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September 2011
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New Releases: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Monster CallsThere's a pattern that applies when we talk about the wars fought by a previous generation, to convey our respect, and our sympathy, for those who experienced unimaginable horrors. We talk about courage, about bravery, about sacrifice, about tragedy and about surviving. These words are, we know, weak, meaningless, useless. But they're all we have. They're the only way we can reach out, even a little, to try to touch a thing we can barely conceive. To try to let each other know that we recognize that there is a thing even as we acknowledge that it's not a thing we'll ever truly understand.

There's a reason people use the same language to talk about terminal illness: the battle with cancer, the courage of the terminally ill, the bravery of the family, the sacrifices made. The tragedy. The surviving. A terminal illness is a thing as vast, as unfathomable from the outside, as devastating from within, as a war. And we, standing just beyond the perimeter of its direct influence, must speak of it as sympathetically, as respectfully as we can. 

When you're in the midst of it, though, it's not about fighting; it's about anger. Fury, really. And it's not about courage; it's about fear. Sheer, unadulterated terror. There are no battles, and there is no bravery. There's only weakness, and shame, and the exhausting futility of it all. 

Adults have some understanding, smeo knowledge somewhere, of why it is people say these things. Why they feel pressed to ask how you are, really. How you're holding up. To tell you how brave you are, what courage you've shown. These meaningless little rituals are precious because they give us a way to talk around something that can't be talked about. 

But they're beyond meaningless to children. Not because kids lack depth or the ability to imagine the abstract or whatever. Because they haven't yet learned that these rituals are a coping mechanism, a way for people to approach the unapproachable.

I was eleven when my father died. 

It was cancer; we knew it was terminal, and it lasted fourteen months.

And I was angry. And afraid. And ashamed.

There was no escape, no release, no safe place. For fourteen months I dragged the knowledge of his illness and impending death after me. I could barely express what I was thinking and feeling, and I didn't want to talk about it anyway. And I couldn't wish for it to just be over, because it would only be over once he was gone. And I couldn't wish him dead

So it just sat, and I sat with it. We were trapped together, it and I. 

It left me, the evening my dad died. It became a fixed point in history while I moved further and further away. But it kept part of me with it.

It's been more than two decades since my father's death, and in that time I've only found a few things that get it right. All the children's literature about the deaths of beloved pets, sweet grandparents, even parents - they're just circling around it. They're all trying to make meaningful points about love and loss and growing up and moving on and the circle of life and the quality of mercy and on and on.

Few things have ever struck me as being about the truth of it.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that Patrick Ness' A Monster Calls isn't one of those other books. I cried most of the way through it. I could not distance myself from it. I couldn't even pretend to read it as anything other than that eleven-year-old.

So I don't know whether it's a good book.

But I can say that it's a true book.


Anne (@thefingersofgod) is sending the monster straight to voicemail next time.

Underground Reading: Casino Moon by Peter Blauner

A tale of crime and punishment - Peter Blauner's Casino Moon (1994).

Casino moonCasino Moon was originally published in 1994 and then picked up by Hard Case Crime in 2009. It is feels surprisingly epic for a Hard Case Crime selection, and, indeed, Casino Moon starts out like some sort of Tolkienian (or Martinesque) adventure. Our hero, Anthony Russo, is the prodigal son. His adopted father, Vin, is a sort of mid-level Mafia hood. Russo wants to go his own way. He sees the corruption and the grinding servitude of the mob life and he desires something better. Russo's ambitions are also overshadowed by memories of his real dad. Like any good fantasy novel, his true lineage is royalty. Michael Dillon was the prince of mobsters - a man with sharp suits, big dreams and, ultimately, a bullet in the face. 

Swap bullet for sword and mob for throne and this really is the set-up of a fantasy doorstop. But that greatly oversimplifies the character of Anthony Russo. It rapidly becomes clear that Russo isn't disgusted with the mob life out of some moral principle. Russo crusades under one banner: Anthony Russo. He's crushed by debt to his kingpin uncle-in-law, his contracting business is rubbish, his wife and children are a stifling, unappreciative mess... Russo just wants out. He identifies with the "legitimate" casino tycoons of Atlantic City who saw their chances, took them, and now get to wear sharp suits and have great hair. 

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The Weeks that Were

What we've been fiddling with for the last two weeks. 

If you missed it in SFX, the winners of the 2011 Kitschies will be revealed at the SFX Weekender 3. The Kraken hits Wales! We're huge fans of the Weekender and can't think of a better venue to reveal the year's most progressive, intelligent and entertaining books. Friday, 3 February, 2012. Hope to see you there. 

On the Pandemonium side of things, we're pleased to share that Tate Britain will be carrying an extremely limited edition of Stories of the Apocalypse. For the latest information on the anthology as it approaches release, please check out the site and sign up for the mailing list.

And now for the really fun part - the reviews!

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Friday Five: 15 Ridiculous Monsters

Friday FiveThe Dragon. The Roc. The Kraken. There are some truly awe-inspiring creatures in myth and fiction. There are, however, also some less impressive beasties. We scoured our minds and our libraries for our favorite silly creatures and look forward to your contributions in the comments.

This week, we're ably assisted by Pandemonium contributor and taxidermist Oz Vance. Oz, who assures us he is in no way 'wonderful', hails from New Orleans and claims that he spends 'upwards of half his day making shit up for tourists', which inspired him to 'go pro' and become a writer.


The Rougarou is the Creole werewolf. The name comes from the French - loup garou - but the Rougarou has more in common with the Native American Wendigo, another example of the cultural gumbo that makes New Orleans such an interesting place. Your average Rougarou tall tale features a man driven to cannibalism and cursed by a witch. He runs around for a hundred days or so until he's shot. Occasionally he's cured, generally after being shot. Anne Rice never got around to the book.

El Chupacabra is an ungainly varmint with nothing better to do than exsanguinate livestock. The poor bastard seems to spend most of his time in Texas, but he's swung through Louisiana more than once. One trigger-happy Texas rancher thought he brought him down, but it turned out to be a coyote with the mange. Any monster than can be mistaken for a coyote with the mange won't cause me to stay awake nights.

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Underground Reading: Another Western Round-Up

Man from the BadlandsThree battered Western paperbacks. Three outsider gunmen. Three beautiful fair-haired ladies. How do they all compare? J.T. Edson's The Big Hunt and Paul Evan Lehman's Stagecoach to Hellfire Pass and The Man from the Badlands.

Even though my collection of Westerns is largely formed at random - scavenging bargain bins and basement shelves, Paul Evan Lehman is a name that's suspiciously over-represented amongst my books. Although it is unfair to generalize after only finishing two of his books, I can already see a pattern. Mr. Lehman writes creative set-ups to familiar situations. The conflict is clever, but the results are predictable. However, one of his strengths is an attention to detail. Even if the heroics are unbelievable, Mr. Lehman paints an unexpectedly meticulous picture of life in the West.

In The Man from the Badlands (1965), the set-up involves water rights. Nominally, that's a bit dull, but Mr. Hale uses a dry issue (sorry) to make for an interesting conundrum. Stan Hale's land adjoins that of the Ward family. The Wards have better land for grazing, but their water comes downhill from Stan's property. So far, so good.

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The Repairer of Reputations: In Secret by Robert Chambers

In secret - dust jacketIn Secret (1919) certainly begins innocently enough.

Mr. Vaux of the Postal Inspection Service is interrupted by one of his many minions, a beautiful blonde heiress-cum-codebreaker, Miss Evelyn Erith. Evelyn has discovered a dodgy letter, sent to a German man in New York City. With her "hazel eyes, a winsome smile, and hair like warm gold", she talks Mr. Vaux into a series of spectacular hijinks. The two break in to the German man's home, aid in his arrest and then have a merry loot for his codebook. All the while, Vaux (engaged to another frothy blonde, although she's absent for this farce), does his best not to admire Evelyn's figure and her derring-do.

This airy rom-com takes up the first quarter of In Secret. Vaux is then quickly forgotten as Evelyn finds Kay McKay, Scottish-American war hero. McKay, as Evelyn knows from her decoding of the spy's cipher (oh, he was a spy - no German is to be trusted), is a wanted man - he knows "The Great Secret". Sadly, he's currently a ruined man - captured by the HUN, McKay has been forced into alcoholism. Somehow, he still escaped from his prison camp in Hunistan, but even back on the safe Yankee shores of New York, McKay is a gibbering wreck. In the course of a half dozen pages, Evelyn gives McKay the cure - sweating the booze out of him and helping him rediscover his inner man-manliness. 

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New Releases: The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown

Kings of EternityThe Kings of Eternity (2011), by Eric Brown, is a tale of divisions. The primary, narrative separation is between the years 1935 and 1999. In the former, two writers are summoned from London to help an editor friend out with "strange lights in the woods". In the latter, a reclusive author on a remote Greek island decides whether or not to open himself up to making a new friend.

Of course, there's also everything in-between. 

In 1935, one of the writers is Jonathan Langham. He's got a vaguely promising career in front of him, a vaguely satisfying relationship with an actress and a vague sense of purpose that's somehow wrapped up with his dying father. His relationship takes a turn for the worse (oh, actresses!) so when his slightly bonkers editor calls and asks him out to the country, Jonathan jumps at the chance. He needs a break and the run of the brandy bottle - the chance of a mystery is an unasked-for bonus.

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Friday Five: 15 Ideal Imaginary In-Crowds

Friday FiveFrom D&D groups to writing circles to Warcraft clans to cons, we geeks are a naturally social bunch. Put six of us in a room and, by the end of an hour, we'll have elected a President and Secretary-Treasurer, set up the WordPress site and given everyone a slightly-embarrassing nickname. And that's the way it should be. Take that, organised sports - you don't have the monopoly on camraderie!

This mentality is reflected all through genre literature and media. We've all flipped through a comic and thought, "I'd sure love to hang out with them...". We've each pondered up our five favorite gangs - why not join our club and contribute your most delectable clique in the comments?  One of us... one of us...


The X-Men. Being in the X-Men means a bunch of things. A) I probably live in a sweet mansion in upstate New York, and all I have to do to earn my keep is spend a couple of hours a week teaching physics to snot-nosed mutant kids. B) I'm a mutant, and I'm an X-Man, so I've probably got an awesome power. I'd like to fly, turn invisible on command, and stop time, please. C) I live with a lot of really, really hot people. They're probably all pains in the ass, yeah. But they're hot pains in the ass. I'm going for Gambit first.

87th PrecinctThe 87th Precinct. How best to consider the philosophical implications of life in the big city? Be an officer in the titular police precinct of a decades-running series. And, honestly, I think I'd be happy just nosing around in McBain's austerely gorgeous prose for the rest of my life.

The Rescue Rangers. I don't know what purpose I'd serve - they've already got a smart member, a funny member, a strong member, and a leader. Also, they're two-inch-tall, clothes-wearing vermin. But handy, nerdy Gadget was my hero when I was about ten, and so I choose the Rescue Rangers in honor of her: not Gadget, but that decidedly unhandy, too-nerdy little girl I was.

The Swiss Family Robinson. On the one hand, I'd be stuck on a deserted island with my enormous, annoying family. For, like, years. And yeeears. On the other hand, I'd get to live in a massive fucking tree-house. It's all about your priorities, after all. And my priorities are: tree-house.

Speaking of problematic, but awesome, families: I think I'd like to be a Greek god. Con: incest. Pro: I'm a god. Clearly all the good, old-fashioned powers are already taken, so I'll probably wind up being the god in charge of, like, circuit-boards. The god of curcuit-boards. Win.

SPECTRE. Someone's gotta be the bad guy.

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Underground Reading: Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill

Robbie's WifeRobbie's Wife (2007) is an original Hard Case Crime novel from author Russell Hill. It was nominated for an Edgar as the Year's Best Paperback upon release. Mr. Hill has a background writing critically-acclaimed cross-genre works (including post-apocalyptic SF) and Robbie's Wife is no exception.

Jack Stone is an aging, stumbling Hollywood screenwriter - not an industry that's kind to folks outside of their proverbial fifteen minutes. Six months after a divorce, struggling with writer's block, Stone upends himself and heads to England. "Why England?," his aggrieved agent asks. "It's an ocean away," Jack responds (16). Armed with his diminished life savings and a laptop, Jack winds up on these soggy shores, looking for a miracle.

At first, inspiration is hard to find. London is damp, bustling and cramped (and the breakfast fry-ups are terrible). Bravely, he rents a car and escapes to Dorset. Jack has a brief stop in Lyme Regis to take in some culture and then heads back on the road. However, a few too many lunchtime pints leave Jack incapable of driving, so he's forced to stay with a local farmer who also hosts guests as a B&B.

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Underground Reading: And Eternity by Piers Anthony

And Eternity (US)And Eternity (1990) is the seventh and concluding novel1 in Piers Anthony's "Incarnations of Immortality" series. Like almost all of Mr. Anthony's series, Incarnations began promisingly enough before quickly crumbling into madness, redundancy and squick.

The series is built on a nifty little concept. The major abstract functions of human existence are actually offices - the management level of some cosmic bureaucracy. The first book, On a Pale Horse, introduces Death - assigned to harvest a quota of souls. The second book, Bearing an Hourglass, brings in Time, in charge of eradicating paradox. Etc. Etc.

Each book follows the same formula. A not-so-everyday bloke completely unlike you or me gets elevated to the position of Incarnation. There, he fumbles about with his office while Satan (The Incarnation of Evil) hatches plots. Eventually our Incarnation hero comes up with an ingenious way of using his power to outwit Satan. The Devil is foiled. Huzzoodily-doo. From a plot perspective, the bulk of the series is repetitive and harmless - just another excuse for Mr. Anthony to stretch a promising concept to the breaking point.

Mr. Anthony can only write two characters - the clever, active male and the attractive, passive female. That's not an uncommon flaw in fiction. Mr. Anthony circumvents this problem in the Incarnations series, however, by having all of his protagonists somehow related (as opposed to, say, Asimov, who only had male leads and just gave them all the same name). It is the best way of explaining way everyone looks and acts the same: they're genetically similar. We've all probably done this in a D&D campaign - it beats the effort of rolling a new character.

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