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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.

‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King

'SALEM'S LOT - Stephen King ‘SALEM’S LOT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£9.99

This review/essay originally appeared as part of the King For A Year project, and appears here in its original form, by permission.

…the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.

Like many people of my generation – I was born about two months after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot – my first exposure to Stephen King’s vampire story was through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 mini-series adaptation, a series that still, almost forty years later, gives me the willies when I happen upon it while channel-surfing. I first read the book in my early teens, and have read it maybe half a dozen times since, and I am happy to report that it is still as fresh – and as bone-chillingly frightening – as it was that first time.

Late summer 1975: Benjaman Mears, a successful author recently widowed in a terrible accident, has returned to the Southern Maine town where he grew up to write a new novel. ‘Salem’s Lot, a town of some 1300 souls, hasn’t changed much in the almost thirty years of his absence, but that won’t be the case for long. Ben meets Susan in the town’s park – she is reading his book – and love blossoms quickly. But the disappearance of a young boy – Ralphie Glick – and the sudden death of his older brother, Danny, plunge the town into a unique kind of hell, and as the body count grows, Ben and Susan find themselves aligned with a small group of like-minded people – high-school teacher Matt Burke, Doctor Jimmy Cody, Father Donald Callaghan and young Mark Petrie – who are convinced that the town has fallen victim to a vampire, one of the new residents of the storied Marsten House which looms over the town from its high perch.

Like many of King’s earlier novels, ‘Salem’s Lot seems to have entered the global consciousness as a kind of byword for vampire infestation. Even those of us who haven’t read the book have probably seen David Soul’s turn as Ben Mears and James Mason’s masterful Straker, and have some idea of the direction the story takes. The book is a slow-moving, atmospheric behemoth, very different from King’s previous – first – novel, the slimline and spare Carrie.

The story unfolds over the course of September and early October 1975, beginning with the arrival of Ben and the mysterious new residents of the old Marsten House. Told from multiple viewpoints, this is King doing what he has always done best: the dynamics of small-town America, the relationships and petty intrigues that define every small town not just in America, but across the developed world. The town has a long and sometimes unsavoury history, and King spends time building the bigger picture – the great fire of 1951; the tragedy that surrounded Hubie Marsten and his family – the deviation from the main storyline to touch on this history, and to do a “flyover” of the town, are devices designed to put the reader in the centre of the action, in ‘Salem’s Lot itself.

When the horror begins, it comes as a shock, and the early targets of Messrs Barlow and Straker are designed to hit the reader hardest: Irwin Purinton’s dog hung from the town cemetery’s gates; the disappearance of young Ralphie Glick closely followed by the death of his older brother Danny. King’s strength here is in the power of suggestion: very little of the horror happens within the pages of the novel, and is often left to the imagination of the reader; subtle noises from the next room, or the slow pan of the metaphorical camera away from the action at the critical moment are used to astounding effect, forcing the reader to create the scene in their own head, and come to their own conclusions.

There are scenes that stick with the reader (and, to be honest, many of them play over in my own head as the corresponding scenes from the television series): the delivery of the large crate (presumably containing Barlow in his coffin) to the Marsten House by Hank Peters and Royal Snow, a beautifully-constructed piece of suspense that sums up much of the book in its cold-sweat inducing narrative, and the closing exchange between the two protagonists.

“What was down there?” Royal asked. “What did you see?”

“Nothin’,” Hank Peters said, and the word came out in sections divided by his clicking teeth. “I didn’t see nothin’ and I never want to see it again.”

The other image is that of young Danny Glick knocking on Mark Petrie’s bedroom window, a scene made all the more frightening by the seeming innocence of the source of evil. Given the choice between Barlow and Danny Glick, this reader would run screaming to the ancient creature that started it all.

King uses the story to examine the question of faith, and the symbols that we use to show our religious affiliations. Without straying from the accepted lore – sunlight, crucifix, garlic, holy water – the author uses Matt Burke and Jimmy Cody to provide logical explanations for these weapons against the vampire and, famously, Donald Callaghan to examine the difference between the religious symbol and the power that it possesses. What makes ‘Salem’s Lot special, makes it one of the defining works of modern vampire fiction, is its grounding in reality, the characters’ understanding that what is happening is ridiculous, unreal, something that should not happen to normal people in the normal world.

“…If you’re locked up, that will serve his purpose well. And if you haven’t considered it, you might do well to consider it now: There is every possibility that some of us or all of us may live and triumph only to stand trial for murder.”

It’s easy to say now that ‘Salem’s Lot is a classic of the genre, one of perhaps three books that epitomise the modern vampire novel (to my mind George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst come a close second and third), but take a moment to consider: ‘Salem’s Lot is the sophomore effort of a young writer who was, as yet, unproven beyond that slim first novel. Already there are signs of the writer King will become, many of the recurring themes in his work beginning in this blood-curdling masterpiece. And if it didn’t exist in the shadow of the great Dark Tower when it was first published in 1975, King made sure to bring it into the fold by re-introducing Donald Callaghan into his world over 25 years after the book’s publication.

In large part, I feel I’m preaching to the choir, but there are many who will have absorbed the basic points of ‘Salem’s Lot through some strange form of osmosis, and “know” it in much the same way that they “know” Dracula or Frankenstein without ever having read the original work. There is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than that creepy kid at the bedroom window, or the shuffling noises coming from the back of the truck; there is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than an ancient vampire and the havoc he wreaks on a small New England town. This is one of the finest works in King’s forty-year career, a book to be savoured again and again, safe in the knowledge that you will take something new away on each reading. And, in case you’re wondering: nothing sparkles here; this is horror fiction as it should be: dark, atmospheric and, best of all, frightening.

END OF WATCH by Stephen King

END OF WATCH - Stephen King END OF WATCH

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

It has been almost seven years since the City Center Massacre, that fateful April morning when Brady Hartfield drove a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting to attend a job fair in the heartland of recession-struck America. When a worrying trend develops for survivors of that terrible tragedy to commit suicide, Pete Huntley – a police detective on the verge of retirement, and saddled with a partner harbouring grand ambitions – calls his old partner, Bill Hodges, and asks him to take a look. Hodges has long been convinced that he wasn’t finished with Brady Hartfield and is immediately convinced that Mr Mercedes is behind this latest series of deaths. The only problem is that Brady Hartsfield has been residing in Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic for six years, unresponsive and unlikely to recover.

It is a little under two years since the publication of Stephen King’s first Bill Hodges novel, Mr Mercedes, but this third visit to the retired detective and his friends feels like we are returning to visit an old and well-loved friend, perhaps for the final time. Bill, now approaching seventy and suffering from aches and pains that his younger self might have shrugged off – when the book opens, we meet Bill in the waiting room of his doctor’s surgery – is still running investigation firm Finders Keepers along with Holly Gibney, whom he met as a direct result of the events of that long-ago April morning. While his regular visits to Brady Hartfield’s hospital room stopped over six months before, his conviction that the man has been in some way faking is still as strong as ever, so that when his old partner calls his first thought is that Brady has somehow been responsible for the deaths of these people, people who survived his first attempt to kill them outside the City Center Job Fair.

King laid much of the groundwork for this final instalment in the trilogy’s middle chapter, Finders Keepers, when he introduced the reader to the possibility of Brady having telekinetic powers. This is developed further as End of Watch proceeds, and we learn that the ability to move objects with his mind might be the least of the abilities that Brady has gained since his encounter with Hodges’ “Happy Slapper”, in a move that takes us out of the realms of straight crime and back into the world of the unknown that we, as Stephen King readers, have come to know so well over the years. The presence of the Zappit, an out-dated gaming tablet with a decidedly hypnotic demo screen, in the possession of each of the suicides is the final connection that convinces Hodges that he is right in his suspicions, and leaves him with the question of how to prove such an outlandish theory.

End of Watch brings the story of Bill Hodges and Brady Hartfield full circle, pitting them against each other once again in an old-fashioned battle of good against evil. The intervening years have been less than kind to both men, so that the outcome is uncertain even as the novel approaches its final climactic scenes. It continues the theme of obsession that has run through the entire series, as each man seems out to get the other at the exclusion of all else. What sets them apart, what makes one good and one evil, seems to come down to how they interact with other people: Bill loves his two friends, Holly and Jerome, and is loved dearly by them in return; Brady, meanwhile, uses the people around him to get what he needs and discards them like ragdolls when he is finished. As always, the strength of King’s novels lies in his unparalleled ability to create characters with whom we can identify, and who become living, breathing entities as the story progresses; End of Watch, and the entire Bill Hodges Trilogy, is no exception.

King places strong emphasis on suicide throughout the novel, and even highlights its presence in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Suicide has played a part in Brady Hartfield’s adventures before: his original plan was to convince Hodges to end his own life shortly after the detective retired. End of Watch takes a look at his strange ability to be able to read people and to get under their skin, to prod them gently in the direction of their own demise by their own hand. Given his current vegetative state, it’s an interesting solution to the problem of how Brady can take his revenge and continue his killing spree. In a world where suicide rates are high as a result of bullying and its more modern cousin, cyber bullying, it is at once instantly believable and frightening in the very real sense of the word.

With End of Watch King also examines old age, and the betrayal it brings with it. We never knew Bill Hodges as a young man, though the many ways in which his body have begun letting him down as he approaches seventy drive home for us the fact that he is well advanced in years and that, despite fighting on the side of good for at least as long as we’ve known him, he is facing an inevitability that will come to us all should we live that long. There is a feeling that King is writing from a position of experience, and the reader can’t help but wonder if it’s a means for the author to examine – and to begin to come to terms with – his own mortality.

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.

An Interview with MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

blakstad Name: MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

Author of: SOCKPUPPET (2016)

On the web: www.matthewblakstad.com

On Twitter: @mattblak

Matthew Blakstad’s first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had roles in TV dramas on the BBC and ITV, in films and at theatres including the Royal Court. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications, consulting for a range of clients from the BBC to major banks. Since 2008, he has been in public service, using his communication skills to help people understand and manage their money.

He is a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and a member of the Crime Writers Association and The Prime Writers.

Thank you, Matthew, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure!

The central storyline of Sockpuppet might have been ripped from the headlines: the theft of personal data; incompetence and cover-your-ass mentality of government organisations. Let’s talk about the book’s origins – what was the seed, and did the finished product in any way resemble your original vision?

It’s true – life has been showing a worrying tendency to replicate events from my book. Microsoft’s chatbots going rogue, the government launching its digital ID service – even a political scandal called #piggate! Of course a lot of that is just fluke but I think it also reflects the fact that Sockpuppet is based on a lot of research. The scandal that engulfs my government minister, Bethany Lehrer, is based on any number of recent examples.

But the roots of the book go a lot further back for me. Its earliest incarnation came in 2001, when I tried to write a novel about the dot com crash. But like many newbie writers, I was trying too hard to put across all my (I thought) brilliant ideas. Good novels don‘t start that way. They begin and end with character and conflict. So that first book was pretty bad and it’s now consigned to a drawer. Still, elements of it have found their way into Sockpuppet – not least one of the central characters, maverick hacker Dani Farr.

The idea for Sockpuppet proper came some years later, when I heard about a friend of a friend who was trying to build himself a fake identity, by leaving a false data trail across websites, phone records and credit card transactions. I was fascinated by this idea of carving out a new identity from data alone; and that became the seed of the novel. The story fell into place very quickly after that. Although I’ve honed and tightened it a lot since that first draft, it was already pretty much the book it is today.

The book deals very heavily with the concept of “identity”, both on the macroscopic scale – the theft of personal data of millions of people – and on the microscopic, or more personal, level – Dani Farr’s media gauntlet and the many different versions of her that seem to exist – and also dabbles with the concept of machine intelligence, programmed “personalities” designed to beat the Turing Test. It’s a storyline based on solid fact and you’ve built a lot of detail into the narrative. Tell us about your research approach: where did you start? Did the story evolve as you found more information?

My research process is pretty simple: I read voraciously and I talk to lots of people who know more about the subject than I do. I’m a bit of a magpie, picking up information here, there and everywhere. When you’re writing about contemporary tech, you can’t only rely on books, because they’re produced on a time lag of at least a year and the information in them stales quickly; so I glean a lot from blogs and other online sources. To research the social media milieu of Sockpuppet I spent way too much time on Reddit.

While I’m fossicking around like this, I start to jot down little prose sketches – images, snatches of scenes. Gradually, characters and scenes grow out of these. When I’m ready, I sit down and hammer out an outline, including character pen portraits and a plot summary. Then I dive into a first draft.

The research process doesn’t stop there, though. I like to break a cardinal rule of fiction writing, by continuing to do research through most of the writing process. The received wisdom says you should completely finish your research, let it percolate inside you a while, and only then start to write. That doesn’t work for me. Partly this is because I’m writing about things that are in constant flux, but it also reflects my approach to writing. For me the first few drafts are a process of constant enquiry. Little pieces of a puzzle keep falling into place as I ask myself, What if this happened? How does that work? What would this character do in this situation? And these questions inevitably lead to more research.

As an extension to that: your writing, much like that of Neal Stephenson, is a combination of narrative (often filled with black humour) and technical detail. How do you approach the story to ensure the balance is right: enough detail to satisfy readers who know what you’re talking about, but not so much that it turns into a lecture and sends the more “casual” reader to sleep?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I greatly admire Stephenson’s writing. Far more than me, he has the mind-set of an engineer, as do his characters. He often goes on for page after page of delicious geeky riffs, as his brilliant characters go about solving seemingly impossible technical challenges. He really understands tech and his passion for communicating about it is one of the great pleasures of reading his work.

My motivation is a little different. I think I’m more interested in the interior, rather than the active dimension. When I look at the world today, so much of people’s time and emotional energy are committed to interacting with, and through, devices. Our sense of identity and our place in the world are constructed in large part on-screen. This is something fiction should be responding to, and interpreting back to us. That’s what art is for. But I don’t always see this happening in a lot of ‘serious’ fiction. Of course that’s much less true of genre fiction, but the stuff at the front of the bookshop often ignores tech completely, apart from the occasional clumsy use of Facebook messaging. (There is of course a whole other discussion to be had about why genre fiction isn’t in the front of the bookshop, but let’s not go there now.) I think many writers see tech as an unfit subject for the creative imagination.

So to answer your question, I wanted to find a way to write engagingly, and well, about technology and techies. I tried to give Sockpuppet a language and a voice that incorporates the distinctive modes of speech and patterns of thought associated with technology. And it’s hard to write about this stuff without becoming dry and cold. You need to find ways of reflecting the rich emotional experiences people have online. The character of Dani really helped me find a way into this. Her online experience is, I hope, every bit as rich and dark and complex as that of a romantic hero striding across a moorland.

But I didn’t want the book to appeal only to people who already understand the digital world. So a lot of the story is seen through the eyes of Bethany, who is older and to a large extent turned off by tech, even though she’s the government minister responsible for it. She describes herself as not so much a digital native, more a ‘digital shipwreck’. Part of my intent in writing her character was to create a route into the world of the book for people who feel a bit like Bethany, when they see how their endlessly SnapChatting children have taken to these machines since birth.

One of the gratifying things about early responses to the book is that non-technical people have found the book as engaging and revealing as those at the nerdier end of the scale. I get a lot of people saying, ‘I read your book and now I want to delete all my online accounts and live in a bunker.’ So I guess that’s a win.

Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle. Martingale herself appears only briefly in the story, in the form of flashbacks, though her book The Electronic Radical, informs much of the story’s philosophy. I’m intrigued as to how you can build a cycle of books around a character who no longer exists – are we likely to see books set in earlier time periods, or will Elyse Martingale continue to influence events from beyond the grave?

The character of Elyse Martingale was a twentieth century computer pioneer and political radical. She died in the 90s so her presence in Sockpuppet is through the long shadow she’s cast over the techies and protestors who inhabit the book. But yes, I do intend to take the Cycle back in time as well as forward – to tell stories set in Elyse’s own lifetime. I have the whole Cycle mapped out at a high level, including two Elyse stories, though no doubt the plan will evolve as I go along.

The idea is that each book will stand alone, and that they can be read in any order – but the more of them you read, the more they’ll stitch together an alternative history of technology and protest.

Looking to the future, do you have a definitive end-point for the Cycle, or are you taking it a book at a time? Are we likely to see the characters at the centre of Sockpuppet – both real and not-real – in future instalments?

Sockpuppet is book one in the Cycle, and we’ve already put out a short e-novella called Fallen Angel, which is book zero. This takes place in the dot-com boom – around the turn of the millennium – and it contains some important prehistory to Sockpuppet. I’m now working on a near-future sequel to Sockpuppet (book two) and I’ve already written most of a story set in the late 60’s, among the futurists and early hackers of that time (which will probably be book minus one). Beyond that I have one more book planned, which is set in the late 1940’s, plus a short story set in the future – but I’m keeping my options open about future titles!

Along with Elyse Martingale herself, the books share a number of recurring characters, family connections and overlapping plot elements. The tech entrepreneur Sean Perce, for instance, appears in both Sockpuppet and Fallen Angel; and a number of other characters from both books will appear in other stories. I hope the reader may find that their feelings about a character based on their appearance in one book are challenged when they re-encounter them in another.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

We’ve already touched on Neal Stephenson. Along with him, I love William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Phillip K Dick – the usual suspects! These are some of the more direct influences on my style and subject matter – but I’m a really eclectic reader, so I’ve absorbed elements from a pretty diverse pool of writers. I read a lot of modern American literature, including David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers…I could go on! A lot of these writers share a distinctly North American way of absorbing and processing popular culture within a literary mode of writing. That’s something I can definitely see reflected in my own style.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’m always terrible at these types of questions. I can never remember that single book or movie that’s the perfect example of something or other. I’m sure the perfect answer will pop into my brain the second this interview goes live. But I think for now I’ll say, Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, which is the first part of his New York Trilogy. This is the book I’ve reread most over the years; and it still blows my mind each time, in its concision, its downright weirdness, and the way it repurposes the hardboiled detective story to mind-bending effect. It’s like a Philip K Dick Novel written by Camus.

There’s also a brilliant comic book adaptation of it by David Mazzucchelli, which like all good adaptations is a distinct work of art in its own right. Both are highly recommended.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Matthew Blakstad look like?

As well as being a novelist I have a Monday-to-Thursday day job, so a lot of my writing is done in brief snatches – in cafés, on the bus to work – whenever I can grab the time. I’m lucky that I’m able to keep working on a book in the back of my mind while I’m going about my busy day-to-day existence. So time spent actually sitting at the keyboard is something of a luxury – and it’s always productive. When I sit down on a Friday or weekend morning to do a full day’s writing, I feel like the words are already waiting in my fingers, primed and ready to type. I often find the day has suddenly turned into evening, and I’m sitting with sore eyes and ever sorer shoulders, wondering where the hell the past eight hours went. I suspect if I was a full-time writer I’d struggle much more with the glare of the blank sheet of paper, but the way things are, that’s never been a problem.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write. And keep on writing. I wish there was a short cut but there isn’t. As I’ve already said, I sweated over a first failed attempt at a novel, and I’m really glad I did. It was a ladder I had to climb before throwing it away, on my way to writing a better novel. You need to get a lot of bad writing out of your system before the good writing comes. And of course I’m still learning.

Another key to becoming a good writer is to first become a good reader. Critiquing other people’s work develops your ‘ear’ for good and bad prose, and the more you do this, the easier it becomes to see the flaws in your own work. A great way to make this happen is to join a writer’s group, where everyone submits a passage of their work every few weeks and gets feedback from the others. This peer review approach is a big part of how writing courses like Faber Academy work. I did a FA course, and it was a real turning point. This was a few years back now, but seven or eight people from my class still meet every month and review each other’s work. They’re still the first people to read my stuff and I trust them implicitly because we’ve all exposed our worst and best to each other along the way. It’s invaluable.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Both! As part of my research for Martingale book 2, I’m reading The Boy Who Could Change the World, a collection of writings by Aaron Swartz, the digital activist who died tragically young and was appallingly treated by the US authorities. I don’t want to myth-make about a young man who was taken too soon but the truth is, he was a brilliant mind and a terrible loss.

I’ve also just started Our Endless Numbered Days by my fellow Prime Writer [LINK: https://theprimewriters.com], Claire Fuller. I can’t believe I’ve left it so long to read this one. It’s extraordinary – beautiful and dark, with a brilliantly twisted take on the survivalist post-apocalyptic narrative.

If Sockpuppet should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

That’s hard! I used to be a professional actor myself when I was a kid, but I’d make a terrible casting director. Still, since you ask, here’s an all-Game-of-Thrones cast list that’s for some reason just popped into my head:

Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy, would be amazing as the ballsy, shoot-from-the-hip Dani. Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) could carry off Bethany’s patrician manner – and lace it with just the right dose of vulnerability. To complete the set, Sean Bean could play his bullish Burnely namesake Sean Perce. (He’s a bit old but I’m sure with a slap of foundation he could pull it off.)

In terms of directors, Joe Cornish of Attack the Block fame gave the book a lovely quote for the cover, so he’d definitely have first refusal. He’d do amazing things with it.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

In my experience, genre writers are definitely the most fun. Especially in the bar at two in the morning. If I had to pick just one I’d probably go for Neil Gaiman because you could talk to him about literally anything and he’d have something fascinating and unexpected take on the subject. For drinks, I imagine he’d be happy with some fine craft ale or other. I know I would. But if he insisted on drinking, I don’t know, faerie mead or some such, then I’d be game.

Thank you once again, Matthew, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

SOCKPUPPET by Matthew Blakstad

SOCKPUPPET - Matthew Blakstad SOCKPUPPET

Matthew Blakstad (www.matthewblakstad.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

Days before the nationwide rollout of Number 10’s Digital Citizen initiative, news appears online that the pilot scheme has been hacked, and the data stolen. The source of the information becomes an immediate suspect, but there’s only one problem: famous Parley personality sic_girl doesn’t exist; she’s a piece of software created by hacker Dani Farr to win a bet, and there’s no way she should be revealing the kind of information she has started sharing with the world. Dani finds that her own private life suddenly becomes very public, her career and reputation in tatters. Pressure is also mounting on Minister Bethany Lehrer who has staked her career on Digital Citizen: is the data as safe as she claims, and just who is Mondan Plc, the company who manages the service and the collected data, a company not on the government’s list of sanctioned suppliers?

Matthew Blakstad’s debut novel fuses the political and technological worlds to examine the concept of identity in our increasingly Internet-driven world. In a storyline that might have been torn from the headlines, Sockpuppet looks at what defines us in this world: our identity – our most important asset as members of civilisation – is little more than a set of data stored on vast servers across the globe, a collection of personalities that represent the different versions of “me” that we often present to different audiences. Through the narrative, he asks a number of fundamental questions that should strike fear into the heart of every person who ever provided personal details online: who, despite security provisions and Acts of Parliament, actually has access to our data? And what happens when our different personalities are linked and cross-referenced, when they start to bleed into one another – what does this mean for that prized ideal for which we all strive: privacy?

It’s a serious message – and one that will make you consider just how much of who you are is no longer in your own hands – presented in an often blackly-comic but always intelligent way. Think The Thick of It written by Neal Stephenson and you’re some way towards understanding what lies behind that grinning pig’s face. The story is told primarily from the points of view of the two main characters, Dani and Bethany. In many ways polar opposites, the women find themselves drawn, in very different ways, into the fray caused by sic_girl’s revelations. On the one hand is Bethany, career politician who talks a good sales pitch but understands little the technology behind the real-world applications of Digital Citizen. Dani, on the other hand, is the archetypal socially inept hacker whose understanding of the technology leads her ask questions, because it shouldn’t be doing what it is doing, and these questions lead Dani into a world of trouble. What’s interesting here is that the two central characters are female, working in what are traditionally male-dominated fields, and Blakstad takes time to look at the continued prevalence of sexism in these fields in particular, and in society in general.

Two characters loom large in the background as the stories of Bethany and Dani play out centre stage. The first is Sean Perce, CEO of Mondan Plc and to all appearances the villain of the piece. A self-made man, Perce is building an empire and looks to be using Lehrer’s project as a means of doing so. As he buys up smaller companies and moves them all into the vicinity of his iconic – and ironically-named – headquarters at 404 City Road, the reader can’t help but question his motives or guess at just how culpable he is in the misfortunes that are haunting both Bethany and Dani. The second character is the ghost (not in the literal sense) of Elyse Martingale, a technological pioneer and political radical who worked with the likes of Turing at Bletchley Park. Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle, so it’s intriguing to find that she is long dead when the events of the novel occur. But her presence is felt throughout: as well as being the grandmother of Bethany Lehrer, her 1957 book, The Electronic Radical, plays an important role in the development of many of the story’s central players.

I have, for a long time, been a fan of the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writings of the likes of Stephenson, or William Gibson, and even the research-laden adventures of the much-missed Michael Crichton. Matthew Blakstad, if his debut novel is anything to go by, fits neatly into this category of writers who like to combine story with detail in an attempt to offer different experiences to different levels of reader. He speaks directly to those of us of a more technological bent through his in-depth discussions on the political and technical issues that surround identity management, his description of social media platform, Parley, or of the technology behind the “personalities” that inhabit the platform, and does so in such a way that the casual reader will also take enjoyment from the reading experience. It’s a fine balance, and one that very few writers manage to find even over the course of several novels, but one that Blakstad strikes without any problems: the story continues to move forward, the reader so engrossed in the writing that the possibility of skipping the detail never crosses the mind.

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.

LONG DARK DUSK by JP Smythe

LONG DARK DUSK - JP Smythe LONG DARK DUSK (Book 2 of the Australia Trilogy)

JP Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

Months after the events that brought her and her companions to Earth, Chan Aitch is living in a shanty town built against the inner surface of the wall that now surrounds Washington, D.C. She has, so far, managed to escape detection and recapture and performs odd-jobs for the local fixer, Alala. Fascinated by her new home, Chan has spent some time coming to grips with the planet’s history and, through her trips to the city’s museums, has met Ziegler, an historian and writer for whom Chan is a gold-mine of information. Chan herself has one goal: to discover where the government have taken Mae, the young girl whom she took under her wing in the final days of their time on Australia, to rescue her and to take her somewhere where they will never be found. But this is a strange new world, and she has no access to anything like the resources she could count on aboard Australia. Who, if anyone, can she trust? And where, on the vastness of the continent, should she start?

The middle book of a planned trilogy can often be a strange beast: the set-up has been done in book one, while the big payoff is unlikely to happen before book three. So there are no expectations on the reader’s part when it comes to book two, and each writer has his or her own take, or each story demands a different approach to this central volume. Regular visitors to Reader Dad will have noted my on-again-off-again relationship with the books of JP (James) Smythe, so it should come as no surprise when I say that Long Dark Dusk didn’t really work for me, despite how I felt about Way Down Dark and how excited I still am about Dark Made Dawn.

Picking up several months after Chan’s arrival on Earth, Long Dark Dusk finds her living in the walled city that was once Washington, D.C. This is a much different Earth than the one we live on: environmental disaster has left the planet a dry, hot husk of its former self, air-conditioned, walled cities the only refuge for the relatively small number of humans who have managed to survive the harsh conditions. Through Chan’s eyes, and her interest in where she originally came from, and of why her ancestors wound up in space, Smythe manages to give us a potted history of the apocalypse and the resulting martial and political environment under which the survivors exist.

Chan is driven by a single objective: to find and rescue Mae, and disappear somewhere that they will not be found. Between the knowledge and resources of the mysterious Alala and the cagey Ziegler, she feels she is well on her way to finding the girl, when a double-cross lands her in a facility in the middle of nowhere for “re-programming”. It is this central section of the book that I have problems with. As the author explores many of the themes that his earlier adult novel, The Machine, explored – identity and memory; how one informs the other – the pace of the novel comes to an almost-complete standstill. (You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed The Machine – that’s because I didn’t like it, for various reasons.) It’s undeniably beautifully written, and Smythe uses a number of tricks to distance us from Chan (while still keeping us inside her head), as she becomes distanced from herself, and from the world around her. It’s impossible not to be impressed – notice, for example, the lack of direct speech from Chan – but it feels less like an integral part of the story (I have since been assured by the author that it is) than the output of a challenge the author has set for himself.

As the book moves towards its climax, the pace picks up once again, and Chan finds herself forming a most unlikely alliance that will have repercussions for what is still to come. The story finishes on a high point, which leaves the reader ready for the trilogy’s final volume, next year’s Dark Made Dawn. There are still many unanswered questions, and plenty of action and excitement on the horizon.

As with all of Smythe’s books, Long Dark Dusk is about setting your expectations as a reader. Anyone picking this up expecting more of the same as what we saw in Way Down Dark will, like me, come away somewhat disappointed and, to be honest, I do think that’s what caused most of my problems with the book: faulty expectations. As always, it’s wonderfully written and, aside from the central section, a compelling and often gripping story. Chan continues to be a wonderful narrator, a well-drawn mix of innocence and violence that will keep the reader coming back for more. A solid middle book that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but which keeps us interested enough that we’ll come back for the payoff. Not the best of Smythe’s work, but by no means the worst.

The 2015 Round-Up

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take a step back and reflect on the year that has been. As is now “traditional”, I’ll be using this post to talk about my favourite books of the year, but first a quick blast through some of the non-bookish stuff that happened in the past twelve months.

For me, 2015 was always going to be significant because it’s the year in which I turned forty (so old!) and, thanks to my wife, I spent my fortieth birthday fulfilling the lifelong ambition of visiting KL Auschwitz and the nearby city of Kraków (I’ll talk more about this early in the New Year). 2015 also saw the release of the much-hyped latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise, a film that did not disappoint, and which reawakened (pun most definitely intended) something of the child buried deep within this forty-year-old body, helped in no small way by the fact that I was able to share the experience with my six-year-old son, who bears all the hallmarks of becoming twice the nerd his father is.

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, Goodreads informs me that I have read 74 books, and I’m likely to finish both my current paperback and audiobook reads before the end of the day. Of these, 34 are by authors I have never read before, and 13 of those were debuts. A miserly seven were translated fiction, and you’ll find a few of them on the lists below.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot that only 34 reviews were posted on Reader Dad during 2015, which falls way short of the 74 books completed. I can only apologise, and my only excuse is laziness. My aim for 2016 is to get back to a more regular review schedule and to review, if not everything I read, then the vast majority of it. As a result, many of the books in the top ten lists below don’t have links to existing reviews.

The lists, as always, are presented in the order in which the books were read, so don’t attach any importance to their relative positions.

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2015

ARAB JAZZ by Karim Miské [trans: Sam Gordon] (MacLehose Press)

Arab Jazz, I have on good authority, is the first novel in a proposed trilogy. Based on the strength of this stunning debut novel, consider me signed up for the rest of the journey. Beautifully written – and translated, for that matter, by Sam Gordon – this is a wonderfully-plotted novel by a man who obviously has deep respect – if not love – for the genre, and for the authors and filmmakers who have practiced it before him. An exceptional debut from an exceptional talent, watch out for Karim Miské: his is a name you will be hearing a lot in the future.

THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh (Orion Books)

The Defence heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in Irish crime fiction, a voice that is as authentically American as the character at the centre of this excellent debut novel. A gripping read from first page to last, it is a new breed of thriller that nevertheless pays its dues to those who have come before: Jack Reacher, John McClane and, maybe, Perry Mason. Cavanagh’s is a name you should expect to hear a lot of in the coming years, and Eddie Flynn is destined to become as instantly recognisable as his forebears. In a word: unmissable.

DARK STAR by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.

THE ENCHANTED THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfield (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I didn’t review this book at the time because I didn’t think I could do it justice. Told from the point of view of a prisoner on death row, it intertwines his story with that of an investigator tasked with getting the sentence of a fellow inmate commuted. Beautiful and haunting, it’s an accomplished first novel that will leave you gasping for more.

Small Angry Planet THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

Without doubt, the best piece of science fiction you’ll read this year, or any year. Following Rosemary Harper’s first few months as a member of the Wayfarer’s crew, this wonderful novel focuses very much on the characters as a way to tell its tale. And what a bunch of characters they are! Reminiscent of the dear-departed Firefly, the novel has an episodic structure that means each chapter is a self-contained “story” that, when combined, produces a fun, action-packed space opera adventure that should not be missed.

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman (Faber & Faber)

There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The-Loney THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray)

Another stunner that I failed to review at the time. Quietly disturbing and beautifully written, this is the horror debut of the year. Hurley is already on my must-read list.

 

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2015

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.

THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen (Harvill Secker)

There are touches of beauty and genius between the covers of I Am Radar. It’s an engaging and emotionally-charged novel that is guaranteed to keep the reader engrossed for the duration. Filled with characters with their own stories to tell – the cast of I Am Radar could populate an entire library of novels – I Am Radar is the perfect fusion of story and design to create something unique, enduring and wonderfully quirky. Funny and touching, exciting and horrifying, it marks a welcome return for Reif Larsen, and a novel you most definitely will not want to miss.

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)

With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.

ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis (Picador)

All Involved is, in short, an incredible piece of fiction set against one of the darker periods in America’s recent history. Intricately plotted, finely detailed, this is a beautifully-written novel that gives the reader some insight into the mind-set of the people involved in what can only be described as a fictional representation of something that could very well have happened while all eyes were looking elsewhere. Ryan Gattis has proven himself to be a writer of considerable talent, with an ear for language and inflection that allows him to create living, breathing characters who seem to jump off the page. Expect to have trouble putting this one down once you’ve started reading but under no circumstances should you miss this opportunity to watch a true master at work.

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW by David Lagercrantz [trans: George Goulding] (MacLehose Press)

David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.

As an aside, The Girl in the Spider’s Web was an exceptional follow-up to Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and probably would have secured a place on this list had Fall of Man in Wilmslow not been released the same year.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (The Borough Press)

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

STALLO by Stefan Spjut [trans: Susan Beard] (Faber & Faber)

Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.

WAY DOWN DARK by JP Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.

SOLOMON CREED by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)

Simon Toyne’s fourth novel, the first to be set outside the fictional world to which he introduced us in his Sanctus trilogy, cements his place as one of the finest genre writers working today. Clever and engaging, Toyne weaves a number of strands together to produce an exciting, page-turning read. As always, his characterisations are pitch perfect and his sense of place second-to-none – his small-town Arizona seems as real as the Turkish city of Ruin. A perfectly-formed thriller in the author’s own unique style, Solomon Creed is not to be missed by returning fans and Toyne virgins alike.

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

night-music-uk-225 NIGHT MUSIC: NOCTURNES VOLUME 2 by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

Best known for his Charlie Parker crime novels, John Connolly has a penchant for horror in the short form. This second collection of short horror stories contains some absolute gems, as well as a wonderful Lovecraftian novella in five parts, “The Fractured Atlas”.

THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans: Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne (Doubleday)

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

COMING SOON…

With 2016 looming, one of my resolutions is to try to review all of the books I read this year. The first review, that of Keith Lee Morris’ excellent Travelers Rest, should appear shortly before the end of the year. With new novels from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Daniel Polansky and Sarah Pinborough all due within the first half of the year, it’s shaping up to be another bumper year for readers of genre fiction.

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 2016. May The Force Be With You!*

 

* Well, it is the year of the rebirth of Star Wars, after all!

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King

BOBD THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

When people think of Stephen King, they most often think of the massive tomes that helped to make his name: The Stand, It, Needful Things. What we often forget is that King is as comfortable writing short fiction as he is writing in the longer form, and that he has produced over 120 pieces of short fiction in his forty-year career, enough to fill six collections (this, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, is the sixth) and four collections of slightly longer pieces. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collects twenty pieces, written since the publication of Just After Sunset in 2008, into an accessible and wonderfully-annotated single volume that marks the end, as do the earlier collections, of another period of the author’s writing career.

I’ve made some things for you; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight. But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, come a little closer. I don’t bite. Except…I suspect you know that’s not entirely true.

I have been considering the worth of the short story collection in this day and age where everything is so readily available on the Internet. My ponderings began when I read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings earlier this year and discovered that I had, in fact, already read most of the pieces it contained. As a King collector, I like to keep my ear to the ground, and tend to pounce on new short stories when they’re released (yes, I am still using the “I only buy Playboy for the stories” excuse). So, when The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was announced, my first thought was: it’ll be a lovely addition to my collection, but I’ll probably have read the vast majority of it before; a thinking process that was verified when the table of contents was released further down the line.

But…

Having read it (or re-read, as the case seems to have been), I can now see the merit in collecting these works together. Many of them have been revised for re-publication, while others are brand new and, in one case, the story is available for the first time in King’s native English as part of the collection. In the main, it’s an excellent excuse to revisit some of the excellent stories that King has produced over the course of the past decade or so. The stories themselves cover a wide range of topics and genres, from the all-out horrific opener, “Mile 81” to the touching and blackly funny “Premium Harmony” which sees a young man lose his wife and his dog in one fell swoop; from the hilarious one-upmanship that drives “Drunken Fireworks” to the post-apocalyptic vision of the book’s closing story, “Summer Thunder”.

It’s difficult to pick favourites from these twenty stories; each one contains a little window onto the world and shows us, as only King can, the people who inhabit it and the stresses that, but for the grace of whichever god you believe in, might be our own. Some are more memorable than others, of course, but I suspect this might be as individual as each reader’s taste in music, or television, or… For me, the standouts are those stories that leave us with plenty to think about, which ask the question “what if?”, and invite us to extrapolate on the answer.

The Little Green God of Agony” is one such story and gives pain a physical form that can travel from one body to another. As someone who has suffered chronic pain for over twenty years, it’s a story that speaks directly to me, and I understand Newsome’s need to try every possible treatment, regardless of how off-the-wall it may seem and also, to some extent, his nurse’s accusations that much of his suffering is down to his own laziness and unwillingness to break the cycle of pain. The Little Green God is an image that appeals to me, and that haunts me in the dead of night when the pain chases sleep away.

The Dune” presents us with a simple enough premise: a dune on which writing appears from time to time, and the man who has discovered that each time a name appears on the dune, that person will die quite soon afterwards. It’s old-fashioned horror, but it’s the beautiful sting in the tail that makes this one stick with the reader. “Drunken Fireworks”, on the other hand, is as far from horror as it’s possible to get. In King’s fictional Castle Rock, two families – one local, one from out of town – have a rapidly-escalating fireworks competition every Fourth of July. The outcome is inevitable, but it’s the characters that drive this story, especially Alden McCausland, the man whose story this is: it’s the kind of character study in which King excels, the pitch-perfect Maine voice, and the examination of small-town life and how outsiders fit – or more often fail to fit – into the ideals that we hold so dear.

Ur”, originally written as a marketing gimmick for the then-new Amazon Kindle, has been given something of a facelift, but manages to maintain its solid core: on the surface, it’s a parable on the dangers of technology, but it’s once again the human element that causes most of the trouble. This is one of those “what if?” stories that will play over and over, especially when you go looking in the settings menu of your e-reader. For fans of baseball, King has included “Blockade Billy”, a wonderful novella that was originally published as a lovely little hardback in 2010. This is King the prestidigitator in his element, a story that manages to hide its true nature until the very last paragraph.

In many ways, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is the perfect companion piece to King’s instructional 2000 book, On Writing. Each of the stories here contain a short introduction explaining the story’s origins and what King was trying to achieve when writing them. It’s a brief but educational look into the workings of King’s mind, and his approach to writing fiction. It also serves to date-stamp, in a way, each story, allowing the reader to follow the progression of a writer who, by his own admission, is still perfecting his craft.

King has come a long way since the publication of his first book of short stories, 1978’s Night Shift. Clearly the work of the same brilliant mind, it’s clear that the stories that make up The Bazaar of Bad Dreams come with extra baggage, the weight of experience that can only come from living life. There’s much less focus on the “horror” elements (take a look at the table of contents for Night Shift and you’ll see what I mean), and much more on the “human” elements; many of these stories are unsettling or downright frightening, but more because of how close to the bone they strike than because of how much they can gross us out (with the exception, maybe, of “Mile 81”) or their reliance on the easy scare: the ghost, or the giant rat, or the vampire. They are the work of a much more mature writer, a writer at a vastly different stage of life than the twenty-something who wrote “Graveyard Shift” or “Children of the Corn” and the book’s publication clears the decks for a new stage of King’s writing, something we’ll be able to measure in another decade or so when collection number seven comes our way.

There are a couple of stories that are noticeable by their absence from the book’s table of contents. The fact that I’ve noticed is one of the downsides of that desire to keep up-to-date that I spoke about earlier. The most obvious (although there are probably more that I have missed) are “In the Tall Grass” and “A Face in the Crowd”, both of which were produced alongside a co-writer, son Joe Hill in the first instance, Faithful co-writer Stewart O’Nan in the second. Their omission seems odd, but fills this reader with hope: is King aiming to become the literary Tony Bennett and give us a Duets-style book of collaborations somewhere down the line?

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

WAY DOWN DARK by J. P. Smythe

WDD WAY DOWN DARK (Book 1 of The Australia Trilogy)

J. P. Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

When Chan Aitch’s mother dies, she leaves a gaping hole in the so-called power structure aboard the Australia. Chan is left to pick up the pieces, and attempt to defend the part of the ship previously controlled by her mother against the Lows, who are set on taking complete control at the cost of the lives of anyone who does not believe in their extreme philosophy. But the Australia holds many secrets, from Chan herself, and from the rest of the people aboard, secrets that will call into question the very reason for their existence. As violence threatens to consume the entire ship, Chan realises that there may be a way to escape, and to save the ship’s innocents in the process.

With his latest novel, Way Down Dark, James Smythe moves into the realms of Young Adult fiction, though this is like no YA fiction that you’ve seen before – as dark as the title suggests, this is an intense and frightening novel with more than a little adult appeal.

Set in a far future, Way Down Dark tells the story of a small portion of the human race sent into space after catastrophic events have made the Earth all but inhabitable. Their mission, several hundred years and many generations later, is to find a habitable planet, and rebuild civilisation from the ground up. Their home for all that time, the giant spaceship Australia, a sort of Mega-City One Block-in-space.

When we encounter Chan and the Australia, we find ourselves on board a ship that is the very definition of “run down” – lights don’t work; air and water processing systems are patchy; and the floor of the towering structure is buried under hundreds of years of filth and refuse and the bodies of those who have died during the ship’s long journey. Imagining the worst possible scenario, Smythe gives us a population that has split into a number of distinct groups. On one side are those struggling to survive; on the other, the Lows, tattooed and maimed madmen and –women who want control of the whole ship whatever the cost. Aloof from (and quite literally above) both groups are the mysterious Pale Women, a semi-religious cult who seem to have plans for Chan.

From the outset, the tension is palpable, and Smythe succeeds in making us feel claustrophobic despite the size of the ship in which Chan is imprisoned. Chan is the perfect guide for our journey into this strange new place: she is deeply conflicted and still mourning the loss of her mother, but manages to find the strength to stand up to the constant advances of the Lows into the territory that she has inherited. There are several detours into the head of Agatha, her mother’s friend and a guardian angel of sorts for the girl who she first saved many years earlier, which gives us a look at Chan’s family history, and a better understanding of the currently politics of Australia.

Smythe’s latest novel has much to recommend it: his track record in writing gripping, engaging and thought-provoking science fiction; the shift from HarperCollins to Hodder & Stoughton whose own track record with the genre is second to none. But the story itself, and the characters that inhabit it, is, as always, the biggest draw to a Smythe novel. The word “Smythesque” has been bandied about for some time, and there is a definite style, a definite theme, for want of a better word, that sets his novels apart from those of his contemporaries. Unfortunately for Smythe, the reader will always have a set of preconceived notions of what his books should be. Fortunately for the reader, Smythe shows us that he can meet these expectations in many ways, but that he can also surprise us: the novel we think we’re reading as Way Down Dark opens is very different from the novel we find ourselves holding as we close the back cover, and it leaves us crying out for the next instalment of this excellent new trilogy.

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

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