31 October 2020

#Blotour #Review - Betrayal by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Lilja Sigurðardóttir (trans by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 15 October 2020
Available as: PB, 276, e, audio
Source: PB ARC 
ISBN: 9781913193409

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of Betrayal to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the tour.

I'm so glad to be joining the Betrayal blogtour. With Jane Hunt Writer, I may be covering the very last day of the tour, but I'm not clearing away glasses and tidying up the crumbs, this party is still in full swing! 

In Betrayal, Lilja Sigurðardóttir gives us a close study of former aid worker Úrsúla, newly returned to Iceland after traumatic postings to Liberia during the Ebola epidemic and then to Syria. Úrsúla is clearly suffering from trauma (she has some harrowing flashbacks) but also feels rudderless and out of touch. She jumps at the opportunity to take on a Government role as Minister for the Interior, with all the challenges that will entail. Husband Norri isn't quite so sure - but there's a coolness between them and she doesn't let that stop her.

While Sigurðardóttir doesn't explicitly make the point, it's clear this is the same Iceland as described in the Reykjavík Noir trilogy, since certain events and characters from Cage are referred to. The detail is less relevant than the political upheavals posited in the earlier books, leaving a situation where an outsider might credibly be brought in to a fractious coalition. 

Again, like the earlier books, there is a crime in the story, but the focus isn't on solving that crime but rather on the cleavages and dilemmas that its existence poses. The little group of characters among whom the consequences play out are varied in background and motives: Úrsúla herself, her uptight Permanent Secretary Óðinn (he greets her by asking after her health, he doesn't want another Minister who gets ill),  TV presenter Greta who's on a quest for true love, Stella the cleaner, dosser Pétur and Úrsúla's bodyguard/ driver Gunnar. (Sigurðardóttir has fun with Gunnar's obsession with fitness and self-control - I felt quite story for him).

The themes of the novel are also wide: bureaucratic inertia, in particular the failure to investigate a complaint of rape, politics and avoiding unpopular decisions, personal tragedy (Úrsúla's father died in a police cell), social media stalking. Reykjavík's seamier nightlife gets a look-in, as Greta and Stella meet at one of the wild parties thrown by 'the Annas' and - from the UK perspective - there's a fascinating vision of Icelandic society as open, with people from all walks mingling in ways that would just feel unreal here (in particular, of course, a non-MP, non-Party ember brought in as a Minister).  Not that it's a paradise, though - Sigurðardóttir remarks somewhere on the conferral of status through one's car and how only the poor ride on buses, and there's a nasty vein of misogyny directed at Úrsúla and at other women here.

Above all the book is, though, as I've said, a character study. Úrsúla is powerfully and convincingly portrayed, her traumas playing a large part in how she behaves and what she does. It's a numbness she suffers, dulling the senses and the emotions and pushing her to experiment to regain some feeling. Not perhaps the ideal frame of mind to be taking politically sensitive decisions (or dealing with some of the egos that Úrsúla encounters in her Department - including men who seem to take it as a personal insult that a woman is in charge of them). And that's even before she begins getting threatening notes and online hate messages...

Overall, Sigurðardóttir plots a clever, involving story that not only has plenty of twists but keeps the reader guessing as to what (and who) exactly is behind it all. While Úrsúla may be the main focus, the ensemble of characters really brings the book alive and I hope we might meet some of them again in future books - Stella, for example, is fascinating.

As ever, Quentin Bates's translation is clear and lucid, without "Englishing" the language and settings - these are clearly Icelanders in Iceland. And it's all very well observed - I have been one of those unfortunate tourists who arrived in Iceland in the depths of winter and didn't get to see the Northern Lights for the mists and fog!

I would strongly recommend, and if you haven't read Reykjavík Noir yet, this relatively standalone book may just way to sample Sigurðardóttir's writing and get yourself hooked...

For more information about the book, see the Orenda Books website here. Or see the other stops on the blogtour (poster below). You can buy the book from your local high street shop, or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smiths, Waterstones or Amazon (not affiliate links).

29 October 2020

#BlogTour #Review - The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow

The Once and Future Witches
Alix E Harrow
Orbit, 13 October 2020
Available as: HB, 513pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9780356512488

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for an advance copy of The Once and Future Witches to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

The idea of witches continues to fascinate in the 21st century. It's a part of culture we all imbibe in waves.  As children there's the raddled Hallowe'en crone with her cauldron, going all the way back to the Scottish Play, sinister figures from fairy tales and L Frank Baum's Oz witches. Then there's the historical corrective that we all (hopefully) acquire later, knowledge of the actual persecutions visited on supposed witches for hundreds of years. Finally, there are revivals and claimed continuities, overlaps with modern Paganism. It all gives a rich field for the fantasy author, and Alix E Harrow has made full use of that latitude to create a kind of unified mythology: her 19th century, USA set story tales place in a world where witches had been real, once a part of everyday life and therefore, neither malevolent magicians nor (wholly) innocent victims, rather simply people, good and bad, using natural powers.

But all that changed with the persecutions and by the time we arrive in New Salem, witches are banished, proscribed, remembered only in children's stories and nursery rhymes. They still serve a purpose, though, for the men who rule this world - a dreadful warning of the powers of women, of the need to keep them under control (shackled and bridled if need be, and always dwelling in the shadow of the stake).

Such is the situation facing the three Eastwood sisters, Juniper, Agnes and Bella at the beginning of the book. Brought up by their widowed and despotic father, the sisters have had plenty of experience of male power and abuse (we are never told exactly what he did to them in that cellar but enough is said for a shrewd guess) but rather than building solidarity between them it has broken the family and they are now scattered - Juniper a wandering fugitive, Agnes toiling in a dark Satanic mill and Bella, after being subject to the regime of what sounds like a dreadful reformatory, a librarian.

So when the sisters meet, apparently by chance, in the city of New Salem, it's not exactly a happy reunion. While it's painful to read at times, Harrow's portrayal of the sisters and their past and present relationships is powerful and convincing. There's a mixture of guilt, blame and fear between the three resulting from their desperate attempts to protect themselves from their father and from the circumstances in which Agnes and Bella, the older sisters, left Juniper behind.

Those breaches can't be wiped away in a happy-ever-after and overcoming them, building trust and looking to the future isn't easy which is unfortunate not only on a personal level but because - as the scraps of story and rhyme included here emphasise - there always need to be three witches, and unless the young women  can unite, they will be vulnerable to a threat far more serious than popular prejudice and the odd Inquisitor.

Harrow's writing here is sensitive and realistic. Each of the three has her own problems, and sees her own solutions - where that's Bella's research among the stacks to discover the lost power of witchcraft, Juniper's enthusiastic, if slightly sung-ho, embrace of Suffragism, or Agnes's aim of lying low while using her few remembered spells for the betterment of those around her. Together, their different experiences give a powerful overview of the persecution and domination of women, reaching beyond fantasy to the struggles for equal rights for women, people of colour and working people in the late 19th century. Because of course the forces that would oppress and destroy witches are the same forces that find a racial divide useful and oppress those workers in factories and mills and on the railroads.

This interweaving of the magical and the mundane is deftly done (there's a down to earth vein of romance here, as when one character remarks to herself that 'she doesn't think that any man has ever brought her hot pies') and brings in a wider cast of characters who open the eyes of the sisters to these wider issues. There is Miss Cleopatra P Quinn, journalist and stalwart of the Colored Women's League. There is Mr August Lee, labour organiser and dabbler in magic. And there will be more, a diversity of women and men with their own secrets and vulnerabilities. And all will be guided by those half-remembered scraps of lore and learning preserved by the Sisters Grimm, by Charlotte Perrault, Andrea Lang and the other classic collectors of stories who you will doubtless have heard of, and in the rhymes and chants that Harrow include at the start of each chapter and which may sound both familiar and unfamiliar.

It's an absorbing, bewitching tale and one that - after The Ten thousand Doors of January - confirm's Harrow's place at the heart of modern fantasy.

For more information about The Once and Future Witches, see the Orbit website here - and don't forget the other stops on the tour which are detailed in the poster below.

You can buy The Once and Future Witches from your local bookshop, who will be grateful for your support, or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

28 October 2020

Review - Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross

Dead Lies Dreaming (A Novel of the Laundry Files)
Charles Stross
Orbit, 29 October 2020
Available as: HB, 384pp, audio, e
Source: advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780356513799

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

After a couple of years' hiatus it's great to see a novel by Charles Stross hitting the streets again - in this case the streets of up-market Kensington in London, home to hedge funds, shady oligarchs' property investments and minor royalty...

...And also to a gang of anarchic robbers with minor superpowers who are staging audacious daylight robberies in order to raise funds for their avant-garde film based on J M Barrie's Peter Pan (in which 'Peter was nothing is not pansexual' - we're not in Disneyland any more).

The book is set is the world of the Laundry Files, Stross's long running series about the occult division of the British Secret Service and its confrontation with nameless, tentacled horrors from beyond the walls of our universe. It's not, though, a "Laundry Files" novel - you won't find Bob Howard here and while the Laundry itself is alluded to a couple of times, it doesn't feature in the events. 

Rather we have the same background, of impending apocalypse, staved off only by the New Management, the ancient horror that has assumed power in Downing Street and which displays the heads of speeding motorists along the M25 - but everything seen much more from an outsider's perspective. The cruelties of the regime are that much starker, when distanced from the high politics that brought them about: 'Imp froze as he rounded the corner onto Regent Street, and saw four elven warriors shackling a Santa to a stainless-steel cross outside Hamleys Toy Shop... When the alfär executioner held his heavy-duty electric screwdriver against Santa's wrist, the screams were audible over the tumble of passing buses.'

Yes, the New Management is all for Law and Order, which makes Imp and his gang's activities distinctly perilous.

Like many of the earlier Laundry novels, this story has a (loose) inspiration in an earlier book, in this case, yes, you won't be surprised it's JM Barrie's novel about Peter and Wendy. (Appropriate, given the associations between Peter and Kensington). So the gang - Imp, Doc, Del, Game Boy - are referred to as the 'Lost Boys' (though strictly one's a girl), we find a dangerous Neverland buried deep behind one of those respectable mansions, there is a Wendy (a character who's perhaps a bit under-used: I hope we'll meet her again) and there are clear thematic links - though as I said above, these aren't to the sanitised, Disneyesque version. The Lost Boys are hunted by the law, hiding out in a den where they enthusiastically share drugs, and once their enemies catch up with them, we're not talking fancy swordplay and taunts - the book features serious weaponry, a massive death toll and some very, very nasty villains.

Oh, and a background of child sacrifice, torture and gangsters.

I did feel that the Boys' separate personas took a little time to become clear. In part I think that's because they're introduce in the middle of a caper, deploying their superpowers right and left in fast moving action. In part it's because there are layers to them and aspects of their identities that aren't, even shouldn't be, obvious - just bear with things a bit here, OK?

Chief among the Boys' opponents are billionaire businessman Rupert Bigge (head of the Big Organisation) and his henchwoman Evelyn Starkey - an ultraefficient PA/ assassin ('work was a game she played in boss mode') who spends her free minutes planning new ways to torture those who have crossed Rupert, and to dispose of their remains. (When she's not doing that, the real boss is prone to call her from wherever and demand phone sex). There are also Russian mafia assassins, a James Bond-for-hire and an ancestral curse.

The book features Stross's characteristic hectic multiple plots and hidden motivations (though here, perhaps a bit more linear than in previous books) and occult-technothriller atmosphere. But it also has a genuinely sad family history in the mix, featuring a lost sibling (there we go again with the Peter Pan stuff!), a broken family and aforementioned curse. I don't want to spoil the story but I found that one of the characters who I strongly disliked at first turned out to be very sympathetic and - by the end - perhaps even redeemed. (Perhaps. We'll see, if they recur in a later book). It also has - again , that outsider's view - a grim appreciation of the realities of poverty in 2020s London. I know that in Laundry books, Bob has grumbled about Civil Service wages, but he had a reasonable house provided. Here we find Wendy, for example, very hard up, having to juggle between eating and having the heating on ('Poverty was expensive') and encounter the outskirts of the UK's failing adult care system with a frank appraisal of a home ('Eve did not - could not - believe in a loving God because she visited Hell every second Sunday of the month to take tea with the damned'), and magic-addled victims of K-syndrome wandering the streets. (Yes, Mr Stross, I want to know more about Professor Skullface as well!) 

In reading Dead Lies Dreaming I think I benefited from having first read the Laundry Files proper. I knew the world and the setup, and the full significance of certain things that are explained here but only briefly (as well, of course, as knowing where the arc of this world is bending...) Perhaps a reader coming to this world fresh wouldn't feel they were missing out on anything but they might wonder about the emphasis on one or two things.

In short, I enjoyed this book. There is some sharp writing here, quite a few places where I giggled out loud, well imagined characters (though, as I've said, some could have had more exposure) and a pacy plot. It was also good to be back in the horrific, grotesque world of the Laundry with its barely contained paranoia, its horror ruling from Downing Street, its sense of impending doom and of a dissolving society (heightened here by rampaging gangster capitalism). The slightly cooler, street-level view of that world gives a more rounded picture, perhaps than the shenanigans of Bob & Co and reveals it to be a world curiously unlike our own (see for example Imp's frustration at Del's 'perpetually seething low-key state of rage [which] was a potential lethal weakness'). 

Stross is back with a book that shows how this saga, begun in The Atrocity Archives some fifteen years ago, continues to evolve, becoming, if anything, more and more relevant.

For more information about Dead Lies Dreaming, see the publisher's website here or Stross's blog here.

26 October 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Greyfriars Reformatory by Frazer Lee

Greyfriars Reformatory
Frazer Lee
Flame Tree Press, October 2020
Available as: HB, 231pp, PB, e
Source: Advance review copy
ISBN: 9781787584754

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Greyfriars Reformatory to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me too take part in the blogtour.

'You will learn...'

Six young women, in handcuffs and leg irons, on a prisoner transport bus, heading for the isolated Greyfriars Reformatory

Our (self-confessedly unreliable) narrator, Emily, admits it's not her first time there, but she doesn't 't recall the specifics. She has acute dissociative disorder and tells us she's been institutionalised all her adult life (but then, she is only 19).

The others - Saffy, Jessica, Lena, Annie, Victoria - well, we will learn what they did, but we don't know it yet and it's not wise to ask.

For now, here they are, in a bleak, remote institution.  Locks are scarcely necessary, there's nowhere to run to and the climate isn't kind. The only member of staff appears to be Principal Quick, who quickly imposes her will on the girls, demanding obedience, inflicting punishments, doling out the pitiful meals, organising exercise classes. The whole setup is shifty somehow, odd, troubling. 

Especially troubling is the situation Emily finds herself in when mean girl Saffy proclaims she's the real authority at Greyfriars, the real Principal. If Emily's useful, she'll be OK. If not, she'll suffer (even more than she already is doing). So a watchful, tense period commences, a period where every verbal exchange, every little snub, is directed at establishing or challenging status. Lee depicts the nuances of the relationships, the changing alliances, spiteful outbursts and secrets, convincingly and this part of the book is strung as tight as a bow: one expects catastrophe at any moment. The story mainly follows Emily, as I have said, so she's the reader's most immediate concern but Lee also gives us chapters from the viewpoints of the other girls, revealing the sadness of their lives, their desperation, guilt and self-delusion. 

I found myself sympathising with them all, often the apparently most vicious. One could see, in the little stories, how things were going to go. It's hard to see even those who have done awful things as the truly guilty ones. Misogyny, abuse and exploitation abound. These young women shouldn't be in a place like Greyfriars, an experimental institution whose methods seem flaky - to be polite - and one where other dangers lurk, beyond the pack hierarchy, the cold, and the appalling food. 

As those dangers do emerge - with plenty of glimpses and warnings that all is not well, this is a horror novel! - the girls have to decide whether to trust one another or to continue to try and use one another. Ill-fitted by their histories to trust, it doesn't look hopeful for them at all, unless somebody can work out what the secret of Greyfriars is.

I loved this book - it has lashings of bleak Gothic horror, strongly drawn characters and a claustrophobic atmosphere, but the story is grounded in acts of injustice and betrayal which see disturbingly realistic and which have a terrible impact on all here. It's the kind of book that, once started, you have to finish and one with a keen  tang of modern horror. Perfect for these darkening evenings.

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

To buy the book, try your local bookshop, or if you want to go online, Hive Books, who support local bookshops. It's also available from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

The tour goes on! See the poster below for some splendid bloggers who will be giving Greyfriars some attention in the coming days.

25 October 2020

#Blogtour #Review - After Sundown edited by Mark Morris

After Sundown
ed by Mark Morris
Flame Tree Press, October 2020
Available as: HB, 256pp, PB, audio, e
Source: advance review copy
ISBN: 9781787584570

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of After Sundown to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

I love a good collection of horror stories. There's something about the short form that, to me, makes it the ideal vehicle for horror: while there are many excellent full length horror novels, there are also many that - due to their length - can't sustain the necessary tension, or are vulnerable to the irritated reader's call for the characters to do the sensible thing, whatever that is. In shorter stories, we can be carried away, lost to the dreadful thing, whatever it is, before there's time for such alarms and second thoughts.

This is a good collection of horror stories. It has some authors I recognised and know to be renowned writers of such fiction, others I was less familiar with. There is a broad range of themes: creepy children, environmental horror, human irrationality or evil, folk horror, the classic Jamesian trope of a man of letters who is haunted by an object, stories of revenge from beyond the grave, strange abandoned (and spooky) settings, the plan weird - and more. Together the stories chill, and if there are authors here you haven't read before (it would be hard to have read them all) it's an excellent jumping off point to their various bodies of work.

Inevitably, I enjoyed some stories more than others: my favourite was perhaps Same Time Next Year by Angela Slatter which opens with Cindy sitting on a tomb in a country cemetery just after sunset. She can't remember quite how she got there, or where she belongs, but there is a suggestion of violence, of trauma, in what she does recall. Even that name isn't hers - it was given to her by a boy who treated her badly. If she stays where she is, something bad is going to happen, for sure. We hope she'll be alright. I found this a perfect gem of a story, comprising equally a mystery, rising tension about what was going to happen next, and empathy for the sad central character.

I also really enjoyed Swanskin by Alison Littlewood, a chilling take set in a remote coastal town, where the boozy, rollicking behaviour of the town's men turns out to have a direct link to their abuse of nature and of their womenfolk. But nature can have a way of redressing the balance. Set at some indeterminate time which could be anywhere in the past two hundred years, this one has the feeling of a classic.

Bokeh by Thana Niveau also really impressed. "Bokeh" is a Jananese word, used to describe the out of focus parts of an image - the smeared background, or dancing globes of light. In this story, Vera begins to experience it in real life. Perhaps she needs glasses? But what does that have to do with daughter Keeley's bloodthirsty fantasies about her toys? 

The remaining stories are, though, all very strong and variety means that everyone will find something to appreciate (unless you don't like horror in which case, well no, this might not be for you). 

Horror is, perhaps, though, relative. In Butterfly Island by CJ Tudor, we meet a group of protagonists who have already experienced a collapsing world due to disease, natural disaster and war. Still, the modern world provides them with enough support to live a debauched existence in and around a beach bar. You have thought they would hang on to what they had rather than run the risk of a boat trip to a deserted island... a good story to open the collection with, Butterfly Island shows that things can always, improbably, get worse.

What's the worst thing you can do to an author? In Research, Tim Lebbon seems to be saying it's to interrupt them when about to finish a novel. In fact his neighbours Sue and Alan have darker plans. This one is classic horror, showing the darkness that can lie behind suburban windows.

In contrast, That's the Spirit by Sarah Lotz is an almost comic tale of fraudulent psychics scratching a living from the gullible bereaved, Underneath the humour there's a grim theme - how far to go, what lines to cross, who to dupe? What does that do to you and what might the consequences be? Deceptively charming, this one has a real chill in its tail.

Horror can take many forms, from supernatural to natural disaster to smaller, more intimate tales of destruction and terror. Gave by Michael Bailey blends the latter two, being set in a future world where the population is, inexplicably, falling (having peaked at 17 billion or so). The impact of the deaths is counterpointed with one elderly man's desperation to donate blood, almost as though he's trying to push back the time of dying even as he like everyone watches the falling population numbers in real time. There's something weird about the focus on blood, blood groups, on lost kids and lost lives. Like the best horror this doesn't try to explain what is going on and leaves one to speculate.

Ramsey Campbell is of course one of the masters of the genre. In his Wherever You Look, we see another author suffer a dreadful fate. If, as in Research, interrupting the writing process must be one nightmare for an author, here is another - finding something in your stories that you don't remember putting there. Is Maurice Lavater being accused of plagiarism at the start of this tale? Or... something worse? I found the passage where he hunted through his writings, finding things he never recalled but which grew to make a ghastly kind of meta logic, truly chilling.

Elana Gomel's Mine Seven is another story with an environmental focus, taking us to the icy (if melting) wastes of Svalbard. Lena has, in a sense, come home to the land of her ancestors - although she's less enthusiastic than her partner Bill and would really prefer to sit in the library of the winter lodge and read than hare about the countryside dodging Polar bears and viewing the Northern Lights. Pity Bill didn't take her advice...

It Doesn't Feel Right by Michael Marshall Smith is a fraught story about a young couple having behavioural problems with their sometimes truculent, sometimes loving, five year-old son. Having been there myself (and yes, they grew up reasonably well adjusted) my stress levels rose quickly through this story, anticipating all the things that might go wrong - but I didn't guess the truly horrific twist that was coming.

Laura Purcell's Creeping Ivy is a very traditional form of ghost (or monster?) story, with the variation that we are I think cheering on the ghost/ monster. The end is not really a surprise but rather something to anticipate with relish. Purcell's writing is, as ever, spot on, creating a whole world in a few pages.

Last Rites For The Fourth World by Rick Cross returns to the environmental theme in what is a strange story, ranging across a number of locations where we see... well, strange things. Strange dead things. The horror is less a personal trial, a spooky location or ancient evil but a situational nightmare, a crisis we are all embroiled in but can't alter. A thing you can't run from or keep at bay with wards or garlic.  

In We All Come Home by Simon Bestwick, Robert Lennox returns to Wardley New Hall - the site of a mysterious trauma in his childhood whose memory her has suppressed - in an attempt to find healing and to move on. But is it ever wise to go bavck?

The Importance of Oral Hygiene by Robert Shearman will really hit a nerve if you're a fear of dentists... a creepy Victorian-set story with themes of abuse - don't read just before your next appointment!

I've enjoyed Grady Hendrix's horror novels but hadn't read any of his short stories. Murder Board is a chilling piece about Caroline and her ageing rockstar husband David's dabbling with a Ouija board is simply perfect, tapping into the idea of a Faustian bargain: we know things will go wrong - this is a horror story - but Hendrix manages to keep the reader guessing almost till the end as to just what.

I'm glad it's not just me who thinks the whimsicality of Lewis Carroll's Alice only a hair's breadth away from truly unsettling horror. I'vc seen whole anthologies dedicated to that idea, but it remains something I'm deeply fascinated by and Alice's Rebellion by John Langana scratched that itch. Langana's story recognises that a ruler who calls for their opponent's head to be offed is really not a Nice Person and imagines a familiar figure in that role... who are the monstrous Tweedledum and Tweedledee of today?

The Mirror House by Jonathan Robbins Leon sees English literature professor Stephanie give up her independence and her career for her husband Edgar - but she's about to be disillusioned by him - and by the fancy house he bought, which seems to have its own secrets.

The Naughty Step by Stephen Volk is another story focussed on a child. It's also an insight into the stressful life of social worker Linda, called out when a young boy, Jared, is found in the house where his mother was murdered. He won't move from the "naughty step" on the stairs where his mum told him to go b efeore her death. So Linda prepares to spend the night...

A Hotel In Germany by Catriona Ward is a very different sort of story from most of the others here. Cara, whose brother and daughter are dead, seems to be a dogsbody for a woman described only as 'the movie star' who is on location in Germany. Selfish, demanding and petulant, the 'star' summons Cara at all hours of the night and we wonder why she doesn't just quit. The revelation of just how far Cara is required to go comes alongside an understanding of why, giving. real sense of horror (if if we never quite understand the connection between the two women). 

Finally, I enjoy Paul Finch's gritty ghost stories set around abandoned mills, derelict yards and canals. Branch Line, the last story in this book, didn't disappoint, setting us up for a story which seeming to feature two innocent young boys getting into trouble (for a certain value of "innocent": much of the motivation at the start is a cache of prime dirty mags, this is set in the 70s) but which manages to pivot to something much darker and to a rather nasty twist...

Overall, this is a strong collection which will have you looking uneasily at midnight shadows, bolting your doors and avoiding lonely, derelict places after dark. Unless, of course, you're actually a monster already...

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.  You can buy After Sundown from all the usual places: your local bookshop (they need your business, now more than ever!) or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

And don't forget - my fellow blog tourers (see poster below) are, like me, all connoisseurs of the twisted, the uncanny - do join them to share their perverse pleasure in the chills and terror to be found After Sundown!

22 October 2020

Review - The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Design by Lauren Panepinto
The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 8 October 2010
Available as: HB, 563pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9780356508832

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Ministry for the Future.

There are two things I should make clear about The Ministry for the Future. First, it is a beautiful book, filled with hope and tragedy, and I loved it. 

Secondly, I think some readers will hate it. 

I'll try to explain why.

The Ministry for the Future is a sort of biography of the Earth over the next fifty years or so. Beginning with a cataclysmic heatwave in India in the 2020s - an event in which millions die -  it considers how humanity as a whole might tame its carbon habit. The means chosen in the first place is the creation of an organisation to speak up for the interests of future generations, of animals and plants.  Of course, once established, this organisation runs a risk of being a sop to the planet. It has to be better than that. It must influence, advocate, persuade, even twist arms. The Ministry faces the same problems as exist at the present - vested interests, the superrich, cognitive biases, apathy, fear of change and much of the book is focussed on diagnosing and addressing these.

Based in Zurich, this organisation attracts a talented group of lawyers, scientists, engineers, development workers and others who set about tackling the problem. The Ministry is personified in its head, Mary Murphy, a former Irish Minister for Foreign affairs. Murphy, though one of the most developed characters in the book, is only seen in glimpses - persuading at gatherings of central bankers or world leaders, living her (rather pleasant) life in Zurich, occasionally in meetings at the Ministry or elsewhere. In the final few chapters she does I think approach being a rounded character but for much of the book she's essentially a device to convey a viewpoint, a determination to see the work through, whatever it takes. (Early on, Murphy calls for a "black ops" wing of her organisation to apply pressure in deniable, if not frankly illegal, ways. We see some actions which possibly arise from that - though with this book it's always hard to tell, and there are many actors own this stage).

The other character we spend most time with is Frank May, a development worker caught up in that early heat wave and whose life is shattered afterwards. He becomes a drifter, living rough around Zurich and crossing paths with Murphy. Eventually they becomes friends, of a sort: perhaps he is her conscience. Frank is, though, for the most part rather one dimensional, essentially an embodiment of trauma and perhaps guilt.

There are others who we meet briefly, and sometimes return to. Most are there simply to narrate particular events or illustrate the scale of what's going on. So, there are geological engineers trying to prevent the glaciers from sloughing into the ocean. There are refugees narrating their journeys and eventual stalling in camps. There are privileged movers and shakers, for example at Davos. Protesters on the streets of Paris. And many, many more. Often these people are anonymous. More rarely we get names, and the story revisits some a number of times. Very occasionally they cross paths, and we'll suddenly realise who someone is, seen from a different perspective. I felt most of these characters were good representations of points of view or of happenings, but often little more. In some places, there are attempts, I think, to humanise them - for example by giving one person a tragic accidental death - but the sheer scale of the book and the number of voices involves militates against this, and given the scale of tragedy in the opening section, it's also curiously hard to care about such isolated events. In a different vein, there are even a few short chapters narrated by abstractions such the market, history, a photon, a carbon atom, or the Sun. 

Many sections of the book, though, while they may be loosely presented as analysis or reports by characters, are really articles or essays. The word "we" does a lot of hard work, introducing factual sections of the book as the experiences and offerings of particular populations or groups. There is an entire chapter, towards the end, which is a list, introducing the contributions and projects of a host of nations, alphabetically, to the problems of climate change and societal transformation. Hopeful and inspiring though it may be that these initiatives and approaches exist (and I believe they are all real) I would defy even the most completist of readers to actually, you know, read that chapter word for word.

Which has brought me to the reason some readers will, I think, not get on at all with The Ministry for the Future. It is very much its own type of novel: the author has thrown overboard most expressions of plot, character development or insight and indeed, largely of writing conventional fiction here. It is, in that respect, worlds away from New York 2140 which was similarly focussed on climate change but, recognisably, also a novel driven by its characters' lives and choices. 

For my part, I greatly enjoyed this book. I liked the way that Kim Stanley Robinson draws out an argument that addressing climate change will require not simply the spending of money or the passing of laws, but a complete reordering of society and its values ('What's good for the land is good for us'). At one level that makes it all seem even more daunting: at another it's a radical vision that feels achievable, paradoxically, not in spite of, but because of, the size of the task. 

I also enjoyed Mary Murphy's evolving quest, throughout this book, for the strongholds of power - pursuing the leaders, the legislators, the bankers, the economists (dismissed pretty scathingly) who all seem to shuffle off responsibility to others, combining handwriting with adroit passing on of the problem. To a degree, Murphy's approach correspondingly evolves into a kind of administrative ju-jitsu, using the system's flaws themselves for leverage on the problem. Is that feasible in reality? I don't know, any more than I know whether the idea of pumping out the water from the base of a glacier, to prevent it lubricating the ice and to slow down the rate of flow, is feasible. Thy book seems to have some good ideas which sound plausible, but I'm not a banker, I'm not an engineer, I don't know. 

All this may make The Ministry for the Future sound very dry, and indeed it is overwhelmingly factual, until the last 50 pages or so. But that's not so say there isn't excitement, even drama and danger here. A section towards the middle where Murphy is forced to trek through the alps at night (she's no climber) is a tense and beautifully described mini adventure. There are human-scale tragedies here alongside the planetary ones, even if they play a rather minor role in the book.

Above all I think this book does convey a sense of hope - something we certainly need right now. Remember, revolutions are built on hope - and if there's one thing this book does assume and, I think, go a fair way to establishing, it's the radical, the revolutionary, changes that are needed in the coming decades to avert catastrophe. So let's hang on to our hope!

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

20 October 2020

Review - Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories, 12 October 2020
Available as: PB, 342pp, e
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781912658077

Greensmith is a richly imagined, empathetic SFF adventure on the grandest of scales - which also casts a slightly jaundiced eye on one of the most celebrated franchises in the genre.

Penelope Greensmith is working on a project - to catalogue and preserve the entirety of the world's flowers. She's assisted in this by an ingenious device her father (who began the work) left to her. Called the Vice, it has take a flower and compress its essence, its information, into a disc from which images and the plant itself can be recovered. Gradually, the storage racks in Penelope's cellar fill. She is ruthless in her task - even breaking into greenhouses at night to "acquire" specimens - but accepts her work won't be complete in her lifetime.

The background to Penelope's life is vague - there has been a War, in which people have 'fallen prey to an insidious, crawling mass delusion that had been carried by flags and leaflets and radio waves to their doors. Or perhaps they were just bored...' The only impact of the War seems to be that certain events have been erased from collective memory, but even that is uncertain. It would have been nice to know more about this - but the story moves rapidly on, to the day when Penelope's life is turned upside down by a fast talking time-and-space-travelling stranger who persuades her that, RIGHT NOW, to save the universe, she must join him in an improbable quest, must leave behind all she knows - her adult daughter, her cottage - and embark on a quixotic, madcap adventure.

Together they form a team. 'The legendary and mysterious space traveller... And his assistant.' Yes, The Horticulturalist (Hort for short) is famed throughout the universe. Yes, he has access to an apparently infinite storage space/ home, filled with wonders. Yes, lots of running is involved. I think you know exactly what long running SF TV series that echoes (don't you?) It's not though the only allusion here: Whiteley has a but of fun I think - she also refers to 'a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away' and drops other references too ('I am the one wearing the red shirt. I am expendable'). 

Penelope responds as you'd expect - as assistants are always written, eager to experience wonders, but also desperate to do whatever she can to save her daughter Lily, and the Universe, from a mysterious, plant-destroying virus. She plunges into danger, as Hort aids oppressed creatures and then confronts his greatest enemy. This middle part of the book is a real triumph of writing and the imagination: grappling with the fact that Penelope's, somehow, there and not there - Hort's method of travel isn't exactly physical - and with the way in which reality is so strange that she only experiences a translation of it, the nearest thing she can grasp but not the truth. It's actually rather disconcerting. No snippets I could quote here can really do it justice. The effect on me was rather like that final section of the film 2001, with strangeness upon strangeness and all familiar landmarks missing.

If you feel that's all just too rich for you, too jarring, please don't give up. This book contains its own quiet rewards - from the sheer glory of Whiteley's writing to that rather sceptical, questing examination of the time traveller himself. What can you really say about such a being? What degree of ego and self assurance does it take to shift worlds and play with the course of events as he does? ('...a selfish, spoiled, unaware and unrepentant idiot... [who] could be classified as Very Dangerous Indeed...') 

Above all, what, exactly, is his relationship in the end with Penelope? 

It's hard to be clearer than that without spoilers - which, I assure you, you don't want for this particular book. 

Enjoyable from the first page to the last, this book is enthralling, baffling, weird, deep, quirky and in the end - I thought - very, very sad.

In short, I'd recommend.

For more information about Greensmith, and to buy a copy, see the publisher's website here.

18 October 2020

Review - Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Cover design by
Emily Courdelle

Dead Man in a Ditch (Fetch Phillips, 2)
Luke Arnold
Orbit, 24 September 2020
Available as: e, audio, TPB, 416pp
Source: advance PB copy
ISBN: 9780316455879

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Dead Man in a Ditch.

Fetch Phillips, soiled hero of Last Smile in Sunder City, is back for another bout of wrestling with guilt and of attempting, somehow, to atone.

This may be a fantasy world, replete with (formerly) magical creatures, but Fetch, a Man for Hire, is noir to the core and wears the hardscrabble Sunder City like a ratty old trench coat. It is him, and he is it. From his shabby office to the women who come - trailing clouds of danger - for help, to the mean streets themselves, Arnold's command of the atmosphere of noir is pitch perfect, as this novel gets underway with a desperate woman whose husband has vanished, a gambling den and brushes with a police force desperate for results when a wealthy financier is murdered.

Of course, as readers of the first book will know, there's a whole other layer of darkness and guilt underlying Fetch's cynicism. This is a world from which the magic has fled, and it fled with Fetch's boot on its backside. All the beauty, all the power, all the wonder of a whole magical world is gone, and it was (largely) his fault. The survivors of that remember, and he would do anything, anything to atone. But there's nothing to be done. So Fetch sits in his office and opens the whisky bottle.

Now, though, there are rumours that the magic is returning. A particularly horrible murder has been committed in a way that can only be magical and, against his better judgement, Fetch is drawn into the investigation...

I liked and enjoyed this book. In fact I actually enjoyed it more so than its predecessor, because - while there is the odd flashback to Fetch's earlier life, to establish what he had done and why - most of it takes place in the present, which I feel gives Dead Man in a Ditch greater focus and pace. Bigger issues are also at stake here. Sunder City was ruined in the Coda, when the magic died, as it depended on underground magical fires for power, so the ill effects of that event spread to the human world as well. Ever since then, Sunder has shivered, lacking heat, light and industry. 

Now, a new energy has come to town in the person of go-ahead Thurston Niles with his modern business methods and smart, grey-suited goons. Maybe this is what's needed to help Fetch's world move forward? The story therefore sees him caught between his regrets at the passing of the old world, his desire to cling on to what he has salvaged, and the need to find a way to better his city for the sake of all those shivering, starving humans (not to mention shivering, starving dwarves, gnomes, fairies, elves and the rest).

So we see Fetch conflicted, guilt and regret driving him one way, hope and logic another. He isn't helped when a figure from his past appears: that should have made things simpler but Fetch is too honest to trust simple - he's more likely to take it down an alleyway and try to beat the truth out of it. His sense of self-loathing dovetails neatly with that noirish framing, giving us a powerful sense of why he is so self-destructive, so gallant and yet so despairing.

Fetch is an engaging character, seemingly resigned to the continual hard knocks that being a Man for Hire in Sunder City guarantees (one wonders how much more he can take), seemingly sympathetic to the hatred that many in the magical community have for him, yet never - quite - surrendering to self-pity and - generally - trying to do the right thing. He outshines everyone else in this book, though, which is perhaps at times a pity - when he is verbally sparring with that face from the past, for example, it never quite feels like a contest of equals. 

All in all a great read and one which ended just when it should, leaving me wanting to read the next book NOW and anticipating what catastrophe might hit Sunder next.


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

15 October 2020

Review - D by Michel Faber

Design by Marianne Issa El-Khoury
D (A Tale of Two Worlds)
Michel Faber
Doubleday, 17 September 2020
Available as: HB, 291pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780857525109

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

Michel Faber's latest novel is a fun children's adventure, with much danger and peril and plenty of humour.

Schoolgirl Dhikilo has already, by the time the story opens, survived more than her share of adventure, having been rescued by her father as a baby from the almost-a-country Somaliland (not Somalia, as she carefully explains). Finding sanctuary in the UK, she is settled in the town of Cawber-on-Sands on the South Coast with her pleasant foster parents Ruth and Malcolm. Faber shows us how, while happy with them and at school, Dhikilo misses the culture and country she was too young to remember, devouring any facts or gossip she can find online or in the local bookshop or library. Those early parts of the story are filled with longing and missingness even while - as Faber explains - Dhikilo isn't quite sure what it is she's missing.

So perhaps Dhikilo is ready for another adventure when it comes along, as come along it does. Things begin to go wrong. To disappear. Specifically, the letter "D" - then things containing it. So soon there are no more ogs, no more octors at the surgery and no onkey derby at the annual fete. Soon, there is a politician on the TV saying that iversity is all very well, but not if it gets in the way of forging a strong, safe nation.

Why can only Dhikilo see what's missing? That's not clear. Maybe because as an outsider, she's more receptive, more ready to ask questions, awkward questions, and get into trouble for doing so? Even to travel to a strange world (after all, it's not the first time) where she might discover the truth about what's been happening and perhaps even do something about it?

That's what happens, courtesy of a mysterious adult whose house has a gateway in the attic to a frozen world. If that makes you think of Narnia, then yes, it's supposed to - Faber is perfectly clear about the inspiration here and some of the events through that doorway will remind you of CS Lewis's books and the films of them. But there are differences too, I think. In particular, while Dhikilo has an animal guardian here - a Sphinx called Nelly, no less - there's no religious aspect, as with Narnia's Aslan, and much of Dhikilo's progress depends above all else on her courage, common sense and kindness. She has a series of challenges to meet, which I won't say anything about - spoilers! - and as the story unfolded I recognised another influence here: Charles Dickens, with many of the settings and creatures named after, or reflecting, his books - we meet the Quilps and the Drood (sorry, the roo), the names of the rooms in a hotel called Bleak House are based on London prisons and most sinisterly of all, there is a Big Bad called the Gamp, supported by unpleasant magwitches, creatures he claims to be enemies but is working hand-in-glove with. (A bit of satire aimed at lying politicians, I think).

Anyone reading this book who doesn't recognise these names (or some of the scenes and events) won't be puzzled of confused by the story, but if you know what they mean, it does add a little bit to your enjoyment, as will the details revealed towards the end about a certain Professor and his home.

This is, as I have said, above all an exciting, dangerous adventure with a resourceful and wise central character. The subtitle, "A Tale of Two Worlds", as well as its allusion to Dickens, may refer to Dhikilo's adventures in England and in Liminus or to her passage from Somaliland to England, or possibly both. There are, I think, many more than two worlds here, giving much to explore and discover.

I'd strongly recommend D.

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

13 October 2020

Review - Hinterland by LM Brown

Cover image: “Roses on Red Chair” © Kathy Bradshaw
Cover image: “Roses on Red Chair”
© Kathy Bradshaw
LM Brown
Fomite Press, 13 October 2020
Available as: PB, 324pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781947917583

I'm grateful to the author for an advance e-copy of Hinterland to consider for review.

Hinterland is an intense, closely observed study of one family living in a Boston suburb over a decade or so in the early 2000s.

We meet Nicholas ‍Giovanni, a taxi driver, whose main focus in life is the protection of his young daughter, Kate. When first introduced, he is sneaking away from his nightshift and back into the house while baby Kate and her mother Kathleen sleep, to check that all is well with Kate. A devoted father, or just this side of creepy? 

Kathleen herself is a troubled woman - how much so we'll only slowly discover - who is riled when Ina moves back in next door. Ina's mother Tilly has had a fall (Nicholas discovered her in the snow in her back garden) and Ina has returned to look after her. Nicholas, Tilly and Ina know each other well (Nicholas is still living in his childhood home, he and Ina grew up together) - and it's soon clear there is history here ('it had been hard to be in the same room as Ina'). What, exactly, and what sort, you need to discover for yourself - Brown will reveal this slowly as the months and years move forward and a catastrophe strikes Nicholas's little family, leaving him to care for Kate alone (alone, with help from Ida).

The characters will grow on you. Nicholas is always uneasy, trying to control everything, especially Kate (for example, he's unwilling to let her go to the playground alone, following her even when she tells him not to). At one point we are told of Nicholas that 'It was impossible to know exactly how to feel', as though he is an actor on stage waiting for direction. 

Kate misses her mother ('She wondered constantly where her mother was, if she had fallen and hurt herself, if she had forgotten where she lived...'), aware of a great absence that nobody will talk about. Nicholas won't be frank with Kate about the thing that has happened - understandably, you might think, but it leaves Kate so wounded and he refuses to do the one thing that might set things right. Why, we can only speculate.

And Ina, Nichola's sister-in-law, who seems part of, and not part of, this odd family, helping out, but resented, resenting. There is, as I said, history here - and secrets to be revealed - with Ina's and Nicholas's relationship now playing out a pattern that's rooted in events of twenty years before. The tension that Brown sketches between the two is electric, one almost feels the words crackle as one reads them, and there is a sense in which everyone else in the book - even Kate - is in their shadow, having to work round them, make space for them, if unconsciously. So Kate and, for example, Nicholas's brother Stefano and son Cooper, when they turn up, are all puzzled, stepping round in a dance they don't comprehend to accommodate Nicholas and Ina. 

It's a dance that Kathleen never learned to perform: so early on, she has to leave the stage and this fascinating woman is mostly seen in glimpses, memories, the reports of interested parties and experts. She's always interpreted by others, analysed, argued over. Yet even in her absence Kate seems to have a bond with her and a major theme of the book is Kate's quest for her mother, a quest that's sometimes overt but sometimes hidden even from her. An inevitably that quest opens up a rift with Nicholas, who's so wound up in keeping the truth from his daughter that he seems almost stop knowing her, his understanding of her personality drifting from that seen by everyone else ('he never thought that Kate could be a completely different person outside her house.')

That does give the book a vein of melancholy, but it's never maudlin. And Brown's characters are complex and real enough that - while one may not like all of them - one comes to understand them and want the best for them (even Nicholas, who, as I have said, does sometimes exhibit a worrying degree of obsession and control).

I would recommend Hinterland, both to readers of Brown's previous stories - for example her collections Treading the Uneven Road ‍and ‍Were We Awake - and those who are new to her writing. 

For more information about Hinterland, see the publisher's website here. You can purchase the book from Amazon here

9 October 2020

Review - The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

Cover by Julia Lloyd
The Ghost Tree
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 8 September 2020
Available as: PB, 507pp, e, audio
Source e: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781785659799

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Ghost Tree via NetGalley to consider for review.

Christina Henry is one of my favourite fantasy authors and I've enjoyed her dark reworkings of classic children's stories (Alice, Peter Pan) as well as folktales and mythology.

In The Ghost Tree, all of this is fused into a chilling and effective folk horror, with a generations-old act of violence and a curse afflicting the population of midwest American town Smiths Hollow. The results are acted out every year with pain and loss in the collective behaviour of the townsfolk, but it's a party to which outsiders are definitely not invited.

Now, though, things seem to be going wrong...

The book focuses on Lauren diMucci, a young woman whose father Joe was horribly murdered a year before. Lauren misses her dad, to whom she was closer than her mother, now single parent Karen. The book very tenderly draws out the tensions and alienation between mother and daughter, their relationship laced with guilt, general teenager-ishness and something else - a resentment that can't be articulated, a dark poison between them. Smiths Hollow seems to have forgotten Joe's death and the police have done little to identify the killer. Maybe Lauren can do better?

Lauren's relationship with childhood friend Miranda is also key. The girls used to be inseparable, playing fantasy games in the woods outside the town ('Meet me by the old ghost tree!') But Miranda is now changing, spending more time thinking about boys and plotting what she must do to secure a ride to school in Tad's car this year instead of riding her bike or getting on the bus like a loser. This book (set in the mid 80s) does shine a harsh light on patriarchy, showing how the two friends take different routes through a deeply misogynistic society, Miranda avidly collecting sex tips from magazines, unaware how she's being gossiped about and pigeonholed, while Lauren accepts the role of freakish outsider, of tomboy. It's perhaps inevitable that the friendship is under strain - I found the portrayal convincing, non judgemental and eliciting sympathy for both girls (Lauren missing her father, Miranda subject to remote control parenting by chilly, unempathetic parents).

Then there's David, Lauren's brother, only four years old who comes across as something of a savant but also as a very, very vulnerable little boy.  There are visions, a suggestion of dark conspiracies and of secrets in the apparently sweet, prosperous little town. It's all deeply sinister and the reader can be sure that the darker side of town is there, biding its time.

Lauren does, however, have allies in exposing what's wrong. In the way of things, it's an outsider who most clearly sees what's wrong. Alex (Alejandro) Lopez, a newly appointed policeman who's come from Chicago hoping for a more peaceful life, begins to dig into the past, aware, somehow, that this won't be looked on kindly by his peers and superiors (though he can't understand why). Quite apart for that investigation, his very presence, and that of his family, is enough to stir racist hatreds as well as fears that secrets will be exposed. Those, two, will be played out in the town's collective guilt and ritual of forgetting.

This may sound like an awful lot for a horror story to carry, but Henry weaves together her themes deftly, maintaining the tension and the mystery while allowing us - in the form of a fairy story - enough background to have an idea what's going on. There are a couple of characters who I felt could have done more - Lauren's grandmother, and Riley, the journalist who breezes into town - but really, those central relationships - between Lauren and Karen, and Lauren and Miranda - are important enough that there probably isn't much space for anyone else, and they give the story so much heart and so much drive that this really isn't important.

Another thumping, wonderful read from Christina Henry, a book you just have to sit down and finish whatever else is going on. Also a story that's cannily honest about not typing things off neatly: I don't think Smiths Hollow will ever be the comfortable, happy place that Mayor Touhy wants - just too much has happened.

For more information about The Ghost Tree, see the publisher's website here.

6 October 2020

Review - The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V E Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
V E Schwab
Titan Books, 6 October 2020
Available as: HB, 560pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781785652509
Snap verdict: This is what you should be reading

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue via NetGalley.

I finished this book, closed my Kindle, and just sat there, trying to work out what had HAPPENED. I've read quite a lot by V E Schwab (not everything - she is prolific and writes for many different audiences) and I THOUGHT I knew what to expect.

But this... this was simply astonishing. A game changer of a book, for the reader (and, I'd hope, for the author - but that's perhaps presumptuous to say).

It is SO good.

A book to sink into, to lose oneself in.

A book that plays games, switches, dives and comes back from a different direction, targeting you right in your feelings, tying you in knots, delivering the kill and then... then doing it all AGAIN with different feelings, different knots and a different kill.

OK, stop babbling David. (I told a friend on Twitter that reviewing this I might just gush and you can see, here I am, gushing). Let's try and get hold of this protean, gorgeous wonder of a book and review it properly.

Addie (Adeline) LaRue is a young peasant woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary village in France in the late 17th century. The great drama, great crisis of her life is that while she longs for more breadth, experience and more... just more life, her parents (as parents will) want her to marry, have children, be settled. She dodges this for a while but not, oh, the wedding bells are ringing and the dress is being laced upon Addie and the life that goes with the dress is being laced on her... the world is closing in.

So Addie makes a bargain. A bargain she really shouldn't, with one of the dark things in the wood, one of the powers you really, really shouldn't pray to - in case they answer. And so, Addie's soul is in hock and she's cut loose from that village and while she gets that breadth of life (well, sort-of life) that she wants, Addie discovers that the wider world is a cruel and cold place and that there's nowhere in it for her. Addie can't make a mark on the world ('If a person cannot leave a mark, do they exist?'), she can't be remembered once out of sight. She can have a love affair, but she has to restart it every morning. If she rents a room for the night, she'll be turfed out as soon as the landlord or landlady turns their backs and another customer arrives. With no persistence in memory, Addie can't earn money, can't live anywhere. She exists on the margins. All else changes but Addie stays the same, as those she knew, those she loved, crumble to dust. And across the years, she's tormented by the creature - the god, the devil? - that she bargained with. Luc, as she calls him, is, in a sense, her creation. Only Luc rememberers her, only Luc remains.

It becomes clear, over the years, that Luc wants more than her soul. That she, knowing nobody else remembers her, nobody else will ever know her, wants, needs him. Hatred and love dance together in a whirl that passes down the years in meetings and partings, in a strange kind of game as Luc tempts Addie to wish oblivion for herself, as she bargains with him for an alternative.

Everything comes to a head in New York where for the first time in three centuries, Addie senses change, senses a loophole in her deal with Luc, when a young man remembers her.

The way that Schwab builds up the fantasy of Addie's life is stunning, believable, full of pathos and horror and desperate desire. Driven to the margins of the world, she makes an existence for herself inspiring art and artists (a recurring theme here), exploring literature (she 'reads of strange lands, and monsters, and men who can't ever go home...')  She, literally, can't paint or draw or write herself (a cruel twist from Luc when child Addie was so invested in her sketching and drawing) but she can be a Muse. What a way to encapsulate the role of a woman in a male dominated society - just the thing she was running from when she made her bargain in the woods - to be erased, voiceless, seen only by the traces left across the years in men's works.

So we gradually learn about the events that have made Addie, her victories and defeats in that endless struggle, the moments of respite and the moments of horror, and we really, really, get to know the person she has become and to admire her for what she's achieved. It's powerful writing. The central idea - and its working out - could fill a book and it would be a good book.

But - ands this is really a glorious thing - Schwab DOESN'T STOP THERE. She has much more for us. Meet Henry, an uncertain young man in a world full of sharp teeth. I really can't tell you too much about him because spoilers but, yes, he comes into Addie's life and, yes, he can remember her and yes, the book turns out to be about what that means to each of them. This is effectively a whole new layer of story. It's a love story, told in the sweaty clubs and avant garde venues of Bohemian New York - a city Addie knows well. It's the story of a man who never feels, somehow, that he is quite enough, a man who fears the darkness in quite a different sense from Addie. If this book made me fall in love with Addie, it made me fall for Henry, too. His issues are quite different to hers but, like Addie, Schwab makes Henry real, human and most of all, she makes him matter. It's gorgeous writing, so sad at times, and really, that story - Henry's life - is another that could be a book in itself.

But it's not, and then we have what happens when the two come together... they're all one book and they are all the same story. Reaching the end, I read it more and more slowly, not wanting it to end. I wanted to stay immersed in the world of Addie and Henry and Luc, wanted to see the relationships flicker and dance, the pulls of desire and love and hate, to see Schwab whittling these three down to their essence.

Who, what is Luc? At one level I don't know, we're never exactly told.

Who, what is Luc? At another level, we all know. We've all met him. We've danced that dance, surrendered - or not - made our lives despite him, or with him. Luc cannot be defeated, cannot be pleaded with, placated, bribed or tricked. Only bargained with. And he drives a hard bargain...

The Invisible life of Addie LaRue is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite book read this year (that's 97 so far). V E Schwab was already an impressive writer but I think this is by far the best she's written yet (that I've read). Apart from the handling of the ominous, dark and romantic themes here, Schwab has a knack for getting to the heart of things in her writing: we hear of 'A Fall woman indulging in a second Spring', or how when Addie first makes love's is lightning through her limbs, it is fire through her core, it is longing between her legs' or of Henry's family sitting at table 'like an awkward Ashkenazi imitation of a Rockwell painting' or of a 'fundraising smile'. In places the prose adopts the pacing of a teary ballad ('A boy is sick of his broken heart. Tired of his storm-filled brain') or a dark folksong ('Am I the devil or the darkness?'). In others it revels in the wonder of moments of caught amidst the darkness - Addie's memory of the beauty of stars, something the modern world doesn't afford, of the gradual unfolding of New York in the springtime for a pair of lovers.

I think I'm gushing again. I want to keep quoting bits of this book, saying, look at this, look at that, read that bit. I should just say "read it!" and stop there.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is simply leagues ahead. For me, reading it - and thinking about it after - was like that moment watching a great athlete running in an 800 or 1600m race when the winner simply opens up distance from the others and claims a victory which afterwards always seems preordained. Simply stunning.

For more information about this book see the publisher's website here. Or read this excellent review from Dave at espressococo.com

5 October 2020

#Blogtour #Q&A - She Lies Close by Sharon Doering

Cover by Julia Lloyd
She Lies Close
Sharon Doering
Titan Books, 8 September 2020
Available as: PB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: PB kindly provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781789094190

Today I'm delighted and honoured that Sharon Doering, the author of Who Lies Close, has stopped by to answer some questions... which makes that sound very like an investigation but it's really not!

BBB: Sharon - thank you for agreeing to answer some questions about She Lies Close. I have to say that (without giving anything away about what is happening to Grace at the start of the book) I think it’s a long time since I encountered such a twist in the first few pages! 

Overall, Grace is a very strongly, well realised personality in a very particular situation. How did you (do you) find your way into that? Does the plot come first, or the person (or the place…?)

Sharon: Thank you so much for having me!

I am a character-driven reader and writer. If I fall for a character in a novel, I will follow them anywhere! I love a strong voice.

In She Lies Close, the basic premise came first, then I focused on character. The plot details slipped into place as I wrote or I hammered them in during edits.

BBB: I like to ask authors about all the arduous travel they must have undertaken in far-flung places for research purposes. Was there much of that? (You say your neighbours aren’t like Grace’s, so I’m assuming this isn’t your neighbourhood thinly disguised).

Sharon: Travel sounds lovely -- in theory, at least! My family vacations are usually a bit of a mess -- but I haven’t travelled for anything I’ve written. I rely on the internet to answer my research questions.

I’ve mostly lived in the city of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. This story takes place in the suburbs, so I’m familiar. She Lies Close is not about my neighbors or my suburb, but it could be! Who knows about any of our neighbors? That’s the lure -- Who knows what goes on next door?

BBB: When you’re writing, do you work it all out in detail first or just launch in – and do you always know how things were going to turn out, or end up surprising yourself? (For example, did the characters change as you wrote the book? Did they take over the story? Or are they as you first imagined them?)

Sharon: I just launch in! I am a pantser, not a plotter. I don’t know exactly where things are headed (though I have an idea). Sometimes the characters seem to take over and evolve on their own, sometimes I push them along. When I edit, I change some of their choices to serve the story.

BBB: Did any other writing (or media) particularly inspire She Lies Close?

Sharon: The inspiration for She Lies Close came from my family’s move to a new neighborhood years ago and finding out that a guy down the street was being prosecuted for a child crime. Within months he was convicted, sold his house, and went to prison. While it was creepy (and I wouldn't let my little boys play near his house), I never felt desperate. I had a good support system in my husband.

It got me thinking though…What if you moved right next door to a dangerous man, a suspect in a child kidnapping (maybe murder), and what if you had no support system, no sounding board? What if you were recently divorced and financially strapped? What if you had secrets of your own and mental health issues complicating your life? What if your sinister neighbor started talking to your little girl, giving her gifts?

I took the premise of a dangerous next-door neighbor and added a big old bag of What Ifs. I wanted to write a psychological thriller that was dark, desperate, and also funny. I wanted to write a thriller where the characters were stretched too far, where we get to witness some of them snap.

The Fever by Megan Abbott influenced my book. In The Fever, Abbott weaves mental and physical health into her story in such a mysterious way. After reading The Fever, I thought I might be able pull off what I wanted to do in my book.

BBB: What were you trying to achieve with the book - beyond writing a great story? (It’s perfectly OK to say ‘I don’t know!’ or ‘It speaks for itself!’)

Sharon: That’s a great question, and yeah, I definitely had controversial themes I wanted to explore with this book in addition to writing a compelling story.

I wanted to explore how close any of us can be to losing our mind - how many things would have to go wrong in one person’s life to push them over the edge.

I wanted to explore how the sheer volume of worrying news stories can make us hypervigilant.

I wanted to explore parenting, how far we’d go to protect our children, and the unintended consequences of that.

I wanted to explore relationships, gender inequalities, and gender roles.

I wanted to explore our differing perceptions of reality, and how some of that reality can be affected by environmental exposures, viruses, drugs we take.

I didn’t have an end goal to answer these questions, I just wanted to throw these questions into the stew and see what bubbled up.

BBB: What inspired you to write in the first place (particular books, something that happened...) and how did you get started writing?

Sharon: It was the late 90s. I was twenty-four, working as a biotech stock analyst (I hated this job), and I started reading fiction as an escape. The most wonderful, eye-opening, mind-altering thing happened to me. I read this thriller and thought, Huh. I could do better. That had never happened to me before. (For the record, in this particular late-90s thriller, the woman sidekick was a bimbo, and the villain was doctor evil-ish.).

When I sat down to write my first short story, I fell madly in love with the process. That was it for me. I knew I would never stop. I have been writing for twenty years, I've had an agent for twelve, and I've written dozens of short stories and seven novels. That's how long it took before a publisher offered me a contract.

Oh, how I wish I was one of those little kids who knew they wanted to write. As a kid I loved Stephen King, but it never dawned on me that I could “be a writer”.

BBB: And what did you expect from it? How does the reality compare with that?

Sharon: That’s such a great question. The trick is, you can’t expect anything from your writing. Expecting publication or financial success will leave you feeling like garbage because the odds are stacked against you and there is too much you cannot control. You have to agree with yourself that you’re writing novels because you love the process (even if there is no award, no publishing deal).

Now that I have a contract, there are deadlines and expectations. It’s exciting and terrifying and strange. Mostly, I’m just so happy to be in the game.

BBB: Which writer(s) do you admire most?

Sharon: When I started writing novels, my favorite writers were Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, T. Jefferson Parker, James Lee Burke, George Saunders, Lisa Unger, Jonathan Hart, Richard K Morgan...

I am a deliberate student now, and I read more widely and quickly (and differently). When I’m reading any book, I’m thinking, Oh, look at what they did there. Brilliant idea! Oh, how clever. I love how they revealed that, or that’s an amazing twist.

Now I am in awe of so many more writers. Some of my recent amazing reads…Kimberely McCreight, Mary Kubica, Raven Leilani, Riley Sager, Wendy Walker, Lauren Wilkinson, S.L. McKinnis, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Victoria Helen Stone, Samantha Downing, Victoria Helen Stone, Vanessa Lillie, Jen Pashley, Samantha Bailey. The list goes on.

BBB: What's your writing day/ routine like? And where do you write best?

Sharon: Routine? Ha!

Like so many people who have kids doing e-learning at home, I am going a little nuts with the lack of routine.

I have been writing in short, thirty-minute bursts while wearing noise-cancelling headphones designed for power-tool work. It is not ideal, and my ears hurt.

If I can hide in the car in the garage for two hours while the kids are watching TV/playing video games, I am usually productive enough. The key is non-interrupted time.

I rely heavily on caffeine. 1-2 cups of tea, then 2-4 cups of coffee, and I round it out with 1 coke zero.

BBB: Do you have a book locked away that you wrote when you were 15? If so, is there any chance of it seeing the light? Or will it get the Terry Pratchett steamroller-the-harddrive treatment? 

Sharon: Love this. I started writing short stories in my twenties, novels in my thirties. I wrote one horror, one romance (it was horrendous), one PI novel, and three tech thrillers. I might rewrite one or two of those tech thrillers (or write them as screenplays). Even though they are 5-10 years old, the premises are still pretty cool, relevant. Besides those one or two tech thrillers, I am focused on moving forward and not looking back. We get better with practice so it’s good to let those older manuscripts die.

BBB: Finally… you’re lost in the woods late at night and take shelter in a tumbledown cabin. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and even better, you have a book with you! Which book should it be?

Sharon: All of my very favorite books are thrillers or horror, but if I were reading Stephen King or Gillian Flynn while lost in the woods, waiting for a rescue, I would be terrified! So, maybe I’d rather have something funny to keep me grounded? A book of short stories—Pastoralia by George Saunders. Maybe a Matthew Quick novel like The Silver Linings Playbook. Or a children’s book—Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

BBB: Sharon, thank you so much for those answers - best wishes with She Lies Close, may it find its way into the hands of many readers!

You can find out more about She Lies Close at the Titan Books website here or on Sharon's site here as well as the other stops non the tour (see poster below!)

And you can buy the book from your local high street bookshop, online from Hive Books (who support local shops), Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blogtour poster for "She Lies Close"