26 October 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Greyfriars Reformatory by Frazer Lee

Greyfriars Reformatory
Frazer Lee
Flame Tree Press, October 2020
Available as: HB, 231pp, PB, e
Source: Advance review copy
ISBN: 9781787584754

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Greyfriars Reformatory to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me too take part in the blogtour.

'You will learn...'

Six young women, in handcuffs and leg irons, on a prisoner transport bus, heading for the isolated Greyfriars Reformatory

Our (self-confessedly unreliable) narrator, Emily, admits it's not her first time there, but she doesn't 't recall the specifics. She has acute dissociative disorder and tells us she's been institutionalised all her adult life (but then, she is only 19).

The others - Saffy, Jessica, Lena, Annie, Victoria - well, we will learn what they did, but we don't know it yet and it's not wise to ask.

For now, here they are, in a bleak, remote institution.  Locks are scarcely necessary, there's nowhere to run to and the climate isn't kind. The only member of staff appears to be Principal Quick, who quickly imposes her will on the girls, demanding obedience, inflicting punishments, doling out the pitiful meals, organising exercise classes. The whole setup is shifty somehow, odd, troubling. 

Especially troubling is the situation Emily finds herself in when mean girl Saffy proclaims she's the real authority at Greyfriars, the real Principal. If Emily's useful, she'll be OK. If not, she'll suffer (even more than she already is doing). So a watchful, tense period commences, a period where every verbal exchange, every little snub, is directed at establishing or challenging status. Lee depicts the nuances of the relationships, the changing alliances, spiteful outbursts and secrets, convincingly and this part of the book is strung as tight as a bow: one expects catastrophe at any moment. The story mainly follows Emily, as I have said, so she's the reader's most immediate concern but Lee also gives us chapters from the viewpoints of the other girls, revealing the sadness of their lives, their desperation, guilt and self-delusion. 

I found myself sympathising with them all, often the apparently most vicious. One could see, in the little stories, how things were going to go. It's hard to see even those who have done awful things as the truly guilty ones. Misogyny, abuse and exploitation abound. These young women shouldn't be in a place like Greyfriars, an experimental institution whose methods seem flaky - to be polite - and one where other dangers lurk, beyond the pack hierarchy, the cold, and the appalling food. 

As those dangers do emerge - with plenty of glimpses and warnings that all is not well, this is a horror novel! - the girls have to decide whether to trust one another or to continue to try and use one another. Ill-fitted by their histories to trust, it doesn't look hopeful for them at all, unless somebody can work out what the secret of Greyfriars is.

I loved this book - it has lashings of bleak Gothic horror, strongly drawn characters and a claustrophobic atmosphere, but the story is grounded in acts of injustice and betrayal which see disturbingly realistic and which have a terrible impact on all here. It's the kind of book that, once started, you have to finish and one with a keen  tang of modern horror. Perfect for these darkening evenings.

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

To buy the book, try your local bookshop, or if you want to go online, Hive Books, who support local bookshops. It's also available from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The tour goes on! See the poster below for some splendid bloggers who will be giving Greyfriars some attention in the coming days.



25 October 2020

#Blogtour #Review - After Sundown edited by Mark Morris

After Sundown
ed by Mark Morris
Flame Tree Press, October 2020
Available as: HB, 256pp, PB, audio, e
Source: advance review copy
ISBN: 9781787584570

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of After Sundown to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

I love a good collection of horror stories. There's something about the short form that, to me, makes it the ideal vehicle for horror: while there are many excellent full length horror novels, there are also many that - due to their length - can't sustain the necessary tension, or are vulnerable to the irritated reader's call for the characters to do the sensible thing, whatever that is. In shorter stories, we can be carried away, lost to the dreadful thing, whatever it is, before there's time for such alarms and second thoughts.

This is a good collection of horror stories. It has some authors I recognised and know to be renowned writers of such fiction, others I was less familiar with. There is a broad range of themes: creepy children, environmental horror, human irrationality or evil, folk horror, the classic Jamesian trope of a man of letters who is haunted by an object, stories of revenge from beyond the grave, strange abandoned (and spooky) settings, the plan weird - and more. Together the stories chill, and if there are authors here you haven't read before (it would be hard to have read them all) it's an excellent jumping off point to their various bodies of work.

Inevitably, I enjoyed some stories more than others: my favourite was perhaps Same Time Next Year by Angela Slatter which opens with Cindy sitting on a tomb in a country cemetery just after sunset. She can't remember quite how she got there, or where she belongs, but there is a suggestion of violence, of trauma, in what she does recall. Even that name isn't hers - it was given to her by a boy who treated her badly. If she stays where she is, something bad is going to happen, for sure. We hope she'll be alright. I found this a perfect gem of a story, comprising equally a mystery, rising tension about what was going to happen next, and empathy for the sad central character.

I also really enjoyed Swanskin by Alison Littlewood, a chilling take set in a remote coastal town, where the boozy, rollicking behaviour of the town's men turns out to have a direct link to their abuse of nature and of their womenfolk. But nature can have a way of redressing the balance. Set at some indeterminate time which could be anywhere in the past two hundred years, this one has the feeling of a classic.

Bokeh by Thana Niveau also really impressed. "Bokeh" is a Jananese word, used to describe the out of focus parts of an image - the smeared background, or dancing globes of light. In this story, Vera begins to experience it in real life. Perhaps she needs glasses? But what does that have to do with daughter Keeley's bloodthirsty fantasies about her toys? 

The remaining stories are, though, all very strong and variety means that everyone will find something to appreciate (unless you don't like horror in which case, well no, this might not be for you). 

Horror is, perhaps, though, relative. In Butterfly Island by CJ Tudor, we meet a group of protagonists who have already experienced a collapsing world due to disease, natural disaster and war. Still, the modern world provides them with enough support to live a debauched existence in and around a beach bar. You have thought they would hang on to what they had rather than run the risk of a boat trip to a deserted island... a good story to open the collection with, Butterfly Island shows that things can always, improbably, get worse.

What's the worst thing you can do to an author? In Research, Tim Lebbon seems to be saying it's to interrupt them when about to finish a novel. In fact his neighbours Sue and Alan have darker plans. This one is classic horror, showing the darkness that can lie behind suburban windows.

In contrast, That's the Spirit by Sarah Lotz is an almost comic tale of fraudulent psychics scratching a living from the gullible bereaved, Underneath the humour there's a grim theme - how far to go, what lines to cross, who to dupe? What does that do to you and what might the consequences be? Deceptively charming, this one has a real chill in its tail.

Horror can take many forms, from supernatural to natural disaster to smaller, more intimate tales of destruction and terror. Gave by Michael Bailey blends the latter two, being set in a future world where the population is, inexplicably, falling (having peaked at 17 billion or so). The impact of the deaths is counterpointed with one elderly man's desperation to donate blood, almost as though he's trying to push back the time of dying even as he like everyone watches the falling population numbers in real time. There's something weird about the focus on blood, blood groups, on lost kids and lost lives. Like the best horror this doesn't try to explain what is going on and leaves one to speculate.

Ramsey Campbell is of course one of the masters of the genre. In his Wherever You Look, we see another author suffer a dreadful fate. If, as in Research, interrupting the writing process must be one nightmare for an author, here is another - finding something in your stories that you don't remember putting there. Is Maurice Lavater being accused of plagiarism at the start of this tale? Or... something worse? I found the passage where he hunted through his writings, finding things he never recalled but which grew to make a ghastly kind of meta logic, truly chilling.

Elana Gomel's Mine Seven is another story with an environmental focus, taking us to the icy (if melting) wastes of Svalbard. Lena has, in a sense, come home to the land of her ancestors - although she's less enthusiastic than her partner Bill and would really prefer to sit in the library of the winter lodge and read than hare about the countryside dodging Polar bears and viewing the Northern Lights. Pity Bill didn't take her advice...

It Doesn't Feel Right by Michael Marshall Smith is a fraught story about a young couple having behavioural problems with their sometimes truculent, sometimes loving, five year-old son. Having been there myself (and yes, they grew up reasonably well adjusted) my stress levels rose quickly through this story, anticipating all the things that might go wrong - but I didn't guess the truly horrific twist that was coming.

Laura Purcell's Creeping Ivy is a very traditional form of ghost (or monster?) story, with the variation that we are I think cheering on the ghost/ monster. The end is not really a surprise but rather something to anticipate with relish. Purcell's writing is, as ever, spot on, creating a whole world in a few pages.

Last Rites For The Fourth World by Rick Cross returns to the environmental theme in what is a strange story, ranging across a number of locations where we see... well, strange things. Strange dead things. The horror is less a personal trial, a spooky location or ancient evil but a situational nightmare, a crisis we are all embroiled in but can't alter. A thing you can't run from or keep at bay with wards or garlic.  

In We All Come Home by Simon Bestwick, Robert Lennox returns to Wardley New Hall - the site of a mysterious trauma in his childhood whose memory her has suppressed - in an attempt to find healing and to move on. But is it ever wise to go bavck?

The Importance of Oral Hygiene by Robert Shearman will really hit a nerve if you're a fear of dentists... a creepy Victorian-set story with themes of abuse - don't read just before your next appointment!

I've enjoyed Grady Hendrix's horror novels but hadn't read any of his short stories. Murder Board is a chilling piece about Caroline and her ageing rockstar husband David's dabbling with a Ouija board is simply perfect, tapping into the idea of a Faustian bargain: we know things will go wrong - this is a horror story - but Hendrix manages to keep the reader guessing almost till the end as to just what.

I'm glad it's not just me who thinks the whimsicality of Lewis Carroll's Alice only a hair's breadth away from truly unsettling horror. I'vc seen whole anthologies dedicated to that idea, but it remains something I'm deeply fascinated by and Alice's Rebellion by John Langana scratched that itch. Langana's story recognises that a ruler who calls for their opponent's head to be offed is really not a Nice Person and imagines a familiar figure in that role... who are the monstrous Tweedledum and Tweedledee of today?

The Mirror House by Jonathan Robbins Leon sees English literature professor Stephanie give up her independence and her career for her husband Edgar - but she's about to be disillusioned by him - and by the fancy house he bought, which seems to have its own secrets.

The Naughty Step by Stephen Volk is another story focussed on a child. It's also an insight into the stressful life of social worker Linda, called out when a young boy, Jared, is found in the house where his mother was murdered. He won't move from the "naughty step" on the stairs where his mum told him to go b efeore her death. So Linda prepares to spend the night...

A Hotel In Germany by Catriona Ward is a very different sort of story from most of the others here. Cara, whose brother and daughter are dead, seems to be a dogsbody for a woman described only as 'the movie star' who is on location in Germany. Selfish, demanding and petulant, the 'star' summons Cara at all hours of the night and we wonder why she doesn't just quit. The revelation of just how far Cara is required to go comes alongside an understanding of why, giving. real sense of horror (if if we never quite understand the connection between the two women). 

Finally, I enjoy Paul Finch's gritty ghost stories set around abandoned mills, derelict yards and canals. Branch Line, the last story in this book, didn't disappoint, setting us up for a story which seeming to feature two innocent young boys getting into trouble (for a certain value of "innocent": much of the motivation at the start is a cache of prime dirty mags, this is set in the 70s) but which manages to pivot to something much darker and to a rather nasty twist...

Overall, this is a strong collection which will have you looking uneasily at midnight shadows, bolting your doors and avoiding lonely, derelict places after dark. Unless, of course, you're actually a monster already...

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.  You can buy After Sundown from all the usual places: your local bookshop (they need your business, now more than ever!) or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

And don't forget - my fellow blog tourers (see poster below) are, like me, all connoisseurs of the twisted, the uncanny - do join them to share their perverse pleasure in the chills and terror to be found After Sundown!




22 October 2020

Review - The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Design by Lauren Panepinto
The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 8 October 2010
Available as: HB, 563pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9780356508832

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Ministry for the Future.

There are two things I should make clear about The Ministry for the Future. First, it is a beautiful book, filled with hope and tragedy, and I loved it. 

Secondly, I think some readers will hate it. 

I'll try to explain why.

The Ministry for the Future is a sort of biography of the Earth over the next fifty years or so. Beginning with a cataclysmic heatwave in India in the 2020s - an event in which millions die -  it considers how humanity as a whole might tame its carbon habit. The means chosen in the first place is the creation of an organisation to speak up for the interests of future generations, of animals and plants.  Of course, once established, this organisation runs a risk of being a sop to the planet. It has to be better than that. It must influence, advocate, persuade, even twist arms. The Ministry faces the same problems as exist at the present - vested interests, the superrich, cognitive biases, apathy, fear of change and much of the book is focussed on diagnosing and addressing these.

Based in Zurich, this organisation attracts a talented group of lawyers, scientists, engineers, development workers and others who set about tackling the problem. The Ministry is personified in its head, Mary Murphy, a former Irish Minister for Foreign affairs. Murphy, though one of the most developed characters in the book, is only seen in glimpses - persuading at gatherings of central bankers or world leaders, living her (rather pleasant) life in Zurich, occasionally in meetings at the Ministry or elsewhere. In the final few chapters she does I think approach being a rounded character but for much of the book she's essentially a device to convey a viewpoint, a determination to see the work through, whatever it takes. (Early on, Murphy calls for a "black ops" wing of her organisation to apply pressure in deniable, if not frankly illegal, ways. We see some actions which possibly arise from that - though with this book it's always hard to tell, and there are many actors own this stage).

The other character we spend most time with is Frank May, a development worker caught up in that early heat wave and whose life is shattered afterwards. He becomes a drifter, living rough around Zurich and crossing paths with Murphy. Eventually they becomes friends, of a sort: perhaps he is her conscience. Frank is, though, for the most part rather one dimensional, essentially an embodiment of trauma and perhaps guilt.

There are others who we meet briefly, and sometimes return to. Most are there simply to narrate particular events or illustrate the scale of what's going on. So, there are geological engineers trying to prevent the glaciers from sloughing into the ocean. There are refugees narrating their journeys and eventual stalling in camps. There are privileged movers and shakers, for example at Davos. Protesters on the streets of Paris. And many, many more. Often these people are anonymous. More rarely we get names, and the story revisits some a number of times. Very occasionally they cross paths, and we'll suddenly realise who someone is, seen from a different perspective. I felt most of these characters were good representations of points of view or of happenings, but often little more. In some places, there are attempts, I think, to humanise them - for example by giving one person a tragic accidental death - but the sheer scale of the book and the number of voices involves militates against this, and given the scale of tragedy in the opening section, it's also curiously hard to care about such isolated events. In a different vein, there are even a few short chapters narrated by abstractions such the market, history, a photon, a carbon atom, or the Sun. 

Many sections of the book, though, while they may be loosely presented as analysis or reports by characters, are really articles or essays. The word "we" does a lot of hard work, introducing factual sections of the book as the experiences and offerings of particular populations or groups. There is an entire chapter, towards the end, which is a list, introducing the contributions and projects of a host of nations, alphabetically, to the problems of climate change and societal transformation. Hopeful and inspiring though it may be that these initiatives and approaches exist (and I believe they are all real) I would defy even the most completist of readers to actually, you know, read that chapter word for word.

Which has brought me to the reason some readers will, I think, not get on at all with The Ministry for the Future. It is very much its own type of novel: the author has thrown overboard most expressions of plot, character development or insight and indeed, largely of writing conventional fiction here. It is, in that respect, worlds away from New York 2140 which was similarly focussed on climate change but, recognisably, also a novel driven by its characters' lives and choices. 

For my part, I greatly enjoyed this book. I liked the way that Kim Stanley Robinson draws out an argument that addressing climate change will require not simply the spending of money or the passing of laws, but a complete reordering of society and its values ('What's good for the land is good for us'). At one level that makes it all seem even more daunting: at another it's a radical vision that feels achievable, paradoxically, not in spite of, but because of, the size of the task. 

I also enjoyed Mary Murphy's evolving quest, throughout this book, for the strongholds of power - pursuing the leaders, the legislators, the bankers, the economists (dismissed pretty scathingly) who all seem to shuffle off responsibility to others, combining handwriting with adroit passing on of the problem. To a degree, Murphy's approach correspondingly evolves into a kind of administrative ju-jitsu, using the system's flaws themselves for leverage on the problem. Is that feasible in reality? I don't know, any more than I know whether the idea of pumping out the water from the base of a glacier, to prevent it lubricating the ice and to slow down the rate of flow, is feasible. Thy book seems to have some good ideas which sound plausible, but I'm not a banker, I'm not an engineer, I don't know. 

All this may make The Ministry for the Future sound very dry, and indeed it is overwhelmingly factual, until the last 50 pages or so. But that's not so say there isn't excitement, even drama and danger here. A section towards the middle where Murphy is forced to trek through the alps at night (she's no climber) is a tense and beautifully described mini adventure. There are human-scale tragedies here alongside the planetary ones, even if they play a rather minor role in the book.

Above all I think this book does convey a sense of hope - something we certainly need right now. Remember, revolutions are built on hope - and if there's one thing this book does assume and, I think, go a fair way to establishing, it's the radical, the revolutionary, changes that are needed in the coming decades to avert catastrophe. So let's hang on to our hope!

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

20 October 2020

Review - Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley

Greensmith
Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories, 12 October 2020
Available as: PB, 342pp, e
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781912658077

Greensmith is a richly imagined, empathetic SFF adventure on the grandest of scales - which also casts a slightly jaundiced eye on one of the most celebrated franchises in the genre.

Penelope Greensmith is working on a project - to catalogue and preserve the entirety of the world's flowers. She's assisted in this by an ingenious device her father (who began the work) left to her. Called the Vice, it has take a flower and compress its essence, its information, into a disc from which images and the plant itself can be recovered. Gradually, the storage racks in Penelope's cellar fill. She is ruthless in her task - even breaking into greenhouses at night to "acquire" specimens - but accepts her work won't be complete in her lifetime.

The background to Penelope's life is vague - there has been a War, in which people have 'fallen prey to an insidious, crawling mass delusion that had been carried by flags and leaflets and radio waves to their doors. Or perhaps they were just bored...' The only impact of the War seems to be that certain events have been erased from collective memory, but even that is uncertain. It would have been nice to know more about this - but the story moves rapidly on, to the day when Penelope's life is turned upside down by a fast talking time-and-space-travelling stranger who persuades her that, RIGHT NOW, to save the universe, she must join him in an improbable quest, must leave behind all she knows - her adult daughter, her cottage - and embark on a quixotic, madcap adventure.

Together they form a team. 'The legendary and mysterious space traveller... And his assistant.' Yes, The Horticulturalist (Hort for short) is famed throughout the universe. Yes, he has access to an apparently infinite storage space/ home, filled with wonders. Yes, lots of running is involved. I think you know exactly what long running SF TV series that echoes (don't you?) It's not though the only allusion here: Whiteley has a but of fun I think - she also refers to 'a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away' and drops other references too ('I am the one wearing the red shirt. I am expendable'). 

Penelope responds as you'd expect - as assistants are always written, eager to experience wonders, but also desperate to do whatever she can to save her daughter Lily, and the Universe, from a mysterious, plant-destroying virus. She plunges into danger, as Hort aids oppressed creatures and then confronts his greatest enemy. This middle part of the book is a real triumph of writing and the imagination: grappling with the fact that Penelope's, somehow, there and not there - Hort's method of travel isn't exactly physical - and with the way in which reality is so strange that she only experiences a translation of it, the nearest thing she can grasp but not the truth. It's actually rather disconcerting. No snippets I could quote here can really do it justice. The effect on me was rather like that final section of the film 2001, with strangeness upon strangeness and all familiar landmarks missing.

If you feel that's all just too rich for you, too jarring, please don't give up. This book contains its own quiet rewards - from the sheer glory of Whiteley's writing to that rather sceptical, questing examination of the time traveller himself. What can you really say about such a being? What degree of ego and self assurance does it take to shift worlds and play with the course of events as he does? ('...a selfish, spoiled, unaware and unrepentant idiot... [who] could be classified as Very Dangerous Indeed...') 

Above all, what, exactly, is his relationship in the end with Penelope? 

It's hard to be clearer than that without spoilers - which, I assure you, you don't want for this particular book. 

Enjoyable from the first page to the last, this book is enthralling, baffling, weird, deep, quirky and in the end - I thought - very, very sad.

In short, I'd recommend.

For more information about Greensmith, and to buy a copy, see the publisher's website here.


18 October 2020

Review - Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Cover design by
Emily Courdelle

Dead Man in a Ditch (Fetch Phillips, 2)
Luke Arnold
Orbit, 24 September 2020
Available as: e, audio, TPB, 416pp
Source: advance PB copy
ISBN: 9780316455879

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Dead Man in a Ditch.

Fetch Phillips, soiled hero of Last Smile in Sunder City, is back for another bout of wrestling with guilt and of attempting, somehow, to atone.

This may be a fantasy world, replete with (formerly) magical creatures, but Fetch, a Man for Hire, is noir to the core and wears the hardscrabble Sunder City like a ratty old trench coat. It is him, and he is it. From his shabby office to the women who come - trailing clouds of danger - for help, to the mean streets themselves, Arnold's command of the atmosphere of noir is pitch perfect, as this novel gets underway with a desperate woman whose husband has vanished, a gambling den and brushes with a police force desperate for results when a wealthy financier is murdered.

Of course, as readers of the first book will know, there's a whole other layer of darkness and guilt underlying Fetch's cynicism. This is a world from which the magic has fled, and it fled with Fetch's boot on its backside. All the beauty, all the power, all the wonder of a whole magical world is gone, and it was (largely) his fault. The survivors of that remember, and he would do anything, anything to atone. But there's nothing to be done. So Fetch sits in his office and opens the whisky bottle.

Now, though, there are rumours that the magic is returning. A particularly horrible murder has been committed in a way that can only be magical and, against his better judgement, Fetch is drawn into the investigation...

I liked and enjoyed this book. In fact I actually enjoyed it more so than its predecessor, because - while there is the odd flashback to Fetch's earlier life, to establish what he had done and why - most of it takes place in the present, which I feel gives Dead Man in a Ditch greater focus and pace. Bigger issues are also at stake here. Sunder City was ruined in the Coda, when the magic died, as it depended on underground magical fires for power, so the ill effects of that event spread to the human world as well. Ever since then, Sunder has shivered, lacking heat, light and industry. 

Now, a new energy has come to town in the person of go-ahead Thurston Niles with his modern business methods and smart, grey-suited goons. Maybe this is what's needed to help Fetch's world move forward? The story therefore sees him caught between his regrets at the passing of the old world, his desire to cling on to what he has salvaged, and the need to find a way to better his city for the sake of all those shivering, starving humans (not to mention shivering, starving dwarves, gnomes, fairies, elves and the rest).

So we see Fetch conflicted, guilt and regret driving him one way, hope and logic another. He isn't helped when a figure from his past appears: that should have made things simpler but Fetch is too honest to trust simple - he's more likely to take it down an alleyway and try to beat the truth out of it. His sense of self-loathing dovetails neatly with that noirish framing, giving us a powerful sense of why he is so self-destructive, so gallant and yet so despairing.

Fetch is an engaging character, seemingly resigned to the continual hard knocks that being a Man for Hire in Sunder City guarantees (one wonders how much more he can take), seemingly sympathetic to the hatred that many in the magical community have for him, yet never - quite - surrendering to self-pity and - generally - trying to do the right thing. He outshines everyone else in this book, though, which is perhaps at times a pity - when he is verbally sparring with that face from the past, for example, it never quite feels like a contest of equals. 

All in all a great read and one which ended just when it should, leaving me wanting to read the next book NOW and anticipating what catastrophe might hit Sunder next.

Recommended.

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




15 October 2020

Review - D by Michel Faber

Design by Marianne Issa El-Khoury
D (A Tale of Two Worlds)
Michel Faber
Doubleday, 17 September 2020
Available as: HB, 291pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780857525109

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

Michel Faber's latest novel is a fun children's adventure, with much danger and peril and plenty of humour.

Schoolgirl Dhikilo has already, by the time the story opens, survived more than her share of adventure, having been rescued by her father as a baby from the almost-a-country Somaliland (not Somalia, as she carefully explains). Finding sanctuary in the UK, she is settled in the town of Cawber-on-Sands on the South Coast with her pleasant foster parents Ruth and Malcolm. Faber shows us how, while happy with them and at school, Dhikilo misses the culture and country she was too young to remember, devouring any facts or gossip she can find online or in the local bookshop or library. Those early parts of the story are filled with longing and missingness even while - as Faber explains - Dhikilo isn't quite sure what it is she's missing.

So perhaps Dhikilo is ready for another adventure when it comes along, as come along it does. Things begin to go wrong. To disappear. Specifically, the letter "D" - then things containing it. So soon there are no more ogs, no more octors at the surgery and no onkey derby at the annual fete. Soon, there is a politician on the TV saying that iversity is all very well, but not if it gets in the way of forging a strong, safe nation.

Why can only Dhikilo see what's missing? That's not clear. Maybe because as an outsider, she's more receptive, more ready to ask questions, awkward questions, and get into trouble for doing so? Even to travel to a strange world (after all, it's not the first time) where she might discover the truth about what's been happening and perhaps even do something about it?

That's what happens, courtesy of a mysterious adult whose house has a gateway in the attic to a frozen world. If that makes you think of Narnia, then yes, it's supposed to - Faber is perfectly clear about the inspiration here and some of the events through that doorway will remind you of CS Lewis's books and the films of them. But there are differences too, I think. In particular, while Dhikilo has an animal guardian here - a Sphinx called Nelly, no less - there's no religious aspect, as with Narnia's Aslan, and much of Dhikilo's progress depends above all else on her courage, common sense and kindness. She has a series of challenges to meet, which I won't say anything about - spoilers! - and as the story unfolded I recognised another influence here: Charles Dickens, with many of the settings and creatures named after, or reflecting, his books - we meet the Quilps and the Drood (sorry, the roo), the names of the rooms in a hotel called Bleak House are based on London prisons and most sinisterly of all, there is a Big Bad called the Gamp, supported by unpleasant magwitches, creatures he claims to be enemies but is working hand-in-glove with. (A bit of satire aimed at lying politicians, I think).

Anyone reading this book who doesn't recognise these names (or some of the scenes and events) won't be puzzled of confused by the story, but if you know what they mean, it does add a little bit to your enjoyment, as will the details revealed towards the end about a certain Professor and his home.

This is, as I have said, above all an exciting, dangerous adventure with a resourceful and wise central character. The subtitle, "A Tale of Two Worlds", as well as its allusion to Dickens, may refer to Dhikilo's adventures in England and in Liminus or to her passage from Somaliland to England, or possibly both. There are, I think, many more than two worlds here, giving much to explore and discover.

I'd strongly recommend D.

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



13 October 2020

Review - Hinterland by LM Brown

Cover image: “Roses on Red Chair” © Kathy Bradshaw
Cover image: “Roses on Red Chair”
© Kathy Bradshaw
Hinterland
LM Brown
Fomite Press, 13 October 2020
Available as: PB, 324pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781947917583

I'm grateful to the author for an advance e-copy of Hinterland to consider for review.

Hinterland is an intense, closely observed study of one family living in a Boston suburb over a decade or so in the early 2000s.

We meet Nicholas ‍Giovanni, a taxi driver, whose main focus in life is the protection of his young daughter, Kate. When first introduced, he is sneaking away from his nightshift and back into the house while baby Kate and her mother Kathleen sleep, to check that all is well with Kate. A devoted father, or just this side of creepy? 

Kathleen herself is a troubled woman - how much so we'll only slowly discover - who is riled when Ina moves back in next door. Ina's mother Tilly has had a fall (Nicholas discovered her in the snow in her back garden) and Ina has returned to look after her. Nicholas, Tilly and Ina know each other well (Nicholas is still living in his childhood home, he and Ina grew up together) - and it's soon clear there is history here ('it had been hard to be in the same room as Ina'). What, exactly, and what sort, you need to discover for yourself - Brown will reveal this slowly as the months and years move forward and a catastrophe strikes Nicholas's little family, leaving him to care for Kate alone (alone, with help from Ida).

The characters will grow on you. Nicholas is always uneasy, trying to control everything, especially Kate (for example, he's unwilling to let her go to the playground alone, following her even when she tells him not to). At one point we are told of Nicholas that 'It was impossible to know exactly how to feel', as though he is an actor on stage waiting for direction. 

Kate misses her mother ('She wondered constantly where her mother was, if she had fallen and hurt herself, if she had forgotten where she lived...'), aware of a great absence that nobody will talk about. Nicholas won't be frank with Kate about the thing that has happened - understandably, you might think, but it leaves Kate so wounded and he refuses to do the one thing that might set things right. Why, we can only speculate.

And Ina, Nichola's sister-in-law, who seems part of, and not part of, this odd family, helping out, but resented, resenting. There is, as I said, history here - and secrets to be revealed - with Ina's and Nicholas's relationship now playing out a pattern that's rooted in events of twenty years before. The tension that Brown sketches between the two is electric, one almost feels the words crackle as one reads them, and there is a sense in which everyone else in the book - even Kate - is in their shadow, having to work round them, make space for them, if unconsciously. So Kate and, for example, Nicholas's brother Stefano and son Cooper, when they turn up, are all puzzled, stepping round in a dance they don't comprehend to accommodate Nicholas and Ina. 

It's a dance that Kathleen never learned to perform: so early on, she has to leave the stage and this fascinating woman is mostly seen in glimpses, memories, the reports of interested parties and experts. She's always interpreted by others, analysed, argued over. Yet even in her absence Kate seems to have a bond with her and a major theme of the book is Kate's quest for her mother, a quest that's sometimes overt but sometimes hidden even from her. An inevitably that quest opens up a rift with Nicholas, who's so wound up in keeping the truth from his daughter that he seems almost stop knowing her, his understanding of her personality drifting from that seen by everyone else ('he never thought that Kate could be a completely different person outside her house.')

That does give the book a vein of melancholy, but it's never maudlin. And Brown's characters are complex and real enough that - while one may not like all of them - one comes to understand them and want the best for them (even Nicholas, who, as I have said, does sometimes exhibit a worrying degree of obsession and control).

I would recommend Hinterland, both to readers of Brown's previous stories - for example her collections Treading the Uneven Road ‍and ‍Were We Awake - and those who are new to her writing. 

For more information about Hinterland, see the publisher's website here. You can purchase the book from Amazon here