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!