You Have Been Murdered and Other Stories – Andrew Kozma

Book CoverFirst Published: 8th February, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Smashwords

This is a mini-collection of four short stories. They’re generally dark stories, with some violence, though the focus is more on the atmosphere. The theme that really ties them together is helplessness. The protagonists can do very little about what’s happening around them. They can observe and they can speak, but they can’t change what’s happening.

The stories were reasonable, though I think they’d have worked better in a collection with a few longer pieces mixed in for contrast.

 

You Have Been Murdered

Told in second person, you’re a woman who has just been murdered. But as you’re still aware and able to move, you’re not going to let that stop you from holding a dinner party. I’d have liked to see the mystery angle of this one developed. It’s very likely the murderer was one of the dinner guests. It would have been interesting to know a little more about the guests, in order to make a guess about which one it might have been. As it is, the end wasn’t as strong as the beginning.

 

Teller of Tales

In a post-apocalyptic future, water is scarce. Susan is a child at the Annex, which grows its own food and is generally prosperous. Some strangers arrive seeking sanctuary, and Susan discovers the tales she’s been told are not all as they seem. This isn’t a story where a child can miraculously save the day. Which is realistic, if somewhat tragic.

 

Breach of Contract

A man represents an oil company, who’ve been renting land on a reservation. When the oil stops being delivered, he’s sent in to find out why. I liked some of the imagery in this, such as the giant reed. I wasn’t so hot on the Native American representation, as it consists of a man called Chokfi (who I’m assuming is Rabbit). That makes a change from yet another Coyote, but it doesn’t change that he was more mystical mouthpiece than character. Native Americans represent a mystical force bringing justice, rather than people, which doesn’t sit well with me.

 

The Trouble-Men

The world is ending, via many freak occurrences. One of these is the Trouble-Men, who visit a man trying to survive. I liked this one the best. It has a creepy atmosphere and the reveal of why the Trouble-Men are there is paced well for the story length.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

If I Had a Gryphon – Vikki VanSickle (author), Cale Atkinson (illustrator)

 If I Had a Gryphon CoverFirst Published: 9th February, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When a girl gets a new pet hamster, she finds him boring. Instead, she wishes for various mythical creatures as pets… but all pets come with downsides.

This is a cute story told in rhymes. The pets considered include a dragon, gryphon, kirin and kraken. Their downsides are shown in a real world context, like the hippogriff scaring everyone at the dog park, and the unicorn hiding under the bed. The artwork is colourful and funny, helping to bring to life the problems with each pet. The story is bound to appeal to young fantasy lovers (and people with pet hamsters).

Also notable is the protagonist is a non-white girl who wears glasses. It’s nice to see a wider range of children getting to have adventures.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Oddfits – Tiffany Tsao

Oddfits CoverSeries: The Oddfits Series, #1
First Published: 1st February, 2016
Genre: Fantasy
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Murgatroyd Floyd doesn’t fit in. He’s the only white child at school, has one friend, and nothing ever seems to work out for him. He’s also an Oddfit, able to visit another land called the More Known World. Once he reaches adulthood, a group who explore that world seek him out.

This is a portal story set in a person’s life before the portal. Murgatroyd sees a few glimpses of the More Known World, but it’s mainly not about that. It’s about his life growing up and living in Singapore. It’s also a story with mature themes written in a children’s book style. Both of these things made me interested in reading it. I did like the early part where Murgatroyd is befriending the ice cream seller. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.

Murgatroyd is abused right from the start. It’s not simply that he feels like he doesn’t fit in, but that the people around him actively try to harm him. This starts with his parents, who make sure his first day at school goes badly, then tell him it’s his fault. The abuse continues into adulthood, where they keep all his earnings, to be sure he doesn’t gain any independence.

The other people in his life are only marginally better. His employer sees him more as a novelty possession to make her restaurant look good, and his best friend is selfish. It only counts as better because they don’t spend as much time with Murgatroyd, so the damage they do is limited compared to his parents.

As the abuse continued, I was increasingly uncomfortable with how it was handled. At first, the tone feels as though the reader is supposed to laugh at the things happening to Murgatroyd. I wasn’t laughing. Later on, this abuse is blamed on the Known World reacting to Murgatroyd being an Oddfit. In other words, blame for the abuse is shifted away from the abusers. They couldn’t help it. Murgatroyd was just different and they had to treat him like that. Which is disturbingly close to how people try to minimise abuse against non-neurotypical children.

There are interesting elements to the story. The idea of the More Known World, and the parts shown of it, was potentially fascinating. It looks set for the series to make some different choice in terms of plot, compared to the usual portal story. Where it falls down is the challenge of making someone’s pre-portal life as exciting as the world on the other side. I don’t feel this book managed it. There wasn’t a whole lot of plot, so it was stretched very thin. There’s a lot of padding, such as the multiple paragraphs taken up listing out food items.

There are some things that may be an issue for readers. There are a few casual bigoted comments made, generally by characters (though some are in the narration). Examples are bystanders fat shaming people, Murgatroyd’s parents using binary gender assumptions as a weapon, and calling an unhealthy home environment schizophrenic. There are also some detailed descriptions of killing animals, as the restaurant where Murgatroyd works slaughters animals as a public entertainment. Basically, the book isn’t as fluffy as it might appear on a quick read of the opening, so go into it knowing that.

I liked some parts of the book enough that I might read the next one. This acted as a prologue more than anything, and it might be the aspect of abusers not being able to help abusing will be subverted later. It’s difficult to tell at this point, as a lot of the nature of the More Known World wasn’t explained. I’d also hope the next book picks up the pace, now that the world and the main players are introduced. This is a book that had potential, but never quite reached it.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn – Tania Unsworth

Daisy Fitzjohn CoverFirst Published: 10th March, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Daisy has never left her home in Brightwood Hall. She lives a comfortable life with her mother, surrounded by the history of her family. Until her mother disappears, and a man appears at the house.

The fact that Daisy has never left Brightwood Hall already hints that something odd is going on. That something is her mother experiencing a trauma as a child. She hoards supplies and other items, to the point of filling up the rooms in the manor house with storage shelves. She only leaves to get supplies, and doesn’t want Daisy going out at all. That fear of losing things has been enabled by the family’s wealth. She’s never really had to face her trauma, because it’s very easy to shut the world out living in a manor house. It’s easy to hoard when you have so much space.

I liked that the story did address these things. Daisy comes to realise how much her mum’s life has been influenced by those past events. And how this has trickled down to Daisy’s life.

Daisy is a fun protagonist. She holds conversations with the animals and artwork. This includes statues, topiary bushes and portraits of her ancestors. Whether this is entirely imaginary is up for debate. They certainly help her come to a decision about what to do when the man arrives.

I enjoyed the writing style and pacing of the book. There are elements of mystery, about who the man is and why he’s there. There’s some action, as Daisy acts out her plans. I wish I could end the review there, because there are a lot of things about the book I really like. I was promised an adventure set in a manor house, and it delivered on that.

The problem was The Crazy. Daisy has been told that The Crazy runs in the family. It means a person is vile and has most likely murdered people. This made me wince the first time it was introduced, but I gave some benefit of the doubt that it would be addressed later. It wasn’t. The best Daisy gets to is maybe people would call her mum crazy, but she’s not properly crazy as she’s not violent. Daisy doesn’t realise, at any level, that The Crazy is upper class entitlement, rather than a health condition. If you feel you’re better than anyone else and entitled to things, you’re not going to care who you hurt to get it… those other people aren’t really people, after all. This is an entirely sane, if unpleasant, response to privilege. What really struck me is it was a small part of the story, which could have been changed in ten minutes of editing. A few reworded sentences and a new name for The Crazy would have made all the difference. All it would have taken was considering how it might impact a non-neurotypical reader.

The result was though I generally enjoyed the book, I was cringing at those moments when The Crazy came up. They pulled me out of the story. Crazy often looks more like Daisy’s mum. Crazy often looks more like me. It doesn’t make someone a murderer.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Polls and Patreon

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Winning Stuff

The results of the Strange Horizons 2015 Readers’ Poll are in. The piece I did with Bogi Takács (article here) came joint first in the articles category. The other first place article was by Rose Lemberg (article here). This is apparently the first time there’s been a tie.

It’s also the first time I’ve sold non-fiction, so that went pretty well, all things considered.

 

Patreon

I’ve started a Patreon. This is a tip jar, rather than a rollercoaster of nifty rewards. The main reward is it means I can keep doing stuff. If the Patreon does well, it’ll give me space to get my longer work complete (that includes novels and writing short stories for the next collection). It will also help fund the things I don’t get any payment for, like the blog. For example, it can help cover web hosting fees and pay for review copies (where free ones aren’t available).

Here is my Patreon: Support Polenth and get a warm glow every month!

 

Reviewing

I’m now on Netgalley, so there will be even more reviews with the little disclaimer so that the American government doesn’t try to sue me. Honestly, I don’t think anyone would think a free copy changes my view of the work, as I don’t gush unreservedly about everything I review. But you can’t be logical with bureaucracy.

Something I hadn’t realised is some books are available for all Netgalley members, without needing approval. These are their ‘read now’ books. I’d have signed up earlier if I had known this, as it’s obviously a great way for new reviewers to start getting review copies. I thought I’d pass that on for anyone else who didn’t know that.