30 September 2016

The Child Garden

The Child Garden
Catriona McPherson
Constable, 29 September 2016
PB, 292pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Eden was its name. "An alternative school for happy children," said the  brochure. "A load of hippies running wild in the woods," said the  locals.  After a suicide it closed its doors and the children scattered. Thirty  years later, it's a care home; its grounds neglected and overgrown, its only neighbour Gloria Harkness, who acts as tenant-caretaker in a  rundown farmhouse to be close to her son. Nicky lives in the home, lighting up Gloria's life and breaking her heart every day. Nicky and a ragbag of animals aren't enough to keep loneliness at bay, and when Gloria's childhood friend and secret sweetheart, Stephen "Stig" Tarrant, turns up at her door one night, all she can see is the boy she knew. She lets him in. Stig's being stalked by an Eden girl, he says. She has goaded him into meeting her at the site of the suicide. Except that suddenly, after all these years, the dead are beginning to speak and suicide is not what they say.  

This book is just what I want from a crime novel - which, perhaps strangely, is to not be plunged right away into the crime. I want atmosphere and lots of it. Yes, there's a prologue here which describes just what happened 30 years before (or maybe it doesn't...) but then when we quickly come back to the present day, McPherson skilfully establishes a great sense of place. That's what I look for - ever since reading Sherlock Holmes years ago, I want to be shown the setting, I want it to be real. And that's what The Child Garden does. We're introduced to Gloria, to her lonely (or self sufficient) life in a remote cottage, ten miles of single track road from the nearest town. To her old and beloved dog Walter Scott. To her house cats and her byre cats. To her tumbledown house - shabby, draughty, damp, remote, but safe.

Or maybe not so safe. It isn't long before the action starts, before there's a pounding on Gloria's door one rainswept night and her life changes forever. An old friend is in trouble, and she agrees to help, putting herself outside the law and stepping into matters that definitely don't concern her.

I loved Gloria as a character. She has stubbornness woven into her nature, whether in caring for her disabled child when abandoned by his father or in helping out that old friend, despite it bringing trouble down on her head. She has wounds - a vile parent and sister, that divorce - but she's bright, realistic about life and loves her dog and cats. Best of all she's a reader, the shelves of the old cottage stacked with books and story strewn with bookish references (indeed even the very title, which plays on Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, some of which are quoted here).

Gloria is a great character to spend time with. McPherson has perhaps given a little help here - she's got a job (local registrar) that is useful for finding out about people, there is the odd useful fall of snow (showing up footprints) and she has quite a bit of luck, but none of this is implausible. And she has a difficult quest - to work out what happened in the grounds of Eden all those years ago. The account in the prologue is tantalising but incomplete. Every one of the children who was there - every one who survived - has a version of their own, but what's the truth? And how does it explain what's happening now? I enjoyed Gloria's unravelling of this - necessarily constrained by practicalities like caring for Nicky, doing her job, and avoiding letting on to the police what she's up to.

But beneath that mystery there's another which is older, darker and stranger. It concerns the Devil's Bridge in the grounds of Eden. The "hallowed place". The "rocking stone" behind Gloria's cottage. Does the pattern of that she's tracing have echoes in the geometry of an earlier tragedy? If it does, how can she hope to put things right? There are dark shadows here that are just right for a chilly Autumn evening.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery with a great setting, believable characters - the vignettes of the ex Eden children are excellent sketches of their varying, mostly sad, lives - and, especially in the final few chapters, a rising tension that makes the pages fly by faster and faster.

Highly recommended.

29 September 2016

Blogtour - The Vanishing Year extract

I'm really pleased to feature an extract from Kate Moretti's new book The Vanishing Year - a thriller with pace, intelligent, rounded characters and above all, heart.

You can read my review here. Now, over to Zoe...


Lately, I’ve been dreaming about my mother. Not Evelyn, the only mother I’ve ever known, the woman who raised me and loved me and taught me to swim in the fresh water of Lake Chabot, bake a sticky sweet pecan pie, fly-fish. I’ve thought about Evelyn plenty in the five years since she died—I’d venture to say every day.

My dreams lately are filled with the mother I’ve never met. I imagine her at sixteen years, leaving me in the care of the neonatal nurses. Did she kiss my forehead? Study her baby’s small wrinkled fingers? Or did she just scurry out, as fast as she could, hugging the wall, ducking the shadows to avoid detection until she burst through the doors, into the night air, where she could breathe again?

I could have been born in a bathroom stall at the junior prom or in the back of her parents’ car. I prefer to imagine her as a scared young kid. The only thing I know about her at all is her name: Carolyn Seever, and that is likely a fake.

My dreams are disjointed, filled with bright colors and blinking lights. Sometimes Carolyn is saving me from a faceless killer and sometimes she is the faceless killer, chasing me with knives up winding staircases that never seem to end.

Even when I’m awake, chopping vegetables for a salad for lunch or taking notes for a board meeting, I’ll drift off, lost in a daydream about what she might be doing right now or if we have the same dark, fickle hair or the same handwriting. Wonder what quirks, biologically, I’ve inherited from someone I’ve never met, and sometimes, I’ll come to in the middle of the kitchen wielding a large butcher knife, the lettuce limping on the counter. I’ve killed quite a bit of time this way.

I wonder if she’d be proud of the woman I’ve become.

The benefit for CARE, Children’s Association for Relief and Education, starts in an hour. I pace back and forth in the bedroom. I’ve never chaired before and I can’t afford to be distracted, yet here I am, my brain run amok when I can least afford it.

“Relax, Zoe, you’ve done a fabulous job, I’m sure. Like always.” Henry approaches me from behind. His large hands dance over my clavicle as he fastens the clasp of a single strand of freshwater pearls around my neck. I close my eyes and relax back into his lean frame, all sinewy muscle despite his forty years. He kisses my bare right shoulder and runs a hand down my side. His palm is hot against the fitted silk of my gown and I turn to kiss him. I step back and admire his tuxedo. His slick, blond hair and angular jaw give him an air of power, or maybe it’s just the way he appraises people, even me. He is studying me, his head cocked to the side.


“I think the single diamond would look stunning with that dress,” he suggests softly, and I pause. He crosses the bedroom and opens the safe, retrieving one of many velvet cases and I watch him deftly remove a thin, sparkling chain, return the box to the safe, and give the dial a clockwise spin. I love the curve of his neck as he examines the necklace, the small dip behind his ear and the slope of his hairline, his hair curled slightly at the nape, and I want to run my nails up the back of his scalp. I love the long lines of his body and I

imagine his spine beneath the layers of thick fabric, all hard-edged dips and valleys. I love his almost invisible smirk, teasing me, as he motions me to spin around. I comply and in one swift motion he removes the pearls and clasps the solitaire. I turn and gaze into the mirror and a small part of me agrees: the solitaire looks fantastic. It is large, five carats, and it rests above the wide band of the strapless dress, the bottom of the teardrop hinting seductively at an ample swell of cleavage. As always, I am divided with Henry. I love his authority, the strength he has that his opinions are not merely suggestions. Or maybe it’s just that he’s so different from me: decisive, definitive.

But I did love the pearls.

“Seems indecent somehow for a benefit, doesn’t it?” I am tracing the outline of the diamond, watching him in the mirror. His eyes flicker over my reflected body. “The size of the diamond,” I clarify.

He shakes his head slowly. “I don’t think so. It’s a benefit for children, yes, but only the wealthy attend these sorts of things. You know this. It’s as much a display of the organizer as anything else. Everyone will be watching you.” He rests his hands on my shoulders.

“Stop! You’re making me nervous.” I am already on edge, my mind swimming with details. I’ve done a few of these kinds of events as a second chair but never as a chairperson. There will be a large crowd, all eyes on me, and my heart flutters against my rib cage at the thought.

I’ve been in Henry’s world more than a year now and the need to prove myself seems never-abating. This will be the first time I’ve taken any of the spotlight for myself. My debutante ball, if you will. And yet, I’m completely foolish. I’m risking everything for a slice of validation. These are things I can’t say to Henry, or to anyone.

His palms are cool and heavy. We stand this way for an indefinite amount of time, our eyes connected in the mirror. As usual, I can’t tell what he’s thinking. I have no idea if he is happy or pleased, or what he feels beyond anything he says. His eyes are veiled and closed, his mouth bowed down in a slight frown. He kisses my neck and I close my eyes.

“You are beautiful,” he whispers, and for a moment, his cheekbones soften, his eyes widen slightly, the tautness of his mouth, his chin, seems to loosen. His face opens up to me and I can read him. I wonder how many other women say this, that their husbands befuddle them? Most of the time, Henry is a closed book, his face a smooth plane, his bedroom face similar to his boardroom face, and I’m left to puzzle him out, to tease the meaning from carefully guarded responses. But right now, he looks at me expectantly.

“I was thinking about Carolyn.” I wince, knowing this isn’t the right time. I want to pull the words back. He gives me a small smile.

“We can talk later. Let’s just have a nice time, please?” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cell phone. He strides out of the room and my back is cold, missing the heat of him. My shoulders feel lighter, and when I glance back to the mirror, my mouth is open as if to call him back.

It’s not that he objects to my finding Carolyn necessarily, he’s just impatient with the recent obsession. He doesn’t think these things ever end well, and he is the kind of man who respects the current “state of affairs”—he may have used those words. He can’t understand the need. You have me, he says when I bring it up. You have us, our life, the way it is now. She rejected you.

I think he takes it personally.

We have been married nearly a year and have the rest of our lives to “complicate things.” I think about couples who giggle and share their pasts, their childhood memories and lost loves. Henry thinks all these conversations are unnecessary, trivial. He is the kind of person whose life travels a straight path, his head filled with to-do lists and goals. Meandering is for slackers and dreamers. And certainly, mulling over the what-has-been is a fruitless effort; you can’t change the past. I admitted once to having a journal in college, a place to keep scraps of poetry, quotes I’d picked up along the way, slices of life. Henry cocked his head, his eyebrows furrowed, the whole idea unfathomable.

And yet, here I am. This house. This man. This life. It’s mine, despite the insecurities that seem to follow me around like a stray cat. I stare at my reflection. A thin, pink scar zigzags horizontally across the top of my right wrist, as I touch the diamond at my throat, the setting big as a strawberry.

His sure footsteps beat against the teak floor of the apartment and his deep baritone echoes as he calls for the car. Time to leave.

Blogtour: The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti

Image from titanbooks.com
The Vanishing Year
Kate Moretti
Titan, 27 September  2016
PB, 384pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Zoe Whittaker has had a difficult start in life. Growing up poor before her adoptive mother died, she dropped out of college, and then things fell apart. Really apart, that is: leaving criminals after her for revenge and her old life, necessarily, abandoned.

However she put all that behind her, changing her name, and marrying a wealthy New York banker. Now she's a lady of leisure, spending her time arranging charity fundraisers and NOT dwelling on the past. As long as she's careful that nobody from that past catches up with her - and that her husband stays ignorant of it - nothing can go wrong, can it...?

This thriller takes a perhaps somewhat hackneyed theme - the buried past - and jolts electricity into it till the genre revives - and the pages crackle with tension. There result is a story with multiple themes: Henry, the husband, exemplifies a certain type of controlling spouse, always pawing at Zoe, claiming rights over her body as though it were his property, whenever and wherever he chooses, and becoming creepily jealous at how she chooses to spend her time.

Behind that, there are are definite overtones of the Gothic: Henry's first wife died and we know little about her, there's a disapproving family retainer who seems to be judging Zoe harshly, and most of all perhaps the sense that somebody is watching. Strange things begin to happen - is it coincidence, or is the past really catching up?

Zoe is isolated and trapped. She's out of touch with her friends. Her adoptive mother is dead. She has no idea who her real parents are. She keeps secrets from her husband, and his behaviour is scary at worst and suffocating at best. So she has little alternative but to investigate those strange things herself.

I really enjoyed this book. Zoe is a remarkable character - brave and resourceful but not perfect, perhaps too trusting at some times, too fearful to trust at others. She's already overcome a lot in her life so this isn't the typical 'unsuspecting woman gets into a load of trouble' story you might expect. At the same time, things get so convoluted, and she is so alone that nor is she effortlessly on top of everything. Moretti treads a fine line here, both keeping surprises coming and having them (mostly) character driven, and she manages it with aplomb.

And also constructs a surprise twist that I really didn't see coming - I mean, I had some suspicions, but the reveal was still a genuine surprise.

The book's also good on friendships. The details of Zoe's life with her spiky flatmate and colleague Lydia are convincing - you can't but help wish Zoe had followed Lydia's advice a number of times that she didn't - and Zoe's recollections of her life with Evelyn, her adoptive mother, are deeply touching. (Evelyn herself comes across vividly, in some ways the most well rounded and likeable character in the book).

Indeed these warm friendships give the book some real heart, even as the plot unwinds and Zoe goes through some bad stuff you're willing her on, wanting better things for her. It's strong stuff but in short: The Vanishing Year is a great read.

27 September 2016

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

Image from titanbooks.com
A Head Full of Ghosts
Paul Tremblay
Titan Books, 27 September 2016
PB, 369pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book

Possession. A staple of horror fiction, in books and films, but really, a problematic staple, over used, under analysed - the biggest problem perhaps being how to make a new story when overshadowing the entire genre is The Exorcist?  The film is so culturally ubiquitous that any family (and it always is a family) portrayed in a story as undergoing possession will inevitably think in Exorcist terms - the young girl, the obscene language, the eccentric Roman Catholic priest and so on.

Well, here's a way to do it. Accept the self-referentiality. Glory in it. Indeed, let the story analyse itself. Let your characters - or at least some of them - be conscious of all that baggage. Let the possession itself be the subject of a reality TV show, introducing another layer of artificiality to this already artificial situation. Then add more.

A blogger, 15 years later, reviewing and analysing the TV series.

One of the family, putting forward her side of things in a book.

In Tremblay's new book, we don't "see" the "possession" and its aftermath "ourselves". Instead we get several interlinking accounts: The older Merry's story, told to a journalist, Rachel. The Last Final Girl Blog, prop Karen Brisette, reviewing that seminal reality TV series, The Possession. But nothing pretending to be an unmediated, direct narration of the events themselves - not even a straight account of the TV series: instead, only recollections and analysis (including discussion of how, even at the time, the TV series was distorting, exaggerating, sexing up the events). If you're already thinking "unreliable narrator" I think you're on the right track - except there are several of them.

The result is at the same both a spooky horror story - or at least it might be spooky, there may or may not be real supernatural stuff here but there is horror - and an acute meditation on popular belief (both in the supernatural and in religion itself), the role of the media and even the politics of the horror story itself .Tremblay follows this up with a shrewd essay which may or may not deconstruct this particular story, but adds greatly to its resonance.

The story then. It is now(wish) and the Barrett family - Merry(8), Marjorie(14), Sarah and John - are struggling. Marjorie's going a bit weird. John's lost his job but found religion, and the home is about to be repossessed.

It's also 15 years in the future and Merry, the younger daughter, is telling her story to a journalist or ghostwriter (I wasn't sure which). In the same timeframe (I think) Brisette is reprising the TV series.

There follows a claustrophobic, multi layered story in which, perhaps, concerned, civilized parents, despairing of modern medicine, resort to a primitive religious rite (involving their daughter being strapped to her bed) which goes chaotically wrong.

Or, a manipulative child, seeking attention, orchestrates everyone around her to get it.

Or there is a subtle and implicit conspiracy between parent and child to keep the interest of the TV producers and so raise money to pay the family debts.

Or there is actual possession of one family member or another. All these alternatives, and others, are possible. Perhaps at one level all of them are true, perhaps there is a very particular and very definite answer. One senses that the clues are here, and they relate as much to how popular culture has embraced the idea of possession - they lie in references to books, to films - as they do to the detail of the house and the events in it, set out as these are in forensic detail.

It's an engrossing and, as events move on, increasingly scary and disturbing read which kept me up past midnight. Not least because the characters are so scarily convincing - both the disturbed older sister and the baffled younger one: the father, affronted by loss of his job, seeking perhaps to reinforce the traditional (male dominated) order of things by turning to religion and using it to tame his unruly child: the mother, falling apart, knowing she wants to stop what's happening but unable to act. Yes, whether or not there is really an "possession" here, this family is in Hell...

Disclaimer - I am married to a priest, although she has never (to my knowledge) conducted an exorcism. And long may that continue.

(A passing point: in two successive books I've read, this and Kate Moretti's The Vanishing Year,
American families are stressed by the horror of medical costs. I'm not political on this blog but reading both, I said a quite prayer of gratitude for Aneurin Bevan and the NHS.)

26 September 2016

Ninja Book Box is Coming!

I'm very pleased to be able to use the blog to support the Ninja Book Box.

If you're around booky bits of Twitter (other social networks are also available) you may have seen tweets referring to this - I did, and was so intrigued I had a look.

Ninja Book Box is a new quarterly box shipping worldwide from the UK and featuring books published by independent publishers. They aim to introduce excellent books (both backlist and new releases) particularly those which the team and the publishers they work with feel haven't received the recognition they deserve, and help you find favourites in genres you wouldn't necessarily pick up for yourselves.

Supporting primarily UK based small businesses, each box will contain a book (often signed by the author & with additional material) plus at least two gift items and lots of other fun extras and will take its theme from the book. The box is intended to expand reading horizons, and it is aimed at anyone who wants to have a more absorbing experience, and who likes to read as a way to engage with and learn about the world as well as for entertainment. Each quarter will feature a title from an independent publisher in a different genre, including mystery, historical, graphic novels, fantasy and science fiction as well as general fiction, and each box will have a theme taken from the book.

NBB want to support excellence and promote exploration and discovery in all aspects of the box. Subscribers will also gain access to lots of additional community perks. For more information sign up to their newsletter, or check out their website for details of how to get the first box!

The project is seeking support on Kickstarter - you can also read more about them and support their Kickstarter, (I've backed it already). The Kickstarter ends on October 2nd and boxes will be available until 12th October. There is even a Rafflecopter giveaway of the first box which runs up until 11th October - so you can win stuff!

I'm so aware that - alongside the large publishers that fill so much space in the bookshops and online sites - there are plenty of independent publishers who do wonderful work finding so many different authors for our pleasure. It can be hard for them to get readers' attention and when I heard about this project it seemed such a creative way to do that.

Anyway, pitch over. I think this is a brilliant, creative and worthwhile way to encounter a wide range of interesting books.

So - website here, Kickstarter here. You know what to do!

21 September 2016

The Family Plot by Cherie Priest

Image from www.goodreads.com
The Family Plot
Cherie Priest
Macmillan, 20 September 2016*
e-book, HB (336pp)
Source: e-copy kindly provided by publisher via NetGalley

*According to NetGalley, though Amazon has 13 August

This was the first book I'd read by Cherie Priest. (My next book was the first one I've read by Christopher Priest. I'm also married to a priest - something going on here...)

I had, somehow, associated (Cherie) Priest with steampunk, and while I'm not averse to that, I'm not a massive fan: perhaps that's why I just never quite picked anything of hers up.

Big mistake. BIG mistake. Reading this - and then looking at what else Priest has actually written - shows she has a much wider range and this book in particular is as far from cogwheels, airships and brass goggles as you can imagine. Instead, it's a lush helping of gothic, set in a decaying mansion in Tennessee, from which Dahlia Dutton and her salvage crew are tasked with stripping anything saleable.

Dahlia is a tough cookie, divorced and working for her dad, Chuck Dutton of Music City Salvage, in a tough trade. The company's in debt and needs some luck - so when mysterious Augusta Winthrop comes into the office offering a tempting job, Chuck can't really say no... so far so noir, perhaps. However that impression rapidly fades as Dahlia and the team get to grips with the old Winthrop place.

They're an experienced gang, not unaccustomed to spooky stories about the places they tear down (I smiled at the implication that any building so ancient as to be built in 1890 MUST have ghosts), and used to rough conditions. However something about the Winthrop place - they have to sleep there, Music City has no money to spare for a hotel - preys on everyone's mind.

Priest expertly builds tension, with things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, doors that won't open - and then do, with nobody near - footprints in the dust, and a slowly emerging mystery to bring it all together. Very soon, you begin to feel that the team may be in real danger. Yet it's all juxtaposed with practical detail about the job of a salvage firm - the value of American chestnut, the significance of Philips screws, what you tear out first, when to cut the power from the house. I found this fascinating in itself. Brought together, the two themes go very well: Dahlia & co can't just up and go when things get scary because they need that job. The firm needs the job. Yet their very activity threatens to make things worse - what ghost wants its home dismantling? - and requires them to poke around in those very corners and long hidden rooms which you'd normally avoid.

So much so that I'm amazed nobody set a horror story round the activities of a salvage team before. It's a much more hands on approach to the supernatural than a Jamesian scholar poring late over his manuscripts and, somehow, the matter of fact nature of the team - all jokes about Scooby Doo and about who's had the last of the whiskey - only accentuates the horror when it breaks loose.

The characters, too, are well drawn, especially Dahlia with her post-divorce issues and love of old houses (she'd save them all if she could) and her cousin Bobby with whom she bickers endlessly (it's not said, but is implied, that he has issues working for a woman). While the focus is on Dahlia, what happens in the house happens to the team, not only to her, and I enjoyed that: much more interesting than the lone hero(ine); you get to see the different response of the different types and there is an element of pulling together as well.

All that, and a sad and touching story beneath it all as well.

In all I fund this a refreshing take on an old staple ('don't go in the spooky old house') and would like it to be the first of a series, although I'm not sure whether or not that's intended (tell me what you think when you've read to the end).

With Hallowe'en coming, this would be a nice book to give the horror fiend in your life. Though perhaps not if their job is architectural salvage...

11 September 2016

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Image from http://www.sftv.org/cw/
Cross Talk
Connie Willis
Gollancz, 15 September 2016
PB, 512pp
Source: e-copy kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley

I find it hard to categories this book - at the same time it's SF, with a premise based on a classic SFnal idea, telepathy; it's a sort of thriller with the main protagonists on the run (in a way) and having to hide themselves and their thoughts; and it's a romance of a kind - will true love triumph. And it's also comedic. So a SF-thriller-romcom?

I don't suppose it really matters that much, except that I think it's a key feature of this book that while there is tension and high jeopardy, there isn't a conflict, there is no evil opponent (only a rather selfish and self-absorbed one), there is no violence, no weapons.

Briddey is a stressed executive in a hi tech firm, Commspan, which is desperate for the Next Big Thing in phones to challenge Apple (hint - try something with a headphone socket). At the same time she's in a relationship with the Creepiest Man Alive, Trent, who suddenly wants to marry her: but asks her to have a teeny operation first...

The EED - acronym never explained - is surgery that apparently makes a couple more emotionally receptive to each others' moods. Trent insists they have it, and soon. They're love so why wouldn't Briddey go along? But Trent doesn't want anyone else to know. Brides will just have to find a way to absent herself form the office without the gossip network guessing the reason.

Trent also has a key to her flat and seems to assume he controls her entire life, cancelling arrangements and setting up new things that she has to go along with. After all, he's her boss, right?

There are elements here of a controlling, harassing boss, but Willis doesn't really pursue that angle very far. Trent is only one annoyance. As if he wasn't enough, Briddey's family seems to be impossible. They phone her up at all hours of the day and night for advice on relationships or on bringing up their children. Her aunt tries to pair her off with a nice (40 years old) "Irish boy" (everyone in this book is American, but it doesn't stop Aunt Oona wallowing in a sort of ultra Irishness complete with fake accent: more Irish than the Irish as it were).

All this external pressure tells on Briddey, and this is reflected in the way the story is told, with a lot of internal monologue from her. From the moment she walks into Commspan at the start of the book, trying to conceal her engagement wand agreement to surgery, we have a stream of thoughts, plans, speculations, deductions, concerns

I found this his is quite hard to get used to at first: it comes across as a very different from the more action packed style you'd expect in a SF story. But it's very suitable for a tale that, after all, is about communication, lack of communication and - indeed - crosstalk. And it means that when the telepathic episodes begin the mental communication can be integrated seamlessly into the style with the pressure of Briddey of those external voices underscored by the way that Willis pushes the text at the reader, in a somewhat breathless style.

I suspect this won't suit everyone. It does, as I said, get some getting used to but I did, and kept with it despite this being a fairly lengthy book.

Whats helped by there being plenty of plot. Essentially, Briddey races from crisis to crisis, these being increasingly convoluted scrapes in which she has, first, to hide her relationship to Trent, then the progress of her surgery and finally a succession of secrets with more and more significance, secrets that affect not just her but others. Not everybody around her is being as honest as they ought, and it becomes hard to keep track of the details of the lies and omissions she has used to keep on top of it all. In that respect the closest comparison I can think of is a PG Wodehouse novel - one of those, perhaps, where Bertie Wooster is trying to get out of an engagement while maintaining three different cover stories for three different audiences. Oh, and Jeeves is only intermittently present, and seems to have plans of his own...

While it suits the theme of the story, this ever-growing complexity and the tendency to verbalise everything perhaps at times leads to rather too many nested explanations and speculations about the nature of the telepathy, and what might cause or inhibit it. We keep being given different answers, some speculation, some chaff to confuse other characters, some - within the frame of the story - true. At times there was almost too much of this, and it almost began to feel as though Willis was continually changing the terms of the discussion just to suit the plot. By the end I couldn't be sure whether what we were finally told was the truth actually matched up with what had happened.

I wouldn't want to make too much of this last point - it didn't really detract very much from my enjoyment and to a degree, perhaps keeps a note of mystery in play that suits the theme.

Overall this was an enjoyable and somewhat different book, from an author who clearly enjoys playing with the form and taking risks.

10 September 2016

Dark Matter - Blake Crouch

Image from www.macmillan.com
Dark Matter
Blake Crouch
Macmillan, 11 August 2016
HB, 340pp
Source: Bought from my local bookshop (and also as audiobook)

I have to admit I don't read as much as I should. At best I manage two books and a bit each week, and the TBR just keeps growing and growing. However I desperately wanted to read Dark Matter.

I'd heard great things about it, and Kate at https://forwinternights.wordpress.com - whose word is law on  these matters - rated it highly, so I had a bright idea and used an Audible credit. I could listen as I drove to and from the station and that, with a bit of reading between those two weekly books, worked very well.

"Reading" the book this way gave an interesting perspective. I should say first that the book totally suited audio. It is, at one level, a straightforward story, almost all told from the viewpoint of Jason Dessen, a middle aged, middlingly successful, college lecturer. Design gets into a baffling but action filled nightmare which totally suits the deadpan narration Jon Windstorm employs (even for the emotionally wrought parts). The clear, firm enunciation, reflects Jason's organised and logical character - and his determination to get his life back.

More broadly, this is a well executed and adrenaline filled SF techno thriller (not really sure about the genre: it's based on big, bold sciencey idea but has much of the atmosphere of one of those conspiracy-chase thrillers the hero on the run throughout). It's a blend of unremitting action and the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics (I HAVE A PHYSICS PhD AND I AM PREPARED TO USE IT.)

Actually, before I go into the physics, a warning: this will be a very spoiler-filled review. I don't think I can really discuss the book without saying a lot about the plot and setup. So if you don't want to read much detail, skip this: just take away the message that this is a compulsive and knuckle-clenching read, full of surprises, stomach churning twists and scrapes.

If you're still with me: in quantum physics things aren't always certain. In our world - the large scale world - we describe things as particles or as waves. At the quantum level it's murkier and things can be both, depending how you look at them. One of the implications of that is that certain properties of systems aren't fixed until you perform a measurement - summed up by the famous Schrodinger's cat thought experiment. The cat is, conceptually, in a superposition between being alive and dead. When you open the box and look at it, you force it into one state or the other.

In the world of Dark Matter, the universe splits in two: one with a live cat, one with a  dead cat. Every time something happens that can go one way or another, new paths, new worlds, appear. This book is all about the implications of that - about the multiverse that results with innumerable alternate realities, some very similar to ours, some deeply alien or deadly.

What, Crouch asks, if the cat can choose its world?

What would you do if you stumbled into this multiplicity of timelines?

If you could find a world where you didn't break up with that girl or boy years back, where you fulfilled your ambitions, followed your heart, achieved more? That question hangs over the book, along with another: which is your true self? Jason has to wrestle with both, because without an answer, he will remain lost.

It's a powerful premise and for the most part Crouch exploits it well, shaping his story to address the dramatic possibilities (worlds of plague or destruction, a sinister corporation with far from altruistic motives) and keep the focus off its implausibities (I suspect the experiments described would involve lots of liquid helium - because basically everything in physics worth doing needs liquid helium - and would, as Sapphire and Steel used to say, not be compatible with life). There is a bit of a Tardis vibe as Dessen visits alternate worlds - but no Doctor to get him out of trouble, and Crouch sensibly avoids any hint of time travel.

Fifteen years before, Dessen gave up his modest hopes of scientific fame to settle down with Daniella and bring up their son. They live a comfortable, slightly shabby life in a comfortable, slightly shabby Chicago house. Now, he finds all that taken away. One snowy evening, Jason is wrenched from his comfortable existence and shown a wider reality. Will he find happiness there or fight to get back what's been taken from him?

It's an absorbing and nail biting story, none the worse for having a character who isn't totally sympathetic (Jason is a possessive man - I lost count of the number of times he uses the word "my" to refer to house, local pub... wife... son. At times, what happened ti him seemed to be more  a blow to his sense of ownership of his life, rather than an assault on his family as whole. Perhaps that undertone of possessiveness, of truculence, is necessary to motivate Jason when the worlds seem to crush him? A "nice guy" would perhaps give up and die? Whatever, he's a compelling character for all his faults.

I wasn't so convinced by the secondary characters, especially the women - Daniella, Amanda - who come close in places to simply being helpers for Jason, with little or no volition of their own (that may be unfair - see what you think). But in the end this is Jason's story and there isn't really much room in it for anyone else.

Strongly recommended, a book to really get lost in (just make sure you can find your way back to your own world afterwards...)

9 September 2016

Blogtour - Fellside Q&A with MR Carey

MR Carey's chilling and absorbing horror-thriller-fantasy-SF (take your pick) is just out in paperback.

My review from earlier this years is here. I said then that the characters were frighteningly real (in the case of one, frightening is exactly the right word) and concluded that "The complexity of Jess's situation, her need for redemption - and where will she find that in Fellside? - the absolute reality of the characters and the fascination of the mystery that she very gradually unteases, kept me totally hooked and wanting more of this."

I think if you read the book you will, too and I hope that paperback publication brings it many new readers.

To celebrate the occasion, Mike has answered some questions I put to him about the book and his writing. And I've also got a giveaway! So let's get started.

Q. Mike, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions about Fellside. Starting with characters - How long was Jess Moulson in your mind and when/how did you “find” her?

There’s a sense in which I didn’t so much find her as sew her together out of pieces of people I already knew. But that’s a half-truth. Even when a character is based on one real person you take liberties. You re-invent and re-cast. And when she’s a composite of several people you end up even further away from where you started. 

That being said, there are a lot of aspects of Jess that were inspired by people I’ve known and loved and been very close to. I’d wanted for a long time to write a story about addiction, and been put off by a sense of my own limitations. I was both too close to the source material and too far away. I’ve known addicts, and I’ve been an addict, but my own addictions were, to be frank, very small potatoes. I was writing Jess from a perspective that had a fair bit of parallax to it, and it took a while before I felt like I knew her.

Q: Do your characters come to you before the plot or does the plot come to you first?

It can work either way. In this case the core relationship between Jess and Alex – the addict, and the person she’s wronged and feels responsible for – came before everything else. That dialogue was the conceptual core of the story. Then I decided on the prison setting, and a lot of the plot dynamic came as a result of that decision. The remaining characters all in their different ways either reflect Jess or strike sparks off her, and of course everything is built around her quest and the big misdirect that ultimately deflects it.

I probably have a weakness for elaborate plot dynamics, and some of my earlier novels were over-complicated as a result. I was slow to absorb the lesson that every story stands or falls by its characters, and that if you make the characters bend into odd shapes to fit the needs of the plot your audience won’t forgive you or stay with the story.

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

No, not really. Some characters – like Salazar and Shannon McBride – ended up having bigger roles than they were originally meant to, but that’s not a control thing. At least I don’t see it that way. I’m always a bit wary of writers who claim their characters rebel and go their own way. It feels like a humble brag, with a barely disguised subtext. “My imagination is so humonguously strong that my creations wrestle their way off the page and have actual lives!”

I think what really happens is less magical but equally cool. You have an idea of who a character is and how they fit into your story. But then when you come to write them and really spend time with them they fill out in your mind. They solidify, and they accrete nuance and purpose. These are just by-products of you actually having to write them and work them out: the placeholder version of the character gets replaced by a fuller and – if you’re lucky – more convincing version. And at that point you may decide they’re working so well you want to use them more.

The best example I can come up with is from my comic book writing. In The Unwritten there’s a minor character named Pauly Bruckner. He’s a contract killer who gets trapped in the world of a children’s story, where he is effectively transformed into Rabbit from Winnie-the-Pooh. In this form, as Mr Bun, he’s desperately unhappy and slowly going mad, because the world he’s in resists his every impulse and instinct. So he tries to rebel and just makes things worse for himself. That was meant to be a done-in-one story, but Mr Bun was so much fun to write and so interesting to explore that we ended up returning to him again and again, and eventually we gave him a fairly big part in the series climax.

I love it when that happens, but I don’t think it says anything about my abilities as a writer. It’s just very cool, very precious serendipity.

Q: Harriet Grace is a terrifyingly real character. Do you know where she came from?

When I write monsters I try very hard to write them from the inside and to make their monstrousness understandable. Hardly anyone in real life sees themselves as evil. They always know where they’re coming from and what factors fed into their decisions. They forgive themselves for most things, and even when something troubles their conscience they’ll usually see themselves as fundamentally decent in spite of that.

Grace was partially inspired by a story I read about a brother and sister who were trafficking young women into prostitution. I was really struck by how these two thoroughly messed-up and vile human beings stood by each other throughout the trial and sentencing. How in spite of their utter lack of empathy for pretty much everyone else in the world they felt love and concern for each other, to the point where they each claimed the greater share of the blame to try to exonerate the other. Somehow in the novel that translated into the story of Grace’s relationship with Stephen Menzies, and its disastrous consequences for both of them.

That doesn’t explain Grace, of course, and it’s not meant to. The detail of her facial cleft and the rejection she suffered as a child doesn’t explain her either, but it gives you a starting point for understanding her – how a sense of her own victimhood could translate into a determination never to be weak or at a disadvantage again, and how some really bad things could follow from that.

M R Carey
Q: The prison in Fellside was convincingly - scarily - real to me. What ‘on location’ research did you do? 

I ended up doing quite a lot, but the permissions fed through the system slowly. By the time I got to do the majority of the actual prison visits the book was well underway. I went to Holloway twice, the first time to talk to the team doing the drug rehab work there – who were just amazing, really generous and helpful and full of insights – and the second time, after it closed, to visit the actual prison. I also went to two other prisons in the London area, where I did workshop sessions with groups of inmates.

But it’s fair to say that the bulk of the research was secondary. I read a lot of autobiographical writing by inmates and former inmates and a lot of articles about the modern prison system, which has changed out of all recognition in the last twenty years and is still changing. I tried to reflect those changes, and I tried to make Fellside as a setting as authentic as I could, but I took some liberties to make the story articulate as it needed to. One of the biggest inaccuracies, although it was a conscious decision, is about the size of the place. If Fellside really existed, and if it was as big as it’s stated to be in the book, there wouldn’t be another woman in jail anywhere else in the UK. Out of the entire prison estate of around 100,000 inmates, only 5000 are women.
Q: Did any writing particularly inspire Fellside?

I think Erwin James’ A Life Inside was the most influential secondary source. I decided not to read Piper Kerman’s My Year In a Women’s Prison because Orange Is the New Black was already happening and I didn’t want either to overlap with it too much or to push against it too strongly. It seemed safest not to know about it. I’ve seen the series since, though, and I think it’s amazing. I’m also reassured to find that it’s not like Fellside in any way that really matters.

Q: There is a point in the story where a thing happens - I'm not saying what it is - that seems to divide readers. Some say, that thing would never happen. How do you respond to that? (Do you respond at all?)

Do you mean in the appeal? Yeah, I freely admit that I was bending the logic of the judicial system to breaking point there. In reality it’s very hard to imagine the appeal court judges permitting the re-examination of a witness in open court like that, or allowing that re-examination to lead to a revision of the original verdict. That’s not how appeals work. But all the alternatives were a lot less dramatically satisfying. I just wanted to have that conversation happen in a forensic setting, so all the various clues could be put on the table and the truth finally produced with a big flourish. 
And I have the excuse that what comes out in court is – by this point – not the truth we’re really looking for. It’s almost a grace note, although obviously it has huge significance for Jess. It felt like a pardonable sleight of hand.

Q: What’s next? Is the story finished...?

In prose form, yes. But I’m working on the screenplay for a movie version. If it happens it will be produced by Poison Chef and directed by Colm McCarthy, the same team that did the movie version of The Girl With All the Gifts. That prospect makes me very happy indeed.

Q: Finally, a question that isn't directly the book. You're locked up in a privately run prison and you can can choose one book. Which would it be?

That would be a hard call to make. You’d need something that had a really meaty and satisfying style, so you could read isolated passages and still enjoy them. If it had to be just one book I’d probably go for Tristram Shandy. If I could cheat and have a series of novels, it would be either Gene Wolfe’s Torturer quartet or the Bas Lag novels of China Mieville – Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council.

Mike, thanks for those answers and I'll look forward to a Fellside film as well as the upcoming Girl with all the Gifts.

Fellside is out now from Orbit in hardback, paperback and e-book. You can buy it at your local bookshop, here, here or even here

The Girl with all the Gifts movie is out on 23 September.

To celebrate, I have copies of both books to give away. To enter, go to my Twitter, @bluebookballoon, follow and retweet the pinned tweet. I'll pick a random winner for each book next Thursday (15 September). I'm afraid I can only post the books out in the UK and Ireland.

8 September 2016

Blog tour - Black Out

Image from http://orendabooks.co.uk/
Black Out (Dark Iceland 3)
Ragnar Jónasson (Translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 30 June (e)/ 30 August (p) 2016
PB, 247pp
Source: I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a copy of this book

Black Out is the third in this series featuring Icelandic detective Ari Thór Arason and the town of Siglufjörður. It is, however, the second in reading order. The first book to be published, Snow Blind, was the beginning. The second, Night Blind, which I reviewed here, jumps forward a number of years and shows where we are ending up, with a coda in which Jónasson presents a piece of prose by his father, describing the coming of Spring to Siglufjörður - a symbolic ending to the whole sequence, I think: the darkness is fading, and life returns to the little community.

That may be the endpoint but I think we're destined for some more dark days in the meanwhile as Arason and his family and colleagues more towards the light. And none more so that here. In this book, Arason is preoccupied by the breakup of his relationship with Kristín, something that distracts him from his work and - eventually - leads him into a very foolish act (we begin to understand why, at the start of Night Blind, he's been passed over for promotion).

Arason's colleague Hlynur also has preoccupations of his own and these practically paralyse him as a member of the team.  Over the course of the book Hlynur's subplot of abuse and revenge plays in counterpoint with a wider theme, the havoc that cruelty, control and abuse can play as they cascade down generations.

As the story opens, a tunnel is being built to connect Siglufjörður more easily to the rest of the island and change is in the air. Better connections will bring new problems (as we see later in Night Blind). But even before they're complete, a young man, Elías, who was working on the project, is murdered. It rapidly becomes clear that he had fingers in many pies, but even so, who would want him dead? Tómas, who is still Inspector in Siglufjörður, has his work cut out with the crime - not only are his team under par but his wife has moved to Reykjavík and he's not sure whether to follow her there or abandon his marriage.

At the same time, Ísrún, a TV journalist, heads north from Reykjavík to cover the murder. We see some flashbacks of her life which show she, too, is preoccupied and has secrets. And so do other characters we meet in this book...

Out of this dense mesh of secret histories, hidden pain and repressed hatreds, Jónasson constructs a satisfyingly dense and murky mystery. Taking place in the middle of the summer, it's nonetheless very, very dark (especially for one character who never sees daylight throughout) and has overtones of tragedy: lives blighted by bad experiences, the abused becoming abusers, promise turned to ash which in turn blights others just as the ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano pollutes Reykjavík.

Overall it's a tense, fast moving narrative with some grim secrets at the heart. The story does perhaps dot around a bit, with separate flashbacks for different characters, so you have to keep focussed - it's probably a book to read in one or two goes. Definitely a worthy followup to Snow Blind and Night Blind - and I'm looking forward to the remaining books in the sequence: the darkness is definitely gathering.

One final note: I was struck by the sheer numbers of characters here who either tried to become doctors and failed, or turned to the bad in one way or another: apart from Kristín herself whose career is successful, but whose family life has collapsed, we meet a would-be doctor who crashed and burned, eventually turning to petty crime; a doctor who killed patients under the influence of drink and now lives in hiding, a psychologist who has abandoned that career for another.... there's also a certain dentist. I can't help feeling that for a population the size of Iceland's this is an awful lot of doctors!

7 September 2016

Red Right Hand

Image from www.hodder.co.uk
Red Right Hand (Michael Hendricks 2)
Chris Holm
Mulholland (Hodder), 8 September 2016
PB, 339pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher

When viral video footage from a terrorist attack in San Francisco reveals that a mob informant thought dead is still alive, FBI Special Agent Charlie Thompson knows just who to contact to save her witness from certain death: Michael Hendricks. He may be a hitman, but he's not a bad guy...

This is an explosive followup to The Killing Kind. Hendricks is a killer - though he only kills bad men, other assassins, who work for the mob.

They found out about him and sent one of their own to sort him out. Hendricks survived, but he lost his closest friend, Lester, and they tried to kill his family.

Now he wants revenge.

Jump forward a few months and at the start of this book things aren't going so well. Revenge may be a dish best served cold but it shouldn't be left to go mouldy. With no Lester, Hendricks lacks backup. With no new jobs he's running low on money. And now he's sidetracked by a terrorist attack which has San Francisco swarming like an overturned anthill.

A vital witness has surfaced and Hendricks is the only person who can protect him. The trouble is Hendricks is not only wanted by the mob but by the FBI too. Even so, Special Agent Charlie Thompson reaches out for help and we're on another roller-coaster of violence, betrayal, violence, and destruction. (Did I mention the violence?)

So far, that all sounds pretty normal for this kind of chase thriller. For me, though, what distinguishes Holm's books - and it's also true of his earlier, UF tinged Collector series - is the crossover he weaves between a straight thriller and a kind of modern noir. Hendricks is a bad man, acting for selfish motives - here revenge, in the previous book, money - but convincing himself that he's got a moral purpose. The roots of this purpose are hinted at as lying in the compromises and expediency of his Special Forces days, the way he believes he was used, and the dirty politics of modern war, undertaken and prolonged for the profit of private companies.

Whether to preserve that self-image of a clean(ish) man in a dirty world, or because he does, genuinely, have the vestiges of a moral code, Hendricks still observes some boundaries, kind of. Even when he takes out a whole opposition team, he tries only to kill the real bad guys. (The hired guns may end up beaten to pulp or with third degree burns, but they'll probably survive.)

In contrast, Hendricks's chief opponent here - who takes some time to emerge - delights in killing and torture, whether waterboarding a local imam for information or shooting a bystander just because he's in the way. He's a really nasty piece of work, the worse for being unpredictable and irrational, and the final confrontation is a wonderfully tense and sweaty piece of writing pitting the two men against each other.

It starts to become clear in this book that as well as the vendetta between Hendricks and the underworld Council, there are wider schemes in play bringing together his past in Special Forces, the terrorist threats of the present, and the shifty world of military contractors. Added up these point to a greater menace than simple organised crime - not least in the easy acquiescence of contractors to illegal means (the waterboarding and indeed, out and out murder) used to investigate the central crime.

While, obviously, not for those who want their books free of gore and violence this is an electrifying read, a book that pretty much demands your total attention till it's finished.

(Oh, and Hendricks does acquire support. The character who steps up to help him seems slightly improbable at first and I won't mention names because doing so would be a mild spoiler, but their relationship grows into the central hinge of the book, hopefully starting to heal the wound caused by Lester's dreadful end).

For more information on the book, see here.

6 September 2016

Company Town

Image from http://images.macmillan.com/
Company Town
Madeline Ashby
Tor, 2016
HB, 285pp
Source: Bought online

Hwa works on New Arcadia, a city-sized oil rig off the Atlantic coast of Canada sometime in the near-future. The rig has recently been bought by the Lynch family company. We don't learn much about their other interests but we're given to understand that they are very big, very rich - and less than scrupulous. Naturally, the community are concerned at the purchase, all the more because Lynch Ltd want to use the right to site an experimental fusion reactor. Not only may this be dangerous (there's a hint that ITER, the (real) international fusion project based in France, may have failed catastrophically) there's also concern that the drilling business, on which New Arcadia depends, may be run down.

As the book opens, Hwa is working as a bodyguard for sex-workers on their assignments, but she is about to be recruited by Lynch instead. Hwa's an endlessly fascinating protagonist: one of few New Arcadians to be 'organic' - that is, not to have implants, nanomachines, surgery which would allow her to control her appearance, tap into cybersystems and develop other abilities. I liked the fact that this wasn't her choice - there's no principle going on here, Hwa simply can't (couldn't) afford the tech (or perhaps her mum wouldn't: there's friction with Sunny favouring Hwa's dead brother and clearly having abused Hwa). Whatever the answer, the economic realities are never far away: the new job makes possible a move to a nicer part of the rig, and the constraints of being poor - with the threat to everyone's livelihood if drilling work goes away - are a major theme. As is the willingness of the rich to consume the rest of us to get what they want.

This background is sketched fairly quickly but the reader soon orients. Then there are death threats, and a serial killer begins a string of murders which Hwa feels she has to investigate, using the resources available to her through her new job. Ashby draws comparisons between the deaths described here and earlier misogynistic violence such as that of Jack the Ripper ("Welcome to Whitechapel" opens  a creepy VR experience that ends by pointing out that the perpetrators of these things do it "because they want to"). Male violence is never far away here with Hwa, her charge the (rather naive?) boy Joel and, especially, her former colleagues in the Sex Workers' union always vulnerable from a threat that begins to seem more than merely human.

Ashby has a very distinctive voice and can really tell a story. I liked her use of dialogue in the book, and the interplay between the ethnic backgrounds of her characters - such as the patriarch Zacharia Lynch, who has had several wives (but, Hwa, asks herself, why were they all white?) And it's a story which is all done from a woman's point of view with women as the most significant players. That still seems unusual enough to remark on, which rather makes me cringe.

Incidentally I wouldn't read the blurb in the inside front cover of the book at it gives away one particularly vital plot point about all this - a point which should really stay hidden till near the end of the book. Paradoxically, I think, knowing that point makes the story easier to accept, even while 'spoiling' (horrible phrase) a key thread of the narrative. It's hard to say more about this though without giving things away! This

The Thing I Won't Mention is one of several aspects of the story that perhaps don't make immediate sense in themselves. It is eventually resolved, but others remain mysterious - for example a visit to a sort of underworld (under-rig?) to consult a witch: this is a significant episode but I never quite worked out what was going on. It is possibly a book to reread, if you reread. You should at least expect to page back reread some passages.

To sum up, I'd say this is an excellent book. It's not perfect but hang in there and trust that Ashby does have things mostly under control - it works out in a satisfying way in the end.


3 September 2016

Death and the Seaside

Image from www.saltpublishing.com
Death and the Seaside
Alison Moore
Salt, 1 August 2016
PB, 173pp
Source: bought from my local Waterstone's

When I was a child we would make family visits to Wallasey, the town the other side of the Mersey from Liverpool, where my mother's family came from. Sometimes we'd go to New Brighton, the seaside bit of Wallasey. It's probably been tidied up now but in the 70s it was a wonderful example of a tawdry, decaying seafront. The pier had gone, but there was a boating lake, a shabby amusement arcade ("The Bright Spot"), fish and chip shops, and a windswept promenade.

So at an impressionable age my image of the British seaside took a murky turn. That may explain why I picked up this book with its rain spattered cover and retro lettering when I saw it in the shop.

And immediately, we're at the seaside, a down at heel resort in the late summer. Susan arrives on her motorbike and takes a room over a pub, working in the bar and living apparently on crisps. She spends her time in the arcade losing money and drifting along the seafront smoking.

Then she begins receiving strange notes which might be telling her to "fail" - or might be blank.

Meanwhile, in a nameless inland town, perhaps in the Midlands, Bonnie, a disappointment to her parents, moves out of her their house and into a scuzzy flat - the sort of place where the carpet doesn't quite fit and previous tenants' belongings fill the cupboard. Bonnie has a couple of cleaning jobs, between which she tries to write. Her new landlady Sadie takes an interest in Bonnie's life and writing (indeed, something of an obsession) and pushes her towards completing her story.

Bonnie and Susan are alike in many ways - aimless, fixated on failure (but failure at what?) and there begin to be echoes between their stories. 'Susan' is Bonnie's middle name. Like Susan, Bonnie drifts between jobs, leaving when she can't be bothered any more: she's currently cleaning at an amusement arcade and at a lab that may or may not experiment on animals. Here she fall under the influence of Fiona, who begins to set her dares. Bonnie seems both innately suggestible and unlucky (a repeated motif is her being late for a meal, ending up with having nothing to eat) but also at some deeper level trying hard to control her life (she has shelves of self-help books, which she's read, though none completely).

As Susan tries to work out who the mysterious notes are from, and what they mean, Sadie suggests to Bonnie that they go away to - where else - the seaside. Sadie's convinced that the resort in Bonnie's book is a real place, and that going there will provide the inspiration needed to complete the story. It begins to look as though Bonnie's and Susan's stories will come together somehow.

This is a wonderful, tricksy, tart book, full of sly observations and self-commentary. Books about writers writing books make me wary, but this one really zings along. Bonnie, Susan and Sadie are wonderful characters - real, believable women. Bonnie is, we are more or less told, doomed to be a failure because she keeps being told she's going to fail. Her mother knows this, but it doesn't stop her snapping at Bonnie: her father is even worse (to be fair, he's not just nasty to her but to women in general: the TV goes off because even though it's the Wimbledon final it's only "the ladies"). There's something mysterious about Susan, and as for Sadie - well, I wouldn't actually want to meet her but she's a totally fascinating person.

As the story gets more complicated and begins to fold plot strand around plot strand, we also get the viewpoint of a psychological researcher, who was involved in some very strange experiments around suggestion and subliminal messaging - a central theme of the book - but, it seems, went too far in some way and was dismissed. There's a parallel with Bonnie's abandoned degree: we see fragments of Bonnie's abandoned dissertation, exploring the "meaning" of the seaside as a place where water and land, life and death, come together.

In many respects it's a map for this book. Sadie is probably right that the story will only come to its conclusion there - the only problem with that is, characters in stories have a way of doing the unexpected.

This is a lovely book from Salt, at once filled with penetrating observations and also, vaguely, diffusely, horrific. A story of manipulation, obsession and baffled intentions it'll haunt you the next time you hear gulls cry or the sound of rain on a seafront window.

For more information about this book see here.

2 September 2016

Who's Afraid Too? by Maria Lewis: COVER REVEAL!

I really, really enjoyed Maria Lewis's debut, Who's Afraid so it's exciting to know that the sequel, Who's Afraid Too?, is on its way - and to take part in the cover reveal!

Book Two in the bestselling Tommi Grayson series is a gutsy, fur-flying, feminist read for fans of urban fantasy and strong heroines. If you love Darynda Jones, Keri Arthur, Kelley Armstrong or Harley Quinn, don't miss Maria Lewis!

After the sh*t show that was her family reunion, Tommi needed to get gone. Leaving Lorcan behind, she’s spent the last few weeks trying to understand her heritage - the one that comes with a side order of fur as well as her Maori history and how she can connect to it.

But she can only escape for so long - when an unspeakable evil, thought long destroyed, returns, Tommi needs every bit of the skills she's learned. With the help of allies both old and new, it’s time to take the fight to the enemy . . .