21 December 2022

#Review - Standing by the Wall by Mick Herron

Standing by the Wall (A Slough House Interlude)
Mick Herron
Baskerville, 3 November 2022 
Available as: PB, 56pp, audio, e  
Source: Bought
ISBN(PB): 9781399807081

This is perfect Mick Herron, perfect Slough House. On a dank Christmas Eve, as the office workers spill onto rainslicked pavements for some jollity and the failures of Slough House consider leaving early, Jackson Lamb has a little job for Roddy Ho ('Ho? Ho! HO!' - yes, I know, but the idea of Lamb as Santa, is, well, not exactly funny, but...)

That job, plus the angst and lethargy that seep out of the Slough House wall and carpets, give a hint, perhaps of the next main book (The Secret Hours), due in September 2023. They certainly focus on Lamb's - and Molly Doran's - lives, so maybe we'll hear more of those. But they also drop one or two surprises and feature a status report, as it were, on the interpersonal relationships of the Slough House inmates.

Best of all, we get Roddy monologuing at length. I always enjoy his internal narrative, deluded and self-centred as it is, which seems like tidings form a parallel world. I don't think I've come across any character in recent fiction who is so un-selfaware and whose intentions seem so unpleasant yet who one has to accept is at a fundamental level almost completely naive and innocent. Ho is of course only a microcosm of the entire Slough house experience - a pit of darkness and despair which is it seems, at the same time, the nations's last, best defence against the deeper darkness beyond.

A lovely antidote to Christmasness.

For more information about Standing by the Wall, see the publisher's website here.

19 December 2022

#Review - A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

Cover for book A Restless Truth by Freya Marske. Green background. In the centre, silhouetted in orange, two women in Edwardian style outfits - longs skirts, puffed sleeves, high-piled hair. They are leaning slightly towards each other, as if in private conversation. Behind them, loops and swirls and flowers, reminding me of wallpaper and above their head, an empty bird cage.
A Restless Truth
Freya Marske
Pan Macmillan, 10 November 2022
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529080933

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Restless Truth via NetGalley to consider for review.

Following on from A Marvellous Light and taking place in the same Edwardian magical timeline - one threatened by the dark truth of how that magic originated - A Restless Truth focuses on two young women, Maud Blyth and Violet Debenham, who have taken passage on an ocean liner from New York to England. 

I love the idea of a Golden Age liner-set mystery. The little enclosed world. Strangers pushed together and having to get on (or not). A liminal space, neither one place nor the other. The different classes, demarcated but still cheek-by-jowl. People feeling free to be... a little free. The setup simply breathes intrigue, and A Restless Truth takes full advantage, it could indeed be a magical version of, say, Anything Goes! with the same Wodehousian complexity as the mess the two women are involved in becomes ever deeper and harder to untangle.

Where A Restless Truth departs from that model, of course, is in its frankly sensual aspect. I almost wrote 'subplot' but that's not right - this part of the story is not something that happen to Maud and Violet's it's about who they are (even if one of them enters the story innocent of that and is subject to an awakening). It is also as key to their motivations as are their magical interests and family backgrounds. They are attracted from the start and it's more a matter of when, not if, they will consumate that. Readers of A Marvellous Light will not be surprised by what follows. As in the previous book, Marske writes scenes between her lovers that are passionate, explicit and life-affirming. But to borrow that phrase again - Anything goes!

Readers of A Marvellous Light will also be pleased - as I was - to meet Lord Hawthorn again. We were introduced to Hawthorn in the earlier book where he wasn't particularly helpful to our heroes. Here, he's more obliging, either because Maud and Violet are more persuasive, or perhaps because on a liner he just can't escape them for long. Either way, Hawthorn is captivating. We do learn a little about him yet there is still a mystery that isn't resolved here - I want to know more! (Based on what we are told, I feel I ought to call him "Bad Lord Hawthorn" because he's the type that innocent young girls seek out when they have decided - like Violet - that it's time they were ruined. (He's happy to oblige)). Whether there is a redeeming streak to him (but do we want that?) or whether he just wants a quiet life, unpestered by interfering minxes, remains to be seen. 

What else? A pack of villains, obviously, some cooly dangerous and others bumbling. Murder. Jewel thieves. A radical vendor of smutty stories. A lot of social class barriers that Marske spends the novel disassembling, examining, reconstructing and generally subverting. Maud and Violet are shining examples of this disobliging attitude to convention (whatever is becoming of the young these days?) but there's more to them than that. In this short, hectic passage aboard ship, surrounded by peril and exploring aspects of themselves that Maud had never even dreamed of (well, maybe she'd dreamed...) there is still time and space for a most complicated relationship to build up between the two, one driven by social position, their previous histories, their fears and longings (really, really not simple!), not a little prejudice, and of course, Secrets.

It's all, frankly, captivating. I adored A Restless Truth, perhaps even more than its predecessor, if that's possible. Simple joy from the first page to the last with great characters, a ludicrous but involving plot and a great deal of action (of several types). 

Very strongly recommended, but more importantly, great fun.

For more information about A Restless Truth, see the publisher's website here.

16 December 2022

#Review - Undercover by Tamsin Muir

Undercover (Into Shadow Collection, 5)
Tamsyn Muir
Amazon Original Stories, 15 November 2022
Available as: e, audio
Source: purchased

I love genre mash-ups, even more those that are not simple mash=ups but which play with elements of style and with settings and archetypal characters to create something genuinely new. And I've loved Tamsin Muir's Locked tomb trilogy. 

So I wasn't surprised to be delighted by this long-short story, which sees a woman of mystery -Starr - taking a job as bodyguard to a gangster known as The Widower, all in a kind of weird-West setting where towns walk in a parched desert on monstrous mechanical legs and the undead have to be kept at bay.

It's with this last that Starr's expertise lies, and she pretty soon upbraids her employer for taking dangerous risks with Lucille, a burlesque dancer but also something much more dangerous. In a book where everybody is on their guard and clearly, more is going on that we are told, it's fascinating to watch the players make their moves and to speculate on how it will all work out. As a meet-up with a rival gang looms and we are made party to some of the secrets play it's frankly anybody guess how things will turn out.

This is a pacy and entertaining story with an absorbing atmosphere and strong characters. I'd recommend it, and would like to read more set in this work.

For more information about Undercover or to buy the book, see the Amazon product page here

14 December 2022

#Review - Skeleton Song by Seanan McGuire

over for book "Skeleton Song" by Seanan McGuire. A boy stands looking upwards, where a skeleton is dissolving around him, its bones dancing and whirling past him to pile up at his feet.
Skeleton Song (Wayward Children)
Seanan McGuire
Tor.com, 2 November 2022
Available as: e  
Source: Purchased
Skeleton Song fills a gap in McGuire's Wayward Children series, which studies - with great compassion - the lives of you g people who are out of place in "our" world, finding their fulfilment in various fantasy lands reached through magical portals - but who then are returned to this world, and left to work through that rejection. 

In many of the stories we have met Christopher, who found the love of his Skeleton Girl but - somehow - stumbled out of her world and madly, desperately, wishes to return. What test did he fail, what task did he find, that separated him for her?

Well, here we get some answers. We learn about the monstrous being that comes to Mariposa. We learn about Christopher's illness and his healing, and the origins of the bone flute. We learn about the price of love, and the grief that the price brings. It's a short and simple story but no less moving for all that, and it sets us up, I hope, to learn more of Christopher;'s and Skeleton Girl's story in some forthcoming book.

As ever, McGuire's prose is masterly, maintaining the story in a delicate banalise between high fairytale, dream and human - if that's the correct word when the humans include living skeletons - practicality and reason. Finishing these books always gives me that sense you get when you wake form a really good dream and you want to go back to sleep to recapture it - bit you know you can't. A distant echo perhaps of the grief and loss that McGuire sees in her young people on their return from the lands that have rejected them?

Strongly recommended if you're following these stories, if you are not then go and read Every Heart a Doorway first, you'll thank me, I promise!

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

12 December 2022

#Review - City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Cover for book "City of Last Chances" by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This image is so complex I'm not sure I can do it justice. It's Dione mainly in shades or red, black and beige, a palette that reminded me of 1920s and 30s Soviet propaganda posters. Lines of soldiers. Waving red flags. Soaring towers and columns. Reddish, intricate machinery.
City of Last Chances
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Head of Zeus, 8 December 2022
Available as: HB, 512pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781801108423

I'm grateful to Head of Zeus for sending me an e-copy of City of Last Chances via NetGalley to consider for review.

I think there is a theory that while science fiction is a literature focussed on change and development, fantasy is, rather, focussed on restoring what has been lost. "Space: the Final Frontier" vs "Return of the King", or something like that, with a good outcome seen either as transformative progress, or regression to The Golden Age.

In his new novel City of Last Chances, Adrian Tchaikovsky creates a whole world poised on the knife edge between these alternatives. He introduces us to Ilmar, also known as the City of Bad Decisions, a place with the reputation of being a last refuge for the unlucky, the stateless, the desperate. (I'm reminded of the nickname for Oxford, "City of Lost Causes"). There are rumours of a way out - a gateway out of misery - but the price of passage is high, leaving most of the malcontents, runaways and displaced populations stuck in Ilmar, their unique and disparate cultures decaying on that great compost heap of a town.

The Ilmari themselves have their own problems, though, now being ruled by the Palleseen, who, recently invaded, hanged the Old Duke, made Ilmar part of their Sway,  and set out imposing their ideas of perfection. (The Palleseen idea is a thing called 'The Perfecture', a glorious model society which all nations should want to be part of - those that won't sign up are clearly backwards, disruptive and sorely need to be brought to help).

The participants in this story are many and varied; among them are refugees who have settled in Ilmar (some after escaping from the Pels); factions among the Ilmari - most of whom are notionally part of a 'resistance', something Tchaikovsky shines a rather merciless spotlight on; and the Pels themselves. There are also hints of darker, older powers perhaps best alone. That gives a great many viewpoints including - to mention just a few - the last remaining believer in God; a man who's stepped out of another world where he was prepped for a merciless war, but who's lost his wife and is set only on finding here; an idealistic student radical; a foot soldier for the criminal gangs; a union organiser who's seen and suffered; and an cynical old academic who gives a nod to revolution in his classes while cutting deals with the Pels in the shadows.

That last is something of a theme here. The disparate rebel factions - students, aristocrats, thieves' syndicates and smugglers - have quite different views about how to free themselves from the Pels' yoke, and when a seemingly innocuous incident blows up into riot and uprising, nobody has a plan, or much of an idea how to proceed (apart from  raking off all they can in the chaos). That unfolding response, and countermoves by the occupiers, forms the texture of this story, together with desperate attempts, by a number of the characters, to track down the missing artefact that sparked everything off. That's important, because an avenger seems to be hunting down all those who may have secured the treasure. The decisions made here, by everyone, will determine who lives and who dies as the flame of revolution spreads...

City of Last Chances is a weighty and absorbing book, one I'd place far, far away from the run of fantasy or SF. Tchaikovsky clearly isn't buying into that simplistic binary that I mentioned at the start. The past of Ilmar isn't a desirable state to be brought back, but no future looks bright either. Better perhaps to remain on that knife edge, maintaining a complex relationship with the Pels. But that takes a lot of work and has a cost. Perhaps it's easier just to bring out the banners from the days gone by?

Nor will you find heroes or villains here. More or less everyone is - as in real life - out for themselves (I'd exclude from that idealistic student Lemya) or at least heavily conflicted. Take that union leader, for example, Father Orvechin. He's focussed on improvements in the conditions of his workers and, in the longer term, perhaps the overthrow of the Pels. But the factory owners who oppress his people are native aristos, not Pels, and the factories are kept turning by demons who are themselves enslaved, oppressed workers - workers that Orvechin is willing to see kept in their bonds, because they're not his people, though he knows that one day this will haunt him.

This whole sense of Ilmar as a nest of collaboration, compromise and negotiation with power, and that maybe that is just about the best things can be, is revisited and reworked throughout the book. The Pels themselves are split into different blocs who are willing to cuts deals when it suits them. The aristocrats ('Armigers') desire one future, the siblingries (unions and workers' guilds) another. At times they cooperate, at others they don't. The same goes for the other actors here. Picture a giant game of repeated Prisoners' Dilemma, played out in real time, with magic, lost deities and demons thrown in too, and you get some idea of the complexity and fascination of this book.

That may make the story sound academic or dry, but it's really not. It's passionate, urgent and angry. Tchaikovsky's central theme of compromise and collusion is shot through it, pulling against and reinforcing individual motivation is countless ways, different for every character.While there are so many of these that one can't really anoint any as the focus, they are all intricately, convincingly realised and the business they are about gloriously integrated with the setting and the wider history that is sketched. There was only one point at which a particular strand seemed to me to jar - when a mysterious assassin, otherwise not included in the story, played a part on behalf of unknown employers whom we never hear any more about. Apart from that very brief interlude though, this book was a marvellous symphony of clashing goals, missing information and immediate danger that had me hooked throughout. I would strongly recommend it.

For more information about City of Last Chances, see the publisher's website here.

7 December 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Dashboard Elvis is Dead by David F Ross

Cover for book "Dashboard Elvis is Dead" by David F Ross. Against a light background, a pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses lying diagonally across the page. Reflected in the right hand lens (as the wearer would see things) is a typical US rural gas station with neon sign. Both lenses are cracked. Reflected in the left lens is George Square in Glasgow, under a blue sky.
Dashboard Elvis is Dead
David F Ross
Orenda Books, 8 December 2022
Available as: PB, 300pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585401

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

In Dashboard Elvis is Dead, David F Ross hacks into the secret history of the early 1980s music industry, giving us an inside account of the rise and spectacular fall of The Hyptones, a band of young Glaswegian hopefuls for who everything goes wrong on a fateful tour of the US.

A tour which is a downfall for Ross too, because David F Ross appears in the book as the failed writer who documented the band's experiences and was badly burned by doing so. (So fact, fiction and identity are blurred form the start with real musicians, actors and artists appearing with and - one suspects, sometimes without - approval throughout the book).

Thirty years later, in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, Ross picks up with Jude Montgomery, a revered photo journalist, who's arrived in Glasgow. What they seem to have in common is a love for, and a fascination with, the Hyptones and their one hit, An Independent State of Mind, which has become an anthem for the Yes campaign.

It will take the rest of the story to explain how everyone's paths cross, and especially how Jude, who was running away from her Texas trailer park home when she came across The Hyptones the first time, fared in between. That story is an amazing saga of growth and suffering, of finding identity and seeking redemption, that frankly could have driven a whole sequence of novels. I loved Jude's honesty and her self-analysis. I loved Ross's evocation of the racially divided, tense Texan town from which Jude starts. I ,loved the portraits of 1980s San Francisco, of gentrifying New York later in the decade and in the 90s. Most of all I loved Jude. She is a well realised and sympathetic character who just has an awful habit of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Generally driven by good intentions, Jude makes mistakes, burns bridges as if she had shares in the ferry company, and generally leaves a trail of damaged and more or less resentful (or, in one case, dead) friends, mentors, exes and employers across the USA. Nevertheless, she perseveres, and through this story she's visibly growing, exploring her own identity and, in a somewhat twisted way, trying to make amends. (Ultimately it's down to her that An Independent State of Mind isn't wholly forgotten). 

I wouldn't say the same of Jamie, a tragic figure who is the other focus of Dashboard Elvis. Jamie is at the centre of The Hyptones, and he's the one who takes the fall when things go wrong. At his core he believes I think that he deserves that - the band has its own secret history - but really that isn't fair. Everyone deserves a chance, or a second chance, but ultimately Jamie's guilt robs him of that, leading him mon a destructive path that only reinforces the guilt. 

In describing the trajectory of the band, Ross brings the same sensibility to the lives and aspirations of young working class Scots in the 70s and 80s as he did in his Disco Days trilogy and in There's Only One Danny Garvey. Their voices ring true, lighting up the pages of the book in expressive Scots, albeit slightly indignant, as though being exhibited in a novel wasn't how they expected to spend the evening. (The exception is Jamie's girlfriend, the enigmatic AFB, 'Anna F*****g Belle' who in contrast uses standard English, a slight marker of class or privilege that prefigures her role in the later parts of the book).

There's an interesting contrast between the lives of Jude, who did manage to "get out" but, as her story makes clear, had to sacrifice a lot along the way, and the band members who as I've alluded to above, are basically on a downward slope throughout the book. Especially Jamie. Like Jude, Jamie makes many bad decisions and ends up with lots of regrets. But he's less in a position to try and put things right. The parallels and differences between Jamie and Jude are fascinating, posing a whole series of what if questions revolving around gender, racial identity and social setting. Both deserve a way out.  Jude gets one, Jamie doesn't, a fate he shares with most of his bandmates. 

This is eventually portrayed in a brilliant piece of non-writing. After sections dealing with the two fairly evenly, eventually Ross sort of has Jamie just... fade away, again contrasting with Jude whose climactic scenes are vivid and consequential. While Jamie's location and eventual fate are key plot points, we don't actually see them, and this building absence of a character is an eloquent way to express what he's become in the lives of those who knew him and those who don't. His absence is almost a more pointed depiction of him than his presence could be.

Oh I could go on praising this book but really, if you don't want to read it by now then what's the point of you? Just take my advice and read Dashboard Elvis is Dead. It's so many things. A very funny book. A sharp examination of young lives, of origins, identity and the complications of living, ageing and "growing up". A bit of a satire on dependence and independence. And a complex, engaging story set where music, crime, social aspiration, lust and politics overlap and mutate. 

Just pure brilliance.

For more information about Dashboard Elvis is Dead, 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 Dashboard Elvis is Dead from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blogtour poster for book Dashboard Elvis is Dead by David F Ross, showing the blogs and other social media sites taking part in the tour.


5 December 2022

#Review - Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

Cover for book "Cold Water" by Dave Hutchinson. A distorted image of a silhouetted female figure standing on a bridge, the floor of the bridge and the handrails warped as though by a mirror. In the distance, tall commercial buildings.
Cold Water
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 10 November 2022
Available as: PB 417pp, audio, e   
Source: Purchased
ISBN(PB):  9781786187222

Cold Water is a return to the world of Hutchinson's Fractured Europe, some time after the events of Europe in Autumn, Europe At Midnight, Europe at Dawn and Europe in Winter.  It doesn't assume any familiarity with those, although if you are you'll be rewarded by posting some referencing and of course you will have a head start in understanding the background. This is a world devastated by a viral plague; a world where the states of Europe have fragmented into statelets, free towns and pocket republics; and a world interpenetrated by alternate, pocket universes.

Against that background, we're given a twisty, tense and involving thriller mixing espionage, crime and derring-do. Carey Tews, a woman from the Republic of Taxes, has retired from the shadowy network Les Coureurs. She reckons she's getting too old for the work, and besides, her cover blown by what happened in Hungary (don't talk to her about Hungary!) But like Smiley of old, she's invited back to carry out One Last Job when her recruiter, mentor, and sometime lover, Maksim, gets himself killed in a little Polish town that's winding up to declare independence.

The story also follows Krista, a young Estonian police woman, whose investigation into a gangster's operations in Tallinn is rudely interrupted by scandal from the past, by way of Russian agents, a drunken journalist, and a crew of juvenile hackers and forgers who get you any credentials you might need. As always with Hutchinson's books the detail and plotting is meticulous, creating set-ups and pay-offs that are just so good, they could hang as works of art in any museum. There are mysteries here - so I am being vague about what actually happens - and they're fiendishly nested mysteries, so that while I spotted one or two points coming, the how and the why of their fit with the wider story absolutely took me by surprise.

There are some superb characters here too. Carey is just magnificent, a richly portrayed, complex woman who - whatever she believes - is at the top of her game. I love reading stories in which competent, experienced people meet difficult challenges head on: books where you have a sense that there is just so much happening - real danger combined with plausible, calculated courses of action... which don't always come off.

Depicting all that background doesn't make the story slow, not at all - there is plenty going on here from the start, which opens with a clandestine meet that wouldn't be out of place in the (old style, TV) Mission: Impossible, to the conclusion - a tense, high stakes confrontation at a deserted border post. The pace never lets up, with the parts dealing with Carey's history actually adding tension because - as we empathise more and more with her - we see just how impossible is the task she's undertaken (and why she didn't want it).

(In passing, I was particularly impressed by the way that is able to leverage the experience of covid to locate his story even more sharply in the imagined future (middle of the 21st century?) His "Xian 'flu" isn't covid, it is even more devastating - and it was mentioned in the earlier books. Still, the experience of lockdown, of helplessness as friends and loved ones succumb and the reality that things have changed, is deep in the DNA of this book making very real speculative fiction).

Vastly enjoyable, fun, and sharply observed. Read it.

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

1 December 2022

#Review - Hunting Time by Jeffery Deaver

Cover for book "Hunting Time" by Jeffrey Deaver. Against a red background, a pale blue butterfly, over which is the silhouette in black of a figure running - all in the cross hairs of a gun sight.
Hunting Time
Jeffery Deaver
HarperCollines, 24 November 2022 
Available as: HB, 432pp, e, audio  
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008503819

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

It's great to meet Colter Shaw again. The Restless Man sorted out his family problems - which involved murderous corporate goons trying to kill him - and is back here doing what he likes most, moving along, saving the innocent and claiming reward money (when he remembers to actually cash the cheques, that is). In Hunting Time  and so he's rolled into the industrial town of Ferrington in his mobile home. But this time he may be taking on more than he realises.

Ferrington is a shabby, rust-belt town - it can't even afford an adequate police department anymore - with a proud manufacturing past, plenty of decaying factories, and a poisoned river. A new startup promises to bring jobs with its small modular nuclear reactors, but its IP is being targeted by sinister forces and then the star engineer disappears. Can Colter Shaw help, please?

What follows is an entertainingly wild chase through the woods featuring gangsters, a vengeful ex, crooked cops and a particularly sinister pair of "triggermen" who have designs on more that Allison Parker and her teenage daughter Hannah's lives. As ever, Shaw's survival skills are indispensable, the more so as modern conveniences - guns, food, shelter - are stripped away. However Hunting Time is in many respects a more pared down story than previous Colter Shaw novels. Shaw is not, directly, trying to solve a complex mystery. (Though he does do that towards the end, and when he does you'll see things in a new light, but that's almost incidental). Rather he has simple goals - finding and rescuing the two women.

That made Hunting Time, for me, a very focussed story, a very pacy and entertaining story. There is though more to it - the delicate exploration of the Parker family and especially the mother-daughter relationship, Shaw's allowing himself to become romantically involved again, and the grim background of the anti-hero, Jon Merritt, are all done with a great deal of humanity and sympathy. That more than makes up for a couple of late, shock revelations which were perhaps just a shade unlikely.

The story is told form several different viewpoints - Shaw himself, the two triggermen, Allison, and Jon.  Each has part of the truth, but the pieces don't seem to fit together and what you understand will be affected by who you trust. With plenty of red herrings and some of the characters basically conflicted about what's happening, it's very hard to work out who to trust at all. 

All that, and hints that Shaw may be on the fringes of a wider, international plot trading in industrial secrets (perhaps something that Deaver will tell us more about in a future book) make this a must-read for the his fans.

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