Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Death in Paradise: Richard Poole lives on in Robert Thorogood's A Meditation on Murder

A Meditation on Murder by Robert ThorogoodA Meditation on Murder (1 January 2015) by Robert Thorogood

When it comes to books, 'cosy crime' has never really been my thing. From what I can figure out, 'cosies' invariably seem to involve dreadful pun-laden titles, a disproportionate amount of plots revolving around baking, and people solving murders with the aid of their pets. TV, though - that's a different matter. The TV equivalent of this sort of thing, from Midsomer Murders to Miss Marple to Rosemary & Thyme, has long been a source of comfort to me, and over the years I've accumulated a decent collection of boxsets of these series to watch when I'm ill, depressed or otherwise in need of distraction and relaxation. For whatever reason, they've often helped to get me through depressive periods when little else would lift my mood.

The first two series of BBC1's Death in Paradise, a murder mystery comedy-drama set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie, has become part of this pantheon of comforting TV, and in recent times has become my go-to feelgood show. It surprises me sometimes that Death in Paradise doesn't get more credit for the things it does differently, and the things it gets right: I can't think of an equivalent series (primetime, mainstream drama, screened on a major UK channel and considered a flagship show for that channel) that only has one white main cast member, or that's had episodes addressing the legacy of slavery, treating Vodun as a serious religion, and condemning the actions of British colonists and French settlers in the Caribbean. But it's a comfortable sort of show, intended as cosy midweek entertainment, and I'm aware it's silly to analyse much of it in any further depth than that.

Of course, any cosy mystery worth its salt has to chuck in some romance, and across series 1 and 2, the unresolved tension between DI Richard Poole and his (professional) partner, Camille Bordey, quietly became one of the best things about the show. But then Ben Miller, who played Richard, decided to leave, and the character was ruthlessly killed off, taking any hopes of a love story with him. I still watch Death in Paradise - casually, kind of - but I've never quite forgiven it for quickly and brutally dispatching Richard and then making all the other characters forget him almost instantaneously. This is the disadvantage of cosy shows: the lack of realism means nobody is really allowed to process emotions in a believable way. Richard was immediately replaced with Humphrey Goodman, played by Kris Marshall, who bumbles about treating Camille as a glorified sidekick and patronising her. Even worse, the most recent episodes have attempted to set up a sort of 'will they/won't they' romantic tension between Humphrey and Camille. Twitter creeping has revealed that there are some people out there who think they have amazing chemistry, but I assume they've been watching a different show to me.

On of the big draws of this tie-in novel - the first in a planned series of at least three books from series creator and screenwriter Robert Thorogood - is that it features the original (dream) team of Richard, Camille, Dwayne and Fidel. If you've seen the show, there will be nothing surprising about A Meditation on Murder, and if you enjoy it, you will probably like this too. There's an ensemble 'guest cast' of characters - a group of people staying at a luxury spa hotel on Saint-Marie, plus the resort's owners and their shifty handyman - and a locked-room mystery. The characters from the show, particularly Richard, are recreated absolutely perfectly, their voices and individual quirks completely intact. Richard's lizard Harry even puts in a few appearances. The comedy is handled really well, and plot twists are clever but gentle: just the way cosy crime should be. It's about as heart-warming as murder can possibly get.

There are flaws, of course. Information is often repeated in dialogue, in a way that would probably make sense spoken aloud, but looks like unnecessary padding when written down. It lacks nuance, especially in the characterisation - characters with a couple of strong, broadly painted distinguishing physical/personality features may work well on screen, when we can see the differences between them, but can be quite cartoonish in a book, when these traits have to be reinforced frequently. (Example: I think Anne might be overweight, but it's difficult to tell, since her weight, size, shape and her being 'larger than life' (groan) are only mentioned about 5000 times.) And finally, there's a bit of silliness between Richard and one of the female characters which seems so unlikely, even in this light-hearted context, that it stands out rather awkwardly.

It's unclear at this point whether the books are designed to portray an 'alternate timeline' Death in Paradise or whether they take place within the known world of the books. In other words, can anything happen in these stories that hasn't already happened in the series (say, vis-à-vis Richard and Camille's relationship... just to throw out a random example...), or are these mysteries supposed to be taking place in between those already depicted on screen, prior to Richard's death? It wasn't until after I finished reading A Meditation on Murder that it occurred to me: Thorogood is still working on Death in Paradise, so he's unlikely to develop Richard and Camille's relationship in the books, given that the series appears to be persisting in trying to make Camille/Humphrey a thing. This thought, admittedly, makes me feel a bit dejected. But you know what, I'll probably read all the books in the series regardless of their imperfections: it's lovely to see these characters living on in some form.

I received an advance review copy of A Meditation on Murder from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Brutal landscape and raw language: Beastings by Benjamin Myers

Beastings by Benjamin MyersBeastings (3 July 2014) by Benjamin Myers

At the beginning of Beastings, I enjoyed the narrative for all the reasons I expected to: its rawness, the sparse and visceral language, and a cold and bleak and painful evocation of the English landscape, portrayed with greater emphasis on its harshness and wildness than its beauty. For several chapters it's near-impossible to tell what time period the story is taking place in: could be medieval times, could be a post-apocalyptic future. Adding to the folkloric feel, the characters remain nameless.

'The girl', having taken 'the baby' from a family she was working for, is on the run. Fleeing across open ground with few provisions, she relies largely on the shelter and food provided by nature in order to survive - she receives help from a handful of strangers, but she is mute, and so unable (as well as unwilling) to forge a connection with anyone she meets. In pursuit of her are 'the Priest' and 'the Poacher'. The Priest is a corrupt man, without conscience or pity, determined to capture the girl for reasons far beyond her abduction of the child; the Poacher simply hired to help him, with little investment of his own in their mission.

The girl's history is revealed in fragments as she remembers scenes from her life before this escape; more shards of pain than real memories, with barely a scrap of happiness to provide relief. The Priest's story, and his motivation, is made clearer during his terse conversations with the Poacher. None of the characters are spared any discomfort; violence is never far away. There's little punctuation, and speech intermingles with the rest of the text, enhancing the unique presence of the landscape in the story and constantly shifting the reader's focus back to simple instincts and actions. The title, 'beastings', refers to the first milk drawn from a mother's breast, but the word 'beast' and its variations appear frequently throughout the book, and the way the story concentrates on its characters' animalistic behaviour - whether performed out of necessity or by choice - is impossible to ignore.

Is it awful to admit I didn't like this book as much as I could have because I could not have cared less what happened to the girl and the baby? It didn't matter to me whether they were caught by the Poacher and the Priest, or whether they died or what. The girl and the Poacher annoyed me, and that only left the almost comically evil Priest. Scenes ostensibly demonstrating the girl's ingenuity failed to make an impact on me because she never seemed like anything more than a symbol; a foil of purity and good intentions to offset the maliciousness of the Priest. As the story wore on, I found myself hoping the Priest would survive and succeed purely because his presence provided the only spark of real interest among the characters.

I don't intend to discuss certain events towards the end - if you've read the book, you will probably know what I mean - in any detail. I'll just say I felt they were unnecessary and I didn't see what message the author was trying to convey here.

Beastings is well-crafted; admirable in its use of stripped-down language and sharp, minimal dialogue. In several ways it reminded me of Katherine Faw Morris's Young God. The story may be very different, but the narrative is equally bare and muscular, and here again is the tale of a young, abused girl trying to survive on her own. Unlike Young God, this novel has a tragic ending, but it's similarly shocking, abrupt, desolate. 'Like an American Southern Gothic tale set against the violent beauty of Northern England', says the blurb - and it's accurate: but Beastings joins the ranks of books I admired rather than liked.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Friday, 9 January 2015

Aickman Redux: 'Curious Tales' in Poor Souls' Light

Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious TalesPoor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales (November 2014) by various authors

Curious Tales is an author collective, specialising in the supernatural, the uncanny, and stories 'that use landscape in interesting ways', which came to my attention at the end of last year. Some of the authors I've never heard of before; others - such as Jenn Ashworth, who's published three novels (all of which I've read), and Alison Moore, whose The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize - are quite well known. Poor Souls' Light is their second collection of Christmas ghost stories, and is a tribute to the work of Robert Aickman (whose Cold Hand in Mine I recently reviewed); it follows last year's The Longest Night, inspired by M.R. James. I bought this as a sort of treat to myself - the beguiling combination of authors and the ghost story factor persuaded me, and of course there's a unique (slightly smug) pleasure in buying a limited edition publication from an independent author collective. There are seven stories, each designed to 'uphold the tradition of the Christmas ghost story' and dedicated to Aickman.

Dinner for One by Jenn Ashworth - 5/10
Ashworth's name was one of the main reasons I was drawn to this anthology, and indeed to Curious Tales. However, while I thought this opening story was perfectly fine, I wasn't enormously excited by it. I'm not sure it fits into the tradition of 'strange' or 'weird' fiction as written by Aickman, as it's basically a very typical ghost story setup in which the twist can be guessed almost immediately - so much so, in fact, that I can't even write a basic summary of the plot here without making it obvious. Okay but, due to my high hopes, disappointing.

The Spite House by Alison Moore - 8/10
This starts well and it gets better; it's one of the standout stories in the book. Claire returns to the family home after the death of her father, and is besieged by memories of her brother Connor, who died when they were both young. She recalls her mother's fear that the house, and there's a wonderfully eerie moment with the radio (I always find haunting by music so effective, even though you'd think it wouldn't be possible to render the impact of it very well in a written story). She realises the novel she's been writing is nonsense, and the house seems to be crumbling away; the kitchen 'smells of the river, of water thick with weeds, water in which a sheep once drowned'. Finally, Claire's disorientation builds to a climax of destruction and collapse.

Blossom by Johnny Mains - 6/10
Hmmm. Again I found this somewhat... the word 'undercooked' springs to mind, although I appreciated the fact that it's basically a shout-out to the Aickman story 'The Hospice'. It's about a truly awful husband who, eventually, gets a truly awful comeuppance. While the deliciously sinister setting for the denouement is nicely done, the central character is so horrible that it's difficult to care what happens to him at all, whether it's good or bad. I felt the story would have worked better if he'd been a flawed, at least partly sympathetic man.

The Exotic Dancer by Tom Fletcher - 8/10
Another very strong story. The Exotic Dancer is in fact a boat, which the protagonist, Saladin, walks past every day. He finds the combined presence of the boat and the nearby salt works threatening and disturbing, but is unable to articulate exactly why; his nightly phone calls to his sister become increasingly incomprehensible to her, especially when Saladin is cornered into speaking to 'the person' aboard the battered boat. The ending is wonderfully surreal and hits exactly the right Aickman-esque note between weirdness and pathos, the uncanny and the very human.

And the Children Followed by Richard Hirst - 4/10
My least favourite in the collection. Confusing (although I'm sure it's supposed to be) and closer to horror than a ghost story, it follows a grieving woman who is (apparently randomly) forced to take in one of a strange group of children. The children become more and more sinister, and the protagonist's fate is so gory that it detracts from any possible effectiveness here. I didn't realise straight away that this story was set during the Second World War - the historical setting isn't made clear at all, adding to the confusion that already seems to define the plot and, as all the other stories have contemporary settings, it does need something to differentiate it. The repeated usage of 'unwell' to mean vomiting also really got on my nerves.

Smoke by Emma Jane Unsworth - 9/10
Unsworth was the other author that attracted me to the idea of reading this, even though I haven't actually read her recent novel Animals yet. I wasn't disappointed: 'Smoke' is by far the best, and most original, story in the collection. In a mere ten pages, it establishes the protagonist and her history, gives you reasons to care about her, outlines the intriguing nature of her work - in 'the block', where the showers are 'fifty years old and had never been used', next revealed to be part of a Cold War-era bunker beneath Berlin - and introduces a very uncanny and original type of haunting. Wonderful beginning and ending, wonderful characterisation, tight and controlled use of dialogue and style to create shocks. I'd be so happy if I ever managed to write something as good as this.

Animals by M. John Harrison - 7/10
The collection closes with its most understated story: this tale of a woman staying in a holiday cottage has an almost gentle feel to it. Her imaginings about the place's previous inhabitants gradually becomes a series of voices and movements heard in the night, then the day, as if she is listening to a conversation through the wall or watching these people on TV. Her spiral into madness, strongly implied to have no 'weird' or supernatural cause at all, provides a sombre, but not spooky, conclusion to this volume and almost demands a re-read because it so deftly upturns the reader's expectations.

I almost wish I hadn't known about the Aickman connection; I think it encouraged me to look for references and nods to his stories, or just his style, that weren't necessarily there. The good stories are great in their own right, and I don't know that I'm convinced they all really link to his work - they all have something uncanny or weird or unsettling about them, but so do all ghost stories by anyone! But I suppose without the Aickman connection, I (and others) might not have bought this.

I will buy more from Curious Tales: I've already written about Ashworth and Hirst's forthcoming Bus Station: Unbound in my books to look forward to in 2015 post, and I wish I'd known about the first ghost story collection at the time. While I found faults with a few of these stories, the overall experience of reading it was genuinely interesting and somehow felt quite special - perhaps an illusion created by its limited edition status, but it made a difference nevertheless - and £10 (including postage) for something like this feels like a real bargain.

Overall rating: 7/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy the book from Curious Tales

Monday, 5 January 2015

45 new books to get excited about reading in 2015!

Books to look forward to in 2015

January

The year kicks off with the first book in a planned series based on my favourite guilty pleasure TV show, Death in Paradise. A Meditation on Murder (1 January) is written by series creator Robert Thorogood, and Richard Poole isn't dead, AND Camille is in it. Can't wait to binge-rewatch the series and then read it. For very different reasons, I'm also looking forward to Weathering by Lucy Wood (15 January). It follows three generations of a family, and sounds like it weaves in the same elements of magic and folklore as the short stories in her debut collection Diving Belles, which has always stuck in my mind for its short but wonderfully effective character portraits.

The Room by Jonas Karlsson (15 January, reviewed here) is a dark, quirky fable about an office drone, self-important Björn, finding a hidden room at his place of work - disaster ensues in a story that's very funny but also quite thought-provoking. Co-written by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst, Bus Station: Unbound (28 January) looks equally unusual and interesting. The first in a trilogy of 'choose your own adventure' stories from author collective Curious Tales, it's set in Preston bus station during a snowstorm and is bound to be uncanny and strange. Speaking of which, The Vegetarian by Han Kang (1 January) is a surreal Korean novel described as 'fraught, disturbing and beautiful', exploring themes of rebellion and desire.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (15 January, reviewed here) is likely to be a hit thanks to its Gone Girl-style twisted relationship and multiple unreliable narrators. I loved the idea - woman spots the same couple every day from her commute, becomes obsessed with them - but the execution was rather disappointing and it's all a bit thriller-by-numbers. More promising is Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (22 January) - it surely can't live up to the publisher's blurb, which compares it to (deep breath) Hitchcock movies, Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl and Donna Tartt, but if it resembles just one of them it will be worth reading. The plot, revolving around a runaway living in Paris under an assumed identity, and also involving art fraud, sounds excellent.

February

Dystopian debut The Ship by Antonia Honeywell (19 February, reviewed here) comes festooned with comparisons to Children of Men, The Handmaid's Tale and The Hunger Games. It's a captivating and intriguing story, but best suited to teenage readers. Meanwhile, The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel (12 February) is 'Jonathan Strange meets Jonathan Creek', apparently - based on my own sampling of the book I would say that description, while certainly beguiling, is wildly optimistic, but I'm sure it'll spark plenty of interest. I might fulfil my craving for the macabre with Rob Magnuson Smith's Scorper (5 February), 'an uncanny and sinister tale of an eccentric American visitor to the small Sussex town of Ditchling, searching for stories about his grandfather; a tale of twitching curtains, severed hands and peculiar sexual practices...'

Touch by Claire North (24 February) is narrated by an entity that can jump from body to body; the premise immediately reminded me of part of David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, and although I don't know much else about it, I'm keen to investigate further. On the other end of the literary spectrum, The Curator by Jacques Strauss (5 February) charts two decades of South African history as seen through the eyes of a single character.

March

Catherine Chanter's brilliant The Well (5 March, reviewed here), an uncategorisable novel about love, hope, religion, family, friendship, privilege and deprivation, is unique, beautiful and riveting, and far and away the best of the 2015 books I've read so far. The ridiculously prolific Karen Maitland publishes her sixth medieval/magical novel The Raven's Head (12 March), this time focusing on alchemy and blackmail. And an intriguing death-at-a-boarding-school debut, Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik (1 March), has piqued my interest with comparisons to The Secret History, Gillian Flynn and Twin Peaks.

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell (24 March) is the 'shared suicide note' of three sisters, the last remaining members of a family they believe to be cursed; their epic story spans four generations. Another multigenerational tale that's already attracting quite a bit of buzz is The Shore by Sara Taylor (26 March), which has been compared to the fiction of David Mitchell (its scope ranges across 150 years of history and into the future, all centred on the same small community) but with a feminist slant.

A slightly more leftfield choice is Mikhail Elizarov's The Librarian (12 March) published by Pushkin Press. The plot sounds fun - it's about books with supernatural powers, and a world in which librarians are superheroes - but intriguingly, it also won the Russian Booker Prize.

April

Sarah Hall is an author I've been meaning to read for a while: her new novel The Wolf Border (2 April) sees a woman returning to the Lake District as part of a project to reintroduce wolves to England, reuniting with her estranged family in the process. Arcadia by Iain Pears (2 April) is described as 'a digital novel' - not just in the sense that it's being published digitally, but because it consists of multilayered stories that can be read in different orders. There'll also be an accompanying app. Slightly gimmicky maybe, but the story, about a spy-turned-writer who creates alternate worlds through his fiction, sounds fascinating. I enjoyed a few dystopian novels in 2014, and hope The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy (9 April) might continue the trend - it's a post-apocalyptic story in which inhabitants of a highly secured community set out to explore what's left of the world.

This month also sees the publication of Disclaimer, the hotly tipped debut thriller from Renee Knight (9 April, reviewed here). A woman finds a novel on her bedside table, and as she reads, she realises it tells the story of her own life, including a damaging secret she has sought to keep for 20 years. It's gripping, but doesn't quite live up to its high-concept premise, and I found it almost instantly forgettable. Would make a good beach read.

In the non-fiction corner is Raw Concrete by Barnabas Calder (23 April). This is a bit of a niche choice and quite specific to my own interests - it's a history of brutalist architecture, concentrating particularly on eight British buildings - but, having struggled to find a book on the topic that isn't dry, lengthy and more focused on the technical elements of brutalism than its political or artistic aspects, I'm excited to try it.

May

May is a bumper month, with the most exciting title (for me) being Day Four by Sarah Lotz (21 May) - it's the follow-up to The Three and takes place on board a cruise ship which becomes stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. I have high hopes for this, especially as the title and cover seem to suggest a link with the world depicted in The Three. There's also a new book from The Girl Below author Bianca Zander, The Predictions (5 May), about two escapees from a 1970s New Zealand commune. A similar community is featured in The Followers by Rebecca Wait (21 May), which focuses on disruptive events among the members of a religious cult.

The Gracekeepers (7 May) is Kirsty Logan's first novel, following her short story collection The Rental Heart. It's 'the magical story of a floating circus and two young women in search of a home' - probably not the sort of book I would be drawn to otherwise, but I really enjoyed Logan's stories and am keen to see how her fairytale style will translate to a novel. There's more magic in The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato (5 May), about two women trying to track down a missing pop star who become drawn into a dark world of secret societies in the seedy underbelly of Chicago.

I don't know much about Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh (7 May) yet, but I do know it's about a toxic friendship and is, very interestingly, described as 'Sue Townsend meets Zoë Heller' - enough to get this on my to-read list. Already gathering rave reviews on Goodreads, meanwhile, is The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North (19 May), which 'tells a story of fame, love, and legacy through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist' with a narrative featuring a 'chorus of voices' - very The Blazing World, and I'm keen to find out whether it will be anywhere near as good.

Continuing my quest to read (slightly) more non-fiction in 2015, I'll be keeping an eye out for The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick (19 May). It's the author's account of her life as an independent woman in New York, and is 'written as a narrative collage that includes meditative pieces on the making of a modern feminist, the role of the flâneur in urban literature, and the evolution of friendship over the past two centuries'.

June

June brings two huge highlights. Firstly, the long-awaited The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas (4 June), to which I struggle to summon up a more coherent response than just SCREAMING AND VARIOUS EMOJIS. It is 'a fiercely contemporary tale of one extended family, a seed pod that contains the key to enlightenment (or death)... and a copy of a book that is different for every reader who picks it up' (but let's be honest, I would read it no matter what it was about) and I'm convinced it will be amazing - if this lets me down, I may as well give up reading. Secondly, Death is a Welcome Guest by Louise Welsh (4 June), part two of the Plague Times trilogy, which focuses on a different main character this time (something I wasn't expecting). Words can't express how excited I am about both of these books.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (18 June) is a debut novel about 'a mysterious book that holds the key to a curse that has haunted a family of traveling circus performers for generations'. Could be terrible, but if it's pulled off well it could also be fantastic. This being June, there's quite a few good lightweight books due out: The Peacock Room (23 June) is the third novel from Hannah Richell, and has a dual narrative centering on a fading family estate; debut thriller In My House by Alex Hourston (4 June) tells of an unlikely friendship and is touted as a book likely to be enjoyed by fans of The Woman Upstairs and Notes on a Scandal; and Stallo by Stefan Spjut (4 June) is described as a haunting supernatural thriller, set in the fairytale snow-laden forests of Laponia, Sweden.

My non-fiction pick for June is The Four Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott (18 June). Subtitled 'Ways of Being in the Digital World', Scott's exploration of life on the internet aims to examine how technology is 'rewiring our inner lives'.

July

The Sunlight Pilgrims (2 July) is the long-awaited follow-up to Jenni Fagan's multiple-prize-winning debut The Panopticon. It's another 'end times' story for 2015, this time set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter. The extract published in Granta last year was good, so I'm hoping it will live up to the promising premise. Another second novel that's sure to cause excitement is Armada by Ernest Cline (15 July), the author of 2011 hit Ready Player One. It's on familiar ground with the story of a videogame which turns out to be part of a top-secret government training programme.

Two potentially good debuts for July: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell (7 July) tells of two women, now with very different lives, who are drawn to remember the summer they were abducted at the age of twelve; and Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase (2 July) splits its story between two time periods, both charting events at an idyllic, crumbling country house.

... and beyond

In September - on the 24th, to be exact - the last book in the Cicero trilogy Robert Harris, Dictator, is apparently coming out. FINALLY. (Although I've already forgotten what happened in the other two so I'll probably need to re-read them...) On the 15th of September, there's a new novel from William Boyd called Sweet Caress. Despite the bloody awful title it sounds really good, kind of like a female-focused version of Any Human Heart: it's the life story of a photographer called Amory Clay, spanning the whole of the 20th century. Finally, in October there's The Watchers by Neil Spring, a 'spooky historical thriller' from the author of The Ghost Hunters which should be just the thing for Halloween.

(Some of the books included within this post have different publication dates according to different sources, eg the Amazon listing may say they're being published earlier than the publisher claims, and sometimes the Kindle edition is published before the hardback - it's all very confusing. I've tried to stick with the publisher's stated UK publication date where possible, but obviously they're all subject to change.)

I've been compiling good what-to-read in 2015 lists on Tumblr and suggest you check these out for even more recommendations: Huffington Post debut fiction and (presumably non-debut) fiction, The Readers, The Writes of Woman, The Guardian, The Observer, and Bookmunch (this is in five parts - start here).

Personally, and I suppose quite naturally, I'm most excited about books from authors I've already read: the new Scarlett Thomas, Louise Welsh and Sarah Lotz books are right at the top of my wishlist. But a new year and new reading plans also brings the promise of discovering brilliant new debuts, and of those listed here I'm particularly looking forward to reading Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm, Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik, and Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh. What's your most-anticipated book (or books) of 2015?

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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Reading round-up: December

December 2014 books

Christmas Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley - 6/10. Buy the ebook
The title pretty much says it all - Priestley continues his Tales of Terror series with seven stories set around Christmas. These are meant for children, so they're unlikely to actually frighten you (and they aren't as scary as some of the previous installments in the series...) but the author's style is masterful, and there's always a ghoulish twist. Perfect as an easy winter read.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This unusual and magical story jumps all over the place, defying categorisation; I was worried it would be twee, and it kind of is, but it's so many other things as well that I didn't care. It's comforting and easy to read, but at the same time unpredictable, and the plot involves so many different elements that it's difficult to describe in brief. It's about the disappearance of a famous author; the contents of books changing of their own volition; the secrets within an elite club for writers (the Literature Society of the title); mind games, an unlikely romance, and an unsolved mystery. Very enjoyable indeed.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami - 3/10. Buy the ebook
I really wasn't keen on this. Perhaps not surprising given that I've only read one Murakami novel and didn't like that either... But so many people with good taste love him that I always get drawn back to the idea of reading his books, and I knew this would at least be short. There is hardly anything to the nonsensical story, which seems by all accounts to be Murakami by numbers, and I wasn't impressed by the illustrations. Not recommended.

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
The last remaining collection of Daphne du Maurier stories I hadn't read; also apparently the least well-known. It's certainly not the author's best, but it's nevertheless very interesting and illustrates various stages of her development as a short story writer. Most of the tales here are about relationships, and they're largely lacking in the elements of macabre strangeness that characterise her later stories; some are rather forgettable. Particularly notable are the first and last stories in the book - 'No Motive', an unconventional mystery with lots of detail, and 'Split Second', which starts off as a series of boring domestic scenes only to take a turn into something truly unexpected.

Nest by Inga Simpson - 5/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
A quiet and contemplative novel set in Australia, where protagonist Jen tends a lush, abundant garden populated by birds, and contemplates the decades-ago disappearance of her father and, at around the same time, her best friend. The opening chapters set up a mystery in which a girl goes missing in the present day, suggesting a link with the past disappearances, but this is a bit of a red herring - Nest is more of a meditation on the beauty of nature than a plot-driven story. Beautifully written yet rather dull, I think this would have been a better choice to read in summer than winter.

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol - 4/10. Buy the ebook
This is apparently a Christmas classic in Russia and the Ukraine, where it's traditionally read to children on Christmas Eve. For me it felt like the wrong combination of a very childlike story and quite adult humour. The translation also seemed odd, with quite a few phrases very incongruous for the time period in which the story was written and is presumably supposed to take place. Overall, I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as I'd hoped I would, but at least it was a quick read.

Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Spun off from the Scarfolk Council blog, Discovering Scarfolk features many of author/illustrator Richard Littler's beautifully crafted, funny and macabre images, from 'educational' posters to product packaging. But the story isn't so much a story as just a way to join the (admittedly excellent) illustrations together. Good concept, and I'll be keeping an eye on the blog, but this book doesn't add much to the material that can already be read for free there.

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell - 7/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
I've loved most of the dystopian books I've read this year, so I hoped The Ship - in which a group of survivors escape a ravaged London on board (no surprise) a ship - would be another brilliant read. I enjoyed it, and it was certainly compelling enough to hold my attention, but I think it's better suited to teenagers. Sixteen-year-old protagonist Lalage is equal parts sympathetic and annoying as hell, and the cliffhanger ending suggests this may well be the first book in a series.

The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
I bought this on impulse more than a year ago, and pulled it out of a pile of unread books purely because I was thinking of getting rid of it. Happily, it proved to be a fun and entertaining read, if not an exceptional one. Based on real people and events, chiefly paranormal researcher Harry Price and his investigation of the 'most haunted house in England', it's a good combination of compelling characters and an intriguing plot that keeps you guessing; I found it more interesting the further into the story I got. A good book to round off 2014.

I really did not feel like reading much this month, and spent a lot of time watching films. That's why the books I chose to read in December were such an odd mix. Best of the bunch was The Rabbit Back Literature Society, which turned out to be much better than I'd initially imagined. And that's 2014 done - 124 books in all! Here's my year in reading, courtesy of Goodreads. In with the new... a post on the books I'm looking forward to in 2015 is coming soon.

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Monday, 29 December 2014

2014 in review: My favourite books of the year

Best Books of 2014

The top ten nine best books published in 2014

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant Linda Grant's virtuosic novel is the life story of its protagonist, Adele Ginsberg. Moving from her childhood through a memorable university experience and far beyond that, it is a coming-of-age story and much, much more. Themes of identity, concealment, performance and artifice run throughout, personified by Adele's androgynous friend Evie, whose fate at the party of the title forms the backbone of the plot. Endlessly expansive and evocative.

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry Sarah Perry's debut takes a number of elements I'm guaranteed to find fascinating - a grand old country house, a group of eccentric misfits, a stranger in their midst, and surreal touches - and rearranges them into something strange, original and entirely unexpected. The controlled pace allows every nuance of behaviour to gather meaning, and the book is gripping, soaked in atmosphere, and has something of the fairytale about it. It's also haunting, but not in the way you might expect.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel A vision of the future like no other. Twenty years after a pandemic wipes out most of the population, a band of travelling performers wanders a ravaged landscape; Mandel's breakout novel follows a handful of characters in close-up detail, skipping back and forth through time. Station Eleven is the perfect blend of literary and genre fiction - driven as much by character as plot, it is effortlessly elegant and addictive.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt An absolute tour de force from one of my favourite authors. The Blazing World is an intelligent, intense and philosophical novel about identity, sexism and the art world. Told in fragments, it assembles a chorus of distinct voices to build a complex and surprising character portrait that is by turns playful and profound.

Her by Harriet Lane Following her brilliant debut Alys, Always, Lane has crafted another clever, slow-burning tale about two women whose fates are closely entwined, though only one of them realises it. It's tightly plotted and suspenseful, but also subtle and quiet; a rewarding character study disguised as a psychological thriller.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh Welsh turns her hand to dystopia with this, the first part of a trilogy. As a deadly virus sweeps London and society descends into chaos, a journalist fights an increasingly desperate battle for the truth about her lover's death. Vivid and surreal, it's an exceptionally readable book that's also full of strange, intriguing undercurrents.

Glow by Ned Beauman A conspiracy thriller which reads like a cross between David Mitchell, Jonathan Coe and DBC Pierre, this is Beauman's first foray into fiction set entirely in the present day, and something of a love letter to modern London. Colourful, funny and dirty, fantastically entertaining and exuberant, it's not only a return to form for the author, but probably his best yet.

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey This painfully intimate and haunting story takes the form of a letter written to an old friend (or possibly enemy). Unnamed and of questionable reliability, the narrator spins a tale of obsession and betrayal. Dear Thief is a portrait of friendship as a love story, and it's totally hypnotic.

The Three by Sarah Lotz A mesmerising blend of sci-fi, horror and realism, The Three is terrifying, mind-bending and most of all unputdownable. Ostensibly the work of an investigative journalist, the story is about the aftermath of four simultaneous plane crashes, of which the only survivors are three (very sinister) children. It uses a patchwork narrative to great effect, building near-unbearable tension.

Yes, I know it's strange to have a top nine, but there were just too many books to choose between for the #10 spot, so instead I have a whole list of...

Honourable mentions

I wish How to be both by Ali Smith had won the Booker prize. Split between a present-day teenage girl and a fifteenth-century Italian artist, the book is one story and two stories at the same time, cleverly weaving together themes of love, grief, and the creation of art with playful language. I'd also have liked to see a nomination for A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor, a vivid, memoir-esque debut about a young woman in Delhi who enters into a dangerous, doomed affair. There's another forbidden relationship in The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh, in which fortysomething Jenn becomes unwisely involved with her stepdaughter's boyfriend. What unfolds is perhaps predictable, but also compulsive, sexy and intensely atmospheric.

It was a pretty good year for books that seemed to be tailored to my tastes. The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai follows several different generations of the same family living in a grand manor house - the story unfolds by going backwards in time, with copious references to ghost stories. The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes has life imitating art as Greek tragedies are taught to a group of troubled teenagers. The Secret Place by Tana French has more teenage students, this time in the deceptively luxurious environment of a boarding school; it's an unconventional, magical murder mystery, and the strongest entry in her Dublin Murder Squad series yet.

In The Lazarus Prophecy, author F.G. Cottam breaks away from his usual template with a story that's equal parts horror, mystery and thriller. Connecting the Jack the Ripper case to a series of modern-day London murders by way of a secretive order of Catholic priests in the Pyrenees, it works wonderfully well. I also really enjoyed The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris, a contemporary retelling of the rise and fall of the Norse gods that has a completely irresistible, funny and unpredictable narrative voice.

The best from before this year

The Moth Diaries (2002) by Rachel Klein A teenage vampire novel? Well, yes it is, but forget all the clichés of that genre. Intelligent, layered, woven with literary references, Klein's doom-laden first (and only) novel is the diary of a boarding school pupil who suspects her beloved roommate's new friend is hiding truly terrible secrets. Portraying female friendships and adolescent experiences with blistering accuracy, with a gorgeously gloomy gothic backdrop, it's an unforgettable masterpiece.

Ice (1967) by Anna Kavan Anna Kavan's surreal odyssey across ice is a book I have now failed to adequately describe on about 10 separate occasions. Nameless characters traverse frozen dreamscapes in pursuit of each other, in a fractured and surreal narrative which can be interpreted in any number of ways. 'Unreality' is the watchword, and this is an uncategorisable but absolutely unforgettable story.

The Blindfold (1992) by Siri Hustvedt It's almost impossible to believe that this was Hustvedt's debut. Extraordinarily accomplished, it's a riveting and beautifully written set of four stories with the same main character/narrator. A constant aura of something uncanny pervades protagonist Iris's life, lifting her narrative far beyond the ordinary.

Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Françoise Sagan Written when the author was just 18, this classic novella positively sparkles with deft characterisation, clever plotting, humour and romance. It's a tale of decadent 'free spirits' sunning themselves on the French Riviera, until Daddy invites an old flame along and provokes the ire of spoilt 17-year-old Cécile. It's as fresh and cooling as a glass of iced lemonade, as lightly whipped as a meringue.

A Phantom Lover (1886) by Vernon Lee If you think Victorian ghost stories are all the same, read this. The narrator is an artist, summoned to magnificent Okehurst to paint portraits of a wealthy couple; but all is not quite right, and the wife of the artist's client turns out to have something of an unusual obsession. The story is so creative and downright strange that it's difficult to believe it was written in the 19th century.

Carmilla (1872) by J.S. le Fanu Another horror tale that's ahead of its time - predating Dracula by 25 years, Carmilla is famous for its lesbian overtones. The story of naive Laura, whose family take in the sinister Carmilla, is indeed saturated with sexual tension, hysteria and atmosphere; it's also deliciously melodramatic and very readable.

Cartwheel (2013) by Jennifer duBois A novel inspired by the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case didn't initially seem like the most appealing prospect, but when I finally got round to reading duBois' debut, it turned out to be a) an exceptional character study and b) one of the most heartbreaking books I've read in years. What it's based on really doesn't matter - it is gripping and highly emotive in its own right and on its own merits.

The rest

Also in 2014, Erin Kelly delivered yet another fantastic crime thriller, The Ties That Bind; DBC Pierre added a gruesomely entertaining entry to the Hammer imprint with Breakfast with the Borgias; and Roxane Gay inspired with her essay collection, Bad Feminist, which despite the title is a diverse and wide-ranging, but very accessible, set of opinion pieces. They'll be included in loads of end-of-year lists, no doubt, but it's still worth mentioning that I was impressed by two books from big-name authors: Hilary Mantel's provocatively titled short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and Ian McEwan's taut, elegant The Children Act. Compulsive comfort reads came from Deborah Lawrenson (The Sea Garden) and Lucy Clarke (A Single Breath). If you're looking for short, quick reads, I recommend Laura Lippman's masterful Five Fires and Susan Hill's memorable Hunger, both Kindle Singles. I made an effort to read more classics: some of those I really enjoyed were The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, For Esme—With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories by J.D. Salinger, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and two novellas by Stefan Zweig.

Brilliant books to come in 2015

I can't pass up the opportunity to mention these books, which are out in the new year, but which I was lucky enough to read early review copies of.

The Well is the debut novel from Catherine Chanter, out in May. Virtually impossible to describe without outlining the entire plot, it is a unique mixture of genres as diverse as dystopian sci-fi, domestic saga and mystery/thriller, all centred on one woman and her remarkable home - a place that seems to be impervious to drought. The story is addictive from the first page, and the narrative voice is... well, it's unlike anything else. I've been recommending this to everyone and I really hope it will be one of the big debuts of 2015 - it certainly deserves to be.

Jonas Karlsson is a well-known author of novels and short stories in his native Sweden, but The Room is his first book to be translated into English, and will be published in January. This sublime, Kafkaesque novella follows the hilariously self-assured Björn as he discovers a mysterious hidden office at his place of work. Yet his colleagues seem intent on keeping him away from 'the room'. Is this a psychological drama, a satire, a comment on office culture? It's all of these and more, plus it's very funny - a cult classic in the making.

And finally...

There are some 2014 books I didn't get round to this year, but wish I'd found time to read: they include Outline by Rachel Cusk, The Dig by Cynan Jones, Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, and Beastings by Benjamin Myers. I'll be carrying them all over to my 2015 to-read list.

I decided I would try my best to keep any negativity out of this post... so I wrote about the worst (or rather the most overrated) books of 2014 on Tumblr instead.

All in all, it's been a great year for books and particularly good for new fiction! What were your best (and worst) reads of 2014?

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Sunday, 28 December 2014

Dystopia-on-sea: The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The Ship by Antonia HoneywellThe Ship (19 February 2015) by Antonia Honeywell

When I first noticed this book getting shelved as young adult on Goodreads, I assumed it was just because the protagonist is a teenager, and that people were making that typical mistake of thinking teenage character = YA. It's being published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a literary fiction imprint, and doesn't appear to be categorised by them as YA. But I did notice that between the book being listed on NetGalley and listed in Orion/W&N's catalogue, the inevitable 'x meets x' comparative description in the blurb has been amended from 'Children of Men meets The Handmaid's Tale' to the rather more YA-skewed 'The Hunger Games meets The Handmaid's Tale'. And now I've read it, I do feel it is probably accurate to categorise this as a young adult novel, whether it's intended as one or not.

The Ship begins with a few chapters of world-building, establishing a dystopia that's reasonably detailed in its creation, but probably not designed to be subjected to much analysis. It's a future version of the UK, partly recognisable - people still use the internet (on tablets referred to as 'screens'), but access is heavily restricted; ownership of an identity card is the only way you 'exist' as a citizen; those without are subject to government culls. Nature is virtually nonexistent, thus food is incredibly scarce (cue a bit of clumsy preaching about the damage previous generations did to the environment; thankfully this doesn't dominate the narrative). The reader is only shown London, with little evidence of life really existing beyond the capital. Parts of the city are underwater, others burning, and places familiar as tourist attractions (parks, the British Museum, St Paul's Cathedral) are filled with the dispossessed.

The narrator is Lalage Paul, a privileged and cloistered sixteen-year-old living in a heavily secured flat with her mother; her father, Michael, who has an influential role in the government, is frequently absent. Lalage enjoys the luxury of relatively plentiful (tinned) food, clean water and a fixed home, but at the expense of any kind of freedom - she has never had a friend and rarely leaves the flat, except to visit the nearby museum, now stripped of most of its exhibits, with her mother. For years, Michael has promised that they will one day leave on a ship, equipped with home comforts and plentiful food, and it's the Paul family's eventual departure on this ship - leading a group of 500 hopeful emigrants - which, naturally, marks the start of the real story. Here Lalage finds herself a reluctant escapee, literally adrift, and kept in the dark; neither her father nor anyone else on board will be direct with her about where they are supposed to be going. In an emotionally involving narrative, she is continually torn between a desire to return to London and help others, and the hypnotic pull of life on the ship. She meets a boy named Tom, and first love distracts her; but all the time there are sinister undercurrents, particularly around the increasingly messianic figure of Michael.

Lalage is a good character, but inescapably an annoying one. As a teenager, she is very well-drawn; believable, sympathetic and infuriating all at the same time. She has led an extremely sheltered life, and that is communicated in her development - she is naive to an extent that wouldn't be plausible if she hadn't been so sheltered, and although seemingly quite intelligent, she is slow to realise very obvious things, to a point that can be frustrating for the reader. Her approach to her relationship with Tom is immature in the extreme - she doesn't trust him, sometimes doesn't seem to even like him, yet at the same time she fantasises about the two of them having a fairytale happy ending, repeatedly states that she wouldn't care about anyone else if only he would love her forever. For Lalage, the order and peace on board the ship is monotonous; to those who have lived in chaos, it is joyful, and each party struggles to accept the other's point of view. The reader is trapped in a queasy and often dispiriting push-and-pull, mimicking the movement of the ship, between Lalage's desire for a freedom she doesn't understand and the adults' need for stability. The Ship constantly reminds us that the teenager who thinks the world's against them isn't in the right; but the adult who's patronising towards them isn't in the right either.

Ultimately, what makes this work is that it's hard, indeed almost impossible, not to be on Lalage's side. Is she an insufferable spoilt brat at times? Yes. But what she faces - from her megalomaniac father who won't even allow her a few hours to grieve for her mother; to creepy Tom, who's so featureless he may as well be a robot, and made me shudder every time he popped up; to the maddeningly calm and condescending people of the ship - is far worse.

It lacks the action of The Hunger Games, and there is little meat to the romance, but The Ship will probably play best to teenagers because they will more easily be able to accept Lalage as a heroine and her point of view as 'right'. I found it a captivating read, yet quite a depressing one, and sometimes, though I'm sure deliberately, a repetitive one. Part of me felt more could have been done with the premise, that there was something missing and the last chapters were a letdown; another part of me was impressed by the way this was handled, with the reader's disappointment designed to mimic Lalage's, setting up a cliffhanger ending that could perhaps make this the first entry in a series.

I received an advance review copy of The Ship from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 7/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Thursday, 25 December 2014

12 Days of Kindle: What to buy

The annual event that is the 12 Days of Kindle sale has begun again. Maybe it's a bit pathetic to be hunched over my laptop buying books at Christmas (though since you're reading this on a book blog, you're a lot less likely to think so than the average person), but this is one of the biggest ebook sales Amazon have all year and I always look forward to it!

So without further ado, here are some of my picks of books that might be worth buying before it all ends on the 6th of January. If you can be bothered to go through all 61 pages of the sale, it turns out there's some interesting translated fiction and Pushkin Press titles, and a few recent releases, among all the usual stuff.

Books for 99p:
Beware of Pity and The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig - 99p each
The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
The Explorer by James Smythe
Place of the Heart by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir
A Bright Moon for Fools by Jasper Gibson
Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth
See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg
The Small Hand by Susan Hill
I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
The Islanders by Pascal Garnier
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale and The Whispering Muse by Sjón - all 99p each
Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hamada
Layla by Nina de la Mer
Dear Reader by Paul Fournel
Pompey by Jonathan Meades
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov
Alarm Girl by Hannah Vincent
After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
Melting the Snow on Hester Street by Daisy Waugh
Palo Alto by James Franco

And some for a bit more:
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson - £1.99
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell - £1.39
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - £1.99
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing - £1.99
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray - £1.09
The full Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams - £2.89
Ayoade on Ayoade by Richard Ayoade - £1.09
The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland - £1.49
The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt - £1.99
We are All Completely Bedside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - £1.59
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen - £1.49

I could have included quite a few more - but this list is already long enough, I think. Let me know your own picks... and happy Christmas!

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