The Gone World

Buy THE GONE WORLD by Tom Sweterlitsch

NCIS detective Serena Moss is called in when a mother and child are found murdered, with the older daughter missing, presumed abducted. But Moss’s assignment isn’t simply due to them being a naval family. The suspect is the victims’ husband and father, but that’s impossible. He was an astronaut on board the USS Libra, a top secret spacecraft sent into the future, and which supposedly never came back.

Moss is assigned to the case because of her own experience travelling into the future, being sent forwards to arrive at a point after uncrackable cases have been solved so that she can come back with the necessary information to do it. On one of her journeys into the future she arrived at the moment of Terminus – the end of the world. Everyone else who has seen it comes back changed by the experience, and her leg wasn’t the only thing Moss lost from her time watching humanity’s chaotic, violent end.

As she pursues the culprits across the decades – whilst still trying to keep a grip on her life in the present – she slowly starts to realise what must have happened to the Libra. She travels in time to bring back the truth, but she might not be the only one doing that, and the truths others are bringing could have devastating consequences.

This novel is a really quite ambitious genre crash of a novel. It is alternately (and then altogether) hard crime, sci fi, horror and apocalyptic fantasy. At times it reads like a Stephen King novel that has been adapted into a film with a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino but directed by Prometheus/Alien: Covenant era Ridley Scott, and then novelised back into prose by someone who secretly likes Stephen King but who still has a bit of ambition to be taken seriously by literary critics (and who is a really, really big fan of Interstellar).

And most of the time, it works. The twisting plot bends paradoxes so far the novel does start to creak a bit in the second half, before everything (and quite literally everything) comes together for a breathless conclusion. I see a movie version is in the offing, possibly directed by Neill Blomkamp, which makes me curious wondering what they will simplify – and perhaps tone down – to make it accessible and palatable enough to justify the amount it will inevitably cost.

The Storm Keeper’s Island

Buy THE STORM KEEPER'S ISLAND by Catherine Doyle

Fionn and Tara Boyle’s mother has been avoiding Arranmore Island ever since their father died in an attempted lifeboat rescue that went disastrously wrong. Struggling to cope, she sends the pair of them back to Arranmore to stay with their grandfather, and that’s when Fionn discovers his (and the island’s) secret.

Malachy Boyle’s cottage is full of strange candles, named and labelled, including some that must never be allowed to go out, and others that must never be lit in the first place. Fionn finds out the hard way what happens when you mess around with these candles. They are effectively the levers controlling the island’s magic. Lighting a candle allows the bearer to peel back the layers of time and catch a glimpse of past eras when good and evil magicians fought their battles over Arranmore.

Old Malachy’s time as Storm Keeper is coming to an end, however. And that means ancient rivalries are coming to the fore once more as the established families jostle to offer the island a replacement. Fionn knows he’s not brave enough, but after visiting the past and being seen, he may have changed the course of the future already.

I loved books like this when I was younger, where the parents abandon the kids, send them off to a mysterious coastline, there are caves and magic and old secrets, and beastly local kids, and the shy boy finds out he’s the hero of the story after all. For a while it seemed as if this kind of tale had gone out of favour, when everyone was trying to go the Harry Potter route, or stories for this age group had gone darker or more urban.

Despite some modern trappings, this is a very traditional story. It might seem a bit churlish to call it old fashioned, but Catherine Doyle isn’t trying to reinvent any wheels here. She’s polished up an old one nicely, though, with sparkling, genuinely witty dialogue that brings her characters to life.

Bomber

Buy BOMBER by Paul Dowswell

It’s quite the culture shock for Brooklyn native Harry Friedman to leave the land of plenty and arrive in an England that has already been at war for four years – a country of rationed food, air raid sirens and shelled-out buildings. He isn’t given time to acclimatise, though. Barely has he got his feet on the ground when a B17 Flying Fortress landing at the airfield he has been posted to turns into a fireball.

This is not the heroic adventure the underage Harry thought he was signing up for based on the Pathe newsreels showing 3,000 miles away. Back there, you’re a hero if you complete 25 missions. Over here, you’re just a fairytale – hardly anybody lives long enough to do that. Once he’s understood that, Harry is determined to live every day in the moment, because tomorrow he might have to fly to face a faceless enemy for whom having a surname like Friedman will single him out.

For much of its length this is a more episodic, action-driven novel than many of Paul Dowswell’s others – focused on the events rather than the characters. Harry’s Jewishness is mostly just there to increase the suspense after his Flying Fortress is shot down over France in the second half of the novel, and his pairing off with a British sweetheart is more of a fantasy on his part than a developed relationship, seeing as they only really get a couple of scenes together.

To an extent the book reminded me of the film Dunkirk. We don’t really need to know any more about these people. They exist only in this moment, because it may be their last. Everything here is about the danger and tension of being the guy stuck in the transparent gun turret beneath a bomber plane that the Luftwaffe is desperate to stop reaching its target. And what happens next when the bomber crew fails their mission, and the Luftwaffe succeed in theirs.

Young Adolf

Buy YOUNG ADOLF by Beryl Bainbridge

Austrian expat and born-again Liverpudlian Alois Hitler is not looking forward to a visit from his younger brother Adolf. The Titanic may have just sunk in an ocean of hubris, but Europe obviously has a bright future ahead of it in which the oddball Adolf just doesn’t seem to fit. Alois knows why his sister paid for Adolf’s one-way ticket to England – to get him out of Austria and make him Alois’s problem instead.

Which is a role young Adolf fills with apparent fervour. Coming from months of wandering from hostel to hostel, getting to lounge about on Alois’s sofa and stew about a cruel world not appreciating his art from there instead is a big improvement. But Alois and his wife are not content to let this bone-idle egotist with ideas far, far above his station just annex their home. They insist he get a job. So he ends up as a hotel porter, which is where he becomes the patsy in some sort of criminal plot that may or may not also involve the strange bearded man Adolf keeps seeing around.

Nascent Nazis probably weren’t the usual heroes of such whimsical japes back when Beryl Bainbridge wrote this in the mid-70s, and to be honest, reading it these days it does seem a bit smug about the past not only being past but dead too. It’s positively dripping not with blood but with irony, and entirely self-consciously too. Bainbridge’s winking eye and nudging elbow is never very far from the page.

Writing a serious treatise about how a directionless, mercurial boy turns into a fascist isn’t her intention here, of course (so a couple of scenes giving a taste of young Adolf’s oratory skills and visiting the abusive past he and Alois suffered seem a tad incongruous). Here he’s just another underachieving drifter who thinks he deserves more than he’s getting. And maybe ultimately that’s her point. Within a few years there would be plenty of angry young men just like him. And if Hitler hadn’t become Hitler, somebody else probably would have done.

I, Coriander

Buy I CORIANDER by Sally Gardner

Coriander Hobie is growing up in the 1650s – Cromwell’s England. Her mother is a woman with secrets, but when she dies, Coriander fears those secrets may have died with her. Unfortunately for her, she soon has bigger things to worry about. Her father, never the most discreet of Royalist sympathisers, is warned that he should take a Puritan wife to prove he has had a genuine change of heart.

The plan doesn’t work, and he has to flee certain death, leaving Coriander behind with Maud, her new stepmother. Maud is the embodiment of the cruelty of ignorance. Under the sway of a fundamentalist preacher (the wonderfully named Arise Fell), she subjects the household to the pernicious meanness of puritanism, which eventually results in Coriander being shut in an old wooden chest as a punishment.

Her good god-fearing guardians haven’t even decided whether they will let her out in a couple of days or leave her in there to die. But they don’t get the chance to do either. Because Coriander has found another way out of the chest – one that leads to another world.

This is very much a novel of two halves, but halves that are somewhat splintered and spread around the entire book. Having read it back to back with Sally Gardner’s The Red Necklace, I couldn’t help but make comparisons, and during the half set in the real world, I tended to feel it was the better book. Less so during the half set in the fantasy world.

The historical half of the novel is suitably grubby and dripping with the usual injustices of political and religious oppression, which help give the more whimsical fairytale elements of the other half (it’s a bit like Cinderella finding a way to Narnia instead and not giving that prince’s ball a second thought) a bit more of an edge. I wanted to read more of the latter, which largely revolves around revelation of back story. Everything comes to a close very quickly, and I was left feeling as if this was just the start of a series.

The Red Necklace

Buy THE RED NECKLACE by Sally Gardner

Young gipsy Yann gets to see it all, living in Paris in 1789 and being part of a unique magic act. Along with his mentors Tetu and Topolain, Yann is hired to give an exclusive death-defying performance for a gluttonous Marquis, his generally unloved young daughter Sido, and his aristocratic friends, including the malevolent Count Kalliovski. The performance ends in disaster, and Yann is forced to flee for his life.

Three years later Yann is living safely in London, whilst France devolves from Revolution to Terror. He doesn’t think he has any reason to return home, but then he hears stories that young Sido is facing the wrath of the Revolutionary courts, that Count Kalliovski is behind a dastardly plot, and that maybe Yann wasn’t the only one of the magicians to have secretly survived that fateful night. Back to France he goes, but it is a country that he barely recognises any more.

A Tale of Two Cities would have gone a lot differently had Sydney Carton been able to wield Jedi-like powers, and that’s pretty much the thrust of this story. It’s an indulgent book, in only the good ways, and is entirely unpatronising towards its target readers. It doesn’t gloss over the brutal violence of mass executions or indeed anything about the adult world – the storming of the Bastille is covered from the perspective of a guy too busy with a woman to notice.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Buy ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. She’s stuck camping around the base of Maslow’s pyramid, but has long convinced herself that that’s where she belongs, that that’s about as much as she deserves. After all, as her mother is always more than happy to tell her, Eleanor is pretty much just a waste of skin.

Eleanor’s life follows a predictable and safe routine. She goes to work and avoids her colleagues, wearing the same clothes and eating the same lunch every day. Only her Wednesday night contact with her mother breaks up the week. Every Friday she buys two bottles of vodka, which see her through nicely until Monday. She has a crush on a local musician, and allows herself plenty of time to fantasise about a future together where she could escape all of this.

But she doesn’t have as long to wait for her life to be upturned. That happens the day she is out on the street with one of her co-workers, Raymond, and a stranger collapses in front of them. Drawn into Raymond’s act of basic compassion and inadvertently helping the man, Eleanor suddenly finds her life changing – improving – in myriad tiny but significant ways.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine treads a not unfamiliar path, introducing this lonely oddity and then revealing (quickly – this isn’t a spoiler) that she’s a victim of child abuse. It’s such a strong paean to surviving, however, that it seems a bit churlish to criticise its unoriginality on that front, especially when Eleanor’s voice is so engaging – even when she says, does or thinks things that make her isolation superficially easy to understand.

I did worry that the story was veering towards having Eleanor saved by a man and I wonder whether in an earlier draft things did head further in that direction. Regardless, I think the ending it has is the one that suits it best – quiet hope replacing silent suffering.

Red Shadow

Buy RED SHADOW by Paul Dowswell

Misha lives a life apart from most Soviet citizens. His father being one of Stalin’s private secretaries, his home is within the Kremlim, his plate is always full (even when the German betrayal in early 1941 brings food shortages) and his path towards membership of the Communist Party looks to be quite smooth.

But Misha isn’t blind to the fact that the foundations of his society are built over the graves of communism’s victims. Ever since his mother was arrested (and presumed executed) on exaggerated charges of treason, he’s been well aware that his is a world where the truth can only rarely be whispered and rumours can get you shot. Yet he knows also that Stalin is not the statue or the poster that he is to others, but a mulish chain-smoker who has to be cosseted and coaxed into making a decision, and who fully understands the power of propaganda.

The onslaught of the Nazis, crossing hundreds of miles of Soviet lands within weeks, promises to change everything, though. As even some within Stalin’s inner circle begin to contemplate defeat, fingers begin to be pointed. It’s not safe to be a boy with doubts about communism when that happens.

Of all the Paul Dowswell books I’ve read, this is probably the most uneventful. Misha doesn’t have the kind of adventure many of Dowswell’s other heroes do. Indeed, he is largely trapped, on every level, and that’s what the novel is really about – his growing awareness that everyone in the Soviet Union is a prisoner of some sort, and that some people are hoping to get better gruel by currying favour with the guards.

Building on what he did in Sektion 20, Dowswell depicts life in a dictatorship as increasingly cloying, a house of cards that everyone is pretending is a beautiful castle built on a rock, and those who don’t pretend hard enough need to be cast out. It’s a suffocating existence, and by the time the Nazis appear to be closing in, they seem largely a metaphor for who else has already tried to crush Misha, his friends and his mother.

The Island at the End of Everything

Buy THE ISLAND AT THE END OF EVERYTHING by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Amihan lives an apparently idyllic existence on the island of Culion. She and her mother live in a quiet, laidback village surrounded by friendly neighbours, their lives revolving around school, church and trips to the palm-shaded beaches that surround their forested island home. But Culion is not really the paradise Amihan can see, and she’s old enough now to properly understand why. Culion is a leper colony.

This doesn’t really matter to Amihan, though, until the appearance of the fastidious Mr Zamora. Zamora is an evangelical bureaucrat, a suited zealot on a mission from Manila to isolate all those who have been touched by leprosy and remove healthy children from their affected parents. This means Amihan must leave her mother and the only home she has ever known for an island of strangers, from which Culion is only visible on a clear day. There’s only one way she will ever get to go back, but she’s not going to be able to manage it on her own.

When a book is so wonderfully written as this one, what flaws it has become all the more apparent, but at the same time are easier to accept. I felt the ’30 years later’-style extended epilogue unnecessary, and that the pace slowed to a bureaucratic churn when Zamora became the one driving the plot for a while in the middle, but those niggles aside, this is still beautifully written, and a story that felt modern yet still with a certain timeless quality at the same time.

Zamora might be a drag on the pace for a few chapters, but he is still the richest character in the story – unforgivable, yet never evil; his small-mindedness balanced against his strange, strange love for butterflies. But at the end of the day, his desire to preserve their beauty forever by killing and pinning them captures the unrecognised turmoil that he both inhabits and creates for everyone around him. He’s drawn with a complexity that’s unusual for books supposedly aimed at this age group.

The Executioner’s Daughter

Buy THE EXECUTIONER’S DAUGHTER by Jane Hardstaff

Moss has only ever seen the world outside the Tower of London through iron bars. The vicarious life she lives through people she encounters leaves her feeling safer where she is, protected by the Tower’s battalion, and her father. But then, when you’re the daughter of the man who lops off the heads of the enemies of the state, it’s not as if you get to mix with the cream of society.

Yet Moss is curious about the outside world all the same. It’s a place full of secrets, including those about Moss’s own past. All she has are fragments of stories, perhaps mythical, about her dead mother, and an old curse. When she finds a secret passage that leads out of the Tower, Moss can’t resist exploring. But the kind of people who need a secret passage to get in and out of the Tower are not the sort Moss should mess with. Maybe her father was telling the truth about the world out here after all.

Despite that title, this is quite a sweet story, not dripping in blood, and more grimy than gritty. It’s full of colourful characters (not least the suitably salty orphan chancer Salter, a boy straight out a Dickens tale), and whilst the ‘is-it-real-or-is-it-imagined?’ nature of some of the more fantastical elements didn’t always work for me, it’s a fast paced and vividly told adventure, and made me want to check out the sequel.