Map of Blue Book Balloon

7 February 2023

#Review - Jackdaw by Tade Thompson

Book "Jackdaw" by Jade Thompson. Against and orange-red background, resembling paint on a canvas, a composite image making of a human face. The face is made up of bits of printed matter, blobs of paint and other less recognisable elements.The mouth appears to be bleeding.
Jackdaw
Tade Thompson
Cheerio, 6 October 2022 
Available as: HB, 160pp, audio, e  
Source: Bought HB & audio via subscription service
ISBN(HB): 978-1800811652

Jackdaw showcases Thompson writing in a rather different vein from his previous fantasy and SF, I think.

In the book Thompson - the doctor who is the protagonist of the book, not the doctor who is the author of it - is approached with a commission to produce something inspired by the artist Francis Bacon. And Jackdaw certainly is that - following that protagonist as he spirals into an, eventually, dangerous obsession with Bacon.

In documenting that obsession, we get a lot of information about Bacon, one of those artists whose creativity and wider life were closely associated with his demons. We also learn a lot about the (fictional? I hope so) Thompson. The line between real life and fiction, between art and illusion, however becomes paper thin. Those demons step out of the shadows, driving Thompson-the-narrator into all sorts of risky behaviour - financial, sexual, and spiritual.

It's a book that's hard to describe, harder to put down, the nested layers of reality and fiction bleeding into one another and threatening our narrator's personal and professional lives. A powerful story, going to some very personal places and playing with the reader's expectations (see, for example, the episode from the earlier life of the protagonist's wife).

There are also some lighter moments (though darkness is never far away) including the scenes involving a sex worker, and those where the protagonists's agent appears.

Jackdaw is truly one of those books you simply have to experience for yourself and I can especially recommend the audio version, narrated by Thompson himself for an experience that is even more mixed-up, even more blurred, his calm voice simultaneously emphasising the horror that his life has become and complicating still further the reality depicted - even in those humorous episodes (I'd guess, for example, that the incident described at the SF convention really happened...)

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


2 February 2023

#Review - Exiles by Jane Harper

Cover for book "Exiles" by Jane Harper.
Exiles (Aaron Falk series)
Jane Harper
Pan MacMillan, 2 February 2023
Available as: HB, 432pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529098440

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Exiles via NetGally to consider for review.  

I adore Jane Harper's Aaron Falk books. Falk, a financial detective with the Australian police, has a knack of finding himself with crimes to solve in remote small towns. Some of these have been very personal, touching his own past and that of his family, and we have seen him very raw, very exposed, by what has emerged.

Here, in Exiles, he seems to be healing somewhat when he visits the remote community of Marralee Valley for the baptism of his closest friend's child. Even so, he can't escape a mystery his previous visit, a year ago, coincided with the disappearance of a woman who left her baby in his pushchair at a festival. Her family and friends plan using the anniversary to appeal for information, and staying on for a few days, Falk begins to pull and tease at the case.

I simply loved this book. Not only do we get a classic, absolutely cracking crime story here - a sort of locked room mystery in reverse - but we get to spend time with Aaron. Harper's handling of all her themes here - the close knit group of friends and family who seem, even so, to have lost one of their own. The teenage daughter perplexed at her mum's disappearance. A romantic subplot for Falk - perhaps. And lush, beautiful writing about place and environment, not, this time, a desiccated, dying town but a place of greenery and enterprise, the annual Food and Wine Festival bringing much needed visitor dollars and business to the region's vineyards and producers.

It's a story that takes its time, following a gentle pace and establishing everyone's viewpoint - except of course for Kim, the missing mother of two. We hear about her from her circle, how much she is missed, what she was going through and we are given - in recollections from those friends of growing up in the time - a vivid impression of her when younger, too.

This is in so many respects a beautiful book, readable, beguiling, a sensitive and even moving portrait of small town life and of the compromises and losses of going up, of the lengths people will go for love. The writing is glorious, the dialogue and the characters simply superb.

It also has some portraits of the darker side of human nature. I won't be specific because that is tightly bound with the secret of what happened a year ago in Marralee. I will say that Exiles also celebrates solidarity, nurturing and gentle, persistent love. Indeed I think this is at the core of the book. 

I was also so pleased to see Aaron healing and growing, if you follow these books you will understand what I mean when I say he is a very special man and I just love the development and growth we see in the books.

To summarise: this is a wonderful, outstanding in what was already and outstanding series. I don't know whether Harper is going to let Aaron Falk rest for a bit now, he certainly deserves it though I for one would be delighted to meet him again in a future book.

Probably my favourite of the year so far, don't miss this one.

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

31 January 2023

#Review - The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

Book "The Terraformers" by Annalee Newitz. The title is written sideways, running up the cover about two thirds of the way from the left hand side. To its left, a landscape of water, mountains and greenery. Behind the title, a tall tree. To the right of the title, modern, latticed buildings, a vertical city.
The Terraformers
Annalee Newitz
Orbit, 2 February 2023
Available as: PB, 338pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356520865 

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The Terraformers to consider for review.

The Terraformers is, I think, Newitz's first book for several years and it is really good to see a new work from this author. It is an excellent of example of all that SF can be at its best - challenging, laden with breathtaking ideas, and epic in scale and conception (though in this case not length - it's refreshing to meet a book with a span of centuries and a planetary scale narrative that is not a trilogy).

Set some 60,000 years in the future, The Terraformers considers our future at a time when "people" have spread far and wide across the universe. Post the "Great Bargain" other forms of life than humanity - animals and plants, as well as various AIs, bots and hybrids of bio, tech and AI  - qualify as "people" and are entitled to a say in how things are run. This activity is overseen by "Environmental Rescue Teams", ERTs, whose focus is ecology, but more than that - one might almost say theirs is the science, or perhaps the engineering, of community, in the broadest possible sense.

So this book is filled with lifeforms designed, or engineered, for particular purposes - H. Sapiens may assume they are the default, the template, but they can be designed to be ultra-receptive to networks, or reworked as H. Varialis to breathe atmospheres of carbon and nitrogen. We meet sentient, flying moose, intelligent cows with bionic legs, and a cat reporter who forms a friendship with a flying train. Newton's audacious concepts only sound bizarre out of context: in the story they arise as almost inevitable in this future, and not just as technological maybes but as actual, living, feeling and suffering - well, people, which is the point, I think.

Troublingly for a future in which such a bewildering array of life is given a voice, and one in which there is radical acceptance of individuals (Newitz presents a variety of genders and all manner of romantic connections) economic and social inequality is as bad as ever, or perhaps worse. Corporates are able to, literally, build and own people, burning in rules to keep those people in their place. The Terraformers is about, among other things, how that process - built on the rock of private ownership - comes to be challenged.

Structured as three episodes taking place over several centuries we see the development of a new planet, Sask-E, in its early days a "pristine" wilderness (only, not really), some time later with cities are being established, and then, in the third part, as those cities fall under the control of a particularly unpleasant corporate overlord pandering to a strain of H. Sapiens genetic particularity. Each time, it's ingenuity, solidarity and daring that saves the day, though most of the characters we meet don't overlap between the parts, even though these are recognisably stories of the same communities. (I was reminded rather of Asimov's earliest Foundation stories, visiting the same polity at interesting times during a long evolution, although the imaginative leaps here are much greater and the science social as much as physical).

The accent is, then, on people (of wide and diverse types) confronting "problems" - environmental, political and developmental - their interventions then being allowed to run and the results presented  centuries later. A risk with such a structure could be that really, we're just being given a kind of animated history: Newitz pushes back on that by making the main characters gloriously, passionately real, giving then lives, loves and involvements that both illuminate and transcend the development of the plot. Indeed, one senses that at some levels, aspects of these people have complicated, rather than facilitated, the author's plotting - but also that at another, they are the perfect illustration of a thesis that the future is diverse, and that it needs to be diverse. The "plot" therefore accommodates variety of both forms and opinions and apparent drawbacks of that - the awkwardness of decision making in the ERTs, for example - are really strengths.

It's a complex, thought-provoking and engaging book. Though I think it won't be for everyone - the story telling is in a very particular style and often the viewpoint characters are far form driving the plot -  it's a style that grew on me and that really pays off, suiting both the setting of the book and the duracxtion of the storyline. And behind that, Newitz really is a clever and accomplished storyteller, giving us something genuinely different and ultimately breathtaking.

Wonderful reading.

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



 

26 January 2023

#Review - Barrow of Winter by HM Long

Book "Barrow of Winter" by HM Long. In the centre, the enormous head of a beats, with brown fur, its mouth gaping wide. Standing in front of it, her back to us and facing the animal, is the silhouette of a woman in blue-white. She is wrapped in flowing robes and holds a spear. Her feet rest on snowcapped mountains.
Barrow of Winter (Hall of Smoke 3)
HM Long
Titan Books, 17 January 2023
Available as: PB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803360027

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Barrow of Winter via Netgalley, to consider for review.

'Why am I creeping down a tunnel in an abandoned tomb, other than curiosity and the encouragement of an owl that isn't an owl?'

Barrow of Winter returns to HM Long's Hall of Smoke universe (Hall of Smoke, Temple of No God) but it rings some changes. 

The first two books focussed largely on Hessa, and saw her grow from a young woman in the first book to a mature warrior-priestess in the second. I had wondered whether the third would therefore show us an ageing Hessa. We don't get that. While Hessa plays a role in this story, she's not central to it - and still more than capable of fighting in battle. But the story mainly follows Thray, Hessa's sort-of niece, now a priestess in her own right but more significantly, a young woman who wants to know more about her own origins and nature.

Some twenty years after the cataclysmic events of the previous book - the deaths of gods and the overthrowing of empires and an old order of things - the land of the Eangen is now at (relative) peace and the worship of the newly ascendent god Thvnder well established. Life is calm for Thray... except when she goes out deliberately hunting deadly beasts just to find out whether she can die. As a descendent of the dead god of winter she may be immortal, but she doesn't want to see those she loves die before time after time, like some of her siblings. She therefore wants to know.

That impulse in Thray to push boundaries is established early on, and she lives up to it throughout the book (oddly reminding me of Hessa in Hall of Smoke). Despite being betrothed to a devoted young warrior and having numerous responsibilities as priestess for her village, it's clearly only a matter of time before Thray will find some reason to head off into the North to learn about her kin and where she came from. The opportunity, when it comes, takes us into whole new realms of Long's fascinating world - a country bound in darkness beneath everlasting winter, one where strange new gods and their priests, and Thray's own kin, the Winterborn, coexist uneasily in a fragile politics already threatened by climate change and hunger for power.

The political turns out to be very personal indeed for Thray. The Winterborn aren't to be trusted, but they possess knowledge and abilities that she needs to make sense of her life. Will she be able to coax those from them without giving up her own identity, her own future? What will the price be?

A novel of becoming, of growth, of loyalty, treason and of discovering what really matters, Barrow of Winter was very enjoyable, very fast-paced and laced with mysteries. Thray is a relatable and interesting protagonist and Long makes this book entertaining and fun in its own right even if you haven'r read the previous ones. For myself, I'd like to have seen more of Hessa, but I appreciate that as High Priestess of a flourishing cult her life is probably too admin-y for a thrilling adventure - she has responsibilities and is old enough to know she shouldn't abandon them unlike Thray does.

Recommended.

For more information about Barrow of Winter, see the publisher's website here.



24 January 2023

#Review - How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Book "How to Sell a Haunted House" by Grady Hendrix. A floor and a wall, covered in blue wallpaper and a blue carpet. Both have seen better days. Between them is white skirting board, and in front of that, a battered model house with a red label attached saying "50% off". Red light shines out of the front door onto the porch...
How to Sell a Haunted House
Grady Hendrix
Titan Books, 17 January 2023
Available as: HB, 400pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN (HB): 9781803360539

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of How to Sell a Haunted House via Netgalley to consider for review.

More Grady Hendrix is a Good Thing - these books always represent thoughtful horror, alive to the tropes and conventions, indeed often rather slyly commenting on them, but going A LOT further than that.

In How to Sell a Haunted House, we are back in Charleston, when Louise, a designer living and working in California, is called home after the horrific deaths of her parents. Her no-use brother Mark, who she's always rather pitied and despised, has appointed himself to manage all the arrangements but Louise just KNOWS he wan't be able to cope. And that's before strange things start happening at the old family house...

How to Sell a Haunted House is a book that works on several different levels, much of the fun being how those levels interact and contradict.

At the most basic, there are issues between Louise and Mark. A death in the family is apt to expose family fractures: it can't but, because by definition, things and situations are left unresolved forever - and grief and fear of the future can be articulated as anger and regret. We certainly get that here. The book, written from Louise's perspective, dwells on her resentment that while she is the good girl, the hard working and practical one who has sacrificed, Mark has coasted through life, taking advantage of his parents - and now wants to sell their house as soon as he can and enjoy the money. Rather cleverly, Hendrix waits to let Mark have his say and give his side of things - so by then what we hear comes as rather a shock.

It's even more of a shock because at that stage, strange and scary events in the empty house (a house filled with home made puppets!) are in full swing. Mark's and Louise's understanding, and interpretations of what is going are different, reflecting their by then well established character differences, and so the emerging supernatural threat does not bring them together in solidarity. Rather, it drives them further apart. Both family discord and gathering horrors are very well done - no spoilers though! - and Hendrix consistently wrongfooted me about what was going to happen next. It's a very particular mix of implied threat and full on, physical horror. (CW: readers may want to be aware that we do see some rather gory events - be careful if you're squeamish). 

So - family issues, Something Nasty in the Empty House - but there's more besides. There is, of course, a mystery to be solved before Louise and Mark will have any chance of sorting the problems, indeed of surviving at all. It seems their family isn't quite what they thought, and the presence of a large number of cousins and aunts obscures that more than casting light on it. Again, everyone has different, and skewed, points of view but these need to be brought together to find the answer. That was rather skilfully reflected in the number of times that I thought, ah, they've spoken to X, X will know what's up and how to fix it - but X never did (even if some of the scenes of failure are rather hilarious).

It's that social, cooperative angle that always makes me enjoy Hendrix's books - there may be objective, supernatural horror here but it's entwined with real, believable family dynamics and psychology. Nothing's going to be solved by waving a cross around or drawing a circle of protection. You have to go back to the roots of the thing, but how can that work when the people who really know about it have just died?

Great fun, scary, well-paced and true to life (and death). Don't miss this one.

For more details about How to Sell a Haunted House, see the publisher's website here.


19 January 2023

#Review - Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow

Cover for book "Needless Alley" by Natalie Marlow. A dark black-green image, showing a man inn coat, scarf and hat,  with his back to us, looking into a canal. To his right a street lamp, to his left, a bridge over the canal. The scene is contained by the outline of a woman's coat, with her head and shoulders visible at the top. It's in the style of the 1930s, with a fur collar and she is wearing a round hat.
Needless Alley
Natalie Marlow
Baskerville, 19 January 2023
Source: Advance copy
Available as: HB, 322pp, e, audio
ISBN(HB): 9781399801799

I'm grateful to Baskerville for sending me an advance copy of Needless Alley to consider for review.

'This was Savile Row smut, nicely tailored and nothing vulgar. Smut for gentlemen rather than players. Smut for the officer class, no doubt of that...'

Set in the early 30s Birmingham, Needless Alley explores the contradictions of that city - the powerful and wealthy with their country houses and vast incomes from manufacturing, and the demimonde. The bridge between the two is William Garrett - Billy -  a private detective whose trade is to facilitate divorces for husbands who wish to be shot of their wives.

William is a complex character, a man who's reinvented himself. Marlow (what a name for a writer of noir!) explicitly pitches him as that man who is not himself mean, but who walks those mean streets. William though has his flaws. He confesses to being drawn by money. he is in a dirty trade, operating honeytraps to obtain compromising photos of those inconvenient wives so they can be divorced. Most of all, to the modern eye perhaps, he's distanced from his origins. Not physically, because the canals where he grew up are only a few hundred yards from his office on Needless Alley, but emotionally and socially. William has smoothed away his Brummie accent and there's some bad blood (never explained) between him and the barge people, bad blood that gets him a kicking at one point in the novel. It feels as though he's shut the door to where he came from

Still, it's his old friend Queenie that William turns to when he gets into trouble, his accent slipping - I loved the way that Marlow played with the characters' speech, you can hear them all clearly in your mind as you read the book - and we then learn a bit of what binds him to her and to his other friend Ronnie. Ronnie plays the honey in William's traps, and he's also another who has a foot in different worlds, more so than even William realises.

This book takes us to those worlds - to clandestine Queer bars, to haunts of artists and sex workers, to the tenements of the poor and to the locations of seamy photoshoots, where powerful men pay to watch the models pose, to closed factories and far-right politics, to the struggles of desperate people to stay one step away from destitution. A perfect noir setting, Marlow's Birmingham is a city whose residents are still struggling with the legacy of war - William clearly suffering form what now we'd call PSTD - and, as I said, struggling to get by, but one where every new opportunity (and every willing victim) is being exploited.

William finds himself a refuge from all this for a while, an unexpected refuge, but in doing so he brings more trouble on himself than he could have imagined. When reputations are threatened, his hard-won status will count for little except to identify him as someone who doesn't know their place and who can therefore take the blame for whatever is really going on.

Needless Alley is a beautifully written novel, a very material book. Natalie Marlow dwells on the physicality of her city - the heat of the Summer, the stink of the canals, the Birmingham brass of a bullet  casing, the new steel handcuffs on the model in that photography session. And always the cigarette smoke, the drink, the noise, a cacophony that lets up only briefly when William finds... well, that would be a spoiler.

I loved this book. I loved William. I loved Phyll, his unlikely ally in the spiral of blood and deception he enters and his guide in some of the hidden places he needs to walk. I loved spotting familiar locations transformed. I loved its engagement with the toxic mess that is British class. Most of all I loved its exploration of a vibrant, jostling city - and of the darkness just beneath the surface. A glorious read.

(CW that the book does deal with themes of rape and abuse and there is one fairly gruesome description of a murder scene).

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

17 January 2023

#Review - The Flowering by Alison Littlewood

Cover for book "The Flowering" by Alison Littlewood. In purple and black, concentric geometric designs shrink to a point.
The Flowering
Alison Littlewood
Black Shuck Books, 24 November 2022
Available as: PB, 148pp audio, e  
Source: Bought
ISBN(PB): 9781913038960

The Flowering is a collection of six short stories from Alison Littlewood, unconnected in setting or character but linked in that they are all horrors set in historical times - there's a whiff of Dickens in places, a dash of MR James perhaps, but overall, an eerie sensibility that is all Littlewood's own.

In the first tale, The Zoetrope, we get a bit of that Jamesian "pleasing terror" as the instrument of the title becomes both the means by which an injustice is brought to light and the tool by which it might be avenged. Exploring the constraints suffered by women in a deeply patriarchal society, the new-fangled gadget perhaps also foreshadows how the tables might be turned.

The Marvellous Talking Machine also centres on a device, albeit one with more of the magical and less of the technological about it. The machine of the title is a travelling exhibit at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, a real setting, and again, we see - in a kind of historical Black Mirror way - how an attempt at a transformative technology, long before the days of Siri and Alexa, might go awry.

Meet Me at the Frost Fair has a classic opening, a ghost story being told in the snug sitting-room of a gentleman's club on a foggy London evening. Looking back at memories of strange events some decades back, the narrator might have been wiser not to call to mind things that may, after all, not be wholly done with...

The Ballad Box takes us to the hardscrabble world of Dickensian London where balladeers eke a living from the imagined deeds and fake last words of the celebrity criminals carried out to dance the Tyburn Jig. An atmosphere of sudden death, cynical exploitation and guilt pervades this story. You'll never feel quite the same passing Seven Dials again.

The Winter Tree also has its share of guilt and also shows how class, sex and convention blend to press cruel fates on, especially, women. With a delicate blend of the supernatural and of human cruelty, the effect is subtle and builds in this haunting story.

The Flowering has some similar elements, but also uses a horticultural setting as both an extended metaphor and, indeed, a new language, telling a story of love, betrayal and revenge.

These stories are perfect for a dark winter's evening with the fire lit and the TV firmly off. But you may choose to leave the lamps lit afterwards.

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