9 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Love Bites by Ry Herman

Love Bites
Ry Herman
Jo Fletcher Books, 9 July 2020
Available as: PB, 384pp, e
Read as: e-book via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781529406306

I'm grateful to Milly at Jo Fletcher books for an advance e-copy of Love Bites via NetGalley and for inviting me to take part in the Blog Blast.

CW: Love Bites, and so this review, includes themes of physical and emotional abuse and also suicide.

My review

Love Bites is an absorbing, modern romance novel that just happens to concern a vampire. In events set in and around Boston leading up to Christmas 1999 we see Chloë and Angela struggle with their pasts, with the ways they've been hurt, to imagine a future together.

Graduate astrophysics student Angela has escaped an abusive relationship with photographer Tess. Abusive, but formative: Tess very much shaped the person that Angela is, from her taste in clothes to her lifestyle. But Tess hurt Angela badly and Angela is concerned that she may inflict the same pain on others - if she gets too close. She may not be able to help herself. So she's wary when the pattern seems to be playing itself out again.

Publisher's reader Chloë has suffered from mental health problems. She is on medication, but sometimes harbours dark thoughts ('Gun, the thought enters her mind, unbidden. You could shoot yourself in the head. It'd be quick and simple.') Coming from a strictly religious background and having entered into a disastrous marriage, her self-esteem is often low. ('Cooking is too much of an effort, anyway. She's worthless.')

When the two women meet, it's bound to get complicated...

If that wasn't enough, Love Bites also introduces a (possibly) centuries old witch, who might play the role of fairy godmother here but then again she might just be talking rubbish, and an angel who seems to be branching out and setting up his own religion. We also see a lot of Chloë's workmate Shelley and her partner Mike - together the characters form a believable group (Herman has a knack of making the weird seem credible - maybe something to do with grounding the unbelievable in the dilemmas of everyday life - work, rent, relations with an ex, cat sitting) and in fact a very sympathetic one. The paranormal element is here but the meat and drink of the story (perhaps I should say the blood...) is relationships, not doomy overcoming-supernatural-evil. I enjoyed that.

I liked the notes that one character penned in seeking to understand her, totally inexplicable, staten of being. What are the limits now being a vampire? What can you safely do and not do? How many of the myths are true? Subjected to a scientific investigation, maybe there might be answers... or maybe just more frustration.

There is also some sharp writing here, from scene setting as our protagonists go about their daily lives ('Brookline is still sleepy, not yet hurrying along in the caffeinated press of rush hour', 'She is, after all, young and over-educated') to the intoxication of a new relationship ('She's young and in love and dancing') to some very tender sex scenes (not going to quote) to the sadness of a chilly family (Chloë's parents, whose main reaction to her attempted suicide is irritation that have to pay for the ambulance). It also has a great, if chilling, exposition of the progress of an abusive relationship leading up to 'And then, once day, when she slaps you...'

There's a lot of fear here, and guilt, and a hope to be better but honest doubt whether you can be and whether it is fair, or just demanding, to seek forgiveness. And risk and trust and the potential, perhaps for new starts, not knowing all the answers but seeking honestly to find them. It's funny in places ('It gives him the vague impression that he's a member of a depressed drum-and-bugle corps. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Goth Club Band') but can turn poignant in a flash ('Sweat is already soaking the ridiculously impractical waist cinched dress Tess is having her wear today', 'She can't spend her life not trusting anybody'). 

It's a heady mix and a book I greatly enjoyed. Do try it. (It would also, I think, make a great Christmas present for just the right person...)

About the Author

Born in the US, Ry Herman is now a permanent Scottish resident, and has been writing theatrical plays for most of his life. He's worked at a variety of jobs, including submissions editor, theatre technician, and one job which could best be described as typing the number five all day long. He acts and directs and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. He is bisexual and genderqueer. Hobbies include baking bread, playing tabletop roleplaying games, and reading as many books as humanly possible. Ry is based in Edinburgh.

You can buy Love Bites from your local bookshop or online from Hive Books, who support local bookshops, Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

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

7 July 2020

Review - Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air by Jackson Ford

Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air (Frost Files, 2)
Jackson Ford
Orbit, 9 July 2020
Available as: PB, 502pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780356510460

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

Whew. What a chase...

Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air (the asterisk is part of the title, not censorship by me) is a welcome return to the messed up LA of Teagan Frost. This book is the second in the series, following The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with her Mind, in which Teagan's already bizarre world was turned upside down and one of her closest friends killed. Do stop and read that first if you haven't, because there are some major spoilers for the first book here. 

Still with me? 

OK, well, if you have read Girl you'll know that book was basically A Bad Day for Teagan Frost, and so you won't be surprised that Teagan is about to have Another Very Bad Day at work. If you think your working life has been hard over the past few months, then let Teagan show you just how much worse it can get. Of course, to match her, you'd have to have psychokinetic powers courtesy of experiments on you by your parents; to have been arrested and imprisoned in a Secret Government Lab; and then to have been released on licence, with the condition that you use those powers For Good as part of a team disguised as furniture removers, who break and enter, plant bugs, and retrieve all sorts of dodgy stuff for said Government.

In Random Sh*t the impact goes wider than in Girl, placing Teagan's beloved city of LA in danger (and indeed, the threat goes further). This is in many respects a more focussed story than the first one, essentially a chase in which the China Shop, the cover name for Teagan's team, receives blow after blow - while still not having recovered from the events of the first book - even as they're needed more than ever.  All the time, they must keep on the trail, against a ticking clock, hampered by the chaos that's already been caused, tired, hungry and depleted in numbers.

Ford limits the viewpoints here, keeping the story very simple and very intense. We see Teagan's extended (and increasingly frantic) narration, and those of the two antagonists, and that's just about all - but this allows Ford to spend a lot of time developing their characters. Teagan is, as before, a mass of contradictions: still mourning Carlos, despite what he did to her, ambivalent about boyfriend (or not-boyfriend?) Nic (I don't like Nic. He's not the man Teagan needs.) She is impulsive, swears (a lot) that she's relaxed at and reconciled to her messed up life history (she's not) and still dreaming of opening that restaurant. She tends to treat all those around her very badly, and is given a few home truths, but it's hard to hold it against her, especially given the pressure she's under here

The two people that Teagan and her crew end up hunting... I don't want to say too much about them. There's a complex relationship there. One of the two is a young boy, albeit a gifted young boy, and Ford captures that perfectly, I think: the transitions from vulnerability and need to howling monsterdom (that's any young child but the circumstances here add a new dimension of menace to his tantrums).  The other is his mother, who's definitely had the dirty end of the stick in life and again, I think the mixture of love, roiling guilt, the absence of perspective, were all very true to life for a parent of any young child: with an added dimension here.

The story is, as I have said, basically a chase. Time is running short, and disaster looms. We know from fairly early on what the stakes are, so there's little mystery. Rather, the tension comes from the volatile mix of characters and the roles they're cast in. Teagan, who faces an awful moral dilemma. Annie, who's been hurt badly and wants revenge. The boy and his mother. The friends and relatives whose location is unknown due to a catastrophe feature, not part of the story but exerting a pull on everyone, distracting attention and energy. It's a very well imagined, scary portrayal of a disaster and the very human reactions to it that you'd get.

Behind all this, Ford IS advancing the deeper premise of these novels, with some new facts revealed and a couple of characters coming onto the scene who I'm sure will appear again - enigmatic German tech billionaire Jonas Schmidt; the mysterious Director; and more. Together they hint at new directions for China Shop, new enemies and allies perhaps and - worst of all - new emotional blows for Teagan, as if the poor woman hadn't already been through enough.

Just can't wait for the next book...

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

6 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith

The Waiting Rooms
Eve Smith
Orenda, 9 July 2020
Available as: PB, 378pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781913193263

Today I'm joining the blog tour for the timely near-future thriller The Waiting Rooms. I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a gifted advance copy of the book to consider for review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part.

I have to say this is the most on-point topical novel I'd read for a long time. While it's clearly unintended - who would have known? - much of the setting, this would have seemed chilling and strange when written, has turned out - well. Chilling, but perhaps not so strange.

In a near-future world, extreme precautions are taken to avoid infection. Facemasks are work routinely. We see one of the protagonists, Kate, a nurse, clean and disinfect herself before she can leave the closed ward. Hand sanitiser features. Special measures are taken with the elderly, whether in hospital or care home. I spotted a reference to the R-number! It must have been strange for Smith to see this imagined, different world come solidly real - even though part of the point of the book is, I think, to warn.

This isn't actually a world menaced by covid-19 but by multi-drug resistant (and, I think, aggressively mutated) strains of bacteria. As part of the desperate measures necessary to eke out the remaining antibiotics, the over-70s ("elderly") are denied these drugs, making routine operations impossible and minor injuries almost always fatal. As the end nears they are removed to "Hospitals for the Elderly" where the only treatment is pain relief, and for those who have signed an advance directive, euthanasia. Kate works in one of these places, her job taking its toll.

The other main character who we spend time with is Lily, a woman approaching her 70th birthday - a bittersweet age. Lily reflects on her life and lost love, her memories taking her back to South Africa just before the end of apartheid and to her relationship with a married man, Piet. As we go back and forth we gradually learn that Lily has secrets, that she has been notorious and may still be hated by some. The unfolding of this story and the place that Kate has in it is well down, the truth being revealed slowly but with plenty of clues for the elate reader to work out what's gone on. The portrayal of Lily is I think excellent - she has guilt and regrets but remember s happy times - and it's good to see a main character who isn't young, indeed who is suffering form the effects of age yet who is still determined to control her own life and destiny.

Kate is remarkable too: also the focus of hatred and protests gather against the treatment of the elderly, also prone to guilt and hit by grief but equally determined to do her duty and give those entrusted to her care as gentle an end as she can. There are also mysteries about Kate and both women, to a degree, play detective - they are entwined in the story of their times, which may be different from what is generally believed. The relationship between Kate and her daughter Sasha is tenderly and I think truthfully described, Kate's husband Mark being less in focus: this is a book where relations between women of different generations are first and foremost, Smith taking the space to develop their characters and to come back and back to the same dilemmas of loss, grief, love and guilt again and again form different angles, each time adding something new to the rich layer cake of this excellent book.

Behind it all is an urgent message - we are facing a crisis of antibiotic resistance. The way that the business of drug development is set up means it's more profitable for the drug combines to provide medicines for chronic - long term - conditions (cancer, heart conditions) than new antibiotics. The antibiotics will be used sparingly to preserve their effectiveness: drugs for chronic conditions will be used long term. At one point this is discussed in the book and someone, Piet I think, says that what's needed are tax incentives - well there are tax incentives (I designed some of them!) but it doesn't change the commercial realties. And meanwhile, in a perfect example of natural selection, the bacteria that survive to pass on their genes are those the antibiotics can't kill, and so it goes. This is a problem I learned about when I did A level biology - I won't tell you how long ago that was, but it's long enough that something should have been done by now.

I hope that the strange, and slightly scary, coincidence of this book's publication with our current pandemic situation - and again, as you see the sequence of events described here, from concerts blamed for seeding the drug resistant strain of TB to an order from the Prime Minister to stay at home, and subsequent economic collapse - will focus minds, because they need to be focused. I'm sure Eve Smith wouldn't have been expecting to be writing a book quite so timely in one sense, even as she clearly knew - read the research cited here - how timely it would be in quite another.

All in all an important, serious book but also an absorbing one with a tremendous emotional thump - as I read the final part I think I got something in my eye - and one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about the book, see the Orenda Books website here. And read the reviews! There is more to come on the tour and some cracking reviews already out there. See the poster.

You can buy The Waiting Rooms from your local bookshop (who really need your business right now) or online from Hive Books (who support high street bookshops), Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.

2 July 2020

Review - The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

The Constant Rabbit
Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton, 2 July 2020
Available as: HB, 306pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781444763621

I'm grateful to Hodder for an advance copy of Jasper Fforde's new novel, The Constant Rabbit, to consider for review.

A new Jasper Fforde novel is always an Event and I was very pleased to have a chance to read this one ahead of time. It's a stand-alone book, set in an alternate present very like our own - a present suffering from many of the same problems as we do, in particular a resentment at difference. Fforde has personified this in the national response to anthropomorphised rabbits. Some fifty years before the events of the novel, an Event gave a small number of rabbits human traits, including size, the ability to speak and vaguely human physiology. Rabbits doing what rabbits do, there is now a large population of them, drawn from three distinct strains of rabbit: lab, pet, and wild. The nature of the Event is never precisely explained, although its purpose is discussed several times and in a self-referential moment is described as possibly being satirical:

"'It's further evidence of satire being the engine of the Event,' said Connie, 'although if that's true, we're not sure for whose benefit.' 
'Certainly not humans', said Finkle, since satire is meant to highlight faults in a humorous way to achieve betterment, and if anything, the presence of rabbits has actually made humans worse.'"

Anyway, humanity being what humanity is, there is a lot of resentment in some quarters at the rabbits and wild talk of a "litter bomb", an explosion of breeding that will overwhelm the island. Anti-rabbit laws have been passed at the behest of the powerful "UK Anti-Rabbit Party" (UKARP) and its leader Mr Nigel Smethwick, and persecution is stirring. Rabbits have even been "jugged" by the goons of Two Legs Good, a gammony sort of direct action movement, and the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce (RabCoT) established to police where rabbits can live and what they can do.

It's against this background that our protagonist, Peter Knox, and his daughter Pippa, see a family of rabbits - actress Connie (the inspiration behind the rabbit in the Cadbury's Caramel ads), her husband, war hero Doc and their children Bobby and Kent - arrive at the vacant house next door. Much Hemlock is a quiet, inward looking Middle English village where the most exciting things that ever happen are Speed Librarianing and the annual Spick and Span contest. It's also, naturally, a bastion of anti-rabbit prejudice so the rabbits aren't welcome, and Peter is approached to offer them money to leave - with an unspoken threat that if they won't, 2LG may step in. For Peter it's a complication too many as he actually works undercover for RabCoT as a spotter (most humans can't tell one rabbit from another, but Peter is the rare exception). The pressure from his neighbours puts him in an awkward position personally (he has nothing against rabbits) and professionally (it may blow his cover: spotters, once outed, have been targets for rabbit sympathisers).

Fforde develops the central concept well, giving the rabbits a well-realised, if baroque, culture focussed on adultery, duelling and hallucinogenic carrots with their own religion and prophet (the "Bunty") and integrating events closely with actual history. The background of discriminatory law, unequal wages and exploitation is also consistent and convincing with a sinister plan to relocate the rabbit population to a "MegaWarren" complete with barbed wire fence, workshops and its own rail spur. The story that then reveals itself to us is essentially a thriller, with the rabbits menaced by various nasties (but with plans for resistance of their own) and Peter caught between his job and pressure from his neighbours on the one hand and his guilt and what's going on - and desire for Mrs Connie Rabbit (an old friend) on the other.

It's all very well done, and has the characteristic Fforde humour and sense of the bizarre. I don't know of any other writer who is as good at making the frankly incongruous seem plausible. Perhaps it's the footnotes or the the way that everything which isn't incongruous is so, well, naturalistic. In the case of this book, all of that gets an extra dose of credibility as a poke at the attitudes behind Brexit (with the odd sideswipe at other modern villains such as Donald Trump). All very entertaining.

And yet. The concept did make me uneasy at times. Perhaps it's the idea of satirising racial prejudice, prejudice against people - for surely that's what this is - by setting up a society of animals, albeit talking, thinking animals, as the victims of discrimination. And the associations the MegaWarren conjures up...
I found myself wondering whether the whole concept actually helped make a point about prejudice and the way that a minority can be persecuted, or whether it actually got in the way of that point? 

Maybe it's the timing, which couldn't have been foreseen - a summer of Black Lives Matter protests making the same point in a much more vivid and compelling way than any fiction, however satirical, could achieve and possibly making a treatment like this seem as though it's trivialising the issue which I'm sure isn't the intention?

Perhaps I am overthinking. The Constant Rabbit is, if nothing else, thought provoking. And it is firmly engaged with contemporary life. It's often funny, contains a number of well-spun mystery threads, and the ending was for me genuinely poignant. In addition to all that the book does something with one character which almost literally took my breath away. I can't tell you much about it because this is one occasion when knowing what's going will absolutely ruin the point but if you read the book, you will realise gradually that there are things you're not being told... directly. And when you do you'll agree, I hope, that you didn't need to be and that the story and the characters actually work better without. It's very impressive both for how Fforde does what he does and for the fact that he does it. 

But I'm babbling now. You'll have to read the book for yourself for this to make any sense, I'm saying no more.

For more information about The Constant Rabbit, see the publisher's website here.

30 June 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 30 June 2020
Available as: HB, 301pp, e
Read as: e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781529402650

I'm grateful to Milly at Jo Fletcher Books for an advance e-copy of Mexican Gothic via NetGalley and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the authors whose next book I always look forward to. Apart from anything else she's so versatile - this year we've already had an excellent Mexican noir from her (Untamed Shore), while last year saw her previous novel for Jo Fletcher Books, the 1920s Mexican-set fantasy Gods of Jade and Shadow (which you should read, if you haven't already).

Now we have - well, the title says it all, Mexican Gothic.

Mexico City, 1950. A young socialite, Noemí Taboada, is summoned from the latest party by her father and instructed to sort out a tricky family problem. Recently married cousin Catalina is unwell, and Naomí's father - who is also Catalina's guardian - wants Naomí to investigate. I loved the way Moreno-Garcia establishes both Naomí's self-possession - she is a confident young woman who knows what she wants and how to present herself to get it ('Naomí' looked a bit like Katy Juarado when she struck the right pose, and of course she knew what exact angle to strike') - and her place within wider Mexican society: a student of anthropology, in no hurry to be married (though she enjoys partying and social life, she's in no hurry to commit to any of the boys who are interested in her).

Noemí travels to the remote (and somewhat faded) town of El Triunfo outside which stands High Place, the home of the Doyle family into which Catalina has married. The Doyles are English and refuse to speak Spanish: they made their fortune mining silver, though the mine is now derelict and they have fallen on hard times (hence the alliance with Noemí's own wealthy family). This is a genuinely Gothic setting: High Place is a decayed mansion full of mouldering rooms and dust-sheeted furniture. There's a family graveyard wreathed in mist, a collection of hostile relatives - in particular matriarch Florence who present Noemí with a list of rules: no smoking, no noise, no visits to El Triunfo, limited contact with Catalina - and a series of mysteries: about the house, the family, and Catalina's physical and mental health.

There was a bit of a flavour here, I thought, of Cold Comfort Farm in the contrast between the modern young woman and the benighted Doyles, but unfortunately the inhabitants of High Place aren't to be easily reformed and the tension between them and Noemí fairly crackles. You can't miss the extent to which they cling to their Englishness: the family has been in Mexico for decades yet they doggedly speak English and maintain a Victorian outlook on life. It's easy to read this as a commentary on colonialism and post-colonialism, the source of the family's wealth having dried up and their whole purpose having been swept away by civil war and revolution even while they maintain their peculiar forms and customs, their foreignness clear in Mexico (they 'even brought European earth here').

Noemí is, as I have said, confident. She's used to getting her own way, both within her family and, as a wealthy young woman, in society more widely. ('She had experience dealing with irritating men'). Yet she may have met her match in the Doyles: older, established, arrogant and even rude in that specific way the English upper class still has, even in decay. ('You are much darker than your cousin, Miss Tabadoa'). It's clear there's a struggle for control going on here. Noemí is isolated, without allies, and doesn't have a clue what is happening. Because there is certainly something very sinister going on. As Noemí unravels the tragic family history of the Doyles, based on portraits, tombstones and fragments of stories she manages to collect in the town, it becomes clear that tragedy has followed them for generations with more than one untimely death. But how does this relate to what's happening to Cataline - and Noemí - now?

The unfolding of the story, with the creepy Gothic atmosphere growing thicker and thicker, combines with Noemí's growing doubts and fears, makes for an exciting and compulsive read. The family members present different threats, different challenges, from the haughty Florence to the monstrously unpleasant patriarch Howard to the smoother Virgil, Catalina's husband ('He was, likely, not used to being refused. But then, many men were the same.') I found myself torn between wanting Noemí to press them harder, to discover more, and fear of what might happen if she did. There's something dangerously unstable in the Doyle household with its devotion to eugenics, to taxonomical classification and to understanding the right place for every one, with its almost captive family members - younger son Francis has never travelled further than El Triunfo and seems almost hypnotically controlled by Florence and Virgil - and a history of violence gradually emerges.

While there's clearly something very wrong here, Moreno-Garcia kept me guessing almost till the end about the nature of the threat in High Place and about how that might influence a possible romance. Dark, scary, Romantic and deeply, deeply Gothic this is a remarkable book and an intense read. It's one I'd strongly recommend.

You can buy Mexican Gothic from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, which supports local shops, Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here - and the reviews on the other tour sites, listed on the poster below!

23 June 2020

Review: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by HG Parry

Cover design by
Lisa Marie Pompilio
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians
HG Parry
Orbit, 25 June 2020
Available as: PB, 516pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9780356514703

Snap verdict: It's complicated...

(CW for mention of enslavement and enslaved people).

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians.

Following up The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heap, which saw literary characters escape their bindings to cause trouble in New Zealand, Parry's A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians focuses on a very different kind of mayhem in late 18th century West Africa, France, Britain and the Caribbean.

It's an absorbing and at times harrowing historical fantasy. Parry imagines a whole overlay of magical oppression that reinforces the racial and cultural oppression of the period, and integrates it all into a history which well reflects - to this non-historian reader - the atmosphere, personalities and events of the time. It is very well done, making for an intriguing and, ultimately, engaging narrative. This is a book I enjoyed reading, although I do have some reservations - which I'll come to shortly. 

First, though, what is going on in A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians

Well, to begin with, a young (six years old) girl is kidnapped in West Africa, enslaved, and trafficked to the Caribbean. She comes to be known as Fina, although that's the name her enslavers give her, not her real name.

A few years later, in Europe, magic is forbidden to Commoners. Nevertheless a young French boy, Camille Desmoulins, summons shadows and finds himself in trouble with the magical authorities. Provincial lawyer Maximilien Robespierre seeks to defend a young Commoner accused of a trivial act of magic. Barrister William Pitt does the same in London. We are also introduced to William Wilberforce, a young Englishman and a friend of Pitt, who is seeking a purpose in life. Perhaps he will join the Knights Templar who enforce the anti-magic laws?

Fina, landed in Jamaica, is subjected to magical control on a planation and to decades of backbreaking physical toil. Meanwhile the relationship between Wilberforce and Pitt develops as the former takes up the cause of ending slavery and the latter becomes Prime Minister. Robespierre rises through the ranks of revolutionaries as France teeters on the brink. Things come to a crisis as enslaved Africans in the French colony of Saint-Domingue rise in revolt, France declares itself a Republic and frees its magicians, and war with the United Kingdom looms - a war which will challenge all the constraints on magic that currently obtain in Europe.

As I have said, I enjoyed this book which is engaging and informative. Wilberforce and Pitt, on the one hand, and Robespierre, Desmoulins, Danton and the rest on the other, are of course real characters and as far as I am aware their "history" presented here in considerable detail is accurate (up to a factor of magic, obviously). Similarly while Fina is, I assume, an invested character, what happens to her is clearly representative of a wider catastrophe for Africa and its people (again, setting aside the magic).

It's impossible to ignore the fact that the book comes with almost spooky timing, being published only a few weeks after the toppling in Bristol of a notorious enslaver's statue during a Black Lives Matter protest (and amidst wider ongoing protest and debate). That makes it very of the moment, something that might not stand out so much if it was less rare for fantasy to deal with real world issues like this (it is getting less rare, but not yet so much that a book like this won't attract some attention for that reason). It's good to see a fantasy novel that avoids being another "Regency magic" story, engaging instead with the unpleasant realities of the period. I also enjoyed the focus given to the slave rebellions which are fully acknowledged as a source of freedom, as well as Wilberforce's Parliamentary efforts. 

However, I would qualify this a bit, for a couple of reasons. 

First, Pitt, Wilberforce, Robespierre et al get a lot more attention than Fina and her comrades. So there is exhaustive focus on the developments in the Parliamentary campaign against slavery, including lengthy (generally late night, well oiled) political and philosophical discussions between Pitt and Wilberforce, and equally detailed material on Robespierre's politics and actions. 

Meanwhile Fina's story - which covers some twenty years in contrast to a handful of years for the others - gets rather brief updates. It clicked with me about halfway through the book that this is because the book is primarily about the evolving relationship - politically and as friends - between Pitt and Wilberforce and about how these very different men cooperate to tackle slavery. It's a sign of how good Parry's writing is that the lengthy discussions between them are actually very, very interesting and the characters and humanity of the two men come fully alive. I have no idea how true they are to the reality, but as an able, energetic and principled Prime Minister, Parry's William Pitt certainly shines in contrast to more recent holders of the office, and Wilberforce's religious motivation is given respect and space to develop. The strain of realpolitik on this relationship and its eventual fracture is also a powerful theme. (Pitt as Prime Minister must pay attention to the practicalities and wider while Wilberforce, as a freewheeling idealist, need not). However, this does mean that while Fina and her comrades and their rebellion are in the end key to the story, it in in no way centred on them. 

There is also the place of the magic. Magic features here in several ways. As there are harsh laws in Europe against "commoners" using magic, and harsh punishments for breaking those laws, the position  of magicians as an oppressed group adds a new factor to, especially, the pre-revolutionary situation in France. Accordingly, when the Republic is declared it is "The French Republic of Magicians" (though most of the citizens are not actually magicians). 

Similarly, magic is used to control Fina and the other enslaved people, who are forced to consume an alchemical compound that robs them of their will (this is in addition to the chains and whips that feature in historical slavery). But in neither case is the outcome very different from the historical one (oppression stokes a bloody revolution in France and a harsh and exploitative slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean). For much of the book the magic is, in a sense, superfluous. While well thought out, it doesn't seem to be adding anything essential to the story or making a difference to it, except in the detail. 

In the end, it turns out that isn't quite right and I came to understand why parry has added magic to this version of the 18th century. it is there for a reason, rather than simply to drive a kind of "What if...?" game, and it does affect the fates of Fina, Pitt, Wilberforce, Robespierre and the rest. Moreover in the final few pages of the book (but almost not until then) we see that it will affect the future of San Domingue and of Europe. That's tantalising, though, because the story closes almost as soon as this is established. I think I smell a possible sequel and I hope that comes, because I really want to see how things play out and how characters who have been established so vividly might go forward into what looks like a much more magically-shaped world.

Overall, this is a powerful book with powerful themes. It wasn't perhaps quite the book I had expected but in discovering what it actually was I had a very enjoyable read.

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

18 June 2020

#BlogTour #Review - Blood Red City by Rod Reynolds

Blood Red City
Rod Reynolds
Orenda Books, 23 July 2020
Available as: e, PB, 386pp, audio
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9781913193249

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and providing me an advance copy of Blood Red City to review.

Blood Red City is an intense, adrenaline-pumping thriller set in London one hot summer. It's a London both achingly familiar - the sweaty Tubes, the amiable, heaving late evening crowds on the South Bank, the cab offices - and, in our current pandemiced world, utterly foreign (those crowds!)

In this close, yet far-off place, we meet Lydia, a thirtysomething journalist whose career has beached on the celebrity desk, and Michael, who also deals in "information", carefully turning a blind eye to just what that "information" might be used for. Lydia doesn't have a drink problem but is in circumstances ('Two drinks making Lydia philosophical') where perhaps one has to look carefully to conclude she doesn't have a drink problem. She is going nowhere professionally, feels guilt over the support she's had from parents, and wavers on the edge of money troubles in a tiny cheerless flat with a flatmate she seldom meets, as they work different shifts. Michael has his demons, which he's adept at ignoring or dodging.

On the evening of those two drinks, "Lyds" receives a video by email, a video which shows a murder on the Tube. It may be a big break for her, and for the ex-collegue who's sent it, a way back into the game. But as she investigates, bunking off her night shifts writing bilge about celebs, it becomes clear that it could also lead to darker places.

Michael already has one foot in that darkness and for him the video means something else - an unknown factor in his carefully managed, amoral world. A factor that could mean danger, that he's not in control, has missed something. He needs to shut it down.

The two investigate, their paths crossing, both of them tripping wires and raising red flags in London's murky cash-rich strata of corrupt bankers, lawyers and politicians. Meanwhile Michael has an ailing mother, beloved sister and hated father to handle: Lydia has her boss/ lover and a lot of loose ends.

It all makes for a winning noir formula, at heart very simple - a woman, a man, and a murder - yet also bafflingly complex as the pair run down dead ends, miss the significance of clues, work contacts and sail close to the law. The degree of tradecraft - journalistic and detective - is simply joyous, Lydia and Michael employing the best of their skills to coax secrets from London's seamier residents for all the world as if they were squeezing juice from rotten fruit.

And there is rot here. Dirty money, favours traded, rules bent or dodged, investigations stymied. An ex Mayor on the make. Oligarchs and those who eagerly serve them. Layer upon layer of fronts, cut-outs and shell companies. It has a ghastly feeling of reality, as though Reynolds has pulled back the curtain on an amoral world we all suspect is hidden just out of sight.

And yet there is some morality here. As in the best of classic noir there are lines not to be crossed, attempts to walk those streets without becoming mean, grubby compromises, and regrets. But where everything is so dirty, who can keep clean? With money to be made, who won't, in the end, join the game? As I read this book my speculation about who would bend and who would break was as intense as my efforts to work out what was going on and why. In the end, it was the former - and those glorious, well-drawn characters of Lydia and Michael - that was the most compelling. Here are protagonists you will really care about, even if they can behave shabbily. Reynolds has given us a glorious, compelling story, a fast-moving, heart-in-the-mouth chase set against the magnificent background of London in all its pomp, all its grime and shabbiness.

This book is a winner. My advice - get it, before it comes looking for you...

For more information about the book, see the Orenda website here.

There are many more stops on the tour - see the poster below and collect them all!

You can buy Blood Red City from many places. Your local independent bookshop may, even in current circumstances, be able to get it for you. You can buy online from Hive Books, which supports local bookshops. You can also order from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

16 June 2020

Review - The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

The Vanished Birds
Simon Jimenez
Titan Books, 16 June 2020 (e), 6 August 2020 (PB)
Read as: PB advance review copy, 416pp
ISBN: 9781789093926

Snap Verdict: Kept me up reading past midnight...

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of this book to consider for review.

Well. The Vanished Birds is really something else, a SF story abiding in that sense of wonder which is the heart of the genre. It's a difficult book, though, to describe, in part because reducing it to a plot summary simply doesn't do it justice, so it's then hard to have a discussion about what's in it.

I could say that it's about the attempt of a space freighter captain, Nia Imani, to care for a stray boy who's brought to her ship after turning up on a remote planet; that it's about a legendary engineer trying to sidestep the all-powerful Umbrai corporation, rulers of the spacelanes, to find humankind's next evolutionary step; that it's a far-future SF story grounded in the climate chaos of the near-future; that it's about love, loss and guilt. 

All of this would be true, but it wouldn't really convey what the book is like.

So I'll start by saying that The Vanished Birds is above all, perhaps, cinematic in the way it leaps from the small to the huge, from the now to the deep past. The first third of the book, especially, zooms in and out. We are first introduced to the "resource world" Umbrai-V (old name, Kaeda: we will learn more about this process of making planets into "resource worlds"). On Umbai-V, farmers spend their lives harvesting seed-pods, to be collected every fifteen years by a fleet of off-world ships (with no recompense, as far as I could see). It's very detailed, very particular, following the life of one man, named Kaeda after the world. You see, the fifteen years between arrivals of the freighters is merely several months for the ships' crew, so Kaeda's fleeting contact with the outside works, which sees him age from a young boy to a hale young man to an older, wiser man, and then to decay, is simply a few years' work in a lifetime for the crew, but an entire lifetime for him. 

We see the arrival of the mysterious boy, the departure of the fleet and its return to Pelican Station, where people are preparing for a festival in honour of Fumiko Nakajimi. Then we reel back to Fumiko's early life in the 22nd century, the most recognisable part of the book, a world of social media, environmental activism and predatory capitalism. Fumiko's character flaws, revealed here, the choices she makes, will cascade forward a thousand years into the future and affect events then.

After this scene setting, the story proper begins, following Nia's voyage and the eventual fate of that boy. That's a tenderly portrayed and deeply moving portrayal of a woman who has made her living as a shrewd and tough captain, finding something else in her life and struggling to come to terms with it. It's the story of a young man who doesn't know who he is or the terror he has come from, learning with delight about this strange universe and being prepared for the choices he, too, will have to make. I won't say anything about those choices because they will come at the right time and we don't wasn't to rush towards them. There is a happy time in the middle of this book where a family of sorts forms, where there is exploration - of the universe and of ourselves - and lots of learning. 

Of course that can't last, and as things fall apart, the book becomes very, very dark. I was raging at one character, aghast at some of what happens here and so, so sad at what becomes of the little family. In the course of the book Jimenez has created such vivid, real and human characters - with their own desires, fears and trauma - and I felt for them, for the imperfections of their lives, the little betrayals, compromises and wriggles. Yet there's a greater theme here, too: the way the Umbrai corporation, post-Earth, lords it over humanity. We are given to understand that, with Earth facing ruin, the corp has taken billions off planet, destined for the stars. But of course it's only taken those who can pay, or who seem useful: the ruinous social and economic system that has doomed Earth has metastasised into the Galaxy, hence those resource worlds and contracts which bind people beyond the grave. 

At this time, and in this place, nobody seems to be opposing Umbrai - a resistance is growing, but it will demand a price...

A totally immersive, beguiling and tear-jerking saga, genuinely new and different. Strongly recommended. 

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

12 June 2020

Review - Lady of Shadows by Breanna Teintze

Cover design by Rory Kee
Lady of Shadows (The Empty Gods, 2)
Breanna Teintze
Jo Fletcher Books, 16 April 2020
Available as: TPB, 322pp, e
Read as: TPB
ISBN: 9781787476486

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Lady of Shadows to consider for review.

I was pleased to see this follow up to Lord of Secrets, picking up the adventures of rogue magician Corcoran Gray and his partner, escaped temple slave Brix, some six months after the events of the previous book.

The books are set in what seems at first glance to be a generic fantasy world, but Teintze's handling of her material soon gives the lie to that. Gray is driven to the town of varied - and into the reach of the all-powerful* Mages' Guild to whom he's a rebel, an outcast and an outlaw - not by a desire for treasure of adventure but because he can't sleep easily at nights.

He can't sleep because of trauma caused by the events of Lord of Secrets. It's not so much that he died and was incarnated into a handily empty body by his necromancer grandfather. No, it's the thirty two deaths (count them. Thirty. Two. Gray reminds us of the number several times) that occurred in that battle. Gray didn't cause them, but he feels responsible. Guilty. He also, clearly, feels the horror of what happened. When he sleeps, he casts spells. Sooner or later things will go to the bad. So he's come seeking a remedy... and stumbles into a mess of plots, counter plots and Guild intrigues.

Also - and how spookily timely is this? - there's a plague abroad, a mysterious thing that seems to target mages and the mysterious Tirnaal, Brix's people. As if this doesn't make Gray's life complicated enough, add in a zealous Guild inquisitor who wants to use him to find out what's going on in the city of Genereth, where the plague seems to have started and who WILL see him hang outside the guild house if he refuses - and you get, frankly, a mess.

This book is great fun. I enjoy Gray's sort of character - someone who basically wants a quiet life and some peace to get himself together, but who the world won't leave alone. What happened in Lord of Secrets changes him and made him an important piece on the board, so Guild, Gods, and other factions now see him as a means to an end not just a nuisance. After what Gray went thorough he can be forgiven for being very, very suspicious of those around him and he's not helpless, but Genereth is a dangerous place and there's a mystery to be solved. So the book is part fantasy, part detective story with elements of caper, and, in the rather tenderly drawn relationship between Gray and Brix, also elements of romance.

They're a strong pair of central characters, trusting and close but with a lot of history (in a short time) behind them and the situation creates its own strains. Generate is the ancestral city of the Tirnaal, the place from which Brix and her sister were abducted and enslaved, and so there's an element of "meet the family" to this story. Gray has his worries. The Tirnaal don't like magic a great deal (they have their reasons) so how will they react when one of their own takes up with a mage? Once she's returned home, will Brix want to leave? Despite the breakneck pace of this story - things don't really let up from the moment the party arrive in the city to the last page - Teintze gives space to this very human, very normal story and it motivates both Gray and Brix throughout.

A strong second part in this series, Lady of Shadows intelligently develops the situation from the first book and opens up much wider possibilities - and dangers - for Gray and for Brix. I somehow don't think he's going to get that peace and quiet any time soon...

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

*Actually the Guild is less than all-powerful with the authorities in general suspicious of the mages, which adds a tasty dash of politics and uncertainty to the whole narrative

2 June 2020

Review - The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Cover by Peter Bollinger
The Obsidian Tower (Rooks and Ruin, 1)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 2 June (e), 4 June (PB) 2020
Available as: PB, 488pp, e
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9780356513188

In The Obsidian Tower, Caruso returns to the content of Eruvia some 150 years after the events of her previous Swords and Fire trilogy. The cruel enslavement of mages in Raverra is no more, and the focus of this first book in Rooks and Ruin is on the territory of Morgrain which is part of Vaskandar.

I enjoyed seeing things from the perspective of a region ruled by one of the Witch Lords (actually, the Lady of Owls) and in fact that's not the only perspective shift we see here. What will strike the reader immediately, I think, is the strange, but utterly timely, position of Caruso's main protagonist, Exalted Ryxander ("Ryx" to her friends). Put simply, Rxy has to keep a distance from anyone else, in case they die. An early scene sees her recall meeting a friend, each sat at one end of a bench, clearly maintaining the requisite 2m social distance. Caruso swears that she didn't use a crystal ball, or other means of divination, to pitch her story so squarely at our present circumstances but she's clearly off to something of a head start in reflecting the world of 2020.

The detailed reason for Ryx's behaviour are something I'll leave for now - spoilers! - but it is intimately bound to her position I the magical hierarchy of Vaskander and Caruso imagines it, and the challenges it poses, well, from the frightened pageboy who realises too late that he's close to the faces of the castle servants as they to the real possibility - present throughout this book - that Ryx will be brought to account for a death under the harsh customs of her nation.

As if that threat wasn't enough, the book presents us with an intricate mixture of ancient magics, modern diplomacy, pigheaded will-to-power and the simple desire of a young woman to live a little (not easy, in her particular circumstances). Delegations from hostile powers have assembled at Ryx's home, Gloamingard, to settle a territorial dispute and the fate of the content - war or peace - may turn on the result. Castle Gloamingard has something of the incremental, haphazard construction of a Gormenghast with forgotten corridors, hidden rooms and secrets passageways. It also harbours a four thousand years old secret - a doorway that must not be opened.

Caruso has sone fun with that trope. Of course we know that door's going to open! Of course we know the consequences will be bad! But rather than dwell on what horrors may follows - we do find out, but not for a good while - we are given the politics around the event. Imagine Denethor, Saruman, Gandalf and Sauron's ambassador sitting down too negotiate the fate of the Ring. Yes, Ryx is staging a peace conference, complicated by a series of murders (for one of which she is being blamed) while coping with the absence of a key ally and her own, personal difficulties. Essentially a bad day at the office (for a very special value of "office").

The book succeeds brilliantly, forcing Ryx to play for high stakes against some really, really awkward people. The action mostly takes place within Gloamingard itself, giving the book - as the murders begin - a bit of the air of a country house mystery (for a very special value of "country house"). One difference is that country house mysteries don't generally invoke continent-scale warfare.

Another is that they don't normally have protagonists as absorbing, well drawn and engaging as Ryx. In her, Caruso has given us a truly memorable woman, struggling to live with and overcome disadvantages in a society that's snootily obsessed with skills and talents and which attempts non too subtly to silence and marginalise her. She's having none of that, and fiercely pursues both what she sees as her duty to her people and her desire for some life of her own. Of course, the question of what will happen if - when - those aims collide hangs over this book - but I'd trust Ryx to find a way through in the end.

All in all this is a zinger of a book, suggesting that Rooks and Ruin will be every bit as readable, absorbing and epic as was Swords and Fire. If not more.

The Obsidian Tower is published in the UK as an e-book on 2 June and as a paperback on 4th. I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit UK for an advance copy to consider for review.

For more information about The Obsidian Tower, see the publisher's website here.

29 May 2020

Review - Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky
Solaris, 13 May 2020
Available as: e, limited edition HB, 208pp
Read as: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781781088487

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

Nguyēn Sun Mao is a firewalker, that is, a fixer who, with a trusted crew, will venture out into the withering heat of near future, global-heating afflicted tropical Africa to mend tech.

The little community he lives in - Ankara Achouka - owes its existence to a rich-person project to escape the heat and death. Ankara it, literally, the site of the Anchor (or one of them), the foot of a space elevator that serves the building starship Grand Celeste. Workers were gathered from around the world ('There'd been plenty out of Vietnam who'd needed somewhere that wasn't underwater right about them') to construct it, repopulating zones previously abandoned as the temperature rose.

Scattered around in the desiccated countryside are the abandoned villa estates of the monied who got together to fund escalator and starship, the labs and research stations where it was designed, and square kilometres of solar panels to power everything. It's all pretty much abandoned now as the last few passengers drive, stay briefly in Ankara and make their way to their berths. Mao and his ilk scratch out a bare living keeping those panels running to serve the hotel and town, and fixing this and that.

Of course, this book involves a trip out of town into the heat and into danger, a trip that will change things for ever...

Tchaikovsky packs a great deal into this short book. There's the closely observed relationship between Mao and his team - Lupé, who 'just liked the feel of the metal under her fingers', Hotep, 'the space girl', a young woman expelled from the Celeste because she didn't fit in ('She laughed at the wrong times, cried at the wrong things, took the wrong message from jokes,,,') - one of the elite, born, in her view, to be an astronaut, but now to be left behind, she's an ambiguous figure ('she had a right to be mad, maybe, but that didn't make her the avenging champion of the world either'), which is reflected in the way everyone around her behaves.

There are heartbreaking, truly fearful descriptions of the ruin of Earth, the dry river beds, dusty plains and long-gone animals and and trees (trees are now just something strange you see in old pictures- were they ever real?) The repellant, processed food. And, everywhere, the legacy of the rich who, rather than try to fix things, squandered resources on building themselves an escape route.

It is a really grim vision, but in these times of one rule for the powerful, one for the rest of us, it hardly takes much persuasion that these might be the consequences, this might come true.

There is, also, of course, a mystery driving events here. Just what's causing the power drops that Mao is sent out to fix? The job takes him and the team way, way out into the badlands, to areas rumour populates with the strange, dangerous relics of experiments, where possibly labs still run on auto, tampering with who knows what. Mao is chosen for having survived one nightmare trip already but this time he faces different challenges.

There is some beautiful (and clever!) writing here ('the libido faction in Mao's personal government tabled a motion', 'They were heading for the Heart of Brightness', a sun 'the head of a white hot rivet just driven in by some celestial smith'). I loved the way that Mao's, and his crew's, expectation of the ruined, abandoned villas they discover, and the civilisation they represented, is all mediated through popular dramas which themselves don't comprehend what they're portraying, or the grimly realistic cultural attitudes embedded in the text, exposed when Lupé finds a working mirror screen that, to flatter, smooths the blemishes from her skin - and renders it 'a good few shades lighter'.

While there's a SF core to the novel in its background of climate disaster, space travel and future tech, the events are all driven by the consequences of flawed humanity as we know it and can see it today. There's no redeeming hero trying to fix things, indeed from what we see of the powerful here they're all about to begin a scramble over each other for escape, leaving Mao and his like to wither in the heat.

Which is what makes it - despite the temperatures experienced by Mao and Co! - still a chilling read. It's a book I'd recommend, as temperature records fall and we hear talk of colonies on Mars which, I'm sure, won't be for you and me...

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

27 May 2020

Review - Were We Awake? Stories by LM Brown

Were We Awake: Stories
LM Brown
Fomite Press, 20 November 2019
Available as: PB,  236pp, e
Read as: e
ISBN: 9781947917330

I'm grateful to the author for a free e-copy of these stories to consider for review.

Were We Awake follows Brown's previous collection Treading the Uneven Road (which I reviewed here). Again, many are set in the same world, and town in Ireland and feature many common characters and themes. Like that book, a few are also set in elsewhere, particularly in Boston. We see some remembered events but from different perspectives. Indeed perspective is a theme here - we see people who presumed themselves and their lives to be central to their own "stories" reminded that they are also on the margins of others' stories: the way that the wider reality of Brown's imagined world is conveyed as separate stories says something about the nature of her characters' experience

In the first story, Communion, for example, for two young boys, Raymond and Alby an afternoon in school is disrupted when silence falls over the nearby quarry, and sirens are heard. This story describes an event we've already heard about in Brown's stories but from a new perspective and it captures that sense you can have in childhood of knowing that momentous, dreadful things have happened while still wanting your tea and to play with a friend. The story adds something to what we already know from Treading the Uneven Road and in doing that casts some of the experiences in that book in a rather different light.

In Hidden, a young woman waits to see if she will be offered a place at college - which will mean leaving her parents Evelyn and Lorcan and her aunt Bevin who share a house on the shore. (Evelyn and Hazel appear briefly in "The Accident"). Cleverly, what seems to be the centre of the story, a moment of growing-up for Hazel, is turned upside down by a discovery. I loved that way that Hazel's reaction to that discovery undermines her supposed maturity and also upends what one might have thought the centre of the story was.

Flight returns to Raymond from Communion as a young man, living with his mother and employed by his uncle as a rent collector on the estate. Raymond senses that there's something unexplained about his father's death (a mystery that was explained in Treading the Uneven Road) but, unable to get answers, he focuses instead on the lives of the tenants, a sphere of life where he has some power. I enjoyed the juxtaposition. In Communion, we have just seen a horrific event from Alby's perspective, here in "Flight", some ten or fifteen years later, Raymond, closer to it, is apparently unperturbed. He can't really remember his Da, whose loss has become more of an intellectual puzzle, and he's unable to solve even that.

The Clown Prince opens as Alexander, a clown struggling to support his family, puts on his make-up, The Clown Prince is pregnant with alternatives, possibilities, things not said - going back to the very roots of his and his wife's marriage. I felt there was more lurking here than is spoken - that identities are in question, patience running low, doubts bubbling.

Walking a Country Road is a tense, almost claustrophobic story concerning a couple who moved back to Sligo from London and then divorced. Brown slowly unreels the layers, from the perspective of their daughter Leanne who feels constrained by being named for her father's dead - murdered - sister. There are powerful currents of guilt, mistakes being made to atone for past mistakes in a relationship between the three that seems wrong from all directions. Very powerful.

What It Is To be Empty-Handed is set in the US, the protagonist - a 14 year old girl - narrating how she travels with her mother from one dingy lodging or motel to another, never attending school but being notionally homeschooled. Now "Debra" is insisting on being called that, rather than "Mom" - and as the story is spilled, as the narrator is plied with drink by an older man one evening, we begin to see the dislocation that explains that. This was a truly chilling and despairing story.

Crashing gives us a very interior-focussed narrative. Catherine is worked to a frazzle between the selfish demands of two bone idle men, her husband Dermot (whose likes his eggs done a very particular way, and whose latest imposition is a new dog, which of course she has to look after) and her son whose house several miles away she cleans weekly. (He sulks if she doesn't also provide home cooking at the drop of a hat). The reader may have been hoping that Catherine would snap and tell these two that they need to pull their socks up. Emotionally satisfying as that might have been, something rather more awful, rather more interesting, happens, more devastating but which does, eventually, give her an opportunity to connect with someone who isn't just trying to set her to work for them. My favourite story in this book.

Cold Spell is also a US-based story, another close, interior two-hander featuring a husband and wife whose marriage seems to have been afflicted by a, well, cold spell to match the Arctic weather currently bearing down. Again the husband is an unaware, selfish person who can't, or won't be bothered to, read the forecast (as it were). There are only so many ways this might play out and I sort of guessed the ending. It's a neat, self contained piece.

Confession is the first of three closely linked stories (with Anniversaries and Games They Played) revolving round a murder that takes place late one night behind the Dun Maeve pub. The victim is a local man, Nick, with a wife and children but the event also costs Nollaig her daughter - barmaid Margaret was working late that night and can't bear to remain in the village afterwards, thinking of what happene. Confession follows her to Sydney, while Anniversaries looks at Nollaig's life back at home, at her friendship with Raymond's mother and what the yearly reminder at Mass of the death does to her life as her daughter seems to recede further and further into the past.

Games They Played takes a different perspective, going back to the immediate aftermath and looking at the dead man, Nick's, wife Joan. Like many of the stories in Were We Awake, a few pages displace what we thought we know, and shows things as quite different. Without diminishing or contradicting what Margaret and Nollaig have gone through, the picture is completed and we see other relationships that were central to these events.

Taking Too Many Chances and Green Balloons are two further stories set in the USA. In the first a husband and wife, at odds and in financial trouble, take a holiday which brings some of them into danger. But they only really understand how much, and what, afterwards.

Green Balloons is a tender little story about two young women who, for a time, are able to ease each others' pain. But only for a time. It's a sad, sad story which tells so much in just a few pages.

All the stories here share this: the property of saying so much. While those that share the deeper background of Treading the Uneven Road have an advantage here - they can build on and echo the world already established - all of them do this, creating real characters in real situations and showing things from multiple directions.

Overall, it's a strong collection which I enjoyed reading and can recommend without reservation.

25 May 2020

Review - Looking Glass by Christina Henry

Looking Glass (The Chronicles of Alice, 3)
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 21 April 2020
Available as: PB, 336pp, e, audio
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781789092868

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Looking Glass to consider for review.

Following from Alice and Red Queen, Looking Glass sees Henry return to her Alice-In-Wonderland inspired world, this time with a collection of four novellas featuring Alice and Hatcher - and one focussing on Alice's sister, Elizabeth, living in the New City.

In the first story, Lovely Creature, Elizabeth seems in danger of falling as Alice fell - blundering into the Old Town, being made use of, and then rejected by her parents. Henry cleverly gives us more insight into Alice's early life while making it clear that Elizabeth is not just a substitute Alice (even if that's how her parents see her). Yes, we encounter the Jabberwock. Yes, there are hints scattered around - like the creepy Mr Dodgson - that we're in the same world. But stories don't all end the same way and Elizabeth is determined to shape her own, whatever happens rot her. I hope we'll meet her again.

Girl in Amber sees Alice take centre stage. She and Hatcher are travelling through the wilderness, looking for somewhere to call home. But it's not easy. Winter is closing in, Hatcher can't be with other people too much, Alice can't survive in the wilds. So a mysterious building looming out of a snowstorm should be welcome, no?

This story really sees Alice come into her own, and its tender and insightful portrayal of the relationship between her and Hatcher - two half-broken, half-mended people - is a (painful) joy to read.

When I First came to Town is the exception here in that it takes places before the events of Alice and Red Queen. Hatcher has learned now to trust enough, has healed enough, to tell Alice about his early life - before the asylum, when he was a boy called Nicholas who was keen and hungry, training in a boxing gym to take on the most fearsome bruiser in the Old City. The Grinder, though, works for Rabbit and making his acquaintance will come at a cost. Perhaps the closest story in tone and mood to the earlier books, When I First came to Town goes some way to explaining Hatcher's fall and the hurts done to him - as well as telling us more about the Old and New Towns and the varieties of men and women who live there. A brutal story that spares nhe reader nothing, it was my favourite here.

Finally we come to The Mercy Seat in which Alice and Hatcher, crossing the mountains to find their safe place, come across a self-righteous, hypocrisy-ridden village which will destroy them if it can. It's a simple story and shows both coming into more knowledge of what they can do (and what they can't).

I loved these stories. They're distinct, but taken together, give an overall picture - like the mirror of the title, they give us a reflected view of Henry's Alice world, mixing viewpoints, making the large small and the small large, hinting at what else might come and planting some seeds. Ideally read after the other two books, they could still serve as a taster to this world, and there are many places where you'll post a sly Wonderland touch, whether integral to the plot (as with the Rabbit) or - seemingly - just placed there to be spotted.

Great fun, and I especially enjoyed revisiting this world.

For more information about Looking Glass, see the Titan Books website here.

22 May 2020

Review - Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Sea Change
Nancy Kress
Tachyon Publications, 22 May 2020
Available as: PB, e
Read as: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781616963316 (PB) 9781616963323 (e)

I'm grateful to Tachyon for providing me with an advance e-copy of Sea Change.

In a near-future USA, beset by economic difficulties and climate collapse, Renata is an agent for a mysterious opposition group, the Org. Seeing the Org's identification mark - a particular shade of paint - on a vehicle, she steps in to handle what may be a major breach in security.

The fact that the "vehicle" is a self-propelled GPS guided house makes the opening sentence ('The house was clearly lost') one of the weirdest I've recently come across. That is, though, the only fantastical aspect to this deeply convincing fable. As we get deeper into Renata's - she is the narrator of the story - life, we learn about the catastrophe that has ruined the US: basically a bit of GM-gone -wrong. The explanation of that is wholly convincing, as also the political consequences (a drastic turn against GM, meaning that Renata's "rebel" group is pro GM and determined to do it right, against the desire of most of the population. Their agenda is to combat rising sea levels, temperatures and hunger. In age when 'anything can be hacked' they operate like spies from the 1940s, all dead letter boxes, recognition signs and absolutely no tech.

That was quite a lot for me to swallow, being instinctively suspicious of GM technology, but that didn't prove a barrier to falling into, and enjoying, this book. There is so much here to enjoy. Wrapped up with Kress's story of how the world went bad there's a tender, infuriating, on-off love story between Renata and her ex-husband Jake, an actor: Kress really captures that can't-be-together, can't-be-apart thing that haunts some couples (in one place, early in the chronology, Renata compares Jake to Richard Burton: fateful, given his and Elizabeth Taylor's stormy relationship).

There's a narrative of Native rights (or perhaps I should say wrongs) - Renata's cover identity, protecting her as a courier for the Org, as as a lawyer taking large pro-bone cases for Native Americans and through her voice Kress narrates the legal bind in which they find themselves when seeking justice (whether defending themselves or prosecuting those from outside who wrong them). There's also a tragic strand about a young boy whose death is tied up with the environmental themes heres.

It's a lot to  pack into 192 pages and that inevitably means there are places where the narration has to fill us in on those legal niceties, or a decade of economic turmoil, or the highs and lows of Renata's and Jake's relationship. Yet the narrative drive and the interest never flag, and there's a genuine sense of jeopardy here right till the last page - as well as a mystery concerning Renata's cell in the Org.

The book also has some sharp writing and insights. 'Minutes snailed by', for example, or 'Childhood doesn't really end until both your parents die' or 'It isn't the past that creates the future. It's how you interpret the past.' Or - and getting his back to the point - 'Anyone who would trust online celebrity sites would believe in leprechauns, elves and the wholesomeness of high-fructose corn syrup'.

All in all a plausible future, credible, relatable characters and a great deal to think about in this one. I'd strongly recommend.

(And - a coincidence, this, only affecting me - until last month I'd never heard of the Snoqualmie Pass but I've now read two books, in as many weeks that mentioned it. Weird or what?)

For more information about this book, see the publisher's website here. You can also buy it there or from Blackwell's from Amazon UK or Amazon US (sorry, I couldn't find on the other usual sites).

20 May 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Goodbye Man by Jeffery Deaver

The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw, Book 2)
Jeffery Deaver
Harpercollins, 14 May 2020
Available as: HB, 432pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780008303785

I'm grateful to Anne at Random Things Tours and to the publisher for an advance copy of The Goodbye Man to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

This is the second Colter Shaw thriller. If you haven't read the first, The Never Game, I'd advise you do that before reading The Goodby Man - it will make more sense, and also, spoilers.

I will say right away that Deaver really caught me off guard with this one. I thought I knew what to expect from this series Colter Shaw, who travels the USA in his camper van, investigating disappearances for reward, would roll into town, encounter a mystery, and solve it (while making a little progress, on the side, in the matter of his father's murder). There would be clues, also trails and heart pumping finale.

And so it seems to begin, as we discover the town of Gig Harbour, where two young men are wanted for a racist hate crime.  A reward has been offered and Shaw - fresh from San Franciso and the events of The Never Game - is soon on the trail. However, things then take a strange twist. Unsettled when the pursuit goes dramatically wrong, and seeking answers, he heads in a different direction - infiltrating a reclusive self-help group, the Foundation, and encountering its charismatic leader, Master Eli.

Jeffery Deaver
That results in a very different book, both in tone and pacing, than The Never Game. Rather than acting like a detective, as in the previous book, Shaw's success (and survival) will depend on his ability to act a part, remain undercover, and ferret out what's really going on - without any standing to be asking questions or poking around, and with no access to outside resources either to aid the investigation or to back him up if things go wrong. That takes Shaw some way out of his comfort zone and I think possibly the same may be true for some readers if they were expecting a trail of clues and red herrings - as in The Never Game or for example the crimes investigated by Lincoln Rhyme. But stick around, this is rather good!

For me the really audacious thing about the story is I think that Shaw isn't as good at this as he thinks. We've previously seen him shrewdly calculating the odds and he still does that when it comes to a fight, to eluding pursuit in the woods or breaking into a locked office. But the approach is little use in a setting where others make the rules and Shaw is as clueless about what's going to happen (and as obliged to do as he's told) as any other "Novice". Watching him discover that and - Shaw being Shaw - try to apply his father's survivalist wisdom to it - is fascinating, if unexpected.

Also fascinating is what happens when the Foundation's touchy-feely counselling technique, "The Process (tm)", bumps up against Shaw's tortured life history. I enjoyed seeing him squirm as rather too much is revealed, and it would be fun to let this go further - I find Shaw an interesting character with a vividly realised, and completely weird, backstory (the death of his father and disappearance of his brother, the obsession of the latter with some plot or secret that apparently got him killed). The flashbacks in The Never Game suggested all this has left a deep wound and I wondered how far the Foundation might open it up. Maybe in future books Deaver will go further.

If that suggests The Goodbye Man is more of a people-y book, that's true, with the dynamics of what goes on at Snoqualmie very much driven by individuals, their character and their pyschology. At the centre is Master Eli, a narcissistic and deeply unpleasant Messiah whose rhetoric was eerily familiar ('...got a business degree form one of the best colleges in the country, graduated at the top of my class. Summa cum laude. I started companies, a dozen of them. They all did great. I made a ton of money, hired a ton of employees. Successful!All my companies. They were perfect, they were gorgeous!') The book is at one level a fascinating study of how such an individual may bend intelligent, successful people to his will (and as Deaver shows in his reading list at the end, he's done his research on this).

That's not to say that The Goodbye Man lacks action - there's plenty of that, and it certainly delivers the blood-pumping finale I'd expected, while driving Shaw forward on his personal quest.

I should warn that there is a theme here of suicide and Shaw - being Shaw - at one stage is rather judgemental about this. He does though come good in the end.

All in all I enjoyed this this book immensely and it left me very, very curious about where things will go next - both Shaw's own search for justice and answers and what sort of story Deaver will give us. One thing I'm certain of is that it won't be what we expect!

For more information about the book and author, see the publisher's website here and the author's site here.

Buy the book!

Even in the current difficult circumstances, many local highstreet bookshops are still operating by mail order, and they need your support. Alternatively, online, Hive Books supports local shops. Or you can order from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon, to mention just a few.

Follow the blogtour! 

There have been some cracking posts already - and more still to come! See the poster below for details.