In Need of a Yuletide Stocking-Filler?

It’s that time of year again! As the dust settles from the hurly-burly of Christmas and the inevitable gift-exchange (much of which, I hope, will involve books!), for many an inevitable question always remains:

What do I spend that gift voucher on?

If, as I inevitably do from relatives who have given up trying to buy for me, you have some spare cash or Amazon vouchers kicking around this Christmas, I would like to suggest a few stocking fillers that you may consider spending them on.


Surface Tension


First up, a collection that I have reviewed before. Sarah Grey’s collection is truly excellent both moving and unsettling – perfect for traditional Yuletide chills. And what better way to celebrate the release of her new book Half Life than revisiting her other fantastic work?


Steampunk Fairy Tales


If you want a bit of Christmas magic of fairy tales, but with a steam-pumping, oil-spewing take that is both gritty and magical, then this is for you. I won’t dwell in detail on the fairy tales covered as part of the collection’s challenge to the reader is to guess – but needless to say that this is well worth picking up (and indeed, at the time of writing it is free, with a second volume retailing for only £0.99).


Inklings Press


Set up by a group of writer friends with the intention of helping others get a foot in the door of the publishing world, Inklings Press produce regular themed collections of a consistently good standard. To focus on only two: Tales from the Tavern, a classic fantasy anthology, is worth picking up for the first and final stories alone, while their Tales from Alternate Earths is one of the best collections of alternate-history short stories that I have ever come across. These are also very reasonably priced, and do a great deal to help undiscovered authors much-needed publicity and appreciation.


Besides this sample of recent delights I have stumbled across, there are a plethora of independent presses and magazines that deserve your attention, and give a start to the up-and-coming authors yet to be recognised by the major presses.  Apex publishes novels, novellas and a regular magazine, and is a treat for fans of the speculative (as my previous reviews of their publications can attest). Lightspeed and Clarkesworld magazines are famed for their fantasy and science fiction, while Beneath Ceaseless Skies is making waves in the epic fantasy market. These all contain stories written with love and dedication, and isn’t that what we bibliophiles yearn for?

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Exploring Otherwheres



Learn more about the authors and presses covered here by following them on Twitter:

Sarah Gray: @saraygray

Claret Press: @Claret_Press

Inklings Press: @InklingsPress

Apex: @ApexBookCompany and @apexmag

Beneath Ceaseless Skies: @BCSmagazine

Clarkesworld: @clarkesworld

Lightspeed: @LightspeedMag

The Kraken Sea – E. Catherine Tobler – 7/10

In The Kraken Sea, Tobler has crafted a unique take on a coming-of-age-story. Set in San Francisco in the early 1890s, the tale follows Jackson, a young orphan sent to a new city from his orphanage to be adopted; and who is not what he seems. Indeed, Jackson himself seems uncertain of what he is – all he knows is that at times scales appear under his skin, and when he loses self-control other children are known to disappear without a trace.


It is a story of self-discovery, then, that is told, and one tinged with exploitation, crime and mythology. Jackson is adopted into a “family” of people – or half-people – like him, who take advantage of their shape-shifting capabilities to further their interests against the other fey-tinged gangs of San Fransisco. Jackson proves a believable and sympathetic protagonist, who sometimes walks the line of the anti-hero – he is a youth with powers that are perhaps beyond his control, in a new city, with all the temptations open to an adolescent indulged by his peers. He sometimes does bad things, and wrong things, but there is no sense of evil, but rather a sense of moral complexity, of naïvety and of redemption. It is Jackson’s discovery of his own nature and the direction of his moral compass that drives The Kraken Sea.

Tobler has also successfully imbued an alternate-history America with artfully-used Classical (and some Norse) mythology and has managed to make the world believable, where it could so easily have been self-aware and self-indulgent in its own references. The atmosphere is dark and gritty, but not oppressively so, with enough wonder to lift the The Kraken Sea into a pleasantly speculative vein beyond a simple alternate-history thriller. While the descriptions are sometimes vague and confusing, bordering on the psychedelic, but this rather reflects the confusion of Jackson, thrown into a new and confusing world of which he is, by blood, a part, and faced with countless wonders (and horrors).

If you enjoy mythologically-tinged speculative fiction, alternate histories, or gang-land thrillers, then The Kraken Sea is well worth a read.

For more on Tobler’s work, follow her on Twitter: @ECthetwit

Imagination: Who Does The Thinking?


Ideas were never lacking, but their length of treatment belonged to machinery he could not coerce. They were alive; they refused to come to suit mere editors. Midway in a tale that started crystal clear and definite in its original germ, would pour a flood of new impressions that either smothered the first conception, or developed it beyond recognition. Often a short story exfoliated in this bursting way beyond his power to stop it. He began one, never knowing where it would lead him. It was ever an adventure. Like Jack the Giant Killer’s beanstalk it grew secretly in the night, fed by everything he read, saw, felt, or heard. Jones was too impressionable; he received too many impressions, and too easily.

                        The Whisperers, Algernon Blackwood, 1912

I find much to sympathise with Jones, the subject of Blackwood’s ghost-tale (recently republished in the highly recommended anthology, “The Haunted Library”) in which a writer, seeking a distraction-free place to pen his latest work, has the ideas snatched away from him in the night by disembodied spectral whisperers who destroy his own ideas with their external influences. It is a fear all writers share, and have experienced, I am sure – even if it the age-old danger of deciding that the brainwave one has when falling asleep would be better written down in the morning, before it is snatched away by sleep, never to be seen again.

I find it best to pen my ideas down quickly, and in brief. Only today I was telling a fellow writer that I find it difficult to write anything over around 7000 words or so, because the longer I spend on something, the more likely it is that other ideas, often from what I have read or heard that day, will sneak in and overcomplicate the story, until I get so wrapped up in the Gordian knot of world-building that I abandon the project. Things would be simpler, it often seems, if ideas could remain static and fixed.

But, as is often the case, it is the stories that developed of their own accord and added to themselves, and the characters who took on minds of their own that I am most pleased with. Recently on Twitter I have come across writing memes remarking on writers’ block being due to your imaginary friends stopping talking to you, or the task of a writer to have imaginary friends that they are unpleasant to. This struck a chord with me. The characters most fully realised, and who I am most fond of, were not constructed by me with pen and paper. They came to me fully realised, telling me what they were deciding to do, and the story-writing process became less telling a story as being told a story by myself. Such ideas do not “exfoliate”, as Blackwood described it, but rather gestate, for the story has already been realised and I am simply writing it down.

The more that I write, the more that I realise that writing is, first and foremost, a dialogue with yourself. We may choose to personify our ideas as muses, or imaginary friends – for as we write our characters to us they become, to a certain extent, real, just as characters can become real to the reader. They become more than entertainment, but our friends, partners and guides.

Some time ago, I set down my thoughts about this by a sorry attempt at poetry:


The mind is an unexplored country, but

                        I know full well who lives there.

They throng thick across the thought-fields,

                        calling, calling, always calling to me.

Friends, all of them, they stand there, old and new

                        – echoes of my past and future –

                        mouthing pleas for my pen.

I listen, I strain with the ears of my soul;

I cannot hear the threads of any tale

                        above the weft and warp of their roar.

Faces stand out – the old ghost who does not

                        know that he is dead, begging

                        to be given life – the wizard hunts

                        for the spell to unlock my word-chest

                        – mothers, fathers, beasts and babes

                                    jostle to be

                        – even the silent hunter raises a voiceless cry

                                    yearning to be heard

his tale half-told, his being half-formed

from the clay of my words; he lacks

the breath of life breathed in by

black scratches on a once-pure page.

They are me, and I am them,


by our words, that we are known without speaking.

A tale is not a tale ’til it is told.

                        The storyteller is naught without a story.

As the pen stains the page, a voice falls silent, satisfied,

only to be replaced by another,

and another;

for the mind is an unexplored country,

                        mapless, roadless, but we all know full well

that treasures dwell within there;

we have only to listen,

                                            and give them life.


In exploring my characters’ coming to me fully-formed, I realised more about my own influences. For instance, I suddenly became aware of my predilection for compound words and alliteration that can only be because of my being an Anglo-Saxonist – their poetry and language being swamped with the stuff. And I realised that the more I tried to rigidly plan the more likely ideas were to slip through my fingers.

I suppose the end point of my rambling is this: the more we write, the more we explore ourselves and the world around us, and bring them together on the page to share with others. We owe it to ourselves to listen to the voices within and the voices without, and not to resist the dialogue that wrests our clean ideas from us and bends them into new shapes, but rather to tame it, embrace it and work with it.