28 March 2020

Review - Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Cover art by Tommy Arnold,
design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
Gideon the Ninth (Locked Tomb Trilogy, 1)
Tamsyn Muir
Tor, 10 September 2019
HB, 444pp
Audio narr. Moira Quirk, 16 hours 50min

I read Gideon the Ninth as an audiobook.

Well. This one has me truly gobsmacked. Genuinely new and different, a cross between an Agatha Christie ruder mystery set in a crumbling laboratory (who will die last?), a dark tale of necromancy and the undead (bones! So many bones!) and far future SF it's... like nothing I'd ever read before.

Add a compulsive, mystery-driven narrative, SO MUCH COMBAT, a dash of romance and tragedy - oh, buy it, just buy it!

What's that? You want me to tell you a bit more before you part with your hard earned pounds, dollars or Euros (yes, I can dream of an international audience!).

Oh then. Gideon, of the title, is a young warrior for the Ninth House. The crumbling House, the House where all the kids died (except her and heiress Harrowhark), Keepers of the Locked Tomb, shadow cultists. All Gideon dreams of is getting out of the grave of the Ninth and joining the Cohort to fight the Emperor's enemies.

So it should be her dream assignment to accompany Harrow as Cavalier when the Emperor summons the Houses to provide him with new Lyctors. Each House is to send its best and brightest to compete for the honour... except for the Ninth, which will send Gideon and Harrow.

Oddly, this doesn't thrill her, perhaps in part because Gideon and Harrow HATE one another. And Gideon's reluctant, sulky, teenage scorn carries her through much of this book as she's forced to learn to fight with a dainty rapier instead of her trusty broadsword, to paint her face white as a Death Cultist and to remain SILENT in the creepy corridors and chambers of Canaan House, where the Lyctorships are to be awarded.

This isn't a straightforward contest, rather the Cavaliers and their Adepts are left to find their way through a maze of devilish traps and dangers to discover the dreadful necromantic secrets that constitute Lyctorhold. The tasks are set by the seemingly gentle and rambling priest Teacher who however warns them that they are IN GREAT DANGER.

And then, as they say, the murders begin...

This was a fun book to listen to. Quirk's narration is glorious, she doesn't so much present as inhabit every character, whether Teacher's wavering bonhomie, Harrowhark's aloof poshness or Gideon's ongoing teenage sulk. It's just stunning. If you want something to convince you of the value of audio, this would be a good place to begin.

Beyond that, though, Muir's writing is excellent. Despite the plethora of characters, the heart of this book is the relationship between Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus - two lonely, spiky women with very different places in the world, outlooks and intentions. In many ways it's one long bicker, laced with sarcasm, rancour and distrust. Yet Canaan House is so deadly, the assembled representatives of the House so treacherous and double dealing, that if there is to be any chance of getting out alive, they need to work together - and to find ways to make allies, something that comes naturally to neither.

So much fun, so much combat (the fights here are something else) and it's all going along swimmingly... then Muir somehow takes things up yet another level, bringing this book to the emotional pitch of a tragic opera, a fable or a ballad. The ending just destroyed me. If I was gobsmacked already that had me doublegobsmacked. A cold, dark universe just got colder, darker. I'm desperate for the next part, counting down the days.

For more about the book see the Tor website here.

25 March 2020

#Review - Black River by Will Dean

Black River (Tuva Moodyson, 3)
Will Dean
Point Blank, 12 March 2020
HB, 384pp

I'm grateful to Point Blank for a free advance copy of Black River to consider for review (a SIGNED copy no less, lucky me!)

Tuva Moodyson is back! - metaphorically, in this her third adventure, and literally, in that she's returned in a hurry to Gavrik, the place she disparagingly calls "Toytown", the little town in the northern forest of Sweden.

When last seen, Moodyson was heading South for a new job and a new life, leaving behind both her friends - her old boss Lena, her best friend Tammy - and enemies (too many to list).

Now, four months off the booze, she's back to settle debts. Tammy has gone missing, suspected to have been kidnapped (but nobody in Gavrik seems to care - after all, Tammy's an outsider, not even of Swedish ancestry) and Tuva's going to find her.

In this third adventure, Tuva's sharper, even more determined, even more detached. In the previous books there was a sense that, however strained her relations with the townsfolk, she was part of things with a stake - a tenuous, small stake, but a stake - in being accepted there. Part of the drama, part of the fear, of Dark Pines and Red Snow was seeing her stretch that, risk being shut out, lose her place, her role.

Well, in Black River, Tuva officially doesn't;'t give a fuck. She'll go anywhere, rile anyone, poke and pry and upset and offend and she WILL FIND HER FRIEND. It's heartbreaking to see the indifference many of the townspeople show towards Tammy: yes, they'll buy her Thai food from the van, food she serves late into the Arctic nights we saw in the previous books, but they won't actually lift a finger to help find her. Like other young women who have, it seems, gone missing from Gavrik, she probably brought it on herself.

Again, Tuva's left, with little help (Lena is the exception) to sift for info, ask the awkward questions, face danger when she encounters some deeply weird locals. Sally 'The Breeder' for example is chillingly strange - Dean skilfully conveys something just a bit... off... in her manner which gave me the creeps even apart from her sideline in breeding - and killing - snakes. But she isn't the only one.

And then another girl goes missing.

All this takes place against a background of Midsommar, the endless days, the heat, the clouds of bugs fro the forests - as inhospitable a season in its way as the midwinter cold of the previous books and one that Tuva hates with the passion of a lifelong sufferer. And yes, I have seen that film - and I think Dean cheekily deploys references too, such as the kulning or the flower bedecked poles that are the centrepiece of the festivities. Although that's not quite where we are in terms of genre, this adds a rich layer of meanings on top of the townsfolk's insularity ('They're Swedish!' Tuva is repeatedly told of some food, whether delicacy or everyday staple, to encourage her to try it - a subtle rebuke to her friendship for Tammy who after all is known for selling not-Swedish food) and also on top of Tuva's regret for her busted up family life (which we learn more about) and what she sees as her earlier desertion of Tammy.

It all makes for an almost unbearably heavy emotional brew which robs Tuva of sleep, distracts her from the task at hand and shows her threats and enemies everywhere (but remember, she's faced death twice in the previous books). My heart was in my mouth as I read the closing section of this book - Tuva Moodyson is a protagonist one really comes to care for, to identify with and I wan ted her to come through this sticky, intense time without more scars, more wounds - physical or emotional.

If you've read Dark Pines and Red Snow you will sort of know what to expect but here Dean cranks everything up several notches, this book is more intense, more suspenseful and - under that Midsommar sun - it manages to actually be darker than them.

Just perfect, incredibly good.

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

23 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Containment by Vanda Symon

Cover design by kid-ethic
Containment (Sam Shephard, 3)
Vanda Simon
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, 262pp, e

I'm grateful to Orenda and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for letting me have an advance copy of Containment and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Welcome to another instalment in the tumultuous private and work life of Samantha (Sam) Shephard, probationary Detective Constable in the Dunedin, New Zealand, police Murder Squad.

The story opens literally with a bang as Sam hurries to intercept looters seeking to profit from after a container ship has run aground. Unfortunately one of them isn't ready to defer before the authority of the Law and she runs into trouble, nursing a headache and other injuries throughout this story.

But that's only the start. A corpse in an advanced state of decay turns up and Sam's grisly, sexist boss DI Johns thinks she's just the right person to witness a most unpleasant recovery and autopsy. And just when she's done the unpleasant part off the job and is getting somewhere with the enquiry, he whisks her away and assigns her drudge work. Sam's also nursing mixed up feelings about boyfriend Paul and has family problems besides so, already stressed, she's not going to take this lying down...

Readers of Symon's previous Sam Shephard stories will be aware that she has a rather... unorthodox... approach to the chain of command, frequently landing herself in trouble, so you can expect fireworks here - though, having said that, she also seems to be learning a little discretion and she's a bit more conscious and calculating here about the liberties she takes with the law. I think that's a good thing in this particular story, it means there is less time taken upon by carpetings from DI Johns and more devoted to unpicking the mystery, which is a pretty knotty one. The murder victim here was known to many, but as the centre of a group of Bohemian students who spend much of their time drugged out, it becomes hard to establish who saw him last and when - the days do merge into one another.

For much of the book it's a frustrating trail that Sam has to follow - even when she's allowed to - and Symon must have had a lot of fun designing the sequence of classes, loose ends and red herrings that has DC Shephard running in circles. It certainly allows Sam to show herself at her dogged and creative professional best - even while she's misreading Paul, falling for a handsome chap who wants her to recover his possessions lost when that container ship grounded, and having famine rows with her brother.

I enjoyed seeing Symon develop and explore Sam's character through all this, even if, like her housemate Maggie, I wanted to take her aside for a serious conversation (several times, in fact). Shephard is a compelling, well-rounded protagonist in these stories, a million miles removed from the stereotypical middle-aged male detective with a booze problem (sorry, Morse) yet still interesting and quirky.

With this third book, Symon has extended the character and varied the format, giving a tense and quick moving mystery that entertains throughout and offers a few hints of trials to come for DC Shephard. Looking forward to Book 4 already...!

For more information about Containment, see the Orenda Books website here.

If reading my review makes you want to read the book - I hope it has - and you are unable in these times to make it to your local highstreet bookshop, I've included some buy links below (totally unaffiliated and unsponsored). That said while ours has closed "for the duration" it is fulfilling and dropping off orders, so do check. (As Karen from Orenda sets out in a blog here, Orenda is supporting bookshops with deliveries at a time when some of the big sellers - including A Big Internet Site - are drawing back).

Containment is available online from Hive books which supports local shops, or from Waterstones, Blackwell's, Foyles or WH Smith.

The tour continues - see the poster for the next stops!

21 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb

Cover design by kid-ethic
Deep Dark Night (Lori Anderson, 4)
Steph Broadribb
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, e, 290pp

I'm grateful to Orenda and to Anne for letting me have an advance copy of Deep Dark Night and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

I have to confess, there is a soft spot in my cynical blogger heart for Broadribb's books and especially for her hero Lori Anderson and it was an especial please to meet Broadribb a couple of weeks ago when Orenda brought her - and also Simone Buchholz and Vanda Symon - to a launch at the new Victoria Street Waterstones in London. That already seems another era, and looks like being my last bookish evening for sometime.

But while launches and parties may (temporarily, I hope) be no more the books remain, and in this latest instalment - the fourth featuring Lori - Broadribb has shaken things up to give us quite a different sort of mystery-thriller.

If you haven't met Lori yet, she's just about the toughest bounty hunter that you don't want on your trail, fearless, resourceful and determined. Now she's - finally - managed to get the Miami Mob off her back, brokering a peace of sorts (even if she's got sleepless nights from the slaughter she witnessed in so doing). So its natural that she jumps straight out of the frying pan into another high-stakes, high-octane confrontation, this time with Chicago gang boss Cabressa who has a particularly exclusive poker game to which she's been invited.

This is all at the bidding of shifty FBI agent Alex Monroe, who's got Lori into trouble before and now seems to be doubling down. The result is a sweaty, airless confrontation in a locked down penthouse while the city itself is plunged into darkness. Ten players - each with a secret - go into that penthouse. Somebody wants only one to emerge.

While Lori's previous outings have been road trips - if deadly road trips - as she races across the country, chasing the clock to save somebody or rescue herself from betrayal or double-cross, Deep Dark Night is constructed differently. I see DNA here from crime fiction of the Golden Age, with echoes of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None or of classic locked-room mysteries.  A bunch of strangers, all with reasons to distrust each other, forced together and under pressure.

So. Much. Pressure.

Lori's driven to her limits as she must protect herself (and partner JT), deliver the deal with Monroe that'll free her from his control, and work out just what is going on. Early in the book we see her learning to play poker, and while I know nothing about that game it's obvious that her skills in bluff, assessing the odds, and defeating her opponents by sheer will and cheek, will be key.

They's better be - she's had to hand over her weapons at the door...

This is a claustrophobic, race-against-the-clock thrill ride taking place during the course of one single deep, dark, night when there is no backup, no rules - and no mercy.

It is unlike the previous Lori books - but very like, in that central, dauntless hero who just won't lie down.

As I said, if you haven't met Ms Anderson yet, well here she is. Get to know her through this night, and then find out what she's already done in Deep Down Dead, Deep Blue Trouble and Deep Dirty Truth.

For more information about Deep Dark Night, see the Orenda website here.

You can order the book from your local highstreet bookshop - in these challenging times it's especially important to support local bookshops and as Karen form Orenda sets out in a blog here, the company is supporting bookshops with deliveries at a time when some of the big sellers - including A Big Internet Site - are drawing back. Hive books supports local shops. Alternatively you can visit Waterstones, Blackwell's, Foyles or WH Smith.

The tour continues with more delights to come - see the poster for the next stops!

19 March 2020

Review - NVK by Temple Drake

Design by Julia Lloyd
Temple Drake
Titan Books, 17 March 2020
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of NVK.

I loved this book.

Interlacing the lives of a mysterious young Finnish woman, Noemi Vieno Kuusela, and of a Shanghai businessman,  Zhang Guo Xing, NVK blends cultures, genres and the ages.

The book opens in a flashback to a murder which took place hundreds of years before in North Karelia, before jumping into Zhang's life. He's a powerful man, someone with money and influence and friends who's familiar with the nightclubs and bars of Shanghai - Drake gives us vivid descriptions of a hedonistic, money-fuelled scene all taking place under the harsh nighttime neon of a city on the make and on the rise. Zhang's at home there, clearly, and he's keeping his family - a wife and son - at a distance, phoning them infrequently and simply paying the bills.

So when Noemi turns up in a club one night its hardly surprising that they end up having an affair, or possibly something more casual. Yet Zhang seems to see something in her apart from the surface allure - so much so that he sets one of his fixers to find out more about her. Pretty soon he knows all isn't as it seems.

Noemi has reasons, going back to that remote farmhouse in Karelia, to not be known about, remembered, or recognised. So a dance commences between the two, suspicion and caution entwined with appetite and sensuality. From one perspective there's something very wrong here, a great danger - this is, genuinely, a horror story - but there's also a great passion and there are I think no bad intentions (which isn't to say no-one gets hurt). This isn't the story of a scary monster in the dark, indeed the dark here is vital, pulsing with life, with abandon. (Zhang also moonlights in a blues band with a bunch of old friends and Drake's account of their relationship and of a session they give is wonderful, full of joy and sweat and glory).

And so the old story takes off, Drake giving hints of some darkness, something Noemi can't, in the end, get away from, something Zhang would rather not know about, their relationship increasingly knotted by what each known about the other, about themself. It feels high risk, something in a precarious balance, only enduring so long as it's in motion, so long as there are distractions. And increasingly, it's out of anyone's power to rescue, too stabilise.

So - a strikingly modern, horror/ romance, deeply atmospheric, very much rooted in a place and time. I've never been to China, still less Shanghai but this book gives a vivid picture of that city - both its modern affectations and accomplishments and the older, shabbier ways tucked - literally or metaphorically - behind the modern facade. Ways that remember how to deal with a ghost, a monster.

This is a book that made me gobble up page after page, impatient for the next scene, the next insight, the next steps in the increasingly wild dance. It's one I'd strongly recommend.

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

17 March 2020

Review - The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher

Cover design by Natasha MacKenzie
The Twisted Ones
T Kingfisher
Titan Books, 17 March 2020
PB, e, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of this book to consider for review.

'I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lat down flat on the ground like the dead ones.'

This is an insidiously scary horror novel, the more so for the narrator's (a young woman called Melissa, generally called Mouse) consciously flippant tone ('It's okay. I wouldn't believe me either...') and for the sheer, banal everyday events that accompany the nightmares.

In particular, as Mouse proceeds with clearing her dead grandmother's house, she puts on the radio for company and we hear her thoughts on an endless fund-raising drive by the local NPR station, the presenter becoming more and more exhausted as Mouse's experience get more and more scary. At one point she wonders if the presenter didn't actually die years before, preserved in an an endless tape loop. The horrors are beginning to affect Mouse's perception of even ordinary, normal things.

The dead woman was universally disliked, making it a mystery why her second husband, a man known as Cotgrave who was Mouse's stepgrandfather, stuck with her: even to the extent, as becomes clear, of sleeping out in the woods (Mouse's grandma apparently stopping him sleeping). She was also a hoarder, with a collection of baby-sized dolls. So there's lots of scope for creepy moments as Mouse begins to empty out the house, accompanied only by her faithful dog, Bongo, a dim but devoted animal who will play a key part in the story.

The story takes off when Mouse stumbles across Cotgrave's journal, and when she begins to see strange things herself in the woods. The house seems on the brink, balanced by the ordinary, everyday world of coffee shops, the town dump and that NPR fundraiser and a background of weird, carved stones, shapes seen amongst the trees and, eventually, a truly frightening entity.

Obviously, Mouse should just lock the door, get back in her truck with Bongo, and drive out of there before it's too late.

Obviously, she doesn't, something that is inevitable and which Kingfisher handles skilfully - there are always just enough reasons for her to stay: a desire to find out more about Cotgrave, for example, leading on to more personal motives that make it unthinkable to run away. The stakes actually become very high, culminating in an episode of continuous, breath-stopping tension that tests everyone - including Foxy, a neighbour who's stepped in to help - to, and indeed beyond, their limits.

And just when you think that's over.. well, Kingfisher hits you with more. And more.

This is an intriguing supernatural mystery which moves very quickly from an interesting, speculative mode to the falling away of reality in place of something deep and dark to a place of absolute terror, peril and threat.

I loved it.

In her Author's Note, Kingfisher sketches out some of the sources for her book, giving a genuinely fascinating insight into the whys and wherefores - and showing where one might go to find more. If one dared...

I would strongly recommend this book, Kingfisher is a new and distinctive voice and delivers real unease.

For more about The Twisted Ones, see the publisher's website.

14 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz

Mexico Street (Chastity Riley 3)
Cover design by kid-ethic
Simone Buchholtz (trans Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, e, 227pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a free advance copy of Mexico Street and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

If you've read Buchholz's previous books, Blue Night and Beton Rouge, you'll know to expect the doom, pared down, noirish atmosphere, the short chapters, the sense of desolation as Chastity Riley, Hamburg state prosecutor, narrates her life. The language is so hard, so abstracted that sections read almost as prose poetry and on the surface it is so bleak that it could repel if it weren't for a streak of, I don't know, a... something... in Riley's tone, a self-knowingness, a sardonic interest in the world's follies and failures that keeps her, and therefore us, engaged.

In this third bulletin from Riley's life we find her even more moodily lonely. She seems to be smoking more (how?) drinking more, and to be losing even the limited family she had: no Klatschke, of course - his flat a looming emptiness in Riley's psyche - so we don't see the bar but we hardly vist Rocco and Carla's café either and those cosy, spontaneous evenings where the place goes from public bar to family party without trying seem long gone, the little coterie split and uneasy.

Rather, much of the book's airtime is given over to Riley's and her colleagues' investigation of a young man dragged barely alive from a burning car (in this book, cars are burning everywhere - night by night the fires spread across Germany, then Europe, until news bulletins begin to report them from all around the world). Tracing what happened to him leads her to a secretive group of families living by crime on the fringes of German society, an interrelated web of feuding cousins and macho fathers and brothers (and trampled wives, sisters and daughters). Buchholtz writes movingly of the plight of these women and sympathy for them is one thing that prods Riley out of her ennui.

I always enjoy the Chastity Riley books, not only because they have a uniquely dark vision of life but because Buchholtz shows how this darkness coexists with blissful, unaware, lives often very close (geographically or emotionally - I suppose that's why I missed those evenings Riley used to enjoy the café). Well, that contrast was never so strong as in Mexico Street and alongside Riley's investigation we also see, sketched out, lives on the dark side of that wall and the voices of those who want out. It makes for compulsive, if disturbing, reading, the end in one sense already determined by the opening of the book but also wide open as there are people out there Buchholz has made us care for, care about (despite the bleakness! Despite the darkness!) and we want to know more about them

It's a short book but, my goodness, it packs in a tremendous amount. And Rachel Ward's translation serves the story, serves the mood, so well too.

Recommended without hesitation.

For more about Mexico Street see the Orenda Books website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, or online via Hive Books who support high street bookshops, or from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The tour continues - look at the poster below for the wonderful bloggers lined up for this book!