27 January 2022

#Review - Temple of No God by HM Long

Temple of No God
HM Long
Titan Books, 25 January 2022
Available as: PB, 368pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789095562 

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Temple of No God to consider for review.

Temple of No God picks up the story begun in last year's Hall of Smoke. Hessa, High Priestess of the goddess Eang, betrayed and killed her deity when the new god, Thvnder, arose. Ten years later, as a leader among the tribes who previously worshipped Eang, Hessa is older and wiser, but as handy with an axe as ever. Offered an opportunity to interfere in the politics of the once mighty Arpan Empire, Hessa travels south with a few trusted friends and her estranged husband, Imnir, into the heart of the Empire - albeit an Empire in chaos, with at least three rivals for the throne, and a new cult of the god Larun rising which is apparently able to draw power from the very land, leaving it blighted and dead.

I really enjoyed Temple of No God. Long provides, again, what worked so well in Hall of Smoke: Hessa as the main protagonist, a woman skilled in combat, confident, as ready to walk the otherworldly High Halls and imbibe their honey-scented magic as to endure brutal marches across remote mountains, hold council with kings and emperors, or take in an orphan who needs protection.

But this book isn't just more of the same. Hessa has aged and matured. The revelations of Hall of Smoke destroyed out the secure footings of Hessa's worldview, leaving her distrusting both purported gods and treacherous men. They also made her responsible for a lot that she might wish she wasn't - such as the continued deception practised by her and Imnir on the new priesthood of Thvnder. And there are other problems that can't, in general, be dealt with by the stroke of an axe or a bit of magic - the uneasy tribal alliance among the Eangi, or those those who still see Hessa as a deicide, worthy of death. 

The events of Temple of No God add new layers to this - grand politics and concerns over the future of the magical realm, the Penumbra, Arpa's equivalent to the High Halls, where things have gone amiss since the death of the Arpan gods. There are also personal issues. Hessa is at the same time both bloodthirsty - at the start of the book we see her leading a raid, as is the custom of her people, happy to destroy a village and loot it - and afflicted by conscience, unsure of her place with her difficult husband and feeling her lack of a child. 

So I wasn't surprised that Hessa rather jumped at the offer from the Arpan envoys. Yes, it brings great opportunities (even if there is also - implicitly - great danger if the power struggle in the South comes out the wrong way) but more importantly, it's a diversion from the mundane, an adventure, a distraction from some of these problems. 

Or perhaps not... there's a great deal going on in Temple of No God, with both a returned cast of characters and some new ones caught up in the struggle. Here you'll find brutal, blow by blow combat; anguished partings and loss; double-crossing; unlikely allies and always, always, a galloping pace of story that keeps the reader deeply engaged. Hessa is a remarkable protagonist, and the sole point of view here, so tends to remain at the centre of the action (this only fails once when, towards the end of the novel, she's out of things for a a few hours while a LOT of stuff is going on and I was left wishing I knew just what had happened to everyone else in the meantime).

Overall, a vigorous ands satisfying continuation of the earlier story and one that promises more to come. There are signs of trouble (perhaps) in the future: Imnir's warning to Hessa about taking too much power from the High Halls, alliances that are convenient here but may be less so in future, and some rocky relationships that will surely need care and attention, something hard to guarantee in the general mayhem that is Hessa's life.  I look forward to seeing a middle-aged Hessa face some of these in a further book!

For more information about Temple of No God, see the publisher's website here.

25 January 2022

#Review - All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes

All the White Spaces
Ally Wilkes
Titan Books, 25 January 2022
Available as: PB, 496pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789097832

I'm grateful to Titan Books for sending me an advance copy of All the White Spaces to consider for review.

In 1920, Jonathan Morgan and his family mourn the loss of his two brothers in the Great War. Jonathon was devoted to Francis and Rufus although - as we learn from his memories throughout the book - they didn't really see him as equal to them. 

Unable to bear the life his parents will force him to lead, against all his sense of who he is, Jonathan persuades family friend Harry to accompany and help him, runs away, and hides aboard Fortitude, the ship of Antarctic explorer James "Australis" Randall. Jonathan is seeking the company of men - heroes - who will accept him, and among whom he may, perhaps, achieve some desperate glory comparable to that of Francis and Rufus.

It's a different world that Ally Wilkes takes us to in All the White Spaces. Not only is the fell, merciless territory of Coats Land itself a strange, haunting place - a place unwelcoming of humanity - but the psychological landscape, the attitude of those on the expedition, feels so remote in its almost inhuman fixation on painting in those white spaces. Oddly, in some respects, at least outward ones, it reminded me most of a series of children's books -  Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons stories - in its portrayal of an obsession with, a worship of, the last great generation of explorers, a meticulous attention to their journeys, their survival and their endurance. 

It is, though - to be absolutely clear - not a book off children's adventure, even if Jonathan starts by seeing the world in that way. This is not the high Edwardian nursery but the fallen, post-war world. The members of the expedition have all brought their own baggage to Coats Land. Randall, too, is mourning a loss. One man was a conscientious objector, and is therefore hated and mistrusted by his fellows. Others are scarred by what they saw in France. The expedition is pinched, operating on a shoestring, forced to get by with second best, and it soon becomes clear that the whole thing is something of a gamble, an attempt to reclaim lost glories, to succeed where a German rival recently failed. A reflection, perhaps, of the war-weary, fading state of Britain. 

Such a comparison could have been made crudely and clumsily, but Wilkes, in her first novel, avoids that danger, drawing a group of men whose strengths and weaknesses, histories and prejudices, are allowed to speak for themselves - but also to evolve, becoming more marked as danger increases and as its nature subtly changes. Physical threats - cold, darkness, shortages of food, failure of equipment - are joined by something stranger, exploiting who the men are and what they've lost. English reserve and the suppression of feelings are fatal then: the only way to survive is to trust, to share, even to love, and this is so out of kilter with the attitude of Imperial disdain that won the war, it's hard to see how anyone will come through.

Jonathan is at the centre of the storm. For the first part of the book, despite his derring-do in joining the expedition (albeit as a stowaway, a 'spare'), he's quite passive, observing from the sidelines and keeping his secrets. That makes sense given who Jonathan is is, but makes the story rather slow, perhaps. All the same, Wilkes uses this space to build up a detailed and sympathetic view of Jonathan as a person and as something of a mystery. A misfit who wants to join in, Jonathan is set on being one of the men, sharing their attitudes - detestation of the Hun, contempt for 'conchie' Tarlington, worship of physical courage and strength - even more so because of the differences that would set him apart if discovered. There's a contradiction to him that splits what one sense are his natural sympathises from what's needed to be part of the expedition. As a result, Jonathan's at the same time likeable and frustrating. I would have liked to have seen more of his earlier life, how he developed, and how he coped with his stuffy parents and his brothers.

Once the Antarctic winter falls and the survivors of the expedition begin to buckle, seeing enemies everywhere - whether those elusive Germans, saboteurs and traitors in their own ranks, or dark things out in the cold - Jonathan has plenty of reason to reflect on those he has loved and, seemingly, lost and on his place in the world. His survival will depend on unpicking that: not only a matter of practicalities, of food, shelter, and light, but of understanding what has drawn him into the worst place in the world and deciding whether it can hold him there. That level of self-knowledge and the bravery to face what he knows sets Jonathan apart, I think, in the end from the tough old Antarctic hands who surround him - creating a paradox that to take his place among them as a survivor, he needs to know how not to be like them. The book is, then, a rich chronicle of self-discovery and self-acceptance - and one I would  strongly recommend.

For more information about All the White Spaces, see the publisher's website here.

18 January 2022

#Review - Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins,  31 March 2022
Available as: HB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008289126

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

Sarah Pinborough is my go-to author for stories that bring out the horror inherent in everyday life. I consider myself very lucky to not suffer from insomnia, but I know that for those who do, nights spent fruitlessly trying to sleep - and days after, operating on no rest - are one of those horrors. It's a curse that's being visited on high-flying lawyer Emma at the start of this book, just as her oh-so-perfect family begins to fly apart - and she faces her fortieth birthday.

That birthday is often seen as a watershed, but Emma has a special reason to dread it: at the same age, her mother Patricia had a breakdown and tried to kill Emma's sister Phoebe. Thirty five years later, Emma is experiencing the same symptoms as Patricia - insomnia, blackouts, an obsession with a random string of numbers, and a compulsion to wander the house at night checking that doors and windows are locked. Add to this that Emma's 18 year old daughter Chloe seems to be acting out, her 5 year old boy Will is suddenly afraid of his mother, and that husband Robert is distinctly unsympathetic to Emma's worries, and Insomnia delivers a potent mix of internal and external stresses.

We get to know Emma as she tries to navigate these stresses (as well as learning more about her background and history). She's a person who has made superhuman efforts to erase her distressing past - to the extent of telling her family, friends and employers that her mother died all those years when she didn't - and her first instinct, as things begin to go bad, is to clamp down harder, to try to control everything and everyone, herself included. I'm not going to tell you how that goes, you'll have to read the book, but I will say that Pinborough is just superlative here at exposing how Emma unravels. Insomnia keeps the reader both needing to know what happens next, and dreading to see exactly how much worse Emma will make things for herself. The tension is simply electric, the situation more and more complex and intractable, the stakes higher and higher.

At one level, it's a portrayal of a woman driven by demons from her childhood, trying to work out what went wrong all those years ago so that she can put it right and protect her kids.

At another, we see a deeply paranoid and scared woman doubting herself and her own sanity, lacking any place of safety or support network. Most of her circle are in the same competitive business milieu as her, or excel as near Stepford wives. Emma is already out on a limb.

And at yet another level, there are the pressures of modern life: a husband who's not very supportive (he comes over to me as a bit of a pudding), a boss who sees Emma as arm candy as much as a talented and hardworking individual, kids who are, well, you know, kids. 

With so many threats and concerns and these three different sources of stress, clicking round like the wheels on a demon-possessed safe, there must be a risk that suddenly everything will line up, the door swing open, and some very nasty secrets emerge. But what are they, and how can Emma keep them locked away? Should she even try?

As with all Pinborough's writing, the tension simply crackles off the pages of a book you MUST read and one which, once begun, will gnaw at your reading brain till you get to the end. As a central character, Emma is simply magnificent. I didn't actually like her very much to begin with. As a divorce lawyer, she regularly throws other women under the bus to advance her career. (Her clients seem mainly to be middle aged men with an eye for a younger replacement; it's clear Emma is doing what she has to advance in a very patriarchal setting). Her impulsiveness verges on the self-destructive, and her  attempts to distance herself from her past - including her mother and her sister - suggest coldness, even selfishness. But as the story developed and Pinborough's nuanced characterisation drew me in, I felt for Emma more and more - including sharing her fear that she might, in one of those moments she can't remember, have done something truly terrible.

This book is BOUND to be one the highlights of the 2022 reading year. Watch out for it.

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

13 January 2022

#BlogTour #Review - Demon by Matt Wesolowski

Demon (An Episode of Six Stories) 
Matt Wesołowski
Orenda Books, 20 January 2022
Available as: PB, 225pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781913193980

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy of Demon to consider for review, and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour (my first tour of 2022!).

Scott King returns to his true-crime podcast for another episode of Six Stories, in which he will 'rake over a grave' by examining a historical crime. Scott's technique is to interview those with a variety of perspectives, leaving it to his listeners to judge what they think happened - if they can.

This time, King is looking at the murder, in 1995, of Sidney Parsons, a twelve year old boy with learning difficulties, by two of his classmates. Robbie Hooper and Danny Greenwell have since been released from prison and given new identities, and the interviewees include those with some knowledge of that process and its results. As rumours swirl that either Robbie or Danny is to be unmasked, and new incidents begin to occur in Ussalthwaite, Scott King's investigation seems to be crossing over from the historical and the hypothetical to the actual and the real - and to be addressing the tricky issues of rehabilitation, atonement and redemption. Inevitably Scott comes under scrutiny himself. The story therefore is about much more than a murder in a snugly self-satisfied little town, but confronts modern Britain's darkest prejudices, as well as media prurience and clickbaitism.

I have loved Wesolowski's setup for these books. The series has examined crimes and wickedness of all kinds across many walks of life, with Scott King's contextualising and studied neutrality - and the differing accounts - allowing us, the readers, a peculiarly intimate relationship with both victims and perpetrators. Given the particularly distressing nature of the crimes described here I knew the approach would be truly tested - see the note that opens the book 'Please be aware before you proceed that this book contains fictional violence against children and animals that may cause some readers distress or upset'. 

Yet, for me, it still succeeded, which is a testament to Wesolowski's writing but perhaps even more to his sense of empathy and understanding of human nature. What he does here is to give both vivid and moving life to the victim, Sidney, but also to portray the killers (if that is what we should call them), Robbie and Danny in a truly three dimensional way. There are notes of horror here, not only in the stark events of 1995 but also in a general background of taint, of sulphurousness, which seems to cling to the village of Ussalthwaite itself. While that is of course something that raises the general notoriety of King's podcast, it's also a thing that might be seen either as objective truth suggesting some kind of supernatural element to the crime, or as a subjective factor, a way in which the people of the village and the kids in particular try to understand the world. That gets a good deal more complicated when everything is sluiced in hindsight, and the wider opinions of the world - based on gossip and sensational headlines - are introduced 

Neither King nor Wesolowski himself will give a final verdict on that, and - as one would expect with six different witnesses - the accounts are themselves contradictory, even on whether one should interpret the supernatural - if it did play a part - as positive or as evil, or just as one of those things, part of the background. Really, the nature of evil, and the tendency of humanity to judge, are what is being examined here - and Wesolowski, for all his willingness to tolerate and explore moral complexity, isn't letting anybody off the hook. I have seldom recently read a book where I felt so complicit with what was happening, and it's certainly a story I had to consciously decompress from, so engaged did I become - at 225 pages, it's not a long book but goodness, does it spin its web on the reader!

Not always an easy book to read and it won't suit everyone, but Demon is an excellent literary crime novel, serious but absorbing and, in places, nothing short of heartrending.

For more information about Demon, see the Orenda Books website here - as well as the stops on the blogtour listed on the poster below.

You can buy Demon directly from Orenda, from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot org UK, Hive Books or any of Blackwells, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

11 January 2022

#Review - Quantum of Nightmares by Charles Stross

Quantum of Nightmares
Charles Stross
Orbit, 13 January 2022
Available as: HB, 356pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided free by publisher
ISBN(HB): 9780356516936

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Quantum of Nightmares to consider for review.

Quantum of Nightmares is the immediate sequel to Dead Lies Dreaming, both stories being set in Charles Stross's Lovecraftian version of the present in which advanced mathematics and computer science are, in effect, magic and can be used to summon unhallowed creatures from beyond the walls of the world. In the main sequence of novels, this danger is fought by an occult arm of the British Civil Service known as the "Laundry". It's a fight the Laundry has been slowly losing, resulting, before Dead Lies Dreaming, in a hostile takeover of the Government by an undead eldritch god whose regime is  referred to euphemistically as "The New Management". 

This isn't just background to Quantum of Nightmares and Dead Lies Dreaming, rather both books very much examine, from below, the state of things given this premise. An actually existing Dark(ish) Lord isn't therefore just a fantasy trope, but a political fact to be endured - with the inevitable satire that allows, given the state of Uk politics in the early 20s. 

To this end the two books have their own cast of characters which is quite distinct from those of the Laundry books (whose protagonists have over their own history levelled up quite a bit and don't provide that plebs-eye view of the world). There are the Lost Boys - Imp, Game Boy, and Doc - basically a pack of well-intentioned  rogues occupying a crumbling mansion in Kensington, who in Dead Lies Dreaming had a bit of a Peter Pan thing going on. There's Del, the Deliverator. She's the getaway driver. Mary MacCandless, a professional thief and grifter trying to keep up with her dad's care home fees any way she can. Mary (who has a magical bag) in this book sweeps into the life of the Banks children and takes them on a wild adventure. (Where have I heard those names before?) And there's Eve, Imp's sister, a high-flying executive who may just have exiled her cultist boss Rupert behind those same walls of the universe and taken over effective control of the Bigge Organisation. And finally there's Wendy (Deere, not Darling), Del's girlfriend, an ex-cop and now private thief-taker, just getting by in her single room apartment, who's been employed to look into some shady goings-on at the supermarket chain Rupert was planning to take over.

The world of The New Management is a grim place if you're not on top. Criminality is far form discouraged, indeed it's recognised with a host of new offences, because criminals make excellent sacrifices, an important consideration when the country is governed by one of the Dark Gods. Skull racks abound, both on motorway gantries and on the new structure at Marble Arch, or perhaps I should say Tyburn. (Not, NOT an artificial mound...) The book has a distinct 18th century vibe, as a Mr Wilde, the 'thief-taker general', operates in a grey area between the law, private enterprise and his own pocket and as the unfortunate 'de-emphasised' underclass (think "hostile environment" applied to those economic units that have no obvious utility) disappear in the night to reappear as... well, you'll have to read the book to find out about that.

It's a perfectly pitched story that portrays a nightmarish near future that may be based in part on cosmic horror, but reads as equally plausible speculation about where the unrestrained business methods of our private equity overlords, and their tech-solution pushing hirelings, may go. Truly, the real horror is less the dictates of the New Management than the depths of what humanity may do. Kidnapping, murder and control of others by whatever means are the games here, with everyone enmeshed in different ways into the system that will surely in the end grind them up for feedstock. Eve in particular faces an even more gruesome future under the spell of Rupert, who's taken to sending emails from beyond the grave.

It's hard to convey in a review the sheer texture of taint in Quantum of Nightmares, the sense of daily corruption and collusion with mundane corporate structures aligned to mind-warping evil (I did always have my doubts about HR...) Fantasy yes, but there is a sense in which it very much reads as being about these times. It's also witty and laden with references and cultural echoes. Really, you just have to read this book - and you will surely want to do if you have been keeping up with the Laundry. If you haven't, I'd begin with Dead Lies Dreaming first).

For more information about Quantum of Nightmares, see the publisher's website here.


6 January 2022

#Review - Opal Country by Chris Hammer

Opal County
Chris Hammer
Wildfire, 6 January 2022
Available as: HB, 498pp, audio, e
Source: Advance review copy
ISBN(HB): 9781472272966

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Opal Country to consider for review.

Chris Hammer's new thriller Opal Country sees Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic despatched from the big city to the remote mining town of Finnigans Gap where an opal miner has died in mysterious, not to say gruesome, circumstances. Teaming up with young Detective Constable Nell Buchanan, Lucic finds the investigation derailed almost from the start when his boss, DI Morris Montifore, fails to show up for the flight.

Opal Country is described as "standalone" and features detectives - Lucic and Buchanan - who haven't met before, but readers of Hammer's previous novels, Scrublands, Silver and Trust, will note that Lucic's backstory involves contact with journalist Martin Scarsden who featured in those books. That contact which is partly behind the plight of DI Montifore, currently suffering blowback after revealing high-level corruption with the aid of Scarsden. So we're in the same New South Wales that Hammer has written about before and the atmosphere - the down-at-heel rural town, the heat, the isolation - is also familiar.

Lucic and Buchanan, however, are less so, and I enjoyed how the story, told from both their perspectives, exploited both our unfamiliarity with them, and theirs with each other, to sow doubt about their motivations and behaviour. How much of an issue, for example, is Lucic's gambling problem? We see him slope away several times to the poker machines, and at one stage he's concerned he may have nothing left in his account, but is this something that could make him vulnerable to influence - or which may attract the attention of his colleagues in Professional Standards? Buchanan, too, has secrets, and has made mistakes, which might put her at risk. Starting out hero-worshiping Lucic and seeing him as a means of advancement, she soon revises her opinion but seemingly still finds him hard to place. I enjoyed the depth and complexity in this relationship and how it subtly changed through the book, without ever becoming a huge issue in itself.

The background to the crime is also fascinating. There's a dense web here involving family relationships, guilt, a religious cult, the declining fortunes of the opal-mining industry (basically lone men with power tools digging pits out in the scrub), potential outside investment from billionaires - and, of course, the constant theme of corruption and influence. Montifore trod on important toes and is suffering as a result. Lucic and Buchanan are warned off when they get too close to the mining operations of a wealthy businessman. There is a bit of a sense that - in the most civilised of ways - certain crimes, certain people, are simply off limits, one such having occurred in Finnigans Gap several years before. Could it be related to the death of Jonas McGee? Though nobody will say so outright,  it seems as though Lucic's job is as much to establish whether the new case is one of those that needs to be tidie away, as it is to actually find out what happened.

Lucic himself is an intriguing character to have as a point of view. The son of immigrants from Central Europe, he sets himself slightly apart from the "anglo" Australians (there are some amusing scenes as he struggles slightly with the bland diet on offer in Finnigans Gap) adding even more of a detached tone to the outsiderdom inevitable when a detective in a suit flies in from Sydney. Again, though, Hammer makes this a matter of mood and observation, rather than turning it into an us-and-them struggle between locals and offcomers. 

The town itself is vividly - almost lovingly - portrayed, from the absence of trees to the graduations between the different cafés and restaurants (avoid the Alpine, if you must go there, have the burgers) to the local worthies and their slightly over-the-top names (Trevor Topsoil supplies mining gear, Humphrey Tuppence is the lawyer, The Irishman buys the miners' opals). As with Hammer's previous novels, the book comes with a generous map of the town and its surroundings which helps the reader to follow all the comings and goings.

Overall, a fun and engaging book in which Hammer changes gear adeptly from murder mystery to conspiracy thriller to action drama, with Lucic's and Buchanan's developing and changing relationship never far in the background. I'd strongly recommend.

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


4 January 2022

#Review - First Born by Will Dean

First Born
Will Dean
Hodder, 14 April 2022
Available as: HB, 384pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529307146

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

In his new standalone thriller, Dean gives us a tense, twisty story focussed on the relationship between twins Molly and Katie ('KT' to her sister) Raven living respectively in London and New York. 

As the book makes clear, supposedly identical twins can turn out to be very different. One of the two prefers 'monozygotic'. Identical is 'a blatant lie. A travesty...' We see this in the contrast between staid, nervous Molly, living her restricted life in London and painfully aware of all the threats inherent in everyday life, and Katie, who has spread her wings, won a scholarship and jetted off to the Big Apple to study.

I thought at first that Dean was going to show us a Molly panicking, unable to function, a fish out of water as she's forced to travel abroad when things go wrong, but I should have known that he's a much more subtle writer than that. Molly is perfectly capable of facing her fears, even while regaling the reader with the relative risks of a phone charger or a poorly cooked restaurant meal. While her obsession seems to consume mental energy and throw up obstacles, she's adept at addressing her concerns and planning around them ('This is a classic Molly raven risk-reward situation') which then provides her a margin of safety, a heuristic, when she moves into a dangerous new arena.

Because it seems that there was more going on in Katie's life than her parents and sister thought. When Molly joins Paul and Elizabeth in New York - slumming it in a budget hostel because family fortunes are actually not too good right now - she decides to investigate what has been going on, a course of action that will test her planning and strategising (whether in improvising weapons or passing without being noticed) to the limit.

I really felt that Will Dean was having fun with First Born. While his last thriller The Last Thing to Burn was grimly realist, First Born just lets rip with a sizzling "What if...?" scenario in the pair of twins and with the idea of one investigating what happened to the other. Yet Dean makes its all so plausible, with the cool assessments of risk grounding the story as we move from one challenge to another - even as the tension screws tighter and tighter. It all culminates in a race for survival as New York braces for a hurricane (more disaster planning needed, of course). The sense of a narrator who is, in effect, in enemy territory (there are some real shocks I didn't see coming which underpin that - just what DID Katie do?) nudges things into thriller, rather than simply crime, territory, but take it form me, this is much more complex than your typical psychological thriller.

As things spiral out of control the story becomes more and more of a rollercoaster but Dean keeps events rooted in the relationship between the twins, cleverly articulating both what they share and the deep differences between their characters. We hear from both of them, with their wildly differing perspectives on shared events providing clues to what has gone wrong - but will there be enough clues for even the most rational, the most calculating, student of risk and payoff to plot a way through the maze?

A really entertaining, fast-paced thriller that both contrasts with The Last Thing to Burn and confirms Dean's ability to hold his audience entranced. 

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


1 January 2022

#Review - Three Nightjars on the First: English Heritage by M John Harrison, Middleton Sands by Claire Dean and A Visit to the Bonesetter by Christopher Burns

Happy New Year and welcome back to Blue Book Balloon! 

I hope that the holiday period was all that you would have wished it to be, and that 2022 will be a good year for us all. 

I took an (unplanned) break from reviewing and blogging over most of December - not for any particular reason but just general stuff happening. So, no retrospective on 2021, and no looking forward to the coming year, which I'd like to start with something a little different - reviews of three Nightjar Press chapbooks. 

I received several of these in December as part of my yearly subscription. This is something I'd strongly recommend for anyone who likes a good supply of well-written short stories in beautifully presented editions (it would also make a great present for a reader, it's not too late for that - liturgically, we are still in the Christmas period until Epiphany on 6 January). You can buy them as one-offs, but as a bonus, the subscription editions are numbered and signed.

I have more Nightjars waiting to be read and reviewed, but to start the year off well, here are my thoughts on English Heritage by M John Harrison, Middleton Sands by Claire Dean and A Visit to the Bonesetter by Christopher Burns.

Cover for "English Heritage" by 
M John Harrison. A field of
wildflowers, seen in closeup
(photo by Nicholas Royle)
English Heritage
M John Harrison
Nightjar Press, December 2021
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341632

English Heritage is a story freighted with allusion and mystery. At some point during the Covid epidemic, Amory, Owen and Max visit her aunt's holiday home near Padstow for a few days away. While we're told that the aunt is ninety three years old ('and still going strong') and a barrister, we are told little about Amory, Owen's or Max's lives beyond that. Amory and Owen seem to be together - we are told what happened when they first visited Max in Shropshire, and they (not the three) have arguments. Amory is the most prominent on the three, although that might just be because it's her aunt's house they are in. 

The story is fearfully intense, often light on detail except for small incidents - flying a kite, making a visit to a nearby stately home. I came away from it thinking I knew a great deal more than was actually said, especially about Amory, but also considering what wasn't said. 

Who the nocturnal and troubling visitor was who opened the garage and used the loo (or didn't). Why Amory thought she lost her car. What was going on between Amory and Max - we get only hints of this but there's a sense of the whole stay being orchestrated around some problem in their relationship with Max there either to witness events or to prevent an explosion. Or just to wake at 3am as he seems to each night.

It's unclear what the 'English Heritage ' of the title refers to. Country houses such as the one the three visits? Their legacy of 'sugar and slavery'? A way of dealing with emotional crises off the page, as it were, as Amory and Owen seem to do here?

All in all, a tantalising story that feels much bigger inside than it looks from without.

Cover for "Middleton Sands"
by Claire Dean. A purple lilac 
tree in closeup (photo by
Nicholas Royle).
Middleton Sands
Claire Dean
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 12pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341649

If English Heritage has notes of the weird but is placed firmly in our present, Middleton Sands steps a little further away into a near future with some differences. There have clearly been ecological losses to this world in which Ted and his band of enthusiasts set out every Thursday morning onto the sands. Dean is cryptic at first about what they are doing - metal detecting? Digging out lugworms? - and I won't say exactly what it is, but it is linked to that loss. (A clue about what has happened may, or may not, be the terror one of the group feels when the nearby power station sirens sound).

What is clear though is that there have been personal losses, and wider ones, and that the group are trying to recover something. Dean touches on the dynamics of the group and I wondered if that was part of it - one young man assumes he has inherited the 'leadership' of the group from his father, something Ted quietly disagrees with.

I really liked the understand nature of what's happening here, the way that a rather dark reality is hidden by masculine fuss around a hobby and the group and views over what equipment to carry and the best way to proceed, with the presence of a stranger - an unnamed woman - being the catalyst for progress that Ted seems never to have expected. Perhaps.

Cover for "A Visit to the Bonesetter"
by Christopher Burns. Two passport
style photographs of a woman with
shoulder length brown hair. Cover by
Nicholas Royle (found photographs).
A Visit to the Bonesetter
Christopher Burns
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 16pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341625

A Visit to the Bonesetter is also set in an alternate future, or present, albeit one that is perhaps troublingly close. In what begins as a seemingly farcical, not to say Kafkaesque, bit of theatre, Martin's wife Lisa is served with an order (and he with a copy) to 'present yourself' to 'our official bonesetter'. This is an event that everybody dreads, but, like Lisa and Martin, is unclear about the detail of. 

At one level it is a highly staged event, the summons deliberately public and delivered by uniformed officials following a standard operating procedure and with a flavour of jobsworthism about it. All meant to support a hierarchy, to reinforce who is on top. At another it is very intimate, very private, something that must not be discussed outside the home, this mystique oddly serving to bolster that public. 

It is described as an 'examination', the participant as a 'patient' but when Lisa returns, it's clear that what went on was not medical and not consensual - and that a part of her has been broken and can never be fixed.

The book builds up a creeping tension, based around the contrast between the mundanity of the event, the bureaucracy, its routine nature, and the extreme impact. Also crushing is the sense that all are or were complicit - 'People voted for social control. It was in the manifesto'  - even though they may individually resent or object to what is taking place. The story is very clever in the way that it denies its protagonists a way out, even a way to dissent internally. I wondered if their surname - Smith - might be a deliberate nod to Nineteen Eighty Four, or whether the coincidence might simply be what you get when you make your protagonist as representative as can be. 

Either way, a simple incident sets up very uneasy resonances, portraying an authoritarian State in its very essence.

For more information about English HeritageMiddleton Sands and A Visit to the Bonesetter and to buy the books or take out a subscription, see the Nightjar Press website at https://nightjarpress.weebly.com