29 January 2021

#BlogTour #Review - There's Only One Danny Garvey by David F Ross

There's Only One Danny Garvey
David F Ross
Orenda Books, 21 January 2021
Available as: PB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781913193508

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for a proof copy of There's Only One Danny Garvey to consider for review - and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

I really shouldn't have enjoyed this book!

I'm not a great follower of football, which is a thing integral to the lives of the characters here, especially Danny and his "uncle" Higgy. Moreover, it's - designedly - obscure, lower league football taking place in the drizzle between tiny, lower league clubs in the unfashionable mid years of the 1990s, before the game turned into the slick money and marketing driven engine it is now. There's no glamour here.

But - I knew from Ross's previous writing - especially his Disco Days trilogy - how he can weave a spell, conveying the nuances of his protagonists' lives through their passions, whether for music or - as here - football. He could probably do it equally for stamp collecting or train spotting - a joke Danny would appreciate here. The utterly compelling writing succeeds totally in getting over that passion, in making it alive because, rather than despite, the flailing state of the central club, Barshaw Bridge, to which one-time high flier Danny has been called back in the hour of the team's need. 

Bluntly, Barshaw Bridge is almost done, and Danny is its last hope. The club has been brought to its knees, or perhaps lower, by a combination of bad luck, stupidity, criminality and economics, but the tendency of its games to end as punch-ups didn't help. The description of the club's state is humorous and recalls the tone of the Disco Days books, but despite this and a couple of other moments, the mood of this book is generally much darker. Danny and his half-brother Raymond (neither of their dads stayed around long) had difficult childhoods, Raymond has been in and out of prison (he's currently residing at Barlinnie) and their mother, Libby, is dying. Danny returns to Barshaw reluctantly but with some idea of making amends: he ran out on his team on the eve of a vital cup tie, which they lost (it's a while before we discover why he did that), he is obsessed with the disappearance of a girl from his class in primary school in the 70s, and Higgy, who comes after him to return, is probably about the only positive figure in his life.

The story is told largely from Danny's point of view but - crucially - each section of the book is intercut with comments from another character - Higgy; Damo, Danny's nephew; Nancy, demo's mum (and Raymond's girlfriend); Raymond himself. They are generally brief comments, but enough to give insight into those people and insight into Danny himself. There's only one Danny Garvey? Rather, there are at least four, perhaps others besides.

Behind the football, then, behind the sinking town and its sinking club, is a web of relationships intersecting in Danny, which Ross slowly reveals. While this is quite a short book at just over 250 pages, Ross never gives the impression of rushing things. Rather we see Danny, Higgy, Nancy and the rest speaking for themselves and we sense - rather than being told - the kind of people they are. The distinction between the spoken language and the interior monologues reinforces this. The speech is mainly Scots dialect (and yes, fellow English people! It is perfectly comprehensible! Live a little!) while the "interior" stuff is pretty much standard English, giving the two aspects quite different voices. You might read the interior bits as having some kind of additional authority associated with being in a more "prestigious" dialect. Or you might read them as blander, more considered pronouncements contrasted with the vernacular used in the actual speech. There are so many shades of potential nuance here to be navigated by the reader trying to work out who and what, at a given moment, to believe.

There are also contrasts between three timeframes; the unavoidable "now" in which we're reading this story; the mid-90s - recent, but still a weirdly foreign time when pubs were filled with smoke and people bought newspapers; and the mid-70s when kids could be beaten in school and play out alone after dark. (A subplot concerning Damo, who is clearly a troubled child, in need of extra support which he isn't getting, struck this point home very forcefully. I hope that in the 2020s things would be a bit easier for his family). We range back and forth between Danny's adulthood and his younger days, as Ross deftly forges the chain of events leading to where things are, leading ump to Danny's reasons for wanting to put things right. 

I don't think that, in the end, one can doubt his sincerity, but equally, as the story unfolds, I had a profound sense that some things bare etter left alone and that Danny might be rushing in where angels fear to tread. 

This is a brilliantly evocative, captivating story, the more so for having moments so deeply sad that at times I just had to put the book aside. It is certainly a story that will remain with me, and one I continue to think about. 

I'd heartily recommend it.

For more information about There's Only One Danny Garvey, see the Orenda Books website here. And take a look at the stops in the blogtour - see poster below.

You can buy There's Only One Danny Garvey from your local shop, if they're doing click-and-collect (or phone-and-collect, or email-and-collect). Or you can order online from UK Bookshop dot org, Hive Books,  Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

27 January 2021

#Review - The Survivors by Jane Harper

The Survivors
Jane Harper
Abacus, 21 January 2021 (HB), 16 September (PB)
Available as: HB, PB, 375pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy 
ISBN: 9781408711989 (HB) 9780349143743 (PB)

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Survivors to consider for review.

Having loved Harper's previous, Australia-set mysteries I was eagerly looking forward to The Survivors. It's just as atmospheric as them, with just as well drawn characters and an involving mystery plot, but Harper gives us a rather different sort of story - I love it when an author does a swerve like this!

In The Survivors, we visit the small coastal town of Evelyn Bay in Tasmania. It's a place dependent on tourism - busy and bustling in the summer with fierce competition for every parking place, deserted and quiet in winter apart from the keen divers who come out of season to dive the local wrecks. These are a notable local feature celebrated with a statue - the three Survivors of the title - at low tide to mark one particular disaster.

Kieran Elliott, his partner Mia and their baby daughter have come home to Evelyn Bay to help his mother Verity pack up their house. His father, Brian, is suffering from dementia and the time has come for them to move on. It's a bittersweet visit for Kieran, evoking old memories and regrets. Kieran, too, is a survivor - his brother drowned more than a decade ago, on the night of the worst storm in living memory. Kieran escaped, but with a sense of guilt - there are those that blame him for his brother's death, and more besides.

All of this is simmering beneath the calm surface of Evelyn Bay, until the death on the beach of a young woman, Bronte, makes a collision with the past unavoidable. The secrets of Evelyn Bay will be exposed and no-one may ever be the same again...

I would say this is a rather unusual crime story. The central character, Kieran Elliott, is neither a detective seeking to solve the mystery, nor a man accused of some crime and trying to clear his name. (Well, I say that - but while he is held responsible for a death, it's not the one that's central here, and he already blames himself). Rather, Kieran is - more or less - minding his own business,  trying to resist getting drawn in and having the past reexamined. There is a detective here - DI Sue Pendlebury, brought in to oversee the local police - but she, and they, are pretty remote, which Harper shows by having them observed by the townsfolk: seen from afar on the telephone, searching a house or striding on the beach. We're shut off from the investigation. Pendlebury and her team are apparently search for something but we don't know what, or why. I think it's only in the last quarter or so of the book that Kieran even talks to her for any length of time.

Rather than the investigation, the focus is on Kieran's tense relationship with his mother, clearly one of those who blames him for his brother's death, and on the web of friendships and former friendships between men - mainly - who grew up together in Evelyn Bay. That's intercut with Kieran's sense of guilt, the disintegrating situation with his father and the additional stress all that places on Kieran's relationship with his partner, Mia. From a certain point of view, despite the death early on, relatively little happens in the first half of the book as Harper follows Kieran and Mia around the town, using them to explore its personalities and their connections and to convey the atmosphere of the place - peaceful and calm, but with something of an undercurrent. 

The townsfolk are determined that Bronte's killer must be a stranger, not a local, but there is a sense of something darker behind Evelyn Bay's happy-go-lucky, blokes image. There's malicious chatter on the town's Internet forum. Kieran himself reflects (as he strides confidently along the beach) that he's in no danger, is he? 'Whatever else might come the way of grown men, they didn't wind up strangled to death in the surf'. We hear of boy - among that group whiling away the sleepy summer months, year before - who seduces a girl to get back at her boyfriend over a business dispute. And, most chilling of all, it's not the first time that a young woman has come to grief here, is it? It all gives the impression that a young woman's life may not be of much account.

There is, then, a powerful tension between the urge to uncover secrets, explore and explain the past and thereby, perhaps, find resolution, and the attraction of  pushing the blame elsewhere, pinning it all on some unknown stranger, and getting back to business as usual. Those competing pressures meet in Kieran himself, and possibly his family, whose lives, since the storm, are almost a microcosm of Evelyn Bay. 

It is all coming to a climax, but what will be revealed, and who will pay the price, is anybody's guess.

The Survivors feels, as I said, like a rather unconventional crime novel, but it is an absorbing and thought-provoking one, with themes much wider than merely identifying a killer. I'd recommend.

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

23 January 2021

#Review - Hall of Smoke by HM Long

Cover by Julia Lloyd

Hall of Smoke
HM Long
Titan Books, 19 January 2021
Available as: PB, 415pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy 
ISBN: 9781789094985

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance paperback copy of Hall of Smoke to consider for review.

The term "mountain top experience" is often used in a religious context to describe an encounter between believers and their god (think Moses being given the Commandments). You climb up the mountain, away from mundane matters, into a liminal space, encounter the Deity, and return with a message or a mission (or perhaps simply changed). 

At the start of Hall of Smoke, the warrior priestess Hessa is seeking such an experience. She has climbed the mountain and made a sacrifice (of her own blood) but hears nothing from Eang, Goddess of War, to whom Hessa is devoted - and who Hessa has offended by not killing the stranger Omaskat who took refuge in her village as she was ordered. 

But Hessa receives no reply, only dust and ashes as her home, and the sacred Hall of the title, are destroyed by raiders from the North. It is clear what her duty is: to chase Omaskat down and kill him as she should have done in the first place. Thus begins a frenetic hunt across the Norse-tinged lands of Eangen and Algatt and the somewhat Roman seeming territory of Arpa - not forgetting trespass on the heavenly High Halls of the Otherworld themselves. The High Halls are where the dead of this world go for eternity, and loss of Eang's favour risks Hessa's place there. So she must deal with Omaskat, whatever her feelings, regardless of the laws of hospitality, heedless of the cost.

Hessa is well suited to the task, however. She's not just a priestess but a warrior priestess, trained from childhood to fight, and equipped by her goddess with a magical fire that can heal her own wounds and destroy her enemies. One of the joys - albeit a brutal joy - of this book is to see the formidable Hessa taking on her enemies, whether using weapons or her divine gifts. Another is her general determination and courage. Hessa has actually lost a lot, her family and way of life having been shattered, but with her quest in view and much more at stake - including the life and soul of a baby committed to her care - she presses on, despite growing doubts and suspicions that Eang has been hess than honest.

What follows is a fast-paced, complex and desperate chase. Hessa finds unexpected allies, and deadly enemies, but she also finds that what she's been told about her world, its gods and its history is rather partial, that the truth is complicated and that powers she knew nothing of are in motion. The story really documents her growing-up, both in her understanding of the world and her place in it and in knowing and choosing to whom, and to what, she gives service. Fighting fiercely is good, but fighting knowingly is better, and perhaps the world is less clearly drawn than it seems.

I hope that doesn't sound too sober and preachy. It really isn't Hall of Smoke is first and foremost a rollicking, combat-rich, fantasy adventure in the very best tradition, infused with a sense of active, interfering divinity redolent of the Norse or Greek mythologies. These are gods and goddesses with plans and schemes, who can be bargained with, tricked and even scared but who are also utterly amoral. In a real sense they don't deserve the service of someone like Hessa but equally, she has to live in the world as she finds it, protect what is precious to her, and prevent even worse things from emerging. What can you do? That's the dilemma at the core of Hall of Smoke, giving the book moral complexity and depth.

Great fun, always engaging, and strongly recommended.

For more information about Hall of Smoke, see the publisher's website here.

21 January 2021

#Review and #Giveaway - Radio Life by Derek B Miller

Jacket design by Ghost

Radio Life
Derek B Miller
Jo Fletcher Books, 21 January 2021
Available as: HB, 477pp, audio, e
Source: Advance HB copy 
ISBN: 9781529408584

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Radio Life to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the book's social media "blast" - see poster below for more details of that! I also have a giveaway - read on for details...

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. 

I said there would be a giveaway. I have, through the generosity of Jo Fletcher Books, a copy of Radio Life to share. If you would like a chance to win it, share this review on Twitter, tag me in, and comment with one piece of knowledge from our world you would either want to preserve for the Commonwealth, or prevent it from having. Either can be as broad ("all sport") or focussed ("no cats!") as you like. (You can also follow me on Twitter if you like but you don't have to!) (UK/ RoI I'm afraid).

I will pick a random winner on Saturday 23 January, and announce the result next week. Good luck!

You can buy, or pre-order, Radio Life from your local high street bookshop (check whether they are doing Click and Collect) or online from Hive Books, bookshop dot org UK, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

19 January 2021

#Review - Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Black Sun
Rebecca Roanhorse
Rebellion, 21 January 2021
Available as: PB, 400pp, audio
Source: Advance e-copy 
ISBN: 9781781089477

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

I have an on-off relationship with epic fantasy. Done well, it can excite, move, and entertain me, as well as providing the perfect setting to test conceptions of duty, loyalty, love, endurance and more.

But so often we go to that world - you know it, that world with animal skins, snow, nobles and hordes. And I'm so wary of that place. But I will look up for a fantasy that happens somewhere else - and happily, there are more and more of these, like Roanhorse's. And, also happily, I know from reading her Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts that she is a cracking writer, which is proved again in Black Sun.

The book hinges on an event referred to as "Convergence", with each chapter dated in relation to it - whether years or mere days before. What it is, and why it's important, are only revealed slowly, although you will quickly guess that the characters we meet will come together then.

There is Serapio, who we meet first as a boy, about to undergo a cruel rite at the hands of his mother. We see this, then follow his life after as he grows into a strange purposes. There is Naranpa, high priest of the Sun. She's low born, trying both to establish herself in her role and to restore what she sees as the lost glories of the office. And there is Xiala, a ship's captain. We meet her first in jail after a drunken episode with somebody else's wife.  Xiala was for me the easiest characters to get along with. She has a contempt for those who don't go to sea ('indwelling bastards, all of them') and at first, it seems as though she wants nothing much beyond a ship to sail, a drink, and company and her adventures are immediately readable with little need to understand any background. 

Roanhorse does, however, give Xiala plenty of background (There was something else deeply wrong with her, something she had no desire to examine with any rigour...'), an origin and abilities that mark her out as different and suspicious and discovering exactly who she is and what it means as she - almost, perhaps - falls in love with the mysterious passenger who's booked on her ship is both intriguing and actually moving. There's a definite current between the two, a taste of an attraction that can't be, less because of what they are than because of what her friend must do, the duty he sees upon him.

I found Naranpa less easy to relate to initially, and partly because she seems in such high peril - nominally in charge of the Watchers, the orders of priesthood (healer, assassin, historian and oracle) in their ancient tower, but surrounded by danger and somewhat hapless in its face. I suspect the time for her to really show what she's made of won't come till another book, but even so, Roanhorse again weaves a convincing and complex background for this character - a rise from the impoverished district of the Maw, a brother who's one of the local crime bosses, the sneers and condescension of the Sky Made clans. 

Those four clans, with their totem animals and their rivalries, the gods served by the four orders of priesthood, the fantastical city of Nova in which all live - a city of deep rocky gorges, mesas and caves, bound together by a skein of top bridges - the games of chance, the clothes, the ships made from reeds and the astral navigation of the captains - make for an unforgettable setting to Black Sun. Drawn from pre-Columbian America, this all pays tribute to the sophistication of those societies, in the service of a story that hits all those notes I referred to above. Different conceptions of duty - Serapio's, Naranpa's - colliding with the realities of life and of love. Endurance, both of suffering and of injustice - with a flame of hope for vengeance kept burning. Characters juggling inner and outer lives, personal flaws, secrets and desires. And with a clear-eyed view of some of the classic schemes and setups: 'They promise you a saviour, but that saviour ends up eating babies or kicking puppies or something, and the poor gull who's the prophesied one ends up dead.'

Skillfully blended together by Roanhorse, all this comes together in a compulsive story that I simply didn't want to end. This is a series I know I'll eagerly follow, and I'm counting the days till the next part is out. 

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

16 January 2021

#Review - The Lost and the Damned by Olivier Norek

The Lost and the Damned (The Banlieues Trilogy, 1)
Olivier Norek (trans Nick Caistor)
Maclehose Press (Quercus), 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 304pp, e
Source: Advance e copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 9780857059628

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

Content warning: this book does depict some very unpleasant events, both instances of torture and sexual assault. I don't describe these in my review below.

The Lost and the Damned is an explosive police procedural/ thriller, set in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the scuzzy northern outskirts of Paris. The place is all tower blocks, dereliction and the camps of refugees and outcasts. It's not a tourist district or a smart shopping quarter. 

Here, Capitaine Victor Coste is about to lose one of his most experienced officers, fleeing the city for a quieter life in the country, and to gain a new recruit in his place. This happens just as a perplexing series of murders begins - murders with a hint of the supernatural, murders that seem staged, with the Press informed of every detail. At the same time, Coste starts to receive anonymous letters, pointing to something rotten in his own department.

I loved this book - the characters, the seedy atmosphere, the air of cynicism. Coste is an honest cop, as these things go, but he's living in a very dirty world and it's impossible to pretend that all is well. Sometimes corners have to be cut. But we know - Norek uses several viewpoints in this book - that Coste and his team are crossing paths with monsters whose depravity would astound even him, world-weary detective or not. Stumbling around in the same maze are a crusading journalist and a hard-bitten PI. Each has fragments of the story, but very different interests.

It's an enjoyable book on several levels. 

There is the unfolding of the devilish events - events Norek takes his own good time to trace to their roots. There is the depiction of Coste and his team (in which I include pathologist Dr Léa Marquant, who clearly fancies the pants off him only he doesn't realise). They are real characters with foibles and a true sense of a shared history. Introducing them through the arrival of Johanna, the new member, gives us an outsider's view of the squad on which Norek then builds with deeper insights.

Also vividly portrayed is Seine-Saint-Denis - almost a character in its own right, lovingly (if that is the world - it's a grim place) described and explored. The cop's-eye view (Norek is a former police officer) is unsentimental, but still manages to be both empathetic to the the plight of those who wash up there and knowing of the political shenanigans that make that plight worse.

Re-reading that last paragraph you might doubt my use of the word "enjoyable". This isn't, as I have said, "nice" Paris, "tourist" Paris, "smart" Paris. But it feels real, it tells a truly gripping story and it makes you care about the people there.

Nick Caistor's translation is open, readable and strikes a good balance, I think, between retaining the sense (for an English reader) that this is a book about a foreign and different place and making the text familiar and readable. 

I'm very glad this is the start of a trilogy, I am looking forward to meeting Capitaine Victor Coste and his team again.

For more information about The Lost and the Damned, see the Quercus website here.

14 January 2021

#Review - The Stranger Times by CK McDonnell

The Stranger Times
CK McDonnell
Bantam Press, 14 January 2021
Available as: HB, 432pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781787633353

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Stranger Times via NetGalley. (I also have my copy on order from the local bookshop, because I need this one on my shelves!)

Is there a subgenre called "cosy urban fantasy"? If not, there ought to be. Not that The Stranger Times pulls its punches, oh no, we see some gruesome deaths here and evil is decidedly on the march, but still, there is that same combination - a strong sense of place, well defined characters and that slight twist of the absurd which I enjoy in cosy crime, an assurance perhaps that while there's a mystery to be solved and a real threat, other things are also important, or more important: office banter, for example, getting the latest edition of The Stranger Times to press, pursuing a good story for the lead. The characters need I think to be at home in some sense - to have found where they belong.

Before you can belong, though, you need to arrive and so for Hannah there's the little matter of a job interview... as this book opens, she is desperate for a job. Accustomed to a life of upper middle class luxury, she's alone, in unfamiliar Manchester, without money or friends, for the first time and desperate enough - just - to seek employment with the eponymous paper. We will find out what Hannah has done, and what's been done to her, in good time. First, she has to learn about The Stranger Times itself and the oddballs who staff it. 

The paper glories in the weirder side of life: UFOs, hauntings, conspiracy theories and the like. ('Nessie is the Father of my Child'). Presided over by Vincent Banecroft, a former hotshot Fleet Street editor fallen on hard times who now looks like 'his own corpse waiting to happen', The Stranger Times may have seen better days, but it has ethics of a sort: they don't make stuff up, they don't judge, instead they report what people claim they saw or what they claim happened. The claims may be rather outré, but the obvious liars and sensationalist are weeded out and there's an integrity in the way that it recognises and reports things that are being claimed to have happened. 

Nobody expects to wade into a supernatural crisis though, and indeed for a considerable time they don't realise that the bodies in the morgue with strange wounds, and the disappearance of a down-and-out man, have anything to do with each other. McDonnell allows the setting and personnel of the paper plenty of time to establish themselves. The staff - Hannah, Grace, Reggie, Ox, Stella and of course Manny, who prints the thing (he prefers to wear no clothes) are actually stranger than anything it reports. The grotesquerie at The Stranger Times was really entertaining and I enjoyed seeing the interplay between, for example, Grace, the fiercely Christian receptionist and drunken, foul-mouthed Banecroft. In parallel, we are told about a couple of villains who reflect the darker side of things and are clearly Up To Something. During this first third most of the action is with those villains, but what they are up to is still obscure. When things really begin to move along, and the team from the paper are fully in the firing line, they are well established and we really care what happens to them.

I won't say too much about the background that then reveals itself, except that The Stranger Times does (to a degree) follow the template of there being a "hidden" paranormal world that lives in tension with the mundane one - there's a balance that has to be kept and it is, of course, in danger of being upset. McDonnell does, however, bring a real freshness to the concept. The Stranger Times isn't about rivalries between clans of monsters or (much) about humans being drawn into their worlds, rather its's about individual motivations, greed, ambition, survival and the willingness to exploit others in pursuit of those things. As well as about the importance of getting the paper to press, come werewolves, police or rogue sorcerers. 

Oh, and about integrity - whether in that mission to report what is being said, in the desire of DI Sturgess to give the dead their due by investigating every case meticulously, even the hopeless ones or in Grace's fierce love for tearaway Stella who broke into the paper's offices one night and has stayed ever since. 

The group at the heart of the novel are eccentric, bickering and plain odd, but they have a fierce loyalty to one another which gives this novel real heart and soul. Combined with sharp writing ('Mason himself seemed oblivious to his own halitoxicity', 'Coppers often dealt with people who were having the worst days of their lives. That deserved somebody's best'), a strong plot and a good sense of place - the place being rainy Manchester ('predicting it was beyond the capacity of meteorological science') - that makes for a thoroughly readable and completely enjoyable story.

Here's hoping we meet Hannah, Vincent and company again and soon.

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

9 January 2021

#Review - The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison

Design by Micaela Alcaino
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again
M John Harrison
Gollancz, 25 June 2020
Available as: HB, 254pp, e, audio
Source: HB bought from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9780575096356

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is another 2020 book that I put aside till less hectic times and eventually read over Christmas. It was a glorious read for me, but I have to say I find my reviewing skills rather lacking in describing exactly why.

The book follows two protagonists. Shaw is a middle aged man living in West London ('south and west of Hammersmith Bridge in a quiet suburban badlands between East Sheen and the Thames, bounded by Little Chelsea on one side and Sheen Lane on the other') who is just coming out of a 'rough patch' which he doesn't remember well. he frequently visits his mother in a care home (oh, pre Covid writing!). Victoria, the daughter of a doctor who claims to have seen her first corpse at 13, now lives in a Midlands town on the river Severn. At the start of the book they are, or have recently been, together, and throughout they email, telephone and occasionally meet - indeed, parts of the story are told in these emails, although it may be they are never actually sent.

So Victoria and Shaw are apart, facing ostensibly different circumstances but there are parallels in their lives which become more obvious as time goes on (although I would still be hard put to explain exactly what is happening to them). These range from locations (the descriptions of Shaw's lodgings and the building which Victoria visits to find Pearl) to passing references (tourist trap villages which claimed to have hosted a parliament in the 14th century) to relationships with other characters - each is engaged with a more-knowing set, focussed, in different ways, on local waters and pools (the rivers of West London for Shaw, the Severn and field-pools for Victoria). 

In a sense, each is I think investigating the same mystery, and if they had sat down together at any point and shared all of what they knew, both might have made more progress. (As they might if they had read the copies of Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies that keep being pressed on them - a book I remember trying to read as a child and giving up in bafflement).

Shaw works for Tim, who has contacts in turn with a medium and with a chain of businesses to whom he sells - what exactly? I was never sure - across the country, landing Shaw with many rail journeys to run down towns. There is also a mystery around Shaw's boarding house and the unseen occupant of the room next to his.

Victoria has moved into her dead mother's house in the Midlands town and is having it renovated. She makes friends with Pearl, who runs a local café. Names are shifty here - we get different versions of Victoria's surname at different times, at first this looks as though it's meant to be due to Shaw's confusion or memory but in fact I think she's introduced differently by the narrator at different times. Similarly, sometimes Victoria refers to her friend Pearl as such, sometimes as "the waitress". Pearl is knowing of the locals, speaking to Victoria of groups and localities, rivalries and factions. In both strands of the story there seems to be a struggle, though between whom, and over what, is obscure. Eventually, Pearl vanishes, having apparently walked into a shallow pond, and the final part of Victoria's story focusses on her attempt to find the waitress, leading her to (perhaps) a closer knowledge and understanding of her mother.

That is about as clear as I can be over the "story" in this book. It's not meant, I think, to be obvious, it may not even be meant to be "there" in the sense of complete, coherent and self-consistent. Rather it is "there" in the sense of being present, glimpsed, seen differently at different times because it has evolved and developed, or is being seen form different viewpoints.

The themes are clearer, I think - layers of the past rising to interact with the present. This is sometimes a geological metaphor (note, though, that while the implication in the title is on some kind of buried land, what most often seems to be happening is the effect of rising, or shifting, waters - Harrison emphasises how the diverted River Severn, flowing South rather than North after the ice age, carved a gorge which exposed deposits of easily won and useful minerals - fireclay, coal, tars, limestone - to kickstart the Industrial Revolution). It is sometimes a genetic metaphor, with Tim and his sister, the medium (who seem at odds in some way - Time has Shaw spy on her) involved in some kind of online group which seems to centre around alternate human ancestry.

Actually, that doesn't make the themes seen clearer, does it? This is a very knotty, rich and evocative book which I think perhaps can only really be grasped by reading it, not be reading anything about it. To get the most from it, it needs to be read, and taken in, slowly. I don't mean by that, "read in a solemn and po-faced manner". The atmosphere of this story is simply gorgeous, Harrison deftly sketching the workings of a provincial town, the miasma-y nights of the creeks and backyards in West London, or the almost alien shouts and boasts to be heard on city streets late at night. The effect is cumulative, and unsettling, but also revealing: it's like stepping into an Edward Hopper picture, but on a night when the power has gone down.

In short, I'm a fan of this book, but I know I can't easily, or well, explain why. Do read it, if you like this kind of thing you will REALLY like The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again.

For more information about The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, see the publisher's website here.

7 January 2021

#Review - The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean

The Last Thing to Burn
Will Dean
Hodder & Stoughton, 7 January 2021
Available as: HB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781529307054

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


This is a scorching, claustrophobic and intense thriller that you'll want to read from behind the sofa, if that makes sense. Its protagonist, a woman everyone calls "Jane" ('My name isn't Jane') is in a desperate situation, robbed of her identify, her family and (almost) all agency yet possessing a steely determination to survive - for her own sake, for her parents' and above all for her sister, who will suffer if Jane ('My name isn't Jane') despairs and finds a way to die.

Thanh Dao - her real name - is from Vietnam. She and her sister were trafficked to the UK in a shipping container with 17 others (16 survived). While her sister works off the cost of her passage in a Manchester nail bar, Thanh Dao has been sold on to a brutish farmer called Lenn. They live alone in his ramshackle cottage on a great flat expanse of land which Len works. Thanh Dao cooks and cleans, obeying all Lenn's wishes - what to cook on what day, exactly how brown a sausage should be fried, how to meet his needs in the bedroom. When Lenn is displeased, even over minor things, Thanh Dao is punished - one by one, her remaining possessions are burned (she has few things left, a handful of things - everything else in the book is Lenn's (his food, his bed, his willow logs in his Rayburn stove, his keys, his house, his land) or his (dead) mother's (the clothes Thanh Dao wears, the cloths she uses because he won't provide her with tampons). She's under perpetual threat that if she runs away or even if she kills herself, her sister Kim-Ly will suffer for it.

It is a cold, violent and suffocating life, the wide horizons and open fields a cruel lie as Thanh Dao, often in pain, lives from day to day, sustaining herself by reading her sister's letters and an old dog-eared copy of Of Mice and Men. Her suffering is so intense, so unrelieved that at times this book is almost painful to read. That's even before factoring in the reader's foresight - which Thanh Dao shares  - that worse is in store. She's never allowed to leave the farm, not to visit the shops, to see a doctor or to chat with a neighbour. Len has cameras around the house and reviews 'the tapes' every night (chatting about the state of the farm) before punishing any failings (Was Lenn's pie a little cold? Has Thanh Dao neglected to paint over the mould spores in his bathroom?) and unlocking his TV to watch Match of the Day or the snooker. Doors are never to be closed in his house - if Thanh Dao goes to use his bathroom at the back, she must leave the door open. On that flat farm, as Len often points out, he can see the house from anywhere. Thanh Dao can't walk out - he's seen to that - she can't call for help and, as I have said, she can't even die.

I honestly don't know when I read anything as dark as this. Often, I didn't want to know what happened next, how bad things could get. At the same time, I had to know, I had to be there with Thanh Dao as she sustains herself with memories of home, her parents, joyful meals (she offers to make Lenn proper home cooked meals, to grow vegetables, herbs and spices - but he just wants what his mother gave him: build in the bag cod, and white bread, from the Spar shop, sausages cooked right, pies). I had to be there as Thanh Dao keeps her courage, carrying out tiny acts of defiance. I had to be there as, driven to ever greater lengths of desperation - things happen that raise the stakes yet higher - Thanh Dao somehow holds onto her sense of self.

The lines are starkly drawn; Lenn is a brute and an oaf, but a clever brute and an oaf. We know early on some of what he's done, and that's bad enough, but there are hints of worse throughout the book and even late in the story, more revelations of just how bad he is. At times, Thanh Dao is surprised by what one might see as small kindnesses. At times, Lenn complacently boasts that 'It's all right, ain't it, this life... We're warm, under decent roof, full bellies, together, not all bad, is it?' Does he believe this - even as he knowingly inflicts pain? Is he parroting something he's been brought up with? Somewhere in that bleak landscape, that house of horror, there's an answer, a reason, for Lenn and the reader understand that: but he's such a monster that one draws back, at the end, from wanting to understand that darkest of mysteries.

Certainly, Thanh Dao isn't taken in by a man whose answer to her toothache is to fetch his pliers from the shed. She is a woman at full stretch, a woman whose energy, focus and resources are completely committed to one cause - survival - with nothing left over. Or so she thinks - as things get worse and worse, Thanh Dao does find space in her heart for more, in glorious scenes (From nothing more than two women willing it to happen: two women, strangers, friends, forcing their own warmth together to make a family of sorts out there')' that just had me gobsmacked at Dean's writing, his vision and his empathy.

Yes this is a dark book but it's also often uplifting, a study of courage and endurance and even love. I knew that Will Dean could write - his Tuva Moodyson crime novels are glorious - but The Last Thing to Burn is just revelatory. You want this book, you really do.

For more information about The Last Thing to Burn, see the publisher's website here.

4 January 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Cover by Matt Griffin
Bear Head (Dogs of War)
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Head of Zeus, 7 January 2021
Available as: HB, 389pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance HB copy
ISBN: 9781800241572 

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Bear Head to consider for review - and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour (my first of 2021!) which opens today.

Bear Head is a sequel, of sorts, to Dogs of War, set several decades later and picking up some of the same characters but - and I'm proof of this - you absolutely don't need to have read the earlier book to enjoy Bear Head. To begin with, the situation that we confront here is new, and of itself. Tchaikovsky also gives all of the information the reader needs, and without a lot of intrusive info-dumping. 

That said, I think readers of Dogs of War will be pleased to learn about the later career of Honey, the bioengineered bear. Honey is a sentient, intelligent bear engineered as a weapon but who has graduated into a life as an activist, international trouble-shooter and a regular on the conference circuit. (She's frustrated though that she is generally invited along to speak at sessions about "[thing] and bioengineering" rather than addressing her much wider competences and insights. The one time she goes off script, she ends up being shunned because she has stepped out of her assigned box). 

We see glimpses of Honey's life in flashbacks, as well as hearing her side of things from an instance of her uploaded to Mars. Specifically, uploaded into the head of Jimmy Martin, a construction worker very definitely at the bottom of the heap in the giant building site known as Hell City where a crew of thousands (also bioengineered, to tolerate the thin air and intense cold - we're told that the only seasons on Mars are 'Winter and Very Winter') is building a habitat for future colonists. Originally an enthusiast and a hard worker, Jimmy's now sustained by regular doses of the drug Stringer, and therefore in the hands of crime boss Sugar - so in no position to refuse when Sugar offers him cash for hoisting a dodgy download. 

But she doesn't know, any more than he does, what it will contain. 

Or who...

I loved Jimmy as a character. He's not dim, he's not bad, but he is isolated from most human life, has been done over so many times, and lives in such an extreme environment, that he's very focussed on himself. As the story gradually widens its, and his, perspective, he does grow ('I re-evaluate little Jimmy, because right now he is absolutely not thinking about finding a hole to hide in. He is thinking about what it's like for other people to go through what he went though only so much worse') and find other things that he cares about - surprising things in the end. 

Jimmy's counterpart on Earth - the other main viewpoint character besides Honey - is a woman called Carole Springer. She is PA to the main baddie in this story, a monster of a man called Warner S Thompson. Thompson is easy to hate. A billionaire businessman, he is one of those sociopaths-in-a-suit we've all become familiar with over the past few years - a man with no empathy, no remorse, no scruples and yet a way with words. ('"You can't cut a deal with the man." Honey again. "I honestly don't think he has it in him to keep to an agreement the moment he gains anything from breaking it. I think that his personality went right into pathological liar and out the other side."') Tchaikovsky portrays Thompson at work quite, quite chillingly: the diction, all broken sentences designed to convince without saying anything that be can he held to, the harnessing of populist grievances with no intention of addressing the real causes, the general sense of life as a grift. It's deeply chilling, and indeed the book goes further, analysing Thompson and his ilk in terms of their being practically a parasite species, beings gifted at seeming more human than humans while in reality being much less, since they are all out for themselves. (Look for Honey's "game and metagame" discussion which is simply brilliant).

But I'm getting distracted. I was telling you about Carole. If Jimmy is the originally unwitting and totally unwilling host for Honey, then Carole is, sort of, the witting and willing host for Thompson. Not that he lives in her head, he doesn't need to. Rather he commands her life. He owns her, and she can't disobey him. Like many of those around Thompson she apparently desires and fears him, but nevertheless serves him heart and soul, anticipating his needs, facilitating them and strategising for him: 'she was just the girl who couldn't ever say no'. 

That right to say "no" is an important theme in Bear Head, with the bioengineered animals threatened by the "collar", imposed mind control to keep them in line. Tchaikovsky explores various circumstances which support or underline that right - the economics of the company store, to which Jimmy owes his soul, bribery, different types of leverage, legal restrictions and, of course, the naked threat of force. All these are things that Thompson understands well and exploits as part of his ascent to power. Carole's role is to enable him, but also, perhaps, to witness. She has learned over years how to handle him but always in the cause of his ascent - there is literally nothing she can refuse, even up to his abuse of her body when he wishes and  his violence (there are a couple of painful scenes in the book that some may wish to skip).

So if the book documents the widening of Jimmy's sympathies in dialogue with Honey, it also examines Carole's inner struggle. Her situation is in many respects worse than his - both more constrained and more vulnerable. Arguably she's more culpable too and as we see what Thompson is willing to do as events escalate, that culpability only grows. Yes she suffers appalling abuse, and Tchaikovsky is damning here: 'a woman's bruises were usually invisible in the shadow of a powerful man'. Thompson is that man, the man we've all seen, able to boast about what he can get away with, knowing that for him, the music will never stop. So even if Carole's not a good person, she's not what he is (again, the book is very good on this extra level of manipulation, of calculation).

Expect moral complexity and challenge here, but also expect gut churning action and jeopardy and a story that's very much rooted in reality, driven in part by climate change (which the rich are busily seeking to buy themselves out of in part by riding the populist wave) but more deeply, driven by human nature into which Tchaikovsky shows some devastating insights. 

Overall, a compelling and very involving (indeed, often moving) story about the best and worst of humanity (and other intelligences) which I'd strongly recommend.

For more about Bear Head, see the publisher's website here and also forthcoming posts on the tour which you can see listed in the tour poster.

You can buy the book from your local shop, if they are doing click and collect - they need your support! - or online from bookshop dot org, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon. Signed copies are available from Goldsboro Books.


1 January 2021

Review - Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Across the Green Grass Fields
Seanan McGuire
Tor.com, 14 January 2021
Available as: HB, 176pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781250213594

Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series is one of my firm favourites, so I was pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to read Across the Green Grass Fields early via a free advance e-copy from NetGalley. 

Across the Green Grass Fields is a stand-alone book in the series, focusing on Regan Lewis, a young girl, and later woman, who is desperate to be taken as normal. There is no overt reason, to begin with, why she shouldn't be seen as 'normal' but McGuire writes as ever with real insight into young peoples' lives (yes, I know writing "young people" marks me as ancient but there we are). In this case, the insight is into that child-growing-up anxiety, bound up with being in and out of friendship groups, in which 'normal' isn't so much a state of being as a state of grace. Not to be normal is to be cast into the outermost darkness and Regan sees that happen to a friend when Laurel, queen of her little circle, excommunicates Heather. Not wanting to suffer a similar fate, Regan's development is bent towards staying in favour. Even if Regan's mother assures her that there are many valid ways of being a girl, Laurel's narrow worldview still prevails.

All of which sets Regan up for a terrible fall when she can't, in the end, stay within the boundaries that Laurel draws - sending her fleeing, as Wayward Children must, into a world that welcomes her. For Regan, a keen horsewoman, this is the Hooflands, a world of centaurs, unicorns, kelpies, hippogriffs and other equine beasts. As you'll know if you have read other books in this series, it is not, though, a safe world, it is not a world of cosy wonders. There are real dangers and challenges here and humans are seen as bringing crisis and change to the Hooflands. There must be a reason for Regan's coming, and while she bonds immediately with foal Chicory who becomes the true friend she never had among other humans, there's a sense of doom having over things from the beginning.

McGuire's writing in this series always has great heart and generosity, exposing hypocrisy and bigotry - whether in the human world or through one of those doorways - mercilessly but also respecting and celebrating friendship and love. Across the Green Grass Fields is no exception, although the message is perhaps more subtle than in some of the previous stories. Ostensibly, Regan's story is a quest - she's a sort of Dorothy, definitely not in Kansas any more - but the real journey she's on is I think more one of coming to terms with, of learning to love, herself, 'normal' be bothered. We never actually see the culmination of that once Regan has sorted out the problems of the Hooflands, but in a sense it's not needed. We are told enough, and having read the preceding books, can fill in Regan's subsequent story and see how things will go and how she will arrive at Eleanor West's school (never mentioned in the book!) without having to be told any more.

In that sense, while completely standalone, this is also a book that should be opened after, at least, reading Every Heart a Doorway, and possibly one or two of the others - not because of particular spoilers, but because these slim, beautiful and true books are all really part of the same wider story and some background will help in understanding it. It's one story that celebrates difference, loyalty and growth, and I would strongly recommend Across the Green Grass Fields (and all the series) to you.