16 July 2024

#Blogtour #Review - Shrouded by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

Shrouded (Ice and Crime, 7) 
Sólveig Pálsdóttir (translated by Quentin Bates)
Cory's Books, 25 July 2024e, 
Available as: PB, 270pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 97817392989-6-8 

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

This was a welcome return for the Ice and Crime series. Shrouded is the seventh book in the series but the fourth to have been published in English (so, there's more goodness to come!) and I hadn't realised until I started on it how much I've come to rely on having one of these in my life each year.

It's also a welcome return to Guðgeir Fransson and Elsa Guðrún, the detectives who have to identify the killer of reclusive, set-in-her-ways Arnhildur. The pair are now familiar bookfriends, and it was great catching up on their families and preoccupations.

So, to the murder... we see Arnhildur's death at the start of the novel, and a creepy set-up it is if ever there was one, involving a séance and a spooky graveyard at night. Once the investigation begins, the question inevitably arises - Is this the sort of woman one would expect to be at a séance - what brought her there, and who was the mysterious man she left with?

In fact, "spooky" is a good word to sum up this story. As the investigation proceeds on its scientific, 21st century course, we start to see glimpses of another, older Iceland, a country of different beliefs, of inherited abilities, a country that takes the weird in its stride. I was particularly struck that, while some of the characters here choose not to pursue that spooky side of things, nobody outright rejects it. The interplay between the two attitudes is fascinating, contributing to a sense that something is just a little bit off, a sense that builds into a rising tension as the story unfolds.

At the centre of that "spooky" strand is an unusual young man, the medium from the séance, who seems to be going through his own torment. Is he involved in the crime? Is he a charlatan? Or does he have insights that might help crack the case. If he does, they're certainly tormenting him. If he doesn't, surely his guilt is clear? Either way, he seems to know too much.

Through all this, a pattern of events gradually unfolds, a pattern rooted in the history of Arnhildur and her family. Drawing together old wrongs, a bitter feud over family property and a whole set of lives blighted by a tragic accident, the book illustrates - perhaps - the consequences of holding grievances and indulging in too much stubborn self-reliance. The story is, in the end, intricate, twisty, and, while I kind-of anticipated the penultimate twist, still surprising to the very end.

Apart from the intricacies of the crime itself, Shrouded has plenty of incident (and interest) as it records the lives of Guðgeir, Elsa and their families. It's actually rather comforting to see them going about their lives around the investigation, though a new strain of tension is added by Guðgeir's concerns about his and Elsa's boss, Særós, who's somehow slightly distracted and less meticulous than usual. What can be wrong, in such a well-ordered life?

Another excellent instalment in this series which gives us more than just mysteries, but also heart in its varied cast of characters and their complex lives. As ever, Quentin Bates's translation is crisp and readable, providing a good idiomatic read while still making it clear, with a distinct use of language, that we are not in Britain now.

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

27 June 2024

#Review - The Days of Our Birth by Charlie Laidlaw

The Days of Our Birth
Charlie Laidlaw
Rampart Books, 27 June 2024
Available as: e   
Source: Advance copy

I'm grateful to the author for sending me a copy of The Days of Our Birth to consider for review.

The Days of Our Birth follows the lives of Sarah and Peter, born on the same day and who live next door to one another as kids in the coastal town of North Berwick, a few miles from Edinburgh. Birthdays are key moments in this book as the two move towards adulthood, growing into a joint tradition for the two, into joint celebrations.

Until they're not...

We meet Sarah first, 20 years on, working in an office job in London - and separate from Pete. We then gradually learn the how and the why of that separation, returning to their sixth birthday where the story proper begins then moving forward as the two kids grow up. It's in many ways an ordinary story, leading us through school, family tensions, adolescence and loss. But in many ways it's not "ordinary" at all - what does that even mean when we are all so different? - and Laidlaw captures well, I think, that awkward fence-sitting we all do as we process where we - and our friends - fit in. 

Or don't. 

This is encapsulated by the difference between Peter and Sarah, and the nature of Sarah herself. She doesn't fit in easily with other kids - 'psycho Sarah' they call her at school. Nor is she comfortable in her office job, or perhaps, no, she is comfortable but others aren't comfortable with her. It takes her deliberate effort to understand what others pick up unconsciously. Sarah tends to take things literally. She is, people increasingly decide, on a spectrum, of some kind. Yet to Pete, Sarah is just, well, Sarah.

As the parent of two children diagnosed with special needs, I felt that Laidlaw's portrayal of Sarah was sensitive, nuanced and, above all, rounded. That's partly achieved by the way this book is constructed - showing both kids developing, but doing it from different perspectives, both Peter's and Sarah's, sometimes exploring the same incident immediately from both points of view, sometimes allowing one or the other to comment on it later in light of experience, of adulthood, and of their later understanding. The book takes time to explore the messy reality of human beings, showing what led to the two being the people they are and sometimes, using that adult perspective, what was going that we weren't told about first time round. Thus it can catch the reader out in making assumptions which are later corrected.

This is, indeed, a book that challenges assumptions and shows that, regardless of what boxes we're told we tick, each and every one of us is a unique, complex individual. Peter and Sarah make many mistakes in the course of their fascinating relationship - as do those around them - but it's only when losing sight of this truth that things really go wrong for either of them. Lose sight of it they do from time to time, though, and it's a mark I think of how real Laidlaw has made these characters that when we see that happening it actually hurts, these are people you want to prosper emotionally - but in a harsh world with lots of other noise and so much to learn, is it realistic to believe that may ever be possible?

A super, stunning book from Charlie Laidlaw.

For more information about The Days of Our Birth, see the author's website here and the publisher here. You can purchase it from Amazon here.

25 June 2024

#Review - Ashram Assassin by Andrew Cartmel

Ashram Assassin (Paperback Sleuth 2) 
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 25 June 2024
Available as: PB, 320pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803367927

I'm grateful to Titan for giving me access to an advance e-copy of Ashram Assassin to consider for review.

The Paperback Sleuth is back!

Yes, Cordelia Stanmer, brother of the execrable Stinky, the Vinyl Detective's nemesis, is in print again. Not to mention, in deadly danger.

Of course Cordelia's much nicer than her brother (though I wouldn't let her into my library and turn my back) and three hundred pages spent in her company was just what I needed among the current gloom (and manky weather). In this story, she's managed to weasel her way back into the yoga ashram from which she was earlier banned for dealing weed - but only if she can track down a cache of rare books that were stolen from the Silverlight Yoga Centre. (No, Cordelia didn't nick them herself). There's a substantial amount of money on offer too, so she sets about the task eagerly - but soon the bodies begin to pile up, and close to home.

Like the Vinyl Detective stories, Cartmel gives us a great sense of place in this story as Cordelia ranges through Putney and Barnes dodging various perils and meeting up with a number of curious characters (there is a little crossover with the other series, notably in an episode that involves Agatha and Nevada). Apart from the detecting, there's plenty of book-hunting in charity shops, sales and also a focus on food with poor Cordelia constantly baulked in her quest for the fine product from the kitchen of Carrie Quinn, the Curry Queen.

Carmel also has a good eye for character, and from the yummy mummies who seem to represent the modern clientele of the ashram to a medley of more raffish characters who have hung on from its past. he's good at exposing the contradictions and pretensions of modern life (sorry, yes that sentence is my entry for Pseud's Corner, but at the same time, it's true) especially in this perplexing semidetached part of London where buying a shed in the 70s makes you a millionaire in the 20s. I don't think there';s meant to be any moral in all that, but at the same time, the complexity of life and the murkiness of motivation behind the most seemingly noble actions is laid bare.

In Ashram Assassin, at any rate, this complexity also masks the truth about the theft. Red herrings abound and the Sleuth needs all her wits about her, because the disappearance of the books is entwined with an unlikely history that is rooted in the ashram's past, and which threatens its future - as well as hers.

With sharp characterisation, witty dialogue and abundant surprises, Ashram Assassin is compulsively readable, perhaps (slightly) even more so than Death in Fine Condition, but, above all, simply fun. 

Strongly recommended.

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

20 June 2024

#Review - A Novel Love Story by Ashley Poston

A Novel Love Story
Ashley Poston
HQ (Harpercollins), 25 June 2024 
Available as: HB, 384pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780593640999

I'm grateful to the publisher for  giving me access to an advance e-copy of A Novel Love Story  to consider for review.

"There was only one road in, and one road out of Eloraton, New York, and most people never took it.'

I've been enjoying Poston's novels - The Dead Romantics, The Seven Year Slip - which take modern women in a romantic dilemma and put them in a setting with just a touch of magic or fantasy. Often set in the literary or publishing worlds they both fulfil and reference the romance genre, though also creating a background to that which allows things to be seen from quite a different perspective.

And they're all compelling, deeply readable and funny.

In A Novel Love Story, Eileen (don't, please, mention That Song to her) finds herself on a road trip to the remote (it's a 2 day drive!) New York State cabin where she will meet with her book group for a week's escape from a life with which it's clear she feels increasingly frustrated. Professionally she's stuck, romantically, she was dumped by her fiancé on the eve of their wedding. Book group has helped her get over that, up to a point, but as becomes clear, only up to a point.

So when Eileen gets lost in a rainstorm and drives into Eloraton she's perhaps more than ready - though she doesn't know it - for a slightly out of this world romantic adventure. Eloraton really is the perfect town, with sweet little shops, cosy cafes, a bookshop, a square and clocktower, and friendly residents. In Eloraton, it always rains in the afternoon, and the burgers in the Grumpy Possum Cafe are always overcooked (but redeemed by the town's famed hot sauce). 

Best of all, Eileen knows Eloraton, and she knows the townsfolk, because it is the setting for her favourite series of romances, sadly uncompleted since the author, Rachel Flowers, passed away. Perhaps while she's staying, Eileen can discover what Rachel intended for the last book of the series, which she never finished? Or perhaps she can lend a little help to the characters from the earlier books, who seem, well, a little... stuck... since their creator passed on?

What she's NOT going to do, of course, is get involved with Anders, the man she nearly ran down when she arrived. The grumpy man who runs the town bookshop but who never appeared in any of the stories. No, Eileen has no interest in Anders AT ALL.

What follows is fun and funny and meta (Eileen knows the rules of these stories, the Happy-for-Nows, the happy-ever-Afters). She also knows much more about the background of everyone she meets than she dares let on, she's read the books, after all). There's a mystery to the Brigadoon-like Eloraton, a mystery which seems to be bound up with Anders. Who can Rachel have intended him to fall in love with, and how can Eileen make sure she doesn't interrupt that?

Because, once Eileen arrives things do begin to change...

I really, really loved this story. Eileen is a great character to spend time with. An academic, she's feeling stalled at work - she always get assigned to teach the 8am class - and is pleased to throw herself into sorting out the good poeople of Eloraton, who she thinks she understands so well. But knowledge is not wisdom and Eileen can be, perhaps, rather over direct in her ways as she tries to set people on their right path. Eileen is great to spend time with but also, perhaps, annoying at times. So it's not surprising when sparks fly between  her and Anders. Poston sets about this central relationship with glee. Of course there are conventions to be met here but also, conventions to be subverted. Both Anders and Eileen are well aware of these, making their relationship even more spiky and even more funny (at times).

A satisfying book to read, pretty hard to put down and one where the keen eyed reader will spot some links to other parts of the Poston-verse.

I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about A Novel Love Story, see the publisher's website here.

18 June 2024

#Review - Cuckoo by Gretchen Felker-Martin

Gretchen Felker-Martin
Titan Books, 11 June 2024
Available as: PB, 342pp,  e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803367569

I'm grateful to Titan Books for sending me a copy of Cuckoo  to consider for review.

Cuckoo is a novel of two parts - and I need to be careful what I say about the second for fear of spoiling the first. 

In that first part, set in the 90s USA, we see a number of queer kids consigned to a brutal camp by their parents in order to make them "normal". The detail of this is enraging in the extreme, the children are in effect kidnapped by hired thugs and trafficked to a remote desert site where they are to be worked till they drop, physically punished, and indoctrinated. The details are harrowing.

The book is about more than. suffering, though. Felker-Martin takes time to ensure we come to know each of the kids - some of whom are gay, some lesbian, some trans. Some of them, of course, just aren't sure and had been trying to explore their identities, or grow into them, until discovered by parents, schoolmates or other adults. Of course the world often isn't a clearcut place and so we also hear tales of eating disorders, abuse and loss - and of love and infatuation.  A significant theme is the variance in the behaviour of the kids, reflecting their developing understanding of themselves and the relationships that develop. As you'd expect, some of them are brave (and suffer for it), others try to keep their heads down  ("do your time") while others cooperate with the new regime. 

All, though, begin to sense there is more to this than appears. Behind the straightforward prejudice and abuse, there is clearly something else going on - as we already know form the short prologue. The bigotry and hate that occasions the place is real enough but it it also enables something that is, if anything, even worse. The book's blurb gives pointers to a number of alien abduction/ replacement themes here so I will cite those, but I'm not going to say any more about exactly what is happening - I will let you unpick the horrifying details for yourself! The only thing I will add is that, in a cruel twist for all involved, Felker-Martin deftly inverts the trope of parents feeling their kids have been "replaced", that they aren't theirs any more, to consider families which, in fact, desire that, want to remake their children into something they're not - and of what the results might be. Themes of identity, honesty and truth are never far from the surface, with the abductees needing to discover very fast who they really are and what they really want, if they're to survive.

Of course, doing that has its costs and we see some of that in the shorter second part, where the survivors of the camp come together again. Felker-Martin shows us that mere survival didn't guarantee a happy-ever-after, the now adults have been through too much and are not each others' best friends, but they need to be together again and to face an awful truth. The conclusion is perhaps inevitable but nonetheless is filled with tension, it will have the reader totally hooked, desperate to see how things turn out and what the cost might be.

The only negative for me - and very much a personal matter of taste - was that at times, Felker-Martin uses a stream-of-consiousness technique to convey the emotional state and intensity of experiences. This creates long passages which, for me, were almost unreadable; after three or four lines, the sense of the writing just seems to get lost. Some readers will love these, I know. They are not though so frequent as to distract greatly from the narrative.

Overall, a tense and compulsive novel albeit one I had to set aside at time when it became almost too tense. 

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

13 June 2024

#Review - The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

The Butcher of the Forest
Premee Mohamed
Titan Books, 27 February 2024
Available as: HB, 144pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781803368726

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Butcher of the Forest  to consider for review.

The Butcher of the Forest is a small, but perfectly formed, classically structured fairytale. Veris's world is ruled by a tyrant, a pitiless if mysterious figure who has massacred men, women and children in conquering the valley where she lives. It is hinted that he is only the latest conqueror and, by implication, that his reign will not last - but for now, he commands all.

All, expect for the North Woods, a place of otherworldly danger into which his children have been lured. Veris is the only person known to have visited the North Woods and retrieved lost kids, so she's summoned, threatened, and sent to rescue them. If she doesn't succeed, her family and village will be slaughtered.

The main part of the story is taken up by Veris's quest, with its necessary compromises, with the skill and cunning that a woman must use to survive in a hostile country, and with her moral wrangling against herself. These children are innocent, aren't they? Why shouldn't they have a chance at a life, and a chance to be better than their father? But - won't they inevitably turn into the next Tyrants?

What is Veris to do?

Does she really have a choice?

I loved the way that the story is constructed both as a classic fairytale - into the woods, indeed! - but also has this real moral edge. Abstracted into a dreamland that has its own rules, Veris still knows that there are consequences from what she does, in the waking world. And even in the Woods, there are consequences, bargains to be made, and a price to be borne. Navigating both in parallel, as it were, seems an impossible task.

The writing in Premee Mohamed's story is focused and clear, apparently simple yet with layers of meaning. A quest seems the most basic of structures yet in these hands - as well as being an entertaining tale - it becomes a lyrical commentary on the value and purpose of life, and on the need not to duck hard choices.

A brilliant story, really, and short enough to devour in one sitting, so actually the best kind of story!

For more information about The Butcher of the Forest, see the publisher's website here.

11 June 2024

#Review - The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird by Louisa Morgan

The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird
Louisa Morgan
Orbit, 21 November 2023
Available as: PB, 371pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356516837

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird to consider for review.

I have enjoyed all of Morgan's "witch" novels and I enjoyed Beatrice Bird too. While it's a bit of an outlier in not making overt use of the same witchy mythos, with the supernatural here being less clearly delineated and understood, the theme and tone in very similar and Bird succeeds in giving us both a slightly creepy tale and the account of a woman suffering from controlling, collusive patriarchy. (As to the latter, the position of the women here is in many respects even more constrained than in the earlier, historically based novels where they at least had some freedom of action within an understood domain of their own).

Beatrice is a successful doctor, a therapist practicing in San Francisco among the happenings of the late 60s (there are some drug-related themes) and the downer years of the early 70s. The novel's "present" is 1977, but there are many flashbacks, both to Beatrice's earlier life (as a child, and then to her practice and patients) and to that of Anne Iredale, of whom more in a moment. 

Beatrice has a special skill/ talent/ sense in that she can perceive "ghosts", as she calls them. These aren't chain clanking, sheet-waving spectres, rather they are "hauntings" that express truths about people, emotions such as their sorrow or anger. This talent developed early - Morgan shows us its beginnings in Beatrice's rural childhood - and one would imagine that it would be useful to her in her practice, but in truth she has become more sensitive to these "ghosts" than she can bear, seeing them tag along not only with her patients but in every street and shop too. As the story opens, has retreated to a small island off the US West Coast where there are few people and so, few ghosts. Beatrice does though have her two cows, and is trying to live a peaceful life, supplying milk to the island convent whose sisters, happily, leave her mostly alone.

It's to this island that Anne comes, fleeing domestic abuse. Of course that means she brings with her fear, guilt, and regret, things that Beatrice would rather not have to cope with, especially not personified as her "ghosts", - but also something even nastier, something with a real sense of horror to it. Is it an actual thing, or has Beatrice tipped over and begun losing her mind?

How these two women come to know and trust one another, and build on that trust to address (rather than running away from) their problems is the heart of this book. But first we have to learn what both, especially Anne, have been through, in scenes that some readers may find distressing. These show how Anne falls into the control of a manipulative bully of a man, how she blames herself, and what she is up against more widely - her abuser is a judge, a Big Man in the small world he inhabits and his word dictates her future (she has no friends, having been cut off by her abuser from any support network).

Such behaviour and its indulgence hasn't of course gone away in the 21st century, but by locating her story in the 70s I think Morgan makes the stakes very high, with little public or official awareness of the issue and no support for its victims. Anne gets some help from the Roman Catholic nuns - in passing I have always enjoyed how Morgan's novels, even with their witchy heroines, refuse to subscribe to a binary world where organised religion is simply demonised - but it's only once Anne and Beatrice are able to understand one another that they can both begin to heal and to address the formidable difficulties - no, dangers - that threaten. The supernatural twist to the story means that Beatrice has unusual resources to draw on here, but it doesn't magically resolve everything, that takes human courage, solidarity and not a little cleverness.

Another great, and rather different, book from an author I rely on to give me a fresh view on life.

For more information about The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird, see the publisher's website here.

6 June 2024

#Review - The Chamber by Will Dean

The Chamber
Will Dean
Hodder, 6 June 2024
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781399734127

I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me access to an advance e-copy of The Chamber to consider for review.

'Never get ahead of your hat'.

The first thing to say is that Will Dean's new thriller The Chamber deserves an award for 'most high pressure novel of the year'. Literally, because the events of the story take place in a diving capsule that's been pressurised to deep sea conditions. Our protagonists are therefore breathing 'helox', a mixture of helium and oxygen - and, as main character Ellen points out, they all speak with squeaky voices which have to be decoded electronically for those outside.

An amusing thought, or it would be, if the events that befall Ellen and her five companions weren't so grim.

The Chamber does a fine job, I think, of portraying the strenuous conditions under which the divers survive. They're meant to be in the pressurised chamber for a month, attending to repairs on North Sea oil equipment on daily shifts without the need for further compression and decompression. Saturation diving like this - 'Sat' - isn't for the fainthearted, it's only for the best of the best. Everyone in the chamber has proved their ability through years of hard work and rigorous (and expensive) training. Ellen is one of the few women working at the top - or perhaps I should say at the bottom - of this industry and the role has cost her, as we find out. As it's cost her companions. They are all risking health effects from the saturation conditions and from the accidents caused by stress on the equipment (there are constant references to rust). The month away from home wrecks family and home life for men and women, though Ellen is subject to judgments which aren't made of her male colleagues. She is seen as sacrificing her family life, they aren't. 

There are also the peculiar economic conditions of the role - everyone is a self-employed contractor - which breed grudges and quarrels in what is a small world of jobs and workers. The nature of the work, providing, as it does, basic accommodation and meals - 'three hots and a cot' - fosters institutionalisation (there are comparisons both with the Armed Forces and with prisons) encouraging the divers back out, away from the perplexities and decisions of ordinary life.

So when things begin to go wrong, with Ellen and her mates imprisoned until a 5-day descompression can be undertaken, the fingers of blame point in all direction.

Dean is excellent at conveying all this through snatches of Ellen's life, chat between the divers, anecdotes about friends a rivals. But beyond that, this is an incredibly tense book. Literally a locked-room mystery, the divers are thrown on their own resources both to investigate what's happening and to protect themselves from further harm. The conditions they're in tend to paranoia even when things are going well, with phantasms and imagination a risk of long, lonely hours, isolation, and pressure. But in a macho world - even for women! - certain subjects are avoided, or at least, kept to be discussed on shore. 

With its lapses in the narration, its room for speculation about what is going on outside the chamber and its sense there are things we're not being told, the story develops an almost eerie mood which Dean contributes to by dropping references to the Scottish Play through the narrative, fitting given the location of the North East coast of Scotland (one of the main characters, it soon emerges, lives in Cawdor). See how many you can get - there is a Malcolm here, I also spotted Dunsinane, a MacDuff, numerous quotes and of course, in the chamber infection control is key so there's plenty of hand washing...

That play, I'd remind you, deals not only with a power struggle but with temptation, with an outside direction to do evil. It's a direction that one may or may not resist. There may be a connection in The Chamber: what is going on outside, and what evils, what temptations, have our characters brought in with them?

The story gets even more tense as we near the conclusion. This one kept me up past bedtime as I had to finish it. A superb piece of writing that I'd recommend strongly.

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

30 May 2024

#Blogtour #Review - Elusive by Genevieve Cogman

Genevieve Cogman
Pan Macmillan/ Tor, 23 May 2024
Available as: HB, 400pp,  audio, e   
Source: Advance e copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529083774

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Elusive to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

The sequel to Cogman's Scarlet, Elusive features the characters, and setting, of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel series in which an English nobleman and his friends, acting anonymously, rescue French aristocrats from the Terror during the Revolution.

In Scarlet, the premise was established, with our reluctant hero, housemaid Eleanor, being "lent" by her vampire (I'll come to that in a moment) employer, Lady Sophie, to Sir Percy Blakeney (the Pimpernel) and his crew to that she can impersonate Marie Antoinette to facilitate a rescue. (Yes, Eleanor closely resembles the French Queen, something which I speculate may be a future plot point). All Eleanor wants is the opportunity to set up as a modiste, earning an honest living through her needleworks skills, but it is not to be.  Cogman draws Eleanor as a convincing protagonist who's not afraid to think for herself, albeit the position she's in is precarious due to the vagaries of the English class system and, of course, patriarchy. Any fear I had that that exploring Orczy's "rescue the aristos" angle might seem dated or crass was rapidly dispelled by the intelligent and engaged way in which Cogman presents the realities of Revolutionary France and the crimes of the ancien regime. She also overcomes that fact that she's probably the only person living now who's read the Pimpernel books and that for many, knowledge of them will be limited to the "They seek him here, they seek him there" verses and the Carry On parody. (Is there a proper literary term for works better known from derivatives and parodies than from the original text?) 

With Elusive, Eleanor pretty much gets her own adventure, driving much of the action (albeit she has to be somewhat underhand about this) and getting back to France, in the absence of Sir Percy (hence the book's title) to stage a diversionary raid on Mont Saint Michel, where a large number of prisoners are held hostage. 

As we learned in Scarlet, vampires are a thing in this world, indeed they're one of the evils against which the people of France rose. The vampires formerly had enemies in the order of magicians/ sorcerers who they defeated and had expunged from history. Eleanor just happens though to have the should have the last remaining sorcerer, Anima, hitching a ride with her. And Anima has her own plans, which also involve Mont Saint Michel...

I loved Scarlet, but now I find I actually enjoyed Elusive even more. Eleanor has much more licence here and is less subject to others' machinations and orders. The relationship with Anima, her unexpected passenger, grows and develops, the two very different women struggling with, but learning to understand and trust, one another. Eleanor has grown, and deepens further here in her understanding of the world, and wherever her story is going, it isn't leading to her becoming an enthusiastic lackey of the British Establishment: she can see the reasons for the Revolution, and enthusiastically urges another young woman, freed from captivity, to strive to make it a better Revolution. There's a questioning side to Eleanor's nature which contrasts with the other members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. They may be perfectly affable, honourable young men by their own lights, they are brave and by no means stupid, but nor have been servants and so they are comfortable with a level of privilege and wealth which is only maintained by repression. 

Eleanor sees more clearly.

This story is both more straightforward and more layered than its predecessor. More straightforward, in that it's clearer from the start what Eleanor faces, and what she is doing. We don't have to wait for it to be revealed where the story is going. More layered, because with different factions in play - several different groups of vampires, including the late Marie Antoinette, now one of the undead, the French authorities, personified by Citizen Chauvelin, who has his own difficulties, the sorcerers, whose motivations and fate become clearer and who have some remaining power via Anima, and lots more besides (spoilers!) - Eleanor has to dig deep into her store of knowledge, talent, and courage, and also broaden it with new abilities. She has power, up to a point, but much of her success in this adventure comes rather from persuasion, empathy and quick thinking, in circumstances where a false step could see her and all her friends sent to the guillotine.

As ever in Cogman's books, there is some sharp writing here, both to convey to us the reality of things from Eleanor's viewpoint and to keep the story moving. I especially enjoyed the way that Cogman will have her characters describe a plan, and then jump to the aftermath of its execution, giving the essence of the story without needing to repeat herself. She also often visualises opportunities, situations and schemes as fabrics to be worked rather than timelines, using needlework metaphors to show Eleanor grappling with the difficulties she's in. That's not something I'd come across before and it is a very effective and economical way to portray things.

So - if you loved Scarlet I think you'll love this even more, if you haven't read Scarlet, go and do that!

For more information about Elusive, see the publisher's website here, and of course the other stops on the blogtour, listed on the poster below.

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

28 May 2024

#Review - Moon Road by Sarah Leipciger

Moon Road
Sarah Leipciger
Penguin (Doubleday), 16 May 2024
Available as: HB, 368pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780857526533

I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me access to an advance e-copy of Moon Road to consider for review.

Moon Road is a closely examined account of a grief suspended, diverted, and denied. But it also speaks of endurance and the  possibility of acceptance. It is a sad book, but shot through with hope - and is often very funny. 

Leipciger writes with great heart about the lives of Kathleen and Yannick, and of their daughter, Una. Kathleen and Yannick were married, until they weren't. Yannick marrying and re-marrying and fathering a sequence of kids, Kathleen remaining single. Yet they remained friends. Then, a dreadful thing happens, a thing they can't come together over. Hurt and grieving, they never meet again, not for 19 years, the book opening just as that period comes to an end. What follows is a rackety kind of reunion, a thing of probing and silences and anguish.

I should be clear that this is not always an easy read. We see in flashback the parents' responses to a catastrophe - responses that are, with hindsight, splitting them apart, and because these parts of the story are in flashback, we know there's no happy ending yet. So we see both of them adjusting to grief, perhaps feeling they are trying it on, expecting that normality will reappear, but we know - and they don't - that it's here to stay. It's a credit to Leipciger's writing that these parts of the story, which one might think would drag, sparkle, rather, as we come to appreciate the two awkward, perplexed characters and to understand them as more than containers for grief and hope.

In the present day of this book, Kathleen and Yannick are together again, kind of. Not romantically, but because they need to make a journey across Canada, thousands of miles, to Vancouver Island, where there may be news for them. They can't take a plane, because of Yannick's fear of flight. They can't shortcut through the US, because of his iffy history with the law. So they drive, a couple of septuagenarians, one (Kathleen) with a bad tooth, the other with a dodgy back, made worse by hours of immobility in the car.  Nights are spent in cheap motels, meals taken in diners or skipped. 

It's a road trip, kind of, visiting endless back-of-nowhere towns and the sights and experiences of the journey - from bullying truck drivers to a broken down VW camper (of course). Through this, the two bicker and freeze, melt and share memories, argue about the future and compare versions of the past. We see those lost moments, the ones where you had some perfectly ordinary interaction with another person, one you imagined would be only the latest iteration of a lifelong conversation but which will be the last you hear of them, the final word.

What did he mean by that? 

What if I'd said this instead? 

Why did she leave?

Endless possibilities for guilt and self-rebuke. Through it, Kathleen and Yannick come alive. At first, she's not likeable. Driven by a quest, determined that Una won't be forgotten, she treats others like walk-on actors in her own drama, almost deliberately neglecting herself and her own comfort too (that tooth). It's not that Kathleen sat down and gave up, rather the opposite, she started and runs a flourishing flower nursery after what happened, more that she cuts certain things and feelings out of her life and expects others too as well. Yannick wouldn't, so she cut him out too. On the surface, he's perhaps easier to like but that does unravel through the journey. Yannick is also stubborn and his procession of ex-wives and kids suggests a restlessness, an avoidance of facts.

Now, perhaps, Kathleen and Yannick have a chance to reconsider their choices, if they have the courage to do that. Leipciger works some magic with both, but especially, perhaps, with Kathleen so that by the end of the book I think we understand her much better. I found her - not likeable, exactly, but true, perhaps.

Throughout the novel we're also given glimpses of a young woman - 'our girl' - through a single day whose history will intertwine with the rest. Again, it's an account of a very ordinary day, really, a day that at countless points could have taken different turns. The ordinariness is seen through the lens of knowing that something happened, bringing certain moments into especial forces, as it were, and scattering little crumbs the we'll see the relevance of later. As a consequence, otherwise mundane events and feelings are made significant, their meaning open to interpretation.

The whole thing is a brilliant piece not writing and makes for absorbing reading. It's not a book to race through, there are episodes and threads which demand thought and parts that reward being revisited - my Kindle copy ended up dotted with bookmarks and searches as I went back and forward - but it is deeply rewarding and has remained with me.

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

22 May 2024

#Blogtour #Review - Toxic by Helga Flatland

Helga Flatland (trans Matt Bagguley)
Orenda Books, 23 May 2024 
Available as: PB, 263pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781916788138

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

Listen to the dance tune about the two brothers and the woman from Oslo...

If you're looking for multiple unreliable narrators, family tensions that fairly crackle off the page, obscure secrets and a sense of rural menace, then Toxic is just the book for you. If you don't think you're looking for those things, then I offer you Flatland's involving, complicity-inviting narrative which (in Matt Bagguley's excellent translation) lures in the reader, making them almost an accomplice to the moral gymnastics and self-justifications exhibited herein.

Take Mathilde, for example, a young supply teacher who's - let's use neutral language - entered a relationship with one of her pupils, 18 year old Jakob. The moral and ethical position here is clear, she was in a position of authority and she abused it, yet Flatland still gives us plenty of complexity as Mathilde takes most of the book to dodge any consequences and instead to give us her take on things. 

Or consider those two brothers. Andres and Johs, living on their remote farm far from Oslo. These are the days of Covid, and the progress of the pandemic - and the countermeasures for it - mark this book, phases of lockdown and social distancing disrupting everyone's life. (Although I have to say, the strictness of the measures taken in Norway never quite seems to match my recollection of the UK which felt like three years never leaving the house). The two are scrupulously observed, described through Johs's eyes, incidents of childhood painting the picture as we move to the present day where Andres stands to inherit, having acquired a late interest in farming, full of elaborate plans while Johns, the practical one, does most of the work. Meanwhile, their mother lurks, silently judging them every time they take an afternoon off. (The passive-aggressiveness of their mother, who will always, always sneak in and do a job before one of the boys can, is a joy in itself).

Mathilde's downfall precipitates a flight from Oslo to the country, where she rents an empty cottage on the brothers' farm. If Mathilde's background is complex (her parents dead in a car crash, she was brought up by her aunt, who she always refers to as 'Mum', and some of her most honest moments, the clearest revelations about her life and her - evidently complex, unresolved - relationship  with her birth mother seem to be when the two women share a cigarette) that of the brothers is even more so, both having grown up under the shadow of their grandfather, Johannes.  

Johannes emerges in recollection as a sneering bully, an abuser, a misogynist and a past master at coercive control. Also, a drunkard. He was, however, a superlative fiddle player and the identity of his remaining extended family seems bound up with that fact, with his place in the local culture such that no-one - either family or acquaintance - is willing to point up his faults. The book explores a curious dynamic in that local culture, introducing us to various popular ballads and dances, always with a narrative from Johannes at the start explaining where the music came from, what it's about. Inevitably the theme is proud, disruptive women who are punished for their transgressions in some way, blamed for whatever has gone wrong. This hint of folk horror, a sense of retribution imbued in the very landscape, lifts the setting above what could otherwise rather echo Cold Comfort Farm and gives the narrative a distinctly eerie, mournful cast. 

As Mathilde's behaviour spirals out of control (or is it?) we learn more and more about Johannes's outrages, and see the family's imprisonment (I don't think that's too strong a world) in the patterns of behaviour and the routines and casts of mind that he enforced. It makes for a volatile mix, one, as I said above, humming with tension. Yet it is all expressed and portrayed so coolly. Flatland's, and Bagguley's, language, is mild, focused on details, on characters whose minds wander, on the ordinary daily tasks of a farm. Also, perhaps, expressed in what we're not told, only given hints of.

The title of the story is I think well chosen - there is a sense of toxicity here, of taint, but it's hard to pin down. The frequent preoccupation with the virus, the handwashing, the scares and the distancing heighten this sense of contagion, but perhaps the characters here are missing the real source of danger, the thing that will really contaminate, will harm?

All in all, a marvellous, unnerving read, a book that simply creeps up on you, that gets under your skin and can't be picked out.

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

16 May 2024

#Review - Beyond the Light Horizon by Ken Macleod

Beyond the Light Horizon (Lightspeed Trilogy, 3)
Ken Macleod
Orbit, 16 May 2024
Available as: PB, 400pp audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356514826

I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me access to an advance e-copy of Beyond the Light Horizon to consider for review.

In a complex and satisfying conclusion to Macleod's Lightspeed trilogy, we see the consequences for Earth politics and development of the discovery of faster-than-light travel, and of planets inhabited by other species, become clear.

On a near future Earth, there are three main powers: the Union, a post-revolutionary society run as an "economic democracy" which has originated from the European Union, the Alliance, comprising much of the anglo world, and the Co-ord, bringing together authoritarian Russia and China. The focus is on the Union, which has just caught up with the (secret) FTL capability of the other two powers, and especially on John Grant, a somewhat restless and buccaneering member of the Revolutionary class known as the responsables. It was Grant who sponsored the creation of the Union's first FTL craft, opening a bewildering array of opportunities which he's determined to exploit.

Many of the possibilities flowing from that raise challenging ethical questions - I nearly typed "new" before that, but actually they're not - about the impact of settlement and colonisation on indigenous populations. The flora and fauna in the new planets being explored are so different that the humans are slow - perhaps deliberately slow - in identifying sentient life. They need a lot of help from Iskander, the AI that enables society in the Union, to do this and Iskander's role is, to my mind, somewhat ambiguous here. At least one player, Marcus Owen, the English robot agent, regards it as dangerous to humanity. Equally ambiguous is the alien race known as the Fermi. It may be planning to defend life on, for example, Apis but in the meantime a great deal of damage is being done.

I found it - what's the work - bracing? salutary? - how deftly Macleod portrays realistic outcomes from this situation. The Union is not, for example, a society of self-denying socialist co-operators, at least not until Iskander channels and directs their activity, so there is a very enthusiastic response to the call for colonisers and pioneers without a great deal of thought as to the consequences. Grant and his circle react in a similar way, at one stage proposing a somewhat hare-brained plan to introduce a sort of whaling industry on an untouched world.

Equally impressive is the sheer breadth of imagination shown here in the range of life and of planets supporting it, which all have complex and vibrant histories. Wise societies, some of them, which have accepted natural limits to expansion: restless ones, others, which want to press on and outwards. There is perhaps a bit of s sense of a whistlestop tour at times, because with so much in the background to this trilogy there isn't time to visit most of it. Characters and vessels come and go, trading patterns emerge rapidly and some of the individuals we have been following through the three books are perhaps slightly overshadowed by the pace and scale of events. That is, I think, inevitable and Macleod still manages to give everyone a satisfying resolution, aided in one or two cases by the judicious use of temporal paradoxes (although I lost sight of Owen in the end and couldn't help thinking he was off somewhere engaged in mischief).

Macleod's writing is always engaging, whether it's dropping references to other classic SF with similar themes, such as to 'intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic', to wider SF (a 'hero of the Revolution' who rather decries her public image as 'Red Sonia of [the] Rising', a mention of 'Union Space Marines') or nodding to the agenda of a left-wing meeting with its essential 'any other competent business'. The latter illustrates a distinct point about these books - their mental furniture steers clear of assumptions of a wholly capitalist future (without though adopting the Utopianism of Start Trek). The Lightspeed trilogy is rooted in a very different and distinct conception of future history, making the outworking of the story especially interesting and valuable to me.

All in all, a fitting end to this trilogy which has challenged, intrigued and instructed. Great fun, and never less than thought provoking.

For more information about Beyond the Light Horizon, see the publisher's website here.

14 May 2024

#Review - The House that Horror Built by Christina Henry

The House That Horror Built
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 14 May 2024
Available as: HB, 336pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-cop
ISBN(PB): 9781803364032

I'm grateful to Titan for giving me access to an advance e-copy of The House That Horror Built to consider for review.

Christina Henry's horror stories are always challenging and creepy, but in The House That Horror Built she's really surpassed herself. Explicitly addressing the conventions of the genre, this story also takes on issues of homelessness and economic precariousness ('resentment is a familiar meal when you can't afford contentment'), religious indoctrination and social privilege.

Harry, the lead character, is a single mother scraping a living in Chicago as the US comes out of covid lockdown. Hard up (she's a waitress and of course the restaurants are mostly closed) she's lucky enough - or so it seems - to get a cleaning job with reclusive and scandal-hit film director Javier Castillo. Through Christina Henry's portrayal, Harry emerges as resourceful, stretching her slender means beyond all reasonable expectations to support her son, Gabe (Gabriel) - juggling bills and supermarket coupons, always with an eye on what can be obtained cheaply.

Harry has been estranged from her Fundamentalist parents for decades (they were controlling and abusive - burning her stash of horror magazines was only the start) and the focus of her life is raising Gabe who's a star pupil but just entering those difficult teenage years. Gabe is delighted when Harry scores her new job with Javier, but as he moves further into the director's circles, Harry becomes concerned at events in Bright Horses House, Javier's isolated mansion...

I loved this book. The relationship between Harry and Gabe is wonderfully done. As a parent I can sympathise with the line Harry treads between protecting her son, sacrificing her time and attention for him, and the need not to control, to let him grow. I can also sympathise with Javier, who has his own parenting issues (his wife and son disappeared amid murky rumours of the Hollywood cover-up of a crime the boy may have committed). Harry and Gabe are horror addicts, and it was both scary and funny when they began to dissect events at Bright Horses House in the light of the grammar and conventions of the horror film. I always think horror is at its best when it is successfully self aware, as here, though this is a very difficult thing for authors to get right. To begin with they have to find a really convincing answer to that 'don't go near the old scary house' trope, because both readers and characters are fully aware of it. Here, Harry's poverty helps - but then the setting of the story in the margins of the film industry gives an added dimension to Harry's concerns over a particularly nasty prop.

It is a story that carefully builds and layers tension, as convention demands, but also, organically and credibly, given what's going on outside Bright Horses House. Harry's threatened with eviction, something that - given her shaky position on the bottom rung of society - is both all-consuming and impossible to deal with (when does she have the opportunity to house-hunt? How could she afford to move if she did). That adds a degree of menace as well as preventing her bailing out when things get weird. Sometimes horror doesn't 't mean bangs in the night and movement glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. The threat of ending up sleeping under a bridge or being followed by a creep because one can't afford the bus fare can be equally alarming.

Examining the stresses and guilt of parenthood, the story gives us three examples - Harry's strict parents, Javier's absent father, and Harry's and Gabe's (over?) close relationship. There are so many ways it can all go wrong, so many ways to lose one's kid and end up alone in a creepy old mansion...

In the end Henry gives us a spectacular climax that will leave you unable to put this story down until you reach the last page. It's a fitting ending to a magnificent story that sees her on top form.

For more information about The House That Horror Built , see the publisher's website here.

9 May 2024

#Blogtour - Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen

Thirty Days of Darkness
Jenny Lund Madsen (translated by Megan Turney)
Orenda Books, 9 May 2024, 
Available as: HB, PB, 321pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585623

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend you buy this one at once, it's even on the shelves in Sainsbury's so grab it while you can.

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

You can buy Thirty Days of Darkness from your local high street bookshop, in-store at Sainsbury's, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

7 May 2024

#Blogtour #Review - Murder Under the Midnight Sun by Stella Blómkvist

Murder Under the Midnight Sun
Stella Blómkvist (trans Quentin Bates)
Corylus Books, 3 May 2024
Available as: PB, 285pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781739298944

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of Murder Under the Midnight Sun to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Before I start I would warn that there are some themes of male abuse and violence in Murder Under the Midnight Sun.

Welcome back Stella Blómkvist - meaning both the women of that name, the anonymous author, and the title character of this series.

I don't know anything about the former, but when we rejoin the latter, Stella the lawyer and sometime investigator of crime, she's enjoying life, taking part in a documentary series showcasing Iceland's most prominent women. This takes her up a glacier (a place she cheerfully admits, she's never been before and never will go to again) where a gruesome discovery awaits - Stella just can't keep away from mysteries, and indeed she's also just picked up a cold case. A Scottish woman disappeared in Iceland nine years before, and her uncle is desperate to find what happened to her before her mum dies. Stella's meticulous investigation of this missing girl nicely contrasts with another case which crops up, that of a man very much present and accused of murder. I enjoyed seeing how this latter enquiry - which closely engages the current generation of police and prosecutors, who therefore have a pretty solid motivation to oppose Stella - sets off the older one, where nobody seems to care much about anything...

...until Stella gets too close to a solution.

As I said, Stella's pretty busy in this one, yet she still has time for some romantic distractions. She also happily has fairly obliging childcare, so that odd nights spent in a hotel room don't seem to require much advance planning. That also of course helps greatly with the case, which requires her to visit some fairly remote parts of Iceland, often in the 'silver steed'. One of the things I enjoy about this series is the familiar atmosphere created by author and by translator Quentin Bates, letting us know immediately that we are in Stella's world. Her car is always the aforementioned 'silver steed', her favourite tipple (Jack Daniels) the 'Kentucky nectar'. There are several references to the state of the 'Stella fund', the murky set of investments that now seems to be doing pretty well thank you, after some concerns in the last book.

None of this would be enough to carry the story if it wasn't also pin sharp, complex and engaging, but of course it is. Without saying too much, events here take us into two quite different but equally dark aspects of Iceland's recent past. These will surprise the reader, showcasing the more sinister side, perhaps, of a country with a relatively small population where there are connections beneath the surface and people pop up over the decades in very different - and seemingly quite opposed - roles in public life. That can create tensions and give motivation for covering things up, something Stella spends a lot of time unpicking.

All in all, great fun, an involving story elegantly translated. 

I want more Stella!

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

25 April 2024

#Review - A Spy Like Me by Kim Sherwood

A Spy Like Me (Double 0, Book 2)
Kim Sherwood
Hemlock Press, 25 April 2024
Available as: HB, 384pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008495435

I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me access to an advance e-copy of A Spy Like Me to consider for review.

In her followup to Double or Nothing, Kim Sherwood returns to the world of the Double 0s, the Section still being threatened by the mysterious organisation know as Rattenfänger. James Bond, 007, is still missing, and the focus shifts to Johanna Harwood, 004 who is determined to track down and rescue one of her disappeared lovers - while mourning another, killed lover, who died during the events of the previous book. 

Meanwhile, Moneypenny has concerns there may be another traitor in the Section...

Like its predecessor, A Spy Like Me captures, I think, the essence of the James Bond universe while refusing to be too deferential to trivia. So, the story is set more or less in the present, taking place a couple of years ago, but with references back to canonical Bond details (such as the the murder of his wife, a plot point that gives Johanna an unexpected source of help when she 'goes rogue' in search of him). Other events and settings are unashamedly modern, such as the prevalence of human trafficking and terrorism. Through it all we get the same mix of high living - the super-rich of the 2020s being perhaps even less abashed at flaunting their wealth than those of the 1950s and 60s - and intrigue, with violence never far from the surface. There are confrontations on Crete and in Venice that could easily be set pieces in a Bond movie, for example, an an ease with fast cars, guns and exotic watches.

And there is a twisty, complex plot, weaving the personal - like Johanna's motivation to recover James - and the political - terrorist outrages finances by dark money and taking place on a regular timescale - that gives the reader just the same sense of a countdown, a final date with evil, and of the risk of being distracted, of going down a rabbit hole in some glamorous resort, as in the original books. 

Sherwood's writing is also sharp - 'Welcome to Dubai, home of ex-pats, concrete and money' 'This woman smiles when she's told to smile because it may never happen and it could be worse, though it's already happened and it couldn't be worse' - and the absence of Bond doesn't diminish, rather it enhances, the shadow he casts over this book, forcing him into everyone's consciousness: Conrad Harthrop-Vane, for example, who's no fan, notes Bond's remark that 'this "country-right-or-wrong business" was old-fashioned in 1952' and that Bond 'is defined by his purpose' (note is, not was). Harthrop-Vane isn't the only one to speculate about Bond's character, personality, purpose or meaning, everyone has a go at one point or another, resulting in this allegedly two dimensional figure (I don't think that but it has been said) being fully alive and drawn as complex and active even when out of sight. 

Returning form those depths, this book is also fun. Sherwood drops plenty of references to Bond book and film titles and also allusions such as to a 'golden revolver' or having 'all the time in the world'. There are sideplots that take their time to join up with the main action, and surprise sprung. All I all, entertaining, nail biting and fun, with a bite of real world issues. It ends on a monster of a cliffhanger, and left me impatient for Book 3, which presumably though I'll have to wait another couple of years for!

Strongly recommended.

For more information about A Spy Like Me, see the publisher's website here.

23 April 2024

#Review - The Trials of Empire by Richard Swan

The Trials of Empire (Empire of the Wolf, 3)
Richard Swan
Orbit, 8 February 2024
Available as: HB, 544pp,  audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356516479

I'm grateful to Orbit for giving me access to an advance e-copy of The Trials of Empire to consider for review.

Well, here is the end of the Empire of the Wolf trilogy. 

And. It. Has. Been. A. JOURNEY. 

Not only for Helena, Sir Konrad and the rest - though they have both travelled endlessly, and developed across the books - but also for the reader, as Swan, like a magician, has revealed ever deeper layers of story to us. 

To recap, in Justice of Kings we pretty much had straight fantasy - Judge Sir Konrad Vonvault and his small party of retainers travelling the Empire and administering justice. Yes, Vonvault had access to one or two magical powers, used to help establish the truth in his more tricky cases. Yes, there were machinations from the religious order the Templars, who seemed a bit too zealous for everyone's good, leading to outright, if limited, rebellion. But overall - except for a couple of incidents  - this seemed like a military-oriented fantasy. 

Then in The Tyranny of Faith things got weirder, with cosmic horror overtones, and some episodes taking place is a sort of netherworld - but the accent was still very much on the threat to the Empire. (From the framing of the story as the memoirs of Helena Sedanka in her old age, we already knew that it did in fact fall, the issue would be how and when).

Now in The Trials of Empire - WHAT???

Again, here, Swan seems to be pivoting this trilogy, which is now clearly about the danger of those dark magics, an existential peril to the universe from... well, I think it's probably safer not to name that entity, you never know if it might be listening? We still see the coils of politics and religious fanaticism, which are centred on the militant priest Bartholemew Claver. Fortuitously I recently read Three Fires by Denise Mina, an account of the renaissance priest Girolamo Savonarola - a man who really did take over governance of a city (Renaissance Florence) and imposed his own authoritarian rule, designed to usher in a literal City of God. The parallels between this figure and Claver - both starting out as sincere, if austere, churchmen, both denouncing the religious authorities as lax, both playing on popular disquiet with the civil powers and on prejudice, both eventually corrupted by power - are striking and I think show how Swan has really got under the skin of his rather unattractive antihero and the potential route to power of such a person. (The parallels with modern politics also write themselves).

In Florence, however, there was no Vanvault. 

There was no Helena. 

Both play crucial roles here, indeed Helena probably the greater one. There is a concern throughout this book that Vonvault himself will be tried beyond what he can bear and fall victim to the dark magicks which alone, it seems, can provide a means of fighting back against Claver. And indeed we see him make some evil choices and cosy up to some dubious allies. At the same time Helena has to walk her own path, and faces her own darkness. I'd felt throughout this series that she might be capable of a lot, and it's wonderful here to see her come into her own as it were, not as an adjunct to Vonvault but as a player in her own right. And not as an improbable result of a moment's choice, but as the culmination of a process of gruelling challenge has tested and strengthened her, if at some cost (at one moment in this book Helena is chained to an executioner's block, the axe about to fall, and that's rather the least of the dangers she faces in this story).

If we see Helena face danger, we also see her develop as a person, see her juggle her attraction to Vonvault and her concern for ethics and principles - something she learned from him - and grow up in the process. As well as that, she's learned to be a redoubtable fighter. All this may however not be enough when she has to confront that darkness, which she must of course do alone, the more so as Vonvault seems to have gone astray himself.

The later part of the book therefore crystallises some moral dilemmas when, confronted by seemingly inevitable defeat and unstoppable evil, the two need to consider what is and is not justifiable. And what is and is not justice.

Readable from first page to last, exciting, with twists, surprises and betrayals, this final volume of Swan's trilogy finishes the story in grand style.

For more information about The Trials of Empire, see the publisher's website here.