29 April 2018

Review - Everything About You by Heather Child

Everything About You
Heather Child
Orbit, 26 April
HB, 340pp

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

In a future London (perhaps 20-30 years from now, some time after a year of riots which have left whole districts derelict) 22 year old Freya survives a dead-end job in an IKEA-like furniture barn. At the start of the story she's selling actual, physical furniture, but there's an air of threat over the job as warehouse space is being converted for housing and the sales soon become virtual, supported by AI powered assistants. All that's left is flipping sausages in the cafe with her mate Chris, closely, too closely, watched over by their boss Sandor.

The AI theme is of course central here, as the book cover hints. It's a future of virtual and augmented reality mediated by specs, visors, hairnets that sync thoughts with the cloud and - the latest innovation from mega corp Smarti - "smart faces", virtual personal assistants that can adopt the persona of anyone (dead or alive) who hasn't declared their digital footprint "private". One example: a pink line overlaying one's field of view shows the best way to go, even to avoid other pedestrians around you. When, towards the end of the book, Freya's specs run out of battery and she has to manage this for herself, even such a simple task is hard and takes conscious effort. Or there is this: "There is no need to memorise or learn other languages, even dentists's appointments are arranged by her toothbrush when it detects enough tartar".

Privacy in such a world is... problematic... with the kind of tracking and inference currently seen online rife in the real world - as Freya moves about London, she's constantly served ads by screens or shop windows, bombarded with advice by her "Smartbit" (for example, her Health score changes depending what she eats or how much sleep she's had) and there's a pervasive system in the background of scoring things, from lattes to sexual encounters (so that "rated" has become a general term of approval). I have to say that following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, this book is brilliantly timed. Child has worked in digital marketing and the proof copy of the book I was sent points out on the back cover that the world depicted here isn't that far off(!).

Yet, while the implications of rampant AI are undeniably attention grabbing, the book is much more than an angry howl at the coming world of digital manipulation. At the centre is a sad story of Freya, her mother Esther and lost (adopted) sister Ruby. The book turns on what happened to Ruby, and on the guilt that both women feel about her disappearance. Child is simply brilliant at showing how, after a Ruby-esque personality surfaces in Freya's new Smartface, everything gradually begins to come apart. Freya is both revolted and enthralled by the opportunity to talk again to "Ruby". What does kt mean, though? Is it a hint that Ruby is still alive somewhere, perhaps trapped, perhaps needing help? As Freya grapples with the reality - or not - of what she's experiencing, we begin to see flashbacks to her life with the "real" Ruby, a vivacious, awkward young woman, a rebel and an explorer of London's weird side, above all a good friend, with a kind heart, who took the lonely Freya under her wing on arrival in London from the "north". (The reason for that arrival - her mother's finding a new job in what seems like a major life change - is never explained, though there might be hints - and I could finally guess at the why. Child uses this tangential approach a lot - for example, she describes how there is "a certain hush pervading neighbourhoods where the government might try to interfere, to recruit or deploy some of its many volunteers" - for what purposes? She doesn't say, but not good ones, surely).

It is though the relationship between Freya and Ruby that is central to the book, both their adventures and closeness as teenagers and, later, Freya's grappling with what's presented, convincingly, as being Ruby.  Child explores ideas about what makes identity, what makes humans human, and how we might, insidiously, come to accept something both less and more as a substitute (so in that way, yes, this book is a warning about the future - or even the near-present - only a more subtle one that you might think). She is I think spot on about the effect on Freya of losing Ruby. It's the hope that gets you. "...hope, once kindled, rages like a wildfire. Every time she has to douse it, a part of her needs to heal, and recently it has been a relief to close her eyes at night and know the next day will bring no firefighting."

This is also an excellent, compelling narrative, depicting a world where many of the currently emerging problems of a connected life are simply seen as the default: online stalking, porn addiction, jobs lost to AIs, predatory men hunting down women both in real life and online, manipulation of those all important "ratings", over-mighty corporations... and the almost incidental loss of privacy (Freya's mum carries a pendant that syncs with her daughter's Smartbit).

Everything About You isn't without hope, there's a strong message here that we can, if we want, keep the option of living our own lives, rather than just following the choices the algorithms make for us - but that it won't be easy and and there isn't long left.

I mean, look at this. Even the book cover is tracking me...

For more about the book see here.

24 April 2018

Review- The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Defiant Heir (Swords and Fire 2)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 26 April 2018
PB, 515pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Defiant Heir.

This is Book 2 in the series, following from The Tethered Mage. Refreshingly, it's very accessible so that even if you haven't read the book, you'll quickly be up to speed and able to enjoy this one. But as is the way with series it's much more fun if you start from the beginning so, in case this review influences you to follow the story, I'll keep it as spoiler-light for Book 1 as I can.

The Defiant Heir is set in  a very well imagined world which is perhaps 17th-18th century in development (flintlocks, gunpowder, carriages) but also has magic (Witch Lords, mages) and its own form of technology (referred to here as "artifice"). It's a diverse society with women and men taking equal roles and no qualms about same sex relationships.

Lady Amalia Corner, the first-person narrator here, is a smart operator, a bookworm-turned-spy-turned-military-specialist with a place at the heart of the Serene Empire. (In nomenclature and (very loosely) setting there is a whiff of renaissance Venice, with a Doge, Italianate titles ("La Contessa") and lashings of political intrigue). Amalia's also a Falconer for the Imperial forces - handler to Zaira, a woman who's a talented warlock but magically bound to obey Amalia. The relationship between the two forms the bedrock of this book, with Caruso tackling head on the ethical and personal issues arising from such a form of control. The women like each other and get on increasingly well, but their relationship naturally has constraints. So does Amalia's romantic interest in a fellow soldier, Marcello. They clearly fancy each other rotten, but Amalia lives in a world of duty and service which she puts first, and a relationship with Marcello doesn't fit with that.

The relationships were where I really noticed Caruso's cleverness and subversion of what you might expect from fantasy. The situation of Zaira and her fellow mages is odious and oppressive, but no-one sets out to overthrow the Empire simply to root it out. Rather, Amalia has a plan for reform but she is pursuing it by the political means within her power. She needs to build alliances and win support. And while her personal situation is also perhaps a mess, nor does Amalia fling everything overboard and elope with Marcello. Lurking in the background is the threatening Northern empire of Vaskandar whose Witch Lords are greatly to be feared. The Serene Empire is a far from perfect place, but it's a the better place of the two (even if we gradually learn that Vaskandar also has its complexities, and that some parts of it are at least less worse than others - the Witch Lords are as well drawn and varied as anyone in this book, definitely not caricature villains).

The book is then all about compromises - in personal lives, in politics and statecraft, in war (at one point Amalia has to take a heartbreaking decision, accepting one evil to avert a greater one. That decision will have its cost). It's about smart, competent people working together to overcome enormous difficulties. Some of those people are more to be trusted than others. Some have their own agendas. Almost all are willing to make sacrifices - of themselves, or of others. Bad things happen, and the prospect of war hangs over all. But in the focus on what can be done, on cooperation, on achieving things, it's "bright" rather than "dark".

It's also a dashing, compelling and exciting story, blending magic, assassination, conspiracy and diplomacy. The Empire is threatened both by war from the North and by a danger closer to hand. Aiming to resolve both, Amalia and Zaira travel to the borderlands. It may be possible to ally with certain of the Witch Lords, but what will they want in return? What might the consequences of that be? Amalia is playing a dangerous game and she doesn't know all the rules.

I'll make no bones about it, I loved this book. It's fantasy through and through, but avoids - indeed, subverts - the kind of dark "fantasyness" that I find off-putting, with a fresh take on its societies (even the Witch Lords, while a threat, aren't unthinking hordes of evil - there is a logic to their expansionism) and its characters (part of the story concerns a rescue mission, but some of the rescuees have qualms about being rescued, for very understandable reasons).

Amalia and Zaira in particular are fun to spend time with, full of life, complex and interesting.

So glad I read this one - even if I ended up awake till 1am to finish it. What else is coffee for?

For a preview excerpt of The Defiant Heir see here.

For more about the book and to order from the publisher see here.

22 April 2018

Review - The City of Lost Fortunes

Design by Julia Lloyd
The City of Lost Fortunes
Bryan Camp
Titan Books, 17 April 2017
PB, 477pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of The City of Lost Fortunes.

Post–Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known...

A delightful, syncretistic mash-up of urban fantasy, mystery and redemption, The City of Lost Fortunes explores the health and secret life of New Orleans. Set six years after Katrina devastated the city, the hurricane and the ham-fisted emergency response dominate the book, with houses still showing the ghostly "X" that indicated they had been searched for survivors and with a psychic hangover, too: the event robbed the city of its Luck, its Voice and its Magician - not at once, but in the lingering aftershock of the crisis.

Without them, it is vulnerable in so many ways.

None of this matters to Jude Dubuisson, ex apprentice magician, potential demigod, and general fixer for the mysterious Mr Mourning. He want to put the whole thing behind him. Little problem there: Katrina did something to his magic, laying him open to its effects as never before, and now he spends most of his time trying to bleed it out with as little pain as he can.

So he's not best pleased to receive a summons from Mourning - but you don't ignore Mr Mourning...

Thus begins a rampaging quest taking in tarot, religious symbolism, magic, fate, the gods, an angel, a vampire, Jude's eccentric mother and much, much more. Through it, Camp shows a mastery of the city - its music, religious traditions, history, food and culture. Jude lives and breathes those things and through him, Camp shows them to us. If you ever wanted a tribute to a living, breathing city, it's here.

And there's more. Each section begins with a potted summary of an aspect of religion, piling on the contrasts and similarities between traditions drawn from across the world - because all traditions find themselves in New Orleans. It will be Jude's task to navigate through the alternatives and paradoxes as he pursues his own quest.

Exactly what that quest is, what's really going on, the actual stakes for which the game is being played - and who is playing it - only emerges slowly, at times frustratingly slowly. There were moments when I didn't completely follow Jude's or the narrator's reasoning about what was going on. I'm not sure whether that was intentional - there's noting wrong with maintaining a mystery until the right time -  or whether I was misunderstanding stuff I was meant to have got, but either way the effect was to pace the story very well, keeping a great deal in play till the very end while revealing some important, more personal, history about Jude as the story proceeds.

The book is, I think, in the end a celebration of New Orleans - what is has been, what it is, what it can be - as well as an inditement of what has been done to it: there are plenty of sharp-eyed opportunists here who want a slice of the city's body for their own uses, and unprotected, she's ripe for the plunder.

The fact that it all works both on that level, and as urban fantasy, is a credit to Camp's writing and the themes he explores mean that his postscript setting out the origins of the story is genuinely enlightening and informative.

All in all an epic, compulsive read and a rather unusual addition to the canon of urban fantasy.

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

19 April 2018

Review - Before Mars by Emma Newman

Cover design by Adam Auerbach
Before Mars (Planetfall 3)
Emma Newman
Gollancz, 19 April 2018
PB, 352pp

I'm SO grateful to Kate for passing me her proof of this book (see her review here).

This is the third book set in Newman's Planetfall series, following Planetfall itself and After Atlas. Planetfall is set on a distant world some time after it was colonised by humans aboard the ship Atlas. After Atlas shows what happened on Earth after that ship departed, and Before Mars is a companion, happening alongside After Atlas but, as the site suggests, on Mars where the main character, Anna Kubrin, has travelled to paint and to geologise. (If you've read After Atlas that will give you an idea of some of the events here, although you don't need to have done to appreciate this book).

When I say Kubrin is the "main character" here, that is probably understating her role. Why she has gone to Mars, what she leaves behind and why she is as she is are all issues that preoccupy the unfolding story. As in Planetfall, there is an aspect to Kubrin's personality and history that is gradually revealed and which answers a question I asked myself early on - why has she gone to Mars? The colony there - a handful of people - is ostensibly carrying out research, though really it seems to be more of a setting for a reality TV show, but the idea of going there to paint seems bizarre even in a future where everything seems to be run by oligarchs ("gov corps") at least one of whom is quixotic enough to send an artist all that way.

Newman excels here in putting across exactly what Anna is like, what she is running from and what she is looking for. Without wishing to speculate too wildly I think there are some deeply personal things being explored here and it must have taken great courage to write parts of this book. I hope nobody finds that off-putting - the result is a convincing and deeply human protagonist who would be fascinating even outside the pages of a gripping SF story, which this is. In a genre sometimes criticised (fairly or not) for flat characters and tech-based storytelling, this book stands out as a penetrating character study.

It is also, as I said above, a gripping SF story. There are mysteries here. Upon arrival on Mars, Anna discovers a note to herself warning her against one of the crew. then she finds that her neural chip has apparently been hacked, allowing her very memories to be used to send her messages. All of this makes her worry that she may be losing her grip on reality in the same way her father did. And that's before a certain AI begins misbehaving (shades of 2001 here).

Occupying a corner of the Planetfall universe and calling back to some of the same events referred to in the earlier books, this is nevertheless a fairly standalone story albeit one that - I hope - points to further instalments ahead. I certainly hope so: Newman can certainly spin a tale and is second to none in creating real, human, fallible and credible characters.

The author's website is here. I reviewed Planetfall here and After Atlas here. Originally published in the US, they are both now available in the UK, published by Gollancz alongside Before Mars.

17 April 2018

Review - One Way by Simon Morden

One Way
Simon Morden
Orion, 10 April 2018
PB, 336pp

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

In the mid 2040s, Frank Kittridge is serving life (or many lives) without possibility of parole for murder. He's lost touch with his son, his wife has divorced him, and there's no future apart from years inside followed by death.

So when he's approached by Xo, the company behind the upcoming Mars mission, and offered the chance of a one-way ticket if he'll join a team of cons doing the spadework for the new base, he knows he's got little to lose. And perhaps, he may find redemption and even some honour one day in the eyes of his son. So Frank says "yes".

From then on, the story is of hard physical training and team building as the group - recruited for their various skills, all put away for life - practise, practise and practise for their different tasks. It's made clear by Brack, the group's brutal overseer, that any slip, any failure, any disobedience - even any illness - will mean being thrown off the programme and consigned to the Hole - a lifetime of solitary in a super-secure prison.

Frank may be out, but he's never going to be free.

Morden effectively portrays the forming dynamics between the members of the little group, their attempts to make the offer work for them and to ensure they succeed and don't get put in the Hole. They are, as one might expect in a story like this, a fairly mixed bunch and trust is hard to build. All the same, Frank gets some satisfaction from accomplishing his assigned task - building the habs that will form the base on Mars, and driving the Mars buggies to be used on the surface.

Throughout this - and indeed throughout the book - we also see internal memos, emails and transcripts of meetings from the Xo Corporation, giving information about the aims and means of the project but increasingly making it clear that corners are being intentionally cut and that there are other agendas than simply completing the base on time and to budget. It's a fascinating patchwork and I'd advise the reader to pay close attention to the dates here as this material bobs about a bit over the ten years or so in which the mission is planned and developed.

The story proper really picks up pace once Mars is reached. The team awake from suspended animation to find that the materials, equipment and food they're supposed to use have been scattered far from the landing site. They will need to pull together to survive, but accidents begin to happen...

I really enjoyed this story. Really, really enjoyed it. It's the kind of book that keeps you reading long into the night and has you annoying the family at meals when you pull out your e-reader. (Reader, I know whereof I speak...) Morden tells a compulsive story, which is at first driven along by the technical challenge of survival in a harsh environment but then, as the base seems to be coming together, turns into a deadly game or murder in a closed setting. There is plenty of tension in how that latter element is resolved (although I did work out fairly early on who must be behind it all, if not, exactly, how and why it was done and I also became rather frustrated that Frank was a little slow to do the same).

It's one of those books that almost seems to change character as you move through it. Given the first parts seems to be an exploration of how teamwork, and trust, might ensure survival, I began to wonder if there was almost a riposte here to what otherwise might seem a very similar book, Andy Weir's The Martian. (You knew I was going to have to mention that...) Weir's book read to me as very old-school, technocratic and individualistic SF, with everything coming down to its protagonist's skills and determination. Like One Way, I read it at a gallop. Unlike One Way (I was surprised to discover when I went back to check) I never reviewed The Martian (one of the few books I've read and not reviewed in the last 5 years or so) which suggests perhaps that for all its readability it made little mark. And it was certainly criticised on grounds of diversity.

Morden does perhaps invite such comparisons by exploring the same survival-on-Mars space,
and in centring the story very firmly on Frank as viewpoint and protagonist, especially in the final part of the book with everyone else a potential suspect, the book explicitly doesn't totally reject The Martian's individualism. What it does do, I think, is enrich it. Frank is a much more rounded and complex character than Mark Watney, with a set of motivations and a backstory which are much more developed. And for much of the book, he is able to demonstrate his relationships with, and his care for, the rest of the team (with all their flaws). In that, the story reminded me of Morden's fantasy novels Down Station and The White City which take a group of Londoners and thrust them into a parallel reality as London burns. There, too, one sees the team dynamics, the trust and the betrayals. It is those same dynamics which Morden uses to build up to his conclusion - a conclusion that is in the end very human.

So while the setup to this story and some of the practicalities may be similar, which seems vary courageous, Minister, on the whole I think it would be unfair to Morden to see this book through that lens, although  I suspect he'll be asked about it A LOT.

In short this book is a fine read, providing a lot to think about.

For more about One Way, see the publisher's website here.

15 April 2018

Review - Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

Cover by Ellen Rockell
(see http://samjmiller.com/uk-cover-for-blackfish-city/)
Blackfish City
Sam J Miller
Orbit, 19 April 2018
HB, 326pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Blackfish City.

One might expect the coming (it's probably more accurate to write actual) climate apocalypse to influence the field of speculative fiction, both in a "what is happening and what the blazes do we do" sense and also as a backdrop to anything set in the future.

Blackfish City is I think an example of the latter. Some 100 years in the future (it's not completely clear) this is a story of life on (aboard?) Qaanaaq, a vast water-borne community named for a shore settlement and built in the shape of an asterisk (a central hub with eight arms). It's clear from the history given that climate change and pollution have caused havoc in this wold - there have been wars, states have fallen and huge populations of refugees are on the move, so one of the most precious resources on Qaanaak is space. The most fortunate have apartments: the merely lucky have a "nook", enough space to sleep, the rest simply have to take shelter where they can. And there is a hierarchy among the Arms.

It is a polyglot, multicultural place filled with traditions, history and languages, a thick broth of a society which the protagonists sample in very different fashions. It's also diverse in other ways, with gender fluidity (one character is referred to throughout as "they") and a key thread in the story built on the missing mothers of another of the characters. Against this jostling background, Miller spins a dazzling story of gangsters, political operators, family, and revenge, all catalysed by the arrival of a woman: "people would say she came to Qaanaak in a skin towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse. In these stories... the polar hear paced beside her on the flat bloody deck of the boat."

The woman is Masaaraq, and soon all of Qaanaak is agog at her arrival. Where has she come from? What does she want? Is she really "bonded" with the orca - or the bear - surely all those people were massacred years before?

The story shows how Killer Whale Woman's arrival impinges on the lives, hopes and fears, and schemes of a cross section of Qaanaak's people, with chapters following each in turn. There's Fill, heir to one of the comfortable fortunes of Qaanaak as grandson of a Shareholder. There's Kaev, a reliable pro in the world of illegal all-in beam fighting, who has links to up and coming gangster Go. Ankit, part of the political machine for an Arm Manager seeking re-election. And Soq, skate messenger, who's looking to advance himself by working for Go.

All of these characters are pretty much flung at the reader early on, with little overlap (at first). It does take some time to orient and begin to follow the distinct strands, but once you've established who is who and what they're doing there is a firm narrative here as well as a rich sense of place, with the story exploring some of the the distinct strands in Qaanaak society. We hear from City Without a Map, the cryptic broadcast(?) exploring the past, present and future of Qaanaak and whose whispered hints both comment on and direct events. And we are told about the incurable disease known as The Breaks, which overwhelms suffered by feeding them memories of those who infected them, and of those who infected them, and so on. This condition will have a central place in the story, both as a motivation and as a mystery to be solved. the scraps and hints of Breaks-mediated experiences tell us more about how the world came to this pass.

I could happily have lingered much longer enjoying all this (and the hints of catastrophe behind the presence of the different races, tribes and peoples - in particular a fragmented narrative of the fall of New York.) but this is a fairly short book and Miller soon begins to bring his main characters together. I did feel that when this happened, things slowed down at first, rather than sped up. This was first because the characters come with radically different interests and objectives so a bit of work is needed for them to establish any common cause and secondly, due to the story rotating between all the point-of-view characters. (Miller keeps giving chapters from the perspective of the different characters even once they have teamed up and are working together).

But. BUT. Then the book powers on to a nail-biting final third involving plenty of action and with a real sense of jeopardy till the very end, due to precisely those different aims and alliances. These lead to so many possibilities and different futures that it did feel by the last page as though the real story was only just beginning and the book left me wanting more.

An impressive debut novel which was great fun to read. I'd eagerly read a sequel (though I don't sense that's on the cards).

14 April 2018

Review - The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

The Sing of the Shore
Lucy Wood
4th Estate, 5 April 2018
HB, 228pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop (@wallingfordbook).

I'm a great admirer of Lucy Wood's stories. First, in Diving Belles she told short stories about women, men and the shore, with a fantastical bent. Her novel, Weathering moved inland, upriver, from the sea-salt and sand to snow and mud but still catching a hint of the wired behind everyday life.

The Sing of the Shore goes back to the coast (mainly), the Cornish coast, with tales (mainly) less magical, but perhaps sadder, chronicling lives lived awkwardly in the gaps left by absent owners and tourists, in caravans and short term lets and tents. The characters here engage with winter cold, with gales or mildew or missing parents, meeting all these different challenges with a degree of acceptance and endurance.

In Home Scar a group of children kick their heels in the off season, mooching on the shore and gently breaking in to holiday cottages. Ivor's dad seems pretty deadbeat, always trying things but giving up halfway. Ivor wants them to move away, to a more secure life. In the meantime, he, Crystal and Gull Gilbert try to enact a stolen life.

In The Dishes, Jay and Lorna and their baby have "use of" a small terraced house while Lorna works nearby at the top-secret Dishes (some kind of satellite or comms establishment, which features in several of these stories, often in connection with misplaced/ displaced families and absent parents). Alone most of his time with the not-quite-talking baby, Jay becomes obsessed with voices from the empty house next door. Something has happened which he dreads coming to light and gradually - without any weirdness, any supernaturalism - his world distorts.

Dreckly is subdivided into sections according to the fall and rise of the tide, following three friends as they comb a beach for leavings from the summer tourists. Just about making ends meet - one of them lives in her van - they are the last of their group: the others have moved on, gone away. Imbued, like many off these stories, with a sense of the seaside after hours, out of time, out of season, this is a beautiful story that really lets its protagonists breathe.

One Foot in Front of the Other takes a step back inland. It is almost folk horror story in miniature. A woman needs to "get back" (From where? To where?) but her attempts are thwarted by hedges, brambles and an ominous herd of brown cattle. With its repetition of slightly varying threats - the noise of gunfire, of an angle grinder, repeated phrases and vague geography, and constant barriers (hedges, fences) this almost felt like a story of imprisonment.

Way the Hell Out takes an old trope - the idea of the outsider family terrorised by some horror in their new rural home - and shows us another perspective, all through a conversation between Fran and Morrie, in a cafe. They almost seem to be weaving the story as they go, prompting each other. Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, Derelict is as much an undermining of the idea of a retirement idyll but told the other way round.  A husband and wife have retired to a small house above a sea cove. They have cut all their ties, left no loose ends, and are ready to spend their time not having to think. Except they haven't. Rubbish begins to wash up on the beach and Mary becomes obsessed with clearing it away. Meanwhile, we're told there is something particular they don't want to think about. A letter arrives from Vincent's ex employer and is put away, unopened. There is some problem with "our daughter" (not named). With not a word out of place, this is a perfect, intriguing gem of a story.

Salthouse opens "Winters are when people disappear". Following teenagers Gina and Evie one evening, it evokes both the in-between of an off-season resort and the in-between of young lives on the brink of changing, showing something also changing between the girls but a lot staying the same.

The Life of a Wave is anonymous, written about "you", "your father", "your mother", "your sister". Second person is tricky, personal, involving in a way neither first nor third comes near. In this story it is very effective at drawing the reader in to this story of a father and a son, set along the lifecycle of a wave from its beginning as a wind blown crease far out at sea to the final crash on the shore. That's fitting because the key thing about the father here is that he's a surfer - to the extent of forgetting his family, forgetting anything that may happen. As the story gathers pace this drives a wedge between the two and we wonder, can this end well?

Standing Water is the story of two neighbours who have long fallen out over a flooded ditch. Alive with long-fostered hatreds, it details the way the lives of the two fold intricately round each other.

A Year of Buryings is just that - vignettes of the lives lost over one year, the restless ghosts spawned form those deaths, the interrelatedness of the new occupants in the cemetery. Every story here is a perfect miniature - Wood can get as much feeling and narrative out of a single paragraph as some writers manage in a full length novel. As with Way the Hell Out there is a sense here of a participant shaping events and sometimes perplexed ("What the hell am I meant to do with that?")

Cables is another meeting with Fran and Morrie, now telling the story of a man obsessed by the undersea cables coming ashore on the beach. Convinced he can hear a hum from them, he is digging holes on the beach. As they fill up with water the two speculate on what's really going on (and it's clear they also know a fair bit about some of the other stories in the book).

The Sing of the Shore is a bout a brother and sister who run a fading campsite. Present and past blur together as they wander the fields and lanes both as children and adults (maybe 30 years later?) There's no sign or world now of the parents who appear in the "past" but nor of the boy who came to stay when Kensa was twelve, and then vanished. As with The Dishes there are perhaps hints to be decoded in the story but they almost seem to be there to tease the reader: all that is sure is the decaying site on a windy headland with the caves beneath and over it all that sound, the sing of the shore.

By-the-Wind Sailors is named for creatures that float where the wind blows them - here a family of three, homeless, shifting between caravans, flats over shops, garden huts and other semi-permanent accommodation. It goes on year after year, with the main feature of interest being the weather - you can learn to endure anything , except when you can't. A shifty, sad final story in this excellent volume, which has atmosphere in spades (make that children's, beach spades). It's a lovely book - not only in the writing but in the cover design too which is, sadly, uncredited.

As these stories grow, ramify, refer to one another and diverge again, Wood creates something more than simply a collection, she creates a world. An odd world with a lot of shade and may in between places, but also an intriguing, glinting world. Strongly recommended.

For more about this book, see the publisher's website.

12 April 2018

Blogtour - Friends and Traitors by John Lawton

Friends and Traitors (Inspector Troy)
John Lawton
Grove Press, 5 April 2018
HB, 342pp

I'm grateful to Ayo and to the publishers for inviting me on the blogtour for Friends and Traitors and providing me with a copy to review.

If I were looking for a snappy title for this review (as for example you have to on Amazon) I might lift a phrase from the novel itself and use "The Burgess Game". The spy, traitor and (in this book) friend Guy Burgess is at the centre of this intricately plotted, chewy novel.  (In case anyone doesn't know, Burgess was a real man, one of a famous spy ring composed of ex Cambridge men who, working for the USSR, blew the UK's spy service, MI6, apart in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This caused ructions even into the 70s and 80s. I remember the fuss when it became generally known that one of the group, Anthony Blunt, had been protected by the Establishment he betrayed and given a cushy job counting the Queen's pictures; and when the self described "spycatcher" Peter Wright published his memoirs - without official approval, and banned in the UK - in 1987s, alleging that another senior officer, Roger Hollis, had also been a traitor).

Here, Lawton devotes ten years or more of the life of his fictional detective, Freddie Troy, to a tale that unfolds in a leisurely fashion, as the lives of the two men cross and recross - from Freddie's early days as a naive police recruit to his ascendency to the rank of Detective Chief Inspector in the Murder Squad at the Yard. Treading lightly around various cases documented in earlier books of the series, and revisiting some earlier characters, Lawton uses the world he's created to give a convincing depth to the story although this does mean that in the earlier sections Troy does comparatively little (you can't meddle with an established timeline!) and the burden of the story is with Burgess.

Rather, this part of the book is used to good effect to convey some of the moral ambiguity necessary to understand a man like Burgess and also the attitude of his friends and acquaintances. Burgess is suspect from the very start: Troy's emigre Russian family have him pretty much nailed. (They are rather grand - as a policeman Troy's wealthy, well-connected and possessed of a small house in the West End, making him something of a ringer for Margery Allingham's Albert Campion - complete with a hefty Cockney manservant). Yet nobody thinks to report their suspicions and Burgess continues to waft through Society and through the supposedly secret world, hiding in plain sight, surely too indiscreet and unreliable to really be what he appears? Can we trust our judgements here? Perhaps seventy years of Cold War and terrorism have made us all cynical and incorrigibly suspicious about such things, and the answer to the success of Philby, Burgess, MacLean and the rest (Third Man, Fourth Man, Fifth... that's "The Burgess Game" I mentioned above) is less a sinister Establishment conspiracy than an attitude we simply cannot, in these more devious times, now understand.

Whatever, Lawton does an excellent job of bringing alive older attitudes and dilemmas. Troy is, we slowly learn (even if we didn't know before) morally compromised in various other ways, with his (perhaps) turning a blind eye to Burgess a comparatively minor matter. As somebody points out here, British spooks tend to die near Troy. When Burgess reaches out to Troy for a chance to "come home" and Troy is drawn into a catastrophic operation in Vienna, his past comes into question as never before. Which is where Lawton's clever recapitulation of those ten years really pays off. There is, you sense, real jeopardy here, real skeletons that might claw their way into daylight - and real risk to Troy's life, liberty and relationships. I felt especially for his brother, a rising politician, and for his partner, Shirley Foxx (who has her own reckoning with her past as well the possibility of being hurt through Troy).

There is also - and without any anachronistic imposition of 21st century attitudes - the matter of Burgess's sexuality. He is a gay man, in a milieu of gay men (as well as a wider, Blitz induced, sense of moral freedom in which other characters, including Troy's sisters, take part) and this brings a hovering sense of danger to him (though in the end, it is not Burgess but someone else who suffers directly from prejudice on this score).

It is, as I said, meticulous, clever and well observed, the kind of book you need to read slowly and carefully because every line, every word matters. Which is as well, because it's also a book to be savoured. With its pages crowded by spies, femmes fatales, detectives, old friends and enemies and, yes, traitors as well, it can be appreciated as a masterpiece of atmosphere, character and motive as much as a thrilling story and continuation of Troy's career.

4 April 2018

Review - I Still Dream by James Smythe

I Still Dream
James Smythe
Borough Press, 5 April 2018
HB, 386pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of I Still Dream through Amazon Vine.

In 1997, 17 year old Laura Bow argues with her mother and stepdad over the phone bill she piles up dialling in to AOL.

In 2007, Laura split up with her boyfriend who works in the same Silicon Valley tech startup as her.

And then we see Laura again in 2017, in 2027 - and later.

Each time, her story intertwines with the development by that same tech company of the AI known as Scion - and by Laura of her answer to Scion, her riposte, her own creation, Organon. In one sense this is a story of what tech might become, what it might do to us, as Scion - taught to win, to protect itself - becomes embedded in almost every conceivable product and Laura tries to warn us against it..

At the same time, it's the story of Laura, her husband Harris, their extended family: his father, her mother, of ageing, of decay (in one moving sequence the two see a parent being overcome by early-onset dementia). But that also means it's a story of youth, of growing up, with Laura's 80s/ 90s childhood and adolescence drawn very touchingly, mixtapes, modem squark and all and then carried through into her adult life. Smith has a clever technique of putting things in that you don't see properly until some later detail, remembered in a later decade, tips you off to what is going on. It underlines an idea he explores that memories are reconstructed, dressed up, inferred because of course this "seeing properly" is construction that depends on the two different viewpoints - a kind of temporal hologram. I don't want to spoil the book so won't mention specifics but you'll find there are things about, especially, Laura's life that are revealed later which make you think, of course. But then you wonder...

This richness makes the story so real. The reader becomes aware that there is always more happening than is seen - which complements its jumping from decade to decade, only describing few days, a few hours, in detail. Smythe does something similar with his dialogue, understanding that what's not said is as important in conveying what's going on as what is said (I don't say, what the fuck happens if this goes wrong? If he crashes the car? Because Nor, and Zara? They won't walk away from this.)

A kind of shorthand for the decades-long, unfolding dialogue here about AI, personality, autonomy and privacy is the varying use of pronouns (he, she and it) for the two "intelligences" by different characters. Not consistent at all, we see differences in attitudes conveyed by these terms, as well, of course, as the developing capabilities of, and lengthening relationships with, Scion and Organon. As the story develops, it explores - but not in a tech heavy way - the ideas behind AI, the reality of it: the difference between a machine built to done thing - say, to play chess - essentially a trick - and something that can grow and learn - and the responsibility of a creator in the latter case. This is counterpointed by the theme of decline in capability, loss of memory and ability: again, the contrast between growing up and ageing. We see a husband and wife making breakfast together in a kitchen,  she working seamlessly to make up for his slips and mistakes, the motions almost balletic, almost unconscious, just as - we think - the surprisingly acute remarks of Scion and Organon are unconscious, non-sentient.

This is all deeply rewarding and repays a second or third read, but I don't want to give the impression that this book is all beautiful observation and no plot. There are some thriller-y elements to it, with Laura pursuing her own struggle to secure her father's legacy in tech, with whistleblowers and a crusading journalist, and the extended timeline lets Smythe show how things turn out over realistic periods of time.  Again, we sometimes see an episode unfold but don't learn how it turned out until a later section, just as we don't actually get an answer to the main mystery looming over the story - what became of Laura's father - until near the end, in the only section out of chronological sequence.

For me, that was actually one of the less satisfying parts of the story. Laura's father is such an absence in this story that he's almost a presence: his absence drives the story, drives Laura. It's a very good use of what has become quite a common trope and one feels that there must be something really dramatic behind it. Yet while there is certainly a story there, which is interesting in its own right, when it was revealed, it didn't quite match what I'd been imagining.

Perhaps there's a lesson in that - the drama of this book is very much in the personal things, Laura and her husband, the slow development of Organon (and when you finish the book you realise just how clever Smythe has been in showing that evolution), happy and sad events remembered decades later. And that makes for a very, very good read.

Congratulations to James Smythe for writing this immersive, arresting, uncategorisable novel. I wished it had been longer, I really did.

For more about the book, see here. You can buy it from your friendly local bookshop, or here, here or here.

2 April 2018

Review - The Chosen Ones by Scarlett Thomas

The Chosen Ones (Worldquake, 2)
Scarlett Thomas
Canongate, 5 April 2018
HB, 368pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley. (I will be buying a copy too - look at the GLOW IN THE DARK cover!)


EFFIE TRUELOVE has learned to travel through magical books to the Otherworld.

MAXIMILIAN UNDERWOOD, Effie’s classmate, is more interested in the dark and forbidden Underworld.

When Effie and Maximilian both mysteriously vanish, their friends Raven, Lexy and Wolf don’t know where to turn for help. Raven is a witch and her horse, Echo, has revealed that Effie is in deep danger and time is running out.

This is the second book in Scarlett Thomas's Worldquake series of children's books, following the adventures of Effie and her friends at the Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange. Their world is like ours - yet changed, in a way that is never quite described, by the Worldquake itself, which happened several years before at the same time that Effie's mother vanished. The effects of the Quake leave electricity scarce, the Internet flaky and a mysterious (and seemingly hostile) Guild in charge of magic.

And yes, there is magic here. There are journeys to other dimensions - the Otherworld and the Underworld. There is the (to a bookworm) entrancing idea that if you are the Last Reader of a particular book, you can be taken into it, experience the story, and return with "boons" - magical gifts that bestow abilities or confer protection.

This world was introduced in Dragon's Green, together with the idea that "Dageri" - book eaters (the horror!) - are preparing a bid for power. Effie and her mates defeated that plot, but the risk hasn't gone away. When copies of The Chosen Ones, the bestselling story of magical children written by Raven's mum, Laurel Wilde, begin to be bought up by the publisher, and Effie is the subject of a scary prophecy, it looks as though something's up again.

The Chosen Ones introduces us to wider aspects of this world - I don't think it was clear before that it was Earth: the action took place in a vaguely placed and unnamed town with no further details, but in this book we visit London and hear about other countries. Effie's group also encounter another school (in the course of a tennis tournament) - the pupils of Blessed Bartolo's are unpleasant to put it mildly, with "compulsory classes in fencing, stockbroking, dressage and advanced music competition". And they are pretty ruthless at tennis, giving Thomas a good chance to describe the play - it's clearly something she knows well (as with Raven's horse riding across the moor near her mother's house).

As well as exploring their world, in this story, Effie and the others begin to find out more about themselves too and how they fit in with the magic around them. This is partly through the advice in a book called The Repertory of Kharakter, Art and Shade (I want a copy!) which applies a system that reminded me of a roleplaying game: we already knew that Effie was a True Hero, now we discover what the other possible "Kharakter" types are and also that one has a secondary class, an "Art". It's a neat way to represent the experience we all have of wondering who we really are and what we are meant to be - not least because Thomas then throws some doubt over the who idea: there are traps as Effie tries to pin things down, and people who try to exploit her even as she searches for herself.

All this depth doesn't prevent The Chosen Ones being an exciting story, fast paced where it needs to be but also happy to ramble a bit, to give all of the kids adventures of their own even if these don't directly relate to the main story (or not yet: "Terence clearly had no idea how dangerous librarians can be, but that is a story for another time...") which contributes to the sense of this world as a rich, many-layered place.

Thomas has some fun in this book with the world of publishing. Not only are the magic-using children in Wilde's The Chosen Ones born that way (unlike the kids in Thomas's world where magic is scarce, but anyone can learn, if they try) but "they were all white... The Chosen Ones was set a very long time ago when people... spent their summer holidays being locked in the cabins of ships or kidnapped by gypsies." Laurel's publisher, Skylurian Midzhar, is a bit frightening as is children's author Terrence Deer-Hart who actually hates children and wants to write for adults. ("His books were far more distressing, complex and violent than Laurel Wilde's, though, and one of his books for older children had over a hundred swear-words in it.") The Matchstick Press logo is a matchstick propping an eyelid open. We are told that "the thing any author hates more than anything... is... other authors.

I enjoyed The Chosen Ones a lot. It picks up the threads of Dragon's Green and moves things on pretty sharply, letting us know a little more about the mystery surrounding Effie and the rest (but I'm sure there is plenty more to be revealed) and making sure the challenges they face are serious enough that they can't simply be brushed away by the abilities gained in the earlier story. In short, it feels real, challenging and interesting.

I would recommend.