Map of Blue Book Balloon

30 June 2022

#Blogtour #Review - A Scandal in Brooklyn by Lauren Wilkinson

Cover for short story "A Scandal in Brooklyn" by Lauren Wilkinson. Against a teal background, a keyhole. On the top right of the keyhole is a single bee.
A Scandal in Brooklyn
Lauren Wilkinson
Short story
Available as e-book, audio
Published by Amazon Original Stories here (UK) (US)

Today, I'm celebrating the release of Lauren Wilkinson's A Scandal in Brooklyn with an interview, an excerpt and a review. There's also a giveaway, to win a $50 Amazon voucher.

Lauren Wilkinson’s debut novel, American Spy, was a Washington Post bestseller; was nominated for the NAACP Image Award, Anthony Award, and Edgar Award; and was included on Barack Obama’s 2019 Recommended Reading List. Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine and the New York Times, among other publications.

Let's start by hearing from Lauren herself...

Interview with author Lauren Wilkinson

Your newest story, A Scandal in Brooklyn, is about a complex murder with a plethora of distrustful suspects — a clear homage to classic Holmesian tales. What elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work most inspired you?

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are a lot of fun! And it was important to me that this story was fun, so I’d say that was the element of Doyle’s work that most inspired me.  We’ve all had a hard few years, so I didn’t want to write anything that was too heavy.  

What made you decide to omit Sherlock from your story and instead focus entirely on Irene Adler? 

Honestly, I just think that Irene Adler is the more interesting character. For one, in A Scandal in Bohemia, she outwits Holmes (and I’m glad she does because Sherlock Holmes is working for Irene’s toxic ex, who’s a huge hater that just won’t let be great). The other reason I think she’s the more interesting character is that there’s been far less written about her than there has been about Sherlock Holmes, so I felt like there was room to make up more stuff with her. And as a writer, that’s a more interesting place to hang out. 

Irene has been interpreted many ways in the last hundred years, but you offer a brand-new take on The Woman by making her a person of color. How does her background and culture change the narrative of this iconic female? 

Well, the fact that she’s a Black woman certainly informs her worldview. But for me, re-imagining Irene Adler as a modern character (and putting her in modern circumstances) was the choice that led to the most germane changes in the narrative. 

Irene has an eidetic memory which she has learned to use to her advantage – for example, in solving crimes. But this skill can also be a curse. What do memories mean to your characters and what do they mean to you? 

Memory is such an interesting thing to me! Our memories are so fallible, and yet a person’s collection of memories is the cornerstone of their identity.  What a strange internal conflict that is, and stranger still that it’s built into our nature.  The Mandela Effect is a good example of how this conflict plays: isn’t it interesting that -- for some people anyway -- it’s more agreeable to believe that objective reality is wrong than that they simply misremembered something?

Tommy Diaz, Irene’s old friend, recounts the story’s events including a murder as well as efforts to solve the crime. Why did you choose to show the story through his eyes? 

The character of Tommy Diaz is based on one of my oldest friends, Tommy Pico (who is a poet, screenwriter and now an occasional actor)! Honestly, it was just more fun for me to try to write a story from “his perspective” than from my own. I’m starting to get a little bored with my own perspective, if I’m being totally honest.     

How do you think modern technology is changing the mystery genre? What are some positive and negative aspects of these changes? 

I think that modern technology has the potential to give the genre new plot devices and twists. But ironically that has always been the case—apparently A Study in Scarlet was the first story to use the magnifying glass in a crime investigation. So, I think the question of how modern technology changes the mystery genre is a good example of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

In 2019 you released your debut novel American Spy to an avalanche of critical acclaim which included being named on President Obama’s summer reading list. What effect did this experience have on your career?

I continue to be extremely grateful to President Obama for putting my novel on his summer reading list!  The exposure had a profound effect on my career, in the sense that it allowed me to pursue television writing, which is what I spend most of my time on these days. 

What’s next for you?

Well, in my personal life, I’ve recently gotten married and we’re renovating our house together, which is an exciting project (that’s also been pretty time-consuming).  And professionally—well I’m not too sure! I’d really like to write another novel one day. I’d also like to keep writing for television, and maybe a movie one day too.


A Scandal in Brooklyn Excerpt

We went inside, and into what looked like a clearing in the woods. It took me a moment to realize that the floor, walls and ceiling were all covered in LED panels that were projecting a three-dimensional image. Victor lay in a patch of grass in one corner of the room beside a tree whose branches stretched outward into the simulated sky. A cloud of bees was buzzing around the hive dangling from one of the branches. 

“I . . . can’t breathe. Help me,” Victor said without turning to face us. His voice was ragged. 

“Where did those bees come from?” The kid with the buzz cut sounded confused. He had a Russian accent, and couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. 

“There are more over there,” Tyler said and pointed to the LED panels on the opposite wall. 

“Victor must’ve been stung. But how—” 

“He’s allergic to bees,” Priya shouted. “He’ll die!” 

“He’s going into anaphylaxis,” Tyler said. “There’s epinephrine in the first aid kit.” He ran out into the hall to retrieve it, and when he returned, he shouted, “Someone call 911!” 

I tried to but the call was rerouted. As an automated voice thanked me for contacting Avisa’s private emergency number, I watched Tyler poke a needle into a vial of epinephrine and draw the clear liquid up into it. He plunged the needle into Victor’s thigh. 

A woman with a soothing voice came on the line, and after I explained what was going on, she told me she’d send emergency personnel to Avisa House. The alarm stopped suddenly, and I hung up and glanced over at Irene. She was observing everything, doing her best to commit the moment to memory. 

I’d assumed that the shot would’ve immediately revived Victor, like in the movies. Instead, his eyes rolled up into his head and his body went limp. 

“He passed out,” Priya said. “Do something, please!” 

Tyler started CPR. A blonde woman with a magazine tucked underneath her arm came through the open door. My best guess was that this was the chef, Carol. “What the hell is going on? What was that alarm?” 

Victor was still unconscious. He must’ve had a serious allergic reaction—his cheeks had ballooned to grotesque proportions, his eyes were swollen shut, and a bright-red rash had broken out on his neck and chin. Tyler stopped pumping his heart and put two fingers to Victor’s wrist to check his pulse. After a moment, he said, “He’s dead. I’m so sorry.” 

Priya dropped to her knees beside him. She started to sob. I was too stunned to say anything. We all were. The room was so quiet that I could hear the distant sound of rain drumming on the roof. A couple of EMTs showed up a few minutes later—looking back, I wonder if they really were EMTs. They had both the air of authority and the equipment of medical professionals, but I can’t say for certain. 

“I don’t understand this.” Priya had gotten up and was standing with Irene, Shinwell, and me. Her eyes darted back and forth between Irene’s face and Victor’s body as it was loaded onto a gurney. “He was fine just a few minutes ago.” 

“Was he stung by digital bees?” I asked in a low voice. 

“I think someone wanted it to look that way,” Irene said. “But I don’t buy it.”

My review

I'm grateful for a free advance e-copy of A Scandal in Brooklyn to consider for review. When I saw the description - a short story featuring a modern Irene Adler getting to the roots of a devilish crime in contemporary Brooklyn - I couldn't resist reading it, I love a Holmesian inspired mystery and wanted to see what Wilkinson would do with Adler.

A Scandal in Brooklyn is a short, fast-moving story. Adler is a woman with remarkable memory abilities which she's honed through practice and training ('To Irene, her memory is a physical place that look like her childhood home') and in this story, she teams up with an old friend, Tommy Diaz, to use them to solve a crime involving a tech billionaire. In the best Holmes and Watson style, the story is Diaz's write-up of a notorious case done at Adler's suggestion ('While some of the interest in the Victor Stein mystery has subsided, it's still a popular story in some corners of the Internet...'). It all begins when  Adler recommends him to her friend Priya to help investigate the disappearance of Priya's husband, who has gone missing.

The two quickly find themselves, together with Priya and Irene's sort-of housekeeper Shinwell, in the secret laboratory of said billionaire... who just happens to be Adler's husband... and who just happens to have another mystery he'd like them to solve.

As Adler gets to work, it becomes clear that her talents go much deeper than a killer memory. The case is a tricky one, with one obvious suspect, but also with perplexing clues, several witnesses with their own agendas - and other potential criminals on site. It's not just a matter of who and why, but also of how - a classic Holmesian mystery, and a situation where there may still be danger. 

I really enjoyed seeing Adler put through her paces here in something which is far from a pastiche or rewriting of a Holmes story, but rather a tale with a very modern ambience and at the same time, a familiar sense of devilish mystery. Great fun to read, great characters, and Irene Adler - in any incarnation - is of course a must-read. I'm hoping to hear more about this version of her!

But there's more...

You can find out more about Lauren and the story at the following links


And you can be in with a chance to win an e-copy of the story and a $50 Amazon voucher at the following address http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/07c2363f278 (draw operated by the book's publicist with whom I am not connected)

Blog tour poster for "A Scandal in Brooklyn" by Lauren Wilkinson.





28 June 2022

#Review - #Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett

Cover for book “Locklands” by Robert Jackson Bennett. The overall colour scheme is blue – varying form turquoise to deep purple and black It’s a door. A door flung is open to the left. Cryptic symbols are zooming through the door, emerging from a space beyond, which is a bright white-blue and in the midst of which float an enormous, blazing white eye, with in inky black pupil which contains stars. The door itself is sturdy and solid, and it is set in a stone wall adorned with many arches and carvings, including, above the lintel, a skull.
Locklands (The Founders, 3)
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 28 June 2022
Available as: PB, 546pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB copy 
ISBN(PB): 9781529414073

I'm grateful to Ella at Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Locklands to consider for review, and for inviting me to celebrate the book's publication today by joining the Blog Blast.

It was great to return to the world of Foundryside and Shorefall, a fantasy universe like no other in which the very essentials of creation can be manipulated by a form of notation - 'striving' - which employed written commands and arguments to argue physical things into desired behaviours.

In previous books, we've followed the career of thief Sancia through the squalor of Foundryside in the city of Tevanne, dominated by the major striving houses, and (in Shorefall) seen her join a feisty young start-up determined to break that oligopoly. But these books are not just a disguised critique of tech culture (though that is here) and Shorefall ended with a momentous shift in power in Tevanne, as a monstrous contract emerged, a composite being with control over countless zombie 'hosts'. This new 'Tevanne' has now hunted Sancia, her wife, Berenice, and their other supporters and associates for eight years, waging war on humanity to obtain utter control of the world.

As Locklands opens, Sancia and her crew are launching a desperate mission to rescue a group of refugees from being swallowed up by Tevanne. There's the same sort of a 'caper' atmosphere to this section as in the earlier books, though the stakes are clearly incalculably higher - it's not just about stealing a little bread or business from one of the merchant houses, lives and freedom are at stake ('Move carefully and bring freedom' is a motto much repeated here - we saw in Shortfall how the Houses ascendancy is based on systemic slavery, with people, not just things, being strived: that's the basis of the Tevanne construct's heinous power and its dangerous desires).

So. A caper. But neither Sancia now Berenice is as young as they once were, and eight years of hiding and fighting has demanded a price. The writing in Locklands is never anything other than vital, engaging and fresh, but it evokes heroes who are older. Tireder. Who suffer aches and pains. Who begin to wonder, how long can I go on? I loved that note of realism. It's not just a matter of physical decay, everyone here - even immortal constructs such as Clef, the mysterious scribed key - seems to be coming to a realisation that the end is approaching, that there is so little time left.

Sancia & Co have been struggling against an enemy encumbered by a war on two fronts - it's only, they realise now, the fact that Tevanne has also been fighting the mighty hierophant Crasedes Magnus that has saved them from being overwhelmed. However, Magnus has now fallen and seems set to become. pawn of Tevanne, yielding vital information for the latter's plans.

Another caper then. A raid, an attack, a desperate gambit to deny Tevanne its advantage. The odds are enormous, hope seems faint and everyone is old and stiff. In short - the conditions for cracking adventure, new discoveries and a whole new sort of warfare.

This third and final volume of the Founders trilogy shows Robert Jackson Bennet at his peak, writing vivid, powerful language that does much, much more than register the epic battles and world-cracking conflicts that go on here. There is a vulnerability, a weakness, to everyone here (even Tevanne and even Crasedes) and a dark past to be explored to understand what made them what they are. Locklands has no true villains: in a sense everybody here has good intentions, the author showing how lack of empathy and understanding rather than bad intentions per se (that lack leading to the Original Sin of 'treating people as things') are the faults here. 

The problem is, it's all unfolded over millennia, based on some very human, very understandable mistakes and faults. Some very personal, focussed mistakes and faults, never intended to break worlds or enslave millions. Yet here we are, and what's to be done?

This is simply superb, glorious fantasy writing, engaging with deep, important themes and giving us real, loving, crying, cross and suffering characters. What happens to some of them - well, you may want to keep tissues handy. The greatest of the three books in this trilogy, easily, which is saying something and if by any chance you have blundered into this review not having read the others, you really must go back and do that. Locklands would probably make sense read on its own, but why you'd want to deny yourself the glory of Foundryside and Shorefall, I really don't know.

For more information about Locklands, see the publisher's website here; be sure to check out the other sites on Blast, listed in the poser below; and most importantly of all, get a copy - you can buy the book from from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog Blast visual for book Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett. References the following blogs (with Twitter handles): Geek Dad (@geekdads), A Dance With Books (@signourney), Fantastic Ficcion (@MLeticiaLara), The Civilian Reader (@civilianreader) and Blue Book Balloon (@bluebookballoon)







27 June 2022

#Review - The Path of Thorns by AG Slatter

Book "The Path of Thorns" by Angela Slatter. In silhouette, black branches with thorns linking dark trees. Moving along the branches are figures, again in silhouette - a girl with long hair and a lantern, a dog with head held high, a hunched figure with misshapen limbs.

The Path of Thorns
A G Slatter
Titan Books, 28 June 2022
Available as: PB, 384pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789094374

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Path of Thorns to consider for review.

The 'path of thorns' is, we are told midway through this book, the path a woman inevitably treads in this world: every step forward, you get a thorn in your foot. 

It's certainly the path that Asher Todd has trodden. Todd was brought up by Heloise, a loving mother if one increasingly disturbed as she sank under illness caused, Todd hints, by a life as a courtesan following exile from her wealthy family. Heloise's relationships with her clients have left their mark on Todd, as well. Asher also despises  the academics of Whitebarrow, who preyed on her mother even while refusing to educate Asher in their sciences and magics (men only, I'm afraid). Despite this she has become a skilled self taught witch - but therefore vulnerable to the Church, which persecutes women such as herself. Each step forward, another thorn.

Above all, though, Asher Todd she hates the family that threw her mother out. 

And now she's found them, and come for revenge. 

The background Slatter uses is this book is her 'Sourdough' universe, which has featured in many short stories and in a previous novel, All the Murmuring Bones (to which there are a number of references here). It's a comfortably vague world, pre Modern in some respects - people use horses for transport - with a degree of magic accepted (though that's increasingly being contested by the Church) and society divided between many small, feudal polities, most of which focus on the local (here the Morwood family and their nearest small town, the Tarn). 

While this world is in some respects culturally advanced with, for example, same-sex couples easily accepted and daughters able to inherit an estate such as that of the Morwoods, male privilege and patriarchy still permeates this story with abusive husbands and lovers, double standards in sexual conduct and a clearly male hierarchy in the Church. Asher will have to step carefully through all this (those thorns again!) as she seeks to shape her new home to her own ends.

There are mysteries here to be discovered - from that first presence Asher feels as she approaches the house - a persona to be maintained (posing as a governess may be absolutely in line with the template for a Gothic novel, but it's not work she's ever done before and the kids have sharp eyes) - and obligations that she has taken on in order to get this far. Conflicting obligations, perhaps. All that even before the house, and its inhabitants, begin to work their own magic, manipulating her sympathies in their own battles and struggles.

The Path of Thorns gives its reader a lot to engage with. A sensible, capable and determined protagonist in Asher, who has a pleasing dash of Flora Poste about her, (if Flora could work magic: perhaps rather Mary Poppins though from the books, not the films). Plenty of mystery in the woods and the house itself. A brooding, could-be villain (though, with themes of domestic abuse, this is one you definitely want to watch out for after dark). Some innocent(?) children to be won over but above all, protected - this in a world where kids who play in the river may find water sprites taking an interest...

The story moves at a fair pace, with plenty of jeopardy and some really nasty magic promised. A book I really enjoyed, though be warned - nobody here is innocent, not even Asher herself, and my abiding thought by the end was very much 'families - who needs them?'

For more information about The Path of Thorns, see the Titan website here.



23 June 2022

#Review - Gun Honey by Charles Ardai, Ang Hor Kheng and Asifur Rahman

Cover for comic collection “Gun Honey” by Charles Ardai (writer), Ang Hor Kheng (artist), Asifur Rahman (colourist) and David Leach (letterer). Against a white background, a tall white woman with slicked hair in a dress with plunging neckline. She carries a gun in each hand – in her right, some kind of complicated assault weapon, in her left, a pistol with silencer.
Gun Honey
Charles Ardai (writer), Ang Hor Kheng (artist) and Asifur Rahman (colourist)
Hard case Crime (Titan Comics),  3 May 2022
Available as: PB, 112pp
Source: Review copy
ISBN: 9781782763468

I'm grateful to Titan Comics for a copy of Gun Honey to consider for review.

This volume collects issues 1-4 of a comic following the adventures of Joanna Tan, the arms dealer and smuggler to whom the title refers.

The story occupies a murky territory between espionage, thriller and crime: Tan is actively supplying weapons for nefarious purposes (whether or not she has any scruples about what she does is one of the central questions here - one which for me wasn't, quite, answered in this volume). That brings her into touch with criminal gangs, terrorists and corrupt politicians and indeed these blend into one another in a manner familiar in pulp.

As was the central premise here - when a law enforcement agency reaches out for help, it seems to be making an offer Joanna can't refuse. So the story gets darker, moving from the daring set up of the opening pages, where she poses on a beach to catch the eye of a tycoon as part of a job, to an attempted infiltration of a crime syndicate.

Through all this we're introduced to Joanna's past, and (perhaps) to the events which still motivate her now. It seems the world she's moving in now isn't so far from where she grew up, and she has motives which may mean that consequences and ethics take second place.

Or she may not. As I said, there is an atmosphere of amorality here which feels as though it fits a world of super yachts, remote island dens of pleasure and general lawlessness.

This uncertainty, and the twists and turns of the plot, keep the story readable throughout and the atmospheric drawings - using both a clear realist style a degree of grainy murk - contribute to that, especially when capturing the seedier locations and events. In relation to the latter, I would warn that there are some very explicit scenes here - both of killings, and also of Tan, as she picks her way through an exploitative, male-dominated world (or at least, it was till she took a stand).

Further episodes of Gun Honey are promised, so if you missed the originals, this would be a good place to catch up on the story so far.

For more information about Gun Honey, see the Titan Comics website here.


 

21 June 2022

#Blogtour #Review - The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Book "The Ballad of Perilous Graves" by Alex Jennings. A pair of skeletal hands play the keyboard of a piano, the title laid out down its black surface with a grinning skull at the top.
The Ballad of Perilous Graves
Alex Jennings
Orbit, 23 June 2022
Available as: PB, e, audio CD
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356519241

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance e copy of The Ballad of Perilous Graves to consider for review, and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves takes us to Nola, a city where the incredible happens every day. 

Skycars will carry you around town; you can eat in a bar and diner occupying the remains of a UFO crash-landed in a lake; graffiti tags float through the streets, with hallucinogenic properties should you let then drift through you. 

And supernatural guardian spirit of the city, Doctor Professor, may materialise at any time with his piano, the Mess Around, playing music that you just have to dance to.

This is the home of kids Perilous Graves (Perry), his sister Brendoline (Brendy) and their best friend, Peaches. Peaches, who is super strong, lives alone in an abandoned house together with her collection of rescued animals. Peaches (who Perry has a bit of a thing for) doesn't attend school. Perry and Brendy do -  though Perry's recently moved schools, desperate to avoid magical studies that might bring him to the attention of the fearsome Hanging Judge.

We are then in a fantastical world right from the start, as Peaches calls on her friends to assist her in a quest, Perry and Brendy suffer a loss, and Doctor Professor reports the theft of nine songs that keep Nola in order. Their actions will the shape the future of the city, bringing them up against the spirit of the Storm that perpetually threatens Nola. Also involved with this will be Casey, a young trans man who's investigating the disappearance of his cousin, Jaylon. Casey's presence in the story makes this much more than a tale of some kids having a magical adventure - his history and life make events here seem very current and his reflections on his identity mesh with the complex nature of the city itself, which in some respects is divided, as well as being menaced by that external threat, the Storm

I need to be careful about spoilers here, because there are aspects of the story which it deliberately does NOT spell out and referring to them too clearly would take away some of those "aha" moments when you spot what's going on. So I won't say exactly how Casey, and Jaylon's, involvement relates to Perry, Peaches and Brendy's story. You need to unpick this for yourself, as the timeframe and location move back and forward, the flashbacks filling in, especially, Casey's background - and finally leading up to a realisation that made me go back and re-read some parts of the book. Casey's identity is key here and his story - and its evolution - is I think a reflection in one person of points Jennings is trying to convey about Nola/ New Orleans more widely. 

(And sorry if that reads as an entry for Pseud's Corner. Just read the book!)

In short, what we have here is an exciting fantasy adventure, as Peaches, Perry and Brendy confront one threat after another, including gangsters made into songs, songs that come to life, the increasingly unstable nature of the city, and the dawning realisation that the adults around them don't have all the answers and indeed may themselves simply be kids putting on a good act. Even the revered Doctor Professor himself may let them down, and no-one is guaranteed a happy ending - as Perry and Brenda's mum realises when she knows how much danger they are getting into. (Rereading this review, I spotted that my autocorrect turned that into "how much dance they are getting into" - which would actually have worked just as well for this book, I think!)

At the same time, we're exploring Casey's life and history - and the remarkable city of Nola/ New Orleans, which is so powerfully realised (and, I'd say, so loved, with all its faults) that it more or less steps up and performs as another character here. The heart of the story is very much rooted in actual history and in actual places and their relationships. Jennings has such a capacity for writing, for language and dialogue, and creates such a vivid, atmospheric and, well, accelerating, narrative, that the story just draws in the reader. Yes, especially at the start he throws a lot at you, he glories in the Nola dialect, which will not be familiar to all, and there are those things which only emerge slowly.  But if you feel overwhelmed, just go with it. As the pace picks up, things begin to knit together and it all makes sense (even all those characters who have lost one eye, as though Odin walked amongst us...)

For more information about The Ballad of Perilous Graves, see the Orbit website here. And do read the other stops on the tours - see the poster below for details!

You can buy The Ballad of Perilous Graves from your local bookshop, or get it online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwells, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

Blog tour poster for book "The Ballad of Perilous Graves" by Alex Jennings. A pair of skeletal hands play the keyboard of a piano. On the piano, the list of tour stops is set out. A grinning skull is at the top.







17 June 2022

#Review - Nothing Else by Louise Beech

Cover for book “Nothing Else” by Louise Beech. The background is music manuscript paper, bare with no notes. In the centre it is white, fading out to pale blue in the corners. Facing each other across the page, but not lined up, are two female faces. The are almost in profile, but not quite – they are clearly pictures not silhouettes. One is at the top left, the eyes cut off by the edge of the page. The other is bottom right, the full face in view except for the lower part of her chin. At the top is an endorsement by John Marrs: “One of the best writers of her generation”.
Nothing Else
Louise Beech
Orenda Books, 23 June 2022
Available as: PB, 276pp, audio, e
Source: purchased e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585166

Today I'm pleased to be joining the Random Things blogtour for Nothing Else by Louise Beech. Many thanks to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part.

I am always very pleased to see that a new book by Louise is on the way. They always grab me, and Nothing Else lived up to my expectations. At the same time heartbreaking, uplifting and compulsively readable, I hope it'll grab you, too.

Heather is a piano teacher, a rather solitary woman who lives - perhaps not for her music, but with it. She's not a total loner - her stepparents are dead, she was married and has parted amicably from her ex-husband - but there is a space in her life, which Beech slowly shows us was left by Harriet, the sister from whom Heather was parted in childhood.

On an impulse, Heather decides to take the job of pianist on a luxury liner. It's most unlike her to do such a spur of the moment thing, but she looks forward to the change and to the opportunity for some reflection. She will cruise across the Atlantic and then travel to the Caribbean, with a stop in New York. It seems exciting, different, a chance to explore a different lifestyle - and Heather is very nervous. But she's recently received the files Social Service kept on her, and hopes that she may find a clue there about Harriet - what happened to her, and, perhaps, where she is now.

Louise Beech
The first part of the novel therefore follows Heather as she settles in aboard the Queen of the Seas, makes acquaintanceships among the crew of the ship (a warm friendship with Frederica, who's a writer and aboard the ship to give workshops, not so much  with Barry Lung, an old-school comedian who sees the trip as an opportunity to drink and chase the girls) and finds her way playing in the different bars and venues. Heather has a good deal of spare time and we also witness her reaction to reading the (heavily redacted) Social Services files and the memories they stimulate of early life. 

Heather's own memories have many gaps. Her childhood wasn't easy, and doesn't make easy reading. There are scenes here of domestic abuse, less the gross, physical side than the creeping atmosphere of dread and restraint, the miasma cast over the girls' early life by their controlling father. It is effective and horrible, and the contrast with the more or less carefree life aboard ship (I really loved the sense of place and community that Beech gives to this) only makes things seem, somehow, even darker. Heather wants to know about Harriet, but one senses that there may be ominous secrets to come out.

One of the things I love about Louise Beech's books is this ability to create menace and depth in situations which nevertheless remain, as it were, bounded and even appealing. The little world aboard a ship is a good example of that. Heather may have spare time to relive her past but she has so much to do, so much to explore, and a public role in the ship - she has to be be there at the right times, a smile on her face, attractively dressed and ready to entertain - so that the buried memories which begin to emerge can't, they just can't, take over completely. So we get a kind of mystery, a deepening of our understanding of Heather's personality, demonstrated through her love for her mother, through her family's tragedy and in her relationship with Mr Hibbert, who taught her and Harriet piano (his story, glimpsed in passing, is rather sad). But it's demonstrated most of all, perhaps, though Beech's use of Heather's music, her choices of what to play and the descriptions of how she does that.

Heather doesn't particularly try to challenge the passengers with her repertoire, but she plays with great feeling and there's a haunting quality to how this is explained in the story, reminding me that Beech's stories often use art or performance to get over the depths of what people are experiencing. That is heightened when Heather plays "Nothing Else", a piece in two parts which she and her sister composed together when their father was at his worst. Heather has never been able to play Harriet's part, pointing at the void left behind, but she is something of a hit playing her own and even becomes a minor online sensation as the music is recorded and shares across social media.

I don't want to say too much more about what happens in the story, because, while the general course of it might be something you'll guess, the detailed working out isn't. Rather it's wrapped round the mystery about Harriet's disappearance. And other mysteries too. Beech, as ever, is queen of the taut, suspenseful plot. This isn't a crime novel (at least not in its present-day parts) or thriller, but Beech still serves up a few red herrings and a few clues as to what was going on - and keeps us guessing about exactly how things will turn out.

This is a story, at its root, of love and loss, and lost time, but one that testifies to the power of truth and the endurance of love. As a complex piece of music moves towards its resolution, so Nothing Else explores its themes, eventually presenting Heather with a very different outcome from what she might have expected - and forcing some choices on her. 

Another excellent book from this author - one that I think may just be her best yet (and that's a high bar).

For more information about Nothing Else, see the Orenda Books website here or take in the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below. To buy Nothing Else, visit your local bookshop, or get it online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon





14 June 2022

#Review - Boys, Beasts and Men by Sam J Miller

Cover for book “Boys, Beasts and Men” by Sam J Miller. Against a scarlet and black background, a composite creature which is formed from a conglomeration of wolfish heads, with teeth and eyes and, in one case, a serpent for a tongue.
Boys, Beasts and Men
Sam J Miller
Tachyon, 14 June 2022
Available as: PB, 330pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9781616963729

I'm grateful to Tachyon for an advance e-copy of Boys, Beasts and Men to consider for review.

Boys, Beasts and Men contains fourteen of Miller's short stories, linked into a meta-narrative by brief linking sections which seem to follow an encounter and exchange between two men ('I follow him out of the bar with no idea what kind of tale I'm stepping into'). Some of the stories arise more or less directly from what the two are doing or saying, while others make more sense in hindsight. The nature of the exchange itself, though, only slowly becomes clear and I don't want to spoil it.

The stories themselves are vibrant and wide-ranging. While they almost always have an element of fantasy either in the detail or, I think, in being set in slightly alternate universes, this often isn't the main point. For example, in the first, Allosaurus Burgers, the eponymous dinosaur turns up in a remote US town, catalysing a range of reactions from religious concern to conspiracy theories, but the story follows a boy and explores his relationship with his mother, sister and absent father. There's no justification for the Allosaurus itself but its presence seems to say something about what is erased, absent or forbidden to be spoken about in Matt's life.

The second story, 57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides, perhaps turns more strongly on its fantasy premise - no, you'll have to read it to find what it is - as well as introducing one of the main themes of the collection, the lives of gay men and boys in society. It's allusively written, those 57 reasons being given as a numbered list, which gradually develops into a narrative, exploring both the narrator's longings and failings (he lets down a friend badly) and the way he is treated. It also touches on another theme of the collection, alternatives and roads not taken - several stories here take actual historical episodes and add different features to them: supernatural disturbances, different outcomes.  The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History, for example, describes the Stonewall raid from numerous perspectives ('June 1969: The wet Manhattan air was like sick breath coming out of our collective throat') but steers the story into something strange, different, a kind of actualisation, I think, of collective rage and resistance to create a phenomenon that baffles everyone. That theme is recapitulated in Angel, Monster, Man, a story told in three parts - and of course echoing the title of the collection - where again, desire, rage and frustration seem to enable the physical manifestation of something that then takes a life if its own as the New York gay community of the 1970s and 80s is struck by the virus.

Death and loss feature here often. In Conspicuous Plumage a young man is absent, not spoken of due to the way that he died. It takes a voyage of rediscovery and reimagining to bring him back to mind. The  loss and regret are sometimes more, sometimes less, fantastical - more, for example, in Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart which riffs on the events off the film King Kong, bringing New York together in regret and repugnance at a shattering loss: a token perhaps of how we can be, and a story with a promise of something better arising. 

And the loss isn't always due to a death. In Shucked, it's much more subtle than that - a chance encounter by two American tourists in a bar with an older man ('One of the burdens of being with a boy as beautiful as Teen') leads to... doubts... about the reality of their own relationship and about identity. In The Beasts We Want To Be, a really creepy little story set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution where strange conditioning techniques to engineer human souls vie with eerie religious artefacts, it's all about the strange sense of unreality even as survivors find consoling relationships amongst the bloodshed. In Calved, a tender story turning on a father's relationship with his son in a nearly post-apocalyptic world, we see the catastrophe coming - a catastrophe stoked by misunderstanding and an inability, or refusal, to be emotionally honest - but can't do anything about it. 

Relationships - whether between father and son, mother and daughter, lovers, or strangers - are often exquisitely twisted in this collection, not always completely messed up but ramified, vibrating even when seeking to unknot themselves. A sober churchgoing woman seeks out forbidden drugs to open the doors of perception, understand what her son is and hold out a hand to him. Absence undoes those relationships: 'while he was away, Hugh became someone else' or creates spaces in which they can be rebuilt or seen differently. And always, there is that framing story, providing some insights about where all this is going - though tantalisingly incomplete ones.

I simply loved this collection. While dark at times, it's never completely bleak, presenting moments of hope and, as I have said, resistance and weaving a seductive web around the reader.

For more information about Boys, Beasts and Men, see the publisher's website here.