17 April 2024

#Review - Simul by Andrew Caldecott

Simul (Momenticon, 2)
Andrew Caldecott
Arcadia (Jo Fletcher Books) 18 January 2024
Available as: HB, 384, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529415476

I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me access to an advance e-copy of Simul to consider for review.

Simul is the second part of the story that began in Momenticon. Almost impossible to summarise, it features a near-future world destroyed by pollution. Only small islands of inhabitability survive amidst the Murk - a toxic substance that erodes pretty much anything that isn't heavily protected - or very lucky. 

These protected zones tend to have been engineered, in particular the domes operated by two companies - Tempestas and Genrich - organisations with different ideas about how to preserve humanity. In Momenticon, the story started in another dome, one built to house a museum of art, and we met Fogg, its Curator, who rather drove that story. He plays much less of a role in this book, although he does appear as do many of the characters from that earlier book.

Others of the protected areas appear to be fortuitous, the result of freakish weather patterns or other features

The cast is extensive. Though the author provides a handy list, it took me a little time to work myself back into knowing who was who - that was perhaps made harder because many of the characters don't come across as very different people, and the story, told in short chapters, flits between them and between locations (travel is possible on airships, though perilous). As I've said, Momenticon was much more focussed on Fogg, so at first I did feel a bit more adrift among new people, scenes and plot developments (there are a few flashbacks). It's rather one thing after another as these people - some loveable, some roguish but nearly all very archly peculiar, if that makes sense - race to achieve very different objectives. 

To do that they will need to unpick an extensive history, since almost nobody here really understands what is happening (or has happened) and why. A new threat has emerged as Nature - infuriated by the way she has been treated, or perhaps merely irritated by this gallery of eccentrics - strikes back, carrying out new attacks on both flesh and on metal. It is a threat that nobody expected, but to which all respond in ways one would expect. Some try to co-opt the menace as a new weapon, others to find a defence, still others, a means of counter-attack. Crossed with all the conflicting motives, hatreds and misunderstandings that were set up in Momenticon and develop in the first part of Simul, that makes for a pretty exciting conclusion where - I don't think this is a spoiler - the villains (more or less) get their comeuppances and the heroes (more or less) their just rewards (although a few fall by the wayside). 

It is maybe a bit less satisfying the more you try to understand what's going on and exactly how it came about. There are so many rabbits pulled out of hats that Watershed Down could well be in production somewhere in the background. However I don't think that most readers will worry too much about doing   that but will rather be enjoying the rush of events, and the particular, peculiar atmosphere of a Caldecott novel.

The cover design, illustrations and map (by, respectively, Leo Nickolls, Nick May and Nicola Howell Hawley) are evocative and intricate.

More information about Simul is available at the publisher's website here.

15 April 2024

#Blogtour #Review - The Kitchen by Simone Buchholz

The Kitchen (Chastity Reloaded, 2)
Simone Buchholz (trans Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, 11 April 2024
Available as: PB, 226, PB, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781916788077

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for sending me a copy of The Kitchen to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's Random Things blogtour.

It's SO GOOD to see Chastity Riley return. She must be the most morose woman in noir and, confusingly, every minute spent with her is a joy. Which may be a strange way to welcome what is a very, very dark story.

In this one, Chas is winding up a difficult case, a particularly distressing instance of trafficking which has left its young women victims especially traumatised. Getting her head round the ins and outs, Riley is convinced that the perps will go away for a very long time. We see her coming and going, doing her courtroom thing, as another case looms, one in which young men - possibly, abusive young men - have been dismembered. Somehow Riley can't work up her normal head of outrage over that.

Throughout the book, we are also invited into the head of another woman - or perhaps,  a series of women, it's not made clear - each short episode another example of abuse by men. It could be that this is a series of events befalling by one girl/ woman - the subject is growing older as they proceed - or it could be a potpourri of everyday outrages. Either alternative points at a grim reality. 

Closer to home, one of Riley's own circle also suffers, perhaps stoking her fury further.

As the city swelters in unaccustomed heat the resulting behaviour of its residents is mercilessly described and dissected in Riley's sardonic internal monologue, which remains as sharp as ever, indeed knife-keen when it comes to the abuse suffered by women. There is a sense that in The Kitchen events are especially aligned with Riley's sensibility. It's as though, attuned to the unheard vibrations of her familiar Hamburg, Riley now finds herself in such sympathy with them that she and the city are in resonance, in such harmony that she encapsulates and articulates the pain suffered by Hamburg's women as well as the deep sense of injustice when nothing is done about it. The fact that those doing the nothing are often Chas' colleagues only heightens the tension. Surely, one feels by the end of this story, some revelation must at hand? 

While of course some of Riley's usual gang do feature, the sense of her leading her crew is rather muted. She feels much more on her own than normal (and that's saying something, I know). Yes, Klatsche is around, Riley both reaching for him and pushing him away. Yes, her team are at work. But there's a muffled quality to Riley's work here, she only really seems to sharpen up when she's catching up with retired Faller, who's taken to sitting outside an old lighthouse ostensibly fishing. There seems to be a deep communication between the ex-colleagues, though at a level that isn't put into words for us, the readers.

So, as ever, Chastity Riley makes her murky way though the murky city, navigating by tapping into the strange rhythms and currents of nighttime Hamburg, a kind of pilotfish for her more orthodox colleagues, feeling what they don't feel and suffering wounds that they don't, or won't, see. Deeply alone, even more so than usually, hers are the insights that will crack open the case, and on her shoulders will fall the moral the moral decisions that will result. How does she bear it? Drink and cigarettes, in the main, it seems.

I'd strongly recommend The Kitchen. It isn't a nice book - you just have no idea! - but it is a neat one, an intense story deftly communicated by both author and translator (Rachel Ward is on top form here, conveying the little sallies and the flavour of Riley's deceptively stable but not really narration).

For more information about The Kitchen, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Kitchen from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

11 April 2024

#Review - The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas

The Sleepwalkers
Scarlett Thomas
Scribner UK, 11 April 2024
Available as: HB, 288pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy and purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781398528406

I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me access to an advance e-copy of The Sleepwalkers  to consider for review.

In The Sleepwalkers, Scarlett Thomas dissects a relationship (or rather, allows it to dissect itself). Newlyweds Evelyn and Richard are on a Greek island where his mother, her mother-in-law, has booked an idyllic (...supposedly...) hotel for the honeymoon. However, fissures are apparent from the very start, with Evie resentful of Annabelle's machinations, which both required the wedding to be brought froward and had them kicking their heels in a cheap hotel until their room at Villa Rosa become free. Moreover, it's the very end of the season, the island is visibly closing down day be day, and the locals say bad weather is coming. And Evelyn feels that Isabella, the owner of the hotel, is slighting her, talking past her to Richard, flirting with him. It may be true - the partial account that Evelyn gives certainly supports that, but then Richard's (also partial) account doesn't, or may not. Possibly he, a man flattered by Isabella's attention, isn't seeing, or doesn't want to see, what's going on. 

Their relationship is hardly built on sold ground - there is the Thing that happened at the wedding, some scandal or a revelation so seismic that of course Evie and Richard won't discuss it at all. 

Reflecting that fractured relationship, we get instead partial accounts of their final 48 hours on the island, letters written by each to the other, sound recordings, scraps torn from a hotel guest-book and other remnants. Some are incomplete, meaning that sentences break off or whole pages are absent:

"I knew he liked my innocence, and so I wore my

'Slut!' he said, pulling my hair and"

The whole is assembled into an archive letter and offered for our enlightenment. The list of items is given at the start of the book, a list that the reader may assume will guide then through this volume, but it will lead you astray. Apart from the items marked as missing (such as the set of photos) others are absent, or given out of order, or simply incomplete. So from the start we're in unreliable narrator territory, the narrator - or curator - of the story being Evie, who's compiled the documents in this particular case for reasons that only gradually become apparent.

Evie is, as becomes clear, somewhat obsessive, not only about Isabelle but also for example about the "beautiful people", a group of mysterious tourists on the island who are, seemingly, not just beautiful but wealthy, privileged and annoyingly, well, unavailable. With Evie's obsessions and Richard's wandering eye, and the secret they're not talking about, this is an enclosed, almost gothic, atmosphere, with trouble clearly brewing. 

But the book is so much more than that. Always good at exploring and analysing the expectations placed on young women (if I can write "young women" without sounding about 150) here Thomas really takes the gloves of to expose stresses, pressures and tensions - as well as predatory males.

I love the way that Thomas presents this story, a many-layered, collusive telling that, in effect, makes everybody a biased witness. It's just revelatory to see the different, self-justifying, partial accounts which it is tempting to try to resolve, perhaps, into a single narrative - even though doing so involves taking sides, making choices, judging, aligning, excusing. Here the bonus is that both Evie and Richard also dodge backward and forward, explaining their earlier lives to try and account for their more recent actions. Sometimes this seems to the point, sometimes it seems to meander. Sometimes one ostensible form of writing gets taken over for another purpose, for example when Evie's attempt at a playscript (she's an actor and writer) veers off to explore a painful episode of her earlier life. (I would give a context warning here for rape references).

The focus is often on the impossible demands, indeed the regular treasons, inflicted on women by men. There are some awful examples cited, from the life-wrecking inflicted on the unfortunate Chloe to a background of trafficking on the holiday island to a sober law professor sitting down a distressed student to tell her not to pursue her allegations against a couple of young men. 

The fault line there is that between Evie and Richard, each of whom has secrets both from others and from themselves, the fragmentary structure of the book an ideal way to peel the layers back and reveal all (but also, due to the teasingly incomplete text, not all).

In keeping with the ravelled, incomplete and biased selection of sources we're presented with, the conclusion is also left teasingly unclear. This is a story that blends troubled personal relationships with possible criminal conspiracy, the two acting and reacting in unpredictable ways, and there are various ways we can imagine it resolving - few of them however good.

It's a complex, engaging and passionate story, in many respects a tragedy, the story often carried by what isn't said, by who isn;'t there, by letters that can't be found and things that aren't talked about. Silences can speak volumes, don't you think?

Strongly recommended.

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

9 April 2024

Noise Floor (Vinyl Detective, 7)
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 19 March 2024
Available as: PB, 376pp, audio, e   
Source: Purchased
ISBN(PB): 9781803367965

The Vinyl Detective is back!

I was afraid that, with the coming of The Paperback Sleuth, the Detective might take a bit of a rest but happily it's not so (though I want more of Cordelia's adventures too - and equally happily, I think another instalment is coming later this year).

This time, the nameless Detective and his pals are investigating the disappearance of Lambert Ramkin, a wealthy DJ and techno creator who was big in the 90s. Hired by Ramkin's wives (plural) to track him down, they soon realise that danger is stalking them... 

Does Ramkin want not to be found so much that he's threatening their lives? 

Or is that somebody else?

As with all of this series, much of the fun is simply the joy de vivre of the Detective, his girlfriend Nevada, their friend Clean Head and of course, Tinkler. I'm quite pleased that Tinkler's gradually moved from being just irritating to definitely loveable, if still irritating. The book is punctuated by their enjoyment of lunches, dinners, drinks and other substances and every mission to recover Ramkin includes details of hotels, trips to nice towns and plenty of gossip.

Those details really make this series come alive and are essential to a Vinyl Detective novel, and there are enough of them to satisfy although I felt that Cartmel had pared things back a bit compared to previous stories, both in the day tripping and in the plot. This is very much focussed on recovering Ramkin, rather than being a quest for rare vinyl which then takes an odd turn. There is a kind of side-plot involving creating a "Village of Vinyl" inspired by Hay on Wye, the original "town of books" but that doesn't feature much until the final part of the story. That made it easier to focus on the main issue - which for me counterpointed the lighter bits and made them more enjoyable.

At the same time we don't escape the dark side of things. Somebody seems to be riffing off The Magus, and there are decidedly weird events here including en entire time-slipped 90s rave, complete with police raid at the end. (If you've read Fowles's book you'll get the comparison). And, while most of the book is Stinky Stanmer-free, he isn't wholly missing and manages to do the dirty on our heroes as always. (Yes, I know, but you'd miss him if he never showed, wouldn't you?)

Stinky does though get his comeuppance in an action filled conclusion.

All in all a cracking instalment of this series and this should be high on your "To Read" list.

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

5 April 2024

#Blogtour #Review - The Grand Illusion by Syd Moore

The Grand Illusion (Section W, book 1)
Syd Moore
Magpie, 4 April 2024
Available as: HB, 368pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780861541607

I'm grateful to Syd Moore and to Magpie for giving me access to an advance e-copy of The Grand Illusion to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's Random Things blogtour.

The Grand Illusion - set during the Second World War - takes place in the same world as Moore's Essex Witch mysteries (we meet Septimus!) It isn't I think a direct prequel - but this is the first of three, so who knows where things will go...

Daphne Devine is assistant to stage magician Jonty Trevelyan. Adept at being cut in half, tied up, and handling concealed doves, she's about to face a whole new scale of challenge as she and her boss are recruited to a shadowy branch of the UK's Security Service. In the first half of the book we're shown a bewildering number of different activities of Section W, with the two unclear exactly where they fit. I rather enjoyed this tour d'horizon, which creates an authentically wartime sense of barely-controlled chaos, of being sent from pillar to post and back again. Are they engaged in valuable work or is everyone just going round in circles? 

It's a world where the brilliant and war-winning plan may sit on the same table as the bonkers and time-wasting one. Indeed, they may come from the same pen, on the same day. There is a sense of near panic, of a nation and Government which are, behind Churchill's stirring rhetoric, ready to try anything that may bring victory, or avert defeat.

So we see elaborate deceptions, suited to a stage illusionist. These are things it's known took place (although my understanding is that some of the details have never been revealed). We also see more troubling plans - ostensibly directed at a known weakness of the Third Reich, its obsession with occult ritual and pseudohistory. Playing on such a weakness might seem wise, and again, Jonty's and Daphne's talents in illusion and deception might boost the effect of that, but is there more going on here besides? We are in the Essex Witches universe, after all.

Gradually, and teasingly, Moore creates a setting filled with distortions and red herrings, one where it's not clear just who is manipulating who. What matters more, illusion or reality? Is the febrile wartime atmosphere perhaps fertile ground for thinkers who are normally marginalised? Might they use it to their advantage, even if ostensibly what's going on is simply psyops? Just who is falling victim the that "grand illusion"?

Questions, questions - with some answers, but many, teasingly, withheld.

Everything that has happened may have a rational explanation. Or there may be other stuff going on. As tempting as it may be to rush through this book to the conclusion, it bears careful attention though because I think there are some clues... and I'll be looking forward to future novels in this series for some of those answers.

Turning to the characters, I loved Daphne. Trapped by circumstances in a difficult corner - her family connections make her an objection of suspicion to some, and give the Government leverage over her so that in many respects she's not free to say "no" when the Ministry comes knocking - she plays a difficult hand well. Even though those around her frequently underestimate her capabilities (being female, they often don't seem to expect much of her) she continually steps up and sees the way through. Jonty and the others are perhaps a bit less-well defined, but as Daphne is the focus that works fine for me. What does come through, as external circumstances get more desperate, is a rising sense of internal tension in Daphne. She's clearly being swept to some major trial or crisis and she responds to that knowledge, but Moore gives little away and while there is a respite by the end of the book I didn't think that matters had come to a head. In a story with plenty of menace, threats and talk of spies, Fifth-columnists and collaborators it isn't clear whether the threat is of espionage or the supernatural, or both, and I suspect there is more of it to come. 

I'm really looking forward to the next part of this series!

For more information about The Grand Illusion, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Grand Illusion from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

3 April 2024

#Review - The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

Book "The Tainted Cup" by Robert Jackson Bennett. A forest, though the plants are all slightly weird, and nightmarish giant mushrooms feature. In the centre of the image, a blood-red column rise from the ground and blossoms into a great disc.
The Tainted Cup
Robert Jackson Bennett
Headline, 6 February 2024
Available as: HB, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781399725354

I'm grateful to Headline for giving me access to an advance e-copy of The Tainted Cup  to consider for review.

In The Tainted Cup, Robert Jackson Bennett delivers not only a deviously plotted murder mystery in a fantasy setting, but in Ana and Kol, two of the most gloriously realised fantasy characters I'd met for a long time.

The book imagines a complex, sprawling Empire, dedicated to defending its territory against incursions by massive creatures from the deep ocean. Every year, the seawalls grow larger. Every year, more massive "bombards" are constructed, more soldiers thrown into the fight. 

Nor are the Titans the only enemy. This is a world that wants to kills you, a world prone to plant-based "contagion", made worse by human tinkering and genetic experiments - like the one that has resulted in the death of an aristocrat, a death we see Kol making his way to investigate at the start of the story. This will bring him into conflict with a haughty family, a conflict around which much of the rest of the story revolves. This is a hierarchical world where massive accumulations of wealth exist and where patronage in the Legion and the regional administrations is a fact of life. Kol and his boss Ana have to contend with this, and it's only the tip of the politics that is behind events here.

Closer to home, another fact of Kol and Ana's lives is her condition. Ana is neurodiverse in a way not precisely specified, and which doesn't necessarily map onto categories we're familiar with, but one of the results is an extreme sensitivity to stimulation such that she needs to spent time isolated - for example shut in her travelling trunk - rather than risk being overwhelmed. When we meet her at the start of the book it's soon established that she hasn't left her home for some months. This condition seems related to her ability to process huge amounts of information - there were definite Sherlock Holmes vibes somewhere her, I felt. All of this makes Ana'a and Lols task of investigating crimes harder and easier: generally Ana will send Kol to gather facts which she them draws inferences form, but in such a hierarchical world that can put him in danger and the gem for them is rather up when news of a new crisis requires the two to travel to another city on the edge of the Empire. 

How they tackle that - and the mutual support and understanding needed, which necessarily places a lot of weight on Kol's junior shoulders - is a vital and absorbing part of this book. 

But it's all vital and absorbing. Strongly recommended.

For more information about The Tainted Cup, see the publisher's website here.


28 March 2024

#Review - The Red Hollow by Natalie Marlow

The Red Hollow
Natalie Marlow
Baskerville, 28 March 2024 
Available as: HB, 307pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781399801843

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Red Hollow  to consider for review.

William (Billy) Garrett and Phyll (Hall) are back, six months after the events of Needless Alley, for another investigation in the 1930s Midlands. In this story, though, Marlow moves away from the noir-ish atmosphere of the earlier books, with its dark, smoky cityscape and its themes of political and economic corruption, and gives us something more like a classic 30s murder mystery in which a group of people are stranded in a remote country house. The sense of place is equally strong. But so is the sense of cloying evil - reminding me of Sherlock Holmes's comment that the vilest crimes take place in the countryside.

The story opens with a call for help. Phyll's brother, Freddy, is being cared for in a private asylum in the village of Red Hollow "out in the county" (though within a short driving distance). The fees for this have swallowed up the family money, explaining why she's been so desperate for cash and now its proprietor, Dr Moon, asks her and William to investigate strange disturbances and a death that have taken place. The unspoken deal is this will cover some of the fees.

So Phyll and William venture out into the woods, and soon find themselves out of their depth, The surviving patients - including Freddy - put the strange events down to the legendary man-hating "mermaid" which is said to haunt the local lake. This creature recurs, in folkloric allusions, a carving in the local church, and as part of the family backstory of Lady Pike, who owns the Hall but has been forced to let it out. her family has, it seems, many eminently hateable men in its lineage.

A phantom mermaid can't, however, have been killing and mutilating patients, even if the weather has taken a preternatural turn for the torrential, stranding Phyll overnight. Fretting alone in Birmingham, he calls on his old gangster friend Queenie for help. Then the fun really begins...

This is an exceptionally creepy, tense novel, mainly focussed on the events of a single night during which William, Phyll, Queen and Moon, joined by a ragtag collection of patients and the fearsome dowager Lady Pike, sustain themselves variously by copious amounts of drugs, drink and tobacco. There are gruesome deaths (the local vicar is bludgeoned in the first few moments). There are disturbing visions. And there is a tangled plot bringing together the unspoken secret of Red Hollow Hall, modern gang violence and of course the shadow of the War. 

As to the latter, this book is soaked in the backwash of the Trenches - most of the male characters played some part and it shapes their hopes and fears, their responses to, especially, the kind of stress they find themselves under here. This is very much an asylum where the patients are in charge - indeed Moon himself struck me as a man who could easily be on either side of the padded door, as it were. So, be assured, the switch to something that at first sight looks like a cosy Golden Age mystery doesn't mean that Marlow is going soft on us, indeed the opposite is true. Nor, in the end, are we free of political or at least social commentary with two very different historical trends - the stifling hand of the aristocracy, and the dark stirrings of organised crime - surfacing. (Or perhaps, not so very different trends, isn't aristocracy just gangsterism which has forgotten its roots?)

Plot strands wrap together - the delusions of the patients, that relentless fear of something evil in the dark, the decline of the Pike family in the face of coal mines and clay pits eating up their land and dissolute fathers and sons eating up the estate, Queenie's uneasy sway over the Birmingham underworld, and more.

It makes for a messy, compromising, affair, one that nobody comes away from with clean hands, but which is a fascinating, nail biting read and one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about The Red Hollow, see the publisher's website here.