30 May 2023

#Review - Conquest by Nina Allan

Cover for book "Conquest" by Nina Allan. A tower, formed out of musical staves, with notes flocking on them like figures in a building. The title is spelled out vertically downwards in red letters.
Nina Allan
Riverrun, 11 May 2023
Available as: HB, 320pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy & purchased copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529420777

I'm grateful to Riverrun for sending me an advance e-copy of Conquest via Netgalley to consider for review, this was also a book I had to have on my shelves!

Nina Allan is one of my favourite authors - I love the sense of unease her books deliver, of ordinary lives taking place alongside the "other". In Conquest, we have three characters whose stories are tightly bound. Frank, a rather shy young man who's entranced by the music of JS Bach, has gone missing in France, after travelling (his first time abroad!) to meet "friends" he met online. Has he fallen in with a sinister cult? Are they a criminal ring who have been grooming him? Or "harmless" cranks pushing a conspiracy theory? Or - just possibly - do they see an important truth that others overlook? We don't know.

Rachel is Frank's girlfriend, Allan portraying her, and her (and Frank's) background on a London estate (actually two - the bad estate and the good estate) deftly. She reports Frank missing, but the police aren't very interested, and she's left in limbo, not knowing whether to wait for him, or get on with rebuilding her life.

Robin is the private detective to whom Rachel turns in despair when Frank remains missing. She's the main voice in this story and I really enjoyed Allan revealing Robin's backstory bit by bit. It's a rich and complicated one, taking in Robin's former career with the police (she evidently had a love/ hate relationship with her hard-bitten boss), her personal life (she was adopted, her mother dying when she was young, her father nowhere to be seen) and her run-ins with notorious London crime families. Allan always delivers wonderful characters, people who are many-layered, connected in subtle ways and who simply stroll off the page and into your life.

As does the mystery at the heart of this book. That mystery is approached in several different ways. The book contains the gist of a 50s SF story seen by Frank as key to some sort of cosmic puzzle, but also articles by a film critic who we later meet, and it also connects with Allan's short story "The Lichens" included in the Someone in Time anthology of time-travel romance. It has recurring themes - Frank's (and Rachel's) obsession with Bach isn't coincidental and Allan analyses pieces and even individual recordings and performers to highlight concerns explored here. Ideas of war, of - yes - conquest, and of taint and influence, recur. The atmosphere is haunting, suggestive. Frank's suggestion of an important message coded into a text is relevant, I think, but the "text" is much more then simply a piece of writing and the "decoding" is something that the reader can engage in but that we also see the characters - Rachel, especially - undergo.

As well as resonating with themes form Allan's wider writing - ramified stories, the aftermath of war - there are other echoes too, including to MR James, all giving the sense of a deeply rooted tale, of a heft, a background to the story we read here.

Has Rachel been affected by a war? 

Has the enemy, in fact, already conquered - and if so, what does that leave for her?

Conquest is, simply, a delicious read, that rare book which I wished was twice as long. I'd strongly recommend it.

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

25 May 2023

#Blogtour review - Grave Danger by Alice James

Cover for book "Grave Danger" by Alice James. In silhouette, a man and a woman kissing in a graveyard. highlighted against a full moon, a gravestone with the words "MORE MURDER, MORE MAYHEM, MORE ROMANCE"
Grave Danger (Lavington Windsor Series, 2) 
Alice James
Solaris, 23 May 2023
Available as: PB, 298pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786188403

I'm grateful to Alice James herself for sending me an e-copy of Grave Danger to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

I was SO glad to see Alice's "rural fantasy" (modern supernatural, but not urban) continue into another volume. We pick up Lavington (Toni) Windsor's story six months on from the end of the previous book. It's a bleak January, and whole everyone's favourite Staffordshire estate agent/ necromancer (it's in the family!) is settled into a regular routine, flogging property by day and raising the dead/ being with her vampire boyfriend Oscar by night. Toni is though struggling with her relationships - her menage with Oscar and his human partner Peter is problematic: Oscar wants to take her blood and allow her to 'ascend', Toni can't bear the thought.

So a spot of corpse raising to assist her policeman brother William investigate the death of a local schoolgirl sounds like a suitable distraction, but Toni has to be careful. While vampirism is now public and accepted, necromancy isn't - so Toni may draw attention to her talents in a way that may risk opening her activities up to unwelcome attention. 

As well as walking that tightrope, Toni is wary of attracting unwanted attention, lord of the local vampire Assemblage to which Oscar belongs. Benedict warned her off Oscar, and she distrusts him, but she also swore loyalty and is uncomfortably aware that she may as a result be required to intervene in local vampire/ human matters as a result.

I am really enjoying this series. 

Toni is, her nocturnal hobby aside, a refreshingly normal protagonist: she's not out to save the world or defeat dark powers, she enjoys a gossip with her girlfriends, enjoys splashing out on a new outfit when she gets a windfall and has to negotiate office politics (her boss is a bit handsy but otherwise nice). Toni also has a complex family legacy and is short of money (Oscar would help out but would it be wise to let him?) The crime side of the book is well developed mystery which Toni doesn't just jump into and try and solve, she's providing (covert) support for her brother and most of the investigation uses conventional methods with Toni's contribution having to be sneaked in by William. There's also a nicely developing relationship with the dashing Bredon Havers, Toni's favourite corpse to raise, who's seeming becoming younger and easier to call and I wonder where that is going to lead?

Grave Danger is therefore a fine read, a genuinely original, funny and in places sexy read (Toni's relationships are nothing if not full).

It is also, at times VERY dark read. Alongside the supernatural peril and crime, James explores issues of consent, abuse and control in relationships. She admits to a history of poor boyfriend choices, and as this second part of the series opens, is recognising that all is not what it should be with her current ones. It's another issue to be negotiated in a life that is becoming more and more complex and where moral boundaries are far from clear (negotiate with demons? REALLY?)

So there are aspects here which some readers may wish to be aware of before beginning the story, but I would say they are handled with sensitivity and importantly aren't gratuitously or justified because vampires: many of the vampires here would deplore such things.

Overall then, a book that left me wanting more.

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

23 May 2023

#Review - The Last Passenger by Will Dean

Cover for book "The Last Passenger" by Will Dean. A cracked porthole glass, through which we see a rough sea and a grey sky.
The Last Passenger
Will Dean
Hachette, 11 May 2023
Source: Advance e-copy
Available as: HB, 496pp, audio, e
ISBN(HB): 9781529382822

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Last Passenger via NetGalley to consider for review.

I loved this book. 

But having read it, I'm not sure I would ever step aboard a liner or a cruise ship (we're told several times that the RMS Atlantica is the former and that there is a difference, but frankly, I'll not take the risk).

The story is narrated from the perspective of Caz Ripley, owner of a café in a small town in Northern England who is, with her boyfriend Pete, taking the trip of a lifetime. Caz has, as becomes clear, lived a hard life, learning to cope both with her gambling-addicted father, whose behaviour ruined the family, and her substance-addicted sister. Caz has come out on top, sort of, but only with a lot of struggle - and she is haunted by many demons.

Caz will face another hard struggle as the voyage of RMS Atlantica goes fatally wrong, leaving her the only person on board an out of control ship. She will have to dig deep to survive, and it will be as much a psychological as a physical struggle. 

I loved the way that in this struggle, Dean takes a perfectly ordinary seeming situation and plausibly turns it upside down. It would be spoilery to tell you what has happened, and in fact the exact details are only supplied gradually, leaving a teasing mystery - is there a plausible way out of this or not? Whether there is will depend not only on Dean's setup but on Caz's courage, resourcefulness and her appetite for danger. It may be that she's inherited fatal flaws form her gambler father...

While is slightly frustrating not to be able to give more detail about what happens, this really is a book you don't want spoiled, with shocks and twists right through. It succeeds though on its characters, especially, of course, Caz whose own history may give her the ability to win through. Or may doom her to destruction. The others we meet are understably less well defined, but Dean has some surprises there to, playing games with our sympathies - it would be dangerous to pick favourites, still less winners!

On the way to the cracking conclusion are plenty of scenes of utter terror, placing us in the position of a character who's enduring, and suffering extremes of cold, hunger and fear. It's a testament to the writing that each off these episodes reads as chillingly true: The Last Passenger had my heart racing and my Fitbit congratulating me on all the exercise I must be taking. There is a great sense of place - of the cold and dark on the unheated ship, of the thousands of metres of water beneath, the vast sky above, both elements deadly hostile and ready to confront Caz at any time.

All in all, a devastating thriller and more than enough to warn me off ever going after the "old grey Widow-maker".

For more information about The Last Passenger see the publisher's website here.

18 May 2023

#Review - Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway

Cover of book "Titanium Noir" by Nick Harkaway. All done in shades of red and black. Filling most of the cover, a bulky man in a dark coat, looking away from us. Behind him - in direct view - a syringe, needle pointing upwards. the barrel resembles a skyscraper. In front of it are shapes which might be further tall buildings, or smaller figures.
Titanium Noir
Nick Harkaway
Hachette, 18 May 2023
Available as:  HB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781472156938

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me a free advance e-copy of Titanium Noir to consider for review.

The title of this book is particularly apt. The noir is real. 

Cal Sounder is a typical outsider detective, a loner - but not exactly though choice - scraping a living on the mean streets. The book features femmes fatales, a powerful company that seems to pretty much own the city, and cops who have negotiable allegiances. There are shady nightclubs, down-at-heel offices and a deep lake apt for hiding bodies.

It also has... giants.

In what I took to be a near-future world - while seamy and hardscrabble, there are mitigations in place against global heating: for example electric vehicles, and the wealthy can afford the filters needed to extract the carbon so they can enjoy a log fire - a wonder drug called Titanium-7 can heal all ills, at the cost (or with the side benefit) of boosting growth and strength. Those who have taken the drug once are stronger and larger, those who have had two or three courses are the Titans, huge, powerful, and longlived. The only problem is, the drug is also titanically expensive, and with its recipients essentially immortal, there are implicatiions to creating too many of them. This moral problem, of an ongoing 'speciation' separating Titans from common humanity, is an ethical dilemma that haunts the story.

Sounder's speciality is, in many respects, managing this issue. He earns his living keeping Titans in line, mediating between them and between them and humanity, preventing things getting too heated too quickly. Neither a cop nor a traditional PI, he's called in when a scientist is murdered, a scientist who just happens to be a Titan...

The story that then develops is a delightful mosaic of the hard-boiled and the fantastical. Cal's backstory, which is gradually revealed, shows him to have feet in both the human and titan camps, with consequent vulnerabilities - and secrets. The price of digging into the case may be to touch some delicate toes, not least those of Stefan Tonfamecasca, the billionaire owner of T7. But it may also lead back to Cal's own scruffy front door, and his relationship with a member of the Tonfamecasca clan.

Titanium Noir was for me a delight to read, whether I was enjoying Cal's hard-boiled affect, seeing him get way WAY in deeper then he realises, or enjoying him hustle his way out of danger in the underside of the city. In the course of all this Harkaway takes us to some truly memorable scenes, whether a club where anything goes, a revolutionary commune or the (underground?) lair of a monstrous crime boss. There's a lot of riffing off the classics with talk of being sent to the bottom of the lake wearing concrete overshoes, wisecracking goons, and Sounder seen by both cops and villains as an irritating but necessary part of the furniture. That gives him a narrow and tortuous safety zone if he wants to reach the end of the book, and also a narrow line which he manages to (mostly) walk between hope and despair, corruption and martyrdom. Because somebody has to, right?

HIGHLY recommended, and great fun.

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

16 May 2023

#Review - The Bone Shard War by Andrea Stewart

Cover for book The Bone Shard War by Andrea Stewart. Purple background. At the top, a stylised crown, carved of bone. On left and right, also carved in bone, representations of serpentine dragons, curling waves, and ships.
The Bone Shard War  (Drowning Empire, 3)
Andrea Stewart
Orbit, 20 April 2023 
Available as: HB, 614pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356515038

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of The Bone Shard War to consider for review. I have taken a little longer than I would have liked to review this cracking book, due mainly to some unforeseen life events.

The Bone Shard War gives us the endgame to the struggle between Lin, last survivor of the Sukai dynasty, Empress of the Phoenix Empire, bone magician, and her enemies. These include Shardless Few rebels, the resurgent Alanga magicians, and numerous restive island governors. Wild cards in this contest include Jovis, Lin's onetime Captain of the Guard and lover, who has disappeared, the fanatic Alanga Ragan, and Nisong (surely one of the most hateful characters in fiction?) More welcome for me were Phalue and her wife Ranami who typify the contradictions and changing allegiances in these books. Phalue is the daughter of an island governor. She worked with the Shardles Few and overthrew her father. Ranami is a former gutter urchin who fell for Phalue and supports her in trying to make her island a better, more just place but rejects the bloodthirsty cast the Shardless Few have taken under it "new" leader, Dione.

If you've been reading this series - and actually there's no excuse for you if you haven't - you'll be familiar with this cast of characters and keen to see how things turn out. I can promise that The Bone Shard War is fully up to the standards of the previous parts, that some mysteries which have been there from the start - such as why islands keep sinking - are resolved and that the ending was for me both exciting and fitting.

If you haven't been reading the series, then to persuade you to go back and do it, I will say that you have a treat waiting in The Bone Shard War. The book has everything. Lin is an Empress trapped by tradition and society, wanting reform but tramelled by the powers of the magnates under her, and also faced with numerous challenges and potential crises - sinking islands, an outbreak of disease, rebellious dignitaries who don't respect her, and uprisings everywhere. Also, her friend and lover seems to have taken up arms against her.

These are complex books, pitting duty against love, revenge against justice, order and tradition against reform and renewal, and turning on the power of secrets and lies to shape events. Part of Lin's problem is simply not knowing enough - about the Alanga magic, about her own ancestors, the Sukais, and how they came to power, about the bone shard magic that she has learned to use and about the intentions of Ragan, Diana and Nisong. The problem these three antagonists, each of them powerful, have is that they don't trust each other. They are right not to. Each has quite different motives and intentions and while they move in and out of alliances with one another - always keeping an eye on the clamour of a confused mob of supporters - none ever has the advantage for long.

Aside from being an excellent and well-written character study, then, The Bone Shard War is an extremely strategic book, one in which nobody has very much time or the whole picture and we see everyone here having to make hurried decisions and live with the consequences against a murky and shifting backdrop. Sometimes those decisions are hard to bear - there is a lot of sacrifice here - and, as I have said, sometimes duty weighs against personal desires. It makes for a heady ending to the trilogy and it all feels very, well, real.

Written with great verve, this is a flowing and powerful story that absorbs from the first page to the last. I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about The Bone Shard War, see the publisher's website here

11 May 2023

#Review - The Other Lives of Miss Emily White by AJ Elwood

Cover for book "The Other Lives of Miss Emily White" by AJ Elwood. In the centre, the title, in a black disc. Around the disc, a lighter annulus in which is repeated a standing figure in a black dress. Around that, various motifs: an open book, a skull, an artist's palette.
The Other Lives of Miss Emily White  
AJ Elwood
Titan Books, 11 April 2023
Available as: PB, 317pp,  e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803363707

I'm grateful to Titan Books for sending me a copy of The Other Lives of Miss Emily White to consider for review.

AJ Elwood/ Alison Littlewood is of course a master of suspense whether in a modern or a historical setting, so I was expecting great things from The Other Lives of Miss Emily White, but I have to say this story surpassed even them.

Introduced by Ivy, an elderly woman living alone in the 1920s, the action takes place 60 years before in an unremarkable Yorkshire Victorian girls' school, a slightly down at heel establishment devoted to applying some polish to young ladies so that they can find themselves husbands. The teenage Ivy is a farmer's daughter who's looked down on by her snobbish classmates - and there's a whiff of scandal about her. Children can, of course, be very cruel and while there's little overt bullying here, Ivy is very much a target. She recalls how how poverty brought her to this place and what it means to her to have been wrenched from her happy life and especially from her sister, Daisy.

The arrival of a new teacher, Miss White/ Madam Blanc, brings drama to Miss Dawson's Seminary from the very beginning. Drama, tragedy, and the malign attention of Ivy's peers as they sense a potential victim in the young schoolmistress. So begins a battle of wills, made more confusing and dangerous by apparent sightings of Miss White in places where she's not.

There are secrets here - secrets belonging to Ivy, secrets belonging to Sophia, Miss White's chief tormentor, and secrets belonging to Miss White herself. Secrets, and layers of pretence. The farmers' daughters being made into gentlewomen. The horse, painted with a blaze to resemble his dead predecessor. The solidly English teachers, always called by French names. Perhaps, too, a level of pretence so fundamental that it's subconscious, invisible to those taking part. 

Pretence, and doublings. Around them swirl the currents of emotions of those young ladies, isolated from their families and being moulded into something they're not - the book opens with a chilling prospectus written by Erasmus Darwin, setting out how girls are to be educated. You can sense the  contradictions and the turmoil. Who, exactly, is Miss White? What are her intentions regarding Ivy? What are Ivy's intentions, if it comes to that? Just what is going on? It's a deeply uneasy setting even more a whiff of the supernatural appears...

I felt this story really captured the confusions of late childhood/ early adulthood, an age when reality is malleable and outrageous fancies may be spun into truth. That, and a sense of hauntedness, drive a taut and lingering horror story that will remain with you long after you close the book.

For more information about The Other Lives of Miss Emily White, see the publisher's website here.

9 May 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen

Cover for book "Thirty Days of Darkness" by Jenny Lund Madsen. View over water towards a wintry landscape of low buildings. In the foreground, the triangular gable of a dark, wooden building. In the central of the gable, a single window, it with reddish light, through which is visible a woman working at a laptop.
Thirty Days of Darkness (translated by Megan Turney)
Jenny Lund Madsen
Orenda Books, 25 May 2023, 
Available as: HB, 321pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 978191458616

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

I was so much looking forward to this one - even just from the cover (yes, I know, don't judge a book by its cover, but who doesn't...) which delivered one of my favourite visual tropes, a lit window at night. The synopsis entices too - a literary author taking up the challenge to write crime, travelling to a remote corner of Iceland to do it, and stumbling across the real thing...

Hannah, the litfic darling at the centre of this book, the Danish author of sparse and plotless high fiction, is that controversial thing, an unlikeable main character. Confessedly alcoholic, she seems to be going through "issues" most of which Jenny Lund Madsen keeps from us though alcoholic Hannah is clearly also suffering from writer's block and from envy of the massively successful crime star Jørn Jensen. It all comes to a head at a book fair when she starts throwing things at him. Only the intervention of her editor Bastian, who converts the spat into a publicity opportunity, saves the day - but leaving her with that commitment to write a crime novel in 30 days. But anyone can do that, right?

I suspect many readers of this review (hi, both of you! Hope you're keeping well!) would sympathise with my view here that, no, we shouldn't be dissing anyone's choice of reading. So haughty Hannah is already edging into unlikeability before she starts insulting her placid landlady (who's driven six hours to collect her from the airport). 

Yet there is something about Hannah. She has a fatal and almost endearing tendency to rush into actions and situations without thinking, resulting in either toe-curling embarrassment (as with Ella the landlady), or actual danger (once the killings begin, and Hannah decides to investigate - it's not clear whether that is more from simple morbid curiosity, or a need for inspiration, though the latter certainly features). Sometimes the result is both embarrassment and peril.

And actually, it's not as though Hannah does a great deal better when she does think it all through. The best you can say is that, perhaps, she doesn't follow through the most outlandish of her ideas. They do though give the book a bit of a comedic edge, and by the end you may have a bit of respect for the forbearance shown her by the people of Húsafjörður.

That comedy shouldn't though distract from a thread of genuine darkness that threads through the core of this book. The title may refer to the dark days of midwinter, but as Hannah comes closer and closer to the truth of the situation she will discover it in the people of Húsafjörður too and begin to suspect everyone of being part of it.

Thirty Days of Darkness didn't disappoint me. In Hannah, Jenny Lund Madsen has given us a vividly portrayed and complex character whom I hope to meet again. The book recognises the expectations that have been generated by the wave of Scandi-noir - both for its readers and for those who get caught up in the events described. Indeed, Jørn's comments about how a crime novel ought to be constructed address both, as the story Hannah is writing gets tangled up with the "actual" events in Húsafjörður. Another layer is added by Hannah's reading an ancient Icelandic saga which has things to say about honour, vengeance and power.

All in all, a rather distinctive novel that makes full use of Hannah as its protagonist to approach the crime genre from a new angle.

Also, great fund to read - Megan Turney's English translation has to cope with a myriad of challenges: Hannah and the people she meets are mainly communicating in English, but not all of the latter are totally proficient and Ella, for example, tends to write rather than speak, with a lot of Icelandic left in. But the result is smooth and readable while accented just enough to recognises the different voices and languages in use here.

For more information about Thirty Days of Darkness, 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 Thirty Days of Darkness from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

4 May 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Skin Deep by Antonia Lassa

Skin Deep
Antonia Lassa (translated by Jacky Collins)
Corylus Books, 30 April 2023 
Available as: PB, 136pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781739298906 

I'm grateful to Corylus for sending me a copy of Skin Deep to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

About the Book - from the Publisher

When police arrest eccentric loner Émile Gassiat for the murder of a wealthy woman in a shabby seaside apartment in Biarritz, Inspector Canonne is certain he has put the killer behind bars. Now he just needs to prove it. But he has not reckoned with the young man’s friends, who bring in lawyer-turned-investigator Larten to head for the desolate out-of-season south-west of France to dig deep into what really happened. 

Larten’s hunt for the truth takes him back to the bustle of Paris as he seeks to demonstrate that the man in prison is innocent, despite all the evidence - and to uncover the true killer behind a series of bizarre murders.

Skin Deep is Antonia Lassa’s first novel to appear in English.

My review

Skin Deep is a short but addictive novella, of a length to gobble down in one or two sittings and written with an urgency which kept me wanting to know more. We're introduced to several spiky, interesting characters and I relished the way that the detective we meet first - Canonne, sparring irritably with the new know-it-all pathologist while lamenting his own dental problems - isn't, in the end, the focus of the story.

Rather, we're led to two equally - or even more - intriguing personalities. 

There's Larten, the private investigator and former lawyer, who operates from his mobile home - he likes to drive it to the scenes of his enquiries - which contains his office and wine cellar. And then there's Gassiat himself, the suspect, who shows an odd reluctance to talk, despite the legal danger he's in. What does he do on his mysterious nighttime boating trips? Is he a heartless gigolo, preying on elderly ladies - as Canonne believes? - or is there something stranger going on? Larten's investigation turns on his ability to walk the streets and uncover facts, but even more, on a sensibility he has which Lassa conveys as almost eerie, a sensibility for people and a willingness to see more than others do. It may be related to a certain unconventionality Larten shows (not giving details because I think the reader should discover this themself but he has depths to him! I felt of him as something of an outsider and one with a degree of daring, giving him a perspective that eludes those who exist in a more mundane rut.

Whatever, this is an excellent mystery, one which also poses questions about relationships, about convention and the value - or not - of appearances. It also examines our need for love and how that makes us vulnerable, while moving between superbly rendered locations in Paris and on the southern coast of France, as summer fades away and winter rolls in.

Great fun to read, and - when they ultimately come on the stage - there is a truly despicable villain here, see if you can spot who it is!

About the Author

Born in Paris, Antonia Lassa is an enologist who works as a consultant for different private wineries around the world. This passion for wine has been instilled in her singular detective Albert Larten, for whom each new investigation is like a meticulous tasting. Wine is savoured through the eyes, the nose and the mouth, just like the crimes found in Skin Deep, with readers being invited to get involved with their five senses.

Antonia Lassa is the pseudonym of Luisa Etxenike.

About the Translator

Dr. Jacky Collins, lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at Stirling University, is the Festival Director for Newcastle Noir. As ‘Dr Noir’ she regularly interviews a range of internationally acclaimed and emerging crime fiction authors at national and international events. Her series of author ‘consultations’ on the Newcastle Noir YouTube channel - The Doctor Will See You Now - is where lovers of everything crime fiction can catch up on news about latest publications.

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

2 May 2023

#Blogtour #Review - #MoscowExile by John Lawton

Moscow Exile (Joe Wilderness, 4)
Cover for book "Moscow Exile" by John Lawton. Black and while photograph. In the foreground, a man with his back to us, long coat, hands held behind his back, tousled hair. he is looking at a building in the middle distance: perhaps an Orthodox church, with an onion dome surmounted by a cross, another cross visible under a row of arches to the man's left.
John Lawton
Grove Press UK, 4 May 2023, 
Available as: HB, 435pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781804710098

I'm grateful to Ayo for sending me a copy of Moscow Exile to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Moscow Exile is a treat, featuring as it does both Joe Wilderness and Inspector Troy (well, ex-Inspector Troy now) and fleshing out their complicated world. That world exists in a web of relationships which cuts between politics, Society, and espionage, meanwhile  hacking into the private corridors, the dining rooms, and some seedy motels of the mid 20th century.

The book covers lots of ground both physically and temporally. We visit Winston Churchill's inner circle in his wilderness years (no pun intended). There's the Attlee and Wilson Labour governments,  postwar Washington in its pomp, with the US still a rising power, and late 60s Moscow, the USSR's decay well advanced. 

Tying all this together are two fascinating characters. Charlie Leigh-Hunt, field agent for MI6 and a bit of a rogue (he has a scam going passing useless intel back to the KGB, for cash) is posted suddenly to Moscow to replace the disgraced Guy Burgess. (But replace him as what, exactly?) Charlotte Mayer-Churchill, a socialite who burns through husbands like party candles, formerly accompanied HG Wells on his travels, including to Moscow, and her Washington parties are now legendary. The story that emerges when the two meet dovetails with Lawton's previous evolving world, forming part of a work that begins to remind me of CP Snow's Strangers and Brothers sequence, but for espionage rather than straight politics. (I don't think you'd get a Cold War prisoner swap on Glienicke Bridge in Snow, still less that that goes as spectacularly wrong wrong as this).

That said... yes, I say "for espionage" but the thing about this sequence is that while the context, the legend, to borrow a spooky term, may be espionage (and related forms of criminality) what's really going on here is much more about the heart. These books form a wonderfully nested collection of personal stories. For example, the motivations for shifting loyalties, as exposed here, are deeply labyrinthine. A spy's work-life balance must permit some happiness, mustn't it? Some downtime, some compensation? The various British figures seen here, caught in the amber of 60s Moscow, are all caught in enforced downtime. Whether they sought to be there or are trapped by circumstances, whether they are wanted there by their Soviet hosts, or wherever their residence will be permanent or short term, they are all, as it were, on the bench, watching the game but not playing it. How they deal with that struggle, some adapting well, some consumed by homesickness (for a home that no longer exists), by drink, or regret - it's all finely nuanced and meticulously explored.

The focus here is on the intimate, on people not big events, and the victories and defeats chronicle here for the different factions of spooks are marginal ones at best, the particular intelligence scooped up and passed on pretty much anonymous and the results of betrayal by this asset or exposure of that one far form there centre of the story. It's the people that matter, their histories, choices and plans as much as they're worth in an exchange or left in place. 

I felt everybody - will nearly everybody, perhaps not Senator Redmaine, the leftie-baiting McCarthy like figure who features in the second quarter of the book - was treated with some sympathy. Equally, nobody has completely clean hands: events which have been described in earlier books leave them all compromised or trapped, unable to rise to every occasion as they might wish. From racketeering in post war Berlin to scams such as the one Charlie is running here to outright murder, there are secrets here which also have a value and it's anybody's guess how long they will remain secrets.

All in all, an absorbing, intricate and beautifully paced thriller which I greatly enjoyed reading.

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