20 February 2019

#Blogtour review of #Inborn by Thomas Enger from @OrendaBooks

Cover by kid-ethic.com
Thomas Enger (trans Kari Dickson)
Orenda Books, 7 March 2019
PB, e 273pp

Today I join the blogtour for Inborn by Thomas Enger. I'm grateful to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the tour and to her and to Karen at Orenda Books for a free copy to review.

A concert at Fretheim High School in Norway ends in tragedy and murder.

A teenage boy is accused and hounded online.

His family and their past are held up to scrutiny in court.

What secrets will emerge, what certainties will be overturned - and how will they survive it all?

I just loved this book by Thomas Enger, sitting up into the early hours to finish it off - I had to see what would happen: the book drips with surprises till the very end, not least in the way events are presented. This isn't a conventional police procedural, psychological thriller or Scandi-Noir, even if it borrows elements from all. For most of the story we see the main protagonist, Even Tollefsen, on the witness stand in court, defending his reputation. As the public prosecutor takes him through events following that shocking night, we read chapters of courtroom dialogue, then Even's recollection of the events described. Every detail of his life, of his family, of his friends is steadily, forensically, laid bare and we see Even wonder what the public assembled there are making of it, what his family - his mother, his brother - are making of it.

There are also chapters following Chief Inspector Yngve Mork and his enquiry. Yngve's wife has recently died of cancer and he is beset by grief, haunted by grief, even as he goes through steps needed to solve the crime.

I found the portrayal of Yngve's bereavement raw, shocking and so, so sad. We are accustomed to read crime novels - let's be honest, murder novel, they seldom feature stolen diamonds or dodgy property transactions - with a certain prurience, at a distance from the realities. When grieving relatives appear, we see them as witnesses or suspects, discounting their emotions and valuing them for the information they can provide. Well, it's a bit different here. Yes, this book still has murder at its heart and yes, there's the normal frisson around that, perhaps that's inevitable in this form of novel, but with Yngve, Enger reminds us that death is no game. Åse's death may have been natural, Yngve may, as he says, have had time to prepare, but the sense of loss Enger portrays is nevertheless bitter, crushing and all-consuming. And it leads the reader into all the other loss here, making the central crime more than just a puzzle to be solved.

Even is also puzzled and grieving: one of the murder victims, Mari Lindgren, was his ex girlfriend, leading to speculation, online gossip and accusations (a counterpoint in this book to the courtroom narrative and investigation is the insidious tide of social media, really seen directly but both reflecting and shaping events).

There are the parents of the victims.

There is Susanne, Even's mother, who never seems to have recovered from the death of her husband, Even's father, in a car crash years before.

The book - which is not a long read, at 273 pages - explores all of that loss, its idiosyncratic structure visibly laying bare all of the layers in Engers' tense courtroom narrative where each word has its weight, judgement is by the inhabitants of Fretheim, and everything - absolutely everything - will be revealed. The story is both moving and cathartic, revealing of a time and place where people should have spoken to each other, secrets should have been revealed, before things came to where they did.

Dickson's translation serves the story well, keeping a slight - a very slight - air of foreignness, so that the reader is aware this a story about another society, another place while still rendering events with clarity and conveying the pacing of the story very well. I think writer and translator are well matched.

Overall an intelligent, tense, touching and gripping story, holding interest throughout, and a genuinely different read.

15 February 2019

Review - Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Cover by Sean Rodwell
Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, 3)
Seanan McGuire
Tor, 1 February 2018
HB, e 174pp

Warning: this is the third book in a series and there are some spoilers below for earlier ones.

I bought my copy of this book (another 2018 book I'd left unread too long, and caught up with over Christmas).

I'm loving McGuire's Wayward Children series. To start with the concept is brilliant - Eleanor West runs the Home for Wayward Children, those who've wandered through doorways into other worlds, returned to this one, and don't fit in - but the execution, ah, the execution is sublime. These are real kids, people you will recognise or even people you might have been. Or indeed, be. This series is just so well written, has so much heart and soul and I really, really enjoyed this latest instalment.

Beneath the Sugar Sky opens out the themes of the series somewhat. While the first two books, Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, told different parts of the same story - that of Jack and Jill, their time on the Moors and their time in the School - in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Rini - daughter of Sumi, who we met in Every Heart - appears from the land of Confection, a place of sugars and baked goods... where everything has now gone wrong. What happened in the earlier book has brought about a catastrophe. The Queen of Cakes is rising again, and Rini's very existence is threatened.

A party of friends sets out to put things right, travelling through various worlds, meeting the Lord and Lady of the Dead and then, inevitably, coming up against the Queen herself.

It's smart, funny, touching and has a pace and tension to it that will keep you turning the pages, as well as smart characters out of their depth - they're in a strange world, not one they would have travelled to. But there is more here and I thought that - after the third book - it might be worth saying something about this series in general.

I understand that one of the hallmarks of science fiction or fantasy is to make metaphors actual. I do find this a hard concept to grasp. I can see for example that "time travel" leaps over our short lives to consider the effect of what we do on the future - or pushes us into the past to consider how similar, and different, we may be to our ancestors. But it's hard to feel this idea other than as a clever talking point, it seems to add little to one's understanding of a book.

In the Wayward Children books, though, McGuire takes this idea and makes it dance and sing. her series has a very clear focus: the kids she conjures up literally don't fit into this (our) world. They want to find a world where they do fit and, if they fall back out of it - those doorways have a pesky habit of reopening just when you don't want them - they need to find their way back in. Eleanor West's Home is a kind of waystation, a safe space where such kids can wait and learn, while they hope to go back.

So we have here, for example, Cora, who's curvy and excellent at swimming and has spent time as a mermaid in a water world. Back home, though, she's taunted for being "fat". Or Kade, whose misfortune is to have been exiled from the world he really wants, where he would be a brave prince - because it identified him, as his parents do, as female. (Not every story has a happy ending).

The Home provides a place to wait, to hope that the door will eventually reopen and - however imperfect this is - the society of others who are in a similar position. It isn't all sweetness and light (witness what happened in the first book) but it is better than a disbelieving and, well, adult world.

The writing therefore speaks to the sense of many young adults that they are misunderstood, out of place, different and it holds out hope of a better future. But there are no promises. This acceptance has to count for a lot, the happy ending may not come (and don't many or even most of us adults go around with similar feelings at least some of the time?) Not every door reopens.

But it goes further than this. By positively identifying with a glorious gamut of diversity (the books acknowledge race, gender, sexuality and many more characteristics - including simply loners and those who identify as weird in various ways) McGuire subtly (well, perhaps not so subtly) renders people visible. In a sense the book is Eleanor West's academy, because that is the place that Christopher, Cora, Sumi, Nancy and all the others have gone because that is where they will accepted and acknowledged..

If that sounds like the worst dream of a certain sort of pallid, angry SFF fan, well, perhaps it is. But I think the reason for that is not because, oh look, here's a SFF book with LGBT people in it, or people of colour, or whatever, and why did she have to do that, and can't we just have a fantastical adventure anymore? No, I think what stands out is that these books don't just have a diverse range of characters, in passing as it were, rather their theme and purpose is that diversity. The whole point of Wayward Children is that with an un-diverse different cast of characters they wouldn't work. The central idea - that we all have, or may have, our own doorway, to a land where we make sense, that we can go there, but we can lose that place - only works on the premise that all those doorways are different. Narnia isn't Never Never Land. Wonderland and Nutwood are different places, even if they have similarities, and the Hundred Acre Wood, to which Christopher Robin escaped, different again.

McGuire's embracing of diversity makes this obvious and - I think - changes that metaphor of falling down the rabbit hole or stepping through a wardrobe forever, making clear that such fantasies, such quests, are about the child stepping into the pond, through the mirror, or into the crack in the tree rather than the ostensible business of the quest or adventure then that takes place. What need is inside someone that they travel to such places so that it can be recognised and met?

So - rather that a nod to diversity through including these characters, McGuire  has full-bloodedly turned it into the subject, the bedrock and the central metaphor of her book (of this series). It's an exemplary use of that 'make the metaphor concrete' idea, in the very best, most mainstream SFF tradition - but it turns this idea on something that, let's admit it, still gets a minuscule share of the action (or perhaps of the attention).

Oh, and in case I wasn't clear above, Beneath the Sugar Sky (as well as Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones) are rattling good stories. I don't think McGuire could produce a dud if she tried.

On, now, to Book 4, In an Absent Dream, which isn't out yet as a physical book (1 February if you're waiting!) but is available on Audible now...

11 February 2019

Review - Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz

Beton Rouge (translated  from the German by Rachel Ward)
Simone Buchholz
Orenda Books, 21 February 2019
PB, e 186pp

Today I'm joining the tour for Simone Buchholz's dark new thriller, Beton Rouge. I'm very grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance (free) copy of the book, and to Anne from Random Things Blogtours for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Chastity Riley, unconventional public prosecutor and habitué of Hamburg's seamier nightlife, returns in a sequel to last year's Blue Night. Still chain-smoking, still drinking far too much, still brooding on her life and loves, Riley is a protagonist who makes an impact, much as if she'd reached out of the book with a steel bar and whacked the reader across the head. Blue Night introduced her doomy background in parallel with a fairly complex case that touched closely on her and her circle. In contrast, Beton Rouge has at its heart a simpler, more freestanding case, but it comes at a point where her and friends are going through some dark times.

Simone Buchholz
As the book opens a man has been found naked, assaulted, imprisoned in a cage and left outside the entrance to one of Germany's most successful magazine groups. Who he is, what happened to him, and why, will only slowly emerge: a story of bullying, privilege, misuse of power and ignored voices that will take Riley and her new colleague Ivo Stepanovic to Bavaria in a search for answers in the past.

Buchholz's characterisation of Bavaria as a kind of rural Hell is fascinating and disturbing, adding to the deep loathing we've already seen Riley display towards the countryside by painting the region as mean-minded, both nosy about neighbours' business and at the same time inclined to turn a blind eye to all kinds of abuses and discontents.

Hamburg, for all its sleaze, feels far safer even though the journey to Bavaria - and the distance from home - allows Riley to brood on her on-off relationship with Klatschke, where something seems to be wrong. Riley relentlessly dissects that relationship, in the same breath as considering the case in hand - indeed, drawing up lists of questions to be answered mixing both issues around Klatschke and about the case.

I think that tendency to mix things up is part of what makes her such an intriguing protagonist. What she's effectively doing here is not only investigating crimes but approaching her personal life using exactly the same tools and techniques (including the deadpan, wisecracking internal monologue). That wasn't so clear in Blue Night because there the case itself got personal, but here it's very starkly depicted, whether in relation to Klatsche or when problems also arise between her friends Carla and Rocco. The group of friends seems to be under great strain - maybe Riley will soon have no-one left but herself to rely on?

This is all delightfully noir, a mood Buchholz gleefully plays up in the writing (and that Ward adeptly conveys in her deeply readable translation) with Chastity left doubtful about her future, brooding on her past and living, really, like her new colleague, very much in the present.

An excellent book, deeply moody, atmospheric and evocative.

9 February 2019

Review: The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Wolf in the Whale
Jordanna Max Brodsky
Orbit, 31 January 2019
PB, 521pp.

A free copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher - for which I'm very grateful.

Well. This is a book it's hard to do full justice to in a mere review. I've got another idea. Put your address in the comments below, and I'll come round in person and persuade you to read it.

No? Well, I suppose it is getting a bit late... OK then, I'll do my best.

A historical fantasy like no other I've read, The Wolf in the Whale imagines the first encounters between Inuit and Norse, people both arriving, from different directions, at the same time in the east of what is now Canada.

Brodsky interleaves this (solidly based) historical speculation with the mythology of both peoples, showing Inuit and Norse gods taking a hand in the unfolding tales of their peoples - the Aesir, the Norse gods, also aware of the encroaching Christ winning over their followers.

Above all, though, this is the story of Omat - father and child. We hear of Omat's (the child's) birth tragic birth and of how Omat's (the father's) soul wins free from captivity with Sanna, the Sea Woman, to be reborn in the child. This story is told over and again, as each section of the book is introduced, each retelling bringing new depths of mythology to the story, both explaining what has happened and foreshadowing what might come. Without knowing it, Omat (the child) has a great weight of expectation and prophecy to carry, a burden that will be hard to bear at times. Omat has a difficult life in a a harsh environment - but an environment the Inuit [plural] are well able to flourish in. Born an angakkuk, a shaman, able to travel in the spirit world and converse with the gods, there are nevertheless rules - aglirutiit - to be observed, rules that govern personal identity, hunting, the role of the angakkuk and much more. It is hard for Omat not to be in breach of these, risking the disapproval of family and, worse, the loss of the gods' goodwill. (Meaning failed hunting trips, and the risk of starvation).

Brodsky succeeds brilliantly in showing how Omat's life, that of the family and indeed those of all the Inuit, exist on a knife edge, only a poor hunt or a spell of bad weather away from catastrophe. She also shows how resourceful and determined these settlers are ("settlers" as they are newly come into the land, the first in a great wave of migration). "An Inuk [singular] survives", we are told several times - not only a statement of fact but a personal creed and a cry of determination from Omat when things become hard. And they become very hard.

Carried away from the family by a band of strangers, made to adopt the role of a woman, not of a male hunter, raped, lost to the depths of winter, witness to slaughter, Omat is certainly a survivor. (And, yes, parts of this book are very hard to read. That's a content warning, in case you wondered!) That's true even before the Norse come on the scene. Once they do, it will take all Omat's ingenuity to live, to return to the family, to rescue brother/ cousin Kiasik. It will also require Omat to learn about and adapt new ideas about the world, in the meeting - and clash with - a whole new people, and new gods.

Brodsky's portrayal of this meeting between cultures in breathtaking. Based, clearly, on exhaustive research not only about the lives and survival skills but the beliefs and history of the Inuit, she shows a great depth of imagination in reconstructing - based on a meagre reference in the Norse sagas - just how these different cultures might have regarded each other. Both groups were hardy and were accomplished and self-sufficient travellers. The Norse, as shown here, had some advantages such as better weapons - though we see Omat scorn a Viking sword as no use for hunting - and ships, but lack some basic survival skills - skills the Inuit have honed to perfection ("An Inuk survives!") Again and again the theme arises. What can one people learn from the other? Mostly it seems to be Omat who's willing to learn, giving her an increasingly shrewd perspective on events (originally disdaining the newcomers' woollen clothes, Omat takes up spinning and weaving to great effect - in much the same way as seeing advantage in learning the "womanly" skills of parka-making despite them being alien to a male hunter).

But that's to make the book sound like a prolonged info dump about Arctic survival when it's far from that. We see Omat - a fascinating, complex and changing character - develop, mature and make dreadful mistakes (there were times I almost called out NO!!! as Omat's impulsiveness led to catastrophe). We also see Omat seek to redeem the failings of both Inuit and Norse, seek to save both their worlds - all our worlds - from destruction. Brodsky's portrays of Omat is wonderful, making the character so unique and believable, but other characters are equally well done: Brandr, the Norseman who has seen deserts and travelled as far as Rome, finds himself in a wholly alien world but adapts and even dares see it is his home. Even some of the less sympathetic characters - no spoilers! - are credible, with redeeming features. They all come alive on the page, and the reader soon cares about what happens to them (and indeed, may even shed a tear: this is a harsh world and there are losses).

I see I've mostly discussed this book as imagined history. It would be wrong to neglect the fantasy aspect though. This strand, done through the stories of gods, heroes and tricksters, is central to the book in giving characters a "religious" motivation but more importantly in personifying and to a degree explaining the struggles, crimes and misfortunes that also afflict the characters. The Inuit legend of the Sun Woman's rape by the Moon Man is central here, as are the Norse tales of Balder, Loki and the World Serpent -  and of course, Ragnarok. Reading this book I really felt - as I often don't with out-and-out fantasy - that this writing touched our world, touched our reality. That it's not just a clever game with made up names and places. The quality of the writing (and all that research) certainly helps here but I think rooting everything in real places and peoples, real myths and legends, real - if largely unknown and unknowable - events, also contributes.

Brodsky is at pains in her lengthy and detailed acknowledgments and notes on sources to make clear what the book is, and what it is not: "The Wolf in the Whale is not an Inuit story... [it is] an attempt to honour the Inuit past, not to claim it." In that, I believe, she succeeds magnificently - creating an absorbing and compelling story along the way.

I'd strongly recommend this book, suited for the depths of winter, when the wind blows and you want to huddle away from the weather... even if not from Arctic blizzards!

Finally, just look at that beautiful cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio... you need this on your shelves, you really do!

7 February 2019

Blogtour review - The Lost Man by Jane Harper

The Lost Man
Jane Harper
Little, Brown 7 February 2019
HB, e 384pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for The Lost Man by Jane Harper. I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of the book via NetGalley.

Nathan Bright's dog has died, his woman has left him and, even if his truck is running fine, his farm - actually a typically vast tract of land in the Australian outback - is on the ropes because the land is poor. He can be forgiven, a couple of times in this book, for sitting on the verandah of his brother's farmhouse and moodily strumming a guitar.

And indeed, Nathan does suffer from a degree of self-pity, reasonably, you might think, when you learn he's being shunned by the local community (again, "local" is a slippery concept, it's a three hour drive into town), that dog was probably poisoned, and much of Nathan's time and money is consumed by lawyers as part of custody battle for his son, Xander.

And more comes to light as well which I won't reveal here because spoilers, sweetie. I'll just say that Nathan and brothers Cameron and Bub haven't had it easy. Cameron's had it hardest perhaps because as the book opens, he's dead, victim of the overpowering heat of an Aussie summer. But why was he out at the "Stockman's Grave, ten kilometres from his abandoned car? Was the death suicide? An accident? or something more sinister?

I really loved the way that Harper spins this story as a mystery - and it is, with subtle clues, an air of menace, and a real solution - while keeping the focus on the people. Yes, the police do make an incidental appearance but they're not really investigating anything here. There's no role, I'm afraid, for Aaron Falk, Harper's protagonist from The Dry and Force of Nature (though she makes clear the book does take place in the same "world" - there is a reference, indeed a family link, to Kiewarra).  That's a brave choice, marking this as a different kind of crime story from its predecessors. The strands of the mystery here are all around personalities, motives, relationships, not forensics or pathology.

And it's a mystery that challenges Nathan's conception of himself, his self-sufficiency on that wretched farm, his relationship with his son and the history of his family. Harper adeptly relates the lives of these rural Australians to the unforgiving landscape - to the cosseted Pom, it's almost a science fictional world where survival depends on functioning aircon, refrigeration and your truck, an unprotected man or woman having no chance; you always travel with spare water, food, a radio; each farmhouse has its own drug kit, with locked compartments to be accessed only on the say-so of the Flying Doctor service; cold rooms that store months of food, delivered twice a year by truck; how the removal of melanomas is routine, kids do their schooling on the radio or Internet.

It is a land where things can go wrong so quickly, where distance and isolation means survival depends on a web of mutual support and trust, people depending on one another - and able to wield great power. Only an insider would be able to see what might have happened here, but any insider would be too close, too involved to see it clearly. Negotiating the fine line between the two, Harper has Nathan begin to doubt everything, everyone.

This was a satisfying mystery, with excellent, relatable characters and a credible, tightly woven plot which kept me guessing till the end. To a degree it revisits a theme from The Dry - the man who has bene ostracised from one of those remote communities - but in finding a different way to cope than did Falk, Nathan allows Harper to explore a different side of Australia, confronting some very basic human truths about survival, love and endurance.

Excellent reading.

For more information about The Lost Man see the publisher's website here. You can buy The Lost Man from Hive Books (supporting High Street booksellers), from Blackwell's, Waterstones (who are doing a signed edition) or Amazon. And from many other places as well.

3 February 2019

Review - Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Jacket design by FORT
Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children, 2)
Seanan Mcguire
Tor, 2017
HB, 187pp

I'm continuing to review some books that have been on my shelves far too long, having taken the chance of a lengthy car journey to listen to the audiobook of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. (I bought a physical copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop and the audiobook from Audible via Amazon. The audiobook, read by McGuire herself, is excellent, although Dr Bleak's signature whisper of a voice does at times make him a little hard to follow when driving!)

In this, the second part of her Wayward Children series, McGuire tells the other side of the story she began in Every Heart a Doorway (my review here). I won't say too much about that in case you haven't read it, but EHAD featured twins Jacqueline and Jillian - Jack and Jill ("because our parents shouldn't be allowed to name children") and their adventures at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children. Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells more about the two and about their time in the world known as The Moors, under the care, respectively, of the strange Dr Bleak and the commanding Master. It forms a whole with the earlier book and I think the two are best read together.

McGuire has written more recent books about the Home and the Wayward Children, but moving onto other characters and with a slightly different focus. Here, though, we have an almost clinical dissection of lives, of parenting and of the weight of expectations, the story going back to Jack and Jill's parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott. Despite a disclaimer that the story hasn't actually started yet, McGuire devotes nearly a third of the book to this complacent, insufferable pair, showing how their sheer conventionality, their refusal to admit wonder to their kids' lives, above all their sheer stuffiness, warps and forms the two girls, laying the foundations for what will occur after. There are perhaps shades of the Dursleys here though I think McGuire writes with much more psychological grip.

Indeed, she writes wisely throughout and shows, I think, a deep understanding of children: appropriately, the atmosphere reminded me of writers such E Nesbit and CS Lewis who - whatever their other failings may be - understand and glory in the differences between adults and children/ young adults, and take the latter seriously. This book is, McGuire is, on their side (something that shines through all the books in this series).

I'm not going to try and précis the book because it speaks for itself, but while telling an exciting story (you find a hidden doorway in your house and go through it to a world of monsters! A world of werewolves, vampires and mad scientists! A world where you can be yourself!) McGuire also teases out the damage done by expectations and just how hard that may make finding "yourself". While the Moors may ostensibly be a place of freedom from a certain sort of adulthood, there is Authority there and it happily, greedily, feeds on what is presented to it. So Jack and Jill are set on their way well before they cross that threshold, past that notice saying "BE SURE". The story thereafter is one of McGuire teasing out how the little faults and fractures between the sisters grow, are worked on by events and undermine their relationship, their unity, until... well, until things happen.

It's a short book - all of the books in this series are - and McGuire impressively draws on our knowledge of genre conventions to save having to spell out what could otherwise take a great deal of space. In a sense the Moors (like the others worlds visited by the Wayward Children) are narrative come alive, the book referencing films, novels, poems and art to give a much clearer impression of the place than mere words might but also to prefigure how things may go in the story. This saves a lot of explanation, yet the book remains novel, fresh and compelling.

After reading Every Heart a Doorway it's good to explore one of the worlds in more detail. In the next book, Beneath the Sugar Sky, McGuire develops this idea in a very different sort of world, also making a major theme of this series - diversity - more explicit.

But that's for another review: watch this space.

30 January 2019

Review - Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech

Call Me Star Girl
Louise Beech
Orenda Books, 18 April 2019 (PB) 18 February (e)
PB, e 277pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a free advance reader's copy of Call Me Star Girl.

You may look at the publication date and think "April? Why's he reviewing this in January? Go away, it's still Winter." Well, e-books are a thing, and you can read this on your favourite device from 18 February. In any case, I can't keep quiet about this one - I want it on your radar because it's a book you'll want to devour, the kind of book that draws you in and plays games with you and then haunts you. And you don't want to miss out on that.

There's the setting, a late night radio studio occupied by a sole presenter. Stella McKeever whispers her truths to the insomniacs, the night workers, the lovers, the ne'er do wells who come out in the dark to do whatever it is they do. And she solicits secrets in return. Outside, the police hunt down the killer who recently murdered pregnant Vicky Valbon only streets away. Inside, on the hour, Stella repeats her canned news broadcasts, marking zero progress in tracking down Vicky's killer.

There are the characters.

Stella, giving her last ever show (why?) in the small hours. She's had a difficult start in life, abandoned by her mother when she was twelve with no explanation, in a relationship with a man who pushes her boundaries, wants her to do transgressive, dangerous things - like "playing dead".

Elizabeth, Stella's mum, trying to find a place back in Stella's life and trying to be helpful to young mothers by working as a doula. (Is she trying to atone?)

Tom, that man who pushes Stella to her limits and beyond.

But most of all, there's Beech's compulsive, claustrophobic writing, piling on the pressure through the  night in which Stella remembers and tells her story and voices fears between the "reheated news", texts and messages from restless callers. During this we see snatches of both her life and of Elizabeth's, then and now. It's a moving story, often dark and gradually we learn what happened. All the way through, Stella's interrupted by calls from The Man Who Knows - who won't tell us what he knows, but who may be stalking Stella. Meanwhile, doors bang in the (empty?) studio, Stella begins to hear voices from her past and present... and one of her colleagues goes missing.

I found the way the story is told through that one long night just enthralling.  All the threads of Stella's life - her past, present and future - are brought together in one intense, pressure-cooker sequence as she cues songs, begs her audience for secrets to share and begins to put together the pieces from what she finds. (Awkward thing, asking for secrets: people may tell you them).

Beech used the idea of a character taking calls from strangers during the silent hours in Maria in the Moon - it's one with obvious dramatic potential - but in Call Me Star Girl she dials up the noir to 11 - the shadows in the studio, the lonely people out there hanging on to what Stella says, the noise that might be footsteps on the stairs... and she gives us Stella, the Star Girl herself, asking questions. Stella avoiding giving answers. Stella talking to us, as though we were sitting in an empty kitchen at 2.30 in the morning, any hope of sleep given up.

Or steering a taxi through the rainy streets.

Or a truck up the darkened motorway.

There's a fascination, I think, with those dark hours, with the people who are awake though them, and Beech exploits this to the full, serving up a dense, haunting, and deeply, deeply unsettling take on that  In the course of doing that she will tie you in emotional knots with a story that has moments of joy, fear, pity and such intense sorrow.

Secrets will be revealed, and truths come home to rest. But is Stella ready for what she'll find?

I think this is Louise Beech's best yet - which is saying something. Come April, you need to get your hands on it!

You can preorder Call Me Star Girl from your local bookshop or online from Hive Books, Blackwells, Waterstones and Amazon as well of course as other retailers.

For more information about the book see the publisher's website here.