28 September 2022

#Blogtour #Review - The Hike by Susi Holliday

A distant, dark peak reflected in still water. Silhouetted against the sky, and reflected in the water, four figures.
The Hike
Susi Holliday
Thomas & Mercer, 1 October 2022
Available as: PB, 269pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9781542035347

Trapped and slowly falling apart...

I'm grateful to Susi and to Anne at Random Things Tours for an advance copy of The Hike to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour for The Hike, which begins today.

I'm honoured to be starting things off, as the four participants in this particular ill-fated expedition in Switzerland take their first steps on the mountain...

Susi Holliday really is the queen of a certain unsettling subgenre - part Gothic, part crime - where a group comes to grief amidst the bracing air and stirring sights of the Great Outdoors. I'm reminded of Sherlock Holmes's dark attitude to the countryside, expressed during The Adventure of the Copper Beeches: 'It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside...' True, but somebody has to take the darkness there, don't they?

It's clear from the outset that has happened, as two bruised and battered walkers stagger into a pretty little Swiss town, an unwelcome problem for police captain Thierry Pigalle on a Sunday when he'd looked forward to a leisurely lunch with his wife. But it's only as Holliday begins to give us the story of sisters Cat and Ginny and their husbands, Paul and Tristan, that we realise just how much sin the four have carried with them into the Swiss mountains. 

As that becomes clear, you may feel, like me, that these have to be four of the most unpleasant people to grace recent crime fiction! But don't let that put you off - Holliday knows how to weave a tale, and she makes it compelling despite that edge of dislike, maybe even, to a degree, because of it. We want to understand why the four are so unpleasant to each other. We want to understand how they can live with what they've done, or, for some, with what they plan to do. We want to understand, perhaps most of all, how they imagine they can go on with their lives after this is all over. Underpinning some of the plans that unfold is a level of self-delusion perhaps even approaching psychopathy.

And scariest of all - you may come to believe that some members of this group may be capable of getting way with it.

It's a twisty narrative in which layers and layers of bad intentions, selfishness, sexual incontinence, greed and lack of any visible moral framework set Cat, Ginny, Paul and Tristan for a deadly march through those beautiful mountains. Perhaps, actually, comparisons shouldn't be with Conan Doyle or Christie but with William Golding, with overtones of Lord of the Flies once everyone is away from their pesky mobile phones and no help can be caught? But there are mysteries here, too, with the actions of this little group worth following closely - even if you observe the wheels in motion, though, I'm not sure you'll anticipate just what direction they may take things in.

Throughout, Holliday maintains a strong degree of psychological plausibility - these may be unpleasant characters, not people to share a train carriage with, but they are well-realised, rounded, believable unpleasant characters whether they are being petty, grasping, lustful, spiteful or - just occasionally - vulnerable and trusting. There's also a taut, threatening atmosphere - with another figure apparently stalking the group - in which anything might happen whether from accident, malice, shifting alliances or cold, deep-laid plot.

All in all, great fun, and the payoff of those characters being so nasty is that I couldn't feel too bad when anything nasty happened to any of the four (though I did feel for Pigalle, who has his Sunday thoroughly spoiled).

For more information about The Hike, see the author's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Hike from Amazon here.

26 September 2022

#Review - Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Shrines of Gaiety
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday (Penguin Random House) 27 September 2022
Available as: HB, 448pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
ISBN(HB): 9780857526557

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

In Kate Atkinson's latest novel, set in Jazz Age London on the eve of the General Strike, death comes frequently and often with little sense and little meaning. The Great War may be over but that sense of life being chancy and cheap lingers.

The bodies of young women, apparently drowned, are trawled form the Thames. They receive scant respect - a policeman trying to investigate has to hunt round several sites where a corpse may or not be kept before he finds what he is looking for.

Other young women (girls, really) are trafficked into the back rooms of nightclubs; some fall victim to drug overdoses.

The roads are dangerous, with no training needed before one can drive, and they claim their victim too. 

There is ever present street crime, sometimes spilling over into murder.

And, of course, poverty, hunger and disease consume so many that the victims - whether dead or on their way - are taken for granted, with those sleeping in churchyards or under bridges simply ignored.

I found this plethora of deaths a little reminiscent of Atkinson's Life After Life, largely set in the same period, in which the same character lived (and died) again and again, gradually outwitting Fate as though playing a game and able to respawn aware of future dangers and difficulties. The difference is of course that in Shrines of Gaiety there are no second chances though many would wish there were. The weight of the War hangs over everyone here, whether they took part (Gwendolen, the no-nonsense librarian from York, served as a nurse, Niven, eldest son of shady nightclub owner Nellie Coker, served in the ranks), avoided the war, were too young, or stood and waited, as fathers, husbands, sons, friends and brothers fell to the mud and the wire. (Yes, and lovers too).

That may be the reason for the frenzied pleasure-seeking taking place in the book as the Bright Young Things celebrate their survival, try to bury dark memories, or simply look forward not back - all accompanied by a great deal of moral tutting from the older, Victorian generation. If that gives the impression of the book as being rather loud, don't worry, it's not. The partying is mainly offstage, the story mostly taking place during hungover mornings and on dark nights after the clubs have closed. All the decadence does though make for a vibrant nightlife in Soho, with many lucrative opportunities for those who provide the pleasure, or at least, facilitate it: the book features hostesses in the clubs, sex workers, drug dealers, thieves, and police on the make. And of course young innocents who've come to London to make their fortune.

Gwendolen Kelling is not one of these. A former librarian who lost most of her family in the war, she may be seeking meaning, or she may be missing the emotional pitch of the war, or she may just be good-hearted, practical and eager to help. Or perhaps all of these things. In any case, she's trekked down to London in search of Freda Murgatroyd and Florence Ingram, two young women who ran away seeking careers dancing on the stage. We see (some of) what happens to them, their trials standing in somewhat for all the poor unfortunates dragged out of the river, reduced to selling themselves or dancing in the clubs for hours night after night, or ruined by drugs.

DCI Frobisher, on the other hand, may still be something of an innocent. Sent in to clean up the notoriously corrupt Bow Street station, despite his seniority and service in the police he's still upright and still seems to believe in the redemption of a corrupt Force. He also however believes in the threat posed to morality by such as Nellie Coker and he soon employs Gwendolen to infiltrate the shadier clubs, despite misgivings that he may be putting her in harm's way.

Others are less innocent. Nellie and her brood (not just Niven, but also Edith, Betty, Shirley, Ramsay, and Kitty) and their rivals (the profitable clubs are rich prizes) and a host of others are out to squeeze all they can (pleasure, money, power) from the good times, or are simply ready to do what they must to survive. Atkinson is very good at showing how narrow the margin is between survival and destruction, and how simple acts of care (like Gwendolen saving the life of a gangster in a club or Frobisher giving a half crown to a starving girl) can make a difference. As can little bits of meanness - the theft of a handbag or just looking the other way or not thinking about the plight a young woman may be in.

As she allows the paths of all these people to cross and re-cross in the West End and Soho, Atkinson's abilities to layer an intricate narrative and bring her characters alive really serves the reader here as meetings (chance, planned, and missed) and depictions of characters, places and events knit together to produce a tight and fascinating story. She both creates a powerful sense of a particular time and place and also happily accommodates flashbacks from that time to show earlier years in York, the days of the War or even further back when Nellie was founding her empire.  

Indeed, the book is so well-written and observed that events and plot taking place now are almost immaterial. There isn't a sense in this book of needing to get to the next thing that happens or of waiting to understand why the last thing that happened did. Rather, I wanted to see what these fascinating, alive people would do next, how they would react to things, what their next moves would be. And also, of course, to understand that marvellous picture of a place, a time and an atmosphere.

There is so much in Shrines of Gaiety. A glorious central character in the redoubtable (yet so nice) Gwendolen. A portrait of a place and time a hundred years back, close to ours (the same streets one can walk today, the thrill of seeing celebrities and prominent people behaving badly) but also so strange and different (the overhang of war, foreknowledge of a further war to come).  A matter of fact portrayal of human trafficking and abuse (there are some similar themes to Atkinson's Big Sky in that respect). A sense of... I don't quite know how to put this. Of possibility? Of indeterminacy? Some things that happen here may not happen, or may be open to question, as though - for all the gritty reality - what's being described is a time spent slightly aside from the real world, in which consequences may not follow. Some references to A Midsummer Night's Dream perhaps support that, those radiant, dazzling clubs perhaps a portal to a fairyland where nothing is quite real.

But at the same time, fairyland is a perilous place and "we pay a tithe to Hell". For many in Shrines of Gaiety, consequences do follow. We see the clubs, tawdry and harshly lit, the next morning, we see those bodies in the river and we see the hangovers and the desperate attempts by some to ride themselves of consequences. A shrine is a place for worship and sacrifice and there is plenty of blood in this book.

It's a book I adored, Atkinson at her very best, engaging with themes that, behind the tinsel and glitter, are weighty and important - and entertaining the reader at every turn. 

For more information about Shrines of Gaiety, see the publisher's website here.

24 September 2022

#Review - Full Immersion by Gemma Amor

Full Immersion
Gemma Amor
Angry Robot, 13 September 2022
Available as: PB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9780857669810

I'm grateful to the publishers for an advance e-copy of Full Immersion via Netgalley to consider for review.


Reading Full Immersion was a blast, in two senses. First, it's a gripping, compulsive, skin-crawling SF-horror, the like of which I have rarely seen - so reading it was superb fun. But in another sense of the word, "fun" is hardly the word. Experiencing Full Immersion was like having a shockwave hit me. It felt like being across the road from a collapsing building - except that the immersion lasted most of the book. I don't think I have ever read a story with a more apt title.

The impact of Full Immersion comes from a number of factors, only some of which I can pin down. There's the claustrophobic atmosphere. The story largely takes place in just two rooms, a control room and a treatment room where a woman called Magpie is confined, trussed up in wires, tubes and a harness - while in a full VR simulated environment designed to tease out the motivations for her catastrophic mental health crisis. While in the simulation, Magpie can roam free through endless created vistas, though in reality, she's closely confined.

There is the small cast; the patient, Magpie; a nurse; couple of techs - Evans, and the Boss; a "psych"... and a monster. Building on this sense of enclosure and isolation I might have a stab at defining this book in terms of the Gothic, if it wasn't a waste of time for such a genuinely different story - Full Immersion in a genre in itself - but really, those are relatively minor factors in the book's impact.

More, there is a sense in reading the story of being washed in a tide of horror, despair and loss - all bound up with how Amor takes Magpie's crisis as the central ground, the keystone of the arch, of this novel. Magpie has been through some truly traumatic events - the book concerns themes of suicide, harm to a child, birth (a graphic scene, as birth is!) and post-natal depression. She is still going through traumatic events - though now in that basement, after she reached out in desperation for the experimental "treatment" offered there. 

Which isn't to say she's altogether on board with the idea, as you'll see. As Full Immersion blends reality, obsession, guilt, and a truly insidious foe, the story alternates between Evans and his Boss - she definitely has her own purposes here - and Magpie desperately trying to get her shit together to meet the challenge of this new and unsettling environment. It's a painful read, in many respects, and may be too strong - or raise too many ghosts - for some. But it's written with a great sense of empathy and of compassion, opening up aspects of life which many of us (perhaps thankfully) are unaware of. 

It's also a book that refuses to deal in easy answers. Yes, there is progress here - bought with much pain. But Amor refuses to allow her characters a happy-ever-after ending. All that pain, anguish and guilt won't just go away, she seems to be saying. It's out there. You may meet it. You need to be ready, but you can't be.

All in all, a stunning book, definitely one of my favourites this year so far.

For more information about Full Immersion, see the Angry Robot website here

22 September 2022

#Blogtour #Review - The Bleeding by Johana Gustawsson (trans David Warriner)

The Bleeding
Johana Gustawsson (trans David Warriner)
Orenda Books, 15 September 2022
Available as: HB, 259pp, PB, 259pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 978-1914585265 

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of The Bleeding to consider for review, and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

The Bleeding was for me a welcome return to Gustawsson's writing, writing that shows an uncanny ability to link a present-day mystery with events - nearly always bad, troubling events - in the past.

In The Bleeding, it's a triple timeline.

In modern Quebec, Detective Maxine Grant, who's suffering multiple family pressures (a recent pregnancy; a sulky, difficult teenage daughter; and a husband death in tragic circumstances) is called upon to investigate her old primary school teacher, who's apparently killed her own husband in a fenced attack. (Thirty one stab wounds).

In 1949, twelve year old Lina, bullied at school and neglected by her mother who's attempting to make ends meet after her own husband was killed in the War, finds friendship with the mysterious old lady who lives in the asylum.

And in 1899, Lucienne, a wealthy woman in Paris, loses both her kids in a catastrophic fire. Unable to accept their deaths, she turns to Spiritualism for some answers...

I have to say that the way Gustawsson brings these strands together and uses each to reinforce themes in the others, is nothing short of brilliant. Too much detail would spoil the careful unravelling of the plot, but I did find that taken together, the stories (or the story) amounts to a careful and damning study of the treatment of women in society. The details may be different (Lucienne's treatment by her husband, Lina's torment and public ridicule when her period comes, the pressures that Maxine is under) but they fit together to form a coherent and troubling hole.

At the same time, Gustawsson delivers an intricate and convincing police procedural, the darker moments lightened by the presence of Prof Ginette Montminny ('Gina'), a forensic psychologist assigned to unravel the prime suspect's motivations and behaviour. Gina is, we learn in passing, Emily Roy's teacher, so while Emily does not herself appear, we can be assured that Gina knows her stuff. It's a tribute to the skill of the author, and the desperation of somebody here, then, when a certain revelation occurs which I certainly hadn't seen coming and which cast much of the book in a new light.  (The book is excellent value, it will entertain you twice!)

A vivid and entertaining read, which packs in not only policework, male privilege (and betrayal) and an arresting depiction of life in three different epochs (showing not only how much has changed, but how much has not) but also, as if that weren't enough, a disturbing vein of the supernatural and a slightly sulphurous hint of corruption being passed from generation to generation. Innocent blood is both prized and at great risk here and one can't but feel that a final reckoning is coming.

All in all, another fine book form Gustawsson which David Warriner's translation serves excellently, producing English textured just enough to hint at the story taking place in a non-English speaking locale but not so much as to get in the way of a smooth read. 

For more information about The Bleeding, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Bleeding from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon. A limited signed and numbered edition with  sprayed edges is available from Goldsboro Books

20 September 2022

#Review - Madwoman by Louisa Treger

Louisa Treger
Bloomsbury, 9 June 2022
Available as: HB, 304pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy, audio subscription
ISBN(HB): 9781448218011

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Madwoman via NetGalley. I also listened to much of the book on audio, via a subscription service. 

Madwoman, which is based on a true story, reads as a very modern account. There are hints of scandal in an institution - the asylum on "Blackwell's Island" in New York - and an intrepid investigative journalist sets out to penetrate the establishment and expose the truth. It gave me something of a jolt to recall that this was taking place in the later 19th century, when women were far from established in journalism, and sympathy for those with mental health problems was nascent at best.

Indeed, the story is very modern in several senses - Nellie Bly sets out with hopes of righting wrongs and exposing abuse, but a century of institutional scandals will warn the early 21st century reader that little is likely to be done. We should not be too judgemental of our Victoria forbears, perhaps.

More widely, Nellie herself is drawn as a fascinating character. A determined young woman, who has survived crisis after crisis following her beloved father's sudden death and her mother taking up with an abusive man, she is a survivor - who perhaps however sees herself reflected rather too clearly in the Blackwell's inmates. Nellie has already shouldered her way into journalism in provincial Pittsburgh, before making her way to New York in search of bigger stories and more freedom. The Blackwell's Island "stunt" is her attempt to make her mark, for Nellie herself is on her uppers, almost penniless and shut out of the male sanctums of the city's papers. Her ambition is at best tolerated, at worst seen as unfeminine, wrong, in some sense, bound to lead to trouble and perhaps indicative of an unsound mind. It's easy to see how Nellie's plan could go badly wrong. 

What she is doing - having herself committed to the asylum - is a deeply serious step and Nellie finds conditions worse there than she could have imagined. Abusive and vicious staff, scant and poor food, freezing conditions and hideous punishments rapidly take their dehumanising toll - and even worse is threatened. Treger's story, which in its first half explores and interprets Nellie's early life diligently, really takes fire in its second part as it touches on what Nellie might have been thinking and feeling as she was locked all night in a rat-infested cell; forcibly dunked in filthy, cold water; or half strangled by a vengeful nurse after speaking out about conditions. One quickly realises how high the stakes were for Nellie and how ingrained the ill-treatment of inmates was.

It's a fascinating story which resists any temptation to sensationalise, treating all the inmates of Blackwell's Island with sympathy and humanity and bringing these people - who really lived, a century and half ago, and, many of them, died, in that place - back to life to speak to us. The coda describing Nellie's later life is a fascinating glimpse of an intrepid and brave woman.

The audio itself is deftly performed by Laurel Lefkow, who reflects Bly's newspaper vocation, giving the text just a hint of one of the big stories being read out from that day's paper. We're reminded that, in piecing together Bly's history, Treger's first resource will have been her printed articles: this is a woman who found her voice and her freedom through a modern medium, the crusading newspaper, one of the first to do so. It's the perfect pairing of affect and content.

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

17 September 2022

#BlogTour #Review - Harm by Solveig Pálsdóttir

Cover for book "Harm" by Sólveig Pálsdóttir. Seen though a veil of snow or ice, a shadowy dark hand.
Harm (Ice and Crime, 3)
Sólveig Pálsdóttir (Translated from the Icelandic by Quentin Bates)
Corylus Books, 27 August (e), 15 September (PB)
Source: Advance copy
ISBN: 9781916379787

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Harm to consider for review and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Harm takes us back to the world of Guðgeir Fransson and Elsa Guðrún, Reykjavík detectives, who on this occasion are called to the remote Westman Islands where a surgeon has been found dead in suspicious circumstances. Ríkarður Magnússon had recently taken up with a much younger woman, and was on a holiday with her and a group of her friends - people with whom, you'd think, he has very little in common.

The book is unusually written in that, it seems, we know early on what's happened - and the task of the detectives will simply be to uncover the how and the why. And in a sense, we do. Pálsdóttir is scrupulous in following the rules of detective fiction - so that nothing we're shown here about the crime proves to have been a dream or a fiction within the fiction - but at the same time, there is also more here than meets the eye, much more. To begin with, as Guðgeir and Elsa pick their way through the lives and lifestyles of the small group of friends, we see an unexpected side of Iceland - a focus on New Age spirituality and self-discovery, hinted at perhaps one e or twice in earlier books in this series but more fully explored here. It's satisfyingly different from our familiar view of Iceland, now a gleaming land of snow and ice under the Northern Lights, now a dark, noiry place under fun of a volcanic eruption. Rather here we have interior discovery, wellness and spiritual quests.

Diljá, Magnússon's young wife (but don't tell anyone - they're keeping it quiet) stands on the threshold of that realm, a rather sad figure who's lived a difficult life, and the link between many different worlds in this book. She is, or has been, something of an outcast, someone who has found it difficult to make a place in the world for her and her daughter. She won't do well in police custody, we fear.

Then, there's the intricate relationship between Fransson and his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. The book is punctuated by childcare, lost nights of sleep and domestic routines: many of the key conversations take place over meals, either as they are cooked or as they are eaten. 

In a slightly darker vein, we also see the attempts by Guðrún to get her life and career back on track after the traumatic events of Silenced. No spoilers, but you absolutely must read these books in order, starting with The Fox - Fransson now projects a certain degree of calm, but readers of the first book will know that he's also been through trauma For both detectives, that background adds texture and grittiness to the relationships portrayed here, and while Harm is primarily a police procedural with the cops a little more distanced from events than in either of the earlier books knowing the backstory helps to make the main characters truly rounded, involving and human.

That sense of - I don't know, empathy? compassion? - in turn bleeds through to Diljá and her plight. Diljá is in quite a fix. As in the earlier books, Pálsdóttir has a knack for depicting people backed into a corner by society and responding in perhaps unexpected ways. They make mistakes, sometimes bad mistakes, get into trouble. Pálsdóttir's book belie Iceland being a cosy Northern haven, we see the forces of patriarchy at work as well as harsh economic necessity and the invulnerability of powerful men.

Very much a character study and an examination of motivations and consequences, Harm kept the pages on my Kindle humming by and made me hope for more soon about Fransson and Guðrún.

Quentin Bates' translation is clear and idiomatic, well suited to the nuanced storytelling in this book and to conveying the quirks and particularities of the characters.

About the Book

When wealthy doctor Ríkarður Magnússon goes to sleep in his luxurious caravan and doesn’t wake up, detectives Guðgeir Fransson and Elsa Guðrún are called to the Westman Islands to investigate what looks like murder.

Suspicion immediately falls on Ríkharður’s young, beautiful and deeply troubled girlfriend – but there are no easy answers in this case as they are drawn into family feuds, disgruntled friends and colleagues, and the presence of a group of fitness-obsessed over-achievers with secrets of their own.

As their investigation makes progress, Guðgeir and Elsa Guðrún are forced to confront their own preconceptions and prejudices as they uncover the sinister side of Ríkharður’s past.

Harm is the third novel featuring the soft-spoken Reykjavík detective Guðgeir Fransson to appear in English. Sólveig Pálsdóttir again weaves a complex web of intrigue that plays out in the Westman Islands, remote southern Iceland and Reykjavík while asking some searching questions about things society accepts at face value – and others it is not prepared to tolerate.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir

Sólveig Pálsdóttir trained as an actor and has a background in the theatre, television and radio. In a second career she studied for degrees in literature and education, and has taught literature and linguistics, drama and public speaking. She has also produced both radio programming and managed cultural events. Her first novel appeared in Iceland in 2012 and went straight to the country’s bestseller list. She has written six novels featuring Reykjavík detective Guðgeir Fransson, and a memoir Klettaborgin which was a 2020 hit in Iceland. Silenced (Fjötrar) received the 2020 Drop of Blood award for the best Icelandic novel of the year and was Iceland’s nomination for the 2021 Glass Key award for the best Nordic crime novel of the year. Harm (Skaði), published in October 2021 in Iceland, made it to the bestseller list just like the previous books, and is her third novel to appear in English, following The Fox and Silenced.

She has taken part in several crime fiction and literary festivals such as Bristol’s CrimeFest, Newcastle Noir, Aberdeen’s Granite Noir and Iceland Noir. Sólveig lives in Reykjavík.

Quentin Bates

Quentin Bates has professional and personal roots in Iceland that run very deep. He worked as a seaman before turning to maritime journalism. He is an author of series of nine crime novels and novellas the Reykjavik detective featuring Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir. In addition to writing his own fiction, he has translated books by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Guðlaugur Arason, Einar Kárason, Óskar Guðmundsson and Ragnar Jónasson. Quentin was instrumental in launching IcelandNoir, the crime fiction festival in Reykjavik.

For more information about Harm, see the other stops on the blogtour,listed on the poster below and also the Corylus Books website here

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

Blog tour poster for book "Harm" by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

15 September 2022

#Review - The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda Lee

The Jade Setter of Janloon
Fonda Lee
Subterranean Press, May 2022
Available as: HB, 140pp, audio, e
Source: Purchased copy
ISBN(HB): 9781645240624

The Jade Setter of Janloon is a novella set in the world of Fonda Lee's Green Bones saga (Jade City, Jade War, Jade Legacy) which I'd describe as a kind of Godfather-with-magic taking place, in an alternate world, on an island, Kekon, that is rich with South East Asian cultural references. 

Over the course of the three books, the two main clans of Kekon, Mountain and No-Peak, clash and, eventually, come to a new equilibrium. The superhuman abilities of the clan warriors (the Green Bones) are derived from their use of jade, a rare and precious substance that not only provides power but is also therefore desirable as a trophy. The artisans who work that jade are therefore key, and foremost among them is Isin, whose apprentice, Pulo,  is about to have a very bad day indeed.

The Jade Setter of Janloon takes place towards the beginning of the Saga, so several Clan characters appear, as it were, in happier times, before the weight of events and responsibilities - which the keen reader of these books will recall - falls on them. It's good to see that, but also good that the clans are not the focus here. In the main books we have seen how the culture of formalised violence plays out for the Green Bones, but in The Jade Setter of Janloon we see, rather, how it affects the lives of the little people (so to speak). When Isin's workshop suffers a catastrophic misfortune - the loss of a powerful jade weapon, the property of one of the clans - all that Pulo loves is placed in danger, with neither reputation nor safety guaranteed unless he can recover the missing item.

So begins a journey through the dark side of Janloon, showing him how the world of the Green Bones coexists with corruption, systemic racism towards Kekon's Indigenous peoples, and a ruthless trafficking operation. Some of these themes were hinted at in the main novels, but it's refreshing to see them addressed here without the cloak of, as it were, privilege that protects the clans.

It's an engaging and fast-moving story, deeply readable in itself but also fascinating as another glimpse of the well-realised and intricate world that Fonda Lee has developed in these books. I'd strongly recommend The Jade Setter of Janloon, whether you have read the three novels yet or not (as it's set early on there are no spoilers for later events).

For more information about The Jade Setter of Janloon, see the publisher's website here.

13 September 2022

#Review - Rosebud by Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell
Tordotcom, 26 April 2022
Available as: PB, 101pp, e
Source: Purchased copy
ISBN(PB): 9781250765406

I'm always pleased to see that Paul Cornell has a new book out, and I wish there were more of them.

Rosebud is a perfect story, in outward form an account of contact between the crew of a far-travelling spaceship and... well, that would be giving things away but maybe I can say that there are resonances with a certain well-known SF encounter with a black monolith? (And also passing references in the text to Rendezvous with Rama?)

But that's not really the point. 

The point is, I think, the variegated characters in the crew. They comprise, at the time the story takes place,  'by force of law, a balloon, a goth with a swagger stick, some sort of science aristocrat possibly, a ball of hands, and a swarm of insects.. The key here is the reference to law. This is, in effect, a convict ship, the possession of the benighted Company, for whom our heroes - instantiated digitally in a tiny (millimetres in size) ship - endlessly toil, retrieving resources for the dying planet Earth.

The stories of how the five assumed these forms slowly emerge, and of course those bizarre forms end up making perfect sense given the "crimes" for which they're serving time (some ugly flashbacks illustrate what Earth has become and why the Company may not be a fitting sponsor for humanity in the encounter that may be taking place).

It's a clever, thought provoking story that combines a deliberately jarring sensibility with a deep emotional richness both in the backgrounds of the five and in their unlikely friendship (larded though it is with bickering and HR-unfriendly insults). That's a lot to pack in to a bare 100 pages, but Cornell gives the reader more here than many authors do in full-length novels. I was torn between wanting more - why couldn't this be a LONGER book? - and knowing that it's perfect as it is.

Strongly recommended.

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

8 September 2022

#Review - Ithaca by Claire North

Cover for book “Ithaca” by Claire North. Against an orange background, a similar colour to an ancient vase, is a canopy and couch in black, with a golden orb behind Reclining on the couch is a woman in classical dress, all depicted in white but with several strands of brown thread wrapped around her stomach and leading downwards and to the right, off the edge of the page. At the top, an endorsement by Jennifer saint: “Claire North brings a powerful, freah and unflinching voice to ancient myth – darkly fascinating, raw and breathtaking”.
Claire North
Orbit, 8 September 2022
Available as: HB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356516042

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of Ithaca to consider for review.

Ithaca is a story of Queen Penelope, waiting at home while her husband Odysseus gallivants his slow way home after the Trojan War. 

I have tended to be wary of Greek myth retellings, and I'm not sure why. Something about having read these stories in school perhaps, but also about Greek mythology being almost too rich a serving of the incredible, just one bizarre thing after another, coupled with petulant deities? 

But Claire North is one of my absolute top favourite authors. Across novel after novel, she's served up the bizarre in the normal, making astonishing themes seem part of everyday life, and making ordinary people, extraordinary. So if anyone can be trusted to do something magical with this material, it's North - and I just had to look at what she'd do.

In outline, this is a fairly well-known story. Seventeen years ago, Odysseus took all the fighting men of the island with him, and of course the gold, so Penelope, and Ithaca, are unprotected and - with doubts spreading about whether he will ever return - she is subject to the attentions of a pack of suitors. With some help from the gods, Penelope outwits them. So much, I vaguely remembered. Bands of ravening pirates however also threaten Ithaca (an addition by North I think) and the old men and boys left behind by Odysseus are wholly incapable of seeing them off. What's a queen to do?

Which is where North makes this story her own. She fills this world - poised uneasily between myth and history - with real people (even when some of them are gods). And she intelligently and compellingly supplies a rationale, a world, a motivation for what happens here. For Penelope's plight. For the whole, appalling enterprise of the Trojan War. For the business with the suitors.

That motivation is, of course, the patriarchal system that underpins everything, a system reflected in the lives both of mortals like Penelope and of the gods themselves. The story is narrated by Hera, Queen of the Gods and also wife of Zeus - and she is VERY careful not to draw his attention to what she's encouraging on distant little Ithaca, because it would be seen as rebellion against the male power that's dethroned her as the primordial goddess of fire. 

Similarly, Penelope, left a very tricky hand to play while Odysseus is off strutting his heroic stuff, has to weave together an ever shifting web of alliances, expedients, trusted allies, manipulated guests, commerce and - as we eventually see - clandestine military operations to keep herself and her son alive, her island at peace and a place ready for returning Odysseus. And she has to do it all without seeming to claim a place in the Royal council, without actually giving advice to any man, and indeed, in spite of the very clumsy attempts by the men - who think they're in charge - to direct things.

The world in which this all takes place is gradually revealed to be a nasty and brutish place, especially for women, seen here being sold into slavery, casually disposed of by their master or mistress, taken as prizes in war (the whole focus of the Trojan war, of course) and casually assaulted by the men around them. Again, the behaviour of men and gods is not so different. 

This side of things was not, of course, included in the version of these stories I was told as a child at school - which possibly did make them even harder to understand, with motivations and consequences cloaked. In North's retelling, Hera's rather wearied, very arch and thoroughly modern commentary and narrative ably fill these gaps, restoring the story to a wholeness and putting the deeds of women (which, we are assured, the Poets will never sing) back in their rightful place. We see Penelope's dealings with her household, her maids, assorted priestesses (and the frankly bonkers royal couple Elektra and Orestes who arrive from Mycenae mid-book on a mission of revenge, upsetting all her careful calculations).

The story is a delight throughout, very much reflecting North's witty, cool authorial style, but dialled up to eleven and served with an extra relish that completely suits the perspective of the REAL GODDESS that Hera would have us remember she is. 

In short, Ithaca is a twisty, complex story fraught with the possibility of lines being crossed - of attracting the unwanted attention of Zeus, or the piracy getting out of hand, or the suitors finally demanding a response - and one carefully located in a world of almost-history, almost myth. This is Greece, but before it put on all its airs and graces.  Half the characters are apparently descended from demigods, under curses or being protected by deities (sometimes all three). No-one yet has any use for writing or for accounting - those strange, near-Eastern technologies - and there is a palpable sense that Greece is not yet the equal of, say, Egypt in the civilisation stakes. Nevertheless, there is also a sense of nascent history, with the seeds of the Greece-that-is-to-be visible in city rivalries, trade routes and an emerging politics. Possibilities seem to fill the air, Penelope's very human sense of guile and skill at managing the rather lumbering gods-in-a-machine pointing the way to the future. 

It's a powerful, bewitching and above all, fun story, one I'd strongly recommend.

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

6 September 2022

#Review - Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

Treacle Walker
Alan Garner
4th Estate, 28 October 2021
Available as: HB, 160pp, PB, e, audio
Source: Purchased HB 
ISBN(HB): 9780008477790

In Treacle Walker, Garner shows that an absorbing fantasy doesn't have to be wordy or indeed, lengthy. His short book contains such a concentrated essence of experience that reading it is like playing with one of Philip Pullman's alethiometers - every moment revealing deeper and yet deeper layers of meaning, all coexisting on the same pages.

At one level this is a simple story of a lonely boy, Joe, and his friendship with the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker. Joe seems to be alone - his parents never appear and nor do any other adults, except in one scene when he is having an eye examination. (Joe has a "lazy" eye which apparently requires his "good" one to be covered up so that the other will recover. This gives him different views on the world, which as the story develops, will become important). At another level there are mythic themes here, with a bog-body appearing (a bog-body with decided views about Walker). And Treacle Walker's "donkey stones", used to clean the doorstep, carry that image of the White Horse from the cover. Ideas of sacrifice, of recurring cycles through time and of a deep connection with the landscape are explored, as in much of Garner's fiction. And at another level altogether there are part humorous, part sinister threats as words and picture begin to come alive in the text of a child's comic, and in hints here and there of deeper symbolism (as in the bargain and exchange between the two main characters at the start of the book).

It would be wrong I think to try to pick out any one of these "levels" as "the" answer. In this, Treacle Walker feels to me like a distillation of Garner's many books - is like the book that would result if The Weirdstone of Brisingamen AND The Moon of Gomrath AND Boneland were all written down at the same time on the same pages. But it's more than that, it is Garner at his best, exploring some strange region between here and there and bringing it back to us as we sit in the firelight - perhaps beneath a massive fireplace, in an ancient house between a river and a meadow and railway line (triples matter here). 

It's a book that rewards a second and third read. There are little puzzles here which fall into place, circularities and co-occurences about the identities of Joe and of Treacle and about their roles - both outsiders, in a vaguely defined place and time which I think doesn't so much date to a particular year or decade as to the time of childhood, which seems here an incredibly precious time, seen through Joe's eyes without the distortions of adult relationships or concerns (apart from Walker's, and that's different).

All in all, a rare and enchanting book (in the truest sense). I'm sure I haven't completely understood it, but I will be back for more!

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

2 September 2022

#BlogTour #Review - Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone

Cover for book “Black Hearts” by Doug Johnstone. An ornate stone Celtic cross grave monument in the foreground, behind, a bench and in the distance, further gravestones. Behind them, suburban semis and – just visible in the far distance – Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat, hills in Edinburgh. Above the author’s name, “Nobody portrays Edinburgh better than Doug Johnstone – Val McDermaid”
Black Hearts (The Skelfs, 4)
Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books, 29 September 2022
Available as: PB, 260pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 978-1914585296

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Black Hearts to consider for review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

A new book in The Skelfs series, featuring three generations of women who run and Edinburgh undertaker's (with a side line in personal investigations), is always guaranteed to brighten my day. I thought that Johnstone might call it a day after The Great Silence, so it was great to see more goings-on from 0 Greenhill Gardens.

One of the joyous things about these books (sorry if "joyous" sounds like and entry in Poseur's Corner, frankly I don't care, it's what I mean) is the tapestry of closely observed lives at No 0. There is Hannah, whose wife Indy is now working for the firm. Hannah is an astronomy postgrad at the Royal Observatory. She is practical and focussed but reluctant to come out of her shell; Indy has helped a lot with that. Dorothy, Hannah's grandmother, runs the business and also teaches drums (as well as detecting). Originally from California, she remains something of an outsider, observing the Edinburgh scene with a cool eye while frankly being a bit flummoxed by the complexities of her family.

And then there's Jenny, who basically is "the complexities". Hannah's mum, Dorothy's daughter, Jenny is a mess. Readers of the series will be familiar with her storming out of the house to one of Edinburgh's bars, self-medicating with lashings of drink. Notionally she's in therapy, but she rather uses this as an opportunity to cross so many red lines you'd think she was auditing a set of dodgy accounts. Brandon, her therapist, doesn't have a chance.

The three women are gloriously realised, by turns reflective, determined, vulnerable and supportive. You sense they'll always be there for one another, but that means they really do take some shit, especially from Jenny (who is incredibly annoying but also, as she suffers in her black heart, a very empathetic character - I'm struggling slightly for words here). Jenny is suffering - as readers of the earlier books will know - from the aftermath of an abusive relationship (with Hannah's dad, finally revealed as a murdered in The Great Silence). Jenny did what she had to to stop Craig, and he was last seen drifting out to sea on a burning boat. This may have been necessary, but she now finds it hard to come to terms with. The dead are not finished with us, as this book shows in several different episodes of both undertaking and detecting.

I think Johnstone is also very on point in his observations of the Skelfs' customers, by definition people going through a stressful and life event, one forcing them to confront things we normally prefer to ignore. My wife is a Church of England Vicar, so I have seen some of this from close up. While I think the atmosphere is heightened, as it must be in a novel, there's a vein of truth here about that sudden collision with reality, about interrupted relationships and unfinished business - and about how those spill over into everyday life. My wife has only once had to request "police at the funeral" but I recognise the broil of emotions and distress that may lead, as here, to a brawl by the graveside.

Really, I could go on and on about this book. It's just so brilliantly plotted, everyone portrayed so well, the metaphors from Hannah's day job researching exoplanets so apposite - a series of riffs on things so dark they can't be seen, on black holes and much else and their hidden influences: all paralleled in the Skelfs' meticulously described journeys around Edinburgh (I'd love to take a walking tour of the Skelfs' Southside) which also struck me - I lived in Edinburgh for nearly eight years - as straight from life.

All in all, a brilliant continuation of the series. I don't know whether Johnstone will return to this world and I would understand if he tries something else, but I hope that the lights are always on at 0 Greenhill Gardens and that we're back there again soon.

For more information about Black Hearts, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Black Hearts from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for book "Black Hearts" by Doug Johnstone, listing stops on the tour.

1 September 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Double or Nothing by Kim Sherwood

Cover for new James Bon novel "Double or Nothing" by Kim Sherwood. A gold disc intersects two gold circles. Across the centre is the book's title and "James Bond is Missing. And the Time is Running Out."
Double or Nothing
Kim Sherwood
HarperCollins, 1 September 2022
Available as: HB, 432pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008495381

I'm grateful to HarperCollins for sending me a copy of Double or Nothing to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's blogtour on this, the book's publication day.



The extended career of Agent 007, in print and on film, must present the author of a follow-on book with various dilemmas - whether or not to write in continuity, what time period to set the book in, and how far to broaden the universes. But equally, with opportunities, of which Kim Sherwood makes full use in this, the first of a trilogy of Bond novels.

The result is an accomplished, exciting and involving book which shows us a great deal more of the world about Bond while the latter is, well, absent. That fits nicely into recent film portrayals in which he goes off-radar, and allows the introduction of other members of 00 Branch, particularly of 009, Bashir, and 003, Johanna Harwood. We also get to meet Moneypenny, head of  the Branch, and a version of Q (I don't want to say any more about this as the realisation of Q's identity came for me as a delicious shock followed by "yes of course, that's exactly right!")

As book opens, 009 is engaged on a daring rescue attempt. The Branch has fallen on hard times, a mole is feared to be giving away vital information and many members have been killed or have vanished. Bond is only one of these, but he vanished on Bashir's watch and the letter is haunted by guilt. The book contains a fair amount of brooding on ageing agents in a world that has moved on and regrets of mistakes and/ or betrayals (on multiple levels). It has a distinct air of unfinished business which makes the immediate threats - an international criminal/ terrorist gang knows as Rattenfänger and an ambiguous multibillionaire who's name is Paradise and who promises to use his satellite and quantum computing technology to fix the climate crisis - seem almost like annoying, if urgent, distractions from a deeper web of relationships and motivations. Sherwood creates this web of backstory without apparent effort and I very soon accepted all the new 00s, their setting, and their priorities, as part of the new Bond storyline.

That's helped by the way the story uses references - such as mentioning the death of Bond's first wife on an Alpine road, or giving Felix Leiter still gamely playing the game - without either relocating those events near to the present or trying to explain how these can be in the minds of people in the 2020s. It makes the continuity work by not trying too hard to make it work, clearing the way for a devious story that - in the text Fleming tradition - presents a perhaps-monster who needs to be approached and understood. The focus on climate change makes the story very modern; the deployment of outlandish technologies, cocktails, exotic locations, fast car chases, and sinister secret organisation, makes it very exciting, very Bond. There are shoot-outs aplenty, narrow and improbable escapes and, in the behaviours of the MI6 agents, that indefinable sense of élan that you'd expect. 

I also had fun seeing how many riffs on book/ film titles Sherwood was able to sneak in - my favourite was "Icons are Forever". As well as being witty, it also summarised a theme of this book, with Bond  cited as believing that an agent's greatest strength is in their myth. For Bond, off stage as it were, it makes him subject him to all sorts of doubts and distrusts. But at the same time, as the actions of 003 and 009 illustrate, Bond is still someone to emulate. Have they swallowed a lie? ('This man, he is a fantasy. The cars, the women, the gadgets, the endurance, the courage, the one man to hold the line and never waver.')

For 00 Branch as a whole, the Bond legend imploding would risk the whole outfit being seen as an anachronism, or worse, as inefficient, a threat to the Service. Better he were dead, perhaps. But equally, several times in this book, for agents with their backs to the wall, captured or threatened with death, it inspires them to come out fighting or to dream up new ploys and strategies to overcome their enemies. 

Which is in the end why we read these books, isn't it? For that moment when the scales fall from the villain's eyes (whether or not accompanied by a clever quip from the hero) and he, or she, releases how they've been played, outmanoeuvred, outclassed by a 00. This book has those moments just where they ought to be, and they kick as hard as should.

I strongly recommend it, it is fun from the first word to the last.

For more information about Double or Nothing, see the publisher's website here - and of course in the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Double or Nothing from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for new James Bond novel Double or Nothing, listing the blogs hosting reviews.