Like most of us, the current global situation has thrown me through a loop. But, maintaining the things that keep us mentally and physically robust are key. For me, that’s training hard and reading awesome books. Cue Mark Lawrence’s latest novel The Girl and the Stars.

Honestly, I’m kicking myself I haven’t read more from Mark Lawrence (though perhaps that will change very soon) as he’s such a great author. Point in case, this start to a new series of books has me hooked. Set amongst nomadic tribes living in harsh, artic conditions, the Ictha are the hardiest; their existence is one of survival on the ice with little room for anything else. Yaz and her brother, Zeen, are travelling to a gathering of the tribes where children will be inspected by priests and those deemed unable, weak or different will be cast into the Pit. Yaz knows she is different and, though she survived the reckoning four years earlier, expects to be thrown into the dark pit.

What happens next is beyond her expectation. The priest sets her aside, to take her back to their stronghold. It seems Yaz has escaped her deadly fate though she still won’t return with her tribe. But, when her brother is cast down, Yaz makes a leap; she realises that her brother’s life is worth fighting for and that she can’t stand aside while he is thrown away and discarded. Diving into the Pit after him, Yaz discovers a world beneath the ice. In fact she discovers worlds beneath worlds; secrets long buried and truths almost to hard to bear.

As Yaz struggles and fights to save her brother, she peels back layer upon layer, revealing more and more. Magic, giants, enchanted hunter robots, simulated realities, dark secrets and histories, and long extinct alien races. Yaz strives and fights, pushing against the current alongside a cast of characters each as different as the next, and all trying to find their place. But, as an agent of change, Yaz is caught up in conflicts within conflicts and hunted by more than one enemy for reasons she is yet to fully understand.

The Girl and the Stars is full of amazing worldbuilding. There’s little fat to the writing as it drops us straight into the frozen landscape and the harsh conditions of Yaz and those cast into the Pit. It’s a dark world, where little is fair and choices are even harder. Yaz wants to save her brother, her friends; she wants more than to merely survive. It drives her. But whether it will be enough remains to be seen and I can’t wait for the next in the series to find out more.

Review copy

Published by HarperCollins

Hill-billy man-hunters in the dusty, empty outback of Australia, hell-bent on revenge, torture and death? I’m in. What’s better is that The Hunted is a smartly written, atmospheric horror thriller, featuring a well-formed cast of characters each dealing with a kernel of something dark at their heart.

Moving between the present and a few days in the past, we are introduced to an ensemble of actors: Simon, a middle-class Melbourne university student seeking the ‘real Australia’; Maggie, an enigmatic hitchhiker with a backpack full of cash; Frank, a troubled, isolated owner of a small service stop on a lonely road; and Allie, Frank’s unhappy, teenage granddaughter. As the story moves between the point of view of each, the desolate and huge spaces of the heat baked outback comes to life.

Maggie convinces Simon to let her ride along and then follow a road deep into nowhere. Soon those remote, wild spaces take on a very troubling feel. When Maggie pitches up at Frank’s roadside shop, badly injured and covered in mud and blood, it’s clear that something went very wrong somewhere. After a strange man arrives soon after looking for her, the tension ramps up considerably. Reluctantly, Frank decides to help Maggie (with the assistance of a pair of customers) and its a decision that sets in motion a terrifying fight, not only for his life, but also for his granddaughter.

Slowly, the events that lead up to Maggie’s arrival are revealed and, when a convoy of pick-up trucks turns up, Frank’s character comes to the fore. Every decision rests on a knife edge and with nothing but their wits to help them, Frank and Maggie must face a gang of murderous rednecks whose only aim is to end the hunt and bathe in the blood of their quarries.

The Hunted is fast and furious and suitably intense. The characters are very human in the face of violence, especially when confronted by a horde of warped murderers. The isolation and emptiness of the outback is a fantastic backdrop that lets the conflict play out, adding another element of terror to the proceedings. Well written and cinematic, The Hunted is a great set piece of killer horror.

Review copy

Published by Faber & Faber

Once again, I’ve discovered another absolutely amazing novel, tucked away in one of the moving boxes that hadn’t been fully cleared. Honestly, I’m a little stunned by how immersive and gripping Planetfall was to read.

This is a novel that slowly reveals its story with hints and glimpses at the larger picture. There’s a mystery at its heart, something tragic and hidden, and, as the pieces of the puzzle are laid out, it builds a picture that is awe inspiring and terrifying. Planetfall manages to be both huge in scale and idea yet also profoundly personal and human as it asks questions of where our species comes from, what our place is in the vastness of space, but also who we are as individuals.

Told from the perspective of a reluctant narrator, Ren, we are slowly introduced to a small colony living on an alien planet and surviving with impressively advanced technology. The status-quo of the settlement, and Ren’s equilibrium, is thrown out of kilter when a young man, Song-Soo, comes stumbling out of the wilderness toward the camp. He’s too young to be one of the original colonists and, more pressingly, he is without the (assumed) technological support or systems required to survive. It’s soon clear, he is the son of a settler, ones thought lost to the mission and it’s clearer still that he’s more native to the alien planet than he is to those who originally departed Earth.

His arrival is the catalyst that begins to shine light on the expedition, the people who made the trip away from a troubled, polluted Earth, and what happened when they arrived. Ren and her fellow settlers came to the planet after their leader Suh has a vision; one that changes her intellectually, enhancing her and showing her how to travel across space to a place where ‘god’ exists. But something happened and the settlers encountered obstacles they didn’t expect. Gradually, Ren reveals her place in the colony, itself situated at the foot of a strange organic structure they’ve named God’s City.

As Song-Soo’s presence causes changes and ripples, highlighting things Ren desperately wants to keep buried, a truth begins to peak out from behind her unwillingness to acknowledge it. Not only her own anxieties and symptoms but also the larger complexity of the colonies history let alone the complicated issue of what God’s City is and what it means. However, it is revealed and exposed to the light of day; all of it.

In the end, Ren, stripped away of her privacy and self-imposed distancing, offers up the truth and lays it all bare. And, in the final chapter of Planetfall she finally understands it all; her place, her experiences and the mosaic it has made of her, the strange City and what they were called there to do.

Planetfall is so many things. It’s a gripping mystery and a stunning work of science fiction. It is a treaty on the human condition and the mental gymnastics we all execute to retain our personalities. It is beautifully written and wildly thought provoking. Scary, heart wrenching, weirdly alien and strangely human. Planetfall is truly brilliant.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

M.T. Hill is, without a doubt, a phenomenal writer. As different to his debut novel, Zero Bomb, as could be The Breach does have a common element; a sense of unease, of being cast adrift. Here, that feeling of disquiet and distress becomes almost palpable, growing into something awful and horrifying, magical and enigmatic, and blooming into a stunning book.

Revolving around Freya, a small time journalist, and Shep, a trainee steeple jack, The Breach opens upon a mysterious encounter at the bottom of a garden; a sign of something else, something other, that acts like a harbinger of things to come. Sent to report on the accidental death (or suicide) of a young man, a climber, Freya unpicks his life whilst listening to his eulogy and discovers something amiss. It sets her on a winding journey, through the man’s past and his online profile, and to his odd passion for urban exploration.

Shep, unanchored and almost desperate, is struggling to fit in as an apprentice steeple jack. Though clearly talented as a climber, he can’t seem to find his fit. But when he is out exploring, juggling the anticipation of adventure and the fear of being caught, he comes alive. Though, what he sees or doesn’t see on his last ‘mission’ sets him kaleidoscoping off away from anything else he’s experienced. And, slowly, Freya and Shep’s lives intersect. They go exploring together. Back to the bunker that won’t leave Shep alone.

From awkward and complicated lives unravels a strange, spooling mystery. The bunker and what exists down there; the death of the young man and his odd behaviour; Shep’s merging realities and Freya’s grasping for a truth she can’t quite catch. Set in a near-future and wrapped up in futurist ideas of space elevators and online lives, The Breach offers glimpses of something alien, something terrifying; something not fully formed but there at the peripheral of vision. It’s a stunning way to crack open the story and there were moments when the tension forced me to pause my reading and take stock.

The writing is exemplary and its effect is almost hallucinatory at points, much like the story and the experiences of the characters. The Breach is the opening or the start of something; the first bloom of an impending dread. Stark and horrifying at points, it captures people struggling to contain the weird or explain the alien in terms they can comprehend and for that the novel achieves something special. M.T. Hill is a definitely an author any fan of horror, sci-fi, speculative fiction should read, and The Breach is a book that is as thrilling and gripping as it is different and unusual. Simply put – it’s brilliant.

Whilst choosing to read books with a post-apocalyptic bent created by a virus might not seem the best choice during the current pandemic we are all experiencing, The Raven is an exceptionally enjoyable and satisfying read. When age-old mythological monsters are made real, one man’s journey to redemption is paved with blood and guts.

After a cadre of scientists, determined to rid the world of humankind’s destructive and polluting nature, unleash a virus across America, all hell (literally) breaks loose. The virus alters people’s DNA, releasing, for many, their inner monster. The old stories of vampires, werewolves, witches and other beasts are actually real accounts and, hidden in our genetic coding, are our ancestor’s true natures. People turn and become bloodsuckers or, worse, flesh-eaters; cannibals who can consume other people’s power. Though some, like protagonist Dez McClane, are unaffected, the population is decimated and only the strong survive.

Normal people are hunted for flesh, blood and other nefarious desires. Dez, having survived for a few years amongst colonies and groups, is attacked and loses his girlfriend, Susan, to a warlord who captures and sells people. Determined to get her back or achieve his revenge, Dez sets out to find the Four Winds Bar and the man who runs the trade in bodies.

Gloriously, The Raven is a rock-em, sock-em adventure across a dark and brutal land. Dez is soon battling huge, muscle bound cannibals and wild, unstable werewolves as he seeks the bar. In amongst it all, he is plagued by his own inner-demons; the loss of his father and his son and his futile and ineffectual attempts to save them. It’s the galvanising factor behind his quest to find Susan and quiet the voices that admonish him for his cowardice. And, when he finds the bar, he holds nothing back.

Fast paced and eminently readable, The Raven is a violent, post-apocalyptic, fantasy adventure with an intriguing premise and a likeable protagonist. Plus, when the smoke clears, it seems that Dez McClane isn’t finished with his quest just yet and Jonathan Janz has more in store for his readers.

Review copy

Published by Flame Tree Press

Having read Tim Lebbon’s brilliant Eden, I always find myself intrigued to learn a little more about the author and their writing process. Tim Lebbon has very kindly written an article on the music that he listened to while creating this thrilling survival horror. Now, I can’t wait to get my hands on more of his books…

Eden Soundtrack

Music makes the world go around. I’ve been a huge music fan since my teens. Back then it was heavy metal all the way, and I’ll admit I was pretty blinkered in my tastes. Bands I loved to listen to and see in concert included Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon, Motorhead, Metallica, Anthrax, Kiss, Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath … the list goes on. I still listen to a lot of those now, but the older I get the more varied my musical tastes. I’m delighted that both my son and daughter have grown up listening to a huge range of music. One day I’ll pass their rooms and hear them listening to Green Day, AC/DC, or Dropkick Murphys, and next day it’s Billie Eilish, Stormzy, or Mumford & Sons. My daughter even introduced me to Frank Turner, just about my favourite singer/songwriter of all time.

​Which is a roundabout way of say that music is very important in my life. It’s because of this that I try to listen to it as much as I can, and as I spend 5 or 6 hours per day writing, it’s more often than not to musical accompaniment. Which music I listen to when I’m writing depends on lots of factors––the intensity of the writing, the theme, my state of mind, how settled my surroundings are. And very often, a novel or story will develop some sort of theme music as I’m writing it, particular albums or artists I’m drawn to at that particular moment. I wrote Eden a couple of years ago now, but I do remember a small selection of the music I was listening to as I worked on it. Take this as recommendations if you like. Or maybe when you’re reading the novel slip some of this music onto your turntable/cd player/steaming provider, and maybe you’ll get into the same headspace!

Instrumental music is great for moments when I’m writing a really intense scene, or if I’m feeling a little distracted and need to really concentrate on getting the words down. I occasionally listen to classical, but more often it’s movie or TV soundtracks, and these are some of my favourite:

Dredd original motion picture soundtrack –– heavy, repetitive, sometimes beautiful, there’s a hypnotic element to this great music that suits certain scenes perfectly.

Dunkirk original soundtrack –– I love all of Hans Zimmer’s work, but this is probably my favourite, especially the staggeringly brilliant and tense Supermarine. There’s an urgency to this theme that sets the heart pumping, and sometimes I actually find my writing speeding up! 

Sacred Spirit –– not a soundtrack, but Native American chants put to modern music, That might sound weird, I admit. But I love it. Calming, moving, it certainly suits those quieter moments of a story.

Sometimes, though, I need something a bit more rocky. When working, I tend to go for music I’m very familiar with, as it blends more easily into the background. If I know the lyrics well, it’s easier not to hear them at all, if that makes sense? So, whilst working on Eden there were several albums I had on virtual repeat.

Soundgarden –– Superunknown. I love all of their music, but their is probably my favourite album of theirs. Cornell was one of my favourite singers, and the range of musical style is wonderful.

Faith No More –– Angel Dust. One of my favourite albums of all time, and I think  Mike Patton has one of the finest voices in rock. Their newest album Sol Invictus is almost reaching classic status for me, but this album holds a weight of nostalgia. Sublime from beginning to end.

Skunk Anasie –– Stoosh. What can I say? Skin’s voice is like being sliced open by a feather. One of my favourite bands I have yet to see in concert. 

Life/Live –– Thin Lizzy. Recorded on their farewell tour, and though not as respected as Live and Dangerous, for me this album has a greater selection of songs, and a feel of a band truly at the height of their powers. Also the first CD I ever bought, it was £13.49 almost 30 years ago! Wow. 

Frank Turner –– Positive Songs for Negative People. Frank’s quickly become my favourite singer (along with his band the Sleeping Souls), and the best live act I’ve ever seen. I change my mind often about which of his albums is my favourite, but this is the album I really discovered first, and Get Better is one of my favourite songs of all time. Honestly, this album was on more when I was editing the book than initial writing, because I can’t listen without getting rolled up in the lyrics and singing along.

So that’s just a selection of what I was listening to whilst writing Eden. Who knows, one day I might be able to put an Original Soundtrack Album together for a screen adaptation!

Set in a near future, where the Earth has finally been overcome by pollution, climate change, population explosion and more, a world-wide treaty has been signed to create ‘virgin zones’; places free from humanity. Vast tracts of land that are given back to nature and that will, hopefully, serve as the lungs of the planet.

After decades, these zones are fiercely protected and, typically, have become surrounded by mysterious rumours – projections of humans and their curiosity. Maybe? For Jenn, her father Dylan, and her friends Aaron, Cove, Lucy Gee and Selina, the zones are places of adventure. Untouched by civilisation and devoid of humans the zones provide the perfect landscape to test themselves, their endurance and abilities as they illegally race across the land. They’ve done it before as a crew but the Eden Zone, one of the oldest and notorious, presents an adventure none of them can ignore.

However, Jenn has another reason for pursuing Eden, one she hasn’t told anyone else on the team. Her mother, Kat, who left when she was a teen, has sent her a message; she is in Eden. But, she is also ill and it seems this Zone will be her last race. It’s a secret quickly revealed when the team’s guide reveals she helped Kat into Eden months earlier, along with the fact that she never returned. It’s the spark that sets the crew on edge not least because Kat is a hugely experienced racer but because, as soon as they enter Eden, something feels wrong.

Tim Lebbon’s Eden slowly builds the tension as the adventurers realise there is more to the zone than just unpopulated nature. It’s soon clear that they are being followed and clearer still that they aren’t welcome in Eden. Beginning as a confident, exuberant team they are quickly whittled down, their nerves shredded and their worst fears realised. They are in the zone illegally, with no way to be rescued, little resources other than a stripped down race kit, facing things they don’t really understand. What begins as adventure soon becomes nothing more than survival; minute by minute, breath by breath.

Eden speaks to humans and their bullish ideas of dominance and disregard for anything other than their own desire. It speaks of the self-serving notion of trying to “give back” to nature as pollution and climate change ravage the planet. It shows just how fragile humanity is when nature unleashes its power. And this is where the horror lies; when that nature has become something else, evolved into something more, it’s truly terrifying.

Eden is a thrilling, page-turning, survival horror. The cast of characters are smart and likeable which makes their ordeal all the more tense. But, it is the relentless pace of the encroaching darkness, the isolation and helplessness of their situation, the terror of the pursuit that marks Eden out as a must read.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

I’ve been lucky enough to be sent a review copy of Tim Lebbon’s latest novel, Eden. Not only is it excellent but I’ve also been offered the opportunity to be part of the blog tour.

Happy days!

Ramsey Campbell needs no introduction but I will say his brand of horror is very different from the usual, visceral, blood and guts stuff I tend to read. There’s a reason for this; though I enjoy the kind of creeping psychological terror of certain novels, the way it gets under the skin and burrows into the mind can be more unsettling than anything. My Wise Friend is a perfect example of this type of novel as it urges you to read and read until you reach the equally unnerving conclusion.

The novel feels like an exercise in infuriation, or perhaps ‘gaslighting’, as nearly every conversation between the cast of characters is misconstrued, almost wilfully. Yet, it’s a mechanism of the author’s work; a way to discomfort the reader as every statement is treated like a question and each question deflected and misinterpreted. It reflects the main character Patrick’s, relation with his estranged wife and family.

Nephew to a famous, deceased, artist, Patrick decides to try and encourage his visiting teenage son to explore her work. It’s a decision he quickly regrets as they begin to research one of her old diaries, seeking to visit sites that inspired her paintings; pictures that are about seeing beyond the normal and wrapped in folklore and references to magic. Their visits seem to unlock something.

The Wise Friend reads like a fever dream or some discomforting hallucination. Patrick can’t seem to communicate his true concerns to anyone as his son falls under the spell of an enigmatic young woman, Bella, equally intent on seeing beyond. Both youngsters keep pursuing the artist’s inspiration but Patrick senses that there are other forces at work. It’s something he felt as a teenager himself when visiting his aunt at her studio and walking the woods behind it. It’s something he feels about Bella.

As the visits take on a decidedly otherworldly essence, Patrick becomes more isolated as his every attempt to convey the truth is misinterpreted. It’s as though the real is being manipulated yet no one else can see it and the more he strives the less trusted he becomes. Eventually, Patrick breaks through the veil to a worrying understanding and, just as suddenly, the novel sheds its mask as it ramps up to the conclusion. However, it isn’t until the final pages that the true, insidious horror reveals itself.

As ever, Ramsey Campbell delivers. My Wise Friend is sinister, psychological, literary horror full of wonder and unnerving shadows in equal measure.

Review copy

Published by Flame Tree Press

Much like most of the world right now, I’m in quarantine. That means no grappling, wrestling or any other kind of full contact sparring or training. So, other than lifting weights, I’ve got more time on my hands to read. And, there’s no better distraction than a decent military adventure book; the kind that reminds me of the quick and easy action stories I’d read as a youngster.

Full disclosure, I’m not a gamer but Dark Waters is a prelude to the video game and introduces a cast of characters each as badass as the next. The four man unit is a quick fix for a tight situation when some renegade Venezuelan soldiers decide to set up their own army in the Amazon jungle and take American hostages. The ‘Ghosts’ are sent in to rescue the science researchers and try, if possible, to stop any international incidents from occurring. Not only does the team have to get used to working with each other, they have to tread a tricky line in international territories, none of whom would be happy about US special forces being on their soil.

Tom Clancy has spawned a lot of material from books to games, and this novel is no different. It’s a fun, entertaining, easy read packed full of the kind of military jargon and weapon heavy detail war fiction is known for. There were a few editing errors but it’s not something that really detracts from the book which flows along at a good clip. The unit, headed by Nomad, are deployed in double quick time to Brazil where, under the guise of being rich fishing enthusiasts, they head down the river and over the boarder into Venezuela. The action soon heats up as he and his crew, including sniper Weaver, Holt and Midas, encounter and engage bad guy after bad guy.

Once the action gets going, it doesn’t stop. The Ghosts are dealt a number of curve balls which keeps the fun going. No spoilers here, but it’s safe to say, the baddies get theirs. As I said, it’s an enjoyable way to while away a few hours or more. Dark Waters completes its mission of being an entertaining military action-adventure and, for those who game, a cool intro to the characters they’ll play.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books