Wildfire Books (Headline), 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 322pp, audio, e
Source: Advance review copy
|Cover art by Adam Rabulais, |
design by Ryan Hayes
|Cover design by |
|Cover photography |
by Nicholas Royle
Signal is a haunting walk through a nighttime city by a lonely and anxious young woman. We meet Kate passing Meridian House on her way home from work. Kate likes to imagine friendships with the people she glimpses through the lit windows, but they're not there on this Saturday night, Christmas Eve Eve.
Kate is anxious: about money (she may have no shifts in the New Year), about her parents, who have unexpectedly turned religious. She's missing her sister (we will learn more about that). Walters deftly portrays Kate as a loner, an outsider, slightly ill at ease even in her shared house - and slipping out for a night walk as soon as she can.
What happens then - well, there are unexpected corners of every town, unexpected aspects in all of us. As Kate walks, pondering her life and her past, she feels somebody or something is reaching out for her. Sending her messages, perhaps? Signals? Her walk somehow transcends that inside-outside division, bringing her into the orbit of strange events, other peoples' stories.
The story is poised on the cusp between the everyday - that town in the desperate days before Christmas, the realties of work in the 21st century, a cheerless family situation - and the fantastical - the naked man waving from a window, the strange odyssey that Kate undertakes across town, the feeling that somebody is pulling strings.
Perfectly captured, this book seems to bring us to a moment when - something - happens, or not. Then leaves us to speculate on just what, on what was real and what wasn't. It's a gorgeous story. The book itself is also attractively designed and the series overall one I'd strongly recommend.
For more information about Signal and to order a copy, please see the Nightjar Press website here.
|Cover photography |
by Nicholas Royle
I'm grateful to Nightjar Press for a signed copy of The Red Suitcase to consider for review, together with other short stories published alongside it.
The Red Suitcase is a delightfully poised short story, exquisitely observed and so, so sharp. The book itself is also attractively designed the series overall one I'd strongly recommend.
Dougie and his mother make a little extra money by renting out a room in their cottage to summer visitors. They live in, literally, a dead-end town by the sea: bus once a week, railway closed years ago, there is a sense of entrapment in this story, of going nowhere. The relationship between Dougie - a grown man in, I think, middle age - and his mother seems over close, her fussing over his digestion, endlessly offering antacid pills and asking if he is "costive".
The arrival of B, the woman with that red suitcase, doesn't exactly disturb this relationship - that would be far too much a cliché, and too unlikely - but it does, perhaps, cast a light on it and give Dougie a few days in which things are not as usual. B is a strange visitor at a strange time of year - it is Winter, not Summer - and she seems to draw out a strangeness in Dougie, too. Her having arrived in his life, he studies and considers her. There's an air of mystery to her - why is she here, how did she find the place, what is she doing? - which isn't resolved, but a sense we aren't seeing the whole picture (perhaps because Dougie isn't exactly looking in the right places?)
Perfectly captured by the cover image, in which we don't whether we are observing or being observed from the lonely house at night, this is a book of mood and isolation, the nameless little town appearing almost as a world to itself which is infrequently visited and where nobody (even the "hardy young women" of Summer) ever stays. There are plenty of secrets here, in a story that may be short, but makes an impact.
For more information about The Red Suitcase and to order a copy, please see the Nightjar Press website here.
|Design by Henry Steadman|
I'm very grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Witch Bottle to consider for review.
Witch Bottle is an impressive book, a fusion of classic horror with a story of modern life and broken relationships which left me feeling deeply uneasy.
Daniel is a delivery worker. Every morning he wakes before dawn and bikes to the depot where he loads up his van under direction from the Bean, a wiry, enigmatic woman who runs a food wholesaler serving the scattered communities and businesses of western Cumbria. Daniel spends his day driving up and down the fells and along the coast, trying to keep on schedule, juggling his stock and battling with the weather, other van drivers and the vagaries of the customers. When it's going well, he feels like Postman Pat - though the money's not very good. When it's going badly... well, if you read the book you'll find out.
Daniel hasn't always worked like this, living in a house borrowed from an uncle and going nowhere in his career. He used to live in the town with a wife and a daughter: the moment he walked out on them is the opening of the book (occasional chapters give flashbacks to that life, gradually filling in the picture - a nightmare pregnancy for his wife Ellie and dark echoes beyond that to his own childhood). On that day Daniel sees the first hints of the dark and fantastical things that will haunt him on his deliveries, in his lonely cottage and, increasingly, in the relationships he's trying to build. There is something sinister going on out there, in the fields and on the roads. Fletcher matches it with hints of a darker, wider world too: a war that seems to be several notches worse than those we're aware of now, the descent of the health service into uncaring chaos, the repeated justification for a man bullying or abusing women that 'he's a real man, he's how men used to be'.
Against this alarming background of war and the rumour of war, Daniel does find some warmth and love with Kathryn, who runs the La'al Tattie Shop. (Some of the chapters are seen from her point of view). Kathryn is also a witch and the matter-of-fact acceptance of this in the writing that - it's presented as more a logistical than a supernatural problem - drives much of the story. Witches have businesses too and Kathryn needs to make her deliveries, but she's stuck in the shop all day and Daniel doesn't think the Bean would be pleased if he combined them with his rounds. That practical approach is very much the mood of this book, presenting the fantastical and (increasingly) the horrific in a muted "what can you do?" way that is more and more unsettling - oddly it really brings the atmosphere of horror home to see it brought home (as it were).
As well as contributing to the eerie effect of the novel that normalisation also reflects the truth of what is going on here. Kathryn warns Daniel that the menacing hooded figure he sees outside his cottage has a connection to him - only by working out what it is might he be free of it. Her "witch bottle" is masking the symptoms, not providing a cure. So the book is - besides many other things - an exploration of Daniel's past, of his mistakes, even as he's trying to hold onto his job. Daily routines, work problems, bickering with colleagues and managing the van make up quite a bit of the story alongside some glorious evocations of the Cumbrian landscape (and allowing a bit of a respite from the growing darkness - tbough it's always threatening). Bt so do memories of Daniel's marriage, the despair at trying to get a difficult baby to sleep. And so do unsettlingly memories of his own childhood. All of this seems to be connected, somehow, as it is with the darkening state of the world.
Overall a deeply moving, deeply troubling book - and one I'd strongly recommend.
For more information about Witch Bottle, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to the author for an advance copy of The Last Resort to consider for review.
I enjoyed Susi Holliday's recent psychological thrillers The Lingering and Violet so was very keen to see what she wrote next and The Last Resort didn't disappoint. It belongs to a very definite (and rather different) subgenre, the "last man standing" thriller where a disparate group are brought together in an environment they can't escape and challenged to survive. It's both a contemporary genre, and one with deep roots - think And Then There Were None, which The Last Resort has some affinity with, being set own an island with each character possessing one or more guilty secret. Indeed, the book affectionately tips its hat to Christie and - some way in - its protagonists, realising what genre they're in, comment knowing on what may be in store.
I rather like this sort of self awareness (I'm avoiding the "meta" word) and it's only one of the many respects that, in this book, Holliday simply OWNS the format. From the setup - seven strangers on a plane, invited on a dream holiday, in reality off to who knows where - through the subsequent dangers, to the enigmatic last page, this is a book that demands attention. The group members themselves are satisfyingly portrayed - Amelia, a development worker, Tiggy, a social media "influencer", Giles, the games designer, gossip columnist Lucy, photographer James, Scott, who flogs dodgy dietary supplements and Brenda, the venture capitalist. While 283 pages isn't much to give a rounded description of this many people Holliday makes them distinctive and creates a real personality for each, avoiding them being stereotypes - it would be too easily simply to make everyone nasty, all the time, to set up the necessary conflict but that doesn't happen here.
As the group progresses following the instructions of their enigmatic host, there are of course rifts between some, stoked by the mysterious revelations about their pasts and the fear of what is being done to them (are their minds being read? How closely are they being surveilled? Above all, why were they chosen?) but these arise organically from the characters as depicted, they aren't imposed.
And there is a real mystery here. The reader too will wonder what, exactly, is going on. Obviously all are being manipulated, but why? What does it have to do with the interpolated story - set in 2000 - featuring two new characters? That's, of course, the puzzle which Amelia and the rest have to solve too, although they're not being given all the pieces we are and it creates a real sense of doubt for us as we follow their plight. I did work my way to the solution before the big reveal, but not that long before, and again, the key turns out to be motivations and character, so you need to watch everyone closely.
In all, The Last Resort (the title has to be ironic!) was great fun to read, with plenty of surprises and some real shocks. While it playfully hints at what's going on by its references to earlier examples of this genre, those should not all be taken at face value - things are tricksy here!
|Illustration by Edward Bettison|
Design & lettering by
I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of Call of the Bone Ships to consider for review.
Call of the Bone Ships takes us back to Barker's fantasy archipelago, divided into two warring nations - the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands. In the previous book we saw Joron Twiner, a desperate drunk heading to the bad, rescued by Shipwife "Lucky" Meas Gilbryn together with the ship of which he had titular command, Tide Child. It was a ship of convicts, of outcasts, but Meas built it and them into a potent element of the Fleet - for her own purposes, revealed at the end of the book.
In Call of the Bone Ships, we see the consequences. No longer a loyal ship of the Fleet, Tide Child makes a shocking discovery which reveals a vile trade apparently flourishing under the eyes of Meas's estranged mother, who rules the Hundred Isles. Investigating, and seeking to end, it sets Meas up for a conflict with the entire Fleet and makes her and her crew the enemy of the Hundred Isles.
I'm being circumspect about just what happens here and (I hope) not spoiling the first book for any reader who hasn't opened it yet (my advice: you must read it, and quickly). The plot here is action-filled, full of twists ands turns, feats of arms and rending loss, and you don't want to know the details in advance because Barker's telling of them is superb and frequently shocking. Like its forerunner, Call of the Bone Ships scratches all the same itches as CS Forester or Patrick O'Brian except in a fantasy world with magic, great sea beasts called Arakeesians and a matriarchal society. There is shattering, sudden combat. There is the unease of a sailor, forced to trust to the land. There is the fellowship and web of relationships aboard ship. Above all there is the restless, heaving sea.
But - and because this is an RJ Barker book I was expecting this - there is more. A story filled with scrapes and chases would be fun, but Barker's fiction has heart besides. In the first book we saw Joron grow and come into his own as a sailor and as a human. We saw him discover a strange gift - the ability to call the Arakeesian. We saw him make friends, and enemies.
Here, every scrap of what Joron became is put to work, is tested, against enormous odds. His trust in Meas (and hers in him), his bond with his crew, his friendship with the strange creature the Gullaime. (Note to author: can we have a series of gullaime spinoff stories please? I just loved its rudeness, its self-possession and its liking for colourful scraps and bric-a-brac). Joron is no longer learning to be who he is, rather he's learning what that person can do, and working out what they should do. And what price he's prepared to pay for that, what he must give up.
In some respects it is a very dark book indeed. The plot which the crew of Tide Child confront is bad enough, but there are also woeful discoveries about the history of Barker's world, about how the Arakeesians were hunted, discoveries that taint all with an age old guilt. And there is a threat in the future too which no doubt we'll hear more of in the next book. Joron has many low moments - Barker doesn't spare his reader and there were many occasions reading this book that I felt, no, not that, don't do that. AND RJ ALWAYS DOES IT! However, the darkness is never all there is. There is trust and loyalty. There is friendship. There are songs - Barker's sea shanties roll in with the tang of salt and carry the rhythms of waves and tides. There is terrific, rich worldbuilding, glorious passages of prose and deep, well realised characters at every hand.
I could write that this book blew me away, and that's true, but I have to add, yes, it blew me away and dropped me in the heaving sea, where my flesh was gnawed by sea beasts, it cast my bones on a far shore to be ground by the tides. It is a book of combat and action, yes, but beneath it is a book of deep, deep feelings.
If you'd asked me before I read this I would have said it would be hard for Barker to match, let alone surpass, The Bone Ships, yet here we are, I think he has. Both books are superb, but this one - well, this one just flies. It's just superb writing, and feels so real, so human and moving.
I am, as you may have worked out, strongly recommending this one.
For more information about Call of the Bone Ships, see the publisher's website here.
|Design by Amy Musgrave|
|Design by Julia Lloyd|
I'm grateful to Orenda Books for providing me a free copy of The Coral Bride to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.
The Coral Bride takes us to a part of the world I was completely unaware of, the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, on Canada's eastern coast. It picks up the story of Detective Sergeant Joaquin Moralès from We Were the Salt of the Sea (which I hadn't read, shame on me: now I will) as he investigates the suspicious death of Angel Roberts on her lobster trawler. Forced to locate himself close to the scene of the death, Moralès finds himself in a guest house, run by the enigmatic Corine, out of season. The only guest, he has the run of the place. I rather liked this setting: Morales spreading out his papers in the empty dining room, looking at over the sea as he unravels the case.
That investigation is a taut, satisfyingly complex crime/ mystery in itself. Roberts was closely enmeshed in a network of fishing families with complex rivalries - both personal and financial - all struggling to make a living from the sea amidst environmental crises - the disappearance of the cod - and financial challenges going back generations. There are whispers of poaching, and time was that every trawler's skipper carried a rifle aboard. Once Moralès digs into the investigation he finds an abundance of motives for a murder and a great deal of shifty behaviour - but is still baffled as to whether this wasn't actually a simpler story of suicide. If it was a murder, how could it have been done? If it was a suicide, why?
This part of the story alone would be enough to make this a compelling and page-turning read. But The Coral Bride offers much, much more.
Alongside Moralès's investigation, his own life and family is in turmoil. His wife won't speak to him and he's not sure whether or not his marriage is over. Son Sébastien has arrived home unexpectedly, clearly going through a crisis of his own. We see events from both Joaquin's and Sébastien's viewpoints, so get to appreciate the delicate dynamics between father and son, the past events - and misunderstandings - that have shaped their lives, particularly when it comes to relations with women. Confronted with considerable amounts of misogyny in the local community, the two men are forced to reconsider their own attitudes: Joaquin has a tendency to fixate on a particular feature of a woman's body - a protruding vertebra, an ankle - and Sébastien punts an idea that his father has ruined his life by not teaching him to assert himself with women.
The reality is that it's hard for women on the Gaspé to make it in a man's world. That's true for fisheries inspector Simone Lord as much as it was for Angel Roberts herself. That's easily said, but oh, to really understand it - and this story - you have to move in to this book, as Joaquin does, and meet its people (Lord, Detective Lefebre who can't be in a room five minutes without beginning a collection of objects, Corine herself, and many more). As well as being a masterful study of a place and way of life (rooting what happened to Angel in a richly portrayed setting) the characters here are spot on - quirky, fully realised, believable and deeply human. I especially loved the way that Bouchard has the Moralès men lapse into cooking - whether alone or working together - either when they are very content or brooding, needing to work through something (either personal issues or the finer points of the case). There's a physicality to the descriptions of food, of ingredients and how they are put together that is just very satisfying (also, mouth-watering). It's a lovely way to learn about characters and makes me wish there was more cooking (and eating) in writing.
In short - the book really was an absolute joy to read. I don't think I've actually done it justice here. I strongly recommend it and I hope you will read it and love it too.
For more information about The Coral Bride see the publisher's website here - and also the other stops on the blogtour (see the poster below).
You can buy the book from your local high street shop (they need your support right now and many are able to order books and let you collect). Or you can get it online from bookshop.org, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.
OR you can order a SIGNED COPY from Bert's Books - contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07960 002056
|Design by Lauren Panepinto, |
illustration by Karla Ortiz
|Cover by Sophie McDonnell|
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of How to Belong to consider for review and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.
I'm a fan of books that match well-drawn, interesting characters with a great sense of place, and How to Belong scores well on both counts. It's the story of Jo and Tessa, coming to terms with their pasts and with their lives when returning to the Forest of Dean.
Jo has been - is - a barrister. She's one of those who "got out", taking a degree and finding a glamorous job in London. Or not, because once there, she found, of course, that it wasn't all as shiny as she hoped. Life was an endless slog round the country, working on dispiriting cases for clients who scarcely seem deserving, arriving back on late trains from distant courts. All the plum work goes to the men, she's pretty friendless in London and even the money isn't very good. So coming home for Christmas and finding herself in the familiar hubbub of the family butcher's shop strikes a nerve with Jo, especially as her parents are about to sell the shop and retire. Maybe taking over the shop might be a way to return to the familiar, and preserve her family heritage?
Farrier Tessa has also come back to the Forest - after her relationship with Marnie in Bristol ended. Emotionally bruised and struggling with a debilitating illness, she's drawn the circles of her life tighter and tighter to protect herself. Finally, she holes up in her cottage in the woods, struggling to make ends meet on the tiny amount of work she can do.
I loved the way that Franklin depicts these women, giving us flashbacks to show their earlier lives and the wounds and struggles that have made them.
Jo is bright and intelligent and full of plans and ideas. We are told that her career as a barrister has given her resilience and an ability to deal with people, yet she can also get things so, so wrong: with Ron and Mo, who run her parents' shop, with old friend Liam - at times, it's hilarious to see Jo's mistakes. Moreover, she can scarcely bear the smell and texture of fresh meat so at one level it seems slightly comic that she would take on the butcher's shop, at another, it is rather noble and admirable.
Tessa's wounds didn't begin with her and Marnie's break-up: there was a shocking event that cut to the core of her family and for which she has assumed responsibility and a resulting belief that she's hateful and can come to no good. The forest seems a good place for Tessa to hide away, to not be known or recognised.
Jo has returned to the Forest of Dean for exactly the opposite reason, to be somewhere she is known, somewhere she fits in.
It doesn't work out as either expects, of course. There are many eyes in the forest and Tessa is observed and remembered, while Jo finds that her friendship group has moved on (and her family house sold). Many outsiders are coming to the Forest with new estates spring up where the sheep grazed and second homers appearing. Is Jo, despite her origins, really one of them - an urbanite with over romantic views about this place stuck between England and Wales, with its own history and traditions?
The interplay between Tessa and Jo, and also Jo's relationships with Liam and with Ron and Mo and indeed her parents (largely absent though they are) makes a fascinating character study. Franklin lets things build up slowly, with plenty of time and space for each of the two women, and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what's going on rather than having her characters tell us. The Forest is almost a character itself, and we see both the pluses and minuses of increasing tourism and of "incomers" - as well as the resilience of the Forest people themselves. Best of all, perhaps, the ending is left tantalisingly open. I think I know what's going to happen, but as Franklin has shown, Jo and Tessa are real people with real quirks and with their own histories, so really, who knows what comes next?
For more information about How to Belong, see the publisher's website here - and also the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below!
You can buy How to Belong from your local highstreet bookshop - many are still open for orders even if you can't browse - or online from Hive Books, bookshop.org UK, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.
Cover by Tomás Almeida
For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.