Lockdown Reading Roundup 2

Tired of meeting that same person again and again for games of tennis? Bored of standing in hour long queues outside Homebase just to fight over the last tin of Ronseal? Why not pick up something new to read!? Here’s what I’ve liked recently:

a window breaksA Window Breaks by C. M. Ewan (Pan MacMillan, 2019)

The Sullivans – Tom, Rachel, and daughter Holly – head to a remote lodge in Scotland in an attempt to heal after the death of their eldest, Michael, in a car crash. Some peace away from the world starts to work its magic until Tom and Rachel wake up to the sound of breaking glass. This is the premise of C. M. Ewan’s latest novel A Window Breaks, a fast-paced thriller bursting with tense action and plot twists.

It puts me in mind of films like Hostage and Panic Room – not just because they are also home invasion stories (for instance, you absolutely couldn’t compare this to Funny Games, which has an entirely different vibe and purpose) – but because it has the feel of a tight, mid-budget action-thriller of the kind you don’t see so much anymore, the middle ground between indie and blockbuster having eroded over the last decade or so. And it’s a great shame because they can be so enjoyable – in this case, very enjoyable. I ripped through A Window Breaks in a few days, compulsively picking the book up every spare moment I had. (“I couldn’t put this down” is the blurber’s cliché but sometimes it’s just true.)

And for those who don’t have that same sense of nostalgia, there’s still plenty to dig into. The push and pull of Tom and Rachel’s rocky relationship is constantly creating further intrigue in the quieter moments before the action kicks off again. Also, the lodge, with its vast wine cellar, spa, cinema room, firepit, and views of the loch and the lush wilderness beyond taps into that cosy, lottery-win dream most people harbour somewhere inside them, and incidentally seems like an absolutely fucking fantastic place to isolate during the pandemic – minus the armed intruders, obviously.

I had the pleasure of reading at an event with C.M. Ewan at Granite Noir earlier this year, which you can read about here.

agencyAgency by William Gibson (Viking, 2020)

I’m a massive William Gibson fan. Neuromancer is one of my all-time favourite novels and I’ve enjoyed each Sprawl novel that came after, as well as the perfection that is his short story collection Burning Chrome that laid the framework for cyberpunk. His 2014 novel The Peripheral was an intriguing political/time travel thriller, and Agency is its long-awaited sequel.

I love the time travel model Gibson uses in these books – in the far future, people have found a way to communicate with the past, but each time they do, this communication creates a new parallel reality, called a ‘stub’. They can travel into that world by transferring their consciousness into a ‘peripheral’ but nothing they do in that past changes their own present because it’s an entirely different branch of time. I like this because it’s clean and makes sense compared to the spaghetti, loopy, maybe pre-destined fate style of time travel that you see in the likes of Back to the Future.

The action follows Lowbeer, a post-human detective/assassin that keeps the political world of her own time in balance, and Netherton, a hapless publicist who works for her, as they try to help stubs that have been tampered with by no-goodnicks out to experiment on other realities.

This time round, the stub in question is a few years ahead of our own present but differs in that Clinton won the US election in 2016 and Britain voted Remain in the Brexit referendum. (Gibson has stated he had a near finished draft of Agency ready in 2016 but after the shock results came in had to go back to square one, hence the long gap between books.) ‘Stub’ protagonist Verity Jane comes into contact with the world’s first sentient AI, Eunice, and goes up against shady tech bros who want to shut her down.

While the Gibson style is on full flow here – his obsession with the way tech and fashion interact is as fascinating as ever – I felt like the characters were mostly just strapped in for the ride. It’s quickly decided Eunice is a force for good and the characters follow her every instruction without question. There’s not much in the way of tension or twists like the previous instalment. That said, Gibson’s prose alone is still enough to keep me reading.

dark riverDark River by Rym Kechacha (Unsung Stories, 2020)

Dark River, the debut novel by Rym Kechacha, follows the parallel stories of two mothers on a journey to escape the rising waters of climate change – Shante, fleeing near future London, and Shaye, living 8,000 years ago in Doggerland, about to be swallowed by the growing channel.

I had the pleasure of reviewing this for a coming issue of Shoreline of infinity, here’s a sneak peek at what I wrote:

“The mother/child relationships are deep and joyful but constantly tempered with anxiety, which will feel true to any parent watching their child grow up, but even more so in such uncertain times as ours – the climate disaster looming, the immediate threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Dark River may be too close to the bone on these counts and will not make for comforting quarantine reading…

“Dark River is one of the most affecting and powerful science fiction novels of recent years. Not only is it timely and relevant, Kechacha’s writing is a work of art in itself. She imagines a way in which people might describe their world thousands of years ago and brings it to the page in an impressive demonstration of ability and ambition.”

This is the second book I’ve reviewed from independent publisher Unsung Stories (the first was Always North by Vicki Jarrett) and I’ve been blown away by the originality and quality of both. Definitely one to follow.

shoreline 17Shoreline of Infinity 17 (2020)

Never judge a book by its cover and all that, but wow is the cover of the latest Shoreline of Infinity striking! Inspired by Jeremy Nelson’s short story ‘Goatherd Inquisition’, artist Siobhan McDonald’s close up of The Inquisitor’s face, covered in tattooed circuitry, is gripping.

And if you have judged Issue 17 by its cover at this point, you won’t be disappointed when you start reading because inside is yet another top-quality collection of short stories and poetry from Scotland’s only SFF mag.

‘Weavers’ by S.A.M. Rundell is a beautiful piece of contemporary fantasy set in Glasgow, about a group of working-class people who can weave moments and memories to save them for posterity, commemorating the great and the small. ‘The Overwrite’ by Raymond W. Gallacher is a paranoid cyberpunk tale of sentient AI cities taking over the augments in peoples’ brains.

The top three entries for Shoreline’s 2019 flash fiction competition also appear. They are each sharp, funny, and shrewdly clever, and overall winner Simon Fung’s piece ‘Those Who Live by the Shawarma’ made me laugh out loud with its gleeful horror, reminiscent of a classic 2000 AD Future Shocks script. (Indeed, the artwork by Emily Simeoni certainly adds impact, though the less you know going into this one the better it is, so I’ll leave it at that!)

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