28 July 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Deadly Autumn Harvest by Tony Mott

Cover for book "Deadly Autumn Harvest" by Tony Mott. A street in later afternoon - the pavement and road shimmer with rain and the lights of the cars dazzle slightly.
Deadly Autumn Harvest
Tony Mott (trans Marina Sofia)
Corylus Books, 1 August 2023
Available as: PB, 230pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781739298913

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

Deadly Autumn Harvest introduces us to Romanian forensic pathologist Gigi Alexa (it's the first book translated into English to feature her, although there is backstory especially with one of her police colleagues; through much of this books she's negotiating the trauma of one particular relationship with someone she still has to work with). Gigi is clearly at the top of her profession, slightly resented by the cops and uninclined to suffer fools gladly. I enjoyed the value she ascribes to being alone: while being perfectly capable of getting along with others, she really, really needs her time away from them. 

The mystery we're presented with here is a perplexing one. As the tourist season comes to an end, visitors thin out in the town of Braşov, the days shorten, and the weather turns cool, a series of killings begins. We know they are connected (the story, while coy about identities, does give us the perspective of the killer at times, as well as of some of the victims) but they don't seem to have much of a common thread. Taken together, the murders put a lot of strain on the Braşov police, still reeling from a previous botched investigation, and bring national attention. Alongside the minutiae of the investigation, the book raises issues about what crimes are prioritised and about how an investigation may be driven - or derailed - by press attention and public concern.

The story with Gigi's earlier lover and colleague also gives us an insight into the aftermath of an abusive relationship, something she's finding it hard to move on from (one might think her speciality would help here but really "physician, heal thyself" doesn't cut it). Mott also gives us insights into Gigi's family background and earlier life, including an incident which might deserve a content warning for sexual violence. Indeed, the wrinkles and creases of Gigi's personality are as fascinating as the events unfolding in Braşov, as Mott gives us a carefully managed, slow revelation of the mischief that's at work. The balance between the two is perfect, current events and past history - and the personalities of the different victims - combining to present a many-faceted portrayal of suffering, of wrongness - and of overcoming.

I did, actually, spot the murderer before they were revealed and was very pleased with myself... until I realised I hadn't! The mystery is actually deceptively complex and all the more so for everything (apparently) being set out before us. 

All in all a most enjoyable crime novel, with Marina Sofia's translation excellently readable, rendering the story into English without flattening out the Romanian-ness of it - for example, making clear where a choice of pronouns indicates familiarity. 

I hope to hear more about Gigi Alexa, and maybe to catch up oil some of her earlier adventures too.

The blurb

A series of bizarre murders rocks the beautiful Carpathian town of Braşov. At first there’s nothing obvious that links what look like random killings. With the police still smarting from the scandal of having failed to act in a previous case of a serial kidnapper and killer, they bring in forensic pathologist Gigi Alexa to figure out if several murderers are at work – or if they have another serial killer on their hands.

Ambitious, tough, and not one to suffer fools gladly, Gigi fights to be taken seriously in a society that maintains old-fashioned attitudes to the roles of women. She and the police team struggle to establish a pattern, especially when resources are diverted to investigating a possible terrorist plot. With the clock ticking, Gigi stumbles across what looks to be a far-fetched theory – just as she realises that she could be on the murderer’s to-kill list.

About the Author

Tony Mott
Tony Mott was born and bred in Braşov, which often forms the backdrop for her novels. She has worked internationally as a coach and HR professional, but her real passion remains writing. In 2022 she received the Romanian Mystery&Thriller Award. Deadly Autumn Harvest is the first novel in the Gigi Alexa series to be translated into English. 

About the Translator

Marina Sofia is a translator, reviewer, writer and blogger, as well as a third culture kid who grew up trilingual in Romanian, German and English. Her previous translations for Corylus Books are Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu and Resilience by Bogdan Hrib. She has spent most of her winters in Braşov skiing, so is delighted to translate a book set in her favourite Romanian town.

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

27 July 2023

#Review - The Seven Year Slip by Ashley Poston

Cover for book "The Seven Year Slip" by Ashley Poston. The title is spelled out in white 3D lettering against a yellow-orange ground. A woman in silhouette sits on the word "Seven" while a man standing on the lower curl of the "S" in "Slip" looks up at her. Two pigeons perch on the "R" in "Year", between them.
The Seven Year Slip    
Ashley Poston
HQ (HarperCollins), 4 July 2023 
Available as: PB, 336pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780008566593

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Seven Year Slip to consider for review.

The Seven Year Slip was such an enjoyable book to read, containing elements of fantasy (with a time travel concept at its heart) and romance but also a dreamy Manhattan atmosphere and an exploration of the worlds of publishing and of high-end restaurants.

It's the same universe, in fact, as in Poston's The Dead Romantics (the covers are nicely designed to compliment one another) with one or two characters from the earlier appearing in passing. The focus is though very squarely on newcomer Clementine West, who's going through a difficult time after the death of her beloved aunt and her breakup with Nate.

Clementine is a book publicist at Strauss & Adder, and her response to heartbreak - and other adverse life events - has been to throw herself into work, emulating superpublisher Rhonda. This always worked before, any threat to Clementine's work-life balance being addressed by spontaneous globe-trotting summer holidays with Aunt Analea. With Analea dead (and we will discover the particular sad circumstances of that in due course) Clementine cancels this year's booked trip to Iceland, but as somebody recently said, proximity to death does bring a certain clarity and Clementine is still left pondering where she wants to be in her life.

Fortunately - perhaps - she's provided with a distraction when a handsome young man appears in her apartment (which was her aunt's apartment), looking for somewhere to stay while he follows his heart's desire to become a chef. What could seem rather creepy actually turns out quite fascinating as Iwan comes and goes and shares his lifestory, his ambitions, and his fears. Over the following months his life and Clementine's entwine and they share some happy times and intimate moments - but it's the wrong time for either to commit to the other.

There's a fair bit I'm, annoyingly, not telling you here because the way that Poston lays out her story is rather special not only in terms of the facts of what's going on but also in terms of Clementine's development as a person overall and her growth in self-knowledge in particular. And in fact in terms of of Iwan's too. Poston is absolutely masterful in tracking the developing relationship, a sort of running commentary being provided by Clementine's workmates with whom she is engaged in a contest to snag a new celebrity author and save the company. That quest in itself produces some hilarious moments - this book is often very funny and it can move from moments of great emotion to plain funny in a trice.

How things are tied up is completely brilliant both in terms of the sequence of events and also of emotional development. It would have been easy for the latter to be overshadowed by the clever central concept here, but Poston is just too good a writer to let this happen and instead she gives Clementine's situation added resonance - there is a magic in life which she expected but which is lacking and the loss of her Aunt seems like the universe's ultimate betrayal, so why not shut down and lose herself in work?

The answer to that question is what the story turns on. It is a funny, heartfelt, sharply observed and really just very clever book - it is sure to be a hit I think and it was just a joy to read.

For more information about The Seven Year Slip, see the publisher's website here

25 July 2023

#Review - The Associate by Victoria Goldman

Cover for book "The Associate" by Victoria Goldman. An open door leads to a flight of steps leading upwards into light.
The Associate (Shanna Regan 2)
Victoria Goldman
Three Crowns Publishing UK, 25 July 2023 
Available as: PB, 328pp, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781739695439

I'm grateful to Three Crowns Publishing for sending me a copy of The Associate to consider for review.

The Associate sees a new investigation for Shanna Regan, Goldman's restless investigative reporter who she introduced in The Redeemer.

Now Shanna's been asked to look into the disappearance of a young architect, the "Associate" of the title. Short of money and wanting distraction from the awful prospect of a steady job with a news magazine, which she ought to be focussing on, Shanna takes up the offer - and soon finds that Louisa's absence isn't the only strange thing going on in East London suburb of Emberley Green.

Louisa's work involves a project to convert a Reform synagogue to provide housing for asylum seekers, and some of the locals aren't happy about that. Others are just plain anti-Semitic, and the themes of Goldman's first book - the prejudice that can exist in plain sight, the ignorance of our neighbours' ways of life and concerns - are highlighted here from the start, an angry demonstration opening the book, setting the scene for what follows.

It isn't just bigotry, though, that stalks the streets of Emberley Green. As Shanna gets deeper and deeper into things, a troubling series of apparent gang-related killings - stabbings, shootings and more - begins to spread terror across the streets of Emberley Green. This atmosphere is evoked in one particularly atmospheric scene that emphasises Shanna's own vulnerability on the streets late at night. Several times she is on the point of dropping her investigation, and several times she hesitates - something pulling her back into the case (and leading her to joke with a journalist friend that the two of them ought to set up as PIs... now there's an idea...)

There is, as it turns out, a great deal more going on than one missing woman (and even that aspect has many sides to it). The personal, and societal, problems come together in a rich and credible tapestry that challenges everyone involved - and perhaps the reader, too - to consider where they stand.

I'm really enjoying this series, in which Goldman highlights a (to many of us) fascinating and unknown strand of Jewish life, setting it in its wider context to give a vivid and urgent portrayal of modern London life in all its messy reality.

I would strongly recommend.

For more information about The Associate, see the publisher's website here. You can order the book from your local bookshop, or buy from FoylesWaterstones or Amazon.

20 July 2023

#Review - Hokey Pokey by Kate Mascarenhas

Cover for book "Hokey Pokey" by Kate Mascarenhas. The cover is mostly done non shades of green. At the bottom, facing each other, two women in head and shoulders profile. Above, a pattern of curves, arcs and nettle plants topped by a cocktail in a glass.
Hokey Pokey
Kate Mascarenhas
Head of Zeus (Apollo), 8 June 2023
Available as: HB, 322pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 1789543851

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Hokey Pokey via Neutrally to consider for review.

It's February 1929 and a snowstorm descends on Birmingham. All the railway lines are blocked and a disparate group of guests is stranded in the city centre Regent Hotel. Among them are psychoanalysts Nora Dickinson and renowned operatic diva Berenice "The Icon" Oxbow. Is their presence wholly random, or do the two women have some connection...?

I love novels with a strong location and well depicted setting - as here (the book even comes with plans of the hotel). They allow one to sink into the routines and conventions of the location, and watch the characters run, as it were, though the mazes of the author's invention. Having the protagonists isolated from their normal lives, caught briefly out of time, as it were, adds to the pleasure which here is enhanced by the jousting between Nora and Berenice, and by Nora's startling ability at mimicry - basically if she hears something once, she can repeat it exactly forever. That ability, and the idea of mimicry and of truth, are at the centre of this thought-provoking and satisfyingly complex story - as much as the series of gruesome killings that begins to occur...

An icon is, of course, a depiction of a saint or of God, but one that is held to be more than just an image. Beronice is named for Veronica, who mopped Jesus' tears, obtaining a true icon of the deity. Nora can reproduce life to a startling degree, and, as we find out when we learn the two women's stories, both have history that is entangled with deception, imitation and untruth (the cataclysmic event of Nora's childhood encapsulating this). And it's all taking place in the glittering, mirrored splendour of a hotel, an unreal place with its own contradictions: between the guests' accommodation and the back stairs (the map shows both the guest and staff sides), between the lives of the guests and those of the staff, between the guests' everyday life and their hotel existence.  There are of course many secrets to come out, but before they do, they shape events here like invisible plumbing behind ornate walls.

The sense of a charade taking place, of everything being one step away from tumbling down to reveal what is really going on, is intensified by the two womens' positions seeming so shaky. Berenice is accepted and acclaimed because of her voice, which may however fail at any time (it has before). Nora is a woman in a profession dominated by powerful, manipulative men and - as Mascarenhas makes clear - even her presence in the hotel, as a woman alone, is on sufferance (she isn't allowed in the cocktail lounge unaccompanied, for example).

It is a bewildering, intoxicating novel, just as much so, I'd guess, as one of those Hokey Pokey cocktails (recipe helpfully provided) which Nora so much enjoys. With a real taste for time and place and more than a twist of the gothic, this is a book to savour.

I normally direct readers to the publisher's website for further information about a book, I'm afraid I haven't found an up to date entry on the Head of Zeus site here so would suggest looking at online retailers or indeed Netgalley itself here.

18 July 2023

#Review - Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book "Silver Nitrate" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Red background. The outline of a pair of eyes, eyebrows and a nose. Or are they cans of films unspooling?
Silver Nitrate
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 18 July 2023
Available as: HB, 318pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529418040

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Silver Nitrate to consider for review.

Silver Nitrate is a smart, scary and complex horror novel drawing on the legacy of classic films and books - but with a sense of edginess all of its own as it unspools around the legacy of a (fictitious) Nazi occultist who flees to Mexico following WW2.

In Mexico City, Montserrat works as an editor at Antares, a firm specialising in audio for low-budget horror films. She loves her work and is good at it but times are tough in 1993 with new techniques coming along and her pig of a boss favouring male editors, so she has time on her hands and a need for new projects.

Montserrat's childhood friend Tristán, a disgraced soap star, is in a similar situation with work hard to find since he was involved in a scandal some years before - a scandal that left him, at least in his own eyes, disfigured. So both friends are ready for some distraction, and perhaps the prospect of redressing their misfortunes - although they often don't see eye to eye.

The bickering that ensues between Montserrat and Tristán is just wonderful. These are people who know each other really well; who met in school; who got up to mischief as kids; who fell out and made up repeatedly; whose careers overlap and parallel one another; and yet who still don't understand each other - or themselves. In one sense it's Montserrat and Tristán against the world, in another it's Montserrat and Tristán against each other in a death match. All of that is further complicated when Tristán's new neighbour turns out to be famous director Abel Urueta, who stopped making films in the 60s with a particularly notorious horror production that is rumoured to have been suppressed. Now he wants to finish his movie - and this is the project that will transform everyone's lives.

So, a director whose career spiralled downwards, a dead occultist and a washed up actor. Only Montserrat seems to be active in the industry, and the others need her help. But will she be able, and willing, to do what they want of her? And what might it do to her?

I loved this beautiful book. Whether evoking subtle, crawling dread, conjuring monstrous horrors, exploring the relationship between the Nazi past and the (slightly more) subtly prejudiced present, or just showing us 90s Mexico City in all its glory as we follow Montserrat and Tristán about their day-to-day (and less day-to-day) business, Silver Nitrate just shines. In making literal the idea of the magic of cinema it modernises the whole apparatus of traditional horror (though I loved the take on MR James where a character is attacked by a murderous tablecloth) as well as portraying a full gallery of noir figures - the washed up actress, the director determined to come back none final time - and giving proper time and respect to all the figures you'd see before the camera.

Moreno-Garcia could well be a magician herself here, transmuting base elements of plot and character, and the conventions of horror and noir (look out for the trench coats!) into something that is unique, valuable and - while chilling at times - actually a powerful evocation of stubborn friendship and unwitting love.

STRONGLY recommended.

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

17 July 2023

#Review - Beyond the Reach of Earth by Ken MacLeod

Book "Beyond the Reach of Earth" by Ken MacLeod - a background of fiery swirling clouds through which can be seen a dark sphere and pinpoint lights, with the curve of a planet's surface in the foreground.
Beyond the Reach of Earth (Lightspeed Trilogy, 2)
Ken MacLeod
Pyr, 18 July 2023
Available as: PB, 328pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy (UK edition)
ISBN(PB): 9781645060659

Warning - there are spoilers here for Book 1 in this trilogy, Beyond the Hallowed Sky, which I'd strongly advise you to read first. (If you haven't read it, or are hazy about the details, there is a helpful precis in Book 2, but the first book is so much fun, you really ought to read it).

In a clever sequel to Beyond the Hallowed Sky, MacLeod returns to his near future world (the book is largely set in the 2070s) dominated by three blocs - the Alliance (Anglosphere including rump UK), the Union (ex EU, including Scotland) and the Co-ord (Russia and China). The Union is particularly interesting, embodying a post-Revolution society and therefore viewed with especial suspicion by the other two (this is hilariously illustrated in some spoof tabloid headlines that crop up towards the end of the book).

MacLeod is very good, as we've seen in other books, at plausible just-over-the-horizon politics and societal development - indeed his portrayal of societies and their relationship with their citizens is one of the things I always look forward to. As a subject it's as fascinating and important as the future tech in these books. Or perhaps I should say that unlike many SF writers he appreciates the interplay between both: the societies influenced by the tech, the path of the tech driven by the science, and all deeply enmeshed with strong, relatable characters who just belong in their background. 

Above and beyond that, this book has a deeply satisfying, ramified plot involving espionage, slightly scary AI (I really want to know more about Iskander, the universal intercase to the Union's predictive/ assistive AI which attempts to preempt the needs of its citizens - but also, it's hinted, serves other goals besides) and a more than slightly scary robot. For me, all that made Beyond the Reach of Earth very enjoyable to read.

A spirited rendition of The Internationale didn't go amiss either, performed here when some Union settlers arrive on the newly discovered planet Apis, albeit escorted by the perfidious Alliance English who have shuttled them there for obscure reasons in their FTL spacecraft. And indeed the settlers bring their own distinct approach to Apis, refusing to fall into the "homesteader" mode urged by their hosts. Politics are never far beneath the surface here, whether the politics of superpower deterrence, threatened by the discovery of FTL travel and restored by the strangest of means, politics between the constituent entities of the "economic democracy", the Union, which come into play when the state gets its own FTL craft though the ingenuity of a small shipbuilding firm and a causal loop, or the attempts by the various powers to deal with the enigmatic Fermi, aliens of unimaginable power who occupy outcrops of rock on Earth, Venus... and Apis.

And if aliens incarnated in rocks shaping the future of humanity sounds familiar to you, it's an idea that MacLeod himself has fun with, some of his characters spotting the parallel to a certain bestselling SF series of the late 20th century. (This being Book 2 of 3 we don't get to find out how close a parallel that will turn out being).

In summary, this is smart, well-written SF, great fun to read and every bit as good as Beyond the Hallowed Sky. It's a middle volume of a trilogy that builds on the first, rather than just marking time waiting for the conclusion - which nevertheless I'm really looking forward to. I'd recommend.

You can purchase Beyond the Reach of Earth from Amazon here.

14 July 2023

#Review - Season of Skulls by Charles Stross

Book "Season of Skulls" by Charles Stross. A green tinged skull amidst swirling pink clouds looks down on an array of open doorways, against which figures are silhouetted. In the foreground a tentacle writhes.
Season of Skulls
Charles Stross
Orbit, 18 May 2023 
Available as: HB, 373, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356516967

I'm grateful to Orbit for providing me an advance e-copy of Season of Skulls to consider for review.

Oddly, Season of Skulls was one of three books I read in a row that featured vampires, and one of two taking place substantially in the late 18th/ early 19th cent (sort of). Not deliberate, but it did make me reflect on the spread of vampires in popular culture - they are such a fitting metaphor for predatory, manipulative authority figures such as exploitative bosses, and indeed for late stage capitalism overall. 

I'm sure their current prevalence and popularity isn't a coincidence, and as ever Stross is abreast of both the overt and the implicit aspects of current culture. The third part in Stross's New Management sequence, following events in the UK after its takeover by an ancient evil (any resemblance to recent real events is entirely deliberate) Season of Skulls focusses on Eve, a smart and ruthless company executive who has unfortunately found herself the thrall of a cultist and necromancer. She thought she'd disposed of Rupert in the Ghost Roads that begin in her ancestral home in Knightsbridge, but now he seems to have returned, and she risks falling back under his domination...

Which is only the curtain-raiser for a frenzied, funny and rather dashing story riffing off the Regency romance, as Eve is transported to a twisted version of early modern England complete with stagecoaches, highwaymen, ship's captains and a swarm of would-be Napoleons. It shouldn't make sense but it really does, Stross serving up the sort of convoluted wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels plot that characterises the very best of his writing.

The stakes are, as we learn high - for Eve, her personal liberty and identity are under threat, but for Britain and, indeed, for Earth, the event known as Case Nightmare Green accelerates. If Rupert isn't thwarted, the planet will be left with a choice of evil or worse evil.

I loved the choreographed incongruity of this book, the central action taking place in a sort of weird Regency version of The Prisoner and forcing Eve, a thorough modern young woman, to contend with the conventions and restrictions of a deeply patriarchal age (a theme running through the story as Rupert gained power over her by enacting feudal law as a ritual magic, turning Eve into his literal possession). I thought I saw similar themes to Stross's SF novel Glasshouse - with the difference however that Eve's "escape" only takes her into a wider world in which she has, literally, no personhood.

An excellent addition to the entire Laundry/ New Management sequence, and I have to say that in literally having an eldritch god assume the role of Prime Minister these books do escape the tendency for UK politics and public life to leapfrog the strangest imaginings of writers. 

At least, I hope so.

For more information about Season of Skulls, see the publisher's website here

12 July 2023

#Review - Translation State by Anne Leckie

Cover for book "Translation State" by Ann Leckie. The background cover is graduated from red on the left to green on the right, ranging through shades of orange and yellow. At the top and bottom of the page is a device formed from nested rectangles with curved corners. Within the upper one is a black triangle in a white circle; within the lower one, a face in silhouette inside a white circle.
Translation State (Imperial Radch)
Ann Leckie
Orbit, 8 June 2023
Available as: HB, 432pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356517919

I'm grateful to Orbit for providing me with an advance e-copy of Translation State via Netgalley, to consider for review.

Translation State is a delicious serving of SF, taking place in a universe so odd I don't how Leckie imagined it, let alone made the story into something as coherent and compelling as it is.

The main protagonists are Qven, Enae and Reet. We meet Enae at the start of the book. Enae has just attended the funeral of a  grandmother (henceforth referred to as the "Blessed Deceased") and there are surprises as the estate is divided, a division that ultimately leading to Enae taking up a new life as a diplomatic troubleshooter. Enae is a fascinating person, who has spent an entire life under Grandmother's thumb and who isn't sure now what to feel about being free of that. There's a convincing portrayal here of Enae's mixed feelings - grief and loss but also resentment at somebody who seemed capricious and manipulative. Nevertheless Enae is intelligent and inventive and soon succeeds in solving a diplomatic mystery which had been left to fester for centuries, tracking down a fugitive who make or may not be a danger to the order of things.

Qven has an even stranger background, being one of a number of siblings genetically engineered to be Presger Translators. The Presger are aliens, indeed, unimaginably, indescribably, alien, and their Translators mediate between them and humanity, especially on matters concerning the vital Treaty whose existence protects all. Qven, destined for a high place in the clade, has been dishonoured by another juvenile Translator (who suffers a terrible fate as a result) and is now threatened with being forcibly "matched", a fate that Qven fears.

Reet, in contrast, is trying to live a quiet life. An orphan raised by foster parents, Reet has been singled out by a cult of exiles as the descendent of their revered leader. Having never previously felt any great sense of belonging, Reet is somewhat flattered by their attention - but will soon be presented with quite another potential origin...

All of this rapidly leads to a Big Mess with diplomatic implications (that Treaty!) and the fates of individuals seem likely to be sacrificed for political expediency - until some determined foster parents, Enae (regretting good intentions that messed up others' lives) and a clutch of ingenious lawyers, take the whole matter to the highest authority and demand justice.

I had great fun reading this book. It isn't, for the most part, full of drama and action: rather the plot is driven by the unrolling of Enae's, Reet's and Qven's feelings and their gathering understanding of themselves and of the universe around them, and by the politics and horse trading that others insist on tangling up with those things. All three are sympathetically drawn, with emotional depths and a growing awareness of themselves and their own desires. It doesn't hurt that Leckie has a wicked sense of humour (I would quote but you need to read this for yourself) and a real appreciation for social interaction and structures. So for example, here you'll find painfully-familiar prejudices against minority communities, putting them on guard against manifestation of the law; stereotypes used unthinkingly even by the apparently well-intentioned, sometimes followed by a quick apology, sometimes not, and that painful dance where people are trying to do what they think others want or need without either asking them or being honest about their own feelings.

Also, a glorious complexity of genders.

I love this kind of story where the stakes are high both at the personal and the global level, with the ostensible threat - here the future of the Treaty - really just getting in the way of resolving deep personal issues. Leckie's resolution of the two strands is little short of genius. 

Strongly recommended.

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

11 July 2023

#Review - Jamie Hallow and the End of the World by AV Wilkes

Book "Jamie Hallow and the End of the World" by AV Wilkes. A metal staircase, tentacles and a serious looking young person wearing a pentagram on their jacket...
Jamie Hallow and the End of the World 
AV Wilkes
Cemetery Gates Media, 11 July 2023
Available as: e  
Source: Advance copy

I'm grateful to Cemetery Gates Media for sending me a copy of Jamie Hallow and the End of the World to consider for review.

AV Wilkes' new novella introduces us to Jamie, a young person living a dreary life post nuclear war in a sealed bunker run by the Legion. The Legion is a paramilitary cult that saw the advantage of making certain preparations...

Raised from an early age in a Legion foster home, Jamie is however far from being a devoted acolyte. As we see more of what the Legion is and does, we will begin to understand why - and it's more about repugnance at the nature of what the Legion worships than actual disbelief in it (albeit Jamie self-describes as "atheist"). The full explanation would be spoilery, but it's enough to state that (1) the Legion's god is real (2) the horror that this implies actually makes a spot of global nuclear war seem almost cosy by comparison.

The action of the story focusses on a number of excursions from the bunker undertaken by the Legion's Taskforce (comprising teenagers anxious to prove themselves) during which the bunker dwellers encounter "Rats", humans existing in the radioactive wasteland outside and who are regarded as less than human by the Legion. These expeditions force Jamie to question everything about the bunker, the Legion and the Taskforce.

In a quite short book - my ARC copy is 112 pages - Wilkes has to rely on a degree of established lore, and does so rather successfully, invoking a Lovecraftian universe blended with well known post apocalyptic tropes and, more surprisingly but very effectively, introducing a group of teenagers (referred to as the "three witches" - and yes they really do have supernatural abilities) for some "mean girls" twists. Taken together, the three aspects very powerfully convey just how alone Jamie is (not just isolated in the bunker but with nowhere to run to) and underline Jamie's teenage disaffection with the Legion (even before you consider LGBTQ aspects of the story which in this militaristic and cultish setting are not a good way to be accepted).

It's a fun and engaging read establishing Jamie as a vivid protagonist and hinting at all sorts of future mayhem. I'd very much like to read a sequel.

For more information about Jamie Hallow and the End of the World, see the publisher's website here.  You can order or preorder the book from Amazon US here or Amazon UK here.

7 July 2023

#Review - Neon Roses by Rachel Dawson

Cover for book "Neon Roses" by Rachel Dawson. A rose outlined in green with political badges with pro miners and LGBQT slogans.
Neon Roses    
Rachel Dawson
John Murray Press, 25 May 2023 
Available as: HB, 304pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 1399801929

I'm grateful to John Murray Press for an advance e-copy of Neon Roses via Netgalley to consider for review.

Rachel Dawson's novel is an absorbing and eventually uplifting story of some very hard times. It's a book that acknowledges dark things, but refuses to despair, a story that showcases the need for solidarity, for friendship and always, for finding hope and a way forward.

It's 1984 and in the Valleys of South Wales a young woman, Eluned, is committed to supporting the miners' strike. In this she and her community are lined up against the cruel Thatcher government and its supporters in the media and the police (the latter personified by the unpleasant Graham, boyfriend of Eluned's little sister, Mabli). It was a very polarising time which as a teenager (not in a mining area) I remember well, I saved up pocket money to donate and I still have my Coal Not dole stickers in my scrapbook. 

As the only person in her family with a wage (she works as an assistant in a show shop) Eluned plays a key role, although it is a precarious one (who has money for shoes during the strike?) and as the months roll on, we see things tighten for the miners, with the eventual end of the strike and, in prospect, the end of the coal industry and of whole communities like Eluned's. But a time of change is also a time of opportunities and new horizons, and the solidarity of the strike has introduced Eluned to members of LGSM - Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners - who have been fundraising and organising. In turn, that leads her to explore her own sexuality, and when she sees her way to a department store job away from home in Cardiff, to form new relationships.

I was struck by the portrayal of Eluned. Dawson avoids cliche - Eluned isn't a naive young girl astonished to learn the ways of the world, so much as a smart and curious person discovering who she is and what she wants. Resourceful and compassionate, there is a real warmth to the character, with her love of music, her kindness to her landlady in Cardiff (a fascinating woman who surely deserves a novel of her own) and above all, her desire to experience the world - which makes her the reader's eyes and ears in Dawson's depiction of LGBQT culture in 1980s Cardiff and in London (and, eventually, Manchester). That depiction is done with a great sense of vibrancy, not dwelling on the darker things - Section 28, AIDS/ HIV - although they are acknowledged, with the notorious James Anderton, head of the Greater Manchester police, playing a role - but stressing the power of resistance and the potential of human connection.

I always hesitate to use "coming of age novel" as a description of a book, because it seems to stick a huge label on a process that properly is nuanced and drawn out, but I'll mutter it here in passing - and then hurry on to stress that this is a very subtle, very nuanced book. Yes, at times Eluned gets in over her head - both for good and bad: at one stage she takes up with a woman who is controlling and manipulative - but she soon gets out of that and it's beautiful watching her relationship with June quicken and deepen.

The book captures the 80s atmosphere well, I think, both through incidental things - like the copious smoking, the sisters sharing a Walkman, the music - and the fact that Eluned is fairly easily able to get that shop job - retail hadn't been gutted by online sales). The only detail I could spot that didn't quite work was the reference to a videographer at a wedding in 1973. It's good on atmosphere, evoking both the Valleys towns and June's London squat with its raucous, supportive sisterhood, and it doesn't try to tie everything up, leaving things on a note of hope and mutual support but definitely unresolved.

This is one I'd recommend strongly. And finally, no this is not "Pride - The Novel" - it goes deeper that that - though if you have seen that film there will inevitably be some crossover events and themes.

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

5 July 2023

#Review - Gods of the Wyrdwood by RJ Barker

Cover for book "Gods of the Wyrdwood" by RJ Barker. A pattern of branches that forms the mask of an animal head, with a sword and shield in the midst of it.
Gods of the Wyrdwood (The Forsaken Trilogy, Book 1)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 29 June 2023
Available as: HB, 626pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356517230

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of Gods of the Wyrdwood to consider for review.

This is one of those occasions when writing a review is simply daunting. I just want to say "buy this book, it's brilliant". I've come to expect a high standard form this author but really, it's just ridiculous how good Gods is. Whether you judge by characters, by setting, by the issues addressed or just by plain old-fashioned readability, Gods of the Wyrdwood amply delivers (and this, in passing, with the author making it deliberately hard by writing a book in a setting with no metal!)

Gods of the Wyrdwood doesn't mess around, but drops us immediately into its menacing, disturbing setting. Our hero Cahan Du-Nahare, known to most as "The Forester" since his real name attracts attention from powerful enemies, is an outcast living on the fringes of a remote village, Harn. Cahan is clanless and therefore pretty much despised by the villagers - near the bottom of the social pile in their harsh land of Crua, they're glad to have someone else to look down on, and as Cahan lives on the fringes of the frightening wild woods, he's also touched by the dread and superstition directed at that realm. So when the story opens with the Forester's death, it's a foretaste of what is to come in this violent land, riven by warfare between followers of different gods - and by a ruthless pursuit of any woman or man suspected of being a conduit for the wrong gods.

In this atmosphere of external persecution, the ruling faction - followers of the new god Tarl-an-Gig, the Balancing Man - are as divided internally as their enemies, and Barker quickly sketches a complicated polity where personal motivations - the desire for power, for safety or for revenge - can outweigh politics and duty, giving scope for all sorts of double dealing and chicanery. It's a world that Cahan has known and turned his back on, one of the themes of the novel being his desire to set aside power - and he's been blessed, or cursed, with considerable power - and live a quiet life, harming none.

If only the world would let him do that! Whether pursued by enemies or enlisted for help the desperate villagers - despite their fears of him - throughout this book Cahan is continually harried to aid various causes, including venturing into the depths of the Wyldwood itself when the son of the village's headwoman disappears. That episode introduces Cahan's unwelcome companion Udinny, a character who is just exquisite. I'd say that Cahan and Udinny are destined to be one of the great partnerships of fantasy, her enthusiasm and moral drive the perfect foil to his dourness and reticence.

Udinny is a monk, a former thief who has somehow fallen into the service of a powerful goddess - not a comfortable thing to be at all in a land under the dominion of Tarl-an-Gig - and a person who's just hugely inquisitive, self possessed and, above all, brave. The scenes between the two, especially where they are on their forest quest, are simply brilliant, a spiky bickering moderating into respect and even grudging admiration.

In their brilliant depiction, Cahan and Udinny are not though unique in this book - Barker is on top form here giving us real hiss-inducing villains (but then flooring us by showing us their relatable human emotions and drives), and complex, grey-shaded villagers, soldiers and artisans as well as epic battles, a whole bizarre ecology for both the woods and the deities that inhabit them, and - in glimpses - a slowly emerging backstory for Cahan. That last is possibly the most affecting part of the story, slowly showing us the basis on which he lived his life and what he lost along the way, leading to him being the reserved figure we see through most of the book. It's not just filling in background, what happened to the boy - and young man - Cahal could easily be a book, or more, in itself. Writing is about much more than "having ideas" I know but even so, there's a profligacy to the amount of material that Barker is happy simply to allude to here without needing to explore in detail, something that, to me, promises he's a got a lot more to come in this series. 

Gods of the Wyrdwood is a big book with epic themes, but also very personal ones, showing ordinary people forced to step up when their quiet lives are threatened by the games of the powerful. In its exciting finale the people of Harn, tanners, butchers and farmers are forced to defend their village against experienced troops. Like Cahan, they have been drawn into conflict and politics whether they like it (or understand it) or not and they just have to make the best of things. Quiet loyalty, mercy and kindness seem small things compared with armour and powerful magic, but they still, as Barker seems to show, have a value in themselves.

Just an incredible read, a corruscatingly good book, promising a standout trilogy from RJ Barker. 

For more information about Gods of the Wyrdwood, see the publisher's website here

3 July 2023

#Review - The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston

Cover for book "The Dead Romantics" by Ashley Poston. On the cover the word "The Dead" appear on one line and "Romantics" below. A woman is lying flat on the upper words, holding up a yellow book which she is reading. A man in lying on the lower words, also holding up a book. A large black bird perches on his feet. At the bottom of the cover are wild flowers, with the author's name in handwriting across them.
The Dead Romantics
Ashley Poston
Harper Collins, 29 September 2022
Available as: PB, 345pp, e, audio
Source: Purchased/ audio subscription
ISBN(PB): 9780008566562

I came to The Dead Romantics having loved Poston's Once Upon a Con series of geek-themed fairytales, and it didn't disappoint - either in its similarities or in its differences.

The main similarity is perhaps that at the story is both fulfilling and referencing the romance genre, though creating a background to that which allows things to be seen from quite a different perspective. In Once Upon a Con that was the geek culture of fandoms, in The Dead Romantics it's... something else.  (The general no-nonsense affect of Florence Day does also I think make her a spiritual sister to Elle Wittimer or to Imogen Lovelace).

The main difference from the earlier books is the way that's done - here, Day is herself a romance writer, albeit a ghostwriter for renowned romance star Ann Nichols. So we get something of an "inside publishing" critique too, replete with scary editors, writers' block and even plagiarism.

Day left her little home town to make it in big in New York, where she's now flailing rather, her writing stymied by her conviction that romance is dead leaving her unable to kindle the flame that she needs to finish her latest novel - which she ought to do by tomorrow. In fact, as we learn when she's called back to said hometown, there is more to her departure from the place than appears at first sight. Poston delights in giving us Day's backstory, and explaining why she's estranged from her family of undertakers. The whole thing is an audacious mix of the incredible and of raw human emotion, and Poston carries it with complete success - by the midpoint of this novel, I was booing Florence's high school nemesis and screaming for her to recognise what's going on when her love interest turns up from the city.

Part of the reason she can't, that she's distracted, goes back to the events of ten years ago, and part is due to a more recent tragedy, and I don't want to spoil either, so all I will say is that Florence Day has one of the most complicated romantic lives you can imagine, as well as some peculiar talents that ought to make things easier but don't. And those distractions, those problems, she has to confront - well, they're literally matters of life and death, the barriers to happiness that you'd expect in romance being rather more unyielding here than in general.

Reader, I will not give away the ending. If you've got your genre right you may get a general sense of how things turn out - our maybe not. But I can say that it's a magnificent, satisfying and intricate story with bold and fun characters and a very down to earth sense of what is, at the end, important. 

A hilarious and rather moving read, showing that, in the midst of death, we are in life.


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