31 January 2023

#Review - The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

Book "The Terraformers" by Annalee Newitz. The title is written sideways, running up the cover about two thirds of the way from the left hand side. To its left, a landscape of water, mountains and greenery. Behind the title, a tall tree. To the right of the title, modern, latticed buildings, a vertical city.
The Terraformers
Annalee Newitz
Orbit, 2 February 2023
Available as: PB, 338pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356520865 

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

The Terraformers is, I think, Newitz's first book for several years and it is really good to see a new work from this author. It is an excellent of example of all that SF can be at its best - challenging, laden with breathtaking ideas, and epic in scale and conception (though in this case not length - it's refreshing to meet a book with a span of centuries and a planetary scale narrative that is not a trilogy).

Set some 60,000 years in the future, The Terraformers considers our future at a time when "people" have spread far and wide across the universe. Post the "Great Bargain" other forms of life than humanity - animals and plants, as well as various AIs, bots and hybrids of bio, tech and AI  - qualify as "people" and are entitled to a say in how things are run. This activity is overseen by "Environmental Rescue Teams", ERTs, whose focus is ecology, but more than that - one might almost say theirs is the science, or perhaps the engineering, of community, in the broadest possible sense.

So this book is filled with lifeforms designed, or engineered, for particular purposes - H. Sapiens may assume they are the default, the template, but they can be designed to be ultra-receptive to networks, or reworked as H. Varialis to breathe atmospheres of carbon and nitrogen. We meet sentient, flying moose, intelligent cows with bionic legs, and a cat reporter who forms a friendship with a flying train. Newton's audacious concepts only sound bizarre out of context: in the story they arise as almost inevitable in this future, and not just as technological maybes but as actual, living, feeling and suffering - well, people, which is the point, I think.

Troublingly for a future in which such a bewildering array of life is given a voice, and one in which there is radical acceptance of individuals (Newitz presents a variety of genders and all manner of romantic connections) economic and social inequality is as bad as ever, or perhaps worse. Corporates are able to, literally, build and own people, burning in rules to keep those people in their place. The Terraformers is about, among other things, how that process - built on the rock of private ownership - comes to be challenged.

Structured as three episodes taking place over several centuries we see the development of a new planet, Sask-E, in its early days a "pristine" wilderness (only, not really), some time later with cities are being established, and then, in the third part, as those cities fall under the control of a particularly unpleasant corporate overlord pandering to a strain of H. Sapiens genetic particularity. Each time, it's ingenuity, solidarity and daring that saves the day, though most of the characters we meet don't overlap between the parts, even though these are recognisably stories of the same communities. (I was reminded rather of Asimov's earliest Foundation stories, visiting the same polity at interesting times during a long evolution, although the imaginative leaps here are much greater and the science social as much as physical).

The accent is, then, on people (of wide and diverse types) confronting "problems" - environmental, political and developmental - their interventions then being allowed to run and the results presented  centuries later. A risk with such a structure could be that really, we're just being given a kind of animated history: Newitz pushes back on that by making the main characters gloriously, passionately real, giving then lives, loves and involvements that both illuminate and transcend the development of the plot. Indeed, one senses that at some levels, aspects of these people have complicated, rather than facilitated, the author's plotting - but also that at another, they are the perfect illustration of a thesis that the future is diverse, and that it needs to be diverse. The "plot" therefore accommodates variety of both forms and opinions and apparent drawbacks of that - the awkwardness of decision making in the ERTs, for example - are really strengths.

It's a complex, thought-provoking and engaging book. Though I think it won't be for everyone - the story telling is in a very particular style and often the viewpoint characters are far form driving the plot -  it's a style that grew on me and that really pays off, suiting both the setting of the book and the duracxtion of the storyline. And behind that, Newitz really is a clever and accomplished storyteller, giving us something genuinely different and ultimately breathtaking.

Wonderful reading.

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


26 January 2023

#Review - Barrow of Winter by HM Long

Book "Barrow of Winter" by HM Long. In the centre, the enormous head of a beats, with brown fur, its mouth gaping wide. Standing in front of it, her back to us and facing the animal, is the silhouette of a woman in blue-white. She is wrapped in flowing robes and holds a spear. Her feet rest on snowcapped mountains.
Barrow of Winter (Hall of Smoke 3)
HM Long
Titan Books, 17 January 2023
Available as: PB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803360027

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Barrow of Winter via Netgalley, to consider for review.

'Why am I creeping down a tunnel in an abandoned tomb, other than curiosity and the encouragement of an owl that isn't an owl?'

Barrow of Winter returns to HM Long's Hall of Smoke universe (Hall of Smoke, Temple of No God) but it rings some changes. 

The first two books focussed largely on Hessa, and saw her grow from a young woman in the first book to a mature warrior-priestess in the second. I had wondered whether the third would therefore show us an ageing Hessa. We don't get that. While Hessa plays a role in this story, she's not central to it - and still more than capable of fighting in battle. But the story mainly follows Thray, Hessa's sort-of niece, now a priestess in her own right but more significantly, a young woman who wants to know more about her own origins and nature.

Some twenty years after the cataclysmic events of the previous book - the deaths of gods and the overthrowing of empires and an old order of things - the land of the Eangen is now at (relative) peace and the worship of the newly ascendent god Thvnder well established. Life is calm for Thray... except when she goes out deliberately hunting deadly beasts just to find out whether she can die. As a descendent of the dead god of winter she may be immortal, but she doesn't want to see those she loves die before time after time, like some of her siblings. She therefore wants to know.

That impulse in Thray to push boundaries is established early on, and she lives up to it throughout the book (oddly reminding me of Hessa in Hall of Smoke). Despite being betrothed to a devoted young warrior and having numerous responsibilities as priestess for her village, it's clearly only a matter of time before Thray will find some reason to head off into the North to learn about her kin and where she came from. The opportunity, when it comes, takes us into whole new realms of Long's fascinating world - a country bound in darkness beneath everlasting winter, one where strange new gods and their priests, and Thray's own kin, the Winterborn, coexist uneasily in a fragile politics already threatened by climate change and hunger for power.

The political turns out to be very personal indeed for Thray. The Winterborn aren't to be trusted, but they possess knowledge and abilities that she needs to make sense of her life. Will she be able to coax those from them without giving up her own identity, her own future? What will the price be?

A novel of becoming, of growth, of loyalty, treason and of discovering what really matters, Barrow of Winter was very enjoyable, very fast-paced and laced with mysteries. Thray is a relatable and interesting protagonist and Long makes this book entertaining and fun in its own right even if you haven'r read the previous ones. For myself, I'd like to have seen more of Hessa, but I appreciate that as High Priestess of a flourishing cult her life is probably too admin-y for a thrilling adventure - she has responsibilities and is old enough to know she shouldn't abandon them unlike Thray does.


For more information about Barrow of Winter, see the publisher's website here.

24 January 2023

#Review - How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Book "How to Sell a Haunted House" by Grady Hendrix. A floor and a wall, covered in blue wallpaper and a blue carpet. Both have seen better days. Between them is white skirting board, and in front of that, a battered model house with a red label attached saying "50% off". Red light shines out of the front door onto the porch...
How to Sell a Haunted House
Grady Hendrix
Titan Books, 17 January 2023
Available as: HB, 400pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN (HB): 9781803360539

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of How to Sell a Haunted House via Netgalley to consider for review.

More Grady Hendrix is a Good Thing - these books always represent thoughtful horror, alive to the tropes and conventions, indeed often rather slyly commenting on them, but going A LOT further than that.

In How to Sell a Haunted House, we are back in Charleston, when Louise, a designer living and working in California, is called home after the horrific deaths of her parents. Her no-use brother Mark, who she's always rather pitied and despised, has appointed himself to manage all the arrangements but Louise just KNOWS he wan't be able to cope. And that's before strange things start happening at the old family house...

How to Sell a Haunted House is a book that works on several different levels, much of the fun being how those levels interact and contradict.

At the most basic, there are issues between Louise and Mark. A death in the family is apt to expose family fractures: it can't but, because by definition, things and situations are left unresolved forever - and grief and fear of the future can be articulated as anger and regret. We certainly get that here. The book, written from Louise's perspective, dwells on her resentment that while she is the good girl, the hard working and practical one who has sacrificed, Mark has coasted through life, taking advantage of his parents - and now wants to sell their house as soon as he can and enjoy the money. Rather cleverly, Hendrix waits to let Mark have his say and give his side of things - so by then what we hear comes as rather a shock.

It's even more of a shock because at that stage, strange and scary events in the empty house (a house filled with home made puppets!) are in full swing. Mark's and Louise's understanding, and interpretations of what is going are different, reflecting their by then well established character differences, and so the emerging supernatural threat does not bring them together in solidarity. Rather, it drives them further apart. Both family discord and gathering horrors are very well done - no spoilers though! - and Hendrix consistently wrongfooted me about what was going to happen next. It's a very particular mix of implied threat and full on, physical horror. (CW: readers may want to be aware that we do see some rather gory events - be careful if you're squeamish). 

So - family issues, Something Nasty in the Empty House - but there's more besides. There is, of course, a mystery to be solved before Louise and Mark will have any chance of sorting the problems, indeed of surviving at all. It seems their family isn't quite what they thought, and the presence of a large number of cousins and aunts obscures that more than casting light on it. Again, everyone has different, and skewed, points of view but these need to be brought together to find the answer. That was rather skilfully reflected in the number of times that I thought, ah, they've spoken to X, X will know what's up and how to fix it - but X never did (even if some of the scenes of failure are rather hilarious).

It's that social, cooperative angle that always makes me enjoy Hendrix's books - there may be objective, supernatural horror here but it's entwined with real, believable family dynamics and psychology. Nothing's going to be solved by waving a cross around or drawing a circle of protection. You have to go back to the roots of the thing, but how can that work when the people who really know about it have just died?

Great fun, scary, well-paced and true to life (and death). Don't miss this one.

For more details about How to Sell a Haunted House, see the publisher's website here.

19 January 2023

#Review - Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow

Cover for book "Needless Alley" by Natalie Marlow. A dark black-green image, showing a man inn coat, scarf and hat,  with his back to us, looking into a canal. To his right a street lamp, to his left, a bridge over the canal. The scene is contained by the outline of a woman's coat, with her head and shoulders visible at the top. It's in the style of the 1930s, with a fur collar and she is wearing a round hat.
Needless Alley
Natalie Marlow
Baskerville, 19 January 2023
Source: Advance copy
Available as: HB, 322pp, e, audio
ISBN(HB): 9781399801799

I'm grateful to Baskerville for sending me an advance copy of Needless Alley to consider for review.

'This was Savile Row smut, nicely tailored and nothing vulgar. Smut for gentlemen rather than players. Smut for the officer class, no doubt of that...'

Set in the early 30s Birmingham, Needless Alley explores the contradictions of that city - the powerful and wealthy with their country houses and vast incomes from manufacturing, and the demimonde. The bridge between the two is William Garrett - Billy -  a private detective whose trade is to facilitate divorces for husbands who wish to be shot of their wives.

William is a complex character, a man who's reinvented himself. Marlow (what a name for a writer of noir!) explicitly pitches him as that man who is not himself mean, but who walks those mean streets. William though has his flaws. He confesses to being drawn by money. he is in a dirty trade, operating honeytraps to obtain compromising photos of those inconvenient wives so they can be divorced. Most of all, to the modern eye perhaps, he's distanced from his origins. Not physically, because the canals where he grew up are only a few hundred yards from his office on Needless Alley, but emotionally and socially. William has smoothed away his Brummie accent and there's some bad blood (never explained) between him and the barge people, bad blood that gets him a kicking at one point in the novel. It feels as though he's shut the door to where he came from

Still, it's his old friend Queenie that William turns to when he gets into trouble, his accent slipping - I loved the way that Marlow played with the characters' speech, you can hear them all clearly in your mind as you read the book - and we then learn a bit of what binds him to her and to his other friend Ronnie. Ronnie plays the honey in William's traps, and he's also another who has a foot in different worlds, more so than even William realises.

This book takes us to those worlds - to clandestine Queer bars, to haunts of artists and sex workers, to the tenements of the poor and to the locations of seamy photoshoots, where powerful men pay to watch the models pose, to closed factories and far-right politics, to the struggles of desperate people to stay one step away from destitution. A perfect noir setting, Marlow's Birmingham is a city whose residents are still struggling with the legacy of war - William clearly suffering form what now we'd call PSTD - and, as I said, struggling to get by, but one where every new opportunity (and every willing victim) is being exploited.

William finds himself a refuge from all this for a while, an unexpected refuge, but in doing so he brings more trouble on himself than he could have imagined. When reputations are threatened, his hard-won status will count for little except to identify him as someone who doesn't know their place and who can therefore take the blame for whatever is really going on.

Needless Alley is a beautifully written novel, a very material book. Natalie Marlow dwells on the physicality of her city - the heat of the Summer, the stink of the canals, the Birmingham brass of a bullet  casing, the new steel handcuffs on the model in that photography session. And always the cigarette smoke, the drink, the noise, a cacophony that lets up only briefly when William finds... well, that would be a spoiler.

I loved this book. I loved William. I loved Phyll, his unlikely ally in the spiral of blood and deception he enters and his guide in some of the hidden places he needs to walk. I loved spotting familiar locations transformed. I loved its engagement with the toxic mess that is British class. Most of all I loved its exploration of a vibrant, jostling city - and of the darkness just beneath the surface. A glorious read.

(CW that the book does deal with themes of rape and abuse and there is one fairly gruesome description of a murder scene).

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

17 January 2023

#Review - The Flowering by Alison Littlewood

Cover for book "The Flowering" by Alison Littlewood. In purple and black, concentric geometric designs shrink to a point.
The Flowering
Alison Littlewood
Black Shuck Books, 24 November 2022
Available as: PB, 148pp audio, e  
Source: Bought
ISBN(PB): 9781913038960

The Flowering is a collection of six short stories from Alison Littlewood, unconnected in setting or character but linked in that they are all horrors set in historical times - there's a whiff of Dickens in places, a dash of MR James perhaps, but overall, an eerie sensibility that is all Littlewood's own.

In the first tale, The Zoetrope, we get a bit of that Jamesian "pleasing terror" as the instrument of the title becomes both the means by which an injustice is brought to light and the tool by which it might be avenged. Exploring the constraints suffered by women in a deeply patriarchal society, the new-fangled gadget perhaps also foreshadows how the tables might be turned.

The Marvellous Talking Machine also centres on a device, albeit one with more of the magical and less of the technological about it. The machine of the title is a travelling exhibit at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, a real setting, and again, we see - in a kind of historical Black Mirror way - how an attempt at a transformative technology, long before the days of Siri and Alexa, might go awry.

Meet Me at the Frost Fair has a classic opening, a ghost story being told in the snug sitting-room of a gentleman's club on a foggy London evening. Looking back at memories of strange events some decades back, the narrator might have been wiser not to call to mind things that may, after all, not be wholly done with...

The Ballad Box takes us to the hardscrabble world of Dickensian London where balladeers eke a living from the imagined deeds and fake last words of the celebrity criminals carried out to dance the Tyburn Jig. An atmosphere of sudden death, cynical exploitation and guilt pervades this story. You'll never feel quite the same passing Seven Dials again.

The Winter Tree also has its share of guilt and also shows how class, sex and convention blend to press cruel fates on, especially, women. With a delicate blend of the supernatural and of human cruelty, the effect is subtle and builds in this haunting story.

The Flowering has some similar elements, but also uses a horticultural setting as both an extended metaphor and, indeed, a new language, telling a story of love, betrayal and revenge.

These stories are perfect for a dark winter's evening with the fire lit and the TV firmly off. But you may choose to leave the lamps lit afterwards.

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

14 January 2023

#Review - Maror by Lavie Tidhar

Cover for book "Maror" by Davie Tidhar. Blue leaves against a white background.
Lavie Tidhar
Head of Zeus, 4 August 2022
Available as: HB, 554pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy, purchased HB
ISBN: 9781838931353

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Maror via NetGalley.

Maror is kind of hard to describe - it contains so much, covers so much ground and introduces so many characters, that a review risks missing the wood for the trees.

A lengthy book, in which Tidhar seems to enjoy the opportunity to swoop and circle his themes, it's a study of modern Israel, dramatised and explored using the lives of a varied bunch of characters. If you've read Tidhar's By Force Alone and The Hood, described as the "anti-Matter of Britain", which deconstruct the heroic myths of, especially, England, you might see some similarities in Maror although the latter is strictly realist - no magic, and cops rather than warriors (though drugs do feature here as in those books. There are also some allusions to Tidhar's SF - for example, I spotted a reference to the cover of his Central Station short story collection).

What we have is a book written in eighteen (shortish) parts which jump around different locations in Isreal, Lebanon, and further afield, mostly moving forward in time but occasionally jumping back to show earlier events. The almost-common theme is Cohen, policeman, crime boss, spy, husband, father, grandfather and so much more. It becomes clear early on that he is corrupt, indeed we see how this comes about, but Tidhar is quite shifty about what this amounts to. Is it a necessary corruption, Cohen doing the things that can't be seen to have official sanction? Or is he just on the make? 

I suspect the truth is somewhere in between, with the consequences you'd expect: we see a murder enquiry deliberately botched to pin the blame on an innocent man, a journalist pressured to suppress inconvenient truths about dodgy land deals in the West Bank, and, as I have said, drug dealing and gangsterism on a grand scale, exploiting (or even driving) Israel's conflict in Lebanon. That trade also takes us to South America where drugs, mercenaries and crime bosses occupy a shifty, overlapping space. (There are many deaths in this book).

Alongside the cynical counter-history, Tidhar also gives a vivid portrayal of Israel - weaving in three decades of music with a sensual portrayal of young people living their lives (a fascinating tapestry, that, of kibbutzniks, youth workers, journalists, rookie cops and many others), of the food, the bewildering contrasts between different corners of what is a very small country. Political events make an impression,  with hopes for peace undercut by repeated incursions into Lebanon and, eventually, by assassination and by a shift in the mood of the politics. There is a sense of decaying idealism, but also a recognition of wrongs buried in the founding history of the land: Arab villages that are no more, bodies buried on the beach. Cohen knows where the bodies are buried,  he may have just some of them there himself, but best not talk about that...

Maror is a terrific read, well-observed, absorbing, deploying a vast number of characters and allowing them to come to life across years of time and miles of distance, some patterns recurring and others broken. It is a book with great humanity, showing people living their lives around great - and sometimes terrible - events. 

Strongly recommended.

For more information about Maror, see the author's blog here.

11 January 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Cover for book "Emily Wilde's Encylopedia of Faeries" by Heather Fawcett. At the bottom, an open book. Above, a rambling border of drawings of farms, mushrooms, berries, ivy and stars. A golden key is wrapped around with twining tendrils.
Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries
Heather Fawcett
Orbit, 19 January 2023 
Available as: HB, 336 pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356519128

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries to consider for review, and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries is a breath of fresh air, blending real-world problems - awkward colleagues in academia irritate each other while jostling for recognition with a key conference coming; both are determined that, no, they DON'T fancy each other - with a whole other-worldly aspect involving a newly discovered and powerful variety of faery.

The story takes place in what I think based on technology (there are no dates) is an early 20th century Europe, with two key differences from our own world. First, it's much less patriarchal - Emily as a single woman is a leading researcher in "dryadology", the study of fae. Secondly, said fae are an established and accepted aspect of the world, much studied if ill-understood. They do not seem to be particularly menacing for the most part, unless you rub them up the wrong way or go off into the wilds to pursue the more exotic sorts... as Emily is wont to do.

Given this is a world without air travel, mobile phones or the Internet, such journeys tend to involve a good deal of tiresome travel by steamship, dog-sled and horse (think heroic age of Arctic exploration, perhaps) so they are also beset with a fair amount of danger and trouble. For the enterprising academic, this can be ameliorated by the judicious employment of students to do the legwork - though this is something Emily prefers to avoid. 

As the story opens, we meet Emily aboard ship, heading for a remote island off the Norwegian coast where she hopes to complete the fieldwork for her planned Encyclopaedia. However she's about to run into problems caused both by her lack of practicality and her tendency to misread people...

I just adored Emily. A spiky, awkward woman, she prefers to spend an evening revising a draft article - rather than networking with the villagers at the inn. Consequently she's continually wrong-footed in little matters like being overcharged for provisions, understanding who has the info she needs, and having enough firewood chopped to keep her borrowed shack warm in the Arctic winter. 

On the other hand she knows her subject inside out, and she absolutely does not cut corners, make up research or nick other people's ideas, unlike her rather more indolent colleague Wendell Bambleby. He turns up, unwelcome, midway into the story, accompanied by a flock of students to carry his bags, and commences taking over her research. 

The tension between the two is delightful. Emily loathes Wendell, but he clearly has a bit of a thing for her and, as the story proceeds, we may begin to wonder of that isn't mutual - if deeply disguised. There are all kinds of seething tensions going on here as the two colleagues struggle to understand the plight of the villagers, preyed on by a particularly nasty sort of fae, without offending either the locals OR the supernatural visitors and just making things worse. 

They do get worse, though, and Emily rapidly gets in deeper and deeper than an academic ought with her research subject. Can scientific objectivity, the violent passions of the fae, and Wendell's need for academic recognition all coexist? Or will Emily have to give up more than she can bear after she inadvertently puts on a shadow ring?

Funny, entrancing, intricate and sharp, this was a great read and Emily herself is I think bound to be a  wonderful central character in what I hope will be a long-running series. 

I would recommend. 

For more information about Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries, 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 Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries 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 "Emily Wilde's Encycopedia of Faeries", showing the blogs and social media channels taking part in the tour.

10 January 2023

#Blogtour #Review - So Pretty by Ronnie Turner

Cover for book "So Pretty" by Ronnie Turner. Everything is monochrome, apart from text which is in crimson - the author's name, the title, and the strapline "Evil Always Comes Home". The cover has a white background, with a peacock feather, a cotton apple and a lipstick - as well as blobs of a  dark shiny substance that is surely blood?
So Pretty
Ronnie Turner
Orenda Books, 19 January 2023
Available as: PB, 320pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585593

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

Welcome to my first blogtour of 2023! I always find it a bit tricky facing these bleak early January days so what better than to imbibe a dark, powerful tale of obsession and mistrust?

So Pretty, the new novel by Ronnie Turner, takes us to the streets of Rye where the townspeople gossip behind newcomers' backs and families can vanish overnight...

Author Ronnie Turner - a white woman with longish blonde hair pictured in three quarters profile looking left.
Before reading this book, my Rye literary landscape was dominated by EF Benson's Mapp and Lucia books. You should be warned that So Pretty is NOT gentle, social comedy. Turner sets the tone from the outset, introducing both her main characters, Teddy and Ada, as subjects of hostile gossip. 

Teddy attracts that by visiting the strange establishment Berry and Vincent - a junk shop that fairly exudes dark Gothicness - and then by taking a job there, working alongside the silent Mr Vincent (Berry is nowhere to be seen). Nothing good ever came out of Berry and Vincent - or went in there - seems to be the assumption. 

Ada is disapproved of for other reasons - a young single mum, she doesn't really fit in, does she? And young Albie has a deformed ear - that must be her fault, surely? What did she do to cause it?

To be clear, both Ada and Teddy do have dark secrets. 

Teddy has drifted, moving from place to place as his family background catches up with him. Why, at his mother's funeral, did ill-wishers gather to hurl eggs and rotten fruit fruit? Why, when he's located, do grown women turn up on his doorstep, dressed as schoolgirls? Who is Johnny Appletree?

Why did Ada's mum push her away, practically throwing her out of the house when she became pregnant?

In these chapters, told in the distinct voices of both Ada and Teddy, we learn the answers to those questions - on one level. In both cases it's a tale of twisted love, of abuse and control. Both have suffered from the actions of parents, whose motivations in turn raise questions about their own backgrounds. The book is imbued with an almost aromatic sense of taint, coming at the reader from all sides - from the creepy merchandise of that damnable shop, from hints of defect and sin carried in the blood, from bad examples and the sad, unwitting attempts of children to please their parents.

I lost count of the numbers of times that characters here pick at themselves, pinching off bits of skin or hair, scratching until lips, arms or neck bleed. It's a behaviour that almost seems catching, as do other mannerisms and tics, most sinisterly when children imitate parents or other adults, innocently recycling gestures and attitudes across the generations.

Through all this, that triangular relationship between Teddy, Ada and Mr Vincent is central, the power dymanics and intentions of each jarring with each other. Teddy senses a mystery to the vanished Berry family, and focusses on Vincent as a malign factor. Ada wants to know more about Teddy than the hints he drops. And Mr Vincent? Ah, Mr Vincent seems to know all the secrets - but he isn't talking, although Teddy can hear his old-fashioned typewriter tap, tap, tapping away upstairs. 

Powerfully Gothic, the cramped and soiled location of the shop constrains all. As events there take a most threatening turn the town's gossip and obsession build, innocence is defiled, and history seems bound to repeat itself.

This is - and I mean this in a good way! - a book with a truly grotesque sense of evil. Not of a grand and majestic evil, but a bitty, quotidian evil, worked at and worked in and ingrained in the warp and weft of life, unable to be scrubbed away, understood or opposed. Even the dramatic conclusion of the book leaves concerns, little nuggets of doubt and worry that the story is not truly over.

A disturbing and powerful read.

For more information about So Pretty, 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 So Pretty 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 "So Pretty" showing blog and social media addresses for those taking part

5 January 2023

#Review - Dead Man's Creek by Chris Hammer

Cover for book "Dead Man's Creek" by Chris Hammer. Sunset (or sunrise) paints the sky over a still river yellow and orange. In the foreground, an old, decaying cane, half sunk in the water.
Dead Man's Creek
Chris Hammer
Wildfire (Headline), 5 January 2023 
Available as: HB, 496pp,  audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781472295668  

I'm grateful to Wildfire for providing me with an e-copy of Dead Man's Creek to consider for review.

The partnership of Australian detectives Nell Buchanan and Ivan Lucic, first seen in Opal Country (which is, like Dead Man's Creek, part of a tapestry of stories featuring Buchanan, Lucic and journalist Martin Scarsden) returns here. but this book is really Nell's.

Called in to investigate the discovery of a skeleton when a river dam is destroyed by environmentalists, the two seem to be wasting their time on ancient history, on the coldest of cases. Can there be some ulterior motive for Ivan's interest? If there is, it doesn't last long as he leaves Nell to sort things out and disappears back to the city.

She's not so bothered. Tulong is her hometown, and while sh'e not exactly on good terms with her family - her mother didn't want her facing the dangers of police work - it's familiar ground and she's running the show. Yes, there may be problems with the conspiracy-theory touting "cookers" living out in the forest, but Nell can handle herself, can't she?

But then another body turns up, and this one is less straightforward...

Interleaved with the present day story are the accounts of a young boy living in the forest during the Second World War, while his father is away fighting, and of a young woman living in Tulong in the mid 70s. These very different accounts showcase Hammer's ability to inhabit character - both the lonely, frightened but self-sufficient boy and the young woman on the threshold of life and freedom, experiencing love and lust for the first time.

But behind these two another, vaster character looms - the Barmah-Millewa forest, a vast tract of land occupied by the mighty redeem trees, drawing its sustenance from the Murray River. The first is home to all sorts of renegades and escapees: wartime deserters, dropouts and hippies, criminals, and even more sinister elements as well as abundant plant and bird life. A sad aspect of the story its its consumption by settlers for wood and charcoal, and their choking off the precious waters, leaving the trees dried out and dying. (I cheered on the destruction of the "regulator", which keeps the river water from the forest).

The forest is, though, still alive, vital and active in this story, not just a location for events but a determinant of them - as ever with Hammer's books, Alksander Potočnik's map helps one to follow what's going on. Hammer's descriptions of a child's time in the forest, or of Nell exploring the flooded wonderland in search of a rumoured shack on an island, really evoke the glory and mystery of a primeval landscape.

There's a lot packed into Dead Man's Creek, the three narratives evolving slowly and satisfyingly before the mystery is even stated. Nell is able to go about her job - at least to begin with - fairly slowly and steadily, untangling wartime records, accounts from local papers and forensic evidence. Meantime, the detail and atmosphere build, the hints of small town enmities and generational feuds which inevitably touch on her own family and background, raising ethical questions of how closely she should actually be involve din the investigation. 

That aspect - and the menace of Internal Affairs - is thought more distant than in some of Hammer's other books. Other threats abound though, with a birdwatcher having recently vanished (oddly, nobody seems very bothered by that) and Nell's landlord taking against her because of her family. 

A gloriously evocative story as well as a knife-sharp crime novel, Dead Man's Creek shows Hammer's writing at its excellent best, delivering a truly empathic account of some very hard lives as well as tension, mystery and a message about our relationship with and stewardship of the land.

STRONGLY recommended. 

For more information about Dead Man's Creek, see the publisher's website here.

3 January 2023

#Review - Three Pint Problems by Melvyn Small

Three Pint Problems (The Accidental Detective Book 3)
Melvyn Small
Indipenned, 11 November 2022
Available as: PB, 341pp, e
Source: Purchased
ISBN(PB): 9798840296523

Ever since Conan Doyle stopped writing Sherlock Holmes stories (in fact, probably before...) the character has been reworked, imitated, reinvented, referenced and pastiched. Melvyn Small's take is a pleasingly different example of this - a Holmes of the North East, in fact Middlesboro, firmly living in the 21st century (one of the stories includes a sizeable part for BBC Local Radio). This is a version of Holmes that gets us away from gaslights, Hansoms, cobblestones and deerstalkers. 

(Sort of. Small does pack in a fair few references to the originals, just to prove he knows what he's about - 'Sherlock ever investigated a case that included some sort of hound? I dunno, maybe one terrorising a bunch of posh twats...'; a mention of a horse running in the 'Beryl Coronet'; the 'Baker Street Kitchen' is a cafe and 'The Twisted Lip' a pub, and of course there are namechecks for DI Barry Lestrade and even Col Sebastian Moran - who Holmes was lucky to escape from alive. Indeed the title of the first story is a reference canonical Holmes himself drops in the course of A Scandal in Bohemia (the context being the universal human tendency, in case of fire, to save the most precious thing - a point relevant to this story). There are many more references which I won't spoil - you can have fun hunting them out yourself!)

Three Pint Problems contains four different stories, in order The Darlington Substitution, Murder on the Teesside Princess, The Devil's Advocate and The Riverside Thriller.

The Darlington Substitution isn't, at least not apparently, a case of murder or theft but - like many of the originals - more of a puzzle. I won't spoil the story by saying just what has happened, but it's an oddity, a surprise, that sets Holmes' antennae twitching. But he lacks data and, as ever, John Watson isn't best placed to supply them. Indeed, being preoccupied with selling copies of his memoirs, he doesn't pay a great deal of attention to Holmes's concerns. (The sections detailing signings in bleak branches of WH Smith are written with feeling!)

The story is just the right length for a Holmes case: a novella/ long-short-story is to my mind ideal to introduce a mystery, show how baffling it is, let Holmes do his thing and then wrap everything up. If Small is a little mysterious about precisely how Holmes draws his conclusions, that may be forgiven, Conan Doyle often did the same, but we get a broad hint that detecting is easier in the days of social media so one might imagine he's a skilled at IT, and there are hints at hacker abilities. All this is I think fully line with how the original Holmes was written, a bit of a geek, up with all the latest technology and none too fastidious how he used it.

Murder on the Teesside Princess is more of a locked room mystery, Holmes on the scene when a night to remember aboard a floating restaurant turns bad. A complication is that Holmes has just been arrested, Lestrade having come aboard for the purpose, after an altercation with another passenger. That signals a darker side of Holmes I think - indeed it's becoming clear that he's sometimes on the wrong side of the law. That made me think of how fun the Conan Doyle stories Holmes and Watson get away with so much because of what these days we'd describe as their privilege. No such latitude exists in Small's version, and it's very lucky for Holmes that he's able - without apparent effort - to solve a fiendish crime, alive with misdirection and concealment, handing Lestrade his villain on a plate, and the earlier unpleasantness does, indeed, fade away.

It was in the course of reading this story that I started noticing an elegiac note to Watson't narration, a foreshadowing of Holmes' death something I trust won't be arriving too soon as I've just discovered this series!

The Devil's Advocate continues the darker vein of these stories by giving us Holmes' account of his jury service some decades earlier (bit naughty of him to talk outside the jury room). It's a mastery demonstration of Holmes' methods, but also of the morality behind them. The greatest revelations, in the end, are not "how" but "why". We see Holmes' earlier life depicted in a way that was actually rather moving. That depiction did, though, show that Holmes has his own agendas and that he if far form infallible. 

The final story, The Riverside Thriller, is rather lighter in tone, Holmes getting his teeth into a knotty problem against the clock. There has been a murder at the football stadium and the match is due to begin. Can our hero crack the case before kick-off? An ingenious mystery here, classic Holmes, and great fun.

I loved this version of Holmes. Once you become used to the central characters, and especially to them NOT addressing each other in the slightly stuffy manner of the originals, the stories rattle along. There is some neat writing in places "...hoping I could transform his change of mood into a change of mind..." and use of (I think) real locations in and around Darlington and Middlesborough which slightly passed me by, not knowing the area (but then I don't know Victorian London either?)

All in all an engaging idea, well realised, providing a refreshingly different angle on the Great Detective.

For more information, see the Indipenned website here. You can buy the book on Amazon here.