Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Near Witch - BookReview

Originally released via Hyperion Books

The Disappearance of a child leads to mystery and suspicion

When a young boy, Edgar, vanishes from his home and a stranger who was seen the night before is blamed, locals start a search for them both. Sixteen year old Lexi Harris isn't so sure; for she has met the newcomer and, though he has secrets of his own, it doesn't seem likely that he is guilty of abduction. But what are the voices that speak to her young sister Wren? The fear felt in the village intensifies when a second child goes missing.

I enjoyed reading The Near Witch, the debut novel of author V.E. Schwab. It has a beauty all of its own, and a richness of characters. First up is Lexi, a confident young lady who is more comfortable wearing her father's hunting knife and actually getting involved in the search for missing children than living up to other people's expectations. She lives at home with her young sister and mother. Since the death of her father, she's clearly been "guided" by her Uncle Otto, though she prefers to follow her intuition than be told what to do. She is definitely her father's daughter.

Then there are witch sisters Magda and Dreska Thorne, who are clearly older than anyone else in the village with knowledge and memories that span more time than is possible. But they've lived, and seen things. They're also loners, which makes them suspects of concealing the stranger. If he's not found in the village then where else can he be?

And then there is the stranger himself, just a boy but one whose real name and motives are a mystery; to the villagers and Lexi, at least. But the disappearance of children began when he arrived, so what more evidence do people need to accuse him? If he is indeed being protected by the witches then perhaps they need to be dealt with, too?

I love the themes of isolation and fear, difference and suspicion.

Returning To The Beginning...

When it comes to books, I know what I like and rarely deviate - which isn't exactly a good thing because there is such richness out there in the publishing world. But from the moment I read the first few pages of The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, I was hooked. It was the same with Harry Potter, and Burning Issy by Melvin Burgess. The Near Witch did exactly that, a page turner and an obsession, a wanting to solve the mystery and find out the identity of the stranger; I was Lexi's companion, accompanying her as she resolved to find clues and clear his name.

But what if he is responsible?

Interestingly, this book was first published in 2011. As the author says of its original existence, "...though I tried to shield the fragile candle of its life, it was only a matter of time before the wind of publishing blew through, and snuffed it out". Thankfully she persisted, writing a further fourteen novels in seven years, and the time of The Near Witch came about once more thanks to the team at Titan Books. In March 2019 it was republished, in hardback, with a short story 'The Ash-Born Boy' and an introduction from V.E. Schwab. Now it is available in paperback, and I am glad.

For existing fans of the author it's a real treat to get hands on a fresh copy of this remarkable story. And, like me, if you're new and eager to learn more about this talented writer, then it's certainly a good place to start. I've also been reading Victoria's official website at; and enjoying the blog, which I hope remains intact at and is never deleted - it is such a lovely place to wander and spend time exploring, reading up on the beginnings of The Near Witch's first publication and book signings etc.

I now have a favourite new book, and author.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Coronavirus (COVID-19) - Empty World

Hello, my name is Alwyn Ash, and Today I Am Facing An Unknown Future

This is an article I never thought would be written in my lifetime. It's a reflection of life in 2020. It's been reported that the first official case of COVID-19 can be traced to 17 November 2019, though the outbreak was officially announced in December 2019, known to have originated in Wuhan, Hubei, China. Most astonishingly of all is that the Chinese government allegedly tried to cover up the outbreak in the early days. Over four months later and the whole planet is in lockdown. In March 2020, the virus was recognised as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

It's the most frightening time in my life so far. Though we've been told to remain indoors and isolate from this threat, it's become necessary to step outside and visit the local grocery store, or collect prescribed medication from a pharmacy. None of us were prepared for the situation we now find ourselves in. Which is weird, considering that novelists and movie directors have been warning us of such a scenario for decades. I'm immediately reminded of The Omega Man (1971), based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend. Of course, there is a huge difference right now between our world and the one Charlton Heston's character, Neville, lives in. But there is no denying that we've all taken so much for granted.

Call me naive, but I always believed world governments could handle something as significant as a pandemic, that there would be in place specialised teams with enough equipment and knowledge to fight such a problem. Perhaps, at some undisclosed location, there existed a facility that held isolation rooms, a laboratory, whole areas where those infected could be transferred to under strict quarantine. Yes, thousands if need be! Travel between countries would be banned and Martial Law would come into operation, military aiding police in implementing a lockdown throughout the country and distributing supplies to civilians to prevent stock-piling. Alas, we're a long way from being organised. I would rather be in safe hands and guided by leaders that had planned for such an outcome than where we are at present, with uncertainty regarding food shortages and social distancing. One voice, one plan.

Okay, the idea of Martial Law isn't everyone's cup of tea, I completely understand. And that's perfectly fine. We all have opinions on the best ways of handling any given situation.

The reality: a British government that has reacted slowly; a society that panic-buys, leaving supermarket shelves bare; individuals who refuse to self-isolate either because they fail to realise the full potential of this pandemic or they just don't care, believing they're too young and healthy to die from it; and people who are unable to stay in their homes as directed at no fault of their own. The homeless are an issue, too, the vulnerable who have no where safe to quarantine.

Everything is chaos.

While a minority of the rich are complaining about being locked in their mansions, key workers at ground level are risking their lives by being on the front line to help others: grocery staff, medics, delivery drivers, care assistants, and many more who cannot just switch off and stay at home.

History Today - A Great Plague Is Upon Us

I was always fascinated and saddened by The Great Plague, which lasted for the period of 1665 to 1666. The bubonic plague killed without discrimination. First reports were of isolated cases in London, first appearing in the dock areas of the city, and in St. Giles parish. These early deaths were not reported as plague related and so no official quarantine measures were set in place. Though weekly deaths had increased in their hundreds, only a handful were recorded as plague. Finally household quarantine was ordered, with suspected plague victims to be shut up in their homes. Astonishingly, people in St. Giles reacted violently to this and a riot ensued, resulting in the first house that had been sealed to be opened up and its inhabitants released. This led to the construction of isolation hospitals known as pest-houses. Over the months there were more cases, and deaths.

The plague was rampant in London by July 1665. Those rich enough fled, including sovereign of that time: King Charles II of England! But for most it was a terrifying time, unable to escape infection and the infected. Businesses shut down. Though some of the poor did manage to leave the city, on evidence of good health by producing a certificate signed by the Lord Mayor, it was not easy - many were turned back by outer villages and some died of thirst or hunger during the hot Summer. By this point it was believed that just over 2,000 residents had died from plague in London. Pits were dug for those that had died. Dead-carts were driven through streets carrying piles of bodies. At one point there were so many victims and so few cart drivers that corpses were stacking up in their homes.

Feels strange typing this as I look out of my own window to see an empty street. Today businesses are mostly closed also, only those classed as essential still open their doors, though the number of customers at any one time has been restricted. Like those stuck in London in 1665, my family is unable to go someplace safe - we have no access to a country retreat. I'm forced to walk those streets for whatever food supplies I can find in local stores, and though I've ordered my mother's prescription online a text has arrived stating that I now have to walk to another store on the other side of town to collect them.

So I must stay safe, keep a distance from others and thoroughly wash my hands upon returning home. I'm a carer, my mother is of pension age and has recently been in hospital. She is one of those vulnerable from Coronavirus. Yes, I'm scared for her safety. What if I become sick, and am unable to look after her?

History Will Judge Us

Future historians will have unlimited access to this century, they'll write essays and present documentaries, schools will learn of 2020 and gravestones will carry the scars. I'm part of this "history", and I just don't know where it will lead. I'd rather die of old age in another 40 years time than be a statistic for COVID-19.

I feel the weight of responsibility for keeping both myself and my mother safe. Because right now I'm the only person that could potentially give it to her. She can't go out. Not enough has been done to protect our daily lives, and there is just not enough support networks in place. Not everyone is observing social distancing and maintaining the 2 metre distance advised by government, either. My local Tesco Express store isn't limiting the number of customers at any one time, so we're still passing each other too close and trying to get past staff who are stocking shelves. No, I don't blame the staff at all, they are heroes and life wouldn't function without them. They clearly are in need of better management and organisation. It doesn't help that companies are doing their own thing and that there isn't a single set of regulations governed by law. Yes, this pandemic is unprecedented, but we've always known it to be on the cards.

Empty world

In 1977, an apocalyptic novel written by John Christopher was published. Empty World tells the story of a disease called the Calcutta Plague, which accelerates the ageing process in all human beings. It is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Neil Miller, who at one stage contracts the virus but ultimately survives after a fever. Eventually those of all ages can succumb to the plague, leaving handfuls of survivors. I first read it over ten years ago and in recent years have bought a fresh copy from Aladdin Books, an imprint owned by Simon & Schuster.

Ironically, there have been reports of a surge in apocalyptic movies being streamed during this modern-day pandemic. Maybe it's a form of self-counselling, to remind some of us that no matter what the world throws at us, it could be a lot worse? Or they're looking to these films for inspiration, as a survival guide? Personally, I have been studying the history of television shows such as 1970s British series Survivors, which originally aired from 1975-77. It tells the story of a plague called "The Death" that goes global, decimating the population. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) ran a version in 2008, lasting for two seasons. And in 2014, Big Finish (a company that specialises in audio drama) began releasing a number of boxsets featuring new stories set in the world of Survivors.

I am yet to hear any of these or watch either television series. Whether now is the right time, I'm not so sure.

The 2020 pandemic is destroying lives, robbing families of loved ones, and crippling businesses and the world economy. There is deep uncertainty. It's heartbreaking to witness these events. What will come in the next six months is anyone's guess, because history is still being written. But what I do know is that life must change as a result of this, attitudes towards others need to be reevaluated. Everyone is playing their part. Without artists there would be no books, artwork, movies or audiobooks to keep us entertained during the isolation period; without key workers there would be no access to mail, food, money or other vital products; and where would this world be without doctors, nurses and care workers? there are others, too, without whom our present predicament would be much darker and far scarier.

I have learned something about myself: there is an inner strength. I'm far from perfect, and I have had terrible days of feeling desperation and crying, but the strength helps to pick me back up and fight again, determined to protect loved ones from harm. I am learning to appreciate what really matters.

Everything else is just a luxury.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Oh My Word! Fandoom - How To Help Pollute A Franchise With Toxicity

Opinions Are Like Arseholes...

"It's not my show anymore." "They've bastardized my favourite movie series." "Political correctness gone crazy." "It rubs people the wrong way." "The thing is an obvious gimmick." "The 13th doctor being a female just ruined doctor who."

Everyone has an opinion. Back in the good old days of cult magazines (some of which are still ongoing) you'd find them in the letters section, but unless you purchased said publications then they'd be easily overlooked. Nowadays, thanks to social media, it's EVERYWHERE! You can't log on and access a Facebook page without them being present. And "Friends" regularly post their reactions, both good and bad, to shows and movies. What is becoming apparent today, however, is the lack of respect fans hold for fellow fans.

I'm totally with someone who doesn't like something because we can't ALL enjoy everything that's written for stage and screen, but it's the possessiveness and self-entitled attitude of fans that help to ruin a good franchise. There are personal attacks at anyone who clearly and honestly enjoys the latest incarnation of the Doctor (in this case Jodie Whittaker) or have rallied behind Daisy Ridley in the latest Star Wars trilogy instalment. Now there are misogynistic types behind SOME of the attacks, people who just will not accept a female in a lead role. But it also goes much deeper, because there are women who do not support certain changes "for changes sake" or are tired of a "political correctness agenda" from filmmakers and writers. Again, I'm with them, not because I agree but simply because I respect their opinion.

This is what is largely missing from social networking, the ability to agree to disagree, to accept that an opposite opinion of yours is not a personal attack and therefore does not warrant an actual personal attack. For example, I once commented on a Star Wars post that I enjoyed The Last Jedi - someone called me a "C#@t". I deleted my comment and refused to write anything on a page ever again. Did I give in to a "troll"? Well, yes. But in all fairness I just didn't expect such a response. Naive? Mhm. That said, it's becoming harder to visit ANY official franchise page these days and engage in discussion, as the insults and aggression are actually growing. The thing that makes me laugh? Seeing someone comment that they love Whittaker as the Doctor and it receives a number of angry face emojis. I mean, why? They've not said anything mean, they've not killed anyone or stole someone's pocket money. They've simply stated that they enjoy something that is harmless fun. It's a television show about a traveller in time and space. It's almost terrifying to click on the replies to that comment, knowing they'll be the usual cruel jibes.

Lessons In Why To Be Constructive

There's a fantastic article called Ghostbusters: Answer The Call – a celebration of its ongoing legacy in which its author Simon Brew points out the positives of Paul Feig's 2016 movie. This is something that I hold with all franchises, there will always be new fans from a current incarnation whether it be Star Trek or Doctor Who. I've seen online photos of children dressed as the 13th Doctor or a girl Ghostbuster, and it's so refreshing. Honestly, I was a child when first visiting the Doctor or a Ghostbuster, and it was a boyhood dream to want to be Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker. A show might change but my cherished memories remain intact.

All childhood Memories Are Safe

"They've ruined my childhood" is a comment I see often. My reaction? Grow up (as in, be reasonable with your perspective, you're an adult for goodness sake)! At 45 years of age I'm still finding fascination from movies and TV shows, I totally own my childhood and am still developing my adulthood. I've grown up but at the same time still enjoy being a child sometimes. When Star wars: The Force Awakens hit theatres I was excited and giddy, and have now begun collecting Hasbro's Black Series six inch Star Wars figures with the face printing technology. I used to own Kenner figures back in the 1980s, and still have the Yoda with his brown snake somewhere.

If you are someone who have a real passion for Star Wars' original trilogy, enjoy "Classic" Doctor Who, or prefer Star Trek: The Next Generation over Star Trek: Discovery, the good news is that they have never been deleted, you can rewatch til your heart's content. Okay, I see the irony in mentioning George Lucas' original trilogy as not being deleted - he's tinkered with those movies so much that at present we don't own on blur-ray the trilogy as it was first shown - but you get the idea: we can still revisit Luke's adventures in some form. There ARE Doctor Who episodes missing from the 1960s, but we're still rich with plenty of them on DVD between 1963-89. And old Star Trek is EVERYWHERE.

Mutual Respect

I understand the passion that fans hold for something, they've invested so much time and money into a franchise that they feel some kind of ownership. In truth, we don't and have never owned any franchise, it's always in the hands of a current management team who will take it in any direction they see fit while they have the keys. And so, we either love or hate those changes. Fundamentally, we MUST learn to appreciate that there are fans who WILL adore those changes, embrace and go with them. Criticising their support or directing hateful comments is never acceptable.

An example: I was never fully on board with Matt Smith's Doctor but accepted that he was loved by millions, and so refrained from being negative for negative's sake. I watched some episodes from time to time, and kept up to date with the show's developments, but rarely felt passionate about it all. The same applied to Peter Capaldi's tenure, though with him I was more disappointed by the writing than the actor's casting. I never once visited a fan page just to say how much I hated the show - I mean, what's the point? Instead I embraced Classic Doctor Who more and focused on other shows such as Falling Skies, Terra Nova, The Walking Dead and Stranger Things.

Upon hearing that a woman had been cast as the Doctor, I sighed. It's not what I wanted. But I waited, looked up Jodie Whittaker online and liked her personality in interviews. I shrugged. Okay. I'm interested. Now I'm a fan. I remained respectful and patient, instead of throwing a tantrum and criticising anyone who championed her from Day One.

So, I'm a fan who felt MY show had not gone in a direction I liked (Smith-Capaldi) but didn't feel privileged enough to ruin it for others. I took a sidestep. It's true to say that friends have fallen out over these kind of things, whether in real life or online. But why? It's important to think about what we truly value. A fanbase should be a fun place to visit, share opinions and have a laugh - instead, they've become very serious, polluted and damaging.

Don't Blame Others For Your Inability To Be Civil

It's not the writers of our favourite show or movies that have done this, it's the fans! Regardless of "sides" (of which there shouldn't be any), there is a toxicity that needs to be removed. It's not life or death, nor should someone be regarded as an "enemy". Desist from using an angry face (😠 lol) on a post just because a fellow fan enjoys watching a current incarnation of something you dislike.

They've not boiled your pet rabbit!

Monday, March 9, 2020

Alien: Prototype (2019) - BookReview

Originally published on The Dreamcage

Release date: October 2019


Mad scientist gains access to Xenomorph egg, it hatches, and all hell breaks loose as people are killed. Of course, it's been done before: the whole of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation seems intent on breeding these monstrous aliens and deploying them for warfare. However, it is Venture, a rival company, that wishes to obtain the Holy Grail of alien artefacts in this fun story penned by Tim Waggoner and published by Titan Books.

I've never been one to dive into the various graphic novels of the Alien Universe so it's not easy to keep up with the various characters created over the years. Does having some prior knowledge of comics help with Alien Prototype? Not really, I found it easy to get straight in and read. It probably does help that I had some knowledge of Zula Hendricks, a friend to Amanda Ripley-McClaren, thanks to the publication of Alien Isolation (read Alwyn's review of that book here), but it's not a problem for new readers.


Spy Tamar Prather infiltrates a group of space pirates to locate a Xenomorph egg, also called the Ovomorph. The outlaws eventually board a commercial transport where an egg is found. Prather's job now is to abandon her pirate associates and deliver the egg to her client, Dr. Gagnon of Venture, at The Lodge, a facility on the planet Jericho 3. Reminiscent of that scene in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997) where kidnapped Humans are used as hosts for Xenomorphs by military scientists, Gagnon tricks a male colonist to be part of some medical research. Hassan, the colonist, has given his time before with various experiments - this time he unwittingly becomes part of something that won't just end his life, but will have the potential to cause unspeakable horror. In a test chamber the colonist is faced with an egg and the Facehugger within.

At this present time, former marine Zula Hendricks is on the colony training potential members for Venture's Colony Protection Force. She's a very likeable character and one that is given enough to do throughout the story. With the alien breaking free of the test chamber and growing to become a thoroughly perfect killer, Hendricks and her team are quite literally the only ones that have any chance of standing up against the Xenomorph. To complicate matters, however, is the knowledge that the creature is a carrier of cellular necrosis, a deadly disease passed on from its host Hassan. Ingeniously this particular alien is able to adapt and use it as an extra weapon, infecting Humans in its path and causing the disease to spread virally through the colony.

Tamar is a fun character, a mercenary whose objectives can change in an instant, depending on who's paying and whether someone else can afford more. She's a survivor, a realist, and emotionally detached from those around her.

Winning Formula

Award-winner Tim Waggoner was a great choice to pen an Alien story. Not one new to media tie-ins, he crafts something that, in my opinion, is easily one of the best takes on the Alien franchise in years. If a single Xenomorph (Gagnon christens his a "Necromorph") is more than enough to become your worst nightmare, then why not add a pathogen to escalate the tension further...

Titan Books is easily on a winner.