30 May 2019

Review and Q&A - The Plague Stones by James Brogden #Blogtour #Q&A

Design by Julia Lloyd
The Plague Stones
James Brogden
Titan Books, 14 May 2019
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of James Brogden's latest book The Plague Stones, in which the sins of the past come back haunt a complacent suburb, and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.  The Plague Stones is out now and you can buy it from your local bookshop, including via Hive books, from Blackwell'sWaterstones or Amazon or directly from Titan Books (where there is also more info on the book).

I'm ESPECIALLY grateful to James himself for agreeing to answer some of my questions. So without any more messing around, let's hear from him about the book and his writing.

After that I'll give my review. (Spoiler: buy this book!)

The Q&A

James - I’d just like to say first how honoured I am that you’re answering some questions for the blog.

You’re very welcome.

I enjoy the way you give your stories so much spirit of place, and make the reader think twice about the past of what might seem like a perfectly ordinary modern landscape (such as the Birmingham of Hekla’s Children). How did you (do you) find your way into that? Is it that something in a place speaks to you – or is it that a plot, idea, or character calls for a particular sort of place?

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question this; which came first, the setting or the story? Sometimes I’ll get struck by something weird or compelling about a location – for example the initial idea for The Narrows came when I was travelling home from work in the Pallisades (as it was then) to Selly Oak on the train, which stops and starts through a series of tunnels, and during one of the stops I had an image of the door opening and a ragged homeless girl climbing up from the tracks, out of breath and being chased by someone, and the whole story spooled outwards from that. With Hekla’s Children it was a bit different – a load of influences were coalescing in my brain (climate change, Bronze Age bog mummies, school expeditions etc) and I actually had to search for a setting where all of that would make sense, which turned out to be Sutton Park. So it varies from story to story, but the one thing that’s consistent is that yes, it’s usually a place where the skin of the world seems to be thin, and you might poke your way through with a little effort.

I like to ask authors about all the arduous travel they must have undertaken in far-flung places for research purposes… I would have assumed that for The Plague Stones this wasn’t needed, but in your acknowledgements you do mention certain rambles in Worcestershire. Were these actually useful fact-gathering trips?

Oh most definitely. Saint Sebastian’s church in The Plague Stones is lifted pretty much wholesale from St Kenelm’s near the Clent Hills (though I’ve moved the holy well inside the church for Reasons). There’s a bit in Hekla’s Children where the character of Nathan is wandering through a snowy wasteland and comes across a ridge of granite outcroppings, which is the Stiper Stones near the Welsh border. When my editor suggested that we shift the story of Bella to make it more fictional in The Hollow Tree, it was easy to transpose the action to the Lickey Hills. I wouldn’t say that many facts were gathered at the Dodford Inn or the Old Hare and Hounds at the end of one of these rambles, but it’s good to talk through ideas with a mate.

Do you work it all out in detail first or just launch in – and do you always know how things were going to turn out, or end up surprising yourself? (For example, did the characters change much as you wrote the book? Did they take over the story? Or are they as you first imagined them?)

If I’m being left to my own devices I have a set of key scenes or landmarks that I try to connect with a coherent narrative, and see where that goes. That was how I wrote The Narrows and Hekla’s Children, but without an externally imposed deadline the process is quite a bit slower. Since I’ve been working for Titan, my editors like to see a fully realised outline so they can get an idea of how to market it and make suggestions, which is fine with me because I have no clue about marketing and I’m happy to take advice from other professionals who want to make the book as successful as possible. It also forces me off my backside to actually get the thing done in a reasonable time-frame. Sometimes characters will change in the process of writing, no matter how strictly planned they might be; I didn’t know that Rachel Cooper worked for the Highways Agency, for example, but then it made perfect sense given what happens to her in the epilogue of The Hollow Tree.

Mythological themes are a clear inspiration in The Plague Stones (I hope that’s not a spoiler). Did any other writing (or media) particularly inspire the book?

Tons. I’m a total magpie for ideas. Or thief, if you prefer. As cheesy as this is going to sound, a big influence was John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, because right at the bottom of everything I’m a child of eighties video horror. I knew I wanted to write something about the dead seeking vengeance on the living for their ancestors’ crimes, but I didn’t want to write a standard zombie fest, and something about the way that the undead Captain Blake was simultaneously both ghostly but could also physically kill his enemies was interesting. So leprosy became the Black Death and Antonio Bay became a privileged city neighbourhood.

What were you trying to achieve with the book - beyond writing a great story? (It’s perfectly OK to say ‘I don’t know!’ or ‘Go and read it if you want to find out!’)

Is there anything beyond writing a great story? I don’t know if me saying anything about the book having a Purpose would be a helpful idea – not so much the whole ‘death of the author’ thing, but as an English teacher I’m wary of encouraging my students to think that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of reading a text, because once it’s out there I have no control over what people make of it, and I don’t think I should. I will say, however, that I am very angry about a lot of things that are happening to this country, and in particular the way that the powerless are treated, and anybody who wants to read it as a political book is welcome to do so. But it’s also, I hope, just a bloody good scare.

It is! Now turning away from the "bloody good scare" - what inspired you to write in the first place (particular books, something that happened...) and how did you get started writing?

I’ve always written, because I’ve always read, and the two go together inevitably. My parents made sure that our home was full of books from as early as I can remember. As to how did I get published, the short answer is perserverance and luck. Let’s just say that I had a lot of false starts until Snowbooks picked up The Narrows.

And what did you expect from it? How does the reality compare with that?

When I started, all I wanted was to see my books on the shelf of a bookshop, and if I never published anything again, I could still say that I’d done it. But then I started going to conventions and meeting other writers, and I’ve found everyone to be lovely and friendly and supportive - from the unpublished strugglers to the million-selling A-listers with movies made from their books. Sitting down and having a beer with people whose books you’ve been enjoying for years never fails to be a delight. On a purely egotistical level I never expected to see a book I’d written advertised on the Tube; that was surreal but fun.

Which writer(s) do you admire most?

Graham Joyce and Neil Gaiman, for the revelation that you can unnerve and enchant without having to adhere to simplistic genre tropes. Clive Barker, for the similar idea that you can be disturbing, lyrical, nightmarish and poetic all at the same time. Susan Cooper and Julian May for showing me that myths can take living, breathing form in stories. Christopher Fowler for making me cry with laughter while scaring the pants off me. Stephen King, obviously, for making it look so bloody easy and so much fun.

What's your writing day/ routine like? And where do you write best?

Because I have a mortgage-paying job as a teacher I basically have two types of writing day. During term time, when my brain is thoroughly fried after a day of attempting to hold the attention of nearly two hundred adolescent boys, let alone teach them anything, the most I can do after I get home is maybe a bit of work on the outline, wrangling out plot points, making character notes, details of settings and what have you. Creating actual sentences isn’t going to happen.

By the time the ‘holiday’ rolls around, hopefully I’ve got enough of a structure that I can sit down and bash out the story. Then I’ll work from about 8 in the morning until lunchtime, run errands or go to the gym in the afternoon, watch Tipping Point and have my tea, then aim for another hour or two in the evening. If after that I come away with 3000 words I’ll consider it a good day.

Do you have a book locked away that you wrote when you were 15? If so, is there any chance of it seeing the light? Or will it get the Terry Pratchett steamroller treatment? (I suppose that's a roundabout way of asking—are you on the side of those who always want to know more about the writing process, or do you think a line needs to be drawn?)

I genuinely don’t. I mean it took me twenty years to get The Narrows from start to published, so if it I was going to mothball anything it should have been that, but I suppose I was just too stubborn to let it go.

Where do you stand on genre (every time I look there seem to be more of them) - useful in writing or more of a marketing label?

Genre is the narrow point of an hourglass. Feeding in from the top, writers think more in terms of story and character rather than marketing, while at the narrow point an editor has a very clear idea of how a book needs to be marketed to be sold and so shapes it into a form which bookshops can label for their shelves. Out the other end, readers don’t think of themselves in genre terms but at the same time are attracted by covers designed by publishers to very carefully communicate genre expectations, however unconsciously. Genre is a selling tool, basically. In a nutshell, if you want to read or write books it doesn't matter, but if you actually want to SELL them it's crucial.

Finally... you’ve stumbled into a devious plot while travelling far afield (or at least, into the next county) researching a new novel, as a result of which you’re trapped in a lonely forest tower. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and you can have one Lego set with you. Which would it be?

I would have a Lego set which turns out to be an exact scale model of the tower I’m currently trapped in. Whereas one would normally build from the ground level up, unusually this starts with the topmost room – where there’s even a little figure of me – and works down through floor after floor until I get to the crypt. Then it gets weird, because the bits that are left seem to make some kind of creature – there are lots of tentacles and teeth, but the bits don’t want to fit together properly, and when I finish the creature it hurts to look at too closely. Then I realise that there aren’t any doors on any of the levels - nothing to stop the creature from roaming freely throughout the tower. Then I hear the slithering noise from outside my room.

James - thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. (I think you may now have written the world's scariest Lego horror story. Perhaps that could be Lego Movie 3?)

The Review

So - what did I make of The Plague Stones?

First I should say that I've simply loved Brogden's previous two books, Hekla's Children and The Hollow Tree. He has a real gift for grafting the present onto past weirdness, creating a shifty, unsettling atmosphere and confronting the oh so rational denizens of the 21st century with truths they just don't want to face.

In The Plague Stones, Brogden puts a further twist on that.

Haleswell - named for its healing spring - is special. Located on the edge of the city (I think, Birmingham) it has its own, semiautonomous status under its own Trust, seemingly plenty of money available, and an idyllic, country-village atmosphere. When Trish Feenan is not only invited to join the Trust but offered a charming cottage to go with it, she sees a chance to get away from the scuzzy area where she, her husband Peter and son Toby live - especially welcome after Toby is beaten up in the course of a burglary.

Of course, we know there will be a catch. Isn't there always a catch? Broaden is upfront about one aspect of this. Interspersed in this story are chapters dealing with a young woman, Hester, living nearby during the 14th century, the time of the Great Plague. Those chapters make grim reading, and really bring home the impact of the Plague, not only medical but societal. (As one character comments here, if you want to know what it's like living in a post-apocalyptic society, that's what we are doing now - only several centuries on). It becomes clear in the first chapter that there is a supernatural threat to Haleswell, a spectral woman who is only kept at bay by a fragile circuit of ancient boundary markers which it is the Trustees' obligation to maintain. Why Haleswell in particular is menaced slowly becomes clear, all I will say is that it isn't an abstract or random thing, the two times and places are linked.

So much for the obvious danger. But it's what Brogden does alongside that which really gives this book its kick. In a very modern take on horror we see services stretched to breaking point, food banks, long queues in A&E, schools ground down, people housed in shoddy, dangerous conditions subject to grasping landlords who treat their tenants like dirt - all while the fortunate inhabitants of Haleswell live in their pleasant bubble. Our guides in this are the Feenans, who have been translated from one world to the other. Resentments fester - as when Toby becomes friendly with a girl whose brother dismisses him as a "little landlord" - and they can last a long time. The two aspects feed on one another, the bitterness giving past hatreds a way into present hearts and minds and blood. Nothing ever really goes away.

The theme here is perhaps that now or then, denial of humanity, of hospitality and rob espect have consequences and that there WILL be a reckoning. In The Plague Stones that reckoning begins to be worked out, in blood and fear, but in a way the most chilling moment of the book is when we realise that what's portrayed here may only be the beginning. And not all evils are ancient.

Intelligent horror which delivers a succession of increasingly shocking turns, weaving the everyday dilemmas of family life and parenting - concern over a child getting into trouble, money troubles, poor housing - with both supernatural evil and the real wickedness inherent in how society is structured.

And it's not at all clear who the real villains in that are.

Strongly recommended.

A reminder that you can buy The Plague Stones from your local bookshop, including via Hive books, from Blackwell'sWaterstones or Amazon or directly from Titan Books. And you should.

The blogtour continues! See the poster for all the stops...

25 May 2019

Review - The Games House by Claire North

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Games House
Claire North
Orbit, 30 May 2019
PB, 410pp

I am so grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a free advance copy of this brilliant book to consider for review. I could kick myself that I hadn't read The Games House already - it has been available for a couple of years but as ebook only and I somehow missed that.

Now, I have the (physical) book in my hands and I can make amends.

"Everyone has heard of the Gameshouse. But few know all its secrets . . .

It is the place where fortunes can be made and lost though chess, backgammon – every game under the sun..."

The Games House is another audacious concept from North: a club where all may come to play games... but with a "Higher League", a select level to which one can only progress by invitation. And the games there are played with pieces on a real board - a board that contains empires, kingdoms, churches.

The coin turns, the game begins. The House is in Venice. In New York. In Tokyo. Walk in. Take a seat. make your move - but be careful what you stake. Players can become pieces and pieces will be played and used up.

The book is divided into three parts.

In the first - The Serpent - set in Renaissance Venice, Thene - a young woman of despised Jesish heritage and in a marriage to a worthless man who is eating up all her money - plays for the right to enter that higher League.  Pieces move on the board - real people, caught up in the mechanisms of the House. Some survive: others do not. It's a tense game which Thene cannot afford to lose if she's to escape her life. Thene plays with skill, accepting the sacrifices she must make. North's ability to sketch a convincing character matters here, Thene's game working through screeds of them but all are vital, breathing figures any of whom who could easily sustain a book of their own (I wanted to know more about all of them!)

The second story - The Thief - follows Remy Burke, a louche figure who could have walked out of a Somerset Maugham short story, in an unwelcome game staged in Siam, just before the Second World War. The background - featuring what are clearly spies, political factions and fugitives - would, again, provide enough colour in itself for a novel. But it's not the main point: the main point is the game that Remy's been tricked into, a desperate game of Hide and Seek where at stake is his very essence. North's description of the pursuit - overseen, as in the first story, by some kind of ambiguous spirit or actor above, but not totally removed from, the plot - is just masterful, whether describing Remy's sheer desperation, halting moments of tenderness when he is sheltered by a lonely widow - she is shunned, as a childless woman who has survived her husband and had spoken to nobody for seven months, or the man's sheer ingenuity in staying ahead and in the game.

In the final story, The Master, things take a rather different turn, arriving at the present day and an even more desperate game which begins to unsettle Presidents, Chairmen and financial combines. The stakes are if anything even higher - and the player one who may, perhaps, be able to give some answers.

Again, the coin turns...

I just loved this book. North has a slightly oblique style which can take a bit of getting used to (she'll include an overheard conversation to add atmosphere (yet which contains a point relevant later) or a chapter one sentence long, which, again, only slots into he story at the right time and place. And those unseen observers remain mysterious while also becoming very familiar.) But once you do, it's a book you can simply immerse in - in fact you have to, because you won't be able to leave it unfinished. In the end, I think, a very humane book, observing all manner of human folly and wrongness as well as little acts of goodness and courage, but not judging and not setting up heroes or villains. Especially not that, because, of course, it's all a game, isn't it?

Strongly recommended. VERY strongly. (And look at that pretty cover!)


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

If you want to read my reviews of some of North's previous books, see links to Touch, The Sudden Appearance of HopeThe End of the Day and 84K.

To buy The Games House, try your local bookshop - including via Hive Books - or look at Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

22 May 2019

Review - Exit Wounds (edited by Paul B Kane and Marie O'Regan)

Cover design by Julia Lloyd
Exit Wounds
Edited by Paul B Kane and Marie O'Regan
Titan Books, 21 May 2019
PB, 381pp

I'm grateful to Titan for a free advance copy of Exit Wounds

I love a good themed anthology, I find an anthology does several things for me, as a reader. First, if well chosen (and the authors in this one are among the best) their perspectives (what's the right word for a gang of authors? A plot?) can shed more light – or dark – on a subject than any single writer could.

Here, that theme is the “exit” from a crime – or a criminal situation. That exit might be a death, or an escape, or more loosely the winding down of the events. It’s perceptive, I think, to focus on this aspect when a great deal of crime writing deals with the before – the build-up – and / or the after – the investigation. Here attention is mainly on the cusp after one, and before the other. Although in some of these stories (such as Joe R Lansdale' Booty and the Beast) the exit may have been long ago.

Another valuable service anthologies serve is giving authors space to tackle things a bit differently, to visit aspects of their fiction that might not be enough for a full-blown novel but, nevertheless, fill in details or illustrate ideas that are useful in understanding the whole. So for example here in Steph Broadribb's Fool You Twice we see an early adventure of her hero Lori Anderson.  I am and always have been a member of #TeamLori, a fan of Broadribb’s indefatigable bounty hunter, former exotic dancer, and mother so it was a delight to read this, the earliest story about her, showing how she made a start on her own – and that she was, form the very beginning, capable, brave, determined and on the side of the angels. And in John Connolly's splendidly named On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier we see a dark world that might, or might not, fit with his Fractured Atlas universe: having just read Connolly’s A Book of Bones I read out that way though there is no explicit connection: but the shadowy demi-monde of artists, surgeons and anatomists hinted at here could be taking place behind that story. In particular the creeping doubt over just what this story is and how it related to the painting being described is delightfully creepy.

The final joy of an anthology like this is that you’re certain to pick up accessible writing both by authors you know and those you don't - whether the latter are ones you have wanted to try but haven’t got round to, and by those you didn't know, but can now explore in future. Overall, a triple win, I’d say.

So here are nineteen stories, most of them published here for the first time, and all excellent.

The Bully by Jeffery Deaver is a neat little story, reflecting Deaver’s encyclopaedic knowledge of forensics, in which you understand everything that’s happening – until you don’t. Dead Weight by Fiona Cummins is a bleak tale in which Lula suffers repeated psychological abuse and body-shaming from her controlling mother. There are some stomach churning moments of realisation here. Were there hints about the mother’s motivations? I wasn’t sure but this really left an impression.

I really enjoyed Like a Glass Jaw by Mark Billingham. Dealing, I think, with how women and men cope differently with their lives, we meet a man of the old school (he notes that there were mainly women at his gym session, so no pressure on him), perhaps a bit of a villain, though past his prime. A spiral of events leads him somewhere he didn’t intend to be, -but was the whole thing a result of the male outlook adding two and two to make five? I also loved Sarah Hilary's The Pitcher which reminded me of Roald Dahl or Joan Aiken (Marmalade Wine) at their very best, a deliciously wicked little tale with a decided “aha!” moment - a very chilling moment.

I wondered if stretching things to call Discipling by Martin Waites a crime story, pure and simple, though there is an (implied) exit, as this is I think a story with no victim. Or at least no unwilling victim. Nevertheless I wouldn't have had it left out.

The Consumers by Dennis LeHane is more conventionally crime-y, a bitter little story, featuring an abused wife and a hitman. For a short story it packs in a great deal, including reflections on personal responsibility, culpability and the sources of wealth. The exit sought here looks like an easy way out, but life has a habit of being complicated. Another of my favourites in this anthology.

The next two in the anthology, Voices Through the Wall by Alex Gray and Lee Child's Wet With Rain are both definitely aftermath stories. In Voices, the offender is wholly absent - leaving an echo of dis-ease - and we're simply left to wonder as we piece together a sad chain of events. In Wet With Rain,  almost a mini thriller, we follow a pair of Americans who are clearly up to something dodgy in Northern Ireland, with their implausible story about buying up the birthplace of a noted writer - but what do they really want? I had sort of guessed the "what" from a couple of clues in the text - but the "what next" completely blindsided me.

I will now make a terrible confusion. Until reading this anthology I hadn't ever read any Val McDermid. (I know!) Now I know what I'm missing. Happy Holidays features McDermid's criminal profiler Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan, investigating a series of murders that seem themed around traditional holidays. When Santa disappears, things seem to have become serious. But what is really behind the chain of grisly killings?

Christopher Fowler's Lebensraum, in contrast, reads less as a specifically crime adventure - though there is a background of villainy in it - than as an allegory. It's a story of an old woman whose house is progressively taken over by strangers - loud strangers how strut around in uniforms and speak of their "cause". Illustrating the theme of "Exit Wounds" almost perfectly, the narrator almost seems to be fading from her own life. Whether at the end she's a symbol of endurance or a victim is unclear. A powerful and disturbing story.

Mark Billingham's Dancing Towards the Blade is another story that ends on a note of ambiguity. Billingham's story sees cultures collide as Vincent - a young man of colour -  encounters racist bullies on his run down estate. Cutting between the bleakness of that confrontation and the vibrant coming of age ceremony for, I think, his father, Dancing Towards the Blade, like Lebensraum confronts the realities of newly confident racism and hatred.

Kittens by Dean Koontz is perhaps another story of hatred but on a more domestic scale. It is both grim and sad - read it at your peril! Featuring a bullying and ignorant father who warps religion to terrorise his daughter, it is strong stuff as is AK Benedict's Take my Hand. Benedict is another writer I look out for. I wish there was more by her I could read so I was delighted to see this half-crime, half-spooky story about a nasty museum exhibit and the plans of some nasty schoolchildren to make mischief with it. Definitely one of my favourites. Dressed to Kill byJames Oswald has aspects on common with Take My Hand (I'll say no more - spoilers!) as a series of deaths come to light which bear striking similarities. The only problem is, they are murder/ suicides and they take place decades apart....

There's a twist of dark humour to the final three stories in this volume. Joe R Lansdale's Booty and the Beast is almost a comic caper, as three villains jostle for the legacy of a lone-gone crime. (Exits, again) They seem to be three particularly vile people and the way things turn out - another exit - is curiously satisfying. In Paul Finch's The New Lad – almost novella length - we see what Greater Manchester Police do with the new boy in the team. They put him on duty guarding a lonely crime scene late at night on his own, ion course. Deploying the full register of spooky scares, twists and foreshadowing, this story is a miniature masterpiece in tension. Finally, in Louise Jensen's The Recipe, the husband has already exited, leaving his middle-aged wife to pick up the pieces of her life. She seems to be managing very well, but will the arrival of her sister bring unwelcome memories?

These are entertaining, varied stories, almost all compulsively readable. Do give them a try.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here. To buy Exit Wounds, why not make a trip to your local crime scene - sorry, bookshop - or buy online from Hive Books which supports some local shops. Or you can get it from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

18 May 2019

Review - Conviction by Denise Mina

Denise Mina
Harvill Secker (Penguin), 16 May 2019
HB, 384pp

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

I love Denise Mina's books. Just when you think you know what's coming, she wrongfoots you with a move sideways, shifting from crime series to true life based crime to - as here - a chilling standalone psychological thriller.

This was a grabby book - by which I mean a book that grabs you, though it is one you will also want to grab! It's the sort that keeps you sitting up into the small hours just to see what's next. Following a gripping road trip undertaken by two lonely, desperate people who start off hating one other, but each of whom gradually comes to trust and support the other, it's a marvellously convoluted, tricksy read.

"There has to be a reason to tell the truth. I stopped some time ago..."

Anna is the happy mother of two girls, partner to Hamish, a seemingly dull (but rich) Scottish lawyer, and living a quiet life in Glasgow. The most exciting recent event in her life was the campaign for a new laminator at the school. It is clear, as she narrates this story, that there's something a little... odd... about her. She won't travel abroad. There is an anger in her. Hamish resents her habit of getting up early to wander the house alone, and the two are going through relationship counselling. Perhaps a life of cosy domesticity is grinding Anna down?

There are secrets in this book, things Anna has pushed into unswept corners of her mind, people she's hiding from. She knows they must never, never come to light. But there's no reason why they ever should - is there?

Conviction launches on an ordinary day, but an ordinary day when everything goes wrong. Anna's world collapses that morning, just as she's trying to get the kids out to school. There is a knocking, and Anna tries to ignore it but there is something trying to get in, something from her past. There's nothing she can do but run again - accompanied by anorexic musician Fin, who's been shipwrecked by the same storm that left her adrift. Thrown into each others' company, what can the two do but get in a car, bickering, and set off into the Scottish night, still bickering, to solve a notorious mystery, the sinking of luxury yacht the Dana? (And yes, they are still bickering all through that).

Ricocheting between locations - a ghastly tourist trap haggis restaurant, an upmarket Highland hotel, an exclusive French resort and a Venetian slum, to name only a few, while running through a pile of Hamish's cash and dodging assassins, the pair take as their guide a podcast series about the sinking of that yacht, and follow up the leads. In the course of this we learn more about the ghastly events that sent Anna into hiding, about the origins of Fin's anorexia, the notorious Sophie Bukaran - and the truth behind the Dana. The book is strong stuff in places, with references to rape, eating disorders, and to a real sense of mental disintegration. Anna is at times very scary. Some of the events here are told in fragments as she edits out what she can't bear; she drives like a fiend; and all through the book are the warning signs of the danger she and Fin are running towards - even as she imagines she's running from something that not only destroyed her faith in justice but left her at the mercy of baying mobs - in real life, and online.

Anna starts, then, low on trust, and the very gradual thaw between her and Fin (not a sexual thing, it's mush more interesting than that) is a deeply moving theme of this book, even more interesting and enthralling perhaps than the solution to the mystery (although that is itself a complex, twisty and satisfying crime story in its own right). They are very well imagined, well portrayed characters with a lot of depth, a lot of truth to them.

So there's a lot going on in this book, which is never less than deeply, deeply readable, and often brilliant. It's also frequently grimly funny, as with the scene where the pair, drunk on a train, encounter a hitman who telegraphs his intentions through a dark fairytale, or when Anna refers to "the beige uniform of American money"or describes her time working in that hotel for the super-rich (sacked, in the end: she didn't have the "personality for service"). Fin's fame also produces some funny - if frustrating - episodes: it's hard to go under the radar when people keep spotting and Instagramming you.

As you'd expect, Anna is something of an unreliable narrator ("It's an odd out-of-the-way place for odd out-of-the-way people, often incomers pretending to be Scottish. The whole area is awash with fictions. I loved it there.") She has of course edited her own past, giving her unreliability a solid narrative justification - rather than just deriving from an unexplained character quirk. She's few illusions left about life - for example, saying, of men "When [they] talk about a daughter it's often a coded way of saying they are not planning to attack you" or commenting on the less celebrated moments of Andrew Carnegie, often noted for his philanthropy: "It didn't show him ordering Pinkerton men to shoot at strikers... [or] mutilating accidents in smelting plants." Indeed, that last points to a general theme in this book - the ghastliness of the super rich, variously benefiting from loot gathered by Nazi forebears, committing murders to cover up crimes, behaving badly to underpaid staff... or just showing ghastly taste.

This is a pacy read, covering lots of ground - literally, emotionally, and conceptually. At its heart it has - well, lots of heart, in that central relationship between Anna and Fin. Both are damaged, and the book doesn't promise that everything will be or can be "fixed" for them. But they do find something.

Strongly recommended.

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

To buy the book, try your local bookshop, including via Hive! Or you can look at Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

16 May 2019

Review - Turbulent Wake by Paul E Hardisty #Blogtour #RandomThingsTours

Turbulent Wake
Paul Hardisty
Orenda Books, 16 May 2019
PB, 258pp

I'm grateful to Orenda for a free advance copy of Turbulent Wake and to Anne Cater of Random Things Blogtours for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Turbulent Wake is a bit of a departure by Hardisty. His previous books for Orenda have been popular thrillers featuring soldier, mercenary, and all-round tough guy Claymore Striker. Turbulent Wake is more reflective, consciously literary, following two mens' - a father and a son - journeys through life and relationships. There is no plot, no threat, at the centre of this story apart from the harm we do to ourselves and others and the bruises that life inflicts. A secondary theme - heartbreakingly realised in places - is environmental devastation caused by greed and stupidity, and the beauty of what we are, it seems, about to thoughtlessly lose.

This change of direction is clearly something of a risk, but Turbulent Wake fully justifies that - while it was obvious from his previous books that Hardisty could write, this one shows him engaging critically with issues of living, with the pain of living,  and he does it brilliantly.

The book's title, a physics reference, is apt (Hardisty often adopts science based titles). Turbulence is what happens when the easily modelled, "smooth" behaviour of fluids breaks down and you get churning, chaotic results. Run a liquid down a wide smooth channel relatively slowly and you can easily calculate its behaviour at any point. Increase the speed relative to the size of the channel, or replace the fluid with a thinner one, and there comes a point where the flow stops being smooth and becomes hard to model and predict. It's a fundamental issue for physics with practical consequences for the design of ships, turbines, aircraft and other machines whose operation depends on understanding how fluids work.

In this book it is, I think, a model for life. Neither of the two men we meet here is in that predictable state of laminar flow. Unexpected eddies, changes in the parameters of their lives, changes in themselves, keep them off balance and a great deal work will be required if they are to understand what is happening and, perhaps, control it. Or at least, live at peace with it.

That work is being undertaken by Warren, the father. Dying, he completes a manuscript describing his life, in what is essentially a series of vignettes. This is read by his son Ethan, mainly during plane journeys and a business trip to Geneva. Warren seems to have been out of Ethan's life for decades, and his writing attempts, perhaps, to explain why this was, or at least, how it happened.

Warren is rarely named in the writings, rather he is "the boy", "the young man", later "the young engineer", "the engineer" - and inevitably, "the old engineer". This gives the effect of almost making him absent in his own narrative - often the stories could be simply that, self-contained Hemingway-esque narratives about a tough, manly life of the old sort: working on oil wells, dams, getting into fights, being with women. Even the episodes from childhood fit into that pattern, referencing wars, a horrific assault, the formation of a distinctly patriarchal outlook. It's interesting how "the engineer" seeks out projects around the world, bits of work where an aspect of the natural world can be managed, subdued, processed - almost as if a substitute for human contacts and relationships (while there are plenty of the latter, he will, one comes to suspect, always sabotage them before they get too close).

The irony is that while "the engineer" tells himself he is trying to "do good",  it becomes increasingly clear through the book that Warren's life, spent in what he refers to in the final story as "All the Good Places", is steady eroding and destroying that natural world. There are numerous examples; logging, oil drilling destroying local water supplies, a dam that will both obliterate fragile ecology and dispossess local people, the almost too hard to bear description of a beautiful, life-filled coral reef about to be razed just to house a marina. That sense of loss is articulated by Helena, who is with Warren for a period; she simply feels that there are too many people and that they only do harm. Given this destruction, and the catastrophes of his personal life, perhaps all he has done has been for nothing?

So much for Warren. What about Ethan? It's his voice that frames this book. Ethan is clearing up his father's affairs, having a difficult time with his ex (they have a daughter who becomes a pawn between them) and slowly, oh so slowly, going off the rails in his corporate world. The book strongly pushes the reader to compare and contrast the father, an outdoorsy type who may be blundering through life but at least knows where he's coming from, and son, whose environment is the air-conditioned office and the departure lounge. Ethan doesn't, on the whole, know where he's coming from. Both had absences in parenting, both had a missing brother (the explanations for which are profound but given almost incidentally and not in much detail). The book suggests that aspects of Ethan's messed up life go back to what his father has done or not done (Larkin's famous couplet certainly applies here) but it's unclear whether the knowledge imparted by Warren's testament will be enough to mend the damage.

While fascinating as characters, both father and son are often difficult to like as people. The father's almost performative manliness (for example his solution to most problems is to thump someone) feels very old-fashioned now but is probably in keeping with the spirit of his age and life (in places it's a bit "Mad Men in the Great Outdoors"). The son''s version of that is, though, definitely out of step with his time. It has soured into a vein of office misogyny, of whining about how women are getting the promotions instead of him. Both have, one feels, some work to do on themselves and as I have said, that is what we see the father doing through his writing. Whether, and how, the son will try and move forward (and break the cycle?) is left open at the end of the book. With the onset of turbulence, it's hard to predict what will happen downstream.

Though in places Turbulent Wake isn't for the fainthearted, it is a thoughtful, chewy book that tells the story of its times through one of the most fundamental human relationships - parent and child - and doesn't spare us the dark bits there will be in any such relationship. I'd strongly recommend it, and I will be VERY interested to see what direction Hardisty takes next.

The tour for Turbulent Wake continues, with further stops at all the brilliant blogs shown on the poster. You can buy the book now from your local bookshop, including via Hive books, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon and doubtless other places besides.

11 May 2019

Review - The Vinyl Detective: Flip Back by Andrew Cartmel

Design by Amazing15
Flip Back (The Vinyl Detective, 4)
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 14 May 2019
PB, 425pp

I'm very grateful to Titan for sending me a free copy of Flip Back for review.

"He's the Vinyl Detective, a private detective with a very special set of skills: no matter how rare, no matter how elusive, if you're looking for a record he's the man to find it for you..."

This is the fourth adventure of The Vinyl Detective (we still don't know his name), his partner Nevada, and friends Tinkler (well, I say friend...) and Clean Head. Tracking down rare records is only the beginning: invariably the search leads them into danger, shady dealings, unsolved mysteries and danger.

I should declare myself from the start: I just love this series and I'm pleased it's still going strong (after all it does seem an unlikely premise...) Reading Flip Back reminded why I like these books so much. First, there's the strong setting. While the stories range all over the place - the Detective has visited Japan and the US, not to mention Kent - they are centred on London, display a familiarity with streets, frustrating London travel and have a certain London sensibility, an irreverence, a knowingness. That's where the Detective is at home, scouting record dealers and charity shops and working his dodgy contacts. It's not exactly the London of Holmes and Watson but as these stories open I always feel something of the same thrill, the same eagerness to know what's afoot, as I do read Conan Doyle.

I also like the portrayal of a group of friends who, despite their bickering, try to look out for each other in a crisis (even if, realistically, nobody is actually a hero here) and who are just... well, convincing. And of course the books are full of crises - described with a certain note of dark comedy, for sure, but, even so, often pretty desperate crises. The gang have grown together through the series. And they frequently have fun on their investigations, too, so that expeditions out of London to survey a location or interview a witness are just as much daytrips and likely to include a nice meal or an afternoon in a pub garden (which gives plenty of scope to discuss the case, of course).

Overall, I think these books have just the right balance between action, mystery and... well, life, I suppose. I like reading about life!

Anyway, back to Flip Back. As with the previous books, Cartmel keeps the story humming along. It all starts off with Tinkler this time, of all people, retaining our hero to track down a rare record. It's the first version of Wisht, the last album by notorious folk-rock group Black Dog (you must remember them? Maybe they were before your time).

The version they had withdrawn from sale and destroyed. Not the re-release - the original version. The one with the flip back cover...

Just why the record is so important to Tinkler* that he's actually prepared to pay good money to cover the costs of the search doesn't really matter. In these books, the quest is the thing, invariably bringing mayhem and exploring the shady margins of musical history. Sure enough, someone is soon following the gang, someone determined that the record won't be found - and who's prepared to take extreme steps to make sure it doesn't.  In previous books, there's been some hint or clue about the villain based on who approached the Detective in the first place and what their story was. Here, though, we know nothing about why Tinkler's sudden interested in Wisht has led to... well, to what it leads to.  There's only the record, and Black Dog (named after the Barghest, the spectral hound whose presence heralds a death).

Inevitably, then, the story takes the gang deep into the history of Black Dog. The group were famous for burning a million dollars on a remote island in the North Sea and after they split, most of them settled down there. To get to the bottom of what happened - and track down that missing record - we will need to follow to Halig Island (evading the ever annoying Stinky Stanmer). This being a Vinyl Detective book, and as Tinkler is financing the operation, it proves to be a stay with plenty of good food and fine wine (I love the way the Detective insists on only the best coffee, and Nevada wields her command of wine like a weapon: see a particular episode set in a pub called the Alexander von Humbolt, where knowledge of wine - or not - is used to convey so, so much about a character).

And there is no shortage of danger, double-dealing or unlikely turns.

Overall, Flip Back continues to do what these books do so well. It doesn't bring anything new or very different to the series, but that wasn't what I was looking for. Basically an enjoyable crime-tinged romp in the company of some sharp and enjoyable characters.

*Something to do with impressing a woman.

2 May 2019

Review - Strange Tombs by Syd Moore

Strange Tombs (Essex Witch Museum Mysteries, 4)
Syd Moore
Point Blank (Oneworld), 2 May 2019
PB, 378pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Strange Tombs.

Syd Moore's Essex Witch mysteries go meta in this fourth instalment, with Rosie Strange and Sam Stone called in when a body is discovered on Hallowe'ent at a mystery writers' workshop being held in a lonely mansion out in the Essex countryside.

(If you haven't read any Essex Witch Museum Mysteries before then here is a brief, spoiler-free summary: Rosie Strange is a Benefit Fraud inspector who unexpectedly inherited the Essex Witch Museum from her Uncle Septimus. Initially meaning to shut down and sell the place, instead she falls under its spell and is soon working alongside the fascinating Sam Stone, curator of the Museum, to investigate crimes and strange goings-on which have a possible supernatural bent. And discovering more about her family along the way...)

With plenty of scope in Strange Tombs for bickering between authorial egos, resentments over publication (or not) and the general suggestiveness of the setting, Moore could have been forgiven for going full Agatha Christie or even Cluedo (there are some knowing hints in that direction). In fact she doesn't do that. As with the previous books in this series, Strange Tombs is focussed on Sam and Rosie, whose evolving and well observed relationship is now firmly established and a joy to watch develop further. While so far the books have only taken up a single summer of fictional time, a great deal has changed.  The two know and trust each other much better, but there's a still a lot which isn't said, still a lot of avoiding certain areas and topics and even new mysteries concerning (this time) Sam's background. And with the cycle now moving into winter, Rosie is feeling a sense of darkness, a blunting of her insight, that may - I think - be due to more than seasonal affective disorder.

Ordered to look into the mystery surrounding Ratchette Hall by Sam's Intelligence contact Monty (Rosie insists on referring to him as Agent Walker which suggests a whole layer of X-Files like skullduggery) Rosie and Sam have a kind of semi-legitimate interest in a death (that may, anyway, not be a murder) which means their particular lines of enquiry are, at least, tolerated by the assembled writers and the villagers of Damebury. And there seems plenty for them to uncover, what with strange noises in the woods, rumours of witchcraft, pagan temples, mutilated animals, and a desecrated tomb. It's obviously time for the classic Essex Witch Museum blend of an open mind and a steely scepticism - so why is Sam suddenly convinced that he's seen a ghost? And what does happen to Rosie in the woods?

This is a rattling good story that operates at a number of levels: the immediate mystery, its rather odd background in local lore, and an ongoing thread surrounding Rosie in particular, who seems to have inherited more from her family background than a decaying museum. While the events of Strange Fascination told her a lot about that background, there's clearly further stuff to discover here with Moore ratcheting up the tension and, in some particularly eerie passages, deftly replacing the characteristic humour of these books with a genuinely creepy tone (not the first time she's done that, of course - but here it especially made the back of my neck prickle...)

In this fourth book (with some short stories as well) the series shows no sign of flagging, indeed with the season of walking ghosts and the looming darkness of Winter it appears to be heading for new revelations and a chillier tone. Still great fun, and with some sharp messages besides (Rosie is an Essex girl, and feels the prejudice this entails: "Being a blondish blandish chick from Essex with more than a bit of natural bounce in the chest area and a nice rounded accent too, that kind of attitude came at me form snooty people all over the place...") I'd strongly recommend.

For more about Strange Tombs, see the publisher's website here. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.