22 June 2018

Review - The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Design by Julia Lloyd
The Mermaid
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 19 June 2018
PB, 321pp

Source: Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. (Thank you!)

Following on from Henry's retellings of Alice (as an abused girl adrift in a dangerous world) and of Peter Pan, this book is, as the name makes clear, her take on the legend of the mermaid who falls for a human man.

Rather than focussing on the remote fishing village where that happens, however, The Mermaid dispenses with the human husband briskly and follows Amelia's later life. Tempted to swim down the Big City (New York) she falls in with that great showman and liar, PT Barnum who, not surprisingly, wants to exhibit her in his "American Museum".

I admired the way that Henry transitions her story, beginning in familiar fairytale vein ("once there was a fisherman, a lonely man") then moving into a plain (and rather moving) depiction of Amelia's life with Jack and finally confronting the emotional complexities and social realities of 19th century New York.

Here Amelia has to navigate not only unfamiliar conventions - the constricting clothes, rules about who she may talk to and be alone with - but a delicate web of relationships within Barnum's museum, with his wife, Charity, his lieutenant, Levi (who found Amelia in the first place) and with wider society which has definite views on a young woman (even if she "isn't human") who appears naked in a tank of water.

Most of all, she suffers from the attention of a world of men. Indeed her situation is almost the personification of one subject to "male gaze":

She could think only of the eyes, the parade of eyes that would march past her all day.

Later, the theme of human cruelty becomes even more explicit when Barnum sends Amelia, accompanied by a motley group of performers and exhibits including an unfortunate orang-utan, to the South and Amelia witnesses caged and chained humans - something she had thought only happened to animals (and mermaids).

The writing here, describing Amelia's plight and turmoil, is right on the nose as the pressure builds and Amelia's relationship with Levi, hitherto her friend and protector, fractures:

He would not be converted. Amelia finally realised it was because he himself did not understand what it meant to be different and to have people expect you to change for their sake. She realised that no man could understand this, really, though they expected their wives to do so every day.

Amelia is driven into ever tighter corners - and dangers - both from the contradictions of her relationships with the men around her and the prejudices of society. She is out of her element, both literally and figuratively.

It's an enjoyable read, both more and less rooted in the real world than Henry's earlier books - more in the literal setting and the presence of historical characters, less in being more "magical". These skilfully blended elements keep the reader alert for what may happen next - we may think we know how a mermaid story ends - and provide a perfect backdrop for Henry's astute observation of human society.

For more information or to buy the book, see the publisher's website here.

(Finally, isn't that cover by Julia Lloyd gorgeous? - and so in keeping with the designs for Henry's earlier books)

19 June 2018

Blogtour review - Shattermoon by Dominic Dulley

Shattermoon
Dominic Dulley
Jo Fletcher Books, 4 June 2018
PB, 433pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Shattermoon and for inviting me on the tour. (As well as the book, they also sent me instructions for making an Origami spaceship - - see below - how do you think I did?)

This is an absorbing adventure set in far future space (Earth is a distant memory). It's part mil-SF, part space piracy, part grift. and ALL space opera.

Orry Kent, her brother Ethan, and father Eoin make their living fleecing the Ruuz nobles of the Ascendency, currently by riding the wave of popularity of rare books, some dating back to Earth itself. We meet them in the middle of their latest scam, gulling Konstantin, heir to the Count of Delf.

But then Orry gets greedy and takes a liking to a certain pendant acquiring of which wasn't part of the plan. Soon, Konstantin is dead... and the Count wants HER dead. So does notorious pirate Morven Dyas... in fact, EVERYONE seems to want her dead. So begins a breathtaking romp taking in space battles, an abandoned alien civilisation, mercenaries, arrest, escape and a sentient spaceship with PTSD.

In tone it's a bit like what must be going on round the corner in Star Wars - indeed, it reminded me rather of the recent Solo film, (which I intend as praise). We don't see the manoeuvres of great powers here, but the little people - con artists, orphans on a marginal world, a lonely space captain, all making their way as best they can, all damaged, all vulnerable. (In making the comparison with Solo I should say, though, that the book has rather darker themes with some scenes that make it definitely adult. For starters, Dulley has no compunction in killing off his characters, often in very nasty ways, and being dashing and adventurous is no guarantee of coming through unscathed. Some of those nobles are also pretty debauched!)

While there is a wide cast of characters here, it is, though, Orry's book. Present in every scene, she is a convincing protagonist, desperately scared for much of the time (she has an especial fear of spacewalks) yet resourceful and good in a fight. She's a key part of the grifting team, competes the "collapses" that steer the family's ship, Bonaventure, and her impulse to take that pendant in the House of Delf drives the story.

Of course there's a reason why everyone wants the pendant... I won't say what it is because that would rather spoil the story, but it does draw Orry and her family (and a couple of stout friends she makes in the course of the story) into wider and more dangerous matters. It's all a long way from running cons on unsuspecting nobles, but Orry's ability to blag her way into (and out of) pretty much anything comes in useful. She may, though, have come to the end of her career when she crosses the Imperial Fleet in the form of Captain Naumov, who seems a truly implacable foe.

I would like to have seen the idea of an Empire ruled by aristocrats challenged here, although Orry and her family are happy to milk said nobles for all they can get. But for all that it's an exciting read with a capable and cool headed protagonist. I was impressed by the way that Dulley gets a naval feel to the action, the book reminding me somewhat of Hornblower.

Looking forward to the story continuing in the The Morhelion Exile.



14 June 2018

Review - Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage
Lisa Evans
Doubleday, 14 June 2018
HB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Old Baggage.

It is 1928. Matilda Simpkin, rooting through a cupboard, comes across a small wooden club – an old possession of hers, unseen for more than a decade...

This book is a prequel, of sorts, to Crooked Heart, in which we follow the story of young Noel in the early days of the Second World War after the death of his eccentric (though rather wonderful sounding) godmother, Mattie.

Old Baggage tells us more about the fascinating Mattie. She has led a turbulent life, including activism as a Suffragette, but when this story opens, in 1928, she's living a quieter life near Hampstead Heath with her companion Florae ("The Flea"). There are glimpses of past glories: Mattie's house was a refuge for women playing the deadline game of "cat and mouse" with the authorities at the height of the campaign for the vote. There are also regrets: that women' suffrage is still not universal (Florrie has never been able to vote, because she fails the property qualification), that the militant campaign was halted in favour of the War Effort.

Lissa Evans evokes very well the sense of chaffing, of stasis, that affects one who has taken part in significant events but is now sidelined. (This calls forward to a theme explored in Crooked Heart where we meet another stalwart suffragette in reduced circumstances during the Blitz). Faced with this, and after meeting an old comrade whose activism has taken a sinister turn into fascism, Mattie sets out to educate the girls of the district by founding a wonderful, anarchic outdoor youth group. Telling the stories of the suffragettes and of great women from history, teaching use of the javelin and the slingshot, and encouraging the young women to further their education, gives Mattie the focus she needs. And if it results in a little healthy competition with the rival, and hated, Empire League (which believes in smartly polished boots and the expulsion of foreigners) then what can go wrong?

This is a sharply observed, often comic, but also deeply sad story. We see - in flashbacks - something of Mattie's early life and come to learn about her strengths and but also her weaknesses. (Ida, one of the young women swept up in her wake, points out that however much Mattie's heart is in the right place, she does;t understand the difference having money has made to her). In the end her greatest weakness is all bound up with family and with her lost, adored brother Angus, of whom she can believe no wrong - a belief that warps her judgment in the end and risks the purposeful life she's built.

Old Baggage - the name cleverly combining an insult that might be used of a woman like Mattie and the idea of clutter from the past dragging one down, both themes of this book - is a fairly short book, just over 300 pages, yet it ranges widely. Evans gives us vignettes, showing Ida bogged down by her passive-aggressive mother who doesn't want her bright daughter to progress any further than she did, or at her 'continuation school', or Florrie at her work as a health visitor, trying to ameliorate the desperate tide of poverty and ignorance of the inter-war years. There are also Mattie's reminiscences, especially when she encounters a childhood friend, and glimpses of at least one other character from Crooked Heart (which I think I need to go back and reread now that I know more about Mattie). It's a very effective technique, allowing the book to cover much more ground than you would expect.

Coming a century after that achievement of the first votes for women - but at a time when the struggle for equality and decent treatment is clearly still raging - it's a also a salutary read, highlighting many issues that are still current, such as the man who seems a staunch ally, even being arrested and sent to prison, but whose motivation is at least in part to get close to all those women, or the women who hold other women back, or the consequences of an untimely, unwanted pregnancy. Or a shout from a man in the street:

"'Give us a smile, girlie,' said the bus conductor.

She could have bitten him."

Yes, there have been improvements.  Mattie reflects how "Long ago, as a child in a pinched and stifled  century, she had seen her own mother gradually disappear." But despite these, Mattie and a friend can't, as "unaccompanied" women, be served in a bar. Florrie still cares for wives whose husbands won't have any truck with contraception. And one of her colleagues accepts that if she marries, she'll have to give up work. many obstacles remain and perhaps Mattie's frustration at the start of this novel is her sense of that - and of having ceased to push forward, instead recalling old glories and giving her magic-lantern lectures about the struggle. All that old baggage.

It is simply a great read, peopled by larger than life characters who almost jump of the page to hold your attention. Deeply engaging. I hope that Evans might return, again, to these characters, telling us more about Mattie's earlier life, or Ida or Inez's future, or perhaps more about Noel (who also features here though to say how would be a spoiler).

I'd strongly recommend this book.

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



13 June 2018

Review - Shelter by Dave Hutchinson

Shelter (Tales of the Aftermath, Book 1)
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 14 June 2018
PB, 304pp

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

I've always been fascinated by the period in British history that used to be known as the Dark Ages. That name is used less now as it's been accepted that chaos didn't descend when Roman rule ended. Nevertheless there were huge changes - the loss of manufactured goods, of widespread trade and of currency.

Set a hundred or so years after the destruction of modern civilisation by an asteroid strike known as "The Sisters", Hutchinson's new book takes a look at what one might term a modern "Dark Ages". As in the 5th century, we see here little bands of survivors eking a living among the ruins, keeping farming going but with no modern manufacturing. Here, as then, there are surviving patches of control and order where military formations survived, and others where local strong men establish little kingdoms.

It was the age of Arthur...

...it is the age of Adam.

Adam is - what? A spy? An explorer? - for Guz, the realm, polity, city-state, call it what you will, that emerged from Portsmouth naval base. In this book he's sent on a mission across country to investigate a rather nasty warlord who has established himself in Kent. Adam is a resourceful sort, self reliant, careful, tough, and me makes a good viewpoint character as we see what our world has become, six or seven generations on.

Hutchinson is good at letting his story unspool, showing us the territories Adam is going through and the character of their residents. As well as Kent there's an agricultural enclave on the Berkshire/ Oxfordshire border (there's some kind of trouble further north in Oxford and the Cotswolds, we never find out exactly what) where much of this story takes place. It's not, though, an idyllic, Hobbiton sort of place. Rather, The Parish is rent by jealousies and grudges and ready to erupt in civil war. Inevitably Adam becomes involved in this but I won't say any more about the detail because that would give away rather too much.

This part of the story shows off rather effectively, I think, the "nasty, brutish and short" lifestyle which we all fear will befall us should civilisation stutter. The way Hutchinson chooses to animate the conflict here almost made me gasp - he's certainly not sentimental about his characters, and what happens shows, perhaps, that the term "Dark ages" really does describe this world.

If that's the bad news, the good is that there will be more books set in this universe - the next, Haven by Adam Roberts, is due in August. Hutchinson and Roberts are clearly having fun - as well as an Adam in this book the second has a "Forktongue Davy". Roberts, of course, has form in depicting apocalyptic, futuristic versions of Berkshire (see for example his New Model Army) and Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence (I think it's now a five book trilogy) shows a continent divided into petty states and autonamous holdings, so together they seem almost destined to produce something like this.

Very thriller-y, very violent, pretty dark and with hints of wider developments - whether it's the inherited nukes of Guz, the strange "Spanish fleet" moored off the coast or those mysterious goings-on to the north - I sense a lot more to come fro this world, and I'm looking forward to that (not least because I think I live in the path of one of these roving war bands and I need to know what's going on!)

For more on the book see this review at The Eloquent Page



7 June 2018

Review - Hunted by GX Todd

Hunted (The Voices, 2)
G X Todd
Headline, 31 May 2018
HB, 496pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Hunted (and - full disclosure - the previous book in this series, Defender, quotes my review).

Todd's previous book, Defender, was an outstanding example of post-apocalyptic storytelling - scary, searing and convincing. Hunted manages - and I don't know how she did this - to be better still. The story corps effortlessly from passages of grim realism, almost miniature documentaries on the breakdown of society under the onslaught of the "Voices", to dreamlike sequences threatening carnage and pain or moving passages showing how even in an upside-down world, love still endures.

The Voices brought death and destruction because they urged killing or self-killing. Those affected, even if they didn't commit violence, are deeply mistrusted by the survivors, tracked down, tortured and murdered. If you have a Voice you try to hide it.

Across a landscape of a ruined United States, we follow three groups of survivors trying, in their different ways, to live in this new, changed world. Posy leads a group of hunters, tracking the elusive woman Red. There is something a bit... off... about Posy, about his relationship with his own Voice, and with the terrible Flitting Man. He drives his ragtag team unmercifully, but his goal is obscure.

Albus and his group of survivors live at the inn by the Sea, hinted at in Defender. His abilities allow him to locate and save the lost and wandering, building a team that can travel in the nightmare world of these books - but again, why and for what purposes?

Lacey, Alex and Addison featured centrally in Defender and are in a sense the hinge of the book, fleeing across a cursed landscape (but escaping what? And going where?) They have made enemies, their friends are dead, but the three (two women and a girl) are coolly competent, survivors. They take some time to make their appearance, Todd holding back these most familiar - and most relatable - figures from the first book almost till the middle of Hunted and dwelling instead on Posy and Albus.

The stories of these groups are woven together into a complex timeline that isn't afraid to dip backwards and forwards. As a result there's a somewhat mythic sense, a distancing effect, through much of the book - seeing the aftermath of an awful event before the event itself both reassures (you know that everyone survived) and appals (when the event itself begins you know it will be bad because you've seen the post-trauma). At the same time, the dreaminess and a creeping understanding of the Voices (not complete, not yet, by any means) adds to the overall sense of gathering dread.

Todd is a brutal author. She holds little back when it comes to heaping suffering on or killing off her characters. Even the ordinary lives depicted here - I use that word advisedly - are bleak; doomed, starved, hopeless people shuffling through a withered, hopeless world. It isn't a zombie apocalypse by any means but the depth of suffering, the wrongness depicted here, is much, much worse making that almost seem like a cosy genre.

And as we see in Hunted the madness and destruction is not over, rather it's getting worse. More akin, perhaps, to Lord of the Flies than anything else I've read, the story takes a dark view of a humanity released from social conventions and tormented by apocalyptic, teasing, haunting visions.

While there are grains of hope here, the book can make for hard reading at times, but it is also at these times it's hardest to put down.

I know this book will stick with me. I'd strongly recommend you read it.

For more about Hunted see the publisher's webpage here. G X Todd's page is here.


1 June 2018

Review - Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecott

Cover by Leo Nickolls
Wyntertide (Rotherweird 2)
Andrew Caldecott
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books, 31 May 2018
HB, 473pp

I read and enjoyed Caldecott's first book,  Rotherweird last year (my review). The story of a special town in England, one left isolated and made independent for a very special reason, it's a kind of steampunk Passage to Pimlico crossed with The Wind in the Willows, complete with eccentrics, villains, a vividly realised location (I want to live in one of those Rotherweird towers!) - and magic. All manner of wonders are there.

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of the sequel, Wyntertide (and a copy of the Rotherweird paperback to pass on to a friend - see photo below).

'By the pricking of my thumbs...
The graves are open,
Wynter comes...'

Wyntertime is in several respects a more complicated, even a more 'difficult' book than Rotherweird (not meant in a bad sense!) In Rotherweird, we learn about the town gradually, through the arrived of an Outsider, new history teacher Jonah Oblong, who is pretty central to the story. An an Outsider he knows nothing of the place's history and ways, so we have the benefit of the explanations he is given, and see him gradually become part of the town until he is central to the cataclysmic events of Midsummer.

In Wyntertide, the story jumps straight in - and the viewpoint is much more evenly spread out among a wide cast of characters with Oblong playing a smaller role. This all puts a high premium on knowing who everyone is (there's a helpful list) and - given the interconnectedness of the stories - what happened before. For that reason I think they would best be read one after the other.

What Caldecott has done here is  think rather clever and rather risky. Given the appeal of Rotherweird-the-imaginary-place, it must have been tempting to play safe, to continue exploring the distinctive, inward looking culture with its rather 1950s-seeming population, coexisting with the modern world while not really being part of it. You might even sell that as a bit of a satire, and it's something I'd certainly read. Indeed, given the first book is actually about a threat from Outside while this one digs deep into Rotherweird's past, that almost seems the obvious way to go.

But Caldecott doesn't do that. Instead, he throws new and rather spicier elements into his dish. We may have thought we understood Rotherweird's past, and what the Eleusians did, but no. We learn more in this book - both about the Elizabethans who founded the town and about its even older history.

There is also romance here. There is politics, as the town is swept by election fever - including a rather scary attempt to scapegoat the Countrysiders and grab their possessions - and exiles return to vote. And a palpable sense that beneath the Hobbitish bustle and self-satisfaction of Rotherweird are dangerous currents.

And yes, at times, all the material does rather come across as one damned thing after another, with not one, not two, but three mysterious books in play, puzzles hidden in paintings and carvings, and at least two factions among the - rather mysterious - forces threatening the town. You can't accuse this book of ever having a dull moment. But that rather heightens the sense that nobody here is in control, nobody has the full picture, nobody can meet the threat that's coming.

And threatened the town is, by a more insidious, deep-laid and formidable plot than in Rotherweird, giving a much sharper sense of peril and, yes, of actual evil than in the previous book. It's definitely darker, and I'd strongly recommend you to read it, and to keep reading, even if slightly overwhelmed by the beginning.

Finally, I have to say a word about the gorgeous illustrations by Sasha Laika. Gorgeous in themselves, they really bring something to the text, whether chilly horror, immersive world building or simply tenderness. And of course, the cover map, by Leo Nickolls, is glorious.

The third and final book, Lost Acre, comes next year. It promises to be a real treat.


Jo Fletcher books setting a high standard in bookpost


28 May 2018

Review - The Cutting Edge by Jeffrey Deaver

The Cutting Edge (Lincoln Rhyme)
Jeffrey Deaver
Hodder, 17 May 2018
HB, 434pp

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

This is a tense and cunningly plotted thriller set around the workshops and showrooms of New York's diamond district.

With Lincoln Rhyme and his associates, Deaver has created a magnificent ensemble. Based around the ex-cop's New York townhouse, which features a fully equipped modern forensics lab, the team support Rhyme who acts as consultant to the New York police, the FBI and also more esoteric law-enforcement agencies.

Rhyme may be quadriplegic but dominates the books through his leaps of deduction and understanding of forensic science. Very much a Sherlock Holmes figure - in places this book reminded me of Holmes's reading a man's entire life from the observation that he had mud on his shoes particular to a certain area of London - Rhyme nevertheless has a degree of humanity and empathy that, perhaps, the Great Detective lacked.

He needs all of it here. A serial killer is targeting newly engaged and married couples. Will Rhyme and Amelia Sachs come into the killer's sights?

This is a story that seems to be resolving fairly early. We see a killer at work, and surely it is it just a mater of time until Rhyme and his crew join the dots and catch them.

But. Things start to get... complicated. The book has a truly fiendish plot, continually seeming about to resolve but then only getting more complicated. Rhyme seems to be getting distracted, taking on private work for, of all people, a South American drugs lord. What's that about? And as the jewellery killer flits about Manhattan, other, older forces seem to be causing destruction as well.

It's a very enjoyable book, full of sharp turns, misdirection and relations. You have to watch everything, but trust nothing. Once or twice I thought Deaver was being sloppy with the story, then turned the page and kicked myself for missing what was really going on.

An enthralling mystery, lots of peril, a cast of well established and likeable characters - and a killer. What more could you want?

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