2 June 2020

Review - The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Cover by Peter Bollinger
The Obsidian Tower (Rooks and Ruin, 1)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 2 June (e), 4 June (PB) 2020
Available as: PB, 488pp, e
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9780356513188

In The Obsidian Tower, Caruso returns to the content of Eruvia some 150 years after the events of her previous Swords and Fire trilogy. The cruel enslavement of mages in Raverra is no more, and the focus of this first book in Rooks and Ruin is on the territory of Morgrain which is part of Vaskandar.

I enjoyed seeing things from the perspective of a region ruled by one of the Witch Lords (actually, the Lady of Owls) and in fact that's not the only perspective shift we see here. What will strike the reader immediately, I think, is the strange, but utterly timely, position of Caruso's main protagonist, Exalted Ryxander ("Ryx" to her friends). Put simply, Rxy has to keep a distance from anyone else, in case they die. An early scene sees her recall meeting a friend, each sat at one end of a bench, clearly maintaining the requisite 2m social distance. Caruso swears that she didn't use a crystal ball, or other means of divination, to pitch her story so squarely at our present circumstances but she's clearly off to something of a head start in reflecting the world of 2020.

The detailed reason for Ryx's behaviour are something I'll leave for now - spoilers! - but it is intimately bound to her position I the magical hierarchy of Vaskander and Caruso imagines it, and the challenges it poses, well, from the frightened pageboy who realises too late that he's close to the faces of the castle servants as they to the real possibility - present throughout this book - that Ryx will be brought to account for a death under the harsh customs of her nation.

As if that threat wasn't enough, the book presents us with an intricate mixture of ancient magics, modern diplomacy, pigheaded will-to-power and the simple desire of a young woman to live a little (not easy, in her particular circumstances). Delegations from hostile powers have assembled at Ryx's home, Gloamingard, to settle a territorial dispute and the fate of the content - war or peace - may turn on the result. Castle Gloamingard has something of the incremental, haphazard construction of a Gormenghast with forgotten corridors, hidden rooms and secrets passageways. It also harbours a four thousand years old secret - a doorway that must not be opened.

Caruso has sone fun with that trope. Of course we know that door's going to open! Of course we know the consequences will be bad! But rather than dwell on what horrors may follows - we do find out, but not for a good while - we are given the politics around the event. Imagine Denethor, Saruman, Gandalf and Sauron's ambassador sitting down too negotiate the fate of the Ring. Yes, Ryx is staging a peace conference, complicated by a series of murders (for one of which she is being blamed) while coping with the absence of a key ally and her own, personal difficulties. Essentially a bad day at the office (for a very special value of "office").

The book succeeds brilliantly, forcing Ryx to play for high stakes against some really, really awkward people. The action mostly takes place within Gloamingard itself, giving the book - as the murders begin - a bit of the air of a country house mystery (for a very special value of "country house"). One difference is that country house mysteries don't generally invoke continent-scale warfare.

Another is that they don't normally have protagonists as absorbing, well drawn and engaging as Ryx. In her, Caruso has given us a truly memorable woman, struggling to live with and overcome disadvantages in a society that's snootily obsessed with skills and talents and which attempts non too subtly to silence and marginalise her. She's having none of that, and fiercely pursues both what she sees as her duty to her people and her desire for some life of her own. Of course, the question of what will happen if - when - those aims collide hangs over this book - but I'd trust Ryx to find a way through in the end.

All in all this is a zinger of a book, suggesting that Rooks and Ruin will be every bit as readable, absorbing and epic as was Swords and Fire. If not more.

The Obsidian Tower is published in the UK as an e-book on 2 June and as a paperback on 4th. I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit UK for an advance copy to consider for review.

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


29 May 2020

Review - Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Firewalkers
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Solaris, 13 May 2020
Available as: e, limited edition HB, 208pp
Read as: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781781088487

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

Nguyēn Sun Mao is a firewalker, that is, a fixer who, with a trusted crew, will venture out into the withering heat of near future, global-heating afflicted tropical Africa to mend tech.

The little community he lives in - Ankara Achouka - owes its existence to a rich-person project to escape the heat and death. Ankara it, literally, the site of the Anchor (or one of them), the foot of a space elevator that serves the building starship Grand Celeste. Workers were gathered from around the world ('There'd been plenty out of Vietnam who'd needed somewhere that wasn't underwater right about them') to construct it, repopulating zones previously abandoned as the temperature rose.

Scattered around in the desiccated countryside are the abandoned villa estates of the monied who got together to fund escalator and starship, the labs and research stations where it was designed, and square kilometres of solar panels to power everything. It's all pretty much abandoned now as the last few passengers drive, stay briefly in Ankara and make their way to their berths. Mao and his ilk scratch out a bare living keeping those panels running to serve the hotel and town, and fixing this and that.

Of course, this book involves a trip out of town into the heat and into danger, a trip that will change things for ever...

Tchaikovsky packs a great deal into this short book. There's the closely observed relationship between Mao and his team - Lupé, who 'just liked the feel of the metal under her fingers', Hotep, 'the space girl', a young woman expelled from the Celeste because she didn't fit in ('She laughed at the wrong times, cried at the wrong things, took the wrong message from jokes,,,') - one of the elite, born, in her view, to be an astronaut, but now to be left behind, she's an ambiguous figure ('she had a right to be mad, maybe, but that didn't make her the avenging champion of the world either'), which is reflected in the way everyone around her behaves.

There are heartbreaking, truly fearful descriptions of the ruin of Earth, the dry river beds, dusty plains and long-gone animals and and trees (trees are now just something strange you see in old pictures- were they ever real?) The repellant, processed food. And, everywhere, the legacy of the rich who, rather than try to fix things, squandered resources on building themselves an escape route.

It is a really grim vision, but in these times of one rule for the powerful, one for the rest of us, it hardly takes much persuasion that these might be the consequences, this might come true.

There is, also, of course, a mystery driving events here. Just what's causing the power drops that Mao is sent out to fix? The job takes him and the team way, way out into the badlands, to areas rumour populates with the strange, dangerous relics of experiments, where possibly labs still run on auto, tampering with who knows what. Mao is chosen for having survived one nightmare trip already but this time he faces different challenges.

There is some beautiful (and clever!) writing here ('the libido faction in Mao's personal government tabled a motion', 'They were heading for the Heart of Brightness', a sun 'the head of a white hot rivet just driven in by some celestial smith'). I loved the way that Mao's, and his crew's, expectation of the ruined, abandoned villas they discover, and the civilisation they represented, is all mediated through popular dramas which themselves don't comprehend what they're portraying, or the grimly realistic cultural attitudes embedded in the text, exposed when Lupé finds a working mirror screen that, to flatter, smooths the blemishes from her skin - and renders it 'a good few shades lighter'.

While there's a SF core to the novel in its background of climate disaster, space travel and future tech, the events are all driven by the consequences of flawed humanity as we know it and can see it today. There's no redeeming hero trying to fix things, indeed from what we see of the powerful here they're all about to begin a scramble over each other for escape, leaving Mao and his like to wither in the heat.

Which is what makes it - despite the temperatures experienced by Mao and Co! - still a chilling read. It's a book I'd recommend, as temperature records fall and we hear talk of colonies on Mars which, I'm sure, won't be for you and me...

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

27 May 2020

Review - Were We Awake? Stories by LM Brown

Were We Awake: Stories
LM Brown
Fomite Press, 20 November 2019
Available as: PB,  236pp, e
Read as: e
ISBN: 9781947917330

I'm grateful to the author for a free e-copy of these stories to consider for review.

Were We Awake follows Brown's previous collection Treading the Uneven Road (which I reviewed here). Again, many are set in the same world, and town in Ireland and feature many common characters and themes. Like that book, a few are also set in elsewhere, particularly in Boston. We see some remembered events but from different perspectives. Indeed perspective is a theme here - we see people who presumed themselves and their lives to be central to their own "stories" reminded that they are also on the margins of others' stories: the way that the wider reality of Brown's imagined world is conveyed as separate stories says something about the nature of her characters' experience

In the first story, Communion, for example, for two young boys, Raymond and Alby an afternoon in school is disrupted when silence falls over the nearby quarry, and sirens are heard. This story describes an event we've already heard about in Brown's stories but from a new perspective and it captures that sense you can have in childhood of knowing that momentous, dreadful things have happened while still wanting your tea and to play with a friend. The story adds something to what we already know from Treading the Uneven Road and in doing that casts some of the experiences in that book in a rather different light.

In Hidden, a young woman waits to see if she will be offered a place at college - which will mean leaving her parents Evelyn and Lorcan and her aunt Bevin who share a house on the shore. (Evelyn and Hazel appear briefly in "The Accident"). Cleverly, what seems to be the centre of the story, a moment of growing-up for Hazel, is turned upside down by a discovery. I loved that way that Hazel's reaction to that discovery undermines her supposed maturity and also upends what one might have thought the centre of the story was.

Flight returns to Raymond from Communion as a young man, living with his mother and employed by his uncle as a rent collector on the estate. Raymond senses that there's something unexplained about his father's death (a mystery that was explained in Treading the Uneven Road) but, unable to get answers, he focuses instead on the lives of the tenants, a sphere of life where he has some power. I enjoyed the juxtaposition. In Communion, we have just seen a horrific event from Alby's perspective, here in "Flight", some ten or fifteen years later, Raymond, closer to it, is apparently unperturbed. He can't really remember his Da, whose loss has become more of an intellectual puzzle, and he's unable to solve even that.

The Clown Prince opens as Alexander, a clown struggling to support his family, puts on his make-up, The Clown Prince is pregnant with alternatives, possibilities, things not said - going back to the very roots of his and his wife's marriage. I felt there was more lurking here than is spoken - that identities are in question, patience running low, doubts bubbling.

Walking a Country Road is a tense, almost claustrophobic story concerning a couple who moved back to Sligo from London and then divorced. Brown slowly unreels the layers, from the perspective of their daughter Leanne who feels constrained by being named for her father's dead - murdered - sister. There are powerful currents of guilt, mistakes being made to atone for past mistakes in a relationship between the three that seems wrong from all directions. Very powerful.

What It Is To be Empty-Handed is set in the US, the protagonist - a 14 year old girl - narrating how she travels with her mother from one dingy lodging or motel to another, never attending school but being notionally homeschooled. Now "Debra" is insisting on being called that, rather than "Mom" - and as the story is spilled, as the narrator is plied with drink by an older man one evening, we begin to see the dislocation that explains that. This was a truly chilling and despairing story.

Crashing gives us a very interior-focussed narrative. Catherine is worked to a frazzle between the selfish demands of two bone idle men, her husband Dermot (whose likes his eggs done a very particular way, and whose latest imposition is a new dog, which of course she has to look after) and her son whose house several miles away she cleans weekly. (He sulks if she doesn't also provide home cooking at the drop of a hat). The reader may have been hoping that Catherine would snap and tell these two that they need to pull their socks up. Emotionally satisfying as that might have been, something rather more awful, rather more interesting, happens, more devastating but which does, eventually, give her an opportunity to connect with someone who isn't just trying to set her to work for them. My favourite story in this book.

Cold Spell is also a US-based story, another close, interior two-hander featuring a husband and wife whose marriage seems to have been afflicted by a, well, cold spell to match the Arctic weather currently bearing down. Again the husband is an unaware, selfish person who can't, or won't be bothered to, read the forecast (as it were). There are only so many ways this might play out and I sort of guessed the ending. It's a neat, self contained piece.

Confession is the first of three closely linked stories (with Anniversaries and Games They Played) revolving round a murder that takes place late one night behind the Dun Maeve pub. The victim is a local man, Nick, with a wife and children but the event also costs Nollaig her daughter - barmaid Margaret was working late that night and can't bear to remain in the village afterwards, thinking of what happene. Confession follows her to Sydney, while Anniversaries looks at Nollaig's life back at home, at her friendship with Raymond's mother and what the yearly reminder at Mass of the death does to her life as her daughter seems to recede further and further into the past.

Games They Played takes a different perspective, going back to the immediate aftermath and looking at the dead man, Nick's, wife Joan. Like many of the stories in Were We Awake, a few pages displace what we thought we know, and shows things as quite different. Without diminishing or contradicting what Margaret and Nollaig have gone through, the picture is completed and we see other relationships that were central to these events.

Taking Too Many Chances and Green Balloons are two further stories set in the USA. In the first a husband and wife, at odds and in financial trouble, take a holiday which brings some of them into danger. But they only really understand how much, and what, afterwards.

Green Balloons is a tender little story about two young women who, for a time, are able to ease each others' pain. But only for a time. It's a sad, sad story which tells so much in just a few pages.

All the stories here share this: the property of saying so much. While those that share the deeper background of Treading the Uneven Road have an advantage here - they can build on and echo the world already established - all of them do this, creating real characters in real situations and showing things from multiple directions.

Overall, it's a strong collection which I enjoyed reading and can recommend without reservation.









25 May 2020

Review - Looking Glass by Christina Henry

Looking Glass (The Chronicles of Alice, 3)
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 21 April 2020
Available as: PB, 336pp, e, audio
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781789092868

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Looking Glass to consider for review.

Following from Alice and Red Queen, Looking Glass sees Henry return to her Alice-In-Wonderland inspired world, this time with a collection of four novellas featuring Alice and Hatcher - and one focussing on Alice's sister, Elizabeth, living in the New City.

In the first story, Lovely Creature, Elizabeth seems in danger of falling as Alice fell - blundering into the Old Town, being made use of, and then rejected by her parents. Henry cleverly gives us more insight into Alice's early life while making it clear that Elizabeth is not just a substitute Alice (even if that's how her parents see her). Yes, we encounter the Jabberwock. Yes, there are hints scattered around - like the creepy Mr Dodgson - that we're in the same world. But stories don't all end the same way and Elizabeth is determined to shape her own, whatever happens rot her. I hope we'll meet her again.

Girl in Amber sees Alice take centre stage. She and Hatcher are travelling through the wilderness, looking for somewhere to call home. But it's not easy. Winter is closing in, Hatcher can't be with other people too much, Alice can't survive in the wilds. So a mysterious building looming out of a snowstorm should be welcome, no?

This story really sees Alice come into her own, and its tender and insightful portrayal of the relationship between her and Hatcher - two half-broken, half-mended people - is a (painful) joy to read.

When I First came to Town is the exception here in that it takes places before the events of Alice and Red Queen. Hatcher has learned now to trust enough, has healed enough, to tell Alice about his early life - before the asylum, when he was a boy called Nicholas who was keen and hungry, training in a boxing gym to take on the most fearsome bruiser in the Old City. The Grinder, though, works for Rabbit and making his acquaintance will come at a cost. Perhaps the closest story in tone and mood to the earlier books, When I First came to Town goes some way to explaining Hatcher's fall and the hurts done to him - as well as telling us more about the Old and New Towns and the varieties of men and women who live there. A brutal story that spares nhe reader nothing, it was my favourite here.

Finally we come to The Mercy Seat in which Alice and Hatcher, crossing the mountains to find their safe place, come across a self-righteous, hypocrisy-ridden village which will destroy them if it can. It's a simple story and shows both coming into more knowledge of what they can do (and what they can't).

I loved these stories. They're distinct, but taken together, give an overall picture - like the mirror of the title, they give us a reflected view of Henry's Alice world, mixing viewpoints, making the large small and the small large, hinting at what else might come and planting some seeds. Ideally read after the other two books, they could still serve as a taster to this world, and there are many places where you'll post a sly Wonderland touch, whether integral to the plot (as with the Rabbit) or - seemingly - just placed there to be spotted.

Great fun, and I especially enjoyed revisiting this world.

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


22 May 2020

Review - Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Sea Change
Nancy Kress
Tachyon Publications, 22 May 2020
Available as: PB, e
Read as: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781616963316 (PB) 9781616963323 (e)

I'm grateful to Tachyon for providing me with an advance e-copy of Sea Change.

In a near-future USA, beset by economic difficulties and climate collapse, Renata is an agent for a mysterious opposition group, the Org. Seeing the Org's identification mark - a particular shade of paint - on a vehicle, she steps in to handle what may be a major breach in security.

The fact that the "vehicle" is a self-propelled GPS guided house makes the opening sentence ('The house was clearly lost') one of the weirdest I've recently come across. That is, though, the only fantastical aspect to this deeply convincing fable. As we get deeper into Renata's - she is the narrator of the story - life, we learn about the catastrophe that has ruined the US: basically a bit of GM-gone -wrong. The explanation of that is wholly convincing, as also the political consequences (a drastic turn against GM, meaning that Renata's "rebel" group is pro GM and determined to do it right, against the desire of most of the population. Their agenda is to combat rising sea levels, temperatures and hunger. In age when 'anything can be hacked' they operate like spies from the 1940s, all dead letter boxes, recognition signs and absolutely no tech.

That was quite a lot for me to swallow, being instinctively suspicious of GM technology, but that didn't prove a barrier to falling into, and enjoying, this book. There is so much here to enjoy. Wrapped up with Kress's story of how the world went bad there's a tender, infuriating, on-off love story between Renata and her ex-husband Jake, an actor: Kress really captures that can't-be-together, can't-be-apart thing that haunts some couples (in one place, early in the chronology, Renata compares Jake to Richard Burton: fateful, given his and Elizabeth Taylor's stormy relationship).

There's a narrative of Native rights (or perhaps I should say wrongs) - Renata's cover identity, protecting her as a courier for the Org, as as a lawyer taking large pro-bone cases for Native Americans and through her voice Kress narrates the legal bind in which they find themselves when seeking justice (whether defending themselves or prosecuting those from outside who wrong them). There's also a tragic strand about a young boy whose death is tied up with the environmental themes heres.

It's a lot to  pack into 192 pages and that inevitably means there are places where the narration has to fill us in on those legal niceties, or a decade of economic turmoil, or the highs and lows of Renata's and Jake's relationship. Yet the narrative drive and the interest never flag, and there's a genuine sense of jeopardy here right till the last page - as well as a mystery concerning Renata's cell in the Org.

The book also has some sharp writing and insights. 'Minutes snailed by', for example, or 'Childhood doesn't really end until both your parents die' or 'It isn't the past that creates the future. It's how you interpret the past.' Or - and getting his back to the point - 'Anyone who would trust online celebrity sites would believe in leprechauns, elves and the wholesomeness of high-fructose corn syrup'.

All in all a plausible future, credible, relatable characters and a great deal to think about in this one. I'd strongly recommend.

(And - a coincidence, this, only affecting me - until last month I'd never heard of the Snoqualmie Pass but I've now read two books, in as many weeks that mentioned it. Weird or what?)

For more information about this book, see the publisher's website here. You can also buy it there or from Blackwell's from Amazon UK or Amazon US (sorry, I couldn't find on the other usual sites).




20 May 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Goodbye Man by Jeffery Deaver

The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw, Book 2)
Jeffery Deaver
Harpercollins, 14 May 2020
Available as: HB, 432pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780008303785

I'm grateful to Anne at Random Things Tours and to the publisher for an advance copy of The Goodbye Man to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

This is the second Colter Shaw thriller. If you haven't read the first, The Never Game, I'd advise you do that before reading The Goodby Man - it will make more sense, and also, spoilers.

I will say right away that Deaver really caught me off guard with this one. I thought I knew what to expect from this series Colter Shaw, who travels the USA in his camper van, investigating disappearances for reward, would roll into town, encounter a mystery, and solve it (while making a little progress, on the side, in the matter of his father's murder). There would be clues, also trails and heart pumping finale.

And so it seems to begin, as we discover the town of Gig Harbour, where two young men are wanted for a racist hate crime.  A reward has been offered and Shaw - fresh from San Franciso and the events of The Never Game - is soon on the trail. However, things then take a strange twist. Unsettled when the pursuit goes dramatically wrong, and seeking answers, he heads in a different direction - infiltrating a reclusive self-help group, the Foundation, and encountering its charismatic leader, Master Eli.

Jeffery Deaver
That results in a very different book, both in tone and pacing, than The Never Game. Rather than acting like a detective, as in the previous book, Shaw's success (and survival) will depend on his ability to act a part, remain undercover, and ferret out what's really going on - without any standing to be asking questions or poking around, and with no access to outside resources either to aid the investigation or to back him up if things go wrong. That takes Shaw some way out of his comfort zone and I think possibly the same may be true for some readers if they were expecting a trail of clues and red herrings - as in The Never Game or for example the crimes investigated by Lincoln Rhyme. But stick around, this is rather good!

For me the really audacious thing about the story is I think that Shaw isn't as good at this as he thinks. We've previously seen him shrewdly calculating the odds and he still does that when it comes to a fight, to eluding pursuit in the woods or breaking into a locked office. But the approach is little use in a setting where others make the rules and Shaw is as clueless about what's going to happen (and as obliged to do as he's told) as any other "Novice". Watching him discover that and - Shaw being Shaw - try to apply his father's survivalist wisdom to it - is fascinating, if unexpected.

Also fascinating is what happens when the Foundation's touchy-feely counselling technique, "The Process (tm)", bumps up against Shaw's tortured life history. I enjoyed seeing him squirm as rather too much is revealed, and it would be fun to let this go further - I find Shaw an interesting character with a vividly realised, and completely weird, backstory (the death of his father and disappearance of his brother, the obsession of the latter with some plot or secret that apparently got him killed). The flashbacks in The Never Game suggested all this has left a deep wound and I wondered how far the Foundation might open it up. Maybe in future books Deaver will go further.

If that suggests The Goodbye Man is more of a people-y book, that's true, with the dynamics of what goes on at Snoqualmie very much driven by individuals, their character and their pyschology. At the centre is Master Eli, a narcissistic and deeply unpleasant Messiah whose rhetoric was eerily familiar ('...got a business degree form one of the best colleges in the country, graduated at the top of my class. Summa cum laude. I started companies, a dozen of them. They all did great. I made a ton of money, hired a ton of employees. Successful!All my companies. They were perfect, they were gorgeous!') The book is at one level a fascinating study of how such an individual may bend intelligent, successful people to his will (and as Deaver shows in his reading list at the end, he's done his research on this).

That's not to say that The Goodbye Man lacks action - there's plenty of that, and it certainly delivers the blood-pumping finale I'd expected, while driving Shaw forward on his personal quest.

I should warn that there is a theme here of suicide and Shaw - being Shaw - at one stage is rather judgemental about this. He does though come good in the end.

All in all I enjoyed this this book immensely and it left me very, very curious about where things will go next - both Shaw's own search for justice and answers and what sort of story Deaver will give us. One thing I'm certain of is that it won't be what we expect!

For more information about the book and author, see the publisher's website here and the author's site here.

Buy the book!

Even in the current difficult circumstances, many local highstreet bookshops are still operating by mail order, and they need your support. Alternatively, online, Hive Books supports local shops. Or you can order from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon, to mention just a few.


Follow the blogtour! 

There have been some cracking posts already - and more still to come! See the poster below for details.


19 May 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

The Creak on the Stairs (Forbidden Iceland, 1)
Eva Björg Ægisdóttir (Trans by Victoria Cribb)
Orenda Books, 28 May 2020
Available as: PB, e
Read as: PB advance review copy
ISBN: 9781913193041

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater of Random Things Through my Letterbox for an advance copy of The Creak on the Stairs to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the tour. I've been watching the blog tour stops  come along and have been impatient to have my say about this this book - it is a book that makes an impression.

There is a moment in The Creak on the Stairs when Elma, the detective investigating the death of Elísabet Hölludóttir, happens upon a school yearbook photo. In the background is a young girl - eight or nine years old - who's drawn a picture which Elma interprets as a cry for help from a position of abuse and despair. That cry, made decades earlier, has been unheard, ignored - until now. It stands for the events of this book: distress, torment, hidden in plain sight in a little town where - as we are told many times - everyone knows everyone else's businesses. But nobody acts.

A central theme here is Elma's uncovering of Elísabet's early life. A successful pilot with a husband and two kids, Elísabet is found dead one evening on the rocks below an abandoned lighthouse. Nobody can understand why she is in the town of Akranes at all and it falls to Elma to explore who she was. A great deal of what Elma finds doesn't seem to be relevant to the enquiry or threatens scandal to prominent members of the tight-knit community and her boss, Hörður, becomes impatient - or perhaps nervous is the word - at what may come out. At the same time, Elma herself is grieving after a bad break-up (the reason she has returned to her hometown). She is especially raw and what she finds out will hit her hard.

I liked Elma - her tenacity, her chaotic life and the palpable feeling that comes off (never I think articulated I so many words) that she's somehow failed, landed back where she began after a successful life in Reykjavik but that nevertheless she's still here and is going to look the town in the face. She's obviously hurting, but she won't back down.

Accompanying Elma's, and her colleagues', investigation, we have short sections of story between 1989 and 1992, narrating painful things which underlie present day events. These are dark passages, hinting at abuse and neglect (although, to one clear, there are no explicit descriptions here) and they hold the key to more than one mystery. They also highlight that somebody - a teacher, a neighbour - should have read the signs and worked out what was going on (in a town where, as we have seen everybody knows everybody's business). That nothing was done is a charge hanging over the townsfolk, a charge that's never, quite put into words but is still there: an accusation, a verdict

In what is actually in the end a pretty scorching condemnation of smugness and small-town complacency it's Elma who brings some perspective: having come back, as Elísabet did, she perhaps has a wider perspective. The book is a slow burner with a gathering sense of outrage and it has a ferocious ending that totally wrong-footed me - and left me eager for more from Ægisdóttir.

Victoria Cribb's translation is smooth and lucid, the book flowing well and the reader having a great sense of immediacy, of being told the story directly.

Strongly recommended.

And the tour's not done yet - as I said, there have already been some splendid reviews and other pieces, and lots more still to come - see the poster below!


For more information about the book, and for links to buy it as paperback or e-book, see the publisher's website here.