29 June 2023

#Review - The Shadow Dancers of Brixton Hill by Nicole Willson

Book "The Shadow Dancers of Brixton Hill" by Nicole Willson. Three young women dancing, but their shadows don't fall where you'd expect.
The Shadow Dancers of Brixton Hill    
Nicole Willson
Cemetery Gates Media, 13 June 2023 
Available as: PB 109pp, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9798395159861

I'm grateful to Cemetery Gates Media for sending me a copy of The Shadow Dancers of Brixton Hill to consider for review.

The Shadow Dancers of Brixton Hill is a deliciously creepy horror story set in the 1930s US at a time when small family circuses are struggling in the face of the losses caused by the Depression and of competition from emerging bigger players. To the unease caused by that background of financial pressure, Willson adds a less definable sense of menace, of  otherness, of possibility, inherent in the atmosphere of the big tent or the jumble behind the stage. This is focussed on a truly eerie performance in which three young women have learned to control and direct their own shadows.

Under the direction and control of their sinister trainer and impresario Lewis Oswald, Abigail, Camilla and Rose seem set to storm the cirrus world. Yet it seems as though all isn't well. Kate Montgomery, who has travelled down to Brixton Hill to engage them for her father's circus, has concerns - concerns which seem to be borne out as she learns more about the conditions under which the three women were "acquired" by Oswald and trained, and under which they live. The story gives us a grim account of a world in which the careless rich get whatever they want, facilitated by those desperate to curry favour, while the poor, the outsiders, survive as they must. Even Oswald has seen better days and in his haste to stave off his creditors he really doesn't seem to have his performers' best interest at heart.

I won't say any more about the turn things take, because the ending of this story absolutely should come as a surprise. What I will say is that Willson nails it perfectly, leaving the reader - well, me at least - with complex emotions about where things are going.

I strongly recommend this book, which comes with a bonus story, Willson's Angels with Broken Wings, a delicious account of a family at war with itself...

For more information about The Shadow Dancers of Brixton Hill, see the publisher's website here. You can order the book from Amazon US here or Amazon UK here.

27 June 2023

#Review - Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang

Cover for book "Yellowface" by Rebecca F Kuang. A plain yellow cover, A pair of cartoonish eyes peer to the left.
Rebecca F Huang
Borough Press, 25 May 2023 
Available as: HB, 319pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008532772

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance e-copy of Yellowface via Netgalley to consider for review.

Yellowface is an enthralling thriller that explores online culture, the publishing world and the modern landscape of cultural debates about racism, privilege and appropriation. 

June Hayward is a mediocre US white writer who has struggled to get any marketing heft behind her recent debut novel. Her friend Athena Liu, who is of East Asian heritage, is in contrast seen as something of a literary darling. We will discover that the two women have history - through the book there's a progressive unveiling of their lives, their histories, their rivalry and most of all, the hidden places of their "friendship". For Athena, it is thought too late as the event that sets everything moving is her sudden and tragic death. This is witnessed by June - who takes the opportunity to steal the first draft of Athena's next book, a harrowing story of Chinese labourers working on the Western Front in the First World War. 

June feels she's owed something (exactly why, is one of those discoveries) but she also thinks she can improve the draft and she gradually persuades herself as she does so that it's a joint project, that she's honouring Athena by bringing her last novel to the world as it really should be. First, though, a few things need to change. There's an, actually quite funny, sequence where we begin to see the seeds of June's later downfall as she makes those "improvements" - for example, replacing Chinese names heedless of the cultural context or introducing incongruous elements to the story (and that's even before the publishers get their hands on it).

"June's book" is at first a great success, selling by the cartload and earning her unimagined wealth, but it can only be a matter of time before questions are asked, especially since she's been ambiguously repackaged as "Juniper Song". When it becomes clear that she's white, critiques begin to appear - followed by rumours about who really wrote the novel. The resulting online controversy is of course painfully redolent of several recent literary scandals - you can supply the names and details if you've spent any time hanging around book Twitter - and the moves and countermoves, the attempts at justification and positioning, the consequences, will be very familiar too. 

As things got worse and worse, I did have some sympathy for June. What she's done is of course indefensible, but it is also clear that she is very vulnerable - rather alone in the world, and suffering from poor mental health that leaves her ill equipped to cope with her situation: rather she retreats to bed and scrolls in horror through the online rage, unable to turn away. Through all of this, she does though come across as very naive. It's not only that she should have realised that what she was doing was wrong, and how things were likely to go, but she has a complete inability to read the room, as it were. For example, pressed by her publisher for a further work to publish, to demonstrate that she can write for herself and so underpin her credibility as the author of The Last Front, she's out of ideas. Despite the obvious pitfalls, she treks off to Washington's Chinatown and plops herself down in a Chinese restaurant to interrogate the staff about their ideas (after all she's already accumulated so much background on China and Chinese people, she might as well put it to good use, right?)

It's as though June is incapable of learning from what has happened - and indeed she compounds the situation, leading to situations which were actually quite painful to read: relationships destroyed, reputations ruined. But through all this, it's not, in the end, those aspects which get through to June. No, what begins to nag at her is the sense that Athena isn't gone, that she might be trying to get in touch... and of course she's not happy. This is where June really begins to go off the rails, and where the thriller element of the book comes to the fore...

Yellowface is an engaging, entertaining book that dramatises the kind of notorious public debate that seems to be occurring more and more often. In portraying things from the inside, there's room for a degree of nuance - for example Kuang is able to show how despite her celebrity, things were far from rosy for Athena, her heritage pigeonholing her in the eyes of her publishers and dictating her material even when she might want to write about something else. (They're more able to accommodate June, as a white woman, writing about Chinese themes than they do Athena wanting to broaden her range). 

If you were thinking that, as there's almost a script for this sort of controversy the book might seem too predictable, then be reassured, Kuang keeps the surprises coming, both rooting what happens in June's, and Athena's, earlier relationship and also in June's current, rather scatty, network of family and friends. The fact that June is rather a heedless person, acting without thinking, produces some positively toe-curling situations (as when she takes it upon herself to mentor an upcoming American-Asian writer), the more so because at times she seems utterly unaware of herself and of how she might be seen by others. (At others, though, she certainly does know what she's about - I think there might be a touch of unreliable narrator in places with the text we read reflecting her self-justications and rationalisations).

A thought provoking and, to me, often eye-opening book with I'd strongly recommend. (Though I have spotted that this one seems to polarise opinion - for an excellent, but more negative, view, see Reader at Work blog here).

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

23 June 2023

#Blogtour #Review - The Fascination by Essie Fox

Cover for book "The Fascination" by Essie Fox. An intricate design, done in blue and gold. The design features a series of concentric hexagons radiating from the centre of the cover. In the resulting bands blue and gold alternately predominate, the detail featuring swans' necks and delicate wings as well as bullrushes.
The Fascination
Essie Fox
Orenda Books, 22 June 2023 
Available as: HB, 305pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781914585524

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

The Victorian era. Where can one even begin in drawing out its themes, its achievements, its darknesses? Perhaps Charles Dickens, in the famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities, sums it up well by listing a series of contradictions (the best of times, the worst of times...) Yes, I know Dickens was writing about pre-Victorian France, not Victorian England, but aren't all writers working with an eye to their own time? 

One might certainly think so in Essie Fox's new novel which, to me, casts a cool eye over an age of reason, progress and confidence: but also one of superstition, fear and vast social inequality. Highlighting the outsiders on the fringes of society - the travellers, the fairground folk, the "freaks" who offend against a rigid idea of nomality and the misfits who don't have a place in the highly structured social order - The Fascination shows both the freedoms such people could enjoy and the price that might be demanded.

The story is told from two viewpoints - those of Keziah and of Theo. Keziah, with her twin sister Tilly, suffers early in the story when her mother dies. Her father, a rather feckless drunk, takes up a new way of life as a travelling peddler of quack medicines, using the two (identical, except that Tilly stopped growing at the age of five) as part of his sales pitch. 

Theo is the orphaned grandson of dissolute Lord Seabrook, who keeps a private collection of horror and curiosities which both fascinate and repel the boy.

The face of author Essie Fox, a white woman with dark hair
Essie Fox
Both the sisters and Theo are eventually cast out - the girls sold at the fair in a scene reminiscent of The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Theo dispensed with when Seabrook takes up with a new woman who gives him a son and heir. One of the joys to me of this book is Fox's willingness to use such tropes (banishment, inheritance) of Victorian melodrama - and, as the story develops, gothic - but in an intelligent and knowing way that supports, rather than distracting from, the story. So, the shop and museum of horrors owned by Dr Summerwell, where Theo eventually finds employment, is not just a grotesque flourish but has a deep connection with events here, suggesting a hidden side to Victorian society within which all kinds of dark things can flourish.

I wouldn't though want to overemphasise that darkness. Fox's villains are grotesque, but the main characters are an intelligent, resourceful, motivated and above all, loving, group of outcasts who live in a little community in Chiswick. The bustling London world may shun them - except when it wants a "freak" as the centrepiece to a pantomime or to perform at a fair - but they have a respect for each other and a sense of interdependence and trust that is heartwarming. Nor are they afraid to challenge the conventions or double standards of that wider society - Keziah for example taking great pleasure from a copy of Fanny Hill that comes into her hands.

The Fascination is a story which explores Victorian society in some depth, but more importantly it's a book that tells a vivid and engaging story with plenty of shocks and surprises - and which is written with great heart and soul. I'd strongly recommend it.

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

You can buy The Fascination from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books,  Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for book "The Fascination"

22 June 2023

#Blogtour - The Moose Paradox by Anti Tuomainen in Paperback!

Cover for book "The Moose Paradox" by Antti Tuomainen. Against a blue background, a man in a business suit hangs by one hand from the antlers of an enormous moose.
The Moose Paradox (Rabbit Factor Trilogy, 2)
Anti Tuomainen (trans David Hackston)
Source: Advance copy
Orenda Books, 22 June 2023
Available as: PB, 261pp, audio, e
ISBN(PB): 9781914585357

I'd delighted to be re-sharing my review of The Moose Paradox, which was published in hardback last year to celebrate its paperback publication today. As ever I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of The Moose Paradox to consider for review, and to Anne for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Pity poor Henri Koskinen. In the sequel to The Rabbit Factor, he has inherited YouMeFun, the adventure park founded (and laden with debts) by his deceased brother, Juhani. After much hard work by Henri, YouMeFun's finances are turning round and he thinks he may be able to take a breather and think of the future - until calamity strikes in the form of an attempt on his life.

As events unspool, it seems as though, even from the grave, Juhani is able to create complications for Henri, and financial acumen won't be enough to solve them. With attempted extortion, commercial sharp practice, a striking workforce and suspicious police on the prowl, how will Henri ever be able to do that forward planning - still less find a bit of quality time to spend with Laura Helanto, the former YouMeFun manager with whom he's thoroughly besotted?

I absolutely loved The Moose Paradox. (The name refers to a top-of-the-range new bit of equipment which Henri wants to secure to keep the park at the forefront of the Helsinki leisure scene). Henri is a very atypical protagonist - not a man of action, but a man of numbers, of figures and calculations. He's perhaps a bit odd, but Tuomainen makes him much more than a 2D eccentric, an outsider or a wimp. Henri watches, gathers information and makes plans. He acts. His realationship with Laura Helanto isn't hopeless, unrequited love, it's a mutual thing which (with its frustrations and misunderstandings) blossoms through the book and is portrayed movingly. 

Laura is also clearly drawn and I really enjoyed the scene when Henri, expressing himself in the best way he can, sets out his feelings for her in terms of percentages and she, rather than laughing at this, picks up the same language - producing one of the most bizarre yet touching conversations I've read in recent fiction.

Aside from all the business dealings, there is also something very odd and sinister going, setting up a mystery that Henri will have to solve if he is to keep the park afloat, indeed, if he s to survive. But with the police taking an interest he may not have much time or freedom of action. The darkly humorous crime plot here keeps the story humming along nicely, in an atmosphere reminiscent of one of the more madcap Ealing comedies - think Kind Hearts and Coronetscrossed with Scandi noir, perhaps.

There is a fine cast of supporting characters - the employees of the park, its unlikely new manager and the sinister owners of Toy of Finland, the company from which Henri wants to source the moose ride and who are behaving very oddly in the negotiations.  But really, it's Henri who steals the show. Clearly he's been the slighted, ignored brother, and in a sense taking over the park gave him his chance too shine, to come out from behind the ledgers and spreadsheets. Now it's all threatened, he has choices to make and we see quite a different side of him.

Recommended, whether you're already a Tuomainen/ Rabbit Factor fan or not. The Moose Paradox is perfectly readable as a standalone but obviously does gain if you've read the previous book. The translation by David Hackston is dryly humorous where it needs to and always lucid, serving this story very well and taking in its stride some little points of language that must have been very tricky to render.

For more information about The Moose Paradox, see the other stops on the tour or the Orenda website here.

You can buy The Moose Paradox from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

20 June 2023

#Review - The Sword Defiant by Gareth Hanrahan

Book "The Sword Defiant" by Gareth Hanrahan. A white man with neck length dark hair and a short beard stands half turned to his left, his face in profile. In this right hand he holds a broadsword, its blade down. The man's heard is tilted down and he is wearing plate armour. The blade of the sword glows red and bears symbols or runes. In the background, a vague chaos of mounted warriors and ruined buildings.
The Sword Defiant
Gareth Hanrahan
Orbit, 4 May 2023
Available as: PB, 551pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy & audio subscription
ISBN(PB): 9780356516530

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of The Sword Defiant to consider for review. I also listened to part of the book on audio, which it suits well (the Sword's voice especially is magnificently conceited and evil).

The Sword Defiant is a gritty fantasy novel that takes a wonderfully fresh approach to the Quest Against the Dark Lord. 

You know the one - a powerful wielder of magic stretches out his withered arm over the land, threatening all. 

The Strong don't recognise the threat, or are diverted by their rivalries, so it falls to a band of lowly adventurers to bring down the evil through their endurance, mutual loyalty, courage and guile. 

Once they do this, the evil vanquished, all can live in peace and freedom.

Well, not here. Hanging his story off a stray line of Tolkien - in which, if I recall correctly, JRRT was rather testily pointing out that Lord of the Rings was not an allegory of WWII: if it had been, the Ring would have been used "and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied"- this book doesn't focus on the Quest - though there are flashbacks and we hear some of the legends, ridiculously embellished, recounted - but on the aftermath.

Twenty years after the Nine defeated Lord Bone, his city of Necrad is occupied by the League (Elves, Dwarves and Men in uneasy alliance) but also still inhabited by Witch Elves, Wraiths, Vatlings and other servants of Lord Bone - many of them resentful and nostalgic for the good old days. Rather than Bone's sorcery having been destroyed, magical secrets are hoarded by the League, and so also openly (though illegally) traded.

The Nine have fared variously. Magician Blaise has taken Bone's tower and studies his secrets. Thief Berys runs her own smuggling racket. Aelfric (Alf), the swordsman, stays in Necrad to fight the horrors living in the pits below it until, numbed by the horrors he saw there, he drifts off into the wilderness, carrying Bone's sword, a thing of evil which whispers to him incessantly.

The story gets moving when Alf's nephew, Derwyn, discovers who his uncle - the hero told of in countless legends and songs - was, and sets out to find him, trailed by his mother Olva, Alf''s sister,  and her dog Cu. So, we have an Unexpected Journey here, and Hanrahan drops a number of other knowing Middle-Earth references which made me smile - allusions to a foreign country where the stars are strange, for example, and a frustrated dwarf who wonders if the lore she seeks may appear in lettering only visible by moonlight (though, Torun asks herself, what would be the point of that?)

More seriously, there clearly is a threat brewing but it's not yet clear what. And the team that won through twenty years ago is not what it was - fractured by rivalries, weariness and the temptations of peace. We're seeing things from wildly different perspectives - those of the world-weary Alf, the inexperienced but shrewd Olva and the star-struck Derwyn. It's possible they are all missing the point, somewhat, but the variety of outlooks allows Hanrahan a nuance of approach here which acknowledges that, well, the world just isn't simple. There isn't a single enemy at least not yet, and the fallout of the previous conflict has left a more or less colonial situation in the North where the oppressed Wilder are being driven off their land while the Witch Elves are sullenly resentful of their subjugation. I mean it as praise, but this is really a book where social policy and political compromise matter - especially if renewed war is to be averted.

But in a world where the earlier may have taken its toll, but is remembered rather in glorious in songs and stories, the easiest approach may always seem to be the sword with eager young knights ready to take up their weapons and earn their own songs. (In fact some of them are rather underwhelmed when they finally meet Alf - he's definitely not the Hero they expected).

It is a complex, subtle and morally chewy story which addresses head on a range of issues often - for perfectly good reasons - left out of classic fantasy, and Hanrahan really delivers on the concept, creating a believable and liveable world. 

I'm eager what the next book - Lands of the Firstborn - has in store!

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

15 June 2023

#Review - Death in Fine Condition by Andrew Cartmel

Death in Fine Condition  
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 6 June 2023 
Available as: PB, 336pp, audio, e  
Source: Purchased
ISBN(PB): 9781789098945

Fans of Cartmel's Vinyl Detective stories will feel at home with The Paperback Sleuth - not only does she (the Sleuth, Cordelia) live the same slightly raffish, hedonistic London lifestyle - there are plenty of descriptions of nice lunches and other activities here - but the story is set in the same universe, her path crossing with  those of familiar characters from the series.

The setup is thought slightly different. While the Detective tends to stumble on mysteries which sidetrack him from his vocation of sourcing rare records, pretty much everything that happens here arises form Cordelia's own, shall we call it, imaginative approach to property rights in the paperbacks which she craves (and deals in). We see this early when she's adding an author signature to a copy she plans to sell, but there's plenty more chicanery to come and it's this that places threatens Cordelia's safety, an outcome signalled several times in the book.

I loved Cordelia as a character, even if one can't approve of all (or much!) that she does. Her knowledge of classic pulp paperbacks is impeccable, as it her determination once she fixes on a goal. There's also a sense of naivety about what she might be getting into - Cartmel often lets the reader get a step or two ahead of her so there's the fun of seeing her catch up when things turn nasty and this does ramp up the tension. It's also fun seeing how she deals with several characters from Vinyl Detective, her relationships with them adding depth and nuance to the portrayal we're familiar with from those books. 

The Detective himself gets short shrift, dismissed as the unmemorable boyfriend of a woman that Cordelia rather fancies - as well as her passion for paperbacks, she's also got her eye an another woman, The Woman (do keep up!) who's seen, mysteriously, out and about as Cordelia goes about her business. She's as ruthless in that pursuit as she is with the books, the two strands providing plenty of entertainment, surprises and twists as the story moves towards its climax.

Overall, an engaging book which builds on the success of Vinyl Detective without simply becoming a cone of those stories.

For more information about Death in Fine Condition, see the publisher's website here.  

13 June 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Scarlet by Genevieve Cogman

Cover for book "Scarlet" by Genevieve Cogman. In the distance, a chateau on a hill. Bats wheel in the sky, and in the centre is a skull, with a French tricolour on each side. Above the skull, the words "France, 1793. Revolutionaries want blood. But vampires bite back."
Genevieve Cogman
Macmillan, date
Available as: HB, 320pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529083729

Today I'm belatedly posting my entry for the Scarlet blogtour, which due to an admin error with the post-it notes, didn't appear when it should have. I'm grateful to Black Crow for sending me a copy of Scarlet to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

When I saw this book coming I knew I would have to read it, having loved Cogman's Invisible Library alternate universe novels. And indeed in Eleanor we have a similar quiet seeming but really kickass heroine to Irene. But there's much more to Scarlet than that. I was also taken by the premise, and wondered how Cogman would tackle it. The book features the characters, and setting, of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel series (the first part of which was published in 1905) - an English nobleman and his friends acting anonymously to rescue French aristocrats from the Terror during the Revolution.

A secret hero is always an excellent premise, but I did wonder if the Pimpernel wasn't, well, just too dated. Sensibilities change over time and the Revolution is an interesting barometer of that. Like, I suspect, many, my knowledge of the earlier books is limited to the "They seek him here, they seek him there" couplet and the Carry On parody. (Is there a proper literary term for works better known from derivatives and parodies than from the original text?) In part I suspect that's because to modern eyes, the whole "rescuing nobility" thing just doesn't seem interesting, or particularly laudable. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity seem much more engaging, as Les Miserables has shown, and despite the excesses of the Terror, I find it much more objectionable that the French population was downtrodden and starved to the point that they felt a revolution might help them than that a few bigwigs lost their lives in that revolution.

Cogman is clearly well engaged with the contradictions here. Eleanor, a humble serving maid, is added to the aristocratic clique of The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, indeed she's a vital part of it. She may begin the book a "lowly maid" but she is fully the equal of her co-conspirators in courage, determination, resourcefulness and intelligence, and she also brings a well articulated social critique to the tale. One of the fascinating aspects of this book - and one that's very well done - is Eleanor's internal debate responding to the attitudes of those around her. She's been recruited by the League to assist in reaching Marie Antoinette and her children, as she bears an uncanny resemblance the "Austrian Woman". But Eleanor is very conscious of the downside of Regency Britain - and of France under the rule of the Kings - and she constantly weighs her sense that, no,  no it isn't right to execute a mother and her personal loyalty to her aristocratic friends with her knowledge that the French people had been treated unbearably. 

The interplay of personal relationships and political strands make this a book with philosophical as well as adventurous themes, and Eleanor's uncertain place in society (she was basically enlisted to a dangerous mission with no alternative given) gives it real emotional point. Succeed or fail, the aristocrats of the League have agency and will be celebrated, Eleanor faces an uncertain future even if she survives and at the worst, she may end up dead ion some dark cellar. Actually, that's not the worst because Cogman wanders from the merely historical to add a vampiric strand to the peril here. Besides being a neat encapsulation of the overmighty aristocrats (described as "sanguinocrats" by the Revolutionaries) the vampires add a genuinely disturbing strand to the tapestry of this story. It's one that will I suspect be further explored in sequels, because there seems to be some hidden backstory to the vampires that will surely come back and, er, bite our brave heroine. 

Or at least, they may try, but I suspect that Eleanor is up to the challenge. She's already coping here not only with the assumptions of her time - know your place and grateful to your master, but with the currents of Revolutionary France, and coming out pretty much on top.

I look forward to seeing where Cogman takes this story next.

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

8 June 2023

#Review - Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire

Cover for book "Lost in the Moment and Found". A scene of a dim, cluttered room in which shelves bear all kinds of random stuff (an old-fashioned gramophone horn is prominent). In the middle distance, a half open door gives onto vibrant greenery, light streaming into the dusty space.
Lost in the Moment and Found
Seanan McGuire
Macmillan/ Tor/ St Martin's Press, 21 February 2023
Available as: HB, 160pp, e, audio
Source: Audio subscription
ISBN (HB): 9781250213631

Apologies that I haven't given clear publisher details above - frankly, even eight books in, I'm still rather hazy about the identity of the publisher, or whether Lost in the Moment and Found is officially published in the UK at all. (It is certainly available as audio, which is how I read it).

Even after eight books, and several shorts, McGuire continues to break new ground with these stories. Lost in the Moment and Found is the story of Antsy, a young girl who, early on, seems in real peril from an adult. I don't want to spell out the nature of this, and would refer readers to the author's note - but I will say that McGuire handles the issue with great delicacy, never spelling out in the text what may happen but making it totally clear that someone here is trying to cross lines that ought not to be.

Anyway, long story short, Antsy is threatened and runs away. And she finds a Door. Readers of this series will know that Doors can lead to some wonderful places and take people to worlds that will welcome them, worlds they will fit with - but Antsy doesn't need a whole world, does she, she just needs a safe place where lost things such as her can be cherished?

That need perhaps takes us deeper than we have yet been into what I might call Doorology - the principles and workings of the Doors - why they appear (or don't), where they go - and the cost of using them. There have been some hints of that, but not, yet, a full account. Perhaps this still isn't a full account, but we do learn a lot, as does Antsy. It's frustrating to be writing this review because I don't want to give away all the magic, but I will say that this story raises questions about Doorology as well as providing answers and shows that things can go wrong, especially where fallible adults take a hand.

Antsy is especially raw where fallible adults are concerned and I have to say, my heart almost rose to my mouth when I understood the situation that she gets into here. Reading some of the earlier books I've been tempted to think, count me in, when one of Wayward Children finds their world (mine would be The Moors, or course). Lost in the Moment and Found presents a much darker take That corrective was probably due - it's too easy to think that everything will be write if you only step into the right world. I think McGuire's message has always been a bit subtler than that, to be fair, but Lost in... addresses this aspect the most clearly of any so far. I think.

Which is not to say it isn't fun. It's fun! There is wonder! There is joy! Like all these books, there are several levels of meaning, and simple, mischievous, childlike (NB childlike, not childish) amazement is part of the package too.

And while standalone, there are also callouts to the other boys, and eventually, a like of coming-home-but-not that promised more of Antsy and perhaps hints that some of those unresolved questions will be revisited and, er, resolved.

For more details about Lost in the Moment and Found here is the US Macmillan page for the book.

6 June 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Perilous Times by Thomas D Lee

Cover for book "Perilous Times" by Thomas D Lee. A dragon's tail curls about a tree. Behind and to the left, a castle. To the right, an industrial skyline with chimneys belching fumes into the sky. In front of the castle is a lake from which a hand reaches, holding a sword.
Perilous Times
Thomas D Lee
Orbit, 23 May 2023
Available as: HB, 534pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356518527

I'm grateful to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the Perilous Times blogtour and to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of the book to consider for review.

Drake is in his hammock an' a thousand miles away, sleeping until his country needs him... but Arthur sleeps in England, resting with his knights in a cave beneath Alderney Edge - a farmer once saw him when the wizard who wove the magic needed a last white horse. Or perhaps elsewhere, in Scotland where his seat overlooks the Parliament building, or Wales - or on the Island of Avalon, where the sweet apples grow, or before the High Altar at Glastonbury Abbey (but they dug him up!) There are hills, stones and barrows across this land associated with the sleeping king and while the stories about his life are confused and contradictory, all agree that he saved Britain - or tried to.

So go the legends, telling us that we are special, that Britan is guarded, protected. Whether Arthur is the exemplar of a mythical code of chivalry, or the leader of a post-Roman* warband, hardly matters. What he means changes from age to age as we change, and he can equally be a New Age archetype, the defender of the Greenwood and a spirit of of the ancient land...

...Or we can look closer, as Thomas D Lee does in this story of a gathering apocalypse, environmental, yes, but also hastened by the grey-faced oilmen and warmongers. In such times, do we need a war leader? Does Pendragon's record actually stand much scrutiny? Perilous Times is one of several books I've read lately that take a sceptical look. Here, things are narrated by Kay, Arthur's stepbrother, but we also meet Mariam, a young women of the early 21st century who's definitely not waiting for a white knight to gallop up to her on his horse.

Just as well because Kay isn't white and he doesn't have a horse (for most of the book). Kay has been bound by Merlin's magic to rise from the earth when summoned, or when England is in danger, and over the centuries he's become accustomed to clawing his way up from the mud to face slaughter, often at the command of those same grey faced men, one of whom also features in the story. Others of Arthur's court have the same ability - suffer the same fate - and a theme here that Lee explores intelligently is the limit of loyalty, and the habit we have of surrendering choice for the comfort of a strong leader who thinks they have the answers.

In a world going all to pieces that's a comforting thing to be able to do, but is it actually helpful - for Kay or for the bemused band of women she is part of, women who seek both to ameliorate the conditions of those suffering from climate collapse, war, and persecution and to put an end to the evils that cause them. As in Arthur's day, many factions jostle for power in the land, not least mercenaries and fanatics. 

Lee navigates this complicated moral landscape with considerable skill, deftly blending the personal and the political and rooting them in a landscape - whether an apocalyptic Manchester or a hellish metal Avalon - that has heft and depth, not least when Kay or Lancelot are seeing it through fifteen hundred year old memories of Mamucium or Londinium.

There is though more to these fascinating characters than their status as legends walking the modern world. We come to learn how both have devoted their lives - many lifetimes - to the grubby business of Empire, to the belief that they had a purpose, that they mattered and could make a difference. There are centuries of horror locked in Kay's head, so much so that at time he welcomes another death and his return to the mud, but also centuries of experience. It's patchy, iffy experience and he doesn't always understand the modern world (who does?) but he can also bring some perspective and he can spot a bad idea when he sees one.

So - let's get the (war)band together for one last time, sharpen the sword edges and form up the shieldwall because, yes, these are Perilous Times indeed.

I just loved this book - it's a truly modern take on Arthur and the Matter of Britain, a long-needed updating to counteract the seizing of our national myths by those with dubious purposes, but more than that, just a brilliant, involving read (and great fun to see some hints and allusions to other books I've read and loved - not least the tarnished iron gates below Alderney Edge). Strongly recommended (though there is one death in this book that I'm not sure I'll forgive Lee for...)

For more information about Perilous Times, see the other stops on the blogtour - or you can go to the publisher's website here.

You can buy Perilous Times from your local high street bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

*We don't use the "D**k A**s" term on this blog.

1 June 2023

#Review - The Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge by MR Carey

Book "Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge" by MR Carey. A woman with blonde hair stands at the bottom of a set of stairs with other figures behind her.
The Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge
MR Carey
Absinth Books, December 2022
Available as: HB, 85pp
Source: Purchased
ISBN: 9781786368713

MR Carey's novella takes us to the cosy (or, as it turns out, not so cosy) town of Hove Harbour in a world close to our own but with magic (albeit, magic that is in many places persecuted and hunted down).

It's a modern-ish world but at the same time the setting is rather enclosed. Here Fain runs a boarding house which she has inherited from her mother Cass - who, despite her death,  hangs around to give advice. I enjoyed hearing about the peculiarities of the different lodgers, a rather spiky group of eccentrics who often rub one another up the wrong way but, once suspects, couldn't live without each other either. 

Fain's life is taken up with cooking. cleaning and generally managing with little time for herself and still less for romance - until the enigmatic Mina Sellicks arrives, and gives Fain just what she needs...

It would be spoilery to go much further, but I will just say that as the boarding house itself is threatened and its reality begins to warp, Fain will have to delve back into her most painful recollections to defend herself. The fabled Stardome Lounge, which hasn't opened since her father ran off with a musician decades before, will open for one final night. There will be music, and moonlight... and an eldritch horror.

Basically a rattling good story that kept me guessing and provided the perfect ending, part fairytale, part romance, all cracking good story.

For more information about The Last Night at the Star Dome Lounge see the publisher's website here