4 August 2020

Review - All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace

All the Stars and Teeth
Adalyn Grace
Titan Books, 4 August 2020
Available as: PB, 416pp, e
Read as: PB advance review copy
ISBN: 9781789094060

Snap verdict: Sure to be popular

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of All the Stars and Teeth. I don't think I've had an ARC before that came with its own stars, as this one did, and necklace - after reading the book I'm concerned though at what curses or other magic might lie on that necklace. I will be very careful with it...

Adalyn Grace's debut novel is, at one level, a fairly traditional coming-of-age story. At the age of eighteen, Princess Amora Montana, heir to the kingdom of Visidia, is about to undergo the testing that will prove her worth to take the throne as High Animancer - wielder of the magic of souls. But on the brink of success, she gets things terribly, terribly wrong and her life is placed in danger. To survive, and to stand a chance of coming into her own, she must flee and explore her future kingdom, working to prevent a catastrophe ass well as to save her own life. Starting as a rather spoiled and ignorant girl, she grows up and begins to questions her place in things and the direction of her life.

At another level, though, Grace seems to me to be casting a rather cool eye over a familiar template and introducing some challenges to it. Yes, Amora begins rather self-satisfied and knows little of the world around her but it soon becomes clear that's because her father kept her that way - and in part he wasn't being protective, given the kingdom is nowhere near the good and harmonious place he makes out. The spotlight is soon on his failings and on the things that have been omitted from Amora's education. 

Oh, and that education... well, it involved using her magic to execute prisoners. That's the essence of the test that she fails, creating a real sense of horror right at the start of this book which I felt was heightened by the contrast with the preceding party-and-food heavy scenes. 

Behind Amora's growing doubts about the kingdom and her place in it is a growing sense of struggle and injustice and a feeling that the system she expected to inherit may not be the wise and just edifice she'd assumed. There is a real moral complexity in the eventual encounter with the forces that threaten the kingdom, a mixing of the personal and the political that includes Amora, her father, the cryptic, swashbuckling, pirate Bastian and a feminist mermaid ('I've a collection of men who I intend to repay for how generous they were to me... Dismemberment for anyone who ever tried to touch me. The tongue flayed from those with wicked mouths. And the heart eaten from any man who's ever told me to smile.') This book recognises that it isn't all about finding the True King (or Queen) - there must be justice beyond that. It leaves Amara, after much loss, looking to establish that, based on what she's learned on her journeys and I'm sure that in future books we'll see the difficulty of carrying this through.

In style, this book is often direct, with things seen from Amara's point of view and reflecting her limited experience (so it's appropriate, for example, that the parts set at sea aren't salted with nautical terms she wouldn't know, or that in an episode where villagers are trying to repair their homes after a storm - without help from the King - we get her perspective mainly as people hammering at wood). Grace reveals the Kingdom gradually, giving us, one after another, encounters with the various islands that make it up, each occupied by people with a different magical bent. The differences between these settings and their people are well realised, supporting the complex picture that Amora is gradually putting together of her world and of her family's place in it.

With its blend of magic, fantasy, romance and  politics, I think this book is bound to be popular and to lead many readers to enjoy the world and peoples of Visidia.

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

1 August 2020

Review - Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Art by Peter Greenwood 
Design by Elissa Flanigan
Bookish and the Beast (Once Upon a Con, 3)
Ashley Poston
Quirk Books, 4 August 
Available as: PB,283pp
Source: Advance reading copy kindly supplied by the publisher
ISBN: 9781683691938

I'm grateful to Quirk Books for an advance copy of Bookish and the Beast. 

I am loving the Once Upon a Con series. Drawing upon fairytales - but allowing the protagonists to be bothy conscious of the fact and, at times, critical of the tropes and outcomes possibly involved - they're creating their own universe, in which geeky teenagers get to have their say, to delineate their own world and celebrate their heroes. Each book adds richness and some critique of the previous books and characters. And it's all, of course, entwined with the hit SF TV series and film, Starfield. (Poston gives us tantalising little glimpses of Starfield. I need more!)

Bookish and the Beast is, of course, modelled on Beauty and the Beast though the author cheerfully admits that's she's chosen the elements she likes from that story (which is of course what you do with fairy stories). The Beast is Vance Reigns,  bad-boy (well, bad-17 year old) actor and star of the Starfield films (he plays villainous Ambrose Sond) who's become embroiled in a scandal and sent off to a no-name town where he will be out of the gossip columns. Beauty is Rosie Thorne, still mourning the death of her mother and keen to get out of the no-name town and hit the big city. Rosie's backed up by staunch friends Annie and Quinn. Quinn's running for Homecoming Overlod (not King or Quinn as they're non binary).

Poston gives us alternate chapters from Rosie's and vance points of view, allowing a rounded picture of the misunderstandings between them - Vance's brooding sulkiness and Rosie's defensive pain tend to produce sparks as they have to work together to catalogue a library of rare Starfield books. It's possibly a simpler, more straightforward romance than the first two books with some predictable barriers to happiness and it takes place in Rosie's home town and school rather than around a con. (I didn't find that lessened the atmosphere or geekiness of the story - Rosie, Quinn and Annie supply plenty of that and we also see appearances by some characters from the earlier books, with a hint that their lives continue to have ups and downs). 

There are some shrewdly drawn relationships - Rosie's with her dad, generally referred to as "Star Dad" for reasons that become clear is very touching, and he is also a man with some surprises for us. Tropes like "wicked stepparent" are avoided and it's all grounded in a solid presentation of the emotional stuff that the two teenagers are going through - Vance has been hurt by so-called "friends" who just want to sell him out to the tabloids, Rosie by the loss of her mother and the impact the cost of her treatment has had on the family finances (thank goodness for the UK's National Health service). She's, to a degree, stumped for what to do next, blocked in writing the essay she needs to apply to the university of her choice, and being targeted by the most popular boy in school - attentions she DOESN'T want but fear she may, out of politeness, accept.

It's a very enjoyable read and fleshes out what I hope will be a continuing wider universe.

For more information about Bookish and the Beast see the Quirk website here.




29 July 2020

Review - Blue Planet by Jane O'Reilly

Blue Planet (Second Species, 3)
Jane O'Reilly
Piatkus, 16 July
Available as: PB, 343pp, e
Read as: PB 

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Blue Planet.

In this third volume of Jinnifer Blue's galaxy-spanning adventures, we're reunited with familiar characters from the previous books - principally Jinn herself and Dax, of course, still in their smouldering will-they, won't-they not-relationship, even after the events of Deep Blue - but also my favourite evil Sittan empress Talta (now sadly diminished, boo...), Bryant, and of course Eve.

A lot has happened in Blue Shift and Deep Blue and this isn't a trilogy where you should pick up Book Three first - for a start you'll be missing out on so much of that smouldering (the TENSION...) as well as cringing at Dax's antics in the last book (Jinn's too good for him!) I'm not going to give a recap of all that because you should have read it, but as this book opens, humanity, already battered by environmental disaster, as about to be subject to all-out war by Talta's ships. Despite being experimented on, enslaved and delivered to the enemy by her devious mother, Jinn's still standing up for the humans and seeking to warn them of the danger. Do you think anyone listens...?

Blue Planet is a clever, satisfying and exciting conclusion to the Second Species trilogy. Alternating between Jinn and Dax's adventures in deep space, Eve trying to find a cure for Bryant after afflicting him with a deadly toxin, Talta's increasingly unstable and fragile rule on Sittan, and Ferona (Jinn's mum) struggling on a dying Earth after losing her privileges and her high office, this story gives the answers we have been waiting for, allows some an opportunity for redemption (even if they then confirm how vile they really were) and settles that all-important smouldering.

O'Reilly keeps her story humming along - this isn't one of those final volumes that loses its way just tying everything up - and produces a few surprises (do I see a bit of a Brexity tone ion Earth's avowed isolationism as announced by a senior politician at one stage?) but in general tone it's very well aligned with the first two books: a dashing space opera that focuses on the characters, far from being hard science fiction but emotionally engaging and inventive and, above all, FUN! If you've been following the series you need to read this to complete the experience. If you're one of those people who wait till a trilogy is finished before you try (I know - weird) the be told: you, also, need to read this (as well as Blue Shift and Deep Blue).

Finally, there are heartfelt thanks from the author in her acknowledgements not only to the loyal readers and to those who helped make the book, but also to those providing the services which we, in difficult timers, all rely on - and a plea that they will be remembered as well when better times come. A plea we should all echo.

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



27 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

Hinton Hollow Death Trip (Detective Sergeant Pace, 3)
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 13 Augusr 2020
Available as: PB, e, audio
Read as: Advance review copy 
ISBN: 9781913193300

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for supplying a free advance review copy of Hinton Hollow Death Trip and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Well. I'm genuinely lost for words by this one. If ever there was a book where all you can really say is, READ IT! then Hinton Hollow Death Trip would be the one. If you've read Carver's previous books, Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today, that won't surprise you, but it will surprise you - it amazed me - that he has been able (HOW?) to ramp up the weirdness further by several notches. It must be up to 13 nor 14 now.

How on Earth then to begin? Perhaps with what it isn't. Not police procedural. Carver takes joyful liberties with procedure, personnel, plausibility in terms of investigating a shocking crime taking place in the English countryside. Doesn't matter.

Not cosy crime. Boy, is it NOT cost crime. Pretty English village full of egos and self-satisfied villagers, yes. Cosy, no. Perhaps this is time for a quick CW - Hinton Hollow Death Trip has children shot. And mothers. And there are other deaths, too. An email I received about this book a few weeks ago contained a telling mistake: it had the title as "Hinton Hollow Death Trap". When you've read it you may feel that it's an easy error to make. Truly, the sleepy little town of Hinton Hollow is haunted by death... There is cruelty here. There is evil of all kinds.

In fact, not only is there evil, there is Evil. The story is narrated, we are told, by Evil, who admits to manipulating the good (and bad) people of Hinton Hollow for the few days of the story, setting them against each other, prompting lust, jealously, anger, gluttony. Nothing dramatic, just a nudge here, a nudge there and often they do the work themselves. Evil is sad that we are so wicked. It means Evil has to be worse. Evil's job would be easier if we were all better, you know?

If the book is anything it is a demonstration of that idea. In a seriously head-messy way (I could use a stronger word but I'm going to cross post this to places where they don't like strong language) we both see the events taking place in Hinton Hollow, that little village somewhere on the railway between Reading and Oxford AND we see Evil's commentary on them. It's soon obvious that we, as readers, are being addressed. We, as readers, are being judged. What did we think of the previous scene? What did we think about what happened? What did we think should have happened? Carver is not so much writing for his readers as writing against them. Were we satisfied with what Pace did at the end of Nothing Important Happened Today? I was, yes. Ah, but wasn't that itself an evil act? 

Um.

Do we dislike a character working in a slaughterhouse for his treatment of the poor beasts he is unloading from the lorry? Yes, I did. Will I eat mean later?

Um.

And on. And on. This isn't an easy read at times. The deceptively simple language, short sentences and chapters, the affectless tone accompany a devastatingly ruthless moral force. Reading this book is like having your heart torn out and weighed against that feather and found wanting. Again and again. Even where the point isn't directly made against the reader, the interactions here between parent and child, sibling and sibling, between kids at school, between Pace and almost everyone, point up a sense of taint and turpitude that's impossible to escape.

If that makes it sound a gloomy and discouraging read, it isn't! I'm really not sure how he does it, but Carver manages to make you care about (almost) everyone here while fully convicting them for failing and crime after failing and crime. He convicts the reader too: maybe the trick works both ways and the book ends up making you care more outside its pages as well? There's also a vein of folk horror in here, of something wicked in the woods.

I just can't put this book in a nice pigeonhole (not nice, and no pigeonhole suits). I can't completely explain the effect it had on me. It's not a comfortable read. Yet it was a deeply compelling read, a spectacular conclusion (I think?) to the DS Pace series, one that refuses to make easy choices or downplay the darkness but still manages to be uplifting. Sheer class on every page. I am in awe of Carver.

For more about Hinton Hollow Death Trip see the Orenda Books website here.

You can buy Hinton Hollow Death Trip from your local bookshop (they really need you, now more than ever), or online from Hive Books (who support local shops), Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

The blogtour continues - see the poster below for some bloggers who will I hope be able to explain this stunning book more articulately than I've been able!



 



23 July 2020

Review - The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel
Picador, 6 August 2020
Available as: HB, 320pp, e, audio
Read as: advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9781509882809

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

I really enjoyed this clever, absorbing book from Emily St John Mandel. More than enjoyed it - this is a book not just to read, but to drink, a book to immerse yourself in.

The Glass Hotel is bookended (slight pain intended, obviously) by two disappearances - in 1994, that of young Vincent's mother, when she sets out in her canoe one day from her home in a remote part of Vancouver Island and never returns - and in 2018, that of Vincent herself, falling from a containers ship off the coast of Mauritania. Both events are mysterious, both case a shadow.

Between the two deaths, St. John Mandel weaves a detailed and even intricate story, following not only Vincent's life but that of her addict half-brother, Paul, her future husband, financier Jonathan Alkaitis ('He carried himself with the tedious confidence of all people with money'), shipping executive Leon Prevant and many, many others. I particularly enjoy the way that she makes whichever character she is following so vivid, real and interesting - whether or not they are part of the main story. So for example, we hear about Alkaitis' artist older brother, Lucas, who died of an overdose decades before but was painted by Olivia in the Sixties. Olivia later invests her modest savings in one of Alkaitis's funds and acts, to a degree, as the personification of the many individuals who lose money this way. Yet beyond this, St. John Mandel gives us beautifully realised scenes of Olivia with Lucas, a passing encounter involving her and Vincent, and indeed a whole life in miniature for Olivia which makes her concrete and fascinating (and makes us care about what will become of her). Similarly, in St John Mandel's hands, anecdotes such as that involving Leon's wife Marie and her psychic friend, rather than detracting fro the pace of the novel or confusing the story, blaze with life and interest.

She does the same throughout the book - I particularly enjoyed reading about Walter ('There's such happiness in a successful escape') the night manager at the Hotel Caiette, the Glass Hotel, located in that same remote community where Vincent grew up. Walter's life before and after the central events of the story is given, and, like all of this book, it's riveting despite being - or because it is? - so ordinary. Walter has a small but pivotal role in the book because he is present on the night when a man (or woman) whose face is covered by a hoodie scrawls graffiti on the window of the hotel: 'Why don’t you swallow broken glass'. Is it a random act of vandalism or a targeted message? If a message, for whom?

That evening, the hotel will see several of the key playerss in this story. Paul is working there, as are Vincent, her schoolfriend Melissa and the recently widowed Alkaitis (Vincent will soon give up her job, after she meets Alkaitis). These meetings, and that message, resound through the book, seen by different characters and from different perspectives (Paul's conversation with his therapist decades later, Alkaitis's life in prison some years earlier, Vincent's future lives). The mystery of what it means, who did it and why hangs over the first part of the book: in time it seems to recede as we get up-close descriptions of subsequent events, and then at the end, we return to it with more knowledge.

Those alternate viewpoints are more than different individual perspectives. A great deal of the punch in this book comes from its exploring the different worlds that might be possible if this of that had happened differently. We're given an early glimpse of that through something terrible that Paul does and for which, it seems, he never truly feels any regret, except for the consequences to himself: there's always a sense with him after that that he is trying to live a life where that thing, and those consequences, never happened. (I didn't like Paul). Similarly, Jonathan Alkaitis accepts on one level that he has done wrong but still feels he shouldn't be punished and increasingly constructs a 'counter life', an alternate life, or lives, for himself, whether either he committed no crime, or didn't get caught, or fled in time, which over time becomes more and more real. Vincent finds her life with Jonathan so disorienting that 'she often found herself thinking about variations ion reality... she was struck sometimes by a truly unsettling sense that there were other versions of her life being lived without her, other Vincents engaged in different events'

Audaciously, St. John Mandel gives this sense of teeming other realities even more resonance by citing the events of her last book, Station Eleven. In The Glass Hotel, the 'Georgia Flu' is a thing but it has not become an existential threat. Imagine, one of our characters muses, if that happened? A reality in which 'the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn't been swiftly contained', in which it 'blossomed into an unstoppable pandemic and civilisation collapsed'.

That will not happen. We are given one vignette established to be twenty years or so in the future, and the world still has cocktail parties. Still, that whole world, those events, are implied in a moment - of course given even greater heft in our Covid-19 world which St John. Mandel couldn't have expected - all, for me, immediately making  this story richer, deeper. (Once you notice this, you begin to spot other allusions. For example, at a meeting of shipping executives the strategy is settled on of forming the 'Ghost Fleet' of unneeded freighters, at anchor off the cost of Malaysia, that also features in Station Eleven.)

In keeping with this openness to alternate viewpoints, alternate realities, the book speculates to itself about facts, rather in the manner of a court of law ('she was almost at the end of her shift when he walked in, which places the time of the meeting at somewhere around five or five thirty in the morning') with parts of it being given in the style of testimony. With Jonathan in prison, there has been a trial: at times he is giving his side of things to a journalist, at others the voice of the novel is a 'we' who speculated about events as well as giving a particular, self-serving viewpoint.

Related to the alternative viewpoints theme, another idea which is explored through the book is that of different worlds, overlapping (or not) occupied by different characters. Paul and Walter have both lived in Toronto but 'Paul's Toronto was younger, more anarchic, a Toronto that danced to the beat of music that Walter neither liked nor understood'. In Alkaitis's prison, these are referred to as 'cars' and there is one of people who will never be released, one of New Yorkers, and so forth. Elsewhere, we have the Kingdom of Money, which Vincent inhabits for a time, when she is with Alkaitis, and then has to leave. There is the Shadow Country, where the poor live - not just those with little or no money, but those who've cut adrift from the formal economy, travelling from seasonal job to season job in a recreational vehicle or hitching from truck-stop to truck-stop with the risks that entails. There are the ships' crews, people who have no permanent address on land anymore and, at the end of the book, there's Walter, living alone in the splendour of an empty hotel.

The hotel itself plays several roles in the story. Apart from bringing some of the main characters together, it represents, I think, a performance, a sort of con trick, that is repeated at different levels by different people through this book.The place makes no money. Built in a place so remote that it can only be reached by boat, it attracts the rich, those who want to experience the wilderness without its dangers or discomforts (again, overlapping worlds). It stands only so long as its owner, Alkaitis. He, in turn, stands only so long as everyone chooses to believe that he's not engaged in a massive financial fraud. It is, as one of his associates later claims, possible both to know something and not to know it at the same time. The hotel is both a massive white elephant and a much patronised and popular destination.

The writing in this book is simply gorgeous. St John Mandel has such an ability to convey character, whether it's an external perspective on someone we are seeing for the first time or a new wrinkle or quirk in a familiar figure revealed by an interaction (Vincent's decision, on meeting someone,  not to be 'one of those exhaustingly  mysterious people whom no one wants to talk to because they can't open their mouths without hinting at dark secrets that they can't quite bring themselves to reveal'). She has a knack for language and for the absurd or distinctive moments of life (a 'meeting that had outlived its natural lifespan but refused to die', someone 'disappearing into her phone', 'Harvey took the desk chair, Joelle sat ion the sofa, and they shredded evidence together. It was almost pleasant.') St John Mandel is also, in light of "recent events", right on the nose in so many places: '"There's something almost tedious about disaster," Miranda said. "...at first it's all dramatic... but then that keeps happening, it just keeps collapsing, and at a certain point..."'

I'd say this book has it all. It's so good I didn't want it to end, I just wanted to keep meeting these characters, exploring more realities, seeing them look backwards and forwards at what had been going on. I know I will return to it, because there is so much here.

Strongly recommended.






22 July 2020

Review - Malorie by Josh Malerman

Malorie (Bird Box, 2)
Josh Malerman
Orion, 21 July 2020
Available as: HB, 291pp
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781409193159

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Malorie via NetGalley.

Malorie is a sequel to Malerman's Birdbox. Birdbox has been made into a successful TV series. I haven't seen that, so if you haven't be warned, I may be inadvertently spoiling something for you! Though, if you haven't already read Birdbox, I think you should before you read Malorie or watch the series.

Malorie is set in the same world as Birdbox, a USA invaded by "creatures" seeing which sends the viewer into a frenzy leading them to kill others and then themselves. Wise people, "safe" people, live "by the fold" - swathing their eyes in cloth, never uncovering them or opening them unless they have explored their surroundings and are satisfied that no creature is present. People stay indoors, windows painted over, and distrust each other. For who knows who may have seen a creature?

The Malorie of the title is a young woman, who we saw previously navigate the new world, eventually to arrive at a school for the blind which provided her and her two kids a haven. The new book picks up this story six years later, and sees them forced to leave the school, setting up in an abandoned summer camp. Here, the horrors Malorie has experienced push her into a style of fierce, even over protective parenting. Tom, 16, and Olympia, 13 are bright children who have grown up in the new world. They understand the dangers, but they haven't faced the trauma Malorie has, of losing everything. Tom especially is restless and inventive and Malorie often has to tell him "no". Olympia - whose birth we saw in Birdbox - has her own secrets.

This is a short novel, and one I raced through over a couple of days. It's less about the practicalities of survival post-apocalypse than it is about the moral, psychological and cultural aspects. Malerman doesn't bother to explain where the food comes, from or precisely how it's possible for sighted people to survive while denying themselves that sense. More important is the sense of loss, of a world having been stolen away, the rage at the creatures that Malorie shows - but which she also feels at Gary, the man who broke up her previous sanctuary. Gary represents those who deny the threat posed by the creatures.

Reading all this during the time of covid  lockdown made the story come vividly alive for me. Everyone - everyone "safe" - is isolated, alone or in small groups, largely indoors. Contact with others is minimal, in case their sanity is compromised. Some wild people out there deny the situation, getting others into danger. And people wait - for what? For answers? For a solution (a vaccine?) Malerman can't have intended this but his timing seems impeccable.

Against this background, Malorie is very much a story about growing up, taking risks and letting go. Malorie the woman has sacrificed such a lot, been so hard on those kids and on herself, teaching them the lessons of survival she has learned so painfully herself. Of course they - or Tom at least - resent her (Olympia sees herself as a peacemaker between the other two). The story - essentially of how the sanctuary at camp Yadin ends and of what follows - is not hard to predict, but Malerman delivers it with such verve, such aplomb, that the pages blur past. Malorie, especially, comes out of those pages and speaks for herself: I felt such empathy with her, while also being appalled at much of what she is doing. Fixated on saving the "teens" from the creatures, she ignores or doesn't even imagine other problems and dangers: universal human problems, and very specific dangers. There were times when I was shouting to her, times when I was crying with her. It's that involving.

Tom and Olympia are also well drawn - over-confident, enthusiastic Tom, mature, self-controlled Olympia. Despite the weird circumstances they've grown up in and live in, Malerman makes them human, familiar, as growing teens and as people. You want to know more about them, you wish them the space to grow and flourish.

It's a superb book, carrying the story of Birdbox forward in new ways, supplying answers and hard lessons which are intimately built on what went before.

Strongly recommended.

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



21 July 2020

Review - Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

Scabby Queen
Kirstin Innes
4th Estate, 23 July 2020
Available as: HB, 385pp, e, audio
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9780008342296
Snap verdict: Just wow!

Scabby Queen is a beautiful patchwork of a book, told from multiple points of view and in multiple ways, covering a period of fifty years. It's a maze, a kind of intellectual (and emotional) pinball machine, bouncing back and forward, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. But it does all fit together - and the impact isn't so much from the glittering, zinging concept as from the warm, intimate, portrayals of people and relationships which Innes does with aplomb.

The book is about Cliodhna (Clio) Campbell, musician, activist, resident of a squat, Twitter warrior, a shooting star who blazes through peoples' lives to varying effect: inspiring, exasperating, exhausting. The one thing you can't do is ignore her. Springing to fame in the early 90s with her anti Poll Tax anthem, Rise Up! she's then written off as a one hit wonder but comes back again and again.

Clio's life is seen mainly through the numerous women and men who she touches. Some of the encounters are one offs - a nurse in a hospital, a passenger on a train - while some repeat (journalist Neil, Sammi - an ex-comrade in a Brixton squat and later in other settings, Clio's dad's friend Donald). Some are wholly positive: others reflect a wariness both on Clio's part and on those whose lives fall into her orbit. It sounds complicated (and must have been fiendishly difficult to write) but Innes orchestrates everything with great skill and the book carries the reader along through highs and lows, revealing, concealing, stripping layers back, adopting different viewpoints to give new perspectives on all these same relationships - and an ever richer, ever rounder, view of Clio herself. The book is  restless, like Clio, a woman who compels attention even in death: Scabby Queen opens with her suicide - not a spoiler, we learn this almost immediately - but mostly revels in her fierce and blazing life.

There are surprisingly few occasions in which we see Clio gives her own perspective: a desperately sad monologue to her husband as their short lived marriage folds; a self-justifying email; a couple of impassioned speeches. Apart from these we're left to build our picture of Clio from those around her - those who love and those who hate her. It's not a simple picture, but we get a powerful image of a charismatic woman, always in motion, always seeking. She has a hard time, with a fractured family background and an entry into the music industry at the height of the Loaded culture. (There are a few convincingly sexist articles by ubiquitous journal Pete Moss - wasn't that the name given to a prehistoric body found  in a Cheshire bog? That seems just about right.) There is also a touching scene where Clio tries, unsuccessfully, to warn an up-and-coming young female singer of the dangers (though it's very do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do). 

It's a typical scene for Clio, who would I think say if you asked her that she tried to live a life in solidarity. Of course that's easy to say - but life is messy and there are plenty of examples here where Clio's solidarity is misplaced, unwelcome or just badly timed. Innes ranges wide, following Clio's campaigning career. We see Poll Tax protests, Iraq war protests, the Scottish independence referendum, a squat in Brixton, weddings, parties, parties and more parties and the backstage view of band tours. There are so many stories here, so many threads - it isn't only Clio who comes to life but a host of other characters as well, with their regrets, traumas and compromises - and a whole generation of political activism (I loved the portrayal of the nurse who had come alive with the Referendum campaign). The book has a sharp eye for detail. There are insights on the politics of smoking, the class implications of presenting oneself well (it's OK for middle class crusties in a squat to look untidy: the working class, at least working class women in the west of Scotland circa 1990, can't afford it. Being allowed to be scruffy is just another manifestation of privilege), Clio's accent shifting from one social setting to another, and the differences in the way that women and men living unconventional lives are judged (the women will be judged, the men won't).

That, in the end, is at the heart of this book. There's an unspoken question, a judgement, hanging over Clio throughout - how would a man doing similar things be seen? Clio is constantly assessed, measured, weighed up by everyone around her - even those who are devoted to her - in a way that the men doing similar things aren't. Even men who do worse - awful - things (the book gets very dark in places). 

Clio gets frequent criticism. I suspect in real life she'd often be very annoying (ask Xanthe or Sammi) and she makes terrible mistakes. She is impulsive, she isn't following a plan and she sometimes scorches people who get too close. She is, though, in the end palpably, a person of integrity. And many near her, palpably, aren't.

Scabby Queen (the story refers to a card game which stands as something of a metaphor for Clio) is often sad, a story of missed chances, no, expired chances, a story of time bearing things away before we even know they were there (the backwards and forwards between the years makes this very poignant, giving us endings and beginnings commingled). It's also, and paradoxically, often gloriously uplifting. 

An enthralling book both creating a vivid portrayal of Clio and committing a wonderful hack into the backstage, backstreet underpinnings of the last three decades. Never sentimental, but with a whopping emotional punch, Scabby Queen is a great read.

For more information about Scabby Queen, and an intro from the author, see the 4th Estate website here.

14 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone

The Big Chill (Skelfs, 2)
Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books, 20 August 2020
Available as: PB, 309pp, e, audio
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9781913193348

I'm grateful to Anne at Random Things Tours and to Orenda Books for an advance copy of The Big Chill to consider for review and for inviting me to join the blogtour.

The Big Chill sees a swift, and welcome, return for the three generations of women in the Skelf family who run an undertakers/ detective agency in Edinburgh's genteel South Side. It may only be the second book in this series (after A Dark Matter) but I already love Johnstone's intricate, character-driven stories about grandmother Dorothy, daughter/ mother Jenny and granddaughter Hannah. And it's not only that I love Edinburgh, that Hannah is studying at my old University and Department, and that I used to live a stone's throw from their base. No, these are well observed, emotionally resonant stories built on the lives of three strongly-drawn, complex characters.

It's well established in detective fiction that there must be a death, preferably several, and these books are no exception. These deaths are not simply a puzzle to be solved but windows into unknown lives, lives which will then be explored and exposed.  Johnstone's setting, however, means he can use his fictional undertakers to deliver this while subverting expectations, giving us many, many deaths - without them all being crimes to be investigated. At a stroke, he polishes away the flaw of this genre - the unlikely number of murders, and the creation of (often women) victims - without lessening the mystery element, which comes both from the lives of the Skelfs' clients and their own emotionally complex lives.

Doug Johnstone
There's a lot here needing to be solved. Or at any rate, a lot which the three decide needs to be solved.

A young man driving a stolen car who gatecrashes one of the firm's funerals and ends up a client.

A teenage girl - one of Dorothy's drumming students - who vanishes and whose parents seem curiously unconcerned.

A widow finds, after this death, that her elderly husband had secrets.

Then there are loose ends from A Dark Matter for Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah. Hannah, in particular, is very traumatised by what happened in the earlier book (I will try not to spoil that for you if you haven't read it, but in return I'll expect you to go and read it NOW. OK?) I liked the fact that things aren't just reset from one book to another: Hannah is really struggling, showing signs of depression and trauma. For much of the book she's in pain, knowing that her behaviour is perhaps driving away girlfriend Indy but unable to stop (and consequently also burdened by guilt about how she's feeling and how she's treating Indy).

Dorothy and Jenny have regrets too, and there is the matter of Jenny's ex-husband Craig, a chaotic and threatening presence who should be off the scene but still looms large.  As we learn more about him than was spelled out in A Dark Matter, he assumes the character of the self-regarding, entitled man, obsessed with control over "his" women.

The story is told from the viewpoint of each of the three women as they go about their business, investigating one or more of the mysteries, preparing for funerals and, in Hannah's case, seeing her therapist or trying to keep up with her physics course. Johnstone writes each to see the world in a slightly different metaphorical way: so Hannah ponders on the eventual heat death of the universe (the "Big Chill" of the title) or wonders about quantum immortality, while Dorothy retreats to her drum loft and memories of her childhood in California. 

And Jenny - well, Jenny gets in a punch or two at Craig though that proves to be a mistake...

As I said before, I love these books. I love the minutiae of the women's lives, the human-sized mysteries on which they test their detective skills, the frank acceptance of death as a business (Johnstone spent time at an undertaker's and gives us lots of info about the business). I love the easy familiarity with Edinburgh, the memories that Jenny, in particular, triggers as she moves around the city. And I love the sense that despite the pressures, the three will be there for each other.

They're delightful books, filled with light, humanity and love - even amidst the corpses and embalming fluid. I hope this series lasts for many many more books.

For more information about The Big Chill, see the Orenda website here.

You can buy The Big Chill from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books (who support local shop(s), Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The tour continues! See the poster below for details of the marvellous reviews and features coming up (as well as the ones already out there).


11 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Neon by G S Locke

Neon
G S Locke
Orion, 9 July 2020
Available as: PB, 416pp, e
Read as: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781409190462

I'm grateful to Orion for an advance e-copy of Neon via NetGalley and for inviting me to take part in the Blogtour. 

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night...

This is a unique, deeply atmospheric and unsettling exploration of the dark side of an English city, with a great sense of place. It also hangs very precisely on the relationships of its protagonists which remained with me long after I'd finished the book.

The Neon killer craves attention and recognition. His victims are found posed, arranged, surrounded by handmade, unique neon signs taunting victims, police, the public. How this was done - amidst the hubbub of a busy city - is just as much a mystery as why and as by whom. Fear at the killer, and anger at the police who can't catch him, simmer as the killings progress...

Neon has as its principle characters Jackson, the washed up detective who's failed so far and whose failure culminated in the murder of his wife, Iris, a young woman moving in Birmingham's underworld - and the killer himself. We see the killer's life and motivations, the book slowly and steadily unpeeling him, but much of the mystery is retained as it isn't clear till the very end how he fits with Iris and Jackson - although he's clearly fixated on the latter.

All three are delineated well, Locke choosing to come into the story midway. There have already been several murders, Jackson is already off the case, morosely haunting coffee shops and nursing thoughts of self-destruction. This means, despite the sequence of violent and grisly killings, we don't experience the successive discovery of each. That gives the book a sense of pace and avoids repetition as well as distancing the story from glorifying violence against women, a danger I think with the serial-killer genre. This last was something I thought about quite a lot when reading Neon. Do we really need more such stories? In this case, I think Locke brings something new and distinct.

Yes, there are killings of women. Yes, Jackson is, by the time we meet him, motivated by revenge (though also by guilt). But this is balanced by the portrayal of the killer and his motivations as rooted - ultimately - in misogyny. That's a creepy and gradual portrait, done with great skill and all the better for the restraint used. We never actually see any of the murders take place, only the aftermath - unlike Iris who we do see kill several times. She is an efficient and sought-after contract killer, a complicating factor when she and Jackson come into each others' orbit and find they have no choice but to work together.

The relationship that then develops is rich and complex, both Jackson and Iris being wounded, both putting up fronts and playing parts. They depend upon each for reasons that we only partly understand - not because the book is imperfect but because there are so many depths here and it is so painful for both of them to be exploring those depths that it can only happen bit by bit. I'll just say that Iris is much more than just a hitwoman and Jackson has much more driving him than revenge.

In fact that relationship is what I'll take away from this book, even more than its portrayal of a moody and threatening Birmingham, just outside the blazing lights of the busy shopping streets,  stations and public buildings.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made...

You can buy neon from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books (who support local shops), Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon

For more about this book, see the publisher's website here. And there are more stops on the tour - see the poster below for details!



9 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Love Bites by Ry Herman

Love Bites
Ry Herman
Jo Fletcher Books, 9 July 2020
Available as: PB, 384pp, e
Read as: e-book via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781529406306

I'm grateful to Milly at Jo Fletcher books for an advance e-copy of Love Bites via NetGalley and for inviting me to take part in the Blog Blast.

CW: Love Bites, and so this review, includes themes of physical and emotional abuse and also suicide.

My review

Love Bites is an absorbing, modern romance novel that just happens to concern a vampire. In events set in and around Boston leading up to Christmas 1999 we see Chloë and Angela struggle with their pasts, with the ways they've been hurt, to imagine a future together.

Graduate astrophysics student Angela has escaped an abusive relationship with photographer Tess. Abusive, but formative: Tess very much shaped the person that Angela is, from her taste in clothes to her lifestyle. But Tess hurt Angela badly and Angela is concerned that she may inflict the same pain on others - if she gets too close. She may not be able to help herself. So she's wary when the pattern seems to be playing itself out again.

Publisher's reader Chloë has suffered from mental health problems. She is on medication, but sometimes harbours dark thoughts ('Gun, the thought enters her mind, unbidden. You could shoot yourself in the head. It'd be quick and simple.') Coming from a strictly religious background and having entered into a disastrous marriage, her self-esteem is often low. ('Cooking is too much of an effort, anyway. She's worthless.')

When the two women meet, it's bound to get complicated...

If that wasn't enough, Love Bites also introduces a (possibly) centuries old witch, who might play the role of fairy godmother here but then again she might just be talking rubbish, and an angel who seems to be branching out and setting up his own religion. We also see a lot of Chloë's workmate Shelley and her partner Mike - together the characters form a believable group (Herman has a knack of making the weird seem credible - maybe something to do with grounding the unbelievable in the dilemmas of everyday life - work, rent, relations with an ex, cat sitting) and in fact a very sympathetic one. The paranormal element is here but the meat and drink of the story (perhaps I should say the blood...) is relationships, not doomy overcoming-supernatural-evil. I enjoyed that.

I liked the notes that one character penned in seeking to understand her, totally inexplicable, staten of being. What are the limits now being a vampire? What can you safely do and not do? How many of the myths are true? Subjected to a scientific investigation, maybe there might be answers... or maybe just more frustration.

There is also some sharp writing here, from scene setting as our protagonists go about their daily lives ('Brookline is still sleepy, not yet hurrying along in the caffeinated press of rush hour', 'She is, after all, young and over-educated') to the intoxication of a new relationship ('She's young and in love and dancing') to some very tender sex scenes (not going to quote) to the sadness of a chilly family (Chloë's parents, whose main reaction to her attempted suicide is irritation that have to pay for the ambulance). It also has a great, if chilling, exposition of the progress of an abusive relationship leading up to 'And then, once day, when she slaps you...'

There's a lot of fear here, and guilt, and a hope to be better but honest doubt whether you can be and whether it is fair, or just demanding, to seek forgiveness. And risk and trust and the potential, perhaps for new starts, not knowing all the answers but seeking honestly to find them. It's funny in places ('It gives him the vague impression that he's a member of a depressed drum-and-bugle corps. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Goth Club Band') but can turn poignant in a flash ('Sweat is already soaking the ridiculously impractical waist cinched dress Tess is having her wear today', 'She can't spend her life not trusting anybody'). 

It's a heady mix and a book I greatly enjoyed. Do try it. (It would also, I think, make a great Christmas present for just the right person...)


About the Author

Born in the US, Ry Herman is now a permanent Scottish resident, and has been writing theatrical plays for most of his life. He's worked at a variety of jobs, including submissions editor, theatre technician, and one job which could best be described as typing the number five all day long. He acts and directs and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. He is bisexual and genderqueer. Hobbies include baking bread, playing tabletop roleplaying games, and reading as many books as humanly possible. Ry is based in Edinburgh.


You can buy Love Bites from your local bookshop or online from Hive Books, who support local bookshops, Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

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


7 July 2020

Review - Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air by Jackson Ford

Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air (Frost Files, 2)
Jackson Ford
Orbit, 9 July 2020
Available as: PB, 502pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780356510460

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

Whew. What a chase...

Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air (the asterisk is part of the title, not censorship by me) is a welcome return to the messed up LA of Teagan Frost. This book is the second in the series, following The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with her Mind, in which Teagan's already bizarre world was turned upside down and one of her closest friends killed. Do stop and read that first if you haven't, because there are some major spoilers for the first book here. 

Still with me? 

OK, well, if you have read Girl you'll know that book was basically A Bad Day for Teagan Frost, and so you won't be surprised that Teagan is about to have Another Very Bad Day at work. If you think your working life has been hard over the past few months, then let Teagan show you just how much worse it can get. Of course, to match her, you'd have to have psychokinetic powers courtesy of experiments on you by your parents; to have been arrested and imprisoned in a Secret Government Lab; and then to have been released on licence, with the condition that you use those powers For Good as part of a team disguised as furniture removers, who break and enter, plant bugs, and retrieve all sorts of dodgy stuff for said Government.

In Random Sh*t the impact goes wider than in Girl, placing Teagan's beloved city of LA in danger (and indeed, the threat goes further). This is in many respects a more focussed story than the first one, essentially a chase in which the China Shop, the cover name for Teagan's team, receives blow after blow - while still not having recovered from the events of the first book - even as they're needed more than ever.  All the time, they must keep on the trail, against a ticking clock, hampered by the chaos that's already been caused, tired, hungry and depleted in numbers.

Ford limits the viewpoints here, keeping the story very simple and very intense. We see Teagan's extended (and increasingly frantic) narration, and those of the two antagonists, and that's just about all - but this allows Ford to spend a lot of time developing their characters. Teagan is, as before, a mass of contradictions: still mourning Carlos, despite what he did to her, ambivalent about boyfriend (or not-boyfriend?) Nic (I don't like Nic. He's not the man Teagan needs.) She is impulsive, swears (a lot) that she's relaxed at and reconciled to her messed up life history (she's not) and still dreaming of opening that restaurant. She tends to treat all those around her very badly, and is given a few home truths, but it's hard to hold it against her, especially given the pressure she's under here

The two people that Teagan and her crew end up hunting... I don't want to say too much about them. There's a complex relationship there. One of the two is a young boy, albeit a gifted young boy, and Ford captures that perfectly, I think: the transitions from vulnerability and need to howling monsterdom (that's any young child but the circumstances here add a new dimension of menace to his tantrums).  The other is his mother, who's definitely had the dirty end of the stick in life and again, I think the mixture of love, roiling guilt, the absence of perspective, were all very true to life for a parent of any young child: with an added dimension here.

The story is, as I have said, basically a chase. Time is running short, and disaster looms. We know from fairly early on what the stakes are, so there's little mystery. Rather, the tension comes from the volatile mix of characters and the roles they're cast in. Teagan, who faces an awful moral dilemma. Annie, who's been hurt badly and wants revenge. The boy and his mother. The friends and relatives whose location is unknown due to a catastrophe feature, not part of the story but exerting a pull on everyone, distracting attention and energy. It's a very well imagined, scary portrayal of a disaster and the very human reactions to it that you'd get.

Behind all this, Ford IS advancing the deeper premise of these novels, with some new facts revealed and a couple of characters coming onto the scene who I'm sure will appear again - enigmatic German tech billionaire Jonas Schmidt; the mysterious Director; and more. Together they hint at new directions for China Shop, new enemies and allies perhaps and - worst of all - new emotional blows for Teagan, as if the poor woman hadn't already been through enough.

Just can't wait for the next book...

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


6 July 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith

The Waiting Rooms
Eve Smith
Orenda, 9 July 2020
Available as: PB, 378pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781913193263

Today I'm joining the blog tour for the timely near-future thriller The Waiting Rooms. I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a gifted advance copy of the book to consider for review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part.

I have to say this is the most on-point topical novel I'd read for a long time. While it's clearly unintended - who would have known? - much of the setting, this would have seemed chilling and strange when written, has turned out - well. Chilling, but perhaps not so strange.

In a near-future world, extreme precautions are taken to avoid infection. Facemasks are work routinely. We see one of the protagonists, Kate, a nurse, clean and disinfect herself before she can leave the closed ward. Hand sanitiser features. Special measures are taken with the elderly, whether in hospital or care home. I spotted a reference to the R-number! It must have been strange for Smith to see this imagined, different world come solidly real - even though part of the point of the book is, I think, to warn.

This isn't actually a world menaced by covid-19 but by multi-drug resistant (and, I think, aggressively mutated) strains of bacteria. As part of the desperate measures necessary to eke out the remaining antibiotics, the over-70s ("elderly") are denied these drugs, making routine operations impossible and minor injuries almost always fatal. As the end nears they are removed to "Hospitals for the Elderly" where the only treatment is pain relief, and for those who have signed an advance directive, euthanasia. Kate works in one of these places, her job taking its toll.

The other main character who we spend time with is Lily, a woman approaching her 70th birthday - a bittersweet age. Lily reflects on her life and lost love, her memories taking her back to South Africa just before the end of apartheid and to her relationship with a married man, Piet. As we go back and forth we gradually learn that Lily has secrets, that she has been notorious and may still be hated by some. The unfolding of this story and the place that Kate has in it is well down, the truth being revealed slowly but with plenty of clues for the elate reader to work out what's gone on. The portrayal of Lily is I think excellent - she has guilt and regrets but remember s happy times - and it's good to see a main character who isn't young, indeed who is suffering form the effects of age yet who is still determined to control her own life and destiny.

Kate is remarkable too: also the focus of hatred and protests gather against the treatment of the elderly, also prone to guilt and hit by grief but equally determined to do her duty and give those entrusted to her care as gentle an end as she can. There are also mysteries about Kate and both women, to a degree, play detective - they are entwined in the story of their times, which may be different from what is generally believed. The relationship between Kate and her daughter Sasha is tenderly and I think truthfully described, Kate's husband Mark being less in focus: this is a book where relations between women of different generations are first and foremost, Smith taking the space to develop their characters and to come back and back to the same dilemmas of loss, grief, love and guilt again and again form different angles, each time adding something new to the rich layer cake of this excellent book.

Behind it all is an urgent message - we are facing a crisis of antibiotic resistance. The way that the business of drug development is set up means it's more profitable for the drug combines to provide medicines for chronic - long term - conditions (cancer, heart conditions) than new antibiotics. The antibiotics will be used sparingly to preserve their effectiveness: drugs for chronic conditions will be used long term. At one point this is discussed in the book and someone, Piet I think, says that what's needed are tax incentives - well there are tax incentives (I designed some of them!) but it doesn't change the commercial realties. And meanwhile, in a perfect example of natural selection, the bacteria that survive to pass on their genes are those the antibiotics can't kill, and so it goes. This is a problem I learned about when I did A level biology - I won't tell you how long ago that was, but it's long enough that something should have been done by now.

I hope that the strange, and slightly scary, coincidence of this book's publication with our current pandemic situation - and again, as you see the sequence of events described here, from concerts blamed for seeding the drug resistant strain of TB to an order from the Prime Minister to stay at home, and subsequent economic collapse - will focus minds, because they need to be focused. I'm sure Eve Smith wouldn't have been expecting to be writing a book quite so timely in one sense, even as she clearly knew - read the research cited here - how timely it would be in quite another.

All in all an important, serious book but also an absorbing one with a tremendous emotional thump - as I read the final part I think I got something in my eye - and one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about the book, see the Orenda Books website here. And read the reviews! There is more to come on the tour and some cracking reviews already out there. See the poster.

You can buy The Waiting Rooms from your local bookshop (who really need your business right now) or online from Hive Books (who support high street bookshops), Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.



2 July 2020

Review - The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

The Constant Rabbit
Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton, 2 July 2020
Available as: HB, 306pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781444763621

I'm grateful to Hodder for an advance copy of Jasper Fforde's new novel, The Constant Rabbit, to consider for review.

A new Jasper Fforde novel is always an Event and I was very pleased to have a chance to read this one ahead of time. It's a stand-alone book, set in an alternate present very like our own - a present suffering from many of the same problems as we do, in particular a resentment at difference. Fforde has personified this in the national response to anthropomorphised rabbits. Some fifty years before the events of the novel, an Event gave a small number of rabbits human traits, including size, the ability to speak and vaguely human physiology. Rabbits doing what rabbits do, there is now a large population of them, drawn from three distinct strains of rabbit: lab, pet, and wild. The nature of the Event is never precisely explained, although its purpose is discussed several times and in a self-referential moment is described as possibly being satirical:

"'It's further evidence of satire being the engine of the Event,' said Connie, 'although if that's true, we're not sure for whose benefit.' 
'Certainly not humans', said Finkle, since satire is meant to highlight faults in a humorous way to achieve betterment, and if anything, the presence of rabbits has actually made humans worse.'"

Anyway, humanity being what humanity is, there is a lot of resentment in some quarters at the rabbits and wild talk of a "litter bomb", an explosion of breeding that will overwhelm the island. Anti-rabbit laws have been passed at the behest of the powerful "UK Anti-Rabbit Party" (UKARP) and its leader Mr Nigel Smethwick, and persecution is stirring. Rabbits have even been "jugged" by the goons of Two Legs Good, a gammony sort of direct action movement, and the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce (RabCoT) established to police where rabbits can live and what they can do.

It's against this background that our protagonist, Peter Knox, and his daughter Pippa, see a family of rabbits - actress Connie (the inspiration behind the rabbit in the Cadbury's Caramel ads), her husband, war hero Doc and their children Bobby and Kent - arrive at the vacant house next door. Much Hemlock is a quiet, inward looking Middle English village where the most exciting things that ever happen are Speed Librarianing and the annual Spick and Span contest. It's also, naturally, a bastion of anti-rabbit prejudice so the rabbits aren't welcome, and Peter is approached to offer them money to leave - with an unspoken threat that if they won't, 2LG may step in. For Peter it's a complication too many as he actually works undercover for RabCoT as a spotter (most humans can't tell one rabbit from another, but Peter is the rare exception). The pressure from his neighbours puts him in an awkward position personally (he has nothing against rabbits) and professionally (it may blow his cover: spotters, once outed, have been targets for rabbit sympathisers).

Fforde develops the central concept well, giving the rabbits a well-realised, if baroque, culture focussed on adultery, duelling and hallucinogenic carrots with their own religion and prophet (the "Bunty") and integrating events closely with actual history. The background of discriminatory law, unequal wages and exploitation is also consistent and convincing with a sinister plan to relocate the rabbit population to a "MegaWarren" complete with barbed wire fence, workshops and its own rail spur. The story that then reveals itself to us is essentially a thriller, with the rabbits menaced by various nasties (but with plans for resistance of their own) and Peter caught between his job and pressure from his neighbours on the one hand and his guilt and what's going on - and desire for Mrs Connie Rabbit (an old friend) on the other.

It's all very well done, and has the characteristic Fforde humour and sense of the bizarre. I don't know of any other writer who is as good at making the frankly incongruous seem plausible. Perhaps it's the footnotes or the the way that everything which isn't incongruous is so, well, naturalistic. In the case of this book, all of that gets an extra dose of credibility as a poke at the attitudes behind Brexit (with the odd sideswipe at other modern villains such as Donald Trump). All very entertaining.

And yet. The concept did make me uneasy at times. Perhaps it's the idea of satirising racial prejudice, prejudice against people - for surely that's what this is - by setting up a society of animals, albeit talking, thinking animals, as the victims of discrimination. And the associations the MegaWarren conjures up...
I found myself wondering whether the whole concept actually helped make a point about prejudice and the way that a minority can be persecuted, or whether it actually got in the way of that point? 

Maybe it's the timing, which couldn't have been foreseen - a summer of Black Lives Matter protests making the same point in a much more vivid and compelling way than any fiction, however satirical, could achieve and possibly making a treatment like this seem as though it's trivialising the issue which I'm sure isn't the intention?

Perhaps I am overthinking. The Constant Rabbit is, if nothing else, thought provoking. And it is firmly engaged with contemporary life. It's often funny, contains a number of well-spun mystery threads, and the ending was for me genuinely poignant. In addition to all that the book does something with one character which almost literally took my breath away. I can't tell you much about it because this is one occasion when knowing what's going will absolutely ruin the point but if you read the book, you will realise gradually that there are things you're not being told... directly. And when you do you'll agree, I hope, that you didn't need to be and that the story and the characters actually work better without. It's very impressive both for how Fforde does what he does and for the fact that he does it. 

But I'm babbling now. You'll have to read the book for yourself for this to make any sense, I'm saying no more.

For more information about The Constant Rabbit, see the publisher's website here.

30 June 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 30 June 2020
Available as: HB, 301pp, e
Read as: e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781529402650

I'm grateful to Milly at Jo Fletcher Books for an advance e-copy of Mexican Gothic via NetGalley and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the authors whose next book I always look forward to. Apart from anything else she's so versatile - this year we've already had an excellent Mexican noir from her (Untamed Shore), while last year saw her previous novel for Jo Fletcher Books, the 1920s Mexican-set fantasy Gods of Jade and Shadow (which you should read, if you haven't already).

Now we have - well, the title says it all, Mexican Gothic.

Mexico City, 1950. A young socialite, Noemí Taboada, is summoned from the latest party by her father and instructed to sort out a tricky family problem. Recently married cousin Catalina is unwell, and Naomí's father - who is also Catalina's guardian - wants Naomí to investigate. I loved the way Moreno-Garcia establishes both Naomí's self-possession - she is a confident young woman who knows what she wants and how to present herself to get it ('Naomí' looked a bit like Katy Juarado when she struck the right pose, and of course she knew what exact angle to strike') - and her place within wider Mexican society: a student of anthropology, in no hurry to be married (though she enjoys partying and social life, she's in no hurry to commit to any of the boys who are interested in her).

Noemí travels to the remote (and somewhat faded) town of El Triunfo outside which stands High Place, the home of the Doyle family into which Catalina has married. The Doyles are English and refuse to speak Spanish: they made their fortune mining silver, though the mine is now derelict and they have fallen on hard times (hence the alliance with Noemí's own wealthy family). This is a genuinely Gothic setting: High Place is a decayed mansion full of mouldering rooms and dust-sheeted furniture. There's a family graveyard wreathed in mist, a collection of hostile relatives - in particular matriarch Florence who present Noemí with a list of rules: no smoking, no noise, no visits to El Triunfo, limited contact with Catalina - and a series of mysteries: about the house, the family, and Catalina's physical and mental health.

There was a bit of a flavour here, I thought, of Cold Comfort Farm in the contrast between the modern young woman and the benighted Doyles, but unfortunately the inhabitants of High Place aren't to be easily reformed and the tension between them and Noemí fairly crackles. You can't miss the extent to which they cling to their Englishness: the family has been in Mexico for decades yet they doggedly speak English and maintain a Victorian outlook on life. It's easy to read this as a commentary on colonialism and post-colonialism, the source of the family's wealth having dried up and their whole purpose having been swept away by civil war and revolution even while they maintain their peculiar forms and customs, their foreignness clear in Mexico (they 'even brought European earth here').

Noemí is, as I have said, confident. She's used to getting her own way, both within her family and, as a wealthy young woman, in society more widely. ('She had experience dealing with irritating men'). Yet she may have met her match in the Doyles: older, established, arrogant and even rude in that specific way the English upper class still has, even in decay. ('You are much darker than your cousin, Miss Tabadoa'). It's clear there's a struggle for control going on here. Noemí is isolated, without allies, and doesn't have a clue what is happening. Because there is certainly something very sinister going on. As Noemí unravels the tragic family history of the Doyles, based on portraits, tombstones and fragments of stories she manages to collect in the town, it becomes clear that tragedy has followed them for generations with more than one untimely death. But how does this relate to what's happening to Cataline - and Noemí - now?

The unfolding of the story, with the creepy Gothic atmosphere growing thicker and thicker, combines with Noemí's growing doubts and fears, makes for an exciting and compulsive read. The family members present different threats, different challenges, from the haughty Florence to the monstrously unpleasant patriarch Howard to the smoother Virgil, Catalina's husband ('He was, likely, not used to being refused. But then, many men were the same.') I found myself torn between wanting Noemí to press them harder, to discover more, and fear of what might happen if she did. There's something dangerously unstable in the Doyle household with its devotion to eugenics, to taxonomical classification and to understanding the right place for every one, with its almost captive family members - younger son Francis has never travelled further than El Triunfo and seems almost hypnotically controlled by Florence and Virgil - and a history of violence gradually emerges.

While there's clearly something very wrong here, Moreno-Garcia kept me guessing almost till the end about the nature of the threat in High Place and about how that might influence a possible romance. Dark, scary, Romantic and deeply, deeply Gothic this is a remarkable book and an intense read. It's one I'd strongly recommend.

You can buy Mexican Gothic from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, which supports local shops, Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here - and the reviews on the other tour sites, listed on the poster below!




23 June 2020

Review: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by HG Parry


Cover design by
Lisa Marie Pompilio
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians
HG Parry
Orbit, 25 June 2020
Available as: PB, 516pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9780356514703

Snap verdict: It's complicated...

(CW for mention of enslavement and enslaved people).

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians.

Following up The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heap, which saw literary characters escape their bindings to cause trouble in New Zealand, Parry's A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians focuses on a very different kind of mayhem in late 18th century West Africa, France, Britain and the Caribbean.

It's an absorbing and at times harrowing historical fantasy. Parry imagines a whole overlay of magical oppression that reinforces the racial and cultural oppression of the period, and integrates it all into a history which well reflects - to this non-historian reader - the atmosphere, personalities and events of the time. It is very well done, making for an intriguing and, ultimately, engaging narrative. This is a book I enjoyed reading, although I do have some reservations - which I'll come to shortly. 

First, though, what is going on in A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians

Well, to begin with, a young (six years old) girl is kidnapped in West Africa, enslaved, and trafficked to the Caribbean. She comes to be known as Fina, although that's the name her enslavers give her, not her real name.

A few years later, in Europe, magic is forbidden to Commoners. Nevertheless a young French boy, Camille Desmoulins, summons shadows and finds himself in trouble with the magical authorities. Provincial lawyer Maximilien Robespierre seeks to defend a young Commoner accused of a trivial act of magic. Barrister William Pitt does the same in London. We are also introduced to William Wilberforce, a young Englishman and a friend of Pitt, who is seeking a purpose in life. Perhaps he will join the Knights Templar who enforce the anti-magic laws?

Fina, landed in Jamaica, is subjected to magical control on a planation and to decades of backbreaking physical toil. Meanwhile the relationship between Wilberforce and Pitt develops as the former takes up the cause of ending slavery and the latter becomes Prime Minister. Robespierre rises through the ranks of revolutionaries as France teeters on the brink. Things come to a crisis as enslaved Africans in the French colony of Saint-Domingue rise in revolt, France declares itself a Republic and frees its magicians, and war with the United Kingdom looms - a war which will challenge all the constraints on magic that currently obtain in Europe.

As I have said, I enjoyed this book which is engaging and informative. Wilberforce and Pitt, on the one hand, and Robespierre, Desmoulins, Danton and the rest on the other, are of course real characters and as far as I am aware their "history" presented here in considerable detail is accurate (up to a factor of magic, obviously). Similarly while Fina is, I assume, an invested character, what happens to her is clearly representative of a wider catastrophe for Africa and its people (again, setting aside the magic).

It's impossible to ignore the fact that the book comes with almost spooky timing, being published only a few weeks after the toppling in Bristol of a notorious enslaver's statue during a Black Lives Matter protest (and amidst wider ongoing protest and debate). That makes it very of the moment, something that might not stand out so much if it was less rare for fantasy to deal with real world issues like this (it is getting less rare, but not yet so much that a book like this won't attract some attention for that reason). It's good to see a fantasy novel that avoids being another "Regency magic" story, engaging instead with the unpleasant realities of the period. I also enjoyed the focus given to the slave rebellions which are fully acknowledged as a source of freedom, as well as Wilberforce's Parliamentary efforts. 

However, I would qualify this a bit, for a couple of reasons. 

First, Pitt, Wilberforce, Robespierre et al get a lot more attention than Fina and her comrades. So there is exhaustive focus on the developments in the Parliamentary campaign against slavery, including lengthy (generally late night, well oiled) political and philosophical discussions between Pitt and Wilberforce, and equally detailed material on Robespierre's politics and actions. 

Meanwhile Fina's story - which covers some twenty years in contrast to a handful of years for the others - gets rather brief updates. It clicked with me about halfway through the book that this is because the book is primarily about the evolving relationship - politically and as friends - between Pitt and Wilberforce and about how these very different men cooperate to tackle slavery. It's a sign of how good Parry's writing is that the lengthy discussions between them are actually very, very interesting and the characters and humanity of the two men come fully alive. I have no idea how true they are to the reality, but as an able, energetic and principled Prime Minister, Parry's William Pitt certainly shines in contrast to more recent holders of the office, and Wilberforce's religious motivation is given respect and space to develop. The strain of realpolitik on this relationship and its eventual fracture is also a powerful theme. (Pitt as Prime Minister must pay attention to the practicalities and wider while Wilberforce, as a freewheeling idealist, need not). However, this does mean that while Fina and her comrades and their rebellion are in the end key to the story, it in in no way centred on them. 

There is also the place of the magic. Magic features here in several ways. As there are harsh laws in Europe against "commoners" using magic, and harsh punishments for breaking those laws, the position  of magicians as an oppressed group adds a new factor to, especially, the pre-revolutionary situation in France. Accordingly, when the Republic is declared it is "The French Republic of Magicians" (though most of the citizens are not actually magicians). 

Similarly, magic is used to control Fina and the other enslaved people, who are forced to consume an alchemical compound that robs them of their will (this is in addition to the chains and whips that feature in historical slavery). But in neither case is the outcome very different from the historical one (oppression stokes a bloody revolution in France and a harsh and exploitative slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean). For much of the book the magic is, in a sense, superfluous. While well thought out, it doesn't seem to be adding anything essential to the story or making a difference to it, except in the detail. 

In the end, it turns out that isn't quite right and I came to understand why parry has added magic to this version of the 18th century. it is there for a reason, rather than simply to drive a kind of "What if...?" game, and it does affect the fates of Fina, Pitt, Wilberforce, Robespierre and the rest. Moreover in the final few pages of the book (but almost not until then) we see that it will affect the future of San Domingue and of Europe. That's tantalising, though, because the story closes almost as soon as this is established. I think I smell a possible sequel and I hope that comes, because I really want to see how things play out and how characters who have been established so vividly might go forward into what looks like a much more magically-shaped world.

Overall, this is a powerful book with powerful themes. It wasn't perhaps quite the book I had expected but in discovering what it actually was I had a very enjoyable read.

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