19 December 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Yule Island by Johana Gustawsson

Book "Yule Island" by Johana Gustawsson. A pair of scissors, open and points down, in a chilly blue with the device of a skull in the centre. Behind them, a circle divided into eight parts by a repeated, cryptic symbol. There is a snowflake in each section. Behind all this, curving lines which might be branches, or possibly cracks in ice.
Yule Island (Lidingö Mysteries, No1)
Johana Gustawsson (translated by David Warriner)
Orenda Books, 23 November 2023
Available as: HB, 256, PB, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy and purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781914585975

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Yule Island to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Having enjoyed Gustawsson's previous Orenda-published mysteries, I was delighted to see this one coming and eager to review it. It is, I think, in atmosphere, closer to Blood Song than to her Roy & Castells series (though I did note that these books all take place in the same world - look out for the reference to the forensics expert!) That is, Yule Island is quite a "shut in", Gothic experience to read as we follow art and antiques expert Emma Lindahl to the lonely, but hardly isolated, Swedish island of Storholmen to appraise a wealthy family's hoarded collection of artwork.

Storholmen isn't remote - it can be reached by water taxi, a trip of only a few minutes, but once you're there it's another world. It is a place dominated by the Gussman family with their allegedly haunted manor house, where a young was woman was found, dead and hanging naked from a tree, nine years before. Once the taxi ceases, you're trapped, unless you can beg a lift. Moreover, its winter - the cold and the darkness almost palpable in Gustawsson's writing, contrasted to the busy urban scene outside Emma's apartment.

With this story, Gustawsson plunges straight into the mystery. There's no messing around, instead the threads are brought quickly together. Creepy Manor House. Troubled and scary history. The frustrated cop who failed to solve the previous murder. Hints of something or someone in the house not at rest. And in the middle of it all, Emma, a more complex character than she appears at first sight. When another corpse is found, she meets Karl, that detective (I enjoyed the subplot featuring him, his boss and her dog) and begins doing a little sleuthing herself.

It's clear by this stage that Emma has some preoccupation with the island, beyond furthering her career by working through the valuables the Gussmans have accumulated. (To add to the creepiness this is a job she's required to do according to a strict schedule, apparently designed to prevent her meeting any of the family or their staff). Gustawsson takes her time, however, revealing Emma's background and why she wishes to undertake the work when she seems to dread, rather than desire, the task, feelings only heightened when she discovers a note begging for help.

Pushed beyond endurance by what she witnesses, Emma also encounters Anneli, the young woman who runs the island cafe (literally the only other place to go apart from the manor) and they form a sort of alliance (in more senses than one). I felt the relationship between the two women was tenderly and convincingly drawn, as were Emma's difficulties with her mother (which hint at some of the darkness that Emma's dealing with - this is only slowly revealed and I won't say more because in this book you need to learn things at Guistawssson's pace).

Also sharing space in this book with Emma and the rest is Viktoria, who has her own take on things to narrate: exactly how it fits with the other storylines also only becomes clear gradually - but I will say that Viktoria's story is one that has overtones of male abuse (readers may want to be aware of this).

Overall, Yule Island has plenty of different mysteries, but they come together nicely into a coherent whole, rather than being separate threads added in to spice the story up. Once things come to a head it is soon clear what has shaped - is still shaping - the horror on Storholmen - Yule Island - and it also becomes clear that not everything can be wrapped up neatly: there will be consequences to what's gone on here - for the innocent as well as the guilty.

An intriguing and moreish start to a series, ably translated by David Warriner, whose lucid English narrative allows the story to speak for itself.

For more information about Yule Island, 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 Yule Island 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 "Yule Island" by Johana Gustawsson.

15 December 2023

#Review - The Christmas Jigsaw Murders by Alexandra Benedict

Book "The Christmas Jigsaw Murder" by Alexandra Benedict. Against a background of red and gold wrapping paper, a jigsaw piece is askew...
The Christmas Jigsaw Murders
Alexandra Benedict
Simon & Schuster, 9 November 2023
Available as: HB, 352pp, audio, e   
Source: Purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781398525375

I really enjoyed Alexandra Benedict's Murder on the Christmas Express so once I had completed that trip, I made sure to collect all the pieces for this new mystery.

And it is a mystery in several senses. 

A week before Christmas, misanthropic crossword-puzzle setter Edie O’Sullivan receives a present - a handful of jigsaw pieces making up part of a murder scene. It's accompanied by a threat - Edie has been set a challenge, to prevent a series of murders which will climax on Christmas Eve.

Edie accepts the challenge, to the chagrin of her nephew Sean who, as a young Detective Sergeant, doesn't want her trampling all over the case (either metaphorically or - because Edie seems to know no law - literally, once the bodies start turning up).

The killer, "Rest in Pieces" seems to have a particular hatred of Edie, but is also happy to commit mayhem across Weymouth, causing panic and dismay among the Christmas lights and tinsel. What do they want, and can they be stopped?

This was a fun and enjoyable book, the more so - oddly perhaps? - because Edie is actually a thoroughly dislikable character. (She knows this - asked 'How many people do you p*** off every day?' Edie response is simple: 'Sure. I'm an a******e.' Admittedly as the story proceeds we learn more about what she's suffered, which goes some way to make her more sympathetic, but her behaviour is simply outrageous. Not suffering fools gladly, and rampaging across police business, is only part of it. She insults everyone she meets, behaves obnoxiously, and goes out of her way to be as disagreeable as she can. If somebody is targeting her, it's hardly surprising, and the list of suspects isn't going to be short. 

How Edie resolves this, what it might cost her, and where in her shady past she'll need to go to find the resources she needs in this crisis - well, read the book if you want to find out! It's frankly a puzzle bt one that Benedict pulls off triumphantly. 

And as I said above, that's not the only puzzle. Hidden in the story are multiple challenges for the reader, including anagrams and song titles (some of which I managed to solve, but mostly not - the story is so good and so distracting!) It's also got a pleasingly Dickensian (while modern) affect, signalled by the opening words: 'No one was dead, not to begin with.' Indeed there's perhaps a touch of the Miss Havisham about Edie - if Miss H was prone to solve murder mysteries.

All in all, immense fun.

For more information about The Christmas Jigsaw Murders, see the publisher's website here -

12 December 2023

#Review - Secrets Typed in Blood by Stephen Spotswood

Cover for book "Secrets Typed in Blood" by Stephen Spotswood. The title is spelled out on a page jutting from an old fashioned typewriter. The page is spattered with blood.
Secrets Typed in Blood (Pentecost and Parker, 3)
Stephen Spotswood
Headline, 12 October 2023
Available as: PB, 384pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy 
ISBN(PB): 9781035409464

I'm grateful to Headline for providing me an advance e-copy of Secrets Typed in Blood to consider for review.

I was excited to see not just one new Pentecost and Parker mystery this year, but two. I'll be reviewing Murder Crossed Her Mind, Book 4 in the series, shortly - but before that, what did I make of Secrets Typed in Blood?

Well, this is a clever, sharp detective novel that nicely explores the 1940s scene around the writing and publication of pulp detective novels while - at the same time - being a rather superior example of the genre, and indeed one with a distinctly noir-ish twist. But all that apart it's a real pleasure to welcome back Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker.

The two sleuths - or perhaps I should say, New York's foremost private detective and her assistant - are called in by Holly Quick, a writer of hard-boiled murder tales for half the pulp magazines in the city, when her scenarios begin playing out in real life. Bound on her honour to keep Holly's secrets - Holly has her reasons for these - Lillian risks souring her relationship with the New York police as the bodies pile up. There's also tension between Lillian and Will and, as ever, the latter doesn't take it well when Lillian tries to keep her away from the action.

I simply loved this book. Its gallery of smart women who know what they're about - not just Lillian, Will and Holly, but others besides - are a formidable counterpoint to the somewhat patronising NYPD. The introduction of Holly - a chain smoking, reclusive writer who spins out her stories paid by the letter - is a masterstroke, as is the involvement of a gumshoe Lillian brings in (to Will's disgust). We also learn more about how Will and Lillian support the women of the city, whether it's running self-defence classes, giving pro bono advice or tracking down missing relatives. (The background there is a clearly darkening climate for womens' rights, as they are squeezed out of "mens'" jobs and pushed back into the home, their behaviour policed and deviancy increasingly not tolerated).

Best of all though we see Will playing a lead role in things, and how far she's come since the first book. Juggling an undercover role on a separate case with investigating Holly's problem and discreetly supporting Lillian who (as regular readers will know) isn't in good health, she provides a running commentary (often a frustrated commentary) on progress which keeps the book moving at a brisk pace and hints at what is to come.

At the heart of things though is as classic a mystery as you could wish, the what and the why teasingly elusive even as Pentecost and Parker get further into the detail. It's all here in plain sight but also, it's fiendishly difficult to decode - just as a detective mystery should be.

All in all, another cracking instalment in this series which, to my mind, just gets better and better.

I'll be back with a further update when I've finished Murder Crossed Her Mind. You'll forgive me if I sign off now to do that...

For more information about Secrets Typed in Blood, see the publisher's website here.

8 December 2023

#Review - The Fragile Threads of Power by VE Schwab

Cover for book "The Fragile Threads of Power" by VE Schwab. A silhouetted figure in black with curly hair is surrounded by streamers of red and while, the red streamer overlaid with a street map.
The Fragile Threads of Power
VE Schwab
Titan Books, 26 September 2023 
Available as: HB, 576pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781785652462

I'm grateful to Titan Books for letting me have an advance e-copy of The Fragile Threads of Power via Netgalley to consider for review.

I was glad to see Schwab return to Grey, Red, White and (shudders) even Black London, the variously magic (or not) settings for her magnificent Darker Shades of Magic trilogy.

Glad - More Lila! More Kell! - but also slightly apprehensive because, and we've all seen them of course, I didn't want this to be another example a of writer returning to familiar ground when they should have left alone and done something new instead.

I needn't have worried. Schwab is canny enough to not simply repeat what worked so well before, and  bolsters the book with new characters who intrigue the reader while the central quad - Lila, Kell, Ray and Alucard - settle down, as it were, and focus. Those familiar with that group will though recall that they're a pretty awkward, intractable lot who aren't going to behave and pay attention at the snap of the author's fingers and indeed, we have Lila Being A Pirate, Kell Sulking, Rhy Kinging and Alucard, well, Alucarding. 

This first half of the book serves as a helpful reminder of just what went before and how each of the four stands in relation to the others, but Schwab doesn't have the story on pause - as the four sort out their issues, or not, we're also introduced to new comers Tesali, a sparky young runaway who has some serious magical abilities and runs her own repair shop in red London, and Kosika, the new Queen in White London. Both are outsiders, living on their wits and having to make sense of a dangerous world. Both have a lot of backstory, which Schwab allows to unfold slowly - if ever tempted to hurry this, she resisted and rightly; there is a lot to tell and both women are fascinating. They are destined, it's clear, to attract trouble and we begin to see that for Tesali (for Kosika I think it's looming in the next book).

(Apart from Tesali and Kosika, Rhys' new Queen, Nadia, an enchantress with her own underground lab, also intrigued me. She's clearly up to something more than simply defending her family, but what?)

Of course once trouble starts, Lila won't be far away and the really good news about this book is that as things heat up, with the sinister rebel faction The Hand making its move, Lila gets REALLY knife-y and plunges into the thick of things. This is what I was waiting for. Red London is absolutely made for sinister plots, for skulking figures glimpsed in dark alleys, strange conspiracies and for treason. And there's plenty of all these. (Yes, treason - there is a traitor in this book, in fact more than one, and you'll be smart if you can spot them - I didn't).

It all creates an engaging, fast-paced and pleasingly complicated story that benefits not only from those new characters but from the returning, somewhat older (I won't say, more mature) cast from the earlier books. As established figures, it's good to see them bickering away but even better to see the impression they make on the newcomers. I didn't think Tesali was actually very impressed by Lila, and The Fragile Threads of Power sets up some dynamics that it will be fun to see play out in future books.

A strong followup to Darker Shades that definitely avoids all those "second trilogy blues".

For more information about The Fragile Threads of Power, see the publisher's website here.

4 December 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Dead Sweet by Katrín Júlíusdóttir

Cover for book "Dead Sweet" by Katrín Júlíusdóttir. The Reykjavík waterfront, with churches and other buildings visible,. The sea is stained a deep red, in contrast to the rest of the image which is in shades of grey, white and black.
Dead Sweet
Katrín Júlíusdóttir (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 1 December 2023
Available as: HB, 256pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781914585999

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Dead Sweet to consider for review, and to Anne for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Dead Sweet is an intriguing and enthralling debut novel, written by an ex Minister in the Icelandic Government and showing, I think, the insight of an insider in its portrayal of government, police and wider society.

The story follows detective Sigurdís as she attempts to unravel the murder of prominent campaigner turned civil servant Óttar Karlsson. Karlsson was a man accustomed to getting his way but it soon emerges that he was also a man who kept secrets and whose life was lived in compartments. As the police dig deeper and deeper, they begin to uncover a host of potential motives - but there is an understandable caution at digging too deep. Will Sigurdís be able to persuade her boss Garðar to pursue potentially embarrassing leads?

I have to say, I totally loved Sigurdís as a protagonist. Where's a whiff of darkness about her - she is struggling rather in her chosen career after losing it when on patrol one evening and her colleagues are torn between sympathy (she had a difficult upbringing which has left her with trauma) and suspicion. The dynamic between her and them is one of several ways that Júlíusdóttir explores insiders and outsiders: she is both at the same time, as, it seems, was Karlsson. We are all, the author seems to be saying, many different people in the course of our lives and I was reminded of the "All the world's a stage" speech from "As You Like It" with various stages and aspects of both Sigurdís and Karlsson gradually emerging. 

Indeed, Karlsson is, for someone we see briefly at the start of the story when he dies but who is, if not dead "to begin with", at least dead from then on, still very involved with the story. It's basically a process of exploring the impact he had on others: the harms, the impressions, the trauma and the delusions that he left behind. I think that's why Sigurdís becomes so obsessed, pushing the bounds of protocol and eventually stepping right over them in her determination to find the truth. Something in the "victim" resonates with her own sense of pain and hurt and unresolved loss - even as her own history seems to be coming back to haunt her.

If all that sounds a lot in a shortish book, and potentially rather heavy, it's really not - Júlíusdóttir spins a cracking tale and keeps the revelations and teasers unwinding so that there's something to discover on every page, and Sigurdís is an engaging and empathetic heroine who I look forward to hearing more about soon.

I would give a content warning for some scenes of domestic abuse and controlling behaviour.

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

You can buy Dead Sweet 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 "Dead Sweet" by Katrín Júlíusdóttir

28 November 2023

#Review - Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree

Book "Bookshops and Bonedust" by Travis Baldree. In the centre, crossed bones. Above, a sword stabs a book with black pages. In the corners of the page, rope, seashells and starfish.
Bookshops and Bonedust
Travis Baldree
Pan Macmillan, 9 November 2023
Available as: HB, 368pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781035007356

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me an advance e-copy of Bookshops and Bonedust to consider for review.

Bookshops and Bonedust is set in the same universe as Legends and Lattes, but takes place earlier, documenting a period in Viv's life at the start of her adventuring career. While it will I think me a must-read for lovers of the previous book, it can also therefore be read on its own - as I did, having inexcusably not read L&L last year when it made a huge stir. 

The story takes place after Viv is injured in one her first battles as one of Rackam's Ravens. Impetuous and hot-heated, she heads for the thick of the fight, is injured, and and invalided out to recuperate in the little seaside town of Murk and, bored silly by the quiet, wanders in to a cluttered little bookshop for some distraction...

Thus we are introduced to the world of fantasy bookselling. I mean, of bookselling in a fantasy world - where a ratkin, Fern and her pet bird-animal, Potroast, are struggling to stay in business at Thistleburr Booksellers - which, by and large, doesn't traffic in ancient evil tomes (though one will turn up eventually). Rather its mainstay is nautical charts and popular fiction (Baldree gives us little glimpses of this). As Viv becomes friends with Fern and Potroast, we see just what a bookseller with a mission can do for an innocent customer - Viv is introduced not only to the delights of sword-swinging pirates, but also to the charms of smut. 

It's really fun to see a friendship springing up and as the book proceeds, Viv makes others too. There may be danger, magic and adventure going on in the background - a sinister stranger turns up, there are rumours of a necromantic army and city gate warden Iridia is on high alert and Has Her Eye On Viv - but there are also baked goods to be eaten, books to be read and discussed and flirting to be done. Viv is clearly chaffing to get back to the fight, but also honest enough to admit that she may have found something - or rather someone - pretty good in Murk.

Adventure and danger do, it's true, come to the town in the end and Viv plays her part in defeating it, but I was pleased to see that Viv's success was due as much or more to the friendships she's made as to her fighting prowess (in contrast to the episode at the start where she fails just because she tries to do it all herself). 

All in all, a cracking story and I can now understand the excitement around Legends and Lattes. I clearly have some catching up to do...

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

23 November 2023

#Review - The Watchmaker's Hand by Jeffery Deaver

Book "The Watchmaker's Hand" by Jeffery Deaver. Against a murky background of blues and greys, a dark figure stands. Surrounding them are cogwheels and other watch internal parts in an arc.
The Watchmaker's Hand (Lincoln Rhyme, 16)
Jeffery Deaver
HarperCollins, 23 November 2023 
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008503864

I'm grateful to HarperCollins for providing me with an advance e-copy of The Watchmaker's Hand to consider for review.

Readers who are following Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme books will remember The Watchmaker - an accomplished assassin whose plans Rhyme has frustrated on several occasions and who now, it seems, is targeting Rhyme himself.

If that setup sounds a little familiar, Deaver makes no bones in this book about a comparison with Sherlock Holmes (and, by extension, Moriarty), musing on how both Rhyme and Charles Vespasian Hale (the Watchmaker) resemble the Great Detective and his nemesis, for example in the way that Rhyme, like Holmes, ruthlessly discounts information that doesn't bear on his cases. And in one extended piece of of brilliant analysis here, we even see Rhyme track a suspect down to his hideout through close analysis of soil types, a feat that Doyle employs early on to establish Holmes's abilities. (There are also tongue in cheek references to Rhyme's bafflement at the success of published accounts of his cases).

Evoking Holmes and Moriarty in this way does of course bring with it a sense of foreboding. And it's a foreboding Deaver builds up in other ways as well. One of Rhyme's circle is being sounded out to act as his successor, should anything happen to him. There are signs of vendettas and political agendas within the NYPD, interfering with the case and with the team. And Amelia Sachs, Rhyme's wife, stumbles into danger early on in the book, suffering injuries which will become concerning once we understand what is going on here and how high the stakes are.

Once we understand what is going on...  one of the reasons I so much enjoy this series is the fiendishness of the plots. Deaver gleefully combines so much: personal agendas, criminal machinations, politics, and always, the sprawling, complex mechanism of New York City itself. For the reader, even the seasoned crime reader, understanding what's going on demands something but the rewards are great - out of all these ingredients Deaver draws addictive and ramified stories boasting plots within plots, red herrings aplenty and numerous twists. The Watchmaker's Hand is no exception, indeed I think it may be one of the more devious novels in the series, one which has, as the Watchmaker himself might say, many complications.

That made this story great fun for me to read. As ever, we're given some insight into what the bad guys are doing - but it's far from complete (and indeed, we don't know everything about Rhyme's countermoves either). So the tension is high, with many threats to the team and behind that, threats, as well, to the city and possibly, to the nation. Hale is a worthy adversary and one almost gets a sense that Rhyme is relishing the contest - as Holmes was wont to do.

Basically, explosive fun, in a story that really moves the series forward and which grips from beginning to end. 

For more information about The Watchmaker's Hand, see the publisher's website here.

21 November 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Upstairs at the Beresford by Will Carver

Book "Upstairs at the Beresford" by Will Carver. Done in tones of blue. A jumble of architecture - stairways, doors, wall and floors - all opening in different direction, in the style of an Escher drawing. Below all this, in shades of stone, line drawings of demons and monsters.
Upstairs at the Beresford
Will Carver
Orenda Books, 9 November2023 
Available as: PB, 276pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585920

I'm grateful to Anne Cater for for inviting me to join the blogtour for Upstairs at the Beresford and for getting me an advance copy to read.

Upstairs at the Beresford is a kind-of prequel to Carver's The Beresford (can it really be two whole years since that came out?)

I say "kind-of" because, as with the other books which are set in what might be called the Carververse, while one can see repeated elements (characters, events, businesses) there isn't I think a "continuity" as one might normally define it - a shared set of events and a consistent set of facts - rather there is a sort of "moral" continuity. So I'm not sure that it makes sense to say that events of Upstairs precede those of The Beresford in a temporal sense, but they do come before, in a kind of moral, developmental (or perhaps better, decline-y)sense.

Put simply, it's revealed here that the Beresford itself - that institution to be found on the edge of any town, where drifting members of humanity find themselves tested, and often failing - is a sort of sulphurous experiment, a gambit, as it were, by the powers of darkness, to gather in more souls and not only more souls but the best souls (imagine offering your soul to the Devil and being told that no, it's not up to scratch! What a humiliation!)

The experiment, the gambit, described here, precedes the one seen in The Beresford which is now shown as simply another iteration of the same shell game. In Upstairs, the Beresford is more a hotel than the suite of apartments we saw in the earlier book, something that presents both opportunities to the management (the monthly sales conferences that it host are a good opportunity to gather product) and risks (such as potential for publicity). This both explains a bit more about what is going on in The Beresford and raises questions about where things are ultimately bound.

In particular this book isn't I think answering the question of what was going on when saw that little glimpse upstairs in the previous book, rather it's telling a story of its own. Carver portrays an ensemble of residents and visitors who represent humanity with its strengths and weaknesses: the family with an abusive husband, his wife desperately turning tricks during the day to raise money to get out with her son; the loved-up young couple living as cheaply as they can while they save for their own place; the cabaret singer who's so achingly cool it almost hurts; the raffish salesman in town for that conference; and of course Carol, the manager, who's bound to the place by some strange bargain of her own, and is adept at clearing up dead bodies, the debris of orgies, and the remnants of whatever it is happens each month down in the basement.

Together these characters - and there are others - form a strong cast, a group around whom Carver can illustrate and explore the foibles, failings and quiet triumphs of humanity. Triumphs? They are here. It would be tempting to characterise the Carververse as a dark, hopeless place but that would be wrong. His books - and Upstairs at the Beresford is particularly good at this - are unsparing of humanity's blushes, they pull no punches, but they are celebratory too - of human resilience, kindness, loyalty and especially, love. (When rarely, they are found).

We still, of course, metaphorically get to visit that crossroads from time to time - you know, the one where the Devil (or one of His minions, Old Nick is a busy chap) strikes a deal, giving the customer what he or she really, really wants for consideration of a single soul. We don't visit it for real, there are no excursions to a windswept heath or remote junction, but still the book takes us there, showing - and discussing - those who have made the journey before and pondering who may be along next, and why.

I've previously referred to these books as "moral noir" which is perhaps a bit silly because noir is all moral noir, but I was trying to make the point that for all the bloodshed and suffering here (and be warned there is plenty) the key events are, well, moral, internal, they are choices and lack or choices, responses to constraints and tight corners and above all, they derive form a calculus of self vs everyone else. Convincingly portrayed as it is - and the setting here really does draw on in - the real landscape is mental, ethical. 

Reading - and I assume writing - about this brings a sense of clarity, I think, which marks Carver's writing out as not only having real heft and importance but also as bracingly good in itself (despite the darkness billowing all around).

So - welcome to Hotel Beresford. You can leave whenever you want to. 

No, really, you can...

For more information about Upstairs at the Beresford, 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 Upstairs at the Beresford from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

16 November 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Murder on the Christmas Express by Alexandra Benedict

Cover for book "Murder on the Christmas Express" by Alexandra Benedict. A cream background with a red railway track running around the edges of the cover. In the centre, two train carriages with the words"Eighteen passengers" above them and "Seven stops... one killer" below. The rest of the page has various motifs - snowflakes, holly leaves and berries.
Murder on the Christmas Express 
Alexandra Benedict
Simon and Schuster, 10 November 2022 (HB) 28 September 2023 (PB)
Available as: HB, 341pp, PB, 368pp, audio, e   
Source: Purchased
ISBN: 9781398519824 (HB) 9781398519855 (PB)

I'm grateful to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blogtour for Murder on the Christmas Express.

I do have a weakness for Christmas-themed novels, a weakness I'm indulging this year, and I also enjoy Benedict's books, so when Anne Cater was looking for bloggers to do the tour for Murder on the Christmas Express I leapt at the chance. Bring on the seasonal mayhem!

And there is mayhem here, it;'s true. But there's so much else to love as well. We meet a bunch of strangers on a train, on the night before Christmas Eve, some going back home for the season, some heading for a romantic mini break, just trying to get away from it all. A regretful ex-policewoman who wants to make amends to her estranged daughter. A dream journey into a silent Highland landscape - and a nightmare situation.

And one person who has particular business to conduct on that train

We're boarding the Caledonian Sleeper at Euston Station in London on a busy night. Of course the train's late and our passengers have to kick their heels in the lounge beforehand, revealing a lot about themselves and setting up conflict for the rest of the journey. Of course, something's going to go wrong, stranding everyone out in the snowy Highlands as the death count rises. Of course we get fascinating vignettes about our fellow travellers. Of course - I'd expect no less. 

Roz is our eyes and ears aboard the sleeper. A just-retired DI, she's travelling back to the Highlands to be with her daughter Heather, about to give birth, ready to support her and her girlfriend Ellie. Roz has spent her career trying to live down a severe trauma when she was young: the events of the next thirty-six hours will revive it and she'll have to test whether she is still able to help people, or whether a career in the muddled, compromised Met police has extinguished that spark.

Like Roz, the other passengers on the train are a thoroughly modern lot. We don't meet any spies, nuns or glamorous divorcées, but there is a beauty vloger, her sexist creep boyfriend, a party of students, a teacher with a shady past, a cat and a stowaway. And others besides. 

Benedict handles this largeish cast of characters very well, quickly grounding the reader with who is who and indicating which travellers get on with, and which dislike, each other - the heart of the book will be complex as they're forced to crowd together for safety and warmth, but when it does, the tension arises very organically from those well established relationships (although there are some surprises: we're not told everything we might know though the author respects the rules I think and tells us everything we need to know).

All that, and this book also manages to include a locked-room mystery, a pretty searching analysis of toxic masculinity (I would give a CW for mentions of sexual assault) AND its own side quiz with the reader primed to look out for song titles and anagrams in the text (I did poorly, but I'd plead that I got totally absorbed the plot so forgot to look out for them).

All in all a book which was great fun, had a compelling central character in Roz and some sharply observed (and rather tenderly done) others besides. It has quite a hard core though so I'd say, yes it's fun fun, but I'd hesitate to attach the label "cosy" too easily to it.

For more information about Murder on the Christmas Express, 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 Murder on the Christmas Express from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

14 November 2023

#Review - The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate by Adam Roberts

Cover for book "The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate" by Adam Roberts. A pair of railway tracks recede into the image of a Victorian man, with stovepipe hat, portrayed I genitive. To either side the steep rooves of terraced houses.
The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate
Adam Roberts
Datura Books, 14 November 2023 
Available as: PB, 400pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 978-1915523020

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate to consider for review.

It was an unexpected treat to have a new book from Adam Roberts, and as we move into the season of Christmas ghost stories what better than one with a whiff of the uncanny, a story set in Victorian London - and a London beset by unease and coming change?

In 1848, much is in flux. Across Europe, revolutions and revolutionary movements swell. Even in Britain, the Chartists agitate. At the same time the new railways are redrawing the map of London, and of the wider country. Roberts catches a moment when these things are in process, but not complete, where the future is uncertain. The Middlemarch Grand Congruence Railway is imagined, and being built, laying waste to swathes of Camden, but it is not yet a reality. Despite the bustle of progress, many of the journeys taken in this book are on foot, by stagecoach, on horseback or in carts. Political agitators push the People's Charter and are seen as firebrands, radicals, though pursuing an agenda which to modern eyes seems a very modest step towards democracy. There is a great deal of "Dickensian" atmosphere (and Roberts plays games, dropping in characters and events from Dickens, and from other 19th century novels) and language but also a sense that this is looking backwards. In another strand of the story, literary ideas are formed from the fantastic, from the dawning of science fictional ideas. It all produces a feeling of dizziness, a loss of certainty, a sense that anything might happen.

The novel opens with the death that gives it its title and this event is, like much here, uncertain. We're given many alternative explanations for Sir Martin's - the chief architect of the railway company's - death, from murder at the hands of mobs of disaffected agitators or citizens whose homes and gardens he's seized, to some kind of supernatural, devilish influence, to others even more fantastic. But as Sir Martin's own character proves slippery - his deeds contradictory, both a grasping Scrooge of a man and also a philanthropist - so does the reason for his death. Both end up as ways into the fantastically complex society that's being built, which is explored by two men seeing to understand what happened to Sir Martin. These are Bryde, an engineer, and Holmes - Vavasour Holmes, father of the more famous Sherlock.

These sleuths can't though be detached from the events whirling away here, but are picked up and jostled by the forces at play. Indeed there's a whole subplot where Holmes is spirited away to Middlemarch itself, making this not just a London novel but one engaged with progress and resistance across the whole country.

It's a truly absorbing read, a detective story - complete with a Scotland Yard Inspector, of course - but also plenty of bustling Dickensian figures - sneering company grandees, pernickety clerks, loquacious women serving soup, servants at inns who clearly imagine themselves as central characters in a narrative not walk-ons as here. It's a deeply literary mystery, not just in its atmosphere and characters but in the way it examines the world and in the alternative theories it considers for the accomplishing of the central murder. This was, it's clear from the start, intended to be a spectacle, and a puzzling one - but that doesn't mean there isn't a perfectly human motive behind it, even if it's obscured by the means adopted.

I loved the atmosphere here of an uneasy 19th century, not a self-satisfied, grand edifice but a society very uncertain of itself, not a place blessed with the perspective of hindsight at all but a fractious, provisional, turbulent society people by fractious, turbulent people.

A truly enjoyable read.

For more information about The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate, see the publisher's website here.

9 November 2023

#Review - The Party Season by SJI Holliday

Book "The Party Season" by SJI Holliday. Against a festive background of icy blue and of snow crystals, two champagne flutes clinked together, the whole being spotted with drops of blood.
The Party Season
SJI Holliday
Hodder, 9 November 2023 
Available as: PB, 320pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781399714259

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with a copy of The Party Season to consider for review.

I have a weakness for Christmas-themed novels, and I love Holliday's books, so this was bound to be my choice for a little seasonal mayhem. A sequel of sorts to her The Deaths of December, The Party Season picks up the stories of Detectives Eddie Carmine and Becky Greene.

Men are being killed at Christmas parties in the town of Woodham. Among the jolly music, holly - and the mistletoe - stalks a glamorous young woman in a party dress and heels who'll decide whether those men are naughty or nice... and act accordingly.

Carmine and Green are in a race against time to track her down before Christmas is ruined for the partygoers of Woodham.

I loved the contrasts in this book. There's slightly tawdry Christmasiness of everything (signalled by the inflatable snowman smuggled into Eddie's office early on), the debates about songs and films, the vendor selling dodgy Christmas trees from the middle of a roundabout on the by-pass. All excellent. I won't for a minute hear a criticism that all this vulgarity demeans Christmas - it has always been a raucous, roistering feast and I love to see that.

But there's another side, too. There's pathos here. Becky's mum turns up unexpectedly in a care home, near the end of her life. Becky's attempt to reintegrate the woman who abandoned her into her, before she dies, adds a real sense of coming loss and deepens the character, complicating what might otherwise be a full-on will they, won't they with Eddie (I have hopes they will, so let there be more books in this series!) The killer, too, it turns out, has suffered tragedies which are as one would expect a key part of what's driving events. But they take a while to expose so it would be spoilery to give too much detail. Indeed, unravelling that detail is what Carmine and Green are at through most of the story.

In a slickly written, page turner of a novel, Holliday introduces other themes too: a stalkery, unpleasant boyfriend, the stresses of office life (only magnified by the FOMO of Christmas parties and jubilations), a hint of a mystery from Eddie's past (I loved that Becky accepts there are things he won't reveal - these are partners who give each other some space) and a real injustice at the heart of things.

All in all this is entertaining, seasonal and fun, one of those books where you can't necessarily believe what you think you see. And it gives a hint of more to come, I have a sense the Holliday isn't finished with Carmine and Green yet...

For more information about The Party Season, see the publisher's website here.

7 November 2023

#Review - A Power Unbound by Freya Marske

A Power Unbound (Last Binding Trilogy, 3)
Freya Marske
Pan Macmillan, 9 November 2023
Available as: HB, 432pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529080988

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of A Power Unbound to consider for review.

With A Power Unbound, Marske at last centres a book on Jack Alstom - Lord Hawthorn - one of the more enigmatic of the gallery of magicians and magic-adjacent individuals we've seen in this series, and a character who's always had a whiff of brimstone about him (Violet, you may recall, asked him to ruin her in A Restless Truth). As a reminder, the first book, A Marvellous Light, largely follows Sir Robin Blyth, our non-magician gateway to the world of these books, a Civil Servant and the Home Office's liaison with the enchanted world, and Edwin Courcey, his magician counterpart, as they fall in love while the second book, A Restless Truth is more Sapphic in tone, with Maud Blyth and the aforementioned Violet getting to up all sorts on an ocean liner. Behind the personal entanglements, though, a dastardly plot is evolving, a scheme to take all of the power of the British magicians into one pair of hands. This has proceeded as the conspirators find pieces of the "Last Contract" and as Jack, Edwin, Maud and others seek to prevent that.

A Restless Truth also introduced Alan - journalist, radical, peddler of smut, and thief - as a sort of counterweight to Jack and - given the previous books - that means there is a big element of will-they, won't they in A Power Unbound.  The powerful distaste between the two men, a distaste with its roots perhaps in a contrast between Alan's working class suffering and Hawthorn's hauteur, has not gone away but since the events of A Restless Truth Alan has also been enlisted in the last-ditch effort to save British magic. Marske does a terrific job here at unpeeling layer after layer of Alan's feelings - his resentment of those who, as well as being born with wealth and power, have inherited magic too; his revulsion at what was done to Jack to remove his magic (yes - finally, we're learning more about what has been going on, and it's riveting!) and his desire to protect and nurture his family. 

Plus, of course, his attraction to Jack...

Fantasy novels can often be accused of ignoring real social conditions, as well as being oblivious to the actual politics of a world in which magic is real, but Marske inverts this, making questions of power, agency and privilege central to the narrative. It's perhaps in keeping with this that when things get steamy between Jack and Alan (sorry, minor spoiler, but surely you expected that? It's not just me?) the liaison between titled aristocrat and scrabbling guttersnipe doesn't dodge those same issues of power and consent, with some lovemaking scenes where these things are in fact central to the sexiness, Jack and Alan negotiating their relationship by stages through some saucy role-play.

And yes, if you're a reader of a traditionalist hue who doesn't an appreciate these themes, maybe this book might not be for you - but I would still encourage you to at least try it. There is also plenty of conflict, scheming, magical combat and racing for time, as the clock counts down and the villains finally make their move - enough to keep any reader satisfied even if they don't really get on with the more  tender parts of the story. 

For me, A Power Unbound does several difficult things very well. It rounds off a complex through-plot, which Marske has made us care intensely about. It does justice to the historical background of the Imperialistic, Edwardian setting, without uncritically adopting the prejudices of the time (this is shown most fully in the Queer narrative strand, one of the reasons it would be a mistake to see this as something secondary). It does credit to characters we've come to love. And, even at this late stage in the trilogy, it gives us a great deal of new information to round out, explain and motivate pretty much everyone.

Lastly - and of course not lastly - it tells a rattling good, exciting story in its own right and totally lands the ending.

In short, I'm sad to see this series end, but it goes out firing on all cylinders, the perfect ending to the trilogy.

For more information about A Power Unbound, see the publisher's website here.

2 November 2023

#Blogtour #Review - His Favourite Graves by Paul Cleave

Book "His Favourite Graves" by Paul Cleave - a country road in the US by day with a car in the distance, a crowbar lying on the road.
His Favourite Graves
Paul Cleave
Orenda Books, 9 November 2023
Available as: PB, 293pp, e   
Source: Advance e copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585883

I'm grateful to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blogtour for His Favourite Graves and for sending me a copy of the book to consider for review.

His Favourite Graves is a difficult book to review because there are features I want to rave about - but to explain exactly why would reveal too much about it. His Favourite Graves starts out leading the reader into thinking it'll be one sort of story, but then stuff happens, and it actually turns out quite, quite different. (BUT also keeps the original bargain with the reader, as it were). I'd like to analyse how, and why, all of that matters, and what it seemed to me to be saying - but again, it would be unfair to do this, since that you deserve to experience that swerve, not be told all about it first.

We are in the town of Acacia Pines, somewhere in the US, and we begin with an episode of high school bullying, young Lucas Connor having been imprisoned in a locker by - well, that'll be made clear in good time. Worse is, though, to befall Lucas as he subsequently goes missing, setting things up for a serial-killer, race-for-time kind of narrative.

Cleave isn't, though, anything like so predictable (which I did KNOW, having read, for example, The Pain Tourist) and His Favourite Graves turns out to be so much richer than one might naively expect. This can be seen in the twisty backstory, which emerges slowly, and continually wrong-foots the reader just as they think they've got a grasp on who the villain(s) is/ are and who the victims. 

More pointedly, though, the richness shines out from the characters. Take kidnapper 'Simple' Simon Grove, for example (not a spoiler, as he assumes that role very early on). A truly awful man, how much so being first hinted at and then described, partly from his own mouth. But also a troubled soul and a victim himself. He is, though, one of the more straightforward protagonists. Bluntly, in this book, motivations are one, two, three layers deep, behaviour conditioned not only by human mantra (what Simon blames as 'biology) but by circumstances, choices (those momentary flips of the mental coin that one spends the rest of one's life had gone the other way) and, of course, love and hate.

The pretty tourist town of Acacia Pines turns out to be a festering mixture of all the above, so that it's hardly surprising when, towards the end of the book, Sheriff Cohen - who has his own share of troubles - reflects on missing hikers, and on businesses and farms which are vacant because the owner shot themself or just disappeared. We spend the story reacting to the consequences of one crime, Lucas Connor's abduction, starting out from the normal premise of a crime novel that normal life has been disrupted by a shocking, intrusive, event but that all will be made good. What's revealed here inverts the norm, though, suggesting a dimension to life in this small town that is routinely nasty and brutish (and for some, also short). And once you see that malign undercurrent to events in Acacia, you realise that nothing will ever be right again (and that it never was in the first place).

It would be tempting to call such a story a noir, implying at least a thread of morality amidst the darkness. I find that hard to do, though - His Favourite Graves really is written in shades of darkness, rather than shades of grey. In atmosphere it is much closer to cosmic horror than cosy crime. That may put some off - it would normally put me off - but in this book Cleave delivers such a focussed and compulsive story and and so many nuanced characters - villains, if you will, at the same time deeply vile but also sympathetic; and others, deeply sympathetic but also, at times, also vile - that it is one of those books which simply must be finished once you begin. 

I would give CWs for this book for torture and for abuse towards children and animals. 

For more information about His Favourite Graves, 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 His Favourite Graves from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

31 October 2023

#Review - Starling House by Alix E Harrow

Book "Starling House" by Alix E Harrow. Among flowers and leaves, a crew of dark birds perch and crawl, beaks open, among them several golden keys.
Starling House
Alix E Harrow
Macmillan, 31 October 2023
Available as: HB, 320pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529061123

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of Starling House via Netgalley to consider for review.

Starling House is the creepy story you were looking for - or that you should have been looking for - this Hallowe'en. But it's much much more than that. In the hardscrabble town of Eden, Kentucky, where bad luck seems more common than in the rest of the country, stands a peeling, decaying mansion surrounded by a garden run wild. Sometimes, a single lit window shows at night. 

In the house lives Arthur Starling, a recluse, cloistered among vines and surrounded by stories...

Also living in Eden - a less apt name it would be hard to find - is young Opal, a woman orphaned by her mother's car accident who has devoted herself to racing her younger bother Jasper. The siblings live in a motel room - Room 12 - which her mum somehow managed to secure for them from testy landlady Bev. Everything about Opal's life seems tenuous, from her place in Eden's society (she's widely held, correctly, to be a thief) to her hold on her job, to her right to be her bother's guardian, even to her romantic relationships (dismissed as 'mutual groping'). Opal's overriding project - the one item on her list - is her quest to get Jasper out of the town, where coal dust and asthma are destroying his lungs to a place at a posh college. Jasper is bright and hardworking has been accepted (though he hasn't informed him that she applied...) but how can Opal possibly afford to pay?

Luckily, she manages to blag a job as caretaker at the Scary Old House (don't go near the scary old house, Opal!) and Arthur seems to have cash to spare. Apparently a haughty, antisocial man who gets up to who knows what in the darkness and whose parents also came to a Bad End, he and Opal seem bound to run each other up the wrong way. As they meet - and clash - we learn the origin story, or stories, (we are told several versions) for Starling House, which concern a 19th century writer, Eleanor Starling, whose husband died on her wedding day and whose dark take on the fantastic is still in print 150 years later. Distrusted in her home town, and always daggers drawn with Gravely, the local mine-owners whose fortune was built on enslavement and exploitation, Eleanor lived a lonely life in the house that she built.

It turns out that Arthur is more than just the latest of the Starlings, but that he is a Warden of sorts, fulfilling Eleanor's design but also keeping her supernatural legacy in check. What's going on under Eden is complicated, a delicate balance established by the Gravelys' cruelty and exploitation, Eleanor's determination to make her own stories, and the subsequent decades of conflict. It's a balance that is now threatened by Opal's trespassing on Starling land, for she, too, has secrets - even if she doesn't know them.

This was a powerful and effecting story. There is a strong romantic subplot, which absolutely feels right here but creates great jeopardy. Opal has poured her life and energy into protecting her brother rather than herself which has left her unknowingly vulnerable. Similarly, Arthur, driven by guilt and notions of duty, has turned inwards, determined to do what it takes to be the last Warden. Almost from the first meeting something smoulders between the two, but Harrow delicately draws out the subsequent ignition, raising questions about whether it could result in a fire that burns the town to the ground.

Something Eden does, perhaps, deserve, for all those averted eyes, that tolerance of injustice, that profiting from misery and injustice. Starling House embodies questions about history and about the ability of powerful men to bend reality, to get their way. Eden's chemical pollution - filthy air, filthy river, tainted groundwater - is accompanied by a kind of supernatural wrongness, leading to that aforementioned bad luck. It's a wrongness that has come to the attention of the power-hungry, who will do whatever they need to to grasp at and use it, even if they break Opal and Arthur in the process - another way in which they are vulnerable.

Consequences. Guilt. Original Sin - this version of Eden embodies all of them. The town is built from  that sort of crooked timber of which nothing straight can be made - and everyone seems to know it's and not know it. Against this, what use can Opal's small efforts achieve?

A totally riveting read from Alix E Harrow, possibly her best book yet, you really need to read this.

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

27 October 2023

#Review - Normal Rules Don't Apply by Kate Atkinson

Cover for book "Normal Rules Don't Apply" by Kate Atkinson. A golden fox and a silver dog, curled nose to tail, with a pattern of golden branches, fruits and leaves behind.
Normal Rules Don't Apply: Short Stories
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 24 August 2023
Available as: HB, 2400pp, e, audio   
Source: Advance copy, audio subscription
ISBN(HB): 9780857529183

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance e-copy of Normal Rules Don't Apply to consider for review. I also listened to the book on audio.

The warning "Normal rules don't apply" is given in Spellbound, one of the more obviously fairytale-like of the stories in this book, but it could well apply to any of them. Talking dogs (and horses), a virgin birth (not, as I'm afraid it's described, an Immaculate Conception...), an observant ghost, a catastrophe that strikes anybody (and anything) caught outside when it comes - these stories are filled with the fantastical, the unlikely and the menacing.

They're also filled with the down to earth, the familiar and even the touching. Take Franklin, for example, a character who appears in three or four of the stories. Despite the limited space available, Atkinson gives a vivid picture of his rackety life - his mother, notorious for her role in a sex scandal; his absent father and flailing career history (until he gets lucky and lands a job with hit soap Greenacres - which also features in several of the takes). Franklin is a channel to the mysterious, encountering said talking horse (and dog), a deeply strange family, and finally an escapee from another story - but he is himself as normal, as ordinary, as anyone else would be trying to live down a minor celebrity of a parent. 

Like other characters here, Franklin doesn't invite the weird, it just happens to him and he has to cope with it - just as later in the book, Pamela, an undistinguished former teacher faced with an extraordinary event, grits her teeth and tells herself it's her time to shine. I liked Pamela, feeling she very much approaches life as, I hope, I would. Or take Mandy, that observant ghost, who uses her apparent ability post-death to perceive what's still going on to track down the facts behind her death. In the course of this Mandy tells her life story, which is shrewdly set out, very ordinary, but truly fascinating. (Mandy gets her happy ending, and even the company of a dog - there are many of them in this book!)

And sometimes, the weird just... wanders in. As you read this collection you'll spot, perhaps, situations and individuals you've already seen. Connections will spark and you'll know - sometimes with delight, sometimes with horror - what is going to happen next (perhaps). It's emphatically not one story but themes recur, alternate paths may be being explored and unlikely links are made. The atmosphere is at times something like Atkinson's Life After Life and A God in Ruins, though without quite the same space for exploration and development of characters.

There is an explanation, sort of, for the coincidences and links, lending a distinctly metaphysical touch to the book. It adds its own charm but the rest of the stories still very much stand in their own terms, every one of them. My favourite would, though, I think be Existential Marginalisation, a rather dark take on Toy Story.

The stories are all great fun, and if, as I did, you read the excellent audiobook version narrated by Paterson Joseph, I think you'll agree that it's just a perfect listening experience.

For more information about Normal Rules Don't Apply, see the publisher's website here.

24 October 2023

#Review - The Hexologists by Josiah Bancroft

Cover for book "The Hexologists" by Josiah Bancroft. In head and shoulders three quarter profile, a woman looks left and a man right. She is wearing a natty hat: he has sideburns , a moustache and a high collar. Above them, a circular magical-seeming pattern with cryptic symbols and birds in flight.
The Hexologists (The Hexologists, 1)
Josiah Bancroft
Orbit, 28 September 2023
Available as: PB, 349pp PB, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356519067

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of The Hexologists to consider for review.

The Hexologists is a story of Iz and Warren Wilby, a married couple, living in the fantasy city of Berbiton, whose business is to solve magical mysteries. There's a bit of the famous Edwardian consulting detective both in the way that the popular press follow their exploits, and in the wider context. Berbiton is the capital of a powerful empire, with resident royalty whose peccadilloes, and political shenanigans, create many opportunities for mischief (magical or not). It is also at the forefront of (magic assisted) technological development - the equivalents of the telephone and wireless are novelties, and that of motor cars is beginning to be a nuisance, with pollution blanketing the city. 

I liked this setting. I also enjoyed the politics. The Wilbys' fierce anti-Monarchism means that when, at the start of this story, they're visited by a Royal flunky asking them to carry out an assignment for the Palace they take a lot of convincing. There are hints of revolution in the book, and also of scandal in the Wilbys' past, and of past dabbling in Forbidden Magicks - always fun. (The theoretical side to the magic here was a little hard to follow. I grasped that Hexology is a particular discipline of magic among several, some of which have fallen out of use while others are suppressed, but the relationship between all of them, despite being the subject of detailed exposition, was still a bit obscure). 

Anyway, once the Wilbys' scruples are satisfied and their investigation of the Royal Family's current difficulties begins, the story fairly rattles along with plenty of jeopardy - both moral and physical - numerous red herrings, double crosses, and no-holds-barred fights. Berbiton certainly has its seamy side, with slums, sweatshops and the magical equivalent of dark Satanic mills in evidence, so there's plenty of grimness here but I'd say nevertheless the story remains in the cosy subset of fantasy with the Wilbys' banter and sheet middleclassness playing a large part in keeping it there. That makes the book fun to read, though at times, it seemed to me that it did seem to lower the stakes rather, however desperately perilous things things are supposed to be.

Another aspect of the story that didn't really work for me was the alleged lustiness of Iz's and Warren's relationship. While the fact of this is stated a number of times, and indeed, given any opportunity, they're at it like there's no tomorrow, the atmosphere between them seems in contrast quite passionless. It's as though this strand has been written in to add spice to the story but doesn't quite touch the characters as they're drawn.

In contrast, the hints of past misbehaviour, especially by Iz who has some dangerous friends, were intriguing and I appreciated this fantasy focussing on a middle-aged couple rather than a young upstart or other chosen one. All in all, an entertaining and engaging story but one which felt like it could have done a bit more.

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

20 October 2023

#Blogtour Review - White as Snow by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Book "White As Snow" by Lilja Sigurðardóttir. A cover in white, grey and icy blue, shattered by diagonal strokes which divide it into parallel bands, one of them showing a scene of a shipping container in a snowstorm with hills behind and two dark figures standing amidst the falling flakes.
White as Snow (An Áróra Investigation, No 3) 
Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 12 October 2023
Available as: PB, 276pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy

I'm grateful to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blogtour for White as Snow and for sending me a copy of the book to consider for review.

It was a great pleasure to return to the Reykjavik of maverick financial investigator Áróra and police detective detective Daniel, in a story that very much picks up the thread of the previous book, Red As Blood.

Some months on fro the end of that story, Áróra is still hunting for her vanished sister but seems to be making little progress. Daniel almost finds he has too much family on his hands when his ex sends their two kids to stay, just as a major investigation kicks off. I enjoyed the awkwardness Daniel displays trying to look after two teens who are clearly feeling a bit uprooted and inclined to resort to moods and monosyllables - through they are brought out of themselves when they meet Daniel's drag queen neighbour, Lady Gúgúlú. 

Daniel and his colleagues are investigating people traffickers who have abandoned a shipping container in which are the bodies of several young women. The story - one can almost smell its repressed anger coil from the pages - follows one of the trafficked women, dipping backwards and forwards to show how and why she ended up where she did. It exploits the same rackety side of Ireland that earlier books in the series established, replete with sinister foreign gangsters and their Icelandic collaborators.

I enjoyed the balance between the crime plot here and the personal. Daniel and Áróra may, or may not, be finding their way towards a relationship, though neither is one to rush these things and it's all complicated by Daniel's recommending Áróra to Erín, another of his exes, who is having issues of her own with a boyfriend who may not be what he seems. Áróra is perhaps less central here than in the previous books, with Daniel more prominent.

We also see Helena, Daniel's colleague, wrestling with the tension between no-strings fun and having someone special in her life. All in all it's quite the romantic dance that takes place alongside the investigation of the crime. For me, that creates a unique atmosphere, tender moments and episodes of yearning and self doubt juxtaposed with the realities of 21st century crime, its pitiless nature established early with those scenes of the shipping container. It also creates tension - there are high stakes here with favourite characters potentially in jeopardy and the insidious coils of organised crime spreading throughout the city.

It's a fine, tense and engaging story. As ever, Quentin Bates's translation doesn't get in the way, it lets the reader understand what's going on without smoothing away the fact that this is a story with a foreign setting. I hope there will soon be more to come. 

For more information about White as Snow, see the publisher's website here (where you can also buy it) and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can also buy White as Snow from your local highstreet bookshop, or online from Hive Books or Bookshop UK as well as the usual Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith and Amazon.