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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Steven Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler. I’ve long been a fan of his writing, most notably his short stories (some of which are quite long). We Others: New and Selected Stories collects together eight new tales, alongside 15 others gathered from his previous 30 years of being published. If you’ve never read Steven Millhauser before, this is a perfect place to start.

Millhauser’s prose is precise and controlled, lacking in melodrama, alive with a wondrous sense of illusion. These stories blend the uncanny with the mundane, all written in Millhauser’s distinct style, which on occasion can seem remote, and yet at the same time make the magic feel all that more awesome. The sensory elements are vivid and evocative. Thematically the stories can sometimes come across as repetitive – almost like a musical refrain – but Millhauser explores them with such conviction that it’s impossible not to allow oneself to be drawn into the anxieties and emotions.

While not every story worked for me – something that’s symptomatic with most short story collections or anthologies – the ones that did work, which was the majority of them, easily elevate this book to such that I would consider it a worthwhile addition to the genre of weird/uncanny short fiction. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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HERE WE ARE by Graham Swift

It is summer, 1959, and Jack Robbins is the charming compare at an ‘end of the pier’ show on Brighton seafront. Also on the bill – and grabbing much of the acclaim – are stage magician Ronnie Deane and his lovely assistant Evie White, performing as Pablo and Eve. We journey back through the three lives of the characters, seeing their humble beginnings as they endure the Second World War and the impact it has on their families. This is a love triangle like no other. Evie’s memories of that fateful summer are painful and filled with some regret, but we reflect on her life and a pivotal event that occurred on the final night of that summer season.

Graham Swift has been on my radar for a year or two. I have copies of Waterland, Out of This World and The Light of Day somewhere around, purchased on a whim. I was aware of the film version of one of his novels – Last Orders – although I’ve never seen it, but the subject matter of Here We Are appealed to me as much as the author’s reputation. I’m pleased to say that my reading of this very short novel (almost a novella) has given me a strong desire to search out his other work.

Swift won the Booker Prize for Last Orders so I was expecting something rather literary and flowery or staid. However the writing style is quite the opposite, it’s beautifully understated and unpretentious. There’s an element of the prose that seems deliberately ambiguous, but in the context of the novel’s themes – magic and memory and misdirection – it works perfectly. The three central characters – Ronnie in particular – are fleshed out enough so you really care for them. The scenes where Ronnie is evacuated out of London to stay with a family in the Oxfordshire countryside are especially good, given the impact this ‘new family’ has in the shaping of his adult life. The depiction of life in the variety industry also has a real ring of authenticity. But it’s a wonderful sleight of hand that the book pulls about a quarter of the way through that really drives the story – as we leap forward to 2009 to see one of the characters as they are now, in their mid 70s. This sense of memory and emotional complexity really does add layers to the story and brings into question our perception of what actually happened. It’s tinged with sadness but also hints at much more beyond. It feels very British. I really wish it were longer – I would have enjoyed spending time with these characters, even if the novel were four times its length – but maybe its brevity is what makes it feel so magical.

Needless to say I am now keen to read anything else by Graham Swift. This is a novel I can recommend without hesitation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Donna Tartt’s debut novel from 1992 has become something of a modern classic (although, is 28 years really ‘modern’ anymore) and is featured on many readers’ ‘favourite novels’ list. I bought the book about a decade ago and since its publication Tartt has gone on to write two more critically acclaimed novels, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch. So I thought it was about time I gave it a shot.

The Californian narrator of the novel, Richard Papen, arrives at a private college in New England, to study Classics under the tutelage of an eccentric professor, Julien Morrow. The class is a close-knit group, containing only five other students – Henry Winter, fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macauley, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. They are a lofty, arrogant group; difficult to like. But Richard begins to grow close to them as the term progresses. When a shocking secret is revealed, Richard is taken into the others’ confidence. This knowledge comes at a price. The aftermath begins to take its effect on their existences. Slowly, inexorably, the truth begins to blur and facts are revealed, and the lives of the group start to unravel, eventually with murderous consequences.

The Secret History is a loooong book. I think it checks in at nearly 192,000 words, which – for any novel, let alone a first novel – is remarkable. But more than its length, it’s also a very dense novel, in that the prose style is rather classical and old-fashioned, very befitting of the subject. But I have to say, I loved every single one of its pages. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Secret History instantly goes into my favourite novels of all time list.

The narrator is the most likeable character. He’s from a modest upbringing, unlike the others in the group who all come from privileged backgrounds. There’s a great deal of snobbery and entitlement to them, but Tartt is superb at conveying the development of their relationships. In time you get to see the vulnerability of the characters so that by the end you get to, if not quite like them, at least feel you know them well. There’s an almost timeless feel to the prose; it seems like it could be set either in the 1950s just as much as its contemporary setting.

The prologue is up there with some of the best opening paragraphs ever written – it’s closely behind Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for me – and even in the first line you know exactly which of the characters is going to do. So I suppose to some extents it’s an inverted mystery. However the story isn’t really the point of the novel. It’s the journey that counts in this one, not the destination (although the murder doesn’t occur at the end of the novel anyway). It is fascinating to see the way the dynamic of the group changes, and the development of the characters’ mental states as the full impact of what they’ve done starts to take hold. From a cinematic perspective The Secret History reminded me of a cross between Dead Poet’s Society and The Talented Mr Ripley. Actually, I could imagine fans of Patricia Highsmith loving this, as the suspense and psychological journey the characters embark on is something prevalent in much of her fiction.

It’s testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she manages to pull off a couple of ludicrous plot points and still make them believable. You accept these as part of the story because you always feel she is 100% in control of the prose. The atmosphere is spot on, the character development is sound, there’s a satisfying pace to the proceedings, and the whole thing has the air of melancholy and tragedy looming over it, a suggestion of the numinous; even a hint of the supernatural. I just know that this is a novel I’ll return to every few years. I absolutely loved it and have no hesitation of recommending it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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An anthology of short stories featuring differing takes on the character of Sherlock Holmes, with settings as far back as medieval England to late 60s New York City to the future. This book contains 14 stories from a variety of authors, all of whom bring something different and interesting to the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

I must admit to being something of a traditionalist when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, mainly due to the fact that I have a great fondness for the Victorian England setting, equally as much as I do the characters. So I went into this book with fairly low expectations, not based on the authors but instead on my narrow view of whether I would probably accept the idea of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson being anywhere across time and place. I’m pleased to say that, to a large degree, the authors confounded my own narrow-minded expectations.

It was interesting to see how the characters could be interpreted in different ways. Whilst it’s fair to say that not all of the stories worked for me – a feeling not unknown with anthologies containing short stories from different writers – there was much fun to be had with the ones I really did enjoy. It’s testament to the authors that the character of Holmes, despite changes in sex and location and time settings, feels consistent enough with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character as to remain relevant. Recommended, especially to fans of Sherlock Holmes with an open view to the original canon.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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IF IT BLEEDS by Stephen King

I read my first Stephen king book in the early 80s – Pet Sematary, not long after it was published in paperback. I adored it. Since then I’ve read every book he’s ever written. Whilst it’s fair to say that he’s had good periods and not quite so good periods, even the lesser stuff he’s written is still better than the very best output of some other bestselling authors.

If It Bleeds is a collection of four novellas. This is the format to which I’d say King excels. Some of his finest work has been written at novella length – Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Children of the Corn, The Body (filmed as Stand By Me), The Mist, 1922, etc – so I went into this book with high expectations. King’s last couple of novels have been okay. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Outsider, but the previous few featuring Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney were decent takes on the supernatural crime novel.

Which brings us to the title novella. If It Bleeds, the third story in the collection, features the return of Holly Gibney, this time starring as the central character. It’s a solid enough tale, well written, but adding very little to Holly Gibney’s character or background. King seems to love this character, and I’m not sure he’s done with her yet. If you’ve read The Outsider, it’s almost an extension of that. Decent enough but nothing ground-breaking. I’d give it a 4/5.

Mr Harrigan’s Phone is the opening novella of the book. I thought this was excellent. Whilst there’s nothing new in the plot, Stephen King has the uncanny ability to make anything incredibly readable, even something that in a lesser writer’s hands would be a cliché. This story felt like it could have appeared in one of King’s earlier collections, which I mean as a huge compliment. 5/5

The Life of Chuck is the second novella. This one is told in three sections, played out in reverse like a film running backwards. It’s a rather tragic story but one with a great deal of emotional depth and intrigue. From the reviews I’ve read so far this novella seems to have been most people’s least favourite, yet I thought it was brilliant. Again, there’s not too much ground-breaking with the story but the style elevates it to something special. Sometimes King’s prose is near magic, and in The Life of Chuck he pulls that out. I was thinking of this one for days afterwards. 5/5

Rat is the final novella in the book. Yet again, there’s not much massively original about the story, yet it’s told with King’s usual verve which makes it incredibly readable. Having browsed the synopsis I was expecting more of the Faustian pact plot than was actually there, which is good because it meant that the rat’s involvement, which whilst important, wasn’t the main point of the story. It gives a great insight into the creative mind of the author and the central character’s almost obsessional drive to write his first novel. The section set at the remote cabin in the woods was wonderful, reminiscent of bag of Bones or Misery. Again, I had a blast reading this. 5/5

In summary I loved this collection. Having the title novella as a Holly Gibney story was a smart move. I suspect there may be a few people who read the Bill Hodges trilogy or The Outsider who enjoy crime but wouldn’t be interested in reading horror and so have never picked up any of King’s older titles. This book acts as a fine gateway into the darker stuff of Stephen King, and might surprise a few readers who were expecting something quite different to what he delivered. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying something from this quartet of tales so it comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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A SUDDEN LIGHT by Garth Stein

Trevor Riddell travels with his father to their crumbling ancestral home in rural Washington state. It is the summer of 1990, and his parents are having a trial separation. Fourteen year old Trevor knows he has to do everything he can to help get their marriage back on track. The house lies in a huge estate, overlooking Puget Sound, and is reportedly haunted.

I was expecting this to be quite a tough read. It’s author, Garth Stein, wrote the international bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain which I always assumed would be wordy and literary. However the prose was great – cleanly written, atmospheric and unpretentious. Despite dealing with some very dark themes, it does feel almost like it’s aimed at the YA (young adult) market. The setting is wonderfully evocative, rich in texture and atmosphere, with an interesting setup with just a few characters. the relationship between the various family members was intriguing, with the text hinting at secrets and a complex history. I really enjoying hearing about the history of the family, albeit some of the documents meant to have been written at the start of the last century (and the dialogue in some of the dream sequences or flashbacks) felt a little modern for that time.

A Sudden Light is an excellent coming of age story, one that isn’t too demanding, yet with enough surprises and emotion to thoroughly enjoy it. There is a real gothic sense to the proceedings, with an underlying aura of tragedy. The house itself is almost a prominent character in the story. I’d definitely be interested in reading more of Stein’s work. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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In the 1940s an Argentinian librarian gives a secret manuscript to a private investigator. The document was written in 1928 by none other than the famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, who is living under the guise of a German professor teaching at Cambridge university. Doctor Watson has died so Holmes has been trying to keep his mind active as he sees out his final days. One day he is visited by an author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who asks him to look into some information he received at a recent spiritual séance he attended. The case involves multiple worlds, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Mrs Hudson, and many other meta-themes.

I can’t claim to be a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. I read all of the Doyle stories and novels when I was a teenager but I’ve never bothered reading any of the raft of subsequent novels that have been written since. However I do find the character utterly fascinating, and generally enjoy fiction set in Victorian London.

I thought this was okay. It’s quite well-written, if unlike the style of Conan Doyle when writing as Doctor Watson. But the plot explains this by the way Holmes apologises for his rather wandering narrative, suggesting that Watson has a far more active method of writing than he has.

The plot is convoluted and preposterous but I suppose that’s part of the fun of it. It’s a short novel and I had fun reading it but it wasn’t enough to make me seek out anything else of the author’s work, or bother reading any other Sherlock Holmes tales by other writers. I’d recommend this to fans of Sherlock Holmes, but no one else.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Jasper Wishart, 13 years old, lives with his dad on an ordinary street. His neighbours are ordinary. However Jasper is anything but ordinary. He sees the world completely different. He can’t recognise faces, even his own. He loves painting and parakeets and is struggling to deal with the death of his mum. His world is both more colourful and frightening than ours. He suffers from synaesthesia, as well as being autistic. When a young woman, Bee Larkham, moves onto the street, she causes a disturbance among the inhabitants. Her appearance sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her death. Jasper has to piece together the information he has – trying to work out if he’s processed it correctly – in an effort to solve the murder of who killed Bee Larkham.

I really wanted to like this novel. First of all it’s a British murder mystery, it involves an interesting central character with a fascinating mental disorder, and it’s a whodunnit. But the truth of the matter is I was left a bit disappointed. I have never given up on a novel I’ve started reading, but the first half of this book was a real slog. I wasn’t enjoying it at all. Whilst the part about synaesthesia and austism were very interesting (I assume they were factually-based) the plot itself felt rather boring. I wasn’t particularly invested in the other characters. I think a lot of this is to do with the way the plot develops – we can only see things through Jasper’s eyes – so the voice of the narrative tended to over-emphasise the colours and moods rather than clues and story points. The secondary characters felt a bit vague and confusing. Which is exactly the way Jasper sees them.

However I’m glad I stuck with the rest of the novel because the second half of the book is much more revealing, and because of that, satisfying. By that point we’re understanding Jasper’s worldview, and are able to jump ahead a bit and make guesses at what really happened. It reminded me of a cross between Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ and LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’. Jasper is, due to his synaesthesia and autism, an unreliable narrator, and there is much for the reader to work out. If I’d read just to the halfway point of the novel I’d have felt this was a 1 star book. By finishing it I’d give it 3 stars. There are quite dark themes here, which feel even more acute because of Jasper’s rather innocent view of things. Not a disaster, by any stretch of the imagination, but not one I could really recommend. I did get a decent insight into both synaesthesia and autism, and I also learned that there are parakeets living in Britain, but for me the plot wasn’t particularly engaging.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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