30 April 2020

Review - The Wise Friend by Ramsey Campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

27 April 2020

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

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

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

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

What is Harper afraid she can't stop?

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

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

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


From The Deck of Omens by Christine Lynn Herman

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

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

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

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

He was.

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

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

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

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

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

Her brother spoke first. “Shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

25 April 2020

Review - The Age of Witches by Louisa Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 April 2020

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

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

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

Nothing good will come of any of this...

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

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

You will believe these characters are real.

You will care what happens to them.

You will hurt when they hurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply superb.

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

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

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

19 April 2020

Review - Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 April 2020

Review - I Am Dust by Louise Beech

I Am Dust
Louise Beech
Orenda Books, 16 April 2020
Available as: PB, 344pp, e
Read as: Advance review copy PB
ISBN: 9781913193218

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a free advance copy of I Am Dust to consider for review.

Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return...

There are books I read for review because they catch my eye and I think they might interest.

There are books I read for review because I've read the author before and I think I'll like them.

Then... then there are Louise Beech books - which means I know I'll be in for a good time (if a heart-wringing, emotionally involving one).

I Am Dust is, of course, no exception. Operating on two parallel timelines, we see Chloe, a thirtysomething adult, working as an usher at the Dean Wilson theatre in Hull in 2019. We also see Chloe, with her friends Jess and Ryan, rehearsing in the summer of 2005 for a youth theatre production of Macbeth - and dabbling with a Ouija board.

In 2019, the Dean Wilson is preparing for a revival of the iconic musical Dust, considered cursed by some since the lead actress was killed during its premiere run 20 years before at the same theatre. The  murder was never solved, and understandably, speculation runs wild - especially Eoin the part of Chloe's mate Chester.

In 2005, relations between the three friends become more and more intense. Chloe fancies Jess. Jess has eyes only for Ryan. Ryan - well, Ryan is basically in love with himself. The instigator of the Ouija sessions, which take place after hours on the Macbeth stage - among the witches props, royal robes and daggers of the Scottish Play - Ryan has some objective of his own. There is something he wants, something he knows, something he needs. Chloe has always considered herself sensitive in these matters - what might the pressure of the sessions drive her to?

I loved the awkward, triangular relationship between Chloe, Jess and Ryan, the balance always shifting in response to the lurching dynamics of the teenagers, and to external pressures. Beech writes, I think, with great insight when she draws these characters: they ring true, and one worries for them - not only in 2005, but in the future, where Chloe seems alone. What has become of Jess and Ryan?

What, for that matter, has become of Chloe? Part of the lure of this book is the slow drip of revelation about her life then, and now. I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say a lot, but it's clear that she has been deeply affected by something. She has been self-harming. She can't remember all of what went before - so we as readers are in some ways ahead of her when strange things start to happen at the theatre. There's a tension hanging over this book, a genuine sense of menace, whether from the supernatural or from the unresolved dynamics of fourteen years ago. It's exacerbated, somehow, by the way Chloe seems to stand in the spotlight - her mum and dad appear and are mentioned, but never named. She seems to have answers but not to know them, if that makes sense.

And all the while she is weaving her own story, writing a script, that seems both a commentary on what she's been through and a way out of her own life.

I just loved this brooding, claustrophobic novel. In Beech's last, Call Me Star Girl, most of the action during police during one torrid night at a local radio station (mentioned briefly at the start of I Am Dust). Here it's more spread out, the action taking place over several months in each timeline, and the locations are less constrained physically but - as theatres - perhaps even more freighted with hopes, dreams and fears: dangerous spaces, which have to be treated with care, according to established rules (like never mentioning the name of the Scottish Play). Ryan lays down rules for the Ouija sessions too, but the three friends don't pay much heed to them and there's a sense from the start of them playing with fire...

I Am Dust is at the same time a sensitive character study, a heart-stopping, spooky tale and a scorching page turner that will have you up past midnight to complete it (if you're brave enough).

For more information about the book see the publisher's webpage here. If you haven't read anything by Louise before (WHY?) check out my reviews of The Mountain in my ShoeMaria in the MoonThe Lion Tamer who Lost, and Call me Star Girl.

If you can buy I am Dust from your local bookshop - many are now operating mail order - please do, they need as much support as possible right now. Alternatively, Hive Books are now taking orders again, or you can buy from Blackwell's, Foyle's, Waterstones or Amazon.

16 April 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Book of Koli by MR Carey

The Book of Koli (Rampart Trilogy, 1)
MR Carey
Orbit, 16 April 2020
Available as: PB, e, 376pp
Read as: PB
ISBN: 9780316477475

I'm so glad today to be joining the blog tour for The Book of Koli by MR Carey and am grateful to Orbit for an advance copy and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting to take part.

This was never a book I wasn't going to read. Carey's books - especially those set in the world of The Girl with all the Gifts, and the haunting Someone Like Me - are immersive, readable and remain with you.

But it did add a little frisson to see that in his latest, we are dealing with a world where Nature has, as it were, taken its revenge. It's easy to see that right now, I think. And the post-apocalyptic feels relevant in a way that it can't have when this was being written.

Not that our present pandemic is going to see us reduced, like Koli here, to scattered communities living on subsistence agriculture and bits of scavenged, ill-understood tech. But we can perhaps see how dependent our society is on everything working together, and how fragile it all might be.

In narrator Koli's (a young man living in remote Mythen Rood, in the North of England, perhaps a hun dared year from now) world, Nature is the enemy. Everything is trying to kill us. The very trees are hostile, as are a host of fierce creatures - wasps the size of a human head, "needles" that will take your arm off, floating seeds that will take root in your flesh. There are also dangerous remnants of human tech - attach droids gone feral, for example. And there are other people - the Shunned Men who have taken to cannibalism, and various messianic sects. It's a cruel and hard world outside the village stockade and not a place you'd willingly go, except for short hunting tripos, but it's where Koli went and, apparently, came back from.

Telling this journey over three books, Carey takes his time in the first to establish the setting, the history and the language. Koli and his village speak a very distinct variety of English and in places the reader has to work a bit too understand, especially, the names and some of the references but this speech adds greatly to the atmosphere and helps one believe that, yes, here is a future community.

The language also adds a hint of comedy when Koli stumbles on a piece of working tech - a media player hosting an avatar who speaks in a hip dialect (well, hip a long time before Koli was born) of English-Japanese-teen. Seeing him trying to communicate with an AI that uses this language, when his world and his references Arte so narrow and, well, different - is quite funny, but also rather sad, underlining what humanity has lost.

Against this larger theme, though, much of what Koli does and what happens to him in this book flows from basic human motivations - love, jealousy, desire to be someone - which an adolescent boy in a hardscrabble place like Mythen Rood feels just as much as anyone else. Carey tells a story that, well, just works, at this elemental human level so that for the greater part of this book the reader just wants Koli safe, wants him not to take the catastrophic course of action he does here - rather than caring about that wider world, the causes of the collapse, and what might be done now to put things right. Carey only leads us up to that slowly and by the time he does we really care about Koli and his world, its people, even its AIs like Monono.

In feeling and content the book reminded me of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, particularly in the way that the future world, apart form being post-apocalyptic, turns out to be flawed even in its one terms. I'm sure comparisons with Riddley Walker are also inevitable, especially given Koli's dialect (although I found this perfectly accessible) and the composite religion that has emerged. No doubt other parallels can be drawn but really, Carey makes this setting and own, peopling it with credible characters who have credible motivations and addressing many other themes than "how to survive societal collapse". There are trans characters here. There is misuse of power. The ethical implicates of AI is an issue. And there is that fundamental question - when is is permissible to kill?

If that makes the book sound too solemn and ideas-y, it's really not. This is an absorbing and involving story with plenty of action and a thinking, three dimensional protagonist who you may want to slap at times but who will quickly find his way into your heart.

I'm so glad that The Trials of Koli and The Fall of Koli (ooooh...)  are coming later this year because I for one would not like to have to wait a whole year to see what happens next - and how the story finishes.

One to grab and read quickly, I think!

The tour continues with many great stops got come - see the poster below for details.

For more information about The Book of Koli, see the Orbit website here.

You may, in spite of These Strange Times, be able to get the book from local shop - if you can, please do, because they needs your support as ever before. Alternative you can go online to Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

13 April 2020

Review - Where Shadows Gather by Michael Chislett

Cover art by Paul Lowe
Where Shadows Gather
Michael Chislett
Sarob Press (Robert Morgan), 2019
HB, 207pp

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher to review for Ghosts and Scholars magazine, where this review first appeared.

Where Shadows Gather, the new collection of uncanny stories by Michael Chislett, is a little different from other collections I have reviewed here.

To begin with, the stories are more of a unity than those other collections. Mostly set in and around London, in both real and fictions locations, they often explore the same themes - vanishing shadows, the immanence of both the past and present of London in the present day - and some feature some characters (such as the Faust-like Doctor Crescentius in Mara, Endor and The Coast Guard) or allow their protagonists to brush up against one another (Only the Dead Know Deptford/ The Extras). There are hints of connections to wider histories (as when, in Only the Dead..., we have detailed and repeated references to an earlier incident in Brighton).

These stories depart, somewhat, from the Jamesian 'several decades removed' trope, being mostly told in the present (even if set in the 19th century) and also often (though not always) featuring protagonists not ignorant of the occult (indeed who are sometimes practitioners of it) although there are also innocent victims who turn the wrong way on a foggy night or are beguiled by something seen across the water. Chislett has a formidable talent for making the ordinary sights, sounds and weather of London and especially its river seem extremely eerie, and I will be watching lout myself in future. Even the bright lights of Canary Wharf dim at time sin this volume.

Downriver is a perfectly sinister story in which a young couple, out for a walk downriver, encounter something that is is, on the surface, interesting and harmless. It's a lesson in how little hooks can be placed in the mind, calling the victim back later to a cruel fate.

In In the Garden we again, we see how even in the midst of safe, suburban London, one wrong step can take you somewhere unexpected, and far beyond help.

In Only the Dead Know Deptford, Thea, returning from work in the glitzy offices of Canary Wharf, goes wrong somewhere around St Nicholas's Church in Deptford (location for several of these stories) and is unable to find her way home. Or at least she can find the where of it but not the when. Pregnant with the past, the night seems alive and to have quite other intentions that she she does.

Mara introduces us to Doctor Crescentius (who Chislett informs us he has written about before), an exile in London from the 1848 "Year of Revolutions". Like Tim in In the Garden Crescentius finds an older, wilder side to London, but unlike him, he knows a little about such things and may be one step ahead of the forces he encounters.

The Extras is a more extended story, featuring two men, Fletcher and Matthews (they of the impliedly  debauched Brighton trip mentioned above). At one level, it's two men who spend a lot of time in pubs discussed a lot of metaphysical twaddle. At another level, they are documenting London, taking photographs, which seem to have a... mutability... of their own. All manner of wonders emerge. Again, the pair are knowing - they speak of various supernatural tidings from different parts of the city - but that may not save them from falling victim. (This story is also notable for establishing that, perhaps, this version of London is not quite ours - there are references to a character with Ostrogothic ancestry, some unfamiliar country names, and so forth as well as links in to a Central European mythology involving witches and demons.

In The Subliminals we're now into full-fledged tampering with That Which Ought Not to be Known. Lant is some form of occult master ("the sceptical occultist") who - carefully - stands back from himself doing what he encourages his pupils to do. Now, those pupils seem to be paying the price. There is a tensely drawn, very eerie standoff here, all the more creepy for the stakes being obscure.

Endor, a somewhat longer story than many of the others here, again follows Crescentius who is however now in early 30s Germany. (is he some kind of wandering, eternal scholar, deathless and cursed?) Among dark references to book burning and a previously liberal friend having joined the Brownshirts and become a power in the town, Crescentius pursues knowledge - ignoring going on all around him - as he latches onto a woman with the talent of a medium and who is, it seems, able to contact an imprisoned spirit that promises Crescentius much... this is a gripping and dark story, replete with abuse and manipulation (one scene in particular sees Crescentius take advantage of his victim is a very physical, not spiritual, way) and also with nods to other aspects of this book (the power to steal shadows, the Ostrogothic origins of the mysterious "witch".

The Whistle Thing opens with Carla and Jago, a couple very much in love, finding a strange whistle in a park,. It may already be known to you as it was published in G&S 33. It is a fine story, riffing, of course, off MR James's "O Whistle..." but modernising the setting to Chislett's London and providing the somewhat too daring male protagonist with a shrewd female companion (I wonder how many of MR James's scholarly heroes would have benefited from that?) It's very atmospheric and also hoks into Chislett's wider mythology.

Jago may actually be more... knowing... that he lets on, as he's mentioned as one of Lant's associates in The Subliminals, alongside Redriff, who gets his own story, indeed a story named after him, in which he begins to receive messages, scrawled in red on discarded free newspapers or on Tube station whiteboards (very London). In the story we lear more about Haggerston and Mardyke from The Subliminals, and also a certain Morden whom Redriff consults for help with the perplexing messages. We also encounter the enigmatic Ms Hand (mentioned in The Extras). There's a slippery, claustrophobic sense about the commerce done between these stories, a sense that all these characters may know things, may know each other, but they can't escape, can't get out of the sticky amber that's entombing them. And so with Redriff.

The Raggy Girl is an effective weird and chilling story wherein a slum tenement is being demolished over the head of its supernatural resident. The story is notable for the sense of alienation given off by the narrator, Terry. Despite Raglan Mansions being slap bang in the middle of Milford Hiugh Street, opposite the station, Terry and his friend Danny experience a haunting in full daylight as the Girl pursues them from her disintegrating lair. Like many of the other stories here this is less in the end about what happens to an individual as about how the mundane and supernatural communities coexist and how people find their place in one or the other.

The Coast Guard is one of only two stories here (I think) not set in London though it has London connections as Fraukie, a young girl spending some time with her grandfather on the Baltic Coast, is a Londoner through and through and has made allies there - who help her when she's menaced by a local spirit. I felt this to be one of the most Jamesian stories in the collection - well, with sand dunes, a vengeful sport and an ancient book of lore, how could it not be?

Those That Come from the Air has a uniquely nasty air, the agitated spirit being bound up with stirring whorls of rubbish, crackling black plastic and all the detritus of modern life. It also features a truly horrible version of a demon, one referred to elsewhere in this collection but studied in detail here. Again fairly uniquely here, it has an element of redemption, which I strongly welcomed.

Finally, The Snow Queen gives us Fletcher and Matthews again, explicitly after the events of that story (and so, perhaps, shedding some light on the ending of The Extras). It's more of an encounter, perhaps, than a complete narrative but serves to round off the collection nicely.

Taken together the stories give much more of a sense of being part of a thematic whole than most collections. They're explicitly set in the same world and we see many of the same characters come and go. Each is though its own, more or less self contained, mystery - the collection doesn't amount to a unified story and the overall effect is therefore more "Isn't there a lot of weird stuff going on in London?" than "Ah, so that's what was behind it all!"

And there's nothing wrong with that.

For more information about the book, see the Sarob Press website here.

11 April 2020

Review - Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipciger

Coming Up For Air
Sarah Leipciger
Doubleday, 19 Mar 2020
Available as: HB, e, 320pp
Read as: e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780857526519

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

And now for something (for me) completely different.

Coming Up For Air tells three stories, taking place in late 19th century Paris, mid-20th century Norway and late20th/ early 21st century Canada.

We see a young woman - never named, she is literally referred to as L'Inconnue (the Unknown Woman) - travel to Paris and take up a post as companion to Madame Debord, a suspicious ('She may have been paranoid but she was still a Parisienne'), irascible older widow (older than L'Inconnue, that is, and by the judgement of the time, "old").

In Norway, Pieter Åkrehamn is a young child in the 1920s and later a grown man in the 40s and 50s. It becomes clear that he is narrating his life story - a story balanced between a love of the Northern seas and lakes, of swimming in the cold water until just before it begins to kill and between a constant, haunting grief.

And in Canada, Anouk grows up in the 80s, a girl with cystic fibrosis. Leipciger describes, not a tragedy bravely borne or any other cliche, but the day to day practical difficulties for her and for her parents. Again there is a fascination with the outdoors, with swimming now in the rivers and lakes, even the polluted Lake Toronto. (The chapters focussing on Anouk interleave with those on her mother, Nora, but these two sections are much closer to each other than the rest of the book).

Each story - and they are very different - is narrated with a crystal clear eye for detail ('the hard rainfall of a piano being played mezzo-forte', 'granite like the story of the Earth'), a studied appreciation of, and empathy for, the tiny events and incidents of everyday life. L'Inconnue's takes place over the shortest period but documents her growing up - coming to Paris as a "provincial", learning how to live there ('this was my first city, and it was Paris': there that sense here of Paris as more than a place, as a civilisation) becoming increasingly confident and self-assured, discovering love ('She had a beautiful potted belly, and if a hundred cakes would have given me a belly like that I would have eaten every one of them') but - not a spoiler as this is the first scene we encounter - throwing herself into the Seine in despair. Anouk's story parallels L'Inconnue's, we see her growing up, a happy child, through medical crises, finding her feet, weathering her parents' increasing distance, but, also, coming to a crisis point where her condition requires a lung transplant.

Bridging the two, Pieter's story spans the longest period and forms a critical bridge in the book though it also forms the shortest part of the book. Pieter's account is wrapped round a loss and is perhaps the most intense of the three, telling of a grief, almost while not addressing it. It was incredibly moving.

Three different stories yet they have some common themes. Both Pieter's and Anouk's stories touch on men - husbands, fathers - who seen self reliant and in control but who at critical moments are actually absent or absent-while-present: they don't know what to do, they freeze. It's Anouk's mother who deal with the dead deer, it's Pieter's wife who saves the house from fire (and who copes with the difficult child when he can't). These are significant moment but Leipciger doesn't make them simplistic turning points in the narrative or in relationships.

Similarly, the idea of water, of immersion, runs through all three narratives. For Anouk it's both a balm, helping her live with her condition and - if the warning signs are not heeded - a danger. The margin is slight, as we see also with Pieter when he swims out too far. And L'Inconnue too develops a fascination for the Seine before that final plunge.

And, of course, there is death. Actual deaths, as the loved are borne away, sometimes overtly marked - a joyous funeral in Canada - sometimes not, as when unclaimed corposes are exhibited in the Paris Morgue, visited by L'Inconnue and her lover - sometimes simply passed over, as with a boy who dies unseen. Deaths garnished with rumour and fancy. Deaths that afford life to others, as transplant donors or the inspiration for life saving innovations. Potential deaths, close escapes: the book explores that margin, that grey area, discussing the idea of resuscitation, the limited time when death can be averted, undone.

There's an idea behind this, I think, the symmetry of life and death - life as a brief interruption to death, rather than the other way round: 'Where we are, I think it's like a river and you're the flow. And every so often, out of the flow, you, me - all of us - we crawl up on to the bank and we do life... River is life and death both'.

At a time of uncertainty and indeed death, it's actually a rather uplifting thought to take from this very beautiful, absorbing book. I would strongly recommend.

For more information about Coming up for Air, including links to places where it can be bought, see the publisher's website here.

8 April 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Summer of Reckoning by Marion Brunet

Cover design by Eleanor Rose
Summer of Reckoning
Marion Brunet (trans Katherine Gregor),
Bitter Lemon Press, 16 March 2020
PB, 224pp

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

Summer of Reckoning is a crime story - in that it contains a crime. However, it's not a story of mystery, detection or deduction. There's no know-it-all detective here. Rather, the revelations come in the delicate, closely observed interactions between generations of a family, and their friends, rivals and neighbours. It's a book to be read slowly and carefully, observing the little twists and turns of characters who are not embarked in some grand scheme but simply watching their own lives and wondering how it came to this. They're not even watching those lives unravel, so much as seeking viewpoints that preserve the ability to believe that everything is, really, OK.

At the centre of the book are two teenage sisters, Céline and the slightly younger Jo, daughters of Manuel and Séverine - who are though referred to for the few few chapters as 'the father' and 'the mother'.  This, and the opening - in which Manuel beats Céline in an attempt to discover who is the father of her unborn child - set the scene for a family which is emotionally distant and where the parents (at least Manuel) are preoccupied with matters of appearance, face, honour. It's a family where the adults look back with regret, rather than forward at the future of the girls.

It is the South of France in the preset day, but patriarchal attitudes and misogyny imbue attitudes and behaviour. Women are thumped (or worse) to keep them in line (or simply because some man feels like it). Some of the scenes in the book are painful (there is a rape) but they are I think necessary. You need to understand the motivations, the energies that keep these protagonists in motion. It's all I think about place and status: Manuel feels less, because his grandfather was a refugee from Franco's Spain, because he works as a labourer unlike his land-owning inlaws, because he can't keep his daughters in line.

In turn, he looks down on other outsiders such as the 'Arabs'.

In this world, slights - a bashed car mirror, a word out of place - can have bad consequences.

Yet alongside this, Céline and Jo continue their lives, going to parties, breaking into empty villas to use the swimming pools. They desperately want not to become like their parents (Jo, in particular, dreams of getting away from the area) even as they seem destined got do just that (we see Séverine meet an old schoolfriend, and hear about their younger days, and the similarity with Céline seems striking).

There is a heavy sense of ennui, of the thick summer days. We may think of the South of France as a glamorous playground but here are the people who don't inhabit the glitzy world, whose days are spent working hard in the heat. There is a brutal side to their lives, there are pressures which Céline and Jo are just starting to perceive, pressures which have crushed Manuel and Séverine even if they hide that fact from everyone including themselves.

This is painful, insightful writing, writing that explains and sympathises with its characters while not excusing what we see. The translation by Katherine Gregor is lucid and readable throughout.

I'd recommend this novel - it has a lot going on in what is quite a short book.

About the Author and Translator

Marion Brunet, born in 1976 in the Vaucluse, is a well known Young Adult author in France. Her YA novels have received over 30 prizes, including the 2017 UNICEF Prize for Youth Literature. Summer of Reckoning is her first novel written for adults and her first work to be translated into English.

Katherine Gregor lives in London and has recently translated works by Alexander Pushkin from the Russian and plays by Carlo Goldoni and Luigi Pirandello from the Italian.

You can buy Summer of Reckoning from Hive Books, which supports local bookshops (especially important at this difficult time), from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

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

And don't miss the rest of the tour - see poster below for details.

7 April 2020

Review - The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books, 8 April 2020
Available as HB, e, 408pp
Read as: ARC
ISBN 9781683691433

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires to consider for review.

This book is, as Hendrix notes, a follow-up, not a sequel, to My Best Friend's Exorcism (which should be enough for you to snap it up) with the same setting.

Here, the focus is on the adults, specifically the mothers, who keep everything moving for their kids and their husbands. A few of them - Patricia, Grace, Kitty, Maryellen and Slick - have formed a book club, alternating fiction with True Crime - which generally tells how serial killers come into polite, safe neighbourhoods like theirs and remain undetected. It's a release for Patricia, a former nurse, who married Carter, an ambitious but absent doctor. She loves her children, Korey and Blue, but is feeling squeezed out of her life and deserving of a little excitement... be careful what you wish for, Patricia!

Something will, obviously, come to this particular peaceful, safe neighbourhood. Hendrix's title promises nothing less. We're primed to expect bloodsucking creates, slaughter, and peril. And the book doesn't disappoint. But Hendrix gives us so much more.

I realised when I read this book that I'm accustomed, at some level, for the vampire vs vampire-hunter struggle to be a clash of the privileged - the aristocratic Count against the Professor, the Doctor, the Priest (all male of course). When Van Helsing sets out on the trail, nobody tells him that he's hysterical or "needs help".

In The Southern Book Club's Guide... everything is bound up with privilege and patriarchy. The comfortably off, white, women of the Book Club are nonetheless bound to their husbands. They're not considered to need their own bank accounts. Hubby's views always come first and if a wife steps out of line, why, there's a little pill for that. Or a swinging fist.

At one level, reviewing this book, I feel it ought to have a couple of content warnings for domestic violence, coercive control and even rape. Yes, there's also more conventional gore and some creepy scenes with rats, but in a sense the real horror of this book is how the intruding, monstrous power makes itself at home in this nest of male privilege, finding allies and protectors, so that when Patricia and co try to take action - to protect their children, and others' children - they are firmly, cruelly brought back into line. This is vampire fiction which is not just a vendetta between monster and avenging hunter, it is deeply, richly social, showing how established order, prejudice, and power structures let the monsters loose among us.

Hendrix takes things further. The victims in this book are, for the most part, not the privileged white kids of the Old Village but the inhabitants of Six Mile - the district where the people of colour live, a place the fine ladies of the book club are nervous to visit. The police don't look too closely when children from there go missing and end up dead. And this isn't some aberration - in a bit of backstory (the story, in fact, behind that creepy cover image) we find out that what's going on here is part of a pattern.

So, in this book, there is a satisfying degree of moral murk. A lot of handwringing, a lot of looking the other way, of letting the bad things happen somewhere else, to someone else. There is actually a great deal of moral horror here, and it is more frightening, more disturbing and sticks around longer than the scenes with blood, combat and injury.

This is horror told in depth and detail, well grounded in a particular time and place (and Hendrix emphasises that by letting the story develop over years). The ladies of the Southern Book Club are redoubtable, and the story celebrates their courage and the friendship they find under pressure. But they are not invulnerable, and some wounds don't heal.

Recommended without hesitation.

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

6 April 2020

Review - Triggernometry by Stark Holborn

Cover by Philip Harris
Stark Holborn
Rattleback Books, 8 April 2008
e-book, 62pp

I'm grateful to Stark Holborn for a free advance copy of Triggernometry to consider for review.

I knew Holborn as the author of Nunslinger, an excellent alt-Western which I reviewed here.

Now Holborn is back with a novel that packs the punch of an even alt-ier story. Again all the Western touchstones are there - the wilderness, the railroads as lifelines, Frontier (lack of) justice, the protagonist who wants to put the past behind - and the past that won't be so put.

But here there is an exotic spin to the whole thing. This is a world, or at least an America, where mathematics and mathematicians are reviled, feared. They are the despised "maths" with prices on their heads, sometimes tolerated - just - for useful skills but only if those skills can be cloaked in some polite fiction, or hawked at dead of night, which is where we meet "Mad” Malago Browne and her sidekick, Pierre Fermat. Holborn has fun throughout introducing figures from the history of maths and, in Emmy Noether, physics. She generally paints them as a crew of hard-drinking, ruthless desperadoes, albeit fallen due to persecution rather than intent.

Of course there's a shootout.

Of course there are desperate nighttime rides.

Of course there's a loyal hound called, simply, Dog.

The central conceit is maintained very well: just why might maths be seen as dangerous? Holborn makes you believe that those instrument sets, those methods and solutions, may, indeed, in the wrong hands, constitute threats. Browne is deadly when she can find an angle, and she and Fermat are a formidable team. All the more pity, then, they had a falling out all those years back...

In a world of rough mining camps, ranches, anarchists, bank raids and posses, it all seems to make a lot of sense. The drive of the narrative, combined with Browne's bitterness through most of the book and her bickering with "Ferm", carries the reader along magnificently. In a relatively short book that relationship is central and Holborn conveys it very well - yes that love-hate thing between a pair of outlaws is another classic Western trope yet Holborn makes it into something slightly different, adding a wistfulness at the mathematical life that has been lost: at one stage Ferm whoops in delight when employing a particular clever technique to solve a problem and the book has that sense of infectious fun throughout.

A great read, whether you speak maths or not - if you do you'll spot some in-jokes and references as well as understanding the chapter heading equations, if you don't you'll still enjoy this fun and gripping story.

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

4 April 2020

Review - Eden by Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon
Titan Books, 7 April 2020
PB, e, 384pp

I'm grateful to Titan for a free advance copy of Eden to consider for review.

Tim Lebbon's new eco-horror-thriller sees a group of dilettante adventurers seeking to cross one of the last wildernesses on Earth and finding themselves out of their depth.

Eden is one of the areas known as Zones - regions of the world that have been deliberately abandoned to Nature, and are zealously guarded by security forces to keep invasion humankind out...

...or something else in, perhaps?

There are zones distributed around the world - they are in North and South America, China, Russia, Africa, even one in Wales - but Lebbon is cagey about just where Eden is. The fauna, the climate and the ebullience of life there suggest Africa, but other internal evidence made me think perhaps Europe. Who knows. This is a world of eco-catastrophe where temperatures have risen, the oceans are polluted and species may well have drifted. Indeed part of the theme is the drift which has taken place within Eden.

The story works at two distinct levels. In the chapter headings we see an examination take place of the Zones themselves - the displacement and suffering involved in their creation, the zeal of their guardians (and the rumours of killings of those seeking to enter), speculation about their destiny and evolution, rumours about what lies inside them. It's creepily effective in creating a sense that there is something more going on there than re-wilding. Just why are the Zeds, the Zone Protection Force, so lethal? Is there just too much of a self-justification in the words of the Zone bureaucrats ('Our aim was ambitious, our intentions pure...')? A sense, perhaps, that not all is as it seems?

Perhaps. We don't get an answer to the bigger question of what's going other than through the experiences of Jenn, her father Dylan and their team. The group are dedicated adventurers, travelling the world - and the Zones - and seeking to be the first, the fastest, the most daring, at traversing them. We first see the party about to sneak into Eden and, to be honest, the introduction doesn't do them any favours. The Zones are supposed to be apart, pristine, untouched by humanity but Dylan & Co - despite their professed eco-credentials - seem set on violating that, and basically for fun. One also gets the impression that most of them don't have to worry about earning a living - as they seem to spend most of their lives adventuring.

If anything, one gradually loses sympathy as it becomes clear that there are secrets, hidden motivations and conflicted loyalties in the team, cloaking objectives that are, if anything, even more dodgy. You might expect this would mean the reader doesn't care when things start to go wrong, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lebbon is very, very good in this book at drawing out that period when things seem a little off, when our group begin to feel concerned but don't take enough care, don't quite respond fast enough. And he's even better at exploding that into full scale catstrophe and desperate attempts at survival. I promise, it doesn't matter at all by then that you might not have liked some of these characters - you'll know them well enough to care what happens (and you'll want them to survive long enough that the mystery of what's going on here will become plain).

Behind the action-filled final third of this book is an intriguing premise, which hooks into something I saw Adam Roberts write about recently: the line of books, going back 200 years or so, which see humanity destroyed through catastrophe and only one, or a few, left to witness that. Roberts traced the appeal of these to the sense of freedom that being the last, or one of the few last, gives - from society's rules and from obligations to others. I think that the behaviour of Dylan, Jenn, Aaron, Selina, Cove and Gee can be understood perfectly in that context as an attempt in a crowded, dirty world to regain a freedom found in an empty world. Lebbon is, though, very clear-eyed about that world not being empty. The freedom, wonder and joy is illusory or at least bought very, very dear and Wordsworth's belief, expressed in his poem "Lines on Tintern Abbey" that "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her" is shown up as naïve at best, self-deluding and dangerous at worst.

An epic thrill ride of a horror novel, setting modern eco-sensibilities against classic adventure and coming to some very uncomfortable conclusions.

Or less pompously, simply great, heart-pounding fun.

For more information about the book, including links to buy, see the Titan website here.

1 April 2020

Review - Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Cover by 2Faced Design
Untamed Shore
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Polis Books, 27 February 2020
HB, 282pp; e; audio, 8 hr 1 min (narr. Maria Liatis)

I listened to Untamed Shore as an audiobook downloaded from an online subscription service.

Silvia Morena-Garcia is an impressively versatile author, ranging between genres (SFF, romance, thriller) and themes and, in my experience, she never disappoints.

In Untamed Shore she gives us a noir-tinged thriller which evokes classic films of the 40s, 50s and 60s - it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine this story taking place in black and white, acted out by the chiselled profiles and dangerous beauties of Hollywood - even though it's set later, in 1979. Actually, that setting lends Untamed Shore the ability to reference and build on this stock of imagery so that Viridiana, our protagonist (herself named for a film heroine) comments knowing about actors, themes and atmosphere.

And indeed that's entirely fitting. Into Viridiana's provincial world, to the little town in Baja California where she spends her summer watching the dead sharks rot, dodging strutting boys and resisting her mother's plots to marry her off - into this world comes a trio of glamorous strangers, American tourists who've taken a house for the summer.

Introduced to them by her father's friend, the Dutchman Reinier, Viridiana takes on the role of guide, translator and secretary to Ambrose, his wife Daisy, and her brother, Gregory. There's a certain implied louche glamour to the the three, a sense of a past, of money and, soon, of danger. Staying in their house, Viridiana is well placed first to pry out secrets - to overhear things, find things - and then, after a death, to become involved in those secrets.

At the same time Moreno-Garcia shows us a young woman growing up in this back of nowhere town, yearning for the bright lights of Paris or of Mexico City where her father is. But don't fall into the trap of seeing the place as or its people as unsophisticated or backward. That's the mistake that Ambrose, Daisy and Gregory make, as well as others who come to the place later after the trouble starts. This book isn't written from the perspective of the strangers who come to town - strangers who don't even bother to speak the language - rather it's an affectionate and almost loving depiction of things (even is a warts-and-all depiction) from the inside.

What matters rot Viridiana is her future - that life away from the town - and she studies the effects on that future off all the undercurrents here, the swirls of gossip and reputation, the formalities represented by the Mayor or the local policeman and which can be managed through an understanding of who is in what card game on a Friday night or who has interests where.

The book put me in mind of a typology of crimes set out by the author George Orwell in his essay The Decline of the English Murder. Writing during the Second World War, he lamented the displacement of the classic domestic murder (generally a middle aged husband ridding himself of his no longer wanted wife) beloved of the British Sunday papers, by a more public style of killing - and by younger killers, of both sexes, swimming in an atmosphere of drink, dance halls and flickering Hollywood. In actual fact the first type of killing remains with us of course - domestic violence doesn't go away so easily (as we see here) - but the second sort is and was incontestably more glamorous and Moreno-Garcia hits all the notes here in telling a story that has femmes fatales, guns, hoodlums and duplicity in spades alongside a genuine streak of moral ambiguity. I don't think there's anyone in this book who is altogether admirable, but nearly everyone is understandable - Moreno-Garcia gives us complex and real characters and to a degree you can sympathise with m most of them (though I didn't take to Ambrose).

If you've read Moreno-Garcia's last book, Gods of Jade and Shadow, you might see this as something as a companion with some similar themes. Again we have a young woman growing up in a backwater who wishes to go places and who takes the chance in both hands when it comes. There, the opportunity is an unlikely liaison with the god of death. Here, it's a more prosaic, if also more criminal, route - but death features as strongly here, and it'll take every bit of Viridiana's determination to pull herself out of this mess.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and Maria Liatis's narration is excellent throughout, conveying both Viridiana's characters and, somehow, the characters of the little town itself.

Strongly recommended.

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