28 February 2023

#Review - Don't Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

Book "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Stephen Graham Jones. A red cover. Several gashes lead down from the top, showing darkness behind. A curved blade or perhaps a claw pokes out from one, spattered with blood.
Don't Fear the Reaper (Book 2 of the Indian Lake Trilogy)
Stephen Graham Jones
Titan Books, 7 February 2023
Available as: PB, 496pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy, audio sub
ISBN(PB): 9781803361741

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of Don't Fear the Reaper to consider for review. I also listened to parts of the book on audio.

There is a scene roughly halfway through Don't Fear the Reaper where two young women are sheltering in a deserted, burned out house, isolated in a winter storm. Jennifer has just returned to town after four years' absence caused by 'legal difficulties' - she's been on trial for murder. Letha, her friend, was badly injured in the events that caused Jennifer's problems - The Independence Day Massacre/ The Lake Witch Massacre (it's complicated) - and is still going through surgery to reconstruct her face. 

Jennifer and Letha are catching up, despite the possibility that a killer is stalking them, and Stephen Graham Jones has them do this through a discussion couched in the grammar of the slasher movie, a genre key to this book and its predecessor, My Heart is a Chainsaw. (If you haven't read that I'd advice you to do first). I will confess at once that my knowledge of these films is not sufficient to follow all the twists and turns of this conversation, and indeed many of the references throughout this book. I think that will be true for many readers, even those who know more about slashers than I do - the tropes, actors' careers, plot points and then minutiae of the films (shots, music, lighting, costumes) cited are many and I take off my hat to Stephen Graham Jones for his grasp of it all. 

That doesn't, however, make this book (or for that matter My Heart...) inaccessible. Far from it. It serves, I think, all the more to highlight that behind the references in this and other conversation, a connection exists between these two women who are from very different social strata (one the daughter of the town drunk, probably abused as a child - though this is never stated outright - recently incarcerated and pretty much homeless) and the other an heiress, married to a sheriff's deputy, with a baby daughter... though Black and an incomer to this remote tight knit community). That conversation, and its sense of geeky joy and a shared fandom, shows how close Letha and Jennifer are, underlining that they ca and will trust each other and fight for each other in what will soon be dire circumstances. It  explores and highlights what they have in common, what they have lost, and especially the shared experience of that awful night four years ago which, of course, is directly one point in a discussions of slashers.

It is a brilliant scene, one of those apparently shallow, but really deep, conversations between old friends where stuff doesn't have to be said, the most obscure allusions unlocking experiences and trains of thought so that the speech almost appears like code. We see this sharing, which goes right back to the events of My Heart is a Chainsaw, and we see how deep, how vital, is this friendship. It is triumphantly, almost gleefully, done, the nuances and hints all there in filmic references. This is I think the heart of the book and it is beautiful.

Around that interlude, this story is thought very dark indeed. A notorious serial killer (why do wealways  add 'notorious' in that phrase?) being transported in a convoy in the depths of winter (what can possibly go wrong) may have escaped, but nobody knows for sure because due to the weather comms are down. The town is therefore cut off, and of course victims, mainly high school students, are turning up horribly tortured. Added to that, the town sheriff and his most trusted deputies are absent and only Letha's husband, a probationer whom nobody rates, remains to hold the fort.

What we have, then, are the attempts of the townsfolk to defend themselves from Dark Mill South, in less than ideal circumstances, and efforts by of Jennifer, Letha and some of the others who understand how these episodes unfold, to work out what is going on. Plus there's a whole town mythology involving drowned girls that may or may not play a part. 

We also get some of the thoughts and actions of the escaped convict. 

The story is told through various voices, some of which aren't identified until near the end, and include, as did My Heart, a student writing papers for her history teacher (in the previous book it was Jennifer, then called Jade). Those papers are being done some months after the main events of the book, and add a little perspective and some information not clear at the time. 

While the premise might seem simple, there is a lot going on in this book and Stephen Graham Jones plays some games with viewpoints - as well as allowing red herrings to swim in the waters. (Or perhaps not red herrings, but things that will only be explained in the upcoming third book of the trilogy). The centre though is not the twists ands turns of the slasher horror but the relationships that it casts light on in. Indeed, the author rather knowingly mocks the fascination with every last detail of what is, ultimately, a fictional genre. Encountering a character who is if anything even more obsessed with slashers than she is/ was, Jennifer/ Jade is aghast and asks herself whether this is what she was like four years before.

A great book, and a wonderful followup to My Heart but I repeat, you really do need to read that first. This is not a standalone.

The audio is very impressive in what must have been a difficult book to translate to spoken word, not least because of the need to make clear where parts are from different perspectives but without giving too much away about some of the protagonists. The solution - to use several different voices - gives this version a little more of the sense of an audio drama rather than the reading of a book, but creates an involving and vital result which does make a number of points clearer, but avoids spoiling anything.

For more information about Don't Fear the Reaper see the Titan Books website here.

23 February 2023

Cover Reveal - The Sun and the Void by Gabriela Romero Lacruz

Cover for book "The Sun and the Void" by Gabriela Romero Lacruz. In the centre, a black sun with alternating golden and black rays. Above it, white-golden ground. Below it, black ground. Around the edges of the cover, detailing in gold - leaves and flowers.
Today I'm VERY pleased to be joining the cover reveal for The Sun and the Void - Book 1 in The Warring Gods series


This stunning debut features Sapphic representation, and themes of race, heritage and colonialism, all wrapped up in a captivating magical system bestowed by warring ancient gods.

In a lush world inspired by the history and folklore of South America, a sweeping epic fantasy of colonialism, ancient magic, and two young women's quest for belonging unfolds.

This stunning debut features Sapphic representation, and themes of race, heritage and colonialism, all wrapped up in a captivating magical system bestowed by warring ancient gods.

Reina is desperate. Stuck living on the edges of society, her only salvation lies in an invitation from a grandmother she’s never known. But the journey is dangerous, and prayer can’t always avert disaster. Attacked by creatures that stalk the region, Reina is on the verge of death until her grandmother, a dark sorceress, intervenes. Now dependent on the Doña’s magic for her life, Reina will do anything to earn—and keep—her favour. Even the bidding of an ancient god who whispers to her at night.

Eva Kesare is unwanted. Illegitimate and of mixed heritage, Eva is her family’s shame. She tries her best to be perfect and to hide her oddities. But Eva is hiding a secret: magic calls to her. Eva knows she should fight the temptation. Magic is the sign of the dark god, and using it is punishable by death. Yet, it’s hard to deny power when it has always been denied to you. Eva is walking a dangerous path, one that gets stranger every day. And, in the end, she’ll become something she never imagined.

A must for fans of Tasha Suri, Samantha Shannon, Zoraida Cordova and Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Published in HB (£16.99) 25 July 2023 by Daphne Press. For more info see @Daphne_Press or @blackcrow_pr and to pre order go here


Born and raised in Venezuela, Gabriela Romero Lacruz now lives two-thousand miles from home, in the land of bayous and astronauts. She graduated with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Houston, and after a stint in Oil and Gas, decided to dedicate herself to the arts. She writes young adult and adult fantasy stories set in places that remind her of home, so in her mind she’s never too far from the beaches and mountains of Venezuela. She also scratches that ChemE itch with a science fiction or two. She illustrates as The Moonborn.


#Review - A Wild & True Relation by Kim Sherwood

Book "A Wild & True Relation" by Kim Sherwood. The background is pale green, and the central device done in shades of green. The cover is occupied by a lozenge shape, divided into upper and lower halves by a scroll upon which the book's title is blocked in a kind of antique playbill sort of font. In each half of the lozenge is a silhouette portrait - the upper is a woman, facing right, the lower a man, facing left. Each is inside a circle, with lettering, the upper saying "MILDEGO 1703", the lower, "VENTURE 1703". At the bottom of the lozenge are a pair of crossed antique pistols. Above the lozenge, a couple of seabirds swoop. The device overall resembles a coat of arms or heraldic crest.
A Wild & True Relation
Kim Sherwood
Virago, 2 February 2023
Available as: HB, 506pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780349015361

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Wild & True Relation via Netgalley, to consider for review.

Kim Sherwood is one of those authors who refuses to be trapped in one genre or another. She's written historical fiction about the Holocaust. She's written James Bond. And here she is telling, with great verve and with a strand of modern relevance,  a story of smugglers, Revenue men and seadogs in early 18th century Devon, Queen Anne's time.

But A Wild & True Relation is so much more than that, really it is. 

It's the tale of Molly - Orlando - a young girl brought up aboard ship by smugglers as a boy, after her mother is killed in a mysterious scuffle involving notorious 'free trader' Tom West, Revenue man Dick English, and one of West's crew. 

Orlando grows up determined to take revenge against English, who he blames for his mother's death. Influenced and schooled by West, he/ she becomes an accomplished sailor, something that would never be allowed a girl or woman, and indeed a perfect smuggler, something only a hair's breadth from being a pirate. But it's a time when the free traders are popular - 'Watch the wall, my darling, when the gentlemen go by' - and West lords it over Devon like a king, any and all manner of sins being forgiven or at least overlooked... for now.

But there's more! A Wild & True Relation may be rooted in stormy 18th century Devon but it grows out into other ages, other places too. Molly's/ Orlando's story is elusive, contradictory - one of the themes of this book, indeed, with nothing sure and certain, facts slippery and events liable to be reimagined - but it comes to the attention of  a succession of writers: Mrs Thrale and Doctor Johnson, Daniel Defoe and Celia Fiennes, Charles Dickens, and eventually, Robert Louis Stevenson. We see the story become a touchstone, as characters look for a personal connection with Molly, eventually the 'lady shipwright" of Devonport, as it is reworked into filmscript, travelogue and more. 

A common feature of the reworking is the appropriation of women's writing, imagination, life by men, something coolly commented on by a modern voice writing a series of lectures to be given commemorating Virginia Wolf at Girton College, Oxford (Orlando, of course!) I really enjoyed these interpolations. While the story of Orlando/ Molly is (I think!) fictitious, the descriptions given, and judgements made, of how cerated male writers used the woman around them are factual - and pretty scathing. Putting into those hands a narrative of a woman who who did whatever it took not to be so used - neither by the hand of officialdom nor by a romantic rogue - is a great corrective. There is a golden thread running through this book that, come what may, in the end Molly will be heard.

In the strangest sense, that very modern sensibility makes the romantic, salt-splashed narrative of three hundred years ago seem even more immediate, its themes and issues even more alive and present, than if it were just another romance of the sea, of which we have plenty (and I'm not saying that's a bad thing!)

Really, really good, fun to read and with a sharp core - or might I say a blade? - of steel at its heart

For more information about A Wild & True Relation, see the publisher's website here.

21 February 2023

#Review - The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

Book "The Whispering Muse" by Laura Purcell. All monochrome. Around the edges of the cover we see flowers in shades of white and grey. In the centre, a dark space - the black background - over which are the author's name (in white) and the title (in red) and the words "Obsession. Superstition. Tragedy".
The Whispering Muse
Laura Purcell
Bloomsbury Raven, 2 February 2023
Available as: HB, 293pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781526627186

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Whispering Muse via Netgalley to consider for review.

The Whispering Muse is an absolutely top-rate historical horror which makes some trenchant points about women's lives being bent out of shape by the society - and especially the men - around them. As I've come to expect from Purcell, we're given nuanced, layered horror, deeply coiled around human lives and circumstances - but also, moments of shocking, scary climax as those human lives crumple and break. It's a heady mixture, making every page both a 'must read' and a 'dare I read?'

Jenny is trying to hold together her family - comprising only her younger brothers and sisters, as their parents are both dead - and is desperate for any work she can get. An offer of a role as a dresser at the Mercury Theatre comes as welcome news, but it will soon bring Jenny face to face with divided loyalties, the prospect of ruin, and indeed utter terror when the company embark on a production of 'The Scottish Play'.

All Jenny's problems trace back, in one way or another, to the men around her. Formerly a lady's maid, she lost her place because of the feckless behaviour of one of those men. Another of them, the manager of the theatre. seems to be taking too close an interest in one of the actresses, but inevitably things go wrong and he demands Jenny's help in managing the situation. Meanwhile, his wife also expects Jenny to break up the relationship (or else). And just when it seems things can't get any worse, another man from Jenny's past turns up threatening to break up her little family.

I loved just how complicated things became for Jenny, but particularly her relationship with that actress - Lilith - to whom she's appointed as dresser. The two women have very different outlooks - Lilith daringly Bohemian, ambitious, willing to flout Victorian morality (but, if she wants her career to progress, does she have any choice?) Jenny more conventional, perhaps, as shown when she's told to turn round three times, spit, and swear because she said 'Macbeth' - and she can't bring herself to do it.

The most moving moments of the book, in counterpoint to the gothic horror, are those when these two women are learning to trust one another,  to get to know each other.  That doesn't always turn out well, indeed little in this book turns out well, but possibilities open then, experiences are shared and alternative futures open up.

Those moments of respite never last long, though - there is a drumbeat in The Whispering Muse and it is a drumbeat of terror, horror stalking the theatre and its unfortunate cast and crew. What seems at the start like theatrical whimsy and self-indulgence - I thought of the Blackadder parody of that spitting-and-turning round thing - comes back to claim a price, as events grow progressively darker. That darkness is only pointed up by a sort of disjointed reaction from the wider world to the horror taking place. There is a prurient interest in what happens (not going to spell out what that is because spoilers) but a distinct lack of concern, of empathy, with those affected by it. (An attitude I think sadly true to life, not only of the Victorian era but of those since and up to the present day - it would be easy to imagine the cursed Lilith racking up huge numbers of social media followers, rather than stage door Johnnies, all to abandon her as she crashed and burned).

In the end though, and despite The Whispering Muse deploying quite the tide of gory horror (it features productions of both Faust - in two different versions - and MacBeth) I think it's actually in may respects  hopeful book, both showing ways in which solidarity and fellowship can defeat, or at least elude, power, and celebrating human companionship and love.

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

16 February 2023

#Review - Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Untamed Shore
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 16 February 2023
Available as: HB, 282pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529426328

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of this new UK edition of Untamed Shore to consider for review.

Silvia Morena-Garcia is an impressively versatile author, ranging between genres (SFF, romance, thriller, horror) and themes and, in my experience, she never disappoints.

In Untamed Shore she gives us a noir-tinged thriller which evokes classic films of the 40s, 50s and 60s. Close your eyes and it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine this story taking place in black and white, acted out by the chiselled profiles and dangerous beauties of Golden Age Hollywood - even though it's set slightly later, in 1979. That dating is important as it gives Untamed Shore the ability to reference and build on this stock of imagery so that Viridiana, our protagonist (herself named for a film heroine) comments knowingly about actors, themes and atmosphere.

And indeed that's entirely fitting. Into Viridiana's provincial world, to the little town in Baja California where she spends her summer watching the dead sharks rot, dodging strutting boys and resisting her mother's plots to marry her off - into this world comes a trio of fascinating strangers, American tourists who've taken a house for the summer.

Introduced to them by her father's friend, 'the Dutchman'  Reinier, Viridiana takes on the role of guide, translator and secretary to Ambrose, his wife Daisy, and her brother, Gregory. There's a certain implied louche glamour to the the three, a sense of a past, of money and, soon, of danger. Staying in their house, Viridiana is well placed first to pry out secrets - to overhear things but also to locate what's not being said - and then, after a death, to become involved in those secrets.

At the same time, Moreno-Garcia shows us a young woman growing up in this back of nowhere town, yearning for the bright lights of Paris, or of Mexico City where her father is. But don't fall into the trap of seeing the place or its people as unsophisticated or backward. That's the mistake that Ambrose, Daisy and Gregory make, as well as others who come arrive later, once the trouble starts. This book isn't written from the perspective of the strangers who come to town - strangers who don't even bother to speak the language - rather it's an affectionate and almost loving depiction of things (even if it is a warts-and-all depiction) from the inside.

What matters to Viridiana is her future - that life away from the town. She studies the impact on that future of all the undercurrents here, the swirls of gossip and reputation, the formalities represented by the Mayor or the local policeman. She understands - as the strangers don't - what can be managed, whether through an understanding of who is in what card game on a Friday night or from knowledge of who has interests where.

The book put me in mind, to a degree,  of the typology of true crimes set out by the author George Orwell in his essay The Decline of the English Murder. Writing during the Second World War, Orwell lamented the displacement of the classic domestic murder (generally a middle aged husband ridding himself of his no longer wanted wife) beloved of the British Sunday papers, by a more public style of killing - and by younger killers, of both sexes, swimming in an atmosphere of drink, dance halls and flickering Hollywood. In actual fact the first type of killing remains with us of course - domestic violence doesn't go away so easily (as we see here) - but the second sort is and was incontestably more glamorous, if that's not a crass word to use, and Moreno-Garcia hits all the same notes here in telling a story that has femmes fatales, guns, hoodlums and duplicity in spades alongside a genuine streak of moral ambiguity. 

I don't think there's anyone in this book who is altogether admirable, but nearly everyone is understandable - Moreno-Garcia gives us complex and real characters and to a degree you can sympathise with most of them (though I didn't take to Ambrose).

If you've read Moreno-Garcia's recent books, you will recognise some of the themes and settings here  in Untamed Shore. Again we have a young woman growing up in a backwater who wishes to go places, a gloriously evocative portrayal of place and of being a certain age, watching an exciting world and fearing it will pass one by. While in others of this author's book these things come together via the supernatural, here it's a more prosaic, if also more criminal, route - it'll take every bit of Viridiana's determination to pull herself out of this mess - but there is a great sense here of her takes a chance in both hands when it comes. It's a wonderful read, and I'm glad to see this UK edition so that more readers can find there way to this story.

Strongly recommended.

For more about Untamed Shore, see the publisher's website here.

14 February 2023

#Review - Love Will Tear Us Apart by C K McDonnell

Cover for book "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by C K McDonnell. Against a blue background, a large oval mirror with an ornate frame. The title is in retro lettering across the mirror.
Love Will Tear Us Apart (Stranger Times, 3)
C K McDonnell
Transworld, 9 February 2023
Available as: HB, 464pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy 
ISBN(HB): 9781787633391

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Love Will Tear Us Apart via Netgalley to consider for review.

All is not well at The Stranger Times. New assistant editor Hannah Willis, until now our window into the Manchester-based publication which exposes the strange, the unlikely and the downright impossible from its base in a former church, has departed. Vincent Banecroft, the human waste tip of an editor who at least always gave the impression of knowing what was going on, is adrift.

Love Will Tear Us Apart therefore takes the risk of moving things on somewhat from the cosy - for values of "cosy" that admit bloody murder and monsters on the streets of Manchester - setting established in The Stranger Times and revisited in This Charming Man. A necessary risk, I think, for an ongoing series and one that I think McDonnell brings off magnificently. In Love Will Tear Us Apart we both see Hannah up to, well, her own thing, and Banecroft in freefall, obsessed with his dead wife to a degree that hadn't previously been made plain and which renders him dangerously vulnerable. It's up to the rest of the crew to hold things together, particularly Stella and a couple of new characters - who prove more than formidable. 

That doesn't mean that Love Will Tear Us Apart lacks the charm and humour of the previous books. Far from it. We see another Loon Day, the interactions between team members are as well observed as ever and there are the usual bizarre excerpts from the paper. There is though less focus on the production of the paper, and more on the working out of individual threats and of the history of some of the characters. That allows for a closer look at the inhabitants of McDonnell's alt Manchester, including the Founders themselves, who actually appear nastier each time they're glimpsed. (One of the perspectives they're seen from is via a creepy wellness centre, which manages both to be genuinely menacing and also rather funny). 

Alongside this we get a variety of sub-plots - ghosts, abductions by sinister goons and a returning character from This Charming Man, who I didn't expect to see again but whose presence does help to build a sense of a wider world. There's even a little gentle grave robbing. DI Tom Sturgess does also appear, although he is rather more peripheral than I'd have liked, his investigation not really going anywhere and not linking with the rest of the narrative much. But without Hannahin the Stranger Times offices perhaps he has less of a part to play.

That point aside, this is a thrilling continuation of the series, taking it to new places and showing us familiar characters slightly differently. And if it wasn't clear before, I think Love Will Tear Us Apart makes clear that any accommodation with the Founders is likely to be temporary at best - it isn't just their methods and history that taint them, but they also seem to attract the power hungry, the entitled and the plain bad to their orbit. Not a nice bunch.

It all comes together in a genuinely scary and perilous conclusion, and I look forward to a Book 4 and to seeing what McDonnell does next with his long-suffering characters.

For more information about Love Will tear Us Apart, see the publisher's website here.

10 February 2023

#Review - Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

Cover for audio book "Princess Floralinda and the Forty Flight tower" by Tamsyn Muir. In a craggy wilderness, a sinister tower stands on a rocky outcrop. Lights are lit in the upper windows. It has a pointed roof. Settling on the roof is a spiny dragon.
Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower
Tamsyn Muir (narrated by Moira Quirk)
Recorded Books Inc, 30 November 2020
Available as: Audio, 4 hours 9 minutes
Source: Audio subscription
ASIN: B08N2L23D4

I listened to Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower as an audio book.

I have to admit that I listened to Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower because I've been reading Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb series as audio (if that makes sense) so it popped up as a recommendation. Keen to see what else Muir had written (and given Quirk's excellent work on those stories) I downloaded it.

The first things to say is that this is a very different - and simpler - story than the Locked Tomb books. It's basically a fairy-story crossed with a D&D session, as Floralinda, abandoned at the top of her tower by a witch, gives up on a prince rescuing her and has to fight her way down to the bottom, overcoming a different monster on every level. She shows great ingenuity doing this and it's fun seeing her outwit worse and worse monsters and accumulate some useful resources.

In doing this Floralinda also meets and befriends a fairy with broken wings, and learns a lot about being practical, strong and un-Princesslike.

Then things turn dark.

Through the progression of monsters, variously despatched by skill, guile and luck, we see a slow transformation of the princess. This is reflected not only in her fights with monsters but in other respects too - her developing relationship with that fairy, and her attitude to her own life. What with injuries, holdups while weapons are honed or resources gathered, and close scrapes with injury or death, there is both time and cause for reflection by Floralinda on what she wants. 

And when she decides what that is, there is nobody who can stop her.

One of the really fun things about this book was seeing Floralinda develop into somebody who can honestly admit that there are bad things she must do, and other bad things that she wants to do and that she is going to do. And then seeing her emerge as a person who can put her own life, and that change, into wider context and decide that perhaps, no, some of those are things she won't do. While she does develop in skill and strength, it's also a moral process, a coming of age, that makes her question who she is and what she wants from life.

If that makes this book sound over solemn and freighted with Messages, it really isn't, it is immensely pacy, enjoyable to read and really funny, if inevitably gruesome in places. While it was a bit of a shock at first to hear Quirk's palate of voices used in a different context from her Locked Tomb readings, and I did initially associate them with the characters form those stories, the personalities here are very different and very quickly came to stand apart.

Recommended, and hearing this made me realise afresh what a wide-ranging and flexible writer Muir is. 

You can get the audio of Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower here.

7 February 2023

#Review - Jackdaw by Tade Thompson

Book "Jackdaw" by Jade Thompson. Against and orange-red background, resembling paint on a canvas, a composite image making of a human face. The face is made up of bits of printed matter, blobs of paint and other less recognisable elements.The mouth appears to be bleeding.
Tade Thompson
Cheerio, 6 October 2022 
Available as: HB, 160pp, audio, e  
Source: Bought HB & audio via subscription service
ISBN(HB): 978-1800811652

Jackdaw showcases Thompson writing in a rather different vein from his previous fantasy and SF, I think.

In the book Thompson - the doctor who is the protagonist of the book, not the doctor who is the author of it - is approached with a commission to produce something inspired by the artist Francis Bacon. And Jackdaw certainly is that - following that protagonist as he spirals into an, eventually, dangerous obsession with Bacon.

In documenting that obsession, we get a lot of information about Bacon, one of those artists whose creativity and wider life were closely associated with his demons. We also learn a lot about the (fictional? I hope so) Thompson. The line between real life and fiction, between art and illusion, however becomes paper thin. Those demons step out of the shadows, driving Thompson-the-narrator into all sorts of risky behaviour - financial, sexual, and spiritual.

It's a book that's hard to describe, harder to put down, the nested layers of reality and fiction bleeding into one another and threatening our narrator's personal and professional lives. A powerful story, going to some very personal places and playing with the reader's expectations (see, for example, the episode from the earlier life of the protagonist's wife).

There are also some lighter moments (though darkness is never far away) including the scenes involving a sex worker, and those where the protagonists's agent appears.

Jackdaw is truly one of those books you simply have to experience for yourself and I can especially recommend the audio version, narrated by Thompson himself for an experience that is even more mixed-up, even more blurred, his calm voice simultaneously emphasising the horror that his life has become and complicating still further the reality depicted - even in those humorous episodes (I'd guess, for example, that the incident described at the SF convention really happened...)

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

2 February 2023

#Review - Exiles by Jane Harper

Cover for book "Exiles" by Jane Harper.
Exiles (Aaron Falk series)
Jane Harper
Pan MacMillan, 2 February 2023
Available as: HB, 432pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529098440

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Exiles via NetGally to consider for review.  

I adore Jane Harper's Aaron Falk books. Falk, a financial detective with the Australian police, has a knack of finding himself with crimes to solve in remote small towns. Some of these have been very personal, touching his own past and that of his family, and we have seen him very raw, very exposed, by what has emerged.

Here, in Exiles, he seems to be healing somewhat when he visits the remote community of Marralee Valley for the baptism of his closest friend's child. Even so, he can't escape a mystery his previous visit, a year ago, coincided with the disappearance of a woman who left her baby in his pushchair at a festival. Her family and friends plan using the anniversary to appeal for information, and staying on for a few days, Falk begins to pull and tease at the case.

I simply loved this book. Not only do we get a classic, absolutely cracking crime story here - a sort of locked room mystery in reverse - but we get to spend time with Aaron. Harper's handling of all her themes here - the close knit group of friends and family who seem, even so, to have lost one of their own. The teenage daughter perplexed at her mum's disappearance. A romantic subplot for Falk - perhaps. And lush, beautiful writing about place and environment, not, this time, a desiccated, dying town but a place of greenery and enterprise, the annual Food and Wine Festival bringing much needed visitor dollars and business to the region's vineyards and producers.

It's a story that takes its time, following a gentle pace and establishing everyone's viewpoint - except of course for Kim, the missing mother of two. We hear about her from her circle, how much she is missed, what she was going through and we are given - in recollections from those friends of growing up in the time - a vivid impression of her when younger, too.

This is in so many respects a beautiful book, readable, beguiling, a sensitive and even moving portrait of small town life and of the compromises and losses of going up, of the lengths people will go for love. The writing is glorious, the dialogue and the characters simply superb.

It also has some portraits of the darker side of human nature. I won't be specific because that is tightly bound with the secret of what happened a year ago in Marralee. I will say that Exiles also celebrates solidarity, nurturing and gentle, persistent love. Indeed I think this is at the core of the book. 

I was also so pleased to see Aaron healing and growing, if you follow these books you will understand what I mean when I say he is a very special man and I just love the development and growth we see in the books.

To summarise: this is a wonderful, outstanding in what was already and outstanding series. I don't know whether Harper is going to let Aaron Falk rest for a bit now, he certainly deserves it though I for one would be delighted to meet him again in a future book.

Probably my favourite of the year so far, don't miss this one.

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