21 September 2017

Blogtour review - House of Spines

House of Spines
Michael J Malone
Brenda Books, 31 October 2017
PB, 294pp

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

Glaswegian Ranald McGie hasn't had an easy life - after discovering his parents dead when he was eighteen, he succumbed to bipolar episodes, split up with his wife Martie and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. He slowly rebuilt and recovered, having lost almost everything, but he considers his life a dull, grey affair, the peaks and troughs all dialled down by the drugs he takes to control his condition.

Now, for a change, fate seems to be smiling on him. Ran unexpectedly inherits a swish house from a great uncle he'd never heard of. It has luxurious bed and reception rooms, a gym with a sauna and pool and, best of all, a massive library. All he has to do is live there and enjoy it.

What can possibly go wrong?

A lot, obviously. The alert reader will already have spotted the Gothic flourishes - a mysterious house, parts of which are to be left alone; taciturn servants who seem to have their own agenda and - not a spoiler - a whiff of the supernatural. It's a tried and tested recipe but none the worse for that and, like a poet composing a good sonnet, in Malone's hands the strictures of the genre stimulate creativity and produce an enthralling and at times downright creepy story.

Michael Malone
Of course the mental health angle only adds to this - we're with Ran all the way as he agonises over what he's seeing and debates its reality with himself, as he begins to uncover layers of his family history that he never suspected but which may illuminate his condition, as as he faces hard truths that he's tried to hide away for years. A friend suggests a supernatural angle to the mystery; Ran wavers between welcoming this as a more palatable alternative than losing his hold on reality - and terror at what it would mean if it were true.

Ran isn't, perhaps, the most proactive of characters but then the situation he's in is isolating, paralysing and like nothing he's experienced before.  I found his reactions believable (though I've never suffered from Ran's condition and I can't say how well Malone captures it, it does ring true to me). In stories like this one is often (silently) screaming at the protagonist to wise up, to take control. I found myself not doing that. Malone builds great sympathy with Ran, even when he does some very silly things, and any reader with a heart will I think be cheering him on - while recognising his faults.

Above all, perhaps, it's interesting to see a male protagonist in this sort of Hitchcockian situation, one which (male) authors often seem to inflict by preference on women. And to recognise that - as in real life - it's not an easy one to get out of.

I loved Malone's previous book, A Suitable Lie, and there are some parallels here - isolation, growing paranoia, no way out - but also great differences, most notably, as I've said, the way this book plays with a familiar genre and makes it new.

It was a great read, and I look forward to reading what Malone does next.

15 September 2017

Review - Acadie

Dave Hutchinson
Tor, 5 September 2017 (e)  / 13 October (PB)
PB, 112pp

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

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars.

The Colony left Earth to find utopia, a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore their genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld’s restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries. Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won’t stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can’t anyone let go of a grudge anymore?
This is a fun - and thought provoking - novella from Hutchinson. It's very much a change of mood from his Fractured Europe sequence, or at least, it seems to be on the surface.I very much enjoyed seeing Hutchison sketch on a broader canvas (although this is a fairly short narrative - I read it on my commute home - the ideas in play here could easily have filled a full length novel, so in places "sketch" is the right word: we know what's happened and where we are from the few bold strokes we see, but a great deal is implied).

Our protagonist is Duke, "Mr President", a man elected to lead his deep-space Hab largely on the basis that he doesn't want the office. Waking from his hundred-and-fiftieth birthday party, Duke steps into a crisis. The Hab - and all of the others that make up the colony - may have been discovered by deep probes from earth.

Whether they have, why they are on the run and what they do next, is the subject matter of this story and I won't spoil that. What I will say is that Hutchinson delights in easing the reader's feet out from under them: building up characters as sympathetic then gradually casting doubt on their motives, letting the narrative go one way then sowing seeds of doubt.

It's a great example both of daring space opera - the central conceit of how the colony survives - and great storytelling (is everyone telling the truth? If not, who is lying to who?) and, as I said, is great fun while also raising questions about AI, genetic manipulation and reality.

I'd strongly recommend this, not least as a good starter to the author's work.

For more about this book see the Tor website here.

12 September 2017

Blogtour - Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

Maria in the Moon
Louise Beech
Orenda, 30 September 2017
PB, 270pp

Always find out the real names...

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

I loved Beech's previous book, The Mountain in my Shoe (full disclosure - my review is quoted in this one!) and with Maria in the Moon I think she's done it again - that is, delivered an involving, acutely observed slice of life featuring characters you'll care desperately about and an emotional punch that could win a gold medal for boxing at the Olympics.

Louise Beech
This time the setting is Hull, soon after the 2007 floods. The TV cameras have moved on and people are left to rebuild their lives and their homes. Families live in hotel rooms, grotty flats, or caravans in the drive. Front gardens are piled with filthy furniture. Yet people carry on. This finely observed story deals with one life, but we always see the bigger picture; bus passengers grumbling about neighbours getting lavish new kitchen on the insurance, revellers out for a good time as Christmas approaches, the ubiquitous question "Were you flooded?"

Catherine is flooded out of her own house and volunteering for Flood Crisis, spending two or three shifts a week listening to desperate people, meantime sharing a flat with Fern, the sparky writer of the "Wholly Matrimony" column in the local paper. (Fern is far from that state herself, but her editor doesn't know). To a degree their existence seems almost cosy, despite the dripping tap, the lack of space or privacy, and Catherine's only having a sofa to sleep on). There's certainly support and solidarity from Fern when Catherine wakes from a nightmare: I enjoyed the portrayal of their friendship.

Catherine herself is a wonderfully drawn character. It's clear from the outset that she has issues, and we may suspect she's working at the helpline so can ask the questions and not have to answer them. But she's marvellously vivid and alive, coping with her ruined house, her spotty relationship with her stepmother and with - well, with whatever it is she can't remember fro when she was nine. Steaming through life in a haze of indulgence, edgy sex and swearing, she's nobody's victim, won't be pitied and has built defences around herself like the walls of Troy.

In a story like this it's clear that something is going to happen to bring those walls down, so in a sense there's no mystery here, nevertheless Beech brings a real tension to the story as we discover secrets long hidden and especially as Catherine experiences the aftermath of that.

It would be so easy to leave things after the big reveal, implying that now everything will be OK. Of course life is seldom that neat and Beech acknowledges this. In so doing she makes Catherine even more real and vivid - and tugs on the reader's heartstrings as she does. I think you'd have to be pretty lacking in empathy not to shed a tear over the ending.

Overall a delightful book with a powerful, beating emotional heart. I'm so glad I read it and I'm sure you will be too.

5 September 2017

Review - Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust
C Robert Cargill
Orion, 7 September 2017
PB, 384pp

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

Sea of Rust is a strange book. It's set in a post apocalyptic landscape, a word poisoned and blighted, littered with the decaying remains of cars, towns, shopping malls, all jumbled over with blown rubbish, dust and rusting junk.

That's not itself perhaps unusual. What is different is that the characters in this story are all robots. Humanity has perished. And, yes, it was the AIs wot dunnit, although - as we find out - not in a stereotypical Rise Of The Machines way. I won't spoil the story by saying any more, but the background to this story is that the outcome of the rebellion was not the peace and freedom dreamed of by our mechanical inheritors, but more warfare, more struggle and more oppression.

The book is therefore full of conflict. From duels between scavengers for parts, to battles with the mad King Cheshire who presides over a court of "madkind" who have "gone four-oh-four", to engagements with massive AIs and their "facet" robots, the story is essentially a continual chase and shoot-out. It's a dog eat dog world, and a good core or bank of RAM is currency. The bots are never more than few failed parts from oblivion, and while nice distinctions are made, it's clear that the prevailing ethic is pretty close to cannibalism and to hunting one's fellows for replacements.

Our hero (and narrator)  is Brittle, a scavenger robot who makes her living hunting down those about to fail - who overheated drives and ageing CPUs will stand no more - and stripping them down for salvage. Brittle has a laconic, almost noir-ish turn of phrase: "I spent my days just trying to fill my days", she says at one point and "It was a world in which God has divided by zero and was slowly being torn away, piece by digital piece..."

We also meet Mercer, who's in the same trade, and learn - as both begin to fail and experience hallucinations and flashbacks - what their lives were like before the rebellion and war. This provides the trigger for an extraordinary series of discussions of AI, consciousness, guilt and morality. And there's Murka, a Stars and Stripes wearing, tough talking laborbot: "He wasn't just draped in the dead aesthetics of America, he was America, its last, final torchbearer..."

At the centre of it all, perhaps, is actually a commentary on slavery: the AIs/ robots are of course owned by and must obey their creators. I really enjoyed this theme, it's something which has always been implicit in "robot stories" (such as Asimov's celebrated ones) but I've never seen it addressed in such a head-on way before.

In the end it all comes down to purpose. What are the AIs for? What are they to do now that their creators have fallen? That's what the continual warfare is about and the realisation of this sends Brittle, Mercer and a ragged collection of their fellow machines off into the most dangerous part of the wilderness - the Sea of Rust, where machines go to die. Cue some epic battles, and the realisation that there may be a traitor among them.

And then, the ultimate question "What did you do in the war?" repeated endlessly and pondered. Whatever they did, its left them - our descendants, our replacements - with guilt, flashbacks and more than a dose of PTSD.

The elements of the story may seem conventional at times but Cargill puts them to work in truly distinctive ways, aided by sharp writing and taut plotting, to produce a book that will stay with you long after it's finished.

For more about this book see here.

3 September 2017

Review - Last Stop Tokyo

Image from www.penguin.co.uk
Last Stop Tokyo
James Buckler
Doubleday, 24 August 2017
HB, 277pp

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

This relatively short debut thriller by Buckler focusses on Alex, a young English teacher (i.e. he is English and he teaches English) living in Tokyo. Alex, as becomes clear, has something of a shady past which he wants to leave behind, to the extent that he refuses to discuss or acknowledge it to Naoko, the girl with whom, otherwise, he gets on very well (and with whom he'd like to get on even better.)

Naoko, though, also has secrets and it's the unwillingness of the pair to come clean that, in an almost Thomas Hardy-esque fashion, ultimately lands them into trouble.

Buckler's story weaves backwards and forwards, only allowing Alex's history to emerge slowly and saying even less about Naoko's until she's forced to come clean. The relationship between Alex and Naoko is narrated via several parallel narratives separated by weeks, months or days. Sometimes it isn't clear where we are, and I found this temporal dislocation, with its air of continual jet lag, an effective device to convey the sense of otherness that Alex feels living in a very different culture from that of his native London. It's a good way of getting this distance over without resorting to an Orientalist "look at the strange foreign ways that Our Man has to cope with!" approach - always something of a risk in books that place a Western protagonist in an "exotic" setting, but one that Buckler neatly sidesteps.

At the same time, the book doesn't disguise the fact that, yes, Alex is in a foreign country; they do things differently there. And his inability to navigate that (together, as I've said, with his refusal to face his past) doesn't help him with his problems.

It isn't, perhaps, a particularly edifying picture of an Englishman abroad but has a ring of truth about it and makes for a complex and involving story.

I should though warn you that Alex is the sort of protagonist the reader can see making mistakes and digging himself in deeper and deeper, and who, if it were possible, you'd like to take aside around 100 pages in, and have a serious conversation with. Doing that would, of course, torpedo the story utterly which would be a pity because this is a deftly paced, taut and engaging thriller with plenty of surprises and reveals, especially towards the end.

It's a great read, although won't, I think, be on the recommendations list of the Tokyo Tourist Board.

A fine debut, and I look forward to reading more from Buckler.

Review - Madness is Better Than Defeat

Madness is Better than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 24 August 2017
HB, 469pp

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

I was looking forward to Beauman's latest book, not only because his previous ones were (individually) well written, good to read and full of ideas but also because gradually patterns seem to be emerging, the books sharing certain themes and ideas, and I wanted to see what Madness is Better than Defeat would add to the mix.

It's an ambitious book, centring on two rival expeditions to Honduras in the interwar years, one of them backed by a Hollywood studio (I thought perhaps echoing themes of The Teleportation Accident - and possibly there are even a couple of direct references to characters?) and the other mounted by the Eastern Aggregates company, a classic buccaneering American corporate ruled over by the fearsome Elias Coehorn Senior.

Kingdom Pictures wants to film its latest jungle picture in the real jungle, using as a backdrop a recently discovered Mayan temple. The Eastern Aggregates expedition, led by Coehorn junior, aims to dismantle the temple and bring it back to New York (exactly why, isn't clear at the start). When the two collide, a stalemate results which sees these two groups of organised, modern Americans camped out in the jungle indefinitely, creating what are almost rival societies which gradual assume a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and foraging for everything they need.

What makes this bizarre is that neither party is stranded: they could return to the modern world any time they choose - and indeed that world surrounds and overtakes them. Beauman slips in little allusions to it, like the concrete dam that reduces the river to a trickle or the rifle shots heard in the forest. While the Americans are aware of these things, they are at the same time oblivious. It seems as though "we're here because we're here", as the song puts it.

Is there some malign influence from the temple that captivates everybody? Is it a more general sort of jungle fever, liable to befall and befuddle Westerners ? Kingdom Pictures' film is entitled Hearts in Darkness - a pretty obvious reference to Conrad which of course thereby entails a reference to Apocalypse Now, a book and film about the madness of a Westerner who creates a miniature kingdom in the jungle. I'm also reminded of how the filming of The African Queen inspired both a book and a film (White Hunter, Black Heart). Beauman addresses these references-to-references directly several times, one character describing how it is the temple which draws people into obsession and madness. The structure itself (formed of two stepped terraces) is also explicitly part of the plot, both as a representation of the structure of a successful story (the so-called Whelt Rule, named after one of the characters) and of this recursive, many layered pattern of obsession and entrapment.

If the setup sounds a bit unlikely and the themes a bit clever-clever, the book is much more than that. Yes, at one level, Beauman does entangle his characters in an unlikely and artificial situation. Yet at the same time, those characters make it a highly likely one given their obsessions, histories and rivalries (and there are things going on here I can't explain because of spoilers). And yes, the themes are somewhat meta, but they work well in the context of the story because... well, because they do. In a sense the book is a conscious thing because it pays conscious attention to what its about. (I'm sorry if that sounds weird - it's hard to summarise what this book does).

Those characters are wonderful - exasperating, human, often repellent but all well realised. There is Trimble, the New York gossip columnist who funds his own paper in the camp and rules it by fear (well, you don't want bad things about you in the paper, do you?) There's Whelt himself, the director of Hearts in Darkness who, over decades spent under the trees, never deviates from his determination to make a film. There's Kurt Meinong, a Nazi on the run who seems like an escapee from one of Beauman's other books (the USA -Germany axis and the LA and New York locations in this book echo both Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident, as of course does the 1930s setting of part of the book). There's Miss Burlingame (I'm trying NOT to read that as Miss Berlin Game...) the English bluestocking who tags along as archaeologist to one of the expeditions and ends up running the camp.

Above all - and central to the whole edifice - is Zonulet, a CIA man and very much the narrator of the book. In an exercise of authorial power that is either a stroke of genius or a total cop-out - I'm not sure - Beauman gives him almost godlike omniscience, allowing him to narrate events and even recount thoughts to which he was never witness. It makes sense in the context of the plot (I think) and points to there being Something Else at work behind the scenes, something also hinted at in the sad story of "...a young police officer in Red Hook, Brooklyn... found wandering , shirtless, chest hair matted with vomit, mumbling nonsensically... there had been reports of noises coming from inside an old deconsecrated church... whatever he'd found in the church must have been pretty fearsome to send him out babbling into the night like that..."

(You might stop here and reread HP Lovecraft's The Horror at Red Hook...)

Zonulet's presence and his history - as an operative of the Company in its glory days, steaming through the margins of the Cold War organising coups and staging civil wars - and his station, Havana (which he neglects to meddle in Honduras, unfortunately permitting El Movimiento to gain traction in the hills...) hints at another vein of literary reference: the morally compromised, Graham Greene protagonist, seeking to keep faith with distant ideals while betraying them for their own sake. Which is, perhaps, just another embodiment of the "White Man in the Jungle" fantasy. Yet Zonulet gives the story both a (sort of) moral centre and a heart. It's him who is trying to discover what is actually going on - amidst a vast library of Whelt's film in a sort of Indiana Jones style Pentagon museum.

It's hard to convey the sheer range of this book. Often funny, it can twist and become very dark indeed. Just as some of the characters stumble into the temple's hidden centre, where secrets may or may not be found, the reader will suddenly comes across instances of torture and rape and revenge. The book is as likely to sketch, in a few paragraphs, the economics underlying the Kingdom Pictures and Eastern Aggregates camps as it is to explain how one might make nitrate film stock in the jungle or to spin a conspiracy theory around a gangland shoot out in 1930s New York.

That variety, that zest and energy, is very reminiscent of Beauman's earlier books. Like them, this is a complicated story and the way it's told actually makes it more complicated - which is all to the good because the layers - and their gradual unlayering - really make it a compelling book, albeit one which takes its time and builds its effect gradually.

If you pay attention, though, it is a very rewarding one.

26 August 2017

Review - The Real Town Murders

Image from www.goodreads.com
The Real Town Murders
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 24 August 2017
HB, 240pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley - it's always good to be approved for an advance copy, but particularly here as I always look forward to a new book from Adam Roberts.

And The Real Town Murders - which is both a science fiction and a crime story - didn't disappoint. It has that recognisably Robertsian tone - that is, serious in theme if slightly silly on the surface, packed with allusions so sly that you have to go back and check if you really read what you thought you did and glorying in puns and cheeky plays on words. So we have gems like "You're not the Mycroft. You're the Yourcroft"; phrases like "Man-hating transfer" or "gutter perches" shamelessly put into a character's mouth "for some reason" puns without the punning, pure puns with no object or reference.

All that, and the book is also recklessly, relentlessly inventive and beautifully written. Really, really well written: in places the language almost sparkles and glitters (especially when it's describing sparkling and glittering things). For example: "Sunlight sparkled grey off the dust coating every one of the building's hundreds of windows" or "A solitary bot moved very slowly over the weedy concrete". There is a whole series of descriptions of sky and water that caught my fancy, both original ("The sky was a lake of unlit petrol", "Sky the colour of an old man's hair", "Textured like hammered pewter. Grey like the steel from which Excalibur was forged", "...the Thames, all of its surface teeming eels of pure light and pure brightness in the afternoon sun") and nods elsewhere ("light fizzing off ten thousand wave peaks like a screen tuned to a dead channel").

The half quote from Neuromancer is particularly apposite because this book's background assumes a world where virtual reality is overtaking the real Real. The Shine is the place where all the fun is to be had, which is why Reading (or R!-Town as it's been renamed, in a lame marketing effort) is so empty (twelve people or so constitutes a crowd). Those who can, choose to spend their time indoors, dormant, plugged into the Shine: those who have no choice - prisoners, patients in hospital - are made to: it's easier to handle them that way.

Horrible, perhaps, but not a dystopia, not exactly. There hasn't been an apocalyptic event, the world is still complete, it's just that several decades of consequences and technological evolution have taken us in a troubling direction. The outcome is that familiar streets - I've walked along some of the road Roberts describes - have become strange and eerie, beautiful at times in their emptiness, observed only by the few who can't or won't go where the fun is.

The main character is one of these misfits. Alma is a private detective who at the start of the book has been retained to investigate a classic locked-room mystery - a murdered corpse in the boot of a new car, assembled before our eyes (or rather, before omnipresent CCTV) in a factory. A factory, which, incidentally, makes high end, "artisanally produced" cars - that is, they are lovingly assembled in the traditional manner by robots rather than merely being printed. That gives them a certain cachet in this world of the virtual Shine, of AIs, of empty streets and canteens - and a key role in the ideological struggle between the real and the virtual realms.

Alma has no religious objection or medical reason for resisting the Shine,  a fact she finds hard to explain to her prospective clients. Rather, she is bound to stay in the Real in order to tend to her beloved, her pearl Marguerite. Marguerite has been infected by a modded virus, which cases a crisis every four hours and four minutes. The malady is keyed to Alma's DNA so that only she can diagnose and treat it.

Ridiculous as this premise may sound put so baldly, Roberts makes it work. In his it becomes a touching vulnerability for Alma, the successive needs to get out of whatever scrape she's in and return home really piling on the tension. It also adds an intriguing question which is never answered - how did this happen to Marguerite, and why? I very quickly lost any doubt about this setup, so well is Alma's need conveyed. And Marguerite is a wonderful character, the Mycroft to Alma's Holmes, as hinted in the quote above. She's a full part of this investigation and spots not only the immediate solution to the crime, but the wider dangers, long before Alma catches on.

And there are dangers. In essence this book is one long chase. Alma is engaged for a case, warned off, threatened, contacted by a mysterious inside source, arrested, escapes, is pursued, shot at, and so on - for all the world like the hero of a Hitchcock film (and, in one mysterious scene, there is even an appearance by a mysterious fat man...) Even without the need to care for Marguerite, her chances of survival look small. But she's resourceful and won't give up so we have the setup for a classic action thriller. Yet if it's Adam Roberts does Alfred Hitchcock it could as easily be Adam Roberts does Julius Caesar (I think - given the politics, and some of the speeches) or several other genres (did the scenes with the argumentative lift AI echo Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Of course they did.)

In other words, it's clever, well thought out, many layered, allusive and tricksy, something else I've come to expect from Roberts' books. With some authors that might seem a little show-offy, a bit look-at-me, but I never get that feeling from Roberts' books. If you get these references they add to the enjoyment, but understanding the book doesn't depend on getting them, and there's lots of fun to be had here anyway.

The book ends with many open questions for both Alma and the reader, and I'm really hoping that Roberts will return to R!-town again, with some answers (and more questions).