28 March 2020

Review - Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Cover art by Tommy Arnold,
design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
Gideon the Ninth (Locked Tomb Trilogy, 1)
Tamsyn Muir
Tor, 10 September 2019
HB, 444pp
Audio narr. Moira Quirk, 16 hours 50min

I read Gideon the Ninth as an audiobook.

Well. This one has me truly gobsmacked. Genuinely new and different, a cross between an Agatha Christie ruder mystery set in a crumbling laboratory (who will die last?), a dark tale of necromancy and the undead (bones! So many bones!) and far future SF it's... like nothing I'd ever read before.

Add a compulsive, mystery-driven narrative, SO MUCH COMBAT, a dash of romance and tragedy - oh, buy it, just buy it!

What's that? You want me to tell you a bit more before you part with your hard earned pounds, dollars or Euros (yes, I can dream of an international audience!).

Oh then. Gideon, of the title, is a young warrior for the Ninth House. The crumbling House, the House where all the kids died (except her and heiress Harrowhark), Keepers of the Locked Tomb, shadow cultists. All Gideon dreams of is getting out of the grave of the Ninth and joining the Cohort to fight the Emperor's enemies.

So it should be her dream assignment to accompany Harrow as Cavalier when the Emperor summons the Houses to provide him with new Lyctors. Each House is to send its best and brightest to compete for the honour... except for the Ninth, which will send Gideon and Harrow.

Oddly, this doesn't thrill her, perhaps in part because Gideon and Harrow HATE one another. And Gideon's reluctant, sulky, teenage scorn carries her through much of this book as she's forced to learn to fight with a dainty rapier instead of her trusty broadsword, to paint her face white as a Death Cultist and to remain SILENT in the creepy corridors and chambers of Canaan House, where the Lyctorships are to be awarded.

This isn't a straightforward contest, rather the Cavaliers and their Adepts are left to find their way through a maze of devilish traps and dangers to discover the dreadful necromantic secrets that constitute Lyctorhold. The tasks are set by the seemingly gentle and rambling priest Teacher who however warns them that they are IN GREAT DANGER.

And then, as they say, the murders begin...

This was a fun book to listen to. Quirk's narration is glorious, she doesn't so much present as inhabit every character, whether Teacher's wavering bonhomie, Harrowhark's aloof poshness or Gideon's ongoing teenage sulk. It's just stunning. If you want something to convince you of the value of audio, this would be a good place to begin.

Beyond that, though, Muir's writing is excellent. Despite the plethora of characters, the heart of this book is the relationship between Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus - two lonely, spiky women with very different places in the world, outlooks and intentions. In many ways it's one long bicker, laced with sarcasm, rancour and distrust. Yet Canaan House is so deadly, the assembled representatives of the House so treacherous and double dealing, that if there is to be any chance of getting out alive, they need to work together - and to find ways to make allies, something that comes naturally to neither.

So much fun, so much combat (the fights here are something else) and it's all going along swimmingly... then Muir somehow takes things up yet another level, bringing this book to the emotional pitch of a tragic opera, a fable or a ballad. The ending just destroyed me. If I was gobsmacked already that had me doublegobsmacked. A cold, dark universe just got colder, darker. I'm desperate for the next part, counting down the days.

For more about the book see the Tor website here.

25 March 2020

#Review - Black River by Will Dean

Black River (Tuva Moodyson, 3)
Will Dean
Point Blank, 12 March 2020
HB, 384pp

I'm grateful to Point Blank for a free advance copy of Black River to consider for review (a SIGNED copy no less, lucky me!)

Tuva Moodyson is back! - metaphorically, in this her third adventure, and literally, in that she's returned in a hurry to Gavrik, the place she disparagingly calls "Toytown", the little town in the northern forest of Sweden.

When last seen, Moodyson was heading South for a new job and a new life, leaving behind both her friends - her old boss Lena, her best friend Tammy - and enemies (too many to list).

Now, four months off the booze, she's back to settle debts. Tammy has gone missing, suspected to have been kidnapped (but nobody in Gavrik seems to care - after all, Tammy's an outsider, not even of Swedish ancestry) and Tuva's going to find her.

In this third adventure, Tuva's sharper, even more determined, even more detached. In the previous books there was a sense that, however strained her relations with the townsfolk, she was part of things with a stake - a tenuous, small stake, but a stake - in being accepted there. Part of the drama, part of the fear, of Dark Pines and Red Snow was seeing her stretch that, risk being shut out, lose her place, her role.

Well, in Black River, Tuva officially doesn't;'t give a fuck. She'll go anywhere, rile anyone, poke and pry and upset and offend and she WILL FIND HER FRIEND. It's heartbreaking to see the indifference many of the townspeople show towards Tammy: yes, they'll buy her Thai food from the van, food she serves late into the Arctic nights we saw in the previous books, but they won't actually lift a finger to help find her. Like other young women who have, it seems, gone missing from Gavrik, she probably brought it on herself.

Again, Tuva's left, with little help (Lena is the exception) to sift for info, ask the awkward questions, face danger when she encounters some deeply weird locals. Sally 'The Breeder' for example is chillingly strange - Dean skilfully conveys something just a bit... off... in her manner which gave me the creeps even apart from her sideline in breeding - and killing - snakes. But she isn't the only one.

And then another girl goes missing.

All this takes place against a background of Midsommar, the endless days, the heat, the clouds of bugs fro the forests - as inhospitable a season in its way as the midwinter cold of the previous books and one that Tuva hates with the passion of a lifelong sufferer. And yes, I have seen that film - and I think Dean cheekily deploys references too, such as the kulning or the flower bedecked poles that are the centrepiece of the festivities. Although that's not quite where we are in terms of genre, this adds a rich layer of meanings on top of the townsfolk's insularity ('They're Swedish!' Tuva is repeatedly told of some food, whether delicacy or everyday staple, to encourage her to try it - a subtle rebuke to her friendship for Tammy who after all is known for selling not-Swedish food) and also on top of Tuva's regret for her busted up family life (which we learn more about) and what she sees as her earlier desertion of Tammy.

It all makes for an almost unbearably heavy emotional brew which robs Tuva of sleep, distracts her from the task at hand and shows her threats and enemies everywhere (but remember, she's faced death twice in the previous books). My heart was in my mouth as I read the closing section of this book - Tuva Moodyson is a protagonist one really comes to care for, to identify with and I wan ted her to come through this sticky, intense time without more scars, more wounds - physical or emotional.

If you've read Dark Pines and Red Snow you will sort of know what to expect but here Dean cranks everything up several notches, this book is more intense, more suspenseful and - under that Midsommar sun - it manages to actually be darker than them.

Just perfect, incredibly good.

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

23 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Containment by Vanda Symon

Cover design by kid-ethic
Containment (Sam Shephard, 3)
Vanda Simon
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, 262pp, e

I'm grateful to Orenda and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for letting me have an advance copy of Containment and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Welcome to another instalment in the tumultuous private and work life of Samantha (Sam) Shephard, probationary Detective Constable in the Dunedin, New Zealand, police Murder Squad.

The story opens literally with a bang as Sam hurries to intercept looters seeking to profit from after a container ship has run aground. Unfortunately one of them isn't ready to defer before the authority of the Law and she runs into trouble, nursing a headache and other injuries throughout this story.

But that's only the start. A corpse in an advanced state of decay turns up and Sam's grisly, sexist boss DI Johns thinks she's just the right person to witness a most unpleasant recovery and autopsy. And just when she's done the unpleasant part off the job and is getting somewhere with the enquiry, he whisks her away and assigns her drudge work. Sam's also nursing mixed up feelings about boyfriend Paul and has family problems besides so, already stressed, she's not going to take this lying down...

Readers of Symon's previous Sam Shephard stories will be aware that she has a rather... unorthodox... approach to the chain of command, frequently landing herself in trouble, so you can expect fireworks here - though, having said that, she also seems to be learning a little discretion and she's a bit more conscious and calculating here about the liberties she takes with the law. I think that's a good thing in this particular story, it means there is less time taken upon by carpetings from DI Johns and more devoted to unpicking the mystery, which is a pretty knotty one. The murder victim here was known to many, but as the centre of a group of Bohemian students who spend much of their time drugged out, it becomes hard to establish who saw him last and when - the days do merge into one another.

For much of the book it's a frustrating trail that Sam has to follow - even when she's allowed to - and Symon must have had a lot of fun designing the sequence of classes, loose ends and red herrings that has DC Shephard running in circles. It certainly allows Sam to show herself at her dogged and creative professional best - even while she's misreading Paul, falling for a handsome chap who wants her to recover his possessions lost when that container ship grounded, and having famine rows with her brother.

I enjoyed seeing Symon develop and explore Sam's character through all this, even if, like her housemate Maggie, I wanted to take her aside for a serious conversation (several times, in fact). Shephard is a compelling, well-rounded protagonist in these stories, a million miles removed from the stereotypical middle-aged male detective with a booze problem (sorry, Morse) yet still interesting and quirky.

With this third book, Symon has extended the character and varied the format, giving a tense and quick moving mystery that entertains throughout and offers a few hints of trials to come for DC Shephard. Looking forward to Book 4 already...!

For more information about Containment, see the Orenda Books website here.

If reading my review makes you want to read the book - I hope it has - and you are unable in these times to make it to your local highstreet bookshop, I've included some buy links below (totally unaffiliated and unsponsored). That said while ours has closed "for the duration" it is fulfilling and dropping off orders, so do check. (As Karen from Orenda sets out in a blog here, Orenda is supporting bookshops with deliveries at a time when some of the big sellers - including A Big Internet Site - are drawing back).

Containment is available online from Hive books which supports local shops, or from Waterstones, Blackwell's, Foyles or WH Smith.

The tour continues - see the poster for the next stops!

21 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb

Cover design by kid-ethic
Deep Dark Night (Lori Anderson, 4)
Steph Broadribb
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, e, 290pp

I'm grateful to Orenda and to Anne for letting me have an advance copy of Deep Dark Night and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

I have to confess, there is a soft spot in my cynical blogger heart for Broadribb's books and especially for her hero Lori Anderson and it was an especial please to meet Broadribb a couple of weeks ago when Orenda brought her - and also Simone Buchholz and Vanda Symon - to a launch at the new Victoria Street Waterstones in London. That already seems another era, and looks like being my last bookish evening for sometime.

But while launches and parties may (temporarily, I hope) be no more the books remain, and in this latest instalment - the fourth featuring Lori - Broadribb has shaken things up to give us quite a different sort of mystery-thriller.

If you haven't met Lori yet, she's just about the toughest bounty hunter that you don't want on your trail, fearless, resourceful and determined. Now she's - finally - managed to get the Miami Mob off her back, brokering a peace of sorts (even if she's got sleepless nights from the slaughter she witnessed in so doing). So its natural that she jumps straight out of the frying pan into another high-stakes, high-octane confrontation, this time with Chicago gang boss Cabressa who has a particularly exclusive poker game to which she's been invited.

This is all at the bidding of shifty FBI agent Alex Monroe, who's got Lori into trouble before and now seems to be doubling down. The result is a sweaty, airless confrontation in a locked down penthouse while the city itself is plunged into darkness. Ten players - each with a secret - go into that penthouse. Somebody wants only one to emerge.

While Lori's previous outings have been road trips - if deadly road trips - as she races across the country, chasing the clock to save somebody or rescue herself from betrayal or double-cross, Deep Dark Night is constructed differently. I see DNA here from crime fiction of the Golden Age, with echoes of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None or of classic locked-room mysteries.  A bunch of strangers, all with reasons to distrust each other, forced together and under pressure.

So. Much. Pressure.

Lori's driven to her limits as she must protect herself (and partner JT), deliver the deal with Monroe that'll free her from his control, and work out just what is going on. Early in the book we see her learning to play poker, and while I know nothing about that game it's obvious that her skills in bluff, assessing the odds, and defeating her opponents by sheer will and cheek, will be key.

They's better be - she's had to hand over her weapons at the door...

This is a claustrophobic, race-against-the-clock thrill ride taking place during the course of one single deep, dark, night when there is no backup, no rules - and no mercy.

It is unlike the previous Lori books - but very like, in that central, dauntless hero who just won't lie down.

As I said, if you haven't met Ms Anderson yet, well here she is. Get to know her through this night, and then find out what she's already done in Deep Down Dead, Deep Blue Trouble and Deep Dirty Truth.

For more information about Deep Dark Night, see the Orenda website here.

You can order the book from your local highstreet bookshop - in these challenging times it's especially important to support local bookshops and as Karen form Orenda sets out in a blog here, the company is supporting bookshops with deliveries at a time when some of the big sellers - including A Big Internet Site - are drawing back. Hive books supports local shops. Alternatively you can visit Waterstones, Blackwell's, Foyles or WH Smith.

The tour continues with more delights to come - see the poster for the next stops!

19 March 2020

Review - NVK by Temple Drake

Design by Julia Lloyd
Temple Drake
Titan Books, 17 March 2020
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of NVK.

I loved this book.

Interlacing the lives of a mysterious young Finnish woman, Noemi Vieno Kuusela, and of a Shanghai businessman,  Zhang Guo Xing, NVK blends cultures, genres and the ages.

The book opens in a flashback to a murder which took place hundreds of years before in North Karelia, before jumping into Zhang's life. He's a powerful man, someone with money and influence and friends who's familiar with the nightclubs and bars of Shanghai - Drake gives us vivid descriptions of a hedonistic, money-fuelled scene all taking place under the harsh nighttime neon of a city on the make and on the rise. Zhang's at home there, clearly, and he's keeping his family - a wife and son - at a distance, phoning them infrequently and simply paying the bills.

So when Noemi turns up in a club one night its hardly surprising that they end up having an affair, or possibly something more casual. Yet Zhang seems to see something in her apart from the surface allure - so much so that he sets one of his fixers to find out more about her. Pretty soon he knows all isn't as it seems.

Noemi has reasons, going back to that remote farmhouse in Karelia, to not be known about, remembered, or recognised. So a dance commences between the two, suspicion and caution entwined with appetite and sensuality. From one perspective there's something very wrong here, a great danger - this is, genuinely, a horror story - but there's also a great passion and there are I think no bad intentions (which isn't to say no-one gets hurt). This isn't the story of a scary monster in the dark, indeed the dark here is vital, pulsing with life, with abandon. (Zhang also moonlights in a blues band with a bunch of old friends and Drake's account of their relationship and of a session they give is wonderful, full of joy and sweat and glory).

And so the old story takes off, Drake giving hints of some darkness, something Noemi can't, in the end, get away from, something Zhang would rather not know about, their relationship increasingly knotted by what each known about the other, about themself. It feels high risk, something in a precarious balance, only enduring so long as it's in motion, so long as there are distractions. And increasingly, it's out of anyone's power to rescue, too stabilise.

So - a strikingly modern, horror/ romance, deeply atmospheric, very much rooted in a place and time. I've never been to China, still less Shanghai but this book gives a vivid picture of that city - both its modern affectations and accomplishments and the older, shabbier ways tucked - literally or metaphorically - behind the modern facade. Ways that remember how to deal with a ghost, a monster.

This is a book that made me gobble up page after page, impatient for the next scene, the next insight, the next steps in the increasingly wild dance. It's one I'd strongly recommend.

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

17 March 2020

Review - The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher

Cover design by Natasha MacKenzie
The Twisted Ones
T Kingfisher
Titan Books, 17 March 2020
PB, e, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of this book to consider for review.

'I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lat down flat on the ground like the dead ones.'

This is an insidiously scary horror novel, the more so for the narrator's (a young woman called Melissa, generally called Mouse) consciously flippant tone ('It's okay. I wouldn't believe me either...') and for the sheer, banal everyday events that accompany the nightmares.

In particular, as Mouse proceeds with clearing her dead grandmother's house, she puts on the radio for company and we hear her thoughts on an endless fund-raising drive by the local NPR station, the presenter becoming more and more exhausted as Mouse's experience get more and more scary. At one point she wonders if the presenter didn't actually die years before, preserved in an an endless tape loop. The horrors are beginning to affect Mouse's perception of even ordinary, normal things.

The dead woman was universally disliked, making it a mystery why her second husband, a man known as Cotgrave who was Mouse's stepgrandfather, stuck with her: even to the extent, as becomes clear, of sleeping out in the woods (Mouse's grandma apparently stopping him sleeping). She was also a hoarder, with a collection of baby-sized dolls. So there's lots of scope for creepy moments as Mouse begins to empty out the house, accompanied only by her faithful dog, Bongo, a dim but devoted animal who will play a key part in the story.

The story takes off when Mouse stumbles across Cotgrave's journal, and when she begins to see strange things herself in the woods. The house seems on the brink, balanced by the ordinary, everyday world of coffee shops, the town dump and that NPR fundraiser and a background of weird, carved stones, shapes seen amongst the trees and, eventually, a truly frightening entity.

Obviously, Mouse should just lock the door, get back in her truck with Bongo, and drive out of there before it's too late.

Obviously, she doesn't, something that is inevitable and which Kingfisher handles skilfully - there are always just enough reasons for her to stay: a desire to find out more about Cotgrave, for example, leading on to more personal motives that make it unthinkable to run away. The stakes actually become very high, culminating in an episode of continuous, breath-stopping tension that tests everyone - including Foxy, a neighbour who's stepped in to help - to, and indeed beyond, their limits.

And just when you think that's over.. well, Kingfisher hits you with more. And more.

This is an intriguing supernatural mystery which moves very quickly from an interesting, speculative mode to the falling away of reality in place of something deep and dark to a place of absolute terror, peril and threat.

I loved it.

In her Author's Note, Kingfisher sketches out some of the sources for her book, giving a genuinely fascinating insight into the whys and wherefores - and showing where one might go to find more. If one dared...

I would strongly recommend this book, Kingfisher is a new and distinctive voice and delivers real unease.

For more about The Twisted Ones, see the publisher's website.

14 March 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz

Mexico Street (Chastity Riley 3)
Cover design by kid-ethic
Simone Buchholtz (trans Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, 5 March 2020
PB, e, 227pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a free advance copy of Mexico Street and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

If you've read Buchholz's previous books, Blue Night and Beton Rouge, you'll know to expect the doom, pared down, noirish atmosphere, the short chapters, the sense of desolation as Chastity Riley, Hamburg state prosecutor, narrates her life. The language is so hard, so abstracted that sections read almost as prose poetry and on the surface it is so bleak that it could repel if it weren't for a streak of, I don't know, a... something... in Riley's tone, a self-knowingness, a sardonic interest in the world's follies and failures that keeps her, and therefore us, engaged.

In this third bulletin from Riley's life we find her even more moodily lonely. She seems to be smoking more (how?) drinking more, and to be losing even the limited family she had: no Klatschke, of course - his flat a looming emptiness in Riley's psyche - so we don't see the bar but we hardly vist Rocco and Carla's café either and those cosy, spontaneous evenings where the place goes from public bar to family party without trying seem long gone, the little coterie split and uneasy.

Rather, much of the book's airtime is given over to Riley's and her colleagues' investigation of a young man dragged barely alive from a burning car (in this book, cars are burning everywhere - night by night the fires spread across Germany, then Europe, until news bulletins begin to report them from all around the world). Tracing what happened to him leads her to a secretive group of families living by crime on the fringes of German society, an interrelated web of feuding cousins and macho fathers and brothers (and trampled wives, sisters and daughters). Buchholtz writes movingly of the plight of these women and sympathy for them is one thing that prods Riley out of her ennui.

I always enjoy the Chastity Riley books, not only because they have a uniquely dark vision of life but because Buchholtz shows how this darkness coexists with blissful, unaware, lives often very close (geographically or emotionally - I suppose that's why I missed those evenings Riley used to enjoy the café). Well, that contrast was never so strong as in Mexico Street and alongside Riley's investigation we also see, sketched out, lives on the dark side of that wall and the voices of those who want out. It makes for compulsive, if disturbing, reading, the end in one sense already determined by the opening of the book but also wide open as there are people out there Buchholz has made us care for, care about (despite the bleakness! Despite the darkness!) and we want to know more about them

It's a short book but, my goodness, it packs in a tremendous amount. And Rachel Ward's translation serves the story, serves the mood, so well too.

Recommended without hesitation.

For more about Mexico Street see the Orenda Books website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, or online via Hive Books who support high street bookshops, or from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The tour continues - look at the poster below for the wonderful bloggers lined up for this book!

10 March 2020

#BlogTour #Review - Re-Coil by JT Nicholas

JT Nicholas
Titan Books, 3 March 2020
PB, e, 384pp

I'm grateful to Sarah at Titan Books for an advance copy of Re-Coil and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

A smart, action filled SF adventure which blends zombie thriller, conspiracy theory and dystopia, Re-Coil takes us to the far-ish future (it's not clear just how far) where personalities, memories, souls - whatever you want to call them - can be backed up and then downloaded, after death, to new bodies or "coils". (As in Hamlet: 'When we have shuffled off this mortal coil...')

Nicholas writes intelligently and explores the consequences of this technology for future humanity, dwelling on the practical rather than the ethical or philosophical. So we learn that the solar system is becoming crowded, that coils are in greater and greater demand so those with less than top of the range insurance may have to wait before being 're-coiled' - and may suffer from less than ideal wetware.  Our hero, Carter Langston, is a salvage expert, operating on the edges of safe space, on the edges of legality, to retrieve valuable stuff from drifting ships - and his number I concern is keeping up his payments so that if the worst happens, he will get a decent coil for his next chance at life. (Even the uninsured get something - eventually - but it may be undesirable in various ways, from having manufacturing defects to being the wrong gender).

This setup allows Nicholas to kill off his hero in the first few pages (not a spoiler, it's in the blurb) and then bring him back to, in effect, investigate his own murder. That's the conspiracy bit. The dystopia - well, Langston is pretty blithe about the whole scheme, seeing effective immortality as a prize worth the inconveniences we see here, but I did wonder. The need to keep up those insurance payments, and a system where your soul is effectively owned by a private corporation which can dictate what happens to you after death - well, I did wonder. (As the zombies: wait and see!)

It is a fun read. For much of the story, Langston and his crewmate, Shay, are on the run from whatever killed them at the start of the book, Shay having the added disadvantage of having been re-coiled into a body that is a long way from her ideal (and no, you can't simply ask for another go). Nicholas is very good on what this might feel like - not only the immediate effects such as suddenly having more muscle that one is used to, but deeper issues to do with body image and identity. Langston, who comes over at the start as a fairly unreflective man-of-action type, needs to up his game to support Shay and we learn more about both of them, the characters resolving from action man and nerdy hacker to much more nuanced personalities. (As does the assassin with whom they repeatedly tangle).

The conclusion of the story is an extended combat sequence very different in tone from the rest of the story, the stakes having been raised from immediate survival to a potential threat to the human race at large. Nicholas maintains the tension right to the end - an achievement given that the "re-coil" idea seems to take away a great deal of the jeopardy- giving us a gore-spattered and desperate finale. Very satisfying.

Throughout the book, Langston depends on his AI "agent", Sarah, to assist him with searching for information action, tracking things, and making quick judgements (as well as summarising documents and authenticating transactions). As well as being a plausible extension of your friend Alex or Siri, this allows the author to helpfully pass on facts without any too-obvious infodumps.

Overall I enjoyed this book, which convinces on its own level, in part by respecting aspects fo science which are often ignored: there is no FTL travel here, for example (though nor does Nichols make use of some obvious alternatives: how about transmitting your "back-up" across the aolar system to be inserted into a new coil? That doesn't happen here) and creates believable, engaging characters - who seem destined for further adventures?

You can buy Re-Coil from your local independent bookshop (which Blue Book Balloon recommends, if it works for you) including via Hive Books (who support local bookshops) or online from (among others) Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, or Waterstones. (These are not affiliate links - I receive nothing if you follow them!)

For more about the book, visit the Titan Books website here.

And do check out the other stops on the tour!

8 March 2020

Review - The Good, the Bad, and the Little Bit Stupid by Marina Lewycka

Cover design by gray318
The Good, the Bad, and the Little Bit Stupid
Marina Lewycka
Penguin Fig Tree, 5 March 2020
HB, 261pp

'A love triangle with gangsters? Not a good idea.'

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Good, the Bad, and the Little Bit Stupid via NetGalley.

Unusually, Lewycka opens this book with a couple of pages setting the scene and - apparently - telling us how to approach the characters.There are George and Rosie Pantis. George, aged 79 and retired as a philosophy lecturer to write poetry (no poetry occurs). Rosie, twenty years younger and still working as a teacher to support him. Poseidon (Sid) and Cassiopeia (Cassie), their children. Sid's partner, Jacquie, pregnant and very patient with Rosie's grumbles about George. Brenda, with whom George is now living. The intro swiftly sums up the background - George's defection on that fateful night in June 2016, first to Leave in the Referendum and then to Brenda, the looming threat of financial fraud and the assurance that this isn't a book where good and bad get their just desserts and that there aren't actually any good guys here, just people with mixed up motives and different sides to them.

While useful in orienting us to the characters and where they are, I found this synopsis a little surprising and part of me, throughout the book, was ruminating on it, trying to see whether I agreed or not. Was it meant to be taken seriously? Was it a bit of sly misdirection? I'm still not sure whether that was the intended effect although I have to say it probably made me pay closer attention and That can't be a bad thing.

Indeed, close attention is merited because in discussing Rosie, George, Brenda and the rest, Lewycka is - overtly - dissecting the Brexity turmoil of the past three years in Britain. One can almost assign roles. Brenda is Leave - strident, proudly non PC. Rosie is Remain - disappointed, puzzled and, increasingly, angry. George is perhaps Everyman - tilting Leave at the last minute but for reasons that depart from the official script. And Sid, Jacquie and Cassie are, Sid muses, those who will have to put things back together in the future years and decades.

On this reading, though, Lewycka isn't even-handed but makes it clear she thinks George is a fool. The overt plot in this book focuses on a complicated piece of identity theft which draws him in. It's a far from obvious scam which involves several different factions and has some genuinely funny moments, but despite this it's clear there is something fishy going on. It is hard not to join the dots to interpret George's Leave vote as a the result of another complex scam (aided perhaps by the book's title) so - despite that intro - I think we know where we are in terms of Brexit Britain.

All that said, there is a great deal more to this book, a lot of gentle comedy laced with  misunderstandings (all round), jealousy (between Brenda and Rosie) and incompetence (the scamming crooks who are onto George). And I think Lewycka does well giving voice to the sense of hurt that many of us have ('It's the closeness of the result, it's the feeling of being cheated, it's the sense that the other side it being wilfully stupid and just doesn't understand the issue...')

It has heart, too, as Sid ponders his future relationship with Jacquie and their child. I found this very moving - Sid and Jacquie are well drawn characters, Sid, a maths lecturer, with 'Noether's theorem in his mind' (Emmy Noether deserves wider recognition!), Jacquie who is 'such a sympathetic listener that Rosie prefers talking to her, rather than to Sid...' They would, perhaps, be easy to overlook give all the hullabaloo from the others. And after a lot of setup in the opening three quarters, the book shifts up a few gears and gives us quite a different ending from what we might expect. In doing that, things suddenly move very fast, with the book covering - literally a great deal of ground in relatively few pages. I'd have welcomed more time, and detail, in this section.

There is some great, sly writing hereg: a song sung, with variations, by, among other groups 'Angela and the Muttis' and 'The Blue-Eyed Barnier Boy', the description of a certain politician: 'He's a dangerous demagogue, with his populist posturing and and mendacious mouth grinning open like a frog waiting too catch some innocent fly with his fast flicking tongue.' (Who COULD it be?). 'What is national identity', we are asked rhetorically, 'but victimhood with boots on?' More earthily - here is a kiss: 'Her lips taste of secrecy and forest chestnuts...'

As much a commentary on contemporary Britain - well, England - as Lewycka's previous books, this is a thoroughly good read. Perhaps the intro reflects the impossibility of trying to exist - to live or two write - in our current climate without taking a position while at the same time being told to get over it, move forward, unify, something which seems impossible and has to be cast forward to future generations.

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

5 March 2020

#Review - The City We Became by NK Jemisin

The City We Became (Great Cities Trilogy, 1)
NK Jemisin
Orbit, 26 March 2020 (HB), 29 July 2021(PB)
Available as: HB, 434pp, PB, 480pp, e, audio
ISBN: (HB) 9780356512662 (PB) 9780356512686 

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of The City We Became.

One of the recent collections I've enjoyed most was NK Jemisin's How Long 'Til Black Future Month? which includes a story ("The City Born Great") in which New York is, literally, born - in the form of an avatar. The birth is complicated by an enemy, which wants to destroy the newborn city, but all is, in the end well.

Or maybe not.

Jemisin discussed in her introduction the origins of some of her short stories, including that some were written to try out ideas which might be the basis of longer works. So it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise - but was a delight - to see that "The City Born Great" was only the start, that rather more was going on around that difficult birth... and that the story wasn't over yet. Still isn't over, because I think (I hope!) that TCWB will have sequels.

That original episode features, slightly reworked I think, as the prologue to this novel, where the consequences and reality of a city's birth are explored in more depth. It was already clear a city-avatar isn't all powerful, but what can one do and be? Why would anyone wish to harm one? Who would wish to harm one? Answers to these questions come, sort of, but if you're conversant with your SFF, the repeated motif of tentacles and alternate dimensions may give you a hint of something that wasn't spelled out before.

The City We Became is an exciting, fast moving and high stakes story but it's more. I loved, for example, that Jemisin isn't just landing on New York as a random, if obviously appropriate (big, already much storied, impossible to ignore) city. She takes time, and takes care, to give her avatars personality, rooted in their localities.

Yes, avatarS. LocalitIES. Plural. It turns out there is more than one - in fact there is one avatar for each of the city's Boroughs: Brooklyn, The Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Manhattan itself. And another for New York as a whole (though this, sixth, avatar is missing and in danger). As they suffer attacks from the Enemy, we learn more about each. There is an interplay here between them as people - each with a distinct history, a real place in the world, real attitudes and prejudices - and between the loci of which they are genii. For example, Bronca, avatar of The Bronx, an artist and supervisor of a community arts project, is tough, but untrusting. She's been hurt, looked down on. At first she refuses to cooperate. The other boroughs will, she declares, have to look after themselves, it's what The Bronx has always had to do. And the others also play to the characters of their boroughs whether loftily superior, stand-offish, welcoming or indeed, newly arrived. (I've never been to New York, but the characterisation here is so well done that the book would I think feature as a handy guide before a visit, indeed it conveys what a guidebook never could).

There is care and attention in this book both to the founding myth of New York - that strangers come there to be part of something, to make it - and to the reality that the history of the city is, has to be, built up from layers of colonisation, assimilation and appropriation, going back to the original swindling of the land from the native Lenape (who, nevertheless, survive to appear in this book, if disguised). This complex history is something Jemisin refuses to background: it's part of the tension between the avatars (wait till you meet Aislyn, avatar of get-off-my-lawn Staten Island). It is both their weakness, and their power.  It's part of what makes New York, New York. The unwinding of the story is about the teasing out of those historic relationships, but it's about more than history, it's also about how they build something together.

Of course many novels feature a team of strangers learning to work together. In itself that wouldn't be so special. Jemisin though does so much more with the idea. That unity in diversity, in conflict, is something she locates, I think, as the essence of New York, and coupled with the vulnerability of these avatars it makes the stakes so much higher. While they have powers, the six are located firmly within human society and face the risks that implies: one is subject to coercive control; others, people of colour, are liable at any time to the wrong sort of attention from the police; another is homeless with doubtful immigration status; and so on. Above all they have to learn what they are facing - and the alien threat is itself mutating, changing. Even the advice and support of established cities is not necessarily going to help.

And just as Jemisin is, in telling this story, acknowledging New York warts and all (the dubious origins, the racist police, the gentrification, the power of finance) so at another level she is doing the same with the genre she's working in. At one level this is a Lovecraftian horror story in which nameless evils from unspeakable depths of reality are at work. But wasn't Lovecraft a rogue, a racist and a misognynist? Well, yes. But, just as NY, founded on layers of theft, slavery and oppression can be recovered, turned into something glorious, so we see here HPL's prejudices, fears, certainties transcended. The threat here is embodied in the city's vulnerabilities - white flight neighbourhoods, trendy alt-Right artists trucking in stereotypes, those police - but these things can be faced, can be opposed, in solidarity, and love, and with trust and cooperation. That's a deeper power than just a team of oddballs learning to work together, and it's the glory of this book.

Strongly recommended.

For more about The City We Became, see the publisher's website here.

1 March 2020

Review - Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Chilling Effect
Valerie Valdes
Orbit, 13 February
PB, 437pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Chilling Effect.

Valerie Valdes's debut space opera is a galloping spree of an adventure, featuring a resourceful and ruthless human hero, Captain Eva Innocente, umpteen species of aliens, a space Emperor with a bad case of entitlement and a worse attitude to women, kidnappers, ancient artifacts, bad parenting, and cats. So. Many. Cats.

And sex.

Eva is just trying to make an honest living (at last!), captaining her freighter, La Sirena Negra, and avoiding trouble. Possessor of a shady past (we are given hints but not told the full story) she thinks has got out from that but runs into trouble when her latest assignment - those cats! - goes wrong, and into even more trouble when said Emperor attempts to procure her when she stops for a break at a space station.

Then something really bad happens, and she falls into the power of The Fridge, the biggest gangster syndicate in the galaxy.

I loved the style of this book, with Eva fleeing one tight corner after another. It's a fast paced book with plenty of zapping and lots of bangs, as every assignment she undertakes turns - inevitably - into a firefight. There's a bit of the atmosphere of Douglas Adams, notably in the array of alien species - including one, the quennian, that communicates largely by smell - but most evidently in the sheer zest, the absolute intensity, of the writing: Valdes is clearly having fun.

It's more than that, though. Despite the fractured, episodic quality of the story - with little time wasted on travel between the various planets, Gates and other sites of interest - there is emotional heart here as Eva must negotiate her own past, her relationship with her father and sister,  her dealings with her crew who seem devoted to her (a devotion she hardly shows much sign of deserving) and most of all, her feelings for Vakar, one of the quennians and an alien for who she has more then a bit of a thing going.

Reader: prepare for a lot of "Will they, Won't they?", conflicted feelings, Duty vs Desire and even some Secrets as a backdrop to all the mayhem. The two strands balance perfectly, keeping us in tension through most of the story but giving... release... where it counts. It's a fun read.

Also packed with SF and cultural references (a moisture farmer who wants to fly space ships, the possibility of attacking a space station with a lucky shot into an exhaust, a woman in a fridge, a bit of "well actually" that leads to trouble) that you'll enjoy spotting and with psychic cats*, this is an entertaining and joyful novel which seems certain to be the start of a popular series.

(I would say, you might brush up on your Spanish before reading, Eva tends to lapse into Spanish in moments of stress).

For more about the book and to read an extract, visit the Orbit website here.

*We could actually see more of the cats? Please?