Dreaming the Serpent Spear, by Manda Scott


Dreaming the Serpent Spear (Boudica, #4)Dreaming the Serpent Spear by Manda Scott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this the final novel in Manda Scott's Boudica series, the entire historical credibility of the novels falls apart for this reader. Scott seemingly abandons research in favour of complete immersion into lucid-dreaming and its alleged effects upon the physical world.

Her portrayal of pre-pubescent Grainne, who was raped by half a century of Roman troops, goes beyond any hope of credibility. If the child lived after such brutality, it is highly likely she would have been so traumatized both physically and emotionally as to be incapable of functioning, yet Scott has Grainne discussing military tactics and strategy with her elders, a discussion a healthy, functioning child would be hard-pressed to conduct, let alone one as brutalized as Grainne.

Scott further weaves the not very subtle threads for a possible Arthurian link here, which she admits in her author's epilogue, a literary device perfectly acceptable if one were writing fantasy, but certainly not for any kind of credible historical fiction.

Character point of view looses any coherence in the final novel, so that within any chapter the reader might first be presented with Grainne's point of view, then switch to Breaca's, or Valerius', or any number of others. Where the editor was leaves me wondering.

There is a substantial scene Scott has woven into the denouement which seems of little relevance to the story arc other than the author's own fascination with the Iron Age peat bog find of the Lindow Man. This scene completely arrests the tension and action, and again one has to wonder about the editor assigned to this novel.

For me, a disappointing end to a middling series.

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Review: Dreaming the Hound, by Manda Scott

Dreaming the Hound (Boudica, #3)Dreaming the Hound by Manda Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Certainly Manda Scott must be applauded for her research into the era and subject matter, as her surrounding details are vibrant and for the most part credible. Characters are larger than life. Were this marketed as historical fantasy, certainly many of my criticisms would disappear. However, the entire Boudica series is, alas, not marketed as historical fantasy, rather as historical fiction, and it is there I find fault. Why? There are several reasons, however foremost of these is the overarching neo-pagan, fringe spiritualism in the guise of lucid dreaming which forms the backbone of much of the series.

While the concept of seeking dreams and spirit guides certainly is prevalent throughout many indigenous societies, the physicality and causality of the dream-sequence has never been given any scientific, credible corroboration, and so to credit Eceni and other native British tribes with the ability to manipulate weather and events through the act of lucid dreaming stretches the bounds of what might be considered historical fiction.

And in this, the third book of the series, Scott very much relies upon lucid dreaming and the effects this has upon her main characters.

An entertaining read, especially if the reader sets aside the question of credibility in historical fiction.



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