26 October 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Greyfriars Reformatory by Frazer Lee

Greyfriars Reformatory
Frazer Lee
Flame Tree Press, October 2020
Available as: HB, 231pp, PB, e
Source: Advance review copy
ISBN: 9781787584754

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Greyfriars Reformatory to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me too take part in the blogtour.

'You will learn...'

Six young women, in handcuffs and leg irons, on a prisoner transport bus, heading for the isolated Greyfriars Reformatory

Our (self-confessedly unreliable) narrator, Emily, admits it's not her first time there, but she doesn't 't recall the specifics. She has acute dissociative disorder and tells us she's been institutionalised all her adult life (but then, she is only 19).

The others - Saffy, Jessica, Lena, Annie, Victoria - well, we will learn what they did, but we don't know it yet and it's not wise to ask.

For now, here they are, in a bleak, remote institution.  Locks are scarcely necessary, there's nowhere to run to and the climate isn't kind. The only member of staff appears to be Principal Quick, who quickly imposes her will on the girls, demanding obedience, inflicting punishments, doling out the pitiful meals, organising exercise classes. The whole setup is shifty somehow, odd, troubling. 

Especially troubling is the situation Emily finds herself in when mean girl Saffy proclaims she's the real authority at Greyfriars, the real Principal. If Emily's useful, she'll be OK. If not, she'll suffer (even more than she already is doing). So a watchful, tense period commences, a period where every verbal exchange, every little snub, is directed at establishing or challenging status. Lee depicts the nuances of the relationships, the changing alliances, spiteful outbursts and secrets, convincingly and this part of the book is strung as tight as a bow: one expects catastrophe at any moment. The story mainly follows Emily, as I have said, so she's the reader's most immediate concern but Lee also gives us chapters from the viewpoints of the other girls, revealing the sadness of their lives, their desperation, guilt and self-delusion. 

I found myself sympathising with them all, often the apparently most vicious. One could see, in the little stories, how things were going to go. It's hard to see even those who have done awful things as the truly guilty ones. Misogyny, abuse and exploitation abound. These young women shouldn't be in a place like Greyfriars, an experimental institution whose methods seem flaky - to be polite - and one where other dangers lurk, beyond the pack hierarchy, the cold, and the appalling food. 

As those dangers do emerge - with plenty of glimpses and warnings that all is not well, this is a horror novel! - the girls have to decide whether to trust one another or to continue to try and use one another. Ill-fitted by their histories to trust, it doesn't look hopeful for them at all, unless somebody can work out what the secret of Greyfriars is.

I loved this book - it has lashings of bleak Gothic horror, strongly drawn characters and a claustrophobic atmosphere, but the story is grounded in acts of injustice and betrayal which see disturbingly realistic and which have a terrible impact on all here. It's the kind of book that, once started, you have to finish and one with a keen  tang of modern horror. Perfect for these darkening evenings.

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

To buy the book, try your local bookshop, or if you want to go online, Hive Books, who support local bookshops. It's also available from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The tour goes on! See the poster below for some splendid bloggers who will be giving Greyfriars some attention in the coming days.



25 October 2020

#Blogtour #Review - After Sundown edited by Mark Morris

After Sundown
ed by Mark Morris
Flame Tree Press, October 2020
Available as: HB, 256pp, PB, audio, e
Source: advance review copy
ISBN: 9781787584570

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of After Sundown to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

I love a good collection of horror stories. There's something about the short form that, to me, makes it the ideal vehicle for horror: while there are many excellent full length horror novels, there are also many that - due to their length - can't sustain the necessary tension, or are vulnerable to the irritated reader's call for the characters to do the sensible thing, whatever that is. In shorter stories, we can be carried away, lost to the dreadful thing, whatever it is, before there's time for such alarms and second thoughts.

This is a good collection of horror stories. It has some authors I recognised and know to be renowned writers of such fiction, others I was less familiar with. There is a broad range of themes: creepy children, environmental horror, human irrationality or evil, folk horror, the classic Jamesian trope of a man of letters who is haunted by an object, stories of revenge from beyond the grave, strange abandoned (and spooky) settings, the plan weird - and more. Together the stories chill, and if there are authors here you haven't read before (it would be hard to have read them all) it's an excellent jumping off point to their various bodies of work.

Inevitably, I enjoyed some stories more than others: my favourite was perhaps Same Time Next Year by Angela Slatter which opens with Cindy sitting on a tomb in a country cemetery just after sunset. She can't remember quite how she got there, or where she belongs, but there is a suggestion of violence, of trauma, in what she does recall. Even that name isn't hers - it was given to her by a boy who treated her badly. If she stays where she is, something bad is going to happen, for sure. We hope she'll be alright. I found this a perfect gem of a story, comprising equally a mystery, rising tension about what was going to happen next, and empathy for the sad central character.

I also really enjoyed Swanskin by Alison Littlewood, a chilling take set in a remote coastal town, where the boozy, rollicking behaviour of the town's men turns out to have a direct link to their abuse of nature and of their womenfolk. But nature can have a way of redressing the balance. Set at some indeterminate time which could be anywhere in the past two hundred years, this one has the feeling of a classic.

Bokeh by Thana Niveau also really impressed. "Bokeh" is a Jananese word, used to describe the out of focus parts of an image - the smeared background, or dancing globes of light. In this story, Vera begins to experience it in real life. Perhaps she needs glasses? But what does that have to do with daughter Keeley's bloodthirsty fantasies about her toys? 

The remaining stories are, though, all very strong and variety means that everyone will find something to appreciate (unless you don't like horror in which case, well no, this might not be for you). 

Horror is, perhaps, though, relative. In Butterfly Island by CJ Tudor, we meet a group of protagonists who have already experienced a collapsing world due to disease, natural disaster and war. Still, the modern world provides them with enough support to live a debauched existence in and around a beach bar. You have thought they would hang on to what they had rather than run the risk of a boat trip to a deserted island... a good story to open the collection with, Butterfly Island shows that things can always, improbably, get worse.

What's the worst thing you can do to an author? In Research, Tim Lebbon seems to be saying it's to interrupt them when about to finish a novel. In fact his neighbours Sue and Alan have darker plans. This one is classic horror, showing the darkness that can lie behind suburban windows.

In contrast, That's the Spirit by Sarah Lotz is an almost comic tale of fraudulent psychics scratching a living from the gullible bereaved, Underneath the humour there's a grim theme - how far to go, what lines to cross, who to dupe? What does that do to you and what might the consequences be? Deceptively charming, this one has a real chill in its tail.

Horror can take many forms, from supernatural to natural disaster to smaller, more intimate tales of destruction and terror. Gave by Michael Bailey blends the latter two, being set in a future world where the population is, inexplicably, falling (having peaked at 17 billion or so). The impact of the deaths is counterpointed with one elderly man's desperation to donate blood, almost as though he's trying to push back the time of dying even as he like everyone watches the falling population numbers in real time. There's something weird about the focus on blood, blood groups, on lost kids and lost lives. Like the best horror this doesn't try to explain what is going on and leaves one to speculate.

Ramsey Campbell is of course one of the masters of the genre. In his Wherever You Look, we see another author suffer a dreadful fate. If, as in Research, interrupting the writing process must be one nightmare for an author, here is another - finding something in your stories that you don't remember putting there. Is Maurice Lavater being accused of plagiarism at the start of this tale? Or... something worse? I found the passage where he hunted through his writings, finding things he never recalled but which grew to make a ghastly kind of meta logic, truly chilling.

Elana Gomel's Mine Seven is another story with an environmental focus, taking us to the icy (if melting) wastes of Svalbard. Lena has, in a sense, come home to the land of her ancestors - although she's less enthusiastic than her partner Bill and would really prefer to sit in the library of the winter lodge and read than hare about the countryside dodging Polar bears and viewing the Northern Lights. Pity Bill didn't take her advice...

It Doesn't Feel Right by Michael Marshall Smith is a fraught story about a young couple having behavioural problems with their sometimes truculent, sometimes loving, five year-old son. Having been there myself (and yes, they grew up reasonably well adjusted) my stress levels rose quickly through this story, anticipating all the things that might go wrong - but I didn't guess the truly horrific twist that was coming.

Laura Purcell's Creeping Ivy is a very traditional form of ghost (or monster?) story, with the variation that we are I think cheering on the ghost/ monster. The end is not really a surprise but rather something to anticipate with relish. Purcell's writing is, as ever, spot on, creating a whole world in a few pages.

Last Rites For The Fourth World by Rick Cross returns to the environmental theme in what is a strange story, ranging across a number of locations where we see... well, strange things. Strange dead things. The horror is less a personal trial, a spooky location or ancient evil but a situational nightmare, a crisis we are all embroiled in but can't alter. A thing you can't run from or keep at bay with wards or garlic.  

In We All Come Home by Simon Bestwick, Robert Lennox returns to Wardley New Hall - the site of a mysterious trauma in his childhood whose memory her has suppressed - in an attempt to find healing and to move on. But is it ever wise to go bavck?

The Importance of Oral Hygiene by Robert Shearman will really hit a nerve if you're a fear of dentists... a creepy Victorian-set story with themes of abuse - don't read just before your next appointment!

I've enjoyed Grady Hendrix's horror novels but hadn't read any of his short stories. Murder Board is a chilling piece about Caroline and her ageing rockstar husband David's dabbling with a Ouija board is simply perfect, tapping into the idea of a Faustian bargain: we know things will go wrong - this is a horror story - but Hendrix manages to keep the reader guessing almost till the end as to just what.

I'm glad it's not just me who thinks the whimsicality of Lewis Carroll's Alice only a hair's breadth away from truly unsettling horror. I'vc seen whole anthologies dedicated to that idea, but it remains something I'm deeply fascinated by and Alice's Rebellion by John Langana scratched that itch. Langana's story recognises that a ruler who calls for their opponent's head to be offed is really not a Nice Person and imagines a familiar figure in that role... who are the monstrous Tweedledum and Tweedledee of today?

The Mirror House by Jonathan Robbins Leon sees English literature professor Stephanie give up her independence and her career for her husband Edgar - but she's about to be disillusioned by him - and by the fancy house he bought, which seems to have its own secrets.

The Naughty Step by Stephen Volk is another story focussed on a child. It's also an insight into the stressful life of social worker Linda, called out when a young boy, Jared, is found in the house where his mother was murdered. He won't move from the "naughty step" on the stairs where his mum told him to go b efeore her death. So Linda prepares to spend the night...

A Hotel In Germany by Catriona Ward is a very different sort of story from most of the others here. Cara, whose brother and daughter are dead, seems to be a dogsbody for a woman described only as 'the movie star' who is on location in Germany. Selfish, demanding and petulant, the 'star' summons Cara at all hours of the night and we wonder why she doesn't just quit. The revelation of just how far Cara is required to go comes alongside an understanding of why, giving. real sense of horror (if if we never quite understand the connection between the two women). 

Finally, I enjoy Paul Finch's gritty ghost stories set around abandoned mills, derelict yards and canals. Branch Line, the last story in this book, didn't disappoint, setting us up for a story which seeming to feature two innocent young boys getting into trouble (for a certain value of "innocent": much of the motivation at the start is a cache of prime dirty mags, this is set in the 70s) but which manages to pivot to something much darker and to a rather nasty twist...

Overall, this is a strong collection which will have you looking uneasily at midnight shadows, bolting your doors and avoiding lonely, derelict places after dark. Unless, of course, you're actually a monster already...

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.  You can buy After Sundown from all the usual places: your local bookshop (they need your business, now more than ever!) or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

And don't forget - my fellow blog tourers (see poster below) are, like me, all connoisseurs of the twisted, the uncanny - do join them to share their perverse pleasure in the chills and terror to be found After Sundown!




22 October 2020

Review - The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Design by Lauren Panepinto
The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 8 October 2010
Available as: HB, 563pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9780356508832

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Ministry for the Future.

There are two things I should make clear about The Ministry for the Future. First, it is a beautiful book, filled with hope and tragedy, and I loved it. 

Secondly, I think some readers will hate it. 

I'll try to explain why.

The Ministry for the Future is a sort of biography of the Earth over the next fifty years or so. Beginning with a cataclysmic heatwave in India in the 2020s - an event in which millions die -  it considers how humanity as a whole might tame its carbon habit. The means chosen in the first place is the creation of an organisation to speak up for the interests of future generations, of animals and plants.  Of course, once established, this organisation runs a risk of being a sop to the planet. It has to be better than that. It must influence, advocate, persuade, even twist arms. The Ministry faces the same problems as exist at the present - vested interests, the superrich, cognitive biases, apathy, fear of change and much of the book is focussed on diagnosing and addressing these.

Based in Zurich, this organisation attracts a talented group of lawyers, scientists, engineers, development workers and others who set about tackling the problem. The Ministry is personified in its head, Mary Murphy, a former Irish Minister for Foreign affairs. Murphy, though one of the most developed characters in the book, is only seen in glimpses - persuading at gatherings of central bankers or world leaders, living her (rather pleasant) life in Zurich, occasionally in meetings at the Ministry or elsewhere. In the final few chapters she does I think approach being a rounded character but for much of the book she's essentially a device to convey a viewpoint, a determination to see the work through, whatever it takes. (Early on, Murphy calls for a "black ops" wing of her organisation to apply pressure in deniable, if not frankly illegal, ways. We see some actions which possibly arise from that - though with this book it's always hard to tell, and there are many actors own this stage).

The other character we spend most time with is Frank May, a development worker caught up in that early heat wave and whose life is shattered afterwards. He becomes a drifter, living rough around Zurich and crossing paths with Murphy. Eventually they becomes friends, of a sort: perhaps he is her conscience. Frank is, though, for the most part rather one dimensional, essentially an embodiment of trauma and perhaps guilt.

There are others who we meet briefly, and sometimes return to. Most are there simply to narrate particular events or illustrate the scale of what's going on. So, there are geological engineers trying to prevent the glaciers from sloughing into the ocean. There are refugees narrating their journeys and eventual stalling in camps. There are privileged movers and shakers, for example at Davos. Protesters on the streets of Paris. And many, many more. Often these people are anonymous. More rarely we get names, and the story revisits some a number of times. Very occasionally they cross paths, and we'll suddenly realise who someone is, seen from a different perspective. I felt most of these characters were good representations of points of view or of happenings, but often little more. In some places, there are attempts, I think, to humanise them - for example by giving one person a tragic accidental death - but the sheer scale of the book and the number of voices involves militates against this, and given the scale of tragedy in the opening section, it's also curiously hard to care about such isolated events. In a different vein, there are even a few short chapters narrated by abstractions such the market, history, a photon, a carbon atom, or the Sun. 

Many sections of the book, though, while they may be loosely presented as analysis or reports by characters, are really articles or essays. The word "we" does a lot of hard work, introducing factual sections of the book as the experiences and offerings of particular populations or groups. There is an entire chapter, towards the end, which is a list, introducing the contributions and projects of a host of nations, alphabetically, to the problems of climate change and societal transformation. Hopeful and inspiring though it may be that these initiatives and approaches exist (and I believe they are all real) I would defy even the most completist of readers to actually, you know, read that chapter word for word.

Which has brought me to the reason some readers will, I think, not get on at all with The Ministry for the Future. It is very much its own type of novel: the author has thrown overboard most expressions of plot, character development or insight and indeed, largely of writing conventional fiction here. It is, in that respect, worlds away from New York 2140 which was similarly focussed on climate change but, recognisably, also a novel driven by its characters' lives and choices. 

For my part, I greatly enjoyed this book. I liked the way that Kim Stanley Robinson draws out an argument that addressing climate change will require not simply the spending of money or the passing of laws, but a complete reordering of society and its values ('What's good for the land is good for us'). At one level that makes it all seem even more daunting: at another it's a radical vision that feels achievable, paradoxically, not in spite of, but because of, the size of the task. 

I also enjoyed Mary Murphy's evolving quest, throughout this book, for the strongholds of power - pursuing the leaders, the legislators, the bankers, the economists (dismissed pretty scathingly) who all seem to shuffle off responsibility to others, combining handwriting with adroit passing on of the problem. To a degree, Murphy's approach correspondingly evolves into a kind of administrative ju-jitsu, using the system's flaws themselves for leverage on the problem. Is that feasible in reality? I don't know, any more than I know whether the idea of pumping out the water from the base of a glacier, to prevent it lubricating the ice and to slow down the rate of flow, is feasible. Thy book seems to have some good ideas which sound plausible, but I'm not a banker, I'm not an engineer, I don't know. 

All this may make The Ministry for the Future sound very dry, and indeed it is overwhelmingly factual, until the last 50 pages or so. But that's not so say there isn't excitement, even drama and danger here. A section towards the middle where Murphy is forced to trek through the alps at night (she's no climber) is a tense and beautifully described mini adventure. There are human-scale tragedies here alongside the planetary ones, even if they play a rather minor role in the book.

Above all I think this book does convey a sense of hope - something we certainly need right now. Remember, revolutions are built on hope - and if there's one thing this book does assume and, I think, go a fair way to establishing, it's the radical, the revolutionary, changes that are needed in the coming decades to avert catastrophe. So let's hang on to our hope!

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

20 October 2020

Review - Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley

Greensmith
Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories, 12 October 2020
Available as: PB, 342pp, e
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781912658077

Greensmith is a richly imagined, empathetic SFF adventure on the grandest of scales - which also casts a slightly jaundiced eye on one of the most celebrated franchises in the genre.

Penelope Greensmith is working on a project - to catalogue and preserve the entirety of the world's flowers. She's assisted in this by an ingenious device her father (who began the work) left to her. Called the Vice, it has take a flower and compress its essence, its information, into a disc from which images and the plant itself can be recovered. Gradually, the storage racks in Penelope's cellar fill. She is ruthless in her task - even breaking into greenhouses at night to "acquire" specimens - but accepts her work won't be complete in her lifetime.

The background to Penelope's life is vague - there has been a War, in which people have 'fallen prey to an insidious, crawling mass delusion that had been carried by flags and leaflets and radio waves to their doors. Or perhaps they were just bored...' The only impact of the War seems to be that certain events have been erased from collective memory, but even that is uncertain. It would have been nice to know more about this - but the story moves rapidly on, to the day when Penelope's life is turned upside down by a fast talking time-and-space-travelling stranger who persuades her that, RIGHT NOW, to save the universe, she must join him in an improbable quest, must leave behind all she knows - her adult daughter, her cottage - and embark on a quixotic, madcap adventure.

Together they form a team. 'The legendary and mysterious space traveller... And his assistant.' Yes, The Horticulturalist (Hort for short) is famed throughout the universe. Yes, he has access to an apparently infinite storage space/ home, filled with wonders. Yes, lots of running is involved. I think you know exactly what long running SF TV series that echoes (don't you?) It's not though the only allusion here: Whiteley has a but of fun I think - she also refers to 'a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away' and drops other references too ('I am the one wearing the red shirt. I am expendable'). 

Penelope responds as you'd expect - as assistants are always written, eager to experience wonders, but also desperate to do whatever she can to save her daughter Lily, and the Universe, from a mysterious, plant-destroying virus. She plunges into danger, as Hort aids oppressed creatures and then confronts his greatest enemy. This middle part of the book is a real triumph of writing and the imagination: grappling with the fact that Penelope's, somehow, there and not there - Hort's method of travel isn't exactly physical - and with the way in which reality is so strange that she only experiences a translation of it, the nearest thing she can grasp but not the truth. It's actually rather disconcerting. No snippets I could quote here can really do it justice. The effect on me was rather like that final section of the film 2001, with strangeness upon strangeness and all familiar landmarks missing.

If you feel that's all just too rich for you, too jarring, please don't give up. This book contains its own quiet rewards - from the sheer glory of Whiteley's writing to that rather sceptical, questing examination of the time traveller himself. What can you really say about such a being? What degree of ego and self assurance does it take to shift worlds and play with the course of events as he does? ('...a selfish, spoiled, unaware and unrepentant idiot... [who] could be classified as Very Dangerous Indeed...') 

Above all, what, exactly, is his relationship in the end with Penelope? 

It's hard to be clearer than that without spoilers - which, I assure you, you don't want for this particular book. 

Enjoyable from the first page to the last, this book is enthralling, baffling, weird, deep, quirky and in the end - I thought - very, very sad.

In short, I'd recommend.

For more information about Greensmith, and to buy a copy, see the publisher's website here.


18 October 2020

Review - Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Cover design by
Emily Courdelle

Dead Man in a Ditch (Fetch Phillips, 2)
Luke Arnold
Orbit, 24 September 2020
Available as: e, audio, TPB, 416pp
Source: advance PB copy
ISBN: 9780316455879

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Dead Man in a Ditch.

Fetch Phillips, soiled hero of Last Smile in Sunder City, is back for another bout of wrestling with guilt and of attempting, somehow, to atone.

This may be a fantasy world, replete with (formerly) magical creatures, but Fetch, a Man for Hire, is noir to the core and wears the hardscrabble Sunder City like a ratty old trench coat. It is him, and he is it. From his shabby office to the women who come - trailing clouds of danger - for help, to the mean streets themselves, Arnold's command of the atmosphere of noir is pitch perfect, as this novel gets underway with a desperate woman whose husband has vanished, a gambling den and brushes with a police force desperate for results when a wealthy financier is murdered.

Of course, as readers of the first book will know, there's a whole other layer of darkness and guilt underlying Fetch's cynicism. This is a world from which the magic has fled, and it fled with Fetch's boot on its backside. All the beauty, all the power, all the wonder of a whole magical world is gone, and it was (largely) his fault. The survivors of that remember, and he would do anything, anything to atone. But there's nothing to be done. So Fetch sits in his office and opens the whisky bottle.

Now, though, there are rumours that the magic is returning. A particularly horrible murder has been committed in a way that can only be magical and, against his better judgement, Fetch is drawn into the investigation...

I liked and enjoyed this book. In fact I actually enjoyed it more so than its predecessor, because - while there is the odd flashback to Fetch's earlier life, to establish what he had done and why - most of it takes place in the present, which I feel gives Dead Man in a Ditch greater focus and pace. Bigger issues are also at stake here. Sunder City was ruined in the Coda, when the magic died, as it depended on underground magical fires for power, so the ill effects of that event spread to the human world as well. Ever since then, Sunder has shivered, lacking heat, light and industry. 

Now, a new energy has come to town in the person of go-ahead Thurston Niles with his modern business methods and smart, grey-suited goons. Maybe this is what's needed to help Fetch's world move forward? The story therefore sees him caught between his regrets at the passing of the old world, his desire to cling on to what he has salvaged, and the need to find a way to better his city for the sake of all those shivering, starving humans (not to mention shivering, starving dwarves, gnomes, fairies, elves and the rest).

So we see Fetch conflicted, guilt and regret driving him one way, hope and logic another. He isn't helped when a figure from his past appears: that should have made things simpler but Fetch is too honest to trust simple - he's more likely to take it down an alleyway and try to beat the truth out of it. His sense of self-loathing dovetails neatly with that noirish framing, giving us a powerful sense of why he is so self-destructive, so gallant and yet so despairing.

Fetch is an engaging character, seemingly resigned to the continual hard knocks that being a Man for Hire in Sunder City guarantees (one wonders how much more he can take), seemingly sympathetic to the hatred that many in the magical community have for him, yet never - quite - surrendering to self-pity and - generally - trying to do the right thing. He outshines everyone else in this book, though, which is perhaps at times a pity - when he is verbally sparring with that face from the past, for example, it never quite feels like a contest of equals. 

All in all a great read and one which ended just when it should, leaving me wanting to read the next book NOW and anticipating what catastrophe might hit Sunder next.

Recommended.

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




15 October 2020

Review - D by Michel Faber

Design by Marianne Issa El-Khoury
D (A Tale of Two Worlds)
Michel Faber
Doubleday, 17 September 2020
Available as: HB, 291pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780857525109

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

Michel Faber's latest novel is a fun children's adventure, with much danger and peril and plenty of humour.

Schoolgirl Dhikilo has already, by the time the story opens, survived more than her share of adventure, having been rescued by her father as a baby from the almost-a-country Somaliland (not Somalia, as she carefully explains). Finding sanctuary in the UK, she is settled in the town of Cawber-on-Sands on the South Coast with her pleasant foster parents Ruth and Malcolm. Faber shows us how, while happy with them and at school, Dhikilo misses the culture and country she was too young to remember, devouring any facts or gossip she can find online or in the local bookshop or library. Those early parts of the story are filled with longing and missingness even while - as Faber explains - Dhikilo isn't quite sure what it is she's missing.

So perhaps Dhikilo is ready for another adventure when it comes along, as come along it does. Things begin to go wrong. To disappear. Specifically, the letter "D" - then things containing it. So soon there are no more ogs, no more octors at the surgery and no onkey derby at the annual fete. Soon, there is a politician on the TV saying that iversity is all very well, but not if it gets in the way of forging a strong, safe nation.

Why can only Dhikilo see what's missing? That's not clear. Maybe because as an outsider, she's more receptive, more ready to ask questions, awkward questions, and get into trouble for doing so? Even to travel to a strange world (after all, it's not the first time) where she might discover the truth about what's been happening and perhaps even do something about it?

That's what happens, courtesy of a mysterious adult whose house has a gateway in the attic to a frozen world. If that makes you think of Narnia, then yes, it's supposed to - Faber is perfectly clear about the inspiration here and some of the events through that doorway will remind you of CS Lewis's books and the films of them. But there are differences too, I think. In particular, while Dhikilo has an animal guardian here - a Sphinx called Nelly, no less - there's no religious aspect, as with Narnia's Aslan, and much of Dhikilo's progress depends above all else on her courage, common sense and kindness. She has a series of challenges to meet, which I won't say anything about - spoilers! - and as the story unfolded I recognised another influence here: Charles Dickens, with many of the settings and creatures named after, or reflecting, his books - we meet the Quilps and the Drood (sorry, the roo), the names of the rooms in a hotel called Bleak House are based on London prisons and most sinisterly of all, there is a Big Bad called the Gamp, supported by unpleasant magwitches, creatures he claims to be enemies but is working hand-in-glove with. (A bit of satire aimed at lying politicians, I think).

Anyone reading this book who doesn't recognise these names (or some of the scenes and events) won't be puzzled of confused by the story, but if you know what they mean, it does add a little bit to your enjoyment, as will the details revealed towards the end about a certain Professor and his home.

This is, as I have said, above all an exciting, dangerous adventure with a resourceful and wise central character. The subtitle, "A Tale of Two Worlds", as well as its allusion to Dickens, may refer to Dhikilo's adventures in England and in Liminus or to her passage from Somaliland to England, or possibly both. There are, I think, many more than two worlds here, giving much to explore and discover.

I'd strongly recommend D.

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



13 October 2020

Review - Hinterland by LM Brown

Cover image: “Roses on Red Chair” © Kathy Bradshaw
Cover image: “Roses on Red Chair”
© Kathy Bradshaw
Hinterland
LM Brown
Fomite Press, 13 October 2020
Available as: PB, 324pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781947917583

I'm grateful to the author for an advance e-copy of Hinterland to consider for review.

Hinterland is an intense, closely observed study of one family living in a Boston suburb over a decade or so in the early 2000s.

We meet Nicholas ‍Giovanni, a taxi driver, whose main focus in life is the protection of his young daughter, Kate. When first introduced, he is sneaking away from his nightshift and back into the house while baby Kate and her mother Kathleen sleep, to check that all is well with Kate. A devoted father, or just this side of creepy? 

Kathleen herself is a troubled woman - how much so we'll only slowly discover - who is riled when Ina moves back in next door. Ina's mother Tilly has had a fall (Nicholas discovered her in the snow in her back garden) and Ina has returned to look after her. Nicholas, Tilly and Ina know each other well (Nicholas is still living in his childhood home, he and Ina grew up together) - and it's soon clear there is history here ('it had been hard to be in the same room as Ina'). What, exactly, and what sort, you need to discover for yourself - Brown will reveal this slowly as the months and years move forward and a catastrophe strikes Nicholas's little family, leaving him to care for Kate alone (alone, with help from Ida).

The characters will grow on you. Nicholas is always uneasy, trying to control everything, especially Kate (for example, he's unwilling to let her go to the playground alone, following her even when she tells him not to). At one point we are told of Nicholas that 'It was impossible to know exactly how to feel', as though he is an actor on stage waiting for direction. 

Kate misses her mother ('She wondered constantly where her mother was, if she had fallen and hurt herself, if she had forgotten where she lived...'), aware of a great absence that nobody will talk about. Nicholas won't be frank with Kate about the thing that has happened - understandably, you might think, but it leaves Kate so wounded and he refuses to do the one thing that might set things right. Why, we can only speculate.

And Ina, Nichola's sister-in-law, who seems part of, and not part of, this odd family, helping out, but resented, resenting. There is, as I said, history here - and secrets to be revealed - with Ina's and Nicholas's relationship now playing out a pattern that's rooted in events of twenty years before. The tension that Brown sketches between the two is electric, one almost feels the words crackle as one reads them, and there is a sense in which everyone else in the book - even Kate - is in their shadow, having to work round them, make space for them, if unconsciously. So Kate and, for example, Nicholas's brother Stefano and son Cooper, when they turn up, are all puzzled, stepping round in a dance they don't comprehend to accommodate Nicholas and Ina. 

It's a dance that Kathleen never learned to perform: so early on, she has to leave the stage and this fascinating woman is mostly seen in glimpses, memories, the reports of interested parties and experts. She's always interpreted by others, analysed, argued over. Yet even in her absence Kate seems to have a bond with her and a major theme of the book is Kate's quest for her mother, a quest that's sometimes overt but sometimes hidden even from her. An inevitably that quest opens up a rift with Nicholas, who's so wound up in keeping the truth from his daughter that he seems almost stop knowing her, his understanding of her personality drifting from that seen by everyone else ('he never thought that Kate could be a completely different person outside her house.')

That does give the book a vein of melancholy, but it's never maudlin. And Brown's characters are complex and real enough that - while one may not like all of them - one comes to understand them and want the best for them (even Nicholas, who, as I have said, does sometimes exhibit a worrying degree of obsession and control).

I would recommend Hinterland, both to readers of Brown's previous stories - for example her collections Treading the Uneven Road ‍and ‍Were We Awake - and those who are new to her writing. 

For more information about Hinterland, see the publisher's website here. You can purchase the book from Amazon here




9 October 2020

Review - The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

Cover by Julia Lloyd
The Ghost Tree
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 8 September 2020
Available as: PB, 507pp, e, audio
Source e: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781785659799

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Ghost Tree via NetGalley to consider for review.

Christina Henry is one of my favourite fantasy authors and I've enjoyed her dark reworkings of classic children's stories (Alice, Peter Pan) as well as folktales and mythology.

In The Ghost Tree, all of this is fused into a chilling and effective folk horror, with a generations-old act of violence and a curse afflicting the population of midwest American town Smiths Hollow. The results are acted out every year with pain and loss in the collective behaviour of the townsfolk, but it's a party to which outsiders are definitely not invited.

Now, though, things seem to be going wrong...

The book focuses on Lauren diMucci, a young woman whose father Joe was horribly murdered a year before. Lauren misses her dad, to whom she was closer than her mother, now single parent Karen. The book very tenderly draws out the tensions and alienation between mother and daughter, their relationship laced with guilt, general teenager-ishness and something else - a resentment that can't be articulated, a dark poison between them. Smiths Hollow seems to have forgotten Joe's death and the police have done little to identify the killer. Maybe Lauren can do better?

Lauren's relationship with childhood friend Miranda is also key. The girls used to be inseparable, playing fantasy games in the woods outside the town ('Meet me by the old ghost tree!') But Miranda is now changing, spending more time thinking about boys and plotting what she must do to secure a ride to school in Tad's car this year instead of riding her bike or getting on the bus like a loser. This book (set in the mid 80s) does shine a harsh light on patriarchy, showing how the two friends take different routes through a deeply misogynistic society, Miranda avidly collecting sex tips from magazines, unaware how she's being gossiped about and pigeonholed, while Lauren accepts the role of freakish outsider, of tomboy. It's perhaps inevitable that the friendship is under strain - I found the portrayal convincing, non judgemental and eliciting sympathy for both girls (Lauren missing her father, Miranda subject to remote control parenting by chilly, unempathetic parents).

Then there's David, Lauren's brother, only four years old who comes across as something of a savant but also as a very, very vulnerable little boy.  There are visions, a suggestion of dark conspiracies and of secrets in the apparently sweet, prosperous little town. It's all deeply sinister and the reader can be sure that the darker side of town is there, biding its time.

Lauren does, however, have allies in exposing what's wrong. In the way of things, it's an outsider who most clearly sees what's wrong. Alex (Alejandro) Lopez, a newly appointed policeman who's come from Chicago hoping for a more peaceful life, begins to dig into the past, aware, somehow, that this won't be looked on kindly by his peers and superiors (though he can't understand why). Quite apart for that investigation, his very presence, and that of his family, is enough to stir racist hatreds as well as fears that secrets will be exposed. Those, two, will be played out in the town's collective guilt and ritual of forgetting.

This may sound like an awful lot for a horror story to carry, but Henry weaves together her themes deftly, maintaining the tension and the mystery while allowing us - in the form of a fairy story - enough background to have an idea what's going on. There are a couple of characters who I felt could have done more - Lauren's grandmother, and Riley, the journalist who breezes into town - but really, those central relationships - between Lauren and Karen, and Lauren and Miranda - are important enough that there probably isn't much space for anyone else, and they give the story so much heart and so much drive that this really isn't important.

Another thumping, wonderful read from Christina Henry, a book you just have to sit down and finish whatever else is going on. Also a story that's cannily honest about not typing things off neatly: I don't think Smiths Hollow will ever be the comfortable, happy place that Mayor Touhy wants - just too much has happened.

For more information about The Ghost Tree, see the publisher's website here.

6 October 2020

Review - The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V E Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
V E Schwab
Titan Books, 6 October 2020
Available as: HB, 560pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781785652509
Snap verdict: This is what you should be reading

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue via NetGalley.

I finished this book, closed my Kindle, and just sat there, trying to work out what had HAPPENED. I've read quite a lot by V E Schwab (not everything - she is prolific and writes for many different audiences) and I THOUGHT I knew what to expect.

But this... this was simply astonishing. A game changer of a book, for the reader (and, I'd hope, for the author - but that's perhaps presumptuous to say).

It is SO good.

A book to sink into, to lose oneself in.

A book that plays games, switches, dives and comes back from a different direction, targeting you right in your feelings, tying you in knots, delivering the kill and then... then doing it all AGAIN with different feelings, different knots and a different kill.

OK, stop babbling David. (I told a friend on Twitter that reviewing this I might just gush and you can see, here I am, gushing). Let's try and get hold of this protean, gorgeous wonder of a book and review it properly.

Addie (Adeline) LaRue is a young peasant woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary village in France in the late 17th century. The great drama, great crisis of her life is that while she longs for more breadth, experience and more... just more life, her parents (as parents will) want her to marry, have children, be settled. She dodges this for a while but not, oh, the wedding bells are ringing and the dress is being laced upon Addie and the life that goes with the dress is being laced on her... the world is closing in.

So Addie makes a bargain. A bargain she really shouldn't, with one of the dark things in the wood, one of the powers you really, really shouldn't pray to - in case they answer. And so, Addie's soul is in hock and she's cut loose from that village and while she gets that breadth of life (well, sort-of life) that she wants, Addie discovers that the wider world is a cruel and cold place and that there's nowhere in it for her. Addie can't make a mark on the world ('If a person cannot leave a mark, do they exist?'), she can't be remembered once out of sight. She can have a love affair, but she has to restart it every morning. If she rents a room for the night, she'll be turfed out as soon as the landlord or landlady turns their backs and another customer arrives. With no persistence in memory, Addie can't earn money, can't live anywhere. She exists on the margins. All else changes but Addie stays the same, as those she knew, those she loved, crumble to dust. And across the years, she's tormented by the creature - the god, the devil? - that she bargained with. Luc, as she calls him, is, in a sense, her creation. Only Luc rememberers her, only Luc remains.

It becomes clear, over the years, that Luc wants more than her soul. That she, knowing nobody else remembers her, nobody else will ever know her, wants, needs him. Hatred and love dance together in a whirl that passes down the years in meetings and partings, in a strange kind of game as Luc tempts Addie to wish oblivion for herself, as she bargains with him for an alternative.

Everything comes to a head in New York where for the first time in three centuries, Addie senses change, senses a loophole in her deal with Luc, when a young man remembers her.

The way that Schwab builds up the fantasy of Addie's life is stunning, believable, full of pathos and horror and desperate desire. Driven to the margins of the world, she makes an existence for herself inspiring art and artists (a recurring theme here), exploring literature (she 'reads of strange lands, and monsters, and men who can't ever go home...')  She, literally, can't paint or draw or write herself (a cruel twist from Luc when child Addie was so invested in her sketching and drawing) but she can be a Muse. What a way to encapsulate the role of a woman in a male dominated society - just the thing she was running from when she made her bargain in the woods - to be erased, voiceless, seen only by the traces left across the years in men's works.

So we gradually learn about the events that have made Addie, her victories and defeats in that endless struggle, the moments of respite and the moments of horror, and we really, really, get to know the person she has become and to admire her for what she's achieved. It's powerful writing. The central idea - and its working out - could fill a book and it would be a good book.

But - ands this is really a glorious thing - Schwab DOESN'T STOP THERE. She has much more for us. Meet Henry, an uncertain young man in a world full of sharp teeth. I really can't tell you too much about him because spoilers but, yes, he comes into Addie's life and, yes, he can remember her and yes, the book turns out to be about what that means to each of them. This is effectively a whole new layer of story. It's a love story, told in the sweaty clubs and avant garde venues of Bohemian New York - a city Addie knows well. It's the story of a man who never feels, somehow, that he is quite enough, a man who fears the darkness in quite a different sense from Addie. If this book made me fall in love with Addie, it made me fall for Henry, too. His issues are quite different to hers but, like Addie, Schwab makes Henry real, human and most of all, she makes him matter. It's gorgeous writing, so sad at times, and really, that story - Henry's life - is another that could be a book in itself.

But it's not, and then we have what happens when the two come together... they're all one book and they are all the same story. Reaching the end, I read it more and more slowly, not wanting it to end. I wanted to stay immersed in the world of Addie and Henry and Luc, wanted to see the relationships flicker and dance, the pulls of desire and love and hate, to see Schwab whittling these three down to their essence.

Who, what is Luc? At one level I don't know, we're never exactly told.

Who, what is Luc? At another level, we all know. We've all met him. We've danced that dance, surrendered - or not - made our lives despite him, or with him. Luc cannot be defeated, cannot be pleaded with, placated, bribed or tricked. Only bargained with. And he drives a hard bargain...

The Invisible life of Addie LaRue is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite book read this year (that's 97 so far). V E Schwab was already an impressive writer but I think this is by far the best she's written yet (that I've read). Apart from the handling of the ominous, dark and romantic themes here, Schwab has a knack for getting to the heart of things in her writing: we hear of 'A Fall woman indulging in a second Spring', or how when Addie first makes love's is lightning through her limbs, it is fire through her core, it is longing between her legs' or of Henry's family sitting at table 'like an awkward Ashkenazi imitation of a Rockwell painting' or of a 'fundraising smile'. In places the prose adopts the pacing of a teary ballad ('A boy is sick of his broken heart. Tired of his storm-filled brain') or a dark folksong ('Am I the devil or the darkness?'). In others it revels in the wonder of moments of caught amidst the darkness - Addie's memory of the beauty of stars, something the modern world doesn't afford, of the gradual unfolding of New York in the springtime for a pair of lovers.

I think I'm gushing again. I want to keep quoting bits of this book, saying, look at this, look at that, read that bit. I should just say "read it!" and stop there.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is simply leagues ahead. For me, reading it - and thinking about it after - was like that moment watching a great athlete running in an 800 or 1600m race when the winner simply opens up distance from the others and claims a victory which afterwards always seems preordained. Simply stunning.

For more information about this book see the publisher's website here. Or read this excellent review from Dave at espressococo.com



5 October 2020

#Blogtour #Q&A - She Lies Close by Sharon Doering

Cover by Julia Lloyd
She Lies Close
Sharon Doering
Titan Books, 8 September 2020
Available as: PB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: PB kindly provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781789094190

Today I'm delighted and honoured that Sharon Doering, the author of Who Lies Close, has stopped by to answer some questions... which makes that sound very like an investigation but it's really not!

BBB: Sharon - thank you for agreeing to answer some questions about She Lies Close. I have to say that (without giving anything away about what is happening to Grace at the start of the book) I think it’s a long time since I encountered such a twist in the first few pages! 

Overall, Grace is a very strongly, well realised personality in a very particular situation. How did you (do you) find your way into that? Does the plot come first, or the person (or the place…?)

Sharon: Thank you so much for having me!

I am a character-driven reader and writer. If I fall for a character in a novel, I will follow them anywhere! I love a strong voice.

In She Lies Close, the basic premise came first, then I focused on character. The plot details slipped into place as I wrote or I hammered them in during edits.

BBB: I like to ask authors about all the arduous travel they must have undertaken in far-flung places for research purposes. Was there much of that? (You say your neighbours aren’t like Grace’s, so I’m assuming this isn’t your neighbourhood thinly disguised).

Sharon: Travel sounds lovely -- in theory, at least! My family vacations are usually a bit of a mess -- but I haven’t travelled for anything I’ve written. I rely on the internet to answer my research questions.

I’ve mostly lived in the city of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. This story takes place in the suburbs, so I’m familiar. She Lies Close is not about my neighbors or my suburb, but it could be! Who knows about any of our neighbors? That’s the lure -- Who knows what goes on next door?

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

Sharon: I just launch in! I am a pantser, not a plotter. I don’t know exactly where things are headed (though I have an idea). Sometimes the characters seem to take over and evolve on their own, sometimes I push them along. When I edit, I change some of their choices to serve the story.

BBB: Did any other writing (or media) particularly inspire She Lies Close?

Sharon: The inspiration for She Lies Close came from my family’s move to a new neighborhood years ago and finding out that a guy down the street was being prosecuted for a child crime. Within months he was convicted, sold his house, and went to prison. While it was creepy (and I wouldn't let my little boys play near his house), I never felt desperate. I had a good support system in my husband.

It got me thinking though…What if you moved right next door to a dangerous man, a suspect in a child kidnapping (maybe murder), and what if you had no support system, no sounding board? What if you were recently divorced and financially strapped? What if you had secrets of your own and mental health issues complicating your life? What if your sinister neighbor started talking to your little girl, giving her gifts?

I took the premise of a dangerous next-door neighbor and added a big old bag of What Ifs. I wanted to write a psychological thriller that was dark, desperate, and also funny. I wanted to write a thriller where the characters were stretched too far, where we get to witness some of them snap.

The Fever by Megan Abbott influenced my book. In The Fever, Abbott weaves mental and physical health into her story in such a mysterious way. After reading The Fever, I thought I might be able pull off what I wanted to do in my book.

BBB: What were you trying to achieve with the book - beyond writing a great story? (It’s perfectly OK to say ‘I don’t know!’ or ‘It speaks for itself!’)

Sharon: That’s a great question, and yeah, I definitely had controversial themes I wanted to explore with this book in addition to writing a compelling story.

I wanted to explore how close any of us can be to losing our mind - how many things would have to go wrong in one person’s life to push them over the edge.

I wanted to explore how the sheer volume of worrying news stories can make us hypervigilant.

I wanted to explore parenting, how far we’d go to protect our children, and the unintended consequences of that.

I wanted to explore relationships, gender inequalities, and gender roles.

I wanted to explore our differing perceptions of reality, and how some of that reality can be affected by environmental exposures, viruses, drugs we take.

I didn’t have an end goal to answer these questions, I just wanted to throw these questions into the stew and see what bubbled up.

BBB: What inspired you to write in the first place (particular books, something that happened...) and how did you get started writing?

Sharon: It was the late 90s. I was twenty-four, working as a biotech stock analyst (I hated this job), and I started reading fiction as an escape. The most wonderful, eye-opening, mind-altering thing happened to me. I read this thriller and thought, Huh. I could do better. That had never happened to me before. (For the record, in this particular late-90s thriller, the woman sidekick was a bimbo, and the villain was doctor evil-ish.).

When I sat down to write my first short story, I fell madly in love with the process. That was it for me. I knew I would never stop. I have been writing for twenty years, I've had an agent for twelve, and I've written dozens of short stories and seven novels. That's how long it took before a publisher offered me a contract.

Oh, how I wish I was one of those little kids who knew they wanted to write. As a kid I loved Stephen King, but it never dawned on me that I could “be a writer”.

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

Sharon: That’s such a great question. The trick is, you can’t expect anything from your writing. Expecting publication or financial success will leave you feeling like garbage because the odds are stacked against you and there is too much you cannot control. You have to agree with yourself that you’re writing novels because you love the process (even if there is no award, no publishing deal).

Now that I have a contract, there are deadlines and expectations. It’s exciting and terrifying and strange. Mostly, I’m just so happy to be in the game.

BBB: Which writer(s) do you admire most?

Sharon: When I started writing novels, my favorite writers were Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, T. Jefferson Parker, James Lee Burke, George Saunders, Lisa Unger, Jonathan Hart, Richard K Morgan...

I am a deliberate student now, and I read more widely and quickly (and differently). When I’m reading any book, I’m thinking, Oh, look at what they did there. Brilliant idea! Oh, how clever. I love how they revealed that, or that’s an amazing twist.

Now I am in awe of so many more writers. Some of my recent amazing reads…Kimberely McCreight, Mary Kubica, Raven Leilani, Riley Sager, Wendy Walker, Lauren Wilkinson, S.L. McKinnis, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Victoria Helen Stone, Samantha Downing, Victoria Helen Stone, Vanessa Lillie, Jen Pashley, Samantha Bailey. The list goes on.

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

Sharon: Routine? Ha!

Like so many people who have kids doing e-learning at home, I am going a little nuts with the lack of routine.

I have been writing in short, thirty-minute bursts while wearing noise-cancelling headphones designed for power-tool work. It is not ideal, and my ears hurt.

If I can hide in the car in the garage for two hours while the kids are watching TV/playing video games, I am usually productive enough. The key is non-interrupted time.

I rely heavily on caffeine. 1-2 cups of tea, then 2-4 cups of coffee, and I round it out with 1 coke zero.

BBB: Do you have a book locked away that you wrote when you were 15? If so, is there any chance of it seeing the light? Or will it get the Terry Pratchett steamroller-the-harddrive treatment? 

Sharon: Love this. I started writing short stories in my twenties, novels in my thirties. I wrote one horror, one romance (it was horrendous), one PI novel, and three tech thrillers. I might rewrite one or two of those tech thrillers (or write them as screenplays). Even though they are 5-10 years old, the premises are still pretty cool, relevant. Besides those one or two tech thrillers, I am focused on moving forward and not looking back. We get better with practice so it’s good to let those older manuscripts die.

BBB: Finally… you’re lost in the woods late at night and take shelter in a tumbledown cabin. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and even better, you have a book with you! Which book should it be?

Sharon: All of my very favorite books are thrillers or horror, but if I were reading Stephen King or Gillian Flynn while lost in the woods, waiting for a rescue, I would be terrified! So, maybe I’d rather have something funny to keep me grounded? A book of short stories—Pastoralia by George Saunders. Maybe a Matthew Quick novel like The Silver Linings Playbook. Or a children’s book—Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

BBB: Sharon, thank you so much for those answers - best wishes with She Lies Close, may it find its way into the hands of many readers!

You can find out more about She Lies Close at the Titan Books website here or on Sharon's site here as well as the other stops non the tour (see poster below!)

And you can buy the book from your local high street bookshop, online from Hive Books (who support local shops), Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blogtour poster for "She Lies Close"




2 October 2020

Review - Ruby by Nina Allan

Cover by Julia Lloyd
Ruby
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 6 October 2020
Available as: PB
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781789091724

I'm really, really grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Ruby to consider for review.

Nina Allan is one of the authors who, when I see they have a new book coming, make me silently shout "YES!" (or sometimes not so silently). Her blending of the mundane and the fantastical, her referencing whole alternate worlds - sometimes bizarrely alien, sometimes only subtly different from ours - makes her books into wonderful, almost holographic puzzles, where the detail and the big picture contain the entirety of each other and every page is a joy to read.

So it is with Ruby. Told as a group of seven stories, this certainly IS the story of horror actress Ruby Castle even though at the same time, many of the stories say every little about her. Or seem to. Actually I think the less that's said, the more she may be present.

For example, I'm reasonably sure - though Allan doesn't say so - that one of the stories is actually one of Castle's films. It is a horror story, and the actress isn't mentioned - where would she be other than in plain sight? Alternatively, it may be that Castle's films are interacting with our world - which is to say, Allan's fictional world - there is a reference in that story to an escaped Nazi war criminal who features obliquely in another story seemingly set in Allan's "real world", one that mentions Castle's grandfather.

The stories can all the enjoyed in their own right and independently of the rest, but the more of them you read, the more links you'll see both in content (persons, events) and themes. Some are naturalistic and some contain (possible) elements of the supernatural - so for example The Lammas Worm is perhaps an (MR) Jamesian sort of horror, with a hinted at monster, but also establishes Castle's background and early years in a travelling show. The carnival life is a recurring theme, as it is in others of Allan's books (which have also I think explored the relationship between reality and films). Other, darker themes include the disappearance of children or young women. Some of these Arte explained or we can easily guess a link to the presence of predatory men, sometimes there may be other, more esoteric reasons.

Even where there is no death or disappearance, or it's hinted that the woman in question turned up again later, Allan often evokes a sense of menace, a feeling that something isn't right, an atmosphere of suspicion and misease. Indeed sometimes the manner of the "turning up" only fuels that unease, which is also underpinned by the timelines of the various pieces. Both between and within the stories there are jump cuts, flashbacks (and, in the case of one story set in 2029 onwards, forwards) and narratives in narratives. The result is, indeed, like a hall of mirrors, with events seen from different perspectives some (or all) of which may be distorted, and characters who keep secrets from each other. How unsettling it is for example to see a reunion between old friends after many years, but to have been told by one, the narrator, that he'd had an affair with the other's wife?

Reading over these last few paragraphs, I think I should emphasise that Allan's writing isn't all - indeed it is hardly at all - weird, shock horror stuff. Even when dealing with the eruption of the grotesque into real life, she writes carefully, restrainedly and, as a result, utterly convincingly. In London, a woman keeps meeting the ghost of her schoolfriend, missing some ten or twenty years. Two tourists witness a horror when stranded one night on a mountain: the next morning they reason it away and go on with their lives. A girl on a train discovers men who ought to be dead: she, too, simply accepts it as one of those things. The stories, even the shortest, tell us enough about what went before and what happens after (and sometimes other stories add to this) to give a sense of their characters' longer lives, of what sort of people they are where they came from, so these moments of strangeness never define the whole life or the person -  except, ironically, for Ruby who does commit an act that will frame the rest of her life.

Ruby is simply awesomely, jaw-droppingly good, and will be one of my top reads of 2020. Don't delay, get this on your TBR pile (and right at the top).

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

30 September 2020

#Blogtour #Review - This Green and Pleasant land by Ayisha Malik

This Green and Pleasant Land
Ayisha Malik
Zaffre, 13 June 2019 (HB), 1 October 2020 (PB)
Available as: HB 446pp, PB 464pp, audio, e
Source: My son's HB copy
ISBN (PB): 9781785764509

I'm grateful to Tracy Fenton for inviting me to take part in the Compulsive Readers blogtour for This Green and Pleasant Land.

In this novel Ayisha Malik brings together - with some glee, I think - what are often thought of as contrasting, even clashing, cultures within this, our sceptr'd isle. The villagers of idyllic(?)  Babbel's End have accepted, even welcomed, Bilal Hasham and his wife Miriam into their community, just as Bilal, a fairly non observant Muslim, has enjoyed the distance from his home town of Birmingham - and from scrutiny from his aunts and mother. But when Bilal, reexamining his life after his mother's death, decides to carry out her last wish and build a mosque in the village - well, things change...

I have to confess that I live in a village rather like Babbel's End (a significant name, you might think) and my wife is a vicar, so reading this book I did, as people say these days, feel seen. Change doesn't come easily in such places and Bilal ("Bill") hardly makes it easier by setting out his plan, with no warning, at a public meeting. Indeed, by not actually having much of a plan - he's not clear where the mosque will be, what it will cost, how it will be run (he's surprised, for example, to discover subsequently that he will need an imam).

But this isn't just about change, however well or badly handled, is it? The intention to build a mosque is seen as a cultural challenge, as something unprecedented, threatening and unwelcome. At risk of digressing, I'd answer that by pointing out that the English countryside has seen centuries of change, both religious and social: far from being a rural oasis of calm, the fields, cottages, churches and chapels have been contested, reworked and reinvented over hundreds of years. The conflict and confrontation that Malik sketches here is fully in keeping with that history and even rather tame compared with parts of our history, and the good folk of Babbel's End might need to learn a few things about that.

Of course, in This Green and Pleasant Land, battle lines are soon drawn, petitions planned and friendships strained. There's an undercurrent of fear and panic: more than a dash of racism too, if we're honest. But Malik gives us much more than that. In the first third of the book we're introduced to a dizzying cast of characters, and to the strains and tensions arising from their lives. In Babbel's End we meet vicar Richard, who's not, I think, entirely comfortable in his vocation, as well as Shelley, queen of the Parish Council, the splendidly lugubrious Tom, the closeted George Copperthwaite and Jenny, editor of the West Plimpington Gazette.

There is grief and strain in the village, with the recent death of a teenage boy, as the story opens.  Malik shows us how families and friendships were already fractured and strained - marriages under pressure, Miriam alienated from her best friend Anne and besset by her own doubts about Bilal and her first love, Raif - before mention of the mosque. And besides Bilal and Mariam, back at home in Birmingham we glimpse Bilal's mother, his Aunt Rukhsana, and a history of strong women bringing up their kids in the absence of husbands (a theme of this book, something occurring in both communities).

Without this fascinating tapestry of lives and backgrounds, This Green and Pleasant Land might be in danger of falling into the whimsy of an Ealing comedy - a high concept dispute with an air of the absurd and little more. With it, there's emotional depth behind almost every passage, every sentence. The external conflict - which rapidly turns into a cause celèbre in the national media, social media and local gossip - mirrors internal doubts, missteps and frailties in Bilal's family, among his supporters and between the opponents of the mosque.

I loved the personalities that we see here - their histories, griefs and friendships. Best of all perhaps is Aunt Rukhsana, an ordinary seeming woman, apparently bypassed by life but with a wonderful determination - not a great English speaker, on arrival in Babbel's End she determines to learn the language so that she can speak to the friend she meets when out walking. Rukhsana also writes poetry, and tries to counteract Bilal's wilder fits of enthusiasm on occasion. She's a great force of life and drives much of this story.

The story itself, which does have its comic side at times, grows into an exploration of faith, belonging and identify, but also of the lengths people will go to get what they want.  Malik shows (without labouring the point) how motivations grow and diverge from their ostensible roots: Bilal's plans never quite ring true as having a religious basis, I think that there's more guilt about his mother here, a sense of duty and of a certain sort of middle aged male restlessness. Some of those in the community who support him seem to be doing so out of a sense of bloody mindedness (Tom) while among the opponents, Shelley seems increasingly conflicted as events whirl our of control and unpleasant feelings and passions attach to the campaign. Some of her faction seen more passionate about opposing the mosque the less likely they are to ever bee seen in church. Again this rings true, a certain type of cultural jingoism and fake (and ignorant) religiosity driving debate rather than genuine feeling and knowledge.

Just how might that toxicity be overcome? What are Ayisha Malik's answers? They aren't glib or easy. Celebrating, above all, the value of kindness, reasonableness and friendship this is I think in the end an optimistic book, one that doesn't deny the differences between people but which draws how much more is that unites us all. This Green and Pleasant Land is sharp and well-imagined. It was a great pleasure to read and I'd recommend it unreservedly.

For more information about This Green and Pleasant Land, see the publisher's website here. And don't forget the blogtour stops coming up (see the poster below) for more insights into the book!

You can buy This Green and Pleasant Land from your local highstreet bookshop, or online from Hive Books - who support local bookshops - Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.


28 September 2020

Review - A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin

A Song for the Dark Times (Rebus, 23)
Ian Rankin
Orion, 1 October 2020
Available as: HB, 336pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9781409176978

I'm SO grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Song for the Dark Times via NetGalley.

And Rebus goes on. I had a little trouble finding which number in the series is - I think it's 23, but actually, does it matter? I'm just glad to have another chance to meet the awkward, driven, intractable old sod. (Readers though may like me be alarmed at what's going on in the first few pages of the book...)

In recent Rebus books, accepting that he's no longer on the Force, Rankin has at times had to stretch things a bit to give John an in to the investigation. In A Song for the Dark Times this is finessed very nicely: Keith, partner to Rebus's daughter Samantha, has gone missing to of course it's into the clapped out old Saab and off up the A9 to try and find him. That mystery, and the worse one that emerges as Rebus begins to poke around, gives him a perfect excuse to get involved because he's family.

Which is not to say that the local police welcome or even accept him getting involved in their enquiry (and nor does Sammy, as things spiral out of control). But he's clearly in the right place and doing the right thing.

Back in Edinburgh, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are working on a more conventional enquiry - a wealthy Saudi student, whose father is in disfavour back at home, has been found dead in a bad part of town. There are all kinds of sensitivities, and Cafferty seems to be taking an interest. So lots to  chew on there and we get to see something I've long been hoping for, a story with Clarke as its focus, out of Rebus's shadow (and taint). Fox may have got the fancy promotion rather than her, but she's, always, clearly the more capable of the two, albeit they work together well (including on looking after Rebus's long-suffering dog, Brillo).

The result is, effectively, a pair of parallel stories showcasing Rebus at his most driven and implacable (his little girl is at risk!) and Clarke being generally on top of things. Brilliant to read, and also allowing Rankin to divert off to the history of the local camp (variously used for internments, POWs and refugees) that Keith is interested in and to the precarious state of Cafferty's crime empire. The latter looks as though it's sowing the seeds for future storylines in a series that continues to satisfy.

Amongst all this, Rankin has his sights set on dodgy land deals, on the scapegoating of foreigners (both in the 1940s, with internments in the camps, and now, with assaults following Brexit) and perhaps on rich, entitled students ('no visible bookcases'). But these are more background themes than foreground concerns with the story dominated by Rebus's family concerns, especially a sense of regret that he wasn't a better  husband and father and by the axis between Fox and Clarke (there seems more of a spark between them than there is between her and Sutherland, notionally her lover).

Overall, another very enjoyable Rebus novel.

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


26 September 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire, 1)
Andrea Stewart
Orbit, 8 September 2020
Available as: HB, 435pp, e, audio
Source: ARC
ISBN: 9780356514925

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of The Bone Shard Daughter to consider for review and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Well.

The Bone Shard Daughter has just everything you need in your fantasy. There are complex, relatable characters, a world so well developed and portrayed that you can just luxuriate in it (seriously - I want to skip lockdown and go and stay on a floating island) and an enthralling plot that will seize you from the first page.

There are in fact, four plots. FOUR!

First we meet Lin, cloistered daughter of the Emperor, but seemingly a failed daughter because she's lost her memory and can't learn his bone shard magic.

Then Jovis, who at first seems the kind of rogue who abounds in fantasy - a thief, smuggler and chancer on the run from the authorities and from crime gang the Ioph Carn. But Jovis proves to have depths and motivations to him and to be embarked on a quest of his own.

There's also the mysterious young woman Sand, trapped on a remote island and also suffering memory loss.

And finally, Phalue. What can I say about Phalue? She's a headstrong young woman, a fighter and a lover (not above wearing her armour specifically to impress her partner Ranami), a bit confused, idealistic - and the indulged daughter of her island's Governor.

Stewart's approach is to spin highly engaging and fast-paced stories for all four protagonists, using the light each of these casts on different aspects of the invented world to fill out the overall picture. It means the book takes off right away, with little or no hiatus when it switches focus between the four (always a risk when they are many points of view) as we come from each strand into the next with an enlarged sense of what is going on. And equally there is something for everyone here: palace intrigue, revolutionaries seeking to free an oppressed peasantry, romance, a cruel emperor (his "constructs" - artificial beasts who acts as spies or agents - are powered by bone shards taken from children when they come of age. The life-force of the constructs drains the originator of the shard of life and vigour until they eventually die). And much, much more (FLOATING ISLANDS!)

Each of the four central characters has their own mystery (or mysteries) and it's pretty clear that not everything is as it seems. The apparently stable order guaranteed by the Emperor may be about to crumble, with other powers crowding into the islands, causing disasters and change. We will see, I'm sure, in future books exactly how Lin, Jovis, Phalue and Sand fit in with that and how - whether - they reconcile their different quests and needs. Meanwhile, The Bone Shard Daughter offers us some wonderful relationships - Lin with her prickly, reclusive father (who has brought in a foster son to jostle with her for the throne), Phalue and Ranami, two women obviously in love but constantly bickering about politics and much else, Jovis, absorbed in his endless quest yet constantly going out of his way to save people (and animals!) Perhaps they fill a gap in his life, make up for a loss, or perhaps they help him fend off some awful truth about whatever he's looking for? And Sand, who we see least of, but who achieves a lot despite her exile to a remote island.

Put simply, The Bone Shard Daughter is the strongest start to a fantasy trilogy I've read for a long time, and I'll watch out keenly for the next part because these characters really speak to me - as well as the background of floating islands migrating under wind and tide in the endless ocean. Put this one to the top of your reading pile.

For more information about The Bone Shard Daughter, see the publisher's website here (as well as dropping in on the blog tour stops listed in the poster below!)

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