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Book Review: The Martian

Well, I did it. I finally gave into the hype and succumbed to the curiosity when I discovered the movie version of this book would be directed by Ridley Scott (the guy behind brilliant films like White Squall and Gladiator – also the man behind the train wreck that is Prometheus:/ ) Scott either does things brilliantly, or abysmally, and I wanted to read the book before I eventually got around to seeing the movie, which of course I will because MARS!! Anyway, I read the book in less than 72 hours so here are my thoughts about it… martian

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit–he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

I don’t think I have ever read a hard sci-fi book and enjoyed it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever managed to read a hard sci-fi book without giving up at some point out of sheer boredom or frustration. Thus, I did not have high hopes when I started The Martian. This novel starts off with a bang, but quickly gets bogged down in science, fascinating science, but I read to connect with and live vicariously through characters, not learn how to separate hydrogen from hydrazine. Also, the book starts out in epistolary format where the narrative is exposition-only journal entries from said martian in question and I’m not a fan of the Dear Diary style. I’ll admit, I almost gave up, but then there was a break in the journal entries and the scene changed from Mars to Earth. Saying more than that would be giving away too much and this is one time I don’t want to give away any spoilers.

I am so glad I didn’t give up on this book! Once Weir starts giving us more than just Mark Watney’s journal entries, the story really gets going and I could not book this down! Weir is an absolute master at creating suspense while working with what becomes an unconventional narrative style. I loved it, and I have definitely learned something about the writing craft having read this book.

This book is science heavy, but it’s always presented in a conversational style made more engaging by Watney’s sarcasm and black humor. After a while, I found myself enjoying the hard sci-fi aspect of the book even if it did require me to pay extra attention to what I was reading. I struggled to read this book at night when I was tired. I switched to reading it during the day when I was fully caffeinated and well, I finished the book in a single sitting. Now I know how to approach more tech heavy novels in the future. Science aside, the author does a fantastic job of making Watney a likable guy who you can’t help but root for. The auxiliary characters that come into play are also presented in fun and engaging ways that had me grinning through most of the book.

What you see is what you get with this novel. It’s a survival story and reads like the screenplay for a movie. Not a Terrence Mallick or Darren Aronofsky film, no, but something action-orientated I could imagine Spielberg or hey, Ridley Scott, directing. The last hundred pages are some of the most tension-driven, page-turning reading I’ve ever experienced!

So that’s the good: well written, expertly paced, snappy dialogue, great characters, good science (not all of it accurate apparently, but more accurate than most) and absolutely entertaining.

Now for the bad…

This is an intellectual read, not an emotional one. Despite the adrenaline rush I had while reading this novel, once I’d turned the final page and thought about it, I realized there wasn’t really much to the story. The author focuses so much on the science that I think he forgot some of the human aspects. You’d think that for a guy alone on Mars he’d be a little more introspective, get a little philosophical (heck, religious even) and ponder life with a little more depth. Of course, this might be happening off-page because all we’re getting from Mark is what he chooses to record in the journal that will be read by others, but it still felt a little… empty, soulless even. When it comes to survival stories, I prefer the more introspective stuff ala Christopher McCandless’ story as told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild, or even the 127 Hours memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Granted, Weir is writing fiction, but I still wanted more, something that would leaving me with more than Martian physics to mull over once I turned the last page. This story could’ve been so much more, but Weir admits on his Facebook page that his intention is to entertain and not make a statement. The Martian is certainly entertaining, but it is little more than. It is not a story that will haunt me and I’m probably going to have forgotten much of it by the time the film comes out in November.

In conclusion, I recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t think they’ll like hard sci-fi or are looking for an entertaining and engaging read that won’t tug on the heart-strings too much. I have to give this 4.5/5 ink splats because while I was reading, I was fully immersed and couldn’t put the book down. My disillusion and disappointment has only come after the fact, so here you go Book, but I do think you could’ve been better.

4.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Reviews

 

Film Review: Interstellar

Christopher Nolan – check! Matthew McConaughey – check! Space stuff – check! Quantum mechanics – check! Epic soundtrack – check! This movie had so much going for it and I couldn’t wait to see it even though it clocked in at almost three hours. Two weeks ago, I finally got to see the film that the Internet had been buzzing about.

*Warning – There may be spoilers ahead*

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I only watched this film two weeks ago and I’m having a hard time even remembering what the story was about: dust, NASA, ghosts or aliens or something, wormholes, black holes, space – lots of space, Ellen Burstyn. This is indicative of one of the problems I had with Interstellar. It started off strong and there were interesting snippets about the world and the sort of future we had made for ourselves but no real explanation as to how the blight had come about and why leaving the planet was the only option – what other options had been explored? We never find out and to be honest I was starting to get bored. After about twenty minutes, I started browsing Facebook and checking email, letting the film run in the background. What the hell? This is Christopher Nolan! Inception and his Batman movies had me rivetted even if they were flawed and Memento I’ve watched so many times I’ve lost count, but this film struggled to hold my interest.

Finally, something happens. Is it a ghost, is it an alien? In a sort of M. Night Shyamalan moment of weirdness, Cooper finally discovers the remnants of NASA – yay, space! Nope… More stuff happens and I just wasn’t emotionally involved enough. Yes, there are some interesting parallels to the whole one-way ticket to Mars debates currently happening in certain corners of the Internet and the father-daughter moments are poignant, but I knew I was being manipulated so I didn’t really feel very much.

Space! Now we get to the good stuff! But what the actual (insert expletive)? So, this advanced civilization called ‘they’ (super original) drop a wormhole supposedly for humanity’s convenience – although how this conclusion is reached I just don’t know – near Saturn. Saturn. Two light years away. Would’ve been a heck of a lot more convenient to drop that wormhole a little closer considering ‘they’ can just manufacture wormholes where they please. Now this wormhole leads to another galaxy with supposedly, hopefully habitable planets, which will save humanity, so Cooper is tasked to go take a look and follow up with the previous space explorers. I’m down with that, but if ‘they’ are behind this and want to help humanity and can manufacture wormholes why on earth can’t they give the exact co-ordinates to the best hospitable planet straight away? It makes no sense, but then there’d be no movie without the exploration of the bad planets and all the drama that naturally ensues for more than two freaking hours! Also, the planetary system humanity has been gifted happens to have a giant black hole at its center which doesn’t make for a super hospitable environment given how black holes devour light and gravity and time. ‘They’ are starting to seem like total jerks.

Then we get into the science of Interstellar, which bandies about terms like ‘relativity’ and ‘gravity’ providing superficial explanations at best for what they think is going on, but, basically, by the time Cooper and crew have sussed out the planets and found somewhere for humanity to colonize, it’ll be too late and Earth would’ve perished because of the whole time flux thing. Again, ‘they’ are total assholes because ‘they’ must’ve known this. ‘They’ are not proving very helpful. Then stuff happens and there are waves and Anne Hathaway tears and a very weird conversation about love being some sort of transcendental force and more about gravity. (It’s starting to feel like this movie wanted a different title but Alfonso Cuarón got there first). By this time I kept checking the time, wondering how much longer there could possibly be of this movie.

Honestly, I’ve forgotten why, but there’s a math problem on Earth and they need to gather data from beyond the event horizon in the black hole to help people on Earth solve this equation and save humanity so naturally the answer is to go through the black hole because science says this is possible and is a great idea, NOT! The logic here baffles me, but hip-sounding science words like singularity are bandied about so it’s all good. Cooper and his sidekick AI’d robot TARS head into the black hole and find themselves in a tesseract (another cool sciency word) made by ‘them’ and now suddenly Cooper can communicate with his daughter across space and time because their love transcends I don’t even know what at this point. So turns out Cooper was the alien-ghost sending his daughter messages via gravity – I don’t know how gravity is the scientific explanation to this but okay – which creates a big problem with the whole space-time continuum Hollywood frequently exploits and fails to understand. Cooper also has the revelation that ‘they’ are in fact advanced humans and now that TARS has the quantum data he needs to solve the equation back home it’s all cupcakes and balloons for the future of humanity.

‘They’ presumably then save Cooper from the black hole and send him safely back to Saturn where he gets picked up by the Earth armada who are hanging out near the wormhole waiting for Anne Hathaway to give the all clear from a potentially habitable planet. Humanity has left Earth without knowing for sure that there is a habitable planet – I just don’t even. Also, more stuff about gravity and relativity and love that I just don’t care about because hallelujah this movie is over and the closing credits soundtrack is awesome.

These three hours weren’t an entire waste of time though. TARS and CASE (the on-board robots) are super awesome and are undoubtedly the best characters in this movie. Matt Damon makes an appearance and his story ARC, though limited, provides one of the more interesting moments in this film. It is super pretty too. The cinematography is outstanding and all the space stuff – when you eventually get to it – is visually spectacular.

I am not impressed with Interstellar, mostly because the story weaved quantum mechanics with quantum mysticism and didn’t seem to realize the difference between the two. This film was just too long. Had it been an hour shorter I might’ve enjoyed it more but at almost three hours of questionable science and scenes set on Earth that felt an awful lot like filler, I just couldn’t enjoy it. If you enjoy more philosophical, mystical approaches to science fiction then I strongly recommend Mr Nobody or even Sunshine. I know I’m in the minority having read other reviews and seeing the IMDB ratings for this, but Interstellar gets 1.5/5 ink splats from me.

1.5 splats

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Film Review: Dracula Untold

I’m a total sucker for vampires (no pun intended) especially when they involve the King of Blood-drinkers, Lord Dracula. Despite my better judgement, I have often found myself watching movies I know are going to be terrible because they’re about my favourite monsters. As soon as I heard about this film, it was a foregone conclusion that I would eventually end up watching it because a) vampires b) The Bard from The Hobbit and c) Vlad Tsepes, better known as Dracula. So, I finally got to see this movie and here are my thoughts about it.

*Mild spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned*

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The trailer gave me chills – most probably thanks to that incredibly cool song by Lorde – but also because it seemed to give Dracula a more heroic role instead of having him in skulking in the shadows. I was really excited to see Dracula some into his own and be unapologetic for being a badass. Having scene the film and rewatching the trailer, I’m disappointed because there are scenes and details shown in the trailer that just don’t appear in the film. Other than that, the trailer also shows some of the coolest parts of the movie – typical – thus rendering the actual film experience somewhat anti-climactic.

Now onto the film itself. Of course, it starts off with a voice over and cinematography that seems heavily influenced by Zack Snyder, ala 300 style, only somewhat less impressive. Considering this is the director’s first feature film (according to IMDB) he still did a fairly decent job and I found the film rather pleasing to the eye, if utterly predictable. The predictability of this film might be because I’m overly familiar with these tropes as a writer myself or might be because just about every super-hero and monster movie has employed a variation of these ideas in recent times. Aside from the voice over, my biggest peeve with this film is the glaring historical inaccuracies. I’m married to a Transylvanian, I have been to Romania, and have been to the real Castle Bran (the legendary Dracula castle that is more fortress than Disney.) With every iteration of the Dracula story that gives the monster-legend a historical context – like this film tries to – I always hold out vain hope that they’ll get it right. While this film does build upon a foundation of fact – yes, Romanian children were given to the Turks and used as child soldiers – the history is so watered down and over-simplified. Basically, it gets the Hollywood treatment, and so does our anti-hero Dracula. Can’t have a hero being too evil, now can we?

Dracula in this film is a man with an inner darkness – pretty much Vlad’s penchant for impaling his enemies – and turns to even darker means (does it get any darker than Tywin Lannister?? Charles Dance is in this!) in order to save his immediate family from the Turkish threat. We are repeatedly told about the darkness within Vlad without really being shown it – feeling nothing about how much blood you shed on a battlefield isn’t the same as being a sadistic bastard who revels in eviscerating children, and that’s what I wanted, a film so much darker and scarier than this. Most of the time I wanted to give the guy a hug and tell him everything would be all right, not run screaming in fear. Also, they gave Vlad some pretty awesome superpowers, which he then absolutely squanders and seems to spend more time sulking than kicking Turkish butt. Several times I wanted to reach into the screen and slap him upside the head for wasting time. The climax of this film could’ve been averted had Dracula not dilly-dallied for no apparent reason. Sigh. I guess they needed to manufacture the tension somehow so the anti-hero could reluctantly step-in and save the day by doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

I saw the ending coming a mile away and predicted the outcome almost exactly for the historical part of the film. Then something unexpected and pretty amazing happens, and the last few minutes of the film are definitely the best, giving me hope for what might come next in this franchise, if a sequel ever gets the green light.

In short, if you’re looking for the Gothic romance of blood-drinking and velvet-clad vampires, you’re better off watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Interview with a Vampire. If you’re looking for a more historical take on the vampire legend then you’re definitely better off watching Dark Prince (a criminally underrated series about Vlad Tsepes – still taking liberties with the facts though), and if you want swashbuckling, monster-fighting adventure, you’re probably better off watching Van Helsing. Given the slew of vampire movies and an abundance of those dealing with Stoker’s villain, Dracula Untold simply doesn’t bring anything new or exciting to the table. While it isn’t a terrible way to spend 92 minutes (there are some fun scenes, there’s also some artistic camera work, and did I mention the Luke Evans eye-candy?), I think the film would’ve been far more interesting had it started where it ends. 2.5/5 ink splats from me.

2.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2015 in Reviews, Video Reviews

 

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Book Review: Annihilation

To be honest I might never have picked up this were it not for the science fiction book club I belong to via Meetup. I had never heard of Jeff VanderMeer and didn’t know a thing about this book before I started reading, and that was probably a good thing.

annihilation

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

That is a very long blurb for a book that’s barely over 200 pages. Also, that last paragraph makes the story sound way more thriller-esque than it actually is. And that cover is just awful!

When I started reading this book, I assumed it had been published in the 1960s or 70s – that cover doesn’t help much either. The style was reminiscent of that era, in that the narration was exclusively ‘tell’ with absolutely no ‘show.’ The reason for this is that the story is actually one long journal entry written by the biologist. This just didn’t work for me. I felt nothing for the characters and found the main character – who describes herself as detached and emotionally withdrawn – impossible to relate to. Consequently, I didn’t care at all what happened to her or the rest of the team. What kept me turning the pages was the premise – there’s not really a plot – and wanting to know what Area X was and how it had come to be.

Despite only being 200 pages, this book felt long especially since there isn’t really much plot, more like a character meandering, trying to understand both the external landscape and her own internal one. This was where the story became more interesting for me and to a large extent, I felt that the story was an allegory: the biologist wasn’t researching an alien landscape so much as trying to understand herself and why her marriage had fallen apart, coming to terms with aspects of a troubled childhood etc. As a metaphor, the story is layered and nuanced, but the last chapter seems to undermine this idea when the biologist has a sudden revelation about what Area X is and how it might’ve come to be. I think the story would’ve been much better with a less literal interpretation.

I enjoyed this book for its unashamed weirdness and am still curious about what Area X really is and what’s happening in the background regarding the institute that keeps sending in these research expeditions. I do think, however, that this would’ve worked so much better as a longer short story. Despite being a short novel, it just meandered too much and became repetitive although never quite boring, just a little tedious. Had I known the writer was a Nebula winner and Hugo nominee, and that this book was published in 2014, I might’ve had higher expectations and been a little less impressed. Since I only discovered that after the fact though, I’m not going to let it affect my rating of the novel.

If you enjoy report-style science fiction that ventures into the absurd then you will probably like this book very much. While I’m not in a hurry to read more in this series, I am definitely keen to read other works by this author. It gets 3.5/5 ink splats from me.

3.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Spotlight and New Release: Tormentor by William Meikle (DarkFuse Publishing)

Hey everyone, Dave here,

I’ve got a brand new book for you to snap up!

Blurb:

This story isn’t really about me.

On the Isle of Skye, near the community of Dunvegan, sits a rustic old one-bedroom home, waiting for a new tenant. It seems like the perfect opportunity for Jim Greenwood to escape the hectic London city life—a place to move on from tragedy.

This is the story of a house.

As he tries to settle into country life, his is tormented by mysterious soot marks left throughout the house while he sleeps, cryptic e-mails from unknown senders, and hundreds of hand-drawn stick-figure drawings etched in a perfect pattern on the cottage’s cellar walls.

Stay. Beth needs you.

Jim begins losing control, drinking excessively, shaking to an uncontrollable beat in his head, trying to decipher what may or may not be a code—or a warning.

No limbs, no limbs, no head, no head, left arm gone, left leg gone, no legs, no head.

The door is open, and something is coming through. It’s just a matter of when—and what.

tormentor

 

The book was released yesterday and looks like it could be an incredibly chilling read, so if you’re looking for a good Horror tale to keep you up at night, your search might just be over!

You can purchase the book for your Kindle at the following links: Amazon US, Amazon UK.

And do check out William’s website – the man has a great backlist to dive into!

Until next time,

Be EPIC!

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2015 in Announcements, Spotlight

 

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Video Reviews – Part 1

Hey everyone, Dave here!

Yep, FINALLY, I hear you say! ;-) No worries – I know I’ve been away for a while, but I’ve figured out a way to be able to review the books I’ve read while keeping up the pace of the writing of my second novel – and this is it! :-)

In part one of my new Video Review series, I take a look at Joe Hill’s ‘NOS4R2′ and Kate Griffin’s ‘The Midnight Mayor’ – links after the vid!

NOS4R2: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Exclusive Books. Joe Hill’s website.

The Midnight Mayor: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Nobel, Exclusive Books. Kate Griffin’s website.

In part two, I talk about Benedict Jacka’s ‘Cursed’, John Lange’s ‘Zero Cool‘, Andrea Sokoloff’s ‘The Harrowing‘ and Mark Lawrence’s ‘Prince of Thorns’! Again, links after the vid. :-)

Cursed: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Exclusive Books. Benedict Jacka’s website.

Zero Cool: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Exclusive Books. Titan Books‘ and Hard Case Crime‘s website.

The Harrowing: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Exclusive Books. Andrea Sokoloff’s website.

Prince of Thorns: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Exclusive Books. Mark Lawrence’s website.

 

There we go, hope you’ve enjoyed the video – this will be how I’ll be doing things from now on, so look for my next review-video next week. :-)

Until then, and as always,

Be EPIC!

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2015 in Reviews, Video Reviews

 

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Book Review: Sing Me Your Scars

Firstly, an enormous THANK YOU to Apex Publications for giving me the ARC of this title and letting me have the privilege of reviewing what is a most outstanding short story collection from an author I think every speculative fiction fan should have on their radar.

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Sometimes a thread pulled through the flesh is all that holds you together. Sometimes the blade of a knife or the point of a nail is the only way you know you’re real. When pain becomes art and a quarter is buried deep within in you, all you want is to be seen, to have value, to be loved. But love can be fragile, folded into an origami elephant while you disappear, carried on the musical notes that build a bridge, or woven into an illusion so real, so perfect that you can fool yourself for a little while. Paper crumples, bridges fall, and illusions come to an end. Then you must pick up the pieces, stitch yourself back together, and shed your fear, because that is when you find out what you are truly made of and lift your voice, that is when you Sing Me Your Scars.

In her first collection of short fiction, Damien Angelica Walters weaves her lyrical voice through suffering and sorrow, teasing out the truth and discovering hope.

It’s rare that a blurb truly does a book justice and this one definitely does, capturing the essence of this collection in as poetic a way as the stories themselves are written.

Sing Me Your Scars is a collection of speculative short stories – from two page flash fiction to longer, more substantial pieces. While every story is its own, they all share common themes.The one that stood out the most for me is that of abuse and the painful journey victims must endure in order to overcome the damage inflicted upon, to take ownership of their lives and regain lost agency. There were several stories dealing with abuse, but each was rendered in such a unique way that the recurring theme never got stale. Walters explores the various forms of suffering and how this affects different people through poetic prose and vivid imagery, at once alarming and exquisite. I will, however, say that this collection tends more toward the horror genre and is probably not for the squeamish, or for those who may be triggered by reading about the trauma associated with abuse.

One of the biggest problems I usually have when reading short story collections, is being irritated that the story I’m enjoying ends too soon. I often experience a sort of literary whiplash reading anthologies and collections because I feel catapulted from one story to the next without being able to truly connect to the characters or settings. I never experienced this in Sing Me Your Scars. While there were definitely many stories I would happily read as novels, the continuity of style provides seamless transitions between stories which focus more on character and imagery than setting and plot. That’s one of the reasons I loved this book so much. I felt immersed in the story world from cover to cover despite the constant change of characters, countries and even eras. I was also delighted to see the inclusion of LGBT+ characters in this collection.

There are two writers I hold in extremely high regard and am happy to call my favourites: Poppy Z Brite and Neil Gaiman. I have read and loved short story collections by both these authors and I would happily shelve Sing Me Your Scars right alongside Wormwood and Fragile Things. Like Brite, Walters brings beauty to the grotesque with devastatingly exquisite images of both the brutal and macabre. This is a skill I envy as an author and am definitely going to be rereading passages from Sing Me Your Scars as I have reread passages from Lost Souls and Wormwood. Like Gaiman, Walters weaves subtle magic through her stories, sometimes tantalizing with a mere mention of the bizarre while the story remains firmly rooted in the real. Other times, Walters creates a lush fantasy world in which the reader becomes quickly immersed despite the limited word count of these stories. I am in awe of this author’s ability to achieve so much in so few words.

Until I read this collection, my favourite short story was, of course, one by Gaiman (‘Cold Colors’ from Smoke & Mirrors), but Girl, with Coin by Walters absolutely blew me away and left me reeling for days (I still can’t stop thinking about this story!). Of all the brilliant, beautiful and powerful stories in this collection, Girl, with Coin had an immediate and lasting impact, and this story has just become a new favourite – I loved it even more than works by Brite! – tied with Cold Colors and ear-marked as a story to which I plan to return time and again.

If you enjoy your speculative fiction dark and introspective, exquisite and chilling, beautiful and bloody, then this is the collection for you. I cannot recommend it enough. 5/5 glorious ink splats for this amazing book!

5 inksplats

If you’d like to find out more about the author, please head over to my blog to read an interview with Damien Angelica Walters about Sing Me Your Scars and her forthcoming novel, Paper Tigers.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2015 in Reviews

 

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