29 June 2016

The London Cage

Image from fledglingpress.co.uk
The London Cage
Mark Leggatt
Fledgling Press, 29 June 2016
PB, 399pp
Source: Advance copy from the publisher (thank you!)

A man who doesn’t exist discovers a weapon that doesn’t exist. The retreat of the glaciers has revealed a Cold War secret that should have lain buried for centuries, with the power to bring down the communications and defence systems of every country on the planet. Including his own. He is faced with the choice of betrayal or survival, but either way, he’ll lose.

Then an old man tells you, “If I had the choice between betraying my friends and betraying my country, I should hope I have the guts to betray my country.” Your country needs you, but if you give up the secret, your friends and those you love will die.

The second Connor Montrose thriller from Mark Leggatt is guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat.

One of the really nice things about blogging book reviews is the opportunity to see and read books from new authors and small presses which otherwise it would be so easy to miss among the flood of published books - tens of thousands a year I gather.

Some of those authors are clearly going somewhere, and I'd include Mark Leggatt in that group. For sheer, knuckle-clenching, relentless action and thrills to compare with The London Cage I think you'd have to go a long, long way.

Essentially an extended chase, the story begins with Connor Montrose conducting surveillance in a London restaurant for his shadowy boss Pilgrim. Pilgrim has close links to British intelligence, yet seems to run his own operation. Perhaps he's doing the spooks' behest but deniably? Or maybe he's a player in some way which requires him to stand apart? Either way, he's happy to employ Connor who became a marked man in Leggatt's last book, Names of the Dead, high on every CIA watch list from here to Kabul.

However, this history comes back to bite both Connor and Pilgrim when the operation goes badly wrong. A man is killed and Connor is on the run, with the CIA on his heels in the person of the unspeakably vile Kane. It's soon clear he will do anything to nail Connor, who seems have put a spoke in some operation Kane had under way (it is some time before we learn exactly what is going on here - there are secrets within secrets, as you'd expect in this kind of novel).

So the mayhem spreads across London, with shootings, explosions, car chases, low flying helicopters, speedboats, the works. To a degree one has to suspend disbelief here. Working in central London I know just how tightly things are locked down after even a minor incident: what goes on here would have the Tubes, the buses and most public buildings in lockdown, yet Connor and his colleague Kirsty basically weave their way amongst the general public with normal life seeming to go on undisturbed. But I can forgive the book that for its sheer narrative drive and meticulous plotting - the way that Leggatt has thought through what happens and makes it, in each moment, perfectly credible, for example rarely or never resorting to coincidence or luck to bring his heroes through.

One also has to suspend disbelief at some of the character interactions. Kane is pretty nasty but rather a 2D baddie, and his debates with the MI5 team (who are apparently working for him) and especially their polarised US-UK hostility need I think to be taken with a pinch of salt, as does the Russian ambassador in his brief appearance.

No matter. These are minor things as most of the focus is on Connor and Kirsty - who between them are daring, plucky and resourceful protagonists with more than enough personality to carry the story. Indeed they dominate it so much that the details of the conspiracy almost seem beside the point. In the (brief) sections where they draw breath and try to work out what's happening, or when Pilgrim discusses it with his peers, I was really waiting for things to get moving again so I could enjoy more of that action. And I'm not a habitual reader of action thrillers. it's that gripping.

I won't spoil the book here by explaining what's going on except to say that it's just the kind of cynical realpolitik that you'd expect in a good techno-thriller. Connor and Kirsty are good people in a corrupt, rotten world, walking the mean streets without themselves being mean.

If Leggatt can keep up this supercharged, action driven pace into future books (...and if his characters don't flake out from sheer sustained tension...) then I'd expect his books to be widely read and loved in coming years. A name to watch.

28 June 2016

Alice Blogtour: This is Not Wonderland

Image from www.titanbooks.com

I'm delighted and really, really honoured to host a guest post today by Christina Henry whose book Alice is published in the UK today - you should read it:
"In a warren of crumbling buildings called the Old City, a hospital echoes with the screams of the poor souls inside. Inside, there is a woman. Her hair, once blonde, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she's in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood...
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago."
For more on the book see here and for my review, here. Now - over to Christina

This is not Wonderland

Christina Henry

It’s always a tricky thing, walking in another story’s footsteps. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is a tale beloved by millions, so embedded in our cultural memory that nearly everyone can conjure up an image of Alice – from the original story, a film remake, a video game or one of many re-imaginings done by assorted authors through the years.

Alice has taken on the quality of myth, a character no longer bound to her creator or origin story but a modern-day legend open to interpretation like those other contemporary fairy tale figures from Neverland and Oz.

I wanted to write my own story of Alice, but I wasn’t certain where to begin. When I wrote my first book, BLACK WINGS, I heard the characters speaking before I saw them, before I had an inkling of a story. That series is really driven by sound in my mind – the sound of the dialogue going rat-a-tat-tat. Because of that I never really thought of myself as a visual writer – a writer who saw things in her mind before she wrote them – until I wrote ALICE.

I played around with a few different story ideas, but nothing really stuck. Then I woke up one morning with an image in my head – a girl under glass, a girl with sad terrified eyes and wings like a butterfly. That girl wasn’t Alice, but she stayed with me.

Then one day I saw Alice. She was covered in blood, wearing a torn dress, somehow magically reappearing from a place where she was supposed to be lost forever.

Now I had Alice and my butterfly girl and I needed to draw a line between the two of them. That was where the story was. I had that line in the Old City. In the original story Alice follows a muttering white rabbit with a waistcoat and watch. In my story the Rabbit is not Alice’s unwitting guide but the very heart of her nightmares, though she does not remember exactly why. I constructed the geography of the Old City like a rabbit’s warren on steroids, full of twists and turns and terrors unforeseen.

I populated that city with pimps and killers and crime bosses, the kind of people a nice girl from the New City should never know, but Alice wasn’t a nice girl anymore. She’d come out of the Old City broken, and how would my damaged Alice survive in a place like this?

She needed a guide, a helper, someone more dangerous than the dangers around her. Again, I saw him – gray eyes and a red-stained axe in red-stained hands. Carroll’s Mad Hatter became my mad Hatcher, a murderer who loves Alice and killing things, not necessarily in that order.

Hatcher has visions of monsters, too - one monster in particular. Alice doesn’t believe that monster is real but she’ll find out soon enough. This is not Wonderland, but I hope you’ll take this journey with Alice and Hatcher.

Next stop on the blogtour: Off With Her Head

Review: Alice by Christina Henry

Image from www.titanbooks.com
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 28 June 2016
PB, 325pp
Source: Advance copy from publisher
In a warren of crumbling buildings called the Old City, a hospital echoes with the screams of the poor souls inside. Inside, there is a woman. Her hair, once blonde, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she's in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood...
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
First, I should say this isn't Lewis Carroll. No way. This Alice isn't the sunny, slightly perplexed heroine who on a dreamy summer's day followed the Rabbit underground, had delightful adventures and was home before dark.

Rather, she's a woman who was betrayed, traded and abused: taken into the heart of the Old City where women seem to be little more than the playthings (and worse) of the bosses who run the place.

Mr Carpenter. The Walrus. Cheshire.

The Rabbit himself.

Alice is also, though, the woman who carved her way out of the Old City, knife in hand, covered in blood. She was locked up in a grim asylum for ten years, forgotten by her family, dosed on "powders" and starved of hope. But she survived.

You might says she has unfinished business - with the Rabbit, with the others.

If only she could remember exactly what it was...

This is a remarkable book. There is the reimagining of a classic story - not a trip to Wonderland but rather to a nightmareland, a kind of evil twin, twisted and brutal but complete with little cakes, size changes, mysterious coloured bottles of medicine (even butterflies). Everything - even the fantastical - is well realised and scarily convincing. More, the central characters are credible, fallible and compelling.

Alice herself is battered and hurt, but she keeps getting up and going on, with a little help from her friend, Hatcher. She refuses to fail: she also refuses to let what's been done to her drive her to mere revenge. A recurring motif as she and Hatcher struggle through this book is Alice's desire to free those she encounters - the other unfortunates in the asylum, women imprisoned in the dives of the Old City, even a mermaid. Sometimes she can do something, sometimes she can't, but she never loses the will to try.

And Hatcher. What can I say about Mad Hatcher? He hasn't given up on revenge. Sometimes a red mist descends: sometimes we see why he, too, was locked up for ten years. How he got his nickname. And we learn what he has lost. Together, he and Alice are a formidable pair, both desperately vulnerable yet also so strong. In the asylum, they keep each other sane (sort of). Together they escape and support each other. Yet Alice has no illusions about Hatcher: there is a thing that sometimes seems to possess him, and she may not always be able to bring him back...

The Old City is a truly vile place, fought over by gangs, sometimes street by street, shut in (the folk in the New City don't want any of the contagion to escape) and vast in scope, taking days to cross. When that asylum burns to the ground, and Alice and Hatcher are left homeless, marked out as escapees by their hospital gowns, their future looks bleak and indeed the gang soldiers soon close in. Alice rapidly learns that the one thing you don't want to be there is "interesting". Yet there is also kindness and refuge to be found there, albeit fragile and fleeting.

Beginning as a quest for survival, turning into a hunt for the monster that escaped the asylum with them, this is an adventure with great zest, a book that simply makes the pages fly past. While it is grim in places - and explores some dark themes - Alice's determination not to be dragged down, and the continual, bizarre glimpses of Carroll's story, set that grimness off just enough for me (though I think there are scenes that could be triggering for some) and provide a glimpse of light at the end.

And did I mention that Alice and Hatcher are actually hunting the Jabberwock?

This is truly original, truly strange and above all, a great read.

Best of all, like its forerunner, the story isn't all done: there is a - a sequel, The Red Queen, coming very soon:
The land outside of the Old City was supposed to be green, lush, hopeful. A place where Alice could finally rest, no longer the plaything of the Rabbit, the pawn of Cheshire, or the prey of the Jabberwocky. But the verdant fields are nothing but ash—and hope is nowhere to be found. Still, Alice and Hatcher are on a mission to find his daughter, a quest they will not forsake even as it takes them deep into the clutches of the mad White Queen and her goblin or into the realm of the twisted and cruel Black King. The pieces are set and the game has already begun. Each move brings Alice closer to her destiny. But, to win, she will need to harness her newfound abilities and ally herself with someone even more powerful—the mysterious and vengeful Red Queen...
For more about Alice, see here.

Next stop on the blogtour: Off With Her Head

26 June 2016

An Android Awakes

Image from http://elsewhen.alnpetepress.co.uk
An Android Awakes
Mike French (text) and Karl Brown (artwork)
Elsewhen Press, 2015
PB (graphic novel size), 202pp
Source: Review copy from publisher (for which I'm very grateful)

This was the strangest book I'd read in a long time.

It's not an ordinary story, told largely through text with perhaps a few illustrations.

Nor is it a graphic novel, with text and pictures deeply intertwined in the storytelling. Rather, it plays with forms. Sometimes, a single picture supplements the text. Sometimes, a series of images follow it, adding atmosphere and detail and indeed, spinning whole new lines of plot that weren't suggested in the text.

And sometimes, the pictures come first, setting up the written part.

And throughout the continuity of the illustrations cast allusions over the text, hinting or showing things never overtly described. Literally, show not tell. The illustrations therefore add a whole new layer of meaning to what would be perfectly good stories in themselves, suggesting correspondences between characters or events in the universe of An Android Awakes that simply wouldn't otherwise be there, giving the book real depth and resonance.

It is the near future. Far enough ahead that intelligent, self-conscious androids seem common - though close enough to now that it seems plausible for one of those androids to be driving a 1964 Ford Mustang Convertible. Driving, because in this book androids seem to have taken on all the roles of humans. Our hero, Android Writer PD121928, lives the life of an aspiring author, continually getting rejection letters from his publisher. The book is mostly composed of PD's stories, with some linking narrative so is in some sense a short story - and as such collections will do, it illuminates the author's life and concerns.

PD's wife Samantha has been disappeared by the publisher and he's provided instead with an allowance for prostitutes. It's as though somebody, somewhere has settled on a certain idea of the bohemian writer's life and is trying to make it real, but without really understanding the reality. So a book is rejected for being one word too long, and the reasons given for rejections actually get more  bizarre after that. One might suspect that these aren't real responses, just patterns generated by Markov chains from some immense database of rejection letters...

PD has a deadline: he only gets so many tries before he's deactivated, and as the rejections mount he becomes ever more erratic - for example giving successive stories the same number, which seems to fool the system, at least for a bit. But the stories also get better and better. They begin to refer to each other, to feature common characters and themes. Some of this reflects PD's own situation - with frequent occurrences of a lost wife or husband and references to that same car - while others, perhaps, hint obliquely at how the androids came to rule (they clearly do). The stories feature human astronauts and explorers and describe the bizarre fall of the human race. They also show glimpses of the development of androids as humans replace parts and subject themselves to gruesome augmentation processes. There are also repeated glimpses of a shadowy organisation, the Bureau of Scientific Discoveries, and of android bounty hunters stamping out conspiracy theories. Parts are distinctly noirish in tone.  Mockingbirds - rarely killed - recur constantly. Somewhere in all this, once senses, are the stories of PD himself but also of the near future world he inhabits. But it's broken, fractured, seen through a Kaleidoscope.

The stories are very good in themselves, even without this sense of a larger whole, of a wider story. Some are very funny: for example the android thief who steals buttons (including robbing banks for them) or the superhero angels who Fight Crime but are brought down by a prudish bishop who objects to their nakedness. But the connections between them are such that you'll want to read and re-read, to go back and check things, hunt through the pictures for references: this book is a ramified, knotted artefact, existing beyond the normal two dimensions of the page - or perhaps I should say it's non Euclidean, both the generator of a warped space and acted on by that warping.

I'm not really sure if it has a beginning, a middle and and end - something I was taught in O level English was the very essence of a story - however, it clearly is a story, complex, immersive and deeply, deeply weird. Reading it is a truly different experience and I urge you to draw up a cool can of oil, rest your servos for a bit, and interact with it through your optic sensors...

For more about An Android Awakes (and it's a fascinating more!) see here.

25 June 2016

Remembering Bella (2007-2016)

This is not a post about books, rather it is a shameless descent into self-inudulgence. I'm not asking anyone to read it: just pass over it if you want.

Friday 24 June was, for me, like a bad blues song. I woke up that morning and found that we'd left the EU... and then my dog died. I'm not going to write about the EU. Enough of that s***. I am going to write about the dog.

We first met Bella in 2007. The previous November, we had a house fire and we were living in rented accommodation while things were fixed (a tip: "smoke damage" doesn't just mean a bit of cleaning, it's like nothing you ever saw). We wanted there to be something nice for the children to look forward to when we moved back in, so we decided to get a dog. We bought Bella, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,  as a puppy. She was born on 14 February 2007 - Valentine's Day - and was the sweetest, loveliest thing you ever saw. From that first sight of her - too small to climb the steps of the house, we had to make a ramp out of bricks for her - to the last, resting under a blanket at the vet's, she was a darling.

Yes, she could be annoying. She loved to lie in the front window and bark at other passing dogs (we live on a  popular dog walking route so this could be a pain). She was practiced at nicking food, and defended her space on the sofa relentlessly. She had a habit of guarding things in general. But she was simply so friendly when visitors appeared, or we met anyone out (not other dogs...)
Who are you?

Aren't I handsome?

Wouldn't it be an honour for you to stroke me?

Don't walk past! Look at me!

She was in many ways simply shameless, an utter lapdog, prone to overeating, not over fond of walks.

She was also a good dog, patient with our autistic daughter who is fearful of animals but would stroke Bella's head and coo at her.

We loved her.

On Monday, she was off her food (unusual). A couple of days later, with no improvement, we took her to the vet. Scans showed an obstruction in her stomach: this turned out to a tea towel she'd eaten, but after it was removed she declined further. The vet now thinks that there was a problem with her stomach which was making her eat stuff she shouldn't, and may have caused the overeating. Drugs might have helped but we were told they probably wouldn't, and there was a risk because of the surgery.

Rather than let this go on we decided to call a halt. She was lying flat when I saw her, breathing with difficulty and rasping and barely able to lift her head - but she did, and she recognised us, and I held her and stroked her and I held her as the vet gave her more anaesthetic to end things, and that noisy breathing stopped and she relaxed and became still.

She was a true friend, loving and loyal. She leaves a great hole in our lives, a big dent in the back of the sofa - and an awful quietness when all those other dogs go past her front window, as though they owned the place.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, little dog.

20 June 2016

New Pompeii

Image from titanbooks.com
New Pompeii
Daniel Godfrey
Titan Books, 21 June 2016
PB, 459pp
Source: Advance copy from the publisher (thank you!)

I honestly don't know how to categorise this book. SF? Fantasy? Historical? It's probably all three but above all it's a rollicking good adventure.

Godfrey plays with the ideas of alternate timelines, of changing history. Here, that's done through mysterious technology owned by the sinister firm Novus Particles. NovusPart has found a way to transport matter - including people - from the past. There are limits to this. They can't fetch anything from less than 30 years ago, and they're forbidden from retrieving humans unless they are about to die (to preserve the timeline). But within those boundaries they can do a lot - for example,  saving the population of ancient Pompeii and installing them in a replica city for study (and exploitation).

Nick Houghton is a down-on-his-luck Classical scholar hired to advise on the project. But transported to the fake Pompeii, he finds that all isn't well: you don't try top boss the Romans around without facing consequences...

In parallel with Nick's story, we also follow Kirsten, a young woman who apparently disappeared from a Cambridge college. She sees a different side of NovusPart from Nick. One of things I enjoyed most about the book was the contrast between Kirsten's rather horrible plight in her relatively brief episodes - which give the book some drive, especially at the start before the Pompeii stuff really gets going - and Nick's immersion in the reality of Roman life. The two strands don't seem to be coming together until an event which transforms the way you see the whole story. That left me wanting to read more about both and I do hope that Godfrey follows this book up with a sequel.

The book is also good on devious plotting. It has interlocked machinations by NovusPart and its founding triumvirate, by Roman leader Barbatus, and by a mysterious anti-Novuspart faction, tangled timelines, imposters and missing information which taken together mean there is a surprise on almost every page. While not perfect - there are a few characters Godfrey could have done more with (Felix, for example, and Maggie) - it's a gripping read, laced with genuinely thought provoking ideas and narrative twists. And the encounter between ancient Pompeii and the modern world is well realised, a great "What if..." full of dramatic potential which is fully exploited.

And you'll learn some history too!

Definitely recommended.

17 June 2016

Coming soon: Welcome to Nightmareland

I'm excited to be taking part in the blog tour for Christina Henry's books Alice and Red Queen - a gritty and warped take on Lewis Carroll's originals.

15 June 2016

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief

Image from www.jofletcherbooks.com 

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief
Lisa Tuttle
Jo Fletcher Books, 16 June 2016
PB, 416pp, e-book
Source: Advance copy via Netgalley

Should you find yourself in need of a discreet investigation into any sort of mystery, crime or puzzling circumstances, think of Jesperson and Lane...
For several years Miss Lane was companion, amanuensis, collaborator and friend to the lady known to the Psychical Society only as Miss X - until she discovered that Miss X was actually a fraud.
Now she works with Mr Jasper Jesperson as a consulting detective, but the cases are not as plentiful as they might be and money is getting tight - until a case that reaches across the entirety of London lands in their laps.
It concerns a somnambulist, the disappearance of several mediums, and a cat stuck up a tree . . . the links with the cat are negligible, but there is only one team that can investigate the seemingly supernatural disappearances of the psychics and defy the nefarious purpose behind them.
Jesperson and Lane, at your service.
I've read a number of Sherlock-Holmes influenced Victorian romps lately and at first I thought that's all this might be. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that while Holmes and Watson were duly acknowledged (as popular fiction of the time) and there are some superficial similarities - the address of Miss Lane and Mr Jesperson at 203A Gower Street, the mention by name of intriguing cases that are not described further - this isn't a new spin on Holmes and Watson.

To begin with, Miss Aphrodite Lane, employed as assistant to Mr Jasper Jesperson, is much more than a Watson. She's been working as a psychic investigator (until she begins to suspect her boss of fraud) and while she might not - at the start of the book - be practised in the arts of self-defence, she is fully up on the business of investigation.

Which is just as well. The two quickly become involved in the baffling mystery of a respectable gentleman who has begun sleepwalking and when the case widens out to include jewel thefts and vanishing mediums, Miss Lane's previous experience proves invaluable.

Then there's the outright psychic aspect. Tuttle plays with us here a little bit: the world of psychical research is clearly riddled with frauds - both those who pretend psychic abilities and those who pretend to ferret them out: the difference seems to be paper thin at times - but the world of this book might, just, be one where there is a grain of truth in these things. In which case, what are a pair of intrepid detectives to do? There was often a point when Holmes solved problems by force: it seems that might not work here...

It's all great fun, with a stubborn, intelligent heroine and a brave, dashing hero who don't fall into each others' arms at the first opportunity (hooray!)

Tuttle doesn't rush the plot and takes time to establish her characters, with Miss Lane introduced in flight from Scotland on the night train and only over several chapters setting set up in her post with Mr Jesperson. Then it's a little time before the actual case comes along, and a little longer before we're plunged into adventure. I think some readers may find things a little slow in the first third, but it's really not - there is quite a lot to establish: not only Lane and Jesperson but the whole background of Victorian mediumship, psychical research and the hinterland of mountebanks, hypnotists and the bored rich who avidly consumed all this stuff.

And once the story really gets going, it zips along, with peril, a real, melodramatic villain - you can almost here the moustache twirling and hear his laughter - a truly evil plot and a dramatic denouement.

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is a genuinely refreshing book, not so much steampunk as psychicpunk, introducing two strong and intriguing central characters who could - despite everything I said at the start - easily give Holmes and Watson a run for their money. And at the very end Tuttle drops us right into the next adventure, so I'm hopeful there will be more from Jesperson & Lane.

Find out more about The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief here.

14 June 2016

Review: The Many by Wyl Menmuir

Image from www.saltpublishing.com
The Many
Wyl Menmuir
Salt Publishing, 15 June 2016
PB, 143pp
Source: Review copy from publisher

Timothy Buchannan buys an abandoned house on the edge of an isolated village on the coast, sight unseen. When he sees the state of it he questions the wisdom of his move, but starts to renovate the house for his wife, Lauren to join him there.

When the villagers see smoke rising from the chimney of the neglected house they are disturbed and intrigued by the presence of the incomer, intrigue that begins to verge on obsession. And the longer Timothy stays, the more deeply he becomes entangled in the unsettling experience of life in the small village.

This book is powerfully written and haunting. Always teetering on the edge of the gothic, Menmuir describes a coastal community that is dreamlike, slightly out of focus, with its own rules that Timothy never grasps. At the same time, it is rooted in the real world: remote bureaucracy, plummeting fish stocks and maritime pollution have blighted the lives of the fishermen.

What are the mysterious ships moored out at sea, setting a limit to how far the village fishermen may go? Why are the fish absent, or when caught, strange, malformed and suffering? Who are the smartly dressed business types with the new van who buy up all of the catch (but who must have every last fish)? What is the source of the contaminants that make the seawater unsafe for swimming?

Many questions, few answers. The most central mystery: - who was Perran, owner of the house Timothy has bought? He had a mysterious background but seems to have been a dominating presence in village life, judging by the villagers' reactions when Timothy begins to ask questions. With more than a whiff of the Wicker Man, and hints of strange rituals up on the headland, one feels this village (never named) is the sort of place it's best to get out of quickly. But Timothy seems to have a reason for staying. We never learn much about him either but there's no sense, for example, that he's keen to get back to his wife Lauren (nor her to join him).

He does, though, seem fixated on the dead Perran. And in turn, the villagers seem fixated on him, something Menmuir conveys in uneasy prose:

"Timothy's car disappears sometimes for days at a time and the village counts the hours until it returns, usually late at night. sometimes with lengths of wood strapped to the roof, with boxes in the boot, and always fuller than when it left."

Can't you sense the curtains twitching, the pub gossip? "He's got a trailer this time. Brought himself a table, wardrobes, a bookcase, the lot."

There's a tension here, a feeling of inevitable confrontation with the village. In some ways it's not a new thing. In a flashback, we gather that Lauren did in fact visit the village with Timothy ten years earlier: they came for a holiday but, even then, ran into the mystery of the place when the owner of the local pub only let them have a room on condition they would sneak in - nobody must know they are staying. Why, or what might happen if they did, is never explained. "They are trespassers in a strange place".

It went through my mind at one point that all of this was somehow Timothy's dream, but we do also see things from the point of view of Ethan, one of the fishermen (only 4 boats still work out of the village). He, too, seems to have had some affinity with Perran and recalls the latter's death, but Ethan also remains mysterious - at the start of the book he has quarrelled with his "wheelman": we never learn why, or much else.

In fact, we don't "learn" a great deal. Much is left unsaid, scarcely even implied. Yet as the prose flows in like a rising tide, it has its effect, gently, but increasingly, disturbing things, shifting them around, reaching places you thought were going to be safe and dry, leaving the reader, like Timothy and Lauren, wondering just how far the water will come.

While a short book, this is not one to be read in a hurry. The prose is twisty and rich and it needs to be savoured and thought about. There are secrets here, and perhaps answers, but they don't come easily and you - perhaps - need to break the rules to find them.

A deeply satisfying read and strongly recommended (though not, perhaps, one to take on a visit to a remote fishing village...)

More information about the book

9 June 2016

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

Image from www.gollancz.co.uk
The Fireman
Joe Hill
Gollancz, 7 June 2016
HB, 752pp
Source: e-copy via NetGalley (and I have bought a copy as well).


Sometimes it's hardest to review the books you liked most. If a review is dissecting, examining and appraising a book, then finding one that is perfect, wonderful, awesome in every way is rather tricky. What can you say other than wonderful, awesome, perfect in every way?

But that doesn't get blogpost written and - rightly - won't get people to pick up the book and read it, which they should. (Unless they're so impressed with my judgement that they just, you know, read everything I recommend. I suspect there are very few folk like that).

So. In The Fireman, Hill describes an apocalypse. it's not post-apocalyptic because the terrible thing, the disease, the 'scale, is still happening and civilization is degrading. Degrading gracefully, but degrading all the same. We are, then, in John Wyndham country, seeing things begin to fall apart as in The Kraken Wakes or The Day of The Triffids. And indeed Hill nods to this - the camp that our hero, Harper, flees to and spends much of the book in, is Camp Wyndham. (There are nods to other authors too: a boat called the Maggie Atwood, mention of JK Rowling fighting the good fight over in Scotland).

This isn't just a superficial matter of setting. Much of Wyndham's writing is more about how we should respond to apocalypse - how we will go on - than mere SFnal musing about how it might occur. He also explores themes of development: how those altered by the disaster may be the next stage in human development (The Chrysalids). Hill takes these themes a long, long way indeed.

It is the present, or the near future. Dragonscale is spreading, a fungal infection that leads sufferers to spontaneously combust in response to stress. Put a bunch of them together and you may get a chain reaction. The fires thus started seem unnaturally fierce and are devastating swathes of the US North East. (And the rest of the world, of course, but that's where this story happens).

The threat to civilization is therefore double - not only the loss of people, but destruction and chaos caused by the fires. Or triple: the fear and mistrust sets neighbour against neighbour, with vigilante squads out to kill the infected. Not the least of the subtexts to this nook - indeed it's a glaringly obvious theme that you really can't miss - is the quick rise of a lynch mob mentality, powered by frothing mouthed religious broadcasters, misogynists and crazed millenarians. With scenes of heaped burning corpses, of prisoners marched to be slaughtered on promises of being safeguarded, of "friendly" neighbours denouncing others, of frantic and bewildered refugees, there are obvious Holocaust parallels, as well perhaps as a warning that "it CAN happen here" which tap into real fears given the direction many countries currently seem to be going. If Wyndham's stories, written in the decades following the second world war, generally (though not always) emphasised the need for a rational, adaptible approach to apocalypse which would (generally) triumph over those wielding sheer force and power, Hill takes a different tack, showing just how vulnerable we all are to a self appointed Messianic leader.

The book focusses on two main characters - Harper, a nurse who, for most of the story is (increasingly) pregnant and Nick, a deaf child. The Fireman of the title is a commanding figure who - at least until the end - is more notable by his absence (it's explained eventually: he has a particular fire he needs to keep burning, but it would still be good to see more of him. We see more than we'd like, on the other hand, of Harper's vile husband Jakob, who eventually teams up with the Cremation Crew to hunt down Harper and her allies). Harper is strong, resilient, quick thinking - and infected with the 'scale. Most of her focus is on surviving long enough to give birth, and on making a safe life for her child: she assumes she won't to see the baby grow up. Nick, though a child, is haunted by the loss of his mother. He and The Fireman have a great deal in common, as becomes clear through the book, and their destiny - and those of a few others - seems to be entwined with the fate of the 'scale itself.

Many are burned by the 'scale. Others learn ways to control it in frightening sessions of groupthink whose bonding seems to prevent it form burning. Still others - and The Fireman is one - seem to learn to live with it. But that is a rare and dangerous gift which Nick's mother, Sarah, died trying to master.

I really can't praise this book too much. There is so much in it to love. The end of civilization - doomed both by damage from the scale and by the vile hatreds this unleashes. Harper's determination not to survive - she doesn't believe she can - but to preserve love, in the form of her baby (a common theme with Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven). The moral ambiguity: with the best of intentions (...from most...) the society that tries to build itself at camp Wyndham contains the same seeds of corruption as the world that the Infected have fled. (The dynamics and subtle politics of the camp itself, with frequent allusions to Watership Down, would be quite enough of a theme for many writers). The sheer length - over seven hundred pages of compelling, page turning story. Even the slower parts of this book are enough to make one's hair stand on end.

Throughout the story, there is foreshadowing of worse to come. No refuge, no safety. Any respite is temporary with Hill often warning us that an occasion of solace will never be repeated, two characters will not see one another again or some plan will be fruitless. Before reading The Fireman I'd have scoffed at this device  - isn't it a tool of second rate melodrama? But Hill makes it come good, underscoring the peril his characters are in from start to finish. He even uses allusions to his other works to emphasise the point (not giving details, you'll have to spot for yourself).

Yet it isn't a bleak book. There is love here, redemption, self-sacrifice, all blazing away like the brightest of flames. There are real, true characters (I don't insist on always having characters in books that I can "relate to" - I think that's just silly - but finding some truly wonderful, absorbing characters in a story is a real joy). Hill's imagining of the ashfields, the searing destructive beauty of the fires, the glory of snow or rain, is just triumphant writing.

You see the problem I have? It is just hard not to gush about this book. I loved his last, NOS4R2, but with The Fireman he has turned the heat up several hundred more degrees and the result is, simply, breathtaking.

6 June 2016

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge
Paul Krueger
Quirk Books, 7 June 2016
PB, 285pp
Source: Advance copy from publisher

College grad Bailey Chen has all of the usual new-adult demons: no cash, no job offers, and a rocky relationship with Zane, the only friend still around when she moves back home. But her demons become a lot more literal when Zane introduces Bailey to his cadre of monster-fighting bartenders. It turns out supernatural creatures are stalking the streets of Chicago, and they can be hunted only with the help of magically mixed cocktails: vodka grants super-strength, whiskey offers the power of telekinesis, and tequila lets its drinker fire blasts of elemental energy. But will these supernatural powers be enough for Bailey and a ragtag band of mixologists to halt a mysterious rash of gruesome deaths?

Though I love Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks and his other depictions of nighttime urban life, you won't generally find me out late. (The place I live is so rural it is proud of having no streetlights). So I wasn't sure how I'd take to a book whose premise is the secret history of Chicago's late night cocktail bars. I'm pleased to say though that I enjoyed it immensely.

Placing expert bartenders in the front line of humanity's struggle against the unseen horrors may seen unlikely, but pour yourself another drink and think about it. What are these modern mixologists but wizards, alchemists, brewing up potions based on lore painfully discovered and preserved over the ages? Moreover, they preside over the strange rites of the night that Hopper painted, visible in the corner (or just out of shot) tending the lost, the sad - and those mainly out to get off their faces. Who better to slip out into the dark and face the fearsome tremens which feed on the inebriated who are staggering home? (And yes, a pack of tremens really is a delirium. The book has humour. Deal with it).

It all works rather neatly - buoyed by the way Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge never takes itself too seriously. Bailey Chen is newly graduated, looking for a job in a whizzy tech startup that will take her to fame and fortune rapidly. Instead, she's stuck cleaning up in the Nightshade Lounge, courtesy of Zane. Though he gave her a job, there's awkward history between Zane and Bailey - history that becomes even more awkward when his girlfriend Mona shows up. So perhaps drinking the wrong drink late one evening in the Nightshade wasn't the best thing to do... but how could Bailey know that?

Once Bailey's introduction to the secret world is effected, this book moves at great pace. Monsters appear and are dealt with: more monsters appear and challenge our heroes: cracks begin to appear in the bartenders' world suggesting something very nasty is afoot. In a way the details don't matter, what's special here is the richness of the setting, the dash of humour (it's a bit of a send-up of the whole genre - but not too much of one) and the way that Krueger shakes things up. There may also be a little something in the mix that he's not telling about - hopefully future books will make that clear. The result is refreshing, slightly bitter and definitely leaves the reader wanting to place another order.

A particularly fun feature was the cocktail recipes throughout the book, taken from The Devil's Water Dictionary. The equivalent of those battered tomes of lore detailing spells or nameless rituals which you see through UF and horror, these mundane cocktail recipes apparently have special results when the ingredients and preparation are just right - whether that's the ability to punch a demon's lights out, read minds, fire lightning or even become invisible. Yet they're ordinary recipes as well and if you ever wanted to make an Old Fashioned or a Mai Tai to accompany you on your way through a book, here's the perfect excuse. Just don't read it before driving.

This is apparently Krueger's first novel, but he carries it off with great aplomb and I hope that it's the first of many. I'm sure there are more cocktails to be demonstrated, further hidden depths to nighttime Chicago that can menace, and a lot more to find out about Bailey, Zane, Bucket and - especially - Mona.

Funny, atmospheric, creepy at times - a perfect evening read.

1 June 2016

The Malice by Peter Newman

The Malice
Peter Newman
Harper Voyager, 2016
HB, 454pp
Source: bought

Full disclosure: I bought my copy at the launch (see picture below) where I met both Peter and his wife Emma, who are both wonderful, hard working, delightful people. So this review has a firm pro Newmans bias and I won't pretend otherwise.

That out of the way, what do you get from The Malice?

This is a sequel to The Vagrant, which was published last year. In that book, a long feared plague of demons had burst from the Breach.

Long feared - but over the centuries, the readiness of the Empire of the Winged Eye to face them had rusted, so that when the infernal threat crystallised, the response was half hearted, and the demons won. The Empire withdrew to lick its wounds, while humanity suffered under a demon taint that warped things in grotesque ways.

Emma and Peter Newman discussing the book

So far, perhaps, so epic fantasy. What was really different, though, was what Newman then did with the setup. Of course, we need a Hero and a Sword and we got them. But the Sword was sulky and the Hero (the Vagrant) was without speech. (My daughter can't talk either: she could be a Hero!)

Also, the Vagrant was accompanied by a baby. So the battles and escapes were complicated by childcare. And to provide milk for the baby, the Vagrant he procured a goat - who was as much a character as any of the others. These four crossed the tainted wilderness, looking for safety, which they found with the remnant of the Empire. But it was a shifty, equivocal sort of safety and the Empire itself scarcely inspired confidence.

So it's not a surprise that, twelve years later, it is still losing ground. The Seven didn't see the return of the Sword (the Malice, as the demons call it) as a sign to ride forth in conquest: can it be that having already lost one of their number they're actually a little bit... scared?

So begins The Malice. The baby of the previous book has grown up and is the (rather awesome) hero of this one, the young woman Vesper. The goat has grown old (but still packs a vicious kick) and given birth to many, many kids, one of whom shoulders his way into this narrative. (It's in the genes).

(A small part of) the signing queue
The sword is stirring, yet its master, the Vagrant, hides the fact. He doesn't want any more adventures. He wants to keep his daughter safe. The Winged Eye sends for him and the sword - they are willing that it fight their battles for them - but it is Vesper who answers, of course. This begins another grim journey by an innocent abroad across the tainted wasteland towards great peril.

Interspersed, we are given some background, explaining how the demon threat arose and how the Empire of the Winged Eye was founded to oppose it. From the beginning, it was established upon slaughter and treachery: from the beginning, flaws (rigidities, a lack of empathy, a certain arrogance) were built in that we see bearing dubious fruit a millennium later. One of the great jolts this book gives is the realisation that, perhaps, good and evil are not so distinct here as everyone thinks. This is masked by the language of supernatural evil used of the invading horde - "demon", "taint" and "infernal" - and they are certainly a grim brood. Yet as Vesper crosses their domain it becomes clear that humans can live alongside demons, despite the fury of the Sword (which wants to scorch the taint away wherever it finds it: tricky when Vesper has found herself tainted allies). The demons don't all want to fight - the sinister First always offers bargains and others want Vesper's support against the Yearning, the latest wave of invasion coming form the Breach.

In short, the world may more complicated than the Sword, the Seven and the Winged Eye in general believe. So Vesper comes to believe, and accordingly she employs compromise, trickery and guile as much as, or more than, the burning magic of the Sword. Though she is prepared to use that where necessary - and compromise, trickery and guile have their own cost, sometimes paid by loyal supporters.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between Vesper and the soldier Duet, a woman formed as one of a pair and sworn to defend Vesper to the end. The two travel to meet the Yearning, with the younger, less experienced woman forced to depend on Duet's survival skills and fighting instinct. It's an uneasy relationship at times - from Duet's point of view Vesper should get with the programme, draw that bloody sword and begin scorching away demonic taint. (And eat the wretched goat before it lands them in trouble). Duet has all the focus - and obsession - of a fanatic, showcasing both the strengths and weaknesses of the Winged Eye: its dedication and devotion always apt to cross over into rigidity and fanaticism.

Newman introduces or reintroduces a wealth of gripping characters: not only the demons (the Man Shape, the Backward Child, Gutterface, the First) but also the hard pressed humans and tainted beings of New Horizon (Tough Call, the Usurperkin Max and Maxi, Doctor Grains..) who are trying to build free lived amidst the ruins. Neither the purity of the Winged Eye nor the "corruption' and slavedriving of the demons, make a comfortable life for those at the bottom, but it seems as though neither can, in the end, defeat the other. What is to be done?

Maybe Vesper has another way. Maybe. But while she's heard the stories, from her Uncle Harm, of her father's previous journey, she seems desperately naive and inexperienced to be straying among demons, mutants and warped humans. Duet wants her to be ruthless, but it's far from clear whether she will, in the end, be able to do what it takes to destroy the Breach and free humanity from the demons.

It's an enjoyable, and enjoyably different, book that is written with the same fizz and sly humour as the previous one. More political, less of a chase perhaps than The Vagrant, there are many loose ends left to unravel in the situation that Vesper leaves behind as she crosses the continent.  I assume and hope there will be a further book where some chickens (or perhaps goats) come home to roost, exploring those ambiguities further.

Definitely recommended.