Encapsulate the book in one sentence? The queer life and times of the disparate people of a London street.
Intriguing, tell me more. On the day Concord Webster turns eighteen, the man a few doors down known as the Devil dies, and Concord is surprised to discover that his mother owns a key to his house. Curious, he goes to the local witch/midwife Mama Zepp who tells him the stories of the many people who've lived on the street, their loves, betrayals, and queer secrets.
Why this, why now? I've been eyeing In The Eyes of Mr Fury for some time - since it was first announced as one of Valancourt's re-releases - as so much about it seems calculated to appeal to my particular sensibilities. In the meantime, I devoured all of Philip Ridley's movies (discovering to my surprise that he is the man behind Heartless, a particular favourite of mind that I hadn't connected the dots to) and read Crocodilia, a vivid, wildly charged little book that I adored. And so it seemed I couldn't put off Mr Fury for any longer.
What genre would you say it is? In this iteration (this version is an extended 'author's preferred' version to the original publication) it is an intimate queer magic realist epic, an interconnected tapestry of stories invested with a rich sense of myth and tragedy. At times grounded in the drudgery of day-to-day life and at times leaping in flights of evocative fancy, it tells the hidden stories of a set of characters from diverse parts of the queer spectrum over several decades and generations.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? I devoured it, and yes: it did work for me. It worked for me in a way few books have in years, and leapfrogged straight into my favourites list. Put simply: this book is stunning. The characters are richly detailed, living breathing people lovingly rendered through the slow unfolding of the many secret lives of the Street. If the occasional sense that there really are an absurd amount of homosexuals in this Street arises, it can be forgiven by the self-conscious sense of narrative, and by it's underlying themes of queer chosen family (whether implicit or explicit) flocking together and what Mr Fury magnificently succeeds at is evoking that sense so particular to the queer experience of weaving legend of out of one's own stories. The magic realist elements (which I gather from the back matter are predominantly the elements added to the narrative) feed this sense of tragedy and joy, of stories being written from the texture of lives, with perfect precision.
What surprises did it hold – if any? From what I'd already encountered of Philip Ridley's work I'd expected a work evocative of the power of desire, with all the traps and frustrations and exhilarations incumbent with that. Mr Fury delivers on this, but I'd also expected a dose of cynicism alongside; Crocodilia, for example, is ultimately about stripping away the illusions and delusions of desire. But while Mr Fury never shies away from the pathos of desires kept long-secret, it is also pointedly a celebration of queer lives, and it ends on an unashamedly triumphant and decidedly romantic note.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There are so many beautiful moments within this, but the particular moment that stood out to me is the arrival of the grandfather in the balloon. A seemingly throwaway anecdote from earlier in the book about an ancestor who sailed away on a hot air balloon never to be seen again returns near the close on a moonlit night just in time to present a utopian vision of the world as it should be to our erstwhile Concord; it's a genius moment, both illusory and defiant, and I shall present some of it below:
Give me a good quote: 'That's it?! That's all that bothers her?! Jumping jellybeans, what's wrong with people on this tiny and far too watery planet?! I don't understand them... I just don't understand...' He took a deep breath. 'So far - in my lifetime alone - this overmoist blue globe has experienced Jack the Ripper, the San Francisco earthquake, the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of the Somme, mustard gas, the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, concentration camps, atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firestorm of Dresden, the Blitz on London, countless terrorist attacks, assassinations, revolutions, massacres, murders, as well as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches, floods, droughts, not to mention diphtheria, polio, cancer, Alzheimer's, as well as numerous collisions with meteors, the largest of which - in Tunguska, Russia - destroyed nearly eight hundred square miles of forest - and yet, despite all this constant death, suffering and heartache - when we all know our own life and the lives of those we love and cherish could be taken from us at any moment without rhyme or reason - we are still bothered if two people of the same sex fall in love with each other.'
Is it available today? Valancourt have re-released the book with the updated and expanded text from the author, which you can find here. Bonus: beautiful hardback with signed art card available!
Encapsulate the book in one sentence? "I refuse to become the gay superhero known as Disco."
Intriguing, tell me more. Kieran is a bit psychic, a bit psychokinetic, and a lot gay. There's a right-wing religious nut attacked Pride events, and Kieran's not having any of that. Kieran really loves Pride.
Personal Choice, Book-Pot, Re-read...? Personal choice. Bold Strokes sent me it to review about ::mumble:: years ago and I sorta forgot. Since then I've read a whole bunch of short fiction by Burgoine and become a fan. (I cannot rave enough about Psychometry of Snow.) I suspect the key to his fiction is in the restorative power of hairy men and cake, and I approve of that. Anyways, I figured it was about damn time I read Light.
What genre would you say it is? Technically it's a superhero origin story. It'd be quite easy to compare this to Perry Moore's Hero because we're pretty light on queer superhero stories to pick from, but the similarities are only superficial. Hero is all about adolescent rites and spandex costumes; Light is somewhere between paranormal adventure and gay romance. With some leather sexiness.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Read it in two days! And yes, it really did work for me. Burgoine has an undisputeable talent for writing light, funny and sweet that doesn't merge into meaningless fluff, and the book is nicely balanced between the romance and the telekinetic-superhero plot stuff so neither feel like window-dressing for the other. The dialogue is witty, the central relationship entertaining and believable, and the underlying menace of the religiously-motivated hate does hold quite poignant weight. Plus, bonus points for a novel that completely captures what I love about Pride events (i.e. community, belonging and inclusivity.)
What surprises did it hold – if any? I'm all for coming-of-age and coming-out stories, but it was surprisingly refreshing to read something where the main character was 100% okay with being gay, and so was his family. Not in an unrealistic shiny-happy-people way either, just different things to worry about. It was also much funnier than I expected. (That sounds like a back-handed compliment but isn't. Back-handed I mean. It is a compliment.)
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There are a few slivers of scenes of the young Kieran with his mother. Superhero origin stories are pretty brimming with dead parents, but Light makes the glimpses of this we get delicate and sad, and they are still moments in amongst the fast rush of the rest of the book that really sets off the whole thing.
Give me a good quote: Never gives me the time of day, and this twink gets his attention? Typical. I bristled. I am not a twink. I have black hair, and there's scruff on my chest, and quite frankly, twinks don't have thighs or calves like mine. So there. I glared at the bar guy, who had no idea we were having an argument and didn't seem to care that I was winning.
What do you mean, bad reviews? I like reading bad reviews of books I like. A few complaints from goodreads:
"Why'd it have to be fade-to-black sex." I wouldn't have complained either way, but I quite liked the sexy bit in the middle. There is such a thing as an overdose of cock, you know.
"Stereotype fag-hag 'hey-bitch' friendship with female character." I have many female friends. Some of the friendships are in that vein. Stereotypes do actually exist! There was a multitude of non-stereotypical characters to offset.
"He gave up his secret identity a bit quick to a guy he'd only just met." Got me on that one, to be fair. I didn't really mind. Given there's an in-the-closet parallel going on here, it kinda fit for him to be out-and-proud.
"That apostrophe in 'Nathan is ridiculous." How about the other 80,000 words in the book though? (Oh, he didn't like those either.)
"It's clearly the first in a series." Good point. WHERE'S MY SEQUEL?
Is it available today? Bold Strokes Books. Online in all the usual venues, and I've spotted it in a couple of indie bookstores in the UK; can't speak for the rest of the world but your local indie will be able to order it.
Encapsulate the book in one sentence? A man with a shadow for a heart discovers monsters on the streets of his Yorkshire town. Intriguing, tell me more. Eric is going to die; all the doctors say so. Until he doesn’t, instead making a miraculous recovery to full health that leaving him with shadowy heart beating on his chest that nobody else can see. With that heart comes the Umbras, vicious monsters leaving people dead all around town, and their presence will bring consequences for him, for his mother, and for the man he loves, and everyone else in the town. Why this, why now? I was sent the ARC of this so long ago that the book has been out for months. Why this now? I’m not so sure; the happenstance of just feeling like this was the next book, perhaps. What genre would you say it is? Heartsnare is a wonderful collision of genre. For me this is precisely it’s joy, though for some readers it may be the book’s undoing. On the surface this is urban fantasy, unhooked from its usual moorings and let loose on the streets of a Yorkshire town of job centres and council estates, parish churches and cheap-and-cheerful cafes. This switch in setting brings with it its own genre, a kind of kitchen-sink character drama that is given at least as much, if not more, care and attention as the supernatural elements. In fact, the external threat and the mythology it brings with it is introduced so slowly enough that for a fair chunk of the novel there is more of a feel of a bleak crime drama than urban fantasy, before finally the fantasy plot underlying the whole affair begins to take over.
For me, this is wonderful: the characters are fully fleshed, living-breathing creations, flawed in that way that makes them real and not in the tickbox way that writers often use that word. Williams cares as much for the personal dramas as the horrors of the Umbraverse (though is not to suggest that they aren’t present and vital to the narrative), and it is for precisely this reason that Heartsnare takes off, though I can understand why readers coming at this from either end of the genres might find it an uneasy mixture (though frankly this would have more to do with the readers’ expectations than it does the book itself). Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Yes and yes. Heartsnare is a breath of fresh air in so many ways: blackly funny in ways that both bolster and undercut the melodrama, stuffed full of sharply observed characters and interactions, and above all: British as fuck. This is neither stiff-upper-lip picturesque country gothic nor fetishised poverty porn; instead it navigates the middle ground of provincial ordinariness. It’s characters feel the pinch of money but they get by; they work crap jobs but they’re not saintly martyrs; some of them attend church but also make crude jokes about bonking the vicar. They’re rude and subversive and funny and sweet and arseholes when they want to be. It’s only when you read this that you realise how rarely these kinds of characters make it to the page, let alone as the heroes of fantasy or horror, and it’s a bloody gift.
Williams has a gift for prose, sharp and elegant, able to turn on a word from sinister and vivid to wry an humorous. There are some shivery moments of horror in Heartsnare (Marishka especially is a beautiful, horrifying creation of expertly-handled ambiguity) that linger longer after the book closed. Equally, (the bastard), Williams also has the knack for sharply observed dialogue, and there are more than a fair handful of blackly-funny laugh-out-loud moments amongst the darkness. Finishing Heartsnare I was put to mind of Stephen King’s earlier novels, with its small-town characters swept up in bigger things but always more than just a puppet on strings at the mercy of plot mechanics; if Heartsnare is anything it feels a little like the first third of one of King’s so-thick-you-could-mug-someone-with-them novels, with more to come as Eric gets drawn into the multitudinous possibilities of the Umbraverse. The book leaves us poised for a sequel, and no doubt this will be as fine as Heartsnare, though for all the imaginative places Williams could take us in the Umbraverse, I hope it also retains its hometown spirit. Give me a good quote: The cloud of flies disgorged her onto the warehouse floor. Marishka reached out her gloved hand, took hold of the nearest clump of grass surrounding the fat foxgloves, and with weak hands she pulled. Inch by inch, foot by foot, she clawed her way through the warehouse to the raised throne. The foxes of the grove, most silhouettes, stood to attention. Their eyes shone, almost accusing, and by the throne sat two foxes larger than the rest. These foxes, resplendent with their black and jade eyes, bowed to her as she approached but, given that she was actually crawling on the floor, this felt like an exercise in sarcasm more than reverence. Bad reviews? What bad reviews?! (Because, hey, writers don’t get to reply to reviewers, but reviewers can.)
“Did a toddler write this book?” Possibly; if so, this toddler has remarkably good grammar.
“A lot of nonsense and sarcasm used to pad it.” You’ve clearly never met a British person.
“Every odd statement end[ed] with ‘mate’ or ‘cheers'” Hello, have you met people?
“Like the needle in a haystack, you have to dig deep to find the essential story hidden beneath a huge pile of fillers.” I will actually treat this criticism seriously. As I said upthread, there will be a section of readers accustomed to fast-paced urban fantasy dominated by plot and mythology that find Heartsnare‘s preoccupation with the minutiae of its characters uncomfortable and offputting; that’s their prerogative, and I can see why this would be an unfamiliar reading experience for them. And really, that sentence betrays itself with the word ‘essentially’ for in that it clearly suggests that only plot mechanics are essential. Personally, as a writer and a reader, I think they’re dead wrong, and it was precisely the ‘fillers’ that gave Heartsnare is (pun unintended) heart.
Is it available today? Out now from Lethe Press. Soundtrack of choice: This isn’t all that representative, but I did listen to it while I was reading, and if you imagine it with that counter-programming effect that’s so popular with horror trailers these days it kinda works, so take this cover of The Automatic’s Monster.
Encapsulate the book in one sentence? A man diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour finds himself falling through the cracks of his own history, trying to make things right with the one that got away.
Intriguing, tell me more. The blurb: “With one diagnosis, editor James Daniels learns that he’s literally running out of time. Looking at his life, he sees one regret: Andy, the one that got away. Andy was the first man that James ever loved, but Andy has been gone for years, and might not want to be found. But as his cancer progresses and James starts to lose his grip on time and memory, it might just be that time and memory are losing their grip on James, too. It’s the biggest and most important re-write of his life. Restoring love from nothing but memory might be possible, if the past isn’t too far gone to fix.”
Why this, why now? Full disclosure: I designed the cover for the book, and so am ephemerally involved on the outskirts of this book’s existence. Which really answers the why this, why now question: firstly because I rarely miss a chance to read a new short story by Burgoine if I can, and secondly because, while I worked on the ebook, I caught snippets that whet my appetite. (And conversely to what you might expect, that’s quite significant: normally by working on a book in production I end up hating the damn thing, and never wanting to see it anywhere near me again. So In Memoriam beat the odds, you might say.)
What genre would you say it is? In Memoriam I suppose falls into sort of penumbral area between gay romance, drama and speculative fiction (which, in my opinion, is when Burgoine’s stories are at their best.) He has an enviable ability to tell stories that might be heavy-handed or cliched in anothers hands, stories that conjure emotion but invest them with warmth and subtlety, sidestepping over-earnestness or mawkishness. He also has an enviable ability to always be reviewers’ favourite story in anthologies I’m also in, but I’ll let him off because he’s so damn nice, and because this story is so damn good.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? I loved it.
I may even (shhhh… don’t tell anyone) have cried a bit. The bastard.
I will admit that this story ticks quite a lot of very particular boxes for me–honestly, you’d be quite hard pushed to design a story more calculated to kick me in the emotional soft bits–but that almost-creepy specificity aside: it is really just a great story. It’s both raw and unashamedly romantic at the same time, and handles the potentially-melodramatic subject matter with a light touch that still conjures empathy for and investment in the characters, apparently effortlessly. It’s brilliant; you should buy it, immediately, and if it wasn’t for the wonderful Psychometry of Snow, I’d say it was his best every story.
Give me a good quote: “It was so damn hot out. I took a sip of my water. It didn’t feel right to die in summer. Autumn maybe. Or winter. Winter was for dying. Death shouldn’t have a UV rating.”
Is it available today? Out now in kindle ebook and in audiobook format narrated by the estimable Jerry L. Wheeler.
Encapsulate the book (well, audio drama) in one sentence?
Welcome to the ‘murksome and swervish’ inside of Tom Baker’s head.
Intriguing, tell me more.
Tom Baker is dead, and hordes of actors are descending upon the village of Happenstance to mourn his departure. Thing is, things aren’t quite as they seem. For a start, there’s the elderly ladies about the village shooting lasers out of their knockers. For a second, there’s some shady monstrous villain in need of a decent telephone voice skulking about the place. And for a third, Tom Baker is not in fact dead, and may or may not be reincarnated as a giant cat. (What, is that not where you thought this summary might be going?)
Personal Choice, Book-Pot, Re-read…?
Fair disclosure: the author is a friend of mine, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Baker’s End since the project first took seed back at Christmas ’15. An odd encounter with a street-dancing dragon (christened ‘Klacky’) at Christmas became a short story on Paul’s blog, which became an email conversation with Tom Baker (as detailed in the liner notes of the CD), and morphed into ever more crazy stories until eventually it became Baker’s End, a bonkers tour through the inside of Tom Baker’s head. Every detail I gleaned was more gloriously absurd than the next, and I was champing at the bit to hear the finished product.
What genre would you say it is?
At this point, I think the only genre I can label it as is ‘Magrsian’. There’s a bit of Doctor Who in there, a bit of Midsomer, and lots of shades of all sorts of other classic TV shows (including The Book Tower!). The closest analogue might be Magrs’ Nest Cottage audios (from which both Baker and Susan Jameson return) which took the familiar Who format and stuffed it full of magic and myth and whimsy. Baker’s End is playing along similar lines: a capering, camp knockabout that, though it often appears light and fluffy on the surface, conceals deep dark waters just below the surface.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I’ve listened to Baker’s End three times now, and it gets better with every repeat. Given the heavy helping of absurdities that are thrown into the melting pot, the plot winds itself fairly tight for the first half, with the always-brilliant Katy Manning (as ex-costar Suzy Gozhawk) sniffing around the strange goings-on in Happenstance, but of course the real showstopper is Tom Baker as Tom Baker. But it’s more than that: this is Tom Baker as Tom Baker completely off the leash, with a gleefully barmy script that matches the full force of his personality, full of barnstorming, tongue-twisting wordplay and irreverent humour. It’s clear that every single person involved is having an absolute blast, and that joy sweeps you right along for the ride.
And, through the (pun unintended) happenstance of context, the appearance of Baker’s End at the end of a half-year full of celebrity deaths, unconcernedly parodying the death (and resurrection) of an entertainment icon lends a few extra shades of pathos to the whole affair. (And it further confirms my theory that if Bowie was holding this world together at the seams, Baker is probably the final thread still standing.)
So yes, in short, it definitely worked for me. I’ve read/listened to bordering on everything Paul Magrs has ever written (I’m a bit of a fanboy–can you tell?) and would unreservedly place this up there with the best he’s ever produced.
Give me a good quote:
There is one particular moment, involving the villain’s telephone conversation, that had me crying with laughter, but it’s untranscribeable, so instead, take a listen to the trailer, which gives an excellent idea of just what to expect:
Is it available today?
‘Tis indeed. Bafflegab got you covered. And while you’re there just, y’know, buy everything else they’ve ever put out. (In all seriousness, please do go buy, because that ups the chances of the series continuing past the next two planned installments.)
Soundtrack of choice:
I really struggled to find something appropriate as my soundtrack choice, and this is as close as I can get, because honestly, did you not realise that your life is completely missing a trance remix of the Midsomer Murders theme?