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The 2016 Round-Up

Another year coming to an end (and one many of us will be very happy to see the back of), which means its time for me to do a quick round-up and list my favourite books of the year. I’m late getting this out this year, so if you’re looking to buy any of these books as presents, you’ll need to get the finger out!

THE ROUND-UP

Goodreads informs me that I have read 84 books during this year, which is considerably more than any previous year. A massive 55 of these were by authors I haven’t read before, and 23 of those were debut works. 2016 was an excellent year for fiction debuts, and my debut Top Ten below was much more difficult to produce than the non-debut Top Ten. This years figures also include a miserable 4 pieces of translated fiction.

Unfortunately, last year’s laziness persisted, meaning that not every book that I read got a review on Reader Dad. My aim is to do much better in 2017, and I have given the site a bit of a spruce-up in anticipation of a much more active year. As a result, many of the books in the lists below don’t have links to existing reviews, but I’ll try to summarise quickly why I loved them so much. The books appear in the order in which they were read and, as always, only books originally published in the UK during 2016 are included.

So, without further ado…

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2016

IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS by Rebecca Mackenzie (Tinder Press)

The first book I failed to review is also one of the earliest I read this year. Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods introduces us to 10-year-old Henrietta Robertson, the daughter of British missionaries attending a boarding school in China. As the threat of war looms in the background, Etta finds herself at the heart of the Prophetess Club, convinced that she is privy to God’s divine will. A beautiful coming-of-age story that is by turns hilariously funny and darkly sinister.

   
TALL OAKS by Chris Whitaker (twenty7)

Welcome to Tall Oaks, the epitome of small-town America, a town in mourning following the disappearance of a young child. As the child’s mother leads the search, constantly bombarding the town’s sheriff with requests and information, the rest of the small town’s residents try to get on with their lives, despite the ever-present spectre. Comic noir at its very best, Tall Oaks is a showcase for Chris Whitaker’s already-impressive talent. The characters are the driving force behind this story, and they will remain with you long after the story has finished. This is an absolute gem.

   
HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt [trans: Nancy Forest-Flier] (Hodder & Stoughton)

HEX reads like the work of a much more mature and developed author, so it’s a surprise to discover that it is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut. Tension and horror combine to make this a story that is impossible to put down, as the deepening sense of unease suddenly flares into all-out shivers that run the length of your spine. Wonderfully written – and presented here in an excellent translation by Nancy Forest-Flier – and perfectly-judged, HEX is old-fashioned horror with a modern-day twist done right. It’s a story that will stay with you long after the lights have gone out, and places Thomas Olde Heuvelt high on this reader’s must-read list.

   
THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER by Vanessa Ronan (Penguin)

While The Last Days of Summer doesn’t appear to be my usual fare, this is one of those cases where the book cover seriously lets down the story within. This is humanity laid bare, with all of our foibles and petty arguments on show for the world to see. This is a book that I can’t help but unashamedly and unreservedly recommend to anyone, and Vanessa Ronan proves that she has a talent that will quickly set her amongst the greats of whichever genre she chooses to write in. I’m an instant fan, and will be watching Ronan’s career with an eagle eye in the years to come. Do not miss this book.

   
SOCKPUPPET by Matthew Blakstad (Hodder & Stoughton)

Brilliant writing and a story that is relevant to every person who has ever used a networked device combine to make Sockpuppet one of the standout debuts of the year. Behind the apt (if coincidental) grinning pig on the front cover is a story that grips you from the outset and leaves you wishing for more as the final page is turned. Darkly comic but intrinsically frightening, this is a cautionary tale of an all-too-possible near future and marks Matthew Blakstad as an extremely talented new voice in the world of speculative fiction.

   
THE COUNTENANCE DIVINE by Michael Hughes (John Murray)

Deftly tying together four different stories from four different time periods, Michael Hughes’ debut novel is a sublime work of art. Beautiful writing gives us four very distinct and recognisable voices as we follow John Milton’s seminal work from its creation in 1666 to its significance on the Millennium bug in 1999. This is, quite possibly, the best book I’ve read this year.

   
THE WOLF ROAD by Beth Lewis (The Borough Press)

The Wolf Road is a novel that ignores genre boundaries in order to be the best story it can be. Beth Lewis writes with a confidence and sense of control that belies her debut novelist status. Through the characters, the language, the geography, the brief world history, she has constructed a complex and satisfying story that is at once thriller and horror, Western and crime drama, speculative fiction and character study. The result is so much more than the sum of all these components: an engrossing story built around a unique and memorable protagonist, a standout piece in a year filled with big-name releases. Get on at the ground floor – you’ll be hearing a lot about Beth Lewis in the coming months and years, so take the time to enjoy that sense that you’ve discovered The Next Big Thing before everyone else.

   
VIGIL by Angela Slatter (Jo Fletcher Books)

Vigil is a brilliant debut novel from an exciting writer who cut her teeth on short stories. Pacy and engaging, it’s a book that demands to be finished once it has been started. Verity Fassbinder is a name, and a character, not quickly forgotten by the reader, sure to become a staple of the genre as the series progresses, as instantly recognisable as, say, Sookie Stackhouse or Katniss Everdeen. Angela Slatter is a confident and talented writer whose ability to build worlds is surpassed only by her skill in populating them. A complete story in its own right, Vigil is, nevertheless, the first book in a series, and it leaves the reader gasping for more as it draws to a close. Already one of my favourite books of the year, I can’t help but recommend this to everyone.

   
SECURITY by Gina Wohlsdorf (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

One of this year’s gems, Security is one of the finest horror novels to be produced in quite a while. Slick, clever and with a clear, engaging voice it should put author Gina Wohlsdorf firmly on the map, alongside some of finest young writers working in the genre today: Lebbon, Keene, Littlewood, Langan. It’s a book that cries out for a second read, if only to plug the inevitable gap until the author’s second novel, and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys intelligently-written horror fiction. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2016

TRAVELERS REST by Keith Lee Morris (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

Reminiscent of King’s Desperation and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Keith Lee Morris’ latest novel – the first to be published in the UK – is an intense and gripping story that succeeds in its aim to unsettle the reader, to turn what we think we know on its head and leave us stranded with the Addison family in the strange little town of Good Night, Idaho. Wonderful writing and excellent characterisation combine to keep the story very much grounded in reality, despite the unnerving and unusual sights we will see during our stay in the Travelers Rest. A fine new voice in horror fiction, Keith Lee Morris shows an impressive talent and a deep understanding of his chosen genre. I’m interested to see where his talents take him next; in the meantime, Travelers Rest should be on your list of books to read this year.

   
13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Having skimmed through my reviews of previous Pinborough novels, I can see they are overflowing with gushing hyperbole. 13 Minutes shows that every word of it is true, as if we needed any further confirmation following last year’s stunning The Death House. This is the work of a writer at the very top of her game, one who is comfortable turning her hand to any subject, any genre. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it, drawn in by the characters who are barely restrained by the book’s pages and by the author’s glorious ability to manipulate the reader in the same easy manner that she manipulates her creations. If you haven’t read Pinborough before, 13 Minutes is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then what are you waiting for? While you may not know what to expect story-wise, there’s one guarantee: there are very few writers as talented and as readable as Sarah Pinborough and 13 Minutes is an excellent new addition to an unsurpassed body of work.

   
THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill (Gollancz)

In all, The Fireman is an excellent showcase for the talents of Joe Hill. I mentioned earlier that I think it’s likely to be his breakout novel, the story that spreads his name outside the genre. Yes, this is a grim look at post-apocalyptic America, but it’s a very different take than anything we’ve seen before. And more than that, it’s a story about people, about humanity’s acts of kindness and of evil. It’s a story about love, community, family. A story about hope, and how we cope when hope seems lost. Intense, beautiful and completely engrossing, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s finest novel to date, the work of a confident and mature writer for whom words are the building blocks of pure magic. It’s amongst the best novels I – or you – will read this year, and one I will be revisiting with the same frequency that I do its forebear. Essential reading for everyone, this is not to be missed.

   
THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

Aliya Whiteley’s follow-up to her first novella, The Beauty, is as deeply affecting and beautifully written as its predecessor. A very different beast, The Arrival of Missives weaves history and speculative fiction together and presents us the link in the form of the characters at the centre of the tale. While the novella seems to be Whiteley’s medium of choice – and it is one that certainly works well for her – this reader yearns to see her turn her hand to the much longer form in the near future. An incredible talent, Aliya Whiteley continues to astound and delight, and The Arrival of Missives confirms what anyone who read The Beauty already knew: these books, and this writer, are not to be missed, under any circumstances.

   
END OF WATCH by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Perhaps the strongest book of the trilogy, End of Watch is a welcome return to the unnamed city that is the home of Bill Hodges and the assortment of characters with whom he consorts. As with all of King’s work, the characters are key, though the reader can’t help but be impressed by the groundwork the author has already laid in earlier volumes to support the grand finale that he presents here. Despite his age, King shows that he is still as relevant, still as in-touch with the world we live in, as younger generations of writers, and proves, once again, that when it comes to transporting the reader into his fictional worlds, he remains without equal.

   
THE CITY OF MIRRORS by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)

Without a doubt the best of the trilogy, The City of Mirrors provides a satisfying conclusion to the story started over six years ago. I can almost guarantee that readers will come away from this volume with an intense desire to go back to the start and read through to the end. It’s a project I will be undertaking myself in the near future. Justin Cronin is a master storyteller and his post-apocalyptic vision stands alongside the genre’s finest. With The City of Mirrors, a wonderful story in its own right, he also shows an ability to deliver on the promises he made in earlier volumes. An engrossing plot coupled with characters who are at once familiar and strangely changed – whether because of the four years that have passed in real time since we last met them, or because of the twenty years that have passed in the course of the narrative it is difficult to say – brings a fitting close to one of the best pieces of horror fiction produced in the past decade. This is hopefully not the last the genre has heard of Justin Cronin. I can’t help but recommend this – and the preceding two volumes of what can only be described as his masterpiece – unreservedly.

   
LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent (Penguin Random House)

Liz Nugent’s writing is beautiful, the voices of the three narrators perfectly pitched, the quirks and tics we might expect in their speech beautifully translated to the written form. From the opening page, Nugent holds the reader in the palm of her hands, so the gut-punch she delivers as the novel draws to a close feels like a physical thing, leaving the reader stunned and disbelieving, emotionally drained yet already hoping for more more MORE! I missed Nugent’s debut, Unravelling Oliver, when it came out in 2014, but it’s definitely on my must-read list even as I try to recover from the effects of this one. An incredible novel, Lying in Wait is a lightning-fast read that should be an essential item for anyone packing for holiday. It cements Liz Nugent’s place as one of Ireland’s finest living novelists, and places her, at the very least, on this reader’s “must-read” list.

   
UNDYING: A LOVE STORY by Michel Faber (Canongate)

Undying: A Love Story is less love story and more love letter, the poems all addressed to Eva herself. It’s an intimate and devastating insight into what can only be described as a very personal experience of two people who are obviously very much in love. It is essential reading, but should only be started when you’re sure you have time to read it cover to cover. Keep a box of tissues handy, but be prepared for moments of pure beauty amidst the darkness. Beautiful, life-changing, unmissable.

   
A CITY DREAMING by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Shifting his focus from fantasy worlds to the one in which we live, Daniel Polansky gives us his version of New York. Well, the dark and magical underbelly at any rate. With writing and characterisation that made The Low Town Trilogy such a success, A City Dreaming is engrossing, captivating and, at times, very VERY funny. Reminiscent of Gaiman at his best, A City Dreaming shows Polansky back on top form.

   
THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue (Picador)

Emma Donoghue’s latest novel takes readers back to the Irish Midlands in the middle of the 19th Century. Hired by the council of a small village, Nightingale alumnus Lib Wright’s job is to watch 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell for two weeks in an attempt to determine how the girl remains healthy despite the fact that she hasn’t eaten a bite in four months. With a fine grasp of how the Irish work, and an uncanny ability to tell a story that keeps the audience captivated start to finish, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel is her finest since Room.

   
PAINKILLER by N. J. Fountain (Sphere)

Part examination of the oft-misunderstood phenomenon of chronic neuropathic pain, part thriller, N.J. Fountain’s latest novel takes the reader on a twist-filled journey through the life of Monica Wood. A full review of Painkiller will appear on Reader Dad soon.

AND AN HONOURABLE MENTION…

Technically, since this book was originally published in 2006, it shouldn’t be included in this year’s list. But the release of the beautifully-illustrated Tenth Anniversary Deluxe Edition is all the excuse I need to give it an honourable mention.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne & Oliver Jeffers (Doubleday)

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

COMING SOON . . .

2017 is already shaping up to be an excellent year of fiction, with the first three books I have read that are due out in January already almost certainly claiming a place on next year’s best-of lists. Expect a revitalised Reader Dad in the New Year with a busy January already planned.

All that remains is for me to thank the wonderful publicists and publishers who keep me stocked with such excellent reading material; the fantastic authors who not only provide these excellent reads but who, in many cases, give up time and energy to write guest posts or provide answers to my inane Q&As; and you, the readers, for your continued support: without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Safe and Prosperous 2017.

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES - Aliya Whiteley THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES

Aliya Whiteley (aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com)

Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)

£9.99

The Great War is a not-too-distant memory, and England is still in the process of recovering from the horror and loss that it wreaked. Teenager Shirley Fearn lives in the small village of Westerbridge, where she attends the local school taught by Mr Tiller and harbours the desire to become a teacher herself. As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, Shirley discovers Mr Tiller’s terrible secret, and learns of the missives he receives from a mysterious source. Mr Tiller has made it his life’s work to change the future of mankind, and enlists Shirley’s help. But where Mr Tiller sees something that must be avoided at all costs, Shirley sees only opportunity and a new form of repression that isn’t much different from that which rules her everyday life.

When we first meet Shirley Fearn, she appears to be much like any stereotypical young lady from the early twentieth century: she is madly in love with her teacher, the mysterious Mr Tiller, and spends her days planning their future together. But Shirley has a spark of individuality, an ambition to become a teacher that sets her at odds with her family and friends. The Shirley who takes over the story as May Day arrives is a much different person to the young girl who has accompanied us thus far: she is more determined, surer of her own value to humanity.

Mr Tiller has recently returned from the front lines, a limp the only outward sign of the terrible injuries that he has received. The women in the village see him as less than a real man while Shirley, blinded by her childish crush on him, sees his differences as a good thing.

No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

As the story progresses we learn the true nature of Mr Tiller’s injury, and the mental torture that comes along with it. Like Shirley, we are drawn into his confidence and become complicit in his plans to obey the plea that his mysterious missives carry, and of the possible future that awaits humankind.

The Arrival of Missives, for all its brevity, is a story of two distinct halves. From the start, it’s a wonderfully-written examination of life in rural post-War England, and of the mind-set and mores of the people who populate it. In Shirley Fearn we have the perfect protagonist to guide us through this strange old world – a teenage girl who has hopes and dreams of her own, but whose life has already been mapped out in this male-dominated world by her parents to a certain extent, but mainly by the town and the town’s expectations. She feels herself inexorably drawn towards Daniel Redmore, a young man not much older than she is, but finds herself resisting partly because of Mr Tiller, and partly because it is assumed by everyone that they will end up setting up home together.

The latter part of the story is an allegorical feminist manifesto of sorts, though by no means the hectoring, anti-male rhetoric that those two words suggest to many. When Shirley hears Mr Tiller’s missives first hand, something inside her breaks, and forces her to question her very nature. Mr Tiller’s future disaster seems much less troubling to Shirley, especially when she works out why. The reader is drawn into this argument and forced to decide for themselves: in much the same way that history differs depending on the teller, surely, too, the future must look different depending upon through whose eyes it is viewed.

‘It shows humanity,’ he says.

‘One part of it. One part, one group, with a message that has truth only to those who choose to believe it.’

What is interesting is how directly the book speaks to the speculative fiction community, and the frequently lambasted male-dominated science fiction community in particular.

My only clue lies in the fact that they have one thing in common. They are all pale old men…how can there be no people of China, or the East Indies? No youths? No women, no women at all? How is that possible?…I will not be a foot soldier for pale old men, no matter where they live or what pretty patterns they weave.

It is, undoubtedly, an important message, but one that is interwoven so closely with Shirley Fearn’s tale that it comes as a natural consequence, rather than as the aforementioned feminist manifesto around which a story has been constructed.

Aliya Whiteley’s follow-up to her first novella, The Beauty, is as deeply affecting and beautifully written as its predecessor. A very different beast, The Arrival of Missives weaves history and speculative fiction together and presents us the link in the form of the characters at the centre of the tale. While the novella seems to be Whiteley’s medium of choice – and it is one that certainly works well for her – this reader yearns to see her turn her hand to the much longer form in the near future. An incredible talent, Aliya Whiteley continues to astound and delight, and The Arrival of Missives confirms what anyone who read The Beauty already knew: these books, and this writer, are not to be missed, under any circumstances.

GUEST POST: The Arrival of Opportunity by ALIYA WHITELEY

Name: ALIYA WHITELEY

Author of: THE BEAUTY (2014)
                 THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES (2016)

On the web: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @AliyaWhiteley

Aliya Whiteley’s second novella, The Arrival of Missives, goes on sale on Monday 9th May. To celebrate the book’s launch Reader Dad is very pleased to welcome Aliya back to talk about the book’s origins.

There are lots of brave young women out there in literature but I never wanted to write one myself.

I’ve certainly loved many of them. I reread Jane Eyre many times and winced at Emma Woodhouse’s mistakes. I recognised the yearnings of Ursula Brangwen and held my breath for the nameless bride in Rebecca. Modern books have given me female leading characters who are perhaps more action driven (which you could say is a trend in popular entertainment generally) in the form of Halo Jones, Lisbeth Salander, and Lyra Belacqua. But the more these characters found themselves in incredible and dangerous situations, the less able I felt to create one myself. I wouldn’t be writing from a position of empathy. I didn’t feel I would make the same choices if I ever got thrust into such interesting perils. As a teenager I was bookish and quiet (well, I still am). I wished for excitement and did nothing about finding it in any place other than within the pages of the stories I loved. And I certainly didn’t want to create a heroine like myself – what would be the fun in reading about that?

But then The Arrival of Missives popped into my head, and I started to write a story that, as a writer, terrified me. I didn’t have the emotional distance from my lead character that I thought I needed to make it work. My own experience of being a young woman, dreaming of a future I was also scared of, kept getting in the way.

Somerset in 1920. Shirley Fearn is a bright young woman who has opinions about the immorality of war and the importance of love. She feels passionately about education as the tool that can guide young men towards making a better world. She also feels passionately about her mysterious schoolmaster, Mr Tiller. She has plans for her future. For everyone’s future.

When I first started to get into her voice I thought of her as the opposite of me. I soon realised that she was utterly recognisable: not in deeds, but inside her head. I was giving her thoughts and feelings that I had experienced as a teenager. I might have been quiet, but I had lots of opinions. It’s not a question of what both Shirley and I were thinking, but when and where the opportunity arose to express those thoughts.

Writing Shirley made me realise that character and opportunity are not automatically the same thing. Often the situation of the book controls characterisation, feeding into the idea that we learn from our experiences and become the sum of them. This is the act of making meaning from our lives. So Ursula Brangwen (a huge influence on The Arrival of Missives) becomes a teacher and finds the experience changes her. She recognises the intense, seething battle taking place between the young and the old for power, and therefore must decide on what side of that battle she lies. DH Lawrence was a master of this organic growth from event to action to internalisation, I think, and the struggle this creates in us all.

How Ursula views that relationship between age and youth is, though, entirely a creation of her mind. She has such strength of will, and it paints the world around her. That’s what helped me to write Shirley. Very strange things happen to her (events that we might characterise as science fiction or even horror in terms of literary genre) and yet she sees them all as a reinforcement of her world view. I found that I loved writing Shirley’s forceful decision to interpret all the things that happen to her, and her small village, as steps towards the future she wanted.

When I reached the end of Shirley’s story she had changed; what’s the point of writing if people, characters or otherwise, aren’t changed by it? But I’m still not sure if the change within her breaks my heart or reassures me. I suppose we all have to alter to grow. We can’t stay the same, and character can’t be an excuse for stagnation on the page or in real life.

Having said that, I’m still quiet and bookish. But it doesn’t worry me so much any more. It turns out that being afraid of whether life will ever give you an opportunity – whether the unique things inside of you that makes up your character will be wasted – is a big part of being young. Writing Shirley Fearn reminded me of that, and also proved to me that the thoughts are equally as important as the actions. It’s how the two relate to each other that decides the future, whatever it may be.

missives tour

INFLUENCES: Nevil Shute’s ON THE BEACH by ALIYA WHITELEY

aliya Name: ALIYA WHITELEY

Author of: THE BEAUTY (2014)

On the web: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com

On Twitter: AliyaWhiteley

If stories are a way of finding a start point and an end point in something that has no framework, then post-apocalyptic fiction promises the big full stop more than any other genre. But I’ve always thought it rarely brings itself to deliver on that promise. There’s always hope, isn’t there? The Road gives us the boy and Blindness eventually lifts the dark. The world as we know it ends, but a new one starts to emerge through the rubble; we see it poking out its shoots in the final pages of most post-apocalyptic novels.

otbWell, you don’t get that in On The Beach. First published in 1957, it’s about the last people left alive after an exchange of nuclear weapons that irradiates the planet. Winds are carrying radiation to these final survivors, in Melbourne, Australia, and they know it. It creeps a little closer on every page.

US Submarine Captain Dwight Towers meets an Australian Commander, Peter Holmes, and is invited to weekend party. Peter has a wife, Mary, and a baby girl. His wife’s friend, Moira, attends the party too, and the plot follows the four adults living out their last months without much fuss. Quiet conversations take place, and the nature of their group relationship changes.

Why is it considered less truthful to imagine that people would cling to order in such a situation? Shute’s novel, much like the science fiction novels of other writers of the 1950s such as John Wyndham and John Christopher, imagined that in catastrophic situations people organise themselves and attempt to find structure. That doesn’t seem particularly old-fashioned to me. Rules are made and roles assigned – written, spoken, or sometimes never discussed at all – and the drawn-out goodbye at the heart of On The Beach comes with good manners, maybe because that is simply easier when the adrenaline has faded.

I think my favourite moment in the novel happens between the two women, Mary and Moira. Mary is generally sheltered from life by her husband, but he has been sent away on military business. He has tried to explain to her that she might have to accept the responsibility of killing their baby girl to spare her from radiation sickness, and she has refused to listen. But as she sits with Moira, drinking brandy late into the night, she suddenly faces the situation. She asks Moira to help her kill the baby when the time comes. Moira holds her hand, and agrees. The responsibilities shift without great fanfare. Although Shute quotes TS Eliot at the beginning of the novel, it’s Yeats that I remember in their conversation. A terrible beauty is born.

When I came to write my own post-apocalyptic novella, The Beauty, it was that element I wanted to draw on – the group with no hope, but that had not given into hopelessness. The End is a concept that fascinates us all, in stories and in life, but it does not have to come in pain and fear. It can come in quiet words, in a sudden acceptance of what needs to be done and who we need to be. In On The Beach it comes with the acknowledgement that killing the baby might be the most humane thing you ever do, even as it means the end of humanity.

THE BEAUTY by Aliya Whiteley

THE BEAUTY - Aliya Whiteley THE BEAUTY

Aliya Whiteley (aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com)

Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)

£9.99

The Group have made the Valley of the Rocks their home. Each of them has a role to play: William, the leader; Ben, the doctor; Nathan, the storyteller and keeper of the Group’s history. Like every other settlement on the planet, the Group is made up exclusively of men; every single female has been wiped out by a mysterious illness. Mankind is in its final days: with no way to procreate, this is the final generation of humanity. Until one day Nathan discovers a strange fungus growing on the womens’ graves that will change everything.

We meet the members of the Group through the eyes of twenty-three-year-old Nathan, who lives up to his role as keeper of their collective memory, and the storyteller. There are no women left in the world – or at least that small part of it to which the Group are now, voluntarily, confined – and the men have begun to make peace with the fact that they are the end of the human race. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades everything they do, and yet they continue to gather, to remember, to spend the final days of humanity with some semblance of civility. When Nathan discovers the strange fungus, and later the Beauty that grows from it, things inevitably change. Here is some hope for the continuation of the race, and the Group begins to split into different factions, some with violence on their minds.

In Aliya Whiteley’s short novella, the focus is very much on the relationships and interactions between the men and the Beauty, as well as a close examination of the dynamics within the Group itself. Jealousy and fear are pitted against love and hope, with no definitive answer concerning who is right. Should the Beauty be trusted, or do they have ulterior motives? Whiteley leaves it up to the reader to decide, giving us enough information to come down on one side of the argument or the other. There are no explanations as to what happened to the Earth’s female population, or what the Beauty are or where they came from, primarily because we only get Nathan’s side of the story and, like the other members of the Group, he has no idea of the answers to either question.

The Beauty is a short piece, and all the more powerful for its brevity. Beautifully written, it’s a disturbing and though-provoking vision of one possible future for mankind. While it’s unlikely to give the reader nightmares, there is plenty here to leave us feeling more than a little uncomfortable. With hints of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Aliya Whiteley presents an old-fashioned science fiction/horror story that could easily have sprung from the imagination of the great John Wyndham, and stands alongside The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes as a fine example of the genre. This short (not quite 100 pages long) tale is enough to leave the reader wanting more, and hoping for something more substantial in the near future from Ms Whiteley.

A brief digression to talk about the package itself: The Beauty is one of the first two books from new publisher, Unsung Stories. It’s a beautiful package, from the striking front cover to the internal design, the perfect complement to an excellent story. The publisher’s aim is to get "weird stories, beautifully told" out into the world. The Beauty is an excellent start, and I will be waiting with excitement to see how they plan to follow it.

Short but deeply affecting, The Beauty is a wonderfully written piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that you won’t want to put down once you’ve picked it up. If this short sample is anything to go by, Aliya Whiteley is an exciting new talent and it’s a dead cert that we’ll be hearing much more from her in the future. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next. For now, though, this is one you won’t want to miss.

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