26 October 2016

Blogtour: Summoning the Dead - extract

I'm honoured to be hosting an extract from Summoning the Dead by Tony Black - a new DI Bob Valentine case, is out now from Black & White Publishing. You can buy it from your local bookshop, or here, here or here.

November 1984

The farm road was pitted with potholes and loose scree washed down from the hills. Beyond the encroaching bramble bushes were the low-hanging branches of trees. At their thickest, the branches and the creeping bushes made a connection to their counterparts on the other side of the road, creating an arbour. Although the scrub was dense, it was not thick enough to provide shelter from the heavy rain that poured from the night sky.

The uneven road, no more than a track really, with its dents and declivities made for heavy going in the Transit van. Inside the vehicle, beyond the rain-battered windscreen and the furiously pumping wiper blades, the men cursed the job that had brought them out in such conditions.

‘I swear the weather’s better back home, and that’s saying something,’ said the driver, his mate next to him nodding in agreement.

‘Just go easy. I don’t want to return this van with a broken axle – it’s costing us an arm and a leg as it is.’

‘I’m doing my best. It’s pretty bloody choppy out.’

The needle on the rev counter danced as the Transit struggled, its wheels slipping in the mud.

‘I said watch it!’

‘I am. I am.’

The voices were rising, along with the tempers. The larger of the two men removed his hat and started to strangle it in his hands. As the van progressed, rounded the bend at the top of a small brae and drew to a halt outside a farmhouse the tension in the cab was palpable.

‘This it?’

‘Must be. I don’t see anywhere else.’

‘We should try the door.’

‘There’s no one in, I told you.’

‘We should try it anyway. You know what these places are like. The people are hillbillies – point a shotgun at you soon as look at you.’

The driver reached for the door handle. ‘Do what you like. I’m going to find what we came for.’

The rain was almost horizontal, backed by a strong westerly that threatened to take a man off his feet. The gable end of the farmhouse offered little shelter, the big man plastering himself to the sandstone and edging along slowly, so as not to be blown over by a freak gale.

The other man turned up the collar on his black reefer coat and faced the elements. He headed beyond the farm- house, towards the outbuildings. When he reached the first of the small stone buildings he raised a hand to shield his eyes and shouted to his partner.

‘It’s here!’

He couldn’t hear the reply, drowned out by the wind and rain as it was.

The man moved off again, content that the other man knew where to find him, and negotiated the steps to the rear of the first outbuilding. As he peered over he leaned the toe of his boot on the rim of a large oil drum; it didn’t move. He crouched lower, still holding the wooden rail that skirted the steps, and pressed his weight against the drum.

‘What in Christ?’ he said, the words trailing before being taken by the wind.

His friend reappeared. ‘There’s nobody there.’

‘I told you.’

‘I wanted to check.’

‘Are you happy now?’

‘I am, yeah.’

The man in the reefer coat stood up again. ‘I don’t know how anyone can be happy out in this.’

‘I didn’t say I was ecstatic. I’d sooner be on my way home to the Dumbarton game at Pittodrie.’

‘Stuffing the ’Gers 2–1 at Ibrox not good enough for you?’

They smiled, the talk of their team winning thawing the tension. Aberdeen were on a winning streak; the gaffer had done wonders with the team. No one could really believe they had only recently been European champions. Would that ever sink in?

The pair had trailed their team around the country on an old trawler, chasing cod and odd jobs along the way. But the experience, initially so exciting to their ears, had worn thin as the odd jobs got even odder.

‘I can’t move it,’ said the man on the steps. ‘I can’t budge it an inch.’

The bigger man walked around the barrel, stalking it like a strong man facing a lifting challenge. He tested the steel with his toe, as his friend had earlier. It sounded solid.

‘What’s in it?’

‘I was told not to ask.’

‘Was that wise?’

‘I didn’t care. Look, they were paying cash, you had your share and now we have to dump it.’

The big man gripped the drum, put a shoulder lock on the rim and heaved. ‘Are you sure this is the right one?’

‘Of course it is. There’s the ICI badge and the cross painted in green, like he said.’
They wrestled with the barrel together, managed to tip it on its side. The ground shuddered a little as the heavy barrel splashed down in the mud.

‘It’s going nowhere. The bloody Transit won’t move with that in it, if we could get it in.’

‘I don’t suppose we’ll manage to get it on the boat either, not without a pulley and winch.’

‘We’d snap the cable – and sink the boat.’

‘That’s that then. Bollocks to it.’

‘We can’t leave it. We’ve been paid up.’

‘Have you got a better idea?’

He looked around. The rain was coming straight down on their heads now, bouncing in stair rods off the wet ground. ‘We’ll bury it here.’


‘Not right here, over there.’

‘In the fields? The first time someone runs a plough over it the bloody thing will stick out.’

‘Between the fields then. We roll it over and bury it as deep as we can. No one will see it, no one will know and your man will be none the wiser.’

‘I don’t know about this. Maybe I should call him. I saw a phone box back on the main road.’

‘You know what he’ll say – you took the money, now do the job he paid us for.’
‘We could give the money back. I never liked the sound of this anyway.’

‘You don’t give money back to people like that. Forget it. We bury it and walk away.We won’t be back this way again, so it’s not our worry.’

The man brushed the pooling water from the shoulders of his reefer coat. The action caused a shiver to enter him.

‘What do you think’s in it?’

‘I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.’

The shivering passed. He pointed back the way they had come. ‘I saw some shovels over by the barn.We’d better get started, it’ll take forever in this rain.’

Chapter One
Present Day

Detective Inspector Bob Valentine struggled with the blue shoe covering, the elastic stretched to its snapping point. He knew he should sit down, take his time, but that would mean admitting to himself that the spreading paunch above his belt really did require his attention.

He leaned against the wall. The morgue tiles were cold on his back and another reminder that he was some- where that he really did not want to be. He told himself that the corpse on the mortuary slab through the wall held no fear for him. At least, that’s how it had always been. Until now.

‘Bloody things.’ He finally managed to get his last brogue covered and sighed towards DS Sylvia McCormack, who was waiting by the door, smirking slightly.
‘Something funny, detective?’ he said.

‘No, sir. Well, maybe a little.’ McCormack took a few steps towards him. ‘Have you thought about losing a couple of pounds? You’d feel the benefits of it.’
‘I’m not carrying any weight, Sylvia.’

‘Yes, sir.’

He rubbed his stomach. ‘It’s dyspepsia.’

The smirk was back. ‘Boss, you’ll be telling me it’s the job next.’

‘It is the bloody job! Well, this case.’

‘Certainly seems to be making you irritable.’

The DI eased himself off the wall, rubbing his stomach.

‘Bad guts is no laughing matter. I wouldn’t wish it on any- one, well, maybe just Dino. I mean, what does she expect us to find here?’

‘Cause of death.’

‘Apart from the blindingly obvious. There’s no foul play involved, we’re all agreed on that. It’s only the media interest that has her rattled.’

Sylvia motioned towards the door. ‘They did feature it on Crimewatch, sir.’

Valentine shuffled his feet, made a show of distaste for the blue coverings. ‘And why was that? Not because it was a pressing crime that required the vigilance of the public to solve.’

‘No, sir.’

They walked towards the morgue door; Valentine held it open for McCormack to enter first. ‘No, it was more to do with the CCTV from the hotel going viral. Cheap opportunism on the part of the programme makers. They’re not interested in justice or protecting the public – it’s ratings they’re after.’

As they headed towards the centre of the room two men, dressed in white scrubs, waited beside a large, steel-legged table. Immediately Valentine identified the taller of the two as the pathologist.

‘Hello, Wrighty,’ he said.

‘Bob . . . Sylvia,’ he nodded. ‘Here to get the low-down on our superstar?’

‘Give it a rest.’

‘I’m serious. Half a million hits on YouTube this lad got; that’s up there with Oscar winners in my book.’

Valentine turned to McCormack. ‘You see what I mean? We live in tawdry times. Everyone’s chasing celebrity! Even Wrighty’s excited to meet the Thin Man.’

The pathologist stepped aside and made a show of whispering into Valentine’s ear. ‘Do you think it would be OK to take a selfie with him, Bob? Nothing tasteless, just for Twitter and that.’

The DI’s expression soured; he looked ready to break into a tirade.

‘Bob, I’m pulling your plonker,’ said Wrighty. ‘Bit of gallows humour, so to speak.’

‘I’m laughing inside, I can assure you of that.’

The team assembled around the table and watched the pathologist go to work. His first incision on the corpse marked the beginnings of an inverted Y, from the sternum through to the top of the stomach.

Valentine felt his own insides tightening as he watched; his stomach pains had intensified to the point where he had to place a steadying hand on the slab’s rim.

‘Everything OK, Bob?’ said Wrighty.

‘Just this indigestion.’

‘You had that when I spoke to you on Monday as well. You aught to get that checked out.’

‘Is that a medical opinion? If it is, I’d like to ask when you last had a live patient?’
DS McCormack had been scrutinising the organs the pathologist removed from the body when she interrupted the banter. ‘Can I ask why they’re so shrivelled?’

Wrighty looked up. He had his hands under the swollen, reddish ball of the stomach. ‘Probably the chemotherapy.’

‘He’d been treated for cancer?’ said the DS.

‘Yes.Though not recently.These organs are riddled with it. By the look of it, I’d say the tumour was in the stomach and the cancer spread.’ He called for an aluminium dish to place the latest removal in; the assistant took the dish away and laid it with the other organs.

‘Anything you can tell us is a help,’ said Valentine. ‘We’ve no dental, and he’s not on any DNA databases.’

‘I saw that on the telly the other night. They said he’d removed all the labels from his clothes too.’

‘Cut them out.’

‘What was all that about?’

‘It’s common enough for suicides, when they don’t want to be found. There was a French lad who went up the hills that had done the same a few years back. Took Northern an age to track him down.’

Wrighty paused and looked at the officers. ‘It’s a sad business. I take it that’s what all the CCTV footage was about as well?’

‘Every time he left the hotel the cameras in the foyer caught him with a carrier bag. The street cameras caught him putting it in the bin a few times. He was disposing of all his effects because he clearly didn’t want to be identified after death. He probably never dreamed the tide would carry him back in either, and now here we are poking about in his last days and hours in the hope of undoing all his hard work.’

The pathologist summoned his assistant and started to remove his gloves. ‘Well, I’m afraid I can be of little help to you. There’s nothing to suggest foul play here. I’d say entirely natural causes, likely a massive cardiac arrest as a result of the pressure the swim had put on his heart. He was a very sick man; his organs are riddled with cancer. He wouldn’t have lasted much longer even if he hadn’t gone for a dip on Ayr beach.’

Valentine allowed himself a half smile. ‘Well, that’s that then. Nothing to see here, Sylvia, write it up as natural causes.’

‘And what about his family, boss?’ she said.

‘What family? We don’t know he has any. We don’t even know his name.’

‘It just seems so, I don’t know, sad and mysterious.’

‘And that’s what it will remain, I’m afraid. We can’t solve them all; we wouldn’t have a station full of cold cases if we could.’

‘It seems so final.’

‘It is. Unless we get a call out of the blue, we don’t have the resources to scour the globe for potential relatives. Don’t be downhearted, Sylvia, it’s just the way it goes.’

‘We can’t win them all.’

‘Sometimes it’s a miracle that we win any of them at all, you know that.’

‘Yes, boss.’

The officers thanked the pathologist, shook hands and headed back to the car. Outside the morgue door Valentine removed his blue shoe-coverings without effort. ‘Would you believe it? I think my dyspepsia has gone. No, it definitely has. Completely vanished.’

‘I’m glad to hear it. Maybe your bad mood will have went with it. You’ve been like a bear with a sore head – I mean stomach – all week.’

The DI pointed the key at the car and opened the door as the blinkers flashed. Inside he turned to McCormack and said, ‘Don’t you think that’s odd?’


‘That I’ve lugged around bad guts, just as we’re investigating the Thin Man.’
‘Who we discover today had stomach cancer. It’s a coincidence of sorts. You’ll be telling me you’re getting the dreams again.’

Valentine turned to face McCormack. ‘Who said they’d stopped?’

‘But I asked you just the other day and you said . . .’

‘No, Sylvia, you asked if I had had any dreams about the case.’

‘And you said you hadn’t. Are you telling me that’s not the whole story now?’

The DI tapped the car keys on the rim of the steering wheel and looked away from McCormack. ‘I did see the Thin Man in one of those intense dreams.’

‘And what?’

‘Nothing. Well, nothing about the case.’

‘He clearly told you something.’

Valentine shifted to face the DS once again. ‘He was there, on Ayr beach, and he said he had a message for me.’

‘Go on.’

‘He said I had no need to worry because, when it was my time, my mother would be there to take my hand.’

‘That could have been just a dream, you know.’

‘I told you, they’re not like dreams at all.’

‘Maybe we should have another meeting with Hugh Crosbie.’


‘The psychic, spiritualist bloke that Colin Baxter – the precognitive – put us in contact with before. He might have some insight.’

‘I’m not sure about that.’ Valentine put the key in the ignition and reached for his seat belt.

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t know whether he was a help or a hindrance the last time. There’s some things you’re better off not knowing about.’

‘That sounds like denial to me. Aren’t you getting dangerously close to burying your head in the sand?’

He paused. ‘Maybe you’re right. I’ll think about it.’

‘OK, but don’t come crying to me when you’re toppled over with stomach pain again, or worse, maybe headaches from a victim of a shotgun blast!’ McCormack kicked her bag into the footwell.

As Valentine started the engine the radio came to life. The voice of Jim Prentice on the control desk sounded stressed, directing officers to a rural location.

‘I know that place,’ said Valentine.

‘Sounds like a farm.’

‘That’s exactly what it is. Ardinsh Farm – it’s out Cumnock way.’

‘They’re talking about getting the SOCOs – must be a new crime scene.’
Valentine reached for the radio and spoke into the mouthpiece. ‘Jim, it’s Bob Valentine. What’s the story with Ardinsh Farm?’

There was a gap on the line and then the desk sergeant replied, ‘If you stayed away from that Krispy Kreme in Braehead you might be able to hear what’s going over the radio, Bob.’

‘You’ve spoiled the surprise. I have a dirty big doughnut sitting here for you.’
‘Lovely. I might even get a chance to eat it before midnight.’

‘So what’s all the commotion?’

‘Excavator driver’s turned up an oil drum in one of the fields. Looks like an old corpse inside.’

‘Old? How old?’

‘Put it this way, it could pass for a pharaoh.’

Valentine altered his tone. ‘No more jokes, Jim, please.’

‘Who’s joking? The corpse is mummified.’

25 October 2016

Review: Wake of Vultures and Conspiracy of Ravens

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
Wake of Vultures
Lila Bowen (Delilah S Dawson)
Orbit, 11 October 2016
PB, 342pp

Conspiracy of Ravens
Lila Bowen (Delilah S Dawson)
Orbit, 11 October 2016
PB, 359pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a copies of both these books.  I'm, unusually, reviewing them together here - inevitably that means some spoilers for Wake in the Ravens review so stop reading at the first review if you want to avoid those.

Nettie Lonesome lives in a land of hard people and hard ground dusted with sand. She's a half-breed who dresses like a boy, raised by folks who don't call her a slave but use her like one. She knows of nothing else. That is, until the day a stranger attacks her. When nothing, not even a sickle to the eye can stop him, Nettie stabs him through the heart with a chunk of wood and he turns to black sand.

And just like that, Nettie can see.

Wake of Vultures

It's a Western. It's fantasy. Its protagonist is a kind of alt-reality Huck Finn, escaping from a brutal childhood and embarking on a series of adventures across a harsh, unforgiving landscape. It's The Lone Ranger or Zorro for the 21st century. It's all kinds of things, but Wake of Vultures is, most of all, utterly, utterly wonderful, readable and addictive.

Nettie - or Rhett, as she decides she'd rather be (the name changes several times as he flees from possess monsters and worse) is escaping near slavery, as a mixed race Native American/ Black orphan brought up on a desolate ranch in the 19th century in what would be Texas in this world (nearest town: Gloomy Bluebird). It's a world stalked by vampire saloon girls, dwarf miners, harpies, Sirens, the terrible Cannibal Owl itself and more. Rhett enthusiastically takes on these threats: after all, at the start of the book he's been hurt much worse by his treatment on grounds of race and gender and (potentially, if he's caught out) gender identity (to use modern terms which don't actually appear in the book, even as it confronts these subjects square on).

All the elements of a classic Western are here: cattle rustling, the glittering desert, "Injuns" (sympathetically portrayed: Bowen admits in a note at the end the difficulty of using language which risks either being wrong for the setting or disrespectful to the modern ear), seamy saloons and a dubious sort of instant justice. But there's more besides: Rhett is a magnificent creation, a girl (at the start) who takes his own fate and his own nature in his hands, identifying as a man and living that identity in various roughneck settings even as he works his way through an awful lot of growing up. Questioning his upbringing, his own worth and his origins (and dealing with those pesky monsters) is a great deal to manage, but he confronts it with aplomb.

I was impressed at the way Bowen empowers Rhett (but also the ranger Sam) to claim suppressed identities and confront the racial and other injustices of the real Old West, acknowledging and subverting the brutal reality behind it. At the same time Bowen's not afraid to use classic fantasy tropes: the prophesy, the Child Who Lived, raised in humble surroundings but (perhaps?) with a great destiny (there's a touch of Harry Potter here even in a story which has much darker and more realistic themes). I thought that actually grounded the story: strange though it may seem, that framework, the quest to destroy a monster, worked very well in the parched-desert-and-hostile-wilderness setting. It's worlds away from the classic Northern European fantasy (fur cloaks and snow) while the Western setting still gives the same sort of lawless environment and the same scope for a quest - having escaped Gloomy Bluebird and joined up with the legendary knights, sorry, Durango Rangers, Rhett sets out to confront a great evil, risking his newfound freedom - and in one powerful scene, identity. (And I wouldn't be surprised if a dragon or two turns up in the series one day).

Oh, and it's a rattling good read too, the sort of book that's best read in one or two sittings: every chapter ends on a cliffhanger (literally, in one case), there's a relentless drive to the central quest and the sense of peril and jeopardy mounts remorselessly. The end runs seamlessly into the next story (so, tomorrow really IS another day...) which promises even greater things.

Overall, a great addition to the genres of both the weird Western and of modern fantasy. Strongly recommended.

Look away now if you haven't read Vultures and don't want to see some mild spoilers.

Conspiracy of Ravens

Still with me? Well, I did warn you...

Ravens picks up right where Vultures ends, with Rhett transformed again into... something and literally leaping to freedom. He's now adopted the identity of The Shadow, legendary defender of the weak, but it takes time to come to terms with that and inevitably the immediate subsequent pages lose some of the tension of the previous book which has just worked up to a climax - Rhett must journey in the desert to explore his new identity (or identities) and learn some painful lessons, including on gratitude.

Indeed one of the attractive qualities about Rhett is that he's far from perfect, too inclined to lash out, perhaps following a less that ideal model of what being a man is: but he learns, he tries to do better, even amongst the monster chasing and questing.

And he's oh so brave and handsome, charming the socks... and other things... off both men and women, which adds a certain tension to camp life. Indeed there's almost so much going on here as to risk our losing sight of the ultimate objective, but that doesn't happen because the new quest here is brought by an Irishman, Earl, who's sometimes a donkey but is never less than focussed on rescuing his brother.

In his aspect as The Shadow, Rhett can't but offer assistance and so the pursuit begins again, as he and his posse set out to kill a sinister railway boss who has a whole camp enslaved and is gradually harvesting them for body parts. It's him who commands the ravens of the title and fantastically creepy servants they are too.

Again the pace is relentless once this pursuit gets going, with many obstacles to be confronted on the way - a cruel beast-show proprietor, the corrupt Rangers of Lamartine and a mysterious horned creature. Some of these encounters impose a real cost, immediately or later on, but Rhett doesn't flinch throughout.

Compulsive, page-turning stuff, if anything even more compelling than Vultures and as before, Bowen leaves the book in the middle of the action with the reader - well, this reader - wanting more.

24 October 2016

Blogtour review - The Mountain in my Shoe

The Mountain in my Shoe
Louise Beech
Orenda Books, 30 October 2016
PB, 290pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a copy of this book.

I have to say I'm not always as organised with my reading and reviewing as I should be. I left this one rather late, starting it on Friday night (21st) with a deadline of Monday (24th) to review as part of the blogtour. Would I be able to finish in time? One never quite knows how long it will take to read a book, sometimes the story doesn't take off...

In fact, the opposite happened and I pretty much read it nonstop (missing Strictly last night) and here I am reviewing on Sunday morning. It's not so much a book you can't put down as a book that won't put you down. Thrilling, heartstopping, tearjerking, sad, happy - this book is quite simply a journey, and a journey you have to take.

The title is an allusion to something Muhammad Ali said: "It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out: it's the pebble in your shoe". Ali is something of a lodestar to Conor, the boy at the centre of the story. Taken into care at birth, Conor is looked after by a succession of foster carers, homes and social workers, documented by entries in his "Lifebook", a record - and an explanation for his older self - of significant events and changes in his life. Many of these are deeply sad, indeed some brought tears to my eyes. It isn't so much that bad things happen - though they do - but the good intentions of all concerned that still can't manage to provide a boy with the comfort and stability he needs in his little life. Beech is to be congratulated for conveying this so movingly (but never mawkishly).

But this isn't just a social tract. It's the loss of Conor's Lifebook that sets the action going. It coincides with Bernadette - who has a place in Conor's life - deciding to leave her abusive and controlling husband, Richard. (Beech is also good at encapsulating Richard's personality and behaviour even though he's not a central character for much of the book: the incidents described are chilling as is Bernadette's realisation that she has been accepting them, hoping for better and still loving him). Bernadette's plans are upset when Conor disappears, and she and Anne, his foster mother, set out on to find him, an unforgettable 24 hours which will change the lives of all three.

I was struck by the repeated, haunting imagery here of disaster, loss and isolation: the foghorns heard from the nearby River Humber, Bernadette's interest in survival stories (mirrored on her bookshelves) and her own loneliness, trapped in a marriage with Richard (unable to drive she is forced to take taxis to get about and is expected to be at home every night to produce his meal). There is a sense in which her life is closed in, restricted and narrow, paralleling the endless rules that apply to Conor - who he can and can't see, where he can live, all set out in the book. In both cases it's supposed to be for the good: Richard presents himself as protecting and supporting Bernadette and knows every last detail of her life - or thinks he does - while keeping secrets of his own.

Beech's writing is terrific - the more so for the way half of it is done through summaries of official documents, reports and assessments - and the characters believable and so human. The best is certainly Conor himself, where the writing shows deep insight into what it is like to be wounded at such an early age - and how that isn't something that can just be fixed with a fairytale ending.

It all blows up on that dark, cold night, when Conor and Bernadette are set adrift, as it were, to sink or swim in wholly new circumstances.

This is a powerful book, deeply readable, the kind of book that changes the reader. Please do give it a try.

You can buy The Mountain In My Shoe at your local independent bookshop (obviously, this is best if you can manage it) or here, here or even here.

Next stop on the tour tomorrow is at Neverimitate. For other reviews and background on the book, see below.

19 October 2016

Review - The Tourist

The Tourist
Robert Dickinson
Orbit, 20th October 2016
HB, 283pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an an advance copy of this book.

The future is another country: they do things differently there.

Spens is a tour guide, shuttling visitors around an unnamed northern town in 21st century England. While they spend most of their time in the private "resort" (a domed hab - think of Center Parcs only much more so) to which they've travelled directly, the clients also want to see a bit of the country, fascinated even by mundane trips to the shopping mall or the promise of a minor road accident.

After all, the clients are from the 23rd century. Some way into the 21st there has been a "near extinction event" (NEE) which leaves civilization in a parlous state. Despite the ruinous effect of this - which are implied rather than described: people are afraid of being under the open sky, rain is dangerous, wild animals unknown and life hard - Spens's people have discovered time travel. The book takes this premise and runs with it, bringing in rivalry in the future between the "number cities" - to which Spens is affiliated - and a hostile place known variously as City Two East and Kat. This spills over into espionage and eventually, we may infer, war. It's very hard though to separate what is assumed to be already history (in some sense) by the characters in the book and the consequences of what they actually do.  It reminded me of something I once read, "time is nature's way of preventing everything from happening at once".

Much of the activity of Spens's people is devoted to recovering caches of vital materials that they've secreted in the 21st, before the NEE, and presumably dont have access to afterwards (for example they rely on adapted tech purchased in the 21st rather than having more advanced versions themselves). It's never clear whether the tourism is actually just a cover for this activity, which is central to the taut espionage thriller which the book becomes when one of Spens' clients goes missing. He has to decide whether or not to report this: his boss consults the archives - patchy records sent back from the 25th for reasons unexplained (the 25th are like that: a bit aloof) - and concludes that, no, he didn't report it - so he doesn't. Thus the thread of reality is spun - this is a relatively simple example of how characters loop back and forward. It's a bit like one of those Stephen Moffat wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey episodes of Doctor Who where events precede causes and you'd value a diagram.

It is a compulsive read, but you have to either keep very focussed or just let it all wash over you. Or both. The book proceeds at a rattling pace, touching on drug trafficking and the deteriorating political situation in the UK with riots against the time travellers and a threatened military response by Spens's people against the past - their past - (is this conflict perhaps what brings on the NEE? Records of that are vague...)

At the centre the espionage plot involves a woman who, in (mostly) alternating chapters, begins (ends? normal tenses hardly serve) in prison back in the future but is then released to carry out a last mission. She, Spens, his 'Safety' Hayek (the security chief at the Resort) and a mysterious chap called Riemann weave in and out, crossing and recrossing each others' paths and setting up and resolving temporal paradoxes until the reader's brain almost begins to bleed. It would be difficult to give more of a plot summary than this because (spoilers aside) you'd have to decide first what order events happen in - and that depends on whose point of view you follow. I did a physics degree and spent a great deal of time working through the paradoxes of relativity - where the order things happen depends on who you ask - and that was hard enough to grasp, without time travel.

I had mixed feelings about all this. The typical conspiracy thriller can be baffling enough but at least you know - or can assume - that there is actually an answer, even if you don't discover it. Time travel brings its own layers of confusion. I've nothing against being confused, being in the middle of a book, thinking "hang on, what just happened?". Indeed, to a degree every book starts like that and many continue that way for most of the story. But for me there needs to be assurance that there are answers and stuff isn't just being rammed in as the author's mood dictates. At times, reading this book, I wondered. I think that in the end Dickinson sticks to the deal, he does explain what's happening and why, and simply leaves a healthy dose of mystery for the reader to take away (the airport scenes, for example, that mysterious sealed box that keeps popping up, and the role of "Geneva"). But your view may depend on your personal threshold for this kind of mystification.

If that all sounds confusing, read the book: it's great entertainment, if you accept the twin premises of time travel and that - it seems - everyone in this book is being manipulated by somebody else and we never quite find out what.

Throughout it all, Spens brings the story a touch of human tragedy. He is I think something of a sad figure. He lost his parents at an early age to an accident - details of which were then suppressed which seems to be standard practice - and wants nothing more than to travel back to the early 19th century to hear Beethoven's music. He falls into the events of this book through no fault of his own, trying to do his job scrupulously (unlike all the puppet masters and players around him) and still performs well as an investigator for Hayek, but he doesn't get any reward and certainly comes no closer to his dream.

A well written, and fun, high-concept thriller - but you might not get on with it if you like things clearcut and neat.

16 October 2016

Malevolent Visitants by CE Ward

Image from http://sarobpress.blogspot.co.uk/
Malevolent Visitants
CE Ward
Sarob Press, 2016
HB, 115pp
Source: Review copy, kindly provided via The Ghosts and Scholars MR James Newsletter

This review first appeared in the Ghosts and Scholars MR James Newsletter, No 30 Autumn 2016.

In this collection of eight stories (six have been published before, while two are new) Ward shows great skill at evoking the hard to pin down spirit of the best MRJ stories. Yes, I know we have James's own rules - if that's the right word - but it's not just a matter of following rules, is it? Or anyone and everyone could write this sort of story.  Actually I think it's quite a rare skill.

Ward adds his own themes and flavours, of course. He has a tendency to lose his protagonist down baffling English country roads, for example (in his Afterword he makes clear his preference for the 20th century setting for strong personal reasons, but I think a further consideration might be that a decent satnav would remove this possibility). He also explores some less familiar locations - the decaying seaside town has clear potential for hauntings.

In At Dusk, Simon, a writer of ghost stories, holidaying with his girlfriend in Cromer, insists on a diversion to view the grave of Daniel Rouse Bartram, master of the genre. Unfortunately the remote cemetery closes at dusk, and Simon is late. I was impressed at the way Ward engenders an eerie atmosphere from the start, and uses the winding English backroads to confuse and delay his protagonist. The end twist is rather clever and a bit meta (as my son would say).

Another journey along twisty country lanes disorients in The Mound as Mark Warren deviates from his planned route to see just what "The Mound" is that's signposted so tantalisingly... a modern twist on an age old theme that travellers should ignore those tempting sights just off the path.

Merfield Hall will be familiar to readers of this Newsletter, having been published here in issue 20 and so I won't say any more about it now. It's Ward's continuation of MRJ's story. The break-point is carefully marked, which is just as well, since I don't think I would be able to tell otherwise where one writer ends and the other begins. A satisfying completion, I think.

The Return - which is the subject of the creepy and indeed rather terrifying cover illustration by Paul Lowe - reverts to the theme of an innocent abroad on the A-roads, this time fusing it with a distinctly Jamesian antiquarian touch. Donohue is an academic, a student of the Civil War, visiting the site of a minor skirmish - or, as becomes clear, something more like a massacre. The violent deaths which are being reenacted by a troupe of the Sealed Knot have left their mark on the village, as he finds out, rather too late. This was almost my favourite story in the book. I especially enjoyed the touch of humour shown in Donohue's encounter with Alfred, the unwilling (but thirsty) informant from whom he learns what really went on all those years ago.

Squire Thorneycroft is the story of a young and ambitious solicitor, sent to deal with the affairs of the eponymous Squire. Of course, he finds a house that the locals are wary to visit after dark. Of course, the local man, who should be helping, is strangely elusive. And of course, there are dark family secrets, going back to a battle in the South African War. What would an honourable soldier do to protect his family name from a discreditable secret? And what might his life become after?

One Over the Twelve is the first story in the collection to use something like the traditional Jamesian framing - here two single men (a widower and a "lifelong bachelor") alone in a "small hotel in an undistinguished town in the Midlands of England". It's Christmas, so (of course) one tells a ghost story - a tale involving the last of a noble line, gone to the bad, and the trouble that's had when he's laid in the family vault. There are some delicious moments of terror, and for me there was a bit of  a thrill in being able to relate it to a (non supernatural!) story from one of my wife's former churches. (This church has a door, bricked up from the outside, on which are displayed a number of brass plates inscribed with names. When I asked what they were I was told that the door used to lead to the private vault of the family who owned the village. The vault was pulled down in the 19th century when it began to damage the church, and the occupants reinterred in the churchyard - their coffin plates the only reminder...)

The House of Wonders was the story that edged The Return into second place for me. Again, two gentlemen past the prime of life are taking their ease, this time in a garden on a summer's evening, and the story emerges from Stevenson's reminiscences about a mutual acquaintance who has recently died. The setting he describes is a seedy Victorian amusement show complete with waxworks, grisly artifacts of murder and a collection of early slot machines of the "What the Butler Saw" type (but - some of them - with darker themes). I'm drawn to the tawdry, seedy atmosphere of rotting seaside towns, travelling shows and sawdust (for a full length novel dealing with similar themes try Adam Nevill's House of Small Shadows) and for me this treatment of the theme - supported by a dash of wartime darkness - is simply masterly. And there's a moment of chill at the end suggesting that all is not yet done.

The final story, The Gift, is another that picks up where MRJ left off - this time a sequel (in fact Ward has rather cleverly made it a sequel to two of the original stories). It was originally published in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows (so, again, you may already have read it). For me it felt a little close in theme to One Over the Twelve (there's some slightly similar business with a family vault) and perhaps coming after Wonders, that made it hard to love quite so much. It is, nevertheless, an effective and well plotted story.

Overall this is a good collection, playing some clever variations on the theme of the ghost story, and one I'd strongly recommend.

15 October 2016

The Gradual by Christopher Priest

Image from http://www.christopher-priest.co.uk/
The Gradual
Christopher Priest
Gollancz, 15 September 2016
HB, 352pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

This review appeared in the October 2016 Shiny New Books.

This was the first of Christopher Priest's books that I'd read. While I gather from other reviews that it's particularly accessible for him and so probably a good place to begin, I am still dismayed that I've missed out on such a good writer for so long. I'll put that right soon.

The Gradual is the latest of a collection - not really a series - of stories (some short, some longer)  that includes the motif of the 'Dream Archipelago', a mysterious and, it seems, ultimately unknowable group of islands that feature in different ways. I don't know whether they are intended to be a self-consistent feature, or more of an idea, a mythology. In this book, at any rate, they form a band of islands which encircles the whole world. They are unmappable, idiosyncratic, home to a myriad dialects and seem to stretch from the equator to colder, more Northerly climes. For our hero, Alesandro Sussken, from the moment he glimpses the nearest islands as a child, they represent an alluring Other, a place to escape.(and he needs to escape). Even the names seem to hold promise: Dianme, Manlayl, Derril, Callock, Gannten, Unner, Leyah, Cheoner.

Sussken is a composer, living in the drab, grey country of Glaund, a state ruled by a junta and perpetually at war with its neighbour, Faiandland. We are told that there is little freedom in Gland. one must renew identity documents every three months and report to the police if away from home more than three nights. Everyone is required to carry a certain amount of cash. The entire country is under curfew on certain days, and everyone must be assigned to a church whether religious or not. (Priest is studiedly vague about the religion of this church or churches). 

Military service is compulsory. At the start of the book, Sussken's beloved older brother is called up  by the army and much of the subsequent story is a quest to come to terms with this, or to find him again. The grim background of Glaund is vividly conveyed, but that said, Sussken seems to flourish, building his musical reputation and subject to no censure even when he dares name a musical piece after one of the forbidden islands (they're not supposed to be referred to at all). 

Indeed he is even, eventually, permitted to join a cultural trip to the Archipelago when relations thaw somewhat. The book is necessarily much concerned with travel, both the practicalities - tickets, luggage, accommodation, Customs procedures - and the psychological effects of exposure to different cultures and places - so Sussken's life isn't as cloistered as you might fear or even expect, given the realities of life in Glaund.

It is though exclusively travel by ferry or cruise ship - there is no sign of air travel, an interesting omission in a world that seems technologically to be equivalent to ours (there are cars, Internet, CD players, plastic). From the geography, vague as it is, this obviously is not 'our 'world, not even an alternate timeline version, but on the other hand it is a recognisably modern society of 'our' kind and indeed at one level the story only works because much of what is alluded exists in our world. For example, at one point it's mentioned that social networking was introduced to Glaund then rapidly banned again, an allusion that only really makes sense in a world where social networking is a reality. 

It's in other words a shifty, impressionistic, world, furnished with props from ours: items and cultural things that could only originate in certain social situations that exist here and now being, used to make points or flesh out Priest's invented reality (jazz is another example - such a context specific form of music that it rather surprises the reader when it's mentioned, but it functions perfectly to represent the sort of music that Sussman doesn't like: his forte is austere ultra modernist stuff). Priest hasn't then felt the need to create a whole self-sufficient world like Tolkien, or like most fantasy writers. That shows I think a very confident, very mature writer who trusts his own ability to keep the reader's focus where he wants it without the need for a scaffolding. A confidence that is completely justified - the scenes and events in the book have much greater resonance than would if supported by a wholly invented structure.

Things in this story are shifty in other ways too. As I said, early in the book, Sandro's beloved brother Jacj is taken by the army. We then hear no more of him, with Sussken's career developing, including through his extraordinary trip to the Archipelago - which changes everything - till suddenly it's ten or more years later. For a moment I thought poor Jacj had simply been forgotten, but no: something odd is going on here and it's the attempt to resolve the mystery that eventually - one might almost say belatedly - brings Sussken into conflict with the authorities and takes him back to the Archipelago.

His life after this is far from plain sailing (sorry, I couldn't resists the pun). Travel between the islands has its own strange features. In a section of the book which has the island hopping overtones of a Conrad or Somerset Maugham and allusions to a pattern of islands which are implicit in the whole setup, there are more peculiar features, indeed dangers, to travel in the archipelago. Sandro doesn't understand them at first and he suffers the consequences. Much of this part of the book is about how he comes to an understanding of what's going on. (It's frustrating writing about this aspect because there are a couple of shocks in the story and it would be a shame to blunt them by giving away precisely what's going on).

One oddity worth a mention is the bureaucracy involved in island travel. Despite them being neutral in the war and subject to little central authority, the amount of paperwork and sheer checking involved in making even short island journeys is daunting and the details sometimes mysterious - there are episodes, presumably involving searches and questionings, that are never described in detail except by how angry they make Sussken. Indeed, at one stage he seems to find it easier to slip away from - and later return to - his martial-ruled homeland than travel between two of the apparently peaceful and paradisiacal islands. This is one feature we never quite get to the bottom of - a reminder perhaps that Priest's Dream Archipelago has a deeper and wider existence than in this book. 

I'm in danger of rambling on now. This book is simply so good and there is so much that one might say about it that it's hard to know where to stop. It's extremely readable and immersive from the first page. Its world is well portrayed and convincing. The language can be playful, fun (at one point we visit Ilkla, a "place of high windswept moors... where almost the entire population seemed to speak a heavily glottal patois." Remind you of anywhere?) There is also a whole musical dimension I haven't even touched on, being totally unmusical myself, with Sussken's musical tastes and development and even the milieu in which he works convincing described, including how he is influenced by the Archipelago. Indeed the book has a deep musical sensibility throughout linking people, events and places.

Above all, the book has heart. While Sussken comes over, at first, as a bit of a cold fish - fussing over his luggage, passively going along with the petty restrictions of Glaund, fumbling himself into a marriage against all expectations - he is really a deeply human character, a man who loses such a lot in a pitiless and inexplicable world that one can't help but warm to him.

And, in keeping with that, he does thaw.

I'd recommend this book highly both as a remarkable story and a demonstration of modern fantasy at its very best, showing what can be done and how to do it.

Simply brilliant.

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Image from www.gollancz.co.uk
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 15 September 2016
HB, 432pp
Source: e-copy kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley

This review appeared in the October 2016 Shiny New books.

Alastair Reynolds has a reputation as a prolific writer of SF and made waves a few years ago when he signed a ten book deal with Gollancz. However, I hadn't read any of his books before Revenger so I wasn't sure what to expect. I understand, though, that it's not typical of his work, especially in that, as I heard him put it in an interview, it's "YA approachable". He also said he'd deliberately written a shorter book, and a more pacey book.

So this seemed like a good place to start reading Reynolds's stuff, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. Revenger is an action-packed, swashbucking adventure with dashes, perhaps, of steam or even cyber-punk which at the same time, tells a solid space opera story - literally: everything that happens, happens in space: even the 'worlds' are not planets but engineered habitations no more than a few leagues in length or breadth. These worlds, numbering in the millions (there are whole books that catalogue them) surround the Old Sun, forming the 'Constellation'. If there were planets they have been reworked, mined away, over millions of years, during which time umpteen civilisations have flourished and decayed. It's a bold and exciting setting, giving a convincing depth of history (there are allusions to wars, alien incursions, the return of generation ships from the deep) and also scope for the sort of ship-borne antics you might otherwise get in Stevenson or Ballantyne - but IN SPACE!

The story is narrated by Fura Ness: she's nearly (but not quite) 16 which is an issue because it means that - unlike her slightly older sister Adrana - if her father catches her, he can have her brought home and treated with a drug to prevent her ever growing up. (There is a creepy doctor sidekick more than willing to administer said drug). This touch of Roald Dahlish adult perfidy is meant to show, I think, how unbalanced Father is by the loss of Fura and Adrana's mother: and perhaps also to explain their decision to run away to space.

Because this is, most of all, a version of that classic tale where a young girl takes to the high seas in search of adventure, danger and booty. (The family fortunes were lost in an ill-advised expedition: Fura and Adrana want to replenish them with loot). Think Treasure Island crossed with... whatever your favourite space opera is. There's a consciously rollicking, West Country lilt and a distinct argot to the speech of the girls' crewmates, with words like 'cove' (for a person) 'the glowy', 'the Empty' and much, much more - alongside the abandoned tech of past civilizations, which can be recovered, at great risk, from 'baubles', tiny caches out there in the dark.

Treasure Islands, which the brave can loot - if they dare.

If they survive...

The tech seems to be vital to the current civilisation: even the sailcloth that enables the 'sunjammers' to ride the flux of solar radiation isn't made any more and the very currency that's used between the worlds - the strange 'quoins' - is found in the caches, like so many ill-gotten doubloons.

But where there is treasure there are pirates. Also out there, somewhere in the dark, is the incomparable pirate captain Bosa Sennen with her crew of cutthroats, who will stop at nothing.

Bosa Sennen. What can I say about here A legend who, they say, can't exist, because her stories have been told for decades. A pirate captain of peerless cruelty, evil-hearted as they come, fearless, cunning and posssessed of a matchless ship.

If she exists...

The book is, then a swaggering, expansive story of theft, revenge, bloodlust - with some even darker hints. There are aliens, who don't appear much, but seem to have their own agenda. There are the caches of loot, which include some deeply eerie artifacts - 'ghostie stuff' - which are useful, but seem to sap the very soul. And, perhaps most chilling of all, is Adrana's and Fura's natural affinity, with 'the bones' which provide the most creepy form of communication I've encountered in SF.

While this is clearly a book which has many antecedents - besides the Victorian classics, I could also throw in China Mieville's Railsea, as another example of a story which takes nautical conventions and places them in a new setting, or M John Harrison's Viriconium, for the sheer sense of age, the whole living on a junkheap vibe - Reynolds has created a unique atmosphere, a tense, gripping and pacey book that ought by rights to establish a whole new genre.

And in Fura, especially, he's also created a vivid and determined protagonist, not your stereotypical kick-ass heroine but a young woman who has found adventure but more, steeled herself to do what she must to win back something she has lost. In the course of the book Fura transforms from starry eyed teen to grim, accomplished crewmate, ruthless and, in the right cause, downright dishonest. By the end of the book there's an open question as to whether she's given up more than she can win back - what with the schemes she's laid, the betrays that are necessary, trucking with the Bones, using the ghostie stuff - but most of all, stepping into that grim lawless sphere beyond the Constellation...

Strongly recommended for anyone who's stirred by the thought of high adventure and who values a genuinely ripping SF yarn.