16 February 2018

Blogtour review - Blue Night by Simone Buchholz

Blue Night (Chastity Riley, 1)
Simone Buchholz (trans by Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, 28 February 2018
PB, 182pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy of Blue Night and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Blue Night is the first in a series featuring Hamburg public prosecutor Chastity Riley. Her (to me) unlikely name and some of the flashback detail hints at a foreign (non German) background and the flashbacks at a tragedy in her early life but we have yet to hear details of those. Watch this space.

In the meantime, we have Chastity's recent history: sidelined by her office for exposing a senior prosecutor as corrupt, she's been assigned to witness protection but seemingly in a very vague role that keeps her at arm's length from the rest of the department.

That seems to suit Chastity down to the ground, giving her maximum freedom to indulge her loner tendencies, manifested especially by chain-smoking, heavy drinking and gazing moodily at Hamburg's admittedly awful (at least, according to this book) weather. That may sound rather off-putting but in Buchholz's hands it's actually rather appealing. Chastity's little world - bounded by her flat, the Blue Night bar run by her friend Klatsche, and the cafe/ restaurant belonging to Rocco and Carla - is fully detailed (when off duty, she has a tendency to end up working behind the bar if someone has to rush away on an urgent errand) and peopled (add to the above her ex boss Calabretta and retired colleague Faller - about whom, for different reasons, the group of friends are worried). One senses that these are real people, with real histories: this is heightened by occasional chapters starting from 1982 which and feature thoughts of the principal characters as they move towards the present-day story. It's a very effective device, like overhearing the internal monologue of characters waiting to step out onto a stage. (And it also includes figures who aren't identified till well into the story, so hinting at the role they will play).

Simone Buchholz
Into this somewhat Bohemian world comes Joe, victim of a gang attack whom Chastity is charged with guarding. She begins work on him, coaxing out his story and joining the dots between it and the wider world of crime in Hamburg. But if she learns too much, will this place her - and her friends, especially some who have past connection in the underworld - at risk?

The crime background to this book isn't, in the end, particularly complicated nor is it the most interesting part of the book. Wisely, in my view, especially given this is a relatively short book, Buchholz spends most of her time on Chastity's relationships with her circle of friends and with Joe. The result works very well, whether seen as a study of character, a slice of noir (I should write Noir, this book has it in (Sam) spades) or as mainly laying foundations for what I hope will be a future series.

The language is a joy. Take the opening words
Under a dark sky the engine gives one last cough, clears its throat like an old man, then floods.
I get out, sit on the rusty-gold bonnet, and raise my face to the heavy, cold air.
First things first: I'm going to smoke this damn fog dry.
I can't stop staring at the damn moon.
I smoke another three to eight cigarettes, and someone knocks on the door, two long, three short.
This must reflect, I think, an especially fruitful collaboration between Buchholz and translator Rachel Ward, I don't, of course, know how the original German reads (it would be beyond my ancient "o"-level ability anyway) but the English is simply addictive. I also loved the chapter titles, gloriously elaborate confections such as "Candles all round, please", "I'd like to go somewhere, right now, where I can smoke" or "Because it's Sunday" which tend to reflect Chastity's state of mind more than the progress of the story, as well as giving the merest hint of how she senses the atmosphere in colour, reads a crime scene for the touch of a murderer, knows when something's about to go down. It isn't painted as a sixth sense or a mystical ability but does come across as Chastity being very much in her element in those mean streets as the late drinkers head home and the litter blows down the Reeperbahn.

Simply an excellent slice of atmospheric crime. Give me more, soon!

13 February 2018

Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker

Blood of Assassins (Wounded Kingdom, 2)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 15 February 2018
PB, 436pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of this book.

In this sequel to Age of Assassins, published last year, Barker takes us back to Maniyadoc and the Long Tides, the Wounded Kingdom where outbreaks of magic leave patches of land "soured", yellow and unproductive - and where the sorcerers who produce them are despised, hunted and tortured.

Girton Club-Foot and his Master, Merala, left the Kingdom years before after Girton's friend Rufra seized the throne. Declared outcast by the Assassins, they have a price on their heads and have been surviving as mercenaries. Stuff happens in life - but this stuff has left Girton filled with guilt and even hate. We only gradually find out what he's done, or refrained from doing, and why it matters so much.

Things haven't all gone well for Rufra either. Fighting a war against two other pretenders - Tomas and Aydor - he has been trying at the same time to build a better Kingdom, one more equal, less cruel while suffering personal tragedy and missing his friend. And Maniyadoc is still beset by the baleful Landsmen who persecute sorcerers - Rufra needs their support. More, he sees their cruelty as a regrettable necessity.

The Kingdom is also riven by priests of the various Dead Gods, self-proclaimed prophets, and all manner of chancers and aggrieved grudge-bearers.

Into this poisonous ferment Girton brings his own darkness. He is, as readers of Age of Assassins will remember, a sorcerer himself, or at least, magic is trying to work through him, though he suppresses it as best he can (a cause of bitterness between him and his Master). Set to track down a spy and expose a murderer, Girton finds himself at the centre of events again and forced to make some very, very hard choices. "Oh Girton" I found myself thinking more than once "you've done it now..."

If that shows I'm getting dangerously close to Girton, so be it. A flawed, often frustrating hero he's nonetheless likeable. In Age of Assassins we saw him come of age... to a degree.  Here he's perhaps more like a grown up child who hasn't broken away from his mother - and yes, the bond between him and Merala is close to that between parent and child, although I don't think they are. One feels his frustration, rage and love even as he does some ghastly things, and one fears for his future. We meet another assassin here whose Master is buried in a ditch. Is that the path Girton's set to follow?

The book does focus on various ways in which paths are set or can be chosen, the moment when a man or woman's fate is sealed, when something happens - willed or no - that shuts down the choices. It also dangles the possibility of redemption, of turning away from a bad path and finding a better one. Perhaps. But can we trust those who say they are doing this? Is it even possible when the land is drenched in bloodshed, war and loss?

If that sounds very dark, well, Blood of Assassins often is dark, be warned. It's not, though, a dark read. I mean that even where the subject matter becomes grim, the book continues to draw the reader in through the inventiveness of the writing, the substance of the characters, the delightful reality of the setting, all of which make it a joy to read. Barker has a knack of making everything so convincing, whether it's the vengeful hedgings, chaotic spirits glimpsed in dreams (Blue Watta, Coil the Yellower and so on), the combat, (Girton uses a whole - I assume invented - technical language to describe his assassin moves, making them sound almost like dance), the sense of powers brooding just behind reality (Girton's struggle to suppress his magic, the looming storm of Yearsbirth, the sense that if the gods really are dead they may not stay that way).

And if that weren't enough, Barker's book is almost uncannily timely. I don't want to spoil the plot, but an element that does come out is the presence of a sexual predator who has been tolerated because he's useful. Everyone, it turns out, knew about this person: even in a world where men and women are found equally in the shieldwall, serve equally as bodyguards, as cavalry, priests... or assassins... this phenomenon persists. Like the blood sacrifice by the Landsmen, it's accepted, worked round, lived with, even in a Kingdom that Rufra says he wants to make better.

In keeping with that, victories here are hard gained and at a great cost to winner and loser. Crimes take place, and Girton is far from innocent himself: there are things he can't even tell his best friend, if he doesn't want to end up in a blood gibbet. It all makes for an introspective, guilt-ridden hero - and for truly marvellous fantasy reading.

If there's any justice in the world, Barker's series is destined to be a classic of fantasy. I'm impatient for the third book, King of Assassins, to see how it all turns out - and meet Girton and Merala again, no doubt a few years older, perhaps a bit wiser, certainly no less prone to get into trouble.

10 February 2018

Review - The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

The Toymakers
Robert Dinsdale
Del Rey, 8 February 2018
HB, 480pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via Netgalley.

It is 1917, and while war wages across Europe, in the heart of London, there is a place of hope and enchantment.

The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike: patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy boxes that are bigger on the inside, soldiers that can fight battles of their own. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own.

But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own…

This book will always remind me of winter. It's not just that so much of it is set in the wintry time between First Frost and the budding of the snowdrop, the magical time when the doors of the Emporium - Papa Jack's Emporium, the most magical toyshop in all London - are open.

Nor is it because I read it on a weekend break in snowy Reykjavik.

No, it's more that Dinsdale has somehow captured the essence of winter in the frozen lives, the frozen hearts - for much of the novel - of his characters. So much so, that as the book continues one aches for the spring, the thaw, the warm sun.

It doesn't begin like that of course.

The story proper opens with a young woman, Cathy, who has fallen pregnant. In the judgemental atmosphere of 1906, she must be made to suffer, and she is to give the child up ("They brought her down to Dovercourt to sell her child"). Running away to London she heads for - where else? The Emporium, where she takes a job as a shop assistant.

Dinsdale is at its best conjuring - I use the word advisedly! - the atmosphere of the Emporium in all its pomp. Of course, a bustling, thronged toyshop in the Christmas season lends itself to being portrayed as a hive of wonders, so perhaps he's going with the grain, but even so, we get a glimpse of something almost magical in the glimpse of the brightly lit shop, hidden away at the end of Iron Duke Mews, so much so that it's easy to believe stepping inside takes you a little way out of this world.

Yet this glimpse - seen in the prologue, and again in the opening of the novel proper - has to sustain us, and Dinsdale's protagonists, through a long, hard winter, one that we suspect they may not all survive. Life is precarious, and the Emporium, despite appearances, is not a haven from the outside world. Cathy has run away and has, in her pregnancy, a secret that could destroy her hard-won security. Kaspar and Emil, the two Godson boys who work with Papa Jack, are rivals in all sorts of ways. Jack is himself a refugee from hard times in the East - his life history explored in one particularly moving sequence where he dramatises what happened to him through a magical, immersive wind-up toy.

And looming over all there is, of course, the backward shadow of the future - looming war which will consume the shop hands and the comfortable life of the Emporium, bring division and pain, and break hearts.

It is, then, in many respects a very dark story that Dinsdale tells. Like Jack, he portrays his themes through the medium of toys - mainly, the evolving lives of the wooden, clockworks soldiers made by Emil, with perhaps a hint of Papa Jack's magic, models which learn, and teach, lessons about freedom, restraint and endurance. But there's also the windup patchwork dog, Sirius who, in the manner of dogs, is fiercely loyal yet may bring you to tears.

It is, then, a magical story in so many ways - in theme but also in form. Like the Emporium itself, Dinsdale presents something that is bigger on the inside (I wondered whether the echo of Doctor Who was conscious, and I'm still not sure, but it is very appropriate). Like one of Papa Jack's miraculous paper models, it unfolds to show love, persistence, rivalry, despair and how the passing of the years dilutes and refines these. Far from a Peter Pan or a Wind in the Willows, fine books which nonetheless present an idealised summer preserved for ever, The Toymakers focusses on the winter, and as the seasons turn things do change. Children do grow up and some of them can turn out very bad. But at the core of the book is Papa Jack's belief in the power of a memory of childhood (emphatically not its indefinite prolongation, nor taking refuge in it) which can be redemptive in even the darkest moments.

Often a hard book to read, but nevertheless uplifting, even joyous at times and imbued with a deep optimism.

A gorgeous book. You want to read this, you really do.

Read more at https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1113668/the-toymakers/#2DrdFpFdwpImQY04.99

9 February 2018

Blogtour review - Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2)
Jane Harper
Little, Brown 1 February 2018
HB, 376pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Aaron Falk is back!

Falk, introduced in Harper's debut The Dry last year, is a Federal Agent in Australia, assigned to investigate financial crime. In The Dry he was visiting his hometown for a funeral and became embroiled in a series of events entangled with his own past, taking him to areas of criminality a long way from his normal work

In Force of Nature, Falk is on safer ground and he has more distance, although the story still prompts him to reflect on his damaged relationship with his father. He is working one of his own cases (with his partner Carmen), investigating a money laundering racket at the centre of which is an apparently respectable family business.

Get the contracts...

Falk's and Carmen's bosses are desperate that they provide the documentation necessary to take down the money laundering gang. But there is a problem. They have recruited an informant in the firm - but now Alice has gone missing. Five women - Bree, Beth, Jill, Lauren and Alice - went into the woods on a corporate team building weekend - but only four came out.

It is imperative that you get the contracts...

OK, but just how do you do that when your contact has gone missing in the forest? The pressure is on, and Falk and Carmen head out into the bush to join the search team and attempt to understand what happened during the 4 day hike. Did the group simply suffer misfortune, or was Alice exposed by her bosses? Or did something else happen?

While The Dry was set amidst the scorching heat and baking drought of an Australian summer, Force of Nature takes place in the winter. When the five women go astray their  enemies are not thirst and fire but cold, wet and hunger.

And each other.

As things go from bad to worse, tensions between the women rise. They all have secrets, and some of them have good reason to want out of the group. Harper tells the story in alternating chapters first following Aaron and Carmen and then jumping back to the women in the forest, leading up to catastrophe. This is a formidable device for building tension, drip feeding enough information that we are aware, just in time, of the significance of something the detectives discover or of the wider impact of an apparently minor quarrel or argument among the five.

Among the alarming facts that comes out is that the woods were previously the domain of a killer, at least one of whose victims was never found. And he had a son and apprentice. So when the missing women stumble upon a sinister cabin in the woods, we wonder where things are going...

The characterisation of the women is particularly good, especially the sisters Beth and Bree, who carry different loads of guilt which affect their behaviour on the calamitous hike. Alice herself remains an enigma: even when she's with the others she seems only part there - we eventually learn the reason for this, as secrets are revealed and scores settled.

Overall, a suspenseful, intelligent psychological crime novel with no girls, no trains but a heck of a lot of tension. As good as or better than The Dry although clearly a more conventional crime thriller with Falk less personally involved in the case. It will keep you guessing till the very end.

8 February 2018

Review - Moonshine by Jasmine Gower

Cover by John Coulthart
Jasmine Gower
Angry Robot, 6 February 2018
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy via NetGalley

This is a strange, mixed-up yet nevertheless joyful book. Set in a world going through something like 1920s-era US Prohibition, it strongly evokes the spirit of the Jazz Age: our heroine, Daisy Dell, is "the very picture of a Modern Girl - slender of frame; her short, tight curls coifed with a shiny pomade; heeled dance shoes dressing either foot; and her dark skin complemented by the contrast of daisy yellow, so vibrant as though it was part of her identity. This she supposed it was."

Daisy is making her way in Soot City, capital of Ashland, a nation recently resettled after centuries of volcanic eruptions - think Iceland, but with a gentler climate. The portrayal of Ashland, its social and political tensions, the hints at a wider world - many of the citizens have fled there to escape from vaguely described trouble elsewhere ("Mr Blaine's family fled to Ashland presumably to escape the fascist regime in Berngi"), most of all the morality campaign aimed at suppressing magic - for, reader, this is very much a fantasy world - are all done very well. And as we might expect, Dell pretty soon falls in with gangsters, dealers in the illegal substance mana ("the blue stuff") essential for magicians. From then on it gets a bit Bugsy Malone with shootouts, political shenaniganns, a ruthless hitwoman and romantic entanglements.

The plot is pretty linear and restricted - we're not dealing here with world changing conspiracies, Dark Lords or the fate of the Universe. Some may dislike that: for my part I found it rather refreshing, allowing time and space for Gower to develop her characters - she gives Dell, and her boss, Swarz, plenty of backstory (Daisy's eventually reveals a rather horrifying secret that counterbalances the less pleasant aspects of the speakeasy gang - no-one in this book has clean hands) and a nicely complicated relationship. It was a slight disappointment that the plot is pretty transparent, with the antagonist and their motivations identified to the reader (not to Dell) early on. To set against that, there is, as I have said, a satisfying atmosphere of moral murkiness to the book. The same phrase - "a girl's got to eat" - is used of both Dell and her Nemesis. Motivations here are mundane, about making rent or keeping food on the table or just having  good time at the end of the week, not about fulfilling ancient prophecies or crusading against evil.

The book is also nicely observed. Early on, Swarz challenges Dell's motivations, wondering if she shouldn't spend a bit less money on partying and move into a better flat. Dell is having none of it and basically tells him to mind his own business. Gower also has a nice line in hard-boiled one-liners ("She had to admire his nonchalance in approaching someone... younger... drinking alone like she was contemplating revenge", "Daisy held forth the letter, putting on a smile she was too weary for"). The book is unashamedly progressive and pro-diversity, with, for example, a character who presents sometimes as male and sometimes as female ("Well, sure, when I am a man. I'm not now") and with the treatment of both the native ogres and the magicians a proxy for the results of ethnic and social privilege ("Magic, alongside ogre technology... had probably built half the city.")

Overall this was a great read. the world building is second to none, the characters plausible, and if there's a bit less plot then I might ideally have liked, that also has its attractions and Gower never, never lets the pace of events slacken with several viscerally realised set-piece battles before the end.

A great debut, and I hope that Gower writes more about this intriguing world soon and especially about Daisy Dell. (Also, just take a moment to appreciate that gorgeous, glamorous cover!)

5 February 2018

Review - Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

Spare and Found Parts
Sarah Maria Griffin
Titan Books, 6 February 2018
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Spare and Found Parts.

In an unnamed country, in Black Water City, Penelope - Nell - lives with her father, a maker of artificial limbs and body parts, which are much in demand in a future scourged by epidemics as a result of which many of the citizens are missing them.

In this post-apocalyptic future, all must "contribute" to society. The time for Nell's Contribution is fast approaching and she doesn't know what she will do. A skilled apprentice to her father, she hasn't settled on what to make - and time is running out. This sense of coming life, of young people wondering what their place in society will be, how the world will value them, where they fit in, what their tribe is, is palpable this book with plans being made, futures considered and accepted, bargained over, rejected, is palpable. With no social media, not even landline phones for anguished, hour long calls, it all happens out in the open. Secrets come to light.

And as Nell spends her days combing the detritus of what was evidently Dublin, her mechanical heart - designed by her father - ticking faster or slower to mark her level of excitement or fear, we also gradually learn more about what happened a hundred years ago, and why computers have been driven from the country (while not completely clear, this doesn't seem to be true elsewhere in the world: some of those youthful plans are dreams of leaving the island and connected with that banned culture: this seems a self-imposed internal exile).

We learn that there were there were electromagnetic pulses. That there was a destructive virus that seems not only to have consumed humans but to have eaten walls, ceilings, floors. It's not clear whether this is being blamed on the actions of the machines, or was done to, in some fashion, control or destroy them, but either way, they are treated as responsible.

So Nell's wakening desire to construct a sentient, mechanical man is a dangerous obsession. As the storm grows and lightning flashes, we are clearly somewhere in Frankenstein territory with the story a heady mixture of coming-of-age tale, warning, and ethical fable about the duty we owe to our creations.

It's a very driven story, seen largely through Nell's eyes (there are a few sections that step aside to other viewpoints for a few pages) and it's also very linear, content to follow her story, say what she does and let her shape events. The other characters are all very much in support - even Nell's friend Ruby, and the odd (somewhat creepy) boy Oliver - and this isn't a book about political machinations in Black Water City, the future of its society or indeed wider events. That may sound as though it might be claustrophobic but the reverse is true, in taking the time to explore Nell's life, her relationship with her father, the mystery surrounding her past - and her fears over her future - the book has more than enough to deal with and the singled-mindedness of its focus gives it clarity and, as I said, drive.

One of the stranger books I've read recently, I greatly enjoyed Spare and Found Parts and its rich, slightly gothic, slightly steampunk ambience. It's a wonderful, lyrical read, about the joy of making - the cover brings together Ruby's needlework and Nell's growing obsession with computers - of exploring, of life. The most wonderful moment for me was perhaps where Nell, blundering into a secret cell of computer geeks, discovers the joys of music... something Griffin pays tribute to elsewhere in the book - if you remember your binary and your ASCII you may be able to decode her message.

An impressive debut from Sarah Maria Griffin.

1 February 2018

Blogtour Review - The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

The Feed
Nick Clark Windo
Headline, 25 January 2018
HB, 352pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Nick Clark Windo's excellent new novel, The Feed. I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book. (In fact a signed, numbered advance copy).

In a scene towards the beginning of this book (which is set, I think, several hundred years into the future), a young couple, Tom and Kate, try to have a meal in a restaurant without using The Feed, a futuristic, immersive, form of social media that allows one to directly experience others' emotions. They are "going slow": augmented by The Feed, the mind can absorb and process enormous amounts of data in vanishingly short times so it's a novelty to experience reality without it.

Kate can't, in the end, resist visiting her "Pool" to "gulp" The Feed and see how her millions of followers have voted in the poll she is running ("What would you be prepared to give up...?") This angers Tom who is concerned that people are becoming addicted. Clark Windo's depiction of Kate's experience is brilliant and unsettling, sort of like having the whole of Twitter poured over your head at once.

Kate and Tom's situation will be familiar situation for many, I think: I certainly recognised myself Tweeting away in a restaurant. Those little reward spikes from social media can be so compulsive... but at least when we "go slow", we still experience the world in vivid colour, full sound and as information-rich. In Tom and Kate's world, there are no written words anymore, only barcodes. No speech or communication, other than through The Feed. When they drop out they are in a drab, quiet place with all the virtual layers stripped away. Nobody bothers with the physical world, it's like the back of the set in a theatre. So Tom's suspicions seem to be justified.

His point is then borne out in spades when in a time of conflict and attack by mysterious outside forces ("The Others") The Feed collapses. Humanity is left prostrate - having come to depend on it for the simplest of tasks, they lack all basic knowledge - and hundreds of millions die of starvation. There isn't even a minimal level of understanding  to be gleaned from books: nobody bar a few Resisters can read anymore as The Feed handled information so much more directly.

I found this vision oddly refreshing. There is a danger in post-apocalyptic fiction - which this clearly is - that the story almost glories in the Survivors, in their competence at scavenging what they need from the ruins, in their cleverness at building generators or growing food, in their victories over other groups (necessary because if they were defeated the story would end). It only takes a few missteps by an author for this to get rather troubling.

Nick Clark Windo avoids this danger because his setup, by design, makes the survivors into weak, incompetent things. They don't know how to scavenge. They are helpless, defenceless, having to learn it all from scratch and from bits of passed-down lore. Even the names of towns seem to have been lost, with only one given, and that only drawn from the past: we never know exactly where the story is taking place. All this makes the story much less a survivalist wet dream and much more a human experience, foregrounding the relationships, especially that between Tom and Kate.

Not that there isn't jeopardy. Aside form daily, practical dangers, the intrusion that destroyed civilization - The Others - is still active, or thought to be so. Paranoia coils about everything and everyone. Might The Others be among us, posing as friends, as sisters, brothers or children? The lengths the survivors go to in their fear of this are pretty shocking. It's a frazzled, stuttering life they lead, threatened from moment to moment - and it doesn't help that the tantalising technology which has been snatched away offered the possibility of endless life, of backups stored from moment to moment, so that all those who died may be archived away, if only the machines still worked. A bitter thought to set against the day-to-day struggle for existence.

There are obvious comparisons to be drawn between this story and EM Forster's The Machine Stops. Forster foresees the dominance of social media, the attractions of a mediated life. His story ends, though, at the moment that his cloistered humans are forced to leave their sheltered pods to live in the real world. It will not go well for them, one thinks, and in a sense Nick Clark Windo's story is a sequel, showing just how bad things can get.

He does, in the end, offer a degree of hope at least for Tom and Kate. That's probably necessary in a book that follows them in such a hard struggle, but even so, the hope they find is a bitter one, after loss.

This book is compulsive, if at times disturbing, focussing on two characters who have been hardened by six years living amid the ruins of modern society. They fight hard to preserve their family, against appalling odds and their relationship is tender and well drawn.

I really enjoyed it, I think you will too.