12 April 2021

#Review - Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Jacket art by Tommy Arnold
Design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, 2)
Tamsyn Muir
tor.com, 4 August 2020
Available as: HB, 507pp, e, audio
Source: online audio subscription (read by Moira Quirk)
ISBN (HB) 9781250313225

Harrow the Ninth is essentially Gideon the Ninth but dialled up several notches more (how is that possible?) with even more moving parts and a LOT more bones. It must have been exhausting to write.

Having survived the spooky, far future "And Then There Were None" of Canaan House, and finally achieved Lyctorhood, Harrowhark Nonegesimus finds herself in a remote space station, the refuge of the Emperor and his Saints, accompanied by some of said Saints, a motley lot. They are supposed to be training for the ultimate showdown with a Resurrection Beast and its Heralds, and there is much discussion of tactics - but Harrow is more concerned that  somebody is (or somebodies are) trying to kill her. Again.

The story plays out over several months leading up to... well an event that I won't name for spoiler reasons although it is well foreshadowed. Muir plays evil games with her timeline, popping back and forward months, weeks, hours, always anchoring things on that event, but only coming to describe it very late in the book.

She also includes side-trips back to Canaan House, where an alternate version of the events in Gideon the Ninth seems to be playing out, a darker version (really!) with a slightly different cast of characters. That's related to events in Harrow's present(s), of course, but it also gives an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with the rich cast of characters from the earlier book. We also meet the rest of the Lyctors (that motley crowd) in the "now". They really are a beguiling, infuriating, varied lot, having survived ten thousand years as servants of their Emperor and acquired ten thousand years' of grudges and regrets. 

It's clear that there is a great deal going on here - plots and politics, personal agendas, romance and long-nurtured rivalries. It all goes back to the roots of the Emperor's necromancy but also casts light on more recent events - some of those flashbacks are to Gideon's and Harrow's early lives and we learn a great deal about them. I didn't follow everything that happened - perhaps the decision to listen to the book, rather than reading it, and over several weeks, made this harder, although it brought compensations: the vivacity with which the narrator, Moira Quirk, reads the story, creating dozens of different personas for the various characters and actually morphing from one to another when certain things take place. (Without spoiling things, I will say that precisely who some of these voices are at particular points is important, and sometimes unexpected).

Overall, a treat for fans of necromancy (and who isn't?) though this is not a book to read - or listen to - unless you have read the first part of the trilogy. Not only will you be at sea but you'll miss various riffs on the first book and some things which are absolutely revelatory here will lose their power if you read them out of order.

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






10 April 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Sistersong
Lucy Holland
Macmillan, 1 April 2021
Available as: HB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781529039030

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Sistersong and to Jamie and Stephen for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Sistersong is a generously imagined and well told story rooted in the sub-Roman period, when Britain was no longer defended by the Empire but "England" had not yet formed. It's a story of family, love, revenge and treachery but above all I think a story of becoming what one is - and the costs doing that can accrue. 

This period of this book is sometime described as the "dark ages" -  a term originally used because of the lack of contemporary written records, but which is now used less because on hearing it many imagine a time of barbarism and decay, which (as this book shows) it was not. It's also sometimes seen the "age of Arthur", a British leader defending his people against the invading Saxons. Again, though, the historical records are scant. But this is a setting that gives an author a great deal of room and Holland takes full advantage, placing this story in a definable place - the kingdom of Dumnonia, in what is now South West England - and associating it with real people (her King, Cador, his successor Contantine, and their Saxon opponents). To these she adds a conflict between the old religion of Celtic paganism and the new Christianity represented by the priest Gildas - also a real person, who wrote one of the few contemporary histories of Britain. (I loved the way that Gildas's actual habit of denouncing pretty much everybody in his writings carries through to acrimonious relationships with nearly everyone else here.) 

The main focus of Sistersong is though not on the historical characters but on the fictional Riva, Keyne and Sinne. Cador's three children are vividly portrayed and only too plausible. The story is told from their viewpoints, Holland switching between them - shifts which sometimes preserve the flow of events, sometimes deliberately jar them, but which always illuminate, showing an event from two or even three perspectives as well as giving the reader a fuller picture than any of the characters here

Of the three, Riva and Sinne are the "twa sisters" of the traditional murder ballad which, as as Holland has explained, was the inspiration for the book: Keyne is the one the ballad left out, for reasons which become clear. It's the relationships between them which really drive the story, each wanting something different. 

One seeks love and adventure. 

Another, injured and (as she sees it) disfigured in a fire as a child, retreats into books and her magical talent for healing, but deep inside, may yearn for other things. 

The third would lead, but is in a society where that seems unlikely, and fears that society seems likely to impose.

The ups and downs of their relationships both affect and illuminate the wider political events - war, invasion, religious conflict and the loss of magic - which will determine the future of Dumnonia and, later, of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which will become England. 

I loved the way that in this book, Holland foregrounds the struggles of the three relatable (if at times frustrating) young people who are doing their "growing ups" just as the tides of history lap the walls of their hill-fort.  Both sides of the story are urgent, and nobody really understands what is going. We, as privileged 21st century readers, may imagine we do - but we don't. It may be tempting to assume that because we know how things turned out eventually, we understand everything. But no. This is such an unknown period, and Holland so cleverly brings in different factors (I don't want to do spoilers!) that nothing is certain except, perhaps, change and loss. Personal loss as childhood familiarity gives way to new battle lines: wider loss as the old ways are challenged. But not without a fight!

I just loved this book, which portrays a complex historical situation without giving way to the tendency to paint heroes and villains (if there were a villain in this book, it might be Gildas who perhaps appears at times as a slightly monomaniacal person - though once the full truth about him is made known, the reader may slightly revise this point of view). There are nods to what people will recall of the Arthurian stories (especially with one character) but this isn't an attempt to "retell" those - Holland instead creates a world here with echoes in history and in other sources, but which is fully her own.

Overall, a compelling story filled with magic, romance,  and adventure and with some contemporary resonances.

For more information about Sistersong, see the blogtour stops on the poster below - or the publisher's website here. You can buy the book from your local shop (in England you'll be able to go in person next week!) or online from Bookshop, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.



8 April 2021

#Review - The Cottingley Cuckoo by AJ Elwood

The Cottingley Cuckoo
AJ Elwood (Alison Littlewood)
Titan Books, 14 April 2021
Available as: PB, 368pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN (PB): 9781789096859

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance e-copy of The Cottingley Cuckoo via NetGalley to consider for review.

'I want to see my mum, just once, for a little while, I want to tell her that this can't be me; I'm not ready'

I've previously loved Elwood's horror novels, written as Alison Littlewood, and was intrigued to see this one, which moves onto slightly different ground

Rose is a young woman who has dropped out of university, at first to care for her dying mother but then to make a home with Paul (who her mother disapproved of). Now, although she seems to have dropped any idea of resuming her degree and has instead found work at the Sunnyside Care Home she still dreams of "getting out", living perhaps in 'a house in a forest, a turret reaching up amid the branches, a circular room lined with shelves where I'll keep my mother's books'. That's what Paul says he loves about her - that she "believes". But Rose is becoming increasingly obsessed with, her belief engaged by, one of her clients - the intimidating Mrs Favell, a woman who seems almost like a tourist at Sunnyside - and with the story, told in a batch of letters, which Favell lets her read.

That story takes us back to the 1920s, and to the nearby town of Cottingley where a couple of young girls (Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright) claimed to have photographed fairies - claims, and photographs, which were taken seriously in an age before Photoshop, including by the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a noted Spritualist and believer in the supernatural. Mrs Favell's letters (how did she get them?) tell of another family in Cottingley, the Fentons, one subject to a bizarre chain of misfortunes and inexplicable events, in which Lawrence Fenton tries without success to interest Sir Arthur. 

Gradually, Rose begins to suspect Charlotte Favell of being the Charlotte of the letters, impossible as it seems. And as Rose discovers herself unexpectedly pregnant, apparently cementing her future with Paul, she begins to see her life through the lens of the letters which Favell teasingly doles out, one at a time. Rose comes to believe that she is living through similar, fairy-haunted episodes to those described one hundred years before.

I have to say, I found this book just incredibly good, so powerful and so true. Elwood has captured, in the same story, two apparently very different narratives, deriving from very different times and manners. Rose is a wonderful, though sad, depiction of a young woman who just seems to have got lost. She's hardly over the grief of her mother's death - not over it, in fact - when Paul moves in on her. (I don't think we're meant to dislike Paul, really, but I found it hard to not regard him as a real snare for Rose.) Then Rose has the misfortune to cross paths with Mrs Favell, a clever, mysterious woman who certainly has secrets and perhaps, answers. There is, at the very least, a powerful sense of enchantment, perhaps a kind of Mesmerism, between the two.

And then - pregnancy, birth, the extreme stress of learning to live with a young child. 

O Rose. 

I so felt for Rose, struggling to come to terms with all this, with the doubts about everything - herself, her child. Newborns are hard work. So much about Rose, to me, seemed to be flashing warnings that she needed help, and it's here that Elwood really gets going, producing a glorious, emotionally rending and deeply ambiguous story that leaves you not knowing if Rose's suspicions about her son Alexander - she fears he is a changeling - are symptoms of her mental state, or insights generated by it, or perhaps both. 

All the themes that follow - life and death, the strange existence of a being that owes its whole basis to your care and nourishment, the grief of a mother whose daughter has gone from her and a daughter whose mother is dead - wrap around this. Rose's pregnancy is the time she needs, wants her mother most. The descriptions of scans, of the birth and its aftermath so cleverly and affectingly combine a matter-of -act, objective depiction of what happened with the gulf of unsatisfied feelings that lies beneath ('I realise they're waiting for me to do it - to be a mother')

You can read the story as one of obsession and delusion, or as one of violation and cruelty. It's full of opposites clinging to one another: the perception, hanging over from the Victorians, of fairies as dainty little beings of beauty and light, contrasting with folkloric amoral, cruel creatures. The desire to possess what one loves, distorting and eventually maiming or killing it. And much more. The narrative becomes tricksy, Rose perhaps a not completely reliable narrator, not even to herself - does she really not know what become of the fairytale books from among her mother's collection? ('Did they vanish into the air? ... Was the memory even true...?') Later Rose will have more serious doubts as gaps open up in her reality, prompting her to recall those whose brief stays in Fairyland lasted years in our time. 

This book is... oh, it's so sad, so human. Rose and Paul are, in a real sense, talking past one another. Of the two, Rose is I think the deeper, the more thoughtful, but she is suffering for it. Perhaps they might have been able to resolve that, but the baby comes along and shifts the dynamic. Rose suspects Paul of having messed with her pills to bring this about, a mystery that's never returned to but a sign either of basic mistrust on her part or of unforgivable duplicity on his - not a firm basis for a relationship either way. 

So this book is in a sense an unravelling, a disenchantment, at the same time as it explores all the ways that, and the extent to which, we wish to be enchanted, to believe, or perhaps, to find and possess someone who does themselves believe - with all that harm that will follow from that possession.

It is not a horror story. 

It is a horror story. 

It's just amazing.

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


6 April 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Rites of Spring by Anders de la Motte

Rites of Spring (Seasons Quartet, 4)
Anders de la Motte (Translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Zaffre, 1 April 2021
Available as: PB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy 
ISBN: 9781785769481

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Rites of Spring to consider for review, and to Tracy for inviting me to take part in the blogtour for this book.

Firmly in the category of folk horror, but cutting over into crime, Rites of Spring works hard to distance itself from the idea of a clean, bracing Arctic Scandinavia, all icy mountains and pine forests, presenting instead a damp landscape where abandoned dwellings moulder, where children reenact ancient rituals in mossy, overgrown stone circles and where every community has outsiders who are shunned as feckless beggars.

One such family is at the centre of Rites of Spring. In 1986, sixteen year old Elita Svart, daughter of local ne'er-do-well Lasse Svart, is found murdered on Walpurgis Night, 30 April, the night when witches ride, when the Green Man is burned in effigy - and when he mounts his horse and roams the forest. 

Moreover, Elita's found lying on a sacrificial slab in a stone circle, her face covered with a cloth and in her best dress. Subsequently, a letter comes to light suggesting she intended her death, and her stepbrother is accused of the crime - after lengthy and intensive police questioning.

Jump forward to 2019, and Elita's been airbrushed out of Tornaby's history, guilt assigned, the rest of the family nowhere to be seen. The four young kids who were with Elita that night have gone on to make their own lives, with different degrees of success. One of them, David, is a chef who's opening a prestigious new restaurant nearby. He has returned to Tornaby with his new wife, Thea Lind, who's taking up a post as the local GP.

Thea is the heart and soul of this book, herself a mystery that is almost more interesting than the distant crime with which she becomes fascinated. Why does Thea hide her identity? Why is she so threatened when David's nerves means she has to step forward and take a TV interview for him? Who is the "Margaux" for whom Elita provides a commentary on what is happening?

The first third or so of Rites of Spring moves slowly and carefully while it establishes its setting, characters and atmosphere. We hear from Elita in her own voice (in 1986), from Thea addressing Margaux (in 2019) and there is also a third person narration from 1886 following a couple of characters who we'll meet head on later. This means that the story - in the sense of who is who and why they matter - is elusive to begin with. Some readers may prefer a more direct approach, but I found that this way of doing things was almost eerily effective in establishing the basic weirdness of the situation, before Thea really got to work shaking the tree, as it were.

And it is weird. The village itself is an inward- looking and suspicious place. It's a long way from anywhere, and change isn't welcome (the presence of mineral prospectors is especially resented). Within the community, there is a respectable core - the teacher, the bank manager, the doctor, the Count, whose father used to own most of the land around - surrounded by their retainers - such as the estate workers - and a resented underclass, whom the Svarts were part of: their kids jeered at at school, their activities tolerated just as long as they're useful (such as brewing moonshine), their tenancy of a ramshackle farmhouse dubious.

To Thea, who's travelled the world, working for Medicines San Frontiers, who's seen horrific injuries, been bombed in Syria and lost friends, it seems terribly narrow and secretive. She feels that her husband ha suffered because of it, and wants to get to the truth for his sake.

Or does she?

Thea herself, we will discover, has secrets to keep - secrets that will make her vulnerable when she becomes focussed on digging up the truth about Elita, a truth that someone clearly wants to keep hidden. But secrets that also make her sympathetic to the girl who became the "Spring sacrifice" - perhaps explaining her reckless commitment to explaining what really happened in 1986. Several times in this book, Thea did something, or pressed on when warned to stop, in ways that had all kinds of red lights flashing for me. There's a certain point past which everything seems bound to end badly, with loss and grief for everyone, and when Thea's quest takes her past that point you begin to feel as though she almost welcomes that, as though she's been heading for self-destruction right from the start.

Like Elina, perhaps... 

Altogether, a nailbiting and absorbing book, one that I had to pause several times, simply to let the tension go, but which in the end I just had to finish at a gallop, reading the final third more or less in one sitting. 

You can find out more about Rites of Spring from the tour entries listed on the poster below. You can buy the book from your high street shop, if they're doing click and collect, or online from Bookshop dot org, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.








4 April 2021

#Review - Hyde by Craig Russell

Hyde
Craig Russell
Constable, 29 April 2021
Available as: HB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-ccopy
ISBN: 9781472128393

I am grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

In Victorian Edinburgh, Detective Superintendant Edward Hyde is uneasy. In one case of frightful murder, leading to a hanging, he worries that the police have got the wrong man. In another, he finds himself conveniently close to the victim, but can't remember how he came to be there. And there are nagging requests from Special Branch in London to investigate a rising nationalist politician.

And Hyde's sessions with Dr Porteous, who he relies on to cure the memory loss and associated troubling dreams, are not helping at all...

Russell's speculative detective novel, loosely framed around Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (there is a prologue in which Hyde tells Stevenson his story as inspiration to the latter) is a heady blend of many elements. 

There is the brooding, unrestful Hyde, half convinced that he is a monster - people tend to draw away from him, as though sensing something troubling about him. Hyde is I think suffering (alongside the epilepsy that Porteous diagnoses) from PTSD, after serving in the army in the East. Russell makes a point not only of the awful things that Hyde has witnessed and indeed taken part in, but also of the taint, the fundamental badness, of the campaign that Hyde took part in, devoted to theft and looting ('cruelties performed under a sun-blazed sky in the name of Empire'). Fragemented personalities recur ('he had been a different man, back then).

This links in turn to political turmoil, as Scots radicals seek to free themselves from what they see as English domination and from being associated with that same infection of Empire. This is an interesting connection to make, the focus on colonialism and its relation to English and Scottish history and society being a truly hot topic in today's politics and one capable of provoking strong emotions (see the UK Government's defensiveness over challenges to the interpretation of colonial-era figures and artifacts).

Underlying this is a third layer - a preoccupation both with the Celtic supernatural, as both occultists and mountebanks move in various secret circles overlapping both with nationalist politics and with the apparently staid Establishment. That preoccupation bleeds into national myth-making about the origins of the Scots and their real destiny. And alongside all this, Russell also reflects the place of gay men in society, and the constraints under which women exist. We meet Elspeth Lockwood, heiress to one of Edinburgh's great department stores, a woman who very much wants to go her own way, and I really liked Dr Cally Burr, who performs many of the autopsies for Hyde; as a female doctor, she's treated with a great deal of suspicion and is short of work (we see her being helped out by the famous Dr Joseph Bell, mentor to Arthur Conan-Doyle who is mentioned but does not appear in the story). Burr is smart and resourceful, practical where Hyde seems likely to wilt under the various stresses that he suffers, and certainly the kind of person you want beside you in a creepy Gothic house at night.

Because this book is Gothic, whatever else it may be. There is an isolated mansion of bad reputation, whispers of supernatural beasts, devils and ancient gods and of secret sects and guilds behind the bland face of respectable Edinburgh ('fine Presbyterians of good birth and standing leading double lives') as well as secret tunnels beneath it, at least some of which are certainly real. There's a danger, I thinks in overdoing the Gothic, but for my money, Russell gets it just about right: enough, combined with the theme of madness and loss of identity and control, to darken the atmosphere (alongside the various horrific murders) but not enough that solid, systematic police work becomes self-evidently pointless. Truly, Edward Hyde lives in more than one world at one, but he is sufficiently rooted in the "real" one, enough of a respected, credible figure that he makes progress, gets things done (aided by Burr's shrewd insights).

The book is also grounded in the medical science of the time (even if it looks primitive to us) and it is convincingly, pleasingly Victorian without were seeming a pastiche. Russell has fun with erudite bits of language and Hyde will certainly broaden your vocabulary, adding words such as muliebrity, supervenient, brumous and peccancy. I did see a couple of the plot twists coming (such as the identity of the Hanged Man) but there were also some jaw-dropping surprises and, above all, Hyde is a book that hooks the reader and builds to a tremendous climax.

An interesting counterpoint to Russell's The Devil Aspect which also dwelt on issues of good and evil, divided personality and the relation between individual responsibility and political crime. 

Definitely recommended.

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

 

2 April 2021

#Review - Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley

Hot Stew
Fiona Mozley
John Murray, 18 March 2021
Available as: HB, 320pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529327205

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

One of the many striking effects of the year we've all just lived through has been the emptying out of busy city centres. Nowhere, I imagine (I haven't been able to go there to see) can this have been more startling than in Soho, the part of London most firmly associated in the popular imagination with bustling nightlife: with clubs, restaurants and bars, the gay scene, the film and music business, the sex trade.

Mozley's novel gives us a glimpse of this district, in all its contradictions, still active and vibrant yet threatened by gentrification, by the spread of bland investment properties and above all by a meta-ness that trades on the sleazy image while holding its nose and standing one pace back. Yet in pointing to these threats, Hot Stew isn't a sentimental book by any means. One of the central characters, sex worker Precious, reflects of the district that 'There are people here who would sell their own mothers, or eat you alive. If society fell apart... this is the last place she would want to be.'

No more sentimental is Agatha, whose viewpoint we follow for a fair chunk of the novel. Agatha has inherited a property empire built by her father based on violence and other forms of lawlessness. He went "legit", up to a point, and now she is trying to go more legit, tidying away the sex workers and immigrants from her properties - "blank slating" them as she describes it - so that after modernisation or replacement, new tenants can be moved in. Agatha is an absolutely appalling example of somebody who sees life in transactional terms, as she shows over and again, treating her relationship with a dog, even a horse, a young employee in just just the same way, taking what she wants, turning her regard off and on as it suits here, paying no attention to the others' nature or needs. 

Yet Mozley does show us how this attitude may at least partly be rooted in Agatha's insecurity and fear of losing what she has. She has studied history ('The fragility of law and order is never far from Agatha's thoughts') and she keeps a yacht ('named Versailles') ready on the river in case things go bad quickly. She remembers how badly, as the daughter of a Russian immigrant, she was treated by the posh girls at the school her mother slaved to put her through.

There is a contrast between Agatha and the sex workers whose future is (as much as anything is) at the heart of Hot Stew. Precious and campaigns against the redevelopment of her home ands workplace, one of Agatha's assets, becoming a real thorn in Agatha's flesh, and that of the police and city authorities. Mozley paints Precious's working setup as something of an ideal, a relatively safe space where she has control and agency, acknowledging that other women find themselves in much worse, more exploitative circumstances, even in captivity. This is a controversial issue and Hot Stew, while pointing to the risks of well-meaning interventions, doesn't draw conclusions but instead highlights the complexity of real life.

The book also explores other denizens of Soho: Robert, a retired hard man, sits drinking with insecure young actor Lorenzo in the afternoon in a bar that is also under threat of modernisation. Roster is Agatha's fixer and enforcer, a tool from the old days that she can't, quite do without. (He's also her dog walker - Robert, remembering him from another life, sees him as a ghost walking a dog)  There is a young corporate lawyer, Bastian, whose relationship with his alpha girlfriend is under pressure. An ambitious police officer on the make. And, most strikingly of all, a group of homeless people whose existence roaming the streets and dossing in a cellar makes them a kind of chorus in this book: it's they who, literally, feel the tremors as a massive engineering project takes place under Soho, as oligarchs burrow down and down under their houses to create lavish suites where who knows what may go on, as construction trucks and delivery vans shake the streets.

Indeed, the homeless group gives this story an almost timeless sense, blending the present with the post, with more than a hint of fantasy. Is their leader, the "archbishop" really some ancient figure who remembers when Soho was fields and woods? Or is he just another man trying to cling on? We are given differing stories. Where do the couple referred to as "Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee" (they do a really bad magic act in the pubs and bars) really come from - what lives have they lived before and who are they connected to? One of them will, in this story, almost step out of their world to experience something quite different, causing consternation for those left behind.

Mozley weaves together all these elements and many more, creating a real sense of bustle and sprawling activity, of intersecting lives, most of them tinged by regret: Lorenzo at getting typecast based on his brown(ish) skin, Agatha beset by the half-siblings whose inheritance she enjoys, another young woman hovering on the edge of homelessness, only able to find a place to stay that's not-quite-above-board. Of all these figures, Precious perhaps regrets least. She's the one for whom Soho is both most permanent  (she has a decent flat, a steady income) and most temporary (eviction is threatened, but even without that she's here for a purpose, and will move on when it's done). But she is also one of the more vulnerable.  

Hot Stew creates a powerful sense of movement, with the characters who are going somewhere and others who are just going, who can't rest or settle. It jumps backwards and forwards to show what these people are to each other and what they have been, creating little "aha" moments when the reader spots events or people through new eyes, underlining the degree to which all perspectives are partial. It's a very human book: even with her flaws, there is sympathy for Agatha.  Another character, Rebecca, who came across to me as rather unpleasant, is really stupid rather than bad ('Rebecca was emphatically apolitical, which meant she liked things the way they were.') Robert regrets his violent past and refuses to be drawn back into it. Lorenzo breaks with Robert on learning a dark secret about him, but hates himself for doing that.

The book is full of beautiful writing and characterisation. We are told that 'There's something about the night in this city that is brighter than the day'. Rebecca is 'a highly measured person. Bastian is frequently astonished by her levels of self-control'. Precious 'puts on a voice that is sweet and pliable, a voice she reserves for men'. While Agatha's senses 'only decipher the present', a dog uses its nose to 'deal with history'. After a betrayal says that she '"was an idiot for trusting [her]. But whatever. Damage done. lesson learned. I've moved on." Precious has not moved on.' The writing simply flows, making even most mundane episodes a joy to read, stuffed with insights and unexpected perspectives. Covering several months in its characters' lives, it isn't forced and doesn't round everything off neatly. Whatever the challenges and changes, the comings and goings, Soho will continue and its people will adapt.

I would really, really recommend Hot Stew

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