12 November 2019

#Review Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Jacket design by Nico Taylor
Stubborn Archivist
Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Fleet/ Little Brown, 21 February 2019
HB, 362pp

This is the first of four reviews I'm doing as part of shadow judging the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. I am part of the Shadow Panel which will make its own choice from the shortlist for the award.

The four shortlisted books are Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/ Little, Brown), Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) and salt slow by Julia Armfield (Picador).

About the author

Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Stubborn Archivist, published in 2019 in the UK and USA, is her first novel. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.

About the book

"A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity."

My review

Stubborn Archivist is a novel exploring the experiences and identity of a young woman of Brazilian-English heritage. Born in London to a Brazilian mother and an English father, she, the archivist of the title (which is I think an allusion to her role in observing her family) narrates her early life (borrowing from family stories) and her memories of travelling to Brazil for family reunions at Christmas. We see her growing up in early 00s London, leaving for university, making and falling out of friendships and always, always, returning to Brazil.

It's all beautifully, even poetically portrayed but it's impossible to convey that with a carefully selected quote or two because - and this is the first thing I need to say about Stubborn Archivist  - the book is (for me) very experimental in its structure (or perhaps, rather, in its form?) Rodrigues Fowler delights in space, allowing her text almost to dance against the blankness - a handful of worlds will be emphasised by being printed alone at the top of a page, or bleeding down the side




She enthusiastically jumbles her sentences in places or runs words together, creating something much more like the patterns and rhythms of thoughts and feelings than conventional text.

There are pages with a block of text at the top and nothing after. There are words which morph into one another down the page, stretching meanings into sounds and sounds into meaning and playing to the rhythms of language (something very important in this book where there is a running point about people not being able to pronounce the Archivist's name: 'What's your name? He repeated the syl-la-bles.').

Now I thought I couldn't do with this sort of thing (trying to describe it, I realise I've probably made it seem very pretentious) and I worried, when I opened Stubborn Archivist, that it would be a barrier for me. But I found it all actually worked very well and far from being a barrier, it opened up the world of the Archivist and her family, removing the sense of distance that can be created by prose (however polished, perhaps especially if polished) and giving the book a much less formal air that complements its subjects and themes very well.

The book works on you at a different level than plot, sentences and logic, whispering through its convolved text to tell you about its themes - growing up, origins, belonging, not belonging. We are given scenes in the Archivist's life. There are events in her childhood both from her own perspective and as passed on to her by her family, for example the first visit of her Brazilian grandparents - her beloved Vovô and Vovó - to her parents' small London flat when she's a baby. We see the little surprises, the accommodations, as English and Brazilian cultures encounter one another and the ways in which they merge, jostle and accept each other, lubricated, as it were, by familial love (and with some effort, at times).

That basic picture endures as the Archivist grows up, the story taking in joyous, illicit teenage evenings out in London with her friend Jade, experiences with boys, and her exploration of her family's past. There is both acceptance and rejection of those different underlying cultures (the latter when a friendship founders as the friend wants to visit Brazil but can't shed her preconceptions), a romance that peters out, symbolised by the boyfriend wanting to impose his views over hairstyle, and, a recurring theme, the question (from both Brazilans and English) "But when did you move to London?"

It's perhaps symbolised most by the layered descriptions of the flight between England and Brazil. As a child (the first being beyond memory). As a teenager, doing it alone for the first time. As a seasoned traveller, who knows just what to pack and how, where to sit, how to make the flight work for her. And I haste, for a funeral. These layers build up, both distinct and, somehow, existing together, illuminating each other so that it's almost as if several different women are making the trip together.

In the same way, events bleed out of one context and into another and some of those more poetic renderings intercut, playing with worlds, morphing them from English to Portuguese, almost singing names and phrases. There are the different challenges laid down to the reality of this Anglo-Brazilian woman - not only the "When did you move...?" but the assumptions about her and the two sides of her family. An employer (a media organisation) seems to see her as "their Brazilian" and sets her to researching cosmetic surgery or gang violence. But at the same time, working in the staff restaurant, is Tiago, a much more interesting subject of research...

This is a book that's impossible to summarise. There are so many threads. It looks back to Brazilian politics in the 90s, with police brutality and disappearances. It takes in something that happened to the protagonist, which has left her, at some level, traumatised and uneasy, possibly with physical consequences - whatever happened is hinted at and explored here but rarely confronted, although it does seem to come to a resolution. And that stands for much of this book in a way - all those layers, those different version of the same woman, lend the story a sense of completion so that the story isn't happening in front of us, as it were, more being documented - a kind of coolness in the perspective which contrasts with the closeness from the textual style.

It was a book I found easy to read, easy to take big gulps of, so to speak, a story and a life that really grabbed attention, told with great verve and compelling attention tuition from the reader. Truly a magnificent read and I book that I think I'll go back to, one with a great deal more to give on rereading.

For more information about Stubborn Archivist see the publisher's website here.

9 November 2019

Review - The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

The Secret Chapter (Invisible Library, 6)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan Macmillan, 14 November 2019
PB, e, 336pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e- copy of this book via NetGalley.

I've loved Cogman's Invisible Library series from the start. As an avid reader, the idea of a pan-dimensional Library staffed by kick-ass librarian-spies who play a valiant role in keeping the forces of chaos at bay across multiple words is just compelling. And Cogman's hero, Irene - a cross between book-lover and ruthless assassin - is wonderful. I think I've lost a bit of my heart to her.

So a new instalment is an eagerly awaited event, and I devoured this one once I got it on my e-reader. It's essentially a heist story - Irene and Kai have to team up with a pretty shady bunch (a gambler, a master thief, an IT guru, a scorching driver...) to steal... an object - not a book this time - from a tightly controlled museum. The team consists of both Fae and Dragons, and there are trust issues besides - some of them haven't even heard of the Truce! - so lots of scope for misunderstandings and mistakes, and it seems to fall to Irene to hold things together.

In this book Cogman is deliberately bouncing her story off classic heist tropes, walking a narrow path between, on the one hand, taking them too seriously and, on the other, just sending them up. So we have the Casino Scene (Irene done up in a little black dress and playing the gambler's moll), the crime boss's Island Base (complete with shark tank), the Getaway, the Shakedown, and many more. They're all handled deftly, dramatic and tense but just a little bit knowing - reflecting the fact that Cogman's Fae are creatures who by their nature aspire to fulfil archetypes, the more successful ones drawing others into their stories. They're opposed to the dragons, who stand for Order and Stability but - as gradually becomes clear in The Secret Chapter - not always in a way that leaves much scope for the freedom of the individual.

Amidst the almost nonstop action, this book begins to tease out such those underlying strains in Cogman's universe (Libraryverse?) revealing some new rivalries and teasing ethical dilemmas (Irene, worrying, reflects that nobody - Fae, Dragons or even the Library itself with its cheerful disregard of others' property - really possesses any moral high ground). We learn more about Irene's family (annoying, but dear to her) and - perhaps - glimpse the well-guarded history of the Dragons themselves.

And besides that we have Cogman's trademark wit ('An attempt by vampires to take over the Conservative party in Great Britain', 'The United Kingdom... did attempt to leave the European Union last year, but apparently that was prompted by demonic interference...') and some sharp writing ('as elegant as mathematics and as perfect as frost', 'Paranoia raised flags in Irene's mind and threw up fortifications'). It makes for a book that is simply a joy to read - deeply atmospheric where it should be, properly exciting when anything's going on as it generally is, and tender too. This is a series that shows absolutely no sign of losing pace, and I'm already impatient for the next.

Only two things I regretted.

First, not enough Vale.

Need. More. Vale.

Secondly - Genevieve, just what did you think you were putting Irene through in that scene towards the end? Doesn't she deserve a bit of dignity? I was almost shocked. Honestly.

For more about The Secret Chapter, see the publisher's website here.

7 November 2019

Review - Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas
Canongate, 7 November 2019
HB, 224pp

I was really pleased to be able to attend this book's launch on 4 November - see below the author reading from it and sharing anecdotes about touring schools to promote her children's books, which this is NOT one of - and I'm grateful to Canongate for a free advance e-copy of Oligarchy via Netgalley, to consider for review. (Quotes below come from that copy, and may not reflect the final text).

'Sometimes she also prays for peace, and joy, and to be thin. Sometimes she even prays for the villagers, that they might become thin too.'

The thing - one of many things - I like about Scarlett Thomas's books is that they always give something unexpected. There is no "just" to them. They are all recognisably hers, but they are also all very different and they all confound one's assumptions.

Scarlett Thomas and Francis Bickmore
So Oligarchy is a book about a group of schoolgirls, with a mystery element, but little detection - and at the same time it's a book about the pressures modern society imposes on young women - and at the same time, a book about friendship and abuse. It's also funny, sad and truthful.

As I started the book - with Russian oligarch's daughter Natalya ('but at home they call her Natasha') coming to a scuzzy English boarding school in the Midlands - I thought it might take a fantastic turn. The village boys howl like dogs outside the school gates at night. This is not a metaphor, but it's not pursued (which boys? why?)  There's also a distinctly gothic twist in the girls' mythology of the school, involving a drowning Princess, a Sultan and a diamond. The story hovers behind the action,  inspiring various events and being embroidered in various ways but as with those howling boys there is no "official" explanation.

Later, with deaths occurring, and an interesting sounding detective (DI Amaryllis Archer, in her jeans and high-heeled boots) appearing on the scene, I wondered about the mystery element - but while it's there and is, eventually, resolved (kind of) that's not central either at least not in detail.

Central, rather, are the lives of the girls and the caustic, pressured expectations on them in modern society. Tash, arriving from Russia, the recently discovered daughter of an oligarch who has plucked her from obscurity and stored her away for safekeeping, is our way into the group, whose members deform almost before our eyes under the weight of those expectations. There is Bianca ('She doesn't tell anyone about the sadness and the failure and the light inside her that is a bright white colour but is never bright or white enough'). Tiffanie, who plans her funeral 'which will have a botanical theme' and who is 'too lazy, too French and frankly too fucking cool to learn English pronunciation' and whose usage of 'Ange' for English 'ing' becomes a meme among the girls. There is Becky 'with the bad hair', the would-be Head Girl.

Thomas's eye for character here is so sharp, getting right inside (Tash's Aunt Sonya 'looks like money rather than sex or love') and it's the way her ensemble of memorable, real people - most of them young women - reacts to the stresses on them that makes this book come alive and forms the gothic heart of the novel (with the oft-quoted story of Princess Augusta the topping, perhaps). There's an atmosphere of confinement, or abandonment, to this group in their strange school and of a breakdown of their sense of identity as they try to be - something. All manner of fake science, folk wisdom and wishful thinking swill around concerning what one should and should not eat, what one should be and not be. The the urge to thinness becomes almost a contagion in itself, with its own heroes and victims.

There is no restraint, no voice of reason, and a palpable sense of the girls being alone - this seems to be a singularly ill-run school where there is no help, typified by an episode where a vomiting bug has broken out and they are simply left alone, in a dormitory, to wait it out - but also very much exposed to the ill winds of social media, to the expectations of teaches, gym trainers and shifty DJs in provincial basement nightclubs. The paradoxes of teenage life - of innocence and experience ('at fifteen you have to practice everything you plan to do') - are played out here as in countless other novels, but with I think a rare sharpness of observation and deftness of portrayal ('Suze likes drinking in a pub called the Marionette ("drinking in" not "going to")')

Behind all this there are Tash's memories of home, of her mother, her boyfriend. Behind it are her doubts about her place in England, her place in the world, above all, about her place in her father's orbit. Having 'found' her he is elusive. Aunt Sonya seems to have been given the job of looking after Tash. Possibly her father wants to marry her off to the son of a business associate (there's a strange episode where she's helicoptered out to a party in a remote castle, but like many scenes in this book Thomas gives only glimpses of this, returning to it, though, several times to draw out different aspects). The run-down, dangerous feeling school doesn't feel like a good place to be trying to resolve these issues, without support or guidance - but maybe the slightly fantastical, out of this world bubble universe, the intense relationship and teenage concerns are a good balance for those family concerns?

Oligarchy is a fascinating, provoking, book, a deeply human book and I think shows Thomas on top form. I strongly recommend it.

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

5 November 2019

Review - Crownbreaker by Sebastien de Castell

Cover illustration by Sam Hadley
Sebastien de Castell
Hot Key Books, 17 October 2019
HB, e, 504pp

I'm grateful to Hot Key Books for a free copy of Crownbreaker to consider for review.

It's always a bittersweet thing to come to the end of a great series. Nice to see everything wrapped up - but a parting from beloved characters - and it seems to come so soon. Yet here we are, at the end of de Castell's Spellslinger sequence, six books on (and every one of them an absolute, zinging, jawdropper of a book) with Crownbreaker itself fully living up its predecessors and Kellen, finally, growing into himself, showing what he's achieved and what he's learned.

And it's a joy to read, but I still felt sad.

There is a conscious air of things being completed. The war that has been brewing on the continent finally seems about to boil over, with a powerful nation, hitherto been occupied by internal disputes, about to unite. Kellen is tasked with stopping this by any means necessary to save both his birth home and the Jan'Tep, and his adopted land of Darome.

By any means necessary - even if it requires killing a child.

As you will guess at once that doesn't sit well with Kellen, and the involvement of his father and sister in the forces directing him only increases his unease. Through these stories, ever since being sent into exile, Kellen has remained stubbornly independent of his family, but his relationship with them is complex and this could mean a final choice for or against them. What's more, it's made clear to him that the errand in Berabesq is personal, affecting both his mother and Ferius.

This book is in some respects a simpler story than the earlier ones, or at least it seems to be: there is a straightforward, out and back structure with a goal to be achieved and - I think - less of a mystery about what's going on (though de Castells has some tricks up his sleeve, as does Kellen).

Instead, much of the weight of the story is on Kellen's moral dilemma, and on what - who - he wants to be, how he sees his future given the breach with his family and the ways of the Argosi, which mean he must also part from Ferius. So Kellen's ability to handle difficult situations even without Ferius's lead is key. In many respects she's trained him now, he is his own Argosi and equal to all of the other Paths of This and That. It's as well because through this book he's constantly being thrown curveballs - by cabals of mysterious operators in Darome, by the forces of law and order (a particular Marshall seems almost to enjoy locking him up... and she seems to have more than the demands of justice in mind...), by his family and even by God himself.

It's great to see Kellen navigating all this with aplomb. He's not the whiny, self pitying boy he started out as, rather he is more confident and in control. It's not that he has become some awesome, powerful Hero - Kellen explicitly shuns that role - but more that he seems to know himself. He understands who he is, what he wants to protect and what he's willing to give up to do that.

None of which means things are easy. While the book may wrap up threads from across the series - and we meet some old friends - nothing is achieved without loss and grief, indeed there are some very sad moments. Despite those, it remains a rattling good adventure with the characteristic humour of the series and - of course - Reichis with his dubious morality, love of butter biscuits and light fingers (er, claws).

I'd call this a triumphant final book in the series, as de Castells ends things on a real high and would  strongly recommend it.

3 November 2019

And We're Away! #YoungWriterAwardShadow

The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award

Following my Exciting Announcement on Wednesday that I'm a Shadow Judge for the Young Writer of the Year Award (I will never get tired of saying that) I've been almost bursting to share the news of who is on the shortlist for the award (and the Shadow Award).

I couldn't do that (I signed a scary NDA and everything)... until now!

From 9am today, 3 November, the news is out. And the books have arrived! Below is my own, very professional, photo of the collection, on my very own reading dining table. 

Just look:

Let's recap on that a bit. The shortlisted books, announced in the Sunday Times today, are 

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins)

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield (Picador)

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/Little, Brown)

Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun)

I'm going to post more about each book over the next couple of weeks, including my own impressions as I read them, and before the shadow panel has its Big Meeting later this month. I have read one of the four so far but I'm not going to say which one - I'm not sure yet whether to post anything till I have read them all. We'll see. 

But here, in the meantime, is a little information about each one. I think you'll agree this is a wide-ranging, stimulating and exciting list.

The Perseverance is "the multi-award-winning debut by British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus. Ranging across history and continents, these poems operate in the spaces in between, their haunting lyrics creating new, hybrid territories. 

The Perseverance is a book of loss, contested language and praise, where elegies for the poet’s father sit alongside meditations on the d/Deaf experience."

Salt Slow is a "brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories...  Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge.

Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, Salt Slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely."

In Stubborn Archivist "...the debut novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler uses dialogue to sketch out a young woman's awkward attempts to articulate and reconcile different aspects of who she is... 

The novel ends with a tiny movement, a moment of discovery all the more tantalising for remaining largely unexpressed, and this is undoubtedly the novel's strength: its ability to show something momentous - about cultural identity, sexual violence, racial prejudice - without seeming to say anything at all" [TLS]

In Testament  "...Of everyone in her complicated family, Eva was closest to her grandfather: a charismatic painter – and a keeper of secrets. So when he dies, she’s hit by a greater loss – of the questions he never answered, and the past he never shared.

It’s then she finds the letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have uncovered the testimony he gave after his forced labour service in Hungary, which took him to the death camps and then to England as a refugee. This is how he survived.

But there is a deeper story that Eva will unravel – of how her grandfather learnt to live afterwards. As she confronts the lies that have haunted her family, their identity shifts and her own takes shape. The testament is in her hands."

So, we have two novels, a collections of poems, and a short story collection. All very tantalising and right now - that's all I can say. I'm going to be finding out more about these books over the next few weeks and I hope you will as well. But if you're already read any of them, why not share your thoughts in a comment?

For more about the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, see the award's website here

31 October 2019

Review - Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver
Head of Zeus, 31 October 2019
PB, 359pp, e-book, audio

Michelle Paver's Wakenhyrst was published in April in hardback and is out today in paperback. When it first appeared I wrote that it was one of my standout books of the year and six months later I hold to that. You can't have too much of a good thing - so to remind everyone how good it is, here is my review. Again.

And look at that gorgeous cover!

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing a free advance e-copy of the book via NetGalley.

Having loved Paver's previous two supernatural-tinged novels, Dark Matter and Thin Air, I was delighted to see Wakenhyrst coming - and then to be able to take part in the tour.

Like Dark Matter and Thin Air,  at the heart of Wakenhyrst is the social structure of early 20th century England (England not Britain). I say that despite the fact that the previous books were not set in England: they still explored English notions of class and the way that English arrogance impinged on, and fell foul of, other cultures and places.

Wakenhyrst is, very much, set in England (with one short diversion to Brussels) and the English upper class scorn for the beliefs of the 'natives' that featured in Thin Air is here turned back on itself as a dilettante Edwardian gentleman, researching the obscure fifteenth century mystical biography of one Alice Pyett, goes to dark places despite (or because of?) his rejecting the beliefs of the 'lower orders'.

Edmund Stearne is a man 'of spotless reputation' but, to his daughter Maud, a forbidding and pernickety father ("You know my dislike of manhandled newsprint") who enthusiastically administers physical punishment. To his Belgian wife he is a tyrant ('It was Father who had decreed what Mama ate, read, did and thought...') As a girl, indeed as a woman, Maud is slighted, discounted, disregarded. Edmund knows what he wants - his wife pregnant (she suffers an endless series of miscarriages - Maud comes to dread 'the moaning'), his daughter silent in the nursery, and servant girl Ivy at his disposal ('Nor did he regard what he regularly did with Ivy as anything but the satisfaction of a lawful appetite'). Allegedly a religious man, it would be overgenerous even to label the contents of the diary we're allowed to read here as hypocritical. Indeed there's a vein of outright misogyny in Edward ('Women are all the same. Devious, hypocritical, corrupt') and also in his pals the local doctor and the Vicar. The subordinate role of a young woman in that time and place is made very plain: when she seeks their help in a crisis, Maud is threatened, told to stop being hysterical sent on her way. Throughout the book, Ivy and Maud are at odds, seeking to undermine one another, even though the cause of their problems is not their own relationship but the stultifying, patriarchal, power of Maud's father.

But this isn't just a story of how bad things were in the past and how much better they have become. Paver is shrewder than that. The book opens in 1966 with a quoted newspaper article which is, in its own way, just as patronising, just as set on keeping women in their place, as Doctor, Parson and Squire at their worst. Describing the discovery of some sublime artworks created by Edmund in his later life, it introduces the academic who first recognised them thus:

' "My hair stood on end," shrills Dr Robin Hunter, 36, a mini-skirted redhead in white vinyl boots...'

That article portrays the elderly, reclusive Maud, still living in her decayed childhood home out in the Fens, as at best, a bitter old maid, at worst, a murderer and witch - and naturally, as in conflict with another woman, her cook. Plus ca change... Initially unwilling to share the real story, despite the calumny directed at her, Maud eventually relents  (a storm has damaged the roof, she needs money) and admits to her confidence that same Dr Hunter.

We then hear Maud's account, interspersed with entries from her father's diaries. This is where the real story begins - of a lonely girl with a strict father, growing up amidst the wildness of the Fens. Young Maud's life is marked by contrasts, for example between the different customs, of her father and of the villagers, which she must or mustn't follow (sometimes she can't remember which is which). There's the language itself - while the elderly Maud speaks with a 'cut glass accent' it's clear that she is or was perfectly fluent in the local dialect:

' "D-don't fret thysen,' she stammered, unthinkingly lapsing into village talk. "I told thee I wanted to go babbing..." '

In keeping with that, it's clear that everyone - not just the working people but Maud, her mother, Edmund himself - has recourse at one time or another to the potions and remedies of the village wisewoman.

There is the contrast between the entitled, complacent world of men (principally her father) and the second class existence of women.

And between the buttoned-up public attitudes of the trinity who preside over this world and their secret behaviour.

Above all, the story contrasts Edmund Stearne's public reputation as 'a rich landowner and respected historian' with a private dread that he has committed a terrible sin (even if he protests to his diary that he can't remember what it was, and that anyway it wasn't his fault). His fear drives an obsession with Pyett's text, which seems to him to parallel his own case. This is an aspect of the story that only surfaces gradually (there is a lot submerged in the Fen) and indirectly, and saying too much would spoil the effect. The slowly emerging picture does, though, underly a growing atmosphere of menace which makes this book truly Gothic. Paver signals what may be going on with language that alludes to the master of this genre, MR James, from details (toad-like carvings on a pew, Stearne's almost tripping as he comes downstairs, his feeling as if he had been bitten) to turns of phrase ( '...whoever painted that picture painted the demon from life') and overall themes (the fear of a hairy thing that has been let loose, the story's focus on a lone scholar and its being told, in part, looking back some fifty years through a manuscript account). We could be reading one of those stories where an accusing spectre haunts the guilty, slowly driving them over the edge of sanity.

Michelle Paver (photo: Anthony Upton)
Whether that is, in the end, the case - well, I won't say any more about that. You should read the book and make up your own mind. But it is clear that there is much more going on than in a classic ghost story, even though Paver uses that form expertly. Apart from the theme of patriarchy, I think there's also an exploration here of the creation of memory, of the importance of story - most obviously of course in older Maud's desire to control the narrative, as one might put it now, but also for example in the way that Stearne says in his diary that he remembers something 'though I didn't before' - he is a most unreliable narrator indeed and seems to me to be reinventing his life and outlook under pressure of - well, of whatever it is.  Maud sees Edmund's story take shape and come to life - and eventually realises how it threatens her and those she loves. And in the end she has to take control and make her own truth.

In describing how Maud does that, Paver has, in a sense, to go beyond the supernatural and show how some horrors are actually worse - because more universal - than the shades haunting remote mountain peaks or isolated Arctic bases and which her previous books turned on. Wakenhyrst depicts a sense of unearned entitlement, the systematic application of privilege and the embrace of hypocrisy, both in the Edwardian summer and the topsy turvy '60s, which to me is actually much more chilling than a vengeful ghost keening in the Fen.

It is a powerful, enthralling book which I'd encourage you to read. If you need any more urging, it's also a beautifully designed thing, the cover tactile and brooding, the endpapers leafy and glorious, the pages crawling with the life of the Fens - the design by Stephen McNally really enhancing the experience of reading this book (yes, I was sent an e-copy, yes I have bought the hardback - there was no way wasn't going to have this on my shelves). And there's much, much more than ice been able to cram into this review: the teeming wildlife of the Fens, Maud's later life - only sketched but Paver does it so well that we can join the dots - and even some romance.

30 October 2019

An exciting announcement!

Well I'm excited - today I'm able to share a secret I've been sitting on for a little while - I'm going to be a judge!

Not one in a wig and gown, a shadow judge

To stop mystifying, I've been asked, along with some really cool book bloggers (Anne Cater, Linda Hill, Clare Reynolds and Phoebe Williams) to be on the Shadow Panel for the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. (So it's four really cool bloggers, and me).

The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award is an annual award of £5,000 for the best book across all categories (fiction, poetry, non fiction, you name it) published in the last year by a writer under 35. The list of previous winners is spectacular: Sally Rooney and Max Porter in recent years, to Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters and Robert MacFarlane in the past, amongst many others. For all the details , including the 2018 shortlist and judges, see youngwriteraward.com

I'm not judging that!

As I said, we are shadow judges (which sounds good in a kind of Avengers Assemble, who-is-the-superhero, kind of way). For the fourth year, in 2019, there is a shadow panel of bloggers choosing our own winner from the shortlist.  Last year the shadow panel comprised Amanda Chatterton, Paul Cheney, Susan Osborne, Lucy Pearson and Lizzi Risch and their winner was The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower.

So, no wig and gown but as you can imagine, I've been pretty excited about this since I was asked. I have always found blogging great fun: ploughing through the books, sharing what I think, perhaps #BookTempting a bit - that is, persuading someone to add to their already towering TBR. Best of all is the feeling you get when you've put the right person on the track of the right book. But it can be a solitary business, so to be taking part in something based on working with a group of other bloggers is a tempting prospect. And getting the opportunity to meet those great bloggers.

You can read about more all the shadow panelists, announced today,  HERE


Anyway, what it comes down to is...

...we have to read some books...

....think about them...

...and meet to which one should win.

Some blogging will also be involved along the way - I'll be sharing my thoughts about the shortlisted books as I go (I know what's on the shortlist but you, dear reader, will have to wait till it's announced on 3 November).

It looks like being great fun, and I'm looking forward to engaging with the books. Our verdict is announced on 28 November, ahead of the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award itself.

So - watch this space, and the Shadow panel hashtag #YoungWriterAwardShadow!

29 October 2019

Review - Survivors by G X Todd #HearTheVoices

Survivors (Voices, 3)
GX Todd
Headline, 31 October 2019
PB, e, 500pp

I'm grateful to Headline for a free advance reading copy of Survivors. Make that VERY grateful. This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2019 - and it didn't disappoint.

Survivors is a post-apocalyptic tale, the third (but not final!) in its sequence after Defender and Hunted. In this dark world, many people developed voices in their head - voices that urged them to kill others, and sometimes to destroy themselves. Enough of this, and civilisation soon dies. It's not so much the immediate effects, the gaps in the essential services, as the bonds of trust between strangers, neighbours, friends and even family dissolve, and it becomes a matter of kill first or be killed. Those affected by the Voices embark on a rampage, those unaffected hunker down, unable to group together in case they put themselves in danger.

Once it's over (but IS IT?) then, survivors wander the shattered remains of civilisation, seeking safety, shelter, and most of all - perhaps - meaning. Why did this thing happen? What comes next? Into the vacuum emerge cults, such that of the Flitting Man, whose spiral symbol is everywhere. Local warlords fight for territory and trade anything - including people - with one another.

It's a disjointed, scary background against which Todd has followed a scattered group, in particular, the troubled man Pilgrim, and Lacey, a young woman with whom he's travelled. In Survivors, we focus mostly on Pilgrim. For the first time we see his origins, and we also see his current life, including some vivid, nightmarish scenes where his very identity and nature is challenged. When the story proper opens (there is some prologue first) Pilgrim has just woken in an open grave and has no memory of who or where he is. The story then fills in details, but gradually and by jumping backwards and forwards.

If you're a fan of straightforward narratives you may find this a bit annoying (it didn't happen so much in the earlier books) but do persevere! I thought it wasn't going to work for me, but in fact it's a brilliant device. You will almost certainly be reading this book because you've read the previous two, but that probably means it's a little while since you did, and you may be hazy over the detail. How did Defender finish? Where was Pilgrim then? Who is Red? Who is Lacey, and what happened to her? All these names and events were in my mind somewhere, but also, not complete when I wanted them. There's a kind of fading in reading a series of books (unless you save them for one readathon) and a good author will work with that. Todd does. But not through a simple recap. Instead, here we have Pilgrim reconstructing not only his memory, but his identity. Todd makes it genuinely unclear who he is, lending a sinister light to all his exploration of her world, and we - the readers - don't know any better than him. Our sense of his history is rebuilt in the same way as his own.

So at times we have to trust (but who can we trust?) and at times, we think he's going wrong. The conditions and alliances in this world make it impossible to keep clean hands, impossible to separate "good" people from "bad". And remember, there are those Voices, which clearly have an agenda of sorts - theories about this and about the proper way to respond underlie much of the conflict in the book - so people here have an extra, hidden aspect (at least, those with Voices do - but again, can we trust someone who denies having a Voice?)

I don't want to make this book sound all tricksy and clever-clever. I think Todd does brilliantly match form to narrative, but even apart from this, Survivors is a vividly imaged story with well realised, involving characters set in a challenging and disturbing world. Pilgrim is a restless should, driven by a need to do - what exactly? Part of his frustration is understanding that. He thinks he has a purpose, responsibilities, duties, commitments, all lost in that void of his mind, and a great deal of his time is spent trying to understand them. But part of the risk of that all being so dark is, we don't know whether he is doing the right thing, guided by that lost part of himself, or whether he's being sidetracked by his history, experiences and attachments to things and people who are now gone.

Against that background it's genuinely affecting to see moments when he recovers something or, almost better, when an aspect of his past, a friend, rediscovers him (when you read the book you'll know what I mean) and also heartbreaking when he has to leave them behind again.

An explosive, engaging third part to this quadrilogy and one I'd urge you to get your hands on as soon as you can.

For more about this book, and for links to buy, see the publisher's website here.

The author's website is here.

26 October 2019

Review - The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

Cover design by Will Staehle
The Future of Another Timeline
Annalee Newitz
Orbit, 24 October 2019
PB, e, 340pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Future of Another Timeline to consider for review.

In 1992, Tess attends a concert in Irvine, California. It's one of her favourite punk-feminist bands and she's revisiting her youth, listening to music she grew up with.

Also in 1992, also in California, Beth lives with a manipulative, controlling father and a tuned out mother. She finds release in stolen moments with her friends, parties, a few drugs - and attends that same concert, where something bad is going to happen.

And in Chicago, in 1893, a group of women put on a show at the World's Fair, challenging the moral puritanism of their time by exhibiting sensual, erotic dances from North Africa.

One of them, oddly, is Tess...

This is a book about time travel, timelines, destiny, history and struggle. In Newitz's universe, the world contains five "Machines" - inscrutable, geological structures that allow for travel backwards in time. Of almost unimaginable age (they seem to have been created in the Ordovician era - look it up!)  their origin and purpose is mysterious, but humanity has learned enough to be able to use them, crudely, and a complex etiquette has been evolved over the generations permitting different ages to share this gift without (too many) dire consequences.

I'm sure you've know the classic SF story A Sound of Thunder, where a traveller to the past inadvertently alters their own present by treading on an insect. That spectre - of a trivial change altering the timeline - haunts the world Newitz describes: there is consensus that such a thing couldn't really happen, that the broad outlines of history are stable - but really, how would anyone know? The central paradox at the heart of this book is that you wouldn't. Living in the present, the past is the past and it always was as it was.

Only that returning traveller might recall a different past... a world, for example, where abortion was illegal... and so there is scope for mischief.

The Future of Another Timeline is a book with a clear message, I'd even say a necessary message. It is really a book about a time war. Not the massed opposition of huge forces in direct conflict, but patient, cumulative snipping away, "editing", to tilt the balance one way or another. The two contending sides are the "Applied Cultural Geology Group", a loose alliance of women time travellers (in this world, "cultural geology" is the name for the study of time travel, based on the deep-time origin of the Machines) and a cabal of misogynists who want to prevent women's rights ever being won (and - as becomes clear - to push things towards a future which makes Margaret Atwood's Gilean look like a paradise of equality). We see the women meet, discover that a hostile edit has caused one of them to wink out of existence, forgotten by all but a traveller from the past. We  see the action they take.

We also see them encounter their pig-headed enemies in bars, theatres and concert halls across the past. This was where things slightly came apart for me. The antagonists - a mixture of real people, such as the Victorian moralist Anthony Comstock, and fictitious characters - comes across as pretty two dimensional. In various historical guises (sometimes literally) they're basically men's right "activists", alternately spouting overblown Victorian sexism,  the debased language of their modern chatboard forums, or pick-up artist jargon. They are as tedious and self-evidently wrong as you might imagine, and hardly seem like credible opponents for the women described here. While some vile things do happen to these women of the Group and to their allies, the two seem utterly mismatched. Indeed, final defeat of the men only seemed to be in doubt because of the women's (especially Tess's) scruples, refusing to kill or injure in service of the cause. (Tess does have her reasons, as we eventually find out.)

So I found that "Time war" angle, while interesting in concept (and involving some great worldbuilding) rather frustrating in practice. In contrast, another strand - that of Beth and family in the 1990s - was well realised with a couple of truly disturbing, brilliantly realised and complex characters. One of them is Beth's father, and the depths of his... wrongness... are painted subtly and slowly, building up to a really unsettling portrait and giving the reader - or at least this reader - many moments of fear for her and her friends. This is an alternate timeline where Comstock's meddling paid off, resulting in sweeping prohibitions which affect Beth, but it is not (yet) the utterly nightmare world that may yet come and the real tension comes from her claustrophobic, pressure cooker family situation. I would have liked to read much more of this strand: I felt Newitz's writing came especially to life here, even though more could possibly have been made of the links between her father's attitudes and the patriarchal drift of that timeline.

Instead, that theme - the origin and development of rules that trammel women - is much more the focus of the 1890s parts of the book, focussing on those dancers at the World's Fair who are the target of "Comstockery" aiming to shut down and even imprison them. Those parts impart a great deal of detail about 1890s attitudes and about the real Comstock's actual activities, but they do come over much more as conveying research, despite the strong female characters here - and real suffering. There wasn't, for me, as much heart in this bit as in Beth's story.

Technically it's all very well thought out and realised - in particular the handling of the time "edits" is impressive. The descriptions of their effects are done subtly and are reflected sideways rather than head on (we are not told what has changed but have to wait till the characters' memories reform to accommodate the new reality). This all felt very believable, as did the, literally, geological time travel tech whose existence and operation is simply a fact of life (so familiar that it features in TV dramas, and the phrase "lucky edit" is used for any fortunate occurrence, such as two friends encountering each other).

So, overall, I found this a fine book and a rattling good story, but one where the different threads felt quite assorted, with one much more readable and affecting than the other. It isn't only Beth's home life, there's a real affection to the accounts of gigs and scuzzy yard parties where she hangs out with her girlfriends (though a sense of menace hangs over those scenes too, I won't say why because spoilers), of female friends and the help they give one another, of love and loss. That's actually what remains most strongly with me from this book: fittingly, perhaps, the flattish male villains fade away while the edit preserves those determined and vividly portrayed women, whether comrades in arms, friends, or both.

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

24 October 2019

Review - Ghoster by Jason Arnopp

Cover design by Ellen Rockell
Jason Arnopp
Orbit Books, 24 October 2019
PB, e, 449pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of Ghoster to consider for review.

It's an often heard complaint that literature hasn't been able to engage with modern communications technology, and that even when a book is set in the present day, you often might as well be from the 1980s, as far as email, mobile phones and social media are concerned.

That may be a little overstated - I think that after, perhaps, a slow start, these things now appear fairly regularly - but authors still seem to struggle with what they mean, how they affect lives. In Ghoster, Arnopp has tackled that head on. Not only do we see text conversations between Kate and best friend Izzy (and that friendship between the two women is at the centre of this book), but the plot hangs on the dangerously addictive potential of such tech and its effect on lives.

We learn at the start that Kate is undergoing a digital detox, that she's smashed her smartphone and walked away from her "socials". It's a little while before we understand what led to this - but anyone with a heart would, I think, then shake their head at what happened. And then think, "There but for the grace of God..."

Kate is an absorbing, frustrating, sympathetic character, nothing unusual in her addiction to that next like, the buzz of the phone reporting a mention, to a swipe on a dating app. She's all of us really - but beyond that Arnopp has an eye for character and quickly brings alive Kate and her quest for confidence (and for a man). She suffers from a degree of awkwardness and is continually self-deprecating (there is some background with a mother who is distant) but seems, at last, to have connected with someone, Scott, who is right for her. There's also that friendship with Izzy, a job (paramedic) at which she excels so things are looking up.

And then it all goes wrong. Scott vanishes just as Kate takes that risky step and moves in with him. The only clue is his cracked phone, left in an empty flat. The phone is full of all those dopamine-squeezing apps that Kate has sworn off. She shouldn't touch, it shouldn't snoop. But this is different, isn't? She needs too get on that phone. Scott may be in trouble...

I loved the way that Arnopp makes smartphone culture central to this novel. It's not only a tool, a means to an end, it's the central fact of Kate's life, the only way she has of - potentially - connecting back with Scott.  And it's the medium by which she learns all about him, how he isn't the man she thought. It's her salvation and her damnation. The story darts backwards and forwards, following the burgeoning relationship between the two, visiting earlier scenes recalled in the later, harder few days that Kate spends hunting Scott down. Those memories haunt Kate as her personal and professional lives balloon out of control with consequences for everyone around her. That, too, is well done: the compromises, the little excuses, the justification, one bad choice leading to another worse one, the swearing that she'll never do that thing again... and all accompanied by an internal chorus of horror and dread - as well as a compulsion to keep looking at that phone.

While there's a real sense of supernatural horror here - whispering voices on the phone, some frightening stuff in the dark - the underlying, creeping dread comes from other places: from hidden lives, obsessions, unearthed secrets, lies. And the whole thing plays out to a background of an unconcerned, hedonistic, partying Brighton, the contrast adding bite to the horror.

The only thing that undercut that sense was the delivery of information in several chunks towards the end of the book, which felt less effective than the slow teasing out in the earlier part. But it was still a book I binged, one I had to keep reading.

Flicking those pages.

Getting another little hit with each chapter end.

Ignoring the family and pets around me and being a little bit cross when I had to put it down and do something else.

Now, what does that remind me of...?

For more about Ghoster, including links to buy the book, see the Orbit website here.

22 October 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Little Siberia by Antti Tuomainen

Little Siberia
Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston)
Orenda Books, 17 October 2019
PB, e, 244pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a copy of Little Siberia and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

This is a strange book. A VERY strange book. It's not quite crime, not quite a philosophical study of a man on the edge, not quite a dissection of a remote rural community.

At the same time it's all three.

When a meteorite strikes an isolated Finnish village in the dark of January, it's as if the extraterrestrial visitor has enchanted the villagers. For a few hectic days, everything is out of kilter.

Stored for safe keeping in the local museum, whispers soon get around that the meteorite may be worth a million euros - the sort of money that can change lives. The sort of money that can get you out of Murmevaara. The improbable figure of the village priest, Joel, volunteers to stand guard - and he ends up defending the lump of rock from increasingly bizarre attempts at theft (the nearest police are an hour away, so there is no-one else).

We see most of the story through Joel's eyes, experiencing his religious doubts and the attentions of the more... strange... members of his congregation. (I am actually the husband of a Church of England priest: I'd say this is pretty true to life). There is also, I think, a degree of PTSD, Joel having been injured while serving with the Army in Afghanistan.

And there's all consuming jealously and hurt at Joel's wife, Krista, who appears to be pregnant - but not by him.

Over the days of the meteorite, Joel sinks himself into solving two problems: who is his wife's lover, and who is trying to steal the meteorite? Increasingly deranged from lack of sleep, from stress and from various attacks and near misses, Joel begins to behave strangely, suspecting his neighbours of involvement in one or the other (or indeed, both) of those mysteries.

I liked this book. I found Joel an interesting and sympathetic character with an engagingly open and unsure approach to his faith. He's resourceful and determined and never considers giving up (on either quest) however hard things may get. That said, some of his decisions and attempts to unearth the truth are rather concerning or even downright weird, bringing a strain of dark comedy into the story, a comedy sustained by the rather lugubrious gallery of villagers we meet in the course of the book. While that is sustained to the end, Tuomainen will play some tricks before the story's over, heightening the jeopardy and adding some really tender moments.

One of the things I especially loved is that while the story has themes of jealousy and crime and a rugged rural setting where guns (and indeed, more deadly weapons) are readily available, Joel, a wronged man, doesn't at any point succumb to the darker forms of masculinity. There is violence here and there are deaths, but all caused, in the end, by the strange procession of would-be meteorite thieves (and often, accidentally). Through it Joel is simply trying to understand what's going on, to keep some integrity and to defend those he loves.

At which he is rather good.

It was a fun read and nicely overturned the assumptions one might bring to a book labelled "noir". And nor did I spot the ending coming, not by a mile!

The translation, by David Hackston, is crisp and lucid, the action - and even Joel's internal ruminations - always clear.

For more about Little Siberia, see the Orenda Books website here.

You can buy the book from your local shop, or online from Hive Books, which supports high street bookshops, from Blackwell's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

17 October 2019

Review - The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson

Cover design by Charlotte Stroomer
The Rosewater Redemption (Wormwood Trilogy, 3)
Tade Thompson
Orbit Books, 17 October 2019
PB, e, 373pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of The Rosewater Redemption to consider for review.

I'm excited to be able to review The Rosewater Redemption, published today.

Viewed from one perspective, reviewing the final volume of a trilogy is hard verging on pointless. Unless the author is way off their game (spoiler: Thompson is as sharp and focussed as ever) readers who have got this far will want to finish, and Volume 3 will reward them by delivering more of what they love and tidying this up.

All that is true of The Rosewater Redemption, and I could stop here and just say "read this if you enjoyed the other books, read them first if you haven't already".

That would do the trick. There's a BUT and an AND though.

BUT. That feels like shortchanging my follower.

AND. There is something more about Redemption.

So I'll see if I can tease that out... beware, there will be spoilers for Rosewater and The Rosewater Insurrection.

What Redemption does, I think, apart from giving us more time with with beloved (and frustrating) characters and tying off plot strands, is to give a new perspective to the whole story. Not just more story. This is something that - with hindsight - I can see in Insurrection too, but is more obvious here. In Rosewater, the nature and intentions of the alien - "Wormwood" - that has settled in Nigeria are obscure. It heals and provides power but exactly how and why isn't clear. That book is very much about how Nigeria - and the world - are adjusting to this presence, including the remarkable character Kaaro who has with others been gifted a kind of psychic ability by the incursion. The politics of Rosewater the city are backgrounded, it's about Kaaro and his lover Aminat.

Insurrection focusses, as the name suggests, on mayor Jack Jacques' drive to have Rosewater become independent but introduces the m motives of the aliens more clearly - fleeing a disaster they wish too use reanimated human corpses as hosts. There desire to do so gives Jacques leverage for a bargain which achieves independence for Rosewater. It also shows the aliens as potentially vulnerable, helps us see things from their perspective and appreciate the realpolitik that might look for a deal (despite the colonial echoes in a country that had been subject to the British Empire). It's a quite different approach from the usual SF one of humans vs aliens.

Throughout these books we do though get a dizzying series of different perspectives and characters, and in particular Hannah, Jacques' wife, opposes the "grand bargain" as condemning living humans to a form of slavery. That point of view comes too the fore here in The Rosewater Redemption which - among many other things - allows this point to be debated in various ways: political, philosophical, utilitarian and - in a heart rending scene involving a character we have come to love - emotional.

Having read Redemption, I don't think it's putting it too strongly to say that it made me see the previous books in a whole new light. As I said above, it's not just "more plot" it's that these three books make up a tightly bound whole which has to be seen as a single entity. Contributing to that we see some familiar characters here from new directions - for example Femi - and also a lot more of several who have appeared teasingly and briefly - for example "Bicycle Girl" Oyin Da, regarded as a fugitive and a dissident but about whom I think we knew little, gets a lot of time and I think once you see the part she plays you'll realise how much was - designedly - missing previously, and want to go back and reread the earlier books with that knowledge in mind.

There's much more I could say about The Rosewater Redemption but I think that's the essence, without the previous stories aren't complete, not just in extent, but in essence.

The whole thing is a magnificent achievement and deserves to be seen as whole. It isn't one of those trilogies where you can read out of order, or skip the middle book; and given Thompson's gorgeous prose, you oughtn't to want to.

Just read them. Read them now. Read them in order. Then you can thank me.

For an excerpt from the book see the Orbit website here.

14 October 2019

#Blogtour #Review - The Art of Murder by JS Strange

The Art of Murder (Jordan Jenner 2)
JS Strange
Panther Publishing, October 1 2019
PB, e 285pp

I'm grateful to Panther for letting me have a free advance e-copy of The Art of Murder and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Jordan Jenner is back!

Yes, the reclusive, cat-owning gay private investigator from Cardiff returns to the page with a new murder mystery. Following the events of Death on the Rocks, which took place over a (very bleak) Christmas it's now April but while you might be expecting green shoots and new life, it's not quite like that.

Jordan's brother Ashley is still sleeping on the sofa, with Jordan no nearer understanding why he has left his partner, Ben. Perhaps a city break in Amsterdam may help the two relax? It's not to be, since they catch the attention of... someone... over there and on return, Jordan finds himself in the middle of very sinister goings-on centred on Cardiff's art world.

Events which culminate in murder.

As with Death on the Rocks, there's a personal angle to this - Jenner has been hired by one of the artists at the focus of the scandal, and soon finds himself having not only to investigate a death, but also to pin down the identity and motivations of a fringe group, the 'Dirty Dollys'. This mysterious cabal is a rather brilliant creation of Strange's - they act as a pack, targeting popular, up-and-coming artists with fraud and blackmail. Are they an artistic movement? In it for the money? Is it political? How far might they actually go? Nobody seems to know, so the threat to Xander Draper - the darling of the Cardiff art market - has to be taken seriously.

At the same time, someone is following Jordan. Someone seems to know where he lives. This has got very personal - even more so that in the first book, where Jordan's mother became embroiled.

I liked this story, it's fast-paced, continually throwing things at Jordan. We get to see more of his personal life - credit should go to Strange for writing books where the gay characters are many and diverse - and he's a fascinating mass of contradictions, a but of a loner and a grump perhaps but likeable and understandable. He's certainly a long way from being the stereotyped antisocial detective. Jordan is more at the centre of this book in some respects because, while the police are involved, he's no longer an external consultant to them (budget cuts). He also has his own client involve din the case, giving him a slightly different agenda from the official police. That makes him less part of a team and leaves more for him to do.

I found the Dollys (the spelling is deliberate) an intriguing group, the whole setup - artists picked off and subject to harassment in the full light of day, as it were - having something of the sulphurous edge of a Margery Allingham story. This book is completely naturalistic, there's nothing supernatural here, but the drive and motivations of the villains (if that's what they are) does have an almost metaphysical cast.

Strange has a style that grows on you - sometimes it feels as though it could do with a bit of polish, and it may not be to everyone's taste, but in my view there is lots of smoothed down writing out there, lots of bland stuff that reads pretty much the same and this one (with its predecessor) has something distinctive which is actually quite rare and precious.

Overall, a welcome return to the world of Jordan Jenner which left me wanting more.

You can buy the book from Amazon here. The publisher website is here. The blogtour continues with sone excellent reviewers - check out the poster below!

10 October 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood #NetGalley #MistletoeBook

Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus), 10 October 2019
HB, e, 304pp

Today marks publication of Alison Littlewood's latest unsettling horror tale, Mistletoe. I'm delighted to be able to join the book's blogtour and grateful to Quercus for a free advance e-copy via Netgalley.

'The night was filled with thoughts of mistletoe, dreams of mistletoe, the touch of it on her skin, the grasping tendrils entangling her limbs...'

I've loved Alison Littlewood's books right back to A Cold Season and here she is again at her icy best, telling the story of a woman alone, out among the snows of a Yorkshire winter, as Christmas approaches. (This book would definitely make an atmospheric Christmas read - or present - if you're looking for one).

Leah, mourning the loss of her son and her husband, has given up her city life - 'The world of cars and buses stinking of diesel, of towering buildings and grey streets, of all-night supermarkets and corner-shops, of anonymous crowds' - and exchanged it for 'a farmhouse, a barn, an apple orchard and a single field'. She's a 'comer-inner', having bought the (dilapidated) holding and intending to spend her time renovating the house, which husband Josh discovered and set his heart on before his death. Whether Leah is trying to forget Josh and son Finn or, somehow, come closer in this place where she'd imagined a new life with them, isn't clear.

Of course Maitland Farm isn't the rural idyll that Leah hoped for. Between a dirty, uncared for house with no working heating, Arctic weather, her haunting memories, a barn full of sinister junk including the creepiest doll outside Stephen King and a sense of wrongness, Leah's hopes are soon driven out by, not fears exactly (that would be simply sorted: back to the city!) but a growing disquiet.

Littlewood is a master at building up tension - escalating things slowly, springing her trap, then stepping back: oh, it wasn't a ghost, it was a neighbour accustomed to crossing the field rather than using the lane.

Or was it?

Here the tension builds credibly on top of Leah's already low, troubled spirits, the reader never being sure whether, when an odd thing happens, it's actually supernatural or born of her love and longing for Josh and Finn (or her lack of sleep). Perhaps it's impossible to disentangle all these? Suppose there are ghosts at Maitland Farm. Wouldn't that open a channel, a possibility, a way to Josh and Finn? So tempting. So very tempting. But at the same time, given the horrors that Leah begins to suspect - the hints she picks up form her neighbours about a dark past and about revenge and ill-luck on the house - what dangers might wait? The story keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, even as it takes a dark turn.

This book is a brilliantly creepy, atmospheric horror story. It wrings every last drop out of the dark side of Christmas: the bitter mistletoe berries, the cold of ancient sacrifice, the short days and above all, perhaps, the pain of being alone at a time of communal cheer and jollity. It is also a story of loss and vulnerability - there is a real sense that in placing herself where she has, Leah opened up to a real and terrible darkness. We begin to see echoes between events in the distant past - events that are impressed in the crumbling stone and barren soil of the farm - and Leah's own life. And the skin of the 21st century seems awfully thin at Maitland Farm ('Here, the past didn't fade to nothing...') with a potential, a dreadful potential, to draw her into its Midwinter dance, perhaps with a seductive hope.

There is also bewitching, lyrical prose here: 'The snow was constantly changing: now rose-tinted or grey, now golden or lavender, made new with every dawn or noon or evening and yet just as cold...' Littlewood vividly describes not only the horrors glimpsed in the shadows but the colour and sound and the bleakness of a hard winter.

It is, simply, a delight to read, a horror story but also a beautiful study of a woman very close to the edge, of friendship, loss and courage. Strongly recommended. (And if you haven't read Littlewood's previous books yet, you must: you have a treat in store. You can thank me later).

For more information about the book, see the publisher's webpage here. For other reviews of Mistletoe, see the blogs in the poster below. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive Books which supports high street bookshops, from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon (and other places too).

5 October 2019

Review - Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw

Cover by Will Staehle and Lisa Marie Pompilio
Grave Importance (Dr Greta Helsing, 3)
Vivian Shaw
Orbit, 24 September 2019
PB, e, 395pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of Grave Importance to consider for review.

And there was war in heaven...

This is the third and final (though I hope "final" doesn't mean "forever") outing for Dr Greta Helsing, physician to the monsters of London, following her previous adventures in Strange Practice and Dreadful Company. In a satisfying twist on urban fantasy, Shaw has her hero treat all manner of supernatural beings, from vampires to mummies to ghouls, at her practice in Harley Street. And in the course of this she is often required to save the world - as you are - whether this involves negotiating with demons or hunting through abandoned tunnels in Paris or London.

Throughout everything, Helsing remains outwardly cool, professional and level-headed, even if she's screaming inside. Her medical training may help, or the fact that she's found love with Sir Francis Varney, a notorious Vampyre (note the spelling) in his day who together with his vampire (note the spelling) friend (Lord) Edmund Ruthven and the demon, Fastitocalon, constitute a kind of ragged family for the orphaned Greta.

It certainly helps that in Grave Importance, Greta's been invited to stand in as Medical Director at Oasis Natrun, a luxury spa and clinic for mummies located on the French Riviera. Here the thousands of year old creatures can have their bandages rewound. Perished and powdered bones, tendons and muscles are replaced. There are even cures for ancient diseases that plague their preserved organs. The facilities are impressive (the place its own helicopter!), the accommodation even more so, and Greta can really enjoy herself applying cutting-edge procedures. All seems to be going well... until Ruthven suffers a mysterious illness, and Greta's mummy patients begin collapsing.

What can be wrong this time?

In an elegantly paced and absorbing adventure, Shaw reveals a new threat to the stability of the universe, one considerably more menacing than anything Greta and the gang have come up against yet. It is an utterly cosmic, appalling danger, a mine quietly laid decades before and which, it seems, it is beyond the capacity of mere humans - or vampires - to defuse. Which raises the question, what do you do at the end of all things, Sam? As readers of the previous books will know, Shaw is mischievously inventive with her quotes and references:

'"This is Hell?" Nadezhda asked, her eyes still too wide.
"Nor are we out of it," said another voice, and they turned to see a stocky man in a surgical gown... The woodcuts didn't really do him justice. "Johannes Faust. You're Helsing?"'

Indeed, there's a sense in which all the main characters here are references, to name only a few, you'll recognise the name Helsing of course and both Varney and Ruthven were chronicled - mischronicled, they'd say stiffly if asked - in classic Victorian horror literature.

Ranging from London to New York to the South of France to the very towers of Hell - and the Nacreous Gate of Heaven - this book is certainly conceived on a grand scale, allowing Greta and her allies full rein to be the characters they have grown to be over these books. That's especially true for  Greta, as she helps out in a very different sort of hospital than the one she's used to, but Varney faces up to his wicked past and both Cranswell and Grisaille play a roguish part. There's a touch of the caper about the book, a dash of romance and a real moral heart behind the wisetalking: at one level Grave Importance is showcasing the everyday virtue of just getting on with it, doing what you can, not giving up, at another it takes that message and transcends it completely, making the whole point one of never giving in to despair, never believing oneself irredeemable, never losing heart.

Oh, and - as mentioned above - Dr Faust is here too. Haven't you always wanted to meet him?

Overall, a fun and fitting end to this trilogy. It has a simpler, more pared down plot that the preceding books, focussing a bit more on character, which I rather enjoyed but best of all there's lots of Greta but at the same time the story is still told on an epic scale. Shaw crams a lot into this book, paradoxically though that still left me wanting more - for example I could have done with more plot around Van Dorne, perhaps: a fascinating character with a fascinating history who plays a significant role here but doesn't really get much airtime.

And finally: like the previous books this has a simply gorgeous cover, the woodcut style giving a very authentic feel of classic horror slightly subverted by the detail of the illustrations. I think Will Staehle and Lisa Marie Pompilio have worked wonders here).

For more about the book, including links to buy, see the publisher's website here.

3 October 2019

Blogtour review - Cage by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Cage (Reykjavík Noir 3)
Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 17 October 2019
PB, e, 227pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of Cage and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour. (I'm so pleased to be on another Orenda tour! Look at the great bloggers on the poster - and me!)

Cage is the third and final part of Sigurðardóttir's Reykjavík Noir trilogy, following Snare and Trap. The title's well chosen - not only does a cage feature, but in various ways the principal characters here are all caged.

Agla, of course, is literally imprisoned, serving time for financial chicanery (a sensitive subject in Iceland after the financial crash) and at a very low point, her lover Sonja having deserted her at the end of Trap.

Sonja herself is riding a tiger. She's now a leading figure in the drug smuggling cartel, but aware that at any moment her usefulness may end. She must keep her son Tómas on the move, in case he's located by her enemies, she's had to abandon Agla and she is continually reminded of her crimes and her guilt.

Ingimar - the lynchpin of the fraud in the earlier books - is apparently happier. He is still free and wealthy. But his marriage seems to have died on him and he resorts to increasingly frequent sessions with a woman he pays to flog him.

And María... well, María has lost her job at the public prosecutor's, her marriage has collapsed and she's scrabbling for a living as an investigative journalists, forced to rent a poky office from the right wing station, Radio Edda. The existence of Radio Edda, pumping out noxious racist memes, is a dark thread running through this book, radicalising the young and inciting some truly frightening goings on.

These are all characters you will know well if you've read the previous books, and while Sigurðardóttir delivers nothing less than a tense, nail biting thriller here, I really liked the fact that she gives them more space, more time for reflection. In this book we really see a psychologically satisfying conclusion to all the stories which braided together have made this trilogy strong.

That all takes place, of course, while María continues to seek justice, Sonja safety and Agla - perhaps - love. To a large extent these various strands are kept separate for much of the book, though the shortish chapters mean we never leave anyone alone for very long.

Cage packs a lot into into a small space. There is the continuing scandal around the aluminium market. I never quite understood what the scam was here, but that didn't really matter much. María investigates this, engaged by Agla of all people (those scenes are fun). There is the drugs theme that has run through all the books, and there is also a terrorist subplot that feels especially dangerous because we're genuinely unsure how it will turn out. I went back and reread some of those sections once I'd finished - you won't realise, reading them for the first just, just how clever Sigurðardóttir is being here.

Sigurðardóttir, and of course her translator Quentin Bates who as ever delivers clear prose that maintains just that hint of otherness, a very slight reminder that the book is about another country where they do things (slightly) differently. I like that, I don't want a translation to smooth away all the colour so that the story might be taking place anywhere.

So overall a tense and enjoyable conclusion to this trilogy which may be just a bit lighter than the earlier books and which allows all its characters to grow by the end of the story (even Ingimar does something noble, if perhaps misguided!)

For more information about the book, see the Orenda website here.

You can buy Cage from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, from Blackwell's, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.