Monday, 2 March 2015

Reading round-up: February

February 2015 books

Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
A recently divorced woman starts working at an all-female detective agency, and is sucked into a maybe-conspiracy and a distinctly odd quest to find an abandoned baby, all while navigating a will-they-won't-they relationship with her next door neighbour. One of those quintessentially 90s books that's definitely deserving of the epithet 'quirky', this is a light and slightly silly read - but it's better than all of that makes it sound.

No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine by Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt - 5/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This study of the Columbine high school massacre was co-written by a classmate and alleged friend of the shooters. As such, it offers a really interesting perspective, but it's also heavily biased and influenced by the author's personal experiences. It may have been revelatory when it was published 13 years ago, but there wasn't much here I hadn't already read about elsewhere, and the tone and style were offputting.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm - 4/10. Full review / Buy the book
Working in a Paris antiques shop, an American girl named Grace is living under a false identity: through a number of flashbacks, we find out what she is running from, and the convoluted tangle of relationships that caused her to be drawn into an art heist. While the premise is intriguing, it's wasted on a deeply boring set of characters, and lots of the details just don't make any sense.

The Curator by Jacques Strauss - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
There's so much in this novel that it's difficult to sum it up briefly, but I'll try: shifting between 1976 and 1996, it follows two generations of a white South African family, personified by father and son Hendrik and Werner Deyer. Both as manipulative and obsessive as each other, Hendrik and Werner make for awful but fascinating anti-heroes - the latter's blend of naivety, self-delusion and murderous tendencies being the main focus. With dark themes but an impressively light touch, it's a powerful and memorable book.

On Evil by Terry Eagleton - 7/10. Buy the book
Mixing theology, political history, modern philosophy and contemporary literary criticism, this is a readable and entertaining treatise on the concept of evil. It's short - actually more like a long-form essay - and although its conclusions are arguably vague, it's very interesting, and you will come away with a long list of further reading.

The Predictions by Bianca Zander - 7/10. Full review / Pre-order the book
Two teenagers brought up on a New Zealand commune try to navigate the changing world of London in the 1970s and 80s, struggling to fit their relationship around 'the predictions' - future visions of their lives laid out by a charismatic fortune-teller in their youth. Zander, author of The Girl Below, has perfected her style with this second novel, and its only flaw is that the protagonists are slightly bland.

Day Four by Sarah Lotz - 6/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
Stuck on a cruise ship that's become stranded in the Gulf of Mexico, a diverse group of passengers and staff are tested to the limits by distinctly strange and increasingly inexplicable goings-on. While it has an absolutely fantastic ending, Lotz's follow-up to The Three (barely a sequel, though it's been described as such) is sadly a bit of a drag, weighed down by unengaging characters and a very limited setting.

Bus Station: Unbound by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook (read online)
An updated spin on the 'choose your own adventure' genre, this latest project from indie publisher Curious Tales has the unlikely setting of Preston Bus Station, from which the protagonist/reader has to attempt escape during a snowstorm, while deciding whether or not to avoid various sinister characters. With numerous different endings to discover, it's really enjoyable, more than just a novelty.

Even though it's the end of February, I definitely feel like my 2015 reading hasn't really begun yet. There are so many books I want to read 'properly', but I'm trying to a) not think about that (especially since the list is getting longer all the time) and b) wait until I can give them my full attention. So this was another month of random picks and new/forthcoming releases. I'm aware that this isn't a very diverse selection - nothing translated from another language, for example - although I did manage to read two non-fiction books (which is nothing short of miraculous for me).

It's not difficult to pick my favourite of the month - it would definitely be The Curator. Most of the others were, at least, either reasonably enjoyable or reasonably interesting, with Unbecoming the only one I wish I hadn't bothered reading. I must say, though, that Day Four was undeniably a letdown after the brilliance of The Three.

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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Choose your own scares with Bus Station: Unbound by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst

Bus Station Unbound by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst Bus Station: Unbound (23 February 2015) by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst

This isn't really a review. To what extent can you actually review a 'choose your own adventure' book anyway? The nature of Bus Station: Unbound puts me in a curious position: I've read the book four times, but I can't tell you how it ends. Not because I wasn't paying attention or because I don't want to spoil it, but because each time, the ending was different. Not just the ending: almost everything was different, other than the first few pages. The plot is dependent on the options you select, and the chain of possibilities in Bus Station: Unbound is a long and labyrinthine one.

Here's what I can tell you. The setting is Preston bus station, an imposing brutalist building that, in the hands of the authors, becomes a deeply sinister - and possibly inescapable - place. The protagonist (you) is a young woman who's returned to Preston after a period of time away, a failed attempt at escape, and is estranged from her family; but her (your) character is as enigmatic and slippery as the story itself. For example, there are frequent references to a tragedy that occurred in the town some years ago, claiming the lives of a group of children that included the protagonist's brother - but even after several reads through, I'm still not sure of the circumstances surrounding this. This sort of mystery will keep you wanting to go back to the book to try and uncover more details and answers.

While hints of weirdness (though not necessarily explicit horror) pervade the unpredictable atmosphere, the nature of the book means it's hard to say much else. Similarly, it isn't really possible to give away any spoilers unless I tell you exactly which choices I made at every turn - but just in case, I won't tell you about the endings I got on each try. What I will say is that the length of the story can vary from a short story to a long novella depending on your choices. And a hint, one the book itself actually gives you at certain points: 'educating yourself' is a safer way to negotiate this strange world than simply trying to explore.

Bus Station: Unbound is available to read online here. It's actually free to access, but the publisher asks that you make a donation through PayPal. As much as I love getting things for free, I think this is fair enough given the effort that must have been involved in actually, practically making it work - the publishers have said on Twitter that it has something close to 3 million possible permutations (!!!) (I went with £4, around the price it was originally slated to retail for on Kindle, which has proved undoable due to the complexity of the interlinked setup.)

If you like weird fiction, ghost stories and subtle horror, independent publishing collective Curious Tales should definitely be on your radar. This innovative, interactive novel is the second thing I've read from them - following the ghost story collection Poor Souls' Light - and I found it just as unique and interesting. It definitely offers something quite different from your usual reading experience.

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Monday, 23 February 2015

Some new and forthcoming books: a brief overview

February 2015 books so far

Checking in with a quick update on some February reads, since I'm very conscious that I haven't posted any reviews recently. I'll be writing more in-depth posts on a couple of these when I have time, but for now, I challenged myself to write one-paragraph reviews of each of them. Here are the results...

The Curator (5 February 2015) by Jacques Strauss
In a narrative that shifts between 1976 and 1996, we are introduced to the doomed and dreadful Deyer family, primarily patriarch Hendrik and underachieving son Werner. Living in pre- and narrowly post-apartheid South Africa, they negotiate a changing world with suspicion, hatred and selfishness; the junior and senior Deyers are both devious and murderous individuals, and both are defined by obsession. The story has a wide scope, with its main arc involving the lasting impact of a massacre on the Deyer family, but on a lower level it is concerned mainly with the repulsively fascinating character of Werner and all his idiosyncrasies. The aspiring 'curator' of the title, he nurses an unfulfilled love of art alongside tendencies towards sadism, and these repressed desires will bring him, like his father, to ruin. Indubitably bleak but laced with black humour, this is a book with dark themes - murder, racism and child abuse among them - yet it keeps a surprisingly light tone by centring on Werner. His naivety and self-delusion make him both amusing and dangerous - a brilliant creation - and part of what makes The Curator work so well is its ambivalence towards him. This is one of those books that stays in your head and reveals more layers every time you think about it; I loved it.
Rating: 9/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

The Predictions (5 May 2015) by Bianca Zander
In Zander's second novel - a more slick and accomplished affair than her debut, The Girl Below - Poppy and Lukas are teenagers raised on a commune, Gaialands, in New Zealand. The story follows them from 1978 to 1989, as their relationship, which could very accurately be described as star-crossed, is tested not only by a move halfway across the world, poverty, and (later) incipient stardom, but by 'the predictions' of the title, visions of their future laid out by an eccentric and charismatic prophet. While Poppy isn't as immediately engaging a character as The Girl Below's Suki, Zander's style has really progressed, chiefly by ironing out the clunky supernatural elements that marred her first book. If The Predictions was going to be broadly categorised as a genre, I suppose I'd have to (reluctantly) say it's a romantic novel; but the story is underpinned by much more interesting themes than that, exploring community, family and the idea of fate. The commune's effect on the children raised there, and the way political developments (and the conspicuous lack of any dawning of a 'New Age') affect its progression, are particularly well done.
Rating: 7/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Paperback

Day Four (21 May 2015) by Sarah Lotz
The unfortunate thing about Lotz's follow-up (and very loose 'sequel') to The Three is that it's not The Three. The setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a stranded cruise ship, and the story unfolds over four days as tensions rise, rescue starts to seem impossible, and things go bump in the... cabins. It's all filtered through a variety of viewpoints, with eight disparate characters revisited in alternate chapters. It's highly readable and you'll want to gulp it down in one sitting, but it suffers from barely differentiating the characters' narratives (baffling since Lotz differentiated to scintillating effect in The Three); being a story mainly about build-up, as the plot races towards the inevitable question of whether or not the beleaguered passengers will survive; and rather a lot of unpleasant detail (the author's vivid description may be a disadvantage when applied to a ship on which toilets and running water haven't been working for days). The ending is brilliant, but it's something of a slog to get there, and Day Four simply doesn't have the sky-high tension and utterly terrifying moments that made its predecessor so good.
Rating: 6/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Unbecoming (22 January 2015) by Rebecca Scherm
Saddled with a blurb that likens it to Hitchcock movies, Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl and Donna Tartt, Unbecoming is certain to raise expectations, and in a sense, primed to fail; I doubt even the most brilliant debut could live up to those comparisons, and sadly, this is not a brilliant debut. An intriguing opening - in which the protagonist, Grace, is revealed to be living under a false identity and on the run from her past - gives way to a largely unremarkable depiction of small-town America, with relationship wrangles and an allegedly audacious heist, both of which I struggled to care about. None of this is helped by the fact that Grace is a cold, empty character, difficult to like and even more difficult to understand. And just to top it off, I didn't like the ending either. There are flashes of interest in Unbecoming, such as an evocative interlude set in New York, but overall it was a disappointing story that wasted a very interesting premise on very dull characters.
Rating: 4/10 | Full review | Buy on Amazon: Hardback

I received advance review copies of The Curator, The Predictions and Day Four, the first through NetGalley and the latter two direct from the publishers.

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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Reading round-up: January

January 2015 books

Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales by various authors - 7/10. Full review / Buy the book
Written by the members of authors' collective Curious Tales, this collection of spooky tales is inspired by the Christmas ghost story tradition and ostensibly based on the work of Robert Aickman. Like most collections, it's a mixed bag, but I really enjoyed the contributions from Alison Moore and Tom Fletcher, and was particularly enamoured with Emma Jane Unsworth's brilliant story 'Smoke'. I'm going to be keeping an eye on future releases from Curious Tales - watch this space for more reviews.

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This slow-burning, old-fashioned suspense novel is a year in the life of an eccentric British family, as observed by a young Swedish nurse. While not particularly eventful, it's a masterclass in deft characterisation and clever detail. Don't expect the pace of a thriller, but prepare to be absorbed.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer - 6/10. Full review (spoilers) / Buy the ebook
Wolitzer's YA novel, supposedly based on Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, is actually more like The Secret History for kids, with healthy doses of fantasy and romance chucked in. It's absolutely ridiculous, but against my own expectations I found myself really enjoying the story.

Beastings by Benjamin Myers - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Harsh landscapes, stripped-back language and an unforgiving story make this a sort of British counterpart to Katherine Faw Morris's similarly brutal Young God. A girl abducts a baby and flees across the moors, pursued by a corrupt priest. The raw yet evocative narrative is done really well, but I couldn't care for - or really believe in - the main character, and it's all exceptionally bleak.

(Incidentally I think the above two are perfect examples of the confusing flexibility of the medium rating (three stars on Goodreads, or 6 out of 10). One is an essentially not-very-good book which I happened to really enjoy, despite seeing its many flaws; one is a well-written book which I didn't really enjoy, despite appreciating the skill in the way the story was told.)

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Typically beautifully written, strange and magical, and filled with fairytale references - it's allegedly a retelling of the Snow White story - Boy, Snow, Bird is nevertheless the most conventional book I've yet read by Oyeyemi. An engaging, emotive tale of family secrets and identity politics, divided into three parts, its main flaw is that it never recaptures the thrilling crackle-and-snap of the first third.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Though I'd heard about it when it was longlisted for the Booker, I'd never been that interested in The Spinning Heart, suspecting it would be dry and difficult. In fact, it's a quick and entertaining read, telling the story of an Irish community during the late-2000s financial crisis through the voices of numerous different characters. Would recommend to those who enjoyed Tana French's Broken Harbour.

A Meditation on Murder by Robert Thorogood - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This is the first of a planned series based on the BBC TV series Death in Paradise, the big attraction being that it resurrects the original cast of characters, including DI Richard Poole. It's undemanding, funny and slightly silly, just like watching an episode of the show.

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories by various authors - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
An interesting but uneven collection of short stories by a mix of British and US authors, with the emphasis very much on the horror - subtlety is in short supply, but when the tales work they can be excellent. While some of the stories can, and probably should, be skipped, those by Stephen Volk, Rio Youers, Lisa Tuttle, Alison Moore and Brian Hodge make the book worth reading.

Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann - 8/10. Buy the book
I did this a bit of a disservice by reading the first two stories in October last year, and then not picking it up again until January - my intention was to spread the stories out over a couple of months, in the hope that this would make me savour and appreciate them more, but... it didn't really work out. Though a couple of characters grated, and the repetition of themes dulled their impact slightly by the end, I loved these stories, with 'Little Herr Friedemann', 'The Joker', and 'Death in Venice' itself standing out as favourites.

There's really been no logic to my reading choices this month - which was also the case last month, and will probably continue to be the case in the near future as it's unlikely I'll have the time/mental energy to concentrate on anything 'serious' for a while. That said, this approach seems to be working quite well, and if it ain't broke, etc etc...

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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Death in Paradise: Richard Poole lives on in Robert Thorogood's A Meditation on Murder

A Meditation on Murder by Robert ThorogoodA Meditation on Murder (1 January 2015) by Robert Thorogood

When it comes to books, 'cosy crime' has never really been my thing. From what I can figure out, 'cosies' invariably seem to involve dreadful pun-laden titles, a disproportionate amount of plots revolving around baking, and people solving murders with the aid of their pets. TV, though - that's a different matter. The TV equivalent of this sort of thing, from Midsomer Murders to Miss Marple to Rosemary & Thyme, has long been a source of comfort to me, and over the years I've accumulated a decent collection of boxsets of these series to watch when I'm ill, depressed or otherwise in need of distraction and relaxation. For whatever reason, they've often helped to get me through depressive periods when little else would lift my mood.

The first two series of BBC1's Death in Paradise, a murder mystery comedy-drama set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie, has become part of this pantheon of comforting TV, and in recent times has become my go-to feelgood show. It surprises me sometimes that Death in Paradise doesn't get more credit for the things it does differently, and the things it gets right: I can't think of an equivalent series (primetime, mainstream drama, screened on a major UK channel and considered a flagship show for that channel) that only has one white main cast member, or that's had episodes addressing the legacy of slavery, treating Vodun as a serious religion, and condemning the actions of British colonists and French settlers in the Caribbean. But it's a comfortable sort of show, intended as cosy midweek entertainment, and I'm aware it's silly to analyse much of it in any further depth than that.

Of course, any cosy mystery worth its salt has to chuck in some romance, and across series 1 and 2, the unresolved tension between DI Richard Poole and his (professional) partner, Camille Bordey, quietly became one of the best things about the show. But then Ben Miller, who played Richard, decided to leave, and the character was ruthlessly killed off, taking any hopes of a love story with him. I still watch Death in Paradise - casually, kind of - but I've never quite forgiven it for quickly and brutally dispatching Richard and then making all the other characters forget him almost instantaneously. This is the disadvantage of cosy shows: the lack of realism means nobody is really allowed to process emotions in a believable way. Richard was immediately replaced with Humphrey Goodman, played by Kris Marshall, who bumbles about treating Camille as a glorified sidekick and patronising her. Even worse, the most recent episodes have attempted to set up a sort of 'will they/won't they' romantic tension between Humphrey and Camille. Twitter creeping has revealed that there are some people out there who think they have amazing chemistry, but I assume they've been watching a different show to me.

One of the big draws of this tie-in novel - the first in a planned series of at least three books from series creator and screenwriter Robert Thorogood - is that it features the original (dream) team of Richard, Camille, Dwayne and Fidel. If you've seen the show, there will be nothing surprising about A Meditation on Murder, and if you enjoy it, you will probably like this too. There's an ensemble 'guest cast' of characters - a group of people staying at a luxury spa hotel on Saint-Marie, plus the resort's owners and their shifty handyman - and a locked-room mystery. The characters from the show, particularly Richard, are recreated absolutely perfectly, their voices and individual quirks completely intact. Richard's lizard Harry even puts in a few appearances. The comedy is handled really well, and plot twists are clever but gentle: just the way cosy crime should be. It's about as heart-warming as murder can possibly get.

There are flaws, of course. Information is often repeated in dialogue, in a way that would probably make sense spoken aloud, but looks like unnecessary padding when written down. It lacks nuance, especially in the characterisation - characters with a couple of strong, broadly painted distinguishing physical/personality features may work well on screen, when we can see the differences between them, but can be quite cartoonish in a book, when these traits have to be reinforced frequently. (Example: I think Anne might be overweight, but it's difficult to tell, since her weight, size, shape and her being 'larger than life' (groan) are only mentioned about 5000 times.) And finally, there's a bit of silliness between Richard and one of the female characters which seems so unlikely, even in this light-hearted context, that it stands out rather awkwardly.

It's unclear at this point whether the books are designed to portray an 'alternate timeline' Death in Paradise or whether they take place within the known world of the books. In other words, can anything happen in these stories that hasn't already happened in the series (say, vis-à-vis Richard and Camille's relationship... just to throw out a random example...), or are these mysteries supposed to be taking place in between those already depicted on screen, prior to Richard's death? It wasn't until after I finished reading A Meditation on Murder that it occurred to me: Thorogood is still working on Death in Paradise, so he's unlikely to develop Richard and Camille's relationship in the books, given that the series appears to be persisting in trying to make Camille/Humphrey a thing. This thought, admittedly, makes me feel a bit dejected. But you know what, I'll probably read all the books in the series regardless of their imperfections: it's lovely to see these characters living on in some form.

I received an advance review copy of A Meditation on Murder from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Brutal landscape and raw language: Beastings by Benjamin Myers

Beastings by Benjamin MyersBeastings (3 July 2014) by Benjamin Myers

At the beginning of Beastings, I enjoyed the narrative for all the reasons I expected to: its rawness, the sparse and visceral language, and a cold and bleak and painful evocation of the English landscape, portrayed with greater emphasis on its harshness and wildness than its beauty. For several chapters it's near-impossible to tell what time period the story is taking place in: could be medieval times, could be a post-apocalyptic future. Adding to the folkloric feel, the characters remain nameless.

'The girl', having taken 'the baby' from a family she was working for, is on the run. Fleeing across open ground with few provisions, she relies largely on the shelter and food provided by nature in order to survive - she receives help from a handful of strangers, but she is mute, and so unable (as well as unwilling) to forge a connection with anyone she meets. In pursuit of her are 'the Priest' and 'the Poacher'. The Priest is a corrupt man, without conscience or pity, determined to capture the girl for reasons far beyond her abduction of the child; the Poacher simply hired to help him, with little investment of his own in their mission.

The girl's history is revealed in fragments as she remembers scenes from her life before this escape; more shards of pain than real memories, with barely a scrap of happiness to provide relief. The Priest's story, and his motivation, is made clearer during his terse conversations with the Poacher. None of the characters are spared any discomfort; violence is never far away. There's little punctuation, and speech intermingles with the rest of the text, enhancing the unique presence of the landscape in the story and constantly shifting the reader's focus back to simple instincts and actions. The title, 'beastings', refers to the first milk drawn from a mother's breast, but the word 'beast' and its variations appear frequently throughout the book, and the way the story concentrates on its characters' animalistic behaviour - whether performed out of necessity or by choice - is impossible to ignore.

Is it awful to admit I didn't like this book as much as I could have because I could not have cared less what happened to the girl and the baby? It didn't matter to me whether they were caught by the Poacher and the Priest, or whether they died or what. The girl and the Poacher annoyed me, and that only left the almost comically evil Priest. Scenes ostensibly demonstrating the girl's ingenuity failed to make an impact on me because she never seemed like anything more than a symbol; a foil of purity and good intentions to offset the maliciousness of the Priest. As the story wore on, I found myself hoping the Priest would survive and succeed purely because his presence provided the only spark of real interest among the characters.

I don't intend to discuss certain events towards the end - if you've read the book, you will probably know what I mean - in any detail. I'll just say I felt they were unnecessary and I didn't see what message the author was trying to convey here.

Beastings is well-crafted; admirable in its use of stripped-down language and sharp, minimal dialogue. In several ways it reminded me of Katherine Faw Morris's Young God. The story may be very different, but the narrative is equally bare and muscular, and here again is the tale of a young, abused girl trying to survive on her own. Unlike Young God, this novel has a tragic ending, but it's similarly shocking, abrupt, desolate. 'Like an American Southern Gothic tale set against the violent beauty of Northern England', says the blurb - and it's accurate: but Beastings joins the ranks of books I admired rather than liked.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Friday, 9 January 2015

Aickman Redux: 'Curious Tales' in Poor Souls' Light

Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious TalesPoor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales (November 2014) by various authors

Curious Tales is an author collective, specialising in the supernatural, the uncanny, and stories 'that use landscape in interesting ways', which came to my attention at the end of last year. Some of the authors I've never heard of before; others - such as Jenn Ashworth, who's published three novels (all of which I've read), and Alison Moore, whose The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize - are quite well known. Poor Souls' Light is their second collection of Christmas ghost stories, and is a tribute to the work of Robert Aickman (whose Cold Hand in Mine I recently reviewed); it follows last year's The Longest Night, inspired by M.R. James. I bought this as a sort of treat to myself - the beguiling combination of authors and the ghost story factor persuaded me, and of course there's a unique (slightly smug) pleasure in buying a limited edition publication from an independent author collective. There are seven stories, each designed to 'uphold the tradition of the Christmas ghost story' and dedicated to Aickman.

Dinner for One by Jenn Ashworth - 5/10
Ashworth's name was one of the main reasons I was drawn to this anthology, and indeed to Curious Tales. However, while I thought this opening story was perfectly fine, I wasn't enormously excited by it. I'm not sure it fits into the tradition of 'strange' or 'weird' fiction as written by Aickman, as it's basically a very typical ghost story setup in which the twist can be guessed almost immediately - so much so, in fact, that I can't even write a basic summary of the plot here without making it obvious. Okay but, due to my high hopes, disappointing.

The Spite House by Alison Moore - 8/10
This starts well and it gets better; it's one of the standout stories in the book. Claire returns to the family home after the death of her father, and is besieged by memories of her brother Connor, who died when they were both young. She recalls her mother's fear that the house, and there's a wonderfully eerie moment with the radio (I always find haunting by music so effective, even though you'd think it wouldn't be possible to render the impact of it very well in a written story). She realises the novel she's been writing is nonsense, and the house seems to be crumbling away; the kitchen 'smells of the river, of water thick with weeds, water in which a sheep once drowned'. Finally, Claire's disorientation builds to a climax of destruction and collapse.

Blossom by Johnny Mains - 6/10
Hmmm. Again I found this somewhat... the word 'undercooked' springs to mind, although I appreciated the fact that it's basically a shout-out to the Aickman story 'The Hospice'. It's about a truly awful husband who, eventually, gets a truly awful comeuppance. While the deliciously sinister setting for the denouement is nicely done, the central character is so horrible that it's difficult to care what happens to him at all, whether it's good or bad. I felt the story would have worked better if he'd been a flawed, at least partly sympathetic man.

The Exotic Dancer by Tom Fletcher - 8/10
Another very strong story. The Exotic Dancer is in fact a boat, which the protagonist, Saladin, walks past every day. He finds the combined presence of the boat and the nearby salt works threatening and disturbing, but is unable to articulate exactly why; his nightly phone calls to his sister become increasingly incomprehensible to her, especially when Saladin is cornered into speaking to 'the person' aboard the battered boat. The ending is wonderfully surreal and hits exactly the right Aickman-esque note between weirdness and pathos, the uncanny and the very human.

And the Children Followed by Richard Hirst - 4/10
My least favourite in the collection. Confusing (although I'm sure it's supposed to be) and closer to horror than a ghost story, it follows a grieving woman who is (apparently randomly) forced to take in one of a strange group of children. The children become more and more sinister, and the protagonist's fate is so gory that it detracts from any possible effectiveness here. I didn't realise straight away that this story was set during the Second World War - the historical setting isn't made clear at all, adding to the confusion that already seems to define the plot and, as all the other stories have contemporary settings, it does need something to differentiate it. The repeated usage of 'unwell' to mean vomiting also really got on my nerves.

Smoke by Emma Jane Unsworth - 9/10
Unsworth was the other author that attracted me to the idea of reading this, even though I haven't actually read her recent novel Animals yet. I wasn't disappointed: 'Smoke' is by far the best, and most original, story in the collection. In a mere ten pages, it establishes the protagonist and her history, gives you reasons to care about her, outlines the intriguing nature of her work - in 'the block', where the showers are 'fifty years old and had never been used', next revealed to be part of a Cold War-era bunker beneath Berlin - and introduces a very uncanny and original type of haunting. Wonderful beginning and ending, wonderful characterisation, tight and controlled use of dialogue and style to create shocks. I'd be so happy if I ever managed to write something as good as this.

Animals by M. John Harrison - 7/10
The collection closes with its most understated story: this tale of a woman staying in a holiday cottage has an almost gentle feel to it. Her imaginings about the place's previous inhabitants gradually becomes a series of voices and movements heard in the night, then the day, as if she is listening to a conversation through the wall or watching these people on TV. Her spiral into madness, strongly implied to have no 'weird' or supernatural cause at all, provides a sombre, but not spooky, conclusion to this volume and almost demands a re-read because it so deftly upturns the reader's expectations.

I almost wish I hadn't known about the Aickman connection; I think it encouraged me to look for references and nods to his stories, or just his style, that weren't necessarily there. The good stories are great in their own right, and I don't know that I'm convinced they all really link to his work - they all have something uncanny or weird or unsettling about them, but so do all ghost stories by anyone! But I suppose without the Aickman connection, I (and others) might not have bought this.

I will buy more from Curious Tales: I've already written about Ashworth and Hirst's forthcoming Bus Station: Unbound in my books to look forward to in 2015 post, and I wish I'd known about the first ghost story collection at the time. While I found faults with a few of these stories, the overall experience of reading it was genuinely interesting and somehow felt quite special - perhaps an illusion created by its limited edition status, but it made a difference nevertheless - and £10 (including postage) for something like this feels like a real bargain.

Overall rating: 7/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy the book from Curious Tales

Monday, 5 January 2015

45 new books to get excited about reading in 2015!

Books to look forward to in 2015

January

The year kicks off with the first book in a planned series based on my favourite guilty pleasure TV show, Death in Paradise. A Meditation on Murder (1 January) is written by series creator Robert Thorogood, and Richard Poole isn't dead, AND Camille is in it. Can't wait to binge-rewatch the series and then read it. For very different reasons, I'm also looking forward to Weathering by Lucy Wood (15 January). It follows three generations of a family, and sounds like it weaves in the same elements of magic and folklore as the short stories in her debut collection Diving Belles, which has always stuck in my mind for its short but wonderfully effective character portraits.

The Room by Jonas Karlsson (15 January, reviewed here) is a dark, quirky fable about an office drone, self-important Björn, finding a hidden room at his place of work - disaster ensues in a story that's very funny but also quite thought-provoking. Co-written by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst, Bus Station: Unbound (28 January) looks equally unusual and interesting. The first in a trilogy of 'choose your own adventure' stories from author collective Curious Tales, it's set in Preston bus station during a snowstorm and is bound to be uncanny and strange. Speaking of which, The Vegetarian by Han Kang (1 January) is a surreal Korean novel described as 'fraught, disturbing and beautiful', exploring themes of rebellion and desire.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (15 January, reviewed here) is likely to be a hit thanks to its Gone Girl-style twisted relationship and multiple unreliable narrators. I loved the idea - woman spots the same couple every day from her commute, becomes obsessed with them - but the execution was rather disappointing and it's all a bit thriller-by-numbers. More promising is Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (22 January) - it surely can't live up to the publisher's blurb, which compares it to (deep breath) Hitchcock movies, Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl and Donna Tartt, but if it resembles just one of them it will be worth reading. The plot, revolving around a runaway living in Paris under an assumed identity, and also involving art fraud, sounds excellent.

February

Dystopian debut The Ship by Antonia Honeywell (19 February, reviewed here) comes festooned with comparisons to Children of Men, The Handmaid's Tale and The Hunger Games. It's a captivating and intriguing story, but best suited to teenage readers. Meanwhile, The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel (12 February) is 'Jonathan Strange meets Jonathan Creek', apparently - based on my own sampling of the book I would say that description, while certainly beguiling, is wildly optimistic, but I'm sure it'll spark plenty of interest. I might fulfil my craving for the macabre with Rob Magnuson Smith's Scorper (5 February), 'an uncanny and sinister tale of an eccentric American visitor to the small Sussex town of Ditchling, searching for stories about his grandfather; a tale of twitching curtains, severed hands and peculiar sexual practices...'

Touch by Claire North (24 February) is narrated by an entity that can jump from body to body; the premise immediately reminded me of part of David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, and although I don't know much else about it, I'm keen to investigate further. On the other end of the literary spectrum, The Curator by Jacques Strauss (5 February) charts two decades of South African history as seen through the eyes of a single character.

March

Catherine Chanter's brilliant The Well (5 March, reviewed here), an uncategorisable novel about love, hope, religion, family, friendship, privilege and deprivation, is unique, beautiful and riveting, and far and away the best of the 2015 books I've read so far. The ridiculously prolific Karen Maitland publishes her sixth medieval/magical novel The Raven's Head (12 March), this time focusing on alchemy and blackmail. And an intriguing death-at-a-boarding-school debut, Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik (1 March), has piqued my interest with comparisons to The Secret History, Gillian Flynn and Twin Peaks.

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell (24 March) is the 'shared suicide note' of three sisters, the last remaining members of a family they believe to be cursed; their epic story spans four generations. Another multigenerational tale that's already attracting quite a bit of buzz is The Shore by Sara Taylor (26 March), which has been compared to the fiction of David Mitchell (its scope ranges across 150 years of history and into the future, all centred on the same small community) but with a feminist slant.

A slightly more leftfield choice is Mikhail Elizarov's The Librarian (12 March) published by Pushkin Press. The plot sounds fun - it's about books with supernatural powers, and a world in which librarians are superheroes - but intriguingly, it also won the Russian Booker Prize.

April

Sarah Hall is an author I've been meaning to read for a while: her new novel The Wolf Border (2 April) sees a woman returning to the Lake District as part of a project to reintroduce wolves to England, reuniting with her estranged family in the process. Arcadia by Iain Pears (2 April) is described as 'a digital novel' - not just in the sense that it's being published digitally, but because it consists of multilayered stories that can be read in different orders. There'll also be an accompanying app. Slightly gimmicky maybe, but the story, about a spy-turned-writer who creates alternate worlds through his fiction, sounds fascinating. I enjoyed a few dystopian novels in 2014, and hope The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy (9 April) might continue the trend - it's a post-apocalyptic story in which inhabitants of a highly secured community set out to explore what's left of the world.

This month also sees the publication of Disclaimer, the hotly tipped debut thriller from Renee Knight (9 April, reviewed here). A woman finds a novel on her bedside table, and as she reads, she realises it tells the story of her own life, including a damaging secret she has sought to keep for 20 years. It's gripping, but doesn't quite live up to its high-concept premise, and I found it almost instantly forgettable. Would make a good beach read.

In the non-fiction corner is Raw Concrete by Barnabas Calder (23 April). This is a bit of a niche choice and quite specific to my own interests - it's a history of brutalist architecture, concentrating particularly on eight British buildings - but, having struggled to find a book on the topic that isn't dry, lengthy and more focused on the technical elements of brutalism than its political or artistic aspects, I'm excited to try it.

May

May is a bumper month, with the most exciting title (for me) being Day Four by Sarah Lotz (21 May) - it's the follow-up to The Three and takes place on board a cruise ship which becomes stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. I have high hopes for this, especially as the title and cover seem to suggest a link with the world depicted in The Three. There's also a new book from The Girl Below author Bianca Zander, The Predictions (5 May), about two escapees from a 1970s New Zealand commune. A similar community is featured in The Followers by Rebecca Wait (21 May), which focuses on disruptive events among the members of a religious cult.

The Gracekeepers (7 May) is Kirsty Logan's first novel, following her short story collection The Rental Heart. It's 'the magical story of a floating circus and two young women in search of a home' - probably not the sort of book I would be drawn to otherwise, but I really enjoyed Logan's stories and am keen to see how her fairytale style will translate to a novel. There's more magic in The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato (5 May), about two women trying to track down a missing pop star who become drawn into a dark world of secret societies in the seedy underbelly of Chicago.

I don't know much about Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh (7 May) yet, but I do know it's about a toxic friendship and is, very interestingly, described as 'Sue Townsend meets Zoë Heller' - enough to get this on my to-read list. Already gathering rave reviews on Goodreads, meanwhile, is The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North (19 May), which 'tells a story of fame, love, and legacy through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist' with a narrative featuring a 'chorus of voices' - very The Blazing World, and I'm keen to find out whether it will be anywhere near as good.

Continuing my quest to read (slightly) more non-fiction in 2015, I'll be keeping an eye out for The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick (19 May). It's the author's account of her life as an independent woman in New York, and is 'written as a narrative collage that includes meditative pieces on the making of a modern feminist, the role of the flâneur in urban literature, and the evolution of friendship over the past two centuries'.

June

June brings two huge highlights. Firstly, the long-awaited The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas (4 June), to which I struggle to summon up a more coherent response than just SCREAMING AND VARIOUS EMOJIS. It is 'a fiercely contemporary tale of one extended family, a seed pod that contains the key to enlightenment (or death)... and a copy of a book that is different for every reader who picks it up' (but let's be honest, I would read it no matter what it was about) and I'm convinced it will be amazing - if this lets me down, I may as well give up reading. Secondly, Death is a Welcome Guest by Louise Welsh (4 June), part two of the Plague Times trilogy, which focuses on a different main character this time (something I wasn't expecting). Words can't express how excited I am about both of these books.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (18 June) is a debut novel about 'a mysterious book that holds the key to a curse that has haunted a family of traveling circus performers for generations'. Could be terrible, but if it's pulled off well it could also be fantastic. This being June, there's quite a few good lightweight books due out: The Peacock Room (23 June) is the third novel from Hannah Richell, and has a dual narrative centering on a fading family estate; debut thriller In My House by Alex Hourston (4 June) tells of an unlikely friendship and is touted as a book likely to be enjoyed by fans of The Woman Upstairs and Notes on a Scandal; and Stallo by Stefan Spjut (4 June) is described as a haunting supernatural thriller, set in the fairytale snow-laden forests of Laponia, Sweden.

My non-fiction pick for June is The Four Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott (18 June). Subtitled 'Ways of Being in the Digital World', Scott's exploration of life on the internet aims to examine how technology is 'rewiring our inner lives'.

July

The Sunlight Pilgrims (2 July) is the long-awaited follow-up to Jenni Fagan's multiple-prize-winning debut The Panopticon. It's another 'end times' story for 2015, this time set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter. The extract published in Granta last year was good, so I'm hoping it will live up to the promising premise. Another second novel that's sure to cause excitement is Armada by Ernest Cline (15 July), the author of 2011 hit Ready Player One. It's on familiar ground with the story of a videogame which turns out to be part of a top-secret government training programme.

Two potentially good debuts for July: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell (7 July) tells of two women, now with very different lives, who are drawn to remember the summer they were abducted at the age of twelve; and Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase (2 July) splits its story between two time periods, both charting events at an idyllic, crumbling country house.

... and beyond

In September - on the 24th, to be exact - the last book in the Cicero trilogy Robert Harris, Dictator, is apparently coming out. FINALLY. (Although I've already forgotten what happened in the other two so I'll probably need to re-read them...) On the 15th of September, there's a new novel from William Boyd called Sweet Caress. Despite the bloody awful title it sounds really good, kind of like a female-focused version of Any Human Heart: it's the life story of a photographer called Amory Clay, spanning the whole of the 20th century. Finally, in October there's The Watchers by Neil Spring, a 'spooky historical thriller' from the author of The Ghost Hunters which should be just the thing for Halloween.

(Some of the books included within this post have different publication dates according to different sources, eg the Amazon listing may say they're being published earlier than the publisher claims, and sometimes the Kindle edition is published before the hardback - it's all very confusing. I've tried to stick with the publisher's stated UK publication date where possible, but obviously they're all subject to change.)

I've been compiling good what-to-read in 2015 lists on Tumblr and suggest you check these out for even more recommendations: Huffington Post debut fiction and (presumably non-debut) fiction, The Readers, The Writes of Woman, The Guardian, The Observer, and Bookmunch (this is in five parts - start here).

Personally, and I suppose quite naturally, I'm most excited about books from authors I've already read: the new Scarlett Thomas, Louise Welsh and Sarah Lotz books are right at the top of my wishlist. But a new year and new reading plans also brings the promise of discovering brilliant new debuts, and of those listed here I'm particularly looking forward to reading Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm, Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik, and Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh. What's your most-anticipated book (or books) of 2015?

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