30 January 2019

Review - Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech

Call Me Star Girl
Louise Beech
Orenda Books, 18 April 2019 (PB) 18 February (e)
PB, e 277pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a free advance reader's copy of Call Me Star Girl.

You may look at the publication date and think "April? Why's he reviewing this in January? Go away, it's still Winter." Well, e-books are a thing, and you can read this on your favourite device from 18 February. In any case, I can't keep quiet about this one - I want it on your radar because it's a book you'll want to devour, the kind of book that draws you in and plays games with you and then haunts you. And you don't want to miss out on that.

There's the setting, a late night radio studio occupied by a sole presenter. Stella McKeever whispers her truths to the insomniacs, the night workers, the lovers, the ne'er do wells who come out in the dark to do whatever it is they do. And she solicits secrets in return. Outside, the police hunt down the killer who recently murdered pregnant Vicky Valbon only streets away. Inside, on the hour, Stella repeats her canned news broadcasts, marking zero progress in tracking down Vicky's killer.

There are the characters.

Stella, giving her last ever show (why?) in the small hours. She's had a difficult start in life, abandoned by her mother when she was twelve with no explanation, in a relationship with a man who pushes her boundaries, wants her to do transgressive, dangerous things - like "playing dead".

Elizabeth, Stella's mum, trying to find a place back in Stella's life and trying to be helpful to young mothers by working as a doula. (Is she trying to atone?)

Tom, that man who pushes Stella to her limits and beyond.

But most of all, there's Beech's compulsive, claustrophobic writing, piling on the pressure through the  night in which Stella remembers and tells her story and voices fears between the "reheated news", texts and messages from restless callers. During this we see snatches of both her life and of Elizabeth's, then and now. It's a moving story, often dark and gradually we learn what happened. All the way through, Stella's interrupted by calls from The Man Who Knows - who won't tell us what he knows, but who may be stalking Stella. Meanwhile, doors bang in the (empty?) studio, Stella begins to hear voices from her past and present... and one of her colleagues goes missing.

I found the way the story is told through that one long night just enthralling.  All the threads of Stella's life - her past, present and future - are brought together in one intense, pressure-cooker sequence as she cues songs, begs her audience for secrets to share and begins to put together the pieces from what she finds. (Awkward thing, asking for secrets: people may tell you them).

Beech used the idea of a character taking calls from strangers during the silent hours in Maria in the Moon - it's one with obvious dramatic potential - but in Call Me Star Girl she dials up the noir to 11 - the shadows in the studio, the lonely people out there hanging on to what Stella says, the noise that might be footsteps on the stairs... and she gives us Stella, the Star Girl herself, asking questions. Stella avoiding giving answers. Stella talking to us, as though we were sitting in an empty kitchen at 2.30 in the morning, any hope of sleep given up.

Or steering a taxi through the rainy streets.

Or a truck up the darkened motorway.

There's a fascination, I think, with those dark hours, with the people who are awake though them, and Beech exploits this to the full, serving up a dense, haunting, and deeply, deeply unsettling take on that  In the course of doing that she will tie you in emotional knots with a story that has moments of joy, fear, pity and such intense sorrow.

Secrets will be revealed, and truths come home to rest. But is Stella ready for what she'll find?

I think this is Louise Beech's best yet - which is saying something. Come April, you need to get your hands on it!

You can preorder Call Me Star Girl from your local bookshop or online from Hive Books, Blackwells, Waterstones and Amazon as well of course as other retailers.

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

28 January 2019

Sampler Review - Show Them A Good Time: Short Stories by Nicole Flattery

Nicole Flattery
Show Them A Good Time
Bloomsbury Circus, 21 March 2019
HB, 256pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me a free e-copy sampler of this book via NetGalley. I have now bought a copy because the two stories in the sampler, "Not the End Yet" and "Track" were so good. As I read the stories I will update this review!

In these stories, Flattery combines a sense of reality, of literalness with a feeling that the fantastical may be about to come round the corner. Her protagonists reflect this, seemingly ordinary at first but revealing depths as the stories develop a dialogue with something else (for example the strangeness of the times, in "Not the End of the World" and both a traumatic personal history and a frustrating relationship, in "Track".)

In the first story, "Show Them a Good Time", this weirdness in the ordinary is conveyed both through the style and references than the plot or events. The protagonist, an unnamed young woman who has returned home after some time spent with a dodgy boyfriend in the city, has been placed on a scheme intended to fit her better for work. The job seems to consist of hanging around at a garage, doing very little. it isn't even clear whether the place is an actual, functioning business or just a  place to be. There are references to "Management" and to some co-workers but the tasks seem minimal and the most notable event is when "Management" places some chairs on the forecourt and locals begin turning up to watch what happens. There's an air on unreality throughout - I don't know whether this reflects the protagonist's damaged state due to what happened to her in the city (as everything is refracted through her point of view) or some objective state of this world, but is was subtly unsettling.  Being told for example that she and co-worker Kevin watched the adjacent motorway "opening and closing in front of us like an accordion" raises the question of whether this is just a way of describing the criss-crossing of car movements, and if so whether it says something about her state of mind, or whether it's meant to suggest something "real" in which case - what? This sense of ambiguity underlies everything in the story - the relationship with Kevin, the sullen reactions of other colleagues and old friends and, above all, the ending, which was freighted with the sinister.

"Not the End of the World" teases because we only slowly begin to learn of this wider dimension. Angela, a schoolteacher in her early 40s, dates a string of unsatisfactory men. The approach is almost formulaic - she takes them to the same restaurant each time, introduced in the same words, there is odd conversation, revealing more about the state off the world (bad) than about the couple, they may have sex (in one case, the man, all fragility and huff, pretends they did) and we see, I think, a progressive decay in things expressed through the restaurant staff. At first they're just teenagers. Later, they wear their restaurant outfits over military uniforms, 'expecting to be called away at heroes' notice'. Later still, they wear 'stained vests'.

Because things seems to be going to the bad. At the start, Angela denies hotly to herself that she is someone whose life has 'gone to shit'. Yet it seems as though it has, though not perhaps because of anything she did, the world itself seems to have gone that way. Angela's school class has melted away, the supermarket shelves are mostly empty and the book has a tangible sense of decay with everything muddled, temporary and alarming. There are wars and rumours of wars. Whether Angela's  dating is an attempt to escape this, or to fully engage in the spirit of the times isn't clear. She seems to be serially disappointed ('the realisation invariably arrived that this man was not a package at all: he was an envelope, an envelope with a bill in it, an envelope she, quite frankly, wanted to put in a drawer and forget all about') and yet forces herself to enjoy her experiences: 'It was the last good fee,ling, to look across a table and know someone else was terrified too'.

What they might be terrified of, we, perhaps, learn, casting a slightly different light on what Angela's doing.

A bitter, involving story which finds beauty and even humour in sadness and bad times, deftly pulling together the intimate and small with the global and the external.

"Track" is a story which also has an air of melancholy, indeed it seems to drip sadness from... something... that's never quite explained. The narrator, a young Irish woman in New York, is with an ageing comedian, past his prime and trying to rekindle popularity for his TV show by endlessly listening to 'The Track". The exact nature of it is never explained but I think it may be canned laughter, or possibly some classic comedy routine? Whatever it seems to drive a wedge between the two and soon the young woman is online at night, posting anonymous, and venomous, reviews of her partner's act.

As the story proceeds, she seems to fall into depression, remembering that something that happened back in Ireland, a hospital, her mother. Her life becomes more and more nightmarish. At there start, she, not-famous, was happier walking round New York than him: he saw only rejection, she saw takeaway coffee, croissants, and souvenirs. By the end of the story she's walking without purpose to who-knows-where although perhaps with a feeling of release.

In a few pages, Flattery makes these protagonists very, very real, circling around both common ground and differences between them - her Irishness, for example, which seems to bring a whole train of cultural bag while for her 'I didn't want to rely on it too heavily, do that while bit, degrade myself'. Beyond that, though, it's a clever, twisty story that has stayed with me after reading and left me thinking.

Deeply enjoyable stories with a lot of hinterland and a dark sensibility. I'd strongly recommend.

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

25 January 2019

Review - Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Cover design by Sarah Whittaker
Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Doubleday, 17 January 2019
HB, 420pp

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

Well, this book is simply glorious.

Like all the best stories, it opens (I won't say "begins" because the beginning was much earlier, a number of tributary tales feeding into the main course) one dark night when the company are gathered at an inn.

The inn is The Swan at Radcot on the Thames, famed for its storytelling. And storytelling is important in this... story. Setterfield tells her tale, approves the social importance of storytelling in her 19th century setting (with various, wonderful, digressions into local lore, legends, dreams, the histories of her characters - all little stories) and builds into it alternative versions and possibilities. Her characters muse on the past, anticipate the future - with hope, fear, uncertainty - and explore the present as it unfolds.

Back to that dark night. An injured man staggers into The Swan from the river, carrying a dead child. But hours later, she is, it seem alive. Was she dead or not? Those present tell and retell the story. There are various approved additions and endings, while the drinkers at the inn frown on other alternatives. As more happens these alternatives and variations ebb and flow in popularity, joining a repertoire of popular tales which are called for repeated, altered and reworked.

As the story - stories - spreads outwards, though,  it has an impact, sets things in motion, causes a stir.

Something is going to happen.

Across this little corner of Oxfordshire, people get ready. There's Robert Armstrong and his wife Bess, concerned for their little granddaughter, Alice. The Vaughans, whose child vanished into the dark two years ago. And strange Lily White, living in the damp cottage by the river, haunted by visions of her sister Ann.

Three claims on the mysterious girl. In turn these draw in others. The local nurse, Rita Sunday. The Armstrongs' ne'er-do-well son, Robin. A strange man who smells of yeast and strong spirit. A photographer, whose mission is to document the river and its people.

Even a sagacious pig.

Some are searching for the truth. Some want an advantage. Others just want the pain to end.

It's an entertaining read from start to finish. There is villainy here and darkness - rape and murder have taken place. But there is also love and loyalty and longing. Taking place in the year between one winter solstice and the next, Once Upon a River pays great attention to the seasons, to the rising and falling of the river, its quiet flow at some times and raging flood at others. There are countless memories - those stories, again - of deaths in the water, both intended and accidental. And we are told of Quietly, the boatman, who takes travellers whose time has come "across the river".

Throughout, Setterfield manages to make her world of water, oar, bridge, inn and cottage a place slightly distinct, a little kingdom where things are just a little bit different. It is, of course, a world akin to those of other river stories (I thought of The Wind in the Willows and also of Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, which also features an inn) and I could somehow feel the presence of that weight of story behind the writing, diverted the flow, perhaps, here and there, like a submerged stone or a shallow or deep place that you can't see directly. It's almost an eerie feeling, but enjoyable at the same time.

So, like Poohsticks dropped in the water, Setterfield's characters drift downstream, bumping up against one another, separating, getting caught on obstructions or swept along by a current. Every one of them is a gem, whether it's the mixed race Robert Armstrong, wealthy but always on the outside of things, his frankly villainous son, the practical and self-contained Rita with her collection of medical books, Henry Daunt the photographer or poor Lily White. They are all real people, inhabiting this landscape which always, in the end, comes down to the river (excursions further off - to Oxford, to Lechlade (known for its dragons) or even London - feel strained, as though without the river things will go wrong, go off. I mentally cheered each return to the river, to the Swan.

It's a vivid, enchanting and compelling story, like nothing I'd read before.

A real treat.

22 January 2019

Review - Our Child of the Stars by Stephen Cox

Cover by www.leonickolls.co.uk
Our Child of the Stars
Stephen Cox
Jo Fletcher Books, 24 January 2019
HB, 483pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Our Child of the Stars, published on Thursday. I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley - and indeed for a finished hardback copy too which is a real work of beauty.  If you can, take yourself to a bookshop and hold it in your hands! And then buy it, obviously.

I'd been looking forward to the book, based on advance "noise", and there was a extra layer of intrigue because of it being Cox's first book. That always raises the possibility of something a little different. I mean, obviously some aspiring authors will want to write, say, another space opera (or whatever) in line with all the previous space operas, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I've found that, in contrast, some debut authors produce books that are a little different (and not just in the "X meets Y" sense).

Cox's IS one of those, and the result is amazing. While this is firmly a SF novel - Aliens! Spaceships! - for much of the book that aspect is almost incidental. Allow yourself to suspend disbelief in a crashed alien spacecraft and a Government cover-up (and patently, lots of people do) and you have a story of a frightened, injured child and the woman and man who will do anything to protect him. And, eventually, of the others they gather around them to help.

The sheer verve with which Cox portrays these three - especially Cory, the alien child who wants so much to learn and experience the world and to put behind him the dreadful things that have happened - is a joy be read. After introducing the story with Cory's joyful Hallowe'en, Cox turns to Molly and Gene's background. It's the 1960s, they're a bit counter-cultural, stranded in hyper-conformist middle America under, I think, the Nixon administration with the Vietnam War in the background and the Cold War behind that. Molly finds Gene and Gene finds Molly, but it's not all roses. She suffers depression after a miscarriage and struggles with drink. He... can't cope and looks elsewhere. The effects of this are a major theme, sensitively handled, not just a hook so that their acceptance of the alien boy they call Cory is plausible.

That happens after an event called Meteor Day, bringing death and destruction to Amber Grove but also astounding new evidence of extraterrestrial life. The cover-up follows, something Cox makes very believable. I said above "Allow yourself to suspend disbelief", but remember, this is the late 60s we're talking about. In that period and running into the 70s such things were in the air (something expressed much batter than I can in the Hookland Guide, see https://hookland.wordpress.com/about/). The spectacular conspiracy sketched here, involving the President's Chief Scientific Adviser, the FBI, the CIA and more is actually very convincingly done, pitting the Myers against the apparatus of the State in defence of a child they fear will be treated as a monster. It's not only the US Government that pays attention - they need to worry about criminals, the Russians and inquisitive neighbours, too.

As all this develops, Cox succeeds in portraying the alien - the child - at the centre of everything as an inquisitive and hopeful, if very lonely and scared, little boy. Yes, you could see ET vibes here if you wanted but I think that by providing a substitute family for Cory - even as he mourns the death of his mother and his playmates and wishes for the return of "Cory people" to him - the central theme of love and acceptance is built into the heart of this book. And heart is the right word, this story has a great deal of it, dwelling on themes of motherhood, fatherhood and love that had tears in my eyes several times.

There is, also, a more conventional SF post going on in the background, which perhaps had John Wyndham-esque overtones (the disaster of Meteor Day is never really accounted for, nor a couple of other events which suggests a sequel in the works) but that felt, at times, a little optional to me in what is really a very human story. I said I hoped for something new and different, and the book delivers that, but it also does a very old thing in showing us ourselves through the eyes of a helpless and vulnerable stranger come to challenge and affirm our humanity.

(And if that last sentence feels as though it could have been written over Christmas you shouldn't be surprised. It may be early but this would make a great present for 2019 if you're the ultra organised type).

A great SF story, a great story of humanity, full of action but also of heart. Strongly recommended.

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

I really meant what I said about about holding this book in your hands in a shop! But if you want to skip that you can buy from Hive here - supporting local bookshops - or from Waterstone's, Blackwell's or Amazon.

19 January 2019

Review - The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

Art by Ian Leino,  design by Lauren Panepinto
The Hod King (Books of Babel, 3)
Josiah Bancroft
Orbit, 24 January 2019
PB, 567pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The Hod King (thanks, Nazia!)

The first - and very welcome surprise! - about The Hod King was that it's clearly not the final volume in The Books of Babel, Bancroft's sequence set in the immense, titular Tower which contains countless independent states or "Kingdoms" and lures travellers from afar to their doom and a life of slavery. I had it in my head that this was a trilogy, I don't know if it was originally advertised as such or I just assumed because, you know, fantasy trilogies. Either way, it ends with things cruelly unresolved and I think that we can expect more.

The second surprise was that there's a little less of Thomas Senlin here than I had expected. That doesn't mean he's absent - far from it - but in a story that switches back and forward to tell different aspects of the same story, the key sections (at least to me) were those featuring Edith, Iren and Voleta. They've set out in the Sphinx's (the cryptic guardian of the Tower) flagship, The State of Art (captained by Edith) and while their mission is bound up with Senlin's, they are operating independently. Both are tasked to infiltrate the Kingdom of Pelphia, the source of many of Senlin's troubles in Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx, Senlin incognito, and the flagship through diplomacy and a show of force.

There's an agreeable blurring of objectives here. Senlin, as ever, is seeking his lost wife, Marya and The State of Art is supporting that with the Sphinx's approval. But Marya must also seek a lost painting which contains information the Sphinx needs to prevent catastrophe, and the Sphinx also seeks intelligence about the stirrings of the Hods, the bonded slaves who port goods up and down the Tower.

The Hods are taking centre stage in this book, as they begin to stir and resist their dreadful fate, and a lot of the focus is on different approaches to them. There is the bigoted Ancien Regime cruelty of Pelphia (a starkly realised if repellent creation, a polity where the university has been extinguished and replaced by a gambling club where fops bet on hods fighting in the arena. There are those who sympathise with the Hods' revolutionary stirrings. There is Senlin, who seems both to sympathise with the Hods and to have - still! - a sense of respect for law and order which leads him to denounce them. There are others, besides, and above all, the Sphinx: what is her game?

This book presents the same teeming, detailed cross section of a bizarre and self-absorbed world as its predecessors, the narrative staying fresh despite this being Book 3 and despite the reader being, of course, much more familiar with this world than on opening Book 1. There was a certain bottom-drops-out-of-the-world in Senlin Ascends that simply can't be recaptured, but even so, many new mysteries crop up, relating to the origin of the Tower, the identity of the Sphinx and the intentions of the Hods. And through all of this, the relationships between Edith, Iren, Voleta and the others grow and develop, remaining comic at times but also often tender and even touching.

At the same time, it has to be said that by telling the story from one point of view then leaving at a cliffhanger moment and going right back almost to the start to follow a different strand, Bancroft does test the reader somewhat (at least, this reader). I'd have preferred a more frequent cutting between the strands, although I can see why, in terms of managing information and creating he did this. Part of my frustration has to do I think with the rather small print in this book (I must begetting old!) which meant it took me longer to read than I had expected, so closing the loop on those plot strands wasn't quick. If you have older eyes I'd strongly recommend reading this as an e-book so you can adjust the type size.

So - a series that, three books gone, is in rude health and still great fun to read. I'm eager to see what happens in Book 4...

17 January 2019

Review - The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Illustration by Richard Anderson
Design by Steve Panton
The Gutter Prayer
Gareth Hanrahan
Orbit, 17 January 2019
PB, 512pp

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

I'm writing this review in a slight haze, after being up past midnight finishing this superb book ("The city hasn't slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day...") so please forgive me if I drift off into incoherent praise... gripping, imaginative, real... My message for you is simple - just BUY THIS BOOK.

If you're fantasy inclined, you NEED IT, you really do.

If you're equivocal about fantasy - as I am - then, you STILL need it.

Indeed I would say that coming from a position myself of slight fantasy scepticism, it did all the right things for me - a recognisably alt-modern setting (no furs, snowstorms,  dragons or timbered halls) that is all the more weird for liking like our reality, only distorted*. That's not to say this book, and its world, are unaware of fantasy conventions, indeed Hanrahan has some fun with them - for example when a character dimly remembers fusty old tales the language switches to parody fantasy just as we see faux King James Bible or Shakespeare used as shortcut i the present day: "The bane sword... he tries to recall - the bane swords were forged in lo the year something because verily a dread thing arose. Demons. Something something."**

The city presented here is dealing with refugees from a distant war. Its alchemical industries are gross polluters, causing illness and poverty. Many of the products of those industries are weapons, sold to all sides in the war (a moral question that hangs over the book: "She's seen the weapons of war the alchemists can make... - fires that never stop burning, animals warped into huge monsters, knife-smoke, ice contagions.") There are political tensions between the Church, modernisers in Parliament and the industrial lobby.

This is the city of Guerdon, ancient, destroyed and rebuilt countless times, home to many races, religions and peoples, from the ghouls who live in deep tunnels and caverns, to Crawling Ones - collectives of worms in human form, to various gods including some who embody themselves in human saints. (I loved sweary Aleena ('Are you the fuckwit that scared of all the bloody ghouls?" she asks') saint of the kept Gods, who's 50% cynicism and 50% sheer, naked violence).

It's here that three low-level thieves stage a daring heist, and come to grief. There's Rat, a young ghoul who's trying to stay on the surface and avoid the stage of ferality that plagues kind. Spar, a young man who is infected with a  deadly disease, slowly turning him to stone. And Cari (Carillon) Thay, temple dancer, adventuress, rogue and wanderer whose family were murdered and who has recently returned to Guerdon. Together, they set out to burgle (appropriately) the House of Law.

Rat, Cari and Spar soon come up against thief-taker and steam-punky Sherlock-Holmes alike investigator Jere who's been tasked by a political boss to take down the Thieves' Guild. Much of the first part of the book is taken up with the question of how things went wrong in the House of Law and who might seize some advantage from it - Spar has ambitions for leadership of the Guild, in the footsteps of his father - while at the same time, various nasties begin to emerge (check out the Raveller...)

Between worries about the possibility of the city being drawn into the apocalyptic Godswar, the machinations of the Kept Gods' priests and Jere's attempts to bring Heinreil, head of the Guild, there is a lot going on but Hanrahan deftly keeps it all moving - this is a book that seldom lags - and has a real ability to make the weird seem everyday; one accepts his explanations for the co-exitensce of a kind of alchemical science, of sorcery, of real gods which are a kind of emergent phenomenon because they're grounded in the goings on of ordinary seeming people in believable institutions (University, Parliament, industry). Granted alchemical technology, there would obviously be a shadow market in stolen and illicit traded products. Granted active gods, issues of religious tolerance become very real and urgent. Granted a plague that can turn people to stone, there would be issues of disease control, prejudice and access to medication. Hanrahan borrows just enough from our world and experience to make his background plausible, while retaining a cheeky sense of the fantastic at the same time.

The characters here are also terrific. I've already mentioned Aleela, who may be a reluctant saint but is never short of a quip, but Cari is pretty awesome too, both making her way in a pitiless world and remaining loyal to her friends. And I should also mention Cari's cousin Eladora who starts out as a mousy scholar, loses everything - home, mentor, money - and changes, developing a swagger and a menace and managing to uncover the key information that shows what's really going on while struggling several times with Nameless Horrors and Ancient Evils.

(A warning, though: don't become too attached to anyone, Hanrahan is brutal with his characters.)

Those horrors and evils signpost the story, I think, as having a bit of a Lovecraftian vibe, indeed if you wanted a label for it you might call it "steampunk Lovecraft" although that doesn't really do the book credit. Yes, Hanrahan weaves what is in many respects a superficially modern world menaced by horrors from the past, but actually Guerdon is of a part with that past, which isn't really the past at all, just the way the world is. We have ex-mercenaries here reliving the horrors of bombardment in the Godswar, still raging overseas and displacing refugees. We have food shortages causes by the war.  So it's not that a "civilised", "modern" world is imperilled by atavistic, "dark" "savage" forces (we all know what HPL was getting at there, don't we) it's that terrible extremes coexist in one world, in one city, in the same people (sassy Aleela's a case in point: she's committed slaughter for her gods - the civilised, "decent" gods that supposedly protect Guerdon) and somehow those extremes will have to resolve themselves.

There is simply so much in this book too think about, it's such a bewildering, exhilarating, head-hammering banger of a book, that if you have any interest in or curiosity  about the best recent fantasy, YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.

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

*Reading this book made a point clear to me that I hadn't spotted before: the fantasy I have most enjoyed recently has all been of that recognisably modern-but-but-weird type - for example, Fonda Lee's Jade City and Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy have something of the same balance to them.

**Not the only way in which Hanrahan has fun with broad modern source material - I spotted references to Stranger Things, to The Italian Job, and many more besides (and I'm sure I missed a lot too).

16 January 2019

Interview with Little Red Reviewer

As you may be aware Little Red Reviewer who blogs at https://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com is running a Kickstarter for a print book featuring the best of her reviews over the past eight years.

You can read all about that, and back the Kickstarter, here (I have) and to help spread the word, she's getting out and about in the blogosphere and kindly agreed to answer some questions here. So here we go - the first Blue Book Balloon interview of 2019!

BBB: How did you get started with blogging/ reviewing? 
LRR: The reviewing is older than the blogging. I'd been posting science fiction book reviews on a science fiction bulletin board, a few e-zines, a few review sites, even my first (failed) blog. It was fun, but it wasn't satisfying.  It was a perfect combination of  the wordpress platform being the exact type of user-friendliness I needed, some extra time on my hands, a little bit of extra organization. In 2010, The Little Red Reviewer was born!  Took me about a year to figure out how to network on the blogosphere, and a few more years after that to get my style to where I wanted it. Blogging isn't a thing you do, it's a journey you go on.

BBB: How do you approach reviewing (sheaves of notes and stickies – or just race through the book and put down what you feel?)

I'm a pen and paper girl, so I tuck pages of notes into books, use post-in notes, even write on bookmarks.  My mom used to buy me all these beautiful bookmarks, I generally had to stop using them because I was writing notes all over them. One time, I had a pen, but no paper to write on, and I really wanted to remember what I was thinking, so I wrote the notes in ink on my arm.    I'm pretty sure I've jotted book notes down on restaurant paper napkins.

The problem is when a book is so engrossing that I can't put it down long enough to jot down a few notes. In that case, I get to the end of the book, and I end up just typing and typing  until I've got something coherent.

BBB: Has your approach changed with experience? 

Most definitely.  My early reviews were fancy book reports where I talked about the book, but kept myself separate from the book.  The more comfortable I've gotten with writing reviews, the less I separate myself from what I'm reading. Instead of describing the characters, it's easier now for me to talk about how I relate to the characters.

The actual writing of most reviews has gotten easier as well. I say “most”, because a growing number of books that I review have a massive emotional impact on me. Writing the review is like reliving whatever I went through when I read the book, and trying to get all of those thoughts and feelings into 1200 words.  It's not as easy as it sounds.

We've all had those times when we've read a bunch of books, and are just struggling to sit down and write the reviews.  Maybe I don't know where to start?  Maybe I haven't thought enough about what I loved about the book in combination with what annoyed me? This struggle is so common I even wrote a blog post about it.

BBB: Who do you review for (yourself? The author? Other readers? Someone else altogether?) 

I review for myself.  The biggest reason behind starting Little Red Reviewer was a practical reason: I know if I write down my thoughts, or even type them up, I am more likely to remember the book I read. If I write a review of a book, I'm more likely to remember the plot, the names of the characters, even the twist at the end (even if I don't spoil the twist in the review!).  The practical turned into the enjoyable – I enjoy writing book reviews. I enjoy playing with weird metaphors that don't quite make sense, I enjoy having an emotional response to something, and then reflecting that response back in a review.  It's fun!

It's been wonderful over the years to have other bloggers enjoy what I post on my  blog.  Getting encouraging comments from authors and editors makes my day!

BBB: Have there been any particular high or low points so far? (I’ll assume that Kickstarting your collection is going to be a high!) 

High point –  after I'd posted a review of the book,  one of my favorite authors e-mailed me to say it was their favorite review they'd ever gotten.  This was a few years ago, and I am still on cloud nine.    I don't review for authors, but when authors tell me they appreciate my reviews, that they appreciate that I got what they were trying to say,  those are always high points.

This Kickstarter and the positive attention it is getting, definitely a high point!!  Even my parents are excited!

Low points?  I had a very low point in my life that lasted about two years (things got better!) where I was angry and depressed and my life was full of toxic elements and I had no idea at the time how to make the horribleness end.  Among other issues, there were a bunch of times I wanted to stop blogging. I wanted to stop reading, stop talking about books, I wanted to take the hobby that had given me so much joy and just throw it in the bin. You know you have a problem when even thinking about your favorite hobby makes you miserable.  That was a low point in my life that bled into a low point in my blog.  At the end of February I'll be quietly celebrating the two year anniversary of the end of that chapter of my life.  Good riddance to low points and toxicity!

BBB: What’s your favourite review that you’ve done? 

I have a few!  Forty (or maybe more?) of my favorite reviews will be in The Best of Little Red Reviewer.   The short list of my favorites includes:

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White

Clockwork Phoenix Vol 5 edited by Mike Allen

BBB: Some reviewers are fine with publishing “negative” reviews (whatever that means) – others won’t touch them. Do you have a position on this?

I publish negative reviews.  I publish fewer negative reviews now than I used to, which is probably related to the fact that I am more careful about what books I commit to reviewing, and I am more likely to just not finish a book that isn't working for me.

I've written negative reviews of wildly popular and award winning books.

I  once wrote a review where I spent the first 2/3 of the review praising the story, that I like the space opera-ness of it, enjoyed the environment, thought the future society was really cool.  A scene at the end of the book rubbed me the wrong way, and so I wrote about that too.

Not every book will work for every writer. It's OK to disagree with people who liked or didn't like something. Just because a book gets a lot of hype, or wins a lot of awards doesn't mean that you will love it. And that's OK.

BBB: If a book isn’t working for you do you slog on to the end or hurl it across the room? 

Lol!  I've done both.   If I'm committed to finishing it – maybe it has some redeeming qualities, or it is for my local book club, I'll try to finish it.  Book club conversations about books that we all hated are hilarious, by the way.

My husband and I have a special stack of books behind the television – these are books that are destined to be traded in at the used bookstore, or donated to the library, or put in a “free” box somewhere.  And yes, occasionally really bad books end up in the garbage.

I must be getting old, as I have less and less patience for books that just aren't working for me. If the book hasn't grabbed me by page 50,  it gets put down and I'll try another one.  My friend Susan, who runs Dab of Darkness inspired me with her posts where she'd grab a bunch of interesting books, and only read the first few chapters of each, for the purpose of discovering which books grabbed her attention and which just weren't for her.

Life is way too short for bad books!

BBB: You give some favourite genres in your blog. But where do you stand on genre in general (every time I look there seem to be more of them) — useful in classifying/ analysis or just a marketing label? 

I imagine once upon a time it was easier for a publicist to write a press release about a novel that was just a space opera, or just a high fantasy adventure, or just a supernatural thriller.

I really feel bad for the people who make the category signs at bookstores. Where do you put something if it's a philosophical first-contact story with vampires?  How about a romance involving time traveling cyborgs who have to be careful not to mess up history, but everyone in the future is a total idiot? How about a spy thriller that involves Cthonic monsters, zombies, and the challenges of having a work-life balance?  What about a political fantasy that involves economics, betrayal, currency manipulation, and forbidden love?

I am loving that everything right now is a mishmash of genres.

BBB: And related to that, are there any genres/ settings/ tropes you won’t touch? 

If the story doesn't have some kind of speculative or supernatural element to it, I am probably going to get bored very quickly.

I used to say I didn't like military scifi,  but then I read Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy, and loved it!  That trilogy is MilitarySF, plus a ton of other brilliant stuff.

BBB: Finally, and more of a fun question, imagine your latest review book has revealed a devious plot. In the course of investigating it you’ve become trapped – say in a remote cave or a lonely forest tower. (Don’t worry, it’s a very comfortable cave or tower.) A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, but you can only have one book with you (any book). Which would it be? 

A comfy tower with plenty of food and water, and I'm stuck there for a few days and I can't do anything but read?  This sounds like the best vacation ever!

I'd take Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.  I've only read through the whole thing once, and like all Wolfe books, you've got to read it a few times to really get what's happening.    Reading that series is like walking through a gigantic house that is all curving hallways covered in windows – you can only see a little ways ahead of you and  a little ways behind you.  But if you really get to know the house and what time the sun is shining into different windows, you can plan your walks through the hallways so that the sun is coming into the windows and you can see way more of what's going on.  Even better, you'll see something different every time.

Shout out to Alzabo Soup,  a really excellent podcast about Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

BBB: Thank you for those insights into your reviewing - just a reminder to everyone that the Kickstarter is here.

13 January 2019

Review - Elevation by Stephen King

Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton, 30 October 2018
HB, 135pp

Another book I bought during the year and hadn't got round to.

Stephen King's fictional universe contains many wonders, and more horrors. This book - one of a number set in his idealised US rural community of Castle Rock - belongs firmly with the former. Scott Carey, a jobbing web designer who's getting on a bit but not ready to unplug his keyboard just yet, begins to be concerned about his falling weight.

His old friend Dr Ellis shares these concerns - falling weight may mean any number of bad things - but also shares Carey's bafflement... while his weight may be falling his body size isn't. Instead he simply seems to be getting lighter. And so it goes - what will happen when has no weight at all?

The fun of this book is that King doesn't try and explain what's going on, Carey doesn't become the centre of a Stranger Things style investigation and there doesn't turn out to be some bigger picture here. He just loses his weight, and the book focusses squarely on the consequences of that. I can see that - especially as this is a very short book - some readers will hate that, think there should be so much more, but there you are. For me I delighted in the simplicity of the story.

There actually is more, of course - Carey's life becomes entangled with his efforts to befriend a lesbian couple who have moved into Castle Rock and are having trouble persuading the somewhat reactionary locals (I don't like the usage 'conservative' here) to accept them. Challenged to justify his own attitude, he realises he hasn't been as supportive as he might have been and tries to help. That doesn't go too well, and Carey's perception that he has limited time - that reducing weight must have an endpoint - pushes him to try and mend things. It's a nice juxtaposition of the everyday and the fantastical, showing, if nothing less, how issues of social justice can be tackled in fantastical literature - something that ought not to be controversial but in some quarters apparently is.

A fun and thought provoking addition to King's fictional domain (and mentioning Pennywise in relation to Hallowe'en celebrations raised a smile too...)

9 January 2019

Review - Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

Cover by http://www.blacksheep-uk.com
Shadow Captain (Revenger, 2)
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 10 January 2019
HB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Shadow captain via Netgalley.

Following from 2016's Revenger, Shadow Captain picks up the fortunes of the Ness sisters, Arafura and Adrana, now that they have found each other, destroyed the dread pirate captain Bosa Sennen and seized her ship, the Nightjammer.

If Revenger was subtitled The True and Accurate Testimony of Arafura Ness, then Shadow Captain is written from Adrana's. Together the two volumes dramatise the distrusts that have been sown between the sisters - in particular by Bosa's attempts to condition Adrana to be her successor. Bosa is a wonderful, monstrous creation, not one women but a whole series pursuing her cruel schemes out there in the darkness on the edge of empty space... Bosa may be dead, but the grip of the shadow captain is still tight on this book, with a real doubt as to whether or not Adrana has a bit too much of Bosa in her.

This story is very much a yarn in the best, Stevensonian vein. It may be set millions of years in the future, after the Earth and all the planets have been shattered and reworked into millions of worlds that form a could around the sun. There may have been umpteen 'occupations' - civilisations reaching across the solar system - in all that time. There may be aliens ('crawlies'). But it's a pirate novel, all the same, as 'sun jammers' - spacecraft propelled by vast sails to catch the solar flux - ply their trade, 'privateers' raid cryptic, deadly vaults - 'baubles' - which contain client treasure and technology and above all, in the way that the story is ruled by lust for the clinking 'quoins' which have become humanity's universal store of value. Rumoured to contain human souls, rumoured to... well, there are all sorts of rumours, the quoins have an air of mystery about them, a mystery that Bosa was apparently determined to crack.

Reynolds pays close attention to the mood and language of his book, adopting a distinctive vocabulary (references to 'coves' and 'leagues' abound) that reinforces the nautical atmosphere. Together with the scattering of small ports furnished by his millions of artificial worlds and the fragmented, disparate nature of the society that inhabits them, we have the perfect background for a story of escape (the Ness sisters originally ran away from their safe home to escape boredom and marriage and to seek adventure), treachery, revenge (of course) and battle (of course).

As the story opens, the two sisters are reflecting on their position. Their ship, Revenger, formerly Nightjammer, and her ex captain, have such a grim reputation that they're liable to be engaged on sight by any legitimate vessel (and most that aren't). Nobody is likely to believe the story that Senn is no more - it's just the sort of ruse she'd invent to take in an unwary captain. So how can the sisters and their crew trade for necessities and recruit the new shipmates they need? Will they be driven into a pariah existence, on the edge of the Empty, everyone's hand against them?

Reynolds has great fun with this scenario, with the mistrust between the sisters and with the lingering doubts about Bosa while steering his craft - sorry, the language is catching! - from skirmish to mystery to raid. There's even an extended sequence with a distinctly noirish feel, taking place on a beaten up space station ruled over by a grotesque crime boss and where it actually rains most of the time. Yes, I know that sounds as though it shouldn't work but work it does, creating a real atmosphere of menace and threat.

Behind all this, of course, is the deeper mystery, the story of the Occupations, how they happen and why they end and the nature of the quoins. The successive civilisations - interspersed by ages of barbarity - mean that humanity's history and destiny is shrouded, hidden (and one begins to suspect, there are those who want it to stay that way). Driven by nothing more than sheer curiosity, the Ness sisters are determined to find the truth - if not swallowed up first by pirate ghosts, deadly baubles or some other catastrophe they bring down upon themselves -  and I really, really hope that Reynolds writes that resolution to the series.

Excellent space opera-y, pirate-y adventure. Strongly recommended.

8 January 2019

Blogtour review - Deep Dirty Truth by Steph Broadribb

Deep Dirty Truth
Steph Broadribb
Orenda Books, 10 January 2019
PB, e 277pp

Today I'm joining my first blogtour of 2019, for Steph Broadribb's third Lori Anderson thriller, Deep Dirty Truth. I'm grateful to Orenda and to Anne Cater for inviting me onto the tour and especially to Steph herself for sending me a PERSONALLY DEDICATED copy of the proof (see picture, left).

This might be a good place to confess that I'm a fully signed up member of #TeamLori so this might not be the most objective review on the world. On the other hand I wouldn't be reviewing this if I didn't think it was amazing.

Right, what do we have here? First, some backstory. Lori Anderson, single mum to daughter Dakota, works as a bounty hunter in Florida. It's a dangerous living, but she needs to earn as Dakota is in remission from leukaemia and needs ongoing treatment. Recently things have been particularly difficult because her work, and her history, have brought the attentions of the Miami Mob, ruthless killers who want revenge for Lori's killing ten years before of her abusive husband, a Mob lynchpin. But she's also got together again with Dakota's father, legendary bounty hunter JT, also wanted by the Mob - so there's that.

All of this unfolded in the first two books, Deep Down Dead and Deep Blue Trouble,  and I won't say any more about the detail of what happened because spoilers - if you haven't read these books you should, so go and do that, right?  If you have, you can carry on.

So where were we? Back to Deep Dirty Truth, I think.

Broadribb doesn't mess around with her opening. Going about her normal business in the opening chapter, wishing a couple of pages, Lori's been abducted, bound and hooded and slung in the back of a van. The head of the Mob, Old Man Bonchese, wants to make her an offer (that she can't refuse, naturally). She's to "rescue" one of his men, Carlton North, who's in FBI witness protection. Succeed, and her debt is written off. Fail and she's dead.

As are Dakota and JT.

It's a daunting task, taking Lori into immense danger while stoking up her fears for her recently united, oh-so-fragile family.

And Lori, being Lori, swallows the danger, lays her plans, and sets to work.

One of the things I adore about these books by Broadribb is her portrayal of this capable, determined woman, Lori. The closest character I can think of as a comparison if you haven't read the books (in which case you shouldn't be reading this, should you?) is Villanelle in the BBC's Killing Eve series. Not in the sense that Villanelle is a deranged killer - Lori is the very opposite - but in the practical, dauntless competence she shows. (And yes, she is breaking inside, not least at the danger to her family, but the job's got to be done, OK?)

Steph Broadribb
The story is basically a chase, from danger into danger, Mob on one side, FBI on the other, and accompanying Lori, the equivocal figure of North himself who is playing his own game, with his own allies and assets. It's soon clear, if we ever doubted, that simply fulfilling Bonchese's terms won't be enough (for Lori OR her family). Somehow, she has to square all the factions involved here and do it while the subject of a giant manhunt with her picture on TV and in the Press and every hand against her. On the way she'll have to face her deepest fears (there are ALLIGATORS in this book! Again!)

Sorting this means she needs to discover that deep, dirty truth of the title - a truth that'll put all her troubles of the past ten years in a new light...

In a sense this is a classic template for a thriller - there are echoes of The Thirty Nine Steps, for example - a protagonist who's cut off suddenly from her own life, forced to live by her wits and with only limited time to put things right. Not by any means a new idea. Yet just as in music, so here the constraints of a classic form show Broadribb at the top her game, keeping this pacy, relentless novel rattling along at almost breathtaking speed and building tension on tension as the bodycount increases.

It's very much a Lori focussed story - while we do see what's happening with JT and Dakota, and there is some action for them, that's quite subsidiary (though I think the consequences may matter in future books - there is some definite Feelings stuff going on for Lori and JT...) making for a very linear plot, which also stokes the atmosphere considerably.

In all, a superb addition to the Lori canon.

You can get Deep Dirty Truth from Hive Books, Waterstones, Blackwells or Amazon as well as lots of other places. And the blogtour continues until the end of January - see the poster below for the list of brilliant bloggers taking part!

5 January 2019

Review - Red Snow by Will Dean

Red Snow (Tuva Moodyson 2)
Will Dean
Point Blank, 10 January 2019
HB, 389pp

I'm grateful to Point Blank for an advance copy of Red Snow.

Like its predecessor, Dark Pines, Red Snow focusses on Tuva Moodyson, ace reporter for local paper the Gavrik Posten. Moodyson is a magnificent creation - it would be easy to describe her with a string of labels; Deaf, bisexual, borderline alcoholic... but in reality, she walks of Dean's pages as much more than that, a rounded and vulnerable young woman still mourning the loss of her mother and mired in guilt.

That makes her especially sympathetic when a series of calamities befalls a local liquorice factory, and its owners, the Grimbergs - three women of different generations, including young student Karin, who are left bereft, guilty and endangered.

If Moodyson gives this book heart and a recognisable, relatable focus, the Grimbergs are plain weird and present fascinating - and difficult - subjects for investigation. There are (at least) two facets to this. First, the series of events is so varied that it's hard to see them as the work of a single hand. There is a suicide, road accidents, a murder and much more, so that what's going on seems to have more affinity with a curse than with criminal activity. (The Grimbergs certainly take it that way, relying on a bewildering array of superstitious "precautions" to defend them against the "old evil").

Secondly, the family is reclusive, inward looking and almost fortified in their grand "residence" above the factory. No one is else is allowed in - even meals have to be passed one by one through the velvet curtain - and Tuva soon finds that who is available for interview, and what they're prepared to talk about, is as idiosyncratic as the nature of the events themselves.

To add to all this, Grimberg's is the town's chief employer. As she found out in Dark Pines, the good folk of Gavrik don't welcome outside scrutiny of their town and its affairs and there are already enough rumours about the factory. Is it about to be sold? Will the workers lose their jobs? Can it continue manufacturing in the tried and tested way, against competitors who have automated and brought in new ways and methods? Symbolised by the fleet of antique delivery trucks, which are not up to the rigours of a sub-Arctic winter, Grinberg's seems about to career off the road into a ditch, even without the series of calamities described here.

It's a fascinating background, and Tuva doesn't have much time as she's leaving town in a few days for a better job, and warmer weather, in the south of the country. That, to me, introduced a note of regret and unease to the story. Over the course of the book she is packing up her stuff, arranging to ship out and saying goodbye to people and things. While Tuva does't have much affection for the place she refers to as "Toytown" this all takes its toll - especially the prospect of leaving her beloved Tammy - and by the end of the book she's barely holding things together. Tuva really is a character you can feel for and the sense of stress, of loss, of guilt (as well as her bad choices - she makes many!) really piles on the tension. I almost felt as though either the crime spree, or Tuva's personal issues, could have made a book in themselves and having them collide meant at times I became frustrated when the writing had to break off from one to deal with the other.

This is a tense, readable and engrossing book, with Tuva really goes through the mill here. She's not helped by becoming reacquainted with some of the creepier characters from Dark Pines - the two wood carving sisters, stalkery taxi driver Viggo, and the ghost writer and experimental chef David Holmqvist who's writing a book on the Grimbergs and lists Tuva as his researcher.

I hope she makes a quick recovery from the events of Red Snow in time for more books - while she may have escaped the extremes of the winter weather, I have a feeling she'll find as many dark corners in the south as in Gavrik Commune and I want to hear about them soon!

Red Snow is out on 10 January and you will be able to buy it from your local bookshop, from Hive, Waterstones, Blackwells and Amazon.

3 January 2019

Review - Deep Blue by Jane O'Reilly

Cover design by www.nickcastledesign.com
Deep Blue (Second Species, 2)
Jane O'Reilly
Piatkus, 10 January 2019
PB, 310pp

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

Deep Blue picks up the story of Jinnifer Blue, space pirate and daughter of Senator Ferona Blue, in a pacy space opera set two centuries hence. Earth is in trouble, after overcorrections for global warming bring on a freeze that is destroying life. To survive, humans must relocate to a distant planet - but this will involve travelling through alien controlled space.

Fortunately, Ferona has a plan to bribe the aliens by trafficking them genetically altered men and women. She's ruthless enough to subject her own daughter to the process, and so we find Jinnifer endowed with superhuman strength - and other talents - fighting back against her mother, seeking to rescue her lover, Caspian Dax, currently fighting for his life in the arena of Sittan.

This is a story with great pace and drive. It reads as though O'Reilly had a lot of fun creating it, and lives and breathes through its characters - burdened as they are with loves and hatreds, guilt, fears and all the baggage of being brought up in the hellish underworlds that exist below every Earth city.

I wouldn't recommend it to diehard fans of hard SF - at least not the picky sort, you shouldn't be reading this if you care about the practicalities of explosions in space, or of actual space travel - but if what you're interested in is a good story driven by plausible characters (and with a nice streak of romance too) all set against a glittery backdrop of stars, phase drives and deeply bizarre aliens, then it may just be for you. You do though need to read the first book - Blue Shift, reviewed here - first and ideally go straight on to this one.

As with the first book, O'Reilly leaves things hanging on a cliffedge, Jinn's swashbuckling and her mother's political scheming evolving in parallel, and that sets things up for an explosive finale to which I'm really looking forward.