31 August 2020

Review - V For Victory by Lissa Evans

V For Victory
Lissa Evans
Doubleday, 27 August 2020
Available as: HB, 292pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgally

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of V For Victory via Netgalley.

V For Victory sees Evans return to the characters she created and nurtured in Crooked Heart and Old Baggage. It's late 1944 and a bitterly cold winter. Vee and Noel are living in Mattie's old house in Hampstead, making ends meet by renting rooms to lodgers. Vee, you may recall, took the identity of Noel's frosty Aunt Margery at the end of Crooked Heart - so, especially in a wartime environment of regulations, identity checks and officialdom, she's never (at least in her own mind) more than heartbeat away from exposure and ruin (Vee looks, she muses, 'like the "before" illustration in an advertisement for nerve tonic')  even if she was acting with the best of intentions.

I just love Noel and Vee - precocious child-going-on-adult (Vee reflects that girls and 'grown women went out of their way to talk to him... maybe because... he actually listened to people; he wasn't just waiting to tip in his own comments...') and and hardened ne'er-do-well with a heart of gold, they may seem ill assorted but their relationship is wonderful. Not quite mother and son, not quite partners in crime, they understand one another, fill gaps in each other's life and support one another. Noel's not attending school (that didn't work out well last time) but he's tutored by the lodgers (so Vee's requirements when letting rooms are very specific) who make up a delightful, off little community in Mattie's sprawling old house: the doctor, the journalist, the BBC presenter. They have their foibles and baggage and their own knowledge and experience to bring to this wise and funny and at times desperately sad book.

Noel and Vee aren't the only familiar faces here. I won't tell you everyone who turns up - spoilers! - but we do meet Winnie again, from Old Baggage, one of Mattie's Amazons. She's now commander of an ARP post, a role that seemed to be reducing in importance with the end of the Blitz- until the V1 and V2 attacks began. This book is punctuated by the roar of the rockets, the shaking of windows and the aftermath of a square or terrace being demolished.

Evans pays tribute in one extended and frankly moving sequence to the men and women who deal with the destruction and injury, when Winnie coordinates all the branches of civil defence after one attack. It's a celebration of ordinary men and women, of their organisation and management by one woman using hard-won knowledge and skill. In keeping with Crooked Heart, this is a very bottom up view of people surviving and coping. It isn't sentimental and there is no Vera Lynn soundtrack. The difficulties of life - shortages, cold, boredom (Everyone was bored of everything, really; it had all been going on for far too long') - are made plain, as are the ways people fall short, from grabbing more than one's share of potatoes at the dinner table to desertion from one's post and even getting away with causing a death. You won't find any heroes, just ordinary people doing what they must and hoping it will all end soon.

And trying to take a little happiness while they can. A central strand of the book concerns Vee's dalliance with a jovial American serviceman, a presence who threatens to drive a wedge between Vee and Noel - troubling as their is the central relationship of the book and they still depend so much on each other. Evans treats this very well and sensitively, conveying - without actually telling us - how much Vee needs a little glamour in her life and how much Noel, however outwardly confident and knowledgeable he seems, is still desperately insecure and fearful that the little haven he and Vee have found will be destroyed, as his life with Mattie was.

Evans is such a sharp writer, content to show and then leave us a moment of silence to take in what she's showing, ready with well-observed details ('bringing a cylinder of cold air into the room with her') as well some gorgeous scenes ('the Vale of Health magnesium grey under a three-quarter moon' or the mumbling publisher whose speech at a party sounds like a sequence of throat-clearing) and moments that are just, well, true - as when one character remarks that the end of a war is something that you only see once in a lifetime and another character quietly points out that, no, for many present, that's not right.

As well as reminding us of the aftereffects of that earlier war (not least in the characters who still suffer trauma from it)  the book looks forward, both nationally ('There'll need to be a big shake-up when this is all over') and individually - by the end, we see the figures we've come to know well and, in some cases, even to love, facing up to change, to losing roles they've grown up into ('she herself... a woman in charge of men - would suddenly be in charge of nothing at all') or adopting new ones. With the end of the war, lovers, husbands, others who were thought lost, will turn up, relationships will have to be reworked and sometimes, started over again. It's an uncertain time. Our friends here may, as Churchill eventually said (there's a running joke about him still writing hs speech) be allowed a brief moment of rejoicing but it's an uncertain future. (I hope Lissa Evens might though return to document it - I have a picture in my head of Noel as a young man, just graduated perhaps, at the Festival of Britain...)

Best of all, perhaps, it the little impromptu memorial at the end to Mattie, who was the central character in Old Baggage but was lost to us early in Crooked Heart. Her grave is, we learn still kept fresh and I think something came into my eye as Noel and a friend remember and sing "March of the Women" together.

A wonderful book, which you just have to read.

29 August 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Grave Secrets by Alice James

Grave Secrets (Lavington Windsor Mysteries, 1)
Alice James
Solaris, 3 September 2020
Available as: PB, 320pp, e
Source: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9781781088616

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Grave Secrets to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

'That very night, I planned to raise Bredon Havers from the dead...'

This first volume (of many, I hope) in The Lavington Windsor mysteries proved a real breath of fresh air. Taking in necromancy, zombies, vampires and protagonist Lavington 'Toni' Windsor's quest for a boyfriend who... just isn't rubbish... the story is set in rural Staffordshire in a reality slightly different from ours, one where vampires are grudgingly tolerated in Europe, but not in the USA. Consequently many have come looking for refuge - and naturally, they need homes.

Toni's day job, as an estate agent, involves meeting this need. As you'd expect there are some rather special requirements. And not unsurprisingly, there are also those who object to the vampires' presence. Sometimes, they object rather forcefully.

Estate agent by day, necromancer by night, Toni finds both sides of her life coming together. And there may just be progress on the boyfriend front as well.

We see her juggling work, relationships, caring for an elderly neighbour and fitting in time for her weird hobby down at the graveyard. It's a very modern life, down to fending off the gropey boss and coping with the works do.  Oh, and conjuring up the dead offers some benefits - so when Toni's brother, a police constable, needs help clearing up a murder, she's on hand for that, too.

The book packs so much in: a resourceful and determined heroine, some pretty steamy sex scenes, political violence and even organised crime. Also some epic fights, which frequently see Toni lose her clothing (seriously - count the number of times her outfits are ruined). Behind all this there are hints about Toni's own past - clearly there are mysteries there to be unpacked in future books - and a very sad story of corruption and abuse of power.

Toni is a likeable protagonist who comes into her own when forced to get closer than she'd like to a pack of vampires. While they may be clients, Toni doesn't exactly get on well with most of them, so negotiating the web of semi-feudal obligations that fall on her as part of the coterie is not easy (as is avoiding breakfast - BEING breakfast, that is). It's actually a pretty thoughtful examination of the vampires' way of life and involves a lot of credible worldbuilding, aided by the book's being grounded in Toni's believable, everyday life.

All in all, an involving and fun book and it's top be hoped there will be many more to come.

Buy the book! You can get it from your local bookshop (and they really need your support right now) or order online from Hive Books (who support highstreet bookshops) or from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

And don't forget all the stops coming up on the tour - see the poster below.

Finally, for even more more information about Grave Secrets, see the Solaris website here.

27 August 2020

Review - Quilaq by Rebecca Burns

Cover art by Cover Mint
Rebecca Burns
Next Chapter, 31 July 2020
Available as: PB, 98pp, e
Source: Purchased e-book
ISBN: 9798667759362

Quilaq is a beguiling novella in which fantasy and the real world bleed into one another - making it hard to spot where one ends and the other begins.

The town of Stokeland, in northern Canada, sits between two roads which are largely impassible due to use and snow, its main industries the zinc mine and trapping. It is, we're given to understand, a hardscrabble kind of place, both economics and climate making a living there difficult, but a bright spot is Shay's bar, presided over by Angie Barker, the first resident of the place we'll meet on our visit. Zooming cinematically in on Angie - she's 'thirty-nine and has been for a number of years' - we learn she's had a tough life as she moved North, left with 'a cracked rib and vernal disease' by one man. Then we're introduced, through her, to a collection of characters - the divorced Ray Sullivan, Gerry the Gin, two men, Jackie and Connor who are always together - who we'll see more of soon. Then there's Hettie, searching for her missing husband Frank; Hettie who supports her learning disabled son Ernest through scraps of sewing work.

As this group go into and out of view over a few hours, Burns shows their varying needs. All seem to have ended up in Stokeland without quite knowing why ('I can't quite remember why I came here'), or when. Lovers Jackie and Connor have been housed from one place to another. Hettie and Paul came from poverty and starvation in Ireland, as did Gerry. Angie - well, she had her problems.

There way the stories weave together is very clever and I find myself not wanting to say too much about it for fear of giving things away. Look closely and you'd be surprised at seeing this group together at the same time in the same room. Their need for - something? - is evident but they surprise each other as they, too, learn more. These inhabitants of Stokeland seem to have been able to live alongside each other without, quite, perceiving each other.

However, this is a night when secrets will be shared and an alliance made. This is a night when there will be talk of Quilaq - the place which 'seems to speak to a part of [Annie] that she has tucked away so deeply she has forgotten it existed'. It is a Shangri-La, a place of plenty, of safety, of refuge. But is it a real place, out there somewhere in the raging snow, or is it just one of Paul's stories - that well known teller of tales?

I loved the sense of community that develops in this book, the other side of the sense of desperation felt in different ways by everyone here. It's a short book but each character is sketched vividly, arrestingly: we don't know much about them but at the same time we know everything, and we care for and fear for them all, despite their faults.

Quilaq is at the same time fantastical and deeply grounded with believable problems all around. It feels like a glimpse into a sort of truce with reality, a potential moment of grace and escape.

Very, very enjoyable and I'd strongly recommend.

To learn more about Quilaq and about Rebecca Burns' other writing, see her website here.

23 August 2020

Review - Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

Survivor Song
Paul Tremblay
Titan Books, 7 July 2020
Available as: PB, 336 pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley

I'm grateful to Titan for a free advance e-copy of Survivor Song via Netgalley.

In an alternative USA, a deadly virus spreads, overwhelming the hospitals, bringing normal life to a halt and prompting bizarre conspiracy and origin theories.

No, this isn't covid-19, although Tremblay's timing is spooky. Rather it's an aggressive mutation of rabies. Aggressive both in being super-contagious, and very quick to take hold. Within hours of being bitten or otherwise exposed, victims becomes irrational, frenzied and dangerous. Tremblay cleverly gives us the bones of the zombie story - but in a plausible and rational version of the world. The story then follows several hours in the lives of two women as they struggle to make their way though a familiar city that's suddenly become a post-apocalyptic landscape.

A comparison with the current pandemic is the most obvious point to make about this book, and Tremblay is definitely on the knuckle here. Witness his portrayal of doctors and nurses struggling to respond without adequate PPE and without knowing exactly how the virus behaves or what it may or may not do, unclear rules ('last night there was confusion as to whether turning off the light was a recommendation or if it was a requirement in accordance with the government-mandated curfew'), the behaviour of 'doubters, naysayers and the most cynical political opportunists' - and a 'Jackass president'.

However, that would only be the most superficial analysis. There's a lot more happening. The bulk of the story is about two amazing young women, paediatrician Ramola Sherman and her eight-months pregnant friend Natalie - who needs to get to hospital fast. "Rams" is British, born in South Shields with a mother who emigrated from Mumbai as a child, and a white father - she is therefore an object of double suspicion to the paranoid militias which have taken to the streets. "Nats", her college friend, is in deep trouble - her husband lost to the virus, her child coming along and about to be born in a world that's all gone to pieces. The relationship between the two is well drawn, funny but also moving and - at times - downright heartbreaking. 

Tremblay is matter-of-fact about the fact that Nats is suffering mood swings: 'The earlier muting of her personality has swung one hundred eighty degrees into manic levels of Natalie. is this how she is coping?' - the question being, or is it something else? Ramola is fearless and resourceful, whether begging help from strangers, working the medical system or figuring out what to do next in an increasingly constrained series of desperate moves through a landscape gone to Hell where humans, animals, the authorities may all be a threat (Natalie's so short on time that a traffic jam blocking the way to a besieged hospital may be enough to cause a fatal delay). 

It's a story heavy on action, a chase from one danger and into another as hospitals fail, roads are blocked and law breaks down. But it's told with delicacy and even moments of beauty - leaves fall '...whirling in invisible eddies... until they land, as they must, and join the autumnal mob usurping the shoulders of the road'; a young police officer stands 'as tall as a folktale' and Nats' and Rams' odyssey intersects with other sad lives, in particular allowing a deeply affecting portrayal of two young men, Josh and Luis, living their lives on the margins. They believe, perhaps, that the outbreak is their time to shine, to be the heroes of the movie. They're wrong ('Luis thinks that the dimming or leaking away of who you are is the worst thing that can happen to anyone') and indeed, one of the ideas examined mercilessly here is the tendency in real life to see events such as this through the lens of a film or TV miniseries or, indeed, a fairytale. Nevertheless, the two get a moment that is 'them at their best' and an opportunity to do the right thing.

This is not, Tremblay tells us several times, a fairytale, and his roundup of what happens after ('The virus doesn't herald the end of the world... [but] emergency services... will be stretched to their breaking points, exacerbated by the wily antagonists of fear, panic, misinformation... a president unwilling and woefully unequipped to make the rational, science-based decisions necessary...') may perhaps be taken as a description of the real world, as much as of a story, at least in an optimistic case.

It's a totally gripping novel, actually taking place over the course of a few hours and best read in one go, allowing the reader to be taken over by the sense of urgency and peril here. A horror story where the general setup may feel familiar from fiction but the detail is painfully credible and true to life. I'd recommend.

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

20 August 2020

Review - The Less Dead by Denise Mina

The Less Dead
Denise Mina
Harvill Secker, 20 August 2020
Available as: HB, 352pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781787301726

Snap verdict: wow wow wow wow wow

'When we get killed they call us the "less dead"...'

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

After the globetrotting of Conviction, Mina returns to home ground for this Glasgow-set mystery which links the very different cities of the 2020s (maybe I should now just say "20s" but that sounds like flappers and jazz) and the 1980s, digging up unfinished business and crashing all kinds of different worlds together - the comfortable professionals and the struggling poor, the settled families and those with chaotic lives. It's a book I really found hard to leave alone, gobbling chapter after chapter and neglecting my family and dogs. "Unputdownable" is an overused  cliché, but this book is the real thing.

The junction between all of the different worlds is Margo Dunlop, a middle-aged Glaswegian GP who - following the death of adoptive mother Janette - is searching for information about her birth mother, Susan. We first see her waiting nervously in the offices of an adoption charity, not helped by well-meaning but charmless social worker Tracey. When Susan's sister Nikki breezes in late, we see the first of those collisions. Margo's educated, professional. Nikki's... not. Laced through this book are Margo's (rather) dismal attempts to "accept" Nikki, to not be a snob, and the tendrils of guilt that grow from her failure to do this. The joke on Margo is that Nikki doesn't need to be "accepted", she has her own life which may seem a strange life to Margo but Nikki's OK with it.

It soon becomes clear that Margo herself has hit something of a crisis in her life and isn't as "settled" as she thinks. She's hard up, on long term sick leave, failing to to cope with her loss of Janette or her relationship with her ex, Joe (who seems a charming man, if you want someone to turn up at 2AM with a bike slung over his shoulder). She finds it hard dealing with Nikki ('She feels as if Nikki has stolen the day from her'). It's all symbolised by Margo's intermittent attempts to clear out Janette's old, rambling house - another collision of worlds, set in an area that's gentrifying very fast. 

This is the background. We also soon meet Margo's oldest, best friend, Lilah, who's in a deeply unhealthy situation with her own stalkery ex, 'that wanker Richard', a situation that's spilling out into her group of friends ('It's messy and they've all been sucked into the collapsing star of Richard's and Lilah's relationship') and we hear of Margo's brother, Thomas, also adopted. Mina brings them to vivid life - Lilah's increasingly scary encounters with Richard, often staged in front of her girlfriends, Joe's baffled incomprehension that he's not with Margo any more, and especially, Margo's more and more frenzied displacement activity as she tries not to confront many and varied facets of her life. A diversion is just what's needed! And here we are! Margo discovers that Susan was murdered and the crime has never been solved. There are whispers of a police cover-up, that Susan was one of a string of murdered Glasgow sex workers. Here is a cause she can adopt, a problem she can solve, a way she can come into Nikki's life with some control.

Margo begins an investigation - partly into the crime, partly into Susan herself and her origins and background, partly into the Glasgow that killed here: that dark, 80s Glasgow of which traces still linger and which you can step into if you're lucky... or perhaps, if you're very unlucky. Nikki's something of a guide - she's an amazing character, a force of life, a survivor. But if you patronise her, look down on her, ignore her, you do it at your peril. And Margo will visit strange places even in familiar parts of the city ('She'd swear on her life that she has never, ever seen that pub before').

Other perils also walk these pages. Mina does something awkward, jarring, very creepy, but totally brilliant with the text. Alongside the Margo-narrator, there's another voice here, mostly staying in the shadows but sometimes stepping out to grab the story, steer it down dank paths strewn with a really unsettling vein of misogyny and hate. It'll happen in the middle of a sentence. For a few words you're not sure what's going on - then you know, yes, he's back. Those words correlate with a rather sinister game that increasingly draws Margo deep into that other Glasgow, the one that's supposed to be dead. I found it very very creepy and while - as I said above - you have to keep turning those pages, at times I also didn't want to, for fear of what I might read next. Denise Mina takes the gloves off in her depiction of male hatred for women: it's not only that other voice, we also see Richard become scarier and scarier (well, we hear about it - it's mostly reported second and third and hand, which somehow makes it even worse, like a news ticker scrolling with reports of chaos and violence).

The writing in The Less Dead is glorious - always on the nose, capturing an exact moment, feeling or scene. One character, swearing her head off, is nevertheless 'serious as a newsreader'. Another 'performs looking for a taxi' to try and repel a pack of rowdy men late one night.  The characterisation is also brilliant. Margo, as a GP, assesses Nikki. 'She doesn't have the sleepiness of a methadone user or the drowsy disgust of someone on valium.' Later, when she has to report a shocking crime, she notes that the police officer who responds is using the same verbal techniques for managing a stressful encounter as she's been taught herself ('eye contacting her half to death with training-course empathy'). Gradually, allusively, we learn about Margo's earlier life, her attempts to fit in (a consequence of adoption? Or just part of modern life?), her enjoyment of the privilege of being 'thin, young and white' and being able to sneer at those who weren't. Margo and Lilah's relationship at school in a nutshell: 'Slimness was suddenly a currency between them. They got thin at each other.'

We also hear about the attitudes of the respectable (police, social workers, journalists) to those in that other world - the drug users, the sex-workers - the judgments made, the failures of the police to protect the weak. Things were worse back in the 80s, we're told (when Margo delves into the newspaper archives for information, she 'feels as if she's reading in a language language she doesn't understand, as if she's eavesdropping on aggressively heterosexual Victorians... DEAD VICE GIRL'S FEAR OF STALKER') and the book is set up as an opposition between then and now, but as one character, an ex-DI who did her best, admits, things aren't much better, her best wasn't enough. The book seethes with loose ends, with second bests, missed chances. 

And second chances too. Margo comes from a family - the Brodies - renowned for their bloody-mindedness, and if there's enough of them in her to get through all the dangers here, then perhaps she can begin to fix a few things. Perhaps.

An intelligent, gripping and compassionate crime novel. Just a superb read. 

19 August 2020

Review - Divine Heretic by Jaime Lee Moyer

Design by Patrick Knowles
Divine Heretic
Jaime Lee Moyer
Jo Fletcher Books, 20 August 2020
Available as: PB, 390pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781787479265

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Divine Heretic to consider for review.

Following from last year's Brightfall, which gave us a fantasy focussed on Maid Marian, Moyer moves into more historical territory with a story inspired by the life of Jeanne d'Arc, Joan of Arc to the English although as they (we) were her enemies I will stick to Jeanne.

When I heard about this book I was really intrigued and keen to see how, exactly, Moyer would treat the subject. It was clear that there would be fantasy elements. It's equally clear, if you think for a moment, that the religious and social atmosphere of the medieval wars between England and France - let alone the specific subject matter of Jeanne's life and terrible death - makes for quite difficult subject matter. It would be easy, on the one hand, to avoid this and completely fantasy this story up - but also easy to write something very, very grim indeed (grimdark doesn't have to be made up!)

Moyer manages, I think, to tread a middle course here. She resists making the book too genre-y. Her Jeanne's world is one with definite magical and fantasy elements. In an early scene we see tree-spirits in a grove, and the rural people make offerings in remote shrines to vaguely described spirits or saints (with one eye out for the baleful local priest, Father Jakob). But Jeanne is no kick-ass fantasy heroine, there's no route for her to learn magic or turn all this to her advantage (other than making those hopeful offerings, alongside her prayers to the Blessed Virgin). And when three spirits turn up, claiming to be Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine, though Jeanne immediately sees through them and henceforth refers to them as "monsters" she has no special powers or knowledge to resist them.

Nor, though, is the grimness celebrated. It's there - the heart of this book is the extent to which Jeanne is constrained, compelled, abused both by the society around her - most dramatically in an attempted forced marriage and rape - and by the monsters. (They wish to use her for their own strange ends, influencing history and the war but for reasons that are never really explained.) But it doesn't, in the end, predominate.

Jeanne's trials are many. The foretold martial role of Maid of Lorraine which the three spirits want to force her into (almost like an inversion of Macbeth) is not one that suits her nature or upbringing and the deceptions it entails strain her conscience. She is the subject of vicious, misogynistic rumour and of jealousy and she feels guilt over joining in the war and particularly leading men to her death. (I think this latter aspect is something that we could have been shown more of - while the stunning cover art shows Jeanne holding a bloodied sword, and there are scenes of her trying to use it, much of the battle is skipped. I'm not saying I want to see lots of bloodshed but it seems a central aspect of the story and key to creating the wearied, jaded Jeanne we see in the later sections of the book).

Through all this though she struggles to own herself, to be more than the puppet that the three spirits or the Dauphin want. The story is nicely calibrated here, demonstrating just how little agency Jeanne has, her life and future in the hands of men - the priest, the village council, various nobles, ultimately the Dauphin Charles himself - as well as those manipulating spirits. Her achievement  is to endure, to love even when it is forbidden, to remain loyal to those who are loyal to her, above all to retain some sense of herself, some control over herself and her actions. It is a constant fight and one that can never be fully successful involving sacrifice both physical and spiritual - this isn't just a matter of Jeanne and her fate, the wicked spirits bind up others, too, people she cares for, and they are ruthless in leveraging this.

As I grew more and more absorbed in Divine Heretic, I came to love the way it isn't conventional fantasy. There aren't, as I have said, tools and techniques to be sought to achieve a neat solution. Many questions are left unanswered (the three spirits operate to a strangely specific schedule - why?) But that leaves the story space to grow, to breathe, to show us Jeanne's courage and to show her growing and becoming more assured and understanding. It's that portrait that is at the centre of the book, really, and it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Moyer gives us a fully rounded and complex portrayal of a figure who tends to be viewed, in a very one dimensional sense, as merely a tragic victim.

In short Divine Heretic fully lived up to my expectations and I'd strongly recommend it.

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

17 August 2020

Review - A Little London Scandal by Miranda Emmerson

A Little London Scandal
Miranda Emmerson
Fourth Estate, 20 August 2020
Available as: HB, 288pp
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780008244330

Snap verdict: A VERY welcome return to Swinging London - and to Anna Treadway.

In a followup to 2017's Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars, which saw theatrical dresser Anna Treadway investigates the disappearance of one of her actresses, A Little London Scandal picks up Anna's life  two years later in 1967 when she is standing up for a young man wrongly accused of murder. It's a hot summer ('The auditorium sweated as one - like some vast coach party packed into an Italianate sauna'). Working again with Sergeant Barnaby Hayes, now assigned to the Vice Squad, Anna is brought face to face with the seamier side of Swinging London: the shadows where sex, drugs and politics merge. There's a claustrophobic sense to much of the story, even the outdoor parts, a composite of smoke, sweat and the importance of looking the other way, of not seeing inconvenient things - whether breaches of the law or social convention, or the wretchedness of outsiders sleeping under bushes and selling themselves on the streets and in the clubs.

Anna's young friend Nik Christou is one of these outsiders. He's a rent boy, triply unlucky. First because he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Secondly because he is obliged to make his living by selling himself to men on the streets of the West End, breaking the law and risking punishment for both him and his clients if caught (although wealth and status has a way of protecting its own). And finally, he is unlucky because he is in this situation due to abuse and neglect in his hometown of St Anne's, near Blackpool. The flashbacks explaining just what had happened to Nik are heartbreaking, showing a baffled, confused child let down by school and parents and simply left to sink or swim by his own efforts. And he's not about to get any help now from a police force that is corrupt, prejudiced and overly respectful of the wealthy and powerful ('we let the club have a quiet word with all the men to ask if they'd seen or heard anything').

Nik does, though, have a good and stouthearted friend in Anna Treadway. I loved the way that Emmerson portrays her: definitely "posh" despite her slightly shady past and humble job, deceptively meek in demeanour but ready to use her background mercilessly (for example to sweep into a police station and ask awkward questions, or to blag her way into the Dorchester). Watch how she's given short, hesitant, mild sentences which can seem almost excessively eager to please - but then reveals her sharp mind, steps ahead of everyone else and not afraid to deliver a devastating judgement. 

Anna is missing her partner Aloysius ('Louis') Weathers who has returned to Jamaica to sort out an inheritance, and his absence from the story (apart from correspondence with Anna) does rather leave a hole, compared to Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars. In a sense, his not being at the centre of things is understandable - the earlier book looked at issues of race in 60s London, while A Little London Scandal explores the position of gay men, before the legal reforms later in the decade. So we see a familiar pattern of events as rising junior minister Richard Wallis is threatened with exposure, the News of the World raises its evil head, blackmail is whispered. The book explores the lives of the young men at the sharp end of all this, with an acute sense both of hypocrisy at every level ('Perhaps gentlemen's clubs are closets for the overly design-conscious...') and of the real damage being done to almost everyone involved by the secrecy and fear of exposure.

Caught up in the same events is Merrian, 'the Wallis wife' as she is introduced to us. She's in the impossible position both of knowing a great deal about her husband and at the same time of consciously "not knowing" about him. A generous and idealistic person herself, she's at an impasse and she doesn't know where to turn. I think that Emmerson is brilliant in the way she brings Merrian to life - her hopes and fears, background and love, all bound up in her history with Richard and her life with him now, which is turning out to be something quite different from what she thought. 

Richard himself isn't a completely unsympathetic character. While I didn't like him, I could see him, too, as a victim and as someone who had made choices, gone a certain way, and found it quite different from what he expected. Which is probably true of all of us, but for a politician, expecting to be influential and make a difference, perhaps it's understandable that his sense of disillusion is greater than for the rest of us.

In a brilliant evocation of 60s London, Emmerson gives us the parties, the late night streetlife, the excitement of a society that feels on the cusp of something. Colour TV has arrived, with a group of friends planning to watch Wimbledon "in colour", but vegetables are still delivered to Covent Garden market by horse drawn cart and decanted into barrows and the area is still to gentrify. Emmerson also 
gives us the darkness: violence, prejudice and hypocrisy centred on the impregnable clubs of Pall Mall. All against a vivid portrayal of the streets and villages making the city up ('Covent Garden for raspberries and carrots - even at five in the morning. Seven Dials for rags - shift dresses and corduroy skirts and a hundred shades of polyester blouse. Monmouth Street for coffee bars - so many coffee bars - musicians and actors and students lout on dates'). The book highlights the dilemma facing gay men under discriminatory laws and societal pressure (and in particular, actors): the constant fear that you'll be turned on, that people will stop looking the other way, the need to be so careful who you are honest with ("'Bloody hell,' Anna said. 'Apart from everything else, it's just so complicated.' 'Try living it,' Benji said softly...")

It's a deeply immersive book - often a very sad book, but one that compelled me to keep reading even where I knew that something bad was coming up. Like Merriam, you have to know the worst.

An excellent read. I hope that Emmerson gives us more of Anna Treadway, although - spoiler - by the end of this story she's left her flat above the Alabama Coffee House in Neal Street which is sad as that brought so much atmosphere to the stories.

For more information about A Little London Scandal, see the publisher's website here.

15 August 2020

Review - The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Doors of Eden
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Macmillan, 20 August 2020
Available as: HB, 608pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781509865888

I'm grateful to Macmillan for a free advance e-copy of The Doors of Eden via NetGalley.

Well, 2020 - whatever else - is turning out too be a cracker of a year for books. And for me, The Doors of Eden is one of its highlights so far. 

How to describe it, though? Especially without strewing spoilers around? That's a very hard problem...

The Doors of Eden is a wonderful, classic, classy, piece of SFF, spinning its readers' heads with a host of parallel Earths in each of which evolution has proceeded differently. They're introduced by a scholarly writer, Professor Ruth Emerson of the University of California, whose opus, Other Edens: Speculative Evolution and Intelligence is frequently quoted. As Other Edens makes clear, this isn't just about minor changes to the timeline where things are a little different, it's about the points where different history gave us vastly different sentient life. The speculation supporting this is compelling, from the closer timelines - an Earth where Neanderthals survived but we didn't - to those rather different. An Earth overcrowded by hundreds of billions of rat/ weasel creatures. Worlds of intelligent fish or sentient silverfish or horseshoe crabs. 

The Doors of Eden is also a compelling, believable and slick thriller, with plenty of intrigue and peril, initially following the attempts of an MI5 team comprising Julian Sabreur ('no young Sean Connery or even Roger Moore') and his analyst Alison Mitchell ('Matchbox') to foil an attempt by far Right thugs on the life of an ex GCHQ scientist, Dr Kay Amal Khan. We're soon in a world of hoodlums, shady "security" companies, well-connected financiers milking Government contracts. We may not be quite sure what's going on, but it's clear, in this part of the narrative, who's on the side of the devils: watch out for how they talk about Dr Khan, who's a transwoman - the villains reliably refer to her as "he" and there's a moment where this causes them enough operational confusion that she slips past their watchers. Dr Khan herself is a bit of a wildcard: one of the foremost world experts on... something, potentially available to either side as an asset but to what exact purpose?

The existence of these other Earths begins to be revealed when two young women, Lee (Lisa Pryor, short for Lisa Chandrapraisar) and Mal (short for Elsinore Mallory 'because she came from a particular social stratum where that was perfectly acceptable. However, she never forgave them for it') stumble into trouble on Dartmoor. Four years on from that terrifying event, Lee finds herself caught up in the machinations between MI5 and its opponents (there are several factions). The story of Lee and Mal is at one level a romance - we see Lee's sense of loss and confusion. Tchaikovsky is really, really good on the psychological impact on her of what happened: the pain, anger and guilt. The whole setup may be fantastical, but her reactions are deeply, convincingly real and they drive what she does through the book, for good and ill. (For that matter he's also really good on the little details of their relationship before The Thing that Happened, the ways they work each other out, understand each other, fox their families about what's really going on between. The way that Lee, missing Mal, was 'terrified that Mal would suddenly remember she was white and posh').

There is another romance here too, between Alison and Julian. Kind of: I wasn't actually clear whether it went anywhere, partly due to lots of that old-fashioned British reserve keeping them apart (though again, that seems to make things even more real). It's also partly due to the structure that Tchaikovsky adopts, one where there's a capability to see alternate outcomes so that words like "real" become moot. And partly, it's a delicacy to the writing which leaves us to imagine a lot - in the same way for example that detail of that Dartmoor episode, past a certain point, is left hazy. Far from diminishing the horror, this, combined with the car crash that Lee has made of her life only heightens the sense of terror and mystery.

What else does Tchaikovsky do well here? 

How long have you got? 

What about the way he vividly depicts his different societies - variously composed of birdlike creatures, rat-weasels, Neanderthals and many others. They all feel real, based on the real circumstances that gave rise to them, with communications, technology and culture (with the rat-weasels for example, status is all about claiming space in their crowded world, whether through bulky clothing or overpowering colognes). 

What about the deft interweaving of the different strands of story - many of them seemingly contradictory (but you're in safe hands here, just go with the story)?

Or the shady, only hinted at, nexus of IT, quantum mechanics and Very Hard Maths that underlies events?

Or that certain type of privileged, entitled person, who, confronted with the very Apocalypse itself, plans primarily to make themselves some gain at everyone else's expense. (A repellent characters done very well, this one).

I'd have to say though that for me, the aspect of this book I found most beguiling was the sheer mastery and even beauty of the prose. There are so many examples I could quote. It's smart ('she had borrowed hope at a ruinous interest rate'), often funny, sharply observed. It's never less than engaging, frequently compelling and, in some moments, simply brilliant. There are allusions to classic SF (motes in a god's eye, the stars beginning to go out, an on-point Doctor Who reference to The Girl who Stayed and The Girl Who Came Back) and a general sense of playing with genre, trying on metaphors from role playing games, films ('It's a million to one long shot, and only these two desperate lesbians can save the world') and meme, a book that injects a sense of fun even into the darkest moments ('not that you ever need an excuse to slap a fascist').  

This is a book to immerse oneself in, to live and breathe, not just to read. 

It's one I'd strongly recommend.

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

13 August 2020

Review - The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library
Matt Haig
Canongate, 13 August 2020
Available as: HB, 304pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9781786892706

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of The Midnight Library via NetGalley.

Nora Seed, an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in the very ordinary town of Bedford, is in despair. ('Only the sertraline stopped her crying'). She has many regrets. She's lost her job, walked away from her own wedding, and rejected both success in a band and as a competitive swimmer ('She'd been the fastest fourteen-year old girl in the country at breaststroke...'). Now she decides to end her life but she finds it isn't that simple.

I loved the idea of this book as soon as I heard about it - a dying woman who, rather than vanishing into oblivion, finds herself in an in-between place, an infinite library where her possible lives are filed and she has the opportunity to consider what might have. No, it's not a new idea - it brought to mind the film A Matter of Life and Death, and even the ancient idea of Purgatory - but I think the fact it seems familiar just shows how intriguing, how compelling it really is. We'd all like, I think, the chance to sift over what-might-have beens, to look for The Moment when it all changed - and what better way than in a library?

The setup gives Haigh an opening to spin many stories. Nora finds herself sampling lives, dropped into the middle of things, alternative existences she might have lived if she'd gone a different way. It's fascinating but also panic inducing - she isn't the "her" of the alternate, she's still very much the "her" of her "root life" and hasn't lived as, say, the Olympic champion or the rock goddess. Yet she's still dropped in the deep end, about to give a motivational speech to a conference or the encore to a concert in sweaty, glittery San Paulo. Even in the most mundane of existences she might emerge from the Library out and about and not know where home is, or what job she does. This succession of existences is calculated to bring out the imposter syndrome in all of us, making even the most outwardly successful lives that Nora assumes into stressy, high-heartrate episodes and creating a sense of unease, of imitation, of fakery as though Nora is, literally, an interloper to herself.

Against this unsettling background, the book, as you'd expect, allows Nora a level of self-analysis, of coming to terms with past events. And as you might expect, Nora comes to understand that many of those regrets are misplaced - to know all is to forgive all, including oneself, and the added insight allowed by running through the alternates (combined with a teeny bit of omniscience from her guide through the library, her old school librarian Mrs Elm) lets her come to terms with a lot of past baggage. (No details, that would be too spoilery). Some authors might leave it there, with a relatively predictable message about acceptance - but Haig has, I'd say, a much deeper understanding and does much more than give us a succession of flickering lives for Nora from which she can choose the best.

Rather, as we see her friends, family and associates through the eyes of all the different Noras - women who have achieved, or not achieved different things and who therefore have very different outlooks and experiences. We get a more rounded picture of everyone, because all those people, too, are living different lives for each Nora. So there's her beloved, estranged gay brother, Joe, who in some timelines is alive, some dead. The father who pushed her into swimming, as a compensation for his own loss. Her mother, who 'treated her like a mistake in need of correction'. Ravi, her brother's best friend who's never forgiven her for pulling the plug on the band and trapping him in Bedford - a town which 'was a conveyor belt of despair' (ouch). Dan, her sometimes-husband (and sometimes not).

All of these characters gradually reveal themselves, with little digressions into their own pasts and families. They are often different from timeline to timeline but also, always the same. They impact on Nora and she impacts on them. It's not as simple and as trite as saying, oooh, look, Nora. Look at what happens without you, what those around you lose. Instead, we get a complex, many sided and always compassionate view of a whole group of people, the different (and overlapping) narratives making this book a sort of literal hologram, a dense and four dimensional rendering of all its characters. It's a rich, enjoyable reading experience with many moments of sad - or happy - recognition. 

It's also vividly, gorgeously written. At a particularly low point, when she seems to have no friends, Nora sees herself as 'antimatter, with added self-pity'. She reflects on how 'happy moments can turn into pain, given time' and considers her existence to be 'incomplete living and incomplete dying'. There's a sense - which we've all had I think though hopefully, most of us rarely and not for long - of separation, of distancing from life, a thing which, as I have said, is only heightened by Nora's serial immersion into versions of herself which aren't her. I have rarely seen as compelling a realisation of a character, or such sharp writing. And there is a great deal of humour here too ('In this life, she clearly had no taste.' 'Her dad belonged in a world of landlines') as well as an overall fascination with life, and with the wider world as seen by the various Noras: the whales off the coast of Australia, the raging fires around LA, which recur and recur. Self absorbed and inward-looking this is not.

In short, compelling, compassionate and a great read. I would recommend.

For more information about The Midnight Library, see the publisher's website here.

10 August 2020

Review - Threading the Labyrinth by Tiffani Angus

Threading the Labyrinth
Tiffani Angus
Unsung Stories, 13 July 2020
Available as: PB, 353pp, e
Source: Advance PB kindly supplied free by the publisher
ISBN: 9781912658091

I'm grateful to Unsung Stories for an advance copy of Threading the Labyrinth.

The premise of Threading the Labyrinth is simple. Toni Hammond, who owns a struggling gallery in Santa Fe, is surprised to inherit a crumbling manor house and overgrown garden in Hertfordshire, England. Investigating - might there be some money here that can rescue her business? - she finds no cash, but rather that the place holds impressions of many stories taking place over hundreds of years. It's hard for her to understand what's going on, but a link is forming with the history of the place...

One of my favourite stories by the celebrated ghost story writer MR James involves the inheritance of a house with a spooky old labyrinth in the garden and a mystery at its heart. A nice ghost story but as it's mostly about the unfortunate heir's attempts to survive, we learn little about the house of maze themselves. That is a story of terror, but in Threading the Labyrinth, though, Tiffani Angus turns things inside out and sites an elusive sense of love and belonging in her garden. Given only a scant set of family papers and with limited time before she must make a sale and return home, Toni is nevertheless drawn to uncover layers of her family's, and England's, past. We learn a great deal about the history of the place and about its people.

The story reaches back beyond the Reformation into local legend, when the nuns who originally lived in the house Toni labels "The Remains" thought they heard an abandoned baby crying in their garden. A baby they could never find. Dotting forward and back through later centuries, we meet the families who lived in the house and worked the gardens. Refreshingly, this is a bottom up perspective: the characters most strongly drawn are the gardeners and estate workers, not the gentry. There is a real sense of the endless, backbreaking labour needed to maintain the garden (the "weeders" are always women, even if the "gardeners" are men). English history is given in miniature and localised - while there are mentions of kings and wars (and men go off to fight in the wars, and sometimes come back) the detail, the important stuff, is what's happening "here". 

So we see the people being turned off their land and their village relocated because His Lordship wants a pretty view (and more income). (Next time you visit a splendid National Trust property, ask if there are humps and bumps nearby where the old village used to be). We see struggle within families for a coveted place working the garden, with ignorant outsiders sometimes preferred over local people. We witness the profusion of new seeds and cuttings that exploration and colonialism open up (and can imagine the sources of wealth in the colonies that support the whole enterprise). 

Always, the gardens abide, changing while staying same, with a particular walled garden the focus of things. A recurring figure links events and characters centuries apart - a soldier returning from the American war to find his sweetheart married to his brother, a Victorian artist struggling to make his mark, a group of Land Girls digging for victory in the Second World War. There are stories of people going missing, of children appearing out of nowhere. Angus's narrative touches on moments of great peril and loss as well as on moments of tenderness and love.

It's an outsider's view of English history. Angus's characters are, for the most part humble and generally women; the poor, strangers without a family, Victorian Aunt Madeline who makes her eccentric living from her camera, Irene who comes from London to work the land and mourns a terrible loss. Above all, while she has a family connection, Toni herself is an outsider, learning what Downton Abbey glossed over or ignored. 

We are given fragments of their stories - sometimes we know how things turned out in the end, sometimes we don't. Some are linked (if only through a family name), others are separate - decades or centuries pass without a glimpse; though at times it's possible to conjecture what was happening, in other places there is a lot of detail. It's a scented, heady paradise of a book, rambling wild in places and with lots to discover in hidden corners. The language is lush, gorgeous, whether in simple phrases such as 'purse rummage', in the sheer smelliness of everything (the perfume of wet earth, the past as a smell not a sight, a kiss - 'And her mouth on him was as warm as a heavy lily under the summer sun. And she tasted how sugar smelled') or in the feeling of the light, with colours and smells often overlapping. Tragedy and loss are close to the surface - the young men who never came back from the Great War, the anxious scanning of the sky, even out here in the country, for enemy planes - but are never the end, just as the damaged, boarded up, forsaken house of The Remains seems poised to allow new things, to embrace change, and to celebrate the lives lived within its shadow.

The book called to me. I am married to a vicar, meaning we move around from one parish to another (one house to another) with no expectation of staying anywhere too long. So I am very familiar with adopting a garden and I've come to recognise the particular nature of the vicarage garden: overgrown, half-finished projects, unweeded borders choked with shrubs, glorious surprises left by one's predecessors. Every garden is a palimpsest. In Threading the Labyrinth we see how that complexity arises, both through loving labour and careless, even violent change at the whim of national history, economics and dynastic fluctuations.

Threading the Labyrinth is a glorious read, a book, perhaps, for the summer, to be read by an open window or sitting in the wilder parts of one's garden - or perhaps in the park, if no garden is available. I'd strongly recommend it.

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

8 August 2020

Review - Chaos Vector by Megan E O'Keefe

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
Chaos Vector (The Protectorate, 2) 
Megan E O'Keefe
Orbit, 28 July 2020
Available as: PB, 546pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB supplied by Orbit
ISBN: 9780356512242

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of Chaos Vector.

Following Velocity Weapon, with Chaos Vector O'Keefe takes us further into the twisted world of The Protectorate. 

Further meaning both deeper and higher.

Deeper, because while the first book focussed on a relatively straightforward rebellion in a remote system, where the planet of Icarion was challenging the local leadership of the galaxy-spanning Prime government, Chaos Vector goes beyond that conflict, revealing more about the hidden forces which have been shaping the destiny of Prime. 

Higher, because even beyond those shady figures in the background, there are greater powers at work. O'Keefe's writing is like a constantly revealed map, with each new unfold opening fresh perspectives on what went before, showing things that seemed close together as distinct and offering new symbols and features to fit into the pattern.

We begin, as in Velocity Weapon, with Major Sanda Greeve. All she ever wanted to do was to defend Prime, to protect her brother, Keeper Biran. Yet after her gunship was destroyed at the battle of Dralee, everything went wrong. She's been kidnapped by a rogue AI, put on trial for piracy by Icarion, experimented on, spaced by a traitor Keeper and - now - framed for said Keeper's murder. Sanda is pretty cross and is searching for the truth. 

Probably a bad move, as the hard-bitten gang of Grotta outcasts comprising Jules, Now and Arden discovered for themselves in the previous book when they raided the wrong warehouse for the drug Wraith and poked their noses into the wrong places in that wrong warehouse. Now they're scattered and in hiding.

We saw these two threads of story evolve in parallel throughout Velocity Weapon but not come together and I think this was a brave decision by O'Keefe, allowing each strand to develop at the right pace rather than forcing things together too early. It's not too much of a spoiler (I hope) to say that in Chaos Vector, they finally merge, as Sanda gets command of a ship again and forms her own strange but effective crew, fit to discover the weird corners of this universe. The strange gates that link distant systems. The unknown, powerful military forces that seem to have infiltrated Prime itself. The far-flung research stations pursuing knowledge that Prime forbids. It all takes off here, but to Sanda's frustration she's not free to pursue her own vendetta, but has responsibilities thrust on her - for Prime, for the Keepers and, of course, for her brother Biran. While he fights his own bureaucratic battle in conference chambers and over score links - trying to put out the fire that Icarion lit in the first book - Sanda follows a trail of breadcrumbs halfway across the galaxy.

This is a fast-moving adventure, full of epic battles, treachery, sudden reverses and above all, secrets. EVERYONE here is hiding things and the details are revealed slowly and sparingly - trust is in short supply. The real tension is not only, or not primarily, from physical conflict (although there are moments of high adrenalin conflict you have to read over and again just to be sure you got them right) but from the emotional drumbeat, the rhythm of the story, as all that is dependable, sure, and safe falls away leaving survival to the quick wits and desperate gambles of Sanda, Tomas, Biran and the rest.

If you thought at the end of Book 1 that you were beginning to understand what was going on, you'll soon realise you don't. And while a great deal is clearer by the end of Book 2, I'll guarantee that there are more surprises and twists in store in the next one - which is fine by me, I just need to get my hands on it!

Following up with the second in a series is a tricky thing to do, with the need to offer more of the same while also adding in the new, prompting the reader on what happened in the first part without too much recapping, and offering enough of a self-contained story to satisfy those strange creatures (I am sometimes one myself) who read individual volumes as standalones. O'Keefe succeeds with aplomb, delivering an intelligent space opera with compelling and flawed characters working their way through a messy, shady world where nothing is as it seems... just perfect SF really.

For more information about Chaos Vector, see the Orbit website here.

4 August 2020

Review - All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace

All the Stars and Teeth
Adalyn Grace
Titan Books, 4 August 2020
Available as: PB, 416pp, e
Read as: PB advance review copy
ISBN: 9781789094060

Snap verdict: Sure to be popular

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of All the Stars and Teeth. I don't think I've had an ARC before that came with its own stars, as this one did, and necklace - after reading the book I'm concerned though at what curses or other magic might lie on that necklace. I will be very careful with it...

Adalyn Grace's debut novel is, at one level, a fairly traditional coming-of-age story. At the age of eighteen, Princess Amora Montana, heir to the kingdom of Visidia, is about to undergo the testing that will prove her worth to take the throne as High Animancer - wielder of the magic of souls. But on the brink of success, she gets things terribly, terribly wrong and her life is placed in danger. To survive, and to stand a chance of coming into her own, she must flee and explore her future kingdom, working to prevent a catastrophe ass well as to save her own life. Starting as a rather spoiled and ignorant girl, she grows up and begins to questions her place in things and the direction of her life.

At another level, though, Grace seems to me to be casting a rather cool eye over a familiar template and introducing some challenges to it. Yes, Amora begins rather self-satisfied and knows little of the world around her but it soon becomes clear that's because her father kept her that way - and in part he wasn't being protective, given the kingdom is nowhere near the good and harmonious place he makes out. The spotlight is soon on his failings and on the things that have been omitted from Amora's education. 

Oh, and that education... well, it involved using her magic to execute prisoners. That's the essence of the test that she fails, creating a real sense of horror right at the start of this book which I felt was heightened by the contrast with the preceding party-and-food heavy scenes. 

Behind Amora's growing doubts about the kingdom and her place in it is a growing sense of struggle and injustice and a feeling that the system she expected to inherit may not be the wise and just edifice she'd assumed. There is a real moral complexity in the eventual encounter with the forces that threaten the kingdom, a mixing of the personal and the political that includes Amora, her father, the cryptic, swashbuckling, pirate Bastian and a feminist mermaid ('I've a collection of men who I intend to repay for how generous they were to me... Dismemberment for anyone who ever tried to touch me. The tongue flayed from those with wicked mouths. And the heart eaten from any man who's ever told me to smile.') This book recognises that it isn't all about finding the True King (or Queen) - there must be justice beyond that. It leaves Amara, after much loss, looking to establish that, based on what she's learned on her journeys and I'm sure that in future books we'll see the difficulty of carrying this through.

In style, this book is often direct, with things seen from Amara's point of view and reflecting her limited experience (so it's appropriate, for example, that the parts set at sea aren't salted with nautical terms she wouldn't know, or that in an episode where villagers are trying to repair their homes after a storm - without help from the King - we get her perspective mainly as people hammering at wood). Grace reveals the Kingdom gradually, giving us, one after another, encounters with the various islands that make it up, each occupied by people with a different magical bent. The differences between these settings and their people are well realised, supporting the complex picture that Amora is gradually putting together of her world and of her family's place in it.

With its blend of magic, fantasy, romance and  politics, I think this book is bound to be popular and to lead many readers to enjoy the world and peoples of Visidia.

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

1 August 2020

Review - Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Art by Peter Greenwood 
Design by Elissa Flanigan
Bookish and the Beast (Once Upon a Con, 3)
Ashley Poston
Quirk Books, 4 August 
Available as: PB,283pp
Source: Advance reading copy kindly supplied by the publisher
ISBN: 9781683691938

I'm grateful to Quirk Books for an advance copy of Bookish and the Beast. 

I am loving the Once Upon a Con series. Drawing upon fairytales - but allowing the protagonists to be bothy conscious of the fact and, at times, critical of the tropes and outcomes possibly involved - they're creating their own universe, in which geeky teenagers get to have their say, to delineate their own world and celebrate their heroes. Each book adds richness and some critique of the previous books and characters. And it's all, of course, entwined with the hit SF TV series and film, Starfield. (Poston gives us tantalising little glimpses of Starfield. I need more!)

Bookish and the Beast is, of course, modelled on Beauty and the Beast though the author cheerfully admits that's she's chosen the elements she likes from that story (which is of course what you do with fairy stories). The Beast is Vance Reigns,  bad-boy (well, bad-17 year old) actor and star of the Starfield films (he plays villainous Ambrose Sond) who's become embroiled in a scandal and sent off to a no-name town where he will be out of the gossip columns. Beauty is Rosie Thorne, still mourning the death of her mother and keen to get out of the no-name town and hit the big city. Rosie's backed up by staunch friends Annie and Quinn. Quinn's running for Homecoming Overlod (not King or Quinn as they're non binary).

Poston gives us alternate chapters from Rosie's and vance points of view, allowing a rounded picture of the misunderstandings between them - Vance's brooding sulkiness and Rosie's defensive pain tend to produce sparks as they have to work together to catalogue a library of rare Starfield books. It's possibly a simpler, more straightforward romance than the first two books with some predictable barriers to happiness and it takes place in Rosie's home town and school rather than around a con. (I didn't find that lessened the atmosphere or geekiness of the story - Rosie, Quinn and Annie supply plenty of that and we also see appearances by some characters from the earlier books, with a hint that their lives continue to have ups and downs). 

There are some shrewdly drawn relationships - Rosie's with her dad, generally referred to as "Star Dad" for reasons that become clear is very touching, and he is also a man with some surprises for us. Tropes like "wicked stepparent" are avoided and it's all grounded in a solid presentation of the emotional stuff that the two teenagers are going through - Vance has been hurt by so-called "friends" who just want to sell him out to the tabloids, Rosie by the loss of her mother and the impact the cost of her treatment has had on the family finances (thank goodness for the UK's National Health service). She's, to a degree, stumped for what to do next, blocked in writing the essay she needs to apply to the university of her choice, and being targeted by the most popular boy in school - attentions she DOESN'T want but fear she may, out of politeness, accept.

It's a very enjoyable read and fleshes out what I hope will be a continuing wider universe.

For more information about Bookish and the Beast see the Quirk website here.