DAVID BOWIE : A LIFE by Dylan Jones

The best kind of biographies (and autobiographies) offer a personal insight into the career of a particular individual and allow us to embark on their journey through life with them. They give intimate details about that person, allowing us to build up a picture of what they were like, so much so that the reader should feel they know them personally.  

I’m very pleased to say that Dylan Jones manages to achieve this aim with BOWIE: A LIFE. It’s a book made up of hundreds of separate interviews with David Bowie, as well as the people who knew him and worked with him. It’s a rather original method, and one that works perfectly well in a way that builds up an impression of the man from multiple viewpoints. Very few of the opinions contrast, which suggests that there’s an honesty to the interviews that accurately inform upon the chronology of events – and our ultimate impression of Bowie – that isn’t skewed by the author’s single viewpoint. The anecdotes are often fascinating, and build together to shape the image of a man who was a true artist, whether it be through his music or his fashion or even in the way he inspired others that followed. It’s difficult to overstate Bowie’s cultural influence, and after reading this book it’s easy to see why. He comes across as an intelligent but extremely driven individual who constantly recreated different personas in order to achieve his artistic goals. The stories and observations give me the impression of someone I would very much liked to have met (something that doesn’t always happen in biographies). And there’s a nice balance to the sentiments – this isn’t simply a hagiography, there are moments where Bowie’s flaws are discussed and there are is a cold objectivity to some aspects of his behaviour.

There’s a nice balance to the interviews, which are painstakingly organised into small sections which tell the chronology of Bowie’s life, from his earliest beginnings in Bromley, through the highs and lows of his career, right up until his far too-early death at the age of 69. The fact that he was working right up until the end (his final album Blackstar – a superb record – was released on his birthday, literally days before he passed away) shows how his unwavering artistic drive was not diminished. He left an outstanding body of work and this book is a very fitting tribute to both the artist and the man known as David Bowie. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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MR GODLEY’S PHANTOM by Mal Peet

Martin Heath returns from World War II a broken man, psychologically damaged by the wartime horrors he experienced fighting in Europe. After struggling to return to his old life, he is offered the opportunity of a new start as chauffeur to elderly Mr Godley, who lives in a rambling house in the Devonshire countryside with just a couple of servants. The house has a sombre, haunted atmosphere, in part stemming from the death of Godley’s son during the Great War and the subsequent suicide of his wife. He is frail and in poor health. He sees very few people. In his garage sits a beautiful Rolls Royce Phantom, which Heath dearly coverts…    

This is the first book of Mal Peet’s that I have read and based on how much I enjoyed the experience I will definitely be looking out for more from the same author. It’s a really neat, genre-defying novel, published posthumously following his death in 2015. I always (obviously incorrectly) thought he wrote YA fiction. However this short novel (it’s almost a novella) features themes and events of a rather more adult nature, touching on mental illness and murder, and featuring mild sex scenes and hints of the paranormal. It’s beautifully written, and has a wonderful sense of place. The prose is haunting and evocative, and Peet had a superb ear for dialogue. The characters are honestly drawn. There’s a real sense of claustrophobia to the story, which unfolds at a nice pace.

Part ghost story, part murder mystery, part police procedural, this book effortlessly blends genres to create an intriguing story that works on many levels. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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WAKENHYRST by Michelle Paver

Wake’s End is a rambling manor house located in the depths of the Suffolk Fens. The year is 1906, and young Maud Stearn is trying to find her way in a household ruled by her puritanical and disciplinarian father, Edmund, following the sudden death of her mother during childbirth. The countryside surrounding the house is her refuge, that and her love of reading, and Maud becomes concerned by the increasingly bizarre behaviour of her father. It appears he is being haunted by weird apparitions at night, and claims to have seen fleeting glimpses of things around the lake. The house is infused with a stench of rotting marsh weed, which permeates the very fabric of the building, and at night the sound of scratching – like claws on the wooden floor – can be heard…

I’d read two of Paver’s previous novels, Dark Matter and Thin Air, and thought them wonderful examples of genuinely creepy historical fiction. When I heard about her latest novel, Wakenhyrst, being published, the synopsis was enough to whet the appetite, especially given the bleak Suffolk location and the hints of murder and madness.

Firstly, the prose is absolutely beautiful, evoking a rich atmospheric sense of time and place. We know from the start that something horribly tragic has occurred at Wake’s End, and the opening section (set in the 1960s) propels the rest of the narrative with a real sense of mystery. The timeline then jumps backwards to the start of the 20th century to begin to show us the events leading up to the catastrophic moment. Maud herself is a superb character, headstrong and independent, yet fearful of her tyrannical father, Edmund. Following his wife’s death (to which he shows little sorrow) he begins a steady descent into madness, following his uncovering of a religious painting at the local church.

I really enjoyed this novel. It works on several different levels, both as a historical depiction of life in rural Suffolk – complete with a pervading aura of myths and legends of the area, including water spirits, spectral hounds and tales of witchcraft – and also as an unsettling ghost story, replete with a long-hidden family secret and echoes from past misdemeanours. The book pulls no punches in its plot – for a writer who also publishes YA fiction, this one features suggestions of sexual impropriety, murder, madness and possible retribution from beyond the grave. The final section takes us back up to the 1960s and adds a nice counterbalance to the opening section.

If you enjoy a historical tale or just a ghost story I think you’d enjoy this novel. Paver’s writing is lyrical and yet fluid; it’s not bogged down by being written in a particular style to evoke the early 20th century timeframe. It’s genuinely creepy at times – albeit not as unnerving as either Dark Matter or Thin Air – but for the most part it makes for a very interesting read. I have no hesitation in recommending this.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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A PLACE OF EXECUTION by Val McDermid

When 13 year old Alison Carter vanishes in the winter of 1963, the impact is felt keenly on the inhabitants of Scardale, the Peak District farming hamlet in which she lived. Derbyshire police investigator George Bennett, taking on his first murder inquiry, knows that time is of the essence. Under increasing pressure to find Alison, and facing suspicious hostility from the closed-knit community of Scardale, Bennett must call on all his resources in an effort to find out what happened to the young girl.

Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution was originally written in 1999 and was recently reissued. Why I didn’t read it upon its initial publication I have no idea. I’m a fan of McDermid’s fiction and only picked this up because it’s a stand-alone novel with no series’ character so I thought it would be ideal for a one-off read. Let me tell you, I am so grateful that I did, because A Place of Execution is absolutely outstanding.

Firstly, it’s a huge novel – around 132,000 words – but the length befits the story, as the novel takes us all the way through the investigation, right from the girls’ disappearance at the start, via the police investigation and plot development, through to the eventual arrest and even the trial. Then there’s the final twist, as the story then leaps forward 35 years when a journalist – who has written a book detailing the original tragic events of 1963 – uncovers some fresh information which sheds light onto the original investigation. As well as a superb police procedural, it’s a clever whodunnit, with several twists along the way, and a fascinating insight into the criminal process.

The novel is told very much from the point of view of investigator George Bennett, whose dogged determination to gain closure for the girl’s family feels real and heart-breakingly earnest. About two thirds of the way through the novel I thought I had guessed the outcome, yet I was completely fooled by the time I had reached the end.

The pacing is excellent, with a lovely consistency to the prose, evoking a wonderfully atmospheric recreation of a bleak Derbyshire farming community. At times the narrative references the real-life Moors Murders, of which I believe McDermid covered as a journalist in the 1960s, which is a sobering reminder that against the backdrop of fictionalised crime, devastating events actually took place. This casts a very dark pall over the whole proceedings. By the time the conclusion is reached, there are seriously dramatic implications for many the characters, lending the story an almost Shakespearean element.

Because of the fulness of the investigation story, and the logical yet unexpected conclusion to the mystery, I found A Place of Execution to be an absolute crime classic, and worthy of anyone’s time. McDermind’s prose is masterful and confident, displaying assured storytelling skills and controlled dialogue. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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THE POSTSCRIPT MURDERS by Elly Griffiths

Bestselling novelist Elly Griffiths has been writing mystery stories since 2009’s The Crossing Places, which launched series investigator Dr Ruth Galloway. Her 1950s Brighton-set series featuring Mephisto and Stephens began with The Zig Zag Girl, published in 2014.

The Stranger Diaries was the first novel featuring DS Harbinder Kaur, a rather interesting central character quite unlike the stereotypical police detective of ‘regular’ mystery novels. She lives with her parents in Shoreham, on the south coast.

The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should absolutely not be suspicious. DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her in carer Natalka’s account of Peggy Smith’s death.

But when Natalka reveals that Peggy lied about her heart condition and that she had been sure someone was following her…
And that Peggy Smith had been a ‘murder consultant’ who plotted deaths for authors, and knew more about murder than anyone has any right to…
And when clearing out Peggy’s flat ends in Natalka being held at gunpoint by a masked figure…

There’s something incredibly enjoyable about ‘cosy crime’, whether it’s the intricate plotting of an Agatha Christie, the comforting historical charm of a Josephine Tey, or even the more-modern, but psychologically nuanced, PD James, these novels are reassuringly safe. Often they’re criticised as being one-dimensional, populated by poorly-sketched characters, whose murders are so anaemic as to trivialise such a heinous crime as homicide by making them totally devoid of reality, but over the years the cosy crime novel has endured.

The Postscript Murders is a thoroughly enjoyable romp with a blistering pace and a few surprises along the way. The characters are well-drawn and rounded, with plenty of variety to ensure it doesn’t get confusing. Whilst it’s fair to say the plot is ludicrous and implausible, it’s delivered with enough panache it seems churlish to complain too much. I particularly enjoyed the section set in Aberdeen, at a hotel during a literary crime festival, and there is an affectionate undercurrent of playfulness about the whole proceedings, despite it involving a murder. As someone who has attended similar events, I recognised certain observations that brought a smile to my lips. The genre of crime writing is an incredibly broad church (no pun intended), but if you prefer something gentle and fun as opposed to gritty and thrilling, I think you’ll probably enjoy The Postscript Murders. Nothing ground-breaking, nothing too edgy, but nevertheless a good way to spend a few hours.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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DARK TALES by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of the greatest writers of weird fiction of all time. Her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are landmark titles in the classic catalogue of acclaimed supernatural fiction. Her short story The Lottery has been widely anthologised since it was first published in 1948.

Dark Tales contains a collection of 17 short stories, most of them inspiring a disquieting sense of unease. Jackson captures a wonderful aura of Americana, with a welcome lack of pretentiousness. The writing is timeless, straightforward and deceptively ordinary, concealing a macabre and sometimes startling turn of phrase. Many of the stories have a vaguely surreal, yet coherent, feel, invoking the detached subtle qualities of a dream. There’s a great deal going on beneath the prose; hinting at things unspoken, a suggestion of things beyond what seems outwardly apparent. Like Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson also possessed a particular talent for documenting the little cruelties that go on in relationships, familial tensions and petty behavioural quirks, which lend the stories a dark emotional undercurrent.

As with any anthology or short story collection, not every story worked for me, but the ones that did, by far make up for the ones that didn’t. Shirley Jackson is rightly called a master of the dark tale, and Dark Tales does exactly what its title suggests, in showcasing her superb literary talent. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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ENGINES BENEATH US by Malcolm Devlin

Rob lives with his parents on The Crescent, a row of houses built to accommodate the employees of The Works and their families. Beneath the city, machines rumble and gears grind, a mysterious and persistent counterpoint to the lives of the residents. When Lee Wrexler and his father move into The Crescent, the dynamic of the street kids changes. Lee brings something from the outside, something that dares question the way of life that the families of The Crescent have taken generations to learn to accept.

This is quite simply brilliant, easily one of the best novellas I have read in many years. The characters are well-drawn and compelling, the childhood scenario familiar and engaging. But it’s only when the weird aspect of the narrative is introduced that the sense of wrongness begins to infiltrate the plot, creating a haunting and memorable story. The subtle ambiguity and carefully disciplined level of exposition are pitch-perfect, and Devlin does a wonderful job of balancing the strange proceedings with the mesmerising sense of nostalgia. In fact, I’d welcome reading something of novel length set in this universe, such is the richness of the setup. I’d class this novella as essential reading for lovers of weird fiction and so it comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE by Raymond Carver

A collection of short stories from one of America’s best short fiction writers. The prose is stripped down and spare, often snapshots of ordinary lives, but throbbing with regret and sorrow. Carver’s style feels very straightforward from the outside, but the detail and dialogue tell the real story – often only after contemplating the meaning upon finishing it – focusing on quietly desperation of the usually working-class (blue-collar) middle-aged men and women, living their lives in an ordinary, recognisable world.
The dialogue is probably the best I’ve ever read. It’s exactly how people talk, lending the characters a real sense of literary honesty. Whilst not every one worked for me, the ones that did – Tell the Women We’re Going, After the Denim, So Much Water So Close to Home, The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off – are alone worth the price of the book.
These slices of life won’t appeal to everyone, but they did to this reader, and the economy of words and regretful themes, means this is a collection I can recommend highly.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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SURVIVOR SONG by Paul Tremblay

Over the past few years Paul G Tremblay has steadily built an impressive reputation as a writer of dark fiction, with such acclaimed novels as A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World. I’ve long been a fan of his short fiction but until now his longer work has evaded me. So I thought it was about time I rectified that.

Survivor Song, his latest publication, tells the story of pregnant Natalie, and her struggle to stay safe in the wake of an extremely virulent outbreak of a rabies-like virus that has decimated Massachusetts (and maybe beyond). She makes contact with her old friend, Dr Ramola ‘Rams’ Sherman, a paediatrician at a local hospital, and together they embark on an anxious journey to save Natalie and protect the life of her unborn child.

The story is eerily prescient – in terms of the societal impact during a pandemic – and at times makes for uncomfortable reading, due to the all-too familiar nature of the proceedings – things like road-blocks, self isolation, supermarket stockpiling, societal panic, etc. The novel takes place over just a few hours, and is fast-paced and well-written, with a beautifully controlled prose. What I most liked about the story was that Tremblay largely ignores the wider impact of the pandemic, and instead focuses on the characters and its direct effect on them, which in turn offers us glimpses of the wider world as a secondary strand. It’s a technique that works well, never letting us forget that these are not merely puppets who have devastation thrown at them in an effort to see how they cope, but instead are very real characters who behave in a believable manner.

There’s a stark inevitability to the plot, and Tremblay should be applauded for his integrity on delivering on the developments that he sets up as the story progresses. The characters of the two central women are nicely balanced and varied, and while I didn’t particularly care for the two teenagers that they come across, the story still felt natural and uncontrived.

The author makes a clear effort to distance the plot from that of a ‘zombie’ novel – even going so far as to have one of the characters dismiss the word outright – but this book works equally as well as a zombie novel as it does any kind of genre thriller involving engaging characters and an over-reaching threat. The science feels authentic, and is subtle enough to be believable, especially with the comparisons against life in COVID-19 2020 adding an extra level of verisimilitude. I’ll definitely be keen to check out more of Tremblay’s novels. I really had a great time reading Survivor Song and I have no hesitation in recommending it widely.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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AFTER SUNDOWN edited by Mark Morris

I’ve long been a fan of horror fiction, especially of the novella and short story and length, which seems ideally suited to the genre. As a child I gravitated from the popular Three Investigators mysteries in my local library – created by American author Robert Arthur and featuring the real-life film director Alfred Hitchcock as a character – through name association towards the ubiquitous Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, also edited by Robert Arthur. These books, most of which possessed brilliantly evocative titles, were crammed with an array of talented writers, including a great deal of short stories written by crime authors but also quite a few classics of the macabre – HP Lovecraft, Patricia Highsmith, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Joan Aiken, MR James, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, etc, etc.

I’m nearly 50 years old now, and it’s fair to say that more recently my impression of the horror genre has become somewhat jaded. I’ve found myself reading far more crime than horror in the last few years. Of why I’m not really sure. Perhaps I’d become desensitised, or took for granted just what the genre has to offer. So nowadays I’m always slightly wary about picking up a new horror anthology. Disappointment is just so…well, disappointing.

After Sundown, edited by Mark Morris and published by Flame Tree Press, contains 20 original horror stories featuring some of the genre’s brightest contemporary names. Sixteen of these tales were commissioned from established writers, with the remaining four selected from an open submission window. This appears to be a great way of ensuring a decent standard whilst at the same time giving voice to emerging talent. It’s testament to the quality of the stories in that there’s no discernible difference between the pros and the lesser-known authors. Mark Morris has done a great job in putting together a fine selection.

There’s a refreshing lack of pretentiousness about these stories. The authors span several continents so there’s a decent array of themes and styles. Each tale had a very distinct voice, with a superb variety that perfectly illustrates what a broad church the genre covers. I had a blast reading this book. It really has reinvigorated my interest in the horror genre. Hopefully this will be the first in an ongoing annual publication from Flame Tree Press. And in that regard After Sundown is a great way to launch the series. Each tale is well-written, even if not every story was to my personal taste. But that’s the exciting thing about anthologies; there’s always another one coming along if the previous story didn’t quite work for you. My favourite tales were probably the ones written by CJ Tudor, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith, Thana Niveau, Stephen Volk, Catriona Ward and Paul Finch, but really there’s not a bad story in there so I have no hesitation in urging everyone to give this a try. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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