20 December 2020

#Review - Fortune favours the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Fortune Favours the Dead (Pentecost & Parker, 1)
Stephen Spotswood
Wildfire (Headline), 12 November 2020 (HB), 22 July 2021(PB)
Available as: HB, 322pp, PB, 336pp, audio, e
Source: Advance reading copy
ISBN: 9781472274779 (HB), 9781472274816 (PB)

I'm grateful to Wildfire Books for an advance copy of Fortune Favours the Dead to consider for review.

If you're looking for your next detective series, and you want it to be smart, set in 1940s New York, to feature two women who'll take no nonsense from anyone and who are brilliantly realised and just, well, themselves - then this might be the book for you.

Fortune Favours the Dead introduces Lilian Pentecost, detective extraordinary and Willowjean Parker, her new protégé, lately of a travelling circus (where she picked up many useful skills including knife throwing, lock picking and escapology). Told in Will's voice, it ranges over three periods: the two women's first meeting late at night during the War, the notable case, a couple of years later, that is at the centre of the story, and a later perspective, the time from which Will is telling the story, allowing her to be somewhat self-critical, freighting the account with some hard-won knowledge about life, detective work and herself.

The setting Spotswood creates here is strong. Moving from the exciting world of the circus (Will acknowledges its drawbacks including both a gropy mentor and having to shovel out the tigers' cages) to Pentecost's HQ, a three storey townhouse with an archive, basement for combat practice, resident Scottish cook and a consulting room, taking in the world of the industrial elite and the clubs of queer New York where Will likes to spend her time, it has a great sense of place. The central mystery is fun - it involves both a locked room murder and a fashionable medium - but a Pentecost and Parker investigation will not allow itself to get distracted by flashy mechanics. The focus of the two women is very much on the "who" and the "why", with the "how" expected to follow so we don't get endless discussion of ingenious, but wrong, solutions to that puzzle. 

Pursuing that "who" and "why" is what leads Lilian and Will into moneyed society which - no surprise - proves to be afflicted with the same human problems as everyone else.

I really enjoyed seeing Ms Pentecost and Ms Parker set about their case here. They are very unlike physically - Lilian has MS, which tends to frustrate and then she suffers after pushing herself; Will is strong and somewhat overconfident - but Spotswood catches, or presents, the ways in which they spark off and complement each other, showing what dear friends they are without ever quite coming out and saying it. There's a vulnerability here, hinted at by others in the book, both women are outsiders in different ways and in New York the pendulum is swinging back again from a degree of tolerance required during the war to - something else. I felt both that Lilian's imposing headquarters was a refuge, ands that it was threatened. 

Overall, this book was great fun, showing how a humble "cirky girl" finds herself a new career, a home, even perhaps a family. The focus is on deepening relationships, rather than the details of crime, casting a bit of light on an era and place often seen through Hollywood and Broadway stereotypes. This will hopefully be the beginning of a fine series - I look forward to reading more!

For more details of Fortune Favours the Dead, see the publisher's website here.

17 December 2020

#Review - Secret Santa by Andrew Shaffer

Cover art by Adam Rabulais,
design by Ryan Hayes
Secret Santa
Andrew Shaffer
Quirk Books, 10 November 2020
Available as: PB, 210pp, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781683692058

I'm grateful to the publisher and in particular to Jamie and to Stephen for an advance copy of Secret Santa to consider for review.

In a fun, and seasonal, horror novel Shaffer peeks beneath the tinsel at a prestigious New Your publishing house to reveal the darkness within.

Lussi (pronounced, "Lucy") need to make a success of her new job at Blackwood-Patterson. Out of work for several months after her previous employer was swallowed up in a merger, when she gets a chance to pitch to the new boss at B-P for a job, she's not reticent ('all I do is shit best sellers'). But she's a genre editor - can she bring that success to a fusty literary publisher? And will her new colleagues let her try?

Given three weeks to try, it's time to raid the slush pile...

I love office based novels, and I love horror, so this was a perfect blend for me. I enjoyed seeing Lussi's attempts at fitting in and doing her job being frustrated by the stand-offishness at her new workplace, and then by a series of gruesome accidents. We've all that that moment (haven't we?) when we realise we weren't invited to a key meeting and wonder of it was on purpose. Or when we unintentionally press colleague's wrong button. Or HAVE OUR FOOD STOLEN FROM THE OFFICE FRIDGE. Shaffer deftly weaves such moments into a classic horror story, taking place, of course, close to Christmas. (Yes, I know it's Hallowe'en that is meant to be the season for horror but there's a reason for all those classic Christmas ghost stories...)

It's a book of contrasts - between friends and foes (but which is which?), the ordinary (mundane office life one moment, then a step into the spooky basement) and of course, in Lussi's increasingly desperate imagination, success and failure. Along the way, Shaffer has some fun with the publishing industry - I have a feeling some of the people described here may be closely based on real life. 

The story is very readable, and awash with a pleasing amount of mystery (who is being targeted, by what, and why - but even once you think you know the answers to these there are still secrets kept right to the end). Lussi is a smart and knowing protagonist - as a horror editor, she is well aware of this stuff, just not to meeting it in real life - but has to contend with a lot. It's not just the supernatural, there's the behaviour of her colleagues too, and indeed untangling the two is one of her most urgent problems, because even if she survives the monster, she's still got to rescue the company as well. Her new boss wants a bestseller and her wants it soon.

Overall a fun book which makes a nice counterpoint to the jollity of Christmas and strikes a good balance between out and out horror and office based humour. Secret Santa would make a good stocking filler for a horror fan, an office worker or anyone in publishing. (And because it's  all set in the 1980s, there is no home working, Zoom or social distancing).

For more information about Secret Santa see the Quirk website here.

15 December 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Gallowglass by S J Morden

Cover design by

S J Morden
Gollancz, 10 December 2020
Available as: PB, 373pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781473228542

I'm grateful to Gollancz for an advance copy of Gallowglass to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Gallowglass is a fascinating piece of writing.

I frequently find that a good place to begin in assembling my thoughts for a review is to think about the book's genre and its place within that genre. Sometimes there's not a lot to say, but sometimes this can really cast a light on the book. Gallowglass is a case in point. It's - obviously - science fiction (a book about chasing asteroids? Or course it is!) and it's obviously also got cli-fi overtones (the book is set a few decades hence when the effects of global warming are really biting, and Morden begins every chapter with a quote - a real quote - highlighting either the reality of climate change, or the squirming of denialists seeking to obfuscate the debate).


There is something else going on here, and when I worked it out I just cackled in delight.

Consider. Our hero Jaap van der Veerden (Jack to his few friends) is a scion of a fabulously wealth shipping family. He's sheltered and protected from the ravages of climate change, living in a fortified compound with high fences and ditches to keep out the indigent and HVAC to keep out the rising temperatures. But there's a price. Jack's parent want to live forever, and they may have the money to achieve that. And they want the same for their son. Jack, though, wants out of this cloistered existence. So he decides to run away - not a trivial thing to do given his parents' power and influence, but he has laid his plans well and has allies.

The sequence describing this escape is tautly written and never lets up. It also allows Morden to highlight some of the effects of climate change - the refugee camps and the constant threat of flooding, alongside the privileged life of the few. But it also leads into the heart of this book, as Jack, frustrated by his parents' long reach, falls in with a plan, both morally and legally dubious, to capture an asteroid and nudge it back towards Earth so that it can be mined for resources. It's a cut-throat, free-for-all business in which desperate recruits from growing nations are set against each other to do what's necessary in the darkness. Fantastic riches are on offer - riches that could save a nation or boost an individual into the ranks of the 1%, outclassing even Jack's parents.

With so much at stake, with so much desperation, anything is possible once a crew is out there on its own. Jack soon finds himself in fear not just for his future as a free man but for his very life. There is no margin in space for error, malice or miscommunication and he's on a ship with crew who mistrust this privileged young man from the outset. But the others have secrets and pasts too. Can they bond, learn to work together, "be Crew"? Can they, in short survive?

So, to return to my genre discussion above - welcome, readers, to Treasure Island for the 21st century.

In painstaking detail with enough hard science to convince that this might all work, Morden shows us how, with technology already nearly close, such an expedition might be mounted.

In painstaking detail with a heft of emotional truth to convince that this is how humans really would behave, Morden shows how what each member of the crew brings to that dark, far frontier, far from civilisation, will determine what part they play and whether the crew as a whole will survive.

It is a nuanced, intelligent study of human nature - Morden is NOT saying "look what happens when people throw off civilisation!" It is civilisation that has brought them to the edge of ruin (those chapter quotes keep reminding us) and this is emphatically not a crew descending into "savagery". Part of the cleverness of this book is the subtle picking out of motivations, often laudable, noble motivations which nevertheless lead to terrible actions - or rational individual decision that collectively lead to catastrophe. In that, of course, the whole story of anthropogenic climate change is encapsulated.

What is at stake here eventually proves to be enormous - even more than that fabulous wealth for an individual or a nation - and the deadly habitat of Asteroid KU2 becomes both an area for the best, and worst of human nature but for a kind of deadly game theory which Jack and his colleagues need to negotiate if they are going to salvage anything.

It's an absorbing story on so many levels. There's the detailed scientific base of the story, which pays appropriate respect to orbital dynamics, the problems of a low-G environment, the grim inevitability of Newton's Laws. There's the emotionally complex bonding (and fracturing) of the crew, a handful of humans in a deeply alien place. There's the moral dimension (or lack of). And there's that whole question of humanity and its ultimate fate, threatened by global heating and apparently unable to address that.

I loved this book for all this, and more. I would recommend it without reservation. Get it on your Christmas list now, or buy as a crafty present to yourself for the festive season. Don't miss this one.

For more information about Gallowglass, see the Gollancz website here.

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

For other angles on the book, see more reviews from the tour on the poster below.

14 December 2020

#BlogTour #Review - Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson (trans David Warriner, from the French ed)
Orenda Books, 21 January 2021 (PB)
Available as: e, PB, HB
Source e: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781913193447 (HB)

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for sending me an advance copy of Winterkill, and to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Winterkill will be eagerly welcomed by Jónasson's many fans, returning, as it does, to Ari Thór, now promoted to Inspector in Siglufjörður, the most Northerly town in Iceland which we have seen previously in other volumes of the Dark Iceland sequence.

The book is pretty self-contained and if you're new to Ragnar Jónasson's writing it would be easy to start here but I'd advise reading the earlier books first - in publication order - to get the best experience. Ari Thór has been through a lot, and you'll understand him a little better if you have lived through it with him. Also, you know, spoilers.

That said, Winterkill does feel a bit like a coda to the series, offering a glimpse - a welcome glimpse - of Ari Thór's future. And how better to do that that though an enquiry into a mysterious death? Inner, a schoolgirl, apparently sneaked into an apartment block late on night, went up to the rooftop balcony, and threw herself off. 

Or did she? Was somebody else involved? A cryptic message in Unnur's diary, and an accusation scribbled on, of all places, a care home bedroom wall, arouse Ari Thór's suspicions. It's inconvenient, especially at Easter, when his estranged partner Kristín has brought their son Stefnir for a rare visit. Their presence gives Ari Thór mixed - and conflicted - feelings about throwing himself into a case, but it doesn't cause friction with Kristín (indeed, it's painful to see this, demonstrating how cool things have become between them). We know, don't we, that Ari Thór will do the right thing?

As he digs into what happened, a strange and sad story emerges. Ragnar Jónasson rather brilliantly brings to life the character of the dead girl - while we never actually "see" her in the book, and she seems to left very little trace in life, what isn't here, combined with the evidence of her family and few friends, actually paints a powerful and arresting portrait of Unnur. It's all the more moving for not being obvious, overblown, or dramatic and it really made me wonder about all those people one meets who may have stuff going on which you just never suspect or know about. That impression is heightened with Siglufjörður being a place where, as Ragnar Jónasson demonstrates, almost everyone knows almost everyone else, or might even be a third cousin. 

Can you keep secrets in a place like that? Apparently yes...

This is a very engaging book to read. Mystery and tragedy aside, Ari Thór's evolving relationship with Kristín and Stefnir is well conveyed and gives readers of the series some closure. And, murder and mystery aside, his relationship with his new protégé is rather amusing; Ari Thór sets out assuming that Ögmundur will respect and seek to emulate him just as he did with Tómas, but in fact Ögmundur seems an unambitious, incurious type who does the least he can and complains about being left to it when Ari Thór's not around! This crystallises a certain mood in the book. Ari Thór is torn between trying to revive or recreate the past (Kristín, Tómas) and pressing on into the future. Ari Thór once though he might have a chance of transferring to Reykjavik to work with Tómas again, but that seems off the agenda. Siglufjörður is developing, growing, finding new success in tourism, the place no longer being so cut-off as it used to be. Can Ari Thór adapt, or not?

Regardless, that modern infrastructure is still not proof against harsh Icelandic weather. The climax of the book comes in the dark when, just as the case seems to be resolving, a power cut descends on Siglufjörður leaving Ari Thór and Ögmundur stretched trying to cope with all the fallout from Unnur's death. It's a dramatic end to the book - and to the sequence - and one that captivates to the last page.

Finally, this edition is an English translation of the French edition. You might think that would distance the book somewhat from the mood and tone of the original. I don't know Icelandic (that would be wonderful!) so can't make that comparison but to me, David Warriner's English version captures both an atmosphere of darkness and the coming of change, Ari Thór's poised-ness between past and future among a fascinating community of people who are beautifully evoked. 

The e-book of Winterkill is available now - see the Orenda website for sources and for more information. You can preorder the paperback from your local bookshop or online from Hive Books, bookshop.org, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon (NB some links to PB, some to HB, depending what the various sites offered!)

The blogtour continues! 

For some more super reviews see the poster below. 

13 December 2020

#Review - Signal by Michael Walters

Cover photography
by Nicholas Royle
Design by

Michael Walters
Nightjar Press, October 2020
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781907341465

I'm grateful to Nightjar Press for a signed copy of Signal to consider for review, together with other short stories published alongside it. 

Signal is a haunting walk through a nighttime city by a lonely and anxious young woman. We meet Kate passing Meridian House on her way home from work. Kate likes to imagine friendships with the people she glimpses through the lit windows, but they're not there on this Saturday night, Christmas Eve Eve.

Kate is anxious: about money (she may have no shifts in the New Year), about her parents, who have unexpectedly turned religious. She's missing her sister (we will learn more about that). Walters deftly portrays Kate as a loner, an outsider, slightly ill at ease even in her shared house - and slipping out for a night walk as soon as she can.

What happens then - well, there are unexpected corners of every town, unexpected aspects in all of us. As Kate walks, pondering her life and her past, she feels somebody or something is reaching out for her. Sending her messages, perhaps? Signals? Her walk somehow transcends that inside-outside division, bringing her into the orbit of strange events, other peoples' stories.

The story is poised on the cusp between the everyday - that town in the desperate days before Christmas, the realties of work in the 21st century, a cheerless family situation - and the fantastical - the naked man waving from a window, the strange odyssey that Kate undertakes across town, the feeling that somebody is pulling strings. 

Perfectly captured, this book seems to bring us to a moment when - something - happens, or not. Then leaves us to speculate on just what, on what was real and what wasn't. It's a gorgeous story. The book itself is also attractively designed and the series overall one I'd strongly recommend. 

For more information about Signal and to order a copy, please see the Nightjar Press website here.

9 December 2020

#Review - The Red Suitcase by Hilaire

Cover photography
by Nicholas Royle
Design by

The Red Suitcase
Nightjar Press, October 2020
Available as: PB, 19pp
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781907341472

I'm grateful to Nightjar Press for a signed copy of The Red Suitcase to consider for review, together with other short stories published alongside it. 

The Red Suitcase is a delightfully poised short story, exquisitely observed and so, so sharp. The book itself is also attractively designed the series overall  one I'd strongly recommend. 

Dougie and his mother make a little extra money by renting out a room in their cottage to summer visitors. They live in, literally, a dead-end town by the sea: bus once a week, railway closed years ago, there is a sense of entrapment in this story, of going nowhere. The relationship between Dougie - a grown man in, I think, middle age - and his mother seems over close, her fussing over his digestion, endlessly offering antacid pills and asking if he is "costive".

The arrival of B, the woman with that red suitcase, doesn't exactly disturb this relationship - that would be far too much a cliché, and too unlikely - but it does, perhaps, cast a light on it and give Dougie a few days in which things are not as usual. B is a strange visitor at a strange time of year - it is Winter, not Summer - and she seems to draw out a strangeness in Dougie, too. Her having arrived in his life, he studies and considers her. There's an air of mystery to her - why is she here, how did she find the place, what is she doing? - which isn't resolved, but a sense we aren't seeing the whole picture (perhaps because Dougie isn't exactly looking in the right places?)

Perfectly captured by the cover image, in which we don't whether we are observing or being observed from the lonely house at night, this is a book of mood and isolation, the nameless little town appearing almost as a world to itself which is infrequently visited and where nobody (even the "hardy young women" of Summer) ever stays. There are plenty of secrets here, in a story that may be short, but makes an impact.

For more information about The Red Suitcase and to order a copy, please see the Nightjar Press website here.

6 December 2020

#Review - Witch Bottle by Tom Fletcher

Design by Henry Steadman

Witch Bottle
Tom Fletcher
Jo Fletcher Books, 26 November 2020
Available as: PB, 310pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781848662605

I'm very grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Witch Bottle to consider for review.

Witch Bottle is an impressive book, a fusion of classic horror with a story of modern life and broken relationships which left me feeling deeply uneasy.

Daniel is a delivery worker. Every morning he wakes before dawn and bikes to the depot where he loads up his van under direction from the Bean, a wiry, enigmatic woman who runs a food wholesaler serving the scattered communities and businesses of western Cumbria. Daniel spends his day driving up and down the fells and along the coast, trying to keep on schedule, juggling his stock and battling with the weather, other van drivers and the vagaries of the customers. When it's going well, he feels like Postman Pat - though the money's not very good. When it's going badly... well, if you read the book you'll find out.

Daniel hasn't always worked like this, living in a house borrowed from an uncle and going nowhere in his career. He used to live in the town with a wife and a daughter: the moment he walked out on them is the opening of the book (occasional chapters give flashbacks to that life, gradually filling in the picture - a nightmare pregnancy for his wife Ellie and dark echoes beyond that to his own childhood). On that day Daniel sees the first hints of the dark and fantastical things that will haunt him on his deliveries, in his lonely cottage and, increasingly, in the relationships he's trying to build. There is something sinister going on out there, in the fields and on the roads. Fletcher matches it with hints of a darker, wider world too: a war that seems to be several notches worse than those we're aware of now, the descent of the health service into uncaring chaos, the repeated justification for a man bullying or abusing women that 'he's a real man, he's how men used to be'. 

Against this alarming background of war and the rumour of war, Daniel does find some warmth and love with Kathryn, who runs the La'al Tattie Shop. (Some of the chapters are seen from her point of view). Kathryn is also a witch and the matter-of-fact acceptance of this in the writing that - it's  presented as more a logistical than a supernatural problem - drives much of the story. Witches have businesses too and Kathryn needs to make her deliveries, but she's stuck in the shop all day and Daniel doesn't think the Bean would be pleased if he combined them with his rounds. That practical approach  is very much the mood of this book, presenting the fantastical and (increasingly) the horrific in a muted "what can you do?" way that is more and more unsettling - oddly it really brings the atmosphere of horror home to see it brought home (as it were).

As well as contributing to the eerie effect of the novel that normalisation also reflects the truth of what is going on here. Kathryn warns Daniel that the menacing hooded figure he sees outside his cottage has a connection to him - only by working out what it is might he be free of it. Her "witch bottle" is masking the symptoms, not providing a cure. So the book is - besides many other things - an exploration of Daniel's past, of his mistakes, even as he's trying to hold onto his job. Daily routines, work problems, bickering with colleagues and managing the van make up quite a bit of the story alongside some glorious evocations of the Cumbrian landscape (and allowing a bit of a respite from the growing darkness - tbough it's always threatening). Bt so do memories of Daniel's marriage, the despair at trying to get a difficult baby to sleep. And so do unsettlingly memories of his own childhood. All of this seems to be connected, somehow, as it is with the darkening state of the world. 

Overall a deeply moving, deeply troubling book - and one I'd strongly recommend.

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

3 December 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

The Fox
Sólveig Pálsdóttir (Translated by Quentin Bates)
Corylus Books, December 2020
Available as: PB, 293pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781916379732

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Fox to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour. This is the first tour I've done with them - and I hope the first of many! Corylus is a newly launched publishing house, a brave step to take in 2020 of all years, and I wish them all good things. 

The Fox introduces us to Guðgeir Fransson, a detective with the Reykjavík police who's under some sort of cloud, has been suspended and is waiting for a decision on the future of his career (and also, his marriage). Pálsdóttir only gives us hints of what happened professionally (a colleague and friend died, Guðgeir apparently made a mistake of some sort) and personally (there was an affair, he's estranged from his wife and has decamped to the backwater town of Höfn where he has taken a job as a security guard: the physical distance between him and Inga only seems to a be a barrier to resolving their problems). Guðgeir seems ambivalent about what he wants on either count.

While we shall, I hope, learn more about all this in future books, for now it's mainly background - but it does mean that Guðgeir is restless, poised between two futures and a past: unable to communicate with Inga, unable to commit to a new life and ripe for distraction. He's also a bit of an outsider in Höfn, with no inclination to take things at face value - and so inclined to take notice, when nobody else does, of a mystery on his doorstep.

A young woman, Sajee, originally from Sri Lanka, has been in the area but seems to have disappeared. The circumstances are, however, confused - Sajee arrived by plane from Reykjavík in the midst of a storm but has no connections in Höfn. She was heading for a job that doesn't exist. There is nobody to miss her. Everyone assumes she made her way... somewhere... but it's nobody's business to care whether she did or not. 

Guðgeir has no standing to investigate, and he has to fit his enquiries around his job. He is also hoping to make an Easter visit home. Nevertheless, he takes an interest. 

Pálsdóttir fully exploits the ambiguity of having part of the story follow Guðgeir and part Sajee, but being vague as to whether these strands are simultaneous and indeed, whether everything is being narrated in the order it happens. It would be spoilery to cast too much light on this - but I will say that we do, for much of the story, sort of know what has happened to Sajee, though not, quite, how things end up for her and therefore just how bad it will get. Pálsdóttir introduces a strange, reclusive mother and son - seen from Sagee's point of view - with a rather sinister backstory. It's clear early on that something is a bit off with them, but exactly what is masked by Sajee's unfamiliarity with Icelandic, culture and by tales of a "Hidden People" dwelling in the cliffs and caves. 

We see Sajee try to integrate these stories with both her own culture and the limited amount she knows about Iceland. As a stranger, she's genuinely unsure how much credence to give what she's being told, and so are we. This device - not so much an unreliable narrator as a misinformed one, perhaps - gives the story a real sense of unease and menace, a vacuum in which anything is possible and in which we might anticipate all kinds of bad outcomes. That pressure is kept up to the very end of the book. 

This is a story I sat up with well after midnight, I simply had to know what happened and how things would turn out. It is an impressive debut for Sólveig Pálsdóttir and, as ever, Quentin Bates' translation is lucid, unobtrusive and very readable - without over Anglicising concepts and language.

I will look forward to reading more about Guðgeir Fransson and his circle, assuming that mysterious enquiry absolves him for whatever happened - we will have to wait and see about that!

For more information about The Fox, see Coylus's webpage here, their Facebook or their Instagram. And follow the other entries on the blog tour - see the poster below. There will also be an interview between Dr Noir and Solveig Palsdottir on YouTube from the 10th of December, on the Newcastle Noir YouTube Channel here

You can buy the e-book from Kobo or Amazon. Paperback copies are available directly from the publisher (while stocks last!) - cost is £7.50 + £2.50 P&P for UK, and €8 + €4 P&P for anywhere in Europe, up to the end of December. Email: coryluseditor@gmail.com

1 December 2020

#Review - The Last Resort by Susi Holliday

The Last Resort
Susi Holliday
Thomas & Mercer, 1 December 2020
Available as: PB, 283pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN (PB): 9781542020015 

I'm grateful to the author for an advance copy of The Last Resort to consider for review. 

I  enjoyed Susi Holliday's recent psychological thrillers The Lingering and Violet so was very keen to see what she wrote next and The Last Resort didn't disappoint. It belongs to a very definite (and rather different) subgenre, the "last man standing" thriller where a disparate group are brought together in an environment they can't escape and challenged to survive. It's both a contemporary genre, and one with deep roots - think And Then There Were None, which The Last Resort has some affinity with, being set own an island with each character possessing one or more guilty secret. Indeed, the book affectionately tips its hat to Christie and - some way in - its protagonists, realising what genre they're in, comment knowing on what may be in store. 

I rather like this sort of self awareness (I'm avoiding the "meta" word) and it's only one of the many respects that, in this book, Holliday simply OWNS the format. From the setup - seven strangers on a plane, invited on a dream holiday, in reality off to who knows where - through the subsequent dangers, to the enigmatic last page, this is a book that demands attention. The group members themselves are satisfyingly portrayed - Amelia, a development worker, Tiggy, a social media "influencer", Giles, the games designer, gossip columnist Lucy, photographer James, Scott, who flogs dodgy dietary supplements and Brenda, the venture capitalist. While 283 pages isn't much to give a rounded description of this many people Holliday makes them distinctive and creates a real personality for each, avoiding them being stereotypes - it would be too easily simply to make everyone nasty, all the time, to set up the necessary conflict but that doesn't happen here. 

As the group progresses following the instructions of their enigmatic host, there are of course rifts between some, stoked by the mysterious revelations about their pasts and the fear of what is being done to them (are their minds being read? How closely are they being surveilled? Above all, why were they chosen?) but these arise organically from the characters as depicted, they aren't imposed. 

And there is a real mystery here. The reader too will wonder what, exactly, is going on. Obviously all are being manipulated, but why? What does it have to do with the interpolated story - set in 2000 - featuring two new characters? That's, of course, the puzzle which Amelia and the rest have to solve too, although they're not being given all the pieces we are and it creates a real sense of doubt for us as we follow their plight. I did work my way to the solution before the big reveal, but not that long before, and again, the key turns out to be motivations and character, so you need to watch everyone closely.

In all, The Last Resort (the title has to be ironic!) was great fun to read, with plenty of surprises and some real shocks. While it playfully hints at what's going on by its references to earlier examples of this genre, those should not all be taken at face value - things are tricksy here! 

For more information about The Last Resort and about the author's other books, see her website here. You can buy The Last Resort from Amazon here.

26 November 2020

#Review - Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Illustration by Edward Bettison
Design & lettering by
Hannah Wood
Call of the Bone Ships (The Tide Child, 2)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 26 November 2020
Available as: PB, 488pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by publisher
ISBN: 9780356511856

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of Call of the Bone Ships to consider for review.

Call of the Bone Ships takes us back to Barker's fantasy archipelago, divided into two warring nations - the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands. In the previous book we saw Joron Twiner, a desperate drunk heading to the bad, rescued by Shipwife "Lucky" Meas Gilbryn together with the ship of which he had titular command, Tide Child. It was a ship of convicts, of outcasts, but Meas built it and them into a potent element of the Fleet - for her own purposes, revealed at the end of the book.

In Call of the Bone Ships, we see the consequences. No longer a loyal ship of the Fleet, Tide Child makes a shocking discovery which reveals a vile trade apparently flourishing under the eyes of Meas's estranged mother, who rules the Hundred Isles. Investigating, and seeking to end, it sets Meas up for a conflict with the entire Fleet and makes her and her crew the enemy of the Hundred Isles.

I'm being circumspect about just what happens here and (I hope) not spoiling the first book for any reader who hasn't opened it yet (my advice: you must read it, and quickly). The plot here is action-filled, full of twists ands turns, feats of arms and rending loss, and you don't want to know the details in advance because Barker's telling of them is superb and frequently shocking. Like its forerunner, Call of the Bone Ships scratches all the same itches as CS Forester or Patrick O'Brian except in a fantasy world with magic, great sea beasts called Arakeesians and a matriarchal society. There is shattering, sudden combat. There is the unease of a sailor, forced to trust to the land. There is the fellowship and web of relationships aboard ship. Above all there is the restless, heaving sea.

But - and because this is an RJ Barker book I was expecting this - there is more. A story filled with scrapes and chases would be fun, but Barker's fiction has heart besides. In the first book we saw Joron grow and come into his own as a sailor and as a human. We saw him discover a strange gift - the ability to call the Arakeesian. We saw him make friends, and enemies. 

Here, every scrap of what Joron became is put to work, is tested, against enormous odds. His trust in Meas (and hers in him), his bond with his crew, his friendship with the strange creature the Gullaime. (Note to author: can we have a series of gullaime spinoff stories please? I just loved its rudeness, its self-possession and its liking for colourful scraps and bric-a-brac). Joron is no longer learning to be who he is, rather he's learning what that person can do, and working out what they should do. And what price he's prepared to pay for that, what he must give up. 

In some respects it is a very dark book indeed. The plot which the crew of Tide Child confront is bad enough, but there are also woeful discoveries about the history of Barker's world, about how the Arakeesians were hunted, discoveries that taint all with an age old guilt. And there is a threat in the future too which no doubt we'll hear more of in the next book. Joron has many low moments - Barker doesn't spare his reader and there were many occasions reading this book that I felt, no, not that, don't do that. AND RJ ALWAYS DOES IT! However, the darkness is never all there is. There is trust and loyalty. There is friendship. There are songs - Barker's sea shanties roll in with the tang of salt and carry the rhythms of waves and tides. There is terrific, rich worldbuilding, glorious passages of prose and deep, well realised characters at every hand. 

I could write that this book blew me away, and that's true, but I have to add, yes, it blew me away and dropped me in the heaving sea, where my flesh was gnawed by sea beasts, it cast my bones on a far shore to be ground by the tides. It is a book of combat and action, yes, but beneath it is a book of deep, deep feelings.

If you'd asked me before I read this I would have said it would be hard for Barker to match, let alone surpass, The Bone Ships, yet here we are, I think he has. Both books are superb, but this one - well, this one just flies. It's just superb writing, and feels so real, so human and moving. 

I am, as you may have worked out, strongly recommending this one.

For more information about Call of the Bone Ships, see the publisher's website here.

24 November 2020

#Review - The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman

The Dark Archive (The Invisible Library, 7)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan, 26 November
Available as: PB, 318pp
Source: Advance PB copy 
ISBN: 9781529000603

I'm grateful to the publisher and to Jamie Lee Nardonne and Stephen Haskins for an advance copy of The Dark Archive to consider for review.

A Great Detective...

I am delighted to report that, seven books in, the Invisible Library series still roars. In particular, Peregrine Vale is back - after being scarce in The Secret Chapter, as I noted in my review, he's at the centre of things here (maybe Genevieve was reading it!) in a book set largely in his world and mainly in London at that. Can it be that the Great Detective is about to find his match at last?

A Master Criminal...

London's criminal circles whisper of a new Napoleon of Crime, a person known only as "The Professor". Might they be the mysterious hand behind the attempted murder and kidnapping of Irene, Catherine, Vane and Kai? The forces of the British Empire, the dragons, the Library and even Catherine's Fae principal, the Cardinal, come together to crack the problem - but puzzling clues only abound.

A Librarian in peril

This time, Irene's not chasing down some key book. Rather, something seems to be chasing her. The Dark Archive is a rather different book, rather more focussed than previous volumes, less a heist than a cat and mouse game, a hunt. The politics between the dragons and the Fae is less important (though ever there in the background tension, especially as Catherine tries to be the first Fae to enter the Library). Instead, personal motives are to the fore. Irene's relationship with Kai is vulnerable to the whims of her masters and the prejudices of his family. Vale is always on the cusp of pursuing that Great Detective archetype and being contaminated, again, by chaos. Irene herself has family issues which come back to bite here. Any of these levers may be used - will be used - by the shadowy antagonist who seems to be coming for them - and for Irene in particular. 

Is she, finally, out of her depth?

One of the things I love about this series - besides the delicious characters, the balance between real, blood-and-thunder adventure and peril/ irony/ humour - is the way that Cogman keeps reinventing her format and giving us something new. The first book, The Invisible Library, was itself a delight and I vividly remember both reading it (on the Eurostar from Brussels, as you ask, the gilt from the cover wearing off and making my business suit rather sparkly) and the feelings I had then. Every instalment since has touched the same places, but each is slightly different.  Rather than becoming formulaic, the series has grown and deepened. Irene herself has grown in self-confidence and status but without becoming an "insider". Kai's become less stiff, Vale more dependable - and now we have Catherine, Irene's new apprentice, and also Kai's brother Shan Yuan who rub each other up wonderfully. Catherine, in particular, is turning out a nicely complex character who subverts the expectations we might have of a Library apprentice as well as of a Fae, a race who have been depicted so far mainly as shifty antagonists.

Add to them Vale's mysterious sister, who is something very important in Government, and a reappearance by Inspector Sigh of the Yard, and it's almost as if Irene's building an army of her own...

In short, if you've enjoyed the preceding books I think you will love this one, knowing that it will be like them but will also give something new.  There are some hints of where everything might be going, but they are still only hints. The origin of the dragons, the eventual fate of the Library, Irene's own history - these all seem to be linked, but we don't yet know how. 

Clearly there are more adventures in store and I'm very glad of that.

Finally, I just have to comment on that gorgeous purple cover. It's a beautiful thing, it really is.

For more information about The Dark Archive, see the publisher's website here.

21 November 2020

#Review - Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale

Design by Amy Musgrave

Paris by Starlight
Robert Dinsdale
Del Rey, 5 November 2020
Available as: HB, 465pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy, bought copy from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9781529100457

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Paris by Starlight via Netgalley to consider for review. 

In Paris by Starlight, we meet a nation of refugees, the People, whose country - never named - has been absorbed into "the Russias". It was, in olden times, a wonderful, magical country whose inhabitants lived by night, not day, under their own Seven Stars. They lived among wonderful, glowing plants - the "Flowers-by-Night" through which flitted birds called lightjars. They set sail on the Landlocked Sea, in which swam the Water Dogs - creatures with both legs and gills. And their stories were written down in a fabulous book called the Nocturne.

Those splendours are long past, but still remembered as the last of the People make their journey some three thousand miles through Europe, scaling fences, enduring prisons and detention centres, begging and stealing, to find somewhere they can make a home. 

At last, some of them come to Paris. (I think, by the way, this is a slightly alternate Paris - Dinsdale introduces it as "Paris, not so long ago" and the atmosphere had - to me - a slightly 50s vibe: no mobiles, the news is all on the radio and in the papers, no mention of Internet. But the events the book is founded on - the plight of refugees - feels very modern). 

Also in Paris, Isabelle is searching for the father who abandoned her nineteen years before. Club by club, night by night and bar by bar, she performs her music, hoping to eventually cross paths with him. But instead she runs across a girl of the People, wandering and starving, and is drawn into their covert world of loss and beauty. 

For things are changing in Paris. The presence of the People, and the stories from their Nocturne, seem to be re-creating their lost country. Water dogs flit in and out of the Seine and lightjars are seen blazing above flowers-by-night which spout among the concrete overpasses and tower blocks of northern Paris.

In the first half of the book, Dinsdale explores this glorious transformation as he establishes his group of characters. Besides Isabelle there is Levon and his family, which includes Arina, the girl she found scrounging for food in an alleyway, as well as his grandmother Maia. Levon also lost his father, Hayk, when the soldiers came and has protected his family along all the hard miles of the Trail. And there are others too whom Isabelle has connections with: Hector and his wife and young son and their circle. 

Things all seems to be going well, but the reader will suspect that trouble is ahead. Readers of Dinsdale's previous book, The Toymakers, will I think notice a similarity of themes in Paris by Starlight. In both, vagabond, outcast people from the East find their refuges in wealthy, complacent Western cities and kindle some of the magic of their homelands. In both, we see that this magic is not sufficient to ward off conflict, either within families and peoples, or between them. And in both, that conflict is destructive both of beauty and safety. In Paris, a "New Resistance" grows up, harping on a romanticised version of the Second World War and of the effort against German occupation but really a cover for thuggery and narrow-mindedness. Elements of the People respond in kind, seemingly dooming any hope of peace and acceptance, and things get very dark indeed.

It is a book I enjoyed a lot. However, I do one reservation about the central idea and about the way it is used and developed. Dinsdale's People clearly stand for the myriad refugees currently fleeing across Europe, denied shelter and safety, and the refusal of so many to accommodate these actual, real people should itself move and anger us. It shouldn't - surely it shouldn't? - be necessary to dramatise this idea by having the presence of people fleeing persecution generate a bewitching nighttime beauty and then having hoodlums trash that, and it bothers me somehow to see the crisis portrayed in that way. I'm not sure if I am right to be bothered, but this did make it hard at times for me to stay with the story, especially towards the end of the book.

That said, in Paris by Starlight Dinsdale creates a galaxy of characters (hard to avoid the stellar metaphor) who I found myself caring about a great deal. Paris by Starlight is beautifully, often movingly, written and the central love story is tender and sad, rooted in these well-drawn characters. The respective losses of their fathers have, for example, shaped both Isabelle and Levon. There's a touch of the unreliable narrator about Isabelle, for example in the way the novel gives us a certain impression of her mother as being slightly shiftless, romantic and unreliable which is then belied once she makes a (rather late) appearance in the book. That is typical of the writing here: despite the starkly contrasting positions taken up, the most arresting characters are conflicted, changeable and contradictory. I took a message from it that the way out may, perhaps, be embracing those contradictions, rather than trying to tidy them away.

It's a complex book and one that will stay with me. You really should try it and see what you think - I'm really looking forward to discussing this one!

19 November 2020

#Review - Bone Harvest by James Brogden

Design by Julia Lloyd

Bone Harvest
James Brogden
Titan Books, 17 November 2020
Available as: PB, 492pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781785659973

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Bone Harvest to consider for review.

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

Bone Harvest was originally scheduled to appear in May, but like much else this year, covid-19 had its way with those plans and so it is with us in November. That delay may though add poignancy to this story, a thought that struck me when watching the TV coverage of the lockdown Remembrance ceremonies and in particular, of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey.

Bone Harvest is a story of folk horror, but as it ranges from the trenches of the Western Front in 1916 to the deceptive calm of rural Wales and the fruitful labour of a group of allotment holders, the most gut-wrenching scenes are of distinctly un-supernatural warfare, blood and slaughter.

"When on the road to sweet Athy
A stick in the hand, A drop in the eye
A doleful damsel I heard cry
Johnny I hardly knew ye..."

In counterpoint to that unknown warrior, Brogden gives us the story of one man who survived this slaughter, but transformed. The man known only as "the deserter" (well, he borrows other names, but they are not his) has been forged in that nightmare of steel, blood and noise. While he has physical wounds they haven't made him, like Johnny, unrecognisable to his sweetheart - rather his spiritual wounds have made him unrecognisable to himself. He doesn't know his name, or remember who or what he is. His old self is gone, erased by the thunder of the guns, and all that remains is that identity: deserter. 

While we shouldn't judge that desertion, his erasure has taken something from him, something which allows him, in the years and decades that follow, to become a different thing, a thing still bent on survival. Brogden will evoke supernatural horrors, but it is the human agency at the centre of things that dominated the book for me.

It is a book, as I've said, that offers great contrasts in atmosphere and theme. Alongside the deserter, who's established as a character in the first quarter or so, we meet Dennie Keeling, a woman devoted to her allotment and to her dog Viggo. She has been devoted to her friend Sarah, but Sarah is dead now - we'll learn in good time what that event has to do with the rest of the story. Dennie may or may not have a dash of the psychic in her and may or may not be experiencing the first signs of dementia (creating a real sense of tension when she begins seeing and hearing things). She seems oh so vulnerable when dark forces appear and begin to manipulate Dennie's friends and neighbours on the allotments. A cat and mouse game ensues, Dennie acting as the reader's eyes and ears to detect what is going on. We have some advantages from that early section of the story, but it's hard to fit that in with what seems to be going on now, in the part of the story set in 2020. Brogden is content to tell his story slowly, letting his shadowy cult act in line with the dictates of the moon and the seasons, as befits a story of horticulture, of planting and reaping, rather than trying to force things in a hot-house. 

If you're the sort of reader that wants to press on quickly to the final denouement, you may get a little impatient in this part of the story. It's not that there isn't action, but things seem to move quite slowly. I'd really, really urge you to be patient though - if you want drama, then the final part of this book delivers it with aplomb. Our deserter hears the sound of the guns again and gathers an army of sorts - and many secrets are revealed.

Bone Harvest is well written, very readable, with beautifully imagined characters (even the deserter is sympathetic, to a point; many have a satisfying moral ambiguity, doing bad things for rational and understandable reasons) and, like this author's previous books, integrates its theme of ancient paganism seamlessly with the mundanity of modern life. It has a great sense of place too, and one particular scene towards the end - you'll know it when you reach it - had me in tears.

Brogden's previous book, The Plague Stones, published in 2019, focussed on the outbreak of a virulent plague. It's with some trepidation that I wait to see what connection with reality his latest will have - but I know one thing: there's a set of allotments across the lane from my house, and I'll be giving them a miss for the next weeks.




17 November 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Coral Bride by Roxanne Bouchard

The Coral Bride
Roxanne Bouchard (trans David Warriner)
Orenda Books, 12 November 2020
Available as: PB, 424pp, e
Source: Advance review copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781913193324

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for providing me a free copy of The Coral Bride to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

The Coral Bride takes us to a part of the world I was completely unaware of, the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, on Canada's eastern coast. It picks up the story of Detective Sergeant Joaquin Moralès from We Were the Salt of the Sea (which I hadn't read, shame on me: now I will) as he investigates the suspicious death of Angel Roberts on her lobster trawler. Forced to locate himself close to the scene of the death, Moralès finds himself in a guest house, run by the enigmatic Corine, out of season. The only guest, he has the run of the place. I rather liked this setting: Morales spreading out his papers in the empty dining room, looking at over the sea as he unravels the case.

That investigation is a taut, satisfyingly complex crime/ mystery in itself. Roberts was closely enmeshed in a network of fishing families with complex rivalries - both personal and financial - all struggling to make a living from the sea amidst environmental crises - the disappearance of the cod - and financial challenges going back generations. There are whispers of poaching, and time was that every trawler's skipper carried a rifle aboard. Once Moralès digs into the investigation he finds an abundance of motives for a murder and a great deal of shifty behaviour - but is still baffled as to whether this wasn't actually a simpler story of suicide. If it was a murder, how could it have been done? If it was a suicide, why?

This part of the story alone would be enough to make this a compelling and page-turning read. But The Coral Bride offers much, much more.

Alongside Moralès's investigation, his own life and family is in turmoil. His wife won't speak to him and he's not sure whether or not his marriage is over. Son Sébastien has arrived home unexpectedly, clearly going through a crisis of his own. We see events from both Joaquin's and Sébastien's viewpoints, so get to appreciate the delicate dynamics between father and son, the past events - and misunderstandings - that have shaped their lives, particularly when it comes to relations with women. Confronted with considerable amounts of misogyny in the local community, the two men are forced to reconsider their own attitudes: Joaquin has a tendency to fixate on a particular feature of a woman's body - a protruding vertebra, an ankle - and Sébastien punts an idea that his father has ruined his life by not teaching him to assert himself with women. 

The reality is that it's hard for women on the Gaspé to make it in a man's world. That's true for fisheries inspector Simone Lord as much as it was for Angel Roberts herself. That's easily said, but oh, to really understand it - and this story - you have to move in to this book, as Joaquin does, and meet its people (Lord, Detective Lefebre who can't be in a room five minutes without beginning a collection of objects, Corine herself, and many more). As well as being a masterful study of a place and way of life (rooting what happened to Angel in a richly portrayed setting) the characters here are spot on - quirky, fully realised, believable and deeply human. I especially loved the way that Bouchard has the Moralès men lapse into cooking - whether alone or working together - either when they are very content or brooding, needing to work through something (either personal issues or the finer points of the case). There's a  physicality to the descriptions of food, of ingredients and how they are put together that is just very satisfying (also, mouth-watering). It's a lovely way to learn about characters and makes me wish there was more cooking (and eating) in writing.

In short - the book really was an absolute joy to read. I don't think I've actually done it justice here. I strongly recommend it and I hope you will read it and love it too.

For more information about The Coral Bride see the publisher's website here - and also the other stops on the blogtour (see the poster below).

You can buy the book from your local high street shop (they need your support right now and many are able to order books and let you collect). Or you can get it online from bookshop.org, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

OR you can order a SIGNED COPY from Bert's Books - contact bert@bertsbooks.co.uk or call 07960 002056

12 November 2020

#Review #Giveaway - The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

Design by Lauren Panepinto,
illustration by Karla Ortiz
The Fires of Vengeance (The Burning, Book 2)
Evan Winter
Orbit, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780356512983

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance e-copy of The Fires of Vengeance to consider for review. I also have a spare copy of the hardback which I'll send to one randomly chosen sharer of this review - see below for details.

CW warning for descriptions of the effects of torture.

Sequel to The Rage of Dragons, The Fires of Vengeance delivers the same gut-wrenching mix of extreme combat, peril and - I honestly don't know how to describe this - a sort of reckless, nihilistic battle-fury.

Except it's all dialled up to 11, or more. Whatever The Rage of Dragons was, this is it with the gloves off, with real blades not training ones, with the safety disabled.

Tau, who we met in the earlier book, basically fought all the way through it. Despairing of his goal - joining the military and winning the right to challenge the man who murdered his father - he found a way to fight, and die, hundreds of times a day, to practice, to become better, a perfect warrior for the Omehi. Always driven by revenge, yet also retaining a loyalty to his people, Tau also found himself embroiled in politics and diplomacy, defending the young Queen Tsiora against a coup at the same time as an invasion.

In The Fires of Vengeance things get even more complicated. This is a very hierarchical world, a world of Lessers and Nobles, both part of the Omehi society which, fleeing the enemy known as the Cull, colonised the land of Xidda, expelling its natives who wage constant war to regain their homeland. Tau is a Lesser, despised by the Nobles and by all the others above him in the hierarchy: being named Queen's Champion, an unheard of development for a Lesser, puts him outside the normal structures of his society and earns fresh enemies - for him and the Queen. There's an irony here in Tau's swearing to defend the Queen who presides over the structures that oppress him and those like him, more irony in his discovery that the "Guardians" - the fierce and beautiful dragons who guard his people - are themselves enslaved.

This is a world of endless moral complexity. Largely told from Tau's viewpoint, we see his physical suffering, the sheer mental cost to him of battling the demons of Isihogo nightly, its toll on his sense of reality. In one horrific passage we see the aftermath of torture for which he blames himself (this is a particularly visceral passage which I found very hard - but I felt it was absolutely justified in context), heaping guilt on physical pain and fear for the future.

There are only a couple of short interruptions to Tau's perspective, where we see things from another's point of view - and each time, it's someone who has good reason to fear and hate Tau. Even our hero, then, may justifiably be seen differently, and that's even without factoring in whether he is allowing himself simply to be a mighty fist for the Empire that's oppressed him.  

Winter doesn't offer any easy answers or platitudes in response to this - there is a since in which Tau does his best in circumstances not of his choosing, always though with revenge as his goal, and as you might expect, this does lead to him inflicting real harm and accumulating divided loyalties: it's not clear for example how far his support for the Queen is simply because his enemy is her enemy, and how long this can last in the complicated politics of the Omehi. There's almost no rest in this story, as Tau runs  from one, apparently hopeless battle, to another, enemies rising hydra-like at every turn, plans torn to shreds, always a haste, a need to hurry, to improvise. (I say runs, but he does now have use of a rare and precious beast, a horse, and watching him learn to ride is in e of the funnier parts of the story).

Through it all we - slowly - learn more about the origin of the Omehi, and about the magic with which they're bound. The threat, it becomes clear, is even greater(!) than Rage of Dragons let on and it is one which all the martial prowess of the Ihashe, the Indlovu, the Ingonyama and the learning and courage of the Gifted, may not be able to overcome. As so many of Tau's sword-brethren fell in the battle at the end of Rage, so it seems his entire world may be burned away, mere swords and spears useless against the heat and rage that has been set loose.

The writing here is compulsive and apocalyptic but nevertheless, often beautiful and moving. It can also be funny: the great Champion Tau Solarin may be an accomplished warrior but there's a lot about life which he doesn't know and as he moves further and further from the known, the familiar, his baffled reaction to the ways of the world can make the reader smile, understanding more of what's going on than he does.

In brief: Winter tackles that difficult task, the second book in a series, with aplomb, creating something that will satisfy both the reader who wants more of that Rage of Dragons thing and the one who wants to go further and deeper. There no sign of things flagging, even if one rather wished they would slow down a bit so Tau can get some sleep!

Recommended to those who loved Rage and to those who haven't read it yet (though this is one of those cases where you really do need to read the first book first).

If you would like a hardback copy of the book then share this review - tagging me in @bluebookballoon - and I will choose one person at random on Sunday 15th November. (Can only send to GB or Ireland, I'm afraid). 

For more information about The Fires of Vengeance, see the publisher's website here.

11 November 2020

#BlogTour #Review - How to Belong by Sarah Franklin

Cover by Sophie McDonnell

How to Belong
Sarah Franklin
Zaffre, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 353pp, e
Source: Advance HB copy
ISBN: 9781785764868

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of How to Belong to consider for review and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

I'm a fan of books that match well-drawn, interesting characters with a great sense of place, and How to Belong scores well on both counts. It's the story of Jo and Tessa, coming to terms with their pasts and with their lives when returning to the Forest of Dean. 

Jo has been - is - a barrister. She's one of those who "got out", taking a degree and finding a glamorous job in London. Or not, because once there, she found, of course, that it wasn't all as shiny as she hoped. Life was an endless slog round the country, working on dispiriting cases for clients who scarcely seem deserving, arriving back on late trains from distant courts. All the plum work goes to the men, she's pretty friendless in London and even the money isn't very good. So coming home for Christmas and finding herself in the familiar hubbub of the family butcher's shop strikes a nerve with Jo, especially as her parents are about to sell the shop and retire. Maybe taking over the shop might be a way to return to the familiar, and preserve her family heritage?

Farrier Tessa has also come back to the Forest - after her relationship with Marnie in Bristol ended. Emotionally bruised and struggling with a debilitating illness, she's drawn the circles of her life tighter and tighter to protect herself. Finally, she holes up in her cottage in the woods, struggling to make ends meet on the tiny amount of work she can do.

I loved the way that Franklin depicts these women, giving us flashbacks to show their earlier lives and the wounds and struggles that have made them. 

Jo is bright and intelligent and full of plans and ideas. We are told that her career as a barrister has given her resilience and an ability to deal with people, yet she can also get things so, so wrong: with Ron and Mo, who run her parents' shop, with old friend Liam - at times, it's hilarious to see Jo's mistakes. Moreover, she can scarcely bear the smell and texture of fresh meat so at one level it seems slightly comic that she would take on the butcher's shop, at another, it is rather noble and admirable.

Tessa's wounds didn't begin with her and Marnie's break-up: there was a shocking event that cut to the core of her family and for which she has assumed responsibility and a resulting belief that she's hateful and can come to no good. The forest seems a good place for Tessa to hide away, to not be known or recognised. 

Jo has returned to the Forest of Dean for exactly the opposite reason, to be somewhere she is known, somewhere she fits in. 

It doesn't work out as either expects, of course. There are many eyes in the forest and Tessa is observed and remembered, while Jo finds that her friendship group has moved on (and her family house sold). Many outsiders are coming to the Forest with new estates spring up where the sheep grazed and second homers appearing. Is Jo, despite her origins, really one of them - an urbanite with over romantic views about this place stuck between England and Wales, with its own history and traditions?

The interplay between Tessa and Jo, and also Jo's relationships with Liam and with Ron and Mo and indeed her parents (largely absent though they are) makes a fascinating character study. Franklin lets things build up slowly, with plenty of time and space for each of the two women, and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what's going on rather than having her characters tell us. The Forest is almost a character itself, and we see both the pluses and minuses of increasing tourism and of "incomers" - as well as the resilience of the Forest people themselves. Best of all, perhaps, the ending is left tantalisingly open. I think I know what's going to happen, but as Franklin has shown, Jo and Tessa are real people with real quirks and with their own histories, so really, who knows what comes next?

Definitely recommended.

For more information about How to Belong, see the publisher's website here - and also the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below!

You can buy How to Belong from your local highstreet bookshop - many are still open for orders even if you can't browse - or online from Hive Books, bookshop.org UK,  Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for "How to Belong" by Sarah Franklin

7 November 2020

Review - The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Cover by Tomás Almeida

The Evidence
Christopher Priest
Gollancz, 15 October 2020
Available as: HB, 312pp, audio, e
Source: Copy bought from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9781473231399

For me, a new novel by Christopher Priest is always an Event and this one had me awake till after midnight: I couldn't stop till I'd finished it.

The Evidence takes us back to the Dream Archipelago, in a story that plays with - and critiques - the rules of detective fiction, as well as taking in feudalism, the world financial system and the literary scene.

Todd Fremde is a successful crime writer, living a comfortable life on the island of Salay Raba, the fourth: a warm and pleasant place, if overrun in parts by financiers and bankers. Certainly a world away from the bitterly cold and industrialised nation of Dearth, where he's gone to give a talk on "The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime Free Society". This gives Priest a wonderful lunch for the story as we follow the slightly nervous and peevish Fremde on his journey - a two day sleeper ride across Dearth, with a flight beforehand. I'm not a natural traveller and I slightly sympathised with Fremde's niggling concerns - about missing connections, being late, having to travel as advised with extra bulky, thermal clothing, missing his usual routines - while also thinking: two days closeted in a sleeper cabin - what an opportunity to catch up on the reading! At the same time, there are some oddities slipped into the story, and if you read Priest's last Dream Archipelago story, The Gradual, you may feel that the central figure, an artist despatched on a lengthy cultural jaunt, may be something of an innocent abroad, likely to run into all sorts of trouble.

As he does, and there is an element of SF to it, with the mysterious "mutability" which nobody can quite explain but which notices in Fremde's hotel room warn him about - but Priest's writing here almost makes it just one of things that you have to cope with in a foreign business trip. A strange foreign law, perhaps, a way of living, in a distant city, that you don't quite grasp, like the peculiarities of the Metro pricing. Certainly not something to worry about much. Especially not when a senior member of the local police (in a crime free society?) takes an interest in you, and insists on telling you about a strange case she was once involved with.

To begin with, Fremde hates that attention. He's already discussed the philosophy of the crime novel - the aspects which are deliberately unrealistic, the things one avoids as passé (the locked room, twins, the "perfect crime"), features of the market which drive the writing one way or another. Now (and here Priest writes with perceptible feeling) we get that horror of horrors for a writer, the fan who wants to suggest an Idea which surely only needs to written up to make a novel. As well as the palpable sense of unease from Fremde's travails in a foreign land, the book now picks up a dash of humour as Fremde has to try and control his annoyance. Eventually, though, he does become interested in the story he's being told - not so much as material, more from the nature of what he hears, and its connection to his homeland. Can it be a coincidence that he was invited to Dearth in the first place?

What follows is best not described in detail - that would spoil the enjoyment of the plot, which contains many little moments of recognition. I will only say that Fremde's life, and the sort of fiction he writes, seem to be crossing over - at many levels - as a result of his visit to Dearth. The concept of mutability becomes important - Fremde relates it to his writing (what's more mutable than fiction?) but it also proves to have real-world effects, serious ones for Todd and for his island.

In the background, this is the same Dream Archipelago we've become familiar with, the endless war between the two Northern states gridding on and escapees from their conscript crimes. In keeping with the detective theme, we also meet a grizzled ex-policeman with secrets (he, also, keeps trying to foist Ideas on Fremde) and another cop who never travels without an assault rifle. There are written confessions, obfuscated records and hints of a cover-up. 

It's an immensely enjoyable book where - in keeping with Fremde's theory of crime writing - the point is less to discover what happened, even where that seems to depend on the most outrageous of crime writing conventions, still less to establish guilt, but to tease out the relationships and personalities involved, to become acquainted with participants and come to know them.

Which is all very well, but there are people it's better not to be acquainted with...

I simply loved this book. It will appeal to the crime enthusiast, the SF reader, followers of Christopher Priest's fiction (onvioulsy) and those who enjoy an intelligent novel where all isn't as it seems.

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