28 February 2019

#Blogtour Review - The Outcast Hours ed by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours
ed by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin
Solaris, 22 February 2018
PB, e 384pp

I'm honoured today to be joining the blogtour for Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin's new anthology themed around night and the dark. I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of the book via NetGalley and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me to take part in this blogtour - when I heard this anthology was coming out, I knew I would have to read it and so I was delighted to be asked to take part.

Why did I want to read these stories? Not only do the editors have a seriously impressive track record - and look at the authors' names! - but the theme, night, is something that's always intrigued me and fired my imagination. One of the stories here notes that "By the time you're twelve you have a pretty good idea of whether or not you like the night". I think that's right. Old enough to get over - or mostly get over - the terrors of childhood, not old enough to appreciate some of the darker realities: your view can be set then, only to be moderated, not erased, by subsequent experience.

Me, I love the idea that, while I doze in my warm bed, there are people in neon lit spaces working; travellers make their way by nightbus or midnight train to who knows where; restless people sit in airports surrounded by their luggage; a pack of Nighthawks out of Edward Hopper's dreams prop up a bleak bar; and so forth. Recently I read about a woman living on the edge of London who, when she can't sleep, gets the nightbus into town and visits a particular Soho cafe. Respect to her for that - I'm not so much of a night owl myself though I will stay up reading but I'm fascinated by the idea of the night. It's just fuel for the imagination and positively drips with atmosphere, sentiment and anticipation.

Of course, that attitude may reflect a degree of privilege on my part, as a man with a secure home who lives in a safe and sleepy English village (even if we do sometimes appear in Midsomer Murders). Other perspectives are available and often, of course, the night is threatening, especially for women ("not for all the gold in the world would she have stepped outside the car in that moment" states the unnamed young woman in Sleep Walker by Silvia Moreno-Garcia "Because the night was yawning.")

So, all that said, what about the stories? The book contains 26 full length stories arranged into nine sections, each unopened by an enigmatic "microstory" by China Miéville. The stories in the book engage with all aspects of the theme: some are, perhaps only "coincidentally" nighttime stories, and might as easily be set in day (or are even notionally nighttime, as one set during the long Northern summer so while it is chronologically "night", actually it's as bright as day),  others demand the nocturnal in some way, featuring a security guard or a woman on shift at a dog hotel - while still more have that "something of the night" about them. In genre, they range from horror, to crime, science fiction, fantasy, noir and romance and everything in between.

This is, overall, a strong collection of stories. I had my favourites - for example Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You? by Genevieve Valentine is a well-turned out ghost story, whose twist is that it's a very meta, self-aware story which stops every so often to ask the reader questions, point out what's happening structurally ("Susan has invoked the past, one of the early warning signs of a ghost story") and discuss where things might go. That sounds as though it shouldn't work, but the interventions rather add to the tension, giving the whole things a taste of preordained doom. It also has some neat characterisation, especially of resigned women mixed up with unpleasant men ("She's pretty sure she doesn't want to actually marry Greg any more, now that she knows he's a fucking grave robber...")

Or Indrapramit Das's The Patron Saint of Night Puppers which examines the life of a young woman surviving the gig economy in Vancouver, living from task to task. As she sets out to a night's work at a dog hotel one Hallowe'en, we sense Kris actually doing something she enjoys, and gradually learn why her lonely life is completed by spending a night with these loyal, abandoned animals. A sad story yet one with real feeling and heart, it gives a chilling sense of a young woman's everyday fears when on the street alone after dark ("she hoped it wasn't a man, because it wasn't easy to cross over to the other side of the road on Terminal") as well as the fears and hopes of the dogs she cares for ("The dogs surrounded her in worship and terror, begging for guidance. They loved Kris. They feared Kris. They asked only that she love them like their human families once had, only to abandon them here for who knew how many forevers...") I know it seems weird to quote those passages together but it reflects the way Das weaves together Kris's approach to the dogs and their vulnerability with her own life.

And there's SL Grey's The Dental Gig which reminded me of Terry Pratchett at his best. This non-so-sweet little fantasy revolves around the lives of the fairies who collect children's teeth, but it's far from being a soothing fairytale as we see the worst features of the modern workplace feature, not least a very dubious product resulting from all the activity. Another of my favourites, not only for the weird but successful mashup produced here but for the sharp characterisation, the credibility of the whole thing and a surprising ending. Or One Gram by Leah Moore in which Bette, an alienated young wage slave, scratches a living doing nightshifts at a pub where the customers are unpleasantly hands on ("Bette's attention was dependent on which of the customers were acting like pricks") and the management pitiless. How much can Bette take? And what will she do if she decides she's had enough? A naturalistic story where the nighttime breathes off the page and the moment to moment tasks Bette must complete jostle with her feelings to produce a crackling tension.

But there are so many strong stories here. The very first story in the book, This Book Will Find You by Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes and Dale Halvorsen is out and out horror, fitting for the hours of darkness. Something must be done at 3am - not before, and not after. Focussing on a woman driven to the edge of reason by what she's encountered, this was a chilling opener to the anthology.

Picking up the vibe of the #MeToo age, Will Hill's It Was a Different Time is set amongst the tawdry glamour of fading Hollywood, staging a nighttime encounter in which an abuser rails against the inevitable.

Sami Shah's Ambulance Service describes Nazeem's ("Karachi's only exorcist") nighttime shift at the Edhi Ambulance Centre, which serves the more esoteric emergency needs of the city's night hours. In what reads like a taster for a longer novel (please!) we see a range of supernatural crises defused with skill and aplomb and I enjoyed reading about these from a quite different religious/ mythical perspective to that with I'm familiar.

Sleep Walker by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of those stories that intrigues by what it doesn't reveal. Why has the city fallen on hard times? (Or perhaps they all do, in the end?) What is the mysterious, nocturnal "show" that eager men drive so far - to such a place - to see?

Francis Hardinges's Blind Eye picked up a different aspect of the nighttime economy - wondering who looks after babysitting for the less... regular... nighttime workers. And then it takes an even darker twist. I enjoyed reading about Erin and the way she's found of making a living.

Bag Man by Lavie Tidhar is something of a romp, setting a noir-ish gangster ridden tale in the scruffy backstreets of an Israeli town, spinning a tale worthy of Hitchcock as hoodlums, youths and, perhaps, terrorists vie for possession of a veritable McGuffin of a briefcase.

Maha Khan Phillips' Gatsby alludes to her original both in the theme of a lavish 20s- themed party thrown for Karachi's gilded youth by the mysterious Saqib, and in the role that Saqib himself plays in relation to Ra, a young woman who's missing her friend. Evoking a real sense of 20s decadence and even wickedness, it left a thrill of terror with me.

Swipe Left by Daniel Polansky brilliantly blends the dating adventures of a rather self-absorbed young man (the story punctuated by his online evaluation, selection, and assessment of potential partners) with an older form of hunting behaviour. Nicely done horror.

MiDNIghT MaRAuDERS [sic] by M. Sudan would be striking as cli-fi even if it were no more than that. Set in a Russian town in the Arctic Circle post some unspecified future disaster, there is mention of the Water Wars in Africa, sea levels have risen, towns been submerged and "Families with radios search for voices, or music, or some other sign the world still exists" it focusses on Lidya and her family's involvement in a dust-up between two rival chemist/ drugstores - both rather splendid establishments but caught up in a struggle involving local politicians, the Mob and the happily drunken, drugged-up townsfolk. It's great fun, with a bit of a bite (13 year old Lidya seems old beyond her years).

Sally Partridge's The Collector rather chillingly distils the essence of an unreconstructed young man working as a security guard in a Cape Town gated community ("He stopped talking to the residents after a while, in case he said the wrong thing about the Jews or working mothers"). It's one of those stories where a minor incident suddenly sends everything off the rails, revealing a real sense of rage and entitlement. A chilling story.

Tilt by Karen Onojaife opens among the peeling romance of a suburban casino in West London. Iyere has suffered a loss and drifted into gambling, something that wakes her up and gives her a thrill. A meeting with a new croupier reveals Iyere's past and present her with a choice about her future. A sad story, which presents Iyere with a choice.

In the Blink of a Light by Amira Salah-Ahmed is another story in which lives change in an instant. Contrasting the parallel lives of a wealthy young party girl and the pair of poor, if devout, young men who run the light and sound decks at the events she attends, it seems to show worlds, cultures, classes in collision. And that never ends well.

Marina Warner's This Place of Thorns is a story of the present or near future Middle East focussing on the lives of desperate refugees, people who just want their lives back. The thorns of the title are bushes that yield myrrh, in what is only the first of a series of Biblical parallels. A tender, sad and touching story.

Not Just Ivy by Celeste Baker is a nice fantasy, which Baker tells partly in her protagonist's Caribbean island patois (dipping in and out depending on setting and who she's speaking to). Arriving for a mini break in the sun, the unnamed advertising exec whose job is selling dubious remedies has what amounts to a spiritual experience which, as in Warner's story, seems to be mediated by plant life. It's a story where the experience is more important, I think, than the consequence - a moment of changed life with the future left uncertain.

Dark Matters by Cecilia Ekbäck is set in Finland, where a family of Seventh-Day Adventists is abut to meet a challenge that tests their picture of the world. Featuring Death, Resurrection and a perspicacious older woman, the story very clever shows us events through a child's eyes, leaving much unclear but creating a moving and true through-line, even if the ending is a bit sad.

Above the Light by Jesse Bullington is my favourite story in this volume. Exquisite in detail, it describes the lives of two young people who have taken to a strange hobby - night hiking. As they grow older they meet yearly to pursue this, becoming more and more proficient and taking greater and greater risks. As the demands of adult life crowd in, escape to the moonlit hills or the woods becomes more and more (and moor!) precious - but how long can this go on? If you've ever walked at night and felt that something else is moving around you... or wondered whether you were in a dream or waking remembering a dream... or just felt life closing in... then this story is for you. Just wonderful.

Yakima Ozawa's Welcome to the Haunted House teases by hinting that the point is for the collection of bizarrely animated household objects introduced as characters to, somehow, achieve freedom and safety. But actually it's darker than that and there is real horror here.

William Boyle's Lock-In is a tender story about a young girl growing up in a New York suburb in the 80s. Over the course of a night she has an opportunity to strike out on her own - a creepily effective section, especially when she's alone on the subway train with a man she doesn't know - but also has to reassess what she thought was secure in her life. An enjoyable story, where the night does seem to catalyse a change - but what change?

Jeffrey Alan Love's The Night Mountain is a gloriously obscure take, whether dream quest, spirit journey or account of real travel isn't clear. perhaps it has aspects of all three. Perhaps it's about fatherhood. In any case there is a true sense of the night as an uneasy place that must be got through. Whatever it means this is an effective and haunting story.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to The Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters by Kuzhali Manickavel is a delightfully bizarre set of instructions - or warning - for dwellers in the eponymous Home. Conjuring up a vision of Hogwarts' evil twin, this is funny and scary and operates by prodding all those buttons from other forgotten stories that tell you how such a place might operate. Clever and beguiling.

China Miéville's microstories, while never less than fascinating, had less of an obvious link with the nighttime theme. All of them made me want to know more about their wider worlds or characters, though, leaving me receptive for the theme stories that followed - so they served a purpose in stimulating the imagination among the longer pieces.

Finally - that cover catches both the tawdry nightime glamour, with its neon-sign vibe, and the idea of moonlight, setting up the perfect mood for these stories. Close the curtains - is that something moving across the street? Probably not - settle down in your chair, open this book, and experience the darkness...

To catch all the stages of this tour, see the poster below. Al do buy the book - you can get it from your local shop, including here via Hive, or order from Waterstones, Blackwell's, WH Smith or Amazon.

26 February 2019

Review - Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation
Justina Ireland
Titan Books, 26 February 2019
PB, e 444pp

I'm grateful to Titan for a free advance copy of Dread Nation to read and review.

Sometimes when you're considering what to read, the description of the book can be its own worst enemy. Looking at Dread Nation, the phrase "walking dead" very nearly put me off - I've never really got the zombie thing (not that you'll find that world in this book) - but fortunately, on this occasion the cover came to the rescue, that depiction of a young Black woman in formal 19th century dress about to wield a sickle against... what? We may be told not to judge a book by its cover but in this case it really does represent the story very well.

This is Jane's story, Jane McKeene that is, a young women born in what are clearly very irregular circumstances on a planation in Kentucky during the American Civil War. As if that wasn't dramatic enough, history is about to take a swerve as the dead rise - Union dead, Confederate dead, any dead - and set about the living. (Ireland uses the term "shambles" for these revenants). The Civil War is soon put on hold as the country struggles to keep the dead at bay (yes, I do feel there's a metaphor going on here) and one result is combat schools for Native Americans and people of colour who are to bear the burden of the combat. (Odd, that...) Jane is one such, the star of Miss Preston's School of Combat. Needless to say, she's a headstrong, wilful girl who gets into a lot of trouble and is soon heading off on an adventure...

Despite my coolness towards zombies, I really loved this book. First, I enjoyed the way Ireland integrates her story fully with the politics and culture of the time, so it arises from the reality of people who were previously enslaved but now are barely free, and certainly bear the burden of prejudice. Having them co-opted by the authorities to the front line in the war with the shamblers encapsulates this brilliantly.

As Jane soon finds out, it's actually worse than that. The rules she thinks govern her life turn out to be worth little, with political machinations, criminal gangs and mad scientists rampant. Such stability as Jane enjoyed is blown to bits and she's left with little to rely on but her courage, her skill at fighting and an inner strength that derives, ultimately from her sufferings and her desire to be reunited with her mother.

In chapters punctuated by a somewhat Jane Austenesque correspondence between Jane and her mother, which contrasts with the grim and violent world Jane now inhabits, we see the consequence of that. It's pretty much nonstop action, some parts of which are very grim, but leavened by Jane's opinions on life, her narration of her earlier life (she's already survived at least three attempts to kill her) and - which I found quite moving - her solidarity with her friends, even those who've hurt her in the past. There are also insights into issues such as people of colour who can "pass" as White, and the cost of doing that and the maintenance of authority by perverted religion.

Besides the political/ cultural resonances of the story, I  also loved that Ireland takes an idea - zombies - which is often done in a modern, post-apocalyptic kind of way, and locates it instead in a different setting - but one which appeals strongly to the imagination, for example allowing the panoply of the Western (the bad Sheriff, the besieged town) to appear.

Add in the mystery of how the shamblers began, the equivocal role of several of the characters here, and the wider - and perilous - situation of humanity, and you get a roller-coaster of a book with plenty to grab the attention. Jane is heroic, the villains are satisfyingly villainous, behaving like brutes and spouting a vile everyone-should-know-their-place philosophy to justify their own privilege, and the threat of the shamblers is ever present.

Looking forward to reading the next instalment of these adventures!

23 February 2019

Review - In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

In An Absent Dream (Wayward Children, 4)
Seanan McGuire
Tor.com, 1 February 2019
HB, 208pp

I reviewed In An Absent Dream as an audiobook (even though I've cited the availability of the hardback version above, probably because I fetishise the physical object or something, don't get me started).

The fourth volume in the Wayward Children series is actually a prequel, the events taking place a few decades before the other books. We enter the world of (Katharine) Lundy, an intense, studious girl who has no friends. It's the 1960s, and teachers can easily get away with saying things like, girls need more help with maths. Because her father is the Principal of her middle American elementary school, no-one wants to know her. It's all not fair, and Katharine longs for a world where things are fair and there are rules that everyone follows.

In the manner of the Wayward Children books, of course, she finds just that: a doorway leads her to the Goblin Market where everyone must always give "fair value". (To fail to do so would lead to an escalating series of changes and losses, eventually resulting in... well, I won't spoil that).

The story is bookmarked by two references. At the beginning is an extract from Christina Rossetti's bewitchingly enticing poem, also Goblin Market, stressing the ripeness, the juiciness, the taste, of all those fruits that are on offer. Towards the end, McGuire's authorial voice declares sadly that "this is not a fairy story". (I may slightly misquote, I listened to the audio so can't easily check the text).

It certainly isn't that sort of fairy story - you know, where the Princess and the Handsomse Prince kiss and live Happily Ever After. But I think McGuire's warning is slightly deceptive. That first quote has already given us some orientation as to what sort of (fairy) story the book is. Rossetti's poem may be interpreted as a sort of yearning warning to Victorian young womanhood against temptation, in the form of those oh-so-sweet goblin fruits, but there is more than one level of meaning to it and McGuire deftly exploits another that is a common theme of fairy stories - the bad bargain. Lundy (she chooses to use her surname after a warning that names have power) is told what the rules of the Market are, and soon learns the consequences of failing to keep them, but she is, as well as being a rule-taker, always on the lookout for loopholes. This leads her to (in a sense) gamble with the Market, the stakes becoming higher and higher. Whether that will ultimately buy her freedom and her heart's desire or... not... you have to read the book to see.

It's in some respects a curious book. Part of the Wayward Children series, it is very much a standalone, with little involvement of Miss Eleanor and her School.

Curiouser (and curiouser) still, the focus of this novel is very much on the progress of Lundy's bargaining and how that develops. We hear about high adventures - much Questing goes on, there is talk of defending the Market's borders and even a death of a friend of Lundy's - but this is all off camera, as it were with the book dwelling instead on Lundy's comings and goings, the tension between The Market, the world where she belongs (her "home") and our world, the world of her parents and sister. So we see a lot of her coming and going, with her life in the Goblin Market glossed over. That felt frustrating at times, you just have to trust McGuire though - in a sense we can imagine what we don't see, and putting all that in would make the book a lot longer and smother the theme she's trying to develop. Still, I would like to know more about those skipped over episodes.

Finally, I've referred above to bargaining, to "fair value" and the central metaphor of this book is a market. The Archivist, the nearest thing Lundy has to a guide and mentor in that strange world, is rather fond of lecturing her on the workings of that market. If you listen carefully (remember, I was listening, not reading) I think you'll conclude that this market is not a "market" in the sense that the modern neoliberal consensus would recognise (it's too fair for that; a Goblin Market is, after all, a fair, and so has to give fair value?) but it's still hard for these passages not to resemble economics seminars. And in at least one of them (which explained the background to Lundy's first big gamble) I never quite understood the reasoning. (Sorry this is obscure, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers). I think two things are going on here - first, since Rossetti's day, terms like "market" and "value" have become tainted by what is, after all, referred to as the "dismal science" and secondly, the ideas at the heart of this book are quite complex to convey in what is a short book.

That seems to have taken us a long way from fairy tales and magic doors. Rest assured, those are present here, it's really an enchanting extension to the Wayward Children series. Also present - of course - is Lundy, an engaging and steely young woman whose love, loyalty and courage shine through.

It is really a very enjoyable book, and confirms that McGuire is continually taking this series to new places. I hope she does so again soon.

For more info on the book see the publisher's website here.

20 February 2019

#Blogtour review of #Inborn by Thomas Enger from @OrendaBooks

Cover by kid-ethic.com
Thomas Enger (trans Kari Dickson)
Orenda Books, 7 March 2019
PB, e 273pp

Today I join the blogtour for Inborn by Thomas Enger. I'm grateful to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the tour and to her and to Karen at Orenda Books for a free copy to review.

A concert at Fretheim High School in Norway ends in tragedy and murder.

A teenage boy is accused and hounded online.

His family and their past are held up to scrutiny in court.

What secrets will emerge, what certainties will be overturned - and how will they survive it all?

I just loved this book by Thomas Enger, sitting up into the early hours to finish it off - I had to see what would happen: the book drips with surprises till the very end, not least in the way events are presented. This isn't a conventional police procedural, psychological thriller or Scandi-Noir, even if it borrows elements from all. For most of the story we see the main protagonist, Even Tollefsen, on the witness stand in court, defending his reputation. As the public prosecutor takes him through events following that shocking night, we read chapters of courtroom dialogue, then Even's recollection of the events described. Every detail of his life, of his family, of his friends is steadily, forensically, laid bare and we see Even wonder what the public assembled there are making of it, what his family - his mother, his brother - are making of it.

There are also chapters following Chief Inspector Yngve Mork and his enquiry. Yngve's wife has recently died of cancer and he is beset by grief, haunted by grief, even as he goes through steps needed to solve the crime.

I found the portrayal of Yngve's bereavement raw, shocking and so, so sad. We are accustomed to read crime novels - let's be honest, murder novel, they seldom feature stolen diamonds or dodgy property transactions - with a certain prurience, at a distance from the realities. When grieving relatives appear, we see them as witnesses or suspects, discounting their emotions and valuing them for the information they can provide. Well, it's a bit different here. Yes, this book still has murder at its heart and yes, there's the normal frisson around that, perhaps that's inevitable in this form of novel, but with Yngve, Enger reminds us that death is no game. Åse's death may have been natural, Yngve may, as he says, have had time to prepare, but the sense of loss Enger portrays is nevertheless bitter, crushing and all-consuming. And it leads the reader into all the other loss here, making the central crime more than just a puzzle to be solved.

Even is also puzzled and grieving: one of the murder victims, Mari Lindgren, was his ex girlfriend, leading to speculation, online gossip and accusations (a counterpoint in this book to the courtroom narrative and investigation is the insidious tide of social media, really seen directly but both reflecting and shaping events).

There are the parents of the victims.

There is Susanne, Even's mother, who never seems to have recovered from the death of her husband, Even's father, in a car crash years before.

The book - which is not a long read, at 273 pages - explores all of that loss, its idiosyncratic structure visibly laying bare all of the layers in Engers' tense courtroom narrative where each word has its weight, judgement is by the inhabitants of Fretheim, and everything - absolutely everything - will be revealed. The story is both moving and cathartic, revealing of a time and place where people should have spoken to each other, secrets should have been revealed, before things came to where they did.

Dickson's translation serves the story well, keeping a slight - a very slight - air of foreignness, so that the reader is aware this a story about another society, another place while still rendering events with clarity and conveying the pacing of the story very well. I think writer and translator are well matched.

Overall an intelligent, tense, touching and gripping story, holding interest throughout, and a genuinely different read.

15 February 2019

Review - Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Cover by Sean Rodwell
Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, 3)
Seanan McGuire
Tor, 1 February 2018
HB, e 174pp

Warning: this is the third book in a series and there are some spoilers below for earlier ones.

I bought my copy of this book (another 2018 book I'd left unread too long, and caught up with over Christmas).

I'm loving McGuire's Wayward Children series. To start with the concept is brilliant - Eleanor West runs the Home for Wayward Children, those who've wandered through doorways into other worlds, returned to this one, and don't fit in - but the execution, ah, the execution is sublime. These are real kids, people you will recognise or even people you might have been. Or indeed, be. This series is just so well written, has so much heart and soul and I really, really enjoyed this latest instalment.

Beneath the Sugar Sky opens out the themes of the series somewhat. While the first two books, Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, told different parts of the same story - that of Jack and Jill, their time on the Moors and their time in the School - in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Rini - daughter of Sumi, who we met in Every Heart - appears from the land of Confection, a place of sugars and baked goods... where everything has now gone wrong. What happened in the earlier book has brought about a catastrophe. The Queen of Cakes is rising again, and Rini's very existence is threatened.

A party of friends sets out to put things right, travelling through various worlds, meeting the Lord and Lady of the Dead and then, inevitably, coming up against the Queen herself.

It's smart, funny, touching and has a pace and tension to it that will keep you turning the pages, as well as smart characters out of their depth - they're in a strange world, not one they would have travelled to. But there is more here and I thought that - after the third book - it might be worth saying something about this series in general.

I understand that one of the hallmarks of science fiction or fantasy is to make metaphors actual. I do find this a hard concept to grasp. I can see for example that "time travel" leaps over our short lives to consider the effect of what we do on the future - or pushes us into the past to consider how similar, and different, we may be to our ancestors. But it's hard to feel this idea other than as a clever talking point, it seems to add little to one's understanding of a book.

In the Wayward Children books, though, McGuire takes this idea and makes it dance and sing. her series has a very clear focus: the kids she conjures up literally don't fit into this (our) world. They want to find a world where they do fit and, if they fall back out of it - those doorways have a pesky habit of reopening just when you don't want them - they need to find their way back in. Eleanor West's Home is a kind of waystation, a safe space where such kids can wait and learn, while they hope to go back.

So we have here, for example, Cora, who's curvy and excellent at swimming and has spent time as a mermaid in a water world. Back home, though, she's taunted for being "fat". Or Kade, whose misfortune is to have been exiled from the world he really wants, where he would be a brave prince - because it identified him, as his parents do, as female. (Not every story has a happy ending).

The Home provides a place to wait, to hope that the door will eventually reopen and - however imperfect this is - the society of others who are in a similar position. It isn't all sweetness and light (witness what happened in the first book) but it is better than a disbelieving and, well, adult world.

The writing therefore speaks to the sense of many young adults that they are misunderstood, out of place, different and it holds out hope of a better future. But there are no promises. This acceptance has to count for a lot, the happy ending may not come (and don't many or even most of us adults go around with similar feelings at least some of the time?) Not every door reopens.

But it goes further than this. By positively identifying with a glorious gamut of diversity (the books acknowledge race, gender, sexuality and many more characteristics - including simply loners and those who identify as weird in various ways) McGuire subtly (well, perhaps not so subtly) renders people visible. In a sense the book is Eleanor West's academy, because that is the place that Christopher, Cora, Sumi, Nancy and all the others have gone because that is where they will accepted and acknowledged..

If that sounds like the worst dream of a certain sort of pallid, angry SFF fan, well, perhaps it is. But I think the reason for that is not because, oh look, here's a SFF book with LGBT people in it, or people of colour, or whatever, and why did she have to do that, and can't we just have a fantastical adventure anymore? No, I think what stands out is that these books don't just have a diverse range of characters, in passing as it were, rather their theme and purpose is that diversity. The whole point of Wayward Children is that with an un-diverse different cast of characters they wouldn't work. The central idea - that we all have, or may have, our own doorway, to a land where we make sense, that we can go there, but we can lose that place - only works on the premise that all those doorways are different. Narnia isn't Never Never Land. Wonderland and Nutwood are different places, even if they have similarities, and the Hundred Acre Wood, to which Christopher Robin escaped, different again.

McGuire's embracing of diversity makes this obvious and - I think - changes that metaphor of falling down the rabbit hole or stepping through a wardrobe forever, making clear that such fantasies, such quests, are about the child stepping into the pond, through the mirror, or into the crack in the tree rather than the ostensible business of the quest or adventure then that takes place. What need is inside someone that they travel to such places so that it can be recognised and met?

So - rather that a nod to diversity through including these characters, McGuire  has full-bloodedly turned it into the subject, the bedrock and the central metaphor of her book (of this series). It's an exemplary use of that 'make the metaphor concrete' idea, in the very best, most mainstream SFF tradition - but it turns this idea on something that, let's admit it, still gets a minuscule share of the action (or perhaps of the attention).

Oh, and in case I wasn't clear above, Beneath the Sugar Sky (as well as Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones) are rattling good stories. I don't think McGuire could produce a dud if she tried.

On, now, to Book 4, In an Absent Dream, which isn't out yet as a physical book (1 February if you're waiting!) but is available on Audible now...

11 February 2019

Review - Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz

Beton Rouge (translated  from the German by Rachel Ward)
Simone Buchholz
Orenda Books, 21 February 2019
PB, e 186pp

Today I'm joining the tour for Simone Buchholz's dark new thriller, Beton Rouge. I'm very grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance (free) copy of the book, and to Anne from Random Things Blogtours for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Chastity Riley, unconventional public prosecutor and habitué of Hamburg's seamier nightlife, returns in a sequel to last year's Blue Night. Still chain-smoking, still drinking far too much, still brooding on her life and loves, Riley is a protagonist who makes an impact, much as if she'd reached out of the book with a steel bar and whacked the reader across the head. Blue Night introduced her doomy background in parallel with a fairly complex case that touched closely on her and her circle. In contrast, Beton Rouge has at its heart a simpler, more freestanding case, but it comes at a point where her and friends are going through some dark times.

Simone Buchholz
As the book opens a man has been found naked, assaulted, imprisoned in a cage and left outside the entrance to one of Germany's most successful magazine groups. Who he is, what happened to him, and why, will only slowly emerge: a story of bullying, privilege, misuse of power and ignored voices that will take Riley and her new colleague Ivo Stepanovic to Bavaria in a search for answers in the past.

Buchholz's characterisation of Bavaria as a kind of rural Hell is fascinating and disturbing, adding to the deep loathing we've already seen Riley display towards the countryside by painting the region as mean-minded, both nosy about neighbours' business and at the same time inclined to turn a blind eye to all kinds of abuses and discontents.

Hamburg, for all its sleaze, feels far safer even though the journey to Bavaria - and the distance from home - allows Riley to brood on her on-off relationship with Klatschke, where something seems to be wrong. Riley relentlessly dissects that relationship, in the same breath as considering the case in hand - indeed, drawing up lists of questions to be answered mixing both issues around Klatschke and about the case.

I think that tendency to mix things up is part of what makes her such an intriguing protagonist. What she's effectively doing here is not only investigating crimes but approaching her personal life using exactly the same tools and techniques (including the deadpan, wisecracking internal monologue). That wasn't so clear in Blue Night because there the case itself got personal, but here it's very starkly depicted, whether in relation to Klatsche or when problems also arise between her friends Carla and Rocco. The group of friends seems to be under great strain - maybe Riley will soon have no-one left but herself to rely on?

This is all delightfully noir, a mood Buchholz gleefully plays up in the writing (and that Ward adeptly conveys in her deeply readable translation) with Chastity left doubtful about her future, brooding on her past and living, really, like her new colleague, very much in the present.

An excellent book, deeply moody, atmospheric and evocative.

9 February 2019

Review: The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Wolf in the Whale
Jordanna Max Brodsky
Orbit, 31 January 2019
PB, 521pp.

A free copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher - for which I'm very grateful.

Well. This is a book it's hard to do full justice to in a mere review. I've got another idea. Put your address in the comments below, and I'll come round in person and persuade you to read it.

No? Well, I suppose it is getting a bit late... OK then, I'll do my best.

A historical fantasy like no other I've read, The Wolf in the Whale imagines the first encounters between Inuit and Norse, people both arriving, from different directions, at the same time in the east of what is now Canada.

Brodsky interleaves this (solidly based) historical speculation with the mythology of both peoples, showing Inuit and Norse gods taking a hand in the unfolding tales of their peoples - the Aesir, the Norse gods, also aware of the encroaching Christ winning over their followers.

Above all, though, this is the story of Omat - father and child. We hear of Omat's (the child's) birth tragic birth and of how Omat's (the father's) soul wins free from captivity with Sanna, the Sea Woman, to be reborn in the child. This story is told over and again, as each section of the book is introduced, each retelling bringing new depths of mythology to the story, both explaining what has happened and foreshadowing what might come. Without knowing it, Omat (the child) has a great weight of expectation and prophecy to carry, a burden that will be hard to bear at times. Omat has a difficult life in a a harsh environment - but an environment the Inuit [plural] are well able to flourish in. Born an angakkuk, a shaman, able to travel in the spirit world and converse with the gods, there are nevertheless rules - aglirutiit - to be observed, rules that govern personal identity, hunting, the role of the angakkuk and much more. It is hard for Omat not to be in breach of these, risking the disapproval of family and, worse, the loss of the gods' goodwill. (Meaning failed hunting trips, and the risk of starvation).

Brodsky succeeds brilliantly in showing how Omat's life, that of the family and indeed those of all the Inuit, exist on a knife edge, only a poor hunt or a spell of bad weather away from catastrophe. She also shows how resourceful and determined these settlers are ("settlers" as they are newly come into the land, the first in a great wave of migration). "An Inuk [singular] survives", we are told several times - not only a statement of fact but a personal creed and a cry of determination from Omat when things become hard. And they become very hard.

Carried away from the family by a band of strangers, made to adopt the role of a woman, not of a male hunter, raped, lost to the depths of winter, witness to slaughter, Omat is certainly a survivor. (And, yes, parts of this book are very hard to read. That's a content warning, in case you wondered!) That's true even before the Norse come on the scene. Once they do, it will take all Omat's ingenuity to live, to return to the family, to rescue brother/ cousin Kiasik. It will also require Omat to learn about and adapt new ideas about the world, in the meeting - and clash with - a whole new people, and new gods.

Brodsky's portrayal of this meeting between cultures in breathtaking. Based, clearly, on exhaustive research not only about the lives and survival skills but the beliefs and history of the Inuit, she shows a great depth of imagination in reconstructing - based on a meagre reference in the Norse sagas - just how these different cultures might have regarded each other. Both groups were hardy and were accomplished and self-sufficient travellers. The Norse, as shown here, had some advantages such as better weapons - though we see Omat scorn a Viking sword as no use for hunting - and ships, but lack some basic survival skills - skills the Inuit have honed to perfection ("An Inuk survives!") Again and again the theme arises. What can one people learn from the other? Mostly it seems to be Omat who's willing to learn, giving her an increasingly shrewd perspective on events (originally disdaining the newcomers' woollen clothes, Omat takes up spinning and weaving to great effect - in much the same way as seeing advantage in learning the "womanly" skills of parka-making despite them being alien to a male hunter).

But that's to make the book sound like a prolonged info dump about Arctic survival when it's far from that. We see Omat - a fascinating, complex and changing character - develop, mature and make dreadful mistakes (there were times I almost called out NO!!! as Omat's impulsiveness led to catastrophe). We also see Omat seek to redeem the failings of both Inuit and Norse, seek to save both their worlds - all our worlds - from destruction. Brodsky's portrays of Omat is wonderful, making the character so unique and believable, but other characters are equally well done: Brandr, the Norseman who has seen deserts and travelled as far as Rome, finds himself in a wholly alien world but adapts and even dares see it is his home. Even some of the less sympathetic characters - no spoilers! - are credible, with redeeming features. They all come alive on the page, and the reader soon cares about what happens to them (and indeed, may even shed a tear: this is a harsh world and there are losses).

I see I've mostly discussed this book as imagined history. It would be wrong to neglect the fantasy aspect though. This strand, done through the stories of gods, heroes and tricksters, is central to the book in giving characters a "religious" motivation but more importantly in personifying and to a degree explaining the struggles, crimes and misfortunes that also afflict the characters. The Inuit legend of the Sun Woman's rape by the Moon Man is central here, as are the Norse tales of Balder, Loki and the World Serpent -  and of course, Ragnarok. Reading this book I really felt - as I often don't with out-and-out fantasy - that this writing touched our world, touched our reality. That it's not just a clever game with made up names and places. The quality of the writing (and all that research) certainly helps here but I think rooting everything in real places and peoples, real myths and legends, real - if largely unknown and unknowable - events, also contributes.

Brodsky is at pains in her lengthy and detailed acknowledgments and notes on sources to make clear what the book is, and what it is not: "The Wolf in the Whale is not an Inuit story... [it is] an attempt to honour the Inuit past, not to claim it." In that, I believe, she succeeds magnificently - creating an absorbing and compelling story along the way.

I'd strongly recommend this book, suited for the depths of winter, when the wind blows and you want to huddle away from the weather... even if not from Arctic blizzards!

Finally, just look at that beautiful cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio... you need this on your shelves, you really do!

7 February 2019

Blogtour review - The Lost Man by Jane Harper

The Lost Man
Jane Harper
Little, Brown 7 February 2019
HB, e 384pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for The Lost Man by Jane Harper. I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of the book via NetGalley.

Nathan Bright's dog has died, his woman has left him and, even if his truck is running fine, his farm - actually a typically vast tract of land in the Australian outback - is on the ropes because the land is poor. He can be forgiven, a couple of times in this book, for sitting on the verandah of his brother's farmhouse and moodily strumming a guitar.

And indeed, Nathan does suffer from a degree of self-pity, reasonably, you might think, when you learn he's being shunned by the local community (again, "local" is a slippery concept, it's a three hour drive into town), that dog was probably poisoned, and much of Nathan's time and money is consumed by lawyers as part of custody battle for his son, Xander.

And more comes to light as well which I won't reveal here because spoilers, sweetie. I'll just say that Nathan and brothers Cameron and Bub haven't had it easy. Cameron's had it hardest perhaps because as the book opens, he's dead, victim of the overpowering heat of an Aussie summer. But why was he out at the "Stockman's Grave, ten kilometres from his abandoned car? Was the death suicide? An accident? or something more sinister?

I really loved the way that Harper spins this story as a mystery - and it is, with subtle clues, an air of menace, and a real solution - while keeping the focus on the people. Yes, the police do make an incidental appearance but they're not really investigating anything here. There's no role, I'm afraid, for Aaron Falk, Harper's protagonist from The Dry and Force of Nature (though she makes clear the book does take place in the same "world" - there is a reference, indeed a family link, to Kiewarra).  That's a brave choice, marking this as a different kind of crime story from its predecessors. The strands of the mystery here are all around personalities, motives, relationships, not forensics or pathology.

And it's a mystery that challenges Nathan's conception of himself, his self-sufficiency on that wretched farm, his relationship with his son and the history of his family. Harper adeptly relates the lives of these rural Australians to the unforgiving landscape - to the cosseted Pom, it's almost a science fictional world where survival depends on functioning aircon, refrigeration and your truck, an unprotected man or woman having no chance; you always travel with spare water, food, a radio; each farmhouse has its own drug kit, with locked compartments to be accessed only on the say-so of the Flying Doctor service; cold rooms that store months of food, delivered twice a year by truck; how the removal of melanomas is routine, kids do their schooling on the radio or Internet.

It is a land where things can go wrong so quickly, where distance and isolation means survival depends on a web of mutual support and trust, people depending on one another - and able to wield great power. Only an insider would be able to see what might have happened here, but any insider would be too close, too involved to see it clearly. Negotiating the fine line between the two, Harper has Nathan begin to doubt everything, everyone.

This was a satisfying mystery, with excellent, relatable characters and a credible, tightly woven plot which kept me guessing till the end. To a degree it revisits a theme from The Dry - the man who has bene ostracised from one of those remote communities - but in finding a different way to cope than did Falk, Nathan allows Harper to explore a different side of Australia, confronting some very basic human truths about survival, love and endurance.

Excellent reading.

For more information about The Lost Man see the publisher's website here. You can buy The Lost Man from Hive Books (supporting High Street booksellers), from Blackwell's, Waterstones (who are doing a signed edition) or Amazon. And from many other places as well.

3 February 2019

Review - Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Jacket design by FORT
Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children, 2)
Seanan Mcguire
Tor, 2017
HB, 187pp

I'm continuing to review some books that have been on my shelves far too long, having taken the chance of a lengthy car journey to listen to the audiobook of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. (I bought a physical copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop and the audiobook from Audible via Amazon. The audiobook, read by McGuire herself, is excellent, although Dr Bleak's signature whisper of a voice does at times make him a little hard to follow when driving!)

In this, the second part of her Wayward Children series, McGuire tells the other side of the story she began in Every Heart a Doorway (my review here). I won't say too much about that in case you haven't read it, but EHAD featured twins Jacqueline and Jillian - Jack and Jill ("because our parents shouldn't be allowed to name children") and their adventures at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children. Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells more about the two and about their time in the world known as The Moors, under the care, respectively, of the strange Dr Bleak and the commanding Master. It forms a whole with the earlier book and I think the two are best read together.

McGuire has written more recent books about the Home and the Wayward Children, but moving onto other characters and with a slightly different focus. Here, though, we have an almost clinical dissection of lives, of parenting and of the weight of expectations, the story going back to Jack and Jill's parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott. Despite a disclaimer that the story hasn't actually started yet, McGuire devotes nearly a third of the book to this complacent, insufferable pair, showing how their sheer conventionality, their refusal to admit wonder to their kids' lives, above all their sheer stuffiness, warps and forms the two girls, laying the foundations for what will occur after. There are perhaps shades of the Dursleys here though I think McGuire writes with much more psychological grip.

Indeed, she writes wisely throughout and shows, I think, a deep understanding of children: appropriately, the atmosphere reminded me of writers such E Nesbit and CS Lewis who - whatever their other failings may be - understand and glory in the differences between adults and children/ young adults, and take the latter seriously. This book is, McGuire is, on their side (something that shines through all the books in this series).

I'm not going to try and précis the book because it speaks for itself, but while telling an exciting story (you find a hidden doorway in your house and go through it to a world of monsters! A world of werewolves, vampires and mad scientists! A world where you can be yourself!) McGuire also teases out the damage done by expectations and just how hard that may make finding "yourself". While the Moors may ostensibly be a place of freedom from a certain sort of adulthood, there is Authority there and it happily, greedily, feeds on what is presented to it. So Jack and Jill are set on their way well before they cross that threshold, past that notice saying "BE SURE". The story thereafter is one of McGuire teasing out how the little faults and fractures between the sisters grow, are worked on by events and undermine their relationship, their unity, until... well, until things happen.

It's a short book - all of the books in this series are - and McGuire impressively draws on our knowledge of genre conventions to save having to spell out what could otherwise take a great deal of space. In a sense the Moors (like the others worlds visited by the Wayward Children) are narrative come alive, the book referencing films, novels, poems and art to give a much clearer impression of the place than mere words might but also to prefigure how things may go in the story. This saves a lot of explanation, yet the book remains novel, fresh and compelling.

After reading Every Heart a Doorway it's good to explore one of the worlds in more detail. In the next book, Beneath the Sugar Sky, McGuire develops this idea in a very different sort of world, also making a major theme of this series - diversity - more explicit.

But that's for another review: watch this space.