‘The Supernatural Enhancements’ by Edgar Cantero

CB-DR-Jul-The-Supernatural-EnhancementsI knew absolutely nothing about The Supernatural Enhancements before it dropped through my letterbox but I was immediately taken with its premise. Unsolicited books rarely work their way to the top of my embarrassingly large to-be-read pile, but Edgar Cantero’s novel was intriguing enough warrant a climb to the summit. I’m so glad I did. This genuinely scary, offbeat mystery is a contender for my book of 2015.

The novel opens with ‘A’ (that’s a much as we ever find out of his name) arriving in small town America to accept his inheritance; a mansion and almost unlimited funds. Axton House is a large country pile recently vacated by a distant cousin. The sting in the tail? Cousin Ambrose died “jumping out of his bedroom window” (“forgetting to open it first”) as did Ambrose’s father before him. Accompanying ‘A’ is Niamh, a young mysterious teenager from Ireland with whom ‘A’ has a complicated and somewhat dubious relationship.

The set up is a classic Scooby Doo haunted mansion. Mysterious noises, strange bumps, shorting light bulbs. There’s a botched break-in with nothing apparently stolen. And where did the butler go?

The story is told through a variety of different media – Letters, diaries and transcripts of audio and video recordings. There are excerpts from textbooks and newspaper clippings, also pages of old code books. The Supernatural Enhancements is a classic horror-noir investigation, all done with a knowing smile. Some might find the arch tone irritating but I enjoyed it.

An untimely thunder comes rumbling along – one that might have fit better at some other key point in the dialogue.”

The setting and incidental characters reminded me of Twin Peaks. The book style and subject matter is reminiscent of House of Leaves. At the risk of obviating all my reviewing credentials, I didn’t really like House of Leaves. I think possibly I didn’t get it. The Supernatural Enhancements was what I hoped Danielewski’s much fêted brick of a novel would be. It mixes differing media to construct a beguiling and exciting tale. I also found it scary. I don’t very often become nervous when reading, but Cantero genuinely had me holding my breath as I read on, tiptoeing quietly down Axton House’s darkened halls.

The plot is a fascinating construction that led me to unexpected places. The tone and the ideas in the book are fresh and interesting. I’m not sure it will suit everybody’s tastes, but in a year where I have struggled to enjoy many books, The Supernatural Enhancements stands out as unlooked for and unexpected gem.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey UK for sending me a copy of the book. 

 

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The Versions of Us – The new wave of the parallel universe

slidingdoors1This piece first appeared on GeekDad on 16/8/2015 

Parallel universes have long been a mainstay of science fiction. They are an attractive proposition, allowing the exploration of themes and ideas in familiar surroundings, whilst breaking free from the rigidity of the story being set at home. Throw in some time-travel and a bit of alternate history and you have pretty much covered two-thirds of works in the SF genre. (I pluck that figure out of the air; in your universe it may be different).

Worlds with wormholes, where Hitler won, and quantum leaps are abundant across the genre, but recently I’ve noticed the parallel universe has started to make an appearance in more mainstream, literary forms. Sliding Doors’ novels have started to turn up in the front windows of bookshops and on broadsheet bestseller lists. It seems that more traditional authors have suddenly caught up with the storytelling potential of the parallel universe.

I’ve read six sliding doors novels recently, all appearing in differing places along the speculative spectrum.

The least science fictional of the my choices is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. The story here forks from a chance meeting between two Oxford students on a dark night in 1938. The narrative splits into three prongs. One where the couple date and get married, one where they split up and another where the initial meeting never happens.

After the initial split, the three narratives don’t really interact with one another. There’s no crossing of the time-streams. What Barnett does though is show how life can take many paths and how all be filled with difficult trials and moments of joy. She cleverly shows how contentment in one aspect in your life can cause you to drop the ball in another and how adversity can spur on endeavor. The novel’s cleverest trick is to build up a three-dimensional picture of its characters. In a conventional narrative we only see characters from one perspective. Here Barnett uses each story like a camera lens aimed at different angles. We get to see how characters might respond to the same situation under different pressures, giving us a more rounded view. The Versions of Us is a story about life, how to live it and how not to regret the bits that you didn’t.

Similar, and my favorite of the novels mentioned here is Jo Walton’s My Real ChildrenWalton gives us two narratives that alternate with each chapter of the book, starting from a marriage proposal and the question, “Now or never?” Her Real Children is more overtly science fiction than The Versions of Us, with two parallel universes that differ subtly from our own. I particularly enjoyed the way Walton handled her alternate histories. They are subtle enough to make you almost miss them, then have to back up a sentence or two to fully take in what just happened. Much like The Versions of Us, this novel shows there is more than one path to happiness. It’s a beautiful meditation on the wonders of family life and a gentle reminder that now matter how progressive each generation thinks it is, their children will always be able to chuck them the occasional curve ball.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is a sprawling novel, that is not so much about parallel universes but stacking ones. Ursula’s life keeps repeating. After she dies, on the next repeat, she is able to avoid it, and continue on, having had a narrow escape. Her lives branch out from dying immediately after being born, into numerous different stories; some happy, some sad, some mundane, and some momentous.

Much of the story occurs during World War II, both in England and Germany. Atkinson paints a vivid portrait of wartime on both sides of the divide. There is a clever feathering of Ursula’s lives throughout, with central characters in some strands turning up as passers-by in others. Atkinson is one of my favorite writers. Her writing style is second to none and her powers of observation are acute and accurate. Life After Life is a novel about potential. If it has a message, it’s that we only have one life and we should try to make the most of it.

slidingdoors2The science fiction elements of Life after Life are small, but Claire North’s, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is out and out SF. It’s the first of these books mentioned to have been published by an SFF imprint (Orbit). After death, Harry August returns to the point of his birth still able to remember everything that has gone before. For each of his incarnations, he returns to the start with the sum total of the knowledge he’s acquired. He is living a Groundhog Life.

It turns out there are a number of these so-called “kalachakrans,” each looking out for one another as part of a parallel universe-spanning secret society. When Harry receives a message handed down from the future that the world is soon to end, he endeavors to find out what’s going on and save not just his current universe, but countless others. Featuring the Cold War, time travel, and quantum physics, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an intricate construction and makes for an invigorating read.

If North’s novel is more overtly SF than my other choices, David Wingrove’s Empire of Time by comparison is a DeLorean on top of a police box, bolted onto a Star Destroyer. This book is as SF as they come. Time travel has been made possible but has led to an eternal conflict between Germany and Russia. Set (mostly) in medieval Europe, World War Two, and the far future, Empire of Time is a bamboozling tale of time-altering plots and counter-plots, with people popping up to mess things up when you least expect them. It’s an absolute riot. If its SF credentials were in any doubt, Empire of Time is the first book of a trilogy.

My final pick for parallel universes is a wonderful multi-threaded novel about science fiction writing and the creation of fictional parallel universes. The central conceit of Jake Arnott’s The House of Rumour is that science fiction writers of the 1940s were tasked with helping out intelligence agencies during World War II. They were asked to propagate rumours in their stories of technological innovations that may or may not have been true.

The House of Rumour flits about time periods like an attention-deficient butterfly, rarely settling anywhere for long. Arnott blends fact, fiction, and facts about fiction in wonderfully inventive manner. His meandering plot and peculiar structure (around a tarot deck) won’t suit all tastes, but the book was unlike anything I’d read before. Arnott is perhaps more famous for writing sparse 1960s gangster novels, and House of Rumour marked a massive departure for him. It is definitely his finest moment. A brilliantly constructed, fiercely intelligent novel, soaked in the golden age of science fiction, with nested parallel universes. What’s not to like?

I enjoyed all these parallel universe novels immensely. “What if?” is an idea that continues to inspire a wide variety of writers into producing some wonderful fiction. I’m sure there are many more universes to be explored. Has anybody else read any great parallel universe stories recently? What are the classics of the genre that should not be missed? Please add your suggestions in the comments.

I received a copies of The Version of Us, Life After Life, My Real Children, and The Empire of Time for review. 

The Book of Slaves – ‘The Hunter’s Kind’ by Rebecca Levene

1603_HuntersKind_PPCRebecca Levene’s The Hunter’s Kind was my most hotly anticipated book of 2015. It’s the direct sequel to 2014’s excellent Smiler’s Fair and the second book in The Hollow Gods series. If you haven’t read Smiler’s Fair you should stop reading this review now.

The problem with hotly anticipated titles is that sometimes there is tendency to over-inflate in your mind just how good they are going to be. It doesn’t help that my memory is not what it used to be. I remembered that the end of Smiler’s Fair is brilliant, and that it has an amazing cliff-hanger leaving me desperate to read more, but one year on, could I remember what that cliff-hanger was? I could not.

The start of The Hunter’s Kind gave no clues either. There appears to be nothing cliff-hanger resolving in the opening hundred pages, and I must confess, I struggled a little to remember what I’d got so excited about.  The summer of 2015 has been tumultuous here in the house of Brooks, and my reading has been fragmented and distracted. I’ve found it very hard to force my way into anything. And so it was with The Hunter’s Kind. 

I felt like I was going through the motions. I couldn’t get on with the characters like I had in Smiler’s Fair, yet they were the same characters. What was going on? It was only on finishing I was able to work it out. Levene has pulled the street-artist trick of drawing a picture that is apparently formless right up until the final few touches are made, at which point all is revealed. The audience can only stand back and say, “Woah! That’s awesome.” Because it is. The novel slow burns to a white hot conclusion.

The Hollow Gods, so faris a genesis story; that of Krish as he wrestles with taking on the mantle of the Moon God, Yron. In truth it’s a rebirth rather than a genesis. Yron was killed a thousand years earlier, by Sun God Mizhara, who, horrified by the destruction she wrought in defeating her brother, subsequently ceased to exist. She left behind her followers, and he his. We now watch as the two sides react to Yron’s return. It’s the same with the novel’s other characters. Unlike most fantasy novels, where the central players are the agents of change, In The Hunter’s Kind we have a rapidly changing world with the characters reacting to those changes.

The book contains a sizeable ensemble cast and the narrative jumps between points of view. No one thread picks up a head of steam until towards the novel’s end when all sorts of interesting things start happening. There are a number of political plotlines, which didn’t engage me quite so much. I had started to question whether they could have been cut from the book entirely, until the very end, when it becomes apparent that all that has gone before has bearing on the characters’ actions as they react to the novel’s epic final scenes.

Once again Levene has created a story that takes place in a fully credible world, a feat rare for fantasy novels. Apart from the obvious differences in technology and magic, Levene’s world is one in which real humans might live. There are no absolutes, merely points of view. Krish has most of the world trying to kill him, but he is not evil. He’s just a young man trying to understand why most of the world wants to kill him. He’s told that he is a god, but what does that mean?

Krish tries to do good, but nothing works out the way he expects it to. Levene captures brilliantly the downfall of many leaders and statesmen – The law of unintended consequences. That’s how the real world works; try to make one thing better, you often make something else worse. Usually, with hindsight, a something that ought to have been obvious. These sorts of consequences are rare in fantasy fiction though. Most novels are simple cause and effect; destroy the ring, save the world. Levene has created something more subtle, complex and, above all, human.

I didn’t quite enjoy The Hunter’s Kind as much as Smiler’s Fair, but I read the closing chapters of both with the same sense of awe. Levene is creating something I’ve not really encountered in fantasy fiction before, a story that is unfolding to create a credible history. The novel works on both the personal level of the characters but also as the unfolding of myth. This volume hasn’t left me hanging quite like the end of book 1, but there are revelations aplenty before the end. Answers are given, but just as many questions are posed. I’m fascinated to find out how the ages-old battle between Yron and Mizhara will unfold, and more, how it’s going to affect the series’ central players. The Hollow Gods is settling down into something very special, and once again I am left hankering for more.

Many Thanks to Anne and the team at Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book.    

Guest Post: Car-Jacked by Ali Sparkes

carjackedFor one paragraph, I hand over to my son, aged 9, who wanted me to help him tell everybody how good Car-Jacked is. 

Jack Mattingly is 12. He is a genius. He has an IQ of 170. He speaks fluent Mandarin and Latin. When the car is hi-jacked he is as clueless as the rest of of us. But the car-jacker does not know he is inside and it can’t be long before he finds out and then anything could happen. As Jack travels to London he is scared and thrilled and this is surely the most exiting thing in his life. While he is away he has sugar, the thing his mum despises him having. His parents miss him so much that when they see him they will be ecstatic. The book was good because it was exiting all the way through. Each page has something exciting on it.

This book is so good, I made my dad read it.

He’s right he did. And he’s right this is a great book. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re aged 9-14. I suspect my son is a little young to have picked up everything in the book, but he certainly devoured it in record time. Car-Jacked is a fast-paced children’s thriller, that entertains from start to finish. The book’s two central characters, genius Jack and his unwitting carjacker are brilliantly drawn. They take centre stage as an intriguing mystery unfolds. Grown-ups might be forced to swallow their disbelief a few too many times, but I think the twists and turns are pitched perfectly for the target audience.

Car-Jacked poses some interesting questions about right and wrong, whilst also questioning whether parents are always right. From first page until last there is something interesting. I love that my son decided to report that Jack has sugar during his escapade, and important part of the book, but perhaps not the most dramatic!  Jack’s genius status allows him the good fortune to be in possession of some fascinating information of interest to kids of all ages. This book came highly recommend by children’s book reviewer Amanda Craig. She rarely puts a foot wrong, and Car-Jacked is another excellent novel to add to an ever-growing list of wonderful children’s fiction.