On reading thrillers: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

behind-her-eyesThis is not a review. Maybe. This is not a critique. Probably. This contains spoilers. (Lots of spoilers!) This is a reflection on how Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough made me feel as a reader. I’m not a fan of a thriller. Not that I’m read (m)any. Straight thrillers that is. Not involving the future or horror or supernatural, anyway. I wasn’t going to read this book, because of my prejudices; but I’m a fan of Pinborough’s work (although not everything she writes is of interest) and there was a buzz around that #WTFthatending on Twitter. So I thought I’d give it bash.

After about 80 or so pages I thought I was wasting my time.

This is the story of Louise, David and Adele. And Rob. Very ordinary sounding people. The kind you might meet. Louise is a single mother. Her ex ran off and is having a kid with another woman. She is bringing up her son on a part-time wage. David and Adele are a married couple. She’s a lady who lunches, and does the gym. He’s a head doctor. Louise works for him at the clinic. Rob is Adele’s old friend from more troubled times. All very normal. All very ‘not my cup of tea at all’. And how to make an interesting thriller out of all this? Is it going to be about just relationships?

Obviously, not all is what it seems. Louise and David met in a bar before David joined the clinic where Louise works. They’re having a thing. Adele knows about it. She had a troubled childhood, from which David saved her. She spent time in a clinic where she became best friends with Rob. Rob who went missing. David is very unhappy in his marriage. Louise doesn’t have many friends and is a little overweight, and befriends Adele. OK, so some elements of a thriller there.

I wouldn’t say Behind Her Eyes typifies my problem with thrillers (and mysteries and crime novels), but it shines a light on them. Which makes me glow as a hypocrite. I love metafiction. I enjoy the concept of the author and the book playing games with the reader. I love it when the fourth wall breaks. When the characters are aware that they are fiction. All these elements hold true with thrillers of this type, but the pretence of being ‘real’ remains. My spot-lit issue. In Behind Her Eyes the story is told mostly from the first-person perspective of both Adele and Louise, alternating chapters. Occasionally, a chapter called ‘Then’ comes in, which is a third-person view of Adele’s old relationship with Rob. If this was metafiction, Adele and Louise would be aware that they are fiction. In this, they are not, but they still talk to the reader. But who are they really talking to? This isn’t epistolary fiction. So. They play games with the narrative, only revealing small clues about what they know, or in Adele’s case, her manipulation of the characters. Especially in the last paragraph or sentence of a chapter. Which is all fine, by the way. Just not a style I’m comfortable with.

And yet. And yet I fully engaged with their stories, by Chapter 18. By this point Adele (therefore Pinborough) was being more open with the reader that she was indeed playing both Louise, and us. It is interesting, following an author on social media. You get the occasional glimpse into their life. And then when you’re reading their book, you wonder…I’ve seen that Pinborough enjoys a glass of wine. As does Louise here. There is more reflection on social media and fiction required… Another time. Anyway. Pinborough really engaged me with her characters. Her writing is fluid and lacks complication or pretention. Very readable. But it is deliberatively manipulative. I’m not sure I like that, outside the realms of metafiction.

It was Chapter 18 when hints of supernatural are dropped in the story. My pique rose. Not such a straight thriller after all. I now couldn’t wait to keep reading this story. I was being sucked in by the breadcrumb trail. Is this because I knew it was about supernatural or because of the story? After all, if it wasn’t supernatural, I might not have been interested in the marital and psychological games being played out. Throughout, Pinborough drops hints and clues, which at the time, seem incidental or simply setting up characters. Early on, Adele insists in seeing Louise’s little flat. Does she think she’s better than Louise and wants to prove it? Later, it is revealed that for the supernatural elements to work, the dreamer must be able to picture the place that they want to visit. Nicely done.

So to the #WTFthatending of Behind Her Eyes. Can a whole book be a deliberate ploy to sell an ending. Is it a cop out? I know a lot of people were bummed out by the film version of The Prestige. They felt like they’d been played. When the end came, here, I’d already sort of got, and it made a whole lot of sense. Almost like the scene at the end of The Sixth Sense when all the clues are laid out for Bruce Willis’ Malcome Crowe, I could picture all the moments that led to the reveal. I liked it. But then the coda. Less obvious, and much less sign-posted. It felt almost tacked-on. Not really necessary. The conclusion of Louise’s story was enough of pleasing #WTFthatending for me.

Thrilling, no? Manipulative, yes. Is that a good thing? I felt I’d been played a little, from the start. Maybe if I read it again, I’d see more evidence of the coda being set up. I remember the feelings Rob had around David when they first met, but as this was the third-person perspective, it didn’t read as a clue.

I can’t decide if I loved this book. Probably not. Just liked. Not as much as I’d loved Pinborough’s The Death House. I think had Behind Her Eyes ended without the coda, that would have been enough and I would have enjoyed it more. I’m sure others will love it. After all, it is so very well written; engaging and interesting and yes, a page-turner. It isn’t enough to make me want to pick up another thriller, but I was very happy that it became a supernatural story. Otherwise I doubt I’d have cared. The dreaming elements gave the story more heft for me. Although Louise and David were empathic characters of course. I suppose I don’t like being played. If someone – the author – is messing with me as a reader, I prefer the characters to let me know they’re in on the game. But that’s just me. Enjoy Behind Her Eyes; if nothing else, if you take away my prejudices, it’s a damn fine read.

 

I read an eARC for Behind Her Eyes kindly supplied by Net Galley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

Update: Several hours after finishing reading Behind Her Eyes it occurred to me that this is a better book than I give it credit for, as it has made me think about the nature of fiction and what it means to me. So that’s a good thing and important too. Books should make you think and so Pinborough has achieved a vital service to me, and I hope to others too.

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End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!

Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

BeautyBeauty is the final instalment in Pinborough’s re-telling of classic fairy-tales, after Poison (Snow White) and Charm (Cinderella). They are billed as fairy tales told as they should have been: sexy, delicious, twisted and wicked. Beauty is of course, the story of Sleeping Beauty.

Before I read this lovely purple short novel, all I remembered of the story of Sleeping Beauty was that it was mostly about a Prince who cut through a wall of vines to awaken a sleeping princess who’d fallen into a 100 year sleep after being cursed. The Prince kissed Beauty, she woke, and they lived happily ever after. What could be done with that slight plot? A little pre-reading research led me to the fact the story does not originate from the Grimm Brothers. There were many antecedents, but the main one is La Belle au bois dormant (“The Beauty sleeping in the Wood”) by Charles Perrault, published in 1697. In this version, there are 7 good fairies who bring gifts to the newborn princess. A wicked fairy is overlooked and curses Beauty to the famous sleep. The classic ending, of the Prince kissing her to break the curse, comes from this telling. That same day, they head over to the hall of mirrors to dine and are later married by the chaplain in the castle chapel. The story continues with an Orge queen coming into the plot. The Grimm version was published in the 1812-15 edition of the Grimms’ The Nursery and Household Tales and was called Little Briar Rose. This story ends with the Prince rescuing Beauty with a kiss. The Grimms were looking to tell tales which would reunite a fractured Germany after the Napoleonic Wars. Their version was meant to underscore the values of the political restoration; the uniting of two kingdoms with a kiss.

And now to Pinborugh. She basically throws all that out the window and using the 100 year curse, tells a very different story. The Prince is joined by a huntsman. He needs an adventure to become a man before being able to rule his own land. En route to the cursed forest, he meets woman called Petra (who has a Granny and a wolf problem). She joins the men on their journey for her own very good reasons. They eventually – as they must – find and wake Beauty, which also wakes the rest of the kingdom. The Prince and Beauty fall in love and a marriage is planned. However, there is talk of dark days and a mysterious part of the castle where no-one goes. It’s not long before the huntsman has a night of passion with a serving girl, while the Prince learns a terrible secret. This one isn’t going to end happily ever after for the Prince.

In a very short piece, Pinborough crams in a whole lot of plot. What is the great skill, however, is that it never feels forced. She has taken the basic elements of Sleeping Beauty and added more depth to it. There are more characters with their own motivations. Beauty’s father’s adviser and friend is surprising and welcome addition. The plot weaves and twists (and without giving anything away), surprising and delighting the reader. Anyone with any interest in fairy tale and myth will smile and smile again. What Beauty doesn’t really have are any of the political subtexts of the earlier versions of the story. In those, themes are of reunification of kingdoms. In this, it is simply that the Prince needs an adventure. In those, the heroine is silenced for many years, only to be rescued by a male hero, who then marries him. In this, the female protagonists are strong and multi-layered characters. This is not a feminist version, but an equality version. All the characters have depth, strengths and weaknesses. Petra, for example, sacrifices herself for the future of the kingdom, but also for love. The Prince learns that beauty is not just skin deep. Throughout, the subtext shines through. While the earlier entries into the series have genuine sexiness, this one, however, is more horrific. There are brief moments of ‘wickedness’, such as the huntsman and the serving girl, and Petra and the man who comes into her life, but they are played down compared to the love scenes in Poison, for example. Beauty shows its clear horror credentials in a pre-climactic scene – in which the Prince discovers the truth – which is an orgy of sex and violence more suited to a Brian Yuzna film, than a fairy tale.

There is a lot of skill and wit in Beauty. Pinborough is a great storyteller. It is a modern account of life, love and sacrifice, set in fairytale land. The originals reflect the times when they were written and told, and Beauty reflects themes of today. Without giving away the big reveal, it is about dealing the truths we all hold within ourselves, including our demons. It is dark and horrific, and also uplifting. Which is quite an achievement for a story of wolves and witches, magical forests and secret tunnels, and of course good and evil – with the shades of grey in-between.

8 gateway novels into speculative fiction

After reading a few lists recently concerning the kinds of books genre fans should get non-genre fans or people who might be new to science fiction and fantasy to read, I feel that people are missing the point somewhat. After reading Which science fiction book you would give to a first-time SF reader? from io9 people seem to think that just because they like a particular science fiction book, if they give it to non-genre fans, they would like it. I’ve read similar arguments elsewhere too. It’s not just that these people don’t know that The Blue Sword and A Canticle for Leibowitz exist. It’s the assumption that once they do, they’ll immediately be interested and hooked. The idea that someone who doesn’t like Science Fiction and would pick up Hyperion and love it is hilarious.

Missing the point.

I previously wrote about 5 books that the mainstream have already embraced. What I now present are 8 titles which I’d describe as gateway novels into genre. I’ve said away from the obvious, such as Pullman, Tolkien, Meyer, Rice and Rowling. These are novels which are, in some ways, half way between genre and non-genre. They are ghost stories, alien invasions, dystopian, vampire and more. Welcome. There are the books that people who might want to venture into the mysterious waters of science fiction and fantasy should read.

The Glamour by Christopher Priest (1984)

The novel: The glamour is true invisibility, bestowed on a few people. It has always been thus, but is almost completely forgotten, until now. The story follows three people. One of these people doesn’t know it, but has lost his memory after a bomb blast. One has the ability and uses it to pursue the third, who only has a partial control of the gift. As the  Glamourcharacter with the memory loss slowly becomes aware of the glamour, the reader joins him in understanding the reality of this invisible world.

The author: To describe Priest as enigmatic is to say that the sun is a bit warm. While generally regarded as literary, he frustrates as many readers as he delights. Many of his novels deal with delusions, perceptions and as a result, seem to play games with the reader. He presents puzzles, some of which, I assume, are not meant to be solved. Most are deeply speculative yet remaining charismatic. He cites HG Wells as a strong influence, although his prose is much warmer.

Why it should be read: Priest is a master of mystery, but not so much as you might lose faith in him or his characters. The Glamour is a character driven piece. The fantastical elements are not thrust to the fore, although they are the primary motivations for the protagonists. This is a work that is genre-defying, and yet wouldn’t work without the central concept. The Glamour is as close to both mystery and literary fiction as fantasy gets.

What to read next: The Invisible Man by H G Wells

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce (2013)

The novel: Set in 1976, the protagonist tells us of his experiences of working in the long hot summer of that year. He his struggling with the ghost of his dead father – but is it a real ghost? He gets a job in a holiday camp and becomes involved with a femme fatale and also a pretty dancer. He becomes involved with the National Front and some other dodgy dealings. Will his relationships end in tragedy and will he find the truth about his Dad? Feeling both noir-ish and yet intensely bright, Joyce explores both the nature of relationships and his own history.

17976979The author: Graham Joyce writes young adult and general speculative fiction, mostly described as fantasy. He has won the British Fantasy Award a few times and the World Fantasy Award winner in 2003 for The Facts of Life. You can’t really classify him, however. His stories feature ghosts, mysticism, folklore and fairytale. His prose seems to be effortless beautiful. He is also known for strong female characters. In The Year of the Ladybird, the dancer is called Nikki. For a young woman in 1976, she is especially vibrant and headstrong. Joyce calls his style ‘Old Peculiar’.

Why it should be read: If you take the idea that this is about ghosts of the past, and not real ghosts – and there is some ambiguity in its reading anyway – then this novel is pure contemporary fiction – albeit set in the 1970s. What it does, is take a snap-shot of history – the rise of the National Front, the very real plague of ladybirds, etc – and add some fictional relationship dramas. It may be a real ghost story. After reading this, you will almost certainly want to read more of Joyce’s beautiful prose, regardless of subject matter. After reading this, you will end up reading ghost stories, contemporary fairy tales and more.

Read the full review

What to read next: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

The novel: Meet Kathy. Kathy’s life is not all it seems. Her childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school in England, has sinister overtones. The teachers are known as Guardians. TheNever curriculum has no life skills. Her friendships are all peculiar, distant. In time, Kathy becomes friends with Ruth and Tommy, before they learn their bleak but inevitable destiny.  The novel moves onto a later time, when the protagonists are in the later teens. They begin to have contact with the outside world. Romance and sexuality are explored, all with a foreboding sense of doom. The final act reveals the full horror of the dystopia.

The author: Ishiguro, as an author, is a complex beast. The Japanese-born writer has published 6 novels to date, covering many ideas and themes: family drama, post-WWII, historical class-based drama, Eastern-European dream/surrealist, historical crime and dystopian science fiction albeit set in a version of 1980s/90s England. Most of his work, however, is about human failings and how life just goes on (or doesn’t).

Why it should be read: The writing. Plain and simple. It doesn’t get much better than this. Kathy’s first person narrative is as evocative and as gripping as any you’d read elsewhere. Of course, the characters are interesting and the relationships are complex. The mood is as bleak as you could imagine but the prose is so beautiful and so well thought out, it feels like these characters could have been friends of yours (if you’re a certain age, of course). Never Let Me Go is the best example of science fiction that examines our very humanity, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What to read next: Spares by Michael Marshal Smith

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)

The novel: Set in Scotland, Faber’s debut features protagonist Isserley, who is not exactly a local. Turns out, in fact, that she’s not even from Earth. However, she still has a job to do. Her employer is the equivalent of a multi-national corporation. Her profession is farmer. She harvests hitchhikers who are then sent to her homeworld as a delicacy. This Undersatirical piece is about big business and the environment. Most importantly, however, it is about people and identity.

The author: While living in Scotland, Faber, perhaps best known for the novel The Crimson Petal and the White, is Dutch who was raised in Australia. Like Ishiguro, he writes a variety of genres about a range of subjects. His work has been described as, at the very least, informed by feminism. He also takes inspiration from Scotland, Dickens and mythology.

Why it should be read: No doubt that this is an alien invasion novel, although the invasion isn’t as Hollywood as you’d imagine. It is discreet and subtle. Nevertheless, this is as science fiction as they come. The aliens are ‘people’ too, however, with motivations, flaws and desires we can relate to. The writing is easy yet subtle and to be honest, it takes a while before you even notice that Under The Skin isn’t just a character study, but instead a satirical study of corporate greed. If your idea of aliens comes from Star Trek or Independence Day, this will surprise and delight you.

What to read next: Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

The Radleys by Matt Haig (2011)

The novel: A vampire novel like no other, The Radleys is the story of a middle class family in middle England whose lives are over-turned when an outside influence is added to their mildly dysfunctional, but perfectly normal existence. The thing is, they are abstainers. The parents hide the truth from their children, but inevitably, the fact of the secret leads to inevitable chaos. While this is a novel about vampires and how they exist in England, it is really a family drama. It is about children growing up and fleeing the nest, and all the pain and trauma that brings. There are emotional truths found here that are not usually found in horror fiction.

The author: Haig is a journalist and so is well aware of human stories. His debut was published in 2005 and he’s been producing novels every couple of years since. His main theme is family life and how outside elements affect it. He doesn’t always write in speculative genres and is heavily influenced by Shakespeare. Indeed, his first and second novels are Radleysre-tellings of Henry IV, Part 1 and Hamlet.

Why it should be read: It would be easy to say that this is just like Twilight or the Sookie Stackhouse novels, but it isn’t. It’s so much more. This is a genuine novel about family and the pressures they face. It is witty and thoughtful and you think back to your own teens and relate to the situations the characters find themselves. And of course, it has elements of horror and vampire mythology, which aren’t too overblown for the novice. You start off interested about the lives of the family and end up wondering all about the lives of vampires.

What to read next: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Generosity by Richard Powers (2009)

The novel: Imagine a book about happiness. Imagine a book about tolerance and acceptance. Think about all those science fiction novels and films about post-humans and then imagine the story set just around the corner where all these begin. Professor Kurton has found the genetic key to happiness and wants to re-wire all of us. He found it in the DNA of Thassadit Amzwar, studying at Chicago University, who is otherwise known as Miss Generosity. Despite the many hardships in her life, she radiates bliss. Her writing teacher is determined to find a medical explanation. This is a witty examination of mental health, jealousy and medical ethics. It is also a work of near meta-fiction, as it examines the act of reading.Gen

The author: Wikipedia classes Powers as an exponent of literary fiction, and yet his work is intensely speculative and mysterious. A fan of the Greek classics, he trained in English literature and computer science. His novels reflect this, mixing arts and science, history and philosophy. Generosity is not his first foray into science fiction as he has previously delved into nuclear war, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist for 2006’s The Echo Maker.

Why it should be read: This book is the beginning point to a whole section of science fiction and yet it has no such pretensions. It is an engaging and intriguing human story. Sure there is some science that takes it away from a straight relationship drama, but it is no more off-putting than, for example, a forensic crime drama. If you are interested in what will happen next in human evolution, whether that is a speculative fictional version, or a more genetic/science-based curiosity, Generosity is a great place to start. Plus it has interesting characters with depth, and of course, it’s very well written.

What to read next: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

A Matter Of Blood by Sarah Pinborough

The novel: In the not too distant future, the recession has hit hard. The world is run by a mysterious company called The Bank, who seem to control everything, including the police in London. Cass is a dodgy detective who couldn’t care less about the bigger picture. A failing marriage, a serial killer called Man of Flies, the shooting of school boys and the suicide of his loving brother are more than enough to keep him busy. And who is Mr Bright and what does he want with his family? Hints of ghosts and other, bigger, supernatural goings on weave all these plot points expertly into a gripping climax.A Matter of Blood

The author: Before the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, Pinborough was known for straight forward horror and, young adult fiction and writing Torchwood spin-off novels. She expertly blends super-natural and the mundane. Taking only a few elements away from A Matter Of Blood would leave it to be a complex police procedural thriller. A prolific user of social media, Pinborough is clever, dark and very witty.

Why it should be read: Just read it. It’s great.

Read the full review

What to read next: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

 The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

The novel: The initial glance at this story might but it in the same bracket as AS Bryant’s The Possession as the protagonist – Ariel – is a PhD student who’s research of a 19th Century writer seems to have a direct effect on her life. Set in an (un-named Canterbury), she finds a rare copy of this writer’s titular book, which is apparently cursed. Ideas in the book come to affect Ariel’s reality as Thomas explores homeopathy and quantum physics. The themes of exploring multiple realities are common to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.

YThe author: Previous to The End of Mr. Y, Thomas, a Creative Writing lecturer at the University of Kent, had not written anything remotely genre-esque. Her earlier books explore youth culture and her most recent, Our Tragic Universe, is an examination of the story and the writing process, and how they affect by cosmology and physics. She is clearly interested in both the bigger picture and the smaller details. How the large affects the small and vice versa.

Why it should be read: Thomas has managed to put a whole bunch of disparate ingredients into a blender and come up with something rich, flavoursome and memorable. It takes a recognisable story and moves it to an unusual place. For an authority on creative writing, the plotting and characterisation are as great as you’d expect. I love the way that, although the name of the city is never mentioned, the descriptions of it are so accurate (and sharp) that it is a delight to read.

What to read next: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Honourable mentioned: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall.

A Matter of Blood by Sarah Pinborough

I’ve had a fairly unsuccessful year in terms of exploring the boundaries of the genres I love to read. And so I came to another author I haven’t read, Sarah Pinborough. A Matter of Blood looks like a crime thriller and for the most part, reads like one too. I don’t like crime. I’m not interested in working out who did it and how. I’m not bothered about how clever the criminal is, or the detective is. I don’t want to spend 400 pages waiting for the big reveal and all the loose ends to be tied up. I want to either be entertained by what I read, while learning a different perspective about the world we live in and the people we are.

So why did I pick up this crime novel? Well, it is part of something called the Dog-Faced God series and was recommended by SFX. Pinborough is known for supernatural and young adult fantasy. I was curious. A Matter of Blood is the story of dodgy DI Cass Jones who is working on two apparently disparate murders. The introduction to the novel gives them impression that the killer in one of the crimes is a little out of the ordinary, even for a murderer. And then for the first part of the book, this does indeed read like a generic procedural crime novel, with conflict in the police station, profilers and coroners helping with the case, more darkness revealed about out protagonist, and to be honest I was getting a little bored. Don’t get me wrong, it is very well written with interesting character development. It was very readable, and this and a desire to know more about Cass, are probably the only things that kept me going. I was reading it, however, in the hope that it would become something else. I’m not sure what I thought while reading it, but I was expecting more fantasy, more magic.

What A Matter of Blood actually is though, is a lot of things. It is science fiction in the sense that it is set in the (very) near future. There is no actual SF element explored in the narrative in the true sense of the genre. The world is not the one we live in, but one that could develop from the financial crisis which began in 2007. It is an interesting and valid future. The novel is a ghost story. Or is it? Sure, Cass sees and interacts with the ghost of his dead brother, but it might be in his head, and it’s not meant to be a scary interaction. It is a horror novel, but only in the sense that the murders are horrific. It’s not a novel designed to scare, but to look into some very dark places. Which is does. It is urban fantasy. It is set in a city and there are glimpses of magic and there are hints that the bad guys are not human.

I mentioned darkness, and A Matter of Blood is very dark. After the first hundred pages or so, the darkness started to drag me into it. The story was still a basic crime plot – who murdered these people? Who murdered these other people? Who framed the cop, who is this guy, what is her role in it? However, the exploration into the lives of the characters is fascinating and the hints into magic and horror are so skilfully woven into the story that I felt like I was being dragged under a steamroller. Perversely, the more I read, the more I enjoyed being dragged along by it. The conclusion annoyed me a tad, as all ‘human’ threads were tied up nicely, but the urban fantasy elements are left open to interpretation and the next book in the series. I would have preferred more ambiguity overall.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the Dog-Faced Gods series. Pinborough has crafted interesting characters and an intriguing world. The books won’t get me into crime, but I think I might be more inclined to flirt with the edges of my comfort zone.