Book Review: The Feed

The Feed, by Nick Clark Windo, is set in a world where communication and curation of experiences has moved almost entirely on line. To enable individuals to manage this, a brain implant has been developed that allows users to access data and upload content using their thought processes. The Feed offers news and social media; it allows for private and public settings, group chats and on line ordering of goods. Everything is backed up so memories have become data that may be accessed and shared at will. Advertising is individually tailored with updates on a subject’s health and desires monitored in real time, enabling purchases to be made. Reading and writing are regarded by many as obsolete skills.

The protagonists of the tale are Tom and Kate, a young married couple expecting their first child. Tom dislikes the ubiquity of The Feed and urges Kate to spend time with him off line. Having become used to instant access of any data desired this is a difficult ask, and one her family disapproves of as they expect to always be in touch. Tom’s antipathy towards The Feed stems from his upbringing. His father created the technology and Tom was the first child implanted in utero. He resents that he has been treated as an experiment with the lack of empathy and potential risks this entails.

In a world that has become reliant on technology, chaos ensues when The Feed goes down. It is not just the on line access that has failed. Certain users appear to have changed personality, taken over by inexplicable, deadly urges. Nobody can predict who will be next, or who they will kill.

The timeline jumps forward six years. The population has been decimated with many remaining people and animals turning feral. Tom and Kate are living in a makeshift camp with a few other survivors trying to eke out an existence without the practical knowledge of how basic implements and machinery can be made to work. Growing up they had no need to learn such things as they could refer to The Feed for all information. Now those who have any memory of skills such as electronics, filtration systems or growing food are valued. They still, however, require fuel, and other camps will fight to the death to protect what they regard as theirs.

The lack of trust between groups of people reminded me of Mad Max, the lengthy journeys undertaken of Lord of the Rings. There is no fantasy element but there are perils and a need to push through pain and lack of sleep. The explanation as to why certain people were changed required a leap of faith but was adroitly introduced.

As with any dystopian fiction there is behaviour redolent of today. The users of The Feed gave little thought to the environmental cost of their continual consumption. Those who chose to opt out were regarded as eccentric and not taken seriously. After The Feed went down the world became a desolate place to be. The fight to survive was violent and intense although it made me wonder, not for the first time, if our world would be better without the human race.

I read this book in a day which demonstrates the taut construction of the plot and the skillful flow of the writing. At its heart is an exploration of what defines an individual. It may be bleak but this is a compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

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Gig Review: New Voices of 2018 from Headline

Much as I enjoy my trips into London for book events, and am grateful to all the publishers who invite me, it was pleasing to learn that a team from Headline Publishing Group were taking five of their up and coming debut authors around the country to meet booksellers, librarians and reviewers closer to home. The Headline New Voices 2018 Roadshow travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol before returning to London where they will host a Rooftop Book Club next week, on Tuesday 23rd January at Carmelite House. I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Bristol roadshow event which I attended last Thursday evening.

Held in The Boardroom in central Bristol I spent an interesting few hours chatting to publicists, authors and other attendees about a wide range of book related issues. Although run to promote the five highlighted debuts the conversation and achievement of the event was wider ranging. There was a willingness to talk about the challenges of increasing sales in today’s market. There was palpable excitement from the authors at their creations being released into the wild.

Becky Hunter kicked proceedings off by introducing each book and author. Attendees were then left to mingle and chat while the publicity team – which included Georgina Moore, Millie Seaward and Jenny Harlow – ensured that nobody was left out and that the authors talked to each little group. The wine flowed and delicious canapés were served. The atmosphere was welcoming and convivial.

I managed to fit in conversations with Phoebe Locke (author of The Tall Man), Leo Carew (author of The Wolf) and Nick Clark Windo (author of The Feed). As a medical student, Leo was subjected to my parental pride in my daughter – also a medical student in London. I believe she would be most envious of his time spent in Svalbard, although perhaps not the tent accommodation. I also raised the daughter inspired medical theme with Nick, this time discussing neurology as we discussed how the brain would be changed by an implant as imagined in his book.

I chatted to a poet bookseller from Rossiter Books who was eager to pick up publishing advice from Georgina. I snuck into a conversation with a lovely bookseller from Griffin Books who spoke of the next day service they can offer customers (better than Amazon!). I met lovely library assistant Leah, and was delighted to catch up with my on-line friend, Sue.

I was also pleased to have several opportunities to talk to Georgina, who was candid about the challenges of marketing any book however appealing and well written; and also to Becky, about bloggers and proof distribution. Despite what I have been advised by others it seems that publicists are happy to be approached for review copies. Having said that, no reviewer should feel they ‘deserve’ any particular book. With so many bloggers eager to spread the word about the books they enjoy, not all can be recipients of every ARC.

At this event, though, I came away with copies of each book offered. Having now heard so much about them I am keen to read each one. The roadshow was well worth braving the cold for – thank you Headline for hosting, and for coming to us.

Book Review: Come And Find Me

Come And Find Me, by Sarah Hilary, is the fifth book in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with a prison riot during which several inmates are viciously attacked, a fire is started and, in the ensuing mayhem, one escapes. Mickey Vokey was incarcerated after he assaulted a young mother in her home. He has been receiving impassioned fan-mail from women since his conviction, who have provided him with their addresses that he may write back to them. In attempting to locate the felon, the police are spread thin. Cutbacks and the interest of the press add to the pressures the force comes under, that and the consensus from those who knew Vokey that none of the photographs being circulated of the missing person look anything like him.

DI Marnie Rome must once again detach her professional life from her personal demons. Her foster-brother, Stephen Keele, has sustained life-threatening injuries in the riot. Marnie approaches her contacts within the prison but is unsure of the veracity of their testimony. Prisoners know that they must not upset those within the system for fear of direct retaliation. They are also aware that those on the outside maintain control by threatening family members.

Marnie and her team quickly uncover a number of valuable leads, including access to the Vokey family home. Mickey Vokey is a talented artist with a particular interest in capturing the emotions of his subjects. He collected photographs including some of his known victim. The police officers fear that there could be others unaccounted for within his collection, and that now he could strike again.

Interspersed with the details of the ongoing search and investigation are chapters narrating the thoughts of Vokey’s cellmate who is on life-support due to injuries sustained in the riot. Ted Elms was convicted of benefit fraud and is regarded as a model prisoner. He knows what happened during the riot but is now unable to speak. He is, however, more aware of what is going on around him than his carers and visitors realise.

The reader is offered glimpses of past lives that enable empathy with the varied cast of characters despite their obvious flaws. Where there is evil it has been exacerbated by the prison system. Prisons also exist on the outside due to loneliness and societal dislocation. Initial, easy judgements rarely stand up to scrutiny.

The author is a master of suspense – it is almost frightening how good she is at injecting dark, twisted suspicions and changes of direction. Although gruesome in places the prose remains emotive and sensuous. Smells and tastes permeate each tightly constructed scene.

A crime thriller that dives straight into the action and maintains a roller coaster tension through to the unanticipated denouement. It will appeal to fans of the genre but contains sufficient depth and consideration to satisfy any reader. A fiercely assured addition to an unflinching series. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path, by Katherine Clements, is a ghost story set on the edge of a lonesome moor in 1674. Its protagonist is thirty-two year old Mercy Booth who lives in the gradually decaying splendour of Scarcross Hall with her ageing father, Bartram, and his faithful servant, Agnes. Mercy works alongside the shepherds and farmhands hired to till their land and care for the flock of sheep that provide the family’s main income. She has been told that one day it will all be hers.

The story opens with the arrival of the first of the season’s lambs. It is not an easy birth and proves a portent of happenings to come. The first of these is the arrival of a stranger, Ellis Ferreby, who is looking for employment. Although the locals are wary of outsiders he is taken on, proving himself a capable shepherd and hard worker.

Mercy has spent her life out on the moor but notices a new, chilling presence, a feeling of being watched as she goes about familiar tasks. Within the hall she hears unexplained noises above the expected creaks and movement of the old house. There have long been rumours of a curse, and her father is suffering a decline of mind.

In her troubles Mercy finds herself drawn to Ellis although both keep their thoughts and fears close. Their interactions are noticed by a local man, Henry Ravens, who grows jealous and threatens to denounce Mercy. Within the hall, Bartram becomes agitated when items he values go missing. These include three old coins, one of which is found under the pillow of a young lad named Sam, the son of the head shepherd and a favourite of the master.

Sam is often around the hall, spending time with Bartram in his study. As the year progresses and strange events continue to unfold the boy becomes agitated and withdrawn. Mercy suspects he knows more than he is saying but cannot coax him to confide in her. Likewise she is unwilling to share her fears with even those she would previously have trusted.

Mutilated lambs are discovered and bad weather threatens the harvest. Along with the ghostly noises from an unused chamber within Scarcross there is much to concern the Booths and those who rely on their employ. Mercy fears that her sinfulness has brought down punishment from God. Ellis watches and waits, keeping his true reason for being there from all.

The plot has many elements of a good ghost story: a run down hall housing secretive sinister artefacts; rumours of an ancient curse linked to the devil; fear of the dead returning; accusations of witchcraft. The church plays a role as does the stranger with a past that is revealed gradually. It is unfortunate that I guessed the main twist early on, and that I struggled to maintain engagement as the Booth’s troubles mounted. I would have preferred a tighter plot construction and a clearer drawing together of the mysterious and the supernatural.

Having said that the last fifty pages held the strongest part of the story. There was horror aplenty and a spine chilling final line.

A tale that started and ended well enough but felt somewhat bloated in between. I am left feeling underwhelmed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.   

Book Review: My Mother’s Shadow

My Mother’s Shadow, by Nikola Scott, is not a book I would have chosen by the cover, looking as it does like some sort of romance. And it does have a romance thread, but underplayed enough not to detract from the main plot which involves a family secret kept for decades. When offered a proof I was told that the writing would appeal to those who enjoyed Kate Morton’s books (I remember liking The House at Riverton). Again, this comparative marketing often leaves me cold but the synopsis intrigued. I decided to put aside my prejudices and review.

The first few chapters were overwrought and my scepticism returned – I was tempted to stop reading at this point. I felt impatient with the giddy behaviour of the protagonist who appeared to lose her power of hearing, knock objects over or bump into things every time she was told something unexpected. The revelations she was offered initially generated denial rather than more natural curiosity.

The story makes use of the now popular trope of telling interlinked tales concurrently across two timelines. The first is written in the form of a diary and begins in the summer of 1958. Sixteen year old Elizabeth Holloway, the only child of George and Constance, is sent to stay in a coastal country house belonging to wealthy acquaintances of her mother. Constance is dying of cancer and does not wish her child to remember her as the husk she knows she will imminently become.

The second part of the story is set forty-two years later. Addie Harrington has been summoned to the family home by her domineering sister, Venetia, to mark the first anniversary of their mother’s death. Venetia revered her mother and has demanded that her belongings be left untouched, the house like a shrine. Their father has remained in a state of limbo since his beloved wife’s sudden and accidental demise.

Addie, who appears to be something of a doormat, had a difficult relationship with her mother, Lizzie, never believing that she fulfilled her exacting demands and expectations. Lizzie had attained a PhD and worked at a university. She wanted greater things for Addie than her chosen career as a baker. The reader is offered more detail than I personally needed about baking.

As Addie and Venetia prepare to leave their father at the family home the doorbell rings. A stranger introduces herself as Phoebe Roberts and tells them that she is looking for Mrs Elizabeth Harrington née Holloway, that she has recently discovered that Lizzie is her birth mother. Phoebe was born on the same day as Addie.

What unfolds is the story of a gilded summer and its dark aftermath. In the later timeline Addie and Phoebe are trying to discover why they were seperated at birth. Neither girl had been told that the other existed. The secret has come to light only because Phoebe came across a notebook written by Elizabeth during her confinement and kept by Phoebe’s adoptive parents.

There are twists and turns aplenty as threads of the mystery are revealed. Wider outcomes are easy to guess but the detail and reasoning are presented at a pace and with sufficient depth to keep the reader engaged. It offers a salutory lesson for those who look back at life in the 1950s as cosy, safe and innocent. The author states:

“Lace-curtain respectability and pre-war propriety relegated women, who’d gained a foothold in the male-dominated society during the war, who’d worked and played and propped uo their country, back to home, hearth and family, subjecting them to the hypocrisy and double standards of a Victorian morality that tolerated little errant behaviour.”

The denoument was reached thanks to the type of coincidence that has to be accepted in a story such as this. I suffered irritations such as the diaries remaining hidden given where they were placed. However, my interest had been piqued and retained, the plot developed with a few clever twists.

A tale of the personal costs of the underlying cruelties inflicted on young women who dared to have sex before marriage, regarded by many as reasonable punishment for moral deviance. The epilogue was rather too twee for my tastes but this was a congenial if unchallenging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Defender

Defender, by GX Todd, is the first book in a proposed series set in a post-apocalyptic America. The Voices have arrived, from place unknown, with a purpose that is unclear. They occupy the minds of human hosts and fill their thoughts with despair. Mass murders and suicides follow. Those who are left must scavenge abandoned resources to survive. The breakdown of society results in everyone being deemed a potential threat, and with good cause.

Lacey is a teenager, protected from the ongoing social disintegration by her grandmother, until the old lady dies. Left alone in a remote farmhouse, Lacey concocts a plan that will enable her to join her older sister who lives many miles away.

Pilgrim encounters Lacey by the side of the road and is persuaded, against his better judgement, to offer her a lift. Pilgrim is swayed in his decisions by The Voice inside his head.

The pair set off together but almost immediately find themselves in mortal danger. It is the start of a fast paced, deadly adventure.

A disparate group led by two sadists are sifting towns they pass through for survivors. When they capture Lacey they regard her as a disposable plaything, until they realise that she has information of value. They have not counted on her determination, nor on Pilgrim’s decision to offer his protection.

The writing is taut and slick with the fast moving action keeping the reader engaged. The unrelenting violence felt exhausting in places – in many ways it reminded me of the Mad Max world.

The bad guys are very, very bad. The good guys are capable of exertion despite horrific injuries, a lack of sustenance and limited sleep. The world portrayed has many intriguing elements. Explanations are drip fed but often rather vague.

Although acknowledging the many strengths of this book I retain reservations. I appreciate that the bad guys’ behaviour is a part of the dystopian world created, but a more nuanced approach would have appealed.

This story would likely work well on screen, and it is an enjoyable enough read. In such a fictional world it feels churlish to desire more human realism.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Freefall

Freefall, by Adam Hamdy, is the second book in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy (you may read my review of the first here). Set across several continents it opens with a suicide in London, the depiction of which is chilling. The action then moves to Afghanistan where John Wallace, the photographer targeted in the first book in the series, has gone to hide from the world and grieve for his beloved Connie.

Several of the original cast return, although all have been damaged by their horrific experiences, referred to just enough to allow this to be a standalone read. Detective Patrick Bailey has eschewed therapy and turned to alcohol to cope with the lingering effects of his shooting. Over in New York FBI Agent Christine Ash is suffering her own nightmares. Her inability to trust colleagues, a result of her traumatic upbringing, will have deadly consequences.

Ash is convinced that the Pendulum case involved more than one man, that he did not work alone, but her boss remains unconvinced. Proof presents itself when Wallace comes under attack, first in his mountain retreat in Afghanistan and then in Kabul. The reach of a shadowy organisation with apparent links to Pendulum ensures that it is Wallace who is branded a terrorist after he flees the scene. When eventually taken into custody he discovers that nowhere is safe.

Short, pithy chapters keep the reader appraised of the action as it unfolds in key locations. With the forces of law and order compromised it becomes necessary to call on personal friends for assistance, including some wonderfully shady characters. The enemy, whoever they may be, show no mercy.

This is a high-octane, adrenaline fuelled thriller that powers along at unremitting pace yet never runs out of the energy and ingenuity to maintain reader engagement. Along with the gradual reveals, the denouement adds a twist that makes me eager for the next instalment already. An exhilarating, entertaining read.