Thursday, 9 February 2017

Book Review | Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough


Since her husband walked out, Louise has made her son her world, supporting them both with her part-time job. But all that changes when she meets David.

Young, successful and charming—Louise cannot believe a man like him would look at her twice, let alone be attracted to her. But that all comes to a grinding halt when she meets his wife, Adele.

Beautiful, elegant and sweet, Louise's new friend seems perfect in every way. As she becomes obsessed by this flawless couple, entangled in the intricate web of their marriage, they each, in turn, reach out to her.

But only when she gets to know them both does she begin to see the cracks. Is David really is the man she thought she knew? Is Adele as vulnerable as she appears? Just what terrible secrets are they both hiding—and how far will they go to keep them?

***

"Whatever you do, don't give away that ending," demands the marketing materials attached to review copies of Sarah Pinborough's new book. And I won't—I wouldn't have even in lieu of the publisher's playful plea—but it won't be easy, because the best thing about Behind Her Eyes is that surprise.

A work of fiction twined around a twist that is, shall we say, entangled with something supernatural, Behind Her Eyes is likely to elicit a few screams of "Don't cross the streams!" And understandably so, I suppose. Early on, it gives every impression of being a harmless bit of grip-lit, and if you haven't read any Pinborough in the past, you'd be right to be wrong-footed by the surprisingly speculative turn her latest tale takes. That said, this—this willingness to futz with the formula of both genres—was precisely what made it such a satisfying read for me.

Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl before it, Behind Her Eyes is a book that you don't so much read as ride. It's a little slow for a rollercoaster, though. The first act, in fact, is all superficial setup. We meet Louise, a thirtysomething who loves her little boy more than life itself; a lovely lady, but oh so lonely. As she says to her much more settled best friend, "Being a single mum in London eking out a living as a psychiatrist's part-time secretary doesn't exactly give me a huge number of opportunities to throw caution to the wind and go out every night in the hope of meeting anyone, let alone 'Mr Right.'" (pp.12-13) But then she does. She meets him, in a bar after a few beers, and makes out with him. His name is David, and—damn it all!—he's married.

Louise doesn't want to be a home-breaker, not least because her own ex-husband cheated on her with another woman, so she calls time on their potential affair. And it would have ended there—it would have, she's sure—if David, as she discovers the next day, didn't happen to be her new boss.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Book Review | The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter


It has been 14 years since the Martians invaded England. The world has moved on, always watching the skies but content that we know how to defeat the Martian menace. Machinery looted from the abandoned capsules and war-machines has led to technological leaps forward. The Martians are vulnerable to earth germs. The Army is prepared.

So when the signs of launches on Mars are seen, there seems little reason to worry. Unless you listen to one man, Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells' book. He is sure that the Martians have learned, adapted, understood their defeat.

He is right.

Thrust into the chaos of a new invasion, a journalist—sister-in-law to Walter Jenkins—must survive, escape and report on the war, for the massacre of mankind has begun.

***

The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, but still, in The War of the Worlds, they came: they came, in aluminium cylinders the size of ships; they conquered, with their towering tripods and hellish heat rays; and then, believe it or not, they were beaten—by bacteria!

So the story goes. But the story's not over—not now that the estate of H. G. Wells has authorised a superb sequel by science fiction stalwart Stephen Baxter which, while overlong, turns the terrific tale Wells told in his time into the foundation of something greater.

The Massacre of Mankind takes place a decade and change since the aliens' initial invasion, and though the Martians may have been beaten, it would be foolishness in the first to conclude that they're completely defeated. As Baxter has it, all we did was knock out the scouts. And it seems that those scouts served their purpose perfectly, because when the bad guys come back, they come back bigger, and better. Add to that the fact that they've adapted; I dare say no mere microbe is going to be their undoing on this day.

We puny humans have learned a few lessons too. From studying the artifacts abandoned by the Martians in the aftermath of the First War, we've developed better weapons, and managed to manufacture a few meatier materials. Alas, our advancement has made us arrogant. We've begun to believe we have the beating of our technological betters, when in truth the shoe's on the other foot:
Many had believed that England would not be subject to a second Martian attack, but enough had believed it possible, and enough more had feared it, that the authorities had been compelled to prepare. The result had been a reconfiguring of our military and economy, of our international relationships, and a coarsening of the fabric of our society. All this had delivered a much more effective home army, and when the attack had finally come, the mobilisation, after years of planning and preparation, had been fast and effective. 
But as a result of that promptness of mobilisation a little less than half the new British Army, as measured in numbers of regular troops and front-line materiel, was destroyed in the first minutes of the assault—most of the lost troops leaving no trace. (p.67)
So it begins—again: another war that brings people as a species to its knees. But Baxter's is a wider and worldlier war than Wells'. No deus ex machina "like the bacteria which had slain the Martians in '07" (p.402) nips this narrative in the bud, thus The Massacre of Mankind occurs over a period of years; nor is the carnage confined this time to Surrey and its surroundings. In the fast-escalating last act, we're treated to chapters set in Melbourne and Manhattan, among others, as the menace from Mars eventually spreads—though why it takes our interstellar oppressors so long to look beyond the borders of little Britain is perhaps the plot's most conspicuous contrivance.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Book Review | Defender by G. X. Todd


In a world where long drinks are in short supply, a stranger listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.

The moment locks them together.

Here and now it's dangerous to listen to your inner voice. Those who do, keep it quiet.

These voices have purpose.

And when Pilgrim meets Lacey, there is a reason. He just doesn't know it yet.

***

Long seen though they've been as the preserve of the precocious, or the last hope of the lonely, imaginary friends are ten-a-penny in Defender.

G. X. Todd's remarkably readable dystopian debut posits a planet Earth ravaged by unfathomable cataclysm. On the one hand, survivors are scant; on the other, theories about how it happened aren't. "To get it over and done with, he quickly ticked off the points on his fingers as he listed them. 'Biological attack, poisoning, after-effects of dementia vaccines, aliens, subliminal and/or psychological warfare, chemical agents in the water supply, the mystical forces of sea tides and the moon. And, my personal favourite, some kind of Rapture-type event.'" (p.101)

But the cause of this apocalypse isn't the point of Todd's text—the first of four in a series starting here. Instead, she's interested in the effect: namely the voices people started hearing in their heads. Defender's protagonist Pilgrim has one; he calls it, of all things, Voice. That said, he's a rarity these days, because most of the folks who ended up with imaginary friends are dead.

Whether they're symptomatic of a mass auditory hallucination or something more... well. "That's the million-dollar question," (p.254) one Todd isn't inclined to answer—at least, not in this novel—but it's safe today to say that these imaginary friends mightn't be entirely made up. Nor, indeed, are they terribly friendly. Many pushed the people who heard them into murder and suicide, hence the paltry population of Defender's North America. Pilgrim, for his part, has come to something of an understanding with the who-knows-what he hosts:
Any sense of peace he ever hoped to achieve would only be an illusion, for Voice was always with him and always would be. He was demon and angel and conscience wrapped up in one, and there was no escaping him. (p.10)
To wit, when Voice urges Pilgrim to offer the girl selling lemonade from a stand by the side of the road a ride, it's easier for our hero to hear her out than to start a subconscious squabble there'd be no stopping.

Lacey seems harmless enough in any event. Sixteen years old, she's been raised in blissful ignorance in a farm off the beaten track by her Gran, but now that her Gran is gone, the farm has fallen fallow, and she knows she needs to move on. What she wants is to get to her sister's in Vicksburg. It's been years since they saw one another, but Lacey believes her sister is a survivor; that together, they could turn their little lives into something worthwhile.

Taking on a passenger goes against everything that's kept Pilgrim alive—if not well—since everything went to hell, but for some mysterious reason, Voice won't take no for an answer, so Lacey packs a rucksack, sit in the pillion position, and off they pop.

That's how the adventures of Lacey and Pilgrim begin—and that might well be how they end as well, because unbeknownst to them, they're on a collision course with a monster of a man called Charles Dumont: a creepy country bumpkin who's tasked his gun-toting gang to round up any and all of the survivors they come across—especially those that have been "blessed" with imaginary friends.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review | Babylon's Ashes by James S. A. Corey


A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.

The Free Navy—a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships—has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinantefor a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.

But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.

***

The Expanse made a tremendous first impression, and the next novels in the blockbuster space opera Leviathan Wakes started went from strength to strength, knocking the overarching first contact narrative out of the park at the same time as remaining satisfyingly self-contained. But then there was a wobble—a wobble of opportunity squandered that nearly drove this reader from the series. It fell, finally, to Nemesis Games to right not a sinking ship, but one that was at least listing.

I was delighted that it did. By contracting as opposed to expanding—by firmly and finely focusing on the characters that had been at its heart from the start—Nemesis Games recaptured the intimate magic that The Expanse's latter chapters lacked, and although it didn't address the presence of the protomolecule, something dramatic did actually happen in book five: something that completely changed the state of play across the Milky Way.
The Belt had finally shrugged off the yoke of the inner planets. They had Medina Station at the heart of the ring gates, they had the only functioning navy in the solar system, and they had the gratitude of millions of Belters. In the long term, it was the greatest statement of independence and freedom the human race had ever made. (p.18)
Said statement came at a cost, of course. You don't just get to declare that you're done with the people who've been keeping you and run off with their resources—not now and not in this near-future milieu. If no one's listening, you have to force the issue. You might even have to fight for that right.

Unfortunately for a huge hunk of humanity—for the folks who've made their homes on Earth and Mars and the Moon—the Free Navy didn't care about collateral damage when they conspired to fire asteroid fragments at the planet their oppressors were arranged around:
There had been thirty billion people on the overcrowded Earth, dependent on a vast network of machinery to keep them fed and hydrated and not drowning in their own waste. A third of those, by the more pessimistic estimates, had already died. Holden had seen a few seconds of a report discussing how the death count in Western Europe was being done by assaying atmospheric changes. How much methane and cadaverine were in the air let them guess how many people were rotting in the ruined streets and cities. That was the scale of the disaster. (p.33)
Essentially, it's the end of the world as we know it, and Marcos Inaros, the man behind it, feels fine.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review | Five Stories High ed. by Jonathan Oliver


Irongrove Lodge—a building with history; the very bricks and grounds imbued with the stories of those who have walked these corridors, lived in these rooms. These are the tales of an extraordinary house, a place that straddles our world and whatever lies beyond; a place that some are desperate to discover, and others to flee. At one time an asylum, at another a care home, sometimes simply a home.

The residents of Irongrove Lodge will learn that this house will change them, that the stories told here never go away. Of all who enter, only some will leave.

Multi-award-winning editor Jonathan Oliver has brought together five extraordinary writers to open the doors, revealing ghosts both past and present in a collection as intriguing as it is terrifying. Along with a linking narrative, this collection features five novellas by Nina Allan, Tade Thompson, K. J. Parker, Robert Shearman and Sarah Lotz.

***

The latest in a lengthening line of excellent collections edited by Jonathan Oliver, Five Stories High finds several of speculative fiction's best and brightest riffing on the same literary instrument: the haunted house. Not just any old haunted house, either, but one—Irongrove Lodge—shared by every player:
The house, like its surroundings, seemed quietly respectable, the largest and most prominent among a number of Georgian properties in the vicinity, flanked on one side by a ruddy-faced Victorian terrace, on the other by a 1930s mansion block built from the familiar yellow-grey London stock. [...] I could not rid myself of the idea that the house had, in some peculiar way, itself created the ramshackle and disparate landscape that now surrounded it, drawn the cloak of modern London securely about itself, to conceal its true purpose.
The particulars of its true purpose differ dramatically depending on which of the five authors involved in Five Stories High you ask, but although Nina Allan, K. J. Parker, Tade Thompson, Robert Shearman and Sarah Lotz diverge on the details, all agree that Irongrove Lodge is a home most hellish.

The aforementioned anthology puts its best foot forward by way of Nina Allan's 'Maggots,' the longest of the five works of fiction featured, and the least traditional. Herein, the writer of The Race follows a boy who becomes convinced that one of his relatives has been replaced:
On the 23rd October 1992, my aunt, Claire Bounsell, nee Wilton, briefly went missing in York during a weekend anniversary trip with her husband David. She reappeared again just minutes later, apparently unharmed. My aunt and uncle came home to Knutsford and went on with their lives. The incident has been mainly forgotten, but the person living as Claire Bounsell is not my aunt. She looks like my aunt, she speaks like my aunt. She has my aunt's memories and to any outside observer it would be impossible to tell the difference between my aunt and her replacement. No one, including her husband, family and twin children, appears to have noticed that anything is wrong. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that my aunt has been replaced by an impostor.
Whether Willy's conviction that Claire isn't herself—that she is, in fact, no more than a maggot—is symptomatic of a sickness of sorts or not, it dogs our narrator for ages. It ruins his first real relationship; it makes a decade of Christmases difficult; and going forward, it's foundation of a fascination that hounds him from the family home into the workplace and leads him, at the last, to Irongrove Lodge, where he'll have answers, if he wants them—albeit at an awful cost.

Sensitive yet unsettling, Allan's superlative story of simulation, of someone pretending to be someone else, is seamlessly succeeded by K. J. Parker's 'Priest Hole,' in which a shapeshifter living in Irongrove Lodge does whatever he can to get by following the loss of the lady he loved.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Book Review | Normal by Warren Ellis


There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geoengineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom; strategic forecasters are spook futurists, who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom. The former are paid by nonprofits and charities, the latter by global security groups and corporate think tanks.

For both types, if you're good at it, and you spend your days and nights doing it, then it's something you can't do for long. Depression sets in. Mental illness festers. And if the abyss gaze takes hold there's only one place to recover: Normal Head, in the wilds of Oregon, within the secure perimeter of an experimental forest.

When Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist, arrives at Normal Head, he is desperate to unplug and be immersed in sylvan silence. But then a patient goes missing from his locked bedroom, leaving nothing but a pile of insects in his wake. A staff investigation ensues; surveillance becomes total. As the mystery of the disappeared man unravels in Warren Ellis's Normal, Adam uncovers a conspiracy that calls into question the core principles of how and why we think about the future--and the past, and thenow.

***

For all our whistle-blowing and brainstorming, for all our back-slapping and activist hacking, for all the awareness we've raised and for all the progress we've made—for all that, it's not going well, the world.

That, at least, is what Adam Dearden believes, and, as a futurist who's resided on both sides of the aisle, he should know. Knowing what he knows, though, doesn't mean he can do a damn thing about it. That frustration recently reached fever-pitch for him when, whilst working in Windhoek, he saw something he shouldn't have seen; something that sent him over the proverbial edge.
He was a futurist. [He] gazed into the abyss for a living. Do it long enough, and the abyss would gaze back into you. If the abyss did that for long enough, the people who paid you for your eyes would send you to Normal Head. The place was paid for by foundations and multinationals alike, together. Most of their human probes needed it, one way or another, in the end. His first thought, in fact, that night in Windhoek, was that he was going to end up in Normal if he couldn't keep his shit together. (p.16)
He couldn't, of course.

Built "on the bones of a town founded by a madman whose last recorded words were about its terrible lights," (p.12) Normal Head Research Station is a sanctuary of sorts for screwed-up spooks and strategists and such. There, anything that could coax out their crazy is contained: mobile phones are a no-no, social media is strictly prohibited, and you can only access the internet if you've demonstrated yourself relatively sensible.

Which leaves... what? Well, there are a few DVD box-sets to watch, a bundle of board games to play, I dare say, and acres of ancient forest to get lost in. Your only real responsibility, when you've been sent to Normal Head, is to get better—if only so you can go back to gazing into that infinite abyss. And Adam Dearden does want to get better. Alas, within hours of his arrival, he witnesses something that beggars belief; something so unsettling that it puts him in mind of the riot that was his ruination rather than the road to recovery.