30 March 2016

Review: The Calling by Philip Caveney

The Calling
Philip Caveney
Fledgling Press, Edinburgh 2016
PB, 235pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of this book to review.

A boy wakes up on a train to Edinburgh.He is shocked to discover that no idea who he is or how he came to be on the train - and once off it, he finds himself immersed in the chaos of the Edinburgh Fringe. After a day of wandering the crowded streets, he falls asleep and is woken by the sound of bells tolling midnight - only to discover that is the night of The Calling - a magical yearly event when all the statues of the city come alive...

We don't learn the boy's name for some time, nor what led to him being on the train. Given the name Ed (short for "Ed Fest") he has to make friends among the statues and work out how to get home - and get himself out of the trouble he's in.

The statues are all duplicates of their originals - whether these were real people or creatures or imaginary ones (even fantastic, speculative creations like the Gormleys or the giraffe-like Dreaming Spires). They all have the prejudices and quirks that implies, and there's a lot of fun in, for example, the rivalry between the statues of Charles II and that of Queen Victoria. Edinburgh has a lot of statues, but sensibly, Caveney limits himself to a dozen or so of them (though this means we never get to meet John Knox which is a shame: perhaps he couldn't get out of New College) which makes things easier to manage.

The idea of statues coming alive - even for one night only - is definitely a creepy one and coping with it is a real challenge for Ed. They don't like the "softies" and don't want their secret revealed so  Charlie - or King Charles II to give him the correct title - wants to have Ed executed, leading to some thrilling adventures in which the boy is aided by Sherlock Holmes. Caveney uses the opportunity to explain who many of the historical figures were, including James Clerk Maxwell, Prince Albert and William Wallace. I think this is an excellent way to introduce some fascinating historical characters and events and to explain why these were commemorated. (He also has Queen Victoria point out the injustice that few of the statues are of women). There is even a map so that the reader can find them: a good way to explore Edinburgh, I think (and bring the statues alive in a different sense!)

Behind all this there is, of course, the mystery of Ed's memory loss and this is where Sherlock really comes into his own, the book illustrating, again, some of Holmes' ways of solving crimes and of working out what had happened. And of course it's useful to have seven foot bronze statue with you when the bad guys start firing arrows...

All in all a fun book, conveying the atmosphere of Edinburgh during the Festival in an unusual and entertaining way. It would be a good companion if you're visiting the city with children and want a bit more than the guidebooks offer, perhaps as a break from Festival-going or a way to structure a wander round. Ed is a resourceful hero who isn't above putting even the most crusty old statue in their place, but he learns a great deal in the course of his adventure.

29 March 2016

Teenage Reading Record(1)

Through various house moves and clearouts I have thrown away most of the school exercise books I ever had, but I still have a few, including this one. It was an English Lit. book when I was in my 5th year (5JM means 5th year, and my form tutor was Miss J Moss) of secondary school. I think this is now called year 11(?) (I was in a group that did English Language O level in 4th year - a year early - then Literature the following year, doing the course in one year instead of two. The others hated us for being swots...)

I'm finding it interesting going through this, trying to remember what I read and why, and I thought I'd share it here.

As well as using this for essays and written work (the first item is dates 6/2/84 and sets out work to be completed on Henry IV Part One - including a list of insults in the play!) I began recording the books I'd read. I think we must have been asked to do this, there's no way that I would have written something in a school book that hadn't bee sanctioned by the teacher - I wasn't that sort of child!

Anyway, I carried on using it for that purpose for years after, at least until 1992 (the last date, although the list of books read goes on for some time after that). I think I may have got less meticulous about writing them all down towards the end, and then I stopped, and didn't really start tracking my reading again till I began Amazon reviewing around 2000 (but it was several years till I began reviewing everything).

I thought it might be interesting to look at what I was reading 33 years ago.

Here are the first two pages

Given that the dates start in September 83, I think I've started by going back and listing books I'd previously read - supporting this, I'm sure some of these books were on a reading list given to us earlier by our then English teacher, Mrs Allinson. Our Man in Havana and White Gold Wielder were on that list. (In passing it only struck me later that she must have been something of a SFF fan, recommending Stephen Donaldson, as well as Asimov (I, Robot - although that's not on here).

The marginal note on the second page - "Xmas '83" - reminds me of what seems in memory of days and days spent eating chocolate oranges and reading through the books I'd been given, many of them I think off that same list (although the ones I remember most clearly, the John Buchan Richard Hannay books, aren't there, so perhaps that was '82 not '83...)

There are other books on here I found for myself: the Father Brown stories, Hornblower. I had already discovered Orwell (which is why by this stage I was reading his biography) and at the same time PG Wodehouse. I think that I, Claudius was on that reading list (I wish I could find it!) as was The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Pincher Martin was in the school library and I was encouraged to read that by one of the teachers who helped with the library - I have to say this is the first time I can remember I had that "there's ten hours of my life I'll never get back" feeling. I was probably too young for it, but it put me off Golding for life (I wasn't really impressed by Lord of the Flies either, but it was at least more readable).

Don Camillo was on TV around that time in a BBC adaptation, which is why I read that. What is Dungeons and Dragons? speaks for itself and all the Shakespeare was, I think, an attempt to put the play we were studying in context (I don't think I got too much out of it: it wasn't really meant to be read, was it, but performed?)

26 March 2016

Review: Melissa by Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor
Salt, 2015
PB, 261pp

I'm grateful to have received a copy of this book for review.

Melissa is a brilliant read, although by no means always an easy one. Emotionally - and it is above all, I think, an emotional book - it is raw, the hurt of the main characters almost bleeding off each page. They are all - Harry the father, Lizzie the mother, Serena the sister and daughter - living through a nightmare of grief and guilt after the death from leukaemia of seven year old Melissa Comb, lover of spiders, Harry and Lizzie's daughter, and Serena's younger sister.

As Melissa dies, a strange acoustic phenomenon envelopes the street where she lives, a discordant and alarming noise that evolves into something like - but not identical to - Elgarian music. The "Spark Close Phenomenon" attracts attention and the Close is plagued thereafter by cranks, New-Agers, neuro-musicologists, musico-neurologists, journalists, hawkers and gawpers whose presence is a continued theme in the book. The irony of the Phenomenon is that it wasn't shared by the Comb family. While others experience a presence, a Thing, the Combs know only absence, a nothing - as concrete an illustration of the "Stop All The Clocks" paradox on the death of a loved one as you can ask for: surely the world must end, bowed by the weight of one's grief? But of course it won't. Harry sees this directly: if only, he thinks, there were an end, as with a piece of music. But life will insist on carrying on.

Harry, lost in grief, tries to make an end whether by walking out of his job, locking the piano so Serena can't play it any more, or just sitting:
She glared down at him, and he didn't say anything, didn't answer. Instead, he stared straight ahead, at a blank TV screen. For a few seconds, there was a silence between them - a silence which could have ended with his turning round, breaking down, sobbing with her; a silence which could have ended in his quietly taking her hand; a silence which could at least have ended with mutual rage.
But it turned out to be a silence which ended with his reaching - slowly, deliberately - for a cracker on the plate next to him, cutting off a little piece of Stilton, and placing it in the centre of the cracker. By the time cracker and cheese reached his mouth - slowly, ever-so-slowly - the door of the living room had slammed shut, and Serena had gone, taking all other possible endings of that silence with her. 
He also tries blame, self-loathing and any other emotion that might cut himself off from life, bring an end. As Head of the House, Harry insists on being hurt, refusing to serve up to a guest the turkey leg that is Melissa's favourite part of the bird and seeking comfort from the notorious Ms Kirsten Machin (what really did happen between them? We get different accounts, but there are I think no reliable narratives here).  But he isn't alone in his despair, which is shared by Lizzie and Serena: Lizzie needles her stepdaughter, buying the wrong type of milk or hassling her over how her "image" won't help trap a boyfriend: Serena breaks down in class, seeing echoes of Melissa in everything she reads.

The story is told from different perspectives, mostly by a narrator, partly by quotes from newspapers (and The Sun), reports, emails, medical diagnoses and other sources. As a result it can circle round its subject, sometimes repeating the same events from a different perspective, or jumping forward or back - and significantly leaving a gap, a Melissa shaped gap, which fills with the aforementioned grief, blame and guilt. And with music: the book is suffused with musical analogies, structures and speculations whether implicit - for example the form of the book is a Prelude, Variations and a Code - or explicit (Serena's conversation with her Physics teacher about music and entropy).

It is a powerful story, which is nonetheless very funny in places: the Combs' neighbours provide a degree of relief - though often dark, rather than light, relief - one is a Holocaust survivor, who contributes her own perspective on death and grief, another (Ms Machen) is the subject of a running gag about her babies who are often heard but never seen, a third seems to be a veritable Private Pike but whose mother endlessly goes on about his career in the Territorials as though it made him akin in soldiering terms to the Duke of Wellington: there is also a BNP supporter and a bouncer-turned-Bible basher, all of whom add to the rich tapestry of the novel.

It is not, as I said, an easy read, indeed, actually heart rending in places, but still a compelling and deeply human book, going to the heart of the grieving process (I can hear Harry sneering at that - "grieving process" - and taking another cracker).

It comes to a resolution... of sorts.

Not that there can be a final resolution because, as Harry, again wails, things don't ever stop.

24 March 2016

Review: Fellside by M R Carey

MR Carey
Orbit, 7 April 2016
HB, 496pp

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

Before I get into this review I should issue a couple of warnings. First, it's going to be very hard to do the book justice without dropping some spoilers. I don't want to do that, so if you find things getting a bit... cryptic... that may be the reason. (Or it may be me reviewing badly, it can happen). Secondly, this is a very violent book in places. I didn't find that a problem but if that bothers you, take note. It is also, though, in places a very tender book).

Onwards, then.

Carey had a hit a couple of years ago with The Girl with all the Gifts and Fellside seems, at first, to resemble the earlier book. There is a sympathetic female protagonist with a dark history who's clearly in A Lot Of Trouble, an institutional setting, some real hard cases making her life difficult and - behind the gritty realism - an element of the fantastic.

But that's only, I think, superficial. While I enjoyed Girl a lot, this is in many ways a tenser, more complex story.

We first meet Jess Moulson when she wakes in hospital. She has suffered injuries and - beyond those - something very bad has happened. How bad, and the exact trouble she's in, would be one of those spoilers but it's enough to say for now that it carries her away to Fellside, a private mega-prison somewhere in (I think) a remote part of Yorkshire. There is some grim humour here in that the Governor believes he's running a model institution while the very opposite is true. Jess's problems only get worse: shut away (in her own view, deservedly) she's prey to the truly terrible Harriet Grace, leader of the prison drug gang; to prison staff, revolted by Jess (spoilers!) and not above dealing out their own justice; but most of all, to the voices that come in the night.

Jess has, it seems, a strange ability to walk through others' dreams - and hear the voices, to meet others who walk through them: "the dead were dreams that dreamed themselves alive. Maybe the living were too..." That means she can not only engage with her fellow inmates on a visceral level, but also, perhaps, with her own past. If she doesn't lose herself in the Other Place, might she be able to find the evidence that will free her from Fellside? But if it does - with so much else going wrong - with it be too late?

The book knots together Jess's own quest for redemption; her lawyers' attempts to prove her innocent; the machinations of Grace and her accomplices (willing and unwilling) as they try to use her for their own reasons; the despair of weak people, fallen into Grace's power; and a tragic love story. All woven round the nightmare world of Fellside, which Jess explores by day as a prisoner and at night, in her dreams, as something else.

What's especially good is the balance between the fantastic and the mundane. This is a supernatural story, no doubt about that, but Grace is a scarier monster than anything in the dreamworld and the day to day indignities and fears of prison life can't just be stepped away from but have to be lived through, and not only by the prisoners: others are locked away in Fellside too.

The characters are also real - frighteningly so in the case of Grace her associates, but everyone here - the other prisoners, the prison staff, Jess's legal team - is so well drawn that you could have just met them at work. You mostly wouldn't want to, but you could. In fact I think I've met real people who were less convincing than some of these characters. Equally with the setting. Yes, the systemic reality of a prison is exposed in harsh detail (the corporate flam of the PR and legal suits, the smug Governor) but that's not the main point: quite simply, Carey makes Fellside-the-place simply, simply, real. (Another scary thought. I don't want it to be).

This degree of reality both in setting and character means that when it's time for the fantastic you simply walk with Jess and accept it - the weird dream logic, the nighttime world - and therefore its consequences. This is how such things would be, if they were. (The reality does slip, but only at one point - you'll know the moment when you reach it, in a courtroom scene where something happens that is obviously needed for the sake of the plot, but that wouldn't, in real life: by then though the book has built up such a head of steam that that this scarcely registered with me.) That's how, for me, this is a better book even than The Girl with all the Gifts.

The complexity of Jess's situation, her need for redemption - and where will she find that in Fellside? - the absolute reality of the characters and the fascination of the mystery that she very gradually unteases, kept me totally hooked and wanting more of this.

20 March 2016

Blogtour review: Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

Wicked Game
Matt Johnson
Orenda Books, March 2016
PB, 392pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for letting me have a copy of Wicked Game as part of the book's blogtour. (See below for details of the tour).

If, like me, you did most of your growing up in the 70s, there are things you may remember. Not just the long hot summers, the year of the ladybirds, and punk rock. No, I'm thinking of the politically heated times. Bombs going off - both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland. Rumours about disgruntled cliques of ex military types plotting in London clubs, of "shoot to kill" in Northern Ireland. Trade unionists targeted on the mainland. Shady, semi acknowledged arms law enforcement over the water known only by cryptic initials.

Set firmly at the opening of the present century, Johnson's book nevertheless looks back to those times through the eyes of his protagonist, Robert Finlay. While it might be stretching things to give Finlay - ex Army, ex SAS - an active past in the 70s, his background in the murky world of Northern Ireland policing, and his contacts among those ex officers, mercenaries and spooks - now gearing up for a different, even more deadly, counter terrorism campaign - can't help but evoke that atmosphere as Finlay becomes embroiled in the deadly game on the streets of London.

Certainly the air of suspicion, of paranoia, effortless sweeps him up, making him contemplate actions that should form no part of modern policing under the rule of law... especially since The trouble is, Finlay is now an Inspector in the Metropolitan Police, sworn to uphold law and order. He will fall far and low if he's caught taking part in any of these "deniable" activities. Yet he's also convinced that his life, and the lives of the wife and daughter he loves, are at risk - and that only he can protect them.

This book is in a genre I don't read very much, the fast paced action thriller and that did mean I had a little acclimatising to do in the early part of the book where we are briskly introduced to Finlay's past, and to some of the elements of the later mystery. 

The writing is direct: facts and histories stated, not left for the reader to pick over: there isn't time to stop and sift the finer aspects of motivation - to do so would only slow the plot. That style of writing may not be to everyone's taste but it becomes a real strength in this book as events cascade, ruthless killers spill into the open, and the agencies who should be tackling them are far less united and coherent than one might expect. Johnson marries form and subject very well, almost as if Robert Finlay himself was giving an urgent briefing to his superiors en route to the scene of yet another murder.

This is I think where Johnson's experience at the sharp end of anti-terrorism really shows - he's good at portraying how events unfold, the roles of the different agencies, their shifting agendas and the very human dilemmas and failings of those who work for them. And also, how little they may really be able to affect events. 

He also really gets into the minds of the terrorists - there are some great passages of writing that seem to be banal monologues until you realise you're in the mind of a would-be killer stalking their victim. The ordinaryness is very convincing, as is the self-justification 

Finlay himself is straightforward: he does what he has to do now, he did what he had to do in the past. When he needed to kill, he killed: when he needed to plan, he planned. These skills come back in the present, and serve him well even though the mess he's wandered into in knottier and has many more layers than anything he dealt with before. What he doesn't do - much - is brood: unlike the heroes of many crime novels, his life isn't a mess, he lives for his family.

And he's prepared to kill for them...

You'll enjoy this book if you're into thriller and action: even if you think you're not, the pace of the writing will carry you away. Robert Finlay's not a man who gives up easily.

13 March 2016

Review: Nod by Adrian Barnes

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a review copy of Nod.

At first sight this book is (post)apocalyptic fiction in the classic vein, meaning, of course, John Wyndham. We are introduced to the world as it is shortly before a catastrophe. Our narrator, Paul, and his partner Tanya then witness the change and are soon in a new world, battling for survival - and their greatest challenge isn't the disaster itself but the hostility of other survivors, who have not coped with the catastrophe so well. The immediate task, then, is to clear away those unfortunates and begin to rebuild the world, after which we see how all will, eventually, be well.

The book certainly works on that level.  It doesn't, perhaps, deliver quite the sense of reassurance I suggest above - which is one clue that there is more going on here than you might expect.

The disaster that Paul and Tanya are affected by is a worldwide loss of the ability to sleep. A small number can still sleep, but they are drawn into increasingly compulsive dreams of golden light - from which, eventually, they do not wake.

For the first day, the lack of sleep is a joke, or a mild irritant although “Brazen heads” on the TV news spread alarm as ever.

After a second night without sleep, those who can't sleep - the "Awakened" - begin to resent and later to hate the "Sleepers”.

After several nights, the Awakened become delusional, paranoid and dangerous. After a few weeks more they can be expected to die - but Paul doesn't have the luxury of just waiting: Tanya is an Awakened, he is a Sleeper, they have taken in an orphaned child, Zoe, and they are surrounded by wily, driven Awakened who believe that a drink of a Sleeper's blood will cure them...

Then the book gets really weird. Paul, who narrates the story, is an etymologist. He writes not-so-popular books on word origins, while Tanya brings in the money. In a classic Wyndham apocalypse the main protagonist would be a scientist or practical sort and we'd get a rationalistic take on what happened: here it's all about the words. Paul comes to believe that the wakefulness is related somehow to the capacity for belief, mediated by the use or not of words: and that his books, which are a graveyard of lost or nearly lost terms, have somehow highlighted things, concepts, that disappeared - or almost disappeared: perhaps they went into a dreamworld from which people have now awakened. Some of these terms are defined throughout the book and used as chapter headings: so "Admiral of the Blue", a term for a blood-stained butcher, is the title taken on by a leader of a cult of the Awakened who wants to use Paul as a puppet prophet.

While that's not a cause and effect explanation of events it's as much of one as we get, and it informs both Paul's approach and that of the crazed cult who try to hunt him down. Whether you feel the accompanying digressions into what I can only call wordiness (writing both about words and meaning and employing thick barrages of the things to illustrate themselves) advance or delay the story will depend, I think, on how wedded you are to that Platonic ideal of the apocalyptic.

For myself, I found them slightly jarring at first but then, as Barnes gets into his flow, I quickly saw that they made a strange kind of sense. In fact, the book proved to be a refreshing change, focussing on the characters' responses to the situation they're in (and not just in the sense of recording their bewilderment at what they have lost - though it does do that) and the changes it brought about in them, rather than on the mundane details of finding food, water and shelter.

The book also, then, works on a deeper level. Those changes to Barnes' characters don't just appear on a blank slate which pops up Day 1 of The Disaster: they're actually edits to complex stories which occurred before the book started and glimpses of which he shows us (chiefly the background of Paul and Tanya). Similarly, the world that's plunged into chaos by the loss of sleep wasn't perfect before; large parts of it resembled what Vancouver soon becomes: so in that sense the events here are, truly, an awakening into a reality that was already here.

In the end this is a book that gives the reader a lot to think about.

It isn't always an easy read (and there are some gruesome events in here) but it is a very rewarding one.

12 March 2016

Thoughts: The Coming Demise of Newspapers

I happened to buy a copy of New Scientist last week*, on impulse, at the checkout in (I think) Marks and Spencer's food bit and I was shocked at how slight it has become.

It's a magazine I used to read years ago (yes, and there's the point...) first when I was doing A levels, waiting for the copy in the school library and then when I was doing my degree and PhD. I subscribed to it for years, eventually cancelling because I no longer had time to read all of every edition. Back in those days, my life pretty much was physics: with other distractions - family, work - it seemed hard to find time. The same thing has happened with other magazines I've subscribed to in the past: The Listener at one time, New Statesman.

I have also pretty much stopped reading newspapers daily. I still get them on Saturday and Sunday: my morning then is focussed on the book reviews, eating breakfast while I see what's out there. I have to admit though that I buy far, far more books because of recommendations from Twitter,  or just from scrounging around to see which of my favourite authors have something new coming out soon, than because of a thing I see in the paper. Although it does still happen, and in any case, the review bits are nice to read just for the bookishness.

How long, though, can this last? I'm under no illusions that The Guardian and The Observer can keep being published indefinitely just so I can luxuriate in a few pages of book reviews. Like New Scientist - though perhaps not to the same extent - their physical version has diminished: when I used to buy them to read on the train in the morning there were all kinds of supplements - like the Guardian tech section - that aren't published on paper anymore and that I don't actively seek out online. It can only, I think go one way.

My son took me to see Spotlight a couple of weeks ago. (Son is the cinema enthusiast in this house). It wasn't a film I'd have chosen to see - confronting, dwelling on a nasty subject (the abuse cover-up in Boston, USA - and wider) and without an obvious good ending (how could there be?) Not that I only like cosy uplifting films, but still. However it was  revelation and actually very enjoyable. Not only for the story itself - the horrors that had gone on - but for the story of a team of journalists who uncover the truth. In some ways it was a very old fashioned film - it could have been shot in black and white, everyone wearing hats, with cries of "hold the front page!" (did that ever really happen?) The Web was happening - there were puzzled discussions of how to put up a link to the story once it broke - but it was secondary. When they needed to look up lists of priests in the Boston diocese, the jouralists went down into the cellar of The Boston Globe and went through dog eared old yearbooks, which, of course, we filed away. (My workplace recently abolished its reference library: I don't know where the stuff previously kept there has gone, but I fear it went in a skip).

Spotlight is in effect a celebration of - perhaps an epitaph to - a time when newspapers and journalists were a power, when they could get things done. I'm sure that falling circulation and the loss of advertising have curtailed that and while technology may have provided some alternatives I suspect that more has been lost than gained.

I felt the same way on reading Lauren Beukes' wonderful book The Shining Girls (link is to my Amazon review). One of the themes in this book is the power of popular journalism, in the right hands, for good. Of course it's set a good decade or so back. Today I feel more gloomily certain than ever that that book couldn't be written about now because the readers and the advertisers just aren't there anymore.

This fits. I think, into the "law of unintended consequences" heading. Yes, we all have these wonderful shiny new toys and SO MUCH TO READ. And responsible, factual reporting will continue, somehow (though if it has to load three flashing ads, seventeen listicles and six pop-ups before you can read the content, perhaps not for long...) But we will consume it so differently and I think it will be a long, long time -if ever - before it has the heart and moral authority of The Guardian or The Boston Globe in their pomp, or before it sits there on the coffee table in the physics department or the sixth form library, waiting to plant seeds of ideas or liven up a dull morning.

Anyway, that's enough from me. This month I'm editing the village magazine which goes out in hard copy only and is distributed free, though with ads. And deadline is looming...

*For the article on the anomalous bump in HLC data that CERN has spotted and which may point to new physics. It's an interesting piece, do read it!

Blogtour review: Spy Games by Adam Brookes

Spy Games
Adam Brookes
Sphere, 2016
PB, 437pp

I'm grateful to Sophie for providing me with a copy of the book to review as part of this blogtour.

Fearing for his life, journalist Philip Mangan has gone into hiding from Chinese agents who have identified him as a British spy. but when he is caught in a terrorist attack in East Africa and a shadowy figure approaches him in the dead of night with information on the atrocity, Mangan is thrown back into the eye of the storm...

The book comes bearing a quote from modern master of the spy genre Charles Cumming, and also with the comparisons to Le Carré which are inevitable for anything in the espionage field these days.

In one sense they're apt, in that like those other books this is very good writing, gripping, page-turning, thought provoking. Brookes is, you feel, a total master of his material. He knows what he's doing, he understands the world he has created and his characters, he takes the time and space needed to set things out, then he closes the trap. Everything convinces, right from the start.

Yet I think they're also misleading. In terms of antecedents, this book suggested something older to me. In its relation to a vaguely menacing background of geopolitics (the scramble for East Africa, the direction of China) and in the central character, at-a-loose-end Philip Mangan, clearly bored rigid, itching for adventure, I was drawn to a comparison with John Buchan. No, the book isn't about a bunch of tweedy men anxious for the fate of the Empire (in fact in a quote from - of all people - Richard Murphy, Brookes makes it clear that he has no sympathy for the sleazy financial webs that have succeeded the Empire).

But then nor was Buchan. Those were at heart spiritual books, always seeking - behind their "shocker" plots - some kind of moral centre, some sense of completion, for the protagonist, albeit then he was usually to be found suffering from ennui as he kicked his heels in the gentlemen's clubs of Mayfair. Mangan, by contrast, seeks a life of adventure in Africa as a journalist. But he's frustrated at not being able to get close to the big stories and he looks back with longing (as well as fear) at whatever it was happened earlier in China (I hadn't read Brookes' previous book Night Heron but will obviously have to now). So when a mysterious Chinese colonel appears, offering to whisper secrets in his ear, it doesn't take Mangan long to accept that he's back in the game, to almost casually shrug off Maja, the Danish nurse who's interested in him, to casually note how he's placing her and his Ethiopian friend Hallelujah in danger by associating with them - but not to warn them - and to get himself in deep, deep trouble.

Just like Richard Hannay.

The events in Ethiopia are linked to what at first seems almost a sweet story of two young Chinese students at Oxford. They come from rival families of kleptocrats and both have hard-eyed minders to keep them apart. Will love - or even lust - conquer all? What will happen if it does?

As things speed up we get detailed and, to me, convincing account of Mangan's crash training as a spy: plenty of glimpses of life at Vauxhall Cross, the home of MI6 (the building you saw blown up in the last Bond film, and the one before that) and lots of satisfying thriller-y jargon.

But to me, despite the modern dressing, here we have  a modern Richard Hannay preparing for his trip across Germany in wartime to hunt Greenmantle. And I mean that as a sincere compliment - for sheer, compelling writing I don't think any writer has beaten Buchan but if anyone comes close, it's Brookes.

In the end, Mangan remains something of an enigma, as do Patterson, his cool, competent minder and even Valentina Hopko, her controller. In these three, Brookes has I think developed a superb triad of competent, dangerous people (oh, I do like competent, dangerous people - in books!) and stirred things up between them just enough that - together with hints of dark secrets to be revealed - there is bound to be trouble looming in future. (And I trust some of the others come back too: sinister Nicole, for example).

I hope that trouble comes soon because, as with the best books, I really didn't want this one to end, I just wanted to keep reading and reading...

11 March 2016

Blogtour review: Thin Ice by Quentin Bates

Thin Ice
Quentin Bates
Constable, 3 March 2016
PB, 279pp

I'm grateful to Linda, the organiser of an epic blog tour, (just look at the poster below - LOOK AT IT!) for sending me a copy of this book.

I'd come across Quentin Bates before as a translator so was excited to see that he's also written his own books - indeed, this is the 5th in a series featuring Officer Gunnhildur of Iceland's police.  While it's generally a little daunting to come into the middle of a series, here the entry is eased as the book jumps straight into the action - a low grade crook, Össur,  and his rather naive sidekick Magni (a sailor fallen on hard times: impressive in size and, we're told, irresistible to women) are robbing local drug dealer Alli "The Cornershop" at gunpoint.

The consequences of that raid set up the rest of the book as Össur and Magni flee, take two women (Erna and her daughter, Tinna Lind) hostage when their getaway falls though, and hole up in an out of season hotel. Össur is increasingly paranoid, subsisting mainly on the drugs he grabbed from Alli and continually clicking his pistol's safety off and on: Magni is more sympathetic, and soon, an empathy begins to build up with Tinna Lind (who is herself something of a wild child, and the despair of her more prim mother).

Meanwhile, Alli will do anything to get revenge (and to reclaim the 300,000 Euros the two nicked from him) - even coming to an arrangement with hated rivals, the  biker gang, the Undertakers (when you hear a name like that, you just know mayhem will follow).

Gunnhildur already has a murder on her hands (another smalltime crook has died in a mysterious fire) as well as the disappearance of the two women. In a taut narrative, Quentin Bates tells the story, mainly, from the viewpoint of the crooks and their hostages, while also exploring Gunnhildur's family problems - like almost every family described here she has a complicated series of relationships, exes and children, leading to a sad little subplot featuring her son and his estranged father. If, like me, you hadn't read any of the earlier books there is enough here to fill in who everyone and it's explained quite subtlely, without long stretches of exposition.

I hope I haven't given the impression that Gunnhildur's a typical storybook detective with a wrecked private life. While her family background may be complicated, she's far from living only for her job, she's not a maverick at war with her bosses and instead of going off following hunches she deploys the apparatus of a modern police force with skill and tenacity. (There's a running joke here when the "Special Squad", brought in a number of times when things look as though they might turn rough, arrive too late to see any action and are disappointed).

And it all builds to a taut climax, with real tension as to who will get away alive and indeed, whether anyone will get away at all.

All in all a well told, classic detective/ thriller which makes good use of its Icelandic setting - not least to set up the fact that there are limited options for the fugitives - and their hostages - as winter closes in.

Then, at the end, the book makes you turn around and rethink what you've read and wonder who was really in control throughout, and who was actually on thin ice...


8 March 2016

Blogtour review: The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas by David F Ross

The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas
David F Ross
Orenda, 2015(e)/2016(p)
PB/ e, 255pp

Rock 'n' Roll doesn't necessarily mean a band. It doesn't mean a singer, and it doesn't mean a lyric, really. It's that question of trying to be immortal. 

- Malcolm McLaren, quoted in this book

I am grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas and - full disclosure - for quoting from this blog's review of Ross's previous book, The Last Days of Disco.

Like Last DaysMiraculous Vespas is set in Ayrshire in the early 80s. It follows on from the events of the earlier book and features some of the same characters. It doesn't though continue the story of the Heatwave Disco boys, but focuses instead on the titular band, formed by would-be music mogul Max Mojo (born Dale Wishart). Injured in the dust-up that concluded Last Days, Max/ Dale rises from a coma, changes his name and personality and sets out to make his dream of immortality real. But it isn't easy. Adopting a florid New Romantic dress sense and at the mercy of a war between two very different inner personalities, the cards seem to be stacked against him. But he has determination. He wants to make it big, and to create something beautiful. So he forms a band consisting of drummer Maggie, (fostered, just out of care, and short of trust in anyone), Grant (whose father - lieutenant to local crime boss Fat Franny Duncan, the would be nemesis of Heatwave - died in the earlier book) and the Sylvester boys (who have never got over the tragic loss of their mother in a lawnmower accident).

Can this collection of orphans, together, produce music that is new and true?

At the same time, the Ayrshire crime families we met before also face challenges. The riot that left Max with brain damage set them against each other, and the McLartys, hard cases from Glasgow, are trying to move back in. While the local gangsters are amateurish and even - at times - a wee bit sympathetic, there's nothing likeable about the McLartys who are about, it seems, to eat the Wisharts, the Quinns and Fat Franny's crew for breakfast.

The two plots run in parallel though the book, alongside Max's recollections, delivered in a 2014 interview. This provides his personal account of what was going on, contrasting with the more dispassionate, even forensic voice of the narrator who not only describes the action but also provides background information and even context (such as on Maggie's trust issues, the looming miners' strike or the local music scene).

Put like that, the technique ought not to work but it is actually very effective. The band parts of the story tend towards hair raising escapades at gigs or in visits to clubs, often featuring toilet cubicles and generally ending in the band as a whole or Max in particular getting chased down a wet backstreet at 2 in the morning. (Though not all of them. He's also chased down a wet High Street in daylight, the result of holding a meeting with a female Pakistani journalist in the Wrong Sort of Pub). Between these, Ross gives a genuinely moving account of their musical development, of Max's creative drive and of musical influences which - like in Last Days - gives him the opportunity to write passionately and even lovingly about the music of the time and to show how that music touches each of the band members. Switching between the two styles allows Ross to produce something like the documentary that Max is taking part in, illuminating the actual events with his unique take.

Max is on the face of things a profoundly unsympathetic character, foul mouthed and driven, yet he has a vision and there are moments of real pathos in the book as the reader knows - from the title and from the framing of the story - that something is going to go wrong for him. Indeed, Ross is very good at getting the reader to view his characters, even those who are on the face of it pretty awful, with a degree of sympathy and understanding. They quickly become real and we care about what happens to them.

The book has its comic aspects, whether it's a trip by the be-kilted Max and Grant to see Scotland play England at Wembley (and to make contacts in the music business), the running joke of the local Shabby Road recording studios, or the bizarre gig the Vespas play in support of "The Heid", a fading local hypnotist who's surprised in his dressing room while enjoying the close attentions of his daughter in law. (The Heid seems to be a fraud with a bunch of stooges, including said D-I-L: but still he manages to leave one of the Sylvester boys believing he's agoraphobic - tricky if you're the guitarist in an up-and-coming band). But the background is bleak, set in the lead up to, and during, the Miners' Strike. It is though less engaged with national events than Last Days was with the Falklands War (although the strike and the uncertainty that preceded it are referred to as one of the reasons that business is so bad for the three rather bumbling local crime families).

As a result this story is I think much more squarely about the music, about the hopes of Max, Maggie, Grant, Eddie and Simon - and especially about the difficulty of being noticed. It's a time when you can't record your breakout single in the bedroom with Garageband and put it up on the web: Max adopts a variety of means to catch the attention of the right producer or DJ - some pretty extraordinary (joining a crew of roadies to get into a club, ascending in a window cleaners' cradle and posting discs through the open windows of Broadcasting House), some more mundane (buying a biryani for the receptionist at a local radio station).

In short, the book is both hilarious and moving. It's well up to the standard of the previous part of what I understand is to be a trilogy and I'm looking forward to the final instalment. (Except, I don't want it to be the final part, I want more!)

Other excellent reviews of this book are available. See the poster below for details.

6 March 2016

Upcoming and Incoming

Got a few reviews coming up, and I've been acquiring books...


On Tuesday (8th March) I'll be posting my blogtour review of David Ross's wonderful The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas - the followup to his The Last Days of Disco and a broad continuation, although focussing on different characters. It's funny, sad and above all, a book with lots of heart.

Then on Friday (11 March) it's the Thin Ice blogtour, with a review of Quentin Bates' latest - see here for my report of the launch at which I got to speak to the Ambassador of Iceland, no less.

On Saturday (12 March) I will be on another tourbus, reviewing Spy Games by Adam Brookes. With that and Thin Ice.


It'll be quite a chilly, noirish week - so I wanted to go briefly through what I've acquired lately, to see if that time will continue.

Working backwards, I was in Waterstones in Reading today and stumbled across Catherynne M Valente's Radiance:

Severin Unck is the headstrong young daughter of a world famous film director. She has inherited her father's love of the big screen but not his exuberant gothic style of filmmaking. Instead, Severin makes documentaries, artful and passionate and even rather brave - for she is a realist in a fantastic alternate universe, in which Hollywood occupies the moon, Mars is rife with lawless saloons, and the solar system contains all manner of creatures, cults and colonies.

For Severin's latest project she leads her crew to the watery planet of Venus to investigate the disappearance of a diving colony there. But something goes wrong during the course of their investigations; and her crew limp home without her.

All that remains of Severin are fragments. Can these snippets of scenes and shots, voices and memories, pages and recordings be collected and pieced together to tell the story of her life - and shed light on the mystery of her vanishing?

Clever, dreamy, strange and beautifully written - Radiance is a novel about how stories give form to worlds.

That's definitely a bit less cold and dark, but when I got home from Reading I found that my ordered copy* of Winter Tales (edited by Margaret Helgadottir) had come. I bought this because I saw it being discussed on Twitter - and I liked the cover! (I must also admit to weakness for the name, ever since as a teenager I found an anthology in the local library called Young Winter's Tales which included a short story by Barbara Willard which in turn led me to her wonderful Mantlemass series).

The cold is bone deep as the winter storms rage. A wolf's howl pierces the forest at night. Stay close to the fire and each other for Winter Tales! Dark, grim, beautiful and grotesque. Edited by Margret Helgadottir Cover art by S.L. Johnson This anthology of short stories from around the globe delves into our universal fears of the long dark winter months.

I'm rambling, and this isn't getting me away from the cold and the dark! What about yesterday? Well, yesterday I got two books - an advance copy of what looks like a wonderful Sherlock Holmes-and-magic mash-up, Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone by GS Denning.

Sherlock Holmes is an unparalleled genius. Warlock Holmes is an idiot. A font of arcane power, certainly. But hes brilliantly dim. Frankly, he couldnt deduce his way out of a paper bag. The only thing he has really got going for him are the might of a thousand demons and his stalwart companion. Thankfully, Dr. Watson is always there to aid him through the treacherous shoals of Victorian propriety... and save him from a gruesome death every now and again.

An irreverent and addictive reimagining of the world's favourite detective, Warlock Holmes retains the charm of the original stories while finally giving 221B Baker Street what it's been waiting for all these years: an alchemy table.

Still, though, mysterious, crime-y and dark. One more try. Another order*  came yesterday - Arkwright by Allen Steele. If you want to know why I bought this, read Kate's review on For Winter Nights 

Yes, I know, cold. Dark. Winter, Nights. Well, perhaps that's just where I am at the moment...

*I did try to order Arkwright and Winter Tales from a local shop but there were problems and they couldn't get them.

Others: I bought physical copies (signed!) of Jonathan Dark or The Evidence of Ghosts, by AK Benedict and of 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough at the signing on Thursday night, but I'd already had those on netGalley. And I have signed copies of This Census Taker by Chine Mieville and Morning Star by Pierce Brown waiting to be collected, but I ordered those ages ago so they don't count for this week, I think.

5 March 2016

Review: A Gathering of Shadows by VE Schwab

A Gathering of Shadows
VE Schwab
Tor, 23 February
HB, 512 pp

I bought my copy of this book from The Book Depository (it's the US edition, because I wanted a hardback).

This book was (by me, anyway) eagerly anticipated. The second part of a series (after A Darker Shade of Magic), it returns to the magical world of Red London and to the lives of Kell, Rhy and Lila Bard.

Rhy is the heir to the kingdom, but has no magical ability.

Kell is a powerful young magician, Rhy's adopted brother and one of a very few who can cross between the worlds, between "Grey" London (our world, bare of magic), enchanted "Red" London and bone- hued, dying "White" London. As a magician, he serves the King, carrying messages between the worlds - and in the previous book, he dabbled with carrying other things, too, leading to trouble. As a result his wings are now clipped, and he's pretty frustrated.

Lila is a swashbuckling heroine and thief who came from Grey London and, at the end of ADSOM, was contemplating life as a pirate. Here we see what became of her on the high seas as she waits, cast adrift in a small boat, hands bound and awaiting her fate...

While picking up only a few months after the end of ADSOM, AGOS opens with a quite different tone. While the other book is action almost from the start, the pace here is slower. We learn a lot about Rhy and Kell (whose lives ended up magically linked in the last book, so that if one experiences pain, so does the other). The book isn't a reset: there are consequences. Kell is under suspicion, Rhy is racked with guilt at the price his friend paid and Schwab develops the feelings of the siblings rather at leisure - if you're expecting the book to open with a bang, you might be disappointed although what we get instead - a measured, mature explanation of two compelling characters - is equally absorbing.

We also learn more about Lila, and her relationship with her pirate (sorry, privateer) captain, Alucard (I know!) Lila is, as we saw before, incredibly prickly and defensive: she's also pretty ruthless (she has no compunction at killing) so you can expect sparks to fly.

Throw in, as the book develops, an international magical games in London (think London 2012 with spells) and a past relationship between Alucard and Rhy, and you get a heady mix. I enjoyed the way that Schwab uses perhaps familiar ideas but in a subtly new way to illustrate the characters of, especially, Lila and Kell.

It must be tempting, when writing a series like this, for the second book to be essentially a rehash of the what worked the first time and it's to the author's credit that she doesn't do that here. I think some readers may bridle slightly at the fact that the red London vs White London vs Black London plot strand isn't to the fore through most of the book, as it was before, but we do learn a bit about goings on in White (and even Grey!) London and I'm sure these will feature in the next book (and I don't think it's a spoiler to say there surely will be a next book).

4 March 2016

A Bookish Evening

I had a fun evening last night. Working in the middle of London does have advantages - I managed to get to two book events after work.

Leaving early, I made my way to Sloane Square underground and walked up Sloane Street (interesting, but not a place I'd naturally go) to the Embassy of Iceland for the launch of Quentin Bates' Thin Ice (which I'll be reviewing on the blog tour in a few days).

It was a great event with bloggers, authors and event the Ambassador present (no Ferrero Rocher, but there were lots of nibbles). I found out what Deal Noir is (thank you, Susan Moody) and exchanged a word or two with the great man himself - some of whose translations I've read but none of his own books. Here he is with Jo Parker of Life of Crime.

And here's the Ambassador, welcoming the book and proving he has read by pointing out it mentions his home town THREE times. I also had a helpful chat with Guinevere Glasfurd who  explained that the best times to visit Iceland are winter or summer but not in between. I might try and persuade the family that this should be our next destination. (The Ambassador agreed that this was a good plan).

The second event I wanted to get to was at Waterstones Piccadilly. Left out of the Embassy, on up Sloane Street, into Knightsbridge Tube then three stops on the Piccadilly Line to Piccadilly Circus which is very handily placed for Waterstones - or do I mean Waterstones is handily placed for Picc. Circus? I don't know. Anyway, I arrived just before 7, and the event was in full flow - AK Benedict (author of Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts), Sarah Pinborough, whose 13 Minutes is just out and Steve Cavanagh whose latest book is The Defence - he very kindly signed a copy for me to give my mum on Mothers' Day (nooone tell her).

The three authors were being interviewed and it was enlightening to hear their contrasting thoughts - especially on how their books mirrored (or didn't) their real lives. Steve Cavanagh explained how he got inside the mind of a conman (and how, as a lawyer, he was told by a senior colleague that he had a criminal mind). AK Benedict pointed out that her book was, unintentionally, about loss: the main character is having a breakdown after the collapse of his marriage, with death and failure also featuring. And Sarah Pinborough distanced herself, as a responsible adult, from the teenage sex and drugs of her book while speaking very movingly about the pressures that teens face - and about that attitude of invincibility, just starting to crack at that age.

At the end I got books signed by all three: here's the picture I tweeted next as "authors signing" although perhaps I should have entitled it "Authors drinking wine".

Most frustratingly I had a bout of authorstruckness (which IS a thing: it's when your mouth moves but nothing sensible comes out because the sheer amazingness of meeting such WONDERFUL AUTHOR-Y PEOPLE) and the aftereffect was that I paid for my new books and hurried away, totally forgetting that I'd brought along some I already had and I ended up taking them home UNSIGNED.

So I have some unfinished business with my authors... but never mind. It was a wonderful, if frantic, night and, I think, a totally fitting way to spend World Book Day evening.

So thanks to everyone who arranged these events, spoke at them and for having me at them.