30 May 2017

Blogtour review - Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson

Block 46 (Roy and Castells 1)
Johana Gustawsson (trans Maxim Jakubowski)
Orenda Books, 31 May 2017
PB, 308pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of the book and to Anne for organising the tour (read her blog!)

This is the first in what's clearly intended to be a new crime series, featuring Canadian profiler ('Behavioural Insight Analyst' or BIA for short) Emily Roy and French true crime writer Alexis Castells, both currently based in London.

To add to the international flavour much of the action in this book takes place in Sweden, and its roots lie in the second world war German death camps. Roy and Castells need to untangle the threads of history while negotiating several different cultures, each with different expectations and assumptions.

The actual background to the book is as polyglot and interesting, it having been written and originally published in French and indeed having won several awards.

Johana Gustawsson
That's a lot of background, and I was slightly concerned that it could overwhelm the book itself. And indeed there is a fair bit or orientation needed on starting it. We're introduced to Emily and Alexis in a setting of swish Mayfair parties and an exclusive jewellery launch; we have a backstory going on starting in 1944 as Erich Ebner is flung into the living hell that was Buchenwald camp; there are crimes in London which require the introduction of detectives from Scotland Yard and then soon one in Sweden - so we also meet a gallery of Swedish police officers, including the lugubrious Olofsson (who really doesn't like Emily being brought in).

That is an awful lot to establish, and it's a credit to both Gustawsson's writing and plotting, and to Jakubowski's translation, that it works well (as with any detective story you need to pay close attention: but I take that as a given). The story is soon moving and with a tantalising narrative from the killer we begin to see, not the solution, but the shape of the puzzle that Roy and Castells will have to solve (and yes, we do have a crime writer and a profiler working a case where most of the active investigation takes place abroad - irregular as anything I suspect but just go with it, it works fine).

That puzzle relates long ago events in the titular Block 46 to a series of grotesque murders taking place in both England and Sweden. But how could they be linked?

There is a meaty, challenging mystery at the heart of this book, and some great characters. I liked Emily a lot - maybe a bit of a nerd, you'd think, perhaps even one of the now sometimes fashionable almost-autistic. Actually, I was relieved to discover, Gustawsson isn't using that trope, there's a different reason for Emily's slight social distance, one we only learn at the very end of the book. Like several other characters (including that annoying Olofsson) she has stuff she's getting over. Indeed the presence of this meant that at time the book read as though it was in the middle of a series, not the beginning, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Gustawsson go back and write a prequel or two since she's obviously mapped out a lot about her characters. (I, for one, want to hear more).

While covering some dark subjects this is an excellent read, and it becomes more and more compelling throughout. Jakubowski serves it well in his translation by NOT making it read everywhere just as though it had been originally written in English: there is actually a slight sense of cultural distance maintained which helps to build unease as the death toll grows and the detectives are forced out of their comfort zone.

So, overall, really a promising start to a series and, as I said, I can't wait to read more about Roy and Castells.

23 May 2017

Review - Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

Image from tachyonpublications.com
Wicked Wonders
Ellen Klages
Tachyon, 23 May 2017
PB, e 288pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance e copy via NetGalley.

I hadn't read any of Klages' work until getting my hands on Passing Strange last year (silly David) so was very pleased to be able to catch up (not least because in two of the stories we meet characters from that book). It is great that the book lived up to expectations in every way.

These are serious, funny, tough, tender and varied stories. Above all, they have heart and offer hope. In many, women or - especially - girls - struggle with constraints, actual or impending loss or change, and things aren't made easier by the strictures of society: a woman accidentally falling pregnant is placed in an impossible position by her partner. A girl is misunderstood by her mother, forced into a mould that doesn't fit her. Another girl is about to lose everything. In all these stories there is, though, hope: the comfort of a good friend, a chink of light or a realisation of power and potential.

Friendship is at the centre of many of the stories: new friendships, old friendships renewed after decades, unlikely friendships suddenly tested, as in the longest and most intense of the stories, Woodsmoke, an account of two girls spending a summer at camp. Apart from the dawning relationship between then - they don't start off friends, Peete is pretty resentful to begin with - this story is shot through with a kind of childhood luminosity. This is NOT a sentimental story - it has great clarity and honesty, but it shows the glory of enjoying life, of enjoying the moment and - I hope - promises a future of support and solidarity.

The experiences here are common ones: clearing a house after the death of a parent (touched on a couple of times, including in a piece of non-fiction, The Scary Ham), the coming of a new sibling, two women meeting for coffee and cake, a mother putting her child down for the night. But the everyday is made strange - passing strange, perhaps: those two women (in Mrs Zeno's Paradox) meet across time and space in a variety of cafes as they halve their cake and halve it again, the child is being nursed on Mars, the schoolgirl settling down to play boardgames on a Friday night at her boarding school ends up an Alice in Wonderland style adventure - and in San Franscisco, a sorceress can fold space through origami.

Not all the stories are actually fantasy or science fiction: Woodsmoke, for example, is entirely naturalistic (although infused with a sense of the magical) and Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl while fantastical in setting (a thief, an inn, a quest for treasure) actually contains nothing not rooted in real science (Household Management is similar, though rooted in a different kind of fiction). Many of course are, and in some it's a twist of magic that provides that little glimmer of hope from the future.

As well as the stories themselves, the book contains a shrewd (I think!) introduction form Karen Joy Fowler and a piece by Klages herself describing her approach to writing and the genesis of some of the stories. Both provide useful insights but in the end the stories stand alone in their wit, courage, fellowship and above all, humanity.

This is a collection of stories that I felt better for having read. Strongly recommended.

For more information about the book see here.

21 May 2017

Review - Dark Cities

Dark Cities
ed by Christopher Golden
Titan Books, 16 May 2017
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Everyone knows a street that doesn't feel right. Where the light from the streetlamps feels sour and spoiled, like bitter honey. Where the shadows are too deep and too dark, and creep up on you when you're not looking...

I love a good anthology and this collection of horror stories attracted straight away. There is so much to say about the city, so much to appal - whether it's those unexplored turnings that might take you into a strange new place from which you can't return, an abandoned building in which... who knows what... may lurk, all the layers of lives and history which are there just under the surface, or just the oddness of life among all those mostly anonymous people. 

As with any collection, the various contributions grip and enthral to different degrees, but this is overall a very strong collection. For me the first and the last stories in this book were the most unsettling. In The Dogs (Scott Smith), the first story, Rose knows that her pastime meeting up with men off Craigslist may be risky but she knows what she's doing. And surely an apartment with three friendly dogs can't be too wrong... can it? This is a story that keeps you guessing and is truly horrific, though I felt the author did perhaps employ one over used device that wasn't really needed.

The last story, The Crack by Nick Cutter,  was queasily upsetting. As a father I know that feeling when the young baby just won't sleep. As a father I also find the determination of the father in this book - the mother hardly features - to stamp his will on the helpless infant repulsive, crossing the line into abuse. The supernatural that creeps up on both of them is scarcely registered at first, bound up as Daddy is in making his little boy into a strong man: in many respects, in this story, it's the human that's the monster and in that respect it fits well with the overall feel of the book, although as the events mainly take place within a single house it arguably isn't particularly a city story. 

In Stone (Tim Lebbon), our unnamed narrator, unable to sleep well after the suicide of his friend Nigel, roams the streets of the city at night. One of those nights he spots a woman and follows her. Lebbon creates a nice balance between the haunted, despairing life of the narrator and the darkness of the city and its brooding dominance over those it notices.

Like Lebbon, in The Way She Is With Strangers Helen Marshall leaves much unsaid. What exactly did happen to Mercy's daughter? How is it affected by her having come to the city? Again there are dark secrets here and one senses that the progression of events mirrors something private we're not quite seeing. Atmospheric, creepy and despairing.

MR Carey's We'll Always have Paris has a lighter tone, welcome after the preceding dark stories. Inspector Philemon is one of the city's top detectives and is assigned to investigate a series of horrible murders. He jostles with rivals in this, such as Riordan, of the Garda and it becomes clear that somehow, Paris has become scrambled up with Dublin, New York, Berlin, London... just what's going on and how is it associated with the murders? An inventive and disturbing story.

With Good Night, Prison Kings, Cherie Priest dials us back towards the grim in a powerful tale of a murdered girl seeking revenge as does Amber Benson in What I’ve Always Done, an unsettling story of obsession, revenge and love gone sour, showing how in the city, anything can be  a trap. Traps are a frequent theme in this book - the city's a maze and it's a maze set with snares. But not everything wandering it is monster and in Grit by Jonathan Maberry we meet on of the good guys, albeit one who's definitely a bit tarnished – bounty hunter Monk Addisson, who has a very strange relationship with his fugitives, which  can last beyond their deaths.

Dark Hill Run by Kasey and Joe R Lansdale features a rather different pursuer and a pursuit that lasts years then we're back to the traps with Happy Forever by Simon R Green, the sad story  – of a girl frozen in time

In The Society of the Monsterhood by Paul Tremblay the threat and tension comes from the unseen narrator and the people of the neighbourhood ('we') who have taken against a group of bright kids offered a free place at a suburban school. Somehow the situation seems to conjure a monster: but is it real? This story is very powerful, the style giving a real sense of the exclusion of the little group and narrator's complicity. Field Trip by Tananarive Due addresses exclusion in a different form - a short trip on the subway leads astray young teacher taking her class home from a trip?  With a powerful and unsettling background in racial prejudice and police violence this story literalises the idea of people becoming nothing. 

With The Revellers by Christopher Golden we encounter some real 24 hour party people! In New York! Endless PARTY! But what happens when you can't find your way out again? Ramsay Campbell asks the same question, in a way, in The Stillness. Campbell has an unerring eye for the creepy, the wrong, in modern life. If you've ever seen a living statue in full sunlight on a crowded street and thought about it, um, then imagine meeting one at dusk in an empty ally.  

Imagine it following you home...

Moving from the modern world back to fantasy, or sorts, in Sanctuary by Kealan Patrick Burke, which, with The Crack and Graffiti of the Lost and Dying Places was my favourite story in the book, a young boy exists in two worlds. There is the normal one, where he is wounded by a family break-up, and a truly strange place (the pub has darts made from bones wrapped in leather). He seeks sanctuary, but in which of the worlds? And from which? And why is the end coming?

Matter of Life and Death by Sherrilyn Kenyon is a story to make the publisher tremble! Helga East, the author from Hell is dead, and her editor rejoices. But something strange is afoot in the bank building across the way. And even stranger things begin to happen in their office. A spooky and twisty story - written with some feeling about authors and publishers...

In Graffiti of the Lost and Dying Places,  Seanan McGuire evokes an eerie sense of dissolution as a rundown district is gentrified, gradually killed off by the encroachment of a shiny new financial quarter. What might the old bricks and plaster do when attacked so?

Overall, a strong collection with something for everybody.

17 May 2017

Review - The Switch by Justina Robson

The Switch
Justina Robson
Gollancz, 18 May 2017
PB, 360pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book via NetGalley. (It's one of those books I will also buy a copy of, I want a real book to put on my shelves...)

I just loved this book. Loved it to bits. It is sharply written ('I felt like I was ruining an otherwise perfect world, and I couldn't ruin it fast enough', 'Nothing's easy when everyone's paranoid'), clever ('the body holds all the feelings that the person doesn't want to acknowledge'), well observed ('I was in love with my fantasy of being the tough guy, the survivor, the one in charge', 'the real trouble is the people who all benefit from things as they are') and utterly, utterly scathing in its condemnation of hypocrisy and prejudice ('Someone leaked a picture of her holding hands with a woman she knew outside school. Inquisition. The usual.')

Nico Perseid is an orphan. His only friend, the only person he trusts, is Two. In a rigidly orthodox, religiously trussed society, they share a deadly secret: they're both gay. Nico's and Two's world is a bizzarely unequal, upstairs-downstairs kind of world where the masters and mistresses live in Harmony while the scum, the dregs, the rejects are left to the crime cartels - and drone policing - in the underworld of Chaontium. The day that they flee their orphanage and drop over the wall into Chaontium, the two friends are free: free to run with the gangs, live under piles of garbage and scrabble for enough to live on as best they can.

So the years roll by without any way out. Until one day, Nico is made a very high-stakes offer...

I first read Robson's work when she was putting out her Quantum Gravity series, which features that sassiest of transhuman heroines, Lila Black, so it rather made me smile to see the cover image for The Switch - there's a definite similarity there: in one, the kick-ass woman in her tight combat outfit, dominating the cover, in the other the muscly hero, sans shirt, doing likewise. A bit of payback for all that fantasy and SF decorated by attractive young women. And why not? You definitely should judge this book by its cover and inside Robson happily turns the conventions - or perhaps I should say, the conventions of a couple of decades ago because happily things are changing - on their heads and inside out. What's more she does so intelligently and, as I said above, with point.

Because in The Switch, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, is as Nico points out, fundamental. His very existence is an affront, a crime, to the strictures of The Alchemy, the weird, concocted religion - part molecular biology, part astrology - that rules Harmony and which despite everything, still commands part of his respect. The stage is set for rebellion, a journey of self-understanding and the pursuit of liberty (not to say, happiness) - and this is central to the book. It isn't some redress-the-balance diversity chucked in, it's the burning, corruscating moral heart of what Nico (and Two) are.

If that all sounds a bit worthy, it isn't. The book has a stonking good plot, introduces a whole gallery of truly rounded characters, and Robson's writing is at its most versatile. She's able to range with a few paragraphs from Nico's introspection, alone in a hostile city, surrounded by those he fears and who hate him to one of the most bewitchingly erotic scenes, I think, I've ever read as he tears down barriers of fear and restraint to finally be himself with a fellow 'two suns' (the phrase used by The Alchemy for his sort - that astrological gobbledygook again, which seems bizarre but here, goes hand in hard with cutting edge science).

I don't want to give ANYTHING away about that scene in advance. But when you get to it. It just... Well.

So, is there anything actually wrong with this book? Not that I could see. It is of the plot-within-a-plot, what the heck is really going on sub-genre, with revelations, betrayals and reverses coming at us steadily - nothing is ever as it seems, from the opening section, where Nico is under sentence of death, to the end, when we finally discover what The Alchemy is really up to (or do we?) Not everyone enjoys that sub-genre, and you really have to trust your author.  Having read the Lila Black books, I would always trust Robson, so I'm OK with that - if you haven't read your work before I'd simply urge you to go with it, she really knows what she's doing. (There's even a nice line in sardonic references -  from the hints of Culture to 'Nico, you're our only hope' to 'Go back to the start, do not collect any goods and chattels')

So buy this book and read it for the zinging story, the real challenges here to stereotypes, assumptions and conventions, the characters - but most of all because it is, at heart, first rate SF.

13 May 2017

Review - Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

Image from www.quercusbooks.co.uk
Andrew Caldecott
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books, 18 May 2017
HB, 456pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for am advance copy of this book via NetGalley. I also bought a copy - well worth it even if only for Sasha Laika's beautiful, brooding illustrations.

You won't have heard of Rotherweird. The town is hard to reach (you have to go to Hoy, change for a taxi to the Twelve Mile Post, then await the Polk Land & Water Company's charabanc). It's forbidden to write about it, and the inhabitants don't welcome outsiders.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating place, almost an independent kingdom nestling within the English countryside. Created by fiat of Elizabeth I because of - well, that would rather give the story away. Let's just say, because reasons...

Into this somewhat baroque, somewhat Dickensian world come four strangers: Jonah Oblang, the new history teacher for Rotherweird School (forbidden to teach anything earlier than 1800), Sir Veronal Slickstone, the well-known business tycoon, and his wife, Lady Imogen, and son, Rodney. (Some of these may not be all they seem).

The newcomers soon collide with the townsfolk and countrysiders (forbidden to remain in town after 7). Oblong is intrigued by the disappearance of his predecessor, Flask. Sir Veronal has plans for the town. Lady Imogen and Rodney are there to support him, but do they have ideas of their own? And will the Mayor, Sidney Snorkel, welcome a challenge to his authority?

This is an immensely enjoyable,  Gothic(ish) / steampunk/ Gormanghast-esque romp with Dickensian overtones. We see a mysterious small town whose secrets are gradually unwrapped - but only partially, to a slew of different characters in different degrees, so the reader has a distinct advantage over any. We see an existential threat - to the town, visible and hidden - develop alongside a slightly petty jostling for status (but nonetheless, a dangerous jostling). There's a tension between the absurdity of the rules that govern the town and a growing realisation that they have a purpose - a serious purpose. There is the unravelling mystery, and a sense that, even behind what are told, something else is going on.

It's a book with swags and swathes of atmosphere, created not only by the prose but through those illustrations (best seen on paper). Rotherweird itself is a great imaginative creation - a city of narrow streets and towers with bridges and walkways between them - but Caldecott doesn't let the start of the book lapse too much into descriptions: the action picks up quickly, with the setting gradually filled in as we need to know more.

To go with the twisty location there's an impressive roster of equally twisty and well drawn characters, many with impressively Dickensian names. Here it's helpful that we're given a list, to prevent confusion of Godfrey Fanguin with Gorehambury, or Gregorius Jones with Hayman Salt (which would be a risk otherwise - as I said, the action gets going quickly and the characters take a little longer to establish themselves).

I have to say that the plot is outrageously complex (more so, as becomes clear by the end, than you would actually suspect through most of the story). Not everyone likes that kind of plot. However - in my view - there's nothing wrong with a complex plot as such, and in any case Caldecott keeps the story spinning along and doesn't allow the story to sag. Indeed perhaps the complexity is as much a hint that there is more to explore in Rotherweird as it is embellishment to this story.

Overall, this is a fun, often funny, exciting and highly readable story. Get it now.

Although the advertised publication date is 18 May this book is already widely available in shops (at 13 May)

12 May 2017

Guest Review - Wonder Woman Vol. 2: Year One (Rebirth)

Image from Netgalley.com
Wonder Woman Vol. 2: Year One (Rebirth)
by Greg Rucka
DC Entertainment
DC Comics

This is a guest review contributed by Joshua Harris.

Thank you to the publisher for an advance copy of Wonder Woman via NetGalley.

Having read writer Greg Rucka and artist Liam Sharp’s very strong first volume of Wonder Woman since the DC Rebirth re-launch I was looking forward to seeing what Rucka would create with Nicola Scott on art duty. The result is a book that feels very much in line with the rest of the DC Rebirth titles but for all of the right reasons.

What Scott and Rucka have managed to create is a ‘meat and potatoes’ retelling of the origin story of Wonder Woman. Rucka structures the book well initially cutting between the military and masculine world of Steve Trevor and the all female island where Wonder Woman resides. Scott’s skilful clean style aids the nature of the story as it is always clear and economical in selecting the action. When the story plot threads merge early on in the book, things really get into gear. Rucka streamlines the story with a satisfying mystery building towards a fulfilling climax while Scott provides some terrific action sequences.

Ultimately Wonder Woman Year One is no reinvention of the wheel it is a highly effective sincere and exciting superhero comic.

9 May 2017

Review - The Vinyl Detective: The Run-Out Groove

The Run-Out Groove (Vinyl Detective, 2)
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 9 May 2017
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for sending me a copy of this.

The Vinyl Detective is back, accompanied by girlfriend Nevada, friends Tinkler, "Stinky" Stanmer and Clean Head and the cats, Fanny and Turk. If you've read the first part of these adventures you'll know what to expect - a search for a rare record crossing over into detective work about, in this case, a dead 60s popstar and her missing son,  peril, wisecracks and a tapestry of (mainly) London streets, housing estates and record shops.

The two books are very much in the same vein (perhaps this one is slightly less violent - though a key character does come to a sticky end in a pretty shocking way) and, with the setting and characters established, Cartmel has more time and space to develop their relationships: the Detective and Nevada are a touching couple and his bickering with Tinkler is fun.

Slightly less well defined are the clients in this case, Lucy Tegmark and John "the Colonel", the brother of the deceased star. They're pretty hostile to one another but I never quite got why. That said, I didn't warm to the Colonel anyway, especially after his pretty unpleasant response to a woman who is rather on the large side.

But. The client brings the mystery, the mystery is what drives this genre: here it's a devilish one with a real touch of tragedy. When Valerian died and her son disappeared, a bother and sister were left behind and they clearly never came to terms with the loss. Now, it's time to try and get closure. But there's someone out there who'd rather things were left open...

I liked the way, in this book, Cartmel has his protagonists actually learn from their experiences in the earlier. Yes, the atmosphere and the general setup is similar but they are determined not to get caught out as they did before (cue a lot of rather clever dialogue as they assess whether they really are, or aren't, residing in "Paranoia Heights". This may be connected with still being rather haunted by those experiences - the Detective himself certainly is early on in the story.

But of course history never repeats itself exactly. The threat here is rather different, and not obvious. I certainly didn't figure out who was behind until very late in the day: Cartmel weaves the story with so many red herrings and false turns that I don't think you will, either.

In short: an excellent continuation of the series. Give me more!

(By the way, Cartmel collaborates with Ben Aaronovitch on the Rivers of London comics. I think I saw a couple of RoL Easter eggs in here - perhaps you'll spot more....?)

6 May 2017

Review - Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

Image from http://decastell.com/press-kit/
Sebastien de Castell
Hot Key Books, 4 May 2017
PB, 396pp

I was sent this book for review by Amazon Vine.

Imagine you're back at Hogwarts, But you've no magic. You're a muggle - or at best a Squib - and about to be found out...

That's the dilemma that faces Kellen in this fast-paced YA fantasy. Kellen is from an ancient, high family of spellcasters, but what little magic he has is drying up - and he's due his trials in a few days.

But in Kellen's world, those with no magic, those who fail the trials, are disowned, cast out, treated as servants of even slaves.

De Castell takes this idea and spins a high-stakes tale of ingenuity, of growing up and of realisation. It's set in what - were it cloaked in modern dress and language - would be a classic dystopia: a cruel world, based on lies, prejudice and power, where those who fail are trampled down and a narrow ruling caste holds power for itself. The book spares no punches as it dissects Kellen's society: a society of rather conceited wizards who take for granted their moral superiority and their fitness to lord it over all around. And Kellen's part of it - so long as he sees himself among the privileged. But the events he sets in train as his trials approach will reveal some secrets about both his clan, and himself...

I loved this book. While serious in its subject, it's far from being dark fantasy of any sort - not least in Castell's brilliant counterpoint to Kellen and the pompous wizards: a woman called Ferius, a stranger who rides into town, looking and sounding for all the world like a gunslinger from a Western (except, no guns). As such strangers tend to do, she challenges the self-satisfied, brings new ways and stands up for the weak. Kellen is both enthralled and repelled by her, the struggle mirroring, perhaps, his internal struggle as he comes to realise there's more wrong with his people than simply his failing magic.

Add in a gallery of bullies and entitled schoolmates who could easily have come from Dickens or Tom Brown's Schooldays, a talking squirrel cat who drives a hard bargain, and layer upon layer of conspiracies, and you have potent blend. Indeed the only feature that isn't immediately obvious is where the title comes from: its derivation may seem obvious but until quite late in the book it isn't really clear what, in this world, a 'spellslinger' might be. That is eventually cleared up, though, and De Castell thereby prepares us for, I hope, many sequels following Kellen's and Ferius's future adventures.

Excellent, page-turnery reading.

4 May 2017

Blogtour - Essex and Strange Magic by Syd Moore

It seems to be Essex week for me. On Monday - Bank Holiday - I went to Banbury museum to see Grayson Perry's tapestries which are on tour. Entitled "Julie Cope's Grand Tour" the two pieces tell the lifestory of the eponymous Julie, an Essex girl. Supported by Perry's own narration of a ballad for Julie, they are tender and moving and I'd urge you to see them if you get the chance

Coming back up to date, I'm delighted today to be joining the blogtour for Strange Magic, the new book by author Syd Moore which is published TODAY, 4 May. I've reviewed it here but before that, Syd has written a piece for the blog examining a key aspect of the background to her book - the curious history of Essex girls... and Essex witches. Over to Syd!

Essex Girl, Essex Witch

Essex Girls and witches. You might be forgiven for thinking that these two stereotypes (or are they now archetypes?) have nothing to do with each other. Certainly on first impressions they appear to be polar opposites. The Essex Girl, after all, is often depicted as blonde, in heels (possibly white, possibly of the stiletto variety), with a shed load of makeup plastered across her face. The witch, on the other hand, tends to evoke images of gnarled and scrawny limbs poking from tatty black robes, ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ style green hooters and masses of matted black hair. Different, no? Physically perhaps, but actually they share a lot of similar characteristics.

Syd Moore (c) www.danielnewmanphotography.co.uk
Witch persecution in England in the 16th and 17th centuries hit the county of Essex very hard. Between 1560 and 1680, for instance, in Surrey, Sussex and Hertford there were 185 indictments for witchcraft.  For the same period of time Essex, on its own, saw over 500. In fact, at one point Essex was widely known as ‘Witch County’.  The witches, of course, were mostly poor and often vulnerable, scapegoated for natural disasters or illness by villagers, picked on by neighbours, rounded up by witch hunters.  A fair few were accused of being lewd and lusty, of fornicating with men and the Devil himself.  A good portion of those who went through to the courts were considered ‘loose’, meaning they were not under the protection, shelter or control of a man.  And as, at that time, women needed a man to represent them at trial - a husband or a son, brother, nephew – many of these women were legally ‘dumb’. So - carnal, low of social class, loose and dumb. Sounds awfully like another stereotype doesn’t it?

I have a theory that the stigma associated with the women of Essex never faded. That this idea that females from this particular county were a bit off, weird and/or ropey persisted for a long time. So when the stereotype of the Essex Girl appeared in the Eighties/Nineties she was taken up quickly and very decisively spawning a wave of jokes and books and articles. Most of the jokes had the effect of neutralising what was in fact quite a powerful type of woman. Scary even. The Essex Girl was generalised to be promiscuous i.e. independent and sexually autonomous. Or was that ‘carnal and loose’? She worked hard and spent her money how she liked on what she liked. So what if she fancied spending some of it on beauty treatments. As far as I’m aware nobody has produced any evidence that beauty treatments correlate to IQ.  But indeed the OED begs to differ. In their definition she is ‘unintelligent’ too. So, she’s ‘dumb’?

Again, carnal, loose, low of social class and dumb – are you reading me?

I think it’s time to put prejudice aside, take a long hard look at where the stereotype might have come from, and try and put it to bed. If we can’t do that then we should realign the girl with some of the other qualities she’s become known to possess – confidence, sass, strength and fun. High profile women who have been associated with the stereotype, for better or for worse, have done remarkably well for themselves showing canny business acumen and drive. Amy Childs used her fifteen minutes of fame to launch a beauty range and fashion collection which is still thriving. And in today’s current climate with its problems of grooming and cyber-bullying, confidence and sexual autonomy in girls and women should surely be something to applaud.

Changing the attitude to the stereotype might take some effort but it’s not impossible. Witch to Essex Girl, after all, is a pretty miraculous transformation.

STRANGE MAGIC by Syd Moore is published by Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld, paperback £8.99

Blogtour review - Strange Magic by Syd Moore

Strange Magic
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 4 May 2017
PB, 392pp

The Only Way is Witchcraft...

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book as part of the book's tour (and to Syd for writing here about her book).

When Rosie Strange inherits her grandfather Septimus's run-down Essex Witch Museum, her first thought is to close it down, sell it and take what she can. Estranged from Septimus for many years, her branch of the family has eschewed his interest in the weird and supernatural and got on with making a living. Rosie herself is a benefit fraud inspector -  neither the most glamorous or popular job in the world but one that certainly plants her feet firmly on the ground.

Of course, things don't go exactly according to plant. Rosie didn't expect to step into a mystery, and she didn't expect to run across the enticing (but annoying) young curator, Sam Stone in whose company she undertakes a hair-raising roadtrip across England, against a looming deadline...

Three things motivate the action in this book. There's the background of the Essex Witch Trials - real events, more deadly than the Salem persecutions and which inspire the (fictional) museum Rosie now has charge of. (And by the way, how cool is that? Having your own museum? If it was me I'd literally never leave again...) Moore clearly feels passionately about what took place and that really comes though in her writing.

Secondly, there's the whole Essex Girl thing. Rosie is an Essex girl and proud of it, as well as being many other things, and to a degree I think, again, Moore's righteous anger at women being stereotyped and sidelines animates some of Rosie's and Sam's attitudes in this book. Which is OK by me - it never becomes merely a vehicle for a point of view, and there's a curious and interesting interplay between the witchy bits of the plot and this aspect.

The third angle (come on, we're talking witchcraft, there have to be three aspects...) is a good old-fashioned mystery. A boy is in danger: saving hims is all tied up with finding the remains of Ursula Cadence, one of the original Essex victims. And so we get a wild chase via Boscastle, Porstmouth and points East enabling Rosie and Sam to spark off each other and work out how they really feel... or not. The creepy bits are creepy, Sam is a bit mysterious and something really nasty is brewing, which all comes to a head in a scene reminiscent of The Omen.

I enjoyed this book. It's not perfect - I felt that the characters hurried rather into the mystery, when they would surely have asked more questions and taken some persuading to become involved, and towards the end a great deal of information is conveniently provided by a hitherto unmentioned contact - but it is a great deal of fun, lighthearted and dark at the same time but with real heart and some serious issues at its core.

The central mystery - a tension between rationalist Sam's belief that the witch hysteria was only prejudice, its victims mere scapegoats and the looming presence of something darker here - is never quite resolved, nor, perhaps, ought it to be (especially if, as I hope, Moore plans to continue the series).

Overall, a fun, engaging read.

One final note in passing: I don't know if it's intentional but in having her action run up to a climax on Good Friday/ Lady Day, Moor has chosen a very significant and rare conjunction of festivals - the two don't often coincide. This blogpost explains why that is - for reasons I won't spell out for fear of spoilers, one might well see this as a very appropriate conjunction...

3 May 2017

Blogtour review: Tag - You're Dead by Douglas Skelton

Tag - You're Dead
Douglas Skelton
Contraband, 27 April 2017
PB, 266pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of the book and to Gordon who arranged the blogtour and invited me to take part.

Tag - You're Dead is a noir thriller set in Glasgow. It's so noir, you almost need a torch to read it, as protagonist Dominic Queste wisecracks his way from abandoned tenement to remote moorland cottage to a restaurant where a chain-smoking blonde sits in a back room keeping secrets. Queste lards his narration with film references, as does the anonymous killer who takes an interest in him, and wisecracks for his country when cornered by the cops or the Glasgow heavy mob.

The style is authentic, heady and pitch-perfect. But it's not just a matter of style, of pastiche Chandler. Skelton knows how to spin a plot, too - how to spin a web, I should rather say, that catches his characters one by one. There's a pattern, because they're all in the same web. There's no pattern, because... well, that would be telling. It is, in the end, a devilishly simply premise. Devilish and simple and deadly.

Skelton peoples the book with unforgettable characters - Queste himself, his ever sadder partner, Ginty; Queste's backup, slum priest Father Verne and brothers Duncan and Hamish Sullivan who provide backup for the good Father ("We're all going to Hell - the question is, whether we go there alone") who runs a women's refuge and sometimes needs a shield against the dealers and the pimps whose business he's disrupting. They're the main players, but we also see cops, journalists, Glaswegians of every station, and they're all drawn with an eye to the telling detail, all made alive (if, in some cases, then made dead very quickly).

It's a fun read, a sobering one and every page is compelling. It may be a bit cliched that Queste is a grubby angel, that he was himself an addict and isn't above bending the law here and there, but Skelton carries this off with aplomb - partly through making the whole thing so transparent: Queste knows that he's in a noir thriller and behaves accordingly, as do some of the others such as muscle man Tank Milligan who dresses like a hood from a B-movie.

While there are shades of night over all the central characters and Father Verne, again, looks forward to the future battle they won't win, I hope that Queste and his friends appear agains soon because in an ever darkening world, boy do we need some deeper darkness to provide relief.

1 May 2017

Review - City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

Image from www.quercusbooks.co.uk
City of Miracles (Divine Cities 3)
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 4 May 2017
PB, 439pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is back, and this time he's out for vengeance...

This is the third and final part of Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy, three books I have found delightful, entertaining and deeply accomplished.

In the world of the Divine Cities, miracles are commonplace, the Dininities walk among us and reality is mutable. But not everyone benefits from this: the Divine is here, but is unequally distributed - and for centuries, it was the people of the Continent who had the miracles, and the people of Saypur who paid the price. In an act of unforseen violence, the Divinities were slain and reality Blinked.

The first book, City of Stairs, explored the moral ambiguities behind this post-colonial situation where the formerly oppressed rule and seek to erase the culture of their oppressors. The focus of that book was the wily spy Shara Komayd, sent to investigate a murder in the city of Bulikov (in these books, the Continent has Slavic overtones and its residents are pale skinned while the Saypuris are darker).

The second book, City of Blades, focussed on Komayd's sparring partner, General Turyin Mulaghesh, brought out of retirement to clear up a mess. Both Komayd and Mulaghesh are delightful characters, professionals, even ruthless professionals, committed to, and masters of, the political game that is Saypuri public life, well connected, realistic, mired in compromise - but seeking a better way. We never actually get to see much of the Saypuri bureaucracy and its machinations, since the books are really about the crises that these two women face when the past won't stay buried and history threatens to turn upside down (again). But Bennett is really, really good at suggesting, at hinting... you just know what kind of organisation stands behind Shara and Turyin, what dangers they face, how high the stakes are.

'It's unfair that the dead leave us... but it's worse that they never really go away.'

Both books also feature Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, a great bear of a man from the North, Shara's sidekick with whom we learn - again hints, few details - she's shared a career's worth of adventures, scrapes and situations. An exile from his people, Sigrud is a lonely figure with a bad habit of continually losing what he values - family, home, honour - until at the end of City of Blades he is forced to flee, having committed a terrible crime.

In City of Miracles, Sigrud gets his own book. We learn more about his past, and what his losses mean to him. About the desire for revenge, and what it cost him and - in the end - who he truly is. Because he's got a part to play in making things right.

And they have gone terribly wrong. Shara has been murdered, leaving her adopted daughter unprotected, and once Sigrud hears about it, it's time for him to dig up his old work tools and come out of the forests to track down her killer and find what was behind the crime.

What follows is a truly white knuckle adventure filled with marvels, squalor, Divinities, spycraft, escapes, deaths - and an implacable enemy, something that can use the shadows to strike and which is very hungry. Sigrud begins simply wanting to avenge Shara, then he realizes that he has a bigger task - and that in the end, time will be against him.

I can't tell you how delighted I was to read this book, to meet, especially, Sigrud again and to see him account for himself and try to redeem himself (whether he does I'll leave it to you to judge). One of the strengths of these books has always been Bennett's characterisation of his three central protagonists. Sigrud's pain, his despair and his loyalty have always shone through but with more focus, in this book, they become nuanced, both more and less than in the previous ones and he has much more of a role in shaping the story. Which isn't to say that he overpowers everyone else: there are some other truly great - and horrible - characters here, including a pair of villains who are the embodiment of creepiness, a tough billionaire businesswoman who habitually clutches an automatic rifle, and a pair of teenage girls - one of them Shara's adopted daughter - who won't be pushed to the margins of things.

There are also some wonderful feats of imagination as the story powers towards its conclusion - my favourite was the Aero Tram which now HAS TO BE BUILT - but the idea of a seneschal (you'll have to read the book!) comes close as does the final release of Bulikov's miracles.

And there's dark humour:

'He takes a long, slow breath. 'In my operational days, there were three ways of thinking about things. There were things you knew. There were things you knew that you didn't know. And then there were the things that you didn't know you didn't know.'

'No wonder we keep having so many international crises' she said  'if you lot are running around talking like that.' "

Look, just read the book. It's brilliant in so many different ways - as a book in its own right, as the conclusion to a dizzying, ground-breaking fantasy trilogy and as an inseparable part of that trilogy.

This isn't fantasy with a Map and Dragons, it is fantasy with telephone, trains and radio yet still in a world of the deeply weird, a world where there is a Divine ecology which has been upset. It has things to say about power imbalances, about revenge and retribution, about progress and backwardness, about grief, loss and exile, but above all it's an epic story - epic not in the "ten thousand warriors thundered across the plains" sense, epic in its humanity, its sympathy and its empathy.

Read it!