The Gifts by Liz Hyder

Coming February 24th 2022 – Zaffre Books/Manilla Press

‘In an age defined by men, it will take something extraordinary to show four women who they truly are…

October 1840. A young woman staggers alone through a forest in Shropshire as a huge pair of impossible wings rip themselves from her shoulders’.

That’s all I’m going to mention about the story itself, because this book pretty much ripped the emotions straight out of my heart and landed them with an almighty boom in between the pages.

The Gifts was an astonishing book to start the year off with. Honestly, I am absolutely blown away by Liz Hyder’s magical, immersive and compelling novel.

It picked me up and swept me off with a whoosh, every time I picked it up. It’s one of those books (which are few and far between) where I have so many notes and post-it’s that I really don’t know where to start to review it!

I’m writing this early in the morning whilst my brain is fresh as I’m suffering a book hangover of gargantuan proportions and don’t want my review to be all “I LOVED IT! I LOVED IT! JUST BUY IT EVERYONE!”

Liz Hyder has made historical magical realism the most magically realistic reading experience. It is relatable, brutally true to present life and beautifully presented with a language that sings. The characters are right there, you can feel them walking around in your mind. The setting and imagery vivid, you can almost taste it, smell it.

I one hundred per cent ‘got’ the story that Liz set out to tell. It’s historical fiction, yes, with magical elements, but it’s also SO MUCH MORE.

I have a lot to say about this book but I also want to keep it all to myself. I read an advance copy that the publisher kindly sent me and if it’s affected me in it’s unfinished state, the finished copy (complete with illustrations!! Eeek!!) is guaranteed to be a marvel. I cannot wait to see it!

When I first started reading, I made notes on the individual characters because there’s quite a few of them, each one playing an essential part to the story. I’m glad I did this, as occasionally, in the first, maybe 100 pages, I did need to refresh my memory about who they were and what they were ‘up to’. And my goodness, they were ALL up to all sorts, I can tell you.

Their individuality soon settled in my mind and I was able to distinguish and switch between them with no problem. That, for me, is a sign of a well written book. I often struggle if there’s many characters, but not here. I was in deep, completely invested in everything going on in the pages.

There’s a chemistry between two of the characters that was done so perfectly. I’m not one for ‘love’ in stories, but I was absolutely buzzing for these two, and their banter was hilarious at times. I was crying with laughter during numerous scenes.

The chapters were short and snappy, which is something I love. I feel like I’m not quite ready to move onto another book yet because The Gifts is still under my skin, like the bursting wings of those ‘chosen’ women.

I’m left with this thought that gets me right here *pounds fist into heart area* – is it really STILL so scandalous that a woman can have the “audacity” to grow a pair of powerful wings and set herself free?

WOW. Just WOW.

Thank you so much Liz for your story. And to the publisher, Zaffre Books for sending me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Now I’m going to go off and hug the book some more. Etta, Mary, Natalya and Annie, you’re going on my forever shelf eventually, but not just yet, I can’t quite let you go…

Daughters of Darkness II

Daughters of Darkness II

Daughters of Darkness II is an anthology of dark and creepy horror stories featuring authors Beverley Lee, Lynn Love, Catherine McCarthy and T C Parker.

Created by Stephanie Ellis and Alyson Faye of Black Angel Press, this second instalment (the first of which came out in February this year) of gentle chills and out and out terror impressed the pants off my horror-loving self, quite frankly!

Now, I find it quite difficult to review story collections because I easily harp on for ages about each and every story, character, style, plot etc, rambling away and ending up loosing myself, let alone you, the reader of my review.

So without further ado, I shall break it down into four sections about each author, keeping it straight to the point and succinct. I wouldn’t want to keep you from heading off to buy it now, would I? 😉

Beverley Lee

A Whiteness of Swans – 5 stars

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Tender is the Heart – 5 stars

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The Boy Who Wore My Name – 5 stars

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The Secret of Westport Fell – 10 stars

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“As Flora made her way to the door, her fingers and toes numb from the cold, she glanced behind to the small country churchyard slumbering under its ghostly blanket. For all of its quaintness its forlorn song shivered through the heavy veil of grey”.

Gorgeous eh?! Expect the unexpected with Beverley’s writing though. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Lynn Love

A Light in the Darkness Pt 1 – Thou Little Tiny Child – 5 stars

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Pt 2 – O Sisters Too, How May We Do, For To Preserve This Day – 5 stars

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Pt 3 – All Young Children To Slay – 5 stars

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“Lucia muttered something in Italian. There was something voluptuous about the language, something dark and fleshy that made her pulse race a little. Patricia imagined the words filling her mouth like bonbons, sugary and wicked”.

How’s that for gorgeous descriptive writing?! I love accents, I could hear this moment with such clarity, and almost taste those bonbons. Fabulous Lynn, truly it is.

Catherine McCarthy

The Spider and the Stag – 10 stars

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“…glass jars filled with chunks of unpolished gemstones and sorted according to the spectrum of a rainbow. Spools of threads and whirls of wire, perspex boxes glinting with silver and gold clasps and catches. A non-caloric candy store”.

Catherine keeps on doing this. Hits me right here *punches own heart* with everything she writes. Her stories are kept on my “I can’t describe how brilliant this author is without waving my arms around frantically and probably spitting a little bit in excitement” shelf.

T C Parker

The Body Tree (Hummingbird 1) – 5 stars

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Undeserving (Hummingbird 2) – 5 stars

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“The face of one was obscured entirely by a black hood fixed around its neck with hangman’s rope; the head of another was entirely absent, its body not only decapitated but dismembered and its absent arms and legs piled in an untidy heap on the floor below”.

How utterly grotesque! TC’s story made the gruesome so fascinating!! She seems to know where to draw the line, not quite turning my stomach, but getting pretty close! That quote is one of the milder ones I’ll have you know!

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With vivid imagery, delicious darkness that went from gently chilling to the darn right macabre throughout, this is the first ever anthology that’s got a spot on my ‘best of the year’ Goodreads shelf.

Thank you ladies, from the bottom of my dark heart for your writing and your wonderfully twisted imaginations. You aided my escapism from this mad, bad, real world, I absolutely loved every minute of being freaked out in your fictional ones. And huge thanks to Stephanie for sending me a copy, it was a pleasure to read.

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Daughters of Darkness II eBook : Lee, Beverley, Love, Lynn, McCarthy, Catherine, Parker, T.C., Ellis, Stephanie, Faye, Alyson: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Having watched, and thoroughly enjoyed the movie starring Will Smith, I decided to read the 1954 novel.

As many on Twitter have said, it is very different to the film, however, I still rate them both highly for being so different. It’s a refreshing change that a movie used a classic story arc, changed it, not beyond recognition but just enough to make it blockbuster-worthy. After all, Mathesons novel is only a mere 160 pages long, had it been copied to the letter, I think the film would of been only an hour long, 70/80 minutes max.

Mathesons main character, Robert Neville is the last living man on earth, but he’s not alone. Oh no, no, no, no no! There’s zombie-like vampires lurking as soon as night falls, and to say this book has fear factor would be an understatement. Rarely do I feel my heart banging in my chest when reading, it’s got to be pretty terrifying for me to have to take a breather like I did with this one.

After reading chapters 4 and 5 I got out the bath feeling quite shook up! Now that’s a sign of a good book eh?!

Apart from the overuse of the word ‘palsied’ to describe Neville’s bodily reactions, Matheson is an absolute master of tension-writing. Providing the reader can see beyond the era of the story-telling (it’s 1954, telling a futuristic (1979) sci-fi story, it’s bound to be “dated”, get over it, complainers, I’ve read what you’ve moaned about 🙄) it’s classic sci-fi/horror at its very best.

There’s nothing I like more in a book when I see a quote from another book!

“The strength of the Vampire is that no one will believe in him”. – Dracula by Bram Stoker

The descriptions are so strong, there’s a subtle beauty in this story that filters through all the fear and bleak darkness.

“Morning. A sun-bright hush broken only by the chorus of birds in the trees. No breeze to stir the vivid blossoms around the houses, the bushes, the dark-leaved hedges. A cloud of silent heat was suspended over everything on Cimarron Street”.

How gorgeous is that visual?! Seriously, Matheson pops these gems in throughout the entire book.

And then of course, there’s how relatable this book is, nearly 70 years on…

“Towards the end of the plague, yellow journalism has spread a cancerous dread of vampires to all corners of the nation. He could remember himself the rash of pseudo-scientific articles that veiled an out-and-out fright campaign to sell papers”.

Sounds familiar…

“There was something grotesquely amusing in that; the frenetic attempt to sell papers while the world died.”

Indeed…

I am still feeling blown away by I Am Legend, it’s been hanging around in my thoughts all morning, it’s not a book I will easily shake off.

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

This isn’t a normal review because this isn’t a normal story. I’m saying nothing about the plot or characters. Nothing.

Just read it.

Starve Acre is a book that begs so many questions and creates so many thoughts from start to finish.

Here’s a ‘running commentary’ as it were, of my reading experience..

-oooh hello there beautifully poetic, darkly disturbing writing

-hang on, wait, what’s happening?

-soooo, what happened before then?

-crikey, what’s GOING to happen?

-OMG, WHY is it happening?

-wait, WHAT?! Erm, what on earth did he do?

-WHY did he do it?

-Jeez, why is she like this?

-And why the hell is he like that?

-No way!

-*Brain explodes* The End.

And all that in under 250 pages!! Unbelievable!

I started off putting post it notes marking notable paragraphs every ten, maybe 15 pages. But really Starve Acre is one big post it note of dark beauty. Every paragraph of every page is post-it note worthy, so I gave up.

Anyway, do yourself a favour, read Starve Acre. I’ve just ordered Hurleys’ other two books, The Loney and Devils Day, because it’s the law.

“What you go searching for and what you find aren’t always the same”.

Door and Other Twisted Tales by Catherine McCarthy

You know that feeling when you get off the Waltzer at the fair? Your head feels kind of floaty, there’s an excited giddiness, that buzz of adrenaline rushes from toes to fingertips and then back again. You’d like another go but best not, because you’re 47 not 10. Or is that just me?

Anyway, going through the many Doors of Catherine McCarthy’s magical, mystical, and at times, oddly dark and creative mind, gave me quite that kind of ride! It wasn’t a roller coaster, Catherine’s writing is far too gentle and quietly satisfying for that, the Waltzer is my best comparison. You don’t need to scream if you want to go faster because you need that steady pace to be prepared for the “hang on a minute, I did not see THAT coming” moments. And then, there’s the “wait, what?!, no Catherine, nooo!! you can’t possibly end it there!!” moments!

Oh the perils of short stories that suck you right in!!! *sigh*

Door is a collection of dark portal style stories, although set in different times, they have a great deal in common with each other.

From a freaked out shift worker with paranoia about what’s behind a metal door, to unwelcome ‘white ghosts’ in Botany Bay, Australia 1790. From creepy crypts in the Canaries, to a wartime bunker in Sheffield, Catherine has created a treasure trove of mind-bending micro-journeys that whet the appetite with a side order of subtle horror and discomfort. You WILL want to read more from this author. Take it from me.

As with any short story collections, I had my favourites, but I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single one. I will say a few words about the ones that really stood out to me though.

‘Door’ – the first story, had me reading with such intensity. John, the MC, had successfully landed a job. Doing what, I’m not entirely sure, some kind of secretive knob and dial twiddling for a living, in a strange industrial building. Make of that what you will. As a character, he was weird. The story, even weirder! The ending? You must of heard me when I shouted ‘WHAT?? Don’t do that Catherine!!!’ from my bathtub from where I was reading!

‘Mine’, – the story of young Anna who works as a trapper down the mines. The sheer darkness of the setting and the mystery surrounding the ‘special kind of coal’ certainly pulled me in. It was so full of atmosphere, I could almost smell it.

‘Plague’ – a small village in Southern France, 1347 to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia 18 years prior and then back again to Penne, Southern France. Certainly worlds apart. You’d think.

“When you see a door open, which you did not expect, do not be afraid of passing through – just be careful as to whom else chooses to step beyond its threshold at your side”.

‘Ash’ – Raoul, a Scientist receives a letter from a Priest inviting him to help investigate the underground crypts and caverns in Volcanic Lanzarote. All is not well and some unearthed discoveries give this story quite a macabre and dark tone.

‘Charity’ – a Christmas story, of sorts, set in Hove, UK. “Satan Claws is coming to town!”

Is someone struggling with their spelling there? One things for sure, Karma’s a bitch, whatever the season. *Snorts satisfyingly*

If there’s one thing that all these stories have in common, other that the doorways to get into them, it’s the absolute cracking first few paragraphs of each and every one. Catherine has the knack of getting my attention so quickly. She sets the scene, introduces her character(s) and I’m swiftly swooped away.

Overall, an interesting, mixed collection of mindful, yet, at times, disturbing stories that were entertaining, a bit bizarre, and had Catherine’s unique stamp all over them.

I recommend Catherine’s writing whenever I get the opportunity as although predominantly a horror writer, her stories are made up of various layers which would appeal to readers who are seeking short stories beyond that one genre.

Thank you, Catherine for my gifted copy of Door, I am very grateful for the opportunity to read and review your collection.

Catherine McCarthy grew up in the industrial valleys of South Wales where she went on to teach for almost three decades. She now lives in West Wales with her husband, who is also her illustrator and motivator. Catherine believes that story telling is probably the oldest and wisest art form known to man, though to make it a bit compelling, it needs to be crafted with a bit of magic.

Twitter – @serialsemantic

Instagram – catherine_mccarthy_author

Amazon.co.uk : catherine mccarthy

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