30 October 2018

Review - The Drop by Mick Herron

The Drop (Slough House)
Mich Herron
John Murray, 1 November 2018
HB, e 104pp


I received this short report through the usual means (brown envelope through letterdrop, handoff, no contact with operative making drop - although I suspect that originating officer was codename YASSINE - recommend congratulations for excellent work).

Have reviewed contents. File contains extensive background information compiled by operative codename HERRON concerning SLOUGH HOUSE, alleged outstation of REGENT'S PARK to which deprecated operatives are consigned.

Suspect new recruit to SLOUGH HOUSE following events recorded in file LONDON RULES.

Recommend opening new file and close consideration of report at earliest opportunity upon wider distribution, currently scheduled 1 November.


Well. I didn't expect this book, didn't know it was coming out, but I'm SO glad that John Murray sent me a copy.

The Drop is a novella set in the world of Herron's Slough House stories - home to the Security Service's misfits, dropouts and no-hopers (Herron's argument that people like this couldn't just be sacked, and need housed and occupied seems frighteningly plausible).

The book isn't about Slough House itself, or its collection of off-the-boil assets, though its subjects could well belong there - Solomon Dortmund, a retired spook pottering around Marylebone in his decline and ex agent John Bachelor, kept on the payroll to look after those like Dortmund, ensuring they have what they need and don't speak to the wrong people.

The joke is that Bachelor's life is in a spin and he's virtually homeless, resorting to bunking down in the ready room at Regent's Park, HQ of the Service. So when Dortmund thinks he's witnessed a drop and reports it to Bachelor, it's not exactly item number one on Batchelor's to-do list.

In many ways this is a gentle comedy of spy manners, as much about our times as it is about putting one over on the opposition. There is a real agent in play here, actually a double agent, and the way they're being handled shows old alliances shifting, the spooks looking to an uncertain future and trying to get pieces in the game with a very different Europe taking shape.

As intelligence analyst Lech (or Alec) notes "...whereas the general attitude among the boys and girls was that right would ultimately triumph, something in [his] bones sang of doom, or whispered along with the chorus... [he] couldn't entirely suppress the fear that sooner or later... they'd all fail, that their home skies would look down on cataclysm."

Against that doomy background, Herron weaves his normal spell, albeit on a smaller scale and with lower stakes. No other writer I've come across has honed a voice so well to portray a world, developing a vocabulary redolent of the closed world - "...the older knew that Spook Street, like Watling Street, runs backwards and forwards in time"as well as a wicked streak of dry humour -

" 'It was felt that Batchelor wasn't up to the job"


'Because he wasn't up to the job.' "

- and a disturbing insight into character. Batchelor briefly considers suicide, rejects the idea, but knows the thought will come back "...he knew that a seal had been broken, and that he'd be forced to dip into this dark jar again in the future, probably at night."

It's a book about how one is never, never out of the spying game. Even as new contests, new opportunities are born - and new fears - the old players are still in the game, if barely. and when one of them departs, " [he] had finished his journey. This had started many years before, very far away, and ended where the floor began."

One journey ends, another begins. Elsewhere in London is a fresh spy, one who, Herron suggests, will rise to the top of the game: "She was good at this, he registered... Whether she'd had this story up her sleeve, whether it had actually happened, whether she was improvising: didn't matter, she delivered it like a natural."

Endings and beginnings. Mostly there's no room here for the grey and grime of Slough House. But as Batchelor observes, leaving his refuge at Regent's Park early one gleaming, snowy morning, it doesn't stay like that for long. The grey and grime soon shows through and then your feet are soaked in slush.

If I read this book right there's one person who's soon going to get a nasty introduction to that slush, and I'm looking forward to reading more about them in Herron's next book.

Recommended if you want a little gift for Christmas to get a friend or loved on hooked on this series. Or perhaps if you want a little pre Christmas gift for yourself.

28 October 2018

Blogtour review - The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond

The Golden Orphans
Gary Raymond
Parthian Books, 30 June 2018
PB, 155pp

Many thanks to Emma for inviting me to take part in the tour for this intriguing book.

Many years ago (the early 70s), when I was very young, my parents went off for a holiday in Cyprus. This was before the Turkish invasion of 1974, but not long before - they came back reporting hearing gunfire out in the countryside. It was close enough to the events that I can still remember my mother reacting to the news: "that's where we were!"

Forty years on, all that seems very remote - to me sitting here in England. But the reality is a divided island, displaced people and abandoned towns and even cities - alongside the hedonistic tourist trade.

Raymond embraces both these contradictory strands in his story of a painter summoned to the island for the funeral of his former mentor, Francis Benthem. In an opening scene reminiscent of Harry Lime's funeral in the The Third Many, Benthem is laid to rest with minimum ceremony, the only other attendees being a Russian businessman and his family.

Gary Raymond
The Graham Greene vibe in the book - appropriate for a divided community plagued by "grifters, gangsters and wide-boys" - is then skilfully  intercut with something I found reminiscent of the games with reality in John Fowles' The Magus, as our unnamed (I don't think he is ever identified) artist is drawn into the pulsing nightlife and confronts the nature and history of the island. Commissioned to - what exactly? - by Prostakov, the Russian who buried Benthem, our protagonist soon finds himself out of his depth.

There is a great deal going on in this book, though it's perhaps only apparent in hindsight just how much. On top of the divisions on Cyprus and their impact - such as the presence of those "Golden Orphans" - there are overtones of people-smuggling, organised crime and violence. But it's hard to pick out who the angles are - if anyone is? - until the dramatic climax.

If then. I still wasn't sure at the end what all the factions were that had been in play - which is probably realistic given the history and nature of the island itself - but what is clearer is the impact on the narrator who seems to be at a crossroads in his life and relationships. As much as the drink and drug wrecked young people in the clubs of Napa, he seems to have come to Cyprus to find a place apart from his life. Offered, perhaps, an escape he doesn't seem able to accept that (unlike Benthem). In the end I felt this narrator to be the most intriguing mystery of all (we get hints - such as his ability to "...embalm myself in morally complicated environments...") and one who isn't resolved, leaving the reader to assess what will happen next.

Raymond's writing is sharp - while this is s short book without a lot of time to develop his characters (apart from that central enigma of a painter) he repeatedly skewers a mood or setting ("there is nothing more accurate than silence") never more so than when describing the abandoned city of Famagusta, left as on one afternoon in 1974, the city my parents told me about when they returned from their holiday/

A fascinating novel about a fascinating place, with much more in it than the apparently short length would suggest.

You can buy the book at your local independent bookshop (including via Hive (UK)) or from Amazon UKAmazon USWaterstonesBook Depository, for NOOK or for Kobo. And probably other places besides.

27 October 2018

Review - Someone Like Me by MR Carey

Cover design by Duncan Spilling
Someone Like Me
M R Carey
Orbit, 8 November 2018
HB, 512pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley (thank you loads Nazia!)

Someone Like Me is an intriguing mix - supernatural horror, but one that also wonderfully captures the graininess, the hard dilemmas and nagging constraints, of ordinary life; an abusive ex-husband, compromises over healthcare due to the limits of insurance, the need to earn a living in tough times.

Set in Larimer, a suburb of Pittsburgh, it's a step away from Carey's previous UK focussed books, both the fungoid zombie chronicles of The Girl With all the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge and the spooky prison drama of Fellside - though perhaps closer in atmosphere to the latter). Overall it put me in mind of Lauren Beukes' US inner city horrors The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters.  As in those, the city almost takes on the attributes of a character, throwing out bizarre paradoxes and horrors as the dark secrets of an overgrown motel in a forgotten part of town reach out to downtrodden single mother Liz Kendall and troubled teen Fran Watts.

Carey's writing is at its most chilling, though, as he brings to life in the reader's mind Liz's thoroughly unpleasant husband - her ex-husband as she keeps having to make clear - Marc. A plausible, manipulative and violent man ("Once you give yourself permission to treat the person you're supposed to one like shit on your shoe, you don't ever rescind that permission") he wore Liz down until she was only an echo of the woman he married, and despite divorce, she isn't free of him yet - his shadow hangs over much of this book.

Carey's portrayal of this man is meticulous and convincing. It's done largely through the effect on her and her kids, showing how she was changed form the person she had been ("It was the first time Liz gave up something that turned out to have been part of her own identity. A lot of surprising things faded away... her self-confidence, her sense of humour, even part of her sex drive.")

In extremis, Liz finds the ability from somewhere to fight back against Marc. But once awakened, the part of her that was able to do that just doesn't want to go away again. It - she - has plans of her own. Liz seems caught between two cunning, and ruthless personalities, either of which could destroy her or at least, her way of life. She begins to doubt her sanity, but help isn't easy to get and how much can she actually say faced with a police investigation and upcoming court battle against Marc?
While Liz has welcome support from neighbours and a police officer BeeBee, that unwelcome support from the other part of her, the one with an agenda, throws everything into jeopardy.

I really, really enjoyed Carey's portrayal of hard working, long suffering Liz,  doing her best to bring up Zac and Molly ("Zac in particular needed to be saved from [Marc's] influence, from having that poisonous macho pantomime in his line of sight every day of his life"), just about making ends meet on a low salary, having to cope with so much but never giving up. Indeed the extent of her tenacity, her love, would be hard to overstate and I can't explain why - I won't reveal what's actually going on here because a large part of the book is devoted to untangling that mystery. Liz's son Zac teams up with Fran to get to the bottom of it, because Fran's closely bound up with it too. If Liz is suffering violence and abuse in the present, Fran suffered in the past when she was kidnapped as a child. Still beset by nightmares and hallucinations, she to has tried to rebuild her life, assisted by Dr Southern at budget therapy sessions covered by her kidnapper's medical insurance.

Fran has other help, too - Lady Jinx, an armoured, sword wielding fox who's come from a kids' TV programme. Jinx is a delight to read. The way that Carey interleaves her with mundane conversations and activities, has her provide a running commentary on events and - at times - shows her as genuinely sad, wounded and grieving, is  masterpiece of writing. Jinx is as real as any other character here, even while Fran knows that she is "just" a part of her unconscious. And there are others too - like Beth, who has been through things you wouldn't be able to imagine, can never go home, and wants a place to be safe and live her life. I also liked Fran's dad, a sensible man doing his best to bring up his daughter after his wife's death.

While perhaps seeming a little slow at first (after the immediate blazing opening) this is a book to cherish and linger over: Just pay close attention, enjoy the texture of Carey's writing and take in the story - whether the daily routine of Liz's life, insights on race and high school (Zac is white, Fran in black, which features in their relationship's ups and downs), policing, life on the edge of poverty,  or just the gradual construction of the trap in which everyone here is caught. Watch for that - you'll see it closing but you might not see it... if you get my drift.

Relax and take all that, and more, in, as the sense of menace gathers and the tempo quickens, because once things pick up... just wow. You'll be clenched tighter than a clenched fist. There is danger - physical danger, moral danger, risks to relationships, risks to reputations and real damage that will take time to heal - if it can ever heal at all. Mysteries do seem become clear, but at the end, a shadow still seems to hang over Liz and Fran, and I wonder if they can ever really get clear of it?

An excellent book all round, certainly up with the best of Carey's writing to date and possibly a shade better.

26 October 2018

Review - I Only Killed Him Once by Adam Christopher

I Only Killed Him Once (LA Trilogy, 3)
Adam Christopher
Titan Books, 10 July 2018
PB, 224pp

I'm grateful to Titan for a review copy of this book.

This review first appeared on Shiny New Books here.

This is the final outing, as far as I'm aware (though it would be nice to have more), for Ray Electromatic, Adam Christopher's wise-cracking, Chandleresque robot detective and hitman. Ray's investigations (and assignments) are made more difficult by the fact that his memory tape only lasts for 24 hours. After that he shuts down, to be awoken by the sultry Ada, his computer-embodied secretary to "another beautiful day in Hollywood, California", with a fresh assignment and no knowledge of what's gone before.

Ray was first introduced - as detective - in Made to Kill, where, apart from cracking the case, he discovered his true nature as a killer. The pattern of revelations as to Ray's background continued in Killing is my Business (no spoilers!) so with the present book we're primed, perhaps, for the focus of the case to be on Ray, what he is, where he came from - and what his future will be.

While the stories are set in the late 50s or early 60s, some years after an attempt at introducing human-like robots - of which Ray is the last - has been dropped, Adam Christopher beautifully evokes the noirish detective classics of the 40s, both in setting and language:

"They say you should never start with the weather, but look, it was a dark and stormy night and I don't care who knows it".

I Only Killed Him Once is peppered with references to the classics, from the idea of having a man come through a door with a gun (but who, Ray wonders, said that?) to men in black suits to the diner late at night where Ray observes his latest target through the rain. (There is a repeated focus on looking in and out of windows - of various sorts - which made me thing of Edward Hopper's paintings).

There are other, more recent, references too:

'"Work of art, that is" he said. "Frame that; you could hang it in the Louvre."

"Somewhere in the back," said Philip from the memory machine.

"Hey, who cares, still the Louvre."'

I wouldn't want to give the impression, though, that this book is only enjoyable for its allusions, like some kind of puzzle. There is much more to it. I loved that way that Ray struggled with his memory limitations, still recognisably the same character even as he tells his story in a recurring, continuous present. I liked his being the same character but developing (and challenging the idea that you make a robot once, to do a  certain task perfectly, and it never changes). The curious relationship he has with Ada (who is a whole other mystery) is touching. A book like this could so easily become just a challenge - write a Chanleresque detective story who protagonist is a robot - but Christopher does so much more than that.

While, to a degree, this story is wrapping up loose ends and bringing a conclusion, Christopher gives us a good meaty plot, plenty of action and a lot of mystery. Great reading, and full of ideas, this is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy and recommended whether you like SF, crime or just want to see how the two come together.

24 October 2018

Blogtour review - Trap by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Trap (Reykjavik Noir, 2)
Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 18 October 2018
PB, e 230pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour and for letting me have an advance copy of Trap.

This is the sequel to Snare, picking up the story with the two women Sonja and Agla far apart - Sonja has fled with her young son Tómas and is hiding out in Florida - perhaps as much from her feelings about Agla as from her ex husband Adam. Agla in turn is sunk in misery, mitigated by booze and drugs, at home in Iceland. (I loved the portrayal of the ,lovesick Agla, pining for Sonja).

But things don't last that way for long.

Pretty soon Sonja's back home in Iceland - without even the chance to buy some warm clothes - and is again under the thumb of ex husband Adam "the slave driver" for whom she's required to smuggle drugs into the county.

And Agla's pulled herself out of her slough of despond. She knows she'll do some time in prison for the financial scams she took part in, but not much - a lot of the truth never came out - and she's cheered by Sonja's return, so sets about a new tranche of financial chicanery to dig herself out of the hole the first lot got her into...

I really enjoyed this pacy, well constructed novel and its three women protagonists, the third being María the police investigator who's been looking into Agla's past misdeeds. Each is, in a different way, subject to the wants and whims of powerful men - Sonja, to Adam, and the appalling Mr José (a drugs boss who keeps a tiger in his basement) and a collection of thugs and goons they employ to carry out their narco crimes, Agla to the executives in the bank she used to work for and María to her male colleagues and superiors who seem to be playing games and using her to go where they wouldn't dare tread.

Each, in their various ways, plots to get out and to get free. 

It's only though when Sonja meet Mr José's glamorous wife Nati that the chain of events begins that might shake things up.

This is a really fun book. The characters, especially Sonja, are driven from one tight corner to another with thing just seeming to get worse and worse. They make some terrible mistakes, but on the whole they're smart and sharp, doing the best they can. That makes for a satisfying and tense novel. But this book has an emotional punch too - a whole flurry of punches coming at the reader from all directions. There's Sonja's desperation at being sucked back into cocaine smuggling. There are the various relationships - Agla's desperate desire for Sonja, revealed in the blundering ways she tries to restart their romance; Sonja's protectiveness for her son; even Bragi's (the corrupt Customs man) need to make his wife's last days as comfortable and safe as he can.

And there's also the seething, scalding rage that Sigurðardóttir directs at those who trapped Iceland in the financial scandal - Agla and her ilk, but mostly the higher ups who were never brought to justice. It's not that the book is filled with rants, but we see how everyone's been hit by the crash, and what it has wrought. While the drugs smugglers portrayed here are undoubtedly evil men (mainly men) there's a question left hanging about whether others, who are no less evil and have probably caused more damage, aren't getting away unscathed.

As ever, Quentin Bates' translation conveys the story clearly in English while leaving a hint of the original, so you recognise that the story's set abroad - a difficult balance to keep.

I'd strongly recommend this book.

You can buy it here from your local independent bookshop via Hive, here from Waterstones or here from Amazon. Other suppliers are also available.

Do look out for other stops on the blogtour, there are some fantastic reviewers here!

20 October 2018

Review - The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

The Labyrinth Index (Laundry Files)
Charles Stross
Orbit, 30 October 2018
HB, 454pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book (thanks Nazia!)

Stross's Laundry Files are now, I think, his most numerous and long lasting series, running to eight or nine novels (with The Labyrinth Index) and several novellas and short stories (depending how you count the stories in The Atrocity Archives, the first book).

While always having at its centre The Laundry itself, the UK's occult service ("occult secret service" would be a tautology, no?) which is lovingly portrayed with all its bureaucratic quirks and terrors, the books really come into their own in disassembling and rebuilding the Lovecraft mythos to fit a world of coders, geeks and cubicles. Stross has lots of fun with this (and with geek culture more generally) but there's no disguising the cosmic horror that increasingly hangs over these books.

As The Labyrinth Index opens with a particularly chilling execution scene, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is active and the Laundry has fallen, with the Black Pharaoh, N'yar Lat-Hotep, assuming power as the UK's Prime Minister. The New Management is in charge, the lesser of two evils, apparently. Well, at least it's a change from the previous Government, and should liven things up? They can't really be that bad?

I mean, things can't get any worse, can they?

Can they...?

I really take my hat off to the way Stross has followed through the logic of power politics to root his Lovecraftian singularity in a firmly credible, modern day setting. The world of the Laundry Files is not all crazed cultists in the woods but well-financed televangelists, crooked bankers and, of course, venal politicians. Very much like our own. And over the series the cast of characters in these books has expanded to reflect this, Stross introducing not only new human members of the Laundry staff but elves, vampires and superheroes too, all of it plausibly done with explanations for everything rooted in the idea that computation is magic.

In The Labyrinth Index, the Prime Minister commands His servants to investigate why the US President has gone missing. A complex, if desperate plan is devised to infiltrate the United States (with the US equivalent of the Laundry referred to as the Nazgûl, the line "One does not simply walk into Mordor" can be deployed unironically...) The activity here is underpinned by the usual meticulous degree of research, and it could, you know, all perfectly well work, given the premise of computational demonology.

Central to all this is Mhairi, the PHANG who did actually appear in The Atrocity Archives but then faded from sight for a while. She has the central role in this book, as Baroness Karnstein, the new PM's fixer but is supported by, for the first time, pretty much everyone we've met so far (including an elven vampire necromancer who's on the autistic spectrum. Great to meet you, Marisol!) In fact almost the only regular characters we see little of are Bob, who has new responsibilities as avatar of the Eater of Souls, and Mo. Hopefully they'll be back again soon but in the meantime it's good to see this story told through other eyes. Mhairi is an engaging lead, concealing a fair amount of her history from us but also clearly wracked by shock and guilt that she has to consume blood to live.

Guilt is fairly widespread in fact as the very act of submitting to N'yar Lat-Hotel takes its toll, even if He is a relatively sparing Lord. In the USA the Black Chamber have taken a different tack, and for once it's hard to argue that our friends in the Laundry are on firmer moral ground, even if the entity they deal with seems less far reaching in His evil. All choices are bad, everything leads to ruin, seems to be the subtext.

But while the world merrily rattles off to Hell in its accelerating handcart, we can still have some fun - the bone violin plays a good jig - and The Labyrinth Index serves plenty of that up, whether you're into a solid, clever plot, sly humour with a point (there's a running gag about the problems in the US - when people go to sleep, they forget who the President is, allowing his enemies to write him out of reality. So there are plenty of allusions to those who know what's going as being "awake"... but not everyone wants to be awake...) or just excellent storytelling.

At the same time, the book moves us forward into Stross's Apocalypse. The tipping point in this universe was reached, I think, a couple of books ago, but so far it hasn't been clear what exact form the catastrophe might take. Now things seem to be getting clearer, and the pace picking up.

In short this series shows no sign of tailing off, rather it seems to be getting stronger and stronger. I really can't wait to see what Stross serves up next.

14 October 2018

Review - Hallowdene by George Mann

Design by Julia Lloyd
Hallowdene (Wychwood, 2)
George Mann
Titan Books, 18 September 2018
PB, 332pp

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

In the sequel to Wychwood, Elspeth Reeves, ex London journalist returned to her roots in rural Oxfordshire, is back with a new case to investigate.

The idea of meddling archaeologists digging up something they shouldn't and unleashing dark forces isn't exactly new, but Mann handles it with aplomb, delighting in the conventions while subtlety twisting them. He gives us the eccentric villager warning of what will happen, sketches the background to the dig and brings in a whole host of rivalries and disputes that will cloud the picture - an argument over land, money problems, a rather nasty old man who won't keep his hands off waitress Daisy in the tea room, a rebellious daughter, and so on.

All in the pristine heart of rural England, overseen by the somewhat bemused DS Peter Shaw, Elspeth's sometime boyfriend.

If that makes you think of a certain long running ITV cosy crime series, I'm sure it's meant to and I mean that as no criticism. The tranquil village setting is just right to give substance and background when things begin to get dark and Mann creates a genuine air of uncertainty over just how far there really is a supernatural threat - in that respect the book is perhaps rather more nuanced than Wychwood - so the police investigation feels as though it has a real purpose, and isn't just a lot of bumbling coppers who should get out of the way so that the real facts can unfold.

It's also quite a page turner - I finished the book in a single day - and has some surprises up its sleeve before the end.  Elspeth's relationship with DS Shaw gets some focus as she weighs her options and is tempted back to the Big City by a friend with a job offer - both she and DS Shaw, who has a prospect of promotion, need to work out where their priorities lie (I'll let you guess what happens!)

The only reservation I had was the "ancient pagan traditions trope" (they are so often neither ancient nor pagan...) which I always find a little annoying - but let's be honest, it's so rife in popular culture that there's little point getting picky.

In all, then, a solid addition to what's clearly shaping up to be a series, somewhat pared down compared to Wychwood and with a creepy sense of ambiguity. This certainly deserves its place on your pre Hallowe'en reading list.

13 October 2018

Review - The Strange Casebook by Syd Moore

The Strange Casebook
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 31 October 2018
e-book only

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Strange Casebook via NetGalley.

These are short stories which mostly, though not all, take place in the world of Moore's Essex Witches novels - supernatural thrillers focussed on Rosie Strange and her family's museum in the village of Adder's Fork, Essex.

If you've read and enjoyed those books you'll have the chance to spot how the stories fit in to that world - either featuring moonier characters, member of Rosie's family, forming testimony given to the Museum or just appearing in Adder's Fork itself.

Death is a common theme here.

Death Becomes Her focuses on a policewoman we have seen before, and perhaps explains a bit about her.

Snowy is a gentle hymn to death and loss and perhaps - perhaps - to consolations beyond.

Madness in A Coruña is probably the longest story in the book, and is an effective and creepy ghost story, perhaps with an MR Jamesian bent. An unwary traveller to the Spanish city (yes, the same as in the poem by Charles Wolfe) discovers mysteries there. The city seems to be guarded against something. But is it guarded well enough? As this story came to a climax I found myself sitting forward and gripping my Kindle so tense did it get.

She Saw Three Ships is a delight, a whole story featuring Ethel-Rose and taking place in that most ghost haunted, uncanny of English counties, Cornwall. What happens when the locals make you unwelcome on the eve of a creepy local festival? Well, you dig in and see what peahens, obviously. This slice of folk hour is calculated to raise a shiver as Hallowe'en approaches.

Jocelyn's Story and The House on Savage Lane, are a different kind of story, the sort where the revelation of what is really going on is what drives the horror (even if you'd begun to guess as I did for the second, not the first) so I won't say much about them. I did, though, find Jocelyn's Story (which looks ahead to Strange Tombs, the next Essex Witch Museum book) to be genuinely strange and unsettling, a different sort of horror. The House on Savage Lane was a bit more conventional but still had a couple of effective twists.

So, great stories - whether read while you wait impatiently while you wait for Strange Tombs, or if you just want something a bit creepy for the lengthening evenings.

9 October 2018

Review - White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

White Dancing Elephants
Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Dzanc Books, 9 October 2018
PB, 208pp

I was very honoured that Chaya Bhuvaneswar asked me if I would like to review her new collection of short stories, White Dancing Elephants, and grateful to her for an advance copy to review.

About the Author

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Rumpus, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry in Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of colour.

In addition to the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection prize under which her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS will be released on Oct 9 2018, she recently received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Henfield award for her writing.

Her work received several Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year as well as a Joy Harjo Poetry Contest prize.

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS has also been nominated for a Kirkus award and NBCC award (first stage of each as candidate for the long lists).

My Review

This is a collection of seventeen excellent, eye opening stories, written with a sharp understanding of characters' background, motivation and self image (perhaps the author being a doctor helped here?)

These stories often revolve around loss, abuse and identity and the range of stories in the volume means these themes are visited from different directions and through different eyes. There are missing parents, siblings, lost children and abuse as well as missed (or simply, not taken) turns in life - but also friendships and hope.  Cultural identities clash, both between and within protagonists, and these characters and their worlds are often caught in the long shadow of colonialism.

The titular story, White Dancing Elephants, heaves with loss, written almost as a love letter by a woman to - well, you'll have to read it to find out who. On a visit to London and then Oxford she turns over what is gone, what might be to come and how things might have been different. It's so poignant but also strong, hopeful. (I live near Oxford and on a personal note appreciated a glimpse here not of the honeyed stones and dreaming spires but of the bustle of the Cowley Road.)

The Story of the Woman Who fell in Love with Death tells of a boy and his missing sister. She's an absence that mustn't be mentioned, a gap he questions and mourns as he grows up. Bhuvaneswar skilfully makes this woman who never appears in the story as much of a filled out character as anyone who does. Again there is a sharp sense of loss here, and a mystery that's never (I think) completely cleared up.

Kalinda, in Talinda is "not long for this world". While she slowly dies of stomach cancer, a little tragedy plays out with her friend Narika and husband George. Again the theme of children, of childlessness and - child fulness??? - plays out. This is a sad story, the countdowns of death and birth overlapping and Bhuvaneswar convoys a chilling, even wicked sense of stolen lives, of alternatives lost, her characters waiting for what will happen.

Some of the stories in this book are very painful, though it isn't always clear at first. A Shaker Chair  is one of those. It documents the relationship between a psychotherapist and her client, delicately tracing the web of alliances and prejudices in Boston between those of African and of Asian heritage, the tension made pointed as Sylvia, the therapist has a father with a Ugandan African background, bringing with him a certain outlook and issues. ("Like most Indians Sylvia had ever known - actually like most Asians in general - this girl Maya... was conscientious, consistent... Paying for each psychoanalysis session... with bedraggled wads of cash that looked like the contents of the cash register at some filthy curry restaurant.") The relationship that unfolds between the two women is painful, tender, delicate as they negotiate their way through unspoken truths - but it ends in catastrophe, perhaps one that Sylvia always felt coming?

Jagatishwaran is a story, perhaps of a lost brother... but Jagatishwaran has not gone but stayed, after some illness or episode in his earlier life he's becomes settled at home, stuck, perhaps suffering from something but still observant of the currents and tensions in his Bombay [sic] home. Unlike many of the characters in this book he hasn't got out to get on but in not doing so he creates a kind of statement. Well observed, well paced, this story charts Jagatishwaran's life in exquisite detail.

The Bang Bang is the name of the New York bar where immigrant chauffeur Millind wanders into a poetry slam and changes his life for ever. Told from his daughter's point of view - a daughter who loses her brother and mother and almost fades out of existence herself as her father unexpectedly takes the spotlight - this is a novel in miniature, a probing, haunting account of cultures and lives and ultimately of hope.

Orange Popsicles is a story whose content will be clear pretty much from the first page. It is about a woman, Jayanti, who has been raped on her university campus. The story tells us what went before and what happens after. It's, perhaps, a starkly relevant story not only because of the present climate but - as I read it - in timing, I'm writing this review as the US Senate votes on filling their Supreme Court vacancy.

Bhuvaneswar spares nothing here as she shows how the situation was set up, how is preyed on, blames herself, and what she manages to collect together of herself afterwards. I fine story but one I'm sure some readers will find very hard to bear.

Neela: Bhopal is also hard to bear, for different reasons. It's another where the reader will think they know from the start pretty much what's going to happen, but Bhuvaneswar manages, if anything, to make this tragedy of four siblings even more haunting than you'd expect.

Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold is the story I enjoyed most in this collection. It's about Mikki, a young woman taking part in a retreat for "indigenous or Third World woman writers". The retreat takes place in what seems like most uncomfortable surroundings, a series of caves on a remote island. (Men used to attend as well, but have been excluded ("in the early years, some men were caught lurking at the entrances of certain women's caves, or following especially lovely women home...") Despite the uncomfortable sounding surroundings, it gives Mikki an opportunity to reflect on her life, partly through the medium of an imagined (or is he?) - what? Lover? Interviewer? - with whom she gradually builds a relationship. This person, Harry, may or may not have played many roles in her life. Mikki compares and contrasts him to her husband, reflects on their lack of children - and moves into a future. Treading a line between romance and horror, this is one of the strangest stories in the book.

Heitor is also unusual in the collection in being historical rather than set in the present day. In 1545, Indian slave Heitor awaits punishment at the Portuguese convent where he serves. We gradually learn how he was trafficked there, and why he's to be punished. I don't want to say much about what takes place but it does seem to me to be an absolute affirmation of love and hope in the face of terror and oppression. A fine story.

Newberry is the story of a disregarded, undervalued person - Vinita, who works in a hairdressing salon to pay for her fathers' nursing care - and of how she uses where she is and what she can get to make a life for herself and to safeguard her family. It's a clever story and one with a real sense of tension.

Asha in Allston reminded me of an episode of Black Mirror. A story with science fictional overtones, it features an enthusiastic engineer who's created, it seems, a perfect substitute for his wife ("you have her download stored somewhere permanent").  Bhuvaneswar gives us the wife's perspective on this situation, and her eventual response.

The Life You Save Isn't Your Own is about a moment in the life of Seema Venkatramanan who has made "all the wrong choices" leaving her childless ("On top of that, Anand was sterile") and in a job she doesn't really enjoy ("Seema has sold out and gone into managed healthcare"). Coincidence means she visited the Uffizi in Florence a few weeks before a bombing and fire that took the life of a child. Could she, Seema asks herself, have made any difference had she been there when it happened?

The Orphan Handler is a really, really creepy story, again on the cusp of being horror, with aspects of child trafficking, magic and abuse. I found it a deeply ambiguous story, both as to what really happens and what one is to make of the situation. Very though-provoking.

In Allegheny is told from the point of view of Michelle, a doctor, and opens as she attends a festival by invitation of "a neighbour" at the local Hindu temple. As Michelle intervenes in a medical emergency, she has an opportunity to reflect on her relationship with John, who has been in India and considers he understands that culture. I found it a very moving and touching story.

I, personally, found The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling a very hard read. It's a clever story, exploring several different themes: as in much of this book, the contrast between East and West, arrival and acclimatisation (not assimilation), the place, or absence, of a child in the family and also the behaviour of men and women. Lakshmi and Gopi are parents of two children, son Romesh who has been sent away to school and daughter Shree who has learning disabilities. I found it hard to distance myself from this situation as I have an adult daughter with learning disabilities. It can be a very hard situation and I found it impossible not to judge Gopi for his failure to grasp the situation: he comes over as petulant, selfish and lacking empathy. I think Bhuvaneswar is actually being more nuanced and saying something about the whole situation, about the other family members and about Shree herself. It's a vivid story well worth pondering and one that left me very uneasy.

Adristakama, the final story in this volume, is about Lauren and narrator Nisha, two young women who have been lovers. Nisha broke off their relationship and returned to India to marry. Another story full of might-have-beens, or possibilities unrealised and maybe yet to come, this is a bitter, moody little piece to end the collection on, yet not without hope. An enjoyable story.

Follow Chaya on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.

Buy White Dancing Elephants from Amazon UK
But White Dancing Elephants from Amazon US
Buy White Dancing Elephants from Waterstones

6 October 2018

Review - A Blade So Black by LL McKinney

Design by Julia Lloyd
A Blade So Black
LL McKinney
Titan Books, 25 September  2018
PB, 396pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of A Blade So Black.

I love "Wonderland with a twist" novels so was delighted to be offered this by Titan (thanks, Lydia!) and it didn't let me down.

In this imagining of the story, Alice is a young black woman living in Atlanta. Alongside the exploration of Wonderland and the trips there and back, and the revelation of something nastier and more threatening in that world, there is a perceptible sense of worry, almost claustrophobia due to the social reality that brings. Another young black woman, Brionne, has been killed by the police.

People are angry.

Parents are worried.

Alice's mother isn't happy about her being out at night - it's not safe.

So where the blurb compares the book to Buffy (a young woman on patrol for demons that have slipped through into our world), yes that's part of it but... it's different too. Alice faces other dangers than the Nightmares that she hunts down with Addison Hatta, more prosaic dangers perhaps but no less real. What are the risks of being caught wandering in the small hours with a pair of deadly sharp daggers? You can see how that might go. Buffy might get out of this - Alice won't.

It's a refreshingly modern, refreshingly different take on Alice. All of the familiar elements are there - sometimes easier, sometimes harder to spot (my favourite was Maddi, the incarnation of the Dormouse). McKinney throws things up in the air a bit, so as well as the White Knight becoming an "armoured hottie" we have not one but two Black Knights, both with Vorpal Swords, and a considerably more athletic pair takes the roles of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

It is all, I sense,  done with a great deal of love and respect for the original material but not without criticism of the nursery bound, slightly weird world that carroll span. McKinney creates something all her own, something utterly new, fun, and above all, sharp - one might even say, vorpal sharp.

For example, when the fights happen, boy are they fights - you don't only get a recitation of the moves and counter moves, you get the feelings, the exultation, despair and fear as things go first one way then another. And the characters and relationships here are all so well drawn, too, they pull you in right from the first page where we see Alice running in fear from... what? Towards... what?

This book is clearly the first in a series and I can't wait to see what comes next. I don't think McKinney has exhausted the storehouse of Wonderland yet, but even more importantly, I think she has a lot more to say about Alice, Court, Chess, and the rest.

Bring it on.

4 October 2018

Review - The Corset by Laura Purcell

Cover by David Mann
The Corset
Laura Purcell
Raven Books, 20 September 2018
HB, 416pp

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

The Corset stitches together the lives of two young women in (I think) the early Victorian period.

Dorothea Truelove is an heiress in her mid 20s, unmarried, socially isolated since her (deceased0 mother converted to Roman Catholicism and in danger of being labelled a spinster. While she fills her time productively with prison visiting and the study of phrenology (the notion, long since disproved, that character and behaviour could be inferred by measurements of the head) this isn't enough to satisfy her father that she has a decent place in Society and she's being encouraged - rather, pressured - to find a husband.

Ruth Butterham has fallen on very hard times. Raised in genteel poverty, she has lost both her parents and, though a truly awful chain of circumstances, ended in prison, still in her teens, accused of murder. The irony of this is that as we gradually learn, her situation in New Oakgate Prison is less precarious - the charge apart - than much of her life to date.

We hear Ruth's story as told to Dorothea, who has her own agendas and prejudices - trying to reconcile what she's told with head measurements, musing on how far the character is fixed or can improve (we learn the reason for her obsession with that very late in the book) and, very gradually, falling apart because of the tension between her love - or perhaps infatuation - with David, a handsome (but poor) police constable, and the pressure to marry some fusty (but rich) suitor.

I found Dorothea, for much of a book, to be a rather annoying character. At first she seems introduced mainly as a device to narrate Ruth's much more interesting (and often harrowing) story and as such, she often seems to slow down, comment on or filet what Ruth's trying to tell us. While Dorothea's own family situation is less than ideal she seems, to use a modern concept, very unconscious of her privilege and it's easy to dislike her.

That would, though, be a mistake. I won't say much because of spoilers but Dorothea does have her own interest in Ruth's story and while her situation may seem less desperate, she is also a woman in a nakedly patriarchal society, unlikely to be able to find happiness or indeed, any life at all in which her own choices are respected.

In that respect Dorothea's in the same situation as Ruth. Purcell is an adept at plotting, and you can only really appreciate how the two women's experiences intertwine and question each other once you've finished the book. In the same way, you can only understand the hints of the supernatural which runs like a silver thread through the story when all the acts of this tragedy are completed. And when you grasp both those things I think you'll forgive a lot - not least Dorothea's air of self-satisfaction ("David lacks my discipline, even with his police training") and judgement, and Ruth's fatalism and self-doubt - because it's clear these things have been instilled in the two. Dorothea notes that "As with most female subjects, a hollow is apparent at Self-Esteem". Ruth is convinced of her own guilt, and who's going to take the trouble to review what really happened and decide whether that actually is the case? The arm of the patriarchy here is indeed long, and strong. A great theme of this book is the way men treat women and indeed, the way they treat women with whom they have become bored, or who are inconvenient or socially embarrassing: the book is scathing and illustrates this cruelty from many different angles - without ever yielding men the chief place in the story. What happens here is sometimes painful to read, but I found my reading sustained by a sympathy for Ruth and a growing sympathy for Dorothea. They are great characters.

What I found slightly harder at first was what I saw as a sense of unevenness in the language. This is a Victorian set novel, and the characters generally behave and speak as Victorians yet we also sometimes get what to me look like very modern phrases: "I'm going to check you",  "set it up", "crime scene" or "We're in this together, now". It's hard to think Purcell would be sloppy about such matters - much of the prose in this book is so on point: (repeated references to the copper smell of money, "The spirit went but the filth lingered", "It whispered of revenge and power, of taking back control" and many, many more) that I suspect either she knows from her research that these phrases are perfectly apt (I recal my reaction the first time I came across the mention of baseball in Jane Austen) or, perhaps, more daringly, that they are a hint we should be a bit more generous in seeing "historical" characters as "people like us".

After all, unless you were Boris Johnson, you wouldn't pick up a book set in Ancient Rome and expect it to be in Latin. And there's little that is worse that an over-fusty pastiche, Wilkie Collins style.

I hope this is, in the end, a minor criticism.  The book as a whole is so convincing, has so much truth and, to continue the (relevant) fabric metaphor, is so deftly woven together. It is a heartfelt book, a damning book, an exciting book and above all, a thoroughly enthralling book which simply demands to be finished.

For more information about The Corset, see the publisher's website here.

3 October 2018

What I Did at the Weekend (or at least, Saturday)

I was very, very lucky to receive an invitation (thank you, Clare!) to the Hot Key bloggers' brunch which took place at their offices in Wimple Street, London last Saturday. I didn't see any Barretts or for that matter any Brownings, but there were a LOT of enthusiastic bloggers and two great authors on top form - Alexandra Christo, reading from her latest, To Kill a Kingdom (and, though avoiding spoilers, from her next book too) and Sebastien de Castell who read from Soulbinder, the fourth book in the Spellslinger sequence, which is out shortly. (I've read it and I think it's the best so far).

Enthusiastic bloggers....
My morning started of frustratingly because my train was cancelled so I arrived late - but there was food left, the authors were still to talk, and I managed to squeeze inside (just - it was a very tight fit: this was a popular event).

And the frustration soon evaporated as Alex and Sebastien (are Hot Key authors chosen for their impressive names?) read from their books and took questions.

Sebastien had come wearing a shirt and tie, so tried to insist that any questions to him were formal, grammatically correct and polite. But he then undermined that by telling a complicated story about the time he appeared in public with a guitar and dressed in a toga.

It didn't get any more genteel. The two authors seemed to competing for some kind of gore prize. In Soulbinder, Sebastien, told us, Reichis finally gets to eat an eyeball. But he's got nothing on Lira in Alex's To Kill a Kingdom. She's an assassin mermaid who collects hearts ("I have a heart for every year I've been alive"). That got a cheer from the assembled bloggers.

Happily (I was still eating my breakfast) the questions after that were less... gutsy... and more... writer-y. How do you write a book? How do you get it done, and how do you produce something readable? As to the first - write something every day, easy Alex. But deadlines help - HAVING to get finished. She admits though that she prefers writing the first draft (when it's a "jumble") to polishing (which Sebastien enjoys). Both authors agree it’s not about a writing formula, as “how to write your book” advice often says. It’s about characters, and the writing. Great characters and crap story works; the other way doesn’t.

Sebastien talks about the moment when he knows "what the book is about" and things get easier. But It’s taking longer and longer for this to happen with the Spellslinger series - only at the proof stage with Soulbinder!
Sebastien reading
Getting back on topic, she's asked whether she will write any more set in the world of To Kill a Kingdom. That story is done, she says, but she does have more to say about some of the characters in that world (this was warmly received by the audience). With that, the talking was over and the signing began. It was impressive how many bloggers had
Asked about the relationship with an editor, Alex says this is key. Writing is so solitary, sharing with an editor is vital. Sebastien agrees, praising Jo Fletcher (who is the toughest editor in the world - she once foiled a bomb plot!) he does say, though, that he doesn't read the edits, he accepts all - then when he reworks he won't know whether he's amending the edits or his own stuff ("As a dude you learn there’s a propensity to overvalue your own opinion").  There's a secret revealed here - a Greatcoats reference in the Spellslinger series, though Jo had forbidden him to link the worlds up. In Sebastien's mind though they clearly are and he explains just how...

Alexandra reading
Alex admits she DOESN’T want “I have a heart for every year I’ve been alive” carved on her gravestone (don’t ask how we got to that) but Sebastien says he’ll program an android to inscribe it... Unsettling...

Getting back on topic, she's asked whether she will write any more set in the world of To Kill a Kingdom. That story is done, she says, but she does have more to say about some of the characters in that world (this was warmly received by the audience). With that, the talking was over and the signing began. It was impressive how many bloggers had brought in armfuls of books and both authors took their time, answering further questions (I can reveal that so far two illustrators have tried and failed to draw maps of the Spellslinger world).

It was a great chance to connect with two fantastic authors, to find out more about how they worked and to see what they've got coming for us.

And I brought some books home too...

2 October 2018

Review - Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell

Soulbinder (Spellslinger 4)
Sebastien de Castell (illustrated by Sam Hadley)
Hot Key Books, 4 October 2018
HB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Soulbinder via Netgalley.

This is the fourth in de Castell's fantasy series featuring exiled Jan'Tep mage Kellen Argos and his formidable "business partner", squirrel cat Reichis. It follows Spellslinger, Shadowblack and Charmcaster (mild spoilers for which may follow).

As was clear from the end of Charmcaster, Kellen is now alone (apart from Reichis) and when we meet him again at the start of Soulbinder, he is at his wits' end in the desert ("the desert is a liar"). It's the moment when in previous books Ferius would have pulled off some stroke or other and saved the day - but Ferius isn't there. Kellen has left her. He is forced back on his own resources, and they're running very low. Soon even more challenges arrive, combining family loyalties, Jan'Tep plots to wipe out those infected with the shadowblack, and counterplots by a whole community of the shadow touched.

Soulbinder is in many ways a bleaker book than those which came before, as Kellen makes a journey into darkness on several levels. The shadowblack continues to spread. Kellen doesn't know who to trust, or how to save what he loves. Not only must he cope with all this alone, bearing a crushing loss and suffering the pain of betrayal ("I hated my sister. I loved my sister") even more sharply than before. Not only being treated as a spy, and being unable to manipulate the shadows, just as he can't use Jan'Tep magic.

More than all this, I think, Kellen sees again what he is missing - the home he was exiled from and the friendships he can't be part of because he is hunted and outlawed. For much of this book he's trying to work out how, if at all, he can fit in with a whole pack of new shadowcasters but Kellen's not used to this (as we have seen before) - Jan'Tep society is much more hierarchical and since he left it he's been in strange company and generally fighting for his life. Not the best way to learn social graces.

Yet a great deal hangs on Kellen's success. Not only Kellen's own life, but that of someone else very close to him, and potentially those of the new "friends" and their community in Ebony Abbey, to which exiles cursed by the shadow black make their way for sanctuary. There's also the question of what's wanted from him - this book sees the powerful trying to tempt him to their side with plausible arguments and it's as much Kellen's moral compass that is tested as his courage and ingenuity. (We can see what de Castell feels about these blandishments fro m the chapter headings, where various nuggets of folk wisdom are expounded and then dismissed scathingly:

"A king rules not for himself, but for his people. Thus he can not be bound by conscience, but must instead be guided by every deed necessary for the survival of his realm.

- Platitude frequently used by arseholes to justify their actions"

I think Kellen steps up to all these challenges very well, much better than in the previous books - effectively he has much more responsibility now, even if he still despairs at what he has to do as he walks The Way of Thunder ("I hate this. I hate this. I hate this") and he has clearly learned a great deal from Ferius as well as from Reichis and even his own family. There is a sense he's growing, even if he hasn't had a decent night's sleep or a square meal for months. It probably needed Kellen to lose his companions for this to happen, but I do hope he meets up with some of them again soon because while it's still very entertaining, there isn't so much fun without, say, Ferius to annoy Kellen.

Finally. Being very careful, again, about spoilers, there's something that happens in this book that had me practically cursing de Castell. Which is a kind of backhanded tribute, I suppose, to how real he makes his characters and the events in the books, and how much the reader cares about what happens.  It's an ability not all authors, even good authors, possess so I can only be grateful that he's writing these books and that there are more to come. But - SEBASTIEN, SEBASTIEN!

So. Buy this book. Read this book, and look forward to Queenslayer.

Oh, and Kellen now has an Argosi name, which I think we didn't know before (maybe I missed it). We learn it at the very end of the book and I won't tell you  what it is but I think it's very appropriate.