4 August 2020

Review - All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace

All the Stars and Teeth
Adalyn Grace
Titan Books, 4 August 2020
Available as: PB, 416pp, e
Read as: PB advance review copy
ISBN: 9781789094060

Snap verdict: Sure to be popular

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of All the Stars and Teeth. I don't think I've had an ARC before that came with its own stars, as this one did, and necklace - after reading the book I'm concerned though at what curses or other magic might lie on that necklace. I will be very careful with it...

Adalyn Grace's debut novel is, at one level, a fairly traditional coming-of-age story. At the age of eighteen, Princess Amora Montana, heir to the kingdom of Visidia, is about to undergo the testing that will prove her worth to take the throne as High Animancer - wielder of the magic of souls. But on the brink of success, she gets things terribly, terribly wrong and her life is placed in danger. To survive, and to stand a chance of coming into her own, she must flee and explore her future kingdom, working to prevent a catastrophe ass well as to save her own life. Starting as a rather spoiled and ignorant girl, she grows up and begins to questions her place in things and the direction of her life.

At another level, though, Grace seems to me to be casting a rather cool eye over a familiar template and introducing some challenges to it. Yes, Amora begins rather self-satisfied and knows little of the world around her but it soon becomes clear that's because her father kept her that way - and in part he wasn't being protective, given the kingdom is nowhere near the good and harmonious place he makes out. The spotlight is soon on his failings and on the things that have been omitted from Amora's education. 

Oh, and that education... well, it involved using her magic to execute prisoners. That's the essence of the test that she fails, creating a real sense of horror right at the start of this book which I felt was heightened by the contrast with the preceding party-and-food heavy scenes. 

Behind Amora's growing doubts about the kingdom and her place in it is a growing sense of struggle and injustice and a feeling that the system she expected to inherit may not be the wise and just edifice she'd assumed. There is a real moral complexity in the eventual encounter with the forces that threaten the kingdom, a mixing of the personal and the political that includes Amora, her father, the cryptic, swashbuckling, pirate Bastian and a feminist mermaid ('I've a collection of men who I intend to repay for how generous they were to me... Dismemberment for anyone who ever tried to touch me. The tongue flayed from those with wicked mouths. And the heart eaten from any man who's ever told me to smile.') This book recognises that it isn't all about finding the True King (or Queen) - there must be justice beyond that. It leaves Amara, after much loss, looking to establish that, based on what she's learned on her journeys and I'm sure that in future books we'll see the difficulty of carrying this through.

In style, this book is often direct, with things seen from Amara's point of view and reflecting her limited experience (so it's appropriate, for example, that the parts set at sea aren't salted with nautical terms she wouldn't know, or that in an episode where villagers are trying to repair their homes after a storm - without help from the King - we get her perspective mainly as people hammering at wood). Grace reveals the Kingdom gradually, giving us, one after another, encounters with the various islands that make it up, each occupied by people with a different magical bent. The differences between these settings and their people are well realised, supporting the complex picture that Amora is gradually putting together of her world and of her family's place in it.

With its blend of magic, fantasy, romance and  politics, I think this book is bound to be popular and to lead many readers to enjoy the world and peoples of Visidia.

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

1 August 2020

Review - Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Art by Peter Greenwood 
Design by Elissa Flanigan
Bookish and the Beast (Once Upon a Con, 3)
Ashley Poston
Quirk Books, 4 August 
Available as: PB,283pp
Source: Advance reading copy kindly supplied by the publisher
ISBN: 9781683691938

I'm grateful to Quirk Books for an advance copy of Bookish and the Beast. 

I am loving the Once Upon a Con series. Drawing upon fairytales - but allowing the protagonists to be bothy conscious of the fact and, at times, critical of the tropes and outcomes possibly involved - they're creating their own universe, in which geeky teenagers get to have their say, to delineate their own world and celebrate their heroes. Each book adds richness and some critique of the previous books and characters. And it's all, of course, entwined with the hit SF TV series and film, Starfield. (Poston gives us tantalising little glimpses of Starfield. I need more!)

Bookish and the Beast is, of course, modelled on Beauty and the Beast though the author cheerfully admits that's she's chosen the elements she likes from that story (which is of course what you do with fairy stories). The Beast is Vance Reigns,  bad-boy (well, bad-17 year old) actor and star of the Starfield films (he plays villainous Ambrose Sond) who's become embroiled in a scandal and sent off to a no-name town where he will be out of the gossip columns. Beauty is Rosie Thorne, still mourning the death of her mother and keen to get out of the no-name town and hit the big city. Rosie's backed up by staunch friends Annie and Quinn. Quinn's running for Homecoming Overlod (not King or Quinn as they're non binary).

Poston gives us alternate chapters from Rosie's and vance points of view, allowing a rounded picture of the misunderstandings between them - Vance's brooding sulkiness and Rosie's defensive pain tend to produce sparks as they have to work together to catalogue a library of rare Starfield books. It's possibly a simpler, more straightforward romance than the first two books with some predictable barriers to happiness and it takes place in Rosie's home town and school rather than around a con. (I didn't find that lessened the atmosphere or geekiness of the story - Rosie, Quinn and Annie supply plenty of that and we also see appearances by some characters from the earlier books, with a hint that their lives continue to have ups and downs). 

There are some shrewdly drawn relationships - Rosie's with her dad, generally referred to as "Star Dad" for reasons that become clear is very touching, and he is also a man with some surprises for us. Tropes like "wicked stepparent" are avoided and it's all grounded in a solid presentation of the emotional stuff that the two teenagers are going through - Vance has been hurt by so-called "friends" who just want to sell him out to the tabloids, Rosie by the loss of her mother and the impact the cost of her treatment has had on the family finances (thank goodness for the UK's National Health service). She's, to a degree, stumped for what to do next, blocked in writing the essay she needs to apply to the university of her choice, and being targeted by the most popular boy in school - attentions she DOESN'T want but fear she may, out of politeness, accept.

It's a very enjoyable read and fleshes out what I hope will be a continuing wider universe.

For more information about Bookish and the Beast see the Quirk website here.




29 July 2020

Review - Blue Planet by Jane O'Reilly

Blue Planet (Second Species, 3)
Jane O'Reilly
Piatkus, 16 July
Available as: PB, 343pp, e
Read as: PB 

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Blue Planet.

In this third volume of Jinnifer Blue's galaxy-spanning adventures, we're reunited with familiar characters from the previous books - principally Jinn herself and Dax, of course, still in their smouldering will-they, won't-they not-relationship, even after the events of Deep Blue - but also my favourite evil Sittan empress Talta (now sadly diminished, boo...), Bryant, and of course Eve.

A lot has happened in Blue Shift and Deep Blue and this isn't a trilogy where you should pick up Book Three first - for a start you'll be missing out on so much of that smouldering (the TENSION...) as well as cringing at Dax's antics in the last book (Jinn's too good for him!) I'm not going to give a recap of all that because you should have read it, but as this book opens, humanity, already battered by environmental disaster, as about to be subject to all-out war by Talta's ships. Despite being experimented on, enslaved and delivered to the enemy by her devious mother, Jinn's still standing up for the humans and seeking to warn them of the danger. Do you think anyone listens...?

Blue Planet is a clever, satisfying and exciting conclusion to the Second Species trilogy. Alternating between Jinn and Dax's adventures in deep space, Eve trying to find a cure for Bryant after afflicting him with a deadly toxin, Talta's increasingly unstable and fragile rule on Sittan, and Ferona (Jinn's mum) struggling on a dying Earth after losing her privileges and her high office, this story gives the answers we have been waiting for, allows some an opportunity for redemption (even if they then confirm how vile they really were) and settles that all-important smouldering.

O'Reilly keeps her story humming along - this isn't one of those final volumes that loses its way just tying everything up - and produces a few surprises (do I see a bit of a Brexity tone ion Earth's avowed isolationism as announced by a senior politician at one stage?) but in general tone it's very well aligned with the first two books: a dashing space opera that focuses on the characters, far from being hard science fiction but emotionally engaging and inventive and, above all, FUN! If you've been following the series you need to read this to complete the experience. If you're one of those people who wait till a trilogy is finished before you try (I know - weird) the be told: you, also, need to read this (as well as Blue Shift and Deep Blue).

Finally, there are heartfelt thanks from the author in her acknowledgements not only to the loyal readers and to those who helped make the book, but also to those providing the services which we, in difficult timers, all rely on - and a plea that they will be remembered as well when better times come. A plea we should all echo.

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



27 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

Hinton Hollow Death Trip (Detective Sergeant Pace, 3)
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 13 Augusr 2020
Available as: PB, e, audio
Read as: Advance review copy 
ISBN: 9781913193300

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for supplying a free advance review copy of Hinton Hollow Death Trip and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Well. I'm genuinely lost for words by this one. If ever there was a book where all you can really say is, READ IT! then Hinton Hollow Death Trip would be the one. If you've read Carver's previous books, Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today, that won't surprise you, but it will surprise you - it amazed me - that he has been able (HOW?) to ramp up the weirdness further by several notches. It must be up to 13 nor 14 now.

How on Earth then to begin? Perhaps with what it isn't. Not police procedural. Carver takes joyful liberties with procedure, personnel, plausibility in terms of investigating a shocking crime taking place in the English countryside. Doesn't matter.

Not cosy crime. Boy, is it NOT cost crime. Pretty English village full of egos and self-satisfied villagers, yes. Cosy, no. Perhaps this is time for a quick CW - Hinton Hollow Death Trip has children shot. And mothers. And there are other deaths, too. An email I received about this book a few weeks ago contained a telling mistake: it had the title as "Hinton Hollow Death Trap". When you've read it you may feel that it's an easy error to make. Truly, the sleepy little town of Hinton Hollow is haunted by death... There is cruelty here. There is evil of all kinds.

In fact, not only is there evil, there is Evil. The story is narrated, we are told, by Evil, who admits to manipulating the good (and bad) people of Hinton Hollow for the few days of the story, setting them against each other, prompting lust, jealously, anger, gluttony. Nothing dramatic, just a nudge here, a nudge there and often they do the work themselves. Evil is sad that we are so wicked. It means Evil has to be worse. Evil's job would be easier if we were all better, you know?

If the book is anything it is a demonstration of that idea. In a seriously head-messy way (I could use a stronger word but I'm going to cross post this to places where they don't like strong language) we both see the events taking place in Hinton Hollow, that little village somewhere on the railway between Reading and Oxford AND we see Evil's commentary on them. It's soon obvious that we, as readers, are being addressed. We, as readers, are being judged. What did we think of the previous scene? What did we think about what happened? What did we think should have happened? Carver is not so much writing for his readers as writing against them. Were we satisfied with what Pace did at the end of Nothing Important Happened Today? I was, yes. Ah, but wasn't that itself an evil act? 

Um.

Do we dislike a character working in a slaughterhouse for his treatment of the poor beasts he is unloading from the lorry? Yes, I did. Will I eat mean later?

Um.

And on. And on. This isn't an easy read at times. The deceptively simple language, short sentences and chapters, the affectless tone accompany a devastatingly ruthless moral force. Reading this book is like having your heart torn out and weighed against that feather and found wanting. Again and again. Even where the point isn't directly made against the reader, the interactions here between parent and child, sibling and sibling, between kids at school, between Pace and almost everyone, point up a sense of taint and turpitude that's impossible to escape.

If that makes it sound a gloomy and discouraging read, it isn't! I'm really not sure how he does it, but Carver manages to make you care about (almost) everyone here while fully convicting them for failing and crime after failing and crime. He convicts the reader too: maybe the trick works both ways and the book ends up making you care more outside its pages as well? There's also a vein of folk horror in here, of something wicked in the woods.

I just can't put this book in a nice pigeonhole (not nice, and no pigeonhole suits). I can't completely explain the effect it had on me. It's not a comfortable read. Yet it was a deeply compelling read, a spectacular conclusion (I think?) to the DS Pace series, one that refuses to make easy choices or downplay the darkness but still manages to be uplifting. Sheer class on every page. I am in awe of Carver.

For more about Hinton Hollow Death Trip see the Orenda Books website here.

You can buy Hinton Hollow Death Trip from your local bookshop (they really need you, now more than ever), or online from Hive Books (who support local shops), Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

The blogtour continues - see the poster below for some bloggers who will I hope be able to explain this stunning book more articulately than I've been able!



 



23 July 2020

Review - The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel
Picador, 6 August 2020
Available as: HB, 320pp, e, audio
Read as: advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9781509882809

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

I really enjoyed this clever, absorbing book from Emily St John Mandel. More than enjoyed it - this is a book not just to read, but to drink, a book to immerse yourself in.

The Glass Hotel is bookended (slight pain intended, obviously) by two disappearances - in 1994, that of young Vincent's mother, when she sets out in her canoe one day from her home in a remote part of Vancouver Island and never returns - and in 2018, that of Vincent herself, falling from a containers ship off the coast of Mauritania. Both events are mysterious, both case a shadow.

Between the two deaths, St. John Mandel weaves a detailed and even intricate story, following not only Vincent's life but that of her addict half-brother, Paul, her future husband, financier Jonathan Alkaitis ('He carried himself with the tedious confidence of all people with money'), shipping executive Leon Prevant and many, many others. I particularly enjoy the way that she makes whichever character she is following so vivid, real and interesting - whether or not they are part of the main story. So for example, we hear about Alkaitis' artist older brother, Lucas, who died of an overdose decades before but was painted by Olivia in the Sixties. Olivia later invests her modest savings in one of Alkaitis's funds and acts, to a degree, as the personification of the many individuals who lose money this way. Yet beyond this, St. John Mandel gives us beautifully realised scenes of Olivia with Lucas, a passing encounter involving her and Vincent, and indeed a whole life in miniature for Olivia which makes her concrete and fascinating (and makes us care about what will become of her). Similarly, in St John Mandel's hands, anecdotes such as that involving Leon's wife Marie and her psychic friend, rather than detracting fro the pace of the novel or confusing the story, blaze with life and interest.

She does the same throughout the book - I particularly enjoyed reading about Walter ('There's such happiness in a successful escape') the night manager at the Hotel Caiette, the Glass Hotel, located in that same remote community where Vincent grew up. Walter's life before and after the central events of the story is given, and, like all of this book, it's riveting despite being - or because it is? - so ordinary. Walter has a small but pivotal role in the book because he is present on the night when a man (or woman) whose face is covered by a hoodie scrawls graffiti on the window of the hotel: 'Why don’t you swallow broken glass'. Is it a random act of vandalism or a targeted message? If a message, for whom?

That evening, the hotel will see several of the key playerss in this story. Paul is working there, as are Vincent, her schoolfriend Melissa and the recently widowed Alkaitis (Vincent will soon give up her job, after she meets Alkaitis). These meetings, and that message, resound through the book, seen by different characters and from different perspectives (Paul's conversation with his therapist decades later, Alkaitis's life in prison some years earlier, Vincent's future lives). The mystery of what it means, who did it and why hangs over the first part of the book: in time it seems to recede as we get up-close descriptions of subsequent events, and then at the end, we return to it with more knowledge.

Those alternate viewpoints are more than different individual perspectives. A great deal of the punch in this book comes from its exploring the different worlds that might be possible if this of that had happened differently. We're given an early glimpse of that through something terrible that Paul does and for which, it seems, he never truly feels any regret, except for the consequences to himself: there's always a sense with him after that that he is trying to live a life where that thing, and those consequences, never happened. (I didn't like Paul). Similarly, Jonathan Alkaitis accepts on one level that he has done wrong but still feels he shouldn't be punished and increasingly constructs a 'counter life', an alternate life, or lives, for himself, whether either he committed no crime, or didn't get caught, or fled in time, which over time becomes more and more real. Vincent finds her life with Jonathan so disorienting that 'she often found herself thinking about variations ion reality... she was struck sometimes by a truly unsettling sense that there were other versions of her life being lived without her, other Vincents engaged in different events'

Audaciously, St. John Mandel gives this sense of teeming other realities even more resonance by citing the events of her last book, Station Eleven. In The Glass Hotel, the 'Georgia Flu' is a thing but it has not become an existential threat. Imagine, one of our characters muses, if that happened? A reality in which 'the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn't been swiftly contained', in which it 'blossomed into an unstoppable pandemic and civilisation collapsed'.

That will not happen. We are given one vignette established to be twenty years or so in the future, and the world still has cocktail parties. Still, that whole world, those events, are implied in a moment - of course given even greater heft in our Covid-19 world which St John. Mandel couldn't have expected - all, for me, immediately making  this story richer, deeper. (Once you notice this, you begin to spot other allusions. For example, at a meeting of shipping executives the strategy is settled on of forming the 'Ghost Fleet' of unneeded freighters, at anchor off the cost of Malaysia, that also features in Station Eleven.)

In keeping with this openness to alternate viewpoints, alternate realities, the book speculates to itself about facts, rather in the manner of a court of law ('she was almost at the end of her shift when he walked in, which places the time of the meeting at somewhere around five or five thirty in the morning') with parts of it being given in the style of testimony. With Jonathan in prison, there has been a trial: at times he is giving his side of things to a journalist, at others the voice of the novel is a 'we' who speculated about events as well as giving a particular, self-serving viewpoint.

Related to the alternative viewpoints theme, another idea which is explored through the book is that of different worlds, overlapping (or not) occupied by different characters. Paul and Walter have both lived in Toronto but 'Paul's Toronto was younger, more anarchic, a Toronto that danced to the beat of music that Walter neither liked nor understood'. In Alkaitis's prison, these are referred to as 'cars' and there is one of people who will never be released, one of New Yorkers, and so forth. Elsewhere, we have the Kingdom of Money, which Vincent inhabits for a time, when she is with Alkaitis, and then has to leave. There is the Shadow Country, where the poor live - not just those with little or no money, but those who've cut adrift from the formal economy, travelling from seasonal job to season job in a recreational vehicle or hitching from truck-stop to truck-stop with the risks that entails. There are the ships' crews, people who have no permanent address on land anymore and, at the end of the book, there's Walter, living alone in the splendour of an empty hotel.

The hotel itself plays several roles in the story. Apart from bringing some of the main characters together, it represents, I think, a performance, a sort of con trick, that is repeated at different levels by different people through this book.The place makes no money. Built in a place so remote that it can only be reached by boat, it attracts the rich, those who want to experience the wilderness without its dangers or discomforts (again, overlapping worlds). It stands only so long as its owner, Alkaitis. He, in turn, stands only so long as everyone chooses to believe that he's not engaged in a massive financial fraud. It is, as one of his associates later claims, possible both to know something and not to know it at the same time. The hotel is both a massive white elephant and a much patronised and popular destination.

The writing in this book is simply gorgeous. St John Mandel has such an ability to convey character, whether it's an external perspective on someone we are seeing for the first time or a new wrinkle or quirk in a familiar figure revealed by an interaction (Vincent's decision, on meeting someone,  not to be 'one of those exhaustingly  mysterious people whom no one wants to talk to because they can't open their mouths without hinting at dark secrets that they can't quite bring themselves to reveal'). She has a knack for language and for the absurd or distinctive moments of life (a 'meeting that had outlived its natural lifespan but refused to die', someone 'disappearing into her phone', 'Harvey took the desk chair, Joelle sat ion the sofa, and they shredded evidence together. It was almost pleasant.') St John Mandel is also, in light of "recent events", right on the nose in so many places: '"There's something almost tedious about disaster," Miranda said. "...at first it's all dramatic... but then that keeps happening, it just keeps collapsing, and at a certain point..."'

I'd say this book has it all. It's so good I didn't want it to end, I just wanted to keep meeting these characters, exploring more realities, seeing them look backwards and forwards at what had been going on. I know I will return to it, because there is so much here.

Strongly recommended.






22 July 2020

Review - Malorie by Josh Malerman

Malorie (Bird Box, 2)
Josh Malerman
Orion, 21 July 2020
Available as: HB, 291pp
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781409193159

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

Malorie is a sequel to Malerman's Birdbox. Birdbox has been made into a successful TV series. I haven't seen that, so if you haven't be warned, I may be inadvertently spoiling something for you! Though, if you haven't already read Birdbox, I think you should before you read Malorie or watch the series.

Malorie is set in the same world as Birdbox, a USA invaded by "creatures" seeing which sends the viewer into a frenzy leading them to kill others and then themselves. Wise people, "safe" people, live "by the fold" - swathing their eyes in cloth, never uncovering them or opening them unless they have explored their surroundings and are satisfied that no creature is present. People stay indoors, windows painted over, and distrust each other. For who knows who may have seen a creature?

The Malorie of the title is a young woman, who we saw previously navigate the new world, eventually to arrive at a school for the blind which provided her and her two kids a haven. The new book picks up this story six years later, and sees them forced to leave the school, setting up in an abandoned summer camp. Here, the horrors Malorie has experienced push her into a style of fierce, even over protective parenting. Tom, 16, and Olympia, 13 are bright children who have grown up in the new world. They understand the dangers, but they haven't faced the trauma Malorie has, of losing everything. Tom especially is restless and inventive and Malorie often has to tell him "no". Olympia - whose birth we saw in Birdbox - has her own secrets.

This is a short novel, and one I raced through over a couple of days. It's less about the practicalities of survival post-apocalypse than it is about the moral, psychological and cultural aspects. Malerman doesn't bother to explain where the food comes, from or precisely how it's possible for sighted people to survive while denying themselves that sense. More important is the sense of loss, of a world having been stolen away, the rage at the creatures that Malorie shows - but which she also feels at Gary, the man who broke up her previous sanctuary. Gary represents those who deny the threat posed by the creatures.

Reading all this during the time of covid  lockdown made the story come vividly alive for me. Everyone - everyone "safe" - is isolated, alone or in small groups, largely indoors. Contact with others is minimal, in case their sanity is compromised. Some wild people out there deny the situation, getting others into danger. And people wait - for what? For answers? For a solution (a vaccine?) Malerman can't have intended this but his timing seems impeccable.

Against this background, Malorie is very much a story about growing up, taking risks and letting go. Malorie the woman has sacrificed such a lot, been so hard on those kids and on herself, teaching them the lessons of survival she has learned so painfully herself. Of course they - or Tom at least - resent her (Olympia sees herself as a peacemaker between the other two). The story - essentially of how the sanctuary at camp Yadin ends and of what follows - is not hard to predict, but Malerman delivers it with such verve, such aplomb, that the pages blur past. Malorie, especially, comes out of those pages and speaks for herself: I felt such empathy with her, while also being appalled at much of what she is doing. Fixated on saving the "teens" from the creatures, she ignores or doesn't even imagine other problems and dangers: universal human problems, and very specific dangers. There were times when I was shouting to her, times when I was crying with her. It's that involving.

Tom and Olympia are also well drawn - over-confident, enthusiastic Tom, mature, self-controlled Olympia. Despite the weird circumstances they've grown up in and live in, Malerman makes them human, familiar, as growing teens and as people. You want to know more about them, you wish them the space to grow and flourish.

It's a superb book, carrying the story of Birdbox forward in new ways, supplying answers and hard lessons which are intimately built on what went before.

Strongly recommended.

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



21 July 2020

Review - Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

Scabby Queen
Kirstin Innes
4th Estate, 23 July 2020
Available as: HB, 385pp, e, audio
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9780008342296
Snap verdict: Just wow!

Scabby Queen is a beautiful patchwork of a book, told from multiple points of view and in multiple ways, covering a period of fifty years. It's a maze, a kind of intellectual (and emotional) pinball machine, bouncing back and forward, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. But it does all fit together - and the impact isn't so much from the glittering, zinging concept as from the warm, intimate, portrayals of people and relationships which Innes does with aplomb.

The book is about Cliodhna (Clio) Campbell, musician, activist, resident of a squat, Twitter warrior, a shooting star who blazes through peoples' lives to varying effect: inspiring, exasperating, exhausting. The one thing you can't do is ignore her. Springing to fame in the early 90s with her anti Poll Tax anthem, Rise Up! she's then written off as a one hit wonder but comes back again and again.

Clio's life is seen mainly through the numerous women and men who she touches. Some of the encounters are one offs - a nurse in a hospital, a passenger on a train - while some repeat (journalist Neil, Sammi - an ex-comrade in a Brixton squat and later in other settings, Clio's dad's friend Donald). Some are wholly positive: others reflect a wariness both on Clio's part and on those whose lives fall into her orbit. It sounds complicated (and must have been fiendishly difficult to write) but Innes orchestrates everything with great skill and the book carries the reader along through highs and lows, revealing, concealing, stripping layers back, adopting different viewpoints to give new perspectives on all these same relationships - and an ever richer, ever rounder, view of Clio herself. The book is  restless, like Clio, a woman who compels attention even in death: Scabby Queen opens with her suicide - not a spoiler, we learn this almost immediately - but mostly revels in her fierce and blazing life.

There are surprisingly few occasions in which we see Clio gives her own perspective: a desperately sad monologue to her husband as their short lived marriage folds; a self-justifying email; a couple of impassioned speeches. Apart from these we're left to build our picture of Clio from those around her - those who love and those who hate her. It's not a simple picture, but we get a powerful image of a charismatic woman, always in motion, always seeking. She has a hard time, with a fractured family background and an entry into the music industry at the height of the Loaded culture. (There are a few convincingly sexist articles by ubiquitous journal Pete Moss - wasn't that the name given to a prehistoric body found  in a Cheshire bog? That seems just about right.) There is also a touching scene where Clio tries, unsuccessfully, to warn an up-and-coming young female singer of the dangers (though it's very do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do). 

It's a typical scene for Clio, who would I think say if you asked her that she tried to live a life in solidarity. Of course that's easy to say - but life is messy and there are plenty of examples here where Clio's solidarity is misplaced, unwelcome or just badly timed. Innes ranges wide, following Clio's campaigning career. We see Poll Tax protests, Iraq war protests, the Scottish independence referendum, a squat in Brixton, weddings, parties, parties and more parties and the backstage view of band tours. There are so many stories here, so many threads - it isn't only Clio who comes to life but a host of other characters as well, with their regrets, traumas and compromises - and a whole generation of political activism (I loved the portrayal of the nurse who had come alive with the Referendum campaign). The book has a sharp eye for detail. There are insights on the politics of smoking, the class implications of presenting oneself well (it's OK for middle class crusties in a squat to look untidy: the working class, at least working class women in the west of Scotland circa 1990, can't afford it. Being allowed to be scruffy is just another manifestation of privilege), Clio's accent shifting from one social setting to another, and the differences in the way that women and men living unconventional lives are judged (the women will be judged, the men won't).

That, in the end, is at the heart of this book. There's an unspoken question, a judgement, hanging over Clio throughout - how would a man doing similar things be seen? Clio is constantly assessed, measured, weighed up by everyone around her - even those who are devoted to her - in a way that the men doing similar things aren't. Even men who do worse - awful - things (the book gets very dark in places). 

Clio gets frequent criticism. I suspect in real life she'd often be very annoying (ask Xanthe or Sammi) and she makes terrible mistakes. She is impulsive, she isn't following a plan and she sometimes scorches people who get too close. She is, though, in the end palpably, a person of integrity. And many near her, palpably, aren't.

Scabby Queen (the story refers to a card game which stands as something of a metaphor for Clio) is often sad, a story of missed chances, no, expired chances, a story of time bearing things away before we even know they were there (the backwards and forwards between the years makes this very poignant, giving us endings and beginnings commingled). It's also, and paradoxically, often gloriously uplifting. 

An enthralling book both creating a vivid portrayal of Clio and committing a wonderful hack into the backstage, backstreet underpinnings of the last three decades. Never sentimental, but with a whopping emotional punch, Scabby Queen is a great read.

For more information about Scabby Queen, and an intro from the author, see the 4th Estate website here.