Tuesday, February 18, 2014

SQ Magazine #5, November 2012

SQ Mag Edition 5, edited by Sophie Yorkston, November 2012

SQ Mag website
SQ Mag issue #5
Cover by Steve Thor Gunnin

Overall Rating: 5/10

SQ Mag is a free e-magazine from Australia which requires only an email for subscription, or you can simply read it online. Though I've been subscribing since the November 2012 issue, I've only now, seven issues later, finally gotten around to reading it. A speculative fiction and non-fiction magazine, it publishes science fiction, horror and fantasy, and the different intermingling subgenres of each. In fact, it promises to offer at least one story in each of these primary genres. Edition 5 contains five short stories as well as the fifth and final part of a serial, "The Searchers," by M.F. Burbaugh. Non-fiction is offered in various forms. There is an interview with author Garry McMahon, (by editor Sophie Yorkston), book reviews of two series installments, Deborah Harkness's Shadow of Night (by Mysti Parker) and Mark Walden's Earthfall: The Battle Starts Here (by Damien Smith), and a review of Rian Johnson's highly entertaining and sometimes loopy, loop-hole filled film, Looper (also by editor Yorkston).

It's the Holly Day story that makes this issue worth a read, though I have no comment on the Burbaugh serial, having missed the first four installments. (Yes, I know, I can check them out online, but I prefer my electronic reading on my ereader.) While the issue certainly maintains its commitment in offering genre variety, giving us space stations, vampires, and the post-apocalyptic, not to mention dolphins and horse-drawn carriages, overall the stories are flat and conventional, and even Day's stronger piece can use a little polishing. Though disappointed I will nonetheless read more issues since the mag does show promise. In addition, I read the issue in a day, almost entirely on bus and metro rides, so it makes for the often needful less concentrated quick reading.

The Memory Machine by Holly Day     7/10
At a house party something is greatly amiss. The adults are preoccupied with the well-being of little boy Bobby, whose vast knowledge lies in contrast with adult forgetfulness. With its near surreal opening, its sense of a fractured reality and the references to drowning, "The Memory Machine" is a story that slowly reveals itself, only half-way through allowing the reader to know what is actually going on. A tragic story in both its apocalyptic implications and in the more accessible aspect of parenthood. Somewhat reminiscent of the R.A. Lafferty short story, "What's the Name of that Town?" (Galaxy, October 1964). There is less quirky humour in this one, but the implications of mass memory loss in both are severe.

Azurewrath by Esme Carpenter     4/10
First person present tense tale of a werewolf dining among vampires. While invitations from one are often sent to the other, and hospitality is maintained, there is a mystery behind this particular evening's visit. Vampire's are equated here with stereotypical evil British nineteenth century landowners, while werewolves dote over their servants and children. Wonder who the good guys are? Not badly written, the story just isn't my cup of blood. I have a hard time taking vampire tales seriously, or stories where people say things along the lines of, "Good evening, my good man."

CSS by Warren Goodwin     4/10
Science fiction murder mystery/serial killer story. Our no-nonsense cop on a space station is investigating a series of gruesome murders of women in their twenties. Not a very good mystery or even science fiction story, it nonetheless has some atmosphere. Characters are flat and there is no real investigative process, with our stock anti-hero detective only accidentally finding and capturing the killer. Moreover, only late in the story do we learn that our bachelor cop has a lady friend, and guess whose in trouble? It lacks in the science fiction aspect since it tosses out some neat futuristic terms like insta-gloves, it does not delve deeply into the implications of its futurism. As mentioned there is some good atmosphere and the killer holograph has potential. With more fleshed out characters, patience, an investigative approach and twice the length, there might be a decent story here.

A Debt Called In by Michael B. Fletcher     4/10
After killing some thugs in a semi-self-defensive maneuver, a man flees from police and comes across a horse and cart. Desperate, he accepts a ride from the cabbie, but by then the reader has figured everything out. Reminiscent of some early television, including some Twilight Zone stories.

Bottlenose by Larry Lefkoqitz     4/10
Just when you thought it was safe to visit Sea World. At a US military dolphin training facility, Captain Sullivan has gathered his men (yes, they're all men) in order to piece together three recent deaths at sea. It appears quite possible that dolphins have killed these men. This is an idea story, so there is not much in the way of character or plot, just a lot of discussion on dolphin military involvement, alongside the movie Day of the Dolphin (which I actually enjoyed). Oddly, a critical comment on the film can also be aimed at this story. Another mystery whose reveal is conveniently tossed in:

Character: Who committed this awful deed?
Other Character: Must've been Bob, since he was there.
Bob: Drat! You found me out! My motive is I thought I was doing something good, but it turns out I am MAD! MWAHAHAHA!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Briefly: Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)

Mosley, Walter, Devil in a Blue Dress, NY: W.W. Norton, 1990

Devil in a Blue Dress at Goodreads
Devil in a Blue Dress at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For other Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Lauded for strong characterization and solid writing for a first novel, I have no observations to contradict the popular opinion the novel received on its initial release. What makes this quick read so intriguing is not the mystery plot, but our narrator Ezekial "Easy" Rawlins. His post-war instability, genuine smarts and his admission to mistakes in dealing with the investigation of the titular "devil," crystallize the narrative and transcends it beyond plot. The novel has attracted attention not only because it is well written, but because it is an important work in African American fiction, and also due to the interesting elements of his post-war stability and a "voice" that speaks to him at moments of overwhelming stress, also likely a consequence of post-war trauma.

As a mystery I found it unremarkable and at times even frustrating. Rawlins is well ahead of the reader in his thought process, which appears contradictory since narrator and reader are close and comfortable. We lose out on deliberation and the detailed process of putting the pieces together. Instead Rawlins can blurt out, in relating a conversation, "So-and-so was behind this-and-that!" Rather than generating surprise, shock and the expected response, "It was So-and-so!" I wanted instead to roll my eyes. This complaint is, however, a minor point, since there is nothing deceiving in the presentation of the plot. The mystery even becomes secondary as I found myself more interested in Easy's war-time experiences and many of his reminiscences of 1948 Los Angeles that I at times lost interest in the murder. I was hoping his instability would complicate his investigations but he manages to keep sanity in check. The presence of the truly unstable and immoral Mouse help to balance Rawlins's own mental issues, and keep him grounded and alert.

Though cardboard, characters are well portrayed and I like their diversity, especially since they are for the most part despicable. I like Rawlins mostly because of his flaws, but I do wonder how he manages to compose such a clear narrative of events. Must be that soothing yard and home that triggers his involvement in all this. I might even read the novel's follow-up, A Red Death.

And here is the cover of the Italian translation. Quite a different approach from the English language copies I've seen. While those emphasize jazz, blue dresses and black men, this one displays passion and race.

Monday, February 3, 2014

New Ghost Stories: Stories from the Fiction Desk 6

[Hyperlink removed--July 2017]

Note: This entry was proofread by Grammarly, an online correction tool I was asked to try out. Being somewhat arrogant I thought, "Pshaw! Me make mistakes?" Pasting this review into the corrector told me that mistakes indeed I do make. While I like being playful and forming odd sentences, and I consciously use sentence fragments and the passive voice, sadly, even after proofreading the text with mine own alert eyes, there were some basic grammatical errors. For instance, I conjugated "A pair" as though it were plural, left out an important apostrophe and employed repetitive wording. My greatest fail was not one but two misused pronouns, and I even managed to pull off a confusing modifier. I admit I did have fun using the tool and will continue for a little while, until my 30-day free trial expires. It is not a tool I would pay for, especially since the errors were (thankfully for my ego) few, especially at the asking price. Note that I was compensated for the one sentence blurb at the top with an Amazon gift certificate, but the paragraph below the blurb is entirely my own.

New Ghost Stories: Stories from the Fiction Desk 6, edited by Rob Redman, The Fiction Desk, December 2013

New Ghost Stories at Goodreads
The Fiction Desk website

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Featuring the winners of recent The Fiction Desk ghost story competition, editor Rob Redman explains in his introduction that the issue became devoted to the sub-genre as a result of receiving many strong competition entries. A superb decision, I think, as the sixth The Fiction Desk is among the strongest of the anthologies, and an occasional themed issue, in light of the consistently good stories in this one, would certainly be welcome.

We have seen ghosts wandering the pages of The Fiction Desk, so the themed issue is an extension of a part of itself, rather than a complete overhaul of its standards. In fact, the journal has published stories from most genres and can likely pull off a good collection from many. Ghost stories, however, are particular in transcending genre: while they are in their strict sense fantasies, ghosts can exist as horror, drama, satire and even strict comedy. Ghosts have haunted the pages of our most notable and recognizable serious literary personas, such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, yet critics of the twentieth century, while admiring tales of fantasy, quickly relegate contemporary ghosts to a sub-genre, and most often dismissing such tales. Rob Redman and the team over at The Fiction Desk, along with the authors bravely risking credibility and submitting their ghostly tales to the journal, have succeeded in putting together a volume that transcends genre. These stories are not about ghosts per se, yet like any great collection of serious fiction, are about so many concrete and versatile topics, yet happen to feature varying concepts of ghost.

The only story that did not grip me is Linda Brucesmith's "The 25th Caprice," despite some good ideas. Recipient of first place is Joanne Rush's "Guests," and is very much deserving of the prize. Second place is Julie Patt's "At Glenn Dale," and while a strong story, my personal runner-up is Miha Mazzini's effective "In the Walls."

At Glenn Dale by Julie Patt     7/10
A pair of feuding high school boys settles on a showdown at the abandoned and haunted sanitarium in the town of Bowie. Ghosts and varying asylums go well together, yet "At Glenn Dale" proves to be a study of character and place in the guise of a ghost tale. The collective narrator (a la Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily") helps elevate the tale to town myth, and since that collective voice is authoritatively familiar with the details of the showdown, I wonder if the narrative belongs to the ghosts themselves. The story received second place in the competition.

Journeyman by Eloise Shepherd     7/10
A run-down boxer living with his two sons grows increasingly anxious as there appears to be a ghost in their home. Some fine ambiguity and good focus on character make for a fine read, and the story is especially elevated by genuine creepiness.

Tom by Oli Hadfield     7/10
Twelve year-old Tom is being bullied at school and neglected by a mother who is focused solely on getting back father. His only comfort is friend Becky and a spirit'like presence that guides him along. A good vision of youthful harassment and familial neglect, I feel genuine sympathy for Tom and like that the narrator's identity and existence remains unexplained. Ghost is perhaps a less appropriate term since the voice can be from a boy forced to see the world outside of a shameful self.

Washout by Matthew Licht     5/10
A struggling pair of roommates head out to scavenge for a working washing machine and encounter death and a ghost in a run-down part of New York. While I liked the premise of a pair of scavenging men (I too have scavenged successfully in my younger days), I did not get immersed in the narrative voice nor the series of events. Licht's other two Fiction Desk contributions were better efforts: "Dave Tough's Luck" in Various Authors and "Across the Kinderhook" in Crying Just Like Anybody.

Half Mom by Jason Atkinson     6/10
Clara receives from her father an urn containing half of her mother's ashes (the other half are still with father). Father's plan is to force Clara to decide what they should do with the ashes, mother having died six years ago. Another good story from Atkinson, the author of two previous Fiction Desk entries, both strong stories: "Get on Green" from All These Little Words and "Assassination Scene" from Various Authors.

No Good Deeds by Amanda Mason     7/10
After helping an old lady with her trolley, a lonely woman begins to see and smell her everywhere she goes. Recovering from a severe head injury, she does not believe anyone would believe her, and must suffer her ghost in silence. A strong story in which, in many ways, our narrator is herself a ghost; unseen and existing rather than living. Though the old woman is a creepy nuisance, it is through her that our narrator can begin to come to terms with her trauma.

Chalklands by Richard Smyth     6/10
A more traditional story of a returning spirit, this one deals with family and reminds us we can never know everything about those we love the most. A tragedy for this family might not, in its own mysterious way, be as tragic for the victim, and we can't expect resolutions when dealing with family dynamics. Smyth is also the author of the title story in Crying Just Like Anybody.

Old Ghosts by Ann Wahlman     7/10
Two years after the death of her beloved husband, a woman reunites with him every night in bed. While the woman's mother and friends encourage her to move on, she can think only of heading home and being with her husband's spirit. Things get complicated when she meets someone. A strong, emotional story with an effective conclusion. The story does not explore whether the husband is a ghost or a figment of grief, but rather the idea of transitioning to another chapter in one's life and the terror in the prospect. A great ambiguous ending, leaving the reader with a vivid image.

The 25th Caprice by Linda Brucesmith     5/10
The devilish ghost of past master Paganini haunts current master violinist Pesha. A take on the classic notion of outsmarting the devil, the story features some fascinating details borrowed from Paganini's life, yet the plot is a little flat. And I for one couldn't help but think of that Charlie Daniels Band song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

A Whole Bloody Century by Jonathan Pinnock     6/10
A mourning man is at the church when he encounters a tramp muttering about a whole bloody century. Mourning for loved ones, as Poe has famously stressed, makes us wonder about secret everlasting life. Though there are no real surprises here, I liked this story, primarily for its straightforward narrator and that unfathomable idea of a whole bloody century.

In the Walls by Miha Mazzini     8/10
A successful businessman at a holiday party goes home with a woman and spend much of the night listening to the sounds of a sickly coughing child. An excellent story in its focus on character, its tight prose and genuine creepiness. Interestingly it is not the nature of the ghost that is compelling in this tale, but rather that of the narrator. There is an effective irony in a man being so isolated and distant from his family while being the potential conduit in reuniting a mother and child.

Guests by Joanne Rush     8/10
A freelance web developer is left alone when her husband heads to Bosnia on a secretive mission. Keeping to herself in their isolated home, a series of dead from the former Yugoslavia settle in her home. She soon begins to neglect her work as she becomes acquainted with the various ghosts, immersed in their stories, their histories. A story worthy of receiving its first-place award, "Guests" runs the gamut of emotions, from historical tragedy, mystery and even humour. In fact, the story is so immersive and its characters so concrete, that we forget it's centred around ghosts.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 4400: Blink

The 4400: Blink (Episode 3.7)
Directed by Colin Bugsey
Written byAmy Berg and Andrew Colville
Guest starring Brian Dennehy, Reynaldo Rosales, Linda Darlow and Matthew Kevin Anderson
First aired 23 July 2006
Rating: 7/10

Previous episode: The Home Front
Next episode: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess

Frequently television shows will insert a single-standing episode that is mostly removed from the main episodic thread in order to focus on character. A prime example is the short-lived series Odyssey 5, whose excellent entry "The Choices We Make" (ep. 1.6) features our five heroes taking time off from searching for invaders intent on destroying Earth in order to face up to the lives they might have led had they not been made responsible for saving mankind. In The 4400's "Blink," lead characters Tom Baldwin and Diana Skouris must confront the ghosts of their pasts when some cookies have infused them with vivid hallucinations. Tom is led to confront his relationship with his deceased father, while Diana is forced to face up to her back-stabbing former fiancĂ©. The episode is a welcome change of pace, while nonetheless incorporating The 4400 elements. This plot-line easily overshadows the Isabelle/Shawn engagement.

Via Tom's cookie-induced hallucinations we learn that he has issues with his hard-ass cop father, well played by tough-guy Brian Dennehy, a nice acting coup for the series. It doesn't matter that the story-line is common and sentimental; the two actors work well off each other and the idea that the father hallucination is tagging along on the investigation is amusing. No one is expected to cry at the denouement, but it is nice to see Tom's sensitive side, which was pretty much limited to a shot from season two of him rocking baby Kyle, telling son it'll all be okay. Or to those often awkward lovey moments with now on-the-run wife Alana.

For Diana it's her almost husband Josh Sandler who is haunting her, and through this encounter we learn something important about Diana: she has commitment issues. Though not at all considered in the episode, her commitment issue are nicely counter-balanced with the fact that she adopted Maia. Since she has no prospects of a husband, being so incapable of committing, her attachment to Maia's becomes so much more integral to her existence, and even makes the episode "Gone (Part II)" more accessible. Confronting these issues results in Diana's having to face herself, and having to dump Marco, a nice guy she is evidently leading on. I am comfortable with this act, particularly since I never felt that Diana and Marco were a true item. The chemistry just wasn't there. Even hallucination Josh recognized this.

The business behind the cookies is interesting: returnee Naomi Bonderman produces a kind of resin that leads people to experiencing hallucinations and forcing them to confront past issues. Unfortunately in some cases, like the episode opening sequence, this can involve traumatic memories of sexual abuse inadvertently leading to a person's death. Bonderman's resin was stolen and baked into some cookies, and while the identity of the culprit is apparent early on, I do like the motive. Described as a wayward young man, he was just trying to help people. Yet it isn't clearly explained how this resin was transformed into the drug named blink. Did our nice guy culprit sell a portion to some dealers, or did the dealers acquire it elsewhere?

There is some silliness to the episode, as expected. Whereas Tom quickly identifies that he is on blink, likely consumed from the mysterious cookies he received (duh!), he is nonetheless convinced that his deceased father is sitting in the back seat of the car. Diana is again given the good comedic lines: "I had a cookie too and I'm not seeing dead relatives." We also get to see Tom and Diana separating to investigate different aspects of the crime, but obviously this separation is so that they can each be alone with their issues/hallucinations. Obvious but necessary technique employed by our writers.

The opening, with the creepy "It's okay. Uncle Patrick's here," is effective and reminiscent of openings often employed by The X-Files. Patrick is a ghostly figure, appearing only in niece Erika's mind's eye, as objective bird's eye shots reveal an otherwise empty rooftop.

It's okay. Uncle Patrick's here."
In this episode Isabella and Shawn become engaged, and while both Shawn and Richard are opposed, they also both fear what the devil girl will accomplish if they oppose her mad wishes. It's good to have the interesting blink plot interspersed with the less-than-interesting Isabelle sequences in order to simply save the episode from the dullness the Isabella threat and Shawn submissiveness has become. I am at a point where I'd like Tom or anyone to do away with Isabelle. Take Shawn out too, at this point. I do wonder why the people of the future haven't punished Tom for breaking his part of the bargain in freeing the abducted returnee kids in "Gone (Part II)." And nothing has come of our hero presenting himself as being a man against his word.

"You can move things with your mind," Shawn says to Richard, the first reference to the latter's telekinetic ability since we first learned of his power. This is probably foreshadowing something to develop soon.

A good episode, the strongest in a while.

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