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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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RELICS by Tim Lebbon

Relics RELICS

Tim  Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Angela Gough’s life is happy and normal until the day her boyfriend, Vince, leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Mysterious notes through the door, which may be in his handwriting tell her to stay away, not to look for him, but Angela isn’t about to let him disappear out of her life without so much as an explanation. As she digs, she finds that her boyfriend is not the man she thought he was. He works for one of London’s biggest crime bosses and seems to have a secret life outside the one he shares with Angela. As she finds herself digging into the dangerous black market for ancient relics, pieces of creatures that should never have existed outside the pages of myth and legend, she soon discovers that there is more to London than the domain of humankind.

Relics is the start of a new urban fantasy series from genre legend Tim Lebbon. It’s a familiar plot – partners keeping secrets from each other, until one discovers that the other works for a criminal overlord, or is a Russian sleeper agent, or whatever the twist happens to be. In this instance it’s the gangster, but Lebbon twists slightly further, adding a dash of the supernatural to what might otherwise be described as gritty Britcrime. All of the ingredients are here: the man with a deep secret; the mob boss that he works for, and the rival mob boss who wants his special skills. It all sounds like your run of the mill London noir, until you factor in what exactly Vince does for Fat Frederick Meloy: he’s a relic hunter, a man with a special talent for finding old, rare artefacts, things which should not exist, and for which rich people will pay a fortune in order to add it to their collection.

At the centre of the story is Angela, a Bostonian living and studying in London. She shares a compact flat with her boyfriend Vince, and life is good, at least until Vince disappears and her world begins to fall apart. What makes Angela’s persistence and temerity believable is the fact that her study is focused on gangs and gang warfare. It also gives Lebbon the chance to give us some background on the darker figures – Meloy and Mary Rock – in a natural fashion, without the need for pages of backstory and exposition. While Angela is the central character, the story is told from the points of view of several other characters as well – Vince himself takes centre stage for much of the book; and Lilou, a nymph whose life Vince saved, gives us some insight into the state of mind of London’s lesser-known inhabitants, a group of so-called mythical creatures who call themselves collectively, the Kin.

Surprisingly, one of the book’s most engaging characters is gangster Fat Frederick Meloy, a man whose nickname no longer fits the bill. When we first encounter Meloy in the narrative, he comes across as a stereotypical London gangster. Lebbon, however, builds him into a larger-than-life character who, for many of the scenes where he is present, steals the show. A collector of the ancient relics himself, we see many sides of this complex man, despite the reputation that has grown up around him: at once the childlike glee whilst in the presence of his collection and the barely-contained violence that simmers beneath the surface. Meloy’s opposite number, Mary Rock, is a much more sinister character and we soon discover that she is not content to deal in ancient relics; she has discovered that the Kin still exist, and has developed a thirst – and a client-base – for something a little more fresh, something harvested from the fresh corpse of an angel, or a nymph, or a satyr.

Despite the supernatural elements, Relics does still feel like something of a contemporary crime novel. The London of Relics is, for the most part, the London of our own world, though Lebbon does explore a lesser-known face of the city, presenting a side of it that might fit well with the location of Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Mieville’s King Rat. Yes, there are creatures here that shouldn’t exist, but the story feels grounded in the real world through the evocation of London, and the realistic, empathetic characters that populate it.

Tim Lebbon is the quintessential genre author (which genre? All of them!) and Relics is the latest in a long line of unmissable books. Darkly thrilling, with more than a dash of black humour, it’s a novel that could easily be devoured in a single sitting, and is probably best enjoyed in this way. An excellent start to a promising new series, this is Lebbon at the top of his game.

The 2013 Round-Up

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

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

THE ROUND-UP

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

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

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

MATT’S TOP 10 DEBUTS OF 2013

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

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

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

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

   
Hobbs-Ghostman GHOSTMAN by Roger Hobbs (Doubleday)

What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.

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

There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.

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

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

   
REVIVER - Seth Patrick REVIVER by Seth Patrick (Macmillan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MATT’S TOP 10 NON-DEBUTS OF 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   
saveyourselfkellybraffet SAVE YOURSELF by Kelly Braffet (Corvus)

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

   
OCEAN - GAiman

Language_of_Dying1-637x1024

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

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

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

COMING SOON…

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

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

FEARIE TALES by Stephen Jones

FEARIE TALES - Stephen Jones FEARIE TALES: STORIES OF THE GRIMM AND GRUESOME

Edited by Stephen Jones (www.stephenjoneseditor.com)

Illustrated by Alan Lee

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£14.99

For most of us, the fairy tale is one of the staples of growing up. Bedtime stories for young children, it’s only when we reach adulthood that we realise just how disturbing they are, how cruel our parents must have been to send us to bed with these images our final goodnight. Of course, Disney has helped somewhat in that regard, making the frightening seem less so, and often changing the structure of the tale to suit their own ends (see, for example, Disney’s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid", which bears little resemblance, after a certain point, to the source material.

Most often used as cautionary tales, and used to instil the fear if God (or, at the very least, the Big Bad Wolf) into those more gullible than the teller (children), it’s sometimes difficult to believe that they’ve stood the test of time as well as they have. With Fearie Tales, noted horror anthologist Stephen Jones sets out to return the form to its roots. Using the original tales collected in the early 19th Century by the brothers Grimm as inspiration, Jones presents a collection of modern day fairy tales designed to frighten and unsettle, and written by some of the foremost practitioners of horror and dark fantasy currently working in their respective fields.

Each modern story is prefaced by one of the original Grimm tales, and what follows range from direct translations to more loosely connected stories which, perhaps, share a theme with one if the older tales. Ramsey Campbell presents a modern re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin", while Neil Gaiman works his magic on the tale of "The Singing Bone". Robert Shearman takes a slightly different approach and puts a sinister twist on the later lives of Hansel and Gretel in a story that will make you reconsider reading the tale of the siblings to your own children. Another re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin" closes the book, this time by the excellent John Ajvide Lindqvist (and ably translated by the ever-reliable Marlaine Delargy), who introduces the Swedish myth of the tomte, a creature which will likely be unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers.

As with any anthology of fiction, there are always one or two stand-out pieces. With Fearie Tales, the stand-outs are absolute gems, amidst a stellar line-up of authors, from two less likely suspects. The first is Christopher Fowler’s "The Ash-Boy". Fowler is probably best known for his quirky crime novels starring the elderly detective duo Bryant and May, but his roots lie in the horror genre, and it’s one he still frequently visits. In this case, Fowler tells the story of Cinderella with a twist. But it’s the final few paragraphs, where we realise that we’re listening to a father tell this story to his young daughter, that packs the punch and sets this apart from the other stories in the book.

Peter Crowther’s story, "The Artemis Line" is worth the price of admission alone. The titles refers to the physically connected line of bodies that must exist for a troll to move away from a body of water, yet remain connected to it through the connection with its brethren, and the story is a modern-day retelling of the story of the elves who replace a baby with a changeling. One of the longer stories in the book, it grips the reader from the word go and ends all-too-quickly. It is also one of the most frightening tales in the book, Crowther drawing on his vast experience of the genre to live up to the anthology’s title.

It’s a hand, he thought as the scarecrow’s head slowly fell from view, the hat dislodging, pushed up and back by the brim until it fell off completely, exposing a material dome beneath, sprinkled with dry straw.

It’s a hand grasping at my foot, he thought.

The book is illustrated throughout by Alan Lee, best known for his depictions of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Despite the black-and-white nature of these illustrations – or perhaps because of it – they contain a level of detail and a certain gruesome quality that makes them as likely to stick in the mind of the reader as the stories themselves.

Jones has assembled a list of veritable superstars and set them the task of recreating the stories of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their own inimitable fashion. The result is an excellent collection of dark and thought-provoking tales by the people who do them best: Neil Gaiman, Michael Marshall Smith, Tanith Lee, to name but a few. The inclusion of the original Grimm tales serves as a reminder that those tales we remember so fondly would probably give us nightmares if we were to read them for the first time, in their original form, as adults. This is a must for horror aficionados everywhere, and doubly so for anyone with a penchant for fairy tales in particular. The usual high production values from Jo Fletcher mean this is a book that you’ll want to have displayed on your shelf, and that’s just the icing on the cake. Dark, disturbing but most of all: wonderful.

DOCTOR WHO at 50: 11 DOCTORS 11 STORIES

11 Doctors 11 Stories 11 DOCTORS 11 STORIES

Eoin Colfer (www.eoincolfer.com)
Michael Scott (www.dillonscott.com)
Marcus Sedgwick (www.marcussedgwick.com)
Philip Reeve (www.philip-reeve.com)
Patrick Ness (www.patrickness.com)
Richelle Mead (www.richellemead.com)
Malorie Blackman (www.malorieblackman.co.uk)
Alex Scarrow (www.scarrow.co.uk)
Charlie Higson (www.charliehigson.co.uk)
Derek Landy (www.skulduggerypleasant.co.uk)
Neil Gaiman (www.neilgaiman.com)

Puffin Books (www.puffinbooks.com)

£12.99

On 23rd November 1963, the BBC introduced the Doctor to the world. In the intervening fifty years, we have been excited, frightened and entertained by the adventures of this "mad man in a blue box" in no less than eleven different guises. To celebrate the golden jubilee of this timeless creation, eleven of the finest writers of Young Adult fiction in the world took one regeneration each, and crafted a short story for that Doctor. Originally published as a series of short ebooks, the eleven stories have now been collected into a beautiful trade-paperback edition by Puffin Books and released just in time for the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Presented in chronological order, the stories pit the Doctor, and a host of companions, both new and old, against the expected universe of evil aliens, some of whom fans have met before, others new to the Whoniverse (I’m never quite sure whether than relates to Doctor Who or the works of Doctor Seuss). William Hartnell’s First Doctor finds himself battling child-stealing soul pirates, the adventure influencing one of the most enduring tales for children to be written in the early 20th Century (Eoin Colfer’s “A Big Hand for the Doctor”); Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor goes up against the Lovecraftian Archons (Michael Scott’s “The Nameless City”); Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh finds himself on an unrecognisable Skaro, on an alternate timeline where Daleks form the cultural and scientific heart of the universe (Malorie Blackman’s “The Ripple Effect”); while Matt Smith’s Eleventh finds himself doing battle with the Kin, a time-travelling alien bent on destroying the Doctor’s pet planet, Earth (Neil Gaiman’s “Nothing O’Clock”).

The stories are uniformly excellent, well-researched and written with an eye to detail obviously designed to please the fans. Each Doctor comes alive at the pen of their respective author, and each author manages to isolate the unique characteristics of their specific Doctor and build a story that will appeal to fans of all ages. Along with the Doctors we meet many of the characters we love so much from the TV series; the Master (in his Roger Delgado guise) puts in a brief appearance in the Second Doctor story, while the Rani plays the role of central villain to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. Fifty years of television and eleven regenerations of the central character provides a huge cast of companions on which the authors can draw. In most instances, the companion of choice will come as no surprise: Susan for the First; Jo Grant for the Third; Ace for the Seventh; Amy Pond for the Eleventh. There are two, though, conspicuous by their absence from the book. Sarah Jane Smith is noticeably absent from the Fourth Doctor story, in favour of Leela, while Rose Tyler is absent from both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors’ stories. They seem like odd omissions, but the book doesn’t suffer from their absence.

While uniformly excellent, there are always going to be stories that stand out from the others. Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor story has a clever twist in the tale that will have the reader re-examining the tale for a second time with fresh eyes; Richelle Mead’s tale of the Sixth Doctor (“Something Borrowed”) is told in the first person by companion Peri Brown and pits him against fellow Time Lord, the Rani; Malorie Blackman’s Seventh Doctor story contains, probably, the weakest characterisation of the Doctor (which is a shame, since Sylvester McCoy was always "my Doctor"), but the story is well-told and shows a much darker side of the Doctor than we like to remember; Neil Gaiman’s closing story, with the Eleventh Doctor at the helm, is no less than we’ve come to expect from this excellent writer, and stands alongside his TV episodes, "The Doctor’s Wife" and "Nightmare in Silver" as one of the finest Eleventh Doctor stories you’ll find anywhere.

There is plenty here to please fans both young and old – and, for that matter, new and old – in a collection of stories that shows why the Doctor is such an enduring character. Always fresh, even when facing the same old foe, the Doctor, in whichever of his guises we meet him, and that faithful, iconic old police box that is so much bigger on the inside, are as much a joy on paper as they are onscreen. Thrilling, funny and as clever as we’ve come to expect from one of the finest shows to grace British television in the past fifty years, this is a collection not to be missed, an absolute must for fans of everyone’s favourite Time Lord and a wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary.

An Interview with SETH PATRICK

seth-patrick Name: SETH PATRICK

Author of: REVIVER (2013)

On the web: sethpatrickauthor.blogspot.co.uk

On Twitter: @SethPatrickUK

A native Northern Irishman living in England, Seth Patrick is an Oxford mathematics graduate who now works as a programmer in a games company. His first novel, Reviver, was recently published by Macmillan.

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

First off, I’d like to explore the origins of the world you have created in Reviver. What was your starting point, and how much work/research was involved in making something essentially so off-the-wall seem so grounded and realistic?

A friend pointed out the Wikipedia date entries that let you see who you share your birthday with. I found I share mine with Edgar Allan Poe, which brought to mind two Poe stories: The Facts in the Case of Monsieur Valdemar, and Murders in the Rue Morgue. In Valdemar, a terminally ill man is hypnotised at the point of death, then speaks from beyond the grave; Murders in the Rue Morgue is considered the first modern detective story. They collided in my head as an image of the detective interviewing Valdemar’s corpse, and it went from there.

Making sure it was grounded in reality was something I knew would be both crucial and damn hard to achieve, so I read up on forensic science, especially pathology. There were things in my favour, though – TV depictions of forensic science all portray a version that is sheer fantasy. Every CSI-style franchise takes such ludicrous narrative shortcuts that as soon as you see something striving to be remotely genuine, it gives it much more authority. I hoped the same thing would happen with Reviver, that nurturing an air of credibility would pay off even though the premise is outlandish.

And how close to your original vision was the end result?

For a debut novel it was a tough thing to pull off, but I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

You’ve left the ending wide open for a sequel, more than hinting that there is much more to come. Can we expect to see Jonah and Never again? Do you have a plan for what happens next, and have you a feel for how long it’s going to take to tell the complete story?

Absolutely! It’s a trilogy, and I’m finishing book two now. I have a broad plan for book three, but I’ll be getting started on that over the next few months.

Never Geary, a technician from Northern Ireland, plays a central role in the story. It’s an unusual enough occurrence to stand out (and something only a local would ever attempt!), and I found myself intrigued by the character. Is there any of you in Never, or were there any motives behind the choice of his nationality?

There’s a lot of me in both Jonah and Never, I think, together with plenty of what I would like to be. I’m nowhere near as principled as Jonah, or as sociable as Never, for example. When Never showed up, in the second draft of the book, his nationality emerged from the way he was speaking. It was only later that I realised Never was saying exactly what I would have said with a pint or two in me…

When the movie rights sold it occurred to me that finding a Northern Irish accent done well in a film is hen’s teeth – although maybe that’s just because being attuned to the accent makes you less forgiving. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis did a great job of it in Burke and Hare, mind you, so it can be done, but the key thing with Never would be getting the big-hearted cheeky-bastard aspect right. The nationality is secondary. I mean, they kept Noomi Rapace’s character in Prometheus as English for no discernible reason, and… Well, don’t let me get started on Prometheus.

The concept of revival is an intriguing one, and you have tried to answer a lot of the questions it might raise in the novel. One thing that does intrigue me, though, is whether you would use the service yourself if it existed, either to say goodbye to a deceased family member, or to say your own final goodbyes?

That’s the big unspoken question for the reader – would you do this? Would you go through it, from either side? That was why revival had to feel real, and accepted, so the reader could believe in people making that choice.

In the book, the journalist who first announced revival to the world, Daniel Harker, finds it impossible to go through with his own wife’s revival, leaving his daughter to face it alone. Even he wasn’t sure about it.

As for me being revived, I think saying goodbye would be such a powerful thing for those left behind, it would have to be their decision. If anything I did would make it easier for them, then the answer would have to be yes.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

My reading took off with Terrence Dicks and the bazillion Dr Who novels. It was probably Stephen King who cemented things, The Shining and The Stand were the first two massive books I read, then Clive Barker, Arthur C Clarke, Greg Bear, along with 2000AD and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen.

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

I’m an absolute sucker for short stories – Stephen King’s Night Shift and Skeleton Crew played a huge part in my falling in love with reading, as did Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. I’d have to go with Greg Egan’s collection Axiomatic, though, as probably the time I most strongly recall being so awed and jealous simultaneously.

My other memorable so-good-I want-to-kill-them works have been Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Greg Bear’s Blood Music, and the first issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which is perfection. Bastard.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Seth Patrick look like?

My day job is as a games programmer on the Total War series. By the time I cycle home in the evening it’s past seven, so I grab something to eat, help get the kids to bed, then hurry down to my writing shed to play some urgent games of FreeCell and read a thousand tweets.

With all the critical stuff out of the way, it’s time to knuckle down and get on with it. Given that I’m typically knackered by then, cola and coffee come in handy. I give myself forty minutes, though – forty minutes of genuine, focused effort to get things flowing, and if it’s not happening I let myself call it a night. It’s a devious little trick, because if I’ve been genuinely trying things almost always flow.

And when things really flow, and suddenly I realise it’s two in the bloody morning but I’m still annoyed because I have to stop, well… that’s what it’s all about.

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

Pursue it as something you love to do for its own sake. Making a career out of writing is tough. It usually takes a while to build an audience before a long-term career becomes viable – if it’ll even happen at all. JK Rowling’s recent reveal as Robert Galbraith drew a few gasps when people discovered that her glowingly-reviewed book had only sold 500 copies in three months, but that’s the way it works for debut authors.

Most writers I’ve met still make more from their day job than from their writing. Trying to write a big hit is like filling in a really, really long lottery ticket, and it’s only the winners you’ll hear about.

But if you love to write, your aim should be to write a book that’s fit to publish, and then write another, and another, learning and getting better all the time. Don’t expect perfection from yourself, but do expect competence and improvement, and plug away at it.

Oh, and one other thing: write something you’d want to read. It may seem obvious, but it makes all the difference.

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

Always for pleasure! I’ve just finished the superb London Falling by Paul Cornell. Once it got into its stride, it was the most enjoyable thing I’ve read in a long time. Right now I’m half-way through Greg Egan’s Clockwork Rocket, which is what you expect from Egan – often a tough read, not for everyone by any means (and I’ve been finding myself clinging on for dear life at times) but it’s awe-inducing intellectual SF with a soul.

Reviver has already been optioned by savvy film executives. If it ever makes the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

It’s a hard question, but Alfonso Cuaron is the only director I’ve thought of so far who seems to fit. As for cast, any time someone throws out a well-known name it jars, so I’d opt for unknowns in the core roles. Just really talented future-star unknowns. How hard can that be? It’s with the Man of Steel producers, job done.

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)?

Drink choice first. This is presumably a pub we’re in? Guinness is always an option, but I tend to pick a random draft ale and see how that turns out.

I’d love to meet Greg Egan or Stephen King, but I’d either clam up or drone on and on about how amazing they are. Either way I’d come across as an idiot. A better option would be listening in to those two chatting, with a few other favourite authors thrown in for good measure. I’d be the one who keeps the drinks and salty snacks coming, mind. Priorities.

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

ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

ALIF THE UNSEEN - G Willow Wilson ALIF THE UNSEEN

G. Willow Wilson (www.gwillowwilson.com)

Corvus Books (corvus-books.co.uk)

£12.99

Released: 1st September 2012

Get your pen and paper, it said. I will tell you the final story. It comes with a warning.

“What’s that?”

When you hear it, you will become someone else.

From time to time I’ll start reading a book and find myself thinking: this is what it’s all about. It’s a feeling that’s rare enough to be special, and I find myself marking my progress through life by these literary landmarks – “The Mist”, which was my first encounter with the mind of Stephen King; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series; Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson’s first novel, would be one such book, and while the warning of the djinn that mark’s the novel’s beginning may not be true in the literal sense, Alif the Unseen is at least as educational as it is entertaining, and does provide plenty of food for thought.

The Middle East, in the midst of the Arab Spring. One by one, revolutions rise, and governments fall, the protestors empowered in large part by the Internet, and the anonymity it provides. In an unnamed emirate, the all-powerful State has employed the Hand to identify these trouble-makers and ensure their swift removal. Alif, a young hacker who makes a living keeping his clients safe from the prying eyes of the Hand and his censors, is having girl trouble. The woman of his dreams has abandoned him to marry a man of whom her family approves, leaving Alif heartbroken and angry. In a fit of pique, he sends her a gift and receives in return a foul-smelling ancient book bearing the title The Thousand and One Days. Hunted by the Hand, Alif takes the book and flees, unsure of why he is now the centre of attention.

With the help of Vikram the Vampire, an ancient djinn, Alif discovers the origin of the book and finds within it a code that could lead to the downfall of the Hand, of the censors, of State, and lead to the glorious revolution towards which he and his friends have been working. But the book is tricky, and nothing is ever that straightforward. Alif must make whatever sacrifices are necessary to save his friends on both sides of the veil that separate the human and djinn worlds.

Alif the Unseen is part Eastern-inspired fairy tale, part cyberpunk adventure, part love story, part fable, a very credible bridge between Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, with an original voice and an inside track on a world that many people in the West (myself included) know very little about. Wilson uses her unnamed fictional state to examine issues faced by people in the region – oppression by tyrannical governments and faceless agents of the State, and the inherent “unease” that comes from so many races, religions, political affiliations and classes living in such close proximity. We see this world through the eyes of Alif, an ideological young man whose roots – his mother is Indian – make him something of an outsider.

There is also a fantastical element to the story, and Wilson places her (unnamed) City on the edge of what she calls the Empty Quarter. This is the realm of the djinn and it is here that Alif will find many of the answers he is seeking. It is a world where humans were once welcome, but which is now largely forgotten by the “sons of Adam”. Amusingly, though, it’s not the ancient Eastern paradise we are initially led to believe it might be. In amongst the bazaar-like marketplaces and beautiful quartz walls, Alif discovers technology of a much more recent vintage.

I’ve got a two-year-old Dell desktop in the back that’s had some kind of virus for ages. The screen goes black five minutes after I turn the damn thing on. I have to do a hard reboot every time.

Alif felt a new vista of serendipitous opportunity open before him.

“You’ve got internet in the Empty Quarter?” he asked in an awed voice.

Cousin, said the shadow, We’ve got WiFi.

Alif is assisted in his quest by a cast of rogues and outcasts, both human and djinn, and it is through these vastly different characters that Wilson shows us something of the culture and history of this region. Each has a distinct personality, a different perspective on the events that are unfolding, and of the backstory that leads to this point. Amongst them you’ll find Alif’s religious, veiled next-door neighbour; an American convert who has trouble with the language, and trouble reconciling her reasons for conversion; Vikram the Vampire, part-man part-animal, a rogue who turns out to be more loyal than anyone might have thought; Alif’s fellow hacker, whose involvement is all the more surprising when his identity is revealed. Aladdin’s genie of the lamp even puts in a brief appearance. Wilson has a deftness of touch that renders the most unthinkable of beings perfectly in the reader’s mind:

It was a beast, though unlike any other animal Alif had ever encountered: massive, reddish, indistinct, a bloodstain on the pale paving stones. Fur hung down in clumps over the goatish pupils in its gas-blue eyes. There were no teeth in its primitive jaws; instead, row after row of knives receded into the darkness of its gullet. It was a child’s nightmare, the fantasy of a mind too innocent to encompass human evil, but capable of imagining something far worse.

When it comes to in-depth and detailed discussions of technology, metaphysics and philosophy in fiction, Neal Stephenson is the man to beat. With Alif the Unseen, Wilson gives him a run for his money. An early discussion about how one might go about writing a piece of software that could identify a person based on how they type sets the tone, and prepares us for deeper discussions later in the book, including a conversation about fictional characters eating fictional pork (you’ll understand when you get to it), and an examination of the nature of quantum computing and the essence of metaphor. Happily, there is never a sense of getting bogged down in the detail, and the discussions are edifying and entertaining, illuminated as they are by Alif’s quick wit.

At its core, Alif the Unseen is a story about identity and its place in society. We learn few names as we progress through the action – Alif’s given name is revealed towards the end of the book, but for the most part we know him only as his Internet handle, and with only a handful of exceptions Wilson refers to characters by their designation (“the convert”), or by false names (“Vikram the Vampire”, “NewQuarter01”). In this modern society, where many people have an online identity, this is not an unusual state of affairs. The supernatural element brings with it an added dimension in the form of an old moral – to give someone (or something) your true name is to give them power over you. Wilson applies this to the modern Middle East, and shows it to be true there too: Alif is only safe for as long as the Hand is unable to find his true identity. It’s interesting food for thought in today’s society where, for many, social network interactions are as commonplace as real life ones.

G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.

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