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A Departure
A Departure
by Tom Ward
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.75

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Zombie free post apocalyptic debut, 20 July 2013
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This review is from: A Departure (Paperback)
A Departure is the debut novel by Tom Ward who was the 2012 winner of the GQ Norman Mailer Award for student writing. An award that seeks to nurture young British talent using Norman Mailer's contribution to American literature as a guiding force. A very British post apocalyptic story, A Departure has obviously (and understandably) been compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Other literary giants cited for comparison include Hemingway, and Ballard. From this information we may reasonably expect a particularly masculine literary take on a near future dystopia. But while the influence of these writers is readily discernible, there is also a very noticeable youthfulness about this novel, and not just because the primary character is eighteen. It is, as the blurb states, a coming of age story as much as it is a post apocalyptic road journey, it owes a debt to films like 28 Days Later, as much as to literary works, and it is also something of a romance. But is it actually any good?

Well, the short answer is yes, it is. It is certainly a promising first novel. A Departure wastes no time in bringing on the apocalypse, with an account of how the vast majority of people suddenly died from an apparently unknown airborne contaminant, sketched out in the opening chapters. The reader is furnished with enough information to understand what they need to about the situation that Michael, a young survivor from the North East of England, now finds himself in. Ultimately this novel isn't really concerned about the why or the how of its apocalypse, it is focused instead on Michael's transition from boy to man in a drastically altered world. A transition that is at times difficult to discern, and I think therefore not unrealistic. After all in the absence of formal initiatory rites of passage the demarcation points for such developments are rarely obvious.

At the start of the novel Michael is really quite self absorbed, and single-minded in his determination to travel south to look for answers, and although he retains much of this single-mindedness throughout, the circumstances he encounters along the way force him to adopt a position of responsibility for others on several occasions. The first person he encounters in this capacity is a middle aged women named, Judith. A prudish and sheltered religious type with little practical worldly experience. Judith forces herself upon Michael as a companion early in the story following an ugly incident in a village close to where Michael begins his journey. She is presented as a particularly irritating character from Michael's point of view. Ward does a very good job of painting this relationship as one in which Judith, despite being the elder, is in many ways the child in this pairing, creating numerous situations in which Michael is forced to take the lead or to assume responsibility for her well being, despite often wanting nothing more than to be shot of her.

There are several other characters who band with Michael as he travels south intent on reaching the coast and heading to France. David who presents himself as a former school teacher, and Zanna a young philosophy student. Each of these encounters in some way forces Michael to accept additional responsibility, to take the lead, to man up if you like. At least one in a particularly unpleasant if not unforeseen set of circumstances.

It is worth pointing out that this book is filled with nasty incidents of one kind or another. Here in particular the influence of McCarthy's novel can be felt, in that it is largely an unremittingly bleak portrayal of human nature in a post social collapse environment. But there are a few examples, most notable as the book nears its conclusion, of human compassion and generosity.

One of the things about reviews of post apocalyptic fiction I often find, is that people naturally project their values and expectations of what such a society would most likely look like, and how people would behave following rapid and drastic social collapse. The question arises, is such a bleak portrayal of human decent into feral anarchy and barbarism, in a relatively short space of time, realistic? And does it matter? The first question is not one that I think can be answered definitively, there are far too many variables. But I think a case could easily be put forward for why it might transpire that way, particularly in the large urban centres; and areas of social and economic blight exist where some would argue a form of feral barbarism already holds sway. The question of whether it matters can really only be answered in the context of how effectively the whole thing comes together. What matters is that it does so. Is this book realistic? Yes, it is realistic within its own bleak vision. And that realism works to enforce the journey that Michael makes, his departure from the life he knew, to the young man he must become, without any rules or structures left to guide him, and in a society that has descended into a violent free for all. And then there are the values that he holds to throughout this process. I don't want to give too much away, but as I mentioned previously this novel can also be read as a love story or romance.

A Departure is not without its flaws, there are some minor technical issues with spelling and grammar which seem to have slipped through the editing process, most notably in the early section of the book. There are perhaps some issues with pacing. The novel starts off bleak, and throws ever more desperate and despondent circumstances at the reader, but somehow it feels like it doesn't really find its stride until the last third. Many of the circumstantial aspects of the novel are not unfamiliar in the rapidly expanding canon of post apocalyptic storytelling. There are a few nods to some well known classics of the genre too, or so it seemed to me. What is different, at least regarding the material I'm familiar with, is that its focus is one young man's coming of age. The perspective is that of a youth on the cusp of manhood. Tom Ward himself is a young writer, and with A Departure I would agree with Tony Parsons in saying that here we definitely have a very talented young British writer, and one whose future work I'll be paying attention to. I must confess also, to being a huge fan of many of those same writers who are clearly among his influences. If you are looking for a different focus, and some zombie free British post apocalyptic fiction, then you should definitely consider what is ultimately a moving and memorable novel.


Little Star
Little Star
by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.84

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unusual and deeply unsettling., 11 Nov 2011
This review is from: Little Star (Hardcover)
Little Star is my first novel by Swedish horror sensation, John Ajvide Lindqvist. I have copies of all his books, except unbelievably, Let The Right One In. But so far this is the first of them I've actually read. Following his famous debut, Lindqvist has garnered a lot of praise, and achieved a strong reputation in a relatively short time frame. With Little Star, finally, I can see why. I've read no recent horror novel quite like it.

This story is about two outcast girls with very similar names. The first of these is Theres. Theres was abandoned in a wood as a baby, discarded like trash. By chance, she is discovered by Lennart Calderstrom, a former Swedish pop star. Lennart takes the baby back to his wife, and together they decide to keep the "Little One" and raise her as their own. But they do not adopt her, or raise her in any normal lifestyle, instead they keep her hidden in a cellar. The other girl, Teresa, appears to have had a more normal upbringing, but she too is a misfit, a person who feels quite alienated from her peers and society at large.

The first section of the book focuses exclusively on the bizarre, Theres. Here, we witness the early years of her strange life and the nature of her new dysfunctional family. Theres, with her weird note perfect signing, is so strange in fact, that during this section I found myself wondering if she might later be revealed to be something other than human. I'll not give away any spoilers, but will say that Lindqvist actually doesn't answer too many questions himself, even at the end.

A little further into the book and we move on from Theres for a time, and are introduced to the other girl, Teresa. Her social isolation seems much more conventional. We see how she struggles to relate to her parents as well as others of her own age, with the notable exception of a neighbouring boy, Johannes. We learn that she has always felt different and apart from other people, and of her fixation on death and the darker aspects of life. We also see how she is bullied at school by the popular kids. With Teresa, unlike Theres, you feel you know the sort of kid she is. Later, Teresa develops something of a fixation for Theres when she sees her bizarre performances on reality pop show, Idol. Of course, the two girls inevitably meet, having connected over an Internet forum, and when they do, they form a strong bond which eventually evolves into the nexus of a larger group of outcast girls.

Little Star is a very unusual novel. In places reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, touching as it does upon some of the same issues as that work. There is something remarkably uncomfortable about this book, a kind of pervasive wrongness that permeates the text, and clearly survived the translation from Swedish to English very well. I find it difficult to say precisely why this book has that effect. Some elements are obvious: it's graphically brutal in places, and that brutality is performed by children who might otherwise be considered angelic, such as Theres with her golden hair and melodic voice. This certainly is a factor. Less obviously, I think it's the way the novel skilfully highlights the superficial nature of many societal values, and the way in which the violent disaffection of the young girls takes on an almost spiritual dimension in response.

Some people may be put off by the lack of overt supernatural elements or by the fact that the book never really answers your questions. But in my view, Lindqvist has created one of the best horror novels of recent times. A deeply unsettling, finely tuned, twisted hymn to social alienation. All that, and Abba too... Highly recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 22, 2012 1:35 PM GMT


Dead Island
Dead Island
by Mark Morris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.73

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Zombies by Numbers, 10 Oct 2011
This review is from: Dead Island (Paperback)
I have a confession to make: although I am a long time gamer, I have never read a videogame tie-in novel nor have I ever been much inclined to. It's not that I've taken some vow of chastity and forsworn intimacy with the tie-in, it's just that the right opportunity has never really presented itself before now. A state of affairs from which I derived a certain sense of honour. After all, I feel it's important to have standards. Then along comes Dead Island.

There was, I should say, prior acquaintance; I've been happily familiar with Mark Morris' work going way back to his first novel. And so one thing led to another and before I knew it...well, you get the picture. Unfortunately, my brief encounter with Dead Island has left me feeling somewhat sullied. And now my honour is ruined, I fear there is no going back.

Having played some of the game, I can say that the book follows it closely from the outset. In the game you must choose at the beginning from one of four characters to be your player character. The choices are between an Australian Half-Aborigine former cop with a class war attitude, a washed-up one time sports star with a drink problem, a one-hit wonder rapper and a reluctant Chinese Spy. These same four characters are quickly introduced in the novel and together form a posse of survivors when the zombie apocalypse strikes the island paradise of Banoi. They also soon become aware that their being on the island is less of a chance event then they had believed, and that each of them have been seemingly chosen for their immunity to the zombie creating virus. Oh yes, it's zombie virus time again folks!

As the party seek a way to survive the island, their endeavours read like a video game narrative, which is not what I want from a novel whether game tie-in or not. The group basically move from point A to point B and fight zombies, learn a bit more about the secrets on the island and fight some more zombies; encounter dangerous natives and then fight zombies... The whole thing is very linear with no character development to speak of and no real tension. It is, I'm sad to say, zombies by numbers.

There's nothing that is in any way original or even particularly interesting about this novel. The islanders are a total cliché of 'primitive' tribal people. The action lacks dynamism, and the zombies are dull. On the positive side, there are a number of well placed film references and the Australian character at least has an unusual background, albeit one that is not exploited in any meaningful way, but really that is all. As I mentioned previously, I've read and enjoyed some of Morris' earlier work and a number of his short stories, so I feel part of the problem here must lie with the very limited framework of the game on which it is based.

Dead Island the game, is a multi-player zombie slaughter-fest with some limited RPG aspirations that has little in the way of true substance. It is not in my opinion the ideal choice for a novel tie-in. Some games, like Mass Effect or Bioshock, have a depth to them which can be fertile ground for stories in other media. I don't believe the same can be said of Dead Island. Having said that, I still think this novel could have been better.

For fans of the game this book does add an extra dimension to the experience. Although, I imagine most people playing Dead Island aren't there for the story. It may also have something to offer to the hardcore zombie fanatic, but it's extremely unlikely they'll find anything new here besides the setting. With so many better zombie novels out there, I can think of little reason to recommend Dead Island to anyone else.


House of Fear: An Anthology of Haunted House Stories
House of Fear: An Anthology of Haunted House Stories
by Jonathan Oliver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Set of Spooky Stories, 10 Oct 2011
It is just under a year since I reviewed Jonathan Oliver's first collection of themed original horror shorts, The End of the Line. That was, I thought, an excellent collection overall, and therfore I've been excited for this second anthology ever since it was first announced. House of Fear has the classic haunted house as its theme. This is heavily traversed ground and so the challenge here, far more than with the previous collection, is to find original and exciting ways to tell these stories. I'm pleased to say the contributors to the House of Fear have succeeded admirably in this regard.

First up is Objects In Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear by veteran supernatural scribe, Lisa Tuttle. This is a great opener to the collection, and one which I feel perfectly sets the tone for the anthology as a whole. Focusing as it does on the search for a rural idyll and a house that may not even exist. It is well told and shows from the outset that this is a collection happy to play creatively with its theme.

Up next is one of the standout stories in the collection for me, Pied-Á-Terre by Stephen Volk. Volk is one of a number of contributors to House of Fear who also contributed to The End of the Line. This tale is poignant and understated, taking as its basis a real event and using its haunting as a warning to spur the protagonist into making a key decision about her life. It is expertly done. This is followed by another great story, In the Absence Of Murdoch, by Terry Lamsley. Lamsley is one of a handful of writers in this anthology whose work is previously unknown to me, but this quirky, darkly mischievous and very enjoyable tale has placed him firmly on my radar.

Adam Nevill is a writer whose work I am familiar with, and who, in my opinion, is very skilled at crafting tales of unease. His contribution is one of several which touch upon the subject of old age. Florrie is a sad tale that is haunting in ways not limited to the supernatural. Christopher Fowler is another whose contribution has a theme related to the elderly, but in this instance, An Injustice didn't work for me as well as the others. I wasn't entirely convinced by the actions of a key character. Also, a crucial aspect of this story brought to mind a tabloid rant, in which an elderly white woman in a multi-racial inner city, the mother of a serving soldier in Afghanistan, is the victim of Asian Hoodlums. Tim Lebbon's tale, Trick Of The Light, completes the trinity of tales that have ageing as part of their theme. Like Nevill's earlier, it is melancholic and infused with sadness and regret. It is a potent evocation of the haunting nature of memory.

Sarah Pinborough is another writer whose work is well known to me. Her story, The Room Upstairs, is actually a kind of slow burn love story. I really liked it, and it stood out for me as having a character quite different from all the other contributions without trying hard to be different. That by Robert Shearman, conversely, did feel like it was trying hard to be different. The Dark Space In The House In The House In The Garden At The Centre Of The World although clever in some aspects, left me with mixed feelings overall.

Characteristically surreal, Inside/Out by Nicholas Royle may not be as captivating as his story in the End of The Line, but is still memorable for its twisting unreality. It may also leave you scratching your head, wondering what the heck you just read. Driving The Milky Way by Weston Ochse is a spirited number in more than just the obvious ways. It is a striking tale which brings to mind strong images and creates a lasting impression. More conventional (but no less effective) tales are provided by Jonathan Green and Paul Meloy, both Villanova and the Doll's House are disturbing, and each builds to a powerful conclusion.

With so many excellent tales, choosing the best from among them is a difficult task. Aside from those already mentioned, Christopher Priest is a definite contender. Willow Weeds is a mesmerising tale of misdirection with a unique take on the concept of haunting, and it's completely brilliant. Another strong contender is the closing tale from Joe R. Lansdale, What Happened To Me wraps up the collection perfectly with its weird fiction undertones and elemental haunting.

The House of Fear is a great set of stories. An anthology that deserves to be in every horror fans collection. Editor, Jonathan Oliver is rapidly shaping up to be a key name in horror anthologies, soon able, if this standard continues, to take his place alongside the likes of Stephen Jones and Ellen Datlow. I haven't mentioned all of the stories featured, and of course, I preferred some more than others, but there really are no bad stories in House of Fear. This collection contains some of the best writers of horror and supernatural fiction at work today as well as some of the field's rising stars. I'm already impatient for the next of these themed anthologies. You should be too.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 25, 2012 3:43 PM BST


Bedbugs
Bedbugs
by Ben H. Winters
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly good psychological horror, 19 Sep 2011
This review is from: Bedbugs (Paperback)
Well, this book is a bit of a surprise. For one thing, it's way better than I thought it was going to be from a cursory judgement. And for another, it's not really the kind of novel I was expecting at all. This is much more of a psychological horror, than a crazy mutant critters run amok horror, which in truth is what I thought it was going to be. I was expecting Night of the Crabs, what I got was Rosemary's Baby where the baby has been replaced by a lot of evil little mites.

The writing is also a lot better than I was expecting (I know, I know I shouldn't pre-judge...) The slow build up of events is well timed, the relationship between the central characters totally believable - although the husband is very forgiving - there's some good dialogue, and the appropriately used internal monologue of the central character is excellent. Susan, is not the easiest person to like, she's neurotic and selfish at best, and in fact she got on my nerves a great deal of the time, but she's very engaging (which is the only thing that matters in a novel, in my opinion) and her descent into increasing paranoia - if that's what it is - is deftly handled.

Aside from Susan, her husband Alex, and daughter Emma, the other characters in the book are used largely to keep the reader guessing about the true nature of 56 Cranberry, the apartment that becomes the source of the family's nightmare. There is the overly friendly old lady who owns the apartment, the strange elderly caretaker and the feckless nanny. There is also the mystery of what happened to the previous occupants. Finally, of course, there is a rather large amount of little bloodsuckers...

The bugs, whether real or imagined by Susan, are used in a very interesting way in this novel. They are not just an infestation to be dealt with in the ordinary sense, but are suggestive of a deeper psychological and perhaps even spiritual crisis that 56 Cranberry Street provokes in Susan. For the reader, they also work as a metaphor of the erosion of stability in Susan and Alex's relationship. Again, I thought this was really well done.

It's not the deepest book you're ever going to read, but it really isn't just the throwaway literary equivalent of a B-Movie. Somehow it manages to combine a sense of the B-Movie aesthetic with hints of 70's horror classics. On the whole this novel feels both modern and yet surprisingly retro at the same time.

Bedbugs is a very enjoyable helping of old school psychological horror. It's a quick read (250-ish pages) and so much better than you may think from casual appraisal. It's a book that is as much about relationships and trust as it is about bloodsucking bugs. But do beware when reading this, you may find yourself scratching every now and then...


Southern Gods
Southern Gods
by John Hornor Jacobs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly entertaining Lovecraftian twist on the Devilish Blues Man, 16 Sep 2011
This review is from: Southern Gods (Paperback)
"I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees."

Robert Johnson sang these words in the opening line to his classic blues song, Crossroad. Johnson is famous as being pretty much the archetype for the legend of the blues man who sold his sole to the devil at a crossroad. Crossroads being in-between places of great power in many magical traditions, and notably in the Southern States of the US in the practices of Hoodoo and American Conjure. Practices derived in-part from earlier West African folk traditions brought to the US by slaves. In Southern Gods the legend of the devilish blues man has the the name of ramblin' John Hastur, and the devil isn't of a Christian kind but of the Lovecraftian variety.

I don't read much Cthulhu Mythos stuff outside of Lovecraft's own work. I do like H.P. Lovecraft, but I'm not crazy for the whole genre of Lovecraft inspired Cthulhu fiction that has arisen, like the tentacled one himself, in more recent times. In fact despite being full of Lovecraftian references, it wasn't this aspect of Southern Gods that appealed to me the most. No, it was definitely the whole Southern Gothic and Delta Blues vibe that really lifted this novel above the average Cthulhu Mythos inspired tale for me.

Southern Gods takes many of the classic elements of Southern Gothic and American Noir and mixes them with Lovecraftian Horror and the kind of blues legend mentioned above, to great effect. I love all these things as separate ingredients, so it was a sure bet I would like the combination of them in this story, and I did - yes indeedy! John Hornor Jacobs has cooked-up some mighty fine literary gumbo in Southern Gods.

The writing here is uncomplicated, and the plot is also relatively straight-forward. This is not a book that is trying in any way to be clever. It also features characters and a setting that could be perceived as a little clichéd. For example, a lot of the action takes place at a big plantation house where the white landowner is fussed over by her stoic and resourceful black best friend, who is also her twisted mother's housekeeper. The hero, Ingram, is a solid but occasionally thugish ex-soldier, who ultimately has a good heart. You've seen all these characters before to an extent, but truthfully, none of this matters because it's such an enjoyable read.

I thought Southern Gods was thoroughly entertaining. It has a classic pulp fiction vibe about it and it would make a fantastic setting for an ongoing series of some kind, especially a comic book. John Hornor Jacobs has crafted a first novel that feels like it should have been done ages ago. It reads like the kind of story you could easily imagine appearing serialised or in short form in the original Weird Tales. What could be more fitting for a tale of Lovecraft inspired horror?

Filled with twisted family secrets, musty old tomes of arcane power, crazy preachers who know the truth of cosmic horror and shadowy men singin' the blues, Southern Gods is a treat. If you're a fan of Lovecraftian Fiction or like me you have a soft spot for the blues, then you really ought to read Southern Gods.

"I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees..."


Final Days
Final Days
by Gary Gibson
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Promising start to a dark new sci-fi series., 12 Sep 2011
This review is from: Final Days (Hardcover)
I'm not a massive fan of books or other media that involve time travel. As a science fiction concept, it has never particularly interested me. I am not, for example, that big a fan of Doctor Who - it's OK, but I can take it or leave it. A lot of the time, the various alternate realities and multiple time-line plots start to get on my nerves. So when I started reading Final Days, which revolves around an alien technology that allows humans to pass through wormholes to different points in time and space, I wasn't sure what I'd make of it. I needn't of worried, there is nothing so convoluted in this book, the first of a new series by Gary Gibson - and the first of his I've read. This tale of time travel is really very good indeed.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that Gibson has a very clear and uncluttered style of writing. I really appreciated this, especially as some of the physics concepts could otherwise easily become a little confusing. In the beginning this book also jumps around a bit, introducing a number of different characters and plot strands, something which, again, could easily lead to confusion in less skilled hands. Later, the book settles into a more steady and linear narrative for the most part. The various strands begin to coalesce and something of the bigger picture begins to reveal itself. I found myself becoming more and more drawn as the book progressed. Put simply, the more of it I read, the more I liked.

Final Days is a grim sci-fi novel. Its mix of politics, terrorism, organised crime and human apocalypse is captivating, but far from light. It's very clearly a graduate of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica school of science fiction. This is no bad thing - I loved that show. In Final Days, Gibson has taken another leaf out of that programme's proverbial book: character. One of the biggest flaws of so much science fiction for me - including many of the classics of the genre - is that concept often reigns supreme over character. Here, while being essentially a high concept novel, the characters are not forgotten. I was also very pleased to see an African-American chief protagonist. Saul Dumont, is fairly straight forward as a lead character, a mix of repressed anger, grief, loyalty and heroism. Not outstanding, but very human. This humanity adds to the impact of the larger events happening in the novel, and there are a few key moments were Saul needs to make some very tough decisions.

This book is the first of a series and many of the plot threads remain unresolved at the end. That's not to say there's no sense of completion, there is on a minor level for at least one character, but the larger picture is very far from concluded. What is revealed of that picture is deeply captivating, and I cannot wait for the sequel. As this novel progressed, it felt like all that I'd been set-up to expect was really very far from the truth of what was actually happening. I also really wanted to know more about the origins of the wormhole technology, and the alien Founder civilisation responsible for it. Incidentally, there is some very cool tech in this novel. I especially like the description of the integrated UP (Ubiquitous Profile) system. Basically, the internet and all your personal identity records in a pair of contact lenses.

Dark, epic and character driven, Final Days is confident science fiction. In-part it reads like a hybrid of Battlestar Galactica and the computer game Mass Effect, both of which represent in their respective media, a high point in recent science fiction. Likewise, Final Days shows Gary Gibson staking a claim to the throne of British Sci-Fi. I am certainly converted, and I keenly await the next novel in this very promising series.


What the Night Knows
What the Night Knows
by Dean Koontz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but ridiculous subtext., 10 Sep 2011
This review is from: What the Night Knows (Paperback)
Dean Koontz, I must confess, is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. He's an immensely popular author, whose combined sales of some fifty plus novels are easily the equal of Stephen King, even if his name and influence is not as strong. And for a young fan of horror in the eighties, like myself, Koontz was a must read alongside, King, Herbert and Barker. He has also played an important part in establishing the Horror Writers of America and the Bram Stoker Award. That said, his novels, which often include thrillers as much as horror, can be very hit and miss, and the quality of much of his more recent work has not been up there with his best.

What the Night Knows is supernatural horror, which is actually something of a rarity for Koontz and a definite draw for me. It begins with the main protagonist, Cop John Calvino, interviewing a teenage killer who seemingly flipped one morning and decided to kill his family in a sadistic rampage. What disturbs John is the similarity to another series of murders several years ago that have great personal significance to him. As the plot unfurls, it becomes apparent very quickly that something other than human may be behind these latest killings, and that John and his family may be in danger themselves.

I was polarised somewhat in my opinion of this book. Judging it purely on the basis of entertainment, I found it enjoyable. The main character is functional as a protagonist, rather than somebody who inspires any great empathy or is in any way remarkable, but his family, particularly the children, worked better. When the threat travels with John back to his home, the tension and fear for their safety is well handled.

What I found most ridiculous, even knowing Koontz's religious background, was the way in which the subtext sets-up moral lapse and New Age paraphernalia to be among the culprits for allowing evil to gain a foothold, whilst having an ex-communicated paedophile priest cast in an almost heroic manner. A set-up that seemed entirely present to argue for the effectiveness of catholic liturgy and rites, and to warn of the potentially harmful spiritual effects of otherwise seemingly harmless items such as...crystals. like I said, ridiculous.

Still, in many ways this is what Koontz is about, and I know whenever I read him what to expect. Like I said at the start of this review, his work is in many ways a guilty pleasure for me, born in part from nostalgia, but also in part because his stories are easy reads. Despite being horror or thriller, his novels are comforting in their familiarity and What the Night Knows is no exception. So why my critical head might be less than impressed in many regards, my inner child really quite enjoyed it. Even if he is probably open to demonic possession for thinking in such terms...


Regicide
Regicide
by Nicholas Royle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.13

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superbly crafted uncanny fiction., 4 Sep 2011
This review is from: Regicide (Paperback)
In recent literary times a lot has been made of the concept of weird in fiction, and various writers old and new have been said to write under this banner or of its stillborn offspring, the New Weird. For a whole host of reasons, I've never much cared for this concept, even though I like and appreciate the work of a number of writers labelled weird. Nicholas Royle is not weird - in the literary sense. He may be the freakiest dude you'll ever meet in reality, I've no idea - and is not generally considered such, as far as I'm aware. So why mention it? Well, because I think in some ways his writing represents another loosely aligned stream of fiction that plays with abstraction and the otherworldy, but which has not received the same degree of attention, that of the uncanny. A style that owes much to psychoanalysis and the writings of Sigmund Freud, and which can be seen in the works of authors like Roald Dahl and Christopher Priest, and in the films of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch among others.

In Regicide, the motifs of the uncanny are present from the outset. From the moment that Carl (the narrator) breaks into a strange empty house to answer a constantly ringing telephone - only to find the person at the end of the line seemingly knows his name - the reader's perception of normality is eroded. The ringing phone re-occurs as a theme, along with puzzles and maps, records playing silent messages and dogs - violent, dangerous dogs. All of these have symbolic associations, that reveal the inner workings of Carl's mind. As the narrative progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what has actually happened in this reality, and what has occurred in another place, that may or may not just be an aspect of Carl's psyche.

The linear time frame of this novel is also difficult to pin down. From the clues: no mention of internet or mobile phones, mostly vinyl records but some CDs mentioned, smoking carriages on trains, etc, it would appear to take place somewhere between 1984 and 1990. The somewhat fractured presentation of time adds to the dream like surrealism, but means that this short novel requires concentration.

The title of this book is principally a reference to Un Régicide by French Novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet. A book which Carl is reading in the story and from which some of the recurrent elements are drawn. This novel is clearly in dialogue with the themes of that work. Songs by New Wave Manchester band, the Passage also feature heavily, and together these two cultural references provide unifying background narrative. Despite these references, I was reminded in places of Alan Parker's film, The Wall based on the album by Pink Floyd.

There are many elements to this novel that I found worked exceptionally well. As Carl's life is revealed by the gradual peeling away of the layers of his psyche, there are moments of real sadness and tenderness, particularly with regards to his family background. There are also some very disturbing aspects. All this is spliced together with hints of obsession and subtle erotica, and a blurring of the lines between the outer and the inner world. This last aspect in particular I enjoyed very much, as it's a concept I have great personal interest in.

Regicide is exactly the kind of novel that appeals to me; sinister and surreal, it manages to be original, unsettling, and yet deeply human at the same time. It exemplifies the kind of uncanny fiction that distorts the readers perception of reality, but which never gets lost in meaningless philosophical abstractions. Nicholas Royle is a master of his craft and Regicide an excellent example of his work.


Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure
Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure
by Daniel Polansky
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A different kind of fantasy, 26 Aug 2011
My first response when reading The Straight Razor Cure or Low Town as it's known in the US, is that it was like reading a non-fantasy book converted into a fantasy setting. Now, I've been a long standing fan of fantasy fiction, ever since I first discovered Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks while still at primary school. But over the years, and particularly recently, I've come to realise that some of my love for the fantasy genre is nostalgia. That a lot of the time, when I'm faced with another volume in a never ending series that comes in at 700 plus pages, frankly, I just groan. Groan, and read something else. My next thought on this book, that it's written in a very different style from your usual fantasy fayre, may not be entirely true, because there's a whole lot of fantasy that's been published in the last few years, that I've never read. Either way, both these thoughts were, to me at least, a damn fine thing.

Saying that, I didn't immediately warm to the main character, the rather unsavoury Warden. And it wasn't until a few chapters in that I felt the book really found its feet. But once it got going, I totally clicked with it, and from then on I had a blast. Like I say, it doesn't read like too many other fantasy books, and it's being marketed as almost a hybrid of fantasy and noir. I can see why, the main story is essentially an effort to uncover the source of a series of child murders. A crime mystery investigated by a drug dealing ex-soldier. The first person narrative is also full of very modern language, and it took me a while to get used to characters in a fantasy novel bumping fists, smoking roll-ups and talking about how things jibed.

Aside from the noirish elements, there is a backdrop to the story of a great war that happened in the past, and it's written in a way that clearly references the First World War, with its trenches and industrial scale slaughter. I found myself intrigued by this aspect of the novel, and even though it's really only back-story, it added an engaging additional dimension to the setting. Placing the isolated environs of Low Town into a larger cultural and temporal framework, again quite different from much of what I've read previously. I almost wished that it had been explored further.

This novel is very much in the school of dark, grim and dirty fantasy. The main character is not very nice, the child murders are, well they're child murders, and suitably unpleasant. It's violent and bloody, and the language is very adult too. Despite this, I didn't find it a depressing read. Something about the pacing and the fact that some of the key characters have great loyalty, meant that I found it wasn't unremittingly bleak.

Up to now, everything I've said has been about how unlike fantasy this fantasy actually is, but it does have what many consider to be the quintessential fantasy ingredient: magic. The magic isn't overly used, and it's not really explained in any detail, but its very clearly present. The combination of magic - and some otherworldly creatures too - together with all the other aspects, make for a thrilling and unique reading experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Straight Razor Cure. It's the first fantasy I've read in a while, and it has reignited in me a sense of excitement for what can be done with fantasy. Overall, it is a book that has a striking vision for a different type of fantasy. This is certainly an impressive début from Daniel Polansky. I also like the fact that it's only 350 or so pages, and it ends with a solid conclusion. Unlike so much of the fantasy I've encountered, I actually wished this would go on longer, and go that bit further; I would happily return to Low Town in the future. A very modern, very engaging novel for fans of fantasy and non-fantasy alike.


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