Book Review: Sirens

SirensAs part of my recently-concluded Creative Writing degree course I had the opportunity to briefly study Crime fiction, which proved an enjoyable divergence from my recent reading. Indeed, this lead onto a conversation with a friend of mine who’s been urging me to dip my toe into noir crime fiction for as long as I can recall; serendipitously, Sirens happened to be on sale on Amazon and, after a little prod from my noir-aficionado friend, it ended up sitting on my bedside table not very long after.

From the off, I recognised a lot of traits in Sirens that I had identified as part of my studies, in particular in relation to the set text I examined and enjoyed for the Crime strand of the module, Shut Eye by Adam Baron. There are some flawed, morally-ambiguous characters, a seedy, gritty underbelly and the usage of the city, in the case of Sirens, Manchester, becomes a character in itself. Reflecting on my studies, Sirens was making, well, all the right noises.

The book has a gritty, bleak tone that is exemplified by the deliberate choice of setting and time: Manchester in November. Even as someone that is not familiar with Manchester at all (indeed I’m a Londoner) that alone does a great deal to set a mood and tone that the book keeps going all the way through. The presentation of Manchester is vivid in accentuating that sense of tone, even when the action and story move across distinctly disparate areas of the city – abandoned industrial areas to exclusive penthouses to what amounts to the epitome of suburbia are all facades that contain the overarching mood. It’s deeply atmospheric and engrossing, the city itself drawing me in as a reader.

The characters, too, are equally atmospheric; they all occupy shades of grey in terms of morality that are reflected in the bleak winter skies that permeate the Manchester in Sirens. It’s an effective mix, the sensation of not knowing who can be trusted, and certainly having ideas of who is bad and who is good upended and subverted just aided in my immersion. Like Shut Eye, there’s a corrosive, and compelling mix of corruption, vice and politics. Better, none of it is presented in a polemic way; if anything, it’s presented in a realistic, gritty stance. As nice as the reader may consider themselves, they can’t help but relate to how real this all could be, behind the façade of closed doors.

The protagonist, Aidan Waits, is perhaps initially a little cliched, the down-on-his-luck detective caught with his hands in the till but the journey he embarks on allows exploration of the character’s depth – who is he working for? Is it ultimately himself? Overall the protagonist is engaging and effective – both as a character and at his job, so there’s something to relate to beneath the multi-faceted surface. He’s an engaging protagonist and the ambiguity over his end goals is another point that propels the reader to finish the book; now he’s waist-deep in this mess, how is he going to get out of it? Or, more to the point we’re led to question, can he?

Being fairly new to the genre of crime thrillers, I’d cut my teeth on pacey books such as the Jack Reacher books from Lee Child. These are action-oriented and, most pleasing for me, unpretentious and accessible. Approaching Sirens I was a little concerned that, being a more serious, “noir” story, it might not quite live up that accessibility. These concerns were for naught; Sirens has a breathless pace that, while perhaps not as unrelenting as Lee Child’s works, which became a reference, still allows for a great deal of immersion into the atmosphere and world created, but it doesn’t linger too long to outstay its welcome. It strikes what I would say is a very good balance. There’s a lot going on that we experience as a reader throughout the first two-thirds of the book that immerses us in the world; details begin to stick out and make us ask questions. It is these questions that propel us, the reader, into the final third of the book where the threads we’ve been wrapped around begin to unravel. This was very satisfying, and Sirens sets up and ending and then delightfully subverts it; the payoff for persevering through the bleak and brutal landscape of Manchester that is portrayed is very satisfying.

I can only wonder how much more concentrated this would be to someone familiar with Manchester; however, this prior knowledge is not essential and this does well to not impede the accessibility of Sirens as a book; as before, Manchester becomes but another character in the story. It’s refreshing, too; while the story briefly touches the classical setting of noir, London, it purposefully doesn’t linger. If anything, London feels an alien landscape from the familiarity of Manchester. This is an effective subversion of the genre, and I feel choosing a setting the author is clearly familiar with, and isn’t London or Edinburgh helps set it apart. There’s no reason these s orts of urban crime stories couldn’t take place in any large metropolitan area, and again the fact that Manchester becomes its own character in the story helps justify that choice.

All this is pulled together with Joseph Knox’s immersive, haunting and evocative prose. It isn’t flowery by any stretch, but neither is it utilitarian. The sparse, pointed and precise construction of the prose is something I appreciated; it lacks pretention, but it doesn’t lack style. It propels the reader through the story but doesn’t linger for self-indulgent reasons, which is why I burned through the book so quickly once it had bitten into me. This is certainly a characteristic it shares with Lee Child’s work which is a major factor in my enjoyment of those books and the writing fits the mood an accentuates it effectively.

Overall as an introduction to potentially wider reading of noir fiction, Sirens was a strong candidate. Gritty, arresting and immersive; I’d highly recommend it! On the back of Sirens I’m certainly looking forward to reading both more of Joseph Knox’s work and more noir crime as a genre!

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Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

Girl_with_GiftsI’m reviewing The Girl with All the Gifts finally after a long absence – I read this book for the first time last February and I re-read it recently a few days ago. Re-reading it affirmed that it is almost certainly one of my favourite entries into post-apocalyptic fiction I have encountered so far.

The Girl with All the Gifts is at its root a very simple story. Humanity has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns host humans into mindless zombies. We meet Melanie, a young girl who seems, at first glance, to just be going to school in this weird, destroyed shadow of society… but there’s something not quite right about this “school” and the students within. She waits for “school” by waiting in her cell; she’s strapped to a wheelchair for “class” and is treated as a mixture between an unexploded bomb and an abomination by the “school’s” military garrison.

The first quarter of The Girl with All the Gifts does an impeccable, wonderful job of building up that everything is not as it seems with Melanie and her classmates. They’re not normal children but something much worse that everyone should be fearful of. Over the course of the first quarter of the book we notice some things that are off, and not quite right. It’s not a school but a military base – what purpose does this base serve? And where are the children going?

It’s atmospheric, ominous and it draws you in to find out why. That is why I consider The Girl with All the Gifts to be a brilliantly written book – M. R. Carey’s prose is taut but not cold with clinical distance, but maintains a sense of warmth and foreboding that draws the reader in. I found it to be a very, very readable book – on my recent re-read I managed 100 pages in about 40 minutes. Then there’s genuine tension and horror as the reader travel outside of the base, through some thrilling and visceral action, throughout the ruined United Kingdom, to apparent salvation.

When I read this book last year I read it immediately after The Day of the Triffids, and there’s a lot of similarities – nature reclaiming the world after an ecological, civilization-ending event, with redoubts of humanity scattered. The fungal-based “hungries” are pretty analogous to Triffids too, at least that was my interpretation, especially hungries progressed to the end-state, and those that progress to a something akin living plant, where the Ophiocordyceps has totally hotwired the host’s mental functions. The victims stop acting like people but rather shells of people infested and animated by the desires – basest and simplistic as they are – of the Ophiocordyceps, with nothing human remaining.

The story itself, once we break out of the base, remains tight.  There’s only a small repertoire of characters we experience Carey’s ruined world from the perspective of, and it’s just about right. Melanie is a special case, of course – she’s a “hungry”, as victims of the Ophiocordyceps fungus are termed, but one that has retained her mental faculties. She’s of prime importance to the voice of cold, clinical science, Dr Caldwell and forms a warm, emotional bond with her teacher, Helen Justineau. Melanie’s relationships with Justineau and Caldwell underpin a significant difference in how she and her fellow kind, mentally-cognitive hungries, are perceived: while science classifies them as dead, for the fungus has permeated the nervous system, Justineau relates on an emotional level to Melanie’s exhibition of characteristics that remain human in appearance.

That, I feel, is the main point of The Girl with All the Gifts – what really is humanity? How can humanity process a change of the nature the fungal outbreak to the very fabric of the species? The tussle between Justineau and Caldwell, and the schools of thought they represent, leaves a longing impact in the reader’s mind – at least, it certainly did for me.

And The Girl with All the Gifts uses a foe that is both novel to zombie fiction but also terrifying – a fungal outbreak. This is a welcome change from the “escaped bioweapon” or “extra-terrestrial invasion” that can be played a bit thin for the premises of post-apocalyptic fiction. The fungal infection is a totally natural occurrence and one humans have no defence against, ultimately. And Carey’s inspiration comes from a terrifying extrapolation of a fungus, the Ophiocordyceps, that already exists and just asks one question: what if this fungus attacked humanity? This clip from Planet Earth is widely reported to be the direct inspiration for The Girl with All the Gifts; it’s even referenced in the text:

The Girl with All the Gifts is not perfect, but it’s close to. The journey to Beacon, humanity’s last, apparent, refuge, is ultimately a trip in vain – is there even a Beacon to to return to? But the ending of The Girl with All the Gifts reflects that – the group’s journey to Beacon reflects humanity’s journey against Ophiocordyceps. And I wish The Girl with All the Gifts expanded a little more into this universe that’s created as I feel it’s so rich and ripe for exploration.

Girl_with_Gifts_FTICharacter-wise, the narrative focuses on two, maybe three, of the main characters to which we join upon the journey, with the rest less fleshed out. Dr Caldwell is “cold science” to Helen Justineau’s “hot emotion”, and the conflict between over Melanie is palpable – again, it’s easy to see both sides, but it’s a square impossible to circle. I feel some of the other characters – Sgt Parks and Gallagher – are less well-definied, almost empty stereotypes, and the attempts to develop their stories is impeded by a break-neck plot; The Girl with All the Gifts takes place over several days, once the first act is broken out of. Does this change of pace fit well? Not perfectly, no.

I do feel the ending does come together in a more reflective and conceptual way than the rest of the book perhaps leads into, but it does leave the reader pondering. Like a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction there is no “magic bullet” to save humanity, and to its credit The Girl with All the Gifts ratchets that emotional impact up to the fore in the ending, presenting a genuine choice for humanity: wither and die or embrace the inevitable. For its first act alone, The Girl with All the Gifts is rightly lauded, but the book as a whole remains a thought-provoking and deeply memorable read.

Oh, and no, I’d not played The Last of Us before reading this book, and likely won’t.

Book Review: Metro 2033

Metro 2033 von Dmitry GlukhovskyOne of the most satisfying things I can say I’ve done recently is go bookshopping with a friend – bouncing ideas off each other for books to read is a great feeling. My wallet? Less enthusiastic but book shopping is always a worthy cause to empty one’s vaults on.

I digress: Metro 2033 was a punt that I decided upon in the raw heat of the moment, browsing the Waterstones shelves. I’d heard vague hints that it was a good book, good enough to spawn a series of acclaimed video game adaptations, which, alas, I have not played.

Right from the start, Metro 2033 throws us into the fascinating and well-realised world of the Moscow Metro, roughly 30 years after a nuclear Armageddon wiped the surface clean of conventional life and left the survivors huddled in underground stations.

First thing that I liked? That in itself is a very believable setting and premise, that survivors would use underground railway stations as bomb shelters. There’s a historical precedent for it – London in the 1940s, so why not Moscow in the early 2000s?

Second thing I liked – this story is set in Moscow, and written by a Russian author. Already these are two fairly innovative steps in terms of post-apocalyptic fiction, which largely centres around the United States. Seeing the apocalypse from a different perspective – Russia, in this case – was a welcome change to the usual fare.

So already we’ve a good start with Metro 2033. It continues to get better with the steady revelation of the internal machinations and politics of the metro, which becomes a contained microcosm of the society that fled into the tunnels as the bombs fell. There’s the communist Red Line faction, the fascist Fourth Reich, and other factions and, indeed, independent stations to no faction they belong. This shrunken, cramped analogue for real society was compelling and engaging – it was also a very human and plausible thing to portray – each station became a nation-state or a vassal in an alliance, and they battled, as “real” nations would, over resources and ideology.

And then there’s the protagonist, Artyom, who is given a quest that feeds into his sense of adventure and takes him all around the metro itself, and this is how we explore the system and discover the intricacies of the settlements and factions contained within. It’s a nice way of doing it.

Metro 2033 was translated from Russian to English so I made a conscious effort to read the book carefully. Yes, the translated prose was a little heavy in places, but strangely I felt compelled to read on because the setting, story was so gripping. I do feel that some of the action was a little fuzzy and lacked a bit of clarity, but that’s not to say it didn’t make a hearty attempt at being atmospheric – whether this is an issue intrinsic in the source Russian text and exemplified a tad by the translation is another matter, but while the prose was a little meandering in a few places, that almost helped the mood the book was trying to portray.

The quest Artyom undertakes seems simple enough – take a message of impending catastrophe for the metro from his home station, VDNKh, to the political centre point of the metro system, Polis, in search of aid. And the quest branches nicely, and we’re introduced to many interesting characters and situations that really showcase the diversity of the metro system. And the twist at the end, realised when Artyom is powerless to prevent the course of events he has worked to start, was a wonderful surprise that twists the horror aspects of the story right around. The way Artyom becomes homesick for VDNKh, after his time adventuring the metro, is relatable and well-realised.

The book is refreshingly self-aware, too. Artyom becomes aware toward the midpoint of proceedings that he has an intangible “shield” around him that protects him from the course of events – events that, by all rights, should’ve killed him but through happy co-incidence, don’t. That’s a neat way of the author acknowledging that without the protagonist, and if they did come to a sticky end as in several instances they really should, there would be no story to tell.

And Artyom is also mindful of the fact that many of his companions who join him end up dead as a result of their accompanying him, which allays a criticism I had to start with that a lot of the ancillary characters Artyom meets seem to be fairly transient. But that’s also fine – they serve a purpose for the story and the quest and my criticism was allayed by Artyom’s recognition of this. It serves the book well.

So overall, Metro 2033 was a thrilling and atmospheric read that I found thought-provoking and expectedly deep. It’s certainly a title I feel would benefit from a re-read in the future but overall a definite innovation and classy entry into the post-apocalyptic lexicon. I’m excited for the rest of the series now!

Book Review: Domain

DomainIt’ll come as no surprise to readers that I am a big fan of author James Herbert’s work. I’ve steadily read a good number (but by no means all) of the 24 novels he published during his lifetime and they all share a common attraction – they’re visceral but approachable horror novels that tell a great, engaging story; like King’s work, there’s no pretence that these novels are literary, but they’re great fun, and, surprisingly, they retain their macabre punch even decades after publication.

There’s some memorable scenes in Herbert’s work, from the opening of a tramp being viscerally devoured by mutant rats in The Rats, the population of Bournemouth – 140,000 people – committing suicide by walking into the sea in The Fog and the multitude of supernatural scares in the brilliantly creepy The Magic Cottage, which I reflected upon previously with The Rats. Domain is no different.

Domain is the final instalment in the “Rats Trilogy”, which I had been both excited and a little apprehensive to read, following The Rats and Lair. I was excited to read it because I’d enjoyed the previous two books; but apprehensive because I was nervous that Herbert wouldn’t quite be able to deliver the post-apocalyptic disaster. It seemed out of his reach almost, especially as the previous books were gloriously timeless in their portrayal of a contemporary reality upended by the mutant manifestations.

But I was wrong. Domain portrays the moment of nuclear apocalypse with possibly the most powerful invocation of a Herbert trope I’ve yet read. Herbert’s books like to divert to vignettes of characters orphaned from the main plot but who are directly impacted by the book’s source of horror. In Domain, we follow people just going about their ordinary business, they have hopes, dreams and wants, and we see their lives cut short by nuclear Armageddon.

Indeed, one of the most powerful of the vignettes is that of the survivor of the attack who seems to be readying her family for breakfast – it seems a normal day but there’s a sense that something’s not quite right and the revelation that her family are just dead bodies tied to their chairs is the cherry on the top of a fantastic, powerful scene that evokes not just horror but the sense of grief a survivor would feel, and a very relatable, but creepy, way they may deal with it.

It’s powerfully done, and it helps Domain stand out to me in a crowd of supernatural-themed stories that, while effective and engaging, don’t entirely gel with me; it’s Domain’s portrayal of post-apocalyptic survival that adds greatly to its influence on me. There’s a lot I’ll take from Domain I can imagine! While I have grown to like Herbert’s supernatural and spooky stories, it’s his grounded-in-reality horror novels that really hit paydirt for me. I’m yet to read a better example of this than Domain.

Being a later work of Herbert’s, Domain does benefit from his accrued experience. The characters we are introduced to seem, in some regards, more rounded – the “everyman” hero in Domain being Steve Culver, a pilot who rescues government man Alex Dealey from the collapse after the bombs hit, and it’s this unlikely pairing that drives the story into its first forays. Culver is revealed to have motives and complexity that are a little unusual in a Herbert novel. That’s not to say we don’t have characters who seem to exist purely to propel the story, but as I explained above, that’s fine and it’s almost refreshing to have characters for this purpose, as the story is that compelling for me to forgive it. Culver and Dealey seem the most developed, with the rest of the cast seeming ancillary. But that’s fine!

Again, Domain is dripping with Herbert’s apparent experience – he knows his niche with Domain and plays it fully. There’s scenes that are uncomfortable to read even in 2018 – in one of the vignettes, a lonely man ends up killing a cat; in another, a survivor of the nuclear attack goes to the toilet, is almost raped before her and her attacker are overcome by the rats – but I accept them, even if they brought about discomfort because Herbert’s work portrays a visceral, instinctive warts-and-all portrayal of the situation. Yes, these things are seedy, grubby and unpleasant – and luridly described – but it’s hard to imagine them not happening.

Domain takes place mostly in underground settings, and this claustrophobia is palpable. It brings on the inevitable, and the imagery is superbly done – gritty, grisly and grotesque. I did wonder whether Domain brings anything new to Herbert’s formula of mutant rats going awry; I feel it brings the notion to its logical conclusion. There’s a certain sense of inevitability, a certain “so where are the rats?” but when they do arrive in each encounter it’s Herbert’s chance to indulge in some of his goriest, grisliest and most visceral and effective horror, especially when combined with the atmosphere stoked up just prior. It’s a very popcorn-esque way of building the tension but it’s there regardless.

That’s not to say there’s not plenty of horror, there is, and the ending is, as I have come to expect with post-apocalyptic fiction, uncertain. And rightly so, there can be no “happily ever after” when civilization is destroyed.

So, is Domain my favourite Herbert novel so far? It was very good. Is it my favourite of the Rats Trilogy? I’m not so sure – I feel that the “cosy catastrophes” of The Rats and Lair, while Herbert’s apocalyptic writing was surprisingly effective and powerful, edge it just slightly with me. Yeah, at times I feel the middle of the book sags, meanders but it’s a gripping and riveting meander that just allows James Herbert to do his best. But that’s not to Domain’s disservice, it’s a fantastic book.