31 October 2019

Review - Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

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

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

And look at that gorgeous cover!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 October 2019

An exciting announcement!

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

Not one in a wig and gown, a shadow judge

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

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

I'm not judging that!

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

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

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


Anyway, what it comes down to is...

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

....think about them...

...and meet to which one should win.

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

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

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

29 October 2019

Review - Survivors by G X Todd #HearTheVoices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author's website is here.

26 October 2019

Review - The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

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

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

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

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

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

One of them, oddly, is Tess...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 October 2019

Review - Ghoster by Jason Arnopp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flicking those pages.

Getting another little hit with each chapter end.

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

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

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

22 October 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Little Siberia by Antti Tuomainen

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

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

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

At the same time it's all three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At which he is rather good.

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

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

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

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

17 October 2019

Review - The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT. That feels like shortchanging my follower.

AND. There is something more about Redemption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 October 2019

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

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

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

Jordan Jenner is back!

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

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

Events which culminate in murder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or was it?

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

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

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

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

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

5 October 2019

Review - Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw

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

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

And there was war in heaven...

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

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

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

What can be wrong this time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 October 2019

Blogtour review - Cage by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 October 2019

Review - Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery

Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery
Ed Rachel Autumn Deering and Christopher Golden
Titan Books, 1 October 2019
HB, e, 384pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance reading copy of Hex Life to consider for review.

With Autumn coming and you-know-what due at the end of the month (no, I'm not talking about Brexit) it's time for a bit of witchy magic, don't you think? And here to oblige is Titan bringing another of the themed anthologies which they've been on strong form with lately.

The subject is witchcraft in all its glory and horror. Here is a fantastic spread of stories by a whole gathering of (almost entirely) women writing at the top of their game. What do we think of witches witchcraft? It's a contradictory and tricksy subject, taking in the traditional, menacing stereotype and more recent attempts to reclaim it as a spiritual practice. Either way there seems something intrinsically liminal here - whether as a tool and resort of the marginalised, a hidden sisterhood or a countercultural force. So, a fitting subject for an anthology, allowing a diversity of voices and themes. These stories cover a whole range from evocations of traditional, fairy-tale witchery to urban fantasy variants to stories of revenge, modern life with a little magic, and even the dystopian future. Truly you can find witches everywhere!

Reading this volume is also a great way to taste the work of a diverse group of writers, hopefully to follow up with their other output (some of these stories are set in the authors' wider fictional worlds, others are standalone) and to sample a range of genres (witchcraft doesn't have to equate to horror - though it certainly can!)

In the first story, An Invitation to a Burning by Kat Howard, it is Sage who receives the invitation, in Merrinvale, a town that 'burned its witches, when it found them'. You'd expect an anthology like this to survey not only the powers of witches but their potential fate, wouldn't you?

Widows' Walk, in contrast, by Angela Slatter, looks at a group of widows who are much more integrated into their community (even if some people do cross the street rather than pass their house). The four women that this story centres on perform various services for their neighbours, even some that are, maybe, not strictly natural - but how will they respond when a young woman is caught stealing their milk?

Kelley Armstrong's Black Magic Momma: An Otherworld Story is distinct again, more of a classic urban fantasy in which single mother Eve supports her daughter by trading in dodgy magical artefacts and spell books, crossing the paths of various supernatural and natural enemies. It's almost hard-boiled, a fast paced and twisty tale which was great fun to read, packing a lot into a few pages.

The Night Nurse by Sarah Langan is more sinister. Esme is a desperate young New York mother who just given birth for the third time. Her career on hold, her nights sleepless, her husband high-earning but often absent and definitely unwilling to do his share of the feeding at 2am, she gratefully accepts the help of "Night Nurse" Wendy who has her own medications and ways with the kids. This story genuinely unsettled, leaving that residue of unease that characterises classic horror.

Stories about witches don't have to be confined to the present, or the mediaeval past as Mary SanGiovanni shows in The Memories of Trees - which opens in a very traditional way but then swerves into a post-apocalyptic future where the fear and hatred roused by the catastrophe is channeled, as ever at women on the margins. A particular;arly sharp story, I felt, at the present time.

Rachel Caine's Home: A Morganville Vampires Story brings a witchy element into her wider universe - why would the vampires be so afraid of a single woman? Here the witch is playing her familiar as a threat to the established order, but what is she really after? An intriguing episode which will I'm sure gain resonance from familiar characters.

The Deer Wife by Jennifer McMahon recognises that the word "witch" may be applied to figures across cultures and she produces a wonderful blend of the Northern European tradition - a woman in a remote hut in the forest - with something more rooted in her North American locale - shapeshifting and an ease with the wildness of the forest (rather than it being a dark menace). Transgressive in several different ways, this rather sweet story was another of my favourites here.

Kristin Dearborn's story The Dancer seemed at the start to be another tinged with urban fantasy, as Paul Baker, who seems to be a supernatural trouble shooter of sorts, drives to meet a new client. But it turns into so much, exploring themes of anorexia and familial abuse - and ending on a genuinely ambiguous note,

Bless Your Heart by Hillary Monahan also touches on some very modern issues as single mother Audrey tries to protect her son, Tucker, who 'preferred barbies to GI Joe and crafts to sports' from endless years of homophobic bully, encouraged, or at least tacitly endorsed, by the mother of the chief offender who - rather than take her own son in hand - business herself having library books 'challenged' and pursuing other illiberal causes. A fairly simple story of revenge, I found Bless Your Heart very cathartic!

The next story, The Debt, is much darker. Ania Ahlborn takes us back into the woods - the deep, primeval woods of Poland where mushrooms grow from shallow buried corpses, the last wild bison roam, and one could believe in an ancient witch living in hut on fowls' legs... This is a story that will stay a long time in my mind. Also dark is Toil & Trouble: A Dark Hunter-Hellchaser Story written by Sherrilyn and Madaug Kenyon and I think set in Sherrilyn's wider Dark Hunter universe. Drawing on Shakesperian elements (MacBeth's witches) this unpicks the correspondence between those 'secret, black and midnight hags' who became so characteristic of what we imagineer witches to be and the three Fates.

Last Stop on Route Nine by Tananarive Due is another story that engages with recent history, explicitly drawing on the recent treatment of people of colour in the US South. Ideas of curses, disappearances and random, hateful attacks gain an even sharper edge when mixed up with hauntings and magic. This story has a real sense of enduring evil, making the point that witchcraft is not always a resort of the oppressed but can also be made into a tool of the powerful.  Another of my favourites (if that's the right word for something so grim!) Haint Me Too by Chesya Burke has similarities - in its theme of racism and privilege - but is set in an earlier, even more violent time and here in contrast the witchcraft is something of a refuge for the downtrodden - if a slippery and tricky one, ever prone to blow back.

Rachel Autumn Deering's Where Relics Go to Dream and Die is something of a love story, which while dark in places was rather sweet in its overall effect, the witchcraft here serving both to hurt and help. A nice story.

This Skin by Amber Benson describes what happens following a multiple murder. It's unusual in this book in that the witchcraft is implied, perhaps uncertain: we have different explanations for what's happened and perhaps an unreliable narrator. What really did happen in the gym?

Helen Marshall's The Nekrolog is a lovely and tender story about the lives of two cousins, one living in Canada, the other in Ukraine, whose families have lived through tumultuous events (there are some well observed glimpses of the uncertainty that comes form living a life in exile). The cousins suffer various tribulations, and share some significant moments with one another - but something is not quite as it seems... the thrust of this story is not primarily "witchy" although that turns out to be a ket ingredient, but it's a lovely piece on the lives of women. Another odd my favourites in this collection.

Alma Katsu's story Gold Among the Black is about a girl and her dog. And that's all I am going to say. It is a very short story and I don't want to give away anything.

The final story in the book, How to Become a Witch-Queen by Theodora Goss, gives us not only two rather magnificent witches but effectively hacks into one of THE classic fairy stories to tell us what happened next and whether "she lived happily ever after" (spoiler: she didn't, but she did well enough for herself). See if you spot which one is behind this. Goss has, though, written a cracker of a tale to round off this engaging and deeply readable collection.

In short I'd strongly recommend Hex Life and that date in October coming, it wold make an excellent present for many witch-minded friends.

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