28 July 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

So yesterday, Son and me went to London to see The Harry Potter Play, aka as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, parts 1 and 2. We had our tickets - bought nearly a year ago - and don't they look like something that might win you a tour of Mr Wonka's Chocolate Factory?

Much has been said about the importance, with this particular play, of Keeping The Secrets.

I agree with all of it. There are things in this production that you simply mustn't know about till you see them happen. I'm even a bit equivocal about the publication of the script in a few days time - but then since most who buy and read it won't ever get to the theatre to see the performance, it seems hard to grudge them this marvellous story in some form.

Because it is, above all else, a great story, and a great Harry Potter story. One could argue that it's actually the best of the eight (now) Harry Potter stories, but I'm not going to do that because spoilers. I can, however, think it.  My advice would be, if you are going to see the play, don't read the script. If you think you may go and see the play, don't read the script.

What more can I say? There are a few things, I think, without spilling any magical beans. 

First, practical stuff. Get there in good time, but don't be too fussed about this - the doors open an hour before the performance, the queue forms some time before that, but you don't actually need to be seated a whole hour ahead. If you do have some time in hand though you'll be able to browse the merch in the shop. There is also a bag search so to save time avoid big bags with lots of pockets - but that's always good advice in London theatres, they're mostly not roomy places. 

Watching both parts in one day worked for us - these aren't two plays, Part 1 ends at a definite "I have to know what happens next!" cliffhanger. But it is a long day.

As to the play itself: I'll be guarded. Here are some random thoughts which in my view don't give away anything. Still, some have said that you shouldn't even read the programme before the play - just a warning!
  • There is some familiar stuff, that will settle you in as you return to Harry's world. But the play gives a new angle on it;
  • There is a lot of new stuff;
  • There is some SCARY stuff - both shocks at what's happened in the plot and outright frights;
  • It is really, really well done; 
  • The actors are terrific - one especially more or less stole my heart and I'm not a sentimental person, oh no;
  • The lighting, effects and sound are magnificent. It's HP, obviously there's magic, but it's done in front of you, it's not a film - and it still convinces. And that moment when... oh just wait... HOW DID THEY DO THAT?
  • The story has real heart, with well rounded characters. Some who also appear in the books are probably given more depth and seem more real here than they ever did before;
  • There is stuff here that will, simply, delight the fans. When we saw the play the audience kept breaking into applause - something I've never heard of before - the dialogue is so alive. Some of it is allusions to the books, yes, but there is also new stuff, new facts, quips, jokes...
  • ...it is, in places, very funny - (my favourite line: "Cancel the goblins!") - but some of it is dark humour, very dark indeed, coming from characters' awareness of their faults and vulnerability;
  • The play tells a new story, but also completes that in the previous books. It's amazing, looking back, at how this works (and that is one of the best reasons to #KeepThe Secrets);
  • At the end, the audience gave this a standing ovation. Spontaneously, unanimously, everyone stood. Again, I've never seen that before in a West End play.
So - beg, borrow or steal tickets, Confund the Muggle in your life if you must, get on your broomstick and go and SEE THIS PLAY.

25 July 2016

Bite by KS Merbeth

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
KS Merbeth
Orbit, 26 July 2016
PB, 344pp
Source: Advance copy provided by publisher.

If you like bloodshed, mayhem and chaos - and don't we all, even if we'd rather not admit it? - then this is the book for you.

"Kid" (we never learn her real name) is stumbling along in some benighted post apocalyptic wasteland, possibly in the western part of what had been the United States. It is some years post a nuclear war (at least sixteen, as she was born after it ended). Her father is missing: we know nothing of her mother. Essential supplies - tinned food, water, medical stuff, petrol, weapons - seem to be limited to what was stockpiled Before, and are the subject of desperate bargaining (and conflict).

The badlands are (thinly) populated by desperate people: starving "townies", "raiders", "sharks", outright crazies, a would-be "Queen" running a trading post/ brothel. No-one trusts anyone else and there is no order or authority. Existence is nasty, brutish and short.

In this hellish world, Kid stops a car one day... and it contains Pretty Boy, Wolf, Tank and Dolly. These are all nicknames - real names are never used for someone who could be dead tomorrow morning. They're a desperate crew: look at the cover of the book, and the name, for an idea of the lengths they'll go to.

Is Kid safe with them?

Of course not.

Can she bear live the way her new gang do?

Well it would be nice if she could take some time to work that out, but time is just what she doesn't have.  With her new "friends" she's immediately plunged into a series of desperate situations: betrayals, firefights, captures, escapes, injuries and losses follow one another in dizzying succession, leaving this reader pretty numbed. While there is a discernible plot behind this, it's mostly not very important. Someone is, it seems, hunting Kid's crew down.  If they can ever just get out from under for a moment they'll turn round and start hunting that someone in turn - but generally they have enough to do simply staying alive.

In many respects the book resembles a game (video or old fashioned RPG) with a series of encounters, "treasure" to be gained in the form of those hoarded supplies, combat (LOTS of combat) and a big battle at the end (if you can ever reach it).

It would be daft to overthink this book. You might for example wonder how all those scattered communities can actually exist - but that would make as little sense as worrying about, say, the economics of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. In either case you'll be totally missing the point. The book is shallow in the best way, incredibly good at what it tries to do and, I found, very satisfying for parts of me that books don't often touch.

That said, Merbeth does draw her characters very well and the Kid, in particular, is sympathetic - a strong character, but rather sad: the way that she finds a home with her new crew and faces up to the life she has lost, and the new life she has to live, is very touching. She is also, despite everything, a rather moral person in a vile world. (There may also be some unreliable narration going on here - do we really believe that she's such an innocent as is suggested, given that she has actually survived, alone, in this ghastly waste? maybe... or maybe not. You'll have to make up your own minds on that, I wasn't sure.)

The other members of the crew are also well done, none of them saints (especially Pretty Boy) but all with their own sad stories.

Overall, an action packed, glorious read full of drive, destruction and - in the end - triumph.

24 July 2016

Silent Scream blogtour - Q&A with author Angela Marsons

I'm really pleased to have Angela Marsons joining us as part of the Silent Scream blogtour, to answer some questions about herself and her writing - and especially about Silent Scream, her first novel featuring DI Kim Stone, published now by Bonnier:
Even the darkest secrets can’t stay buried forever...
Five figures gather round a shallow grave. They had all taken turns to dig. An adult-sized hole would have taken longer. An innocent life had been taken but the pact had been made. Their secrets would be buried, bound in blood...
Years later, a headmistress is found brutally strangled, the first in a spate of gruesome murders which shock the Black Country.
But when human remains are discovered at a former children’s home, disturbing secrets are also unearthed. D.I. Kim Stone fast realises she’s on the hunt for a twisted individual whose killing spree spans decades.
As the body count rises, Kim needs to stop the murderer before they strike again. But to catch the killer, can Kim confront the demons of her own past before it’s too late?
So - over now to Angela for the answers!

BBB: Welcome to Blue Book Balloon. An easy question to begin with. How did you get started with your writing career?

AM: I have always been writing. I started with short stories throughout my teens and started writing my first book in my twenties.  Many books followed and all were submitted to agents and publishers. They were all met with a response of ‘we like it but we just don’t love it’. After many years of trying I did eventually secure an agent although we parted ways a couple of years later.  During that time I was incredibly fortunate to work with the talented editor Keshini Naidoo who never forgot the Kim Stone books. The first one was submitted to the digital publisher Bookouture who luckily loved it. This has led to an unbelievable print deal for three of the Kim books with the fantastic publishers Bonnier.

Angela Marsons
BBB: How has it been so far - and how does it compare with what you expected?

AM: It has been amazing.  Nothing I ever imagined or hoped for could have prepared me for the response to the Kim Stone books.  Bloggers and reviewers took Silent Scream to their hearts and championed the book from day one.  This in itself was completely overwhelming.  Every single dream I’ve ever had has come true over the last 18 months and I still pinch myself every day that I am lucky enough to do what I love and call it a job.

BBB: How long has DI Kim Stone been in your mind and how did you “find” her?

AM: Kim Stone had been bubbling in my mind for many years but I knew that she didn’t sound very likeable so I left her there.  I spent many years trying to develop characters that I thought publishers would like.  Eventually I decided I had to give her a voice and write the book that I wanted to write and Silent Scream was the result.

BBB: How much ‘on location’ research did you do? And where?

AM: My books are set in my local area of the Black Country so all the locations are very well known to me.  I feel that the dark, industrial history of the Black Country suits the personality of the character very well.  She would not do well in The Cotswolds - an area I adore but my character would not.

BBB: Did your characters come to you before the plot or did the plot come to you first?

AM: I think they tend to evolve of and because of each other. My plots normally come from a subject that I want to explore or learn more about.  In Silent Scream I wanted to focus on the care system while investigating both current and historic cases. Then the characters needed to tell the story begin to form in my head which then sparks further plot lines or twists when I discover what each character can add to the story.

BBB: How much control do you have over the characters? Did the book ever take completely unexpected turns?

AM: Ha, I love this question.  I don’t have as much control as I would like. When writing Silent Scream the character of Kim continued to grow and evolve in my head and scenes that I had loosely planned had to be scrapped as she took matters into her own hands.  There was one particular scene where she is looking through a fence at a derelict building and I suddenly knew she would not be satisfied with this.  She would climb over the fence and take a closer look. Once I accepted this the pencil flew across the page.

BBB: What other writing has inspired you?

AM: I am inspired by Val McDermid’s Tony Hill series.  I also love the Carol O Connell’s Mallory series. My writing hero is Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing. He always manages to combine drama with human emotion and a touch of humour but his writing is so tight that not one sentence is wasted.

BBB: What’s next? (More Kim Stone?)

AM: Yes, definitely more Kim Stone. Luckily for me she has a lot to say and there are so many situations that I want her to face and there is much more to discover about her past.

BBB: Do you know in detail where the rest of the series is going? Or is it still fairly open?

AM: I like to keep it fairly open and I tend to know the subject of the next book if not the detail.  I don’t like to plan too much as that leaves very little surprise or opportunity for stories and plots to develop organically.

BBB: Angela, that you for these answers and the insights they give into you and your writing. Before we finish, one further question which isn't specifically about the book. You're trapped on a lonely island and the rescue party will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food, but you can only have one book with you. Which would it be?

AM: It would be Disclosure by Michael Crichton. It was the only book that ever caused me to call in sick for work.  His skill in posing and answering questions is just outstanding.  After reading it for enjoyment I read it again for analysis.  I wanted to understand how he had captivated me so completely.

Silent Scream is out now from Bonnier Zaffre (PB, 409pp, ISBN 9781785770524). You can get it from your local bookshop, or online here, here or here.

The tour continues on 25th July with Handwritten Girl

18 July 2016

The Race by Nina Allan

Image from http://titanbooks.com
The Race
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 19 July 2016
PB, 444pp
Source: Advance copy kindly sent to me by the publisher.

Oh, but this book is good. How to review it though? I'm not sure I really know where to begin. I do know that saying too much about the structure would spoil things - there are things here that the reader needs to work out for herself. I also know that this is a book that is hard to pin down, and I may have drawn the wrong conclusions on some of it. For both these reasons I will have to be a bit vague in what follows, and I apologise in advance for that.

So, In The Race there are essentially five stories. In the first, we learn about Jenna, growing up in a crummy town called Sapphire. Sapphire is close to the Romney Marshes, long polluted by fracking, only it is not in England: Sapphire is in a place called Crimond. The town's tenuous prosperity is based on racing smartdogs - greyhounds genetically modified to communicate with their human "runners". Jenna's brother Del is involved in managing the dogs.

In what is clearly an alternate reality, Allan develops a narrative that is gripping and sulpherous, a kind of warped Brighton Rock. She dwells on the tawdry glamour of the dog track, the business of making hand sewn "gants" for the runners (this is Jenna's trade), drug dealing, kidnapping and the grim fate of superannuated dogs. At the same time we also learn the background of this world, the migrant race of "Hools' that both Jenna and Del come from and its language.

The following two stories step back from fantasy and focus on, respectively, Christy and Alex. Christy, first, grows up in Hastings. Like Jenna she has a missing mother and a dominant, unpredictable brother - though Derek is a terror compared to Del: again I thought of Pinky in Brighton Rock: "So long as Dad was in the house, I felt safe, only never quite" writes Christy. And indeed, Derek does terrible things, one related so matter of factly that it might break your heart. Much of this story is occupied with Christy's fears about just what he may have done, or be about to.

Alex is mentioned in that second story but comes into his own more in the third, named for him. His childhood - again, in Hastings - is marked by bullying and racism: "No-one in college called him n***** but there were still dozens of ways he felt he stood out, not because of the colour of his skin but because of the insults he'd been subjected to because of it." With both Alex's and Christy's stories Allan skewers, I think, the sense of being marginalised, made a victim, part of somebody else's story rather than writing one's own. And also - and how prescient is this? - the desperately think ice on which decent behaviour skates: "...he knew also that things could change around you in an instant, and that when they did it was always those who were different that were made to suffer."

Alex and, especially, Christy in these stories have a connection to Sapphire and Jenna's world. In some ways their situations and lives echo each other, despite Sapphire being part of a fantasy world (towards the end of her story Jenna travels to a London which is perfectly ordinary in some ways but with craters, caused by explosions in "the war" - a war also mentioned when veterans weep on hearing it mentioned). For the reasons given above, I won't say just what the connection is: as Allan explores it, more and more echoes arise between the two worlds until, by the end, I honestly wasn't sure which themes originated with who.

The final two stories ("Maree" and "Brock Island") essentially fit together as two episodes, decades apart, in the life of a woman, Maree. She clearly lives in Jenna's world, and we learn more about that war, which seems to have been against a South American country, Thalia: though the details are sparse and we seem to be at peace again, the experience weighs heavy on everyone. Terrible details are given almost casually: smartdogs were created to carry weapons through enemy lines - including nuclear weapons. Maree, who has been trained from an early age to use her rare talents in the service of a mysterious "programme", is on a voyage to Thalia - could it be that "Crimond" lost the war against Thalia? It hardly matters. Allan scatters enough uncertainty about the locations and names of her fictional countries to make it pointless to try and work out exactly what happened - as well as thinly disguised versions of France and Spain we also have England and Scotland mentioned here alongside "Crimond". And whales - great, island sized Atlantic whales, which are a danger to shipping rather than a hunted species. In these stories, one moment you think you understand the fictional world - say where the Internet is mentioned, it must be close to ours? - then the next we have steamships and tribes following the "old orthodoxy" which means human sacrifice to the whales.

And through it all, Maree on her voyage. If "Jenna" played on Graham Greene, "Maree" feels like a story by Conrad or Stephenson: an ill assorted collection of Western passengers on their by slow boat to the tropics, with rivalries, friendships and slightly bored, saloon-bound politics that you get - or got - in such cases.

The final story, while still rooted in Maree's life, also becomes more philosophical. "Words are what humans are, even more than flesh" she muses as she reviews her life - and as we learn what she has really been doing and what depends on it. At the same time, the structure I thought I'd worked out that tied all the stories together seemed I real doubt: as I read the last page I simply didn't know whether or not I'd been wrong all along - or whether it even mattered.

This book is simply breathtaking. Not only does Allan have deep it insight into her characters and their lives, she writes beautiful prose, and leaves the reader needing to think very deeply and very hard about her story.

Really, really good, certainly the best book I've read this year so far. Just superb.

For more information on the book see here. To buy it, try  your local bookshop (local bookshops are the best bookshops!) or here, here or here.

(Nina Allan also has a story in Drowned Worlds which I reviewed here).

14 July 2016

The Nightmare Stacks

The Nightmare Stacks
Charles Stross
Orbit, June 2016
HB, 385pp
Source: Bought from Transreal Fiction, Edinburgh

This is a review of the seventh book in Charles Stross's Laundry series, featuring the covert department of the UK intelligence services that deals with supernatural challenges, especially the threat that the Great Old Ones will return to earth to eat our brains. While readers may have joined in at this point or with the previous book, The Annihilation Score - both are perfectly accessible - I think most will have followed from the beginning. So if you haven't, there may be some mild spoilers below and I would strongly suggest doing so (they're excellent - it won't be a chore!) before reading any more.

I'm intrigued by the way that the Laundry books have blossomed. I have always enjoyed the mix of classic horror, geeky in-jokes and organisational politics - Dilbert meets Doctor Who - but at the start these books were infrequent, coming out between other Stross projects. Lately there has been an annual book, and they've now widened their scope from Bob Howard, the original hapless geek protagonist ,to other Laundry members - first, Bob's partner Mo and now, to Alex the ex-banker and vampire. (The joke writes itself, really).

Doing that has given the books a shot in the arm, I'd say. Bob has accumulated skills and powers steadily until there was a risk that, like a 20th level paladin in a starter dungeon, he would just steamroller the bad guys away. Mo also has a lot of power and her violin solos are to die for (literally) but Alex is basically a beginner. His vampiricism gives him certain advantages, but also vulnerabilities, and he's relatively inexperienced.

He is, though, the man on the ground - in Leeds - when the somewhat Delphic "Forecasting Ops" warns that something may be about to happen - specifically, CASE NIGHTMARE RED. With a scratch team, he's about to take on the greatest threat to the British mainland since 1066...

I enjoyed this book. I really enjoyed it. There was just the right balance - for me - between action (BIG battles! Shooty things! Planes! bangs!), intrigue (Alex becomes entwined with the enemy agent First of Spies and Liars in a kind of reverse James Bond scenario), humour (Alex's family life is also going through a crisis, and you can't expect Mum and Dad to lay off sorting out their children's love and professional lives because of a mere incursion form another dimension, can you?) and deadly, dull bureaucracy (I shudder to imagine the post-event review coming after this book closes...)

Stross also continues to slot folklore and SFF/ horror tropes into the framework of his imagined universe, where magic is equivalent to advanced mathematics and the rapid increase in both conscious brains and computer hardware is fast creating a critical mass of computation that has thinned the walls of reality. In earlier books we've had superheroes (the ability to manipulate reality creates beings with all sorts of new powers), vampires and now... but I won't say exactly what. Just take my word. It's impeccably worked out, chilling in conception and inflicts real panic on the streets of Leeds.

It was also fun to see the imagined response - detailed and convincing - by the British armed forces to the scenario: the usual state of directed panic as whatever resources are available are thrown at poorly understood threats with unfortunate Tommy Atkins left to put things right:

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the brute!
But it's " Saviour of 'is country " when the guns begin to shoot...

In sum my message is: buy this book. Then turn off Twitter, lock your door, cancel any work and just read it. You won't want to stop till it's done.

I can only guess what's going to come next. I think events here have now blown the Laundry's deniability to bits: I want to see how they operate under a spotlight...

13 July 2016

Drowned Worlds

Image from http://www.jonathanstrahan.com.au/
Drowned Worlds
Anthology, compiled by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris, 14 July 2016
PB, 336pp
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley

Reminding us that science fiction should confront the big ideas and issues (as well as doing lots of other stuff, obviously) this new anthology from Jonathan Strahan explores climate change, in particular, rising sea levels and the loss of land under water. Strahan notes in his introduction that the city where he lives, Perth, is slated for abandonment in a few decades due to the stresses of climate change.

With this in mind he presents 15 stories meditating on the process, impacts and potential outcomes. This is not a book about heroic scientists finding solutions: it's about what happens next (in some cases, for very long values of "next"). The stories are uniformly excellent: like scenarios drafted by a crack team of futurologists, they help to make real the threat that we are under. Predictions of so many degree warming or so many metres sea level rise, of x hundred million displaced people or y square kilometres land gone, are much harder to understand than these dramatisations of the human impact.

That said, these aren't worth stories by any means and they are not without a degree of solace - whether it's the weird beauty of flooded Boston, tribute paid in Antarctica to what has been lost, or the possibilities of science to change us in order to preserve something of the old world.

This is strong and serious stuff, but they are great stories and as ever Strahan's themed anthologies are an excellent way to sample works by all those super authors you may not have tried yet! It's invidious to pick favourites, but the stories I enjoyed most were Brownsville Station by Christopher Rowe and Who Do You Love? by Kathleen Ann Goonan.

In Brownsville Station, set in a linear, cylindrical city hundreds of miles long somewhere on the Florida coast. We meet a Senior Engineer and a Junior (train) Conductor. Both are caught up in a sudden disaster which brings their settled lives to a juddering halt. Is the city in the far future, post inundation, and the catastrophe just the last stage in mankind's fall? Or is it a different reality experiencing its first calamity? "I don't think it was fast - I think there were signs" says one character - which could stand for everything in this book. As in our world, the protagonists find that the rulebooks and procedures don't cover the scenario they're facing. But there is still hope, in a story which reminded me of EM Forster's The Machine Stops. 

Who Do You Love? is a strange, haunting story, of generations living on the Florida Keys as they are submerged and destroyed by ever more violent storms. Aphrodite and her (husband? lover?) Emile have a plan to preserve the dying coral communities, but Emile can't face what it means for them. As in other stories in this book, something is saved but utterly transformed at the same time.
Full fathom five thy mother lies;
Of her bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were her eyes;
Nothing of her that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange...
The others also range widely across the world and explore many different situations. In Elves of Antarctica (Paul McAuley) Mike is employed as a helicopter pilot working on the burgeoning Antarctic eco-projects. The story describes his encounters with enigmatic monuments, carved in a mysterious script. What do they mean? What's special about their locations? In placing these markers across the Antarctic wilderness, McAuley catches perfectly the tension between the desire to restore what has been lost to the rising floodwaters and the promise of creating something new on an ever changing planet - a dilemma that Mike has to confront himself.

In Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts (Ken Liu) Asa, a wealthy former trader, has retired, Thoreau style, to a little cabin but it's not in the woods: there are no woods any more: she's living in a spherical refuge craft afloat over old Boston (so not that far from Walden Pond). Here she's bothered by crass tourists coming to dive the beauties of drowned Harvard - and they are beauties: rare corals which transmute the poisons left behind by industry into vibrant colours, shoals of fish slitting through abandoned libraries. The question is posed: can good, beauty, life survive and come out of this apocalypse?

Venice Drowned (Kim Stanley Robinson) follows two days in the life of Carlo, a boatman making a living despite everything by ferrying tourists - Japanese tourists - around the ruins of Venice. Again we see beauty from destruction and marvel at the human spirit that keeps trying in the face of ruin and destruction. Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy (Charlie Jane Anders) is the story of Pris, who runs away to join the Wrong Headed commune.  This is in many respects a familiar story of a well intentioned West Coast alternative community and the tensions and conflicts under the idyllic surface.

The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known (Nina Allan) is a mysterious story. Why was the narrator sent away to live with "the Severins in Strasbourg", with only faint memories of her parents - but an obsession with her uncle, living in his abandoned cottage, and why is she so upset at the mess it was in? There's a hint that the story of her and her friend being in Helston to observe fish is just a cover - for what? Against all that the ravaged of climate change seem almost secondary. Allan's name caught my eye as I'm currently reading her book The Race which is itself set in a poisened and ruined world (though less of a drowned one). What Is (Jeffrey Ford) moves away from the watery margins to the hot, dusty inland of Oklahoma where a small community survives among the second dustbowl. Here a tragedy is played out that, in miniature, echoes the ruin of the world as a whole. This story is one of only a couple  that describe the parched inner lands rather than the drowned coasts

In Destroyed by the Waters (Rachel Swirsky) Zack and Derek are mourning the loss of their son Noah in one of the catastrophes of the 21st century and decide to revisit flooded New Orleans, where they took their honeymoon decades before. The story personalises the grief of climate change, focussing on a very specific loss but also on the love that may help us to survive and continue. The New Venusians (Sean Williams) is a story of a time far in the future, when rebellious young Natasha is teleported to her eccentric uncle's laboratory / shed floating high above Venus. She is meant to learn a lesson, and she does, but it's more about change, responsibility and the future than about not being rude to island diasporas.

Inselberg (Nalo Hopkinson) is a bizarre and chilling story in which a tourguide in future Nigeria, accompanying a load of visitors to see a Mr Fish, takes them to a very dark place indeed.  Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök (James Morrow) is a bizarre story of how the feedback loop promoting cynicism about climate change might be broken with the help of a narwhal, copious amounts of peat lager and a mystical chant. In Last Gods (Sam J. Miller) a girl with no arms serves as shaman in a primitive community, post apocalypse. Why were her arms removed? Do the "Gods" who are seen at play have real power or do the taboos they represent simply protect humanity from further foolishness? We never really learn.

Drowned (Lavie Tidhar) is a lyrical, almost fairytale account of coming to a Land, in contested alternate versions, speculations and contradictions. A young girl is killed in a rock pool: or kills herself, and releases something that may in time evolve and grow. The Future is Blue (Catherynne M. Valente) is a sad and haunting story of a girl who lives on a floating mat of rubbish. Subject to unending abuse she has apparently saved her community yet only gets blame. Perhaps this is the global warming prophet's role in microcosm...

I'd strongly recommend reading this book, as a warning, as an example of FS doing just what it should - and as a cracking example of storytelling.

Blogtour: Who's Afraid - some Q&A with Maria Lewis and a giveway

Maria Lewis's new book Who's Afraid? is out on Thursday 14 July from Piatkus. My review is here but in brief it's emotionally rich, scary and very, very readable.

To celebrate, Maria dropped by to answer a few questions about the book and her writing. I'm really excited to welcome her here, so enough messing about, let's go!

Maria, thank your for taking some time to answer some questions.  First, how did you get started with your writing career?

I landed a journalism scholarship to university which saw me work full time as a cadet reporter at the local newspaper while studying by correspondence and that was kinda it. It was a job I loved immediately and I’ve been working as a professional journalist for the past 11 years writing for everything from The Daily Mail and Empire Magazine, to Penthouse and my current gig working on television series The Feed (which is a nightly news program in Australia).

How has it been so far - and how does it compare with what you expected?

My background as a journalist has been a very different experience to being a published author. Firstly, your work has a much longer life: generally speaking if you were writing for a newspaper, online or even with the TV series I work on presently your work only has a life of a few days at most. With Who’s Afraid? one of the most amazing aspects has been getting to meet people in person who are about to read the book, have just finished it for the first time or on their second or third reading. Getting to engage with readers and get nerdy is the absolute best, as that’s something I always loved doing with the authors I adored and I feel very fortunate to be on the other side of that. In Australia I’m almost exclusively invited to pop culture conventions where you get a large number of people who are all passionate about some form of fandom and you get to have some really great interactions.

Where did Tommi Grayson come from?

I’ve been wondering that for the past six years, honestly. Consciously, I have no idea: I was plotting a graphic novel at the time based on Egyptian mythology when Tommi Grayson strutted into my brain and refused to leave. Subconsciously, I’d say she’s an amalgamation of the women I grew up loving in pop culture: Lt Ripley, Uhura, Buffy, Scully, Huntress, Veronica Mars, Xena, Ardelia Mapp, She Hulk etc. Tommi in a lot of ways was a direct response to me getting frustrated with all the genre stories I was reading at the time which were being told by white, 15-year-old girls who could save the world while simultaneously negotiating the difficulties of a love triangle. In short, that felt like bullshit and I wanted a heroine – or anti-heroine, if you will – who felt real, which included her having flaws and complexities and werewolf claws for a few days of the month.

Who's Afraid covers a lot of ground. Did you scout out all the locations yourself - and more generally, do you do a lot of research?

The novel is set 70 per cent in Dundee, Scotland and 30 per cent in New Zealand and the locations will expand further as the series rolls out over five books. Who’s Afraid Too? – for instance – is set in Wigtown, Scotland and Berlin, Germany. For Who’s Afraid? though it was simply a case of doing my research. New Zealand is my home country and even though I’m from the South Island, I knew the North Island and Rotorua area well enough that I thought I could do it justice. Dundee was a different story: I spent a few months reading up on the history, going through census data and interviewing Dundonians living in Australia. Eventually for the final stages I flew over and lived in Dundee for three months, reworking the story and making tweaks to the first book and aligning sections for when the series continues.

Did your characters come to you before the plot or did the plot come to you first?

It wasn’t so much ‘characters’ as ‘character’: I had Tommi Grayson first, then I had to build everything else around her. That included the world, the mythology, the back-story and the friendships and relationships that define her. The plot and arcs came quite naturally after that.

How much control do you have over the characters? Did the book ever take completely unexpected turns?

Haha yes, well, sometimes I was a little surprised at my own brutality to be honest. I’ve had the series plotted for quite some time and have been working my way through it. So slowly as the books develop I’ve been able to return to particular chapters and moments and adjust them after thinking about it for a wee while and deciding that maybe that’s not something that particular character would do or perhaps it would be more like x instead of y.

What’s next? (More Tommi, I hope!)

Yes, I love that enthusiasm! Lots more Tommi! Like, tonnes of Tommi! Book two is done, dusted and about to be sent off to the printers within a matter of days and I’m excited for people to join the metaphorical wolf pack and go on the next journey with her. The Who’s Afraid? series is planned for five novels, so rest assured she’ll be back … and back and back and back.

Do you know in detail where the rest of the series is going? Or is it still fairly open?

I’m a little OCD to be honest, so everything but the fifth book is written. I’m currently going through and editing the fourth while on this UK book tour but the third had been delivered (pending editor notes, naturally). I’ve always had a solid skeleton for the books and known where it was going, and given the years I’ve had to work on this thing there have been elements that have evolved naturally or things I’ve been fortunate enough to change as I’ve decided a different solution might work better. Your debut novel is a tricky one, because you have to deliver a world and characters that are really going to punch readers in the gut and make them come back for more. Yet simultaneously you can’t overwhelm them with too many personalities or an info-dump of mythology and supernatural structures. It’s difficult for me in that regard because I want to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, so I have to restrain myself and be more patient. That’s one of the reason I’ve enjoyed writing the sequels so much as it has given me the space and time to gradually expand the universe.

Any advice if I should meet a werewolf ever...?

Check your lunar cycles, make sure said meet up is not on a full moon and you should be mint. If it’s on the days leading up to the full moon it can’t hurt to have a raw, juicy steak with you as a diversionary tactic or a small country’s worth of sugary treats.

Finally, a question that isn't about the book. You're trapped in an abandoned lighthouse and the rescue party will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food, and you can have one book with you. Which would it be?

I love this question and also hate it – one book? God damn it man. It would probably be the collected volumes of Brian K Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man as that’s a hefty tome and a brilliantly entertaining work that could keep me entertained until I’m screaming “WILSON!” at washed up sports balls on the island beach.

Thank you Maria for those insights into Who's Afraid and its world - best wishes with the publication and the rest of the series!

You can buy the book at your friendly local bookshop, or here, here or here.

Now, to add to the excitement we've a giveaway - courtesy of Maria's publishers, Piatkus all these lovely goodies are up for grabs:

For a chance to win, comment on this post or RT. (This is UK only I'm afraid). I'll pick a winner at random on Thursday evening, and the pack will come calling...

Who's Afraid

Image from www.littlebrown.co.uk
Who's Afraid
Maria Lewis
Piatkus, 14 July 2016
PB, 340pp
Source: Advance copy from the publisher

You'll want to get your teeth into this one....

Tommi Grayson is a young woman, living her life, having fun, working putting together exhibitions in the Dundee art world. When her mother dies, Tommi  decides to take a break and visit New Zealand, where she was born. She wants to investigate a side of her family she knows little about. She does know that there is a dark secret - and she wants to confront it. What she couldn't suspect is how bad things really are. The moon is nearly full, and the pack is ready.

I just loved this fresh take on the whole werewolf thing (OK, strictly that's a spoiler - but go on - that title? the blurb?).

Tommi's been brought up outside her clan - deliberately: her mother hoped she'd never turn. She's an ordinary girl. We probably don't need to fear Tommi going rogue. Probably.

But genes are genes. It's more of a concern that the Ihis - her estranged family - are determined to have her in their pack, and her unpleasant half brother Steven has no scruples about how he makes this happen: for him, a young female is there to be used as he wishes - mixing up both human and werewolf gender politics, this story makes no bones about the threat that faces Tommi.

But she's resourceful, and she acquires allies. What made the story for me was that aspect: not so much the fighting and the running, but the relationship between Tommi and the mysterious Lorcan. I was impressed how Lewis gets into Tommi's head and makes her so, so real. I mean, how would you feel if you suddenly discovered that you will transform for three days every full moon and can rip open a deer with your teeth? Tommi is conflicted, to say the least. She is guilty. She is scared of what she might do to those close to her. She is also afraid of the Ihis and of what they might want for her.

One of the strengths of this book is the way it operates on two levels - we have Tommi's werewolf self but also her closeknit group of friends. She continues to be a sociable young woman - on the outside - but what happens to her in New Zealand leaves scars, and not just physical ones. Tommi's preconceptions and relationships are turned upside down: it seems, in fact, that she'll have to grow up and that's actually a more scary prospect that the full moon, hair-and-claws thing.

It's a great read, not afraid to poke a bit of fun at its own urban fantasy genre in places (as when Tommi quizzes Lorcan about what sorts of monsters really exist, or when he admits to his true age), confident in handling both romance and gruesome, furious violence and with a truly engaging hero.

Bring on the next full moon, and the next book...

This review is part of the Who's Afraid blogtour - look out for the other stops coming up on the tour!

And don't forget the Q&A with Maria and the giveaway here.

12 July 2016

Blogtour - Vigil by Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter
Jo Fletcher Books, 7 July 2016
PB, 351pp
Source: I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy

Vigil is an episode in the far from easy life of Verity Fassbinder. Firmly rooted in the Urban Fantasy genre, Vigil is also refreshingly different in that Verity isn't - exactly - securely part of that world herself, rather she has one foot in it and one in the world of Normals, being of mixed parentage. That qualifies her to mediate between the two, sort out trouble and keep the peace.

So when children begin to go missing, and someone starts murdering Sirens, who should the Council turn to but Verity...

I really enjoyed this book. Verity herself is a very strong, very with-it central character who has a well developed moral core, partly, the book hints, in reaction to her father, Grigor. When he was discovered to be a Kinderfresser - a butcher of children, serving them up on the dining tables of the rich in the Weyrd world - Verity's dad was thrown to the wolves to protect respectable citizens with unpleasant tastes. And her life was turned upside down. So there's guilt here, some sense of atonement, and an alienation form the world of charms, unnatural strength and fabled creatures.  All this positions her perfectly to interrogate the Weyrd's goings on and speak bluntly about what she finds. Sometimes too bluntly.

The book has a rather noirish sensibility, with Brisbane happily filling in for the mean streets of whereever and Verity, a determined woman who is not herself mean, walking them and bringing a kind of justice.  This is reinforced by the writing: just the right side of hardboiled, peppered with coinages like "kidnappy" or "stabby", painting Verity as cynical, an impression with is then belied by her sheer sense of empathy and connectedness, caring for the single mother and kid next door, the nest of Sirens who are being killed off, and even the vagrant girl who causes her so much trouble. At the centre of this book are people - whether Normals or Weyrd - and especially children, and a cold fury at those who treat them as mere things.

Slatter also has great fun. We meet mythological creatures drawn from across time and from many different cultures, drawn to Brisbane, a New World for them, by the desire to escape the mobs, the burning torches, the pitchforks of the Old. There are three sisters who may be the Fates of European legend and who now run a coffee shop selling mean chocolate confections. The Boatman, who carries dead souls away to - where? - also features, as does does an enigmatic and well preserved - and strangely fascinating - Central European nobleman named Bela... and of course those Sirens, who have formed a community choir which sings regularly out in the park.

What doesn't really appear - or hasn't so far - is a sense of the mythology of the original inhabitants of Australia. There is a consciousness among the Weyrd that they are recent arrivals, which must imply the existence of others, but most of this book is taken up with a dark story of parents and children, of the Old Ways - eating flesh, pressing wine from children's tears, controlling women - brought by the settlers and which have stubbornly refused to die out. Verity finds that there are gaps between the official line - of the Weyrd living peaceably alongside the Normals - and the reality.

And that's even before we are introduced to older, stronger and higher powers with an agenda of their own. Powers that see even the Weyrd, let along humanity itself, as slight, to be brushed away. As disposable things, of no account. The slow unveiling of this deeper plot, alongside the myriad complicated and interlinked cases that Verity is initially confronted with, is one of the joys of the book and I'm not going to risk spoilers by saying any more about it. But when it did become clear exactly what Slatter was doing - and how cleverly she had put the story together - I almost chuckled out loud.

Finally, I just have to mention: there is a character in this book who has MY NAME! How cool is that? I'm assuming this is for real and not just an uber marketing trick where each reviewer is sent their own personalised copy... Whatever, if I get a chance to have my copy signed I'm going to make sure I get Angela Slatter to write something appropriate for me!

So - an excellent, action filled start to (I hope) a new series with a hero I want to learn more about. And a world with a lot still to unpack, I think.

Definitely a series to watch.

This post is part of the Vigil #blogtour - for other stops see poster below.

10 July 2016

Upoming: we go a bit Antipodean

Got a sort of Antipodean week coming up here.

First, on Tuesday I'm going to be reviewing Vigil, a new book by Angela Slatter.

Vigil is an urban fantasy set in Brisbane ("Brisneyland") where Verity Fassbinder is part of the thin line keeping the peace between the Normals and the Weyrd. This book has real heart with the problems of people - whether or not human - at its centre and a strong message of tolerance.

I'm reviewing as part of the Angela Slatter blogtour: see poster below for other stops.

Then on Wednesday I'll be reviewing Who's Afraid by Maria Lewis, another urban fantasy. 

When Tommi Grayson's mother dies, Tommi takes a trip to New Zealand to investigate a side of her family she never knew about before. She does know there is a dark secret and she wants to confront it. What she couldn't suspect is how bad things really are... and how much worse they're going to get.

This is a cracking read, with Tommi's preconceptions and relationships turned upside down by that fateful visit and the discovery of a whole new world that she's part of, whether she likes it or not.

I'm also on the Who's Afraid blogtour and I'm hoping to host a Q&A with Maria  about her writing and about Who's Afraid in particular. 

Watch this space.

Image from http://www.jonathanstrahan.com.au/
And on Thursday I'll be reviewing Drowned Worlds, the new anthology by Jonathan Strahan, themed around rising sea levels and the drowning of the land.  Strahan notes in his introduction that the city where he lives, Perth, is slated for abandonment due to the stresses of climate change.

With this in mind he presents 15 stories meditating on the process, impacts and potential outcomes of climate change.

There are stories by Paul McAuley, Ken Liu, Kim Stanley Robinson, Christopher Rowe, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Charlie Jane Anders, Nina Allan, Jeffrey Ford, Rachel Swirsky,  Sean Williams, Nalo Hopkinson, James Morrow,  Sam J. Miller, Lavie Tidhar and Catherynne M. Valente.

Strong and serious stuff, but excellent stories and as ever Strahan's themed anthologies are an excellent way to sample works by all those super authors you may not have tried yet!

For more info about Drowned Worlds see here.

After that we come back to the Northern hemisphere, hopefully with dry feet, to a review of Charles Stross's latest, The Nightmare Stacks. But more of that later...

7 July 2016

Hunters & Collectors

Hunters & Collectors
Image from www.penguin.co.uk
M Suddain
Jonathan Cape, 6 July 2016
PB, 504pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by publisher.

This book was like nothing I'd read recently, or in fact at all (the closest are perhaps Night Film by Marisha Presel - but that is still very different - or from another perspective Viriconium by M John Harrison - but again, different).

To begin with, take the setting. Even after finishing the book I wasn't clear whether the journeys of John Tamberlain were interplanetary trips, or took place on the face of this world between cities or city states (there are some familiar placenames, among the alien-sounding ones) or on some other world or even in a different kind of cosmology, where our idea of a "world" doesn't hold at all. There is talk of East and West being opposed regions, but it's very sketchy, and the maps only add to the mystery. (Are they maps? Charts? They seem to have a mathematical regularity, as though the whole story is set in some kind of fractal space: I wanted to tear out the separate leaves, with their strange elliptical curves, to see if they would fit together into a bigger whole).

Then, there is the sheer... I don't know... effect of the book. Suddain creates an extraordinary and distinctive tone in this book, utterly suited to the story and the strange, shifting characters.

Here is Tamberlain's account of something that happened when he was seven:
My father had tried to ostensibly discipline me, while secretly congratulating me behind her [his mother's] back. She'd caught him, they'd fought, and I'd run off, spending several weeks on the streets. (And when I say 'on the streets' I mean I sold the watch I'd got for my seventh birthday, used the money to find a few undervalued first editions in a local book market, sold them to a dealer for a modest profit, and checked myself into a reasonably priced pension run by a woman who collected giant crickets.)  I stayed there until the private detective hired by my mother tracked me down. He told me a few tricks to avoid being tracked next time...
That is the book in microcosm - the slightly surreal nature of what happens, Tamberlain's penchant for travel (but always in comfort) and the good things in life, coupled with his haphazard fortune and bizarre family background. (We're told at one point that his mother was executed by machine gun: but not why or by whom - the book's full of mysteries like that).

Tamberlain seems to be something akin to a blogger (nickname: The Tomahawk) making a very good living from anonymous, scathing restaurant reviews ("stealth attacks"). The opening of the book, told though his letters and diaries, including some rather testy correspondence with his fans, sees him travel (the universe? the world? Both or neither?) occasionally returning to Monsterat's, the restaurant run by his childhood friend, Nanse.

Then things seem to go wrong. Through no fault of his own, Tamberlain wrecks Nanse's life then gets into deep, deep trouble himself. In the later part of the book, he's in reduced circumstances, his reputation gone, and pursued by enemies. He does, however, have a fanatically loyal agent (who he calls Beast) and bodyguard (Gladys, a former Water Bear). Together they take on the challenge of finding the semi-mythical Hotel Grand Skies, known only through rumour and conjecture, there to enjoy one perfect meal...

In between we get weirdly familiar yet distorted history (invasions, revolutions, dictatorship, massacres), increasingly desperate attempts by Tamberlain at self justification, at explaining how he meant no harm, it was all a terribly mistake (his account would be hard to believe, if everything else in the book wasn't so odd anyway) and a distinct impression that someone - or something - has noticed him. There are bizarre and deadly encounters, such as with a heavily pregnant woman and two gangsters on a train at sea, which Tamberlain seems to shrug off: we're given the impression that his work involves a great deal of actual violence - as well as deception.

But that's only the starter. The Hotel Grand Skies episode is the main course of this book - in which things REALLY turn weird. It's like a collision between The Wicker Man, Bladerunner and Hotel Babylon - with an added side order of blood and guts. Truly, truly strange, with at least two levels of mystery - will the fractious, ill matched threesome ever get away with all their bits intact? And what the blazes is actually going on? Suddain is tricksy with the answers: to a degree we're left to choose what we want to believe - this book won't resolve neatly.

Through all this, Tamberlain's obsession with "his meal" becomes increasingly discordant, increasingly unhinged. It's bizarre, bizarre bizarre but truly riveting and while Tamberlain is often a truly insufferable character, I actually did find myself warming to him by the end.

It's a hard book to describe. You really have to read it. For those who like this sort of thing it is a wondrous read - and I loved it. I suspect that it isn't for everyone, but do give it a try: if you're not going to get on with it I think you'll know quite soon.

Bewilderingly wonderful.

5 July 2016

The High Ground

Image from http://zenoagency.com/
The High Ground (The Imperials Saga, 1)
Melinda Snodgrass
Titan Books, 5 July 2016
PB, 432pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher

Six hundred years in the future, enabled by the discovery of how to fold space, humanity has spread out across the Galaxy. Old Earth is abandoned, a violent, inhospitable place, its climate ruined, and of interest only to eccentrics and romantics.


In other ways things have gone backwards - the Galaxy is ruled by the Emperor of the Solar League under whom an extensive aristocracy flourishes.

Like aristocracies everywhere, they are arrogant, entitled and more ornamental then useful (for certain values of "ornamental"). But they do have power.

Women are treated as breeding units, forbidden any autonomy and tyrannised by the Church. Aliens whose planets have been conquered by the human race are mistrusted and kept down (in a sly vignette Snodgrass shows us how under this hierarchical model even the lowest class humans have somebody to look down on: a perfect illustration of colonialism and racism).

If that makes the book sound rather worthy, it's not. I mean, it is (what's wrong with being worthy?) but it is first and foremost a story, and a well-told one. In a blend of SF, YA, school story and even fairytale ("the Princess and the Tailor's son") Snodgrass drives the plot though two enthralling - if often very annoying - protagonists, Tracy (the tailor's son - and a pretty mean stitcher himself) and Mercedes (the daughter of the Emperor). Of course, they fall in love, despite their different status and of course, this causes problems (a princess and a dirty intitulado?) But there's more going on here. There is the whole dynamic of an able, but poor, man who has an opportunity to make his mark when he wins a scholarship to the elite Academy, the High ground of the title but who is forced to defer to a bunch of often incompetent toffs. Even when he saves the day he risks being blamed for whatever has gone wrong, and can't take any credit.

Similarly for Mercedes - ostensibly a pampered, privileged daughter of power, she has no autonomy, no say over her life - she never wanted to join the High Ground, but is forced to, the first woman ever, yes, but not of her choice: it's all for for reasons of politics. yet she wants to make a success of it, not to be a token woman, to graduate: but that seems to mean having to be twice as good as the boys (while hobbled by impractical clothing). The same as the men but backwards and in high heels, as it were. There is a hilarious scene where Mercedes beats the male cadets hands down in a space fighter simulator. They're furious. It must be rigged, mustn't it? One can't help thinking of the recent tedious sulking by male gamers (so, OK, perhaps this future isn't so far from our present as you'd think...)

It's an enjoyable read. Through all their trials and setbacks, Tracy and Mercedes remain vivid, real characters, teenagers learning about life in a world they don't control and can't (much) influence (not even the all mighty Princess). This is the first volume of a series and rightly it concentrates on establishing the world and drawing the characters. There are some hints of wider things going on (in the prologue, in the mentions of Hidden Worlds and missing ships, and in the closing part of the book, where feudal politics suddenly and violently intrudes into the lives of the pair) but this is largely a character study: think Romeo and Juliet in space, with a dash of Hogwarts mixed in.

Finally, for a book that takes a swords-and-honour culture (unless you're one of the peasants, who can't afford honour) the culture was (for me) refreshingly different as the chivalric titles and general ambience are Spanish rather than Anglo. Not only did that add a dash of the exotic (again, there's humour when it's explained what the titles are derived form!), but it also avoids the impression, whenever a new character appears with a resounding title, that he (it's generally he) is clothed in furs and has just come in from a snowstorm.

The only slight drawback for me was the sheer numbers of aristocratic characters with florid titles: it's hard at times to keep up with who everyone is and whether or not they are Tracy's allies or enemies (actually that's not so hard, he has few friends). Aristocrats - what use are they?

For an interview with Melinda Snodgrass, listen to this Episode of the Tea and Jeopardy podcast, with Emma Newman.