Map of Blue Book Balloon

8 June 2023

#Review - Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire

Cover for book "Lost in the Moment and Found". A scene of a dim, cluttered room in which shelves bear all kinds of random stuff (an old-fashioned gramophone horn is prominent). In the middle distance, a half open door gives onto vibrant greenery, light streaming into the dusty space.
Lost in the Moment and Found
Seanan McGuire
Macmillan/ Tor/ St Martin's Press, 21 February 2023
Available as: HB, 160pp, e, audio
Source: Audio subscription
ISBN (HB): 9781250213631

Apologies that I haven't given clear publisher details above - frankly, even eight books in, I'm still rather hazy about the identity of the publisher, or whether Lost in the Moment and Found is officially published in the UK at all. (It is certainly available as audio, which is how I read it).

Even after eight books, and several shorts, McGuire continues to break new ground with these stories. Lost in the Moment and Found is the story of Antsy, a young girl who, early on, seems in real peril from an adult. I don't want to spell out the nature of this, and would refer readers to the author's note - but I will say that McGuire handles the issue with great delicacy, never spelling out in the text what may happen but making it totally clear that someone here is trying to cross lines that ought not to be.

Anyway, long story short, Antsy is threatened and runs away. And she finds a Door. Readers of this series will know that Doors can lead to some wonderful places and take people to worlds that will welcome them, worlds they will fit with - but Antsy doesn't need a whole world, does she, she just needs a safe place where lost things such as her can be cherished?

That need perhaps takes us deeper than we have yet been into what I might call Doorology - the principles and workings of the Doors - why they appear (or don't), where they go - and the cost of using them. There have been some hints of that, but not, yet, a full account. Perhaps this still isn't a full account, but we do learn a lot, as does Antsy. It's frustrating to be writing this review because I don't want to give away all the magic, but I will say that this story raises questions about Doorology as well as providing answers and shows that things can go wrong, especially where fallible adults take a hand.

Antsy is especially raw where fallible adults are concerned and I have to say, my heart almost rose to my mouth when I understood the situation that she gets into here. Reading some of the earlier books I've been tempted to think, count me in, when one of Wayward Children finds their world (mine would be The Moors, or course). Lost in the Moment and Found presents a much darker take That corrective was probably due - it's too easy to think that everything will be write if you only step into the right world. I think McGuire's message has always been a bit subtler than that, to be fair, but Lost in... addresses this aspect the most clearly of any so far. I think.

Which is not to say it isn't fun. It's fun! There is wonder! There is joy! Like all these books, there are several levels of meaning, and simple, mischievous, childlike (NB childlike, not childish) amazement is part of the package too.

And while standalone, there are also callouts to the other boys, and eventually, a like of coming-home-but-not that promised more of Antsy and perhaps hints that some of those unresolved questions will be revisited and, er, resolved.

For more details about Lost in the Moment and Found here is the US Macmillan page for the book.

6 June 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Perilous Times by Thomas D Lee

Cover for book "Perilous Times" by Thomas D Lee. A dragon's tail curls about a tree. Behind and to the left, a castle. To the right, an industrial skyline with chimneys belching fumes into the sky. In front of the castle is a lake from which a hand reaches, holding a sword.
Perilous Times
Thomas D Lee
Orbit, 23 May 2023
Available as: HB, 534pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356518527

I'm grateful to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the Perilous Times blogtour and to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of the book to consider for review.

Drake is in his hammock an' a thousand miles away, sleeping until his country needs him... but Arthur sleeps in England, resting with his knights in a cave beneath Alderney Edge - a farmer once saw him when the wizard who wove the magic needed a last white horse. Or perhaps elsewhere, in Scotland where his seat overlooks the Parliament building, or Wales - or on the Island of Avalon, where the sweet apples grow, or before the High Altar at Glastonbury Abbey (but they dug him up!) There are hills, stones and barrows across this land associated with the sleeping king and while the stories about his life are confused and contradictory, all agree that he saved Britain - or tried to.

So go the legends, telling us that we are special, that Britan is guarded, protected. Whether Arthur is the exemplar of a mythical code of chivalry, or the leader of a post-Roman* warband, hardly matters. What he means changes from age to age as we change, and he can equally be a New Age archetype, the defender of the Greenwood and a spirit of of the ancient land...

...Or we can look closer, as Thomas D Lee does in this story of a gathering apocalypse, environmental, yes, but also hastened by the grey-faced oilmen and warmongers. In such times, do we need a war leader? Does Pendragon's record actually stand much scrutiny? Perilous Times is one of several books I've read lately that take a sceptical look. Here, things are narrated by Kay, Arthur's stepbrother, but we also meet Mariam, a young women of the early 21st century who's definitely not waiting for a white knight to gallop up to her on his horse.

Just as well because Kay isn't white and he doesn't have a horse (for most of the book). Kay has been bound by Merlin's magic to rise from the earth when summoned, or when England is in danger, and over the centuries he's become accustomed to clawing his way up from the mud to face slaughter, often at the command of those same grey faced men, one of whom also features in the story. Others of Arthur's court have the same ability - suffer the same fate - and a theme here that Lee explores intelligently is the limit of loyalty, and the habit we have of surrendering choice for the comfort of a strong leader who thinks they have the answers.

In a world going all to pieces that's a comforting thing to be able to do, but is it actually helpful - for Kay or for the bemused band of women she is part of, women who seek both to ameliorate the conditions of those suffering from climate collapse, war, and persecution and to put an end to the evils that cause them. As in Arthur's day, many factions jostle for power in the land, not least mercenaries and fanatics. 

Lee navigates this complicated moral landscape with considerable skill, deftly blending the personal and the political and rooting them in a landscape - whether an apocalyptic Manchester or a hellish metal Avalon - that has heft and depth, not least when Kay or Lancelot are seeing it through fifteen hundred year old memories of Mamucium or Londinium.

There is though more to these fascinating characters than their status as legends walking the modern world. We come to learn how both have devoted their lives - many lifetimes - to the grubby business of Empire, to the belief that they had a purpose, that they mattered and could make a difference. There are centuries of horror locked in Kay's head, so much so that at time he welcomes another death and his return to the mud, but also centuries of experience. It's patchy, iffy experience and he doesn't always understand the modern world (who does?) but he can also bring some perspective and he can spot a bad idea when he sees one.

So - let's get the (war)band together for one last time, sharpen the sword edges and form up the shieldwall because, yes, these are Perilous Times indeed.

I just loved this book - it's a truly modern take on Arthur and the Matter of Britain, a long-needed updating to counteract the seizing of our national myths by those with dubious purposes, but more than that, just a brilliant, involving read (and great fun to see some hints and allusions to other books I've read and loved - not least the tarnished iron gates below Alderney Edge). Strongly recommended (though there is one death in this book that I'm not sure I'll forgive Lee for...)

For more information about Perilous Times, see the other stops on the blogtour - or you can go to the publisher's website here.

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

*We don't use the "D**k A**s" term on this blog.

1 June 2023

#Review - The Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge by MR Carey

Book "Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge" by MR Carey. A woman with blonde hair stands at the bottom of a set of stairs with other figures behind her.
The Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge
MR Carey
Absinth Books, December 2022
Available as: HB, 85pp
Source: Purchased
ISBN: 9781786368713

MR Carey's novella takes us to the cosy (or, as it turns out, not so cosy) town of Hove Harbour in a world close to our own but with magic (albeit, magic that is in many places persecuted and hunted down).

It's a modern-ish world but at the same time the setting is rather enclosed. Here Fain runs a boarding house which she has inherited from her mother Cass - who, despite her death,  hangs around to give advice. I enjoyed hearing about the peculiarities of the different lodgers, a rather spiky group of eccentrics who often rub one another up the wrong way but, once suspects, couldn't live without each other either. 

Fain's life is taken up with cooking. cleaning and generally managing with little time for herself and still less for romance - until the enigmatic Mina Sellicks arrives, and gives Fain just what she needs...

It would be spoilery to go much further, but I will just say that as the boarding house itself is threatened and its reality begins to warp, Fain will have to delve back into her most painful recollections to defend herself. The fabled Stardome Lounge, which hasn't opened since her father ran off with a musician decades before, will open for one final night. There will be music, and moonlight... and an eldritch horror.

Basically a rattling good story that kept me guessing and provided the perfect ending, part fairytale, part romance, all cracking good story.

For more information about The Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge see the publisher's website here

30 May 2023

#Review - Conquest by Nina Allan

Cover for book "Conquest" by Nina Allan. A tower, formed out of musical staves, with notes flocking on them like figures in a building. The title is spelled out vertically downwards in red letters.
Nina Allan
Riverrun, 11 May 2023
Available as: HB, 320pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy & purchased copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529420777

I'm grateful to Riverrun for sending me an advance e-copy of Conquest via Netgalley to consider for review, this was also a book I had to have on my shelves!

Nina Allan is one of my favourite authors - I love the sense of unease her books deliver, of ordinary lives taking place alongside the "other". In Conquest, we have three characters whose stories are tightly bound. Frank, a rather shy young man who's entranced by the music of JS Bach, has gone missing in France, after travelling (his first time abroad!) to meet "friends" he met online. Has he fallen in with a sinister cult? Are they a criminal ring who have been grooming him? Or "harmless" cranks pushing a conspiracy theory? Or - just possibly - do they see an important truth that others overlook? We don't know.

Rachel is Frank's girlfriend, Allan portraying her, and her (and Frank's) background on a London estate (actually two - the bad estate and the good estate) deftly. She reports Frank missing, but the police aren't very interested, and she's left in limbo, not knowing whether to wait for him, or get on with rebuilding her life.

Robin is the private detective to whom Rachel turns in despair when Frank remains missing. She's the main voice in this story and I really enjoyed Allan revealing Robin's backstory bit by bit. It's a rich and complicated one, taking in Robin's former career with the police (she evidently had a love/ hate relationship with her hard-bitten boss), her personal life (she was adopted, her mother dying when she was young, her father nowhere to be seen) and her run-ins with notorious London crime families. Allan always delivers wonderful characters, people who are many-layered, connected in subtle ways and who simply stroll off the page and into your life.

As does the mystery at the heart of this book. That mystery is approached in several different ways. The book contains the gist of a 50s SF story seen by Frank as key to some sort of cosmic puzzle, but also articles by a film critic who we later meet, and it also connects with Allan's short story "The Lichens" included in the Someone in Time anthology of time-travel romance. It has recurring themes - Frank's (and Rachel's) obsession with Bach isn't coincidental and Allan analyses pieces and even individual recordings and performers to highlight concerns explored here. Ideas of war, of - yes - conquest, and of taint and influence, recur. The atmosphere is haunting, suggestive. Frank's suggestion of an important message coded into a text is relevant, I think, but the "text" is much more then simply a piece of writing and the "decoding" is something that the reader can engage in but that we also see the characters - Rachel, especially - undergo.

As well as resonating with themes form Allan's wider writing - ramified stories, the aftermath of war - there are other echoes too, including to MR James, all giving the sense of a deeply rooted tale, of a heft, a background to the story we read here.

Has Rachel been affected by a war? 

Has the enemy, in fact, already conquered - and if so, what does that leave for her?

Conquest is, simply, a delicious read, that rare book which I wished was twice as long. I'd strongly recommend it.

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

25 May 2023

#Blogtour review - Grave Danger by Alice James

Cover for book "Grave Danger" by Alice James. In silhouette, a man and a woman kissing in a graveyard. highlighted against a full moon, a gravestone with the words "MORE MURDER, MORE MAYHEM, MORE ROMANCE"
Grave Danger (Lavington Windsor Series, 2) 
Alice James
Solaris, 23 May 2023
Available as: PB, 298pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786188403

I'm grateful to Alice James herself for sending me an e-copy of Grave Danger to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

I was SO glad to see Alice's "rural fantasy" (modern supernatural, but not urban) continue into another volume. We pick up Lavington (Toni) Windsor's story six months on from the end of the previous book. It's a bleak January, and whole everyone's favourite Staffordshire estate agent/ necromancer (it's in the family!) is settled into a regular routine, flogging property by day and raising the dead/ being with her vampire boyfriend Oscar by night. Toni is though struggling with her relationships - her menage with Oscar and his human partner Peter is problematic: Oscar wants to take her blood and allow her to 'ascend', Toni can't bear the thought.

So a spot of corpse raising to assist her policeman brother William investigate the death of a local schoolgirl sounds like a suitable distraction, but Toni has to be careful. While vampirism is now public and accepted, necromancy isn't - so Toni may draw attention to her talents in a way that may risk opening her activities up to unwelcome attention. 

As well as walking that tightrope, Toni is wary of attracting unwanted attention, lord of the local vampire Assemblage to which Oscar belongs. Benedict warned her off Oscar, and she distrusts him, but she also swore loyalty and is uncomfortably aware that she may as a result be required to intervene in local vampire/ human matters as a result.

I am really enjoying this series. 

Toni is, her nocturnal hobby aside, a refreshingly normal protagonist: she's not out to save the world or defeat dark powers, she enjoys a gossip with her girlfriends, enjoys splashing out on a new outfit when she gets a windfall and has to negotiate office politics (her boss is a bit handsy but otherwise nice). Toni also has a complex family legacy and is short of money (Oscar would help out but would it be wise to let him?) The crime side of the book is well developed mystery which Toni doesn't just jump into and try and solve, she's providing (covert) support for her brother and most of the investigation uses conventional methods with Toni's contribution having to be sneaked in by William. There's also a nicely developing relationship with the dashing Bredon Havers, Toni's favourite corpse to raise, who's seeming becoming younger and easier to call and I wonder where that is going to lead?

Grave Danger is therefore a fine read, a genuinely original, funny and in places sexy read (Toni's relationships are nothing if not full).

It is also, at times VERY dark read. Alongside the supernatural peril and crime, James explores issues of consent, abuse and control in relationships. She admits to a history of poor boyfriend choices, and as this second part of the series opens, is recognising that all is not what it should be with her current ones. It's another issue to be negotiated in a life that is becoming more and more complex and where moral boundaries are far from clear (negotiate with demons? REALLY?)

So there are aspects here which some readers may wish to be aware of before beginning the story, but I would say they are handled with sensitivity and importantly aren't gratuitously or justified because vampires: many of the vampires here would deplore such things.

Overall then, a book that left me wanting more.

For more information about Grave Danger, 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 Grave Danger from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

23 May 2023

#Review - The Last Passenger by Will Dean

Cover for book "The Last Passenger" by Will Dean. A cracked porthole glass, through which we see a rough sea and a grey sky.
The Last Passenger
Will Dean
Hachette, 11 May 2023
Source: Advance e-copy
Available as: HB, 496pp, audio, e
ISBN(HB): 9781529382822

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Last Passenger via NetGalley to consider for review.

I loved this book. 

But having read it, I'm not sure I would ever step aboard a liner or a cruise ship (we're told several times that the RMS Atlantica is the former and that there is a difference, but frankly, I'll not take the risk).

The story is narrated from the perspective of Caz Ripley, owner of a café in a small town in Northern England who is, with her boyfriend Pete, taking the trip of a lifetime. Caz has, as becomes clear, lived a hard life, learning to cope both with her gambling-addicted father, whose behaviour ruined the family, and her substance-addicted sister. Caz has come out on top, sort of, but only with a lot of struggle - and she is haunted by many demons.

Caz will face another hard struggle as the voyage of RMS Atlantica goes fatally wrong, leaving her the only person on board an out of control ship. She will have to dig deep to survive, and it will be as much a psychological as a physical struggle. 

I loved the way that in this struggle, Dean takes a perfectly ordinary seeming situation and plausibly turns it upside down. It would be spoilery to tell you what has happened, and in fact the exact details are only supplied gradually, leaving a teasing mystery - is there a plausible way out of this or not? Whether there is will depend not only on Dean's setup but on Caz's courage, resourcefulness and her appetite for danger. It may be that she's inherited fatal flaws form her gambler father...

While is slightly frustrating not to be able to give more detail about what happens, this really is a book you don't want spoiled, with shocks and twists right through. It succeeds though on its characters, especially, of course, Caz whose own history may give her the ability to win through. Or may doom her to destruction. The others we meet are understably less well defined, but Dean has some surprises there to, playing games with our sympathies - it would be dangerous to pick favourites, still less winners!

On the way to the cracking conclusion are plenty of scenes of utter terror, placing us in the position of a character who's enduring, and suffering extremes of cold, hunger and fear. It's a testament to the writing that each off these episodes reads as chillingly true: The Last Passenger had my heart racing and my Fitbit congratulating me on all the exercise I must be taking. There is a great sense of place - of the cold and dark on the unheated ship, of the thousands of metres of water beneath, the vast sky above, both elements deadly hostile and ready to confront Caz at any time.

All in all, a devastating thriller and more than enough to warn me off ever going after the "old grey Widow-maker".

For more information about The Last Passenger see the publisher's website here.

18 May 2023

#Review - Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway

Cover of book "Titanium Noir" by Nick Harkaway. All done in shades of red and black. Filling most of the cover, a bulky man in a dark coat, looking away from us. Behind him - in direct view - a syringe, needle pointing upwards. the barrel resembles a skyscraper. In front of it are shapes which might be further tall buildings, or smaller figures.
Titanium Noir
Nick Harkaway
Hachette, 18 May 2023
Available as:  HB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781472156938

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me a free advance e-copy of Titanium Noir to consider for review.

The title of this book is particularly apt. The noir is real. 

Cal Sounder is a typical outsider detective, a loner - but not exactly though choice - scraping a living on the mean streets. The book features femmes fatales, a powerful company that seems to pretty much own the city, and cops who have negotiable allegiances. There are shady nightclubs, down-at-heel offices and a deep lake apt for hiding bodies.

It also has... giants.

In what I took to be a near-future world - while seamy and hardscrabble, there are mitigations in place against global heating: for example electric vehicles, and the wealthy can afford the filters needed to extract the carbon so they can enjoy a log fire - a wonder drug called Titanium-7 can heal all ills, at the cost (or with the side benefit) of boosting growth and strength. Those who have taken the drug once are stronger and larger, those who have had two or three courses are the Titans, huge, powerful, and longlived. The only problem is, the drug is also titanically expensive, and with its recipients essentially immortal, there are implicatiions to creating too many of them. This moral problem, of an ongoing 'speciation' separating Titans from common humanity, is an ethical dilemma that haunts the story.

Sounder's speciality is, in many respects, managing this issue. He earns his living keeping Titans in line, mediating between them and between them and humanity, preventing things getting too heated too quickly. Neither a cop nor a traditional PI, he's called in when a scientist is murdered, a scientist who just happens to be a Titan...

The story that then develops is a delightful mosaic of the hard-boiled and the fantastical. Cal's backstory, which is gradually revealed, shows him to have feet in both the human and titan camps, with consequent vulnerabilities - and secrets. The price of digging into the case may be to touch some delicate toes, not least those of Stefan Tonfamecasca, the billionaire owner of T7. But it may also lead back to Cal's own scruffy front door, and his relationship with a member of the Tonfamecasca clan.

Titanium Noir was for me a delight to read, whether I was enjoying Cal's hard-boiled affect, seeing him get way WAY in deeper then he realises, or enjoying him hustle his way out of danger in the underside of the city. In the course of all this Harkaway takes us to some truly memorable scenes, whether a club where anything goes, a revolutionary commune or the (underground?) lair of a monstrous crime boss. There's a lot of riffing off the classics with talk of being sent to the bottom of the lake wearing concrete overshoes, wisecracking goons, and Sounder seen by both cops and villains as an irritating but necessary part of the furniture. That gives him a narrow and tortuous safety zone if he wants to reach the end of the book, and also a narrow line which he manages to (mostly) walk between hope and despair, corruption and martyrdom. Because somebody has to, right?

HIGHLY recommended, and great fun.

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