28 April 2017

Review - The Boy on the Bridge by M R Carey


The Boy on the Bridge
M R Carey
Orbit, 4 May 2017
HB, 390pp


Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy. 

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived.

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of this book, which is one of my most anticipated of 2017, following up Carey's The Girl with all the Gifts.

Like Girl, it's set is a world after the Breakdown. In order of events, you'd read this first because it takes place 10 years or so before Girl. However, I think that - especially if you haven't seen the film - you should read Girl first, because otherwise the revelations in that book, and the way it builds tension, will be slightly spoiled (not least, what the Breakdown was, who the children in Girl are, and what their fate is).

Similarly, don't read this review if haven't read Girl as spoilers for it will arise.

The basic setting of Boy is the same, with fungus-infected Hungries roaming Britain and the last remnants of humanity either holed up in Beacon base, somewhere on the South Coast (a nod to The Day of the Triffids where the human survivors make their stand on the Isle of Wight?) or roaming around as "junkers" - Mad Max extras in battlewagons, pillaging and raping as they see fit. Some of the relationships between the characters feel similar too: an adult mentor to a troubled child, a dislikable researcher, down to earth soldiers who turn out not to be quite so down to earth.

The actual characters in the two books don't, however, really cross over much: Dr Caldwell is mentioned by name here but never appears, and the main continuity is provided by "Rosie" - the Rosalind Franklin, a vast, armoured and tank-tracked mobile home/ laboratory in which the main characters live and work. They're on a mission to find a cure for the Cordyceps plague, yet it's a tense life, holed up in a tiny living space, beset by Hungries and junkers and with - frankly - no progress made.

Rosie turns up, of course, in Girl (she was found abandoned in London) so it's a fair bet that the mission here doesn't go well, although the timeline means we don't, can't, know till the very end of this book precisely how badly. But it does look pretty bad. There seems to be a traitor on board: despite the severity of the situation, Beacon is divided by selfish ambition as the civil and military sides jostle for power (as though being lord or lady of a giant prison camp surrounded by zombies was a prize worth having) and the divisions are reflected on Rosie too with split command, mistrust and hidden agendas.

Against this background, Carey draws the crew with compassion and insight, especially Stephen, the Boy of the title, and Samrina Khan, his mentor and rescuer. Stephen is young, a gifted scientist but clearly has some difficulties with relationships and social settings (he can't be touched, is unable to lie and is barely tolerated by most of the crew). It's not clear whether Stephen is - as his colleagues believe - on the autistic spectrum, or whether he has been traumatised by the loss of his parents to the Hungries, but what does come through is the bond between him and Khan as well as Stephen's obsession with defeating Cordyceps - obsession to a point that may endanger the lives of the crew: the corrosive effect of private agendas, even well intentioned ones, and of a lack of communication, is one of the themes of this book, seen also in the friction between Dr Fournier, the leader of the science team, and Colonel Carlisle, the military commander.

Fournier is probably the least sympathetic character here, essentially a bureaucrat who adds nothing to the mission, who often knows what he's doing is wrong but does it anyway because he's told to, while Carlisle - Carlisle is an enigma. He burned half of Southern England for, essentially, the same reason, who's despised by his men (and women) for it, but who seems to be something near a genius at ensuring the survival of the mission.

Carey makes these, and the other members of the crew, fully alive and their rivalries, jealousies, resentments and gifts create an atmosphere in the lab which you can almost taste. Rosie moves slowly, negotiating a safe route among abandoned cars, roadblocks and other obstacles, with the continual risk of ambush or pursuit: but it's as dangerous inside her as outside, with the need to avoid any of those tensions flaring into open conflict and to keep the mission alive even once Beacon falls silent.

The reasons for that silence and the nature of Cordyceps - at which Stephen steadily chips away - are the main mysteries lurking behind the events of this story, but it's the humanity of the crew, and the humanity - or not - of the 'feral children' who we met in Girl, that drive the book towards a dramatic and emotional conclusion.

Boy is a prequel/ companion that fully lives up to the promise of Girl and which may even indeed be slightly better - for me, the characters were better realised and fact that this was the second book allowed their backgrounds to be painted in more detail (we know more about Stephen's origins than we do about Melanie's, for example) and the wider cast also gave more potential for interactions between them. It also adds to or completes something already in Girl - a discussion about hope for the future: whether it's to be found in doggedly preserving what we have (as the Beacon authorities try to to) or in accepting change and development, even at the cost of enormous loss, and letting something new and different be born.

That's the choice that, in different ways, the characters here all face and again is is a theme that resonates with classic SF in many respects. this is, at heart, a novel of ideas - as well as being a compulsive read, especially in the second half: I only put it down very reluctantly when I was 17 pages from the end but we had to go out!

In summary, I'd strongly recommend this book - but advise you have a few tissues ready as you near the end.

26 April 2017

Review - Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

Cold Welcome (Vatta's Peace Book 1)
Elizabeth Moon
Orbit, 13 April 2017
PB, 431pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a copy of this book to review.

Admiral Ky Vatta should return to her childhood home a war hero, but on the way her shuttle is downed by sabotage. Marooned in a hostile landscape it’ll take every bit of wit, skill and luck she can muster to lead her fellow survivors to safety, knowing that the mysterious enemies who destroyed the ship are on the hunt, and may have an agent in the group ready to finish the job at any moment. And was the sabotage an attempt on Ky’s own life, or someone else’s?

Reading this book was in several ways an unfamiliar experience for me. I hadn't read anything by Moon before - in particular her central character Admiral Vatta has featured in a whole series ("Vatta's War") and so has plenty of backstory and I don't read a great deal of military SF or spaceopera.

Still - something about this book grabbed me.

In many respects it's a survival tale. When the shuttle goes down, Vatta is left as the most senior officer commanding a ragtag of passengers who just happened to be sharing a flight with her. They're not even members of her fleet. They land in the inhospitable Southern Ocean of her home planet, in the winter, and she's responsible for keeping them safe and leading them back to civilization. It's an appealing concept for a story, made more so by the possibility that there may be a traitor on board the life rafts, and doesn't really depend at all on any SF - survival is survival and, as Moon makes clear in her acknowledgements, the principles remain the same whether you're writing about Shackleton's voyages or remote events on a planet far, far away.

As are the burdens of command, the prejudices, fears and divisions that can doom an expedition, and the depths of endurance that can be drawn on to defy the odds. Those, really, are the themes of this story: there is some plot about Vatta's family, her lover, and wider events which eventually intersects with her story, but mainly it's down to her. The loneliness of command is perhaps similar whether exercised on the bridge of a starship or on a liferaft.

Moon plays something of a blinder here. If, like me, you haven't encountered Vatta before you may find her admirable, but hard to immediately like. (A little too correct and perfect, perhaps (though thankfully not protocol-bound like her aide, Jen). Readers who followed the earlier adventures will I'm sure have got past this, but it took me a whole to be at ease with the Admiral. However, the opening sections of the book are so action filled and challenging that one scarcely notices this - by the time things let up a bit, Vatta has got under one's skin, so to speak. It's a clever structure, helping to introduce a solid and compelling character even if you haven't read the earlier series.

From then on, the book introduces elements of a mystery, as well as some murky commercial rivalries and politics, which both affect Ky in the remote Southern winter and her family, spread across the galaxy. Exactly what is going on is never quite clear - there are further books to come and no doubt some of these events will be explored there. Certainly the book stops right in the middle of things, leaving the reader desperate to know what will happen next. By then, Ky Vatta has set herself a quest. There are some obstacles to achieving it but if we've learned one thing form this book it's that she's not easily put off.

Excellent start to a new series, whether you have already read Vatta's War or not.


25 April 2017

Blogtour review - Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre

Want You Gone 
Chris Brookmyre
Little, Brown 20 April 2017
HB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy copy of this book via NetGalley, and honoured to be joining the blogtour. (This was one book though I couldn't miss out on the hardback of and I've bought one to go with the other Brookmyres on my shelves).

Sam Morpeth doesn't have it easy. Sam's mother is in prison, she's bullied by the popular girls in her class and she's the only carer for a sister, Lilly, who has learning disabilities.

And it all seems to be getting worse as Sam's benefits are cut and the lowlife move in to take what they claim Sam's mum owes them for drugs...

Jack Parlabane, in contrast, is on the up at last. Still glowing - a little - from his reporting of the Black Widow case, he's now been able to use his contact, "Buzzkill" to get the inside story on a major bank hack. Buzzkill has featured several times in recent books, but now we're going to learn a great deal more about him ("there are no women on the Internet") as he and Jack circle and double cross each other, looking for a way out of a pretty extreme situation.

It's a situation that also draws Sam in, and one where she'll have to dig deep into her history to discover what's really going on.

And to survive.

All while juggling schoolwork, Lilly-care and the labyrinthine benefits system.

Brookmyre gives an achingly real portrayal of real people in real dilemmas: what do you do when your flat is burgled, the TV stolen, and your little sister will just melt down if she can't watch her favourite DVDs at the regular time? As a parent of a LD child I can assure you this isn't a trivial issue but Brookmyre clearly gets it. The need to provide care throws many spanners in the works here, heightening the tension as the story winds to a gripping climax.

What happens to the hacker when they're hacked? (Scary TV of armoured - and armed - cops busting open flats, that's what).

How does an ageing hack in a transforming industry stay at the cutting edge when he's beginning to feel too old even for the partying and definitely for climbing up to 3rd floor windows?

This is a book that ranges widely in its themes - from the camaraderie of hacker gangs to financial fraud (that bank deserved what happened to it), the changing face of journalism: Jack's got himself hooked up with a Buzzfeed style outfit, all beanbags and pool tables and based at an achingly trendy North London address (Hmmm, let's see how long that lasts). We also see the grim reality of the benefits system, for those caught up in its workings. All in support of a thrilling plot with the usual Parlabane shenanigans - whatever he tells himself, when he breaks into an office it's not only in search of the story, it's just as much because he can.

But there's a serious edge. Buzzkill nearly ruined Jack once before (by accident? on purpose?) and has been an ambiguous figure throughout. All the same, he's done Jack some favours. Now, Buzzkill is calling in the debts, faced with an enemy the hacker can't hack. But this could bring all Jack's new-found credibility crashing round his ears.

Will he repay his debt?

Will it be the end of him if he does?

From the ominous preface to the final, suspense-filled pages of the story, this is a book that'll keep you gripped and reading - whether you're a longtime fan of Brookmure or a newcomer.


19 April 2017

Blogtour - Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Faithless
Kjell Ola Dahl (Trans by Don Bartlett)
Orenda Books, 15 April 2017
PB, 265pp

It's my turn today on the blogtour for Faithless. I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a copy of this book and to Anne for inviting me onto the tour.

I hadn't previously met the team of Oslo detectives of which Gunnarstranda and Frølich are a part, and there is clearly a fair amount of backstory to them - not least in the way that Gunnarstranda drops out of his holiday to get back in on the case even where, it seems, he isn't really needed. And what about Lena Stigersand and her strange, not to say brutal, relationship with Ståle Sender? And the bad blood (seemingly) between Frølich and his boss, Rindar?

I don't know how far these complex relationships develop from previous books, but in any case, Faithless is still an excellent place to pick up the threads and get to know the lives and loves of the detectives. They come across as real people, and that reality only adds resonance to the crimes they're confronted with here.

Kjell Ola Dahl
The first of these is the very  nasty murder of a young woman - found dumped in a skip, her skin scalded by boiling water, her clothes missing. Rape is assumed: but there's a link back to Frølich, and to an old friend of his, which suggests the death may be connected to an ongoing investigation.  The affair wakes something in Frølich's mind and he begins to experience what seems to be PTSD. can he get to the truth without having to go back to some very dark places in his past?

There are also similarities between this crime and a cold case - but that took place 1500km away, and many years ago. As the deaths begin to rack up, Frølich is also investigating the disappearance of Rosalind M'Taya, a young African visitor to Oslo. Nobody else seems to take it very seriously - while it's not spelled out there seems to be a whiff of racism here - but Frølich can't resist picking away at this loose end, even with another major investigation on.

This is a fascinating ensemble cast: it's enthralling simply watching how they react and bump off one another, trying to tease out in one's mind not only who committed the crime(s) but how the team's cohesion - or lack of it - will affect the investigations. It's actually much more fun than the classic brooding loner detective, who we know will wrap everything up on the last page (and go away to brood). Yes, there are characters here who strike out on their own - and get into real danger - but one the whole there is more of the air of a family - a dysfunctional family beset by rivalries and resentments, but still a family.

Bartlett's translation serves the story well, preserving enough of an air of foreignness (which is important - I always think it's a shame if a translation becomes so seamless that you may as well be reading about Milton Keynes or Glasgow) yet making the story readable and clear. And behind that, Dahl's story is taut, at times tragic and always, always absorbing.

So, who is faithless, how, and why? Saying too much would spoil the story, but I think most of the characters are, in different ways - not all of them in bad ways, admittedly, but there is a lot of darkness here, in a book that's set in the long Northern summer days.

I'm now eagerly looking forward to hearing more about the Oslo Detectives.




13 April 2017

Review - The Ballad of Black Tom

Image from http://us.macmillan.com/
The Ballad of Black Tom
Victor Lavalle
Tor, February 2016
PB, 151pp
Source: Bought

HP Lovecraft is an author who fascinates and divides, who has had an enduring impact on popular culture yet also repels.

I first read Lovecraft in the mid 80s. I think that his books may have been on a reading list my English teacher handed round when I was about 14, although I'm not sure. I do remember that the three volume paperback version of his complete works I have had to be specially ordered, so I didn't just come across them in a bookshop. It seems curiously appropriate that it's (now) a yellowing, cheap edition which probably wouldn't bear rereading: the pages would most likely crumble away if exposed to sunlight... I far prefer this to any of the handsome, acid free versions now available with erudite introductions and extensive footnotes.

When I first read these stories I had a thrill of recognition. I realised that I'd seen some of them before, in horror/ ghost anthologies. And the atmosphere of others was familiar from TV: the crazed cultists in the woods summoning up a nameless of horror from outside time were the staples of series like Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel. So it was clear that they were part of the DNA of popular horror, acknowledged or not.

There are though problems with the stories and with their writer which I didn't see at the time. I couldn't read them now without seeing the racism which lies beneath the surface of many: Lovecraft's figure, until recently used for the World Fantasy Award, has now been retired

But the stories remain, and they influence, and they prompt reactions. Some of those reactions come in the form of reworkings, new readings and challenges, which seem especially thick on the ground right now. I reviewed one of these a couple of days ago and The Ballad of Black Tom is another. It's a short book, at 150 pages (but that's something it has in common with many of the originals).

Set in the 1920s, Ballad follows Charles Thomas Tester, a young Black man living in New York who hustles for a living to support himself and his elderly father. Times are hard but Thomas gets by: outside the story he's clearly found a means to occult knowledge - we first see him taking a trip to deliver a book to a mysterious woman who is clearly a devotee of those arts. Where he got it, and how, we never learn - but he knows how to handle such things.

But supernatural horror isn't the only kind here. Tester's life is plagued by casual and not-so-casual racism: to be seen heading the wrong way on the subway train is enough to prompt questions from the whites, and a cop searching his pockets feels empowered to pinch any money he finds as "evidence". Later in the story we see just how cheap Black lives are, in an echo of recent murders (and Lavalle uses the term: murder, as that's what it is).

These experiences build and build through the book alongside Tester's experience of the weird, largely through encounters with Robert Suydam, an elderly white man whose family want him declared insane (they're worried he'll spend their inheritance). Cavorting with the likes of Tester must be a sign of such insanity, surely?

But when we learn what Suydam really wants, we might begin to agree that no, his grip on reality actually is rather precarious. Tester agrees, and might have turned his back on Sutdam, if it wasn't for one terrible event...

This book impresses on so many levels. It delivers all that (neo) Lovecraft should: the cultist, the meddling, the awful reality behind the appearance of the world, pulpy goings on in the backstreets (rather than the backwoods, here) and hints at forbidden, blasphemous knowledge. Yet it manages to be very modern too, despite its setting: the racism here is exposed as a thing done to the characters by their setting rather than being a key to the author's own mind. That frees the story to take a leap of imagination and explore what the oppressed might make of such a hidden reality, how they might choose to turn it against their tormentors. (And there's a cameo of Lovecraft himself that handily feeds back as almost a sort of origin narrative for his whole mythos - which is appropriate given that this whole story riffs off one of Lovecraft's own).

That's a lot to get into 150 pages but Lavelle manages it adroitly, in a story that flies along and demands to be read in a single sitting - and which has greater depth and resonance than any of the originals.

(For a more detailed analysis of both this book and Cassandra Khaw's Hammers on Bone, another take on neo-Lovecraftiana, see this fascinating essay on The Middle Shelf. (As an essay, it needs to reveal a bit more of the plot(s) than a review so you should read the books first).

9 April 2017

Review - Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Image from www.harpercollins.com
Lovecraft Country
Matt Ruff
Harper, 2016
HB, 372pp
Source: Bought

This book could be regarded as a series of interlinked short stories/ novellas, or as a longer narrative in chapters. The difference isn't perhaps very important but the choice of form does explicitly emulate the way the Lovecraft mythos was constructed - as does the content: As Atticus, George, Montrose and their family go live their lives and go about their business they encounter the same looming theme of ancient evil from beyond time as Lovecraft's protagonists.

It's in the "daily lives" though that the differences start to arrive. There is a counterpoint theme, also of ancient evil but a much less alien, more recognisable and, yes, more frightening evil: racism. Specifically, racism in the United States in the mid twentieth century. Atticus, George, Montrose, Ruby, Hippolyta, Horace and the other central characters in this book are black. The story(ies) are told from their point of view: when a character appears who's white, we're told that: the issue of whether or not they're a particularly hostile, dangerous white is never far away, whether implicitly or explicitly; daily life is an endless matter of calculating safety and danger; the family history is full of the fruits of slavery, and everyone is living with its consequences.

The very chapter (or story) headings, for the most part, reflect this, giving accounts of pogroms or escapes, murders, legally sanctioned discrimination (for example, restrictive covenants preventing property sales to black people) and other horrors.

And these are true horrors. Towards the end of the book, we read this account:

'We were on the grass in front of someone's house. The people inside heard me yelling and the porch lights came on. I saw my father had been shot in the side and there was blood coming out of his mouth. He has this look on his face. Horror. Horror at the universe. I was too young to understand it. I thought he was afraid because he was dying, but that wasn't it at all. It wasn't until I had a son of my own - a son who wouldn't listen - that I understood what he felt. 
He wasn't afraid for himself. He was afraid for me. He wanted to protect me. He had: he saved my life, getting me away from that gunfight. But the night wasn't over and he knew he wasn't going to be there to see me through it. That's the horror, the most awful thing: to have a child the world wants to destroy and know that you're helpless to help him.'

If you want a real description of awful, cosmic horror, isn't that it? The burbling, sanity blasting Lovecraftian things-from-beyond-time really come down to this: powers that will come and destroy those you love. Powers that would brush you aside like a gnat. But we don't have to wait till for an alignment in the heavens for these to manifest - they are here and around us already.

In this book, we see relatively little of the classic horror tropes - and those we do see have generally been summoned or conjured by white cultists in their white robes. We see far more casual prejudice, malice, hatred - the sort of hatred that will shoot a father, burn his son, rob and lie. The Turners, the Dandridges, the Berrys aren't surprised when these powerful white men (they are mostly men) grasp magical power too, just as they hold sway in day to day life. It's only to be expected, and all part of the real horror.

The reader soon learns to beware of every random encounter with a figure of (white) authority. These can easily end up with the protagonist dead, arrested, fired, or driven away. Hence those endless calculations of risk and options: hence the book which George publishes, The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which gives advice on where to go and where to avoid, which restaurants will serve his readers, where one can stop to use the toilet even. It's a book that has to be constantly updated.

In a world where this is the mundane reality, is there really much additional horror from a thing with many tentacles that lives beyond the stars?

I feel that Ruff has brought off a brilliant conjunction here - the stars must be right! - between reality and fantasy horror and moreover to do so he's repurposed writings from an author who is - as Montrose points out early on - deeply problematic in his racial views, views that also seeped into his works. I would say it turns Lovecraft's writing on its head, but it's more a drawing out of what is already there to make them, in effect, challenge themselves.

I realise all the foregoing may make this book sound like the driest of  polemics, but it's really not. The stories explore and in some cases parody or reconstruct a variety of genres from outright horror to fantasy and even Golden Age SF. They are peopled by a gallery of characters - the whites who mess up the lives of Ruff's protagonists aren't, for the most part, cardboard racists (a few are). We have a shrewd magician who sees the advantage of treating well those who are, in an ironic twist, his distant relatives, descended from a fleeing slave of his family. There is an irate ghost who comes to an accommodation with the new occupants of his house, to everyone's advantage - while the (living) neighbours are still (literally) throwing shit at the house. It's a complex world where there are opportunities as well as risks, but, unsurprisingly, the dice are loaded against you (if you're black).

The book also has moments of great humour, particularly in the stories that involve Ruby who has some truly strange experiences that give her, perhaps, a perspective not available to the other characters, alongside the terror. But it ends on an ironic and - in light of recent events - rather sad note, quoting from the 1955 edition of George's Guide which looks forward to '...the time, not far off now, when all travellers are treated as equals'.

We still wait for that time. May it be with us soon.

For more information on the book see here.

6 April 2017

Review - A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly

A Game of Ghosts
John Connolly
Hodder, 6 April 2017
HB, 454pp

I'm grateful to Hodder for an advance copy of the book.
It is deep winter. The darkness is unending.
The private detective named Jaycob Eklund has vanished, and Charlie Parker is dispatched to track him down. Parker's employer, Edgar Ross, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has his own reasons for wanting Eklund found.
Eklund is no ordinary investigator. He is obsessively tracking a series of homicides and disappearances, each linked to reports of hauntings. Now Parker will be drawn into Eklund's world, a realm in which the monstrous Mother rules a crumbling criminal empire, in which men strike bargains with angels, and in which the innocent and guilty alike are pawns in a game of ghosts . . .
I read a lot, but it's both frustrating and wonderful to realise that there are still so many excellent authors and series that I have never yet touched. Frustrating, because HOW CAN I READ MORE and wonderful because - well, because I can discover books like this.

I'm extra, extra grateful to have encountered Charlie Parker in this his - I think - 16th(!) adventure.

Parker is a PI, based in New England, and one cold winter he's drawn into investigating the disappearance of fellow PI Jaycob Eklund. The case takes him to some places - and people - that are far from nice, far from rational - whether the strange, extended Brethren and their ghostly companions or the daunting Mother, boss of a crime family and herself a deeply creepy being.

At the same time Parker is wrestling to keep contact with his daughter when protective ex wife Rachel seeks to have contact cut off. A strength of the book is that it shows how both Rachel and Charlie are right... but also wrong. A sad situation, that vulnerable, fallible human beings are trying (and failing) not to make worse.

Parker isn't, though, without resources of his own. Shadowed by the enigmatic Collector and his Hollow Men (I'll have to read the earlier books to understand what they're about) he has more solid assistance from henchmen (and couple) Angel and Louis. (The way the relationship between them is sketched is masterful: even without reading the earlier books you sense the history there).

Even Parker's daughter, Sam, who was recently the target of an abduction, has more to her than is obvious (and just what she'll come to has yet to play out in the series).

In a story where nobody is what they seem, and the stakes veer from violent crime to cultish bargains with supernatural entities, it seems that absolutely anything can happen - with the real question being how many innocents will suffer along the way.

And they do.

I was slightly taken aback by Connolly's... prodigality... with his characters. He lavishes as much care and attention on developing the background and life of someone who'll die halfway through the book (or sooner!) as on Parker, Sam and the others: all seem real, of worth, making the losses and deaths all the more horrific.

Game of Ghosts is an  amazing mash-up between the ghoulish - with nods to Lovecraft in the New England setting and especially using Providence as one of the main locations - and the hard-boiled (that background of PIs in shabby offices with gangsters in the background). There is a real sense of tension as we wait to see if Parker can unravel the threads before this victim dies, or if not this one, that one - even as others are working from the opposite direction, ruthlessly killing to keep their existence, their very souls, secret...

It's profoundly unsettling, gripping reading - and I enjoyed every minute. Not having read any of the earlier books wasn't a problem - Connolly does a few recaps to bring the reader up to date, and the mysterious background adds rather than detracts from the effect - but this did give me an appetite for more and I rather think I'll have to read them now from the start.

Strongly recommended, atmospheric, horror, a good entry to this series and wonderful, realistic, prickly, fallible characters.


5 April 2017

Extract and giveaway: Six Stories

Today is my turn on the epic blogtour for Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski which is getting some tremendous reviews - see the tour poster!

I'm offering an extract from the book and, courtesy of Matt and Orenda Books, a signed copy.

To win, just RT the pinned post on my Twitter - @bluebookballoon - with the link to this post. I'll draw a winner on Sunday 9th May. (If you tweet a link in some other way, I'll try and track it down and include you in the draw but I may miss you, given the recent changes to Twitter).

You don't have to follow me - but I won't object if you do!



So - enough blather - here's the extract...

Scarclaw Fell

2017

I recognise this bit of woodland. This recognition ignites a little ember of joy inside me, a sense of accomplishment. The more I come out here, the more familiar with it I get. The trees glaring down with their familiar, pinched faces.

When I first met this land, it overawed me, just an unrelenting mass; disorder. There was no way of straightening it out. The woods just sort of jump at you from the dark; all those trees filled with croaking, fretting birds, the buckled heads of ferns that slap lazily at your shins as you pass through.

At first, I wondered if I should call in the bulldozers, get it swept away; just like Dad did with that Woodlands Centre. Now I’m glad I didn’t. In a strange sort of way, these woods are starting to become beautiful. Thinking this fills me with a horrible, leaden feeling; it’s the last thing that should enter my mind. It’s not proper. Yet the tiny pockets of spiders’ webs, each holding a single raindrop, and the peppering of gorse flowers on the fell-side tell me otherwise.

There’s magic here between the trees.

In my own way, I am beginning to understand this land. Its utter indifference to those who dwell here. Like the rest of us, these woods crouch in the shadow of the fell, which rears up in the distance; a cloud-crested wave of blackened scree.

Scarclaw Fell. It sounds like something from Game of Thrones.

I stop in a natural sort of clearing in the trees. I’ve been walking for ten minutes, now, and I can barely see the building behind me.

Dad was overjoyed when he finally got that place built on the site of what was once the Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre. Outside its front door, there’s a brass plaque. I fought tooth and nail with Dad about the new name: ‘The Hunting Lodge’. It just sounds so … twee. I guess he wanted to sweep away everything that had happened here before.

Dad filled The Hunting Lodge’s bookshelves with these tatty, leather bound volumes. Something for the tourists to look at, though I doubt any of them ever read them. I’ve been looking through them recently. Their pages are thick, the yellow of old bones. The smell of pipe tobacco rises from them: like the ghosts of things past.

That’s what I do when I’m out here: I chase old ghosts. Stir up shadows. Think.

Sometimes I wonder what I am, what part I play in this whole mess. Am I, Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay, just another Dr Frankenstein, grubbing the dead up out of their graves to try and heal some old wound?

Should I have even agreed to be interviewed at all? Should I have agreed to wake the dead? Will my words destroy the peace that has taken twenty years to fall on Scarclaw Fell?

He wore a mask.

Just a white thing, the features of which jutted out from beneath his hood. Cheeks and a nose in pale plastic. A forehead that curved like a skull.

It should have been comical. Like the masks that crusty lot wear when they’re railing against the multinationals. But I was scared.

When he pulled up at the gate of the Mayberry Estate, we watched him from the security box. We had all his emails printed out; months of them – begging, pleading, promising. I was fully expecting a Hummer, blacked-out windows and all that. He was famous on the internet wasn’t he?

So the Ford Ka with a rash of bugs across its bonnet was the last thing we imagined he drove. Tomo rang my phone. I answered and left the line open, slipped it in my pocket. Tomo put his on speaker. We’d practised this. The code line was, ‘Did you try the farm shop on your way here?’ Not very original, but it would take the lads less than a minute to get from the security box to the gate if I said it.

Wait till he gets close, I thought, wondering if I could go through with all this. If the other chaps hadn’t been nearby, on guard, then I don’t know what would have happened. Maybe I would have bottled it; bowed out.

He had warned me he was going to wear the mask. When I searched online for him, I read all about it, sort of understood why he wore it. Yet when he stepped out of that car, I nearly said fuck it, no way. Nearly turned around and closed the gate. If he wasn’t even going to show his face … He could have been anyone.

I suppose that was the point.

I was scared. But I wasn’t going to show him that, was I? Justin had a shotgun. I don’t know if it was loaded. Tomo had a knife, still sharp from the packet. They were there to protect me. But in some way it was like they were defending the memory of that night twenty years earlier. The memory of what we saw. The memory of what we found.

The chap in the mask got out of his car and someone I didn’t recognise as myself walked over and shook his hand; that same someone betrayed no fear. I thought I could hear a smile in his voice.

He could have been snarling, scowling, mouthing profanities, hating the bones of me behind that mask. I’ll never know.

He thanked me. We got in my car. He clipped a microphone to my lapel and turned on the recording device.

Then we talked.

I stop in the clearing and pour tea into the cup of my flask. Everything is damp and I don’t want to sit down. It’s a cliché I know, but you never really stop and listen to silence, do you? I have started to listen when I’m here, beneath the branches. When I first started coming out, I used to wear headphones, one ear-bud in my right, my left empty.

The woods aren’t silent, not really; if you stand and listen there’s all sorts going on: rustlings and chattering; when it rains, the sound of the leaves is a cacophony of wagging green tongues; in the mornings the indignant back and-forth clamour of the birds is almost comical.

I’ve not come out into these woods at night. Not for a long time, anyway.

The last time I walked here in darkness was nearly twenty years ago – it was me and Jus and Tomo. That was the night we found him. That boy. It was where the woods begin to thin, where they turn upward towards the bareback of the fell; where the path turns to marsh.

I think I don’t like silence because, when it falls, that scene begins its loop.

Nearly twenty years, and what happened that night, what we found out there, still doesn’t fade.

The man in the mask said he understood that; said he understood some ghosts never die. I think that’s what finally got through to me, and to Dad. If anything, he said, telling him what happened might help.

Help.

That’s not a word I’d have ever expected when it came to us. People didn’t think the Saint Clement-Ramsays needed help. Of course we didn’t; we had money, right? Who needs help when you’re rich?

Twenty years ago, Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre was still standing. The Hunting Lodge wasn’t even a concept; not yet. All of it – the woods, the fell itself, the Woodlands Centre – was Dad’s though. And the toilets and the showers still worked, so we just thought ‘sod it’, me Tomo and Jus. We left our cars sitting in puddles on the track leading up to the centre.

The Woodlands Centre back then was an awful, seventies block, all MDF and lino. It had a smell: steam, soil, warm cagoules; and in the kitchen the reek of veggie sausages and fried eggs. There was a spattering of muddy boot prints around the doorways; fold-up chairs, cobwebs in the corners, painted metal radiators. Someone – the Scouts or the Guides, one of the groups that used the Woodlands Centre – had made a frieze on the far wall in crêpe-paper: ‘Leave nothing but footprints – take your litter home’. A smiling badger beneath it. One of its eyes had come off and there was a tight scribble of black biro in its place.

To be honest, that first day in August 1997 wasn’t much fun. Me and Jus and Tomo were, what, all twenty-one or twenty-two-ish? It was chucking it down so the three of us sat in that long dining-room area, drank beers and played fucking Monopoly all afternoon. We ended up pretty trolleyed, just getting on each others’ nerves. We were all hungry and no one wanted to start cooking; but Kettle Chips and dips don’t fill you up. We were stupid, stupid city-boys. There were no takeaways around here and no one was sober enough to drive into the village or look for a petrol station. Jus pulled out some vintage whisky. That meant we’d drink till we were sick; be asleep by nine, with the rush and chatter of the trees haunting our dreams as we snored.

If only it’d ended like that.

I finish my tea, scatter the dregs into the undergrowth. Dawn begins to swell, her light expanding over the woodland. I turn toward the cloak of branches and brambles, and press on. That’s what we did back then – went off the beaten track. We were so wasted and it was so wet, we couldn’t even see a track, beaten or not.

I take another look back and the light in The Hunting Lodge window is still visible. I try to imagine what the Woodlands Centre looked like to that boy back then. This is the way he came, back in 1996. Through the branches, I don’t imagine it looked much different: a light in a window; the promise of warmth, four walls.

I keep going, plunging into the wood. You only have to be careful where you step when the ground starts sloping upward. There are signs now, but there weren’t back then. This was the way they came back in ’96, I’m sure of it: a couple of miles north-west of The Hunting Lodge (or the Woodlands Centre, as it was back then) there’s a sort of natural path between the trees. I follow it.

As I walk, there’s a little pull of nostalgia inside me: a longing. As if some little part of me, some thread, has caught on the memory.

Like I have become part of everything that happened here.

Which, in some ways, I suppose is true.

Episode 1: Rangers

—Dad bought up all the land round there just before … before it happened. I mean, literally, it was a few weeks.

Then the shit-storm descended.

Oh, terribly sorry … am I allowed to swear on this?

This is the voice of Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay; Harry’s the son o fLord Ramsay, owner of the land around Scarclaw Fell. Owner of the fell itself.

Scarclaw Fell: For those old enough to remember, that name has a certain resonance.

These days, that resonance is largely silent.

Meeting Harry in person is somewhat of a breakthrough, to say the least. The Ramsay estate has not acknowledged my emails or letters for months. I actually thought we might fall at this first hurdle. Indeed, without Harry, this podcast would lose significant authenticity; become just more speculation about what happened that day in 1996. The teeth of a rake through the long-dry earth of an old grave.

It’s been twenty years since the incident and the Ramsays have been consistent in their refusal to speak about it to anyone.

Until now.

Suited and booted, rosy-cheeked and athletic, Harry looks as if he’s from fine stock. As a person, he’s affable, but guarded. He reminds me of a politician visiting the proles in the lead up to an election. Every word is chosen with precision.

When it comes to Scarclaw Fell, Harry is evasive – careful with what he says. And to be honest, I don’t blame him.

—I think Dad was going to get all the old tunnels – the mineshafts and what have you – filled in. Then he was going to try selling it – to one of those developers, you know? For log cabins, fishing holidays or something? But … I guess it was too much of a job. And after what happened, the impetus just … wasn’t there anymore. And it’s like a bloody rabbit-warren under the fell – all the fissures and hidden pits; and that’s before you take into account the bogs and marshes and stuff where they … where we … well … you know. It’s a bloody death trap. Christ knows why they were even there in the first place, right? I mean, who would go there for fun?

Before the events of 1996, Scarclaw Fell was largely unknown. And today, most people have forgotten its name once more; despite that almost-famous photograph on the front of The Times; the hook-like peak curling through the clouds behind a spectral sheen of English drizzle. Most people have forgotten the name Tom Jeffries too. Maybe that’s about to change.

—Sometimes I wonder how things could have been different. If dad had called the contractor an hour before he did, they would have come out and knocked the place down – repaired all the fences and the signs, got in some proper security to keep people away andnone of this would have happened. An hour and dad could have said, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t matter how long ago you booked it, things change.’ That would have been that. I wouldn’t be talking to you now.

Just one hour – and a boy is dead.

Face down in the marsh. Someone’s son; someone’s grandson.

He was only fifteen, wasn’t he?

Christ.

Welcome to Six Stories. I’m Scott King.

In the next six weeks, we will be looking back at the Scarclaw Fell tragedy of 1996. We’ll be doing so from six different perspectives; seeing the events that unfolded through six pairs of eyes.

Then, as always, it’s up to you. As you know by now, I’m not here to make judgements. I’m here to allow you to do that.

For my newer listeners, I must make this clear: I am not a policeman, a forensic scientist or an FBI profiler. This isn’t an investigation or a place I’m going to reveal new evidence. My podcast is more like a discussion group at an old crime scene.

In this opening episode we’ll review the events of that day; introducing you briefly to the people present. We’ll be hearing, not just from Harry, but also from one of the others who was directly involved; who was there; who knew Tom Jeffries personally; and for whom the shadow of what happened on that day in 1996 still remains, like some malevolent, unshakable stain on their life.

We will look back on what is, to some, a simple, open and closed case– a tragedy that could have, and should have, been avoided. To others, though, it is an enduring and enthralling mystery, to which there are no clear-cut answers.

At least not yet.

OK, now for a little bit of history. Buckle up, I’ll be brief.

The fell itself rises from some of England’s most beautiful countryside; Northumberland, north-east England. Scarclaw Wood was once an old glacial lake, filled with sand and gravel; the fell – a sandstone escarpment– is now classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are several Iron Age cairn fields on its higher ground and the remains of scattered farmsteads on its slopes. Evidence of standing stone rings and Neolithic burial sites only add more layers to the landscape. The summit of the fell curls in a hook shape; as if something has taken a colossal bite out of its base. This is presumably the reason why Scarclaw has its name. Like much of Northumberland, inscrutable ‘cup and ring’ artwork decorates the rocks on its lower slopes.

Beneath the fell’s higher ground is a complex network of lead mines that date back to the fifteenth century. They’re all abandoned now, shut down in the 1900s due to subsidence. There were attempts to reopen the mines in the 1940s, but these were unsuccessful. Most of the tunnels beneath the fell have collapsed; and the resulting hollows and the weakened surface have created strange hybrid marshes and traps: half man-made; half claimed by nature. To attempt a walk across the marshland of Scarclaw Fell is to dance a jig with death himself. Without warning, the ground could simply swallow you up. Yet it is not only the marshland that is a danger to the unwitting; the majority of the mine’s ventilation shafts have long been obscured by nature, so they are now great fissures lipped with moss and heather. The only signs of what they were are the remnants of the decrepit fences erected long ago. Visitors to the woods and the fell are advised to stay on the paths. Large sections were fenced off long ago, but there is still danger underfoot on Scarclaw Fell.

Amongst this no-man’s land of reeds and marsh grass stand the remains of an engine house: a pale, crumbling tower encrusted with moss, and a wall with a single window; the only remnants of a remote hamlet.

—I don’t know what happened to that boy … I really have no idea. None of us do. How the police never found his body is just bloody … ludicrous though, isn’t it? A bloody year.

Harry and I record the interview in his car, in the driveway of Lord Ramsay’s Mayberry Estate. He assures me that is father is away and tells me that it’s probably futile trying to get even a statement from him.

We don’t talk about it, Dad and I; not anymore. Best to leave these things buried … Oh gosh, I’m sorry … poor choice of words, but you know what I mean, yeah? Dad still blames himself for what happened up there, but what could he have done? There were signs already, they knew what was up there, didn’t they? They’d stayed there hundreds of times before. Hell, it was that lot who had insulated the place. They did it one summer; climbed underneath in those white decorators’ overalls and nailed a load of polystyrene to the underside of the floor. Mad, isn’t it? I mean, it was nothing more than a glorified barn.

It wasn’t just them that used the place. We hired it out to Scouts, Girl Guides, climbers, canoe-ers … canoe-ists? … speelenkers …spelunkers? Those guys that go climbing down holes … As I say, I’m not an outdoorsy type. They all knew what the dangers were.

Harry’s talking about the Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre; a self catering,single-storey accommodation centre that was far more advanced than the ‘glorified barn’ he calls it. When it still stood, it had five dormitories with about thirty beds, gas central heating, a fully equipped kitchen, toilets, showers, the lot.

Situated at the very base of the fell, about five miles through the fores ttracks off the A road, the centre was an L-shaped building with a carpark and a telephone line. The centre was hugely popular. It was quite a distance from the danger of the mines and had plenty of picturesque walks and a river nearby. If you didn’t want to hire out the building, you could camp in its grounds. According to the one remaining logbook, I twas fully booked all year round. Climbers, walkers, canoeists, spelunkers, even Scouts and Guides all used the Woodlands Centre regularly. And there are no records of any serious accidents occurring on the land around Scarclaw Fell in the last thirty years. Presumably the danger signs did their job.

Lord Ramsay acquired the land around Scarclaw Fell after what happened in 1996. The purchase was an ongoing battle that raged for several years between with Lord Ramsay, the local authority, the National Trust and the co-operative of groups that had used the centre. This battle is irrelevant to our story; but suffice to say, money conquered all, Scarclaw Fell became part of the Ramsay estate, the centre was levelled and most of the fell was fenced off. But we’re straying from the point. Back to Harry.

—The environmentalists threatened to jump all over Dad’s case if he changed things at Scarclaw. Don’t get me wrong, he was going to make it nice! But he said he’d have to drain a lot of it …the marshes … to make the holiday lets; and that was a problem– habitats and stuff. Newts, frogs and other slimy things no one cares about till they’re suddenly ‘endangered’. Those old mineshafts were the main problem, though; they had some rare bats nesting in them, didn’t they? Bats are alright I guess … but they’re a bloody legal nightmare, so I think he eventually just thought ‘sod it’ and left it all alone.

Did your father ever visit, go to the Woodlands Centre itself, have a look around? Before what happened, I mean.

He may have, I don’t know. It wouldn’t have made much difference to be honest. Dad’s like a bloody Rottweiler with a bone once he sets his mind to something, you know?

Harry and I talk for a while about the legal wrangling to purchase the land. I ask him a few times why Lord Ramsay wanted Scarclaw so much, but I don’t get a straight answer. Maybe he wanted some new hunting land, for grouse shooting, deer stalking, something like that? Parts of the land were, in fact, created as hunting parks around four hundred years ago. The ancient woodlands are a lingering testament to this. What I do know is that Lord Ramsay seemed to have underestimated the appeal of the land. Even after the tragedy; the fight for Scarclaw Fell went on for a long while.

Maybe, because Harry’s aware that this podcast will be listened toby millions, he is simply saving face – for his father, his family, I don’ tknow. Eventually, though, I have to broach the subject we’ve both been avoiding; circling each other like a pair of tigers.

—It was you, Harry, who found him, wasn’t it? You found Tom Jeffries’ body?

—Yeah … yeah … I found him…

OK, so I could have phrased it better, but there’s something about talking to people with Harry’s wealth and clout that makes me a little flustered: it’s that unshakeable confidence they exude, I just kind of blurt things out. For a few moments he looks at me and I think he is going to ask me to leave. Thankfully, he goes on with an unflappable air that I have to admire. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Legally, I can talk about it now. Now that the case is officially… ‘cold’ is it called? Resolved? That’s not to say I want to, you understand. But I will, because … I don’t know, maybe it’s cathartic or something, yeah? And you’re not a journalist…

Harry’s very aware of what will happen when Six Stories airs, he’s not a podcast fan himself but he knows just how popular these things are. He tells me he’s heard of Serial and he’s aware of the potential thousands, possibly millions that will hear Six Stories worldwide. He asks me about whether I think the media will turn to him, or even his father, for answers. Lord Ramsay is an old man, he says; he doesn’t need that. I tell him I don’t know what will happen when Six Stories airs, that I can’t make any promises. It seems he appreciates my honesty. He says he’ll tel lme what he told the police before he has to go.

So, yeah. OK. So me and a few of my mates are out there, yeah? Having a little recce of the place, a bit of a mission, if you know what I mean?

Harry’s talking about the lower regions of the fell itself, the woods a mile or so from the relative civilisation that is the Woodlands Centre. This seems at total odds with Harry’s often flustered assertions that he’s a ‘city gent’. I make no comment.

And it’s the middle of the night; I dunno, maybe one or two a.m.; we’re having a jolly, you know? A walk around the woods. We’ve got the dogs with us and suddenly they start going fucking mad – barking and yapping like they’ve caught a scent. Sitting looking at Harry, with his good skin, coiffed hair and a forehead permanently scarred with worry lines, I’m not sure I can picture him and his friends, who I can only assume were ‘country types’, walking round a wood in the middle of the night with dogs. The police report states they were also carrying lights – great, powerful lamps – which lends further credence to the idea that the Ramsays were using the land for hunting. There are several species of deer in Scarclaw woods, not tomention foxes, badgers and other assorted wildlife that the upper class like to kill for pleasure. ‘Lamping’ they call it: catch a deer in a light ,makes them freeze.

Now, like I say, I don’t know what’s going on and I’ve had a few drinks, so I just go along with it, you know? I’ve got no idea where we are and we’re going deeper and deeper into the trees, and the undergrowth is really deep, like right up to our waists – brambles and bracken.

As I’ve said, the Woodlands Centre is surrounded by forest; go just a couple of miles towards the base of the fells and you’re in dense, untamed woodland. Harry’s dogs stop two and a half miles north-west of the centre. This marshy area was fenced off and very dangerous; why Harry and his friends were traversing it in the middle of the night seems more stupid than gutsy.

It’s really fucking muddy round there, yeah? You can feel your feet getting wet, and before you know it you’re up to your knees in sludge. The dogs are still going mad and there’s this smell … it’s like … well … it’s hard to describe – kind of sweet; meaty; it gets inside you, you know? A stink like that, gets right into your brain, deep; takes a while to let go. I’d like to think we had sort of an idea about what it was. Like, where in the fucking woods do you smell something like that? So we turn the lights on and that’s when we saw it … half buried in the mud. I swear down, I will never forget it as long as I live…

The dogs all shot off into the marsh and began digging, uncovering their find, heaving at it with their teeth, easing bones from sockets ,tearing at soft, decomposing flesh and depositing their finds at the feet of their masters. Harry and his friends turned on their lamps, and instead of dazzling deer, they shone down upon the decapitated and half-rotted corpse of a child. A child whose body had been missing for a year. Fifteen-year-old Tom Jeffries.

Like I say, I’ll never forget that sight. We honestly thought it was a prank, at first – like one of the guys was messing with us and someone was going to start laughing, and a camcorder was going to appear. But we all just fucking stood there staring. I sometimes see itin my sleep; half buried in the mud, hands bunched into claws like it … like he was a fucking zombie or something, desperate to rise from the grave.

The local police were duly summoned and the crime scene investigators erected their tents. Rather than a national scandal, it was more like relief that the body that had eluded police, investigators, scientists, and even psychics, for the best part of a year, had finally been found.

Tom Jeffries had gone missing on a trip to Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre with a group of other teenagers and two supervising adults. Unlike today, when such disappearances run riot on social media, Tom Jeffries’ disappearance was largely ignored by the national press. Of course it was reported, as was the discovery of his body; but the moral outrage that dominates society today was simply absent back in 1996. Maybe it was just the times; there was no such thing as social media in the nineties, and the internet was not the crazed animal it is now.

Or perhaps it was something to do with Jeffries himself. Was it something to do with his personality, his reputation, that simply didn’t warrant a national outpouring of grief? Was it because, at fifteen, Jeffries wasn’t enough of a ‘child’? Was it because he was male, white, and from a stable, middle-class background; an average school student, who blended in, had no real enemies and enjoyed a large group of friends?

Would Tom Jeffries have been remembered more if he had been a little white girl from a privileged background? This is just one of the questions that Six Stories will seek to answer…

In this series, we’ll look at the case of Tom Jeffries from six different angles. Six people will tell their stories; six people who knew Tom Jeffries in six different ways. When the stories are told, you’ll be able to decide what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from a death shrouded in uncertainty

Welcome to Six Stories. This is story number one:

We’ve never had anything like it in Rangers. It was terrible …just a terrible, terrible thing. It drove us apart in the end. No one knew how to cope with what happened up on Scarclaw Fell … and a lot of them just didn’t; didn’t cope, I mean.

It all fell apart. Everything we’d done. It’d been such a huge part of our lives. Such a shame.

This is the voice of Derek Bickers, sixty-two. Derek, along with his friend Sally, were the last adults to use the Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre. They had booked it for a loose group of teenagers – their own children and their friends – a group that referred to itself affectionately as ‘Rangers’. That day in August 1996, the group consisted of five teenagers and two adults. One of those teenagers was Tom Jeffries.

—‘Rangers’ – to an outsider, it sounds rather like it was some sort of organisation … which it really wasn’t, was it?

—No, Rangers was never a proper organisation. There were just a few of us at first, just like-minded parents and friends, that sort of thing. We just wanted something for our kids to do; that’s it really. It was never anything more than that. The name came much later; a Lord of the Rings reference I think. And I don’t want to say I was the chief, or the boss, it wasn’t like that really.

What’s that? Oh, when it started? Oh, way back; a few of us were planning a camping trip when the kids were little – three, four years old. We’d set the tents up in the garden and Eva and Charlie were charging round them, in and out, like kids do…

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Six Stories is published by Orenda Books and is out now. 

If that extract doesn't make you want to read it there's no hope for you at all. You can get the book at your local bookshop or order hereherehere or here (and doubtless other places too).