I hope you will forgive this break from the usual straightforward literary(?) criticism for this personal note to explain the relative quiet at Reader Dad of late, and to apologise to authors, publishers, publicists and potential readers for the lack of reviews written and published on the site since mid-February.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will already be aware that 2013 thus far has been something of a challenging time for me. This past Saturday, May 4th, saw my family and that of my fiancée gathered in Prague for our wedding, an event that is stressful enough for those involved without one of the parties spending most of the preceding three months either admitted to, or frequently attending, hospital. Thanks, though, to the wonderful staff of Ward 1B at Lagan Valley Hospital (go on, give them a virtual round of applause) we made it, and the day went off without a hitch (well, apart from the obvious one).
A combined total of five weeks as a hospital in-patient, not to mention the fact that I’ve been off work since early February, has given me plenty of reading time (by this time last year, I was working my way through book number 23; I’m currently on 2013’s 30th book). Limited Internet access for the same period meant that reviews were few and far between: at the moment I’m sitting on a backlog of fourteen un-reviewed books.
It is a sad fact that if I don’t review a book almost immediately after reading it, it isn’t worth me reviewing it at all. I read so much that it’s difficult to remember what I felt while reading the book to such a degree that I could produce a solid and reliable review several months later. There will, of course, always be those stand-out books that remain with me for much longer, and I will attempt to review these more completely in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, there are those “lost” reads, and after much deliberation, I have decided on a bite-sized review of each so that people can see whether I enjoyed them or not, and what the highs and lows of 2013’s first quarter or so have been for me.
For the readers, I apologise that there aren’t more complete reviews of the following books. They have all been uniformly excellent, and I can recommend them unreservedly.
For the publicists, my sincere apologies that these books have not been given the same treatment as others, despite the fact that I have read and enjoyed them all. For September at Transworld, Jon at Gollancz, Angela at Orion, Nicci at MacLehose, Bethan at Chatto & Windus, Becci at Head of Zeus, Sophie at Titan and Alison at Atlantic, my particular apologies for the books listed below.
For everyone, while I have you here, I also wanted to mention an experiment I will be trying at Reader Dad over the next month or two. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, and the introduction of his iconic character, Parker, University of Chicago Press have finally obtained worldwide rights for the publication of the entire Parker series. In honour of this, I will be running a Parker@50 event here at Reader Dad, with in-depth reviews of the entire series appearing over the course of the coming months. I hope you’ll join me for this.
In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank you all for your continued support of Reader Dad, and I look forward to welcoming you back to a more regular schedule in the coming days and weeks. Enjoy the mini-reviews below.
Yours most sincerely,
Roger Hobbs (www.rogerhobbs.com)
£9.99The unnamed narrator of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel is a ghostman, the member of a heist team responsible for disguises and safe dispersal and disappearance of the team after the job. When an Atlantic City casino is robbed, he receives a call from a man he’d much rather forget. The ghostman has just forty-eight hours to retrieve the money, with the FBI and rival gangs on his case.
What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.
|DREAMS AND SHADOWS
C. Robert Cargill
£14.99As an infant, Ewan Thatcher is stolen from his parents by faeries and replaced with the changeling Nixie Knocks. Several years later, the young boy Colby Stephens meets Yashar, a djinn, who grants him a wish: to be able to see beyond the veil, to the world of faerie, of myths and legends. C. Robert Cargill’s first novel follows the first thirty years or so of the lives of these three boys, and charts their impact on the real world around them, and the magical world that lies just beyond the veil.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.
|RAGE AGAINST THE DYING
Becky Masterman (beckymasterman.com)
£12.99When we first meet Brigid Quinn, it is as Gerald Peasil is trying to abduct her, thinking her to be much more frail than she turns out to be. And therein lies the heart of this unusual story. Elderly lady detectives traditionally fit into the more “cosy” crime stories – Jessica Fletcher, for example, or the grandmother of them all, Jane Marple – so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Brigid is a retired FBI agent and that Becky Masterman’s debut, Rage Against the Dying, is anything but cosy.
As a much younger woman, Quinn hunted serial killers with the FBI. Small and blond, she was the perfect bait for a certain type of predator. As she grew older, it became time to pass the baton, and Quinn’s trainee was killed by the very killer they were trying to catch. Now in her retirement, Quinn finds herself pulled back into the case when young Jessica’s body is finally found, and they have a man in custody claiming to have killed her all those years ago.
Quinn is as far from those stereotypical old lady detectives as it is possible to be: a chequered past at the Bureau and an unusual reaction to Peasil’s attempted abduction leave the reader with the distinct impression that this is a dark and deeply flawed character. As the novel takes one dark turn after another, it quickly becomes clear that Quinn is more than capable of looking after herself, while keeping her loved ones as far removed from the trouble as possible. Surprisingly, I loved Rage Against the Dying, and look forward to seeing what’s next for Brigid Quinn. It helps, I think, that Ms Masterman isn’t afraid to make her character suffer for the reader’s enjoyment. And there’s not a knitting needle in sight.
OUTSIDERS: ITALIAN STORIES
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Outsiders is a collection of six stories and essays from leading Italian writers examining the concept, as the title might suggest, of not belonging. Uniformly excellent, the collection does have a couple of stand-out moments, which are worth the price of admission alone.
Roberto Saviano’s The Opposite of Death is the story of a young woman in rural Italy widowed before she is even married. Her fiancé has gone to war in Afghanistan, never to return. Written in the same style as Saviano’s reportage – it’s difficult to tell whether The Opposite of Death is fact or fiction, or some combination of the two – it’s a touching account of a young woman’s attempt to carry on with life in a town that she has lived since birth, but where she feels she no longer belongs. As we’ve come to expect from Saviano, it’s a story that brings a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, without ever resorting to anything other than straight, factual reporting.
Piero Colaprico’s Stairway C introduces carabinieri maresciallo Pietro Binda to the English-speaking world. A man is found murdered outside a social housing complex in Milan. Binda finds himself faced with an endless line-up of possible suspects, from the drug dealers who live on stairway C, to friends and possible lovers of the man. Binda is a breath of fresh air in a genre bursting at the seams with depressed, alcoholic, drug-taking detectives. Stairway C is but a taster of the Italian policeman’s exploits, and we can but hope that the wonderful MacLehose consider translating some of the novels into English in the near future.
|THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES
Chatto & Windus (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/chatto-windus)
£14.99Tristan Hart is a medical student, madman and deviant. He is obsessed with pain; in his more lucid times it is the nature of pain and how to prevent it. His ultimate desire is to find the perfect scream, and in this guise his obsession is causing maximum pain without inflicting permanent damage.
Despite the odd title, which might suggest a more supernatural, or fantastical storyline, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is a straightforward, old-fashioned melodrama. Beautiful writing – Wolf expends a lot of effort in ensuring language is used to its full effect – and stunning book design – including everything down to the font used, and old-fashioned capitalisation of nouns – combine to create a fully immersive experience for the reader. Thankfully, the story is worthy of the attention lavished upon it and the reader will come away unsure of whether to love, hate or feel sorry for Tristan Hart. Whichever, it’s a story that will remain with the reader for some time after the final page, and showcases Jack Wolf as a new author that we’ll be watching out for.
Graham Masterton (www.grahammasterton.co.uk)
Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)
£16.99One-time horror master Graham Masterton makes the jump to crime fiction with the first in a series of novels featuring Cork’s only female Garda detective, Katie Maguire. When work on a farm outside Cork turns up the bones of eleven women, Katie Maguire is assigned to the case. The bones have been in the ground for a long time, but it’s clear that they were skinned alive, and that there is something ritualistic about the killings. As Katie comes under pressure to consign the case to the history books, an American tourist disappears. Her bones, similarly stripped, are found laid out in an arcane pattern on the same farm.
White Bones is a wonderful introduction to Katie Maguire, a character with more than her fair share of crosses to bear – sexism in the workplace the most obvious, but longstanding tension at home over the death of a child doesn’t help. Despite (or possibly because of) that, she’s the perfect lead, and gives Masterton free rein to examine issues outside of the central plotline. The author lived in Cork for five years, and takes great delight in showing off his knowledge – from local geography and history, to grasp of the local dialect and inter-character banter. Despite the fact that much of the action takes place outside of the city, Masterton still manages to make Cork an important character in itself, and it helps to ground the novel and give the reader a sense of place.
A welcome addition to the genre, Masterton isn’t afraid to stick to his roots, and introduce a hint of the supernatural into the proceedings. Broken Angels, the second Katie Maguire book, is due from Head of Zeus in September this year. It’s on my “must read” list. I guarantee it will be on yours too once you read White Bones.
|WEB OF THE CITY
Harlan Ellison® (harlanellison.com)
Titan Books / Hard Case Crime (titanbooks.com / hardcasecrime.com)
£7.99Harlan Ellison® is best known these days for his science fiction work, and for his penchant for controversy. His first novel, originally published in 1958, was an examination of New York’s street gangs, inspired by Ellison’s experience going undercover in a Brooklyn gang. Rusty Santoro wants out. Given a glimpse of two possible futures by his teacher, he knows which one he wants and school, rather than the gangs, is the way to achieve it. But quitting the gangs is not quite as easy as it seems, and Rusty quickly discovers that his is not the only life in danger from his actions.
Web of the City is a short, violent piece of work that fits perfectly into the Hard Case Crime library. Ellison perfectly evokes New York of the late 1950s, and focuses on the young men who make up the gangs that effectively ran entire neighbourhoods during the period. Most striking for the modern reader, perhaps, is the age of these boys: barely old enough to hold a license to drive a car, they are armed to the teeth and elicit fear wherever they go. The story has aged well, and will appeal to a modern, jaded audience, who don’t mind a bit of blood with their cornflakes. It still has the power to shock – the knife-fight between Rusty and the new president of the Cougars is frightening in its intensity and violence – and it is this power that will set it apart even from much of today’s crime fiction.
The Hard Case Crime/Titan edition of the book includes three related short stories, which are all also worth the read, despite the fact that one of them is a rehash of a large section of the novel with a different ending, which lends a completely different tone to the piece. Grease meets Battle Royale, Web of the City is pure Hard Case, and should be essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of crime fiction.
Graham Rawle (www.grahamrawle.com)
Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)
£14.99Everyone knows a Riley Richardson. He’s the local anorak, carrier bag always in hand, always happy to talk the ear off anyone willing to listen about his chosen specialist subject, be it books (ahem!), or model trains, or whatever. In Riley Richardson’s case, that subject is bubble-gum cards, and Riley is on a life-long mission to find the elusive card 19 from the 1967 Mission: Impossible TV series. When a grey-haired man who looks remarkably like the leader of the Impossible Mission Force drops a playing card in a deserted alley, Riley picks it up, and finds himself on a quest to save the Princess of Wales, and to find that fabled card.
The story itself is wonderful, driven by the quirky character of Riley Richardson, a man with a quite different outlook on life than the rest of us. There’s a definite feel-good quality to the story, and Rawle has an uncanny ability to make the reader laugh out loud at the least appropriate moment. What sets The Card apart from everything else, though, has to be the design and construction quality of the overall package. Printed on a heavier, glossier stock than you tend to find in a paperback book, the author uses different fonts, emphasises different words, and includes little markings in the margins to produce a work of art that is much more than the story held within. The most beautiful part of the book is, without doubt, the fact that it contains full-colour representations of the various cards that Riley finds along the way, all designed and illustrated by the author himself. The Card is, quite simply, an absolute delight.
Today sees the publication, in paperback, of The Twelve, the second part of Justin Cronin’s epic Passage trilogy. To celebrate the occasion, we have a hardcover copy of the novel, signed by the author, to give away to one lucky visitor, thanks to the book’s publisher, Orion Books.
To be in with a chance of winning, all you need to do is post a comment containing the answer to the question below, before midnight (GMT) on Thursday 9th May. I will select one commenter at random on the morning of Friday 10th May and will be in touch to arrange shipment shortly thereafter.
Question: Bernard Kittridge makes an appearance early in The Twelve. By what nickname is he better known to the world?
If you need a helping hand, be sure to check out Justin Cronin reading an excerpt from the book here.
Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
It is October 1888 and the people of London are already reeling from the series of murders committed by the man who has styled himself “Jack the Ripper”. When the rotting torso of a young woman is found in the vault of the building site that will eventually become New Scotland Yard, the immediate assumption is that it belongs to yet another victim of the Ripper. But police surgeon Dr Thomas Bond doesn’t agree – this is a much colder killer, without the fiery passion that defines Jack’s kills. As more body parts – from this victim and others – wash up on the banks of the Thames, panic sets in across the metropolis and Bond finds himself joining forces with a mysterious Italian Jesuit and an unwashed immigrant with an unwanted “gift” in an attempt to find and stop this new killer.
Pinborough takes, as the starting point for her latest novel, a series of unsolved murders that occurred in London around the same time that Jack the Ripper was operating, and a handful of historical figures who would likely have been involved in their investigation. At the centre we find Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, who plays both detective and biographer in this distinctly Holmesian tale. Bond is an insomniac who has found solace in the opium dens of Whitechapel and beyond. It is here, in the guise of a stranger who watches the addicts as they dream, that he believes he has found a connection to the murders. When Bond follows the man, he finds himself drawn into a search for the killer that is at odds with his role as Police Surgeon but which, he quickly realises, might be the only chance they have of catching this man before any more young women die at his hands.
Told, in the main, from the point of view of Bond, Pinborough also intersperses third-person narratives focusing on some of the other key players, as well as newspaper clippings from the period to create an engaging – moreish, even – read. Impeccable research and wonderful narrative styling combine to place the reader in the centre of the melting pot that was London towards the end of the nineteenth century. In choosing to ignore the more famous Ripper murders in favour of the lesser-known Thames Torso murders, Pinborough has given herself some room for manoeuvre and sets Mayhem apart from countless other novels set in the same period. The focus on Thomas Bond allows the Ripper murders to make a cameo appearance – Bond was involved in their investigation – and the author finds a perfect balance that allows them to become landmarks for the reader without ever becoming the focus of the story.
For the first half of the novel, Mayhem reads like a straightforward mystery novel with more than a little influence from Conan Doyle. At this stage, anyone and everyone is a suspect, and Pinborough introduces one character after another who may have had a hand in the murder and dismemberment of these women. Towards the middle portion, there is a slight shift; as we learn the identity of the killer, our suspicions change from the “did he do it?” to the less-tangible “what are his motives for being involved?”. It’s a deft piece of writing that leaves the reader satisfied that the who was never really important and, if anything, manages to increase the suspense we encounter from this point onwards. At this point, too, a supernatural element creeps into the story, the transition from “crime” to “horror” made all the more palatable by virtue of the fact that we see it through the eyes of Thomas Bond, a man of science faced with something he cannot explain.
Mayhem is the first in a series of books featuring Dr Bond. Instantly likeable, despite his flaws, he’s the perfect leading man. As one of the lesser-known members of the Ripper investigation team, Pinborough has the freedom to tweak his personality to suit her dark plots (for which she apologises in her short but informative Preface), safe in the knowledge that the majority of readers will be meeting the man for the first time, without the preconceptions that they might bring to, say, Frederick Abberline. It is difficult to imagine that anyone wouldn’t be looking forward to 2015’s Murder following their first encounter with Dr Bond.
Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is the perfect mix of historical fact and fiction, Caleb Carr with a supernatural twist. Careful plotting, spot-on pacing and a sharp ear for the language of the period combine to make the reader want to come back for more. The use of the Ripper murders to provide context, without ever detracting from the importance of the Thames Torso murders, is the perfect device to place the reader in the middle of the smog-filled London of the late 1880s. Mayhem is a novel that obliterates genre boundaries, and is a must-read for fans of Sherlock Holmes, of the various legends of Jack the Ripper, and of crime and horror fiction in general. It’s a major showcase for the talents of Sarah Pinborough, who proves, once again, that she deserves a spot on everyone’s must-read list.
|SEAL TEAM 666
Weston Ochse (weston-ochse.blogspot.co.uk)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
Four weeks from completion, Jack Walker is pulled from his Navy SEAL training on Coronado Island, and assigned to SEAL Team 666. Highly classified and known to only a few key people, the five-man team which specialises in operations against supernatural threats has just lost its sniper; Walker’s background makes him the ideal candidate for replacement. Within hours he finds himself geared up and on his first mission. What they find in San Francisco’s Chinatown – a sweatshop where women whose mouths have been sewn closed are making suits out of tattooed human skin – is the first piece in a puzzle which sets the team on the trail of an army of demons who have the whole world in their sights.
Weston Ochse will be a name familiar to many frequenters of the horror fiction scene, though SEAL Team 666 sees his first commercial publication on these shores. The book is a straightforward mix of supernatural horror and military action that works surprisingly well, despite a couple of attempts to shoehorn more military jargon than is really necessary into the narrative. The premise is a simple one: military threats are not the only danger that the US faces on a daily basis. Since before the country was formed, a small team – five men and one dog – has protected its citizens from any number of supernatural threats, pitted against demons, homunculi and all things evil. In the modern US military structure, this team is made up of the best of the best, an elite unit within the Navy SEALs.
Ochse throws us into the middle of the action from the first blistering page, as we join the team on a mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan (yes, that mission). From there, we’re barely allowed time to breathe as we follow the team through one mission after the next, as they track down the man behind these suits made of human skin. Amongst all the action, though, the author finds time to flesh out the characters, and we learn something about the background of each so that they are more than just gung-ho paper cut-outs. This is done in such a way that it never impacts on the story, never slows things down or pulls the reader out of the moment, so that it feels natural and we never get the sense that the author is cramming important information in that we might need to remember later. Unfortunately (and this is really my only criticism of the novel), the same can’t be said for the technical information and military jargon that Ochse has picked up along the way and has presumably felt loathe to part with in subsequent drafts:
As he broke the Stoner down, he removed the rotating bolt carrier group. It was virtually the same as the piece-of-shit M16, which fired 5.56mm, but the Stoner was bored for 7.62mm as opposed to the 12.7mm of the Barrett. And also like the M16 and the AR15, the Stoner used a gas-impingement system to automatically move the bolt back and forth, enabling semiautomatic fire down the twenty-inch barrel. Rather than the regular floating barrel, the Stoner was reworked to incorporate the URX II Picatiny-Weaver Rail System, allowing for better application of any mounted hardware such as laser sights, telescopic sights, reflexive sights, tactical lights, and forward grips.
Impressive as this is, it doesn’t really add much to the story and serves only to interrupt the flow of the otherwise fast-paced narrative. Fortunately, instances of this are few and far between and by the second half of the novel, Ochse has mostly ditched them altogether.
That complaint aside, it’s a well-written and attention-grabbing piece of fiction. Ochse’s (it’s pronounced “oaks”, for anyone currently struggling with it) history with the horror genre serves him well, as he creates a world that is at once horrific and terrifyingly believable. The introduction of a military force whose job is to combat supernatural threats is by no means original, but the story and the world combine to set SEAL Team 666 apart from the vast majority of its predecessors. The fact that the supernatural elements only exist on one side of the fence also makes for a pleasant change. With the exception of some holy water, the Americans rely on good old-fashioned force and superior firepower to hold their side of the fight, rather than any magical or supernatural abilities of their own.
A refreshing and original take on the military-horror crossover, SEAL Team 666 should prove to be the breakout novel for one-time Bram Stoker Award winner Weston Ochse. Fast-paced and well-constructed, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, despite the sometimes laborious technical detail. A must-read for fans of Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series or Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, SEAL Team 666 is also an essential read for fans of good horror fiction. While this is one reader who is looking forward to the imminent second book in the series, I’m also keen to see how Ochse capitalises on the wider audience this novel is sure to bring and whether we’re likely to see a more commercially-available return to his traditional horror roots. Either way, Ochse is one to watch.
|WE ARE HERE
Michael Marshall (www.michaelmarshallsmith.com)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
On a visit to New York to meet his publisher, David bumps into a man on the street – the sort of innocent collision that happens all the time on busy city pavements – who follows him back to Penn Station and confronts him. He utters two words, part question, part command, before disappearing again: “Remember me”. When John Henderson’s girlfriend introduces him to Catherine Warren, it is because she believes he can help her. Catherine is being stalked, and when John investigates he discovers that it’s not quite as straightforward as an ex-lover or shunned suitor. As David and John become entangled in this strange new world, a man named Reinhart is rallying troops for a push that could ultimately lead to death and destruction on an epic scale.
There is something comforting, despite the subject matter, about cracking open a new Michael Marshall novel. Perhaps it’s the sense that you’re in a safe pair of hands, or maybe it’s just the knowledge that you have no way of anticipating what’s in store next from one of the most original storytellers of recent years. Like his previous novels, We Are Here straddles the boundary between straight crime/thriller and straight horror as Marshall introduces us to a world that exists just on the periphery of our own, a group of people who live in the shadows and who are largely forgotten, or ignored, by the people around them.
In much the same way that Die Hard 2 is a sequel to Die Hard (the same central character finding himself in yet another, unrelated, but equally dangerous situation), We Are Here is a sequel to Marshall’s 2009 novel, Bad Things. John Henderson, who we last saw in the wilds of Washington state has moved to New York with Kristina and is now living and working in the East Village. Beyond that, there are no other major connections between the two novels, though long-time readers will have a better understanding of John’s background than people using We Are Here as a jumping-on point (if you haven’t read Marshall before, though, you should by no means allow this to deter you from starting here). In a move that now seems to be traditional for the author, Henderson’s sections are told in the first person, while the rest of the characters get chapters of their own, narrated in a third-person voice.
The voice itself is engaging and down-to-earth, and much of the story is told in a conversational tone that is sometimes at odds with what’s actually going on. Contrary to what you might expect, this works very well, and serves to tie the different elements of the story (often off-the-wall) neatly together into a coherent whole.
They made their way toward the platform via which they’d arrived at the station that morning. This turned out not to be where the train was departing from, however, and all at once they were in a hurry and lost and oh-my-god-we’re-screwed. David figured out where they were supposed to be and pointed at Dawn to lead the way. She forged the way with the brio of someone having a fine old time in the city, emboldened by a bucketful of wine, clattering down the steps to the platform and starting to trot when she saw their train in preparation for departure.
The nature of these shadowy people referenced by the novel’s title is never fully explained. A number of theories are presented to the reader, in the form of theories held by various characters (are they imaginary friends long since forgotten by the people who dreamed them up? Are they ghosts? Are they something else entirely?), and the reader is left to decide for themselves which they prefer, or which makes the most sense. Regardless of which theory is correct, Marshall has created a complex societal structure and set of rules which govern the actions of the group, giving these people some substance and background that is woven neatly into the fabric of the story.
The return of John Henderson gives us a sense of familiarity and I, for one, enjoy the various interconnections between his books that define the strange world that Marshall began creating with his Straw Men novels. We Are Here also introduces a huge cast of new characters, which is a departure from the small, controlled groups of central characters that we’re used to seeing in the author’s works. With Marshall’s deft touch, though, each stands out as an individual and it is easy to keep track as the story progresses. In Reinhart, Marshall has created one of the most sinister and evil characters you’re likely to encounter in a piece of fiction. Despite the fact that he spends much of the story lurking in the background, his brief appearances are memorable and shiver-inducing.
Another winner from a master of his game, We Are Here is a welcome addition to Michael Marshall’s growing catalogue. Part crime, part horror, part urban fantasy, it should appeal to new and old readers alike with its mixture of dark comedy, horror, mystery and abrupt violence. Fast-paced, tightly-plotted and beautifully-written, We Are Here packs thrills and chills into an intelligent story that, despite its fantastical elements, never loses its plausibility or sense of realism. If you’re already a fan of Michael Marshall then you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t read the man’s books before, then We Are Here is an excellent place to start. Either way, you’re in for a treat.
Tim Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)
Far underground, deep in a remote area of the Appalachian Mountains, lies the Coldbrook facility where, for ten years, Jonah Jones and his team have been trying to open a doorway to a parallel Earth. Three weeks ago, they succeeded and have been watching “the breach” ever since, gathering samples and preparing for the inevitable moment when a chosen few will cross over to see what lies beyond. Before that can happen, something comes through from the other side; something that may once have been human. Unaffected by the electrical field designed to kill anything that comes through, the creature grabs hold of the nearest scientist and bites. Holly Wright, thinking fast, sends the facility into lockdown, but it is already too late. The creature from the other side is carrying a virus and has already begun to spread it. When one of the scientists breaches lockdown and makes it to the surface, he inadvertently unleashes apocalypse upon the world, as the disease spreads like wildfire. But there is hope: a girl, bitten but unaffected, may hold a formula for the survival of the human race in her blood. They just need to get her back to Coldbrook in one piece.
I first discovered Tim Lebbon around a decade ago when someone recommended that I read his collection White, And Other Tales of Ruin. I was immediately hooked, so it was with no small measure of excitement that I cracked open Coldbrook, Lebbon’s take on the zombie novel. From the outset, it’s easy to tell this is something different: there’s a reasonable explanation for the outbreak, and a plausible explanation for the rapid spread of the disease: these zombies aren’t the traditional variety, chasing braaaaaiiiiins for their tea; they are people infected with a deadly and aggressive virus whose one goal it forces them to pursue with single-minded intensity: to spread itself. They are fast and, perhaps most frightening of all, they are patient, prepared to wait quietly outside your door until you believe the danger has passed, or have no other option but to step outside.
In amongst all the fun horror and buckets of blood, Lebbon takes time to examine how individuals might react in the face of oncoming doom. Family plays an important part in the story, and it is through this lens that Lebbon contrasts the stories of Vic Pearson – who risks everything to get his family as far away from Coldbrook as he can – and Sean Nott – no less dedicated a father, but whose daughter is in France, unreachable, her fate a mystery. Here, too, a look at community, as the initial sense of “every man for himself” gives way to a concerted effort to reach safety in a larger group. Inside Coldbrook, Jonah and Holly find themselves facing a different set of trials, as we discover what lies on the other side of the breach, and the shadowy Inquisitor begins to shadow Jonah’s every move.
What came as a pleasant surprise as I read Coldbrook was the unsettling sense of fear that it manages to instil in the reader. This is, after all, “only” a zombie novel, and we hardened veterans of the horror genre should have seen it all before. But Lebbon has more than a few surprises up his sleeve and, despite borrowing from a handful of the genre’s classics – the most obvious echoes here are of The Andromeda Strain and The Stand – still manages to produce something original and scary. Lebbon sets out his stall early in the novel as he presents the moment of outbreak from the point of view of Jonah. What makes this interesting is that Jonah is not in the room with the zombie, and is listening to the events on the phone. Because he can’t see what’s going on, neither can the reader and it puts us on edge. It’s a feeling that persists throughout the book.
There is plenty to like here, and the good points far outweigh the bad – a number of coincidences that just seem too trite, too neat. Lebbon paints a believable picture of a world that is rapidly falling apart – burning cities, army quickly deployed and even more quickly overrun, airspace patrolled in a vain attempt to keep the disease contained – and populates it with a group of people that it’s hard not to root for, even if we don’t necessarily like them. The climax, always a tough nut to crack in this type of novel, is satisfying and thought-provoking. This is no read-and-forget pulp horror; there is plenty of food for thought here.
In a welcome return to pure horror, Tim Lebbon has put a fresh twist on an old trope, and come up with Coldbrook. Fast-paced, blood-soaked and zombie-filled, it still manages a coherent and engaging storyline with an unsettling edge. I’m not afraid to admit that this one made me wary of turning off the lights at night, which puts it a cut above most of what’s out there in the resurgent tide of zombie fiction. Lebbon remains a solid, reliable writer who deserves to be better-known outside horror. Whether you’re new to the genre, or suffering zombie fatigue, I can’t recommend Coldbrook highly enough to you. Read it, enjoy it and, while you’re at it, hunt down some of Lebbon’s older horror novels. You can thank me later.
|LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES
John Ajvide Lindqvist (johnajvide.com)
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
It’s difficult to believe that it has been a mere five years since John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel, Let The Right One In, was first published in English by Quercus. It’s a ten-year-old book that has taken the world by storm, spawning not one, but two excellent film versions, and launching the career of a writer who is the epitome of the modern horror genre. His latest English release, again from the excellent Quercus, is the collection of short stories, Let The Old Dreams Die, an amalgamation of his 2006 collection, Paper Walls, and the 2011 short story that gives the collection its new title.
The art of the short story is alive and well within the horror genre, probably more so than any other literary niche. It is the perfect vehicle for short, sharp shocks and lingering creeps. It is a form that most of the genre’s big names try out at some point – Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Tim Lebbon, for example, each has a handful of collections to his name, while Joe Hill’s first published book was his excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts. It is no surprise, then, that John Ajvide Lindqvist should have enough short stories under his belt to warrant a collection.
Most of the eleven stories in Let The Old Dreams Die share the common theme of love. It’s a slightly unexpected theme for a collection of horror stories, but this is where Lindqvist excels: these, for the most part, are not stories of the supernatural; they are stories of every day people getting on with their lives, and the horrors visited upon them, or that they visit upon themselves in the name of love, friendship, a need to belong. Here, we have the customs officer who feels like an outsider: she can sense when people are hiding things, and has made a name for herself throughout Sweden. But she feels alone, unable to form normal attachments to the people around her. Until the day she meets a man that she is convinced is hiding something, a man who makes her feel somehow whole. Here, the man who almost drowned, and who now believes he knows the secret to eternal life, an eternal life with the only woman he loves. But the pursuit of this goal breaks something within him, something between them. And here, the bored housewife who breaks into other peoples’ houses in order to discover who they are; she finds more than she bargains for in one house, the body of a man who has been stabbed to death. He becomes her little secret, a listening ear, a comforting absence; until she discovers that the feelings are not mutual.
As with any collection of stories, some are stronger than others. The very short “To hold you while the music plays” is probably the weakest of the bunch (it’s the one story that none of Lindqvist’s beta-readers liked, according to his afterword), but it’s almost impossible to pick the strongest. Each has a different effect on the reader, some outright frightening (“Village on the hill”), others deeply unsettling (“Substitute”) and yet others designed to leave the reader with a sense of disgust (“Equinox”). But they all share a sense of realism that is down to Lindqvist’s attention to detail: little tics that the characters have, a dislike of body hair, or of watching someone else chewing their food; and details of places that are consistent across the stories, making the firm point that these are real places, populated by everyday people to whom something extraordinary is happening. There is a passage in “Substitute” that perfectly sums up the sense of general weirdness that the stories evoke:
There were no photographs on the walls, just pictures of American Indians and wolves at sunset, that kind of thing. The contents of the bookcase looked as if they had come straight from a Salvation Army shop. The Family Moskat by Singer, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown…the books that are always there. Something in the background of an interior design suggestion from Ikea. Nothing was in alphabetical order, and the impression was reinforced when I found another copy of The Family Moskat on a shelf lower down.
For many of Lindqvist’s long-time readers, there are two main reasons for picking up a copy of Let The Old Dreams Die. The first is the longest story in the book; at just over 100 pages in length, “The final processing” is more novella than short story, and is a direct sequel to Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead. Using several of the main characters from the novel – Elvy, Flora, Hagar – the story tells of experiments being carried out on the “reliving”, and of Flora’s attempt to help them – her grandfather included – to die a graceful and peaceful death. The story itself provides a wonderful conclusion to the novel, and allows the reader to visit with some of the more entertaining characters once more.
Most exciting of all, though, is the book’s title story. “Let the old dreams die” (incidentally, the next line from the same Morrissey song that provided the title of Lindqvist’s debut novel) gives the reader a brief glimpse of what happened to Oskar and Eli when the book finished. Told by the ticket seller at Blackeberg subway station, it is the story of the love between his two friends: one a police detective assigned to the massacre at the swimming pool, and the disappearance of young Oskar Eriksson; the other a train ticket collector, a man we see briefly at the end of Let The Right One In, and quite possibly the last man to see Oskar and Eli before they disappeared. It’s an excellent story in its own right, a story of friendship, love and obsession, but it has the added benefit of providing closure for the novel, correcting an omission that Lindqvist was unaware of until the novel was already out in the wild.
Lindqvist’s influences are many and wide-ranging. There is a touch of Stephen King here (a man he has been compared favourably to on many occasions), a dash of Michel Faber and, unless I’m very much mistaken, a smidgen of the dark humour of Monty Python. What is most surprising about this collection is that, with the exception of the title story, it was written between 2002 and 2005. The only story that post-dates Handling the Undead is “The final processing” and they were all written before he set pen to paper on his third novel, Harbour. They show a writer of considerable talent, a man who knows how to manipulate the reader to gain maximum effect. His stories are the perfect mix of unsettling horror and black humour and, like any good horror story, their aim is simple: to make the reader feel unsure of their own familiar surroundings so that the light stays on to ward off whatever horrors are lurking nearby. His writing is beautiful, thankfully preserved in Marlaine Delargy’s brilliant translation.
Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.
|THE BUFFALO HUNTER
Peter Straub (www.peterstraub.net)
Cemetery Dance Publications (www.cemeterydance.com)
Released: Late 2012
From the moment thirty-five-year-old Bobby Bunting lies back on his bed with a paperback Western and a baby’s bottle full of vodka, it’s clear that we’re in the presence of a very odd individual. A Midwesterner living in New York, working as a data entry clerk, Bunting is a modern-day Walter Mitty; the life people believe he leads – the highly-placed and –paid job, and the beautiful model girlfriend – is nothing like the one he actually leads – a lone existence, reading pulp paperbacks and drinking in his one-room apartment. When he finds his old baby bottle in the attic of his parents’ home, Bunting hides it in his case and brings it back to New York. As he builds a collection, his world starts to change subtly; soon the line between his fantasy life and the real one is blurred, even for him, and Bobby Bunting is in danger of losing himself in his own imagination.
Peter Straub, one of the world’s finest producers of horror fiction, got the idea for this novella at the opening of a friend’s art show, Rona Pondick’s Bed Milk Shoe. Cemetery Dance have cleverly used a photograph of one of the pieces as the book’s cover, and all those baby bottles strapped to a double bed make for a very eye-catching cover. Behind it, a very short and very restrained (as in most of Straub’s work that I have read) piece of horror fiction, beautifully-executed and more than a little unsettling.
The story is told almost exclusively from the point of view of Bobby Bunting, a thoroughly unlikeable, self-centred character who, nevertheless, manages to carry the story from start to finish. It’s an excellent vantage point from which to watch the proceedings unfold: his growing obsession with the different types of baby bottle and teat (there’s a lesson there for collectors of all types); the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, so that we can see Bunting’s thought processes and how he sees his own life. His interactions with other people are excruciating to witness, his social skills almost non-existent; the description of a brief date will leave the reader squirming and uncomfortable, if not baying for his blood. This is a man most comfortable in his own company, a man who enjoys relaxing after a hard day with a drink and a good book. Despite how much he reads, his reading is restricted to the handful of books that grace his bookshelves, so he knows exactly where to turn when things take a turn for the strange.
Straub borrows elements from Western writer Luke Short (though the book from which Straub’s tale takes its title doesn’t seem to exist), Raymond Chandler and Leo Tolstoy as Bunting’s tale unfolds. It’s a strange mix, but in the hands of this master of the genre, it comes together perfectly, adding a new dimension to what might have been a one-note story.
Peter Straub is a much underrated writer (at least here in the UK – people who don’t read horror know him as the man who wrote that book with Stephen King, or believe him to be one of King’s pseudonyms), who continues to produce some of today’s best fiction in any genre. The Buffalo Hunter is a short, offbeat tale that is likely to stay with the reader for some time after the book has been returned to its place on the shelf. The combination of loathsome protagonist, highly original story and startling conclusion combine to make this one not to be missed. Fortunately, the book is being given the trade hardcover treatment by the wonderful Cemetery Dance, so copies should be relatively easy to come by. At the much-too-short 150 pages, this one is more than worth your time.