Map of Blue Book Balloon

29 April 2021

#Review - Eye of the Sh*t Storm by Jackson Ford

Eye of the Sh*t Storm (The Frost Files, 3)
Jackson Ford
Orbit, 29 April 2021
Available as: PB, 496pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9780356514666

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance e-copy of Eye of the Sh*t Storm.

'So it turns out, you can totally fall asleep while escaping from a gunfight on the back of a really loud motorcycle.'

I was watching the Oscars last night, broadcast from Union Station, Los Angeles. But I didn't see the glitz and glamour, oh no. I saw an exhausted Teagan Frost and her gang breaking into the empty station at night to escape from an increasingly dystopian, post The Big One, LA.

That scene really is in the book, so if you want to orient yourself, go and look at the coverage. 

You'll have to imagine, though, that things are somewhat more desperate that you can see on TV... 

In this one, Teagan is definitely running on empty. A few months after the events of Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air, China Shop, the removal firm that's really a secret agency, is falling apart after the loss of a key member of the team. Teagan, whose psychokinetic ability is at the centre of the operation (she really is The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind, appears on the brink of losing her other, found family (her birth family, who made her what she is, having died years before). Teagan's alienated her boyfriend, colleague Annie hates her and she's STILL no closer to doing that chef's course (in fact, further off, since most of LA's kitchens no longer exist).

It is, I'd say, a doomier book than the previous parts of The Frost Files. LA was devastated in the earthquake that China Shop couldn't prevent (although they stopped it being much, much worse). What's left is a ruined landscape full of shuttered businesses, unsafe buildings and homeless people trying to keep their lives together. The team seek refuge in Union Station because it's shut and they need somewhere to go. Transport across the city is difficult with bridges down and roads blocked, and many of Teagan's favourite restaurants are no more. As the gang, splitting into different factions, set out on a nightmarish journey to reunite a young boy with his father, there's a real feeling of things falling apart.

It's not only exhaustion, hunger and hostile forces that bring the darkness. The events of the first two books have left scars, and Teagan - who is, remember, very young - is clearly struggling. With guilt, afraid that she - or what she is - caused much of the harm, and that she may do more. With relationships, having drifted away from her boyfriend Nic (though he pops up again here to give her an excoriating lecture on racial assumptions and privilege - Teagan's put her foot in it again: "I still tried to tell a black American about how the law wouldn't protect me.") And with the dark legacy of how her powers arose, and who else may share them.

The book is, basically, a single desperate chase, running from one danger into another with very little time to consider the bigger picture or work out what may be happening. There's a little reflection on that from Reggie, Teagan's quadriplegic handler (and we learn more about Reggie's past too) and also from Moira Tanner, their distant and scary boss in Washington DC, but these don't interrupt the flow much, it's action, action, action for Teagan and the stakes are scarily high. 

If you have read either of the previous books in this series you'll know more or less what to expect, but there is a sense here that Ford has now got into top gear, and the pages of this book simply fly by. I really, really can't imagine what's going to happen in Book 4 - because, no, The Frost Files isn't a trilogy and with Teagan getting in touch with her roots (as well as picking up a couple of new and lamentable habits along the way) there is a strong sense by the end of this book that ANYTHING could happen next.

A firm recommendation from me for this one, and if you haven't caught up with the series yet, DO IT NOW.

For more information about Eye of the Sh*t Storm, see the publisher's website here.


28 April 2021

#Review - The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Beautiful Ones
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 27 April 2021
Available as: HB, 320pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN (HB): 9781529416107

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Beautiful Ones via NetGalley and for inviting be to be part of the Social Media Blast.

The Beautiful Ones is an engaging fantasy-romance with a hint of magic. Originally published a couple of years ago as an e-book only, it's now getting a deserved wider release from Jo Fletcher Books.

The book is set in Levrene, a country like... well, perhaps a bit like somewhere in central Europe, on a planet a bit like Earth, around the turn of the 20th century. While clearly an imaginary world, many of the place names, both local (Loisail, Montipouret, Luquennay) and remote (Port Anselm, Yehenn, Carivatoo), evoke that, as does the atmosphere of carriages, telegraphs and newly built railways.

Despite these stirrings of modernity it is still a ferociously traditional society, not to say patriarchal, with women's roles in particular narrowly constrained by the rules of etiquette and the fear of what Society will make of any scandal. A woman's only asset is, it seems, her reputation.

Against this background we follow the lives of Antonina (Nina) Beaulieu, a young woman from the country in the capital for her first Grand Season and Hector Auvray, 'a castaway who had washed up on a room of velvet curtains and marble floors'.

Nina would rather be at home collecting beetles and exploring the woods. She'd certainly prefer not to be under the dominion of her martinet Aunt Valérie. Valérie despises Nina and takes delight in being cruel to her. Nina, young and inexperienced, chaffes at the restrictions imposed on her and unknowingly torments Valérie with visions of what she has lost.

Hector is a performing magician - and here we meet the first feature that makes this book a little different. Hector is not just a conjuror, but can, in reality, perform magic. He can move objects by thought alone and has made a spectacular career of this. The place of magic in this book is well thought out - it's not high fantasy, we have no duelling mages here, and on the whole, 'Talents' as they're called are accepted, if treated with a bit of suspicion. But there's no doubt Hector is an outsider to the carefully modulated social set who call themselves The Beautiful Ones.

This isn't only because of his abilities. Hector is of humble birth and that isn't forgotten, but he has amassed a fortune, and The Beautiful Ones do crave money for the upkeep of their ragged castles and their lavish lifestyles. ('Nothing matters more than money to us, the proper people who walk down these city streets in pristine gloves and silk-lined garments').

In fact, the quest for money via an advantageous marriage is ever present in this book, giving distinct echoes of Austen: Aunt Valérie in particular wouldn't be out of place in a drawing room weighing up newly arrived officers and considering which daughter should pair off with who. But there's more to Valérie than that - a tragically romantic past that has marked her life and drives her still. It wouldn't be too much to say she's the presiding spirit of this book, setting much of the plot in motion and pulling strings behind the scenes to get what she wants. It's a chilling, at times frightening role that makes one both hate and pity her. Warped by having had to conform herself and enter a loveless, childless marriage, she's something of a cross between Lady MacBeth and Anna Karenina, now determined to inflict the same on others, her own hatred a measure of the love she believes she could have had.

I enjoyed the way Moreno-Garcia makes Valérie both the voice, and the victim, of the stuffily rigid society. This is a very character-driven, people-focussed story - beyond names and cultural trappings we don't learn a great deal about wider society, we don't see ordinary people at work or anything of the politics (apart from learning, in a couple of throwaway lines, that there is a King). Yet by skewering that one aspect - the position of women in the more privileged layer - we can I think infer the rest.

A very enjoyable read, with characters who felt real to me and about whom I found myself caring a great deal, and gripping to the very end.

For more information about The Beautiful Ones see the publisher's website here - or any of the other sites taking part in the Blast - see the poster below!

And you can BUY the book from your local bookshop, from UK Bookshop dot org, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.









27 April 2021

#BlogTour #Review - The Lynmouth Stories by Lucy V Hay

The Lynmouth Stories
Lucy V Hay
Available as: e (print length 35pp)
Source: Free copy provided by the author
ASIN: B07L3TS5XM 

I'm grateful to Lucy for a free copy of The Lynmouth Stories to consider for review and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

When I was young, in the 70s and 80s, our family sometimes used to go to the seafront (New Brighton, on the Wirral) in the depths of winter. We had family nearby who we'd visit, but the highlight for me was walking past the shuttered amusement arcades and gift shops and watching the waves break on the rocky beach. 

Don't you think there's something two-faced about the British seaside? Something almost theatrical? A darkness, a theatricality that's probably there even in the hottest summer - just go round behind one of those arcades - but which comes into its own when the tourists go away and the locals lose their part time jobs. These are places where anything might happen, and accordingly, The Lynmouth Stories includes three dark short tales, set in and around the seaside town of Lynmouth in North Devon. 

The coast of Wales is visible from the town, functioning here in many glimpses almost as a sign that the outside world still exists, whether that is a sliver of hope nor a distant threat. For the protagonists Hay introduces us to, Lynmouth seems to represent a dead end - a stopping point, which they can't get beyond - or a point of decision, marking the end of one life, the beginning of another.

In Plain Sight

For Meg and her young son Danny, kidnapped and whisked from their ordinary lives to live in the power of an abusive man, it's an endpoint. He will never let them go. Meg has to trade herself for even the slightest freedom, and Danny is effectively a hostage for his mother's compliance. Rather than a place of fun, the town, which The Man eventually allows them to visit, is only a wider prison. Meg and Danny will have to be clever and brave if they're going to register their mere existence against the blank slate of winter Lynmouth.

Killing Me Softly

Catherine, who I think briefly crosses paths with Meg, is haunted by a darkness, but in contrast it's a darkness she has brought with her - or which has followed her to Lynmouth. I loved this story which is deliciously unclear about the reality of what's happening: A psychological state? An intrusion of evil? A stalker? Whatever the truth is, there seems to to be a real danger and risk of its taking root and spreading.

Hell And High Water

In the aptly names third story, another family out of season have come to stay in a remote cottage, a last minute decision taking no account of the unpredictable Exmoor weather which isolates costs them off, marking bad relationships worse. Told across two timelines, Hell And High Water focusses on Naomi and baby Tommy, whose lives and future are unexpectedly under threat. Weaving together local history and a shrewd reading of human nature, this was my favourite story.

All of The Lynmouth Stories feature women making choices - choices they have not sought, and which will affect others, especially children (not always their own). The grey, sea-wracked out of season two truly becomes a stage on which these choices are acted out, and leaves us wondering what the consequences were: we can guess some of them, but the picture isn't complete. We don't get to see all of the final act.

Overall, these are atmospheric and involving stories with a haunting background and they leave a great deal to think about.





26 April 2021

Books on the Hill (BOTH) Open Dyslexia Kickstarter Project


And now for something a little bit different... I'm joining the Random Things Tours blogtour for the new Books on the Hill kickstarter.

If I have a purpose on this blog (and, let's face it, on a bad day it can be hard to tell) it's to share my love of reading and of what I read. Reading for me is an escape, a space to call my own, a window into other worlds - a thing that can help me empathise with others, or simply get me out of myself when I need to. 

I feel enormously privileged to be able to take part in the world of books, comics and magazines. 

It's a cruel fact that that world isn't equally accessible to everyone. There are a number of different reasons for that, and today's blogpost highlights an effort to overcome one of them - the lack of accessible books for adults with dyslexia. You may already be aware of Books on the Hill as a bookshop - well here they are, as a publisher, BOTH Press, tackling that problem. 

Books on the Hill is Alistair Sims. He is the manager and commander-in-chief of the bookshop (though his partner, Chloe and his mother, Joanne, who set up the bookshop with him, may disagree with this description ). Alistair is dyslexic and has a PhD in history and archaeology. Alistair could not read until he was 13 and is passionate about helping anyone who has difficulty reading. He is the driving force behind BOTH Press and has been involved in every step in this project, from finding award winning authors to contribute, the cover design, and the road to publication, including setting up for distribution. 

Alistair writes

'Books on the Hill is passionate about helping people who have dyslexia, or have any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. There are great books out now for children with dyslexia, with specialist publishers like Barrington Stokes and mainstream publishers such as Bloomsbury doing their part. However, there are sadly very few books for adults with Dyslexia in traditional mass market publishing. 

Dyslexia is a learning difference that primarily affects reading and writing skills. The NHS estimates that up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK have some form of dyslexia, while other dyslexic organisations believe 1 in 5 and more than 2 million people in the UK are severely affected. 

Dyslexia does not stop someone from achieving. There are many individuals who are successful and are dyslexic. Famous actors, such as Orlando Bloom; Entrepreneurs like Theo Paphitis, and many, many more, including myself. All of who believe dyslexia has helped them to be where they are now. Dyslexia, though, as I can attest to, does not go away. You don’t grow out of it, and so we are acknowledging that and trying to without being patronising, create a selection of books that will be friendly to people who deal with dyslexia every day. 

Since we started the project in 2019, Books on the Hill have had many adults customers with dyslexia come in shop the asking for something accessible to read. For example, one customer asked if we stocked well known novels in a dyslexic friendly format. Unfortunately we had to say no, as they just don’t exist. We explained what we are trying to achieve by printing our own and she replied: 

“I have been reading [children dyslexic] books but they are a bit childish so am really happy I have found your company!! Thanks so much again and thank you for making such a helpful and inclusive brand - it means a lot." 

This response is not isolated. We have had many adults come in to the shop with dyslexia, who do not read or struggle to read and they they believe dyslexic friendly books would have real impact on their reading for pleasure.'

So what are Books on the Hill doing?

They're making exciting good quality fiction accessible to a minority group currently not provided for by today’s UK traditional mass book market and providing a new tool for booksellers to use in their drive to increase diversity and inclusion.

The immediate aim is to publish and print 8 titles of dyslexic friendly books for adults. The longer term goal is to continue publishing good quality adult fiction to produce a wide range of books for people who have challenges when reading. 

Who are they working with?

Books on the Hill have persuaded many great authors to contribute to this project. All are brilliant authors and are names I am sure you will recognise. 

  • Stan Nicholls, the author of many novels and short stories but is best known for the internationally acclaimed Orcs: First Blood series. 
  • Steven Savile, the fantasy, horror and thriller writer, now lives in Stockholm whose father is a customer of Books on the Hill 
  • The horror duo that is Thana Niveau and John Llewellyn Probert, both well established and engaging authors and also residents of Clevedon. 
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky is an Arthur Clark Award winner and best known for his series Shadows of the Apt, and for his novel Children of Time. 
  • Steven Poore is the highly acclaimed fantasy writer who Alistair first met on his first fantasy convention in Scarborough. 
  • We finish the Magnificent Seven with Joel Cornah, who also has dyslexia, and with whom Alistair participated in a podcast on dyslexia for the Clevedon Literature 2020 'Festival in the Clouds'. 

As I'm sure you'll agree this is a really worthwhile project - and an exciting publishing project as well. 'How can I get involved?' I hear you ask.

How YOU Can Get Involved

Well... Books on the Hill are launching a Kickstarter beginning April 2nd 2021 for 30 days, with the focus on paying for the printing of the books and giving them starting capital to continue to print more titles. 

There will be many ways you can be involved in this. You can contribute on the Kickstarter website itself, here

There will be a number of different options of donating money, in which you will receive rewards, such as ebooks of a title or a paperback of one or more of the titles to be published. In addition a unique reward from authors who are contributing to the project. 

You can still contribute outside the kickstarter. Books on the Hill are happy to receive your help in the shop, where they will have a donation box available.

You can, of course, look out for the books and order or preorder them, once they are available. And recommend or review them, too, in due course, to ensure that they are known by as wide an audience as possible.

Who else is helping?

Books on the Hill are collaborating with Chrissey Harrison, who is also an local author and member of North Bristol Writers Group. Chressey and Alistair have designed the book-covers together, with Chrissey creating the finished product we now look on at awe with. Nearly all the design work has been done by Chrissey, and she is also in charge of the printing process, typesetting. BOTH are so proud and appreciative to be working with her. 

Special mention must go to Harrison Gates, who runs Nine Worthy, and who has dedicated his time and expertise to produce the print catalogue  free of cost. 

Joanne Hall is an author, editor and formerly the Chair of BristolCon, Bristol’s premier (and only) science fiction and fantasy convention. BOTH give a huge thank you to Jo for proof reading the stories free of cost. 

Vicky Brewster has edited all the new stories by the authors. She specialises in editing and beta reading long-form fiction. Vicky is a great professional editor.

Contacts

You can find Books on the Hill at their website, on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. And the Kickstarter is, again, here










24 April 2021

#Review - Malice by Heather Walter

Malice
Heather Walter
Delrey UK (Penguin) 13 April 2021
Available as: HB, 480pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN(HB): 9781529101270

I'm so grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Malice via NetGalley.

Alyce is her name.

Malyce is what she's called...

The young woman who is the hero of this book strives throughout not to be the villain. Not to be seen as the villain. An outcast with no mother, half human, half Vila - a legendary race of dark Fae, now believed extinct - she's the subject of a daring experiment. In the kingdom of Briar, there are houses where Graces - young women touched with the magic of the Fae - sell gifts of beauty, wisdom, healing and wonder, all powered by drops of their precious, golden blood.

What might one do with the green blood of a Vila?

Enter the Dark Grace, groomed and trained for her role. Hated and feared, yet so, so, needed... for those times when a little curse is called for. When a love rival needs to be stopped. When a life needs to be ended. Shunned, yet patronised, Alyce sits in her dark, damp little room in Lavender House and serves her clients. Anonymous clients, cloaked and hooded, yet willing to pay out large amounts of coin for what she can offer. Even the King, one day, will need something from her.

This book is deliciously, subtly constructed. One's sympathies are with Alyce from the start. Even as she begins to discover more about who she is, and to learn the extent of her powers, she doesn't seek power or revenge. Her occasional rages are, we might think, understandable. Rather, she is - unknowingly - looking for love. This poor lonely girl, humiliated when she attempts to attend a Royal ball, has a deep need she isn't even aware of herself. This takes the book to one of the most frustrating, will-they, won't-they romantic plot threads I've read for a long time. No spoilers, but sometimes you just know when two characters are right for each other and that they should just get on with things...

Alyce's origin is deeply bound with the history of the Fae and the Vila, and the origins of Briar. Briar is a troubled realm, where the founding (and ruling) Queens have lost their power to their husbands; where a curse threatens royal daughters unless they find a True Love; where an enemy is imprisoned in a dark tower, waiting an opportunity; where spies watch from the shadows. If Alyce learns the truth, it may, you think, set her free. That's what she hopes. But can she ever be free when what she does, what she is, is so useful, so darkly useful, to the wealthy and powerful?

There are so many layers here. History gone bad. Injustice and genocide. The fate of an individual taking second place to the demands of the State. Also, power, freedom and revenge. Alyce is a magnificent hero, even if all around her - even those she thinks of as friends - would paint her as a villain. The book is described as being "Sleeping Beauty" from the villain's point of view, but it's so much more than that. To begin with, it's an origin story for Sleeping Beauty. All the elements are there, even if in unfamiliar form, and even if Walter also plays with references and hints of other fairy stories (I spotted several) but they don't come together in quite the way you might expect. But it's also a story about patriarchy. About finding oneself - and the deadly consequences of being forced into denying that self.

A riveting book, exuberant, joyful and angry, this was an entrancing and involving read and I enjoyed every word of it.

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


22 April 2021

#Review - Near the Bone by Christina Henry

Design by Julia Lloyd
Near the Bone
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 13 April 2021
Available as: HB, 363pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN(HB): 9781789095951

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of Near the Bone via NetGalley to consider for review.

Near the Bone is an exciting and absorbing, if at times harrowing, read.  Above all it's a MEGA page turner - if you pick this one up, you'd best clear your diary for a few hours because you won't want to put it down again until the last page.

We first meet Mattie, out in the woods where she lives with her husband William on a remote mountain in the US, on an errand. Mattie discovers something new and strange. Mattie debates what to do. Should she stop and investigate, at risk of making herself late? Or should she hurry on? We soon see that her dilemma is framed entirely in terms of what William would want her to do.

She's terrified of getting it wrong.

And she will get it wrong. Because William is a manipulative abuser who has Mattie at his mercy. ('She wasn't going to think of how strange it was, because William told her what to think and she was sure he wouldn't like her thinking on this'). 

I won't give much more detail on that, because it would be spoilery. Henry reveals the detail of what has happened to Mattie slowly, layer by layer, building up a picture and showing us Mattie's unenviable life, every detail calculated to keep her under William's sway: starved, beaten, denied any warmth or humanity ('That's why William was always starving you, always working you when you were exhausted. Without food and sleep you couldn't think, couldn't fight him...') Much of her own history is lost to her, and it is only revealed as we learn about it, over a harrowing and desperate period of two or three days which turns her life inside out. 

I also do not want to be too specific because there are some really dark themes here - themes of abuse and control - which may be triggering for some. For me, it was a mark of how good Henry is at spinning a story that even in the darkest moments I wasn't tempted to put this book aside. I had to know what would happen. It helps that, alongside the tense drama between Mattie and William, there is another strand here - that discovery of Mattie's leads to glimpses of something strange and deadly in the woods. Something that has been killing the local game. Something with uncanny grace and strength, and a greater than animal cunning. 

William becomes obsessed with this thing, whatever it is, seeing it almost as a supernatural test of him. That might have given Mattie some respite except that is short-lived as other complications come into her narrow world. And the one things she has learned in her life with William is that complications are trouble, and trouble is HER FAULT.

This story was creepily, scarily believable, William a true monster but one who seems, increasingly, familiar, his attitudes those of men that we all know about, his sense of entitlement and dominance recognisable from tragedies that happen aria and gain. The comparison of man and monster is explicit: William in the cabin is bad, the beast outside apparently worse, and Mattie is trapped between the two of them. For other writers that dilemma might seem overdone, but Henry's writing gets under the skin of both Mattie and William so well that it just seems, well, true.

This is both a cracking good read and a real exploration of human darkness. Not a dark fairytale, despite the overtones of big-bad-monster-in-the-wood, but much more uncomfortable, closer to home and raising urgent questions.

Finally, they say never judge a book by its cover but... that cover! 

For more information about Near the Bone, see the Titan website here.


20 April 2021

#Review - Shadow Service Vol 1 - Cavan Scott

Shadow Service, Volume 1
Cavan Scott (Writer), Corin Howell (Artist), Triona Farrell (Colourist), Andworld Design (Letterer)
Vault Comics, 20 April 2021
Available as: PB, 128pp
Source: e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN: 978-1939424815

I'm grateful to the author and publishers for an advance preview of this collected volume of Shadow Service, which I'd been following as the separate parts were published. I don't often review comics on here - my mind runs on verbal rather than visual lines and I find it hard to do them justice - but this is one that really deserves some attention, so I will do my best!

This volume collects issues 1-5 of Shadow Service, introducing Gina Meyer, private investigator and witch. Gina walks the mean streets of London, where her speciality is finding the lost. The opening panels see her alone in the moody streets, before getting involved in a fight in some dive... but they also introduce a sense of pervasive surveillance when we realise that somebody is watching Gina.

That early fight leads into pretty much non-stop action, as you'd expect with Gina discovering that her apparently straightforward occupation has led to her becoming involved in a complex and fraught battle touching on organised crime, demonic powers and blackmail - and that a department of Government, nicknamed MI666, are also players here. (I loved that fact that their HQ was in "Carnacki House"). 

The story operates on two timelines, jumping back (mainly at the start of each issue, if you are reading them that way) to show Gina's earlier life and how she came to be a witch. Or perhaps I should say, how her powers manifested - because she states that they were always there, as words in her mind, words she learned to deploy as weapons or tools but never understood before that. Hers is a powerful and raw emotional backstory which explains why she is something of a loner (she has one friend - the talking rat called Edgar, though he may not be quite what we imagine). That accounts, I think, for Gina's reluctance to sign up with the spooks once they reel her in - though she is impressed by their powers and resources, she definitely doesn't trust them and prefers to do things her own way. It's only going to lead to trouble, I think.

Overall, a turbulent, twisty story which covers a lot of ground. Gina is a determined and resourceful protagonist who perhaps acts a little impulsively but whose heart is in the right place but there is a mystery about her true nature.

The overall visual tone of Shadow Service is sombre - it's often night time, the story dwelling on scruffy alleyways, empty offices, bars and gyms whose greyness often ends overwritten with blood and gore. Allies here are provisional, and sometimes the best way forward is to offer up one's very soul for trade...

At the time of writing I hadn't seen Issue 6, which leads into a new story arc, and I have to say, I am very impatient for that - here's hoping that with lockdown lifting I can get back to favourite comic shop and pick that up!



17 April 2021

#Review - Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Cover design by Terri Nimmo
with Zainab's Echo

Empire of Wild
Cherie Dimaline
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1 April 2021
Available as: HB, 298pp, e, audio
Source: Advance HB copy kindly provided by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781474621588

I'm grateful to Will O'Mullane at Weidenfeld and Nicolson for an advance copy of Empire of Wild to read and consider for review.

Set in among a community of Canadian Métis people, Empire of Wild skilfully blends indigenous legends with those from further afield, orchestrating a clash on several different levels between the local people and the outside.

To begin with, Dimaline gives us a vivid sketch of the community: the town of Arcand, its much relocated population (moved on by the 'new Colonial authories', ie the United States, the it acquired their island in the 1820s, then further inland when the seashore they settled became desirable for fishermen and second homers, still being chivvied around to make way for pipelines, mining and resource extraction, but also, still clinging on. Joan ('of Arcand' - names are significant here, as with the Reverend Wolff who we'll meet later) is the main protagonist, heartbroken after her husband, Victor, disappeared nearly a year before. Consoling herself with drink, she's not contributing much to the family building firm but has formed a touching bond with her nephew Zeus.

Dimaline is prone to go off on slight digressions, which add to, rather than detracting from, her story and one is the sad tale of Zeus, abandoned by his unfaithful dad because he shows no talent for traditional dancing. Joan seems to be the only adult in Zeus's life who really cares for him and the relationship between them is well observed and touching, offsetting Joan's wilder moments.

The story takes off when hungover Joan staggers into a revival tent one day and becomes convinced that the charismatic preacher she sees there is her lost husband. He denies all knowledge of her, and claims to have been on the mission trail for three years. Can he really be Victor? And who is going to believe Joan anyway? As she sets out to investigate, she doesn't suspect that things will take a supernatural turn, or exactly how, why and by whom the travelling mission is being used.

Empire of Wild was a compelling read. We're given little hints of what is really going on - there are bits written from Victor's point of view, and his experience is truly baffling until near the end - as well as from various members of the mission. There is Cecile, a young woman devoted heart and soul to its success (but also to own prominence within it) plays a role, and has another of those digressions, mapping out a rather sad life which has left her insecure and craving reassurance. We also meet a man called Heiser, of Germanic extraction, who brings a different set of myths with him to cross-breed, and fight,  with the Métis 'Rogarou'. 

Blending these legends with revival Christianity and the ingrained folk Catholicism of the Arcand people, Dimaline creates a powerfully symbolic narrative within which the personal histories and dilemmas of her characters take life and play out their consequences. The central characters of Joan and Zeus are really well drawn and they pull the reader into this story, increasingly so as events move to a climax. 

Relatively short, Empire of Wild portrays a haunting world and compelling characters. It's a book I greatly enjoyed reading and would strongly recommend.

For more information about Empire of Wild, see the Weidenfeld and Nicolson website here.


 

14 April 2021

#Blogtour #Review - Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman

Whisper Down the Lane
Clay McLeod Chapman
Quirk Books (distributed by Penguin Random House), 6 April 2021
Available as: HB, 320pp
Source: Advance copy kindly supplied by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781683692157

I'm grateful to the publisher and to Stephen and Jamie at Black Crow PR for an ARC of Whisper Down the Lane to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

1983. Five year old Sean is an outsider, a scholarship boy with a single (and hard-up) mother. Bullied at school, he's anxious to please,  desperate in fact to work out what the adults want of him and to give it to them. No match for a manipulative storm of accusations, quack therapists and - as is soon clear - self-righteous witch hunters wedded to increasingly bizarre and heinous conspiracy theories. Sean's compliance with all this will destroy his world, consume the innocent and mark him for life.

2013. Elementary school art teacher Richard has married "office Goth" Tamara and is on course to adopt her son, Eli. Then a horrible crime is committed, and he begins to feel targeted by someone who knows far more than they ought to about his past. Increasingly paranoid, Richard sees things go from bad to worse and realises that events are repeating themselves.

I should start this review with a warning - the book features a couple of nasty instances of cruelty to animals, one of them right at the beginning.

It introduces the reader to a series of events I was unfamiliar with - a moral panic in the early 80s USA when accusations of improbable and bizarre ritual practices were levelled at respectable members of the community . Stirred up by dubious therapists and members of fringe quasi Christian organisations, a feverish atmosphere of conspiracy built up. I would like to say this was a one-off, but it's clear from history (and more recent events) that apparently rational people can be moved to such nonsense when the conditions are right. 

In transcripts of interviews with the young boy Sean, we see how suggestions are planted and how a lonely and confused boy is made to support pretty much whatever his interrogator wishes. And we see tragic consequences from that. Cutting between 1983 and 2013, we also see Richard, who has rebuilt his life and erased Sean, being reminded - as he goes about his daily business with Eli, Tamara and the kids in his class - of what happened before. 

It's very subtlely done, with the reader unclear whether some of the events might be coincidences that Richard's working into a pattern; whether he might be being targeted (but how and by whom?), whether he is, in those moments of "vacancy", himself acting out what Sean claimed to have seen, whether there is a real element of the supernatural here - or whether something else altogether is going on. 

There are also hints that the febrile atmosphere of the 80s could return (the school renaming Hallowe'en "Character Day", for example) and social tensions: Danvers is rapidly gentrifying, with a consciously hip demographic moving in, but some of the residents are still "old Danvers", liable to be swayed by anti gun-control conspiracy theories - and Tamara must be careful to keep her tattoos hidden from both pupils and the Principal.

And over all, a profound sense of unease, of his personality having been wounded and not healed after being forced to bear the responsibility for the consequences of things done by adults. I actually got angry at what had happened to Sean (as well as to others here). W B Yeat's poem "The Second Coming" is often quoted in connection with the working out of the perplexing and frightening events of the modern age and two verses in particular are well known - 

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world"

For me, though, it's the following words which chime perfectly with the atmosphere of Whisper Down the Lane

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned"

The book seems to me to, scarily and perfectly, capture the childish (ie immature, self-indulgent and shallow) as opposed to child-like (innocent, accepting and open) behaviour of certain adults who, unempathatic and lacking self-knowledge, refuse to shoulder their own responsibilities or to truly protect those for whom they are responsible. That makes Whisper Down the Lane a hard read, at times. There were points when I had to stop to gather myself before reading what I feared might come next. Clay McLeod Chapman does though draw the reader in and there was no way that I could not go on with this book, to discover whether Sean - and Richard - would eventually find peace with themselves.

It's traumatic at times but I would strongly recommend. 

For more information about the book, see the other stops on the tour (listed in the poster below) and also the Quirk website here. You can buy the book in the UK from your local bookshop (bookshops in England will be open again next week), or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.





 

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.