The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

I’ve read two of Martyn’s books where he is writing as Tanya Carver.  They’re perfectly serviceable thrillers but not that special.

I was at an event the other week where Martyn described this book as “Brexit noir meets The Wicker Man”.  Sold!

Tom Killgannon is an ex-cop under witness protection, currently working as a bartender in a remote Cornish village.  One day he lets a young on the run from the local “hippie” (not) commune crash at his house, but she spooks and takes off with his jacket.  Which has all of his new identity in it.  He can’t tell his police handler because of Reasons so he sets out to find the girl, and his ID, himself.

Meanwhile, things in the village are Not Right.  The residents are really focussed on getting the last bit of EU funding to restore the harbour, and some people are decidedly scared.

As things do, these two things turn out to be part of the same mystery and  Tom is stuck right in the middle.

I loved this one, couldn’t put it down.  If you read crime and/or folk horror at all you should really check it out.

The Best of Hawai’i’s Best Spooky Tales collected by Rick Carroll

That’s not a typo, that really is the title.  There’s six volumes originally.

You can tell where my parents have gone on holiday by which local ghost story collections I end up with.

The rationale behind this collection is first-person “real life” supernatural encounters.  A lot of them revolve around meetings with Madam Pele, the Hawai’ian volcano goddess.  A really impressive number are written by native Hawai’ians, and even those written by others have a take no prisoners approach to the use of Hawai’ian language words. (As an aside, this is interesting as these books are so often meant strictly for the tourist market and clearly this is not).  I’m cool with this – I have a high tolerance for ambiguity (a language teaching term) and if it bothers me that much, we live in the age of Google.

These stories are all really short and really well edited so that the voice of each writer comes through strongly.  It represents a good cross section of the ethnic groups that live in Hawai’i – Hawai’ians, Europeans, Japanese, etc.

There’s not much to it – I finished it in two days.

That makes two of these volumes in a row that have been better than average.  <eyes shelf>.  The law of averages says that I have some real stinkers waiting for me.

Before Mars by Emma Newman

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Emma’s Planetfall series, so I was pleased to score a pre-publication copy of this at an event I organise.

This is set in the same world as Planetfall and After Atlas, taking place roughly at the same time as the latter.  Anna Kubrin joins a Mars colony as geologist in residence, leaving her husband and baby daughter at home on earth.  When she gets to her new quarters on Mars, she finds a note that only she could have painted warning her not to trust the project psychiatrist.  Right from the start, things just don’t add up, and Anna is not sure about her grip on sanity.  Either that, or the colony’s AI is lying to them all.

All human activity on Mars is privately owned by Stefan Gabor (who readers of After Atlas will recall) and it becomes apparent there is very little actual scientific work going on, the colony seems instead to be for the benefit of the television viewers who watch the documentary series broadcast on earth.  Anna is mysteriously attracted to one scientist, but the star of the show takes an instant dislike to her.  Anna is determined to find out what is going on.

Like After Atlas, in addition to being a gripping thriller, this book is extremely angry-making.  The world is not a pleasant place and it’s easy to see how they got there from here. All semblance of democracy has been abandoned, corporations run everything and life outside the system is nearly impossible.  There is also a thread about motherhood and societal expectations and post-natal depression.

This is an important book, as well as a gripping read, a difficult feat to pull off. Definitely recommended.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

I’ve been putting off writing this up because I was waiting to have enough brain power to do it justice.  That’s never going to happen, so this will have to do.

This was published in 2009 but I wasn’t paying attention to Canadian writing at the time, so I missed it.  I got it as a birthday present from my parents but it wasn’t that far up my priority list to read until a friend in Canada was singing its praises.

It is a first person narrative of Aminata Diallo and starts with her childhood in a West African village where she is the daughter of a goldsmith and the village midwife.  Her father is a Muslim and owns a Koran, so Aminata is, crucially, basically literate when she is kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 11.  There is a three-month walk to the coast, where she is put on a slave ship and taken to Charles Town and sold to an indigo planter in the Carolina low country.  She grows up and is sold to a Jewish merchant in Charles Town.  When the Revolutionary War breaks out they travel to New York City, where Aminata (now called “Meena” because nobody can be bothered with her long name) runs away from her owner and starts working for the British, eventually becoming the scribe who records the “Book of Negroes”, the record of free and enslaved black people taken to Nova Scotia when the British abandon the thirteen colonies.  She lives in Nova Scotia for many years until she becomes involved in the project to establish Freetown in  Sierra Leone.  The narrative ends with her in London, working with the abolitionist movement.

Readers may recall that back in February when I read The Unkindness of Ghosts, I confidently declared that would be the best book I would read all year.  This might be better.  Despite one being a straight historical fiction and the other set on a spaceship, they are in many ways quite similar.  The descriptions of slave community and relations between the slaves and masters are come from exactly the same place.  In both there is a mixed-race intermediary figure (The Surgeon in Unkindness, Mamed the overseer here who teaches Aminata to read) who through their relatively empowered position helps the protagonist.

The best parts of this book, for me, were the first half – the journey and life on the Carolina plantation.  Aminata is a child who has never seen a white person or been far from home and it is all utterly alien to her.  Hill successfully treads the fine line between showing the otherness of Aminata’s experience and making the book difficult or annoying to read by ingenious use of language.  It’s harrowing stuff but the prose is captivating.

After Aminata is taken away from the plantation, she no longer has the community and culture that she had there.  She still makes friends but the settings don’t feel as vibrant and real.

There’s so much to think about with this book.  Most obvious is contempt that the slaves feel towards white people who think they are doing them a favour by, say, not beating them and for not grasping that, you know, owning people is wrong.  She is confused about how a Jewish man is OK with slavery, and gets really angry with the American rebels referring to their relations with the British as slavery.   It may take years, but white people always comprehensively betray her eventually.

There’s the thing about slavery that I’ve never understood, the cognitive dissonance involved in white men fathering children with slave women and being OK with their own children being slaves.

The story is painful and disturbing but it is also inspiring and positive.  Aminata is a wonderful character who we grow up and see the world through new eyes with. It’s long but I couldn’t put it down.  I cannot recommend this enough.

The Ritual by Adam Nevill

Before the film came out, there was a lot of word of mouth about this book.  I had it on that long list of “things I should maybe read some day”, but as Nevill was selling copies at last year’s Bristol HorrorCon, I decided to grab one.

The Ritual is a story of two halves: In the first half, four men who were best friends in college have a reunion camping trip in the far north of Sweden, nearly 20 years on.  (They think they’re middle aged at 35.  Bless).  In Best Horror Story Style, two of them are far too unfit to undertake such a trip and aren’t going to make it to the night’s campsite, so the expedition’s leader consults the map and decides to take a shortcut.  As soon as the group enter the primeval forest, things get unpleasant.

In the second half, “help” may be at hand.  But this is a horror story, so it’s complicated.  And creepy.

I loved the first 3/4 of this book.  It’s scary but not too gross.  There’s an interesting mythos that is barely touched upon.  Unfortunately I found that the second half of the book went on for too long and lost momentum.

I do still recommend it and I expect I’ll watch the film on Netflix this weekend.

The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 (Sandman 1-20) by Neil Gaiman et al

I didn’t read Sandman from the very start, but fairly close to it.  I can’t even remember how I found out about it (we’re talking about the days before the internet here).  I just have a vague recollection of it becoming A Thing amongst my segment of the goth community in Leeds.  Once a decade or so I re-read at least part of the sequence.

Every time I find I have forgotten how perfect these early instalments were.  There is so much going on and the stories are just beautiful and the bits that made me cry when I was 22 still do.

Aside:  I don’t re-read much, ever.  It’s not that I don’t want to, but there are always so many new things I need to read.

The annotations are impressive.  For me personally, I’m not convinced that they added much. I’m already familiar with the mythology and literature references, andI’m not very interested in the minutiae about the characters lifted from earlier superhero comics.  I will grant that the notes gave me a new appreciation of just how much stuff Neil packed into these, and made me boggle again that he knew so much about so many things at a relatively young age.  The quotations from Neil’s original script notes are a nice touch, though, especially where they show that he wasn’t yet sure that Sandman would ever get off the ground.

For someone who is not convinced by the annotations, I will of course buy Volume 2 just as soon as I can afford it (and can face schlepping it home on public transport).

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I didn’t do the American Lit module as part of my English degree, but everyone who did *hated* Moby Dick.  And I’d already nailed my colours firmly to the medievalist mast so it wasn’t something I ever thought I’d have a need to read.

Over the years I’ve come across a lot of reasons why one should read it, and obtained a free copy some time ago. Recently it was the subject of an In Our Time programme on Radio 4, so I decided it was time.

I enjoyed the hell out of the first third (that is approximately how long it takes the Pequod to set sail).  I’m the kind of nerd who likes to learn about different ways of life, and 19th century whaling is a lot more alien than you might think.  I loved the prose and found it a lot easier to read than I expected.

Most modern reviewers hate the cataloguing of the different kinds of whales, but I got on OK with that part – finding out what 19th century people thought about biology was cool.

The meetings with other ships at sea were all surreal and odd and I think I was missing some references in there.  One thing about coming to this book later in life is that I picked up on a lot more of the references than a younger me would have.  Conversely, I also now understand where a lot of the cultural references to Moby Dick fit in.

Most of the media I have consumed that tries to convince you to read Moby Dick emphasises that it’s a story about obsession.  While Ahab is obviously obsessed, he’s such a shadowy figure and hardly ever in the story that I didn’t get that impression – apart from the one incident that nearly causes a mutiny, in which Ahab backs down, it doesn’t have that much bearing on the story.  The actual battle with Moby Dick is surprisingly short.

It did drag towards the end, but I’m glad I’ve read it and that I enjoyed most of it.

I couldn’t help but thinking it needs a HP Lovecraft crossover though.  It’s such an obvious thing that I can’t believe it wasn’t done during the Pride & Prejudice and Zombies era.