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The Shining Girls

shining-girls-cover-lauren-beukes I’m terribly aware how heavily skewed my reading is in favour of white men. It must have an impact on my writing, and my language, and my worldview, and I’d like to have more diversity in my reading. I read widely in terms of genre, but not so much in terms of author. There are blog challenges similar to the ‘100 books in a year’ challenge which I could do, except that it’s a tough year and I don’t want to take on anything I know I will turn into a chore. That doesn’t mean I can’t pay more attention though.

Whenever I look for contemporary female SFF writers Lauren Beukes is always at the top of the list. The Shining Girls is a story about a time-travelling serial killer. Harper stumbles across a house in the 1930s and to stay in the house he has to match girls with the trophies in the house. Kirby was attacked by Harper but got away. She becomes obsessed with finding out more about her assailant. What she discovers can’t possibly be true. Until he comes for her again. She got away and Harper has to correct his mistake.

The time-travelling element is an interesting twist on the serial killer horror story and the construction of the novel means that you don’t get all of the pieces until the end. It’s cleverly done. The characters are interesting. Harper is complex. Beukes conveys him in a way that shows how he is compelled by house. You could almost think he doesn’t have any choice. But she also shows how his personality makes him so compatible with the house, as if it drew its own to it.

Kirby is a brilliant heroine. She’s likeable, dogged and smart. Her previous traumatic experience makes part of her want to hide away and part of her want to fight back which I found very realistic. I thought it was a sensitive depiction of the complicated and contradictory feelings people have after being made a victim. And Kirby has more trouble in her life than that. It doesn’t define her and she still has to cope with all the other shitty things life hands her.

It was really good. I enjoyed it, would recommend it, and will be reading more work by Lauren Beukes.

Poppet

Lately the urge to review books has sprung up again. I’ve read some good stuff lately (and some not so good stuff) and I’d like to record it.

So, first up is Poppet by Mo Hayder. I’ve only read one of her books before, Pig Island, and it was ok but not great. What really made me want to read this book was the cover art. I saw a couple of posters on the tube and it stuck in my mind. It is arresting. ImageI love the face of the poppet. It’s creepy but also kind of beautiful. (I’ve just put the picture in the post and I can’t stop looking at it).

Poppet is the seventh of Hayder’s Jack Caffery series. I haven’t read any of the others but it doesn’t matter because Caffery is only one of several POV characters. The main character is AJ, who works in an institution for the criminally insane. Two of the inmates die and some others harm themselves in horrific ways. It is initially set up as a supernatural horror, but then segues into the horror of what other people do to each other. That’s my favourite kind.

To start with the patients are afraid of the ghost of a former matron who punishes the wicked with biblical quotes and does horrible things to them. AJ is annoyed with himself for starting to believe this stuff and decides to get to the bottom of it. His investigation points to one of the inmates, who makes poppets of the inmates and staff, who has horrible personal habits, and who murdered his parents in an especially gruesome manner. This inmate is released and AJ goes to the police, fearing he will try to kill the head of the institution.

Jack Caffery is working on a missing person case that a colleague has covered up and is trying to find a way to give closure to the family whilst protecting his colleague. His boss insists he takes this case but it’s so weird that doesn’t take it as seriously as he should. The actual evil is something else again and Hayder puts in a couple of other plausible red herrings before the big reveal.

I’m so glad I picked it up. This is a better book than Pig Island in terms of characterisation and writing. It is an equally easy read but is more gripping. The twists and turns are exciting and surprising, yet make complete sense in the context of the book. I liked it a lot and will read more of her books.

The Dead of Winter

I picked up The Dead of Winter by Christopher Priestley in the 99p kindle sale. Priestley has a column in the British Fantasy Society magazine and I was interested to read his work.

This is a classic style ghost story. A young boy, Michael, is orphaned and sent to live with a mysterious benefactor in a creepy, isolated house in the fens.

Michael’s benefactor is a sickly man whose wife died and who now lives there with his brittle sister, and some humble and friendly servants. From the start, Michael sees things that can’t be explained, scary things that others don’t see.

As he tries to work out what is going on, he unravels the terrible secret at the heart of the house.

I found this novel short and not very scary. It was ok, but very much a Victorian ghost story which isn’t really my thing. When I went looking for the picture for this post I stumbled across another review that said the book was aimed at children, specifically eight to ten year olds. Seriously, these things should have some sort of label on them. But, with that perspective, the things I didn’t like about the book make a bit more sense. If you know someone with pre-teens who like a bit of horror, this would be very suitable.

Cover art for Fragments!

I said in a previous post that I would share the artwork that was used for the cover of Fragments. So, here it is.

It was designed by my co-author, C. R. Smith, whose other work can be found on his DeviantArt page. I really like it and I like it more each time I look at it.

And, because this is a shameless self-promotion post, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you it was available at DriveThruFiction.com for 99p. 🙂

Breaking News: I have published stories!

I’m so very excited. Fragments was published today and is available for download or as print-on-demand from DriveThruFiction.com.

Fragments is a collection of eight short stories of the macabre and creepy kind, of which I have contributed four. It is available to buy for 99p which is incredibly good value. The format is pdf which can be read on kindles or smartphones or ipads or laptops so you can read it on whatever device you like best.

Later in the week I’ll add a picture of the lovely cover art produced by my fellow contributor.

100 Books in 2011: Others

This is the last book in the 100 Books in 2011 challenge and it is Others by James Herbert. A man’s soul is in Hell, tormented, and is given a chance to redeem himself. He accepts the offer.

Nick Dismas is a private investigator running a small, successful business in Brighton. He happens to be mishapen and ugly and so encounters much of the worst of humanity. A woman approaches him and asks him to find her long lost son. She was told that her baby didn’t survive but she believes that he is still alive and now wants to find him.
After he takes this commission he is plagued by nightmares which he tries to explain away as the result of the drugs he takes to deal with his condition. The woman is revealed to have been recently widowed, requiring a son in order to benefit from her husband’s will, and acting on the advice of a psychic. Dismas tells the woman he can’t help her, but a combination of psychic phenomena, intuition and pressure from the psychic pushes him into following up the one lead he has. He thinks it’s pretty tenuous but it leads him to a place where deformed and mutated children are kept secretly from the world, experimented on and exploited.
Dismas rescues them and comes to remember who he was in his previous life. Then, having redeemed himself, he dies.
This is definitely a book on the warm end of the spectrum of writing technique. We spend most of our time in Dismas’ interior world as he ruminates on what is true and what is not, follows his intuition, and explores his feelings for the people around him.
Much of Others feels more like a thriller than a horror. Dismas is trying to find a missing person whilst battling personal demons. It’s ok. It’s pretty readable but I didn’t find the characters that engaging. There is a motif of ‘ugly but good’ and ‘beautiful but evil’ running through the book like a freight train, which I found unsophisticated and heavy-handed.
As a thriller, it was alright until the ending, which was Dismas remembering the bargain he had struck and then all the loose ends being tied up in a couple of expository pages. It felt hurried, especially as the final escape from the burning building had taken over sixty pages to play out. The action was tense and exciting in places but the pacing was a little haphazard. As a horror, I didn’t really get it. I suspect the horror lies in what has been done to the ‘others’, how they have been treated and how society has effectively erased them. The horror is in how easily we decide people aren’t people. But choosing to tell the story from the POV of the private investigator distances us from that for most of story. Unless, of course, you’re freaked out by the idea of demons invading your nightmares. I don’t believe in an afterlife of any kind and so I find it hard to be afraid of that sort of thing.
Anyway, it’s alright. If you enjoy mild supernatural horror, you might like this.

100 Books in 2011: Watchers

Watchers by Dean Koontz is a story about the consequences of genetic engineering. A little bit. Mostly its a creepy horror story of nice people being stalked by horrible things.

Travis Cornell is hiking when he meets a dog. The dog is quite keen to get him away from the woods and he realises they are being stalked by something large and dangerous. They get away and Travis takes the dog home. Later they meet Nora Devon who’s being stalked by a sexual predator. The dog convinces Travis they should go to her house at the moment her stalker attacks her, and they are able to save Nora. A relationship develops and they become a family of sorts.

Vince Nasco is a hitman who has been hired to kill several scientists who were working on projects to genetically engineer a super-intelligent dog and a super-soldier baboon. He gets the idea that if he can find the dog he can get a lot of money in ransom for it. So he starts searching for Travis and his family.

National Security are searching for the baboon creature and the creature is searching for the dog, because it hates the dog.

I liked this quite a lot. It’s tense, well-paced and compelling. The section at the start with Nora and her assailant is toe-curling. The mystery of what the scientists have been creating is revealed carefully. Characterisation is good, dialogue is good. This is evidence that best-selling pulp fiction can be really well written. It’s the third of Dean Koontz’s novels that I’ve read and easily the best. He’s a prolific author and that can sometimes mean that some of his books aren’t up to the same standard as others. This one though, is definitely worth reading.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the wholesome, god-fearing, family values American ideal is a little heavy-handed. But that is taken in balance with the way that he portrays the creature. To start with it is the stuff of nightmares, a relentless killing machine driven by irrational hate. But over the course of the book we learn how it was created, what was done to it, and how it became aware of what it was and how it experienced the digust of the people who had created it. It’s quite heartbreaking and at the end, I cried for the monster. It’s an achievement to create a chilling horror story and make your audience empathise with the monster. Highly recommended.