30 September 2018

Review - In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

In a House of Lies (Rebus, 22)
Ian Rankin
Orion, 4 October 2018
HB, 384pp

I'm grateful to the publishers for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

In a House of Lies is, of course, the latest book about John Rebus, sometime DI with Lothian and Borders Police. That will be enough for most people to just decide to read - it would (was) be enough for me. But as this series evolves, Rankin continues to develop his characters  and to address new challenges and there is a fair bit here to analyse, so please indulge me.

Rebus is now retired and in declining health. Ill with COPD (the two flights of stairs to his flat becoming "a definite issue"), he has given up smoking - couldn't get too grips with vaping, too tech - and is largely off the booze (the Oxford Bar hardly features, and we even witness Rebus visiting a pub... for a coffee).

Lothian and Borders Police has gone, too, swallowed up into Police Scotland, a unitary force run from the glossy "crime campus" at Gartcosh, miles from Edinburgh. Instead of local detectives investigating murders, a mobile squad - MIT ("Major Incident Team") is parachuted in as required with experienced cops like Siobhan Clarke squeezed out. It's not hard to see Rankin's frustration with this situation ("This was the way things were now, thanks to the changes at Police Scotland - local CID reduced to a secondary role..." "Police Scotland's process of centralisation meant a lot of local information-gathering either didn't happen or went ignored") especially since in recent books he's had to devote a lot of ingenuity not only to making Rebus's presence, but even that of Clarke, the other real regular from the old days, plausible, even before getting the story itself moving.

In a House of Lies achieves the former by making one of Rebus's old cases relevant again when a missing person is found long dead. Rebus can therefore be brought in to elucidate the botched enquiry from 2006 and as a bonus, Malcolm Fox gets to give the original case papers a once-over. Clarke is attached to the enquiry for her local knowledge. In terms of plausibility I think this is one of the better set-ups of recent books (Rebus doesn't have to keep trying to blag his way into the enquiry room) even if it does mean repeating what feels like a bit of a running theme: Rebus in the sights of Complaints for past failings and potentially taking the rap for the corrupt and lazy - even though (as we know well) he may always have been unconventional, but was never corrupt or lazy.

It's perhaps in keeping with this somewhat backward-looking and even elegiac mood that a recurring theme here is memory and its trickiness. Clarke stores names on her phone, in case she forgets them. Rebus accuses her and her generation of having short memories, and having "forgotten how to store information". He wonders about the point of "dusting off people's memories" from the earlier enquiry, and how soon they will forget the body found in the woods. Amidst all this loss of memory, despite the vague promise that soon it will all be "kept in the Cloud, whatever that is", it's not surprisingly Rebus - and his old nemesis Cafferty - who know what's what even if "it was hard [for Rebus] to remember the person he'd been, new to the city and new to the job" (a bit of a sly joke there, perhaps, given the way that Rankin has reinvented and reinterpreted Rebus over the course of this series).

But this series is far from becoming a showcase for grumpy old men (whether characters or author). There is a considerable freshness to In a House of Lies whether it's the greater sense of equality between Clarke, Rebus and Fox (in previous books, there has been a hierarchy which has dotted about a bit with one or the other of the three on top at different times depending who is investigating who, whether Rebus is in or out of the police and where Clarke is in her career), Rebus (finally!) taking more care of his health or - oddly - Cafferty, who clearly has Plans (and is considerably more adroit with the tech than Rebus, as Rankin makes clear when describing his infosec measures)

The story itself is pacy, twisty and substantial. Apart from the body that comes to light, Clarke is being threatened, giving her an early excuse to bring in Rebus with a relatively self-contained task. I thought for a while that was going to be Rebus's main role in the story, with the focus on her. That might not be before time (personally I'd love a series of Siobhan Clarke novels with Rebus backgrounded) but perhaps Rankin knows his audience too well for this. At any rate, Rebus gets plenty to do here, and on the main case, though perhaps he doesn't quite own the stage as in the past.

I only had a couple of reservations. First, in a couple of places the portrayal of secondary women characters seemed a bit perfunctory, with a main feature being how much make-up they wore - either too much, or little or none because "she really didn't need it" (of course, it may be she just didn't bother with it, or was in a bit of a hurry that morning...)

And there's reference to Cafferty's investment in a low budget British film in the mid 2000s having produced a profit. No way was there a profit - that investment would have been for tax purposes, designed to produce a loss. However, perhaps that's not a lapse by Rankin and Cafferty knew this all along - or the producer would have received an unwelcome surprise of some sort - and is spinning a line for Rebus.

OK, maybe I'm being a bit picky here. Overall, for me, this is one of the best, if not the best, Rebus story since Rankin brought the character back after Exit Music. It has a complex, satisfying story, plenty of atmosphere and lots for my favourite three detectives to do, with, apparently, plenty of life still in the series.

27 September 2018

Review - We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

We Sold Our Souls
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books, 18 September 2018
HB, 333pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of We Sold Our Souls.

"A girl with a guitar never has to apologise for anything."

Dürt Würk was a heavy metal band formed by Kris and Terry back in the day. They did pretty well, and were about to do VERY well and then things went wrong.

Wrong leaving one member in a wheelchair.

Wrong leaving Kris working nightshifts at a Best Western motel, her guitar mouldering in the basement.

Wrong leaving Terry a superstar career as The Blind King.

Now there's some unfinished business to take care of. Kris needs to find Terry and perform one last set...

I had great fun with this book and in fact found it surprisingly moving. I am not now, and ever have been, a devotee of metal yet I found Hendrix's narrative - his grand metaphor, perhaps - of musical success as selling one's soul, and of redemption offered through the creativity and energy of that musical genre, really worked.

It's partly the characterisation. This is Kris's book. Kris has been numb since those events of Contract Night, estranged from the rest of the band, forbidden to play, poor, pitied (or despised) by everyone, including her brother (the town policeman, he won't even help her out when a sleazy guest urinates all over the check-in desk). You know something is going to snap, and it's a relief when it does, but the way Hendrix captures the reality of a woman boxed in by men really convinces.

"And he gave her one of his patronising smiles. The same one when he explained the contract with Black Iron Mountain in the Witch House that night...The same smile men had been giving Kris her entire life."

But the concept, the verve with which Hendrix fills it in, is also compelling. There is a void in all of us, and that's where Black Iron Mountain is. A kind of hybrid, or metaphor, Black Iron Mountain is either infernal, supernatural evil finding an outlet through denatured, commercial music or it is the act of selling out, of watering down and cashing in, of reducing everything to money. Hendrix returns to the theme again and again and in the end I didn't know whether we were supposed to think there are actual diabolical, vampiric entities behind the Blind King's front or whether that's just Kris's impression - Kris, high on who knows what, desperate, dosed up with prescription meds in a sinister, cultish facility to which at one stage she's committed.

I don't think, in the end, it matters. Because the important part about Kris's odyssey isn't what she is fighting against but how, penniless, destitute, and hunted, she discovers the strength to keep fighting

"The girl handed Kris her guitar and pulled the pit bull onto her lap. Kris balanced the guitar on her right thigh and started to play... Finally her strumming started to coalesce into music, and what came out of that cheap, chipped piece-of-shit guitar was the blues.

That didn't surprise Kris. Relax any metal song enough and you went right back into the blues... Every sing was the same song. These were songs for people who were scared to open their mailboxes, whose phone calls never brought good news... People waiting for a check that never came, waiting for a court date... waiting for a break, crushed beneath the wheel".

The wheel, to which millions are chained in the eternal darkness of Black Iron Mountain, features strongly in Dürt Würk's masterpiece, Troglodyte, which never appeared but which points the way to liberation or at least, to continuing the fight ("Just Fight. Don't ever stop.")

I don't, as I said, have the background to understand Hendrix's analysis of the music or the lovingly realised descriptions of it, but that doesn't matter, because he goes way beyond mere scene setting, he injects this book and Kris in particular with real heart, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions - because what else is there when our souls are sold? - so that the lyrics from Troglodyte sour, even on the page with no accompaniment.

The book doesn't bring cheap comfort. Times are hard, as Kris discovers while crossing America amount the destitute and the left-behind. People are mean too, as she also finds. Black Iron Mountain is strong, yet it can be overcome, if the will is there.

If that makes the book sound preachy, it's not. While it is in many ways a serious book, and grim at times - there is quite a death toll - it is also funny (especially in the extracts Hendrix uses to open the chapters, taken form various media and commenting around the events of the story, ranging from talk radio rants to breakfast shows to clips from ancient music magazines).

Above all it's readable, taking a perhaps obvious idea but really making it live. I'd really, really encourage you to read this book. It's fun, it has heart, it's true.

For more abut the book see the publisher's website here.

23 September 2018

Review - Vengeful by VE Schwab

Design by Julia Lloyd
VE Schwab
Titan Books, 25 September 2018
HB, 575pp

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of Vengeful.

I was really excited to get this book, as Vicious, to which it is the sequel, was the first book by VE Schwab that I read. I hoped to see more of that world and the characters in it - and here they are! So when it arrived I rearranged my reading plans, and sat up till late on Sunday to finish it.

Both Vicious and Vengeful revolve around humans who have acquired superpowers after dying and being revived, becoming "EOs" (for "Extraordinary").

Don't call them "superheroes" though. Most are far from heroic and many are pretty heartless killers.  (I should warn you that the body count here is impressive.) But at the same time, they are surprisingly sympathetic, their actions understandable, often motivated largely by survival, and their situation both lonely and frightening.

Central to this story are Victor Vale and Eli 'Ever' Cardale, the medical students who, in Vicious, found the secret of superpowers but later fell out, Eli taking it upon himself to hunt down other "EOs" (for "ExtraOrdinary") and Victor seeking to end Eli.

Accompanying Victor are his surrogate family. Dom can step outside time; Sydney can bring the dead back to life; Mitch isn't an EO but is far from ordinary - indeed, he's the emotional heart of the group Dol is a the dog, and there extraordinary to begin with. One way or another, Victor saved or collected them all and they have stuck with him . But it's an uneasy life, always on the move, being hunted.

And now, something is going wrong for Victor.

Those are all characters from Vicious. Schwab also widens the cast, bringing in Marcella, widow of a gang boss, who is able to destroy things (and people) with a mere touch; Jonathan (who can generate a protective shield) and June who can steal others' appearances. Marcella's bloody path through the upper echelons of the city of Merit provides a counterpoint to Victor's violent search for an answer to his troubles. Once you're accustomed to the gore (as you will be if you've just read Vicious) the trail of death is grimly fascinating. Marcella isn't subtle, and it's all bound to come to  a bad end, the only question being how bad, and when.

While this end draws on, Schwab also delves back, letting us see, especially, more of Eli's tragic earlier life, of how he became fixated on what is "normal" and what isn't. There is more explanation here than in Vicious, and I find myself more sympathetic to him than before. The way that Eli's background is sketched, and the relationships between Victor, Sydney and Mitch, are done very well, making all four seem especially real, especially human. In places it is almost unbearably sad.

This is a lengthy book and Schwab builds up the story steadily, showing not only her characters' earlier lives but also the more immediate build up to the "now". So we get a building tension as the date and time counts down in chapters whose headings show just how much time is left. The book does dart backwards and forwards on different timescales - days, weeks, years - but it's very deftly done and is never confusing, the very different personalities of the different characters ensuring that it's always clear (apart from the headings) where we are and who is involved.

The world in which Vale et al operate is also well realised. Schwab's meticulous descriptions recall the distinct alternate reality of classic superhero comics: the plausible but other-reality names of possible US cities (Capital City, Dresden, Halloway and of course Merit, where much of the action takes place, as in Vicious - with, like all the best stories, a destructive confrontation downtown to round things off); the importance of city, rather than national, concerns and politics (the main authority in Merit seems to be EON, the organisation set up to control the Eos); the landscape of freeways, motels and apartment buildings. It's a breath away from Gotham City, maybe a plane flight from Metropolis.

That sense of place, the reality of this world, meant that even where the action became incredible, I found myself accepting what was going on. The action and reaction here has its own weird logic, such that once things got into motion, everything made sense. I couldn't see exactly how it would fall out but the prospects for characters I'd come to like - even love - didn't look good so the conclusion was nailbiting. (I knew from Vicious that Schwab doesn't spare her characters - or her readers - and the special powers granted the former are as likely to make things more difficult as to help.)

It is, overall, an explosive read, a gripping and electrifying narrative from an author who can write blazing prose and knows how to really hold the reader's attention. Just an excellent book, make sure you don't miss it.

18 September 2018

Blogtour review - Overkill by Vanda Symon

Overkill (PC Sam Shephard 1)
Vanda Symon
Orenda Books, 6 September 2018
PB, 272pp

I'm grateful to Orenda for a copy of the book to review as part of the blogtour and to Anne for the invitation to take part.

I loved Overkill. From its stunning - and violent - prologue, it grabbed me and carried me along. Very linear, very compelling, with a great protagonist, it is a book that demands to be read pretty much at a single sitting.

Sorry, not demands. Make that orders.

It is also a relatively short book and this is entirely feasible, so clear a few hours and go for it.

Sam Shephard ('Shep' to her mates in the New Zealand town of Mataura) is a rural policewoman in a one-company town focussed on meat packing. Her normal business is sorting out scuffles at closing time or trivial car accidents.

Not disappearances, suicides or murder.

Especially not disappearances, suicides or murders involving the wife of an ex - a woman she's had a few run-ins with herself (amusingly, Shephard is a little bit of an unreliable narrator and minimises these encounters, so she's gradually admitting to more and more of them as the story goes on).

So when Gabriella Knowes vanishes and is soon found dead, Sam has to tread particularly carefully. Her reputation is at stake, her feelings for husband Lockie are engaged and its a small town where everyone knows everyone else's business. There are no detectives based in Mataura so a load of out-of-towners come to take over the investigation.

Underneath it all though, there's a mystery to be solved and Sam sets about it with determination, even when warned off the case. ESPECIALLY when warned off the case. Friction, misunderstandings and resentment are guaranteed, but when they break out, they're truly volcanic.

I had great fun reading this book. Sam is a great protagonist - awkward, totally undetected, infuriating at times yet absolutely determined to get to the truth. She does herself no favours and it seems as though she sets out to annoy everyone (that is, every man because they all are) why tries to bring her back into line, silence her or get her out of the way. At times this can get pretty brutal, but Sam always, always stands up for herself and finds a way through. Or round. Despite their dubious history perhaps she's the best person, the best woman, to be in poor Gabby Knowes' corner.

Because it turns out that there are dark secrets behind Gabby's death...

STRONGLY recommended and I'm delighted that this is only the first in the series - I hope that Orenda will be bringing us more of these soon.

To buy the book you can visit your local bookshop (this may help) or try the big stores here or here.

16 September 2018

Blogtour review - The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

The Lion Tamer Who Lost
Louise Beech
Orenda Books, 20 September 2018
PB, 323pp

I'm grateful to Orenda for a copy of the book to review as part of the blogtour and to Anne for the invitation to take part.

I was so excited to have an opportunity to read another of Louise Beech's books, having loved The Mountain in my Shoe and Maria in the Moon. It takes something special to get me out of my normal SF-Crime-Fantasy-horror channel, but Beech's books always do it for me. She has a real knack for weaving stories around people - flawed protagonists who are working on their lives, getting stuff done and working through who they are and how they fit in - or don't - with those around them. The past is always relevant in building her protagonists and we need to see how their lives developed - there are things to be gone over, worked through, recalled - but these are optimistic books, forward looking books.

The Lion Tamer Who Lost is essentially Ben's story and Andrew's. Ben has fled England (I don't think the word is too strong) to volunteer at a lion sanctuary in Zimbabwe, and Beech interleaves her story - mainly sections, past and present, following Ben and Andrew, but there are one or two other points of view - with extracts from Andrew's children's book, The Lion Tamer Who Lost. These extracts both function as hints about what's going on in Beech's book and also tantalise because the book-in-the-book sounds amazing itself (I want to read it!)

Ben and Andrew were lovers, and clearly Ben is in Zimbabwe because of some kind of problem (a falling out?) but we only gradually learn the background. And that's good, because it allows us to luxuriate in Beech's prose, her insights into character and lives, and to get to know these very real, very flawed people - not only Ben and Andrew but Esther, with whom Ben becomes close at the sanctuary, Will, Ben's impossible dad, and others (including the lions Lucy and Chuma). Beech has a rare gift for sketching characters you can believe in and want to spend time with. In particular, of course, there are Ben and Andrew, and Beech shows us both their similarities (such as absent parents) and differences (Andrew is older and out, Ben dreads what his father and brother would make of his sexuality). There's a frequent point made about people being together or not expressed by their matching the rhythm of their walk - which sounds a bit cheesy but, when you read about it here, is actually quite shrewd.

Louise Beech
The book is engaging from the start, very much a love story, also a growing-up story for Ben, the lion sanctuary he's gone off to being also a kind of temporary sanctuary for him. Is there an element of Ben using it to escape his real life, exploiting the lions (and I suppose also Zimbabwe, while he's there he never interacts with the local people) to deflect from his troubles? Yes, of course there is, and the interest and drama here is very much his facing up to that, discovering responsibilities he can't run away from, and accepting those. I wouldn't want to be too harsh on Ben - once you learn what exactly happened you'll sympathise with the situation he is in - but he does become a much, much more admirable characters over the course of this book.

So, really, Beech has done it again - created an enthralling and believable cast of characters to accompany us on a journey with at its heart a solid vein of emotional truth. An excellent and wise book.

This review is part of the book's blogtour - please do follow the tour at the other sites hosting reviews, extracts and other treats. See the poster for details!

To buy the book - you know you want to! - you could visit your local bookshop (this may help) or try the big stores here or here.

15 September 2018

Review - Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson
Orbit, 20 September 2018
PB, 390pp

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

Rosewater is a near future SF novel (set around 40 years from now) with the action taking place in Nigeria, partly in Lagos but mostly in the new city of Rosewater (named ironically, from its initial lack of sanitation). This is a near future where aliens have landed, though humanity struggled to understand them, or to disentangle the aliens themselves from their ships/ habitats. Rosewater grew up surrounding an alien "biodome" (hence, it is doughnut shaped, making travel awkward) for reasons that Thompson only slowly reveals.

Thompson has created a genuinely new and disturbing concept of "alienness" in this book, which he has fun sharing only gradually and which really challenges the classic "little green beings in spaceships" concept. As this nature is closely bound with what is really going on, it needs to be kept under wraps until very late in the book. A great deal of the early story is driven by a more thriller-y style plot, focussed on Kaaro, one of a special paramilitary team called "Section 45") of Government agents recruited because the presence of the alien has endowed them with superhuman abilities.

There is plenty of mystery in that, together with Kaaro's special gifts, to keep the story humming along. Kaaro is able to read others' thoughts via the "xenosphere", a kind of field generated by the alien presence, and as part of S45, this ability is employed interrogating suspects or defending against hackers using the xenosphere to attack banks or collect sensitive information. Before joining S45, Kaaro used his talent for more dubious ends so he's very much poacher turned gamekeeper.

Dotting backwards and forwards between the present day (2066) and several earlier timelines, the book shows how the current situation - the alien Biodome dominating Rosewater, providing free power, granting annual healings to those in the vicinity, but also, awkwardly, reanimating the dead - - arose, but also Kaaro's personal journey to S45, what he has done and what he has suffered - and who he has betrayed.  We see Kaaro's current caseload, his reservations about his job, and the messy internal politics of S45. And a threat to the unit...

We also see Kaaro's developing relationship with the mysterious Aminat, perhaps with some concern (he's not the most reliable of chaps...) and  a particular, special connection to the Dome (implying Kaaro also knows more than he's letting on).

It took me a little while to get used to the switching between timelines, as there is a lot of action going on everywhen. Inevitably at any given time a couple of the threads are left hanging, often on a cliffhanger. This is very much a book to be read through without distractions or delays as it does, piece by piece, build to a kind of holographic unity where the parallel strands reinforce one another. Superbly paced, they do come together and this is a compulsive story, always driving forward, written with a very distinctive narrative voice and with a great sense of place.

In particular, Thompson is able to draw analogies between Nigeria's past, colonised by Britain, and the situation it potentially faces now with regard to the nameless aliens. Indeed, Kaaro notes in a couple of places that this gives an advantage compared with, for example, the US, whose response to the incursion seems to have been to go dark completely, or Britain itself (don't ask).

Kaaro himself is an engaging protagonist, well rounded and sympathetic to a degree although you really shouldn't trust him. The supporting characters are also well portrayed, especially his boss Femi (who I wanted to hear much more about) although I found his attitude to her a bit crass at times. (That's Kaaro...)

The story leaves a number of key threads unresolved (the power struggle in S45 itself, the eventual outcome of the encounter with the aliens, the fate of Aminat's brother who is an intriguing wildcard in this story, and indeed, what becomes of the relationship between Kaaro and Amina) - enough of these to encourage me to hope for more from this world, but even if that doesn't happen it's still left a vivid impression of two distinct cultures working in each other to ends that, perhaps, both sides are unable to foresee (even the super advanced aliens).

Strongly recommended.

For more about Rosewater see the Orbit website here.

13 September 2018

Review - Country by Michael Hughes

Michael Hughes
John Murray, 26 July 2018
PB, 314pp; e-book; audiobook

I bought my copy of Country as an audiobook.

I've started listening to audiobooks in the car on my commute to the station, and I think Country was an excellent choice to begin this. Not only is the subject matter - a reimagining of the Illiad set in the corner country Ireland towards the end of the Troubles - fittingly oral, but in this version, read by the author, the story becomes luminous, immersive, beautiful - even when dealing with very ugly events.

Hughes has a rhythm, an air, that engages. Listening to him is like sitting by a camp fire, or in a courtyard or marketplace or a chief's fort long ago, hearing the beginning of story, before it would ever have been written down. "Listen" he says or "Now we're getting to it" or "Wait till you hear". Or the story veers off into a tale of the old days, of heroes and cruelties, or the life of some curious person tangential to the main narrative. While I'm sure this book reads well on the page, I think it's made to to be heard.

The episodic nature helps with that: I've found before with audiobooks that there's a risk of losing concentration, missing something vital, and leaving the story half done. Not here. The effect is almost holographic, building up the lives of the IRA squad, its enemies in the British base and the people of the "downland" - including spies, political bosses ("our friend, Mr Paul Bright"), the shady "higher ups" who are often invoked but never appear in person and victims.

The conflict in Ireland was seen - is seen - here in Britain as very polarised and indeed that is reflected here, with awful things done by one side to the other. But the book also reflects another story - a closeness, an interdependence, blind eyes turned by one faction to the goings-on of the other, Republicans passing intel back to the Brits to settle scores, tacit deals to spare those "higher-ups" from violence. These are small communities where everyone knows everyone else, whichever side they're on. Hughes draws a fascinating picture of this society, and layers it with references and analogies to the story of Troy, or the oldest tales of Ireland - other societies where warfare was, at one level, "heroic" - and we get the preposterous warrior boasts, the single combat, the looting of the dead, gifts of treasures, women and, above all perhaps, the drinking and feasting (the latter conveyed through fry-ups joyfully described and eaten in volume).

I'm at a disadvantage here because I have never read The Illiad (don't @ me) but even I can see some of the comparisons - those "higher-ups", the names, the centrality of a vanished wife to the story. They give it a point and a focus and demand attention. Is Hughes really saying that nothing has changed in attitudes in three thousand years? All the blood shed from the 1960s to the 1990s might suggest that. Is this a good way to understand the "men of violence" we were nightly warned of on TV? Their cause, rehearsed here, is familiar yet in this story it's overshadowed by the score-settling of the older Troy story. Is that fair?

I wasn't, in the end, sure whether the comparisons with Troy - beyond the similarities in outlook I've mentioned above - helped. Certainly, towards the end, there were parts of the story where what one might see as the need to stay close to the source, such as two combatants running three times around the walls, or close quarters fighting rather than the use of firearms over greater distances, seemed to constrain the story rather. But in many other places Hughes happily throws overboard Homer's narrative (even I can see that) so I think this is still him telling the story he wants to tell, not just following his source.

And if at times that makes the doings of these hard men, these soldiers, these heroes, look faintly ridiculous - well, think about that. Perhaps they were, both in the 20th century AD and the 10th BC.

One thing Hughes does do here is to give some voice to the women. Yes, many of the characters - the volunteers in the squad, the SAS, the police and the "Green Army" are men but women play some key roles and most of all, the Helen-figure, Nellie, plays an independent role, taking her own destiny in her hands, manipulating those who would use her and making the best she can of her circumstances. She speaks, here, and what she says matters.

All in all this is a startling, vivid and compelling story, very different from anything I'd read recently. I'd strongly recommend.

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

5 September 2018

Review - An American Story by Christopher Priest

Cover by Kushan Rajani
An American Story
Christopher Priest
Gollancz, 6 September 2018
HB, 308pp

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

An American Story is an extraordinary book, although it's hard to pin down why in a review, or indeed to pin it down at all. I think that's the point.

Part thriller, part love story, part examination of loss and grief, part history, this book revolves around the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA. It's not science fiction or fantasy - I wondered if Priest would use that to get at the reality (or realities?) behind 9/11 but I don't think he does. (There is one tantalising moment when a character seems to remember something that she shouldn't know, and I wondered if that might suggest, I don't know, deeper workings going on here but, characteristically, this moment is given to a character whose memory is damaged and I take it more as a hint of collective uncertainty, of the reshaping of history and truth, than as a fantastical plot development.

At one level, this story is a simple quest for the truth. Journalist Ben Matson lost his lover Lil in the attacks - lost in the truest sense of the word, as her body was never found, her very movements, even the reasons for those movements obscured among the events of that day. Thesis foreshadowed in an early scene where she and Ben argue over airline flights and meeting points. It's a little bit shifty, one thinks, what is going on here? Whatever the facts, it is a loss Ben lives with, which becomes almost  more concrete fact than its cause. Again, this backward chaining of effects to causes is a central theme of the book.

Despite his grieving, Ben does eventually find a new partner, Jeanne, with whom he has a son and the present of the book in centred on their lives, looking back at 9/11 and its aftermath, so that the book is  set between 2001 and a point several years in our future, when Ben is reminded of what happened to Lil by a new discovery. That's where the thriller elements kick in with Watergate-toned "Deep Throat" moments, encounters with the shadier branches of the US Government, covert meetings and a general atmosphere of threat.

But it isn't really a thriller. In particular we don't get a neat ending or conclusion. Ben has become convinced that something is wrong with the official narrative about 9/11, but he's not trying to nail the guilty or discover the truth except in one very personal sense: he wants to know what really happened to Lil. So don't expect Mission: Impossible style theatrics - this is as much Ben's quest into himself as it is an interrogation of the outside world.

Indeed, from a certain perspective not a lot actually happens, at least in the "present", at least until the very end of the book, with much of the story recounting how things got there. In keeping with that, Priest's writing is restrained, domestic, recording Ben's and Jeanne's lives, the challenges posed when her mother Lucinda becomes infirm and must stay at their house on the island of Bute and their delicate, compromise-filled days (which include negotiating the tricky question of Lil and of Ben's continuing interest in her death). These parts are never dry, filled with insight about how two people organise their lives, their feelings, around each other. Not everything needs to be said, and Priest almost lovingly creates a world around the two.

Yet into even the most domestic moments come noirish moments, consequences, incursions of the wrong. "We were all in the dark, in the shadow of 9/11, victims, or remnants of victims, losers of our lovers, relatives, inadvertent characters in the story that insidiously weaved through and around our lives, untrue, unreliable, irrational and, as yet unfinished"

The book becomes most thriller-like when Ben has to visit London for work and we see the state to which England has fallen post Brexit. It's not nice - Scotland is now independent, London has become a security-ridden hellhole best by CCTV,  armed guards and immigration police. Or when he makes trips to the US. Here, jangling details stoke the tension - details of hotel rooms, flights, ordinary things like a car running low on charge or the junk dumped behind a hotel.

Through all this, we keep circling back to 9/11, to Ben's initial doubts and his subsequent investigation. Priest lays out some of the awkward evidence and theories about planes that weren't there, demolition charges, missing bodies, missing flight data recorders and so forth. This is all very well researched and preoccupies Ben to a point where Jeanne becomes worried about him. Ben's conviction that something is off is bolstered by meetings with shadowy insiders and possibly even with guilty parties. There is, for example, the mathematician Kyril Tatarov whose ideas about the manipulation of truth via media seem to foreshadow the "fake news" familiar today. Tatarov is an enigmatic figure, obsessed with a "Thomas theorem" (which is a real thing) that (if I have understood it correctly) reasons backward from effect to cause.  As I have said, i think that's a central concern of this book, with world events since 2001 seen as the consequence, and the events of 9/11, whatever they were - if, the books seems to say, it's even possible to say what they were - the cause.

The book doesn't come to neat and tidy conclusions. As I have said, it's ultimately not a thriller. There is no revelation of what "really happened", much of the speculation is mutually inconsistent while partial truths are uncovered they don't add up to a complete, alternative narrative. Instead we are left, as is Ben, to worry about the future and about where it will all lead. That is, I think, actually the only tolerable conclusion to this story. There is room for doubt, perhaps, about the events of 9/11, about the official story, but what there isn't room for is the certainty of an alternative account which purports to be "the truth".

Bringing the story to a successful conclusion despite the degree of doubt shows Priest working at his very best. It would have been so easy to let the book sag into despairing cynicism or to set set up some other false certainty by validating conspiracy theories outright but he avoids this, keeping the story mostly personal, looking at the consequences of real actions on his fictional characters. The book ends on a questioning note, though an oddly helpful one.

I will end my review with a quote from Prof Tatarov himself. Speaking of the young men and women busily obscuring history, he says - and it sums up, I think, the central accusation of this book:

"They believe in interpretations, not reporting. They praise opinions, but they despise facts . They talk of actions, whereas they are merely noticing the consequences of other people's actions."