23 March 2017

Review - Deadly Game by Matt Johnson

Deadly Game (Robert Finlay No 2)
Matt Johnson
Orenda Books, 15 March 2017
PB, 352pp, e-book

I'm grateful to Orenda books for a review copy.

First, full disclosure. I reviewed Johnson's first book, Wicked Game, on a blogtour last year and my review is quoted inside this one (Yay! Fame! Fortune! Prizes...) I also attended the launch of that book at which the author spoke very movingly of his experiences in the Met Police and the PTSD which was part of his reason for writing these books.

I'm also reviewing this on 22 Match 2017, the day of a terrorist attack in Westminster close to where I work, and I spent this afternoon watching the incredibly brave and professional police managing the situation.

So I may seem a teensy bit biased about this book, which I enjoyed greatly, but I'll try not to be.

In fact, it's actually quite a hard book to write about. Johnson's writing isn't perfect but it has something, a distinctive voice, a blend of the matter of fact and the down right incredible, which makes it compulsively readable.

I'll say a little bit more about both these aspects in a moment. First, in case you haven't read Wicked Game, the setup.

Inspector Robert Finlay is a bit of a misfit. Ex SAS, then Royal Protection, he had just moved into uniformed policing - with a lot to learn - when he got caught up in a terrorist campaign that seemed to target him and a group of his ex-Regiment comrades. Johnson pursued this thrillery concept with zest, having Finlay dust off a cache of weapons and mix it with the bad guys, including, at one stage, taking pot shots at SO19, the Met's armed response specialists. (Bit awkward in the canteen afterwards, obviously).

Things got straightened out and blame for the killings laid at the door of Monoghan, an MI5 maverick. In Deadly Game, the Met are trying to find a role for an Inspector who's now shunned by his uniform colleagues as a bullet magnet but isn't qualified to be a detective. In the end he's attached to a human trafficking taskforce. (Johnson refers throughout to the trafficked women as 'slaves' which is either a bit quaintly old-fashioned or plain non-PC: take your pick. See also references to a WPC, a top firearms officer, as a 'girl').

At the same time, he has business remaining with MI5 over the Monaghan debacle, and his liaison there also tries to use him to get a line on an ex SAS man who's just published his memoirs. Involvement in that inevitably leads Finlay into deep trouble, in a fast paced adventure blending conspiracy theories, a 'state of the world' sub-plot reminiscent of a Richard Hannay story, and an expose of the human trafficking racket.

It's all unbearably tense, with what I'm coming to see as Johnson's characteristic blend of deeply credible detail (weapons, procedures, tactics, inter-Service relationships, personalities) with some frankly fantastic twists of fate, actions, and events. If one wanted to criticise, the latter might be a sufficient excuse, although I think that would be unfair as they don't in any way hamper enjoyment of the story. I'll only give one example - because I don't want to spoil the story - which is when a key fact becomes known because, at just the right moment, one of the trafficked women escapes and is picked up by the police.

If you want every last detail of your books believable, things like this - and there are more - may be a problem for you. Yet I find myself not particularly bothered about these things. Why? Is it because I'm biased (see above)?

I don't think so. I think the reason is rather different and goes to the heart of the appeal of Johnson's writing.

First, I've learned to be wary of saying 'X is just not believable'. It seems to be a fact in today's world that the unbelievable happens more often than you would think, and that a writer striving simply for believability might actually have to tone down the real world rather to write something convincing - and where's the fun in that?

Secondly, Johnson is, simply, a born storyteller. He does it all with such verve, switching between Finlay's first person narration and as much third-person following other points of view as is needed to paint the background -  but without ever getting bogged down. In so doing we are introduced to facts Finlay doesn't know (and never learns), characters he hardly meets (but who populate the pages of the book like figures in a soap opera, suggesting there's a whole world out there beyond what we're told) and events that took place long before. It all creates such a convincing impression of depths, of a teeming community of spies, police and crooks, that you can - well I could - forgive the odd apparently far fetched plot feature.

Finally - Johnson has been there. He won't, obviously, talk about stuff he shouldn't, but perhaps we can take on trust that, yes, the unlikely does happen, cases are moved on by strokes of luck, and both criminals and spooks do indulge in baroque extremes of behaviour from time to time (I'm looking at you, MI6 man Howard Green...)

So, to sum up: this isn't a slick book, it has a raw quality such that the unlikely events described actually seem to make the story more credible. Again I go back to John Buchan and his 'shockers'. They weren't elevated literary writing perhaps but they were - and are - cracking good stories, still readable after a hundred years or more. For sheer readability and entertainment I'd see Johnson in that tradition. But unlike Buchan, at the same time, he's exploring Finlay's slow recovery from PTSD - not at all a quick or easy theme, but a journey I'm looking forward to him continuing in future books.

To sum up even more: READ THIS BOOK!

22 March 2017

Review - Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods

Image from http://warrenthe13th.com/
Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods
Written by Tania del Rio
Illustrated by Will Staehle
Quirk Books, 21 March 2017
PB, 233pp

I'm really grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

I don't often get to review children's books here at the Balloon (although I have one or two others coming up) which is kind of a pity because they are often the best written, sharpest and most readable books around. (I know this because I have two (now adult) children and we've had fun with books over the years - all for THEIR benefit of course.)

So it was a lovely surprise when Jamie at Quirk Books sent me an advance copy Warren the 13th. This is actually his second adventure, after Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye. It's definitely something different, perfectly matching del Rio's measured text to Staehle's beautifully moody line illustrations -  you get some flavour of them from the cover image but the book itself is gorgeous, a real visual treat.

Warren himself is a 12 year old boy... perhaps... this is a world where nobody is what they seem and whether Warren is actually human or not isn't worth worrying too much about. More importantly, he is possessed of a hotel - his family's ancient and renowned hotel - which has lately taken to walking around the countryside of Fauntleroy on its four mechanical legs. Along with his friends Sketchy - a strange but lovable creature with many limbs - and Petula - a trainee perfumier (or witch catcher) and a delightfully batty staff, the hotel attracts guests from far and wide on its trips.

Which always, of course, avoid the Malwoods, home to all of Fauntleroy's most evil witches...

You may guess what's going to happen here but I won't reveal it. It's enough to say that Warren's courage, ingenuity and kindness will, again, be tested to the limit on a breakneck adventure filled with whispering trees, slippery snake-oil salesmen and, of course, WITCHES. On the way we have a try at code breaking, see why hotel management should never be left to a lazy uncle, and learn some lessons about how trustworthy the Press can be. It's very educational! - as well as being delightful fun.

I'd have read this to my kids at bedtime if it had been out ten years ago and I'm sure they'd have loved it. There's nothing too frightening, just a few moments of "peril" and, of course, the baddies get their come-uppance in the end - after which the hotel sets forth in a new direction...

Strongly recommended.

21 March 2017

Review - Relics by Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon
Titan Books, 21 March 2017
PB, 384pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of this.

Beneath the surface of our world, mythological creatures and their artifacts still exist—corrupt people pay fortunes for a sliver of dragon bone, a basilisk's scale, or an angel's wing. Angela Gough is an American criminology student in London whose fiancé Vince disappears, and her investigation leads her into a black market specializing in arcane relics. She meets Mary Rock, a criminal of mythic status who also wants to find Vince… to kill him. Angela and a growing team of adventurers must stop this horrific trade, yet they face a growing menace as the hunted creatures begin to fight back.

I found this a refreshingly different take on urban fantasy. Yes, we're in the heart of the city, and, yes, there are mythological creatures around, but there's no magic - that died years ago - and it's largely, the "monsters" who are the victims here, subjects of a merciless trade in body parts... and worse. So the book's suffused, almost, with a conservationist sensibility: the nymphs, angels, pixies and so on are the last of their kind, hunted almost to extinction and clinging on in dark corners and secret hideaways. That gives the whole book a distinct focus and a shape, as well as reversing the usual assumptions that something nasty's out there, waiting to eat us.

It's an intriguing premise, and Angela is an intriguing - an appealing - hero, drawn into a strange world with rules she can't understand when her boyfriend doesn't come home one night. Looking beyond the obvious explanation, Angela sets out to find him, rapidly getting into a world she never knew existed - a world of little known underground tunnels, of shadows in alleyways, of crime dens in Soho backstreets, strange, shrivelled creatures packaged up for delivery and most of all, of supremely creepy villains. Angela's resourceful and she puts her knowledge of crime to good use, but will it be enough to bring success in her search - or even allow survival in the world of Fat Frederick (NEVER shorten his name!) let alone that of Mary Rock?

Lebbon tells a violent, tension-filled story, the action pretty much continuous - but he also finds time to bring in some nice portrayals of London - the summer London that's almost like an outdoor room, crowds moving comfortably through the parks and streets, oblivious to the seedy yards, abandoned buildings and shadowy watchers... It's all very real and also very readable. And that relaxed, comfortable London is only a mask, a mask that slips in the most gore spattered finale that I've read in ages.

Of course there is a little more to the book than cruel humans hunting down Kin, and I sensed that Lebbon was setting up some tensions among the latter for future books - which I devoutly hope will follow soon - but on the whole it's straightforward, though a couple of characters play an ambiguous role - and even Vince turns out to be less innocent than you'd think.

A good, gripping read. I'd strongly recommend you get in on this series at the beginning.

20 March 2017

Guest Post - A Presence of Absence

Today I'm joining the blogtour for A Presence of Absence, a new indie thriller written by Sarah Surgey and Emma Vestrheim. Sarah writes about the journey to publishing, and how the choice to self-publish made her and and Emma stronger.

A Presence of Absence is the first book in The Odense Series. Although this is a solid crime novel, it also begins and ends with grief for many of the characters, personal demons and life decisions.

A gritty murder case gets in the way of the characters’ everyday lives and sends the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish city of Odense, into a panic.

British detective Simon Weller escapes the fallout from the recent suicide of his Danish wife, Vibeke and heads out to her home city of Odense. But once there he is paired up with a local detective, Jonas, who is also about to hit rock bottom in his home life, and they must overcome their differences and personal problems to try and catch one of the worst serial killers Odense has ever seen. The case takes them back into past decades as history starts catching up with some of the local inhabitants. When Simon realises that his wife's suicide may not be all it seems and her name appears in the case, his integrity within the case is compromised, how far will he go to find out the truth of Vibeke's past and hide it from his already troubled police partner?

Back home in London Simon's family are struggling with their own web of lies and deceit and the family is falling apart.

With one family hiding a dark secret, the whole case is just about to reach breaking point...

You can buy the paperback here and the e-book here as well, of course as at


or on Goodreads


Find out more on Instagram at


Now, over to Sarah!

Self-publishing has made us stronger.
By Sarah Surgey

When Emma and I sat down to write our first novel we had no idea what type of journey we would be venturing on.

The actual book writing we had planned to the best of our abilities. We knew that as a writing duo and living in different countries, we would be producing a lot of solo writing and then blending together, we would be going back and forth with ideas but on a whole we had a strong storyline from the start.

What took us slightly by surprise was the road to publishing afterwards.

You need a literary agent, we were told! Yes, this is so very true, publishing houses won't look at your manuscript in the UK without one. Oh ok, we thought, let’s get one of those..... but, they only accept the smallest percentage of submissions that flood through their inboxes every second of the day.

So, the road suddenly seemed longer and we needed to get tougher. Not with the agents who were giving us great reviews but weren't quite prepared to take us on but, with ourselves. And we did......

Emma is the founder and editor of her own magazine Cinema Scandinavia and I'm a freelance writer and mum to 4 daughters, this we had to take our strength from (outside of our crime writing fears) and move forwards in our quest to publish our book.

Self-publishing gets you thinking. What are you offering the reader? A stand-alone book or a series? Why should they even look at a self-published book? How credible are you? All these questions were going through our minds and in the end helped us to mould out a much better "package" for want of a better word.

We knew that we would now need to sell not only a book we whole heartdley stood behind, but a series and ourselves!

And once all this was in place if an agent was interested we knew that we had produced the absolute foundation of The Odense Series.

Self-publishing is not just about writing a good book, it doesn't matter how good it is, it will just sit there unless you get it and you "out there" We did just this and got our series onto social media, Goodreads & Amazon, found an amazing artist Mike Godwin who has given us two great covers (Yes, we have a second book planned)! and did what we read was nearly impossible for a self-published author, organised a massive blog tour with 30 book bloggers on board!

So, we are out there and whilst congratulations is in order, we don't have time! We are promoting, engaging and writing (of course).

It's been a longer journey than we had anticipated but, we have done this and for that we are proud if not slightly bedraggled!

19 March 2017

Review - Brother's Ruin by Emma Newman

Brother's Ruin (Industrial Magic No 1)
Emma Newman
Macmillan-Tor, 14 March 2017*
PB, 160pp, e-book

*Online booksellers give different dates but the author's website says 14 March

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

I hadn't heard the term "gaslight fantasy" before but I think it fills a definite need, describing fantasy books set an an alt-Victorian world but which aren't in that genre full of clockwork, goggles and brass - you know the one - and most importantly, which may involve MAGIC.

In what we're promised is the first of a series, Newman has reimagined the 19th century as undergoing an Industrial Revolution driven by magic, rather than science, with the key group being the mages of the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. It's a crime to keep magical ability secret - if you do, enforcers will drag you away to who knows what fate. Rather it must be developed and used for the good of the Empire.

But equally, anyone falsely claiming magical powers will also suffer penalties. A dilemma then...

We don't see much of the wider picture in this book. Rather it's focussed on a particular family and the effect on them of these rules. Sister and brother Charlotte and Archie Gunn are close. He's a sickly boy: she secretly earns money to support the family, much of it poured away on Archie's studies. If either were tested by the Royal Society and passed, the family could come into money. But if they failed, it would mean ruin.

So it's concerning when there's a rap on the door one day, and the Society's agents announce that Archie, who is the weaker of the two at magic, is to be tested...

Newman tells the story through the eyes of Charlotte, a determined and clear headed young woman, who's pretty much holding the family together. She hopes she can manage the Royal Society's testers. She's not so sanguine about the debt collector who's been hanging around, apparently planning to drag her father off to a sinister address in Whitechapel. Perhaps if she investigates the place she'll find a way...?

This is a short book with a relatively straightforward story - although Newman drops a few surprises too - and it runs at a breakneck pace once the setting has been established. There are some nice touches of characterisation, such as the genteel racism of Mrs Gunn when, to Charlotte's horror, she asks brown skinned Master Judicant that fatal question, yes, but where are you really from?

We also see Charlotte's internal turmoil - 'Once she got upset about something, it pummelled her insides like a demon trapped within her...' - making her human and vulnerable: just being a hero in a novel doesn't make you immune to anxiety attacks.

There are some very nice bits of language - 'a bold red coat that looked like it cost more than their coal bill for a cold winter', 'she wouldn't have been surprised if someone told her he was actually an artist's sculpture made flesh' (Charlotte develops a VERY close interest in one of the mages from the Society) as well as calls to action - 'It was time for this rude young woman to make a difference'.

The book ends on a distinctly promising note 'I need you to be ready for adventure' SURELY promising more with these characters and this setting? I am ready, Ms Newman, I am - bring it on!

17 March 2017

Review - Chalk by Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell
Tor, 21 March 2017
PB, 260pp, e-book

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

This was one of those rare books that stopped me in my tracks. At times not an easy read, I felt it spoke to me, making the story involving, in places painful, but above all, personal.

I should explain that at school in the late 70s/ early 80s I was bullied quite a bit (not as badly as Andrew in this book though!) I was a bit swotty and not a mixer, so within a few pages, I identified strongly with Andrew Waggoner.

He's an ordinary boy for the time: into Doctor Who, not sporty, a bit shy, trying to avoid the school bullies, with mixed success.

Then one evening - something happens. I was frankly gobsmacked by the place that Cornell goes to at this point. I won't give away what happens but it's no exaggeration to say everything changes for Andrew. The book really begins to fly at this point and describes what happens to him over the next year.

It's a taut, claustrophobic story that drops hints of a haunted landscape, of reservoirs of power and above all, explores a deep, pent-up urge for revenge, denied over centuries until fertilised by blood, rage and fear. Andrew seem to have become the vessel for that revenge - which also promises to pay his enemies back for what they did. The chosen tool is a second Andrew - always referred to simply as "Waggoner" - a creature who, or which, has an epiphany at the old hillfort and sets in motion a plan...

We're never quite sure - nor, I think, meant to be - whether Waggoner is "real" (and some kind of supernatural presence) or a projection of Andrew's rage. Waggoner firmly denies that he comes from Andrew's mind, yet others perceive them as one. Waggoner seems though to have motivations and a confidence that are very distinct form Andrew's. Indeed, they struggle and disagree, and this tension animates much of the story as, in that year, friendships are made and broken, pretended to and refused: as Andrew, very tentatively, becomes close to a girl (Waggoner warns him off): but above all, as the chalk patterns of vengeance spiral round and begin to grip the school.

I loved - if you can use the word for such a dark book - the way Cornell blends the different realities in this story. There is the world of the almost-adults in the school. Awful acts of bullying take place only a hairsbreadth away from adults who surely must know about them, surely ought to intervene, but don't - the curious world of the adults, with their own problems, of money, ageing and memories - seems quite separate place, even if it occupies the same space. The two run in parallel, rarely intersecting - so for example Andrew can't report what happened to him, the "obvious" way out of his nightmare. I wonder whether the need, the desire, to read (and to write) fantasy taps into this double universe? We all know in our bones that there isn't one world but many, and exploring that through fantasy is less painful than facing it directly? It's as if everyone has fallen into another kingdom with different rules. In a sense that seems no more unlikely than an ancient tribe living behind a thin veil in a real hillfort... or a twin created for a dark and secret purpose. I could relate to this.

But it's not just Cornell's themes that resonated with me in this book. More than in anything else by him that I've read, he describes the world as I saw it at that same time.

The white line (you'll know it when you get to it!).

The whole, arcane, teenage world of things that you aren't allowed to like and things that you must -

Andrew anxiously runs through the current pop hits, desperate not to betray himself by liking, even by knowing about, the wrong things. Or, forced to pass an initiation test, he fails on banal questions about football managers.

In other places he rages about not following sport or music because it's what the other kids are into. In a third rate private school out on the chalk of Wiltshire, deviance is severely punished by the other kids - but a certain sort of boy or girl wants to be deviant.

But what if you could punish them? I recognised this thirst for revenge too - and part of me cheered Waggoner on as he delivers it (in gruesome detail. Really. Gruesome.) Yet my unease also grew. It seems more and more likely there will be collateral damage, that innocents will be drawn in... It's an electrifying read, involving, harrowing and utterly compulsive.

I'd warn the reader that you may find - well I found - bits of this book difficult. There were times I had to put it down and breathe calmly - but I could never put it down for long. It is, simply, the best - and most powerful - thing of Cornell's I've ever read.  Buy it, read it.

14 March 2017

Review - New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 16 March 2017
HB, 613pp

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

"The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever"

wrote Louis MacNeice in Bagpipe Music

"But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather."

Despite the efforts of well connected denialists to break the bloody glass, the weather rolls on, unstoppable. And authors are now addressing the reality of climate change (perhaps only fiction can convey the reality of this inconvenient truth). A couple of years ago, Adam Nevill used its horror as both a background for and an essential strand of Lost Girl. Last year,  Jonathan Strahan gave us dispatches from the near future in Drowned Worlds.

Now, Kim Stanley Robinson presents a lyrical, beautiful yet chilling warning from 2140, where New York is up to its armpits in water and hustling hard to survive. It is an ambitious book, making real that old cliche that in this book, the city itself is the most important character.

But not the only important one. Robinson employs a device that must have made the book a nightmare to write, telling the story through multiple viewpoints which don't overlap or run in parallel but pick up from one another sequentially.  So we hear from "Mutt and Jeff", two hard up quants living in a garden who plot reform of the world's financial laws. There's Gen Octaviasdottir, the police Inspector who runs much of south Manhattan. Franklin, a trader and deviser of an all-important index which is powering an investment bubble. Vlade, building manager for the old Met Life skyscraper, now standing 50 feet deep in water and converted to provide accomodation, power and - via its farm deck - food. Charlotte Armstrong, social worker and leader of the Met Life co-op. Stefan and Roberto, two children of the waves who have a line in treasure hunting through the drowned streets. Amelia Black, cloud TV star who pilots an airship and films her attempts to save threatened species from the waves.

And, yes, the city speaks through the voice of "a citizen" whose account is the only one to really break the chain of narrative as it discourses on New York history (some of it, to us, still in the future). Sometimes this is immediately relevant, sometimes you only see the point 50 pages on.

And everywhere there are quotes: quotes from New Yorkers, quotes from those experiencing the city for the first time, quotes about famous citizens, geology, history... an awesome amount of research must have gone into this book but it's worn lightly, it all serves to set out the character of that extraordinary city and portray what it might come to after another 120 years of rising waters.

Because, in 2140, this is a city under siege.

From the waves which have drowned half the land, leaving the inhabitants living in the taller buildings, commuting by boat, trying to house the myriad of refugees arriving from even less fortunate places, running rackets, politicing, trading: being New York.

But also under siege from the uptown gentrifiers who like what's been made of the edgy intertidal and want in. The attempts of Charlotte and her allies to fend off one such attempt - and perhaps, to take back a little control from the world of finance and speculation - form most of the book's plot, together with the fate that befalls Mutt and Jeff when they offend those same gods of finance. It's almost beside the point, though, as the main action here is the city's endurance, deep rooted in its past, of all that Man (-made climate change) can throw at it. It is, as I said above, a beautiful book, Robinson playing with the paradox of a global disaster that still brings new possibilities, that draws out the best - and worst - in us. His characters defy not only the elements but the speculators, crooked financiers, a Mayor who sides with the rich. if it was a book about London I'd call it the Blitz spirit: perhaps for New York it's the 9/11 spirit? I don't know.

It is, in all ways, an immersive book. It's sweeping in scope - as Robinson points out many times, his city is a microcosm of the world, it shouldn't be taken as typical but it stands for many places and enables him to tell the story of the melting Antarctic and the shocks that it causes, as well as of financial crisis upon financial crisis in which the people have to bail out reckless capital and then suffer for having done it. There's perhaps an implicit comparison between those two manmade system-disasters. It's a great long chunky doorstop of a book, not a quick read but a read that rewards you with multiple views of the same thing, with many incidents and episodes that shed light on the characters, all told in subtly different registers suiting their protagonists (for example, the mildly comedic episodes featuring Amelia Black or the self-absorbed thoughts of Franklin Garr).

I could, really, waffle on all night about why this book is brilliant but really I'd do a poor job at conveying its genius compared with your just reading it so. I'll leave you with an extract:
Then comes September and the sun tilts to the south. Yes, autumn in New York: the great song of the city and the great season. Not just for the relief from the brutal extremes of the winter and the summer, but for that glorious slant of the light, that feeling that in certain moments lances in on that tilt--that you had been thinking you were living in a room and suddenly with a view between buildings out to the rivers, a dappled sky overhead, you are struck by the fact that you live on the side of a planet--that the great city is also a great bay on a great world. In those golden moments even the most hard-bitten citizen, the most oblivious urban creature, perhaps only pausing for a light to turn green, will be pierced by that light and take a deep breath and see the place as if for the first time, and feel, briefly but deeply, what it means to live in a place so strange and gorgeous.