The Practical Implications of Immortality

Title: The Practical Implications of Immortality

Author: Matthew Dooley

Summary: Fresh from winning the 2016 Jonathan Cape/Comica/Observer prize, Matthew Dooley returns with his second collection of comics. Featuring tales of astronauts, milkmen, and more existential angst than you can shake a stick at, The Practical Implications of Immortality is a characteristically witty and often surreal follow-up to Matthew’s first collection Meanderings.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I got this from my local comic shop on a whim (as most of my purchases there are–i love it). I just liked the art style on the cover and interesting title. It’s also a book of short comics, which for a 28 page book, made them pretty damn short!

The art is wonderful. It’s fairly simple, which make its small details, like facial expressions and texture, really easy on the eye. It’s also colourful, with a restricted pastel palette used for most of the stories. Basically any single panel from this book could be blown up and framed and i would gladly hang it on my wall (even the naked ones).

The stories themselves made me laugh out loud often and with great joy. A lot of them are quite… pessimistic, which makes the humour quite black. And that’s likely why it made me laugh so much. (It’s funny because (to my cynical self) it’s true?) A few of the best would be a pair of birds talking shit about Napoleon, a world full of Matthew Dooleys, and various wonderful ways to avoid an existential crisis.

My very favourite, though… the one that wrenched a proper good cackle from me, was this untitled masterpiece:

 

In summary: I loved it. I want to get my hands on Dooley’s first collection of comics, too, but unfortunately his website is sold out. Le sigh. If you get the chance, pick this up: £4.00 definitely well spent.

In the Flesh

Title: In the Flesh

Author: Cliver Barker

Summary: Terrifying and forbidding, subversive and insightful, Clive Barker’s groundbreaking stories revolutionized the worlds of horrific and fantastical fiction and established Barker’s dominance over the otherworldly and the all-too-real. Here, as two businessmen encounter beautiful and seductive women and an earnest young woman researches a city slum, Barker maps the boundless vistas of the unfettered imagination–only to uncover a profound sense of terror and overwhelming dread.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I disliked the last Clive Barker book i read enough that i didn’t think i’d ever pick up another. But when i discovered one of the creepiest films from my youth–Candyman–was based on Barker’s short story The Forbidden, i had to get my hands on a copy.

I was shocked and happy as soon as i started reading the first of the four stories, In the Flesh. It was instantly one of those stories where you know something isn’t right, where things aren’t what they seem, where there’s more to be revealed. It’s the kind of story that keeps my interest and keeps me reading. The characters were criminals, imprisoned, but they were sympathetic and likeable; i was scared for them and that had me invested in the story.

The second story was the one i’d been waiting for–The Forbidden. Much of it was familiar to me, having seen the Candyman film enough times. The creepy vibe of the film, and the Candyman himself in particular, came through in satisfying ways. But the story created even more, i think, than the film. The eerie, isolated feeling of the housing estate and the peculiar social structure are such banal things, but increase the macabre feeling in the story intensely. It draws on similar themes as High Rise, but with more of a horror twist and i loved it.

The Madonna is the third story in the book, and overall the weakest in a lot of ways. I hated the two main characters, so welcomed any nightmarish retribution that came their way. This was the one horror that i wanted to know more about, though. How did it/they end up inhabiting the pool? Do all their women come to them in the same way? What exactly happens to the creatures they raise? Where did they all go at the end? And in someways i think this was the story that dealt with more interesting themes and non-horror concepts. It’s the one story, maybe, that would work well as a longer story.

Lastly there was Babel’s Children. This one i liked a lot. It marked itself as different in almost every way from the other stories. It was obviously not a supernatural horror–it was a human one. Unlike The Madonna i feel like i got exactly the right amount of information to tell the story, without it begging more questions or being too full of answers. It was more like a mini adventure with an is-it-or-isn’t-it premise that was pretty delightful, actually. All the characters were likeable and it even made me smile. The end wasn’t sombre, but it did have weight and an unspoken captivity.

With not one story i didn’t enjoy, compared to the 700+ novel that failed to engage me, it’s clear Barker is a far, far more accomplished short story teller. While i’m unlikely to pick up one of his novels, i won’t hesitate to jump into another of his short story collections.

Through the Woods

ttwTitle: Through the Woods

Author: Emily Carroll

Summary: It came from the woods. Most strange things do.

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss. Come, take a walk in the woods, and see what awaits YOU there.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite a while, but saved it as I thought it would be the perfect halloween-time read. It was.

First, and most obviously, this book is gorgeous. The simple-but-striking cover, with creepy branches, limited colours and embossed feel is what drew me to the book in the first place. The art inside is just as striking. The panels are clean and uncluttered, bold in what they show. The use of negative space was incredible and added so much to the atmosphere of the stories (we’re not afraid of the darkness, we’re afraid of what the darkness is hiding). The artwork seems so effortless; it all flows and works so well. It’s not busy, but holds such detail. It’s just amazingly beautiful, and to say that of a graphic horror novel makes me so happy.

The stories themselves are similar, i think, in their simplicity and depth. Nothing is given away easily. The reader is let in on a glimpse of the tale, and it is in the art–the faces, the colours, the settings, the space–as well as the words, that the stories are told. The stories are generally heavy on the build up, on the back story, on the scene setting. A couple of times i found myself awaiting a twist, a big reveal, a spike in the action… but that wasn’t what these stories were about. There weren’t solid conclusions or explanations to these tales–that’s not the point. These stories are about a creeping horror, that crawls inside and makes itself at home. There was no release offered by an explanation or solid conclusion–that would be too easy.

I loved all the stories, but i think my favourite was My Friend Janna.

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The next time i want to feel a chill down my spine and wonder what’s hiding in the darkness, I will definitely re-read this by candle light while the wind howls outside.

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Why I Write

whyiwriteTitle: Why I Write

Author: George Orwell

Summary: Whether puncturing the lies of politicians, wittily dissecting the English character or telling unpalatable truths about war, Orwell’s timeless, uncompromising essays are more relevant, entertaining and essential than ever in today’s era of spin.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: I loved this book. It actually took me by surprise how enormously i enjoyed it, but i loved this book. I picked it up recently on a whim as a last minute purchase from a secondhand bookshop, and started reading it on a train journey when it was the only book i had easily accessible. For an impulse purchase and a last resort read, this book impressed me spectacularly.

I excepted this to be a simple, easy read about Orwell’s motivations and techniques when it comes to writing. It was actually a lot more. In the first essay his focus is on the writing, including, as he sees it, the main motives for writing and the general disposition of any writer. That’s where the simple stuff that most people will expect ends, though. Right there on page 10. The remaining 110 pages are where things get interesting.

The second, and longest, essay is easily my favourite. Though i can see if you’re not a politically inclined Briton it might not strike with the same energy. Orwell describes Britain and British sentiment and nationality as a context for its politics, before diving right into the politics and the second world war (which was happening around him as he wrote). It is brilliant, and there is no doubt the points he’s making are still relevant today. I underlined a lot of quotes. Most that stuck as incredibly pertinent to current politics, others that were simply magnificent insults, and on the best occasions they were both!

I’ve never found myself quite so into politics. Of course, i keep up to date with what’s going on and have strong-to-vehement opinions on it all, but this was the first time i remember being truly engaged on the right level. I think it helps that Orwell comes at it from a good angle. That angle being it’s a fucking mess and a hell of a lot more needs to change than simply the party in power. He’s my kind of reasonable (which is to say, perhaps, not at all)–he’s equally insulting and fed up of it all. He’s not pushing for a particular agenda or trying to persuade anyone of anything, just stating the facts as he sees them, and his opinion on where and how things are fucked up and unfair.

I can’t quote all my underlining (at least not in this review…), but i’ll include one that speaks broadly to one of the larger issues:

“…no one genuinely wanted any major change to happen. The Labour leaders wanted to go on and on, drawing their salaries and periodically swapping jobs with the Conservatives.”

The last essay focuses on politics in relation to language, and how meaningless speeches and literature can become when vague and inflated. A piece of writing that uses long words and fancy-sounding turns of phrase might seem impressive, but if you really pay attention to it, it isn’t saying anything at all. Seeing the examples Orwell gives, how he picks them apart, and comparing it to his own straight-forward way of writing really made me stop and consider my own writing style. (I’m feeling a little apprehensive about this review, to say the least!)

Some reviews i read from people who did not enjoy this book as thoroughly as I did claim it’s not about why Orwell writes, and I’m left wondering if they’ve ever read any of his other books. Animal Farm, 1984… politics is why he writes. Reading him talk in such an honest and straightforward manner about his political views was thrilling. Without the metaphors and refined prose of a fictional narrative Orwell is sharp, witty, and on point. I could have coped with this book being twice as long, honestly.

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Popshot Magazine: The Adventure Issue

wp-1472915662992.jpegTitle: Popshot Magazine: The Adventure Issue

Author: Various

Summary: Popshot is an illustrated literary magazine that publishes short stories, flash fiction, and poetry from the literary new blood.

From the pavement to the pubs to the playhouses, our peculiar little planet is full of storytelling. Popshot aims to publish just a few of the more articularte and well-observed versions of these stories, illustrated by some of contemporary illustration’s finest.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: My partner bought this for me randomly, thinking it would be something i’d enjoy. It is. A collection of short stories and poems, beautifully illustrated and brought to life. This magazine is wonderful.

It started off strong with two sci-fi stories. Shadows, the tale of two spacemen who get lost in darkness and time and aren’t quite sure they make it out unscathed. Seventh, set following an unspecified apocalyptic event, follows a girl travelling, trying to find the one person left who means something to her.

All the stories here include–i’m hesitant to say twist, as it’s not always as shocking as that implies, but they have something. The end reveals enough to change to mood of the entire story, to give more meaning and depth to everything you’ve already read. And that is how the best short stories are told.

A young girl accused of being a spy, or an elderly lady in a hospital? A shipwrecked man gradually exploring a trail of islands, or going backwards and forwards between two? A young boy leading his little sister into a dangerous situation, or attempting to share a touching moment they’ll remember forever?

My favourite story was Bucket List, in which a group of strangers share a balloon ride that turns dangerous. One of them saves the day and completes his bucket list at the same time. It actually brought tears to my eyes, which is quite a feat for a short story!

I’m not a poem buff, and they were more hit and miss for me here. I enjoyed several, while others feel flat for me. Without a doubt, though, the last poem–and final piece in the magazine–was the best. Some Other Day just captured something wonderful about personal growth, about change, and about leaving parts of ourselves behind.

Standout throughout the magazine is the artwork. Each piece is gorgeous in itself, but they both give and receive so much in relation to the words they represent. They string the stories and poems together and make the magazine as a whole a piece of art.

This was issue number 15 of Popshot magazine, and i’m extremely tempted to subscribe for future issues. They seem so wonderfully light, interesting and beautiful; i want more.

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

Stop-What-Youre-ReadingTitle: Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

Author: Various

Summary: In any 24 hours there might be sleeping, eating, kids, parents, friends, lovers, work, school, travel, deadlines, emails, phone calls, Facebook, Twitter, the news, the TV, Playstation, music, movies, sport, responsibilities, passions, desires, dreams.

Why should anyone stop what they’re doing and read a book?

People have always needed stories. We need literature because we need to make sense of our lives, test our depths, understand our joys, and discover what humans are capable of. Great books can provide companionship when we are lonely, or peacefulness in the midst of an overcrowded daily life. Reading provides a unique kind of pleasure and no one should live without it.

In the ten essays in this book some of our finest authors and passionate advocates from the worlds of science, publishing, technology, and social enterprise tell us about the experience of reading, why access to books should never be taken for granted, how reading transforms our brains, and how literature can save lives. In any 24 hours there are so many demands on your time and attention – make books one of them.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I love books about books, about reading and about the shared joy i experience with others who love books. This book, unfortunately, didn’t really live up to my expectations.

Very few of the essays in this book really stood out for me. Considering most of the authors are professional writers, i felt they did a pretty poor-to-average job of capturing the unique joy of reading we bookworms experience. Some of the essays focused on the author’s childhood and experience with books and reading as they grew up. A few included another focus, instead of the simply enjoyment reading brings, some chose to highlight how vital the ability is, how access to books is key. And though these were interesting and i agree with them, they didn’t evoke The Feeling or make a lasting impression on me.

The two essays i really enjoyed were the last two.

The Dreams of Readers by Nicholas Carr, though somewhat awkwardly written and including an abundance of direct quotes from others, captured the idea of books being both an escape to lose yourself in, and also an influence which transforms the reader. It talks about each reader bring their own experiences and interpretations to a book, and therefore each experiencing a different reading of the narrative. It’s a pretty simple and acceptable idea, but not one that’s often thought about or discussed.

To me that leads to questions about the subtleties and unique aspects of language; with such an array of connotations to words, meanings and inflection, can we ever know if we’re truly understanding each other?

Then Questions for a Reader by Dr Maryanne Wolf and Dr Mirit Barzillai takes the concept of reading transforming the the reader even further. They consider the history of the written word, how philosophers feared it spelt the end of individuals thinking for themselves, or thinking critically about the information presented to them. As we’ve proven since then, that’s not the case. But they also ponder the future of reading, with more reading happening online. When more words and information is only a click away and adverts and cat gifs are vying for the reader’s attention, how will this affect critical thinking?

In this case, I think the essay gives far too much credit and influence to the work and to the web. It assumes how the presentation of information changes is the only factor, rendering the consumer passive and easily influenced. I would argue the result depends more so on the reader. The reader has to want to critically engage with what they’re reading, and if they do, no amount of reddit or wikipedia links will deter them from that.

Overall, though, this book lacked the magic for me. It felt forced. It felt a little gimmicky. A “look, a book about books, you should read it!” attempt at selling a book, rather than a book that was genuinely about exploring people’s love of reading and trying to capture that feeling we get.

No Monsters Allowed

nomonstersTitle: No Monsters Allowed

Author: Various

Summary: Horror has a human face…

In a world over-run with vampires, werewolves and zombies, No Monsters Allowed goes back to the very roots of horror – humanity itself. The vile acts of our fellow men and women, the fears that hide in our own minds, the nightmares that inhabit our everyday lives . . .

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: This book caught my eye from the shelf in the library. I love horror and i love short stories, but what really got me interested was the human-horror element. So often the horror in fiction is represented as “other” be it in the form of monsters or disease or some such. But horror that draws on the cruelty and evil inherent in the human race is a horror you can’t tell yourself doesn’t exist when you’re trying to sleep at night. It’s scarier because it could be real–because it is real.

Overall the stories here were hit and miss. It’s not that any were outright bad, but that some didn’t hit as hard or leave an impression on me. And overwhelmingly the stories read as quite amateurish, which isn’t a criticism, per se, but the inexperienced writing didn’t help in the stories that were also weaker, and unfortunately did effect how seriously (or not seriously) i took the stories.

One story i really enjoyed was the second one, The Silence After Winter, which was about a woman and a young girl getting by following an apocalyptic event. Really, though, this story didn’t read as horror to me. I loved it because of its post-apocalyptic setting, and it certainly explored human nature and its drive to survive in various ways. But horror? Not so much.

Another great story was Puppyberries, about a new food stuff that takes a small town by storm for a short while. They don’t know what it is or really where it came from, but they can’t stop eating it. The thing is with this story, i was waiting for the human-horror twist for the entire narrative… and it didn’t come. I’m still baffled as to what the human-horror aspect was intended to be, as ending on the insinuation that the puppyberries had living things inside them that burrow out brings this story back around to a monster.

Bred in the Bone, Killer Con, and Precious Damaged Cargo are three excellent stories that hit human-horror spot on. For the first, i could feel the anticipation and the hidden horror throughout, and was perfectly satisfied when it was revealed. The second i loved as a commentary on society’s fixation with murderers and serial killers, with newspaper articles and books written about all the gory details–this story took that to a place and exposed the horror of not only the killers, but the public obsessed with them. The third one surprised me–i did not see that end coming, and i loved it!

My favourite story, and i think the one that struck me the most, and will likely stay with me a while, is Some Girls Wander By Mistake. I loved it because it explores sexuality and transgender topics, but within a horror setting. And the fact that it’s human-horror suits it perfectly. I also loved it because i knew where it was going, what the twist would be, but i don’t know how i knew. I just kept thinking, “This seems that,” and “It would be so good if this happened” and then it did. I just. Loved it.

Despite the stories being hit and miss, i did enjoy this book a lot. Mostly because the stories i enjoyed, i really enjoyed. I might actually have to re-read (and even photocopy?) Some Girls Wander By Mistake before i return it to the library. Damn, i really loved that story.

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Show Me the Map to Your Heart & Other Stories

comix-coverTitle: Show Me the Map to Your Heart & Other Stories

Author: John Cei Douglas

Summary: A collection of stories ranging from nostalgic coming of age tales to long distance relationships, being stranded on desert islands, coping with mental health problems and the childlike wonder of exploring fantasy worlds.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I picked this little book up at my local comic shop on a whim, and I’m utterly delighted with it. The whole book has this quiet, slowness about it. Reading it, i felt safe and warm and understood.

Several of the stories don’t have any words–no narration or dialogue–just the images of each frame to progress the story. I loved that, because it made me focus on the images more, to tease out what was happening through visuals alone. It also leaves the details of the story much more open to interpretation. Footnotes, for example, shows a couple in a long distance relationship gradually drifting apart, but without insight into their thoughts or conversations it’s left to the reader to decide how and why they ended up drifting apart.

One of my favourite stories was Living Underwater, which uses the idea of living underwater as a metaphor for depression and mental health problems. How you can slip into the water without realising it’s happening, how it can become an isolating ocean, and how you might be able to find the direction to dry land.

The title story, Show Me the Map to Your Heart, is wonderful. It puts a fantasy adventure twist on a new relationship, to explore the ideas surrounding discovering each other and yourself. The middle pages of the book are a large fold-out image mapping the trail the lovers take, it’s quite beautiful. And this story included my favourite line of the entire book:

Her heart was hole but lost

She was so caring she had left pieces of it behind, not thinking that one day she might need them herself.

This book was as comforting as a soft blanket and a cup of tea. I felt like I had those from reading alone, and for a book to evoke that kind of calm feeling was lovely to experience.

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The Wild Girls, Plus…

TWG+Title: The Wild Girls, Plus…

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Summary: Nebula Award winner The Wild Girls, newly revised and presented here in book form for the first time, tells of two captive “dirt children” in a society of sword and silk, whose determination to enter “that space in which there is room for justice” leads to a violent and loving end.

Plus… Le Guin’s scorching essay Staying Awake While We Read, which demolishes the pretensions of corporate publishing and capitalism as well; a handful of poems that glitter like stars; and a modest proposal.

And Featuring: Our Outspoken Interview which promises to reveal the hidden dimensions of America’s best-known SF author. And delivers.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I’ve yet to go wrong with Le Guin. She’s consistently interesting, well-written and thought-provoking. So much so i recently backed a kickstarter raising money to make a documentary on the life of the author.

The short story here, The Wild Girls, is the only piece of fiction in this collection. I love how simply and seemingly effortlessly Le Guin can lay out the details and intricacies of a society and culture. The class and currency systems, most especially, were odd but recognisable. In terms of plot, it’s simple enough, but this is quite a character-driven story. I rooted for those girls from start to finish, and though some justice was had, it was not nearly enough.

Where i really found myself loving this book were Le Guin’s essays. I absolutely adored Staying Awake While We Read, which addresses they ever-consistent, though somewhat low, number of book sales, and how and why this is seen as bad in a society that is unhealthily obsessed with economic growth. Le Guin make her arguments in witty and rememberable ways; she’s smart and pulls no punches. I really didn’t want that essay to end. Several times i wanted to pull out a pen and underline sentences or mark passages, only remembering at the last minute that the book was borrowed. I’ve had to settle to taking photographs and typing out quotes for tumblr!

I enjoyed the poems, though particularly the shorter ones–i think Le Guin can do a lot with few words. The essay on modesty was interesting, though didn’t grab me quite as thoroughly. And the interview, well… at points i felt for the interviewer, who quite obviously was not getting the answers they wanted, but at the same time, i adored Le Guin’s straightforward, humourous and no-nonsense responses.

There are several unread Le Guin books on my bookshelves, but i can promise they won’t be unread for long. And i plan to hunt down and read the hell out of any other non-fiction essays she’s written–i’m completely and utterly smitten.

Fragile Things

fragilethingsTitle: Fragile Things

Author: Neil Gaiman

Summary: Let me tell you stories of the months of the year, of ghosts and heartache, of dread and desire. Of after-hours drinking and unanswered phones, of good deeds and bad days, of trusting wolves and how to talk to girls.

There are stories within stories, whispered in the quiet of the night, shouted above the roar of the day, and played out between lovers and enemies, strangers and friends. But all, all are fragile things, made of just 26 letters arranged and rearranged to form tales and imaginings which will dazzle your senses, haunt your imagination and move you to the very depths of your soul.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 2.5/5

Review: I love short stories. I mean i really love short stories. So i’m not giving this book two stars lightly. But this books took me over a month to read; i wasn’t excited to pick it up to carry on reading. It just… wasn’t that good. It wasn’t all bad, either, though.

I really loved Other People, it was by far and away the best story in the book. It immediately started with a hook and ended with a twist that made the entire story make sense. That is the perfect kind of short story to me. It packed so much into barely 5 pages of words.

Another notably enjoyable story was Keepsakes and Treasures, because the characters and the back story were so developed–i would love to read more about Mr Smith and Mr Alice. Harlequin Valentine was interesting, another story with a twist. I thought the idea behind How to Talk to Girls at Parties was brilliant, but was uninspired by the execution. And of course, having read and loved American Gods, i really enjoyed The Monarch of the Glen.

But. But to be honest, most of the other stories were mediocre, or half-hearted, or slightly interesting but not developed enough. October in the Chair, for example. I liked both the idea of the months of the year as characters–the relationships and banter there–and the tale of the two boys, one alive and one dead. What i didn’t like were those two ideas in the same story. They detracted from each other, for me. Either focus on why the months of the year are telling stories around the fire and what their meeting is really about, of focus on the boys and their relationship and the meaning there. Don’t throw in as much weird shit as you can and call it entertaining–it has to mean something, too.

Honestly, i just don’t think short stories are Gaiman’s forte. Short stories are a different beast. As Stephen King aptly put it:

A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.

I did not enjoy these kisses; too much tongue, not enough pressure. Short stories have to punch a lot harder in a lot fewer words, and i think Gaiman shines more in novels. I absolutely adored American Gods, and enjoyed The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But i have to say i’ll likely avoid his short story collections in the future. Which is a very sad, telling thing for a lover of short stories to say.