25 January 2020

Review - Agency by William Gibson

Agency
William Gibson
Viking, 23 January 2020
HB, 416pp

'Observe, orient, decide, act'.

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of Agency via NetGalley.

Sequel to Gibson's The Peripheral, Agency is a book that can be read as a standalone, although that leaves the reader with a  a job of catching up to do. Still, we are brought up to speed pretty quickly.

The book takes place across three alternate timelines - our world, albeit in 2136, and two versions of 2016, including one where the results of the UK's Brexit referendum and of the US's presidential election were different. With its events taking place in San Franciso, the latter timeline gives some quiet signs of hope in the US: a mural celebrating "the President's" courage, for example ('Her opponent loomed behind her, as he once actually had'). We don't see the outcome in the UK in this scenario. But Gibsons insists that people are generally no happier, not knowing what they've been saved from - and the "jackpot", a horrible future featuring decades of catastrophe, is still coming. Nothing immediately hangs on the difference in political outcomes and we don't see the longterm effects. Rather the conflict that motivates the book takes place under the radar and at a more personal level.

Gibson's conceit is that "our" timeline is the "real" one from which the others are "stubs", branches formed when somebody in "our" world communicates back to inhabitants in the distant past.. How such communication is possible isn't explained (I think that's where reading The Peripheral, which I hadn't, may help) but Gibson uses the idea with gusto, having the inhabitants of 2136 London intervene in 2016 for a variety of reasons - one is malicious and enjoys causing trouble, others see it as a hobby, while our main protagonists - a Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer and her sidekick, Netherton - seek to help. In particular, they're trying to prevent alt-2016 perishing in a nuclear war, and therefore seek traction in that world. (This is challenged by an indignant resident of one of the other timelines as simply colonialism)

At the other end of this process is Verity Jane, a young woman renowned in the tech world as the "app whisperer" and in the tabloids as Stetson Howell's ex. Howell is a powerful force in tech and having broken ups with him, Verity is of great interest to social media. When the book opens she's just about to take a new job evaluating an AI personal assistant for startup Tulpagenics - something that will change her life for ever.

The AI, Eunice*, becomes key to this story and the relationship between it - her - and Verity both touching and intriguing. As chapters alternate between San Francisco and London, we gradually see a more complete picture of what's going on, but to achieve that you need to get your head round some complicated setups involving tele-presencing between the two timelines (and occasionally, all three).

So you can have a character (generally Netherton) living in 2136 London but virtually occupying a drone in 2016 alt-San Francisco, interacting with the inhabitants there and observing that reality through a game-like interface while occasionally exchanging words with someone with him in the (2136) - the conversation also including other characters who are effectively dialled in to the events, from one or other of the timelines. I found it really confusing at times ('...his phone's feed provided by her device's camera. She couldn't see him, though he could show her what he was seeing'), and the descriptions of what was being seen on that virtual display sometimes took a lot of effort to interpret.

There is also a lot of tech speak. 'She's an intermittently hierarchical array, complexly coterminous' for example, or 'a locus of clonic indeterminacy' or 'competitive control areas'. The book is in one sense a lot of extended conversations, undertaken as characters run for their lives. But, new words to learn! At least now I know what "noetic" means.

I realise this may sound as if I didn't like the book. That's not so at all. I really enjoyed Agency and look forward to reading more Gibson. The stuff above doesn't really hold up the narrative or make the essentials hard to follow. And he has some mind-bending concepts - see the character who has had her animated tattoos removed and installed into the hide of an indoor yurt, so that as she sleeps she's surrounded by moving animal figures. Or the idea of an electronic privacy filter created by a circle of dancing bots swirling shawls made of a smart fabric. And there is some really smart, even beautiful use of language here ('Her eyes and chartreuse lips seemed to float there, a disembodied Cheshire goth...', '"...something like Uber," Eunice said, "but for following people"', 'that horror movie feel of any unoccupied cam feed').

Above all, the characters feel real, part of a community, a family, at home ion their places - whether that's Verity sofa-surfing in San Francisco or Netherton with his wife Rainey and his son of even Lowbeer in her preposterous mobile situation room. The book feels deep, these characters care for each other, they have history and have made compromises and they know better to raise certain issues or to do certain things, and Gibson communicates all this subtly, he shows it, for which I can forgive him any amount of tech speak and mind-bending multi-way situations.

It was great fun. But do read The Peripheral first.

For more about the book, including links to buy, see the Penguin website here.

*Untethered Noetic Irregular Support System

21 January 2020

Review - Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Jacket art by Robert Hunt
Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, 5)
Seanan McGuire
Tor.com, 7 January 2020 (USA), 1 February 2020 (UK)
HB, 206pp.

I bought my copy of this book (I was lucky to find a shop selling it in late December).

I'm really enjoying McGuire's Wayward Children series. Eleanor West's Home [and School] for Wayward Children caters for the casualties of fairytales - the kids who've come back from a Wonderland, a Goblin Market, the Halls of the Dead or the Land of Candy, and find themselves unable to live in the "ordinary" world. At the School, they can complete their education in both mundane (maths) and potentially useful (how to treat wounds) subjects while waiting to see if a portal will appear to take them back to what they now thing of as home.

The whole thing is something of a metaphor for those kids who are - due to gender, sexuality, geekiness or whatever - ill at ease with their homes, their families, the judgemental world at large. McGuire delivers this with subtlety - while some of them are, indeed, gay or trans (or have issues with food or simply prefer to inhabit basements which happen to have autopsy tables and jars of pickled things) the burden of the kids' difficulties and of that judgy world is on their affiliations with The Moors, with the Drowned Gods or the Skelton world of Mariposa. That's why their parents have, with relief, accepted Miss West's offer of a place at the Home.

Over five (so far) books McGuire has been using this framework to explore the rights and wrongs of participation in such worlds, the comradeship that develops between the (very different) young people and the underlying dynamics of their families which have led to them preferring, say, life as a Mad Scientist dwelling on a lightning-racked hill to an existence as part of a middle-class, middle-American family. As I read these books, McGuire is offering enormous sympathy, enormous solidarity to those who feel judged, rejected, out of place, for whatever reason and indeed I find the sketches of what happened before - how a pair of twins may fall so out of sympathy with each other as to become deadly rivals, for example - as interesting as the fantasy narratives that follow. McGuire has, I think, a great insight into human nature, particularly into the dynamics of "strangeness", of not fitting in, and she writes with great empathy.

McGuire has also shown, though, (particularly in the last book, In An Absent Dream) that life in one of these other worlds isn't by any means a balm for all the problems one may face, that indeed things can go fearfully, dangerously wrong. Lundy, the hero of that book, isn't there in Come Tumbling Down to tell us whether such a life is "worth it" but we see the same question played out as a number of the characters we have come to know and, yes, love, go on quest to help one of their own. Come Tumbling Down is part of a sequence (with the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, and the second, Down Among the Sticks and Bones) which focuses on two sisters, Jack and Jill, who discovered, and lived for years in The Moors, a world of vampires, mad scientists and lightning-powered necromancy. Now Jack returns to the school seeking help, after her sister does something truly monstrous, and suddenly everyone must go to war - Kade, Christopher, even Sumi from the world of Confection (who proves in many ways to be the most ruthless and clear sighted of all).

I enjoyed this book. It's a fairly simple mission based story, albeit with some moral complexities, and I think really tops off the Moors sequence (previously left hanging) in a fairly neat and satisfactory way, though tempting some of our heroes along the way with a kind-of-OK solution to their spiritual homelessness. Might any of them accept living in The Moors as better for them than this world, our world, even if not exactly what they yearn for? The reader will hope they resist that temptation, but one can see that it is, truly, a temptation compared with the risk that a door to one's chosen world may never actually open.

I am though now desperate to hear something about Mariposa, where Christopher met and fell in love with the Skeleton Girl or the goblins of whom Kade is a prince or perhaps mermaid Cora's watery world. All these have been hinted at and I hope that, as McGuire has been happy to dot backwards and forwards in the timeline (the order the books take place in is actually 4, 2, 1, 3, 5), she will now give us origin stories for those characters (accepting that the books aren't really about the origins but the consequences, I would still like to know what made these kids fit those worlds, as we were shown for Jack and Jill).

There are also some developments at the Home/ School hinted at here, which I hope will also be explored so there seems to be a lot to keep this series going: five books in, it's anything but flagging!




16 January 2020

Review - The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by HG Parry

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep
HG Parry
Orbit, 23 January 2020
PB, 452pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep.

I've noticed before that bookish people like books about books (and about bookish people). Here's one, squared: Charley Sutherland, a rare and precocious talent who took his degree at Oxford when he was 13, possesses the ability to "read" characters (and things) out of books.

This ability - or curse - has dogged Charley all his life, the "readings" often being involuntary and sometimes, downright dangerous. It has also come between him and his brother Rob. Now, it seems, it has attracted rather more dangerous attention, as Artful Dodgers, Fagins, Dorian Grays and Uriah Heaps appear on the streets of Wellington, New Zealand and begin to cause trouble.

Resolving things will reveal secrets Charley's family has kept for decades, and force them to confront unwelcome truths...

I have to say that I approached this book with a degree of wariness. Let's get the inevitable out of the way first. This isn't a Thursday Next-alike. I know many people love those books, but they won't find this hitting that same spot. Put another way if, like me, you find TN just a bit too... arch... then Uriah Heep ISN'T LIKE THAT. There are many devices and tropes in literature, and characters coming off the page isn't new or unique, but Parry employs it intelligently and creatively, shrewdly deploying the tools of literary criticism to build her world. Sherlock Holmes, David Copperfield and the White Witch (from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) are not simply floated from the page. They reflect the particular "reading" that creates them, and therefore the intentions, purpose and personality of their reader (as well as the prejudices and assumptions of the reader's time). Two instances can differ greatly (and at one point there are no fewer than five Mr Darcys here - all different). It's a satisfying idea, well executed and ripe with scope for cross purposes, conflict and misunderstanding.

I really enjoyed the way that Parry gave her world complexity and moral depth. Having read a character out of a book, Charley can also "read them in" - banish them back to their story. But the characters are not just phantoms, they are fully formed people who have desires and fears, who can bleed and die. Who can argue for their existence. They are people. What does it mean to "read away" such a rounded, complete personality? What might they do, faced with the risk of such oblivion?

And that's even before you consider the tricksy nature some of the characters were imbued with by their authors... and how they might have changed since coming out of their books.

As if that wasn't enough to populate this sprawling, enticing novel we also have - in the two very different brothers - a fascinating study in family dynamics. Charley, the golden boy, is the younger of the two and there are layers of both resentment and adoration between them, layers which are gradually stripped away as Rob narrates the story. There are one or two parts from other viewpoints, but it's mostly Rob - which can at times be frustrating as Rob is, sometimes, a bit of a pig headed idiot. To take one example, Charley's gift is known to the whole family and Rob is frequently called on to help resolve situations with it. Rob's partner, Lydia, notices that something is wrong (all those phone calls at 3am!) ands wants to know more - but Rob point blank refuses to tell her. He's got no problem admitting there is a Secret but, no, Lydia, you can't know what it is. It's family business. This is of course a Big Mistake as Rob eventually accepts, yet he compounds it by keeping other secrets fro others (an Even Bigger Mistake, as it turns out). In short, Rob is annoying and Charley, well Charley just feels more human. Of course this tension between the two brothers is key to the story indeed it really is the story, the relationship between the two of them, as part of their family, is at the heart of everything.

It's an enjoyable and profound book. Behind the high concept there is a very touching, very true take on how we narrate our own lives and how that story includes, or doesn't, those who are close to us. There is a lot of Dickens here, a focus being the influence on him of the notorious blacking factory and how that drove his rage against injustice and cruelty - but, as Charley remarks somewhere, there is much more to Dickens than anger, you can take different things his books and a "shallow" reading should be avoided. That's where the different readings, and the characters they bring to life, act as a rather beautiful metaphor made real (one definition of fantastical literature).

There's a lot of Dickens here, in the way that the making of those brothers and the branching of their lives forms the core of the book.

There's also a lot of Dickens here, in the gallery of vivid, eccentric and vital characters that Parry brings to the page (indeed, almost off it and into the Real World).

If I have one reservation, it's that the story takes off with both brothers adult, Charley's ability well known to the family and with the resulting weird stuff an inherent part of their lives. That means we don't discover it, rather there is a lot of briefing, mostly by Rob, to bring us up to date on what Charley can do. I felt at times that got in the way of establishing their (delicate) relationship, which possibly made Rob even more annoying than he need be (once I understood Rob, I found him much more sympathetic). I would stress that is a small reservation. This is an exciting, bold and ultimately engaging fantasy adventure with a weirdly compelling logic all of its own (Charley can defeat monsters by, literally, reinterpreting them) and which uses established literary characters in some very shrewd ways.

It also has a biting vein of commentary (I had never considered how unfair Dickens is to Heap) as well as a great deal of humour (especially at the expense of literary theory) and some poignant moment - as, for example, when a lion is "summoned" from a child's storybook, escapes, and is shot several days later. The "summoner" feels the creature's death. These are not paper creations, they are flesh and blood and there is a connection between summoner and summoned.

A fun book to read, and thought provoking too. Definitely recommended.

For more information about The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, see the Orbit website here.

13 January 2020

Review - When the Dead Come Calling by Helen Sedgwick

When the Dead Come Calling (Burrowhead Mysteries)
Helen Sedgwick
Point Blank, 9 January 2020
HB, 375pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of When the Dead Come Calling to consider for review.

What a find this was! One of the great privileges of book blogging is being sent books you might not have noticed, might not have picked up, and finding they are so RIGHT. This story of death and the past rising to engulf a remote seaside town was simply compelling - haunting, sad, atmospheric and at times simply terrifying. While firmly a here-and-now crime mystery, in its depiction of isolated Burrowhead it approaches folk horror, and all while delivering an incising commentary on the state of modern England.

DI Georgie Strachan heads a tiny police presence - four officers - in the town of Burrowhead. Anomaly layers on anomaly. It's the sort of rural outpost that isn't supposed to exist anymore - Georgie is reluctant to ask for repairs in case the higher ups notice the place and shut it down. She herself is an incomer, a Black woman with an accent - what is she even doing there? And her husband Fergus - what's his game? made redundant when the nuclear plant closed, he potters about, trying to establish a local archaeological society, communing with the stones in the wood, seeking a connection with "our history".

When psychotherapist Dr Alexis Cosse is found dead in the children's playground (he's another incomer, having just got his citizenship) George takes on the investigation, with little outside support. It takes a couple of days before she even gets a response from Headquarters and they grudgingly dispatch only DS Frazer to help out. Resented by the rest of the team, Frazer seeks to make his mark but feels a palpable hostility, a watchingness, from the villagers. Meanwhile, Pamali at the Spar, Crosse, and even Georgie herself have been receiving racist hate mail...

Sedgwick spins an elaborate tale here, deftly weaving together the town's recent past, its older secrets and the its current state of isolation to produce a claustrophobic, pressured atmosphere. Bad things have happened in Burrowhead: things everyone knows about, but doesn't discuss. There is a sense of belonging among the inhabitants, of shared history and a kind of stubborn pride, but it's also a sense of complicity, of shamed refusal to own what has been done. England in little, perhaps. The town is palpably out there - a hard place to find, almost a world of its own. There's a sense of closing in in the circling birds, the patrol boats, the military carriers moving out on the seas. early in the book we are given a description of the town, with its three roads, meeting in a triangular green. We're told where each road goes - they all fizzle out somewhere in the countryside, leading to a blighted farm, an abandoned church, that playground. Where are the roads that lead out of - or into - the village, I wondered?

Within this little arena, the village looks to its own. Ancient grudges fester. Wrongs are tolerated, resentments nurtured. The little rituals that have maintained peace seem to go awry. There are moments of pathos, sad memories explored and Uncle Walt, an elderly man becoming confused, goes walking in his dressing gown. Perhaps he knows something, if anyone would listen?

Oh, and there;'s someone hiding in a cave under cliffs too - a cave haunted by the tragic dead off three centuries, and maybe more...

Through all this, Georgie seeks connections, facets, answers. Sedgwick tells us a little about her history - about what racist violence has done to her on another continent. She is, as it were, primed to see the signs, but has she missed something under her nose? Certainly she and Fergus seem to be at odds - as George gets ever deeper into the case, Fergus begins to splurge money on metal detectors, drones, and other high tech paraphernalia, becomes obsessed with standing stones, cup and ring markings and other signs of the past. But is it a past Georgie can share?

Simply a splendid, stunning opening to a detective series, Dalziel and Pascoe crossed with The Wicker Man but better than that. I think this is bound to be a hit of 2020 and I look forward to more from Helen Sedgwick.

For more information, see the publisher's website here.




11 January 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Home by Sarah Stovell

The Home
Sarah Stovell
Orenda Books, 23 November 2019 (e) 23 January 2020 (PB)
PB, e, 303pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for a free advance copy of The Home and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

This is my first blogtour of 2020 (Happy New Year to all the readers and bloggers out there!) and indeed The Home was my first read of the year - and suitably so. While the book is set around Christmas, it's a dark and sobering corrective to mince pies, tinselitis and tinkling bells.

When the body of a pregnant, fifteen-year-old girl is discovered in a churchyard on Christmas morning, the community is shocked, but unsurprised. For she lived in The Home, the residence of three young girls, whose violent and disturbing pasts have seen them cloistered away...

One girl is dead.

Another is found embracing her, stunned, unable or unwilling to give any coherent account of what's happened.

The third had long retreated into her own silent world.

As the police and the social workers at the care home try to unpick what has been going on, we're made privy to the personal stories of the three girls and see just how deep are the roots of what happened that Christmas Eve - and how wide the guilt goes.

I should say first that this is a very dark story indeed. Stovell's writing is compulsive, her story urgent and important, but there are some very, very hard things here. Each of the three young women at the centre of the story - Hope, Annie and Lara - has experienced tragedy and death in her own personal life. Each has been victim of abuse (physical, sexual or emotional: sometimes all three). At times this makes for very challenging reading - while Stovell avoids explicit details of what has been done to the girls, some will find this material difficult and there were times when I simply had to put the book
Sarah Stovell
down for a few minutes and reflect.

That said, The Home is not simply layers of misery. The three girls are far more than just victims, they are brave, resilient and well rounded young women with a lot to say. This is a complex and tangled story, with a teasing narrative structure. Stovell gives us a "present day" thread from the perspective of the girl found alive in the graveyard... and observations from the one who was found dead, leading into both of them telling their stories about their separate, earlier lives and their time together in The Home. I'd hesitate to call it a ghost story - there is no supernatural angle here - but this clever structuring does allow us, the readers, to get to various places and hear different voices without the insertion of an all-knowing narrator (and therefore allowing the possibility that these viewpoints are partial and may not be completely reliable).

They are, as I have said, dark stories. One girl is the daughter of a sex worker, groomed almost from birth to follow the same path, which she is forced to do at the age of twelve. She suffers family tragedy and is controlled by a pimp. Another of the three has a psychologically - and physically - abusive mother and only gets by begging food from the local foodbank. The third has seen murder. The care system struggles - bluntly it fails - to cope with the needs of these girls. While the manager of the home, Helen, tries her best amidst a chaotic and uncaring system there are neither the financial nor the emotional resources available. (I would have liked to have heard more of Helen's story, she seems like an interesting character herself but only remains on the margins).  In the midst of this, Annie and Hope find some sort of bond, some sort of love, but it's one that only complicates their position and - with the inevitable threat of being separated - raises new fears.

That relationship is though at the core of this book. I think Stovell succeeds brilliantly in showing us the inner lives of all the girls, not just their suffering but their selves inside that, their hopes and regrets.

'For the first time ever, I wanted my mother. No. Not my mother. A mother...'

Stovell shows how these brilliant, strong young women have been forced, at an impossibly early age, to carry burdens that would floor most adults, burdens nobody should have to bear alone, still less children, and how - for the most part - they bear those, their simple survival being a triumph. In all of this there is so little help, with them being grateful for even small gestures. I found myself getting very angry that there are women in situations like this (there is righteous anger behind every word of this novel and Stovell acknowledges this in discussing the research behind the book) and that the services provided for them are so truncated, so obtuse, so ungracious.

It's not a book with an impossible, happy ending. Nobody waves a wands and transforms the lives of these girls and there is I think no inspiration in the fact that they prove so resilient.

It is a crying scandal and there is, at best, a grimy, polluted kind of justice served up.

Welcome to 2020.

The blogtour continues with some super bloggers - see the poster below. You can read more about The Home on the Orenda Books website here, and buy or pre-order the book from your local bookshop, from Hive Books (which supports local bookshops), from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.




9 January 2020

Review - The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

Illustration by Richard Anderson,
design by Steve Panton LBBG
The Shadow Saint (Black Iron Legacy, 2)
Gareth Hanrahan
Orbit, 9 January 2020
PB, 562pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of The Shadow Saint.

"The spy climbs a stair of fire to get to Heaven..."

This is the sequel to Hanrahan's first novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced us to the city of Guerdon, its Machiavellian leader, Kelkin, the Godswar which rages abroad (but it's getting closer!) and most particularly to Carillon (Cari) Thay and Eladora Duttin, cousins whose fates are bound up with the city, the imprisoned Black Iron Gods and with the Godswar.

The focus of that book was very much on Cari, a young woman who had run away to sea but was now returned and first seen leading a gang to carry out a daring robbery. Cari, Rat and Spar (who was suffering from a disease that gradually turned him to stone) were caught between political and religious factions, as well as family politics and history, in events that eventually led to a crisis in the affairs of Guerdon and to Rat (having become king of the city's ghouls) trying to kill Cari. Hanrahan has given a detailed recap here - I wish more authors would do that! - which is worth reading before turning to The Shadow Saint.

The Shadow Saint picks up the story shortly after, with more focus on the Godswar. We see the city of Severast, recently fallen to the conquering forces of the Mad Gods (the fires of sacrifice still smoulder) We see the grim, necromantic kingdom of Haith, which is fighting a rearguard action against the conquerors. Haith's politics will play a central role in this story, which focusses on Eladora, rather than Cari: sensible, dutiful Eladora, who has gone from her studies at the University to working for Effro Kelkin, leader of the Industrial Liberal party and the wily fox at the centre of Guerdon's government. (She's also learning magic, under the tutelage of the formidable Dr Ramegos).

While the forces of the deranged gods advance, Guerdon is bickering over politics and religion, leading to an election, and schemes are afoot in the Haithi embassy, focussing on that nation's crown and on family succession. Oh and there is, as the quote above implies, a spy in Guerdon (actually, there are many, but this one is particularly crucial).

It all makes for a complex, atmospheric (you can almost taste the alchemical pollution that drifts on Guerdon's air...) and tactile book, the reader occupying something of a privileged position in being privy to most - but not all - of the writhing plots, which enfold and stymie one another continually (sometimes to darkly humorous effect - Guerdon's gods are widely regarded as stupid, and at one moment they carry out an act that is so misconceived and self defeating as to be near impossible to convey: fortunately I don't have to try as it would also be a huge spoiler). It's a bit Smiley meets HP Lovecraft  meets Pratchett, the latter especially in the way that stupidity, bad luck and sheer obduracy ensure those best-laid plans - whether Kelkin's, devised at his back table in the coffee house, or Lys's, intelligence chief of Haith - really do gang aft agley.

Guerdon and its world are, as ever, brilliantly realised - this is a fantasy city with a Metro system, representative democracy (oiled by generous campaign contributions) and a manufacturing sector (Guerdon thrives on its arms trade, supply both sides in the war). A city where the Gods are kept weak, lest they join the war. A world of modern naval fleets with unspeakable, alchemical weapons and undead warriors wielding ancestral, soul-hungry swords. It's hard, as I said above, to convey just how right it all seems, how natural. The characters are also excellent - Cari, who has become something like a saint (though her god is the New City, not a divine being) has taken up the foul-mouthed mantle of Saint Aleena, my favourite character from The Gutter Prayer: 'The fucking fuckers are trying to fuck with us' as she sagely observes more than once. (Note to self: redact that before submitting review to Amazon...)

In all, it's joyous mayhem with a coherent, metaphysically literate, idea of godhood and the supernatural at its centre, characters who are, even if monstrous and constrained by unspeakable fates, sympathetic - and throughout, a sense of unease, a sense that dreadful things can happen at any moment...

For more about the book, see the publisher's webpage here.


7 January 2020

Review - A Degree of Uncertainty by Nicola K Smith

A Degree of Uncertainty
Nicola K Smith
Compass Publishing, 20 November 2019
PB, e, 334pp

I'm grateful to the author for a copy of A Degree of Uncertainty to consider for review.

A Degree of Uncertainty is a book focussed on the impact a new university is having on the small West Cornish town of Poltowan.

Jobs are being created and business generated for some of the local traders - but houses are also being snapped up for investment and letting, established firms are being replaced by new ones focussed on the students and local families being priced out of the market. Nor are the students happy as numbers increase and the friendly "boutique" experience they were promised fails to appear. Welcome to the marketised world of 21st century higher education. Estate agent Harry Manchester worries about all this, so when it becomes known that the dynamic Vice Chancellor, Dawn Goldberg, is pressing for even more expansion, he decides to take a stand. As the book opens, Harry is about to be interviewed for local TV, but he won't find it an easy ride.

I enjoyed A Degree of Uncertainty. The book surprised and pleased me by not being a semi-comic account of friction between the locals and academics (I have read that book several times) but instead focussing strongly on character and on the complexities of Poltowan and the challenges before it. So, Harry is determined to stop the expansion, for altruistic reasons, but it could be argued that he has a business interest himself. He's also in an emotionally precarious situation, having recently left his wife Sylvia for younger Jo (in no small part at Sylvia's urging). As soon becomes clear, Harry has reservations about this and doubts he can be who Jo wants him to. The emotional currents between the three are complex and they ebb and flow throughout the book, giving the story a real depth and texture.

Pitted against Harry is Goldberg, who could have been made into a 2D villain (she is a formidable opponent, and not above a few dirty tricks) but who is, instead, actually rather sympathetic. Smith makes clear Goldberg's motivations but also hints, perhaps, that she is rather out of her depth. Many of the best scenes were between Dawn and her secretary (and I think only friend) Janice.

The supporting characters are nicely drawn, too, from narrowboat dwelling student Ludo to the mysterious but alluring singer Rockstr (both of whom support Harry's campaign) and the Poltowan business owners (most of whom don't). There is plenty of grey in their motivations, plenty of room for debate about what, really, is right for Poltowan. And there are Secrets. It's a very issue-led book which shows how development and change can split communities and divide friends.

Certainly, as events gather pace, Harry finds his business suffering, his friends turning against him and his personal life coming under strain. He's an unlikely campaigner, really - he just wants to be sitting in his familiar armchair, headphones on, listening to the music of Queen - but once he takes his position, it's as if he can''t shift (perhaps there's some compensation going on for the way his domestic life has lost all its point of reference). But nor is Dawn used to being stopped: as the book's blurb say, something will have to give.

A Degree of Uncertainty is an excellent read. In this, her debut novel Smith creates characters you will care about and enough conflict to challenge them, rooted in a realistic setting and very current issues. I wanted to know more about Poltowan, its people and its future as well as about Harry, Sylvia and Dawn.

About the Author

Nicola K Smith is a freelance journalist and writer living in Cornwall, regularly contributing to a number of national newspapers and magazines. She studies English Literature at Loughborough University.

Nicola was chosen as 'most promising student' on Curtis Brown Creative's 'Starting to Write Your Novel' source and A Degree of Uncertainty was conceived under their tutelage. This is her first novel.

You can find her at:

Twitter: @NicolaKSmih
Instagram: nicolaksmith740

A Degree of Uncertainty is available from Blackwell's, from Foyles,  Waterstones or from Amazon here. For more about the book, visit Nicola's website at https://www.nicolaksmith.com