30 August 2021

#BlogTour #Review - The Winter Garden by Alexandra Bell

The Winter Garden
Alexandra Bell
Del Rey, 2 September 2021
Available as: HB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529100822

I'm always ready to fall for a book which evokes that crisp, glittering aesthetic of sparkle, sugar and steaming breath on a frozen day - something that connects in my mind with The Night Circus or The Toymakers - so when earlier this year I noticed The Winter Garden coming up I knew I needed to read it - so I'm very grateful to Del Rey for an advance copy of The Winter Garden to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

This story takes us back to the early 19th century when, in the Prologue,  Beatrice Sitwell is living through the very worst day of her life. 

Forced to cope with terrible loss, and not understanding what's happening, Beatrice falls short - in the eyes of her father, and herself - in a way that will haunt her life. She flees into the woods and gardens around her house and is comforted by James Sheppard, the gardener's son (by far the nicest person in this book, I have to say) and also by the appearance of the legendary Winter Garden, which comes to those who need it most. For eight days Beatrice visits the garden by night, when the clocks chime thirteen. Then, it leaves her.

A couple of decades later we meet Beatrice again, now grown up, and her friend Rosa Warren, an heiress from the Unites States, out to marry a member of the aristocracy. The relationship between the two women - I would say "friendship" but it's much more complicated than that - will form the emotional heart of this book as both, believing themselves (with good cause) to have suffered, vie for the favour of the Garden and eventually, come into conflict over the offer of a wish underwritten by the last of its magic.

Bell introduces the Garden and explains what it is right at the start of the book, rather than leading us up to the concept and having characters puzzle over its existence, and that gives a clue to the nature of the world she describes because while it's not exactly one where magic is loose, neither is it the 19th century as we understand it. The fact of the garden is a particular wonder but it's not exactly unique. It's soon clear for example that the orchid hunting in which the adult James takes part - alongside many less scrupulous adventurers - isn't just for rare and beautiful blooms, but for plants with all sorts of wondrous powers. The butterfly orchid, for example, can carry messages to the dead. And Rosa's family, the Warrens, are manufacturers of amazing clockwork creations which rival or surpass the living creatures they're based on, certainly treading the borders of magic if not actually crossing them. 

Alongside this, though, the social conditions of the actual Victorian period persist, something the book makes especially clear in its focus on the position of women. This is subordinate - we see Rosa's husband treat her very harshly, threatening at one point to have her committed to an asylum, and Beatrice isn't allowed to submit her botanical discoveries to the Linnaen Society. We also see class as an issue. Beatrice, generally likeable, has a failing here, rebuking the adult, prosperous James who as the son of a gardener ought to show deference to her, someone born with a title. We don't though see the much of the effects of poverty, and although it's noted that Rosa's family own a plantation in Georgia and there are a couple of mentions of slavery, that really isn't something that the book addresses. The focus is, as I've said, on the place of women and outside that, this isn't hard history, it's fantasy and Bell is I think using the fantastical idea of the Winter Garden to explore the ways in which women who have suffered, and who have lost, may go about regaining self-respect, love, a place in the world and autonomy.

The Winter Garden really grapples with this, alongside the mistakes and regrets to which any life is prones (there is a whole new type of plum that Beatrice creates that tastes of regret). A closely related theme is might-have-beens. A lot of the magic that the women creates addresses these: saving people from mistakes they might make in future, seeking to know alternate lives they might have lived, reversing bad decisions. In Beatrice's case there is that awful day I mentioned earlier, for Rosa, a choice she made later in life. That's where the conflict arises - with only one wish available, which of the two will get a chance to put right what went wrong?

It's made clear that the quest to reshape the past may have unexpected consequences, and that there are choices and sacrifices to be made. And, as well, that even the desire to make amends can lead to hateful behaviour. These are characters with whose plight one may sympathies, but who are still making mistakes and yet to learn the lesson that while the past (perhaps) can't be altered the future, and future choices, still can. But that means some really awful things happen!

In all, don't let the crystal notes of  the Garden, and the scent of sugared fancies and hot chocolate lead you astray with this one. Beneath the sparkling surface, The Winter Garden is a book that deals with the hard edges of life: with friendship, companionship, regrets, learning to be better. Rosa, James and, especially, Beatrice, are lumpy, believable characters who have fascinating stories to tell, even though they are far from being perfect people, and you should definitely buy this book and let them speak to you.

For more information about The Winter Garden, see the publisher's website here

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

27 August 2021

#BlogTour #Review - The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone

The Great Silence (Skelfs, 3)
Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books, 19 August 2021
Available as: PB, 309pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy 
ISBN(PB): 9781913193836

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance e copy of The Great Silence to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

The Great Silence is the third of Johnstone's Skelfs books, wrapping up the storylines to date in another instalment of weirdness with the family of Edinburgh women who do a bit of sleuthing on the side. As such, it could be the series will stop here, although I really hope not.

I love these books for so many reasons. The least of these is that I spent seven happy years in Edinburgh as a student last century, walking the same streets as the Skelfs - and Johnstone fully recreates that time for me. (I used to live around the corner from Warrdender baths, which is mentioned here, and would go there for a swim and a warm up when the flat got too cold). But no, there's more to it than that. There's also that these are very entertaining, very well plotted mysteries, Johnstone's habit being to throw several mysteries at the Skelfs, some minor, some life-or-death, as well threats to them directly, AND funeral business, explored in compassionate, empathetic detail. 

But what grabs me most about these books is their sheer heart, their depiction of three generations of women coming to terms with life, love and friendships. They're not the sort to avoid mistakes - Jenny, mother of Hannah and daughter of Dorothy, is particularly prone to these and in The Great Silence she's bitterly regretting one that she made, looping back up with Craig, her ex, but they own their mistakes, admit them, and seek to overcome them. There are regrets in these books - Jenny laments time past, time when she could party all night - but no regrets for good times and for the positives that came from them. Or indeed the positives that can come from very dark times. Abi, introduced in the previous book, The Big Chill, is trying to overcome some very grim family circumstances. Estranged form her mother and living with the Skelfs, she finds that the past comes back for her in a horrifying way - but is supported by Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah (not forgetting Hannah's girlfriend, Indy).

That heart, and I'll say it, soul, breathes through every page of this book. The mysteries are interesting (messages from aliens? A care worker attending to the very intimate needs of his elderly client? Escaped wild cats!) but it's the little, studied moments that give The Great Silence their character: Dorothy's reflections on her long life and her move from California to Edinburgh, her escape to her drum kit in the attic, Indy's relationship with her parents, the antics of cat Schrödinger and dog Einstein or Hannah. There's so much compassion in Johnstone's depictions, even for the most awful of characters (step forward, Craig).

The Great Silence - and this series in general - therefore manage both to be good, absorbing and escapist fiction but also something deeper and more touching, something very human. I'd strongly recommend them if you haven't read them yet - with a bias to saying, read them all in order, yes, but mostly, READ THEM!

For more information about The Great Silence, see the Orenda Books website here - and also the other stops on the tour, listed in the poster below. 

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

24 August 2021

#Blogtour #Review - A Master of Djinn by P Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn
P Djèlí Clark
Orbit, 19 August 2021
Available as: PB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy 
ISBN(PB): 9780356516875

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of A Master of Djinn to consider for review, and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me onto the book's blogtour.

I found A Master of Djinn a very clever, very satisfying story on many levels. Taking us back to the fantastical Egypt of short stories A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, A Master of Djinn is a full length novel set in a world where supernatural spirits mingle freely with humans. In Egypt, these are, naturally, the djinn whose tales feature so much Middle Eastern folklore. In other parts of the world they may be other entities - goblins, for example, in Germany. And in some places, they are not welcome at all: the United Kingdom, for example, which as a result has suffered reverses and is in danger of losing what remains of its Empire.

In Cairo, Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, charged with keeping a lid on the exuberance of the magical. Fatma is a glorious character, favouring sharp suits and never at a loss for a quip even in the face of the gravest danger. She's saved the universe before, and is the ideal person to call in to deal with the mass murder, apparently by magical means, of a secret society led by the reclusive British aristocrat and industrialist, Lord Worthington. Worthington's secret was dedicated to the retrieval of artefacts related to  Al-Jahiz, the mystic who, fifty years before, opened up a route to the spiritual dimension from which the djinn and other magical beings proceed. As a pretender to Al-Jahiz's legacy emerges, stirring up the Cairo mob and alleging collusion with foreign interests, it becomes imperative to solve the murder before Worthington's finds collection can be put to a sinister use...

P Djèlí Clark's ambitious story takes this intriguing premise and runs with it with great gusto, building on scraps of history, mythology and folktale to give us an immediately recognisable and believable world. There is Cairo the crossroads of East and West, where a dilettante aristocracy, obsessed with the past, may encounter more than he expects; a teeming world of djinn working in the city alongside humans, running bookshops, developing gambling habits, tricking marks with the old three wishes dodge; there are ancient Egyptian gods, holdovers from the past but still with some power; haughty angels who seem to have their own distinct plans; and much more.

He also gives us, in Fatma, an engaging and self-possessed protagonist, very much going her own way (especially when girlfriend Siri is on the scene) but not above misjudgements, as when she's teamed up with rookie Hadia - Fatma very much prefers to work alone and finds it hard to make the accommodations she needs to when mentoring a partner. I enjoyed the relationship between the two, which could have become clichéd but instead develops into something real, warm and alive.

Set against a background of the European powers drifting into war - the book features a peace conference brokered by Egypt and a walk on by nobody less than Kaiser Bill himself - the story is skilfully pitched to reflect on 20th century Great Power relationships and their colonial implications without being bound by them, rather it shows other paths that might be taken and leaves us to speculate how these might influence the future (including our future). It doesn't lack villains, whether megalomaniac humans or haughty djinn, and the fun isn't so much in the revelations of who they are (I spotted one fairly early on) as in how the ramified power politics between will unwind, what the effect will be on wider society - and who will die. All of that keeps the reader guessing, with plenty of twists and turns, perilous episodes and ingenious revelations. It is, basically, fun from start to finish and I hope to be able to read more in this world soon.

For more information about A Master of Djinn, see the Orbit website here and be sure to catch all the stops on the blog tour - listed on the poster below. You can buy A Master of Djinn from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot com, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

20 August 2021

#Blogtour #Review - No Honour by Awais Khan

No Honour
Awais Khan
Orenda Books, 19 August 2021
Available as: PB, 289pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781913193782

Honour, Falstaff remarks in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, is 'a mere scutcheon', a symbolic device. It is, though, a device that can affect behaviour. It can drive people on, cause them to kill or make them be willing to be killed. And so we see here, in No Honour, Awais Khan's moving account of a life in contemporary Pakistan, which examines "honour" from all sides.

Abida is a young woman living in a remote village. Her mother is concerned that, at 16, she's still married, so her father Jamil, a poor butcher, makes overtures to the Pir, an influential and wealthy local figure with sons who need wives.  Money (which the family can't afford) is spent on a meal to entertain the Pir, who repays them by being rude, and his ghastly son is introduced. However, Abida has her own ideas and has secretly been meeting Kalim out in the fields. Naturally one thing leads to another and soon Abida is in a mess. 

It's a story as old as time, but one where the stakes are especially high because of the culture and customs of the village. Another girl has recently been murdered in similar circumstances. This book isn't for the fainthearted, we see the villagers, driven by bloodlust, calling for the murder, with the Pir at the centre of things. It's a misogynistic culture, where, for example, the birth of girls is seen as a sign of weakness and male power in enforced ruthlessly (later, Abida encounters a mother whose daughters have, one by one, been murdered at birth).

So Abida's future looks bleak, and this book likely to be grim. But although dealing with brutal events, it contains a thread of hope. Forced to flee the village, Abida seeks to make a life for herself in the city of Lahore, a very different setting from the one she's used to. She has limited education (why would a girl need that?) and is disadvantaged by the society around her. Also, some of those she depends on are weak or selfish. Things become very difficult, and Abida ends up in a very desperate situation - she is treated vilely and her efforts to escape are punished brutally.

Abida remains, however, strong, resourceful and loving, determined to be free and to be with her family. And she has support from Jamil. Appearing at first scared of the Pir's power, he eventually leaves the village and sets out to find his daughter Lahore is as strange to him as it is to Abida, he has no friends or allies there but he, too, is strong and determined. This part of the book reminded me of Dickens at his most stark: a depiction of the teeming humanity in a throbbing, multi-faced city, a city full of perils and snares but also, friendships, acts of solidarity and, yes, love. The relationship between Jamil and Abida is at the centre - he is not a perfect man by any means, but he has a curiosity, and perhaps a streak of bloody-mindedness, as well as a family history, that prevents him from settling for "the way things have always been done" despite the obstacles around him - mainly those created by powerful, corrupt men. The propensity of such men to distort and debase society is laid bare here, making this as much an expose of patriarchal culture as it is a story of hope, love and redemption.

As I have said, there are many different conceptions of honour here; the desire to keep up appearances, to bolster a hierarchical and sexist order; an excuse used by bullies  to act out violent fantasies; or being true to one's family - wife, child, parent; following love; risking much for a loved one; heroic self-sacrifice to protect others; and many more. Is honour something bestowed by others, or does it arise from within? What acts preserve it, and what destroy it? Once lost, can it be regained? The truest expressions of it, as Khan shows, may be modest and hidden acts - charity for a man beaten by thieves; mercy and protection for a desperate young woman; not giving up when life becomes hard and there is no light in the darkness. 

In all, No Honour was a terrific read. We see humanity at its best and worst, enduring love, appalling cruelty and stubborn faithfulness. Many times, as I read this, my heart was in my mouth. Many times, I didn''t want to turn the page for fear of what I might read. Every time, I had to continue with this compelling and convincing story. I hope you will, too.

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of No Honour to consider for review and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

For more in formation No Honour, see the Orenda Books website here or the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below. You can buy No Honour from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for "No Honour"


19 August 2021

#Review - A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris

A Narrow Door 
Joanne Harris
Orion, 4 August 2021
Available as: HB, 448pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781409170815

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Narrow Door via NetGalley to consider for review.

'Becky was an only child, and yet she had a brother'.

The first thing I should say about A Narrow Door is that it's the third part of a trilogy of psychological thrillers set in and around the same private grammar school, St Oswald's, and the town of Malbry. I hadn't read the previous books (shame on me) but A Narrow Door works very well as a standalone thriller, while hinting at the background that has already been established and bringing back familiar characters.

The book is structured as a sort-of dialogue between the new Head of the school, Rebecca Buckfast, and old-school (in every sense of the world) Classics teacher, Roy Straitley. Buckfast is a new broom, having assumed the Headship after a period of turbulence. She is the first ever woman Head of what has previously been a boys-only school. Straitley initially presents as a crusted remnant of the Old Guard, but while the traditions of the school are written on his heart, he's actually much more complex. In a subplot, Buckfast's merger of the school with its' girls equivalent has added a new member to Straitley's familiar clique of "Brody Boys", who in the course of A Narrow Door, comes out as trans. We see Straitley working, with eventual success, to accept this. Similarly, while sceptical of Buckfast, he pays close attention to her story and often appreciates her troubled past and her various dilemmas.

Buckfast and Straitley are looking back from 2006 to events both in 1989, when she was a young supply teacher at St Oswald's even more hidebound local rival, King Henry's, and in the early 1970s when her older brother Conrad, then a King Henry's boy, disappeared. The conversation is brought on by the apparent discovery, on the school grounds, of a corpse and a King Henry's prefect badge.  So Conrad's shadow, or ghost, hangs heavily over a story that is already presented as part of the past ('Everyone in this story is dead, or changed beyond recognition... The house is no longer a shrine to [Conrad]... No one living there listens to the numbers stations anymore.') but a past that Becky seems to interrogate (she knows who lives in that house now).

On the surface, Becky Buckfast is trying to persuade Roy Straitley not to report the discovery, for the good of the school. Perhaps "persuade" is the wrong term - overtly, she's explaining aspects of her earlier life and  appealing to his interest in a friend, another former teacher, Eric Scoones, who has retired under a cloud. Then, she says, they can, together, make a decision.  Underneath, of course, she's working flat out to influence him, drawing on a lifetime of men patronising and underestimating her. 

The way that the apparent dialogue works is complex and absorbing. Though it's presented as it might have been spoken, what we read in Buckfast's account isn't all told to Straitley, and nor are his ruminations on it, though addressed to a "you", actually all said out loud to her. We may infer, I think, that she does more of the talking, but exactly how much each says, we are left to wonder. We "hear", therefore, a great deal of commentary from both, and soon appreciate that games are afoot (Buckfast: 'I'm rather good at meeting men's needs... They need to hear their praises sung') if not what the rules are.

So we know very soon that Buckfast is the unreliable narrator supreme, that she's delaying some information, suppressing or spinning others - but not what, or exactly, why. Harris takes her time laying out Becky's earlier life, centred on the trauma of her brother's disappearance when she was six years old and the effect it had on her and on her parents. They are subsequently cold to her, obsessed with Conrad  and refuse ('cocooned in their grief like a pair of dead moths') to accept that he might be dead, laying a place for him at the table and speaking of him in the present tense. Darker still is her father's descent into conspiracy theories about "numbers stations" - the image of the stricken house silent apart from a radio reciting strings of numbers in a flat voice is a strong and compelling one - and the periodic appearance of some imposter trying to impersonate Conrad.

Alongside this we see the 1989 Becky, having endured nearly twenty years of this frosty treatment, reappear for her temporary job at King Henry's (where she was with Conrad when he vanished). She's not yet the armoured, assured Head of 2006 and suffers greatly from the sneering patriarchy of the school Common Room and of the boys she's meant to be teaching. Yet she has a nose for secrets, of which there are many in this book. Becky takes the King Henry's job to the disgust of her boyfriend and later fiancé Dominic ('charming, funny and smart') who has 'rescued' her and her young daughter from a life of wearying poverty. Dominic seemed to me to have somewhat controlling tendencies: the background to these is just one of the fascinating secrets that is gradually made clear. Indeed secrets - and, closely related, memories, fantasies and lies - prove to be at the centre of the narrative (the story itself, the version of it that Becky is giving to Roy, and the acting out that all involved here have been engaged in ('They look so real, those memories, and yet they were a performance'). There is a hole in the middle of everything in that Becky does not (did not) remember what happened to her brother while, as a six year old girl anxious to please her parents, the police and adult authorities in general she was continually pressed to expand on the confused impressions she did have, leading to a whole structure of fantasy growing to fill the gap.

The exploration of that fantasy, which to a degree the adult Becky now seems to have weaponised in the service of her plans, and its relation both to the person she has become and to the role she now fills, makes up the bulk of this story and it is completely, absolutely, enthralling. (At times the book can be very disturbing, and Becky's childhood fears - never far from the surface - erupt to consume her). Beware, however, for nothing here is quite what it seems.

Harris's unwrapping of the all the layers here fascinates, casting light especially on patriarchy, variously represented by the cliquish schoolmasters, everyday men who, Becky recalls, 'at twenty three I was quite unaware of how often [they] turned to locked at me', and her patronising and controlling fiancé ('To be a woman... is to be the constant recipient of unwanted pieces of male advice.')

In all, a wonderful read and I am kicking myself for having missed the previous part of this trilogy, something I need to put right very quickly!

For more information about A Narrow Door, see the publisher's website here.

17 August 2021

#Review - Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Velvet Was the Night
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 17 August 2021
Availablele as: HB, 281pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB):  9781529417944

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Velvet Was the Night to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the Social Media Blast.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an awesomely talented and eclectic author. There is much more to he writing than her recent stand-out horror Mexican Gothic, in recent years she has has books published across multiple genres including SFF, romance, thriller, noir, and, yes, horror, often with crossover elements but always with action and heart.

In Moreno-Garcia's latest, Velvet Was the Night, we meet Maite, a young secretary in a Mexico City legal firm. Maite is something of a daydreamer and even perhaps what would now be called a geek - happiest retreating in the evenings to be with her books, records and comics. At 30, the patriarchal society around her (Maite's mother and sister included) are inclined to judge her as virtually an old maid, and Maite has bought into this to a degree, but I sensed that she gets far more fun and commitment from her own interests - and especially her favourite comic, "Secret Romance" - than she's had from any actual partner.

Also prominent here is Elvis, a tough who's part of a clandestine government militia used to break up demonstrations and target radicals. This is Mexico in the early 70s, a country haunted by the spectre of revolution, awash - or so the government believes - with Communist agents and sympathisers, and deeply penetrated by CIA operatives. Elvis has had a hard life and membership of the "Hawks" (who really existed, as Moreno-Garcia explains in her Afterword) has given him discipline, a purpose in life and, of course, a living.

The two figures circle round one another after Maite's neighbour Leonora, a well-to-do student affiliated with the radical scene, vanishes. There is a classic McGuffin in the form of a missing camera and film, which all sides want, and which might either be the spark for an uprising, evidence of oppression and torture, or a useful bargaining chip in the struggle between different arms of the security forces (of which there is a veritable alphabet soup). Maite is, at the start, wholly innocent of the deep waters she's getting into. She just wants paying for looking after Leonora's cat, so that she can get her car back from the mechanics and not have to travel to work on the bus, exposed to the attentions of gropers and worse. But in the best traditions of noir, innocence is no defence and if she wants to survive, Maite's going to have to wise up very quickly to the world she's in...

I loved this book, which - while being a wholly different story and set earlier, has thematic continuity with Moreno-Garcia's Untamed Shore, also featuring a young woman who becomes involved in murky goings on, and who ends up leaving her hometown for a more glamorous life in Mexico City. There is a similar examination of a woman's place in a male-dominated society, and a similar nuanced treatment which refuses to cast things in terms of victimhood: Maite is dissatisfied with her life and in particular her job, but she has carved out a space for herself in which she can live on her own terms. Like Viridiana in Untamed Shore, Maite is a quick learner and even more, a brave person who continues her investigation - as it has become - even when the warning signs begin to appear that she may be getting too deep. She's drawn, I think, at some level, to a potential adventure - her reading of sensationalist comics priming her to the potential for plots, conspiracies and Gothic revelations. Maite was already coping with her mundane office life by weaving a fictive world peopled by characters (boyfriends, enemies, allies) from her reading so it's perhaps not a big step to find herself in the kind of story they might inhabit.

Of course, this exposes Maite to real dangers that threaten the little world she has made, and which won't neatly resolve themselves in the last panel. Elvis (his codename, but which he prefers to his real name) is, he discovers, in something of a similar position with his best friend (his only friend) AWOL and his boss, the enigmatic El Mago, issuing increasingly frantic orders (such as to rough up a priest - which Elvis, though not at all religious, considers to be crossing a line). For both Maite and Elvis, reality and fiction seem to be crossing over and certainties dissolving. For both, it is perhaps a process of coming awake, even as life is getting darker and stranger.

The action here exposes that darkness - a period of Mexico's history when protesters were beaten and shot, opposition figures disappeared and factions within the ruling party struggled for primacy. It is a period that I know very little about and Moreno-Garcia's story shines a bit of light on it, while resisting stereotypes (Elvis and his crew are not, for example, bad men so much as poor ones doing a job) and allowing her characters room to breathe and to express themselves in the culture of the time, particularly its music (which plays a similar role here to that of cinema in Untamed Shore). Moreno-Garcia has included in the book her Spotify playlist for the book, which is well worth checking out. 

I hope that in the description above I haven't made the book sound too doozy. It is, above all, a great read, atmospheric, exciting and soulful, bringing alive a particular place and time. Moreno-Garcia allows her characters to speak, more, she allows them to sing, and what a song this is. I'd strongly recommend.

You can find out more about Velvet Was the Night from the Jo Fletcher Books website here, which includes links to purchase, as well as from the other social media listed on the poster below.

14 August 2021

#Review - Dog Rose Dirt by Jen Williams

Dog Rose Dirt
Jen Williams
HarperCollins, 22 July 2021
Available as: HB, 368pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008383794

I'm grateful to HarperCollins for an advance e-copy of Dog Rose Dirt via NetGalley, so consider for review.

Well. This one really is something special. A kind of mash-up of crime, true crime and horror, it sees Heather Evans return to her childhood home to clear up her mother's house after mum killed herself.

Already estranged from her mother (who blamed her for her father's death), Heather is wracked by guilt even as she confronts a plethora of mysteries about her apparently boring mum.

Why has she been in correspondence for years with notorious serial killer ('Jack in the Green, the Red Wolf') Michael Reave?

Who is the woman called Lillian, who seems to know all about Heather's mum but who Heather has never previously heard of?

And what, precisely, is hiding in the shadows at the end of the garden?

Interweaving Heather's story with an older, darker tale and with instances of women being kidnapped, Williams has produced a seriously disturbing story that is almost an assault on any sense of ease or comfort, bringing an atmosphere of threat and, well, simply wrongness into what ought to be the brightest, cosiest moments. Is it, though, a new evil, a new threat, or is Heather simply discovering (or reawakening?) something old and persistent?

The answers seem to lie with Reave, but he will only speak in riddles, cryptic warnings and dark fairy stories. These are illustrated, a little, by passages describing his early life - these are eerie and haunting, but they take us to a hazy, remote world where blood, claw and sacrifice seem more real than teachers or Social Services. There is more than a hint of folk horror about this novel, although I think that it is not that, or not quite. What turns out to be the truth here is more about individual than communal wickedness, I'd say.

Heather is of course determined to find the truth, driven, I think, but some idea that it might set her free from guilt about her mother's (and father's) deaths. She is a complicated person with, as one might put it, anger management issues (she has her own secrets) as as she proceeds with her investigation different parts of her personality emerge and struggle with one another. She cultivates a relationship with the dishy DI Ben Parker, who's investigating a new spot of Reave-a-like killings, and we can see her desire for the company of an attractive and considerate man coiling round her interest in him as a source of information and also around a darker, more instinctive instinct that he represents protection from some sort of danger.

Heather is, in fact, a wonderful, three-dimensional character, from the mess she's made of her personal and professional life to her relations with her family to her delight at meeting up again with her childhood (and teenagehood) friend Nikki Appiah whose family have been more family to Heather than her own ever were (we eventually learn the reason for Heather's messed up family, in another dark thread that connects them to Reave). And as Williams has Heather explore her mother's past and present, she breathes life into a convincing landscape, whether she's describing slightly naughty teen antics in the suburbs or menacing goings-on in the woods. Part of the effect comes from the juxtaposition of mythological and fairytale elements with everyday menaces as when a young man in a pub harasses Heather: 'Got a face like a smacked arse on you, innit? Just saying, you'll feel better off you have a little smile.' But that is, of course, delivered by terrific writing which kept me hurrying through this story, intrigued at first by the mystery, gradually hooked into being concerned for the physical safety of various characters, then increasingly drawn into a worry over their moral fate, as it were, a concern that mounted and mounted into the explosive and frightening ending.

At no point does this story flag - taut and demanding, it's the perfect antidote to all those distractions that can get in the way of reading.

Only, don't, perhaps, read it in the dark on your own...


12 August 2021

#Review - The Nameless Ones by John Connolly

The Nameless Ones (Charlie Parker, 22)
John Connolly
Hodder & Stoughton, 8 July 2021
Available as: HB, 388pp, audio, e
Source: Audio subscription and purchased HB
ISBN(HB): 9781529398342

In some respects, The Nameless Ones doesn't need a review beyond "It's a new Charlie Parker by John Connolly!"

But I'm still going to write one because I want to explain - I want to try to understand myself - why this very dark book enthralled me so much.

First I should say that The Nameless Ones is focussed on Angel and Louis, Parker's friends (and hired muscle). Parker himself is only peripherally involved, but that's OK - for me Angel and Louis are always a highlight of any book they appear in and it was great so see them and to follow their loving, bickering relationship as they take a trip to Europe.

That's where the darkness comes in. Early on in the book there is a particularly gruesome multiple murder - Connolly spares us the graphic details - the victims of which include De Jaager, who we met in earlier books and who helped Parker, Angel and Louis. That proves his downfall, as it brought him up against a gang of Serbian war-criminals, people smugglers and gangsters who want revenge.

But two can play at that game. Louis and Angel set out to get revenge on the revengers.

What follows is a complex, cat and mouse chase across Europe. Much of the action focuses on Spiridon and Radovan Vuksan, the Serbian gangsters and war criminals who had been operating in the Netherlands but now wish to return home. There's a complicated, content-wide web of intrigue drawing in politicians who now wish to appear clean, a money-laundering lawyer, terrorists and various associates of the Vuksans who now just want a quiet life. The whole thing has the air of an exposé, drawing out the links between crime and exploitation and the apparently innocent to show how money talks, always and how blind eyes can be turned, for one reason or another, to the most egregious crimes.

Against this network, and against time as the Vuksans negotiate to return back to Serbia and safety, even Angel and Louis seem outmatched. And that's even before we detect a whiff of the uncanny in the Vuksans' camp. But as we know, it doesn't do to underestimate Angel and Louis.

I really enjoyed The Nameless Ones. It was a little different from previous Charlie Parker books I'd read in not being driven by the supernatural (although last year's The Dirty South was similar in that respect) but that doesn't mean the sense of suffocating, malevolent and active evil was lacking, oh no. Indeed, the Vuksans' capricious and apparently boundless capacity for harm almost appears graver for having no origin in any wider scheme or purpose than to gratify their own various lusts and troglodytic self-image. And of course it's clear that their actions are closely rooted in reality, making the picture drawn here darker still.

And yet that darkness doesn't make the book off-putting. Rather, the minutiae of Angel's and Louis' relationship, their acerbic comments on a grim world, coupled with Connolly's looping, interpretive narrative, makes every word a joy to read (or to listen to - I enjoyed the first three quarters of the book on audio, Jeff Harding's melodious voice catching all the nuances of the many characters here, but switched to the hardback because I needed to know NOW how things turned out). There was also time given to Jennifer, Parker's daughter, and her relationship with the living world, which slightly filled out - for me - the sense of a wider shared world and meant that Parker isn't, completely, left out of things.

Overall, then, this was more of a straight thriller than some of the recent books - but still not completely so, and WHAT A THRILLER.

I'd strongly recommend. 

For more information about The Nameless Ones, see the publisher's website here.


10 August 2021

#Review - The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

Design by Julia Lloyd

The Final Girl Support Group
Grady Hendrix
Titan Books, 13 July 2021
Available as: HB, 393pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781789096064

I'm grateful for an advance copy of The Final Girl Support Group to consider for review.

Final Girls are those left standing (if bloodied) at the end of the horror film, when the monster or the psychopath or whatever it is has chewed through the rest of the group, as the camera lingers on gore and exposed flesh.

But what happens to them afterwards, those brave survivors? In Grady Hendrix's new novel, he brings together a group of "final girls" who, fifteen or twenty years on from the worst experience of their lives, come together once a month to affirm one another, talk through their traumas and offer support. 

Or, more often, bicker and complain...

It's an ingeniously imagined world where the trope of countless movies is made real. These women, actual final girls who lived through the nightmare of seeing their friends and family slaughtered, now face survivor guilt. Why did they live? Could they have done more to protect those they loved? Or were they selfish, saving themselves and leaving others to die? It's also a world where those experiences inspired films very like the ones we can go and see, if we wish, and where a thriving online community of fans seem to blend their interest in these fictions with being "fans" of the actual survivors (...or of the killers...) collecting memorabilia, gathering in chatrooms to discuss the finer points of murder and torture. There is intense media pressure on the survivors, and many deranged figures wold step up to have a go at such celebrities, winning kudos and fame.

Maybe it's actually not such a far-fetched world, though. Hendrix's gradual unfolding of this concept fits very well with the grain of our society, of online hate and misogyny, gun fixation, greed (we meet one particularly unhinged dealer in Final Girl merch) and bizarre conspiracy theories. By the time I reached the end of the book I found myself more than convinced of the books's psychological truth. In part this is done through the central character of Lynnette, who survived the annihilation of her family before her eyes and has still to fully emerge from the trauma. 

We see how careful Lynnette is, how it takes her three hours of watchful travel, doubling back and feinting, to get from "group" back to her fortified home. Extreme caution, perhaps, but reflecting the reality of a woman seeking to protect herself from street harassment and abuse. 

Once she reaches that home, the only living thing besides herself that Lynnette will see is her pepper plant, Fine, with whom she has conversations. That's not from fear, that's because Lynnette just can't take responsibility for another human being, after what happened. Her survival, and fragile mental wellbeing in a setting where victim-blaming is only a mouse click away, depend on her isolating herself physically and mentally. But she's doing fine, just fine - until the day when all her fears and hidden memories explode again and she's forced to flee, her backup plans, which seemed wild and extravagant, suddenly vital. Then Lynnette has to face a hostile world, a world of relentless killers, hostile police (they always knew something was wrong about her story...) Even her friends, her sisters, in group turn against her as does her therapist, Dr Carol.

If in one sense this is an imitation of the form that Hendrix is holding up to scrutiny, more deeply it's an exposé of sexist tropes in popular fiction and in society more widely, Lynnette eventually rejecting the isolation she's seen as inescapable and opting instead for solidarity and trust, even against her ingrained instincts. It's a hectic, hopeless seeming chase of a book, decorated with extracts from critical works, police reports, blogs, chats, newspaper stories and other media analysing, challenging or celebrating the mythology of the Final Girl and of Lynnette in particular. Atmospheric and many-layered, these both contribute to the sense of reality of this world and also give hints about what is really happening, and how the story might turn out.

Overall, this is a pacy and entertaining book, thriller-like at times but with a real sense of heart even in a cruel and bleak setting. It has its touches of humour, and, ironically, doesn't let its villains be mere monsters - that would, after all, be letting them off too easily.

I've admired and enjoyed Grady Hendrix's earlier books, and The Final Girl Support Group is up there with the best of them. I'd firmly recommend.

For more information about The Final Girl Support Group, see the publisher's website here.

5 August 2021

#Review - The Rookery by Deborah Hewitt

Cover design by Neil Lang

The Rookery (The Nightjar, 2)
Deborah Hewitt
Pan Macmillan, 5 Augusy 2021
Available as: PB, 480pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9781509896493

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

In the followup story to The Nightjar, Hewitt returns to her magical, alternate London - the Rookery of the title - where members of rival magical cliques, each with different gifts, compete to work marvels.

Following the disappearance and subsequently the death of her friend Jen, Alice has settled into her new life: by day, she is research assistant for the irascible Professor Reid (Alice sees herself as assisting with research, while Reid regards Alice as her assistant), at night she studies for the entrance tests to join House Mielikki, whose members are skilled in magic involving plants. Much of the action taking place in the Rookery itself, the story is perhaps rather more grounded in everyday life (for certain values of "everyday") than its predecessor, following Alice's state of mind, and her cooler relations with Crowley, after the revelations and tragedies of The Nightjar.

All is, however, not well. Alice herself is ailing, her inheritance as a daughter of the Lord of Death clashing with the life force of House Mielikki. Equally worryingly, the balance of the Rookery itself seems to have been upset, causing damage - sinkholes, floods, and collapsing buildings - that nobody knows how to prevent. And, most sinisterly of all, somebody is targeting Alice. We're reminded that the Rookery is not a safe place and that her background and the story so far have left others with reasons to distrust and dislike her. 

Much of The Rookery is, then, focussed on Alice trying to learn more about her background and her place in Rookery society, hampered not only by those attempts to harm her but by what seem like systematic efforts to bury the truth. It would be spoilery to say too much here, but I found the portrayal of a young woman discovering who she is, what has been done to protect her, and the sacrifice made for that, actually very moving amidst all the busyness of a fantasy novel, the danger and the risks Alice runs  here. Acceptance into Rookery society doesn't means she has has free rein to ask questions or go where she likes, and finding out the truth requires her to break rules that could have her expelled from House Mielikki if she's exposed.

A lot of the action in the book follows Alice's unravelling of the past, and therefore involves her tracking people down and putting together clues - rather than being action-driven. I really enjoyed that (I worked out quite a lot of what was happening) but if you prefer your fantasy crammed with desperate combat, this one may not be for you. Not to say there aren't exciting action-y episodes here, there are. But they're not, I think, actually the point: as you will recall from The Nightjar, Alice bears a heavy burden in that her soul, unleashed, would be fearfully destructive - so the nightjar of the title, a sort of projection of Alice's conscience, serves the purpose of keeping her power under control. This means that combat and destruction are always her last, worst choice.

Overall this was a satisfying and enjoyable companion to The Nightjar, filling out aspects of the world that were hinted at there and giving Alice and her life time and space to develop (including a couple of rather steamy romantic scenes). 

Notable for scenes in which the current state of affairs is referred to as a 'shitastrophe' and for the fact that one of the magical houses took care, decades ago, of accessibility requirements by enchanting their stairs to transform into ramps when a wheelchair approaches, this book takes place in a well-imagined and livable fantasy world, a place with real depth and peopled by well-rounded and diverse characters. (I particularly enjoyed the richly textured construction of the fictional Rookery, echoing London landmarks and London history but always with its own particular twist).

I'm not sure whether Hewitt plans further books set in the Rookery, but I'll be there for them if they come!

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

3 August 2021

#Review - The Somebody People by Bob Proehl

Design by Julia Lloyd

The Somebody People (Resonant Duology, 2)
Bob Proehl
Titan Books, 13 July 2021
Available as: PB, 663pp, e, audio 
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN(PB): 9781789094633

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Somebody People via NetGalley.

The Somebody People picks up where The Nobody People, one of my favourite books of last year, paused. As Proehl notes in his acknowledgements, it is more like the second half of a story than a sequel and if you haven't read the first book yet there would be a lot of value in reading one immediately after the other as there are many linking storylines, key events and things whose significance evolves from one book to the next. I didn't do that of course, but I still found The Somebody People an exciting, satisfying and cathartic ending to the whole story.

The first book introduces the idea of "Resonants" - individuals with what we'd call superpowers. Their number has apparently been increasing through the second half of the 20th century and The Nobody People tells how they are eventually forced to go public provoking a storm of prejudice and, eventually, persecution.

That story was told partly through the eyes of Avi Hirsch, a journalist injured while embedded with the Army in Iraq, and we saw his increasing obsession with the Resonants alongside the slow collapse of his marriage to Kay. By the time The Somebody People opens, Hirsch is out of the picture but his daughter Emmeline features in the second book as do many of the characters from the first one. There are also some flashbacks to the earlier life of Kevin Bishop, the mysterious head of a school for Resonant kids in New York, including one that describes how it all started

Alongside the treatment of Resonants as a persecuted group, The Nobody People also pointed to a militant faction among them and this - and the reason behind it - features strongly in the present book, set a decade or so later following a Civil War in which the Resonants and in particular that Black Rose Faction gained the upper hand. There is an atmosphere of ethnic cleansing and segregation in the background of The Somebody People with battle lines drawn and the survivors of Bishop's circle seeking to defeat the evil that seems to be driving the Faction. The action to that end is complex, with multiple plot threads and various characters trying to cope, principally Fahima Deeb who's managing badly in the absence of ex-girlfriend Alyssa. Alyssa is a "baseliner" ie a "normal" person - referred to by the hardliners in the Black Rose Faction as "damps" - and had to leave New York during the "evacuations".

It's all fast moving and Proehl throws in concepts such as multiple timelines, extra-dimensional spaces and something very close to possession, to support or impede our heroes as they try to safeguard humanity and see off the Faction. There's a haunting sense of moral ambiguity (I love the smell of moral ambiguity in the morning...) as we know that the extremes seen here are in part a reaction to the persecution shown in The Nobody People. Characters here are damaged in various ways, physically and mentally, by what was done to them, or suffering from guilt at what they have done. There is a real sense in Proehl's writing that people make mistakes and do bad things for good reasons. There is also more than attach of PSTD in many of them. It all feels very real for a world with superpowered inhabitants - the stress is on the human dimension not the wondrous abilities - and there are very few characters I didn't have at least a sneaking sympathy for.

My favourites were possibly the gay couple Dom(inic) and Clay, Resonants with secure middle class jobs and an adopted boy at a prestigious school, who become concerned about what is happening around them and about his future and - rather than seeking sober advice - embark on what I feel are some spectacularly ill thought out plans, landing themselves in the centre of the action as a result. I enjoyed that despite it all, they seek to secure their relationship and protect their boy and that they are in a sense ordinary people who for most of the story are just trying to survive but who achieve some very brave things. Most of all, despite those dubious decisions, their hearts are always in the right place. 

But there are many others here worth a mention. Kimani, perhaps, whose special power is to be able to create a room, outside space, which she can make appear anywhere on Earth (oh please, I want that ability!) and who uses it to shelter Emmeline. There's something special about Emmeline, and one of the themes of this book is her discovering that for herself and trying to learn how she can avoid being used by others, inevitably bringing her into conflict with both "sides" here.

In short, The Somebody People is both a rattling good story in its own right and an excellent completion of The Nobody People, teasing out themes that were sketched there and creating a wholeness to the story that confirms it is, indeed, a unity. I would recommend.

For more information about The Somebody People, see the publisher's website here.