Monday, 18 July 2016

The Fire Child by SK Tremayne

Hello from Orkney, where I'm currently on holiday and blogging from a lovely self-catering apartment in Kirkwall. As I've got plenty of time to relax and have been spending a lot of hours travelling I've been able to catch up on some reading after a few weeks of not having much time or energy to get stuck into a book.

After finishing Hex I moved straight on to The Fire Child by SK Tremayne. Lots of you will probably have seen the same author's previous novel The Ice Twins in bookshops, WHSmith's and even supermarkets, as it appeared to sell very well. I reviewed that one here.

As you can probably tell from the title, The Fire Child is not much of a departure in style from The Ice Twins. Like its predecessor it has at its heart a young woman battling with her own psychological demons and faced with caring for an enigmatic, possibly disturbed child in an isolated setting and with a husband she isn't entirely sure she can trust. This time, the setting is a Cornish mansion belonging to the ancient Kerthen family. The current master of Carnhallow is David Kerthen, a super-rich corporate lawyer, whom the protagonist Rachel has married after a whirlwind romance. She's also become stepmother to Jamie, David's eight-year-son. David's wife Nina, Jamie's mother, was killed only eighteen months previously in a terrible accident in one of the many disused mine shafts that surround Carnhallow and which were once the source of the Kerthen fortune.

Rachel is a working class girl from a south London council estate who has somewhat reinvented herself and has been struggling to get by lecturing in photography prior to meeting David. Besotted by her handsome older husband and overwhelmed by the beauty of Carnhallow, she frequently feels lonely and out of her depth, particularly as Jamie is withdrawn in her presence, David is in London for most of the week and the house is packed with constant reminders of chic, capable, captivating Nina. When Jamie begins to claim his mother is still somewhere in the house, and starts to show signs of the second sight the Kerthen men are reputed to possess, Rachel begins to wonder if he's seriously disturbed - or is it, in fact, Rachel whose sanity is in question?

One of the great strengths of The Fire Child is its powerfully atmospheric description of the Cornish landscape - beautiful, yet harsh and intimidating in its rugged wildness - which is brilliantly done throughout. SK Tremayne also does well in evoking the peculiar oppressiveness of history. The weight of hundreds of generations of tradition, pride and, in fact, cruelty sits heavily on David Kerthen's shoulders and is as much an intrusion into Rachel's marriage as the dead Nina. If you're thinking the story has echoes of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, you'd be right; there are several similarities between Rachel's situation at Carnhallow and the second Mrs De Winter's plight at Manderley and I think it works well as homage rather than imitation.

The characterisation was, for me, something of a problem in this book. David is indeed rich and handsome, but his supposed appeal was lost on me. Someone who demands his martinis 'faintly poisoned with vermouth' and claims not to know how many bedrooms his house has is not a charming sophisticate: he is smarmy and pretentious, and Rachel, who is an intelligent woman of 30 and not a naive young girl, should be more than capable of realising this. I also struggled with Rachel as a character. There are inconsistencies that can be explained away by the eventual outcome of her storyline, but there are also some quite fundamental things that don't see to ring true to me and some minor things that are directly contradictory - a redhead, she claims her freckled Celtic skin 'never takes a tan' and then refers a few pages later to her 'tanning shoulders'; she says the only alcohol she likes is port having previously referred fondly to her champagne-fuelled dates with David. Her desire to form a bond with Jamie is essential to the plot and to later revelations, yet just doesn't ring particularly true for most of the book and isn't borne out by her behaviour towards him on a practical level. That said, as the book progresses SK Tremayne does a good job of conveying Rachel's mental state.

This is a novel full of dark secrets and shock twists. Despite my issues with the characters, it is absolutely a page-turner and the pace is perfect. It's tense and chilling and has a touch of the modern gothic about it.

I do, however, think the final big revelation is just too much of a stretch of plausibility for me - I obviously don't expect gritty realism from this kind of book, but I do need to be able to read without rolling my eyes, and this was a moment where the tension was broken for me as I simply stopped being able to suspend disbelief. There also are too many elements that can't adequately be explained away by what unfolds at the end. Also irksome is an incidence of violence against a woman which, while taken appropriately seriously in the story at the time it occurs, is later handled by the author in a way I found rather dismissive.

I did enjoy reading this book, despite its flaws, and finished it very quickly, which is usually a good sign. Although I didn't think it was quite as good as The Ice Twins (which has the edge for me simply because of its superior and more original premise) it was a good holiday read overall.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Fire Child via NetGalley on the understanding that I would provide an honest review.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Hex is a translation from the Dutch of a novel by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. However (as the author's end note points out) it is slightly more than that. The author, who is fluent in English, not only decided to shift the story's setting from a village in the Netherlands to a rural town in America's Hudson Valley in upstate New York, but also apparently completely re-wrote the ending. I have no idea how the original Dutch version ends, but I would, if I'm being entirely honest, have liked the translation to retain the Netherlands setting at least. There are already a million horror novels set in the US and I would have liked a more Dutch perspective. That said, the setting of the translation is rendered very well, and the history of that area means it does retain some of the 'Dutchness' of the original - there's a touch of Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow about it.

Hex also has one of the cleverest and most original premises of any horror novel I've read in a long time. Back in the 1600s, the townspeople of Black Spring tortured and executed a woman they believed to be a witch, forcing her to murder one of her own children and then killing the other themselves. Such was the cruelty of their actions that Katherine van Wyler, the wronged woman, cursed the town for eternity and continues to haunt it, her eyes and mouth stitched closed and her arms pinned to her body with chains. If her eyes are allowed to open, or her voice heard, horrific things will befall the town and its people. Moreover, once people move to Black Spring and become aware of the witch's curse, they can never leave the town for more than a few days without suffering terrible consequences. This in itself is not, in fact, particularly original; there are many legends and folktales like it. What makes Hex different is the way the townspeople deal with their predicament. 

Black Spring is essentially a town in quarantine, governed by a small council and with its own legislation - the rather sinister 'Emergency Decree' - which forbids the townspeople from speaking of the witch to outsiders. When the witch appears - which she does every day, appearing silently and alarmingly solidly not just in the street but also, incredibly creepily, in people's homes, where she stands wherever and for as long as she chooses - the townsfolk register her location using Black Spring's own app. If the witch appears in public, steps are taken to conceal her from any outsiders who might be present. 

At the start of the book, this is actually as funny and absurd as it is creepy. The witch herself, blind and silent, is very sinister indeed, and the thought of suddenly finding her standing, alarmingly solid, in one's home for days at a time is frankly terrifying - but the matter-of-fact and slightly farcical manner in which the townspeople deal with this is undeniably funny. Dishcloths are draped over her face. Jokes are cracked. When she appears in public, volunteers hide her behind temporary street furniture or fake construction hoardings, or even just gather around her to conceal her in a crowd. 

The catalyst for the plot is a series of experiments by a group of teenage boys led by Tyler Grant, determined to find out just how far the witch's curse goes and convinced that there is a way they can 'go public' and be free of Black Spring forever. But their activities bring out the worst in one of their number, and eventually unleashes a terrible evil - but who, in fact, is its source? Is it the witch's curse that drives the townspeople to do terrible things, or does the real horror come from town full of people isolated from the rest of the country for centuries and unfettered by legal and social norms? For all their apps and commutes to out-of-town jobs and modern conveniences, how far have the people of Black Spring really advanced since the days of witch-burnings and public flogging?

Hex is an unsettling and at times extremely sad novel, and despite its darkly comic opening chapters, it soon becomes almost wholly dark. The picture of humanity that it builds is a rather bleak one, and the most sympathetic characters might not necessarily turn out to the ones you expect. It also raises some uncomfortable questions about parenthood and family. 

The horror is mostly very deftly done - you'll almost certainly find yourself feeling nervous that Katherine van Wyler might be standing silently in your bedroom one day, reeking of the grave and whispering through dead, sewn-up lips - although it does escalate to a climax that I found a little overblown at times. My only other complaint is that the dialogue, particularly where Tyler and his friends are concerned, sometimes feels a little forced and grating in its wisecracking jocularity; Thomas Olde Heuvelt and his translator are, I think, better when they tone this down.

Overall, though, I found Hex a refreshingly different and fascinating horror novel and would definitely like to read more by the same author.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes

The Countenance Divine is Michael Hughes’ first novel, and it’s an ambitious start. Set in four different time periods and told through four very distinct voices, it’s heavily influenced by the work of Milton and Blake, has visionary, macabre and apocalyptic elements and hints of psychogeography. The blurb that accompanied my copy compares it to the work of David Mitchell (to my shame I haven’t ready any David Mitchell, so I couldn't say how accurate I think this comparison is) although it reminded me a little of some of Scarlett Thomas’ books, with elements of Nicola Barker's Darkmans.

The first character we meet is Chris in 1999, a computer programmer working on protecting clients’ systems against the infamous Millennium Bug. Chris’ chapters are narrated in the third person, but the unadorned, blunt clarity of the language here is an obvious reflection of his methodical, logical character and the source of some unexpected humour. Chris holds something of a torch for his colleague Lucy, but is unsettled by the chaos that seems to surround her – her apparent emotional instability, her strange self-destructiveness and her associates with their mysterious underground project whose purpose is not immediately clear. There are some strange echoes in Lucy of the Ripper murders which took place in 1888 in the same part of London, and indeed, it’s Jack that we hear from next, through the medium of his own semi-literate letters.

These letters are every bit as gruesome and chilling as you'd expect, but the more we learn of Jack, the more it becomes clear that someone or something is guiding him. Once again, Hughes gives Jack a highly distinctive voice, so although we learn only a few small details about his background, he quickly becomes a vividly three-dimensional character as he applies his own terrifying rationale to his motives.

It's really when we meet the visionary poet and engraver William Blake in 1777 and an assistant to poet and playwright John Milton in 1666 that The Countenance Divine takes a stranger turn. Blake, prone to hallucinatory visions, is compelled to create a homunculus from one of the dead Milton's ribs; Milton himself, whose elements of the story are told through the diary of his assistant Allgood, is finishing Paradise Lost just as the Great Fire of London destroys the city.

Allgood's diary is written in an exceptionally authentic 17th century style, which is flawlessly done, but also makes these chapters a little hard-going; you will need to invest more time and concentration here. 

If you enjoy books which offer neat explanations and satisfying revelations, this is not a novel for you. There are countless hints, clues and allusions throughout, as the four time periods begin to overlap and collide, but they don't lead to any clear conclusion. You'll be left to decide for yourself if the world is really about to end, what's 'real' and what is imagined, and who a figure in a golden mask who seems to exist simultaneously in different times might really be. It's also worth pointing out that I came to this book pretty familiar with the work of both Blake and Milton - if you don't, you will miss out on some of the references. I don't think this will affect a reader's overall understanding, but it won't be quite so rich a reading experience.

This is an exceptionally well-written novel - the four styles Michael Hughes uses are very different, yet each of them is executed brilliantly - which excels in creating a gathering sense of doom, conjuring up the unsettling, oppressive atmosphere of a world, and in particular London, on the brink of catastrophic disaster. If I have a criticism, it's that it's occasionally a little slow, which is always dangerous in a novel that requires attention to detail on the reader's part. 

The Countenance Divine will published on 11 August. My thanks to John Murray Press for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Bleak Midwinter by Peter Millar

Bleak Midwinter by Peter Millar opens with a beautiful woman being murdered as she sunbathes by a hitman called Harold Hammerstein who aims to 'reduce her golden suntanned flesh to steak tartare'. He also 'grabbed hold of the elegant, gold-chained ankle [because despite being set around 2000 this supposedly stylish sophisticate sports accessories last seen in 1986] and pulled it to one side. Viciously. Leaving her legs splayed open at an obscene angle."

If you're thinking that this all sounds like a bad made-for-TV miniseries from 30 years ago and that I should have stopped right there, you'd be correct, but I was on a long car journey and my other books were in the boot so I ploughed on.

Despite the Florida prologue, Bleak Midwinter is mostly set in Oxford, where Daniel, a young American academic with no real personality and Therry, a local paper hack with a stupid name (she's the 'feisty', wisecracking type but hey, she has a kitten, so that means she has a soft side and is also, like almost every young woman who gets a mention in this book, 'pretty') team up to investigate a mysterious outbreak of bubonic plague discovered by Daniel's junior doctor friend, Rajiv. Rajiv was actually the most interesting character in the whole book by a country mile, but - spoiler alert - he dies (off-stage, to add insult to injury) near the beginning.

The bubonic plague plot was the main reason I picked up this book. Plague is something that's fascinated me for decades and I'm always intrigued at the notion of its return to the UK. Daniel and Therry are convinced the outbreak has been caused by a corrupt development company who have uncovered a dormant strain of the disease by digging up a former plague pit to build executive homes. This in itself is an interesting idea, but unfortunately it plays second fiddle to a different plot strand which is clunkily executed and nowhere near as engaging. Moreover, Millar seems far too  interested in delivering a damning and at times embarrassingly snobby critique of rural house-building (the housing crisis is all just invented, people who live in new build houses are awful philistines and a saleswoman who works for the developer is a 'silly bitch' just for, well, doing her job) that frequently tips into Accidental Partridge territory. To give you a flavour of the level of subtlety, the developer's security firm is called Cerberus. 

The dialogue throughout is largely terrible and littered with clichés. Everybody talks like a bad film script. The plot is a sort of hybrid between conspiracy adventure and post-Cold War spy thriller, but the two really don't sit easily together; instead of intertwining, one simply eclipses the other. The debunking of Daniel and Therry's various theories at the end mainly amounts to 'oh yes, I can see why you'd think that, but it was just a complete coincidence and actually this other terribly unlikely chain of events that you and the readers haven't really been engaging with because it's frankly paper-thin is behind it all. That far more interesting thread that you've been somewhat invested in? Red herring, and we're never speaking of it again. So, moving on...'

I wanted to like this book so much, so disappointment is probably a strong factor in my reaction to it here; it's much less annoying to expect a book to be terrible and be proved right than to have high hopes dashed. I rarely give very negative reviews for the simple reason that in most cases I stop reading books if I'm not enjoying them, and I never review a book I haven't finished. I probably should have done the same with this one.

There's Only Two David Beckhams by John O'Farrell

I was having a conversation with a couple of friends recently about books, and one of them asked me to recommend something light and funny. To my surprise, I found that I really couldn't; it's been such a long time since I read something like that and enjoyed it. The last time I attempted something along those lines, I ended up reading Nick Spalding's Fat Chance, which was without question one of the worst novels I've ever bothered to finish.

When I spotted John O'Farrell's There's Only Two David Beckhams in the Inverness branch of Waterstones while I was away this weekend, however, I remembered how much I enjoyed some of his other novels and thought this might also be entertaining. Plus, I'm starting to get excited about Euro 16 now (we've had a wallchart up in our house for a week already and I've booked the day off work for our game against Wales) and this is a book about the England football team. More specifically, it's about an England football team of the future that might - just might - be good enough to win the 2022 World Cup.

When a relatively mediocre sports writer - more like, as his opposite number on another newspaper observes, 'a fan with a laptop' than a journalist - discovers something about the team that could be the biggest scoop of his life, he's torn. Alfie could reveal the team's incredible secret and break the football story of the century ... but that would mean they're disqualified from the tournament on the eve of the final. As an England fan, can he bring himself to scupper their chances?

The plot is essentially an absurd fantasy, so you do certainly need to suspend your disbelief for this one, but this didn't stop me from getting a lot of enjoyment from this book and I laughed out loud many times. It's daft, yes, but it's also observant and touching, particularly when it comes to the role of football in Alfie's relationship with his son Tom. While there is more to the story than football, however, I certainly think it's fair to say that you probably need, as I do, to like football a lot to get the most from this book, as a lot of the funniest jokes rely on you having some degree of football knowledge and a love for the game. It's smartly written and does a fantastic job of capturing the ups and downs (mostly downs, let's face it) of following the England team

My only real gripe is that Alfie's world seems to be one in which only men like football. His former partner leaves him partly over his devotion to the game, his flatmate dumps his girlfriend because she whines about having to watch a game at the pub, etc etc. I appreciate that this is largely a book about men and male relationships, which is fine and O'Farrell does this very well, but it's possible to explore that without the women being either long-suffering, sensible types who think liking football is childish, or whinging girlfriends who can't put up with 90 minutes of the national team on television once in a while. In fairness, this was a very small element of the book, but it was sufficiently noticeable for me, as a woman who likes football (and is every bit as unambitious and easily distracted as Alfie, too; I can never identify with the smartly decisive women who always seem to be being brisk and capable in books like this) to be a little grating.

This is only a tiny issue, though. Overall, There's Only Two David Beckhams is a light, easy, feelgood read. It's extremely funny and has plenty of pace; it really did keep me turning the pages. John O'Farrell is a clever, observant writer and this is the perfect warm-up read before Euro 16 kicks off. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Set during the drought of 1976, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep begins with the disappearance of Mrs Creasy from her home on an East Midlands suburban street. Ten-year-old Grace, both confused and inspired by a rare visit to church, becomes convinced that if she and her friend Tilly are to find out what has happened to Mrs Creasy, they must first find God - so they set about looking for Him via the comically methodical method of simply going door to door.

As you can probably tell, this isn't really a whodunnit so much as a gradual revealing of secrets, some large and some small. It's about the secrets that adults keep from children, that children keep from their friends, and that neighbours keep behind closed doors. It's sometimes dark and sometimes very funny, but mostly it's somewhere in between, particularly when we see things from Grace's perspective. Grace is a perfectly realised character with the perfect mix of precociousness and naivety. She and Tilly frequently get things wildly wrong, and yet at the same time, their observations are often unwittingly perceptive. The portrayal of their friendship - as intense and occasionally volatile as any relationship between ten-year-olds is bound to be, yet somehow cemented by the fact that they are apparently bullied by everyone else - is deeply touching.

The adult characters are also extremely well-observed, with all their failings and prejudices. There are no real heroes and villains - or sheep and goats - whatever it might seem at first glance, and the more we see what goes on behind each pair of net curtains, the more we come to realise that everyone has something to hide as Joanna Cannon builds a detailed portrait of a street hiding countless small but deeply human tragedies. By setting the book in a single street, and against the backdrop of a famously oppressive, relentless heatwave, Cannon also beautifully conveys the claustrophobia of the situation. That doesn't, however, stop the book from being laugh-out-loud funny at times - a surprising vision in creosote and Grace's parents' reaction to the arrival of the street's first Asian family, in particular, make for some of this novel's most entertaining moments.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It's a perceptive, evocative and perfectly observed portrait of 70s suburban life that I would certainly recommend.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Power of Dark by Robin Jarvis

Robin Jarvis writes fantasy and horror for children and teenagers, and The Power of Dark (out on 2 June) is his latest novel. Although I was aware of Robin Jarvis's books, I'm just old enough to have missed out on them as a child, as I was 13 or 14 when his first novel was published, and by that point I was mostly reading books aimed at adults. This is a shame as, judging from The Power of Dark, I would have liked Jarvis's books a lot when I was reading from the 9 - 12 or teen shelves in the library.

The Power of Dark, Paperback Set in Whitby, The Power of Dark is the story of two friends, Verne and Lil, who inadvertently become embroiled in a centuries-old battle involving ancient forces awakened in a terrible storm. Whitby becomes strangely divided, with one half of its population developing a strange obsession with creating eerie mechanical gadgets with a life of their own, and the other half devoting itself to witchcraft and magic, as the legacy of 17th century magician Melchior Pyke, witch Scaur Annie and Pyke's sinister manservant Mister Dark threatens to overwhelm the town. 

There are plenty of entertaining scares - there's a particularly memorable moment near the beginning of the book when the storm causes a landslide of skeletons from the church yard directly into Lil's bedroom, and the Mister Dark character is genuinely sinister - but it's not unnecessarily grisly; as befits its target audience it's more the stuff of creepy Halloween fun than violent horror. The book is also very funny at times, particularly for those who know Whitby. Lil's parents are middle-aged goth Wiccans who constantly embarrass their pragmatic, colour-loving daughter, while Verne's family run an amusement arcade and tinker with Victorian automata - indeed, the division of the town is essentially goths versus steampunks, which will certainly elicit a nod of recognition from anyone familiar with Whitby Goth Weekend.

Despite the humour (there's also a running gag about a farting Westie) there are genuinely atmospheric moments too, particularly in some of the flashbacks that Lil and Verne see through their increasingly vivid dreams of Pyke, Annie and Dark - although these don't form the main part of the story, they were actually my favourite part of the book. 

I don't think The Power of Dark has quite the 'crossover' appeal of some other children's or YA books I've read - I'm sure adult readers will find it fun and entertaining, as I did, but will probably hanker for something a little more immersive with more complex characters. I would absolutely recommend this one for kids who like horror and the supernatural, though, especially if they also have a sense of humour. It's a great book to curl up with on a stormy night, and it's the first in a series, too, so they can get stuck in knowing there's plenty more to come.

My thanks to the publisher, Egmont, for sending me a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.