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100 Books in 2011: Pig Island

I’m getting pretty good at judging whether what I’ve got left of a book will last me to the end of my commute. Unless, of course, the train dies at an obscure little station that I normally never see because my train goes through it so quickly. Which is what happened a couple of weeks ago and my commute in the morning took me an hour longer than usual. Thus I needed a new book for the journey home and I went to the book drop at work (which is a brilliant thing to have) to find something to read.

As I’m now racing to catch up on the 100 Books in 2011 Challenge, I was looking for an easy read. Pig Island by Mo Hayder is certainly that. It’s a good five hundred pages but was quick to get through. Joe Oakes is a journalist who specialises in uncovering hoaxes of a spiritual or supernatural kind, after having been taken in by Malachi Dove when he was a young man. His girlfriend, Lexie, comes with him, thinking it is some sort of holiday.

Joe is investigating a video of a devil seen wandering around Pig Island, which is the home of a reclusive cult led by Malachi. When he gets to the island he finds Malachi has left the cult, lives on the other side of the island and keeps his privacy by means of an electric fence.

All the cultists are locked in their church and burnt and it seems like the work of Malachi. Joe goes to investigate and discovers that Malachi had a daughter. This daughter,Angeline, has a tail and appears to be frightened and fragile. Joe takes her back with him. Lexie, until recently a receptionist for a Harley Street plastic surgeon, recognises that what Angeline has is the remnants of a conjoined twin and thinks this will get her back in with her former employee.

Course, not that simple and Angeline turns out to be what everyone thought she was.

It was ok. Neither the characters, Joe or Lexie, are particularly sympathetic. Lexie, especially, is quite unpleasant. Joe seems ok until the point of view switches to Lexie and he doesn’t treat her very well. It wasn’t scary but it was nicely creepy in places with one or two genuinely shocking moments. The plot was handled ok but I could see the big reveal at the end coming from just after the halfway point. If you’re looking for brain candyfloss, this would be just the thing.

100 Books in 2011: The Ghost Writer

July’s book club book was The Ghost Writer by John Harwood. I was quite looking forward to this as the blurb was quite enticing.

A boy, Gerard, grows up in Australia listening to his mother’s tales of Sussex and her idyllic childhood. One day he finds a story by his great-grandmother and a photograph hidden in his mother’s drawer. She becomes angry and the stories stop. Later he is contacted by Penfriends International and put in touch with Alice Jessell, who lives in Sussex. They write over many years and become very close, a relationship driven by the fact that Gerard doesn’t have friends because his mother is so over-protective.

Eventually, Gerard wants to meet Alice, but she doesn’t as she is disabled and doesn’t want to see him until she has had surgery on her spine. He goes to England anyway, thinking he can find her. He doesn’t but instead finds another story by his great-grandmother published in an anthology. After some years his mother dies. He’s in his early thirties, still living at home, still passionately corresponding with Alice. Along the way he finds more stories by his grandmother. At some point, a woman claiming to be a friend of his aunt writes to say she thinks something terrible happened to his aunt and asking him to go to his mother’s childhood home to investigate. The stories of his grandmother start to bear a resemblance to the events of his mother’s life.
That’s not much of a synopsis and that’s because the plot doesn’t make sense. There are stories within stories, allusions to ghosts and madness, and references to The Turn of the Screw. And none of it really works. The first of the ‘Victorian ghost stories’, Seraphina, is probably the best writing in the book. It has a Poe-esque feel to it and is a little creepy. The rest of the Victorian ghost stories aren’t so good. They lose the tone and end up feeling as though they were constructed to give clues to the mystery. Not that it’s much of a mystery; the misdirection is completely unbelievable. The ending picks up a little and comes close to being exciting but in the end the story is not resolved satisfactorily. The plot holes are massive.
There are loads of great reviews on the interwebs, but I didn’t like it. Neither did most of the book club.

100 Books in 2011 Review: The Taking

Dean Koontz is one of those popular writers who are considered to be technically very good and a few years ago I read Intensity. The concept of the book was that the writing should be intense to reflect the story and it really worked. Intensity was amazing. So I was looking forward to reading The Taking. I thought it would be a well written, fast paced thriller.

Sometimes I can be very wrong about things.

The Taking is the story of a woman who wakes up to a weird fog and rain. She discovers that the whole world is affected and as the television broadcasts stutter out, she and her husband leave their mountain home to go in search of other humanity. They decide that their job is to gather up the parentless children. People have different reactions to the eerie weather and the things that start to appear in it. It seems that the earth is being terraformed by aliens but all is not what it appears.

The concept that the earth is being terraformed by aliens is a really interesting one. Terraforming is usually thought about in terms of making another planet suitable for human life and I liked the idea of flipping that about. How would that feel? What would we do about it?

Unfortunately, that’s not really what The Taking about. And I will reveal the twist because, believe me, it is not worth reading this book to find it out. The Taking is a second cleansing of an immoral humanity by the Abrahamic God; a second flood. It reverses Arthur C. Clarke’s law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to say that technologically advanced, faithless people will interpret world-shattering supernatural events as the technology of a much more advanced species. This is a story about God saving the good and destroying the bad and I find that so much less interesting.

So, I didn’t like the story, but what about the execution of it? I felt it was poor. And certainly not up to the standard I remember Intensity was. It’s mainly telling. We are told what Molly, the protagonist and POV character, is feeling. We are given her backstory in small but awkward lumps. The interaction between her and the other characters is described and rarely shown. There was very little dialogue and I think that is really the vehicle that authors use to turn telling into showing. I found the book to be silent. No one was talking in my head. I thought that would be amazing in a film where the use of silence has a disturbing, creepy effect but it wasn’t coming across on the page.

The supporting cast of characters were flimsy and even Molly didn’t have much personality. The interactions between them are sparse and devoid of connection. The description was ok. In fact, I did keep thinking this would really work as a film, but as a book it lacked depth. And dialogue. Which is not how I remember Intensity.

So, in all, I will probably read more Dean Koontz as so far he has been 50% amazing and 50% awful, so I need to read at least one more to tip the balance. If you are going to try Koontz, don’t pick this book.

Thoughts on reading: Slights

Slights is the debut novel of Kaaron Warren, published by Angry Robot, that came as part of my welcome pack from joining the British Fantasy Society.

The protagonist is a serial killer and the blurb implies that the story will be a gruesome serial killer horror. Instead it’s somewhat of a hybrid. It’s part psychological horror, part ghost story and part mystery. I enjoy some genre-bending and I was pleasantly surprised that the novel was more complex than the blurb gave it credit for.

It is written in a really engaging voice and over the course of the story the truth about the protagonist’s father is revealed. One of the stand-out features of the book is the way the protag comes to awareness about herself and her relationships. At the end, nothing is what it seemed to be at the beginning and the changes are handled very skillfully.

It’s worth reading, especially if you’re on the lookout for something a bit unusual, and I shall look out for more of Warren’s work.

Thoughts on reading: Twelve

This came to my attention at alt.fiction 2010. During a panel it was held up as an example of a perfectly good novel that couldn’t sell due to the market. With the upswing of the horror market, it found a publisher after having been with an agent for something like four years. I was keen to see what Twelve by Jasper Kent was like.

This is an historical horror; a vampire story set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. I found the setting quite convincing, in terms of both time and place. Not that I know much about Russian history, so I’m probably quite easy to convince in that regard. The dialogue felt appropriate although I noticed a few conspicuously modern terms slipping into the narration.

The vampires were the opposite of sparkly. They are returned to subhuman killing machines with superior strength and speed, yet seem quite easily dispatched by the hero once he’s convinced of what they are. There are some nice moments of suspicion and betrayal among the hero and his friends.

Unfortunately, I found that the choice of viewpoint flattened the story someone. It is a first person narrator told by the hero, who is a man traumatised by torture in his past and by the choices he has to make in the present. His response is to become shut off from emotion. Which is a realistic response but as he’s the narrator it leads to an emotionally flat story. The reader doesn’t feel the horror because the narrator can’t. It nags at the edge of the consciousness and the narrator acknowledges that he should have more emotional sensation than he does (although this was a bit ‘tell’ for me) but he can’t feel what he should feel because it will overwhelm him. For me, as a reader, this felt distancing. I think it would have benefitted from first person narration by a sidekick or from third person narration.

Having said that, there was an excellent twist at the end, I did enjoy it and I will read the sequel.

Thoughts on reading: The Turn of the Screw

Last year, there was a television adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and thus there followed much discussion of its horror and psychological twists. Well, what more reason do you need to read a book?

I struggled with the language. This was a surprise. I read the odd classic and although it takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of the writing, usually I find that it is perfectly clear once you get used to it. Perhaps it’s because the classics I tend to read are by English authors – Dickens, Hardy, Austen – and James is American. I wondered if the reason I was finding it hard to get to grips with was because it was an American classic and the language was subtly different to English literature of the same era.

What I found really frustrating was that I didn’t know what was going on. Things weren’t spelt out. There were coded references to socially unacceptable behaviour, which to me could have meant all sorts of horrors. Some people find that leaving things to the imagination makes it more scary. Not me. I can imagine a lot of things and not being able to choose which is the thing being described (because there aren’t enough clues to nail it down to one thing) is frustrating. It certainly underlines my belief that detail is what convinces in fiction. For me, the horror was reduced by the vagueness and ambiguity, not increased.

My non-fiction book was Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. It was excellent, full of good advice, good examples and lots of things to try out in my work-in-progress.