2 June 2020

Review - The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Cover by Peter Bollinger
The Obsidian Tower (Rooks and Ruin, 1)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 2 June (e), 4 June (PB) 2020
Available as: PB, 488pp, e
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9780356513188

In The Obsidian Tower, Caruso returns to the content of Eruvia some 150 years after the events of her previous Swords and Fire trilogy. The cruel enslavement of mages in Raverra is no more, and the focus of this first book in Rooks and Ruin is on the territory of Morgrain which is part of Vaskandar.

I enjoyed seeing things from the perspective of a region ruled by one of the Witch Lords (actually, the Lady of Owls) and in fact that's not the only perspective shift we see here. What will strike the reader immediately, I think, is the strange, but utterly timely, position of Caruso's main protagonist, Exalted Ryxander ("Ryx" to her friends). Put simply, Rxy has to keep a distance from anyone else, in case they die. An early scene sees her recall meeting a friend, each sat at one end of a bench, clearly maintaining the requisite 2m social distance. Caruso swears that she didn't use a crystal ball, or other means of divination, to pitch her story so squarely at our present circumstances but she's clearly off to something of a head start in reflecting the world of 2020.

The detailed reason for Ryx's behaviour are something I'll leave for now - spoilers! - but it is intimately bound to her position I the magical hierarchy of Vaskander and Caruso imagines it, and the challenges it poses, well, from the frightened pageboy who realises too late that he's close to the faces of the castle servants as they to the real possibility - present throughout this book - that Ryx will be brought to account for a death under the harsh customs of her nation.

As if that threat wasn't enough, the book presents us with an intricate mixture of ancient magics, modern diplomacy, pigheaded will-to-power and the simple desire of a young woman to live a little (not easy, in her particular circumstances). Delegations from hostile powers have assembled at Ryx's home, Gloamingard, to settle a territorial dispute and the fate of the content - war or peace - may turn on the result. Castle Gloamingard has something of the incremental, haphazard construction of a Gormenghast with forgotten corridors, hidden rooms and secrets passageways. It also harbours a four thousand years old secret - a doorway that must not be opened.

Caruso has sone fun with that trope. Of course we know that door's going to open! Of course we know the consequences will be bad! But rather than dwell on what horrors may follows - we do find out, but not for a good while - we are given the politics around the event. Imagine Denethor, Saruman, Gandalf and Sauron's ambassador sitting down too negotiate the fate of the Ring. Yes, Ryx is staging a peace conference, complicated by a series of murders (for one of which she is being blamed) while coping with the absence of a key ally and her own, personal difficulties. Essentially a bad day at the office (for a very special value of "office").

The book succeeds brilliantly, forcing Ryx to play for high stakes against some really, really awkward people. The action mostly takes place within Gloamingard itself, giving the book - as the murders begin - a bit of the air of a country house mystery (for a very special value of "country house"). One difference is that country house mysteries don't generally invoke continent-scale warfare.

Another is that they don't normally have protagonists as absorbing, well drawn and engaging as Ryx. In her, Caruso has given us a truly memorable woman, struggling to live with and overcome disadvantages in a society that's snootily obsessed with skills and talents and which attempts non too subtly to silence and marginalise her. She's having none of that, and fiercely pursues both what she sees as her duty to her people and her desire for some life of her own. Of course, the question of what will happen if - when - those aims collide hangs over this book - but I'd trust Ryx to find a way through in the end.

All in all this is a zinger of a book, suggesting that Rooks and Ruin will be every bit as readable, absorbing and epic as was Swords and Fire. If not more.

The Obsidian Tower is published in the UK as an e-book on 2 June and as a paperback on 4th. I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit UK for an advance copy to consider for review.

For more information about The Obsidian Tower, see the publisher's website here.

29 May 2020

Review - Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky
Solaris, 13 May 2020
Available as: e, limited edition HB, 208pp
Read as: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781781088487

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

Nguyēn Sun Mao is a firewalker, that is, a fixer who, with a trusted crew, will venture out into the withering heat of near future, global-heating afflicted tropical Africa to mend tech.

The little community he lives in - Ankara Achouka - owes its existence to a rich-person project to escape the heat and death. Ankara it, literally, the site of the Anchor (or one of them), the foot of a space elevator that serves the building starship Grand Celeste. Workers were gathered from around the world ('There'd been plenty out of Vietnam who'd needed somewhere that wasn't underwater right about them') to construct it, repopulating zones previously abandoned as the temperature rose.

Scattered around in the desiccated countryside are the abandoned villa estates of the monied who got together to fund escalator and starship, the labs and research stations where it was designed, and square kilometres of solar panels to power everything. It's all pretty much abandoned now as the last few passengers drive, stay briefly in Ankara and make their way to their berths. Mao and his ilk scratch out a bare living keeping those panels running to serve the hotel and town, and fixing this and that.

Of course, this book involves a trip out of town into the heat and into danger, a trip that will change things for ever...

Tchaikovsky packs a great deal into this short book. There's the closely observed relationship between Mao and his team - Lupé, who 'just liked the feel of the metal under her fingers', Hotep, 'the space girl', a young woman expelled from the Celeste because she didn't fit in ('She laughed at the wrong times, cried at the wrong things, took the wrong message from jokes,,,') - one of the elite, born, in her view, to be an astronaut, but now to be left behind, she's an ambiguous figure ('she had a right to be mad, maybe, but that didn't make her the avenging champion of the world either'), which is reflected in the way everyone around her behaves.

There are heartbreaking, truly fearful descriptions of the ruin of Earth, the dry river beds, dusty plains and long-gone animals and and trees (trees are now just something strange you see in old pictures- were they ever real?) The repellant, processed food. And, everywhere, the legacy of the rich who, rather than try to fix things, squandered resources on building themselves an escape route.

It is a really grim vision, but in these times of one rule for the powerful, one for the rest of us, it hardly takes much persuasion that these might be the consequences, this might come true.

There is, also, of course, a mystery driving events here. Just what's causing the power drops that Mao is sent out to fix? The job takes him and the team way, way out into the badlands, to areas rumour populates with the strange, dangerous relics of experiments, where possibly labs still run on auto, tampering with who knows what. Mao is chosen for having survived one nightmare trip already but this time he faces different challenges.

There is some beautiful (and clever!) writing here ('the libido faction in Mao's personal government tabled a motion', 'They were heading for the Heart of Brightness', a sun 'the head of a white hot rivet just driven in by some celestial smith'). I loved the way that Mao's, and his crew's, expectation of the ruined, abandoned villas they discover, and the civilisation they represented, is all mediated through popular dramas which themselves don't comprehend what they're portraying, or the grimly realistic cultural attitudes embedded in the text, exposed when Lupé finds a working mirror screen that, to flatter, smooths the blemishes from her skin - and renders it 'a good few shades lighter'.

While there's a SF core to the novel in its background of climate disaster, space travel and future tech, the events are all driven by the consequences of flawed humanity as we know it and can see it today. There's no redeeming hero trying to fix things, indeed from what we see of the powerful here they're all about to begin a scramble over each other for escape, leaving Mao and his like to wither in the heat.

Which is what makes it - despite the temperatures experienced by Mao and Co! - still a chilling read. It's a book I'd recommend, as temperature records fall and we hear talk of colonies on Mars which, I'm sure, won't be for you and me...

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

27 May 2020

Review - Were We Awake? Stories by LM Brown

Were We Awake: Stories
LM Brown
Fomite Press, 20 November 2019
Available as: PB,  236pp, e
Read as: e
ISBN: 9781947917330

I'm grateful to the author for a free e-copy of these stories to consider for review.

Were We Awake follows Brown's previous collection Treading the Uneven Road (which I reviewed here). Again, many are set in the same world, and town in Ireland and feature many common characters and themes. Like that book, a few are also set in elsewhere, particularly in Boston. We see some remembered events but from different perspectives. Indeed perspective is a theme here - we see people who presumed themselves and their lives to be central to their own "stories" reminded that they are also on the margins of others' stories: the way that the wider reality of Brown's imagined world is conveyed as separate stories says something about the nature of her characters' experience

In the first story, Communion, for example, for two young boys, Raymond and Alby an afternoon in school is disrupted when silence falls over the nearby quarry, and sirens are heard. This story describes an event we've already heard about in Brown's stories but from a new perspective and it captures that sense you can have in childhood of knowing that momentous, dreadful things have happened while still wanting your tea and to play with a friend. The story adds something to what we already know from Treading the Uneven Road and in doing that casts some of the experiences in that book in a rather different light.

In Hidden, a young woman waits to see if she will be offered a place at college - which will mean leaving her parents Evelyn and Lorcan and her aunt Bevin who share a house on the shore. (Evelyn and Hazel appear briefly in "The Accident"). Cleverly, what seems to be the centre of the story, a moment of growing-up for Hazel, is turned upside down by a discovery. I loved that way that Hazel's reaction to that discovery undermines her supposed maturity and also upends what one might have thought the centre of the story was.

Flight returns to Raymond from Communion as a young man, living with his mother and employed by his uncle as a rent collector on the estate. Raymond senses that there's something unexplained about his father's death (a mystery that was explained in Treading the Uneven Road) but, unable to get answers, he focuses instead on the lives of the tenants, a sphere of life where he has some power. I enjoyed the juxtaposition. In Communion, we have just seen a horrific event from Alby's perspective, here in "Flight", some ten or fifteen years later, Raymond, closer to it, is apparently unperturbed. He can't really remember his Da, whose loss has become more of an intellectual puzzle, and he's unable to solve even that.

The Clown Prince opens as Alexander, a clown struggling to support his family, puts on his make-up, The Clown Prince is pregnant with alternatives, possibilities, things not said - going back to the very roots of his and his wife's marriage. I felt there was more lurking here than is spoken - that identities are in question, patience running low, doubts bubbling.

Walking a Country Road is a tense, almost claustrophobic story concerning a couple who moved back to Sligo from London and then divorced. Brown slowly unreels the layers, from the perspective of their daughter Leanne who feels constrained by being named for her father's dead - murdered - sister. There are powerful currents of guilt, mistakes being made to atone for past mistakes in a relationship between the three that seems wrong from all directions. Very powerful.

What It Is To be Empty-Handed is set in the US, the protagonist - a 14 year old girl - narrating how she travels with her mother from one dingy lodging or motel to another, never attending school but being notionally homeschooled. Now "Debra" is insisting on being called that, rather than "Mom" - and as the story is spilled, as the narrator is plied with drink by an older man one evening, we begin to see the dislocation that explains that. This was a truly chilling and despairing story.

Crashing gives us a very interior-focussed narrative. Catherine is worked to a frazzle between the selfish demands of two bone idle men, her husband Dermot (whose likes his eggs done a very particular way, and whose latest imposition is a new dog, which of course she has to look after) and her son whose house several miles away she cleans weekly. (He sulks if she doesn't also provide home cooking at the drop of a hat). The reader may have been hoping that Catherine would snap and tell these two that they need to pull their socks up. Emotionally satisfying as that might have been, something rather more awful, rather more interesting, happens, more devastating but which does, eventually, give her an opportunity to connect with someone who isn't just trying to set her to work for them. My favourite story in this book.

Cold Spell is also a US-based story, another close, interior two-hander featuring a husband and wife whose marriage seems to have been afflicted by a, well, cold spell to match the Arctic weather currently bearing down. Again the husband is an unaware, selfish person who can't, or won't be bothered to, read the forecast (as it were). There are only so many ways this might play out and I sort of guessed the ending. It's a neat, self contained piece.

Confession is the first of three closely linked stories (with Anniversaries and Games They Played) revolving round a murder that takes place late one night behind the Dun Maeve pub. The victim is a local man, Nick, with a wife and children but the event also costs Nollaig her daughter - barmaid Margaret was working late that night and can't bear to remain in the village afterwards, thinking of what happene. Confession follows her to Sydney, while Anniversaries looks at Nollaig's life back at home, at her friendship with Raymond's mother and what the yearly reminder at Mass of the death does to her life as her daughter seems to recede further and further into the past.

Games They Played takes a different perspective, going back to the immediate aftermath and looking at the dead man, Nick's, wife Joan. Like many of the stories in Were We Awake, a few pages displace what we thought we know, and shows things as quite different. Without diminishing or contradicting what Margaret and Nollaig have gone through, the picture is completed and we see other relationships that were central to these events.

Taking Too Many Chances and Green Balloons are two further stories set in the USA. In the first a husband and wife, at odds and in financial trouble, take a holiday which brings some of them into danger. But they only really understand how much, and what, afterwards.

Green Balloons is a tender little story about two young women who, for a time, are able to ease each others' pain. But only for a time. It's a sad, sad story which tells so much in just a few pages.

All the stories here share this: the property of saying so much. While those that share the deeper background of Treading the Uneven Road have an advantage here - they can build on and echo the world already established - all of them do this, creating real characters in real situations and showing things from multiple directions.

Overall, it's a strong collection which I enjoyed reading and can recommend without reservation.

25 May 2020

Review - Looking Glass by Christina Henry

Looking Glass (The Chronicles of Alice, 3)
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 21 April 2020
Available as: PB, 336pp, e, audio
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781789092868

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Looking Glass to consider for review.

Following from Alice and Red Queen, Looking Glass sees Henry return to her Alice-In-Wonderland inspired world, this time with a collection of four novellas featuring Alice and Hatcher - and one focussing on Alice's sister, Elizabeth, living in the New City.

In the first story, Lovely Creature, Elizabeth seems in danger of falling as Alice fell - blundering into the Old Town, being made use of, and then rejected by her parents. Henry cleverly gives us more insight into Alice's early life while making it clear that Elizabeth is not just a substitute Alice (even if that's how her parents see her). Yes, we encounter the Jabberwock. Yes, there are hints scattered around - like the creepy Mr Dodgson - that we're in the same world. But stories don't all end the same way and Elizabeth is determined to shape her own, whatever happens rot her. I hope we'll meet her again.

Girl in Amber sees Alice take centre stage. She and Hatcher are travelling through the wilderness, looking for somewhere to call home. But it's not easy. Winter is closing in, Hatcher can't be with other people too much, Alice can't survive in the wilds. So a mysterious building looming out of a snowstorm should be welcome, no?

This story really sees Alice come into her own, and its tender and insightful portrayal of the relationship between her and Hatcher - two half-broken, half-mended people - is a (painful) joy to read.

When I First came to Town is the exception here in that it takes places before the events of Alice and Red Queen. Hatcher has learned now to trust enough, has healed enough, to tell Alice about his early life - before the asylum, when he was a boy called Nicholas who was keen and hungry, training in a boxing gym to take on the most fearsome bruiser in the Old City. The Grinder, though, works for Rabbit and making his acquaintance will come at a cost. Perhaps the closest story in tone and mood to the earlier books, When I First came to Town goes some way to explaining Hatcher's fall and the hurts done to him - as well as telling us more about the Old and New Towns and the varieties of men and women who live there. A brutal story that spares nhe reader nothing, it was my favourite here.

Finally we come to The Mercy Seat in which Alice and Hatcher, crossing the mountains to find their safe place, come across a self-righteous, hypocrisy-ridden village which will destroy them if it can. It's a simple story and shows both coming into more knowledge of what they can do (and what they can't).

I loved these stories. They're distinct, but taken together, give an overall picture - like the mirror of the title, they give us a reflected view of Henry's Alice world, mixing viewpoints, making the large small and the small large, hinting at what else might come and planting some seeds. Ideally read after the other two books, they could still serve as a taster to this world, and there are many places where you'll post a sly Wonderland touch, whether integral to the plot (as with the Rabbit) or - seemingly - just placed there to be spotted.

Great fun, and I especially enjoyed revisiting this world.

For more information about Looking Glass, see the Titan Books website here.

22 May 2020

Review - Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Sea Change
Nancy Kress
Tachyon Publications, 22 May 2020
Available as: PB, e
Read as: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781616963316 (PB) 9781616963323 (e)

I'm grateful to Tachyon for providing me with an advance e-copy of Sea Change.

In a near-future USA, beset by economic difficulties and climate collapse, Renata is an agent for a mysterious opposition group, the Org. Seeing the Org's identification mark - a particular shade of paint - on a vehicle, she steps in to handle what may be a major breach in security.

The fact that the "vehicle" is a self-propelled GPS guided house makes the opening sentence ('The house was clearly lost') one of the weirdest I've recently come across. That is, though, the only fantastical aspect to this deeply convincing fable. As we get deeper into Renata's - she is the narrator of the story - life, we learn about the catastrophe that has ruined the US: basically a bit of GM-gone -wrong. The explanation of that is wholly convincing, as also the political consequences (a drastic turn against GM, meaning that Renata's "rebel" group is pro GM and determined to do it right, against the desire of most of the population. Their agenda is to combat rising sea levels, temperatures and hunger. In age when 'anything can be hacked' they operate like spies from the 1940s, all dead letter boxes, recognition signs and absolutely no tech.

That was quite a lot for me to swallow, being instinctively suspicious of GM technology, but that didn't prove a barrier to falling into, and enjoying, this book. There is so much here to enjoy. Wrapped up with Kress's story of how the world went bad there's a tender, infuriating, on-off love story between Renata and her ex-husband Jake, an actor: Kress really captures that can't-be-together, can't-be-apart thing that haunts some couples (in one place, early in the chronology, Renata compares Jake to Richard Burton: fateful, given his and Elizabeth Taylor's stormy relationship).

There's a narrative of Native rights (or perhaps I should say wrongs) - Renata's cover identity, protecting her as a courier for the Org, as as a lawyer taking large pro-bone cases for Native Americans and through her voice Kress narrates the legal bind in which they find themselves when seeking justice (whether defending themselves or prosecuting those from outside who wrong them). There's also a tragic strand about a young boy whose death is tied up with the environmental themes heres.

It's a lot to  pack into 192 pages and that inevitably means there are places where the narration has to fill us in on those legal niceties, or a decade of economic turmoil, or the highs and lows of Renata's and Jake's relationship. Yet the narrative drive and the interest never flag, and there's a genuine sense of jeopardy here right till the last page - as well as a mystery concerning Renata's cell in the Org.

The book also has some sharp writing and insights. 'Minutes snailed by', for example, or 'Childhood doesn't really end until both your parents die' or 'It isn't the past that creates the future. It's how you interpret the past.' Or - and getting his back to the point - 'Anyone who would trust online celebrity sites would believe in leprechauns, elves and the wholesomeness of high-fructose corn syrup'.

All in all a plausible future, credible, relatable characters and a great deal to think about in this one. I'd strongly recommend.

(And - a coincidence, this, only affecting me - until last month I'd never heard of the Snoqualmie Pass but I've now read two books, in as many weeks that mentioned it. Weird or what?)

For more information about this book, see the publisher's website here. You can also buy it there or from Blackwell's from Amazon UK or Amazon US (sorry, I couldn't find on the other usual sites).

20 May 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Goodbye Man by Jeffery Deaver

The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw, Book 2)
Jeffery Deaver
Harpercollins, 14 May 2020
Available as: HB, 432pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780008303785

I'm grateful to Anne at Random Things Tours and to the publisher for an advance copy of The Goodbye Man to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

This is the second Colter Shaw thriller. If you haven't read the first, The Never Game, I'd advise you do that before reading The Goodby Man - it will make more sense, and also, spoilers.

I will say right away that Deaver really caught me off guard with this one. I thought I knew what to expect from this series Colter Shaw, who travels the USA in his camper van, investigating disappearances for reward, would roll into town, encounter a mystery, and solve it (while making a little progress, on the side, in the matter of his father's murder). There would be clues, also trails and heart pumping finale.

And so it seems to begin, as we discover the town of Gig Harbour, where two young men are wanted for a racist hate crime.  A reward has been offered and Shaw - fresh from San Franciso and the events of The Never Game - is soon on the trail. However, things then take a strange twist. Unsettled when the pursuit goes dramatically wrong, and seeking answers, he heads in a different direction - infiltrating a reclusive self-help group, the Foundation, and encountering its charismatic leader, Master Eli.

Jeffery Deaver
That results in a very different book, both in tone and pacing, than The Never Game. Rather than acting like a detective, as in the previous book, Shaw's success (and survival) will depend on his ability to act a part, remain undercover, and ferret out what's really going on - without any standing to be asking questions or poking around, and with no access to outside resources either to aid the investigation or to back him up if things go wrong. That takes Shaw some way out of his comfort zone and I think possibly the same may be true for some readers if they were expecting a trail of clues and red herrings - as in The Never Game or for example the crimes investigated by Lincoln Rhyme. But stick around, this is rather good!

For me the really audacious thing about the story is I think that Shaw isn't as good at this as he thinks. We've previously seen him shrewdly calculating the odds and he still does that when it comes to a fight, to eluding pursuit in the woods or breaking into a locked office. But the approach is little use in a setting where others make the rules and Shaw is as clueless about what's going to happen (and as obliged to do as he's told) as any other "Novice". Watching him discover that and - Shaw being Shaw - try to apply his father's survivalist wisdom to it - is fascinating, if unexpected.

Also fascinating is what happens when the Foundation's touchy-feely counselling technique, "The Process (tm)", bumps up against Shaw's tortured life history. I enjoyed seeing him squirm as rather too much is revealed, and it would be fun to let this go further - I find Shaw an interesting character with a vividly realised, and completely weird, backstory (the death of his father and disappearance of his brother, the obsession of the latter with some plot or secret that apparently got him killed). The flashbacks in The Never Game suggested all this has left a deep wound and I wondered how far the Foundation might open it up. Maybe in future books Deaver will go further.

If that suggests The Goodbye Man is more of a people-y book, that's true, with the dynamics of what goes on at Snoqualmie very much driven by individuals, their character and their pyschology. At the centre is Master Eli, a narcissistic and deeply unpleasant Messiah whose rhetoric was eerily familiar ('...got a business degree form one of the best colleges in the country, graduated at the top of my class. Summa cum laude. I started companies, a dozen of them. They all did great. I made a ton of money, hired a ton of employees. Successful!All my companies. They were perfect, they were gorgeous!') The book is at one level a fascinating study of how such an individual may bend intelligent, successful people to his will (and as Deaver shows in his reading list at the end, he's done his research on this).

That's not to say that The Goodbye Man lacks action - there's plenty of that, and it certainly delivers the blood-pumping finale I'd expected, while driving Shaw forward on his personal quest.

I should warn that there is a theme here of suicide and Shaw - being Shaw - at one stage is rather judgemental about this. He does though come good in the end.

All in all I enjoyed this this book immensely and it left me very, very curious about where things will go next - both Shaw's own search for justice and answers and what sort of story Deaver will give us. One thing I'm certain of is that it won't be what we expect!

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

Buy the book!

Even in the current difficult circumstances, many local highstreet bookshops are still operating by mail order, and they need your support. Alternatively, online, Hive Books supports local shops. Or you can order from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon, to mention just a few.

Follow the blogtour! 

There have been some cracking posts already - and more still to come! See the poster below for details.

19 May 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

The Creak on the Stairs (Forbidden Iceland, 1)
Eva Björg Ægisdóttir (Trans by Victoria Cribb)
Orenda Books, 28 May 2020
Available as: PB, e
Read as: PB advance review copy
ISBN: 9781913193041

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater of Random Things Through my Letterbox for an advance copy of The Creak on the Stairs to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the tour. I've been watching the blog tour stops  come along and have been impatient to have my say about this this book - it is a book that makes an impression.

There is a moment in The Creak on the Stairs when Elma, the detective investigating the death of Elísabet Hölludóttir, happens upon a school yearbook photo. In the background is a young girl - eight or nine years old - who's drawn a picture which Elma interprets as a cry for help from a position of abuse and despair. That cry, made decades earlier, has been unheard, ignored - until now. It stands for the events of this book: distress, torment, hidden in plain sight in a little town where - as we are told many times - everyone knows everyone else's businesses. But nobody acts.

A central theme here is Elma's uncovering of Elísabet's early life. A successful pilot with a husband and two kids, Elísabet is found dead one evening on the rocks below an abandoned lighthouse. Nobody can understand why she is in the town of Akranes at all and it falls to Elma to explore who she was. A great deal of what Elma finds doesn't seem to be relevant to the enquiry or threatens scandal to prominent members of the tight-knit community and her boss, Hörður, becomes impatient - or perhaps nervous is the word - at what may come out. At the same time, Elma herself is grieving after a bad break-up (the reason she has returned to her hometown). She is especially raw and what she finds out will hit her hard.

I liked Elma - her tenacity, her chaotic life and the palpable feeling that comes off (never I think articulated I so many words) that she's somehow failed, landed back where she began after a successful life in Reykjavik but that nevertheless she's still here and is going to look the town in the face. She's obviously hurting, but she won't back down.

Accompanying Elma's, and her colleagues', investigation, we have short sections of story between 1989 and 1992, narrating painful things which underlie present day events. These are dark passages, hinting at abuse and neglect (although, to one clear, there are no explicit descriptions here) and they hold the key to more than one mystery. They also highlight that somebody - a teacher, a neighbour - should have read the signs and worked out what was going on (in a town where, as we have seen everybody knows everybody's business). That nothing was done is a charge hanging over the townsfolk, a charge that's never, quite put into words but is still there: an accusation, a verdict

In what is actually in the end a pretty scorching condemnation of smugness and small-town complacency it's Elma who brings some perspective: having come back, as Elísabet did, she perhaps has a wider perspective. The book is a slow burner with a gathering sense of outrage and it has a ferocious ending that totally wrong-footed me - and left me eager for more from Ægisdóttir.

Victoria Cribb's translation is smooth and lucid, the book flowing well and the reader having a great sense of immediacy, of being told the story directly.

Strongly recommended.

And the tour's not done yet - as I said, there have already been some splendid reviews and other pieces, and lots more still to come - see the poster below!

For more information about the book, and for links to buy it as paperback or e-book, see the publisher's website here.

11 May 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Hammer to Fall by John Lawton

Hammer to Fall (Joe Wilderness, 3)
John Lawton
Grove Press, 14 May 2020
Available as: HB, 400pp, e
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781611856354

I'm honoured to be starting off the blog tour for Hammer to Fall, the new thriller from John Lawton (and grateful to Ayo for inviting me to take part and providing a free advance e-copy of the book).

This is the third book in Lawton's sequence featuring their, rogue and spy Joe Holderness (nickname Wilderness) and for a bonus it also includes (Frederick) Troy about whom Lawton has written rather more books. I enjoy the "shared universe" of these books and characters and the way that Lawton dots backwards and forwards, intersecting with previously established storylines (this one covers events in 1948, 1955 and 1966-68).

As we open, Wilderness is based in West Berlin, notionally and RAF Sergeant but actually up to something spooky. This work seems to leave him with plenty of free time for petty larceny and smuggling and he's part of an established band of "Schiebers", minor crooks, smugglers, and forgers who basically supply what the East German Communist regime can't. This involves contact with their opposites in the NKVD who are just as corrupt. Lawton paints a fascinating picture where amidst the nascent Cold War, such behaviour is simply a fact of life. The accent is very much on the individual, on the minor misdemeanours rather than everything having Consequences with a capital "C". That contrasts with the high stakes in the world of say George Smiley where one feels that an MI6 operative known by the opposition to be smuggling would immediately be blackmailed, turned and end up dishing out secrets from the top of the Service.

Consequently things here are very morally ambiguous and the implications of what's happening very subtle indeed. Nor is the sense of freewheeling, conniving spidery confined to the immediate post War years. In the main party of the book, Wilderness finds himself posted as a punishment to Finland where he has to pretend to be a Cultural Attaché showing British films in remote, draughty village halls. Bored out of his mind, he rapidly becomes involved in a local racket alongside an investigation in to a potential real bit of spycraft. The heart of the story is, though, always on Wilderness as a person, the effect on him of years spent in dubious undercover schemes while his young daughters grow up without him in London, and on where this may lead (an example is given of an old spy living a only life in Dublin).

The third act of this book takes us to the Prague Spring, where, naturally, British Intelligence is very interested in the goings-on and there is a reunion of sorts of Wilderness and his old crew. (Of sorts...) Lawton is very good, I think, on the dynamics of those months, on how the internal struggles would have looked to a close observer and on the reactions of ordinary citizens. The writing here has to strike a balance between a convincing, engaging plot giving agency to characters we've come to know and understand and the need to narrate the history they are experiencing as though it were in doubt - history which may be bent a little, but can't be fundamentally changed. Lawton does this pretty well - we do get a certain amount of narration, with Embassy cables recounting key events and moving things forward, but we also get Wilderness (and others) pursuing their (sometimes shady) objectives below the radar, as it were, with a genuine doubt about how everything will come to a climax.

In the meantime there are the (to me, ever fascinating) tropes of spy fiction - living a cover, clandestine meetings with contacts, the danger of betrayal, even, in flashback, a scene as agents are exchanged on a bridge in Berlin at midnight. And behind it all there is, quite properly, the human factor. When all the plans are made, all the fall-backs imagined and the risks assessed, what will the thing be that nobody saw but which rewrites the story? The boredom of an agent leading to unwise mischief? The inability, after carrying years of guilt, to harden the heart and kill at the needed moment?  The inability, after years of fear and stress, to trust at the needed moment? The bureaucratic blunder? The key failure of operational security?

The conclusion is truly nailbiting. There is, as Lawton notes, a sense of an ending here - but how will it come?

(That's not, by the way, the only allusion to a book, film or song I saw here - 'It was a looking-glass war from which few returned', 'I met my old lover on the street last night' - with its unstated refrain).

This was an enjoyable, gripping read, a more people-centred espionage story in which the central question is less, what are "they" up to, but, how can we (all of us, both sides) survive this business with something, some of ourselves, intact? Lawton draws his characters generously and he has a way with the telling phrase ('It would be a one-horse town if somebody happened to ride in', 'little Berlin Walls of the skull', 'Not designed to make you feel at home, but to make you feel there was no such place as home', 'It was hard to make new friends. So he didn't try.') There is atmosphere in spades, and the pages on my e-reader flew by. I'd recommend.

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

To buy Hammer to Fall, it's worth trying your local independent bookshop, even in these difficult times (especially in these difficult times). Or you can order online from Hive Books - who support local booksellers - Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

There are more stops to come on this tour - see the poster below and do, please, follow all of them.

10 May 2020

Review - Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

Cover by Charlotte Stroomer
Making Wolf
Tade Thompson
Constable, 7 May 2020
Available as: PB, 259pp, e, audio
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9781472131201

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Making Wolf to consider for review.

If you have read Thompson's Rosewater trilogy you'll know that he should be seriously rated as a fiction writer but you may expect to only find him writing SFF. However with Making Wolf he's brought some of the same sensibility to the crime/ thriller genre - albeit a great deal more gore!

Making Wolf is a homeconing for Weston Kogi, a young man who left - fled - the West African state of Alcacia some fifteen years before amidst civil war. He's come back for his aunt's funeral (his aunt, who helped him get away in the first place) and doesn't intend to stay long, indeed the first part of book has some amusing scenes where it's clear that Kogi's time in London (he works as a store detective) has left him rather adrift in Alcacia. He can't bear the heat and humidity and has a a morbid fear of mosquitos.

However, those are the least of his problems. Once it comes known that he's a "detective" (he may have been vague about what sort) he becomes a prize for two warring rebel factions, each of whom wish him to prove that the other was responsible for the death of the revered Papa Busi, the only political figure who might have been able to unite the nation. Soon Kogi's plunged into a nightmare of abductions, executions, and what begins as a performative investigation meant simply to keep him alive and buy some time while he works out a way to escape.

Which is where the comedy stops, as Thompson transitions into a very smart thriller, one that allows Kogi to explore the ins and outs of Alcacian society, sketching out both its postcolonial woes and the necessities of life there. This is done through Kogi fairly quickly relearning (in order to survive) how not to appear like a gullible foreign visitor (though he has a few near misses to begin with) while not so quickly discovering exactly what's going on around him (which is what poses the greater threat).

The latter element is a satisfying complex web of motivations and double crosses - Making Wolf may be a relatively short book but there's a great deal going on here and no time at all for the story to sag.

It's good so see that Thompson leaves the ending sufficiently open that we can imagine follow-ups in which Weston Kogi turns his attention to new mysteries.

I would mention that Making Wolf contains some pretty brutal scenes - in particular a couple of gruesome deaths. They're not gratuitous (the book takes place amidst a low intensity civil war) but aren't for the squeamish.

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

9 May 2020

Quick impressions: Extract from "Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi (extract)
Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, 15 September 2020
Available as: HB, 272pp, e
Read as: short extract from e-book
ISBN: 9781526622426

I have been looking forward to Susanna Clarke's new book so was pleased to that a short extract was available on Netgalley. I'm very grateful to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury for providing this.

The text supplied is too short for anything approaching a review, but here are some thoughts...

This is a tantalising extract. We meet the man (boy?) "Piranesi", apparently one of two inhabitants in a vast building, or complex, of halls filled with statues, the only place that he (or his companion, "The Other") seem to be aware of. Piranesi speculates about how many humans there have been: fifteen, he thinks, including him and The Other, based on skeletons he has discovered. He seems to have no knowledge of any parents. He and The Other are hungry for knowledge.

The reader will ask other questions. Piranesi can read and write. Who taught him?

What is this place he lives in - apparently washed by tides in its lower levels?

One clue - only - one familiar reference - in this extract tells us a little about Piranesi's world. How did it get there?

The extract leaves me wondering if Clarke's full work builds on that detail, leading P. to discover more about a wider world, or if it will be left to intrigue. Think Gormenghast, before Titus leaves. A world unto itself, with apparently no need of the outside. There's scope in that for a story that examines events in the self-sufficient space we are shown, but also for a wider one - for a voyage to the outside, for strangers to arrive. Which will it be?

There are few answers in the extract but enough to make me anticipate this book even more! Roll on September!

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

8 May 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Laura Lam
Wildfire (Headline) 30 April 2020
Avalaible as HB, 347pp, e, audio
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781472267641

I'm grateful to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours and to the publisher for an advance copy of Goldilocks to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

I'm sure it's happened to you, that moment when you pick up and read a book that seems so immediate, so relevant, so spookily prescient that you wonder off the author didn't, actually, have access to a time machine.

Well Goldilocks is one such book. Set against a background of environmental devastation - ravaged forests, rising seas, fires and pollution - Lam also gives us a creeping epidemic of misoyny, with women being progressively forced out of the workplace, stripped of their rights and generally written out of the script. All cheered on and celebrated by an incompetent, loudmouth US President.

And then, she throws in a novel virus sweeping the Earth... no, I'm sure this was written before the Days of Covid, but I do seem to smell advance info.

Laura Lam
All this is really just the background. It explains why a crew of five female astronauts - Valerie, Naomi, Hixon, Hart and Lebedev - have been rejected for the upcoming mission to scout out a new habitable planet which may save humankind. Rejected, in favour of a back-up crew of men.

It explains why they don't accept this and mount a daring raid, aiming to scoop prototype starship Atalanta from NASA's control and set off for the planet known as Cavendish.

And it explains the fury unleashed on them by governments, media and social media know-alls.

But there's more to the book than that. Lam draws out a rich emotional history between, especially, Valeria and Naomi. Naomi is Valerie's ward and the two (and Naomi's stepbrother Evan) have sparred for years. Valeria is driven,  indeed she is the inspiration behind the Cavendish project but she doesn't;t suffer fools and she doesn't brook opposition. Don't be misled by comparisons to The Martian - this book is about much more than some women surviving in space. A closer analogy might be Simon Mordern's One Way in which we have that survival strand but it's not just survival in a hostile universe but also survival in the face of the darkness of humanity. You can fix faltering ship systems (but oh, what a dilemma that throws up) or sort out the food supply but those men back on Earth are still not prepared to give up their shiny toys.

And when that begins to put strain on the unity of the crew - a crew which needs, above all, to remain united - well that threatens them all, and all of humanity, which is after all depending on this mission (even if it doesn't;t know that).

I loved the way that Lam sets this situation up as a plausible, organic outgrowth of character and of everyone's history. We are given vignettes of Naomi's and Valerie's earlier life, slowly painting the reality of their relationship. Lam takes her time here and at first I wanted the story to move a bit quicker, following the later timeline of the Atalanta's voyage, but have patience, there are nuances here and successive layers of revelation and truth which bear a slow unravelling. Not least, because we need to grow to like and understand Naomi and Valerie for the novel to have its full effect.

The other book I see Goldilocks compared to is, not surprisingly, The Handmaid's Tale in its depiction of a future, dystopian, misogynist society. The transition to that is portrayed here as being much more gradual, more subtle, than in Atwood's novel and in a sense that's much more chilling; it's also of course chilling because it echoes current developments rather accurately.

But really, Goldilocks (the name refers to the zone around a star - neither too hot, neither too cold - in which life may develop; also, perhaps, to someone having an interloper take over their chair, bed and porridge) is its own book, a bold and absorbing story that was very different from anything I'd read before and one which I'd enthusiastically recommend.

It's almost the end of the tour but there is another stop tomorrow and an impressive number of contributions before - look at the poster!

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

To buy Goldilocks - you should buy it - do try your local bookshop. Many are operating mail order and they really need your support right now. Online alternatives are available: over the past few weeks I've found it useful to check several sites and I would recommend Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, Waterstones and of course Amazon.

6 May 2020

Review - The Wailing Woman by Maria Lewis

Cover by Sam Sephton
The Wailing Woman
Maria Lewis
Piatkus, 30 April 2020
Available as: PB, 403pp, e
Read as: advance PB copy
ISBN: 9780349421322

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Wailing Woman to consider for review.

In a further instalment of her shared-world urban fantasy sequence (following Who's Afraid?, Who's Afraid Too? and The Witch Who Courted Death) in The Wailing Woman, Maria Lewis looks at the banshee, the bean sidhe, the otherworld woman whose voice heralds death.

Dangerous women. Powerful women. Women who, perhaps regrettably, must be hushed - for the good of all, you understand.

There's, obviously, strong feminist potential in this and the point won't be lost on the reader but it is also - indeed primarily - a story of growing up, finding one's voice, of falling in love, doubting one's love, and of holding onto that love in a hostile world.

The story opens with a monstrous (I use the world deliberately) being done to nine year old Sadie Burke, youngest in a family of seven banshees living in Australia to which all of her people were exiled two hundred years ago. Forced ever since to abide by the "Covenant", which circumscribes their powers and keeps them weak and dependant, the banshees are almost outcast, forgotten by most of the supernaturals and only watched, it seems, by the Askari, the police of the supernatural world. It's one of the Askari - Andres Contos - who does Sadie that wrong and it's Andres's son, Texas, who comes back into her life years late, a fully fledged officer of the Askari, entering into all his power and privilege.

Can there be anything between them?

Can Sadie trust her feelings?

Can she trust Texas Contos?

This is a powerful book, but it's also great fun. We feel some familiar figures again, and learn more about Lewis's supernatural world. I loved the fact that there is opposition here to a brutally hierarchical setup rather than acceptance of it because of what might happen if the order is upset. I loved the fact this position is people - supernatural people of all types - rather than a side effect of some sort of external or diabolic plot. It's politics, it's the desire for freedom and justice, it's liberating.

It isn't the sort of read where what's happening is obscure and has to be pieced together from hints and clues, the broad lines are clear and it's only really detail that is filled in. So, yes, we learn that the banshees aren't what is generally believed - but all the same they are being held down and appressed, which is the main point.

It is the sort of read where the action can erupt into a no holds barred fight, with some gruesome consequences - this is not a safe world - as Sadie and Texas find their world upside down and have to save themselves. In calmer moments (well perhaps not so calm...) they discover a great deal about themselves and each other - but that basic issue of trust remains and Lewis makes Sadie's dilemma clear, faced with danger to herself and danger to those she loves, what is she to do?

A book I really enjoyed and clearly Lewis isn't done yet. This series goes from strength to strength.

And finally: I know you're not supposed to judge a book by the cover. But. LOOK AT THAT COVER!

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

30 April 2020

Review - The Wise Friend by Ramsey Campbell

The Wise Friend
Ramsey Campbell
Flame Tree Press, 23 April 2020
Available as: PB, 257pp, e
Read as: Advance reading copy
ISBN: 9781787584037

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Wise Friend to consider for review.

Goodmanswood - fallen leaves make face. "You must turn the world over to reveal its truth".

This creepy modern horror novel is set in the North West of England and focussed particularly on the city of Liverpool and across the river, the town of New Brighton.

When I was a small child, we often used to visit relatives in New Brighton and nearby Wallasey and I became familiar with the (then) rather tawdry, decayed seafront and shabby funfair behind. While a perfectly normal setting there was a feeling of edginess there and I can imagine that looked at in the right - or perhaps wrong - way it could transform in a moment into something creepy. Looking at the world in just that way and letting it transform is something Campbell does deftly in The Wise Friend - and something that his protagonist, Patrick Semple, comes to dread.

Darkmarsh - tussocks crawl together. "The power of the swamp restores mutability to the world."

Semple, an English lecturer, has a complex relationship with the memory of his aunt Thelma whose late works reveal an obsession with the secrets of landscape and place - an obsession that trod the threshold of the eerie, or even of the occult. In the days following her funeral, he begins to investigate her inspiration, and the places she visited before her untimely death.

But this isn't just Semple's quest. His teenage son, Roy, is drawn in too, activating a tension between Patrick and his ex wife Julia. Campbell animates this conflict brilliantly through the awkward conversations between Patrick and Julia, which all carry a subtext of wrongness. It's as though the words, rather than establishing understanding or sympathy, are erecting barrier, weaving mazes, which leave Patrick and Julia (and Roy and his girlfriend Bella) more and more at odds.

Halfway Halt - trees reach for walkers in railway cutting. "Where man cracks the earth, beware the hatching of the egg."

This book is short on classic supernaturalism - the crypt at midnight, the desolate churchyard - and long on the ordinarily ominous, the decaying tower block that seems to draw grey skies, the shuttered hotel whose guestbook is curiously active, the restless trees in what is supposed to be a little wood but which just seems to go on and on. The last put me in mind of Algernon Blackwood or Arthur Machen - a sense of otherness that exists on a different axis to the good vs evil of much horror fiction, a sense of powers (and possibly, principalities and thrones) with which one ought not to become entangled in the same way that one ought not to become entangled with high voltage cables or unshielded machinery.

Much of the unease here is implied, laid on subtly through distorted messages heard from the nearby station, whispered on the wind in a remote valley or gusted round the graffitied pillars under a motorway junction. Or built on those family tensions - which seem to run in Patrick's family. Yes this is a horror book so one can justifiably expect that "things" will happen - but they're much better (much worse...) implied, circled round, eased into, as here.


I thoroughly enjoyed the rising unease of this book, the real scares that built to its careful conclusion and the sense of a pattern, a trap, that Campbell is constructing here. A truly unsettling read and for me, even more so for my experiencing it on a sunny day as the trees shifted softly in the breeze.

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

27 April 2020

#Blogtour #Extract #Giveaway - The Deck of Omens by Christine Lynn Herman

The Deck of Omens
Christine Lynn Herman
Titan Books, 21 April
Available as: PB, 416pp, e
ISBN: 9781789090277

Today I'm joining the blogtour for The Deck of Omens by Christine Lynn Herman with an exclusive extract, and a giveaway.

 I have a spare copy of the book and to be in with a chance to win, just share this post and tag me in on Twitter @bluebookballoon and @ me with the answer to the following question:

What is Harper afraid she can't stop?

(No, you don't have to follow me - but you can if you want).

I will randomly pick one person who send the correct answer at noon on Friday 1 May and will announce the winner here 

Now all that's done... the extract!


From The Deck of Omens by Christine Lynn Herman

“It’s all right,” she said. “You want to see what I can do? You want proof?”

Harper’s hand brushed the edge of the neglected fern sitting beside the table. She took a deep breath and pushed. She had not gone to the Hawthorne house the night she got her powers back with the conscious thought of destroying their tree. But when she saw the hawthorn’s great branches spreading behind the roof, waving in the wind, she had felt the cumulative rage about everything that had been done to her—her father’s hands closing around her neck, the Church of the Four Deities in their dark brown robes, Justin staring at her, a sword pressed against his neck, and, of course, the night that had just come back to her. The night Augusta Hawthorne had taken her powers away before she’d ever gotten the chance to use them.

Violet was obviously the reason her memories were back. Violet had gotten them back herself, after all, and so had Violet’s mother; clearly she was the one who had figured out the secret to restoring herself, clearly she was the one who had left Harper that note.

There was so much to sort through. So much to feel. Harper understood now why Justin Hawthorne had behaved strangely toward her these past few weeks— because his mother wasn’t the reason she’d lost everything.

He was.

He’d betrayed her the night of her ritual. Sold her out to his mother before she could have the chance to use her newfound powers.

Pushed her into the lake, which had led to the accident that had cost her a hand—and led her straight into the Gray.

Harper had lost sight of herself in that moment, dizzy with longing for everything Justin and his family had taken from her. She’d reached forward, her palm pressing tightly against the trunk, and pushed her anger into it. And when she pulled back and realized that the hawthorn had gone deathly still, she hadn’t wanted to reverse it.

This time, the change was smaller, almost gentle. The leaves froze in place, their color fading to red-brown and spiralling down into the dirt, until there was no plant remaining, only stone. But then Harper felt something else: a push to keep going. The stone spread down the side of the fern pot, encroaching toward the floor, and Harper’s throat went dry with panic as she realized that she didn’t know if she could stop.

Violet’s hand landed on her shoulder, wrenching her focus away. Harper exhaled with sharp relief as she realized that the spread of stone had stopped. When she looked up, Mitzi and Seth were both gaping at her.

Her brother spoke first. “Shit.”

Mitzi knelt on the floor, examining the plant. When she caught Harper’s gaze, her eyes were as round and wide as two full moons. “You have powers?”

Harper’s laugh was slightly bitter, slightly manic. “Yeah.” “And you used them . . .”

“On the family that deserved some retribution,” she said. “So, yeah, I left, because I didn’t want Augusta Hawthorne to punish any of you for me. Because you deserve to make your own choices instead of being forced to go along with mine.”

“Choices?” Mitzi returned to the couch, tugged on her earring—a nervous tic.

Harper sighed. This was the part of the conversation she’d been dreading the most.

“Augusta Hawthorne took my memories of my powers away,” she said. “Do you still want to patrol for her, knowing that?”

Mitzi hesitated. “Patrolling is what keeps the town safe.”

“Does taking my powers away seem safe to you? Maybe if I’d had access to them, fewer people would have died.” “Or maybe you would’ve turned more than the hawthorn tree to stone.” Seth’s voice was the most somber Harper had ever heard it.

Her stomach churned with nausea. She’d known it would go this way—but she’d still hoped otherwise.

“Well,” she said. “I’m here if you change your minds.” 


Don't miss the rest of the tour - see the poster below for more details and visit the Titan Books website to find out more about the book here.

25 April 2020

Review - The Age of Witches by Louisa Morgan

The Age of Witches
Louisa Morgan
Orbit, 23 April
Available as: PB, 480pp, e, audio
Read as: advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN 9780356512587

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

Following last year's The Witch's Kind (a book I loved) Morgan has gone back a few decades to the Gilded Age 1890s while still using her "actually existing witches" to shed light on customs and manners and, especially, on the position of women in society.

Annis Allington is a seventeen year old woman living a comfortable life in New York. As daughter of a wealthy manufacturer (her father owns a business making iron stoves) she can have pretty much whatever she wants - except for parental love.

Annis's mother died when she was a baby; her father is withdrawn and money-obsessed. Stepmother Frances is there, but has her own plans for social advancement and only pays attention to Annis as far as those plans require it. The nearest thing Annis has to a mother is Mrs King, the cook - and the love of her life is her horse Black Satin ("Bits") who, in defiance of convention, she insists on riding astride rather than sidesaddle.

We also meet Harriet, Frances' distant cousin (Annis is also a several-times-removed relative). Both Harriet and Frances are witches, descendants of Bridget Byshop, hanged in Salem as a witch two hundred years before. Harriet has followed a path of enabling, collaborative and healing craft, Frances the maleficia, magic used to control and even harm. As Frances begins to see a way to raise the family to the ranks of the Four Hundred, New York's glittering social elite, by snagging an English aristocrat for Annis to marry, the two women's different forms of practice come into opposition...

I really enjoyed this book. Morgan has an easy way of writing - about life, relationships, magic - that carries the reader along so that the other-worldly aspects of her story don't stand out, they just seem obvious. There are matter of fact descriptions of bits of magic, of "knowing" things, of the effects of various workings on their practitioners, which seem just as much in place as Annis grooming her horses or her maid Velma fixing her hair. While there's an opposition between (broadly) good and bad uses for magic, these aren't stand-ins for cosmic good and evil. This isn't the sort of book where the characters are cyphers for contending powers, rather they're simply people, albeit rather unusual ones. Yes there can be consequences to what one does - but that's just life.

Indeed the essence of this story is more a matter of romance - if you called it "Pride and Prejudice and Witches" you wouldn't be going too far wrong, especially in the sense that a major tension is between the aloof English aristocrat whose family seat is crumbling away and bleeding cash, and the (to him) brash American heiress who has the money to fix that but would rather pursue horse-breeding. Not an unfamiliar story or setting but Morgan does it very well, pointing up the powerlessness of Annis as a young woman in what Frances assures her is a man's world, the contempt heaped on her for not following the normal rules of society - and the privilege of great wealth that allows her, all the same, to get away with that.

Being a witch may help one soften the edges of a rigid and patriarchal society, but it also has its dangers since it means being a woman who stands out. Both Frances and Harriet deal with this in their different ways and while that animates conflict in the novel (and leaves Annis having to make hard choices about her path in life) Morgan is careful not to judge anyone's motivations. Frances has had a hard life - she also lost her mother young and grew up poor. Her desire to climb in society arises from being the outsider, and ultimately it's this warped structure of social inequality that is to blame for much of what goes wrong. Annis has, as I've said, the advantage of money and is a sympathetic character but tellingly, we learn that she's never visited the servants' quarters in her own house and that when she does, she is surprised how cramped and cold they are.

The central characters - Annis, Frances, Harriet and James, who we meet in England - are believable, relatable (even wicked stepmother Frances, or perhaps, especially Frances) and all have a degree of moral ambiguity to them - even Harriet isn't quite as pure as she'd have us believe. Indeed, I'd say this is the most perceptive and realistic side of the book. Morgan is very accurately depicting people as they might really be, if able to wield the kinds of magic that exist here and with no oversight or constraint (there's no cosy "Council" of witches to keep everyone in line).

All in all, a fun blend of fantasy, romance and shrewd social observation. The latter is perhaps a degree less nuanced than it was in The Witch's Kind but the book shares with its predecessor a focus on capable, forthright women who are nevertheless constrained by the warped patriarchal society around them.

I think I see Morgan setting things up for a possible sequel and I look forward to that.

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

21 April 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Princess of Felling by Elaine Cusack

The Princess of Felling
Elaine Cusack (art by Steve Lancaster, photographs by Rossena Petcova)
Limelight Classic Productions Limited
PB, 88pp
ISBN 978199937539

I'm grateful to the author for a copy of The Princess of Felling to consider for review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

One of the things I give thanks for as a book blogger is the opportunity to read books that are just that little bit different, and The Princess of Felling is certainly one of these.

Elaine Cusack grew up in the Tyneside area of Felling in the 70s and 80s and has written a book that's part memoir, part exploration of her home town, but also a reflection on her life, on the times and how they have changed, drawing deep on culture, particularly the music she grew up with, her poetry and on where she finds herself today.

I was slightly taken aback - I am always taken aback - to be reminded that the 70s, which is the earliest decade I can remember, is now source material like this but it undoubtedly is, and this book reinforced that by reminding me of coal fires, everyone smoking, and Green Shield stamps. Even if the Tyneside location of Felling is unfamiliar to you (and I hope this books sells beyond its native heath) Cusack's recollections of houses, local characters, family members and Felling businesses brings them to vivid life. But it's not just rose tinted nostalgia. We also see some of the changes that have occurred over the last 40 years, and the work that is being done now to keep Felling alive and active.

Scattered through the text are the author's own poems - always put into context, so that the poem itself, the story of its origin and the emotion it recollects, almost flow into one. Indeed in a sense the book is itself an extended piece of poetry whose themes are Cusack's life and her places. It's a story of a happy childhood and though there are some darker bits later (a mention of a controlling boyfriend, eating disorders and of bereavements) those are emphatically not the subject of the book (although  I think that if Cusack ever wrote something that was more of a formal biography I think it would be fascinating).

Rather it's a story of growing up, always returning to her beloved poetry and music. Again, her musical journey (or, as she terms it, addiction: 'Pop! Pop! Pop! That's all you ever think about!') is the story of those two decades.

The story ends on a consideration of just who really is the Princess of Felling, leading into the most self-revelatory pages of this book (and I won't spoil the story by saying what conclusion Cusack comes to!)

It's a thought provoking, enjoyable read and I found myself wishing for more. I hope Cusack will expand on her story in the future.

For more information about the book and to buy it, visit the publisher's website here.

Elaine's blog (which is well worth a visit) is at www.dipdoomagazoo.wordpress.com, her Facebook is https://www.facebook.com/CusackMansions/ and you can get tickets for her gigs from www.ticketsource.co.uk/cusackmansions.

20 April 2020

#Blogtour #Review - We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

We Begin at the End
Chris Whitaker
Zaffre, 26 March 2020
Available as HB, 464pp, e, audio
Read as e-book
ISBN 9781785769627

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of We Begin at the End to consider for review and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to tale part in the book's blog tour.

Nothing good will come of any of this...

I have just finished We Begin at the End and it was INTENSE. Twenty four hours (I had to eat and sleep) of manic reading, head down, ignoring the family, dogs and the weird slow-motion apocalypse outside, fixated on a tragedy set among ordinary people in small American towns some 20 years ago.

Punctuated by moments when it became SO intense I had to look away. It really is that compulsive.

You will believe these characters are real.

You will care what happens to them.

You will hurt when they hurt

You will want a good ending for them - a good beginning? - although that seems harder and harder to imagine.

We begin, not at the end, but before the beginning, in 1975. The inhabitants of Cape Haven, a small town somewhere on the coast of California, are searching for a missing girl, Sissy Radley. It's Walk who finds her, setting in motion a tragedy that will play out over decades. In that prologue we see the four friends - Walk, his best friend Vincent King, Martha May, daughter of the Episcopal priest and Star, the missing girl's sister - whose lives will be changed forever.

Jump forward to 2005 when Vincent is released from jail, after doing time for Sissy's death, and more besides. Walk is Chief of Police in Cape Haven and has spent all of those 30 years struggling against change, whether it's the loss of those teenage bonds between the four, encroaching development as the Cape is carved up for second homes, or, latterly, change in himself as he faces a debilitating illness.

Star's struggling to bring up her two kids, Duchess, who at 13 is pretty much full time carer for six year old Robin. While Star hangs out in bars and, periodically, overdoses, Duchess sees that Robin gets his water bottle filled, packs his books for school and remembers birthdays.

It's a heartbreaking glimpse of truncated childhood and a theme that recurs throughout the book as Duchess and Robin suffer one rebuff after another, losing one carer after another, sliding down the care system, subject to cruel judgements from both adults and their peers, only having each other. Robin is desperate for a home, Duchess hangs everything on protecting him, declaring herself an outlaw, reacting with spiky anger to anyone who tries to gets to close - because after all, they'll let her down in the end, won't they?

Each time you hope things might run around for the kids, something awful - but seemingly inevitable - seems to happen. It's a testament to Whitaker's writing and to the powerfully drawn characters he births onto the page that you still want to keep reading. You just have to know what will happen next - what defiance Duchess will roar, who she'll swear at, what revenge she'll take - even as you fear for her.

There seems to be a tornado of destruction eating up the lives of the Radley kids. Walk tries to look out for them - whether out of genuine feeling, because of those bonds with their mother, or as part of his generalised and futile attempts to hold up any change, isn't clear. I'm not sure he knows himself. The same motives presumably underlie his interventions on Vincent King's behalf, which take Walk further and further from the strait and narrow road that he, as Chief of Police, should be treading. There's a local gangster, Dickie Darke, who casts a menacing shadow and Walk seems determined to bring him down but as the story shows, even gangsters can have good - or at least pure - reasons for what they do.

At one level this is a crime story - there is an unsolved murder, a man on trial, further killings. Chief Walk fulfils our need to have someone trying to "solve" the mystery and there is enough evidence forensics, testimony, Walk's knowledge of those concerned - to keep the mind engaged.

But really, this is a book you will read with your heart, not your mind. Amidst the trim little American towns with their smart holiday homes or we-ordered farms and, hidden away, the less well maintained residences of the poorer folk, we see a tragedy of operatic proportions play out. There is a very conscious sense of being in a story - supported by Duchess's references to herself as 'the outlaw Duchess Day Radley', by her allusions to the survivors and victims of shoot-outs, escapes and chases, to epic robberies and rescues, to people who 'were turned pages in the darkest chapters of her life. She knew that they would appear agin, the twists, the sting in her tale.' Meeting Duchess at a gas station, the woman behind the counter 'knew the crossroads the girl lived at'.

At the same time, Whitaker counterpoints this sense of melodrama by writing about very ordinary, very recognisable people and places and using such vivid and at times beautiful language that the story seems to stop and hang onto it - whether observing that 'Smoked glass made matt of the world', that 'Thunderheads formed like gathered mistakes' or that an old man 'stooped like he was carrying each of his years on his back'. Again, it is a book that you feel as much as read - deeply poetic and appreciative of those moments of beauty that can come unexpectedly if you watch for them.

But that, for me, only heightens the pain as things get worse and worse - for Vincent, for Walk, for Duchess and Robin - as things are broken that can never be fixed, as changes come. I challenge anyone to read this book without shedding tears, at least inwardly: the degree of loss and betrayed, eroded innocence is so great.

At the same time it's a compelling, not to be missed, read.

Simply superb.

You can buy We Begin at the End from your local bookshop (or you may be able to, some are still managing to operate in the present circumstances and I'd urge you to try because they really need your support and we need them to be there for us). You can order it online from Hive Books, from Blackwell's (who I've noticed often have books available when other outlets don't), from Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

For more information about We Begin at the End see the publisher's website here.

The tour continues with many great reviews to come as you can see from the poster below - do check them out!

19 April 2020

Review - Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Cover design by Rory Kee
Shorefall (The Founders Trilogy, 2)
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 21 April 2020
Available as trade PB, 496pp, e, audio
Read as PB
ISBN 9781786487896

I'm grateful to Millie Reid at Jo Fletcher books for an advance copy of Shorefall to consider for review.

Following from 2018's Foundryside, Shorefall is a return to the city of Tavenne three years later. In the previous book, thief and ex-slave Sancia Grabo teamed up with Orso Igacio to disrupt the technology of scriving - the use of mystic sigils as essentially a coding language used to reshape reality. Long dominated by the monolithic merchant houses, scriving has now been opened up to upstart firms, dubbed the 'Lamplands', prompting conflict between the Houses.

Meanwhile, revolts continue in the distant slave plantations, the islands which are the other pillar of Tavenne's wealth and dominance.

As Shorefall opens, Sancia, her girlfriend Berenice, and Orso are embarking on their most audacious scam yet, intending to open up the library of one of the houses, the Dandolos, to the scriving community. Sancia's aim is to 'move carefully and bring freedom' but the gamble she's now engaged in looks anything but careful, and likely to upset the fragile ecosystem of Tavenne,

As with Foundryside, I really loved the way that Robert Jackson Bennett creates a consistent, logical basis for what is really a form of magic; turns it into a recognisable technology; and lampoons the excesses of the tech world as it it is used to drive something like a magical-industrial revolution. The basis of scriving is well worked out, clearly explained and hangs together logically. In Foundryside we saw its social and political consequences, which made an absorbing and entertaining story - in Shorefall (named for the annual carnival taking placed as a backdrop to this book) the story is perhaps closer to a familiar, fantasy plot as beings of power toy with the fates of mortals.

Scriving is, you see, all about authority, about control and privileges - in the sense of a system admin. It's about who has been granted, or has hacked, the ability to direct reality at a more or less fundamental level. The very existence of the more mundane scrivings manipulated by the houses and by the Lampland start-ups, point to the possibility of more subtle code, deeper sigils, root privileges.

You can guess how it goes - start meddling with this things and something will wake up. Or perhaps, you might want o wake it up because you think it will serve you? So behind the struggles in Shorefall perhaps there may be something else. We caught a glimpse of this in the previous book with the mysterious Valeria and with Sancia's "friend" the artefact Clef. But there is much more to be discovered.

I really, really enjoyed Shorefall. Robert Jackson Bennet doesn't give us a reprise of Foundryside - welcome though that might be, this is the tricky middle book of a trilogy and things need to move on. During the first third of Shorefall that's happening very quickly and the reader has to recalibrate expectations several times. You can almost hear the mechanism shifting, the scope widening, before the story attains escape velocity and roars away into a tense and conflict-filled finale which will change Tevanne forever. But it's not only about that conflict - Sancia, Berenice, Orso and of course Gregor are well realised, three dimensional characters with flaws and histories. They have things to lose, vulnerabilities and, especially at the start, a set of motivations and ambitions that just don't match h up to the cosmic scale of what happens here (there is one character who appears briefly who is on top of all that but does not play a large part in the story but I suspect we'll be hearing more from here in the final book).

Those vulnerabilities and histories mean there are dangers - not only physical but moral - to be faced, and choices in a world where things suddenly seem very murky. This is far from being a straightforward fight between Good and Evil - just as you'd expect from Robert Jackson Bennett.

A good and absorbing continuation of the Founders trilogy and I look forward to the third and final part.

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