Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel

hilary mantel

A comically sinister tale of wicked spirits and suburban mediums from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’.

Alison Hart, a medium by trade, tours the dormitory towns of London’s orbital ring road with her flint-hearted sidekick, Colette, passing on messages from beloved dead ancestors. But behind her plump, smiling persona hides a desperate woman: she knows the terrors the next life holds but must conceal them from her wide-eyed clients. At the same time she is plagued by spirits from her own past, who infiltrate her body and home, becoming stronger and nastier the more she resists…

Beyond Black is one of those books that really gets under your skin. It’s visceral, gritty, beautifully written and full of such powerful imagery, shocks, scares and even domestic drama, that it deserves to be called a masterpiece.

But aside from it being labelled the greatest ghost story in the language by Phillip Pullman (well, I haven’t read them all, but it has to be up there with the very, very best) it’s also a very clever look at the process of writing and creativity. Mantel said herself that she sees many parallels between clairvoyance and writing: the solitary existence; dealing with characters that no-one else knows exist; seeing the world in a different way to other people. And this parallel offers even more food for thought to a book that you want to devour in one sitting.

This could be my shortest review, in three words: I love it.

It’s one of my favourite books. I keep coming back to it because it is genuinely haunting; the language hypnotic; the characters so fascinating.

I’m surprised at some of the negative comments I’ve seen about this book. Perhaps those readers who were not blown away by it were looking for Wolf Hall in suburbia, or maybe a poltergeist stalking a Victorian corridor. If you’re looking for that kind of thing, maybe read the Woman In Black by Susan Hill.

Beyond Black is a book that takes you by surprise. It’s dark, it’s creepy and it will stay with you long, long after you’ve finished it. That is, if you give it a chance, which you absolutely should.

It’s a hard book to pigeon hole (who would want to anyway?) because it’s more than the sum of its parts. If I could write as well as Mantel, then I might be able to put in to words how much I love this book, but I can’t, so I’ll just say: read it.

The Games, Ted Kosmatka

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Silas Williams is the brilliant geneticist in charge of preparing the U.S. entry into the Olympic Gladiator competition, an internationally sanctioned bloodsport with only one rule: no human DNA is permitted in the design of the entrants. Silas lives and breathes genetics; his designs have led the United States to the gold in every previous event. But the other countries are catching up. Now, desperate for an edge in the upcoming Games, Silas’s boss engages an experimental supercomputer to design the genetic code for a gladiator that cannot be beaten. 

The result is a highly specialised killing machine, its genome never before seen on earth. Not even Silas, with all his genius and experience, can understand the horror he had a hand in making. And no one, he fears, can anticipate the consequences of entrusting the act of creation to a computer’s cold logic. 
 
Now Silas races to understand what the computer has wrought, aided by a beautiful xenobiologist, Vidonia João. Yet as the fast-growing gladiator demonstrates preternatural strength, speed, and—most disquietingly—intelligence, Silas and Vidonia find their scientific curiosity giving way to a most unexpected emotion: sheer terror.

The Games is one of those books that on the face of it, looks pretty derivative. There have been umpteen books on genetic experimentation, and the load of techno-thrillers out there is immense, but despite this, I still found myself enjoying this taut and tense thriller.

The story of genetically engineered animals fighting each other in a futuristic Olympic Games is a pretty compelling (and enjoyably ludicrous) one. The future that we see isn’t one of flashing neon and hover cars, but something which feels genuine- with glimpses of technology that have changed people’s lives, such as a shot that reverses being drunk. The book hangs on a strong idea, and Kosmatka has built a very efficient story around it.

The one major draw back is the characterisation. With such a high concept plot, it’s easy to see why Kosmatka didn’t feel the need to flesh them out completely, as you are constantly distracted from moments of introspection by a moment of tension or peril. But, the central character, Silas, is essentially morally dubious, given his involvement in genetically mutating animals to create ‘gladiatorial entertainment.’ This could have been developed and looked at in  more detail to make the reader sympathise with him, to question why and how he justifies his work and to make him a more complex character. But, as it’s a techno-thriller, that’s not really the point. It’s a gung-ho, tense and exciting thriller that doesn’t dwell on bigger issues (though it does touch on them). You know where the book is going from the first chapter and it’s no less fun because of it.

It’s a great bit of holiday popcorn that kept me entertained, so I’d recommend this one in the same way as you might the latest Tom Cruise film: you know what you’re going to get, so don’t over-think it.

Heaven’s Shadow, Michael Cassutt and David S. Goyer

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Heaven’s Shadow begins with the discovery of an object of unknown origin headed toward Earth. Speculation as to what it might be runs high, and leads to an international competition to be the first to land on it, to claim both the prestige and whatever other benefits there might be. Thus, two rival teams of astronauts begin a thrilling and dangerous race – but what they find when they reach their goal will turn out to be unlike anything they could have imagined . . .

What they have landed on is no asteroid but a spacecraft from a civilization that has travelled tens of thousands of years to reach earth. While the team try to work out what it is they are needed for, more sinister occurrences cause them to wonder if their involvement with this alien race will lead to anything but harm for humanity.

This is one of those stories that immediately hits you as a fleshed out screenplay, with a fast pace, broad cast of characters and a plot which simply doesn’t allow you to put the book down. Moody lead character? Check. Astronaut love interest? Check. Stroppy teenager? Check. Wheelchair bound genius? Check.

Each chapter feels like a 30 minute episode (perhaps the original idea?) but that’s not to say it doesn’t work as a book. It whips you along in a truly gripping tale of differing space centres racing to get to `Neo’ first (an asteroid that is heading towards earth) and the strange happenings that occur once they land…

It has summer blockbuster written all over it- and that’s no surprise since it was written by David ` Dark Knight’ Goyer. This is as close as I’ve come this year to a popcorn movie, and I’m glad that I picked it up. So glad in fact, that I’ve already bought the sequel.

Echo City, Tim Lebbon

Echo City UK

Surrounded by a vast, poisonous desert, Echo City is built upon the graveyard of its own past. Most inhabitants believe that their city and its subterranean Echoes are the whole of the world, but there are a few dissenters. Peer Nadawa is a political exile, forced to live with criminals in a ruinous slum. Gorham, once her lover, leads a ragtag band of rebels against the ruling theocracy. Nophel, a servant of that theocracy, dreams of revenge from his perch atop the city’s tallest spire. And beneath the city, a woman called Nadielle conducts macabre experiments in genetic manipulation using a science indistinguishable from sorcery. They believe there is something more beyond the endless desert . . . but what?

It is only when a stranger arrives from out of the wastes that things begin to change. Frail and amnesiac, he holds the key to a new beginning for Echo City—or perhaps to its end, for he is not the only new arrival. From the depths beneath Echo City, something ancient and deadly is rising. Now Peer, Gorham, Nophel, and Nadielle must test the limits of love and loyalty, courage and compassion, as they struggle to save a city collapsing under the weight of its own history.

Echo City is one of those books I picked up because I loved the title. Simple as that. I’m not a die-hard fantasy or sci-fi reader but I like to dabble, so after reading the synopsis, I was intrigued. Then, after reading it, I was completely satisfied that I have great taste in titles, because it’s everything a good sci-fi fantasy book should be (for me) with all the elements that make an exciting story, though not gratuitously included. There’s horror, action, violence, technology, genetics, even ghosts.

Lebbon has created a fascinating world here – a city that is so well realised you can almost smell it; a cast of characters to whom you immediately relate and an ominous, hidden menace which changes the book from being a world – building epic to a frenetic race against time thriller.

The middle section does perhaps drag on a little, but it more than makes up for it with a thrilling climax. If you haven’t read much sci-fi fantasy then I’d suggest Lebbon is a great place to start. I’ve often been put off fantasy works because writers spend 500 pages describing the weather and architecture. Lebbon doesn’t do that. He builds this universe brilliantly, but he never lets it take over the story.

This book reminded me of Twelve Monkeys, with it’s strange tech and otherworldly atmosphere. But while Lebbon has crafted something that may have echoes (sorry) of familiarity, he has created something  totally unique, which I highly recommend.

Flashback, Dan Simmons

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America, 2036: a wasteland in economic ruin. Terrorism and ultra-violence plague a once powerful society, whose only escape is to numb itself on flashback – a euphoric yet cripplingly addictive drug that allows its users to re-visit their happier, past experiences.

Ex-cop Nick Bottom is about to receive a proposition. Flashback dependency has taken his badge, his reputation, and the love of his son. All he has left are the flash-induced memories of his beloved wife, Dara, taken from him in a tragic car accident.

Now powerful magnate Hiroshi Nakamura needs Bottom’s services, and, in particular, his memories.

After reading The Terror a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to reading another Dan Simmons book. Despite the gushing reviews for Hyperion and the other space operas he’s written, they have never really been my cup of tea. After picking up Carrion Comfort (too heavy for my bag) my interest was piqued when I saw that he’d turned his considerable imagination to the near future in Flashback. But this is a disappointing and at times, a morally repellent book, where Simmons’ right wing politicking, racism, islamophobia, and patriotic gung-hoism gets in the way of what could have been a good thriller.

The story concerns a down and out detective, called Nick Bottom, who is a flashback junkie living in the near future. This future is a dire mess of poverty stricken former superpowers – islamic fundamentalism; terrorism as a daily occurrence; warring factions; independent states; Orwellian levels of state interference, and some rather nifty technologies like stealth-copters.

Flashback is a highly addictive, inhalation drug which allows the user to tap in to their own memories and re-live them with crystal-clear clarity. For Nick, this means constantly revisiting a happier time when his wife was alive, six years ago (that isn’t a spoiler) and before the birth of their son (now a wayward, estranged teen).

At the start of the book, Nick is hired by an outrageously rich Japanese man (in the book, Japan has become one of the predominant powers in the world) to find the person who killed his son six years ago. Nick was a policeman during the original investigation, which turned up no leads and, since that time, Nick has fallen deeper in to Flashback usage. But he takes the job, in order to get more of the drug so he can revisit his wife in happier times.  Nick is hired to use flashback so he can re-read the police reports of the original investigation, find new leads and, if all goes well, solve the case. All clear so far?

Now, much of the writing is good. In fact, Simmons has a knack for an action sequence. His imagery can often be vivid and startling. But just as you are becoming immersed in this world, Simmons strides in and smears a right wing diatribe across the page, pulling you from the action and forcing the reader to question the very purpose of the book.

Because this book reeks of one man’s fear of Islam, where the Caliphate has taken over the world, essentially because America and the West were too conciliatory to Islam in the early 21st century. Different cultures live alongside each other in this dystopian America, but loathe one another. It isn’t made clear why racism is so prevalent, or why Nick continues to mock Japanese pronunciation – a recurring ‘joke’ which has no relevance to the story.

In a few historical asides, it becomes clear that Obama is  to blame for the emasculation of America and the US is now being invaded by a huge variety of countries. It is no longer the power it once was and Simmons is using this near future tale to highlight the dangers of Islam; to suggest attacking it is better than making peace and that we simply cannot let America be ‘turned.’ There are sections here that smack of a flag waving, gun-toting patriot rallying the troops.

The basic plot line is interesting: it has the ingredients for a film noir-ish investigative thriller. The basic premise is perhaps a little derivative (Minority Report meets Strange Days) but there are some great, inventive twists and sequences, and his prose is so very readable. But these points don’t save the book, or disguise its ugliness.

I’d like to think that he wrote this book in order to spark debate about the role of religion in society, or to make a comment on technology vs. religion but I fear this is just a bit of Islamaphobia disguised as a novel, which is hard to ignore and impossible to forgive when you’re trying to enjoy what is supposed to be a thrilling story.

After reviewing this book, I found the following article on Dan Simmons’ blog which has made me think my review was too kind:

http://www.dansimmons.com/news/message/2006_04.htm

 

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

It is 1888 and Queen Victoria has remarried, taking as her new consort the Wallachian Prince infamously known as Count Dracula. His polluted bloodline spreads through London as its citizens increasingly choose to be vampires.

In the grim backstreets of Whitechapel, a killer known as ‘Silver Knife’ is cutting down vampire girls. The eternally young Genevieve Dieudonne and Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club are drawn together as they both hunt the sadistic killer, bringing them ever closer to England’s most bloodthirsty ruler yet.

Kim Newman is an Empire Magazine hero, single handedly guarding the dungeon at Empire HQ and watching those straight to DVD films, separating the wheat (not much) from the chaff (lots).

He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of horror, having written books, both factual and fictional, as well as radio plays, even directing a film. He’s a jack of all, and annoyingly, a master too. So it is no surprise that his novel, Anno Dracula is also, well, masterful.

The book was actually written in 1992, so the re-release only highlights how far ahead of the curve Newman was. Think of the films that have appeared in the interim;  Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Interview with the Vampire;  the Blades, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Van Helsing; Twilight; Daybreakers… Some good, some bad, but all feel as though they could have been directly influenced by Newman’s amazingly realised vampire novel.

The year is 1888. The Prince of Darkness, Dracula has married Queen Victoria and now vampires and humans live alongside each other, tussling for power, in a violent, foggy, Victorian London. Our protagonist, Charles Beauregard is a member of the Diogenes Club, a cabal of the utmost secrecy, for which he is a spy. Charles has been tasked with hunting down the Silver Blade

Throw in to this story a list of iconic characters, from John Merrick, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll, Dr Moreau, Bram Stoker and Jack the Ripper, to name just a few. This novel is a melting pot of cleverly intermingling characters- some from history, some from fiction, all brought to vivid life by Newman’s writing.

You don’t have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of vampire lore to enjoy this book.  It pulls you along with the force of the narrative; it’s thrilling. I can only hope the re-issue has happened because it has finally got the green light in Hollywood. This is insistently filmic and seeing it on the screen is a tantalising prospect.

As for the book, it’s a political-horror-vampire-action-period-thriller and you should read it. Not because vampires have become fashionable, but because this is a bloody good read.

The Death Instinct, by Jed Rubenfeld

It’s been a while since I read the The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld  – a gripping page turner that managed to combine psychoanalysis, murder and an atmospheric turn of the century setting. And The Death Instinct didn’t disappoint; it’s a great page turner, even if the 9/11 references are a little heavy handed.

(I have to confess: I get turned off by books with titles like this. It is so generic, it’s almost meaningless. Death Instinct? Interpretation of a Murder? Anatomy of a Murder…? They all sound the same. What next – Anatomy of an Instinct? Death Murder…?)

Anyway…

This book surpasses his debut, with a labyrinthine plot that moves from New York, to Vienna, to Germany and back, taking in Radium, Freud, terrorism, oil, warfare and banking. If that sounds like a summary of the headlines of any given newspaper recently (perhaps radium and Freud aside) then it’s because Rubenfeld has drawn some bold parallels with today’s current societal problems – sometimes to the detriment of the story.

Stratham Younger, the protagonist from the first book, has returned from the Great War a changed man, disillusioned with psychoanalysis, quiet, introspective and haunted by the horrors of warfare. Littlemore, his cohort in the previous book, is now Captain of the NYPD and they investigate seemingly disparate incidents to uncover the Big Plot.

After an act of terrorism on 16th September, outside the JP Morgan building in New York, the pair gradually delve in to the shady world of politics, banking, oil and American foreign policy. It’s an interesting yarn, with a complicated series of sub plots, that all lead to a heated finale.

Rubenfeld is a solid writer and the plot rarely loses pace, but first and foremost he is an historian. This is evident in the first five pages of nearly every chapter, where historical detail is documented in a tone that is slightly out of kilter with the rest of the narrative. These sections serve to highlight the ‘real-world’ aspect of the story, and help root it in some semblance of reality, but for the most part they aren’t strictly necessary and just distract from the action.

The constant references to 9/11 are of course inevitable. For the first 50 pages, the parallel is interesting, but as the book progresses, it becomes a little tiresome; bankers can be corrupt,; politicians are often devious and terrorism is a constant threat to liberty. This perhaps wouldn’t have been a problem had there been a more interesting message than; ‘See? Nothing changes.’ But there is little development of this parallel, so it remains slightly frustrating.

The other aspect that niggles me was the inclusion of psychoanalysis. I can’t help but wonder whether the presence of Freud is relevant to the story, or Rubenfeld has used him again for the sake of continuity. I can’t decide if it’s a mild diversion or totally pointless. While his sections are interesting, they do very little for the plot.

That said, the 1920’s era is very well imagined and the complex story has a satisfying denouement. It’s a fun read and well worth a visit- go on, give it a go…