‘A Song for Issy Bradley’ by Carys Bray. A review by Jeanette Greaves

IssyBradleyLet me make it clear, I like genre books – horror, sf, fantasy. If it doesn’t have a spaceship or a paranormal creature I am unlikely to read it. And yet a couple of years ago, Carys Bray drew me into her slightly askew world with her short story ‘Sweet Home’, a very English take on the story of Hansel and Gretel. A further unforgettable encounter with her prose, in ‘The Baby Aisle’, prompted me to buy her short story collection ‘Sweet Home’, and then I was hooked. This woman’s work gets under my skin. She writes about families, the kind of family we all know, or are part of, and she writes with absolute, unmerciful, unswerving truth. But this isn’t misery lit, it’s a view of real life from the point of view of someone who knows how to love and what it means to grieve.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that her first novel, ‘A Song For Issy Bradley’ had been the prize in a bidding war last year, and it’s been on my ‘must read’ list ever since. The book expands on one of the ‘Sweet Home’ short stories (Scaling Never), and because of this, I don’t feel that I’m letting loose a spoiler when I tell you that it’s the story of a family falling apart after the death of one of their children.

I was expecting this foreknowledge to spoil the first few chapters, but Bray’s use of multiple viewpoints puts the focus on the protagonists’ lives so deftly that I wanted to know how they would react to the forthcoming death of little Issy, and how they would cope. I was impressed, and considered myself to have been taught a lesson on how a good writer deals with an unavoidable spoiler in a novel.

This book is not about a death. It may make you cry, but it is just as likely to make you laugh in recognition or in sheer delight. This book is about a family, and how they relate to each other and the wider community. It’s a family that has taken for granted its unshakeable unity, and its place in the heart of a small religious community in the North West of England. Issy’s death strikes a deep blow to the centre of the family, fissuring the cement that holds the Bradleys together, and as the story unfolds, we follow the increasingly separate journeys of mum Claire, dad Ian, teenage oldest sister Zippy, middle child Al, and young Jacob, who is a true delight, if a bit of a puzzle, to everyone who meets him.

The use of multiple viewpoints leads to amusing differences in how the five family members see the other characters in the novel. We get several different takes on other members of the church, absent relatives, and also the Church of Latter Day Saints itself, which is so integral to the story it’s almost another character.

Each family member reacts in a different way both to Issy’s death, and to the wave of grief following such a massive loss. Jacob, the nearest in age to Issy, is particularly beautifully drawn. Jacob lives in a world of stories, a mixture of fairy tales, Bible stories and stories from the Book of Mormon. The church he has grown up in is keen on the concept of miracles, and it’s not surprising that he decides that what the Bradleys need is a miracle. In his own pragmatic fashion, he sets about creating one.

As each of the Bradleys copes with Issy’s death in their own way, they drift further apart, some struggling to make things right, others wondering how things can ever be right again. As their individual lives each reach a crisis or an enlightenment, they are drawn back together for what could be the miracle they all need.

‘A Song For Issy Bradley’ is out in June, published by Hutchinson.

Posted in Non fiction, Review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

‘The Unquiet House’ by Alison Littlewood – a review by Jeanette Greaves

Unquiet HouseAlison Littlewood is a modern writer of classic horror, and in ‘The Unquiet House’ she portrays a growing menace, a lurking evil that has poisoned lives through several generations.

Mire House was built to be a place of love, a place to raise a large, happy family with many children. When love and motherhood are both thwarted, hope turns to despair, and despair turns into vengeful bitterness. The house, over many years, decays through neglect and abandonment until Emma Dean, our young heroine, arrives at the house to survey her unexpected inheritance from a mysterious distant relative.

Emma is drawn to the house by curiosity, she wants to see Mire House before she sells it. It’s a legacy from someone she does not know, but by coincidence, she has also recently lost both her parents, and is alone in the world. As she explores the many rooms, she begins to feel an affinity to the house, and is drawn to its potential as a home for her, and a future family. Her first visit is brief, but she soon returns, with her few possessions, to take ownership of Mire House and to make it her own.

Within hours of her arrival, a good looking and intriguing stranger arrives at the door. Charlie Mitchell is the grandson of the man who left the house to Emma, but he gracefully makes it clear that he is not there to stake a claim, but to indulge his curiosity about the house that his grandfather owned, but refused to inhabit. Throughout the book, we are unsure of Charlie’s intentions, but Emma is nevertheless drawn to him, and wants to trust him, despite her growing unease with him, and the atmosphere of the house.

Just as the mood of threat and terror climaxes, the action switches back forty years, to the early 1970s, focussing on Frank, a farm boy from the next property, and his brother and friends. I loved Frank’s character, it’s well drawn, with a realistic mixture of schoolboy bravado, dawning cynicism, and moral backbone. In this section of the book, we see how the curse of Mire House touches yet more lives, and we gain a further insight into the history of the house, and its tragedies.

Rewinding the film once more, we hit the eve of World War Two. Our protagonist for this section is the teenager Aggie, the younger child and only daughter of a farming family. She is excited at the prospect of leaving the back breaking work of farm life to go into service at the new house that is being built along the lane, by the churchyard. We see, through Aggie’s eyes, the genesis of Mire House, and its curse on all who live there.

Returning at last to the present, and Emma’s story, the author draws the threads of the story together, allowing Emma to understand her situation at last.

In ‘The Unquiet House’ we have a well structured horror story that spans almost a century of life. The story has that claustrophobic feel that works so well with ghost stories. Everything is contained within a small area – Mire House itself, the church and graveyard next door, the neighbouring farm, and a short stretch of swampy land that gave its name to the house. Mire House draws everything to itself, and admits of no other way of life.

This is the second Alison Littlewood book that I’ve read, and on the strength of it, I am definitely going to treat myself to ‘Path of Needles’, her second book.

The Unquiet House is out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

 

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Games Creatures Play, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner. A review by Jeanette Greaves

Games Creatures PlayThe game – produce an anthology of fifteen stories.

The rules – they must be short stories, they must include at least one supernatural creature such as a shapeshifter, fairy, vampire or ghost. They must include a strong element of a game or a sport. No author can contribute more than one story.

 

Go.

 

And thus was born ‘Games Creatures Play’ an anthology of fifteen stories, bracketed by Charlaine Harris’s ‘In The Blue Hereafter’ at the beginning, and Toni L.P. Kelner’s ‘Bell, Book and Candlepin’ at the end.

There is a great deal of variety in the stories, as you’d expect from such a wide brief. Some of the stories are all about the game or sport. Others, including those from the two editors, use the games as a background against which the story develops. Harris’s story is a Sookie Stackhouse tale, nestled closely into the True Blood universe and its existing characters and mythos. It works nicely as a stand alone, whilst enticing a captured reader deeper into the bigger picture. Kelner’s story works in a similar way, and I was surprised to find that it’s only her second venture into this particular world of the Allaway Kith. There are some interesting ideas in this story, that I’d love to see explored further.

 

Most of the contributions to this collection are set in the approximate present of the 20th and the early 21st century. The exception is Dana Cameron’s ‘The God Games’, a story about a man travelling to the Olympic Games of ancient Greece, on a vital mission. The games and the sports are richly and authoritatively described, but take a back seat to the plot and the characters.

 

Anthologies are made for dipping into, and a change of tone is welcome from one story to another. We certainly get that. There are several stories with a strong dose of humour, including Scott Sigler’s story about an unconventional supermarket exorcism, ‘The Case of the Haunted Safeway’; Mercedes Lackey’s entertaining yarn, ‘False Knight on the Road’ about a Prohibition era bootlegger getting into a motor race with the wrong person; and ‘Hide and Shriek’ in which Adam-Troy Castro plays fast and loose with the concept of apocalypse at the hands of a group of very mixed ability demons.

 

Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Dreamer’ is a bloody and violent story, well paced and packed with action, as befits a ‘capture the flag’ challenge.

 

Of course, an anthology about the paranormal shouldn’t be without its dark side, and we get that in spades, kicking off with ‘Hide and Seek’ by William Kent Krueger, a particularly nasty yet atmospheric telling of innocence lost and hope abused that left me looking for a kinder story to end the night on. If you like your horror uncompromising, this one’s for you. Joe R Lansdale’s ‘Dead on the Bones’ is another story of innocence lost, but it’s treated in a very different manner. For me, this is one of the stand out stories of the anthology. The characters are well drawn, the setting is exotic enough to fascinate, and the protagonist is both sympathetic and appealing.

 

Moving on to team games, the dark theme continues with ‘On The Playing Fields Of Blood’ by Brendan Dubois, a well managed mixture of bloody history, lacrosse, revenge and betrayal across the centuries. Ellen Kushner tackles a similar idea in ‘Prise de Fer’. The sport is fencing, the insult to be avenged is very personal, and the location has moved from the mountains of North America to a finishing school for young ladies in France, but the anger is the same. I particularly enjoyed Kushner’s story for its technical details of the sport, and the very satisfying ending.

 

Vengeance is a hot topic, unsurprisingly in a book about competitive sports and games, and in Caitlin Kittridge’s ‘The Devil Went Down To Boston’ we find a heroine with many good reasons to seek revenge on a world that has let her down too many times. Finding herself backed into a corner, she uses her talents and the skills she has learned in her chosen field to take on the ultimate player of games.

 

Jan Burke’s ‘Stepping into the Dead Zone’ captured me almost from the first sentence. It’s a beautiful story of friendship and loyalty, with a centrepiece school dodge ball game lovingly described in a way that sets the tone for the second part of the story. I got a sense of a world beyond this story, and would be interested in seeing it developed further.

 

At this late point in the proceedings, I will confess that I am a fan of paranormal fiction, especially the short form, but I have very little interest in sport. And yet, Seannan McGuire’s ‘Jammed’ left me cheering on the young women in this Roller Derby story. The characters are a wild and lively mixture of normal and paranormal women, the challenge they face is made vivid and urgent, and the resolution is satisfying. This is another of the stories that turns the anthology into one for the shelves, because I want to re-read this story again and again. It’s great fun, and the protagonist is a memorable one.

 

The penultimate story is Laura Lippman’s ‘Ice’. It’s place in the book is between the mayhem of ‘Hide and Shriek’ and the fast paced ‘Bell, Book and Candlepin’. It really does give the reader a chance to pause and gather energy before the final sprint to the end of the book. It’s a quiet story, touching only gently on the sporting theme of this collection. It’s a brilliant, heartbreaking little gem about the nature of story itself, and the manufacture of history at a very personal and local level. I loved it.

‘Games Creatures Play’ is out on 3rd April, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

 

 

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop – a review.

Daughter of the blood coverFor some, it’s the moment you walk out of customs in a foreign airport. For others, it’s the studio signature music that heralds the start of a film. For me, it’s the slow turn of the page, the march of black marks on white paper that become a new world of experience and thrills.

I was looking forward to Daughter of the Blood, the first of a dark fantasy trilogy. It’s been a while since I enjoyed a new world, new characters, and I expected to like this book.

I admit that within just a few pages, I was tempted to turn my back and leave. Anne Bishop has built a world filled with magic, power and beauty, but so many of the early scenes portrayed the cruelty of power, and the privilege of perfection, that I felt repelled. There was, additionally, a lot to take in. Three worlds, between which some travel is possible, by some people. Two classes, the landen and the Blood. Many levels of magical ability – measured and displayed by the colours of the jewels worn by the Blood.  Four levels of existence – the living, the Demon Dead, the Guardians, and the ghosts. The mad and the sane. Above all, two sexes of the Blood, engaged in a power battle that stands in the way of love, and poisons sex.

I left the book on the table, and decided to get back to it the next day.

Overnight, something happened. The characters had their hooks in my brain, and I found myself eager to get to grips with the story. By the mid point of the book, I was in the state that a reader loves – I resented every moment that wasn’t spent in the company of the Demon Dead, Witches, and Princes of the richly woven, connected worlds of Terreille, Hell and Kaeleer.

The characters are, in the main, stereotypical, but this is a work of dark fantasy, and in a strange world, of strange powers, it’s a relief to have familiar figures to guide us through the story. It’s a fast moving book set in a complicated world, and it took me a few chapters to get to grips with the workings of magic and power, and the relationships between the main players. I’m glad I made the effort, and trusted the author, because this is a good story, well told.

This is a book about magic, hope, strength, patience and love. It is also a book about blood, torture, murder, child abuse and rape. Because of that, it isn’t an easy book, but for me, it became a compelling read, and I look forward to the sequel, ‘Heir to the Shadows’.

Originally published in the US in 1998, and now published in the UK. ‘Daughter of the Blood’ is the first book in the Black Jewels trilogy. Available now as ebook from Jo Fletcher Books, the paperback edition is released on 6th March 2014.

Posted in Review | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald – A review

The series that started with ‘Planesrunner’ and continued with ‘Be My Enemy’ continues at a rollicking pace with the third novel ‘Empress of the Sun’. It would not be wise to treat it as a stand alone novel; it hangs upon, and draws on, the events in the previous two books, so leaping in mid series is not advised. That said, going back to read the first two books is hardly a task to be avoided, but an initiation to enjoy.
A young adult novel that brings together alternate universes, steam-punk, lizard queens and a massive feat of space engineering needs a sure hand at the wheel, and thankfully, in Ian McDonald, it gets one. Ian is not afraid to give his characters and ideas time to gel together, making ‘Empress of the Sun’ a satisfyingly chunky read.
The book picks up the twin tales of two teenage boys, Everett Singh and his alter Everett M Singh, an almost identical boy from an alternate Earth. Everett Singh is the son of a physicist who, having discovered how to travel between different universes, has been exiled by those who are threatened by his invention, and want it for themselves. That invention, the Infundibulum, has been downloaded onto Everett’s iPad and launched him (and the crew of the airship ‘Everness’) into the many adventures that are documented in the series. The alter, Everett M, has been engineered and blackmailed to fight against Everett. The boys are physically identical enough that Everett M fits convincingly into Everett’s world, where he spends the duration of the book. He shows himself to be, like his alter, a strong and inventive teenager who survives challenges from several quarters, growing and maturing in the process. The story follows three main characters – the two Everetts, and the ruthless Charlotte Villiers, a power hungry steam-punk villain from another alternate Earth. McDonald handles the multiple viewpoints well, making Villiers’ actions understandable whilst keeping her character an unsympathetic one.
Although the book is populated by a variety of interesting characters, the show is almost stolen by the landscape and setting of the world into which Everett and his friends crash at the start of the book. It is a richly drawn and fantastic world, utterly unlike any of the Earths that we have previously seen in this series, and its evolutionary history has led to a precariously balanced civilisation that is on the edge of extinction. The addition of Everett and his friends from the Everness to the volatile mix brings about a situation that threatens the whole of humanity.
The paths of the two boys take an interesting turn, initially we are presented with the idea that Everett Singh is the hero, and Everett M the villain, but as the story progresses, both boys are changed by their experiences, and we are challenged to reconsider our ideas.
The adventures in the book are brought to a satisfying close, but we know that the main story arc still has a lot of potential, and at the end of the book we get an intriguing taster for the fourth book in the series.
Empress of the Sun is out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Other Side of Dawn – review

The final book in John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series gives the young reader that rare and unusual gift – no easy conclusion.
Since we were introduced to Ellie Linton in ‘Tomorrow, when the war begins’, we’ve followed an extraordinary and vivid tale of teenagers at war. The story started six books ago. when Ellie and a group of her friends took themselves off for a few days to explore ‘Hell’, an area of barely accessible Australian wilderness a few hours hard drive from the Linton’s ranch home. When they emerged, they found that their country had been invaded, their families detained, and their homes abandoned. The series is not for the easily shocked; descriptions of animal suffering are treated with a typical farm girl matter of fact attitude.
The story is told in the first person by Ellie, who has been elected as the diarist by the rest of the group. By the end of the first book, she and her friends have already become a nascent guerilla force, determined to be a sharp thorn in the side of their country’s invaders.
The Other Side of Dawn sees the group back in Hell. Less than two years after the beginning of the invasion, they have made links with overseas allies, become the guardians of a group of younger kids, and developed strong bonds between themselves. Well supplied by their foreign allies, they plan a daring attack on the enemy at a crucial point of the war. The aftermath of the attack, however, sees Ellie separated from her friends, and forced to rely on her own mental and physical resources through a series of potentially fatal threats. As she travels through a country made alien by war, she meets new allies and new enemies, and has to make fast judgements to decide who is a friend, and who is not.
As the war comes to a close, and families are reunited, Ellie faces new problems – things are not as she expected them to be, and we leave her as an emotional casualty of war, a teenage girl who has killed and wounded the enemy to protect her friends and to fight for her country. Ellie has to find her place in the new Australia, a very different place to the one she grew up in, and fought to save.
Ellie is a hero for our time, a strong, adaptable teenage girl who keeps her conscience and her humanity through the worst of times, who knows when to lead, and when to stand back and use the strengths of her friends. I would strongly recommend that you introduce her to your teenagers this year.
The Tomorrow series was first published in the 1990s, and has been relaunched by Quercus books with an eye catching new set of covers.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A review of Impossible Spaces

You can find a review of Impossible Spaces, which mentions ‘Mistfall’, here. 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Impossible Spaces – now out

impossible spaces coverI have a story in the new Hic Dragones anthology, Impossible Spaces. I was thinking about interchangeable places, as a theme for the story – railway stations, bus stations, chain stores, that kind of thing. Then I started to think about natural situations, and it struck me that fog is a great equaliser. In fog, sound is deadened, and the landscape disappears. In the fog, we can be entirely alone. I started to think about a woman, alone in the fog. I started to wonder, what if she wasn’t alone? What if the fog was her companion?

I enjoyed writing Mistfall, it was one of those stories that just fell out, fully formed. It’s got twisted love, and death, and rock’n'roll. What more could you want?

Impossible Spaces is available now, from Hic Dragones.

Copies are also available at the wonderful Ebb and Flo bookshop, Gillibrand St, Chorley, or directly from me. £8.99 or £11.69 by post.

 

Posted in Fiction, Hic Dragones | Leave a comment

A Night of Strange and Dark Fictions

Hic Dragones presents… A Night of Strange and Dark Fictions
as part of Prestwich Book Festival

Monday 27th May, 7.30pm, Prestwich British Legion (near Heaton Park tram station)

Tickets £6 (+ booking fee) in advance from the festival’s ventbrite shop.

http://strangeanddark.eventbrite.co.uk/

Featuring a short reading from one of my latest short stories.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New story coming soon.

I’ve had a story accepted for the next Hic Dragones anthology, Impossible Spaces.  Watch this space for more news.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment