30 June 2021

#Review - Nightshift by Kiara Ladner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 June 2021

#Review - Wendy, Darling by A C Wise

Design by Julia Lloyd

Wendy, Darling
A C Wise
Titan books, 1 June 2021
Available as: PB, 330pp, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781789096811

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Wendy, Darling to consider for review.

I have a soft spot for reimaginings of the classics, especially those stories, often childhood stories, that have such a firm place in our mental landscapes they might seem fixed or eternal. It can be revelatory to return to these with an adult eye, not only revisiting their fascinating worlds but asking the question, what was really going on?

Wendy, Darling is firmly in this tradition. As the book opens, Wendy has discovered with horror that Peter is outside her daughter, Jane's, bedroom window and of course is about to carry her away to Neverland. Brutally ignoring Wendy ('You're no fun!'), who of course has waited years and years to meet him again, he does just that. So we see, perhaps, the first layer of nuance here: Wendy's disappointed life, fixated on that short time when she, Michael and John fought pirates, spoke to mermaids and lived with the Lost Boys. 

What happens after an experience like that, and what can it do to one?

Well, plenty as it turns out. In a second layer of disappointment and betrayal, we see that while the two boys internalised Neverland and Peter as imagined, Wendy clung to its reality - and that the England of the First World War did not welcome a young girl who refused to grow up, refused to accept that her childhood tales were just that. Wendy suffered a cruel fate, confined to an asylum and subject to abuse which is described in stark terms. Wendy's life with her husband Ned represents a courageous (and as we later learn, unconventional) attempt to regain some control over her life, even at the cost of compromise and submission to patriarchal power. It's an interesting story in itself, one I'd like to have read much more of, and and builds into a moving account of Wendy's friendship with Mary, an Indigenous young woman from Canada who Wendy meets in the asylum.

At the same time as we learn about Wendy's earlier troubles, Wise is also telling the story of her return to Neverland, and of Jane's first visit there. These are three very different stories, with different pacing. Jane's arrival in Neverland is traumatic, involving memory loss and there is an urgency, a menace, to her experiences that contrasts with Wendy's fond memories. Jane's is an urgent story that feels as though it is going to dark places quickly. In contrast to that, Wendy's return feels a bit slow and melancholy as she revisits the sites of past adventures and finds the enchantment gone. Ultimately pointing to something sinister going on, these parts of the story are very much "Wendy in her own head" until Wise brings the various strands together towards the end of the book. 

The darkness at the heart of Neverland forms a mystery that both Wendy and Jane have, from their separate perspectives, been unpicking and it ultimately requires both to face deep fears. I felt the conclusion to the book really soars at that point, exploring different sorts of courage, both that based on long experience and suffering and that arising from youth and optimism.

I found this an absorbing book overall, one which doesn't hold out illusory hopes that everything will get better: even after they've finished in Neverland, Wendy and Jane will have to return home to face a home dominated by Ned's authoritarian father and to face the choice of whether Wendy can trust her husband with her most dangerous secret, as he trusted her with his. It is though a hopeful book, showing how there can be second chances and how friendship and love, even of unconventional kinds, can make a difference. That, in the end, is what breaks the paradox of Peter Pan - wanting not to group and dismissing Wendy, a real mother, as 'not fun' while insisting that Jane, a girl, act as mother to the Lost Boys - but only in the ways he approves of. Peter comes over, ultimately, as the ultimate demanding male and facing hims down in Neverland may show Wendy (and Jane, with her dreams of being a scientist) how to navigate similar attitudes back at home in London.

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


22 June 2021

#Review - Bad Apples by Will Dean

Bad Apples (Tuva Moodyson, 4)
Will Dean
Point Blank (Oneworld), 7 October 2021
Available as: HB, 352pp, e
Source e: Advance copy provider by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781786079817

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Bad Apples.

Tuva Moodyson is back! And not before time. I'd been missing the adventures of Sweden's foremost local reporter, adept as she is at getting caught up in murder while she attempts to describe the daily goings on in the town of Gavrik (aka - to her - Toytown).

At the end of Black River, Tuva was, you will recall, set for new challenges when her paper, the Gavrik Posten, absorbed its rival in neighbouring  Visberg - a place which we soon learn makes Gavrik look like a bustling metropolis. A hilltop town, only approachable via one severely graded road, Visberg has its own traditions and its own (numerous) aristocracy in the wealthy Edlung family who run the place along with so-called "Sheriff" Hansson. And it's not about welcome an outsider like Tuva to investigate its doings.

So it's not, perhaps, the best start when Tuva stumbles across a mutilated corpse on her way to introduce herself to the place...

In Bad Apples, Will Dean repeats the success of his earlier Tuva books, creating an atmosphere of Gothic horror and plain weirdness alongside a modern police investigation. Again, the forests loom large, enclosing Tuva and the other characters. Don't those forests represent the wide open spaces of nature, though? Well, they might - if they weren't full of hunters slaughtering the equally numerous elk - creatures you really don't want to cross. Fusillades of gunfire, men (and women) armed to the teeth, references to weapons - rifles, knives, axes - pepper the book, as though hinting at all the opportunities for a quick (or slow and painful) death. 

And as if that wasn't enough, Hallowe'en is getting close. Dean explains how, despite the reservations of older members of the community, this American custom has become a Big Thing in Sweden. But first we have to get through the unique Pan Night, Visberg's own special festival, when rotting apples lie on the town streets and all kinds of mischief is indulged. Tuva's there, of course, trying to solve a crime, and stop a criminal who is not above sending her coded warnings. (Also, of course, indulging her sense of curiosity). 

I just can't convey how creepy this book gets - it's perhaps something to do with the contrast between Tuva's life in Gavrik (of all places) and the state of things in Visberg. At home, as she's now beginning to think of it, she's back on the rails, off the booze, happy with her friends, her job (she has a promotion) and especially her  girlfriend Noora.  But at the other end of the Visberg road is a dark, closed community with its own secrets. 

We see Tuva shuttle back and forth. Readers of the previous books will recall that she won't take crap from anyone, but also that she's still grieving for her mother, still feels she let her down and will always see echoes of that in what goes on around her. All this weirdness isn't, one might think, good for her. I do, bizarrely, feel a bit protective towards this fictional person, who - you won't be surprised to learn - goes through quite a lot in this story. I might even go so far as to say that Will Dean is a MONSTER and shouldn't be put in charge of a vulnerable character like this...

Tuva Moodyson has, I would say, for me, joined that group of crime protagonists who are more important to the reader than the mystery they're apparently trying to solve. The details of that do unspool but I was worrying so much about Tuva, I didn't try to hard to read the clues (though they are there). Accordingly I wasn't prepared for the white knuckle conclusion to this book. 

I. Wasn't. Prepared. At. All. I say again, Will Dean is a MONSTER. 

In short, another book from Dean that is as much (more) an empathetic character study as a crime novel, but which still has plenty of thrills and excitement and some real shocks, setting up a perfect opening to what I profoundly hope will be a prompt Book 5 (and what I know will contain its own share of fear and regret...)

Finally - fans of Tuva's books will be delighted to know that the creepy wood carver sisters are back, and their trolls are more grotesque than ever...

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

19 June 2021

#Review - Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Cover by Mel Four/
Pan Macmillan art dept
Black Water Sister
Zen Cho
Pan Macmillan, 10 June 2021
Available as: HB, 370pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
ISBN(HB): 9781447299998

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

Black Water Sister is an absorbing story. It is firmly set in the modern world, taking place on the bustling island of Penang, yet blends that with a sympathetic take on traditional magic, mythology and indeed, gods.

Jessamyn ("Jess") and her parents are Chinese Malaysians. They have lived in the USA, where Jess's parents went to work, since she was five years old. After her father loses his job and suffers a health scare, the family return to Penang and are living with relatives (Jess's aunt Kor Kor and her husband). Jess's dad is carrying out pretty menial work for her uncle, and she and her mother feel he's being taken advantage of - but they're being provided with somewhere to stay so are under something of an obligation. It's a delicate situation, and Jess doesn't want to upset things. 

However, we know two things from the start of this book, both threatening no end of upset. First, Jess is gay. Secondly, she's being haunted by a ghost who is, she soon learns, that of her grandmother, Ah Ma. Granny drags Jess into a complicated feud involving a businessman with criminal connections, rival Chinese deities and the history of that sprawling family. Jess is, of course, resistant at first and thinks she's losing her mind but she eventually has to accept, reluctantly, the reality of what's going on - and, even more reluctantly, that Ah Ma will get her into deep trouble unless she helps out.

Playing out in the background is the fascinating story of Jess's large family, its hopes and fears, preferences and prejudices, something she navigates on a daily basis. The fact that Jess has been brought up abroad is a superb alibi for Zen Cho to explain cultural references that the Western reader may not quite get - as well as creating a layer of friction for Jess since she's, ever so slightly, out of step with everyone else. There's a nice description, a kind of inversion of the normal picture, showing the effect of exile when Jess sees her parents - who she's previously regarded as quite reserved people -  suddenly becoming very social, and realises that's who they really are when they are at home and relaxed rather than among strangers. 

But Jess doesn't have much time to understand the impact of emigration on her family, or how it feels for them to be home, apparently defeated by the land of promise they thought they were going to. No. The story gets very thrillery, with plenty of action, characters who are morally conflicted and Jess herself desperately trying to work out exactly how this strange world she's entered - a world of mediums and endlessly bickering Chinese gods, of hoodlums, of downtrodden building workers - actually works. It would be so much easier if she could depend on Ah Ma for guidance and advice but she turns out to be a somewhat mercurial person (while, I think, subtly educating Jess all the same).

As if that wasn't enough, Jess is trying to combine all this with maintaining a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend Sharanya (especially as Jess isn't out to her parents, and is desperately afraid that they will reject her). There are tensions here, things Jess doesn't want to share about her new life and the sheer pressure of events - and being in a crowded house - make sit hard to take those calls. Jess's dilemma here, even as a self assured young woman who knows what she is and shat she wants, is painful to see.

It's a well written book that draws the reader further and further in, exploring so many cross cultural themes - not only US culture contrasting with this part of Asia, but also the position of the Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia, the accommodation of the ancient (and not so ancient) gods with the modern world, the place of Christians (Jess's aunt is one) and much more. There are also some sharp contrasts even within cultures: such as the way those traditional gods came to be - the male gods often having been reverend holy men, the female ones, unfortunate woman scarred by violence and so raised to the status of deities. Part of Jess's quest is to discover the truth about a particular god, the Black Water Sister of the title, presented by some as a violent and vengeful spirit (and accordingly, used for that purpose) but who actually has a rather more interesting history. Jess needs to understand, and quickly, if she's to outwit gods, her grandmother, the mobsters and other sundry dangers.

And at the end of the day, she also needs to work out her relationships with her family and Sharanya. 

And find a way to earn a living.

So - there is a LOT going on here, but Zen Cho shapes this material into a sharp, readable and fun book. I'd strongly recommend Black Water Sister.

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

17 June 2021

#Review - Emergency Skin by NK Jemisin

Emergency Skin
NK Jemisin
Amazon Original Stories, 17 September 2019
Available as: Audio, 1 hour 4 mins, e
Narrators: Jason Isaacs
Source: Audio subscription

Emergency Skin is a remarkable novella, not least for the fact that Jemisin tells a story in which we never hear directly from the point of view character.

He - though the pronoun is moot, for reasons developed in the story which it would be spoilery to give here - is on a mission back to planet Earth (or "Telos" as we're told it should be called) to collect biological samples needed by the distant colony which is his home. Earth is expected to be a hostile wasteland, given that the colony in question was established to house those who had fled environmental destruction.

We're given this in formation by a narrator who is apparently an AI designed to assist the protagonist with this task. We only hear the AI's side of the conversation, together with the voices of one or two people he meets on earth (no, it's not a desert). The AI is a marvellously querulous and elitist construct, reflecting, of course, the views of its masters and betraying their own elitist and blinkered thinking. It's lovely to hear this consciousness come up against the conundrum that Earth simply seems to have flourished ones its makers - supposedly the best, brightest and most innovative of humanity - shoved off.

Again, no spoilers, but Jemisin does gives us an object lesson here in thinking beyond the dreary and reductive worldview of the tech lords and their political lapdogs. It's an impressive argument, albeit necessarily compressed given the form (I would like to see it articulated at greater length, perhaps in a novel) - essentially a challenge to the economic orthodoxy that privileges immediate profit above all. And she shows how openness to alternative view points, and courage, can lead us to challenge even the most ingrained assumptions. That's a lesson needed now more than ever, I think.

In all, a thought provoking and satisfying novella, due in no small part to Isaacs' narration, which captures the cadences both of the smug AI and of several person whom the protagonist encounters on Earth. As I've said, we never hear his voice but the compelling dialogue almost makes you think you have.

I'd recommend. 

14 June 2021

#Blogtour #Review - This is How We Are Human by Louise Beech

This is How We are Human
Louise Beech
Orenda Books, 10 June 2021
Available as: PB, 289pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781913193713

I'm grateful both to Orenda Books for sending me an advance copy of This is How We Are Human to consider for review and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

I was rather wary of this book. It's about a young man, Sebastian, who has autism, how his mother Veronica cares for him - and how she sometimes gets it wrong. It is very close to home for me. My daughter (now in her twenties) has autism. She has had her ups and downs, as we have we in seeking support and trying to ensure she can live an independent and fulfilling life. 

There are differences: young men and young women are seen by society in slightly different ways. Also, my daughter has learning disabilities and is non-verbal, which Sebastian in This is How We Are Human is rather fluent, not to say loquacious. Still, I recognised a lot here. As the parent of a young person like Sebastian, your life becomes focussed on your child. You become their advocate, their interpreter to an often shockingly indifferent world. See for example the episode at the start of this book, where Veronica is seeking help from a sexual health clinic for Sebastian, who is suffering all the frustrations of a young person without a girlfriend or boyfriend and who has little prospect of finding one. The response of the other clients in the waiting room, and of the doctor when eventually Sebastian and Veronica meet her, is hardly helpful.

As a parent, you also, inevitably, fail. Quite rightly, adults who have autism want to control their own lives rather than having them managed by their parents. The difficulties they have with that can be considerable. In This is How We Are Human likeable, slightly posh, steely determined Veronica, with her extensive collection of headscarves, is simply at her wits' end. She is doing her best, but she has reached her limits - and the world is beginning to shut down for Sebastian as he, also, begins to reach and cross boundaries that the world sets for people like him. 

Veronica isn't, though, one to give up easily. So she turns to 'high-class escort' Violetta for help.

Violetta is a fascinating, vividly portrayed character - a young woman who needs to raise money quickly and has found a way to do that. She's beginning to recognise that there is a cost and we see vividly depicted episodes of PSTD. (Do be aware that the book is explicit in places. It is never prurient or exploitative, but does feature Violetta being abused (and one incident takes that so the extreme) as well as other episodes that chip away at her self-esteem. We learn a lot about her background and the trap she is in, paying for her father's care and how she, too, shows courage and finds her way through. In fact this book is as much Violetta's as it is Sebastian's and the strange, quirky relationship they build is well observed and, in some ways, heartbreaking. But then a lot about this book is heartbreaking, from Sebastian's frustration (and his shrewd understanding of it) to the bullying he suffers to the way that the default reaction of the wider world, when any problem comes up, is to try and tidy him away. (I've experienced this - again from the parent's perspective - when Daughter, frustrated beyond endurance, committed some social outrage to a chorus of tutting from the adults around. My tip? The most accepting, welcome place we ever found was our local McDonald's). 

This is How We Are Human is, as I said, a book that comes close to home for me, and some of these times it provoked tears. I really don't think I'd have read it if it had been written by anyone other than Louise Beech, whose honest, human and brave stories I've simply come to love. When I saw what she was writing about, I knew I could trust her with a subject like this and that she would respect and understand the Sebastians and Veronicas of this world (and, indeed, the Violettas as well). 

And she did.

So, this is rather wonderful. It is a deeply human book, the title so apt, because the reality of autism really does challenge narrow minded assumptions about what it is to be human and demand that we so-called neurotypicals take a good hard look at ourselves.

On a lighter note, for fans of Louise's writing, I can confirm (slight spoiler!) that Bob Fracklehurst is back!

About Louise Beech

Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian
Louise Beech

Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her 2019 novel Call Me Star Girl won Best magazine Book of the Year, and was followed by I Am Dust.

For more information about This is How We are Human, see the Orenda Books website here or hop on the blog tour and read some of the reviews listed on the poster below.

You can buy This is How We are Human directly from Orenda, from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon. 


10 June 2021

#SocialMediaBlast #Review - Bleeding Hearts by Ry Herman

Bleeding Hearts
Ry Herman
Jo Fletcher Books, 10 June 2021
Available as: PB, 414pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9781529406313

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher books for an advance copy of Bleeding Hearts and for inviting me to take part in the social media blast.

It was great to return to Ry Herman's Boston and to meet Angela and Chloë, introduced in Love Bites, again. Angela, you may recall, is a vampire, and Chloë a witch, and they are deeply in love. But there is a problem - Angela is desperately afraid that she will take too much from Chloë and she has allowed a year for them to find a way for Chloë not to end up undead. Or even, dead. Now there are only two months left before some hard facts need to be faced...

I love the way that, in these two books, Herman centres the love between two supernaturally blessed (or cursed?) young women and the ups and downs of their relationship. Angela's belief, in particular, that there may be no way for her safely to feed from Chloë threatens to break them up. Without Chloë, Angela would be faced by a choice between starving, and going back to picking up strangers in bars and clubs to feed from. Issues of consent are never far away, Angela recalling the abuse she suffered from Tess, her ex, who made her into a vampire, and Herman showing us an another model for vampirism. This is in a story strand beginning in San Francisco just before the earthquake of 1906 where Meijing, who has been trafficked and abused, falls into the company of Master Hiram, an even more ruthless vampire than Tess - and one with a dash of religious fervour to him. 

As Chloë digs deep into ancient legend and magical practice to find an answer to Angela's fears (and more fundamentally, a way that she can make an acceptable life with a person who can only emerge when it's dark), Angela wonders if she might not find answers with Tess after all. It's a mark of just how much Herman makes the reader feel for his characters that as the tension between them over this trip rises (Chloë wants to go along, fearful of losing Angela, while Angela resists that, knowing how dangerous Tess might be to the woman she  sees as having stolen her lover) I almost didn't want to turn the next page from concern that one or the other would go too far, say just too much, from a mixture of love and fear and provoke a split.

Almost. This is a compelling and involving fantasy romance, and I HAD to turn that page. 

And the next. 

And the next. 

Angela's quest takes her physically further and further from Boston, and Chloë's... well... it's hard to describe. Further spiritually? Or mythically? Chloë seems to find herself travelling into a weird realm that blends the symbolism of Boston's past with that of myth and story, a sort of Otherworld - and we know don't we, that the Otherworld is perilous place? Both women face dangers, in a story set in those weeks of later 2000 when a US election was decided by "hanging chads" and politicised legal cases - a setting with echoes, of course, twenty years later.

I love the way that in this book Herman gives us a deft fantasy blending vampirism, lycanththropy and witchcraft while not shying away from the more incongruous aspects of that (Angela, an astrophysicist, is in despair at the logical contradictions - what would happen if werewolf Mike were to visit a lane with no moon? Where does the mass-energy come from (an go) when he transforms?)

I love the way he also gives us a complex modern romance, one that requires supernatural issues to be faced in the same breath as more conventional relationship problems (and which combines the two creating some really knotty life difficulties).

But above all I love the way he grounds this in a response to and depiction of some of the darker parts of reality: in the desire Angela and Chloë have to live their lives like any other couple, despite political trends that want to deny them that, or in the prejudice faces by Meijing through nearly a century. It's a very affirming book, with people, in their diversity, finding a way despite human - or supernatural - obstacles to express their love.

For more information about Bleeding Hearts, see the publisher's website here - and the other reviewers joining in the blast, on the poster below.

You can buy Bleeding Hearts from your local bookshop (but hurry, before they all go!) or online from UK Bookshop dot org, or Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

8 June 2021

#Review - The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne (The Burning Kingdoms, Book 1)
Tasha Suri
Orbit, 8 June 2021
Available as: PB, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9780356515649

I'm grateful for an advance copy of The Jasmine Throne from Orbit.

In The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri gives us a complex, absorbing and vivid fantasy adventure in a world inspired by the cultures and history of the Indian subcontinent. The storyfollows the lives of two women - a princess and a maidservant.

Malini, the princess, has been imprisoned because she refuses to accept the will of her brother, the new Emperor Chandra. Accepting his will would have led to her death: but it seems his plan is for her to find death anyway, forgotten in a distant corner of the empire. Malini is, though, educated, brave, and has taught herself both statecraft and war. She will be a dangerous enemy, if she can escape and she is perfectly capable of manipulating and using a young maidservant for her ends.

Priya, the maidservant, is a former temple child who now serves her nations's conquerors in the Regent's, the Imperial governor's, palace. She has secrets of her own though. When the temple was destroyed, she was learning to draw on the deep magic of the deathless waters. Now rebellion is flaming in Ahiranya and the rebels want to use her magic to support their uprising. But Priya has blotted out her memories of her earlier life to escape the trauma that she went though...

The Jasmine Throne is a very rich, morally ambiguous mixture of a book, exploring both personal dilemmas and relationships and the complex rights and wrongs of rising up against a cruel empire. There are those here who have tried to save what they can of Ahiranya's culture and traditions from the despotic Parijati empire. They aren't exactly wrong to have compromised. There are also those who see that the process of erasure - the very language has been obliterated - will not stop, and who demand more drastic action. They aren't completely wrong either, though this tactic may bring further destructions and suffering.

But while politics and power games may shape this book, The Jasmine Throne also throbs with the powerful heartbeat of personal relationships, and in particular of one relationship, that between Priya and Malini. For both, duty - to their own nations, their own cultures - may allow some cooperation, but they have different objectives and loyalties, meaning that same duty may also demand some manipulation. As if that wasn't complicated enough already, everything is also mixed up by the obvious pull that we can see between the two. This both creates new motivations - as they explore their frank interest kin one another - and muddies them, with actions, behaviour and motivations unclear and misunderstood. Suri really gets inside Priya and Malini, making the reader sympathise deeply with both for what they have lost while also making it clear that neither is an uncomplicated hero.

And there is more! Priya's culture would allow women to be lovers: Malini's wouldn't, but she's still not above using whatever levers she can find to escape and pursue her long-term plan to restore her "good" brother, the monkish Aditya, to the throne. So there's a thread of subversion - and a fear of discovery - here too, that perhaps undercuts how honest anyone can be.

Add in a vengeful mother, spies, a martinet Lord on the make who wants to replace Priya's master, the regent of Ahiranya, a rampant and incurable epidemic and a couple of meddling princelings, and you get epic fantasy at its best in a fresh and intricate setting which has, I'm sure, many more secrets to reveal.

I would strongly recommend The Jasmine Throne. (Those who've already enjoyed Suri's Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash won't of course be surprised by how good it is - and if you haven't read them, you should!)

5 June 2021

#Review - The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan

The Good Neighbours
Nina Allan
Riverrun, 10 June 2021
Available as: HB, 293pp, e, audio
Source: ARC kindly provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781529405170

I'm really grateful to Ana McLaughlin at Riverrun for an advance copy of The Good Neighbours to consider for review. Nina Allan's books are among my favourite reads of recent years so I was VERY excited to that The Good Neighbours was coming - and indeed, it's classic Allan, an apparently simply story but which proves to have many depths and currents to it.

We first meet Cath, whose story this (mainly) is, getting ready, with her friend Shirley Craigie, for a Saturday trip to the Big Town. Shirley's doing her makeup, Cath, less daring, just her nails. There's a warm teenage friendship between the two young women which comes over strongly in this first scene and to which Allan returns again and again. The detail is goods: as the two leave they hear Shirley's mum Susan singing 'like Lizzie Dreams on Playdays' and this moves on to a memory of her (jealous, overprotective?) dad, John.

Cath and Shirley live on an island, not hopelessly remote but a ferry ride away from the mainland, and then a bus trip into town, which as it happens is Glasgow. That gives the day a bit of a frisson - if you miss the ferry, you're stranded - as does the girls' sneaking into a bar for vodka and Shirley's nicking a camisole from a shop. Looming behind that, though, is John's attitude of control and general disapproval. (Cath's parents don't like her spending time at Shirley's house).

Fast forward a few years and Cath is working in a Glasgow record shop and trying to establish herself as a photographer. She's in a dead-end affair with a married man, and Shirley is nowhere on the scene. Cath is working on a photograph project to document "murder houses" - places where killings have taken place. We see her examine a house in Glasgow, delving into the case - the victim and her background, and the presumed murderer. Then she decides to return to the island - where the house she's interested in is that one we saw at start of the book, Shirley's, house, where she, her mother, and her little brother were murdered by John Craigie.

I loved the way that, in this story, Allan shows us Cath essentially being stuck. What happened back on the island derailed her life, turning her from a straightford path - school high flier, good university, good job - to... something else. The delicacy of the way Allan does this is impossible to explain without oversimplifying. It's not "my childhood friend was murdered and I never came to terms with that" (though that is true). It's more about understanding, knowing, seeing. Part of that is learning what actually happened to Shirley and her family - there is an official account but it doesn't satisfy Cath - but part is also about appreciating her, Caths's, own place in everything. Was what happened, at some level, her fault? Cath decides to find out - not only by viewing the house where everything happened (now owned by Alice, a financial analyst seeking refuge from London) but also by looking into the background (which proves surprisingly shifty).

That makes the story sound like a crime novel and if you want to see it that way, it is a fine crime novel. But there is much more to it. Allan's novels often come with hidden wiring - they may allude to nested fictional worlds either overtly (such as through stories-within-stories) or implicitly through themes of craft or artistic accomplishment, skills which create their own worlds or make gateways to others. The Good Neighbours is apparently more straightforward but it still has at its centre a whiff of strangeness. 

There is a man - Craigie - who cannot read, but seems to have had a rare talent for working in wood ('wood was warmer than stone and wood was kind') and who has encoded his life in some sense in a doll's house (but the dolls themselves are missing). Similarly, Alice has formidable talent for maths - her breakdown is connected with her (mis?)using this in finance. Dovetailing with that are speculations about "many worlds" quantum mechanics and its possible links to fairy, supported by the parallel careers of (real) Victorian painter Richard Dadd and (fictitious) linguist and mathematician Mabel Konig, both of who returned from trips to the Near East with changed perspectives on art, nature and reality. 

All of this creates a sense of something strange which remains tantalisingly close, yet impossible to grasp. So, again, you could focus on those aspects of the novel and see it as fantasy/ SF. But while that background, and the theme of the "Good Neighbours" themselves, in folklore, in Craigie's early life and in Alice's family stories, are always present here, like a river flowing nearby - stop and listen for a moment and you can hear it running - they are not "all" the story. In reality I think this book is a wonderful dance of all those themes, and more, for example Craigie's violence and controlling behaviour (both their origins and the failure of an apparently close-knit community - in fact, more than one - to confront that). This in turn has echoes I think in Alice's relationship with her partner, something we only see in glimpses.

There are some secrets here, which emerge in their own good time, so, yes, in some sense what actually happened is clear by the time the book closes, but the joy of this chewy, intricately textured novel is the journey to that point, rather than any satisfaction at having a mystery solved. It is a book to be read slowly and savoured and indeed, re-read. I would strongly recommend and I think (while it is still early days!) this will be one of my favourites of 2021.

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


3 June 2021

#Review - Strange Tricks by Syd Moore

Design by Andy Allen

Strange Tricks (Essex Witch Museum Mysteries)
Syd Moore
Oneworld (Point Blank Crime), 3 June 2021
Available as: PB, 384pp, e, audio
Read as: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786075482

I'm grateful to Point Blank for an advance copy of Strange Tricks to consider for review. It was a real treat to receive it because I've developed a fondness for Rosie Strange (and for her creator, Syd Moore).

Rosie is the proprietor of the Essex Witch Museum, having inherited it form her uncle, Septimus. The Museum holds many mysteries, relating both to Essex (and its supernatural, and not-so-supernatural)  history, and to the Strange family itself - a rackety lineage with its own dark secrets.

While she'd like to focus on museum affairs - including those revolving around dreamy head curator (actually, the only curator), Sam, Rosie is frequently called away to investigate supernatural-tinged crime, often at the behest of Monty who works for MI-something-or -other.

Over four novels and several short stories, Moore has established an appealing setting in the Museum and, in Rosie and Sam, a couple whose will-they, won't-they adventures - a frequent question which is generally usurped by episodes of mortal peril -  keeps the reader guessing and anticipating. 

In Strange Tricks, Rosie faces a particularly dark investigation when she and Sam are asked to check out a medium. Sam (usually the Mulder to Rosie's Scully) is surprisingly hostile to Pearl, and it turns out that her information may be hitting a little close to home for him, making enquiries particularly fraught and driving a wedge between him and Rosie. But what they're learning suggests there may be a group of victims unknown to - or disregarded by - conventional law enforcement, and that lives may be in danger. Rosie and Sam have to cooperate to get to the bottom of this, which - even with the grim background - brought me as a reader unalloyed joy: they're never as much fun as when bickering. 

At the same time, Rosie is following up new discoveries about her dead mother, working her way through a journal which has come to light. There's a narrative about a mysterious stranger, something at odds with what Rosie previously believed but which seems to me to echo developments in Rosie's own life. Illustrated by specially drawn Tarot cards, these episodes from Celeste's 80s heyday sustain Rosie in difficult and dark moments - of which Strange Tricks has many.

The story comes to a genuinely spooky (and scary) climax, one that tests Rosie endurance to its limits. I wasn't surprised in the end at the strength she shows here - if you took her interior monologue at face value you might think her a bit superficial and likely to fold at the first broken nail, but readers of this series will already know that Rosie has hidden depths (perhaps even largely hidden from herself) and she finds extra (and unlikely) resources to draw on here. 

Strange Tricks also shows how Moore is able in these books to pivot from the comic to the creepy, all while highlighting truly relevant themes highlighting the plight of people who fall through the gaps in society (the always relevant original Essex "witches" themselves, the trafficked women featured in Strange Sight, or the victims here). It also points to wider developments in the story of Rosie's family - and a potential threat to her happy hopes of some attention from Sam. 

Moore is on excellent form with Strange Tricks, keeping this series humming along and clearly building to future developments on several fronts. I can't wait for more. 

Finally - look at that cover! I loved the previous covers, but this neon themed design, suggesting sleazy alleys and danger (and the importance of those Tarot cards) is I think really attractive and will certainly make the books stand out. 

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

2 June 2021

#Blogtour #Review - One Last Time by Helga Flatland

One Last Time
Helga Flatland (translated by Rosie Hedger)
Orenda Books, 24 June 2021
Available as: PB, 244pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 978-1913193690

I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne at Random Things Tours for providing a free copy of One Last Time and for inviting me to take part in the tour. I was especially delighted to be asked if I'd join the tour because I totally loved Helga Flatland's previous book for Orenda, A Modern Family. Giving a sophisticated, vivid, portrayal of modern, grown-up life - taking as its peg the decision of middle-aged parents to amicably divorce - A Modern Family was one of my standout favourites of 2019, and I was keen to see what Flatland would do next.

One Last Time is similarly focussed on family dynamics exposed by a shattering event, but it carries an even greater emotional charge since that event is the diagnosis with cancer, of Anne, a stolidly independent woman in her mid 60s. I tend to shy away from stories about cancer and from awareness campaigns and such: my father died of it when I was quite young, I just don't want to go there. 

But, well... with this book, Helga Flatland got right past my defences. 

First, it's not, in the end, a book "about cancer". Anne has a daughter, Sigrid, a doctor, and grandchildren: Mia, the eldest, is a bit of a handful for Sigrid and her partner Aslak. Mia's interested in her dad, Jens, who abandoned Mia when she was pregnant and Sigrid resents that. Anne's husband Gustav has been in a care home for some years after a series of strokes, leaving Anne (happily, it seems) alone in the remote countryside, visiting Gustav often but living her own life (she had a lover for a while). Sigrid lives in Oslo, and her brother Magnus flies in and out from his job on the oil rigs. The family dynamics are complex, and I got the impression that things work because of the space between everyone - as soon as any two of this family get close, sparks seem to fly.

Now, though, that sense of space seems bound to end.

The relationship between Anne and Sigrid in particular, as shaped by Anne's deepening illness, is the emotional heart of this novel. The story is so carefully observed, with chapters told from the perspective of each, sometimes reexamining the same conversations and events, sometimes passing the action like a relay baton from one to the other. There is simply so much here, from the different perspectives on Anne's treatment to radically conflicting accounts of Sigrid's childhood. Sigrid sees Anne as having been a rubbish mother, especially after Gustav became ill, Anne indignantly refutes this. Sigrid silently accuses her mother of being "selfish" regarding her illness, Anne's emotional resources are engaged in worrying over Gustav and over the loss of the little things - like her morning dip in the lake - that form her life. There are troubling episodes around the young Sigrid that are never completely explained or closed, but she seems to have had more support from her bother than from her mum.

Now, perhaps, Sigrid thinks, the prospect os death will persuade Anne to examine her life and make amends. She holds this viewpoint so strongly that I think much of her concern for her mother - the pressure for her to continue treatment, the demands that she drops her moving swimming session - seems motivated by that belief, as though by dying sooner rather than later Anne will somehow avoid that reckoning.

That's only one of the emotional currents in this complex, satisfying book. There are many more. All of it churns away (mostly) beneath the surface, seldom coming to an out-and-out row, although sometimes disagreements about proxy subjects, or developments in the lives of others (like Mia and Jens) move into focus and, as it were, draw down the lightning. One gets a real sense that a whole lifetime of emotional tension and compromise is suddenly coming home to roost, not actually demanding a final resolution (sorry, Sigrid) but still requiring attention, like that rattle in the car's engine which can't be ignored any longer longer. 

The moves and countermoves between Anne and Sigrid and Mia are too many, too subtle, to summarise and I won't try. Flatland is awesomely good at drawing them as characters, making everyone flawed but sympathetic, annoying at times, downright WRONG at others but always engaged, always involved. It's a book that, if you have any heart and soul at all, will just melt them, in a good way. Keep the tissues handy.

Given the subject matter - and that the story here isn't plot driven, doesn't admit of a tidy ending with everything sorted - the ending was never going to be "they all lived happily ever after" but even so, I found it uplifting, as well, of course, as being sad. Exploring courage in all its forms - courage in relationships, courage with illness, the courage, at the right time, not to be brave - this is a deeply human story and for me confirms Flatland as a writer whose books are not to be missed. I'm so glad I read it.

About Helga Flatland

Helga Flatland
Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark,
Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards.

Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. One Last Time was published in Norway in 2020, where it topped the bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers Award.

For more information about One Last Time, see the Orenda website here or consult the blog on the poster below!

You can buy One Last Time via Orenda at the link above, from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

1 June 2021

#Review - Ten Low by Stark Holborn

Design by Julia Lloyd
Ten Low
Stark Holborn
Titan Books, 1 June 2021
Available as: PB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy kindly supplied by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781789096620

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Stark Holborn's Ten Low to consider for review.

After reading Holborn's Nunslinger, Triggernometry and Advanced Triggernometry, I had high expectations for Ten Low and they were fully met.

Ten Low is a person - a woman living on the remote moon Factus, somewhere out on the edge of known space. "Ten" refers to the length of the sentence she's served before release onto this barren world - a desperate, arid place inhabited by organ scavengers, smugglers, religious fanatics and outlaws, all kept alive by a dripfeed of resources from the ruling power of space, the Accord, much of which is however skimmed off before it ever arrives, leaving Factus only the dregs.

I'm not sure whether this milieu is one that Ten chose, or whether there are reasons why she's here and not some more pleasant world, but it does seem appropriate for her because we gradually learn about some dark things she has to atone for. At the beginning though all we really know is that she's trying to save lives, trying to even up the score. Her status as a medic buys her a degree of protection, of neutrality, among her fellows even on Factus but it's not proof against all dangers - and particularly not the weird, fate-shifting effect of the mysterious 'Them'. 'They' are a race - or a supernatural power - or a myth - apparently native to Factus. You don't talk about Them, in case They hear and take a hand in things, causing, and feeding on, consequences and chaos. And Ten's all about the consequences, so she is constantly on her guard, looking for signs that They may be up to something.

Perhaps They are... into the blighted wastes of Factus comes an outsider, Gabi, a child General of the Accord, a woman (or girl - it's truly mixed up and I really don't know how to judge this) with plenty of blood on her hands, but of course absolved, as a member of the winning side in the recent war. Marooned after an accident with her ship, she's determined to get back to her command, but Factus isn't an easy place to escape. The two must make their way across the moon, trading for basic necessities at windswept outposts and evading an eager posse of bounty hunters, kidnappers and aggrieved citizens (it's complicated). Playing on the characteristic notes of a Western in a SF setting, Ten Low gives us one Woman With a Past and another woman - or girl - who may not have a Future (or who may have many Futures, if They have anything to do with it). 

The relationship between Ten and Gabi is initially hostile. The General assumes that Ten is a traitor, but the two need to cooperate to survive, and besides, Ten has obscure reasons of her own for wanting to save lives. The General is a decorated war hero, but rather at sea on this dusty moon and unable to call in help. Not a new setup, but Holborn truly makes it her own, allowing the two to speak for themselves (their character also becomes clearer through a range of allies and enemies with whom they have history). The relationship is complex, drawing on hurts and crimes and losses that are rarely actually described but which make themselves felt by their influence on the behaviours we see and on the goals and methods of the protagonists. Ten, for example, is reluctant to hurt or kill which frustrates the General but then something happens and we suddenly understand why she's like that. Gabi, the General, has clearly suffered some kind of conditioning to make her into a war-winning machine but there is more to her than that and you need to ask why she would - as she seems to have - cooperate with such a process?

Also unclear but (partly) revealed in the evolving pattern of this book is a developing mystery revolving around what 'They' want, something hinted at in obscure prophesies and startling moments where the hidden threads of the cosmos seem to be exposed. Ten seems important to that, although she doesn't understand the reasons any more than we as readers do (even though all this does at times seem to give her an edge).

It's a genuinely gripping story, driven by action on almost every page and the kind of book that once picked up, you don't want to let go till you've finished. Those desert wastes and enigmatic characters do grow on you...

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