28 September 2020

Review - A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin

A Song for the Dark Times (Rebus, 23)
Ian Rankin
Orion, 1 October 2020
Available as: HB, 336pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9781409176978

I'm SO grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Song for the Dark Times via NetGalley.

And Rebus goes on. I had a little trouble finding which number in the series is - I think it's 23, but actually, does it matter? I'm just glad to have another chance to meet the awkward, driven, intractable old sod. (Readers though may like me be alarmed at what's going on in the first few pages of the book...)

In recent Rebus books, accepting that he's no longer on the Force, Rankin has at times had to stretch things a bit to give John an in to the investigation. In A Song for the Dark Times this is finessed very nicely: Keith, partner to Rebus's daughter Samantha, has gone missing to of course it's into the clapped out old Saab and off up the A9 to try and find him. That mystery, and the worse one that emerges as Rebus begins to poke around, gives him a perfect excuse to get involved because he's family.

Which is not to say that the local police welcome or even accept him getting involved in their enquiry (and nor does Sammy, as things spiral out of control). But he's clearly in the right place and doing the right thing.

Back in Edinburgh, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are working on a more conventional enquiry - a wealthy Saudi student, whose father is in disfavour back at home, has been found dead in a bad part of town. There are all kinds of sensitivities, and Cafferty seems to be taking an interest. So lots to  chew on there and we get to see something I've long been hoping for, a story with Clarke as its focus, out of Rebus's shadow (and taint). Fox may have got the fancy promotion rather than her, but she's, always, clearly the more capable of the two, albeit they work together well (including on looking after Rebus's long-suffering dog, Brillo).

The result is, effectively, a pair of parallel stories showcasing Rebus at his most driven and implacable (his little girl is at risk!) and Clarke being generally on top of things. Brilliant to read, and also allowing Rankin to divert off to the history of the local camp (variously used for internments, POWs and refugees) that Keith is interested in and to the precarious state of Cafferty's crime empire. The latter looks as though it's sowing the seeds for future storylines in a series that continues to satisfy.

Amongst all this, Rankin has his sights set on dodgy land deals, on the scapegoating of foreigners (both in the 1940s, with internments in the camps, and now, with assaults following Brexit) and perhaps on rich, entitled students ('no visible bookcases'). But these are more background themes than foreground concerns with the story dominated by Rebus's family concerns, especially a sense of regret that he wasn't a better  husband and father and by the axis between Fox and Clarke (there seems more of a spark between them than there is between her and Sutherland, notionally her lover).

Overall, another very enjoyable Rebus novel.

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


26 September 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire, 1)
Andrea Stewart
Orbit, 8 September 2020
Available as: HB, 435pp, e, audio
Source: ARC
ISBN: 9780356514925

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of The Bone Shard Daughter to consider for review and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the tour.

Well.

The Bone Shard Daughter has just everything you need in your fantasy. There are complex, relatable characters, a world so well developed and portrayed that you can just luxuriate in it (seriously - I want to skip lockdown and go and stay on a floating island) and an enthralling plot that will seize you from the first page.

There are in fact, four plots. FOUR!

First we meet Lin, cloistered daughter of the Emperor, but seemingly a failed daughter because she's lost her memory and can't learn his bone shard magic.

Then Jovis, who at first seems the kind of rogue who abounds in fantasy - a thief, smuggler and chancer on the run from the authorities and from crime gang the Ioph Carn. But Jovis proves to have depths and motivations to him and to be embarked on a quest of his own.

There's also the mysterious young woman Sand, trapped on a remote island and also suffering memory loss.

And finally, Phalue. What can I say about Phalue? She's a headstrong young woman, a fighter and a lover (not above wearing her armour specifically to impress her partner Ranami), a bit confused, idealistic - and the indulged daughter of her island's Governor.

Stewart's approach is to spin highly engaging and fast-paced stories for all four protagonists, using the light each of these casts on different aspects of the invented world to fill out the overall picture. It means the book takes off right away, with little or no hiatus when it switches focus between the four (always a risk when they are many points of view) as we come from each strand into the next with an enlarged sense of what is going on. And equally there is something for everyone here: palace intrigue, revolutionaries seeking to free an oppressed peasantry, romance, a cruel emperor (his "constructs" - artificial beasts who acts as spies or agents - are powered by bone shards taken from children when they come of age. The life-force of the constructs drains the originator of the shard of life and vigour until they eventually die). And much, much more (FLOATING ISLANDS!)

Each of the four central characters has their own mystery (or mysteries) and it's pretty clear that not everything is as it seems. The apparently stable order guaranteed by the Emperor may be about to crumble, with other powers crowding into the islands, causing disasters and change. We will see, I'm sure, in future books exactly how Lin, Jovis, Phalue and Sand fit in with that and how - whether - they reconcile their different quests and needs. Meanwhile, The Bone Shard Daughter offers us some wonderful relationships - Lin with her prickly, reclusive father (who has brought in a foster son to jostle with her for the throne), Phalue and Ranami, two women obviously in love but constantly bickering about politics and much else, Jovis, absorbed in his endless quest yet constantly going out of his way to save people (and animals!) Perhaps they fill a gap in his life, make up for a loss, or perhaps they help him fend off some awful truth about whatever he's looking for? And Sand, who we see least of, but who achieves a lot despite her exile to a remote island.

Put simply, The Bone Shard Daughter is the strongest start to a fantasy trilogy I've read for a long time, and I'll watch out keenly for the next part because these characters really speak to me - as well as the background of floating islands migrating under wind and tide in the endless ocean. Put this one to the top of your reading pile.

For more information about The Bone Shard Daughter, see the publisher's website here (as well as dropping in on the blog tour stops listed in the poster below!)

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






24 September 2020

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

The Trials of Koli (Rampart Trilogy, 2)
MR Carey
Orbit, 17 September 2020
Available as: PB, 445pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9780356513492

I'm grateful to Orbit and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for a free advance copy of The Trials of Koli to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

This is the second part of The Rampart Trilogy and in discussing it below I'm going to include some spoilers for the first book, The Book of Koli. I make no excuses for that! The stories are tightly wound, with Book 2 a direct continuation of Book 1 and I think knowledge of the earlier instalment is necessary to get the most from this one. It doesn't work as a standalone.

IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK OF KOLI, DO THAT NOW, RIGHT?

I'll WAIT.

OK. With that out of the way, where are we at the start of The Trials of Koli? Well, Koli, Ursula-From-Elsewhere, the young woman Cup and Ursula's faithful walking drone, the Drudge, are on their way to London. This future, 150-200 years hence, is a world where 'Everything that lives hates us' (see, it can get worse than 2020!) Bio-engineered plants and animals, adapted to cope with climate change and environmental degradation, have turned on their makers (...unless they were deliberately weaponised...) Combined with dimly remembered wars and the rumours of wars, this has reduced humanity to a scatter of isolated communities hanging onto remnants of ill-understood 'tech' from the Old Times. In Koli's home village, Mythen Rood, operation of the tech has been captured by a single family, the Vannastins. Koli erred and strayed when he discovered this fraud and was then cast out, precipitating various changes and disasters in the village.

This story, as I had expected, follows Koli and his friends on their way to London. I was glad to see, though, that it also picked up events in Mythen Rood - hopefully meaning we'll see more there in the final part. Spinner, the young woman Koli was sweet on but who preferred a young Vannastin boy, features prominently as the family, and the village, try to cope with the aftermath of Koli's departure and with new threats from outside. The Vannastin monopoly on tech and the superstitious rigidity that maintains it are about to make it hard for the village to address the danger it is in. Will they be able to adapt?

Meanwhile Koli encounters new dangers and temptations, passing through a ruined Birmingham and eventually reaching a London very different from what we'd expect. The little group he's travelling in has not gelled: Koli is dealing not only with people brought up like him (such as Cup) but with Ursula, whose knowledge of the world and of tech is on a wholly different level, and of course with Monono, the AI which has bootstrapped itself (herself?) from his Sony music player. Monono has deep knowledge of the world and hinted-at abilities to influence it but she and Ursala are deeply at odds. Cup is also hostile, still attached to the death cult of Senlas. The dynamics are complicated, the  band always on the edge of falling apart.

I really enjoyed the divided focus between Koli and Spinner.  Spinner is a resourceful and cool-headed woman - in many respects, quicker and with greater insight than Koli - and it's rather fun seeing her go to work understanding and (in the best sense) manipulating the society she lives in, both for self-preservation and to try and improve things: whereas Koli in the first book was (and still is, to a degree) a dreamier person who rather tends to collide with the world, a step behind rather than half a step ahead. In fact I think I actually enjoyed this book slightly more than The Book of Koli (a high bar!) for that reason. It's a mark, I'd say, of how vivid and real Carey makes his characters that confronted with a similar situation they respond so differently but in both cases the responses feel absolutely true.

In some ways Koli is perhaps the least effective of his  group at dealing with the challenges they face. But that gives some distance and perspective, allowing him, to act as narrator and make judgements about what the others are up to. Cup is gradually thawing, understanding that she's no longer beholden to Senlas and coming to terms with the reality of being what Koli's society calls 'crossed' and what we would refer to as trans. Monono, we know from The Book of Koli, wishes to be free from the hardware that encases her. Ursula has her fears about that and her hopes for the future. Lots of sub-currents here, even aside from the gradual hints about what happened to "our" world. As Spinner asks, 'What were they like, our mothers' mothers and our fathers' fathers? Who did they hate so much tp spend the fruits of their learning and the cunning of their hands on engines of such terrible  cruelty? Was it their own selves?'

We don't learn what they were like - although we can guess: like us! - but we do learn some of their identities, these soldiers of the 'Unfinished War',  in what is actually a surprisingly moving moment, when a piece of neglected and abandoned tech speaks, reading out the names of 'these four, recorded KIA, [who] were my crew for four years'. They are ordinary names, Vincent Corke, Maria Ugonwe, Stephen Egerton, Elaine Sandberg. 'I carry Elaine in non-volatile storage. Vincent and Maria and Stephen are lost, except to my remembering. As long as I remember anything, I will remember them'.

The book doesn't though, in the main, look back but forward. Koli and Spinner are living in their now, with many challenges from nature, other humans and from their mothers' mothers and their fathers' fathers, such as the poisonous silver that falls with rain or snow or the rogue drones which can strike out of a clear sky. In their different ways they face those challenges with courage, imagination and hope. I look forward to reading the final part of the trilogy, to seeing what hope they can find for the future of their - our - world.

In short: this is an epic read, a glorious and involving story that you should certainly read.

You can buy The Trials of Koli from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

For more stops on the tour see the poster below: there have already been some great reviews, more are to come! And for more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.





22 September 2020

Review - The Nobody People by Bob Proehl

The Nobody People
Bob Proehl
Titan Books, 25 September
Available as: PB, 640pp, e
Read as: Advance PB review copy
ISBN: 9781789094619

I'm very grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of The Nobody People to consider for review.

This book was originally planned to come out earlier this year and like many others, it has been delayed due too You Know What. I've been waiting impatiently to share just how good it is - and now I can!

Set in a near-future USA over some ten years, this is a book of epic scale about prejudice and the slide into what can only be called fascism. Framed round the treatment of those - "Resonants" - who possess what might in other stories be called superpowers it isn't about them as cardboard cutout heroes and villains but more about how we accept - or don't - difference. Ringing deeply true, The Nobody People doesn't, of course, have to make this up, rather it can reference what has actually happened (and indeed, 2020 of all years, what is happening now).

But it's about more than that. The Nobody People is, as I have said, wide-ranging and also addresses family, growing up, assimilation and more. Our first introduction to this world is through journalist Avi Hirsch, wife Kay and young (six or seven when the story begins) daughter Emmeline. Avi's just been given the first tip that will lead the three of them into the USA of the Resonants and we see him follow that up, learning more about them and increasingly trading on his relationship and knowledge. He's perhaps the classic iffy ally, slightly self satisfied about how accepting he is, exploiting his "in" status professionally and personally, but also frustrated that he can't, in the end, be one of them. (At times he comes across as petulant and entitled. At the same time, he's suffering himself having g lost a limb in Iraq and Proehl depicts the consequences of that, the PSTD and guilt and how this loss affects Avi's sense of himself and his place within his family.)

And yes, I'm using the language of marginalisation and allyship here, if advisedly, because Proehl's book invites those comparisons, building on the infrastructure of oppression and discrimination in US law and society and referencing, implicitly and explicitly, not only the treatment of African Americans but also of Japanese American internees in the 1940s and of Muslims after September 11th - the latter, especially, through the character of Fahima, a young Muslin woman whose father and uncle were arrested and "disappeared" on flimsy pretexts. Along the way we see prejudiced cops, vigilantes and militias, on-the-make politicians, talk show hosts determined to exploit the situation and that most frustrating of figures, the reasonable man, who just thinks the way ahead is to invite both "sides" to a dialogue. Proehl identifies and shoots down the false equivalence in that:

'Fatima's no psychic, but she can see through the senator's thinking. It's a standard ally line of thought... It ignores a major inequality.... The ally assumes these are viewpoints, meeting on equal ground. No. One person is right, one is wrong. One person wants to be, one wishes the other was dead.'

We also meet Kevin Bishop. And he is an enigma. Maybe he is THE enigma here. A leading light among the Resonants, perhaps the oldest of them, Bishop's earlier life is only hinted at but it seems he Knows Stuff about their origin and, perhaps, future. It's his project to bring them out into the open and it's him who has founded a specialist school (in New York City) to teach young Resonants. The Bishop Academy is a much, much more grittily depicted school for supernaturally gifted kids than Hogwarts, by the way. Proehl's portrayal of the students, many of them teenagers, has the rawness and awkwardness (half self-assurance, half paralysing doubt) of that age. He does a brilliant job of integrating the obvious oddness arising from their "abilities" (and from the treatment they've had from communities and family) with the ordinary oddness of teen life.

This is a book that takes its time, introducing its world and grounding us in its reality. Proehl establishes the actuality of Resonance, never discussed as magic or in fantastical terms but as science (albeit bizarre science) with Fahima the experimenter, inventor and geek who can translate the ability to fly, project a death ray or bilocate, into plausible science. He also establishes the actuality of a gnawing, entitled hatred, always just a heartbeat from power and control, that operates at the most mundane levels of society - people looking the other when a woman is bundled into an unmannered van - as well as stalking Senate corridors and police canteens.

It's a disturbing, unsettling view of modernity in which the real horrors are not actually these with scary superpowers, not even those who put such powers to harmful use, but the great, placid mass of unsocial, ordinary people. A very timely picture, really.

Now, after not being able to wait to share this review, now I can't wait to read the concluding part, The Somebody People.

For more information about The Nobody People, see the Titan Books webpage here.




19 September 2020

Review - Prime Deceptions by Valerie Valdes

Cover by Julie Dillon
Prime Deceptions (Chilling Effect, 2)
Valerie Valdes
Orbit, 17 September 2020
Available as: PB, 436pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780356514437

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance e-copy of Prime Deceptions via NetGalley.

In this sequel to Chilling Effect, we're given another chance to sign up with Captain Eva Innocente and her crew aboard the space freighter/ smuggler/ gunrunner La Sirena Negra ('a small ship whose business was composed entirely of side hustles') for another series of madcap adventures. This time, having spent several months prodding the dangerous beast that is The Fridge criminal collective, Eva accepts a commission to track down Josh, scientist brother to her engineer (and retired bank robber) Sue ('I really like your arm cannon. Is that modular?') Having worked for The Fridge, Josh's knowledge of the powerful, banned, ancient Proarkhe tech is considered useful and needed for a Very Secret project.

And at one level that's all you need to know. Eva, co-captain Pink, Min, Vakar and the rest - not to forget the pack of psychic cats who have taken up residence on La Sirena Negra - set about their quest with gusto, beginning with a visit to a perpetual fan con and proceeding to a bot-fighting arena where Eva reencounters one of her least favourite humans, 'Miles fucking Erck', the man who begins every sentence with 'Well, actually...' It's all rather fun, rather genial mayhem, punctuated by speculation about what's really going on, passion between crewmembers and attempts (largely unsuccessful) to keep the cats in line.

But then things get... a bit darker.

You'll recall from Chilling Effect (and you really should read it first) the impact of Eva keeping secrets. Well, she still has one zinger of a secret - and it's to do with the most shameful episode of her life, something she did while working as a mercenary.

Something that won her the title Hero of Garilia...

...or, depending who you're talking to, Butcher of Garilia.

Now, she's going back to Garilia - the one place in the universe Eva really, really wanted never to see again.

Changing the tone of the book to several moods darker, Valdes takes Eva to places and events in her memory she'd hoped to leave buried ('Action meant control, and control was something Eva needed, even if it was an illusion.') And it's not just all in the past: what she did has consequences now both for the inhabitants of Garilia and possibly for the wider universe. Eva has to come to terms with her memories quickly.

Oh, and her mother's turned up as well, also on some super-secret mission.

I loved the family dynamics between Regina and Eva (and also between Eva and her sister Mari). It's genuinely - and generously - portrayed: it would be easy to have Regina come over as a clichéd scary mother and to a degree she is. But this is a complex and deep relationship which also takes in the secrets (again) that Eva kept from her mum when working for her father, and the history between the two sister. There is genuine emotional force here, well realised and at times, rather touching.

It would be easy, I think, to take some of this darkness and family stuff as just slowing the pace down and putting off the fights. Don't fall into that mistake! There is much, much more here than just a breadcrumb trail between hectic combat sequences, and everything has its place and its time in a story that takes in PTSD, moral dilemmas, and guilt as well as silly banter between friends, trust, and, yes, a great sense of wonder and fun (messing up a target's navigation stems by convincing them that they're installing a false software update? A straight faced remark that 'The fourth wall had apparently been broken recently').

This is an unmissable followup to Chilling Effect and, due to some Galaxy-shaking events, sets the next volume up as being pretty epic too, I think.

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




17 September 2020

Review - Sweet Harmony by Claire North

Cover design by Bekki Guyatt 
Sweet Harmony
Claire North
Orbit, 22 September 2020
Available as: e-book
Source: advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9780356514772

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance e-copy of Sweet Harmony.

Claire North is the master of the intriguing idea, planted into our otherwise normal world and interrogated from all angles. Also: of glorious prose, believable characters and much else, which I'll come to in a moment. In her new novella, she steps a short way into the future of medicine and hypothesises the ability too use "naneites" - programme machines at the molecular level - to protect and preserve life, affect appearance and ability, modify mood and make many many other changes. ('Dazzling Smile - no more sad mornings!', 'Voice of an Angel - 96% agree that this is the perfect voice for the perfect woman!')

All for a price.

Harmony Meads, a 29 year old London estate agent, is 'beautiful, successful and fits in perfectly'. She's an enthusiastic user of these "upgrades" as is everyone in her office. They're all choices that she's made ('This is Harmony Meads, aged nineteen, making a choice about her body, her life') but choices have consequences, whether from the effect of programming glitches ('If you experience jaundice or liver failure, please contact your healthcare provider') to debt and enforcement action ('The upgrade was £17.99 a month for the initial twelve month contract, rising to £35 a month at the end of the introductory period...')

North's portrayal of Harmony as an anxious, aspirational twentysomething, spending money she doesn't have (there are always more credit cards) to secure a future away from '****ing Bracknell', to keep up with the team at work, to have a life, is touching and sad. This isn't an SF utopia or dystopia. It's recognisably our world - the train from Waterloo to Reading, overworked hospitals, social care stretched to its limits and, especially, advertising pushed at desperate people ('...at the end of the day, she wanted to be in control. She hit "buy". That was the beginning.') Harmony's life includes work pressures from a boss who sees having pretty people as part of the "brand", an abusive boyfriend and an elderly mother who wants the best for her daughter but whose tentative sympathy when everything goes wrong is unbearable.

The story shows us where Harmony is coming from, her hopes, desires and dreams; the insidious spiral she's got into, having to scrimp and save to make minimal payments on all the upgrades she's taken out; and the spinning of her life into chaos when things go wrong, when she loses that control. The contracts Harmony's signed allow for punitive measures, withdrawing the benefits previously offered and then going further. In a nightmare of calls to customer service, attempts to scrape together money and to keep  up appearances, we have a world that is so familiar, so close to our own - the knife-edge between keeping everything in the air and seeing those plates begin to smash on the ground. North's vision of just how this technology might be used and abused is deeply plausible because it's rooted in just how people currently suffer when they lose a grip, even for a moment on their lives.

As I've come to expect from this author, Sweet Harmony doesn't just deliver a scary and convincing near future but also glorious, on-point writing. North describes 'skin the colour of city sunset' and 'The smell after rain, when all things come back to life' or in hospital  'old men shuffling the lock-kneed two-step to their ends'. Here's Harmony's friend Shelly. 'Her brilliant autumn-blonde hair flowed and curled around her face like frozen candlelight; her skin glowed like tungsten...' which is gorgeously vivid - but is then soured when we're informed that Shelly is so beautiful that 'all the boys assumed she was a tart, that there was no other reason to be that sensational save for the benefit of men...' In a world where you can constantly be upgraded, the neediness of those men, their desire to control women, assumes ever newer and crueller forms. 

The upgrades have other insidious effects and throughout the book, North is picking away at how corrupting it all is, how as well as the financial burden, life becomes a pretence with things we might take for granted (such as getting drunk) becoming just paid for options once one's life and responses are owned by a private corporation. There's a safety net where basic functions and health are still maintained but it's an affectless, joyless world lacking vibrancy and sensuality. 

That's the world which, in some form, Harmony spends most of this book trying to escape because in the end this isn't a book primarily about nightmare tech but about one life - and the roots of her discontent and ruinous debt habit are human roots, in family, society and place. And in the poisonous relationships and work pattens she finds herself. It's all about choices, choices made in circumstances we can't control and which are therefore hardly choices at all - are they?

Strongly recommended. 

For more about Sweet Harmony, see the Orbit website here.


14 September 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Seven Doors by Agnes Ravatn

The Seven Doors
Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger)
Orenda Books
Available as: e (17 July 2020), PB 236pp (17 September 2020)
Source: PB advance review copy
ISBN: 9781913193386

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Agnes Ravatn's new novel, The Seven Doors. I loved her The Bird Tribunal so when Anne asked me if I wanted to review this one I may have appeared alarmingly enthusiastic (even over email).

The books starts off low-key. Nina, a professor of literature in Bergen, and her husband Mads, a doctor who's taken time out to serve on the Town Council, are looking for a new house because theirs is on the route of a new tram line and is to be compulsorily purchased. They're not hard up (not even near - they have another house let out and a holiday cottage) but still they drive a hard bargain with the developers and, despite Nina's reservations over losing her lifetime home, begin searching for a new place. Meanwhile daughter Ingeborg is also househunting (she wants a bigger place). This sense of property, of ownership, of control is a theme that bubbles under the surface of The Seven Doors from start to finish, complemented by the references to the story of Bluebeard's Castle (which is where the title comes from).

Maybe it's all about the money (money, money). Nina and Mads get a good pay-off for moving out quickly. Mads' mother's funeral, recalled several years before, has been quietly forgotten (Nina doesn't remember whether she attended) but the house she bequeathed them features squarely. Ingeborg, in a truly toe-curling episode, hectors her parents' tenant, a single mother called Mari, to vacate her home as soon as possible - and then adds insult to injury by offering her, too, cash if only she will get lost and do it quickly.

Agnes Ravatn
Mari, however, perhaps fulfils this rather too literally - vanishing only days later. Nina, maybe a bit bored and dissatisfied with her students, has been sounding off about how studying literature provides the requisite skills for police work and decides to investigate. She's maybe also motivated a bit by guilt - Ingeborg's behaviour was truly awful and Nina's concerned that may have contributed to Mari's state of mind.

So Nina begins to probe not so much the young woman's disappearance but her life, personality and motivations - helped by a box of papers left behind in the house. She does this in between searching for property: one area where a translated book, inevitably, loses its nuance is the doubtless subtle shades of desirabilities and cost in locations - but it's clear enough that Nina and Mads are pretty choosy.

In a fairly short book, Ravatn manages to create a vivid picture of Mari, even though we only actually see her briefly so that almost everything we know is mediated though others - parents, an ex-husband - who are all deeply unreliable narrators. We're teased with the knowledge we might need to solve the puzzle - those references to Bluebird's Castle, which create a nicely taut atmosphere of secrets and lies, and Nina's conversations with a colleague about Freudian analysis and transference. It all hints at suppressed truths and abusive relationships, of boundaries crossed. What was really going on in Mari's life? Why did she break with her parents and give up her career? In the end this book isn't a logical puzzle - to be solved through clues and witnesses - so much as a psychological one, bearing out Nina's impassioned defence of her subject, of the value of empathy and of insights into human nature.

It's a compelling story which maintains a high pitch of emotion throughout. The characters are brilliantly realised people of a certain type, often people with an outward front and somewhat chilly aspect - perhaps not very likeable but deeply fascinating - and, as I have said, it trades heavily on property locations, family inheritances and control. Rosie Hedger's translation is lucid and unobtrusive, including when rendering what must have been some tricky points depending on rhymes and misunderstandings, and makes for smooth, page-turning reading.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable psychological thriller with some dark insights into human nature.

You can buy The Seven Doors from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books (who support local shops), Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

For more information about the book see the Orenda Books website here.




10 September 2020

Review - The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

The Quickening
Rhiannon Ward
Trapeze, 20 August 2020
Available as: HB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781409192176

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

The Quickening is a masterful Gothic novel that has it all - a woman arriving at a remote, decrepit, spooky old house; a family with Secrets; hints of the supernatural; surly servants who resent outsiders and mysteries galore.

The woman in question is Louisa Drew. In is 1925. Close to the birth of her third child, she's summoned from her somewhat chilly and, as becomes apparent, loveless Kentish Town, London home to carry out a commission - photographing the contents of a remote and decrepit country house, Clewer Hall, on the South Coast.

From the outset I admired Louisa's spirit and determination. She has no false modesty, she says at one point 'I come form a long line of capable women'. She is in her second marriage and it's obviously far from ideal. There are hints of her having lived a much more glamorous life in her days as a magazine photographer ('Aleister Crowley had told me about the tarot') She's also curiously alone in the world - having lost mother, uncle and husband, and more, as we gradually learn, Ward revealing it all bit by bit in dialogue with the story of loss and grief that Louisa uncovers at Clewer Hall. But despite her circumstances, she's tried to be a supportive wife to Edwin who frankly sounds like a bit of a creep ('Edwin was moving around downstairs, preparing his tea. If he was in a good mood, which was rare, he'd bring me up a cup... otherwise, he'd leave without saying goodbye...', 'Words froze in my throat when I received one of his withering glances.') Yes, Edwin suffered in the Great War, but one does get the feeling he's rather hiding behind that. Now, though, money is needed for the coming baby, and Louisa's prepared to do what she needs to to get it. So she's off on the train to Brighton, despite Edwin's mother's thin-lipped disapproval.

Arrived at Clewer Hall, a place much diminished and under-staffed, Louisa equally stands up for herself against the frankly weird Clewer family and the chilly house, which itself seems hostile. the Clewer don't care, they're off to India, presumably to live cheaply, and all they want till they go is to keep up the facade, forgetting whatever it was they all seem to fret over.

Apart from one thing.

The Hall is notorious for a séance held thirty years before and for reasons never clearly explained, it's to be repeated. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself was present on that occasion and has returned as have the other surviving participants. Who, we are led to wonder, wishes to hear the voices of the dead?

The answer, of course, in the 20s (those 20s) is, many, many people. After the loss and grief of the Great War there was a boom in Spiritualism, much of it possibly meeting a need for reassurance and comfort in a more strait-laced age. Louisa herself has, as I have said, suffered losses. Her interaction with the Hall and the Clewers - family and servants - rapidly becomes a cats cradle, a maze of sadnesses and absences, illustrated by the spooky Victorian marble children's limbs kept in a display case. Together with glimpses into the past - the time around that earlier seance - we are given tantalising hints of the full story, a mystery worthy of Mr Holmes himself which Louisa sets herself to solve despite the apparent increasing dangers to her and her baby and the growing hostility of the family.

Altogether this is an absorbing mystery story with a lot of heart. The central mystery eventually resolves to something deeply, deeply sad and provoking justifiable anger at the cruelties of the Edwardian class system and the stiff-necked Imperial Britishness of the Clewer family. It's a pattern that Louisa has, one feels, recognised in her own relationship and would do well to escape from - but what options does she have?

Ward writes arresting, vivid prose ('The space had the stillness of catastrophe delayed', 'The garden, in its icy frostiness, was a riot of red berries and yew leaves') and has a sharp eye for character and behaviour - the distance between Louisa and medium Ada and the 'gentry', the way 'we pregnant women lose ownership of our bodies the minute we begin to show', the Clearers being 'the epitome of the upper classes who I would never understand'. In a country poised ahead of the labour turmoil of the General Strike and with the Depression round the corner, The Quickening seems to look back at a time when, despite the disaster of the Great War, the dilettantism of the upper classes can still be indulged, and forward to a less innocent time.

I'd strongly recommend The Quickening, and if you're looking ahead to the end of the year I might suggest it as a perfect Christmas read so if you're searching for a present for the Gothic minded bibliophile in your life, here it is...

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


8 September 2020

Review - Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Driftwood
Marie Brennan
Tachyon, 14 August 2020
Available as: PB, 224pp, audio, e
Read as: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781616963460

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

In Driftwood, Marie Brennan creates something akin to a mythology for an imagined world (or worlds - it's complicated!)

We are invited to visit a derelict amphitheatre amidst the ruins of a lost civilisation. Here, over one night, the life of a man named Last will commemorated. Known to all, yet a mystery to all, Last is more an article of faith than a person: elusive yet ever present, he's even regarded as a god by some and many of the stories about him which we will hear are full of praise. Yet others have come to contest them, to offer harsher interpretations.

During the course of that night we'll be invited to hear for ourselves. We forma judgement. We may just be here for the stories and the company. Regardless, we'll learn about Driftwood and the worlds that comprise it. It is certainly an odd construct, 'Patchwork of world fragments, illogic made concrete'. Worlds - universes? - that have suffered their own foretold apocalypses somehow survive in a decaying state, and come out of a strange mist to contact Driftwood. Starting, more or less intact, on the outer edge, they are pushed further inward by new worlds arriving behind them. So the place evolves as a kind of plate tectonics of worlds, the surviving fragments shrinking until what was once an entire world may be reduced to a valley or a few streets or a cellar - until eventually they are destroyed in the centre, in the singularity called Crush.

Yet so long as they do exist, these vestiges retain their identity as worlds, with their own physical laws, their own magics and sciences. So for example you had best not be left in that amphitheatre at dawn or you will come to no good - but in a neighbouring worked a few hundred meters away, you will be fine.

Trying to survive as long as they can, the inhabitants of the different worlds travel and trade with each other and guides are sorely needed.

The man called Last is one such guide. He's seen by many as the key to Driftwood, and perhaps their salvation from it. Surely he is one who has lived many lives, who understands many things? Surely he understands what is happening - and how to escape it?

Across these stories we see Last sought out to provide advice or protection. We see him try to hide from all this seeking: cornered, he will reluctantly assist but there is a sense of burden, that he's being pressed to offer more than he can bear. All those religions, all those sciences, those kings and emperors trying to maintain their customs, their rituals, their superiority in a world that's being ground down, they all want support, advice, solutions. Their suns are dimming, the stars their myths depend on winking out, their sacred sites are fading away. Often the outcome of the story is about moving on from this, accepting the inevitable and perhaps seeing something saved - even if just a story, an echo of a trace of memory so that those lost civilisations can say, we were here too.

The composite, entropy-wracked, amalgam that is Driftwood makes, then, a compelling background and offers a lot of scope for stories - presented here as uncertain, contradictory, collected, containing and referring to older and older layers that nobody really understands but which are still treasured. I was reminded of M John Harrison's Viriconium cycle which has something of the same atmosphere of  a world wound down - I wouldn't be surprised if that place is crunching into the edge of Driftwood and just hasn't realised it yet.

A collection of simple stories, each self-contained but building into a cycle that is more than the sum of its parts, Driftwood is a fascinating and rewarding creation, conveyed in prose that can range from the solemn to the bitter to the darkly humorous but is never less than engaging. Brennan is at home sketching the linguistics of a world, bringing alive a marketplace ('...a thousand spices, each one distinct on the tongue. Aromatic flowers that danced in the gentle air, their seeds spreading I the ceaseless light. Serpents doxing in the warmth, sold as pets, as sacrifices, as food...') or imaging its complex religious life as she is evoking the long-lived, continually reborn bar, Spit in the Crush's Eye or describing with great flair the adventurers who brought the balloon to Driftwood and sought to map it - undermining the solemnity of purpose expected in a fantasy novel by saying they did it simply because it seemed a fun thing to do. Everyone might be doomed, swirling away into the pit, but there are lives to live and people here to live them. Finding a calm place between denial of the inevitable and obsession with it seems to be key - in Driftwood as in our own world(s).

A relatively short book, it's best read in one go, letting the story engulf you and carry you along.

For more information see the publisher's website here.

6 September 2020

#Blogtour #Giveaway - A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone

A Song of Isolation
Michael J Malone
Orenda Books, 17 September 2020
Available as: PB, 328pp, e, audio (soon)
ISBN: 9781913193362

Today I'm delighted to be joining the blog tour for A Song of Isolation, the new novel from Michael J Malone (author of A Suitable Lie, House of Spines, and more). This time it's a giveaway - for a chance to read an e-copy of A Song of Isolation, just Tweet a link to this post (and @ me in so I know!) and I'll pick one person at random in a couple of days...

About the book

Film star Amelie Hart is the darling of the silver screen, appearing on the front pages of every newspaper. But at the peak of her fame she throws it all away for a regular guy with an ordinary job. The gossip columns are aghast: what happened to the woman who turned heads wherever she went?

Any hope the furore will die down are crushed when Amelie’s boyfriend Dave is arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. Dave strongly asserts his innocence, and when Amelie refuses to denounce him, the press furore quickly turns into physical violence, and she has to flee the country.
While Dave is locked up with the most depraved men in the country and Amelie is hiding on the continent, Damaris, the victim at the centre of the story, is also isolated – a child trying to make sense of an adult world...

Breathtakingly brutal, dark and immensely moving, A Song of Isolation looks beneath the magpie glimmer of celebrity to uncover a sinister world dominated by greed and lies, and the unfathomable destruction of innocent lives... in an instant.

About the author

Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number-one bestseller, and the critically acclaimed House of Spines, After He Died and In the Absence of Miracles soon followed suit. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller. Michael lives in Ayr.

A taste of what's inside...

Just give a taste of the story: this is certainly a dark story. It's inward looking, focussed on its participants - definitely not a police procedural, as you might expect from Amelie's boyfriend being taken away by police at the start of the novel. By then we've already see something of the darkness and obsession that follows film start Amelie, but we'll be introduced as well to Dave's background and to his emotionally buttoned up accountant father - as well, of course, as to Damaris.

What's about to happen is like a stone thrown into a pond. You see the ripples spread out, and the repercussions for this involved, how they deal with it. But run the film back - start with the ripples - and you get an image of the event that caused it all. Carry on backwards and and you'll see what went before...

If that's intrigued you - share the post, you may get lucky and get an e-copy to find out more from...

You can preorder A Song of Isolation from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon. Or see the Orenda website here.






4 September 2020

Review - The Vinyl Detective: Low Action by Andrew Cartmel

Low Action (The Vinyl Detective, 5)
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 4 August 2020
Available as: PB
Source: PB, bought from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9781785659003

The band is back together again...

I'm a fan of Cartmel's Vinyl Detective series, so am pleased to report that this latest instalment is fully up to standard. The eponymous hero - we never learn his name - his girlfriend Nevada, embarrassing friend Tinkler, not to forget Agatha "Clean Head", are back and will potter round London and environs searching for rare records and solving crime in the process.

This time though, the crime comes upfront rather than as an adjunct to a record hunt - someone's trying to murder Helene "Howlin’ Hellbitch" Hilditch, guitarist from 80s all-female punk band The Blue Tits. The Vinyl Detective isn't too keen to get involved with murder again, but he's tempted by a side quest to find a copy of the Tits' rarer than rare debut album for a very generous fee - Eric Make Cloud is backing Helene - and off we go.

The search for murderer and record involves locating the surviving members of the group, their friends, and ex-colleagues (together with the band's roadie and Fanzine Frank, who's made a life's work of collecting everything to do with them). There's even an intriguing brush with a character I recognised from another series of books entirely. They're hoping to find who might have a reason to murder Helene - but it turns out easier to find someone who doesn't. In pursuit of the would-be killer, there's much rummaging in charity ships for records (the Detective) and once-cherished designer clothes (Nevada), eating out in pubs and tearooms, and exploring of the more interesting London suburbs.

...and close brushes with death. Because someone really, really wants a kill...

Compared to some of the previous books in the series, there's perhaps less emphasis on investigating and redressing a historical injustice - the mystery here is very much in the present - and it's clear that in focussing on the punk era,  the detective is well away from his favoured period and genre, but still, the task of tracing a disc - running down ex TV hosts, recording studio managers, and whoever else may have a whiff of the desired vinyl - is much the same. Cartmel has a gift for bringing you into his characters' world and making you want to stay there which simply makes this a joy to read. And we find out a bit more about Nevada's life and career.

It isn't gritty realism, by any means, but it's an assured, highly readable and fun story that builds on Cartmel's well-realised characters (even giving a positive, albeit small, role to Stinky Stanmer). These books paint a London you suspect isn't really there but you really, really wish was.

I hope this series will run and run.

For more information about Low Action, see the Titan website here.


3 September 2020

Review - Afterland by Lauren Beukes

Afterland
Lauren Beukes
Michael Joseph, 3 September 2020
Available as: HB, 464pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780718182809

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

It's been too long since Lauren Beukes had a new book out so I was really looking forward to reading Afterland - and it didn't disappoint.

What I hadn't realised was how much the experience of reading which would be influenced by the covid-19 pandemic.

Afterland is, inescapably, a post-pandemic book - its world has been shaped by one - and, inescapably, a pre-pandemic book, written Before Covid. An author wouldn't, now, I think be able to write, 'You can't imagine how much the world can change in just six months. You just can't'.

Kudos to Beukes though for making this point in the before and for nailing so much else from the panic buying ('A notice at the cash register with a sad-face emoji reads, "Sorry! Hand sanitiser sold out!"') to imagining a disease with an impact that isn't only immediate - her fictional virus is flu-like and doesn't cause mass deaths - but which has longer term, devastating effects. In this case they're worse than the "long covid" we're beginning to hear about, rather the 'Human Culgoa Virus' has a nasty payload of aggressive, untreatable prostate cancer which means that within a few years, the male population has been practically wiped out with only a few men and boys left.

Miles is one such boy, and this story is about how he, his mother Cole, and his Aunt Billie fare in a desperate, hand-to-mouth road trip across the US, seeking safety from the Government, from gangsters, terrorists and religious extremists. Stranded in the US by the onset of the HCV wave, all Cole wants to do is to get her boy home to South Africa. But healthy males - males who've survived infection - are a sought after commodity and both of them are soon taken into custody, allegedly for Miles's protection, apparently for research. No contact with lawyers is allowed and Cole is threatened with prosecution for allegedly trying to 'traffic' her own son out of the country. But they're kept in comfort, at least while others starve amidst the economic wreckage caused by the virus.

The story follows Miles (sometimes Mila, once he and his mum take flight), Cole, and Billie through their journey, with excursions into the past and - in Cole's case - interruptions, in her head, from her dead husband, Devon. It's dominated by two relationships - those between Billie and Cole, and between Miles and Cole.

Cole is haunted by guilt. Guilt that, improbably, her son survived while so many others didn't. Guilt about Billie, who was hurt in the escape and who she fears may be dead. Billie seems to be driven by fear and resentment. Beukes shows us correspondingly different - often amusingly different - views of Cole's and Billie's past as the two women recall their childhood in South Africa. It's a vivid depiction, showing how the events of the novel are driven by that shared and disputed history, and in particular how Cole's judgement and even her basic present-ness in her own life are sapped by that paralysing, haunting guilt. She and Miles can ill-afford that: they are on the run, hunted, with few resources and no friends.

Cole and Miles are depicted in just as much complexity. Yes, at one level they are mother and son (sometimes, daughter) coping with the loss of Devon to HCV and the hostile environment into which they've fallen.  At another, Miles is on the cusp of adolescence and just as that comes, he's forced to disguise himself, to deny who he is, to wrestle not only with childhood monsters - the figure of Cancer Fingers who he imagines hiding under the bed - but with adult fear and guilt: he carefully doesn't ask about Billie, for example, even as he blames himself at first for the trouble his mother's in (she's only doing it to protect him) then swings to blaming her for upsetting his own plans ('She ruins everything. Everything.') This relationship is under pressure and the fault line runs through that traditional area, what Mum thinks is best for their kid and what said kid comes to want. Again, impressive to see such a basic, human reality maintained alongside the grand chaos and dislocation caused by the virus.

Starting, as this book does, very much in the middle of events, it took me a little while to understand the magnitude of the danger Miles is in, entwined as that is with the consequences of the pandemic. A live male is both a target - there are terrorists who want to finish 'what God started' - and a tempting asset, to be seized and literally, as Billie puts it, 'milked' (in the aftermath of HCV, worldwide 'reprohibition' bars any and all reproduction, not only to prevent the birth of males who will die a horrible death but from a fear that it may somehow permit an even worse mutation of the virus, one that will destroy humanity completely). That understanding came as Beukes gradually unpacked the wider context of what was going on post-HCV, especially through a group of wandering nuns preaching repentance by women. Only sufficient repentance, contrition and abasement by woman (who, they believe, are to blame for the catastrophe) will move God to put things right.

It's a rather brilliant and telling point that even in the almost total absence of men, this near-future, post-apocalyptic society still manages to centre them, with the surviving women apparently subordinate. This despite the fact that civilisation carries on, all the work is being done, society functioning perfectly well even if the long-term prospects might be limited. I do, sadly, find it convincing that this would the case.

It's all vividly, convincingly shown. The writing is sharp ('Aluta continua. But they're not going to be able to continua much longer without cash money...', 'the stars are so cold and bright like God's LEDs') and at the centre, as I have said, are those relationships, especially between mother and son. Despite the desperate situation they're in, growing-up doesn't stop, mourning a father you've seen die in agony doesn't stop, biology doesn't stop, and that relationship is active, developing, going all sorts of ways with secrets being kept, at times dangerous secrets and decisions taken, at times the wrong decisions. There will be moments when you read this book and want to scream and somebody "No! Don't do that!"

There will be other times when you smile at the interaction between Cole and Miles, especially when they go into a kind of geeky shorthand, experiencing the world through films, comics and genre references ('She's so unprepared for all this. Miles needs a Ripley, a Furiosa, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2...', 'The kanji attack, and we have to work together to pilot the robot mechanics suits to defeat them?') It's a powerfully drawn, true relationship, a living relationship, often on the brink of going wrong and Beukes gives it pitch-perfectly. In the end I felt that the apocalyptic setting and the dreadful things we see and hear about were, properly, just background to this important story. Which of course only makes the stakes higher when things begin to go wrong.

Basically, I loved this book, and I think you will, too.

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