22 October 2014

Review: No One Gets Out alive

No One Gets Out Alive
Adam Nevill
Pan, 23 October 2015
Paperback, 627 pages

I'm grateful to the published for an advance copy of this book.

This is a dark book - very dark indeed.

As with Nevill's previous book, House of Small Shadows, and some of his short stories, the book is a masterclass in creating a creepy atmosphere by layering ordinary, everyday seediness - that flyblown shop you avoid going into, the dodgy looking flat you decide not to rent (if you have a choice) - with a sense of roiling evil.  It's all damp plaster, clinging smells, scuzzy bathrooms and tacky lino.  And dust, lots of dust - but not clean, bookish dust: no, it's sticky dust, the kind the collects behind the cooker like a kind of growth, perhaps.

Stephanie Booth is down on her luck, poor, almost homeless, struggling to survive on bits and pieces of temporary work, having left home because of a violent (and possibly abusive?) stepmother.  She has no choice but to take what's offered at 82 Edgehill Road, Birmingham, even though it comes with a leering, sneaking landlord, Knacker McGuire, who seems to have his own plans for her.  Once Stephanie has handed over her deposit money she's basically trapped, unless she wants to sleep on the streets, and has to put up with the filth, the strange night time noises and bad dreams.

Stephanie's plight is authentic and convincing: this isn't one of those books where the protagonist ignores all the warnings and still visits the old, empty house to be haunted and driven out of their wits. There's no artificiality here, and the book gets very dark even leaving aside the supernatural, exploring misogyny, human trafficking and abuse, and even the antics of a twisting and distorting media.

Indeed, it gets so dark, and Stephanie is in such jeopardy in this respect, that I worried halfway through at the way that the author seemed to be following a rather well worn trope here.  However Nevill successfully avoids this, immediately by keeping his supernatural threat in play even as we are see very harrowing levels of actual violence and ultimately by tracing the origin of the McGuires and their predecessors to that supernatural angle.

It's a fairly long book, at over 600 pages, and while it begins as apparently a conventional ghost story (those noises in the night) which is frightening enough, it soon develops into both a mystery (what are the McGuires really doing, and why?) and a fight for survival - a fight which lasts right up to the final page.

The story is engaging - you'll really need to know how it ends up - though harrowing and difficult in places. In the McGuires, Nevill has created a couple of the most brutish villains I've read for a long time, although even then he remembers they are people, and the eventual revelation of what is behind them almost makes one pity them.

This is a book that will stick in my mind for some time, I think...

12 October 2014

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven
Emily St John Mandel
Picador, 10 September 2014
Hardback, 384 pages

I received a copy of this book through the Amazon Vine programme. Although I got a proof copy  free to review, I liked it so much that I went out and bought a copy.  Although the hardback comes with a little bit extra, this isn't something I'd normally do...

I really like it when an author messes with the template.  In this case, the collapse of civilization: how does a representative cross section of humanity (well, Western, technological humanity) cope?  This kind of thing is often the excuse for dog-eat-dog survivalist posturing; for showing off deep learning about how to service a generator or bootstrap agriculture; even for setting out theories about society or religion.

The master of that kind of thing was of course John Wyndham - indeed he was so good at it that, for all the datedness of his books, more recent attempts always seem to fall short.  But Emily St. John Mandel takes this hoary old idea and.. kind of.. rotates it out of the page.  So, while her flu-borne plague is credible, her aftermath compelling and its reality certainly gritty, we don't get a lot about exactly how people survive. Instead we get (for example) a beautifully told account of a bunch of travellers caught in an airport as things fail.  They start as bored, stranded passengers.  They emerges as survivors.  How does this happen?  What chnages does it cause in them?  At what point do they stop following instructions, leave the lounge, and start poking around in the off-limits areas? How long does that take?

Perhaps the book has its flaws: it might be nice to know a little more about how people survive. But, frankly, you can work that stuff out for yourself if you really want to.  what makes this story work is people - the marvellous characters who fill the book.  It is, in the end, about people.

An excellent book which has been well praised but, for once, deserves the hype.

In other places, the book is reticent.  We are told, for example, that eight year old Kirsten, who is on stage as a child actor when the crisis occurs, doesn't remember the first year travelling with her brother.  It's implied that the memory was too awful for her: but Emily St John Mandel isn't interested in dwelling on that (no doubt dramatic, no doubt compelling) awfulness.  Instead she shows what kind of person Kirsten has become, how resourceful and confident she is - but for Kirsten it's more important that she continues to act, with the "Travelling Symphony", that she searches for further installments of the comic book, Doctor Eleven, that she obsesses over the famous actors, Arthur Leander, who died that first night.

Though he doesn't survive in the new era, Leander's life frames and guides the story.Many of those we follow knew him, or were his family or associates.  Some of them survive, some don't, but their paths continue to cross (in credible ways).  St John Mandel uses this connectedness as a device to pan from character to character, back and forward in time, using (but not commenting) on the connectedness of the world - which is both a strength (most people don't collapse into savagery and violence but try to make lives amid the ruin) and a weakness (all those links are brittle).

Again, this genre is often cursory about the backstory, just telling you enough to make it plausible who's going to be the heroic leader, who the weak traitor.  But more than half - I think - of this book takes place before the disaster.  It's not just establishing life histories: it's part of the narrative, telling you about the survivors (and some of the non-survivors).  Because in the end it's a story about real (fallible) people.

4 October 2014

Review: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver
Hodder & Stoughton, 25/9/14
Hardback, 339 pages

I was sent this book for review by the Amazon Vine programme.

There is a house.  It is haunted.  Someone inherits and comes to the house and is scared...

I don't know how many times I've read this story.  Sometimes the story is scary, sometimes it's not.  Sometimes the focus is on the mystery - where did the ghost come from? - and how the protagonist can solve (and save himself or herself).  Sometimes, it's more of an excuse for a frightfest.

So I had some reservations about this book.  Lauren Oliver triumphantly inverts the template in "Rooms".

Yes, there is a haunted house.

Yes, people arrive.  Richard Walker has died, and his estranged family (mother - alcoholic Caroline. Daughter - Minna. Son - tortured teen Trenton. Granddaughter - oblivious Amy) come to Coral River settle up.  But rather than being terrorized by the ghosts (needy, prim Alice: blowsy Sandra) the Walkers bring their own issues, their own histories with them and catalyse a healthy dose of self-reflection by the house's occupants.

The story is told in a rather lovely counterpoint, in the voices of successive characters both living and departed, focused in turn on each of the rooms in the house.  As well as exploring it in space, we also go backwards and forwards in time, to see both the earlier lives of the Walkers, and the origin of the ghosts themselves.  This is a haunting told, at least in part, from the Other Side: we see the shock of Alice and Sandra as they recognise the children, grown up and gauche, no longer the little angels they knew. There's a great deal of sadness - both Alice and Sandra have their secrets, their regrets, and some of these emerge as the Walkers explore the house, turning up evidence of this and that.

We also see the family - especially Caroline - trying to come to terms with their own past.  The ghosts are trapped by their history, with no possibility of escape: will the newcomers escape that fate?  Will Caroline be able to put aside her drinking, Trenton... just grow up (I liked Trenton, he's a wonderful evocation of a moody, uncertain teenager, but oh is he annoying at times!), Minna stop chasing anything in trousers (the mailman; the funeral director; even the policeman who calls in to ask about a missing girl)?

It's a marvellous way to explore a web of family relationships, all made flesh in the substance of the house itself, the same house which gives reality and form to the two ghosts.

A completely different take on the ghost story,  and a great read.

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train
Paula Hawkins
Transworld, 15/1/15
316 pages

I am grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.  It is though going to be tricky to review - much of the information is hinted at, inferred and only emerges after a degree of teasing.  There’s a lot of potential for spoilers.

If, like me, you commute by train I'm sure you will have gazed out of the carriage window into the back gardens of houses beside the line. Often, the track is raised up, and you can see right into the garden, or even the house.  Though people are protective of their privacy at the front, nobody seems to realise just how much you can see from the train - the weed choked gardens, of course, the neat gardens, those with trampolines and sandpits... the house with a pair of deck chairs on a flat roof, the bike stored on a fire escape, posters in the bedrooms… what Hawkins has done is to imagine how much you might see if you really looked, if you saw the people as well (which, to be honest, you generally don't at eight in the morning, as they're probably also on their way to work too).

That idea of peering into someone else’s life is very powerful. 

But of course lives seen like could be very deceptive.

Rachel travels into London every day, looking out of the window, observing the gardens, the couple she calls "Jason" and "Jess", weaving happy little daydreams about them.  We sense something a little strange about Rachel: but what it is, the book only reveals slowly. Likewise, only gradually do we learn why she is paying such close attention as the train passes that particular row of houses

Hawkins shows great delicacy and skill as she hints at Rachel's problems.  The focus is on the situation she's looking into, not on her.  But drawn into that situation she is: there are natural comparisons with Hitchcock, perhaps.  "Stranger on a train seeing what she takes to be evidence of a crime" is an obvious one, but there are others, too (spoilers!) as the book digs deeper into the relationships between the various couples who live beside the railway track.

I loved the way here that Hawkins makes it oh so plausible for Rachel to be trying to find out about what has happened.  She comes to believe she is involved, and that only by filling gaps in her own past (if there are gaps) will she solve the crime (if there was a crime) and only by solving the crime will she fill those gaps. So far, so logical, but Rachel is damaged, blundering, both a threat (so some) and, perhaps, herself in danger.  While she is not immediately sympathetic, Rachel is a complex and engaging character who wins over the reader, especially as it becomes clearer what has happened to her.  By the end I guarantee you'll be cheering on (though perhaps cringing at what she may do next).

It is an absorbing read, perhaps a little slow to get moving - but if you commute regularly you'll be used to sitting waiting.  It's all part of the journey, and can be put to good use. 

I once lived in a house by the railway, in a town an hour from London.  We could hear the station announcements from our back garden.  We could see the garden from the train, just for a moment.  I don't travel that way now but sometimes I take the train from Paddington and I spot that garden, wonder who lives there now, are they happy… perhaps I should take that train more often, and watch more closely, get to know them better...