Tag Archives: reviews

Books of 2015

I haven’t posted in a while. For that I’m sorry. There are numerous reasons but none are particularly interesting and far too personal to post here.

Boo-hoo, let’s talk fiction instead, eh?

I’ve read some magnificent books published during 2015 (52 in all) but want to soliloquise about just three stand outs. To be honest, there’s not a lot of books I’ve actively disliked bar the odd one or two; most books I read, I stay with for the duration, some I’ll put down, already cracking  the spine of the next without much of a look back, however, these are the ones that have stayed, that invoke a warm feeling just by thinking of them; these are the ones I know I’ll read again.

The Loney‘ by Andrew Michael Hurley. This was one that I genuinely can’t wait to read again, one that as soon as I’d finished, wanted more by the same author and bugged everyone I knew to read it.


Its setting is almost a place close to where I called home for 10 years of my life, between Morecambe Bay and the City of Lancaster (I like to think of it as set in a fictionalised version of Heysham). Only those who’ve lived on that stretch of the North West coast know how bleak it can get out there; almost Lovecraftian in its desolation and sense of brooding menace. Hurley has captured the very essence of the place with a stark beauty which he deserves every one of you reading right now to go pick up a copy for yourselves.

A nameless narrator is looking back at a sort of family pilgrimage in the late 70s to this part of Lancashire, specifically a shrine near a stretch of beach known as ‘The Loney’ to cure his older sibling ‘Hanny’ of some form of learning difficulties. The brothers stay at a house known as Moorings, with its sinister hidden room, accompanied by his parents, another two couples and the replacement parish priest for their old parishioner Father Wilfred, Father Bernard, who, in the narrator’s mother’s eyes will never be able to live up to his predecessor . Already the dynamic of the group is tumultuous, its saving grace being the inseparable bond between the narrator and his brother.

Heysham Barrows.jpg

(*Pic – Heysham ‘Barrows’)

We know, as readers that Hanny’s miracle cure is simply not going to happen and we are caught in the quintessential and archaic Englishness of acting ‘proper’ and in times of grief and loss, leaving things unsaid.

The Catholic tunnel-vision of the narrator’s parents and the awkwardness of the gentle outsider, Father Bernard in contrast to the narrator’s burgeoning puberty, builds in you a terrible inevitability that nothing of this is going to end well. (Indeed, the Church group where the visitors to the Loney have come from is that of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes!)

The darkness of the novel increases as the two brothers meet the child of a nearby couple, the same age as the brothers, but pregnant. There is something terrible going on here.

The Loney’s power is its subject matter; it  is about the things left unsaid, blind faith, hope, the secrets; why Hanny’s mother cannot come to terms with the fact her son is the way he is, why the locals insist on playing grim pranks on the pilgrims and the terrible reason why Father Wilfred changed so dramatically and was eventually replaced.

The horror in The Loney is a brooding, silent one; the horror of loss, of faith and of hope. The writing itself is exquisite and fully deserves its plaudits as ‘a Gothic masterpiece’ and Costa début novel of the year award.


We Are Not Ourselves‘ by Matthew Thomas

This one, I was not expecting to like as much as I did; 10 years in the writing, it is the life saga of Irish-American Eileen Tumulty, set in Queens, New York; her childhood, her marriage, the birth of her son and her husband’s steady descent into the horror of Alzheimer’s.

I found myself telling myself I was not particularly enamoured with this novel and that I would put it down soon. Suddenly I was half way through and could not put it down. I found the hours dissolved in what seemed like moments as I joined the Tumulty family’s journey through their mostly ordinary life. This is perhaps what coaxed me in; the struggles of the Tumultys are authentic and believable and that’s what I think makes this such an endearing novel. Rather than great life-affirming leaps, the life of the Tumultys is about real struggles; the financial struggles, the pursuit of a better life and  slow burn realization of the Alzheimer’s that, before you know it, buckles the family beyond repair.


I would draw comparison to We Are Not Ourselves with John Williams’ obscure 1965 novel ‘Stoner’ which I was given as a present and changed intrinsically me as both a reader and a writer. We Are Not Ourselves shares in much with Stoner in its unassuming prose, its steady pace thematically; the daily grind of disappointment, the treatment of hope as a rare and fleeting creature and a life where victories are few.

I stepped outside my comfort zone to read both of these novels and feel like I have learned more for doing so.


A Head Full of Ghosts‘ by Paul Tremblay

Lastly, I want to heap praise on a horror that deals with one of the genre’s more unconquerable tropes – demon possession. To my limited knowledge, there are few novels that have done the subject justice and I would be so bold to say that nothing, that I’ve read anyway, comes close to Blatty’s The Exorcist, a book that I am actually too scared of to read again.

Tremblay’s novel plays the theme in a smart and contemporary way- using the retrospective narrative of a reality television show ‘Posession’ that dealt with the apparent demon possession of a 14 year old girl.


The story is told from several narrative perspectives ;  posess-ee (Merry)’s younger sibling, fifteen years later and from her POV as a child. The final part as blog posts from a horror blogger known as ‘The Last Girl Online’ who offers a critique of the ‘Possession’ reality show.

This book wears its influences  unashamedly on its sleeve and all the better for it; the presence of the film crew in the Barrett family’s home cast me back to Playfair’s ‘This House is Haunted‘  and there are huge references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic tale of insanity ‘The Yellow Wallpaper‘. For me, I like an author to give salutations and there are several mentions of other books that the Tremblay clearly admires, such as Sara Gran’s magnificent ‘Come Closer‘ and Mark Z Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves‘ – two of my personal favourites. Aside from this, there are real scares to be had in the novel. The posession of Marjorie Barrett manifests itself with an overt crawling horror that gets under your skin, using suspense in place of gore or schlock.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and pierce the world.”


A Head Full of Ghosts breaks no new boundaries yet it delivers in the sense that it’s a very well written book about a very interesting subject. Tremblay poses the question that is skirted around in many stories of possession, whether it is a religious framing of mental illness?

Why this book stuck with me ultimately is because it took me back to a book that unutterably changed my life and cemented my desire to read and write everything I could concerning the dark side of fiction.

So that’ll be my next blog post (promise it won’t take so long this time, all two of you) and I’ll be back talking about a book that changed my life…

Del-Del by Victor Kelleher.



Books of 2014

In no particular order, the following books published in 2014 are the ones that have moved me, excited me or inspired me in some way. The stand-outs amongst many, so I make apologies for the following notable exceptions (as those authors are going to be desperately upset they didn’t make an arbitrary list on a nobody’s blog.)

The Ice Palace‘ Tarjei Vesaas (1963), ‘Niceville‘ Carsten Stroud (2012) ‘The Silence of the Sea‘, Yrsa Sigurdadottir (2011) ‘Under the Skin‘  Michael Faber (2000) and everything by Gillian Flynn (including the magnificent screenplay of ‘Gone Girl’.

Should my opinion on books mean anything whatsoever to you (why it would is anyone’s guess), please read on…


The Troop – Nick Cutter

When Stephen King recommends a book, it’s hard for a fan of horror not to be intrigued. I have to also say that without King’s recommendation, I would never have heard of this, so saturated the horror market has become by tired zombie stories and ‘erotic’ vampire novels. Cutter’s story of a scout troop abandoned on an island with something terrible is pleasantly original without being wary of a b-movie style ‘scare’.  The Troop is one of those stories you find yourself drawn instantly into its midst; the characterisation is rich and the guts and gore don’t feel gratuitous or unnecessary. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of what happens to Cutter’s scout troop; but those looking for a contemporary and fresh voice in the genre couldn’t do much better than this.

There have been comparisons drawn with Lord of the Flies and whilst The Troop shares some of the themes of Golding (boys abandoned on an island, power struggles in a group dynamic), this is where the comparison ends. The Troop, as is described by Stephen King is old-school style horror and unashamedly so.

What sets The Troop apart from its contemporaries, however, is its strength in characterisation. When you care about the characters in a book; the implausibility of their situation matters less than how they deal with it. I found myself easily immersed in this novel; allowing myself ‘one more chapter’ before I stopped, as tea remained uncooked and washing remained unfolded. That’s got to be a good sign!

Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes

What can I say? This could possibly be my favourite book of 2014. Lauren Beukes, author of ‘The Shining Girls’, a best-selling crime-noir about a time-shifting serial killer (Dr. Who with an story worth following?) but with Broken Monsters, Beukes takes us to a whole new level of gritty reality. In the exhaust-clogged, shell of Detroit City, Detective Gabriella Versado is called to the scene of  what the police are calling ‘Bambi’, a dead boy whose top half has been fused to the hind quarters of a fawn. This is just the beginning of Versado’s terrible pursuit of a serial killer who believes they can find the thin place between the worlds in the realisation of their dream; carving their victims into hideous parodies of underground art.

Much of the narrative is told through the online world form; Reddit posts, Tumblr, text and social media. It’s an ultra-smart and contemporary way to portray not only the younger generation, but the huge part streaming news and social media plays in our lives that Beukes pulls off with aplomb. If traditionally told stories is your thing, I don’t expect this novel will appeal.

Beukes pulls no punches and there is gore and grimness aplenty but splatterpunk this aint. This is a dark tale told with no glamour yet ultimately one of the most exciting crime publications of 2014. Beukes’ sparse use of the paranormal will, no doubt polarise the opinions of those who like their crime noir ‘pure’, however, this side of the story is sparse, lending just enough to accentuate an already gloomy premise.

The plot itself is an intelligent crime story that’s intrigue does not abate. Reading Broken Monsters, I found myself having to put it down as I was enjoying it that much and didn’t want it to end too quickly.


The Girl With All the Gifts – MR Carey

If there’s a theme in contemporary fiction that’s been done to death; done so much to death that its bloated corpse is palpably shuddering with every half-hearted thud of a spade blade on its shattered coffin lid, it’s the zombie apocalypse. Even the idea of ‘zombies’ as ruthless and predatory ‘infected’ rather than the shambling figure of Haitian folklore is a weary cliché we’ve all seen a million times.

By all accounts, therefore, The Girl with all the Gifts should be one to avoided like the plague (see what I did there?) but making an assumption like that (which I very nearly did) is a big mistake to make.

M.R. Carey’s 2014 novel, though dealing with the last survivors of a global pandemic, a deadly fungal virus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis –that’s the one that makes ants climb to the top of plants to be eaten by predators, as if you didn’t know!) which turns humans to flesh-eating ‘hungries’, feels fresh, despite itself.

In fact, the concept in essence is remarkably similar to the equally enthralling game, Naughty Dog’s 2013 ‘The Last of Us’. Coincidence? To be honest, it really doesn’t matter and to be fair, this genre has limited options.

The Girl with all the Gifts’ style is immediately accessible and grasps the reader from the start with cold, dead fingers. Rather than extensive exposition and philosophising on the end of the world as we know it; Carey’s narrative  fluctuates between just a few characters – Melanie, a small girl who spends her days (when she is not muzzled and restrained) at school; Melanie’s teacher, Miss Justineau; Sergeant Parks and scientist Caroline Caldwell. It is the relationship between these four that drives the novel forward. Melanie and Miss Justinaeu’s pseudo parent-daughter dynamic is instantly relatable and in such tragic circumstances establishes itself as the heart of the novel from the beginning. The two others by contrast represent the ‘establishment’; they that dehumanise the ‘infected’ and think nothing of destroying them or indeed locking up 10 year old children for scientific research into a cure.

This is a human story rather than a ‘zombie’ one as such. While the scientist would like to literally delve inside Melanie’s brains, the teacher recognises her as a person in her own right. This tension as the four of them escape from Sergeant Parks’ base that the ‘hungries’ have overrun is the crux of the story and such strongly established characterization carries the reader all the way to the superbly bleak ending.


Bird Box – Josh Malerman

Another fresh voice in the horror genre, Bird Box tells a highly original tale of the end of days; something has happened in the world, people are boarding up their windows, people are wearing blindfolds, people are killing themselves, killing each other.

They have all seen something.

When Malorie’s sister looks out of the window and kills herself, Malorie is alone. Pregnant and desperate, she answers an ad in a newspaper; sanctuary.

The strength of this story is it is largely told in the dark; the characters wear blindfolds at all times; their skin becomes sallow, their only sight is the gloom of the inside of the house. Malerman never makes this darkness seem clunky or awkward; in fact, the tension created by the inability of the characters to see is this story’s strength. The reader is desperate to know what could possibly be out there, yet at the same time you desperately don’t. More often than not, the things that scare us the most are the things we cannot see; an homage to Lovecraft’s idea of sights that are simply too much for the frailty of the human mind.

And there emerges the question of whether an already warped mind can be immune to the terror.

This atmosphere in Bird Box is palpable from beginning to end and that’s before you even consider its originality in terms of story. I found myself having to take breathers from this novel, such was the tension and that’s in no way a criticism. Tension, atmosphere and originality; all welcome elements of a triumphant horror novel.

Horror has never been a ‘cool’ genre but Bird Box is undoubtedly that slick kid with the leather jacket and the brylcreem who you want to offer a light, even though you don’t smoke. There’s a lot to be said for having the brevity to leave the reader to imagine what is too horrible to even imagine and believe me, there’s no ‘Night of the Demon’-esque let down here.

The end of days is a recurrent theme in much dark fiction and a tired one at that. With Bird Box, Josh Malerman managed to make it cool again.