31 August 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Whisper of the Seals by Roxanne Bouchard

Whisper of the Seals (Detective Moralès series, 3)
Roxanne Bouchard (trans David Warriner)
Orenda Books, 18 August 2022
Available as: PB, 275pp,  e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): Whisper of the Seals

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy of Whisper of the Seals to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blogtour, on its last day - I'm honoured to be mooring the vessel at the end of an epic voyage!

With her much-loved Detective Moralès series forging ahead, Roxanne Bouchard has rapidly become one of my favourite crime authors, her Canadian settings refreshingly different from anything I'd read before, the characters vivid and well drawn, the stories rooted in ordinary lives and real dilemmas and the plots satisfyingly twisty. 

Whisper of the Seals is no exception, while definitely taking a turn for the darker. We rejoin Moralès as he's about to take a much-needed break: after he and his wife have finally divorced, he's joining a winter cruise around the coast, with plenty of stops for cross-country skiing. Moralès is joined by several of his police colleagues, of course there's an active case on and of course, case files are aboard the ship. So Moralès is able to distract himself from brooding on how it all went wrong by joining in the (remote) detective work as forensic psychologist Nadine Lauzon attempts to penetrate the mystery of a teenager who has been murdered in Montreal. 

More actively present in the story, so to speak, is fisheries officer Simone Lord, who we also know and love already. She has been posted for the winter to a remote group of islands - Lord regards this as a punishment - to oversee the activities of the resentful fishing community there. 

Lord, who in a creepy episode early on we see as - unknown to her - the object of a Peeping Tom, is called out at short notice to join a trawler embarking on a seal hunt late in the season and in worsening weather. She will be aboard with five less than savoury characters, crewmen whose chequered pasts and varyingly desperate presents are vividly brought to life by Bouchard. Bluntly, it's a crew of chancers and worse, men who have little respect for each other or for Lord, and less for the authority she represents. If you sense trouble ahead, you'd be right. The setup put me in mind, of all books, of Treasure Island, reminding me of young Jim Hawkins surrounded by cutthroats and with nowhere to flee to.

Bouchard expertly draws out the tension as the hunt mounts. Some of the scenes will be troubling for readers who instinctively object to the slaughter of seal pups; while there's nothing gratuitous here, it is a frank portrayal of a real way of life, one that relies on killing. Bouchard allows her characters space to express their perspective, including their resentment of the environmentalists who they believe have unwarrantedly targeted that way of life. Whisper of the Seals is not, at heart, an "issues" book, it is not (directly) about that conflict or trying to convince. But the facts of life in a harsh environment are part of the setting and one we shouldn't overlook. Of course, the killing of seals is, one might think, only a narrow distance from the killing of people, and - as the detectives amiably bicker and flirt on their cruise - Lord begins to suspect that something aboard the Jean-Mathieu is badly amiss.

I loved the portrayal of Lord, who we're familiar with already but who comes to the fore here: her background and self-sufficiency - and the doubt and fear underneath. She works in a very male setting, facing appalling treatment and sexism (including from her own colleagues) but this has only made her more determined to excel - something which is then naturally held against her by men!

The characters of the men aboard are also well delineated, especially the (frankly horrible) Tony McMurray who fixates on Lord as a suitable object for punishment in revenge for past actions by the Fisheries service. Now he has one of their members confined aboard a small trawler, he reckons he can take his time finding a suitable way to work out his resentment... Simone's safety will depend on her wits, her courage and her ability to read the room (or rather the ship).

In the meantime, on the cruise liner, unaware of the danger his colleague is in, Moralès considers his past and his future and ponders new beginnings, his thoughts turning to Simone, giving the story a rather delicious will-they, won't-they aspect with the complex Moralès - also trapped in a ship - forced to face some uncomfortable truths about his life.

The two strands come together in an explosive and tense conclusion that, for me, threw everything up in the air again. There's an ending you absolutely must not let yourself be spoiled on, confirming Bouchard as a masterly orchestrator of plot, character and emotion - and her translator here, David Warriner, as able to render all the ins and outs of what is a complex and nuanced book in arresting and readable English.

I can't wait for Detective Moralès 4.

I would give content warnings here for cruelty to animals, and for threatened rape.

For more information about Whisper of the Seals, see the Orenda website here - and of course in the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Whisper of the Seals directly from Orenda Books, from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

25 August 2022

#Review - The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy
Megan Bannen
Orbit, 25 August 2022
Available as: PB, 418pp, audio, e
ISBN(PB): 9780356518664

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, to consider for review.

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is an entrancing fantasy/ romance/ Western(ish) story of mistaken intentions, overcoming obstacles and - in the proper place - intense sex.

Mercy Birdsall is an undertaker, the glue that holds Birdsall & Son (ha!) together following her father's heart attack and her brother's decision to abandon the family firm for other opportunities (it's not so bad - he can rustle up killer baked goods).. 

Hart Ralston is a Tanrian Marshal, a loner much given - during his patrols out in the wilderness - to brooding on his past. Hart's task is to guard the strange alt-region of Tanria, formerly prison of the Old Gods, to prevent revenants from troubling the good folks of the surrounding lands. And to prevent the good folks from messing with Tania, because no good will come of THAT. (For Reasons, modern tech won't work in Tanria so it's a matter of horses, crossbows and campfires in there - giving this story that distinct Western vibe).

It would be an understatement to say that Hart and Mercy got off on the wrong foot when they first met, a couple of years ago. Perhaps they got off on the wrong set of legs? We gradually learn the story behind this, and can see the misunderstandings and misconceptions that occurred, but at the start of the book you just have to accept that the two hate and despise one another (so, yes, enemies to lovers may be hovering in the background). Bannen gets to the heart of this by having them correspond (unknowingly) so that we get a glimpse of the people they really are - or at least, the ones they would each like their anonymous penpal to believe they are.

If that all seems highly unlikely, well I suppose it is, but Bannen has a real trick for feeding one's willing suspension of disbelief. It may be because the characters themselves are down to earth and so emotionally credible, or it may be that the setting - while fantastical - is so well established with its own quirks and features. (Although not stated explicitly, everything is very aquatic, with amphibious vehicles, a "dock" at the back of the undertaker's business, and a whole religion based around the concept of the "salt sea" - for example, Hart & Soon makes "boats" for the dead, not coffins - which totally convinces). 

Or it may just be that, gosh, can Bannen just write! I wanted to know how the story twists would unfold - how the family crises, the dire financial state of the business, and Hart's burden of guilt and shame - would play out. I wanted to know whether, and how, Hart and Mercy would get together. And I just wanted more, more domestic details, family wrangles and business crises.

There is a wider mystery as well, with the numbers of those reanimated "drudges" on the rise, and their danger correspondingly increasing. In a world where demigods walk, you'd think that matters of the - er - heart would take second place to such grand fantasy, but no, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is refreshingly domestic and persona in its focus, making it - to me - a rollicking good story. It's one written with verve and wisdom, and lots of humanity.

I would recommend.

For more information about The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, see the publisher's website here.

23 August 2022

#Review - The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay

Cover for book "The Pallbearers Club" by Paul Tremblay. A white/ grey marbled background, like very high quality, grainy paper. Curled across the cover, a spine - a human spine? - intersected by three safety pins, which transforms into what looks to me like the backbone of a fish as it makes loop about itself.
The Pallbearers Club
Paul Tremblay
Titan Books, 15 July 2022
Available as: PB, 288pp, e, audio
Source: Audio by subscription, advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789099003

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Pallbearers Club. I also read part of it as an audiobook.

The Pallbearers Club particularly lends itself to that dual approach. The story is told in, literally, two parts - fortysomething Art Barbara is (PURPORTS TO BE) telling his life story while another figure annotates the text with comments, objections (striking out "memoir" wherever it appears and replacing it with "novel"), critical analysis of the text, advice and, increasingly, a counter narrative.

In the physical book, this is done by handwritten annotations (including some doodles). In the audio, the commentary is portrayed by a female narrator (Gemma Carfi), her voice cutting in with among Art Barbara's (James O’Connell's) main narrative in a sharp counterpoint, creating the illusion - almost - of dialogue or debate. I have to say that the audio narration is just superb, O'Connell's narration, interrupted by Carfi's waspish observations (which start in the title page when she queries Tremblay's dedication) create a real sense of dialogue between the two.

Precisely how this second voice has access to Barbara's story [THAT's GOOD - A STORY CAN BE EITHER A MEMOIR OR A NOVEL] and why she chooses to contribute to it (and who she is) emerge slowly though the book. I don't want to preempt that, and I'll only say here that she has a stake in the whole enterprise. The fact is though that The Pallbearers Club has not one but two unreliable narrators. Not only do they mislead us, they also mislead each other, and in hinting at "Art Barbara" being a nom de plume, and via Ms Second Voice playfully threatening to unmask him and reaching out even to the title page - breaking the fourth wall in effect - we have a deliciously confusing metatextual tangle that leaves the reader questioning every page, every line. The reader can decide to trust one or the other of them, or neither, or try to construct an idea of "truth" from the interplay.

It ought to be simple. Art, a young man at highschool in 1980s USA, needs a bit of polish for his CV, so he starts The Pallbearers Club - a group that attends funerals of the lonely and the friendless. In doing so he meets Mercy, an enigmatic and self-contained woman who inducts him into the ways of punk - in particular, the local music scene, transports him in her battered orange car, and in one memorable scene, invades his family's basement.  Art's relationship with Mercy forms the core of the story [HA - "STORY" AGAIN! I APPROVE!] which is structured as three acts. There is the initial meeting and the period following it, up until Art's spinal surgery to correct his scoliosis at this point a horrific event tears them apart. Decades later, Art runs into Mercy again when he's living away from home grubbing for a living in a succession of no-hope bands. That also ends with a very strange episode, this time in Mercy's basement apartment. Finally, the two reunite in Art's home town where he has returned to live with his ageing, ailing mother after her divorce. [ANNULMENT!]

But really, things are neither pure nor simple. Art's perspective is influenced by Mercy's exploration of 
an episode of New England history in which a grave was opened after suspicion that its occupant was rising at night to feed on her family. The book - Tremblay is of course a veteran horror writer - is therefore bedecked with call-outs to vampire mythology (as well as to popular music). Both Art's narration and his interlocutor's remarks are fully alive to this aspect, and actively comment on the resonances of it in Art's story, though they often disagree on its interpretation. This is only one of the way in which Tremblay leaves us with a myriad of alternatives depending not only on how welcoming we are of the supernatural but on our attitudes to the reliability of the different voices.

That ambiguity persists to the very end. Don't read this book expecting neat resolutions or clarity. Tremblay may have written a horror story (he's definitely written a horror story, if only in its bleak portrayal of Art's desperate health situation, caused by a country that refuses to meet its responsibilities to its people) but it's not a conventional one. You have to pick up the pieces and assemble them but many don't fit. And in trying to put them together you can't sidestep the deeply felt portrayal of Art's life - a very mundane life, a very ordinary man, but someone who evokes a great sense of sympathy as he flounders away trying to make something of his life, the firm landmarks of his childhood melting into the mist [NOT A FAN OF  THE PURPLE PROSE, TBH] and no adult consolations replacing them. 

It's a read like nothing I'd encountered before. A novel [YES!] but also a memoir [NO WAY!] if a fictional one. I mean that this story of Art Barbara comes over as deeply realistic, despite the supernatural overtones, or maybe even because of them. A triumphant use of horror to show so much more of life than one could in a naturalistic novel, The Pallbearers Club will remain with me for a long time, I think.

For more information about The Pallbearers Club, see the Titan Books website here

4 August 2022

#Review - Attack and Decay by Andrew Cartmel

Cover for book “Attack and Decay”, the 6th in the Vinyl Detective series by Andrew Cartmel. The lower half of the cover is black vinyl record, with the title – Attack and Decay – on the yellow/green label in the centre, with an endorsement from Ben Aaronovitch (“The Vinyl Detective goes Scandi noir? Yes please!”) Above the edge of the record, against a purple background, figures and items are seen in silhouette. A woman holding her left hand up to a bird. A car. A cat. A figure in top hat. A figure with a machine gun. A tower, with smoke rising from it. The Detective himself in the centre, with record bag, a disc flying away from him.
Attack and Decay (The Vinyl Detective, 6)
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 17 May 2022
Available as: PB, 464pp, e, audio, 
Source: Purchased PB
ISBN(PB): 9781789098969

In this, the sixth adventure for the Vinyl Detective and his associates, the crew make an expedition to Sweden after the Detective is hired to test listen to a sought after record (the 'Attack and Decay' of the title). It's not in one of his favoured genres at all, a sort of Goth death metal thing, but a job's a job, the cats have to be fed and the wine bill won't pay itself. Plus the client is wealthy and willing to underwrite a trip for Nevada, Agatha and Tinkler as well, so off they all go.

Cartmel has some fun with the subsequent adventure, ticking off the tropes of Scandi noir ('Lonely murder Farmhouse. Check') even while nothing in particular seems to threaten. Rather, he sticks to the winning formula of these books which I'd characterise as a sort of cosy crime, with lots of food and drink. It's as important here which restaurant the crew lunch at, whether they are able to get good coffee or not and how comfortable the beds are as who is murdered or why. (Actually VERY important, as one of said restaurants introduces Tinkler to a young lady he hopes will make all his dreams come true - and no, I don't want to describe Tinkler's dreams, if you've read this series you will be able to imagine them).

The first half of the book is therefore largely occupied by this agreeable footling around, involving the four in their usual banter and introducing them to the small town they're visiting and to some of its eccentric residents. These include a priest who searches her back garden for the neighbour's dog's poo at night, marking it with a glow stick; a Swedish woman who only speaks in Mockney English, to the anguish of her husband; and the proprietor of a second hand store based in a former water tower. 

Then the murders start...

I rather pride myself on anticipating where things will go in crime fiction, but I was completely caught off guard here when a rather bizarre caper (garnished with the usual coincidences of the series) suddenly goes sideways and everything takes a turn for the gruesome. After that things get dark very fast, in a whirl of sinister crows, bizarre killings, and suspected poisoning. Can 'Attack and Decay" actually be cursed - as the Church, which tried to suppress it, claims? If so, what does it mean that the Detective has listened to it not only one, but four times?

The second part of the book, taking forward amidst spiralling danger and hair-raising escapes, is pretty much constant action, and highly satisfying, leading up to an action filled climax in which Tinkler is key (while he is still often annoying I think in this book he's brought into the fold rather more, as it were).

Overall, Attack and Decay will be great fun for readers who know and love the Detective and his friends, having followed them through their previous outings. It's a fine addition to the series.  If you haven't read the earlier books you should though go and do that before reading this one. 

For more information about Attack and Decay, see the Titan website here.

2 August 2022

#Review - The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne

Cover of book "The Book Of Gothel" by Mary McMyne. A stylised grey tower, set amidst depictions of plants similar to a medieval illumination (or perhaps a William Morris-style wallpaper pattern!) The tower has a single arched window, from which descends a rope of red hair.
The Book of Gothel 
Mary McMyne
Orbit, 28 July 2022
Available as: PB,  366pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356517704

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The Book of Gothel to consider for review.

The Book of Gothel is a compelling, richly imagined and involving fairy-story retelling. It distinguishes itself from much of this genre by not being set in a vaguely fantastical world but by being firmly rooted in a particular time and place - the Black Forest of the later 12th century. Indeed, the book shows a clear engagement with the political and religious conditions of the time. There is a framing device (the discovery and translation of the book itself by a modern academic) which makes this completely clear, neatly answering the "how do I come to be reading this story?" question.

Our main protagonist is Haelewise, introduced as a young girl at the beginning of the story but who is writing it all down as an old woman. It is her life story, or at least the story of her early life, before she became "Mother Gothel", named from the tower in which she lives. The Book of Gothel is a wonderfully varied story, involving magic, romance, politics, religion and prejudice as well as male power. Haelewise wants nothing more than to be safe with her family, but the times - and her weak father - won't permit this fate for her. After her mother dies, Haelewise - subject from birth to "spells" - either migraines or epilepsy, perhaps - is distrusted by the townsfolk and driven out as being a witch. After that, her existence is precarious, not really fitting in anywhere and full of yearning, for the mother and the life she has lost, and for the sweetheart who might have been hers had things been different.

Haelewise's life is also shaped by her having to compromise to receive any help or support. What she's is being asked to sacrifice is her adherence to the creed of her mother - a system of belief, part magical craft, part old religion, part simply inherited wisdom that challenges the Church - which Haelewise was only just discovering. McMyne makes this very much something that Haelewise sees as her inheritance from her adored mother, so more than simply a creed or faith, it's bound up with her identity and with the love of a parent. A very personal thing, I think. That connection gives Haelewise's dilemma a real depth and heart, one that keeps this book from being at centre a neo-pagan apologia. 

That complexity of holding together different beliefs and faith systems also shows in what to me was the most intriguing aspect of the story - an encounter between Haelewise and St Hildegard of Bingen, well known now for her mystical experiences but also for her music (and much else!) I loved that McMyne let Hildegard show the possibility of a Christian mystical context, and suggest that these matters might be a little bit complex. Like Haelewise, Hildegard is clearly having to compromise and her success both in politics and in church affairs perhaps suggests this may not be a losing game. 

Haelewise can be an annoying character at times, ignoring what seems like good advice not only form Hildegard but also from aged witch Kunegunde and indeed at times from her mother too. (If somebody tells you not to venture outside the charmed circle of stones because it it VERY DANGEROUS and then you do, what do you expect to happen?) However throughout her adventures, she is an active, bold and determined young woman. Her understanding of the situation shifts and her goals alter accordingly. perhaps becoming more attainable, but she never gives up on her determination to be safe with a family - and she is a formidable enemy to those who would stand in her way.

There are only a couple of aspects where I wanted a little more.

The first is the insistence in the publicity - and this is reflected in the cover image - that this is the story behind the witch in Rapunzel (the woman who shuts Rapunzel in the tower). While that may well be true, the main events of Rapunzel take place later than the period covered by this book. They are certainly mentioned but are not at all central to The Book of Gothel. (I would love to see McMyne write that story, but it would definitely be a Part II of Haelewise's story). The other is that I hoped that a little more of Prof. Eisenberg's discovery, which bookends the story. I anticipated that things might jump off from what she learns, with consequences in the modern world. But perhaps that, too, may be written one day?

Those reservations are perhaps a bit unfair ("this book doesn't contain what it doesn't contain!") because the story that IS here is a taut and well-written fantasy novel with some real moral and theological weight. It isn't, in the end, a retelling of a particular fairytale - though you may spot echoes of one or two apart from Rapunzel - but actually I think that's a good thing. The Book of Gothel is its own story, at the same time perfectly comfortable being both set in a recognisable part of the medieval period and on the borders of fantasy, and it is a cracking story at that.

For more information about The Book of Gothel, see the publisher's website here.