28 July 2022

#Review - The Cliff House by Chris Brookmyre

Cover for book "The Cliff House" by Chris Brookmyre, A modernist, boxy house with trees beside it sits against. a white sky. Below, the verticals from the house and the trees bleed into a pink band running down to the bottom of the cover. Over the pink, the words "One party. Seven secrets. One for killing for."
The Cliff House 
Chris Brookmyre 
Little, Brown, 28 July 2022
Available as: HB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781408712191

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

One thing I really love to see in a novel is a writer taking a well-known situation, turning it inside out, and making it fresh again. 

Which is just what Brookmyre does in The Cliff House. Seven women, are stranded on a Scottish island, with no communications - and a killer at large. You can see where this is coming from, and a better take on the And Then There Were None setup I've yet to read - an especially difficult task for an author, I think, in our modern world of mobiles, wifi and messaging. But Brookmyre makes that into a plus: all those secrets that might be vulnerable online, all the possibilities for deception and social engineering...

Add to that the extent that seven are all interesting, well developed and distinct characters. Lauren, the wealthy property-developer and owner of the venue for entrepreneur Jen's luxurious hen-do. Michelle, pop diva and once bandmate of resentful Helena. Beattie, sister of Jen's missing-presumed-dead ex, Jason. (Awkward...) Samira, sister of Jen's soon-to-be husband, Zaki. Kennedy, Jen's tennis coach and general woman of mystery. And Nicolette, whose place here is unclear. Brookmyre sets up secrets, resentments, long-smouldering grudges and hatreds which are implied, but not explained, in the early chapters, then lets rip with a catastrophe and a sudden, unanticipated, life-or-death struggle.

It's soon clear that everybody here has something they want to keep hidden, and that for most of them, that's not just from fear of exposure and ridicule: the stakes are higher than that - life, liberty, wealth and status, and regard - all those are on the line (and other, subtler factors such as the tug of guilt and threats to a carefully built and tended self-image, or to a long nurtured and indulged grudge). Not everyone is trying to work an angle, we are told, but the evidence presented rather disproves that and indeed some seem to have so many angles that they could easily have stepped from a Lovecraftian story.

With so much going on, it would be easy for the reader to be confused. However, Brookmyre's brilliant characterisation means that is never an issue. Also he uses to a clever trick of pairing everyone off for most of the book, so that the focus is on interactions between three pairs of women, allowing for a progressively deeper and more complex exploration of their fears and histories - and for some dicey moments - before everyone is brought together again as truths, and accusations, emerge.

There's also a really wicked vein of humour and many pithy observations of life - part of the backstory includes abusive and manipulative partners, couples who've simply fallen out of love with each other, obsession, and opportunism. Plus an experience common to many of the women of absence - whether that be a partner, a parent, or a child, and of the attempts made to overcome that (or ignore it). It makes for a book that's emotionally complex as well as a devilish crime mystery, indeed, a book that sparkles on every page, seizing the reader and carrying them along through the process of revealing red herrings, forcing everyone to fess up (will they do it before The Reaper does it for them, or just does for them?) and - which is the part I enjoyed most - creating little realignments, moments of realisation that, just perhaps, those long-held grudges and hatred might shift.

With the emphasis on "might". Everyone here is under intense pressure, backs to the wall, with no help or support. Old fears and guilts become powerful, and maybe it's best just to shut up and keep your head down? Or come out fighting? Or is there a better way to try and survive? In the end, at the heart of this story, is a very moral, very human dimension. Yes, it may all be a game of Prisoner's Dilemma writ large, but the complexities of relations between the seven make it hard for anyone to settle on a winning strategy. And there isn't time to ponder things...

Sheer absorbing writing, simply begging to be read.

For more information about The Cliff House, see the publisher's website here.

26 July 2022

#Review - The Last Storm by Tim Lebbon

Book The Last Storm by Tim Lebbon. Against a brown-yellow background, the skeletal outlines of dead trees rise over a parched, cracked which is shining with rain. Among scattered twigs and detritus, a scorpion raises its sting.
The Last Storm
Tim Lebbon
Titan Books, 5 July 2022
Available as: PB, 352pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803360423

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Last Storm to consider for review.

The Last Storm is a fine combination of the apocalyptic (not 'post', it's still proceeding), cosmic horror and survival. For me the impact was heightened by reading it as the UK cooked in record summer temperatures.

In a near future USA, climate change and global heating has devastated large parts of the interior, producing a desert that is not only waterless but lawless, inhabited by townspeople just clinging on, water pirates ('soakers'), religious fanatics, the ill, the old. There is civilisation clinging on here and there - this isn't a novel about what happens 'after', the crisis is still going on, still getting worse year on year. When it's not heat, it's torrential floods, or hurricanes which devastate the coasts.

The story is focussed one family, a family with rather special talents. Jessie and his daughter Ash are rainmakers, gifted with the ability to plug into an alternate reality and bring a downpour. Seemingly beneficent, it is though a skill or craft that seems to bring no good. Perhaps it once did, but as humanity has poisoned and burned the Earth, the rainmakers' power seems now to access a strange, blighted and dangerous realm with scorpions as likely to fall as water. Yet the skill is still whispered about, and there are those who seek out rainmakers, for a whole mixed bag of reasons.

Against this background, Ash has gone missing, off into the heat. Karina, her mother, spends years searching for her, while Jessie, believing her dead, retreats and broods in a remote compound, seeing almost nobody, accompanied only by his old dog, Rocky. 

When the story really begins, Karina has picked up Ash's trail and returns to demand that Jessie come with her to follow it. Watching the corpse of their broken relationship between twitch and spasm - overseen only by a puzzled Rocky - was very moving, Lebbon's nuanced animation of it creating a true and convincing depiction of two people who had spent so much time together - with shared moments, shared joys and sorrows - and then so long apart. 

And when you understand things from Ash's point of view, you'll see why they did that. Ash is also portrayed very effectively, a troubled young woman who has a storm raging in her very self, a storm that, when it catches her, leaves her absent, away and vulnerable. She has a sort of quest as she ranges across the desert, collecting odd scraps of this and that from which to build a new 'apparatus'. In chapters following Ash, Jessie, Karina and others I won't say much abut (spoilers!) we're gradually shown how mucked up this world is, and what dangerous people are in it - as well as that hope endures and love can flower even in the desert, given a little rain.

This is an entertaining and gripping read, with a variety of characters drawn in shades of grey, all flawed, twisted and in varying degrees, failing. There is one deeply unlikeable and unpleasant person here too, yet even they have convincing motivation rooted in loss and inadequacy. 

I should also say there are some truly violent and bloody scenes here, especially those driven by one of the Soakers, a man bent on revenge (against who? and why?) and it soon becomes clear that on The Last Storm, we're totally beyond the reach of human justice and pretty much beyond and human support, though mutual obligations and decency do still exist. 

The Last Storm is a maelstrom of guilt, love, hate, determination, new hopes and old fears. 

And it HAS A DOG!

STRONGLY recommended.

For more information about The Last Storm, see the publisher's website here.


23 July 2022

#Review - Dead Water by C A Fletcher

Book “Dead Water” by CA Fletcher. White background. Across the top, the words “And the water shall call them home”. Below, the title, in lower case black letters. Behind it, in shades of blue and turquoise, the shape of a rabbit, merging into what could be a pool of water. (The whole shape could be the map of an island).
Dead Water
C A Fletcher
Orbit, 21 July 2022
Cover design by kid-ethic
Available as: HB, 501pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy provided by Orbit
ISBN(HB): 9780356513836

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of Dead Water to consider for review.

Dead Water is an experience of a book, a whole body, heart-thumping, grabs-you-and-makes-you-finish-it story. It kept me riveted and sitting up reading on the hottest night of the year (only slightly because it took me to a seaswept, rain drenched location much more attractive than the stifling heat of global warming hit Oxfordshire).

It's not, though, a book that grabs with immediate action. Rather, the first half is slow and studied (and the better for it) introducing us to a cast of characters on a Scottish island (and to some visitors and incomers arriving on the ferry). A young woman who flirts with danger, freediving alone every morning because it's the only thing she can embrace in life after a series of tragedies. An elderly dog-walker who just happens to be there each day with his binoculars when Sig changes out of her wetsuit. Matt, a young fisherman, with whom Sig has history. A family arriving on the ferry to make a new life on the island - with tensions between stepmum and stepson marked. A shady character, travelling to the island for some purpose that requires him not to register in memory or CCTV gaze. And so on.

We learn about all these people and more, picking up the tensions, the histories, the hopes, the hates, that blossom and fester in any small community, and especially in a fairly isolated one. Among and behind this is a degree of foreshadowing: that ferry is described as an unlucky ship, there are near-accidents, talk of omens, unchancy happenings, and coincidences. It's less that these are things that happen to people, but markers for a world, or a worldview, which accommodates the less than rational (or the more than rational?) They are signposts, showing us that Sig's fiercely scientific outlook, acquired after a horrific loss, is set to be challenged.

A pair of ravens patrol the island, and a woman who may have the Sight wakes uneasy. Those themes bleed into a separate story told between the parts of the main one, the story of a young warrior, far from home, who trespasses against ancient custom and suffers a retribution. His connection to the island story slowly becomes clear and if you want to know a little more about what's going on, without too many spoilers, you might read those sections together as one. Quite aside from his part though in the wider tale he, also, contributes to the atmosphere of weirdness, representing a different, a more believing, even spiritual side of things than the mundane concerns of the islanders (fish catch, the spotty phone coverage, romantic entanglements). 

There are then plenty of hints and scene setting to warn that something very strange will happen to those well-realised and fully three dimensional characters, and while some readers may think that makes it go too slowly and want the action to hurry up, I'd argue rather that the buildup gives us just what we need - a clear picture of the protagonists, hopes and fears for some (and in particular their dogs! I always worry when an author brings dogs into a story and Fletcher has form here) and a distrust of others. We get a sense of how they will behave, see how high the stakes might be, and then begin to follow the chain of events that will lead to... 

Well, that'd be telling. It is a culmination fully worth waiting for and one which shouldn't be spoilers, pitting a small group of islanders against an implacable, because entitled and self-assured, enemy that they are ill-suited to defeat. Especially because of animosities, mistrusts and, well, just history stuff, which have been sketched earlier. But, Fletcher hasn't told us everything about everyone, nor have they all been completely honest with themselves. It takes the strain of extreme peril to surface some things that would otherwise have stayed submerged - and to make unlikely heroes. Once this begins to come together you'll know that you just have to go on reading, the writing becoming more and more arresting: the wild storm, the isolation and the lurking evil out there in the dark more and more impossible to resist. (A great book for a sweltering night, in fact!)

So I'd recommend, but do be aware the story doesn't start off with a bang. 

It's better than that.

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

21 July 2022

#Review - The Daves Next Door by Will Carver

The Daves Next Door
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 21 July 2022
Available as: PB, 277pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585180

I'm grateful to Orenda for an advance copy of The Daves Next Door to consider for review.

I did wonder if I should take the title of The Daves Next Door as being a bit close to home - though I'm a David, not a Dave, he doesn't (I think) live next door, and on a close reading I don't seem too be in here, I've learned never to trust Mr Carver's narratives to be what they seem...

Regardless, a return to the Carververse is always overdue, and in The Daves Next Door, we see the same moral noir as in Carver's previous writing (including a few clues to show that yes, this is the same world as that of Nothing Important Happened Today and Psychopaths Anonymous). Reading these books is like being a fly that's incautiously settled into a patch of honey: they pull you in, they'll be the end of you, but oh how sweet the process is.

The Daves Next Door is perhaps a more fractured story that its predecessors, following a number of different characters who are less obviously linked by a location or involvement in ongoing events. Those Daves, sharing a flat and a disease in mutual loathing, a much overworked and put-upon hospital nurse with an adequate boyfriend, an elderly man who thinks he's died and gone to Purgatory, two grifters, a a sportsman brought down by a seemingly random injury, and others - including a suicide bomber, perhaps. 

They are though linked, and in two ways. 

First, Carver's concern for human motivation, consequences and character comes through as strongly as ever. For example, there's a man here who was devoted to his wife, and bereft since her death. His son, rather than seeing that devotion as the wonderful loving thing it was, is rather resentful, so he's drifted away and won't be there for his dad's torment, which we see depicted here. A little vignette about human nature and a dynamic that's central to one of the plot strands here but also tells us something dark about people, something echoed across all the other mini-stories.

Secondly, one figure - that maybe-bomber - holds the story together, functioning (perhaps) as an all-seeing narrator, recounting the lives of the other characters, so therefore (possibly) a God-like figure or equally (maybe) an Author. Their chapters are composed as questions - such a barrage of questions, from the profound to the trivial, pausing at all stops in between, but especially circling mysteries to which humanity has signally failed to discover answers. The Four Last Things - Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement - loom over this story, especially, perhaps, Judgement which is passed not only on the characters and the world they inhabit (the world WE inhabit) but also, this being the Carververse, on the reader as well. No other author I know has quite the ability of Carver to involve his readers in the awkward moral failings that he highlights is his stories, though he does it in an utterly disarming, even charming, way. (That's the honey).

He does it, especially, by refusing to let the reader stick the blame on one character or another, even one who has behaved abominably (as many do). There are no neat endings, no convenient resolutions and retribution - people you'd grown fond of have terrible things happen to them, the unpleasant can simply stroll away.

Maybe that's not quite right though. As we would expect, one person who's given an especially hard time here is God, and of course, as They may feature in the story, many of the questions a certain character poses might actually be asked of Themself. (I apologise for the clunky language but given Carver's multi-layered portrayals here, words become rather slippery). This makes for a rather convincing self-prosecution which is genuinely unsettling both in terms of what it implies for the story and as an accusation against religion and those who follow it.

(I have to say that for me, the omnipotent, all-seeing, create-everything-in-seven-days version of God who's in point here is perhaps something of a straw deity. Alternatives are available, and less absurd. But maybe that is slightly mean-minded of me - after all there are plenty of people who hold to this picture).

In short, I'd come to expect from this author, The Daves Next Door is a vivid and thoughtful, and often  angry, book that tells a compelling and absorbing story (across its many threads) but comes with a real moral punch, real engagement with ideas, and shines with compassion even at its darkest moments (of which there are quite few). 

I'd strongly recommend, whether or not you're read any of Mr Carver's previous books: this is essentially a standalone though with some clear links, thematically and in plot terms, to them.

For more information about this book, see the Orenda website here.

19 July 2022

#Blogtour #Review - The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book "The Daughter of Doctor Moreau" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. A pink wall, overgrown by a creeping green plant. In the centre, a rounded archway within which is doorway reached by climbing a short flight of steps. Standing in the doorway is a young woman with dark hair and brown skin wearing an elaborate green dress. She is holding her left arm with her right hand and looking directly at the viewer. (The rear of the book, not pictured here, shows the same scene without the woman).
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 19 July 2022
Cover by Faceout Studio/ Tim Green
Available as: HB, 305pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529417999

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Set in Mexico in the later 19th century, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau picks up the central idea of HG Wells's novel of vivisection and species reshaping and relocates events to the Yucatán, a politically and culturally complicated region in the throes of a post-colonial uprising. (There's a slightly cheeky justification for this given in an ancient confusion about whether Yucatán was actually a peninsula or an island).

Bt there are also wide themes here. There's romance too, and at the centre, a determined and composed young woman who's growing into an understanding of herself and her place in the world - but hot altogether happy at what she finds.

Carlota Moreau lives with her father on a remote holding, Yaxaktun, along with a few servants and the population of "hybrids" that her father has created through his experiments. Fully realised, they have hopes and desires as well as fears and afflictions, and are portrayed in a manner that takes our understanding of them far beyond their counterparts in Wells's book. Carlota is devoted to her father, obedient, and alive to the suffering of the hybrids (she's picked up some medicine and helps care for them). She has been brought up pretty much in isolation, but will need, in this story, to grow up quickly and cope with a crisis in her little world (she proves resourceful and tough). 

An early arrival in the story is Montgomery Laughton, an English adventurer much addicted to drink and gambling, who's drifted from one shady occupation to another. Laughton is mourning the loss of his beloved wife and taking rather too many risks as a result. Moreno-Garcia's portrayal of Laughton is sensitive and convincing, bringing out both his ruthlessness and "man of action" person and also his inner turmoil and despair.  

Laughton becomes mayordomo of Yaxaktun, managing the house and the estate, thereby bringing him into contact with Carlota and conflict with Hernando Lizalde who finances the whole operation. Lizard is a wealthy landowner who wishes to use Moreau's hybrids as labour on his farms, replacing the local Maya people who are beginning to stand up for their rights.

Chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Carlota and of Laughton. Yes, of course there is SOMETHING between them, but Laughton is so damaged, and Carlota so inexperienced, that misunderstandings and distractions - not least the rapidly spiralling catastrophe spawned by Eduardo, Lizalde's headstrong son - keep tuning things round and b ringing the two into conflict.

Written with great verve, I found this a rattling good story that features not only all the above but also the uprising by the indigenous Maya people, colonial politics (the British are just offstage, always looking for some advantage) and - at the centre of this thoughtful and thought-provoking novel - questions of identity, morality and destiny. It's a book where the villains, if one can use the word, are complex, the heroes, again if I can describe them so, have feet of clay, and those from whom one might not expect to hear, are articulate. Another book from an author who seems able to write b brilliantly in any genre she chooses, and one which highlights history and culture with which I was completely unfamiliar and delighted to learn about.

For more information about The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, see the publisher's website here or any of the other entries on the blog tour - see the poster below.

You can buy The Daughter of Doctor Moreau from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon


14 July 2022

#Review - Hooked by AC Wise

Book “Hooked” by AC Wise, author of “Wendy, Darling”. Above the title, the phrase “Neverland will never let go”. Praise from Tor.Com (“Intelligent and deftly executed”) and Sam J Miller (“Nothing short of astonishing”). In the centre, a hook reaches down with a figure in white, arms extended, flying across it. Standing in the hook is a silhouetted figure in tricorne hat, full wig and with a hook for a left hand. Below, a crocodile. Left and right of the crocodile, palm trees. The design is all done in shades of red and black.
AC Wise
Titan Books, 12 July 2022
Available as: PB, 336pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789096835

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Hooked to consider for review.

Hooked picks up Wise's continuation of the Peter Pan story, begun in Wendy, Darling which took Wendy back to Neverland when Pan carried off her daughter Jane.

Now Jane is grown up and a medical student, and on the eve of the Second World War, strange things begin to stir again in the London skies. Wendy and Jane aren't the only refugees from Neverland - and the monsters aren't quite done with them yet.

I greatly enjoyed the deft way that in the first book, Wise upended the story of everlasting, boyish fun to show a distinctly dark side, focussed on great Pan himself. In Hooked, she goes further still, showing how the consequences of what Pan is - was - radiate out like agitated waves in a pond. Much of the story centres around James, no longer Captain Hook, though that part of him hasn't totally gone away either. The fearsome Captain might seem an unlikely protagonist but Wise gives him so much depth - painting him as dastardly, yes, but also yearning and still very much lost. James is making a life with his beloved Samuel, the surgeon from his pirate ship, but is also drawn by his desire  for opium. The relationship between him and Samuel is delicately drawn, the life they would live shot through with baggage from Neverland. Will they ever escape?

Told both from the "now" of 1939 and in flashbacks to Hook's, and Jane's, earlier lives, we see how much Neverland keeps its grip, how it reaches out in the first place to bring in its victims. Everyone we see has reason to hate and fear the place but the knowledge of that deathless land still compels and bewitches those who have lost someone dear. Sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not, James, Wendy and Jane all have an eye on what Neverland might give them even while knowing the price that may be demanded. 

The pressure of that knowledge combines with raw emotions - guilt, love, fear - to create an almost tangible sense of being torn (hooked, one might say) a tension that erupts especially between Jane and her mother - fuelled also by the events of the previous book and especially the fate of Timothy - but also drives an internal struggle in James. A monster himself, and also a victim, he's uniquely qualified to see the mayhem that Neverland may bring. He embodies a sort of no-man's land between misery and destructive self-pity and a call to be more, to be better. Perversely though, it may be the monster that is needed to confront Pan's last, questing, horror.

And a real horror it is, whether real or conjured by the guilt and terror of Wendy, Jane and James. Wise teases us as to what is really going on, showing how the London of 1939 is still haunted by all sorts of ghosts - including those from the Great War, Wendy's brother Michael carrying those with him layered atop the trauma of finding (and leaving) Neverland. As another war looms, Wendy and Michael hope that Jane will be protected form the horrors while she resents their over-protectiveness and lies.

Unfinished business abounds in this fine, troubling study of adulthood and lost childhoods. 

A superb sequel, subtle, layered and patient in the spell it weaves.

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

12 July 2022

#Review - The Redeemer by Victoria Goldman

The Redeemer (Shanna Regan, 1)
Victoria Goldman 
Three Crowns Publishing UK, 5 July 2022
Available as: PB,335pp,  e
Source: Free advance e-copy
ISBN(PB) 9781739695415 

I'm grateful to the author for an advance copy of The Redeemer, her first novel featuring intrepid reporter Shanna Regan, to consider for review.

There's a lot going on in The Redeemer.

Set in the Hertfordshire town of Hillsbury, The Redeemer explores themes of anti-Semitism, diversity, identity... and revenge. It opens with action as Shanna, sitting musing on her favourite bench in the park, sees a woman being chased and attacked by a gang of teenagers. An anti-Semitic attack, as soon becomes clear. 

Here in Hertfordshire. 

What should Shanna do? What does she do? 

Shanna's actions in these moments will lead her into an exploration of Hillsbury's Jewish population, and in turn to the revelation of a bizarre mystery in the form of commemorative plaques dotted around the town, apparently memorialising instances of murder - and of potential retribution. Understanding the community and its past may help her untangle what's going on, and save lives - or it may just draw her deeper in, risking exposure of her own secrets...

This is a fine crime story, with a - to me - fascinating and unfamiliar angle. Goldman (I should declare that I follow her on Twitter and we have met once or twice at bookish events) has been forthright about her concern over rising anti-Semitic incidents, and also what (my words not hers) one might describe as a backgrounding of the Jewish community in Britain, the latter contributing, by minimising and erasing, to the former. In this book, she sets out to reclaim a bit of space as it were, showing her Jewish characters going about their ordinary lives, their routines and customs being introduced to us as Shanna herself learns about them in the course of her investigation. 

Shanna, I should explain, is a globetrotting investigative journalist who's travelled the world since she was eight, initially with her (Irish) engineer father, latterly alone and in pursuit of stories. Her career has now hit a bit of a bump and she's landed up editing a local magazine in Hillsbury. So one might expect her already to be aware of some of the details of Jewish life that are included here, nevertheless, I think that Goldman is fairly subtle in showing what the reader may not know, painting a picture of a vibrant and complex community - and of its enemies, who regrettably, also have to feature. (If you find yourself reading about some of the incidents described here and saying "Surely that kind of thing doesn't happen in Britain!" - and then wondering whether you would know anyway if it did - well, that's kind of why they have to feature).

The balance between what I suppose one might see as informing and as entertaining is of course a fine one and easy to get wrong but in my view Goldman negotiates it with assurance - so that while the wider context of The Redeemer gives this book a sense of passion and commitment, the story itself isn't swallowed up by that. It is, rather, an intricate and compelling crime story, in which, as details of the various deaths unfold, Shanna's compulsion to delve into some past events (those deaths in Hillsbury) perhaps in order to avoid others (mysteries about her own life that she doesn't want to explore) becomes clearer and clearer and the tension that embodies, ever harder to resolve. 

External threats abound - anonymous messages and texts, the threatening presence of an ex boyfriend somewhere in the background, and even physical attacks, not least from that mob of racist teens - but for me, there was almost greater menace from Shanna's struggles with what she remembered of her past: guilty memories, some of them, also gaps and absences. 

What starts as a simple investigation, albeit of some weird circumstances, becomes much more tangled, with a suspicion growing that what Shanna's getting into is not just of historical, academic influence but real, contemporary and very threatening.

All in all I think this is a fine start to a potential crime series - I love the confident positioning of this as "a" Shanna Regan mystery, which I take as a promise of more adventures, hopefully uncovering more of Shanna's background.

For more information about The Redeemer, see the Three Crowns Publishing UK website here.

8 July 2022

#Review - What Doesn't Break Us by Helen Sedgwick

Cover for book “What Doesn’t Break Us” by Helen Sedgwick. A ruined church, the remaining walls standing against an orange sky and a background of skeletal trees.
What Doesn't Break Us (Burrowhead Mysteries, 3)
Helen Sedgwick
Point Blank (Oneworld), 7 July 2022
Available as: PB, 416pp, audio, e
Source: Audio subscription
ISBN(PB): 9780861541942

It's great to return to Burrowhead for this third and final instalment of Sedgwick's folk-horror crime trilogy, set in "the villages" somewhere on the coast. "The City" is nearby, appearing in a couple of scenes, but with the exact location vague. Are we on the East or the West coast? In England or Scotland? (The audio may give some clues but I'm saying nothing...)

I say "great" but as readers of the previous books will know, Burrowhead is a place of unease and this book does go to some very dark places. This book addresses mystery, shadow, desperate history and half-remembered violence. DI Georgie Strachan, an outsider to Burrowhead - she's from the US and she's Black - sees this clearly. In What Doesn't Break Us, Georgie is at her limits. 

Her marriage with Fergus has apparently failed after he has been sucked into a kind of atavistic, nativist celebration of the town's mysterious and blood soaked roots. 

Her police station is about to be shut. 

And the crimes she's been investigating - missing Abigail from all those years ago, the drugs on sale in the village, a pair of recent suicides - seem no closer to resolution.

Even Georgie's friend and colleague Trish has handed in her notice, drawn further into the orbit of the villagers and their Community Council, blaming Georgie for the death of her granddad and engaged in her own mysterious schemes.

And it just keeps raining!

I loved this book. It's rooted in little, intimate scenes involving the villagers - older members of the community, kids, the police, Georgie, Fergus. There are flashbacks, teasing us with history over a vast period of time. Back to the prehistory which so many here seem to dream of. Back a year or two to that suicide (if it was). Back to the 60s when Abigail disappeared. Sedgwick manages, at the same time, to convey a multiplicity of viewpoints, of motives, of plans and plots and at the same time, that dogged, bland, impervious Burrowhead stance, that gentle smile in the face of officialdom, which is frustrating Georgie's enquiries and the understanding of any outsider. We are both invited in, to observe all the doings of this community, and shut out, uncomprehending as to what is happening, dismayed as it finds new victims, new cruelties. 

Or old victims, old cruelties - because this book is simultanwously taking place now, and then.

Also teasing is that hint of the supernatural, that sense of haunting. Despite what some think they witness here, we're not in full-blown Wicker Man territory, there is no glimpse of an organised cult, rather, baffled, confused, and half-lost suggestions of 21st century people trying to lay claim on a tradition that may or may not ever have existed. A knife presumed ancient, for example, turns out to have a more complex history. Events here are less about ancient survivals as contestation over the meaning of the past.

In that, of course, Burrowhead is all of a piece with a country whose wider history, culture and perception of its past is as reinvented and reworked as a continually ploughed field. Objects, events and persons here are identified in relation to a shifting background and the identity of who gets to lead that process, and why they are able to, is almost more important and interesting than any "reality" that lies behind it all. The village museum enshrines a very particular view of Burrowhead history, a view that very firmly leaves things out, as Fergus comes to realise by the end of the story. 

As well as being an intricate and satisfying crime novel in itself, What Doesn't Break Us and the Burrowhead trilogy as a whole hold up a mirror to modern Britain, but a warped, blotched and distempered mirror, one that's therefore perfectly suited to showing us our own self-created identity, highlighting not only the parts of the story we choose to tell but those we'd rather leave out. In the book, it's essential to understand and take ownership of these processes - because the past can influence the future, but he who owns the present, owns the past, as Orwell saw. Sedgwick therefore poses urgent questions to British, particularly to English, society as a whole.

This whole trilogy is a glorious achievement and I'd urge anyone who hasn't to read it NOW.

Here are my reviews of the first book, When the Dead Come Calling, and of the second, Where the Missing Gather.

For more information about What Doesn't Break Us, see the publisher's website here.

6 July 2022

#Review - Confidence by Denise Mina

Cover for book “Confidence” by Denise Mina. Looking up at a French Chateau, all pointy towers and gables, seen through a screen of trees and against a turquoise sky. Across the picture, the words “Deception. Theft. Murder. All you need is CONFIDENCE.”
Confidence (Anna and Fin, 2)
Denise Mina
Harvill Secker (Penguin Random House), 7 July 2022
Available as: HB, 3044pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781787301740

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

Confidence returns us to the world of podcasters Anna and Fin, whom Mina introduced in Conviction - the events of which turned Anna's middle class suburban life upside down. 

At the beginning of Confidence, Anna seems to have retained some of that safety - holidaying with her now ex, Hamish, and their girls, alongside his new wife and Fin and his new partner. All in an isolated lighthouse, where they can cosy around and bond with one another. What could go wrong?

Of course it doesn't work - the weather is horrendous, the heating fails and soon Anna is fleeing into the teeth of the gale, putting domesticity behind her again to pursue Lisa Lee, a young urban explorer who's gone missing (Anna and Fin have received a tip-off about this). Anna had never set eye on or even heard of Lisa before this evening, so what is it about Lisa that makes Anna abandon family and even safety and head out into the night?

Readers of Conviction will know that Anna did something similar there, although she did have the excuse that there was a direct threat to her. And that Anna had a secret, and a buried identity, both of which came back to haunt her. It may be that she's still dealing with the trauma of those events, and of their being known - and that the pressure has just got too much? Or is something else going on?

Whatever, Anna flings herself (and Fin) into the search for Lisa, who disappeared after posting an online video which seems to reveal a lost secret, something she found while exploring a forbidden French chateau. A chateau that the owners seemed to have abandoned at short notice...

Teaming up with the mysterious Bran van Wyk, South African drug smuggler, dealer in shady antiques and member of the super-rich and his sulky teenage son Marcos, Anna and Fin plunge into a complex trans-European quest seeking the origins of a religious artifact, the whereabouts of Lisa, and the truth behind a series of deaths and misfortunes that have attended the progress of the silver casket from its discovery in a Hungarian field to the Parisian auction house where it is now to be sold. The casket is the focus of conspiracy theories, religious fanaticism and, apparently, criminal gangs. Anna's obsession with it seems to have an element of playing with fire, with risk.

This story is in the end not I think a mystery in quite the same way as Conviction was. I don't think that by the end we are a great deal further on with understanding who the actors are, who is doing what to who and who is working for who else. Perhaps there isn't, here, a devious conspiracy, despite the Vatican being namechecked, so much as a muddle of greed, lies and desire for power. It's hard to take what anyone says as straight, except perhaps the little people, such as Lisa's friends with whom she made her video. 

As Anna and Fin become more and more confused, as Anna smokes more and more and evades questions from her daughters, it seems that they may be getting swallowed up in an unreality far from the comfort and safety of home. As they are following, not leading? How will they ever extract themselves from this dangerous world? Anna and Fin are in many respects witnesses, tagging along as events toss them now to Rome, now to Paris, back to London and so on. They are, perhaps, the man (and woman) in the street, aghast at the segment of society where organised crime, vast inherited wealth, religious obsession and a ruthless art-smuggling market overlap and bleed into one another. But at the same time they are voluntarily joining in events, passing up several opportunities to bail out and go home. Why they are doing so is for me the real mystery in Conviction, and that's part of (especially) Anna's longing story which is a long way from being resolved but I hope will be explored in further books.

I enjoyed Confidence. You need to accept that the "truth" behind events here barely matters - then you can sit back to enjoy and the ride and in particular Mina's exquisite character studies: chiefly Bran, the plausible rogue who seems to delight in telling six lies before breakfast (and then it will be a top of the range breakfast in the smartest of hotels, served in the room - or the suite - if you want). But she's also very good with the minor characters, especially the women. A new mother in a disordered flat, breastfeeding her infant in a haze of exhaustion and bliss. An apparently haughty auction house employee, confined in tight skirt and high heels, who jostles uncomfortably with Anna and Bran over a tray of champagne flutes. And more, all of them lifting the story beyond merely being a sequence of "things happening".

Through it all, Anna is at the centre of things, clearly distracting herself from facing some truths about herself and the questions that are bound to come from her daughters. (But I think there's more there). Her observations of the relationship between Bran and Marcos provide her with a stream of ongoing internal prompts, questions and moral touchstones which she uneasily takes to heart even as she refuses to answer calls form her own girls. There is more than a hint here, as I have said, that for Anna, this crazy adventure can actually stop at any point, if she wants. Say once she has found firm ground to stand on and can face her girls? The question is, will she do that before things take a turn - constantly hinted at and threatened - for the dangerous? You don't know who you are dealing with, Bran says at one point, and that's clearly true. Will Anna find out while there's still time, though?

Very entertaining and fun to read with some real moral heft (and a whole religious dimension I haven't said much about but which provides another ethical counterpoint to the whole story).

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

4 July 2022

#Review - The Draw of the Sea by Wyl Menmuir

Cover for book "The Draw of the Sea" by Wyl Menmuir. Stylised waves on the surface of the sea, done in gorgeous shades of blue, green, purple and even orange.
The Draw of the Sea
Wyl Menmuir
Quarto, 5 July 2022
Available as: HB, 304pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780711273962

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

They that go down to the sea in ships, 
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, 
and his wonders in the deep.

(Psalm 107, 23-24)

When I was a child, the family would sometimes go to the seaside (New Brighton) on a winter's day and sit in the car watching the waves break on the beach. This sounds weird, but I gather it's actually quite a common thing to do.

Menmuir's book - part memoir, part travelogue, all salty and haunting - explores that same instinct, although it celebrates rather closer engagement with the water than I've ever had - which is one of the things that makes The Draw of the Sea such an enthralling read.

Here you'll meet beachcombers ('wreckers'), surfers, sailors, fishermen, conservationists, artists and everyone in between. Based in Cornwall, Menmuir has many opportunities to explore the seashore and he weaves the results together into a bewitching, hypnotic and all-absorbing hymn to the waves, the shifting pebbles, the animals and plants that make their homes in the water. It also celebrates the people who go down to the sea and do business in great - or even small - waters.

It isn't a romanticised or idyllic account. Menmuir makes clear the challenges of the life: for example, physical dangers and hardships (in past times, those wreckers depended on what they could scrounge from the shore - and no, they didn't lure ships onto the rocks). He also draws attention to the damage being done to wildlife and ecosystems by modernity in general or, sometimes, simply by foolish individuals; to the unimaginable quantities of plastics polluting the seas, the oil spills, overfishing and sheer thoughtlessness of humanity. It's grim reading in places, but we do also meet people who are trying to make a difference - and the author admits that there can be a sort of syncronicitous beauty in the bizarre findings from beaches, even in all that plastic.

The chapters are short, focussing on the different ways the sea can be approached, understood or enjoyed and woven into it are Menmuir's own memories, beginning with a life far from the shore and then describing all the facets of his relationship with it now - including resorting there for healing and calm, surely one of the most common reasons for walking the beach or living near the sea. Even that, though, has its drawbacks. We are shown the effect on coastal communities of second-home ownership and overtourism, the impact on humans of other humans being strangely similar to that of humans on the wildlife.

In exploring what the sea means to us, and allowing us to hear from those who who work with it, live by it, enjoy it, struggle with it or seek to preserve it, Menmuir presents a wonderful variety of voices and of experiences. There is a great deal of wisdom here, and I loved the way that he lets these different viewpoints speak to one another, sometimes in harmony, sometimes not. The book benefits from the fact that Menmuir is part of the communities described here - this isn't a journalists's fleeting account, it's grounded (maybe I should say watered?) in his lived experience and drips with a gentle authenticity that makes it a joy to read.

The photographs and maps add to that, ranging from the intimate - beach gleanings or individuals - to the epic - seascapes and wild views. In fact the book itself is a gorgeous item, the cover a treat to the eye, the endpapers marbled, the photos atmospheric and numinous.  Definitely one to hold in one's hands and read, I think - though if you're actually going to take the book onto those Cornish beaches you might want the e-book too.

For more information about The Draw of the Sea, see the publisher's website here.

1 July 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Six Lights off Green Scar by Gareth Powell

Cover for book "Six Lights Over Green Scar" by Gareth Powell. The cover is seen both on a physical book and on a phone screen. We are above a planet, rising over the horizon ahead is an intense green light. All around is the darkness of space.
Six Lights off Green Scar 
Gareth Powell
Books on the Hill (BOTH), 2022
Available as: e
Source: Gifted copy

I'm grateful to Love Books Tours for a gifted e-copy of Six Lights off Green Scar to consider for review.

Gareth Powell's novella Six Lights off Green Scar is one of eight dyslexia-friendly books for adults that Books on the Hill plan to publish this year. They are raising money for this via Kickstarter, and I hope you'll support that venture - see link and pitch below, but first, a little about this book.

Six Lights off Green Scar is a taut, focussed space adventure that hits all the right notes. Sal Dervish is a washed-up spaceship captain ekeing out a miserable, down-at-heel existence on a remote moon while his ship rots in dock. Dervish is notorious for what he got wrong, shunned by all who know his history, living from day to, regret to regret, bottle to bottle, girl to girl. 

Ripe, in other words, for an offer of redemption - if he can face the consequences.

Powell gives us all this, and more - the 'roulette ships' with their devil-may-care crews jaunting into the unknown, the ambitious reporter who wants to known What Happened, the sinister figure in the shadows - in his dynamic first few pages, which set up a mystery, pose a challenge and point towards adventure. 

He follows up with action, danger and the need for choices. It all cleverly plays on notes and imagery we may be familiar with from the best of crime and adventure stories, but which are transformed here, the noir hints remaining but reborn in a new world, a new universe, in which those choices - and their consequences - may be much larger than we imagine.

A perfect, riveting narrative that you'll want to gobble up in a single reading, I think - so... make it so!

Dyslexic friendly fiction for adults by BOTH Press

Following their successful "Open Dyslexia" Kickstarter in 2021, which led to publishing eight dyslexic friendly fiction titles, BOTH Press is launching on June 7th 2022, their second Kickstarter "Open Dyslexia: the sequel" with more high-profile authors than ever before, lasting 30 days and finishing on the July 4th 2022

The Kickstarter aims to publish eight more titles of high-quality fiction from bestselling authors: including household names such as Bernard Cornwell and Peter James. 

The line-up is full of many front-list authors such as Gareth Powell, J.M Alvey (aka Juliet Mckenna), Scott Oden, Snorri Krisjanason, and James Bennett.

Peter James will also be doing an introduction for the 2022 collection.  

There are very few initiatives for reading for pleasure for adults. The eight titles BOTH Press has already published are the only readily available dyslexic friendly fiction for adults in the UK and can be found in libraries and any bookshop. The scale of accessibility is not nearly enough, as around 10% of the UK population deal with some form of dyslexia.

Despite Jay Blades's (the Presenter of ‘Repair Shop’) unique telling of his own learning to read on the documentary ‘Learning To Read At 51’, which the BBC recently aired. There are still few or no resources for adult dyslexia. A glance at Adult dyslexics charity websites and reading charity websites indicates there are few resources on reading fiction for pleasure for adults with dyslexia.

The dyslexic blogger Suzy Taylor who writes for Dyslexia Scotland, said: 

"It is frustrating that we now have children's books in dyslexic friendly formats. As adults we apparently do not require books in the same form."

There needs to be a choice for people to read for pleasure, where there are books designed to be friendly to them and are not dumbed down, are high quality and enjoyable fiction, which people can chat and socialise about with friends and family.

Darren Clarke, the director of Succeed with Dyslexia, said:

"This books shop is doing incredible things and helping people to fall in love with reading again" [and] "I love the fact and the thought that has gone through on these [titles] with the spacing, the font, with the colour of the paper and the way that the book just flows."

BOTH Press has had many heart-warming responses of how the books have impacted their lives. 

Dr Alistair Sims said: 

"Many individuals who have told us their stories do not want to be mentioned due to fear of stigma about their struggle to read. For example a man in his 50s is Scotland had not read a book since he was a child. His partner found us and bought him one of our titles. He read it. Then called us up to order another. He was so happy to actually read. In fact the partner wrote us a letter explaining how much of difference it is making and then ordered the four more for a Christmas present." 

BOTH aim to raise £16,000 to publish eight titles. Though looking to the future, they will need more than £20,000 a year to keep publishing eight titles regularly. All funds go toward the book production/ life cycle to make them readily available. The bookshop Books on the Hill and their manager Alistair Sims, who created BOTH Press, receives no profits from the project.

To support the Kickstarter, go here.