28 September 2023

#Review - Starter Villain by John Scalzi

Cover for book "Starter Villain" by John Scalzi. Against a dark background, swirls of grey and red surround a mysterious figure sitting in a hi tech white seat, holding a white cat on their lap. Behind, in the distance, is a volcano.
Starter Villain
John Scalzi
Pan Macmillan, 21 September 2023
Available as: HB, 262pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529082951

I'm grateful to Jamie at Black Crow PR for sending me a copy of Starter Villain to consider for review.

With Starter Villain, John Scalzi delivers a novel that does three very different things at the same time. First, it keeps its feet on the ground. Protagonist Charlie Fitzer is processing bereavement, his father having recently died, and is struggling in an economy that no longer wants his journalistic skills. Secondly, it takes a step into the fantastic, portraying a world of supervillain corporations in uneasy alliance or sporadic conflict - think of that organised crime ecology in the John Wick films, but with a bit more of a James Bond volcano lair twist. (It's always great to have a new and distinct world to explore). Finally - and most importantly - it is deeply readable, fiendishly plotted and genuinely engaging.

I know I should have expected the third, It's a hallmark of Scalzi's, his writing is never less than engaging, but I don't think it can be easy to have delivered all of these. Charlie is a truly complex character, first introduced here after his billionaire uncle - from whom he was estranged - dies, and he is asked to represent the family at the funeral. VERY strange things start to happen to Charlie after that. And to his cats (yes, there are cats in this book). As a consequence Charlie enters a world he had never suspected existed, a world of genetically modified dolphins, wonder weapons and secret bases. He's our gateway into all this, our guide, as it were, but has little to rely on except a strain of common sense and, as it turns out, of decency. (I enjoyed the bit where Charlie supports the dolphins in their attempt to  to unionise). This level-headedness and decency, contrasted with the outlandish schemes and entitled arrogance of the billionaires who inhabit his new milieu, makes Charlie very sympathetic - more relatable than if, say, he'd shown an unlikely talent at combat.

In the circles Charlie is entering, his sense of decency is taken as a weakness and his lack of knowledge of those circles as another, but this Everyman is still able to hold his own in negotiation with the super rich and the reader will be cheering him on and hoping for a positive outcome without Charlie having to compromise his principles (there's an awkward scene where he's invited to choose the method of execution for a captured agent, but I'll say no more about that because spoilers.

I have to say that Charlie doesn't completely lack back-up of other sorts, backup provided by the redoubtable Mathilda ('Til') who's deeply embroiled in Uncle Jake's shady organisation. But generally, he's able to keep far enough ahead of things that she doesn't have to show what she can do. But it's a complex story and as I've said, spoilers. I'm happy to report though that there are double, triple and (I think) even quadruple, crosses going on here, twists on twists and plenty of action. I think Scalzi must have had evil fun simply plotting this - for a fairly short book there is a LOT going on.

I particularly enjoyed this book as being a standalone. While series and trilogies are nice, sometimes as a reader it's great to not be investing in an ongoing narrative. (Although, I'm sure more could be done with the world portrayed here...)

In short, do read Starter Villain

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

26 September 2023

#Review - Noir Burlesque by Enrico Marini

Cover for "Noir Burlesque" by Enrico Marini. A red-headed woman wearing a black corset and stockings poses. Behind her, the figure of a man wearing a hat and holding a pistol. Behind him, the skyline of a US city.
Noir Burlesque
Enrico Marini
Titan Comics, 26 September 2023
Available as: HB, 228pp, e  
Source: Advance copy

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of Noir Burlesque to consider for review.

As one would expect from a Hard Case Crime graphic novel, Noir Burlesque is a very visual, very cinematic story that carries the reader along, scene dissolving into scene, its characters performing for the reader at various levels - providing an entertainment, but also engaging in what seems to be a dance of death - of which there is plenty here.

Some of that performance is of a decidedly adult nature and both for the explicit content and more particularly the violence, the publisher's site gives it a 17+ rating and I'd agree with that. One effect throughout the book - that it's all in monotone, except for the red - accentuates the impact: red is the colour of burlesque dancer Caprice's hair, and of her car, but also, of course, the colour of the blood that's liberally spilled here.

The dance here is mainly between Caprice, now performing nightly at the club belonging to her mobster boyfriend, Rex, and Slick, the ex-lover who left her to fight in the war (the book is set in the 50s New York). Slick is back now, and there is a question about whether the two will pick up where they left off and if so, what Rex will make of that (well we sort of know don't we!)

That central question runs through the story, alongside various killings, couplings and double crosses. Complications abound. There is a rival, Italian gang on the scene, Rex's boys being Irish (I would add to the CW above some very frank slurs addressed at the Italian mobsters by Rex's crew). There is a McGuffin in the form of a stolen Picasso. Besides Caprice, there is also another sultry femme fatale - and there are even some innocents who may be in danger (the principals here are though mainly far from innocent).

Wreathed in cigarette smoke, noir atmosphere and amorality, Noir Burlesque has a satisfactorily twisty plot, a vein of grim humour, a tarnished hero in Slick (while he's often hunted and is a criminal, he of all those who appear actually went off to fight Nazis) and even some comic goons to lighten the mood at times.

Entertaining and fast moving, this is a story that needs to be read at a single sitting.

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

21 September 2023

#Review - Once a Monster by Robert Dinsdale

Cover for book "Once a Monster" by Robert Dinsdale. In the centre, the head of a bull, with horns. Upon its face and muzzle are drawn ritualistic looking patterns. Behind and around a mosaic design. which breaks up around the edges of the cover.
Once a Monster
Robert Dinsdale
Pan Macmillan, 21 September 2023
Available as: HB, 512pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529097375

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance e-copy of Once a Monster via Netgalley to consider for review.

In 1861, ten year-old orphan Nell makes her living mudlarking - dredging up anything saleable from the muddy banks of the river Thames, part of a gang controlled by Benjamin Murdstone. Once a mudlark himself, he rose to wealth and then fell again, but is still looking for that one find which will restore his fortunes. Or rather, his gang of children are looking for it. 

Elsewhere in London, a mysterious man named Minos works in the labyrinthine tunnels of the sewers then being constructed. Enormous, misshapen (and are those signs of horns on his head?) but very strong, he's an object of curiosity  and even dread, but his origins are obscure. Lost in his dreams of other lives, other ages, he will develop a close connection with Nell. Both of their lives will be wrapped up with that of Sophia, formerly a dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, but now hiding herself away in the slum of Seven Dials.

To get the obvious out of the way first, yes, Once a Monster does have echoes of Dickens. You could see Murdstone (itself a Dickensian name) as a sort of Fagin, with his ragged gang of kids. The theme of fortunes made and lost on a twist of fate in the teeming city of trade is also familiar, as is the passion and the anger at those ground down, at the lives wasted. But this isn't a Dickens pastiche. Once a Monster is actually much stranger than that. The author of The Toymakers and Paris by Starlight doesn't hide his sympathies - and, as I have said, his anger - but Once a Monster is much more than a novel of Victorian inequality and oppression. 

At its centre is Minos, whose name - and the hints of his physique, as well perhaps as his preferred refuge in tunnels and caves - give us a pretty strong indication of who or what he may be, or have been. Minos's story is a moral story, a story of growth and struggle, his history echoed by and indialgue with a whole gallery of characters. Dinsdale gives us a fascinating characters study of who Minos is and who he may become. In a city that, like a monster, devours the innocent, there is plenty of darkness to go around and it may enfold Minos yet: but it's not - or not all - coming from him and the same central dilemma is posed to all the characters here: to rise - trampling and consuming others - or to sink into the mudflats of Ratcliffe or the rookeries of Seven Dials. Minos's deeds - good or bad - are written on his frame, the result of hundreds and hundreds of years wrestling with this paradox, but the same truth captures Murdstone, his only friend Dr Bantam, Sophia and indeed Nell herself.

In this book, trades are offered, lives bought and sold. Revenge is a theme, but it's always second to trade, trade, trade, the network of deals and promises that forms the very fabric of London. Just as Minos loses himself in dreams and nightmares of the Labyrinth, the narrow streets of the city, the claustrophobic passages in the Alhambra Circus theatre, and the new, branching swedes, confine and direct the passage of those caught up in them. All are lost, whether they know it or not, in need of a thread to guide them out.

In a masterpiece of fantasy, Dinsdale illustrates the tunnels and chambers that we all wander - showing how the only way out is found through that thread of kindness, caring, and trust (and perhaps a bit of luck). There are no real villains here, I think, apart from the dark systems and constraints that oppress us all. No real monsters, except the monsters that we turn ourselves - and each other - into. Of those, Minos may be the strangest, but he is not unique, simply the most visible of his type, showing something common to all.

This is an extraordinary book, and it's one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about Once a Monster, see the publisher's website here.

19 September 2023

#Blogtour #Review - The Opposite of Lonely by Doug Johnstone

Cover for book "The Opposite of Lonely" by Dough Johnstone. Against a background of clashing seas, a row of "dragons' teeth" anti-tank defence - tapered concrete posts - stretched away into the distance, running alongside the right had side of a causeway leading to an island with concrete structures visible on it. Three figures in silhouette are just visible walking away along the causeway towards the island.
The Opposite of Lonely (The Sleeks, 5)
Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books, 28 September 2023
Available as: PB, 276pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585807 

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

It's great to welcome the Skelfs back, three generations of women who run an undertakers and act as private investigators in modern Edinburgh. Over the four previous books readers of this series will have come to regard them as friends, the stories as notable for their nuanced and gentle relationships between them as for the crime plots and twists (of which Johnstone is however an absolute master). 

The Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah are faced here with as puzzling a collection of mysteries as they have encountered before - and ones where personal issues are entwined with professional challenges. 

Anti Traveller prejudice raises its head as a caravan is burned down after the firm provide a sendoff for one of the community. A stranger haunts funerals in the city. What is he up to, and what can be done about him? Jenny - whose ex sister-in-law set fire to the funeral parlour, stole her brother's body, and vanished - is asked to find the missing woman. And Hannah, still wrestling with her PhD, is investigating threats to Scotland's first woman astronaut and her wife (who seems to think she "came back wrong" from the International Space Station).

These cases are entwined with the firm's routine work: helping the bereaved to send off their loved ones, and sometimes standing in when the dead have nobody to mourn. For this last act in their existence on  Earth, Grandmother Dorothy, mother/ daughter Jenny and granddaughter/ daughter/ wife Hannah believe that everybody should be the opposite of lonely.

I read this book with a strong degree of personal buy-in. My mother died suddenly a few months ago. Her funeral was the first one I'd had to arrange, and I was very sensitive reading this book to the degree to which Johnstone has the Skelfs negotiate real issues at a time when, with grief raw, their customer will have no real guiderails. He's clearly done his research in this, and to me, does a magnificent job recognising the feelings that will flow: grief, guilt, loss, the sense of endings and lost opportunities. As The Opposite of Lonely makes clear, the Skelf women are themselves still mourning various losses too.

The mystery aspects of this book are, as ever, skilfully designed and turn out not to be random acts but to be deeply and plausibly rooted in the characters that Johnstone develops. The Skelf family (and I'm including Hannah's wife Indy here) have developed,  or perhaps I should say, grown, through Johnstone's previous books so that they are reliable emotional gauges of what's going on. We know how they will react to particular things, to threats or opportunities that approach, so we can judge the emotional pitch of the story by their responses. And as the three women have somewhat different outlooks - Dorothy, approaching the end of her life, rather elegiac, Jenny seething, still battling her demons, Hannah rather perplexed by the life before her - we'll get their slightly different takes on everything. Like Feynman diagrams, the full result is only reached by adding up these different contributions. Or perhaps, it's as if Johnstone projects the emotions of the story with a variety of notes, not just one, or perhaps, as if he's giving us a hologram, not just a flat photograph? (I hope all this makes sense!)

Of course, as a Skelfs story, this isn't all about emotional depth and resonance, though they are there, there's also action and peril, and indeed one of the most nailbiting conclusions I can remember in this series, one which opens up some new possibilities going forward.

What else? Well I still miss poor Einstein, of course, I was glad to see Dorothy as driven with her social mission here as with her business (Johnstone thereby giving us I hope a new regaular character who I'll enjoy finding out more about in future) and, of course, the heartbeat of Edinburgh life drums throughout the book, an accompaniment to Dorothy's playing.

In short, another Skelf masterpiece.

For more information about The Opposite of Lonely, 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 Opposite of Lonely 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 fot book "The Opposite of Lonely" by Dough Johnstone.

14 September 2023

#Review - Adama by Lavie Tidhar

Book "Adama" by Lavie Tidhar. A red hand holding a golden stalk of grain, heavy with ears.
Lavie Tidhar
Head of Zeus, 14 September 2023
Available as: HB, 391pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781804543467

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of Adama to consider for review.

Following last year's Maror, and with some of the same characters and events referenced, Adama is another part of Lavie Tidhar's examination of the history of modern Israel. I'm impressed by just how productive Tidhar is - he's also exploring the mythological roots of  England, having worked through Arthurian mythology and Robin Hood. Israel/ Palestine, it might be argued, has less mythology and more history to it, and certainly Maror/ Adama aren't fantastical in the way that By Force Alone and The Hood are, but I'd argue that decomposing mythology is EXACTLY what he is about here too. And he does it very effectively.

Adama is loosely focussed on Kibbutz Trashim, and we follow its history through the lives of several generations of members, beginning with Ruth in the years just before the founding of Israel and witnessing the country's birth in war and its development, alongside that of the community. The story is bookended by the death of Ruth's daughter, Esther, in Florida in the early 2000s and the discovery of heirlooms - photographs, trinkets - by her daughter Hanna. Hanna has no idea of their context or identity, although we will learn more in the course of the book. I did find this discovery of bits of a mother's life a powerful theme - my own mother died a few months ago and I so relate to this experience, this realisation that there was much one didn't know, and that now it's too late. 

Ruth was, it becomes clear, an idealist, who travelled to Palestine to be part of the founding of her nation. And if that founding requires sacrifice, or casualties, whether Ruth's comrades, the kibbutz's Arab neighbours, or British soldiers, well. Ruth is later joined by her sister Shosh, who survived the Holocaust: for Shosh, Trashim - and Israel - are less a yearned for destination than a necessary (and perhaps temporary) refuge. This tension between those who belong - or want to belong - and those who want more, is a recurring theme, one that also runs through the kibbutz's generations of children. It's a sad theme, and time and again people are lost - they die, they vanish, they just leave. There's a stripping away across the generations with the communal life of the kibbutz repelling some and the hard-won community itself mutating into something its founders might not recognise.

Adama is not a book for the squeamish. It features the removal or killing of the kibbutz's Arab neighbours. It features war, with its attendant atrocities. In the later years, crime gangs feature: and like Maror, there's an issue about where they end, and where organs of the State begin. And, of course, it features scenes from and immediately after the Holocaust itself. Indeed another recurring motif is the camp - whether the Nazi extermination camps, the camps which housed displaced persons after the war, those established by the British for the Jews trying to reach Palestine, or - perhaps - later, Trashim itself and by extension, the entire country.

The scenes featuring refugees on leaky boats trying to cross the Mediterranean can't fail, I think, to evoke those now fleeing from South to North in the same waters - as can those where we see the Jewish inmates of the British camps in Palestine being deported to Cyprus. How little the world seems to have learned.

But the book isn't at all despairing. Told in fifteen parts, some of them fairly lengthy, self-contained (but linked) stories, as with the Hollywood film made on location in the fifties, often referenced after; some of them little vignettes - a group of children running away to find the sea, two mothers chatting and smoking outside the communal nursery while they wait to see their kids - Adama is like a tapestry, each new piece adding something to all the rest, giving us a gallery of believable characters and a host of storylines, some fully explored, some merely hinted at. And yes, as often in Tidhar's writing there are overtones in some of this of noir and references to pulp fiction including to stories of a 1940s Jewish detective.

For a book which is not in any sense a doorstop, Tidhar manages to pack Adama with so much. It teems with history, with life, with joy and sorrow, music and love, revenge, heartbreak, above all perhaps with that inevitable, universal process of losing by which what was dear and familiar to one generation becomes marginal to the second and incomprehensible to the third. 

Overall an absorbing, thought-provoking book.

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

12 September 2023

#Review - The Graveyard Shift by Maria Lewis

Cover for book "The Graveyard Shift" by Maria Lewis. Against e red background, a pair of headphones, in black. Below, a stylised city skyline - or possible a display of audio levels? Cast over all, the shadow of a hand clutching a knife.
The Graveyard Shift
Maria Lewis 
Datura Books, 12 September 2023 
Available as: PB, 400pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781915523068

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance e-copy of The Graveyard Shift to consider for review.

I always look forward to Maria Lewis's books. Her recently completed urban fantasy series, Supernatural Sisters, was thoroughly good from beginning to end, introducing many vivid and relatable characters and more, taking the time and trouble to develop those characters over several books as well as to engage with real-word issues.

The Graveyard Shift seems to be more standalone, and is firmly in the crime genre rather than the supernatural, but in Tinsel Monroe, Lewis has created another unforgettable woman lead. Monroe is the presenter of The Graveyard Shift, a late night/ early morning radio show in Melbourne, Australia, playing music drawn from the horror genre, especially horror/ slasher films. She's proud of what she has achieved, and seems to be respected by her peers and popular with the audience, but after three years at the studio is getting no nearer primetime. Tinsel's boyfriend is clearly a louse, as we see when, after the worst night of her life, he throws a childish tantrum because she's home a bit late. So she's under a lot of stress here, a theme throughout the book.

The reason Tinsel is late is because a caller-in to the show has been murdered while she was on the line. Was the victim targeted because of The Graveyard Shift? Or is there a serial killer out there who resents the horror genre? The police seem to be making no progress,  so it's up to Tinsel and her redoubtable sister Pandora, to move things forward. (Perhaps I shouldn't write the police off utterly - things between Tinsel and the handsome Detective James do seem to be moving forward quite fast, giving this book a definite spin of romance - and some rather steamy scenes at times). 

I loved the way that Lewis has the action in this story emerge from the characters, not just happen to them. Tinsel is a well drawn, if complex, person, and she'll soon gain the reader's sympathy and support. We see her make some misjudgements but she's always ready to get up after them and push on. Tinsel's sister Pandora is if anything even  more of a face of nature, a mother with a toddler to wrangle and, therefore, no time to waste on anything, she is no respecter of persons but offers total support to her sister. The relationship between the two is perfect - it is complex, clearly has depth, and above all, they are absolutely there for each other.

They will need to be. There is plenty of danger in this story as the killer's rampage proceeds, and while Pandora and Detective James do their best to protect Tinsel, she has a way of walking into it. When James is suddenly pulled from the case and goes dark, she realises that she needs to sort things, now, before anyone else is hurt. That leads up to a nailbiting and twisty climax which I absolutely had to finish, late through the hour was.

Filled with the lore and delicious geekiness of the horror subculture, this is an absorbing and assured novel with an unforgettable heroine. Lewis's writing is engaging and witty and absolutely on point (she describes a regretful Tinsel as having been 'dicknotised and stuck with this man [her controlling ex] for three years'. The story is I think in large part about Tinsel breaking free from this toxic relationship, but also from others, and finding her true voice, even surrounded by tragic events - and, as it turns out, in the midst of true danger as the shadowy killer comes and goes. 

A great read.

For more information about The Graveyard Shift, see the publisher's website here 

7 September 2023

#Review - The Burning Time by Peter Hanington

Cover for book "The Burning Time" by Peter Hanington. A panorama of London with the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, overlain by a purple sun and a running man in a trench coat.
The Burning Time
Peter Hanington
Baskerville, 6 July 2023
Available as: HB, 421pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529305265

I'm grateful to Baskerville for sending me a copy of The Burning Time to consider for review.

I was pleased, in reading The Burning Time, to become acquainted with Hanington's journalist hero William Carver, about whom he's written before. Carver is defiantly old school, insisting on his protégé Naz learning shorthand and hewing to the rules of investigative journalism. That marks him out at the BBC as "different" - yet thankfully this isn't a book about how the management want to rid themselves of an irritant, rather Carver is offered qualified support and he navigates a labyrinth of public-private collusion, spin, and cover-up that may go as far as murder.

The central issue is the environment and in particular the COP21 summit in Paris. The PM who's alluded therefore must be Cameron (supported by references to publicity stunts with huskies) although the corrupt culture against which Carver struggles may suggest a different, more recent PM.

The story is told through a number of viewpoints: Carver himself, of course, also Naz, the billionaire scientist and geo-engineer Clive Winner, his right hand woman Jennifer Prepas, and others. Skilful writing by Hanington means that the narrative is never obscured by the variety of plot strands this engenders, nor is it a case of seeing one set of characters bothered and bewildered by things that others - and we readers - know but they don't. Rather, there is a complex yet clear organic narrative being told across many fronts with most of it obscure to most of the participants.

The motives of those we see are correspondingly murky. Yes, we do see a killer at work - but their purpose and employers are not clear at all, while, obviously, creating a nice sense of menace as unsuspecting victims and potential victims go about their business.

A second strand of the story refers to the Pegasus spyware that was discovered being used to monitor, especially, environmental activists and covert activity in the UK targeting those engaged in lawful protest. That, too, will worry the reader that characters they care about may be menaced by those on the dark side. The sense of threat is in synch with wider events, the conviction over the past few years that there are forces who will not stand for change and who will lie, cheat and break the law to preserve their own wealth. Hanington's protagonists therefore seem firmly rooted in the real world, engaged in a very real struggle and subject to real dangers.

Not, then, anything like escapist fiction, but all the same, a tense and well paced mystery that will absorb and engage the reader.

For more information about The Burning Time, see the publisher's website here


5 September 2023

#Review - The Circumference of the World by Lavie Tidhar

The Circumference of the World
Lavie Tidhar
Tachyon, 5 September 2023
Available as: PB, 256pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781616963620 

I'm grateful to Tachyon for sending me an advance e-copy of The Circumference of the World to consider for review.

Lavie Tidhar's new novel is a fiendishly ramified mixture of narratives. In late 90s London, Delia Welegtabit's husband, Levi, has disappeared. Levi may or may not have owned a copy of the elusive novel Lode Stars, upon which pulp legend Eugene Charles Hartley apparently founded a religion (no, definitely NOT that one, despite one of the categories Amazon has filed this book under). A London gangster and his pliant police stooge want the book and engage second hand book dealer, Daniel Chase, to find it. 

That's the first layer. We also learn about Delia's early life on the island of Vanuatu (also visited by Hartley) and about Hartley's career and life - part of this is told through letters to and about Hartley by various early SF luminaries - Tidhar rendering many different voices here, all totally believably.

We also read an extract from The Book itself, the story of (another) Delia seeking her lost father deep in space, the setting keying into a mythology that Hartley either believed or invented. It's all about the destination of humankind, which is to both swept into a black hole at the centre of the galaxy and preserved as information. All of these narrative levels interact, with coincidences, names and versions of names, apparent timeslips and repeated themes (shadows, eyes). Some of these might be explained by Hartley's authorship of Lode Stars and his making allusions to the works of his contemporaries: others - less so.

Gangster Oskar Lens's career as a black market dealer in the failing Soviet Union features too, as does the London second-hand book scene ('My highest ambition had always been to open my own bookshop on Cecil Court'). It's a bewildering ride through 20th century history and the birth of modern SF (taking in the rise of modern conventions, as well as gatherings in a Holborn pub) something Tidhar has deep knowledge of (it was fun to spot allusions, especially in the Lode Stars extract, to names, themes and artefacts from various genre classics: I'm sure I missed many). It is though much more than that, touching on questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life as well as - perhaps - commenting on how the SF writer of a religion may be affected by that and, possibly, escape the trap he's set himself. 

There is some lovely wordplay here ('Dewey-eyed librarians') as well as nice pulpy (but culturally appropriate) language ('Paperbacks started back at me from the shelves without saying a damn thing', 'My aunt had died of cancer. She wasted away like a cigarette.') as well as starkly beautiful language ('I felt the press of stars overhead, and they were cold, and bright, and indifferent.')

I really enjoyed The Circumference of the World. As a book, it is a thing of its own, not like anything I'd come across before, but a great read crammed with ideas and glorious writing: there is simply so much material here, I think some writers could and would make 3 or 4 books of it but we have all that concentrated in a short novel. Somehow that compression means that - like matter spiralling into a black hole - everything here simply lights up, bathing the reader with its intense radiation.

An amazing read, strongly recommended.

For more information about The Circumference of the World, see the publisher's website here

4 September 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Murder at the Residence by Stella Blómkvist

Cover for book "Murder at the Residence" by Stella Blómkvist. In black and white, a church with a low steeple, white waist and small windows. Behind it, partly obscured, a grand house. There is a light dusting of snow on the ground.
Murder at the Residence (Translated by Quentin Bates)
Stella Blómkvist
Corylus Books, 28 August 2023
Available as: PB, 266pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN: 9781739298920

I'm grateful to Ewa at Corylus Books for sending me a copy of Murder at the Residence to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

I've been eager to share this review, as the book's central character is something of a paradox. 

In the years after the financial crash, as Icelandic society buckles under the political and fiscal strain, lawyer Stella Blómkvist pursues her practice in Reykjavík - in a book written by author Stella Blómkvist, a figure whose identity none has yet deduced, but who seems to move in high circles.

Murder at the Residence certainly appears to reflect a degree of personal knowledge, as author Blómkvist has her protagonist entangled with the murder of a leading financier after a Government reception, with a possible attempted coverup of what looks like dark and murky secrets.

Blómkvist (the lawyer) is an interesting figure. Raising a daughter alone, and pursuing her professional and personal life around nursery drops and family mealtimes, she's fearless, willing to go out on a limb, clashing both with the Reykjavík police (portrayed here as distinctly unreconstructed, happy to crack down on protesters but slow to take action to protect trafficked women) and the city's underworld. All this is against a background of anger at the way Iceland has been impoverished by financiers, and active protests besieging Parliament.

Yet lawyer Blómkvist isn't, perhaps, squeaky clean. She is also preoccupied with the state of the 'Stella Fund', a financial entity that seems to have taken a beating from the the market collapse, and she has her own contacts in Reykjavík's shadier business circles. Those contacts come in useful in resolving the several cases that she deals with in this book. There's the dead financier, a murder that one of her clients is accused of. She's trying to track down a missing young Latvian woman lured into sex work and who may have been spirited out of the country. And she's also searching for the lost daughter of a dying man who wants to make amends. 

I understand that Murder at the Residence is a return for Blómkvist, the character having featured in in an earlier series of books, and the sense of backstory, of a developed character, adds richness to the portrayal here. She is certainly a fascinating and contradictory person, whether haunting the Reykjavík nightclubs looking for fun or tenaciously defending a client. Both aspects of her are used by Blómkvist (the writer) to expose the darker side of Icelandic society (prompting, again, the question of just how much knowledge and experience this story reflects). Quotes from her mother, often cynical ('Time never fails to douse the fires of passion') pepper the text, also suggesting another key relationship about which we know little.

Quentin Bates' assured translation more than does justice to the rapidly unfolding action in this taut and suspenseful story and overall this was a cracking mystery, with a well-drawn and engaging central character, giving a slightly different view of Iceland. I'd strongly recommend it.

About the author and series

Stella Blómkvist has been a bestselling series in Iceland since the first book appeared in the 1990s and has attracted an international audience since the TV series starring Heiða Reed aired. This series features tough, razor-tongued Reykjavík lawyer Stella Blómkvist, with her taste for neat whiskey, a liking for easy money and a moral compass all of her own - and who is at home in the corridors of power as in the city’s darkest nightspots.

The books have been published under a pseudonym that still hasn’t been cracked. The question of Stella Blómkvist’s identity is one that crops up regularly, but it looks like it’s going to remain a mystery…

About the translator

Quentin Bates is a writer, translator and journalist. He has professional and personal roots in Iceland that run very deep. He worked as a seaman before turning to maritime journalism. He is an author of a series of nine crime novels and novellas featuring the Reykjavik detective Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir. In addition to writing his own fiction, he has translated books by Guðlaugur Arason, Einar Kárason, and crème de la crème of the Icelandic crime fiction authors Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Óskar Guðmundsson, Jónína Leósdóttir, Sólveig Pálsdóttir and Ragnar Jónasson. Quentin was instrumental in launching IcelandNoir, the crime fiction festival in Reykjavik.

For more information about Murder at the Residence, and to buy the book, 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 also order Murder at the Residence from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.