27 February 2022

#Review - Stars and Bones by Gareth L Powell

Stars and Bones (Continuance, 1)
Gareth L Powell
Titan Books, 1 March 2022
Available as: PB, 352pp
Source: Advance copy
ISBN: 9781789094282

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of Stars and Bones to consider for review.

The first in a new series from Gareth Powell, Stars and Bones is an ambitious, not to say audacious, space opera that imagines a very different near-future for humanity from that depressing one we may expect - though it is not a future on Earth.

No, rather, within a handful of generations, Powell sees us cast out of our soiled Eden to become nomads, ever sailing the currents of space in a fleet of arks, searching for a place where we are allowed to drop anchor. 

With overtones of "2001" and a distinct sense of judgement, Stars and Bones follows a split timeline, showing us how this came to be through the perspectives of the world's richest man, Haruki, and a couple of scientists, Frank and Victoria, who all witnessed the start of the exile. Seventy-five years into the future, it follows Eryn, Navigator of survey ship Curious Ocelot, which, in the best Star Trek tradition, is about to discover something nasty, very nasty indeed, on a planet known as Candidate-623.

I loved the relationship between Eryn and the sentient Ocelot (represented in physical form by its avatar, a blue-skinned person). There's a level of familiarity and banter between them which hints at how close and trusting they are: bonded for life and with fates linked (elsewhere we see the horror when that bond is broken). I also liked Eryn full stop: her impulsiveness, her looking out for sulky teenage niece Madison. Most of all, the guilt-ridden relationship with sister Shay, Madison's mum, who's missing now creates some complex dynamics between the three and undercurrents which challenge Eryn in discharging her varied duties. There are moments when I just wanted to shout "do the thing!" to Eryn while understanding her hesitation or how she was torn. Life in space circa 2100CE is riddled with dilemmas, perhaps explaining if not always excusing Eryn's general affect of searching for somebody to thump.

There are to be fair plenty of candidates for that honour, from the leader of a survey team who seems determined to court as much danger as possible, to the deadly alien shape-shifters who plague Eryn throughout the book, to the... But that would be to spoil the story. Let's just say there is one entity here, of vast power and ancient origin, that is particularly aloof. And annoying.

It's an action-packed, combat-rich novel, part escape, part race to uncover a mystery dating back to the early days of the exile, and the survival of the drifting human race is (of course) in peril. We see how in the vast fleet, humans have recreated - but also reworked - the divisions imported from Earth, with vastly different takes on abundance. We see how many, life-limiting cultural mores have been overcome - but not everywhere. 

We also occupy one of my favourite situations in SF - the close-knit crew sharing space on a small, slightly rackety spacecraft through a combination of uneventful flight and unimaginable danger and the familiar locations - mess room, cramped quarters, hold and flight deck (seriously, if I could I'd build one of those just to live in). Familiar, maybe, but perfectly realised and deeply atmospheric. 

What else?

Oh yes. Did I mention that we also meet a talking cat? Sam is fitted with an implant and able to vocalise, but he's still all cat, strolling in amidst a crisis to ask when he'll be fed. There's much more as well - a pair of detectives, the universe's most annoying influencer ever, and a fantastic, awe-inspiring location which our heroes must visit to find a recluse who may, just, have the answer that will save humanity.

Exciting, entertaining, scary at times and refreshingly different, I enjoyed Stars and Bones immensely and would strongly recommend it.

For more information about Stars and Bones, see the Titan books website here.

25 February 2022

#BlogTour #Review - Off Target by Eve Smith

Off Target
Eve Smith
Orenda Books, 17 February 2022
Available as: PB, 350pp, e
Source: Advance copy

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of Off Target (handed over, as all the best intel is, at a party in a foreign Embassy...) and to Anne for inviting make to take part in the blogtour.

Off Target is a meticulous dissection of a relationship - in fact, of two relationships, that between teacher Susan and her husband Steve, and between Susan and her daughter, Zurel. Opening in heartbreaking chapters about Susan's difficulties conceiving, and the impossible choices those difficulties dictate, it then switches focus to a second part that looks at Zurel, now approaching her teens, at what she wants and fears. Both parts are set against the backdrop of runaway genetic experimentation and augmentation. In the climax of the book, the two themes entwine, bringing Susan to unwanted public attention and placing Zurel in danger.

I love books with big themes, and they don't come bigger than this - the conception and development of a child, an impossible child in fact (you'll have to read the book to learn why I use that word). The future of humanity as genetic possibilities outstrip ethics, regulation and restraint. Anguished personal dilemmas constrained by money, societal attitudes and relationships.

In presenting Susan's desperate desire to be a mother, Eve Smith really brings home her distress and desperation; at the same time, she's both desperate to succeed, and weary of the trying. Her most intimate moments are regimented and driven by apps and tests, her life taken over by online support groups and marketing, by a combination of cutting edge science and old wives' tales. And overlaying everything, guilt. All that's the background to a reckless course of action which Susan justifies to herself, though the reader, however sympathetic, will see catastrophe coming.

The story is punctuated by a series of articles from near-future media, showcasing a genetics industry offering unimagined bounty (or is it?) - fertility, ability, the easy cleansing away of illness and disability all articulated in the bright upspeak of marketing at its most glossy. Creating a darker seeming future even than the typical grim dystopia, these snippets also chart the coming of an anti-technology subculture, driven by rumour and fake news, which will also play its part in the story.

What really broke my heart, though, was the second part of Off Target. There, Smith gives us the 11 year old Zurel, a very with-it young woman who's become non-verbal following some unspecified event. Zurel just wants to be normal. Actually, she's perfect: thoughtful, kind, intelligent and perfectly able to communicate but of course against a background of gene therapies suspected of going wrong, Susan's wracked with guilt that her daughter's silence was caused by her own actions of eleven years ago. But Zurel's about more than her genes, and the truly wrenching aspect of this story is Smith's calm depiction of Zurel trying to understand herself, her origin and the increasingly scary events around her. 

We also get to see quite another take on Susan who was so sympathetic a character earlier. Zurel's point of view is rather different. What's so brilliant about Off Target though is that neither is actually wrong. Susan is a complex persona in - as becomes clear - a complex relationship. The critique of Susan we see  here is all the more telling for that sympathy, which the reader still retains.

That's totally fitting for a subject which is both morally extremely complex and close to all our hearts. As in The Waiting Rooms,  Smith shows a real knack for making the complex understandable; sketching an eerily plausible near future; and creating characters who are just, well, real. Every bit as good as its predecessor, this book is what you need to be reading to understand what's coming next.

For more information about Off Target, see the other stops on the blog tour - they're listed on the poster below. And don't forget the Orenda Books website here.

You can buy Off Target from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

23 February 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Hunted by Damian Dawes

Hunted (Abarath Trilogy, Book 1)
Damian Dawes
Dark Night Horror, 25 January 2022
Available as: PB, 321pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781739990879

I'm grateful to the publisher and to Anne Cater for a free advance e-copy of Hunted to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Taking us back to the dying days of the Cold War in 1983, Hunted features an apparently unlikely collaboration: the Vladyka Mira, an ex-Soviet icebreaker, is now owned by maverick Russian captain Belov and (under) crewed by a collection of misfits from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ostensibly engaged on a scientific mission, Belov's happy to take tourists too, on the sly.

The focus of the book is on Kat Robbins, a diver enlisted for the research work but who has some secrets of her own. Perhaps they might explain why she's buried herself away at the end of the earth, abandoned her boyfriend and gets by on drugs? But perhaps they are a luxury that will cost her, fatally distracting Kat from whatever it is that's out there. On the ice. In the cold.

I really enjoyed this story which is pitched somewhere between the supernatural - the creature we encounter has apparently inspired dark legends among the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, but is all to physical in its actions - and a thriller: the focus on dive hardware, the deficiencies of the ship and that lurking East-West split put me in mind of full-throated adventure novels where survival is all about reading the environment, thinking quickly and understanding risk.

Speaking of which - Captain Belov seems to have lost his ability to cope with risk. Seemingly a bit of a cliché at the start (a drunken Russian sailor) Dawes rather cleverly turns him inside out, letting us see where he's from and how he got there, rather than just letting him stay a swaying, inebriated stereotype. He does the same with all the characters here: the awful businessman who's booked passage aboard and his rather crushed wife, the couple of sad academics, Dave - Kat's fellow diver - and perhaps most of all, the ship's engineer, a truly awful character, a stalker and abuser who, nevertheless, Kat is forced to rely on in one particularly claustrophobic episode.

Hunted is full of that kind of dark menace: threats from the unknown horror outside but also from the monsters aboard the ship who - frankly - can be just as dangerous and difficult to defend from. There is a lot said here about how the "monster" out there is purse evil.  I have to say I had my doubts - isn't it an animal doing what animals do? (Though, as this is just volume 1, there are also hints of more - so perhaps it'll turn not to be). On the other hand we do see some truly evil human behaviour, with the plight of a starving Polar bear and her cub pointing up the wider impact of climate change. 

Overall this makes it an atmospheric and scary piece of writing. There's much to discover in this book. 

For more information, see the author's website here - and check out the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Hunted from Amazon here.

22 February 2022

#Review - The Thousand Eyes by AK Larkwood

The Thousand Eyes (The Serpent Gates, 2)
AK Larkwood
PanMacmillan, 17 February 2022
Available as: HB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529032796

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Thousand Eyes to consider for review.

The Thousand Eyes was for me a welcome return to the Maze and to the myriad worlds that connect into it, first explored in The Unspoken Name. And also, of course, to my favourite apostate orc priestess, Csorwe, and her girlfriend Shuthmili. It's a tricky relationship, albeit perhaps easier since Csorwe abandoned her former mentor Belthandros Sethennai. Both Csorwe and Tal Charossa, Sethennai's other apprentice, competed for Sethennai's favour and that was a VERY complex threesome indeed. 

With Sethennai out of the picture, a girl's still got to make a giving and at the start of the book we see Csorwe, Shuthmili and Tal engaging in a spot of Indiana Jones style temple robbery in a cursed world reached through the Maze.

The only problem is, in this universes, "abandoned" temples can harbour more than spiders, snakes and traps. This a world where the gods are real, and terrible. And they may inhabit you (as we see from the inner dialogue Shuthmili has with the entity she addresses as her "corruptor"). I loved the contrast in this opening part of the book between the banal everyday chatter of the three fortune-hunters and the weird, creepy, and frankly terrifying world that are navigating. Fantasy doesn't have to be high, sonorous and dusty - Larkwood expertly spins a tale that just feels real because of the triviality that offsets all the shadows and terror.

So far, The Thousand Eyes may sound similar to The Unspoken Name. Which would be absolutely fine by me - it's a great read. But Larkwood delivers still more. A third of the way through the book, a Thing happens which completely overturns the narrative, upping the stakes considerably and placing our friends into a very different situation. It's frustrating, but I don't want to say exactly what, as it would spoil the story. 

I will say though that how things turn out will depend on the very particular strengths and weaknesses of the different characters, especially Tal and Csorwe, and on the tensions and stresses in those apparently mundane relationships that we saw earlier. It's a story of love and loss and devotion and one of waiting and hoping - but also of how those things, pushed without limit, can sour into hatred and pride. A certain goddess here has had enough of the waiting and hoping and decides to take action - but with terrible consequences. A certain mage bears her loss and remains devoted to her lover, but finds she must commit terrible crimes to achieve her ends. A certain rogue... oh, well, it's Tal... has a lot of time to ponder his life choices and to regret those moments when he played the hero. (Tal, especially, is amazingly depicted here - his emotional quirks, his stormy relationship with his family, his love-hate relationship with Sethennai, a bewitching villain if ever there was one).

It's a page-turning, life-filling monster of a book which, once begun, you simply HAVE to finish. And that finish is cruel and filled with loss: but as we know, 'What is saved is saved only for a moment. All voices sound in silence, but before the echoes die away, their sound is sweet'.

I think it will be a long time before the echoes of The Unspoken Name and The Thousand Eyes die away. And they are, indeed, very sweet.

For more information about The Thousand Eyes, see the publisher's website here and AK Larkwood's site here.

17 February 2022

#Review - This Charming Man by CK McDonnell

This Charming Man (Stranger Times, 2)
CK McDonnell
Transworld, 17 February 2022
Available as: HB, 512pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781787633377

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

This Charming Man follows on a few weeks after the events of The Stranger Times. Hannah has taken some time off to sort out her divorce problem (or rather, her husband problem). Meanwhile, as the prologue reveals, Manchester seems to be developing problems of its own. Vampires don't exist - as both mundane science and the knowing supernatural Folk attest - but what do you call it when a person develops strange dental features, is burned by sunlight, and craves human blood?

We're back with the misfits who edit The Stranger Times, an organ devoted to the bizarre and the unlikely and which is published from a deconsecrated church under the editorship of Vincent Banecroft, possibly the foulest man in journalism (I know). Hannah is the Assistant Editor, flung into the weird world of the Folk and their oppressors, the Founders and still getting to grips with a whole new world, as is DI Tom Sturgess, formerly the darling of the Greater Manchester Police but now tarnished by the events of the previous book.

The Stranger Times (the book, not the publication) was an enjoyable, though in places flawed, romp through a rather alternative take on urban fantasy. One of its problems for me was the extent to which the sheer outrageousness of Banecroft's character dominated things, with the rest of the team, and especially Hannah, rather flat in comparison (despite Banecroft being hospitalised and therefore absent for a chunk of the story). This Charming Man managed, in my view, a much better balance in this respect. Oddly, it does that partly by giving Banecroft more attention not less, showing his perspective on events, in particular how he is grieving for his wife and why he has land up at The Stranger Times. But it also brings in in another monster of a journalist, Stanley Roper, a freelancer who Bancroft brings in for his undoubted skills to form the "special investigations team" and sets on the track of villains who wish one member of the paper's staff no good at all.

The result is that there are two very strong storylines here with Banecroft playing a largely supportive part in driving them forwards (rather than just being annoying for unknown reasons. Though he still is annoying, of course). That gives more time for the team to bond and for their own different characters to come out, while also revealing a lot more about the supernatural side of Manchester. The denouement to all this was also satisfyingly violent and revelatory, demonstrating that, no, vampires aren't real - but also that power over reality can arise in the most unexpected places. 

Overall I enjoyed this book, though a couple of things did strike me. First, as we learned in the previous book that the paper has powerful and wealthy backers, there was less of a sense of jeopardy over the need to get an issue together and keep the show on the road, with the focus on investigation rather than stories. (We do get snippets of typical stories though). And secondly, I'm still unclear which man in all this was charming! Most of them (a couple of the team members aside) seemed thoroughly unpleasant. Indeed, a major subplot is misogyny - which while it does eventually tend to bring those displaying it to a bad end (good) cannot be said to leave much scope for charm. 

I'm inclined to view the title as ironic.

For more information about The Stranger Times see the publisher's website here.

15 February 2022

#Review - Ghosts by GX Todd

Ghosts (The Voices, 4)
GX Todd
Headline, 9 December 2021
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781472233202

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Ghosts via Netgalley.

Ghosts is the fourth and final part of GX Todd's The Voices sequence, bringing the story so far to a satisfying yet at times desperately sad conclusion. 

I recently stumbled across an online discussion of the "cosy catastrophe"subgenre, post-apocalyptic literature in which, despite an apparently ruinous collapse of society, our heroes actually do rather well. They don't have to perform grinding work for somebody they don't like, they have the pick of abundant food and supplies helpfully left behind, the benefit of all human knowledge codified somewhere or other and above all, no longer have to suffer all those other irritating people.

Well, if had to choose one word to describe what The Voices ISN'T, it would be "cosy".

Spanning a period of seven years or so from the time "it" happened to the present, and ranging back and forth within that, these books describe a collapse that occurred when people began hearing "voices" in their heads, voices that drove them to do terrible things, torturing and murdering others and killing themselves. The series therefore deals with themes of extreme violence and suicide: approach with that in mind. While these destructive urges moderated in time, for those living in a ruined world with no order or safety, the few survivors focused to begin with on trying to identify and, yes, destroy anybody who still had a "voice" and could therefore be considered a threat. 

By the time of Ghosts, things have rather turned round and now we see instead those with voices combining to track down and kill the voiceless in revenge or self-defence. Daily life remains a desperate struggle to secure and protect basic necessities, with survival dependent on quick wits, strength, weapons and a healthy mistrust of others. Things can go wrong in an instant due to deliberate action (the Voices can hear and speak to one another, sometimes capriciously betraying their owners) or misunderstanding and over-quick trigger fingers. We see both in Ghosts.

Amongst all this, small groups still try to survive and find some hope. Messianic cults flourish, particularly that of the 'Flitting Man', gangs spring up to control different areas of cities and provide a simulacrum of order and a few people who still have apparently benign "voices" seek each other out and rescue what they can from the rubble.

The previous books have followed a number of such groups, seeing them form and scatter again, with some members killed, disappeared or departed on various quests and, in a landscape of jumbled chaos and betrayal, even the sequence of this can be hard to recover. Across the books we are shown the same incidents from different perspectives, or told how the consequences fall out for different characters. Sometimes effect is portrayed ahead of cause and the full story kept back until later. None of the groups we witness has anything like the full picture - I had thought at the start that one or other of the Voices we hear might have some wider insight which Todd would use to explain what is really happening, but she avoids allowing that to happen - so reading these books is, until the very end, like viewing the world through a mirror with many cracks. It might be frustrating if you like your apocalypses cut-and-dried, but as a way of modelling the dislocation and loss one might suffer when the world slides into chaos, it's simply brilliant, leaving the reader with a growing sense of dis-ease and looming disaster. As I said, there is nothing cosy here.

In keeping with that, while Ghosts does provide some closure, it's far from complete, for several reasons. First, if the physical setting is harsh, the moral landscape is even bleaker and dislocated. The "war of all against all" has its impacts. It's hard to point to anyone who doesn't have blood on their hands and even the groups we've been following who we might like to think as the "good" struggling against the "bad" do some terrible things, deliberately or not. Secondly, the motives, origins and nature of the "voices" are hinted at but never explained. We seem to be watching a struggle between certain of them - Piligrim's original "Voice" and its later offshoot, that of the Flitting Man, a few others - suggesting that the death and suffering visited on humanity is essentially in service of warring powers but I'm not 100% certain of that and if that is what was going on, it's far from clear whether it was actually resolved for not. Finally, however you try to fit the pieces together, the different perspectives and timelines mean that certain incidents just bear multiple interpretations, raising questions about whether this is really one story or several and about who is telling the truth and who may not be.

Throughout the sequence, there has been a current of - I'm not sure what to call it. Prophecy? Desire to find a cause, something to believe in? Whatever, it hasn't always had healthy outcomes for the protagonists, often sending them running into danger or aligning with the "wrong" faction. Rather they've tended to do better when guided by simple, human goals: searching for and protecting a friend, a sister. Saving others. Sharing. That's been the basis of many of the temporary groups trekking across the wasteland that was once America, but it has been hard, and gets much harder here, to ignore the bigger things going on and the push of events as the various currents come together. 

In Ghosts, the two themes finally become completely entwined, leading to a violent and seemingly hopeless confrontation which nicely joins the need to save and protect other loved ones and to somehow - some way - confront the darkness that slips through the wastelands, creating chaos and conflict. Everything, and everyone, is in the balance and while we've seen heartbreaking loss already, it seems as though it will get worse and worse now.

This sequence was like nothing else I've read, a truly heartrending story of love, loss, endurance and commitment in the face of chaos and wickedness. I'd strongly recommend it, but if you have managed to miss out on the previous books you really do need to go back and begin with Defender

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

11 February 2022

Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children, 7)
Seanan McGuire
Tor.com, 4 January 2022*
Available as: HB, 160pp, audio, e
Source: Audio subscription
ISBN(HB): 9781250213624

*US date, from Tor website. I think e and audio dates are the same for UK - and indeed I was able to obtain the audio - but based on information from my friendly local bookshop, I don't think the HB is available in UK until February. While I enjoyed listening to the book, this is a series I HAVE to have on my shelves so my preorder for the hardback is in!

Where the Drowned Girls Go picks up Cora's story. We have met Cora before in the Wayward Children series but she hasn't had her own book yet. Cora, bullied for being "fat", found liberation when she was thought to have drowned, but instead lived as a mermaid in The Trenches. We're only told little bits of her life in the Trenches, but it was clearly a full life, a good life, a brave life. On her return, she joined Miss Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children from which she went on quest with some classmates to rescue Sumi. 

That involved a trip to The Moors, where Cora came to the attention of the Drowned Gods - which still watch her and haunt her dreams. Desperate to escape their attention, Cora seeks out a different institution, one that will take the magic out of her. The Whitethorn Institute operates on different lines from the Home for Wayward Children. Designed to fit its students for this world - the only one that matters - it is, as Cora soon realises, a crueller place, but - she still tells herself - a necessary one, for her.

Here come all the misfits, the odd children, those who are something the world won't accept. Here they will be compelled, compresses, converted, so that they can take their place again as ordinary, unexceptional, compliant humans. 

Or die trying. 

This is a rather different book from the earlier parts of the series. It's both more capital-R Realistic, and darker. It's also, on the face of things, much less magical. The key action here (indeed, nearly all of the action) takes place in our world, and the central events follow Cora at her new school and in particular her relationship with her new fellow pupils and teachers (mostly women referred to as "matrons" and though there is also a distinctly unpleasant and creepy Headmaster).

That action is less about falling into a magical world and trying to survive, or to get back to this one, or to find that true home again after losing it, that about the dilemma of fitting in in a truly hostile environment. It's therefore in many ways the antithesis of the series to date, the tension sustained by Cora's growing understanding of her situation and her continual debate with herself: is all this justified, worthwhile, helpful to her in getting rid of those stalky Drowned Gods?

McGuire avoids being didactic about this. This world, our "real" world, in a place of messy compromised and of getting by. None of us can know what it means to Coral to be surveilled by her Drowned Gods, who visit her in her dreams and make her afraid to sleep. None of us can know whether or not escaping them may be worth being untrue to to herself - what even is "herself"? Yet at the same time the whole setup of the Whitethorn is deeply troubling, clearly very prone to being read as a metaphor for, at best, a misconceived system designed to keep its victims in various closets, at worst, as one for various forms of conversion "therapy" with all the accompany damage that implies.

There are other elements of darkness here, too, but I'll say no more about them.

So the horror and jeopardy in this book is less fantastical and more mundane, and therefore, more intense and troubling that some high adventure in the land of Confection or lonely trip to the Moors. There is a distinct sense that the party's over and the bills about to be paid: being away form Eleanor West's School, which at least attempts to provide some mitigation and understanding, shows how threatening the world really is for these young people who know they don't belong. 

This change in tone is probably an inevitable evolution of the series. It's one which means some readers may find Where the Drowned Girls Go rather a different book from the previous ones, but it opens the stories, I think, to showing new occasions for resistance, for solidarity and for courage, which these stories have always been about. It creates a richer, more complex canvas, perhaps, and I'll be interested to see what McGuire creates next on that canvas. 

For more information about Where the Drowned Girls Go, see the publisher's website here.

10 February 2022

Cover Reveal - None by Robin Roughley

Coming to you with something a bit different today, I'm delighted to join in the cover reveal for new crime novel None by Robin Roughley, out next week (18th February) from Red Dragon Books.

Robin Roughley
About the author

Robin Roughley is the author of around forty novels, many featuring the force of nature that is DS Lasser, the laconic, sometimes world-weary sergeant who patrols the streets of Wigan in the north-west of England. He also writes in a number of genres, including hard bitten and cosy crime, plus comedy, with a supernatural romance thrown into the mix.

After working at several jobs, including paint maker, pie salesman (a job that anyone from Wigan has to have done at some point) to pallet maker and eventually truck driver, he decided to try his hand at writing a book and so the first Lasser adventure saw the light of day.

He has been a full-time self-published author since two-thousand and thirteen and still finds it hard to fathom how he has got here. When not tapping away at the keyboard, he likes to go for walks to solve plot problems and find new ways to bump people off.

About the book

Ruben is a successful salesman.

Roz hates her boring admin job.

Ruben owns his own home.

Roz still lives with her nasty mum and dad.

One is a serial killer, the other desperate to learn the trade.

When high-school misfits Ruben Jones and Roz Smith’s paths cross later in life, they see something in the other no one else has and they team up to form a friendship based on the one thing they have in common – murder.

And now... for the cover!

Simple, elegant and intriguing, I think.

For more more info, here are social media links for Robin:

Robin Roughley:

Twitter: @RobRoughley

Instagram: @ds_lasser

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robin.roughley

And for Red Dragon: 

Twitter: @RedDragonbooks / @ConradJones / @emmamitchellfpr

Instagram: @conradjones3 / @emitch101





9 February 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Music of the Night

Music of the Night
Edited by Martin Edwards for the Crime Writers' Association
Flame Tree Press, 22 February 2022
Available as: HB, PB, 320pp
Source: Advance digital copy
ISBN(HB): 9781787587359 

I have a soft spot for themed anthologies and was delighted to have the chance both to read and to review Music of the Night, and to join in the book's blogtour - I'm grateful to the publisher and to Anne Cater for the opportunity.

For me, the themed anthology is a chance to see how a range of authors tackle a subject. As here, there is always great variety - some will use the theme as a jumping off point, others will plan it into the warp and weft of their story. Still others will find a clever angle, a direction to go off in. No approach is right: no approach is wrong. But together, we get a broader picture. And seeing a number of stories together like this is a great way to get tips for new (to me) authors to follow up on - whether for contributing a rattling good story, for introducing serial characters I'd like to hear more about, or indeed, for the ingenuity of the way they've tackled the brief. (Or managed not to).

So, twenty five stories in this book, some of which I enjoyed better than others but each with something to say and so varied that, I think, everyone will find something here. If you want an intriguing mystery with a great premise, you will go for Alison Joseph's A Sharp Thorn, in which Emma Collett is surprised to receive a telephone call from a Cornish care home where a dying man wishes to see her. Just who is Robert Sinclair, and how does he know so much about her? The answer takes her into her past, and an unsuspected crime that centres on a vintage harpsichord. Or perhaps Brian Price's The Scent of an Ending - one of the stories here that takes music as a more incidental feature, introduced at the beginning as a troubled Keith relaxes with a favourite album, this is a perfect miniature detective story, challenging the police to solve what is basically a locked room mystery. (I LOVE a locked room mystery). Satisfying with a number of strands left open - I wasn't sure that they got the right perpetrator in the end.

For stories that integrate music into the narrative really well there's Cath Staincliffe's Mix Tape. It's one of the shortest of these stories and perhaps the one where music is most effectively used. Mix Tape actually tells its story of crime through the titles of the songs on the eponymous tape. And it is bitter, it is pointed and it is succinct. Another great example would be Kate Ellis's Not a Note which takes us to 1950s Manchester where teenage Hester is chafing as her mother tries to make her fulfil the mother's lost dreams of musical stardom. Interspersed by accounts of violent robberies, and revolving around the Coronation, there are hints here of a society under strain, of hidden histories and suppressed desires. Very atmospheric and, in Hester's rejection of a musical career, a confident inversion of the central motif of this volume. Effective and absorbing.

Music wouldn't get far without a whole industry behind it - not just the creators themselves but the world of specialist journalists, lawyers, managers, publishers and backstage hustling. But it's not always a pretty scene, as Maxim Jakubowski makes clear in Waiting for Cornelia. Jakubowski powerfully evoking the atmosphere of the business - his narrator is a seasoned journalist and author (Jakubowski cleverly blends that identity with his own history) who stumbles on an odd connection between the deaths of a series of high-profile artists. Where, though, can he take that information? Why, a fictionalised account... but however coy he is in naming names, it seems that doing so might draw the wrong sort of attention. This story also, like others here, explores the borders between crime and outright horror, and does so especially well. The business of music is also explored by Paul Charles in The Ghosts of Peace, set in the trendy Camden music scene, and turning on the history and rivalries of a band. The twists and turns of commercial reality in the music business creates plenty of scope for jealousy and even for murder, but motive isn't enough. Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy here needs to unpick just how the crime was committed. An ingenious and intriguing crime story - and a great introduction to DI Kennedy. 

As I mentioned above, several of the stories here showcase the writers' recurring characters, none of these more intriguing to me than Requiem in which Leo McNeir gives us his Marnie and Ralph, off for a few days on Ralph's canal boat with some good food, good music and a shower large enough for two... their idyll is interrupted when they stumble across the aftermath of a murder. No gore, no overt detection but a definite sense that the two may have spotted something that the authorities missed. I think I'm going to have to read more about Marnie and Ralph.

I've picked out some choice stories above, but really all of these are well worth a read - let me try and persuade you!

In Be Prepared by Abi Silver, three girls at that awkward age between childhood and adolescence attend their annual Scout/ Guide camp. In the early 80s, there is perhaps a greater tolerance for inappropriate behaviour than there would be now and the unnamed narrator witnesses events which seem foreboding from the start - the question being, just when will the blow fall?

Andrew Taylor's Wrong Notes visits the town of Lydmouth in July 1956, where the local paper is a big deal, and their new cub reporter, Roderick, wants to make an impression when he's sent to cover a concert at a girls' school. Reflecting the attitudes of the age it is set in, this is an uncomfortable read in places but a pitch-perfect (unlike the school piano!) mystery in miniature.

The Melody of Murder by Antony M. Brown goes to 1980s London, as the Falklands war rages. The Met confronts a series of artistically-staged murders inspired by album covers. Turning on the sometimes close relationship between art and crime, this story captured, for me, the atmosphere of the times.

Love Me or Leave Me by Art Taylor is another story which often seems about to cross over into outright horror. Garrett is haunted by a sequence of notes which gradually unsettle and even consume him. Counterpointed by hints of something troubling in his early life, this one ends on a genuinely disturbing note suggesting something unresolved - but about to be, and not in a good way.

Catherine Aird's The Last Green Bottle features a telephone tip-off that leads to a bizarre chase across England's green and pleasant land (this could easily be Midsomer) in pursuit of a resolution to a cold case. With the song "ten Green Bottles' providing hints and clues, DI Sloan and his sidekick DC Crosby still have their work cut out to establish what actually happened and whether, indeed, a crime was committed.

Grimmer in setting and theme is Chris Simms' Taxi.  A serial killer in preying on young women in Manchester's clubs and bars. Told from both the murderer's, and other, perspectives, this builds up to a tense climax, orchestrated to the killer's favourite music. 

In Some Other Dracula by Christine Poulson the "Music" is the original music of the night, referred to by the Count in Dracula and suitable as, again, this book teeters on the brink of horror with crime visiting a posh Cambridge party at Hallowe'en.  Some nifty detective work will sort out what's real though - won't it?

Violin – CE by David Stuart Davies is written as a dialogue, exploring the intensity of passion and possessiveness that a fan may develop towards a creator or performer. Scanty in detail, it's nevertheless chilling and raises questions about authenticity, perception and obsession. Well done, and rather scary.

Dea Parkin's The Sound and the Fury opens as a woman takes to the motorway on some desperate errand, following her state of mind, again accompanied by suitable music, whose increasingly troubling lyrics hint at what might be to come when she arrives. This ever more ominous story packs a real punch in its endgame.

A Vulture Sang in Berkeley Square by Jason Monaghan explores the squalor and contrasts of postwar London, getting behind the nostalgic fictions and the collective amnesia over the war years and  comparing two men who came out of those years very differently. But are they really so unalike? Bonding when a certain song (no, not that one) is sung in Berkeley Square, there is a hint of menace in the air, reminding me of Margary Allingham's tales at their most sulphurous.

L.C. Tyler's His Greatest Hit takes the musical theme seriously both in form - it's organised loosely according to the structure of a pop sing, with chorus, verses and bridges - and content, delving into the darker side of the music business and exploring events of several decades before, revealing a sharp little tale of ambition and manipulation. 

The Crazy Cries of Love by Martin Edwards is CREEPY as Gordon eavesdrops on his young neighbours, taking advantage of the thin walls in their poorly-subdivided house. Listening both to their enthusiastic lovemaking and their arguments, he muses on his own life - one which has left him pretty much in solitude. Edwards cleverly builds up our picture of Gordon - but then something happens which transforms the reader's viewpoint - and then be turns EVERYTHING upside down, all over again. 

In The Watch Room, Neil Daws gives us all the makings of a classic, haunting folk ballad - the story of two brothers who are rivals for the same woman - though that isn't the musical hook for the story, rather the "in" is that one of the brothers is a skilled fiddle player. But I prefer the Ballard as background! With its setting in a lighthouse, a wild, brooding coast, and the isolation of the two men, you really have all you need for a tragedy.

Paul Gitsham's  No More 'I Love You's' is a story featuring his DCI Warren. As I've said, one of the treats for me in this volume is seeing authors show off their recurring characters. This can be difficult in a short story, but Gitsham constructs here an excellent example, showing the team working together to investigate the suicide of the wife of a prominent businessman, a close friend of the Chief Constable. Almost the only source of friction is the music of Annie Lennox and Eurythmics... which, in the end, supplies the vital clue to close the case. A gem of a detective story.

The title of Peter Lovesey's And the Band Played On refers to a song which the unnamed narrator's grandfather keeps singing. Grandad turned up on the doorstep one day, fresh out of Wormwood Scrubs, and as his past and history unspool we're treated to an account that read to me like something out of Orwell's "Decline of the English Murder" - a tale of dance-halls, gangsters and burials in the woods. It's perhaps stretching the timeline a bit for that world to be within memory of the characters here, but I forgave Lovesey this for the sake of his empathetic and thrilling story.

It was great to see that Ragnar Jónasson had a story in this volume. His 4x3 is a simple story, a very simple little story 'to be read while listening to 4'33" by John Cage'. That piece will certainly put the reader in the right frame of mind for the situation in which the protagonist ends up.

In A Death in Four Parts by Shawn Reilly Simmons, washed up composer Mendoza is desperately trying to recapture the fire of his early career, while fending off kind neighbours who bring him soup and annoying ones who complain about the noise. Then - and I won't say how - he is writing again. But there will be a cost.

In the final story here, Bombay Blues by Vaseem Khan, which is one of my favourites, we travel to India three years after Independence. In Bombay, Persis, the country's first and only (so far) woman DI investigates a perplexing death in the city's flourishing jazz scene. A clever and twisted tale, negotiating not only the facts behind the crime but the social conditions too. Great fun, great atmosphere and yet another story where the messy and unglamorous details of the music business feature.

You can buy Music of the Night from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, Waterstones or Amazon. For more information about Music of the Night, see the stops on the blogtour posters below and also the publisher's website here.

7 February 2022

#Review - The God of Lost Words by AJ Hackwith

The God of Lost Words (Hell's Library, 3)
AJ Hackwith
Titan Books, 8 February 2022
Available as: PB(363pp), e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789093216

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The God of Lost Words to consider for review.

'Every soul a story, and every moment fresh ink on the page'.

It's great to meet again Claire Juniper Hadley, for whom 'all pockets were best judged by book size...' 

Following from The Library of the Unwritten and The Archive of the Forgotten, The God of Lost Words returns to Hell's Library. Claire,  ex-Librarian of the Unwritten Wing, has moved on to preside over the Arcane Wing. It contains dangerous artefacts - powerful stuff best kept out of circulation and, as we saw in earlier books, a honeypot for power-seeking demons. Not really a job for a Librarian, you might think, but then Claire has been on a journey in these books, discovering some things about herself that she really didn't want to know, and in the course of this her Library rejected her, so she must do what she can.

If truth be known, she isn't actually doing the job very well. Early in this book Malphas, General of Hell, arrives to make a surprise inspection. She's caught a whiff of secrets, and secrets, in Hell, are power. In The Archive of the Forgotten we learned that books have souls, or rather, books are souls (every reader knew this already, of course). And souls are sought-after currency. Malphas's visit soon develops into a threat to the Library's very existence - not just the Unwritten and the Arcane Wings, the branches hosted by Hell, but those in other realms too.

In The God of Lost Words, the stakes seem higher, the threats greater, the relationships more important, than before. Indeed, much of the action isn't action as such but is about the understanding between the central characters: muse Brevity, now Librarian of the Unwritten (of course Brevity is missing from the Muses Corps - nobody surveying modern culture could doubt that) and the strange triangle of Claire, Hero, who escaped from a now-destroyed book, and fallen angel Ramiel. I have to say, I was entranced by the delicate and evolving way that Hackwith depicts the complicated love between these three characters. The result is something outstanding among books I've recently read: not easy, not smooth, but electrified, writhing, unstable - at the same time as it is deep and affecting. Other familiar characters reappear such as Walter, an instance of the God of Death, and Bjorn, Librarian of Untold Stories, a branch of the Library based in Valhalla. 

One of the challenges Claire faces here is seeking to outwit the legions of Hell itself. Hackwith's world is one from which the gods are mysteriously absent - despite their Realms being depicted - so she's not up against Lucifer as such, but Malphas is an able opponent, clever, ruthless and backed by immeasurable forces. Rami's sword, Hero's rapier and Claire's teapot are not going to prevail against that. Rather, she needs to find strength in the stories she has inherited from previous generations of Librarians - and to build alliances, so her other challenge is convincing her fellow Librarians that the threat to them all is real and they they should, against all precedent, stand together. 

In many respects this book is more focussed and direct than the previous ones. It's about sacrifice, courage and endurance, with less general dashing around, and one senses that salvation, if it can be found, will be close to home - there is an early foray to the maze of the crocodile god, seen in The Library of the Unwritten, but that doesn't end well, as if confirming that Claire & Co need to look within.

The book displays, I think, how all the characters here have grown up - not only Claire, who was in some respects rather unpleasant to begin with (well, she had been exiled to Hell) but also Hero - he now has love in his life - and Rami who, you may recall, began this series as essentially a sword for hire, doing Heaven's dirty work for it. It also shows how Hackwith has kept this series on track. A fantasy novel about libraries and books could easily teeter from the meta to the twee, but like its predecessors, The God of Lost Words resists that. Rather, it has truth and love at its heart. And anger: whether at Hell taking its cue from human wickedness (chilly cages with children in - 'a room where innocence went to rot') or indeed Heaven meddling where it's not wanted ('What paradise realm has never met a soul it didn't want to save?')

Yes, there are in-jokes, but they are kept under control and what predominates is a thrilling story, complex, engaging characters and the ring of truth. And some scorching writing (if you'll pardon the expression) - from 'if we wait for a landlord who will not eat us for his own benefit we'll be realmless forever' to 'perhaps "amp up the imperialist voice" is not the way to go, given... British history...' to the tearjerking 'that appeared to be Hero and Claire's language of love, reminding each other not to be monsters' to... well, so many more bits that I could quote, but I'd better stop. (I'll just say, though, that when, in pursuit of Claire's schemes, the Librarians assemble, you may find a particular one rather familiar...)

Rather a brilliant and fitting end to this trilogy, I think. 

For more information about The God of Lost Words, see the Titan Books website here

3 February 2022

#Review - The This by Adam Roberts

The This
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 3 February 2022
Available as: HB, 304pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781473230903  

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

'In the Bardo, subject and object are the same.'

As always with Adam Roberts' books, The This fizzes with ideas, the story illustrating, looping around, and developing, themes from philosophy, physics, popular culture, literature, religion, music (and doubtless more I didn't spot. Roberts is, in the best sense of the word, a clever author - not because, or not only because, of this incredible hinterland, but because he is able to share it without making the reader feel they've missed stuff. Rather, one feels gleeful about what one has spotted. 

It helps that while the background (as I learned from the Afterword) may be in Hegel, the actual argument and case developed in the book is very plain to see whether or not you have read that philosopher. The points we see made are about a person versus a collective society, about loneliness ('the odd thing about loneliness is the way it's both an intensely isolating , individual experience and the one thing most widely shared by human beings'), about the experience of loss, about that weird thing we call death. They are all integrated into a portrayal of modern life that feels right (right as in, convincing, real, authentic).

Rich lives that modern life. He's possibly one of the many lives (an entire page of them farmers! But also I think I saw Billy Bragg lyrics?) lived by the "you" that comes and goes from the Bardo in the bewitching opening section of the book. This section allows Roberts free rein devising inventive micro-stories (whole lives told in a sentence or a paragraph, many bringing in those references I mentioned above). Rich is, at least in this life, not really rich - that's more of a nickname - but he is comfortable enough, in his Putney flat, to survive on occasional bits of work from the gig economy. Sometimes he even has a bit of cash left over to pursue his hobby of collecting... cash, in the form of rare banknotes. (We get a couple of pages of digression musing on the nature of banknotes as essentially known lies).

Interspersed with Rich's story, Roberts has included chunks of social media, sort of. Status updates. Locations. Spam. Messages. Complaints. Puns (of course puns! 'He preferred Apple products to PCs, computer-wise. You might say: pomme? - cuter. You might say.' Roberts' way with puns is genius. They aren't just there to be funny, rather they're a tool that adds layers of meaning to the text). The way this material is arranged means that the flow of Rich's story is continually broken up. I had to keep going back and reminding myself where a sentence came from, before my attention was spammed, the whole experience of course redolent of the contemporary struggle for attention in the face of a torrent of jangling content - but also illustrating Rich's particular life as he twiddles and fiddles his days away supposedly working on his novel (an epic fantasy project). 

The story takes wing when Rich is allotted a job interviewing the representative of a company, the 'The This' of the title, which has developed an implant allowing social media to be literally pumped into the brain. Is The This a cult, as some allege? Rich is intrigued by his encounter, but soon discovers that The This may have plans for him. As the behaviour of the company becomes outright stalkery, it seems clear that Rich is somehow important - and not only to The This.

Several centuries on, Adan lives an, I suppose, even more modern life (it's the future so it must be more modern?) focussed on Elegy, an AI sex-toy that Adan is absurdly, sweetly, devoted to. But it's still a slacker existence similar to Rich's, buffered by his mother's money - until she defects to The Enemy. By Adan's time The This has metastasised into a formidable hive mind against which humanity - or parts of it - are at war. And Adan soon finds himself in the army. 

There are other strands too - a whole section set in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, expanding on the theme of the hive mind in an interpretation of that book that I'd never have considered but which fitted exactly with the idea of Big Brother. Some writers would take just that idea and make it into a whole story - by no means the only example in this book of Roberts' prodigality with ideas: basically he hoses the reader with them. Loneliness? Here is Father Mackenzie, caught as it were just out of the song, 'wiping his hands on his cassock and talking nervously about God's love'. Ah, we're doing Beatles, well, here is 'a car alarm... going off like Yoko Ono in full song'. The book is like a bulging sack of presents on Christmas Day, with treat after treat to unwrap.

Returning to Adan's story, though, Roberts uses it to add yet another thematic thread with a confused, panicked view of warfare - all fumbles and shock and confusion with comrades butchered and intentions muddled). It's a war in which Adan, inexplicably, seems to play a central role but his place - and importance - are no clearer than Rich's. I'd say the focus of the story switches from one to the other, Roberts giving us clear portrayals of both. Not necessarily people I'd want to meet or spend time with, they are both, nevertheless, rounded, actual characters, something that gives them a sort of edge over the various forces - the military, espionage agencies or The This itself - that are trying to manipulate them. The book returns in the end, I think, to deep questions: what it is that makes us human, whether mere happiness and contentment is enough to satisfy that nature, and what may lie beyond even something like The This which seems - in many respects - like a desirable endpoint for human evolution.

Clever, humane, absorbing and great fun, this is in my view Roberts' writing at his very very best. Just a glorious book to read. Get it now!

(The book also built my vocabulary. Evanishment? Haecceity? Velleities?)


1 February 2022

#Review - Three Nightjars on the First: The Periphery by Cliff McNish, Static by Justine Bothwick and A Few Alterations by Jordan Harrison-Twist

Three more Nightjar Press chapbooks for your delectation. These are, again, books I received in December and as ever, I'd strongly recommend a Nightjar Press subscription which sends you books regularly and provides signed, numbered copies.

Cover for "The Periphery" by 
Cliff McNish. An abstract image
with a yellow background overlain 
by sworls, speckles and splurges of 
black, red and blue.
Photo by Nicholas Royle.
The Periphery
Cliff McNish
Nightjar Press, December 2021
Available as: PB, 15pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341663

I found Cliff McNish's The Periphery truly disturbing, but I had to think hard about why. Opening with the cryptic 'We began to prefer the periphery' the book describes how the unnamed narrator, their wife, children, pets - and the rest of the world - do just that: living on the edges, consuming dregs, looking away, interacting less, committing less. Beginning as a very close-up, very personal and small scale story, its bounds widen and widen until a sort of slow motion apocalypse is occurring. I was reminded of that Arthur C Clarke story with its ending 'overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out...' except that here the effect seems to be internal, a kind of universal ennui in which humanity is one, but only one, participant. And I found that a really, really difficult idea.

Having considered why I reacted like that, I think it's partly a product of the past eighteen months on-off lockdown, premature opening up, new catastrophe, lockdown again, cycle. The passive life that our narrator finds has an attraction to it simply because it is, clearly, bounded: the common perception of everyone in this book is that this WILL be the end of all things, Sam, and like Frodo and his friend, all is done, all is finished, there is literally nothing to worry about any more. It's a very tempting attitude but at the same time, a very scary one, underlined by the fact nobody here steps out of line, nobody resists. A sort of vision of perfection perhaps but an aside, deal perception.

I think The Periphery will haunt me.
Cover for "Static" by
Justine Bothwick. Against a
background of grass rests a long
piece of wood or stone, a hole
resembling an eye. Photo by 
Nicholas Royle.

Justine Bothwick
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 12pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341502

Static plays some twisty games with its readers' expectations. On a beach in, I think, Greece, a young German man working as a paddle board instructor trespasses one one summer's day. Or does he? Work asserts his right to be there and the public nature of the beach but still, Efrosini manages to persuade him of some guilt, some kind of crossing the line, perhaps because he had picked up and was going to remove a chunk of fossilised wood. Still she is friendly and invites him in for lunch.

Unknown to Effie, Wolf is being urged on by voices in his head which wish to make the encounter something erotic. Maybe he wants that too? Maybe she does? The writing is I think doing several different things here and Wolf's relationship with that voice (which I suspect is a newish thing to him) is only one of them. We may be in fairytale country, the domain of horror, or witnessing some kind of breakdown. 

The uncertainty itself is delicious, the story perfectly balances between common sense and the fantastical. 

Cover for "A Few Alterations"
by Jordan Harrison-Twist.
Two full-face, passport style
photographs of a man in a 
jacket and sweater.
A Few Alterations
Jordan Harrison-Twist
Nightjar Press, November 2021
Available as: PB, 11pp
Source: Subscription
ISBN: 9781907341618

A Few Alterations is short but Jordan Harrison-Twist fills it with so much and sets up questions that meant I had to read it over several times. At one level, the sense of dis-ease points to something being off from the start - but at another, all the accumulating detail of the narrator's relationship with 'Zürn's tailor shop', their knowledge of dressing and style, the process - which is going on in the story - of obtaining something from the shop, all of that is so spot on that it simply seems like the kind of minutiae that makes up a life. 

I was reminded of the film Phantom Thread, one of my recent favourites. I think both pieces use to their advantage the fact that the worlds of respectively tailoring and dressmaking are present in the background of many of our lives but unknown to most in detail. So many metaphors, allusions and jokes ('So far, with this one, sew good') that add to the richness of the prose and the sense that a great deal is going on which we don't, quite, grasp.

I know that some readers will like to be in command of all the detail, know exactly what's happening and work a story out as though it was a series of puzzles. If that's you, A Few Alterations may not quite be your fit. But if you are comfortable in this style of story, I think it'll suit you very well.

For more information about The Periphery, Static and A Few Alterations and to buy the books or take out a subscription, see the Nightjar Press website at https://nightjarpress.weebly.com