28 March 2024

#Review - The Red Hollow by Natalie Marlow

The Red Hollow
Natalie Marlow
Baskerville, 28 March 2024 
Available as: HB, 307pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781399801843

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

William (Billy) Garrett and Phyll (Hall) are back, six months after the events of Needless Alley, for another investigation in the 1930s Midlands. In this story, though, Marlow moves away from the noir-ish atmosphere of the earlier books, with its dark, smoky cityscape and its themes of political and economic corruption, and gives us something more like a classic 30s murder mystery in which a group of people are stranded in a remote country house. The sense of place is equally strong. But so is the sense of cloying evil - reminding me of Sherlock Holmes's comment that the vilest crimes take place in the countryside.

The story opens with a call for help. Phyll's brother, Freddy, is being cared for in a private asylum in the village of Red Hollow "out in the county" (though within a short driving distance). The fees for this have swallowed up the family money, explaining why she's been so desperate for cash and now its proprietor, Dr Moon, asks her and William to investigate strange disturbances and a death that have taken place. The unspoken deal is this will cover some of the fees.

So Phyll and William venture out into the woods, and soon find themselves out of their depth, The surviving patients - including Freddy - put the strange events down to the legendary man-hating "mermaid" which is said to haunt the local lake. This creature recurs, in folkloric allusions, a carving in the local church, and as part of the family backstory of Lady Pike, who owns the Hall but has been forced to let it out. her family has, it seems, many eminently hateable men in its lineage.

A phantom mermaid can't, however, have been killing and mutilating patients, even if the weather has taken a preternatural turn for the torrential, stranding Phyll overnight. Fretting alone in Birmingham, he calls on his old gangster friend Queenie for help. Then the fun really begins...

This is an exceptionally creepy, tense novel, mainly focussed on the events of a single night during which William, Phyll, Queen and Moon, joined by a ragtag collection of patients and the fearsome dowager Lady Pike, sustain themselves variously by copious amounts of drugs, drink and tobacco. There are gruesome deaths (the local vicar is bludgeoned in the first few moments). There are disturbing visions. And there is a tangled plot bringing together the unspoken secret of Red Hollow Hall, modern gang violence and of course the shadow of the War. 

As to the latter, this book is soaked in the backwash of the Trenches - most of the male characters played some part and it shapes their hopes and fears, their responses to, especially, the kind of stress they find themselves under here. This is very much an asylum where the patients are in charge - indeed Moon himself struck me as a man who could easily be on either side of the padded door, as it were. So, be assured, the switch to something that at first sight looks like a cosy Golden Age mystery doesn't mean that Marlow is going soft on us, indeed the opposite is true. Nor, in the end, are we free of political or at least social commentary with two very different historical trends - the stifling hand of the aristocracy, and the dark stirrings of organised crime - surfacing. (Or perhaps, not so very different trends, isn't aristocracy just gangsterism which has forgotten its roots?)

Plot strands wrap together - the delusions of the patients, that relentless fear of something evil in the dark, the decline of the Pike family in the face of coal mines and clay pits eating up their land and dissolute fathers and sons eating up the estate, Queenie's uneasy sway over the Birmingham underworld, and more.

It makes for a messy, compromising, affair, one that nobody comes away from with clean hands, but which is a fascinating, nail biting read and one I'd strongly recommend.

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

26 March 2024

#Review - Nobody's Angel by Jack Clark

Book "Nobody's Angel" by Jack Clark. Nighttime streetscene in an American city - a woman in an unbuttoned leather jacket with nothing under it, and shorts, has her back to a taxi.
Nobody's Angel
Jack Clark
Titan Books, 13 February 2024
Available as: HB, 224pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781803367477

I'm grateful to Titan Books for sending me an advance copy of Nobody's Angel to consider for review.

Nobody's Angel is a gritty crime novel set among nighttime cab drivers in 1990s Chicago. Eddie Miles, the focal character, crashed his family and destroyed all he loved. He ended up scrabbling for work in what is obviously a waning sector. All the talk is of the glory days of the cab trade, but the present day reality is reflected in many scenes where Eddie cruises for business amongst abandoned building and rundown malls, glad to get a trip that yields a few dollars. 

Written only a few decades ago, it's sobering how much of this book is now effectively a period piece - depicting a world with no mobiles, no Uber, one where smoking in cabs or cafés is unremarkable. And a world - consider this a content warning - where racial epiphets which would be unthinkable today are casually deployed. For example,  the n-word is used in the cab drivers' banter, as is the p-word (although I think the latter may be less taboo in the US than the UK). There are also sexist assumptions about women (we see no women cab drivers). This is where the plot kicks off. Amongst the bleak depictions of nights spent driving round the city, avoiding certain districts, avoiding passengers from certain groups, jostling for trade with the other cab drivers, Eddie ponders two series of killings - one of young women, another of fellow drivers. The drivers are seen as victims deserving of sympathy, the women as sex workers who no doubt got what was coming.

Despite that, Eddie does show some humanity (and to his own cost) when he comes across the aftermath of an assault, and this draws him into a desultory attempt to investigate both series of murders. He is, though, as he points out at the end of the book, nobody's angel and redemption seems in short supply on the hostile streets of Chicago with Eddie walking away form one opportunity (though perhaps he will still make some progress in locating his estranged daughter?)

A raw book about, often, bitter, damaged people, and one I enjoyed as giving an insight into a world very alien to me. What I enjoyed was the detail, the war stories told by the cabbies in the back room at the Golden Batter Pancake House and the scenes depicted by Clark - stories of eccentric passengers and their bizarre behaviour, stories of feuds and conflicts between the drivers, hair-raising driving and all the variety of life that a teeming, diverse city holds. These are interspersed with extracts from the Chicago Department of Community Services rulebook for cab drivers, showing just how close to the line the drivers come (and how often they cross it) in their professional lives. All of this, unfiltered, is perfect slice-of-life stuff (my favourite episode was Eddie's visit, with a customer, to a heavily shuttered dive bar in a part of town he clearly regards as a dangerous ghetto but where he and his customer find fellowship and a warm welcome).

I'm so glad I read this book, I would point out that the rather raunchy cover isn't actually representative of the content (for the most part) though it will get you some glances reading on your morning commute!

For more information about Nobody's Angel, see the publisher's website here.

21 March 2024

#Review - What Feasts at Night by T Kingfisher

What Feasts at Night (Sworn Soldier, 2)
T Kingfisher
Titan Books, 13 February 2024
Available as: HB, 176pp, e   
Source: Purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781803369686

What Feasts at Night is a welcome sequel to What Moves the Dead, as T Kingfisher returns to the Sworn Soldier Alex Easton, citizen of a Ruritanian tinged Balkan state of Gallacia. Easton is the Sworn Soldier, an action which means that ka adopts a special set of pronouns used in Gallacia for such military folk. (Gallacia has many sets of pronouns including for example some used only for God and others for priests).

As we saw in What Moves..., Alex has come back from the wars with a case of "soldier's heart", what we would call PTSD and this book, like the previous one, eloquently chronicles kas struggles with that.  What Feasts... will, unsurprisingly, bring Alex, kas batman, Angus, and their friend, the British mycologist Miss Potter, into a new confrontation with monsters as they plan a holiday in Alex's remote hunting lodge in the backwoods. 

I felt the story in this book was more straightforward than the previous one, with less of a feeling of conspiracy and active evil and more of an air of sadness and dislocation, the monster more an obvious victim than an active evil. Kingfisher has fun with tropes of the sub-genre - the villagers shunning the afflicted location, worries about pitchfork-wielding mobs, conspiracies of sience about what might be happening - all blended with redoubtable locals (the cook/ housekeeper referred to as "the Widow" and her son, Bors) and a creeping sense of menace because of course we, the readers, are allowed to know just slightly more, or at least, believe slightly more, about what is coming than the protagonists). Being more straightforward doesn't make it any less entertaining - although I could have wished that Miss Potter was a bit more central to the action, as in the previous book - rather it adds resonance because the fungal related events of the previous book lurk in the background, as does Alex's trauma in the war, but this story isn't a recapitulation of that. 

Rather, I think, we can see Kingfisher here having fun exploring a slightly different subgenre of classic horror - hopefully that will continue into future adventures of Alex, Angus and Miss Potter in more drippy, depressing parts of Gallacia.

For more information about What Feasts at Night, see the publisher's website here.

19 March 2024

#Blogtour #Review - The Collapsing Wave by Doug Johnstone

The Collapsing Wave (The Enceladons Trilogy, 2)
Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books, 14 March 2024
Available as: PB, 257, e, audio   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB):  9781916788053

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for sending me a copy of The Collapsing Wave to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's blogtour via Random Things Tours.

The Collapsing Wave is the sequel to The Space Between Us - the title comes from the quantum mechanical notion of wavefunction collapse, when an observation resolves an experiment into a known state, but it also cleverly alludes to events in the story. It picks up events six months after the end of the previous book, which was hopeful, if ambiguous, but now everything seems to have gone to s***. Ava, who escaped from her controlling, abusive husband, is now on trial for his murder and has been separated from her newborn daughter, Chloe. Lennox and Heather, who also bonded with the alien they called sandy, have been kidnapped and are being held in what I will emphatically state are illegal circumstances at a secret US facility on Loch Broom, where the Enceladons (Sandy's people, refugees from the moon Enceladus) are being studied (read: tortured).

The first half of the story is therefore pretty rage-inducing with the wicked and the venal going about their business pretty much unmolested. It didn't do my blood pressure much good, I can tell you, and I would love to have a few minutes in private with Turner, Gibson or Carson: cowards and bullies all. In contrast, as ever, our heroes are somewhat conflicted, unsure of their best course of action, and hampered by little things like moral scruples, empathy and guilt. ("The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity").

In a sense it doesn't help that the gifts the Enceladons bring are all about empathy, and sympathy, about a way of being and living that challenges the cult of individuality. They therefore represent a threat, whether the humans know it or not, that is more fundamental and insidious than the "invasion of the little green men form Mars" trope. The example of a better way of being implicitly judges Earth's ways, and shows the current greed-driven model of society, growth and progress to be wanting. In this respect, I find Johnstone's story to be rather like a reverse Gulliver's Travels - just as Jonathan Swift pitilessly highlighted the faults and failings of his own society by taking a specimen of that society and comparing him with various idealised nations, so Johnstone brings a benign, cooperative creature to, ultimately, shame us and our doings.

It won't end well. It can't end well. Our heroes are imprisoned, dark deeds are afoot and the resistance, if I can use that term, painfully weak and fragmented. (One of Johnstone's themes is how supposedly democratic social media simply floods the channels with a deluge of lies, confusion and conspiracy theories, swamping the truth. There is some interest in what's going on in that secret base, with a peace camp of sorts outside, but I can't help feeling that in the high days of activism there'd have been telephone trees and samizdat-style newsletters getting the word out, and successful raise on the base to challenge the authorities). 



The dark powers we see don't, can't, possibly imagine the strength of an alternative social model. Imposing pathetic labels on things they don't understand (they call the sea creatures from Enceladus "illegals") they fail to understand what they are dealing with, leaving some, slight, margin for a ragtag group of the wise and the just to succeed. Maybe. If the first half of the book was enraging, the second is really, really nail-biting  and I will say NOTHING about what goes on here and what might happen in the next book.

I should assure you that The Collapsing Wave isn't just a moral fable, though it is a powerful one. It's a novel of characters too, with each member of the little group an individual who has lived a lifetime and has the knocks to show for it. Even Lennox, who is "only", 16 has been through stuff. You can read this book for the protagonists alone who are, every one, fascinating, quirky, real and loveable.

All in all, a superlative novel with great moral force, an urgent book, I think, in view of world polictis and the state of the planet. A cosmic, world-shaking novel form Johnstone, one I'd strongly recommend.

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

15 March 2024

#Review - Relight my Fire by CL McDonnell

Relight my Fire  (Stranger Times, 4)
C K McDonnell
Penguin, 25 January 2024
Available as: HB, 528pp,  audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 528pp

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

Back in the Manchester world of The Stranger Times, the team have problems. Infernal powers have taken an interest in Vincent Bancroft, and while one might expect him to just tell them his diary's full, he actually comes across here as very vulnerable, in part because of action he took in an earlier book.

I enjoyed seeing Banecroft as something other than the grouchy, wisecracking boss of previous stories. It may have seemed as though, really, he had all the answers and was always three steps ahead of everyone else - but as is made clear that's not necessarily the case.

What Banecroft is still set upon is protecting Stella (who herself begins to seem a much stranger and more complex person than we have released yet). He'll do that, even if it means the unpleasant psychopomp in the floppy hat who's been shadowing him gets to carry him away to perdition. Why is Stell in danger? Well, she was I the wrong place at the wrong time, specifically, she nearly got fallen on when a young man who thought he could fly (he sort of could) fell from the heavens.

Why he was up there to begin with, who is pulling the strings and how it all connects with the appearance of Manchester's loneliest ghoul, you'll just have to read this book to find out. I found this one to be a little bit of a reset (not too much of one!) with a ore self-contained story and, as I said, a slightly different approach to Banecroft, that would I think make it an easy place to get into this series if you haven't been reading them (though if you don't then read the first three books you are seriously missing out). The same mixture of crime and the supernatural, with more emerging about the hidden world of the Folk, this story has a buzz and focus that's al of its own - as well as some extremely nasty and singularly driven characters, who might presage new alliances in future.

Overall, a story I really enjoyed and one which shows this series is firing on all cylinders.

For more information about Relight my Fire, see the publisher's website here.

12 March 2024

#Review - Three Fires by Denise Mina

Three Fires
Cover for book "There Fires" by Denise Mina. A red background, three stylised bonfires in black and a figure in white robes standing between.
Denise Mina (Narrated by Jonathan Keeble)
Polygon, 3 August 2023
Available as: HB, 128pp,  audio, e   
Source: Audio subscription
ISBN(HB): 9781846976384

I have to say, I never expected to find myself reading a biographical account of a medieval Italian friar who became the populist leader of Florence in the 15th century. Such is the talent of Denise Mina, at not point did I find myself thinking, hang on, what IS this?

Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who had a vision of the world as corrupt, unjust and fixated on fripperies. His was the hand behind the original "bonfire of the vanities", when "trash" such as fine Renaissance paintings were burned as irreligious, irrelevant distractions. (This is one of the three fires referred to in the title). It's hard to argue that society, and the Church, of the time were not corrupt and Savonarola had a fine line in denouncing Popes and secular leaders alike, including speaking up for the poor. He also preached antisemitism and homophobia, whether from conviction or to provide scapegoats to ease his way to power, is hard to tell. Perhaps that distinction doesn't matter, but it does I think beg comparisons with authoritarian populists of our own day, a comparison that Mina makes explicitly towards the end of the story. Less explicitly we have by then already seen Girolamo exploit the communications technology of the day - the church pulpit, but also, the new art of printing which meant that his message, unlike that of earlier firebrands, was preserved for posterity.

Mina makes an excellent job of putting this divisive and consequential figure into his historical context, happily using anachronistic reference points such as referring to him as an "intel" in the episode where he clumsily fails to court an heiress marriage to whom his family relied on for future prosperity. She also depicts the times that Savonarola lived in, and some of the awful things he saw and experienced in the fractious Italy of the 15th century. It is clear that it was an age apt to produce hellfire preachers and millennialist sects - while these had hitherto been repressed or co-opted by the Roman Catholic Church, the coming of printing would end its ability to do that.

All in all a fascinating is often horrific story (it does have its moments of humour, too!) The audio is excellently delivered by Jonathan Keeble whose, who I last heard narrating a thriller about climate change so his career seems to be focussing on apocalypses and fires - but it has just the gravitas needed for such topics.

I would recommend this book, even if you think you have no interest in medieval Italy. 

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

7 March 2024

#Blogtour #Review - Rodolfo Walsh's Last Case by Elsa Drucaroff

Book "Rodolfo Walsh's Last Case" by Else Drucaroff. The top of the cover is sky blue, lightening to white at the bottom. Two dark bullet holes are visible in the middle, leaving fractures as though they are shot through glass. To the side of them, a pair of spectacles, one lens also with a bullet hole. They are spattered with bloodstains.
Rodolfo Walsh's Last Case
Author Elsa Drucaroff, translated by Slava Faybysh
Corylus Books, 5 March 2024
Available as: PB, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781739298937

There's a war outside still raging
You say it ain't ours anymore to win...,
- Bruce Springsteen, No Surrender

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

This really was something new for me - an intense thriller, based on real events and featuring as its central character a real person. Rodolfo Walsh was an Argentinian author, who in the 1950s and 60s wrote classic mysteries. He also originated the true crime genre with an account of a massacre carried out by the country's dictatorship in the 1950s. 

Set in the 70s under another military regime, Rodolfo Walsh's Last Case sees Walsh, who was also a political radical, forced to investigate his own daughter's disappearance - or perhaps she survived? - at the hands of the military. For fellow UK readers, this is the same dictatorship with which the UK ended up at war over the Falkland Islands/ Islas Malvinas in the 1980s. While that was towards the end of their rule, in this book they have only recently come to power and are busy disappearing their opponents, their imagined opponents and basically anyone (hair too long perhaps? Studying something suspicious at uni?) who even looks as though they might be an opponent. It is a scar that Argentina still carries, and here we see the wound inflicted: Walsh's experiences here act as something of a microcosm of the suffering that took place.

It's a busy novel, following, first, the military, then, Walsh and the opposition organisation of which he's part, but also a retired colonel with whom he's acquainted. In the gaps, as it were, we see individuals' stories, both of horror - the pregnant woman dragged off to a secret prison - and heroism - the conscript who spies for the rebels. One can't say too much here, because Rodolfo Walsh's Last Case deals in ambiguity. In a truly tense thriller, we are aware of the possibility of double and triple crosses, of ruses and - a nod to the mystery writer at the centre of things - of red herrings.

It would be wrong though to see this is simply a thriller. There is plenty of action, and there are tense scenes with lives hanging by a thread, but at its centre Rodolfo Walsh's Last Case has a truly human perspective. It focuses on the dreams and nightmares (sometimes they are blurred), the lost hopes and the very present fears, and the passions of a group of very believable and empathetic characters.

Aside from Walsh himself, his wife Lila and his daughter Vicki we see army conscripts becoming aware of the horrors being carried out by the regime, and the moral choices they're forced to make - collaborate? Look the other way and try to forget? Resist? We see young people forced to flee the country, and older ones finding their own loyalties divided. There's the dilemma faced by an opposition out of its depth. Everywhere, there is the military, dragging young people away, raging at a political, cultural opposition it can't understand, an opposition that is less about armed resistance than simply about being something else.

In the time period of this story, that rage at the modern world carries the day, despite heroic, desperate but totemic acts of defiance. In the longer run, as we know, it did not, does not and will not triumph. We don't see it but the dictators fall, while the writings of figures like Walsh are still available to speak to us - and their lives and stories can be told by writers like Drucaroff.

All in all, this is a marvellous book, both tense and beautiful, full of hope but so sad. 

The transition by Slava Faybysh is vivid and readable, taking one immediately to the centre of things and capturing the vivid pace of events.

Elsa Drucaroff was born and raised in Buenos Aires. She is the author of four novels and two short story collections, in addition to being a prolific essayist. She has published numerous articles on Argentine literature, literary criticism and feminism.

Her work has been widely translated, but Rodolfo Walsh’s Last Case is Elsa Drucaroff’s first novel to be translated into English.

Slava Faybysh translates from Spanish and Russian.

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

4 March 2024

#Blogtour - #Fathomfolk by Eliza Chan

Eliza Chan
Orbit, 27 February 2024,
Available as: HB, 420pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356522395

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of Fathomfolk to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

I have been known to describe books as "immersive". In the case of Fathomfolk, the term really comes into its own because it is, literally, about immersion. Most obviously, there's immersion in water - in the world of Fathomfolk, the waters have risen and most land has been drowned. Humans coexist with sentient sea creatures - the marine peoples of multiple cultures' myths and legends, from East Asian water dragons to mermaids to kelpies to sea witches,  and many actual marine species too. All these are united by their ability to "water weave" - manipulate the water magically - and some also have the ability to shapeshift.

But there are other sorts of immersion here - immersion in different cultures, immersion in work and family and also, romantic immersion in another person. All of these mix, and not always comfortably. If you think the magic of the sea people all sounds wonderful and magical, well it is, but still all is not well. The inundation of the land was the outcome of war between humans and sea peoples, and the latter - the fathomfolk or just Folk - came off worse in this. They are oppressed by humans, who are polluting the oceans and dominating the Folk, treating then as lesser mortals subjects to constraints and controls and prejudices. In the city of Tiankawi, where most of the action in the book takes place, we see the patterns of coexistence in a prejudiced society played out. The focus is on Kai, a sea dragon ambassador from one of the Folk havens and on his partner Mira, a siren and poster girl for diversity. Mira has recently been promoted tocaptain of police but increasingly, as this book proceeds, suffers the tensions and paradoxes of being distrusted by both the dominant society and by the Folk. Mira therefore endures immersion in another sense, genuinely neither a person of the sea nor or the land.

Others in the story also play ambiguous roles, though it would be wrong to say too much about them because spoilers. But we see dilemmas both in the "opposition" to the dominant humans (through a somewhat self regarding sect of revolutionaries) and in those who seek coexistence, as well as those who simply put themselves first. There are also city politics inn play, as well as secrets of going back to Tiankawi's foundation. At times it seems as though everyone's playing a part, everyone's putting on an act. This affects the relationship between Kai and Mira, undermining who they are and exposing issues of privilege and accommodation (Kai, as a dragon, is seen as being at the peak of Folk society which of course has its own hierarchies and prejudices).

Eliza Chan deftly weaves together these multiple strands of the story, gradually expanding the scope form the personal and the immediate to the cosmic and delivering some real shocks as she does, not least in the last few pages which show a narrative that's really going places. 

While the configuration of the world in this story is different form our own, it's easy to see the book as a glimpse of a future affected by global heating, as well as a commentary on prejudice, race and migration  (in a devastating scene, a ship full of sea asylum seekers arrives at the city's docks). It's written in a loosely East Asian setting (albeit, as a I said, the geography is unrecognisably different) which applies both to the human aspects and the Folk.

Eliza Chan portrays the diverse and complex city of Tiankawi as a truly vast and multilayered place, creating distinct and parallel cultures both above and below water and convincingly bringing both to life. This above water/ below water concept feels like it ought not to work yet by the end of the story  it feels completely natural. The city's peopled by vivid and credible characters, with even the villains having their sympathetic side (such as being driven by family ambition, rather than simple love of power). I thought one or two of the secondary characters such as bookish Eun might have had more attention, but I think it's clear there are more books coming so hopefully they will get that at some stage. 

All in all a beguiling and, yes, properly immersive novel. I'd recommend!

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