28 February 2015


For the first time ever, Blue Book Balloon is going to be part of a blog tour... we'll be landing in the gritty world of Helen Giltrow's debut thriller The Distance, which is just out, tangling with identity, guilt and rehabilitation.  That's on 7th March, when I'll be posting a review of the book - one that had me desperate to see what came next... but terrified of what might happen. Real hiding-behind-the-sofa stuff.

We'll just have to hope that the Balloon gets aloft again, and isn't hijacked for nefarious purposes by the inmates of The Program.

From the press release:

"They don't call her Karla any more. She's Charlotte Alton: she doesn't trade in secrets, she doesn't erase dark pasts, and she doesn't break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she's been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn't officially there. It's a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can't she say no?"

Intriguing - and Charlotte is a great protagonist, brave, capable, holding her place in a very shady underworld and facing off some markedly dangerous characters.

After that, I have a couple of other review copies and my first Netgalley lines up, and I've also been on  a bit of a buying spree: there have been so many great books published in the past few weeks - from Sarah Pinborough (The Death House), Claire North (Touch), VE Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic) and Naomi Foyle (Rook Song) - and there are others too - that it's been hard to keep up, I want to put up reviews of at least some of these here, in the next couple of weeks.

And there is another blog tour as well, with a book that's quite different from those I normally review, but which is proving VERY interesting... more on that later...

Review: The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven's Head
Karen Maitland
Headline Review, March 2015
Paperback, 512pp

I received a copy of this book from Amazon Vine.

This is a swashbuckling tale of escape, magic and survival against a grim background of medieval Europe. I hadn't read any of Maitland's books before this, but will be catching up with them now.

Vincent is a penniless, orphaned apprentice scribe in France.

Wilky is a young boy wrenched from his family in England and sent to live at a monastery, spending each night in terror that he will be woken from his bed and taken away...

Gisa works for her uncle and aunt, learning the trade of an apothecary.

Through their eyes we see a rather different Europe from that of knights and princesses, kings and battles. And it's a pitiless one, with injustice, starvation or death from cold never far away.

Vincent knows this and wants to rise - so when he sees an opportunity to blackmail his master, he seizes it, setting off the action of the novel with a string of encounters, escapes and betrayals which occupy the first half of the book. In the meantime we slowly learn the history of Regulus, for whom the white-robed monks seem to have a particular purpose in mind, and Gisa.

It's all bound up with alchemy, that hybrid of secret philosophy and experimental science by which medieval scholars hoped to achieve power, wealth or immortality. In the climax to the book we discover that alchemy has been shaping Vincent's steps all along, and that there is a purpose, too, for him...

Maitland backs up her story with several pages of notes explaining terms, customs and history and each chapter opens with a quote from a genuine alchemical text. That is pretty incomprehensible stuff, to be honest, and I was intrigued by the contrast between this "real" hidden, magical learning and the typical magical/ occult system of a fantasy world.

It's a sign, perhaps, of how completely the worldview that created alchemy has been replaced by science that even made up "magic" seems more rational and systematic. You (literally) couldn't make it up. So by grounding her book in this stuff Maitland both makes it both more realistic than typical fantasy (whatever that means!) and also more alien. It's an impressive achievement, and a cracking read.

24 February 2015

Review: Weathering by Lucy Wood

Lucy Wood
Bloomsbury, 2015
Hardback, 290pp

If you read and enjoyed Wood's collection of short stories, Diving Belles, you'll recognise the smell and taste of this book. Or rather, the smell and taste are different: while Diving Belles was all about the salt-sea and the sand, Weathering is imbued with cold and muffling snow.  Wood has moved inland, upriver, to where the water is fresh.  But like the earlier book, the elements are almost like characters or plot, defining the shape of the story (born in Autumn, carried away, at the end, on a Spring flood) and setting limits for the protagonists.

The book is about three women, mother and grandmother Pearl, mother and daughter Ada, daughter and granddaughter Pepper,  At the start, Pearl finds herself in the river. She wants to get back into her house, where Ada and Pearl have arrived, but that pesky river keeps carrying her away.

Ada walked out years ago, leaving Pearl, not in a drama but at the same time, intent on getting away, living a life.  Now she has come back, with strange Pearl - who can't settle at school, doesn't get on with the other kids - to clear out the cottage. Not to live there: she'll only be around a few weeks.  Good thing too - the roof leaks, the log burner is spiteful, the electricity intermittent.  Perhaps she can get something for the house from Ray, he of the thin smile.

And there we are.  Ada and Pearl make a home, temporary, like all the other places where they wash up.  The story drifts back and forward in time, meandering a bit, showing how Ada grew up and how Pearl declined.  Unlike Diving Belles, there's nothing magical (though the way the story's told might reflect the supernatural - or it might not...) but it has the same clarify of focus, the same flow, the sense of watching ripples in the river, as that book. Also, the same magical use of language, close observation of the world and sympathy for its characters: they are human, they manage as best they can, what can you do, it seems to say.  The heron will be here next year, whatever.  The snow will melt, the flood will rise, everything will be rinsed away down to the sea.

It is a captivating, magical book, to be read slowly and appreciated. Buy the print version, not the e-book - there is a beautiful, tactile cover: simply holding it is a pleasure.

This is the sort of book that gets literary fiction a good name.

What a terrific writer: I'm really, really hoping for more from Lucy Wood.

7 February 2015

Review: The Chimes by Anna Smaill

The Chimes
Anna Smaill
Sceptre, 12 February 2015
Hardback, 304 pages

I was sent a copy of this to review by Amazon Vine.

There is a lot of debate on reviewer websites, book blogs and book podcasts about whether to persist with a book which is difficult to get into. There are so many books, and so little time, after all, that it's tempting to give up and move on.

But every so often a book comes along which rewards perseverance.

This is such a book, and while it may not be to everyone's taste, I want to persuade you to give it a chance, because, once you "get" it, it is beautiful, moving and - yes - exciting and dramatic.

We are introduced to a London not unlike our own, but distinctly pre-modern: there no machines and no electricity.

Following his mother's death, a boy travels from the bulbfields of Essex to find one of her friends in the city. What he is to do then we don't know. The atmosphere is very constrained: facts are few and hard to interpret. Smaill is, I think, leading us into the mindset of her characters, showing what the world they live in like, through that atmosphere. So, memory is important. Somehow it keeps being lost: everyone forgets pretty much everything each day and has to continually relearn who they are and how to live. The only solid memories are those anchored in items which you carry round with you ("objectmemory") and in learned skills ("muscle memory"). There is always the risk - if one sets foot outside the familiar - of going adrift, becoming "memoryless", a hopeless, pitiable state. A story told about people like this is necessarily allusive, missing out facts and connections that have simply been lost by the characters, dwelling on the little knowledge and few incidents that they recall, celebrating and turning on minor - to us - triumphs of recall, before lapsing again into darkness and chaos.

That makes it hard, at first, to enter the world of this book, as did - at least for me - the musical metaphors used in the story. This is a world where writing is banned, memories full of holes: but music is everywhere. Music supplies the place of maps, of print and television (instead of which, the citizens come together every morning and evening to hear the "Chimes" of the title, a musical creation broadcast on some remote instrument of unimaginable power which both binds them together and splinters away those precious memories).

Music soaks this book. Common words are replaced by their Italianate, musical equivalents - lente, subito - giving the writing a lush, alien tone. Distances are turned into "beats". Events "resolve". Music almost becomes an extra sense: things, people, ways are found and described through their tunes - a stall in a crowded market, rare treasure in the abandoned tunnels under London, the way back home after Chimes has struck. Here was a real barrier for me: I hear music, I enjoy music, but I don't understand the technical language.

It was, then, an absolute pleasure as - in my mind - the book slowly came together, with the background of the boy Simon gradually filled in and the nature of his quest becoming clear. Quite simply, he needs to learn who he is, what he has lost - and what he might become. And that learning is accompanied by the reader's growing sense of what is going on, almost as if one is sharing in the recovery of memory, the gathering sense of purpose of the character. It's simply brilliant.

Simon's discovery of himself is catalysed by his relationship with, his discovery of, a friend who also comes out of mystery. That developing friendship is at the heart of the book and it is a joy to read.

I don't want to gush. The book has flaws. Following the mysterious, allusive opening there is a large infodump somewhere around the middle, almost as though Smaill lost her nerve slightly and worried about the reader getting into the book. Yes, as I've said, some may find it difficult but once - as it were - you begin to hum along with the main theme, then you won't need a great deal of extra prompting. It is also quite a short book. The ending is, perhaps, a bit rushed: but then, it's also refreshing to see a story like this not padded out to the traditional trilogy.

So - not perfect, but a beguiling and immersive world, real characters trapped by a horrid religion/ philosophy and a wonderful, inventive way of telling a story that is perhaps the book's greatest strength, something different and breathtaking to read.