Fellside – M R Carey

I read (and reviewed) M R Carey’s previous book, The Girl With All The Gifts back in 2014 – I’d very much enjoyed it as a post-apocalypse, dystopian, not-quite-zombie novel but also as a really well-written story which I found pretty compulsive reading. So when I saw on Netgalley that a new book was in the offing I nearly bit their electronic hands off at the elbow (so to speak). The worst bit was that I am trying really hard to read stuff in order – so I don’t read stuff published in June before the titles coming out in April, for example – so I had to wait before I started it. I’m not good at waiting…

fellsideI was hoping for a similar sort of book – I certainly wanted it to be somewhere on the ‘speculative’ spectrum – so I was initially a little disappointed to find it seemed to be a more straightforward thriller. Jess Moulson, a drug-user with an abusive boyfriend, finds herself in Fellside, a maximum security prison, after she appears to have set a fire which killed a young neighbour. The writing is really gritty when describing Jess’s own injuries, the trial and the realities of prison life so I was enjoying it but, I suppose, I was hoping for something else. And then I started to realise that everything was not as simple as it seemed. Girl With All The Gifts had done the same thing, made me think it was ‘just a thriller’, when it hit me with the weirdness. And this did just the same.

I don’t want to say too much about what was unusual about what happens to Jess – suffice it to say that you soon realise that when she refers to an imaginary friend from her childhood they are not quite as imaginary as they first appear. And that sometimes prisons are not made of bricks and mortar but are part of our own minds. Or of the society which can condemn women (and men, of course) to a brutal prison regime.

One phrase that struck me – describing the boy who Jess seems to have killed in the fire – was that he slipped through ‘the kind of net that’s mostly made out of holes’. The fact that these nets are often the only thing between some people and a life of despair or even death is what makes this truly a horror story.

Jane

Monstrous Little Voices – various authors

It is, to quote Ms Austen, a truth universally acknowledged that William Shakespeare wrote some pretty decent plays.  Even if most of them were retellings of stories which would probably have been familiar to the more educated members of his original audiences.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, since we are often told that there are a limited number of basic plots (and even combining them will lead to the more prolific authors having to repeat themselves I guess…).  And most of these plots are still being repeated in books and films to this day (Warm Bodies, Lion King or Forbidden Planet anyone?) so we know they are standing the test of time.  But is it possible to make new stories from these sources?

monstrous little voicesIn Monstrous Little Voices five authors from various fantasy/sci-fi-ish backgrounds have a pretty good try at creating something original using characters, plot details and settings of various Shakespeare plays. Some, like The Tempest or Midsummer Night’s Dream, were familiar to me where others (All’s Well That Ends Well, for example) were outside of my experience. I’m not ashamed to say that I had to look up one or two characters (and the entire plot of All’s Well…..) and I got totally lost in a maze of the Medici. None of which spoiled my enjoyment of these tales – either individually or taken as a linked whole.

Firstly although they are all written as prose, in words understandable to any modern reader the language used had a kind of Shakespearean feel to it. There wasn’t anything that stood out as obviously 21st century usage and, let’s face it, there is a lot of our Will in the English language anyway. The next thing that struck me was that the themes raised in the stories – gender fluidity, love in later life, betrayal, jealousy – are all ones which were key to the original plays but which are still relevant today. Even the physical descriptions of the various fairies are obviously multi-ethnic. Finally I really enjoyed the way the stories blended a medley of Shakespearean characters from a variety of plays with the brutal reality of the warfare and politics of the city states of early 17th century Europe. I almost don’t want to choose a favourite as each tale had its high points. In Coral Bones we find out what happened to Miranda and Ariel after the action of the Tempest, The Course of True Love is a touching late-life love story (which, to be fair, owes more to Ovid than Shakespeare)) and The Unkindest Cut adds another layer of darkness to the already less than cuddly Macbeth. Even in the Cannon’s Mouth brings the preceeding tales together, and has piqued my curiousity enough that I will now have to read All’s Well That Ends Well, and On The Twelfth Night rounds everything off in a way which is both satisfying and heartbreakingly sad.

There is, understandably, a lot of interest in Shakespeare this year as it is the 400th anniversary of his death. Even if you think you don’t like the Bard I’d urge you to try these stories if you are a fan of well-written magical fantasy – you never know, you may even end up wanting to brush up on your Shakespeare…

Jane

Relativity – Antonia Hayes

I like to think of myself as someone who understands the basic principles of science. I’ve read Darwin, I can still remember some of the chemistry I learned at school (with frequent reminders from Pointless and Tom Lehrer) and I idolise David Attenborough. Because Rob is particularly interested in physics and astronomy we also watch just about anything Professor Brian Cox does and, to give credit where it is due, I usually understand everything he is talking about while he is explaining it…Afterwards, I will confess, if you asked me to explain cosmology I’d start muttering about balloons and fruit. And then, probably, attempt to change the subject. Physics has always been my weak spot. Last year, however, I surprised myself by reading a slim book on the subject which then went on, quite rightly, to become a bit of a surprise Christmas bestseller. Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was written in a way which makes it very approachable for the non-scientist: the focus is far more on the elegance of how physics works rather than the maths which proves it. I’m not going to say I understand physics now but I do appreciate how beautiful it is. And I finished it, which is more than you can say for A Brief History of Time…

relativityWhat I am far more used to reading is fiction which makes me think about the problems and pleasures of life. And, it is fair to say, Antonia Hayes debut novel Relativity does this. The story centres around Ethan, who is twelve and loves physics, astronomy and his mother, Claire. He’d like to know his father but he left when Ethan was four months old. Ethan becomes ill and finds out that not only had he suffered a brain injury in the past but also that it may still be affecting his life now. In an unusual twist it seems that the boy can ‘see’ physics: sound waves, electrical fields, stuff that is invisible is visible to him. At this point his father, Mark, comes back to Sydney – he wants to get to know his son and, despite Claire’s refusal, they do meet.

It is hard to say more about the plot without giving away major spoilers. Let’s just say that the events which led to Mark leaving the family were tragic and serious but that he is not a bad person.

I loved this book because of this. It doesn’t try to make anyone in the book out to be a totally bad person but it does allow them all to be seriously flawed. And yet you still feel for them and come to understand the complex factors that made them the people they are. There is a warmth and humanity about the writing which makes you care about these people’s lives and I’m pretty sure I had ‘something in my eye’ at one or two points. I don’t usually prioritise language over plot when I’m reading (I usually only notice really bad writing, and that is, usually, accompanied by fairly awful storytelling) but it did strike me in this book. Each chapter is named for a concept in physics – entropy, mass etc – and the plot fits the concept. And all without it feeling too heavyhanded or as if a shoehorn was necessary.  As a way of linking style to story I think it can be summed up as a study in constants – when emotional and psychological constants are swept away those of physics remain. And, as I have already learned, physics can be beautiful.

Jane

 

Flawed – Cecelia Ahern

It sometimes seems as if every other new book I see is either YA, dystopian, or both. Which is great for me because I really, really enjoy a good dystopia (apocalypse optional) and I am not yet old enough to have forgotten what is was like to be a young adult myself. The YA dystopian format does tend to result in an element of romance creeping in but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all no matter what has gone on to create the dystopia if what is left is human beings they are liable to have emotional connections with each other – it is the real humanity of characters thrown into situations far beyond our own which helps us to begin to understand how they cope.

flawedCecelia Ahern is an Irish author who has previously tended to write romantic and contemporary women’s fiction. So, at first, I wondered where the urge to write Flawed, a YA dystopia, came from: was this just a bandwagon to be jumped on or a genuine attempt at the genre?  However, thinking of the more magical elements of some of her novels (If You Could See Me Now or The Gift perhaps) and the fact that Ahern was one of the contributors to a recent collection of Doctor Who stories I was reminded that she is no stranger to what could be described as ‘fairly speculative’ fiction.

I’ve glanced at quite a few reviews of Flawed on Goodreads and they are, to say the least, mixed. Personally I enjoyed the book – the basic premise that in the near future a society would turn on those who showed the kind of errors of judgement which can damage that society’s fabric seems plausible. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who think that branding is the least that should be happening to some bankers and politicians. But of course, because even those who judge who is flawed are fallible beings, this leads to a dystopia rather than a utopia. The heroine, Celestine, finds out first hand what happens to those who are judged to be less than perfect but also seems to get a crash course in politics.

There are some parts of the book which are, themselves, imperfect. Celestine is very young, not quite 18, and she seems to focus rather too much on physical perfection, beauty and correctness. She can seem very shallow even as she becomes aware of the real injustices which exist in her society. I think, possibly, this is something which will improve in further books in the series. Cecelia Ahern is still a young author compared to most of the big names in YA dystopia (who are largely in their 50s and 60s). Once experience (and maybe a bigger dose of political cynicism?) kicks in a bit more this series could develop in interesting ways.

Jane

 

Ritual – Adam Nevill

I have a mixed history with Nevill’s work. I enjoyed Banquet for the Damned. I moved from that to Apartment 16 but had to stop as, while the writing was good, the content made my morning sickness worse. And again I didn’t make it through No One Gets Out Alive, but for different reasons: having been a young girl and currently raising one, I found this book too uncomfortable to read. That shouldn’t make you think it was bad writing though; in fact, it was exceptional and frighteningly realistic, which is why I couldn’t finish it. So I got The Ritual out of the library on a whim when I saw it. I nearly took it back without reading it, but then I thought, “What the hell?” and I opened it. Thirty pages in and I was wondering how I could have been so stupid as to think about taking it back unread.

ritualThe plot follows four university friends now grown up – Phil, Luke, Dom and Hutch – as they set off on a camping trip destined to end in disaster. A typical horror set up, yet what follows is not a standard horror novel but an exceptional one. My pulse was racing in several sections and reading as much horror as I do, that’s no mean feat. The flaw with most horror novels is that they can be predictable. That is not the case with The Ritual. Nevill keeps you guessing to the end – not just as to whether his characters will survive but, if they do, whether they will do so whole in both mind and body. Nevill writes brilliant characters, sowing just the right amount of familiarity to make the set-up plausible while at the same time inserting enough discord and enmity to keep the tension ramped up. Then he throws this fracturing group into a sinister forest, far from help and with something stalking their every step. Watching everything fall apart and seeing how the characters deal with it (or don’t), is mesmerising reading.

From a stylistic point of view, as the friends get further into the forest, Nevill’s writing starts to get disjointed; his sentences are abrupt and sometimes confusing, but that’s not a criticism. Nevill is using style as much as content to show his characters’ descent into darkness and confusion, and it just adds to the intensity of the experience. I don’t really think it’s a spoiler to say  “four men go into a dark forest, and only one of them makes it out alive”. That’s pretty standard. But Nevill’s tale doesn’t end there. In much the same was as From Dusk Til Dawn changes halfway through from a violent road-trip movie to a vampire-killing fest, so halfway through The Ritual our lone survivor finds that while he may have left one threat behind him in the forest, he has nevertheless stumbled into something just as deadly.

In No One Gets Out Alive, Nevill focussed on how one young girl’s options grew fewer and fewer until she got into an impossible, inescapable situation. He applies the same skills here; the reader follows the characters’ descent from jolly jaunt into dismal danger and physical incapability in terrible yet credible increments. When the lone survivor is at his wits’ end, you’ve followed him every step of the way; not only do you understand completely how he got there, but you’re sitting there with him, in the dark, dripping forest, with those yipping barks echoing around you. My only mild issue with this is that I wondered whether Nevill perhaps took his survivor’s physical state beyond the point where he would have been able to act and function as he did. But then, I’m no expert on the reserves that the human body can call upon when pushed to its truly final limits. The question certainly didn’t detract from the chilling enjoyment I got reading about his continued struggles and rooting for him.  One passage in The Ritual deserves special mention. When the first camper is taker, his fate is uncertain for a few pages. We can guess what’s happened, we’re just waiting for the big reveal. Nevill did this so suddenly and so bluntly, I was genuinely startled. It was a beautiful moment of writing and revelation.

If you like your horror with plenty of suspense, a smidgeon of the supernatural and a splattering of gore, then you should check out this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Charlotte

Thatcher Stole My Trousers – Alexei Sayle

The eighties are my era. The music, the movies, the tv, the fashion….well, maybe not the fashion. But a decade spent listening to Wham and The Cure and watching Saturday Superstore (I was studying for most of the decade) was a glorious thing. And until 1984 we even had some pretty good Doctor Whos. And then, of course, in 1982 the world was gifted with The Young Ones. As I said the 1980s – the decade that kept on giving…

alexei sayleMost of the cast of The Young Ones went on to become huge stars but, when it first aired, the best known of them was Alexei Sayle.  Thatcher Stole My Trousers is the second volume of Sayle’s autobiography and in it he covers the period between leaving the family home in Liverpool and finding fame as the Bolowski family.  It is mostly an anarchically humorous view of the dark days before alternative comedy – days when sexist and racist jokes were considered suitable for prime-time viewing – but it also contains some genuine political musings (about the young men from various middle-eastern countries he meets while at art college in London among other things). I was particularly struck by Molly, Sayle’s mother: a woman who found that the communist party didn’t ‘offer enough of an excuse for hysterical carryings-on’. Which sort of turns the 70s mother-in-law jokes on their head. By half way through the book I realised that Alexei was the moderate liberal one in his family!

My personal highlight of the book came at around 150 pages in when the ICL building in Putney got namechecked. Well, it was more of a character assassination than anything else, but still – this was a building I actually worked in at one point (in the actual 1980s…). Add to this the fact that my brother and Alexei Sayle are beginning to look more and more as if they are related and, it’s fair to say, it starts to look as though this book is truly part of my life story as well as the author’s.

Jane

 

Bryant & May: Strange Tide – Christopher Fowler

Back in November I reviewed Christopher Fowler’s collection of Bryant & May short stories and finished with my usual complaint. If I keep finding all these wonderful authors and series when am I ever going to find the time to read them all? I’ve been reading about time machines recently – if I ever manage to find a foolproof blueprint for one that should solve my problems: in the meantime I’m going for my tried and tested method of ignoring housework, gardening and phone calls…

strange tideAnyway, since I enjoyed the company of these grumpy old detectives and their assorted colleagues so much I decided that I should read their latest adventures when they were offered up on Netgalley. And, luckily, my second outing with Bryant & May was as rewarding as the first.

The plot involves illegal immigrants, various new age therapies and the fear of alzheimers. And, of course, some seemingly random crimes which can only be solved by Arthur Bryant’s unorthodox methods. Unfortunately Bryant seems to be losing his grip on reality and the whole unit looks to be in danger of closing down. Obviously I don’t want to give any spoliers but, suffice it to say, the ending was satisfyingly quirky.

My main thought about this book is that London itself is a major character. There is a new, thrustingly modern, city superimposed over a series of older ones and the Thames is the thread that ties them all together. For hardened Londoners the details of these parallel cities are almost invisible – either that or they have proprietorial sense of ownership of all the quirky places, even if they never visit the places in question. For other Britons the city is a source of endless fascination: for a Syrian immigrant it can seem bloated and crass.

Jane