Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Tag

headline

THE COPPER PROMISE by Jen Williams

THE COPPER PROMISE - Jen Williams THE COPPER PROMISE

Jen Williams (sennydreadful.co.uk)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£13.99

hrpv2For the fifth title in the Hodderscape Review Project, we move into the realms of fantasy with the debut novel from Jen Williams, The Copper Promise, released this month by Headline. Don’t forget to check in to the Review Project site to find out what my fellow reviewers thought of this title.

The Citadel of Creos has stood for centuries, a remnant and constant reminder of the ancient mages, reputed to have been built as a prison for the gods. Aaron Frith, Lord of the Blackwood and last remaining member of his family, has endured hardship and torture, and now wants revenge. He believes that the secrets that lie within the Citadel will give him the power he needs to find and defeat the monsters who destroyed his family and stole his lands. Hiring Wydrin and Sir Sebastian, a pair of sell-swords, the trio head into the depths of the Citadel. In finding the power of the mages, they unwittingly release Y’Ruen, a dragon goddess, and the army of lizard-like women she has spent her centuries of imprisonment creating. Now revenge must take a back seat: Y’Ruen must by stopped before she lays the entire world of Ede to waste.

I can be a bit hard to convince when it comes to so-called “high fantasy”, the type of novels which take Tolkien as their inspiration and spend more time creating races of funny-looking people and languages to go with them than they do developing a plot outside the basic quest structure. Thankfully, Jen Williams’ debut, The Copper Promise, is nothing like that sort of book. Yes, there is an element of the quest novel here, though it is abandoned and picked up and abandoned again as the novel progresses; yes, there are strange new creatures, but it is how Williams handles them that sets this apart from the norm. The emphasis here is on the characters and how their decisions impact on the world around them, while still managing to tell a story that moves at a rollicking pace and provides the requisite amount of wit, blood and fire-breathing dragons to keep even the most sceptical of fantasy readers turning the pages as fast as they can.

At the heart of the story is the Frith family, all but young Aaron tortured to death by invaders whose sole aim is to find the location of the family’s secret vault. Left for dead, Aaron makes his way to Creos, having heard the rumours and stories about the Citadel, and hoping to gain some of the mages’ magic for himself in order to get vengeance for his murdered father and brothers. When it turns out that all of the rumours about the Citadel are true, and Frith and his hired muscle release the savage dragon-god, Y’Ruen on the world, Aaron finds himself faced with the choice between getting his revenge, or saving the world. Aaron’s companions are Wydrin, who styles herself the Copper Cat, and Sir Sebastian, a disgraced knight who was once a member of the revered order of Ynnsmouth Knights. Where Williams sets herself apart is that the majority of the development of these characters happens when they are apart. Unlike the standard quest structure of “here to here to here”, the band fractures quite early in the novel, the three individuals going their own way to seek their own adventures. This is a pattern that will repeat later in the novel, and the story feels much fresher for it, a proper examination of these unique personalities, rather than a constant trading of banter and insults.

Along with the dragon, the trio find themselves faced with an army of lizard-like women who have been created by the god during her captivity in the Citadel. These creatures have been brought to life as a result of Sebastian almost bleeding to death within the confines of the monstrous edifice. This has an unexpected side-effect, and Williams gives us some insight into this process, as members of the army gain self-awareness and develop their own unique personalities, to the point that they are choosing names for themselves.

‘I want to keep these words with me,’ said the Twelfth. She tried to gather up all the books and dropped them again.

‘Tear out the pages?’ suggested the Ninety-Seventh. The Thirty-Third frowned. Somehow she felt their father wouldn’t approve of that.

‘No,’ said the Twelfth, who apparently felt the same. ‘I will make them my name. You will call me Crocus from now on.’

This in strong counterpoint to the journey that their father, Sebastian, is taking, sinking ever deeper into darkness until the point where he swears his sword, and all the blood that it spills, to a demon, as if his daughters are sucking the humanity from him in their own bid to become more like him.

While not quite as “un-fantasy” as George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise is certainly a lot more grounded than most swords and sorcery-type fiction. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book – and one of its biggest selling points for me – is the fact that it does in a single volume what many fantasy authors might try to do over the course of three or four books (five hundred pages before the dragon makes an appearance and our heroic trio finally escape from the Citadel, for example), while still leaving us with the promise of much more to come. The characters are well-rounded, fully fleshed-out and we find ourselves wanting to know what will happen to them next – this is most prevalent when they are apart, and we find ourselves wondering if they’re likely to get back together again, or whether they will continue on separate paths for the duration.

Fast-paced and wonderfully-realised, Jen Williams’ first novel is a delight, even for one so jaded as me when it comes to fantasy fiction. An intriguing premise made more so by the neat touches Williams adds to the story – the Secret Keeper is a prime example of these – the reader will encounter pirates, dragons, zombies, gods and demons, to name but a few, on their journey through this exciting new world. Not for the faint of heart, but you probably knew that already.

SEASON TO TASTE by Natalie Young

season to taste - natalie young SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND

Natalie Young

Tinder Press (www.tinderpress.co.uk)

£12.99

She cleaned the nails with a nailbrush, rinsing in the sink; and then she brushed the skin with an oil brush to give it a good crisp. She rubbed all over the hand with olive oil and salt and then twisted the pepper grinder; and she laid his hand on a non-stick roasting tray, carefully straightening the fingers out.

And so we are introduced to the remarkable central character of this beautifully-written but often hard-to-stomach novel: murderess; cannibal; role model. After thirty years living with her husband, Lizzie Prain has had enough and so, one Monday morning when he is out in the garden, she quickly dresses, goes outside and staves his head in with a shovel. Determined that one type of incarceration will not be replaced with another, Lizzie – always practical – comes up with the perfect means of disposing of Jacob’s body: she will eat it, and then she will head to Scotland to start her life anew.

When we are introduced to Lizzie, she has already killed and dismembered her husband, and stored him, in sixteen individually wrapped and labelled packages, in the freezer in the garage. Now, free for the first time in over thirty years, we watch as this fifty-something woman adapts to life outside the shadow of her overbearing and often outright abusive husband. Stolid and practical, she has set herself an almost impossible task, and the reader is carried along as she sets about accomplishing it.

As the story progresses, and Lizzie slowly makes her way through the gruesome packages in the freezer, we learn in flashback what kind of life she has lived, how she met her husband and it becomes clear that the marriage has never been a happy one. Jacob’s overbearing personality, combined with constant jibes about Lizzie’s looks and manner, mean that this is by no means an equal partnership. And yet, on the occasions where Lizzie has walked out, she has never made it very far before returning home to the small cottage on the bend that has been their home since they met. There are moments – few and far between – of true tenderness between them, but they are constantly overshadowed by the darker times (like the time Lizzie watches, emotionless, from the kitchen window as Jacob attempts to hang himself from the tree at the end of the garden) and by the sheer mundanity of everyday life.

‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ he’d say.
‘Tea?’
‘Fuck’s sake, tea?’
‘Tea?’
‘You having tea?’

The story is driven by three distinct narratives. The first, and most prevalent, focuses on Lizzie herself and, while it isn’t told in her voice, it does give us some insight into the workings of this remarkable woman’s mind. It is in this narrative that we see the flashbacks and also Lizzie’s thoughts as she first prepares, then cooks, then eats the various pieces of her late husband. Interspersed with this are a handful of trips inside the head of Tom, the young man who lives on the farm at the end of the lane, and who works at the local garden centre. A friendship – a strange and fraught relationship – blossoms between these two central characters, interfering with Lizzie’s careful plans, and planting a seed in the mind of the reader that Jacob may not be Lizzie’s final victim. Alongside these, there are a set of notes, a numbered list of instructions and thoughts, written by Lizzie, presumably for Lizzie; there is something about them, though, that reads like a How To manual, which is presumably where the novel’s alternative title came from.

And so to the novel’s core, and the simple fact of cannibalism that drives it. Natalie Young has attempted to encapsulate the absurd premise of Season to Taste in a story that is grounded in reality and which, once you start, is almost impossible to put down. There is something surreal about the world in which we find ourselves as Young injects the unthinkable into the everyday. Like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, we come across the gruesome reality of the situation, almost unexpectedly, in he midst of the normal, the boring, the completely innocuous. As she describes the preparation of the “meat”, taking great delight in explaining Lizzie’s recipes, we find ourselves reading with a constant grimace plastered on our faces, a sick feeling deep in our stomachs that probably comes close to Lizzie’s own. And yet. And yet, Young is obviously someone who knows her way around a kitchen and enjoys the simple pleasures of preparing meals. There’s something about her descriptive power that we find ourselves salivating at the thought of the meal being prepared, despite the knowledge of what it contains. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Season to Taste is the revelation, not entirely unexpected, and mentioned only in a single throwaway line, that Lizzie is not partaking of these meals alone.

At once gripping, wholeheartedly gruesome (Young seems to revel in the fact that just when you think you’ve experienced the worst there is, there is always something more still to be eked out of this incredible scenario) and darkly comic, Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is one of the most original novels you’re likely to read, ever. With an attention to detail that is slightly scary, given the subject matter (Young has obviously done some thorough research), and the ability to make you want to simultaneously stop reading, and read faster, Natalie Young has done the unthinkable: she has taken an ordinary human being, placed her in an extraordinary situation, making her the villain of the piece in the process, and still manages to make the reader love her, root for her, want to see her succeed in her endeavours and, most importantly, get away with it. Often – and I know you’ll pardon the pun – hard to stomach, Season to Taste is like nothing you’ve ever read before, and pays dividends for those willing to stick with it and forge through the discomfort. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this year, and is guaranteed to stay with you for many years to come. I’m sure I’m not alone in being excited to see what Natalie Young has up her sleeve next; let’s just hope it doesn’t involve dinner.

The 2013 Round-Up

And so, once more, to the end of the year and the requisite retrospective of my reading habits over the past twelve months here at Reader Dad. Regular visitors and Twitter followers will know that 2013 has been a year full of ups and downs (more downs, unfortunately, than ups) for me, what with five weeks of hospitalisation, two long bouts of antibiotic treatment and the complications and endless hospital appointments that come as part and parcel of such serious illness. Of course, the ups more than make up for the downs: on May 4th my partner and I became husband in wife in a beautiful, intimate ceremony in the House at the Stone Bell on the eastern edge of Prague’s beautiful Old Town Square.

If nothing else, long months of inactivity, not to mention the clock-watching existence that comes with lying in a hospital bed, gave me plenty of time to read, though not necessarily, to my unending shame, the time or opportunity to review every book I’ve read this year. And 2013 has certainly been a bumper year for great books, so much so that I was unable to get my favourites of the year down below the twenty mark, so I’ve opted for a slightly different approach to my favourites list, as you’ll see below. But first,

THE ROUND-UP

With one week left of my reading year, I’m currently working through book number 73, a number that leaves previous years in the dust. A massive 41 of these books are by authors that I have never read before, including 20 debuts. The others are mostly old favourites (four Stephen King books, another of Richard Stark’s wonderful Parker novels, the third part of George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire and the latest massive tome from Dan Simmons, to name but a few). The list includes only five translations this year, which is a huge drop on previous years. Genre boundaries have been much more difficult to define than in previous years, but the trend towards darkness continues.

2013 saw further expansion of the blog, with a number of nice milestones achieved, including the publication of our 100th post (and, indeed, our 100th review). This year also saw a number of competitions hosted on the blog, as well as further guest posts and author interviews. It also saw the first Reader Dad quote on a book that we’ve reviewed (perhaps my proudest moment) – the paperback edition of Craig Robertson’s Cold Grave – and also my first “glossy” quote, on the back cover of Jens Lapidus’ Easy Money. Reader Dad was also invited, by the lovely people at Hodderscape, to take part in their Review Project, which has given me the chance to read (and in one notable case, re-read) some classics of the various speculative fiction genres, a chance for which I am eternally grateful.

And with that, we come to the important part: my favourite books of the year. As I mentioned before, it has been a bumper year for great books, and when I went through the list I discovered that I couldn’t get my list of favourites down below twenty, so I’ve taken a slightly different approach this year: two lists, the first my favourite debuts of the year; the second my favourite books by established authors. As always, there will be a few more than ten in each list. This year I realised that if I’m not enjoying a book I should probably not read it through to the end. As a result I have, for the first time, maintained a list of abandoned books (there were 12) and, because of this, you won’t find a “most disappointing” entry this year, because all the disappointing ones ended up on that list. The usual criteria for these lists apply: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January  and 31 December 2013. The lists are presented in reading order. Links, as always, will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP 10 DEBUTS OF 2013

LEWIS WINTER - Malcolm Mackay THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.

   
Calamity Leek - Paula Lichtarowicz THE FIRST BOOK OF CALAMITY LEEK by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

With shades of The Truman Show and Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room, Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel nevertheless manages to present a unique and fascinating scenario that could well be happening – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy – anywhere in the world right now. Populated by fully-formed and interesting characters – a feat in itself, considering the size of the cast, and the similarities between many of those characters – The First Book of Calamity Leek is presented as a story within a story that uses the vagaries of language to present the reader with the truth of the situation while never revealing it to the story’s protagonist and narrator. Wonderful writing and clever plotting mark Paula Lichtarowicz as an author to watch in coming years and The First Book of Calamity Leek as one of the finest novels of the year so far. Despite the cover, the book has broad appeal, and should not be dismissed as the chick-lit that it might, at first, appear to be. Miss this one at your cost.

   
Hobbs-Ghostman GHOSTMAN by Roger Hobbs (Doubleday)

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-cargill DREAMS AND SHADOWS by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz)

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.

   
THE ABOMINATION - Jonathan Holt THE ABOMINATION by Jonathan Holt (Head of Zeus)

One of the novels I, sadly, didn’t get around to reviewing this year is also one of my favourites. The first part of the Carnivia Trilogy, Holt shows us a dark and gruesome underside to the beautiful city of Venice and to the Catholic Church. Mixing the old world of the city with the future world of computers and virtual gaming, The Abomination presents and intriguing and enthralling mystery to the reader, and keeps it moving through the efforts of its trio of wonderful protagonists.

   
REVIVER - Seth Patrick REVIVER by Seth Patrick (Macmillan)

Crackling pace, believable science and characters worth spending some time with make Seth Patrick’s debut a must-read for fans of horror, crime, science fiction, noir. If you have ever enjoyed any of the myriad CSIs on television, or 2000AD’s Judge Anderson, then there is definitely something here for you. The ending, while wrapping up the events of the book, does leave plenty of room for a sequel, although Patrick has his work cut out for him following up Reviver. Without doubt, one of my favourite books of the year from an author whose novels are sure to become a regular feature on my bookshelves. You can’t afford to miss it.

   
The Silent Wife - ASA Harrison THE SILENT WIFE by A.S.A. Harrison (Headline)

A.S.A. Harrison sadly died shortly before the book’s UK publication. But what a legacy she has left behind in this single, wonderful novel that is sure to become a classic of the crime genre in years to come. There’s something distinctly pulp-noirish about the novel, something that would make it sit comfortably on a shelf beside Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler. Beautifully-written and surprisingly engaging, The Silent Wife is a slow-burner that deserves the time it takes to get going. For me, it’s a surprise hit, and a book that I’ll be recommending for a long time to come. It’s just a shame we’re unlikely to see anything else like it.

   
MR PENUMBRA MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

Another favourite that I failed to review, Robin Sloan’s novel is part love letter to the written word (in all its forms) and part love letter to Google. It’s a beautifully-written and intensely satisfying puzzle that should be a must-read for fans of Neal Stephenson or William Gibson.

   
PLAN D - Simon Urban PLAN D by Simon Urban [tr: Katy Derbyshire] (Harvill Secker)

Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
YOUR BROTHERS BLOOD - David Towsey YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD by David Towsey (Jo Fletcher Books)

Beautifully written, Your Brother’s Blood is literary horror at its best. David Towsey aims not for cheap scares or toe-curling gore, but for an all-pervading sense of doom that grows as we progress through the narrative. A gripping storyline and characters about whom we care (whether we want to see them live, or die slow and horrible deaths) ensure that the reader will be drawn completely into this relatively short novel. An intense and timeless tale of family and love, it is a wonderful introduction to an extremely talented new voice in genre fiction, and a great start to what promises to be a future classic.

   
gigantic-beard-that-was-evil-stephen-collins-cape-01-540x755 THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL by Stephen Collins (Jonathan Cape)

Beautifully-written, beautifully-illustrated and in a beautifully-presented package from Jonathan Cape, Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard that was Evil is a masterpiece, a work that deserves a place amongst the finest graphic novels ever produced. Don’t let the "graphic" aspect put you off this one; it’s as in-depth, intelligent and entertaining as any work of prose, and has the added benefit of making you want to go back and start again once you’ve reached the end. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

MATT’S TOP 10 NON-DEBUTS OF 2013

GUN MACHINE - Warren Ellis GUN MACHINE by Warren Ellis (Mulholland Books)

Extremely smart, very funny and intensely dark in places, Gun Machine shows that Warren Ellis is as comfortable in this form of storytelling as he is in the form for which he is better known. In some ways it’s quite depressing: this is the first book I’ve read in 2013, and I’m finding it hard to envisage a better one this year. Unlike anything else you’ve read, Gun Machine is a quick (barely 300 pages) and action-packed read that will keep you hooked from that opening line. Outlandish but very believable, it’s an excellent place to get to know this fine writer and will leave you hoping for more. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

   
THE EXPLORER - James Smythe THE EXPLORER by James Smythe (Harper Voyager)

Smythe’s second novel delivers on every level. It’s an intense and quietly horrific ride that keeps the reader hooked throughout. Literary science fiction that still manages to be cinematic in scope, The Explorer succeeds where The Testimony failed: it carries through on its early promises and presents a satisfying conclusion worthy of what has come before. Beautifully written and cleverly constructed, The Explorer establishes James Smythe as one of Britain’s best young writers. Don’t let the scifi tag deter you: what you’ll find behind that beautiful cover is a must-read for all lovers of great fiction.

   
NOS-4R211-669x1024 NOS4R2 by Joe Hill (Gollancz)

Joe Hill has been on this reader’s must-read list since discovering his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. His third novel,NOS4R2, is a genuinely frightening experience; Hill knows which buttons to press to get the reaction he wants, and takes great delight in their pressing. It is, for me, his best novel yet, the perfect combination of magical coming-of-age story and balls-to-the-wall horror-fest. You won’t look at Rolls-Royce in quite the same way again, and Charlie Manx is likely to haunt your dreams – especially if you have children of your own – for a very long time. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss it.

   
THE KILLING POOL - Kevin Sampson THE KILLING POOL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

The Killing Pool gives us a look at the unexpectedly dark underside of Liverpool through the eyes of the police and criminals that populate it. A noirish tale (Mersey Noir?), it entices the reader in with wonderful, stylish prose and engaging characters and ultimately leaves them reeling from a series of ever-more-shocking revelations. Like the drug users it portrays, it leaves us pining for more, stringing us along with the promise that this is only the first in a series of novels featuring Billy McCartney. Comparable to the aforementioned Peace and Ellroy (though with a much less abrupt writing style than either), The Killing Pool should appeal to fans of both, and to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction dark, ambiguous and surprising. Kevin Sampson has, quite simply, nailed it, producing if not the best, then certainly the most original piece of crime fiction so far this year.

   
Red Moon - Benjamin Percy RED MOON by Benjamin Percy (Hodder & Stoughton)

In some ways, what Percy has set out to do for werewolves feels a bit like what Justin Cronin did a few years back for vampires. What he has accomplished is a fine addition to the genre, a novel that breathes new life into an old trope and makes us want to immerse ourselves in this new world. Despite the budding romance between the two central characters, there are no sparkles here, nothing to interest the Twilight crowd. A modern-day parable (though I’ll be damned if I can work out what the moral is), this beautifully-written and captivating novel deserves a place on the shelves of anyone who calls themselves a fan of horror. We can only hope that the wide-open ending bodes well for further volumes in the series.

   
THE SHINING GIRLS - Lauren Beukes THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)

Best known in certain circles for her niche novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes finally stretches her wings for what should be her breakout work. The result is one of the best novels you’re likely to read this year, in any genre. Careful plotting combined with pitch-perfect characterisation, edge-of-the-seat tension and the feeling that anything could happen next (or, in fact, may well have happened already) combine to keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime, or their bus stop, or…well, you get the idea. The Shining Girls has been one of my most anticipated novels of the year so far. It’s definitely one that has been worth the wait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
JOYLAND - Stephen King JOYLAND by Stephen King (Titan Books / Hard Case Crime)

Love lost, love found, friendships forged. Ghosts and murdered girls.The carnival atmosphere of amusement parks in the summer. Many of these are not what we expect from Hard Case Crime. Many of them we don’t even expect from Stephen King. What Joyland is, then, is sheer delight, a slim but beautiful novel from one of the – if not the – greatest writers of his generation, and an unexpected treasure in a body of work spanning almost four decades. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: no-one tells a story quite like Stephen King. Joyland should be top of your list of must-read books this year.

   
DOCTOR SLEEP - Stephen King DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Late last week I found myself wondering how to sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written. This week, I discover that my job was easy when compared to the question how do you follow one of the greatest horror novels ever written?  With books like this, especially when the original is such a well-known and well-loved piece of work, there is always the potential for disaster. Far from that, Doctor Sleep is the perfect follow-up to the story that began with Jack Torrance’s interview for the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is the perfect complement to The Shining, expanding the legend that King created back in 1977, and adding a host of new ideas to the mix. In answering the question of what Danny Torrance is up to now, King has finally completed the wider story of the Torrance family that The Shining, to a certain degree, left hanging, and has gone some way towards laying to rest the restive ghost of Jack Torrance through the actions of his son (for if the son bears the sins of the father, surely any reparations made should be paid backwards). Do you need to read (or re-read, for that matter) The Shining before you start in on Doctor Sleep? Technically, no. King has crafted a novel that stands well in its own right, giving brief glimpses into the events at the Overlook when required. But, as with all these things, going into Doctor Sleep with the story of Jack’s descent into madness fresh in your mind adds an extra level of enjoyment to the story. In either case, Doctor Sleep is a must-read and should prove, in particular, a comfortable re-start point for fans who may not have been keeping up with the author’s recent output. One of my books of the year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
THE VIOLENT CENTURY - Lavie Tidhar THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!

   
The Abominable - Dan Simmons THE ABOMINABLE by Dan Simmons (Sphere)

Part historical fact, part thrilling boys’ adventure tale, Dan Simmons’ latest novel takes us to the top of the world, and keeps us on the edge of our seats for the whole journey. Cold and atmospheric, peopled with the type of characters that you want to spend as much time with as possible, The Abominable is an intelligent thrill-ride of epic proportions. The perfect companion piece to Simmons’ 2007 novel, The Terror, it serves to remind the reader of one important fact: regardless of genre – and he’s tried quite a few – Dan Simmons is still one of the finest purveyors of fiction living today. If you’ve yet to try his work, this is the perfect starting place.

   
saveyourselfkellybraffet SAVE YOURSELF by Kelly Braffet (Corvus)

Beautiful and elegant, Save Yourself is one of the darkest books I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. Braffet is a skilled writer who manages to draw the reader into her world without ever showing her full hand. It builds slowly to a shocking climax that, despite the inherent faults of the people involved, still manages to touch us, and gives us plenty of food for thought. This is one of this year’s quiet winners, a book that seems to be huge across the Atlantic but which has yet to find its audience here in the UK. It’s only a matter of time. Kelly Braffet, rising star, is definitely one to watch for the future and, if you haven’t read it yet, Save Yourself should be on your list of books to read in the New Year.

   
OCEAN - GAiman

Language_of_Dying1-637x1024

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman (Headline)

THE LANGUAGE OF DYING  by Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)

Bundled together purely because I haven’t gotten around to writing reviews for them yet (expect them to appear at some point over the Christmas break), these books deserve all your attention. Beautiful and touching in their own ways, they’ll transport you from your everyday to somewhere new, though not necessarily better.

COMING SOON…

Stay tuned in 2014 for the usual mix of reviews, interviews and guest posts. Based on the books already piling up for January – March publication, it’s going to be a stellar year, with the final part of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy (The Sudden Arrival of Violence) and James Smythe’s follow-up to The Explorer (The Echo) two of the most notable books in that period, and at least one new Stephen King novel later in the year.

Thanks, as always, to the wonderful publishers and publicists who keep me stocked up with books (I could name them all, but this post has probably gone on long enough as it is; they all know who they are); to the fantastic authors who provide the reading material as well as the time and creative energy required to answer interview questions or write guest posts; and, most importantly, the visitors who keep coming back for more. Without you, I’d just be talking to myself, so it’s always good to have an audience. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2014.

THE STRING DIARIES by Stephen Lloyd Jones

THE STRING DIARIES - Stephen Lloyd Jones THE STRING DIARIES

Stephen Lloyd Jones (www.stephenlloydjones.com)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£14.99

In 1979 Charles Meredith meets Nicole Dubois, a Frenchwoman on the run from what he at first takes to be a fantasy: a man over 100 years old that Nicole claims has been hunting her family for most of the past century, a man with the uncanny ability to take on the form and mannerisms of anyone, thus insinuating himself into the lives of those he hunts. As Charles reads the evidence – a stack of old notebooks bound together with string that form the diaries of Nicole’s ancestors – he becomes less convinced that this is fantasy. Almost thirty-five years later, Hannah Wilde, Charles and Nicole’s only daughter, arrives at a remote house in the wilds of Snowdonia with her seriously injured husband and her own nine-year-old daughter. The hunter has found them, and Hannah no longer knows who she can trust. With the words of the string diaries her only guidance, Hannah sets out to save her family and hopefully destroy the monster that is chasing them in the process.

When Stephen Lloyd Jones’ debut novel opens, we find ourselves thrown immediately into the middle of the action. Hannah Wilde in on the run, her husband badly injured and bleeding to death on the seat next to her, and her young daughter asleep in the back of the car. At this point, we know nothing about what is going on, or why Hannah is fleeing for her life. As the novel progresses, and we learn of the history of Hannah’s family – Charles Meredith and Nicole Dubois most recently, and the generations whose histories are recorded in the string-bound diaries – we discover that what is chasing Hannah and her family is something very sinister indeed.

It is early in the novel when we realise that this is not your average “thriller”, but something of a more supernatural bent. The main protagonist, Balázs Lukács, is hosszú életek, a member of an ancient race of shapeshifters who have lived peacefully alongside humanity – and with the blessing of the kings and leaders of Europe – for many years. Lukács is different, deformed in a way only recognisable by other members of his race; he is shunned during the courtship rituals, and sets out on his own, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Stripped of his name and status, he is now known only as Jakab, and so begins his obsession with the women who have come before Hannah Wilde.

The story is an intriguing one, made more so by the characters that inhabit it, and the mythology that surrounds it. Jumping between different time periods – from present day, to the late ‘70s and early 80s, to Hungary at the tail end of the nineteenth century – Jones’ narrative structure is designed to only give us the information we need when it becomes important to the story. In this way, he keeps us turning pages, always eager to find out what is happening with each of the various plots’ central characters. The idea of the diaries themselves is inspired – a written history of the persecution of generations of a single family by a man who is clearly mad – and the author uses them to examine how history affects the lives of those forced to relive it. Perhaps the story’s biggest hook is the concept of validation. The fact that Jakab can take any form he wishes, down to the person’s voice and mannerisms, means that the only way these characters have of knowing to whom they’re speaking is through the process of validation: asking personal questions to which Jakab is unlikely to know the answer. It adds an extra dimension of uncertainty, leaving the reader unsure of who to trust, instilling a sense of frustration when characters forget to follow the rules, keeping the reader in the dark as much as possible.

The central plot leads, ultimately, to the inevitable showdown, but Jones manages to keep a few surprises up his sleeve. The final twist may be a twist too far for this reader; surprising though it is, it seems like a much too easy way to wrap up such a complex storyline. But it doesn’t detract from everything that goes before, which is a solidly-plotted tale in the vein of Tim Lebbon or Simon Clark.

Short on outright scares, The String Diaries fits neatly into the supernatural thriller genre, where the emphasis is on thriller, and the supernatural elements are designed more to drive the story than frighten the reader. Fast-paced and gripping, the biggest selling point of Stephen Lloyd Jones’ first novel is its original concept. Couple that with engaging characters, a well-founded history and a trip around Europe like you’ve never seen before, and you’re onto a winning formula. Thankfully, despite the vibe that the cover might give off, there is nothing special about the diaries of the title: they don’t hold the secret to life eternal, or the identity of the thirteenth Apostle. They’re not, in short, the goal of some mythical quest. They’re a set of old notebooks held together with a piece of string. The story they contain, much like the story Jones presents here, is pure gold.

THE SILENT WIFE by A.S.A. Harrison

The Silent Wife - ASA Harrison THE SILENT WIFE

A.S.A. Harrison (asaharrison.com)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£12.99

Jodi and Todd have been together for over 20 years. Todd, a self-made man, is prone to dalliance while Jodi, a part-time psychologist, has always been happy to turn a blind eye in order to maintain the status quo. This time, things are different. This time the young woman with whom Todd has been sleeping is pregnant and the consequences of this affair will be far-ranging and, ultimately, devastating to Jodi and Todd’s relationship. While Todd feels trapped, Jodi slowly comes to the realisation that, of everyone involved, she – the common-law wife – is the only person with anything to lose.

Told in alternate chapters from the point of view of Jodi and Todd, The Silent Wife is a perfect example of the slow build leading to a worthwhile and, frankly, beautifully-planned climax. As the novel opens we meet a couple who have obviously lived together for a long time. They’re not a particularly touchy-feely couple, and the relationship seems more companionable than loving. This is helped by Harrison’s approach to telling the story: the language is restrained, somehow formal, reflecting the life of privilege that these two people have been fortunate enough to live until now.

She likes things orderly and predictable and feels secure when her time is mapped out in advance. It’s a pleasure to flip through her daybook and see what she has to look forward to: spa visits, hair appointments, medical checkups, Pilates sessions…Evenings, when she isn’t cooking for Todd, she has dinner with friends. And then there are the two extended vacations – one in summer and one in winter – that she and Todd always enjoy together.

As the story progresses, and the crevasse between them grows, we begin to see the inner workings of the minds of Jodi and Todd. The latter is something of a stereotype: a wealthy man who likes to play away from home while believing that his wife will never suspect and, if she does, will be easily placated with something shiny and expensive. Jodi, on the other hand, is a much more complex character and, unsurprisingly, a much more unstable one. There are secrets buried in Jodi’s past, secrets that she has hidden from herself as well as those around her. As a result, she is a woman who lives in denial, who is willing to accept her husband for what he is simply because it is easier than the inevitable confrontation. This side of her character becomes more and more apparent as events progress until Jodi’s safe little world effectively shatters around her.

As the relationship grows more acrimonious, it becomes clear that both parties are playing games that don’t always have the result they might have wished for. Jodi is getting one message from Todd when she speaks to him directly, but a completely different message from Todd’s solicitor. The fact that they have never married may have dire consequences for Jodi’s future, consequences that never occurred to her when she made the decision years previously, but which Todd’s legal team are more than happy to exploit. Todd, meanwhile, breaks the stereotype mould and reveals himself as a man conflicted. On the one hand, here is this woman with whom he has spent the last twenty years of his life and with whom he believes himself still to be in love. On the other, a much younger woman who is bearing his child and who is turning out to be not quite as perfect as she seemed when he didn’t have to live with her. His heart is pulling him in one direction while his need for an heir is pulling in another.

The novel moves slowly towards an inevitable climax, the pressure on Jodi building until she has no other choice. How Harrison handles this is terrific. Narrated in the same stilted and slow voice, the long-awaited scenes of violence are all the more chilling. There’s a perfectly-executed note of ambiguity introduced here, an extra kick for the reader, leaving us to make up our own minds as to what has happened, and why. It’s a masterfully-written sequence that relies on seeds planted almost from page one.

The Silent Wife isn’t really my usual fare. It’s a crime novel that takes forever to get to the actual crime, and what leads up to it sounds like it should be behind a jacket covered in pink hearts and gold rings. Far from it. This is the story of the slow disintegration of a long-standing relationship, the inter-character dynamics that drive it down the path it follows and the shocking consequences that can result from the simplest – or stupidest – of mistakes. Jodi and Todd are cut from the same cloth as the Lohmans from Herman Koch’s The Dinner or the Longstreets from Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and find themselves in a situation that is as realistic yet startlingly unbelievable as those other two fine works. Harrison’s skill is in keeping her characters in check, keeping events grounded, and presenting a coherent and believable story that still has the power to surprise and shock the reader.

A.S.A. Harrison sadly died shortly before the book’s UK publication. But what a legacy she has left behind in this single, wonderful novel that is sure to become a classic of the crime genre in years to come. There’s something distinctly pulp-noirish about the novel, something that would make it sit comfortably on a shelf beside Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler. Beautifully-written and surprisingly engaging, The Silent Wife is a slow-burner that deserves the time it takes to get going. For me, it’s a surprise hit, and a book that I’ll be recommending for a long time to come. It’s just a shame we’re unlikely to see anything else like it.

COMPETITION: Win a Copy of THE SILENT WIFE by A.S.A. Harrison

The Silent Wife - ASA Harrison  

Thanks to those lovely people at Headline, we are celebrating the recent release of A.S.A. Harrison’s debut novel, The Silent Wife, by giving away a copy to one lucky Reader Dad visitor. This competition is open to UK visitors only.

To be in with a chance of winning a copy of this brilliant novel, all you have to do is prove you’re human: post a comment below before midnight (GMT) on Sunday 14th July. One winner will be drawn at random on Monday 15th July, and will be contacted shortly thereafter to arrange delivery.

Thanks, as always, for visiting. Best of luck!

GUEST POST: Falling Between the Genre Cracks by MYKE COLE

Myke Cole Name: MYKE COLE

Author of: CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS 1) (2012)
                 FORTRESS FRONTIER (SHADOW OPS 2) (2013)

On the web: mykecole.com

On Twitter: @MykeCole

To celebrate the publication of his second novel, and the second book in his Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, I am very pleased to welcome Myke Cole back to Reader Dad. This time around, Myke discusses genre, and how his work fits – or doesn’t – inside the conventional boxes that people use to categorise fiction. My own review of Fortress Frontier will be live soon, so be sure to check back to see what I thought. In the meantime, I’ll hand over to Myke Cole.

FortressFrontier_PBB_FINALWith the SHADOW OPS series, I’m sometimes accused of creating my own subgenre. It’s a hard military story! It’s high fantasy a la Tolkien! It’s a comic book superhero tale! At cons, I’m constantly put on military science-fiction panels.

People like their boxes. Sales people like them because it helps them to target specific audience segments. Retailers like them because they help them organize their wares. Demographers like them, because they help them categorize data that they feed to said sales folks and retailers. This gets expressed in the marketplace, and folks pick up on it. Urban fantasy appeals primarily to this audience, epic fantasy to that one. We get what is commonly called our "consumer culture."

This is good to the extent that it sells books. Believe me, writers love to sell books. But it’s not so good when you’re trying to wrap your head around your work.

Here’s the truth: I have worked either in or around the military for my entire professional life. I was raised on Tolkien novels and yearlong D&D campaigns. My mom told me from an early age that our family produced men of letters, and that I shouldn’t waste my time with math and science. 9/11 changed me, as it changed the whole world.

All of these things were boxes not so different from the ones the sales folks and retailers are using. They’re the frames I use to break my experience into bite-sized chunks that I can actually explain to someone. Nobody can truly share the totality of life with another person, the best we can do is say, “this is like that.”

In writing the SHADOW OPS series, I didn’t set out to fit into any sub-genre. I certainly didn’t set out to create one. I grew up reading fantasy stories and decided I wanted to tell one. I drew on the experiences in my life, in the military, as a gaming and fantasy nerd. I tried to figure out a way I could relate them to an audience, really make them thrum and resonate with all of the emotion and drama they held for me.

And I found that I couldn’t. So I used boxes. It made it easier.

And in the end, my boxes fit into other boxes. Publishers and retailers and reviewers boiled all of that down into three words: “Contemporary Military Fantasy.”

That’s limiting. In my more prima donna artist moments, I rail against it.

But the truth is, it helps. And that means my story reaches more people.

I’ll take it.

CONTROL POINT by Myke Cole

Control-Point CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS: Book One)

Myke Cole (mykecole.com)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£7.99

In the aftermath of the Great Reawakening, the world is a different place. Magic has returned, and people across the globe are turning up Latent, Manifesting in any one of a handful of schools of magic. Those who Manifest in the legal schools (Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, Aeromancy, Physiomancy) have the option of joining the Supernatural Operations Corps, and using their newfound skills for the good of mankind. Those who run – Selfers – are considered dangerous criminals, and eliminated accordingly. Those who Manifest in one of the Prohibited schools – Probes – don’t have the same luxury; their skills are much more rare, but much more dangerous, and they are dealt with quickly. Lieutenant Oscar Britton is a Marine helicopter pilot assigned to a team whose job is to provide support to SOC when dealing with Selfers or Probes; he’s well aware of the consequences, so when he Manifests in one of the Prohibited schools – Oscar has the ability to open doors to another dimension – he runs. Hunted down and captured, he discovers that the rumours of a secret training base are true: Oscar finds himself enrolled as a contractor and dropped into the middle of a secret war in a different world.

Myke Cole sets the tone of Control Point – his first novel, and the start of his Shadow Ops series – very early on. The action starts almost from the first page, and the story progresses through a series of action-packed – and, often, breath-taking – set-pieces to an arbitrary point that acts as the end of the book (think of the final sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, which is less an ending, and more a quick breath between two action-packed chapters of a larger story). When we first meet Oscar Britton, he is flying into action as part of a team tasked with bringing down a pair of Selfers. Britton is a career army man, but the actions of the SOC and the necessity of their mission – namely the murder of two teenagers – play on his conscience and he finds himself questioning his loyalties. This is a theme that runs throughout the book and, while some of his interior monologue comes across as decidedly whiny, it gives the reader a reason to root for Oscar – he’s a man of principles, the man we hope we would be, should we find ourselves in the same situation.

Unusually for this type of fast-paced action story, Control Point comes with a vast amount of backstory, drip-fed to the reader through chapter headers and conversations between characters. It’s here that we learn about the disaster at the Lincoln Memorial that led to the current controls on magic, about the Native American insurgency that forms a background to much of the story and about the different schools of magic, and the controls enforced on them. On top of this backstory, Cole has created an alternate dimension – the Source – and a race of beings – the Goblins – that inhabit it, and it is here that much of the novel’s action takes place. The marriage of magic and state-of-the-art military technology works well, and adds a layer of realism that might otherwise have been missing. As with Marvel’s X-Men or Samit Basu’s Turbulence, Cole also examines the relationship between these new magical post-humans and the rest of the human race, and we find similar themes coming through: distrust, fear, power-hunger.

Control Point is what it is: a scene-setter, the first part of a much larger work that promises to be the very best of military fantasy. As Oscar completes his training, we move from one fight scenario to another, each one designed to show not only what Oscar is capable of, but also the capabilities of his colleagues and his enemies. At times it feels slightly disjointed, like these are individual short stories whose only common denominator is the characters that populate them, but it is the most effective way to show us what we need to know for the coming instalments of the series. “Show, don’t tell” is advice often given to writers, and Cole does just that, giving us everything we need without slowing the pace or interrupting the flow of the story.

Smart, funny and packed to the endpapers with action, Control Point is a fast, fun read that sets up what promises to be an exciting new series. Myke Cole has written a first novel that finds the perfect balance between action and story, and filled it with characters compelling enough to make us want to learn more about them. The ending-that-isn’t is the perfect stopping point, and the perfect ploy: there is more to come, and anyone who has read this far is unlikely to want to miss it. A blend of military, fantasy and science fiction, Control Point and the Shadow Ops series will have broad appeal, making Myke Cole one to watch.

PURE by Julianna Baggott

PURE - Julianna Baggott PURE

Julianna Baggott (www.juliannabaggott.com)

Headline Books (www.headline.co.uk)

£14.99

As a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, I am always excited to see what new worlds can spring forth from the minds of writers whose contemplations all start at the same point: what if the world as we know it ended? In Pure, Julianna Baggott gives us a vision of a post-nuclear world where the survivors are split into two groups: within the sealed Dome, the Pure, a group of carefully selected people and their offspring who have survived the nine-year period completely unscathed, and unaffected by the Detonations; outside the Dome, the scarred and mutated wretches, who wait for the day when the Dome will open, and their brethren will come to their aid.

Partridge Willux, a Pure, is convinced that his mother – who stayed behind to save others while the rest of her family escaped to the safety of the Dome – is still alive. He flees to the outside world, where he meets Pressia Belze, a sixteen-year-old girl who is on the run from the local militia. Along with the revolutionary, Bradwell, they set off in search of Partridge’s mother, through a wasteland that is as hostile to the natives as it is to the newcomer. And behind everything lies the Dome, whose leaders are less benevolent than most people think.

Baggott quickly introduces us to her world by effectively throwing us in at the deep end. Outside the Dome, the people are badly scarred and bear sometimes horrific mutations caused, we learn, from nanotechnology used in the bombs, designed to make the victims fuse with the world around them. We quickly discover that even within the wider group of wretches, there are plenty of sub-castes: people like Pressia, her hand replaced with the head of the doll she was holding during the Detonations, or Bradwell fused with the handful of birds that were nearby; the Groupies, people fused with others, becoming a single entity; the Dusts, fused with the ground around them and attacking anyone who walks too close. The ever-present ash covers everything, making this a dull and dirty world where just making it through another day is cause for celebration.

Meanwhile, within the Dome, we find a different picture: here there are no scars, and no mutations. Boys are trained in the Academy, and receive “coding” – physical and mental enhancements designed to prepare them for the inevitable day when they will retain control of the world that has been cleansed for them. Here is a sterile world, where individual thought is frowned upon and anyone not toeing the party line ends up in rehabilitation centres, their rights removed.

There is, as you might expect from the first book in a trilogy of this kind, a lot of world-building in Pure. But there are very personal stories at its heart, and it’s easy to engage with the three central characters, all damaged to a greater or lesser degree and all searching for something – a parent, an identity, acceptance. Baggott handles these intimate stories with tenderness and more than a little (often black) humour, while never losing sight of that bigger picture, or letting the reader forget just how messed up this new world is. The deformities of the people we meet on this journey are often grotesque (Pressia and Bradwell are two of the luckier specimens) but Baggott somehow prevents it from ever becoming comic or unconvincing; it’s a difficult trick to achieve when creating a grotesquery on this sort of scale.

There is a darker side to the novel, too; some shocks and scares that will prevent you getting too comfortable as you read. Post-apocalyptic fiction generally straddles the boundary between science fiction and horror. Pure is more of the former, but with enough of a sprinkling of the latter to make it interesting. This is a brutal and violent world, and Baggott does not shy away from this fact in her writing.

Pure has received glowing advance praise, and I will freely admit that it was the comparison to Justin Cronin’s The Passage that finally sold it to me. It’s an intelligent and entertaining piece that certainly deserves the comparison. It’s closer in tone and setting to Robert McCammon’s Swan Song and certainly no less well-written than that classic of the genre (second, for me, only to King’s The Stand). Personally, the interest now lies in finding out if Baggott can maintain this quality – and the fine balance between believability and self-caricature – over the course of the next two books in the series. Regardless, Pure works well as a standalone novel that is sure to become, along with The Passage, the benchmark against which all modern post-apocalyptic fiction is measured. It’s a must-read for fans of the genre, or anyone looking to see how much more the genre has to offer than the myriad zombie-filled satires that currently fill the horror section of our local bookshops.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑