29 April 2019

Review - No Way by Simon Morden

Cover by www.blacksheep-uk.com
No Way (Frank Kittridge, 2)
Simon Morden
Gollancz, 21 February 2019
PB, 384pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop and the audio from Audible.

This is another book I've been listening to in the car on my way to the station and back.

No Way follows on from One Way - beware because some spoilers for One Way follow. Look away now if you haven't read it yet, and go and do that. While you could read No Way as a standalone, it is much better enjoyed after reading the earlier book.

One Way told how in the middle years of the 21st century, Frank Kittridge, sentenced to decades in a privately run, super-max prison for murdering his son's dealer, is made an offer: join a team being assembled sent to Mars to establish a colony, and he can have limited freedom, living out his remaining years on the red planet.

The deal turns out to be a trap - Frank and his fellow cons, dismissed as 'chimps' by the XO Corporation, are destined to be killed off by an XO agent, Brack. The base they have constructed will then be handed over to NASA, which has been told that it will be constructed using robots. But the plan fails and Frank kills Brack, which is where No Way picks up.

Frank's dilemma is what to do next. Can XO deactivate life support in the MBO base, killing him? probably. Will they? Well, maybe they need him to clean up the base for the use of the NASA astronauts? But what then? The first part of this book is haunted by that tension, with every move Frank makes placing him at risk. As he notes, "Mars is trying to kill you". And there are particular reasons to be concerned - things he discovers as he goes about his daily tasks. (One of the joys of this book is Frank's practical bent. A builder by profession, he has a knack for solving problems, which is useful and makes for some interesting passages - it all comes over as very well researched and Morden largely avoids info dumps, although a map would have been useful).

I'm not going to exactly what happens to cause Frank concern, although I'm sorry to say the publishers print it on the back of the book. If you can possibly do so I'd avoid reading any of that because there is a little bit of a frisson from watching the signs in the story and asking yourself, can that be right? The tension only increases when the NASA  astronauts arrive. Frank's cut a new deal with XO: he will clean things up, lie to NASA - pretend the base was built by robots - and in return be given a trip home. But that means he'd have no credibility if he were to warn the NASA crew about certain other things. This dilemma torments Frank: for the first time in years - apart from the brief spell when he was working with the other cons - he has people he can talk to, work with, and who respect him (even if they think he's Brack, a man Frank hated). But he can't be open with them. That would blow his deal with XO, and in any case, the NASA team would likely not believe him.

As things begin to go wrong, this pressure on Frank becomes almost tangible, accentuated by the cramped quarters of the base and its remoteness from Earth - contactable only via XO satellites. Mordern is very good as depicting Frank's anguish, his dithering and self-recrimination. Frank feels that all his choices have gone wrong, from the moment he killed that dealer, and he's continually undermined by self doubt - even in the face of all his success at staying alive and building and maintaining a habitable base (and other things which would be spoilery to describe).

It all comes to a climax, of course, with the survival of the base - and the crew - in real jeopardy. XO is a merciless opponent, and conditions on Mars very much favour them. In the end Frank is faced with the unenviable choice of coming clean, and being treated as a criminal or a madman, and staying silent, and seeing everyone die.

A superb, and superbly different, thriller. The audiobook version was excellent, William Hope delivering Frank's story in an appropriately clipped, gravelly voice that evoked the dusty wastes of Mars and the sweaty, patched-up nature of his life there.

For more about the book (no spoilers) see the Gallancz website

27 April 2019

Review - The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon

Cover by Mark Swan
The Ringmaster (Sam Shephard 2)
Vanda Symon
Orenda Books, 25 April 2019
PB, 252pp, e

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a free advance reading copy of The Ringmaster.

The Ringmaster is the sequel to Overkill (link to my review) also featuring detective Sam Shephard. Both books are new to the UK but originally published in New Zealand, where they are set, and I'd congratulate Orenda for bringing these heartfelt stories, bursting with sense of place, to a UK audience.

Overkill introduced Sam ('Shep' to her mates), the face of law and order in Mataura, a one-company town focussed on meat packing where her police work consisted largely of sorting out scuffles at closing time and trivial car accidents. Then a murderer struck, and Sam found herself both keen to solve the crime and in the frame as a killer.

That case brought her into conflict with the bullying, misognynist DI Johns and in The Ringmaster is seems she can't quite shake off Johns.

Sam is now a trainee detective, resented by some for her apparent fast rise and despised even more by Johns, who unfortunately leads her team. She's again reduced to all the petty tasks, even to non-detective roles such as sorting out a protest against the circus that has come to town. At one point he speculates to her face on who she must have slept with to get promotion to detective.

So another murder - of a young postdoc researcher, Rose-Marie Bateman - brings mixed feelings: pity for the victim and her family, a determination to play a part in solving the case, and an opportunity to show she has what it takes. One of the things I loved about this book was its honestly about those feelings and about Sam's frustration at being pushed to the margins, for example being sent around town to every shop selling cable ties (as though the Internet wasn't a thing).

After her previous run-in with 'DI I'm-God-with-a-grudge Johns', you just know that Sam's not going to accept that for long, however much she may be trying to behave. And Johns has let her know that he has his eye on her, waiting for her to step out of line... When it happens it's in the most extraordinary way, in a scene that had me reaching for the tissues: no spoilers, but you'll know when you come to it.

Surprisingly, however, for much of the book the armed truce between Sam and the DI holds, with much of her stress coming form elsewhere. Her father is ill, her controlling, manipulative mother is in town, bringing plenty of guilt and resentment and someone's posting stalkery notes on Sam's new car (if you read Overkill you'll remember what happened to her previous car, her new one is her pride and joy). There are also personal complications as Paul Frost, another police office we met in Overkill, turns up in Dunedin to give evidence at a trial... Sam has a bit of a thing for him, but it's an abrasive relationship at best and having her mum to stay makes things tricky. (There's a hilarious scene as she is reduced to teenagerhood, trying to creep back into the house in the early hours).

Through all this Symon weaves a clever net of clues, red herrings and escalating tension leading to a dramatic conclusion that is I think going to pose Shephard further problems in future with DI Johns. Looking forward to reading about that!

This is a strong, character-led crime novel firmly driven by the redoubtable Sam. I would strongly recommend. (And just take a moment to appreciate that glorious cover by Mark Swan - a real thing of beauty.)

You can buy The Ringmaster from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Waterstones, Blackwell's or Amazon and many other places too.

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

25 April 2019

Review - Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre #Blogtour

Cover: www.blacksheep-uk.com
Fallen Angel
Chris Bookmyre
Little, Brown, 25 April 2019
HB, 291pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of this book via Netgalley and to Caolinn Douglas and Grace Vincent for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

I always enjoy Brookmyre's books, because - rather than despite! - never being quite sure what to expect. With a long running base of crime, investigated for example by the redoubtable journalist Jack Parlabane (who took a bit of a break but is now back) and by Jasmine Sharp (I hope one day they will meet) Brookmyre also branches out into SF (Pandemonium, Places in the Darkness) and fantasy (Bedlam). In Fallen Angel, mostly a standalone (but with a couple of hooks into his wider universe) he has I think done something different again.

This book is essentially a dissection of an ill-functioning family, the Temples, told across two timelines (2002 and 2018) and from multiple characters' point of view: mainly in the third person, following different characters, but in first person for Amanda, a Canadian au pair flung into the maelstrom in the later timeline. Amanda, perhaps, comes closest to an investigator figure being a You-Tuber and aspirant journalist but this book doesn't really have a Parlabane or Sharp equivalent, until close to the end, rather than following an enquiry we're really just watching events unravel (and how!)

In 2018, the Temples have come together at their villa in Portugal to commemorate the life of patriarch Max, recently deceased. Max was something of a celebrity both as a controversialist - an academic psychologist, who in later life had taken to debunking conspiracy theories - and because of a tragedy suffered by the family, involving a young child, which is explored in the 2002 timeline but whose effects linger. Ironically this tragedy - about which I won't say much because Brookmyre reveals the details gradually, layer by layer - itself becomes the subject of conspiracy theories (perhaps an element of payback?) and the unravelling of events via Amanda's viewpoint in 2018 itself relies more than a little on those theories and the information (including red herrings) gathered by online enthusiasts.

To UK readers, the location - Portugal - and the nature of the events in 2002 will inevitably suggest the tragedy that befell the McCanns, especially given the bizarre theories and speculation which built up around that. Bookmyre is at some pains to distance his story from this: he makes clear he is not writing, however obliquely, about the McCanns, both through the standard disclaimer and, more pointedly, by referring to their tragedy, in his imagined universe, when it happens some years later. Nevertheless, the link made, we can't help but compare the mythmaking and intrusion suffered by that family with those that afflict the Temples here.

It gives that part of the story a bitter taste. The events of 2002 have - it's clear - lefts scars. Ivy, who we meet at the start of the book in the 2018 timeline, has been hardened and has obvious "issues" (eating disorders, drugs, sex). In fact we eventually learn that she has actually changed her name - ostensibly this is because her work, in a reputation management firm, requires that she not attract attention herself but perhaps in reality there is more to it than that.

Gradually, teasingly, Brookmyre explores his characters - the formidable matriarch Celia, a former actress who manipulates and dominates her unfortunate children, Max himself, who might be gone by 2018 but who casts a long (and far from benevolent) shadow (he seems to have put his psychology skills and understanding of conspiracies to work in controlling his own family), their neighbours, Vince and Laurie (in 2002 - by 2018 he's with Kirsten) and Amanda, who insists that with two dads, she doesn't miss a mother because 'what you're never had, you never miss'. With other Temple children, and some grandkids plus spouses, partners and hangers-on in both timelines there are a lot of people to get one's head round (especially given that the two narratives mean some have changed a lot). However Brookmyre makes them all real - there are no cardboard cutouts here - and all these lives weave together to make a complex, believable (and sometimes funny) web. The book is also sharply observed. For example, here's creepy Vince pondering the teenage Temple daughter: 'He remembered how she had developed through her early teens. he had watched her blossom...' or there's Ivy, taking advantage of a friend: '...she knows he'll help right now too. He's a good person. Good people want to help you. It's why they get hurt by people like her.' (That last quote encapsulates Ivy so well - hardened, ruthless in business, but regretful - elsewhere she ruefully observes that good people need to be protected from her.

You could get hung up about what genre this book is, but really there's little point - as I said, for much of the story nobody is investigating anything so I'd hesitate to call it "crime" and besides, the incident that is ostensibly at the centre of focus is elusive, and it's unclear whether a crime was committed. The focus on family dynamics is however fascinating and the book doesn't pull its punches on the hurt and derangement that can exist behind closed doors, more so when there's a determination to present an image of ideal lives, and to protect that image.

A gripping novel, with a real twist of darkness to it and an excellent addition to anyone's shelf of Brookmyre.

The blogtour for Fallen Angel continues - see the poster below for details of today's stops.

For more details of the book, see the Little, Brown website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Blackwell's, Waterstones, Amazon and other places besides.

23 April 2019

Review - A Boy and his Dog at the end of the World #Blogtour #FollowGriz

Cover by Lauren Panepinto
A Boy and his Dog at the end of the World
C A Fletcher
Orbit, 25 April 2019
HB 384pp, ebook

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a free ARC of this book and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

"Dogs were with us from the very beginning... Of all the animals that travelled the long road through the ages with us, dogs always walked closest."

So opens A Boy and his Dog at the end of the World, a story of the very end of things, not the very beginning. Humanity has collapsed. A century earlier, babies stopped being born, save to a rare few. The population aged naturally and died off, and now only a few thousand people remain across the entire planet.

Griz is one of these. Growing up on Mingulay, off the coast of Scotland, Griz is part of a family of six (plus the dogs) who maintain some kind of way of life farming, fishing and prospecting ("viking") for useful things in abandoned houses across the islands. Later on in the book, we learn a little more about the origins of the family in the declining years of humanity and there are hints of wider history and attempts to deal with the crisis but I won't say anything about these - there is a stern warning at the beginning of the proof copy about spoilers, and it is absolutely right, not just a matter I think of giving away key plot details but of allowing the reader to approach the story in a certain way.

What I can say is that Griz is telling (writing) this story, looking back, to a sort-of imaginary friend (a boy in a photograph found in one of those houses). It explains how Griz set out into the wider world after a charismatic stranger came by, bamboozled the family, and stole Jess, one of Griz's beloved dogs. Griz pursues the stranger, Brand, into a world far away from everything familiar, a weird, dangerous and at times even beautiful world that has been left abandoned by humanity. The book meditates on the reasons for this pursuit: it's not just to redress a theft, there's loyalty to Jess, representing a wider loyalty, a sense of self - if one allows that to lapse, what's left? - but also - Griz is honest enough to admit - a desire to travel beyond the near islands, to experience the world.

And indeed Fletcher's depiction of this confusing, familiar yet strange world is entrancing, masterly, and evocative, giving a real sense of emptiness, of isolation. It's as though some places have been waiting for decades for a visitor. The imagined apocalypse wasn't sudden warfare, disease or alien invasion but a gradual, even orderly, falling off. There was plenty of time to tidy things up, and some people (the "neatists") even dedicated themselves to that. Without violence and with so few remaining humans, things are largely intact, apart from what nature has achieved in one hundred or so years of growth and attrition. Fletcher's shows us ourselves through a stranger's eyes. That sometimes brings out beauty that we would miss, for example the curved support arch of a concrete motorway footbridge floating high across a cutting. It is also though very dark at times - this is often not a happy story, and the departed humans did many bad things.

Griz comprehends "our" past world to a large degree, having read a lot of books. But not exactly, and this story is filled with questions and speculation addressed to that anonymous boy, questions about what it was like to be among crowds or what certain things were for. There are also some enormous gaps, Griz not knowing one commonplace fact about travel in the UK which I won't state because, again, spoilers, as well as hilarious misconceptions (for example, that a statue of a footballer labelled "Best" is simply of the best player) because Griz has book knowledge of our world, but not experience. And that book knowledge is all of what happened before the crisis. There are no records, only family rumours, of the more recent past so crucial knowledge is missing about current dangers that will have to be faced. Fletcher is good at implying some of these, in an almost eerie way, without making them too visible.

Griz is though much better equipped for survival in the future world, with skills such as being able to sail a boat alone, catch and prepare food, treat injuries with a plant-based medical kit, find clean water, navigate and when required fight using bow and arrow. Griz can also show caution (apart from dashing off to rescue Jess) "Things die and things rot. And you don't always have to go poking at them". Remember, this is a story of someone brought up post-catastrophe, not of someone from our generation undergoing that catastrophe - and of someone who's seen accidents and the fragility of life. The practical details are well thought out, as well as the potential dangers and crises that can arise at a moment's notice and the consequences of what would be to us a minor scrape or accident. (Many of these dangers are prefigured with Griz hinting at catastrophes to come - I found this slightly jarring to begin with, but be patient, there is a reason for this: I can't say what it is, but it does all make sense within the narrative).

This being a depopulated world, there isn't scope for a huge number of characters but there are others here besides Griz. His great enemy, Brand, is much more than a thief in the night - we learn more about him and he is a complex, contradictory and troubling person. And there are others I won't mention. Griz's remaining dog, Jip, makes up for any lack of humans - the relationship between the two is wonderful. Jip being a bold dog, a terrier, who never knows when to back off, his safety is a fear throughout not only for the reader but for Griz too, who will be left completely alone if anything were to happen to Jip.

Overall, I simply loved this book. It's definitely one of my candidates for best this year, and I think does something very different, very unsettling and in the end very truthful with the post-apocalyptic genre. (Not least because in a rather meta way Griz is aware of such books, having read many of them, and isn't above pointing out where they got things wrong).

I have seen comparisons with Station Eleven (which I also loved) and I think these have elements of truth - especially the part of that book set long after - but A Boy and his Dog seems to me much more intimate, as well as being both less hopeful about our future - so few humans left - and (perhaps) more hopeful about the future, with its depiction of the processes, almost happening before our eyes, that will erase the damage we have done to the world and leave it waiting for... who knows what?

A great read, STRONGLY recommended, albeit do keep some tissues to hand. My only real criticism would be that I really wanted more of Griz and more of Griz's world...

The blogtour for A Boy and his Dog continues with stops at many outstanding blogs - see the poster below for more details. If you want to find out more, the publisher's page is here. You can buy the book from your local bookshop (including online via Hive) from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon or from lots of other places.

18 April 2019

Review - A Book of Bones by John Connelly

A Book of Bones (Charlie Parker, 17)
John Connolly
Hodder & Stoughton, 18 April 2019
HB, 707pp, e-book

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a free advance copy of A Book of Bones for review.

As if to prove this series is a long way from losing steam, with the 17th Charlie Parker thriller - and marking 20 years as an author - In A Book of Bones John Connolly gives us a double length (700 pages!) adventure for Charlie, Angel, Louis and many of his wider cast. Not only that, but in this book themes from several recent novels come together. And it also contains what's basically an entire police procedural featuring two new (but believable, likeable) characters.

Finally, in an Afterword, Connolly reveals the background to the publication of his first book, Every Dead Thing, in 1997.

So A Book of Bones is a great gift to the readers - a bumper helping of Charlie Parker, but also an ambitious novel at a point where the temptation must be to rest on the oars and let the momentum carry things forward. That's maybe something of a risk.

Who, we might ask, are this pair of detectives, Gackowska and Hynes, investigating the murder of young teacher Romana Moon on a lonely moor in Northumberland, half a world away from Parker's usual hunting grounds in the USA?

Who are the other voices we hear?

How does everything join up?

If it is a risk, it's amply justified as Connolly delivers a complex and interesting novel that engages from the very start when we see Parker, called in to advise on a killing in a New Mexico junkyard, presented almost as our guide to the inferno that seems be looming, the junkyard "descending in a series of declivities to a massive pit at its heart, where Parker glimpsed a fire burning." If you're a longtime reader of this series you will I think regard Parker - even an older Parker, a damaged Parker - as a sure guide through this territory. And so it proves. In a world polluted, tainted, walking among moral hazards, temptations and threats, Charlie Parker, who has endured much, can still be relied upon.

We know from the ending of The Woman in the Woods that Parker is hunting down sinister lawyer Quayle and his murderous henchwoman Pallid Mors. The pair are formidable adversaries, so things seem set for a confrontation, a battle royal. But the book is actually more subtle than that. There is a great deal here, and it would be silly to list all or, or even most, of the threads - and probably spoilery to try, since, however circumspect one thinks one is being, the combination would give too much away. I will say that A Book of Bones skilfully explores different sorts of evil, and the relationship between them - not just flashy, supernatural evil but the mundane sort. Some of its most effective writing in this book (and it is also the most grim reading) portrays the actions and motivations of the evildoers in this book and, often, the sheet casualness of it all ("Oh, and he'd started killing women: there was that as well.")

Unpicking it all, Parker seems to be peeling back layer after later of corruption (of pollution, as someone observes at one point) moral, legal, and financial; historical and modern, and revealing the strands that connect present day misogyny and male entitlement ("That was the way women were... They were conniving, always looking for the advantage. You had to teach them their place...") to both modern centres of power and influence (whether in London, or Boston,where the Colonial Club looms again) and the warped - polluted - cults of the past.

The hunt ranges geographically, taking in many parts of England, where women's bodies are being dumped at ancient sacred sites (it was a shock that one was just up the road from me: I see Wittenham Clumps daily on the skyline as I walk my dogs) and the Netherlands, where Angel has bloody history. It also plays games with time, giving us documents, histories and accounts from over the past few centuries, all part of the fractured narrative that will climax in the modern(?) London of Quayle.

This is, as I've said, grim at times, but thankfully Connolly doesn't just give us 700 pages of darkness. There is hope here too - flawed but ultimately brave people standing against the darkness, for example that police duo again delving into grim realities, unaware of any supernatural connection  (though we are, as various pieces of weirdness are exposed) but simply trying to bring some order and justice to the world. They offset Parker's much less orthodox enquiries, supported by his ragtag crew and even his iffy connection with FBI Agent Ross. (What's going on with Ross? I can't quite put my finger on it...)

It's a complex, doubled, story. Parker, we know, is hunting Quayle and Quayle knows this. But Quayle has other irons in the fire as well. Exactly what he's up to - and thus, how one might stop him - only emerges slowly, because, for the longer part of this book, Parker hasn't joined up what is going on. We, the readers, know much more than Parker about what Quayle's planning, about his tools, his history.

Through all that - from Miss Moon's agony at the start of the book to an... unravelling... at the end - there is a repeated focus on other possibilities, other outcomes, other potential worlds, foreseen by characters for themselves or others ("He could see her sadness, and a future where he was no longer in her life...") or moments when things change forever, closing down choices and alternatives ("'I'm coming' says Soter. And is damned.'")

Choices matter, from a countryman who stokes up his fire against the prowling spirit of wood and leaf worshiped by Parker's old adversaries the Familists: "Because all wood fears the flame" to an ex soldier who falls in with what he knows is the wrong company. But can they be reworked, undone, on a larger scale? Quayle certainly thinks so, which is why he is chasing down a certain ancient Atlas which has the power to make and remake the world according to those alternatives. Quayle and his associate Pallid Mors have killed for this before and will do so again, in their different styles. Quayle, a figure who seems to haunt the centuries - "After a time, it became difficult to distinguish between memory and dreaming" - is a most clear eyed but almost regretful killer, Mors an enthusiast who seems to enjoy causing pain.

All of this builds on the world that Connolly has built, the characters he has developed, across his whole series. That's a lot of background, though you don't need to have read them all to appreciate this book, but this book is about more than background, it has its own focus, its own themes, its own darkness, and if that is a risk then - by not taking the safe option - A Book of Bones succeeds triumphantly. It carries Parker's story forward to new places (literally) and shows that this series has a great deal of life in it yet (as well as deaths, of course. I lost count of the deaths).

An absorbing book, a book whose pages one can simply get lost in - and one I'd strongly recommend.

13 April 2019

Review - Morhelion by Dominic Dulley

Cover design by www.headdesign.co.uk
Morhelion (The Long Game, 2)
Dominic Dulley
Jo Fletcher Books, 4 April 2019
PB, 436pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for a free advance copy of Morhelion.

Morhelion returns to the universe Dulley created in Shattermoon. Aurelia "Orry" Kent is one of a team of grifters, comprising her, the enigmatic Mender and her teenage brother, Ethan. Oh, and Mender's sentient starship, Dainty Jane. In Shattermoon, Orr and Ethan survived the death of their father and the loss of their previous ship, Bonaventure, and took up with Mender. They a,so earned the gratitude of the Emperor of the galactic Ascendancy and witnessed a war begin with the alien Kadiran.

In Morhelion we first see Orry and the gang doing what they do best - running a scam (these books really are like Hustle in space). Inevitably, things go wrong, and the story soon spins off into a series of fast-paced escapades involving spies, aliens, space Leviathans and some truly seamy characters. There's a slight Wild West atmosphere to the planet of Morhelion where isolated, bubble-enclosed communities floating above the gas giant mostly seem to host junkyards, dodgy lawmen and even dodgier saloons.But also a serious theme as the planet's main trade is in slaughtering those endangered - and sentient - Leviathans, rather proving Orry's point that the Ascendancy is rotten and uncaring.

It's an intensely enjoyable book, pretty much action filled and always very readable - Dulley has a genius for getting Orry & Co into a tight spot and then providing an audacious way out. Audacious, but never downright unbelievable, given the care with which he's portrayed Orry as resourceful, brave and quick-witted. She is a well-rounded protagonist, a couple of the villains here perhaps a bit cartoonish in comparison (unlike the magnificent Roag in Shattermoon). And there are some great one-liners in this book besides.

Morhelion is very much not hard SF - if you want a universe of buccaneering, laser battles and sculduggery without troubling too much over the speed of light, energy or distances, then Morhelion will be for you - that's not to say it's hand waving, Dulley accounts for everything that needs to be, but the book is focussed on the characters, not making the tech plausible. Which is fine by me - I'd rather he made, say, the scamming of a rich banker plausible that worry about hyperspace.

So, a good read, and I hope there are more adventures coming along for Orry and her mates.

11 April 2019

Review - Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Atlas Alone
Emma Newman
Gollancz, 18 April 2019
PB, 320pp, e-book

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of Atlas Alone via NetGalley. Quotes are from the advance copy so the final text may differ.

This review contains some spoilers for earlier books in Newman's Planetfall sequence. Especially, if you haven't read After Atlas or Before Mars, stop NOW and read those two books next, then come back.

Atlas Alone is the fourth book in Newman's sequence, and the first that is a direct sequel (to After Atlas). The four share a timeline and take place in the same universe, characterised by an Earth gone to the bad, and a neural chip technology allowing users to link their minds, receive and manipulate data in virtual spaces, experience immersive video games, and record their interior lives.

In Planetfall,we saw a human colony on a  remote world, to which people had travelled (aboard a ship called Atlas) on a voyage masterminded by the mysterious "Pathfinder', Lee Suh-Mi, a women who had visions of either a God or of aliens, which gave her the technology to make the voyage possible. After Atlas, an SF-crime mash up written from the point of view of indentured detective Carl,  explored the consequences for Earth of this mission having left, and also introduced Dee, the principal character in Atlas Alone, and Travis. Before Mars was set on a Mars base at around the same time as After Atlas.

At the end of After Atlas, Carl, Dee and Travis escape Earth on a second Atlas. As they leave, they discover that the planet has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust - something kept from most of Atlas 2's passengers. There can be no return. There will no further Atlases, or any help from home. Atlas 2 is alone.

As Atlas Alone opens, Dee is coming to terms (or rather, not coming to terms) with the consequences of this. She believes that those guilty of Earth's destruction are aboard the ship, and wants to hunt them down and punish them. But the organisation of the ship is mysterious. It's not really clear who is in charge, why the three are aboard, or what is planned for the future. Each of them has a small cabin, minimal possessions - and a twenty year journey ahead.

Like the other Planetfall books, this story is very much seen from the perspective of a single character - here Dee - and is as much about portraying that character's history, psychology and motivation as it is about external plot. Again, Newman succeeds magnificently in this. Dee is a complex, damaged individual ('Making proper friends is something other people do'). She experienced many traumas as a young woman in the 2030s when the world she knew was consumed by riots and political crisis, leading to the fall of democracy and the rise of the 'gov-corps'. This trauma isn't explained in detail: we see some of it through the games/ simulations - "mersives" - that she takes part in and see is recalled.

In particular there's the experience of "hot-housing" - Dee and Carl both fell into the hands of slavers whose business was to condition and sculpt young minds to perform superlatively at some task and them to sell them on to corporate buyers. This dark experience is recalled a number of times. It has given Dee certain skills, but robbed her of the ability to trust, made her terrified of admitting any vulnerability and damaged her in other ways too, which only slowly become clear. ('They trained me to hide what I thought and felt, and the whole time they thought they were removing those feelings altogether').

This interior portrait of a frightened, emotionally choked yet highly capable woman is chilling and at the same time deeply sad. It makes this book absolutely riveting, if often grim reading (Newman did similar things with Carl in After Atlas, and also in Planetfall) and, I'd say, sets a new standard for a convincing and psychologically vulnerable character. Because of course, despite what Dee must make herself believe to keep going ("My face is a mask in front of a mask") she IS vulnerable...

The book is also notable for the rage it conveys at privilege and injustice: while Atlas 2 does offer escape from a literal Hell on Earth, it isn't some idealistic colony ship travelling to establish a new Eden (unless you believe a new Eden would be a white dominated, slave society). But what to do about that? Dee may have found someone who is willing to help, but she has, to put it mildly, trust issues, knowing, absolutely KNOWING, that everyone will eventually let her down - but also, accepting that as fact and working with it ('Do I really want to play in a mersive created by someone who clearly has dodgy opinions about boundaries? Of course I do').

I wasn't surprised at all that I really enjoyed this book. As ever, the writing is sharp with telling observations on society ('I hold my hands still at my sides, school my face into showing what all men like this want to see: agreement admiration') and the Planetfall universe is engaging and credible. Giving everyone neural chips may be a fairly conventional SF idea, but the way Newman gets us inside the heads of damaged characters with recognisable psychologies means she pulls off a kind of literary equivalent of the neural chip idea. And there's a big, deliberately unresolved idea at the centre of this book that left me reeling. Issues of trust, boundaries and control dominate, leading to questions about when it is justifiable to try and 'fix' someone if they refuse to accept the 'fix'. For the duration of the book you are Dee, you feel what she feels, suffer as she suffers and as her certainties begin to crumble, so do yours, until finally, well... you'll have to read the book to find out.

One final point: shortly before Atlas Alone was published, a well known UK author of lithic gave his opinion that novelists might explore "human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you". I couldn't give a better description of this book.

Simply outstanding. You have to read this.

9 April 2019

Review - Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver #Blogtour #NetGalley

Michelle Paver
Head of Zeus, 4 April 2019
HB, 359pp, e-book, audio

I'm grateful to the publisher for inviting me to take part in the Wakenhyrst blogtour and for providing a free advance e-copy of the book via NetGalley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will definitely going to be one of my standout books of the year.

The blogtour continues - see the poster below for other excellent reviews - and you can buy Wakenhyrst from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon (and doubtless other places besides).

5 April 2019

Review - The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber and Faber, 1989
PB, 256pp

The Remains of the Day has been adapted for the stage, and I'm going to see it in a couple of weeks! So it seemed a good time to put up this review, which I wrote last year as part of the Shiny New Books celebration of fifty Booker Prize years. Hopefully, after i've seen the play, I will write a but about how that was. But first, the book.

I first read The Remains of the Day (first published in 1989) more than twenty years ago now in the mid 90s, before (I think) the book was filmed. I reread it for the review, but before doing that, I put down my recollections from the 90s (yes! I'm OLD!)

In memory, then, the central character, Stevens, middle aged butler from Darlington Hall near Oxford, recalls his life in vivid episodes. The one that stood out most for me was his employer's dalliance, in the 1930s, with fascism, mainly during weekend gatherings of the English country house-party set, a fraction of which seemed to have curdled into love for Hitler.

I vividly remembered the scene in which Lord Darlington asserted that democracy had had its day, was outmoded (really, I remember thinking? In the 30s? It had hardly been tried). The humiliation of Stevens when he's invited to comment on some abstruse economic issue, his failure to grasp it taken as proof that he and his class should leave government to their "betters".

That last scene stood in - for me - for much of the book, for a man oppressed and ruled by the last gasp of an ancien regime, almost forbidden by a self-imposed code to step outside his role and live. Rereading in 2018, of course, one irony was the degree to which - after the past couple of years - the authoritarian Right is clearly not (yet) banished to the pit prepared for it.

So, what did I make of The Remains of the Day when I reread it?

Well, I’d forgotten just how riveting the book is. I went through 200 odd pages one night and the remaining 50 at a gallop next lunchtime - despite there being few ‘events’ in the story.

Yes, Stevens takes a road trip - but this is really a gentle meander giving him occasion to muse on what he’s done with his life. He has a goal of meeting Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at the Hall who walked away twenty years before, but this doesn’t actually happen till late in the book and it is a vary short episode.

While very little might seem to happen, all that does illuminates Stevens’ life and character. He was invited by Mr Farraday, the new American owner of the Hall, to go out and see his "own country" - but characteristically most of what he does see arises not from intention but from missteps or random encounters with helpful strangers. It's fascinating that Stevens is so passive. This is I think key to his character - with his philosophy of ‘dignity’, the quality that makes a "great" butler, to which he adds ideas of living vicariously (and contributing to the world) through one's master's doings, and of never dropping the ‘mask’ of the butler - unless alone. When he’s caught out of role (for example, reading a romance novel from the library) he makes such an extraordinary fuss, such a business of distancing himself, that you can only wonder what is going on underneath.

In fact Stevens seems to aspire to an almost mystical degree of self-effacement. It's not surprising then that he's so much an unreliable narrator that he actually tells us so, the version of events he gives often being unpicked later. What life, what reality, can a man like Stevens have, when his ultimate triumph is to stand in the shadows proudly serving his master even when that master stumbles morally?

Because Lord Darlington did stumble, allowing allowed himself to be used of in the murky Establishment plots of the 30s, when there was much cosying up to the Nazis. Stevens is right, of course, to point out that the (fictional) Lord Darlington wasn't alone in this. I suspect this is an episode of English (especially) history that has been kicked into the shadows, rather as Stevens suppressed any judgement on his own employer. In that sense, Stevens' sometimes painful reckoning with his past might be taken as a rather prescient commentary on the country as a whole, as might other aspects of the book.

But that’s not all there is here. The Remains of the Day is a subtle, mulitlayered book with a great deal else going on. In places very funny, but often deeply sad, it also tells the story of two (once) young people - Stevens and Miss Kenton - trying, at some level, to connect but either afraid, constrained or just too inexperienced to do so.

Both strands lead to bleak conclusions. There is the ultimate revelation of a man who sees all he has lived for knocked down. Lord Darlington is disgraced and dead, the Hall sold, the society of "professionals" by which Stevens set such store scattered to the winds (I lost count of the number of times he says he has ‘lost touch with’ one or another well-known gentleman's gentleman. Are they dead? Retired? Or is he now a pariah, given the Darlington connection? Stevens is not to be trusted on such matters and we can only speculate on this as on so much else.) There is also that lack of connection.

Stevens himself is a magnificent character, at once so stiff upper lip that you wonder he doesn’t crack his toothbrushes and also sad and vulnerable. And this is an extraordinary book, with so much to give. A worthy winner of the Booker in any year, and still so readable.

2 April 2019

Review - The Princess and the Fangirl by Ashley Poston

Cover by Amy DeVoogd and Andie Reed
The Princess and the Fangirl (Once Upon a Con, 2)
Ashley Poston
Quirk Books, 2 April
PB, 316pp

I'm grateful to Quirk Books and the incomparable Jamie Lee Nardone for an advance copy of The Princess and the Fangirl.

Taking place in the same continuity as Geekerella (as we're in Geekland, I'll speak the language) and indeed making references to it (Elle Wittimer makes a brief appearance) The Princess and the Fangirl is a take on The Prince and the Pauper, with the role-swapping being between Starfield actor Jessica Stone - whose character Princess Amara was killed off in the last film - and fangirl Imogen Weatherby, who's the driving force behind the #SaveAmara campaign (50,000 signatures and counting).

When the two get mistaken for one another at ExcelsiCon, trouble is bound to ensue as Imogen ("Mo", "Monster") accidentally ends up on one of Jess's panels. But when Jess runs into trouble, and needs to go below the radar, a switch with Imogen seems the obvious answer...

I really enjoyed Geekerella, and was delighted to see another story in the same world. And I think The Prince and the Pauper (gender swapped of course) is a natural fit for a con - a setting where every second person is cosplaying as someone or something else, where exploring identities and affiliations (joining in fandoms and factions) is the whole point. The alternating points of view let us see things from both Jess's and Imogen's perspectives and to understand why they might both be willing to swap (despite pretty much loathing one another).

Poston can't, of course, give us all that at once and for the first two thirds or so of this story we get, I think, greater insight into Jess than Imogen. Geekerella had already told us a bit about her, and we also saw there how trapped Darien, her leading man in Starfield, felt, so it's a natural development to see how a young woman who had achieved some critical success might resent a "popcorn" role and the fandom and hoopla that comes with it. There is a real edge, though, to the depictions of trolling, mysogyny, and fan entitlement - which of course in a sense Imogen represents because Jess doesn't, desperately doesn't, want to #SaveAmara.

In contrast, for a fair bit of this book, Imogen felt slightly flat. In a sense her motives are simpler - she thinks she's been given and opportunity to further her campaign - but in another they're less clear - why has she thrown herself so much, heart and should, into that campaign to begin with? Poston, rightly, only unravels that slowly and in a sense it's something both Imogen and Jess discover together over the three days of the con. So I won't blurt out the reasons now!

Poston depicts fan culture warts and all, I've mentioned the trolling and misogyny but even beyond that there are some pretty cynical, scheming creeps here to be taken on and exposed. That, too requires trust and friendship, as well as the ability to think quickly and bend the rules where necessary.

It is in the end a very satisfying study of the two women, their (eventual) solidarity and mutual support founded on living each others' lives (albeit, in the outhouse atmosphere of the con). That makes for a satisfying and, for me, more natural ending to this book than Geekerella. After all, Geekerella had to parallel the magic of Cinderella with something con-related: here the con is more of a setting than a player, the resolution coming very much from Jess and Imogen and founded, in the end, on their trust in one another and in their friends - some of them very new friends.

I'd recommend. If you loved Geekerella you will I think enjoy this, perhaps even more, but you don't need to have read the earlier book first (though I think you'll want to read both).

1 April 2019

Review - The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

The Light Brigade
Kameron Hurley
Angry Robot, 2 April 2019
PB, 358pp, e

I'm grateful to Angry Robot for a free advance e-copy of The Light Brigade via NetGalley.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book.

I don't normally read military SF, and can't quite remember what prompted me to ask for The Light Brigade despite it falling in that genre. Possibly Hurley's name - I have wanted to read something by her for a while? Anyway, for the first part of the book, I was worried I'd made the wrong choice. It is very military. We get Dietz, a raw recruit from an impoverished family, joining the Tene-Silvia Corporate Corps and immediately being flung into intensive, not to say gruelling, training by a merciless drill instructor. ('This is how they break you').

Then the missions - the grunts line up on the field and are broken down into beams of light, reassembled at the target and straight into heavy combat, depicted in note-perfect accounts, complete with lost comrades, tactical chaos and atrocities. It's very intense, almost hyper-real, and I wouldn't, I think, want to read a whole book like that.



The whole book isn't like that. While the military stuff doesn't go away, and it's not just backdrop, that's not all there is here, by a long, long chalk. For me, three factors lift The Light Brigade to a different plane.

Maybe I should put this differently. I hate that thing where a reviewer says "this book is genre X but it has stuff Y in it that means it transcends that genre". I don't mean that. I mean, "this book is military SF, which is great but not my cup of tea, but it's also something else, which IS my cup of tea, my afternoon scone and my bowl of strawberries, all at the same time". I'm not saying it's a better book for not just being military SF, I'm saying it is a book that overlaps better with my interests and preferences.

So, the first thing that The Light Brigade is, besides being military SF, is a portrait of a dystopian, ruined society. One where all-powerful corporates have supplanted the State, operate their own armies, dictate who is and is not entitled to citizenship and impose a fascistic ideology to underpin their rule (the phrase 'final solution' occurs several times). It's a violent, hierarchical world with graduations from the 'ghouls' at the bottom, non-persons living in labour camps and on rubbish tips  ('being a ghoul means being hungry. Living in other people's waste. Praying a cough won't turn into pneumonia...') upwards to those with residence, to citizens, to the wealthy, all the way to the CEO of the Corporation.

Of course there are aspects of our world in this, as well as hints of the path by which things got to this state ('The more fearful and out of control we feel, the more we look to some big man on a horse of a tank or a beam of light to save us'. 'America... tore itself apart... drowned in a deluge of propaganda foisted upon an uneducated public with no formalised training in critical thinking...') and it's a chilling, plausible vision on both counts.

Then there's the second thing. The, you know, SF bit. That's here not just in the dressing - futuristic plasma rifles, the concept of being at war with a terraformed Mars, the 'knu' ('a complex system of quantum-entangled data nodes...'), 'slicks', suits that recycle the soldiers' wastes and bodily fluids - or in that central conceit of soldiers turned into light, beamed across the Solar System, and reassembled - but in a deeply twisty, mind-bending plot. Very soon after that moment when I wondered if I should go on, I got my answer as strange things started to happen to Dietz. I won't say exactly what they are because although we soon understand (kind of) what is going on, it takes much longer for us (and for Dietz) to understand why - and how the separate events hang together. Indeed it's Dietz's working out of that which drives the plot, as distinct from the ongoing military narrative (one that gets darker and darker, more and more enfolded in atrocity, treachery and bad faith - even as Dietz and comrades try to hold onto a sense of loyalty to each other, the first and last thing soldiers have).

The third thing is the portrayal of Dietz. A soldier, missing parents (father: disappeared by Tene-Silvia's internal police. Mother: dead from cancer. Brother: vanished when that thing, the Blink, took out São Paulo). 'The enemy had eaten my family... I wanted the enemy obliterated.' In a sense, The Light Brigade is a story of Dietz's growing up, coming to terms with the world through a chaotic jumble of disconnected battles, through the discovery of dark truths, anomalies. It's a difficult process, taking place as the world goes (even more) to Hell and everything that was certain melts away. In the course of it we come to know and like Dietz well.

Fittingly, the ending of such a process is murky, and one could argue the book doesn't actually provide much closure. Readers' responses to this will vary. I did find it satisfying - at times I thought we might get a neat and today resolution but that would have been something of a cop out.

Instead we're left to connect the pieces, piecing together what has happened, and how...

So I was glad I read this book, glad I didn't give up. I will certainly read more of Hurley's books and would strongly recommend this one.