Map of Blue Book Balloon

16 October 2021

#Review - The Rose Daughter by Maria Lewis

Cover by Nick Hayes
The Rose Daughter
Maria Lewis
Piatkus, 7 October 2021
Available as: PB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780349427232  

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

It's good to be back in Maria Lewis's shared supernatural universe, which began with werewolves in Who's Afraid? and has progressed through other magical peoples including witches, ghost, banshees and now, sprites. 

Or rather, a sprite. As Dreckly Jones makes clear in this narrative, split between the present day when she is lying low in Sydney and an account of her life up to that point, a sprite is a very rare thing indeed. Offspring of a selfie and an earth elemental, her kind are outlawed by the Treize (why?) the self-appointed government of all supernatural creatures. So Dreckly's life began in prison, locked up by the Treize with her father. 

Now, a century later, she's off their radar, and determined to stay that way.

I was entranced by the way Lewis uses the story of Dreckly's life to explore the 20th century from below. Stowing away for the New World, she gets involved in the movie business, drifting into espionage as the times darken. Lewis has her witness some significant moments for the history of women: a period of brief and precious freedom and self-expression for women and minorities in the Hollywood of the 20s and 30s which gives way before a growing climate of moral censure and then the chaos of violence and loss that is the Second World War. Lewis has done her research, introducing us to some fascinating characters who provide the perfect milieu for a misfit like Dreckly. Throughout, though, Dreckly remembers her father's advice that she shouldn't try to be a hero. Though she sometimes disregards it.

The Rose Daughter seemed slightly different to some of the other episodes in this extended story of supernatural creatures, as a large part of the narrative is distanced from the immediate conflict with the Treize which has been developing throughout the series. That reality - of their desperation and willingness to commit atrocities growing - has to break in eventually, though, with Dreckly's hard won safety (hard won both in terms of what she's given up, and the guilt she feels for keeping her head down) inevitably threatened. First, though, Lewis explores what makes Dreckly, Dreckly - who she has loved, what and who she has lost in her long life, and what regrets she has. All of that lies behind her desire to stay out of sight, stay safe, not play the hero. It also illustrates what a competent and ruthless soldier she's capable of being when she has to be - one who will I'm sure reappear in future instalments of this fascinating saga.

A gloriously page-turnery novel that sheds new light on the revolution boiling up against the Treize, meshes nicely with the earlier books (even including some earlier scenes them a different perspective) and introduces a bold and distinctive new character. What else? Well, of course we have handsome, smouldering werewolves, some energetic sex, and plenty of peril. And signs of a team-up that should make the Treize very, very scared indeed.

I'd strongly recommend for fans of paranormal fiction, lovers of a good, exciting story and anyone interested in some of the less well known corners of 20th century history.

For more information about The Rose Daughter, see the publisher's website here.



 

14 October 2021

#Review - The Hood by Lavie Tidhar

The Hood (Anti-Matter of Britain, 2)
Lavie Tidhar
Head of Zeus, 14 October 2021
Available as: HB, 448pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781838931315

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

Following his iconoclastic take on the King Arthur mythology in By Force Alone, Lavie Tidhar has now turned to Robin Hood. The Hood is very much a sequel, despite being set six hundred(ish) years later - some of the same characters appear or are mentioned, possible because both books dip into the fae-tinged lore of the green and pleasant land. (Even if characters here repeatedly characterise all the Elves and magic as made-up nonsense - nonsense can still have power).

The book's also a sequel in a thematic sense, exploring some of the same themes - for example, how unaccountable power lurks behind the tapestry of history - and in a similar, picaresque style, across a horde of characters and merrily leapfrogging years or decades when needed.

We are in the second half of the 12th century and England is plunged in civil war. Or at least, nobles and princes are at war: a definite theme of The Hood is the lives going on around that, mostly ignoring the battles, escapes, marches and rivalries that are occasionally referred to as the struggle moves backwards and forwards. Instead, the book focusses on Nottingham and Sherwood (of course) though beginning in London where one Will Scarlett gets himself into a bit of bother.

That isn't, though, our entry point to the happy band of outlaws making free in the forest. Throughout this book there is a Hood in Sherwood, just as there are numerous "hoods" who form part of his crew. Tidhar plays happily with concepts and language to compare the outlaws to a gang of mobsters (fair, since that's really how they appear in the sources). Hood is even named Robin, or Rob, at times. But he's hardly a central figure in this story. Necessary, yes, like a king on a chessboard, but also weak. Marian is more important, as are the various figures who wheel around her - Birdie, the strange figure sheltering from the world in a monastery; Rebecca, the daughter of Jewish merchant Isaac of York, who herself becomes something of a gang boss in Nottingham, and even Mrs More-Goose, the cook at Nottingham Castle who has a hidden identity. There's also Sir Richard at the Lee, a knight and agent of  the Archbishop of York, and of course Guy of Gisbourne, the last two acting as vehicles for Tidhar's characteristic noiriness. They play the shady fixer, the tough guy(!) who goes where others won't to serve a kind of justice. Or injustice.

It's a mark of how well Tidhar does this sort of thing that a concept like that - referring forward eight hundred years to a different world and a different medium - works so well in this book. It isn't, of course, the only one - the book is filled with allusions to music, books, media of all sorts, as well as historical parallels and comparisons that I kept thinking ought not to work but just do. There are, for example, numerous characters here who've been through horrors in the Crusades, things they can't explain to the civilians they meet but that others just understand. That haunts the book, bringing to mind so many wars over the past century and more. So many returned and haunted men. So many appalling sights and events.

At the other end of the scale in emotional terms are some really obvious references that had me grinning - a bar called Dick's ('Everybody comes to Dick's', yes I know), allusions to TV and films and, of course, sideswipes at more traditional depictions of Robin Hood (including, yes, That Song). The joke on those is that the Nottingham of The Hood isn't, in contrast to Robin of Sherwood and the like, the Nottingham of, er, The Hood at all. It's the Nottingham of whatever gang boss can hold onto it - be that a Sheriff (but Nottingham has a way with its Sherriffs), the daughter of a Jewish merchant, an enchantress, an alchemist in the vein of Dr Frankenstein or, well, you get the idea. 

Like By Force Alone, the real action here is criminal: control of rackets, production and smuggling of substances, throat-slitting, the works. That coexists with a slippery stratum of forest magic, portrayed at the same time as made-up and as ancient and powerful. That world is populated by some of the same entities and forces as appeared in the previous book but it's not a neat, Neo-Classical pantheon but a confused gaggle of deities and powers scavenged from the mythologies of North-Western Europe and, of course beyond, this being an age of faith and the faith being that of Jesus. But it's also an age of commerce with a lively trade in relics, something that is at the same taken seriously by its participants and treated as a bit of a joke. 

Maybe that's a key to the book as a whole - so much here is both presented as fake, artificial, mutable and as rooted, significant, serious. Sometimes it's at the same time, sometimes the treatment swings between the two depending which characters we're following and what they're doing. The way the book works kind of illustrates how historical figures and events we're used to seeing of thinking of in a certain way can also be shifty, contingent and make-do.

Historical figures and events including of course some key and cherished bits of (admittedly mostly made-up) British history. Which is of course Tidhar's point. It is a point he makes in a highly entertaining, and compellingly readable, way, one that leaves me eagerly looking forward to the next part of this rackety story of Britain.

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



 

12 October 2021

#Review - The Bone Ship's Wake by RJ Barker

The Bone Ship's Wake (Tide Child, 3)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 30 September 2021
Available as: PB, 576pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356511863  

I'm VERY grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Bone Ship's Wake.

The Tide Child series - which The Bone Ship's Wake completes - give us that rare thing, a perfect trilogy. In these books Barker gets so many things right. Each part is a complete, exciting adventure in its own right. While telling an increasingly complex story as whole, one could still pick any of them up and enjoy it without having read the earlier parts (though why you'd deprive yourself like that, I have no idea). Each book is actually better than the previous one. While the setting is profoundly convincing and the events involving and exciting, Barker doesn't let them rule his writing. Because most of all, and best of all, at the centre of these stories is the most wondrous, gloriously portrayed, developing relationship, between Shipwife (captain) 'Lucky' Meas Gilbryn and her Deckeeper (First Mate) Joron Twiner. 

I came to realise, and to love, that the plot - all the voyages, battles and double-crosses - and its motivation - the desire to escape the endless tyranny of the Bern - was pretty much secondary to that complex and evolving relationship. And that is good, because the dimensions of that central relationship - the secrets, the hurt that both have suffered, their prickliness, their faults - are so sprawling and angling, well, I could have read these books if they featured Joron and Meas having their chats on deck, and nothing else. Both are simply glorious humans. Put them together and Barker's writing simply soars away. It's just intoxicating.

Not, though, in case that gives the wrong impression, that the plot itself is inconsequential.  Far from it. As this third book opens (slight spoilers, if you haven't read the others) Meas has been captured by her enemies and is being tortured. Joron, determined to rescue her, has made himself into The Black Pirate, scourge of the seas, and is raging his way through the Hundred Islands' fleet, using the ships that Meas gathered in her mission to forge peace between the Hundred and the Gaunt Isles. In doing this he comes into his own as a leader, a planner and a killer. Nobody in these books is wholly good, or wholly bad: it's clear that Joron has done some dreadful things, Barker doesn't hide that. The ostensible goal in these books has shifted from defending the newly returned Arakeesians (great sea dragons) in The Bone Ships to forging that alliance for peace in The Call of the Bone Ships to this bloody quest for vengeance in The Bone Ship's Wake. More and more personal, less and less in service to the Thirteenbern, Meas' mother. And increasingly bound up in that relationship, that deep and profound friendship, that has grown between Joron and Meas since the day she took his shipwife's hat in the first book. 

Behind all the salty nautical jargon, the lonely seas and the skies, the tactical problems and superhuman endurance and cohesion of the crews, we come to this. At last, in the closing pages of The Bone Ship's Wake, everything else falls away, everything is made plain (including things from the previous books that were less clear at the time) and we see the two, in many ways greatly diminished - facing overwhelming odds, nowhere to go - revealing, finally, what they mean to each other. NOT a romantic relationship but a strong and profound friendship and yes, a loving one, almost beyond words, tested and tried in fire and ice. 

What a story.

Of course, the supporting elements that made the previous books so readable - naval battle, the close observation of the little society aboard the Tide Child, the portrayal of the deeply alien yet very familiar world of the islands, the Gullaime and its kind - are lacking here. The Gullaime, in particular, takes a central role as we learn, finally, about its role, its hopes and its fears. (I love the Gullaime!) Those things are just as strong. But Barker has resisted the temptation to double down, to give us yet more and more naval battle, more and more ship-speak. We know he can do that, we know this world, we can feel it, smell it, taste it. There's simply no need to pile it on. We know Tide Child by know, we fear for him - but we know what he is capable of, in the hands of the deckchilder, that found family held together by a combination of fierce discipline and something like love.

But Tide Child is in new waters now, facing danger beyond anything we saw before, and possibly needing help beyond what the brave souls who crew him can achieve...

This final instalment is an epic, triumphant read, fully meeting the promise of the earlier books. Be warned, though - it's a true RJ Barker story, it may break you. Reading this book is like receiving a broadside from a ship of the Fleet. Once loosed, everyone is at risk, from the shipwife standing rigid on the deck to the deckchilder aloft in the spines. You'll not escape unscathed. Just trust in Shipwife Barker, who has brought us safe before through storm and fire and ruin and can do so again.

In short I'd STRONGLY RECOMMEND The Bone Ship's Wake.

For more information about The Bone Ship's Wake, see the publisher's website here.



5 October 2021

#Review - My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Cover by Julia Lloyd

My Heart is a Chainsaw
Stephen Graham Jones
Titan Books, 7 September 2021
Available as: PB, 448pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789098099

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of My Heart is a Chainsaw to consider for review.

My Heart is a Chainsaw is so strange. Also, so sad. Stephen Graham Jones uses the language of the horror movie to animate and illustrate Jade's story. Jade, the lonely goth geek, who lives and breathes the horror movie. The deliberate loner with an unhappy family background. The misfit, half Indian and daughter of the town drunk.

But My Heart is more than that. It's also a portrait of Proofrock, a small town in the US midwest, a warm community facing up to wealthy outsiders who want things their own way.

Of the two, it is I think in the end Jade's story that is deeper and more interesting and indeed heartbreaking. Yet we can't understand her without understanding how she sees the world, and that means engaging with her horror film obsession and understanding its depths and roots. 

Jade is, simply, obsessed with horror movies and the slasher genre in particular. Each section of this book is opened by an essays she's written for her English teacher, Mr Holmes, analysing and explaining the influences, history, themes and meaning of those films. Jade's knowledge is vast, with reference points far beyong the usual suspects, and she's bright enough to go far beyond the surface - yet this takes her into a kind of twilight world where these gory slash-fests seem to be given a degree of reality and internal coherence beyond that of mere fictional creations. When Jade speculates on the mechanics and workings of the films, she writes as though she is discussing a natural phenomena, something like natural history or anthropology, rather that the story and commerce-driven productions of filmmakers.

Conversely, as events in Proofrock begin to echo the genre, Jade feels free to speculate on what may come as though that internal logic also applies to the real world. She fixates in particular on one young woman as the putative "Final Girl". Letha Mondragon is an incomer to the town, daughter of one of the group of ultra-rich "Founders" who are building their own gated community across the lake. She's therefore an outsider, just as Jade is peripheral. 

One of the things I found affecting about this story was the way in which, while Jade seems isolated (certainly by herself) she does have people on her side - Mr Holmes.  The town Sheriff, even Letha. The tragedy of it is that when they try to help her they always seem to misstep and make things worse than before. Jade comes over as angry, vulnerable and opinionated. She's spiky, independent-minded and awkward. A fascinating personality with all sorts of deeps and quirks - and with some secrets of her own, which she curls round protectively. Her whole mythology of Horror, the slasher and the Final Girl may - consciously or not - be constructed to hide those secrets, or to protect her from them. 

As you move through this book, you will have plenty of opportunity to wonder how far Jade is imposing her own logic on the town, and how far the typically horror-y elements deployed here have some objective reality to them. Stephen Graham Jones takes his time setting things up, allowing Jade to give us the tools, as it were, we will need to understand what's going on - but also marking out the deeper secrets and currents that are swirling about.

I won't spoil the story by hinting at how it all turns out, but I will say that I found the conclusion moving, shocking and, in the best possible way, genre transcending. I've seldom read a book where the conventions of a genre, the actual grammar and beats of an apparently familiar story, were used so well both to mislead and then to deliver a wrenching, stunning climax.

You have to read this book!

For more information about My Heart is a Chainsaw, see the publisher's website here.





 

30 September 2021

#Review - Invisible Sun by Charles Stross

Invisible Sun (Empire Games, 3)
Charles Stross
Macmillan, 30 September 2021
Available as: PB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781447247593

I'm grateful for an advance copy of Invisible Sun to consider for review.

Invisible Sun sees Stross's multiple timeline story of politics, economics and development reach a potential conclusion, and also reach six books by the New Reckoning or nine Old Style (the first six, the Merchant Princes arc, were revised into three satisfyingly chunky volumes). In the course of its unfolding, the story has mutated from portal fantasy to SF, with a distinct technothrillery edge.

In Merchant Princes, Miriam Beckstein, who thought she was an ordinary young woman from Boston, struggled to come to terms with the reality that she was a world-walker able to cross between timelines, and a member of an other-Earthly aristocracy from a medieval kingdom. In the course of that narrative arc, Stross explored ideas about development, the functioning of states, the corruption of democracy and the interplay between family and the wider world - Miriam's cousins in the Clan, world-walking smugglers who put their abilities to good using trafficking special cargoes under the noses of officialdom, being great fans of Family. 

Eventually Miriam took refuge in a nuclear-armed, revolutionary-democratic state, the New American Commonwealth, which occupies the American continent in another timeline. And so, in this last (at least for now) instalment, we see the Commonwealth squaring up to a paranoid security-state US. Paranoid, because it was attached with nukes by the Clan,  who have now fled to the Commonwealth. It's a complex, game-theory driven situation, a para-time Cold War liable to go hot at any moment even before throwing in revolutionary ultras, a runaway Princess and independent-minded intelligence operatives who don't always think to clear their ploys though the chain of commend.

Elsewhere, though, a much worse threat to the future of the Earths (all of them) has awoken (giving Stross the opportunity to use 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' as a chapter title).

The title of the present book, Invisible Sun, picks up the "family" theme, viewing the effect on great events of family and personal connections as being like that of a great, gravitational mass moving through a solar system, warping space around it and producing unforeseen disturbances in the heavens at odds with the expected orderly progression. Notoriously, there's no exact mathematical solution to the dynamics of such a system (the famous many-body problem). So we see here the existence of not only the Clan, but another hidden family, one made rather than born, driving events in this book. (And in the author's Afterword we see the same theme occur again in real life as he explains why this book took longer to reach your hands than you might have expected).

I really, REALLY enjoyed seeing that second family, the Wolf Orchestra, in action. An old-style East German spy ring composed of sleeper agents in the US, they are now stranded with no home to return to, nobody to broker prisoner swaps with or offer diplomatic cover. But they are tuning up to play one last symphony, pitting their classical spycraft, their dead-letter drops and lamplighters, but more, their discipline and their loyalty to one another, against a modern panopticon state armed with endless cameras, massive compute resources and virtual hegemony in the West. 

Virtual, not quite total. An entertaining subplot here features a Berlin police officer who insists on following the rules to the letter while his gang-ho DHS opposites stew in frustration. Also, those EU data protection rules which prevent the raw take from the exported to the US for processing.

I also enjoyed seeing the imaginative creation that Stross has made of the Commonwealth, not a perfect place by any means (indeed in some respects a rather deadly one) but an attempt, perhaps, at a sketch of a better nation. It's one that reminds the members of the Orchestra, in atmosphere if not in specifics, of their vanished home, but also allows them to see a perhaps more perfect version of that. Their status also leads to some moments of genuine, if grim, humour; 'It's not kidnapping: they asked us for political asylum... They're not doing so as American citizens but as citizens of the German Democratic Republic. If you don't like it, you can take it up with Erich Honecker's ghost.'

This book is, as I've come to expect from Stross, slick, thought-provoking but above all, fun with rapid-fire deployment concepts from science, engineering, espionage, defence, politics (of all sorts: within families, within organisations, between arms of a State, between nations, between timelines, you name it) and much, much more. (I loved JUGGERNAUT). Want to see how a princess from an ancien regime, Diving Right of Kings monarchy might behave when she escapes into 21st century Berlin? Look no further. How about a perspective on the accelerating defence technology of a rapidly industrialising revolutionary polity with paratime espionage capability? Here it is. Would you like to to know how that paratime capability might have come into being, and what it means? It's here.

Yes, in this book, we finally see the veil lifted on the origin of the Clan's ability, and how it fits with that other threat, the one that the US and the Commonwealth have been ignoring as they manoeuvre and jostle for advantage. It could be that is a BIG mistake as the book pivots fully into apocalyptic SF... 

I would STRONGLY recommend Invisible Sun. It brings epic closure to the Empire Games arc, revisiting many much-loved characters as well as exalting in the doings of new ones such as Rita Douglas and Liz Hanover who are both EXCELLENT and should get more coverage SOON. 

I could also swear I saw hooks for followups, despite Stross's protestations about this in the Afterword. Maybe once he's got over writing something longer than War and Peace, he might change his mind?

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

28 September 2021

#Review - Horseman by Christina Henry

Horseman
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 28 September 2021
Available as: HB, 352pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781789095975

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

Horseman revisits events in Sleepy Hollow, a remote township in the woods of the US Eastern seaboard, some years after Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". You don't have to know the details of the earlier book, as Henry gives plenty of context, but I think you will get a richer experience if you do.

The story opens as Sander and his friend Ben Van Brunt visit the deep woods to play "Sleepy Hollow Boys", acting out the famous story. Their game is though set aside when a group of villagers gallop past, having made a grim discovery - which turns out to be only the first in a series. Someone - or something - in the woods seems to have woken, and to be killing in a particularly horrible way. Gradually, Ben realises that what's going on may be connected to the Van Brunt family, and tension rises between grandfather Brom and grandmother Katrina.

Horseman is one of those stories where attempts are being made to hide or bury what happened in the past, but if danger is to be seen off, it's necessary to face the darkness, however painful that may be. Easy to say, harder to do when one has to navigate a web of taciturn family members, suspicious villagers and enigmatic legends. It all means Ben has to grow up very quickly - going in a few days from being a carefree child to one who will never, never, play "Sleepy Hollow Boys" again.

Alongside that narrative of growing-up, Horseman is also a story of difference and acceptance. Sleepy Hollow is a very backwards community (indeed, Henry hints, perhaps almost unnaturally backward, unperturbed by any currents of change in the wider world. What might cause that?) It is also an inward-looking community, where conformism is important and everyone knows everyone else's business. But facing up to long buried secrets - and, as becomes clear, lies - is hard in such a place, and may expose other things too. The privileged and slightly eccentric Van Brunts may to a degree be able to face that down, but they also seem to be at the centre of a series of gruesome events - and they have enemies.

And what of the Horseman himself? Brom denies he exists at all. He may have his own reasons for that, but Ben seems to hear the hoofbeats - or is it just his heart? - and for the first time, begins to doubt Brom's word and past deeds. 

I really enjoyed Horseman. Apart from its sympathetic portrayal of a teenager who is, most definitely a bit of an outsider, despite being a member of a wealthy family, it gives a vivid picture of life at a particular time and place complete with a range of characters, from the stupid to the villainous. At the heart of things is that central triangle of Brom, Katrina and Ben whose love for one another shines through, even when they bitterly disagree as, here, they do.

Adding to Henry's takes on familiar and less familiar motifs and stories, Horseman is entertaining, often surprising and deserves to be read at a gallop, preferably into the early hours.

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

27 September 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Born to the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Born to the Dark (The Three Deaths of Daoloth, 2)
Ramsey Campbell
Flame Tree Press, 13 August 2021
Available as: HB, 288pp, PB, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781787585638

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Born to the Dark and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

The second part of Campbell's Lovecraftian trilogy The Three Deaths of Daoloth (after The Searching Dead) takes us to 1980s Liverpool, a city in the midst of political turmoil and confrontation with the London government. But film studies lecturer Dominic Sheldrake is involved in a more personal struggle, as shadows from the past seem to be reaching out for his adored son, Toby. In a story that very much continues from the earlier book, Campbell injects a sense of unease from the off: returning from a meet-up with old friends in London, Sheldrake seems inordinately concerned over a dropped phone call and the fact that, when he rushes into the house, he can't immediately find the boy. We might wonder why.

It's only partially explained when we learn about the seizures and sleep problems that have afflicted the boy since childhood - there does still seem to be a vein of over-protectiveness in Sheldrake who's suspicious even of the treatment that his wife Lesley seems, after endless medical consultations, to have found. That seeds an unease between the parents, something that will only grow as Sheldrake delves into his own history and begins to see echoes of events that he experienced in his childhood, events involving a sinister cult.

I adore Campbell's finely-crafted horror, which relies less on shock and gore than on cultivating a nagging unease as his protagonists explore their, often urban, landscapes. Born to the Dark is a fine example, exploiting the unsaid, the misunderstandnings, the awkward frictions in daily conversations to suggest that all may not be well. Without at all needing to invoke the uncanny, almost all the interactions here are difficult, cross-purposed and, ultimately, lacking in a full sense of communication. Sometimes Sheldrake shares in this view, pointing out things that were missed or sidelines, sometimes we're left to draw our own conclusions. Staying on top of life is, Campbell shows us, hard work, with a constant risk of going off the rails (or even falling off the ferry, given Liverpool's geography). 

That's pressed home by the conflict in all areas of Sheldrake's life - the increasingly acrimonious exchanges with Lesley are matched by interventions from the irritating figure of the university vice-chancellor, Dominic's boss, who's hyper-sensitive to complaints from the students about the content of his film-studies course.  The root of the trouble seems to be the response of religious members of the class to Dominic's instinctive scepticism, which is ironic given his past encounters with the occult might give him grounds for belief in something, if not anything orthodox. But it does mean he is continually harassed and nagged, in a context where he might otherwise have some respite from the difficulties in his marriage. Instead, we see a portrayal of a man pushed from all directions, increasingly believing that he and his family are being targeted by unseen forces but - in trying to explain his fears - only making himself seem obsessed or even deranged.

It's all done very slowly and gradually and, in having an innocent boy at its centre, one for whom there seems no help, seems deeply, deeply sinister - an impression only magnified by a somewhat comic pair of policemen (if they really are) who take to harassing Dominic. They present as both funny and deeply creepy, suggesting that the forces at work here are active not just in dark backstreets and remote isolated mansions but in brightly lit corridors and streets of the city. Indeed, the rough ride that Dominic gets from officialdom in general backs that up and suggests a connection between him and his city, both estranged from the powers and principalities that given them.

All in all, a disturbing and suggestive read, one that achieves its effects by hinting at a taint in everyday life rather than through setpiece supernatural theatrics, and is all the more effective for that. 

I'd recommend.

For more information about Born to the Dark, see the Flame Tree Press website here, and also the other stops on the blogtour - listed in the poster below.

You can buy Born to the Dark from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot org UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.



20 September 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Dark Things I adore by Katie Lattari

Cover design by
Natasha MacKenzie

Dark Things I Adore
Katie Lattari
Titan Books, 14 September 2021
Available as:PB, 466pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789095906

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Dark Things I Adore and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Dark Things I Adore takes us to a remote colony for artists, set among the deep woods of Maine, in 1988. Here a group of misfits gather, isolated from the world, and are given nicknames, distancing them from their everyday lives: Zephyr. Moss. Juniper... Names reflecting the Nature within which they will live, painting, sculpting, shaping clay. Walking in the woods. Boating on the lake. Making love. Making art. 

It may sound idyllic - but this is also where a terrible event will tale place, an event that has echoes into the future. Some will return to their lives with a new purpose, with new art. Others seem to end up gathered in to Lupine Valley, and stay for months or years. 

Told in two timelines - the story from 1988, and another visit to Maine, in October 2018 - this enigmatic, beautiful book challenges us to spot connections - who is who, and what are they trying to forget? It's interspersed with descriptions of an artist's show, the "Dark Things" of the title. Paintings layered with notes on scraps of paper, receipts, pages from notebooks, all found in and around the same house and telling a despairing and sad story. Reported in meticulous detail, these items form a commentary on both the simultaneous timelines, offering clues about the central character, a woman called Cindy and also - in the colony - Coral.

Coral is a troubled and troubling young woman, whose difficulties seem to have everyone - her boyfriend, her family, the artists in the camp - at their wits' end. She is both at the centre of the book, with her thoughts, actions and feelings the focus of all that goes on, and also reported indirectly to us - and also curiously absent, often interpreted to us especially by Juniper, who narrates her story in 1988, but also by Moss and Mantis whose interest in her was rather troubling to me. Their relationship - especially Moss's, as a painter who adopts Coral as his muse - seemed to be saying really dark things about the potential in art to exploit a subject. Moss has some of the aspect of a vampire, his art gaining in depth and quality as Coral loses herself and becomes more desperate.

So there are more dark things here than just the paintings being prepared for show. A heady brew of love, obsession, revenge, exploitation that approaches abuse, and despair, and with - at least in the imagination of its characters - a brush with the supernatural - Dark Things I Adore exhibits the dangers and pitfalls of high Romanticism in a story that really, really gets inside your head and feels as though nothing good can come of the events being described.

I should perhaps say, of course "Years ago X happened, now those who took part have to live with the consequences" is not a new concept, but any doubts I had were swept away by Lattari's bewitching prose and crisp characterisations, as well as by her telling of these events through the lens of art, all of which make this such an absorbing read, and one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about Dark Things I Adore, see the Titan Books website here or any of the stops on the tour listed on the poster. You can buy Dark Things I Adore from your local bookshop, or online form Bookshop dot org UK, Hive Books, or Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.




19 September 2021

#Blogtour - Resilience by Bogdan Hrib

Resilience
Bogdan Hrib (trans by Marina Sofia)
Corylus Books, 20 August 2021
Available as: e, 286pp
Source: Purchased copy
ASIN: B09C44C3X7

I'm grateful to the publisher for inviting me to join the blogtour for Resilience.

If - in this year of all years - you've missed out on some international travel, let Resilience fill that gap in your life, hopping as it does across Europe from the beaches of South Shields, where it opens with a death, to the streets of Bucharest and Iasi in Romania and back again to London. More than travel, though, the action in this slickly plotted thriller is driven by distance, by geography and by history, plugging into the complex history of Middle Europe with its evolving borders, nationalisms and polities.

Stelian Munteanu is an investigator, a fixer of sorts, also an editor - a man, as the book describes him, with his fingers in many pies. He's hired, after that early death, to look into things. Travelling from Bucharest to Newcastle, he's able to cast an outsider's eye on Britain - but will it be able to penetrate the web of mystery and conspiracy that we're confronted with here? I enjoyed meeting Stelian - the book makes it clear that this isn't his first adventure and indeed, I see that the book is part of a series, but it wears that lightly: there is a sense of backstory, of the characters here having met and been through things before (particularly Stelian's wife, Sofia Matei, whose occupation and dealings are kept a bit mysterious).

Further deaths ensue in the story, both in Britain and back in Romania, and Hrib shows us glimpses of a conspiracy that may or may not be responsible for them. It's part of the fun of this well-constructed and pacey story that we see parts of what they're doing and can sort-of guess and what they want, but at the same time, not everything seems to fit. There are plots within plots, and some of the characters seem to know altogether too much about what's happening. I just didn't know who to trust - even now, I'm not sure. That, to me, is a sign of a convincing thriller.

Behind that, the book read to me as having deep roots in the history and politics of Central Europe. There are the grand plans - the dreams of unifying modern states to create something crossing the continent, echoing the empires of the past and, perhaps, bringing back greatness. There are also nightmares, fears of what dislocation and chaos might follow. All of that's seen through the lens of modern "influencing" - of fake news, astroturfed activism and mysterious figures dispensing large denomination Euro notes. All thrilling, but Hrib never takes the story beyond the plausible and that sense of a history, a previous life, to his main group - not only Stelian and Sofia but Anton, Stelian's policeman friend and his brilliant assistant, Anabella, and Ionescu the spy who comes and goes like Gandalf in The Hobbit. Hearing them speak (and argue and make up) it almost feels like walking into a room where a group of friends are already deeply engaged in a conversation - except that rather than falling silent, Hrib's writing, combined with Marina Sofia's readable, evocative translation, invite you get a drink, take a seat, and listen along.

Bogdan Hrib
Overall a fun read introducing characters I'd like to meet again.

For more information about Resilience, see the publisher's website here. And do take a look at the other stops on the blogtour, listed on the poster below.

About the Author

Bogdan Hrib was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1966. 

Former journalist, civil engineer by education and now professor at the University in Bucharest, Hrib is the co-founder of Tritonic Books (1993) and has been instrumental in bringing other Romanian crime writers into English publication.

He was the vice-president of the Romanian Crime Writers Club (2010-2012), and the director/organizer of the International Mystery & Thriller Festival in Râșnov (2011-2015), as well as the PR coordinator of the History Film Festival also in Râșnov

He is the author of the crime fiction series featuring Stelian Munteanu, a book-editor with a sideline doing international police work. Kill the General (2011), the fourth book in the Munteanu series was Hrib’s first novel translated into English, won the Special Award of the Bucharest Writers Association (2012). The Greek Connection is Hrib’s second novel translated into English.

The novel Resilience, the sixth of the series, was published in May 2020, by Tritonic. The story A Bucharest Arrest was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (March-April 2021)

Marina Sofia
www.bogdanhrib.ro
Instagram @bogdanhrib
Facebook @bofromro
Twitter @bo_hrib


About the Translator

Marina Sofia was born in Romania but has lived in the UK for half of her life. She was a reviewer for Crime Fiction Lover for more than seven years and has also worked for Asymptote Literary Journal. Her previous translation for Corylus Books was Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu. She is on Twitter and https://twitter.com/MarinaSofia8 and blogs at https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/

 











14 September 2021

#Review - From the Neck Up by Aliya Whiteley

Design by Julia Lloyd

From the Neck Up and other stories
Aliya Whiteley
Titan Books, 14 September 2021
Available as: PB, 301pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789094756

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of From the Neck Up to consider for review.

From the Neck Up collects 16 of Whiteley's stories, originally published between 2014 and 2020. The longest ("Brushwork") is an 80 page near-novella, most though are shorter, between 10 and 20 pages. The themes are riotously diverse, but often concern - or are set among - environmental and societal collapse whose consequences are being explored. In many of the stories we're located in a sanctuary - literal or emotional - which has escaped the worst consequences of the catastrophe. 

That reminded me at times of Joan Aiken's stories in that, as did the skilful and even joyful juxtaposition of the weird and the normal. One can't, I think, fully appreciate the weird if it's presented in isolation, we need it to be interweaved with everyday life.

That's certainly true of the first story, "Brushwork", where we meet elderly Mel (many of the stories features older characters) who's working on a farm, tending melons in a greenhouse. Only gradually does Whiteley reveal the complexities of the setup; the catastrophe that causes Mel and her colleagues to be near prisoners, her background and the wrenching choice she was forced to make as things got worse  - and the extent to which she has, since then, been sheltered (though it might not seem like it) from the harsh world outside. But she won't be able to escape reality forever.

In "Many-Eyed Monsters"  the narrator is living an ordinary life until she begins to worry about something truly strange in her body. Initially trying to hide the problem, she's forced to accept that she is creating - or becoming - something new. Moving from unease, and the desire to suppress what is happening, she finds a sense of acceptance and solidarity. This story catches well, I think, the drive to try and contain the strange.

"Three Love Letters from an Unrepeatable Garden" describes not only an "unrepeatable" garden - one that can't be duplicated or, once lost, restored; its creator is gone - but seemingly one of those precious islands of beauty and normality (well, for certain values of "normal") left in a hostile world. That's why it needs protecting and nurturing. But if it's doomed anyway, might it not be justified to just, well, enjoy it before the end? Posing questions about the fragility of beauty and our duty to protect it, this one left me thinking hard.

Corwick, in "Corwick Grows", is one of those elusive islands amidst a wider world, always teasingly distant; the narrator has hunted for it but can't find the place until one day when they stumble into a remote farmhouse. Nothing will ever be the same again for them, or for Corwick - a place that seems to thrive on the imagination of its residents. Combining a calm acceptance of what is happening with a somewhat body-horror aesthetic, "Corwick Grows" suggests that some, at least, of those elusive places may be better left unfound.

"Loves of the Long Dead" takes an imaginative journey from Ancient Egypt to the abyss of the ocean to a modern research lab. When a spirit from the past seeks revenge, she becomes frustrated that time hasn't stood still and that the villain whom she hates no longer exists to suffer. Perhaps a substitute can be found...

In "Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion" the optical terms hint at some sort of visual phenomenon - the Effect - that is ill understood, indeed, whose nature and effects are argued and disagreed over but which seem to be dire (cancer? Suicide?) It is something to which Eliza, the narrator, was subject but about which she seems ambivalent. She does, though, want to understand and perhaps even re-experience it which leads her on a strange quest.

"Farleyton" is another of those islands of wholeness and order amidst a chaotic and sickening world. Many wish to travel there, lured by the stories of its wonders. Told in the voices of various groups - the enclave's guards, a travel agent facilitating migrants, workers seeking good jobs in the place, a girl en route to it - we see jarring and contrasting pictures, hinting that perhaps Farleyton is a different place to each, that perhaps it may not be able to be the same Heaven on Earth for all, that it may have limits, small print and abrupt endings. Trying to assemble a picture from the pieces given here is frustrating, suggesting truths that Whiteley avoids spelling out directly. One of my favourites in this volume.

"Into Glass" is a deeply weird story which opens with the unnamed narrator about to cut her sleeping lover with a scalpel. Only a small cut, the tiniest nick, blood from which she hopes will reveal something wonderful. It is an act that to her is deeply ominous - not just an assault, a violation of consent but a recapitulation of a dark history involving her parents and grandparent. But at the same it's a family inheritance, a gift. What to do? And what will happen? The story ponders the value of love - is it finite, can it be bled away? - as well as secrets. An achingly beautiful and sad story.

"Compel" posits an alien invasion, swift and sudden and complete, but not the normal death-ray wielding tripods, rather a glitch, an anomaly that leaves most humans literally speechless and lost. In face of this, Whiteley's narrator feels some duty to resist, but can only record, gradually losing coherence and the ability to tell what's happening - even as they start to grasp more fully the causes of the catastrophe.

"Chantress" is a fun story revolving around three women, the Chantress of the title, the Enchantress and the Disenchantress. Somehow unmoored from modern society - the Chantress has a mobile phone but signal is poor on the mountain - they seem to be acting out roles in a near fairy-story for the local villagers, but why, and where will it lead? Again, the mundane, human and normal are seen alongside the frankly weird.

"Blessings Erupt" is about Hope, a woman who has some kind of healing gift against the contamination caused in the near future by plastics and toxins. But it's a gift that takes its toll. Hope has the gratitude of so may whom she has saved, but she has become cynical about the whole process; are we to believe that she's now seeing through things to the truth, or has she herself become corrupted? In this story about a life drawing to its close we are also shown Hope's beginnings and left to wonder what version of the future is the truth. A moving and powerful story about community and responsibility.

"Star in the Spire" sees Sammie, travelling alone in the blighted waste of the future, find an oasis, a little patch of life and growth. But it also seems to contain death - there are some gruesome sights described. Whether, though, they represent a catastrophe, or a transformation, is very ambiguous.

In the titular story, "From the Neck Up", Megan is obsessed with decapitation and reality seems to meet her interest, offering a head if not on a platter, then on a bed. But despite being severed it seems to be a head with business of its own and not to be finished, not at all, with life. Veering from comedy as Megan tries to control the situation to a strangely moving depiction of the head's ongoing life, "From the Neck Up" was another of my favourites here, whether it's to be taken literally or as expressing something of Megan's (rather desperate) life and the changes she needs to make in it.

"The Tears of a Building Surveyor, and Other Stories" could be seen as the Walter Mitty-like fantasies of aging Violet - in a chaotic narrative of running away with a "chaperone", joining a nunnery, escaping a massacre and then becoming a clown - if it was not so touchingly and tenderly wrapped around glimpses of Violet's reality, of her life with Tom. The two ways of describing Violet's world are so different, yet so closely linked, that the reader needs, I think, to see them both as true to to unpick what each needs from the other. A beautiful, sad, and funny story.

"To the Farm" explores the potential darker consequences of artificial intelligence and both the limits, and unexpected graces, of love. Another very sad story (or it could be) leading up (as did "Brushwork") to a moment of letting go, of allowing for growth and change.

In the final story, "The Spoils" we return to a community living after some apocalypse (never made clear). They're an underground people, with a ritualised way of dealing with their world illustrated when a great beast - an Olme - is killed and divided between the community. Like a baffled Victorian explorer learning the customs of an unknown people, a lot doesn't make sense, even as it does. Again the story dwells on the different roles and lives of those who receive the body parts of the unfortunate Olme, and we might wonder why there is such a complicated routine here as there is no suggestion for example that they will all eat it. Some explanation is given when a daring member of the group decides to take her share to the surface, but story - both obscure and slightly menacing - leaves a great deal to the reader. A haunting story.

Altogether, there is a lot to think about bin these excellent stories. If you have read her Skein Island or Skyward Inn, you'll recognise some of the atmosphere, and themes, but the exploration of them across different fragments of story adds new depth (and enjoyment).

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



11 September 2021

#Review - The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
Sarah Gailey
Hodder, 18 February 2021(HB), 8 July 2021(PB)
Available as: HB, 256pp, audio, e 
Source: Audio
ISBN(HB): 9781529354492

I listened to The Echo Wife as audio, completing it in the e-book as I got close to the end. Audio is the ideal medium for Evelyn's spiky, defensive story, Xe Sands' narration conveying the whole range of emotions from anger - so much anger! - to betrayal to grudging sympathy. The narration really takes flight to imply a whole world of unspoken truths festering just under the surface as Evelyn and the others here ignore awkward facts, look the other way, fail to understand things on purpose, and generally evade their way through the moral complexities of this twisty story.

Evelyn is a research scientist, a pioneer in the field of human cloning and especially, of "conditioning" the "specimens" to resemble - and act like - their originals. Gailey's writing is simply astonishing here, employing understatement and na clinical, precise register to show Evelyn and her co-workers apparently happy to accept all this entails: The creation of life.  Its manipulation. Its destruction when it doesn't come up to scratch, or when no longer required. A world of horror and suffering defined away in clipped, clinical language and then tidied away quickly. Evelyn doesn't need to think through the implications because these are simply not humans, are they? They are "specimens".

This isn't the only way in which Evelyn has learned to master her emotions. From her childhood, where she and her mother are at the mercy of a controlling and (it's implied, but never stated overtly) abusive father to her life with husband Nathan (the story opens just after their divorce) there is just so much not said. So much so that the silence, the passivity, actually gets quite LOUD, quite VIOLENT. Evelyn's determined not to be her father, afraid (though she won't admit it) that she will be. After all, wasn't she moulded by him (as she moulds her specimens?)

Questions recur. What makes us, us? What makes us, human? Answers are demanded as Evelyn is forced, after a catastrophe in her life, to cooperate with Martine, Nathan's new partner. Martine is all that Evelyn isn't. 

Compliant.

Obedient.

Demonstrative.

... willing to have a baby. 

Yet she's also, inescapably, a version of Evelyn, Nathan's idealisation of her. Again, what makes us, us? WHO makes us, us? 

Forced, for the sake of survival, to work together, the two women orbit one another, acting as two foci in a dialogue about freewill, humanity, selfhood. All of Evelyn's painfully acquired certainties will be challenged by Martine's sheer existence, her life an argument for other ways of seeing, other ways of being. It's a very claustrophobic piece. Evelyn and Martine - these two women, so different, so similar - endlessly fascinated me as they learned about each other and so, about life.

There are many bumps along the way. This is a world close to ours. It has Evelyn's marvellous cloning tech, but that's the only difference: women's existence, their participation, is still visibly on sufferance. (Evelyn knows she has to be better than any man, and resents manbaby Nathan, sloppy Nathan who never pays attention to his work and yet gets away with it.) There is the doctor who doesn't ask questions when a young girl is brought in with a broken wrist. There is the sense that, as Evelyn sees it, it's her, as a woman, who has the responsibility of organising everything for Nathan, of making plans and making things work - and then he goes and sulks because she burnt the eggs! 

For Evelyn, everything is about her legacy, her need to excel. We might wonder who, in her past, she is trying to impress? And just how far she will go, what she has to achieve, to do that? And who might get hurt?

There is just so much here, whether you see this as a classic SF novel - Evelyn an even more modern Prometheus, perhaps - as a study of living, of becoming, as a grim account of dominance and abuse or, possibly, as half a dozen other things. It is absorbing, accomplished, very sad in places and, in all, a terrific read. 

For more information about The Echo Wife, see the publisher's website here.



9 September 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Cover design by Lesley Worrell

Certain Dark Things
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 7 September 2021
Available as: HB, 254pp, e, audio
ISBN:(HB): 9781529415605

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Certain Dark Things to consider for review, and for inviting me to take place in the Social Media Blast accompanying publication.

Offering a truly original take on the vampire myth, Moreno-Garcia's republished novel Certain Dark Things imagines a world where the existence of vampires became known in the 1960s, leading different countries and cities to take different attitudes to them. Spain and Portugal were hostile, creating a wave of vampire emigration to more tolerant Mexico - however, Mexico City has been declared "vampire free' making existence there difficult for them. Moreover, in this world there are a variety of vampire subspecies, the native Mexican one being rather different form these European variants. In the resulting chaos and conflict, vampire politics and custom therefore plays a big part and makes it harder for All, fleeing the murder of her family, to find safety from her enemies.

Atl is as different as you can imagine from the traditional European aristocrat in a cloak with a castle in the mountains. Her ancestors were priestesses of the war goddess, fallen on harder times since the coming of colonialism but rising somewhat in fortune on the back of the drugs trade - until the arrival, again, of more ruthless Godoy vampire clan from Europe. But there's more to it than that. All is a spoiled younger daughter, not destined to lead her family and caught up in what is basically a gang war without the experience or, you might think, the common sense to survive. But she has two things on her side: a fierce desire for revenge, and Cualli, her fearless dog.

She has something else, as well, though it is not always welcome: the fascination, and growing devotion, of a human boy, Domingo, a homeless garbage-collector who lives in the tunnels under the city and dreams of the world he seems in his comic books. Of course this includes vampires, stories about which are popular in this world as in ours, and just as sensationalist. Perhaps Domingo's interest is initially piqued by curiosity, but he quickly becomes fascinated by Atl and by the dangerous world she inhabits, offering her what help he can. But he's no match for arrogant young Nick Godoy, or even for the human thugs who attend him. It seems a very uneven match, even before experienced vampire-hunting policewoman Ana takes an interest in the exponentially rising body-count on her doorstep.

All of this makes for an exciting, pacey and absorbing story taking place among the pulsing night clubs and neon-lit streets of modern Mexico City. Moreno-Garcia takes aim at some hoary myths about vampires while deftly constructing her own counter-mythology, taking account both of the colonial background of Mexico and of vampire tales and stories from other parts of the world. It is above all intelligent and believable, if you're willing to accept the premise of vampires, making the personal dilemmas of Atl and Domingo that much truer and sharper. 

Atl could consume Domingo. She needs to do so. She has killed before. So what is holding her back?

Domingo should run, putting as much space between him and Atl as he can. Why won't he?

Yes, there is a thread of romance here but it's complicated, illicit, taboo in vampire society. But Atl doesn't have much of that left. her family has been destroyed and Mexico City is pretty empty of allies. So she's pushed back on her own resources, needing to work out for herself what is right, what is necessary, both to survive and to be able to live with herself. It's no easier for Domingo, a resourceful young man who has already survived in a harsh world but is also in many respects näive and sheltered. 

Best of all (for the reader, not for Atl and Domingo) time is very short with enemies closing in and few places to hide. So whatever Atl and Domingo are going to do, they'd better do it quickly...

As a read, Certain Dark Things is exciting, tender, complex and always fun. I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about Certain Dark Things, see the publisher's website here - and remember to visit the participants in the Social Media Blast listed on the poster below. You can buy Certain Dark Things from your local bookshop or online from Bookshop dot org UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.




 

4 September 2021

#Review - The Art of Space Travel and other stories by Nina Allan

Type by Julia Lloyd
Image by Vince Haig

The Art of Space Travel and other stories
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 7 September 2021
Available as: PB, 464pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789091755

I am grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Art of Space Travel to consider for review.

I'm always delighted to see a book by Nina Allan coming and The Art of Space Travel is a real blessing, collecting some fifteen years of her wonderful, closely examines, weird(ish) short stories. I really enjoy an authors' short story collection - it gives a glimpse into a body of their work, highlighting themes and concerns you might miss in a single story, even in a single novel. These fourteen stories give access to a backstage world, weaving together themes of art (music, film, painting), space travel (of course - but seen from the ground, according to those left behind), environmental collapse, encounters with the Other and alternate outcomes, sometimes dramatised by pairs of stories. So, one will read about the characters; see them off, as it were; have an opportunity to imaging what might have happened next; and then encounter them - directly or indirectly - in a later story, which gives a version of their fate, though necessarily, only one possible version of many. 

Amethyst is told in hindsight, the narrator recalling her childhood friend Angela from the days when they were growing up in an unnamed shabby seaside town. The town is interpreted through the lyrics of a local folk-rock group, Amethyst,  who sang of a  'Moon landing down on Silas Street' - setting up the story for an investigation of Silas Street and a connection to an incident which breaks up Angela's family.  This is an intriguing story, full of mood and possibility.

Heroes also tells us about growing up - Fin lives in a Sheffield suburb, liminal both in being outside the ring road and also potentially subject to future development. His fragmented family are on the fringes of the story, its centre being his friend Marten, a pigeon racing enthusiast with a mysterious past dramatised by the strange contents of his house and his relationship with the outsider nicknamed 'Bismarck'. Again, there are threads of possibility here and hints of a wider picture that we're left to imagine.

The idea of nestled stories within stories recurs a lot in Allan's writing (including novels) and A Thread of Truth uses the technique perfectly, following a young man, Adam, as he overcomes his fear of spiders. In so doing he meets the mysterious Jennie, who tells a ghost story in a remote house in Suffolk. That story itself is perfectly framed and teasingly vague as to its age and setting: could it refer to Jennie's forebears? To her? (A Thread of Truth, like several of stories here, also has a key moment focusing on a crack in a wall or the ground...)

Flying in the Face of God is about space travel, or rather about those left behind. Anita's best friend Rachel is undergoing the preparation for space travel. It's never said outright, but it is clear this is a one way trip, or at least that any return will only be in decades or centuries. The preparation is personally transformative and hard to bear both for those taking part and their family and friends. Anita explores her feelings about it, drawing on insights from Rachel, from her own grandmother and letters and notes left by her own mother, who died when an earlier iteration of the space launch was sabotaged (something referred to elsewhere in Allan's stories, I think!)

Flying in the Face of God seems to be set in a world suffering climate change - a pool outside the school Anita attended seems to have dried up in the drought - and a similar motif appears in Microcosmos where a family (mum Bella, dad Doug, daughter Melodie) are driving for hours to meet a mysterious relative. It's sweltering - forty degrees in the car - and on arrival they find Ballantine's house near a dried up lake. There is a sense of mystery and menace hanging over things - while Ballantine seems to be regarded as undesirable, they're still trying to persuade him to come back with them where it's 'safe'. Yet Bella doesn't trust Ballantine at all. It's something to do with the research he's carrying to in his remote cottage, but we never learn what that is. It's lucky she doesn't know he showed Ballantine how to use his microscope to spot the tiny creatures in a drop of water, or that he gave her a letter to pass on to Aunt Chantal... that letter hangs, a secret, in the last line of the story. We don't know if it will be delivered, or when, it's a message in a bottle, cast away to the future...

I really, really loved Fairy Skulls, a nice little story in which Vinnie's girlfriend persuades her to spend her inheritance from Aunt Jude on a tumbledown cottage in the wild country south of London and then brakes up with her. Faced with no alternative, Vinnie goes ahead with the move then finds something peculiar living in the cupboard under the stairs. I liked the matter-of-fact way that Vinnie accepts and deals with her problem; the delicate balance between potential "Borrowers" style whimsy and something more menacing (those things bite!) and the hints that Auntie may have been involved in some very strange, not to say gruesome, goings on. 

The Science of Chance is set, like other of Allan's stories, in Russia, or perhaps I should say an ex Soviet Republic with overtones of Russia? It's an alternate timeline where the 60s went differently. There was a nuclear strike, to begin with, but also a different politics, teased but not given in detail - a mark of these stories, which often tiptoe round the big things, focusing instead on their impact on ordinary people. Here, policewoman Nellie, who's trying to identify a non-verbal and apparently lost young girl discovered at the local railway station. A very straightforward story, yet one which eventually leads to a choice between two explanations - one potentially very weird indeed, linking the story in to unnerving vistas of the potentially fantastical, the other, much less strange. And on the way Allan takes us through fascinating permutations of personalities, lives and histories - which absorb from start to finish. As so often in this book, the everyday seems to arise from something stranger, bigger, deeper rooted. 

Marielena has a similar atmosphere. In an unnamed English city (possibly London, but I wasn't sure), Noah, a refugee from a distant country where politics has made him unwelcome, survives amidst the cruelties of the hostile environment. It's an impoverished life - not only in financial terms but even more in the sense of being observed, resented, on sufferance, suspected - but he gets by, communing somehow with the mysterious Marielena, until the day he takes pity on an even more unfortunate person, the homeless Mary, who is being persecuted by a gang of youths. From that act comes a knowing, an understanding of wider things that places the story in a distinctly fantastical context. But Allan, having set that scene, steps back. The story ends where it ends, with us aware that there may be tremendous events coming that may concern both Mary and Marielena, but that Noah's reality stays as it is.

The Art of Space Travel, after which the collection is named, perhaps echoes Flying in the Face of God, being another story where space travel is happening - or being attempted - elsewhere, but the concerns of the main protagonists are more domestic, more personal. Emily is Head of Housekeeping at the Edison Star Hotel, Heathrow, her life being lived between mother Moolie, succumbing to early onset dementia in her home nearby, and manager Benny, currently stressed by two VIP guests, astronauts from said space programme. There's a thread of conspiracy (Moolie's condition possibly having been brought on by exposure to contamination from an air accident whose investigation she was part of) but in the 2070s this is left mysterious, it's not a driver of plot leading to a revelation. Rather the personal relationships, amidst hints of wider history, are the focus of the story.

Neptune's Trident takes place in a world where a series of catastrophes has been blamed on some kind of intrusion into electronic systems, leading to 'the clampdown', an attempt to take back control from whatever alien influence was lurking. It's not working, though, and as Caitlin hopes against hope that her brother Morrie, lost with his submarine, will return, she sees things slide, her friend Steph succumbing to a mysterious illness. It's an uneasy, liminal story, showing humanity teetering on the brink of something, but exactly what - I wasn't sure.

Four Abstracts follows up one of the earlier stories in the book (I won't say which - it might take away the fun!) Isobel is trying to come to terms with the death of her artist friend Beck at a comparatively young age from a hereditary condition. (Women struck by disease or accident are a bit of a theme in this collection.) Exploring Beck's life and art and also, the mystery of why and how she died, Four Abstracts both draws on, and casts further light on, its partner story, giving a glimpse into a wider (and weirder) world than either alone.

The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known is also a partner story, following up on Microcosmos. We see Melodie as an adult, having been sent as a teenager to live with 'the Severins in Strasbourg' in the face of growing environmental catastrophe. She has only faint memories of her parents (so in a sense, we know more, from the earlier story) but is still fixated on Ballantine whose lesson with that microscope shaped her career. There are answers given here to some of the puzzles from the earlier story, but new questions arise.

The Gift of Angels: an Introduction is a deliciously clever story, focussed on a writer of science fiction stories, the September Queen books, set on an itinerant space freighter. They are inspired by the fact that the writer, Vincent Colbert, is the son of the astronaut Jocelyn Tooker, mentioned in The Art of Space Travel as one of the crew on a one-way mission to Mars. That story referred in passing to the unfair judgement being cast at a mother leaving her young son behind but not to fathers doing the same, but in a sense The Gift of Angels explores precisely that gap: Vincent was brought up by his less than adequate father and The Gift seemed to me to be in many ways about that loss, that abandonment. Set in Paris where his parents met, it sees Vincent come to terms with the need to write about his mother, but there is much more there than that - like so may other stories in this book it muses on the place of art, (both Vincent's writing and the 1960s French SF film La Jetée, whose themes and history the story keeps returning to). A moving and intricate story.

The final story, A Princess of Mars: Svetlana Belkina and Tarkovsky's lost movie Aelita is the newest in the collection and genuinely blurs the line between reality and fiction - narrated by an "I" who might very well be Allan herself, it exudes a deep knowledge, and skill in analysing, 20th century SF and in particularly, Soviet SF films - being focussed in particular on the history of a never-was Tarkovsky movie, Aelita. I think that's where we cross the line into fiction, signalled by a reference to the narrator being in Paris 'to promote the September King'(!) - other than that, they are seen indirectly, mainly through glimpses of a lifetime engaging with those films, starting on a dream Saturday afternoon in the 70s or 80s when the only alternative on TV was Grandstand. Nevertheless, it's an affecting portrait of a life, illuminated by insights about the place of creators and the difference between them and their art which - in dialogue with the eponymous actress - develops into a real focus for this story.

I found this a really strong collection. There is a sort of thematic space allowed by fourteen stories and dozens of characters - by possibly alternate versions of the same timelines, by dialogue between different points of view, often separated by decades. It's a book that had me flipping backwards and forwards, checking ideas about how the stories were related and comparing the outlooks of the various protagonists. 

I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about The Art of Space Travel, see the Titan Books website here.

2 September 2021

#Review - Radio Life by Derek B Miller

Radio Life
Derek B Miller
Jo Fletcher Books, 21 January 2021 (HB), 2 September 2021 (PB)
Available as: HB, PB, 477pp, audio, e
Source: Advance HB copy 
ISBN(PB): 9781529408614

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Radio Life to consider for review.

There's a lot I could say about Radio Life. Beginning with the basics, we are firmly in post-apocalyptic territory, though not a hopelessly bleak form of that as there is some organisation, there is trade, one may make a way of life. Some four hundred years from now (no-one is really sure, it was a pretty thorough apocalypse) a community calling itself The Commonwealth survives in the west of what is now the USA. Occupying the stadium from an Olympic Games held towards the end of the 21st century, they see themselves as seekers after the lost knowledge of "The Ancients", sending out "runners" and "raiders" to scavenge what they can from the ruins of the "Lost World". They store up knowledge in Archives, and work to understand what they've found - from musical scores to cryptic, and dead, electronics. The process of analysing these, lacking even basic knowledge, can seem bizarre, with both broad, top-down generalisations and shrewdly observed, detailed analysis.

Pitted against the Commonwealth are the Keepers, mysterious newcomers who believe that the old world is best left to itself. Surely it's dangerous to explore too far ('Trying to make the world better is what killed the Ancients') since this would only lead to a repeat of the earlier collapse - from which, this time, humanity might not survive?

The story is seen mostly through the eyes of Commonwealth people (citizens? members?) 

There is Elimisha, a young Runner on a routine journey across the towers of the Lost World who stumbles into danger - and upon a treasure that no-one knew existed.

Lilly, in her 70s, who is one of the greatest thinkers of the Commonwealth - indeed, her discoveries led to its system for categorising all knowledge under six headings: Geography, Entertainment, History,  Arts and Literature, Science and Nature, and Sports and Leisure

Teenage Alessandra is the daughter of Graham and Henry, husband and wife and the Commonwealth's two most celebrated Raiders (at the start of the book they return to the Stadium having found Knowledge under all six headings - an almost unparalleled feat). The dynamic between these three is central to the book: Henry and Graham's deep understanding of and communion with each other, their love for each other coupled with recognition of where their service with the Commonwealth might lead, Alessandra's urge to match them. 

It's Alessandra and Elimisha who perhaps most exemplify the Commonwealth's view of what it is and how it should be: stumbling on an incredible treasure of Knowledge ('Trove'), Elimisha quickly fixes her response to that in Commonwealth Protocols centred on the need, above all, to retrieve it and to protect it from others. This is now the central Archive of the Commonwealth and she is its Chief.

However, Elimisha is isolated, injured and trapped and can do nothing else but begin to analyse the information she has found, learning so much more about the world than any of her people, and inevitably meeting moral dilemmas in doing that. Throughout this book, I felt that Miller's depiction of the societies here - and in particular the Commonwealth - as being shaped, or perhaps I should say limited, by the information they held, was one of its great strengths. 

Take warfare, for example. In the course of this story, the Commonwealth goes to war, and understandably their attitude and approach to this is shaped by the texts they have available, by what information randomly came down to them from Before: descriptions of Hannibal's campaigns, and Thucydides' histories, apparently some limited knowledge about various Twentieth Century wars (but as we will see from Elimisha's horror when as he learns more of the truth, this is very partial). Isolated from any tradition of scholarship or commentary, will these undeniably very bright people make anything useful of that knowledge or will it mislead and confuse them? 

Similarly, when we come to the larger question apparently posed in this book - the great difference between Commonwealth and Keepers over whether to hunt for old knowledge or let it die - both factions are passionate about their point of view, but also very limited by not knowing what led to the catastrophe. It's hard to accord their dispute much respect when it is all based on speculation and generalities, but Miller helps us here by dropping the answer relatively early on, so we soon know the immediate cause. That might make the reader rather lose sympathy with one faction here, but it shouldn't - there is actually more going on in Radio Life than a simple conflict between an enlightened, civilising group and a bunch of destructive nihilists. To hint at this without being too spoilery: both of the societies here are limited by what they don't know, by what they don't see. Both are cramped by the biased and partial nature of what they do know. But isn't that always the way, for humanity? Isn't it just as true for us? What might we be missing which - in Miller's imagination - could lead us over the edge?

This is a very thoughtful, philosophical book, no less so for its arguments being dramatised in the conflict between the two societies and also in the internal politics of the Commonwealth (where firebrand Lilly often rails against the organisation and personnel she helped shape). Questions abound. Is all knowledge equally worthwhile? Are there truths which should be hidden, forgotten, or even suppressed? How to compare the value of a beautiful flower and a musical masterpiece? Which is more important? Can a society flourish if built on lies? 

Miller makes all these, and more, into important, alive and, above all, open questions (the answers found by the protagonists being partial, provisional and possibly wrong). 

The book is gloriously readable from its opening sentence ('Two riders trace the ridge of the sand sea, miles from the Commonwealth and the protecting walls of the Stadium') to the very end ('"Begin the Crossing" she says') and deeply involving - you care what happens to these people and their society! To that end, Miller hurls ideas, arguments and action at the reader, such an abundance of all three that I could imagine other writers deciding to make this a trilogy. There is one particular section, describing, in a few pages, epic events over a period of two years, which could have been a book itself, but rightly wasn't, I think. While more detail of what happens would be fun to read, the direction, the hard choices and the sacrifices have been made before this point, and they are what matters. The sheer density of material - the maelstrom of ideas we're exposed to - is part of the joy and challenge of Radio Life, and I loved it. I just loved it.

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