26 November 2020

#Review - Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Illustration by Edward Bettison
Design & lettering by
Hannah Wood
Call of the Bone Ships (The Tide Child, 2)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 26 November 2020
Available as: PB, 488pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by publisher
ISBN: 9780356511856

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of Call of the Bone Ships to consider for review.

Call of the Bone Ships takes us back to Barker's fantasy archipelago, divided into two warring nations - the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands. In the previous book we saw Joron Twiner, a desperate drunk heading to the bad, rescued by Shipwife "Lucky" Meas Gilbryn together with the ship of which he had titular command, Tide Child. It was a ship of convicts, of outcasts, but Meas built it and them into a potent element of the Fleet - for her own purposes, revealed at the end of the book.

In Call of the Bone Ships, we see the consequences. No longer a loyal ship of the Fleet, Tide Child makes a shocking discovery which reveals a vile trade apparently flourishing under the eyes of Meas's estranged mother, who rules the Hundred Isles. Investigating, and seeking to end, it sets Meas up for a conflict with the entire Fleet and makes her and her crew the enemy of the Hundred Isles.

I'm being circumspect about just what happens here and (I hope) not spoiling the first book for any reader who hasn't opened it yet (my advice: you must read it, and quickly). The plot here is action-filled, full of twists ands turns, feats of arms and rending loss, and you don't want to know the details in advance because Barker's telling of them is superb and frequently shocking. Like its forerunner, Call of the Bone Ships scratches all the same itches as CS Forester or Patrick O'Brian except in a fantasy world with magic, great sea beasts called Arakeesians and a matriarchal society. There is shattering, sudden combat. There is the unease of a sailor, forced to trust to the land. There is the fellowship and web of relationships aboard ship. Above all there is the restless, heaving sea.

But - and because this is an RJ Barker book I was expecting this - there is more. A story filled with scrapes and chases would be fun, but Barker's fiction has heart besides. In the first book we saw Joron grow and come into his own as a sailor and as a human. We saw him discover a strange gift - the ability to call the Arakeesian. We saw him make friends, and enemies. 

Here, every scrap of what Joron became is put to work, is tested, against enormous odds. His trust in Meas (and hers in him), his bond with his crew, his friendship with the strange creature the Gullaime. (Note to author: can we have a series of gullaime spinoff stories please? I just loved its rudeness, its self-possession and its liking for colourful scraps and bric-a-brac). Joron is no longer learning to be who he is, rather he's learning what that person can do, and working out what they should do. And what price he's prepared to pay for that, what he must give up. 

In some respects it is a very dark book indeed. The plot which the crew of Tide Child confront is bad enough, but there are also woeful discoveries about the history of Barker's world, about how the Arakeesians were hunted, discoveries that taint all with an age old guilt. And there is a threat in the future too which no doubt we'll hear more of in the next book. Joron has many low moments - Barker doesn't spare his reader and there were many occasions reading this book that I felt, no, not that, don't do that. AND RJ ALWAYS DOES IT! However, the darkness is never all there is. There is trust and loyalty. There is friendship. There are songs - Barker's sea shanties roll in with the tang of salt and carry the rhythms of waves and tides. There is terrific, rich worldbuilding, glorious passages of prose and deep, well realised characters at every hand. 

I could write that this book blew me away, and that's true, but I have to add, yes, it blew me away and dropped me in the heaving sea, where my flesh was gnawed by sea beasts, it cast my bones on a far shore to be ground by the tides. It is a book of combat and action, yes, but beneath it is a book of deep, deep feelings.

If you'd asked me before I read this I would have said it would be hard for Barker to match, let alone surpass, The Bone Ships, yet here we are, I think he has. Both books are superb, but this one - well, this one just flies. It's just superb writing, and feels so real, so human and moving. 

I am, as you may have worked out, strongly recommending this one.

For more information about Call of the Bone Ships, see the publisher's website here.

24 November 2020

#Review - The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman

The Dark Archive (The Invisible Library, 7)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan, 26 November
Available as: PB, 318pp
Source: Advance PB copy 
ISBN: 9781529000603

I'm grateful to the publisher and to Jamie Lee Nardonne and Stephen Haskins for an advance copy of The Dark Archive to consider for review.

A Great Detective...

I am delighted to report that, seven books in, the Invisible Library series still roars. In particular, Peregrine Vale is back - after being scarce in The Secret Chapter, as I noted in my review, he's at the centre of things here (maybe Genevieve was reading it!) in a book set largely in his world and mainly in London at that. Can it be that the Great Detective is about to find his match at last?

A Master Criminal...

London's criminal circles whisper of a new Napoleon of Crime, a person known only as "The Professor". Might they be the mysterious hand behind the attempted murder and kidnapping of Irene, Catherine, Vane and Kai? The forces of the British Empire, the dragons, the Library and even Catherine's Fae principal, the Cardinal, come together to crack the problem - but puzzling clues only abound.

A Librarian in peril

This time, Irene's not chasing down some key book. Rather, something seems to be chasing her. The Dark Archive is a rather different book, rather more focussed than previous volumes, less a heist than a cat and mouse game, a hunt. The politics between the dragons and the Fae is less important (though ever there in the background tension, especially as Catherine tries to be the first Fae to enter the Library). Instead, personal motives are to the fore. Irene's relationship with Kai is vulnerable to the whims of her masters and the prejudices of his family. Vale is always on the cusp of pursuing that Great Detective archetype and being contaminated, again, by chaos. Irene herself has family issues which come back to bite here. Any of these levers may be used - will be used - by the shadowy antagonist who seems to be coming for them - and for Irene in particular. 

Is she, finally, out of her depth?

One of the things I love about this series - besides the delicious characters, the balance between real, blood-and-thunder adventure and peril/ irony/ humour - is the way that Cogman keeps reinventing her format and giving us something new. The first book, The Invisible Library, was itself a delight and I vividly remember both reading it (on the Eurostar from Brussels, as you ask, the gilt from the cover wearing off and making my business suit rather sparkly) and the feelings I had then. Every instalment since has touched the same places, but each is slightly different.  Rather than becoming formulaic, the series has grown and deepened. Irene herself has grown in self-confidence and status but without becoming an "insider". Kai's become less stiff, Vale more dependable - and now we have Catherine, Irene's new apprentice, and also Kai's brother Shan Yuan who rub each other up wonderfully. Catherine, in particular, is turning out a nicely complex character who subverts the expectations we might have of a Library apprentice as well as of a Fae, a race who have been depicted so far mainly as shifty antagonists.

Add to them Vale's mysterious sister, who is something very important in Government, and a reappearance by Inspector Sigh of the Yard, and it's almost as if Irene's building an army of her own...

In short, if you've enjoyed the preceding books I think you will love this one, knowing that it will be like them but will also give something new.  There are some hints of where everything might be going, but they are still only hints. The origin of the dragons, the eventual fate of the Library, Irene's own history - these all seem to be linked, but we don't yet know how. 

Clearly there are more adventures in store and I'm very glad of that.

Finally, I just have to comment on that gorgeous purple cover. It's a beautiful thing, it really is.

For more information about The Dark Archive, see the publisher's website here.

21 November 2020

#Review - Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale

Design by Amy Musgrave

Paris by Starlight
Robert Dinsdale
Del Rey, 5 November 2020
Available as: HB, 465pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy, bought copy from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9781529100457

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Paris by Starlight via Netgalley to consider for review. 

In Paris by Starlight, we meet a nation of refugees, the People, whose country - never named - has been absorbed into "the Russias". It was, in olden times, a wonderful, magical country whose inhabitants lived by night, not day, under their own Seven Stars. They lived among wonderful, glowing plants - the "Flowers-by-Night" through which flitted birds called lightjars. They set sail on the Landlocked Sea, in which swam the Water Dogs - creatures with both legs and gills. And their stories were written down in a fabulous book called the Nocturne.

Those splendours are long past, but still remembered as the last of the People make their journey some three thousand miles through Europe, scaling fences, enduring prisons and detention centres, begging and stealing, to find somewhere they can make a home. 

At last, some of them come to Paris. (I think, by the way, this is a slightly alternate Paris - Dinsdale introduces it as "Paris, not so long ago" and the atmosphere had - to me - a slightly 50s vibe: no mobiles, the news is all on the radio and in the papers, no mention of Internet. But the events the book is founded on - the plight of refugees - feels very modern). 

Also in Paris, Isabelle is searching for the father who abandoned her nineteen years before. Club by club, night by night and bar by bar, she performs her music, hoping to eventually cross paths with him. But instead she runs across a girl of the People, wandering and starving, and is drawn into their covert world of loss and beauty. 

For things are changing in Paris. The presence of the People, and the stories from their Nocturne, seem to be re-creating their lost country. Water dogs flit in and out of the Seine and lightjars are seen blazing above flowers-by-night which spout among the concrete overpasses and tower blocks of northern Paris.

In the first half of the book, Dinsdale explores this glorious transformation as he establishes his group of characters. Besides Isabelle there is Levon and his family, which includes Arina, the girl she found scrounging for food in an alleyway, as well as his grandmother Maia. Levon also lost his father, Hayk, when the soldiers came and has protected his family along all the hard miles of the Trail. And there are others too whom Isabelle has connections with: Hector and his wife and young son and their circle. 

Things all seems to be going well, but the reader will suspect that trouble is ahead. Readers of Dinsdale's previous book, The Toymakers, will I think notice a similarity of themes in Paris by Starlight. In both, vagabond, outcast people from the East find their refuges in wealthy, complacent Western cities and kindle some of the magic of their homelands. In both, we see that this magic is not sufficient to ward off conflict, either within families and peoples, or between them. And in both, that conflict is destructive both of beauty and safety. In Paris, a "New Resistance" grows up, harping on a romanticised version of the Second World War and of the effort against German occupation but really a cover for thuggery and narrow-mindedness. Elements of the People respond in kind, seemingly dooming any hope of peace and acceptance, and things get very dark indeed.

It is a book I enjoyed a lot. However, I do one reservation about the central idea and about the way it is used and developed. Dinsdale's People clearly stand for the myriad refugees currently fleeing across Europe, denied shelter and safety, and the refusal of so many to accommodate these actual, real people should itself move and anger us. It shouldn't - surely it shouldn't? - be necessary to dramatise this idea by having the presence of people fleeing persecution generate a bewitching nighttime beauty and then having hoodlums trash that, and it bothers me somehow to see the crisis portrayed in that way. I'm not sure if I am right to be bothered, but this did make it hard at times for me to stay with the story, especially towards the end of the book.

That said, in Paris by Starlight Dinsdale creates a galaxy of characters (hard to avoid the stellar metaphor) who I found myself caring about a great deal. Paris by Starlight is beautifully, often movingly, written and the central love story is tender and sad, rooted in these well-drawn characters. The respective losses of their fathers have, for example, shaped both Isabelle and Levon. There's a touch of the unreliable narrator about Isabelle, for example in the way the novel gives us a certain impression of her mother as being slightly shiftless, romantic and unreliable which is then belied once she makes a (rather late) appearance in the book. That is typical of the writing here: despite the starkly contrasting positions taken up, the most arresting characters are conflicted, changeable and contradictory. I took a message from it that the way out may, perhaps, be embracing those contradictions, rather than trying to tidy them away.

It's a complex book and one that will stay with me. You really should try it and see what you think - I'm really looking forward to discussing this one!

19 November 2020

#Review - Bone Harvest by James Brogden

Design by Julia Lloyd

Bone Harvest
James Brogden
Titan Books, 17 November 2020
Available as: PB, 492pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781785659973

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Bone Harvest to consider for review.

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

Bone Harvest was originally scheduled to appear in May, but like much else this year, covid-19 had its way with those plans and so it is with us in November. That delay may though add poignancy to this story, a thought that struck me when watching the TV coverage of the lockdown Remembrance ceremonies and in particular, of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey.

Bone Harvest is a story of folk horror, but as it ranges from the trenches of the Western Front in 1916 to the deceptive calm of rural Wales and the fruitful labour of a group of allotment holders, the most gut-wrenching scenes are of distinctly un-supernatural warfare, blood and slaughter.

"When on the road to sweet Athy
A stick in the hand, A drop in the eye
A doleful damsel I heard cry
Johnny I hardly knew ye..."

In counterpoint to that unknown warrior, Brogden gives us the story of one man who survived this slaughter, but transformed. The man known only as "the deserter" (well, he borrows other names, but they are not his) has been forged in that nightmare of steel, blood and noise. While he has physical wounds they haven't made him, like Johnny, unrecognisable to his sweetheart - rather his spiritual wounds have made him unrecognisable to himself. He doesn't know his name, or remember who or what he is. His old self is gone, erased by the thunder of the guns, and all that remains is that identity: deserter. 

While we shouldn't judge that desertion, his erasure has taken something from him, something which allows him, in the years and decades that follow, to become a different thing, a thing still bent on survival. Brogden will evoke supernatural horrors, but it is the human agency at the centre of things that dominated the book for me.

It is a book, as I've said, that offers great contrasts in atmosphere and theme. Alongside the deserter, who's established as a character in the first quarter or so, we meet Dennie Keeling, a woman devoted to her allotment and to her dog Viggo. She has been devoted to her friend Sarah, but Sarah is dead now - we'll learn in good time what that event has to do with the rest of the story. Dennie may or may not have a dash of the psychic in her and may or may not be experiencing the first signs of dementia (creating a real sense of tension when she begins seeing and hearing things). She seems oh so vulnerable when dark forces appear and begin to manipulate Dennie's friends and neighbours on the allotments. A cat and mouse game ensues, Dennie acting as the reader's eyes and ears to detect what is going on. We have some advantages from that early section of the story, but it's hard to fit that in with what seems to be going on now, in the part of the story set in 2020. Brogden is content to tell his story slowly, letting his shadowy cult act in line with the dictates of the moon and the seasons, as befits a story of horticulture, of planting and reaping, rather than trying to force things in a hot-house. 

If you're the sort of reader that wants to press on quickly to the final denouement, you may get a little impatient in this part of the story. It's not that there isn't action, but things seem to move quite slowly. I'd really, really urge you to be patient though - if you want drama, then the final part of this book delivers it with aplomb. Our deserter hears the sound of the guns again and gathers an army of sorts - and many secrets are revealed.

Bone Harvest is well written, very readable, with beautifully imagined characters (even the deserter is sympathetic, to a point; many have a satisfying moral ambiguity, doing bad things for rational and understandable reasons) and, like this author's previous books, integrates its theme of ancient paganism seamlessly with the mundanity of modern life. It has a great sense of place too, and one particular scene towards the end - you'll know it when you reach it - had me in tears.

Brogden's previous book, The Plague Stones, published in 2019, focussed on the outbreak of a virulent plague. It's with some trepidation that I wait to see what connection with reality his latest will have - but I know one thing: there's a set of allotments across the lane from my house, and I'll be giving them a miss for the next weeks.




17 November 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The Coral Bride by Roxanne Bouchard

The Coral Bride
Roxanne Bouchard (trans David Warriner)
Orenda Books, 12 November 2020
Available as: PB, 424pp, e
Source: Advance review copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781913193324

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for providing me a free copy of The Coral Bride to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

The Coral Bride takes us to a part of the world I was completely unaware of, the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, on Canada's eastern coast. It picks up the story of Detective Sergeant Joaquin Moralès from We Were the Salt of the Sea (which I hadn't read, shame on me: now I will) as he investigates the suspicious death of Angel Roberts on her lobster trawler. Forced to locate himself close to the scene of the death, Moralès finds himself in a guest house, run by the enigmatic Corine, out of season. The only guest, he has the run of the place. I rather liked this setting: Morales spreading out his papers in the empty dining room, looking at over the sea as he unravels the case.

That investigation is a taut, satisfyingly complex crime/ mystery in itself. Roberts was closely enmeshed in a network of fishing families with complex rivalries - both personal and financial - all struggling to make a living from the sea amidst environmental crises - the disappearance of the cod - and financial challenges going back generations. There are whispers of poaching, and time was that every trawler's skipper carried a rifle aboard. Once Moralès digs into the investigation he finds an abundance of motives for a murder and a great deal of shifty behaviour - but is still baffled as to whether this wasn't actually a simpler story of suicide. If it was a murder, how could it have been done? If it was a suicide, why?

This part of the story alone would be enough to make this a compelling and page-turning read. But The Coral Bride offers much, much more.

Alongside Moralès's investigation, his own life and family is in turmoil. His wife won't speak to him and he's not sure whether or not his marriage is over. Son Sébastien has arrived home unexpectedly, clearly going through a crisis of his own. We see events from both Joaquin's and Sébastien's viewpoints, so get to appreciate the delicate dynamics between father and son, the past events - and misunderstandings - that have shaped their lives, particularly when it comes to relations with women. Confronted with considerable amounts of misogyny in the local community, the two men are forced to reconsider their own attitudes: Joaquin has a tendency to fixate on a particular feature of a woman's body - a protruding vertebra, an ankle - and Sébastien punts an idea that his father has ruined his life by not teaching him to assert himself with women. 

The reality is that it's hard for women on the Gaspé to make it in a man's world. That's true for fisheries inspector Simone Lord as much as it was for Angel Roberts herself. That's easily said, but oh, to really understand it - and this story - you have to move in to this book, as Joaquin does, and meet its people (Lord, Detective Lefebre who can't be in a room five minutes without beginning a collection of objects, Corine herself, and many more). As well as being a masterful study of a place and way of life (rooting what happened to Angel in a richly portrayed setting) the characters here are spot on - quirky, fully realised, believable and deeply human. I especially loved the way that Bouchard has the Moralès men lapse into cooking - whether alone or working together - either when they are very content or brooding, needing to work through something (either personal issues or the finer points of the case). There's a  physicality to the descriptions of food, of ingredients and how they are put together that is just very satisfying (also, mouth-watering). It's a lovely way to learn about characters and makes me wish there was more cooking (and eating) in writing.

In short - the book really was an absolute joy to read. I don't think I've actually done it justice here. I strongly recommend it and I hope you will read it and love it too.

For more information about The Coral Bride see the publisher's website here - and also the other stops on the blogtour (see the poster below).

You can buy the book from your local high street shop (they need your support right now and many are able to order books and let you collect). Or you can get it online from bookshop.org, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

OR you can order a SIGNED COPY from Bert's Books - contact bert@bertsbooks.co.uk or call 07960 002056

12 November 2020

#Review #Giveaway - The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

Design by Lauren Panepinto,
illustration by Karla Ortiz
The Fires of Vengeance (The Burning, Book 2)
Evan Winter
Orbit, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780356512983

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance e-copy of The Fires of Vengeance to consider for review. I also have a spare copy of the hardback which I'll send to one randomly chosen sharer of this review - see below for details.

CW warning for descriptions of the effects of torture.

Sequel to The Rage of Dragons, The Fires of Vengeance delivers the same gut-wrenching mix of extreme combat, peril and - I honestly don't know how to describe this - a sort of reckless, nihilistic battle-fury.

Except it's all dialled up to 11, or more. Whatever The Rage of Dragons was, this is it with the gloves off, with real blades not training ones, with the safety disabled.

Tau, who we met in the earlier book, basically fought all the way through it. Despairing of his goal - joining the military and winning the right to challenge the man who murdered his father - he found a way to fight, and die, hundreds of times a day, to practice, to become better, a perfect warrior for the Omehi. Always driven by revenge, yet also retaining a loyalty to his people, Tau also found himself embroiled in politics and diplomacy, defending the young Queen Tsiora against a coup at the same time as an invasion.

In The Fires of Vengeance things get even more complicated. This is a very hierarchical world, a world of Lessers and Nobles, both part of the Omehi society which, fleeing the enemy known as the Cull, colonised the land of Xidda, expelling its natives who wage constant war to regain their homeland. Tau is a Lesser, despised by the Nobles and by all the others above him in the hierarchy: being named Queen's Champion, an unheard of development for a Lesser, puts him outside the normal structures of his society and earns fresh enemies - for him and the Queen. There's an irony here in Tau's swearing to defend the Queen who presides over the structures that oppress him and those like him, more irony in his discovery that the "Guardians" - the fierce and beautiful dragons who guard his people - are themselves enslaved.

This is a world of endless moral complexity. Largely told from Tau's viewpoint, we see his physical suffering, the sheer mental cost to him of battling the demons of Isihogo nightly, its toll on his sense of reality. In one horrific passage we see the aftermath of torture for which he blames himself (this is a particularly visceral passage which I found very hard - but I felt it was absolutely justified in context), heaping guilt on physical pain and fear for the future.

There are only a couple of short interruptions to Tau's perspective, where we see things from another's point of view - and each time, it's someone who has good reason to fear and hate Tau. Even our hero, then, may justifiably be seen differently, and that's even without factoring in whether he is allowing himself simply to be a mighty fist for the Empire that's oppressed him.  

Winter doesn't offer any easy answers or platitudes in response to this - there is a since in which Tau does his best in circumstances not of his choosing, always though with revenge as his goal, and as you might expect, this does lead to him inflicting real harm and accumulating divided loyalties: it's not clear for example how far his support for the Queen is simply because his enemy is her enemy, and how long this can last in the complicated politics of the Omehi. There's almost no rest in this story, as Tau runs  from one, apparently hopeless battle, to another, enemies rising hydra-like at every turn, plans torn to shreds, always a haste, a need to hurry, to improvise. (I say runs, but he does now have use of a rare and precious beast, a horse, and watching him learn to ride is in e of the funnier parts of the story).

Through it all we - slowly - learn more about the origin of the Omehi, and about the magic with which they're bound. The threat, it becomes clear, is even greater(!) than Rage of Dragons let on and it is one which all the martial prowess of the Ihashe, the Indlovu, the Ingonyama and the learning and courage of the Gifted, may not be able to overcome. As so many of Tau's sword-brethren fell in the battle at the end of Rage, so it seems his entire world may be burned away, mere swords and spears useless against the heat and rage that has been set loose.

The writing here is compulsive and apocalyptic but nevertheless, often beautiful and moving. It can also be funny: the great Champion Tau Solarin may be an accomplished warrior but there's a lot about life which he doesn't know and as he moves further and further from the known, the familiar, his baffled reaction to the ways of the world can make the reader smile, understanding more of what's going on than he does.

In brief: Winter tackles that difficult task, the second book in a series, with aplomb, creating something that will satisfy both the reader who wants more of that Rage of Dragons thing and the one who wants to go further and deeper. There no sign of things flagging, even if one rather wished they would slow down a bit so Tau can get some sleep!

Recommended to those who loved Rage and to those who haven't read it yet (though this is one of those cases where you really do need to read the first book first).

If you would like a hardback copy of the book then share this review - tagging me in @bluebookballoon - and I will choose one person at random on Sunday 15th November. (Can only send to GB or Ireland, I'm afraid). 

For more information about The Fires of Vengeance, see the publisher's website here.

11 November 2020

#BlogTour #Review - How to Belong by Sarah Franklin

Cover by Sophie McDonnell

How to Belong
Sarah Franklin
Zaffre, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 353pp, e
Source: Advance HB copy
ISBN: 9781785764868

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of How to Belong to consider for review and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

I'm a fan of books that match well-drawn, interesting characters with a great sense of place, and How to Belong scores well on both counts. It's the story of Jo and Tessa, coming to terms with their pasts and with their lives when returning to the Forest of Dean. 

Jo has been - is - a barrister. She's one of those who "got out", taking a degree and finding a glamorous job in London. Or not, because once there, she found, of course, that it wasn't all as shiny as she hoped. Life was an endless slog round the country, working on dispiriting cases for clients who scarcely seem deserving, arriving back on late trains from distant courts. All the plum work goes to the men, she's pretty friendless in London and even the money isn't very good. So coming home for Christmas and finding herself in the familiar hubbub of the family butcher's shop strikes a nerve with Jo, especially as her parents are about to sell the shop and retire. Maybe taking over the shop might be a way to return to the familiar, and preserve her family heritage?

Farrier Tessa has also come back to the Forest - after her relationship with Marnie in Bristol ended. Emotionally bruised and struggling with a debilitating illness, she's drawn the circles of her life tighter and tighter to protect herself. Finally, she holes up in her cottage in the woods, struggling to make ends meet on the tiny amount of work she can do.

I loved the way that Franklin depicts these women, giving us flashbacks to show their earlier lives and the wounds and struggles that have made them. 

Jo is bright and intelligent and full of plans and ideas. We are told that her career as a barrister has given her resilience and an ability to deal with people, yet she can also get things so, so wrong: with Ron and Mo, who run her parents' shop, with old friend Liam - at times, it's hilarious to see Jo's mistakes. Moreover, she can scarcely bear the smell and texture of fresh meat so at one level it seems slightly comic that she would take on the butcher's shop, at another, it is rather noble and admirable.

Tessa's wounds didn't begin with her and Marnie's break-up: there was a shocking event that cut to the core of her family and for which she has assumed responsibility and a resulting belief that she's hateful and can come to no good. The forest seems a good place for Tessa to hide away, to not be known or recognised. 

Jo has returned to the Forest of Dean for exactly the opposite reason, to be somewhere she is known, somewhere she fits in. 

It doesn't work out as either expects, of course. There are many eyes in the forest and Tessa is observed and remembered, while Jo finds that her friendship group has moved on (and her family house sold). Many outsiders are coming to the Forest with new estates spring up where the sheep grazed and second homers appearing. Is Jo, despite her origins, really one of them - an urbanite with over romantic views about this place stuck between England and Wales, with its own history and traditions?

The interplay between Tessa and Jo, and also Jo's relationships with Liam and with Ron and Mo and indeed her parents (largely absent though they are) makes a fascinating character study. Franklin lets things build up slowly, with plenty of time and space for each of the two women, and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what's going on rather than having her characters tell us. The Forest is almost a character itself, and we see both the pluses and minuses of increasing tourism and of "incomers" - as well as the resilience of the Forest people themselves. Best of all, perhaps, the ending is left tantalisingly open. I think I know what's going to happen, but as Franklin has shown, Jo and Tessa are real people with real quirks and with their own histories, so really, who knows what comes next?

Definitely recommended.

For more information about How to Belong, see the publisher's website here - and also the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below!

You can buy How to Belong from your local highstreet bookshop - many are still open for orders even if you can't browse - or online from Hive Books, bookshop.org UK,  Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for "How to Belong" by Sarah Franklin

7 November 2020

Review - The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Cover by Tomás Almeida

The Evidence
Christopher Priest
Gollancz, 15 October 2020
Available as: HB, 312pp, audio, e
Source: Copy bought from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9781473231399

For me, a new novel by Christopher Priest is always an Event and this one had me awake till after midnight: I couldn't stop till I'd finished it.

The Evidence takes us back to the Dream Archipelago, in a story that plays with - and critiques - the rules of detective fiction, as well as taking in feudalism, the world financial system and the literary scene.

Todd Fremde is a successful crime writer, living a comfortable life on the island of Salay Raba, the fourth: a warm and pleasant place, if overrun in parts by financiers and bankers. Certainly a world away from the bitterly cold and industrialised nation of Dearth, where he's gone to give a talk on "The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime Free Society". This gives Priest a wonderful lunch for the story as we follow the slightly nervous and peevish Fremde on his journey - a two day sleeper ride across Dearth, with a flight beforehand. I'm not a natural traveller and I slightly sympathised with Fremde's niggling concerns - about missing connections, being late, having to travel as advised with extra bulky, thermal clothing, missing his usual routines - while also thinking: two days closeted in a sleeper cabin - what an opportunity to catch up on the reading! At the same time, there are some oddities slipped into the story, and if you read Priest's last Dream Archipelago story, The Gradual, you may feel that the central figure, an artist despatched on a lengthy cultural jaunt, may be something of an innocent abroad, likely to run into all sorts of trouble.

As he does, and there is an element of SF to it, with the mysterious "mutability" which nobody can quite explain but which notices in Fremde's hotel room warn him about - but Priest's writing here almost makes it just one of things that you have to cope with in a foreign business trip. A strange foreign law, perhaps, a way of living, in a distant city, that you don't quite grasp, like the peculiarities of the Metro pricing. Certainly not something to worry about much. Especially not when a senior member of the local police (in a crime free society?) takes an interest in you, and insists on telling you about a strange case she was once involved with.

To begin with, Fremde hates that attention. He's already discussed the philosophy of the crime novel - the aspects which are deliberately unrealistic, the things one avoids as passé (the locked room, twins, the "perfect crime"), features of the market which drive the writing one way or another. Now (and here Priest writes with perceptible feeling) we get that horror of horrors for a writer, the fan who wants to suggest an Idea which surely only needs to written up to make a novel. As well as the palpable sense of unease from Fremde's travails in a foreign land, the book now picks up a dash of humour as Fremde has to try and control his annoyance. Eventually, though, he does become interested in the story he's being told - not so much as material, more from the nature of what he hears, and its connection to his homeland. Can it be a coincidence that he was invited to Dearth in the first place?

What follows is best not described in detail - that would spoil the enjoyment of the plot, which contains many little moments of recognition. I will only say that Fremde's life, and the sort of fiction he writes, seem to be crossing over - at many levels - as a result of his visit to Dearth. The concept of mutability becomes important - Fremde relates it to his writing (what's more mutable than fiction?) but it also proves to have real-world effects, serious ones for Todd and for his island.

In the background, this is the same Dream Archipelago we've become familiar with, the endless war between the two Northern states gridding on and escapees from their conscript crimes. In keeping with the detective theme, we also meet a grizzled ex-policeman with secrets (he, also, keeps trying to foist Ideas on Fremde) and another cop who never travels without an assault rifle. There are written confessions, obfuscated records and hints of a cover-up. 

It's an immensely enjoyable book where - in keeping with Fremde's theory of crime writing - the point is less to discover what happened, even where that seems to depend on the most outrageous of crime writing conventions, still less to establish guilt, but to tease out the relationships and personalities involved, to become acquainted with participants and come to know them.

Which is all very well, but there are people it's better not to be acquainted with...

I simply loved this book. It will appeal to the crime enthusiast, the SF reader, followers of Christopher Priest's fiction (onvioulsy) and those who enjoy an intelligent novel where all isn't as it seems.

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

5 November 2020

Review - Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

Mr Wilder and Me
Jonathan Coe
Viking, 5 November 2020
Available as: HB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9780241454664

I'm so grateful to the publisher for access to a free advance e-copy of Mr Wilder and Me via NetGalley.

Jonathan Coe's new novel imagines an encounter between legendary film director and writer Billy Wilder and a young woman from Greece, Calista Frangopoulou, which takes place in 1977 as Wilder is shooting Fedora, one of his last films. The story is told by the present day Calista now married and living London and is prompted by a crisis - of sorts - in her family.

It's a gorgeous story. Wilder's life is fascinating and at times heartbreaking, and Calista is a shrewd and engaging narrator with an existence of her own - she's not just there to describe Wilder and his circle.

The book is structured around three meals. The first, a sort of prelude, takes place in Los Angeles, shortly before the main events begin. Calista is on her first independent holiday, travelling in the US and she makes friends with another young woman who has an invitation to meet Mr Wilder (he's an old acquaintance of her father) and his writing partner, Mr Diamond, for dinner. Neither girl really knows who Wilder is. Gill is mooning over a boy she's met and, half way through the meal, makes her excuses and leaves to chase after him. Calista gets drunk. Basically the evening is a roaring success, giving her a glimpse of fascinating people and circles she'd never imagined. (Coe nerds will be pleased to note Gill's family connection to, among other of his books, Expo '58).

The second meal is in Munich. Have shot external scenes in Greece, Wilder has gone on to film in a German studio (later we'll go to Paris - a tax driven schedule if ever I saw one...) Calista has been working as an assistant on the production and she's been invited along to dinner mainly to meet distinguished film composer Miklós Rózsa expressed an interest in writing music for films. Provoked by a remark from one of the financiers who's in attendance, Wilder - a refugee from the Holocaust - gives an account of his life that is rendered by Coe (or, by Coe as Calista, our witness) as film script. It shows him, careless and young, in Berlin; fleeing to Paris accompanied by his girlfriend; dumping her to go on to the US; and picking up his life in the ashes of Europe after the War. The sequence is so sad, bringing home what Wilder lost and what he, perhaps, spent the rest of his life searching for.

Finally, towards the end of filming on Fedora, and the end of the book, there's quite a different occasion when Wilder and Calista (who's despairing after being treated badly by her man) bunk off from production to eat Brie and drink wine on a farm outside Paris. Wilder offers sympathy. It's one of those unplanned, stolen occasions which are long remembered: soon after we meet Calista, we learn she's a great lover of Brie, indeed it seems to be her comfort food, one she's resorting to in the midst of that family crisis in London at the beginning of the book. ('Other people drink to forget, I eat Brie'). Her reminiscences of Wilder (and some music she's writing, suggested by those memories) allow her to escape that crisis (it is a very low key, middle-class family crisis) and to turn over what's important to her in life and puzzle out a potential solution.

This book is, as I've said, delightful, full of thoughts and contrasts about art and life: Wilder is seen towards the end of his creative career, giving his view of the new up-and-coming generation of filmmakers, the Spielbergs and De Niros (punctilious in his middle-European manners, he always attaches "Mr" to their names - hence the title of the book). 

Calista is, in 1977, at the start of hers: she will later become a composer of some note (though, as Coe makes clear, not a household name - her central critique of Fedora is that it's supposed to be about a film star, but how can there be a famous film star - or a famous composer - you haven't heard of?)

But as we reach the end of the book, Calista's nearing the end of what she has taken meaning from - bringing up her daughters, something which she gladly allowed to edge our her composing. Reflecting, then, on what she learned from "Mr Wilder" seems appropriate. How did he deal with losing the thing that had driven him, or perhaps, the means by which he'd expressed himself, influenced the world? ('the realisation that what we had to give, nobody really wanted any more.') That leads to an analysis of Fedora itself - not one of Wilder's greatest films, and reflecting some poor creative decisions, Calista nevertheless think she perceives what Wilder was trying to do and say. 

I just loved Mr Wilder and Me, as you may have gathered. It's a little different from Coe's last couple of books, Number 11 and Middle England in not being about England and its society and politics. Yes there are a few barbs - Calista assumes that a washed up director she encounters in the BAFTA coffee bar 'came from a family who had plenty of money going back generations and were skilled at keeping it to themselves'. Or a tart 'England's not Europe'. Or, in more sinister vein, a former German acquaintance of Wilder's attempting to excuse his having had '...legitimate concerns about the influence of the Jews', that weasel phrase. But really this is I think a book about growing up, when young; about, perhaps, growing young again, later; about giving what you can and knowing when to stop - or possibly, not stopping and not caring if the world has moved on. It has its moments of tragedy and grief but is at heart a sunny and happy book - and an intensely readable one.

I'd strongly recommend it. 

For more information about Mr Wilder and Me, see the publisher's website here.

3 November 2020

Review - The Hollow Places by T Kingfisher

Cover design by
Natasha MacKenzie

The Hollow Places
T Kingfisher
Titan Books, 3 November 
Available as: PB, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781789093308

Pray that They are hungry...

I'm grateful to Sarah at Titan Books for an advance copy to The Hollow Places to consider for review.

When Kara ("Carrot" to close friends and family) goes through a messy divorce and has to move out of her home ('I was grimly throwing my books into boxes -I was taking the Pratchett, dammit, and he could buy his own...') there are only two options - move back in with her mother, which is never going to work, or accept Uncle Earl's invitation of bed and board at his Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy in Hog Chapel. Earl is a kindly if eccentric man, not as mobile as he used to be and he could use some help. So the choice is made. 

Fortunately the place is next door to the Black Hen coffee house, presided over by Kara's childhood friend Simon, so there are advantages.

The Museum as described is a wonderful mixture of the curious, the cute, the outright fake and the plain odd. Skulls, bones and stuffed skins abound and - if some of the pieces have a 'Made in China' sticker underneath - no-one's looking in the cases, are they? It's the perfect place for Kara to lick her wounds, fill Simon in on what's been going on (he's gay, so they can swap stories about the iniquities of men) and begin cataloguing the collection in her spare time.

They one day, Kara finds something that shouldn't be there... a space she din't know about, that doesn't;t seem to fit the rest of the building.

T Kingfisher's new book is a loose sequel, of companion, to Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows". I read this long, long ago (30 or 40 years ago). Something about somebody travelling by boat down a river, and coming to a space that ought not to be there - a wide, shallow basin filled with agitated willows. What happened after wasn't good.

It might seem a stretch to link this idea to a landlocked mid Western town with a coffee shop, boutique that closes goes out of business every twelve months or so, and a single hardware store, but Kingfisher uses - manipulates - the tropes of horror so well that it seems oh so credible. There's an art to that - at one level we, the readers, know exactly what to expect and will fidget if we don't get it: the slow build up while Kara dismisses what she's seeing, initial explorations, hints of danger (but not too much, not too soon, it needs time for the thing to grow in our minds).

At another levels we also need novelty, surprises and peril, the author can't follow the template exactly or she'll fail to grab attention. Well, this book grabs attention early on. It wraps its fingers through your hair and pulls, and each time it pulls is harder than the last and each pull is a greater, a deeper horror. What exists beyond that hole which has opened up in the museum wall takes time to explore and assimilate, but once Kara and Simon step through, they'r tin immediate danger.

Pray that They are hungry...

It takes time to understand what is so bad if They are not hungry, what that might lead to. Time, and horrifying discoveries about those who went before - discoveries which do make clear how much danger everyone's in, but which also spin a nagging mystery as to exactly how and why all this is happening now. And in the course of all this, while she is suffering extreme pain and distress because of what happened to her, Kara is also having to deal with fussing by her mother and her ex-husband's irritating, stalkery behaviour (of course she wouldn't, herself, stoop to tracking his on social media, oh no, of course she wouldn't).

It's a well written, page-turner of a horror story, which, time and gain, wrong-foots its readers until the final, nail-biting climax in which Kara finds herself alone, injured and assaulted by a deadly and relentless  enemy. A worthy follow-up to The Twisted Ones and enough to make me look very, very carefully at that willow tree down the end of the garden. The one shaking right now in the wind... but perhaps I won't look too closely, or for too long.