Reviewing

From now on, I’m going to be posting my reviews at a separate site: The Forest of Books.  Please follow me over there if you want to keep up with my reviews.

As time permits, I plan to copy all of the reviews from here over to that site.  I’ll still be cross-posting to Goodreads, and I’m going to try to remember to post more reviews to Amazon as well.

Reviewing

From now on, I’m not going to be posting reviews here to my website, but have set up a secondary website for them: The Forest of Books.  Feel free to follow me over there if you want to keep up with my reviews.

I’m planning on going back and copying all of my past reviews over to that website as well as time allows.  All of my reviews will still be crossposted to Goodreads, and I’m going to try to remember to post over at Amazon as well.

AWW2015: The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

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The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.

Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.

The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.

The Beast’s Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.


 

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


I’m a longtime fan of Kate Forsyth (I vividly remember stalking the bookstore shelves waiting for each Witches of Eileanan book to be released), and particularly loved her last two books, The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens, and was thus extremely happy to be asked to read and review The Beast’s Garden.

I will admit up front, I went into this book with a small sense of trepidation.  I had very high hopes, based on how good The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens were, but I did wonder about the premise of The Beast’s Garden– namely, combining a version of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast (specifically, The Singing, Springing Lark) and Nazi Germany during World War II.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t sure that Forsyth could pull off such a story, I wondered if anyone could pull it off.

And now that I’ve read the book, the question: did Forsyth manage to pull it off?  The answer is a resounding hell yes.

It should be noted that this book isn’t going to be for every reader.  There are scenes set in a concentration camp, and while Forsyth doesn’t linger overlong on any of the atrocities, neither does she shield the reader from the true horrors of of WWII and the Holocaust.  If any of this is a trigger for you, this isn’t going to be the book for you.  But please, if you haven’t done so, go and read all of Forsyth’s other books.  They’re more than worth it.

In the role of “Beauty” we have Ava, a German girl who is training as a singer.  In looks, Ava takes after her dead Spanish mother, while her two sisters are blue-eyed and blonde-haired, fitting the Aryan ideal.  Ava and her family are not safe beneath Nazi rule.  Ava’s own darker colouring puts her at potential risk of being declaimed as having Romani blood, and one of her sisters has a daughter who is possibly learning disabled.  More, Ava’s family are close to a Jewish family, the Feidlers.  After Ava’s mother died, Ava was practically raised by Mrs Feidler, and regards Rudi Feidler (an out gay man) as a brother.  Ava and Rudi are both musicians, and both attend illicit jazz clubs together.  To protect all of her blood and found family, Ava marries a Nazi officer, Leo von Lowenstein.

Leo, naturally is the “Beast” of the tale, and it is the romance between Leo and Ava which drives much of the novel.  At first, Ava fears Leo, only knowing him as a Nazi officer.  As she gets to know him, and see beneath the public mask he wears, she discovers that he is a lot more than he first appeared.  Like her, he is fighting against Hitler’s rule, and is part of an underground resistance movement.

The story follows Leo and Ava as they both navigate Nazi Germany and the various plots to disrupt Nazi rule and attempt to assassinate Hitler.  We also get to follow Rudi after he is arrested for “subversive activities” and deported to the concentration camp, Buchenwald.  Yet another story thread is shown via Rudi’s sister Jutta, who evades arrest and lives in hiding from the Nazis.

On the surface, it is hard to see much hope in any story set in WWII Germany.  Forsyth doesn’t shy from any of the horrors: we get to see the Jewish people suffering both in the camps and in hiding, as well as the German people starving as their country begins to bend and break beneath the weight of Nazi rule and the war.  But in the darkness, there is light.  Even while deathly afraid, Ava finds ways to fight.  And in Buchenwald, Rudi plays illicit music, saves others where he can (and is saved in turn) and even finds love.

Forsyth skilfully weaves in many historical figures and events into the narrative, giving a real weight to a book that, in less talented hands, could easily have become little more than a fluffy romance between the Brave German Girl and Nazi With a Heart of Gold, or something extremely problematic.  If you’re worried about either of these issues, let me put your worries to rest right here.

With The Beast’s Garden, Forsyth cements herself as one of the most talented authors writing historical fiction (with a good dash of fairytale retelling) in Australia today.

AWW2015: In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward

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There are secrets in this family. Before Biff and her younger brother, Mark, there was baby Alison, who drowned in her bath because, it was said, her mother was distracted. Biff too, lives in fear of her mother’s irrational behaviour and paranoia, and she is always on guard and fears for the safety of her brother. As Biff grows into teenage hood, there develops a conspiratorial relationship between her and her father, who is a famous and gregarious man, trying to keep his wife’s problems a family secret. This was a time when the insane were committed and locked up in Dickensian institutions; whatever his problems her father was desperate to save his wife from that fate. But also to protect his children from the effects of living with a tragically disturbed mother.

In My Mother’s Hands is a beautifully written and emotionally perplexing coming-of-age true story about growing up in an unusual family.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I purchased this book.


 

When the Stella Prize longlist for 2015 was announced, I went through and downloaded samples of the books that interested me.  This is the first book for which I read the sample and had to keep on reading.

Biff Ward grew up in a house that was unlike the houses of the people she knew.  There was the shadow of her sister Alison, said to have drowned in her bath as a baby when her mother fainted.  And there was Biff’s mother, a woman who always seemed distracted, apart from her family.  At times this distraction broke and became something else: a paranoia that they were being watched, that people were coming to get them.

As Ward grows up, her mother becomes more and more detached, more unstable.  She begins to gouge at her hands, pare back her nails with a razor, trying to rid herself of a “rash”.  She wears gloves all the time that she is not gouging.  Ward’s father copes as best as he can, though at times this “coping” seems to veer very close to abuse.  He has a string of affairs, but he always returns to his wife, this woman who seems empty, who seems so incredibly sad.

It is as an adult, living apart from her mother, that Ward sets off on a journey to discover what really happened to Alison, what really is wrong with her mother.  As she uncovers the truth, there is an indescribable sorrow that flows beneath the words of the book.  Sorrow for Ward and her brother, essentially growing up without a mother.  Sorrow for Ward’s father, who sought to protect his wife from a state asylum, the only treatment for mental illness at the time.  And sorrow most of all for Ward’s mother, suffering most likely from postpartum psychosis and schizophrenia.

Ward draws parallels between her life and Jane Eyre, with the mad wife Bertha locked in the attic.  Reading this book, I wonder how many Berthas there have been, essentially locked away for lack of real treatment for mental illness.  Ward’s mother lived in a time before antidepressants and antipsychotics, a time when mental illness was hushed up, swept beneath the rug, hidden by gloves.

This is an incredibly important memoir, and I can only begin to imagine how painful it must have been for Ward to write.  Without real help, her whole family suffered because of her mother’s mental illness.   There is no blame in this memoir on Ward’s part, just that deep sorrow for the woman her mother might have been, if there had been real help for her at the time.  Ward is to be thanked for her honesty and strength.  This is not an easy read, by any means, but it is a book that is very much worth reading.

 

 

Review: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

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FLEX: Distilled magic in crystal form. The most dangerous drug in the world. Snort it, and you can create incredible coincidences to live the life of your dreams.

FLUX: The backlash from snorting Flex. The universe hates magic and tries to rebalance the odds; maybe you survive the horrendous accidents the Flex inflicts, maybe you don’t.

PAUL TSABO: The obsessed bureaucromancer who’s turned paperwork into a magical Beast that can rewrite rental agreements, conjure rented cars from nowhere, track down anyone who’s ever filled out a form.

But when all of his formulaic magic can’t save his burned daughter, Paul must enter the dangerous world of Flex dealers to heal her. Except he’s never done this before – and the punishment for brewing Flex is army conscription and a total brain-wipe.


 

NOTE: This book was received as an eARC from Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion.


 

I’ve been a longtime reader of Ferrett Steinmetz online, and his short stories remain some of the works that have resonated with me the strongest (seriously, if you haven’t read Shoebox Heaven, you should.  Bring tissues.).  I was therefore extremely happy when Steinmetz announced the sale of Flex to Angry Robot, and happier still when I managed to snag an eARC.

This is the world Steinmetz gives us in Flex:  people who become obsessed with things become ‘mancers, their obsessions strong enough to become magic that can bend the rules of physics.  ‘Mancy comes with a price – every “flex” of reality creates “flux” as reality bends back.  ‘Mancers in Europe have created enough Flux that they have literally broken reality; as a result, ‘mancers are seen as something that needs to be kept controlled.

This magic can also be distilled into a physical drug, known as Flex.  Snort Flex, and luck will bend to your will.  If a bullet is fired point blank at your head, the universe will find some way – even the one in a billion happenstance – that will make you not die.

Paul Tsabo is an ex-cop who lost his foot to the last ‘mancer he hunted.  Paul Tsabo also loves order, is obsessed with the idea of finding the “Unified Universal Form” that will make bureaucracy simple.  Paul Tsabo’s obsession is so great that it has made him a ‘mancer, a discovery that will change everything about his life, and about the life of his daughter, Aaliyah.

This world is amazing – just the idea that an obsession can bend reality enough to create magic is a brilliant one.  We see all kinds of ‘mancies in this book – gamemancy, Paul’s bureaucromancy, musclemancy.  The idea on its own brings something fresh to urban fantasy, and was enough on its own to draw me into the book.

Paul himself is also an interesting character.  His relationship with his daughter is finely written, and I never wavered in the belief that he would do literally anything to save her life.  I may have literally yelled at my Kindle at one point early in the book, just before I realised that something bad was going to happen, I already cared about Aaliyah so much as character from seeing her through her father’s eyes.

My only issues with this book are Valentine, the gamemancer who Paul joins forces with, and Anathema, the ‘mancer they hunt.  Both characters felt a little thin to me.  It’s clear the Steinmetz made an effort to develop Valentine, but she still came off a lot of the time like someone being drawn to fit a particular box in the story, and not a fully-developed character.

Despite these issues, I enjoyed this book a great deal.  The world alone is fascinating – and I really hope that Steinmetz returns to it, because I really want to see just how broken Europe is, and I want to see how Aaliyah’s story develops.  If you’ve burned out on a lot of urban fantasy, I can recommend picking this one up, as I believe Steinmetz brings something new and fresh to the genre.

Review: Cold Comfort by David McDonald

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Strap yourself in as three tales from award winning speculative fiction author David McDonald take you on a tour of time and space.

Visit a frozen post apocalyptic Earth, a galactic delivery service, and very Australian dystopia to discover what happens to ordinary people faced with extraordinary choices or challenges.

Published by Clan Destine Press.

 

NOTE: Review copy provided by author in exchange for an honest review.

Cold Comfort is a collection of three stories from Australian author David McDonald; two of the stories are reprints and one is original to this collection.

Cold Comfort (originally published in Fablecroft Publishing’s Epilogue)

Ice spiders, snow bears and deadly cold are only most obvious of the dangers a young trader faces as she searches for the secrets of the Elders on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Epilogue is an anthology which focused on apocalypse, and more, strove to explore the world beyond it–is there hope beyond the end of the world?  Cold Comfort explores these themes in a frozen world, where people survive only in sealed domes and heat itself is a currency.  The story follows Vanya as she travels through the icy wilderness, fighting off wild creatures as she searches for a dome in which she can trade, and discovers so much more.

There is a deceptive sparsity to McDonald’s writing which well suits this story.  Everything feels truly bleak and utterly real: the reader struggles with Vanya as she searches the frozen world.  It really feels as though there is a whole world here, and that McDonald has only just begin to explore it (and as a reader, I hope that he does return to it, because it is fascinating).

Through Wind and Weather (originally published in eMergent Publishing’s Deck the Halls)

A rebellious pilot races against time to make a vital delivery to a planet in need. But in the face of the worst solar storm in years, his only ally is a sentient spaceship who is an outcast even to its own kind.

From the Christmas-themed anthology Deck the Halls, this one is (obviously) Christmas themed.

This is a slighter story than the others in Cold Comfort, but it has no less impact.  Without spoiling anything, this is the kind of story that I’m not usually a fan of, but McDonald makes it work by adding in just enough fascinating worldbuilding.  I kind of want one of these spaceships, and now please.

Our Land Abounds

In a world divided by war and wracked by food shortages, the Republic of Australasia is an oasis protected by its isolation and the Border Patrol. But, a chance encounter leaves a weary veteran asking whether the price of plenty is too high.

This story is original to this anthology, and is my favourite.

In the possibly-all-too-near future, Australia has suffered through a war, and in order to protect itself and its wealth, has closed its borders.  But all is not well in the Republic: a teacher is taken away for daring suggest that Australia has enough wealth to share, and illegal immigrants are hung for their “crime”.

This closed-off republic is not a kind one, however–a teacher is taken away for daring suggest to her students that Australia has enough wealth to share, and “criminals” are hung for being discovered as illegal immigrants.

This story in particular cuts very close to the bone, with respect to the Australian government’s current policies, and it feels far too much like a plausible future.  I feel like, as with Cold Comfort, McDonald has shown us only the tip of a horrifying and fascinating Australian dystopia, and I would love to see him return to or expand upon it.

In summary

This is a brilliant collection, and especially recommended if you haven’t read any of McDonald’s work before.  The stories are well described by the collection title Cold Comfort: these are not easy worlds, but McDonald manages to place hope even in the middle of despair.  Vanya discovers that her world isn’t as lost as she thought, Nick and his sentient ship will find a way through, and even in the depths of dystopia, people still speak out.

Highly recommended.

 

AWW15: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

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Luxury spaceliner Icarus suddenly plummets from hyperspace into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive — alone. Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a cynical war hero. Both journey across the eerie deserted terrain for help. Everything changes when they uncover the truth.

 

 

NOTE: I was part of the Aurealis Awards judging panel which awarded These Broken Stars Best YA Novel in 2013.

These Broken Stars is the first book in the Starbound trilogy, co-written by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, and Kaufman’s debut novel.

This is very much a book that I can see as being a gateway into speculative fiction, especially for female readers (I know that I would have made extreme grabby hands for that cover alone when I was a teenager, and would have loved the story even more).  There are some reviews that complain about a lack of worldbuilding in terms of the science fictional universe, but I can actually see that being a positive thing for a lot of readers – if you have a young reader who hasn’t read much science fiction, too much worldbuilding can be daunting.  These Broken Stars is a book primarily about the co-protagonists, just enough revealed of the world(s) around them to be tantalising, without being overwhelming.

And those protagonists.  Lilac and Tarver are both complex characters – when they walk onto the virtual stage, both can easily be seen as little more than cliches: Lilac the spoiled princess, Tarver the heroic soldier.  They quickly move past this, both of them showing their own strengths and unexpected talents.  And Lilac is never a damsel in distress – they both save each other more than once.

I can imagine that some readers would be put off by the romance in this – and that’s cool, if romance isn’t your thing, you might be better off looking elsewhere, but I found it utterly believable and compelling.

There are two other books planned as sequels (This Shattered World, the second book, has been recently released) and I hope that Spooner and Kaufman expand out and out and show us more of this fascinating world.

 

 

Review: Kaleidoscope

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I make no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of the work that Twelfth Planet Press has been putting out over the last few years.  So when the crowdfunding compaign for a YA anthology, Kaleidoscope, was announced, I was already on board.

And then I read what Twelfth Planet Press were aiming with, and I couldn’t throw money at the project fast enough.  To quote from the pozible campaign:

Kaleidoscope is an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy & science fiction stories, which will be edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, and published by Twelfth Planet Press. Too often popular culture and media defaults to a very narrow cross section of the world’s populace. We believe that people of all kinds want to see themselves reflected in stories. We also believe that readers actively enjoy reading stories about people who aren’t exactly like them. We want see more stories featuring people who don’t always get the spotlight, so we’re gathering a wonderful variety of:

* YA fantasy stories [Update: As of 10/23 we are also open to science fiction]
* Set in the modern world 
* Featuring teen protagonists from diverse backgrounds

The main characters in Kaleidoscope stories will be part of the QUILTBAG, neuro-diverse, disabled, from non-Western cultures, people of color, or in some other way not the typical straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied characters we see all over the place.

That said, these aren’t going to be issue stories. The focus here is contemporary fantasy, and while the characters’ backgrounds will necessarily affect how they engage with the world, we’re not going to have a collection of “Very Special Episode” stories about kids coming to terms with their sexuality/disability/mental illness/cultural identity, etc. We want to see protagonists from all sorts of backgrounds being the heroes of their own journeys.

A note before I begin: the stories from Australian authors in this anthology are currently entrants in the Aurealis Awards; I am a judge on the YA panel, and as such will not be talking about these stories in this review.  I hope to come back and add a review of the Australian stories once the judging period has ended and the awards announced.

First of all, this is a pretty, pretty book.  Twelfth Planet Press have produced some really gorgeous books (seriously, I don’t think the TPP team is capable of producing anything less), and, in my opinion, Kaleidoscope and the recent reprinting of Kirstyn McDermott’s Perfections have taken the quality to an even higher level.  Many kudos to Amanda Rainey for the striking cover art.

One of the aims of Kaleidoscope in the Pozible campaign was to be inclusive, but that the stories included in the anthology were not going to be “issue stories”.  Does the final product follow through on this aim?  Oh yes, and then some.

All of the stories in the anthology are exceptional – even those that didn’t resonate for me (and that says much more about me as a reader than it does about any of the stories) are extremely good stories.

I’m not going to talk about every story, just the ones that are particular favourites of mine:

Alena McNamara’s The Day the God Died, in which a gender-questioning teenager encounters a strange, dying god.  The image of the god itself haunts me, long after I finished reading this story, and I’d very much like to read more of McNamara’s work.

E.C. Myers’ Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell, in which a mentally ill girl encounters a new drug that supposedly shows you the future, only no one knows how the drug interacts with psychoactive medication.  The treatment of mental illness in this one is brilliant, and it is highly recommended.  Also, points for great title.

Sofia Samatar’s Walkdog, which is written in the form of a term paper, complete with mispellings here and there (and all I can think about is editor’s brains breaking as they leave them in).  This story is my favourite out of the anthology – it is brilliantly written and seriously haunting.  I think Samatar is one of the most talented writers being published right now, and this story is perhaps one of the best things that she has written.

Amal El-Mohtar’s The Truth About Owls, in which the Lebanese-British protagonist finds herself drawn to Welsh mythology in an attempt to try to understand herself.  Just beautiful.

Shveta Thakrar’s Krisha Blue, in which a teenage artist who feels that she does not fit in discovers a strange new power.  This story speaks so much to the teenage girl I was – I wasn’t an artist, but I shared Neha’s feeling of isolation, and reading a story like this would have made me feel less alone.

John Chu’s Double Time explores a world where people have the technology to jump back in time; in this case it’s used by figure skaters to jump back and skate routines beside themselves.  Chu captures that feeling of being a teenager, never feeling like you’re going to live up to people’s expectations, so perfectly.

Overall, Kaleidoscope is probably one of the strongest anthologies I have read.  I can see so many teenagers and adults opening this, people who feel other and alone, and finding themselves in the pages somewhere.  And anyone who doesn’t might just be able to take a step back from their own life and feel compassion for the people they have always seen as Other.

Review: Bound, by Alan Baxter

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Alex Caine is a martial artist fighting in illegal cage matches. His powerful secret weapon is an unnatural vision that allows him to see his opponents’ moves before they know their intentions themselves.
An enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby, approaches Alex after a fight and reveals, ‘I know your secret.’ Welby shows Alex how to unleash a breathtaking realm of magic and power, drawing him into a mind-bending adventure beyond his control. And control is something Alex values above all else…
A cursed grimoire binds Alex to Uthentia, a chaotic Fey godling, who leads him towards chaos and murder, an urge Alex finds harder and harder to resist. Befriended by Silhouette, a monstrous Kin beauty, Alex sets out to recover the only things that will free him – the shards of the Darak. But that powerful stone also has the potential to unleash a catastrophe which could mean the end of the world as we know it.

Alan Baxter begins a new urban fantasy series with Bound, the first of the Alex Caine books.

Alex Caine is a professional fighter who has some odd talents – a kind of magical intuition is one of them, which he uses at the opening of this book to win a fight. This win, and the use of his talents, bring him to the attention of Webley, and Englishman who shows Alex that his talents are part of a bigger magical world.

Cue a fast-paced trip around the world, with Alex discovering more and more about the world that is hidden beneath the mundane world. This is no pleasure cruise for Alex – tough as he is, even he finds it difficult to deal with some of the darkness that he finds.

It’s really quite refreshing to see urban fantasy/dark horror written very much in the style of a thriller – this works especially well with Baxter’s writing, which often evokes a very cinematic feel (and I am so with reviewer Sean the Bookonaut in that I could so see Jason Statham playing Alex). It’s also very clear that Baxter has spent a lot of time building up this world – of which we only skim the surface (and of which I hope we delve deeper in the two subsequent books in the trilogy).

Some readers should be warned that there is a decent amount of sex (consensual) in this book, as well as lashings of violence. Especial note needs to be made of how damn good Baxter’s fight scenes are – quite frequently fight scenes are something that I’ll skip over as a reader, but I found myself sunk into each one in Bound (see the cinematic comment above).

Alex is always a very human character – he really struggles with the powers that he acquires, even as he takes a fighter’s joy in them (which is a really refreshing change to a lot of urban fantasy). Even the minor characters live and breathe on the page, and always seem to act in a fashion that makes sense (even if it is sometimes a warped kind of sense!).

Hat tip to the naming of the characters Hood and Sparks (references to friends of the author and prominent people in the Aussie SF field), which I think just reflects the absolute joy that Baxter takes in his writing and his community.

An extremely promising start to a new urban fantasy series, which is highly recommended. I’m looking forward to the next two books. And dammit, someone make a movie out of this, please, because it is begging for it.

Cross-posted to Goodreads and Amazon.  eARC provided by Netgalley in return for a fair review, but I also nabbed my own copy (as should you, because the ebook is free throughout the month of July!)

Epilogue review!

 

Guy Salvidge has reviewed Epilogue and has some very favourable things to say about the anthology and about my story, Ghosts:

Stephanie Gunn’s “Ghosts” is another impressive offering in a now-rarely seen SF subgenre: life in an underground shelter after the bomb. Nadya and Mater are teenagers who have the mixed blessing of being fertile in a world where women give birth to genetic monsters and there are no doctors. Nadya’s father insists that she produce an offspring with Mater, but she has a different goal in mind. Visceral and concrete, like the bunker featured herein, “Ghosts” is among my favourite stories in Epilogue.

I am stupidly happy to be in this anthology, and totally chuffed that Guy enjoyed my story.