Straight Outta Crongton – Alex Wheatle

Title: Straight Outta Crongton

Author: Alex Wheatle

Year: 2017

Publisher: Atom, Little Brown Book Group

I haven’t delved into many YA novels since my teenage years. My degree pushed me into reading so many philosophical and overly-descriptive books about the industrial revolution or ladies in bonnets longing after men who have more money than sense, that I didn’t find the time to discover the gems of the YA fiction world. I’ve blogged about a small handful that I’ve taken with me through to adult-hood, but Straight Outta Crongton is the first new YA novel that I’ve picked up in a while.

I was hooked. There is something so delightfully easy about this novel, that I finished it in about two days. That’s not to say that the storyline is in anyway simple. Straight Outta Crongton is most certainty a coming-of-age novel about 15 year old Mo, who finds her life caught amidst her mum’s violent new boyfriend, the new relationship with her best friend Sam and her ‘sistrens’ who often offer conflicting advice about these former situations. I absolutely loved the language; the way Wheatle uses slang for both humour and to convey the emotions of these young people. What I loved the most, was that I did not feel alienated in anyway from the characters. Though I have been lucky to not experience a lot of what Mo experiences throughout the novel, I still understood the dispute of emotions that perhaps all teenagers feel whilst they are growing up. I don’t think anyone ever forgets the struggles of puberty and I suppose there is a nostalgia one feels when reading a YA novel at an older age. (Although, I’m only 22, maybe I should review this statement in 10 years time).

Anyway, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, I want people to read it for themselves. I haven’t read any of Wheatles other books so I came to this novel with fresh eyes and I will most definitely be reading more.

 

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Lies – T M Logan (2017)

Title: Lies

Author: T M Logan

Publisher: Twenty7

Date: January, 2017

 

*(Mild) Spoiler Alert!!!*

On Amazon, this novel is titled: Lies: The Stunning New Psychological Thriller You Won’t Be Able to Put Down. I felt this was a bit of a cheap advertising ploy, and not something I’d usually pick up, but after seeing the reviews from some of my most trusted bloggers, I felt I needed to give it ago.

And I’m so glad I did!

This novel really is difficult to put down. The narrative structure is so beautifully straightforward. It depicts, day-by-day as Joe Lynch’s life gets sabotaged. The revelation of his wife, Mel’s, affair and his frame for murder which puts both his marriage and his young son under pressure. With each short chapter, more and more lies are unravelled and I found myself desperate to seek justice for this seemingly innocent character, who was just at the wrong place, at the wrong time. There is something heartbreaking about the shift in Joe’s emotions; the devotion he feels for his wife, to the stone-hearted betrayal that never seems to redeem itself. All the characters I found to be utterly believable, even the antagonist Ben, who is not physically there throughout the novel.

This really is a story for someone who is after a fast-paced, well planned plot seeking the thrills of a psychological thriller. It not only brings to light how deceiving a loved one can be, but how social media can play a huge part in exposing and ruining somebody’s life.

What a great read!

 

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Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories – An Anthology

Title: Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories 

Author(s): Stephanie M. Wytovich, Brain Kirk, Lisa Mannetti, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Coake, Mercedes M. Yardley, Paul Tremblay, Damien Angelica Walters, Richard Thomas, Clive Barker, John F.D Taff, Amanda Gowin, Kevin Lucia, Maria Alexander, Josh Malerman, Ramsey Campbell

Editor: Doug Murano & D. Alexander Ward

Date: 2016

Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing

I’d never really invested my time into anthologies or short stories before. Perhaps I felt hard to connect with characters in such a short space of time; I felt I wouldn’t be engrossed, I wouldn’t be swept away into another universe unlike (most) regular novels. Why would I bother reading something that is going to end in just a few pages?

But then I read Gutted. 

“There is beauty all around us, and there is horror all around us. Sometimes, its impossible to tell the difference.” – Forward 

These stories really are beautiful… in the most twisted, personal and unthinkable ways possible. Each story and their writer has been specifically hand-picked because of the writing style and the impressions they make on your mind. I love horror as a genre. I mean, subtle horror, the everyday, ordinary horrors that creep up on you and make you shiver because there is an element of reality weaved into them. This anthology certainty delivers.

I won’t pretend to understand why these stories have been placed in a particular order, though the first is written as a poem and perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the book. However, it is the second, written in prose that really made me take notice. ‘Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave’ by Brian kirk, is written from the point of view of a father whose daughter has just been found after years of kidnap. Not only does the writing capture you in the first instance, there is something eerily relevant that it could be happening somewhere right now… as you are reading.

Each story ends in some sort of ghastly revelation which might make your heart stop beating for just a second. I found each one to be an occasion were I curse myself for not being able to write it. I read it on kindle, and what I found thrilling was the interactive story ‘A Haunted House is A Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken’ by Paul Tremblay. Our protagonist, Fiona goes back to her parents home and follows the ‘ghosts’ of her childhood. Each chapter gives you an option to decide which room you want her to enter in the house.T his one is almost like a children’s story, although in much more adult surroundings.

I’m so happy I found this anthology and it has definitely changed my mind about short stories. I  alsolove the illustrations at the start of each chapter which were produced by Luke Spooner, reminding me a little of old fairytales. Here are just a few examples:

 

 

Maybe this is the best kind of horror; short, sweet and scarily moving.

“Then she saw their faces, their true faces, with their masks off. Everyone had vampire smiles and glitter-dark eyes, fingers hooked into cruel talons. Hateful and predatory. Monstrous. So sharp and clear, she wondered how she didn’t see it before.” On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes – Damien Walters

 

gutter jacket

Cover Art by Caitlin Hackett

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Dead Man’s Blues – Ray Celestin

Title: Dead Man’s Blues

Author: Ray Celestin

Year 2016

Publisher: Macmillan

Wow. I don’t know where to begin with this book. Though it was 475 pages long, it took me just over two days to complete. It was such an absorbing read that I felt annoyed every time I had to put it down. (Life eh? Such a nuisance)

Gangsters, corruption and jazz.. lots and lots of jazz. Dead Man’s Blues is set during the late 1920s, when alcohol was prohibited and Al Capone ruled the roost. As a piece of historical fiction, Celestin carefully intertwines Louis Armstrong’s early years with two struggling detectives Ida and Michael on the search for a missing girl. There are several strands to this narrative which are filled up beautifully with descriptions of the city and I was vaguely reminded of the playstation game L A Noire, though set twenty years later and in Los Angeles.

“He stared out at the black mass of water, to the vastness of Canada and the Arctic beyond, to the black mass of the sky above, in which the world was just a suspended mote, and in his oblivion he though how much better it would be if every void was strapped with stars.”

Alongside Michael and Ida’s narrative, we follow photographer and wanna-be detective Jacob Russo as he hunts for clues behind a dead man with his eyes gouged out, and Dante, ex-gangster who has returned to Chicago on a special mission by Al Capone. The first few chapters were a little confusing as I tried to catch up with both the history and the numerous storylines  in this novel, but expertly, Celestin slowly weaves each narrative together and it reveals a clever plot with characters who are both unique and nicely flawed, making it difficult to pick a favourite.

The narrative layout is relatively simple and moves between each character in a linear structure. Though sometimes I felt the choice of perspective had been chosen at random, this did make the plot a little easier to follow, as there was no need to jump between time frames or any of that malarkey.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book; it is unique compared to a lot of crime fiction I see on the shelves and I look forward to reading Celestin’s debut, The Axeman’s Jazz which won the CWA Best Debut Crime Novel of the Year Award. If you’e not into that gory stuff, but want an engrossing mystery created on the legends of some of histories greatest gangsters, then this is for you.

 

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Till They Dropped – Sue Knight

Title: Till They Dropped

Author: Sue Knight

Year: 2015

Publisher: Fantastic Books Publishing

Consumerism, greed and coming-of-age; this short-story, edging on novella, is a unique and intelligent narrative about a young girl called Emily who finds herself trapped in a shopping centre. As closing time draws near, panic sets in and Emily must find a way to escape back home. I got the sense that Emily was being punished or at least warned for her excessive spending and I’d consider this to fall under the umbrella of magic realism; strange voices and talking teddy bears are seemingly a part of reality, though it is uncertain whether it is all part of a child’s dream.

This was a quick read of only forty-two pages, however, I found myself re-reading a second and third time, to fully appreciate the concept that Sue is conveying. I felt a sense of unease, like when Alice falls into wonderland and nothing seems quite right. There is talk of the Mechanism, Nothingness and Death, which followed after the War and the story is clouded with a sense of foreboding.

I really loved the way this novella made me think. It didn’t lay everything out on a plate for me and I feel my interpretation is one of many. Each character is perhaps symbolic of certain parts of society, for example, Dee, one of Emily’s dolls, is obsessed with her clothes and fashion, despite the prospect of imminent death closing in on her.

This little story is well worth a read; for its intelligence, its writing style, its thought provoking concepts and the chills that might run up your spine. What will happen when we have finally consumed everything that is left of the world?

 

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Coming Soon: High as the Heavens- Kate Breslin (June, 2017) – Baker Publishing Group

War, love, death; these three themes constantly battle against each other in Kate Berslin’s upcoming novel, High as the Heavens, set to be published in paperback next month.  This historical romance follows Evelyn Marche, a British nurse working in German- occupied Brussels, who recounts the days leading up to the war and the shocking reality of what it is like to be invaded by the enemy. Not only is she fighting for her patients, but her position as a spy for the British Secret Service means she lives every waking hour in fear that she might one day be discovered. However, on witnessing a plane crashing into Brussel’s Park, Evelyn makes it her duty to keep its pilot safe from the prying and psychically threatening suspicions of the enemy, A.K.A ‘the vampires’.

I was in mixed minds about this novel to begin with. I’m not really into the sort of sickly-romantic stuff that you see in period dramas, the ‘love-at-first-sight, lets-get-married’ nonsense. When Evelyn finds the body of the man she loves lying in the wreckage of the plane crash, I felt certain that I might be in for one of those over-sentimental reads. However, despite my pre-conceptions, I was pleasantly surprised to find enough about the dark and twisted side of human nature detailed during the war-days, that the romantic moments actually balanced the destruction and brutality out. Perhaps this was the intended effect?

I enjoyed the narrative layout of this novel. Breslin carefully unfolds the story to us through the use of flashbacks, both through the eyes of Evelyn and the crashed pilot, Simon. Their relationship has been cleverly planned out enough as to make it believable and I felt I was able to sympathise with them more and more as the novel progressed. Breslin also succeeded in making my hairs stand on end. The descriptions of the brutal attacks that the German soldiers take on Brussels really are gruesome and heartbreaking and I found myself holding my breath, knowing that not only did this really happen, but is undoubtedly still happening now, in 2017.

This novel is definitely intriguing and has a unique concept. It comes out on the 6th of June, but you can preorder now via Amazon. or from BakerBookHouse.com

 

 

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New: My Sister and Other Liars – Ruth Dugdall (2017)

My first thoughts when reading this book are that there is something uncomfortably close to reality that makes this novel so compelling. Though dark, twisted and burdened with an inconceivable truth that makes your hairs stand on end; there is unfortunately a sickening truth that could be true to real experiences. Anorexia, rape and brutal attacks; though I do not want to give anything away, I have to mention how well Dugdall addresses such difficult subjects.

This novel is about Sam; a seventeen year old girl living in the ‘Ana ward’ and who is dangerously close to ‘oblivion’ – a state she succumbed to after the brutal attack on her sister, 18 months ago.  Dreadful secrets and lies block her path to recovery, and after receiving a box of photos from her sister, it is time for Sam to open up if she wants any chance of surviving. After hearing of the death of her mother, Sam begins therapy sessions with Clive, the director of the ward, in order to come to terms with the truth behind her sisters attack.

I adored this novel. I enjoyed the narrative structure as it constantly flicks back and forth between Sam’s flashbacks through the use of the photographs, and the present, depicting the disorders her and the other girls on the ward struggle with each day. I fell in love with Sam’s character. I sensed a naivety about her; in her flashbacks, she shows an angry and desperate need for justice that pushes her to do what she has to do, despite the potential repercussions and the pressing issues of her developing eating disorder. Dugdall filters bits of information to us slowly; it is this clever tactic of the slow reveal that forces us to keep reading, desperate for her to tie up lose ends. I also enjoyed the writing. Dugdall does really well to describe the estate near where Sam and her family live; the fish and chip show near where Jenna was attacked… I could image precisely where it all took place.

“Orwell Estate was built in the seventies, a limp ambition of flat roofs and plate glass, where thin terraces from the last century got boxed in by maisonettes, blacks crammed together in a dip in the world. It was just a few streets from my home, near enough for us to use the same local shops, near enough to hear the ambulance sirens outside Our plaice.’ – (Not the most exciting of quotes to use as example, but I enjoyed the description).

One thing I found about this novel, however, was I was desperate to know more about a few of the other characters, in particular, Pearl. She comes to the Ana ward halfway through the narrative. We do not find out much about her, apart from she is very sick; her hair is balding, and she fakes her period in order for the nurses to get off her case. She’s innocent and sweet and Sam feels a bond with her that makes Pearl’s health more important to her than her own. I’d like to know what her story is.

I’m thrilled to have read this book. It ticked a lot of the boxes that I look for in a novel, and I will be adding more of Ruth Dugdall’s novels to my list.

 

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The Kept Woman – Karin Slaughter (2016)

I will be honest. I’ve never been a great follower of crime fiction. I’m more of a classic, Arthur Conan Doyle reader. I like Alexander McCall Smith’s rather more gentler tales, and prefer Miss Marple over Luther. I’m not afraid to read about endless, brutal killings; I’ve just been more attracted to the mystery rather than murder. However, I picked up The Kept Woman as it had been hanging around on the bookshelf; though I was aware that this is part of a series, I still decided to give it a go. I am so glad I did.

*I’d like to note that I am reviewing this without knowing anything about the previous books.

 

Like a lot of fiction, the monster comes in two forms; the internal and the external. For Will Trent, these are one and the same thing. Angie. This is not necessarily a romance novel, but the love triangle at play coincides with the main plot, thus this isn’t just crime fiction, but a novel that brings Will’s personal life to the forefront of the narrative, giving it that extra depth.

Disgraced ex-cop Dale Harding is murdered at an abandoned nightclub, the same nightclub that links with the open rape case involving Marcus Rippy, a famous athlete who is currently at the top of his career. As well as the ex-cop, a life-threatening amount of blood left at the scene of the crime shows up as being Angie’s blood type. This woman is a psychopath, or so Will and his new girlfriend Sara describe her to be. She’s cruel, she’s an abuser, but she has also been part of Will’s life for the past thirty years and Will will stop at nothing to find out what has happened to her. Of course, this causes conflict with new-girl Sara thus creating the love triangle that at times, makes it frustrating to read.

I was hooked on this book within the first few paragraphs. Its clear Slaughter knows how to keep her readers wanting more. Each chapter ends on a cliff hanger, each sentence is structured to keep you turning the pages. There is happy mix between the characters personal life, and the main string of the plot. Perhaps this is what made the novel so enjoyable; both character and plot are strong and succeed in driving the narrative forward. I found I could easily picture the characters in my head; even minor characters like the new guy following Sara around like an over-excited spaniel, eager to please and eager to learn. The plot itself is complex. Devices such as flashbacks help to tie lose ends and I struggled to find any loopholes in the mystery.

Though I’ve started on the 8th novel, I am keen to read the others. Slaughter addresses harrowing yet prevalent issues which I always look for in novels. Well worth the read; even as a stand-alone novel. Also, what a fantastic name for a crime writer.

 

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The Blade Artist – Irvine Welsh (2016) – Two Sides of the Same Blade

“Jim has a nice life, he considers, but sometimes Frank has a hell of a lot more fun.”

 

Is it possible, for a psychotic, deranged, violence-junky to reform? Since Welsh’s Leith trilogy, Skagboys, Trainspotting and Porno, Francis Begbie has become one of literature’s most violent, intolerant, yet strangely likeable characters. Though he was never part of the heroin scene, Begbie’s unrelenting addiction to violence perhaps makes it impossible to envision the man Welsh depicts in his new novel, The Blade Artist. 

It is perhaps best to consider Begbie’s new and reformed character, Jim Francis, an alter-ego of the blood-thirsty scotsman so well depicted by Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting and Porno’s adaptations. In some ways, these alter-egos are two sides of the same ‘blade’. His time in California is set after his release from prison, presumably following Porno. He lives with his new wife Melanie and their two children which has stripped him of his violent outbursts, his Scottish accent and even his name, which he has changed to Jim Francis as a desperate plea to rid himself of his past. Franco seems like a completely different man… (aside from the suspicious murder of two men threatening his family one day at the beach… but that’s just a coincidence, right?) However, a call from Leith, informing him of the recent murder of his son Sean, brings him home, thus testing the boundaries of his new alter-ego.

True to form, Welsh’s narrative is split into multiple points of view; Francis’ and Melanie’s, both of whom recall significant events from the past that aid in understanding the present. I enjoyed the transition between English and Scottish dialect as it successfully depicts Franco’s struggle between the past and present. Being back in Scotland, he is constantly reminded of his violent past and as the mystery of his son’s death thickens, the further this violence drags him back. I found I struggled with a moral dilemma; a part of me willed Franco to stay true to his newly reformed self, however, the other part of me wanted to see him unleash Begbie onto the people that have wronged both him and his son – and of that, I was not disappointed.

Though for Welsh fans, there is undoubtedly a sense of maturity that has developed alongside Begbie’s character, this novel still delves into the violent and sometimes ‘icky’ parts of human nature that made Trainspotting so successful. As seen in previous Leith novels, Welsh’s comments on society are relatable and relevant, particularly regarding technology and contrasts between British and American culture. I’d suggest this is most definitely a worth while read for fans of Trainspotting; though it can be read as a stand alone book, it is perhaps most enjoyable when in context of previous novels.

Rating: 8/10

 

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White Teeth – Zadie Smith (2000)

Though White Teeth was written seventeen years ago, I’ve recently noticed how relevant it has become to the modern day discussion. Smith’s depiction of multicultural Britain has perhaps opened up various debates in relation to Brexit and recent political parties unhappy with the ever-changing idea of Britishness. With recent parties such as UKIP attempting to scare-monger British society, White Teeth helps in asserting what ‘British’ society actually means.

Smith’s novel follows three families as they battle with culture and identity in an ever-changing Britain. The Jones’, the Iqbals and the Chalfens are all descended from migrant cultures in some shape-or-form and Smith shows how these characters deal with multiculturalism in the urban city space of London. Whilst first generation Samad Iqbal is desperate to cling to his roots and even goes so far as to send his eldest son back to live in Bangladesh against his will, the second generation, particularly Irie Jones, wants nothing more than to merge into what she believes is the dominant English culture. Smith shows the conflict between assimilation, pluralism and a rejection of culture to emphasis the difficulties faced within British society’s diverse cultural melting pot. She attempts to break the binaries between the ‘us’ and the ‘other’ and uses the motif of ‘teeth’ to depict both the relevance and the irrelevance of our roots. Whilst teeth are perhaps the only visual feature we all have in common, the root of them are ultimately invisible; just like our own ancestry. Whilst we are often judged by what we look like; Smith argues that perhaps our history and our roots are not something we should be judged on. The Chalfens, for example, appear to be an upper-middle class white family but they are in fact descendants of German and Polish origins, thus emphasising the ever-growing hybridity of British society and the complexities of determining our cultural identity.

This novel is a product of post-modernism due to its narrative structure and use of magic realism, yet uses nineteenth century tropes such as recent history and the examination of the english social condition. Smith bends the rules and manages to show how ridiculous prejudice and racism are within a society that is become more diverse and accepting every year. After all, we are only human.

I loved this novel not only for its complicated characters, but for its humour, its irony and the way it seems to so accurately depict the effects of modern day society. Praised by authors such as Salmon Rushdie, I’d suggest this is not only hails as great immigration literature, but also as part of British culture that is so important during the next few years.