Sunday, 22 March 2015

Cast adrift: Day Four by Sarah Lotz

Day Four by Sarah LotzDay Four (21 May 2015) by Sarah Lotz

The unfortunate thing about Lotz's follow-up (and loose 'sequel') to The Three is that it's not The Three. As one of my favourite books of 2014, it was always going to be a hard act to follow, and I was over the moon to get hold of an advance copy of Lotz's new book. It's with a heavy heart, then, that I have to report I simply didn't enjoy Day Four anywhere near as much. Despite that 'sequel' tag, it's actually a standalone novel, with a tenuous connection to a couple of characters from The Three: just enough to make it clear that both take place in the same world, but no more than that.

The setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a cheap and not-very-cheerful cruise ship which gets stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. The story unfolds over four days as tensions rise, rescue starts to seem impossible, and conditions grow increasingly wretched. At the same time, the desperate passengers become more and more spooked by inexplicable goings-on: shadowy figures darting around the corridors, a distinctly fake showbiz medium suddenly gaining the ability to make extremely accurate predictions, even the dead - apparently - coming back to life. It's all filtered through a variety of viewpoints, with eight disparate characters revisited in alternate chapters. They are Maddie, long-suffering assistant to the aforementioned celebrity medium; Gary, a middle-aged, married passenger who is also, um, a murderer; Althea, a slightly sociopathic crew member; Helen and Elise, two elderly passengers who have joined the cruise with the intention of killing themselves before it's over; Jesse, the ship's doctor; Devi, a member of the security staff; and Xavier, a blogger trailing Celine (that celebrity medium again) and trying to expose her as a fraud.

What really drew me into this, much more than the premise, was the promise of reading more from Lotz. The Three was so thrilling, its characters so compelling, it was so terrifying, that I was certain I'd be glued to Day Four. The one thing I didn't expect it to be was boring. Unfortunately... it is, in parts.

So what exactly is it that's gone wrong here? Firstly, I was disappointed and a little bit surprised to find third person narration used throughout the book. The first person narratives in The Three were so effective, and with eight main characters to keep track of here, the lack of variety makes it harder than it should be to differentiate them. Attempts to mark them out using repetition within their internal monologues fall a bit flat because they simply become annoying - see Gary's 'his girl' and Althea's intensely irritating 'fuck-darned'. Secondly, the setting is limiting - the whole book (save the short last section) is set on board the ship, and since part of the story is how generic and tacky it is, it's simply not a place you want to keep reading about. Thirdly, while four days without rescue is certainly unusual, it just isn't long enough or big enough to create the same high-stakes sense of terror and imminent doom that The Three did so well. There are problems with some characters just not being interesting; problems with the simple fact that there are so many characters (once secondary characters are added in, it starts to feel like this surely must be everyone on board the ship).

That's not to say Day Four is actually a bad book. It is gripping, and I didn't want to put it down, though I'd be lying if I said that wasn't at least partly because I kept thinking 'I'll get to the good bit soon'. That Lotz's description is vivid and unflinching is both a strength and a problem; she makes everything feel real, but there's only so many descriptions of confined spaces with no working toilets, running water or air-con it's possible to read without feeling exhausted and slightly nauseated. In fact, when I think about it, maybe the whole reason this didn't work for me was because it was a different brand of horror from what I expected to experience. Far from the scintillating meld of ghost story, sci-fi and found-footage thriller I was expecting after The Three, Day Four details the banal horror of a microcosm of humanity left to its own devices, losing the will to care about hygiene and safety, trying to come to terms with the prospect of a slow and squalid death.

Towards the end, however, Day Four suddenly gains the momentum it should have had all along. After what seems like an anticlimatic conclusion to the characters' stories, the final chapter is composed of newspaper articles and 'leaked' fragments of interviews with the passengers. It was this 'mixed media' approach that gave The Three some of its magic, and it works here too, using partial stories and accounts removed from the scene itself to stir up a delicious sense of ambiguity. Plus it gives you some hints about what may, or may not, have happened after the end of the ship's four days afloat. But who is telling the truth; who's to say what is and isn't real? The ending is nothing short of brilliant, but - no matter how much I'd like to - I just can't say the same about the rest of the book.

I'm aware that every part of my review has involved comparisons between Day Four and The Three. I know that isn't really fair, but since Day Four has been touted as a sequel and even given a similar title and cover, those comparisons are inevitably going to be made. This is a solid book in its own right, with enough exciting bits to make it worth a rainy-day read. Fans of The Three, however, may need to adjust their expectations.

I received an advance review copy of Day Four from the publisher.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

What to read in March & April 2015

Books to look forward to in March and April 2015
23 new books to read in March and April 2015

Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik - 1 March
The Secret History meets Sharp Objects in this stunning debut about murder and glamour set in the ambiguous and claustrophobic world of an exclusive New England prep school. Death sets the plot in motion: the murder of Nica Baker, beautiful, wild, enigmatic, and only sixteen. The crime is solved, and quickly - a lonely classmate, unrequited love, a suicide note confession - but memory and instinct won’t allow Nica’s older sister, Grace, to accept the case as closed...’

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - 3 March
The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war.’

The Well by Catherine Chanter - 5 March
‘When Ruth Ardingly and her family first drive up from London in their grime-encrusted car and view The Well, they are enchanted by a jewel of a place, a farm that appears to offer everything the family are searching for. But The Well's unique glory comes at a terrible price. The locals suspect foul play in its verdant fields and drooping fruit trees, and Ruth becomes increasingly isolated, less and less sure who she can trust...’

The Faithful Couple by A.D. Miller - 5 March
‘California, 1993: Neil Collins and Adam Tayler, two young British men on the cusp of adulthood, meet at a hostel in San Diego. They strike up a friendship that, while platonic, feels as intoxicating as a romance; they travel up the coast together, harmlessly competitive, innocently collusive, wrapped up in each other. On a camping trip to Yosemite they lead each other to behave in ways that, years later, they will desperately regret. The story of a friendship built on a shared guilt and a secret betrayal, The Faithful Couple follows Neil and Adam across two decades...’

The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland - 12 March
‘Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven's head. Any attempt to sell the head fails ... until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain - unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest...’

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov - 12 March
‘As the introduction to this book will tell you, the books by Gromov, obscure and long forgotten propaganda author of the Soviet era, have such an effect on their readers that they suddenly enjoy supernatural powers. Understandably, their readers need to keep accessing these books at all cost and gather into groups around book-bearers, or, as they're called, librarians. Alexei, until now a loser, comes to collect an uncle's inheritance and unexpectedly becomes a librarian. He tells his extraordinary, unbelievable story...’

Ghosting by Jonathan Kemp - 12 March
‘When 64-year-old Grace Wellbeck thinks she sees the ghost of her first husband, she fears for her sanity and worries that she’s having another breakdown. Long-buried memories come back thick and fast: from the fairground thrills of 1950s Blackpool to the dark reality of a violent marriage. But the ghost turns out to be very real: a charismatic young man named Luke. And as Grace gets to know him, she is jolted into an emotional awakening that brings her to a momentous decision.’

Héloïse is Bald by Émilie de Turckheim - 12 March
‘This strange, uneasy love story follows Héloïse as she attempts to seduce the silver-tongued Doctor Lawrence Calvagh. A man forty years her senior, who may love her too. But Lawrence is not all he appears, and while Héloïse begins injuring herself so that he will stitch her back together, every other woman in her family also seems to be under his spell. Reaching from the elegant salons of Paris to the golden sands of Corsica, the mountains of Algeria to the art galleries of New York, this subversive novel examines love at its most shocking and violent.’

The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence - 12 March
‘It all starts, as these things sometimes do, with a dead man. He was a neighbour, not someone Abby knew well, but still, finding a body when you only came over to borrow a tin of tomatoes, that comes as a bit of a shock. And now she can't shake the feeling that if she hadn't gone into Simon's flat, if she'd had her normal Wednesday night instead, then none of what happened next would have happened. And she would never have met Melody Black...’

Soil by Jamie Kornegay - 12 March
‘It begins as a simple dream: an idealistic environmental scientist moves his wife and young son off the grid, to a stretch of river bottom farmland in the Mississippi hills, hoping to position himself at the forefront of a revolution in agriculture. When a corpse appears on his family's property, the farmer is convinced he's being set up. And so begins a journey into a maze of misperceptions and personal obsessions, as the farmer, his now-estranged wife, a predatory deputy, and a backwoods wanderer, all try to uphold a personal sense of honour.’

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy - 12 March
‘Meet U. – a 'corporate anthropologist' employed to help decode and manipulate the world around them. Instead, U. spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there, U. wonders, a secret logic holding all these images together – a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our age? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news?’

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov - 16 March
‘Using the myth of the Minotaur as its organizing image, the narrator of Gospodinov’s long-awaited novel constructs a labyrinth of stories about his family, jumping from era to era and viewpoint to viewpoint, exploring the mindset and trappings of Eastern Europeans. Incredibly moving and extraordinarily funny, The Physics of Sorrow traces connections and follows the narrator down various 'side passages', with the sorrowful, misunderstood Minotaur at the centre of it all.’

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell - 24 March
‘Meet the Alter sisters: Lady, Vee and Delph. These three mordantly witty, complex women share their family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They love each other fiercely, but being an Alter isn’t easy. Bad luck is in their genes, passed down through the generations. In the waning days of 1999, the sisters decide it’s time to close the circle of the Alter curse. But first, as the world counts down to the dawn of a new millennium, Lady, Vee and Delph must write the final chapter of a saga generations in the making...’

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall - 24 March
‘For almost a decade Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District. The return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family...’

Raw Concrete by Barnabas Calder - 24 March
Raw Concrete provides a groundbreaking history of the heavy-concrete architecture of post-war Britain, as well as a personal and illuminating guide to eight pivotal Brutalist buildings. Beginning in a tiny concrete hermitage on the remote north Scottish coast, and ending up backstage at the National Theatre, Raw Concrete takes us on a wide-ranging journey through Britain over the past sixty years, stopping to examine how these buildings were made – from commission to construction – why they have been so hated, and why they should be loved.’

The Shore by Sara Taylor - 26 March
‘The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean that has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. Their interconnecting stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two island families, illuminating the small miracles and miseries of a community of outsiders, and the bonds of blood and fate that connect them all.’

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann - 26 March
‘On a hot July day, three elderly people are found dead in a dilapidated house in Primrose Hill. Reading the story in a newspaper as she prepares to leave the country, Marie Gillies has an unshakable feeling that she is somehow to blame. How did these three people come to live together, and how did they all die at once? The truth lies in a very different England, and in the secret world of the ladies of the house...’

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum - 26 March
‘Anna Benz lives in comfort and affluence with her husband and three young children in Dietlikon, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich, but inside she is falling apart. Feeling adrift and unable to connect, she attempts to assert her agency in the only way that makes sense to her: by engaging in short-lived but intense sexual affairs. But adultery, too, has its own morality, and when Anna finds herself crossing a line, she will set off a terrible chain of events that ends in unspeakable tragedy...’

Creative Truths in Provincial Policing by Paula Lichtarowicz - 26 March
‘It doesn’t take much to tip the world into chaos. You don’t even have to mean to do it. You might be an honest family man; a police chief in a small town in Central Vietnam, say, with no desire whatsoever to unleash catastrophe. A man such as Chief Duong, with simple dreams of domestic happiness and future immortality by means of a small statue on a roundabout. But the problem with dreams is it’s often hard to look ahead...’

Disclaimer by Renee Knight - 9 April
‘When an intriguing novel appears on Catherine’s bedside table, she curls up in bed and begins to read. But as she turns the pages she is sickened to realize the story will reveal her darkest secret. A secret she thought no one else knew...’

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy - 9 April
‘Sanctuary: a citadel in the heart of the former United States of America. Hundreds of miles in every direction beyond its walls lies nothing but death and devastation. Everyone who lives in the safety Sanctuary provides knows that. Until the day a stranger appears. He has come to lead the survivors away from Sanctuary, to the promise of a new life without walls. But those who follow him will discover that not everything he says is true...’

All This Has Nothing To Do With Me by Monica Sabolo - 9 April
‘When journalist 'MS' interviews the mysterious 'XX' for a job at her magazine, she hires him straight away - because he's gorgeous. As one date leads to another, her obsession spirals. MS finds herself writing letters to Facebook, her phone company, even XX's favourite author (who is dead), all whilst the object of her affection remains aloof. All This Has Nothing To Do With Me is an exposé of a broken heart, documenting MS and XX's relationship from jubilant start to painful finish, and laying out her life - and past - for our scrutiny.’

Villa America by Liza Klaussmann - 23 April
‘Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Cole and Linda Porter, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos - all are summer guests of Gerald and Sara Murphy, who met and married young, and set forth to create a beautiful world. They alight on Villa America: their coastal oasis of artistic genius, debauched parties, impeccable style and flamboyant imagination. But before long, a stranger enters into their relationship, and their marriage must accommodate an intensity that neither had forseen...’

With so many books on this list, there's almost no point in me adding much more, but some words about some of the above. The Well is absolutely brilliant - I might have mentioned that a few times before. Dark Rooms, which I finished a couple of days ago, was unfortunately a bit disappointing, and I actually gave up on The Raven's Head - not because it was bad, just because it seemed too similar to Maitland's other books. I'm reading A Reunion of Ghosts right now (great so far) and am looking forward to reading The Shore after that. As for what's on my wishlist... I've actually included some books I'm not interested in on this list for the sake of balance, but even so, there's loads here I'm excited about. I've seen The Mirror World of Melody Black compared to Scarlett Thomas, and although I didn't like A.D. Miller's Snowdrops, The Faithful Couple sounds totally different and pretty intriguing.

What are you looking forward to reading in the next couple of months? Have I missed out anything essential?

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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