A(nother) Review: White Bodies by Jane Robins

This is a funny time of year. Something seems to happen at around May/June every year where I get book fatigue. Of reading them, of writing about them. I wonder if it’s weather related, or if it’s just burn out.

 

It could be because I tend to read books four or five months in advance of when they come out, and the autumn is a quieter time for Fiction. It tends to focus on the big blockbusters, which is fab for them, but they’re not the sort of books I read. (Although, I am looking forward to the new Stephen King: Sleeping Beauties)

 

I like discovering new writers, and there are only a few brand authors who I follow. So, much to my delight, a debut novel, set for publication in late December crossed my desk – White Bodies by Jane Robins

 

This is a book about Callie a bookseller who begins to worry about her vibrant actress sister, when she falls in love Felix and begins to retreat inside her self.

 

Worried that Felix is abusing her sister, Callie begins to investigate.

 

The book actually begins at Felix’s funeral, Callie herself worried her role in his death is going to get found out. His death is not the focal point of this story, it’s the relationship between her Callie and her sister Tilda.

 

What Callie doesn’t seem to realise is that as Tilda falls under the spell of Felix, Callie herself is freed from being in Tilda’s thrall.

 

What follows is a twisting, unexpected rollercoaster ride of a novel, which just as you think you know where it’s going sends you lurching off into another direction.

 

It’s a little tricky to keep up with at times, and the ending does have you flicking back through to understand how it all ties together.

 

At the end you are left feeling you do know what is going on, but there is some room for doubt. As a result, it is a little but unsatisfying, but it does keep you guessing all the way through.

 

Sometimes, it’s only as I write these reviews, that I can reconcile how I feel about these books, and ultimately, as I struggle to find something to say about this book, I realise that White Bodies has left me wanting.

 

It’s by no means a bad book – I’ve read much, much worse – but this is fairly average fare. A convoluted and confusing plot coupled with an odd lead character (she eats her sister’s hair) means there’s not a lot the reader can engage with.

 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the one to help me conquer my book fatigue.

 

White Bodies is published by HQ on 28th December 2017

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Sometimes you come across a story that’s so unique it sort of blows your mind a little. It’s not often it happens, though, because as we all know, there are only about seven basic plots – they’re all just re-told with different words, different names and different combinations.

 

Hex tells the story of Black Spring, a small town in North America haunted by a witch. Katherine van Wyler was killed by the residents of the town three hundred and fifty years previously… but came back.

 

Possessing unique powers that caused people to kill themselves, some residents stitched up her eyes and mouth, rendering her nearly harmless.

 

Yet still she wanders the streets of the town. The residents have become accustomed to her presence, and have mostly accepted her as part of their lives. Appearing in their dining rooms during dinner, they throw blankets over her and carry on with their meals.

 

There is one price they have to pay. Once the residents are in her grip they find themselves unable to leave Black Spring for any length of time. After some time, two or three weeks, they are irresistibly drawn to kill themselves.

 

The townsfolk must stay in Black Spring, but in order to protect anyone else from Katherine, they must protect her from the rest of the world.

 

The idea of a haunting is not new, but the idea of this town being so accustomed to her that she is almost like a pet was so intriguing. I can understand the sudden appearance of this woman in your house being so incredibly creepy, but I’m not sure I can understand ever getting used to it. It’s an unbelievable scenario, yet somehow Heuvelt makes it completely believable.

 

Obviously, things start to go wrong. A group of children are curious, they have phones, they make recordings, and it starts a chain of events that cannot be stopped.

 

Despite the obvious supernatural element, I’m not sure I would describe this book as horror. It’s tense and creepy, definitely, but it’s not initially gory.

 

This is a book about small town paranoia last seen (by me at least) in Stephen King’s Under the Dome – in that context, Hex is nothing new.

 

A small American town is cut off from the rest of the world – either physically or culturally – through some supernatural event, and their relationships become more and more strained, building to a dramatic climax.

 

The characters in Hex are real. The author has taken a real community and put something extraordinary in it. Too often, books like this are about the extraordinary, and the characters and society around it are moulded to fit it.

 

Katherine doesn’t fit in in Black Spring to the point that it becomes a fascinating point of contrast. We don’t ever see things from her point of view, but I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking. This witch with stitched up eyes and lips felt real to me, entirely because the town felt real.

 

I was describing it to someone at work who said they didn’t read horror and I tried to explain why that didn’t matter. Katherine is the stimulus for the plot, the cause of tension between the characters, but the story isn’t actually about her.

 

It’s about mob mentality and the paranoia of human beings when things start to go wrong. A huge amount of Hex could be kept the same if Katherine the witch was substituted for Kevin the sex offender (not casting any aspersions on any Kevin’s out there). Who and what the antagonist is, doesn’t matter.

 

Except for the ending. Without giving too much away, it was a little confusing. Imagine a meteor hitting a shopping centre and trying to explain in ten pages or so everything that happened to every one of the thousands of people in the shopping centre.

 

The trouble is, I wanted to know what happened, but I also didn’t have a spare five months to read about it, and the writer knew that. So, it was condensed, and I felt in some cases it might have been worth not learning what happened to some characters in order to focus on some of the others.

 

Our main character, Steve Grant, didn’t witness everything that happened at the end, and despite the fact that the book moved viewpoints throughout, I would have preferred the end to stay with him. The emotional impact of the ending would have been far greater.

 

That’s not to say it wasn’t great, but I can’t really talk about it without spoiling it too much. Suffice to say that if and when the TV series currently being developed by Warner Brothers does go ahead, it will make an epic end of season cliffhanger.

 

A strangely believable setting with a strong cast of characters, this tale of small town paranoia is definitely worth a read when it gets released in hardback at the end of April.

 

It’s not revolutionary, but damn, I’m not sure I’ll ever get past that creepy witch.

 

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt scores an impressive 4.3 out of 5

Alex Call on Stephen King On Writing

There are shedloads of books out there about how to write. How to write a screenplay, how to write a bestseller, how to write a novel, how to write a children’s book, etc.

There are countless more blogs out there on writing, of which this one is just the equivalent of a tiny grain of sand on a vast beach.

But there is one book, which is widely accepted as the definitive work on the subject. Over the years, so many people have advised me to read it, recommended it, mentioned it – but I’ve never read it.

At least until recently, when I stumbled upon a copy of it during a recent undercover trip to check out the competition at Waterstones. I always make a point of looking for two books whenever I’m in a bookstore – The Uncle’s Story by Witi Ihimaera (my all-time favourite book, and I want a spare copy, just in case) – and On Writing.

Being a great believer in fate, that having kept my eyes open for it for various year, when I saw it, I bought it – even if it was from the enemy. Even the cashier said to me that it was extremely popular, and that usually when they got a copy it sold straight away.

The book is partly an autobiography – ‘this is how I did it, and this is how I do it’ – but it works for it, because there is no one way to be a writer.

There were some bits that I was completely amazed by – the bit where he talked about a book being like a fossil in the ground and all you had to do was find it, completely matches my own comparison when I talk about writing – and some bits that I was annoyed by.

Ultimately, though, Stephen King On Writing is the only book on writing you’ll ever need, because it reaffirms that you don’t learn to write fiction by reading a how-to guide.

You learn to write fiction by reading fiction, and by writing fiction.

I suppose I’d best get on with it.