24 June 2017

Comic Review - Normandy Gold

Normandy Gold #1
Megan Abbott | Alison Gaylin | Steve Scott | Lovern Kindzierski
Titan Comics
First part out 14 June

I think this is the first time I have reviewed a comic here - it's always great to cover new ground and so I'm very grateful to Titan Comics for sending me a preview of Normandy Gold.

When her younger sister is found at the centre of a brutal murder case, tough-as-nails Sheriff Normandy Gold is forced to dive headfirst into the seedy world of 1970s prostitution.

Written by bestselling crime fiction stalwarts Megan Abbott (You Will Know Me, Dare Me) and Alison Gaylin (What Remains Of Me, Into Darkness) with stunning artwork by Steve Scott (Batman, X-Men Forever, JLA).

Normandy Gold is at one level an old fashioned action adventure, badged with Titan's Hard Case Crime label. The content is at first sight very much in keeping with that slightly retro brown-nourish image: the crisp panels depict a 70s milieu where men are men and think women exist for their pleasure...

But the Normandy of the title is a tough cookie, a local sheriff who can handle herself - and a knife - AND her Life-on-Mars colleagues. So when she's challenged to leave her (relatively) safe place to search for her wayward sister, the reader suspects trouble ahead for anyone who gets in the way.

From the very start, Normandy dominates this story.

"They were going to call me Victory" she begins, recounting her birth during the Second World War - and the ruin brought on the family when her father is killed in the Normandy landings.

"She named me Normandy" the story continues. "There's no such thing as victory".

Yet despite that Normandy is, still fighting, still pursuing some sort of victory. In this first part we may be some way off from it, but Normandy makes it very clear she's prepared to go to any lengths - any - to achieve that.

I'll be interested to know where that leads her - with a Washington DC setting I'm guessing some political sleaze, conspiracies, and hopefully attempted coverups. But that's only my guess: I don't know any spoilers!

Anyway - we'll see. At the end of #1, it's all open.

This is definitely an adult themed comic, with flesh on display and some brutal scenes - but with Normandy hunting down the truth I think it will amount to much more than that.

22 June 2017

Chris Ewan - The Good Thief's Guides


Chris Ewan, author of The Good Thief's Guide  series, has just republished his series of adventures featuring Charlie Howard, writer of mysteries and thief. 

Starting from 20 June you can download them individually for Kindle (here's the first, The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam) or as a boxset for £6.99.

To celebrate, Chris answered some questions for me about the books, and his writing 

BBB Did Charlie Howard come to you before the plot or did the plot come first?

CE I guess the answer to this is that Charlie came first or, more accurately, the overall concept for the series came first and Charlie slotted very neatly into that. I knew I wanted to write a mystery series that incorporated an element of travel fiction by moving the overall story on to a new city with each new book. I also wanted to write about a crook, because I really enjoy stories that feature antiheroes and that address questions of what really makes us good or bad. A gentleman thief seemed like the ideal fit because it struck me that Charlie could carry out his thefts in all kinds of different environments – and that if something went wrong, he might very well have to move on pretty fast …

BBB Was writing stories about a crime writer… who is writing stories… ever confusing?

CE That was the really fun part! I love the idea of stories within stories and books within books. Making the Good Thief a (failing) hack crime writer who writes about a burglar and who also happens to moonlight as a burglar himself gave me a lot of material to play around with. And if it ever got confusing, I’d just go for a walk, muttering to myself. I tend to do that far too much.

BBB How much control do you have over your characters? Do the books ever take completely unexpected turns?

CE The books always take unexpected turns because I never plan them! I think I’d get bored if I did and possibly the reader would, too. Most days when I write it’s a slog but the days when things feel as if they’re really coming together are when the story takes a turn that surprises me but that also feels authentic and true to the book I’m writing.

BBB What’s it like working again with books you wrote ten years ago?

CE I will admit that I started off reading them through splayed fingers but the truth is I always loved writing about the Good Thief so much that it’s been a real joy to get back into his world. I’m hoping that if the new editions of the books prove a success it will allow me to write more Good Thief books in the future. That’s the dream outcome for me.

BBB Where do you stand on genre (every time I look there seem to be more of them…) - useful in writing or just a marketing label?

CE I think the most important step before I start work on a new book is figuring out exactly what kind of story it is I want to write. What should the tone be? What effect do I want the book to have on a reader? Where do I see it being shelved in a bookshop? Genres and sub-genres help me to make those decisions so I think they’re a good thing for writers and for readers. I’m all for more labels!

BBB What inspired you to write in the first place – and how did you get started writing?

CE Two books really inspired me. The first was Jack Kerouac’s On The Road but the book that made me want to write crime fiction was Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (which is still my favourite novel). I started writing my first novel when I was twenty. Then I wrote another three books and eventually got my break just under a decade later. Fast work, right?

BBB And how did it compare with what you expected?

CE I still love everything about writing. I love coming up with new story ideas and shaping them over the course of a year into a complete book. I take enormous satisfaction from the process. In terms of publishing, I’ve had some wins in my career and I’ve taken some losses. None of it has really matched up with my (very naïve) expectations of the industry but the good far outweighs the bad. I know I’m very lucky to make my living as a writer and I’m enormously grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given.

BBB Finally, a question that isn’t (directly) about the books. You’ve stumbled into a devious plot while researching a new novel as a result of which you’re trapped in a lonely forest tower. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and you can have one book with you. Which would it be?

CE Well, that’s easy! It would be the next book on my To Be Read pile, which at the moment happens to be Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote.

BBB Chris, thanks for answering those questions, and here's wishing you great success with the republication - and hoping it might lead to new adventures for the Good Thief!


20 June 2017

Review - The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson

Image from http://saraband.net/contraband/
The Paper Cell
Louise Hutcheson
Contraband, 8 June 2017
HB, 121pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of pocket crime from Contraband. It really is pocket sized and handy for a commute (I read it in a day, slightly annoyed by having to break off for work and such) as well as being a lovely little book.

As you'd expect, given the length, it's a focussed story, with few characters, alternating between 1953, where young publishing assistant Lewis Carson is struggling to establish himself in a London publishing house, to Edinburgh in 1998 where, as a Man of Letters, he's alternately encouraging and swatting away the inquisitiveness of reporter Barbara.

The two segments proceed in parallel, neither giving away too much too soon about what has happened nor dragging out the mystery. It's clear there is a dark secret and the suspense comes as much from waiting to see how it will be revealed as from its nature: I should say that this book isn't really crime in the "whodunnit" sense. There is crime in it, but while there's a bit of teasing, there's never really any doubt about the perpetrator and even less business over detection. Rather the strength of this book is in the build up, and it is really a character study of those involved - and a study of how they (I'm being a bit cagey what I say here, to prevent spoilers, such as they may be) unravel afterwards over time: of the effect of the crime on the guilty.

The Paper Cell is good on the social hierarchies in the publishing firm and in 50s London: the slightly desperate outsider trying to find their way, the boarding house, the heroic drinking sessions and forbidden passions. Not new ground by any means, but very well done.

Throughout, there's a bit of a sense of distance to Lewis.

1953 Lewis doesn't seem to initiate much. Through most of the story things happen to him and he takes advantage or suffers, his emotions always a bit ahead or behind what's happening. Even in a group he's alone. Not a sympathetic man but perhaps one who attracts sympathy. When events are made clear, his stance becomes, maybe, more understandable. In a sense, as an author, he's a thief, something of a hollow man, trying on styles and friendships for size both in his writing and his life.

1998 Lewis is a slightly different fish but to say more about that would risk giving too much away.

It's a well told story, the 50s atmosphere done well (perhaps with one or two slips: to me, 'What does that even mean?' is a very 2000s expression) and evoking those characters well in what is, as I said, a very short book (at least by the standards of modern crime).

A good debut for both Contraband Pocket Crime and for Hutcheson - I hope to see more from both soon.

17 June 2017

Review - The Seven by Peter Newman

Image from www.harpercollins.co.uk
The Seven (The Vagrant, 3)
Peter Newman
Harper Voyager, 20 April 2017
HB, 454pp

Source: bought from Waterstones (at the book launch -  see below!)

This is the final part of The Vagrant trilogy. Though I'd guess there could be more books set in that world, it's clearly not going to happen soon.

And it's a good ending, rounding off the story that saw a mute, would-be knight carry a famed sword out of Infernal-infested territory, protecting a young girl and a goat - and then followed her back to confront the Infernals, heal the Breach and save the world.

All that was ten years ago. Yet the land is still broken - and the remainder of the Seven, who should have defended the world from the demons, still sleep, sulking perhaps that they failed to play their part. Now that young girl - Vesper - is grown and she's fed up waiting for them to bring aid to the scattered communities, suffering from infernal Taint but more from the damage done in the wars.

And the Seven arise...

This was, I think, actually my favourite of the three books. A deeply human story, it brings out themes present but not explored in the previous volumes. The Seven are truly powerful and when They rise, all tremble. Yet They did not defeat the Infernals, They left that to Vesper, wielding Gamma's pillaged sword. Now, we learn something of Their history and creation, returning to the woman Massassi who made Them and built the Empire of the Winged Eye to stand against the Infernals. We see how that intention was corrupted, and how the Seven turned from the outside world.

We also see - and I think this is unusual in fantasy - what happens after the Great Victory. It's a scarred, battered world, uneasy, full of friction. Compromise is needed. Forgiveness. Mercy.

Yet now They arise, intending to purge the infernal taint from the world. While Vesper sees the value of mercy and compromise, the Seven want only an icy purity. And now they're safe from real harm, they can pursue it. When Vesper stands against Them, she is labelled a traitor.

The author at the book's launch
As ever in these books, complexity is piled on moral complexity. Vesper wants peace and compromise: to achieve them she must harm the Empire that gave her purpose and shelter. Her allies - the Infernals from whom her father previously rescued Gamma's sword.

The Man Shape.

The First.

The Backwards Child.

Nightmares from the darkness of the pit, all of them, yet now wanting to build lives alongside the tainted humans, all of whom would be wiped out by the Empire.

It's a taut, beautifully told story.

Again the Vagrant sets forth.

My signed copy!
Again, he's accompanied by a child - perhaps by two, there is the girl Reela, Vesper's daughter, and the sulky Jem, her lover. Jem is perhaps a bit of a manchild. I didn't take to him at first. he wasn't wholeheartedly for adventure. he told lies - and little lies at that! Not a hero, not even a villain. What was he doing in the book? Then, I think, I saw what he was: not a great warrior or leader like Vesper, just an ordinary man caught up in unimaginable horror. No, he's not likeable - he's definitely not good enough for Vesper - but he's a witness, standing alongside great events and showing their scale by his smallness.

And again, there is conflict and loss, dear friends killed, betrayal and a hopeless fight - all the more for the Empire, that ultimate refuge, now being the enemy.

(And yes, there are goats in this book. Perhaps less central than before, but as enduring, as obdurate. The goats, too, give events here a scale.  May there always be goats.)

I may be biased - see for yourself the nice message that Pete wrote in my copy of the book at the launch! - but for me this is a fitting completion to one of the most original fantasy trilogies of recent years, and it's a satisfying conclusion, a peace being hard won through suffering but much, clearly, still to be done to deliver harmony in Vesper's world.




12 June 2017

Review - Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo

Mars Girls
Mary Turzillo
Apex Books, 13 June 2017
PB, e 300pp

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

Renegade nuns!

Mormon Jesuits!

Rogue corporate AIs!

Nanoannie is bored. She wants to go to clubs, wear the latest Earth fashions, and dance with nuke guys. But her life is not exciting. She lives on her family’s Pharm with her parents, little sister, and a holo-cat named Fuzzbutt. The closest she gets to clubs are on the Marsnet. And her parents are pressuring her to sign her contract over to Utopia Limited Corp before she’s even had a chance to live a little. When Kapera—a friend from online school—shows up at her Pharm asking for help, Nanoannie is quick to jump in the rover and take off. Finally an adventure!

What Nanoannie and Kapera find at the Smythe’s Pharm is more than the girls bargained for. The hab has been trashed and there are dead bodies buried in the backyard! If that wasn’t bad enough, the girls crash the rover and Kapera gets kidnapped by Facers who claim her parents are murderers! Between Renegade Nuns, Facers, and corp geeks, Nanoannie and Kapera don’t know who to trust or where to go. Kapera only wants to find her parents so they can get to Earth Orbitals and she can be treated for her leukemia. Nanoannie wants to help her friend and experience a little bit of Mars before selling her contract to the first corp that offers to buy it.

Life isn’t easy when you’re just as a couple of Mars Girls.

This book was a treat from start to finish. A fast-paced, adventure in the hard SF mould, it's pretty relentless action from the very beginning.

The two Mars Girls - Nanoannie Centime and Kapera Smythe - are a force to be reckoned with. Plunged into a world of corporate plots, deranged religionists and the unforgiving Martian terrain, their lives are in danger again and again (even leaving aside the fact that Kapera is seriously ill and needs to get to Earth for treatment). They don't even know each other that well to begin with but are forced to rely upon one another for survival.

It's certainly not clear who else they might rely on. Kapera's parents have vanished (murdered? fled?) and Nanoannie's just want her home for supper - and to stop associating with that awful Smythe girl. (Nanoannie's no stranger to trouble, having got mixed up with some dodgy types over Marsnet). The two meet a succession of ever more dodgy corpgeeks, missionaries, would-be husbands and Facers (they really have little animated faces stuck to their own faces) and discover, slowly, that they can only really trust each other. The growth of their relationship is a joy to see and in fact is a greater focus of the book than the plot itself (at the heart of which is, though, a mystery which is satisfactorily resolved by the end of the book).

Turzillo has clearly had fun inventing her own teen Mars-girl language. Good things are 'nuke'. Nanoannie, despite still more than half believing in the sand vampires from Nausica Azrael vids, is conscious of the impression her "tanks" make on the boys and wants "to dance to trendy music, try out exotic hallucinogens, buy slinky rags design on Luna". She also wants to be a commercial pilot, maybe head her own rescue agency - and get to meet Kapera's dreamy brother, Sekou (to whom Kapera's bits of the narrative are addressed, as a diary: Kapera's a bit evasive about Sekou: exactly why, we will eventually learn.)

It wouldn't do though to see life on Mars as fun, fun, fun. Danger is everywhere. Never touch the ground with anything other than your (insulated) boot. Exposure to the (lack of) atmosphere causes 'skytouch' which can lead to serious injuries. Diseases such as leaukemia, caused by the relentless cosmic ray exposure, are common. Adelaide Krintx, from Nanoannie's school, 'died in an explosive decompression accident at her parents' Pharm'.  Death is everywhere, and even if friends are not supposed to die, it seems distinctly on the cards that they will.

In short, Turzillo is as good at making the girls and their lives seem real as she is at conjuring up the deadly beauty of Mars, or the orbital physics of the Up and Down 'escalators"' (to and from Earth) or the tormented yet apparently harmless belief systems of those who worship the Face on Mars. She's note perfect in catching the dichotomy between the rebellious teenager, who has important stuff going on, and the soothing parents who want her safe where they see here, and signed up to that corporate contract.

This is above all a very readable book, written in a deceptively simple style: language which seems on the surface slightly naive - 'bodacious tricknology!', 'I'm not saying I'm the nukest chick on the planet' - but which then suddenly grabs you by the throat:

"What could be better than boyfriends and money?"

"Guts".

Let Nanoannie and Kapera show you around their world - but be careful to keep your suit intact, and watch out for those sand vampires...

Mars Girls is available from the publisher here or Amazon UK here (US here)









9 June 2017

Blogtour - If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains
ML Rio
Titan Books, 13 June 2017
PB, e, 428pp

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

We are frequently told publishing is getting more and more safe and bland. I don't know whether or not that's actually true - It's big! There's lots of it! - but a book like this is certainly evidence of the opposite.

Taking an idea, and written in a style, that would surely be struck down if one were merely concerned about populist success, this is a thriller that glories - in both form and content - in Shakespeare and of the theatre.

Oliver is a young student at a prestigious US arts conservatory. Dellecher reads a little like a Hogwarts for thespians - complete with a Gothic style castle, a local bar (the 'Bore's Head' - a Shakespeare joke) and extensive grounds, including a lake.

The theatrical training is rigorous, and the acting students are the crème de la crème with the 4th years at the very top of the social scale: every year, students are weeded and the survivors expected to shine. A quirk of Delecher is that only Shakespeare is taught and played: there's something of a culty atmosphere with lines of his dialogue snapped back and forth (either in their original form or tweaked on the fly) between the students. At times I felt a bit inadequate for not knowing where they all (or, I'll admit it, most of them) came from. I'm sure it would add to one's appreciation of the story to know, but it was still perfectly accessible - and, as I said, this feature of the language helps establish just how inward looking the college is.

That's supported by the scant information we get about the students' backgrounds. We only learn a little about Oliver and in a couple of memorable scenes, see his family - his troubled elder sister who is clearly anorexic and his younger sister, desperate for his help and support. Oliver pretty much cold-shoulders them: he's a fascinating central character but does seem rather emotionally distant which becomes a key theme as the college year passes and a heady emotional brew begins to simmer.

Since this book is riffing off Shakespeare, a key ingredient of that brew is, of course, jealousy. Professional (well, studental) jealousy over parts, roles and prominence; personal jealousy over lovers and status. In a narrow, already cliquey setting the temperature rises quickly (fuelled perhaps by the students' prodigious appetite for substances, of various sorts - no, despite what I said, we're really not in Hogwarts now). With passion to be portrayed on stage, there are many opportunities for personal disputes to bleed over into what is acted out, creating an atmosphere of danger and possibility that is fairly crackling and sparking by the middle of the book.

I should add that the story is narrated by Oliver ten years later as he is released from prison. That isn't a spoiler as it's established in the first few lines of the book. Why he was there is what unfolds in the book - and there are many other twists involved that I won't describe because this is above all a high stakes, tense thriller.

What I will say is that it's here Rio really brings Shakespeare to her storytelling. The quoting of lines, the extracts from the plays that the students are performing, adds atmosphere but isn't the heart of the matter. What is key is the structuring, the giving of life to the themes of the plays and above all, the way that the students live dual - or do I mean triple? - lives, playing their own roles, their parts in the plays and, perhaps, somewhere underneath, being real people. And doing all this consciously. It all makes for a powerful, at times almost creepy, experience (in one scene there's a dramatic confrontation in a panelled, candlelit library) not least because we know from the plays some of the bad things that can happen in this invented world.

ML Rio
Done badly, this could quickly become very pretentious but Rio avoids that, in part by having her narrator Oliver apparently be one of the more ordinary and grounded of the students, his emotional apartness meaning he's only half in the same world as the others, a suitable interpreter for Detective Colborne who's hearing it - and also for us.

In a wider, and deeper, respect she's aided of course by the storytelling genius of Shakespeare himself and by his sheer ubiquity in our culture. Yes, it might be an advantage to have read or seen the plays but even if you haven't, you'll know enough of the themes, the characters, the situations that underlie this story.

I said above that this book is far from being safe or bland publishing. I wouldn't want to be taken as my meaning it's difficult or inaccessible - I don't. It is a very different book, one that takes a little getting into, but once you do that, it is just so rewarding.

A strong recommendation from me, then, and kudos to both ML Rio and to Titan for doing something new and fresh.

7 June 2017

Review - Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne
Jeff VanderMeer
4th Estate, 15 June 2017
PB, 336pp

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

Is "biopunk" a thing?

If it wasn't already, I think we need to coin the term and annoint Jeff VanderMeer its high priest. What Gibson is to cyberpunk, VanderMeer is to the bio version. Spore shedding fungi, environmental catastrophe and mutating, tainting biothings and biotech are the hallmarks, with humans - ordinary, unmodified humans - basically so much feedstock in a world not so much kill or be killed as infect or be infected. Under this barrage we mutate, transcend and symbiose - and a terrible beauty is Borne.

That atmosphere was a hallmark of works such as Finch or the Southern Reach trilogy and it's here in spades again.

But there is more.

In Borne, VanderMeer delivers a true post-apocalyptic novel, with a tender love triangle at the centre: in the story of Rachel, Wick and Borne we see three damaged people - a woman, a man and a child who's also a monster - trying to stay alive in a very hardscrabble, decaying city somewhere (it's never clear where). And their history, and their future, seems to embody the tragedy of what's been done (is being done, will be done) to the planet, to us all.

Rachel and Wick are partners - partners in survival as well as lovers - living in the fortified Balcony Cliffs in the nameless city, scavenging what they can from ruins which are occupied by an ever shifting population of escaped biotech, starving humans, feral children and, most dangerous of all, the entities know as Mord, and as the Magician.

Mord is a huge, bioengineered bear, somehow gifted the ability to fly (I know that sounds just too fantastical, but VanderMeer effortlessly brings him to life and makes him plausible). The Magician is a human, a woman, somehow the rival of Mord for control of the city. Through their roving proxies they contest the ruins, with Rachel and Wick seeking to stay out of the fight.

Much of the struggle centres on the remains of the Company labs, origin of the biotech that has gone wild: curse and blessing, as it's also the only source of food and medicine. But the precise origin of the Company and its exact part in the "ruination" of the city and the world, is obscure and secret. Can we trust Rachel and Wick?  Can we trust Borne, a being that starts out houseplant size and even rather cute (or so Rachel thinks) but grows, as do all children...

That issue of trust is something VanderMeer returns to time and again and he cycles round the three: the secrets Rachel and Wick keep from one another, the betrayals of each other they commit (necessary betrayals, we are told), Rachel's feeling that she's let Borne down, his own secrets.

Trust. Mistrust. Betrayal. Secrets, lies, forgetting and remembering. It all seems so apposite for a story anchored in the maybe, a place which has eaten up its history and turned into a rubbish heap (I saw echoes here of Harrison's Viriconium).

This is a mind-gripping, stomach-turning read. VanderMeer documents so much.

The decay of a world - seen mainly through the eyes of Rachel, a refugee whose story has been one of flight from danger into danger, as the world wound down and broke (that strand of the story alone would be enough for a whole book by most writers).

The decay of a world - seen mainly through the eyes of Rachel, as the little domain of the Balcony Cliffs is unable to keep out the big, bad monsters.

The decay of a world - seen mainly through the eyes of Rachel, as the creature on which she lavished what could have been a mother's love grows into something untameable, wild, and scary (but also seductive and magnificent?)

We see those failures of trust in so many, many ways - not only the necessary betrayals but, eventually, the emergence of deep, dark secrets which underlie everything else.

To read this book is to come away tainted, in a sense: the words infect like spores, VanderMeer's biotech mutates the reader, preparing them for a shower of rain which will bring unearthly growth.

It's a deeply weird read - though not, I think, in the end one without hope - and for me, has to be the book of the summer.