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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MIRACULOUS MYSTERIES edited by Martin Edwards

I’ve been a fan of the British Library Crime Classics series for many years. Since 2012 they have been reprinting a decent selection of ‘golden-age’ mysteries (although not exclusively from this period) and the occasional short story anthology. As a general rule, the anthologies tend to be not quite as good; perhaps because a few of the stories have been anthologised elsewhere, whereas the novels are often overlooked or simply more obscure.

This one, Miraculous Mysteries, is – like the other anthologies in the series – edited by crime fiction expert Martin Edwards, himself a fine writer. Like the others, this one contains short stories from some of the famous names in the genre (such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Edmund Crispin, G K Chesterton, Margery Allingham and Michael Innes) alongside some from lesser known authors.

Although I tend to prefer the shorter length in such genres as horror or weird literature, the simple fact is that crime fiction doesn’t really suit the shorter form, due to its reliance on complex plotting and the need for a careful distribution of clues among the prose.

The introduction by Martin Edwards lists an interesting top ten of the best ‘locked room’ mystery novels, as voted for by the Mystery Writers of America in 1981. Like all of Edwards’ editorial content, there is much to enjoy in the details and his experience.

My biggest problem with the locked-room mystery or the impossible crime is that the set-up and premise is always infinitely more interesting than the solution. Let’s face it, there are only so many ways one can kill someone in a locked room without stretching credulity to its limit. Even using hidden compartments or spring-loaded daggers fired at an arranged time starts to wear thin after a while. However what I did like about this anthology – which I read in the wake of a couple of others, notably a mammoth collection edited by Otto Penzler and a more modest one from Mike Ashley – is that there is some variation to the crime, so that the stories don’t become too monotonous. I can’t say I was particularly gripped by any of the tales, however the entries from Margery Allingham, Nicholas Olde, Grenville Robbins, GDH Cole and Margaret Cole were probably my favourites. It managed to pass a few entertaining hours, but this isn’t a book I would recommend to anyone looking to start out reading in the genre, and it’s not a patch on many of the other anthologies in the Crime Classic series, let alone the novels.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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BODY SHOCKS – EXTREME TALES OF BODY HORROR edited by Ellen Datlow

Editor Ellen Datlow presents 29 tales of body horror from the very best of today’s writers, incorporating a diverse range of voices and styles, originally published over the last 40 years. This was an anthology that I didn’t think would particularly appeal to me, given its theme, and my preference for other sub-categories in the horror genre. I thought – erroneously as it turned out – that the theme was a rather narrow one, and I suspected the stories might be mildly repetitive. However I needn’t have worried because – as you might expect from an award-winning editor in the field of speculative fiction – Ellen Datlow has gathered together a superb array of talent, showcasing the vast extremities of the theme.

All of the stories have all been previously published – the earliest, Michael Blumlein’s, from Interzone in 1984, the most recent from 2020 by Brian Evenson in an online webzine – but several of them are quite obscure and there’s a nice balance to the contents. In fact, such is the variety of the stories, that you could be forgiven for forgetting the actual theme of the book. Whilst it’s true that some of the tales are more subtle than others, none of them are anything less than powerful, and it’s a credit to Datlow that she manages to balance a range of styles and variations, which means the anthology never becomes predictable. Reading these stories as 2021 is closing out and the world is starting to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, we as a species have never felt more mortal; these tales touch a nerve, reminding us how fragile we are as humans, how our bodies are susceptible to external forces. This adds an extra element to the fear of body horror.

There isn’t one poor story in this anthology, but personal favourites include Nathan Ballingrud’s You Go Where It Takes You, Welcome to Mengele’s by Simon Bestwick, Tananarive Due’s The Lake, It Was the Heat by Pat Cadigan, The Travellers Stay by Ray Cluley, Spores by Seanan McGuire, Christopher Fowler’s The Look, Lisa Hannett’s Sweet Subtleties, Elegy for a Suicide by Caitlin R Kiernan, Tom Johnstone’s What I Found in the Shed, and Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma. Even the stories I found less engaging were nevertheless extremely well-written, eschewing the usual tropes and stereotypes, and act as a great example of why horror is such a richly diverse genre. If you like dark fiction I think you’d really enjoy this excellent anthology.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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MADHOUSE AT THE END OF THE EARTH: THE BELGICA’S JOURNEY INTO THE DARK ANTARCTIC NIGHT by Julian Sancton

Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton is a wonderful non-fiction account of the ill-fated 1897 expedition – the first ever to winter in the Antarctic region – which chronicles approximately two years in which the crew of the Norwegian-built Belgica faced a bleak prospect after becoming trapped in the ice. Insanity, death, cabin fever and a fear of starvation blighted the expedition, with several men succumbing to the symptoms of scurvy. The events are so well described by Sancton that one can’t fail to be impressed by such hardships these men had to endure, and we gain an admiration for their powerful survival instincts and resourcefulness.

Among its members were Roald Amundsen and Frederick Cook, explorers who would later attempt their own conquests of the North and South Poles.

The description of the events are gathered from first-hand accounts – this was an expedition where a large amount of the crew kept detailed journals, as well as exclusive access to the ship’s logbook – and it tells a compelling story. I have read several books on the subject of polar voyages or shipping disasters in extreme areas of the world – The HMS Terror and Erebus are examples of similar doomed expeditions – but this book is the most detailed and the one that really offers a clear understanding of the fear and hardships these men were forced to harbour and endure.

What is conveyed most strongly in the book is the personalities of those involved – Amundsen and Cook and the commander, Adrien de Gerlache – and we get a wonderful insight into these men’s characters and get to understand what drove them. Frederick Cook, in particular, ended up with the most tarnished reputation after accusations of him falsifying his later exploration achievements and his involvement in a fraud case relating to the start-up of some oil companies and his subsequent imprisonment.

It reads almost as a thriller. The early section of the book draws all the characters together and shows us their backstories and motivations. It paints a strong picture of what life was like at that time. Then, as the expedition progresses, events take on a sinister turn when the captain makes the fateful decision to sail on, into the ice pack, in an effort to chase glory and fame, but also risking the lives of the crew at the same time. And the vessel did indeed get stuck in the ice. With winter drawing in, during a time where sunlight would not appear for many months, the men were forced to endure such a torrid time that even today, NASA’s experts planning far-long space exploration flights, use the studies gathered from this voyage as evidence of what extreme isolation can do to the human mind and body. It’s simultaneously terrifying and fascinating.

This really is a terrific book, one that will appeal to historians as well as those who enjoy thrillers. The writing is accessible and the nautical terminology easy to understand, and it’s rare for non-fiction to be such a page-turner, but Madhouse at the End of the Earth manages to satisfy on every level. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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CHRISTINE FALLS by Benjamin Black

Following a work’s office party, Quirke – the irascible Irish pathologist, and central character in the Dublin-set crime novels by Benjamin Black – one night stumbles across his brother-in-law amending a report in his office in the bowels of the building, drawing his attention to the body of a young woman who recently fell to her death down a flight of steps. Quirke’s suspicion is raised by the need for the document’s alteration, and – fuelled by his mistrust and dislike of his obstetrician brother-in-law – he decides to look into the circumstances surrounding her death…

The Quirke novels by Benjamin Black – pen-name of multi award-winning author John Banville – are atmospheric and dark, with a seedy undercurrent running through their core. They deal with damaged, dysfunctional families, long-forgotten secrets, dark deeds and shady characters. I would offer up these novels as a counter argument to anyone who dismisses the whodunnit as being nothing more than overly-complex and densely-plotted, populated by one dimensional characters committing variations of anodyne murder. The Quirke novels transcend the crime genre, perfectly evoking 1950s Dublin and the dark underbelly of the city and its religious and social influence. We see the real impact of sudden death, sometimes the visceral detail of murder scenes, and the darkest recesses of human depravity. The author pulls no punches in depicting life in the 1950s, and manages to show both the lower classes and higher classes of society. In the Quirke novels, the distinction between classes is often a key element of the plot.

Christine Falls is the first novel in the series and is a superb introduction to the cast of characters and their place in post-war Ireland. Unlike other books with a recurring character, the story arc extends across the entire series, so events in one book often directly impacts on future novels, as well as characters and events being cross-referenced. This is one detective series that you should definitely read in order.

Quirke himself is fascinating, richly drawn and intoxicatingly flawed. He is often melancholic, fond of his women and his drink, instantly relatable. The quality of the prose is – as you’d expect from a Booker prize winning author – outstanding, and refreshingly unpretentious. Banville is unflinching in his criticism of patriarchal organisations and their god-like involvement in the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. Quirke clearly chares facets of Banville’s character, albeit his dogged pathologist is a damaged version, and the background of Quirke’s childhood and upbringing paints a realistic shaping of the man we encounter in the novels. This novel will appeal to both crime fans and readers who enjoy historical fiction. It’s well-written, beautifully-paced, and offers a genuinely believable central character whose job sets him in an ideal position as a crime-solving protagonist. Latterly Banville has dropped the pseudonym Benjamin Black and reverted to his real name, and expanded the Quirke universe by creating the character of Inspector Strafford whose appearances in both Snow and April in Spain bode well for the series’ future. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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BEST NEW HORROR 31 edited by Stephen Jones

November sees the trade paperback release of Best New Horror 31, the latest and, I’m very sorry to say, final edition of Stephen Jones’s long-running annual best of anthologies, featuring the editor’s favourite stories, this one from 2019, which I’m delighted to have included The Children of Medea from my most recent collection Murmured in Dreams published by Luna Press. In a previous post I’ve already talked about my love for this series, and how it’s inspired me to pick up the pen and try writing my own stories, and so it’s especially gratifying that I made the very last edition. Now the full contents have been announced, I’m once again reminded at how grateful I am to Stephen Jones for including me in the company of such great writers.

CONTENTS
Introduction: Horror in 2019 — THE EDITOR
Zombie-ish — SCOTT BRADFIELD
Wake the Dead — MAURA MCHUGH
Mercy Brown —  CAITLÍN R. KIERNAN
Mama Bruise — JONATHAN CARROLL
The Same As the Air — ALISON LITTLEWOOD
Getting Through — RAMSEY CAMPBELL
The Children of Medea — STEPHEN BACON
The Water of Dhu’l Nun — DON WEBB
Under the Frenzy of the Fourteenth Moon — RON WEIGHELL
The Promise of Saints —  ANGELA SLATTER
Crawlspace Oracle — RICHARD GAVIN
Downriver — MICHAEL CHISLETT
Death in All Its Ripeness — MARK SAMUELS
Shrapnel — RICHARD CHRISTIAN MATHESON
Precipice — DALE BAILEY
Antripuu — SIMON STRANTZAS
A Crown of Leaves — KRISTI DeMEESTER
A Stay at the Shores — STEVE RASNIC TEM
The Old Man of the Woods — REGGIE OLIVER
Iron City — TANITH LEE
Slough — GLEN HIRSHBERG
A Species of the Dead —  D.P. WATT
The Burning Woods — MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH
Necrology: 2019 — STEPHEN JONES & KIM NEWMAN
Useful Addresses

The paperback version will be £15.99 plus P&P from PS Publishing, but if you preorder the hardcover copy for £60 plus P&P (numbered and signed by all contributors and limited to just 100 copies) you will get the trade paperback version at no extra charge. Bargain indeed. The hardcover version will be available in the new year. Here’s the all-important link. Be sure to check out the PS PUBLISHING site to see some other discounted packages on previous editions of this series, which are essential to any fan of horror short fiction.

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RESISTANCE by Tori Amos

I’ve been a fan of Tori Amos for a fair few years. She writes songs and creates music that no one else on Earth would make. Her work is sometimes challenging, often experimental, frequently complex, and yet always devastatingly brilliant. Amos writes about human emotion, not just love songs, but about themes such as sexuality, feminism, politics, redemption and religion. She has worked in the music industry for over four decades and, as one of our most brilliant artists, has a powerful ethic for work and creativity.

Resistance is her follow up to 2005’s Piece by Piece, co-written with Ann Powers, in which she explored her song-writing process and discussed her interest in mythology and religion, as well as charting her rise to fame and her relationship with Atlantic Records. Resistance covers a different time period in world history – most jarring of which is the Trump years of America, and Putin’s impact upon the people of Russia – and so it’s fascinating to gain an insight into what motivates her, what continues to point her towards creativity, what themes her Muses challenge her to confront. It’s obvious from the book that Amos sees touring as a way of experiencing life, of tasting each respective place via the tongues of its inhabitants. These are not merely a list of nameless concert halls in which she is performing, they are all part of the path that sees her grow as a song-writer. Even the set-lists are tailored to each individual town or city. She tries hard to engage with the citizens, takes an interest in local events. It was wonderful to hear an artist speak so passionately and earnestly about this impact on her song-writing process.

Of course, some of the prose can at times come across as a little self-indulgent and Important – but which artist cannot be accused of this from time to time, and surely we forgive them this flaw for the brilliant work that they produce? What can’t be questioned, however, is Amos’s unwavering commitment to supporting those in society who most need help, be it victims of sexual abuse or political repression, minorities struggling to find their voice, desperate people fighting the power structures of patriarchal governments and misogynistic regimes. She is compassionate and inspirational, a reminder of why artists have an obligation to use their platform as a force for good.

It was interesting to hear some of the intimate details discussed in the book. Amos is fiercely private, and it must have been difficult for her to touch on certain elements of familial history, but she does it in a way that gives distance to the more personal points and allows us to see them in the context of her artistic life. I found some of the advice and reflections on her creative process to be intriguing. It gave me a new-found admiration for her work and the inventive brilliance of her music. This is not a book that will appeal to everyone – it’s probably a prerequisite that its readers will need to know and enjoy the music of Tori Amos to appreciate it – but for those who are a fan, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of our greatest singer-songwriters.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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MADAM by Phoebe Wynne

When classics teacher Rose Christie lands the role of Department Head at prestigious Caldonbrae Hall, the private boarding school for girls on the coast of Scotland, she thinks all her dreams have come true. For over 150 years the education institution has prepared young women for womanhood, coaching them in the various skills required to succeed in society. As the first new member of staff in over a decade, Rose feels honoured to be employed by such an illustrious organisation. But whisperings about what actually happened to her predecessor, and an insight into Caldonbrae’s real teachings, leave her isolated and detached, and at odds with the shadowy establishment.

I really wanted to like Madam, the debut novel by Phoebe Wynne. The central character, Rose, is earnest and morally sound, and I shared many of her left-wing and socialist views. It is set in the early 90s; exactly why this period I’m not sure. Perhaps to avoid the use of mobile phones, as their presence might have created difficult plot points to overcome? Who knows. There’s a strong sense of the gothic to the synopsis, and I had expected something of a Rebecca-vibe, but sadly these elements were lacking. I did enjoy the female characters from Greek studies and their stories, although the manner in which they were integrated into the narrative felt rather contrived. Most of the characters are very unpleasant, so much so that there was little suspense generated by their actions. It just felt like a long battle against a regime that was overtly conservative and backward thinking. The theme was tackled far more successfully in Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society, only that was about the railing against the oppression of individuality. As it was set in the 1950s it felt appropriate to that time; this novel tackles the oppression of feminism, but the 1990s setting makes the theme seem hardly radical. The writing is workmanlike and unspectacular – nothing wrong with that – but did little to propel the story in the absence of an interesting plot. I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, but sadly it felt like a chore and – whilst I agree with the sentiments of the central character (and, presumably, the author) – it was not enough to make for a satisfying read.

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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WHITE SPINES : CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK COLLECTOR by Nicholas Royle

It is often said of the writer Stephen King that if he published his shopping list, people would rush out to buy it. This isn’t really a derogative observation – at least I don’t think it is – merely a reflection on the fact that the author’s prose is so incredibly readable. The best writers (in my opinion) have the ability to engage you with their prose, not just impress you with their vocabulary. They work hard to make each word count, so that you savour the individual choice of word. Nicholas Royle’s White Spines – Confessions of a Book Collector is one such book. I was interested in reading this non-fiction title because Royle himself seems to be a fascinating man, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how fascinating it was to read the thoughts of a man detailing, amongst other things, his book-collecting obsession.

To be fair, there is far more to this book than just that. As well as covering Royle’s dogged pursuit of tracking down every Picador book from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s (as well as certain other books like Sceptres, King Penguins, Abacus, Vintage, Fontana Agatha Christie’s featuring Tom Adams’ covers, Paladins, etc) he also touches on his fascination with discovering ‘inclusions’ within second-hand books (personal items belonging to a previous owner that were perhaps used as a bookmark) and the nature of finding inscribed books and how they came to find their way onto the second-hand market. He reflects on many of the inscriptions, even displaying some minor research that he has done into the background of who these people in the inscriptions might be.

Royle has a relaxed, informal tone; at times it’s laugh out loud funny, and his personality and insecurities come across in the prose, a facet I found reassuringly enduring and relatable. It’s great to hear someone else talk with such passion about books and reading, as well as the nature of being a collector (of anything really), or even just about the respective qualities of a particular bookshop. Royle writes with great enthusiasm about a book’s cover art too, and his interest in an author’s connection with their own first published novel. There are snippets of overheard dialogue mixed with fragments of dreams, so much so that it’s sometimes tempting to wonder whether the author has penned a novel, instead of a piece of non-fiction – or autofiction as it’s usually known – although I suppose it doesn’t really matter, as the end result is so engrossing nonetheless.

I came away from this book with a renewed appreciation of bookshops and second-hand books, as well as a ‘wanted list’ of titles and authors, and a reference of bookshops to visit when I’m out and about. I had a wonderful time reading this, and I can heartily recommend it. Oh, and just for the record – I don’t think I’d be that interested in reading Stephen King’s shopping list, but I’d definitely pay good money to read Nicholas Royle’s.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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HIGHWAY BLUE by Ailsa McFarlane

That Highway Blue is a debut novel is remarkable. The writing is superb, incredibly controlled and restrained. It tells the story of Anne Marie, a young woman who has been living in a shared house in San Padua since her husband, Cal, left her a few years previously. When he turns up out of the blue one night, disturbing the settled nature of her new life, it sets in motion a series of events that sees them both having to flee north, crammed into a battered old car. The journey forces them to examine their damaged relationship. This road-trip takes them through the dark heart of America, through broken landscapes, desolate and neon-lit, populated by desperate and lonely characters. Is there destination a shot at redemption or merely a gateway to a new life?

I burned through this short novel in a matter of hours. The prose is unpretentious, stripped back and incredibly readable. I found myself caring deeply for the plight of Anne Marie, and yet I understood how her depth of feeling for Cal could leave her vulnerable. The characters – even the secondary ones -are well-formed and recognisable. Since her husband’s abrupt departure, Anne Marie has had to change and grow, and Cal’s return finds him encountering a very different woman to the young girl he abandoned. There are snippets of her childhood dropped into the narrative, colouring her character and hinting at why she fell in love with someone so inherently bad. But through the progress of the story – which, like the prose, is straightforward and simple – we begin to see how her life experiences have enlightened her to her past mistakes and perhaps given her the courage to do this time what’s right.

Highway Blue is a fantastic novel, marking Ailsa McFarlane as a writer to watch out for. I had a great time reading it and I have no hesitation in recommending.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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