“Rotherweird” by Andrew Caldecott (2017)

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“One for sorrow: Mary Tudor, a magpie queen – dress black, face chill white, pearls hanging in her hair like teardrops – stands in the pose of a woman with child, her right palm flat across her swollen belly.”

In the sixteenth century, twelve children with superb intellectual gifts were born. Some felt they were saviours, others the spawn of the devil himself. Under the order of the queen, they were banished to the town of Rotherweird, which was in turn cut off from the rest of England. Now, four hundred and fifty years later, the isolate down remains independent from everything else in the country, with no MP, no county, and its own set of rules, the key rule being: nobody studies the town or its history.

Enter Sir Veronal Slickstone, a man so wealthy he can afford to buy up the entire town, including all its secrets that have long been hidden. Rotherweird, however, does not take especially kindly to outsiders and while some people are keen to finally learn why their town is so different from everywhere else, others are determined that the truth must remain unknown, for they fear a great danger returning. Among the cast, we find: Jonah Oblong (the new history teacher at the school), Hayman Salt (the head gardener known for his unique breeds), Orelia Roc (assistant in the antique shop), Bill Ferdy (the landlord of the local pub) and Vixen Valourhand (a scientist at the school) among others. Each has their own goals, desires and reasons for doing what they do, but as the Midsummer Fair approaches, it seems that the only way to get out of the mess they now find themselves in is to work together.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book, but the concept of a town adrift from the rest of the country was intriguing. I think I expected more in the way of out-and-out magic, but that’s not the case, as whatever is occurring here is a clever mash up of witchcraft and science and far more subtle. In fact, the whole thing is odd and you’re never quite sure about the state of the town. Because of the high Tudor influence in the sections about the town’s history which led to Rotherweird being cut off from everyone else, I think I expected it to still be in a state of arrested development, using technology of centuries prior. However, in among the obsessions with village fairs and uses of charabancs and quills, there are also people wearing jeans and very modern things like security cameras. In that way, I think it’s got a lot in common with A Series of Unfortunate Events in that parts of it feel a bit anachronistic. Somehow, it still works.

In fact, the worldbuilding actually holds up slightly over the plot, which I found a little disjointed but I can’t work out if that’s the writing or just me zoning out on the more exposition-heavy sections. There are some really fun things in here, though, the highlight being the Great Equinox Race in which individuals and teams race down the River Rother in coracles, wearing ludicrous costumes. It, like the rest of the novel, is well-observed and you find yourself on board with all the characters, especially Oblong, the outsider thrust into the madness of Rotherweird and not sure how much he can bend the rules.

An interesting opening to a trilogy with some very fine concepts.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Concrete Island” by J. G. Ballard (1974)

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“Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.”

They say that no man is an island (except for the Isle of Man, of course), but even in this world that is more connected than it has ever been, it’s still possible to feel alone, surrounded by people who don’t understand you or maybe don’t even notice you’re there. Coming from an island nation myself, I do wonder if all that living apart does something to a society’s psyche. Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Cuba … they often have some of the most interesting and unique histories. But we’re not here to talk about natural islands – this one is entirely man made.

Robert Maitland is driving out of London at just over seventy miles an hour when his front tyre blows out and his car smashes through a crash barrier and down into a patch of grass, ignored by every motorist who passes by on the three motorways surrounding it. He manages to pry himself from his Jaguar and clambers back up the embankment, hoping that he’ll get picked up. But there’s nowhere here to stop, or at least no one willing to do so. Still in shock, he considers making a break for it, but he’s hit by a car before he has a chance and tumbles back down onto the traffic island, cut off some his old life – his wife, his mistress, his job, his friends… Now he is a resident of this concrete island and he needs to work out how to get off. Will he end up here forever? And is he even the first person to have made it onto this forgotten land?

An allegory for how we’re all really, at the end of the day, on our own, and selfishness remains an endemic problem of humanity (unless I’m entirely missing the point), the novella sees Ballard deal with the constraint of having all of his action take place in one very small area. With very little dialogue, Ballard is tied to letting the world tell the story. Maitland initially seems to have very limited resources, but I do feel that there’s a cheat when he discovers the remains of the buildings that used to stand here and finds that some of the basements are still in working order. In fact, the whole island itself is much larger than I had gathered from the premise, which again feels like a cheat.

There’s little characterisation for Maitland, too, and we never really find out all that much about him, save the facts he’s a rich businessman and has two women in his life who may or may not be aware of one another. A lot is left vague, and actually some of that works, but it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for him. The premise as a whole is a little far fetched, too. I’m not against a weird plot – not by any means – but it’s hard to believe that not a single person sees him down there. Even if they thought he was a tramp, surely a police car or concerned motorist would double check? Ballard is at pains to make sure Maitland can’t just walk across the empty roads at night by giving him an injury, and like the island and its surrounding roads, it all feels a little too artificial.

Robinson Crusoe for the modern era – a weird story with some interesting ideas behind it.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Spill Simmer Falter Wither” by Sara Baume (2015)

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“He is running, running, running.”

Once again, I turn my attention to a book about loneliness. I didn’t really intend to so early into the year, but here we are.

Ray is fifty-seven and can easily be defined as a loner. Treated as something of a pariah in his village – although how much of this is self-inflicted is up for debate – he knows that people think he’s weird and don’t like having anything to do with him. Since his father died, he’s been alone in his house and keeps his interactions with other people to a minimum. But then he meets One Eye, a vicious little dog looking for some company, but who is also used to being alone and ignored.

Now bound together, Ray and One Eye begin to explore the village and the beach together, growing accustomed to one another’s company. But when One Eye attacks a smaller dog on the beach, it seems that Ray might suddenly lose the one thing in his life that he actually cares about. That is, if he doesn’t do something drastic to stop it…

Baume has, to all intents and purposes, written a prose poem here. I’m exaggerating a little, but in truth this is an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing. The heartstrings are tugged for both Ray and One Eye, who might not be the most appealing characters, somehow still are written with a certain warmth that ensures you’re invested in them. Every page is laced with metaphors and images that stagger over and over again with a beautiful simplicity.  The small world around Ray feels vivid and thoroughly realised. All five senses are in play, with Baume really seeming to enjoy describing the minutia of the landscape. She’s not afraid to spend a sentence focusing on a banana skin, or a withered plant.

The lack of dialogue is a little disconcerting at first, as I’m someone who’s big on characters and their interactions, but in this case there can’t be too many or it ruins the whole thing. What there is, works perfectly. It all adds to the sense of loneliness, and the general unease. In fact, uneasiness is definitely a key element here. You never get the impression that Ray is a bad man, but there are definitely things that he’s choosing not to tell you, and while some of them do eventually come out, there are still some answers that he takes with him beyond the final pages. He is human without question, and Baume manages to resists anthropomorphising One Eye, instead never letting us into his mind. We only have Ray’s interpretation of the dog’s actions to take a guess at how he feels. As such, he gets to remain a wild thing, unfathomable and undomesticated.

An utterly tragic tale that delves deep into a man on the fringes of society.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!