Dragon #15

Not one I found anywhere special — bought from a catalogue many years ago — but been with me for a good number of years. I use fake candles with it so as not to risk dripping wax on the figure. Larger than I expected when I got this fellow. Picture taken somewhere I used to live.

Reads of 2021

Taking a look back at my favourite reads of 2021. I’ve tried to choose one a month, but for some there really wasn’t an choice, and towards the end of the year, I had more than one impossible option to choose between.

In January, I read Incubus, the first book I’ve read by Joe Donnelly. Though distasteful things happen to women in this book, without them the story wouldn’t work. One might call this the ultimate in evil child tales, but it passes beyond into true monster territory. For some, the book may feel too long, but the strength comes from the inexorable build. The power comes from the writing, the sustained sense of menace, which creeps under the skin and into the mind. A brilliant idea for the horror genre, expertly executed.

Next, I have to jump to April with my first book by Ania Ahlborn. Although lower down on my lists of favourites, I felt I had to list The Bird Eater by a woman of horror. The book truly takes off from Chapter Two because in Chapter One I felt the opening pages threw too many names and too much background at the reader, but once I got close to the end of what read like a prologue, I fell into the story. Once I got to the end, I realised how well plotted the overall story was, all the threads interwoven. The odd grammatical redundancy jarred me out of the story but it’s otherwise superbly written with a proper sense of a descent into madness as someone’s psyche unravels, tormented by evil spirits perhaps of the supernatural world and of one’s own making. My first book by this author, but it won’t be my last.

In June I enjoyed another Firefly novels, The Magnificent Nine, by James Lovegrove. Book two of the Firefly novels. Not as enjoyable as the first, but primarily featuring Jayne Cobb it’s still fitting, like watching an episode. Not as rewarding, but the next best thing and the closest fans are likely to get to their beloved Serenity and its crew these days. I wasn’t sure I believed one of the plot points, but am inclined to be forgiving to the books of my favourite series. I also love how they present these paperbacks and hope the quality in both writing and presentation continues.

Also in June, The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell surprised me. This gothic chiller takes off slowly but picks up once the ‘companions’ make an appearance. I love the idea of them in this well-plotted gothic mystery. Alas, it’s impossible to tell why without giving away the creepiest part of the book. I’m pleased to have stumbled across this book. The only (small) negative is the sound the author describes as a ‘hiss’ does not appear to relate to the cause of the noise. I would liken it more to a rasp, and the narrative does indeed call it a rasping hiss at one point, which made no sense to me, and didn’t seem to relate to what the protagonist experiences. That slight discrepancy aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

I enjoyed the above book so much in July, I picked up The Corset, also by Laura Purcell. Written differently to Purcell’s first book (The Silent Companions) in first person so with a different ‘voice’, still, this drew me in immediately. How best to describe Purcell’s work? Victorian gothic thrillers with supernatural slants, perhaps. Some books only reveal how well the plot works at the conclusion, and this murder mystery connecting two women from opposite sides of society is one such novel. This tale didn’t disappoint and pulls at the heartstrings. Despite not wishing to take on new authors adding to my To Be Read Mountain, I’m sorely tempted to continue reading more work by this author.

Another book picked up in July was Survivor Song, by Paul Tremblay. If looking for your average apocalyptic disaster infection outbreak story, this isn’t it. Instead, I stumbled into what the first-rate stories of this genre do best — focus on the survivors, this being the tale of two women connected by the shakable bonds of genuine friendship. While I wouldn’t call this book scary, it’s more effecting than that, containing true horror of a possible reality, not your average fairy-tale monster, reflecting light on the madness of humanity and the horror we watch and read in the safety of our darkened living rooms versus true adversity. Well-paced with ingenious ‘breaks’ in the narrative (gaps on the pages) that work on the emotions. The story of ’Nats and Rams’ is unforgettable. Painfully, tearfully, sorrowful.

The best book I read in August has to be The Elementals, by Michael McDowell. I’m so pleased to have read this. I loved the setting and the characters, which create a unique atmosphere for this haunted house story. The heat portrayed makes you want to lie around doing nothing but melting and reading this book. There are some truly spooky scenes, though I found the buildup more sinister than the ending. Towards the end, the book feels a little rushed because of the languid though absorbing journey to get there. Indeed, I found the slower parts of the book carry the more eerie aspects, so that when the story speeds up, as a climax should, it almost diminishes the scare, leaving me feeling the novel was over too fast. Still, the curious happenings and daunting disturbances are worth spending time with.

September gave me my favourite read of the year, but before we get to that, Quite Ugly One Morning, by Christopher Brookmyre deserves a mention. I have to admit some of the Scottish colloquiums escaped me, though I got the gist. This humorous thriller set in the shady world of the NHS is so perfectly plausible and entertaining, it’s almost a must-read. I loved the character of Parablaine and would definitely read more work by Brookmyre if not for my to-be-read mountain. Highly recommend.

No One Gets Out Alive, by Adam Nevill immediately presented itself as my read of the year. I would plough through Adam Nevill’s work if not for my to-be-read mountain and the fact that would leave me waiting for him to write more books to devour. In anticipation of the upcoming Netflix adaptation, I wanted to read the novel first. This is a horror story of two worlds, urban despair and cruelty wrapped up with supernatural dread and distress, and it’s difficult to know which contains the most terror. The story also takes a necessary tangent towards the end that piles on more anxiety, questioning the main character’s sanity. Much of the story is relentless, and we waited to read the book before we watched the film…which was good in a different way, but nowhere near as enjoyable as the reading experience.

October gave No One Gets Out Alive, a contender for first place: The Ruins, by Scott Smith. A book with a slightly misleading title, in that it led me to expect adventurers finding something terrible buried beneath the earth or in some old tomb. If I say it’s about a strange vine, no doubt many will want to move on, but this book’s saving grace and what lifts it above B-Movie status is it’s so well written. There’s no letup, and no doubt left in the reader’s mind. The narrative draws you into the characters’ plight, makes you root for them regardless of their personalities. Makes the reader plead for a rescue. The narrative, sadness, predicament, and dread are simply relentless.

Another high contender came in November: Kill Creek, by Scott Thomas. Although the character of Sam McGarver is the protagonist of this novel, all four fictional authors (McGarver, Cole, Slaughter, and the unforgettable Moore), are in a sense all main characters of this trip into horror. And like the work they produce, they represent various facets of the genre, which makes this (in some small way) a book that questions the meaning of horror as much as it’s a part of the category itself. Undoubtedly a slow burn, this book will naturally invoke mixed reviews, but it instantly drew me in and I happily went along for the ride. The horror comes in snippets until it reaches an ultimate pay-off. I throughly enjoyed this, though it’s not for those who want an in your face terror fest, or those who don’t have longer than average attention spans. My only negative is I have to wonder if people could carry on moving while suffering such severe injuries even though they’d be running on adrenaline, but this is fiction, would make an excellent film, and we’ve seen people suffer through worse in the make-believe world of the cinema.

Another book which deserves a mention in November was Fevre Dream, by George R.R. Martin. Martin is a writer best known for the Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones), but if readers were to overlook his other work, that would be a pity. Fevre Dream is an easy reminder of what sets this author apart. A richly drawn tapestry of life aboard steamships ferrying goods and passengers up and down the Mississippi, blended with a gothic helping of vampire mythology. Most striking of all is how the author brings the steamboat captain, Abner Marsh, alive in full coarse realism. Never has a protagonist so ugly been so wonderfully memorable. The story at once romanticises its setting and characters, simultaneously making them powerfully gritty. It’s possible to feel the heat and damp and oppression of the steamboat work, the river, the weather, and of society itself. There’s something classic about this book (references to Mark Twain abound entwined with Bram Stoker, and that’s a fair definition). This is no lightweight vampire tale or novel. Good for those who like a richly portrayed backdrop to the action. Atmospheric, and beautifully layered storytelling.

I thought no more truly excellent books were to come my way in the final month of year when I stumbled on in December, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E.Schwab. Lovely in hardback with a simple raised copper and blue design. Look under the dust jacket to see the attention put into every detail. The first quarter of this book felt a little overlong though I put that down to the tense not being one I favour, yet by the time I reached the end, the style seemed perfectly suited to tell this story. The more I read, the more I considered what life would be like without ties, without friends or family, and whether, at least sometimes, we truly need to be careful what we wish for. I believe I picked out at least one continuity error; however, despite any flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully painful dark fantasy with a romantic subtext. A book which crosses genres. Someone destined to be forgotten makes for an unforgettable character. I loved her rebelliousness most of all. I even felt some affection for the terrible ‘darkness’ which transforms her life, and wondering who would truly win the final ‘battle’. Heart wrenchingly emotive with an ending which may require tissues.

With so many good books, I still feel No One Gets Out Alive is top of my list, with a few running an extremely close second.

Update Dec 2021

Hi Everyone!

AT HOME:

Alas, my planned acupuncture got cancelled for various reasons, but I struggled through travelling in pain, so got to spend Christmas with relatives, then returned home for my birthday spending a few quiet days to try to get me and life back to ‘normal’ ready for the new year.

FILM/TV:

Watched a few Christmas films and has the age old debate of whether Die Hard constitutes a Christmas movie. I lean towards no. Just because a film is set at Christmas, it does not make a Christmas movie. However, what surprises me is everyone focuses on Die Hard but not Die Hard 2. Definitely a Christmas setting there. We watched both. One of my favourite Christmas films, is the original version of The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant and David Niven. One of those we watch almost yearly.

Watched the eagerly awaited season of The Witcher. I hope Netflix carries this through to the full conclusion covering all the books, and I know the books are a series I will reread one day. Alas, we learned Netflix won’t be making another series of Cowboy Bebop. Torn about that. I can understand why it failed, yet we would have watched.

Still watching Castle. Catching up with seasons 11 and 12 of the animated Archer. And we’re watching the US version of The Office. Whereas I usually dislike American adaptations of UK shows — the sense of humour doesn’t often carry well — I have to say The Office is an exception. We enjoyed the English version, and equally like the US show. It has quite a British film and I often forget I’m watching a US series.

READING:

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E.Schwab

Lovely in hardback with a simple raised copper and blue design. Look under the dust jacket to see the attention put into every detail. The first quarter of this book felt a little overlong though I put that down to the tense not being one I favour, yet by the time I reached the end, the style seemed perfectly suited to tell this story. The more I read, the more I considered what life would be like without ties, without friends or family, and whether, at least sometimes, we truly need to be careful what we wish for. I believe I picked out at least one continuity error; however, despite any flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully painful dark fantasy with a romantic subtext. A book which crosses genres. Someone destined to be forgotten makes for an unforgettable character. I loved her rebelliousness most of all. I even felt some affection for the terrible ‘darkness’ which transforms her life, and wondering who would truly win the final ‘battle’. Heart wrenchingly emotive with an ending which may require tissues.

Invasive Chuck Wendig

If I graded this along with my favourite books, I might drop half a star, but basing this novel on its own merits and the genre, it’s a solid 4/5. One review on the cover claims it to be one for fans of Michael Crichton and I can understand why. Its fast pace and solid imagery makes for a book a reader can plough through. The threat feels real, as does the inevitable countdown to time running out. The march of endangerment is as inexhaustible as the unrelenting insectile invasion, though this is no B-Movie. There’s a disturbing note of truth on the evolutionary, environmental, and genetic interference scale that’s all too sadly believable. Of course, this is a stretch of the imagination, but in this type of story, that’s what the reader is looking for. An enjoyable read, though not for anyone suffering from Myrmecophobia (fear of ants).

A Simple Plan, Scott Smith

After reading The Ruins, I sought other work by this author, who appears to have written only one other fiction book. Most stories require the reader to root for the antagonist. Oddly, this book required no such investment for me. The characters are quite unpleasant, taking things that would shake many of us to the core in too casual a stride. It’s the excellent writing, and the swiftly escalating events that kept me riveted to this story. Having said that, it practically pushes those events to their limit. The reader needs to set disbelief on an extremely high shelf. With The Ruins, this was easier to do because of the supernatural circumstances, but this story is a thriller with a setting of reality making that harder. Still, I enjoyed the book to the last 100 pages where the repellant characters, particularly that of the lead, became far too irksome. I enjoyed the story, and appreciate what the writer did, but also found myself irritated even though I feel it was well worth reading. The closest person to an innocent (other than the baby and dog) is Jacob, owing to his childlike and easily led nature. Still… it’s something to create work that pulls the reader along when there isn’t a main character to cheer on. NOTE: It’s only one scene and over fast, but those who cannot abide animal cruelty possibly should avoid this; for me I struggle, though it ‘depends’ on the story. Here I felt the author made a terrible mistake, and it’s unnecessary. I get the function of the scene, but by then the reader doesn’t need to be reminded how low the character has sunk. I want to give this book 5/5, but because of a few quibbles, I must knock a star off.

Krampus the Yule Lord, Brom

Not the tale of terror I expected, but there’s still much to like about this book, not least of all the drawings by Brom, artist and author. I didn’t find the pace terribly fast, and I questioned Jesse’s patience/impatience, which seemed erratic, even though Krampus doesn’t give him much choice. In short, I would have liked the book to be a little more emotional, both in the feelings portrayed and what it invokes, but for anyone who likes the darker side of Christmas tales, this is easily deserving to be identified as classic.

Naomi’s Room, Jonathan Aycliffe

Some passages in this book feel more tell than show, no doubt because it’s written in first person, making the recollections of the protagonist’s investigation into the background of the hauntings occasionally a little tedious, but the spooky happenings were more immediate, speeding by, and kept me riveted so that I finished this book in a single day. The supernatural occurrences are unsettling as they should be, though not frightening. Still, the picture of child murder and the lonely cry of the restless dead is well portrayed, making Naomi a painfully real character. Surely a must-read for those with a liking for ghost stories, though some elements spoilt the story for me. Alas, I’m unable to say more without spoilers, and when reading a horror novel (which this is undoubtedly is), it’s hard to be selective regarding scenes of torment. What disturbs one reader another person will shrug off. What seems ‘acceptable’ is a matter of semantics. I thought this would be an excellent film.

WRITING

I plan to do a final edit and then submit a Work in Progress which until contracted I’ll call ST for now. I’ve a preliminary date for publication for March 2022.

My last publication in 2021 for pre-order was my short story, The Gift, in the Lethbridge-Stewart anthology Operation Wildcat published by Candy Jar Books.

http://www.candy-jar.co.uk/books/unitoperationwildcat.html

Stay happy and healthy!

Sharon x

Best of Wishes for Christmas 2021

As I don’t intend to write anything over Christmas, I thought I’d share a couple of photos of our tree before I sign off until my next post, which will be an update either before or just after the new year.

We got the tree two years ago and we love it. Love the open, real tree, nordic feel to the design. This year we put on a set of new lights in both warm white and cool white. We can turn both on at once or have the functions morph from one to the other. Love these lights.

At present we’re just hoping we get to see relatives as planned. Whatever you have planned, whatever your beliefs, and whatever you choose to do this year, I hope things go well. Best of wishes to everyone.

Operation Wildcat

Super excited and so pleased. Was a bit of a secret until now. I was asked to submit a story to this anthology. It’s great to be asked to write for something. It contains my story The Gift.

Ever wondered what happened on Benton’s first official day in UNIT, or why he left to sell used cars? Ever wondered how Benton earned his sergeant stripes? Or what he got up to on his days off?

The UNIT Files: Operation Wildcat & Other Stories, and The Benton Files 2, are now showing on the Candy Jar website for pre-order.

https://www.freewebstore.org/candy-jar-store/UNIT__Operation_Wildcat/p676602_21486739.aspx

https://www.freewebstore.org/candy-jar-store/UNIT__The_Benton_Files_Book_2/p676602_21486743.aspx

As Operation Wildcat is a hardback, orders will receive a free art card and a copy of The Benton Files 2. Alas, if you order The Benton Files 2 in isolation, you don’t get a free hardback with it!

Join  the Brigadier and Benton in nine short stories looking at life in the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. 

How Does UNIT select new recruits? And what happens when the clean-up after an alien incursion goes wrong? In Operation Wildcat and Other Stories, you’ll find these things out – and a lot more.

Features stories by Tim Gambrell, Simon A Brett, Iain McLaughlin, Sharon Bidwell, James Middleditch, Baz Greenland, Sarah Groenewegen and Jonathan Macho.

Update November 2021

Hi Everyone!

AT HOME:

There are a few craft markets around from now until the end of the year and we’re visiting the odd one. Our local market is going to be open for a late night once a week for the next three weeks. I’ve booked in some more acupuncture, though right now just hoping it calms things down and helps make me more comfortable, as I could only get 2 sessions until the new year.

FILM/TV:

Finished Squid Game, which had a bit of a shock ending that had me swearing (can’t reveal why without spoilers). Been re-watching Castle as we never saw the finish and it’s been a long time. And started Cowboy Bebop, which is Netflix’s attempt to take an Anime series and make it live action. It’s basically bounty hunter western in space. Does it succeed? I don’t know as I’ve not watched the source material. I think if not for John Cho playing Spike Spiegel, I might not be so taken with it, but it’s visually striking and ticking along nicely so far.

READING:

Listened to Alien: Out of the Shadows, by Tim Lebbon. Not a bad dramatisation which fits into the Alien universe between the first Alien film and Aliens the second in the franchise (it doesn’t appear to at first, but it covers this towards the end). Wanted to listen as Rutger Hauer reads the part of Ash and the woman who reads the part of Ripley sounds remarkably like Sigourney Weaver, which adds to the experience. Not that the story is faultless. A lot reminds one remarkably of characters from the first film, and it’s clear Ripley survives or she wouldn’t have appeared in the second film, so ultimately this adds nothing to the Alien universe. Still, it’s nostalgic fun.

Nightflyers, George R.R. Martin

Shocked to receive such a slim book, but the story within is only a novella. It will be interested to watch the Nightflyers Netflix series after reading this to see how they’ve extended the material, for surely they have — there’s hardly enough here to make a long film. I found the story a little hard to get into, though once things go wrong, it got interesting. The concept behind this sci-fi jaunt is interesting, though hardly unique, and something about the overall story seems weak. I wish I’d seen this can also be bought with other stories rather than have paid for it as a separate book. I’m glad to have read it, but don’t feel I would have missed much if I hadn’t.

Kill Creek, Scott Thomas

Although the character of Sam McGarver is the protagonist of this novel, all four fictional authors (McGarver, Cole, Slaughter, and the unforgettable Moore), are in a sense all main characters of this trip into horror. And like the work they produce, they represent various facets of the genre, which makes this (in some small way) a book that questions the meaning of horror as much as it’s a part of the category itself. Undoubtedly a slow burn, this book will naturally invoke mixed reviews, but it instantly drew me in and I happily went along for the ride. The horror comes in snippets until it reaches an ultimate pay-off. I throughly enjoyed this, though it’s not for those who want an in your face terror fest, or those who don’t have longer than average attention spans. My only negative is I have to wonder if people could carry on moving while suffering such severe injuries even though they’d be running on adrenaline, but this is fiction, would make an excellent film, and we’ve seen people suffer through worse in the make-believe world of the cinema.

Fevre Dream, George R.R. Martin

Martin is a writer best known for the Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones), but if readers were to overlook his other work, that would be a pity. Fevre Dream is an easy reminder of what sets this author apart. A richly drawn tapestry of life aboard steamships ferrying goods and passengers up and down the Mississippi, blended with a gothic helping of vampire mythology. Most striking of all is how the author brings the steamboat captain, Abner Marsh, alive in full coarse realism. Never has a protagonist so ugly been so wonderfully memorable. The story at once romanticises its setting and characters, simultaneously making them powerfully gritty. It’s possible to feel the heat and damp and oppression of the steamboat work, the river, the weather, and of society itself. There’s something classic about this book (references to Mark Twain abound entwined with Bram Stoker, and that’s a fair definition). This is no lightweight vampire tale or novel. Good for those who like a richly portrayed backdrop to the action. Atmospheric, and beautifully layered storytelling.

WRITING

I finished the current Work in Progress and have now set it aside for a proper read before submission. I’m toying with adding a third book to another project, but it’s too soon to tell.

Stay happy and healthy!

Sharon x

Getting Lost in Cornwall

As we head into winter, there surely cannot be a better time to reflect on a little summer sunshine. Earlier in the year, we were lucky enough to visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan, near Mevagissey in Cornwall. Some say they’re the most beautiful gardens in the UK. Though I wouldn’t go that far — there are many gardens which all have their own character and beauty — the Lost Gardens have long been a favourite of ours. Created by the Cornish family, Tremayne, the over 200 acres of garden was restored in the 1990s having suffered neglect following the First World War. One of the most notable areas is that of The Jungle, a wild area filled with subtropical ferns including a boardwalk and rope bridge, but there are also many other parts, including vegetable gardens, and animal enclosures.