ALL THE PLACES I’VE EVER LIVED by David Gaffney

Part murder ballad, part ghost story, part true crime, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived takes you on a gripping journey from the small-town murder of a teenage girl in the 1970s to the recent real-life shootings in Whitehaven, West Cumbria. Are the crimes linked? Fifteen-year-old Barry Dyer may have the answers, but when events impact so horrifically on a town and its people, it always pays to tread carefully when revealing the truth… Quirky, disturbing, and haunting, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived is a moving and tender exploration of a teenage outsider in a small community, as well as being a finely wrought portrayal of the neglected industrial settlements of West Cumbria, where nuclear plants, thermometer factories and chemical works contrast vividly with the desolate beauty of the Lake District. David Peace meets Murakami in award-winning writer David Gaffney’s compelling mash up of Twin Peaks weirdness and peri-urban noir.

This is a very strange book to review, least of all because to reveal too much about the story would deny the reader of some of the wonderful elements that this novel manages to cram together. I’d read a couple of the author’s short stories before, so I was expecting to get some quality writing; however what did catch me by surprise was the perfect blend of 70’s nostalgia, macabre plotting and laugh out loud dialogue. It’s bonkers and surreal and yet completely realistic in a dreamlike kind of way. What more can I say other than to urge you to read it? Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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ONLY WATCHING YOU by Mark West

Several months after Claire’s husband leaves her for another woman, her friend Amy convinces her to join a local ‘singles’ group at a nearby pub, in an effort to kick-start her social life. For the past months she has been living with her 15 year old son, trying to adjust to being on her own, and her confidence is low, so the invitation to join the group seems to come at the right time for her. The other members of The Hadlington Friends appear to be in similar circumstances and at first Claire feels a sense of belonging and an affinity with her new-found pals. However she soon begins to notice a strange hooded figure crossing paths with her regularly, and a man in a car whose presence begins to unnerve her. Someone is scrawling sinister graffiti on walls near where she lives. Someone with a very dangerous mind and a deeply disturbing motive…

Only Watching You arrives hot on the heels of Mark West’s previous thriller, Don’t Go Back, which was published earlier this year. West, whose success in writing is previously across the horror genre, yet again demonstrates that he is equally adept at working in different genres. The qualities that made Don’t Go Back work so well are evident here too; fast-paced prose and direct storytelling, with well-balanced chapters, populated with engaging characters. West has a keen ear for dialogue, and it’s difficult to remember that these characters are fictional, so grounded in reality is his writing. Actually, this particular novel has quite an array of different characters – especially the ones introduced from Claire’s visit to the singles group – and the author does a fine job of making each one distinct and separate, so you never feel confused about the different names that crop up. This is particularly important because – and this is no real spoiler to anyone who reads even just casually in the thriller genre – the malign and sinister figure stalking her is actually someone much closer to her than she realises. West skilfully misdirects us with the plot developments and the manner in which he shuffles the characters around, until we think we know who is behind this campaign of harassment, before he propels things into a different direction for the final act. The denouement is tense and suitably macabre, again highlighting how the author’s writing shares a cinematic quality, and he pulls all the strands of the novel together perfectly.

Whether Mark West ever returns to writing horror is a question no one but himself can answer. But it’s certainly not an understatement to say that if he doesn’t, the horror genre’s loss is most definitely the thriller genre’s gain. Recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF THE MUMMY edited by Paula Guran

The Mammoth Book of the Mummy, edited by genre stalwart Paula Guran, collects together 19 stories (in which we get a decent variation on the book’s theme) about mummies – Egyptian and otherwise – including three new tales. There is a mouth-watering array of authors on display, including Karen Joy Fowler, Kim Newman, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe Lansdale, John Langan, Helen Marshall, and Angela Slatter.

Of all the genre tropes – or themes to base an anthology on – mummies is probably the one that I have the least interest in. Much as I’m interested in history, the Egyptian era feels a little too distant to appeal, and I’ve never found the mummy films particularly frightening or engaging. So I went into the book with low expectations and not a great deal of enthusiasm. And to its credit, the book was a pleasant surprise, containing several great stories and wide enough variation to prevent them theme from becoming boring.

The book opens with a very interesting introduction from the editor. Guran sets out her intentions and gives us a fascinating overview of the history of the mummy, both in fact and fiction. She even illustrates how the transition occurred from fact to fiction, and what triggered the public’s interest in Egyptian mummies. The introduction also sets out Guran’s justification for choosing the stories, and her attempts to offer tales not just focused on Egyptian mummies, and she also generously provides an overview of other mummy anthologies and offers recommendations for further reading. However it’s fair to say that there is a rather uneven quality to the stories. Some simply did not work for me at all. But I’d put that down to my tastes, rather than the stories themselves, because there was nothing particular wrong with them, and they were originally published in auspicious magazines and anthologies. My favourites were from John Langan, Stephen Graham Jones, Helen Marshall, Joe Lansdale, Kim Newman, Norman Partridge, and Steve Duffy. The book is worth it for the SGJ story alone. It’s difficult to say that this collection is an essential entry into the already extensive genre anthologies that are published each year, but the stories that really worked for me really worked, and there were only one or two that I had previously read, so you may enjoy this is you’re looking for something quite different to the usual fare.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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DON’T GO BACK by Mark West

The sudden death of Kate Marshall prompts old schoolfriend Beth Parker to face a difficult return to Seagrave, the coastal town in which they grew up. Since she departed for university, Beth has moved on. Now married and trying for a baby, her life has eventually recovered from the darkness that blighted the group of friends fifteen years ago. But the funeral proves to be difficult, and revisiting her old haunts only exacerbates the feelings of unease and the memories that she has tried so hard to suppress…

Mark West is one of those authors whose writing has a deeply cinematic feel. There’s a lovely pacing to the prose, with nicely balanced chapter lengths and an engaging plot. Whilst West’s previous output has been mainly in the horror genre, Don’t Go Back works both as a mystery and as a suspense thriller, with the storyline broken into two distinct timelines – the ‘here and now’ as Beth returns to Seagrave, and flashbacks from fifteen year previously, where West hints at something catastrophic happening to the group of friends, Beth, Jenny, Kate and Wendy. Slowly the events that led up to the event are revealed, with a couple of nice twists and unexpected character developments.

The town of Seagrave feels real. I loved its pier, the beach, the arcades and cafes. The author does a good job of plonking us directly into the action from the start, and the characterisation of the central group of girls is realistic and believable. As the plot develops, there is a terrifying inevitability to the darkness that is slowly encroaching upon Beth and her husband Nick. It’s one of those novels that you fly through, partly because the plot is brisk and the writing fast-paced, but also because the story demands your attention. You want to find out what happens to these characters. In addition you want to find what happened to them fifteen years ago. It really is a cracking read and I have no hesitation in recommending this superb novel for fans of suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrillers.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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THE 12.30 FROM CROYDON by Freeman Wills Crofts

I’ve been a fan of the British Library Crime Classics series for many years, whose purpose is to bring to modern readers long-forgotten classics or overlooked gems from the golden age of crime, generally thought to have been between the wars (although there are titles in the series from earlier and much later in time). This is a highly recommended collection of books, for those looking for something from a more sedate, bygone age of writing.

The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts is an inverted murder. That is to say that it’s quite the opposite to a ‘whodunnit’, which is the standard fare of these kind of novels. In an inverted murder we know right from the start who the killer is, as often the story is told from the murderer’s point of view. The plot usually involves a degree of suspense, of a cat and mouse aspect to the investigation, and generally there is an element of psychology woven into the story. These are all fine qualities in crime fiction, and it often acts as a refreshing change to the more intricately-plotted yet bafflingly complex narratives of the whodunnit.

This particular novel details the financial troubles and romantic yearnings of Charles Swinburn, who one day decides that the answer to his problems is to murder a member of his family, in order to inherit a sum of money which will give him a future more hopeful than the bleak one it promises to be. We follow his plotting and the intricacies of how he commits the murder, and then see things very much from his viewpoint as the police investigation takes over and he comes under the scrutiny of Inspector French.

There is a great deal of suspense created by the format of the novel, and the pacing is well formed. There are a few twists and turns. For a novel originally published in 1934 it is rather well-written and will definitely appeal to a modern reader, although the final two chapters are a bit heavy on exposition, as the detective explains the elements of the story that put him onto certain paths with the investigation. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful read, and adds another welcome credit to the Crime Classic series. As such, it comes recommended for aficionados of crime fiction from the golden age.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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THE MIXER by Michael Cox

The subheading of this non-fiction book is ‘The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines’ and had been on my radar for a while, having heard good things about Cox’s other books. I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint, working as both a nostalgic overview to the first twenty five years of the English Premier League, and also as a summation of how football has evolved in that time, picking out the various players and managers whose contributions helped shaped the game.

The book is broken down into 25 chapters, each one roughly categorized by the key events of a particular year in a decidedly chronological order, beginning with the inception of the Premier League – and with it the money and razzmatazz that Sky TV brought with it. It’s easy to forget such facts like out of the 242 players who started a Premier League match on that opening weekend of 1992, only 11 were foreign. It’s easy to forget how changing the back-pass rule in 1992 (making a goalkeeper forbidden to handle a ball played back to him from one of his own players) took the safety play out of the way and made the sport infinitely more exciting. There are many items of trivia in this book, and they help illustrate how English football evolved from being rather staid and old-fashioned to eventually become one of the most-watched leagues in the world.

There are chapters focusing on players like Eric Cantona, the SAS (Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton), Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp, Michael Owen, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, as well as iconic managers and tacticians like Sir Alex Ferguson, Kevin Keegan and his ‘we’ll outscore you’ policy, Arsene Wenger’s influence in bringing modern methods of diet and conduct to English football, the long-ball game of Sam Allardyce, etc.

If you have an interest in football tactics and team formations, this is a fascinating book. It also works as a way of reliving the key moments of the sport over the last quarter of a century. I found myself recalling incidents I had forgotten and remembering the names of players that had since slipped my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to catching more of the work of Michael Cox. As such, it comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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THE WINTERS by Lisa Gabriele

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele is a ‘retelling’ of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, originally published in 1938, and updates the story to a contemporary setting, this time relocating the grand mansion (Asherley instead of Manderley) to a private island in the US instead of a secluded estate in Cornwall, England. Most of the elements are intact, although there are adjustments to reflect the more modern attitudes of today and the use of contemporary technology.

I should start by saying that I think Rebecca is one of the greatest suspense novels of the twentieth century, and as such sets an almost impossible standard for any author to emulate. And I can’t say that Gabriele does a bad job of updating the story, it’s just that the whole thing feels so much weaker than the original. I found the first quarter of the book to be an unbelievably hard slog. It seemed to tick every clichéd romance stereotype I could think off, as the recently widowed but wealthy man sweeps our heroine off her feet and plunges her into a sumptuous world of manor houses and a lavish fantasy lifestyle. Max Winter’s daughter, Dani, is a fresh take on Mrs Danvers, delivering a recognisable reason for the cold resentment that festers between the characters. Gabriele’s writing is mostly workmanlike, rarely rising to anything near the elegance of du Maurier’s prose, but manages to tell its story adequately and with a decent pace. The novel undoubtedly improves once the characters leave the Cayman Islands and relocate to Asherley, with the spectre of Rebekah taking more of a backseat than in the original. The conflict between the narrator, Max Winter and Dani is handled well, with a subplot involving Dani’s backstory further adding a fresh twist to the proceedings.

The ending will offer few surprises to those who have read Rebecca, although there are a couple of nice twists relating to the new plot strands that the author has created. However the final chapter felt flat, heavily reliant on exposition, and almost tagged-on to the rest of the novel. Overall, this book didn’t quite work for me. As a ‘domestic noir’, it offers enough to keep most readers entertained, but there is nothing ground-breaking here, and by inviting comparisons by it being inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic, it is always going to seem a pale imitation.

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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HOW NOT TO BE WRONG – The Art of Changing Your Mind by James O’Brien

How Not To Be Wrong – The Art of Changing Your Mind by James O’Brien is the author’s follow up to 2018’s How To Be Right. O’Brien is a journalist and broadcaster who has written for the TLS and the Daily Mirror and who has a daily current affairs programme on LBC. He is an interesting character, in that he was privately educated and enjoyed a privileged upbringing, and yet has a rather left-wing political stance. His radio show is very engaging and his Twitter presence is both divisive and, almost always, bang on point.

I haven’t read How To Be Right so it’s impossible for me to compare the two books, but this one felt up to date and relevant, taking in the impact of Covid and the disastrous handling of the pandemic by both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s governments. O’Brien is famously anti-Brexit, and it’s difficult to argue that he’s wrong as, so far, there is little evidence to counter his argument, and it’s here where the crux of the book is: if your opinions don’t match O’Brien’s you’ll likely not enjoy reading this book; in fact it will probably infuriate you. On the other hand if your personal political opinion is matched with a shared viewpoint, there is much here for you to enjoy.

The chapters deal with his thoughts on bullying and punishment in private schools (It Never Did Me Any Harm), the impact of therapy (Stiff Upper Lips), white privilege and the dangers of solely surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals (Stop and Search and Echo Chambers), tackling the right-wing criticism of Black Lives Matter (White Privilege, Black Lives), his own admittedly irrational biases (Tattoos, Private Schools and Marriage), social bullying and the narrow-minded viewpoints directing contempt towards others (Fatty Fatty Fat Fats), the complicated subject of trans rights (Trans), and a summary about the lessons learned in accepting that one will benefit greatly by being open-minded enough to allow a change of opinion in the weight of opposing evidence (Confessions of a Corpse-Munching Psychopath). Each chapter contains excerpts from O’Brien’s broadcasting career, in which he illustrate points – sometimes to his own detriment – in which he has encountered members of the public whose experiences have made him reconsider his position and, as such, given him a deeper understanding of the situation under discussion. These act as a nice counterpoint. He is often self-deprecating, but there seems to be an earnest heart there. One gets the impression that he realises that his overtly vocal opinion has in the past cost him jobs (a high-profile role with the BBC is touched on) but that he genuinely cares about those less fortunate than himself, and his left-leaning stance isn’t merely a calculated viewpoint with the intention of self-promotion.

This book is an interesting read, and one that isn’t too bogged down in jargon or complicated political points (although the section on trans viewpoints rightly illustrates what a complex subject this is) and it’s one that certainly invites interest in his other books. I enjoyed it greatly.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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THE LAMPLIGHTERS by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is inspired by the true story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished from the island of Eilean Mor on 26th December 1900. Wilfred Wilson Gibson wrote a poem about the incident, Flannan Isle, published in 1912, and Stonex picks up the basic details and speculates a fresh plot based on a more contemporary version of the tale.

I remember reading the Gibson poem in secondary school, and being captivated by the atmosphere and evocative location, which was further accelerated by the Doctor Who story The Horror of Fang Rock. So for most of my life I have harboured a fondness for the richly textured and infinitely creepy location of the lighthouse. Perhaps it’s a fear of the sea’s power and the hostility of the weather, or maybe it’s just the idea of being stranded on an isolated rock miles from safety and other comforts…

The Lamplighters tells the story of three lighthouse keepers, Arthur, Bill and Vince – all very different characters – who are thrown together in isolation on the Maiden Rock lighthouse, fifteen miles southwest of Land’s End. It is 1972 and the novel is peppered with cultural references to remind us of the time setting. We’re drip-fed information, with individual chapters told from each man’s viewpoint, building an impression of the fractious relationship between them. Slowly key details are revealed. Intersected between are chapters set in 1992, told from the viewpoints of the women involved with these men – respectively Helen, Jenny and Michelle – who are still dealing with the aftermath of their partner’s disappearances, and whom have been contacted by an author who is interested in writing a book about the event. Again, the uneasiness of the women and their strained relationship is well depicted, filling in the gaps their mental states have undergone in the intervening years.

The novel is well researched, and includes fascinating details about the men who worked in the lighthouse service, equally as much covering the mental requirements of the job as well as the physical aspects. In the intervening years the role has almost become redundant, due to technology making it automated, so it feels like we are dealing with a story lost in the mists of time. This is a good I enjoyed. It’s a well-paced novel with believable emotional complexities. I look forward to reading more of Stonex’s future work.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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OUR WIVES UNDER THE SEA by Julia Armfield

When Leah’s submarine vanishes without trace during her latest deep sea mission, her wife Miri accepts that she has lost her forever. She struggles emotionally, receiving very little information from Leah’s employers at the Centre, until one day – unexpectedly – Leah returns.

But Miri can’t be sure that the woman who is now living in their home is the same woman who she once called her wife. As well as subtle changes in her behaviour, there are more alarming physical transformations happening, things which provoke unsettling thoughts in Miri’s mind.

Our Wives Under the Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, and it’s taut and atmospheric, something that I think will appeal greatly to those who enjoy literary thrillers. The quality of writing is superb, with each chapter alternating between Miri and Leah’s viewpoint, so that bit by bit we gain an insight into each woman’s thoughts, slowly revealing details that make up a bigger picture. Leah’s entries tend to explain what happened during her time on the stricken vessel. Her descriptions of the increasingly bizarre behaviour of her two fellow crew members add to the sense of weirdness that pervades the pages of the book.

The vastness and depth of the oceans is a fear that has always bothered me – it’s called thalassophobia, trivia fans – and this short novel does a great job of tapping into that fear. Throughout Leah’s chapters she discusses her experience of being on a submarine in extremely deep, dark waters, and it’s terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. The relationship between the two women is also portrayed well, especially in Miri’s memories of when they first got together, highlighting a stark contrast between the relaxed dynamic of those early days and the current uneasy relationship between the two. Miri’s entries also document the present – the after-effects of Leah’s isolation beneath miles of black water – and how her wife’s change is accelerating both her physical state and also the real aspects of their marriage. This is a book about romance and grief, memory and body-horror, delivered as a nicely-paced literary novel with a neat structure.

Reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (specifically Annihilation) and calling to mind the idea of the Changeling in folklore and legend, this terrific short novel has much to enjoy, both in the high calibre of its prose and the intriguing premise of it story. It comes highly recommended and marks Julia Armfield as an emerging writer whose career I will follow with interest.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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