Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground hbTitle: Under Ground
Author:
S.L. Grey
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 July 2015 (UK); August 2015 (SA and Commonwealth
Genre: 
horror, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

The world freaks out over a deadly new super-virus, and when the first confirmed cases hit the US, five families rush to their condos in The Sanctum – a luxury survival bunker situated fifty feet underground in rural Maine. The Sanctum is designed to be self-sustaining, stylish and comfortable. Besides offering fresh food, clean air and water, sanitation and maximum security, it also has a gym, medical bay and recreation room, as well as TV and internet access so the residents can stay in contact with the outside world (and watch the apocalypse go down) for as long as possible.

In theory it’s a brilliant idea. For the owner, Greg Fuller, it sounds like a fantastic way to make a ton of cash off the rich and paranoid. For the few with the cash to buy in, it’s not only a good bet for survival but an opportunity to avoid the apocalypse altogether.

But it also means getting locked up with paranoid strangers in a confined, sterile space (where everything is obviously going to go to shit), and a lot depends on who those people are and how they handle the situation. James and Victoria Maddox are a pair of yuppies with marriage issues who rock up in designer clothes, carting Cristal and crates of gourmet dog food for their shih tzu. Cait, an au pair, is supposed to fly home to Joburg, but all the flights get cancelled and her boss, Tyson, basically kidnaps her by dragging her along to The Sanctum without even telling her where they’re going. It’s a blessing for Tyson’s daughter Sarita, at least: her mother died recently and Cait’s been caring for her while her father becomes increasingly distant. Jae is a gamer who, besides having to deal with lagging wifi, is worried about his mother’s health problems and the fact that his father almost never leaves the house. And then there are the Guthries – the racist, fanatically religious, gun-toting rednecks…

Of course everyone arrives at a frightening, high-pressure time, and their paranoia is particularly apparent when the final family arrives late with a sickly old woman whose presence sparks fears of infection. And once they’re settled, it becomes obvious that the owner, Greg, has been cutting corners and The Sanctum isn’t quite the haven they paid for.

Then a body is found, and everyone faces the prospect of being locked in a bunker with a murderer who could pick them off one by one.

I really like the way the novel uses this fairly simple premise of a locked-rom mystery to explore all the complex ways in which the characters and their relationships shift or shatter under the pressure. It’s why I asked Louis Greenberg for a guest post on the characters he and Sarah Lotz chose for The Sanctum, and it’s something I wanted to expand on in this review.

As always in these sorts of stories, you’ve got a couple of decent, sane people who mostly get along and try their best to handle a difficult situation. There’s one in each family and they are our POV characters (the chapters alternate between them). There are a few weak people who, to the cold-hearted, will look like a liability. There are a couple of idiots and assholes who whine or put others at risk with their histrionics. And then there’s the real trouble – the Guthries.

They represent a whole package of threats – racial violence, religious fanaticism, sexual assault, physical violence. Father, Cam and son, Brett were not happy about having to hand over all their guns after arrival, and everyone wonders if they’re still hiding a few. They treat the dilemma like a combat situation, arming themselves with knives and standing guard as if they were soldiers. Brett unabashedly refers to Jae as “the chink” (he’s half Korean) and stares at Cait with such naked lust that she’s afraid of running into him alone. At one point, as she furiously debates whether or not it’s safe to use the swimming pool, she reflects on how she’s never had the luxury of worrying about monsters because real men like Brett have always been the bigger threat. Bonnie Guthrie went into some kind of Christian overdrive after Cam stole her inheritance to buy into The Sanctum (he doesn’t take kindly to criticism from women, so now she just prays more), and she’s worried about the unholy influences the neighbours might have on her daughter Gina (the only decent person among them).

The Guthries are the worst of neighbours and the most hateful of characters (except for Gina), but that also makes them crucial to the plot, simply because they’re so provocative. It’s not just about the rednecks vs the rest though; the novel really digs into the way all sorts of tension plays out between the characters. There’s the sexual tension of a budding relationship, a secret affair, and the desperate sex borne of fear and loneliness. Wealthier characters lord it over others, or are assumed to. Bullies like Brett and Cam might be obvious threats, but it gives their victims suspicious motives for retaliation too.

In this claustrophobic space where survival suddenly depends on the relationships you have with the people around you, all the little details of human interaction have ripple effects – an act of kindness, a rude word, a glance that lasts too long. What I enjoyed most about the novel is the way this all plays out while conditions in The Sanctum get progressively worse. It’s not quite what I’d call horror (although it definitely would be if I were actually locked up there), but it’s exactly the kind of psychological thriller I love to get wrapped up in.

I never guessed who the murderer was though, and that’s another plus. Mystery novels have to work pretty hard to keep their secrets hidden, and this one managed to surprise me. I think the ending might divide readers, but I liked that it made me stop to think about the book and go back to look for the details I’d missed.

So, overall, Under Ground is a gripping, well-written thriller from S.L. Grey. These guys know how to write characters and make them suffer in all the right ways.

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Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

slgrey-ug-photo

S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

UG debossed

I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

Giveaway: The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Morning everyone! As promised I’ve got another giveaway for you. This one’s a mystery with dark family secrets to uncover, and the book is valued at R145.

The Silent Sister

The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain (Pan Macmillan)

What if everything you believed was a lie?

Riley MacPherson is returning to her childhood home in North Carolina. A place that holds cherished memories. While clearing out the house she finds a box of old newspaper articles – and a shocking family secret begins to unravel.

Riley has spent her whole life believing that her older sister Lisa died tragically as a teenager. But now she’s starting to uncover the truth: her life has been built on a foundation of lies, told by everyone she loved.

Lisa is alive. Alive and living under a new identity. But why exactly was she on the run all those years ago, and what secrets are being kept now?

As Riley tries to separate reality from fiction, her discoveries call into question everything she thought she knew about her family. (Goodreads)

To Enter:

1. Share this post on Twitter or Facebook.

2. Leave a comment on this blog post and link to the shared post or your profile so I know you’ve completed step one. If you use Facebook, you also have the option of just clicking “share” on the relevant post on my page; as long as I can see that you’ve shared.

Rules:
 – South Africa only.
– Entries are open until midnight on Monday 12 June. I will announce the winner on Tuesday 13 June.
– Just to be clear, you’re only entered if you leave a comment on this post, AND I can see that you’ve shared on Twitter or Facebook.

Thanks to the team at Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy of this book, and good luck to the entrants!

SIlent Sister detail

Giveaway: Gridlinked by Neal Asher

Guys, I need to clear some space on my shelves, so I’ll be giving a few books free to good homes. Can you help me out?

First on the list is Gridlinked by Neal Asher (2001), book one in the Agent Cormac series.

Gridlinked

Blurb on the back:

A technician passing through the runcible of Samarkand at a fraction below light speed causes a fusion explosion that kills thousands and obliterates a terraforming project. Earth Central sends agent Cormac to investigate.

Cormac must find a resolution without the support of the AI grid, for thirty years of being gridlinked have left him devoid of humanity. But he does have the help of Shuriken, a throwing star with a mind of its own, as well as Golem combat androids and the ambivalently motivated ‘dracomen’. And he’ll need all the help he can get as he’s being tracked by a vicious psychopath, backed by augmented mercenaries and a killing machine called Mr Crane…

To enter:
1. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
2. Leave a comment on this post (and leave the name or Twitter handle you used to follow me, if it differs from the one you use here).

Rules:
– I plan to do several of these, so for budget reasons this giveaway is currently limited to South Africa.
– Entries close at midnight on Thursday 4 June.
– The winner will be selected randomly and announced on Friday.

I have to thank the good people at the South African offices of Pan Macmillan for sending me this book years ago, and offer my apologies for not getting around to reading it. Hopefully it’ll go to someone more appreciative 🙂

Gridlinked detail

Review of Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Title: Falling Man
Author: Don DeLillo
Published: first published in 2007; my edition published in 2011
Publisher: Picador
Genre: drama, literary fiction
Source: review copy from the publisher via Pan Macmillan South Africa
Rating: 4/10

On September 11 2001, Keith is caught in the chaos of the falling towers. He wanders dazed and injured, carrying a briefcase that doesn’t belong to him. A helpful stranger picks him up, but instead of asking to be taken to the hospital, Keith goes to Lianne, his estranged wife. She opens the door to find him covered in ash and blood with slivers of glass in his face, and that’s how he comes back into her life.

Because his apartment was close to the towers and is too unstable to live in, Keith moves in with Lianne and their young son Justin. His return to family life and the tragedy of the planes has subtle but profound effects on the couple and those close to them. No politics intrude on this story. Rather, you’ll find a very intimate study of the emotional and psychological effects of 9/11 on a handful of people whose lives were affected by the event.

The attacks have thrust them into a different existence. In the first few pages, when Keith is wandering through the chaos immediately after the attacks, DeLillo describes the atmosphere as “not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night”. Keith’s sense of the world is reduced to “figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel and fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air”. Time is frequently described in reference to the attack, eg. “three days after the planes” (8).

Keith does not seem traumatised by his experience. Instead, it acts as a catalyst for a personality change. He starts to take his life more seriously, and become more self-aware.

“It was Keith as well who was going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience.” (66)

Lianne actually seems more shaken than Keith, more needy. She runs a weekly group therapy session in which she facilitates writing exercises for patients, but she comes to rely on the sessions for personal reasons. She’s also a freelance editor, and when she learns of a book that predicted the attacks, she wants very badly to edit it, even though she’s warned that the book is extremely dull and the job will feel like a death sentence. At home, Lianne becomes deeply disturbed by a neighbour playing Middle Eastern music. She finds it incredibly offensive in the wake of the attacks, and eventually reacts with violence.

It’s Lianne who sees The Falling Man, a performance artist who suspends himself from buildings, mimicking the pose of the famous figure that was photographed falling from one of the towers, choosing that death over burning. She struggles to understand his motives, as does everyone else. Is he a “Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror” (220)?

Keith, too, seems like a ‘falling man’. When the north tower fell, Keith felt as if “[t]hat was him, coming down” (5). Discussing his renewed marriage to Lianne and the way their relationship seems easier and calmer now, he remarks that they’re “ready to sink into our little lives’ (75). As with the performance artist and the man who leapt from the burning tower, this concept of falling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If Keith was floating aimlessly before – no long-term relationship, a job he was about to lose and didn’t care about anyway – then the attack has brought him down to earth, into a more stable existence as a husband and father.

He seems ready to accept the marriage and family life and he failed in before. Keith had been a serial adulterer, and his marriage to Lianne disintegrated in constant fighting. Lianne’s mother Nina says that “Keith wanted a woman who’d regret what she did with him” (12) and is critical of Lianne’s decision to marry the man. If Nina was right before, it seems that the attacks will require her to form a new opinion of her son-in-law.

While the attacks have a unifying effect on Keith and Lianne’s relationship, it causes friction between Nina and her long-time lover Martin. They often argue about the motivations about the attacks, usually from a religious perspective, bringing the novel as close to politics as it ever comes. I was surprised to find that the story included the perspective of a terrorist named Hammad, who is on one of the planes. His narrative goes back to his training and eventually brings us back to the day of the attacks. There’s a strong sense that the terrorists’ extremism is somehow fake, forced. The trainee-terrorists are told to grow beards, Hammad reflects on the way this has affected his sex life and at one point leaves a meeting to jerk off in the bathroom.

 

One the most remarkable features of the novel is the way DeLillo refrains from describing the emotions of his characters, their facial expressions or even from using exclamation marks. It’s incredibly minimalist, using mostly dialogue and detail, rather than adverbs and adjectives, to show us who the characters are and how they relate to one another. For example, we see the tension between Lianne and Nina in Nina’s clipped comments about Keith, the way Lianne later gets back at her mother by interrogating her about Martin, and the way the women often talk over each other, not quite responding to what was said before.

I appreciate this subtlety, to an extent. I often wish that writers could be more crafty by using actions, dialogue and small revealing details to do the work of showing who their characters are and what they feel, rather than simply stating that they’re speaking angrily or sarcastically, that they’re smiling or frowning. It makes emotions and personalities feel organic, rather than attached like cut-out clothes on cardboard dolls. It’s much a much harder way of writing of course, but if properly done, the effects can be infinitely more powerful for the reader.

DeLillo’s skill in writing this way is often felt, but unfortunately the emotion in Falling Man mostly ceases to be subtle and becomes simply flat and boring. If I pictured the characters I inevitably saw blank-faced people standing around, barely moving, speaking in monotones, never looking at each other. They seemed inhuman, just cardboard cut-outs wearing words. I tried instead to take an interactive approach and invest them with the kind of emotion that I thought they should be feeling. I wondered if perhaps this was DeLillo’s intention – to create an emotional space that the reader would then fill. His way of addressing the myriad complex reactions to the victims of 9/11, perhaps. If that’s the case, then this book might be better appreciated by those who have strong feelings about attacks, or who have some personal connection to it. And that’s not me. I hadn’t heard of the World Trade Centre until the towers fell. I was in grade 11 and studying for a major biology exam, so although I heard the news I was so preoccupied I didn’t see a picture until the next day. If it wasn’t such a dramatic kind of event and if it hadn’t happened to the USA, it might simply have faded to a vague memory.  Now, I know of it as a great tragedy, but one among many other great tragedies in our greedy, violent world, some of which are far worse but often less dramatic or less documented.

The result is that Falling Man evoked very little in me and I found most of it hopelessly boring. I kept thinking that there must be more interesting, evocative stories to tell about the 9/11 attacks, and much more interesting characters to tell it. Besides the novel’s lack of energy, I was also dragged down by its many minute details. Such details can be vivid, revealing and haunting, but they can also be banal, and in this case it was almost always the latter. Keith exercising his injured wrist, the different ways in which he played poker with his buddies, Keith and Lianne worrying about their son – I could not have cared less.

I gave Falling Man four stars for the bits of exquisitely elegant writing, but I could give it no more because reading it was an experience in emotional lethargy, with no real story or insights to give the novel a sense of life. If that was intentional, fine, but then it’s intended for someone else.

Cover Art Teasers: new books by Miéville & Pratchett

Today I found two exciting cover art reveals for upcoming releases. The first was for Railsea, China Miéville’s weird (obviously) take on Moby Dick. The second was Dodger by Terry Pratchett – a book I hadn’t heard about until now. They’re both children’s/YA novels, and although I don’t read much in that category, I’ll read pretty much anything that these two write, so I can’t wait to get a hold of their latest works.

For now, I’ll just have to gaze at the covers and try to be patient. Here is the Macmillan cover for Railsea:

Synopsis from Goodreads:

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

From China Miéville comes a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping and brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick that confirms his status as “the most original and talented voice to appear in several years.” (Science Fiction Chronicle)

Personally, I prefer the Random House cover, which has been out for a while:

Nevertheless I’d like copies of both if I can get them. Railsea is due for publication on 15 May 2012 by Random House, and on 24 May 2012 by Macmillan.

 

Here’s the cover for Dodger:

Synopsis from Goodreads:

A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage, in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he’s …Dodger.

Short and… a bit vague, but who cares? It’s Pratchett 🙂 I like the somewhat arrogant tagline. This is not a Discworld novel, but is set in Victorian London. Dodger is due for publication on 25 September 2012 by HarperCollins.

New books, new books!

I’m at home in Cape Town, taking a holiday from Addis Ababa, and one of the many great things about that is the chance to get some review copies in print (I usually get eBooks, thanks to an unreliable postal system). Of course, there are the weight limits of my luggage to think about, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. In the meantime – look, new books!

Kelly from Pan Macmillan SA gave me a wonderful welcome home with 6 lovely books that were waiting for me by the time I arrived.

I’d asked Kelly for a review copy of Kraken, as it’s the only Mieville novel I don’t have yet. The rest was a selection of mostly older works that she very kindly made for me, based on my tastes.

Don DeLillo's Point Omega (2010) and Falling Man (2007), Picador editions

 

Neal Asher's Prador Moon (2006) and Gridlinked (2001), Tor

 

Powersat (2005) by Ben Bova, Tor

 

I also got a copy of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde thanks to Candice at Penguin SA. Penguin SA is the local distributor for Atlantic Books, who published this edition of Reamde.

Like most of Stephenson’s novels, this is one big-ass book (1044 pages) and since its weight probably equals a few pairs of jeans and some shoes, I will be reading and reviewing it asap so I don’t have to worry about putting it in my luggage.

Reamde should be available in trade paperback at South African stores from tomorrow (1 October), at a recommended retail price of R225.