Sunny sneak peek…

Less than a month now until Edge-Lit, the sci-fi, fantasy and horror fiction convention held annually in Derby (conveniently, about ten miles from my house). I’ve bought my ticket, I’ll be there – partly to see/hear loads of excellent speakers and to stock up on books (obv),  but mainly because Sunny with a Chance of Zombies (published by Knightwatch Press, including my story Run, Rabbit)  is being launched there. Yay!

To whet your appetite (and because I found it online today), here’s a sneak peek of the cover art, by Stephen Cooney:


The book features stories by some fabulous authors – and me, who somehow snuck in there. If comedy zombies are your thing (and let’s face it, what’s not to like?), get in touch with the editor Dion Winton-Polak to preorder your copy. If you do it before Edge-Lit, the attending authors will even sign it for you. (Well, I will, anyway. Possibly whether anyone asks me to or not.)

Sunny with a Chance of Zombies

For the last week I’ve been hopping about with excitement, desperate to celebrate and start shouting about something, but not quite sure whether it was allowed. I hung on, biting my lip, hugging myself with glee and squeaking quietly every so often, waiting for permission – until now, when, with great joy and a nod from the editor, I can announce that I’ve had a short story accepted into an anthology! Sunny With a Chance of Zombies, published by Knightwatch and edited by my online chum Dion Winton-Polak, comes out in July (announced here), and my story Run, Rabbit made it into the final choice of twelve.

Utterly delighted by this – Dion and I have known each other for a while (he used to run the Scrolls podcast at the awesome Geek Syndicate, and I contributed from time to time), and I’m so chuffed to be a part of his latest literary venture, I can’t even tell you. Run, Rabbit is the first properly creative thing I’ve written for ages, and I very nearly didn’t send it off – but so glad I did.

And the best thing of all is that the antho is being launched on 11th July at Edge-Lit 4, Derby’s annual sci-fi, fantasy and horror literature event – which is taking place at Derby Quad, a whole 25 minutes away from my house! I’ve been invited, and I’ll be there with knobs on and a massive stupid grin on my face. In fact, the massive stupid grin is already in place, and will probably stay until July.

Book Review: Zombie by JR Angelella

When I started reading it, I was not sure where to place this book. The title suggests horror and zombies (that word alone is currently a sure-fire way of selling books or movies, if ever there was one), but the narrative is much more closely aligned with a classic coming-of-age story, interspersed with movie-geek observations about zombies.

Now, movies are not really my thing – I fall asleep in them, despite my best efforts, and I also fall asleep in discussions about them. In view of this, I did wonder whether I would be able to get into Zombie at all, given that the world view of the main protagonist is largely laid out according to the zombie movie genre. However, as the story went on it did engage me and keep me awake, and it also made me laugh (and cringe) more than once.

The main character, Jeremy Barker, is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives his life according to the Zombie Survival Code, a set of rules for surviving zombie infestations which he has distilled from genre movies and adapted to fit his life. Boiled down, the code advises one to avoid eye contact, keep quiet, forget the past, lock and load and fight to survive – a social survival kit which serves Jeremy reasonably well in his unusual domestic situation.

His family is profoundly dysfunctional. His mother Corinne is absent, a drug-user who has taken off with her boyfriend Zeke and left her two sons Jackson and Jeremy with their tie-obsessed, Vietnam vet, realtor father Ballentine, a man who has a Purple Heart and a talent for disappearing. Jackson has also left home in favour of in a flat where he lives in squalor and staggers from one sexual fling to the next, leaving Jeremy alone with his father.

Jeremy is a misfit in his first year at Byron Hall Catholic school for boys, and the author’s depiction of the casual and daily cruelties of school life is highly effective. Jeremy is reflective about his experiences, and perceptive about his own motives and those of others, but he is annoyingly unable to act on his perceptions and make himself less of a target. He befriends oddballs and echoes his father in his rather prissy lectures about the relative merits of different tie knots, but his skilfully written internal monologue elicits both tension and sympathy.

The book is slow to pick up – for the first third of the story very little seems to happen. We learn about Jeremy’s life and family, and we wonder how far and where his preparation for the zombie apocalypse will take him. The sinister mutilated figure of Mr Rembrandt, a teacher at Byron Hall, stalks through Jeremy’s and his father’s lives, creating a real sense of unease that is exacerbated by the disturbing video footage which Jeremy finds in his Dad’s ‘Box of War’.

However, we also learn that Jeremy is hyperexciteable and his parents have him on Ritalin, but he stops taking it which sends him into a spiral of accelerated perceptions and emotions. The narrative drive of the book increases in intensity significantly towards the end, with Jeremy’s hyperactivity reflected in his actions and in his first-person internal monologue.

The author warned me to buckle up for the last thirty pages or so, and I know what he meant; without his controlling drugs Jeremy’s life accelerates rapidly, and at the story’s climax there is genuine horror and fear, culminating in a stomach-churning scene of violence that leaves both Jeremy and his father broken in their different ways.

One criticism of the book is that it has no real sense of conclusion – the bad things happen but the bad people aren’t caught, and after some fallout Jeremy’s life apparently moves forward smoothly, albeit with a new and rather more sinister reputation at Byron Hall. The neat-and-tidy-storyteller in me wanted more resolution – what was going on in that house at the end of the book? Why? The philosophical treatise delivered by the villain as justification for his acts of appalling violence is compelling, but there is little sense that Jeremy challenges it – or even understands it, in a meaningful sense.

In the final analysis, however, the book left me with the overriding notion that weird stuff goes on in people’s lives all the time, but it is rarely correctly interpreted or dealt with by society. We all have unexplained, unexplainable events in our lives, and our privileged view into Jeremy Barker’s head gives us his (biased, hyperactive, teenaged, obsessive) story. The view of others, and of society, regarding the same events will necessarily be different – and maybe all the more horrifying because of that. The book was a compelling read, although it may not appear to be so during the first sections; stick with it, because the end delivers intensity and uncertainty in roughly equal measure.

Zombie is published by Soho Press, and is available in paperback and electronic versions through all the usual outlets.

Book Review: Dead Mech by Jake Bible

Dead Mech arrived on my Kindle in the middle of a flurry of online purchasing, when I was doing my usual trick of massively overestimating the number of books I might be able to read during a week’s camping holiday (estimate – seven or eight; buy ten to be on the safe side. Actual – one and a bit). I didn’t buy it entirely blind, however – I looked up Jake Bible on the internet and was intrigued by the idea behind this, the first novel in the Apex trilogy, which is written as a series of drabbles.

For the uninitiated, a drabble is a piece of micro-fiction of exactly one hundred words in length. Along with the current vogue for flash fiction, drabbles represent a fast, modern, digestible way of showcasing a writer’s talent, and would seem to be custom-designed for the internet. Dead Mech represents the first in a new style of book – the drabble novel. That is, a novel-length story written entirely as a sequence of drabbles. The book first existed as a series of podcasts, but was published in 2009 as a full novel.

The story is a post-apocalyptic gore-fest of zombies, Transformer-style technology and big guns. Humanity has been ravaged by a zombie plague, which brings the dead back to life as a mindless ravening horde intent only on feeding from the living. The uninfected huddle together in heavily fortified outposts scattered across a barren wasteland, desperately defending themselves from the undead – and, it turns out, from each other.

The mechs of the title are huge 50-tonne war machines, piloted by men and women who are closely integrated into their hydraulic and robotic technology. The story centres around a small cadre of wise-cracking mech pilots and their support staff, based in a tiny outpost and defending the nearby city/states. However, the living are not the only ones to pilot mechs – when men and women die while piloting their war machines, they come back, and their mechs come back with them. These dead mechs are insane, driven only by their zombie pilots’ hunger for living flesh.

The style of narrative, driven by the drabble structure, is punchy and sharp, and Jake Bible has done a decent job of editing down and staying within his self-imposed hundred-word limit. However, there were significant sacrifices made in terms of lyricism, exposition and description; the staccato style meant that the flow of the story was often compromised, with changes in point of view from one drabble to the next and few descriptive or characterisation passages which would have added a great deal to the world-building.

Having said that, after an initial acclimatisation period and apart from occasional hiccups, the drabble structure became more or less invisible through the middle section of the book. However, the plot is complicated; by the end there were many different groups all fighting the zombies according to their own agendas and with shifting allegiances and alliances. This was hard to keep up with because of the fractured narrative, and my immersion in the story broke down repeatedly as I had to flick back to find out who was about to get blown up by whom, and why.

The manuscript also would have benefitted from at least one more round of editing. There were a significant number of errors in the text, ranging from at least one inconsistent spelling of a character’s name to an unforgiveable and repeated confusion between your and you’re. I also need to point out that while I’m not averse to swearing in books – in fact, I’m very partial to a bit of creative and inventive cursing – I did feel that the swearing in this book was neither inventive, creative nor necessary. Given that the drabble structure imposed a strict word limit on each micro-segment, the author could have saved himself an awful lot of words simply by using the word fuck less often. Just saying.

In summary, then, if you like your fiction fast-paced and full of shooting, stomping, splattering, swearing and zombies, Dead Mech is the book for you. It’s a ripping yarn of a story carried through with a decent amount of aplomb, but for me the book had significant shortcomings in terms of narrative structure and style. I do applaud the author for his discipline and inventiveness in sticking to the drabble structure, but ultimately I don’t think the drabble novel will catch on as a style of literature. I suspect the author also reached this conclusion, because the second and (forthcoming) third books in the Apex trilogy are standard novels – which I may well read, the next time I feel in the mood to splatter a few zombies.