Tag Archives: Craig Hallam

Oshibana Complex – a review

Craig Hallam’s Oshibana Complex is a science fiction, cyperpunk sort of story set in a grim future. I very much enjoyed it and if this is a genre you’d read, I recommend picking up a copy.

This is one of those stories where making sense of what is going on is integral to the plot, so, I shall try to review without spoilers. From the first page, we know this is a setting where work dominates life, and those who are poor are incredibly vulnerable. This speaks to the present moment all too clearly, and offers a trajectory no sane and decent person should want. The idea of the disposable human worker who is little more than a cog in the corporate machine is one we need to resist, and Craig illustrates it beautifully.

We also know from the first page that this is a culture that doesn’t do gender. I found this fascinating. The grammar is easy enough to get to grips with and cleverly done. It made me conscious of the way in which gender signifiers are so hardwired into how we think about people and identity. Being a writer myself it got me thinking a lot about gender identities in fiction, and what kinds of clichés and gender stereotypes we might unconsciously use when writing. It’s really interesting exploring characters who do not experience gender in themselves or other people, and I greatly enjoyed that as a reader.

The third thing that really struck me about this book and that isn’t a spoiler, is that it deals with mental health issues. The main character is distressed, experiences trauma and has realistic responses to that. As the story unfolds, the impact of being overwhelmed, lost, and in existential crisis plays out really effectively. Craig (who also wrote Down Days) has a lot of insight on this score and brings it to bear with skill, taking you into the mind of someone who is struggling. So often in speculative fiction, characters take on the chin things that tend to break real people. That sets up unrealistic expectations and means we otherwise have very few maps of what to do when faced with mental health issues in ourselves or others. It’s good to see the emotional consequences taken seriously.

This is a fine piece of work, it’s a book with many layers and dimensions to it, a strong story, with a surprising trajectory, lots to ponder and lots to enjoy. Heartily recommended.

Oshibana Complex is widely available from online retailers, but you can also buy it directly from the publisher, which is without a doubt, the best way to get money to the author!


Emi, by Craig Hallam

Today I have the happiness of bringing you an excerpt from Craig Hallam’s latest book, Emi.

Emi is a Studio Ghibli-inspired dark fantasy about humanity and morality with Japanese folklore imagery.

 

Meetings

The grass had decided to become everything it could be, growing until only the barn’s roof was visible above the swaying fronds. Slates had slipped, making wounds that exposed wooden ribs beneath. In the eaves, a dried bird’s nest rattled in the breeze.

Christopher stood at the foot of the hill, looking up at the sagging roof. Drifting toward the dilapidated marvel, his progress could be seen as a shifting wake in the tall grass, a shark splitting water.

Skirting the barn’s perimeter, he swept hair the colour of dirty butter from his eyes. Cracks and creases in the stonework grinned and grimaced. The masonry sprouted vibrant mosses and the odd weed-flower. Some stones lay on the ground, some shards of broken slate. He stood at a distance for a while, looking up and down the walls, back the way he’d come, across fields where the wind made eddies in the wild wheat that chased like swallows. He looked to the horizon simply because his eye fell there, made from a spine of hilltops, and saw beyond them to the empty prairies and meadows and clear green rivers he’d already traversed, everything silent and blooming and undisturbed.

He circled back around to the barn’s doors.

They hung askew, holes gaping between mouldered planks. The chain, so badly rusted that its links were immovable, snapped in Christopher’s bare hands. Where it had lain across the door, a deep red grin scarred the wood.

The scent of ancient hay and animal dung still remained inside. Light bled through slats of the boarded window in two glistening shafts. If he still breathed, Christopher would have caught his breath.

One shaft of light came to rest on a pair of mottled legs, curled beneath a summer dress of lemon and white. It was stiff with dirt, torn and frayed at the embroidered hem. A pair of dainty white socks had yellowed with age above pretty, dust-covered shoes. The other beam caressed the crown of a bowed head, blonde locks weaving their way like a golden briar about the child’s head.

Christopher tried to speak but only released a squeak of desiccated vocal chords. His unused tongue made a dry clack between receding gums.

“Ch-h-hello,” he managed, in a dry rasp.

The small legs retreated into the dark. The sound of a chain dragging in dirt as the little dead girl stepped forward, uncertain in what must have been her first steps in an age. Reaching the extent of her chain, wrapped thrice around her tiny waist, the girl jerked backward and almost off balance, waving her arms to stay upright. By the light from the broken doorway Christopher could see she was seven, maybe eight years old, and had been for a long time. Her leather t-bar shoes pointed slightly toward each other at the toes. Her hands hung slack on the apron of her dress. Her right sleeve was a tatter, the thin bicep beneath shredded.

Christopher’s hand strayed to his stomach, a spot on his threadbare dungarees where the rubbing had worn the denim white.

“Your name.” Christopher forced the sounds from his mouth, kneeling to her.

The girl lifted her head, hair plastered across her ashen forehead in some long forgotten fever. Christopher reached out to brush it aside, a reflex he didn’t realise he’d forgotten until it was remembered. Her eyes were the yellow of the Sickness. The colour of his own.

“Your name?” he asked again, his voice becoming softer with the practice, returning to its old disarming whisper.

When she opened her mouth, a moth battered its way from her lips and escaped through the wounded roof.

“Emi,” crackled the girl. “My name is Emi.”

 

Her Mummy and Daddy had put her there to keep her safe, and they were coming back. So, Emi waited. She waited until Christopher came and yanked her chain from the wall as if it were buried in sand, not stone. She waited until the world fell quiet outside, until the Sickness receded, taking most memories that she had with it. Except that Mummy and Daddy were coming back. That, she knew.

With the child free to roam as she liked, Christopher set off once more on his eternal pilgrimage without destination or purpose. The brief wonder of finding her forgotten.

Emi wandered to and fro in his wake, winding across the old track, taking in the colour of the bushes and flowers, watching insects flit and fly. Not much had survived, but the insects had.

“Where are we going?” Emi asked.

Christopher’s spine snapped to attention at the sound of her voice. He spun around.

She was still there.

Christopher had to think about his answer.

“Nowhere in particular,” he said.

“Oh,” said Emi, regarding a wild hedgerow at the roadside. Entangled in the branches were delicate white flowers on thin vines that curled like filigree. Without a thought, she reached out to pluck one.

Christopher’s hand lashed out, gripping her wrist tight.

“Don’t touch that,” he said with little urgency.

Still in his steel grasp, Emi asked why.

“It’ll kill you.”

Looking at the way his white knuckles enveloped the girl’s forearm, a memory surfaced to gather air and then submerged once more, leaving only the flash of a tail. Christopher drew back his hand to stare at it. This was turning into an odd day.

“We’re already dead,” pressed Emi. She shifted the chain that still wrapped her waist, flecks of red drifting down to stain her dress a little more.

Christopher was admiring his hand.

“It’ll kill you more.”

He walked away.

Emi didn’t move. Her little head tipped to the side. The flowers were so pretty, the petals so delicate.

“Christopher?”

The sound of his name on her tiny lips seemed wrong to him. At first, he didn’t respond. But there was something, something he should do, an itch to scratch. He should answer.

“Yes?”

“Is everyone dead?”

Christopher stopped in the track, but didn’t turn.

“Yes.”

“Are Mum and Dad dead?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

A small part of him expected tears, or at least another question. He heard the sound of Emi’s tiny shoes in the dirt, and felt her fragile hand slip into his own.

“We should go then,” she said.

 

(Out in April)


Down Days – a review

This isn’t a self help book or any kind of technical book about depression and anxiety. It is however, a very readable and useful sort of book.

Craig Hallam is best known for his fiction – which has gothic and steampunk flavours in the mix. He’s a splendid chap. I’m reviewing this book because it has considerable merit, and I like Craig a lot. Reviewing a book about depression and anxiety written by someone who suffers, and being someone who suffers, I have some idea what a brain can do in these scenarios… Craig is lovely, and his book is thoughtful and insightful and some people are going to find it incredibly helpful. (But I can almost hear the voice in Craig’s head trying to explain why I probably hated it, and him…)

If you suffer from depression and anxiety and feel alone in this, reading Down Days might just help ease that a bit. It’s not just you. There’s much to be said for a friendly, understanding voice, and Craig is that.

It is, I have noticed repeatedly, a lot easier to think about other people’s problems. We’re likely to be kinder to other people. I rate your chances of reading about Craig’s experiences and feeling clear that the things that live in his head are horrible, unfair things that need treating kindly. Even when you’re telling yourself that the near-identical things living in your own head are perfectly sensible and justified. Sometimes, what we can feel for other people opens a door to being able to see ourselves differently.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of this book is the scope for giving it to someone else. Talking about mental illness is really hard. Explaining what it’s like is very difficult. I’m a words person, and on a good day I can have a crack at describing it. On a bad day I can barely string sentences together and I don’t talk about what’s happening. Not everyone has good days. Even on the good days, you might not have any words. What Craig has written is a very readable, unthreatening sort of book about depression and anxiety from the inside. So, if there’s a person whose understanding would make a lot of odds to you, but to whom you cannot explain things, this book could be the perfect answer. It would be a way of starting a conversation without having to do the talking, and a way of helping someone else understand without having to dig into the things you least want to have to think about.

One of the things I think reliably breaks people down is not knowing how to treat ourselves kindly. Many of us did not get here alone, and may be kept here by what’s happening in our lives. After a while, you can start to feel like you don’t deserve kindness – that’s very much part of the condition. It persuades you that this is all you are worth, that no one could care, that if they do, you don’t deserve it and that you are at best, a waste of space. This book is kind. This book will be kind to you, and it will show you things that might help you be a bit kinder to yourself, and not have that be a frightening thing.

You can buy this book other places online, but buying direct from the publisher’s blog is also a thing, so here’s the link – https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/down-days/


Old Haunts – a review

Old Haunts is the second Alan Shaw book by Craig Hallam– I reviewed the first one here. Book two takes the same sort of format as the first instalment, with a series of action orientated stories with a distinctly steampunk vibe. There’s fiendish devices aplenty, unspeakable magic (often combined with the fiendish devices) Lovecraftian monstrosities, flying machines and steam powered everything.

The main character, Alan Shaw, is clearly an adrenaline junkie, and volume two sees him taking jobs as a privateer, sometimes doing despicable things for Queen and country. Alan isn’t keen on British Imperialism, but he likes being paid to not quite get himself killed, so this is a moral dilemma he’s trying to navigate.

He’s a considered dismantling of the macho hero archetype, and this particularly interests me with Craig’s writing. The classic action hero fights his way through, and may be the last person standing at the end of the book or film. Lovers, comrades, employers and enemies are all there to provide backdrop in the normal scheme of things. It is this habit of thought that the Alan Shaw stories particularly subvert. People don’t die all the time to give the hero motivation. He co-operates, he doesn’t kill people all the time and when he does occasionally kill, he feels it keenly. His life is full of consequences and responsibilities, he has relationships with people. This is key, for me. Action heroes don’t really have substantial relationships in the normal scheme of things. Alan Shaw does, and he feels his attachments keenly and they shape his life.

The underlying themes for me were very much about consequences. What the main character does, for good and ill, stays with him. Sometimes it follows him around, wanting help, or revenge, or explanations. He doesn’t get to blow things up and move on to the next story, all possible baggage burned away before the next round starts. He’s not a man alone, he needs friends, lovers, family. Sometimes he needs rescuing and looking after. Background characters don’t have to be daft, or weak or vulnerable to make him look good, either.

I like this book greatly because the hero is not your standard issue cool and capable man alone, but a far more interesting and complex human.

More on the author’s website – https://craighallam.wordpress.com/tag/the-adventures-of-alan-shaw/

And you can buy the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Haunts-Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Book-ebook/dp/B078SJ7415/


The Adventures of Alan Shaw: A Review

Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.

Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.

Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.

There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.

Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.

The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.

Alan Shaw on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Craig-Hallam/dp/1908600322/ref=tmm_pap_title_0