Recent reads: SF&F

Hello lovely readers. I’m a bit behind with reviews, so thought I’d do some mini reviews to try and catch up.

The Kaiju Preservation Society – John Scalzi (Tor Books)

When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls “an animal rights organization.” Tom’s team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.

What Tom doesn’t tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They’re the universe’s largest and most dangerous panda and they’re in trouble.

It’s not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that’s found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too–and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

Huge fun. Scalzi does snappy dialogue like no-one else, and the story fairly zips along, with giant kaiju causing mayhem and destruction along the way. If you like high concept, fast-paced action and more one liners than you can usefully throw a stick at, give this a go. Pacific Rim meets Jurassic Park, sort of. But funny.

Hide – Kiersten White (Del Rey)

The challenge: spend a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park and don’t get caught.

The prize: enough money to change everything.

Fourteen competitors. Seven days. Everywhere to hide, but nowhere to run.

Splendid thriller/horror, I really enjoyed this. Another high-concept tale, Hide is a delightfully simple concept – a bunch of people have to hide for seven days from sunrise to sunset and the last one standing wins. But nothing’s ever quite that easy, is it? Great characters, some you’ll be rooting for and others you can’t wait to get caught. White does a great job of ratcheting up the tension as the days progress. Highly recommended.

The Book Eaters – Sunyi Dean (HarperVoyager)

Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries. 

Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairytales and cautionary stories.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds. 

Another fantastic book, The Book Eaters is out in August 2022. Brilliant fantasy debut from Sunyi Dean, I loved this (resisting the urge to use the phrase ‘devoured it’). It’s a neat twist on a vampire story, but is so much more. It’s a tale of survival, of a mother’s love for her son. It’s dark and gory and violent and at the same time a beautifully written fairytale.

Can’t recommend this highly enough

Huge thanks to Tor Books, Del Rey and HarperVoyager for the advance copies of these books to review via NetGalley.

Q&A with Jackson Ford, author of The Frost Files

I was given the chance to pose some questions to Jackson Ford, author of The Frost Files, to link up to the launch of book four, A Sh*tload Of Crazy Powers (which is out now. Go get it)

Buckle up, buttercup. We’re going in.

Hi Jackson

Long time fan of your books back from the pre-Jackson Ford days (I still have the signed copy of Tracer knocking about somewhere). 

YES KING. You’ve had my back from literally day one. Appreciate you.

Blushing now.

Rumour has it that book #4 in The Frost Files is out soon (well, it’s out now for real) which means I’m running out of space on my shelves. Zero respect for my TBR pile, man.

No fucks given. 

This is my unsurprised face.

I’ve been following you for a while (not in a weird stalker-y way, honest), and have some questions. Pour us both a whisky, and let’s get started.

I got some good ass Welsh whiskey recently. Didn’t even realise they made whiskey, but their single malt game is solid. Cheers. 

Are you having as much fun writing The Frost Files as it appears you are from reading them? Because they’re an absolute blast to read.

They are a huge amount of fun to write. I adore the world, and I feel like readers do too. One of the nicest things anyone ever said to me was that a Frost Files book was like coming home, or meeting up with an old friend. I liked that a lot.

Can I just take a moment to let you know how much I (and other readers) appreciate you doing a ‘Story So Far’ for the books? I read a lot of stuff, and it can be a year or more between me reading books in a series, so I often spend the first few chapters going ‘who are these people and why do they not like each other very much?’, so having a short snappy ‘previous, on The Frost Files’ is super awesome. Was this your idea, or something your publisher said “hey, do this thing or else?”

This was my idea. I really try to lean into the fact that each FF book can be read on its own, even if you haven’t read any of the others. But since there are now six bazillion words of the series out there, I wanted to give new readers a place to catch up on key events. 

Teagan Frost is a great cook. You’ve said that her favourite food is banh mi sandwiches (and grilled cheese, paella, pizza, smashburgers, popcorn, fried chicken, the list goes on). Are you a good cook? If you were having me and some of your buddies over for food, what’s on the menu?

I’m an enthusiastic but only moderately talented cook. That said, there are some things I do really freaking well. Roast chicken, roast potatoes. But my party piece is chilli con carne, which I cook with my homemade chilli sauce. That’s what we’re eating. You bring the beer.

It’s a deal. I might even bring some of the good whisky.

The Frost Files famously all have the word Sh*t in the titles. Did you always plan to do that, or was it a case of the first book (The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind, great book, go get it etc) had a great title, then book 2 came along and you were casting about for something to call it and thought hey, I wonder how many books I could do this for? Were there any other options for titles for the first book?

Anna Jackson and Tim Holman at Orbit suggested it. I loved the title immediately, and we just went from there. Honestly, it can go for as long as we want it to…we can be endlessly creative with curse words. I’m actually rubbish with titles. My working title for the first book was WIRE AND GLASS, which…sucked. Anna and Tim’s idea was much better.

Supplemental question – do you have an idea of how many books are in the series? There’s definitely a story arc going on, but do you have an end point in mind?

No spoilers here. Wait and see! 

China Shop are looking for a new recruit, and they’ve come knocking at your door. What would you bring to the team? They’ve already got Reggie the hacker, Africa the wheelman, and of course Teagan with her wicked snark and telekinesis.

Fuuuuuuck that’s a good question. I have no idea why they would ever want my help. I have zero useful real world skills.

I’ve been developing a super-secret gizmo that will take you and a friend anywhere on earth, but only to one place, and only for 24 hours after which point you wake up back in your own house. Where are you going?

I just came back from my first vacation in two years. We went to Panama. There’s a spot in Bocas Del Toro that is just a bunch of cabins built right over the Caribbean sea. You can jump off your deck into the water. So yeah, we’re going back there. 

My other gizmo will give you $10m in cash, but you can never write another book. Take the money or not?

I WANT to take the money, but the stories that rattle around my head would drive me insane if I didn’t let them out.

I love the newsletter you put out each week (signup here for awesomeness), and am always intrigued to see where you go with it. What’s your process there? Do you have a pile of post-its with ideas on, or just wake up at 3am going OMG I’m going to talk about *THAT* this week?

It’s a mix of both. I have a list of topics to tackle, but I’m always flexible. If there’s something that grabs me, I go for it. Really, I just try not to be boring. I’ve gotten into the regularity of writing it every week, and I want to make it worth the reader’s time to click on it. I was a newspaper columnist in the UK for nearly a decade, so I’m good at coming up with ideas on the fly.

I know writers get asked the same questions all the time. Where do you get your ideas, what’s your writing process like, etc etc. You must get bored of being asked. So, what’s the one question that you wish an interviewer would ask you?

I really, really wish someone would ask me about the music that influences the Frost Files. It’s a series with deep roots in rap, metal, electronica…obviously classic LA gangsta rap (Dre, Snoop, Xzibit, Kendrick, NWA) but also artists like Disturbed, Van Canto, Lindsey Stirling, Luke Howard. It couldn’t be a surface level question. I’d want to go really in depth with it, really talk about how music can help create and alter a scene, especially in terms of rhythm and climax. Sadly, there’s not a ton of crossover between, say, rap fans and Frost Files readers.

[makes notes for the next interview – ask Jackson about music & stuff]

Quickfire question round:

Coffee or tea? Coffee

Hot sunny day at the beach, or quiet wander through the old town? Beach

Analogue or digital? Digital. I grew up on CDs, not vinyl.

Riley Hale vs Teagan Frost? What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Jackson, it’s been a pleasure having you come visit the blog. Best of luck with the Frost Files (not that you need it).

I’m off to go jump into A Sh*tload Of Crazy Powers right now. Huge thanks to Jackson Ford (go find him on twitter @realjacksonford) and to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the book to review, and for setting up this Q&A.

Teagan Frost has enough sh*t to deal with, between her job as a telekinetic government operative and a certain pair of siblings who have returned from the dead to wreak havoc with their powers. But little does she know, things are about to get even more crazy . . .

Teagan might have survived the flash flood of the century, but now she’s trapped in a hotel by a bunch of gun-toting maniacs. And to make matters worse, her powers have mysteriously disappeared. Faced with certain death at every turn, Teagan will need to use every resource she has to stop a plot that could destroy Los Angeles – maybe even the entire world.

Truly, Darkly, Deeply – Victoria Selman

12-year-old Sophie and her mother, Amelia-Rose, move to London from Massachusetts where they meet the charismatic Matty Melgren, who quickly becomes an intrinsic part of their lives. But as the relationship between the two adults fractures, a serial killer begins targeting young women with a striking resemblance to Amelia-Rose.

When Matty is eventually sent down for multiple murders, questions remain as to his guilt — questions which ultimately destroy both women. Nearly twenty years later, Sophie receives a letter from Battlemouth Prison informing her Matty is dying and wants to meet. It looks like Sophie might finally get the answers she craves. But will the truth set her free — or bury her deeper?

Ooh, now I do like a good psychological crime thriller, and that’s exactly what we have here in Victoria Selman’s excellent Truly, Darkly, Deeply. I’ve read one of her books before, Snakes and Ladders and enjoyed it a lot. This, a standalone, was one that I jumped at the chance to read.

A letter to Sophie from Battlemouth Prison from convicted multiple murderer Matty Melgren reawakens old wounds from some twenty years previous, when Sophie and her mother moved to London from the US. Matty moved into their lives as a serial killer started stalking the streets of North London.

Told from the point of view of Sophie now and Sophie before, it’s a fascinating glimpse into fractured family dynamics and the possibilities of innocence and guilt. Matty, seemingly a devoted father-figure to Sophie, could he really be the killer who roamed the streets near their home? And why do all the victims look like Sophie’s mum?

Selman’s writing is engaging and the various strands of the plot are well-constructed. I had my suspicions of what might be going on, but was delighted to see the ending wasn’t quite as I thought. Selman loves to drip-feed us with morsels of information as the story progresses, and I found myself wandering down the wrong path once or twice!

I enjoyed this book a lot. Recommended.

Truly, Darkly, Deeply by Victoria Selman is published by Quercus in July 2022. Many thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of the book via NetGalley

Books of 2022 – January

Hello lovely people. You’re looking rather splendid today. We made it out of January largely in one piece despite it lasting for about 300 days. But we’re now in February, the days are ever so slowly getting longer and brighter.

What better time then to turn our attention to books? I’ve been meaning to tidy up my TBR pile this year, and the aim is to get my Netgalley backlog down to manageable levels, but that hasn’t really happened this month.


Books read (5)

Great selection of books read this month.

  • Dolphin Junction – Mick Herron [Christmas present, hardback]
  • The Great Silence – Doug Johnstone [ARC, Orenda Books]
  • A Loyal Traitor – Tim Glister [e-ARC, Point Blank Crime, blog tour]
  • Windswept and Interesting – Billy Connolly [audio, Audible sub]
  • Truly, Darkly, Deeply– Victoria Selman [e-ARC, Netgalley, Quercus]

I loved Dolphin Junction. Huge fan of Mick Herron’s books, but his short stories are just superb.

The Great Silence is book 3 in Doug Johnstone’s Skelfs series, about three generations of women who run a funeral home and a private investigation business. This is the best one yet, and that’s a pretty high bar.

A Loyal Traitor is a cracking spy novel with undertones of Bond. I enjoyed it a lot, blog tour review up in February

Windswept and Interesting was, err, interesting. Narrated by Billy Connolly himself it was entertaining, though at times it felt a bit stilted. Then there are sections where he’s like his old self and going on a ramble and cracking up at the story, which was lovely to hear.

Truly, Darkly, Deeply was absolutely brilliant. I loved Victoria Selman’s Snakes and Ladders and this standalone had me gripped.

Books bought (4)

  • Iron Gold – Pierce Brown [ebook]
  • Dark Age – Pierce Brown [ebook]
  • And Your Enemies Closer – Rob Parker [audio, Audible sub]
  • Broken Girls – Joy Kluver [ebook]

I’ve got Iron Gold and Dark Age in hardback (signed) but haven’t got around to reading them yet as they’re both absolute chonks and it’s been forever since I read the first trilogy. I picked up the kindle editions as they’re much lighter in the hand. Plus they were on offer.

And Your Enemies Closer is the follow up to Rob Parker’s superb Far From The Tree. Narrated again by Warren Brown (of Luther fame), I’m very much looking forward to this.

Broken Girls is the new book by my bookblogger friend Joy Kluver. Always happy to support my writing buddies!

Books received (9)

  • The Reacher Guy – Heather Martin [hardback, signed, competition win]
  • Wheel of Time books 1-3 box set – Robert Jordan [paperback, Orbit Books]
  • The Goodbye Coast – Joe Ide [ARC, paperback, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, blog tour]
  • Quicksand of Memory – Michael J. Malone [ARC, paperback, Orenda Books]
  • River Clyde – Simone Buchholz [ARC, paperback, Orenda Books]
  • The Shot – Sarah Sultoon [ARC, paperback, Orenda Books]
  • The Interview – CM Ewan [hardback, Macmillan, blog tour]

Very excited to win a copy of The Reacher Guy, signed by Heather Martin.

The lovely Nazia at Orbit was kind enough to send me a box set of the first three books in the Wheel of Time series that’s been showing on Amazon Prime. Big chonky books too, should keep me busy!

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Joe Ide, and jumped at the chance to read The Goodbye Coast for the upcoming blog tour. Ide has taken Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe and put him in LA, present day. Enjoying it enormously.

A book parcel from the lovely Orenda Books is always a splendid thing, and I’ll be adding these to my TBR, though I do feel a little guilty that I’ve not finished the last parcel yet!

Finally, CM Ewan’s The Interview looks fantastic – big fan of his books, especially his Good Thief’s Guide series, so very much looking forward to this

So, dear reader. That was January. Have you read any of these? Any catch your eye? Would love to hear what you think, and what you read in January!

Books of 2021: the rest

Well now. We’ve had my list of the best crime/thriller books, and my favourite sci-fi & fantasy. There were books which didn’t fit into either category, but which I want to shout about too.

The Twenty Seven Club – Lucy Nichol

The Twenty Seven Club is steeped in a lovely 90s vibe that is a real joy to read. Told from the point of view of Emma, a young woman from Hull who enjoys rock music, beers (and the occasional Drambuie or a little something… extra) with her best mate Dave down their local. She’s shaken by the untimely death of her rock hero Kurt Cobain at 27, and is filled with worry that she’s approaching that age. It’s warm, often funny, and a delightful dose of 90s nostalgia.

This is How We Are Human, Louise Beech

It wouldn’t be a books of the year list without a Louise Beech book on there. Beautifully and sensitively told, This Is How We Are Human is a story about love and life, of discrimation and difference, and the choices we make. It’s ultimately about being… human. Utterly brilliant, and be warned, it *will* make you cry.

The Origins of Iris – Beth Lewis

Lewis’ writing is just a joy to read. It’s wonderful. Dark, raw and startlingly original, it will linger long in the memory after you turn the last page. It took me a while to recover myself after reading. Then go read The Wolf Road, because that’s incredible too. I can’t wait to see what Beth Lewis comes up with next!

Then the non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed:

Peaks and Bandits – Alf Bonnevie Bryn

A short book, but packs a huge amount into its 117 pages. Young Alf Bonnevie Bryn decides to set off to Corsica to climb some mountains with his friend George in their Easter holidays from school in 1909. Our Norwegian hero and his Australian chum have more than a few adventures along the way, fording freezing rivers, rescuing cats from bathtubs, spreading fake money to make their own funds go further. And then there’s the fun with a snake called James, and an incident with a quart ceramic jar of Crosse & Blackwell marmalade that they persuaded someone to carry up a mountain…

Part of my subscription to Adventurous Ink, a book club covering the best in adventure, travel and nature books. Also highly recommended!

London Clay – Tom Chivers

A fascinating deep dive into what makes up London. The hidden rivers, the buried history, the layers upon layers that make up our capital city. The title suggests a book of geology, and whilst there is a seam of that running through the book, it’s so much more.

He explores the streets, pokes behind the construction boards and delves into the history of the city. It’s a book that I’m sure I’ll go back to next time I’m heading there. It’s more than just a series of places though. It’s also part memoir, with Tom Chivers’ own personal stories and history laced throughout.

The Storyteller – Dave Grohl

Finally an audiobook to recommend. Narrated by Dave Grohl himself, it’s an engaging and fascinating look at his life leading up to Nirvana and beyond with the Foo Fighters. I’m sure the book would be just as good, but having Grohl tell you these stories himself adds a little something extra. Hugely enjoyable.

Books of 2021 – crime & thrillers

As 2021 starts to roll to a close, it’s time to pull together the list of books I’ve loved over the year. Yes, I know that it’s not over, and there will be some more great books, but you might be on the lookout for some suggestions for a present for a loved one, or maybe yourself. Heck, even buy a book for your mortal enemy and/or personal nemesis. Everyone loves a good book, right?

I’m not doing a top ten, partly because they’re all really good and partly because there are 15 of them and OMG DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE OK.

In no particular order, I hereby present my favourite crime/thriller books of 2021 are:

When I Was Ten – Fiona Cummins

I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy of Fiona Cummins’ When I Was Ten in 2020 and absolutely loved it. Alas, what with *waves hands* everything going on, it got pushed back to 2021. It’s bloody brilliant. And while you wait, go read Cummins’ other books.

Stone Cold Trouble – Amer Anwar

Last year Amer Anwar’s Brothers In Blood made it on the books of the year list, and January kicked off with more adventures for Zaq and Jags.  I settled down with a cup of tea to finish the last hundred or so pages, only to discover that my tea had gone cold.

Stone cold. (see what I did there?)

Yeah, it’s that good. I love the banter between Zaq and his best mate Jags, and it really makes this book stand out. Of course a book needs more than just a great pair of protagonists, and Anwar delivers another cracking read.

The Last Thing to Burn – Will Dean

Unforgettable. It’s a bleak book, set in a bleak landscape, but at every step of the way we’re rooting for Thanh Dao. Tiny slivers of hope keep her, and us, going.

It’s also an astonishing book, a world away from Will Dean’s Tuva Moodyson and her Swedish forest. And one where the subject may be too much for some. It’s a nail-biting, compelling, just one more page book, one where you’re willing Thanh Dao to get away from the very first page.


Slough House – Mick Herron

Mick Herron is one of those writers who make it look… effortless. He’s just got a way with a turn of phrase, a sentence dropped which is just… perfect. Slough House is full of those little gems. The gloriously foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, ever-flatulent, politically incorrect Jackson Lamb (soon to be appearing on our screens played by Gary Oldman) is back, and someone has wiped Slough House off the map and is picking off his Slow Horses.

He’s not happy about it. And you do not cross Jackson Lamb.

Far From the Tree – Rob Parker

Twenty seven bodies are found in an unmarked grave. Is this the work of a serial killer? DI Brendan Foley is on the case. Then it turns out that one of the dead is someone close to home, and what was initially ‘just’ a murder enquiry turns into something a lot more personal. I listened to the audiobook, superbly narrated by Warren Brown (DS Ripley from Luther), I loved every minute of the near nine-hour runtime. I’d plug my headphones in whilst walking the dogs, and must admit to going just once more around the block to get another chapter in.

Black Reed Bay – Rod Reynolds

A perennial favourite on my books of the year lists (don’t tell him or he’ll get a big head), Rod Reynolds has delivered a top-notch slice of contemporary American Noir on the shores of Long Island, present day.  I’m delighted to see that it’s just the first in a new series. I can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for Detective Casey Wray next. Superbly plotted, with Reynold’s customary mastery of place and character, it’s a cracking book.

Dead Ground – MW Craven

I love  Poe & Bradshaw, as I’m sure we all do. Washington Poe, the irascible detective sergeant who manages somehow to rub pretty much everyone up the wrong way.

Poe collected enemies the same way the middle class collect Nectar points

And his best friend, the inimitable Tilly Bradshaw. Suffice it to say that there are shenanigans, misdirections and twists as per usual. The case is bigger – involving not only MI5 but also the FBI, the stakes are higher, and it’s just a hugely enjoyable read.

A Numbers Game – RJ Dark

I read a lot of crime books. I assume you do too, if you’ve got this far down the list. But it’s refreshing to find one that manages to combine a lovely dark, twisty plot with a healthy dose of humour. I loved Mal and Jackie, the two leads with their long history and tenuous ‘friendship’.

The week started unseasonably warm for spring, and with my best friend sitting on top of me, threatening violence. From there it only went downhill.

Malachite Jones – ‘psychic’ medium (ably, if reluctantly, assisted by his assistant Beryl, who knows everyone and everything going on on the Blades Edge estate). Jackie Singh Kattar, respected businessman (just don’t ask what business, or you’ll find out he’s made you his business), sharp dresser and with a nice little line in motors. Best friends. And boy, do you want Jackie on your side when things go awry. And boy do things go awry. Huge fun.

Bad Apples – Will Dean

A second appearance in the list for Will Dean, and the fourth outing for our beloved Tuva Moodyson. Hoo boy is it good. I loved the first three books, so the bar was set pretty high. Bad Apples is the pick of the already very very good bunch*.

*[Sorry, enough of the fruity puns]

The Murder Box – Olivia Kiernan

I enjoyed this one enormously. It’s a clever game within an investigation that Kiernan neatly pulls off. DCS Frankie Sheehan believes that a murder mystery game sent to her is a birthday gift from a colleague. But there’s a striking resemblance between the game’s victim and the very real case of missing twenty-two-year-old Lydia Callin. Superb.

The Last House on Needless Street – Catriona Ward

The Last House On Needless Street absolutely blew me away. It’s astonishingly good. From the blurb you think you know what you’re going to get, and to a certain extent, you do. But there’s so much more to this book. It’s beautifully written, desperately tense at times, and goes to some very dark places indeed.

Brace yourself. Needless Street is a strange place, and the last house is stranger still.

My Heart is a Chainsaw – Stephen Graham Jones

A love letter to classic slasher movies, with a main character who lives and breathes the genre, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the movies, and who can spot the clues start to add up. Then the Final Girl arrives, and Jade must do whatever she can to help save the day.

It’s dark. It’s gory. It’s beautifully written, and uncomfortable to read in places. It’s also astonishingly good, though not for the squeamish!

The Christmas Murder Game – AK Benedict

This book is a huge amount of fun (though not for the characters!) A locked room (well, house) mystery where a bunch of people are stuck in an isolated manor house in Yorkshire in a snowstorm. Their aunt has left them a series of clues, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. Each clue will reveal the location of a key, and at the end of the game, one of the family will inherit the house itself.

It reminded me of the movie Clue (and of course the game Cluedo) in that there was a lot of people who are suspects in one way or another, moving about the house trying to figure out answers. Huge fun trying to figure out the twelve clues as they’re presented to the players, though I’d have been rubbish at it as I didn’t get any of them!

The Good Thief’s Guide to Christmas – Chris Ewan

A late entry onto the list. I’ve been a huge fan of Chris Ewan’s The Good Thief’s Guide books since the start, and was delighted to get an early peek at this festive adventure. It’s a short story, but packs a lot in. Charlie Howard , mystery writer and professional thief, is in London for the holidays when his agent, Victoria, asks him to break into a jewellery shop to steal the perfect Christmas gift. Things naturally go awry. A fabulous festive caper.

Demon – Matt Wesolowski

Last, but by no means least, Matt Wesolowski’s latest episode of his superb Six Stories series. Scott King delves into the cold case of Sidney Parsons, a young boy savagely murdered by two of his classmates. Seven years later his killers are released. And now, strange things are afoot in the little village of Ussalthwaite. Six stories, six people telling their side of what happened. Wesolowski’s stories are always dark, but this is the darkest yet. It’s also the best in a very strong series.

So those were my favourite books of the year. Have you read any of them? Agree, disagree? Got any that I should have on my list for 2022?

As ever, I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks to all the fabulous authors, publishers and publicists for sharing their books with me this year.

Stay tuned for the list of my favourite science fiction and fantasy, then for the list of non-fiction and others!

The Violence of Squid Game – a guest post by GX Todd

It’s publication day for GX Todd’s much-anticipated Ghosts, the fourth book in the Voices series. I’m about halfway through and loving it (but don’t want it to end!). This has been one of my all-time favourite book series, and I’ve nagged you to read Defender, Hunted and Survivors over the years (go! go read them!), so be prepared for more nagging just as soon as I’ve finished this one.

In the meantime, GX Todd has kindly written a guest post for you today, on the violence of the Netflix super hit, Squid Game.

The Violence of Squid Game:

Should it be this much fun to watch?

The kinds of violence in Squid Game aren’t new to the entertainment medium. For a while we’ve had movies and TV shows that have explored ‘death games’ – just turn your eye to Battle Royale, the Escape Room and Saw films, Cube, The Platform (to an extent), Alice in Borderland, and The Hunger Games franchise for examples. They’ve been around for a decades, but Squid Game has really rocketed hyper-violent entertainment into the popularity stratosphere. As of writing this, 2.1 billion hours of Squid Game have been watched by Netflix subscribers. To put that into context, that’s the equivalent of 239,700 years.

I binge-watched Squid Game in preparation for writing this article. I’ve wanted to see it and also not wanted to see it since talk revved up about it being so brilliant. If you’ve read any of my books, you can probably tell I don’t have a problem immersing myself in death and violence. If anything, I’ve become a little desensitized to it. I’ve spent a lot of time paddling round and splashing in the deep end of the horror pool. I’ve seen and read a lot of messed up shit. My hesitation about watching Squid Game was more to do with if it could live up to my expectations (which is, admittedly, a difficult task to do). But, before I reveal whether I enjoyed it or not, let’s talk about why everyone else is loving it.

In its total run-time of 485 minutes, a whopping 455 people die. Most of them on-screen. Bloodily. Painfully. With heaps of Technicolor gore. Yep, you read that right to any parents/guardians out there who are letting your kiddies watch this show. (Actually, the body count is more than 455 if you start counting the deaths outside of the games themselves). And they die in imaginative, often brutal, occasionally ridiculous, ways. Deaths from heights, many, many point-blank gunshots to the head, slit throats, and there’s even a clandestine doctor in the ranks who’s gorily harvesting dead contestants’ organs to sell on the black market. There’s a lot of blood and guts in this show. The makers also do a fantastic job of balancing these bursts of violence and tension-filled, high-stakes games with light-heartedness and empathetic character building. If the episodes had been so relentlessly filled with death and chaos, I think a lot of viewers would have switched off. Of course, curiosity is also a huge factor in keeping a viewer’s interest piqued. I continued watching because I wanted to know what the next game would be. A land-mine filled reconfiguring of Hopscotch, dismembered legs flying at my screen? Dodgeball with a spiked ball and no protective gear? Some games were better than others. I personally preferred the ones that were reliant on skill and cleverness compared to the ones catered more toward luck or physical strength. What I did appreciate, however – other than the great special effects and copious amounts of blood splatter – was how each round systematically broke down the competitors’ psyches. I think it might have been the smartest part of the whole series. [Spoilers in next section.]


The Basic Psychology of the Games (as told by an amateur non-psychologist)

The first two games are specifically individual rounds (Red Light, Green Light, and the honeycomb cake shape cutting), where death comes swiftly if you mess up and the punishment is dealt by the anonymous ‘powers that be’ behind the games. The next game has the contestants teaming up into groups of ten for Tug-of-War. Here we see the first instance where the players are directly responsible for killing their fellow contestants, and not in a pleasant way. They are forced to watch as they physically pull their competitors off a high platform and down to their screaming, bone-crunching demises. It’s a desperate You-or-Me situation with very little time to consider alternative actions. Camaraderie and trust for team members is tentatively built, a sense of security in numbers settles in, and then the next round swiftly demolishes it.

Marbles asks for a two-player partnership and then forces those players into a head-to-head competition. The bonds recently formed are now turned on themselves. Only one winner can progress to the next game; the team-mate you chose is now your deadly foe. And this isn’t a few minutes of frantic push-and-pull struggling. This is a decisive, thought-out, very deliberate form of survival over the space of a thirty-minute-long game. I really liked how the writers slowed the pacing down here and allowed some breathing room for conversation and latent manipulation to come out. I especially appreciated the discussion between the two teenage girls (even if was a little tropey). There were some real fraught, emotional scenes here and without needing any adrenaline-fueled mayhem to boost the enjoyment.

Next, the penultimate game, and this was a bridge too far for me, personally. I think this was the weakest round. But we see the contestants are not only back to working at an individual level after losing most of their ability to place trust in others, but some are even actively using other players’ deaths (grabbing and pushing them forward to test the glass surfaces to see which will break) to further their own progress. It hasn’t taken long at all to degrade the moral codes of the majority of these remaining people. There could be parallels drawn here with how Big Media and their owners control and disseminate information in order redirect the attention of the common people on to undeserving quarters, distracting them from the true culprits (i.e. Banks, Politicians, Tax-Evading Big Corporations, etc.) But let’s not get into that right now. We’re talking about a Netflix show here, after all.

By the time the final two contestants make it to the last game – the squid game itself – all sense of brotherhood, collusion and humanity is gone. The only way to survive, to win, is to violently, brutally take it. In fact, it might have been interesting if the writers had seen this through to the end: the stripping down of humanity to its basest of instincts, to its most animalistic form of survival after suffering so much trauma and conditioning. After all, every one of these people entered these games with the full knowledge that only one of them could win. But, alas, it doesn’t. Everything ends quite predictably.


Notice how I dodged commenting on how any of this on-screen violence translates into the more obvious themes of capitalism or classism? Themes I’m sure other articles have already discussed in detail and in a far more articulate and intelligent manner than I could. I’m not discussing those here because, honestly, I don’t think Squid Game handles them all that well. For me, the whole ‘Bored Rich Elite vs Lower Class Pleb in Debt’ feels like a shallow veneer the makers have thrown over their show like a set dressing, much like the Escher-like staircases and the over-sized children’s playground. Deep, thought-provoking discussion over class structure or South Korea’s growing personal debt crisis aren’t why we, the viewers, have spent a collective 239,700 years watching this show. In fact, if they had tackled those topics with all seriousness, I’d hazard a guess that Squid Game wouldn’t be a fraction as fun or as popular. None of us are finishing the nine-episode run and saying ‘Gosh, I wonder what the average amount of personal debt a person in South Korea is in’. No, what we’re saying is ‘Man, did you see that woman’s brains coming out of her head?!’. None of our kids are going to school the next day and asking their teachers about the working and living conditions of South Korean people and their households. No, they’re running into the playground at lunchtime and making up improvised quasi-violent Squid Game games to play with their friends. And it’s in Squid Game’s sheer audacity (I mean, come on, has no one noticed that 400+ people have been going mysteriously missing every year for over a decade?) that the enjoyability comes from. Yes, horrific things happen to the most vulnerable of our society on a daily basis – they’ll be preyed on by those more powerful than them until the end of time. But never is it done in such grandly-designed, gaudily-painted sets, or during children’s games played to the death while being watched by fat, white men in ornate, golden animal masks who are the most awful (like, the worst) English-speaking actors on the planet.

So, in conclusion, Squid Game is as fun, grotesque, dramatic, comedic, over-the-top, unsubtle, exasperating (I’m still puzzling over the many plot-holes in the whole brother-cop sub-plot), entertaining and absurd a TV-watching experience as you could hope to find on Netflix – or anywhere else for that matter. And I enjoyed it very much. For the first 5 or 6 episodes, at least. I’m still not very happy about how they treated my favourite character. Writers can be such assholes.

G X Todd is the writer of ‘the Voices’ series, the fourth and final book of which, GHOSTS, releases on the 9th December in all good book shops.

The Bone Ship’s Wake – RJ Barker

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The sea dragons are returning, and Joron Twiner’s dreams of freedom lie shattered. His Shipwife is gone and all he has left is revenge.

Leading the black fleet from the deck of Tide Child Joron takes every opportunity to strike at his enemies, but he knows his time is limited. His fleet is shrinking and the Keyshan’s Rot is running through his body. He runs from a prophecy that says he and the avian sorcerer, the Windseer, will end the entire world.

But the sea dragons have begun to return, and if you can have one miracle, who is to say that there cannot be another?

So here we are. The final chapter in RJ Barker’s Tide Child trilogy, which started back with The Bone Ships, Barker’s magnificent world of shipwives and deckchilder, sea monsters and ships made from their bones. Fleet ships and Black Ships of the dead, and the mysterious gullaime. There’s a clear love of this world and it absolutely shines through on the page.

After the setup and worldbuilding in the first book, the action ramped up in The Call of the Bone Ships, leaving us on tenterhooks waiting for the third book.

And boy, was it worth the wait. Barker has once again pulled off that rare trick – the trilogy where every book is better than the last. He did it with the Assassin’s trilogy, and he’s done it here again. And the first book in each was pretty darn good to start with.

There’s absolutely no messing around here and we’re straight back into the thick of the action with D’keeper Joron Twiner in charge of the Tide Child and his Shipwife, poor old Lucky Meas having a not great time. RJ Barker is very mean to Meas in this book.

The plot simply roars along like a nor’easter in a hurricane (look, I’m no good at the nautical stuff), with sea battles, giant sea dragons, double-crossing, piratical piracy and other exciting stuff. And there’s an awful lot of it crammed into the 500+ pages here. But it’s the characters that make this book shine. Meas and Twiner are simply splendid creations (if not always very nice ones), but there’s a motley crew aboard the various vessels in the fleet and more than a few dastardly types on dry land too.

The Bone Ship’s Wake is a quest for revenge. Joron is [spoilers if you’ve not read the first two in which case WHAT ARE YOU DOING GO READ THEM OMG] out to rescue Meas and nothing will stand in the way of the dreaded Black Pirate. Nothing.

Be warned, no matter what RJ will try and tell you, it’s not all kittens and puppies and jelly and ice cream at the end. It wouldn’t be an RJ Barker book without you reaching the final pages with a sigh and a sense that it’s suddenly really dusty in here and I appear to have something in my eye and OMG RJ WHAT DID YOU DO.

What RJ has done is deliver us the perfect conclusion to a simply splendid trilogy.

Hugely recommended. Now, where did I put my shipwife hat?

The Bone Ship’s Wake by RJ Barker is published by Orbit and is out in paperback now. Huge thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit Books for the review copy of the book.

#blogtour #review London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City – Tom Chivers

Part personal memoir, part lyrical meditation, London Clay takes us deep in to the nooks and crannies of a forgotten city: a hidden landscape long buried underneath the sprawling metropolis. Armed with just his tattered Streetfinder map, author Tom Chivers follows concealed pathways and explores lost islands, to uncover the geological mysteries that burst up through the pavement and bubble to the surface of our streets.

From Roman ruins to a submerged playhouse, abandoned Tube stations to ancient riverbeds, marshes and woodlands, this network of journeys combines to produce a compelling interrogation of London’s past. London Clay examines landscape and our connection to place, and celebrates urban edgelands: in-between spaces where the natural world and the city mingle, and where ghosts of the deep past can be felt as a buzzing in the skull. It is also a personal account of growing up in London, and of overcoming loss through the layered stories of the capital.

London Clay is a fascinating deep dive into what makes up London. The hidden rivers, the buried history, the layers upon layers that make up our capital city. The title suggests a book of geology, and whilst there is a seam of that running through the book, it’s so much more.

Chivers’ writing takes you on a series of journeys in and around (and underneath) London. Walk with him as he explores the streets, pokes behind the construction boards and delves into the history of the city. I’m fascinated by the city that I only ever see in passing – a day trip here to see friends, a shopping trip there, only ever brushing the surface. I found myself reading this book and stopping to bring up the places mentioned on google maps, to further place myself alongside the author as he tells you yet another fascinating fact or anecdote.

It’s a book that I’m sure I’ll go back to next time I’m heading there, though the hardback is quite chunky and probably doesn’t lend itself well to being carried on a day out!

It’s more than just a series of places though. It’s also part memoir, with Tom Chivers’ own personal stories and history laced throughout. In the latter stages of the book we also see the impact of the pandemic on the city (and his family). It may have taken him several years to write, but feels bang up to date and current.

Finished off with a plethora of footnotes inviting further research London Clay is a fascinating book, and recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in London, its streets, geology and history.

London Clay by Tom Chivers is published by Doubleday and is out now in hardback. Many thanks to the publisher and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the copy of the book to review.

Books on the Hill project

Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for something a little different. BOTH Publishing is a new venture set up to make exciting good quality fiction accessible to a minority group currently not provided for by today’s UK traditional mass book market and providing a new tool for booksellers to use in their drive to increase diversity and inclusion.

They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign, which aims to publish and print 8 titles of dyslexic friendly books for adults. Their long term goal is to continue  publishing good quality adult fiction to produce a wide range of books for people who have challenges when reading. 

Their initial target is 3 titles with successive stretch goals to get them to the magical 8. Of course they want to do more and if by your support they really go over our target, they will produce yet more stunning books with great authors.  

The Project

Books on the Hill is passionate about helping people who have dyslexia, or have any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. There are great books out now for children with dyslexia, with specialist publishers like Barrington Stokes and mainstream publishers such as Bloomsbury doing their part. However, there are sadly very few books for adults with Dyslexia in traditional mass market publishing.

Dyslexia is a learning difference that primarily affects reading and writing skills. The NHS estimates that up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK have some form of dyslexia, while other dyslexic organisations believe 1 in 5 and more than 2 million people in the UK are severely affected.

Dyslexia does not stop someone from achieving. There are many individuals who are successful and are dyslexic. Famous actors, such as Orlando Bloom; Entrepreneurs like Theo Paphitis, and many, many more, including myself. All of who believe dyslexia has helped them to be where they are now. Dyslexia, though, as I can attest to, does not go away. You don’t grow out of it, and so we are acknowledging that and trying to without being patronising, create a selection of books that will be friendly to people who deal with dyslexia every day.

Since we started the project in 2019, Books on the Hill have had many adults customers with dyslexia come in shop the asking for something accessible to read. For example, one customer asked if we stocked well known novels in a dyslexic friendly format. Unfortunately we had to say no, as they just don’t exist. We explained what we are trying to achieve by printing our own and she replied:

“I have been reading [children dyslexic] books but they are a bit childish so am really happy I have found your company!! Thanks so much again and thank you for making such a helpful and inclusive brand – it means a lot. “ This response is not isolated. We have had many adults come in to the shop with dyslexia, who do not read or struggle to read and they they believe dyslexic friendly books would have real impact on their reading for pleasure.

How To Get involved

We are launching a Kickstarter beginning in April 2nd 2021 for 30 days, with the focus on paying for the printing of our books and giving us starting capital to continue to print more titles.

There will be many ways you can be involved in this. You can contribute on the Kickstarter website itself. There will be a number of different options of donating money, in which you will receive rewards, such as ebooks of a title or a paperback of one or more of the titles to be published. In addition a unique reward from authors who are contributing to the project. You can still contribute outside the kickstarter. We are happy to receive your help in the shop, where we will have a donation box available.

Who Are We Working With

We have been so fortunate that many great authors have agreed to contribute to this project. All are brilliant authors and are names I am sure you will recognise.
Stan Nicholls, who has been a great support to me particularly with my PhD. He is the author of many novels and short stories but is best known for the internationally acclaimed Orcs: First Blood series.
Steven Savile, the fantasy, horror and thriller writer, now lives in Stockholm whose father is a customer of our bookshop.
The horror duo that is Thana Niveau and John Llewellyn Probert, both well established and engaging authors and also residents of Clevedon.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is an Arthur Clark Award winner and best known for his series Shadows of the Apt, and for his novel Children of Time.
Steven Poore is the highly acclaimed fantasy writer who I first met on my first fantasy convention in Scarborough.
We finish the Magnificent Seven with Joel Cornah, who also has dyslexia, and with whom I participated in a podcast on dyslexia for the Clevedon Literature 2020 ‘Festival in the Clouds’.

The Team

Books on the Hill is Alistair Sims. He is the manager and commander-in-chief of the bookshop (though his partner, Chloe and his mother, Joanne, who set up the bookshop with him, may disagree with this description ). Alistair is dyslexic and has a PhD in history and archaeology. Alistair could not read until he was 13 and is passionate about helping anyone who has difficulty reading. He is the driving force behind BOTH Press and has been involved in every step in this project, from finding award winning authors to contribute, the cover design, and the road to publication, including setting up for distribution.

Books on the Hill are collaborating with Chrissey Harrison, who is also an local author and member of North Bristol Writers Group. Chressey and Alistair have designed the book-covers together, with Chrissey creating the finished product we now look on at awe with. Nearly all the design work has been done by Chrissey, and she is also in charge of the printing process, typesetting. We are so proud and appreciative to be working with her.

Special mention must go to Harrison Gates, who runs Nine Worthy, and who has dedicated his time and expertise to produce our print catalogue for us free of cost.

Joanne Hall is an author, editor and formerly the Chair of BristolCon, Bristol’s premier (and only) science fiction and fantasy convention. We must give a huge thank you to Jo for proof reading the stories free of cost.

Vicky Brewster has edited all the new stories by the authors. She specialises in editing and beta reading long-form fiction. Vicky is a great professional editor.

You can find Books On The Hill on Facebook @indpendentbooksonthehill Instagram @booksonthehill and Twitter @booksonthehill

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