Bait, Grist and Security – Mike Hodges

Today I’m delighted to take part in the blog tour for Mike Hodges’ Bait, Grist and Security, three darkly comic noir novellas from the cult director of Get Carter.

More on the book later, but first I’ve got an extract from chapter one of BAIT.

Summer is hell here.

Winter is the only time to be in this place. On a wet night preferably.

Like tonight.

The dark sea, flattened by rain, laps against the long curving beach. White-painted iron railings and ill-lit weather shelters recede into the mist. An amusement arcade, boarded up, sits like a blind man watching nothing.

The Grand Atlantic Hotel, a vast, corroding edifice, looms over the deserted esplanade. A torn canvas banner flaps over its darkened entrance, announcing the presence of the Brotherhood of Magicians Conference. Bedroom windows stacked up to the murky sky are black patches. The magicians are long in bed.
They’ll need steady hands in the morning. The clock tower strikes on the hour.

Twice.

An approaching motorbike cuts through the sound of rainwater smacking the tarmac. The red Yamaha rounds a corner slowly, ominously, powerful as a shark. A metallic titanium flip-front helmet glints under the street lamps. Moulded gloves with visor wipes, grinder boots, cowhide jeans and a leather jacket embossed with a bloody knife embedded in the rider’s back. The rider steers his machine along the esplanade before circling a traffic island housing the public urinals, all the while scanning the empty street.

A municipal shelter with a noticeboard advertising local events for wet winter nights stands beside the amusement arcade. It’s here the bike comes to rest. The rider leaves the engine running as he nervously pulls posters from a saddlebag.

He works fast, skilfully.

Soon the forthcoming amateur operatic production of Annie Get Your Gun is no longer forthcoming. But ‘The Personal Improvement Institute: A Course in Leadership Dynamics’ is. The etched face of a wild-eyed mountaineer intending to give a slide lecture the very next evening is replaced by the well-fed features of Dr Hermann P. Temple, who will show you the QUICK way to the TOP! during his impending weekend course on SUCCESS-POWER GETTING!

A similar fate is accorded ‘Pinkie and Barrie, the Comedy Duo’; ‘Diana Barnham playing Bach on the Clavichord’; and the providers of ‘Merrie England Banquets. Book now to avoid disappointment.’ All disappear within seconds to be replaced by five identical images of Dr Temple. A quintet of pointing forefingers, quiffs and eyes that would make a cobra back off.

*

A solitary light snaps on.

It’s on the third floor of an office block five minutes from the esplanade. The bare bulb backlights the gold lettering on the window: ‘Mark Miles Intercontinental’. Below that: ‘Creative Publicity and Personal Management’. On the bottom line: ‘MAKE your MARK with MILES. He’s WAY ahead.’

The block housing Mark Miles’ office is just that: a block. It has all the charm of a coal bunker. Built in the sixties, it’s an early example of how easily even smart people can be conned. Concrete is beautiful. Or so the architects decreed at the time.

Providence House, for that’s the block’s portentous name, takes on a gloomy appearance in the torrential rain. Mark Miles appears at the window, taking off his helmet, while simultaneously dropping the slatted blind. One side falls faster than the other, which doesn’t happen in movies, but almost always does in real life. Cursing, he tries to level it off, one-handed. Instead it becomes uncoupled and collapses on top of him. Mark Miles and his blind have one quality in common. Both spend their lives dangling.

Mark is sick of being a small fish in a small pond. His only remaining heroes are the sharks in the local aquarium. These massive glistening predators eye the awed visitors on the other side of the glass with contempt as they sweep majestically past in their eternal search for a way out. Like them, Mark wants to command respect. To this end, his pinball mind has been hyperactive since being approached by Dr Temple’s people to promote his weekend course. Leadership dynamics might just be the metamorphosis needed to take him to the top.

And quickly.

He switches on a battered desk lamp, puts it on the floor and kills the overhead. Mark has to be careful. The landlord suspects that, contrary to the terms of his lease, the office also doubles as his living quarters.
The landlord is right.
That’s why the chipped commode with ‘Hospital Property’ boldly stencilled on its lid, and smuggled in under cover of darkness from his late grandma’s council flat, is disguised with a potted palm. He lifts the palm and urinates into the china basin.

Slopping out has always been a complicated ritual. When he first moved into the building, the landlord – Fred Snipe, thin as a drainpipe
– was wont to ambush him on his early-morning run along the corridor to the communal lavatory. After several narrow escapes, Mark devised a strategy whereby he transferred the contents of the commode into a plastic first-aid box before embarking upon this essential mission.

Now, on their occasional encounters, Snipe’s nose twitches like a gerbil’s at the odour. His mouth opens but words refuse to emerge. He just can’t bring himself to ask what the container contains. Mark relishes these precious moments, smiling and patting the Red Cross on the box. ‘Preparation H, Fred. Works wonders.’ He sometimes varies the exchange: ‘Glycerine suppositories, Fred. Never fails to get you moving.’ Or, if he wants to make the landlord really blush, he adds, ‘Clinically proven to be effective against irritation and itching piles.’

These words always play on Snipe’s retreating figure.

Mark now eases out a crumpled futon and sleeping bag from under the defeated sofa, carefully avoiding any tangling with its bare springs. Rolling back and forth on the floor, he sheds his clothes and slips into the kapok envelope.

Light out.

*

In the street below Mark’s office, a black umbrella is opened from the shelter of a shop door. A man, short and paunchy, steps out, his suet- pudding face glistening in the rain. His name is William Snazell and he’s a private detective, a gumshoe. Dressed in a faded raincoat and shapeless trilby, he takes a final look at the darkened window before crossing the road. His shiny rubber galoshes shuffle through the sheet of rainwater.

~~~~~~

Bait, Grist & Security by Mike Hodges is published by Unbound on 29th November 2018. Many thanks to Anne Cater and Unbound for the review copy.

In ‘Bait’, a slippery PR man, Mark Miles, is unaware he’s being manipulated and dangled as bait by an investigative reporter until he’s swallowed by a sadistic mind-expanding cult from
America.
In ‘Grist’, the bestselling writer, Maxwell Grist, ruthlessly uses real people as fodder for his crime novels before finding himself living up to his name and becoming grist for his own
murder.
In ‘Security’, an American movie star, unhappy with the film he’s working on, refuses to leave his hotel for the studios, while in the corridor outside his luxury suite mayhem and murder take over.

All Systems Red – Martha Wells

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Winner: 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella
Winner: 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novella
Winner: 2018 Alex Award
Winner: 2018 Locus Award
One of the Verge’s Best Books of 2017
A New York Times and USA Today Bestseller

So, All Systems Red won a *lot* of stuff. And it’s just utterly splendid. A somewhat depressed Company supplied SecUnit hacks its own governor unit so can pretty much do what it likes, calls itself Murderbot (long story) and has a soft spot for soap operas. Then some creatures start attacking Murderbot’s clients and it, somewhat reluctantly, is forced to do something about it.

I love Murderbot. The story might be short (well, it *is* a novella), but it’s fast and funny, and the plot fairly whistles along. It’s also a lovely character study, delving into the mind of a machine hybrid that’s not entirely sure who it is, or wants to be.

You see, Murderbot doesn’t really like people. It just wants to be left alone to get on with watching the long-running Sanctuary Moon. I can empathise a lot with Murderbot.

All Systems Red is the first of four (at time of writing) in the Murderbot Diaries, and I’m greatly looking forward to following their adventures.

You can get All Systems Red here (affiliate link)

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is published by Tor. You can find Martha Wells on twitter @marthawells1 or on her website marthawells.com

The Lingering – SJI Holliday

Published by Orenda Books
Source: Review copy
Married couple Jack and Ali Gardiner move to a self-sufficient spiritual commune in the English Fens, desperate for fresh start. The local village is known for the witches who once resided there and Rosalind House, where the commune has been established, is a former psychiatric home, with a disturbing history.
When Jack and Ali arrive, a chain of unexpected and unexplained events is set off, and it becomes clear that they are not all that they seem. As the residents become twitchy, and the villagers suspicious, events from the past come back to haunt them, and someone is seeking retribution…

The Lingering is a deliciously creepy gothic tale of strange goings-on in a mysterious former psychiatric institution populated by some slightly odd characters.

What more do you need to know?

Oh, fine. Right, it’s also part psychological thriller, part domestic intrigue, part ghost story, and entirely brilliant. It’s got a lovely slow-burn build up where the characters and setting are introduced and you think that things might be a *bit* odd but then the tension starts ratcheting up, notch by inevitable notch. Given that the story is set in an abandoned asylum, you know that the characters aren’t in for a nice little summer holiday.

You’ll never look at a bathtub in quite the same way ever again, I can assure you.

There’s a creeping sense of unease as the story progresses and we find out more about Ali and Jack Gardiner, and what brought them to the self-contained commune in the Fens. It’s clear pretty much from the off that they’re hiding secrets, both from the commune and from each other, and it’s fascinating watching that play out over the course of the story. I loved Smeaton Dunsmore, head of the cult-like community lead by The Book of Light, and fellow commune-member Angela Fairley’s hunt for the paranormal in the halls of the former hospital.

And Rosalind House plays such a central role in the story, with its myths and legends about what might have happened there. It’s a fabulously creepy setting, and coupled with the what-are-they-really-up-to semi-religious commune, you’ve got the perfect mix.

If you like your psychological thrillers with a dash of paranormal, or your mysteries with a hint of Halloween chill, The Lingering will be right up your street.  Perfect for a cosy night wrapped up on the sofa. Just make sure you’ve got all the lights on…

Huge kudos to Mark Swan (@kidethic) for another stunning cover. It captures the mood of the book perfectly.

The Lingering by SJI Holliday is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Many thanks to Karen Sullivan and Anne Cater at Orenda for the review copy.

Changeling – Matt Wesolowski

On Christmas Eve in 1988, seven-year-old Alfie Marsden vanished in the Wentshire Forest Pass, when a burst tyre forced his father, Sorrel, to stop the car. Leaving the car to summon the emergency services, Sorrel returned to find his son gone. No trace of the child, nor his remains, have ever been found. Alfie Marsden was declared officially dead in 1995.
Elusive online journalist, Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the disappearance, interviewing six witnesses, including Sorrel, his son and his ex-partner, to try to find out what really happened that fateful night. He takes a journey through the trees of the Wentshire Forest – a place synonymous with strange sightings, and tales of hidden folk who dwell there. He talks to a company that tried and failed to build a development in the forest, and a psychic who claims to know where Alfie is…

Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories was one of my books of 2017. In Hydra we met Scott King with another of his Six Stories podcasts, this time much darker and much, much spookier. If Nana Wrack gave you nightmares the first time round, the black-eyed children in Hydra might just keep you awake all night.

Changeling is another beast, and easily Matt Wesolowski’s best yet. And that, my friends, is a pretty damn high bar.

Scott King is back with another of his ‘Six Stories’ podcasts. Six people, six sides to a tale, six viewpoints on the events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of little Alfie Marsden, thirty years ago.

I dipped my finger into the Alfie Marsden case and something reached up and took hold.

I *raced* through Changeling. Having read and loved Matt’s first two books, I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for, thought I had a feel for the pattern of the story. After reading the first episode of six, thought I knew where it was going.

Oh how very wrong I was. The thing I love about his writing is the way that he puts you in the head of these distinct characters. You’re hearing their voices, hearing their side of the story. But just as two people can see the same thing and tell you different versions of what happened, so imagine what six people can do. The plotting is ingenious, and the way those six stories mesh together is played to perfection.

Changeling deals with some pretty dark subjects – a missing child is never an easy read, but it’s so much more, and so much more that I can’t say without giving away too much. Trust me in this, it’s massively relevant, incredibly intense and just so, so good.

And can we talk for a minute about Wentshire Forest. I am *so* glad that I’m not going camping in the woods any time soon. Scarclaw Fell in the first book was pretty spooky, but that’s got *nothing* on Wentshire Forest.

Is that a tapping at the window I can hear…?

You can find Matt Wesolowski on Twitter @concretekraken. Mark Swan (@Kidethic) delivers yet another stunning cover. One day I’m going to have to do a post on my favourite of his covers – Changeling will definitely be on the list.

Many thanks to @OrendaBooks for the advance copy of Changeling

Static Ruin – Corey J. White


She killed the man who trained her. She killed the fleet that came for her. She killed the planet that caged her. Now she must confront her father.
Mars Xi is on the run, a bounty on her head and a kill count on her conscience. All she has left are her mutant cat Ocho and her fellow human weapon Pale, a young boy wracked by seizures who can kill with a thought. She needs him treated, and she needs to escape, and the only thread left to pull is her frayed connection to her father, Marius Teo. That thread will take her to the outskirts of the galaxy, to grapple with witch-cults and privately-owned planets, and into the hands of the man who engineered her birth.

This is the third (and final?) book in Corey J. White’s Voidwitch Saga, the first being the splendid Killing Gravity (a ‘a kick-ass, whip-smart sci-fi short story/novella’). Book 2, Void Black Shadow continued in much the same vein. Mars Xi, genetically engineered psychic voidwitch is on a mission to retrieve one of her friends, and woe betide anyone who gets in her way.

These books are bloody, brutal and relentless. And cracking entertainment. Mars is brilliantly acerbic and pissed off with anyone who gets between her and her target, which turns out to be 90% of the people we meet. So much blood.

So much mayhem. So much fun.

And so we find ourselves at book 3, Static Ruin. Its publication sort of snuck up on me, and I dashed off to buy a copy as soon as I found out that it was already A Thing.

If you’ve already read the first two books (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you’ll know exactly what to expect. Mars Xi is on her final trajectory, aiming to find the man who made her. Mars is delightfully unpleasant to a whole host of new people, though the action is somewhat more measured in pace from the at times frantic bloodbath of the first two parts. The stakes are higher this time around and Mars faces some tough realities on her quest for answers. We’ve seen in the other books that no-one is safe, and the same is very much true here.

We’re introduced to some new faces (well, Mars did kill an awful lot of people thus far) as well as some old favourites – I particularly love Ocho, and Mars’ super protective attitude to her “cute space ferret of death” (as described by Warren Ellis).

As you can probably tell, I bloody loved these books. Highly recommended.

Static Ruin by Corey J. White was published in November 2018 by Tor.com. You can find Corey over at his website, coreyjwhite.com or on twitter @cjwhite

You can get a copy here (affiliate links)

Killing Gravity (Voidwitch Saga Book 1)

Void Black Shadow (Voidwitch Saga Book 2)

Static Ruin (Voidwitch Saga Book 3)

Kill It With Fire – Adam Maxwell

They say revenge is a dish best served cold but Violet Winters isn’t the sort of criminal to play by other people’s rules.
Double-crossed and with her reputation as a master thief on the line she can only see one course of action. 
A Raucous Rampage of Revenge.
With a detective nipping at her heels and her escape route ablaze she’ll be lucky to escape with her life let alone anything else.

A couple of years ago I was sent a copy of a book called The Dali Deception, a cracking little heist story. I do love a good heist. 🙂

So when Adam got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in reading his latest, Kill It With Fire, I jumped at the chance. The email arrived and I jumped right in.

It’s a short story which finds us back in Kilchester with Violet Winters out for revenge. The action comes thick and fast and I breezed through this in an hour or so. But stories are as long as they need to be, and Kill It With Fire is nicely paced and a lovely little outing for a couple of our favourite criminals. And it features my favourite character Katie hitting people a lot, which never gets old.

Good fun, and an excellent way to pass an hour or so.

You can find Adam Maxwell on twitter @LostBookshop or on his website. Many thanks to Adam for the review copy. 

A Burglar’s Guide to the City – Geoff Manaugh


Published by Fsg Originals
Source: own copy
At the core of A Burglar’s Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.

With the help of FBI Special Agents, reformed bank robbers, private security consultants, the L.A.P.D. Air Support Division, and architects past and present, the book dissects the built environment from both sides of the law. Whether picking padlocks or climbing the walls of high-rise apartments, finding gaps in a museum’s surveillance routine or discussing home invasions in ancient Rome, A Burglar’s Guide to the City has the tools, the tales, and the x-ray vision you need to see architecture as nothing more than an obstacle that can be outwitted and undercut.

Full of real-life heists-both spectacular and absurd-A Burglar’s Guide to the City ensures readers will never enter a bank again without imagining how to loot the vault or walk down the street without planning the perfect getaway.

An all-too-rare dip into non-fiction here. I’ve had Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City on my shelf for ages, but I’ve been dipping in and out and finally finished it earlier this week.

It’s a fascinating book looking at how the built environment around us can be used (or mis-used) by criminals to their advantage. I enjoyed its at times slightly haphazard meanderings through tales of heists, safe-crackers and lockpicking competitions, anecdotes about capers both successful and not quite as successful. It’s well-written and clearly meticulously researched, and well worth a look if the subject tickles your fancy. I’d originally bought it as research for my own long-suffering novel-in-progress, and there were plenty of useful nuggets in there!

A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is published by Fsg Originals. You can find Geoff on twitter @bldgblog or at his website geoffmanaugh.com