Map of Blue Book Balloon

31 July 2021

#Review - A Pair of Nightjars

Cover photo by Nicholas Royle
Tower Block Ghost Story
TSJ Harling
Nightjar Press, April 2021
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341533
 
My Nightjar Press subscription is one of my favourite things I've spent money on recently, providing me with regular short stories told from a variety of viewpoints and across genres, but always beautifully written, sharp and with that sense of haunting the imagination, even after you have finished reading. Here are two that I've read recently.

Doing just what it says on the cover, Tower Block Ghost Story abandons traditional gothic trappings, placing its brilliantly-paced narrative of unease and unrest into a setting of concrete stairwells, urine-smelling lifts and double front door locks.

Here Sade is living with her 'handsome boyfriend' and with fibromyalgia, sometimes only managing to move between the bed ands the sofa. She's alone in the flat most of the time, so she notice things.

Sounds. Items out of place. Sudden draughts.

The supernatural is introduced in a rather matter-of-fact way - from the first sentence - so we know what to expect. But we DON'T know what to expect, as Sade picks away to discover what - or who - is sharing her living space with her. Drawing out the tension from page to page, Harling keeps the reader on the hook almost to the end, delivering a superbly creepy and empathetic glimpse of the supernatural, more disturbing for the contrast with the absolutely mundane - with the real hooks of the horror the link with everyday, not supernatural, evil.
Cover photo by Nicholas Royle

The Elevator
Imogen Reid
Nightjar Press, April 2021
Available as: PB, 11pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341557

The Elevator has a haunting beauty all of its own. Opening with the (never named) narrator entering the elevator of the title, pursued (perhaps) by a staggering man, we feel their need for escape even if not understanding why. 

The escape is a journey illuminated by fluorescent lights, surrounded by metallic surfaces, accompanied hints of blood (whose?) and by that pursuer, who seems to be following the lift on a surrounding spiral staircase. The claustrophobic atmosphere inside gives way to memories of a room which seems the elevator's twin, descriptions, features and memories of one echoing the other.

There is a story here - told in glimpses of memory, the contents of a bag strewn over the floor of the lift, the recollection of an old Bakelite telephone - but it's presented in dreamlike logic, or as a puzzle to be worked over.

Deeply atmospheric, this story seemed poised between noirish atmosphere and a clinging, almost Gothic, atmosphere of horror and entrapment (will the narrator ever get away or do they remain in a loop?) It gave me a lot to think about, but even more to feel.

You can buy Tower Block Ghost Story from Nightjar Press here and The Elevator here.


 

29 July 2021

#Review - What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo

Design by Julia Lloyd
What Big Teeth
Rose Szabo
Titan, 6 July 2021
Available as: PB, 352pp, e
Source: Advance copy from publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781789097818

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of What Big Teeth to consider for review.

Titles can misdirect, and the suggestion from this one that Szabo's horror-novel-with-feelings is a modern take on a fairytale rather undersells what the book actually does. It is I think rather more complicated. Yes, there are wolfish creatures here, and a grandmother (in fact, two). Yes, those creatures can and will eat you, and yes, in a sense Eleanor Zarrin is an innocent when she returns to her family home after years of exile, and she does risk ending up a morsel. 

BUT

I found myself comparing the setup here with other, perhaps less likely, forerunners. What Big Teeth is in some respect I think also a clever twist on - of all things Cold Comfort Farm (and of course the breathy rural romances it was parodying). Young Eleanor, who has been out in the wider world, arrives home without a role or place in the family and the one she eventually adopts is of taking on responsibilities, offering help, and putting things right. She has a real sense of duty, impressive given she was sent away to a Roman Catholic boarding school her time at which has washed her memory of most of what she knew about her family. The separation was, it emerges, not accidental but engineered - a puzzle and cause of guilt to Eleanor.

One might actually think that Eleanor is very ill-suited to manage, and in her eyes save, the ragged family she encounters when she arrives home, and indeed things don't work out well at all. The family is a collection of grotesques, inhabiting a tumbledown house above Winterport, on the coast of Maine. Grandma Persephone, who earns the family's living growing poisonous bulbs in her greenhouse. Older sister Luma. Cousin Rhys and Grandpa Miklos. Eleanor's mother, who spends most of her time submerged in a variety of tubs and baths, lest her skin dry out. And close family friend Arthur, who comes and goes as he wishes but seems under some kind of constraint or control (there are things he literally can't talk about).

It is from one perspective, a family of monsters, a real Addams Family, feared by the town, living in a big spooky house full of hidden passages and apt to go howling through the woods on a whim. From another perspective, they're a big, slightly dysfunctional, combative group of eccentrics with many secrets who have to hold their ground against a hostile modern world.

As she tries to come to terms with what, and who, she is, and to discover how the family works, so she can save them, Eleanor finds that she actually knows very little - even taking account of what she forgot. Feeling obliged to take on a central role after an untoward death, she reaches out for help, but may just have made things worse...

I loved this book. A mystery wrapped in a horror story inside a coming-of-age novel, and exploring themes of being different, of responsibility and of confronting guilt for what those who came before us did, it delicately paints a whole world. There are hints and references to wider genre themes - those townsfolk are perfectly capable of breaking out the pitchforks and torches, right? And Grandpa Miklos's origin story back in the silent Old Country has distinct echoes of classic horror. But Szabo doesn't let themself be tied down by fussiness over types of monster or that urban fantasy thing where there is an established and known order to magic and mystery. Everything here is vague, raw, dangerous and an untamed. 

In What Big Teeth, some characters know things. But they don't know as much as they think, and some of it is wrong. Any broader supernatural society is mysterious, and likely as much a threat as the townsfolk. There's a reason for the Zarrins being hidden away in a remote settingt, far from the world. Even the year is unclear - there was been a War in Europe but I'm not sure if it was the First or the Second - we are in a cultural space which could fit almost any year from 1920 to 1955. The vagueness reinforces the feeling of isolation, of having nothing and nobody to resort to or trust, leaving Eleanor very much on her own in trying to put right what's happened.

An entertaining, creepy and satisfying slice of horror, genuinely different and great fund to read.

For more information about What Big Teeth, see the publisher's website here.


27 July 2021

#Review - Catalyst Gate by Megan E O'Keefe

Catalyst Gate (The Protectorate, 3)
Megan E O'Keefe
Orbit, 24 June 2021
Available as: PB, 608pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9780356512259

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Catalyst gate, via #NetGalley.

Catalyst Gate is the third book in The Protectorate trilogy (after Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector). The Protectorate is absolutely the kind of trilogy you need to read in order and if you haven't read the others, and you want to understand whether to read the trilogy, you need to go back to my earlier reviews and not read on here because spoilers. (Hint: you should read the trilogy).

If you've been following The Protectorate you will almost certainly want to read the third part, so part of me wonders what I'm actually doing in this review. I often have this with trilogies, and my answer is basically (1) How well is the author closing off her sequence - does this book stand comparison well with the others? (2) How good is the trilogy overall?

Taking these questions in order, my answer to the first would be, VERY WELL. There are a lot of moving parts in The Protectorate. The story follows Sanda, a commander of the Fleet who's been through all kinds of weird stuff; experimented on by a hostile power; deceived by the first incarnation of the AI known as Bero into believing that her world has been smashed and that she has been marooned in deep space for decades; romanced by plausible rogue, spy-for-hire and, potentially, artificial lifeform, Tomas; framed for an assassination and hunted by her own side; and much more besides. It follows Sanda's brother Biran, a rising politician and Keeper in The Protectorate, who has discovered that its history and politics and a lot less pure that he believed. There was also the group of gutter rats who, for most of the first two books, were coping with the consequences of their disastrous heist-gone-wrong, as a result of which their leader Jules has become the loosest of loose cannons, allying with the alien entity known as Rainer.

In this third book O'Keefe deftly takes forward all these main protagonists (and more). She still has plenty to say about them all - we aren't just going through the motions - even as Rainier's endgame approaches. There are further surprises, and a series of calculated risks taken by all involved. Things kick off very quickly at the beginning of the book - there is no lengthy recap, but O'Keefe still manages to keep the reader in the frame about backstory and motivations so that the story develops organically and everyone feels "real". Yes, there were a few (a very few) exceptions, when I asked myself "why did he/ she do that?" but I feel that is inevitable in any sequence of this length.

As well as the characters, we are still learning more about this universe and its history. This is far-future SF, following humanity long after it has left Earth, and it turns out there are secrets to be told about that whole history. Topically they're bound up with the originals of "Prime Inventive", which I had always seen as a society but which is actually the descendant of a private company - the one which happened to win out in the contest to explore space. Firmly believing that nothing good can come from over-mighty corporations, I wasn't surprised to learn there'd been dirty work at the crossroads and that it involved the alien tech whose origin and purpose has been a prominent theme through this trilogy. And yes, we finally discover more about that too. 

I am, I think, moving on to my question (2) above and my answer is that while each part of this trilogy has been very good indeed, the whole has a kind of commonality and progression which makes it more than the sum of the three parts. Seen together, these books present questions - and warnings - about our stewardship not only of this planet but of the wider Universe, about loyalty, the nature of humanity and the corruptions of politics. In some ways the most human characters we meet here are composed of bits and bytes or of naneites; or are unregarded outsiders or junior players. The gilded priesthood of the Keepers shows a tendency to guile and self-interest rather than the common good, making it ten times harder to deal with the threat of Rainier and that's not an aberration but totally in keeping with the history and politics of Prime. In contrast, Sanda and her Fleeties, the rogues and criminals of the Grotta, Bero and Tomas, have a sense of humility and fragility that fires their suffering into strength and integrity. As O'Keefe writes of Sanda, 'Those pressures collided against the woman... compressed her, made her as hard and immovable as the deep ice...'

O'Keefe integrates these themes and makes her three novels into a single, coherent whole, no easy task in such a vast story, creating an absorbing and convincing world with compelling characters whose stories are told with humour and grit. I'd unreservedly recommend the sequence, if you've been waiting to see how it would turn out, and Catalyst Gate as its culmination.

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



24 July 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North

Notes From The Burning Age
Claire North
Orbit, 22 July 2021
Available as: HB, 403pp, e, audio 
Source: ARC kindly provided free by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9780356514758

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance review copy of Notes from the Burning Age to read and consider for review.

Before I start this review I should probably declare a bias - I adore Claire North's books and I've been loving her novels exploring individuals with weird abilities, or curses. Notes from the Burning Age is a little different, featuring ordinary people albeit in a weird future, but I still came to it expecting brilliance and I wasn't disappointed. 

Fiction reflecting and commenting on the environmental catastrophe being visited right now on the planet has never been more important... or harder to do.  Given the scale of what is happening, there is a sense in which all future, or near future, set fiction must be climate/ environmental fiction. But authors face challenges. Make it unremittingly gloomy, and readers might stay away. But implying it's a trivial problem, easily solved, would be reckless and unrealistic.

In Notes from the Burning Age, North finds an ingenious solution. The book is set some way in the future - hundreds of years - in an era when people can look back to our "burning age" and judge it. From that perspective, they can report the catastrophe, but without living it. We can also see that, despite losses, humankind has found ways to mitigate its impact on the planet, limitations to prevent a repeat of the disaster. The book is full of fascinating detail about these, from dependence on bicycles and electric vehicles and use of solar, wind and tidal power, to building techniques using reasons instead of cement to a system of religion and ethics intended to stress interdependence with nature. This is propagated by the Medj priesthood, who 'bowed to each tree in turn and made libations to the kakuy whose gift they were receiving'.

This elusive concept of the kakuy is key to the civilization depicted here. Perhaps gods, perhaps demons, perhaps innate spirits of the forests, the mountains, the seas, the kakuy may be a pious myth, a real and ferocious force that rose in anger when humans defaced the earth, or a personification of the chaos and harm that came from that defacement. The Medj teaching is focussed on not rousing them again - if gods, they are gods who have no regard for Mankind, regarding us an irritant at best. Ancient religions flourish alongside this cult - at one point a character is rescued and sheltered by a Jewish community, and the domes on ancient mosques and churches still stand over the city of Isdanbul - but they are peripheral. 

Ven, the main character in Notes from the Burning Age, is a disgraced former member of the Medj, but hedges his bets about the kakuy. Others, ambitious men (mostly) who chafe under the limitations imposed following the Burning, do not believe, or actively despise the idea. Humanity is paramount, they insist, and only harm can come from denying that essential fact. The book, then, looks both back - at our burning age - and forward - at a potential future one, as humanity, like a dog returning to its vomit, forgets lessons learned and plots harm again. We see this as environmental destruction, seemingly undertaken to demonstrate human mastery, gathers pace. The story, from one perspective, is therefore a set of notes from the "future" burning age, to ours.

Located in Central Europe, the story depicts a loose federation of seven provinces supposedly united under a Council to ensure that "heresies" (the use of destructive, historic technologies) stay suppressed. It isn't clear whether similar conditions obtain elsewhere - there are brief mentions of the 'Anglaes islands' and their 'purity laws' and of an 'Amerika' with 'militia forts'. The the province of Maze is however flexing its strength, overturning the laws adopted for safety and to prevent the kakuy rising. Ven is close to that process, having fetched up as personal assistant to Georg Mestri, the power behind the Brotherhood, a social and political force dedicated to human potential (and to founding an empire with Maze at its head). 

Despite his background in the Medj, Ven comes to admire Georg, for whom he translates ancient documents, stolen by the Brotherhood, describing banned technologies (and including a lot of other rubbish scoured from ancient hard drives - Ven's background has given him some skill in recognising what might be useful). More "notes", this time from our "burning age" to the future one. From this position Ven's able to describe the rapid slide of Maze into militaristic dictatorship and then war, and the progress of espionage between the two sides, espionage that may make the difference in an otherwise uneven war. The book has plenty of excitement, with a mole hunt going on, conflicted loyalties, and a lot at risk on either side. That makes it a pacey and exciting read, even as North refuses to skimp detail of the environmental damage done in our time, and which is starting up again. Her descriptions of shrines made from ancient, sea-washed plastics, of part-ancient, part reconstructed buildings or of simply Medj shrines, and always arresting and often beautiful.

Hovering over everything in Notes from the Burning Age are moral choices, the foremost of which is perhaps, how much damage must one accept to preserve peace? In this book the environmentally sensitive way of life of the other provinces is threatened by Maze's revanchism. Will the other provinces receive enough warning? If they do, will they be willing too act?  Indeed, how can they act when they believe that warfare will wake the kakuy and bring ruin again? Again, placing the action in the future makes the story more palatable since it isn't finger-pointing at us, here, now - even if in reality we face similar dilemmas.

Notes from the Burning Age shows how these choices are inescapable, and perhaps, that there are no good options. It's chock full of ideas, and North is able to paint even her villains as sympathetic (in a certain light) and her heroes as distinctly tarnished, ambiguous types. The dialogue is often brilliant (it always is in this author's books, but even so, here it's superb) with several layers of subtext to the conversations, and the action-y parts of the book (of which there are many) have the urgency and pace of a thriller. 

In short, I think Notes from the Burning Age is a joy to read, and shows North evolving as an author to address difficult themes as well as serving up a rollicking good story. I would strongly recommend it.

For more information about Notes From The Burning Age see the publisher's website here or any of the stops on the tour poster below.

You can buy Notes From The Burning Age from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.



22 July 2021

#Review - a strange and brilliant light by Eli Lee

a strange and brilliant light
Eli Lee
Jo Fletcher Books, 22 July 2021
Available as: HB, 292pp, e, audio
Source: Advance review copy kindly provided by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781529407754

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of a strange and brilliant light to read and consider for review.

Sometimes, to see plainly, to understand just how strange things have becomes, you have to step back a bit. 

That, I think, is what Eli Lee does in her riveting SF(ish) novel about the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and its effect on society - or perhaps, society's effect on society, because nothing is inevitable, it all depends what WE do.

The book is set in a recognisably modern world with laptops, the Internet, cars, trains, coaches - and poverty. Teenagers meet for parties in the sanddunes and do slightly naughty things. There are coffeeshops and trades unions, venture capital startups, conglomerates, and meditation retreats in the mountains.

But it is not OUR world. The geography, place names (Dhont, Mejira) and countries are clearly different, as is the history (which is alluded to but never explained - this book is very good at involving its readers without a great deal of exposition). There is no made-up language but Lee coolly uses comprehensible but not familiar English words such as 'unancestral' to hint at unseen depths, at concepts and structures shaping the visible narrative. Most tangibly, the different cultures we meet here have their own cuisines, with meals - both traditional and intercultural - described in, frankly, delicious detail. Overall, the effect is to distance the reader slightly from the locations and action, so that we question what is being shown and think about what is happening (and what we're taking for granted).

In Lee's imagined society, we are on the cusp of AI automating most of the work hitherto carried out by humans. The focus is on a chain of coffee shops, Slurpees, where "auts" are being introduced to replace human staff - early on we meet Lal, who is about to transfer from her job as manager of one such shop to a more senior position in the company, where she will be helping to plan future automation. This transformation is proceeding, at pace, without much thought being given by Government or there conglomerates to the consequences - that is, how people will make a living. Things are, I'd say, closer to the edge than in our world - but it's a matter of degree.

As the story moves on, Rose, one of Lal's team, takes on the managership. More concerned than Lal at what is happening, she attends protest meetings, falling in with the surprisingly uncharismatic Alek who leads the group but doesn't seem to regard the members as having much to contribute apart from their numbers. He might be a radical and agitator, but he's making the same mistake as the big corporations in discounting the input of actual humans, reducing even the activity of process to an assembly-line of placards. (Perhaps they could get auts in to do that, too?)

Alek knows what he thinks the solution is - something he calls 'source gain', what we'd describe as universal basic income, an entitlement for all to part of the fruits of automation, enabling a minimal, tolerable lifestyle. Rose seems less committed and more questioning of this concept - late in the book she lights on the idea of ownership, by the people, of the means of production (the auts). So, yes, there's Socialism in this alternate world - and indeed we get a good description of the alienation of the workers from their labour. But there are other ideas in the mix, too - wider elements in the protest movement are taking direct action, smashing the auts. 

I thought that Rose's and Alek's protest meetings might be highlighting the dangers of an unstable society becoming more authoritarian, as they seem to occur clandestinely in a remote abandoned warehouse - but this is not really followed up and on the whole I don't think a strange and brilliant light is meant as a novel of political action. It's rather one where the wider forces in society are played out between a few characters and within their families. This comes across most strongly in the third central character, Janetta, who completes the picture by giving an insider's view on the progress of AI itself.

Janetta is a PhD student at a prestigious university (contrasted with the local college which was all Rose could afford to attend, despite having higher aspirations) worked on making AI empathetic, considered a key step to developing conscious artificial intelligence. She's also going through emotional turmoil, having split up with her girlfriend. Lee has a twist of fate link Janetta up with the founder of one of the top AI start-ups, so allowing a dialogue between Janetta's approach to the AI problem, informed by her loss of Malin, and Taly's more functional attitude.

The relationships between the three women, their wider families and the workplace, played out over job changes (a particular grim description of Lal's arrival at a dream corporate campus, the antithesis of all her hopes and dreams), holidays and meet-ups, creates a fascinating tapestry of life which, yes, serves to illustrate the dilemmas and risks of the new technology but at the same time is simply riveting to follow. The process of automation is marked by the progressive elimination of people from Slurpees, while Lal's supposedly favoured management position becomes more and more dehumanising and Janetta finds her progress frustrated by relationship entanglements and doubts over the ethics of what it's doing.

In what is actually quite a short book, Lee gives the reader a massive amount to ponder as well as delivering a brilliantly written and absorbing story about some very real people.

I would unreservedly recommend a strange and brilliant light.

For more information about a strange and brilliant light, see this blogpost by the author, explaining the inspiration behind the book.


20 July 2021

#Review - A Radical Act of Free Magic by HG Parry

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio

A Radical Act of Free Magic
HG Parry
Orbit, 22 July 2021
Available as: PB, 495pp, e
Source e: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9780356514710

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy A Radical Act of Free Magic to consider for review.

Following last year's A Declaration of the Rights of MagiciansA Radical Act of Free Magic completes Parry's Shadow Histories dualogy, taking us back to the early 19th century, to revolts by enslaved people in the Caribbean, debates over abolition in Britain, and revolution in France. Again we meet William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister, and William Wilberforce, abolitionist and simply the nicest man in fiction. And Fina, who has freed herself and joined the revolt on the island of Saint Domingue. And - a newcomer - Napoleon Bonaparte, who is about to take a hand in French affairs.

And, of course, the Stranger. The Enemy. The puppet master pulling everyone's strings, shaping events, offering help here and there only to withdraw it again when he's got what he wants.

The atmosphere is, I would say, darker than the first book. The revolt led by Toussaint Louverture on Saint Domingue met with success, but was then opposed with unmitigated savagery by the British. The British are nevertheless being driven back, but Fina's dream of spreading freedom to Jamaica seems as forlorn as ever. In Britain, the efforts of the abolitionists are making no progress. Pitt's health is failing, his enormous workload and magical affliction undermining his constitution. The French Revolution, which seemed to herald liberty for the oppressed magicians of Europe, has drowned its makers in blood. 

Against this background, realpolitik plays out, idealistic dreams compromising with raw power. There are betrayals, disappointments and fresh dangers as war sweeps Europe. And worse, the friendship between Pitt and "Wilber" seems to have broken down under the weight of those betrayals. That friendship, at the heart of the first book, had sustained the two men in the darkest of times and Parry's portrayal of it crumbling - her sympathy for both, and her account of their estrangement - is actually very moving. It's part of the delicate dance she does with history, preserving, as far as I can see, most actual events while giving them a whole new significance. So for example, Nelson's victory at Trafalgar was not a defeat of an actual invasion fleet carrying troops but of a naval force that might have joined and led such a fleet. And no, the French and Spanish fleets didn't have the supernatural support of a... well, no spoilers, you'll have to read on to find out what. 

A story that involves magic and monsters can, obviously, take liberties, but the human stories here - whether about Pitt and Wilberforce, or enslaved people taking their liberty in their own hands - are still true and affecting, a reminder that history is about people and that those people aren't simple.

It's also, and perhaps this is more important in the end, a thumping good tale, one that holds the reader's attention throughout. Even when the ostensible subject is two middle aged white men in an office, every sentence, every word builds up a rounded portrait of their relationship, dramatising the tension between different notions of duty, between the needs of friendship and the needs - perhaps - of country, of wider humanity. It it as much a moral narrative as one of events, as it should be, because in fantasy, as in life, the ultimate questions come down not to cleverness and skill but in the end to morality, good and evil, strength of will and courage - which are strange characteristics, you might think, for middle aged white men in an office but which matter here a lot.

Above all, in re-presenting this period of history, Parry has brought so many things together. At a time in history when slavers' statutes are falling (I hope they will continue to fall!) and British history is being challenged to retell its darker stories, the two books in this duopoly show how global events weave together, how the Napoleonic Wars are about more than "hearts of oak", Nelson and the Duke of Wellington (actually, he's not on the scene yet). In doing that she does a real service to the truth, even though in fiction.

In summary - gosh, this was good. I could read more instalments of this story, if parry were to write them, but I suspect it will stop here, and that's probably right. I'll watch eagerly, instead, for what she does next.

For more information about A Radical Act of Free Magic, see the publisher's website here.






19 July 2021

#BlogTour #Review - Good Neighbours by Sarah Langan

Good Neighbours
Sarah Langan
Titan Books, 13 July 2021
Available as: PB, 400pp, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781789098211

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of Good Neighbours and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Taking place during a freakishly hot summer in the late 2020s, Langan's new novel is written as looking back a couple of decades to report on the famous scandal which engulfed Maple Street, an idyllic suburban community in Garden City, Long Island. The scandal - a couple of weeks of rising hysteria and mayhem leading eventually to... well... read the book to find out - is presented as something which is widely known, often written about, and which continues to fascinate. 

The text is scattered with passages from popular retellings, press cuttings, and interviews with the participants but this is for scene setting, rather than being a presentation of a confused and contradictory narrative for the reader to resolve. We're not left to piece things together, the main narrative gives a more-or-less straight account of what happened. The "viewpoint" pieces do though serve a secondary purpose, showing how some of those present have constructed a false and misleading narrative to which they will stick regardless of the known facts.

Good Neighbours is, in essence, the story of two families, the educated and comfortable Schroeders (mum Rhea, dad Fritz, and kids FJ, Shelly and Ella) and their more raffish next door neighbours the Wildes - Gertie, Arlo and their children Julia and Larry. The Wildes are recent arrivals in Paradise and have rough manners which don't fit with Maple Street: Arlo smokes, for goodness' sake, and he turns out to be a washed-up rock musician who has (or had) substance issues. Gertie is a former beauty queen with a troubled family background which makes her volatile at times. And Julia, well, Julia is "fast".

As the story opens, we're about to see the fractures in Maple Street open up - metaphorically, as hard words are exchanged at the 4 July party and literally, as a sinkhole appears in the park where the party is  being held. Worse is to follow - a death, accusations levied by neighbour against neighbour, backed up by a frenzied pack of kids, and the unspooling of an apparently solid marriage.

I had the feeling that Langan was rather enjoying laying the foundations for all this, leading us up to the final catastrophe while introducing hints of backstory, showing how characters who seem to have it all together may, in reality, be rather teetering on the edge (metaphoric falls come rather naturally in this book!) It would be spoilery to say too much about this, but I was impressed by how credible this background was, giving someone who might easily have been portrayed as simply a monster a lot of depth, logic and even pathos. 

A major theme here is misunderstanding. Sometimes this is from genuine incomprehension of another's background, feelings and motives, of which there is plenty (and we see all sides, empathising when it arises from someone's sense of inadequacy or perception that others won't side with them). Sometimes, it results from deception - but that isn't always to excuse it, there are those who are ready to be deceived, ready to judge, to excuse shocking behaviour in themselves and others even when they know it is unwarranted. (There is more than a hint of Salem in Garden City). There is also a lot of self-misunderstanding (or self-deception) both on the negative side but also the positive: many here are in reality more resilient, braver and just better than they'd have thought.

The stresses and cracks in the little community are counterpointed by that sinkhole, which is always a bit mysterious, and by the ground beginning to ooze bitumen, which coats everything, is trodden indoors, snares small animals and birds and fills lungs with its coolly smell. Even electronics is affected, semi-isolating the suffering community. Inevitably, given the portrait we have of this group of people, rather than uniting the community this natural(?) catastrophe just leads the parents to further rounds of accusations, denunciations and greater flights of fancy and blame. Not that they seem to need much reason for these - the barrel of gunpowder was, we gradually come to understand, long in place. The sinkhole is perhaps not a narrative device that is necessary to drive the plot, but it does add a distinct touch of the unheimlich to this story of very human failings, a hint that the times are out of joint, chiming with the ominous hints which a story looking back from the mid decades of the century can plausibly deploy.

An enjoyable book, which gets more and more tense as it reaches its conclusion and one which gave me that genuine sense, as I tuned the pages, that I wanted to know what happened next - but that I was also frightened to discover it.

For more information about the book, see the poster below for other stops on the blogtour. Or look at the Titan website here.

You can buy Good Neighbours ours from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot org, Hive Books, BlackwellsFoyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.






17 July 2021

#Review - For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

For the Wolf
Hannah Whitten
Orbit, 3 June 2021
Available as: PB, 430pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356516363

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of For the Wolf to consider for review.

You know how the old story goes.

Girl meets cursèd magic wildwood.

Girl loses cursèd magic wildwood.

Girl finds cursèd magic wildwood again.

Well sometimes, it isn't actually that simple...

Red is the Second Daughter, the First being her sister Neve. In their fairy-tale(ish) kingdom of Valleyda, the First Daughter takes the Throne, the Second (if there is one) is sent into the Wilderwood, to the Wolf. What exactly happens then, nobody knows, and it's a while since a Daughter was sent to the Wood, but the Second Daughters don't come back alive, that's for sure. Yet the custom continues, and Red has grown up knowing what would happen. Her mother, clearly, never let herself love Red, as she would one day lose her, and Red was never considered worth an eduction (what would the point be?). 

As the story opens, it's a couple of days before Red goes to the Wood, and this background rankles with everyone. The tension fairly crackles off the page as everyone tries to avoid what must happen, or to reconcile themselves to it, or to try and ignore it. Neve tries to persuade Red to run away: never mind that her sacrifice is supposed to prevent the Wolf unleashing demons on the Kingdom! But Red won't listen - she has her reasons for wanting to place distance between her and her family - and so the story begins.

It's told in two threads, what happens to Red in the Wood (the main story) and glimpses of what's going on back at home. That's actually quite a significant part of the story, and I think Whitten deserves credit for the brave decision to tell it in vignettes, relying on the atmosphere established in those early pages, and the reader's intelligence and empathy, to fill in the blanks. A brave decision, but I think the right one, because it means we are able to follow Red much more closely in the Wood and her story (which is really compelling) isn't frustrated by lengthy interruptions from another point of view. That's important, because what Red finds challenges everything she has been told about the Wood - and she's also flung into a complex personal situation.

It seems that Valleyda, dependent on income from pilgrims because of the Second Daughter thing, might not, exactly, have told the truth about what's going on. Or perhaps doesn't know the truth (leaving scope for those who do to manipulate things, of course). At any rate, there is a hidden battle going on in the forest, one involving the Wolf, who turns out to be real, but a much more ambiguous figure than Red might have expected - as is her role in the whole thing. It's possible even the Wolf doesn't completely understand that, and to complicate things, Red is drawn to the Wolf - embodiment that he is of the dangerous powers of the Wood, powers that are certainly not friendly to Red.

This is an appropriately tangled story, its undergrowth beset with dangers and potential dangers should anybody put a foot wrong, and the theme of sacrifice is never far away. Red is a young woman, still not fully sure of her desires, her powers or her destiny, and she's been brought up to believe she faces a terrible but certain fate. Even after her family have abandoned her to that fate, she still feels a weight of responsibility for the Kingdom: and she learns that its defences are failing. Whitten leads us to understand the true situation by very slow degrees, subtly deepening Red's own involvement with and commitment to the powers of the Wood as she does so, and its changing, darkening nature as the story unfolds creates an ever heightening sense of threat and evil. Albeit the Wood is not kind, it seems awful that the trees are rotting, and then vanishing - Whitten's imagery adding a feeling of environmental catastrophe to her supernatural theme.

I wasn't surprised, in the end, when the reasons for the danger were made clearer - there is a rather obvious villain in this book, in plain sight - but I was impressed at how credible that person's motivation was and how they were able to influence and manipulate others. That may ultimately be the theme of this book, how good intentions and even love can be tainted by darker desires and so open to corruption.

Overall, a dark cocktail of love, duty and rebellion, but these elements are so skilfully blended that these seemingly familiar themes end up delivering a real kick. Can't wait for the next book, For the Throne.

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

 


15 July 2021

#Review - The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Illustration by Fang Xinyu,
design by Pablo Defending

The Return of the Sorceress
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Subterranean Press, 30 June 2021
Available as: HB, 95pp
Source: Purchased copy
ISBN: 9781645240303

In fantasy, one frequently encounters young warriors and magicians, adventurers with a destiny. They discover their talents and make names for themselves, transforming their societies and often assuming power.

The Return of the Sorceress is a refreshing contrast with that. In this book, Moreno-Garcia shows us Yalxi, who is rather tired. She has been there, done that - was until recently the Supreme Mistress of the Guild of Sorcerers - and lost it all. It's not that Yalxi's old in years - she's in her 30s - but the powerful magics she and her kind manipulate, based on gems inhabited by temperamental spirits, consume the user, forcing them to become more and more dependent on that unholy power.

And having lost the Diamond Heart to her treacherous lover Xellah - who then had her imprisoned in a dungeon and literally bled alive - Yalxi now lacks the thing that staved off decay, that kept her young, that made her strong. She must have the Diamond Heart back!

So begins a story of desperation, subterfuge and cunning, as Yalxi levers every bit of power she can find, every scrap of knowledge, hiding out in the worst parts of town, unsure who to trust and remembering the life that's brought her to this point. In a relatively few pages, Moreno-Garcia gives a vivid and engaging portrait of a fantasy city, from its marshy underpinnings and decaying mansions to brassy parades and festivals and the legacy of invasion and conquest. It is so vivid, I could have lingered and lingered on the streets and in the seedy palaces and halls.

But The Return of the Sorceress isn't about world building, it's about the relationships that Yalxi built, and those she broke. One feels a weight of unspoken, but implied, business between her and Xellah, from their daring overthrow of their master Teotah, former owner of the Heart, to their failure to destroy it, to their rule of the city - bringing with it the supplies of blood they needed for their magic. This trajectory isn't detailed but one can sense the compromises, the betrayals and the frustrations that led up to the present, a present which places Yalxi in great danger, should Xellah recapture her.

It seems the best thing to do would be to run away, and several times Yalxi's advised to do that. But Yalxi isn't done, there are powers she believes that she can call on to restore her fortune. And at this point I was really pleased and surprised to see how Moreno-Gracia spins the story into a moral dilemma, power and revenge beckoning, danger all around and very few good options. 

Overall, it was great fun to read with vivid characters and done in splendid shades of moral grey - nobody here has clean hands. 

Very enjoyable.

For more information about The Return of the Sorceress, and to order a copy, see the publisher's website here


 

13 July 2021

#Review - Dark Lullaby by Polly Ho-Yen

Dark Lullaby
Polly Ho-Yen
Titan Books, 21 March 2021
Available as: PB, 368pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy via NetGalley and audio subscription
ISBN(PB): 9781789094251

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Dark Lullaby via NetGalley, although in fact I actually listened to the audio edition as well.

I am intrigued by how Dark Lullaby is pitched in the marketing material (see, for example, the publisher's website here) which draws comparisons with The Handmaid's Tale. There is a similarity, in that both books are about a near-future, dystopian society that prioritises control of women and their fertility in the face of collapsing birthrates. And of course The Handmaid's Tale - the novel, its sequel and the spin-off TV series - is tremendously successful, and who wouldn't want a little bit of that? 

But as I read it, Dark Lullaby is making rather different points, and it would be a shame to judge it only by the same dystopian yardstick as Margaret Atwood's book. 

In the world of Dark Lullaby, an avowedly authoritarian Government has taken control of the UK, or at least England, where the novel is set. Very little is said about wider political events, so one can't tell where we are in relation to Brexit, say, or whether the UK is intact, and it's not really clear how this government came to power or maintains its power. Surveillance seems pretty universal, although the book explores this mainly in the context of childcare and tracking parents, and opposition is minimal. It is a world slightly distinct from ours in the deployment of "spheres" - work-spheres, go-spheres and spheres in public places - as both network access, and by implication, surveillance devices. They seem to resemble the telescreens from Nineteen Eighty Four more than our mobiles, laptops and smart TVs in that they broadcast an endless spew of propaganda, perhaps partly tailored to what is is said and done around them.

Like authoritarian nations regimes the world over, the government in this future prioritises control over women's' fertility and seeks to mobilise them to address the population fall. For unknown reasons, the birthrate has been falling and natural conception is now difficult or impossible. Woman are coerced to undergo invasive and dangerous treatments described as "induction" in order to conceive. Participation in these is not (yet) mandatory, although things seem to be moving that way, with income, housing and work roles increasingly limited for the "outs" - those who decline to take part. 

Kit has been an "out" although since meeting her now-husband Thomas, she has changed her mind and they now have a baby, Mimi. However, that's only the start of the nightmare for the couple. The focus on fertility doesn't end at birth, with an entire department of the government - "OSIP", the Thought Police of this world - devoted to monitoring standards of childcare. Unfortunately, OSIP's role doesn't seem to extend to offering any practical support, advice or help for struggling parents (struggling mothers) rather it issues judgmental warnings over the slightest infraction and then, when sufficient of these have accumulated, sweeps in to take the child away ("extraction"). 

The most powerful parts of the novel focus on the feelings of parents (principally mothers, and especially Kit) in light of this situation. This is I think where Dark Lullaby really becomes a different book from its dystopian predecessors. Parenthood is always a series of muddles and mistakes (Philip Larkin's poem on the subject is well known). Twenty five years on, as a new parent, I can still remember my panic when the community midwife was due to visit for an inspection and Daughter produced an epic wet poo (in jets) while being changed, creating an awful mess which required an immediate bath. Immediate chaos and disorder, terror at how things would look. 

It already goes with the territory to feel judged, to be all at sea as to whether what one is doing is right, fearful from moment to moment that the little scrap of humanity you are suddenly responsible for will just... stop. At the same time you're sleep deprived, probably socially isolated and your life has been turned inside out. New mothers especially are under incredible stress, and of course have also gone through the physical ordeal of giving birth. 

Polly Yo-Hen's novel captures the wretchedness of this situation perfectly, showing the stories of not one, not two, but three families sequentially in this plight, on whom the pitiless minions of OSIP then prey.  Told in alternate sections simply entitled "Now" and "Then" it follows Kit and Thomas in some, initially unexplained, flight (but without baby Mimi) (the "Now") and in their earlier lives, meeting one another, falling in love, agonising over whether to have kids ("Then"). Those earlier sections also show us the agony of the other families featured here, with its inevitable conclusion. The format works well for the most part, although I found it a little frustrating how long we're kept waiting to have the exact situation in the "Now" part explained. The format especially allows plenty of time to establish the dilemma faced by Kit by showing how things work out - or don't - for those other families. By the time we come to the endgame, we understand the stakes for Kit, Mimi and Thomas only too well and appreciate just how impossible things really are, the book then giving us an ending that's truly heartbreaking.

As a thriller, the story works very well - perhaps it's a little too dependent on coincidence to smooth things along (but what thriller isn't?) - but as I've suggested above, it really comes into its own as an exploration of the sense of stress, guilt and inadequacy that haunts parents even if they have the best support imaginable. Many in our world have far worse than that, but in Kit's world everything seems set up to undermine and belittle. 

Every parent who's thought at one time or another "just take her, take this baby, I can't do this" (and that means every parent I think) will empathise with Kit in her troubles. That gives the story true heart, although it doesn't make it an easy read (and readers whose experiences are simply too raw may simply find it too much). 

I would recommend, but do be aware that this isn't, always, a comfortable read.

I listened to most of this book on audio. Eva Feller's crisp narration perfectly captures Kit's balance between meltdown and iron emotional control, necessary for her just to carry on, with the almost shouted section heading ("NOW!" and "THEN!") punctuating the story like gunshots. 


10 July 2021

#Review - The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

The 22 Murders of Madison May
Max Barry
Hodder and Stoughton, 8 July 2021
Available as: HB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN(HB): 9781529352092

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The 22 Murders of Madison May via NetGalley.

This review is slightly spoilery, for what I hope are good reasons. But be warned!

The 22 Murders of Madison May is a well-written psychological thriller which takes a now fairly familiar premise - parallel worlds - and makes something fresh and disturbing. At the same time though it takes a trope - a woman under threat - that is equally familiar (over familiar) and - well, I'm not sure whether it succeeds in making something new of that, or not. Let me explain.

The Maddison - Maddie - of the title is a real estate agent working in New York.

She's a struggling actress, studying in New York, chasing that big opportunity, that part which will change her life.

She's a barista, making ends meet as best she can when her dreams of stardom won't, quite, come true.

She has a boyfriend. She's broken up with her boyfriend. She's about to get back with her boyfriend.

Flickering alternatives, second chances - and a constant, ever looming threat.

That aspect of things - the threat - is the centrepiece of this story, and it's one which I think deserves a  warning because for many women the moves, the beats, of this experience will be familiar. Maddie is careful. She keeps her keys handy, ready to clutch between her fingers. Her phone is charged. Estate agent Maddie takes a photo on her mobile of her clients. Another Maddie worries about being alone in a subway car with a stranger and ponders the tactics: stay or go? Which is safer? Get off a stop early and walk? How busy are the streets roundabout? A third Maddie joins up with a group of friends for a weekend party, seeing the company as offering some safety.

Maddie is just so careful. Barry shows how her safety consciousness is ingrained in her daily life. The opening scenes show how Maddie, showing a house off to a new client, juggles the professional - lighting candles to mask the property's odour - with the professional/ personal - changing into heels and deploying a little acting-school glamour to hurry the sale along - with safety precautions - that mobile phone shot, leaving doors open, always being aware she is in relation to him

It's something we see throughout the book. Yet several times we also we see her dead, simply overwhelmed by an attacker, wrong footed by following a social convention for just a bit too long, distracted, flummoxed. Despite all her precautions, all her plans. 

This is a stark recognition by a male author of the conditions in which so many women go about their daily lives. As a man I'm not qualified to say whether that should be read as affirming, recognising these things or how far it will stir uncomfortable memories for some women. The book simply won't be one some wish to read, I think. It did, though, stir uncomfortable empathy from this man and I hope from others too. It should not I think need remarking on when this state of affairs is acknowledged, but here we are.

Going beyond this acknowledgement, Barry gives Maddie's dilemmas a parallel-worlds spin. The Maddie's we see here (and by implication, others we don't) are in different universes, but all of them are in the same danger . Not just the same danger as in, generic male violence, but, in their different worlds, they are targets of the same man. There is a particular threat coming after them. So we get to see Maddie's generic, sensible precautions come up against the same, targeted, menace from a man who has studied them before in other worlds, who knows them sometimes better than they know themselves. 

This setup made me feel a bit queasy, I have to say. It's like seeing the same rigged sporting contest over and over again (but of course with totally different stakes than a sporting contest). That's where I began to worry whether this story successfully skewers the "Well, she should have done X/ Shouldn''t have done Y" carping, by showing the outcomes of many X and Y? Or whether, rather than subverting the almost universal trope of a man hurting a woman, this alternative actually reinforces it? Despite being a slickly, compellingly written thriller with a whole additional science fictional cant that I won't share (spoilers), plenty of twists and turns (and with Felicity! - I'll tell you about her in a moment) I'm not sure my unease at this aspect ever completely went away. I'm still thinking about that.

Anyway, Felicity. 

Felicity is great. A newspaper reporter, she's another woman with an existence in the parallel worlds where we see Maddie, but unlike Maddie, Felicity has some inkling of what's going on, and she makes it her business to become Maddie's guardian angel. Having to come to terms with all those different lives she might be living - symbolised here by variants on her boyfriend, Gavin - Felicity's dilemma is as much philosophical as anything else, as she tries to understand exactly what is happening to reality, and to act morally within that understanding. If there is a place where The 22 Murders of Madison May confidently overcomes that central trope, it's in Felicity and the real level of responsibility she feels to all those many worlds, not just the one she is in. 

Also, her determination and rage, which take her on a long journey from the slightly glib political correspondent we meet at the start of the book, checking out a crime scene as a favour to a colleague. Felicity's growth and maturing made this book a rewarding experience in itself for me, although as I have said above, the subject matter means it won't for everyone, I think. 

But as I also said above, The 22 Murders of Madison May is never less than well written and it is always thought provoking and engaging.

For more information about The 22 Murders of Madison May, see the publisher's website here.



8 July 2021

#Review - Where the Missing Gather by Helen Sedgwick

Where the Missing Gather (Burrowhead, 2)
Helen Sedgwick
Point Blank (Oneworld), 8 July 2021
Available as: PB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN(PB): 9781786079770

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Where the Missing Gather, via NetGalley.

Sequel to last year's When the Dead Come Calling, Where the Missing Gather returns to Burrowhead, the inward-looking, coastal English village where we met beleaguered DI Georgie Strachan and her slightly annoying husband Fergus. Like its predecessor, Where the Missing Gather is one part crime, three parts folk horror (it's VERY creepy) and two parts dissection of an insular England. And like its predecessor, these parts are blended very skilfully, topping the whole thing off with relatable - though, as I've hinted above, sometimes annoying - characters, real people who make plausible decisions - and plausible mistakes.

The crime... 

Burrowhead has secrets, both modern and historical, so it's not surprising that three investigations should arise at the same moment. First, a horse is brutally killed in the woods (there are vibes of blood sacrifice in the horrific way that she died). Secondly, a body is found buried in a field. Thirdly, information is received about an assault decades before. The information comes from Betty Marshall, an elderly resident of a care home in "the City" - far from Burrowhead, and requiring DS Daniel Frazer to travel back out to "the villages" to investigate ('Please God, he thinks, don't let this be about Burrowhead.')

The folk horror... 

When the Dead Come Calling made it clear that Burrowhead has its own traditions, primitive and perhaps abhorrent to the wider world, and that those traditions have self-appointed guardians, folk who see it as their role to "defend" the village. (One of them may have been kind old Uncle Walt, although in a neat symmetry with Frazer's informant, he's now unable to shed much light on things - his niece Trish (one of Georgie's PCs) has had to find him, too, a place in a care home). The nature and extent of these traditions was left vague in the earlier book, but now Sedgwick is more forthcoming, showing us both how ancient they are, how effective they may be, how they underlie repeating patterns of violence and hatred over the centuries - and how often appalling things are justified as 'what must be done'.

The matter of England... 

Sedgwick situates her story in a very contemporary context of barely suppressed (at time, not suppressed at all) nativism, accentuated in Burrowhead by the village's distaste for anyone not born and bred locally. It's a thing that almost reaches religious levels of fervour. ('he is not from here and what more do they need to know?') Pamani's shop is still graffiti'd nightly, and both Georgie and Frazer, as people of colour, partricularly feel the hostility. The B-word isn't mentioned anywhere, but it's impossible not to read recent events into this story of a small community blaming outsiders for everything that has gone wrong - the lack of jobs, the closure of services, the buying up of farmland by wealthy incomers (albeit incomers who have been three generations in the place!) That graffiti does, after all, say (among other things) 'Take back ConTrol'.

This atmosphere of menace, of a grinding, persistent hostility built into the fabric of the place, is one of the things that challenges Georgie, alongside the persistent threat that her outpost of a police station will be closed to save costs, and alongside the wall of silence over the crimes she's trying to solve. But she faces problems at home, too. Fergus - perhaps from a desire to see the best in people - continually downplays the hostility ('So much easier to forgive racism if you know it'll never be directed against you.') He's - somewhat desperately, I'd say - also still attempting to ferret out the historic secrets of Burrowhead (whether from a genuine interest in history or because he somehow things that telling the story will be healing, I'm less sure). So Where the Missing Gather features an archaeological dig, which made me smile for a couple of reasons: first, because poor Fergus thinks he will be able to spend the day digging and then do a nightshift on the tills at the supermarket without even cleaning up (no, Fergus. No you won't, and my knees and back will explain why...) and secondly, because the hoped for results fall spectacularly into the "contested history" bit of our busy culture wars (as mapped onto the particular concerns of Burrowhead). Sedgwick gives us a little vignette of the past, so we know before Fergus just what it is he's excavating, and why it's not good news, but there are plenty of other mysteries associated with the dig, not least why self appointed community leader Natalie Prowle is so interested. 

It's an, at times, dense story, taking its time to let the consequences of the first book, and the new perspectives on them provided here, percolate through the little community - and through Georgie and Fergus's marriage, which seems shakier than ever. Burrowhead is a place of silences, but not of forgetting, and a lot of the information conveyed here is done obliquely and through establishing atmosphere as much as through activity. Sedgwick does this so well, nailing the effect of people on landscape and places ('what is it that people bring to a place? ...It's the sound of them, the heat and the colour and the way that when he catches someone's eye, even if they don't say a word, he can feel some kind of connection that he feels only the lack of...')

Burrowhead is also a place with its own loyalties, as Georgie already knows, and there seems to be a decreasing number of people whom she might trust - so the arrival of another outsider, Frazer, is a bit of a lift for her, although he doesn't really feature as much in this book as in the previous one (and so far, the sense of dread he experiences at returning to the coast is matched in events - although a lot is left unresolved and I'm sure his moment will come!)

I loved returning to Burrowhead (though you wouldn't want to live here) and hope to go back soon, as there's clearly unfinished business in that dark place. 

For more information about Where the Missing Gather, see the publisher's webpage here.



7 July 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy

Little Rebel
Jérôme Leroy, trans by Graham Roberts
Corylus Books, 1 July 2021
Available as: e
Source: advance copy provided by the publisher
ASIN: B097KCVCKY

I'm grateful to Corylus Books for an advance copy of Little Rebel to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

It's said you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I think the magnificently dark cover for Little Rebel captures its mood perfectly.

Who, exactly, is to blame for a tragedy, an outrage? The terrorist who pulls the trigger? Those who support, who radicalise, who encourage? Culture warriors who see an opportunity to gain by setting up the Other as threatening, dangerous? Bystanders who don't really care but just want to get on with their complicated lives and don't read the signs? All of us for our prejudices and our little, thoughtless slights?

Leroy's novella sets up all these, and more, in an unnamed port city in Western France. It's a tense place, ruled over by a far-Right administration which has installed cronies in the Police ('Sergeant Richard Garcia, who sees himself these days as a defender of the West against the Great Replacement') yet also with a radical Islamic faction and plenty of simply disaffected youth. Add to that Alizé Lavaux, a jaded author of Young Adult fiction, so very hungover and so very desperate for a smoke, Flavien Dubourg, a twenty seven year old teacher who's still a virgin but fantasises about Alizé, the elusive Little Rebel, a bartender who's about to have a Very Bad Night, and... well, you get a powerful mix.

One of the things I loved about this book was the way it frankly portrays life as messy, as knotted. Leroy is completely cold-blooded - he'll introduce somebody sympathetically and then have them die with little warning. (Or, sometimes, the other way round). Then he'll zoom forward ten, twenty years and show the consequences, what became of the survivors. Both victims and perpetrators are allowed to have rich, complicated, perplexing lives - lives extending into the lives of others, and reflected back in them. It's quite a feat to do that at all, let along in such a short book (I think it took me an hour to read Little Rebel).

There is also the terse, slightly noir-ish tenor to the book, leavened as it by a sense of the absurd and the fatalistic: this is what's going to happen, what can you do? That's accentuated by, as I said, the book's bouncing forward to tell us what eventually happens or, in the authorial voice, assuring the reader that, no, character X won't survive and their story was only there to make a point - about life, about people, about that unnamed city.

It is, as I have said, a short read, but one with some vividly drawn characters and which gives an equally vivid picture of a particular time and place. And it's shot through with dark humour. I'd recommend.

You can buy Little Rebel from Amazon here. To find out more about the book, see the stops on the tour poster below.





5 July 2021

#Blogtour #Review - The Beresford by Will Carver

The Beresford
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 22 July 2021
Available as: PB, audio, e
Source: Advance copy supplied by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781913193812

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy of The Beresford and to Anne for inviting me to take part in this Random Things Tour.

"Why this is hell, nor am I out of it..."

Will Carver is one of my standout favourite authors. His Detective Sergeant Pace trilogy (Good Samaritans/ Nothing Important Happened Today/ Hinton Hollow Death Trip) is a masterpiece of suburban evil, the sentences perfectly honed surgical instruments that probe the reader's morality and sense of self.

The Beresford is in the same mould in being what I will hereby name ethical noir - and at an even more heightened pitch. At the same time, it also reminded me of something completely different - the Ealing comedy, where the bodies inconvenient family members or hapless bystanders accumulate and there is a kind of grim humour in their disposal.

"Just outside the city - any city, every city - is a grand, spacious but affordable apartment building called The Beresford..."

The Beresford is where people come when they are on the cusp. Young adults striking out in life. People  looking for a change in direction, or contemplating a business move away from the familiar. Wives getting away from abusive husbands. Artists, emerging into fame, but not quite there yet. All of them find themselves ringing the doorbell, being welcomed by Mrs May, shown to a clean and empty apartment.

And they'll make friends. Go into the city, find a place to get a coffee, maybe pick up a new phone. A new life, putting the past behind them.

But The Beresford isn't safe.  As the bell rings, somewhere else in the building, a different tenant comes to terms with just what they have been capable of - and with what they must do next...

Nor is The Beresford - the book - safe. Carver is, I firmly maintain, a monster of an author. His  prose insinuates. It sidles up to the reader on the train, bags a seat - a little too close, you may think to yourself - and makes itself at home. Half a page later it's confronting you with some bit of hypocrisy you'd swear nobody knows anything else about. (How does he DO THAT?). It will unpick a little corner of your life's fabric, demolishing a fond assumption or pious cliche, asking an awkward 

A page further on, and the book's (metaphorically, or perhaps metaphysically) made off with your phone, watch and wallet. (How does he DO THAT?)

A few chapters more, and you'll probably find a bloodstained knife in your bag and that you're implicated in a murder.

I have never read a writer who has such a knack for implicating his readers in the darkness of his writing. There is no neutrality, no superiority, here. We meet Abe Schwartz, geeky nice guy. Blair Conroy, a young woman escaping a stuffy, conformist religious town (her parents' uneasy, over-quite life after she's gone is a recurring motif). Gail Castle, who fell for a strong and sensitive man - who came home from the war changed. Deftly, Carver introduces them, providing not so much a physical or emotional but a moral description (whether via their internal lives, their actions and relationships or their secrets).  It would be wrong to describe any of them as evil, but there is evil here. And Carver's task is to make us, the readers, complicit with that. In tiny steps - while commenting on, and lamenting, the whole shady process.

That process reminded me a bit of a collector of insects selecting specimens and pinning them, wings beating or legs flailing, to a board for display. We, the readers, somehow share in this, are tainted by something that Carver, as the author, is doing to his characters. It's as though The Beresford - the place, the book - is one of those ghoulish Victorian museums in a fly-blown seaside resort. We're invited to take part in the oh-so convincing portrayal of the ethical degradation that will take place here. (How DOES he do that?)

If this all sounds off-putting, be assured, the process of ethical dissolution we witness in The Beresford is quite, quite fascinating. My, my, the things people will do. The justifications they find. The sharp asides and insights that Carver uses to show us that, no, we are not better, not special, not superior to this. (And isn't that what history teaches?)

The book is located in a curiously bland setting - perhaps in the UK (there's a reference to a motorway), perhaps the US (Blair's hometown is uniformly, smugly Evangelical) - lending the story a defocused, universal feel: this could be anywhere - aided by a lack of engagement with the outside world. Regardless of how furiously the little insects beat their wings - seeking jobs, fame, business success - it's as though they've made a misstep and can't, quite, catch hold of the world again. The pins hold them. Their trips out, their business meetings and job interviews, more and more have the appearance of somebody waving from a departing liner. It's as though The Beresford exists slightly out of phase with the wider world, as though different rules apply here, consequences are suspended. That superb cover - surely based on an Escher drawing, evoking trapped internality, a dimensional snare but one is washed with blood, its surfaces etched with writhing figures - truly captures the feeling of reading this book, a feeling I can only hint at here.

It's one that stuck with me long after I'd finished the book and closed it, gobsmacked by where Carver finally takes things.

He is, I will say again, a MONSTER...

For more information about The Beresford, see the publisher's website here. And don't forget the stops on the blogtour, listed on the poster below. 

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







2 July 2021

#Review - Day Zero by C Robert Cargill

Day Zero
C Robert Cargill
Gollancz, 20 May 2021
Available as: PB, 304pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN(PB): 9781473212817

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Day Zero via Netgalley to consider for review.

Spoiler alert - this book is a prequel and my review assumes you have read the earlier book.

Day Zero is a prequel to Cargill's Sea of Rust, published in 2017, which was set 30 years after a robot uprising - and 15 years after the death of the last human. Day Zero takes us back to the eve of the apocalypse, focussing on a suburban US family comprising mother Sylvia, father Bradley and child Ezra.  The latter is cared for by Pounce - Nanny Pounce - a robot designed to resemble a tiger.

I recognised the background to the uprising from Sea of Rust - controversy over freed robots establishing their own town, the fury of rednecks and pretend Christians, and eventual conflict. While it's set, perhaps, 100 years in our future, the topical references are here and have only sharpened since 2017: the violent hooligans are referred to as "red hats", and there is the same parallel drawn between the condition of the robots and that of enslaved people as was present in the earlier book but I think was much less immediate because that was set further in the future and the humans were done with. 

The parallel is I think particularly apposite here because we see liberal Bradley and, especially, Sylvia, in the full pomp of their hypocrisy. They are following events from the inauguration of Isaactown (the robots' city) cheering on the free robots and deprecating the red hats - while still owning and commanding Pounce and household robot Ariadne, and making no bones about what ownership means - Pounce's box is still stored away, waiting for the day when Ezra no longer needs him. I would liked to have seen this tension explored further, but Cargill cuts it short and takes a very different turn with the plot once things get violent, giving us instead almost continual action through the final two thirds of the book as Pounce seeks to defend Ezra from bloodstained, insurrectionary bots.

While that part of the book has its own philosophical angle to which the fast paced narrative occasionally returns - is Pounce doing this from real choice or because of programming? - it is more nodded to and not explored in much depth, certainly not the same depth as the question, in Sea of Rust, about the sense of responsibility and even guilt felt by the robot protagonists and their dilemma about joining a super AI collective (again, hinted at here but not central). 

Instead, we essentially get a series of combats, escapes and duels involving Pounce and his eight year old charge as they seek some kind of safety amidst a world gone to pieces. That is all very well done, and it's definitely a compelling read, even if you hold in the back of your head the fact that by the time of Sea of Rust, all the humans were dead, which seems to make whatever happens here moot. There is though  lots of tension and peril, and the immediate task of survival allows for plenty of drama.

It didn't though, for me, carry quite the ethical heft of Sea of Rust, and its nature as a prequel, leading to a known state, rather took the emotional heft out as well. Great fun to read, and I would certainly look at another book set in this world, but I think it could have been a lot more.

For more information about Day Zero see the publisher's website here.



30 June 2021

#Review - Nightshift by Kiara Ladner

Nightshift
Kiare Ladner
Pan Macmillan, 18 February 2021
Available as: HB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy via NetGalley, purchased audio and HB
ISBN(HB): 9781529010381

I mainly listened to this book as an audio, finishing the hardback as I got close to the end and needed to see how it all turned out.

Nightshift attracted me because it promised a story of nighttime, of dark streets, of people at work in the silent hours while the world sleeps (a slight obsession of mine). In fact that isn't quite its focus, but nevertheless, it made a complex and satisfying story, still one with something of the dark about it - albeit spiritual rather than literal.

Meggie, a young woman from South Africa, is living and working in London around the turn of the Millennium. Holding down a boring office job while she attempts to complete her English degree, she meets and falls under the spell of the exotic Sabine - and her life becomes an adventure.

Twenty years later, suffering from insomnia as she recalls those events, and after discovering new and unsettling facts about Sabine, Meggie decides to set everything out in a book, to try to work through it - to understand what was really happening.

It's a story of intoxication, of abandon - familiar in some respects. Meggie sees herself as ordinary and Sabine, unconventional, mysterious, cool, Belgian (a nice touch - maybe it would have been too much of a cliche if Sabine were French) becomes an obsession. Meggie's in her restless years, coming to terms with having left home, in a rather pedestrian relationship with Graham and waiting for her future to happen.

The two young women begin by having lunch together, not-quite going out but with something between them. There's a will they, won't they to the whole relationship, Sabine holding herself slightly elusive, coming and going and eventually, eventually making herself even less available by switching to the night shift. Meggie has a boyfriend, but her preoccupation with Sabine makes her wonder if she might be gay or bi, setting her off on a path of exploration before she finally concludes that no, she's neither. This is typical of the relationship - Meggie not so much doing things with Sabine but bouncing off her, considering new and different ways of being, perhaps projecting on Sabine more than really understanding her. 

Still, Meggie doesn't hesitate to follow Sabine to the night shift - although in predictable fashion it isn't straightforward to actually find Sabine. Nevertheless, Meggie does meet a gallery of eccentrics and free spirits who work three weeks on, three off, spending their work hours compiling press clippings in a seedy warehouse next to London Bridge. (If you worked in London in the late 90s, the book captures the atmosphere perfectly - the peak Blair years, just ahead of the city assuming its easy glamour in the Noughties). There are heroic sessions of drinking and drug taking, lots of clubbing, philosophical conversations on the roof at end of shift, shared cigarettes, episodes of poverty, break-ups and always, always Sabine.

Sabine is a thumpingly interesting character but to be honest, at times, can be a bit annoying. She is - or at least as seen through Meggie's eyes she is - an embodiment of the idea that what matters in life is to live, to the full, for the moment, feel strongly, go places, experience things. An approach to the world that scares me, frankly, and in all the encounters between Sabine and Meggie there's a slight sense of danger, of being on the edge of something - sometimes closer, as when they go to the opera with Sabine's lover (or is he?) and someone suggests a threesome, or when, off their heads with coke in a car going to Brighton, the two women are stopped by the police.

It's a mark of how good Ladner's writing is that the reader connects with all the possibilities here, with the richness of them while at the same time, the reader understands just how much Meggie is... what word should I use? Bewitched? - by Sabine, and why she is (though it's hard to put into words, you just need to read the book). 

Meggie is bewitched enough to drop Graham, to start trying to be like Sabine, to act like her (though plagued by doubt over whether she's getting it right), to dress like her. Meggie's obsession with Sabine gets in the way of any clear perception by her of what Sabine might really be like - of the risks of being close to her, yes, but also of what Sabine's own needs might be. Meggie both takes Sabine too seriously, revelling in the details of her life (her brother's tragic death, the missing father, the glamorous older lover) and fails to take her seriously enough, being quite, quite heedless of mundane details that might - in hindsight - matter a lot. 

So the dance whirls on, the two women existing in the same spaces with each other but really, I suspected, living out two quite different stories of what is happening.

Until a final, awful event which changes everything. A shocking event, which Ladner does not try to explain. Is it a betrayal of one by the other? Is it a reckless attempt by one to demand attention, rescue? Or both?

It's something that leaves Meggie wondering about everything she had known, believed, assumed, about Sabine - and still wondering years later.

A complex, atmospheric read, capturing so well a certain sort of relationship and its aftermath.