28 January 2016

Review: Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore
Hutchinson, 28 January 2016
HB/e, 400pp

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

It starts with the whistle of a train. Indeed, trains, whistles, smoke, railway magazines, train sets and branch lines are scattered through this book, to a degree that seems out of proportion to even the world of the early 60s, before Beeching. Only posh Soviet mole Giles travels by car, as if to underline his alienation from a society that "history had decided against". All the others face, in one way or another, the end of the line.

But then, what could be more fitting in a story about a mother and her three children forced into waiting when Father is arrested and charged with espionage? Dunmore clearly has in mind another book* but this isn't in any way a rehash of that and while Paul, Sally and Bridget get their share of the story (and well portrayed they are too) the focus is more on Lily and how she copes in a strange new world after her husband Simon is arrested, and on Giles.

Delicately, patiently Dunmore unpicks the years that made them.

There is Giles's somewhat cool decision to become a traitor: his passionate affair with Simon ("Giles has been batting for the other side in more ways than one"): his disappointed, older self. There is Simon's rather hapless life, bullied by his posh brothers (they called him "milkman" because of some supposed doubt about his paternity) - his response is to reject his parents, his brothers, his family home, Stopstone - but not, unlike Giles, his country.

And above all, there is Lily (born Lili), a child refugee (or are we supposed to say "migrant" these days?) from Germany who has remade herself in her new home ("Mum is less German than anybody. They are more English than anybody.") but still doesn't... quite... fit in: (""Do you think" asks Sally "it could be that Mum doesn't know things because of not being born here?")

It's not just Lily who has done this. Everyone here is remaking, reworking, presenting themselves, even the children as they practice a little domestic espionage to find out what's become of their father. And most of the characters - even the most apparently rooted - are ready to fly in an instant. Giles knows what train he'll catch and what ferry, if his activities come to light (his spying? Or consorting with "his boys" in the clubs?) Lily, upon hearing that long feared knock on the door, knows what to do right away - get the children out of sight, put on a calm manner, smile. She also knows what needs hiding and how to do it. And even Simon, on remand in prison, begins to transform, becoming someone else, someone who can survive.

Maybe the railway references are more than a nod to that other book. Beneath the trappings of a spy thriller, they hint at escape, at change - whether it's Simon hearing the train whistle from the prison yard or Lily remembering the train she took from Berlin, with its different smelling smoke and demands from the police for "papers".

This is, I think, a book much less about the jolly fun to be had outwitting the enemy on the chessboard of the Cold War, or about betrayal, loyalty and concealment (though they are there too) but about the impact of all these things on innocent lives. Giles and his comrades play games that get people killed, arrested or ruined: the beauty of Exposure (and that title hints at so much that might be exposed in so many ways) is to show, from the inside out how those who aren't actually playing the great game get caught up, all the same, in the terrible works, how they lose their safety and security, the respect of their neighbours.

It's also about resilience and adaptability, about accepting what can't be changed and changing what can.

Exposure is an excellent read, a hard book to put down, and I'd thoroughly recommend it.

*The name is left as an exercise for the reader

25 January 2016

Review: Black Widow by Christopher Brookmyre

Black Widow
Chris Broomyre
Little, Brown Jan 2016
HB, 422pp

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

This is a gripping, twisty crime novel featuring Brookmyre's journalist hero, Jack Parlabane.

Parlabane has fallen a long way since his glory days. The victim of a shady sting a couple of stories ago, he's not scratching a living in a borrowed flat, scraping together "content" for websites.

And his wife Sarah is now hie ex-wife.

So he jumps at the chance to "get back in the game" when a young woman, Lucy, knocks on his door one morning. Lucy is worried about her brother Peter who "seems" to have died in a car "accident" outside Inverness. "Seems", because no body was ever found: "accident" because Lucy clearly has suspicions about Peter's new wife, Diana.

The story, framed around the proceedings of a trial, is told largely through the voice of Diana and third person narratives following Parlabane and Ali, an Inverness police officer. Diana is a doctor, a surgeon, who's run into trouble before (she wrote an anonymous blog about work-life balance and sexism in the hospital but it was hacked an her identity exposed) but then found happiness in a whirlwind romance with Peter. She doesn't, though, suffer fools - or those who cross her - gladly. And as becomes clear, her life with Peter crumbled very quickly.

Brookmyre has a good line in observation as, especially, he describes Diana's earlier troubles, whether the specific instances of outrageous behaviour highlighted in her blog or the awful harassment she suffered after her identity was exposed. (He even works in Lewis's Law - the observation that the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism).

He can also string together a plot well, producing a near perfect blend of suspense, surprise and tension. This is where reviewing Black Widow becomes frustrating. I'm normally a bit hard-hearted about spoilers, but this really is one book whose secrets you need NOT to know before you read it. As I turned the pages I felt a real sense of dread at what might be going to happen, and was sorely tempted to check the end just to see how things turned out: don't do that. Just don't.

That sense of dread was all bound up with what might happen to Diana. She's not a conventionally sympathetic character, and even as you learn more about her from her own narrative you may not warm to her, but I think you will care about her, given what she's already been through and how the first chapter opens, narrated from the dock as the trial opens.

When you finish the book I guarantee you'll revisit that first chapter, to see how it lines up with how things turned out. Brookmyre has a startling ability to put things in place that make perfect sense on first reading but which gain a whole new significance in hindsight. The same skill shows up in a slightly different form where he lets a character's private words or actions, made public in the courtroom or on the Web, accuse them in a way never intended. The book shows the consequences of lies and deceit.

It's Parlabane, the discredited journalist with his shady methods who is left to find the answers - even if they come at some cost.

24 January 2016

Blogtour review: Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 2016
PB, 215pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a copy of the book. This review is part of the Nightblind blog tour - see below for details of other reviews.

Nightblind takes place in the long dark of a near Arctic winter (the map in the front of the book shows how close the village of Siglufjörður is to the Arctic circle).

Set in a fishing village in northern Iceland, the story follows up Snowblind and features the same central characters, but five years later. Ari Thór Arason is now working for a new Police Inspector, Herjólfur, his friend Tómas having moved on - but he's about to face his greatest challenge when Herjólfur is gunned down in cold blood,  a shocking and startling event anywhere, but an unheard of one in peaceful Iceland. Naturally there is intense media interest, and pressure from the higher ups for a swift conclusion (as long as it doesn't upset anyone important).

As the investigation proceeds, the crime only acquires new layers of complexity - from iffy local politics to drug dealing, domestic violence and, interleaved with the main narrative, a first hand account by a psychiatric patient, apparently confined in hospital but subject to "treatment" that only makes their condition worse. And the unwarranted nature of the crime attracts publicity - which itself threatens some characters with unwelcome consequences from pasts they hoped to leave behind. Added to this are strains in the domestic lives of many of the main characters, especially Ari, so that the unravelling of the original crime becomes almost the least of problems.

Then the book becomes very dark indeed.

I really enjoyed this story. I hadn't read Snowblind so didn't know what to expect, but Jónasson skilfully establishes Siglufjörður (a real place) as a vivid location: through its history (repeated economic shocks from the loss of a fishing industry and the more recent financial collapse with a tentative revival based on tourism), isolation (in winter the town depends on tunnels for contact with the rest of the island: one vivid sequence describes the danger of travelling the old mountain roads) and, or course, that pervasive winter darkness. He also sketches believable characters: the petty crook, the small town mayor on the make who wants, of course, to come up smelling of roses, the woman who has lived decades with a dark secret (apologies if you think I'm overusing the word "dark" in this review - it applies to this book in so many different ways).

Add in a taut, ever moving plot which - after all the twists and turns - discloses a surprising degree of contemporary resonance and you have a book which will surely prove very popular. It's not a lengthy read but I found this refreshing compared to the normal run of somewhat bloated contemporary crime: better write 200 pages where every word counts than spin out the same material to 350 or 400.

And I should says something about the translation: while I don't know any Icelandic, Quentin Bates had produced excellent, readable English which doesn't (names apart) in any way suggest to me that the work has actually been translated

The book ends with a lyrical passage by Jónasson's father, describing the coming of Spring to Siglufjörður - the darkness is fading, and life returns to the little community. It is a beautiful and hopeful piece - despite the fact that Jónasson clearly intends to continue driving up the murder rate in his fictional version of the town!

An excellent read. I gather that the next books will now fill in that 5 year gap, and I'm looking forward to visiting Siglufjörður again soon.

19 January 2016

Review: The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

The Thing Itself
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, December 2015
PB, 358pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop

Adam Roberts isn't a writer who takes the easy path. In The Thing Itself, that means his readers have to put in a fair amount of effort tool, but it's well worth it.

This is the story of Charles Gardner. We first meet Charles in the 1980s, in a remote Antarctic base. He and his colleague Roy are part of the search for extra terrestrial life: lurking behind this first part of the story is the Fermi Paradox, the idea that the sheer scale of the Universe should guarantee life - so why have we not seen it? Roy comes up with an answer, rooted in Kantian philosophy, which makes a surprising amount of sense. I'm not going to explain it because spoilers, but it's based on the true nature of the Universe - "The Thing Itself" of the title, a theme on which Roberts plays many variations in the book (he's fond of puns).

Many authors might pick up a theme or idea as Roberts does Kant and simply use it for window dressing. Roberts goes further. He actually structures the book around Kant's categories (see the table of contents) and goes to great lengths to explain the underlying ideas (but it's OK, this never reads like an info dump!)  The story is told in 12 parts, with alternating sections following Gardner's story back from the Antarctic to Bracknell, Reading, Swindon and points North. he doesn't have a happy life: he and Roy experienced something in Antarctica that left Charles with a mega case of PTSD and Roy in Broadmoor (near Bracknell, which turns out to be handy). Here we actually have a rather hoary trope - if we knew the true nature of the Universe we'd go mad - turned around, justified and presented in an intriguing and logically plausible setting. But that's not half of it. Or rather it is, because the other 6 sections - the even numbered ones - explore related themes to the main story but in rather different ways.

There's a story about two gentlemen (English? Irish?) taking a leisurely holiday on the Rhine in the early 20th century. What are they missing? There's a Joycean piece (which I found very challenging - I've never read any Joyce - but stick with it). There are a couple of out-and-out SF pieces ("The Fansoc for Catching Oldfashioned Diseases" and "The Last Three days of the Time War") which could almost stand alone. There's one written in 17th or 18th century English from the perspective of a servant boy.

Certain themes, certain names, recur. Across time, the story is evolving. It's a mystery story; it's a logical puzzle; it's a philosophy tutorial. And it's glorious, beautiful SF, made more so because Roberts treats the subject with the seriousness it deserves. If you're going to think about ultimate reality, time, space and creation, he seems to be saying, you really ought to do so in the company of the most brilliant thinkers who have gone before.

You owe it that, at least.

Strongly recommended (and the cover's pretty too).

13 January 2016

Review: Friends of the Dusk by Phil Rickman

Friends of the Dusk
Phil Rickman
Corvus, December 2015
HB, 460pp

I bought this book from the Waterstones shop in the Oracle Centre, Reading.  I was pleased to see it on the shelf because it's a I follow Rickman's Merrily books - but had no idea it was coming out. I scour publisher catalogues, follow publicists on Twitter and trawl book blogs - and yet, surprises are still possible!

This is even more astonishing given that Merrily has now been adapted for TV. Bit of a publicity failure there, I think.

Friends of the Dusk covers familiar ground for fans of the series - the uncertainties and difficulties of Merrily's life as the Hereford Diocese's "deliverance consultant" ("Exorcist" to you and me), her teenage daughter Jane's growing-up angst, Merrily's relationship with Lol and, of course, the oddly matched police couple Frannie Bliss and Annie Howe. Here, Merrily struggles with a hostile new Bishop at the same time as she gets an awkward call for help from a Muslim couple. Bliss and Howe investigate a missing skull, and Jane struggles with - well, teenage stuff. Along the way we see a very nasty old man in a care home, and reacquaint ourselves with Athena White.

Some things are a little different. Gomer Parry only appears briefly, and both Merrily and Gomer (when he shows up) are puffing on e-cigarettes. We get rather less than usual of Ledwardine life - the daily ins and outs of the small town - and the challenges Merrily faces all come from outside: the Bishop, the problems of the Maliks in Cwmarrow (which confront Merrily with political, rather than spiritual, issues, and a chance to become emrboiled in controversy at just the wrong time). I rather regretted this, and also the feeling that Merrily is being acted on rather than setting the pace.  Rickman evokes the creepiness of Cwmarrow very well, and has some other fine moments of tension and ear which wind Merrily up but she doesn't actually do a great - rather she's the catalyst for others to reveal information - Huw Owen, maverick freelance exorcist, the Maliks and those who lived at Cwymarrow before them, Jane who undertakes a lot of background research into Cwmarrow, even Sophie the Bishop's Secretary. And of while she's the occasion for the new Bishop to unload a great deal of negativity - he clearly wants rid of her - again she doesn't do much. 

We've seen in previous books of the series how much of a force Ms Watkins can be, so this was somewhat disappointing. (In earlier books she has sometimes been less central to the action - with Howe and Bliss taking more of a role - but she was always active, even so).  I also felt that the ending didn't, perhaps, come together. There is a very quick resolution of one plot thread which had been built up throughout the book into a real menace and might, realistically, have been given rather more space to wind down. Another - involving Howe and Bliss - doesn't resolve (but that's OK with me, no doubt it will feature I the next book). I was also left unclear about the precise scope of the supernatural element.

That isn't meant to detract from the book. Time spent in the company of Merrily Watkins is always time well spent, and Friends of the Dead is, as ever, well written. It also has a surprisingly fresh take - based on real events, or at least events as recounted in medieval chronicles - on what has become a rather hackneyed staple of horror fiction. And there are some real gems in here - Rickman could I'm sure easily produce the YA "Chronicles of the Summoner" books which feature here (though I hope he doesn't, given what we learn of their origin) and he springs a number of surprises as well as entering into the mind of teenage Jane in what seemed (at least to this middle aged male reviewer) a very convincing way.

My overall verdict would be, I think, that if you like the Watkins books this is the sort of thing you'll like - if you've been turned on to them by the TV production you're best in any case to start at the beginning (because spoilers, but also because you get a more intense Merrily experience).

Disclaimer: the reviewer's wife is a Church of England Vicar, but definitely not a deliverance consultant.

9 January 2016

Review: Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris

Travelers Rest
Keith Lee Morris
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 7 Jan 2016
HB, 368pp / e-book

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a copy of this book via NetGalley.

This is an excellent book, both entertaining and though-provoking. It is not, though, especially in the first part, an easy, tripping along read. Nor does it easily fit into genre categories. For both of these reasons I fear it may struggle to find its audience.

Travelers Rest is the story of the Addisons - Tonio and Julia, their ten year old son Dewey (referred to sometimes at "The Dooze Man") and dissolute (but fun company) Uncle Robbie. On a snowy winter's night they are travelling through Idaho on Interstate-90 and stop off at the town of Good Night, with its old hotel, Travelers[sic] Rest. The town seems familiar: "I've heard of this place". The name of the hotel presents a puzzle - something isn't right about it: it is a statement of fact: "yes, travellers rested. All people did, eventually..." The hotel itself is old fashioned, empty, draped in dust cloths ("basically all the stuff you saw on TV whenever they wanted to get across the idea that someplace was abandoned and scary"). The reader's Gothic antennae will be twitching at this point - just what is going to assault this family? Ghosts? Monsters? Aliens? The iolated and inbred residents of a back-of-nowhere community? - and it comes as no surprise that something happens.

But the "what" - that's another matter. Even setting aside concerns about spoilers, it's hard to describe exactly what follows, as the four are separated and... acted on... by the town that is Good Night.

Cold and aloneness are the abiding impressions ("her mind felt white with snow, cold and pleasantly numb". Everything takes place in an epic snowstorm - we are constantly told of the settling snow, hear its sound, smell it, experience the sheer physicality and bone numbing coldness of the winter as well as the deprivation of vision, of free movement, that the snow brings. To be in the snow for long is pain and death but to escape from it is to be confined in the rackety maze of the town, a labyrinth of stairs, tunnels and passages which seems to extend not just across space but across time. The experiences of the separated Addisons - each reliving the moments in the past that made them who they are - overlaps with those of other visitors from more than a hundred years ago. To begin with we know (we think) which is which but as everybody goes further into that maze it becomes unclear who is remembering who, who is becoming or coming from who. There seem to be echoes between now and then, but what is cause and what is effect is mysterious, tantalising.

This much is clear - the Addisons are not the first to lose themselves in Good Night. Others have been before and left behind "souvenirs" - lost, bewildered children, resented by the regular townsfolk. It's a fate Dewey is determined to avoid, but alone, hungry and cold, what is he to do?

The story uses horror tropes and has a setting familiar from countless speculative and weird tales - it's easy to see influences here from Stephen King or even HP Lovecraft, whether direct or simply because they've become part of the culture - but I don't think that Morris's main business is with that. He doesn't downplay these - as I've quoted above, they are often overtly deployed. But what seems to be going on here is much more metaphorical, much more internal and this is where I fear the introspective nature of much of the prose may frustrate some. We're given extensive sections where the writing explores what it is like to be Dewey, a boy/ young man on the threshold of adolescence but in many respects a loner, an observer. We're told about Tonio and the impact of him of Dewey: "And then came Dewey. Game over. Defenses wiped out immediately, entirely, white flag waving in the breeze. Dewey was a different thing altogether, for which he had no classification-his son was so much a part of his own internal world that is was hard to believe anything could happen to him that didn't also happen, simulataneously, to himself." We hear of Julia's life in which "she was constantly busy, and yet she never felt she was really doing anything." We learn of Uncle Robbie' - good old Uncle Robbie - anguish, aimlessness, his drug and drink binges and we feel the cold again when his relationship with his less than warm and sympathetic parents is exposed.

Themes of being lost - in the maze of Good Night, in an old mine, in a scary hotel, in one's own thoughts and feelings - and found - and finding others and losing them - recur endlessly, just as Tonio tries, repeatedly, to escape from his endless, neither now-nor-them, afternoon with the creepy hotel keeper (Scooby Doo is references several times!) the mysterious Rose who seems to be his companion. It's no use, Tonio always seems to lose himself in the snow and able only to crawl back into the hotel.

I found it a profoundly disturbing yet fascinating book. Morris easily matches or exceeds one's expectations, built up by all that overt foreshadowing - there is true horror here - but he also subverts them, using his characters' own unease about who they are and where they are going to undo them. That, in the end, is far more chilling than the gothic stuff because it connects at a very basic level with the reader.

So avoid those out of the way, mid West towns - if you're able...

5 January 2016

Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 7 January 2016
PB, 448pp

I'm grateful to Amazon for sending me a copy of this book as part of their Vine programme.

I loved Bennett's City of Stairs published in 2015 - it was so fresh, innovative and immersive - so was excited to see the sequel and delighted to get a copy for review.

It is five years since the events of the previous book. General Turyin Mulaghesh has retired from the army of Saypur and gone to live on a tropical beach. Shara Komayd has risen to become Prime Minister (though apparently not for long). Saypur continues to rule the Continent, whose gods it killed to overthrow centuries of colonial rule. But the Continent is complex, a dark continent with many secrets and dangers... so it's not surprising that a seasoned operator like Mulaghesh would be brought back into play when things begin to go wrong. Very much as in City of Stairs, where Komayd was the spy, Mulaghesh is despatched to the city of Voortyashtan (formerly ruled by the Goddess of war and death) to track down a lost agent.  Her arrival triggers a cataclysmic chain of events that force her to confront a grim episode from her past. If the Continent is dark, not all of the darkness comes from the Continentals and their tyrannical gods. Oppression begets reaction and cruelty leads to cruelty.

Building on the earlier book's themes of colonialism and cultural destruction, Bennett again produces  novel that is not just entertaining but engages with some meaty themes - here, military occupation, battle trauma and its aftermath, the sheer messiness of combat leading to rage and a desire for destruction for its own sake (embodied at its purest in the nightmare goddess Voortya and her "sentinels" but also reflected in Sigurd's berserker rage and in other characters too).

That preoccupation makes it rather more melancholy and generally darker than Stairs and perhaps more of a challenging read, although I still loved the book and had to sit up late to finish it. Bennett has a real gift for words: here is description of an automated weapon "An enormous cloud of dust rises up as the PK-512 continues putting hundreds and hundreds of rounds into the skin of the earth, like it's a pressurised water sprayer sawing through limestone." Or those sentinels: "...splintery creations of bone and horn and metal, long and thin and positively lethal-looking, as if someone could teach a knife to float." Nor are the gentler parts of the story any less convincing or less vividly done.

In short, this book lived up to my expectations, with the later part, especially, a white-knuckle read that demands to be taken in one session. Superb fantasy - and things are clearly building to a climax in the final volume.