Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Tag

jo fletcher books

An Interview with ANGELA SLATTER

angela slatter Name: ANGELA SLATTER

Author of: VIGIL (2016)

On the web: www.angelaslatter.com

On Twitter: @AngelaSlatter

Angela Slatter is an award-winning short story writer with the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and five Aurealis Awards to her name. Vigil is her first novel, introducing the world to Verity Fassbinder and the weird (and, indeed, Weyrd) happenings in Brisbane.

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

Thanks for having me on the blog! 🙂

When Vigil opens, we find ourselves introduced to the central character, Verity Fassbinder, as if in passing. There is a sense of a huge and storied history here, only some of which is revealed as the plot proceeds. She is an intriguing character and the reader comes away with the impression that this is not the first of her adventures that she has recounted. Has Verity appeared in your fiction before, or will you be revisiting earlier adventures as the series progresses?

Verity started out in a short story called “Brisneyland by Night”. There’s also a story called “Here Today” that I wrote for a project called The 24-Hour Book for if:book Australia. When I wrote Vigil I incorporated a lot of that first short story into the plot. I feel like there’s still a lot of iceberg underneath as far as her back story is concerned and I hope to get the opportunity to plumb it at some stage! Some more of her family history will come out in Corpselight and Restoration.

With the exception of a kind of super-strength inherited from her Weyrd father, Verity seems relatively normal (or Normal). At heart, the book feels like a hard-boiled detective novel, with Verity playing the role of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. How easy was it to find her voice, and did you set out to write urban fantasy with a hint of crime, or crime with a hint of urban fantasy?

I set out to write a short story that was inflected by that hard-boiled/noirish tone … I was at Clarion South and wrote “Brisneyland by Night”, which eventually became the novel Vigil. But I was aware that hard-boiled is done a lot. I mean, a lot. And I wanted to add differences to the story, so what makes the crime different? Add the urban fantasy element, make your antagonists mythical/biblical/fairy-tale, etc. And make your protagonist not someone with nothing in her life, no bitter divorce, hard-drinking, hard-smoking PI, but a fairly practical woman just trying to get on with life and her job. Just trying to balance a normal life with a Weyrd job.

One of the central characters in the novel is the city of Brisbane itself. To most of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s little more than a dot on a map. How did you go about bringing the city to life, and infusing it with the sense of strange that seems to define it within Vigil?

I suppose it’s about thinking on all of the stuff that’s struck me a wonderful or strange or annoying about the city over the years and framing that for someone who doesn’t know the place. Rolling it into a joke (like the stuff about the restaurants closing early − alas, not actually a joke) and presenting it so someone understands what you’re saying, making it relatable. Also, lying! Making things up − like the tunnels under the city. There are some old sewer tunnels around, one of them is in fact preserved in the King George Square Bus Station (the Wheat Creek Culvert), but it’s about imagining more and making your lies convincing and interesting. About presenting the city as a slightly different thing to what it is, showing it the way it might be if all the “what if?” questions were answered!

Blog tour posterThe Weyrd is a mish-mash of different mythologies and legends, but you’ve eschewed the more obvious faeries and goblins for more obscure creatures: sirens with feathers rather than scales, angels and various other creatures of a hundred different underworlds. How much research was involved in the creation of the world and its inhabitants and how did you make sure you kept everything grounded in something resembling reality?

I have always been a huge reader and researcher of mythology and fables, legends, fairy and folk tales, and general weird stuff and I wanted the Weyrd to be a catch-all for that. There’s a lot of information floating around in my head that’s been stashed there for years, and it’s just waiting to be used. I want the Verity stories to have that sense of there is no reigning or privileged mythology, that we are all in this world and we’ve all got our beliefs, but no one path is right or exclusive, that there are all of these mythical creatures pushing up against each other, that the worlds bleed into each other; that we’re all in a crowded elevator together, hoping the cables don’t break.

But I really do need to start my own Weyrd Bestiary to keep things straight in my head. Kathleen Jennings should illustrate it!

You’re currently working on the second book in the series, Corpselight. Can you tell us anything about it, and what we should expect, given the game-changer that closes Vigil?

Hmmmm, difficult to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say that Verity’s got a couple more challenges on the way and a lot of dark secrets from her family’s past − mostly her father’s side − coming back to haunt her. I sort of like having her trying to manage an ordinary life alongside all of these things she just can’t control … a metaphor for existence, I guess.

And do you have a longer-term view of where the story is going, with a definite end-point, or is the plan to take it one book at a time?

I know where the first trilogy arc is going, so yes, that’s all planned. I have a second trilogy very vaguely plotted, but whether that sees the light of day will depend on the success of Vigil, Corpselight and Restoration.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, John Connolly, M.R. James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Nancy Kress, J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Hambly … I should stop now.

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

Not really. That’s kind of a non-question for me − I love those books because they’re uniquely someone else’s voice, so if I’d written them they wouldn’t be someone else’s … that’s the appeal of another writer’s fiction, that it is so different from your own.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Angela Slatter look like?

I work from home, so it’s easy to get to the office, and because I work from home I need to be very aware of behaving as if I’m in an office. So I start at 8.30am have lunch between 1-2pm, finish work at 5.30pm. Anything after that is a bonus − as my main publishers are in either the US or the UK I tend to deal with their email correspondence late at night.

I check my emails first, prioritise them, then I check over my to-do list and make sure there are no deadlines hurtling towards me … or rather, I check which deadlines are hurtling towards me, and then I prioritise tasks for the day. At the moment, I’m doing the edits on the sequel to Vigil, Corpselight, and finishing up the plotting framework for the third book in the series, Restoration; I’ve got two short stories due by the end of July; the Vigil launch is happening on 19 July so preparing for that; waiting on proofs of a new UK collection; editing the third and final Sourdough book; plotting a series of three novellas to pitch somewhere … those are the top priorities. I’m heading to the UK in August for Nine Worlds, a gig in Newcastle at Novocastria Macabre with Robert Shearman, and the inaugural Dublin Ghost Story Festival, so I need to get a lot of things out of the way before travelling.

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

My standard reply to that is:

· Keep writing.

· Learn your craft and never, ever think you know it all.

· Develop a thick skin, but realise that story criticism is aimed at making the story better, not at making you feel bad about yourself. Find people whose opinions you respect and trust.

· Remember: it’s always better to have someone find problems with a story before you send it out into the world.

· Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships with other writers and publishers, not just about you getting what you can.

· Don’t send Facebook friend requests to other writers and then ask them to like your page and buy your book: (a) it’s just rude, and (b) other writers are not generally your audience. That’s my personal bugbear!

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

I am reading Stephen Gallagher’s Kingdom of Bones, Barbara Hambly’s Those Who Hunt The Night (again, it’s a frequent comfort re-read), Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution, and in the queue I’ve got China Miéville’s The Census Taker, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, Rjurick Davidson’s The Stars Askew, and Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell.

If Vigil, or indeed, the Verity Fassbinder series as a whole, should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

There are a lot of these questions about, and I suppose in today’s world it’s a natural kind of correlation − once it was just a dream you kept to yourself, nowadays it’s an actual slim possibility. I still don’t know about Verity and have been wracking my brain on that one. You need a mostly Australian cast to make it work properly. For my sirens, I’d love Elizabeth Debicki as Serena, Cate Blanchett as Eurycleia, Robyn Nevin as Ligeia. Chris Hemsworth might well work for Tobit (must have hair dyed), Stellan Skarsgård as Ziggi, and I’m still tossing up between Michael Fassbender or Eric Bana for Bela. Oh, and the Norns … must think about that …

Actually, wait, wait. The hivemind has suggested Sarah Snook as Verity. She’s a very good candidate!

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)?

Haha! Angela Carter. I think she would probably drink tea. I would go for coffee. We might look at each other with vague disapproval until we realised we should probably just have a whiskey and all would be well.

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

You’re more than welcome!

VIGIL by Angela Slatter

9781784294021 VIGIL

Angela Slatter (www.angelaslatter.com)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£14.99

Verity Fassbinder’s background makes her the perfect peacekeeper in the Australian city of Brisbane. The product of a Normal mother and Weyrd father, Verity has access to both worlds despite her lack of Weyrd attributes. When a siren is murdered on the heels of Verity’s discovery that someone is selling wine made from the tears of children to a select group of the city’s Weyrd inhabitants, Verity’s employers demand answers before the tentative peace between Normal and Weyrd is irrevocably damaged. Throw in a foul-smelling dervish that does not distinguish between Normal and Weyrd when looking for a meal, and an angelic host who are not as cuddly as religion might lead us to believe, and Verity will be very lucky if she – and everyone she loves – makes it out of this case in one piece.

From its opening pages, Angela Slatter’s debut novel – and the central character that narrates it – has the cynical voice of an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. Verity Fassbinder is an enforcer and private eye rolled into one, her main source of employment ex-boyfriend Zvezdomir ‘Bela’ Tepes and the Council of Five who rule Brisbane’s Weyrd population. Initially hired to find why Normal children have been disappearing, Verity’s case soon widens to include a dead siren and an unknown entity that seems to be eating Normal and Weyrd alike, leaving a trail of rubbish in its wake. Along the way, she attempts to navigate something resembling a normal life, with a boyfriend and a next-door neighbour with a child who treats her like a beloved aunt keeping her grounded in reality.

The mixture of these two very different worlds feels very natural, despite the fact that we’re given little time to adjust and acclimatise to this strange new world. Unlike the usual series opener, Slatter takes little time to examine backstory or introduce us to the characters, instead throwing us into the deep end, quite literally into the middle of the action, and feeding us what information we need to allow us to keep up. As a result, Vigil feels less like the first book in a series, and more like a later volume, populated with characters with whom we have spent a lot of time and shared a lot of adventures (I’ll admit I had to consult with Google to ensure I wasn’t missing an earlier volume or three). Like much of what Slatter does with Vigil, it’s a ballsy move, but one that works surprisingly well. Verity as a character is difficult to dislike, and her voice is more than engaging enough to carry the reader through a story that rarely rests, moving from one awesome set-piece to another.

In creating the Weyrd, Slatter has plumbed the depths of a myriad mythologies, and created a world where sirens live side-by-side with vampires, Norns and angels, amongst others. There are parallels here to Gaiman’s American Gods, both in terms of the variety of backgrounds, and also in the concepts of longevity of some of the species and the requirements for their continued existence. Verity has inherited little of her father’s magical abilities, though a kind of super-strength ensures she can take care of herself, regardless of her opponent. Her ever-present chauffeur, Ziggi Hausmann, himself a member of the Weyrd, helps her deal with those situations where strength is of little benefit.

In tone and content, Vigil feels almost Chandleresque: Verity finds herself following a number of leads that all quickly turn out to be interconnected, annoying many of the wrong people in the process, and facing her own share of pain as she goes along. She is the very definition of cynicism, and it keeps her fresh and interesting. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Verity is more mature that one might expect from the book’s brief synopsis, and the maturity sits well on her, elevating Vigil to something other than sparkly, teen-focused urban fantasy. While not quite as violent as Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy, there is a lot here that will appeal to its readers.

Brisbane itself – Brisneyland – plays an important role in the story, and Slatter introduces the reader to her home town by showing us its unflattering underbelly and pointing out its problems and foibles. The location serves to keep the story fresh and interesting – for many readers it’s a place we have never visited, and it makes a refreshing change from London or New York.

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.

Verity Fassbinder’s background makes her the perfect peacekeeper in the Australian city of Brisbane. The product of a Normal mother and Weyrd father, Verity has access to both worlds despite her lack of Weyrd attributes. When a siren is murdered on the heels of Verity’s discovery that someone is selling wine made from the tears of children to a select group of the city’s Weyrd inhabitants, Verity’s employers demand answers before the tentative peace between Normal and Weyrd is irrevocably damaged. Throw in a foul-smelling dervish that does not distinguish between Normal and Weyrd when looking for a meal, and an angelic host who are not as cuddly as religion might lead us to believe, and Verity will be very lucky if she – and everyone she loves – makes it out of this case in one piece.

From its opening pages, Angela Slatter’s debut novel – and the central character that narrates it – has the cynical voice of an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. Verity Fassbinder is an enforcer and private eye rolled into one, her main source of employment ex-boyfriend Zvezdomir ‘Bela’ Tepes and the Council of Five who rule Brisbane’s Weyrd population. Initially hired to find why Normal children have been disappearing, Verity’s case soon widens to include a dead siren and an unknown entity that seems to be eating Normal and Weyrd alike, leaving a trail of rubbish in its wake. Along the way, she attempts to navigate something resembling a normal life, with a boyfriend and a next-door neighbour with a child who treats her like a beloved aunt keeping her grounded in reality.

The mixture of these two very different worlds feels very natural, despite the fact that we’re given little time to adjust and acclimatise to this strange new world. Unlike the usual series opener, Slatter takes little time to examine backstory or introduce us to the characters, instead throwing us into the deep end, quite literally into the middle of the action, and feeding us what information we need to allow us to keep up. As a result, Vigil feels less like the first book in a series, and more like a later volume, populated with characters with whom we have spent a lot of time and shared a lot of adventures (I’ll admit I had to consult with Google to ensure I wasn’t missing an earlier volume or three). Like much of what Slatter does with Vigil, it’s a ballsy move, but one that works surprisingly well. Verity as a character is difficult to dislike, and her voice is more than engaging enough to carry the reader through a story that rarely rests, moving from one awesome set-piece to another.

In creating the Weyrd, Slatter has plumbed the depths of a myriad mythologies, and created a world where sirens live side-by-side with vampires, Norns and angels, amongst others. There are parallels here to Gaiman’s American Gods, both in terms of the variety of backgrounds, and also in the concepts of longevity of some of the species and the requirements for their continued existence. Verity has inherited little of her father’s magical abilities, though a kind of super-strength ensures she can take care of herself, regardless of her opponent. Her ever-present chauffeur, Ziggi Hausmann, himself a member of the Weyrd, helps her deal with those situations where strength is of little benefit.

In tone and content, Vigil feels almost Chandleresque: Verity finds herself following a number of leads that all quickly turn out to be interconnected, annoying many of the wrong people in the process, and facing her own share of pain as she goes along. She is the very definition of cynicism, and it keeps her fresh and interesting. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Verity is more mature that one might expect from the book’s brief synopsis, and the maturity sits well on her, elevating Vigil to something other than sparkly, teen-focused urban fantasy. While not quite as violent as Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy, there is a lot here that will appeal to its readers.

Brisbane itself – Brisneyland – plays an important role in the story, and Slatter introduces the reader to her home town by showing us its unflattering underbelly and pointing out its problems and foibles. The location serves to keep the story fresh and interesting – for many readers it’s a place we have never visited, and it makes a refreshing change from London or New York.

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.

The 2014 Round-Up

As another year draws to a close, it’s time for my annual retrospective of what’s gone on at Reader Dad. There’s a lot to cover this year, so without further ado…

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, I have read 65 books this year, more than every year except last year, but I had an excuse for getting so much read last year! Of those, a massive 43 were by authors that are new to me (and a large percentage of those were 2014 debut authors). It feels like I’ve read a lot of crime this year, but when I look back on the list, I discover that my reading has been much more varied than I thought, covering everything from epistolary humour (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members) to cannibalism (Season To Taste by Natalie Young), epic fantasy to Hitler satire. The list contains six translations, some of which you’ll find in the lists below and two re-reads, which are becoming a rarity these days when there are so many new books to read, and so little time in which to read them.

The big focus of the blog this year, aside from the reviews of dark fiction, was the #CarrieAt40 project that kicked off in April to celebrate Stephen King’s forty years as a published author. I’m delighted by the reaction, and would like to personally thank everyone who provided an essay: Keith Walters, Book Geek, Alison Littlewood, John Connolly, Bev Vincent, Sarah Langan, Mark West, Lloyd Shepherd, Steve Cavanagh, Simon Clark, V. M. Giambanco, Mason Cross, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Lotz, P. T. Hylton, Neal Munro, Simon Toyne, Lou Sytsma, Michael Marshall Smith, Kealan Patrick Burke, Andrew Pyper and Rob Chilver. I must also thank my good friend David Torrans of No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for putting me in touch with Mr Connolly, and Graeme Williams at Orion Books for putting me in touch with Andrew Pyper. Thanks, too, to Mr King’s publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, who were extremely supportive and especially the wonderful Hodderscape folks who were angels when it came to publicity. Special thanks have to go to the lovely Philippa Pride and Kerry Hood, Mr King’s editor and publicist, respectively, at Hodder, for their support, and to Anne Perry for putting me in touch with them in the first place.

#CarrieAt40 comes to an end at the end of the year when I will be closing the Big Vote. Response has been lacklustre so far, so rather than the “definitive” answer I’d hoped for, I’ll be presenting the favourites as they stand. Please feel free to point everyone you know at the vote in the meantime, and maybe in the next week and a half we’ll get close to that “definitive” level.

And so to the important bit: the list of my favourite books of the year. Last year’s approach seemed to work well, so I’ll be using the same approach this year: my favourite debuts, and favourite non-debuts of the year. As always, the list contains books that were first published in 2014, and they’re listed in the order in which I read them, so no significance should be attached to their position in the list. Oh, and please don’t take the “ten” literally! As always, links will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP TEN DEBUTS OF 2014

SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND by Natalie Young (Tinder Press)

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

   
RED RISING by Pierce Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)

Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.

   
THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books)

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

   
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Harper Voyager)

In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.

   
LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes [trans. Jamie Bulloch] (MacLehose Press)

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

   
THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross (Orion)

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

   
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker [trans. Sam Taylor] (MacLehose Press)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a number of years, and likely one of the best I’ll read for a number of years to come. Skilfully constructed, with a cast of memorable and engaging characters – not only Marcus and Gahalowood, but also Nola and Harry himself – it’s a masterclass in small-town American crime made all the more impressive by its non-American roots. It may look daunting, but once you crack the spine, it’s next to impossible to set aside for any length of time. Without doubt, one of my favourite reads of all time, I’ll be watching Joël Dicker’s career extremely closely from here on. Whatever you do, don’t miss this.

   
THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

Ray Celestin’s first novel is big on characterisation and sense of place. It’s a spot-on rendition of a unique point in time and a unique place on Earth, and has enough suspense to ensure that the reader stays engaged throughout. Celestin excels when it comes to attention to detail – both in terms of the history and the location – but never at the cost of moving the story along and The Axeman’s Jazz is an excellent debut, the perfect introduction to a talented writer and, with any luck, a handful of entertaining and engaging detectives.

   
THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma [trans. Agnes Broomé] (Head of Zeus)

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.

 

MATT’S TOP TEN NON-DEBUTS OF 2014

THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

I’ve mentioned before that it would be almost impossible to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. The same applies here: while The Sudden Arrival of Violence is an excellent novel, there is too much backstory to dive in here for the first time. To me, the trilogy feels like a single book – a tale constructed around Calum MacLean’s short tenure as Peter Jamieson’s gunman, but not a tale about that tenure – and should be judged as such. It is one of the most original pieces of crime fiction I have read in a long time, told in a unique and unbelievably engaging voice and populated by a cast of characters whose story we need to know, despite the fact that we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley. The Sudden Arrival of Violence is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, expertly plotted, well paced and, above all, beautifully written. Mackay continues to astound, and this is one reader for whom the end of the Glasgow Trilogy will leave a massive hole. I can’t wait to see what Malcolm Mackay has up his sleeve next.

   
THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton (Mantle)

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

   
IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans. Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

   
ABOVE by Isla Morley (Two Roads)

By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.

   
THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

   
MR MERCEDES by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

   
THE THREE by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.

   
NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN by James Smythe (The Borough Press)

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

   
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve readThe Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

   
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

   
PERFIDIA by James Ellroy (William Heinemann)

James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.

   
REVIVAL by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

   
A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

 

COMING SOON…

2015 should see a return to the usual schedule of reviews and guest posts, despite the fact that I’ve already read the best book of the year. Despite that, it’s already shaping up to look like an excellent year, with the return of Bill Hodges in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and an announcement early in the New Year concerning Joe Hill. The year also brings with it new Daniel Polansky, the follow-up to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, to name but a few. Don’t forget that the #CarrieAt40 Big Vote closes at midnight on December 31st, so do please vote, and spread the word.

All that remains is to thank the publishers and publicists who have been so kind to me this year, and have kept me stocked up with wonderful reading material. Thanks also to the authors who take time out to write guest posts or answer interview questions, and to all those (mentioned above) who provided essays for the #CarrieAt40 project. And thanks to you, the readers, who make it all worthwhile; without you, I’d just be talking to myself, and I already do far too much of that.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and a happy, safe and prosperous 2015 to each and every one of you.

THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood

Unquiet_House_PBO THE UNQUIET HOUSE

Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£7.99

Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?

It is love at first sight when Emma Dean first sets eyes on Mire House, which she has inherited from a distant, previously-unknown relative. She moves in and soon discovers there is more to the house than meets the eye: the dirty black suit hanging in the wardrobe, and the old man that obviously owns it who she finds standing at the end of her bed on her first night in the house; the muddy footprints that keep appearing in the hall; and, most disturbing of all, the bench in the neighbouring church yard that overlooks the house and is inscribed with the legend "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Matthew 27:46". Is the house really, as it seems, haunted, or is it all the work of Charlie, a young man her own age who should have had a stronger claim to Mire House? As we step back through the history of the house, it becomes clear that it is a cursed place, and in gifting it to Emma, Clarence Mitchell may well have had an ulterior motive.

With her third novel, Alison Littlewood returns to the realms of horror that we find in her debut novel, A Cold Season. What at first seems like a straightforward haunted house story takes dark and sinister turns as we learn the history of Mire House and the woman for whom it was built. The story opens in 2013, with Emma Dean inheriting the house from a relative she didn’t know she had. As soon as we see the house, we can feel that there is something wrong, though Emma herself seems completely captivated by it. There is something malevolent here, a sense that the house knows what it wants (look at the colour of the living room through the different eras, for example), and that the people that have died here in the past are still present. We return to Emma at the end of the novel, with a better understanding of what is happening and, more importantly, why.

Between these two bookending sections, we pay visits to the house in 1973 and again during the final stages of its construction in 1939. Frank Watt, a young boy of eleven, is our guide for the former section, while Frank’s mother, Aggie, takes over the reins for the latter. As we proceed backwards through time, we unpeel the history of Mire House as if it were the layers of an onion. Rumours and supposition give way to harder facts: in 1973 we meet Mr Owens, the owner of the dirty black suit that Emma finds hanging in her wardrobe, and catch more substantial glimpses of the lady in the black veil. In 1939, we meet the lady in the black veil while she is still alive, and learn, first-hand, the terrible history behind the curse on Mire House.

The three stories are cleverly intertwined in a way that gives us the information we need as we progress back through history, but still holds enough back to ensure maximum impact for the final reveal. It’s a beautifully-constructed tale that grabs the reader from the very first glimpse of Mire House, and carries us along – uneasy and, let’s be honest, more than a little bit frightened – for the duration. Alison Littlewood once again proves that she is a master (mistress?) of the quiet school of horror. Her writing is pitch perfect, the language changing according to the time period, her ability to induce a bad case of the heebie jeebies in the reader second to none.

The Unquiet House feels partly like an homage to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black – the big old house bordered by marshland; the cemetery; and, perhaps most telling, the woman in the black veil and her terrible history. Far from a reworking, or retreading of the plot, though, The Unquiet House is a beast of an entirely different species: stripped of all the finery, it’s a haunted house novel and, despite the presence of the ghosts, it is the house itself that instils the greatest fear in the reader. It’s a haunted house novel by a writer of exceptional skill (I’ve said it before, but it does bear repeating) that stands alongside the greats of the genre: fertile ground worked by the likes of Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, against whose seminal works Alison Littlewood can hold her head high.

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

#CarrieAt40: A Regular Guy by ALISON LITTLEWOOD

Unquiet_House_PBO ALISON LITTLEWOOD

On the web: www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk

On Twitter: @Ali__L

I don’t actually remember the first time I read Carrie. I can remember reading it, of course – I’ve done so more than once – but not the when and where. It would have been when I was pretty young, and busy reading everything I could lay my hands on. Part of that was borrowing my brother’s horror novels, which usually had black covers and big silver foil letters on the front. They were generally by Stephen King or James Herbert, with the result that, for me, those books WERE ‘horror’. Until I stumbled on the Mammoth Books of Best New Horror and discovered a whole new raft of writers, they defined the genre; for many, I guess they still do.

Stephen King is a giant. We all know that. He’s also an incredibly talented writer, and better, he always comes across as a very decent guy. I’ve read many more of his novels since then, and loved the vast majority. He has a great way with characters; the people in his books feel like one of us. We discover the unfolding events at their side, which makes it all the more terrifying when the dark surfaces. Sometimes the fears are supernatural in origin, but all too often they’re human. Carrie’s mother, after all, is one of the scariest things in the book. Her subjugation to a religious idea, the fact that it overrides the human connections in her life, even with her daughter – that’s terrifying. And then there’s the cruelty of children, so vividly portrayed; the claustrophobia of a child who doesn’t fit in, trapped in all the indignities and callousness that school life can offer. What bookish child can’t relate to that?

What means the most to me though, when I think of Carrie, is the story of how it came to be written and published. There was the young Stephen King, battling to keep his family afloat – hey, just as if he was a regular guy! And he penned the first few pages, no doubt had a stern talking-to from his inner editor, and chucked them in the bin. And there the story of Carrie may have ended, if it wasn’t for his wife digging them out and telling him he needed to finish it.

Stephen_King_On_WritingI reiterate: just as if he was a regular guy. Because, for a long time, I hardly dared to put pen to paper. I’d built writing up to be something big and scary that other people did. I surely couldn’t do it; I’d better not even try. And then I read On Writing, in which, among other things, King tells the story of writing Carrie. That book was like getting a damn good talking to. And it’s full of hope; the discarded manuscript didn’t just get published but ended up being sold into paperback, for a fairy tale figure. (King rushed out to buy Tabitha a gift: he picked a hair-dryer. It was the only thing he could find in his local store. For some reason, that little detail always makes me smile and want to cry at the same time.)

Soon after reading that story, I went out and joined a local writing class. I started putting words on paper. And it took some time, but I’d actually started out on a little fairy tale of my own.

So thank you, Stephen King – not just for writing a wonderful novel, but for sharing the story of its birth. It’s meant a huge amount to me, as I imagine it has for a great many other people. And it’s good to know you’re a regular guy – but many of us still know that you really are a giant.

Alison Littlewood is the author of A Cold Season, published by Jo Fletcher Books. Her second novel, Path of Needles, is a dark blend of fairy tales and crime fiction, and her latest, a ghost story called The Unquiet House, is set for release in April 2014.

Alison’s short stories have been picked for the Best Horror of the Year and Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy 2013 and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10. Other publication credits include the anthologies Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Where Are We Going? and Never Again. Alison lives in West Yorkshire, England, with her partner Fergus.

TRAITOR’S BLADE by Sebastien de Castell

TRAITOR'S BLADE - Sebastien de Castell TRAITOR’S BLADE

Sebastien de Castell (decastell.com)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£20.00

The Greatcoats are the stuff of legend. Traveling Magisters, their job is to travel the country bringing the King’s justice to his subjects and ensuring his laws are upheld. Falcio val Mond, once the First Cantor of this elite group of men and women, now hires himself out as security for caravaners in the vain hope that he will be able to persuade them to reinstate the Greatcoats as the guardians of the roads. The king is dead, the Greatcoats now branded Trattori and tatter-cloaks, disbanded and gone their separate ways. When Falcio and his friends get wind of a plot to put a representative of the Dukes on the throne, it becomes clear that they must do something quickly, or watch as their land slowly destroys itself from the inside out.

Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade introduces us to a fascinating new fantasy world, and a cast of unforgettable characters. This is a very political world that, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous place for the three men at the story’s heart, and the one hundred and forty one others like them. These are the Greatcoats, a group of men and women sworn to uphold the King’s laws across the country. This is not an easy task: the country is split into a series of Duchies, and each is subject to the laws set by its own Duke. It is this divide that has caused the war between King and Dukes, leading to the ultimate demise of the king, and the current status of Falcio val Mond and his brothers and sisters. This country-wide scenario plays out in microcosm during Blood Week in the city of Rijou; here, driven by the need to uphold the laws in which he believes, Falcio stays behind to ensure the safety of the only surviving member of the Tiarren family, a young girl who, it seems, may be destined for greater things in times to come.

The story revolves around Falcio val Mond and his two companions, Kest – the world’s greatest sword-fighter – and Brasti – the world’s greatest archer. Behind them lies the weight of the legend of the Greatcoats, a group that would only be necessary in this fractured land where each Duke rules supreme over his own area, the King less of a figurehead and more of a nuisance to be dealt with. The coats themselves – armour, shelter, storage – set their wearers apart from knights and other assorted soldiers, bringing respect when times are good, and instant recognition as traitors when times are bad. They also allow de Castell to add little touches to the narrative that set these men apart from anyone else we’ve ever come across in the realms of fantasy fiction – the Game of Cuffs, or the ever-burning question of whether, if a man were quick enough, the coats might be able to stop a lead ball. These men, as individuals, all have their own traits: Falcio’s quick wit and quick rapiers; Brasti’s joking nature and his ability to hit the seemingly impossible target with his bow; Kest’s quiet, serious demeanour coupled with an unrivalled skill with the sword. They fit perfectly together, three personalities so complementary that it’s impossible to imagine Traitor’s Blade without one or other of them.

Around this solid core, de Castell has built a cast of characters that imprint themselves indelibly on the reader’s mind: the cruel Dukes; the young King who is wise beyond his years; princesses, assassins, minstrels and the old Tailor, who has a habit of popping up when we least expect it. de Castell sets the precedent early on: very few of these people are what they appear to be; and, still, we can’t help but be surprised at the level of duplicity we’re likely to encounter as we fly through the novel. Here is a world where magic exists, but in small quantities; a world where political strife impacts on the common man, not just the privileged few who are part of the scheming; a world, and a cast of characters, built on a solid foundation with a supporting history that is as engaging and engrossing as the main story arc itself.

As you might expect from a novel whose central characters are men of the sword, Traitor’s Blade is a constant blur of movement and action, one fight sequence following so closely on the heels of the one previous that it’s difficult to work out where de Castell has managed to fit so much story. But there is plenty of food for thought here, amongst all the action, as de Castell embarks on epic world-building designed to support the rest of the Greatcoats saga. There is a lot of wit and a lot of heart in this novel (which, when compared to its contemporaries, is relatively short at less than four hundred pages) and both serve the story well, setting a tone and a mood that can quite often be missing in these quest-type fantasy epics.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘We teach them the first rule of the sword.’
One of the guards, the one closest to Kest, tightened his grip on his pike in preparation for the attack and said jeeringly, ‘And what’s that supposed to be tatter-cloak? Lay down and die like the traitors you are?’
‘No,’ Kest said. ‘The first rule of the sword is–‘
His words were cut off as the guard jabbed his pike with the speed of a metal ball flying from the end of a pistol.
‘– put the pointy end into the other man,’ Kest finished.

I’ve been on a lucky run with fantasy novels of late. Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, the first book in the longer Greatcoats saga, is not the book to break that run. Full of wit, intrigue, action and violence, it’s a wonderful introduction to a new fantasy world and the people that inhabit it. And, from what we see on our first visit, there are plenty of reasons to come back for more.

GUEST POST: Fathers & The Mothership by NAOMI FOYLE

naomi-foyle_yvo-luna_3_1-278x300 Name: NAOMI FOYLE

Author of: SEOUL SURVIVORS (2013)
                 ASTRA (2014)

On the web: naomifoyle.com

On Twitter: @naomifoyle

To celebrate the recent publication of her second novel, Astra, we are very pleased to welcome Naomi Foyle to Reader Dad.

Fathers & the Mothership: Astra and the Evolution of Masculinity

Reader Dad – cool theme, I hope it’s okay if I piggyback . . . I’d like to explore how I approached the themes of masculinity and fatherhood in Astra, a novel which attempts to revision the nuclear family in the aftermath of a global environmental catastrophe.

Ever since I was a child I have questioned gender stereotypes, as I expect readers of this blog do regularly too. But at the same time I cannot deny that gender expectations affect most, if not all people to some degree. By ‘masculinity’, then, I mean a set of traits traditionally associated with men, whether or not individual men identify with any or all of their sometimes conflicting demands. Men, at least in Western culture, are supposed to be competitive and dominant, but also to build successful hierarchies; rational and systematic but also risk-taking; athletic and yet never in need of the doctor; protective of one’s mate but also virile to the point of promiscuity; a stable financial provider and an independent adventurer, not to mention tall, a guitar-playing genius, and funny . . . even though all this is supposed to ensure male dominance, it actually sounds pretty stressful – especially if one is culturally forbidden to express grief, fear, self-doubt, regret, apology, anxiety, non-sexual affection or empathy for others. I have my own struggles with gender roles, but as someone of the female sex at least if I’m upset I’m allowed to have a good cry and seek support. Fortunately for everyone, it seems that gradually men are redefining masculinity to include the full range of human experience. Out on the street there’s a veritable epidemic of men pushing prams; at work my young male students express vulnerability in their writing; my own male friends support and respect me, and confide in each other; and with The Bridge we even got a warm, emotional male detective on TV. Meanwhile, science increasingly demonstrates that masculinity is as much a cultural construct as a biological condition, and therefore subject to historical change [1]. This is all fertile ground for the feminist SF writer.

But let’s not get too cosy. Quite apart from the effects on our psyches, traditional Western gender roles are a recipe for global disaster: while profit-seeking alpha males drive war and environmental plunder, women’s shopping addictions fuel our exploitative, throwaway consumerist society. This literally can’t go on, and in writing Astra I wanted to imagine a radical alternative. Astra, then, is a young girl growing up in a futuristic world where rising sea levels have redrawn the continents, and floods, drought, disease and war have drastically depopulated the globe. But while some wealthy elites survived the worst of the Great Collapse in bunkers, they emerged to discover that many ordinary people had not succumbed to violent panic, but survived by sharing knowledge and resources. The meek have not exactly inherited the earth, but nevertheless, a new, if fragile, ethos of mutual aid has taken root in the world. Models of leadership have changed, and while powerful men (and women) still jockey for status, their agendas are now kept in check by the Council of New Continents (CONC), an elected body including religious leaders, politicians, community leaders and Internet gurus charged with re-establishing international law and infrastructures, and resettling the huge numbers of refugees. This is no utopia, but it seems as though humanity has learned some lessons from its reckless pursuit of economic progress at all costs.

In this ravaged new world, no-one believes themselves more advanced than Astra’s society, the Gaians. Co-habiting in nudist vegan communities in which all human work, sexuality and love are held to be forms of Earth-worship, Gaians were once persecuted for their unconventional lifestyles. Now, however, they are being rewarded for their many advances in bioengineering and sustainable technology. Considering genetic modification a form of ‘conscious evolution’, Gaians have pioneered extensive health and safety testing procedures for GMO, and in exchange for the donation of a valuable type of these seeds, CONC has established a country, Is-Land, for them to live in. Here, safe behind their Boundary, the Gaians have begun to select desirable human traits, strengthening their children against the perils of radioactivity, cancer and extreme temperatures. Conception, then, occurs increasingly in laboratories, while children are brought up in extended, often mixed-race families by a combination of Code (genetic) parents, Birth (womb-providing), and Shelter (care-giving) parents: unique arrangements of mothers and/or fathers, straight and/or LGBT, who may or may not be sexual partners, all sharing the nurturing, protective, educational, and disciplinarian aspects of parenthood.

For despite their personification of the planet as a female deity, Gaians reject essentialist views of gender. Gaia Herself is perceived as embodying not only the feminine qualities of beauty and nurturing, but also the masculine traits of destructive ferocity and unquestionable authority. This conceptual flexibility enables the society to draw on all its members’ collective skills. Boys, girls and trans* children are taught how statistically significant gender differences might affect them, but all are given equal intellectual and athletic opportunities, and all must do National Service to defend the Boundary. The country’s political structures ensure that men, women and transgender people communicate as equals, while the group nudity, far from encouraging male dominance, both normalises the naked body and demands a high degree of sexual self-mastery – pubescent boys, for example, learn to take pride in their ability to control their erections. The Gaians are far from austere, however. In Is-Land sexuality is celebrated and respected as a healthy, powerful elemental force, felt in varying degrees by everyone. I can’t say, of course, what gender differences would remain in such a culture, but as a novelist I assumed that rather than a ‘unisex’ world we would see a range of individuals –from gentle to hot-tempered, social to solitary, emotionally sensitive to robust, thoughtful to heedless – so that is what I tried to portray. Neither did I think such a frank approach to sex would cure all social ills. While medical advances have largely eliminated STIs and unwanted pregnancies, sexual jealousy and inappropriate relationships still cause conflict, to which the Gaians find their own solutions.

Sexuality of course is only one aspect of life. Gaians value work and family just as much as erotic pleasure. But while most children have a variety of Code, Birth and Shelter parents, Astra’s own family story – as is usual in heroic quest narratives – is atypical. She has never known her Code father or Birth-Code mother, and is brought up by three Shelter parents, Hokma, a lone genius, and Nimma and Klor, an older couple who have lost their only Code child in violent circumstances. Here you are entitled to object that this is hardly a radical set-up: in a sense Astra is like an orphan being brought up by grandparents and an aunt. And while there are gay parents and an intersex child in her community, I agree that her own family is pretty close to a conventional arrangement. Partly this is because I unconsciously began writing from a place near to my own personal experience, but as I developed the characters I was also aware of a conscious desire to depict a heterosexual man as a nurturing parent. This was not because I believe all children need a straight dad. Love is love, whoever gives it, and anyone worried about ‘male redundancy’ should support the entry of more men into primary school teaching, where kids could benefit from a diversity of role models. But equally, one of the major tragedies of the model of masculinity I cited earlier is the way the pressure to perform in the workplace, and prohibition on emotional communication, have precluded loving relationships with a man’s own children. Astra is, of course, as much about the present as the future, and because so many people I know suffer from a lack of closeness to our fathers, by writing Klor as a kind and patient man (based in part on ‘Shelter parents’ of my own), I was trying to say that this absence is not inevitable. As a recent UK study demonstrated, men of all cultures can heal, and are healing, that collective wound, a process the authors predict will continue down the generations.

There is still a gap, however, in Astra’s emotional world. Other kids around her have sets of bonded parents, and she also hankers for approval from Hokma’s partner Ahn. Ahn, though, for complex reasons, rebuffs her interest, and Astra’s keen resentment toward him feeds into the novel’s building conflict. She also begins to ask questions about her identity – and about the nature of Is-Land – that only her Code father can answer. For just as family tensions have not disappeared in this experimental Eden, neither have political conflicts. As readers of the novel already know, for all its ideals, Gaianism is also a cruel philosophy, and Astra will need a full gamut of strengths – whether masculine, feminine or just plain human – to discover who she is and one day use that knowledge to confront her society’s flaws.

__________________________

[1] My views on gender reflect those of biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and her commitment to Developmental Systems Theory (DST), in which gender is conceived as a continuum, and nature and nurture are held to profoundly influence each other. Fausto-Sterling does not deny that biological differences can be associated with observable differences in behaviour, and that some may indeed be innate. But she points out first that gender differences are relative, not absolute (individuals vary greatly), and second, that our bodies themselves are shaped by life experience and cultural expectations. This is most obvious in the case of intersex children, routinely assigned a male or female identity at birth through genital surgery, but the influence of culture on biology is also more subtle and pervasive, affecting neurological and hormonal processes in everyone. A recent study, for example, discovered higher than average testosterone levels in both male and female trial lawyers, a result which the authors associated with the ‘energy, dominance, persistence, combativeness, and focused attention’ required to perform this particular job. But while high-testosterone individuals may be naturally attracted to the profession, equally, the challenges of the job itself may increase production of the hormone: in another recent study, football fans were shown to produce significantly more or less testosterone depending on whether their team won or lost – mental events, these researchers concluded, can affect our material being. Thus, as Fausto-Sterling argues, boys and girls may develop differently in part because from a very early age they are attempting to obey the overwhelming cultural mandate to ‘support the team’ and conform to gender stereotypes. Studies do show that, as a group, boys make an early move from dolls to trucks, and cognitively speaking it is also true that men have a statistical tendency to systematise and women to empathise; DST, however, asks us to carefully study the emergence of these preferences and skills in the context of the gender expectations of specific families, schools and cultures. Only such a methodology, based on the increasingly accepted premise that the brain is not ‘hard-wired’ but ‘plastic’, will enable us to draw any sound conclusions about innate gender differences and their evolution.

ASTRA - Naomi Foyle

Like every child in Is-Land, all Astra Ordott wants is to have her Security Shot, do her National Service and defend her Gaian homeland from Non-Lander ‘infiltrators’. But when one of her Shelter mothers, the formidable Dr Hokma Blesser, tells her the shot will limit her chances of becoming a scientist and offers her an alternative, Astra agrees to her plan.

When the orphaned Lil arrives to share Astra’s home, Astra is torn between jealousy and fascination. Lil’s father taught her some alarming ideas about Is-Land and the world, but when she pushes Astra too far, the heartache that results goes far beyond the loss of a friend.

If she is to survive, Astra must learn to deal with devastating truths about Is-Land, Non-Land and the secret web of adult relationships that surrounds her.

Astra is now available.

YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD by David Towsey

YOUR BROTHERS BLOOD - David Towsey YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD

David Towsey (davidtowsey.blogspot.co.uk)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£20.00

Thomas McDermott has left his family, and his community in the small town of Barkley, and gone off to fight in a war in which he has no conviction. When Thomas returns home, he will be a much changed man – Thomas is dead, a Walkin’, an abomination in the eyes of his friends and neighbours, an abomination that cannot be allowed to continue existing. When the religious fanatics of Barkley decide that the offspring of the Walkin’ must suffer the same fate as their parents, Thomas flees into the wilderness with his daughter – a posse chasing close behind – in search of a rumoured haven for the his kind.

Set almost 1000 years in the future, where the Earth is a desolate place, a shadow of what it once was. According to the histories, Automated Man has long since fallen from scientific grace, the cause of which has been lost in the mists of time. What is known is that one of that age’s greatest discoveries led to a mutation in a large portion of the population that caused the dead to return to life, the mind active while the body continues on a steady downward path of decay.

David Towsey introduces us to the town of Barkley through the sermon of the fanatical Pastor Gray, immediately giving us some idea of the mind-set that drives the people of this small town. In parallel to this, we meet Thomas as he awakens at the bottom of a funeral pyre pit, partially-burned and almost immediately fully aware of what he has become. When one of Thomas’ comrades, also newly risen from the dead, stumbles into town, we learn how the people of Barkley, under the leadership of Gray, deal with the Walkin’, and their families. From there, the course of the novel seems strangely inevitable, as Thomas turns towards home, dooming not only himself, but his teenage daughter, Mary. And yet, there are surprises in store as we watch the dynamics of the important characters in this small town: the pastor and his acolyte, the law man, the grave digger, the elder, and Thomas’ wife, Sarah.

There is a post-apocalyptic feel to the novel, though there is no evidence of any single catastrophic event that might have led humanity to this point. This is a world with no technology, a world that has reverted to a much simpler time and, as such, Barkley feels like it’s located in some remote corner of the Old American West. Without the documentation and transcripts that act as chapter leads, this might be an old-fashioned weird Western – The Walking Dead meets Shane – or a tale set in some fantasy world, like Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country. As it is, the actual location matters little; this is a tale driven purely by the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves.

At the centre of the tale is the McDermott family; not only Thomas and Sarah and Mary, but also Thomas’ extended family – his brother ends up joining the posse sent out to hunt Thomas down. It’s a tale of the inexplicable bonds that keep a family together and make it whole, the love that exists between husband and wife, and between parents and children. There is no surprise when Thomas’ first thought upon discovering that he is now dead is to see his family once more, regardless of how dangerous it might be for him, or the harsh words spoken between him and his wife before he left for the front. Around the family are the other characters – the law man who may be sympathetic to their cause; the grave digger who has no desire to see more death than is necessary; and, most interestingly, the religious fanatics who believe they have been sent by some god or other to rid the world of evil. There is a long tradition of these characters in the horror genre (I’m always reminded most forcefully of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody); here, they work very well, because there is a ring of truth to them, a sense that we might see them on the evening news ranting about whatever pet hate drives them ever onwards.

Your Brother’s Blood is the first part of a series known as The Walkin’. Despite the name, and the subject matter, David Towsey’s debut novel bears no resemblance to that other modern zombie staple The Walking Dead (even though I’ve now mentioned it twice in the space of a single review). These are not George A. Romero-style zombies with an insatiable lust for braaaaaaaiiiiins!, but people whose physiology refuses to let them stay dead, allowing them to carry on as if nothing had happened. In some ways, it’s an examination of how war changes men, with resurrection presenting a much more literal change than the psychological impact normally implied.

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

GUEST POST: Questions and Answers by DAVID TOWSEY

David Towsey Name: DAVID TOWSEY

Author of: YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD (2013)

On the web: davidtowsey.blogspot.co.uk

On Twitter: @D_Towsey

I’m very pleased to welcome David Towsey to Reader Dad, to celebrate the release of his debut novel, Your Brother’s Blood, the first book in his The Walkin’ series. My review of this excellent book will be live on the site soon, but for now, here’s David with some background on the series, and his writing process.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I pose a lot of questions. Questions are one tool in a writer’s arsenal when trying to draw a reader into a new world and meet new people; and once they’re there, to keep them turning the page. I can’t imagine there are any authors who don’t generate questions for a reader in their fiction – but I’d be interested to hear suggestions to the contrary. But there is tremendous variation between authors when it comes to answers.

It sounds basic, and that’s because it is. The setting up of questions followed by the gradual process of answering them is arguably the foundation of fiction. ‘How will character X defeat situation Y?’ etc, etc. There is a kind of contract between reader and author: if a reader is going to put themselves into a position of receiving the question then the author must, at some point, deliver the answer.

This is further complicated by ideas of satisfaction and individual preference, which is what makes the whole thing interesting. Some readers want all the answers and they want them now. Other readers only want some of the answers and are willing to negotiate when they get them. There is, I think, a minority of readers who only want one answer and are happy to have the other questions remain unresolved. I don’t believe any of these approaches are better than the rest, but I am definitely part of said minority.

‘I write books I would want to read.’ Heard that one before, huh? Bear with me; it’s a useful cliché for what I’m trying to say.

I like reading books that show me a world, resolve a particular narrative within it, but do not resolve that entire world. The example that leaps to my mind, and forgive me for choosing a film rather than a book, is THE MATRIX. Like many people I was blown away by the first Matrix film; I guess I was at the right age and the right demographic for it to have a major effect. Ignoring the kung-fu action and the cyber-punk aesthetic, both of which enthralled me, the ending of that film was possibly the most satisfying ending for me as a “reader” of SF texts that I can remember.

Neo is standing in a telephone box. The audience doesn’t know specifically who he is calling, but it becomes apparent he’s addressing the machine consciousness as a whole. He admits he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He hasn’t saved the world or defeated the villain – not completely. There are so many hinted at or inferred possible futures. It is a narrative that is both complete in terms of the contractual agreement the audience has made with the film makers, and incomplete in terms of the internal world of that narrative. So much so it spawned THE ANIMATRIX (which I greatly preferred to the following sequels, for reasons that are probably now obvious) and a narrative heavy MMORPG. After my first viewing of the film I came away satisfied I’d experienced a story, but also excited about other stories. I wanted to write a book like that.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I created a world but I only wrote one story. The story of a soldier, Thomas McDermott, that dies, comes back to life, and is desperate to see his family.

*** SPOILERS ***

The journey he takes with his daughter is the only question that is fully resolved by the end of the book. Neither side has won the war that killed him. The religious regime in the town of Barkley is undermined but still in place. The questions of what the world will do with Walkin’ like Thomas, or what caused them in first place, are left unanswered.

As the first book in a trilogy I sense YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD is being cut some slack. Readers that might otherwise dislike the open-ended nature of the book are reserving judgement. But with book two pretty much finished and being halfway through book three, I can say with some certainty that I’m still channelling that Matrix vibe that excited me so much as a youngster. I might be finishing the McDermott family saga in these three books, but this is not a resolved world. I still have questions, and so will my readers.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑