28 September 2023

#Review - Starter Villain by John Scalzi

Cover for book "Starter Villain" by John Scalzi. Against a dark background, swirls of grey and red surround a mysterious figure sitting in a hi tech white seat, holding a white cat on their lap. Behind, in the distance, is a volcano.
Starter Villain
John Scalzi
Pan Macmillan, 21 September 2023
Available as: HB, 262pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529082951

I'm grateful to Jamie at Black Crow PR for sending me a copy of Starter Villain to consider for review.

With Starter Villain, John Scalzi delivers a novel that does three very different things at the same time. First, it keeps its feet on the ground. Protagonist Charlie Fitzer is processing bereavement, his father having recently died, and is struggling in an economy that no longer wants his journalistic skills. Secondly, it takes a step into the fantastic, portraying a world of supervillain corporations in uneasy alliance or sporadic conflict - think of that organised crime ecology in the John Wick films, but with a bit more of a James Bond volcano lair twist. (It's always great to have a new and distinct world to explore). Finally - and most importantly - it is deeply readable, fiendishly plotted and genuinely engaging.

I know I should have expected the third, It's a hallmark of Scalzi's, his writing is never less than engaging, but I don't think it can be easy to have delivered all of these. Charlie is a truly complex character, first introduced here after his billionaire uncle - from whom he was estranged - dies, and he is asked to represent the family at the funeral. VERY strange things start to happen to Charlie after that. And to his cats (yes, there are cats in this book). As a consequence Charlie enters a world he had never suspected existed, a world of genetically modified dolphins, wonder weapons and secret bases. He's our gateway into all this, our guide, as it were, but has little to rely on except a strain of common sense and, as it turns out, of decency. (I enjoyed the bit where Charlie supports the dolphins in their attempt to  to unionise). This level-headedness and decency, contrasted with the outlandish schemes and entitled arrogance of the billionaires who inhabit his new milieu, makes Charlie very sympathetic - more relatable than if, say, he'd shown an unlikely talent at combat.

In the circles Charlie is entering, his sense of decency is taken as a weakness and his lack of knowledge of those circles as another, but this Everyman is still able to hold his own in negotiation with the super rich and the reader will be cheering him on and hoping for a positive outcome without Charlie having to compromise his principles (there's an awkward scene where he's invited to choose the method of execution for a captured agent, but I'll say no more about that because spoilers.

I have to say that Charlie doesn't completely lack back-up of other sorts, backup provided by the redoubtable Mathilda ('Til') who's deeply embroiled in Uncle Jake's shady organisation. But generally, he's able to keep far enough ahead of things that she doesn't have to show what she can do. But it's a complex story and as I've said, spoilers. I'm happy to report though that there are double, triple and (I think) even quadruple, crosses going on here, twists on twists and plenty of action. I think Scalzi must have had evil fun simply plotting this - for a fairly short book there is a LOT going on.

I particularly enjoyed this book as being a standalone. While series and trilogies are nice, sometimes as a reader it's great to not be investing in an ongoing narrative. (Although, I'm sure more could be done with the world portrayed here...)

In short, do read Starter Villain

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

26 September 2023

#Review - Noir Burlesque by Enrico Marini

Cover for "Noir Burlesque" by Enrico Marini. A red-headed woman wearing a black corset and stockings poses. Behind her, the figure of a man wearing a hat and holding a pistol. Behind him, the skyline of a US city.
Noir Burlesque
Enrico Marini
Titan Comics, 26 September 2023
Available as: HB, 228pp, e  
Source: Advance copy

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

As one would expect from a Hard Case Crime graphic novel, Noir Burlesque is a very visual, very cinematic story that carries the reader along, scene dissolving into scene, its characters performing for the reader at various levels - providing an entertainment, but also engaging in what seems to be a dance of death - of which there is plenty here.

Some of that performance is of a decidedly adult nature and both for the explicit content and more particularly the violence, the publisher's site gives it a 17+ rating and I'd agree with that. One effect throughout the book - that it's all in monotone, except for the red - accentuates the impact: red is the colour of burlesque dancer Caprice's hair, and of her car, but also, of course, the colour of the blood that's liberally spilled here.

The dance here is mainly between Caprice, now performing nightly at the club belonging to her mobster boyfriend, Rex, and Slick, the ex-lover who left her to fight in the war (the book is set in the 50s New York). Slick is back now, and there is a question about whether the two will pick up where they left off and if so, what Rex will make of that (well we sort of know don't we!)

That central question runs through the story, alongside various killings, couplings and double crosses. Complications abound. There is a rival, Italian gang on the scene, Rex's boys being Irish (I would add to the CW above some very frank slurs addressed at the Italian mobsters by Rex's crew). There is a McGuffin in the form of a stolen Picasso. Besides Caprice, there is also another sultry femme fatale - and there are even some innocents who may be in danger (the principals here are though mainly far from innocent).

Wreathed in cigarette smoke, noir atmosphere and amorality, Noir Burlesque has a satisfactorily twisty plot, a vein of grim humour, a tarnished hero in Slick (while he's often hunted and is a criminal, he of all those who appear actually went off to fight Nazis) and even some comic goons to lighten the mood at times.

Entertaining and fast moving, this is a story that needs to be read at a single sitting.

For more information about Noir Burlesque, see the publisher's website here

21 September 2023

#Review - Once a Monster by Robert Dinsdale

Cover for book "Once a Monster" by Robert Dinsdale. In the centre, the head of a bull, with horns. Upon its face and muzzle are drawn ritualistic looking patterns. Behind and around a mosaic design. which breaks up around the edges of the cover.
Once a Monster
Robert Dinsdale
Pan Macmillan, 21 September 2023
Available as: HB, 512pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529097375

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance e-copy of Once a Monster via Netgalley to consider for review.

In 1861, ten year-old orphan Nell makes her living mudlarking - dredging up anything saleable from the muddy banks of the river Thames, part of a gang controlled by Benjamin Murdstone. Once a mudlark himself, he rose to wealth and then fell again, but is still looking for that one find which will restore his fortunes. Or rather, his gang of children are looking for it. 

Elsewhere in London, a mysterious man named Minos works in the labyrinthine tunnels of the sewers then being constructed. Enormous, misshapen (and are those signs of horns on his head?) but very strong, he's an object of curiosity  and even dread, but his origins are obscure. Lost in his dreams of other lives, other ages, he will develop a close connection with Nell. Both of their lives will be wrapped up with that of Sophia, formerly a dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, but now hiding herself away in the slum of Seven Dials.

To get the obvious out of the way first, yes, Once a Monster does have echoes of Dickens. You could see Murdstone (itself a Dickensian name) as a sort of Fagin, with his ragged gang of kids. The theme of fortunes made and lost on a twist of fate in the teeming city of trade is also familiar, as is the passion and the anger at those ground down, at the lives wasted. But this isn't a Dickens pastiche. Once a Monster is actually much stranger than that. The author of The Toymakers and Paris by Starlight doesn't hide his sympathies - and, as I have said, his anger - but Once a Monster is much more than a novel of Victorian inequality and oppression. 

At its centre is Minos, whose name - and the hints of his physique, as well perhaps as his preferred refuge in tunnels and caves - give us a pretty strong indication of who or what he may be, or have been. Minos's story is a moral story, a story of growth and struggle, his history echoed by and indialgue with a whole gallery of characters. Dinsdale gives us a fascinating characters study of who Minos is and who he may become. In a city that, like a monster, devours the innocent, there is plenty of darkness to go around and it may enfold Minos yet: but it's not - or not all - coming from him and the same central dilemma is posed to all the characters here: to rise - trampling and consuming others - or to sink into the mudflats of Ratcliffe or the rookeries of Seven Dials. Minos's deeds - good or bad - are written on his frame, the result of hundreds and hundreds of years wrestling with this paradox, but the same truth captures Murdstone, his only friend Dr Bantam, Sophia and indeed Nell herself.

In this book, trades are offered, lives bought and sold. Revenge is a theme, but it's always second to trade, trade, trade, the network of deals and promises that forms the very fabric of London. Just as Minos loses himself in dreams and nightmares of the Labyrinth, the narrow streets of the city, the claustrophobic passages in the Alhambra Circus theatre, and the new, branching swedes, confine and direct the passage of those caught up in them. All are lost, whether they know it or not, in need of a thread to guide them out.

In a masterpiece of fantasy, Dinsdale illustrates the tunnels and chambers that we all wander - showing how the only way out is found through that thread of kindness, caring, and trust (and perhaps a bit of luck). There are no real villains here, I think, apart from the dark systems and constraints that oppress us all. No real monsters, except the monsters that we turn ourselves - and each other - into. Of those, Minos may be the strangest, but he is not unique, simply the most visible of his type, showing something common to all.

This is an extraordinary book, and it's one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about Once a Monster, see the publisher's website here.

19 September 2023

#Blogtour #Review - The Opposite of Lonely by Doug Johnstone

Cover for book "The Opposite of Lonely" by Dough Johnstone. Against a background of clashing seas, a row of "dragons' teeth" anti-tank defence - tapered concrete posts - stretched away into the distance, running alongside the right had side of a causeway leading to an island with concrete structures visible on it. Three figures in silhouette are just visible walking away along the causeway towards the island.
The Opposite of Lonely (The Sleeks, 5)
Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books, 28 September 2023
Available as: PB, 276pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585807 

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

It's great to welcome the Skelfs back, three generations of women who run an undertakers and act as private investigators in modern Edinburgh. Over the four previous books readers of this series will have come to regard them as friends, the stories as notable for their nuanced and gentle relationships between them as for the crime plots and twists (of which Johnstone is however an absolute master). 

The Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah are faced here with as puzzling a collection of mysteries as they have encountered before - and ones where personal issues are entwined with professional challenges. 

Anti Traveller prejudice raises its head as a caravan is burned down after the firm provide a sendoff for one of the community. A stranger haunts funerals in the city. What is he up to, and what can be done about him? Jenny - whose ex sister-in-law set fire to the funeral parlour, stole her brother's body, and vanished - is asked to find the missing woman. And Hannah, still wrestling with her PhD, is investigating threats to Scotland's first woman astronaut and her wife (who seems to think she "came back wrong" from the International Space Station).

These cases are entwined with the firm's routine work: helping the bereaved to send off their loved ones, and sometimes standing in when the dead have nobody to mourn. For this last act in their existence on  Earth, Grandmother Dorothy, mother/ daughter Jenny and granddaughter/ daughter/ wife Hannah believe that everybody should be the opposite of lonely.

I read this book with a strong degree of personal buy-in. My mother died suddenly a few months ago. Her funeral was the first one I'd had to arrange, and I was very sensitive reading this book to the degree to which Johnstone has the Skelfs negotiate real issues at a time when, with grief raw, their customer will have no real guiderails. He's clearly done his research in this, and to me, does a magnificent job recognising the feelings that will flow: grief, guilt, loss, the sense of endings and lost opportunities. As The Opposite of Lonely makes clear, the Skelf women are themselves still mourning various losses too.

The mystery aspects of this book are, as ever, skilfully designed and turn out not to be random acts but to be deeply and plausibly rooted in the characters that Johnstone develops. The Skelf family (and I'm including Hannah's wife Indy here) have developed,  or perhaps I should say, grown, through Johnstone's previous books so that they are reliable emotional gauges of what's going on. We know how they will react to particular things, to threats or opportunities that approach, so we can judge the emotional pitch of the story by their responses. And as the three women have somewhat different outlooks - Dorothy, approaching the end of her life, rather elegiac, Jenny seething, still battling her demons, Hannah rather perplexed by the life before her - we'll get their slightly different takes on everything. Like Feynman diagrams, the full result is only reached by adding up these different contributions. Or perhaps, it's as if Johnstone projects the emotions of the story with a variety of notes, not just one, or perhaps, as if he's giving us a hologram, not just a flat photograph? (I hope all this makes sense!)

Of course, as a Skelfs story, this isn't all about emotional depth and resonance, though they are there, there's also action and peril, and indeed one of the most nailbiting conclusions I can remember in this series, one which opens up some new possibilities going forward.

What else? Well I still miss poor Einstein, of course, I was glad to see Dorothy as driven with her social mission here as with her business (Johnstone thereby giving us I hope a new regaular character who I'll enjoy finding out more about in future) and, of course, the heartbeat of Edinburgh life drums throughout the book, an accompaniment to Dorothy's playing.

In short, another Skelf masterpiece.

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

You can buy The Opposite of Lonely 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 fot book "The Opposite of Lonely" by Dough Johnstone.

14 September 2023

#Review - Adama by Lavie Tidhar

Book "Adama" by Lavie Tidhar. A red hand holding a golden stalk of grain, heavy with ears.
Lavie Tidhar
Head of Zeus, 14 September 2023
Available as: HB, 391pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781804543467

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of Adama to consider for review.

Following last year's Maror, and with some of the same characters and events referenced, Adama is another part of Lavie Tidhar's examination of the history of modern Israel. I'm impressed by just how productive Tidhar is - he's also exploring the mythological roots of  England, having worked through Arthurian mythology and Robin Hood. Israel/ Palestine, it might be argued, has less mythology and more history to it, and certainly Maror/ Adama aren't fantastical in the way that By Force Alone and The Hood are, but I'd argue that decomposing mythology is EXACTLY what he is about here too. And he does it very effectively.

Adama is loosely focussed on Kibbutz Trashim, and we follow its history through the lives of several generations of members, beginning with Ruth in the years just before the founding of Israel and witnessing the country's birth in war and its development, alongside that of the community. The story is bookended by the death of Ruth's daughter, Esther, in Florida in the early 2000s and the discovery of heirlooms - photographs, trinkets - by her daughter Hanna. Hanna has no idea of their context or identity, although we will learn more in the course of the book. I did find this discovery of bits of a mother's life a powerful theme - my own mother died a few months ago and I so relate to this experience, this realisation that there was much one didn't know, and that now it's too late. 

Ruth was, it becomes clear, an idealist, who travelled to Palestine to be part of the founding of her nation. And if that founding requires sacrifice, or casualties, whether Ruth's comrades, the kibbutz's Arab neighbours, or British soldiers, well. Ruth is later joined by her sister Shosh, who survived the Holocaust: for Shosh, Trashim - and Israel - are less a yearned for destination than a necessary (and perhaps temporary) refuge. This tension between those who belong - or want to belong - and those who want more, is a recurring theme, one that also runs through the kibbutz's generations of children. It's a sad theme, and time and again people are lost - they die, they vanish, they just leave. There's a stripping away across the generations with the communal life of the kibbutz repelling some and the hard-won community itself mutating into something its founders might not recognise.

Adama is not a book for the squeamish. It features the removal or killing of the kibbutz's Arab neighbours. It features war, with its attendant atrocities. In the later years, crime gangs feature: and like Maror, there's an issue about where they end, and where organs of the State begin. And, of course, it features scenes from and immediately after the Holocaust itself. Indeed another recurring motif is the camp - whether the Nazi extermination camps, the camps which housed displaced persons after the war, those established by the British for the Jews trying to reach Palestine, or - perhaps - later, Trashim itself and by extension, the entire country.

The scenes featuring refugees on leaky boats trying to cross the Mediterranean can't fail, I think, to evoke those now fleeing from South to North in the same waters - as can those where we see the Jewish inmates of the British camps in Palestine being deported to Cyprus. How little the world seems to have learned.

But the book isn't at all despairing. Told in fifteen parts, some of them fairly lengthy, self-contained (but linked) stories, as with the Hollywood film made on location in the fifties, often referenced after; some of them little vignettes - a group of children running away to find the sea, two mothers chatting and smoking outside the communal nursery while they wait to see their kids - Adama is like a tapestry, each new piece adding something to all the rest, giving us a gallery of believable characters and a host of storylines, some fully explored, some merely hinted at. And yes, as often in Tidhar's writing there are overtones in some of this of noir and references to pulp fiction including to stories of a 1940s Jewish detective.

For a book which is not in any sense a doorstop, Tidhar manages to pack Adama with so much. It teems with history, with life, with joy and sorrow, music and love, revenge, heartbreak, above all perhaps with that inevitable, universal process of losing by which what was dear and familiar to one generation becomes marginal to the second and incomprehensible to the third. 

Overall an absorbing, thought-provoking book.

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

12 September 2023

#Review - The Graveyard Shift by Maria Lewis

Cover for book "The Graveyard Shift" by Maria Lewis. Against e red background, a pair of headphones, in black. Below, a stylised city skyline - or possible a display of audio levels? Cast over all, the shadow of a hand clutching a knife.
The Graveyard Shift
Maria Lewis 
Datura Books, 12 September 2023 
Available as: PB, 400pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781915523068

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance e-copy of The Graveyard Shift to consider for review.

I always look forward to Maria Lewis's books. Her recently completed urban fantasy series, Supernatural Sisters, was thoroughly good from beginning to end, introducing many vivid and relatable characters and more, taking the time and trouble to develop those characters over several books as well as to engage with real-word issues.

The Graveyard Shift seems to be more standalone, and is firmly in the crime genre rather than the supernatural, but in Tinsel Monroe, Lewis has created another unforgettable woman lead. Monroe is the presenter of The Graveyard Shift, a late night/ early morning radio show in Melbourne, Australia, playing music drawn from the horror genre, especially horror/ slasher films. She's proud of what she has achieved, and seems to be respected by her peers and popular with the audience, but after three years at the studio is getting no nearer primetime. Tinsel's boyfriend is clearly a louse, as we see when, after the worst night of her life, he throws a childish tantrum because she's home a bit late. So she's under a lot of stress here, a theme throughout the book.

The reason Tinsel is late is because a caller-in to the show has been murdered while she was on the line. Was the victim targeted because of The Graveyard Shift? Or is there a serial killer out there who resents the horror genre? The police seem to be making no progress,  so it's up to Tinsel and her redoubtable sister Pandora, to move things forward. (Perhaps I shouldn't write the police off utterly - things between Tinsel and the handsome Detective James do seem to be moving forward quite fast, giving this book a definite spin of romance - and some rather steamy scenes at times). 

I loved the way that Lewis has the action in this story emerge from the characters, not just happen to them. Tinsel is a well drawn, if complex, person, and she'll soon gain the reader's sympathy and support. We see her make some misjudgements but she's always ready to get up after them and push on. Tinsel's sister Pandora is if anything even  more of a face of nature, a mother with a toddler to wrangle and, therefore, no time to waste on anything, she is no respecter of persons but offers total support to her sister. The relationship between the two is perfect - it is complex, clearly has depth, and above all, they are absolutely there for each other.

They will need to be. There is plenty of danger in this story as the killer's rampage proceeds, and while Pandora and Detective James do their best to protect Tinsel, she has a way of walking into it. When James is suddenly pulled from the case and goes dark, she realises that she needs to sort things, now, before anyone else is hurt. That leads up to a nailbiting and twisty climax which I absolutely had to finish, late through the hour was.

Filled with the lore and delicious geekiness of the horror subculture, this is an absorbing and assured novel with an unforgettable heroine. Lewis's writing is engaging and witty and absolutely on point (she describes a regretful Tinsel as having been 'dicknotised and stuck with this man [her controlling ex] for three years'. The story is I think in large part about Tinsel breaking free from this toxic relationship, but also from others, and finding her true voice, even surrounded by tragic events - and, as it turns out, in the midst of true danger as the shadowy killer comes and goes. 

A great read.

For more information about The Graveyard Shift, see the publisher's website here 

7 September 2023

#Review - The Burning Time by Peter Hanington

Cover for book "The Burning Time" by Peter Hanington. A panorama of London with the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, overlain by a purple sun and a running man in a trench coat.
The Burning Time
Peter Hanington
Baskerville, 6 July 2023
Available as: HB, 421pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529305265

I'm grateful to Baskerville for sending me a copy of The Burning Time to consider for review.

I was pleased, in reading The Burning Time, to become acquainted with Hanington's journalist hero William Carver, about whom he's written before. Carver is defiantly old school, insisting on his protégé Naz learning shorthand and hewing to the rules of investigative journalism. That marks him out at the BBC as "different" - yet thankfully this isn't a book about how the management want to rid themselves of an irritant, rather Carver is offered qualified support and he navigates a labyrinth of public-private collusion, spin, and cover-up that may go as far as murder.

The central issue is the environment and in particular the COP21 summit in Paris. The PM who's alluded therefore must be Cameron (supported by references to publicity stunts with huskies) although the corrupt culture against which Carver struggles may suggest a different, more recent PM.

The story is told through a number of viewpoints: Carver himself, of course, also Naz, the billionaire scientist and geo-engineer Clive Winner, his right hand woman Jennifer Prepas, and others. Skilful writing by Hanington means that the narrative is never obscured by the variety of plot strands this engenders, nor is it a case of seeing one set of characters bothered and bewildered by things that others - and we readers - know but they don't. Rather, there is a complex yet clear organic narrative being told across many fronts with most of it obscure to most of the participants.

The motives of those we see are correspondingly murky. Yes, we do see a killer at work - but their purpose and employers are not clear at all, while, obviously, creating a nice sense of menace as unsuspecting victims and potential victims go about their business.

A second strand of the story refers to the Pegasus spyware that was discovered being used to monitor, especially, environmental activists and covert activity in the UK targeting those engaged in lawful protest. That, too, will worry the reader that characters they care about may be menaced by those on the dark side. The sense of threat is in synch with wider events, the conviction over the past few years that there are forces who will not stand for change and who will lie, cheat and break the law to preserve their own wealth. Hanington's protagonists therefore seem firmly rooted in the real world, engaged in a very real struggle and subject to real dangers.

Not, then, anything like escapist fiction, but all the same, a tense and well paced mystery that will absorb and engage the reader.

For more information about The Burning Time, see the publisher's website here


5 September 2023

#Review - The Circumference of the World by Lavie Tidhar

The Circumference of the World
Lavie Tidhar
Tachyon, 5 September 2023
Available as: PB, 256pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781616963620 

I'm grateful to Tachyon for sending me an advance e-copy of The Circumference of the World to consider for review.

Lavie Tidhar's new novel is a fiendishly ramified mixture of narratives. In late 90s London, Delia Welegtabit's husband, Levi, has disappeared. Levi may or may not have owned a copy of the elusive novel Lode Stars, upon which pulp legend Eugene Charles Hartley apparently founded a religion (no, definitely NOT that one, despite one of the categories Amazon has filed this book under). A London gangster and his pliant police stooge want the book and engage second hand book dealer, Daniel Chase, to find it. 

That's the first layer. We also learn about Delia's early life on the island of Vanuatu (also visited by Hartley) and about Hartley's career and life - part of this is told through letters to and about Hartley by various early SF luminaries - Tidhar rendering many different voices here, all totally believably.

We also read an extract from The Book itself, the story of (another) Delia seeking her lost father deep in space, the setting keying into a mythology that Hartley either believed or invented. It's all about the destination of humankind, which is to both swept into a black hole at the centre of the galaxy and preserved as information. All of these narrative levels interact, with coincidences, names and versions of names, apparent timeslips and repeated themes (shadows, eyes). Some of these might be explained by Hartley's authorship of Lode Stars and his making allusions to the works of his contemporaries: others - less so.

Gangster Oskar Lens's career as a black market dealer in the failing Soviet Union features too, as does the London second-hand book scene ('My highest ambition had always been to open my own bookshop on Cecil Court'). It's a bewildering ride through 20th century history and the birth of modern SF (taking in the rise of modern conventions, as well as gatherings in a Holborn pub) something Tidhar has deep knowledge of (it was fun to spot allusions, especially in the Lode Stars extract, to names, themes and artefacts from various genre classics: I'm sure I missed many). It is though much more than that, touching on questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life as well as - perhaps - commenting on how the SF writer of a religion may be affected by that and, possibly, escape the trap he's set himself. 

There is some lovely wordplay here ('Dewey-eyed librarians') as well as nice pulpy (but culturally appropriate) language ('Paperbacks started back at me from the shelves without saying a damn thing', 'My aunt had died of cancer. She wasted away like a cigarette.') as well as starkly beautiful language ('I felt the press of stars overhead, and they were cold, and bright, and indifferent.')

I really enjoyed The Circumference of the World. As a book, it is a thing of its own, not like anything I'd come across before, but a great read crammed with ideas and glorious writing: there is simply so much material here, I think some writers could and would make 3 or 4 books of it but we have all that concentrated in a short novel. Somehow that compression means that - like matter spiralling into a black hole - everything here simply lights up, bathing the reader with its intense radiation.

An amazing read, strongly recommended.

For more information about The Circumference of the World, see the publisher's website here

4 September 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Murder at the Residence by Stella Blómkvist

Cover for book "Murder at the Residence" by Stella Blómkvist. In black and white, a church with a low steeple, white waist and small windows. Behind it, partly obscured, a grand house. There is a light dusting of snow on the ground.
Murder at the Residence (Translated by Quentin Bates)
Stella Blómkvist
Corylus Books, 28 August 2023
Available as: PB, 266pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN: 9781739298920

I'm grateful to Ewa at Corylus Books for sending me a copy of Murder at the Residence to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

I've been eager to share this review, as the book's central character is something of a paradox. 

In the years after the financial crash, as Icelandic society buckles under the political and fiscal strain, lawyer Stella Blómkvist pursues her practice in Reykjavík - in a book written by author Stella Blómkvist, a figure whose identity none has yet deduced, but who seems to move in high circles.

Murder at the Residence certainly appears to reflect a degree of personal knowledge, as author Blómkvist has her protagonist entangled with the murder of a leading financier after a Government reception, with a possible attempted coverup of what looks like dark and murky secrets.

Blómkvist (the lawyer) is an interesting figure. Raising a daughter alone, and pursuing her professional and personal life around nursery drops and family mealtimes, she's fearless, willing to go out on a limb, clashing both with the Reykjavík police (portrayed here as distinctly unreconstructed, happy to crack down on protesters but slow to take action to protect trafficked women) and the city's underworld. All this is against a background of anger at the way Iceland has been impoverished by financiers, and active protests besieging Parliament.

Yet lawyer Blómkvist isn't, perhaps, squeaky clean. She is also preoccupied with the state of the 'Stella Fund', a financial entity that seems to have taken a beating from the the market collapse, and she has her own contacts in Reykjavík's shadier business circles. Those contacts come in useful in resolving the several cases that she deals with in this book. There's the dead financier, a murder that one of her clients is accused of. She's trying to track down a missing young Latvian woman lured into sex work and who may have been spirited out of the country. And she's also searching for the lost daughter of a dying man who wants to make amends. 

I understand that Murder at the Residence is a return for Blómkvist, the character having featured in in an earlier series of books, and the sense of backstory, of a developed character, adds richness to the portrayal here. She is certainly a fascinating and contradictory person, whether haunting the Reykjavík nightclubs looking for fun or tenaciously defending a client. Both aspects of her are used by Blómkvist (the writer) to expose the darker side of Icelandic society (prompting, again, the question of just how much knowledge and experience this story reflects). Quotes from her mother, often cynical ('Time never fails to douse the fires of passion') pepper the text, also suggesting another key relationship about which we know little.

Quentin Bates' assured translation more than does justice to the rapidly unfolding action in this taut and suspenseful story and overall this was a cracking mystery, with a well-drawn and engaging central character, giving a slightly different view of Iceland. I'd strongly recommend it.

About the author and series

Stella Blómkvist has been a bestselling series in Iceland since the first book appeared in the 1990s and has attracted an international audience since the TV series starring Heiða Reed aired. This series features tough, razor-tongued Reykjavík lawyer Stella Blómkvist, with her taste for neat whiskey, a liking for easy money and a moral compass all of her own - and who is at home in the corridors of power as in the city’s darkest nightspots.

The books have been published under a pseudonym that still hasn’t been cracked. The question of Stella Blómkvist’s identity is one that crops up regularly, but it looks like it’s going to remain a mystery…

About the translator

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

For more information about Murder at the Residence, and to buy the book, 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 also order Murder at the Residence from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

31 August 2023

#Review - Blade of Dream by Daniel Abraham

Cover for book "Blade of Dream" by Daniel Abraham. Vastness. A teeming city. An enormous archway or tunnel, lined with stone, with wooden scaffolding circling round and below, uneven stone paving - or perhaps a warren of streets? REALLY hard to describe!

Blade of Dream (Kithamar Trilogy, 2)
Orbit, 20 July 2023 
Available as: HB, 464pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356515465

I'm grateful to Orbit for providing me an advance e-copy of Blade of Dream via Netgalley to consider for review.

Blade of Dream is the second part of the Kithamar trilogy and, like Age of Ash, it follows events in the city for one year, beginning with a Royal funeral and coronation, and ending with a funeral, and coronation. (Weird to read in the UK where, just a year ago, we had a Royal funeral...)

If you hadn't guessed, the two books cover the same year so, up to a point, we know how things will turn out. There are two qualifications to that of course. First, a year is a long time in reading so I had forgotten a lot of the detail. Usually, in this sort of detailed fantasy milieu, this is a Bad Thing because forgetting the detail makes it hard to pick up the next part of the story - but Abraham rather brilliantly makes it an advantage here as the haziness prevents one from anticipating (too much) what is going on. 

Secondly, Blade of Dream is focussed on different characters and, to a large degree, a different stratum of society from the first book, so the events here are seen from a fresh perspective. Blade of Dream follows Garreth Left, younger son of a struggling merchant house, and Elaine, daughter of the new Prince, both people of some wealth and influence. Ash, in contrast, was written from the gutter featuring characters who were much more insecure economically. So there's less concern in this book about actually starving or freezing, and more about survival in a more competitive sense. As part of the ruling family, Elaine faces multiple dangers, both physical and political, while Garreth's joined the City Watch so is exposed to both daily assault and the backwash of political turmoil. (There's also the impact on him of moves his house makes in Kithamar's spirited trading games). For both, duty and personal inclinations are difficult to square with honour, love and happiness and it's those tensions that pretty much drive this narrative - until (because it has to get to the same place as Ash in the end) the strange cult highlighted there makes its move.

One can spot ripples here from events in Age of Ash, and I suspect that rereading that book (I must do that!) you'd also see events in Blade from, as it were, some distance - but each is its own story, albeit part of a whole. All this must have taken Abraham some fiendish plotting to bring off, but Blade of Dream never comes over as contrived or scheduled, rather we see Garreth and Elaine develop as individuals and mature, facing up to new responsibilities for their families, their friends and the City. 

The City...

As in Ash, in Blade of Dream the streets of Kithamar are bustling, vibrant and alive. The effect is simply hypnotic, teeming unregarded lives playing out against a background of sorcery and political intrigue. It may be a bit of a cliché to say so, but Kithamar really is a central character in this book both in its vividness... and also in a slightly different sense that you may recall from Age of Ash

Yet despite this, Blade of Dreams is still truly human fantasy. There is enough chicanery going on to satisfy any reader, and hints of darknesses and ancient evils, but the focus is mainly personal, intimate - we see a newlywed couple, a boy and his family, a girl afraid for her father and we see how they negotiate their various problems and face hopes and fears.

Strongly recommended, and I just can't wait for the third part...

For more information about Blade of Dream, see the publisher's website here

29 August 2023

#Review - The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle by TL Huchu

Cover for book "The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle" by TL Huchu. Drawn in white against a background of black and dark blue, a line drawing of a castle, with lit windows. Above, fragments of a map around the edges of the cover. Under the title, the strapkine "She came for magic. She stayed to solve a murder."
The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle (Edinburgh Nights, 3)
TL Huchu
Pan Macmillan, 27 July 2023 
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529097726 

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle to consider for review.

In this, the third book of the Edinburgh Nights series... Edinburgh doesn't feature! Rather, ghostalker Ropa Moyo and her friends and enemies are attending a magical conference at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. The duties are irksome, and Ropa's still not actually being paid for her work (she's an intern) but she plots a bit of casual larceny to help support her, her grandmother and her sister. 

Before Ropa can carry that out, however, everything goes wrong. Despite the presence of some seriously powerful and significant guests in the magical world - England's Magician Royal makes an appearance, allowing Ropa to explain a lot that was previously hinted at about the position of Scotland and its magicians in relation to a revanchist England - a serious crime is committed (no, not by Ropa) leaving her with limited time to sort things out before her world, and that of her boss, Sir Callander, implodes.

I enjoyed this change of scene for Ropa. While she has allies at Dunvegan - especially Priya - she's away from her home turf and has fewer resources to draw on, especially as she is, more than ever, under the eye of the snobbish, entitled masters of Scottish magic. That means she has to be even more ingenious than usual - as we know, Ropa is a formidable person and no respecter of the puffed up and self-important. She doesn't care what feathers she ruffles, and it's magnificent to see her cut a swathe through her lords and masters and right a few wrongs as she does.

The mystery here is also intriguing and apt to be solved through a close understanding of Scottish magical society, the sort of understanding that Ropa has had to develop to ensure her own survival. So her commentary on events and persons has a sort of subtext, paving the way for an eventual solution.

Behind that, though, I had a sense that things are getting more serious in Huchu's magical world. There is a big postcolonial theme in this story, with a stolen artefact from abroad at the centre of things and unhealed wounds from the past a main issue. That arises in a number of ways: the treatment of non-Western societies, but also the basis and roots of Scottish magic. We now learn this is grounded in the dispossession and even imprisonment of the Fae of Skye, those who came before, making the whole enterprise essentially a colonial one. There seems to be a historic injustice there which Ropa won't tolerate for long, but what can she do about it?

The bargain that Ropa has made with the principalities and powers of Edinburgh magic is already strained - their fault not hers, she's only trying to do her job and investigate what's gone wrong - but that cuts little ice. It was always an unstable situation and now seems to be coming apart with loyalties tested and Ropa's future in doubt. If that wasn't enough, alongside the plentiful action there's a bubbling drama that will surely eventually come to the foreground of these books concerning Ropa's history, her future and the survival of magical society. 

Huchu is definitely shaking things up - this series shows no sign of bedding down and becoming formulaic, and I'm on tenterhooks for what will come next.

For more information about The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle, see the publisher's website here.  

24 August 2023

#Review - House of Odysseus by Claire North

Book "House of Odysseus" by Claire North. In white relief, three women in Classical-style clothing. One is holding a cup from which liquid is pouring down across a gold foil circle (representing the sun?) across the bottom of which sails a Greek style warship at the bottom of the cover.
House of Odysseus
Claire North
Orbit, 24 August 2023
Available as: HB, 420pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356516073

I'm grateful for the publisher for an advance copy of House of Odysseus to consider for review.

I always have high expectations of a Claire North book. House of Odysseus met them, and then went to much further, I'm actually rather stunned - and left floundering a bit, as anything I can say about this book seems superfluous. You should just go and read it.

Trying to put together some cogent thoughts, though, House of Odysseus is North's followup to her Ithaca. Both books are set in the misty time between heroic myth (the siege of Troy is recently finished) and and history and they focus on Penelope, wife of Odysseus, one of the (Greek) heroes of the Trojan war. Odysseus set out for home after the destruction of Troy, but has not yet arrived, leaving Penelope with all kinds of problems. As was established in Ithaca, these include suitors - men who, presuming Odysseus dead, want to marry Penelope and take the kingdom.

I remember first hearing about Homer's Odyssey, the tales about Odysseus making his way home, in primary school when I was 8 or 9. Of course they would have been carefully filtered, but the encounters with magic, monsters and gods still survived as interesting and fantastic stories. I recall though even then being frustrated that it took him so long - ten years! -  to actually get home, and also being rather cross that Penelope had to fend off all those annoying suitors. Why didn't someone just tell them to get lost, I wondered. The intrusion of these unwanted guests into the royal palace, pressing their claims and demanding to be fed and accommodated, seemed dangerous and troubling, out of kilter with a setting which presumed an adorned, functional society, as did Odysseus's protracted journey. It didn't take him ten years to get to Troy, after all.

I wish I had asked my teacher to explain all this. Fifty years on I can see of course that the answer to Penelope's treatment comes in one word - patriarchy - and perhaps that the second - Odysseus travails - might be about the tension in the text between history and myth - but I doubt that a primary school teacher in the mid 70s would have put it that. I'd love to know what the answer would have been though. (Probably "don't be awkward, David"). North is blunt about, especially, the first question. In House of Odysseus, she introduces us to King Menelaus of Sparta, a splendidly drawn monster. Unlike Odysseus, Menelaus went straight home, taking his recaptured wife, Helen, with him. Now, though, he's abroad again, involved in a complex power play for the throne of Mycenae which would make him high king of Greece, so also threatening Penelope's, and Odysseus's, Islands of the West. All of this is cloaked in good intentions - helping Penelope with her problems, sticking up for Menelaus's (alas!) missing brother-in-arms Odysseus, and so forth, and so on, but the threat is clear. 

It's given added menace by the plight of Helen herself.

What exactly happened to Helen after Troy? As one might expect, it's not nice. We see here here a Helen who is cowed, tamed and, in Penelope's appalled eyes, just less. We're let in on a few secrets courtesy of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex, who's the narrator of this book, so we know that Helen has been - is being - beaten and raped by her loving husband. There is still an enigma to her though, and Penelope recognises a survivor when she sees one. The two had been close, but grew apart - 'No one told Helen that she would grow up to be royal, regal, wise, learned or revered, so it didn't really occur to her childlike mind that these might be aspirations to seek'. 

Penelope's own role here is, as in Ithaca, constrained. Regarded by the men around her as other, lesser, a mere piece of property or perhaps (by the suitors, by Menelaus) a piece on the board, nevertheless she's the one with the practical nous and the sense of responsibility to keep things going. Think of a woman who makes sure there's food on the table and that the kids have clothes to wear - even if that means getting beaten for finagling the wages out of her man's pocket before he can spend them at the pub on drink. The tired one. The woman with no time for herself, who gets little sleep, who is invisible yet indispensable. The one who's going to sort out the various messes here, including talking down Orestes, killer of his own mother, who has returned to Ithaca haunted by the Furies. Orestes, and his sister Elektra, are Menelaus's quarry, his excuse to assume supreme kingship.

The one who, if she has to step out of the shadows, may be accepted in a crisis, but who will be punished later for overstepping.

Before we get to that point, though, there's a murder to solve and delightfully the story turns a shade of Whodunnit with clues, suspects and a tight timescale (Penelope has just three days to produce a suitable culprit). I could North having fun importing the conventions of detective fiction here ('Now she is done -  now she will depart. She gives a little nod of her head while turning away, but still Penelope has one last enquiry...') while keeping the story true to its mythic nature. (I can imagine a whole spinoff line of Penelope murder mysteries which would be glorious). The character, as North depicts her, is just so compelling, whether sleuthing, sparring verbally with Menelaus (who recognises her as an enemy - though be warned he plots how he will 'take' her once she is defeated), holding together a delicate alliance of women (and even the odd man) necessary to keep the island safe, just keeping up appearances - or managing the complexities of the situation that faces her in this book (as challenging an imbroglio as Jeeves ever confronts in PG Wodehouse (another echo of which: look out for old King Laertes and his love of pigs and his desire to be back at his farm tending them).

Penelope is supremely skilful at this sort of generalship, an accomplished strategios. Here is how North has Aphrodite describes that: 'It is only on those rare occasions when she perhaps plays a skilled opponent at tavli and sees a cunning trap, a clever little move, and cannot stop herself, cannot suppress the beating of her heart and the twitch of the smile on her lips, that she shimmers. She glows with excitement, and take it from me, excitement and arousal are often of the same fluttering breath, the same licked lips, the same wide eyes, the same hot flushed cheeks. Odysseus saw this in his wife, before he sailed to Troy, only once. But there was never enough time in the day for games, and then he was gone. This then is the light that now shines upon Penelope's face...' (Trust the goddess of love to spot that glint of beauty that comes from confidence and mastery of the task).

None of this is without cost to Penelope, of course. Part of her mastery is her busyness, her willingness to put in - her knowledge of the necessity of putting in - the effort. Suitors can while away their time drinking or sleeping, they can go back to their homes to be pampered, to be the centre of things. ('There is no feast served in the palace, no formal gathering of men, but there are still suitors, guards, soldiers, kings and maids to be fed') Penelope is always, as I have said, so very tired.

The writing in House of Odysseus is, as ever from North, glorious - she can simply make words dance on the page - whether it's particular passing remarks ('the kind of blade a process should never carry, and which all princesses should') or the way she charms her characters to life. I'd especially note the vivid way she gives voice to Aphrodite. North excels at portraying her, almost entirely through voice and side comments rather than actions because she (and the other gods) are unable to intervene much in events (she does on a few key occasions). This Aphrodite comes across very much as a shrewd, experienced woman, one with an eye for a warrior's nicely toned body ('The next door is answered by Iason, he of the lovely neck and really rather dishy arms'), interested in either sex and in most forms of erotic activity (so long as everyone is willing - 'I do not ask people who are not interested...') It feels in some ways like a very modern sensibility, but North makes it seem utterly consistent with the mythological Aphrodite, a fusion that you'd think was nigh on impossible but, read this, see how North pulls it off!

Just a pure brilliant wonderful gorgeous book, a stunning read, my favourite of the year so far (and anything that's better than this will take some doing).

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

23 August 2023

Cover Reveal - Alien Clay by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I'm excited today to be able to share the cover of one of the most exciting books coving next year - Alien Clay, a thrilling, far-future adventure by acclaimed author Adrian Tchaikovsky, winner of the British Science Fiction Award, British Fantasy Award, Golden Dragon Award, and Arthur C. Clarke Award.

About the book

The planet of Kiln is where the tyrannical Mandate keeps its prison colony, and for inmates the journey there is always a one-way trip. One such prisoner is Professor Arton Daghdev, xeno-ecologist and political dissident. Soon after arrival he discovers that Kiln has a secret. Humanity is not the first intelligent life to set foot there.

In the midst a ravenous, chaotic ecosystem are the ruins of a civilization, but who were the vanished builders and where did they go? If he can survive both the harsh rule of the camp commandant and the alien horrors of the world around him, then Arton has a chance at making a discovery that might just transform not only Kiln but distant Earth as well.

Alien Clay is published on 28 March 2024 by @UKTor in HB (560pp - ISBN 9781035013746), audio and e. For more information, and to preorder your copy, see the publisher's website here.

About the author

Adrian Tchaikovsky (@aptshadow) was born in Lincolnshire before heading off to Reading to study psychology and zoology. For reasons unclear even to himself he subsequently ended up in law and has worked as a legal executive in both Reading and Leeds, where he now lives with his wife and son. He's the author of the critically acclaimed Shadows of the Apt series, the Echoes of the Fall trilogy, The Doors of Eden, and The Final Architecture series. Children of Time was the winner of the 30th Anniversary Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel..

The cover

So, having said all that, here is the cover in its full glory...

Cover for book "Alien Clay" by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Against a turquoise to black background, a group of bright yellow plants. Some are spikes, some have with coral-like seedheads, some are squat and mushroom-like. Behind them, on the ground, other plants and flying above, insects in turquoise. The whole image gives the impression of profuse life, it's teeming with detail. Above the title, the words "A hostile planet holds dangerous secrets".

22 August 2023

#Review - Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi

Book "Boys in the Valley" by Philip Fracassi. Against a whited out background a small wooden cabin sits in front of a treelined. Above the title, the words "Fracassi makes terror read so damn beautifully - Victor LaValle".
Boys in the Valley
Philip Fracassi
Orbit, 13 July 2023 
Available as: PB 335pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356520551

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of Boys in the Valley to consider for review.

Boys in the Valley is a horror novel that operates at two levels. On the surface, the life of Fracassi's Boys, orphans and delinquents living at a Roman Catholic institution in the US West at the dawn of the 20th century, is already harsh. They are fed the scantest of rations and are subject to brutal punishment for stepping even slightly out of line. It's also hinted that a lay brother, Johnson, who assists the priests, has a dark past and is a present danger. 

The boys already, then, endure something that most of us would see as a life of horror so the knowledge that things may be about to get worse creates fears of something very dark indeed. And Fracassi delivers, with things kicking off when there is a knocking on the door late one night and a disturbing guest appears...

I enjoyed the rather precise unfolding of what comes next. I was anticipating a fight for survival, for salvation even - the blurb for the book provides many hints of something demonic, but when it comes Fracassi is actually rather subtle, posing questions through the mouth of his rather intelligent antagonist that exploit all the divisions of St Vincent's and show up both the institution's morals and theology as rather shallow. 

That said, the relationship between lead character Peter, who has aspirations to the priesthood (but also eyes on Grace, a girl at the neighbouring farm) and his mentor Fr Andrew is also sensitively done and overturns any attempt to set things out as "abusive priests vs innocent children" - as does the later behaviour of some of those innocents. At the heart of the story are honestly portrayed, well constructed relationships and real ethical dilemmas. The abuse of power is never far away (and perhaps that's what gives the Adversary his foothold?) but so are good intentions (yet we know, don't we, what road is paved with those?)

In all of this, the lesson might be that appearances deceive. The twisted version of Christianity being proclaimed by some of the protagonists can't, in the end, hold out agains evil because, well, reliance on and deference to power structures rather than real goodness isn't a basis for faith. True goodness and love for mercy may do, even if they seem to make one vulnerable. There's a lot of food for thought here.

As an unseasonal winter storm closes in, trapping the boys, their guardians, and their foes, in the orphanage, the stage is set for a violent, even visceral denouement, Fracassi sparing us little detail. Be aware that it's a very visual story, and innocence will be no protection. Yet goodness is not powerless.

An intense, involving story that demands attention and will remain with you long after you finish it.

For more information about Boys in the Valley, see the publisher's website here

18 August 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Someone Like Her by Awais Khan

Book "Someone Like Her" by Awais Kahn. Flowers in violet, lilac and turquoise, behind which is a skyline of domes and towers.
Someone Like Her
Awais Khan
Orenda Books, 17 August 2023
Available as: PB, 320pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585784PB)

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

Awais Khan's new novel is a frank and unflinching look at the treatment of women in Pakistani society.

Following Ayesha, a young woman living in a conservative city but determined to make her own way in life, we see a young man making use of the power of patriarchy - and the power and influence of his wealthy family - to indulge his desires.

And we see the mayhem that ensues.

Ayesha is a determined, outgoing woman, until she encounters Raza. He is rich, spoiled and indulged and sees no reason not to press for what he wants. I found Ayesha's dilemma heartbreaking. Knowing how much power Raza and his family have, she does not want her own family to be endangered yet she also wants her own life. Breaking away to London may be part of a solution, yet Ayesha knows that she treads a knife edge of danger and scandal.

The London end of this story introduces Kamil, a young man whose family have distant connections to Ayesha's. Kamil also has secrets and tragedy behind him, and it was fascinating to see how Khan gradually reveals these and how they both strengthen, and undermine, him in his relationship with Ayesha. Both main characters have a real streak of courage but are also grappling with scary things - societal structures, relationships gone wrong, shame and finding their place in the world - and the author shows that is far from certain what the outcome of that will be.

The romance in this book (of course there is romance!) is sensitively drawn, tender and brave, between two young people who have been taught that what they want doesn't;t matter, can't matter and that others' wants and needs will always come first. It is an awakening, glorious to see but so fragile, so endangered.

Lightened by moments of genuine humour as Ayesha and Kamal negotiate life among parents, Aunties, siblings and more, Someone Like Her moves at a cracking pace with a story that has great drive and urgency. But it has space too to draw out important, passing things: behaviour on the Tube in London, the taste of the air in a different city, social customs (I'd never heard of kitty parties before) and the genuine, if often unstated, love between parent and a child.

I would give a CW for Someone Like Her has it includes unflinching depictions of domestic violence, and of rape - they are not gratuitous and certainly not graphic, but Khan is under no illusions that the sort of freedom that Ayesha wants can be had without pushback from those who benefit from the oppression of women.

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

17 August 2023

Review - Bridge by Lauren Beukes

Cover for book "Bridge" by Lauren Beukes. Against a red-pink background, a picture of a young white woman wearing a white sleeveless top. Cutting across her eyes and nose is a rectangle within which are flowing shapes in black and green - perhaps a medical scan or a heat map?
Lauren Beukes
Penguin, 17 August 2023 
Available as: HB, 432pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780718182823

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

Bridge is an absolute cracker of a novel from the author of The Shining Girls, Afterland and Broken Monsters. It had great resonance for me as an exploration of bereavement and also raises profound moral questions for its protagonists (at least one of whom doesn't come very well out of that test).

Bridget - Bridge - is the daughter of neuroscientist Jo, who has recently died of cancer. We see Bridge in the numbing coils of bereavement, wishing she'd spent more time with prickly Jo and astonished at what she didn't know about her mum. I felt this was well observed and written with real feeling, my mother having died several months ago it rang absolutely true to me that there could be discoveries in the loved one's paper, online activity and possessions.

My mother wasn't keeping such scary secrets though. Bridge, working with her friend Dom, soon discovers that her mother believed there were alternative versions of her in other worlds and that these could be accessed via a narcotic substance called "dreamworm". Taking us into a domain of obsession and paranoia, Beukes shows how this belief had taken over Jo's life, driving away her family and her lover and leading her to some very dangerous places indeed.

As it does Bridge. Across multiple universes, anything can happen, but it seems certain patterns recur - and Jo (and Bridge) repeatedly come up against Jo's brain cancer, against a stalkery vein of domestic abuse and coercive control, and also against a sinister cult that believes it knows all the answers and must control events at all costs. It's a tense novel, particularly in the way that things slowly - and them more quickly - escalate, Bridge throwing aside caution without realising that's what she is doing.

Fairly dancing along, this is a novel you'll want to read in a sitting, not least to spot the repeating patterns, the clues as to Jo's earlier life and discoveries, and to enjoy how Beukes conveys in her prose the subtly different natures of the various worlds she describes. I'm not sure I can convey just how well she does this, you'll have to read the book - it's almost as though you can breathe the different realies' atmospheres - the textures come right into the mind, almost like you had taken some of that "dreamworm". 

The characters also come over well. From staunch, non binary Dom, determined to back up their friend Bridge but perhaps getting in much, much deeper than they expected, to obsessed ex cop Amber who travels everywhere with her dog, Mr Floof II (Mr Floof I came to a bad end - it happens a lot to dogs in this story) to selfish, messy Caden who has a legend all of his own, Beukes flawlessly inhabits them all, conveying their essence, even evoking sympathy for some pretty nasty people.

Bridge really is, as the subtitle states, a novel of suspense - but also one of big ideas, raising questions not only about our responsibilities to those parallel selves but also to our relatives and friends. Bridge wants to find her mother, but how much harm is she prepared to inflict to do that? How much collateral damage is acceptable?

Also dipping a toe into the sewers of Internet obsession and delusion, with some hilarious scenes in a support group for a non-existent  conditions, Bridge entertains throughout - and ends on a note of genuine uncertainty leading me to hope that a sequel might be in the works.

Strongly recommended.

(CW for domestic violence, abuse and coercive control).

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

15 August 2023

#Review - Grave Suspicions by Alice James

Cover for book "Grave Suspicions" by Alice James. In silhouette, against a pink-purple sky, a male and a female figure, the latter in skirt and hat, and a tombstone upon which rests an angel. Or is it a devil?
Grave Suspicions (Lavington Windsor Series, 3) 
Alice James
Solaris, 15 August 2023
Available as: PB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786188434

I'm grateful to Alice James herself for sending me an e-copy of Grave Suspicions to consider for review.

If you've read Alice's previous two books, Grave Secrets and Grave Danger, you'll have some idea what to expect. Crime. Necromancy. Estate agenting. Vampires. Shagging. And poor Toni having yet another new outfit ruined by a would-be murderer or the irate undead. 

And indeed, Grave Suspicions delivers on all three.

There is, though, a lot more to it than that. 

Yes, Toni's romantic life remains as tangled and hopeless as ever - her heart lost to Peter who's showing no sign of returning from Germany, while she takes solace as she can. And yes, she does her best to avoid abusive ex, vampire Oscar, while trying to help her policeman brother Will with yet another hard-to-crack case by raising the victim in the morgue. But she's also finding out more about her own past, and that of her family; about the parents who turned away from her; about her connection to the vampires.

And some part of that past comes reaching out to her, in the form of a pair of thugs who seem to think she's got something of theirs.

The county coroner is also trying to corner Toni - she has no idea what that's about.

And she's as short of money as ever...

It was, simply, sheer joy to return to this world of modern rural fantasy featuring my favourite down-to-earth heroine, as Alice James creates perhaps the most deadly combination of threats for her yet. Being Toni Windsor always meant living with multiply interlocking mysteries and complications, but I think this third book takes things to a new level as seeds planted in the earlier books begin to spout. There's there's a new richness to the story. It is both more complex and at the same time more focussed than the earlier stories, if that makes sense. 

Also, Toni is gaining in power and confidence, which is great to see, but she is also being matched against trickier and more lethal opponents. If this were a role playing game, I'd say Alice James is the ideal dungeon mistress, and I very much look forward to seeing what new monsters lurk in future instalments (I think I can guess at one of them, quietly growing in plain sight). But more than that, it's how fascinating how Alice and her team are also meshing and working together

So - in Grave Suspicions we have Peril, we have Revelations and of course, we have the ruin of a series of outfits (it's no wonder Toni is always short of money). But there's more still! This book also features a classic locked room mystery, which provided a genuine puzzle and brought the crime aspect of this story rather to the fore. As ever, the writing sparkles, Toni's observations of life, love and rural society always spot on. In short, the book is a bewildering mix, but in a very good way, and I'd strongly recommend it (and its predecessors if you haven't got to them yet). 

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

10 August 2023

#Review - The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri

Cover for book "The Oleander Sword" by Tasha Siri. A young apparently South East Asian woman holds a green curtain - or forest growth? - aside with her left arm while gripping a curved sword in her right. She has red flowers in her hair.
The Oleander Sword (The Burning Kingdoms, 2)
Tasha Suri
Orbit, 18 August 2022 
Available as: PB, 480pp audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 978-0356515656

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of The Oleander Sword to consider for review. (And apologies that this review is somewhat tardy!)

Picking up the stories of Malini and Priya which began in The Jasmine Throne, The Oleander Sword is that rare thing, a sequel that is not just a continuation but is a compelling book in its own right, taking the story to new places. Yes, we came to love Malini and Priya in the first book and I personally would read anything about them, but even setting that raised, The Oleander sword gives new insights, perspectives and dilemmas.

The situation here is freighted with menace from the beginning. With supernatural aid, Priya's land of Ahiranya has risen against the empire of Parijatdvipa. With supernatural aid, Malini has challenged her deranged brother Chandra for the throne of Parijatdvipa. Malini and Priya remain allies - and would-be lovers - but the political situation is dicey, their nations deeply hostile and any likely outcome bound to put them on opposite sides.

Worse, all is not well either in Ahiranya - where the resurgent deities known as yaksa aren't exactly what their priests and worshippers expected - or in Parijatdvipa, where Chandra works unholy magic against the sister he sees as a usurper, and who he has vowed to burn alive. At the centre of this book is a complex, twisty and roiling mess of politics, religion and warfare that Malini and Priya must master, and quickly, if they are to have any chance of survival. Even further into the centre, if that makes sense, is though a burning, forbidden passion between the two women, one that may destroy both if it discovered. And the dictates of the one pull against the dictates of the other. As Empress - if she is to be Empress - Malini must be cold and haughty, sacrificing anything, anyone in pursuit of victory.



Even Priya.

In turn, Priya's power derives from her truck with erratic, inhuman spirits. Call them gods, call them demons, they have their own agenda, and Priya is theirs to command, obliged to sacrifice anything, anyone in pursuit of victory.



There is so much more here that I can cram into a review. The book simply drips moral compromise, corrupting as the taint called "rot" that has infected both nations. There are agendas inside agendas,  Tasha Suri having transmuted the colonial politics of the first book into something much vaster, a threat that not only casts the attitudes of Parijatdvipa in a new light but which possibly threatens the whole world.

An excellent book, and one that I read both in paperback and listening to the audio. I can strongly recommend the audio experience for this one - Shiromi Arserio's narration bringing life to all, from the couple at the centre of the story to stern generals, slippery priests and otherworldly spirits.

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